Julia Piper pulls the emergency cord to stop a London InterCity train in order to up-end a sheep near the tracks, thereby saving its life. Maurice Benson, a self-described bird-watcher or "twitcher," redolent of alcohol and tobacco, wonders if "there might be a story there."
Sylvester Wykes, a newly divorced publisher, recoils at the suggestion. He had received an impression of vulnerability, even despair, from his brief glimpse of Julia and when the train pulls into the station, contrives to prevent Maurice from pursuing her.
For Sylvester it seems the incident will end there, but for his occasional musings. But Maurice is determined, partly to revenge himself on "toffee-nosed" Sylvester, to follow it up. "He had what he liked to think of as a flair," developed during brief stints with the police and a private detective. "Neither career had remotely satisfied those who employed him and in consequence had given him small job satisfaction."
Wesley's dry and occasionally biting humor serves to underscore Julia's terrible loneliness and isolation. She has, we learn, just lost her child and her ex-husband in a car crash. "Julia's mother raised her voice to a shout. 'It was all her fault, that accident; everyone knows Giles was a terrible driver.' "
The story meanders leisurely among the characters as Julia picks up the pieces of her life and Sylvester forcefully puts his own house in order, hiring a cleaner through the notice board in Patel's grocery. They communicate, sight unseen, through notes, until the reader begins to wonder if they will ever meet. The cleaner, naturally, is Julia, finding solace in the resurrection of Sylvester's garden.
Meanwhile, the twitcher, growing more odious and bloated with every appearance, stalks her, his petty curiosity turning mean and sinister.
Wesley populates Julia's neighborhood with a human comedy of venal sorts, none of them as horrible as Julia's monster of a mother, but all thick skinned to a fault.
Discussing a party in Julia's apartment building one neighbor asks another if Julia is invited.
"Angie said, 'No one with any nous invites a woman whose partner's a drunk.'
" 'But he's dead,' said Janet.
"Angie said, 'They came once in the early days. He was belligerent, bopped someone on the nose, nobody we cared about luckily, but Peter said we mustn't ask them again. They were contrary to the Christmas spirit.' "
But in the way of a tightly contructed novel, which this is, the raucous party brings Sylvester and Julia (and Maurice) together, showing that even awful people have their uses.
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