Authors: Lucy Diamond
In memory of Linda Brown,
the lovely lady next door, who taught me to
sew many years ago.Contents
How to make your own fortune-cookies
Best hangover cures ever
New Year’s resolutions and how to stick to them
Other books by Lucy Diamond
The Beach Café
Summer with My Sister
Me and Mr Jones
One Night in Italy
About the Author
Also by Lucy Diamond
There should be some kind of warning given the day your life changes for ever.A tingle in the air, a whisper on the breeze, a gentle celestial nudge urging you to treasurewhat you’ve got before it’s too late.But for Gemma, the morning began with deceptive familiarity: the sound of Spencer crashing around in the bathroom next door, the shower beingturned up to its most torrential setting, then his voice belting out an enthusiastic if tuneless rendition of ‘My Girl’.
Gemma pulled the pillow over her head to block out the noise.Five more minutes, she promised herself.Five more minutes, snuggled beneath the warm duvet and then she’d force herself upand into action.
Sleep stole over her like a soft blanket, though, and she drifted back into a dream, not noticing when her husband placed a steaming cup of tea on the bedside table nearby, nor when he yelled acheerful goodbye ten minutes later.
If she’d known then what would unfold in the space of a single morning, she’d have run after him, thrown her arms tight around his body and refused to let him leave the house.Nottoday, she’d have said.You’re going nowhere, Spencer Bailey.
But she didn’t know.She had no idea.And so the day began.Chapter One
Three weeks earlier
It was New Year’s Eve: night of a thousand parties, of champagne corks bouncing off ceilings, bright fireworks cracking open the sky, and the finest frocks ever to gracea dance-floor.Across the nation, Christmas had been discarded like old tinsel and reindeer antlers in readiness for one last alcohol-fuelled, throw-caution-to-the-wind knees-up before theausterity of do-gooding January dawned, cold and forbidding.In bars and clubs and village halls throughout the land, they were ready: umpteen bottles of fizz corked and chilling, clingfilmedbuffets laid out on linen-clothed trestle tables, cutlery and glasses polished to a soft gleam.In the bathrooms and bedrooms of all the towns and cities, they were ready: glittery make-up applied,hair primped and sprayed, the hiss of the iron as it smoothed down fabric creases, and the worst of the Christmas excesses glossed over by control pants and many a muttered New Year dietingresolution.
Down in the small Suffolk village of Larkmead, however, Gemma Bailey was one burned canapé away from a total meltdown.How was it, she wondered crossly, that their original plans for‘just a small gathering’ with a few friends, some experimental cocktails and a bowl of posh crisps had metamorphosed into an everyone-welcome house party, which would totally turn thenew neighbours against them?Daft question.It was down to Spencer, of course, her gregarious husband, who’d seen fit to invite all his football mates and their other halves to the party, aswell as some of the lads from work.He’d even asked some woman last seen when they were teenagers, who was back in Larkmead after the death of her mum, for heaven’s sake.(‘I feltsorry for her!’he’d protested when Gemma gave him a long-suffering look.‘What was I supposed to do?’‘Oh, I don’t know, pat her arm and say “Sorry foryour loss”, like a normal person?’she’d replied, rolling her eyes.)
As if that wasn’t enough of a random guest-list, a fortnight ago, at the primary-school Christmas quiz, he’d proceeded to get completely smashed, commandeered the microphone from thequiz-master – the deputy head teacher, no less!– and invited basically the entire hall of parents along, too.Gemma had opened her mouth to protest, but only the faintest whimper cameout.It was too late anyway.Everyone was already saying they’d love to come, they were alldyingto see what she’d done with the new place.The new place, by the way, that stillhad woodchip wallpaper and manky carpets in every room, strange-smelling drains and the most horribly pink bathroom suite known to mankind.Gemma had not been planning any kind of open house untilat least the summer, thank you very much, especially not to some of the competitive mums in Darcey’s class who had houses like museums and could sniff out bad hoovering and dusty surfaces inapproximately ten seconds.
(She still felt a flush of shame when she thought about the time her son Will had brought one particular friend home for tea, aged about seven.Jack Barrington – that was it – atufty-haired little boy with a piping treble back then, although, these days, he was almost six foot with acne and a newly deep voice.Jack’s mum had come to pick him up and, as she thankedGemma at the front door, Jack said, ‘Will’s house isreallymessy, Mum!’in a voice hushed with shock.‘And we hadchipsfor tea!’It was a bit like thatin Larkmead: competitive mothering.Gemma had long since given up trying to win any accolades in the field.)
‘You don’t mind, do you?’Spencer had asked, as they staggered home in the wintry moonlight after the Christmas quiz ended.‘Might as well make it a proper New Yearparty, don’t you think?’
‘I’m not sure the house is ready for a party,’ Gemma had replied, her mind flashing from one horror zone to another: the faded, dusty curtains the previous owners had leftbehind, the mouldy patch of wall in the kitchen, the spidery downstairs loo with the blown light bulb that she still hadn’t got round to replacing.They’d only been in their house sixweeks, after all, and hadn’t even unpacked all of the boxes, let alone performed any DIY miracles.
‘Yeah – exactly!So it doesn’t matter if it gets trashed, right?’He elbowed her.‘We don’t have to worry about people spilling wine on the carpets –we’ll be ripping them all out soon anyway.And it’s such a great house for a party.’
He had a point.It was a great house, full stop; or rather it would be, once they’d done it up.They’d completely overstretched themselves, buying the gorgeous old stone farmhouse onthe expensive side of Larkmead village, but it would be worth it one day.There were four big bedrooms, a lovely long garden and a garage to house the sleek black Mazda that Gemma swore Spencerloved more than her.Bags of potential, the estate agent had said.Bags of charm.
It was also going to take bags of energy and hard labour to turn it into their dream home, especially as they didn’t have any funds left to pay painters and decorators.But that was fine,they agreed: this was their forever home, the only one they’d ever need.There was no rush.Well, there hadn’t been anyway, until Spencer invited half the village round on the biggestnight of the year.
Still, she was getting there.The kitchen and living room were now pretty much spotless, as was the downstairs loo.She’d laid out a buffet table, hiding her rather unappetizing-lookinghome-made canapés at the back, and decanting plastic tubs of Waitrose dips into her nicest blue-glazed bowls.There was also a large quiche from the deli, a ton of cheeses left over fromChristmas, and half a brandy-drenched Christmas cake, which had you seeing double after three mouthfuls.That would have to do.(And if the competitive school mums wanted to raise their eyebrows ather half-arsed catering, then let them.She didn’t care.Well, only a little bit.)
Spencer, meanwhile, had taken the children over to his parents’ house, where they’d be spending the night.They were only ten minutes down the road, but he was taking a suspiciouslylong time to return.No doubt his dad, Terry, had uncapped the whisky and they were both setting the world to rights in front of the fire.He could be hours yet.
Sighing a little, she polished all the champagne and wine glasses with a clean tea-towel and lined them up on the worktop, wishing she could fizz into more of a party mood.There was somethingabout New Year’s Eve that always brought her up a little short – that taking-stock moment when life seemed to hinge between two planes, past and future, and you were forced to examineexactly where you were.Recently she’d had the uneasy feeling that the years were slipping by, each faster than the last, and she wasn’t doing enough with her life.Sure, she was a wifeto Spencer and a mum to Will and Darcey, and she was grateful for all of that.But in what other way was she leaving any kind of imprint on the world?Sometimes she felt she could vanish tomorrowand nobody would even notice.
‘What does your mum do?’Gemma had heard Nicolette Valentine ask Darcey a few weeks ago as they went upstairs to Darcey’s bedroom.Nicolette was new to Larkmead, and had asemi-famous actor mum and a dad who’d recently got a job as a registrar at the local hospital.
‘Oh, not much,’ Darcey replied.‘She’s just a mum.’
She’s just a mum.Like that was nothing.Darcey had even sounded embarrassed to say the words, as if fully aware of Gemma’s failings.
She had tortured herself ever since that she was not a good role-model.All of her other friends with children were back at work now, with part-time jobs that required smart clothes and make-up,pursed lips as they checked their smartphones in the playground.And what was she?A chubby housewife, who did the laundry and the shopping and made sure everyone got to school and work on time,with the occasional dressmaking job on the side.She’s just a mum.Not much.
Sometimes in her darkest hour she wondered if Spencer thought that of her, too.
‘Come on, Gems,’ she muttered aloud, trying to shake off her gloom.Once she had her new dress on, she’d feel better, she reminded herself.She’d made it at the start ofthe month and had been dying to wear it ever since: a midnight-blue velour off-the-shoulder beauty that cinched her in at the waist and fell into a flattering tulip-shaped skirt.With a fewwell-placed darts, the dress accentuated her hourglass figure, making her bust and bum appear voluptuous and curvy rather than plain old fat.There were even a few black sequins twinkling here andthere.Hopefully a bit of sparkle on the outside would make her feel sparkly on the inside, too.
(She had wrestled a few demons in the past over her size, it had to be said.In her early twenties she had become kind of obsessed with calorie-counting, slimming right down to the size of atwig for a while.Had she been happy, though, denying herself carbs and puddings for the sake of squeezing into skimpy dresses?No, she had not.She’d hated the weak, hollow emptiness thatgnawed inside her when she had starved herself.Thankfully all that nonsense had been nipped in the bud long ago.No New Year’s crash diets inthishouse, thank you very much.)
The doorbell rang just then, making her jump.Ah, that would be Spencer – forgotten his keys, she bet.Her spirits lifted at once: knowing Spence, he’d pour her a cocktail, rig upthe glitterball and tease her for worrying about something as ridiculous as canapés, and all of a sudden she’d feel a million times better.
She opened the door, but saw an unfamiliar woman standing there, rather than her husband.A thirty-something woman with coppery hair tied back in a messy ponytail, a pale freckled face and ablue Puffa jacket.She didn’t look like an evangelical Jehovah’s Witness on a mission to convert the world to Jesus, but you never could tell.
‘Hi,’ Gemma said.‘Can I help you?’
‘Hi, yes, sorry to bother you,’ the woman said.‘I’m meant to be staying in the cottage next door, but the guy I’m renting it from – Bernie Sykes?–isn’t answering his phone, and I’ve no way of getting in.I don’t suppose you know how I can get hold of him, do you?’
‘Ah.Right.’The previous owners of their home had warned her about this.The pretty cream-painted cottage next door was rented out as a holiday let by Bernie, the larger-than-lifelandlord of the village pub.Unfortunately Bernie was usually too busy holding court in his bar to remember to answer his phone, or even notice it was ringing, let alone pay attention to hisbookings diary.‘Don’t worry, I’ve got a spare key.Come in a sec while I find it.’
The woman stepped into the hallway as Gemma returned to the kitchen and fished out the key from its hiding place in the old red teapot on her dresser.‘Here,’ she said, holding itout.‘Knowing Bernie, he’ll have had a few drinks already and his phone’s probably lost down the back of the sofa.You can always find him in the pub, though – ThePartridge, at the end of the road and left.He’s the landlord: loud, whiskery, slight resemblance to a walrus.You can’t miss him.’
‘Thanks so much,’ the woman said, and opened the front door again.‘Cheers.’
‘No problem,’ Gemma said.‘And happy New Year, by the way.Looks a lovely cottage.Perfect for a romantic getaway.’
The woman’s mouth twisted.‘It’s just me staying, actually,’ she said.‘Thanks again.Happy New Year to you, too.’
Oh.That was strange.Gemma watched her go, unable to imagine what it would be like to spend New Year’s Eve alone.There, she told herself sternly.It could be worse, see?You couldbe all on your own next door, rather than here with a house full of guests and gallons of booze.It certainly put a few crap canapés into perspective.
An hour later Gemma was multitasking rather impressively by running a creamy, scented bath while drinking a very welcome glass of cold Pinot Grigio.It was slipping down atreat after all her hard work.
‘Gems?Where are you?’she heard Spencer shout as the front door banged behind him.
‘Up here, stark naked and awaiting your pleasure, sire,’ she yelled back, even though she was still in her old jeans, hair scraped back in a scrunchie, with an unattractive onionaroma lingering on her fingers.‘Come and get me!’She swished her hand through the water, making the bubbles froth.That should get him pelting him up the stairs, she thought.Spencertook the slightest raising of an eyebrow as an invitation that she was desperate for his bod.
She and Spencer had been together for fifteen years now.They had met one sunny Saturday when she’d gone to visit her dad in Stowmarket and accidentally crashed into Spencer’s van.Whatever he might say, Gemma was sticking to her guns: the prang was totally his fault.If he hadn’t distracted her by walking along the street with no shirt on, his chest tanned andmuscular, his sloe-dark eyes so soulful and his black curly hair so gorgeously tousled, there was no way her foot would have slipped on the accelerator.As it was, she’d been halfway througha parallel-parking attempt, and had reversed into the vehicle behind her with a horribly loud bang.
‘Oi!’he’d cried, breaking into a jog.‘That’s my van, that is.Look what you’ve done!’
Pink in the cheeks, Gemma clambered out of her car, mortified at what had just happened.She was also kind of breathless at being so close to this handsome stranger, even if he was in ablistering rage.‘I am so sorry,’ she gulped.‘Shit, this isn’t even my car – it’s my flatmate’s.She’s going to kill me.’
His eyes softened, perhaps because she was wearing a turquoise minidress with a huge zip that went all the way down the front.She had been small and slinky back then, a size eight and two stonelighter than she was now.With her long conker-coloured hair, heart-shaped face and large brown eyes, she was the kind of person that you couldn’t stay mad with for long.‘Don’tworry,’ he said gruffly after a moment, inspecting the mercifully intact bumper.‘No harm done.Are you all right?’
Her insides went swimmy as his gaze fastened on her, and her pulse quickened.I am now, she thought.
Gemma was living in London at the time, working as a designer for Pop, a cheap-and-cheerful fashion range, but it took just three months before she and Spencer were happily shacked up in arented red-brick terraced house in Larkmead, the small Suffolk village where he’d grown up.A year later they were married and then, just as she was starting to tire of the London commute (asmuch as two hours, door-to-door, on a bad day) she fell pregnant with Will and took an early maternity leave.Sometimes she wondered how her life would have turned out if Spencer hadn’t beenin Stowmarket that day, or if she’d chosen a different place to park.Funny how everything could change course so dramatically in one fateful moment.
‘Hell-o!’he called now, bursting into the bathroom.‘Hey,’ he added, seeing her still in her full scruffbag get-up.‘I was promised nudity and sex.Where’smy nudity and sex?’
She laughed at the indignant look on his face, then her breath caught in her throat as he pulled his shirt over his head and approached her with a wanton gleam in his eye.She might have letherself go over the years, but he certainly hadn’t.He was as beefy and muscular as he’d ever been.
‘Now then, Mrs Bailey,’ he said, sliding his arms around her and tugging at her top.‘Let me help you take off these clothes ...’Chapter Two
On the other side of Larkmead, past the village green where the summer cricket matches were held, and over the curving brick bridge that crossed the mill-stream, the houseswere a mix of narrow Victorian terraces and smaller cottages, some with their original thatched roofs.Up on Butler Row, two streets back from the greengrocer’s and post office, was WhiteGables Cottage, the house where Caitlin Fraser had grown up, and where she’d come back to in recent weeks, after her life had fallen in like a toppled house of cards.
Slumped on the sofa now, she was sorely tempted to blow out the whole New Year thing and go to bed early with a hot-water bottle and a pint of wine.Don’t be such a wet lettuce!sheheard her mum exclaim in her head.Go to bed early when it’s Hogmanay?I don’t think so, lassie.
Caitlin rolled her eyes at herself.Jane Fraser had become more Scottish than ever, now that she was dead and existed only in Caitlin’s memories and imagination.Mind you, her mum hadalways loved New Year, making a whole raft of resolutions every year, only for them to peter out and be forgotten before it was February.‘It’s like a promise to yourself to do betterthis year,’ she’d explained to Caitlin, the first time she’d let her stay up till midnight and see in the New Year.‘So, for instance, I’ve made a promise thatI’ll help Maud Simmonds with her allotment, whereas your daddy’s promised to stop smoking those stinking cigarettes.Haven’t you, Steve?’
‘What?Er ...yes,’ her dad said, although he didn’t look quite as zealous as Jane did at the prospect.
A promise to yourself to do better this year.Put like that, it sounded pretty good, Caitlin thought, remembering how she and her mum had sat in their nighties and dressing gowns on thisvery same sofa together, cheering as they watched the fireworks exploding over the Houses of Parliament on telly, while her dad snored like a hippo in the armchair.If she leaned back and shut hereyes, she could almost imagine she was there, slipping back twenty-five years in a single heartbeat.
Almost.Except that her dad had died when she was twenty and wouldn’t be snoring in his favourite armchair again, and her mum wasn’t there this year either, to cheer at the fireworksand splash them another tot of whisky each.
Caitlin’s eyes fell upon the Sympathy cards gathering dust on the mantelpiece (she must take them down soon; they depressed her every time she looked at them); the family photographs thathad an added texture of poignancy, now that the curly-haired lady smiling in a sundress was dead and gone; and the small urn of ashes still waiting to be scattered.It had been over a month sincethe funeral, but Caitlin was stuck in a half-lit limbo of grief and hadn’t yet been able to say that final goodbye.
‘She wouldn’t want you moping about,’ Gwen, the old lady next door, had said, whenever she popped round on her way to her book group or sewing bee.(It was kind of dispiritingwhen a pensioner was more outgoing socially than you, to be honest.)
‘Let me know if you want me to tidy up the garden for you,’ Jim over the road had offered when she bumped into him in the street.‘I used to do some of the digging for Jane,when she needed a hand.’Even Spencer Bailey, whom she hadn’t seen since they were at school together, had accosted her outside the village shop one Sunday morning, saying he was sorryto hear about Jane, and then rhapsodising that she’d made the best cakes he’d ever tasted.He’d done her extension, he explained, when Caitlin looked puzzled.He was a buildernow, still in Larkmead, married with a couple of kids, he went on.(She remembered he’d always had that easy-going, friendly charm, even when everyone else was an awkward teenager.)‘Hey,’ he said, just as she was about to make an excuse and end the conversation, ‘if you’re still here at New Year, we’re having a party, by the way.Come along, ifyou want.’
She had smiled politely, thanking him and saying she wasn’t sure of her plans yet, but then Gwen had knocked on the door that afternoon with a hopeful look in her eyes and asked if Caitlinwould accompany her to see a swing-band up at Radnor Hall for New Year.‘Jane was going to come with me, you see, so I thought you might like her ticket.Could be fun!’
Could befun?Could be a wake-up call that her social life was in danger of expiring, more like.She had never been more glad to reply, quite truthfully, that she’d been invited toa party – sorry, Gwen.‘Thanks, though,’ she added, as her neighbour’s face fell.Christ, she thought to herself, closing the front door afterwards.Things had gotpretty bad when someone seriously thought you might want to go to some geriatric swing-band evening because you had nothing better to do.On New Year’s Eve!
Still, she realized soberly, it was only by chance that shedidhave something better on offer.If ever anyone needed a resolution to sort their life out, it was definitely her.
Half an hour later Caitlin was leaning in towards the long gilt-edged mirror to inspect herself.Even now it felt weird to be getting ready in her mum’s bedroom, as ifshe’d be ticked off any minute for snooping around.The light was best in there, though, plus there was that enormous mirror – the kind that only a glamorous woman with a love ofdressing up could hang on her wall.Caitlin was not this type of woman, but Jane Fraser had always loved an excuse to ‘put a face on’ and doll up for a night out.She must have rackedup hours standing right here, painting her eyelids and lips, sweeping blusher onto those high cheekbones and dithering over which of her many pairs of high heels to wear.
Even at the end of her life, when she’d been too weak to feed herself, dozing in and out of consciousness, Jane had begged Caitlin to put some mascara on her and brush her hair.Imaginethat!Mascara and hair-brushing wouldn’t get a look-in on Caitlin’s deathbed, that was for sure.Coffee, perhaps.A last bag of chips, with lashings of salt and vinegar.Maybe a bloodybig whisky to finish her off.
The irony was that her mum had been as fit as a fiddle almost until the end.Lean and rangy, she had shimmied through Zumba in the village hall every Thursday evening apparently, and was alwaysout gardening or cycling around the village on her old upright bicycle.Then, one Tuesday in October, she’d gone to the doctor complaining of stomach pains.The doctor told her it wasprobably gallstones and prescribed painkillers, but the next day Jane was vomiting and feverish, and ended up being rushed into hospital with acute pancreatitis.
‘I’ll be fine,’ she told Caitlin on the phone that night when she broke the news.‘Lot of fuss about nothing.I should be home in a few days, don’tworry.’
‘Are you sure?I’ll come and see you at the weekend.Or sooner, if you want?’
‘What, and miss work?Your boss would love me for that, wouldn’t he?Don’t be daft, I’ll be home before you know it.’
Only it didn’t quite turn out like that.Jane never went home again.The doctors tried keyhole surgery to remove the dead tissue in her pancreas, but an infection occurred, which spreadinto her blood.Then a nurse telephoned Caitlin from the cottage hospital and said in that very British sort of way, ‘She’s extremely poorly.You might want to be here.’Caitlinhad left Cambridge that evening with a bag of clothes and a frightened heart, kissing Flynn goodbye with the promise that she’d be back as soon as she could.But three days later, despiteeveryone’s best attempts, Jane’s major organs failed, and then she was dead.The whole thing, from stomach pains to death, had taken less than six weeks.
Tears swelled in Caitlin’s eyes as she remembered those nightmarish hours at her mother’s bedside, holding her hand, praying under her breath, trying to bargain with a god shedidn’t even believe in.That was how desperate she felt.That was how frightened.But none of the antibiotics, drugs or prayers had had any effect.
Jane was rambling at the end.‘I’m sorry, hen,’ she said a few times, gripping Caitlin’s hand.‘I should have told you.I never knew how to say it.’
‘Told me what?What do you mean?’
‘We thought it was the right thing to do,’ Jane said, shutting her eyes.Then her words became indistinct and mumbling, however close Caitlin leaned in to hear.
‘Don’t worry, Mum.Whatever it was, it’s fine.’
Then Jane’s eyes shut and her face fell slack.BEEEEEEEPwent the monitor, and it was all over.
Caitlin took a long, shuddering breath at the memory and raked a hand through her hair.This wasn’t getting her ready.She would be late, if she didn’t hurry up.Taking a deepbreath, she peered into the mirror again and her reflection stared back warily.Eyeshadow, mascara, lipstick: done.It would take a scaffolder to prop up her eye-bags, and even Leonardo da Vinciwould struggle to brighten her sallow skin, but she’d tried her best.She’d unearthed a clean pair of jeans and had Febrezed a sparkly top that had been at the bottom of her suitcasefor six weeks.Hell, she’d even pushed the boat out and blow-dried her shoulder-length dark hair.She actually looked halfway presentable.
You look a picture, lovey,her mum said in her head.A proper picture.Now go out there and knock ’em dead!
‘Don’t get carried away, Mum,’ Caitlin muttered with a small smile.
An unwanted memory flashed into her mind.This time last year she’d been getting ready for a night out in Cambridge with Flynn: dinner in town, then on to a house party off Mill Road.She’d worn a scarlet dress and dangly earrings, her skin shimmering from the fancy scented body lotion she’d rubbed in.As New Year struck, they found each other on the dance-floor andkissed, really kissed, like two people who were madly in love.Theyhadbeen two people who were madly in love back then, she reminded herself grimly.
She sank onto her mum’s soft double bed, its floral duvet cover still in place, and wondered miserably what Flynn was doing tonight.The last time they’d spoken – several weeksago now – he’d been curt with her, verging on aggressive, his sympathy and patience long since evaporated.He wanted her to ‘snap out of it’, to ‘pull herselftogether’, like it was that easy, like she could just click her fingers and return to normality.Was she coming back or not?
Not, she told him.No way.
She got up from the bed abruptly, not wanting to give in to despondency.‘Come on, Eeyore,’ she said to herself.‘You can do it.’
Grabbing a bottle of red wine, she pulled on her boots and coat and was out of the front door before she could change her mind.
It had seemed a good idea to Saffron at the time: a quiet getaway, all on her own.She could escape from Max, escape from work, her parents, London ...everything, basically.She would leave it all behind and enjoy a few days of rural bliss in a Suffolk village, while she worked out what on earth she was going to do.
Baker’s Cottage had looked delightful online, the perfect place to enjoy some peace and solitude.With its thatched roof and double frontage painted the colour of vanilla ice-cream, it waslike something from a children’s storybook – a warm, welcoming place, she imagined, with home-baked muffins cooling on a tray and the softest, most blissfully enveloping beds.The photoon the website had obviously been taken in the summer and showed a front garden full of colour: tall lupins and delphiniums, bright cornflowers and scarlet poppies, and – yes – spraysof white roses climbing around the door.She could practically smell their fragrance as she spontaneously clicked her mouse and made the booking.
Several hours later an email pinged in from the owner, one Mr Sykes:
I’ll leave the key under the mat.Full instructions for everything else in a folder inside.Have a splendid New Year!
After living in London for seventeen years, the thought of leaving a door key anywhere other than safely in a handbag close to your body felt completely alien.How charming, she thought.Howheart-warmingly trusting!
Ha.More fool her.She should have known such slapdash arrangements could only mean trouble.
It was dark when she arrived and she had to drive around Larkmead several times before eventually spotting the sign reading ‘Pear Tree Lane’, half-covered in shrubbery.There was noproper street lighting, so she crawled along the road, headlights blazing, peering blindly at the shadowy houses on either side.Then, once she’d finally found the cottage itself, she liftedthe mat to find a complete absence of keys.Off to a great start.
Two fruitless phone messages later, she was grateful for the helpful neighbour who produced a spare key.But, once inside, it took only seconds before the cold water of disappointment poured allover her.In reality the cottage was a lot less delightful than she’d anticipated: damp, cold and clammy, as if no living human had set foot inside for weeks on end.Her nose wrinkled at themildewy smell as she poked her head first into the small (‘cosy’) beige living room with its old stone hearth, then the even smaller (‘compact’) galley kitchen with a coupleof desiccated pot plants by the sink and a dripping tap.Upstairs were two chilly bedrooms with moth-eaten velvet curtains, and a very turquoise bathroom.
It was a far cry from the boutique hotels she occasionally stayed in for work purposes, she thought regretfully.No sign of a monsoon shower or luxury bedding underthisroof.Still,she’d made her bed, now she had to lie on it, as her mum would say.With or without the expensive Egyptian-cotton sheets.
Once she’d dumped her case upstairs and unpacked her provisions in the fridge, she located the folder Bernie had mentioned and worked out how to turn the heating on.The boiler obedientlyrumbled into life, the radiators began valiantly belting out heat and she found her spirits lifting a little as she made herself a cup of tea and sank into the squidgy cord sofa.Maybe this wouldbe okay after all.She had warmth, she had solitude, her phone was off and her out-of-office email reply was on.She didn’t have to do a single thing now for three whole days except relax, gofor long walks in the countryside, read books and sleep.Oh yes.And maybe make a few big decisions about what, exactly, she was going to do about Max, and the terrible discovery she’d madeon Christmas Eve.But not now.That could wait.
Saffron’s temporary peace and tranquillity didn’t last long.Not even the night.She was just settling down in front of the telly that evening with an enormous boxof chocolates when the lights went out.The TV screen turned blank.From the kitchen she heard the fridge making a depressed-sounding groan, as if to sayHere we go again, fellas, as theplace was plunged into unearthly darkness.
‘Bollocks,’ she muttered, patting around for her phone and switching it on, so as to give her some kind of light, however feeble.It was spooky just how thickly, blackly dark it was,out here in the sticks.
Six new emails buzzed in as her phone came to life, then a succession of beeps, indicating new voicemails, too.Ignoring them all, she pulled up Mr Sykes’s phone number and rang himagain, without holding out much hope of a reply.
‘Bernie here, leave me a message and I’ll get back to you,’ she heard eventually and groaned.Was there any point leaving another message?When – if ever – would he‘get back’ to her?It was New Year’s Eve after all, and he was running a pub.From his hands-off approach so far regarding the cottage, she could easily be waiting until January.Bloody hell.She was just going to have to track him down in person and get this sorted properly.
Saffron was pretty sure she’d seen The Partridge as she drove into the village earlier: a white-painted timber-framed building with large, lit windows looming on a corner of the mainstreet.It wasn’t far.And it was either that or falter around blindly, trying to find the fuse-box herself in almost total darkness.She had visions of her limp body flung back by a jaggedbolt of electricity and lying dead in Baker’s Cottage as the New Year rang in.If Bernie Sykes was as slack at checking over his property as he was at answering his phone, she could bemouldering here for weeks.
It was raining as she began walking along the road, a spiteful, needly sort of shower, horribly cold.She pulled up her collar and walked faster.Luckily she was used to solving problems.Working in PR with all sorts of divas and egomaniacs, you had to think quickly and get results, however dramatic a hissy fit you were faced with.She’d track down Bernie and drag him out tothe cottage, in a head-lock if need be, so he could sort everything out.In half an hour this would already feel like a distant memory and she’d be back on the sofa, lights blazing throughthe cottage once more.With a bit of luck, her only dilemma then would be whether to have a hazelnut praline or a dark-chocolate truffle first.
Bernie Sykes was a booming ruddy-cheeked giant of a man in his fifties, or thereabouts, with rumpled hair and an un-ironed shirt.He was leaning over the bar pumps when Saffronwalked into the pub, addressing a couple of men with gusto; no mean feat when you were wearing a lopsided purple paper crown.
She stood at the bar, rain dripping from her hair, waiting for him to finish so that she could catch his attention.
‘And then I said to her, “Well, bloody hell, this is not some kind ofcircus, you know, dear, you can’t behave likethatin here ...”’
Saffron could feel her nose turning pink as the heat from the pub warmed her face.She coughed discreetly, hoping he would notice her before January began.
‘And she said – you’ll never guess whatshesaid ...’
On second thoughts, this sounded like one of those shaggy-dog stories with no ending.‘Mr Sykes?’Saffron said.
Bernie and his two friends both turned and looked at her.‘That’s me,’ said Bernie, his face suddenly falling.‘Oh dear.Not from theGazette, are you?Or thecouncil again?I’ve said everything I intend to about the horse incident, and it’s all getting rather tiresome, to be honest.’
‘I’m Saffron Flint.I’m renting Baker’s Cottage from you?’
Bernie’s face cleared and he thrust out a large pink hand.‘So you are!Greetings, Miss Flint.I trust everything is to your satisfaction?’
‘Well, no, actually,’ she said.‘I had to borrow a key from the lady next door – Gemma?– before I could actually get into the property, and now the electrics havegone.’
‘Oh, Bernie,’ said one of the men at the bar mock-sorrowfully.One of his front teeth was missing, Saffron noticed, as he wagged a finger at the landlord.‘Not good.’
‘Standards, Bern,’ said the other man, making a tsk-ing sound.‘Standards are falling.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ Bernie said.‘That sounds an absolutely dreadful way to begin your visit.Can I pour you a drink, by way of apology?I’ve got some very good maltwhisky, which is just the ticket on a night like this.Or I’ve a rather tasty Chilean red, if you’re more of a wine-drinker.’
‘No, thanks,’ Saffron replied.‘I’d just like you to come and put the electricity on, please.I’d do it myself, only I don’t have a clue where the fuse-box isand it’s very dark.’
‘Of course, of course,’ Bernie said.‘Absolument.’He peered around the busy pub.‘Tell you what, I’ll find my son.He’ll sort the whole thingout for you – very competent lad, much more use than his idiot father.Where’s Harry gone?’
The man with the missing tooth scratched his beard.‘Harry?Off to Spencer’s tonight, isn’t he?’
‘Course he is.Bother.’Bernie frowned thoughtfully, then brightened.‘Wait, that’s right next door to you, Miss Flint – perfect.Go back and knock at The Granary– the big farmhouse alongside the cottage – and ask for Harry, tell him his dad sent you and you need him to sort the electrics.He won’t mind popping round for two minutes tofix things.’
Saffron hesitated, feeling awkward at the prospect of bothering her neighbour again, let alone hauling out one of her guests on New Year’s Eve.‘Unless you could maybe nip down andhave a look yourself?’she suggested weakly.
He shook his head.‘Sorry, love.On my busiest night of the year?I’m needed here.’
As if to prove his point, a group of rowdy women burst into the pub in fancy dress.The cowgirl twirled a lasso around her head, nearly knocking off the wall a large photo of Bernie holding anenormous fish.The naughty nurse screeched in delight and slapped the cowgirl’s fringed bottom.The fairy started running around the pub in her pink kitten-heels, flinging silver glitter overeveryone.
‘Here comes trouble,’ said missing-tooth man with a gappy smirk.
‘It’s the Village People,’ sniggered his mate, as the last woman, dressed as a Native American, complete with towering feathered headdress and war-paint, entered, announcing‘HOW!’to the room in a loud voice.
Bernie looked thrilled and dropped into a bow.‘Ladies, good evening,’ he cried.‘How splendid you all look tonight.Can I tempt you with some rather delicious Lambrini?Acocktailette?’
The women thronged at the bar, all orange faces, cleavage and hairspray, demanding Bernie’s attention in shrill voices.Saffron knew when she was beaten.‘Okay,’ she mutteredand slipped back into the night.
It was only when she was ringing the doorbell of The Granary that she wished she’d had the foresight to ask Bernie to phone his son in advance, give him some kind ofwarning that she was about to descend for the second time that evening.She wished, too, that she’d thought to bring an umbrella with her to Suffolk, as she was now thoroughly drenched afterwalking to and from the pub, her long hair plastered unbecomingly around her face and her feet soggy where water had seeped into her old boots.Uggh.This was not how she’d envisaged herpeaceful getaway turning out.
She heard footsteps coming towards the front door and then it was pulled open, golden light spilling out into the darkness.
Standing there was the woman she’d spoken to earlier, now dressed in the most gorgeous dark-blue party frock, with her hair piled on her head.‘My God,’ she cried, her mouthdropping open at the sight of the soaked, bedraggled creature on her doorstep.‘Are you all right?What’s happened?’
‘I’m so sorry to bother you again,’ Saffron said, her teeth chattering with cold.‘My electrics have gone, and Mr Sykes – Bernie – said his son Harry was hereand that he might be able to help.’
‘Course he will.But come in for a minute, you look half-frozen.Honestly, Bernie – I could cheerfully strangle that man sometimes.No clue whatsoever, has he?Can I get you a drink?I’m Gemma, by the way.’
Saffron could hear music and laughter from further inside the house and felt like an intruder.Bloody Bernie Sykes and his brilliant ideas!‘No thanks,’ she said, twisting herfingers.She wished now she’d tried to find the fuse-box herself, dealt with the problem in the first place.‘I’m Saffron – and I’m really embarrassed about turning uphere in the middle of your party.Should I come back later?’
Gemma looked appalled at the suggestion.‘Don’t be daft.I can’t let you go and sit there in the dark,’ she cried.‘Look, why don’t you join us?It is NewYear, after all.Nobody should be on their own on New Year’s Eve!Besides,’ she added, dimples flashing in her round cheeks, ‘the more people we have here, the harder it’llbe to see all the peeling wallpaper and damp patches.You’d be doing me a favour, really.’
A dark-haired man had appeared now, handsome and rather rakish, with a mop of unruly curls.‘Everything all right, Gems?’he asked, putting a proprietorial hand on the small of herback.
‘This is Saffron, she’s staying next door,’ Gemma explained.‘Bernie’s sent her round for Harry, because the electrics have gone in the cottage.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, we can sort that for you,’ the man said.‘Half the local building trade here tonight, love.We won’t even charge you.’
Gemma elbowed him.‘I was just saying Saffron should join us for a drink.’Then she checked herself, turning back to Saffron.‘Unless you’re in a rush, ofcourse?’
Saffron thought quickly.Much as she had looked forward to some peace and quiet on her own, the thought of being with a group of other people for at least part of the evening in this warm,bright house was kind of appealing.Although she would feel pretty self-conscious venturing in like this ...
Gemma seemed to read her mind.‘Leave your coat on the radiator to dry,’ she said, ‘and follow me.I got a new hair-dryer for Christmas and it’ll sort your hair out inseconds, I swear.Come on!’Chapter Four
By the time it was eleven o’clock Gemma had drunk enough margaritas and Prosecco to be pleasantly squiffy and was enjoying herself enormously.People were dancing, led bySpencer’s gorgeous gay cousin Jonny, who was moving up to Newcastle in a week’s time and seemed to be treating this party as his last chance to buff up some signature moves.Thecanapés had been devoured – even the ropiest-looking ones – and nobody had been rushed to A&E with food poisoning (yet).Several of Spencer’s football mates had turnedup in drag, for some unexplained reason (Gemma had been secretly thrilled to see how twittery and giggly even the snootiest school mums went at the sight of all those muscled, hairy legs in fishnetstockings) and almost everyone had been lovely about the house, apart from Sarah Russell, who had said, several times now, ‘God, it’s going to need alotof work, isn’t it?Youarebrave!’in such an annoyingly patronizing way that Gemma had been tempted to strangle her with the fairy lights.Still.Up yours, Sarah Russell.Everyone else was making it abrilliant night.
Spencer had been right: this was a great house for a party.The rooms were generously sized with high ceilings and, despite the large number of guests, it still felt spacious rather thancramped.Besides, having a rafter-shaking party definitely christened a place.A house wasn’t a home until you’d shaken your thang under a glitterball to ‘Like a Virgin’ onyour very own living-room dance-floor, after all.Wasn’t that what the property experts always said?
Weaving her way unsteadily into the kitchen, Gemma headed for the cocktail shaker and the sticky collection of bottles lined up on the work surface.‘Cocktails!’she announced.‘Who’s up for another?’
A woman with dark hair and a long, pale face, who was standing looking rather awkward on her own, raised a hand.‘Twisted my arm,’ she said shyly.
‘Cool,’ Gemma said, swaying on her heels.‘What do you reckon: vodka, raspberries, Cointreau ...’ She began sloshing in ingredients with reckless abandon.‘Whatelse?’
The dark-haired woman looked alarmed.‘Oh God, I don’t know.I’m not very sophisticated when it comes to things like that.’
Gemma snorted.‘I’m the least sophist—’ she stumbled over the word; too many syllables for this time of night, damn it, ‘sophisticated person in the world.Asyou’ll realize when you drink this.’She added some crushed ice and edible gold glitter – well, itwasNew Year – and shook up the mixture.As she did so, she noticedthat Saffron, the woman from next door, now with dry hair, borrowed make-up and a squirt of Gemma’s Chanel No.5, was currently trapped in a corner with Spud Morton, the most boringpotato-headed man of Larkmead.Was that an actualraisinstuck in his beard?Catching her eye, Saffron made aHelp!face, and Gemma hurried to the rescue.
‘Spud!There you are!’A wicked idea popped up in her mind.‘Hey, Sarah Russell was looking for you.Said something about having a big, smoochy New Year’s kiss she wantedto give you ...’
He left immediately, the raisin trembling with the momentum as he hurried away.Ha, Sarah Russell, that’s what you get for dissing my house, Gemma thought with a grin.
‘Thanks,’ Saffron said.
‘No worries.Sorry you got lumbered with him – pickled-onion breath and all.Now, let me pour you a glass of this gorgeous little concoction.’She took the lid off the cocktailshaker and filled three Martini glasses with the dark-red liquid, admiring the shimmering effect from the glitter.‘Yum!Knock yourself out withthat, ladies.Not literally,mind.’
The dark-haired woman took a long slug of hers and smacked her lips, but Saffron shook her head.‘Um ...I don’t drink,’ she said apologetically.‘Thanks, though.Andthanks for letting me gatecrash your party as well, by the way.’
‘Me, too,’ the dark-haired woman started saying, just as a group of basque-wearing footballers burst into the room, chanting a song about beer.One was wearing long turquoisefeathers in his hair for some reason, and the dark-haired woman – whowasshe anyway?Gemma wondered – shrank back self-consciously.
Despite being three sheets to the wind – four sheets, now she’d just necked that delicious cocktail – Gemma couldn’t help noticing there was something fragile about thedark-haired woman.She was all long, gangly limbs and held herself at uncomfortable-looking angles, as if she’d never quite grown into her height.Gemma leaned closer as the lingerie-cladfootballers cut a noisy path past them and out the back door for a smoke.‘I’m Gemma, by the way.I don’t think we’ve met.’
‘Caitlin,’ said the woman.Her fingernails were nibbled down and she had a gaunt look about her.‘Oh.You’re married to Spencer, right?’
‘That’s me.’Caitlin, Gemma thought, her brain feeling misty.Caitlin?The girlfriend of one of the football crowd, maybe?No.One of the mums from school?Definitelynot.Then she remembered Spencer coming back from the newsagent’s the other Sunday looking shifty, before confessing that he’d invited to their party yet another person Gemmadidn’t know.Ah, got it.She was the one whose mum had died, whom Spencer knew from primary school or something.No wonder she looked a bit shell-shocked.
‘Well, bottoms up!’she said cheerfully, sharing the dregs of the cocktail between the two of them.‘Glad you’re both here.Have you got anything amazing lined up for theNew Year?Any life-changing resolutions or adventures?Tell me you’re not going on mad diets or ...I don’t know, competing in triathlons or something sickeningly worthy andimpressive.’
‘As if,’ Saffron said, stuffing the last wedge of quiche into her mouth.‘I can’t think of anything more soul-destroying than cottage cheese and celery sticks.InJanuary?As if.Bring on the pies and chips.’
Caitlin smiled.‘Maybe we should resolve to eatmore,’ she said.‘Make some anti-resolutions.I might take up smoking,’ she went on.‘Pipes, perhaps.Orcigars.’
Gemma giggled.‘Yeah, I might try to do less exercise.If I try really hard, I might not do the London Marathon this year.’
‘Oh, I’m going to try not to do that, too,’ Saffron said.‘And I’m definitely not going to do a single press-up or star jump, either.’
‘Just say no,’ Caitlin put in, draining her glass.‘But just say yes to more cocktails.What else have you got?’
Gemma grinned, pleased that Caitlin seemed to be warming up.Ah, the magic of cocktails.She quickly invented another, this time chucking in apricot brandy, gin, orange juice, ice and some mintleaves.‘Oh my Lord, that’s absolutely rank,’ she said, tasting a mouthful.‘Sorry, Caitlin.I think my career as a mixologist is over.’
‘Don’t worry, my career at Cambridge Graphics is also over,’ Caitlin said, raising her glass tipsily.‘Made redundant two months ago.’
Ouch.There was such pain in her eyes, Gemma wanted to hug her.She wished she’d made her a better cocktail at least.She grabbed the Christmas cake and cut Caitlin a slice instead, as thenext best thing.It was probably every bit as alcoholic, besides.‘Have that,’ she said, ‘with my condolences.’
‘I kind of wishmycareer at Phoenix-sodding-PR was over,’ Saffron added.‘I would love to stick two fingers up at my boss and walk out.’She pulled a face.‘We’re a right bunch, aren’t we?’
‘Balls to it, ladies,’ said Gemma, biting into a mini-sausage roll,’ let’s go into business together.What shall we do?Cake-testers?Chocolate ...um ...eaters?’
‘Holiday reviewers,’ Saffron suggested.
‘Oh yes,’ Caitlin agreed.‘We could go round checking out all the hotels and beaches, testing the pools and spa facilities ...’
‘I could definitely manage that,’ Gemma said.‘Or,’ she added, as a brilliant new idea came to her, ‘we could form a girl band.I’m always up for a bitof karaoke.’
‘Good one,’ Saffron laughed.‘I reckon I know all the dance moves to “Single Ladies”.I knew that would come in handy one day.’
‘Fame and fortune guaranteed,’ Gemma said with a grin.Then she leapt up suddenly, her memory jogged.‘Oh!I forgot the fortune-cookies!’
She lurched over to the cupboard above the fridge, pulling down the box and ripping open the packaging.‘Here,’ she said, proffering the contents and taking one herself.‘Let’s see what the magic fortune-cookies predict for this year.World domination, a stadium tour for our band, or at least a bit of respect from stroppy children, please!’
Snapping it in half, she unfolded the paper strip inside and read the message inside.‘Oh,’ she said.‘“For success today, look first to yourself.”’Sherolled her eyes.‘I’m not sure about that.’She’s just a mum, Darcey said again in her head, and Gemma looked away.Exactly.She was just a mum.What kind of successwould she ever achieve, except perhaps a clean house and the children handing in their homework on time?‘What did you two get?’she asked.
“Do not trust hapless pub landlords renting out mouldy cottages ...” No, not really.’Saffron squinted at her paper.‘“Have courage!Mistakes can becomeadventures.”Oh God,’ she groaned.‘Who comes up with this tosh?’
‘I like to think it’s an incredibly wise, wrinkled old Chinese man sitting on a golden throne,’ Gemma said.‘But I reckon it’s probably a soulless computer program.How about you, Caitlin?’
Caitlin looked uncertain.‘“Your destiny is within your own grasp,”’ she read.‘“Take a chance!”’She pulled a face.‘I was hoping for“Tall, dark stranger” or “Lottery win”, or even “Don’t worry, someone else will sort your destiny out for you – take the year off.”’
‘Bloody rubbish.’Gemma took another cookie.‘I think we must have picked the wrong ones last time, ladies.Try again.’She snapped a second cookie in half and pulled outthe fortune.‘This is more like it.“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were once only walls.”’
‘Follow your bliss, eh?Sounds like a romantic weekend away with your hubster,’ said Saffron.
‘Or that chocolate-testing job.I’m not sure which I’d rather.’Gemma took another glug of the horrible cocktail and gagged.‘Ugh.Well, that’s not blissful,anyway.’She tossed the fortune-paper over her shoulder.‘I was hoping for a more exciting prediction.Something extraordinary, not just another same-old humdrum year.’Sheglanced up at the ceiling comically.‘If that’s all right with you, dear kind Universe – thank you.’
The others smiled.‘I’d like a new man for the new year, if we’re putting in requests,’ Caitlin said.She rolled her hand into a megaphone and spoke through it,addressing the same corner of the ceiling as Gemma had.‘Did you catch that, Universe?New man for Caitlin Fraser, please, preferably with a hot bod and no frigging issues.’She winked.‘Then I’ll take a bit of action.’
Harry Sykes chose that moment to burst through the kitchen door, wearing somebody’s pink Stetson.‘Did somebody call?’he asked.
The three women collapsed in laughter.‘That was fast,’ Saffron gurgled.‘Good work, Universe.’
‘Harry, you knobhead,’ Gemma said affectionately.‘Nobody called you.And what’sthaton your head?’
He took it off and bowed low.Harry was Spencer’s best mate – charming, funny and blond, with quite the most complicated love-life in Larkmead.‘Just thought I heard ...’ Then his eyes fastened on Caitlin and he broke off.‘No way,’ he said.‘Tell me it isn’t.’
Caitlin flushed, looking awkward.‘It isn’t,’ she replied deadpan.
‘It is, though, isn’t it?It’s only Caitlin Fraser, last seen with goth make-up and a leather jacket.’He tapped the side of his head.‘Never forget aface.’
‘Um ...’ Caitlin looked lost for words.
Gemma helped her out.‘This is Harry.Harry Sykes?’
‘Oh God!From school.’Caitlin turned even pinker.‘Hi.’
Harry perched on the worktop, dangling the Stetson between his legs.‘So tell me, Caitlin Fraser.Where have you been hiding for the last fourteen years?’
Caitlin opened her mouth to reply just as Jade Perry, Harry’s girlfriend, marched into the room on the sort of towering stilettos that would give Gemma a broken ankle within seconds.‘There you are!Come on,’ she said, grabbing his hand so hard he almost toppled off his perch.The silver sequins on her tight little dress flashed and twinkled under the strip-lightingas she pulled him away.‘The countdown’s about to begin.’
You could tell Caitlin felt foolish as Harry allowed himself to be dragged from the room, with an apologetic flourish of the Stetson, but then they heard the noise levels rise from the livingroom.‘Ten!Nine!Eight!’
‘Come on,’ Saffron said, jumping to her feet.
Gemma realized she’d absent-mindedly broken open a third cookie, and read the message – ‘Poverty is no disgrace’ – before dropping it in alarm.No poverty, thanks.Not when they had the scarily big new mortgage hanging over their heads.
‘Seven!Six!Five!’They ran out of the room together, all of them trying to think of the perfect resolution.
This year I’ll do something amazing or brave or exciting,Gemma vowed.And Darcey will never think of me as ‘just a mum’ again.Oh, and I’ll definitely take mymake-up off EVERY night too.I promise!
Talk to Max, get fit, get promoted,Saffron thought in a rush,stop eating crisps all the time, look after my skin better, sort out a proper haircut, stop biting my nails.
I promise I’ll make you proud of me, Mum,thought Caitlin with a pang of emotion.I’ll put last year behind me and move on.
They’d reached the living room and for a moment Gemma couldn’t see Spencer anywhere.‘Four!Three!Two!’Then his eyes caught hers across the heaving throng and she felta hot surge of love.
‘One!HAPPY NEW YEAR!’everyone chanted, and Gemma jostled her way through to him just in time.
‘Happy New Year, wife,’ he said into her ear, his arms tight around her.The room around them was a whirl of hugging and kissing and exclamations; people were singing ‘AuldLang Syne’ at the tops of their voices.
‘Happy New Year, you,’ Gemma said, kissing him passionately.
‘It’s going to be a good one,’ he told her.
‘The best,’ she agreed.
Full of bubbly and fortune-cookies, surrounded by loved ones and in her own soon-to-be-amazing home, Gemma felt rich with happiness.The New Year was here at last.She could hardly wait to getstarted.Chapter Five
As midnight struck on New Year’s Eve, the potato-headed man with the health-hazard beard turned his attentions to Caitlin and stuck his tongue down her throat, almostasphyxiating her with his rancid breath.Uggh.Ngggaarggh.Time for another emergency resolution:I promise I won’t ever let that Spud-head near me again,she vowed, escaping hisclutches as a rowdy chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ started up.She glanced around for Harry, half-hoping for an excuse to get into a clinch with him instead, but he seemed to be having anargument with the woman in the silver dress, which culminated with her stamping right through the crown of the Stetson with her stilettos.
It was probably just as well.Harry had been the hottest boy in the sixth form, as well as a serial heart-breaker.She could do without any more grief in that area of her life, especially whenshe still had the loose threads of her last relationship to tie up.Sort out Flynn,she thought, as yet more resolutions occurred to her.Clear out Mum’s cottage and sell it.Decidewhat to do with the rest of my life.Have some fun.There, that would do.
Then Spencer grabbed her hands and pulled her into the circle.‘For Auld Lang Syne, my dear, for Auld Lang Syne!’they sang.
This year would be different, she promised herself.This year she’d do better.
Two weeks later, January had settled in with a grim vengeance and nothing much seemed to have changed.Storms were battering the country.The streets were full of wheezingjoggers skirting around the dead Christmas trees abandoned on the pavements, while the shops were already packed with Valentine’s displays and Creme Eggs.Meanwhile, Flynn was being a prick–quelle surprise.
Caitlin read the latest text that had arrived from him, her lip curling in annoyance, and typed one furiously in return:
Yes, all right, keep your hair on!I’ll pick everything up on Wednesday.Can you bear to have my possessions contaminating your space for another48 hours?They won’t kill you.More’s the pity.Caitlin
She read over her words, her finger poised on the Send button.Should she?Dare she?No.Better not.Delete, delete, delete.She thought for a moment and then typed again:
Fine.I’ll pick everything up on Wed, C.
That was better.Cool, calm and civilized – not that he deserved it, mind.She pressed Send, feeling as if her heart was calcifying.The brave optimism she’d felt at New Yearshrivelled away as she remembered what he’d done, how shabbily he’d treated her.The sooner she closed that door of her life and walked away, the better.
Three days later she sat in her old blue Clio, hands on the steering wheel, motionless in the driveway.Come on, Cait.Removals ninja – get in, get out, get it overand done with.Now start the engine and go.
All she had to do was drive to the flat – Flynn’s flat, as she needed to start thinking of it – and load up the rest of her belongings.By the end of the day she’d havewashed her hands of him forever.As a man who was verging on OCD when it came to hygiene and cleanliness, he would probably approve of that metaphor.
Right.Key in the ignition.Let’s do this.
The last time she’d seen him was when he came to the cottage after her mum died, a nervous look in his eyes as he put his arm around her while she cried.‘Jess doesn’t meananything,’ he’d mumbled.Yeah.Course she didn’t, Flynn.
Come on.Start the engine and get the heater going – it’s Baltic in here.And look, you’ve steamed up the windscreen now, all this sitting still and breathing.Crank up thede-mister and let’s hit the road.Go!
Gritting her teeth, she turned the key in the ignition ...then let out a moan of frustration as the engine made a feeble croaking sound and fell silent.
‘No,’ she muttered, smacking the steering wheel and trying again.Whirr-whirr-clunk.Oh,knickers, she thought.Of all the days for the car to give up on her, today wasnot a good one.
Popping open the bonnet, she strode round to inspect the car’s inner workings, her breath steaming in the wintry air.‘Right,’ she said, in as can-do a voice as she couldmanage.‘Let’s see, then.So ...’
She stared at the jumble of cables and mechanics, hoping something obvious would leap out at her.Nothing did.Wires were still connected to ...things.There was plenty of water in thecontainer.Oil.How did you check the oil?‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ she snapped, hating herself for not knowing.It was all very well being a can-do independent twenty-first-centurywoman, but sometimes she just wished her dad was still around to take care of stuff like this.Budge over, Cait,she imagined him saying.Make yourself useful and get us a cuppa, eh?He’d been a good dad, mending punctures on her bike, never losing his patience when he taught her to drive, fixing the heater in her student flat when she first left home.Loving her andtelling her she was beautiful, hugging her and saying, husky-voiced, how proud he was of her when she passed all her nursing exams.Then he’d gone and ruined it all by dying stupidly early,of a massive, unexpected stroke.
Maybe she should just hire a van for the day, she thought, slamming the bonnet shut in defeat.Flynn would go nuts if she didn’t turn up as arranged, after all his impatient texts.He wasa bit of a control freak; he hated it when things didn’t go to plan.He was the sort of person who wouldn’t think twice about sending food back in a restaurant if it wasn’texactly to his taste.Caitlin, meanwhile, was the sort of mug who’d silently chew down overcooked steaks or lukewarm chips because she didn’t want to make a fuss.
‘Everything all right?’
The voice made her jump.She turned her head to see a man leaning out of his van window, engine idling where he’d pulled over at the kerb.Harry Sykes.‘Car trouble?’heasked.
‘Yeah.Won’t start,’ she said.She spread her hands helplessly.‘A pretty basic failing, when it comes to going anywhere.’
He laughed, the sound carrying on the cold air.‘Want me to have a look?’
Oh, a man with a toolbox.HELLO.‘If you don’t mind.Please.’
‘No problem.’He parked the van and jumped down.‘Could be the battery.Did it make any kind of sound?’
Men were so keen to fix things, weren’t they?Caitlin mused as he clambered into the driver’s seat and tried the key himself.Whirr-whirr-clunk.Whirr-whirr-clunk.See problem– must solve it.Flynn had been the same when his precious, expensive coffee-maker gave up the ghost, and had spent hours taking the wretched thing apart on the kitchen table, fiddling aroundwith wiring and valves.If only he’d taken such care to try and fix their relationship rather than chuck it out so swiftly.
‘Let’s try cleaning the battery connectors,’ Harry said, getting out of the car again.
‘Good idea,’ Caitlin said, teeth chattering.‘I checked the water,’ she added helpfully, not wanting Harry to think she was a total bimbo.
She watched him work, a little frown deepening between his eyebrows as his hands made their way around the innards of her engine.Was it good old biological programming that made the sight of aman with a wrench in his grip seem so damn sexy, she wondered absently.Was it the cave-woman in her that reacted to such cliches of masculinity, that appreciated a capable man?Or was she justacting out the crush she’d had on him as a lonely sixteen-year-old, in a rather naff ‘damsel in distress’ episode?
Oh, shut up, Dr Freud, she scolded herself.Just be grateful that some bugger’s fixing your car, all right?
‘ ...fuel-injection system,’ he was saying.
‘What?’And now she’d been caught out not paying attention.
‘I think you’ll have to get a proper mechanic to look at this,’ Harry repeated.‘I reckon there might be a problem with the fuel-injection system.’
He shut the bonnet again and leaned against it, not seeming in any hurry to leave.‘I can give you a lift somewhere if you want, though.Where were you going?’
‘Cambridge,’ she said.It was about an hour’s drive away, too far for a casual lift.‘Don’t worry about it.Thanks for taking a look.’
‘Okay,’ he said, to her surprise.‘Cambridge is fine.’
‘What?Oh no – honestly, you don’t have to.I’m actually ...’ She ground to a halt, not wanting to have to spell out why she was going to Cambridge, but hisexpectant face gave her little choice.‘I need to move my stuff out of ...of my old flat,’ she mumbled eventually.‘I couldn’t possibly ask you to—’
‘That’s fine.Seriously.We’ve had to stop work on the site anyway – everyone’s waiting for the plumber to finish the bathroom, and it’s John the Snail, sohe’ll be hours yet.’His eyes twinkled and he gestured to the van.‘Besides, it’s either this or helping my dad take a load of stuff to the dump.Hop in.’
Caitlin’s heart gave a thump.‘Thank you.’
Harry’s van had a noisy heater and was littered with a surprising selection of detritus in the passenger footwell: a stray child’s trainer, an empty apple-juicecarton and a cat-patterned hairband.There were also a number of stickers plastered across the dashboard.IOne Direction,announced one.I Know, Right?said another.Oh God, he has kids, she thought, with a flat feeling of disappointment.Of course he had.A man as charming and good-looking as Harry hadprobably sired a whole brood since they’d parted ways after sixth form.No doubt there was a coterie of ex-wives lurking gimlet-eyed in his past as well.
‘I didn’t have you down as a One Direction fan,’ she said lightly, clicking in her seatbelt.
He laughed.‘Yeah, big fan.Love a bit of moshing at a One-D gig with the teenyboppers.’He started the engine and winked at her.‘Oh, no, wait, I’m getting muddled upwith my niece.I take her to gymnastics lessons every Friday afternoon, and that seat has become an extension of her bedroom.’He removed a red school sweatshirt from where it had beenstuffed down the side of the handbrake and hurled it into the back.‘The hairband’s mine, though, obviously.If you could avoid treading on that, I’d be grateful.’
She smiled.‘Have you got kids yourself, Harry?’
His eyes were on the road and she couldn’t see his expression.‘No.You?’
‘Any aggressive, tattooed husbands I should know about, who’ll be lying in wait for us in Cambridge, cracking their knuckles and giving me menacing looks?’
She snorted.‘No.You’re quite safe.’
He glanced over at her as he slowed at a roundabout.‘Any ex-husbands at all?Go on, let’s hear it.My Glorious Life, by Caitlin Fraser.Tell me the lot.’
‘No ex-husbands.’What the hell, she thought.They wouldn’t be in Cambridge for ages.‘I worked as a nurse for a while, then ...’
She rolled her eyes.Was there a man on earth who didn’t?‘Lived in Norwich for a while with Serious Boyfriend number one, who was this mega-brain computer boffin.’
‘Hmm.I don’t like the sound of him.’
‘He was all right.’Jeremy Langley, geeky and earnest, but so talented that he’d been lured by big money and glory in Silicon Valley.‘I think he loved computerprogramming more than he loved me, though.’
‘The bastard.What happened next?’
‘Then I gave up nursing.I’d only gone into it because of my parents anyway.Mum was a midwife, Dad was a hospital manager.But then I had this sort of epiphany—’
‘A what?Is that like a seizure?’
‘No!I had a change of heart – and I don’t mean a heart transplant either, before you ask.I just decided life was too short to spend it giving bedbaths and fending offpiss-heads in A&E on a Saturday night.’
‘Ah, the rebellion moment.Good for you.So what did you do next?No, don’t tell me ...Bareback-rider in a rodeo.’
She laughed.‘Not quite,’ she said.‘I went back to college and took up graphic design.Got a job building websites, and never looked back.’
‘Excellent.Carry on.Ah – let me guess.You were reunited with the computer programmer and made beautiful websites together.Whispered passionate lines of code into eachother’s ears.
‘No!’She spluttered at the thought.‘Maybe I should have done, though.He’s probably a kazillionaire by now, working for some faceless tech-corporation inSeattle.’
‘Gutted.You slipped up there, Fraser.Want me to drive you to the airport instead?’
‘Cambridge will do, thanks,’ she said.‘And it’s your turn now, by the way.Fill me in on Harry Sykes: The Glory Years.The juicier, the better.’
The journey flew by as they caught up on each other’s lives.He told her about working in Auckland for six months as a painter and decorator, nearly marrying a Kiwi womanin a whirlwind romance, his parents’ divorce, nearly marrying Shelley Bridges who’d been at school with them, training to be an electrician, nearly marrying a much older womanwho’d seduced him while he was rewiring her house, moving out of Larkmead, moving back to Larkmead, nearly marrying a crazy French woman, and how his New Year’s ambition was to stopnearly marrying people.
‘That sounds a wise move,’ Caitlin said.
‘It’s got me into a lot of trouble,’ Harry said ruefully.‘My romantic proposing habit.’He slapped the steering wheel.‘No, this year will be different.Completely different.I have a new strategy, see.The Ten-Date Rule.’
‘Enlighten me.How does that work then?’
He glanced sidelong at her, to see if she was taking the mick out of him, but she kept a straight face.‘It was my sister’s idea really,’ he confessed.‘I’ve been abit ...impulsive in the past and things have got kind of complicated.’
‘No.Really?’This time there was no getting away from the fact that she was teasing.
‘Hard to believe, I know.So Sam, my sister, laid the law down, told me to try the Ten-Date Rule this year and stay out of trouble.She reckons if you go on ten dates before you sleep witha partner – or propose to them – the relationship stands a better chance.’
‘I see.And how’s it going so far?’
‘Well, it isn’t, to be honest.I’ve only just split up with Jade and she’s still giving me earache.But we shall see.’He waggled his eyebrows and pulled a comicface, and Caitlin felt a twist of envy for whoever Harry fell for next.He really was gorgeous, like a naughtier version of Daniel Craig – the same strong face and wide mouth, with eyes thatseemed to see right into you.Phew!Was it her, or was it getting hot in here?
‘Left at this junction,’ she said hurriedly, glad of a reason to stop thinking about how good-looking he was.Calm down, she ordered herself.And don’t flatter yourself thatthis is anything other than a lift – a favour – okay?
They drove along in silence for a few minutes, Caitlin remembering the last time she’d been down this road.It was the morning her mum died, when her eyes were gritty with lack of sleep,her bones aching from being crunched in the bedside chair, her heart raw and broken.The first rays of morning light were painting the sky with golden strokes; people everywhere would be yawningand stretching, and stumbling towards coffee, with no idea that a terrible, momentous thing had just happened to her.All Caitlin had wanted was to feel Flynn’s strong arms around her, thecomfort of love.
‘You okay?’Harry asked.
Caitlin stared, unseeing, through the window for a moment, images from that morning falling into her mind like jewels in a kaleidoscope.The unfamiliar car in her parking space.The voices inthe flat, laughter pausing abruptly as she walked in.The smell of toast and bacon, the radio playing a cheerful song, her friend Jess’s bare feet up in Flynn’s lap as they sat at thetable in dressing gowns.Herdressing gown.
‘Yeah, sure,’ she said dully.‘It’s right here, then right again just after the church.’
Flynn’s flat was part of a modern block on Cromwell Road – soulless and kind of boxy, Caitlin had always thought privately, but when he had asked her to move inwith him, back in the first flush of romance, she’d been so happy and excited that its square rooms and lack of outdoor space didn’t bother her at all.After living in her mum’scottage recently, with the charms of its generous garden and beamed ceilings, she was struck anew by how chilly and impersonal this place seemed.
‘Well, this is it,’ she said, pushing open the front door.Tension knotted inside her with every echoing step along the tiled hall floor.She had lived here for two and a half years,but it had never really felt like home, she realized.Even walking in now put her on edge.She was holding her breath, half-expecting Flynn to appear and say something caustic.Sometimes it wasonly when you had moved away that you noticed how unhappy you’d become.
‘Very smart,’ Harry said politely, his eyes sliding around, as Caitlin sorted through the pile of post on the hall unit.
Flynn being Flynn, he had boxed up every last bit of her stuff and stacked it all neatly in one corner of the spare room, just waiting for her to remove it.There were spaces like missing teethon the shelves where her books had been, and the mantelpiece looked boringly empty without her photos and ornaments.Caitlin also noticed a smart slate-grey woman’s coat hanging up in thehall that definitely wasn’t hers, and a new red toothbrush in the bathroom.He and Jess hadn’t wasted much time then.
‘Christ, who’s that?’Harry asked, gesturing at the large canvas on the living-room wall.It was a black-and-white photo of Flynn’s sleeping face on the pillow; a giftfrom a former girlfriend apparently.Caitlin had always secretly loathed it.
‘That was my ex.Flynn.’A handsome devil, with his beautiful long, dark lashes and high, sculpted cheekbones.But, seriously, what sort of narcissistic prick hung a ginormous canvasof themselves in their own frigging living room?
She could tell Harry was thinking the same thing, but was too well-mannered to say so out loud.‘What happened with you guys then?’he asked, as they huffed and puffed down thecommunal stairs, clutching the boxes of her belongings.
‘Oh ...just didn’t work out.’She didn’t feel like giving Harry the lowdown.He unlocked the van and pushed in his box, then took hers from her and shoved it inalongside.
‘Want me to kill him for you?’
She laughed.‘Don’t tempt me,’ she said.
Embarrassingly, it took a mere fifteen minutes to load up her stuff in the back of Harry’s van.You’d have thought a person would have more to show for themselvesafter thirty-two years on the planet – some decent pieces of furniture, evidence of being a proper grown-up.Nope.Not Caitlin.
‘Well, that was easy,’ Harry commented, as they crammed in the last two boxes.‘Shall we head back?’
‘I’ll just have a last check around,’ Caitlin said.‘Won’t be long.’
Up in the flat again she walked slowly through the quiet rooms one final time, touching the walls with her fingertips.It was all so pristine, she thought, noting the obsessive way he’dlined up the mugs in the kitchen cupboard and alphabetized the spice jars in the rack.In the bathroom the towels were folded perfectly, as if it was a spa or a hotel room.She thought of hermum’s cosy cottage with its higgledy-piggledy order, the mismatched crockery, the gaudy fridge magnets from Cornwall and Tenby, the jumble of family photos everywhere.That was a proper home,not this.No wonder she’d never been able to relax here.
She gazed into the bathroom mirror and saw echoes of herself there: too thin, too anxious, putting on make-up to cover her acne scars, plucking out her first white hairs before he noticed them.Trying to be something she wasn’t, for him.She found herself fantasizing about scrawling a lipsticked message on his mirror before she left.UP YOURS!maybe, or SCREW YOU!
No, that was childish.She mustn’t.He’d go berserk.
‘Are you ready to go?’called Harry, who’d reappeared in the hallway.
‘Just coming,’ she replied, without moving.Her mouth twisted as the urge grew stronger to make a last bit of mischief before leaving for good.Should she?Dare she?She probablyshouldn’t.
Last few checks: nothing hanging on the back of the bathroom door, all toiletries removed from the shower.Ah – the bathroom cabinet, she hadn’t thought to look in there.She openedthe mirrored door and her eyes went straight to the packet of condoms inside.Ribbed for extra pleasure, according to the box.Oh.Back in the day, they hadn’t used condoms; she’d goneon the pill because he said he didn’t like the rubbery smell.Obviously he’d got over that particular problem pretty swiftly, though.
She opened the box; not many left inside.Tosser, she thought, flinging the last few messily over the floor in a burst of hatred.Then she pushed his folded towels out of place and rearrangedhis toiletries, knowing he’d notice.She ran into the kitchen and muddled up the spices, putting the Cardamom Pod jar where the Turmeric should go, swapping Ginger for Cumin, Fenugreek Seedsfor Chilli Flakes.
Harry was in the living room, perched on the arm of the sofa.(‘You’re not meant to sit on the arm, you’ll spoil the shape,’ Flynn always fussed whenever Caitlin hadforgotten and did the same thing.) ‘All done?’he asked, and then, as Caitlin walked straight past him, taking the lid off her traffic-stopping red lipstick, ‘What are youdo—?Caitlin!Bloody hell!’
‘What do you think?I reckon they suit him,’ Caitlin said, standing back and admiring the red heart-shaped glasses she’d drawn on the canvas picture of Flynn’s face.Adrenalin thumped through her.Flynn would go mental when he saw what she’d done.Absolutely mental.
And serve him bloody well right, she thought, smirking at Harry, who was roaring with shocked laughter.‘All done,’ she said.‘Let’s go.’Chapter Six
London seemed loud, grimy and foul-smelling when Saffron returned, a couple of days into the New Year.There were roadworks near her East London flat, ominous yellow policesigns on the pavement describing two new stabbings and appealing for witnesses, burger wrappers bowling along the road in the wind, and a new streak of grey-white pigeon shit down her living-roomwindow.She’d lived in London since she was twenty-one and, for the first time ever, she had to admit it was losing its appeal.
On her last full day in Suffolk she’d put on wellies and her great fat duvet of a coat and had tramped for miles on her own, the sky wide and clear, with only the far-away thrumming of atractor and sporadic bursts of birdsong disturbing the stillness.She’d seen spiders’ webs glittering with frost, a rabbit scuffling urgently into the hedgerow, a hawk hovering highabove the bare brown fields, then suddenly plummeting towards unsuspecting prey.You forgot how magnificent nature could be when you were usually surrounded by concrete and traffic.Mind you,nature had played a pretty terrible trick on her recently, with that curve-ball on Christmas Eve.She’d sat on the edge of her parents’ bath gripping the white plastic stick, her handstrembling in disbelief as first one blue line appeared, then a second.Oh, she thought dully.Not food poisoning after all, then.
Life hadn’t felt quite real, carrying the enormous secret by herself, without being able to share it.She couldn’t tell her parents – no way.They were gentle souls whopottered around in soft fleeces, nurturing seedlings, walking the dogs, making disapproving noises at the television.They lived a quiet life of comfortable routines.Telling them over theChristmas dinner that she was unexpectedly pregnant would have been like lobbing a hand-grenade into the roast-potato dish.
Her sisters?She couldn’t tell them either.Eloise was going through IVF for what felt like the tenth time, poor woman.If Saffron let slip that she was accidentally up the duff andwasn’t sure if she even wanted the baby, Eloise would probably lamp her one.She’d never speak to her again.And Zoe ...Well, Zoe and she had once been close enough that they kneweverything about each other, but her younger sister was in Western Australia now, after a crazy love-whirlwind with a gorgeous surfie-chick called Alexa had turned into something more serious, andgeography had forced the sisters apart.Oh, they Skyped and emailed and did their best, but Skype and emails didn’t come close to a proper heart-to-heart with a glass of wine somewhereintimate.Not that she was drinking wine now, of course.(God, she was desperate for wine.Desperate like she’d never been desperate.Was it possible that one of your pregnancy cravings couldbe a chilled glass of Sauvignon blanc?Or a slim, tall glass of sharp, bubbling champagne?It had been the first dry New Year since she was fifteen.It had practically killed her to say ‘Idon’t drink’ at Gemma’s party.)
As for Max ...No, she hadn’t told him the big news, either.How could she?He was only meant to be a bit of fun, after all – one of those no-strings flings where your heartremained intact, even if your knickers didn’t.Besides, he had baggage by the cartload: a shrewish ex-wife, Jenna, who always seemed to be bollocking him down the phone, plus two teenagechildren of his own.The last thing he’d want from Saffron was an awkward ‘I’ve got something to tell you’ conversation.She could already imagine the way his animated facewould sag; how the light would vanish from his eyes in an instant.You’re what?Are you kidding?
God, it was complicated.What was she going to do?
Being away in Suffolk had been like putting on a sticking plaster, temporarily covering her worries from sight.Walks and fresh air, and even an excellent party in the house next door, with anactual conga around the living room after midnight.(She must send flowers to that lovely Gemma.It had been way better fun than sitting in and watching the London fireworks all on her own.)
Now she was back in the real world, though: in the cramped and rather grotty East London flat she’d rented since her marriage went tits-up two years ago and she’d been left out ofpocket.Her suitcase was yet to be unpacked, there was a mountain of laundry to tackle, and her somewhat pathetic needle-shedding Christmas tree needed to be dragged outside for the recyclinglorry, before it turned completely bald.With the holiday over and work looming tomorrow, January was already looking grey and joyless.
She was lying on the sofa, crunching through a bag of salt-and-vinegar Hula Hoops, when her phone started ringing.Max, she saw on the screen and let it go to voicemail, hating her owncowardice.In the next moment she remembered her own midnight vow at New Year –Talk to Max– and felt a stab of guilt.Resolutions were cobblers anyway.And she was going totalk to Max.She was!Just not now.Not this minute.
She and Max had met at the glitzy launch of Faster, a new sportswear brand, in a Covent Garden hotel.He was Faster’s Account Manager, while she worked for the PR agency coordinating theevening.She liked him even before she’d laid eyes on him – his emails were charming and witty, and his deep voice on the phone always made him sound as if he was on the brink oflaughter.Then she’d met him in person and her whole body reacted.Whoa.He had a rangy, athletic physique, salt-and-pepper hair, and a way of looking at you with those melty brown eyes as ifyou were the only other person in the world.They bonded over their willingness to try ridiculous-sounding cocktails, and before long she could hardly look at him without wanting to grab his shirtand kiss him.Emboldened by lust and all those cocktails, she pressed her business card into his hand at the end of the night.‘Let’s do this again,’ she said daringly.
‘Let’s,’ he agreed.
Two days later a package arrived at her desk and out fell a turquoise hoodie with the Faster logo stamped on it in pink lettering.‘He’s sent you afleece?’asked hercolleague Kate in withering tones.‘Who said romance was dead?’
Saffron read the note.‘He’s booked us in for a snowboarding lesson,’ she said, her heart giving a little flip.‘Said the hoodie might come in handy.’
Kate raised an eyebrow.‘Okay, I take it back,’ she said.‘That’s kind of smooth.And a snowboarding lesson is a damn sight more interesting than a night down the pub,that’s for sure.’
The snowboarding lesson was hilarious, as was their second date, kayaking along the Thames.For their third date, Saffron offered to cook Max dinner at her place, but they hadn’t eaten somuch as a mouthful before they were pulling each other’s clothes off and tumbling onto the sofa together.(‘I like him,’ she told Kate the next morning.She had tingles justthinking about him, the way his skin felt against hers.‘I actually really like this one.’) Then it was December and the whirl of tinsel-spangled Christmas parties swept them both up,and they’d only managed to see each other a couple more times amidst the mayhem.And now she was pregnant.
Her hands crept around to her belly and rested there gently.Yesterday he’d texted her details of a great beach for kite-surfing that he’d found near Southend, if she fancied it.Maybe we could make a weekend of it?She was starting to think Max might be undergoing something of a midlife crisis, with all these adrenalin dates he kept suggesting, but hell, she wasgame for anything.Kite-surfing sounded a laugh, even if it was January and freezing cold.He’d probably look sexy in a wetsuit, too ...
But then she had remembered the two blue lines on the stick, and wondered if pregnant women were still meant to do things like kite-surfing, and the next minute she was engulfed in doubt.Whatwas she going to do?Did she even want a baby?How would she manage in this poxy one-bedroom Walthamstow flat?It was a hopeless idea.Impossible.
All the decisions that lay ahead made her feel queasy.Or was that the hormones?Whichever, there was no escaping the fact that she would have to start sorting her life out soon, pinning down afew certainties like markers on a map.This way.Then this way.And don’t look back.
Being pregnant was like having the volume whacked up on all your senses, Saffron thought the next day as she went back to work.Noises around her – roadworks, traffic,other people’s voices – seemed amplified to irritating, headache-inducing levels.Smells assaulted her with a new, horrific violence: perfume and aftershave on the Tube, sickly vanillascents pumped out from the doughnut shop, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke – disgusting, all of them.Flavours tasted weirdly different, too, all of a sudden.Coffee, for instance, her ownpersonal rocket-fuel, now repulsed her with its bitterness, her mouth shrivelling and crimping in disgust whenever she tried to drink it.How had she ever been able to stomach the stuff?
Once in the office (ravenous already – how would she survive the morning without constant snacking?), Saffron opened her emails to an avalanche of ‘Dry January’ and‘Wonder Diet’ spam.Oh, the irony.
‘Saffron!There you are!’came a plummy voice.‘I was starting to think you were avoiding my calls.’
Charlotte Hargreaves was the director of Phoenix PR; a large, commanding woman with big hair and stentorian tones, whose entire existence revolved around the agency and her role at itsepicentre.She was also the sort of boss who had no qualms about taking all the credit for any success achieved by the agency, whether she’d had a hand in it or not.Saffron had oftenfantasized about marching out dramatically – ‘I quit!’– and setting up her own rival agency, which would win awards and make Charlotte look a complete amateur.The soonershe plucked up the courage, the better.
Yeah, but hello?What about the baby?Maternity leave?Think about it!snapped a voice in her head.
Oh, yeah.The baby.She’d overlooked that tincy-wincy factor.
‘Happy New Year,’ she said, putting on her dazzling PR executive smile as Charlotte approached.
‘What?Oh.Yes.Anyway, I don’t know if you’ve seen the email yet, but the Yummy Mummy baby-food account is now yours.They want a full PR strategy plus visuals by mid-month,so I said that would be fine.I trust you’ll be able to manage it?’
Saffron blinked, trying to process this deluge of information.‘Um ...yes?’she said tentatively, then frowned.‘I thought Kate was handling the Yummy Mummy thing?’Kate would be a good person to talk to about the baby, she realized just then, but when she glanced around she noticed that Kate’s desk was empty, and the photos of her flame-haired,gap-toothed kids had vanished.
‘We had to let her go,’ Charlotte said briskly.‘Too much time off for school consultations and doctors, and whatnot.’
What?Was this some kind of joke?Saffron’s insides clenched with the injustice.Admittedly Kate had been in and out of hospital with her accident-prone younger son, who seemed to be on aquest to break every bone in his body, but she’d always managed to get her work done on time – and consistently good it had been, too.‘Oh,’ she said faintly after a moment,fury for her friend mingling with fear at the thought of Charlotte finding out she was pregnant.Just like Kate, she’d be pushed out of the agency in a heartbeat.We had to let her go.Toomuch time off for midwife consultations and childbirth, and whatnot.
‘So you’ve got the brief and the contact details.Joseph’s handling the artwork, so you two can liaise on progress.I’ll leave it in your capable hands.’
As soon as Charlotte had marched back to her office, Saffron furtively fired off an email to her friend:
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Just heard the news – so gutted for you.What happened?Are you okay?
Then her phone rang.‘Phoenix PR?’
‘Hey, Saff, it’s Max.Happy New Year!’
She swallowed.‘Hi, Max, same to you.’I’m carrying your baby, by the way, Max.Whoops!Contraception-fail!‘Um ...’ She pulled herself together.Actnormal.‘Good Christmas?’
‘Great, thanks.The usual complicated children-passing, but we muddled through.How about you?’
Children-passing?She wrinkled her nose.He made them sound as if they were an inconvenience to be managed.If she had his baby, would he speak about it in such careless terms?He’d betterbloody not.‘Er, yeah, good,’ she replied after a moment.‘Quiet, really.My parents and one of my sisters, and her husband.Five go mad in Essex, you know.’
He laughed.He had a nice laugh, Max – a proper, genuine one.You heard a whole orchestra of fake versions in PR.‘Excellent.’He paused.‘Listen, I’ve been tryingto get hold of you all week,’ he said.‘Are we all right?’
We.He thought there was a ‘we’.Well, there was, but it included an extra person these days.‘Um ...’ she said, not sure how to respond.‘Yes, sorry– I saw you’d tried ringing.I was away for New Year, didn’t have much of a signal.’
That was all true at least.
‘Okay.’He sounded hesitant now.‘So ...do you want to do something soon?Did you get that kite-surfing link I sent?I thought it might be a laugh.’
She bit her lip.Oh Max.It would have been a laugh a fortnight ago.They would have had a blast.If it wasn’t for those two wretched blue lines, she’d be floating up like a bunch ofshiny helium balloons right now, delighted that he wanted to ‘make a weekend of it’, already googling gorgeous boutique places to stay.‘I ...’ she said awkwardly.Help.‘I’m pretty busy actually,’ she blurted out.‘I’ve just been given this new account, you see, so my diary’s hideous for the next fewweeks.’
Also true.Her diary was crazy!Although she did actually have two free weekends this month, either of which she’d have happily spent with him, sleek in wetsuits, laughing and shrieking ona kite-surf in the North Sea.But how could she?How could she carry on without telling him?This way was for the best, really.It was.
‘Oh,’ he said, and the laughter fell away from his voice.Now he sounded more clipped, as if he was speaking to a colleague he didn’t know very well.‘I see.’
You don’t,she thought miserably.You have no idea.She fiddled with two linked paper clips, twisting the wires round and round, trying and failing to think of something tosay.
‘Well, in that case, I’ll leave the ball in your court,’ he said, brisk and businesslike after a short silence.‘You’ve got my number, so ...Yeah.’
‘Okay,’ she said, dying a little inside.One sharp end of a paper clip scraped her skin and she winced.Sorry,she felt like blurting out.Sorry!If you knew, Max,you’d understand why I’m doing this, You’d agree that I was doing the right thing!
‘See you then, Saffron,’ he said.
‘See you then, Max,’ she echoed, replacing the phone.Well, that hadn’t gone very well.She wished she could rewind the last few minutes, let him down more gently.Actually,scrub that: she’d rewind even further, given half a chance, right back to the start of December.Then she’d make sure the condoms were to hand every single time, before it was too late.Before this situation ever had the chance to unfold.
But it had unfolded, of course, and she’d clumsily made a mess of that last conversation.And now he’d be across town, staring at his phone and wondering how he could have got it sowrong about Saffron Flint.What’s up withher?he’d be thinking, perplexed.I thought I was onto something.I thought we liked each other!
She imagined one of his colleagues glancing across the office and noticing Max’s handsome features creased with a frown.You okay there, Max?
Women,Max would say, shaking his head, still confused.Maybe he’d start to feel exasperated, rolling his eyes in a long-suffering manner.Women!
He was better off without her.He was.And now here came Charlotte, and she needed to stop fiddling with paper clips and look busy.
‘Saffron?Time for a quick word?I’ve been going through the accounts, and I’ve got another one that’s right up your street ...’Chapter Seven
January was a great time for new starts, Gemma always thought.You could draw a veil over the excesses of Christmas and start with a nice clean slate and a lovely long list ofgood intentions.Oh, she would be a saint this year, she really would.She’d be kind and patient, her house would be transformed, she’d do tons of voluntary work and be everyone’sbest friend, not to mention the most devoted and wondrous wife, mother and daughter that ever lived.
She hadn’t got very far with her plans for a new job yet, though.It had been so long since she’d worked anywhere, other than her own kitchen and ironing board, that shecouldn’t help feeling apprehensive at the prospect.After an extended maternity leave with Will, she’d gone back to work at Pop, the fashion label, but it hadn’t been easy.Returning as a part-timer, she found herself falling down the hierarchy and shunted sideways, away from the really funky front-page-of-the-catalogue end of the brand, into the less-glamorousranges: swimwear for a while, and then knitwear, neither of which she felt particularly passionate about.Plus Will took a while to settle into nursery, and then came down with bronchiolitis thefirst winter and was quite poorly; and then, whenever she did actually make it into the office, she’d often find herself unable to think of anything but his sad littleYou’re-leaving-me?face as she’d said goodbye.
Even though she loved working with clothes, she could never quite lose the breathless pain of being away from her child, the tension she felt whenever the train juddered to a halt halfway homeand she started to panic that she’d be late to pick him up.Mercifully Spencer had realized just how anxious the juggling act was making her and stepped in, telling her he was happy for herto stay at home and look after the children if that was what she wanted.Her boss was understanding and said she’d keep Gemma on file as a freelance, but the work had dried up pretty quickly.So that was that.
Gemma hadn’t really minded back then, especially as her daughter Darcey came along soon afterwards and she threw all her energies into making both children happy.But now that Darcey wasnine and Will thirteen, motherhood no longer had the same manic urgency of the early years.The children showered and dressed themselves, they could make their own breakfast, they could work halfthe household gadgets a million times better than she could ...they needed her less, basically.And she was starting to feel – well, notredundantexactly, she thought, tossing somePlaymobil people and a naked, pouting Barbie into a cardboard box, but maybe a little bit worthless.And just the tiniest bit bored, if that didn’t make her sound too ungrateful.She’s just a mum,she heard Darcey say again in that dismissive voice and felt herself cringe.
It was all right for Spencer, with his job on the building site.He had a whole other world outside the home – a world of bacon sarnies and banter, nipping to the bookies in his lunch hourand to the pub on his way home.He’d come back covered in plaster dust and a muck sweat, glowing with the satisfaction of a hard day’s work.Meanwhile, what had she done?Ambled roundthe supermarket and sorted piles of laundry, maybe had a coffee with some of the other mums.It didn’t feel enough any more.
Her mobile rang just then.She was in the playroom, cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by half-clothed Sylvanian Family creatures who appeared to be having some kind of woodland orgy (maybethat was just her dirty mind), the dressing-up box from which a single Buzz Lightyear leg dangled (Will hadn’t worn that costume since he was four years old!), board games and jigsaws,unfinished craft projects and half-built Lego spaceships.Ripe for an overhaul, she thought distractedly, reaching to answer her phone.She should have ditched half of it when they moved, but nowwas her chance.She could turn this room into a proper teenage den, with beanbags and maybe a little TV ...
‘Hello?’she said, imagining a pinball machine in one corner, a dartboard perhaps.No, not a dartboard.Too dangerous.Could they squeeze a pool table in here?Spencer would lovethat.
‘Gem?It’s Harry.Listen, there’s been an accident.Are you sitting down?’
The virtual pool table vanished into the ether.‘An accident?What’s happened?’
There was a sob in Harry’s voice.Asob?‘It’s Spencer.He ...Someone fucked up with the scaffolding, Gem.He’s fallen.It’s pretty bad.’
All of a sudden it was hard to breathe.Her body froze rigid with the horror; her mind raced with terrible images of her husband plummeting through the sky.‘Is he dead?’shecroaked.
‘No, but he’s unconscious.They’ve airlifted him to Addenbrooke’s.I’m going to head over there now, shall I pick you up?’
Stupid thoughts pinballed into her head.She hadn’t hugged him that morning.He liked to be up and out early, Spencer, and she’d still been in bed when he’d left.What if shenever hugged him again?
‘Gem?Shall I pick you up?’
She swallowed.Get a grip, Gemma.This was happening – her worst nightmare – and she had to deal with it.‘Yes,’ she said hoarsely.‘Yes, please.’
The hospital was about an hour’s drive usually, but it felt as if entire dreadful days passed before they reached the car park in torrential rain.Harry tried to makeconversation – something about seeing Caitlin, the girl from the party – but Gemma couldn’t concentrate.Apparently the scaffolding had collapsed on the first storey of thebuilding they were working on, and Spencer had plunged to the concrete below, landing in a crumpled heap, out cold.
Gemma felt sick at the thought of him lying on the ground, unmoving and unresponsive, his beautiful face empty of any expression.He was the most unashamedly alive person she’d ever met.Once, a few months after they’d started seeing each other, they’d been walking into a rosemary-scented pub garden one warm Sunday afternoon when he suddenly smiled at her, eyesbrilliant, then put his arms in the air and shouted, ‘God, I love this woman!’People had turned and smiled at his exuberance.Someone had even cheered.
Please let him have come round by now,she thought as they hurried to the Accident and Emergency centre.Please let us get there, and for him to be sitting up in bed with a cup of tea,joking with the doctors.
He wasn’t sitting up in bed, though.He hadn’t even come round.He was lying flat, strapped into a neck-and-back brace so that he couldn’t move, having just returned from a CTscan.He had broken his ankle quite badly and fractured three vertebrae, the softly spoken Indian doctor told them.They weren’t yet certain how his spinal cord would be affected.
Gemma burst into tears of shocked disbelief.She’d watched enough hospital-based TV shows to know that spinal injuries could be devastating.‘You mean he might not walk again?’she asked, choking on the words.Oh my goodness.Spencer in a wheelchair, his legs useless?Football-mad Spencer never running or kicking a ball for the rest of his life?
‘We can’t rule anything out yet, I’m afraid,’ the doctor said gently.She put a hand on Gemma’s arm, and Gemma stared at her polished red nails in a daze.‘We’re going to do an MRI scan, which should give us a clearer indication of any damage.The good news is that we can’t see any bleeding on the brain, although we won’t beable to make a full assessment of his head injury until Mr Bailey comes round.’
Head injury.Bleeding on the brain.That terrifying-looking brace clamping him in position.The possibility of him being paralysed, an invalid for the rest of his life.Gemma’s head swamwith one terrible thought after another.He’d never walk Darcey up the aisle, if she got married.He wouldn’t be able to work.He’d no longer be able to throw himself intoswimming pools on holiday, drenching them all deliberately with one of his ‘bombs’.He’d never dance with her again ...
She passed a hand through her hair, trying to breathe naturally.‘I need to sort someone out to pick up the kids,’ she said, imagining the scared looks on their faces when they sawtheir strong, capable daddy broken like this.Dear God, she couldn’t bear it.‘I need to ...’ She swayed on her feet, suddenly dizzy, and Harry clutched her just in time.
‘You okay?Are you feeling faint?Sit down, Gem,’ he ordered, guiding her to a plastic chair.‘Do you want a tea or something?’
A cup of tea.Like that would make any difference.What she wanted was for Spencer to open his eyes and grin at her, to sit up and stretch his arms over his head as if he’d just woken froma nap.‘I’m fine,’ she said weakly, reaching out to take Spencer’s hand.His fingers felt warm in hers; if she shut her eyes, she could imagine everything was perfectlynormal.Almost.
‘We’ll let you know more, once we’ve done the MRI,’ the doctor said kindly.‘Ah, here’s our porter now.Thanks, Mick.’
And away they wheeled him, leaving Gemma and Harry alone and staring at one another.‘Oh, Harry,’ she said, burying her face in her hands.‘I’m really frightened.I’m so, so frightened.I just want him back.’
‘I know,’ Harry said wretchedly, staring after the porter in a daze.‘Me too.’
Cometh the hour, cometh the mums.After one single tearful call to her friend Eliza, Gemma had countless texts from other mothers from the school, offering help, sleepovers,dinners, sympathy and wine.OMG, just heard, hon.Is he going to be ok?they wrote.What’s the latest?
Gemma didn’t know how to reply.The words were too huge to condense into a mere text.Oh, possibly paralysed, head injury, you know ...No.She stuffed her phone back in herhandbag, feeling a wild sort of hysteria building.She hated herself for not hugging him that morning.She hadn’t even said goodbye!She’d been wearing her tartan flannel pyjamas, theones Spencer always groaned at and called the Passion Killers, and she’d rolled over in bed and put the pillow over her head to muffle the sound of his singing.What kind of wife did that?Why hadn’t she got out of bed too and kissed him goodbye before he left?
It wasn’t until later that afternoon when the rain ceased for the first time all day that Spencer finally blinked, then opened his eyes.Thank God.‘What ...the ...fuck ...?’he croaked, bewildered.
Trapped in the back-and-neck brace, his head was fixed so that he was staring up at the ceiling, and Gemma leapt to her feet, leaning over him.‘You’re in hospital,sweetheart,’ she said, her voice cracking on the words.‘You had a fall at work.’
His eyelids fluttered again, those sooty lashes sweeping his pale skin.‘Did I?’
‘Hello, mate.’Harry stood up, too.‘We were doing the Melvilles’ development, remember?The scaffolding gave way and you fell.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ he groaned.‘My head’s killing me.’
‘I’ll get the doctor,’ Harry said, vanishing.
Spencer was still staring at Gemma as if he had never seen her before in his life.She felt a lurch of panic.‘It’s me, Gemma.Can you remember who I am?’
He shut his eyes.‘Gemma,’ he repeated, slurring the syllables.‘Gemma?’
‘Yes, that’s me, Gemma.Your wife,’ she said desperately, but he was already gone, slipping back into oblivion.‘I’m your wife, Spencer, do you remember?’
Maybe Caitlin had been kidding herself, but after the road trip with Harry she’d half-expected him to get in touch.Had it been a figment of her imagination thathe’d flirted with her?All those questions he’d asked, the growing feeling of intimacy as they swapped confessions in the One-Direction-stickered cab of his van, the way he’d even(jokingly) offered to kill Flynn, as if he was allying himself with Team Caitlin ...When they said goodbye and she thanked him for all his help, there was a momentary hesitation when she wasconvinced, for a split-second, that he was about to ask her out for a drink, or even sweep her up in his arms.Instead he just leaned in, gave her a peck on the cheek and said he’d see heraround.She’d drifted back inside, her fingers rising to touch her skin where it had been grazed by his lips, wishing she’d had the nerve to grab hold of him and put her mouth to hisfor a proper kiss.
Perhaps she’d been plain wrong about any chemistry, deluding herself that she had felt the vibes.For all she knew, Harry was like that with everyone; one of those charming, easy-goingtypes who slipped through the world with ease, a Pied Piper of women, attracting jostling, flattered hordes in his wake.All those proposals and almost-marriages, remember – a woman in everyport, by the sound of it.
She’d probably had a lucky escape, all things considered.He might even already be back with the woman who’d trampled his Stetson all the way to hat-heaven.Anyway, she remindedherself, lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, it wasn’t as if she was in remotely the right place to start a new relationship.Hello?Rebound klaxon!
Whatever.It was all academic, seeing as she hadn’t heard a thing from him since that day, let alone glimpsed him around the village.The only evidence that they’d been to Cambridgeat all was the pile of boxes she’d dumped upstairs, yet to be unpacked, and the bill Flynn had sent her to cover the cost of cleaning his precious canvas, along with a furious note, rantingabout her immature act of vandalism:
You stupid bitch, you are MENTAL.Seriously, you have major problems.Do you think anyone else is going to want you?You’re not even attractive.You’re a fucking JOKE.
She wished she hadn’t read it now, but the words were burned into her subconscious.If he thought for a minute he was getting any money off her, though, he was lost in Dreamland.Let’s hope he stayed there.
She put her head under the duvet and sniffed, wrinkling her nose.Getting a bit whiffy, Cait.Personal hygiene had fallen by the wayside since she’d been back in Larkmead.There was adefinite monobrow taking shape between her eyebrows, not to mention the shadowy line above her top lip.A crop of small red spots had appeared around her mouth, she had a coldsore blistering on herlower lip and there was a greasy sheen on her forehead.Her hair had completely grown out of its bob and was bushy and kicking out around the ends, while her fringe was wonky where she’dtried to cut it with some nail scissors two weeks ago.As for her legs, they positively bristled with new growth.Spring has come to the forest!Well, to her hairy calves anyway.
Her hand wandered down to her belly and squidged it.Caitlin had always been tall enough that she could eat whatever she liked and didn’t have to worry about putting on weight, but thatwas before she spent days lying on the sofa watching endless daytime TV and stopped leaving the house.There was a definite creeping roundness to her tummy and hips, and a new tightness to herjeans.Much more of this lifestyle and she’d become a hairy, wobbling beast, half-ape, half-blob.Attractive – said nobody, ever.If she didn’t pull herself together, make aneffort and re-enter the human race soon, she’d end up being carted off to a freak show.
Her eyes drifted around the room, as if seeing the place for the first time.It wasn’t only her that needed a spruce up and polish; the cottage did, too.There was dust on the mirror; anopen suitcase containing a jumble of clothes; cold, mouldy cups of tea and coffee along the chest of drawers and a row of tights drying on the radiator, toes dangling, like the ghosts of a cancangirl troupe.
Downstairs was even worse.She knew without stirring that there was an embarrassing number of congealing, sticky Chinese takeaway boxes silting up on the draining board (‘Ah, Miss Caitlin,how are you today?’the woman at Golden Dragon had taken to saying.‘Chicken chow mein and prawn sesame toast, yes?’) Something in the bin smelled as if it was in its death-throesand there was a pool of strange green liquid collecting at the bottom of the fridge.If Jane was still alive, she’d have a fit at the state Caitlin had let the place get into.
She’d never even meant to stay in Larkmead this long.Once it was clear that she and Flynn were no more, she’d planned to tidy up White Gables and sell it, then move somewherecompletely new and start over.The weeks were passing by, though, and she’d achieved very little so far.
Sorry, Mum.I’ll get it sorted.I really will.Any day now.
First, though, she’d just shut her eyes and go back to sleep.Well, why not?She was unemployed, she was single, and it was at least an hour beforeThis Morningwith Phil and Hollywas due to begin.She rolled over, pulling the musty-smelling duvet over her head, and wriggled into a more comfortable position.You couldn’t rush these things, after all.
Later on she padded downstairs, made a coffee, turned on the TV and arranged herself on the sofa, tucking her dressing gown around her bare feet to keep them warm.Her phonechose that moment to ping with a new email and she reached out a hand for it automatically.Probably just spam, or another grumpy message from Flynn, but she might as well have a look, while theads were on.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: Web design
I don’t know if you remember, but we met at the New Year’s Eve party in Suffolk – I was the one from the holiday cottage next door whogatecrashed!
I’m just emailing because you mentioned you were looking for web-design work, and one of my clients has asked me to source a designer who can overhaul her website.Might you be interested?The client in question is a young singer who’s launching her debut album in the spring.
Give me a ring if you’d like further information.The fee we can offer is ...
There followed a figure so exorbitant that Caitlin had to shut her eyes for a moment, then look again, in case she’d imagined it.No, she hadn’t.
Wowzers.Was this seriously the going rate in the music industry?No wonder they all looked so pleased with themselves, if they could waft the dosh around with such ease.She read the emailagain, feeling a prickle of interest.It had been ages since she’d done anything creative or constructive and, with this kind of budget, she could pull together something reallyspectacular.
If she could be bothered, that was.If she could actually get off her ever-increasing bum, turn the telly off and knuckle down to some proper work.
She sat up a little straighter and muted the celebrity chef who was about to make a superfood-smoothie, for all of the January dieters.Then she grabbed her phone and dialled before she couldchange her mind.What the hell.Chances like this didn’t come along every day.
‘Saffron?Hi, it’s Caitlin Fraser here, from Larkmead ....Hi!Yes, thanks so much, I’d love to hear more about the job ...’Chapter Nine
‘She did what?She gave you Bunty?Oh, man.She really does hate you.’
Saffron nodded, feeling weary and long-suffering.‘Yep.That was my reaction, too.’
It was a Thursday evening and she was in a Dean Street bar along with hordes of sharply dressed media types and Kate, her former colleague.Saffron had suggested a drink to see how Kate wasfaring following her redundancy, but also, if she was honest, because she was desperate for a good old bitch about her latest client.
Bunty Halsom was a very loud forty-something journalist and minor celebrity, who dashed off endless tabloid articles, usually about what a disgrace young people were these days and why awoman’s place was in the home, even though she preferred to hang out in the Groucho and wouldn’t have a clue how to work a Hoover, let alone cook a meal from scratch.She’dappeared on a few reality-TV programmes in the past year where she’d both shocked and transfixed the nation, first by appearing to have a mental breakdown onCelebrity Big Brother,then by launching herself at a fringe politician on the ill-fatedAll-Stars Nightclubfly-on-the-wall documentary.Her subtle chat-up line – ‘Bunty likes a big one’ –had gone viral, appearing in hashtags and gossip columns, and emblazoned on market-stall T-shirts across the land.
Brazen, domineering and incredibly needy, Bunty had been Kate’s worst nightmare of a client.But now, as of this morning, she was Saffron’s.
‘Oh God.Well, you have my sympathy.My complete and utter sympathy.Leaving Phoenix was awful but, even as Charlotte was ditching me, I thought “No more Bunty” and suddenlyfelt a whole lot better.A solid silver lining, if ever there was one.’
Saffron managed a small smile.She didn’t need reminding how dreadful Bunty was.She’d worked with Kate long enough to recognize the rictus smile on her friend’s face wheneverBunty called; the tired droop of her shoulders, the barely contained impatience in her voice when Bunty was being particularly difficult.‘Any advice you can offer?Coping strategies?Thenumber of a good therapist?’
‘Don’t let yourself be railroaded,’ Kate said.‘Stand up to her, otherwise she won’t give you any respect.And lay down strict parameters – no phone callsafter seven in the evening, or at weekends.Refuse point-blank if she starts trying to get you to pick up dry-cleaning and organize dinner parties for her.Be prepared to say no, and stick to yourguns.’She swigged back a mouthful of beer.‘It’s like dealing with a toddler, really.Or a naughty dog.You’ve got to show her who’s boss – while maintainingthe illusion that you think she’s absolutely wonderful, of course.’
Saffron had no experience with dogs or toddlers.She’d grown up in a cat-loving family, and had no nieces or nephews on whom to practise being strict.Her heart sank.Charlotte, her boss,had spun this as a new opportunity for Saffron, a chance to push on up to a higher level of PR, but working for Bunty was sounding more like a punishment by the second.
Noticing her silence, Kate rummaged in her bag for a square red purse.‘You need a drink,’ she announced, getting to her feet.‘A strong one.What can I get you?Let’sstart the Bunty-proofing with alcohol.It helps, trust me.’
Oh, a drink.That would be lovely.A bottle of beer like Kate’s, misted with cold.A massive bugger-it cocktail with a paper umbrella and jaunty dangling cherries.A knockout vodka martinijust to take the edge off her day.‘Um ...a lime and soda, please,’ she said, pushing the temptations forcefully from her mind.
Kate’s eyes widened.Saffron was never usually one to refuse booze.‘On the wagon, eh?’she asked.‘Dry January?’
‘Yeah,’ Saffron said, then hesitated.‘Actually, no.I’m pregnant.’
The words were out before she could stop them and hung in the air.Kate sat back down.‘God,’ she said.‘Wow.Wasn’t expecting that.’
‘Nor me,’ said Saffron.
‘Right.’They exchanged a look.‘So ...how are you feeling?Are you okay?’
How was she feeling?Well, not exactly radiant, put it that way.Saffron was not enjoying being pregnant very much at all, in fact.The tiredness was like being beaten down by a sledgehammer.She woke up every morning and had to leap out of bed immediately in order to hang her head over the toilet and puke.As for her rampaging hormones, they seemed to have cranked up her emotions to‘lunatic’ level.She’d wept the other day at the sight of an elderly Asian couple holding hands at the bus stop.
‘Knackered,’ she said, ‘and confused.And I keep bursting into tears over the slightest thing.I cried at an Andrex advert yesterday.It’s like there’s no Offswitch any more.’
Kate put a hand on her arm.‘Let me get you that lime and soda,’ she said.‘I’ll be right back.I take it you haven’t told Charlotte yet, by the way?’
Saffron shook her head.
‘Good,’ said Kate.‘Keep it that way.’
Saffron leaned back against her uncomfortable, trendy plastic chair while Kate weaved through the crowd of designer-clad twenty-somethings en route to the bar.It was weird, releasing her bigsecret after weeks of secrecy.‘I’m pregnant,’ she said again under her breath.She’d half-expected the sky to fall in, but the world was still turning.
‘Here you are,’ Kate said, putting the drinks on the table and sitting down again.‘So, what are you going to do?I can’t tell from your face whether you’re happyor sad, or plain old freaked out.’
‘I’m still at the freaked-out stage,’ Saffron confessed.‘I mean, me and Max, we were barely even a couple.I’d only been out with him a few times before thishappened.’
‘But you liked him, didn’t you?I remember all those flirty phone calls.What does he say about this?’
Kate’s forehead puckered.‘You haven’t told him?’
Saffron lowered her eyes and sipped her drink.God, lime and soda really was the most boring, joyless drink in the world.‘I’m not sure how to,’ she admitted eventually.‘Maybe it’s kinder not to tell him anything at all.I mean, he’s got two kids already, and I hardly know him.I don’t want him to feel tied to me in any way, or responsible,if he’s not interested.’
‘Yeah, but he is responsible, technically,’ Kate pointed out.‘I guess it depends on whether or not you’re planning to keep the baby.Tell me to mind my own business,obviously, but ...well.Are you?’
The biggest question of all.Answering it, when she knew that Kate had three beloved children of her own, felt like tiptoeing through a minefield.For all she knew, Kate might stronglydisapprove of abortions or giving babies away to be adopted.Saffron had always vaguely disapproved herself, until she’d found herself in this predicament and realized just how many shades ofgrey there could be.‘I didn’t have myself down for a mum,’ she replied slowly.‘I’ve never even held a baby before, let alone looked after one myself.’Sheswallowed.‘Sometimes I think it would be easier just to ...’ she waved a hand across her belly, avoiding Kate’s eye, ‘ ...to make it go away.’Kate noddedsympathetically and Saffron rushed on.‘I just can’t imagine myself with a baby, that’s all.Pushing a pram.Singing nursery rhymes.Changing nappies.’She bit her lip.‘But then again, I’m thirty-eight now.Ovaries shrivelling by the minute.This could be my last chance.’
The mood had turned sombre and Saffron was starting to wish she had left this particular can of worms unopened.
‘Anyway,’ she said quickly.‘How are you?What have you been up to, work-wise?’
As Kate talked about making a go of a new freelance career from her dining-room table, Saffron found herself only half-listening.Meanwhile her head teemed with anxious thoughts about money andbabies and Max.Nine weeks into the pregnancy now, according to the website calculator she’d looked at that morning.The baby was the size of a grape.
Time was running out.The grape’s life hung in the balance.She had to make a decision soon.And I will,she thought fiercely, as Kate went on about social media and agency work.I have to.Just ...not today.
It was raining hard as Saffron left the bar and walked towards Oxford Circus to get the Tube home, shoulders hunched under her thin coat.Puddles swelled on broken pavingslabs, rainwater gushed and swirled along the gutters, and the bus wheels sent up fountains of dirty spray.
Ugh.January, you suck.
Once at the station, she hurried down the steps towards the warmth of the Underground, longing to be home.But the concrete steps were wet and slippery and all of a sudden she lost her footingand fell in a terrifying rush, landing heavily at the bottom of the stairwell.Ow.Ow.
People hurried past, shoes tapping urgently.Some actually stepped right over her, as if she wasn’t there.She tried to manoeuvre herself gingerly upright, but felt a sharp pain in herabdomen, followed by a pulling sensation low down.The baby.The grape.
‘Are you okay, dear?’An elderly lady bent over her, reaching out a hand.‘Can I help you up?’
Tears pricked Saffron’s eyes.The indignity, the pain, the shock ...and now the kindness of a stranger.It was all too much.‘Thank you,’ she said, grabbing the handrailwith one hand and taking the old lady’s blue-gloved hand in her other.She heaved herself up, bruised from the hard floor.‘Thank you very much.’
‘Are you all right?Anything hurt?’The lady was still holding onto her and put her other hand on Saffron’s back to steady her.‘There’s a nice young man overthere, one of the staff.Shall I get him to help you to the train?’
That low, digging sensation was still there at the very base of her abdomen, and Saffron put a hand to it instinctively.Oh, little grape, are you all right?Her vision started to flicker in andout, as if she was going to faint.‘I think I’m going to ...’ she murmured, lolling forwards like a puppet on loose strings.‘I feel a bit dizzy.’
‘Okay, duckie, let’s sit you down again then.Hold on to me.Excuse me!Young man!This girl needs some assistance, please!’
Saffron was dimly aware of footsteps approaching, then strong hands clasping her sides and helping to lower her back to the ground.Everything blurred before her eyes as if she was teetering onthe edge of consciousness, and she struggled to pull herself back into the situation.A man with a ‘Transport for London’ ID round his neck and concerned brown eyes crouched in front ofher.‘Are you okay?Do you want me to get you some water?’
‘I’m pregnant,’ she whimpered, aware of a sickening wetness between her legs.Blood, she was sure.She must be losing the baby.Tears rolled down her cheeks as she blurted outher secret for the second time that evening.‘I’m pregnant!’
Saffron had never felt so scared in her entire life as when she was waiting in the A&E department of the hospital all alone.Her spine was tender from where she’djarred it, landing with such a thump on the concrete; her head ached, where she must have bashed it against the wall; and worst of all, a quick visit to the loo had proved that yes, she wasbleeding.The vivid splash of scarlet in her knickers felt like an accusation from her own body, as if the grape was making a stand.Well, if you can’t even be bothered to decide whetheror not you want me, you can whistle, if you think I’m going to stick around.
A friendly-faced nurse with a blonde ponytail scanned the waiting area.Her eyes fell on Saffron, hauling herself up from the plastic seat with exaggerated care, and she rushed over to help.‘Easy there.Can you walk?’
‘I can walk, I’m just ...’ She couldn’t quite bring herself to say the words out loud initially.‘I’m worried I’m losing my baby,’ she said, asob in her throat.
‘Let’s get you in here,’ the nurse said, guiding her into a cubicle and pulling the curtain shut.‘Lie down on the bed, that’s it, and make yourself comfortable.Isanyone with you?Can I call someone for you?’
Saffron shook her head, wishing her sister Zoe wasn’t ten thousand miles away in Perth, wishing that Max was there to hold her hand.‘I’m on my own.’It had never feltmore true.
Once she’d described what had happened, the nurse asked her to pull down her trousers a little way, then produced what looked like a small microphone connected to a speaker.‘I’m just going to listen for a heartbeat,’ she said, ‘but don’t be alarmed if we don’t hear anything, as you’re still early along in the pregnancy.Sometimes the heartbeat can’t be detected until later on, but let’s just see.’
She pressed the end of the microphone thing quite hard against Saffron’s belly, just above the line of her knickers.The speaker made a crackling sound, and then a faint swishing wasaudible, an underwater sort of noise.No heartbeat, though.Oh God.Saffron shut her eyes, not wanting to see pity or sorrow in the nurse’s eyes.She didn’t think she could bear it.
The nurse moved the microphone to a different position.Again came the crackling and then the watery ssshh-shhh sound.Still no heartbeat.But then ...
Saffron breathed in sharply as she heard it.A faint but distinct rhythmic beating, fast as a galloping horse.Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.
She opened her eyes.‘Is that the baby?’she asked, filling with a sudden, unexpected euphoria.Little grape!You’re still there!
‘Sounds like a baby to me,’ the nurse said, smiling back at her.‘We’ll give you an ultrasound too, just to make sure everything looks okay, and maybe get you to stay infor tonight, to keep an eye on the bleeding, and that bumped head.’
Saffron wanted to hug her with relief.The baby’s heart was beating.The grape was alive!It was only then that she realized just how frightened she’d been, how desperatelyshe’d wanted to hear that heartbeat.‘Thank you,’ she managed to say, leaning back against the pillows.The galloping sound was still ringing in her ears as the nurse bustledaway.‘Thank you,’ she said again, this time in a whisper meant only for the grape.
The ultrasound was amazing.It took her breath away.Seeing that tiny kidney-bean-shaped body in grainy black-and-white there on a screen and watching its small, jerky movements felt like magic,some kind of miracle.That little bean was her son or daughter.Her actual baby!She and Max had created this brand-new tiny person, and there it was, growing and changing, alive.Until that momentshe’d never completely believed in the notion of this creature actually existing – having a smile, a personality, freckles maybe, or long legs and a cute bottom like Max.Now look atit: a bobbing seahorse, a real tiny baby.Her baby.Hello you, she thought.Hello little baby.
Her doubts fell away in a single second.Of course she could look after this baby.Shewantedto look after the baby.Why had she even questioned herself?
The words of her New Year fortune-cookie came back to her suddenly:Have courage!Mistakes can become adventures, and she felt tears in her eyes suddenly.Maybe there was some truth inthat after all.
‘Would you like me to print you off a picture?’the nurse asked.
‘Yes, please,’ Saffron said.A picture of her baby.Yes, she would like that very much.
Then her euphoria dimmed slightly as she realized something.Something really important.If she was going to keep the baby – and she was – then she really had to tell Max now.Sheabsolutely had to.Didn’t she?Chapter Ten
It took two whole terrifying days before Spencer’s concussion subsided and he began sounding more like himself.How Gemma sobbed with thankfulness when she heard him listevery player in the top half of the Premier League to the doctor, correctly answer what year it was and name the Prime Minister (then add what a doofus Spencer thought he was.Yep.Her husband wasback).This adroit performance, along with the brain scans, reassured the doctors that his head injuries were superficial and that there wouldn’t be any long-lasting problems.So that was thefirst enormous milestone passed, and one they were all heartily glad to see the back of.Then came another week on tenterhooks as he underwent operations (‘Bolting him back together,’the consultant had said cheerfully) and all sorts of tests.The good news was that the doctors thought there’d be no permanent physical damage, either.‘He’s been verylucky,’ the consultant told her.
Lucky?thought Gemma.Well, that was one way to describe it.
Spencer needed to be in hospital for two weeks overall, lying flat on his back and drugged up with morphine and co-codamol the whole time.She, meanwhile, functioned on automatic pilot, makingsure the children went to school every day with clean clothes and full stomachs, but spending the rest of the time at her husband’s bedside, holding his hand and doing her best to cheer himup.Her car became a kind of decompression chamber where she’d sit and sob after visits, the only place she could really let go, apart from late at night when Will and Darcey were asleep.
Anyway.He was home now, and even if life wasn’t remotely normal again, she had to stay positive.It could have been worse.Much worse.As it was, he would have to wear an ankle-cast foreight weeks and a back-brace for four months while his fractured vertebrae healed.After all that, he’d still need lots of physio before he could even think about running or playing football.No driving for six weeks.Mild stretches and gentle walks were to be encouraged, but nothing more strenuous.‘What about sex?’Spencer asked anxiously.(Of course he did.The subjectwas uppermost in his mind about 99 per cent of his waking hours, by Gemma’s reckoning.)
‘It’s probably best to give it a few weeks,’ the doctor had replied.‘You’re due to come back and see us in a fortnight, so we can discuss that then.’
‘Afortnight?’Spencer had never looked so gutted in the whole time Gemma had known him.In fact he had never been so miserable, full stop.
Once back at home, Gemma had fondly imagined tender nursing scenes where she mopped her husband’s brow and fed him chicken soup, and he in turn gazed lovingly back at her, overcome withgratitude.But the reality was that he spent whole days slumped on the sofa, watching mindless television or locked in battle on the Xbox, glassy-eyed and unresponsive, resisting all Gemma’sefforts at conversation, unless to complain that the sturdy neoprene back-brace was uncomfortable and bringing him out in a rash.He also complained that he was too thirsty, too hot, too bored, toomuch in pain – everything, in short.Mindful of the doctors’ advice that gentle exercise would help speed the recovery of his back, Gemma tentatively suggested going for walks when therain cleared, a stroll to The Partridge for lunch, even a spot of gardening.He turned his nose up at everything, though, barking that he wasn’t feeble-minded, he wasn’t a bloodypensioner yet, he didn’t want to go for a fuckingwalk.
He was bad-tempered with the children as well, told them they were too noisy and snapped at them for the slightest thing.A few evenings after he came home Gemma and Darcey were sitting at thekitchen table together, making appliqué birds to sew onto one of Darcey’s T-shirts, when they heard Spencer bollocking Will about something or other.‘Why doesn’t Daddylikeus any more?’Darcey whispered, anxiety shining in her large brown eyes.
The question pierced right through Gemma’s heart.‘He does like you – helovesyou, sweetheart – he’s just fed up, that’s all.He’ll be bettersoon,’ she soothed helplessly.
Thirteen-year-old Will was more succinct.‘Dad’s being a total prick,’ he growled later that evening when she went up to say goodnight.There was a wild fury about him thatGemma hadn’t seen since he was a tantrum-throwing toddler, but she could detect hurt, too.
‘Don’t say that about your dad,’ she replied with automatic loyalty.Upsetting his daughter and calling his son a loser might not be the sort of behaviour that would winSpencer any Dad-of-the-Year awards, but she knew he was like a wounded animal, lashing out at those he loved.‘Give him a bit of time,’ she said.‘He’ll be back to normalsoon.’
That night in bed she hooked a leg over Spencer’s and rolled closer to him, hoping that some wifely love might go a little way to soothe his tortured mood.Yet for the first time ever inthe history of their relationship he shuffled away, muttering that he had a terrible headache.She lay there stunned, unable to believe her ears.Usually she only had to raise an eyebrow at herhusband for him to leap on her with lusty enthusiasm.Through illness, hangovers, broken nights’ sleep when the children were tiny, he’d never once turned her down.
‘Itwillget better, Spence,’ she whispered into the darkness, feeling desperately sorry for him.‘I promise it will.’
But no answer came.And the words seemed to echo around her head, as if mocking her naivety.
Gemma felt conflicted about leaving Spencer the following Monday to go and have lunch with her dad, as was their custom, but her mother-in-law came over instead and she knewhe’d be waited on hand and foot in her absence.Besides, she was dying for a big old squeeze from her dad.The two of them had always been close, but even more so after Karen, Gemma’smum, flaked out and left the family for Carlos, the Ibizan waiter she’d fallen for on holiday, back when Gemma was eight.
Left to bring up his daughter and three sons single-handedly, Barry Pepper had valiantly done everything in his capacity to fill the space of two parents.He’d mastered the vagaries of thewashing machine and the never-ending filthy sports kits; he’d shepherded them all to school on time, in just about the right uniform; he’d learned to cook from scratch; bought a bouncyLabrador, Sultan (‘Sultan Pepper, it’s a joke – do you get it?’); and even mastered an epic roast dinner by the time the first Christmas came round.Of course Gemma missedher mum – who drifted back to the UK periodically with an enviable tan and new tattoos – especially when it came to embarrassing things like needing a bra and her first period, butBarry coped admirably, roping in his sister Jan whenever womanly advice was required.As for boyfriends, when Gemma started dating and bringing boys back home, having three big brothers and anover-protective father in the police force didn’t half sort the wheat from the chaff.
Her dad still lived in Stowmarket, where he’d been a policeman for years until a knee injury forced him into early retirement.Now he was his own boss, working as a double-glazing fitter,and he and Gemma had got into the very nice habit of having lunch every Monday.They would go to the pub together – always the same table in The White Horse – and eat pie and chips, herwith a Coke, him with half a bitter, and catch up on the world.Gemma would do anything for her dad, and vice versa.
It wasn’t until she rang the doorbell of 93 Partington Road, the house she’d grown up in, that she was struck by the feeling that something looked different.After closerconsideration, she realized that the living-room windows had been cleaned – a rare enough occurrence for this to be instantly noticeable – and the small front garden had been smartenedup, too, so that the dustbin was now tidily in one corner rather than blocking the path.There was also an ornamental blue pot of winter pansies beside the door.
Gemma stared at those winter pansies suspiciously.Her dad’s taste in plants was for wild and rangy specimens – big bristling shrubs, sweet peas romping up a bamboo wigwam, blowsyscented red roses with velvety petals.He was not a man who would ever have voluntarily bought a pot of prissy winter pansies, let alone display it proudly outside his own home.So where had itcome from?
‘Gems!Hello, my love, come in,’ he said, answering the door just then.Barry Pepper was tubby and balding these days, more Danny DeVito than Ryan Gosling, but had the kindest faceof anyone she knew, and gave the best hugs ever.As he put his arms around her now, she felt the comforting flannel of his shirt against her and breathed in his usual soapy scent, feeling a milliontimes better already.God, she needed this.
Then she froze.A woman with streaky blonde hair and a sage-green fleece had appeared behind Barry and was giving Gemma a toothy smile.In an instant Gemma knew how the pansies by the door hadmaterialized.
‘Hello,’ said the woman eagerly.‘I’ve been dying to meet you.I’ve heardallabout you!’
‘Hi,’ said Gemma, extricating herself from her dad’s embrace.Her first feeling was of dismay.Not today, she thought, trying not to sigh.I just wanted him to myselftoday.
‘Ah.’Barry looked slightly shifty.‘My two favourite girls.Gemma, this is Judy.Judy, my daughter Gemma.’
Gemma tried to catch her dad’s eye.And Judy is ...?But he seemed in a hurry to find his jacket all of a sudden, and turned away to unhook it from the peg.That was when Gemmanoticed the new coat rack up on the wall, and that someone had changed the pictures around.Instead of the faded old map of Stowmarket that had hung above the hall radiator for as long as she couldremember, there was now a bland print of brightly coloured anemones in a clip-frame.As for the small black-and-white wedding photo of her parents that had stood on the small wooden table forever,that had vanished too, replaced by a brass bowl holding an arrangement of pine cones.What the hell ...?
Judy was advancing, hand outstretched, teeth exposed in another smile.‘Lovely to meet you after all this time.’
‘You too,’ Gemma replied reluctantly, shaking Judy’s hand in a very British sort of way.Bang went her heart-to-heart with her dad then, she thought.She’d been lookingforward to the chance to unburden some of her thoughts to him, have a moan, have a cry, even.Knowing Dad, he’d have her laughing by the time they’d scraped their plates clean;he’d be taking the mickey out of her parallel parking, or doing impressions of her brother Luke’s new girlfriend.She hadn’t counted on having to share him with fleece-wearingJudy.
She tried to get a grip.Her dad was a grown man, he didn’t need to live his life around Gemma or ask her permission for a new girlfriend.After a deep breath, she plastered on her bestbright smile.‘Are we ready then, Dad?Judy, are you joining us for lunch?’
Judy’s face lit up.‘I’d love to,’ she said, pulling on a big red Puffa jacket and stuffing her feet into Uggs.‘What a treat!’
It wasn’t as if Barry had been single the entire time since Gemma’s mum had abandoned them for her new life in the sun.When Gemma and her brothers left home, theyhad made a concerted effort to force their dad out on the dating scene, signing him up to a dating agency and scouring lonely-hearts columns on his behalf.There had been relationships withMarjorie (two months – dreary old drip), Aisling (bawdy and fun, but not settling-down material – three months) and one very nice lady called Venetia whom they all adored, right untilshe vanished with a load of Barry’s valuables, never to be seen again.
And now there was Judy.
‘So,’ Gemma said conversationally, as she and her dad waited to order at the bar.Judy was already sitting down, flicking through a newspaper someone had left behind.‘Wheredid you two meet then?’
He beamed.‘I did her windows for her, first few weeks of January.We got chatting and ...that was that.’He fiddled with a Carlsberg beer mat, spinning it between finger andthumb.‘The thing was, I was sitting at home on New Year’s Eve, on me tod, and ...’
Guilt stabbed Gemma.‘I did say you were welcome at ours, Dad!’
‘I know you did, love.And I was very grateful.Didn’t want to get in your way, though, did I?Didn’t want to cramp anybody’s style.’Spin, spin went the beer mat.‘But anyway, I made a resolution this year that I needed to start again, to find a new wife.’
‘A newwife?’ Gemma spluttered on the unexpected word.
‘Well, not immediately, obviously.But I do miss having someone to come home to, you know.I don’t want to be on my own any more.Judy’s a nice woman – we’ve had afew evenings out together.I like her.’
‘Hello, Barry.Hello there, Gemma.What can I get you both today?’asked Kev, the pub landlord just then.He raised a bushy eyebrow.‘And is that your lady friend I see overthere in the corner again?’he asked, followed by a wink at Gemma.
‘It certainly is,’ Barry replied, an air of pride about him as he began reeling off their order.
Gemma tried to wrest back control of her feelings.Of course she was pleased for her dad that he’d met someone and seemed happy.And of course she didn’t want him to be lonely, tosee out the rest of his New Year’s Eves alone.All the same ...a wife, he’d said.Awife.It seemed such a monumental word to use.Her dad had this habit of falling forunsuitable women – her mum being a prime example.The last thing she wanted was for him to be hurt all over again.She sighed, wondering if her brothers knew about Judy yet.Had they alreadymet her?Mind you, they were boys; they wouldn’t feel the same way she did.Sam, Luke and David would just be glad that they were off the hook when it came to making sure Dad was okay all thetime.
‘Thanks, Kev,’ her dad said at that moment, and Gemma realized there were three drinks now waiting on the bar.
‘Lovely,’ she said, grabbing some cutlery and her Coke.‘Thanks, Dad.’
‘You’re welcome, sweetheart.I’ve been looking forward to you and Judy meeting each other.I know you’re going to get on like a house on fire.’Chapter Eleven
Two months after her mum’s death Caitlin had finally made the first few baby-steps towards dealing with her loss.She had stopped wallowing in bed for hours on end.Shehad accepted some work from Saffron, the friendly woman she’d met at New Year, and was actually loving the experience.She had booked a haircut, shaved her legs, done an enormous amount ofwashing, including all her bedding, and thrown every last takeaway menu into the paper-recycling box.She hoped the lady from Golden Dragon wasn’t missing her phone calls too much.
Even more remarkably, she had actually begun sorting through Jane’s belongings, one room at a time, in order to clear the cottage and get it on the local estate agent’s books.Howpoignant the little details of a life seemed, when that person had gone.All those unopened bags of sugar Jane would never decant into the small crackle-glazed pot, to be used, two spoonfuls at atime, in her milky coffees.All those packets of twenty-denier natural-tan tights unworn in a drawer.The bags of dusty bulbs for the garden, the neatly labelled envelopes of seeds she’dnever planted.Candles never lit.Letters never replied to.All those empty spaces at the end of last year’s calendar that she hadn’t lived quite long enough to fill.
Jane had been a kind mum, a solid pillar of a person that you could lean against, confident she would bear your weight.When Caitlin was much younger and had argued with Nichola, her best friendin primary school, her mum had emptied out the dressing-up box and ransacked her own wardrobe, suggesting they both put on beautiful outfits and have a princesses’ picnic in the garden.Adorned in one of Jane’s pink silk nighties, which hung around her ankles, beads, a flowery hat and some enormous red high heels, Caitlin had never felt more loved as her mum poured themRibena from her best china teapot and they ate cucumber sandwiches on the old tartan travelling rug, ‘just like real princesses’.
Another time, when Caitlin had split up with computer programmer Jeremy, she’d come back to Larkmead for the weekend, drooping with heartbreak, and Jane had known exactly what to do: drivethem both out to Aldeburgh to sit on the beach with fish and chips.‘There’s nothing like the sea to blow away your troubles,’ she said, putting an arm around Caitlin, as they sattogether on the shingle.‘Puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?’
And every year, on June 1st, Jane had always baked a Victoria sponge with real strawberries, and she and Steve had drunk champagne and hugged each other, then Caitlin.‘Justbecause,’ she said with a smile, when Caitlin had first asked her why this was.‘Sometimes it’s good to celebrate your family, and think about how lucky you are.’
Her mum hadn’t been keen on Flynn, though, she thought now, as she filled boxes with stacks of well-thumbed Mills & Boons and all manner of gory crime novels.‘Well, he’svery good-looking, I’ll give him that,’ she’d said the first time they met, but Caitlin knew that ‘good-looking’ wasn’t up there with ‘kind’,‘funny’, ‘loyal’ or any of the other attributes Jane had valued in Steve.So there’s a silver lining to me dying, eh, chick?she imagined Jane saying now.You got to find out what a nasty piece of work that Flynn was, right?Look on the bright side!You could have been stuck with him for years yet, if I hadn’t gone and popped myclogs!
‘You daft cow,’ Caitlin said aloud to herself at the thought.She shoved the last few books into the box and got to her feet.Enough wading through the past for one day, she decided.She’d go out to the shop, stock up on bin bags, food and wine, and try again tomorrow.
Down in Larkmead’s Spar, Caitlin was just paying for her groceries when she heard the distinct sound of someone crying over the cheesy background muzak.Pocketing herchange, she hesitated for a moment, then ducked back into the dingy aisles of the shop to see who it was.There, in the Household Miscellaneous section, leaning against a shelf of washing-powderboxes, was Gemma Bailey with tears streaming down her face.
Caitlin’s mouth fell open in a silent O of shock at this very public show of emotion.Gemma was the last person she’d expected to see weeping over a Persil display.She had thatperfect golden life – a big house, gorgeous husband and children.What did she have to cry about?
Caitlin cleared her throat, feeling self-conscious.‘Is everything ...Are you okay?’
Stupid question.Oh yeah, I’m great, that’s why I’m sobbing over laundry powder.Have a medal, Captain Observant.
Gemma’s shoulders heaved and she wiped her eyes with her knuckles.‘No,’ she said baldly.‘Not really.’
‘Can I help?Do you want a cup of tea?Mum’s place is just round the corner, if you want a chat?’A cup of tea, for heaven’s sake.She was so bloody British.But whatelse could you offer a weeping woman in the Larkmead mini-mart?Gin?Valium?
Gemma took a long, shuddering breath.‘Would you mind?I can’t face going home right now.’
Caitlin tried to hide her disquiet.Couldn’t face going home?What on earth ...?‘Sure thing,’ she said.‘Of course I don’t mind.’
They left the shop and began walking up the hill.It was the first week of February now and the snowdrops and crocuses were shyly unfolding their petals, welcome splashes of light against thewet ground and grey skies.
‘I suppose you’ve heard all the gossip,’ Gemma said dully.
‘No,’ Caitlin said, feeling stupid and apologetic for not being more in tune with the village news.They’re splitting up,she thought with a wrench of sympathy.Oh no.They had seemed so happy at New Year!The way Spencer had looked at Gemma, his eyes soft and glistening with love, it was something Caitlin could only dream of.‘What’s happened?’she added cautiously.
‘Oh.Well, Spencer’s been in an accident.He’s a bit mangled and battered, but home now at least.The doctors say he’ll be fine again eventually, but ...’ Shesighed, huffing out a cloud of breath.‘I’m struggling, that’s all.We’re all finding it hard to adjust.He’s so unhappy – nothing I do or say seems to make ablind bit of difference.’
They’d reached White Gables now and Caitlin opened the front door, hoping the cottage didn’t smell too musty.She’d been sorting through all her mum’s kitchen appliancesrecently and some of them – the elderly ice-cream maker, for instance, and the fondue set that looked as if it had come from the Ark – didn’t seem to have been touched foryears.
‘Speaking as someone who used to be a nurse,’ she said, ‘it’s often the case that the loved ones suffer almost as much as the patient, after a serious accident.’Aargh, the kitchen was messier than she’d thought; the table covered with ageing crockery, piles of cookery books and a heap of photos.‘Sorry about all of this, by the way.I’mhaving a bit of a clear-out.’
‘No worries,’ Gemma said, shrugging off her grey wool coat and sitting down at the table.‘I didn’t know you were a nurse.’
Caitlin filled the kettle.‘I’m not any more.I went into it, really, to please my parents, but I bailed out about five years ago and started designing websites instead.Bettermoney, no more having to remove strange implements jammed into orifices, and no one showering you in puke on a Saturday night.’
Gemma had picked up an old family photo and suddenly her face cleared.‘Wait – your mum wasJane?The midwife?’
‘Yes, that’s right.Why, did you ...?’
‘She delivered my babies!Both of them.Oh, Caitlin, she was such a lovely woman, I’m so sorry.’
For some reason, whenever anyone said anything nice about her mum, it seemed to sap Caitlin’s energy, as if she was forced to realize all over again just what she’d lost.‘Thanks,’ she said, sagging against the worktop as she made them each a coffee.
‘And she saved Darcey’s life, you know.My little girl.She really did.I rang her when Darcey was three days old and didn’t want to feed, and she leapt into action.Phoned thehospital to say we were on our way, and drove me there herself.’
‘Really?’Caitlin loved imagining her mum swooping to the rescue like that.A capable, practical woman, with her sleeves permanently rolled up, Jane had often returned from anight-shift in tired triumph.‘A lovely wee boy this morning, eight and a half pounds, beautiful home birth,’ she might say, helping herself to a slice of toast from the rack, asCaitlin and Steve ate their breakfast.Or ‘A bonny baby girl for the Finches, such a head of hair on her.’Her eyes would shine with the announcement of each infant, safely brought intothe world.It was amazing that she hadn’t had twenty babies of her own, she loved them so.
‘Really,’ Gemma said.‘We spent four days in hospital, with Darcey on a drip and me fearing the worst, but she was fine eventually, thanks to Jane’s quick response.Shewas an absolute angel when I needed help.’
An absolute angel.Everyone had loved Jane.All those mothers she’d helped, the babies she’d saved, the way she’d taken lonely old Gwen next door out to bingo and Zumbaevery week.It was a shame she hadn’t passed on the angelic gene to her awkward, antisocial daughter.
‘What happened with Spencer, then?’she asked, changing the subject.‘Sounds like you’ve been through a bit of a trauma.’
‘Fell from a first-floor building – shoddy scaffolding gave way,’ Gemma said.You could tell she’d had to recount this a number of times; her voice had become brisk andemotion-free.‘Bust his ankle and a few vertebrae, massive bang on the head.Not great, basically.’Her mouth twisted unhappily.
From what Caitlin remembered of Spencer at school, he’d been boisterous and energetic, playing on the football team, bombing around on a BMX, the sort of person who’d leap off a wallfor a dare.He was the boy who, aged eight, climbed to the top of the highest tree in the school playground and got stuck.Mr Winch, the deputy head, had to scramble up there after him to bring himdown; it had been the most exciting thing ever to happen at Larkmead Primary.‘Poor him,’ said Caitlin.‘And poor you.’
‘Thanks,’ Gemma said with a wan smile.‘He’ll be all right, and so will I,’ she went on.‘He’s just not a very easy patient to live with right now, andI’m probably the worst nurse.But it won’t go on forever, right?’She tapped the photograph of Jane.‘As your mum said to me when I was screaming blue murder in the throesof childbirth, “You won’t remember the pain once it’s over.”And she was right.Hopefully that goes for injured husbands as well.’
Caitlin smiled back.‘Undoubtedly,’ she said.
‘By the way,’ said Gemma, perking up a little.‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but is something going on with you and Harry Sykes?’
Caitlin’s heart leapt, like an over-enthusiastic Labrador.Stupid heart: stay where you are.‘No,’ she said.‘There’s nothing going on with me and Harry Sykes.Why?’
‘He just mentioned you the other week.Said something about going to Cambridge?We were on our way to the hospital when he told me, but I wasn’t really paying attention.’
Did that mean ‘just mentioned’ or ‘justmentioned’?Was his tongue in or out when he said her name?Now she was thinking about Labradors again.Get a grip, youmoron.‘He gave me a lift,’ she said.‘Helped me move my stuff out of my ex-boyfriend’s flat.’
‘And nothing.That was it.He said something about giving up proposing to women, as his New Year’s resolution.He’s got a new Ten-Date Rule, apparently.’
Gemma snorted.‘I’ll believe that when I see it.’She drained her coffee and checked her watch, then got to her feet.‘I’d better go,’ she said, winding afluffy silver scarf around her neck and tucking it into her coat.Then she paused.‘So he didn’t try it on with you, then?’
Caitlin shook her head, unable to help feeling a twinge of disappointment.Had the monobrow and moustache scared him off?She ran a finger self-consciously along her now-bleached upper lip.‘If he’s the village Casanova, then maybe I had a lucky escape,’ she said with a little laugh as she showed Gemma to the door, but her words lacked conviction.Whatever hisreputation, Harry seemed lovely.She couldn’t help hoping that their paths would cross again soon.Chapter Twelve
Saffron was feeling the heat of having Bunty Halsom as her client.Remembering her friend Kate’s advice, she’d been determined to go in hard, making it clear fromthe outset that she had a busy client list and wasn’t about to be Bunty’s new patsy.None of her tricks had worked, though.Not one.Whenever she tried keeping Bunty waiting in theagency’s small reception while she finished sending out the new Yummy Mummy press release or whatever, Bunty lost patience and simply marched past the startled receptionist and through theoffice, braying, ‘Saff!I’m here, darling, what’s keeping you?You didn’t forget about our meeting, did you?’
Then, when Saffron arranged a series of press interviews to herald Bunty’s forthcoming appearances onCelebrity Masterchef, she prepped her extensively beforehand on Tyler Starr,the spiky gossip columnist known for winding up his subjects until they lost their cool.But any hopes of keeping her client on a tight rein fell by the wayside as Tyler baited her with unexpected,intrusive questions about plastic surgery, and Bunty’s complexion turned increasingly brick-red with ill-disguised irritation.Before Saffron could leap in and rescue her, the interview cameto an early end, with Bunty throwing a glass of water over Tyler and storming out in an indignant huff.Of course the very next day the main article in Starr’s column was spiteful speculationabout how much cosmetic work Bunty had had done.‘Would you pay to look like THIS?’sneered the headline above an unflattering picture of her, with mottled cheeks and at least threechins, squeezed into a too-tight dress at some party or other.(‘The little bastard,’ Bunty hissed savagely.‘He’ll get a slap in the chops if I ever seehimagain.’)
And even though Saffron thought she had spelled it out perfectly clearly – several times – that she had better things to do than run around picking up dry-cleaning or organizingpet-sitters for Teddy, Bunty’s ridiculously over-indulged teacup Pomeranian, guess what?It didn’t make a blind bit of difference.Every day there’d be a new email or answerphonemessage that made Saffron’s fists clench in rage:
Saff, darling, be a poppet and sort me out a dress for the TV Quick Awards.Anything glittery and fabulous.Try Temperley or Stella McCartney?If youcould bike a selection round to my Notting Hill flat, that would be perfect.By midday, ideally.
Saff?Saffron?You really should answer your phone more often, dear.Listen, I’ve had an idea – see if Mercedes want to do some kind ofpromo with me.I rather fancy that sporty little number they’re advertising now.See if they’ll lend it me for the Masterchef launch.What a hoot it’ll be, me driving up inthat – the paps will love it!
Saffron, I’ve lost my phone.Could you get me a new iPhone?Maybe one of those blingy cases to go with it; they’re rather fun, aren’tthey?I’ll be at Minty’s for supper, so do send it there.
On and on it went, a never-ending stream of vapid, shallow, self-obsessed requests.Politely at first, and then with incremental degrees of curtness, Saffron tried pointing out that none ofthese tasks fell within the remit of her job, but she might as well have been talking to the wall.You had to admire someone with such determination, really.Admire them, or hire an assassin todeal with them, anyway.As for her new client’s self-esteem, Saffron had never met anyone with such stratospheric confidence levels.Look at Bunty, deluding herself that she and Mercedes werethe perfect client match, when in reality she would be far better suited to advertising a cheap-and-cheerful Fiat.And at five foot two, with knockers that could smother a man and a bum that neededits own postcode, Bunty didn’t have a chance in hell of squeezing into any designer frocks.Not that Saffron would dare burst her bubble by pointing this out.
Still, she was busy at least.While Saffron was running around trying to keep her new client happy – and herself sane, if possible – she had little time to think about the tiny beinginside her, which had now apparently bloomed from the size of a grape to that of a fig, according to the pregnancy app she’d installed on her phone.For something so small, it was certainlyhaving a big impact on her body.Her limbs ached as if her bones had turned to lengths of lead piping.Her eyelids felt so heavy she had to battle to force them open for the duration of her Tubejourney home.Her diary – previously crammed with drinks, dinners and get-togethers with mates – became a blank wilderness as she made excuses and cancelled everything, due to zeroenergy levels.
Once home, she would eat like a horse and then topple into bed by nine-thirty.She had never slept so deeply or heavily in her life.Oh, and the pregnancy dreams were absolutely crazy!Just theother night, she had dreamed she was in an operating theatre, in labour, pushing, pushing, PUSHING ...only for the doctor in green scrubs to pull out a Jack Russell from between her legs.‘It’s a dog!’the doctor announced, deadpan.The weirdest thing was, instead of freaking out that she’d given birth to a fully grown dog, in her dream all Saffron wasworried about was whether to call him Jack or Russell.
‘Jack, of course,’ her sister Zoe laughed, when Saffron woke the next morning and Skyped her straight away in order to tell her about it.‘That’s a really cute name for aboy.Hey, have you thought about names yet?’
Saffron smiled back at her sister’s tanned face on her laptop screen.It was early evening in Australia, and the height of summer there.Zoe was in a white halterneck vest-top, with aceiling fan whirring in the background, while Saffron was still in thermal pyjamas under an Arctic-tog duvet.
‘Not really,’ she replied.‘I’ve got my twelve-week scan coming up in a few days, though.I don’t know if I should find out if it’s a boy or a girl.Whatwould you do?’
‘Oh, don’t find out,’ Zoe said at once.‘Give yourself something to announce on the big day.’She peered into the camera.‘Christ, Saff, your boobs lookgargantuan in those pyjamas.Jealous!’
‘I know,’ Saffron said, giggling despite herself.‘I can’t stop looking at them.I’m going to have to get a new bra, Double-Melon size.’
‘Fruity,’ said Zoe and wolf-whistled.Then her face rearranged itself into something more serious.‘Saff – have you said anything to El, yet?Only I spoke to her theother day and she was really down.Gearing up to do another round of IVF apparently.They’ve taken out a loan this time; she said it was their last chance.’
Saffron sighed, Double Melons forgotten, as a wave of guilt swept over her.Poor Eloise.She and her husband Simon were so desperate for a baby.According to Mum, Eloise had even started goingto church and praying for a miracle.How could Saffron bring herself to announce that oh, by the way, she was accidentally pregnant a few weeks into a new fling?Impossible.‘Not yet,’she said glumly.‘You and my friend Kate are the only ones who know so far.I’m building up to Mum and Eloise next.’
‘What about the Jack Russell’s dad?When are you going to mention it to him?’
‘I’m building up to that, as well,’ Saffron mumbled.
Ending the call a few minutes later, she dragged herself out of bed and into the small dingy bathroom.The mirror showed a new swollen silhouette to her belly that made her feel like a softlyripening fruit.Hey – and this was the second morning on the trot that she hadn’t immediately sprinted out of bed in order to vomit.Might this be the blooming, radiant stage ofpregnancy that she’d read about?She very much hoped so.
Her sister’s question about Max had struck a chord and she turned on the shower feeling thoughtful.Zoe was right: she had to let him know, and the sooner, the better.Today in fact.Yes,today she would contact him and arrange to meet.It was only fair that she put him in the picture.If he wanted nothing to do with the baby, then so be it.She was prepared for that reaction; itwas a real possibility.
But there was another possibility, too – that his face would light up in delight, that he’d take her hand and gaze into her eyes.It could happen, couldn’t it?And thenhe’d understand why she’d been so offhand about the kite-surfing, why she’d gone quiet on him since Christmas.Whoa,he’d say.I wasn’t expectingthat.
Nor me,she’d reply.I have to admit, I was kind of surprised, too.
Those beautiful dark features of his would scrunch up as he thought.It’s unorthodox, I guess, but we could make it work, couldn’t we?The two of us, parents together?
She washed her hair, trying on the fantasy for size.Mummy, Daddy and baby, living happily ever after.It felt like cheating somehow, as if they’d be leapfrogging a whole line oftraditional relationship milestones.She barely knew Max.She had no idea about his favourite film, the books he liked, whether he preferred fish and chips to a curry, if he had siblings orallergies, let alone how he’d man up in a screaming, bloody childbirth situation.As for living together, for all she knew, he was a complete lazy slob who left dirty clothes on the floor andthe toilet seat up; a middle-of-the-tube toothpaste-squeezer, who’d never cleaned an oven in his life.He’d been married before, after all.There had to be a good reason he wasn’tmarried now.
She squirted some of her favourite banana conditioner into her palm as she pondered this, but in the next moment felt her stomach contract at the smell.Oh no.Not again.
Dripping wet and naked, she burst from the shower unit, just in time to throw up into the loo.Uggggh!And again.
Shivering and spitting and wiping her nose and mouth, she knelt there on the cold lino, her optimism faltering as she waited for the nausea to pass.Who was she trying to kid?Max was already afather – he’d been there, twice over.If he had any sense, he’d steer well clear of being saddled with a vomiting new baby-mother.And who could blame him?
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Hi Max, Hope all’s well with you.I’ve got a client meeting in Denmark Street Thursday afternoon – would be great to see you for adrink afterwards, if you’re free?
Later that morning Saffron leaned back at her desk and read through her email again.That would do, she decided.She sounded perfectly normal and grown-up.Hey, we shagged like lusty nymphsseveral times last year, and then I went a bit weird on you, but see how civilized and mature I can be now!
Something like that anyway.Well, it was the best she could do, and now her phone was ringing and she had a million other things she should be getting on with.
‘Hello, Phoenix PR, Saffron speaking?’
‘Saffron, there you are – this is Bunty.I’ve just had a splendid idea about a book.Maybe a memoir, or possibly a sort of self-help thing, for women who want to be more likeme ...’
Only half-listening, she pressed ‘Send’ on her email and watched the screen change.Sending ...Sent.
‘...So if you could set up a few meetings with publishers for me, start the ball rolling, that would be marvellous, dear.My Bountiful Life– that’s one possibletitle.OrHalsom Is As Halsom Does– you know, a little play on my surname.Thought that was rather witty, don’t you?Saffron?Are you still there?’
Max replied an hour later with a rather businesslike email suggesting they meet at the Pillars of Hercules on Greek Street.This was a small pub she knew to be crowded andnoisy – not the most conducive spot for a heart-to-heart, but she seized on the opportunity with gratitude.At least he was giving her a hearing.Now she just had to work out how to tellhim.
At nearly twelve weeks pregnant, Saffron’s figure had definitely changed.Half her smart pairs of trousers were now too tight around the waist, and the buttons of all her work blousesstrained across her inflated chest.Jumpers and forgivingly stretchy leggings were fine at home, but this wasn’t the sort of outfit she could get away with at work.Out had come her range of‘fat-day’ clothes: the slightly looser, more shapeless tops in her wardrobe, teamed with the high-waisted skirts that flared over her belly, disguising the small rounded beginnings of abump.She could just about get away with her favourite jackets, although she could no longer button any of them up properly.There was no escaping it: maternity wear loomed unpleasantly ahead onthe horizon, elasticated waistbands and all.
No shapeless clothes today, though.Not when she had to get Max onside.Instead she wore a drapey black wrap-dress in soft jersey, which gave her an impressive cleavage and made her feelconfident and womanly.She’d been in flats all day at work, but changed into her favourite black kitten-heels before she left the office.Her tired legs wouldn’t thank her for it, butthis was all in a good cause.
Max was already ensconced at a table with a pint and the sports pages of theEvening Standardwhen she arrived at the pub.He was wearing reading glasses, she noticed; another thing shedidn’t know about him.Did this mean the baby might be long-sighted?A picture flashed into her head of a chubby round-faced baby with a pair of spectacles on its cute button nose, then shepushed the image away as Max looked up and saw her.Get a grip, Saffron.Get a bloody grip!
‘Hi,’ she said, approaching his table.‘I’ll just grab a drink.Do you want another?’
‘I’m fine with this, thanks,’ he said.Obviously not planning on staying long then, she thought, nodding brightly at him and joining the crush at the bar.The place was alreadyfilling up with clusters of post-work drinkers, with loud conversations and bursts of laughter all around, mingling scents of perfume and sweaty armpits.She imagined having to bellow her news inorder to be heard and cringed at the thought.Maybe this wasn’t the time or place after all.
‘Yes, love, what can I get you?’
A massive vodka.A strawberry daiquiri.A glass of red wine with a whisky chaser.All three, with a ginormous bag of Kettle Chips for good measure.
‘A Diet Coke, please,’ she said with a little sigh.
‘So how’s work?’Max asked, folding his newspaper as she returned to the table.He had a lovely wide smile, Max.He was wearing dark-blue jeans and a mossy green shirt shehadn’t seen before, rolled up at the elbows.Seeing the dark hairs on his forearms gave Saffron a pang of longing.Those arms had held her in a clinch not so long ago, his bare skin pressedagainst hers.God, he was handsome.
‘Good, thanks,’ she said haltingly.‘How about you?’
‘Yeah, pretty good, too.I thought of you the other day actually – I had to take a client out rally driving, like you do.This footballer we’re trying to sign up for our new adcampaign – him, his agent and a couple of us from the office down at Silverstone.Total adrenalin-rush.Have you ever tried it?’
By happy coincidence she had, although it had been with a previous boyfriend who sulked all the way home because Saffron had beaten him in every race.Before long she and Max were comparingnotes on lap times and handbrake turns, and he was telling a funny story about the footballer’s agent whose legs had gone to jelly after the ‘hot lap’ at the end, and who actuallyfell over, quite embarrassingly, at the trackside, once out of the car.
Saffron felt her body unclenching as she laughed.It was as if that strange, awful New Year phone call had never happened.And he’d actually said ‘I thought of you’ withoutpulling a sick face.This was a promising start.Now all she had to do was deliver her news.
‘So,’ she said when there was a pause in the conversation.Her mouth went dry.Here we go.Mistakes can become adventures, and all that.‘I’ve been meaning to getin touch because—’
‘Max!I thought you might be in here.Team Faster!’
Two women and a man had appeared by the table, all talking at once with animated expressions and much gesticulating.Both women had excellent haircuts and wore bright, short dresses, big parkasand thigh-boots, while the man was shaking off an enormous black military overcoat to reveal a lurid purple-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt.
‘Have you heard?’cried the first woman, who had cheekbones to die for and a mahogany bob.‘We got Mtulu.We got Muh-freaking-tulu!’
‘Abe is like totally stoked, he’s given us the company credit card,’ added Hawaiian dude, who had a goatee and artfully tousled hair.He waved a silver Amex card above hishead.‘Drinks and dinner out for Team Faster.Yeah, baby!’
‘You should have been there – everyone was cheering and screaming, it was totally epic,’ said the other woman, who had almond-shaped green eyes.She punched the air and beamedat Max.‘Can you believe it?’
Saffron felt as if she had become invisible in her chair, a dowdy shadow in a bulging black dress who couldn’t compete with so much naked exuberance.Meanwhile Max’s face had lit up.‘Fantastic,’ he said, high-fiving Mr Hawaii.‘Bloody amazing!’Then he turned back to Saffron, belatedly remembering she was there.‘Mtulu’s the footballer Itold you about, star player for Man City.Looks like he’s going to be fronting our new campaign!’
‘Great,’ said Saffron, trying to sound enthusiastic, but her voice was lost amidst a new round of cheers and self-congratulation.
‘Let’s get a bottle of something fizzy,’ said Mr Hawaii.‘And what the hell: pork scratchings all round.Jonty’s booking us a table somewhere fabulous for dinner;he’s going to text me the details.’
‘I’ll give you a hand,’ said Almond-Eyes, linking a skinny arm through his and tottering along beside him.‘Just in case we decide to get two bottles ...’
That only left cheekbones woman, who sat herself on Max’s lap, curling cat-like into him and kissing him full on the lips.‘Looks like we’re celebrating tonight,’ shesaid with a naughty smile, tracing a finger down Max’s face.
There was a lipstick print on his mouth and Saffron stared at it stupidly for a too-long moment, her heart thudding.Oh no.Was this what she thought it was?
‘Saffron, this is Mia,’ Max said, shifting in his seat and looking somewhat uncomfortable.Mia still had one arm twined possessively around his neck and she turned to bestow abrilliant smile upon Saffron.He’s mine, darling,the smile said, without any doubt.‘Mia, this is Saffron from Phoenix PR.We worked together on the launch of the Gold range,back in the autumn.’
Saffron got to her feet, feeling Mia’s cool, interested gaze on her the whole time.‘I’d better go,’ she said, her face turning hot.What a muppet she was.As if agorgeous, charming bloke like Max would stay single for very long.Mia and Max.They even sounded good together.
She brushed an imaginary crumb from her skirt so that she didn’t have to look at either of them, then pulled on her coat.It wasn’t as if she’d seriously expected that she andMax would become a couple again, just because of the baby, but, you know, it might have been nice to at least have had the option ...
‘Oh,’ Max said.‘Okay.Well, nice to see you.’
Mia was teasingly trying to kiss him again, even though he was speaking.Rude, thought Saffron, picking up her bag.Bloody rude.‘Bye,’ she said abruptly, leaving them to it beforeshe did anything embarrassing like cry.
She walked towards Tottenham Court Road Tube station with swift, urgent strides, ignoring how painfully her shoes pinched.So that little conversation hadn’t gone exactly to plan.Why hadthey wasted so much time talking about rally driving and gossip, for goodness’ sake?If only she hadn’t wussed out for so long!A better, braver woman would have announced it the secondshe sat down: cards on the table,boom.
But now Max had a new girlfriend, the very last thing he’d want to hear was that his previous fling was accidentally pregnant.Nice and friendly though he’d been, nobody wanted ahormonal ex hanging around like a bad smell.
It was damp and foggy and a horrible hair-frizzing drizzle was falling, soft and speckling.Saffron put her head down and marched on, pulling her coat more tightly around her.Well, she’dtried to do the right thing at least, nobody could say she hadn’t.The question now was whether she could face trying all over again – or whether she should cut her losses and move on,leaving Max Walters far behind in the past?Chapter Thirteen
For the first time ever, Valentine’s Day came and went with barely a mention in Gemma’s house.In the past Spencer had pulled out all the romantic stops: a massivebouquet of flowers, breakfast in bed, a night away in a glamorous hotel ...He’d once even serenaded her in a restaurant, much to her embarrassment and the other diners’ hilarity.Down on one knee, the works, ending with a red rose between his teeth.Everyone had cheered.Oh, he liked his big gestures, did Spencer.Unfortunately this year the only gesture he seemed to bemaking was two fingers.He hadn’t even bothered to get her a card.
‘Valentine’s?Is it?’he mumbled when she presented him with a full English and a Buck’s Fizz that morning, a crimson envelope propped up against the champagne glass onthe kitchen table.
Her face fell.‘Yeah,’ she said quietly.‘Not to worry.’
He sat down, drowning the contents of his plate with brown sauce, and didn’t look at her.When had he last shaved?she found herself wondering, noticing the dark stubble all over his chinand throat.Three days ago?Four?
‘I’ve booked us cinema tickets for tonight,’ she said, with forced brightness.‘Dad said he’d babysit.We could even splash out a bit and go to the Thai placefirst, maybe?If you want.’
She bit her lip, waiting for his reply, but he was chewing an enormous mouthful of sausage.
‘Spence?’she prompted after a few moments.‘It’s that new thriller, the one Harry was going on about.With that guy, what’s his name – matey fromGame ofThrones– and ...’ She was babbling.‘If you fancy it, anyway.’
Her optimism was draining away.Why wasn’t he answering?Why wouldn’t he even look at her?It had been weeks since they’d gone out anywhere together, other than for a hospitalappointment, and she’d been hoping that an evening out might take his mind off the recent traumas and make him feel more human.She’d imagined them holding hands in the cinema, a cartonof buttery popcorn between them, resting her head on his shoulder in the cab ride home.She’d even secretly made the most beautiful dress ever for tonight, a gorgeous red number that nippedin at the waist, accentuated her boobs and gave her a real wiggle when she walked.It was hidden away at the back of the wardrobe and she’d been looking forward to modelling it for him.He’d never been able to resist her in that kind of outfit.
Well, before the accident, anyway.Nowadays he barely even glanced in her direction.
He gave a grunt.‘Maybe,’ he said, forking in another mouthful.
She pressed her lips together, trying to hide her disappointment.Maybe it was just as well.It wasn’t like they could really afford to go out anyway.
Will slunk into the kitchen then, eyes down.Not him as well, Gemma thought, with an inward sigh.‘What do you want for breakfast, love?’she asked.
‘Not hungry,’ he said, grabbing his packed lunch from where she’d left it on the side.‘See you.’
‘Will, wait.You need to eatsomethingnow.All the research shows that you learn much better if you—’
‘Darling, wait, I’m talking to you.Don’t walk away from me when I’m—’
The front door slammed and she flinched at his vehemence.Too late.He was angry with her, because the night before she’d told him that he was going to have to pull out of the school tripto Normandy that summer.
‘What?Why?’he’d asked, his head snapping round in surprise.They were in the dining room together, Will doing some maths homework, Gemma at the sewing machine, mending historn blazer.It was the second time this year it had ripped all the way up the back.
She took her foot off the treadle to give him her full attention.‘I’m sorry, love, it’s just too expensive.We can’t afford it any more.’
‘But everyone’s going!I’ve got to go.For fuck’s sake, Mum!’
Her jaw dropped.She couldn’t believe he’d opened that luscious red-lipped mouth and said ‘For fuck’s sake’.Toher.‘Don’t you dare speak to melike that!’she cried.‘Look, while Dad’s off work there’s less money coming in.We’ve all got to make sacrifices.’
He sneered at her.He actually curled his lip and sneered, her lovely doe-eyed son, the same boy who’d once spent hours gluing tissue-paper flowers to Mother’s Day cards for her.‘Yeah?What sacrifices have you made then, Mum?I don’t see you going short.’
Her hands shook from this unexpected attack.The sacrificesshehad made?Well, only my marriage it seems, sweetheart.Only my bloody sanity!‘We are all having to miss outon things,’ she said, trying to keep her voice even.‘We haven’t paid off Christmas yet, and we’re still waiting for the money to come in from Dad’s last job.’The money she’d been chasing for weeks now, only to be fobbed off by the developers each time.Whenever she looked at their dwindling bank balance and thought about all those months aheadwith Spencer off work, she felt frightened.They’d had a few phone calls from ‘no-win, no-fee’ lawyers, trying to persuade them to sue the scaffolding firm for ridiculous amountsof money but Spencer had told them, in no uncertain terms, to get stuffed.‘Bloody vultures,’ he glowered each time as he hung up.Meanwhile the mortgage company had agreed to give thema month’s breathing space, but Gemma knew they might not be so obliging if she tried asking for any more.‘Look, I’m sorry about the French trip,’ she had said gently,‘but I’m afraid there’s no way round it.’
‘You don’t understand,’ he said, kicking at the table leg.He shoved his homework book away and got up suddenly.‘You’ve got no idea!’
‘Ihave,’ she said, stung.‘Will, come on, don’t be like that.’
‘Oh, shut up, Mum.Just shut up!’And off he went, pushing past her out of the room.
She gulped as the door slammed.‘And you can stop wrecking this blazer, too!’she found herself yelling after him, knowing it was random, but feeling the need to wrest back somecontrol.‘Because you’re not getting a new one, you know!’
They hadn’t spoken since.He’d turned away from her when she came in to say goodnight later on.And now he was refusing breakfast, to make some kind of point.Great.A hunger strikewas all she needed.Well, she didn’t have time for another argument; he’d be halfway down the street by now and she wasn’t about to run after him in her dressing gown andslippers.‘Darcey!’she yelled up the stairs.‘Hurry up!Breakfast’s getting cold!’
At some point this week she’d have to tell Darcey that they could no longer afford her riding lessons, either, and that she would have to downsize her birthday list that currently began:1.Disneyland trip.But not now.Not this morning.She didn’t think she could cope with three members of her family hating her at once.
She sipped her coffee – the cheap, own-brand stuff she had started buying (they all had to make sacrifices) – and wrinkled her nose at the unpleasant bitterness.Poverty is nodisgrace, she remembered from the New Year fortune-cookie.Maybe not, but it tasted bloody awful sometimes.
‘So,’ she said bracingly, trying to gee up her husband, ‘about tonight then, we could—’
He put his knife and fork down and looked at her for the first time all morning.‘Gemma ...I don’t feel like it, okay?Thanks and everything, but I’d rather just stayin.’
‘Fine,’ she sighed, as the promise of a night out together melted away like a ghostly apparition.Despondency engulfed her.She only wanted to do something nice for him!What was sowrong with that?
He must have registered how she was feeling for once, because his expression cleared and he reached for her hand.‘Sorry I’m being such a miserable bastard,’ he muttered.‘It’s just getting me down, that’s all.I can’t snap out of it.’
Her eyes felt wet and she squeezed his fingers.‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said.‘It’s okay.’
But it wasn’t okay; it wasn’t even remotely okay.When, she wondered with a heavy heart, would life start to feel okay again?
‘What the frig is that?’her dad asked suspiciously.It was the following Monday and she’d gone round as usual for lunch, only this time she’d broughtlunch with her: a Tupperware pot of home-made vegetable soup for them to share.
‘Soup,’ she replied, ignoring the way he was staring at it with such mistrust.‘I made gallons of it.Very healthy, too – loads of veggies in there.’She tried notto think about the way Darcey had pretended to be sick into the bowl when presented with it for tea on Saturday.Will had sloped off upstairs after a few mouthfuls, claiming he wasn’t hungry,and then Spencer had dialled out for a pizza anyway, which completely ruined the point of her money-saving endeavour.
‘Ah,’ Barry said now.He gave the pot a little shake and they both watched silently as sorry-looking cabbage shreds and lumps of carrot swam through the brown liquid.
‘I just thought it would make a nice change,’ Gemma said brightly.She went to the cupboard and pulled out a saucepan.‘Have you got any bread?We can have toast withit.’She was going to eat the bloody soup if it killed her, she had vowed.The fridge and freezer were full of the stuff.‘Is Judy joining us or ...?’
‘Not today,’ Barry said.‘She’s at work, won’t finish until three o’clock.’
‘Oh,’ Gemma said.‘Things all right with you two?’
‘Yes, very much so.We’re planning a trip to Norfolk next month.Can you believe she’s never been to Holkham beach?’
Gemma was ashamed to feel a stab of jealousy.The wide golden sands of Holkham were where Dad had taken her and her brothers on many seaside holidays when they were growing up.She alwaysthought of it as a special family place, not somewhere you’d take a new squeeze.‘Oh,’ she said again.‘So you really like her then?This is a seriousrelationship?’
‘Well,’ said Barry, looking surprised at the question.‘You know, it’s early days and that, but ...’
‘It’s just ...’ Gemma paused.‘Well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?Remember how you really liked Venetia, until she did a flit with all yourstuff?’
‘Yes, but ...’
‘And don’t forget Aisling, who tried to rip you off with that timeshare villa.’
‘Judy’s not like that.’
Gemma raised an eyebrow.‘I’m just saying, Dad.’
There was an awkward silence for a moment.Barry busied himself by slotting four slices of bread into the toaster, then rammed down the handle.‘So!Home cooking, eh.Is this a new hobbyof yours, or ...?’You could almost see the question marks popping up on his eyeballs, as if he was a cartoon character.
‘Just watching the pennies, while Spencer’s off work,’ she said lightly.Watching the pennies, indeed.Scared of the looming abyss, more like.The developer had stopped takingher calls and she’d heard a rumour from one of Spencer’s mates that the build had ground to a halt.It was a lot of money they were owed; she’d been counting on it.Spencerreckoned he’d be due some compensation if the scaffold firm was found liable for the accident, but that could be months away yet.Meanwhile the only bit of work she’d been able todredge up so far this year was some alterations on an evening dress for Mrs Belafonte up the road.Peanuts, compared to their usual income.
‘You should have said,’ Barry scolded.‘You can always borrow a few quid off me.’
‘Thanks, Dad.’Gemma stirred the soup, her back to him.‘I’m not sure when I’d be able to pay you back, though.’
‘Have it, then.What do you need?Would fifty do you?’
She almost laughed.Fifty quid wouldn’t touch the sides.It wouldn’t even cover the cost of new school shoes and trainers for Darcey, who had chosen exactly the wrong time to begoing through a growth spurt.‘Honestly, Dad, we’ll manage,’ she said.It wasn’t as if he had money to throw around himself.‘Forget I mentioned it.’
‘But when’s he going to be back at work?This is only a temporary thing, right?’
If only, she thought glumly.How she’d love for this to be a temporary blip, a month or two of tight purse-strings before they could return to their good old spendaholic ways.The realitywas far grimmer.‘He’s got another six weeks at least until he can go back to work,’ she replied.‘And even then, reading between the lines, he may not be able to return tobuilding work at all.’
Well, how could he, when the doctors had warned that he wouldn’t be able to bear weight on his broken ankle for some time, even when it had healed?Building was hard physical work;he’d always had the biceps and six-pack to show for it.In fact, the consultant had told Gemma that it was partly down to Spencer’s general fitness that his injuries weren’t evenworse.But if he couldn’t carry on with such a job, then what did the future hold for him – for all of them?They could be back in a rented terrace come the spring, with the rest of thevillage laughing at them for getting above themselves.
‘I might get a job anyway,’ she said quickly, before her face gave her away.‘Something will turn up, we’ll be fine.’
Her words of bravado kept coming back to her all the way home, taunting her.I’ll get a job, something will turn up, we’ll be fine.Yeah, like it was that easy.Like there was a great long list of jobs just waiting to be filled by someone like her.
Meanwhile, the credit-card bills were coming in thick and fast now, each bill more heart-stopping than the last.She felt sick each time she opened one and saw the list of things they’dbought without a second thought in the run-up to Christmas.
The beautiful Victorian blue glass baubles with silver trimmings that she’d found in an antiques shop in Needham Market – twelve pounds each.She’d bought ten of them and toldherself they were bargains, only to have Bessie, her brother’s dog, knock two of them off low-hanging branches of the Christmas tree.So that had been money in the bin.
The juicy organic turkey she’d bought, a Norfolk bronze, had cost fifty-eight pounds, and she’d ended up dumping half of it in the food waste when they’d all had their fill ofturkey meals by December 28th.
The expensive haircut she’d treated herself to, the pedicure and facial she’d spontaneously booked.Reams of gorgeous velvet and shot silk from the fabric barn, which she stillhadn’t got round to doing anything with.
Spencer had been equally extravagant.The silver eternity ring he’d given her for Christmas was six hundred pounds, judging from his January statement.He’d taken them all to theHarry Potter studios the weekend before Christmas as an extra treat, and splashed out a new plasma-screen TV, which he’d produced on Christmas Day for the big film, as well as the latestiPhone for himself.All this when they were meant to be tightening their belts to afford the new house!The idea of so much money sloshing around so carelessly made Gemma feel ill now.Therewouldn’t be any spending sprees for a while, that was for sure.
According to the government website she’d consulted, Spencer was eligible for twenty-eight weeks’ sick pay, but the amount he’d receive wasn’t anywhere near enough tocover their mortgage repayments and the mounting bills.It was sink-or-swim time: time to find some kind of life-raft before they were swept under by the next big wave.And while Spencer seemed tohave stopped caring about anything, including his own family, there was only Gemma left to save everyone from drowning.She had to try to keep them afloat.
When she got back from her dad’s there was a florist’s van parked in the road.A man in green overalls was opening the back doors as she got out of the car and she couldn’thelp but gaze longingly as he brought out the most enormous bouquet of red roses.Lucky cow, whoever they were for,she thought longingly, remembering previous years when Spencer had wooedher with flowers, and dinner, and jewellery.
Wait a minute.The man in green overalls was walking up her front path towards her.So this must mean ...
‘Mrs Bailey?’he asked, consulting the little yellow envelope attached to the bouquet.
‘Yes,’ she said, light-headed with sudden hope.‘That’s me.’
‘Then these are for you.’
He held them out, smiling, and she accepted them wordlessly, cellophane crackling as she bent over and breathed in their glorious rich, sweet scent.Oh, thank God.Red roses!He still loved her.But how much had they cost?‘Thank you,’ she said faintly.
‘My pleasure,’ the man said, whistling as he walked back to his van.
Inside the house Spencer was in the living room, lying on the sofa, still in his dressing gown.As she walked in, he grabbed the remote control and changed the channel before she could see whathe’d been watching.‘I wasn’t expecting you back yet.’
‘These have just arrived,’ she said, placing the flowers gently on the coffee table as she leaned over to kiss him, trying not to think about how sour his skin smelled.‘Thankyou, they’re beautiful.’
He pulled her in so that she was lying awkwardly alongside him, her face pressed against his musty dressing gown.
‘Is this all right?I don’t want to squash you,’ she said.They’d had so little physical contact recently that it felt odd to be in such close proximity again, and shewas conscious of his injuries.She still had her coat and boots on, her handbag sliding down her shoulder.
‘It’s fine,’ he mumbled.‘Look, I’m sorry about Valentine’s Day.I know I’ve been a bit shit lately.’
‘Oh, love.’She put a hand to his face, smoothed the skin gently with her thumb.He was sallow and pasty from all the days spent indoors, and there was a sheen of grease in his darkhair.‘It’s all right.And the roses are gorgeous.They must have cost an absolute fortune.’
As soon as she mentioned money she regretted it.In the space of a heartbeat, his face became taut and impassive.‘Well, it’s my money,’ he said stiffly.‘I can do what Iwant with it.’
‘Yes, but ...’
‘Can’t a bloke can’t buy his wife a few flowers now and then?I thought you’d be pleased.’
‘Iam.I’m delighted.I didn’t mean ...’
‘It was supposed to be a nice surprise, not an excuse for you to start nagging on about money again.’
She sat up, feeling as if she was fighting a losing battle.‘Itwasa nice surprise, Spence.Stop twisting things.I just meant you’d been generous, that’s all.Iwasn’t nagging.’
‘I won’t bother next time.Most women would be pleased to get red roses.Should have known you’d have something to say, though.’
There was just no arguing with Spencer when he was determined to be the victim.She got to her feet and snatched up the bouquet.‘I’ll put these in a vase,’ she mumbled,leaving the room before he could say anything else.All of a sudden the sweet sickly scent was giving her a migraine.
Safely in the kitchen, she dumped the roses by the sink and sank into a chair, exhausted by yet another argument.How much had he spent on them?Forty quid?Fifty?Too much, whatever it was,especially as he’d turned on her almost immediately, seizing on the chance to have a go.She didn’t even want roses from him.She didn’t care about extravagant, hollow gestures– they meant nothing when his mood could change from loving to attack in a single moment.
Still wearing her coat, she reached in her bag for a tissue, only then noticing the three twenty-pound notes tucked inside.Her dad must have stuffed them there back at his house whenshe’d nipped to the loo.
The sight of those crisp notes in her hand gave her a pang.At least somebody still cared about her, even if it was her old dad.
She pulled out her phone.
Dad!she texted him.
Just found the money in my bag.Very naughty!But thank you.
And I’ll pay you back.xxx
No problemo!he texted back right away.
Glad to help.What are dads for??Chapter Fourteen
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: Baby-food website
Thanks so much for the work you’ve done on Casey James’s website.She is absolutely delighted!I’ve another client who is launching anew range of baby food and needs a site overhaul.Would you be interested in giving us a quote for the work involved?Let me know what you think.
Hope life is good in Larkmead.I was on the Tube to work this morning, packed with hundreds of commuters, like a lorry-load of cattle, and the train stopped in a tunnelfor twenty-five minutes.I found myself wishing I was back in your lovely village, and never had to commute again!
All the best
Caitlin was pleased by the email, not least because she’d thrown all her energy into creating the website for Casey James, Saffron’s singer client.With the enormous budget affordedher, she’d gone to town with a luxurious look, rich colours and elegant styling, creating a carousel of images, a fan community area, which she had offered to moderate, and suggestingspecially commissioned weekly video blogs – all of which Casey had apparently loved.She had also offered to write a monthly newsletter for Casey’s fans, as well as updating the sitewith a regular news feed, so as to keep it looking fresh.
After a gloomy few months in Larkmead, it had been energizing to flex her creative muscles again; she’d forgotten how much she enjoyed design work.When she’d made the decision toquit nursing for a more artistic career, there were some people (i.e.her mum) who simply couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave such a worthwhile vocation, not to mention allthose handsome doctors/prospective husbands.‘Do you really want to sit behind acomputerall day?’she’d asked.‘When you could be helping people?’
The equation wasn’t that simple, though.Of course it was noble to help other people, but Caitlin actually found enormous satisfaction in putting together gorgeous colours and styles, anddeliberating over the perfect font and images to create something bold and expressive, something that tantalized the eye.Did that make her a bad person?Not according to her tutor at college.‘You’re a natural,’ he’d said to her, after her second piece of work.‘You’ve got it, kid.’
She was just about to reply to Saffron when there was a knock at the front door and she opened it to see Gemma and a knee-high sandy-coloured dog, which was wagging its tail veryenthusiastically.
‘You’ve got a dog!’she said stupidly, as if Gemma might not have noticed.
‘Only for this morning,’ Gemma replied.‘Meet Oscar: I borrowed him from Mrs Belafonte down the road.I was trying to tempt Spencer out for a walk, but ...’ She pulleda face.‘Not happening.So I wondered if you fancied coming out with us instead?’
Oscar wagged his tail again and looked from Gemma to Caitlin, as if he could understand every word.Caitlin thought of the job she’d planned for that morning – sorting through hermum’s wardrobe – and took approximately 2.3 seconds to decide.‘Why not,’ she said.‘Let me dig out some wellies and I’ll be right with you.’
They drove out to Priestley Wood, a couple of miles away, and tramped through the mighty beech trees together, their boots crunching on the hard ground.Gemma being Gemma, shewas wearing sparkly wellies, a woolly hat with a white rose corsage stitched onto the side and a pillarbox-red coat with jet-black buttons and a huge black furry collar that she’d addedherself.As usual, Caitlin felt under-dressed beside her, in a plain black wool coat and a pair of her mum’s muddy khaki-coloured boots.
The woods were cool, green and peaceful, the quiet broken only by the sound of Oscar’s scudding footsteps when he ran to retrieve his manky old tennis ball, and sporadic snatches ofbirdsong.New leaves were budding on the trees, with pale primroses peeping from between their roots, and it felt as if spring was truly around the corner.
‘So how’s Spencer?Apart from not wanting to go out for a walk?’Caitlin asked.
Gemma took a moment to answer.‘Well, his ankle’s mending well; they’re pleased with it at the fracture clinic.’
She was unusually hesitant.‘That’s good,’ Caitlin prompted.‘And is he starting to feel a bit more like himself now?’
Gemma sighed.‘I wish!To be honest, he’s like a completely different man.If I’d met this version of Spencer six months ago, I wouldn’t recognize him.’
‘In what way?’
Gemma bent to make a fuss of Oscar as he came back with the slobbery tennis ball in his mouth, tail wagging.She took the ball gingerly and hurled it far into the distance, Oscar bolting afterit immediately.For a moment Caitlin thought she wasn’t going to answer the question, but then Gemma gave another sigh, as if it pained her to speak badly of her husband.‘He’sjust so bloody angry all the time,’ she said.‘I know he’s fed up, I know his back hurts and he has this constant mother of a headache.I know he’d rather be out and aboutat work, at football, down The Partridge with his mates ...We all wish that.But sometimes he looks at me, and ...’ She shrugged.‘I swear he hates me.And the kids.It’shorrible, Caitlin.I don’t know what to do.’
Caitlin thought for a moment.‘You said he banged his head, didn’t he, when he fell.’
‘Yeah.Quite a nasty bump.The painkillers don’t seem to touch the throbbing he says he has at the front of his head.I guess that would be enough to drive anyone nuts.’
‘It’s just ...Well, it could still be the concussion.That can alter your personality quite radically.Did the doctors say anything like that?’
Oscar was back again, bright-eyed with triumph as he dropped the ball at Gemma’s feet and gave a short, excited bark.‘What do you mean?’Gemma asked, picking it up andthrowing it once again.‘Not really.He was kind of confused for a while, but it didn’t last long.I thought concussion was where you lost your memory and stuff?’
‘Concussion is a brain injury, basically, and it can be really mild – say, a bad headache, that clears up quickly – but there can be complications.’Caitlin foragedmentally through all the medical textbooks she’d ever studied, and all the patients she’d treated.Minor injuries had been her thing: treating burns, bandaging sprains, cleaningfestering wounds, with the occasional bit of stitching for good measure.The more serious stuff – head injuries, chest pains, breathing difficulties and major trauma cases – was alwayswhisked straight past the likes of Caitlin to the doctors.‘I’ll find out for you,’ she told Gemma.‘Post-Concussion Syndrome, it’s called.It’s quite commonafter a head injury.’
‘And can they treat it?How long will it go on?’Gemma turned pale.‘Will I ever get him back again?’
‘Let me look into it,’ Caitlin said, not wanting to dish out false reassurances before she, d checked her facts.‘Don’t worry.I’m sure he’ll be feelingbetter soon.’But even as she spoke, she wasn’t certain of her own words.And judging by Gemma’s face, she wasn’t convinced by them, either.
Life was so fragile, Caitlin thought to herself, once she was home again and making lunch.Look at her dad, collapsing with a stroke while he mowed the lawn, the lawnmowerchewing right through a bed of lupins as he toppled to the ground.Look at her mum, felled by a rogue infection that had raged through her body with deadly efficiency.Look at Spencer Bailey, thelife and soul of his party on New Year’s Eve and now housebound and depressed after one false move.
Talk about sobering you up.Talk about shaking you by the scruff of the neck and reminding you that life was passing you by.Hello?Big wide world out there, calling Caitlin Fraser.Activate.Activate!
The message from her New Year fortune-cookie bubbled up in her mind with sudden clarity:Your destiny is within your own grasp.Take a chance!
But what should she do?she thought helplessly.What did that mean?
She glanced down at the small tin of baked beans while she waited for the electric ring on the cooker to heat up, as if seeking guidance.Serves one sad lonely fucker, said the label, orit might as well have done.Beans for one.Was this what her life had been reduced to these days?
Come on, stupid crap cooker, she thought, her hand hovering over the still-cool ring.Then a thought occurred to her.Take a chance, urged the fortune-cookie, rustling temptingly at theback of her mind.Take a chance!
She turned off the cooker and ate the beans cold out of the tin with a teaspoon instead, thinking hard.Should she?Dare she?
Oh, sod it, she thought.Why the hell not?
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: Baby-food website
Thanks for your email – I’m really pleased Casey is happy with the website.I’m attaching my invoice herewith.Cheers!
I’d love some more work, yes please.I must confess, I don’t know a huge amount about baby food, but I’m willing to find out.Tell me more!
Larkmead is ...
She paused and glanced over at her open diary, where she’d scribbled an appointment just now on Thursday’s square, following her phone call.Harry, 2.30,it said.What?It wasperfectly legit.He was an electrician, after all, and her cooker needed fixing, didn’t it?She typed on, feeling absurdly cheerful:
...full of daffodils and small children on bikes.And guess what: I’m actually following the guidance of my wise old fortune-cookie, and‘taking some action’.I’ll keep you posted!
Love Caitlin x
A letter was the answer, Saffron decided.Her attempt at telling Max about the baby face-to-face hadn’t worked, what with the whole unexpected girlfriend-on-kneedevelopment in the pub.Emailing him the news would be crass; a text even worse.The thought of all the awkward silences that could unfold within a phone call – pregnant silences, even– ruled out that possibility also.
A letter, then.She could take her time over a letter, be clear, honest and articulate.He would be able to read it in privacy and mull over his reaction before responding.A letter was thegrown-up, measured way to do this, reminiscent of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and all the best love stories.Now she just had to write the bloody thing.
Dear Max,she began, stretched out on her sofa, still in pyjamas.It was Sunday and a milky sunlight was filtering through the grimy windows of her flat.Outside a car alarm had beengoing off for almost an hour and she was starting to fantasize about taking a dirty great sledgehammer to it.She chewed the end of her pen, trying to think how best to phrase the bombshell:
It was lovely to see you the other night.I’m glad things are going well at work.The reason I called you in the first place was because there’s something Ineed to tell you – something important.
She paused and read it through again.So far, so good.
I wanted to tell you in person that night, but didn’t have the chance, unfortunately.Congratulations on your new girlfriend, by the way.
Ugh, no, that sounded bitchy.She crossed out the last sentence just as her mobile started ringing.Caller: Bunty.On a Sunday morning, for heaven’s sake.Hello?Boundaries?Sending thecall to voicemail, she returned to her letter:
I have no idea how you will react to the news I’m about to give you – I don’t know you well enough to predict whether you’ll be happy, angry,freaked out or completely indifferent.
She felt her heart constrict at the last word.Surely nobody could beindifferentwhen told they were to be a parent, even if it was third time around for him?Was it insulting of hereven to include the word in her list, implying that he was some kind of robot?
Her phone started ringing again.Caller: Bunty.With a flash of irritation, she pressed the Ignore button and threw the phone to the far end of the sofa.
I completely appreciate that this will be a shock – it was to me, too.There’s no easy way to say this, but, Max, I’m pregnant.It’s your baby.Iknow you’re already a dad.I know you’ve been there and done it, and probably thought you’d made enough of a contribution towards the continuation of the human race.But
Bunty was ringing again.Aargh!What was this woman’s problem?Making a low growling in her throat, she grudgingly pressed the green button to accept the call.This had better belife-and-bloody-death, she thought.Death, preferably.
‘Ah, Saffron.Bunty here.I just need—’
‘Bunty, it’s Sunday,’ Saffron said crossly, before she could stop herself.
‘Yes, dear, I know, but creativity doesn’t stop for a day off, does it?I’ve had a wonderful idea for a new thing.The Bunty Bra!So many other people have done lingeriecollections, haven’t they, but the problem is: no boobs.A couple of fried eggs in two scraps of lace – I mean, come on!Let’s have some proper bosoms here.And who’s gotthe best knockers this side of Channel 5?We both know it’s me.So, I’ve been thinking.’
She drew breath and Saffron leapt in.‘Bunty.Let’s talk about this tomorrow.I’m right in the middle of ...’ she glanced around for inspiration, her gaze landing onher small, bare white feet at the end of the sofa, ‘ ...a pedicure.I can’t chat now.Send me an email and I’ll get back to you tomorrow morning.Or maybe just talk to youragent?’Like a normal person would do?Rather than badger your long-suffering PR person, who has completely zero interest in Bunty Bras?
‘She’s not answering her phone.’Bunty tutted.‘Sometimes I don’t know what I pay that woman for.Imadeher, you know.I made that agency what itis.’
‘Okay!Pedicure, yes, got it.I’ll email you.I mean, I’m happy to do matching knickers too, obviously, but I think boobs are where it’s at.Bunty’s Bouncers.Bunty’s Baps.No, too coarse.Bunty’s Bosoms ...Anyway, you’re the expert, you can spin it for me.So why don’t we—’
Saffron could swear that her blood was actually starting to fizz with irritation.‘Bunty, I’m going now,’ she said loudly over the top of the braying voice.‘Goodbye.’
She ended the call, feeling worn-out.Bunty was like a steamroller on steroids.No wonder she had got through so many husbands and love affairs.Those poor men, honestly.
Back to the matter in hand: the letter.But her phone was already buzzing with a text message,Got it.Bunty’s Boulder-Holders!!!!
‘Oh, go away, you madwoman,’ Saffron groaned, turning her phone off before any more inane messages could appear.
Peace restored, she picked up her pen again, determined to finish this time.
It’s your decision, Max.If you don’t wish to be a part of this, then that’s your choice, but I’m going to have the baby.This could be my lastchance at motherhood – I really want to take it.I’m not asking anything of you – I realize you’ve moved on and are seeing someone else these days, and that’sfine.But this little person will be a son or daughter to us both, so it would be great if you wanted to play an active role in their life.I’m sure we can work things out between us sothat everyone is happy.
I hope you understand my feelings.Please get in touch when you’ve had time to think this through, so we can chat.I’ve got a scan booked for the seventeenth at 2.30, inWhipps Cross – I would love it if you came too?
Please let me know what you think, either way.Really hope to hear from you soon.
Love from Saffron x
There.She read it all through, changed a few words here and there, then copied it out in full, folded the paper neatly and put the letter in an envelope, ready to post the next day.Excellent.Well done, Saffron.One important thing done.Next up: something even more onerous.In exactly one and a half hours she needed to be sitting down at her parents’ dining table in Essex forSunday lunch, and somehow she’d have to tell them as well.
‘Darling, come in.You look well.Oh!Such a cold face.It’s been so frosty lately, hasn’t it?Dad thinks we’re going to get snow next week.I’vebeen bubble-wrapping everything in the garden in readiness.’
‘Did you get here all right?The roadworks have been terrible on the A12.We were stuck in a jam there on Thursday for – what was it, Lorraine?forty minutes?– long enough,anyway.Dear me.Anyway, come on in.Kettle’s on.’
Saffron’s older sister Eloise was in the kitchen, looking as if she had a cold, as usual – red nose, droopy face, tired eyes – as she peeled carrots.Simon, her husband, wasleafing through the business section of theTelegraphat the table, but glanced up at Saffron’s entrance.‘Ah!The Londoner arrives.’
Simon was quirky and slightly odd, Saffron always thought.He reminded her of a guinea pig, with his earnest dark eyes and short, tufty black fur – hair, rather.He was up from his seatnow, all awkward and twitchy, as if he wasn’t sure whether to shake hands with her, kiss her cheek or attempt a light, barely touching hug.She saved him the decision by hugging both hersister and then him – like it or not, Simon.
‘Good to see you!’Eloise said.She was a financial adviser for a medium-sized chain of estate agents and terribly clever, always had been.Oh!You’re Eloise Flint’ssister?Really?teachers would say, frowningly, to Saffron as she followed two years behind at school, unable to believe that daffy, dreamy Saffron could possibly share any DNA with pin-sharp,test-acing Eloise.Simon, meanwhile, did something boffiny in computing; Saffron had heard him explain his job several times to different people over the years, but still was none the wiser.Evenwith a gun to her head, she’d struggle to explain what, exactly, he did during the average day at work.
‘How are you?’Eloise asked now, post-hug.
Well, I’m accidentally up the duff, since you ask, El.‘Fine, thanks.Busy, you know.’
‘Tell me about it.Ten-hour days I’ve been working recently, trying to get our audits in.My brain aches just thinking about Monday morning.’
Eloise’s brain must be like an enormous, bustling factory, Saffron thought: conveyor belts spinning, sparks flying from the mechanical cogs in constant motion, numbers shuttling likesynapses, lightning-fast.Oh, to have a mind so efficient, so swift, so organized.
‘I saw that client of yours onMasterchefthe other night,’ Lorraine Flint said, chopping Bramley apples for a crumble.‘What’s her name?The one with froggy eyeswho seems drunk all the time.Booby or Barbie or something.’
‘Bunty Halsom,’ Saffron said without any enthusiasm.
‘Oh God, are you working withher?’Eloise said with undisguised horror.‘She was inThe Timesyesterday, some awful piece about her and her silly little dog.Iwas just saying earlier what a fright she is.Wasn’t I, Sime?’
‘You were, and I agree.Dreadful woman.’
‘You don’t have to tell me that,’ Saffron said, pulling a face.She sat down, leaning forward somewhat so that her jumper bagged out, disguising her rounded belly.Not thatanyone seemed to have given her a second look, for they were all too busy slagging off Bunty.
‘I mean, excuse my language, but she’s just such a publicitywhore.She really is.Sorry, Mum, but nobody is forcing her to go on all these programmes, are they?’
‘I don’t know – Saffron might be,’ her dad said wryly.
‘Nobody’s forcing her,’ Eloise repeated.‘She can’t get enough of the limelight.Vile woman.What have you been doing with her, Saff?’
Saffron explained, feeling, as she always did, that her career was something of a joke to her parents and Eloise.Nobody had ever said it, but she knew they all thought running around aftercelebrities and journalists was a silly, pointless kind of job, compared with the much more grown-up work of finance and science.Yes, all right, Saffron felt like saying, but are your jobsanywhere near as stressful as working with Bunty effing Halsom?I very much doubt it.
Conversation moved around to the safe topic of Zoe and how much they all missed her.Then, once lunch was dished up, gravy poured, everyone around the table poised to dig in, Eloise cleared herthroat and sat up a little straighter.‘I know you’ve all been waiting to ask,’ she began, a catch in her voice, ‘so I’ll just come out and say it.No, the IVFdidn’t work this time.I’m not pregnant.So there we go.’A tear dropped onto her plate and Simon put his arm around her.
‘Oh, El,’ said Saffron wretchedly.‘Both of you.I’m sorry to hear that.’Her heart thumped and she found herself gripping her cutlery too tightly.There was no wayshe could tell them her news now, surely.
‘Darling, that’s so sad,’ Lorraine said, her mouth quivering as she reached across the table to take Eloise’s hand.‘What a blow.I know you were hopeful thistime.’
Eloise sniffed.‘That’s the thing.We’ve been hopeful every time.And every time it’s the same depressing result: no.However nicely the doctors say it, it’s stillno.’She dabbed at her eyes.‘Well, that’s it now.We can’t afford it again.We’re not going to be parents, and that’s that.’
‘If it’s the money ...’
‘It’s not the money, Dad, it’s all the rest of it.The emotional turmoil.The desperate longing, the waiting and praying, and then the cascade of despair.We can’t do itagain.We’re through.’
‘Have you thought about adoption?’Saffron asked after a moment.‘I know it’s not the same, but ...’
‘We’ve thought about adoption, egg-sharing, surrogacy ...We’ve gone round and round the whole bloody circus.’Eloise had never looked so desolate.Everything had comeeasily to her, her whole life: A-grades, music exams, a husband, a great career.This was the only thing that remained resolutely beyond her control.‘I’m just so tired of itall,’ she went on.‘We both are.Everywhere I look there are mums and babies.Six of the women at work will be going on maternity leave in the next few months.Six!And we’d bereally good parents, I know we would, and I’d love our baby so much, but ...’ She broke off, overcome, and the sight of her downturned mouth tore at Saffron’s heart.‘ButI’m forty this summer and we’ve got to face facts.It’s probably not going to happen.’
‘Sweetheart, come on.’Now it was the turn of Ewan, their dad, to reach over and pat his daughter’s back, discomfort writ large in his face.Ewan could talk for Britain aboutstereo systems, cricket batting averages, vegetable growing and what a mess the ruddy government was making of everything, but show him a crying daughter and he was lost for words.Pat, pat,pat.‘Don’t upset yourself now.’
‘But, Dad, it’s so unfair.Why can’t we just have a baby like everyone else?’
‘I don’t know, love.I wish I did.I wish I could make this all right for you.’
‘It’s no more than you both deserve,’ Lorraine added, her eyes pools of sorrow.
‘They say, don’t they, that sometimes when you stop trying for a baby and just relax, that’s when it happens, when you’re least expecting it,’ Saffron saidtentatively, aware of the irony in her words.Speaking as an expert here, someone who’s got a bun in the oven right now and definitely wasn’t expecting it, I mean.
Eloise’s face twisted into tearful irritation.‘Everyone keepssayingthat.Just relax!Stop thinking about it!But how?How am I meant to stop thinking about it?Ican’t think of anything else, for goodness’ sake!’
Saffron looked down at her plate, feeling chastised.‘Sorry.’
Eloise sighed.‘No, I’m sorry.I didn’t mean to bite your head off.I’m just ...all over the place.Don’t take any notice of me.’
Looking at her plate had been a mistake, Saffron realized in the next moment, as her eyes locked onto a large, crispy-looking roast potato and refused to move.Her stomach rumbled.Her mouthfelt wet with anticipation.Sorry as she was for her weeping sister – and she was sorry!she could not have been sorrier!– Saffron was absolutely ravenous by now.Being pregnant meantthat whenever hunger struck, she felt as if she could kill someone with her bare hands if they were standing in the way of her food.Surreptitiously she cut the roast potato in half and shoved itin her mouth, while everyone else was still absorbed with poor Eloise.Then she almost choked as she discovered just how volcanic the temperature was.
‘Darling, I wish there was something we could— Oh, Saffron, are you all right?’
At her mum’s prompting, everyone let go of Eloise and turned to see Saffron, purple-faced, trying to gulp down water fast enough to cool her burning mouth.‘Fine,’ shespluttered.‘Absolutely fine.’
It broke the spell at least, and everyone picked up their cutlery.‘Better eat this while it’s hot,’ Simon said, looking somewhat relieved.He speared a sprig of broccoli andlooked at it with what could only be described as fondness.‘Very mathematical vegetable, the humble broccoli, you know,’ he said to nobody in particular.‘Amazingfractals.’
Eloise blew her nose.‘So with me being barren, and Zoe being gay,’ she said, ignoring her husband’s musings, ‘I guess the continuation of the family line is down to younow, Saff.’
Oh, Christ.Couldn’t they talk about broccoli and fractals a bit longer?But no, Ewan was already guffawing as if this was hilarious.
‘No pressure, love!Don’t pay any attention.’He swished a forkful of lamb through the puddle of mint sauce on his plate.‘Poor old Saff,’ he said affectionately.‘Let her find a fella first, eh?’
Poor old Saff?What was all that about?‘Who says I want a fella anyway?’Saffron asked, smarting.Why was it that every time she was with her family she ended up feeling asif she was fourteen years old again, gauche, pimply andthisclose to storming out of the room in a strop?However hard she tried to convince them she was a grown-up now – aresponsible adult with a perfectly good job and her own flat in London, thank you very much – she was reduced to feelings of inadequacy within ten minutes of being in their company.Everybloody time.
‘Or a girlfriend like Zoe, of course, we don’t mind.But seriously, love, Eloise is only joking, all right?Your mum and I will be fine without grandchildren, if you don’t wantto go there.’
‘Isthere anyone nice right now, though?’her mum asked, unable to disguise the hope radiating from her face.She might as well have been holding up crossed fingers.‘Some special chap you want us to meet?We haven’t been introduced to any boyfriends for a while.’
‘Not since Neal,’ Eloise put in.She seemed to be cheering up all of a sudden.Nothing like a bit of sister-baiting to put her in a good mood.‘God, he was a bastard,wasn’t he?’
Saffron glared at her.Neal was her maverick ex-husband, the one she’d been madly in love with right up until the moment she discovered he’d bankrupted them both after a string ofdisastrous business deals.She was done talking about Neal with Eloise, thank you very much.
‘Only I thought Zoe was hinting at some piece of news on the phone the other day,’ Lorraine went on encouragingly, her grey eyes still fixed on Saffron.‘She asked if I’dspoken to you recently, and when we were going to see you next.It was almost as if she knew something we didn’t.’
‘Oooh,’ Simon said cheerfully.‘Don’t keep us in suspenders.’
‘Yes, what is it?’Eloise asked, glugging back her glass of wine.‘Don’t tell us you’re having a fling with one of your “celebrity” clients?’Shemade little speech-marks with her fingers, to show how much she valued society’s idea of fame.
‘Of course I’m not!’Saffron snapped, just as her dad started whistling ‘Here Comes the Bride’.
‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much,’ Eloise teased.
‘Look, it’s nothing,’ Saffron said doggedly.‘Can we change the subject?’
‘Sounds like something to me.’
‘All right, let’s leave it, I don’t think Saffron wants to talk about this – whatever it is.’There was Mum, the peacemaker, as she’d always been when theywere growing up and fighting over stolen nail varnish and ‘borrowed’ clothes.
‘Pour her another drink – we’ll get it out of her later,’ Eloise said, laughing, and then her eye fell on Saffron’s glass of orange juice and she went very still.‘You’re not drinking?’
A strange look passed between the sisters and Saffron felt jittery with alarm.Oh God, Eloise had guessed.She had worked it out.Bluff it.Blag it.Don’t tell her anything.Nottoday.‘Well, no, because I’m driving, aren’t I?’she said, but Eloise was still giving her that measured, calculating look, and she could feel her face growing hotterby the second.
‘You could haveone, though.You can have one glass of wine,’ Eloise said.Her voice was silky smooth, but her gaze was steely.‘Couldn’t she, Dad?’
‘Well, she could, but she doesn’t have to,’ Ewan said mildly, but Saffron barely heard him.The room had shrunk down to her and her sister and that look in Eloise’seyes.
‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?That’s why you’re not drinking.’Eloise’s tone was brittle, her mouth a taut line.
Oh fuck.Saffron swallowed, her heart thudding in panic.Here goes nothing.‘Yes.’
‘You’rewhat?’cried Lorraine, dumbfounded.
‘She’s kidding us.Aren’t you, Saff?’Her dad rubbed his beard – his nervous tic.‘Don’t say things like that if it’s not true.’
‘It is true.’Saffron covered her eyes, unable to bear the expression on her sister’s face for a moment longer.How could you do this to me?Eloise’s face wassaying.You traitorous bitch.That should have been my news, not yours!
‘What?Are you serious?You’re having ababy?’Her mum’s voice rose higher with every question.
‘I didn’t want to tell you like this.’She forced herself to turn back to her sister.‘I’m sorry, El.I know how much you wanted—’
She reached out, but Eloise recoiled as if Saffron’s touch would contaminate her.‘Don’t,’ she hissed, pushing her chair back from the table and getting up.‘Ican’t believe you’d do this to me.I hate you.Ihateyou!’
And then she was gone from the room and they were all staring at each other in varying degrees of shock.
‘I’ll go after her,’ Simon said awkwardly.
‘A baby,’ Lorraine exclaimed, goggling.‘Oh, Saffron.I can’t believe this!’
‘Nor can I,’ said Saffron miserably.‘Nor can I, Mum.’Chapter Sixteen
After seeing Caitlin, Gemma went straight home and googled ‘concussion’ and ‘personality change’.She read through the symptoms: irritability,depression, anxiety, aggression, mood swings, apathy, lack of motivation ...yep.That little bundle sounded horribly familiar.Even more troubling was the fact that Post-Concussion Syndrome, asit was known, could apparently last for weeks, months or even more than a year.A whole year of Spencer’s surly moods and general bad temper made her feel frightened.Did she have thepatience, the stamina, to bear it that long?Yes, he was still her husband, but he definitely wasn’t the man she’d married, the man who had welled up on their wedding day, who’dmade her feel like the happiest woman alive.How could you stick with someone if they were continually horrible to you?Should you put up with it, just because they’d once loved you?Otherpeople would, she was sure.Nicer, stronger people than her would tough it out, because that was what you did when you loved someone.She felt guilty for even questioning it, as if she’d beencaught out in the Wife test.Not loyal enough.You failed.
It wasn’t only Spencer who was in the doldrums.Darcey had fallen out with her best friend and was in floods of tears half the time.(‘The only thing that would make me feel betteris a pony or a kitten,’ she’d sobbed, with a hopeful sidelong glance at Gemma.No chance, love.) And Will was monosyllabic and grunting these days, a far cry from the little boywho’d followed her around the house with a book of facts not so long ago, saying things like, ‘Mum, did you know, you could fit all the people in the world into Los Angeles, if theystood shoulder-to-shoulder?’‘Mum, did you know, seventy-seven per cent of men in Yemen smoke?’‘Mum, whereisYemen?’
No facts any more.No ‘Mum, did you know’s.There was nothing other than a crash as he came through the front door, then a thump as he dumped his school bag in the hall.She woulddelay him there with a few questions about school: did he do anything nice, how was that maths test, what were they doing in PE today, did he want a snack?You could tell he was desperate to getaway and hook up on his iPod, though, his eyes sliding past her, his very stance impatient.Worse, he looked so tired all the time, so defeated, as if life in Year 8 was too much for his narrowshoulders to bear.
‘Will, are you home?’she called on this particular afternoon, coming downstairs from her tiny sewing room.In an attempt to cheer up Darcey she’d pulled out some of her fabricand they’d measured up for curtains in Darcey’s bedroom.They didn’t have enough money to buy paint yet, but Darcey had chosen a cheerful pale-blue fabric with a red cherry print,and Gemma reckoned there might just be enough left to make a matching duvet cover and pillowcase too.While Gemma cut and hemmed, Darcey had used the leftover scraps to make tiny cushions andpillows stuffed with cotton wool for her dolls’ house, and they’d had a good old chat and a laugh, particularly when Darcey got her mum to say ‘Dan Gleeballs’ three times asfast as she could.(‘Darcey Bailey, who told youthat?’she had spluttered, trying not to giggle.)
‘Will?’Gemma called again as she reached the hall.No answer, and no school bag.So he hadn’t slunk in silently then – he hadn’t come in at all.And shehadn’t even noticed!As well as being the worst wife in the world, she was doing a good impression of the worst mother too, right now.She checked her phone, wondering if he’d gone to amate’s house, or whether the school bus had broken down again.What if he’d texted her asking for a lift and she hadn’t heard the beep?But there was nothing.
The first pricklings of alarm coursed through her.Usually he was home by four-twenty at the latest, but now it was getting on for five, and dark outside.Where was he?She’d drummed itinto him that he had to keep her informed of what he was up to, that he couldn’t just go off and do his own thing without telling her.He’d always been good about that in the past.Maybe he’d lost his phone.Yes, that was possible.But still ...why hadn’t he come back?
Spencer was glued to the Xbox, driving a car through a desolate apocalyptic wasteland on the plasma screen.‘You haven’t heard from Will, have you?’she asked.‘Hehasn’t phoned to say he’s going to be late or anything?’
She snatched the controller from his hand, panic making her impatient.‘Spencer!Will isn’t home!’
‘Oi!I was in the middle of that!Give it back!’
‘Has Will phoned you?’
‘Give it back, I said!’
He grabbed it roughly and she staggered, almost losing her balance.‘Spencer!’she cried.Why couldn’t he see how important this was?‘I’m trying to talk to you.Have you seen Will?He isn’t home.’
Spencer paused the game, and at last silence fell.‘Will?No, I haven’t.I thought you were ...’
He broke off, and Gemma filled in the gaps in her head.I thought you were the responsible adult around here, the one who noticed things like that.
Just then they heard a key turn in the front door.Thank goodness.‘Panic over,’ Spencer said, rolling his eyes and getting back to his game.
Gemma ignored him and rushed to the hall as Will came in out of the darkness.‘There you are!I was starting to worry!Is everything all right?’
She had her arms out to hug him, but he pushed past her – too cool for hugs these days – and chucked his bag on the floor.He looked pale and dishevelled, his hair standing up and– not again!– the school badge on his blazer pocket hanging off at a drunken angle.‘Fine,’ he muttered.‘What’s for tea?’
What’s for tea?That was all her family seemed to think she was good for: cooking bloody tea.‘Will,’ she said firmly, ‘where have you been?It’s gone fiveo’clock, you know.It’s dark!’
He pulled a face as if to say ‘Duh!’and walked past her into the kitchen, where he shoved two slices of bread into the toaster.‘It’sfine,’ he saidagain.
‘It’s not fine,’ she snapped, then sniffed the air.Cigarette smoke and chewing gum.Oh no.‘Have you been smoking?’
There were purple rings under his eyes, she noticed, as he took out a plate and butter, and started buttering a third piece of bread, too impatient to wait for the toast.‘Mum ...Justleave it, will you?I’m not in the mood.’
‘You’re not in the mood?Well,I’mnot in the mood to be worrying aboutyou, coming back at all hours, stinking of smoke.I need some answers.What’s goingon?’
‘Nothing!Back off, Mum.I’ve just walked through the door.’
‘Yeah, forty minutes late, pal.What have you been doing?Were you with Jack?’
‘Nah.’His eyes hooded, he turned away, fiddling to pull a tangle of earphones from his blazer pocket.Then he plugged them in, a deliberate gesture ofI don’t want to talkany moreand bit into his bread and butter.
Gemma watched him, anxiety clenching in the pit of her stomach.It’s me – I’m on your side, she wanted to say.You can tell me, I only want to help.
But she knew it was pointless.Like father, like son.Neither of them was letting her in right now.
‘Not stewagain.Ugh, Mum, this is like totallyrank.I thought we were having chips?’Darcey’s face was a picture of indignation as Gemmaserved up plates of vegetable stew and mashed potato half an hour later.
‘Inever said that.You were the one who kept talking about chips.Anyway, this was all I could find in the freezer.’
‘There are chips in the freezer.’Darcey’s mouth crumpled into a pout and she stabbed a fork into the orange-brown stew with a look of sheer disgust.
‘Well, I’m sorry, young lady, but this is what we’re having tonight.’Gemma never thought she’d be the kind of person who called her children ‘younglady’ and ‘young man’, but there you were.
‘Yuck.I hate stew.Dad, can’t we get pizza again?’
Don’t you dare,Gemma thought, catching her husband’s eye across the table.If he went and undermined her again, she’d go ballistic.
‘Don’t whine, Darcey,’ he said curtly.‘Eat up and be grateful you’ve got anything at all.’
Well, that was some improvement on dialling out for a takeaway at least, Gemma supposed, but his tone had been unnecessarily sharp and now tears were glistening in Darcey’s big browneyes.
‘Start with your mash,’ she said in a kinder voice.‘Come on, while it’s hot.’
‘Can I get some new trainers on Saturday?’Will said after a few moments’ silence.He was still plugged into his music player and talking extra-loudly as a result.
‘I only just bought you some!’Gemma said in surprise.‘Can you turn that music off, please, while we’re having dinner.’
‘Yeah, but the ones you bought were cheap crap,’ he said.The sneer on his face was habitual these days.‘Like, totally embarrassing, naff ones.Anyway, I’ve lostthem.’
‘You’velostthem?Oh, for heaven’s sake.Have you looked in Lost Property at school?’There was a shiftiness about him that was unconvincing.Had he even heardher?‘Will, I’m talking to you, turn that music off.Have youreallylost them?Because I’m not buying you new ones just because you don’t like the others.They wereperfectly good trainers, Will.’
‘What – from British Home Stores?Do youwanteveryone to take the piss out of me, or what?’
She glanced at Spencer for back-up.Was he going to let Will speak to her like that?Apparently he was.
‘Don’t be so rude,’ she said, flushing.‘There’s nothing wrong with those trainers.And I—’
‘He’s got a point,’ Spencer put in over her, and she whirled round accusingly at him.‘What?The lad’s got a point.I wouldn’t want to go around in trainersfrom British Home Stores, either.’
‘Exactly!’Will was triumphant.
‘But ...’ The words shrivelled on her tongue.So much for a united front.So much for spousal solidarity!‘The thing is, Will, the trainers I bought you cost about fiftyquid less than Nike ones, or whatever it is you want.’
‘I’m not having my son go to school like some kind of—’
‘And we don’t have that extra fifty quid right now,’ Gemma said loudly, ignoring Spencer’s unhelpful interruption.
‘Right, so I’m meant to do PE in socks, am I?Great.Thanks a lot.’
‘I’m sorry, love.I wish I could give you the best trainers in the shop, but the problem is that we’ve got to watch the pennies.’
‘Yeah, I know, you’ve said about ten million times.Why don’t you just sell some stuff, then?Like that bike you never use.Dad’s Mazda.All your—’
‘It’s not as simple as that,’ Gemma said, exasperated, before he could list any more possessions.‘Look, Dad’s owed a lot of money and, until that comes through, weneed to—’
‘Oh,’ Spencer cut in.‘I meant to tell you.’
Gemma turned towards him, not sure she wanted to hear what he was about to say.‘What?’
‘They’ve gone bust.Melvilles.Stu rang the other day.They’ve done a bunk, the site’s closed down, nobody’s getting paid.’
‘What?’ Gemma’s heart almost stopped.‘But they can’t do that!They owe you nearly ten grand – I worked it out.What are we going to do?’
He shrugged.‘There’s the compensation.That should be a good whack.’
‘Yes, but have you actually applied for it yet?Nobody’s just going to hand it over, are they?’
‘All right, all right!No need to go on at me.Don’t you think I’ve got enough to deal with right now?’
‘I’m just saying ...’
Darcey shoved her plate away suddenly, making them jump.‘Why does everyone keep arguing all the time?Stop arguing!’Then she threw down her cutlery with a clatter and ran out ofthe room.
Gemma bowed her head, then tried again.‘I’m just saying,’ she began, but Spencer held up a hand.
‘Don’t,’ he said.‘Just don’t.’
Later that evening Gemma sat at the kitchen table trying to juggle the bank statement with the latest bills that had arrived earlier, and let out a sigh.They were in trouble.Big trouble.As she totted up the amount they owed and compared it with their bank balance, she was seized by a cold grip of panic.She’d been counting on the money Spencer was owed, andwithout it they were seriously in debt.Push had come to shove, and now she had to bring in some readies, fast.There were no two ways about it.
Should she ask her dad if she could borrow a few thousand, just to tide them over?Spencer would go nuts if he knew she was going behind his back, but she was starting to feel desperate.Mindyou, the last time she’d seen her dad, at the weekend, Judy had been there and Gemma had ended up being kind of curt with her.Well, okay, a little bit rude.Barry might not want to dip inhis wallet for a daughter who couldn’t bring herself to be polite to his new woman.
The calls had now dried up from the no-win, no-fee lawyers, who’d been keen for Spencer to make a personal-injury claim against the scaffolding firm, but Gemma was starting to wonder ifthey’d been too hasty in rejecting their offers of help.Vultures and blood-suckers, Spencer had called them, but maybe it would be worth stepping down from the moral high ground if it meantthey’d get some kind of payout?She sighed.Spencer would never go along with it, she knew.The scaffolders were a small family firm and a lawsuit could well bankrupt them.Skint or not,Spencer was too principled to do such a thing.
She felt as if they’d motored along bumpily so far, but now the fuel tank was empty and they’d petered to a halt.With Spencer turning his back on responsibilities, Gemma knew thatthe future of their family rested in her hands alone.She would have to be brave, strong and resourceful; she needed to step up and somehow get them moving forward again.But how?
‘That was a gusty sigh,’ said Harry, walking into the kitchen just then.He’d come round to watch the Champions League match with Spencer and was now heading towards the fridgein search of more beers, at a guess.(Sky Sports: another expensive thing she should probably cancel.Just as soon as she plucked up the courage to break the news to Spencer.) ‘Everything allright?’
She tried to smile, but it was an effort.Then she gave up.This was Harry, one of their oldest friends, after all.‘Not really,’ she admitted.‘We’re a bit skint, to behonest.I’m going to have to get a job to keep us going.Just wondering what I can do.’
‘Ah.’He pulled out two green bottles, then narrowed his eyes and pulled out a third.Easing off the metal top, he poured the contents into a glass and handed it to her.‘Whatsort of thing were you thinking of?’
‘I’ve got some sewing to be getting on with,’ she said.‘Curtains for Mrs Bradley at the school.And Eva Walker’s just asked me to make her three bridesmaid dresses...’ She spread her hands, feeling helpless.‘That’s about it.’
‘Okay.’Harry sat down at the table with her and picked up the red electricity bill that had arrived that morning.This payment is now overdue.‘And how much will youcharge them for that?If you don’t mind me asking.’
Gemma looked away.‘Well ...’
‘Youarecharging them, aren’t you?What’s your hourly rate?’
‘The thing is, I know Mrs Bradley’s a bit skint, too,’ she said defensively.‘Her poor husband’s been out of work for three months now, and their daughter’sgetting married in May and has gone totally Bridezilla on them, so ...’
Harry gave her a look.‘Tell me you’re not doing this for free.’
‘No!I asked her to bung me twenty quid, and maybe ask Mark – that’s her husband – to do some gardening for us.’
‘Twenty quid and a bit of gardening?’He looked appalled.‘And how long’s it going to take you?’
‘She’s providing all the curtain fabric,’ Gemma countered.‘And I don’t mind doing it, so ...’
‘Don’t avoid the question, Gemma Bailey.You’re worth more than that, and Helen Bradley knows full well you are.She’s taking advantage of you, that’s whatshe’s doing.’He swigged his beer and eyed her thoughtfully.‘Anything else lined up?Have you seen any jobs advertised in the paper that you want to go for?’
She shook her head glumly and turned the electricity bill over so that its red letters would stop shouting at her.‘I’m actually kind of scared, Harry,’ she confessed.‘Spencer’s so ...not himself.I feel like we’re falling apart.If I could just get something – anything – to pay off some of our debts, it would be a start, but ...’
‘There’s a job going at The Partridge,’ he said.‘Lunchtime cover, and a couple of evenings behind the bar.I know it’s not the best job in the world –it’s not the best pay, either, I’m afraid – but I’m sure Dad would give it to you, if you were interested.’
Gemma was silent for a moment as she mulled over the offer.Pulling pints and washing glasses for Bernie Sykes was a far cry from her old job at Pop, designing outfits and managing a productionline.But beggars most certainly could not be choosers.Will had no trainers, the electricity bill was overdue along with all the others, and now that Melvilles, the developer, had left them highand dry, they didn’t have a prayer of making next month’s mortgage payment.Of course, being idiots, they had chosen not to take out insurance against future loss of earnings.‘Wewon’t need that,’ Spencer had assured the bank manager at the time.‘I’ve never had a day off sick in my life.’
That was back then, of course, when they still had optimism on their side.
‘I’ll take the job,’ she said.Chapter Seventeen
On the day of her scan Saffron must have checked her phone for new texts or emails at least nine hundred times, or so it seemed.No word had come from Max in reply to hersuggestion about meeting her there, though.No reply to her letter whatsoever in fact.She was taking that as a big fatNo, thanksboth to her and the baby.So there you had it.
However hard she tried to be Zen and cool about the whole thing – so what, anyway?plenty of women went it alone, and they and their children were perfectly happy – it was difficultto ignore the hope that lit up inside her like a flame as she reached the hospital and began following signs to the maternity wing.Max might be there in the ultrasound waiting area, she thought,increasing her pace with a new urgency.She’d walk through the door to find him rising to his feet expectantly, his eyes searching out her face.Is this okay?his expression would ask.Areweokay?
It could happen, couldn’t it?It really could!
She held her breath as she entered the waiting area, but he wasn’t there.Of course he wasn’t.Why had she even kidded herself it was a possibility?He was probably planning asnowboarding weekend with that foxy Mia right now.Maybe they were already out on the slopes: France, Italy, or somewhere further afield, like Colorado.Snow dazzling in the winter sunshine.Agorgeous wooden chalet, no expense spared.Schnapps and a hot tub for the après-ski ...
Don’t think about that.What’s the point?You were only with him for a few weeks; you shouldn’t have expected anything else.
She sat down, feeling very alone as she noticed that all the other people in the waiting room were either couples or fully-fledged families.Two toddlers were racing around, one on a minifire-engine, kicking his heels enthusiastically against the sides, the other with a fairy wand and a runny nose.Saffron flinched as the fire engine narrowly missed her toes, and she tried to smilein a ‘How cute!’way, but didn’t feel remotely prepared for this scary new world of wobbly-headed babies and small wild people.Plastic toys and nappies and random, unpredictablecrying fits ...She didn’t have a clue about any of it.How would she manage when she was solely responsible for her own child?
Don’t think about that.Plenty of time to learn the ropes.Everyone else seems to manage all right, don’t they?
She lowered herself into a seat and tore into a bag of Skips, trying not to look at the way the couple opposite her were holding hands.The man was looking at the woman with such tenderness itmade her want to cry.She wished someone was with her to look at her in that way.She wished someone was with her, full stop.But who?Zoe – her first choice after Max – was on theother side of the world and couldn’t exactly pop round.Her friend Kate was up to her eyes in work for her new start-up business.And her mum had been so flustered about not wanting to upsetEloise, and yet do the right thing for Saffron, that Saffron couldn’t bring herself to mention the scan.As for Eloise ...she’d heard nothing more from her sister since that awfulSunday dinner.‘She’s taken it badly,’ her mum said down the phone, ‘but I’m sure she’ll come round.’
‘Do you think?’Saffron replied doubtfully.Eloise had always been a sulker.Saffron and Zoe were the hot-headed sisters, who’d flare up in a row, shout and rage, then get overit five minutes later, but Eloise had the stamina to prolong a grievance for hours – days, sometimes – by dint of glowering and cold silences.And these were teenage arguments over themost trivial of things: stolen tights, borrowed hairbrushes, who was better at remembering the words to ‘Rapper’s Delight’.How long would the cloud of sulk last, when it came toSaffron’s accidental pregnancy?A month?A year?The baby could be grown up and starting driving lessons before Eloise deigned to ‘come round’, as their mum optimistically putit.
‘Course she will.Give her a bit of time.She’s so disappointed with her own news, she’s just struggling to be glad for anyone else, that’s all.Butwe’reglad for you – if this is what you want to do.’
Saffron wished her mum didn’t have to sound so uncertain, but never mind.They were where they were.She’d made her bed, she was lying on it and she would manage perfectly well onher own, without a bloke, and without her sisters too, if need be.
Back in the waiting area, the clinic seemed to be running late.It was already twenty minutes after Saffron’s appointment and, although three other women had been called in bysonographers, she was still there, crossing her legs and trying not to feel impatient.How much longer would she have to wait?She’d told Kayla, the office receptionist, that she was outmeeting a client; she didn’t want to draw any extra attention to herself by being away from her desk for hours on end.Besides, she was bursting for the loo.The letter she’d receivedhad instructed her to arrive with a full bladder, as this gave the best scan results, but all she could think about was how desperate she was to empty it.
She got up in relief.‘Yes, that’s me.’
She followed the stocky, fifty-something woman down a corridor and into a small consulting room with a bed.‘I’m Marie, I’m your sonographer today.Now, then, if you could liedown there for me, please, and undo the top of your trousers – that’s it, just push them down a bit.Thanks, lovey.’Marie had a soft Welsh accent and a kind, mumsy face.‘Is this your first?’
‘First baby?Yes.’Her fingers were all thumbs as she positioned herself on the bed, shoving down her stretchy black trousers and pulling up her pistachio-green shirt.There was acertain vulnerability about having your bare belly exposed, especially when it was newly plump and rounded, but Saffron was looking forward to seeing her baby again, being given another glimpse ofthat strange, watery black-and-white world.
‘And you’re ...let’s see.Twelve weeks and six days along, according to these dates.Does that sound right?’
‘Okay, good.So I’m going to do the nuchal-fold scan today, as you probably know.This is where we measure the thickness of the nuchal translucency, which is a little pocket of fluidat the back of the baby’s neck.’
Ridiculously, Saffron felt tearful at the mere mention of her baby’s neck.How she would kiss that soft little neck!
‘And then I’ll use this measurement, along with your age, to calculate the likelihood of your baby having genetic abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome.Is that allright?’
The words felt like a bucket of cold water tipped over her.‘Oh.Yes.Sure,’ she stammered.Genetic abnormalities.Down’s syndrome.Somehow she had overlooked the factthat this was why she was here at all.She had been so focused on eating healthily, taking folic acid, avoiding falling down Tube-station steps again, not receiving a reply from Max and, morerecently, how on earth she was going to patch things up with Eloise that it hadn’t occurred to her to worry about anything else.
‘Just to confirm: you’re thirty-eight,’ the sonographer said, clicking something on the computer.
‘Yes.’Old, in other words, to be having a first baby.Her midwife had actually written ‘Elderly primigravida’ on her notes.(‘Elderly?’Saffron had yelpedwhen she saw it.Elderly was a word she associated with wrinkled grannies in bath-chairs.Apparently you were considered ‘elderly’ if you had your first baby at thirty-five, though.Great.)
‘Let’s get started then.I’m just going to smear some of this gel on your tummy.It might be a bit on the chilly side, I’m afraid.’
Saffron held her breath as Marie picked up a transducer and pressed it quite hard at the base of her belly.By now, all sorts of terrible thoughts had rushed into her head.What if thebaby’s heart had stopped beating?It happened, didn’t it?A sudden, unexplained death.She didn’t think she could bear it if the baby was motionless on the ultrasound screen.
‘Let’s see ...here we are.’
There was movement.A waving anemone of baby limbs.Alive and kicking.Saffron allowed herself to smile for a moment.Hello, you.
‘Okay, so let’s just get a good clear view ...There.Now I can take a few measurements.’The sonographer clicked her mouse from point to point on screen and pressed variousbuttons.
‘Is the baby all right?’Saffron asked, unable to bear the silence.
‘Give me a minute and I’ll go through everything with you, as soon as I’m done.’
Click.Click.Click.Saffron was starting to feel twitchy.Why wasn’t Marie saying anything?
She’s just doing her job – be patient.Stop worrying.
I can’t help it.I wish Max was here.Why didn’t he come?Why didn’t he even reply?
‘Right, we’re done,’ Marie said, pulling sheets of blue paper towel off a roll and handing them to Saffron.‘Do you want to clean yourself up with this first, while Ijust crunch the numbers?’
Marie looked shifty, thought Saffron in alarm, wiping off the goo from her belly and doing up her trousers.Was it her imagination or was the sonographer avoiding meeting her eye?Was it badnews?Was she putting off telling her something?
‘So, Saffron.’Marie sat forward in her chair.A tiny gold cross rested on her plump, freckled cleavage.‘Taking measurements of the nuchal fold – the fluid at the backof the baby’s neck – and combining that in a calculation with your age gives us a risk factor.’
Yes, yes, you said that already.Get on with it.
‘It’s important to remember that it’s only a percentage of risk, and not a diagnosis, okay?’
‘Okay.’She had a bad feeling about this.A really bad feeling, right in the marrow of her bones.Please let the baby be all right.Please, Marie, don’t tell me anythingterrible.
‘When we measure the nuchal fold, if we get a thickness of three millimetres or more, then that can indicate an increased risk of Down’s syndrome.’
Saffron swallowed, her throat horribly dry.‘Right.’
‘Now your baby is measuring exactly three millimetres – so that does put you into this category of risk, but only just, okay?And remember this is simply a screening process,it’s not a certainty.’
Oh no.Please no.
‘Given your age and this thickness, I’ve calculated that there’s a one in thirty-six chance of your baby having Down’s syndrome.That being the case, I think it’swise for you to have an amniocentesis, which is a secondary test, to give us a clearer idea of what’s happening.’
Saffron felt numbed.All colours seemed to have been leached from the room.A one in thirty-six chance was not exactly brilliant odds, especially when it came to gambling on your baby’sfuture.She nodded shakily, trying to absorb the news.Five minutes ago she’d been worried about her full bladder and her ex-boyfriend whizzing down the slopes at Courchevel.Now she felt asif the ground had fallen away in front of her, revealing a whole new chasm of worry.‘Where ...’ She took a deep breath.‘Where should I go for this other test?Or can you dothat here?’
The sonographer looked surprised at the question.‘Oh.Sorry – I should have made that clear.You’ll have the amnio at sixteen weeks, we’ll send you a letter to book youin.’
Saffron stared at her.‘You mean ...I’ve got to wait four weeks before I know anything?’She must have misunderstood.Only the worst kind of sadist would keep you danglingthat long, surely?‘Can’t I have the test now?Or tomorrow?’
‘I’m sorry, love, no.It has to be done at a certain time in the pregnancy – when you’re sixteen weeks along.The doctor will ...Well, they’ll explain everythingin the letter.In fact I’ve got some leaflets here for you.Oh, darling, don’t cry.Come on, have a tissue.Can I phone someone to come and get you?’
Saffron couldn’t remember how she made it home afterwards.Somehow her legs must have walked her out of that awful room, onto a bus and all the way back to her flat, butnone of the details about the journey registered in her brain.It was only when she was back in the safety of her living room, weeping into her own sofa, that she realized it was three-thirty inthe afternoon and she had completely forgotten to go back to work.She turned her phone on and stared in horror at the twenty-seven missed calls and sixty-three new emails.It hadn’t evenoccurred to her that the rest of the world might be carrying on around her regardless.
The weekly team meeting would be under way by now and she’d completely failed to show up for it, let alone give any word of excuse or explanation.‘She just said she was meeting aclient,’ she imagined Kayla shrugging in that dippy, who-me?kind of way.Charlotte was no doubt livid and calling her all the names under the sun, but Saffron struggled to even care.Therewas no room in her brain right now for thoughts about meetings or clients or conference calls.All she could think about was Marie’s sympathetic face as she broke the news to her.A one inthirty-six chance.Genetic abnormalities.You’re going to have to wait another four weeks to be sure, though.
Saffron couldn’t remember ever feeling so confused and alone.She had read through the leaflet from the stenographer several times now and it made for very difficult reading.First of all,the amniocentesis itself sounded absolutely horrible – a long needle inserted into the womb to take a sample of amniotic fluid from around the baby.Her arm curled around her bellyprotectively at the thought.She didn’t want anyone sticking needles anywhere near her baby, thank you very much.Worse, there was a small risk of miscarriage, caused by the test itself.Inother words, by having the amnio she could actually be putting her baby’s life at risk.How could she live with herself if that happened, if she made the wrong choice?
The worst bit of all in the leaflet – and, quite frankly, there were several to choose from – was the section headed ‘What If My Test Is Positive?’Reading it just madeher cry all over again.Children born with Down’s syndrome can lead very happy lives,it assured her:
However, parents should be aware that they do risk potential health issues, such as heart problems, reduced hearing and poor vision.Other complications may includedigestive problems, cervical-spine dislocation and blood disorders.
Poor little babies, she thought in anguish.As if life wasn’t hard enough anyway.Then the leaflet got even harder to read:
You might choose to:
•Continue with the pregnancy and use the information from the test results in order to prepare for the birth and care of your baby
•Continue with the pregnancy and consider adoption; or
•End the pregnancy (have a termination).
Not a decision that anyone would find easy.She gnawed on her fingernails, pushing the leaflet aside, wishing she’d never gone for the scan at all.Then her phone rang and she let out adeep groan of despair as she saw the caller ID on screen.Oh, go away, Bunty.Really not the time, mate.
Sending the call to voicemail, she lay on her bed, wiped out.She should really ring the office and apologize for not being at the team meeting, lie about some terrible illness that had comeupon her all of a sudden.Otherwise Charlotte would be calling for her head on a block and there would be a P45 in the post.But how could she even string a sentence together, when her head wasswirling with so many fears and questions?
The only person who could comfort her now was Zoe, and she was halfway round the world, fast asleep on a warm Perth night, one tanned arm flung across Alexa, no doubt, without a care in theworld.She couldn’t speak to her parents about this – no way.How they would fuss and flap; her mum would be on Google in a nanoflash, scouring forums for stories, suggesting a secondopinion, crowding Saffron’s head with unhelpful information she’d discovered, articles she’d read in theTelegraph.All stemming from kindness and concern, undoubtedly, butwith so much hand-wringing and sadness – ‘Our poor little grandchild’ – it would only make Saffron feel worse.
As for Max ...Tears filled her eyes.Maybe it was just as well he hadn’t come with her to the scan.He already had two healthy children, hadn’t he?If he’d been at the scantoday and heard the news, he’d probably blame her for her crap DNA or aged ovaries, even if he didn’t say it out loud.He might even have backed away, hands up in surrender.Sorry,but do you know what?I can’t actually go through with this.
Ugggh.She couldn’t even drown her sorrows with a bucket of wine.
She wiped her eyes, blew her nose and took a deep breath, just as her phone started ringing again.Bunty.She let out a howl of frustration, sent the call to voicemail once more, then glaredsuspiciously at her phone as yet another new email pinged in.Get away from it all for the weekend!the subject line said enticingly.
Yes please, Saffron thought.Getting away from it all sounded exactly what she needed.She thought longingly of her solitary New Year break in Suffolk – the long walks and open skies, thefreedom to do whatever she pleased without anyone hassling her, a little bolthole away from London, clients and Max.
She glanced back at her phone and realized that the email was a newsletter from the Cottage Holidays website, through which she’d booked her New Year retreat.Get away from it all forthe weekend,she read again, clicking open the message.20 per cent off deals for last-minute bookings.Give us a call and we’ll find you the perfect place for your mini-break!
God, it was tempting.She could do it right now, she told herself – book a cottage somewhere, pack a few things and jump in the car.Maybe the world was giving her a little nudge, showingher what she needed to do.
She thought about it for at least three seconds, then made her decision.If she stayed in the flat much longer, the walls would start closing in.She’d send a grovelling email to Charlottesaying she was on her sickbed with gastroenteritis and violent diarrhoea (embarrassment and Britishness should put a stop to any awkward questions), then she’d escape from London, just untilshe’d pulled herself together.
Why not?What was stopping her?
Nothing was stopping her.She pressed Dial on her phone and got her credit card ready.‘Hello,’ she said, when a friendly-sounding man answered.‘I was wondering whatavailability you’ve got for a cottage this week.Anywhere in the South-East, to be honest, although Suffolk would be lovely ...How long?Er ...Four nights?It’s just forme.’She paused to listen, then smiled.‘That would be absolutely perfect.I’ll take it.’Chapter Eighteen
‘So, what seems to be the problem?’
She must stop thinking about dodgy old porn films, where the tradesman came to the door, all buff and hunky, and the lonely housewife let slip her sheer dressing gown and bent over the kitchentable.Oi, enough.Stop it, Caitlin!
‘Um ...The cooker’s not working properly.It never gets very hot.’
Talking of hot, Harry Sykes was looking particularly fine today: white T-shirt and battered jeans, toolbox in hand, just a fuzz of sandy stubble along his jaw.Mmm.Hello, sailor.‘Howabout the kettle?’he asked, raising an eyebrow.
She was so busy trying to keep her composure – had she placed too much emphasis on the word ‘hot’?– that she didn’t get his hint immediately.‘The kettle?Yeah, it’s fine.Oh,’ she said, the penny dropping.‘Do you want a coffee?Tea?’
‘Thought you’d never ask,’ he said with a grin.‘Coffee, please.Milk and two sugars.’
She had her laptop open on the kitchen table, with the baby-food website to be getting on with –Don’t mind me, I always work in here, honest– but once she’d madethem both coffees, she found herself distracted by the sight of him heaving the cooker out from its place against the wall so as to fiddle with the electrics.All the muscles in his back stood outas he did so, and his biceps bulged under the fabric of his top.Corrr.
‘Hey, by the way,’ he said, turning round unexpectedly and catching her perving.Embarrassing – she was totally acting like a dirty old housewife.‘I told my sister I wascoming here today, and she said that your mum delivered Clemmy, my niece.Small world.’
‘The One Direction fan?’Caitlin asked, remembering the stickers all over Harry’s van.
‘The very same.Probably came into the world singing and dancing, that one.But yeah, my sister Sam said your mum was amazing.The most wonderful midwife ever.’
Caitlin felt warmth rush into her face.First Gemma and now Harry gifting her these lovely shared memories of Jane.‘That’s so nice to hear,’ she said after a moment.‘She was a pretty great mum, too.’
‘I bet.Sam said she absolutely doted on Clemmy whenever she came round.Bet you’ve got tons of baby photos piled up here, haven’t you?’
Caitlin smiled.‘Probably, yeah.’She hadn’t actually got round to sorting through the photo albums yet.Another job she’d been putting off.
Harry cleared his throat rather self-consciously.‘Shame she’s not around any more,’ he said, bending to fiddle with a complicated tangle of wires.‘Could have done withher help this summer.’
Once again Caitlin was too distracted by the way his shirt strained over his broad back to register what he was saying straight away.‘This summer?Oh!’What?Did he mean whatshe thought he meant?‘You’re having ababy?’she asked in a too-high pitch.‘I mean, not you, obviously.But ...you’re going to be a dad?’
He shrugged.‘Looks that way.’
The erotic home movie of electrician-meets-lonely-designer (Sparks Will Fly!) abruptly stopped playing in her head, as if the movie reel had spun off its axle.Oh shit!Damn it.Was itthe stiletto-stamper who was up the duff?Bollocks.
‘Congratulations,’ she said after a too-long pause, remembering that this was what you were supposed to say in such situations.‘Does this mean you’re going to break yourNew Year’s resolution about not marrying anyone?’
He shrugged again.For a father-to-be, he didn’t exactly look over the moon about this development, it had to be said.‘Dunno,’ he mumbled, selecting a screwdriver from histoolbox.‘Me and Jade had split up before she found out, which kind of dumps on the whole romance-vibe.But anyway, it is what it is.She’s happy.I’m ...happy.’
He sowasn’thappy.It was the first time she’d seen him without any kind of smile.‘Right.Good.Excellent,’ she said, busying herself with a tricky piece ofcode.Inside, her mind roiled as it tried to digest this major piece of news.Now was definitely not the time to start trotting out the flirty lines of banter she’d planned.By announcing hisimminent parent status he’d politely drawn a line in the sand, over which she was forbidden to tread.Maybe the whole spiel he’d given about her mum was a load of cobblers, and merely ameans of getting round to the subject of babies.
She glanced at her laptop screen where she’d typed a string of utter gibberish.Take a chance,the fortune-cookie had said, but she was barking up the wrong tree here.A tree thatwas already taken.
You stupid bitch, you are MENTAL,Flynn gloated in her head, the words from his letter leaping out at her again.Do you think anyone else is going to want you?You’re not evenattractive.You’re a fucking JOKE.
‘Ah,’ said Harry just then, leaning forward and twiddling his screwdriver.‘Gotcha.’
He gave her a triumphant grin and she forced herself to smile back at him.Idiot, she thought, feeling dejected.Look at him, will you?He’s bloody scrumptious.Way out of your league.Don’t kid yourself he’d ever be interested in the likes of you, Lanky-legs.
Still, if nothing else, at least she’d get a working cooker out of today.She’d go crazy and celebrate with another can of beans, piping hot this time.‘Woooo,’ shemuttered under her breath.Living on the edge.
Once Harry had gone, she abandoned her pretence at doing any website work – she couldn’t concentrate – and went on with her mission to sort out the cottage.With Gemma’s help, she had sorted through her mum’s wardrobe earlier in the week and cleared out all of the clothes and bags stuffed in there.Gemma, who was always on the lookout forinteresting material, had taken lots of the clothes with her, and the house felt lighter without them, as if a heavy emotional layer had been lifted away.
The living room was her next port of call, and boy, did it need help.The wallpaper – cream vinyl, with a repeating pattern of roses – was scuffed in places and peeling away abovethe window.The three-piece suite was in dusty plum-coloured velour, worn on the armrests, with cushions so flattened they looked as if they’d been lounged on by a family of elephants.Thecarpet was cheap and manky – brown-and-white swirls – and had been there for as long as Caitlin could remember.She had perfected headstands on this carpet, her feet against the wall,and could still remember the giddy feeling of delight as the room swung upside down.But now it all had to go.
She heaved and hauled the furniture into the dining room, where she crammed it in, higgledy-piggledy.The faded, dusty curtains were fit only for the dump, and came down, and then she ripped thecarpet from its spiky grippers and began rolling it up, revealing lovely wide floorboards beneath.
While she was doing this, the disappointing conversation with Harry replayed endlessly in her head.Thank goodness he’d said it, really, before she’d done something rash, like throwher bra at him.(Take a chance!) Imagine the humiliation if she’d actually come out with a cheesy pick-up line and he’d knocked her back.Er ...wow, I’m reallyflattered, but, like – you know, NO.You weirdo.
Yeesh.She should be grateful she’d spared herself that little moment at least.
It wasn’t until she was halfway across the living room, with the carpet and underlay in an enormous bulky Swiss roll, a thick cloud of dust swirling in her wake, that her mind snagged onsomething Harry had said.Bet you’ve got tons of baby photos piled up here, haven’t you?
A perfectly innocuous comment, at face value.He’d probably not even been conscious of saying it, preoccupied with making his bombshell baby-father announcement.The weird thing was that,now that he’d said it, she couldn’t remember seeing a single picture of herself as a baby.Her mind had gone completely blank.What did she even look like?
She stood in the middle of the room, hands on her hips, sieving uselessly through her brain.For goodness’ sake.This was ridiculous.She was having a senile moment at the grand old age ofthirty-two.Whatdidshe look like as a baby?
Abandoning the carpet, she wiped her hands on her jeans and went to remind herself.As soon as she opened the photo albums she’d surely remember, and then she’d feel like a totalspanner for forgetting in the first place.Her mum and dad had documented everything else so thoroughly in her childhood – finger-painting at playgroup!, The infants’ sports day!,Sitting on a donkey at Great Yarmouth, absolutely rigid with fear!, In Brownie uniform proudly doing a three-finger salute!– that there had to be hundreds of tedious small-baby-in-hatphotos.She’d probably blanked them out through sheer boredom.
The photo albums had all been on the bookshelves in the living room, but due to her recent clear-out were now in a box on the dining-room floor.Right.Let’s see you then, baby Caitlin, inall your embarrassing naked-in-a-bath glory.She lifted out the first few and leafed through.A very early collection, with Jane and Steve in cool Seventies gear, back when they were first marriedand still living in Scotland.Bless.
A much later album with Caitlin as a teenager, all white panstick make-up, curled lip and bovver boots.Like that was ever a good look.
A book of photos of Caitlin as a toddler, most of which featured her with food all over her face and a naughty grin.Some things never changed.
On and on Caitlin went through the lovingly assembled collections, feeling increasingly confused.There were no baby photos.Not one.Why would that be?She didn’t understand.Her mumloved babies.Given her time again, Jane Fraser would have been one of those annoying mums on Facebook documenting every last fart her precious child produced.Like!
She reached the final photo album, but it was a fairly recent one, of Mum and some friends on a cruise, all in big sunhats, brandishing lurid cocktails.Harry was wrong.There weren’t tonsof baby photos at all.She couldn’t find a single one.‘What’s going on?’she asked aloud, trying to ignore the sick, strange feeling churning up inside her.‘Idon’t understand, Mum.Where are all the pictures?I wasn’t that ugly a baby, was I?’
She must have missed something.There must be a whole box of them somewhere.There just had to be.
Rocking back on her heels, she checked through all of the albums again, more painstakingly this time.The earliest photo she could find was when she was about two, at a guess, dressed in acorduroy pinafore dress with her dark hair falling in a shining bowl-cut.Jane was holding her, a dazzling smile on her face as she looked down at little Caitlin, real love in her eyes.MeanwhileCaitlin had the same expression she’d had on the seafront donkey: shell-shocked and kind of nervous, her body held rigid.
Very, very faintly a bell was ringing in her head as if this picture had great resonance.But what?
Caitlin stared at this page in the album for a long time.Then, her fingers clammy, she peeled back the protective cellophane and took the picture from its sticky backing.Turning it over, shesaw in her mum’s careful cursive handwriting:A special day.June 1st, 1983.Caitlin!
She dropped the photo as if it were red-hot.June 1st?That was Family Day, the day they’d always celebrated with Victoria sponge, fresh strawberries and champagne.Just because, Jane hadsaid, shrugging, as if the date were a purely random selection.Sometimes it’s good to celebrate your family and think about how lucky you are.Champagne, though.On her parents’meagre salaries!They weren’t the sort of people to splash out on champagne unless it was a special occasion.
She glanced at the photo again.She looked so uncomfortable in Jane’s arms.Frightened, almost.Jane was gazing at her with adoration, but Caitlin looked as if she didn’t know whatthe hell was going on.A special day.June 1st, 1983.Caitlin!
It was that exclamation mark that kept nagging at her.That wasn’t normal, was it?As if it was the first time she’d appeared in their lives.As if they’d only just met.
No.Just no.Shut up, Caitlin.She was definitely losing the plot.
I’m sorry, hen,she remembered her mum saying as she lay dying.I should have told you.I never knew how to say it.
I’m sorry, hen.
I’m sorry, hen.
Nausea rose inside her, hot and sour, and she ran from the room, her heart booming.Chapter Nineteen
‘That’s nine pounds fifty-eight, please.Thanks very much.’Gemma took the ten-pound note offered to her and opened the till.
‘Thank you, darling.Earning a bit of extra pocket money, are we?’
Gemma’s smile tightened on her face as she put the forty-two pence change into Bill Perkins’s outstretched hand.‘Something like that,’ she said and walked away down thebar.‘Ladies.What can I get you?’
She’d been working in The Partridge for three days now and was slowly getting to grips with having a job for the first time in twelve years.She had learned to pour a pint of Adnamswithout topping it with two inches of yellow froth, how to work the glass-washer and navigate the temperamental electronic till, and she was getting to know the regulars and their particularquirks.For instance, she now knew that Brian Butters kept his own silver tankard behind the bar and refused to drink from anything else.Tight old John McNaught would always wait for his singlepenny change, rather than wave an airy hand and say, ‘Don’t worry about it’, like every other normal person did.And Louise Brierley, who was supposedly on a health kick, wouldlean over the bar and whisper huskily for a sneaky vodka to be added to her orange juice, ‘But don’t tell my hubby, love, all right?’
Like Bill Perkins, a few other people had raised an eyebrow when they saw Gemma behind the bar.‘Don’t you live in that lovely big farmhouse?’one lady asked in surprise whenGemma served her, as if people in lovely big farmhouses couldn’t possibly need to earn a couple of extra quid.
‘Yes, that’s me,’ she replied briskly, hurrying through the order before the next question, starting ‘So why ...?’, could be asked.
It was fun enough work, though, sociable and varied, particularly in the evenings when they had a bigger crowd.She enjoyed chatting to people she wouldn’t normally mix with – someof the old men, for example, were just adorable; and Bernie, the landlord, was brilliant.What she was most looking forward to, though, was the Friday pay packet: the little brown envelope withcash and a payslip, every penny of it earned by her.It might be ‘pocket money’ to the likes of Bill Perkins, but it would make a big difference to Gemma.Hard cash in her purse again,money actually cominginto the family, rather than pouring out.Admittedly the sum she was earning was a pittance, as Harry had said so apologetically, but a pittance could at leastcontribute in its own small way.
She’d telephoned the utility companies and told them she was now working and was very much going to pay the bills, but please could she have a bit of leeway for the time being?Most ofthem agreed that she could pay off a small amount of what she owed every few weeks, provided such payments remained regular and consistent.So that had bought them a tiny gasp of breathing space atleast.As for the mounting credit-card bills ...well, she’d have to cross that bridge when she came to it.Until she could scrape together some more money, she had simply decided to stoplooking at them, stuffing the envelopes unopened in a drawer.There were only so many sleepless nights of worry that a woman could cope with, before she had a nervous breakdown.
The next mortgage payment was due at the end of the month.She was trying not to think about that, either, although the panic often seized her as she lay in bed at night, with images of bailiffsat the door leaving her unable to doze off.There was still no sign of any compensation payment for Spencer, even though she had made the application herself now and gone round to the scaffoldingfirm in person, only to beg despairingly in their office.(How to make a tit of yourself, part 937.) But anyway, she was doing her best.
Unfortunately, news of her job hadn’t gone down too well at home.Darcey had been positively dismayed.‘But I will miss you,’ she said, her lower lip sticking out.‘Whatabout my bedtime story?’
Will, too, was unimpressed.‘Oh, great.How intellectual!My mum’s a barmaid?You’d better not tell any of my friends.’
As for Spencer ...he wasn’t exactly thrilled, either.‘I don’t want all those blokes leering at you,’ he grumbled, although she suspected it was more the fact that shehad replaced him as Family Breadwinner that he didn’t like.It obviously offended his macho ideas of how a husband and wife should operate.Yeah, well, that’s been really successfullately, hasn’t it?she felt like saying.It took all of her patience not to fling the red bills in his face and point out that this outdated mindset would see them ending up on thestreets with a begging bowl, if they weren’t careful.
‘I’m just being practical,’ she said through gritted teeth.‘I thought this was a good solution.’When he said nothing, she couldn’t resist adding,‘Otherwise, maybe we should seriously consider what Will suggested the other evening and sell some of our things to raise a bit of capital.While you’re not driving, we could sell theM—’
‘I’m not selling my Mazda,’ he said furiously.‘I’m not a fucking cripple.I’ll be able to drive again in a few months, the doctor said.’
‘All right, I just thought I’d mention it.’
‘I’m not selling, Gem.No way.’
‘All right!In which case, I need to work.We’ve got no choice.’
To make a point about how disgruntled he felt, he went and sat in his wretched car, all alone, in the gloom of the garage, like a big sulky baby.Gemma ignored him.She had a job to go to anddidn’t have the energy for yet another argument.Besides, Spencer was due to have the cast off his ankle soon, and she was clinging to the hope that this would lift his mood again.Somethinghad to.
‘He’s been quite low,’ she had blurted out to the doctor, when they went back to the hospital for a check-up the week before.‘I’ve been wondering if maybehe’s depressed.I’ve been reading up about Post-Concussion Syndrome and ...’
The look Spencer gave her was so ferocious she could have sworn the ground quaked.‘Wouldn’t anyone be depressed?’he spat.‘I’m not exactly going to be cheerfulabout this, am I?Who would?’
The consultant – a woman in her fifties, with watchful brown eyes and a calm, measured manner – said to Spencer, ‘This sort of thing tests everyone’s patience and goodhumour.But if you’re finding it too much, then we can certainly talk about—’
‘No,’ Spencer said, visibly annoyed.‘I’m not finding it too much.And I don’t want to be drugged up on any happy pills, either.Got that?’
They hadn’t spoken the entire way home.He didn’t even moan about her driving, as he usually did.At last, as she was pulling into the driveway, he rounded on her.‘Don’tever do that again.’
‘Talk about me as if I’m not there.Tell a doctor your opinion of me and how best to fix me, like I’m some kind of child who can’t speak for himself.Let me handle it,all right?’
He clambered awkwardly out of the car, with a painfully slow shuffle and swing of his crutches, silently daring her to offer help.She knew better by now.Instead, she sat there in thedriver’s seat, watching as he leaned shakily against the porch, fumbled for his door keys, then let himself in.The front door gave an imperious slam behind him.
She let out a long shuddering sigh, her breath steaming in the cold air.When Spencer behaved like this – so pig-headed, so bloody self-centred, as if he was the only person who matteredin the entire world – she sometimes fantasized about driving away and leaving him behind.And good bloody riddance!
But in the next moment she thought of her mum, doing exactly that with the waiter from Ibiza, and a thousand childhood hurts reared up and stung her all over again.For years she had lain in bedevery night listening for the sound of her mum’s footsteps tottering up the front path – footsteps that never came.She had wished on every blown-out birthday candle, and every stir ofthe Christmas pudding with Grandma, that Karen would come home.On every significant occasion growing up – Christmas concerts, wobbly teeth, her first period – she’d wanted hermum there.Her dad had been Superman, nobody could have been a better father, but despite his best attempts there was still a gap in the house, an empty, ghostly presence.And now here she was,wishing herself away, to leave her own empty space.
More like your mother than you thought, after all,whispered a mean voice in her head.
No.She wasn’t like her mum.There was no way she would ever walk out on Will and Darcey.But Spencer?It had crossed her mind a few times lately.
She twisted the wedding ring on her finger and steamed up the windows with another sigh.In sickness and in health, remember?
Yep.She remembered.For richer, for poorer, too.If ever there was a test of her marriage vows, then this was it.
As well as working in the pub, Gemma had a couple of sewing jobs on the go – the bridesmaid dresses and the curtains – and had taken to working up in the tiny boxroom at the front of the house, away from the blasting telly and Spencer’s complaints.Sewing had always been her thing, right from the summer when she was about Darcey’s age andstaying with her grandparents for a fortnight while her dad worked.Grandma Pepper had the most wonderful bag of scrap material – all colours, all fabrics – as well as a button tin anda bulging sewing box.While Grandad took the boys out fishing and kite-flying, Gemma had a crash-course in sewing with Grandma, threading her first needle and making her first clumsy, wobblingstitches.By the end of the fortnight she had stitched an entire wardrobe of outfits for her dolls and teddies and was hooked.
These days Will wouldn’t be seen dead wearing anything his mum made for him, but Gemma still made skirts and dresses for Darcey, and for herself too of course.She had set up her sewingtable by the window of the box room so that she could gaze out at the street below while she sewed, and enjoyed seeing the comings and goings of her neighbours: Mrs Belafonte walking herLabradoodles; and Jan, the harassed-looking mum from number twenty-six, hurrying to playgroup with her three-year-old toddler twins.And you could set your watch by Mr Ranger, the elderly gent wholived in the rundown corner house, setting off for his midday pint of ale.
One afternoon she was surprised to see a different person walking up the lane.A young woman with a carrier bag of groceries from the Spar, who was familiar, yet not instantly recognizable.Longred hair that streamed like ribbons in the wind, a black trench coat, a short flared skirt over leggings and boots.Then she realized it was the woman who’d stayed next door over New Year.Sophia, was it?An unusual name, beginning with S.Sapphire?Suzanne?
Gemma frowned, the name on the tip of her tongue.Saffron, that was it!She had been really funny and nice, teaching everyone the ‘Single Ladies’ routine after the clockstruck midnight.They’d had a right laugh that night.
She watched, her sewing forgotten, as Saffron reached the cottage next door, put down her bag of shopping and rummaged in her coat pocket for the door key.Then, as if she could feel the weightof Gemma’s gaze, she turned and looked in the direction of The Granary.Busted, Gemma thought guiltily, feeling herself blush.Caught noseying.She held her hand up in a little wave and triedto look surprised, as if she’d only just seen her.
Saffron smiled and waved back, then pointed at her door, holding up her hands in a T symbol.Then she mimed drinking something, which might have been a cup of tea or possibly a pint of wine.Gemma wasn’t about to say no to either.She put two thumbs up, switched off her sewing machine and hurried downstairs.‘Just popping next door,’ she yelled.
‘You came back!’she cried as Saffron opened the door and let her in.Then the smile slipped from Gemma’s face as she saw how terrible Saffron lookedclose-up.Puffy bloodshot eyes with enormous bags underneath, spots around her mouth, a general look of despair.Oh my goodness, she must be ill, thought Gemma, her heart squeezing in worry.Ill orrecently dumped – maybe both.‘Is everything okay?’she asked tentatively, hoping her alarm wasn’t too visible.
‘Well, I’ve been better,’ Saffron replied breezily with a brave, trying-her-hardest sort of smile, but her shoulders sagged, a dead giveaway.No, she was not okay.‘Come in.It’s good to see you again.’
‘You too.When did you get here?And how long are you staying this time?’
‘I arrived a few days ago.Kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision really, just upped and left.I’m not sure how long I’ll stay.’She hesitated as if she was about to saymore, but then plastered on that terrible fake smile again instead.Who was she trying to kid?Gemma had been staring despair full in the face herself recently and she recognized a fellow suffererfrom twenty paces.
‘Come in, anyway.My drink options are limited to tea or coffee, but I’ve just bought some chocolate Hobnobs, which you’re welcome to share.’
In the small kitchen Saffron filled the kettle and took two clean mugs out of the cupboard while Gemma sat at the table.‘How are things then?Last time I saw you, we were dancing underthat glitterball in your living room and making our New Year’s resolutions.’
‘That’s right.’Gemma snorted.‘And planning world domination after reading our fortune-cookies.Not that I’ve made my fortune yet, sadly.Quite the opposite, to behonest.’
She must have been sounding more despondent than she intended, because Saffron quirked an eyebrow.‘That doesn’t sound good.’
‘No.’There was a waiting sort of silence.Cards-on-the-table time.‘It’s my husband,’ she said heavily after a few moments.‘Gone and broken his back,hasn’t he?Well, a couple of vertebrae anyway, and an ankle for good measure, too.So he’s stuck at home, out of work, and it’s all been pretty ...’ Her throat felt tightall of a sudden.‘Pretty shit, frankly.’
Saffron slid into the chair opposite her, abandoning the tea-making.‘Oh no.So sorry to hear that.He is going to be all right, isn’t he?’
‘Yeah, eventually.But in the meantime things are a bit tight, money-wise.I’m working in the pub and taking on some dressmaking jobs, but we’re kind of hand-to-mouth rightnow.’Now it was Gemma’s turn to slap on an artificial smile.Enough already.‘But we’ll be okay.We’ll manage.How about you?’
Saffron knotted her fingers together in her lap.‘Well, the short version is that I’m pregnant and the father doesn’t want to know, which is absolutely fine by the way –I mean, I can totally cope on my own.’
Whoa.So that was why she looked so strained and tired.‘Of course you can,’ Gemma told her bracingly; the only possible response.
‘But then the other day I went along for a scan and ...’ Her face crumpled.‘And they said there might be complications – because I’m so bloody ancient anddecrepit, basically.But I’ve got to wait f ...f ...four weeks for another test to f ...f ...find out!’She put her head in her hands and burst into sobs.
‘Oh, love,’ cried Gemma, rushing round the table to put an arm around her.Every pregnant woman’s worst fear.‘Oh God, what a nightmare.How awful.’She strokedSaffron’s hair, feeling desperately sorry for her.And the father ...He doesn’t know this yet?’
Saffron shook her head, red-eyed.‘He wouldn’t care anyway.I tried to tell him about the baby, but he ...he’s got another girlfriend now.’
Gemma’s jaw dropped in indignation.‘Already?That’s bloody charming, isn’t it?Sounds like you’re better off without him.’
‘Well, that’s the thing,’ Saffron said, her voice laced with misery.‘It was an accident.We’d only been together a few weeks.’
‘Oh no.’Gutted.‘That must have come as a surprise.’
‘Tell me about it.And at first I was so freaked out and shocked I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to keep the baby.That’s why I came here at New Year, to try and get my headaround everything.’She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.‘Then I decided I reallydidwant the baby, so I wrote him a letter to tell him about it.’
‘And what did he say?’
‘Nothing.’You could see the pain in Saffron’s face.‘Absolutely nothing.In the letter I mentioned the scan, in case he wanted to come along, but no.Didn’tshow.’
Gemma shook her head.‘The bastard.Honestly,men.What would it have taken for him to make one phone call?To meet you and talk about it, like a grown-up?Some people have no senseof decency.’She squeezed Saffron’s shoulder and straightened up.‘Let me make you that tea.No, sit there, I’ll do it.Where are these Hobnobs, then?You need to keep yourstrength up, remember.’
‘Thanks,’ Saffron said, as Gemma made the tea and tipped half the packet of biscuits onto a plate.‘I don’t know how I’m going to manage.I’m terrified ofhaving to do everything on my own.I haven’t got a clue about babies.’
‘Most people feel like that at first,’ Gemma assured her.‘I know I did.As for the test – an amnio, is it?It’s the hospital taking precautions, that’s all,taking extra care of you.Look, if you give me a bit of notice, I’ll come with you if you want.I will!’The words were out before she remembered her new job in the pub, not to mentionhow expensive it was to get into London on the train these days.
Saffron looked as if she was about to cry again.‘That is so sweet of you.Thank you.’She rubbed her eyes.‘My sister said the same when I Skyped her last night, butit’s not exactly practical because ...’ She broke off, sniffing, and stood up.‘Sorry, let me just grab a tissue and blow my nose.Back in a minute.’
She left the room and Gemma heard her thudding upstairs to the bathroom.Just then Saffron’s mobile started ringing on the table.Caller unknown, it said on the display.
Gemma hesitated.‘Your phone’s ringing!’she called, but there was no answer.The walls in these stone cottages were so thick, the sound didn’t travel much at all.Afterthree more rings, Gemma picked up the phone and answered it.‘Hello, Saffron’s phone?’she said politely.
‘At last!’came a flustered voice.‘I tried the office and they said you were ill, but I was so desperate to talk to you, I had to try.You won’tbelievewhatTroy’s done now, the despicable little shit ...’
‘Oh.Excuse me?This isn’t actually Saffron,’ Gemma said over the garbled torrent.‘Sorry, I just picked up her phone.She’s upstairs.’
‘In the flat?But I just tried ringing there.Where are you?’
‘I’m ...’ Gemma hesitated.‘Well, in Suffolk.I live next door to the cottage where—’
‘Suffolk?She didn’t tell me she was going to Suffolk!’The voice was familiar for some reason, shrill and indignant as it was.‘So where are you?I’ll driveover.’
‘Um ...’ Gemma wished Saffron would hurry up and take over this call herself, but now she could hear the loo flushing and water running upstairs.‘I ...Look, who isthis?’
‘It’s B—’ For a moment Gemma thought the line had gone dead, but then the woman said, ‘It’s her sister.’
‘Oh!Shall I get her to call you back?’
‘Tell you what, just give me the address and I’ll drive over.Chat about it with her in person.I could do with getting out of London.’
There was something odd about this conversation, but Gemma didn’t want to be rude or start quibbling, especially when Saffron had just said herself how nice her sister had been aboutoffering to come to the amnio with her.Besides, judging by the state Saffron was in, a visit from her sister was probably exactly what she needed right now.‘Okay,’ she said haltingly,then proceeded to give her directions to Larkmead and the cottage.
‘Splendid.Thank you!I’ll head off immediately.Tell her to put some wine in the fridge, for goodness’ sake!’
Gemma put the phone down, frowning.She hadn’t expected Saffron’s sister to sound quite so bossy.And why would she think Saffron had any wine, when she knew she was pregnant?
‘Sorry about that,’ Saffron said, coming back into the room a minute later.‘My bladder – honestly, it thinks it’s a tap these days.’
Gemma smiled faintly.‘I remember that, from being pregnant with my two.’She nodded down at the phone.‘I just took a call for you while you were upstairs, I hope that’sokay.I did try shouting to you, but I don’t think you heard.’
‘Who was it?’
‘Your sister.She said she’s going to get in her car and come straight over.I gave her the address.’She paused.‘It was a bit weird, really.’
Saffron’s pale-blue eyes had opened very wide.‘Eloise?What does she want?How did she sound?’
‘Well ...Kind of manic, really.She was saying something about Troy.Being a despicable little shit?’
‘Troy?But he’s ...’ Saffron’s jaw dropped and a few seconds ticked by while she stared in disbelief.‘Oh no.She wouldn’t.’
‘What?I don’t understand.Have I done something wrong?’
‘I’ve got two sisters – one’s in Australia, and the other’s not speaking to me right now.I think the woman you just spoke to is ...’ She groaned.‘Ican’t believe this.’
‘What?Who?’Gemma felt absolutely mortified.She should never have answered that phone.Meanwhile Saffron looked as if she might be sick.
‘Bunty fucking Halsom, that’s who.My client from hell.The woman I’d love never to see again.’She made a growl of frustration.‘It must be her – she’sbeen seeing someone called Troy and is completely obsessed with him.Oh Christ!’
Gemma clapped a hand to her mouth.Bunty Halsom from the telly?‘That’s why her voice was familiar,’ she said weakly.‘I’m so sorry.She told me she was yoursister, and I just thought ...’
‘That bloody woman.Of all the nerve.Honestly, I could throttle her, I really could.No idea about boundaries.No idea whatsoever!’She grabbed her phone and began dialling.Gemmaheard it ring a few times and then a voicemail kick in.‘Bunty?This is Saffron Flint.Please do not come to Suffolk.I do not want to see you right now.I am on holiday and will not answerthe door.Do you understand?I will not answer the door!’
Saffron could not believe the brass neck of Bunty.To lie like that, so outrageously, pretending to be her sister in order to weasel out her whereabouts ...It was anatrocious way to behave.What was this womanon?And of all the times for her to turn up unwanted, this was definitely the worst.Saffron could hardly cope with living inside her own headright now, let alone gear up to deal with Bunty in any kind of professional manner.In the space of two minutes her place of refuge had become a trap, with the clock now ticking down to the arrivalof her uninvited and decidedly unwelcome guest.Incandescent with fury, it was only Gemma’s utterly stricken expression that prevented Saffron from going nuclear.
‘I did think there was something strange about the conversation,’ Gemma gulped, wringing her hands.‘But I thought: I can’t start arguing with your sister and refusing totell her anything.I’m so sorry, though.I’m really, really sorry.You can hide at my house if you want.I’ll deal with her and send her packing when she gets here.’
Saffron’s rage cooled a fraction at the sincerity in Gemma’s brown eyes.She had only acted as any other normal person would, in assuming that the ‘sister’ on the otherend of the phone was kosher.It wasn’t Gemma’s fault that Bunty was a complete bloody lunatic.‘It’s all right,’ she said.‘If I had an ounce more energy,I’d just drive back to London right now, but I’ll stay and face the music.’She pulled a face.‘I’ll probably turn the air around Pear Tree Lane blue by the time Ifinish with her, though.’
‘I’d drive you back myself, but I’ve got a ton of sewing to do, and then I’m working in the pub,’ Gemma said, still with that anxious look.‘I could jugglethings around, though, if you really want to go.’
Saffron heaved a sigh.It had taken her an hour and a half to get here; she couldn’t ask Gemma to do such a thing.‘No.You’re all right.Tell me about this sewing then: whatare you making?’
She drank her tea and listened as Gemma described the pale-pink organza dresses she had designed, and her anger subsided a little more.Privately she couldn’t get over how different Gemmalooked, since she’d been the hostess-with-the-mostest back at the New Year party, with that divine blue dress, her hair coiffed, lashings of lippy.She hadn’t stopped laughing andteasing everyone the whole evening.Now her face was sunken and her eyes had lost all their humour and sparkle.
‘Talking of which, I’d better go,’ Gemma said eventually, glancing up at the clock.‘I meant it, by the way, about that awful Bunty woman.If you can’t face dealingwith her, I’ll put a flea in her ear and send her packing.Or I’ll threaten her with one of Spencer’s crutches.Okay?’
‘Okay.And thanks for earlier – listening to me going on, I mean.I swear I didn’t invite you over just to burst into tears on you.’
Gemma patted her arm comfortingly.‘Any time.Seriously.And hey, thanks for listening to me, too.Cheaper than therapy, right?I feel much better for having a bit of a moan.’Shepaused at the front door, then surprised Saffron with a hug.‘Take care of yourself,’ she said.‘Pop round if you want some company, all right?’
‘Thanks.I will do.Bye, Gemma.’
After she’d gone, Saffron sank onto the sofa feeling wearied by the prospect of Bunty’s imminent arrival and wishing she knew what to do.Her friend Kate would probably tell her tosee Bunty off the premises with a shotgun, which was tempting, but perhaps not advisable.In the past, her boss Charlotte had assured her she could take any gripes about Bunty straight to her desk,but Saffron had always preferred to tough it out, rather than admit defeat.Anyway she could hardly phone the office for advice now, because as far as Charlotte was concerned, Saffron was at home,puking over the toilet bowl, rather than in a holiday cottage in Suffolk.
She shut her eyes and put her feet up, too tired to think any more.She would keep her cool, she vowed, and be polite, yet firm.Whatever happened, though, she would not let Bunty Halsom stepone foot over the threshold, and that was that.
Saffron jolted awake at the sound of the voice.The room was dark.How long had she been asleep?She rubbed her eyes and wiped what felt suspiciously like dribble from her mouth, then sat upstraighter as she heard footsteps.
‘Saffron?Are you in here?’came the voice again.A voice that sounded suspiciously like ...oh no.Already?So much for warding Bunty off at the threshold.
Saffron scrambled to her feet as the living-room door opened and Bunty came in and switched the light on.‘Ah!There you are.The door was on the latch, so I let myself in.Lovely place!Shall I pour us an aperitif, or do you have wine?Did you get my message about Troy, by the way?He has been unspeakably vile, you know.You’ll never guess—’
It was like being in a nightmare.Saffron immediately forgot all her plans to be calm and professional.‘What the hell do you think you’re playing at?’she snapped.
Her curt unfriendliness stopped Bunty mid-sentence.‘I ...Sorry, what?’
‘Lying that you were my sister so as to get my address.I have come here toconvalesce,’ she said angrily – not strictly true, but Bunty didn’t need to know that– ‘and you have the nerve to invite yourself over to tell me about Troy sodding Blake?Have you lost the plot?How dare you?And how, in any way, do you think this is a goodidea?’
Bunty’s froggy blue eyes looked even moister and more bulging than usual.‘Well ...’ she stammered, floundering for words in a most un-Bunty-like way.‘Well, becauseyou’re my adviser on these things.’
Her adviser on crap tabloid-stunt boyfriends?Er, no.Actually not.Honestly, for a well-educated, middle-aged woman with a good career record and pots of money in the bank, Bunty was like achild sometimes.A helpless, needy child who couldn’t do a single bloody thing for herself.Saffron took a deep breath.‘With the greatest respect’ – ha!– ‘I amnot at your beck and call, especially when I’ve taken time off work to ...to recover.Besides, listening to you banging on about your airhead boyfriend isnotpart of my jobdescription.Okay?You can save all that shit for your friends, not me, because I don’t want to hear it!’
Bunty’s pastel-pink mouth quivered and she seemed to shrink in height.‘I ...I ...’ she began, blinking a few times.‘I thoughtyouwere myfriend.’
What?Since when?And how on earth was Saffron supposed to respond to that, without mortally offending her client?
‘Well ...’Deep breaths, Saffron.Grit your teeth.‘Ours is first and foremost a business relationship, isn’t it?’she replied; a polite way of saying No.‘And of course it’s great that we get on so well’ – she’d be struck down with lightning, telling such porkies – ‘but it’s important we both respectour positions here.My job is to help boost your career, to tell the world about your talents, Bunty.’Come and zap me, lightning, I deserve the full frazzling for that.‘It’s not my job to ...’
Then she broke off, noticing that her client had tears streaming down her face, glistening tracks through her makeup.
‘I thought he loved me,’ Bunty sobbed, choking on each word.
Saffron opened and closed her mouth wordlessly.Oh, help.She wasn’t used to seeing Bunty as anything other than brash and bombastic.Now she seemed an absolute wreck.
‘He said he loved me,’ Bunty wept, shoulders shaking.‘And now he’s gone to theDaily M-M-Mail.Some nasty little K-K-Kiss and T-T-Tell story!’
She buried her face in her hands and Saffron suppressed a groan.No.Not now, Bunty.Why, oh why, was she even listening to this?Why was Bunty still on the premises at all?She pressed her lipstogether, resisting the urge to put her hands around her client’s fat neck.Much as she wanted to, she could not push Bunty away when she was in this state, though.
‘Go on then,’ she said resignedly.‘You might as well sit down and tell me the worst.Let’s hear it.’Ten minutes, she thought.Ten minutes and then she wouldpolitely but firmly show her client the door.
Bunty lowered herself onto the far end of the sofa and clasped her hands in her lap.‘There’s a sex tape,’ she said shakily, not meeting Saffron’s gaze.
Saffron’s mouth fell open, and she closed it with a snap.Oh, great.And now her brain had gone on strike at the terrible images this announcement prompted.‘Right,’ she said,her heart sinking.It was already obvious this would take a lot longer than ten little minutes to sort out.‘And is he enough of a bastard to go public with it?’
‘Probably.’That parping nose-blow again.‘I’ve had a journalist from theMailringing up, wanting to know if it’s true about my love-eggs.Ifhedidn’t tell them that, then who did?’
Saffron did not want to think about Bunty in relation to love-eggs or any other kind of sex toys.‘I see,’ she said.Working in PR did throw up these nasty little surprises now andthen.Last year the agency had had to put a gloss on a story about one of their footballer clients being caught with his pants down during a brothel raid.Then there had been Charlotte’sfamous actress client with the squeaky-clean, wholesome reputation, who’d been done for possession of some truly filthy pornography; and the restaurateur beloved of the gossip mags for hisfiery relationship with his wife, who’d been stitched up by not one but two mistresses, both of whom were expecting his babies.They were all at it.
She gazed blankly around the dingy room, wondering if she could possibly shape this predicament into something positive.Should she advise Bunty to maintain a dignified silence until the stormblew over, or use the opportunity to gather support instead, cast Bunty as the betrayed victim and maybe sell an exclusive story to a journalist from another paper?Her mind leapt from one optionto another.This could even be a new avenue of work for Bunty, she realized: a consultant on magazine sex-columns, or articles about sexual experimentation for the over-fifties ...
Her brain ached.How she wished this hadn’t come to her door today.She wasn’t in any fit state to start assembling a press strategy.‘Bunty, perhaps we should pass you on toCharlotte,’ she said weakly.‘I’m not sure I’m up to this at the moment, whereas she’s had a lot of experience with this kind of thing.’
Bunty’s mouth turned down at the corners.‘But I don’t like Charlotte,’ she confessed.‘She looks down her nose at me, like I’m not good enough for her.LadyMuck.’She rummaged in her handbag for a monogrammed hip flask and brandished it in the air.‘Shag it all, darling, let’s just get sloshed.Maybe I’ll send some heaviesround to kneecap Troy instead.That’ll shut him up.’She unscrewed the lid and took a hefty slug.‘Can I tempt you?’she asked, holding it out towards Saffron.