The Best Friend by Jessica Fellowes: Cover Reveal and Excerpt

Following the intense, toxic friendship of two kindred spirits across their lifetimes, The Best Friend is a dark, suspenseful novel and first standalone from Jessica Fellowes, author of the Mitford Murders series and the companion Downton Abbey books.

Scroll down as we reveal the cover of The Best Friend for the first time here, plus read a note from the author and excerpt below.

Introduction by Author:

For a long time, I have been deeply fascinated by female friendships. Not least, I suppose, because of my own. The peculiar emphasis that little girls have on finding their ‘best friend’ is, at times, as intense as the pursuit of a romantic relationship in teenage years. The desire for someone to be ’the one’ can lead to distorted perception, of oneself and others; leads to jealousy, guilt, passion. And unlike a romance, a friendship is not exclusive, making it even harder to steer. I wanted to pull together these ideas, to study a friendship between two women that is forced to navigate its way through the perfectly normal waters of life, as well as those occasional storms. There’s a strange ability in us to be friends with those who betray us. I wanted to explore why and how that might be.

I was also prompted by memories of my grandmother, Kate, who was a vivid presence throughout my childhood. She was charismatic and beautiful, but not always very nice. Although she died when I was 17, I have often found myself returning to thoughts of her, trying to puzzle out the complexity of her personality. Although she had many lovers and admirers, and married three times, she always said a woman was the only person she had truly loved. And when she was 80 she told me of a serious sexual assault she had suffered when she was 18 and made her cry still to think of it. I knew something of her experience: most women do.

This is the most personal book I’ve ever written: it might be the most personal book you read this year.

 

Excerpt:

1

Bella thought it was her, but she couldn’t be absolutely sure. The weather that day was filthy, as her great aunt used to say, as if the sky needed a good clean. The sunlight that struggled through the grey clouds was hazy, leaching the colour out of everything, and perhaps it was that which meant she couldn’t be quite sure of the profile. Or was it more that there was something in the walk, and the angle of her back as she leaned down slightly to listen to the boy beside her? Her son? Most probably, about eight or nine years old. Something about her posture, the fact she was there with a child, made Bella think that there was a permanence about her in this part of town. Not passing through, on tour.

Bella pictured herself running up, touching Kate on the shoulder, seeing her spin around, smiling as she did so, a fixed upturn of the mouth only. The eyes would register a moment’s confusion, then delight, when she realised it was her old friend.

But she didn’t do it. She stayed where she was, her feet fixed on the pavement. Bella didn’t want Kate in her life. Not here, not now.

Bella looked down at her left hand, the gold wedding ring on her fourth finger. It gleamed on the curve, showing up the tiny scratches it had gained since she first wore it. Her hands, of which she had once been proud, with their long fingers, showed a network of faint green veins under the pale skin. The knuckles looked red, as if sore; her fingernails were cut so short the fleshy tips were tender when pressed.

Not here to stay.

Not now.

 

2

Bella?

Kate.

My goodness. How long has it been?

Half a lifetime, I think. It’s funny, I thought I saw you in the street, a week or so ago.

Did you? Why didn’t you say hello?

I wasn’t sure it was you. And I wasn’t sure—

That you wanted to talk to me again? I can’t say I blame you. I disappeared that first time, didn’t I? I’ve thought about that. I’m not completely made out of stone, in spite of what everyone says.

Kate stopped a passing waiter, took a new drink off the tray and passed it to Bella before she took another for herself. Bella took the opportunity to study her, appraising her like a new subject in her studio. A slim form with a shape that was defined by well-cut clothes; hair still as dark and glossy as a stallion’s, shorter and neater than when she was seventeen. Skin that was smooth, only just beginning to lose its elasticity around the jawline, the nose long and straight, the mouth generous.

Since you mention it, and I wasn’t brave enough last time we met, I have to ask: why did you?

Disappear?

Yes.

Oh, I wish I knew. I think I was trying to fit in to the new place, and when I thought about you, it all seemed so heavy and sad. I think it was too much for me, everything that was happening with your granny. I didn’t understand it, didn’t know what to do. We were seventeen, we didn’t know how to behave properly, did we?

I suppose not.

What happened to your granny in the end?

She died, twenty-one years ago. She went into a home and faded into death. My mother had died six months before.

I’m so sorry.

Yes. Well. It was pretty gruesome, that whole period. You vanishing into thin air was . . . bewildering, most of all. I couldn’t write to you because there was no address. I tried writing to your old address to see if anything would get forwarded but . . . I suppose it might have been but there was no reply.

I’m not going to try and excuse myself. You were seventeen?

OK, I know how pathetic that sounds. I’m not looking for forgiveness. Only – I am here now. I’d love for us to meet up again. I remembered you lived in this part of the world. I hoped you’d still be here.

You live here now?

Yes, we moved a month or so ago. Charlie is starting at the school.

Charlie is your boy? I think I might have seen him with you.

Bella wondered if what had passed between them before would be mentioned, or if it was to be kept packed away, like outgrown clothes.

Yes, he’s eight. What about you? Have you got any children? I can see you’re married.

Bella’s hand went to her ring. She gave it half a twist.

Yes, to David. Eleven years. And we have Georgie, she’s almost ten.

So we both have onlys?

Yes, I suppose we do. There was a time I wanted another, curiosity I suppose, as much as anything. I’d like to know what boys are made of. But it’s just the three of us and I’m so used to it, I prefer it.

Yes, I agree. Just the one is easy. You hardly need to change your life at all. I put off having one for years because of work, can you believe? But the work dried up and then . . .

No, it seemed. They wouldn’t be discussing what went before.

Who is your husband? I don’t think you said.

Alex. We’ve been married nineteen years. I was practically a child bride. But we met and it was one of those whirlwind things. It was nine months from soup to nuts.

What?

From our first meeting to the wedding, I mean. It was nine months. It’s one of my uncle’s expressions. I don’t even know what it means. Does one finish several courses with nuts?

That’s funny. What does he do?

Alex? He works, a money thing. It’s not uninteresting but the explanation of it is. And I suppose I’ve spent too long with people who never ask about his work.

How is that?

Because actors aren’t interested in people who wear suits to work.

What about you? Are you interested?

I try to be, for Alex’s sake. I miss my actor pals, though.

How come?

Oh, when one’s not in a play, somehow one’s out of the loop. I had a few good parts in my twenties, rather fewer in my thirties, and as good as none now I’m at the age I dare not say out loud. I can’t hide it from you though, can I?

No, you can’t.

There’s quite a lot I can’t hide from you. What are you hiding from everyone else?

Bella knew she was being disingenuous. She still held the key to Kate’s cupboard of secrets.

Oh, Bella. What are we all hiding? Our lumps and bumps, our fears, our grey hairs.

You don’t have any grey hairs.

That’s what I pay someone a lot of money every six weeks to make you believe. I’ve had grey hairs since I was thirty-four.

Do you pay anyone to hide your fears?

What, lie on a couch and tell a stranger with a notebook all my deepest, darkest fantasies? No thanks.

I don’t quite mean that but I take the point. Why, do you see someone?

I did, for a bit. A few years after my mother and granny died. I was trying to leave a job I was unhappy in, and they didn’t want me to go, or said not to leave until I had found something else, and I started getting panic attacks. I thought I had better see someone but after the first appointment I was offered a job, and when the second appointment came around I was feeling fine again, and we both agreed I didn’t need to go back.

What was the job?

Nothing particularly. Not relevant to what I do now, anyway.

What do you do now? I’m a painter. Portraits.

Yes, of course you are. I think I saw a review for an exhibition of yours a few years ago. I was pleased to see that art school had been the right move for you.

Yes, it was, surprisingly so. I mean, it’s rather to my amazement that that’s how I earn my living, and it’s not a bad one. David’s income can be unreliable.

Why?

Bella finished her drink. She looked around vaguely, to see if there was somewhere to put down her glass, but also to stall her answer to the question. The room they were in was large and generic, with blank walls and a stark lack of any attempt to prettify the situation. It was filled now with women, mostly of a similar age to her and Kate. The only man in sight was elderly, collecting glasses slowly and carrying a tray that looked as if it was too heavy for him even when there was nothing on it. Bella watched him sympathetically for a moment.

Bella? You went away there for a moment. Sorry.

Why is David’s income unreliable? Oh, well. He is unreliable.

I don’t like the sound of that.

I don’t mean to be disloyal. He’s very loving, it’s not that. He’s not got a wandering eye, or roving hands. He’s a bit lost, I think. He’s never quite found what he wants to do.

What has he tried?

Quite a lot. Painting, as in decorating. Public relations. Something in the City for a bit. Journalist. He thought about training as a teacher.

I see.

The problem is that he doesn’t like working for anyone else, but if he works for himself then that involves a certain level of administration that bores him.

But he does meet his responsibilities? To you and your daughter?

Yes, he does. Then again, I do quite well, with my paintings. There isn’t the pressure on him, financially  I mean. Sometimes I find it quite useful – he’ll be the one at home, looking after Georgie, when I’m in the studio.

How radical.

It isn’t, not really. It’s just that we prefer that Georgie is looked after by one of us, rather than a stranger.

They’re not strangers for very long, the people who look after your child.

No, but you know what I mean.

I do, Bella. I always did know what you meant. Even when no one else did.

Especially when no one else did.

 

Copyright © 2022 by Jessica Fellowes. All rights reserved.


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