What She Wants

A warm and funny novel about facing change in our live, from the internationally bestselling author Cathy Kelly.Do you know what you’ll be doing next year? Nicole, Virginia, Hope and Sam all thought they did.Hope Parker imagined that she’d be slogging it out as a working mum, trying to fit it in quality time with her young children, and doing her best not to burn her husband, Matt’s dinner.Her sister, Sam Jones, thought she’d be turning heads in her new job as a managing director of a record label, climbing to very top of the career ladder and having her photo emblazoned on the business pages as the toughest, most brilliant company boss around.Wild child Nicole Turner reckoned that she’d still be going for wild party nights with the girls, maybe singing a bit of karaoke, possibly snogging a guy here or there, and trying not to get fired for using the office phone to make personal phone calls.And grandmother Virginia Connell thought she’d still be happily married to her beloved Bill, teasing him for spending too much time on the golf course and not enough time walking the dog or cutting the grass.But they were all wrong. When life changes suddenly for each of these four women, thay have to look deep inside themselves to discover what they really want in order to survive the turmoil. And they discover that a sense of belonging, a loving family and good friends can make all the difference.
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What She Wants


What She Wants Cathy Kelly



   This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

   

   Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF

   

   Copyright © Cathy Kelly 2001

   

   Cathy Kelly asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

   

   A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

   

   All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins ebooks

   

   HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication

   Source ISBN: 9780007273935

   Ebook Edition © February 2012 ISBN: 9780007389377 Version: 2017-10-28

   ‘A must for Kelly’s many fans; a warm, moving read.’

   

   Daily Mail

   ‘Totally believable.’ Rosamunde Pilcher

   

   ‘An upbeat and diverting tale skilfully told…Kelly knows what her refars want and consistently delivers.’

   

   Sunday Independent

   ‘An absorbing, heart-warming tale.’ Company

   ‘Her skill at dealing with the complexities of modern life, marriage and families is put to good effect as she teases out the secrets of her characters.’ Choice

   ‘Kelly dramatises her story with plenty of sparky humour.’

   

   The Times

   ‘Kelly has an admirable capacity to make the readers identify, in turn, with each of her female characters…’

   

   Irish Independent

   To Francis and Lucy, with much love.

Table of Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   As yet another noisy Cork and Kerry tour bus crunched gears over the hump-backed bridge, belching out diesel fumes, Mary-Kate Donlan closed the door of her chemist shop and locked it. If any Redlion inhabitant wanted either lipstick or flu remedies in their lunch break, they could go without. Ever since her assistant Otis had been on holiday, all she’d managed for her lunch for the past few weeks was a bit of a sandwich munched between customers and she was fed up with it. Today she’d arranged to meet her niece, Delphine, for a leisurely lunch and a chat.

   Wrapping her coat around her, she hurried down the village to the Widow Maguire’s, a pretty stone pub with window boxes, traditional music sessions twice a week and the best pub food for miles. She ran across the main street, a slim middle-aged woman with plain bobbed hair and not a speck of make-up on her shrewd, inquisitive face. She hurried past ‘Lucille’s: Fashions For All Occasions’ with just a brief glance in the window. Lucille’s fashions were always a little on the eccentric side. This week, the window sported plenty of knobbly knitwear in jewel colours, along with one magnificent cruise wear rig out that would probably look fine in the South of France but was a little skimpy for Kerry in October.

   She slowed down when she spotted Emmet from the convenience shop ahead of her. A crotchety old bandit with a fondness for porter, Emmet would talk the hind legs off a donkey and made for a very irritating luncheon companion on account of his tendency to wax lyrical about the rare ould times as he sank his lunchtime two pints. When Emmet had nipped into the pub, Mary-Kate speeded up again. He’d have met some other poor soul by the time she got there, so she was safe.

   ‘Hello Lara,’ she greeted a tall red-haired woman in a stylish trouser suit who was just climbing out of the sleek silver Mercedes she’d parked outside the pub.

   ‘Hi,’ said Lara warmly. ‘How’s business?’

   ‘Mad. The place is full of hypochondriacs. I should have bought shares in a drug company.’

   They both laughed. ‘How are things going for you?’ Mary-Kate asked.

   ‘Marvellous,’ Lara said. ‘Just sold the old O’Brien place.’

   ‘Shanrock Castle?’ asked Mary-Kate, impressed. A crumbling castle set in fifty acres of weed-infested parkland, only someone very rich could have afforded to buy it because they’d need to spend two fortunes renovating it. ‘Another rock star I suppose?’ The district surrounding Red-lion boasted four rock stars, at least six novelists and one eccentric classical composer. The rock stars all lived sedate lives while the crazy parties took place at the classical composer’s home. Helicopters bearing Hollywood producers were always landing on his helipad, trying to get him to write music for their blockbusters.

   ‘No, an actress this time. I can’t name names but she’s one of those who keeps her Oscar in the toilet.’

   Mary-Kate grinned. ‘They all say that. I’m meeting Delphine for a sandwich. Do you want to join us?’

   Lara said yes just as a battered beetle pulled up and a voluptuous red-head in a purple velvet coat emerged.

   ‘Hi, girls,’ Delphine Ryan greeted her aunt, Mary-Kate, with a kiss and hugged her old school friend. ‘I haven’t set eyes on you for ages, Lara. What’s the gossip?’

   In the Widows, they discussed everything from the price of property to the appalling state of the roads.

   ‘There’s a pot hole on the Blackglen road the size of a swimming pool and I spend my life avoiding it,’ Lara complained. ‘If I destroy a wheel on the Merc going into it, I’m going to sue the council.’

   ‘I love the Blackglen Road,’ sighed Delphine. ‘There’s a beautiful old period house out there that Eugene and I would have loved to buy, but it was way beyond our price range. It was fabulous, lovely old fireplaces and a big, sprawling garden with a bit of wood at the back.’

   ‘You mean Kilnagoshell House, the old B & B,’ Lara said. ‘I sold it six months ago. A woman from Dublin bought it, a widow actually. Virginia Connell is her name and she’s lovely. Lonely too, I daresay. You should call out and see her, Mary-Kate.’

   ‘If she doesn’t want to meet people, that’s her business,’ Mary-Kate said wisely. ‘It would be wrong to intrude. When she needs people, we’ll be here.’

   Lara finished her sandwich.

   ‘Must fly, girls. I’ve got to value the sweetest little cottage on the Killarney Road this afternoon.’

   ‘Not old Gearóid’s place?’ inquired Mary-Kate. ‘Are they selling it or what?’

   ‘Or what, I think,’ Lara said. ‘Apparently the house will belong to Gearóid’s nephew from Britain once they’ve got probate. God love him,’ Lara added with a shudder. ‘Gearóid left it in a terrible state. Then, I’ve got a viewing at the Richardsons’ farmhouse. It’s a pity they’re leaving the village, they’re nice people.’

   ‘I should go too,’ Delphine said, getting to her feet. ‘I’ve a facial peel, two manicures and a bikini waxing this afternoon. Bye Mary-Kate.’ She kissed her aunt goodbye fondly.

   ‘I am going to finish my coffee in peace,’ Mary-Kate smiled up at them, her grey eyes warm. ‘Age must have its compensations. Take care, girls.’

   The two younger women walked outside.

   ‘It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?’ said Lara as they stood for a moment enjoying the pale October sun. ‘When the sun shines, Redlion is magical. I think the Richardsons are mad for leaving. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to sell up and leave.’

   ‘I know what you mean,’ Delphine said, gazing fondly up the winding main street where pastel-coloured houses appeared to doze lazily in the sunlight. ‘It’s got a healing, comforting sense to it or does that sound crazy?’

   ‘Not at all,’ Lara said ruefully. ‘I was on ten cups of coffee, one Prozac and at least half a bottle of wine a day when I lived in Dublin. Since I came home, I’ve discovered the calm side of myself.’

   ‘Lara Stanley calm!’ teased Delphine. ‘That’ll be the day.’

   Lara grinned. ‘Calmer, then,’ she said. ‘But it is down to this place. It is special. You know, when I left my job in Dublin, all my colleagues thought I was mad burying myself back in the country. “Dullsville” they called it. And I told them there’s nothing dull about Redlion.’

   ‘We could do with a bit of dull,’ Delphine pointed out. ‘Too much happens round here. There’s going to be another one of those political think tanks in the hotel next week and the place will be swarming with media and politicians desperate to get their faces in the paper. And Mrs Rock Star up the road was in having her nails done yesterday and she told me they’re having a huge party for the album launch in November.’

   ‘All go as usual,’ Lara said. ‘So much for the quiet life in the country. Still, I don’t want to tell the people in the city what it’s really like here or else they’d all up sticks and move down.’

   Delphine laughed. ‘And we want to keep Redlion a secret, don’t we?’

   Hope Parker let the shopping bags sit in a heap at her feet as she stood in front of the cookery books section. Her eyes flicked past Perfect Cakes, The Definitive Chinese Cookbook, Catering for Parties and Easy Meals. A recipe book full of easy meals was not what she was looking for. They were all she ever cooked in the first place. No, she wanted a comprehensive and simple cooking book, something big, fat and informative and full of explanations of what a bain marie really was and precisely what you did with yeast and did you have to have an airing cupboard handy when you cooked with it? That was all she wanted: a book that would finally explain how to cook something that didn’t involve chicken pieces and a can of ready-to-go tomato sauce.

   Her gaze moved past a massive advanced French cooking manual and she leaned closer to the shelves, trying to ignore the bookshop’s lunchtime rush. Then she spotted it, a fat tome with bright gold writing on the spine: Cooking for Cowards: Become the Queen of Your Kitchen.

   Queen of her kitchen? Yes, that was exactly what Hope wanted. No more ready-made lasagne and frozen solid stuffed chicken dinners in tinfoil. But lots of home-cooked meals that would have Matt beaming from ear to ear, no longer able to tease that he never put on weight because she couldn’t cook.

   Hope pulled it free from the other books and stared at the cover, hoping there was no mention of the word ‘advanced’. There wasn’t. Instead, there was a picture of an ordinary looking woman standing smiling behind a veritable feast of glistening, delicious food.

   Hope flicked inside and found an introduction that was funny, easy to understand, and made no mention of buying complicated utensils before you started. She couldn’t afford to buy lots of new pots and pans and strange things for chopping up herbs.

   ‘Cooking really is easy,’ cooed the introduction. ‘If you’re one of those people who’ve never had the chance to learn, then let me show you how, the easy way.’

   There was no implication that you had to be a twenty-something newly-married to be buying this book, no implication that thirty-seven-year-old women should be ashamed of themselves to be purchasing a cookery bible that included a section on ‘how to buy meat’.

   Hope never bought meat from the butchers’. She never knew what to ask for or even what you’d do with rack of lamb if you got it. She bought her meat ready packed from the supermarket where nobody could look down on you for not knowing what a gigot was.

   ‘There’s no need to be scared of buying meat,’ continued the introduction, as if the writer had read Hope’s mind. ‘It’s easy once you know how.’

   Sold. Hope collected her shopping, paid for the book and hurried up to Jolly’s department store, already lost in the fantasy of being a superb cook. Imagine the dinner parties they could have: Matt wouldn’t have to entertain important advertising clients on his expense account in Bath’s elegant restaurants any more. Instead, he could bring them home, and she, dressed in something elegant but sexy, would waft out of the kitchen with the scent of crème brulée clinging to her while jaded businessmen gobbled up melt-in-the-mouth things in delicately flavoured gravy, asking her why she’d decided to work in a building society instead of starting up her own restaurant?

   And Toby and Millie would love it. Well, when they were older, they would. They’d think that home-made chutney and made-from-scratch mayonnaise were the norm and would smugly tell their schoolmates that their mother was the ‘best cook in the world, so there!’ Hope remembered this type of culinary boasting from her own schooldays. But she and her sister, Sam, had always stayed out of the ‘whose mother is the best cook’ arguments, knowing that whatever could be said about their aunt Ruth, that she was an excellent cook wasn’t one of them. Hope wondered, as she often did, if her mother had been any good at cooking? Aunt Ruth had never talked about things like that. Maybe Mum had been a wonderful cook. It might even be genetic: all Hope had to do was move beyond instant chicken sauces to discover that she was the next Escoffier.

   In Jolly’s, she got sidetracked in the women’s department. She couldn’t resist stopping a moment to finger the pretty floral skirt, running her fingers wistfully over the soft cotton with the delicate sprigged pattern of roses. In the middle of all the new season’s dark wintry clothes, the rail of prettily patterned skirts had stood out like a wildflower meadow in a landscape of muddy ploughed fields.

   Feeling the plastic grocery bags threatening to cut off the circulation to her left hand, Hope unhooked them from her wrist before indulging in a proper examination of the garment. The background colour was the pale blue of delicate Wedgwood with tiny lilac flowers mingling with tiny raspberry pink ones. Hope sighed wistfully. This wasn’t a skirt, it was a lifestyle. A lifestyle where the wearer lived in a pretty cottage with lovely, well-behaved children, cats, maybe a rabbit or two, and an adoring husband who appreciated her. This woman sewed her own cushion covers, knew how to dry lavender and could bottle fruits and vegetables instead of buying them from the supermarket. She didn’t need a safety pin to hold the top of her skirt together and she never raised her voice at the children in the morning when an entire carton of milk was spilled all over the said children’s clothes, necessitating a complete change. No. This woman wore floral perfumes that came in old-fashioned bottles, never got angry with her children and wafted around with a basket as she bought organic vegetables that still had bits of earth clinging to them. People would say things like ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wonderful mother, fantastic cook, have you tried her apple crumble? And she still manages to work…’

   Yeah right. And pigs might fly. Hope patted the skirt one last time and picked up her shopping. She wasn’t Mrs Floral Skirt and she never would be. She was Mrs Tracksuit Bottom, whose two children were quite accustomed to her roaring ‘Stop that right now or I’ll kill you!’ She never wafted anywhere – difficult when you had a spare tyre and stocky legs – and she never talked to the neighbours long enough for them to have an opinion of her. Apart from the woman two doors up who let her dog do its business in Hope’s garden, resulting in an un-neighbourly stand-off one morning. And as for sewing cushion covers she still hadn’t managed to sew the button back on her work skirt and it had been held up with a safety pin for months. Although the good part of that was that the safety pin was of the big nappy variety and was more comfy than the constricting button had been. Thinking of work, she’d be terribly late back if she didn’t get a move on.

   She shook her head as if to rid it of the remnants of the idyllic floral skirt fantasy and, collecting up her shopping, hurried into the men’s department and over to the ties. It took ages to find one she thought Matt would like: an expensive buttermilk yellow silk with a discreet pattern. Hope held the tie up against every shirt on the display; it looked lovely against the blue shirts and went particularly well with an azure striped one. She groaned in indecision.

   Matt didn’t go in for blue shirts much. The grey tie was more versatile, definitely, and cheaper, but Matt loved expensive things. He’d adored that ugly key ring his boss had given him one Christmas, purely because of the designer logo stamped into the leather. She held both ties up and squinted at them, dithering as usual.

   OK, the yellow it had to be. So, it cost more than the coat she was wearing, but what the hell.

   The woman behind the counter daintily placed the tie in a box. Perfectly coifed, she had lovely cared-for nails, Hope noticed, and her lipstick looked faultlessly applied; as if she’d just that minute rushed out from primping in the ladies’. Hope was conscious of the fact that her own windswept fair hair was dragged back in a pony tail and her morning lipstick a thing of distant memory.

   Sales assistants invariably made her feel like an unkempt road warrior. She remembered a time when she herself was always beautifully groomed, those far off days before the children, when giving herself a French manicure had been a prerequisite on Sunday evenings. These days, she spent Sunday evenings sweating over the ironing board, worrying about the week ahead and trying to match socks from the enormous laundry pile.

   ‘Is it a present?’ inquired the sales woman, her tone implying that there was no way someone like Hope would be coughing up for such an expensive tie otherwise.

   ‘Yes,’ said Hope, stifling a wicked urge to say, no, it was for her, she dressed up in men’s clothes at the weekends and, actually, was looking for a partner to go with her on a Harley-Davidson-Lesbian Day Out on Sunday.

   Instead, she arranged her face into a polite expression. Being honest, there was no way she’d pay that much money for a tie otherwise. Even if as a fortieth birthday present, it was still ridiculously expensive. The only consolation was that Matt would love it. It would go with the very sophisticated new suit he’d just bought and with his image, also highly sophisticated. The only unsophisticated part of the Matt Parker experience was Hope herself. Was that the problem? she thought with a pang of unease.

   Matt hadn’t been himself lately. Usually he was one of life’s optimists, happy, upbeat. But for the past few months, he’d been listless and moody around the house, only content if they were doing something; filling their time off with endless activities. He didn’t seem happy to sit and blob around on those rare occasions when the children weren’t murdering each other. Edgy, that was it. Matt was edgy, and in her dark, terrified moments, Hope was scared that it was something to do with their marriage. Or her.

   ‘Shall I gift-wrap it?’

   ‘No, I like wrapping things myself,’ Hope confessed. Anyway, getting the shop to wrap things was always a waste of time, she’d discovered, as she could never resist trying to open a bit of the wrapping paper when she got home so she could admire the gift. Invariably, the paper got ripped when she was trying to shove whatever it was back in, so why bother?

   She added the tie to her selection of plastic bags and left the shop hurriedly.

   Hope rounded the corner at Union Street and collided with a gaggle of tourists oohing and ahhing over the city’s elegant sandstone Georgian buildings. It was a beautiful place to live but after five years there, Hope was guiltily aware that she took Bath’s beauty rather for granted. For the first six months, she’d walked around with her neck craned, but now, she raced along like all the other residents, almost immune to the city and constantly cursing the tourists who straggled across the streets like wayward schoolchildren. She pushed open the glass door into Witherspoon’s Building Society, conscious of the fact that it was now twenty to three and she should have been back at half past two.

   Mr Campbell, manager and assiduous time-keeper, was also conscious of the time.

   ‘You’re ten minutes late, Mrs Parker,’ he said mildly.

   Hope gave him a flustered look, which wasn’t hard after her dash down Union Street. ‘I’m so sorry, Mr Campbell,’ she said breathily. ‘It’s my husband’s fortieth birthday and I was buying him a present…’

   ‘Never mind,’ Mr Campbell said soothingly. ‘Don’t let it happen in future.’

   She rushed into the staff room, stowed her shopping in her locker, wriggled out of her navy woollen coat and hurried back to her counter.

   ‘How can you get away with being late and not get the face eaten off you by that tyrant?’ demanded Yvonne. Yvonne had worked at Witherspoon’s for five years, the same length of time as Hope, and complained she was still treated like a delinquent probationary by the manager.

   ‘Because I have an innocent face,’ replied Hope, managing to smile all the while at Mr Campbell, ‘and you look like a minx.’

   Yvonne was placated, as Hope knew she could be. Yvonne liked the idea of looking minxy. And she was so good humoured that she never took offence; not like Betsey, Hope’s other good friend. Betsey took offence at everything and would have demanded to know what Hope had meant by calling her a minx.

   Hope knew that she’d never look like a minx in a million years. Minxes did not have fawn-coloured curly hair with lots of wispy tendrils that you could do absolutely nothing with, nor did they have rounded comforting faces with large, almost surprised hazel eyes, and small delicate mouths like shy girls from 18th century French paintings.

   Matt had once told her that he’d fallen in love with her ‘other worldliness’. ‘As if you’ve got lost from a historical mini-series and have stepped out of your gown to appear in the twenty-first century,’ he’d said lovingly. Matt was given to saying wildly romantic, unusual things. He was wasted in advertising, she thought fondly.

   All five counters were frantically busy for the next half an hour, with huge groups of time-pressed tourists arriving to change their traveller’s cheques into hard currency, all frantic to get some cash so they could buy huge quantities of Bath Abbey tea towels, T-shirts with the Abbey printed on them and decorated mugs before they were due back on the coach.

   Finally, there was a brief lull in custom. Hope sat back in her chair, feeling drained and wondered how she’d last till her four o’clock tea break.

   ‘What did you buy for Matt?’ asked Yvonne, sneaking a forbidden packet of toffees across to Hope. Eating was forbidden behind the counter but Hope reckoned her blood sugar needed a top-up.

   ‘A tie, a bottle of that wine he likes and some aftershave,’ she said as she surreptitiously unwrapped a toffee.

   ‘That’s nice,’ mumbled Yvonne, her mouth full.

   They chewed in silence for a while and Hope began to mentally plan her evening, the highlight of which was to be Matt’s special birthday dinner. Just the two of them, assuming that Millie didn’t kick up a fuss and refuse to go to bed. She was only four but she already ruled the Parker household with a chubby little iron hand in a velvet glove. Two-year-old Toby was such a contrast to his older sister. He was so quiet that Hope worried about him being at the day nursery every day. She knew Millie was well able to stand up to anyone who’d look sideways at her but would she stand up for Toby? You heard so much about children bullying other kids and Hope would kill any child who’d hurt her beloved Toby. With his pale, sweet face and watchful eyes, he reminded her of herself as a child. She prayed he’d grow up to be stronger and more forceful, like his father.

   ‘Presents for men are so difficult,’ sighed Yvonne. ‘I love the idea of those women who say things like “I’m wearing your present.” You know she’s wearing some basque or suspenders and stockings and that’s his present. I might try that with Freddie.’

   ‘Lovely,’ said Hope automatically, a bit embarrassed to be getting so much detail about Yvonne’s sex life. Yvonne was twenty-nine, Welsh, and very open about everything, in direct contrast to Hope. Hope liked to keep her personal life personal, although it was difficult when you worked with someone as inquisitive as Yvonne, who was quite capable of asking questions like what would Hope do if Matt ever had an affair or had Hope ever used a Dutch cap.

   ‘Er, no,’ Hope had said, going pink, on that particular occasion. Aunt Ruth had not brought her up to be chatty about sex and things like that. When she’d had her first period, Aunt Ruth had said nothing but had given her a book on girls growing up. Well, she’d actually shoved it into Hope’s hand and gone off abruptly to her bridge class. The subject had never been referred to again. Hope was fascinated when she read those ‘how to keep your sex life alive’ articles in women’s magazines, although she’d never have dreamed of trying any of it out with Matt.

   ‘You should give Matt that sort of present tonight,’ Yvonne nudged her.

   ‘What sort of present?’

   Yvonne lowered her voice because Mr Campbell had come out of his office and was standing near the photocopier. ‘Wear something sexy and tell Matt it’s the final bit of his present.’

   ‘Honestly, Yvonne,’ whispered Hope, ‘you’ve a one-track mind.’

   ‘Yeah, one track and it’s a dirt track,’ giggled Yvonne, flicking back a bit of jet-black poker-straight hair.

   Three customers arrived all at once and Hope managed to put Yvonne’s suggestion out of her mind. It wasn’t that she was contemplating wearing sexy underwear and surprising Matt. She was uncomfortably aware of the fact that Matt would probably be much happier with a new tie and a decent bottle of wine.

   

   Two hours later, she’d braved the traffic going out of the city towards Bristol and was turning into Maltings Lane. One of the more modern streets in Bath, it was a winding road of pretty houses built in the fifties with honey-coloured Cotswold stone. Because the houses were small and reasonably priced, the street was full of young, professional couples with small children, two cars and no time for doing their handkerchief-sized gardens.

   When they’d moved in five years ago, Hope had had great plans for becoming a gardening expert and had bought a gardening encyclopaedia along with a book dedicated to creating a haven from a small suburban plot. These books were currently jammed into the bookcase on the landing, alongside the home decorating book she’d got in a jumble sale. Hope rarely even looked at their patch with its overgrown sliver of lawn and weed-encrusted rockery where four stunted conifers sat huddled together in tight misery and refused to grow taller than six inches. Hope didn’t look at the garden tonight either: she was too late even for her usual guilt-laden ‘I wish I had time to do something with the garden this weekend’.

   Marta would be furious if she picked the kids up after six fifteen. Marta ran Your Little Treasures, the nursery where Toby and Millie spent every week day. The nursery was so well-run and well-staffed that Hope couldn’t afford to voice the opinion that Marta herself was a bad-tempered bitch when it came to dealing with her charges’ parents. There was such fierce competition for places in YLT that she daren’t risk antagonizing her. If Hope’s children left the nursery, there would be thirty families queuing up to fill their places. ‘Marta is definitely short for martinet,’ joked Matt every time Hope came home on the verge of tears because of a dressing down from Marta for being late. Matt didn’t understand how Hope hated those confrontations.

   The nursery closed at six fifteen and any parent who arrived a second later was treated to a lecture of the ‘if you think I’m going to be taken advantage of, you’ve got another think coming’ variety.

   Hope couldn’t imagine a single person who’d dare take advantage of Marta. Pity.

   She unpacked the shopping from the Metro’s boot. Next door’s cat sat plaintively on Hope’s doorstep, sheltering from the icy late September wind and generally giving the impression that he was a candidate for an animal shelter despite being so fat that he no longer fitted through his cat flap and had to be let in through the windows. Hope dragged the shopping to the door, hoping that a few hours in the locker at work hadn’t made the milk go off.

   ‘You can’t come in, Fatso,’ Hope told the cat, trying to open the door and insinuate herself inside without letting him in. She managed it, dumped the shopping on the kitchen floor and looked at her watch.

   Six o’clock on the nail. She wasn’t going to be late. Relieved, she shoved the milk into the fridge and raced out of the house.

   She hurried round the corner to the nursery which was, as usual, surrounded by double-parked cars, weary parents and cross toddlers. Hope had found it was easier to walk there instead of spending ten minutes trying to park.

   ‘Hello,’ she said with false cheeriness to Marta, who stood like a rottweiler at the door, grimly working out whom to bite and whom to suck up to. ‘Cool isn’t it?’

   ‘It is nearly October,’ Marta snapped, gypsy earrings rattling furiously.

   Hope grinned inanely and then hated herself for it. If only she had the guts to tell Marta where she could stuff her sarcastic remarks. Not for the first time, Hope indulged in her favourite daydream: where she and Matt had won the lottery, thereby allowing her to give up work and devote herself to the children full time. In her fantasy dream world, being a full time mum included help from a cleaning lady, an ironing lady and someone to trail round the supermarket doing the grocery shopping. It also meant being able to tell Marta to take a running jump because Hope wouldn’t need the nursery any more. She’d look after her children herself, thank you very much. She’d be able to spend hours every day with them, doing finger painting, making up stories and doing things with cooking chocolate and Rice Krispies when the children could help stir the mixture without her shuddering at the thought of cleaning bits of cereal and slivers of chocolate off the kitchen floor for hours afterwards. She’d get to serve wonderful home-cooked food instead of making do with convenience stuff, she’d learn needlecraft and the garden would be a riot of beautifully tended plants. Bliss.

   In the main section of the nursery, a bright cheery room decorated in warm colours and with plenty of toddler-sized furniture, Millie and Toby were waiting for her, clad in their padded coats and looking like baby Eskimos. Dark-haired Millie, as impatient as her father, had an outraged expression on her rosy-cheeked face. Her brown eyes flashed at the indignity of being made to wait in a restricting coat when she could have been in the play corner wreaking havoc with the bouncy cubes. Toby, pale like his mother, stood quietly with his hat in his hand. When he spotted Hope, a great smile opened up his chubby little face.

   ‘Mummy, got a star,’ he said delightedly.

   ‘No you didn’t,’ said Millie indignantly. Even at four, she had a perfect command of the English language. ‘I got a star.’

   Toby’s face fell.

   ‘Millie,’ said her mother reprovingly. ‘Be nice to your little brother.’

   ‘He’s a baby,’ sniffed Millie, wrinkling up her snub nose.

   ‘He’s your brother,’ Hope said. ‘You have to look after him, not be unkind to him.’

   Millie took Toby’s fat little hand in hers and looked up at her mother expecting praise.

   Despite herself, Hope grinned. Millie was as bright as a button.

   She said goodbye to Marta, who was hovering with intent outside the door, jangling her keys like a warder.

   

   Holding hands, the family walked slowly home: Millie chattering away happily, Toby silent. It was the same every evening. Toby was very quiet for about half an hour, then, as if he’d been frozen and finally thawed out in the warmth of his own, safe home, he began to talk and laugh, playing with his favourite toy, currently a violently purple plastic train with endless carriages that were always getting lost under the furniture. It worried Hope. She was afraid that he hated the nursery, yet she was just as afraid of asking him in case he clung to her and begged her not to send him every morning.

   One of the women at work had gone through two horrific months of her small daughter doing just that, sobbing her little heart out every day, begging her mother to ‘stay, Mummy, stay, please!’ until she was hiccuping with anguish.

   The mothers with young children had all sat in silent guilt when they heard that story in the canteen.

   ‘I hate leaving my son,’ a single mother from accounting had said tonelessly.

   ‘Men just don’t feel it the same way,’ added an investment advisor who was also a mother-of-three.

   They had all nodded miserably, united in agreement.

   After that, Hope had spent weeks anxiously scanning Toby’s face every morning for signs that he was about to cry. If he did, she knew she’d have told the building society to stuff their job and told Matt they’d have to manage the mortgage some other way, because she couldn’t bear to go out to work when her darling little boy was sobbing his little heart out for her. But Toby never cried. He went off every morning, snug in his anorak, big eyes wide when Hope gave him a tight hug goodbye with Marta watching over them.

   ‘He’s just a quiet little boy,’ Clare, one of the teachers, had reassured her when Hope had voiced her fears, ‘but he enjoys himself, honestly, Hope, he does. He loves playing with the Plasticine and he loves story time. We all know he’s a shy little fellow so we really look after him, don’t worry. Millie is totally different, isn’t she?’

   Yes, Hope had agreed, Millie was totally different. Boisterous and confident compared to her little brother. They reminded Hope of herself and Sam when they’d been kids: Hope had been the quiet, placating sister, while Sam, three years older, had been strong, opinionated and sure of herself.

   Tonight, Millie wasn’t inside the hall door before she was off into the playroom to collect her dolls, bossing them around, telling them to drink their milk and no being naughty or there’d be trouble. She sounded a lot like Marta bossing the parents around. Hope got down on her knees to undo Toby’s coat.

   ‘Did you have a nice day, sweetie?’ she asked softly, helping him wriggle out before pulling him close for a big cuddle. Toby nodded his head. Hope planted a kiss on his soft, fair head, breathing in the lovely toddler scent of him. He smelled of classroom, baby shampoo and fabric conditioner.

   ‘Mummy loves you, Toby, do you know that? Loads and loads of love. Bigger than the sea.’

   He smiled at her and patted her cheek with one fat little hand.

   ‘Mummy has to make a special birthday dinner for Daddy but I think we have to play first, don’t you?’

   Toby nodded again.

   ‘Shall we have a story? What one would you like me to read? You pick.’

   The three of them sat on the big oatmeal sofa, cuddled up companionably, as Hope read Toby’s favourite story about The Bear With The Magical Paw. Millie always started by saying it was a baby’s story, not for big girls like herself, but by the end of the first page she was engrossed, chewing her bottom lip anxiously and listening to the bear’s adventures. Hope followed the magical bear with The Little Mermaid, which was Millie’s favourite. She slept in Disney Little Mermaid pyjamas and her bedroom was a shrine to Mermaid merchandising.

   After twenty minutes when she knew she should have been starting Matt’s birthday dinner, Hope finished the story and began to make dinner for the kids. They were fed tea at the nursery at around half four but Hope never considered a few sandwiches enough for them. Children needed hot food in her book. As the children played, Hope prepared chicken breasts and vegetables, thinking that if she was Mrs Floral Skirt, she’d be giving them organic carrot purée made from her own carrots with delicious home-made lasagne or something equally made-from-scratch.

   Mind you, Millie hated home-made food and was passionate about fish fingers and tinned spaghetti shaped like cartoon characters so there wouldn’t have been any hope of her eating anything organic.

   Hope thought proudly of her new cookbook still in its plastic bag in the hall. Soon, she’d be making fabulous meals that everyone would love. She undid the cling film covering the steaks. The instructions looked simple enough but steak was so difficult, so easy to ruin and cook until it tasted like old leather. She’d have loved it if they were going out to dinner instead but Matt’s colleague and best friend, Dan, was organizing a birthday dinner on Thursday, in three days’ time, and that was going to be his party. The agency had netted a huge new account and it was going to be a joint celebration. Hope knew it would be childish to say that she’d prefer a private birthday dinner with just the two of them. After all, Matt was a much more social animal than she was and he loved the idea of a big bash where he could charm them all and get told he was the cleverest ad man ever. Hope always felt a bit left out at these fabulous advertising parties. Even though, as a working mother with two small children, she was the Holy Grail for advertisers, they weren’t nearly as interested in her when she was physically present as they were when she was represented as the target market on a graph in the office.

   She’d better buy a dress for the party, she reminded herself. Adam, Matt’s boss, had a new glamorous wife, Jasmine (Matt had, in an unguarded moment, described her as ‘better than any of the women on Baywatch’), so Hope planned to doll herself up to the nines for the occasion.

   Thinking of the party to come, she dished up dinner for the children and brought it and a cup of tea for herself to the table.

   ‘Dinner! Toby and Millie,’ she called.

   The dinner routine involved Toby and Millie sitting opposite each other at the small kitchen table so that Millie couldn’t reach Toby’s mug of milk and spill it. Their mother sat at the end, refereeing. Millie, as usual, played with her food and demanded fish fingers in between sending bits of carrot skidding across the table. Toby loved his food and ate quickly, his Winnie the Pooh plastic fork scooping up bits of cut-up chicken rapidly. He drank his milk and ate his entire dinner while Millie bounced Barbie backwards and forwards in front of her plate, singing tunelessly and ignoring her meal.

   ‘Millie!’ remonstrated Hope as Barbie kicked a bit of chicken onto the floor. ‘Eat up or I’m going to have to feed you.’

   She whisked Barbie from Millie’s hand and the little girl immediately started to roar. More bits of chicken hit the deck.

   ‘Millie! That’s so naughty,’ said Hope, trying to rein in her temper and wishing she didn’t feel so tired and cross. So much for quality time with the kids.

   At this point, Millie wriggled off her chair and pushed herself away from the table, jerking it and spilling her mother’s cup of tea.

   ‘Millie!’ shouted Hope as scalding tea landed on her uniform skirt, which she knew she should have changed as soon as she got home.

   ‘I always know I’m in the right house when I hear screaming as soon as I get home,’ said Matt caustically, appearing at the kitchen door looking immaculate and out of place in the small kitchen which was always untidy.

   Hope ground her teeth. This wasn’t the homecoming she had planned for his birthday. Candlelight, the scent of a succulent dinner and herself perfumed and in grape velvet had been the plan. Instead, the scene was chaos and herself a frazzled, frizzled mess scented only with perspiration from running round the shops at lunchtime. Children and romantic, grown-up dinners were mutually exclusive, there was no doubt about it.

   Millie stopped wailing instantly and ran to her father, throwing her rounded baby arms around his knees and burying her face in his grey wool trousers.

   ‘Daddy,’ she cooed delightedly, as if she hadn’t just been flinging her dinner around the room like a mischievous elf moments before.

   He picked her up and cuddled her, the two dark heads close together, one clustered with long curls, the other a short crop with spreading grey at the sides. Matt was tall, rangy and lean, with the sort of dark, deep set eyes that set female pulses racing and a solid, firm jaw that had stubborn written all over it. The scattering of discreet grey in his new, very short haircut suited him, transforming his handsome good looks into something more mature and sexier. Even after seven years together, the sight of him all dressed up with his eyes crinkling into a smile and that strong mouth curving upwards slowly, could set Hope’s heart racing. The terrible thing was, she didn’t think that his pulse still raced when he saw her.

   ‘Are you in trouble with Mummy?’ Matt asked.

   Millie managed a strangled sob. ‘Yes,’ she said sadly.

   ‘She wouldn’t eat her dinner, she was throwing it everywhere and she’s just spilled my tea,’ Hope said, knowing she sounded shrewish but unable to help it.

   ‘Never mind,’ Matt said easily without even looking at his wife. ‘It’s only a bit of tea, you can wash it.’

   Still cuddling Millie, he ruffled Toby’s hair and walked into the living room, his big body cradling Millie easily. Toby clambered off his seat and ran after him. In seconds, the sounds of giggling and laughter could be heard.

   Hope looked glumly down at her cream uniform blouse which was now stained with splashes of tea. One corner had escaped from her skirt and hung out untidily. Very chic. Ignoring the tea things, she went upstairs and stripped off her uniform. She’d have to sponge the skirt because she only had two and the hem was down on the other one. In her part of the wardrobe, she found the grape velvet two-piece and pulled it on. She brushed her hair, put on her pearl earrings and spritzed herself with eau de cologne, all without looking in the mirror. It was only to apply her lipstick that she sat at the small dressing table and adjusted the oval mirror so she could see herself.

   She was old fashioned looking, she knew. Not the showily beautiful and spirited leading lady of romantic novels: instead, she was the quiet, sober Austen heroine with expressive, anxious grey eyes. Empire line dresses would have suited her perfectly because she could have shown off her generous bosom and hidden the slightly thick waist and sturdy legs. She looked her best in soft, muted colours that complemented the thick-lashed, eloquent eyes. Her grape outfit fitted the bill, while the dark navy and maroon of her uniform clothes made her look dull and middle-aged.

   Now she put lipstick on and pinned her hair up. Piled up, it showed off her slender neck. Finished, she touched the small silver and enamel pill box on the dressing table for luck. It had been her mother’s and touching it for luck was as much a part of Hope’s day as brushing her teeth after meals. She didn’t remember her mother so the box with its orchid illustration was special, the only thing she’d got left really. Sam had a matching box only hers had a picture of a pansy on it.

   The pillboxes were among the only things they had of their mother’s. She and their father had been killed when the girls were small, when they’d been driving home from a night out and their car had been hit by a drunk driver. Their father had been killed outright but their mother had lived long enough to be taken to hospital and died soon after. Not that Sam or Hope remembered much about it and Aunt Ruth, left to bring them up in her austere house in Windsor, had been very keen on ‘not dwelling on things’ and had disposed of most of their parents’ personal belongings. Consequently, they had very few mementoes of Camille and Sandy Smith. Except that Millie was named for her grandmother. Dear naughty little Millie.

   Hope smiled and wondered what she’d leave her children to remember her by if she died suddenly: a dirty dishcloth or a basketful of ironing probably.

   Downstairs, Matt was watching CNN with the children sitting either side of him, both utterly content. Hope stood behind the sofa and planted a kiss on his head.

   ‘Sorry I was a grump when you came in,’ she said softly. ‘Let’s get this pair to bed and I’ll make you a lovely birthday dinner.’

   ‘Daddy, you have to read me a story,’ said Millie querulously, knowing that the treat being discussed didn’t involve her.

   ‘I will, honey,’ Matt said absent-mindedly, still watching the news.

   ‘A long story,’ Millie said, satisfied. ‘Really long, about trolls and fairies…’ She shuddered deliciously.

   ‘No trolls,’ Hope said automatically. ‘You’ll have nightmares.’

   ‘I won’t,’ insisted Millie.

   ‘No trolls,’ said her mother firmly.

   Matt did his bedtime story duty and when he came downstairs, the steaks were sizzling deliciously under the grill and Hope was wrestling with a recipe for herb and garlic butter she’d found in a women’s magazine. Fresh herbs, honestly. Who could be bothering with fresh herbs when they cost so much in the shops and went limp and tasteless after two days.

   ‘Smells good,’ Matt said, returning to his seat in the sitting room. He flicked around with the remote and found the sports channel. Through the double doors between the sitting room and the kitchen, Hope could see him put his feet up on the coffee table. He’d changed from his suit into his oldest jeans and a faded sweatshirt she could have sworn she’d thrown out. She shrugged. It was his birthday, he could wear what he wanted to.

   She took in the bottle of special birthday wine, eager for praise. ‘Will you open it?’ she asked, producing the madly expensive corkscrew that Matt had seen in a restaurant and had insisted on sending off for.

   ‘Yeah,’ he said absently, still watching the TV. He opened the bottle and handed it back to her. When she’d poured two glasses and assured herself that the steak was getting along fine without her, she returned, gave Matt his glass and curled up beside him on the sofa.

   ‘Nice day?’ she asked.

   Matt grunted in return.

   Hope tried again. She was absolutely determined they were going to have a lovely coupley evening in for his birthday. She adored nights like this. She and Matt having a companionable dinner together and their beloved children asleep upstairs – that was what happy families were all about. She knew it, she insisted on it.

   But Matt was having none of it. He watched the television intently, his lean body sunk back against the sofa cushions, his handsome face in profile with his eyes hooded as he concentrated.

   After a few more of Hope’s attempts at conversation, he sighed and asked when dinner was.

   ‘Now, soon,’ Hope said, jumping off the sofa and heading back into the kitchen.

   She lit the candles on the kitchen table, repositioned the burgundy linen napkins someone had given them when they’d got married and dished up the second dinner of the day.

   Instinctively, Matt appeared as soon as his plate landed on the matching burgundy linen mat. He dug in hungrily.

   ‘This is lovely, isn’t it?’ Hope said.

   ‘Mm,’ grunted Matt, one eye still on the television which was visible from his seat at the table. News had been replaced by the monotonous roar of motor racing.

   He cut his steak into small pieces so he could fork it up without missing a bit of the action.

   ‘Is everything all right?’ Hope asked.

   ‘Yeah, it’s lovely. Nice bit of steak,’ he replied.

   ‘I didn’t mean the steak.’

   Matt sighed and took his eye off the TV for a brief moment. ‘Hope, do we have to have one of these “is everything OK?” conversations tonight? I’m tired, I’ve had a hard day and I’d like to relax if that’s not too much to ask.’

   Her eyes brimmed.

   ‘Sure, fine.’

   The commentator’s voice droned on and Hope ate her meal mechanically, not tasting anything, worrying.

   There was something wrong, she knew it. Had known it for weeks. Matt wasn’t happy and she was sure it was nothing to do with his job. It had to be personal, something about him and her, something terrible.

   He’d been depressed since his favourite uncle had died in Ireland two months ago, and at first, Hope had thought Matt was feeling guilty because he hadn’t seen Gearóid for years. Matt’s family were terrible for keeping in touch and when they’d first been married, Hope, who’d expected to be welcomed into the bosom of a real family at long last, had been astonished to find that the Parker family had only one trait in common: apathy about family get-togethers. His parents were remarkably self-sufficient people who’d had Matt, their only child, late in life and clearly weren’t pleased at the intrusion of a small child into their busy lives. Now that he was an adult with a wife, they appeared to think they’d done their bit. Hope found it impossible to understand this, but was grateful that, despite his upbringing, Matt was so passionate about her and the children.

   Sam wisely said it was clear that Matt was determined to live his life very differently from the way his austere and cold family lived. ‘He’s insecure about people loving him and he needs you. That’s why he’s so controlling,’ Sam had added, with a rare touch of harshness.

   Hope just wished she was sure her husband needed her. If she was sure of that, she wouldn’t be so nervous about asking him what was wrong. Was it Gearóid’s death? He’d been incredibly fond of the eccentric uncle he used to spend summers with as a child.

   But when she’d tried to comfort him about Gearóid, Matt had snapped at her, so perhaps it wasn’t that. What was it, then?

   She knew she should be quiet, that it was fatal to probe at this unknown awfulness, because once she’d probed, she’d know and she wouldn’t be able to bury her head in the sand and pretend everything was OK. But she had to probe.

   ‘Don’t tell me it’s nothing,’ she said quickly. ‘I know you’re not happy, Matt.’

   ‘OK, you’re right, you’re right,’ he snapped, slamming down his fork. ‘I’m not happy. You win first prize for noticing.’

   ‘I just want to help,’ Hope said in a small voice.

   ‘I’m just…oh,’ he threw his hands in the air, ‘I don’t know. I’m a bit down, that’s all. Unfulfilled, pissed off, depressed, I don’t know what you call it.’

   She stared at him mutely, not knowing what was coming next.

   ‘Don’t say it’s a mid-life crisis,’ he added harshly. ‘That’s what bloody Dan said. Said I’d be running off with a seventeen-year-old soon.’

   Hope flinched.

   ‘He was only joking,’ Matt said, seeing her face. ‘Who’d want me?’ he added in a voice resonant with bitterness. ‘I mean, I’m forty and what have I done? Nothing. Worked my butt off for years for what? A decent car and the chance of a good pension. I haven’t done anything, not anything I’m proud of.’

   ‘You’ve got Millie and Toby,’ Hope said weakly, not wanting to add ‘…and me,’ in case Matt didn’t feel as if she was much of an asset.

   ‘I know, I know, it’s a…male thing.’ Matt seemed lost for words, possibly for the first time in his life. He couldn’t appear to say what he meant. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he wanted to say but wanted her to figure it out. He was leaving, that had to be it.

   Hope waited, guts clenching in painful spasm. This was it: Matt was leaving. People left all the time. Her mother and father had left before she’d had a chance to know them, just when she needed them. All right, they’d died, so that was different. But Hope had been expecting Matt to leave almost from the moment she’d fallen in love with him. History repeating itself. There had to be a price for winning such a handsome man – you could never be sure of him, never keep him. All the fears Hope had successfully kept to herself over the years were coming to the surface.

   Matt was watching her across the table. He knew her background, knew her horror of being abandoned. ‘It’s alright,’ he said sharply, almost harshly. ‘I’m not going to leave.’

   The tears Hope had been successfully holding off now flowed unchecked. She knew he was lying: it was obvious. There was someone else, he wanted to leave her and it was just a matter of time. He’d merely decided not to dump her on his birthday.

   ‘I’m going through a bad time and I’m trying to deal with it,’ Matt said. ‘I’m better if you leave me to it.’

   ‘But I can’t,’ whispered Hope. ‘I love you so much, and I can’t bear it if you feel upset. I mean…’ she pushed aside her plate, her appetite gone, ‘I’d do anything to make it all right.’ She was too scared to ask him if there was someone else. Too afraid that he’d tell her the truth.

   ‘You can’t make it all right,’ Matt said bluntly. ‘I’m the one suffering the mid-life crisis, not you. You can’t magic it away so we can play happy families. Life isn’t like that. Now can we just have our dinner and try and have a relaxed evening? Please,’ he added more gently. ‘I don’t feel up to talking about it.’

   Hope nodded. She poked her steak around the plate, trying to pretend she was hungry. Matt went back to eating and watching the television.

   She watched him surreptitiously, her nerves in tatters, wishing she wasn’t so needy and pathetically hungry for love that she’d take any excuse. She didn’t believe a word of it. Matt was lying. If only she were stronger, she’d demand the truth. Someone like Sam would have sent the entire dinner flying and demanded an explanation. She’d have yelled that he wasn’t moving from his seat until he told her exactly what was wrong and cut all the crap about how he was better off dealing with it on his own. Hope knew how Sam would handle this situation, because Sam’s responses were programmed into her brain. You didn’t grow up practically joined at the hip to your older sister without knowing everything about her. But that didn’t mean you could apply her no-holds-barred type of reaction to your own life. Sadly no.

   Hope, hating confrontation and loving Matt almost obsessively, was content to know nothing if that was what Matt wanted.

   Matt finished his meal and smiled at his wife. ‘That was lovely,’ he said kindly. ‘Let’s forget about everything and watch a video. I stopped at the shop on the way home.’

   ‘I can give you your presents,’ Hope said, eager to leave the desolate place she was currently in. If they had a nice evening after all, it meant their marriage was OK. Didn’t it?

   

   Matt was up early the next morning. An early meeting, he said as he threw back the duvet at half six instead of the usual seven. Hope, head heavy after a practically sleepless night of worrying, couldn’t move. She was exhausted, her head throbbed with tiredness and her eyes felt piggy, as if someone had injected them with some type of swelling agent. She knew she should get up and talk to Matt – anything to convince herself that it was all okay – but she was too tired. The speediest dresser in the world, Matt was showered, shaved and ready in twenty minutes. Wearing the black Armani suit with a white shirt and his new tie, an outfit that made him look like he was auditioning for an Italian James Bond, he stopped by the bed to pick up his watch from the bedside table. Hope sat up on the pillow and rubbed frantically at her sleep-filled eyes.

   ‘Bye darling,’ she bleated. ‘Love you.’ She hoped he’d kiss her goodbye but instead he smiled briefly and busied himself with his watch strap.

   ‘Bye, I’ll see you this evening,’ he said and he was gone, without kissing her.

   Hope remembered a time when they’d been so in love that some mornings Matt had ripped off his suit and got back into bed with her to make mad passionate love, not caring that he’d be late for work. She bit her lip miserably. The seven year itch wasn’t just an itch: it was a damn outbreak of eczema.

   Her only consolation was that he had looked tired too and clearly hadn’t slept well. Whether it was because he longed to make it up, or whether he’d been mentally going over the various ways of informing her their marriage was over, she couldn’t tell.

   As usual, Millie was naughtier than usual because she sensed that Hope was tired and cross. Millie may have looked like an angelic child model from the Pears soap adverts, but there was definitely a vein of sheer mischief running through her body that belied her sweet face. Hope knew from experience that whenever Millie was looking particularly innocent, with her full bottom lip jutting out and her dark eyes round with naïveté, she’d undoubtedly done something very naughty. Like the time she put the plug in the upstairs bathroom sink and set the taps running full blast until water poured down the stairs. The carpet had been ruined.

   This morning, she belted downstairs and started to make cakes out of tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, broken up biscuits and breakfast cereal, squelching out an entire bottle of ketchup with the subsequent splodges getting all over the kitchen floor, while Hope was upstairs getting Toby ready.

   ‘Millie,’ was all Hope could say when she got downstairs with Toby to find an ocean of Millie’s ketchup cake covering the table, a good deal of the floor and most of Millie’s lime green fluffy jumper, clean on half an hour ago. Even worse, it was a jumper that had to be handwashed and spent much of its life at the bottom of the laundry basket with the other handwash items until Hope had the time to tackle them.

   ‘You’re a very naughty girl; you’re all messy and I’ll have to clean this up. Go upstairs immediately and take off that jumper. We’re going to be late.’

   ‘Shit,’ said Millie mutinously.

   Hope’s jaw clanged so low she could hear the joint creak.

   ‘What?’ she gasped, appalled. Where could Millie have learned that?

   Even Millie seemed to realize that this was a very, very bad thing to say.

   She scampered upstairs like a greyhound. Hope stepped over the ketchup cake blindly and switched on the kettle. Very strong coffee was the only answer. She had a husband who wanted to leave her and a delinquent four-year-old daughter who had apparently picked up the worst swear words in the world at the nursery which Hope had to shell out most of her salary to pay for. Wonderful.

   Hi Sam, how’s the new job? Is everyone friendly? Stupid question, Hope decided, deleting it. People were friendly to newcomers in offices but not to new bosses.

   We’re all great and looking forward to Matt’s birthday dinner. I did plan to buy a dress but decided against it. If only I could fit into your designer outfits. Next time you have a wardrobe clear out, send a plastic bin liner of stuff down to me and I’ll diet!

   Talk soon,

   Love Hope.

   By the Thursday night of Matt’s birthday dinner, Hope had lost two pounds with the stress of it all. Normally, that would have thrilled her, but when her weight loss was connected with the fact that Matt had been almost monosyllabic since his birthday, it wasn’t a cause for celebration.

   Over the last couple of days, Matt had been very quiet and had stayed very late at the office on two evenings, ostensibly to get some work done on an important campaign they were presenting on Monday.

   Hope was convinced he was going to see her and had resisted the temptation to follow him in the Metro. But it was impossible to play private detective with two small children in tow. Hope could just picture Millie announcing loudly over breakfast the next day: ‘Daddy, we saw you and a strange lady and Mummy cried and said a rude word.’

   Even more telling, he’d been looking over some papers in their bedroom and had quickly stuffed them back in his briefcase when Hope walked in unexpectedly. Distraught, Hope had walked out again. They had to have been divorce papers. What else would he want to hide?

   She longed to confide in someone, but whom? Sam had never approved of Matt and would probably arrive in fury from London with a top lawyer in tow and order Hope to screw everything she could out of Matt in the divorce settlement. Betsey, her closest friend, was married to Matt’s friend and colleague, Dan, so there was no way she could tell Betsey of her fears. In fact, she was scared that if she said anything to Betsey, the other woman would take her hand pityingly and say yes, she’d been dying to tell Hope that Matt had someone else. She had other friends but they were mainly couples that she and Matt went out with, friends of both of them, in other words, so unsuitable for spilling the beans to.

   How could she phone up Angelica and Simon and say that no, the Parkers wouldn’t be coming for dinner in three weeks’ time and had they heard anything about Matt and some bimbo?

   So Hope did what she’d been doing all her life: she bottled it up inside herself and lay wide-eyed in bed at night, listening to Matt’s even breathing beside her and wondering what the hell she was going to do with the rest of her lonely life without him.

   

   The restaurant was buzzing with a glam Thursday night crowd but even so, other diners looked up when the Judd’s Advertising crew were escorted to their table. Most of the eyes were on Jasmine Judd, new wife to the boss, a radiant, satin-skinned blonde who was spilling out of a dusky pink sequined dress and made Hope feel more than a little inadequate in the safe jersey number that had looked sophisticated and modern at home but had been transformed into several-seasons-out-of-fashion in this elegant setting. She never got clothes right, she sighed. But then, Hope was beginning to feel as if she never got anything right.

   If the male diners were all open-mouthed at the sight of Jasmine swaying on her high heels, the female diners were able to feast their eyes on Matt, who was looking particularly good in a fawn-coloured suit that made him look even more matinee idol than ever. His hair suited him in the cropped style; it made his deep set eyes look darker than usual and showed up the firm, he-man jaw that made lots of the women in Maltings Lane wave at him too energetically when he was out cutting the grass in his shorts and T-shirt.

   He certainly looked after himself, fitting in three nights a week in the gym come what may. Hope now knew he wasn’t keeping himself fit for her. But at least he was wearing his birthday tie.

   ‘George Clooney eat your heart out,’ Yvonne had joked the first time she’d clapped eyes on Matt at the annual building society barbecue.

   Hope knew this was high praise indeed but hadn’t liked to tell her that Matt considered gorgeous George to be common and modelled himself more on Cary Grant. If his temples weren’t already greying in a distinguished manner à la Cary, Hope wondered if Matt might start bleaching them himself.

   Many times in their marriage, she’d wondered how she’d ever managed to end up with Matt. Quite a few other women wondered that too, she felt, judging by the calculating gazes she got from them at parties. Hope never realized that the calculating gazes held plenty of envy for her. Convinced she was frumpy and dull, she had no idea of her own attractiveness. To her, beauty meant the glossy sophistication and superb bone structure of people like Jasmine. It couldn’t possibly mean a sweet, kind face or big anxious eyes or a soft mouth that constantly twitched up at the corners into the most bewitching smile.

   Nor did Hope realize that while Matt might sometimes look briefly on the stunning creatures who flirted with him, he needed a yielding, gentle woman like Hope as his partner. The strong, glamorous women who eyed him up boldly, simply reminded him of his strong, glamorous mother, a woman who wore signature red lipstick, kept her dark hair in a sleek bob and flirted with all and sundry. Hope, who was scared of her mother-in-law and always felt deeply inadequate beside her, never realized that one of the reasons Matt loved her so dearly was because she was the direct opposite of his mother.

   Hope walked behind Matt to the table, miserably thinking that maybe she should announce that her delectable husband was back on the market. She’d be flattened in the rush, that was for sure. Matt was a nine on a one-to-ten scale of attractiveness while she’d been maybe a five when they’d married. In her black dress with her hair refusing to behave and a pre-menstrual spot emerging like a beacon on her chin despite all the concealer plastered on it, Hope currently felt as if she was a two. Compared to Jasmine, she was in minus figures.

   She stared at Jasmine jealously. Was she the one? No, Hope decided. Matt was a career man first and foremost. Having an affair with the boss’s wife was career suicide.

   A long table against one wall was reserved for the party of ten. Dan had organized the dinner party and was now telling everyone where to sit. As the others obediently went to their seats, Hope’s prospects of a red-wine fuelled evening where her mind would be taken off her troubles vanished. Dan told her to sit in the centre with her back to the wall and she realized she was going to spend the evening hemmed in by people she didn’t like.

   Lucky Matt had Betsey, the flamboyant journalist who was married to Dan, on one side. Betsey was one of Hope’s closest friends, although she was a teeny bit self-obsessed and tended to swing all conversations back to herself. Hope would have loved to have been able to sit beside Betsey and confide in her: she was almost desperate enough to do so.

   On Matt’s other side, he had Jasmine. Both women were chattering away happily to the birthday boy. Hope, on the other hand, was stuck with the art director’s husband, an eternal student with a goatee and dirty finger nails, who could bore for Britain in the Olympics on the subject of the changing face of industrial architecture. Hope didn’t give a damn about industrial architecture and could see nothing interesting in Victorian glassworks.

   On her other side was Adam Judd, the agency boss, who never had anything to say to her and who was now avidly watching his luscious wife, Jasmine, flirting with Matt.

   Across the table, Dan smiled at Hope. She automatically smiled back, thinking ‘you pig, you’ve stuck me with the most difficult people at the table.’ Sam would have said something sarcastic to him: Hope knew she’d never dare.

   Dan immediately turned to his neighbour, the agency’s commercials director, a quiet woman named Elizabeth.

   Soon, she was laughing too.

   Hope sighed and took another big slug of wine. She wasn’t a heavy drinker but the thought flitted through her mind that perhaps tonight was the night to get plastered and confront Matt. She’d never have the nerve unless she was drunk…

   Then again, Matt would go ballistic if she got drunk and made a fool of herself. These people were Matt’s colleagues, she must make an effort. But it wasn’t easy. Tortured by thoughts of Matt’s infidelity and watching all the women at their table like a hawk, in case she was one of them, Hope was not enjoying herself. The silence at her side of the table was deafening, made all the more obvious by the machine gun rattle of conversation on the other side. Adam ate like he was starving, only speaking when he wanted butter, pepper for his smoked salmon, or the bottle of wine passed down his end. Hope gave up trying when her third stab at conversation (‘Are you and Jasmine going anywhere nice on holiday?’) was deflected with a grunted ‘no’. Adam looked grim at the notion, as if he wasn’t letting Jasmine go anywhere she’d be able to stun passing men with the sight of her in a sliver of uplift bikini.

   Peter, the student, was eager to discuss his thesis whenever Hope turned in his direction.

   ‘I’d really like to develop the idea into a book,’ he was saying grandly in between hoovering up goats’ cheese salad, ‘but bizarrely, I can’t get anyone interested.’

   Hope had tuned out by now but nodded and said ‘Really? How interesting.’ She wished she was more like Sam who could invest the words ‘how interesting’ with an iciness that would freeze the Pacific Ocean and immediately make the other person realize they were the exact opposite of interesting.

   ‘Funding is the problem, control of funding,’ Peter said, tapping his bony nose mysteriously. ‘It’s impossible to get funding for the really worthwhile projects like mine,’ he added pompously.

   ‘It is outrageous that so many commercial books get published when worthy, unsaleable books like yours don’t,’ Hope said gravely.

   Peter blinked at her, unsure whether she was serious or not. But Hope’s face was the picture of earnestness.

   ‘Well, yes,’ he drivelled on, satisfied that Matt Parker’s quiet little wife couldn’t possibly have been mocking him. ‘You see, if you let me explain my theories…’

   In desperation, Hope turned to find that Adam was now talking business to Sadie, the art director. Sadie’s eyes caught Hope’s briefly but as Adam was talking, Hope couldn’t interrupt. Adam ignored Hope completely. Just like Matt, she thought bitterly. He’d barely looked at her during the first course, concentrating on making everyone else laugh and have a great time.

   ‘You can see the problem,’ Peter continued as she turned back to him.

   ‘Of course,’ Hope said, wondering why the hell she’d been looking forward to an evening out when it was proving as thrilling as having her blackheads squeezed. She’d thought it might be more enjoyable than enduring another silent evening of telly-watching at home. But at least at home, her mind was taken off its problems thanks to prime time viewing.

   ‘More wine, Hope?’ asked her husband from the other side of the table, seeing no-one else had bothered to refill her glass.

   She nodded glumly.

   Matt’s long fingers reached across the table and touched hers. He winked at her and mouthed ‘thank you’. Thank you for being bored senseless on my behalf, she hoped he meant. She smiled weakly back with relief. He did love her, he did. She knew Matt well enough to know he was trying to make up. Even if there was somebody else, she could weather it as long as Matt loved her. Hope gave his fingers a final squeeze.

   It wasn’t too much of an effort to be nice to Matt’s colleagues and their spouses. It was the least she could do. She only had to put up with Peter once or twice a year.

   

   Long fingers twirling the stem of his wine glass, Matt watched Hope doing her best to be charming to boring Peter Scott. She was great at that sort of thing, he thought fondly. You could always rely on Hope to do the polite, decent thing no matter what. Nobody else in their right mind would let Peter start off on his ‘my thesis’ saga but Hope was too kind to stop him. That was her problem: she was too kind. She let people walk all over her.

   He didn’t know why she’d worn that clingy dress. Tight stuff didn’t suit her. His wife had an other-worldly air that made her look nice in flowy stuff, long dresses, that type of thing. Not like Jasmine. You had to hand it to Adam, he knew how to pick them. There wasn’t a man here who hadn’t thought for one brief, erotic moment of what the new Mrs Judd would look like without that sparkly dress. Probably cost more than all the dresses in Hope’s wardrobe put together. Anyway, Hope would never wear such a thing. That dress was a statement: Look at me, it said. That wasn’t Hope’s scene at all. She was much more of a background person, happy to be out of the spotlight.

   It was a pity she didn’t realize how gorgeous she was. He was always telling her but she just didn’t get it. He’d seen scores of men eyeing her up over the years and Hope never, ever noticed them. When people looked at her, she checked to see if she had her skirt tucked up into her knickers or had gone out in her slippers.

   ‘Great night, isn’t it?’ Dan said, leaning over and touching Matt on the shoulder.

   ‘Yeah, fantastic night,’ Matt said automatically.

   It was a great night. He had his colleagues here, cheering him for his birthday, and his boss who’d just brought him into the boardroom that day to say he was giving Matt a raise. Two lovely kids, a nice wife…everything a man could want. Only he wanted more.

   Matt stared into the middle distance and thought about how his perfect, wonderful life was choking him. He’d had a crazy and impulsive idea about how to fix it, well, how to fix some of it, but how did he break it to Hope? He didn’t know where to start. Confiding in Jasmine had helped a bit.

   She’d promised to put a good word in for him with Adam if he ever actually made the break. Telling Adam would be a doddle compared to telling Hope.

   

   By the time people were staring happily into their liqueurs, Hope had finally managed to move seats and was now between Jasmine and Dan.

   Jasmine was very nice, Hope decided, convinced now that there was nothing between her and Matt. She could see how other women would feel threatened by her: that amazing figure, tiny waist and gravity-defying boobs, not to mention a sweet face with huge blue eyes. But she was funny, unaffected and not at all the predatory bimbo that Betsey had initially dubbed her. Well, she wasn’t predatory, anyway.

   ‘Your husband’s wonderful,’ Jasmine said in between sips of sambuca. ‘I was telling him how I wanted to write a book and he said “snap!” The last person I said it to told me not to bother my head with books when I could be on the cover of one.’ Jasmine looked vexed at this.

   ‘Matt said what?’ Hope asked, curious and hurt at the same time. How had Matt discussed this with Jasmine and not with her?

   ‘I daresay it’s a pipe dream,’ suggested Jasmine. ‘It is for me too. But Matt writes for his job, he’s got a better chance than most. I’m thinking of doing a creative writing course, myself. I know it’s tough. Like selling records. I went out with a musician once and he was obsessed with record sales.’ She laughed ruefully. ‘Oh, speaking of music, Matt was telling me about your older sister and this great job she’s just got in the record company. I love the sound of that. What’s she like? Very clever and high powered, I suppose?’

   ‘The opposite of me, you mean,’ said Hope automatically. And it was true…Sam was a human dynamo, all fire and energy. Now she was running a label at Titus Records. Hope still wasn’t exactly sure what the new job entailed because Sam had only been there a week and their e-mails had been short, but it was demanding, that was for sure. Sam couldn’t bear to be free of pressure. She’d worked herself into the ground for five years as marketing director of another huge record label and now, when Hope thought her sister should be slowing down a bit and perhaps thinking about settling down, Sam had moved companies to another, bigger job.

   Jasmine was back on the subject of writing: ‘Matt told me about his plan to take a year out and live in the country. I know it’s only an idea and you’ve nothing settled yet but I think you should go for it. It’ll be easier for him to write with no distractions. Harder to see your sister, mind you, if you were to move abroad. Matt was telling me your parents died when you were kids and that you’ve only got one sister.’

   Hope’s heart missed a beat. ‘What are you on about?’ she asked, feeling a queasy sensation in the pit of her stomach, a sensation that had nothing to do with drinking too much.

   ‘It’s fine, really,’ Jasmine assured her in a stage whisper. ‘You don’t have to pretend you don’t know. I won’t say a word to Adam about it, I promised Matt I wouldn’t. I’m sure that Adam will go ballistic when he discovers Matt wants to take a year’s sabbatical but you have to pursue your dreams, don’t you.’ She got misty-eyed. ‘I’d love to move somewhere remote to write but I’d hate to be away from twenty-four hour shops. Won’t you mind?’

   Hope recovered her composure. This was not the moment to say the notion of Matt taking a year out was news to her. She tried to look resigned instead of astonished. ‘Who knows what’ll happen,’ she shrugged. ‘The whole idea is very much aspirational right now. We love Bath and…’

   ‘Jasmine, time to go,’ announced Adam suddenly, looming behind his wife and putting proprietorial hands on her slim, golden shoulders.

   With Jasmine and Adam gone, the party deflated. Betsey insisted to Dan she was tired and had to go home.

   ‘We should go too,’ said Elizabeth, reaching under the table for her handbag.

   With the wisdom born of being slightly drunk, Hope realized that her husband’s colleagues weren’t so close to him as he thought. Their eagerness to party only lasted as long as the boss’s presence. When Adam was gone, so was the party spirit. But Matt didn’t seem to mind and waved everyone off with great bonhomie.

   In the taxi, Hope sat quietly as they drove out on the Bristol road. Matt lay back against the seat with his eyes closed, his face expressionless now they were alone. As houses sped by, Hope worked out what she was going to say when they got home. It went against the grain to start an argument in the back of a taxi with the driver listening to every word.

   The pieces of the puzzle had fallen painfully into place thanks to the artless Jasmine. Matt was dreaming up an enormous career change and Hope and the kids didn’t figure in his plans. Would she stay on in the house in Bath or move to London to be near Sam, Hope wondered in shock. She’d move, definitely, she couldn’t stay in the house where they’d been so happy. Correction; where she’d been so happy. Matt obviously hadn’t been happy or he wouldn’t want to leave it and her.

   The children had been little lambs and the chocolate biscuits had been great, Elaine, the babysitter, said when they got home.

   ‘Good,’ said Hope absently, getting out her purse. Her hands were shaking, like an alcoholic’s before the first drink of the day. ‘Matt will walk you home.’

   ‘It’s only across the road,’ protested Elaine.

   ‘Better safe than sorry,’ Hope said. ‘It’s half twelve, you know. Time for the deviants of the world to emerge.’

   ‘In Maltings Lane?’ asked Elaine incredulously.

   When Matt came back, Hope was sitting waiting for him at the kitchen table. Her hands were still shaking, so she put them on her lap and clasped them tightly together as if she was praying. Perhaps if she had prayed, none of this would have happened, she thought wildly.

   ‘I thought you’d be on your way to bed by now,’ Matt remarked, pouring himself a glass of milk. It was the longest statement he’d made in about a week.

   ‘Jasmine said a very strange thing to me tonight,’ Hope said evenly. ‘She said you were taking a sabbatical to live in the country to write a book – not this country was the implication. I just wondered when you were going to tell me of this plan and if I and the children were actually included.’

   ‘Ah.’ Matt sat down with her. ‘Too much red wine is a terrible thing.’

   ‘You mean Jasmine misunderstood?’ Hope could barely get the words out.

   ‘Not exactly,’ Matt said slowly. ‘I’m afraid I got a bit carried away and said too much.’

   ‘So it’s true.’ Her legs began to shake too with fear.

   ‘Hope,’ Matt wasn’t sure how to start but he knew he had to. Telling Jasmine had been a decision fuelled by too much wine but it had been a relief to talk about it with someone other than Dan. It was time to tell Hope. ‘It’s been a dream of mine for years and you know me, respectable family man, I’d never do anything wild or out of the ordinary, anything that would jeopardize our future but now I’ve got the chance and I thought, why not take a year out. I know that Adam would keep my job open for me – he’d have to, I’m the best he’s got,’ he added, proud of the fact.

   ‘But what about me and the kids?’ asked Hope, eyes wet and filled with terror. Was Matt drunk? Didn’t he care about them at all?

   ‘I mean all of us going away. You, me and the kids for a year. To Ireland; Kerry, in fact. Uncle Gearóid’s solicitor phoned me on Monday about the old house. I know it’s sudden but it’s like the answer to my prayers. I’ve been so down, Hope, so depressed and then he phones to say the house is officially mine. I haven’t been able to think of anything else all week.’

   Hope’s whole body was shaking now; she could barely take in what he was saying because her mind was so befuddled with fear and anxiety.

   Gearóid had been a poet who, over forty years before, had left his home in the UK for a small town named Redlion in Kerry, where he lived a bohemian life with gusto. Hope had never met him because he’d refused to leave his beloved adopted country to come to their wedding but he’d always sounded like a mad old rogue who pickled his liver and wrote bad poetry that nobody had ever wanted to publish. He’d even changed his name from Gerald to the Irish and unpronounceable Gearóid, which Hope still found impossible to say, no matter how many times Matt said it phonetically: ‘Gar, like garage, and oid like haemorrhoid.’

   Matt had spent a few summers in Redlion as a child and still talked mistily about what a wonderful place Kerry was. But as Gearóid became more eccentric with age, he refused to travel to stay with Matt, who, in turn, never seemed to have the time to visit his ageing uncle. When he died, he left Matt everything; partly because he didn’t have any children of his own and partly, according to his solicitor, to annoy the other distant relatives who’d been hanging around like vultures hoping for a piece of property in a popular tourist destination in south-western Ireland. ‘Everything’ turned out to be a run-down house the solicitor imagined wouldn’t fetch much. Hope had assumed that Matt would simply sell the house. They could certainly do with the money.

   ‘Probate’s finally been sorted out,’ Matt explained. ‘The house is mine. And yours, of course. There’s a bit of land but only an acre or so. It all seemed much bigger when I was a kid. I thought he had loads of land. Anyway,’ he paused, ‘this is my idea. I’ve told you about the writers’ community there that Gearóid helped start up in the Sixties?’

   Hope nodded, still looking shell-shocked, although Matt didn’t notice because he was fired up with the enthusiasm of telling her his plan.

   ‘It’s spooky because this is so coincidental,’ Matt went on eagerly, ‘but last week I read an interview with the novelist, Stephen Dane – you know the guy, he writes those literary thrillers. Anyway, he’s just sold a book to Hollywood. We’re talking millions, Hope. And in the middle of the interview, he mentioned that he wrote his first novel in Kerry, in Redlion, actually, in the writer’s centre. Don’t you see, it’s got to be a sign.

   ‘We’d both take a year out and go and live in Gearóid’s house. I’d write a novel. I’ve got one in me, I know it. Imagine it, Hope,’ Matt said, his eyes alight with enthusiasm, desperate to transmit his excitement to her and unaware of what she’d been thinking since his birthday, ‘we could be with the children all day. I could get some part time copy writing work and we’d live cheaply enough. We could rent out this place for a year and cover the mortgage. We wouldn’t lose out. This is our big chance.’

   And it was, Matt was convinced of it. He’d slay the demons that lived in his head and told him he’d never amount to anything but a bitter old ad man. And he’d get the chance to live another life, even if only for a brief time.

   Hope stared at him, hardly daring to believe that it wasn’t the death knell she’d been expecting. Matt wasn’t leaving her; he wanted her and the children with him. She leaned her hands on the table. Her sleeve immediately stuck in the sticky patch left behind from Millie’s morning yoghurt.

   ‘Why couldn’t you tell me?’ she said, her voice unsteady. ‘I didn’t know you felt this way.’

   ‘I’m sorry I kept it to myself. It’s embarrassing to talk about your dreams like that, Hope, but I want to write and I’m never going to do it here, not with a full-time job, not in this house. You need a creative atmosphere. It would be fantastic for us as a family. Having the house there in Redlion takes all the hassle out of it. It’s perfect.’

   ‘Why didn’t you tell me any of this on your birthday?’ she said helplessly. ‘I knew there was something wrong, I asked you what it was then and you wouldn’t tell me! I thought you were having an affair.’

   It was Matt’s turn to look astonished.

   ‘An affair! Whatever gave you that idea?’ he said incredulously.

   ‘Everything,’ Hope said. ‘You told me there was something wrong but that I couldn’t fix it. And you didn’t kiss me or touch me and I was just so sure…’

   Her voice broke off and Matt sat down at the table and took her hands in his.

   ‘Darling Hope, what a crazy idea. I was killing myself wondering whether I could do this to you. All I could think of was that you’d hate it, that it was such a huge step to go abroad for a year. I kept telling myself it was a stupid idea, that I shouldn’t do it but I’ve been talking to Dan about it and…’

   ‘Dan!’ Hope felt a spark of fury that while she’d been dying inside at the thought of Matt leaving her, he could have saved her a lot of anguish if only he’d told her the truth. Meanwhile, he’d actually been asking other people’s opinions on a move that affected her more than anyone else. ‘Is there anyone you haven’t discussed this with, apart from me, of course?’ She ripped a tissue from the box on the table and rubbed violently at the yoghurt marks on the table.

   ‘I need you to understand, Hope,’ Matt said quietly.

   Hope thought she understood all right: Matt had made another unilateral decision about their lives. There had been the time a mere month after their marriage when he said he’d accepted a job with the ad agency in Bath even though they’d both decided to travel round the world for a year. (Well, the trip around the world had been his idea initially, but she’d agreed to it, had bought the rucksack and got the typhoid injection.)

   Or the time he’d agreed to rent a holiday cottage in France with Dan and Betsey, without even discussing it with Hope. And what had she said on each occasion? Had she roared: ‘It’s my life too, Matt. I don’t agree with your plans so you’ll have to unmake them?’ No. Anger and neediness had fought and neediness had won. Too scared at starting a battle with the one she loved, Hope had smothered her upset and said: ‘Of course, that’s a good idea. Let’s do it.’

   Sam had been furious with her: ‘How dare he bloody give up your year travelling for some crappy job without talking it over with you first!’ she’d raged.

   ‘Marriage is about give and take,’ Hope had countered.

   ‘What percentage applies to each person?’ Sam had demanded. ‘You give ninety-five per cent and he takes ninety-five per cent? Is that the way it breaks down?’

   ‘You don’t know anything about marriage,’ Hope had replied, stung by the unfairness of her sister’s comments into saying something sharper than she’d ever normally say to Sam.

   Her sister was quiet for a moment. ‘Neither do you, sis,’ Sam remarked sadly.

   Unspoken between them was the knowledge that happy families was a game they hadn’t grown up with. Brought up by their strict, middle-aged maiden aunt who thought that children should be seen and not heard, their vision of happy families came from watching Little House On The Prairie.

   ‘Penny for them?’ Matt put an arm around her shoulders. She leaned her head against it. He was so demonstrative with her, a fact which had thrilled her when they’d first met. Matt linked his arm through hers from the first date, squeezed her fingers affectionately just for the hell of it. Hope, brought up in austerity where hugs were for Christmas, had loved his touchy-feely-ness. After six years of marriage, he had been as affectionate as ever. They had slept spooned together and on the odd occasions Matt was away working, Hope found it impossible to get any sleep without the sensation of his body next to hers. Until the past painful few months.

   Hope remembered the sheer fear of thinking their marriage was over. She adored Matt, she couldn’t live without him. Now, relief that he still loved her too was flooding through her limbs, filling her with the sweet sense of release that all her worst nightmares weren’t coming true.

   ‘I wish you wouldn’t make decisions without consulting me,’ she said, head still resting against his arm.

   As if sensing that the worst was over, Matt stroked her hair with his other hand. ‘I am consulting you,’ he said.

   ‘Only after you’ve talked about it with other people, including Jasmine.’ She was still hurt that he’d talked about something so personal to a woman he barely knew. Jasmine had learned all the facts while Hope, whose life it involved, was still ignorant of them. Despite her relief, that still rankled. ‘We can’t have a very good marriage if you never discuss the big issues with me, Matt. Why couldn’t you tell me what you were thinking in the beginning? I couldn’t begin to tell you how awful it’s been for me, knowing there was something wrong but not what.’ She didn’t want to mention her affair fears again. It sounded so stupid now she knew the truth.

   ‘It was only an idea then…’

   ‘That was when you should have talked it over with me, then. What am I? Your wife or your landlady?’

   Matt moved his arm away. ‘I thought you’d jump at the idea. You’re forever going on about how you never get to spend time with Toby and Millie, how they’ll grow up thinking Your Little Treasures is their real home and we’re the night-time babysitters. And you hate your job.’

   ‘Sometimes I do but that doesn’t mean I want to stop doing it,’ Hope protested. ‘And I doubt very much if I could get a sabbatical; I’m hardly a top flight executive they can’t do without. So you’re asking me to dump a good job. And all our friends are here,’ she added, ‘not to mention the children’s friends. Toby’s only just settled properly into the nursery and I have to drag him out again.’

   ‘It’s only for a year, not forever. Unless of course, I get a good publishing deal…’ Matt’s face lit up at his daydream but Hope was even more horrified. Perhaps the move would be forever…

   ‘What if I don’t agree to it?’ she asked.

   Feeling a bit guilty about blackmailing her, Matt launched his final, lethal weapon. ‘Don’t be angry, love. Think of what it could mean to us. We could bring the children up as a real family, in a real community environment. Not with both of us working so hard that we’re too tired to get involved with the outside world. Wouldn’t you love to live in the country and be a part of the children’s lives?’

   Hope wavered. Family: that was her Achilles’ heel. Aunt Ruth had been the most unmaternal person on the planet and Hope had longed for a family atmosphere like something out of a Disney movie. Picnics with homemade sandwiches, walks along the sea shore, great excitement hanging up stockings over the fireplace at Christmas. She and Sam hadn’t experienced any of that, which made her all the more keen to give it to her children.

   ‘We could look after the kids ourselves, not work each other into the ground,’ Matt said fervently, warming to his theme. ‘Think of it, fresh air, no pollution, good food…’

   ‘Bath is hardly covered with industrial smog,’ she pointed out.

   ‘I know, but this would be different.’

   ‘What about our families? We’d be so far away from everyone.’

   ‘I never see my lot anyway – you know we’re not close – and Sam can fly over and see us in Ireland. They all can, it’s not a million miles away. Besides, my parents haven’t been to Bath since the Christmas before last, they’ll hardly miss us.’

   Hope knew what he meant. Matt’s parents were chilly and reserved, and not too interested in spending time with their only son and his family. Since his father had retired, his parents had spent much of their time travelling, saying that they had neither the time nor the money to travel when they were younger.

   ‘Sam jets off all over the world for work,’ Matt added, ‘it’ll be easy for her to hop on a plane and visit us. The trip would be an hour and a half, max.’

   Hope thought about it. Imagine being able to take care of the children, giving them quality time, learning tapestry, sitting in a rural garden with butterflies dipping in and out of the flowers, birds singing and not a sound of cars roaring up and down the motorways.

   Hope thought of the floral skirt she’d admired in Jolly’s and her plans to become the queen of her kitchen.

   And she and Matt would become closer than ever. After nearly a week of fear when she’d thought her marriage was over, she desperately wanted to work on it, to make sure they stayed together. She took a deep breath.

   ‘OK, let’s investigate it. But stop making plans without asking me, will you?’

   ‘I promise.’ Matt buried his face in her neck, the same way Toby did. And in a rush of warmth she felt her objections melt away.

   That same Thursday, Sam Smith sat in her office and put her head on her desk for one wonderful minute. Not on the desk, exactly: the bleached maple was hidden by layers of paper, mostly marketing reports, spreadsheets of expenses and letters she had yet to read. She had to clear it all before seven o’clock that evening, an impossibility since her assistant, Lydia, was off with flu. Sam’s own throat ached and a dull throbbing behind her eyes convinced her that she was next in line to get it. Only she simply couldn’t afford to take any time off. She had a gig tonight, one that would go on until the wee small hours, and an eight-thirty meeting the following morning, followed by a three-hour budget meeting. Illness, like tiredness, was not an option. Not when you were barely two weeks into the job, a job people would kill their grannies for.

   Sam rubbed her eyes, not caring for once whether she’d smudge her mascara and give herself racoon eyes. Why did she have to feel ill now? Everything had been going swimmingly for the last eight working days. She loved Titus Records, adored her new job as managing director of the LGBK label, got hugely excited at the idea of developing people’s careers and making them international stars. It was a huge step up from being director of marketing at Plutoni-ous Records. Despite the long hours she’d been working, she’d gone home every night buzzing with an inner electricity at the thrill of the job she’d been fighting for every day of the past fifteen years.

   But Lydia had been snuffling and sneezing all day Wednesday and had given Sam her germs. Lydia, a carefree twenty-five-year-old, could afford to take a few days’ sick leave. Sam, teetering on the abyss of forty and the most recently hired executive with a lot to prove, couldn’t. Illness in female execs was viewed with as much disfavour as working mothers racing home from important meetings to take care of toddlers with high temperatures. At least Sam, childless by choice, didn’t have to worry about the latter.

   The telltale click of her door handle alerted her to the fact that someone was about to enter the office. Immediately, she jerked upright, flicked back her glossy dark blonde hair, and opened her eyes wide to banish the exhaustion from them.

   The door opened abruptly to reveal Steve Parris. Sam mustered up her best, most professional smile. When the company chairman himself deigned to arrive at your office at half-past five on a Thursday evening, it was your duty to look alert, on top of things and enthusiastic. Not half-dead with flu symptoms.

   Sam shoved her seat back and got to her feet in one fluid movement. ‘Steve, what can I do for you?’ she said, hoping to infuse her words with the correct amount of deference. In her two weeks at LGBK, the biggest label at Titus Records, she’d divined that Steve Parris, no matter how much he slapped workers on the back and went about with his hail-fellow-well-met routine, was a control freak who needed subservience the same way other people needed oxygen. Short and skinny, he was still a formidable presence in his black Prada suit. People who underestimated Steve because he was so physically unprepossessing rarely made the same mistake twice.

   With his shock of hair, heavy eyebrows and disconcerting habit of smoking a cigar the size of a nuclear weapon all along the no-smoking corridors of Titus, Steve was the sort of man who made people nervous. Sam was no exception.

   She was no coward but she knew Steve didn’t like her. He’d wanted a man for the job. The Titus European President, who was Steve’s superior, had wanted Sam. Steve had given in but he wasn’t happy about the decision.

   ‘Just dropped by,’ he said now, small black eyes constantly moving over Sam, her messy desk and the office, which was still only half-furnished. Sam had dumped the previous incumbent’s furniture, an act designed to show people that she was the new broom.

   Sam smiled at him as warmly as she could manage. Steve never ‘just dropped by’.

   ‘You’re going to see Density tonight,’ he said, half-question, half-statement…

   That was it, Sam realized. Density, the band Steve himself had signed at huge expense, and who had just finished recording their first album, were performing in a small club in Soho. Sam, as head of the label they were signed to, would be very involved with their future, so it would be interesting to see them live for the first time. A future that would mean big trouble for Steve and Sam if they didn’t make it. He was in her office to make sure that she was giving his protégés every help, so that their album would be a mega success and he’d get the kudos for signing them. If it wasn’t, someone’s head would roll and Sam would bet her enamelled golly badge that it wouldn’t be Steve’s.

   For the first time, Sam felt the strain of being the boss. Suddenly she wondered why she hadn’t stuck with her enjoyable first job all those years ago in the film distributors where the biggest stress was looking after some neurotic movie star on a promotional tour who wanted Earl Grey tea and lemon in a motorway café where the only serious menu choice was what sauce you got with your deep fried chicken. But no, she’d wanted power and a fabulous career and had left the film industry to spend fifteen frantic years in the music business. Fifteen years of hard slog to end up with Steve Parris growling at her every day. Had it been ambition or masochism? It was the flu talking, she thought, angry with herself for such weakness.

   ‘I’m really looking forward to seeing Density live,’ she said now. ‘I love the parts of the album I’ve heard.’

   Steve’s beetle eyebrows bristled and the small black eyes got smaller and meaner.

   ‘You mean you haven’t heard it all before?’ he barked.

   ‘I’ve heard most of the tracks but they’re remixing three. The producer is going to send the final version tomorrow,’ Sam said, trying to remain cool.

   ‘Jeez, you should have heard it before tonight. It’s out in a month. I’ll see you at the gig tonight and we’ll talk about the album tomorrow,’ he said, slamming the door shut on his way out.

   Sam sank back into her chair and automatically put one finger to her mouth to nibble the nail. Shit, shit, shit.

   She shuffled her papers again and then made up her mind. An executive decision. After all, she was a bloody executive, so she could make a decision. She was flu-ey, she had a gig to go to and she really needed to change her clothes if she wasn’t to look like a complete dork at the gig. The change of clothes she’d meant to bring was still sitting in the hall of the flat where she’d left it this morning. Wearing a suit, even if it was a pretty slick grey one with a discreet DKNY label, she’d stand out like an elderly sore thumb amidst crowds of combat-trousered trendies with Kangol hats and trainers. Bugger the paperwork: she was going home to mainline anti-flu products and to change her clothes. She locked her door and walked past the glass offices, and past the open-plan section of the fifth floor, LGBK’s centre of operations. Luckily, Steve’s office was on the seventh floor, with all the Titus presidents, vice presidents, and other assorted control freaks. She hoped nobody was looking at her, sure she had a guilty look on her face that said ‘Going Home Early’.

   But even though she didn’t know it, as she strode along the glass corridor, people were looking; people just looked at Sam Smith. Not that she was beautiful or supermodel-tall or startling in any movie star way. But because energy emanated from her like electricity and because she moved like a dynamo.

   At five foot six, Hope was two inches taller, physically bigger, and yet when the sisters were together, Sam was the one people noticed.

   While her sister was a mixture of pale shades, with fragile colouring and a rounded, welcoming face, Sam was the opposite: all strong colours and strong features. Sam’s hair, mouse at birth, was long and a gleaming dark blonde. She had it blow-dried at a salon most lunchtimes and it fell in severe, gleaming straightness to her shoulder blades. It was a classy look, one which she’d deliberately chosen so that people would look at her and instantly know she was a player: a somebody. Her face was oval with a strong chin, a long straight nose and slanting eyebrows that showed up intensely coloured tawny brown eyes. Her skin was darker than Hope’s, almost olive. In the summer, she could pass for an Italian because she went a rich, golden brown. At school, people never believed she and Hope were sisters. Only their mouths were similar: they shared the same soft plump lips, a feature which made Hope look unsure and innocent and which gave Sam the look of a woman who’d had collagen injections. To counteract this model-girl plumpness, Sam drew her lipliner inside her natural lip line and only ever wore pale lipstick so as not to draw attention to her mouth. Hope’s mouth was vulnerable and slightly sexy, both looks Sam was keen to avoid. As far as Sam was concerned, once you let your hard-as-nails façade down, you were finished in business.

   Slim, due to hyperactivity rather than because of any time spent in a gym, Sam looked like the perfect career woman in her tailored grey trouser suit, with a sleek nylon mac, mobile phone and briefcase as accessories. Straight out of Cosmopolitan’s career woman pages, except that at thirty-nine she was a fair bit older than the Cosmo babes. The vibes she gave off said ‘unapproachable’ and that suited her just fine.

   ‘If you were seaside rock, you’d have a line through you saying “tough cookie”,’ joked her best friend, Jay, on those nights when they shared dinner together in the local Indian restaurant they both loved.

   Sam always laughed when Jay said that but lately it didn’t sound as funny as it used to. Jay was a willowy Atlanta woman she’d met in college, part of a small group of people who were Sam’s closest friends. Jay who wore bohemian chic clothes, worked in a bookshop and was only interested in her job as a means to pay the bills. She admired Sam’s single mindedness but said the career fast track wasn’t for her. Tonight, Sam didn’t feel as if it was for her, either.

   On the packed underground train, she clung to the side of a seat as they hurtled along. Sam hated it when the train was full. She got off at Holland Park, bought some anti-flu capsules in the chemist, and trudged through sleeting rain to the flat, one of four in a huge, white-fronted converted house in an expensive, tree-lined street.

   The place looked as if it had been burgled, which was pretty much the way she’d left it that morning. A huge pile of ironing lay on one corner of the dining room table; the previous few days’ papers were scattered on the rest of it and the coat she’d been wearing yesterday was thrown on the sofa. Usually chronically tidy, she hated mess with a vengeance. And when the flat was messy, the cool, clean lines of the all-white rooms looked all wrong.

   Since starting her new job at Titus, Sam had been working horrifically long hours and the housework had fallen by the wayside. Her cleaner had left a month before and Sam hadn’t managed to find a new one. The flat wasn’t enormous or anything, but doing any housework at the end of a murderously hard week was the last thing she had energy for. The flat was a two-bedroom, financially crippling, investment in a posh bit of London and the living room cum dining room was the only decent-sized room in the entire place. The kitchen was so small that two people really needed to know each other intimately if they wanted to spend any amount of time in it together, while the bathroom was minuscule and without one of Sam’s favourite amenities: a bath. Showers were functional, she’d always thought, but a bath was luxury. Still, with her mega new salary, she’d be able to move soon, to somewhere bigger, more opulent and with a bathroom where you couldn’t stand in the centre of the floor and touch both walls with your outstretched hands.

   She couldn’t face the effort of sticking anything in the microwave, so she spread a few crackers with cream cheese, poured herself a vodka and red bull to give herself energy and took the first dose of her anti-flu medicine.

   In the bedroom, she sat down at the computer and connected to Outlook Express.

   Hi Hope, she wrote. How’s it going with you, love? I’m a total grump today because I’m feeling fluey and work is a nightmare. Sorry, shouldn’t be bothering you with this but I’ve got to tell somebody. Going mad. It must be my age. I am running out of the ability to talk crap to people, which is worrying in this business. Talking crap is how I got hired in the first place. (Only kidding.) Plus, I’ve got to go to a gig tonight and the band in question make the sort of music that Toby and Millie might make if you left them alone in a room with two guitars, an effects pedal and a drum kit. Just as well there’s paracetamol in the flu stuff I’ve taken. Talk more at the weekend,

   Sam xx

   She had a speedy shower to rinse off the sweaty flu feeling and dressed quickly in black nylon trousers, a small orange T-shirt and a long black leather coat that clung to her like it had been tailored to her body. The stuff in the bag in the hall would be creased and would have had to be ironed again. Wearing crumpled clothes was not her style. Draining her vodka, she was out the door only an hour after arriving.

   ‘I hope you’re not going to have any wild parties this week,’ yelled a reedy male voice from the landing above hers. ‘I’ve got guests and they couldn’t sleep last night with the noise.’

   Sam resisted the impulse to answer back. There was no point. Mad Malcolm, as the rest of the residents called him, was oblivious to reality. He lived on the top floor flat and spent his life accusing the other residents of having orgiastic late-night parties and disturbing him, which was utterly untrue. The most noise Sam had ever made since moving into her flat a year ago had been the night she’d dropped a saucepan of hot pasta sauce and it had splashed onto her leg, making her yelp in pain. Used to getting up at dawn to be at her desk by seven thirty, her idea of a late night at home was being in bed at half eleven watching the late movie. The people who lived downstairs were similarly quiet and it was only Mad Malc himself, who had wooden floors, bad taste in music and a constantly barking Pekinese, who disturbed the peace. Neighbours. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate without a nutter living above her.

   

   The club was hot, sweaty and already full of Density fans when she got there. Her name was on the guest list and she slipped past the queue near the backstage area.

   Backstage, long-haired roadies humped equipment around, biceps glinting with sweat in the hothouse club environment. They ignored her completely. Sam had no idea where she was going and had no intention of asking.

   She blindly followed a winding corridor and found herself in a big cool room where tables, plastic chairs and two kegs of beer were positioned. Two record company people were sitting in a corner, drinking beer from cans and chatting to a skinny young bloke with a shaved head.

   She didn’t know the Titus people very well yet but at least she recognized these two. Darius was a handsome, upper-class sort of boy in his late twenties from Artists and Repertoire, commonly known as A & R. Normally young, musical and deeply hip people, A & R staff trawled clubs and venues spotting talent. They worked on the road and were rarely in their offices before half ten, arriving with tired eyes and demo CDs people had pressed on them the night before. A & R people sometimes resented people like Sam, whom they saw as ‘suits’ who screwed up their wonderful signings and who refused to sign up avant garde stuff the A & R people were passionate about. Sam had heard that Darius was brilliant at his job and had a fantastic ear for music; vital in a job which involved working closely with bands, songwriters and producers.

   The other Titus person was a publicity woman whom Lydia had said was nicknamed Cher because she looked exactly like the American singer as a thirty-year-old and loved wearing Seventies hippie clothes to emphasize the effect. Sam couldn’t for the life of her remember Cher’s real name.

   ‘Hi guys,’ she said, pulling a chair up. ‘You been in to see the band yet?’

   ‘They don’t like seeing people before a gig,’ said Cher severely. ‘Except Steve,’ she added reverently, as if Steve Parris was God. Steve certainly thought so, Sam thought ruefully.

   ‘Is Steve here yet?’ she asked, knowing she’d have to stand beside him during the gig.

   ‘No, he’s delayed,’ said Darius. ‘Would you like a cigarette?’ he added politely, proffering a pack.

   Sam momentarily wished she still smoked. Everyone else was dragging deeply on full-strength cigarettes. At least it gave you something to do.

   ‘Given up,’ she said. ‘But thanks.’

   What she could have killed for was a cup of tea to soothe her throat. There was a huge hot water urn in one corner complete with teabags, plastic cups and sugar but in this beer ’n’ fags atmosphere, Sam felt it would mark her for ever as a dorky ‘suit’ if she had tea now.

   After fifteen minutes of chat, the support band went on and the room cleared while everyone went to stand backstage and look at them. The noise was terrible. Like the sound of two wrestlers having a fight in a saucepan factory. Sam managed to look interested for two songs, then sloped back to the hospitality room and made herself a cup of tea. Who gave a damn who saw her. She wasn’t a kid who had to pretend to be cool, she was probably fifteen years older than most of the people backstage and if she wanted tea, then she was going to have tea. Age had to have some compensations.

   When the support band were mercifully finished, she rejoined the others at the side of the stage and waited for Density. Finally, after ten minutes of screaming and clapping from the fans, they appeared, none of them looking over the age of twenty-one, all lanky young guys with weird haircuts, mad clothes and strange piercings. Their music wasn’t her scene but she could sense the raw intensity of it. She only hoped that the people who bought CDs agreed with her.

   Steve appeared, deep in conversation with the band’s manager, so Sam was able to just nod hello to them. She’d have to speak to them both later and say how wonderful the band had been, but for now, she wanted to listen and not have to make polite small talk.

   After half an hour, she decided to go down into the club itself and watch the band from the audience’s point of view. She liked doing that: seeing how the fans reacted was one of the essential litmus tests for a band. Seeing if people bought their album was the other, more important one.

   Telling the backstage bouncers that she’d be back, Sam slipped out into the crowd and was hit immediately by the scent of young bodies, sweat mingling with perfume and the tang of dope. She stood at the back and breathed in a waft of what smelled like l’Air du Temps.

   The smell of floral perfume at gigs always astonished her. There she was, surrounded by gyrating young bodies, a mass of humanity in leather jackets, hipster trousers and death-defying heels with hard young eyes staring at her arrogantly. Then she smelled the fresh scents of their perfume rising in the heat: floral bouquets from their mums’ dressing tables mixing with the fresh scent of carefully applied deodorant, innocence meets sexy. Suddenly they weren’t tough little cookies any more, but vulnerable young girls anxious before they went out, hopeful that they were wearing the right clothes, yelling that ‘Honestly, Dad…’ they wouldn’t be home late as they blasted themselves with a spritz of something suitable for a wood nymph.

   They were all so young really; trying hard to be grown up. And she felt so old. Sam rubbed her temples tiredly. What was wrong with her? She’d been feeling so old and worn out all day: too old to be standing at a heavy rock gig trying to get it. She didn’t want to get it any more, she didn’t want to have to stand in a smoky club and tap her foot to some incomprehensible beat.

   She wanted to be sitting at home, drinking a nice glass of red wine, perhaps listening to some mellow Nina Simone and feeling relaxed.

   Sam closed her eyes and gave herself a mental pinch. Get a grip! she told herself. You’re a working woman, so work. She went looking for Steve to tell him he’d signed the band of the century.

   

   The following morning, the flu hit her like a ten-tonne truck. She woke at half past five, bathed in a cold sweat with her head aching and her throat the consistency of rough gravel. Moaning as she dragged herself out of bed, Sam stumbled into the kitchen and boiled the kettle. Hot lemon and honey might help. So much for the anti-flu stuff she’d gulped down the night before.

   Enveloped in her big navy towelling dressing gown, she slumped in front of the television with her hot lemon and flicked through the channels.

   ‘Useless rubbish,’ she muttered as she discovered that the breakfast television shows hadn’t started yet and the only alternative was Open University or news. After half an hour watching a programme about mountain gorillas, Sam still felt physically sick but mentally much improved. She never read anything any more apart from marketing reports and Music Week, and her daily culture came in the bio yoghurt she tried to eat most mornings. She really must learn more stuff. It was terrible to be uninformed, capable only of discussing sales, royalties, budgets and the marketing spend per unit of the latest hot CD. She dimly remembered a time, fifteen years ago, when she went to museums and galleries; when she had a bit of a life.

   She went into the bathroom and showered, determined to make herself feel ready for work. Calling in sick so early in the new job was not a possibility, no matter how swollen and painful her head felt. Then, wrapped in her dressing gown again, she slumped down in front of breakfast TV. Just another little rest and she’d be ready to leave the house. Seven ten, Sam’s normal time for leaving for work, came and went and she still felt as if her head was the size of a basketball.

   She’d call a taxi instead of going by train. She was sick, she had to cosset herself.

   The taxi driver finally arrived at half eight and turned out to be one of the cheeky Cockneys so beloved of tourists and so hated by anyone with the flu and a thumping headache.

   ‘…so you see, they nicked him for having six people in the cab even though they were all one family. Ridiculous, it is. You can’t break up a family who’re looking for a cab, even though the rules say you can only carry five passengers. Mad, that’s what I’d call it…’

   Sam sat in the back and made heroic efforts with her Clinique base. However, being mere base and not miraculous make-up straight from the Jim Henson creature shop, it couldn’t hide her blotchy, feverish skin, or make her look anything other than a sick, 39-year-old woman who hadn’t slept well. To compensate, she made her eyes up heavily, hoping they’d distract from the rest of her.

   ‘…so I says to him, don’t go busting me, mate. I’m just doing my job…’ said the taxi driver.

   She got into work at ten past nine to find a chirpy Lydia behind her desk.

   ‘You look rough,’ Lydia said.

   Sam glared at her and wondered where she’d gone wrong in the choice of this particular assistant. Normally, her assistants would never volunteer such personal opinions. She must be getting soft in her old age. The only consolation was that Lydia was proving to be very efficient, despite her breezy, carefree demeanour.

   ‘Thank you for that, Lydia,’ Sam replied, ‘and thank you for giving me your flu.’

   ‘You poor love,’ Lydia was sympathetic. ‘It was a bad dose. Do you want me to get you tea or some tablets?’

   ‘Tea would be nice,’ Sam said tiredly. ‘Any calls?’

   ‘Yeah, Steve Parris’s assistant’s assistant, wondering where you were because you’d missed the half eight meeting.’

   ‘Shit!’ Too late, Sam remembered the all-important breakfast meeting. She was forty minutes late, unforgivable. Well, unforgivable when the person you were meeting was Steve. Her mind sprinted through several plausible excuses but the only real one was a no-no. She’d already heard that Steve was phobic about illness. He’d have the entire office fumigated if he thought anyone in it was ill. Not for the rest of the staff’s benefit, mind: for his own.

   Lying was the only option. She phoned his assistant and lied that she’d been sure the meeting was for half nine. ‘It’s my fault,’ she said apologetically, ‘my assistant was away and I mistakenly scribbled it in the wrong line of my appointments book.’ She dutifully wrote ‘Important meeting with S Parris – NNB’ on the half-nine line of her book just in case Steve appeared and asked for proof. She wouldn’t put it past him.

   ‘The meeting’s over and Steve isn’t happy,’ said his assistant in nervous tones.

   Steve was never bloody happy, Sam groaned. He’d been born bad tempered. After knowing him for two weeks, she knew this to be true.

   ‘Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. What do you think I should do to make it up to him?’ she asked sweetly, knowing that if anybody knew how to handle Steve, it was the poor woman who had to put up with him all day.

   ‘Grovel,’ was her advice.

   Grovelling didn’t work. Steve roared into her office just before lunch, evicting the two publicity people who’d been discussing a forthcoming album release with Sam. He hadn’t waited until they’d fled before he’d started shouting abuse at her. Sam sat calmly, then apologized for her mistake.

   ‘But,’ she said, naked steel in her voice, ‘coming into my office and screaming at me is not the answer. That isn’t the way I run my office and it’s not the way I expect to be treated, Steve. I am not some junior you can intimidate.’ Her tawny eyes were as hard as nails. She glared at him.

   Faced with resistance, Steve backed down. ‘Yeah, I guess I get a little riled occasionally.’

   Sam smiled glacially, wishing he’d lose the American accent. He was from Liverpool.

   ‘I’m glad we understand each other,’ she said, then, knowing that it was time for her to kowtow a bit, added with a large dollop of fake enthusiasm: ‘and I loved Density last night. They were incredible on stage, they just blew me away. They were one hell of a find.’

   Steve smiled smugly. ‘It was a good gig, wasn’t it?’

   ‘We’re going to make a fortune with them,’ Sam added.

   Steve practically swelled with pride.

   He was so pathetically easy to manipulate. Was it because he wasn’t used to women standing up to him? Most of the female staff were so many levels below him that when he barked at them to make him a coffee, he almost expected them to hop. A woman who gave as good as she got unnerved him. Perhaps that was why Steve had been so keen to hire a man and not Sam. She sighed silently. This job would kill her if she had to go up against Steve Parris every day.

   

   It was a frantic Friday. Sam managed to eat half a sandwich at her desk before she had to attend the weekly marketing meeting. Then, she had to work on paperwork, talk to someone in production about a glitch in an album cover and return all her phone calls and internal e-mails. Lydia went at six and so did most of the rest of the staff but Sam stayed at her desk until half seven, wearily returning e-mails. The pain of her sore throat and throbbing headache were almost eclipsed by her exhaustion. On her way out, she popped into the loo and grimaced at her reflection. She looked like death microwaved up, all pale and pasty.

   The security guard nodded as Sam left. Outside, it was dark and raining, typical October weather in London. It was hard to remember that only a month ago there’d been a week of Indian summer sunshine. Feeling miserable, Sam trudged along to the Underground, stopping only to buy some milk and a couple of lemons for her lemon and honey tea.

   She got a seat on the train and sank into it gratefully. Around her, people were visibly relaxed, happy that the week was over. A crowd of young women all dressed up to the nines stood like colourful birds of paradise just inside the train doors, too fired up to bother sitting down even though some were wearing ankle-breaking stilettos. Sam leaned back in her seat and watched them laughing and chatting. She remembered being like that once, young and thrilled to be going out. Full of joie de vivre and enthusiasm for life. Now, the only thing she felt full of was flu remedy. What was wrong with her? It wasn’t just being sick; it was something more. But what? At home, she boiled the kettle and made herself some lemon tea before heading to her bedroom to change clothes. On the off chance that Hope might have sent her an e-mail, she switched on the computer while she drank her tea. Hope had been in touch. Sam grinned. Why was it that she loved the words: ‘you’ve got mail’ when she was at home and hated them in the office? Probably because the home mails were nice, friendly ones and the office ones were generally staccato demands to get statistics, information and updates now!

   Hi Sam,

   You sound terrible, you poor thing. I bet you’re not looking after yourself at all. I know you: all work and no play. And never feel you can’t moan to me about work and stuff. That’s what sisters are for. Matt says thank you for your card. He had a dinner party that was more corporate hospitality than wild fortieth birthday party. But I do have one piece of news. Matt and I are thinking of moving to Ireland for a year. I know it sounds a bit sudden but we’ve been thinking about it for ages and now seems like a good time.

   He thinks he can go on sabbatical and it’s not as if I’m exactly on the fast-track to promotion in Witherspoon’s. It’s still only a plan right now so I’ll tell you more when I know more. It’s a bit of a long story. See you soon, love, Hope.

   Sam stared at the screen, stunned. Move to Ireland? Matt taking a sabbatical and Hope giving up her job? Weird wasn’t the word for it.

   Hope always discussed things with Sam; it was so strange of her not to have even mentioned this startling new plan, unless…unless. Sam’s eyes narrowed. Bloody Matt. This was some damn fool plot of his, she’d swear to it. As ever, Hope was going along with it. Sam quickly checked out the train times to Bath on Saturday mornings, then phoned her sister. Flu or no flu, Hope needed sense talked into her and face to face was the only way to do it.

   

   They stowed Sam’s small weekend bag in the boot of the Metro with the groceries, Hope marvelling that her sister could always look so immaculate and yet bring so little with her. To look half-way decent when she travelled, Hope needed a giant suitcase and would still forget something vital. Though very pale, Sam looked Vogue-fresh with just a small, squashy bag. Her flu had improved miraculously, probably due to the quantity of anti-flu capsules she’d been consuming.

   ‘Let’s go for a coffee in town before heading out,’ suggested Sam to her sister, pleased that, for once, Hope hadn’t brought the kids, which gave them the opportunity to have a private chat about the madcap idea of moving away for a year. In fact, Hope hadn’t told the children their beloved aunt was coming so she could have some time alone with her sister. If Millie had heard the news, she’d have thrown a complete tantrum wanting to go along too. Hope had also told Matt she preferred to pick up Sam alone: Matt wouldn’t have been able to resist arguing with Sam if she criticized his precious plan.

   ‘Is this quiet cup of coffee on our own so that you can give me the “are you insane?” lecture without Matt butting in?’ inquired Hope with a faint twitch to her mouth. She wasn’t stupid. Her sister wasn’t given to last-minute visits and you didn’t need to be a nuclear physicist to figure out why she was here now.

   ‘Yes Sherlock, that was precisely the plan,’ admitted Sam, grinning. ‘I’m shocked that you saw through me that quickly. I must be losing my touch. I can remember the far off days when we were small and I could make you do anything I wanted purely by using the correct tone of voice.’

   ‘I remember that too,’ Hope remarked, ‘and I have moved on a bit.’

   ‘Only a bit,’ Sam retorted. ‘Matt certainly manages to make you do exactly what he wants.’

   Hope locked the car. ‘How about we have a cease-fire on the question of our trip, at least until we’ve got a cup of coffee in our hands.’

   ‘Done.’

   It was only half ten in the morning: a crisp early October day with a watery sun low in the sky. They strolled past the Abbey, vast and majestic in the sunlight.

   ‘This is such a beautiful city,’ Sam sighed. ‘I never seem to get the chance to spend any time here, just wandering around like a proper tourist.’

   Hordes of tourists meandered through the streets, some excitedly wielding high-tech cameras and taking endless photos, others looking weary, as if the tour bus had just dumped them there and they were feeling the strain of a whistle-stop tour of the hot spots of Britain.

   Hope and Matt had done all the touristy things when they’d moved there first. They’d sipped the sulphuric water in the Pump Room. ‘Disgusting,’ gasped Hope, wishing she could spit it out. ‘A bit like tonic water,’ said Matt, reflectively. They’d toured the Roman baths and listened to stories about when the city was Aqua Sulis, the Roman stronghold with lots of gracious villas complete with proper underfloor heating. Matt’s favourite part of the tour had been the Roman sites, while Hope’s romantic soul loved the Georgian history of Bath. As a teenager, she’d secretly adored the Georgette Heyer romances where Bath often featured as the fashionable watering hole for wealthy aristocrats. She was fascinated by the Assembly rooms where both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer’s heroines had swirled around in Empire line dresses; she loved the Museum of Costume and she liked nothing better than idling around the pretty, curving streets with their yellow sandstone colonnaded buildings, imagining ladies stepping from carriages and sedans into the houses.

   The sisters walked past a trio of classical buskers playing something that Sam instantly identified as Mozart. Two years as product manager of a classical label had taught her a lot, and she no longer immediately thought of the Lone Ranger theme music when she heard the first strains of the ‘William Tell’ Overture.

   ‘It is lovely here, isn’t it?’ said Hope, who practically never came into Bath to do anything other than rush into work or rush into some shop or other. Simply coming in to wander around aimlessly was sheer heaven.

   Sam insisted on going into Sally Lunn’s cake shop, a spot where Hope insisted that true Bathites would never set foot.

   ‘It’d be like you walking round London’s Piccadilly Circus with your mouth open in awe or having your picture taken right outside Buckingham Palace,’ she said as Sam dragged her into the cosy, tourist-filled spot where the scent of the unique Sally Lunn buns rose into the air. ‘My reputation for being cool and trendy will be ruined. Locals don’t “do” Bath!’

   ‘Don’t be a spoilsport,’ said Sam, suddenly aware that she’d eaten practically nothing for the past few days because of her flu. She could murder one of those Sally Lunns covered in salmon. ‘Next time you come to London, I promise I’ll get my picture taken with a Beefeater. Deal?’

   ‘And in Madame Tussaud’s and outside Harrods too?’

   ‘You drive a hard bargain,’ Sam sighed. ‘I’ll even buy a “My friend went to London and all she brought me was this lousy T-shirt” T-shirt, OK?’

   Sam ate her Sally Lunn and had the left over half of Hope’s too. Hope was currently on what she called her ‘half’ diet: she got to eat half of anything she fancied. Half her dinner, half a biscuit, etc. It was very difficult.

   Sam chatted as she ate, being funny about work, how she’d missed an important meeting and how her social life was suffering as a result of the new job.

   ‘Mad Malcolm upstairs accused me of having a party,’ she said, licking crumbs from her fingers. ‘Honestly, I’m in the office so much, there’s as much chance of me having a wild party as there is of Steve Parris developing a nice personality.’

   ‘That bad?’ Hope asked, knowing that her sister used humour and funny stories to hide how she really felt.

   For a moment, Sam’s eyes were opaque. ‘We’re not here to talk about me,’ she said quickly.

   ‘Pardon me,’ said Hope. ‘As you’ve come all this way to deliver a lecture to me on living my life, at least let me get my two penn’orth in about your life.’

   ‘I don’t have a life, I have a career. There’s a difference,’ Sam said sourly.

   Hope leaned forward over the little table in a ‘spill the beans’ manner.

   ‘It’s this flu,’ Sam said quickly, sorry she’d revealed so much. ‘I’ve been feeling a bit low lately, I don’t know why. I’ve had two 24-hour bugs since September, although it’s one way of keeping my weight down. I keep getting the most awful periods that put me out of commission for two days each time, and to cap it all, Steve Parris, my new boss, is a complete asshole, excuse my language, but he is. I’m going to have to keep proving myself until I’m a hundred, which feels like it’ll be any day now.’

   Hope reached over and squeezed her sister’s hand.

   ‘Sam, you should go to the doctor and have a check up. That’s three bouts of illness in nearly two months, it’s not good. And the periods…you need to get it checked out. I bet you’re anaemic, heavy periods can do that. You need a tonic or something.’

   ‘Don’t mind me, I’m grumpy today. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m strong as an ox,’ Sam said. She managed to laugh convincingly: ‘Too much sex and not enough sleep, probably,’ which was a lie. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had sex. Well, she could; she and Karl had been in Paris. That was the last time, the last bittersweet time.

   ‘You’re seeing someone?’ asked Hope delightedly.

   It was time to change the subject. ‘I’ll tell you about my love life another time,’ hedged Sam, who didn’t want to have to admit that her last relationship had ended two years ago. Career women appeared to scare men off faster than saying you had herpes. ‘So, what are you going to do in Ireland? I know Matt has it all worked out but he hasn’t thought about you.’

   ‘He has,’ protested Hope. ‘I’ve wanted to spend more time with the children for ages. You’ve no idea how souldestroying it is to send them into that nursery every morning when I’m going into work to smile at total strangers, knowing Toby’s doing new things every day and I’m missing it. Somebody else saw him walk for the first time.’ That memory still haunted her.

   ‘Fair point,’ Sam conceded. ‘But you like going out to work, it’s part of your life too. How will you cope in a strange country with no work mates, perhaps no nursery nearby and no old friends to rely on when you’re miserable?’

   Hope had no real answer to this.

   ‘What about at night, what about going to the theatre, or the movies, or to the latest restaurant?’ Sam continued.

   ‘Oh come on, Sam, let’s be real here,’ interrupted Hope. ‘This is me you’re talking to. I’m a woman with two small children, not some socialite who spends her life in the Gucci shop wondering what dress to wear to the movie premiere. I can’t remember when I last went to the theatre. We saw Miss Saigon in London with you that time and I haven’t been since. And as for films, by the time we get the kids in bed, I’m too tired to think about going to see a film. I prefer to get videos.’

   ‘Oh well, that’s OK, then,’ Sam said fiercely. ‘You’ll settle in fine as long as there’s a video shop in this village at the back end of nowhere.’

   She knew she sounded cruel but she had to say it. Hope wasn’t one of life’s outward people. Well, she was chatty and bubbly when she was with Sam, but with other people she was one of the quietest women imaginable. Hope was the woman who liked sitting in corners at parties, watching others instead of joining in. Some people would thrive in a new country, relishing the opportunity to meet new friends and become part of a thriving community. Hope was not such a person.

   ‘You’ve never been the sort to join in,’ Sam pointed out. ‘You’re not into amateur dramatics or joining the choir or becoming the stalwart of the parents’ association. That’s fine and dandy when you’ve got a job and you live on a housing estate beside a hundred other families, but not when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re not working.’

   There, she’d said it.

   Hope didn’t react for a moment. ‘I can learn,’ she said finally. ‘Anyhow, I’m going to be with Matt and the children, that’s what I’m doing this for.’

   ‘But what about you?’ Sam said earnestly.

   ‘It is for me,’ Hope repeated. ‘Haven’t you been listening, Sam? It’s for them, for me, for all of us.’

   She’d have loved to have told Sam about how terrified she’d been when she thought Matt was having an affair but Sam was brittle and sharp today. Hope was convinced her sister would briskly tell her that gratitude because her husband wasn’t cheating on her was no reason for upping sticks to live in another country.

   Sam would have loved to have told Hope that she was feeling miserable, middle-aged and somehow unfulfilled despite her fabulous new job. But Hope had enough problems of her own to cope with without hearing Sam’s. Ever since Hope’s wedding day, Sam had been convinced that Matt was trouble. He made all the decisions and he was far too good looking to be trusted. But then, Sam never trusted any man.

   Millie threw herself delightedly at Auntie Sam as soon as they arrived home.

   ‘Auntie Sam!’ she squealed, before realizing that there had been more to her mother’s trip than buying groceries. Her bottom lip wobbled ominously.

   ‘Auntie Sam wanted to surprise you, darling,’ Hope said brightly.

   ‘A nice surprise, I hope,’ Sam said gravely. ‘Won’t you say hello to me?’ she said to Toby.

   He gave her a small hug and showed her his toy train. ‘Look Auntie Ham.’ He never could say Sam.

   ‘Hello,’ said Matt guardedly, appearing from the kitchen.

   ‘Hello you,’ she replied, just as guardedly.

   If Sam and Matt did not get on, it wasn’t because they were so different. It was because they were so alike. Both were strong-minded, a bit bossy and capable of being jealous. Neither seemed happy about the presence of anyone else important in Hope’s life. Their rivalry was a source of anxiety for Hope, although neither Sam nor Matt seemed bothered by it.

   ‘So what brings you here, or can I guess?’ Matt said sarcastically.

   Hope glared at him. ‘Sam’s only here until tomorrow lunchtime so let’s have a nice weekend, shall we?’ she said in the voice she used when she was trying to get Millie to eat broccoli.

   It wasn’t the best weekend ever. Sam was furious with Matt because of what she thought of as his ‘crazy plan’. Matt was furious with Sam for daring to put a spanner in the works and on Saturday night when he and Hope were getting ready for bed, he said he hated the way her sister barged in and tried to tell people what to do.

   ‘She’s the most bossy woman I’ve ever met in my life,’ he snapped, walking round their bedroom somehow managing not to look ridiculous in socks and a shirt.

   As Sam had said practically the same thing about Matt only hours before, Hope just gritted her teeth and prayed that she’d be able to survive the rest of the weekend. Normally she loved it when Sam visited. They spent lots of time on their own, going for walks and talking. But after that first morning, Matt seemed to be there all the time, as if he didn’t want to give Sam the opportunity to put her sister off the trip to Ireland. He nagged Hope about Sam who, in turn, nagged Hope about Matt.

   Like piggy in the middle, Hope felt weighed down by their disapproval and broke out her secret supply of dark chocolate soft centres to comfort herself. She couldn’t bear to upset either darling Sam or her beloved Matt, so she did her best to stay out of it and spent her time saying ‘more tea anyone?’ or ‘look at what Millie’s up to,’ in a cheery manner every time the other pair began to argue.

   They were all relieved when Sunday afternoon came and Hope drove Sam to get the train.

   ‘I’m sorry we were all a bit tense over the weekend,’ Sam said as they stood in the station.

   ‘Don’t be silly, it was great,’ lied Hope, who hated acknowledging that things were ever less than perfect.

   ‘Will you try and get to London to see me before you go?’

   ‘I hope so.’ Hope’s eyes filled with tears. ‘And we can have a proper visit.’

   They hugged each other and then Sam turned and walked away, elegant in her shearling coat and buttermilk cashmere wrap, her pale hair gleaming as she walked. She waved as she got on the train.

   Hope fought a losing battle not to cry as she watched her sister disappear into the carriage. She wished she saw Sam more often; she wished Sam and Matt didn’t fight so much; she wished…she didn’t know what she wished any more.

   

   On the train back, Sam thought about Karl. She tried not to think about him these days. Karl. Even his name sent a shiver of remembered pleasure rippling through her. She’d met him at a sales conference in Brussels and they’d hit it off immediately. In fact, a lot of the record company women had liked the idea of hitting it off with the tall, blond Swede but he’d had eyes only for Sam.

   They’d delicately side-stepped around each other for the entire week, talking about their respective jobs (Karl was with the international office and travelled a lot) and sitting beside each other at dinner, but nothing more. It was only afterwards, when Karl arrived in London for two months, that they began to see each other properly. He had the use of a company apartment in the Barbican but he spent most of his free time with Sam, curled up in her bed in the old mansion flat she lived in then. They did things like Häagen-Dazs couples did in adverts: feeding each other take away food in bed, drinking wine while dressed in knickers and T-shirts, lounging around with the newspapers and watching old movies on late night TV.

   In spite of his cool, measured demeanour, Karl had been impetuous and deeply romantic at heart. He saw their future together and begged Sam to follow him to Paris where he was going to be based for at least two years.

   Something in Sam had recoiled at the idea.

   Give up her job to follow Karl, to be his girlfriend, his companion, a hanger on instead of a mover and a shaker? No way. He’d pleaded with her, pointed out that with her skills and experience she’d get a job in a shot, a better job, perhaps. But Sam was having none of it. She wasn’t going to be anybody’s accessory, their significant other instead of a person in her own right. She’d always wanted to stand on her own two feet and she wasn’t about to change the habit of a lifetime.

   It had taken a week of arguments before Karl had realized she meant what she said. That had been two years ago. Last she’d heard, he’d married a French woman who worked in the couture business. Now there was a job with little possibility for relocation. Let him try and move her to his next posting.

   A woman with a toddler got on the train and sat opposite Sam, the woman pale and make-upless, the toddler rosy cheeked and up to mischief.

   ‘Sit Lily, don’t mess, please,’ begged the mother. ‘It’s only for half an hour. We’ll get into trouble with Mr Train Driver if we don’t behave.’

   She produced several books for Lily to read.

   ‘Juice!’ demanded Lily loudly, clearly not bothered by idle threats about Mr Train Driver. To prove her point, she shoved the books out of her way and stared big-eyed at Sam.

   She was just like Millie, Sam thought with amusement, utterly sure of herself and determined to get what she wanted. How had poor insecure Hope ever produced such a confident child?

   The woman extracted a carton of juice from a huge shoulder bag, the same sort of bag Hope always seemed to drag around with her, Sam noticed. Mothers were all lop-sided from schlepping round giant shoulder bags that contained everything from toddler outfits to entire meals with plenty of toys, books and bumper boxes of baby wipes thrown in for good measure.

   Sam looked out of the window and tried not to notice Lily staring at her while sucking on her juice straw. The more Sam gazed out of the window, the more Lily leaned towards her, standing up on the seat beside her mother and leaning over the table until she was lying on it. Her big eyes were fixed on Sam, willing this new grown up person to look at her, intent on being noticed.

   ‘Lily!’ warned her mother.

   Lily moved back a fraction and stopped sucking on her straw. She inadvertently squeezed the carton and an arc of juice sailed up in the air like a fountain and then down onto Sam’s beige shearling coat.

   ‘I’m so sorry,’ said the child’s mother with a deep weariness.

   Sam, thinking of Hope dragging Millie and Toby around, desperately hoping they wouldn’t cover other people with orange juice or smears of chocolate, shook her head. ‘It’s fine,’ she said. ‘It needed to be cleaned anyway.’

   The woman shot her a look of such gratitude that Sam was pleased she’d been polite. Once, she’d have snapped about people not being able to control their children in public. It must be age creeping up on her. She was getting mellow now that she was on the brink of forty.

   Forty. She shuddered. It sounded so old. Karl would never fall for her if she met him now, she thought ruefully. It was odd thinking about him: he never crossed her mind most of the time. She didn’t miss him per se, just the experience of being with somebody. That was nice; cuddling up in bed with a man, having someone to share the day with, someone to occasionally buy coffee or milk when she forgot.

   She liked that side of things but not all the other hassle that went with it. All that crap they were forever talking about in women’s magazines or at women-only dinners: maintaining relationships, worrying about whether he felt happy or not, trying to keep the spice in your sex life…sheer hell. Sam couldn’t see why women were supposed to do all the hard work. Men carried on doing whatever they felt like while women did questionnaires to see if He was happy or if He would stray or if He needed to talk more. Why the hell bother? Sam thought. Let Him worry about Himself, she wouldn’t.

   What she needed was a virtual boyfriend: a sophisticated robot who could cuddle her, make love to her and ask her about her day at work, and who shut up when she was tired and who never said things like ‘I’ve been thinking about our future and I want to take up this job offer on Mars…’

   She grinned to herself. How weird that nobody had ever thought of it before. A virtual boyfriend would be perfect for millions of women. No emotional hassle but all the physical advantages.

   Lily smiled engagingly at her.

   Sam smiled back. ‘Sweet, isn’t she?’ she said.

   ‘When she’s asleep,’ Lily’s mother said with feeling.

   

   Back in London, Sam picked up some groceries from the nearest shop and cooked herself some vegetable pasta with organic pesto sauce. Stir-frying vegetables, boiling pasta and adding a sauce and some parmesan shavings was the nearest thing to cooking that Sam ever got.

   She piled it all onto a large white plate and sat down at the table with her favourite Nina Simone CD playing softly in the background and the Sunday papers spread out in front of her. But strangely, she didn’t feel hungry. Normally, she adored pasta and hoovered up anything with pesto sauce on it but tonight her appetite had deserted her.

   After a while, she gave up and shoved the almost untouched plate away from her. If she wasn’t hungry, it was her body’s way of telling her she didn’t need any more food. Anyway, after two days with Hope shovelling down Sally Lunns, she could hardly expect to be hungry.

   

   On Monday before lunch, Steve held a top level meeting where the subject was company cutbacks. Ten senior executives sat around the glossy boardroom table and focussed on their departments. All present looked outwardly unconcerned but quivered inside their designer jeans and hoped they personally weren’t for the high jump. All except Sam. She was fed up with quivering at things Steve Parris or anybody else said. She’d had a hellish morning and didn’t care a fiddler’s toss if she was fired at that precise moment, not least because she’d just signed a three-year contract. She’d spent the entire morning on the phone to Density’s manager who was explaining all the things that his charges wouldn’t do to promote their album. So far, the ‘wouldn’t do’ list included talking to any interviewer who hadn’t been at one of their live gigs and doing any breakfast television or any other media the band described as ‘…facile and cretinous…’. They didn’t want to pose for any photos on the basis that they liked the publicity ones and couldn’t go through all that hassle again of having make-up applied and having to look moody for hours. And they were not, absolutely not, letting any tabloid journalist near them.

   Sam had tried pointing out that this little list would make the record company’s job extremely difficult but the manager was having none of it.

   ‘Steve Parris said we could have what we wanted,’ he hissed down the phone. ‘This is what we want.’ With that, he hung up.

   Because she didn’t want any blood spilled just yet in relation to Density, Sam hadn’t rung him back and threatened the manager with a do-it-yourself vasectomy. But she was tempted to. Now she sat at the meeting and caught a sympathetic glance from the publicity director, who had heard all about Density’s can’t-do list. In Sam’s first weeks at Titus, the LGBK publicity director, a tall black American woman named Karen Storin, had been the friendliest of all her new colleagues.

   ‘Welcome to Steve’s elite club,’ Karen had joked quietly the first time they’d met.

   ‘Elite club?’ inquired Sam.

   ‘The women execs club,’ Karen explained. ‘Steve’s not big on female empowerment.’

   ‘You mean I’m here because I’m a woman and you’re here because you’re a black woman?’ Sam joked.

   Karen grinned. ‘We’re here in spite of those facts – and because we’re damn good.’

   Sam knew there was another reason she was there: because the European President had put his foot down.

   ‘OK?’ Sam asked Karen now, hiding a smile because they’d just had a variation of this conversation minutes before on the way to the meeting, safe in the knowledge that they could talk freely before they reached the boardroom where Steve’s earwigging second-in-command would be listening. Karen was handling Density’s publicity schedule and was encountering the same problems Sam had.

   ‘Everything’s under control. The schedule for Density is working out just fine,’ Karen said gravely, which was a million miles away from what she’d said originally.

   Then, she’d been in a rage. ‘I’ve just been on the phone to their manager and I have never dealt with anyone like him in my life. If I didn’t know he was working with them, I’d swear he was trying to sabotage them. They refuse to do anything I ask. Do they want the album to flop?’ she’d hissed at Sam.

   ‘How about you?’ she said now to Sam across the board room table.

   Sam smiled: ‘Utterly under control too,’ she said deadpan, as if moments before she hadn’t told Karen that the Density manager was ruining her entire week. Maintaining the façade that everything in your label was hunky dory was vitally important when you worked under Steve Parris.

   The great man himself arrived bringing with him the noxious smell of a cigar. Sam quite liked cigar smoke, having once been a twenty-Dunhills-a-day woman, but she objected to the fact that Steve ignored all the office signs and smoked anywhere he liked. Everyone else who smoked had to rush downstairs to the street so that at coffee break time, the pavement outside the Titus office was jam packed with hollow-cheeked people inhaling furiously to make up for the previous, stressful, nicotine-free hours.

   Steve threw himself into a leather chair, shoved it back from the table and put his leather-booted feet on the blotter his assistant had neatly laid out in front of him. ‘So what’s happenin’, gang?’ he asked.

   Sam could hear a growl deep inside her body. Where did he think he was? A biker’s club with a bottle of beer in front of him? He was such a weedy little shit. She hated him.

   ‘Great, just great, Steve,’ said Zak, the Titus A & R director, who probably did think they were in a biker club with beer in front of them. Too much cocaine in the eighties, Sam had been told. If he hadn’t been one of Steve’s personal pals, he wouldn’t have been in the job.

   ‘Cutbacks and reorganization,’ Steve intoned gravely. ‘We have to lose at least ten senior people to go along with the global restructuring.’ Everyone stared at him, stricken. Ten jobs. Ten senior level jobs. That meant ten people in their building, people who worked for them, people they liked. People they would have to sack. Sam felt the by-now familiar clenching sensation deep in her insides, a painful knotting spasm that she’d half-diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. What else could it be? And she felt nauseous too. She still wasn’t over her flu, that had to be it. She hadn’t been able to touch her wholemeal toast this morning and she’d felt so exhausted, it had taken three strong mugs of coffee to get her out the front door.

   ‘The staffing levels in Europe are way too high and we’ve got to cut back,’ Steve said. ‘The international office say we’re top heavy with staff and this is the only way. Making our powerbase smaller is going to streamline the whole organisation, stop us getting lazy.’

   ‘Have you identified any particular departments or is it going to be across the board?’ Sam was amazed to discover that she’d spoken.

   Steve cleared his throat. ‘Your label is going to be badly hit,’ he said. ‘The ratio is way off compared to the American offices. You need to cut four people.’

   Sam felt sicker.

   ‘We’ve got four hundred people working for us in this country, so it’s not that big a percentage,’ cut in Steve’s favourite yes-man, a smooth guy from finance.

   ‘But it’s a big deal,’ snapped the company’s head of legal, a dynamic dark-haired man named Curtis. ‘We’re talking about your colleagues, not worker ants. What about my department?’ he asked Steve.

   Steve was nervous of Curtis, Sam had noticed. Probably afraid to browbeat a man who knew employment law backwards and could draw up a constructive dismissal suit in ten minutes on the back of an envelope. ‘You’re fine, nobody from your department,’ he said now.

   The meeting lasted another twenty-five minutes with Steve giving them the party line on how this was to be dealt with, both within the company and publicly. The trade papers would have a field day speculating on the company’s bottom line if the cutbacks were explained incorrectly. Personnel had already identified the people who were first on the list: they’d inform each department head at a private meeting. Sam’s was scheduled for an hour and a half later.

   As they all left the boardroom and walked to the lift, nobody spoke. Suddenly she couldn’t face standing in the claustrophobic lift. She needed some air. Turning away from the lift, she hurried to the stairs and practically ran down four flights to the street. Curtis was there already, lighting up a cigarette.

   ‘Can I scab a cigarette from you?’ Sam asked, hating herself for having one after all these years.

   ‘I didn’t know you did,’ Curtis remarked, handing her the pack.

   ‘I don’t. Not any more. That was a bit rough, wasn’t it?’

   He nodded silently.

   ‘I don’t know how I’m going to sack four people. Sorry, “lose four members of staff to keep us in line with company guidelines”,’ Sam said bitterly. ‘I haven’t been here long enough to make any judgements on the staff and yet, now I’m going to be the bitch from hell and get rid of some of them. That’ll be great for morale. And Steve looks as if he doesn’t give a shit about them. He almost smiled when he said I had to lose four people. I swear he hates me.’

   Curtis smiled slowly. ‘Steve doesn’t like anybody,’ he said. ‘Understand that and you’re going to be fine, although it’s no secret that you’re not on his Top Ten list because he wanted someone else to get the job.’

   Sam rolled her eyes. ‘Tell me about it.’

   ‘I’ve known Steve for ten years and he’s always been the same,’ Curtis added. ‘He’s good at his job, though. This company was screwed up when he took over. He’s hell to work with but he gets the job done.’

   ‘He enjoys making people sweat,’ Sam sighed. ‘He deliberately told us there was a redundancy meeting this morning but never said who was going to be made redundant so that everyone would be nervous.’ She didn’t mention that since she’d just signed a three-year contract, she’d known that she, personally, wouldn’t be on the list. Just her staff.

   ‘Psychology,’ Curtis shrugged. ‘Steve’s plan is that by the time he tells you that you have to fire four people, you’re so pleased that your name isn’t on the list, you agree to it like a shot. Steve rules by fear. He likes terror and arguments among the staff: divide and conquer are his management rules. That’s the way he learned and he thinks it’s the only way things work. He’s terrified that if he ever tries to be nice, he’ll be taken over in a bloody coup.’

   Nauseated after her forbidden cigarette, Sam went back to her office feeling nervous. She shouldn’t have said anything to Curtis about Steve Parris. That was stupid, unprofessional behaviour. She hadn’t been at Titus long enough to understand where allegiances lay and was only guessing that Curtis and Steve didn’t get on. They could be bosom buddies behind it all. She really was losing her marbles when it came to how to behave in the corporate jungle. What was happening to her? It must be the after effects of the flu. She’d better get some perk-you-up supplement in the chemist.

   At three o’clock, Sam steeled herself to enter the lions’ den. Steve and the personnel director were sitting in front of a list of names and the personnel director launched into the list of people Sam was to make redundant even before she’d sat down.

   Sam listened calmly, hiding her distaste. One of the women on the list had just made it public that she was four months’ pregnant. A young guy in publicity Sam had been very impressed with had just bought an apartment and had signed up for a huge mortgage. Sam’s insides did their clenching routine.

   What could she say? Nothing. She was a boss now, she had to make tough decisions and implement them if necessary. Four people from her department had to go and if she balked at it, all she’d be doing was undermining her own position. The personnel guy kept talking and Sam listened, feeling wooden.

   When he was finished, she coolly pointed out that there was a pregnant woman among the names. ‘You should check whether she could sue us for getting rid of her at this time,’ Sam said unemotionally, as if she was talking about squashing a spider instead of discussing another person’s life.

   Steve laughed from behind his vast desk. ‘I told you Sam Smith would be able to sack her entire department and it wouldn’t bother her in the slightest,’ he said triumphantly to the personnel guy. ‘We did good the day we hired you, Sam. We needed somebody who understands the game. Not some dumb cow who’s going to sob her eyes out whenever she has to sack people.’

   Sam blinked. She remembered back to her final interview, the one where Steve had delicately – well, as delicately as someone as bull-headed as Steve could manage – tried to find out her views on kids. They couldn’t ask outright, of course. Asking a woman if she planned to have children, and was therefore looking for maternity entitlements and leaving them with six months of a problem, was illegal. Sam had always understood this interview difficulty and had made it plain to prospective employers that she was not one of those biological-clock-about-to-go-off women. It was an advantage and she used it. Always had.

   She remembered giving Steve and the other board members her steely look as she had said ‘I’m not the mumsy type.’

   They’d all breathed a sigh of relief, and Steve had given her a matey look.

   ‘Tough as old boots,’ he said now, looking as if, under other circumstances, he’d pat her shoulder in a friendly manner. But Sam wasn’t the demonstrative type. Shoulder patting, double kissing and all that stupid, fake affectionate stuff drove her mad. She shook hands. Why pretend to be best pals with people you didn’t know? It was hypocritical.

   ‘That’s what I like about you, Sam. You don’t take any prisoners. That’s what they say and it’s true. I like that in my team. Sacking people isn’t easy but we’ve all had to do it.’

   Steve waved his cigar, leaving a trail of smoke. Sam was dismissed.

   She went back to her office thinking of the irony of Steve saying there was anything about her he liked. Yeah, right.

   She also wondered what else people said about her. Tough as old boots. You don’t take any prisoners. Hell, she sounded like a hoary old sergeant major at a boot camp who scared the hell out of the rookies and who could drink rotgut with the best of them. Smith is tough as old boots but boy, can she do the job. There’s a heart in there somewhere, if youcan find it. Not bad looking but too tough for any man…Women like her always end up on their own.

   Being tough had seemed like a good idea when she was twenty or thirty and desperate to prove herself in the corporate jungle but now, with forty facing her like the north face of the Eiger, she wasn’t so sure. Tough but able to carry off a trendy designer dress was one thing. Tough but wrinkled like an old chicken was another thing entirely. How would she come across at sixty-five when she was tougher, older and with a hard little face grooved into a lifetime of wrinkles?

   At that moment, she thought of Aunt Ruth. Ruth Smith, civil servant and scourge of those beneath her in the planning department, had not been the maternal type either and having two small children unceremoniously dumped on her hadn’t changed that. She’d continued to live her life exactly the same way as before her brother and his wife had been killed. To cap it all, Ruth had never even looked motherly: she’d looked like an eccentric maiden aunt from a novel.

   Sam could remember the boys across the road teasing herself and Hope about their mad aunt.

   ‘She’s a witch, she is, eye of bat and leg of toad!’ they’d chant nastily at the girls.

   Secretly, the girls had to admit that their aunt bore more than a passing resemblance to a witch, mainly because she insisted on wearing her hair in an antediluvian bun and fancied herself in pince nez spectacles which did nothing for her pinched, narrow face.

   Sam felt weary. She’d always had a difficult relationship with her aunt, and swore she’d never be anything like her. And here she was turning into a carbon copy. Aunt Ruth would probably have run Titus Records with a rod of iron and made it the most successful record company ever.

   There was a giant skip outside the house next door when Sam arrived home that night. The builders had finally moved in. Sam glared at the rather run down building which was the next in the terrace. For the two years she’d lived in her flat, she’d been irritated by the dilapidated state of the adjoining house which was owned by a dotty old lady who clearly had no time for painters, window cleaners or gardeners. When she’d died, the house had been put up for sale and all the neighbours watched the property pages with interest, dying to know how much it would go for so they could figure out how much their own places were worth.

   It had taken ages, but when the sold sign was finally pasted on, all breathed a sigh of relief. Except now, Sam thought grimly, there would be building work going on for ever as the new owners ripped it apart. Kango hammers thumping at dawn and scaffolding positioned so that builders could peer curiously through her windows, not giving her a moment’s peace. Feeling put upon and miserable, Sam stomped up the stairs.

   ‘Stop making noise,’ roared Mad Malcolm reedily from the top landing.

   Sam growled deep in her throat and just managed to stop herself telling him what orifice he could stick his head into.

   Inside the sanctuary of her own apartment, she dropped her briefcase wearily, shed her coat and sat down on the big pale couch in front of the fireplace. Determined to ignore the fact that the place was a mess, she switched on the television and watched the end of the evening news. But when it was over, she couldn’t relax. It was no good, she had to tidy up. Compulsive tidiness, Karl had teased her when she’d start changing the sheets on the bed while he was still in it.

   Pulling on an absolutely ancient pair of jeans and a threadbare old grey jumper, Sam planned the clean out. The bedroom to start, she decided, tying her hair up into a ponytail.

   It took two and a half hours to clean every area of the apartment to her satisfaction. By the time she was finished, the kitchen was restored to its sparkling, pristine perfection and the sitting room was once again a restful, Zen-like spot with all clear, white surfaces free of old newspapers, magazines and scribbled yellow post-it notes about work. The four big modern oils that hung on the warm cream walls stared down at a tranquil, clutter-free room furnished cleanly with big white couches, a low pale wooden coffee table and a muted cream rug on the pale floorboards. The grouping of fat creamy church candles on the fireplace was dust free and perfectly aligned, while the blond driftwood carving on the windowsill had been dusted to within an inch of its life. Even the big Indian silver elephant that stood in the corner beside her towering ficus plant gleamed. Sam knew that not everybody liked the clutter-free look but she adored it. She liked the order and the sense of calm that it brought.

   Hope hated it.

   ‘You’ve no…stuff, no knick knacks,’ Hope had said the first time she’d seen the apartment in all its spartan modern glory. ‘It’s all too perfect for me,’ she’d added, eyes sweeping over heavy cream brocade curtains that would be speckled with grubby fingerprints if Millie and Toby were ever let run riot there.

   Seeing the place through Hope’s eyes, Sam had to agree. Hope would have had tonnes of junk on every occasional table, instead of simply placing a lamp or a piece of sculpture there.

   When they’d been kids, they’d shared a bedroom and Hope’s side had been a riot of cuddly toys, empty boxes kept because they were pretty, bits of tangled up jewellery and hand-sewn lavender sachets for her clothes, most of which were hung on her chair.

   Sam’s side had the only colour co-ordinated wardrobe in their school. Graded from white to black, Sam’s clothes hung in a regimented line that awed Hope just to look at it.

   Tidying her wardrobe properly would have to wait tonight, she decided, as she finished the bedroom. It annoyed her when the wardrobe was messy with the greys infiltrating the rail of blacks and skirts hanging with the trousers, but she’d do that tomorrow.

   In the kitchen, she put away her cleaning equipment and put some cheese on a couple of water crackers. She poured herself a glass of crisp Sancerre and sat down on the couch again, this time content. As the strains of Mozart echoed softly around the apartment, Sam finally felt herself relax. She willed herself to forget about work and the job losses.

   Then, the noise started. It was strange, because at first she wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Surely not upstairs? Even Mad Malcolm wasn’t mad enough to be playing loud rock music at ten o’clock at night. And then the penny dropped. Next door. Still clutching her glass of wine, Sam stared out the front window at the adjoining house and saw two young women lugging a crate of beer up the path. Standing beside the window, the music seemed louder. A taxi pulled up and disgorged more people, all happy and clearly party-bound, judging by the number of off-licence bags they were carrying. Sam felt the veins in her head throb. This was not wild party land. This was a wildly expensive neighbourhood where the notion of a wild party was one where the caterers served too much Bollinger or where guests tripped on their Manolos while staggering out to the chauffeur-driven Mercedes.

   Whoever had bought the house couldn’t, wouldn’t, dream of ruining the discreet peace of Holland Park with a party? Or if they thought they could, they’d soon discover the error of their ways, Sam snarled.

   Just as abruptly as it had started, the music stopped and Sam felt some of the anger leave her body. Good. Some other resident had complained; therefore she didn’t have to go in and do so. In her current mood of pent-up tension, who knew what she’d have said. The police would have been called sooner rather than later.

   She curled up on the couch again, sipping her wine and letting the Mozart soothe her.

   With a loud bass thump, the music next door cranked up even louder this time, sounding as if Black Sabbath had turned up and were playing a live gig.

   As the music reached a crescendo, so did Sam’s temper. Downing half her wine in one gulp, she grabbed her keys, slid her feet into the espadrilles she used as slippers and rampaged downstairs and out into the street.

   ‘Oh no, a party,’ sighed one of the nice couple from the basement flat, who were just coming in after an evening out. ‘Have you rung the police, Sam?’ he asked.

   ‘No,’ snarled Sam. ‘But phone for an ambulance because whoever’s having this party will need it when I’m finished with them.’

   With giant strides, she raced up to the other door and pushed. It wasn’t locked and opened easily. From here, the music was eardrum-splitting. The house, which was just a shell with stripped walls and bare, elderly floorboards, had excellent acoustics. Sound reverberated through it. Sam stepped over a rolled up rug and a crate of beer. The place was a disgusting mess. She could just imagine the thought process of whoever had bought it: have the party now, before the wallpaper was up and the carpets down. Or rather, Sam thought grimly, the spoiled teenage children of whoever had bought the house had thought it was a good idea to have the party now and their stupid parents had agreed, not caring about their new neighbours. Big mistake.

   In a huge airy room, fairy lights were strung from the high ceiling and a gang of people stood around, smoking furiously and drinking beer from bottles. The scent of marijuana was heady. Nobody took any notice of Sam. In her jeans, she fitted right in. All she needed was a beer and she’d have looked like the rest of them, except for the fact that she had to be up at six a.m. and needed to get some rest, Sam thought furiously as she searched through the throng for her quarry.

   The noise was coming from another room. Sam pushed through into what was obviously the nerve centre of the party. It was barely recognizable as a kitchen because most of the units had been ripped out by builders but there was still an island unit piled high with bottles of booze, six packs of Coke and a half eaten loaf of tomato bread. Sam ignored the people in the kitchen and headed for the dining room.

   There, behind a bespectacled youth with a pile of CDs, she found it. The stereo system.

   ‘Is there anything you want me to play?’ yelled the disc jockey eagerly.

   ‘Yes,’ hissed Sam. ‘Cards.’

   With one expert movement, she wrenched the plug from the socket and all was quiet.

   ‘Why did you do that?’ asked the DJ in shock.

   Everyone stared at Sam, bottles of beer held at half mast. They saw a small, slim woman with a blonde ponytail who wore ragged jeans and worn espadrilles and had what looked like newspaper smudges on one cheek. ‘I live next door and I don’t want to listen to this sort of crap late at night, do you understand?’ she yelled, not in the least perturbed to have at least twenty curious thirty-somethings staring at her. Sam had bawled people out in public before.

   ‘Sorry…’ said the DJ politely. ‘We just thought it wouldn’t matter because nobody was living here yet…’

   ‘Nobody may have been living here but there are eight people living in the house next door, an adjoining house,’ Sam pointed out, ‘where you can hear every bass thump.’

   ‘So you thought you’d come in here and pull the plug instead of calmly asking us to turn the volume down, did you?’ said an amused, low voice.

   Wearing jeans that were astonishingly more torn and faded than hers, jeans that clung to a long, lean body, and a white creased shirt with most of the buttons undone to reveal a hard, muscled chest, was a man who made Sam’s breath suddenly catch.

   He wasn’t handsome and he wasn’t a mere twenty-something either. His face was too long, his eyes too narrow and his nose was too hooked to be model material, yet he was somehow the most incredible looking man she’d ever seen. Around her age, she guessed. Sam, who spent hours looking at pictures of male singers who sent other women into paroxysms of joy and left her utterly unmoved, could only stare.

   If he could sing, she’d bet her bonus she could sell millions of albums with his face and body on the cover. Even if he couldn’t sing, come to that. Still smiling, the corners of that fabulous mobile mouth twisted up into an ironic little smile, he ambled towards her. The tawny rumpled hair and the barely buttoned shirt made it look as if he’d just dragged himself out of some bed or other. Narrowed, treacly eyes surveyed her lazily as though he was eyeing her up with the intention of dragging her back to bed with him.

   Sam objected to being surveyed. She was not some bimbo: she was a managing director, a woman who made subordinates flatten themselves against the walls in fear when she was angry. She drew herself up to her full five foot four inches and prepared for battle.

   ‘I live next door –’ she began fiercely in her killer boardroom voice.

   ‘Do you?’ he interrupted, still unhurried and unperturbed. ‘Is it a nice neighbourhood?’

   He stopped right in front of her. Even though he was barefoot, he still towered above her. Sam hated that. It was why she liked wearing perilously high shoes for important meetings so only the tallest people ever got to look down on her.

   ‘It used to be,’ she hissed. Talk about invading her personal space, his body was only a few inches away from hers. Normally, she’d have slayed him with an icy word but feeling strangely vulnerable out of her normal habitat, Sam took a step back. The wall was behind her, she couldn’t go any further. Retreating was a mistake in business, it was now too. She stuck her chin out defiantly and the hand clenching the stereo plug tightened.

   ‘Is this your house?’ she said, trying to stay fearsome in the face of this Adonis invasion.

   He ignored the question. ‘You have something of mine,’ he said, his voice almost a drawl. He reached long arms around her, and for a second Sam’s breath stilled. He wouldn’t, he couldn’t. The charismatic, mocking face was close to hers as he reached down and she felt her stomach contract. His mouth was laughing and it was getting close to hers, so close she could feel the heat of his breath and smell a sharp citrusy tang from his warm body. Without knowing why, she closed her eyes. Then she felt the plug being pulled from her hand.

   ‘Mine, I think,’ said the man. With one graceful movement, he reached down, brushing against her leg, and plugged the stereo in again. He flicked a switch and loud music pumped into the room.

   ‘You bastard!’ screeched Sam, shocked and embarrassed. ‘You absolute bastard.’ She had to really yell now to make sure he heard her. ‘How dare you…’

   ‘I think you’re the one who dared,’ he said, faintly amused. ‘If you wanted us to turn the noise down, you should have asked me. I wouldn’t have refused you.’

   Impotent rage surged through her and for one terrible moment, Sam forgot all about good business, about how revenge was a dish best served cold and how any corporate raider needed a cool, calm mind.

   He was using his physical presence to intimidate her and she reacted in the age-old, instinctive way of a woman confronted by a larger predator. She kicked him. In the shin as hard as she could, the blunt end of her espadrille connecting with hard bone and sinew.

   ‘Ouch!’ His yelp of pain could only be heard by her as the current song was at an eardrum-splitting decibel level.

   That got rid of the mocking smile. Sam smirked. It had hurt her toe too, mind you, but now was no time to think of her own personal pain. Those years of ballet meant she had tough little feet.

   ‘Who the hell do you think you are shoving your face in my personal space, you asshole!’

   At that precise moment, the DJ unaccountably turned the music down. Sam’s roar reached the entire room and provoked some giggles.

   What the hell was the sound down for? Sam wondered blindly before she spotted the one soberly-dressed person on the premises.

   The policeman stood in the doorway and hovering behind were the couple from the basement apartment in Sam’s building, who were watching the proceedings anxiously.

   ‘We’ve had a complaint about a party and loud noise,’ said the policeman in a calm voice.

   Sam shot her opponent a triumphant look and was enraged when, instead of looking worried or ashamed, he smiled lazily back at her.

   ‘Yes officer, I’m afraid we turned the music up a bit high, I’m sorry,’ he said and led the way into the kitchen.

   Sam sniffed and held her head high as she marched out of the house and back into her own, followed by her downstairs neighbours. That bloody man. How dare he make so much noise. How dare he humiliate her like that. And her foot hurt…ouch.

   ‘Are you OK, Sam?’ asked the wife from downstairs as Sam hobbled up the stairs.

   ‘Fine,’ she said breezily.

   In the hall mirror, she caught sight of her face. She looked as if she’d been slapped. Both cheeks were as rosy as bramley apples. As she thought of the scene next door, her cheeks blazed some more in sheer embarrassment. She grabbed the wine from the fridge and poured more into the glass. You moron. Imagine turning into some cretinous, violent bimbo just because some he-man sticks his hairy chest in your face?

   Anyway, you’re hardly a bimbo, she groaned inwardly. You’re staring into the abyss of forty.

   Sam took a large gulp of wine. How could she have let herself down like that? She should have fixed him with a steely glare and told him exactly what forces of the law she’d use to make him stop his horrible party. When she’d suitably reprimanded herself, Sam went to bed. But sleep evaded her.

   It was like being fifteen again, fifteen and horribly embarrassed because the boy in chemistry class had overheard her saying she fancied him like mad. Even twenty-four years later, that memory could still make her burn with shame. Now she’d done it again.

   Finally, Sam got up and took one of the sleeping tablets she kept for emergencies. This certainly qualified. She slept eventually but her hot fevered dreams were full of a tall, laughing man in a soft, loose white shirt, a man who laughed at her for behaving like a petulant, hormonal fifteen year old.

   When Sam left for work the next morning, she waited to check her mobile for messages until she was outside. She wanted to be doing something when she passed the house next door, she didn’t want to be vulnerable and on her own in case she met him.

   ‘You have no messages,’ taunted the impersonal voice on her phone almost before she’d got to the front gate. Instead of hanging up, Sam was forced to listen to all her old, undeleted messages in order to keep up the pretence of being a busy, high-octane career woman who wasn’t interested in men. Suddenly she noticed the dilapidated house’s front door swinging open. Quickly averting her eyes in case she saw him again, she began talking into the phone.

   ‘I’ll be there soon, we’ll have the meeting if you’ve got all the documents lined up from New York,’ she blathered. A taxi sailed up the road and Sam stuck out her hand to hail it.

   ‘Bye, talk soon,’ called a female voice behind her.

   Sam automatically turned to see a beautiful dark-haired girl leaving the house, smiling at the man in denims and bare feet who was holding the door. Bare chested too, Sam noticed with a jolt, and blowing kisses at the girl who looked around twenty-two at most, a stunning doe-eyed twenty-two who’d clearly stayed away from home all night if the silvery dress she was wearing under a big, man’s coat was anything to go by.

   ‘Take care,’ the man said in that caressing voice, but he was looking mockingly at Sam who stood there, mobile in hand and her mouth open.

   ‘Do you want a taxi or not, love?’ demanded the taxi driver.

   ‘Oh, er yes,’ stammered Sam, pulling open the door and half falling in, with her raincoat trailing after her.

   ‘Late night?’ inquired the driver with a smirk.

   ‘No,’ hissed Sam, reasserting herself. ‘Covent Garden please.’

   What an asshole, she thought. Loud parties, having flings with women half his age. I mean, that girl was twenty and he has to be late thirties at least. Bloody playboy. Probably some trust fund moron who’d never had a job in his life but lived off inherited cash. Sam stared grimly out the cab window and simmered. She hated men like that.

   ‘I can’t believe you’re moving in a little over two weeks. I can see it now,’ sighed Betsey dreamily. ‘A summery little cottage in a beech glade, with a thatched roof and pretty sun-bleached rooms, gorgeous home grown food and quaint little pubs where you can sit outside and eat oysters and watch the world go by with the Riverdance music in the background.’

   Hope glared at her over a plate of fisherman’s pie. ‘It’ll be November, not summer.’

   ‘I think that’s Hollywood’s version of rural Ireland,’ laughed Dan from his position beside three-year-old Opal where he was attempting to clean up the mess she’d made squelching the insides out of several packets of brown sauce. Despite his efforts, Opal managed to fling a few opened packets on the floor before he could tidy them all away.

   ‘No,’ joined in Matt, ‘it’s the tour operator’s version of Ireland when they’re trying to sell you a time share. You know, Dan, maidens at the crossroads, sheep in the middle of the road and a friendly local with no teeth, a pipe and a tweed cap welded to his head waving at you!’

   ‘Haven’t we made an ad like that already?’ Dan asked.

   ‘Don’t think so. But we will, we will. I love the originality of advertising,’ Matt joked.

   Matt, Betsey and Dan all laughed merrily. Hope stabbed her fish pie. Hilarious. Trust them all to make a joke about it all. It was her life they were talking about, not a location shoot for a bloody commercial. She was the one who’d be transported into another country, away from her friends and Sam, so that Matt could live the advertising man’s dream. His dream, her sacrifice. A fortnight after her sister’s visit, her delight that her marriage wasn’t over had disappeared to be replaced by a gnawing fear of the unknown. Matt and Millie were thrilled with the idea of moving; Toby was thrilled because he was going up in an aeroplane; Hope was terrified.

   ‘It’s going to be great, love, isn’t it?’ Matt said, noticing the tautness around his wife’s jaw. ‘You’ll love Kerry, I promise you.’ He was about to reach over and hug her, but Millie, sitting between them, catapulted her plate of chips all over the table.

   All four children started giggling.

   Hope sighed, grabbed a handful of kitchen towels out of her bulging, ever-present toddler bag, and began cleaning up.

   Sunday was family day in the local pubs and that meant a war zone of small children rampaging up and down the premises while their exhausted parents rocked irate babies in their pushchairs and mashed up food for toddlers who were straitjacketed into high chairs, in between trying to shovel some pub grub down their own throats.

   Hope, Matt, Betsey and Dan had often shared Sunday lunch together but the birth of Millie, Toby, Ruby and Opal meant lunch no longer took the form of a civilized clinking of wine glasses over sea bass fillets in elegant restaurants. Now, Sunday lunch was a grab-while-you-can bean fest in whichever local child-friendly establishment wasn’t jammed by twelve thirty.

   Today, they were in the Three Carpenters, a huge pub with an adventure playground outside. This was very useful for exhausting small children but it was raining today, so the kids had turned the inside of the pub into an adventure playground.

   There was always one family, Hope thought crossly, who let their kids run riot and didn’t move a muscle to stop them. Millie and Toby weren’t saints but she wouldn’t dream of letting them behave like those brats who were now trying to dismantle a high chair in the corner after spending at least half an hour ripping up beer mats.

   ‘Seriously though,’ said Betsey, waving at the harassed young waitress in the hope of getting more wine, ‘I’ve always had a yen to live in the country. There’s something about the whole rustic life that appeals to me.’

   ‘Betsey, honey,’ Dan said affectionately, ‘you couldn’t survive without the buzz of traffic, a shop that sells the perfect cappuccino around the corner and your monthly waxing or whatever it is you do in that wildly expensive beautician’s emporium.’

   Not to mention a hairdresser to transform her hair from brown to a glossy chestnut every six weeks, thought Hope with unusual bitchiness.

   Betsey, with her perfectly styled short hair, tiny personal-trainer-honed body and predilection for weekly massages, was a high maintenance woman. Hope, who got her bikini line waxed when she went on beach holidays and who’d had one massage in her life when the girls in the building society had bought her a voucher as a birthday treat, felt like a no-maintenance woman.

   ‘Anti-ageing facials not waxing,’ Betsey said unperturbed. ‘You make me sound like a yeti. Anyway, I have sugaring done these days. It’s much better.’

   The talk turned to business, with Matt and Dan discussing work before Betsey made them all laugh by telling them about an interview she’d done with a TV comedienne.

   Hope half-listened because she was keeping an eye on the four children. The two men and Betsey seemed to think that as long as none of the children were actually choking to death, they were fine.

   Beside Hope, Toby was half asleep in his high chair. Opal and Millie were, for once, playing together, and even Ruby, a four-year-old terror with her father’s innocent gaze and her mother’s devil-may-care attitude to life, was busy investigating something under the table. For once, Hope didn’t feel like checking what it was. Ruby was Betsey’s daughter: let her sort it out. Hope was fed up of being the designated babysitter at these get-togethers.

   She ate the rest of her lunch, half-listened to the chat going on around her, and wished she felt more cheerful.

   It was two weeks since Matt’s bombshell and he’d made startling progress for someone who’d spent a year promising to do something about bleeding the air from the bathroom radiator. He’d got Adam Judd to, reluctantly, give him a year’s sabbatical, although the sporty company Audi had to go back. The only caveat was that Matt had to promise to help on certain campaigns if necessary and he’d be paid on a contract basis, which suited Matt fine.

   He’d also found an estate agent who assured them there’d be no problem letting the house for a year; he’d checked out transporting their belongings to Ireland; had told his uncle’s solicitor that he’d be flying over to take possession of the house shortly. In short, Matt was on a high, joyous that he’d made the move and was now on his way to making a long-cherished dream come true. Hope felt the way she had three days after Millie had been born: depressed and liable to burst into tears at the slightest provocation. When she’d mentioned the fact that Millie should be starting primary school the following September, Matt had merely nodded and said they’d be back. Probably.

   Probably? thought Hope weakly.

   It was after two when Dan went to get the bill and Matt went to the gents. Betsey turned to Hope.

   ‘You’re a bit down in the dumps,’ she said. ‘Is it the move to Ireland?’

   Hope nodded, not wanting to say too much in front of the kids. Little pitchers had big ears.

   ‘It’s such a big step,’ Hope whispered to Betsey now. ‘I feel as if I’m being swept along on a tidal wave and I can’t stop it, do you know what I mean? It’s frightening. A new country, new people, a new home and I won’t have a job there. Matt knows what he’s doing but I don’t.’ She stopped miserably. She didn’t want to say too much but she was sure Betsey would understand. Betsey knew Matt and knew how much Hope adored him, but she’d surely see Hope’s side of things and would know how scary it felt to be swept along on somebody else’s dream. ‘I mean, imagine if you were expected to give up your job to travel with Dan? That would be tough.’

   ‘It’s a bit different, isn’t it?’ Betsey said. ‘It’s taken me a long time to get where I am on the magazine. I mean, I could work anywhere in the world, obviously, but I’ve got a great career here.’

   ‘And I’m only working in the building society,’ Hope said acidly. She was still steeling herself to hand in her notice. Mr Campbell would not be impressed.

   ‘Don’t be so touchy. I didn’t mean that at all but our situations are rather different after all. You’ve got to learn not to be so uptight about everything, Hope,’ she added. ‘Go with the flow.’ She waved one hand languidly. ‘Treat it as an adventure. You’ll have a ball. I’d adore a year off to have fun, play in the country and get out of the rat race.’

   Hope looked Betsey straight in the eyes but Betsey had finished draining her wine glass and was looking around for her handbag. Had the other woman heard one word she’d said? She’d hoped for female bonding over how she was going to deal with this enormous upheaval in her life and instead, she’d been treated to Betsey’s views on how much she’d have liked a year in the country. And been told in no uncertain terms that Betsey did not consider working in the building society to be a career on a par with the fabulous world of magazine journalism.

   ‘Ruby, what are you doing under there? Is that my handbag?’ Betsey said sharply. A heavily-made up Ruby emerged from under the table, her face plastered with Clarins base, vampish dark Chanel eyeshadow and plenty of Paloma Picasso red lipstick. Betsey only used the very best cosmetics.

   Her mother gasped with rage and pulled her neat little Prada handbag from Ruby’s red-lipsticked grasp. The bag was smeared with base and lipstick and had obviously been sitting in a pool of brown sauce left by Opal’s earlier game.

   ‘It’s ruined,’ Betsey shrieked. ‘Three hundred pounds worth of handbag ruined!’

   Hope patted her arm. ‘Oh well,’ she said benignly, ‘you’ve got to go with the flow when you’ve got kids, haven’t you, Betsey?’

   

   Matt sang along to the children’s tape they played on the drive home. Millie and Toby sang along too, making Hope feel like old prune-face in the passenger seat because she wasn’t deliriously happy too.

   ‘Dan told me he’s dead jealous about what we’re doing,’ Matt confided as they pulled up outside their house.

   ‘Why doesn’t he give up his job for a year, then?’ Hope demanded. ‘Betsey wouldn’t stand for it, that’s why. She’d have heart failure if Dan suggested upping sticks for a year in the country.’

   ‘Betsey was very enthusiastic,’ Matt pointed out helpfully. ‘What was it she said: she loved rustic things.’

   ‘Betsey doesn’t know the first thing about living in the country and would hate it,’ Hope hissed. ‘Her idea of rustic is jam pots with gingham covers on them. She thinks the country will be like Bath with livestock and handsome farmers in Range Rovers thrown in.’

   Matt annoyed Hope by laughing heartily. ‘Oh darling, you’re so funny sometimes,’ he said. ‘You’re the one who should be in advertising and not me.’

   Proving that she wasn’t quite as thick-skinned as a rhinoceros, Betsey phoned Hope at work the next day and apologized for upsetting her.

   ‘I’d hate you to think I didn’t value your career. I didn’t mean to imply that my career was worth more than yours,’ Betsey said, while Mr Campbell, Hope’s boss, looked on disapprovingly. Personal phone calls were a no-no unless the person at the other end was about to drop dead and was phoning with details of where they’d hidden their last will and testament. Despite having his own office, Mr Campbell never received any personal phone calls. Yvonne and Denise, the other woman who worked on the counter, had decided that he was secretly gay and too scared to come out publicly, so he ruthlessly instructed his lovers not to phone.

   Hope thought it was because Mr Campbell was very keen on rules and regulations and wouldn’t dream of asking his staff to follow a dictum he wouldn’t follow himself.

   ‘I think we should meet for lunch,’ Betsey was saying, blithely oblivious to the fact that Hope couldn’t really talk. ‘I’m working from home today and I’ve got my eye on these fabulous kitten heels in that new shoe shop near Pulteney Bridge and I feel today’s the day to splash out. Do you fancy a trip up there?’

   ‘Betsey, I can’t talk at work,’ whispered Hope anxiously.

   Betsey commuted to London a couple of times a week to work in an office where making personal phone calls was part and parcel of the day. She didn’t understand Hope’s office environment.

   ‘Outside Accessorise at one, then?’ said Betsey.

   ‘Yes,’ Hope answered. Anything to get her off the phone before Mr Campbell self-combusted with disapproval.

   The morning flew past, giving her little time to think. So it was only when Hope was belting out of the office door buttoning her coat, that she realized she wasn’t in the mood to go shopping for extravagant shoes. And that she wasn’t really in the mood for Betsey either.

   She liked Betsey, had considered her her best friend, really, but there were days when she wondered was their friendship one of those which existed purely because their husbands were best friends and therefore, the four of them spent a lot of time together. After that infamous holiday in France which Dan and Matt had arranged one day at work without asking, she and Betsey had been great pals. Mind you, Hope thought, it hadn’t bothered Betsey to go on holiday with someone she barely knew. Quite happy to relax from noon on with a bottle of Burgundy and a paperback while the children splashed about in the toddlers’ pool, Betsey was very laid back about holiday companions. Hope always felt that nothing much upset her, except when somebody else got a better assignment in the women’s magazine she wrote for. She was great fun and an amusing friend. But, Hope wondered, with Dan and Matt out of the picture, would she and Betsey ever meet up to have lunch or to trail around the shops together? Was Betsey really her best friend, either?

   No, she decided an hour later as she sprinted back to the office, trying to eat a Mars bar simultaneously because they hadn’t had time for lunch.

   ‘Did you buy anything?’ asked Yvonne as Hope slid into her seat behind the counter at one minute past two.

   Hope shook her head. ‘Betsey was on a shoe shop trawl. We trekked round four shops and ended up buying the ones she’d tried on in the first shop. Pale blue leather and very dainty. Plus, we didn’t have time for a sandwich so I’ve just eaten a Mars bar,’ she added guiltily.

   ‘She’s a selfish cow, that Betsey,’ Yvonne remarked. ‘When she meets you for lunch, she knows she can swan off home and have lunch whenever she wants to but you daren’t have so much as a bag of crisps here.’

   ‘She just didn’t think,’ protested Hope, used to standing up for Betsey because Yvonne didn’t like her. They’d met once and it had been handbags at dawn. With her black curtain of hair and dancing green eyes, Yvonne was far too vampish for Betsey’s tastes. Plus, she was younger than Betsey. Yvonne hadn’t taken to Betsey much either, because she had a better job than Yvonne and kept boasting about it. Proof positive that trying to link up friends from different parts of your life didn’t work.

   ‘She just doesn’t care,’ Yvonne retorted. ‘She’s out for one person and that person is her. I bet you a tenner she’ll be the first one who’ll put her name down for a free holiday in Ireland with you. You wait and see, Madam Betsey will turn up with hubbie and kids, stay for a week and not lift a finger except to ask for more drink and another blanket for her bed.’

   The thought had crossed Hope’s mind.

   ‘Well, if she’s so keen on the country, maybe we can do a swap and she can stay in the cottage while I live in her place back here,’ Hope remarked.

   Yvonne shot her an inquisitive look.

   ‘You don’t want to go, do you?’

   ‘That obvious, huh?’ Hope stopped trying to look merry and let her face reveal how she felt: utterly depressed.

   Yvonne’s bosom welled up with indignation like an enraged bullfrog. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? You can’t go, Hope,’ she said, ‘not if you don’t want to. You’d be mad.’

   A cluster of tourists, just disgorged from a tour bus, swarmed into the building society before Hope could answer.

   Hope, Yvonne and Denise expertly changed travellers’ cheques for the hordes and engaged in a bit of friendly chatter. When they’d all cleared out, one of Hope’s favourite customers, a sweet little old lady who wore a fox collar wrapped around her neck come rain, hail or shine, arrived to discuss how much money she should take out of her account to go on holiday.

   ‘Where are you going?’ Hope asked Mrs Payton.

   The old lady’s dark eyes sparkled under her felt hat. ‘The Greek Islands,’ she said. ‘I’m going with a friend. I haven’t been there since the Fifties. We’re going to do the Oracle at Delphi first. Can’t wait.’

   My god, I’m turning into a boring old cow, Hope told herself as she processed Mrs Payton’s savings book. This woman is eighty if she’s a day and she’s all fired up about a trip to Greece, while I’m only thirty-seven and I’m whinging about going the short trip to Ireland.

   When she was gone, Yvonne was busy with some teenage boys, and then a stream of people kept coming into the office, all with complicated business. It was nearly closing time before they had a chance to talk. Denise was making tea in the cubby hole kitchen behind the photocopier because they’d been too busy to have their afternoon tea break.

   ‘Don’t go,’ said Yvonne.

   ‘It’s not that easy.’ Hope was fed up with the whole subject.

   ‘It is,’ asserted Yvonne. ‘Can you imagine what you’ll feel like when you’re there if you’re this depressed now? You’ll be down the doctor looking for tablets for your nerves like a shot.’

   Hope laughed. ‘I think I need tablets for my nerves as it is,’ she joked.

   Yvonne didn’t laugh. ‘Yeah and you’ll be on double strength ones when you’re dying of depression next month. Think about it, you’ll be away from your friends, your sister, everyone. It’s not fair to expect you to go along with this.’ Yvonne scowled. ‘Men can be right bastards, you know.’

   ‘It is only for a year,’ Hope said.

   ‘Hope, you’re the sort of person who wouldn’t expect someone to sit through a two-hour film you’d like in case they didn’t enjoy it. You never ask anyone for anything. Matt’s asked you to do this huge thing and you don’t want to go but you don’t want to say no either. There’s a fine line between keeping the peace and getting walked on, as my mother would say. And what are you going to do? You love working, even here, you’ll go out of your head with no job. Matt’s asking too much.’

   Hope took her tea from Denise and thought of what Yvonne would say if she knew that Matt hadn’t really asked her anything: he’d told her, wheedled a bit, and had assumed she’d go along with it. She was so happy that he wasn’t having an affair, she’d said yes quicker than a hooker touting for business on a rainy night.

   Yvonne would levitate with temper if she knew the truth. ‘My Freddie wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that,’ she’d say, and it was true. Freddie had to work hard to keep Yvonne. She was not the sort of person who got walked on. As far as Yvonne was concerned, if anyone was going to do any trampling over anyone else, she’d do it, thank you very much.

   ‘It’s what everyone dreams of, Yvonne,’ protested Hope. ‘Giving up the rat race to live in the country, spend quality time with the children and not work.’

   ‘Yeah right,’ said Yvonne grimly. ‘You and your winning the lottery dream. Except if you won the lottery and bought some palatial mansion down the road, you might not be working but you’d have the cash to do whatever you wanted and you’d be able to afford to have someone look after the kids if you wanted to get the chauffeur to drive you into town. You haven’t won the lottery, but I reckon Matt has.’

   For the rest of the afternoon, Hope thought about leaving Witherspoon’s. She did love her job, Yvonne was right. She didn’t want to be some high flying executive like Sam but she enjoyed working, enjoyed having her own money and her independence, and liked meeting new people. Of course she adored the children, but surely she wasn’t a bad mother to want to combine loving them with a job?

   Right on cue, the heavens opened as Hope ran, raincoatless, to her car after work. It was only a five-minute walk but by the time she wrenched the door of the Metro open and flung her handbag onto the passenger seat, she was soaked.

   Shivering despite having the heater on at full blast, she drove home in worse than usual traffic. Yvonne didn’t understand. Yvonne was a blunt person who said what she thought. Hope was exactly the opposite. She longed for some way of telling Matt she didn’t want to leave Bath, but without the inevitable confrontation. Ideally, she wanted him intuitively to work out what she wanted, the way men did in films, and then agree that it was all a mad idea and that they should stay at home. No hassle, no arguments.

   Only it wasn’t working out like that. Matt appeared to be taking her stoic silence for a thoughtfulness, as if she was busy mentally working out what the family would need to take. Why didn’t he see that she was upset? How could he be so blind?

   The clock on the dashboard said it was six fifteen when Hope pulled up outside Your Little Treasures, not caring that she was double parked. Head down against the rain, she ran up the path to the glossy pillar box red door.

   Marta was standing sentry in the small hallway, looking less Rottweiler-like than usual on account of her upswept hairstyle and a very un-Marta-like lacy dress. She was obviously going out for the evening.

   ‘You’re late,’ she snapped as Hope reached her.

   The build-up of misery over the past few days came to a triumphant head in Hope’s mind. ‘So sue me,’ she snapped back with unheard of venom.

   Marta took a step back at this unprecedented attack from the meek and mild Mrs Parker.

   ‘As long as it’s just this once,’ she muttered, giving Hope a wide berth.

   

   Matt couldn’t remember when he’d felt this fired up over anything. Not the local television ads they’d won off a top London ad agency, not the excitement he’d felt when Hope had first become pregnant. Nothing had ever given him the buzz that this new adventure was giving him.

   He arrived home with a bouquet of flowers for Hope and a bottle of rosé wine. She loved rosé. She was a bit unsure about the whole trip, but that was just Hope. Dear Hope, he loved her despite her nervousness about things and her fear of the unknown. She’d love Kerry when she got there.

   Matt remembered when he was nine, and his parents, to whom he’d been an unexpected interruption in their marriage and careers, had shipped him off to Uncle Gearóid’s. At first, he’d hated the idea of leaving his home to travel to Ireland, but after that first summer, he’d wanted to go every year.

   There was something magical about Redlion. Maybe it was the fact that Gearóid didn’t believe in rules so there was none of that palaver about being in by a certain time or eating three meals a day, but Matt had loved it.

   Meals were whenever Gearóid took it upon himself to open a tin of beans and nobody batted an eyelid when the nine-year-old Matt was brought into the local pub (shop at the front and small snug at the back) to have his first taste of porter. They’d gone on fishing expeditions, on wild adventures to the Beara Peninsula, where Gearóid had practically gone into a coma after a drinking session with a fellow writer in a small hillside dwelling that Matt’s mother would have disapproved of no end. Matt had grown up with a mistily romantic memory of sitting on cracked leather stools in the dim, stained snug, listening to farmers talking of their herds and the trials of bovine mastitis, while Gearóid and his cronies rambled on about novels and poems, their plans for being the next Yeats, and how they’d got a consignment of good quality poteen and maybe after the next round they’d take a ramble back to Curlew Cottage for a wee dram.

   Gearóid, with his wild woolly hair, long beard and fondness for brown corduroy suits he got directly from Dublin, had been an idol to his nephew. He lived outside the system, he told Matt proudly, which was why he’d left his home in Surrey to travel to Kerry and become a writer. Taking the Irish version of his real name had been part of the fun. The one-time Gerry had become Gearóid, more Irish than the Irish, a man who could sing old Irish songs for hours on end and knew the location of every stone circle in Munster. Gearóid supplemented his income by giving tours to the hordes of tourists who came to Kerry searching for their roots, but, as he got older, his fondness for the jar meant he was quite likely to turn on them and tell them they were all a pack of feckers and should feck off back wherever they came from.

   To his shame, Matt hadn’t visited for over four years and he’d felt terrible about the fact that when Gearóid had died, he’d been in the middle of a vital campaign and hadn’t been able to make it to Redlion for the funeral. He’d make it up to Gearóid, he promised, by becoming a writer. Turning his back on Bath and his career, albeit only for a year, was his tribute to his maverick uncle.

   Virginia Connell stood in the garage of her new home in Redlion, looked at Bill’s golf clubs and smiled wistfully. She’d hated those bloody things all their married life. Well, maybe not hated but certainly felt irritated by them. Every weekend, come rain or shine, Bill had played golf. A brilliant man, he never managed to remember anniversaries, parties and dates she’d put in his diary months before, but thanks to some male instinct, he never forgot an arrangement to play golf.

   They’d never really argued about it. Virginia had been very self-sufficient; you had to be when you had three small children and a husband who worked away from home a lot, she always said briskly. When Bill forgot a date she’d made with him, she’d wag a reproving finger and tell him she’d reschedule when he had an opening in his diary. He’d grin, kiss her and promise they’d go somewhere really exciting, which they never did, naturally. Steak and chips in the local had been a treat. Virginia hadn’t minded. She loved Bill and he loved her in return. That was all there was to it. What did posh dinner dates matter when there was much more to life? She much preferred their quiet evenings in the local dunking chips into garlic mayonnaise to those high-powered affairs where Bill’s business partners insisted on bringing the entire company, plus wives, out to four-star restaurants. Virginia hated those nights where the conversation was brittle, every subject was a potential minefield and where the only fun was watching which of Bill’s partners could pretend to know most about wine.

   The food was just as good in the pub and when she and Bill were alone together, they could relax and be themselves.

   Over the years, Bill did his best to get her to learn golf. She laughed and said he was only suggesting it so they’d see each other in the golf club instead of blearily in the kitchen in the morning over coffee.

   Virginia gently pulled the suede cover from his driver, stroking the polished club head and remembering how delighted he’d been when he bought it.

   ‘This is space age technology,’ he’d said gravely that glorious Saturday morning in April more than eighteen months ago, before going on to explain how he’d had a nine degree driver before but this one was eleven and a half.

   ‘And that’s better?’ Virginia had teased as she made them both tea.

   ‘It’s about the degree of loft…’ Bill had begun to explain before he noticed her grinning. ‘What am I explaining it to you for, you philistine,’ he laughed. ‘Some wives take an interest in their husband’s game.’

   ‘Yes, and some husbands get home occasionally,’ she retorted. ‘I’m thinking of having an affair if you don’t get home tonight before eight. Would you mind?’

   Bill pretended to consider this, angling his grey head to one side and screwing up his brown eyes. ‘Could you have an affair with the golf pro?’ he suggested. ‘Then I might get preferential rates on lessons.’

   ‘No problem, darling,’ Virginia smiled. ‘Biscuit?’

   He didn’t get home before eight that night. He didn’t get home at all. He’d crashed the car on the twenty-minute drive home and the only thing to remain unscathed were his clubs, safely in the boot.

   The front of the car was destroyed, as was her darling Bill. But he’d never felt the pain of the crash: he’d died from a massive heart attack, they told her. As if that made it better.

   The police thought she’d like the clubs. Virginia threw them into the garage with fury because she needed to hurt something. She was in such horrific, numbing white pain that something or someone else must suffer. Bill’s precious clubs seemed like the only obvious candidates.

   The boys, Dominic, Laurence and Jamie, all in their 20s now, had been wonderful, towers of strength through it all. They’d arranged the funeral because Virginia hadn’t been able to. For the first time in her life, the eminently capable and sensible Virginia Connell fell to pieces. She could barely make a cup of tea; she, who was known for her exquisite baking and fantastic Beef Wellington so tender you could cut it with a spoon. People phoned with shocked, murmured condolences and she barely heard them. Once, she left someone hanging on the other end of the phone while she went into the kitchen to try and boil the kettle. She hadn’t managed that either: boiling the kettle and managing to put a teabag in a cup was beyond her. Choosing what to wear in the morning was a momentous task. Remembering to brush her teeth was impossible.

   She stopped bothering with her hair and it hung in dank grey curls around a drawn face that was the same shade of grey. Laurence had insisted on driving her to the hairdresser one day, three months after Bill’s death, shocked when he’d seen how terrible she looked.

   ‘I can’t go in,’ she said simply, sitting in the car outside the hairdresser in Clontarf with Laurence wringing his hands beside her. ‘What’s the point?’

   To add to her misery, a month after Bill’s death, their beloved Spaniel, Oscar, had been run over. Without even Oscar’s warm, velvety body to comfort her as he lay on the bedspread and licked her hands lovingly, Virginia felt there was no point to the world at all.

   Time was a great healer, Virginia remembered her mother saying. She didn’t agree precisely. Time didn’t heal, it numbed. Like a good anaesthetic, it made the pain more bearable but it never went away.

   She’d never balanced the bank statements or talked to the insurance people about the car or the house contents. Bill had handled all that. When the letters surrounding his death began to flood in through the letter box, Virginia realized just how much Bill had done. She’d often teased him that he was a lucky man coming home to a clean, tidy house where there was always food in the fridge, ironed shirts in the wardrobe and plenty of toothpaste in the bathroom. Now, Virginia realized that he’d been just as busy on her behalf as she had on his. She’d never even seen a final demand bill for electricity or handled a single query from their accountant. Now, she had to open all the mail and deal with it herself, inexpertly and bitterly. Bitter because Bill shouldn’t have been gone in the first place. The phone was nearly cut off in those first six months because Virginia had taken to sweeping the mountains of post into a drawer, refusing to look at any of it. She couldn’t cope with the kindly meant letters of condolence and she didn’t want to cope with the stilted letters from the bank, the insurance people and the lawyers. There was so much to do when someone died. She could barely believe it. The awful irony was that Bill had left her a wealthy widow thanks to a huge insurance policy. He’d looked after her even in death. But money couldn’t compensate for the pain and the trauma that went with sudden death.

   Bereaved people were suddenly supposed to lay aside their grief and deal with employers, the tax office, government departments, an endless list. It was cruel, cruel and unnecessary. She wouldn’t do it. A horrified Laurence had gone through it all one day, six months after his father’s death, when he’d discovered what she’d been doing.

   ‘Mum,’ he said wearily as he sat in Bill’s big recliner chair surrounded by opened envelopes and official looking letters, ‘you can’t go on like this.’

   Virginia had shrugged listlessly. ‘Why not? It doesn’t matter any more. Nothing matters. And anyway,’ her eyes had a spark of life in them momentarily, a spark of fury, ‘what else can they do to me? Your father is dead. That’s the worst that can happen. Do you think I care a damn if they lock me up because I haven’t declared that I’m not entitled to a married person’s tax allowance any more?’

   

   After a year of not bothering, Virginia had made scones on the morning of her husband’s first anniversary. Her sons were coming to Clontarf for the day and she didn’t have anything in the house. The boys ate the scones with thankful smiles on their faces, grateful that their mother was finally coming out of the tunnel she’d been in. Virginia was astonished how easily she slipped back into her role of gracious hostess. On the outside, at least.

   She wondered if it had been she who’d died, how would Bill have coped? Would he have spent a year in mourning, worn down by grief and unable to take an interest in anything? Their first grandchild had been born just eight months ago, an adorable poppet named Alison who had her parents – Virginia’s eldest son, Dominic, and his wife, Sally – in thrall. Virginia had been godmother and managed to get through the christening service dry-eyed, despite crying inside at the thought of how happy she’d have been if only Bill had been with her.

   ‘He is with you, Ma,’ Laurence, the sensitive one, insisted. ‘Dad’s still here, watching over you.’

   But he wasn’t with her. That was the hard thing. Virginia didn’t bother telling Laurence that his words of comfort did no good, he wouldn’t have understood. She’d gone to church all her life and yet now, when she needed it most, the very idea of God and the afterlife had deserted her. There was no sense of Bill anywhere except in her memory. She couldn’t feel him in the room with her, she took no comfort in going to church and talking to him. He was gone. It was over, that was it. And that really was the most awful part of her grief.

   That was why she’d sold the house in Dublin six months ago and swapped the suburban calm of Pier Avenue for a rambling old house in Kerry. The boys had been upset at first, Laurence had said she couldn’t run away. But Virginia had told them she wasn’t running away: she just needed to start again, in Kerry, where she and their father had come from all those years ago and to where they’d always had this distant dream of returning.

   They’d both been farmers’ children, madly keen to get away. Kerry had seemed like the back end of nowhere when they were young. In their fifties, though, Bill and Virginia had thought they might like to retire back to where they’d come from, a place that didn’t seem anywhere near as dull and quiet to them now as it had when they were younger.

   They’d never been sure whether they’d go back to their homelands near Tralee where only a couple of relatives now lived, or whether they’d start again somewhere else in the county. Somewhere without second cousins once removed living down the road.

   Bill’s death made the decision for Virginia. She would sell the house and move to Kerry but far away from Tralee. She couldn’t face living near where they’d grown up, places redolent of their courtship and awash with memories of the first time they’d met at a dance in a small parish hall. No, that would be too painful. When she saw the advert for Kilnagoshell House in Redlion, a long way from Tralee and yet still in Kerry, her mind was made up. In May, fourteen months after being brutally thrust into widowhood, Virginia had up sticks and moved to the small Kerry village where she knew nobody and where, she hoped, nobody knew her.

   The rambling old house was in a good state of repair but could have done with some decoration as the previous owners were very keen on flock wallpaper and swirly, seasickness carpets. The wash hand basins installed in the bedrooms for the B & B guests didn’t suit the grand old house but Virginia had done nothing to restore its beauty so far. She felt weary enough from simply moving in. She didn’t have the energy to decorate or even remove the numbers on the bedroom doors. Besides, she had the rest of her life to do it, she thought sadly.

   The boys were still getting used to the idea. Relief, Virginia felt, was a part of it. They had felt guilty with their interesting lives in London (Dominic and his wife, Sally) and Dublin (Jamie and Laurence) while their mother grieved in her suburban semi. She knew that Jamie and Laurence had shared a rota whereby each tried to visit her every couple of days, keeping in contact by phone the rest of the time to make sure she hadn’t downed a packet of sleeping pills in misery. Now she was hundreds of miles away, the duty visits would have to stop, which would be better for all concerned.

   She’d meant to give away most of Bill’s possessions when she moved, but she’d found herself unable to throw out his clothes. And thinking of the pleasure they’d given him, she hadn’t thrown out his precious clubs.

   Now she held Bill’s driver in her hands and tried to remember the all-important grip. Was it too late to take up golf at the age of fifty-eight? Bill would have loved her to. Maybe he could see her, was grinning with that irrepressible twinkling grin of his to see her holding his clubs in that professional manner. She liked the idea of Bill grinning wherever he was.

   The bell rang. Virginia raised her eyes to heaven. Tourists, she’d lay a bet on it. Kilnagoshell House had been a noted bed and breakfast establishment in the past and people with fond memories of it kept turning up on the doorstep, smiling and wondering if she had a double with bath for two nights and ‘do you still make that lovely black pudding for breakfast?’

   When she’d moved into the house four months ago, she’d smiled apologetically in return, saying ‘sorry, no, it’s not a B & B any more.’

   Now, she felt like throwing burning tar out the top windows and yelling ‘leave me alone!’ every time a fresh influx of visitors arrived with their five-year-old B & B guidebooks and hopeful expressions on their faces. It was beyond her why the owners had sold up in the first place. Judging from the amount of walk-in custom they were getting, even in October, they could have run a hundred-bed hotel and still be busy.

   She put the driver carefully back in the golf bag and walked round to the front door where a gleaming people carrier was parked. Four people were standing on the gravel.

   One man was stretching aching limbs and another was hauling bulging suitcases from the vehicle. A small, dark-skinned woman was peering at a guide book, reading out bits in heavily-accented English, while a taller woman looked over her shoulder.

   ‘Can I help you?’ inquired Virginia.

   ‘Excuse me for not phoning,’ said the woman with the guide book. Italians, Virginia thought, judging by that lyrical accent with its exotic rolling consonants. ‘We hope you have rooms we can rent tonight.’

   ‘I’m afraid this isn’t a bed and breakfast any more,’ Virginia said apologetically polite in spite of herself.

   The foursome looked crestfallen.

   ‘We have been driving for so long,’ said one of the men tiredly.

   ‘There is another place you can stay in the village,’ Virginia offered and went on to tell them about Mrs Egan’s De Luxe B & B down the road, just the other side of Red-lion. No, it wasn’t in the guide books but if they needed somewhere in the locality, Mrs Egan would definitely have rooms.

   She felt sorry to be turning them away; they looked exhausted and she was no longer sure if it was fair to direct people to Mrs Egan’s premises. She’d met Mrs Egan in the butcher’s and hadn’t liked either the way she ordered the cheapest rashers for her breakfasts, or the way she snapped at the butcher himself, a friendly giant of a man who didn’t deserve to be given out to because he’d forgotten to put aside a leg of lamb for her.

   From what the constant stream of visitors said to her about Kilnagoshell, Virginia felt it had been a welcoming place where nothing was too much trouble and where the owners wouldn’t have dreamed of giving guests fatty, cheap rashers for their breakfast.

   The foursome wearily packed up their belongings and waved at her as she watched them drive away. Virginia waved back, thinking that she mustn’t look quite as decrepit as she felt if these people wanted to stay with her. In her mind, she was still light years away from the tall, handsome Virginia Connell who’d always been perfectly dressed, not a silvery grey hair out of place as she helped out in the local Oxfam shop. That Virginia was the old one. The replacement was darker, sadder, with hollows under her hazel eyes and pain etched on every inch of her fine-boned face. She didn’t bother any more setting her thick hair in the gentle waves that managed to look so elegant: she tied it back in a taut knot. But that would have to change. She’d lived as a recluse for long enough and if she was to put a tentative foot back into the real world, she needed to look normal instead of like some loopy old dear with Miss Havisham tendencies.

   She closed the garage and went inside to the kitchen to pull on her walking shoes and old waxed jacket. The waxy smell always reminded her of Oscar. He’d been such a darling little dog, a soft fawn coloured spaniel with velvety ears and a melancholy expression that made him look like a dog from a chocolate box. Every weekday of his life at half eight in the morning, Virginia had taken Oscar for his walk and when the weather was wet, she’d worn this very waxed jacket. Oscar had only to see it to go berserk, circling her feet with delight, barking and bouncing deliriously. The jacket still smelled of him. Virginia still tortured herself with the thought that if only she’d kept walking him after Bill’s death, Oscar might have still been alive.

   It was her fault, all her fault. With enough exercise, Oscar wouldn’t have been so keen to escape the garden and run out onto the main road. She was glad that her local vet had offered to bury his silky little body in their plot in the mountains, otherwise he’d have been buried in the garden in Pier Avenue and she hated to think of the new owners digging him up in some garden revamp and dumping him.

   ‘Get another dog, Mum,’ Laurence had advised. ‘You and Dad always had dogs, you need one. It’ll be company for you; go on, you really should.’

   But Virginia wouldn’t dream of it. A dog was something to care for and she was far too afraid of losing anything else to commit to any new responsibilities. As it was, she was possessed of a great fear that something would take the boys, Sally or baby Alison away from her. A fat tear fell onto the jacket’s worn corduroy collar. Virginia wiped her eyes fiercely. She wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t. She’d go for her walk and try and forget Oscar.

   She walked briskly down the avenue, past the beech trees with their glorious russet leaves. The last glow of autumn was still everywhere; trees and bushes holding onto their golden leaves, the single copper beech still a fiery bronze in the middle of the silver birches. In another month, the landscape would have changed totally, Virginia knew, with banks of leaves underfoot and every tree stark and bare against the hills. But for now, it was magnificent. She crunched through a stretch of road strewn with chestnuts. The boys had loved chestnuts, she thought fondly, picking one up and rubbing it until it gleamed like mahogany.

   Onto the main road, she marched firmly towards Redlion. Her house was a mile from the village and she’d decided that she should walk there and back every day, if only to buy a newspaper. It was all too easy to bury yourself and see nobody.

   She liked Redlion: it was quaint and somehow untouched. The winding main street, called, for convenience, Main Street, probably looked much the way it had fifty years ago, with small terraced houses on either side interrupted only by shops and pubs. There were three pubs, rather a lot for a small town, tourists were always saying in surprise. Virginia knew from experience that visitors were fascinated by the number of pubs in Irish towns. She remembered a friend of Bill’s from London being astonished by that. They’d taken him on a short trip down to Kilkenny and he’d kept remarking on the fact that they’d driven through several tiny hamlets that consisted of a scattering of houses, but which still managed to support two pubs.

   ‘How do they stay in business?’ he’d asked Bill in bewilderment.

   Bill had laughed his warm, deep laugh and told his friend that he was in Ireland now and the usual rules didn’t apply. ‘There are different sorts of pubs for different people,’ Bill explained. ‘The old farmers might use one because it hadn’t changed since they were lads, and the younger people might go for another one with music and bar food. Real ould pubs only serve drink and cigarettes, you see. At the first sign of music, bar food or young women in short skirts, the ould fellas would take their custom elsewhere.’

   Madigans in Redlion was a real ould pub in Bill’s definition of the word, Virginia thought. With its red and white lettering over the door and an elderly Guinness sign hanging outside, it looked like the pubs of her childhood.

   On her walks, she’d often seen men in heavy boots, farm clothes and old caps ambling in for a quick lunchtime pick-me-up of porter. Her father, who’d been a farmer, had been fond of the odd lunchtime drink himself and she reckoned he’d have liked Madigans, which was the sort of place where you could happily go in with your trousers held up with baler twine and nobody would pay you the slightest bit of attention. The only part of the experience that required utter and complete attention was the pouring of the pint, which could take ten minutes of the barman’s loving art, meaning that wise drinkers ordered the next pint a good fifteen minutes before they’d need it, giving it that much needed time to settle.

   The Widows, on the other hand, was a modern phenomenon complete with a bar food menu as exotic as you’d find anywhere. It had traditional music nights, quaint Oirish interior decor straight out of The Quiet Man, and a proprietor who understood that money in the pub business was trying to please all the people all the time. Virginia had been in there a couple of times and had marvelled at the modern take on an old-fashioned idea.

   Virginia had never walked as far as the third pub, which was right at the other end of the village over the humpbacked bridge. That would be her mission today, Virginia resolved: to walk right through the village. It would make it a longer walk, certainly three miles all told.

   She passed the painted sign that told her Redlion was twinned with a French town she’d never heard of. Redlion wasn’t at its best in the lashing rain but on a clear autumn day, the village was pretty and somehow timeless. Virginia walked past the chemist with its big side entrance for animal foodstuffs, past a row of whitewashed houses with a brightly painted blue one in the middle, and along past Lucille’s, a fashion emporium with a window display that changed weekly and was always wildly glamorous. This week, Lucille was showing off low-cut tops and mohair sweaters with an animal print theme. The centrepiece was a fake fur coat in dramatic leopard print with a matching Russian style hat. Virginia resolved to watch out for the ensemble at Mass. She wasn’t quite sure who actually bought any of Lucille’s extravagant outfits, but she knew she’d recognize anyone who did at fifty paces.

   She walked on, keeping her eyes trained firmly on the distance in case she met anyone on her side of the street. People were very friendly, always smiling and saying hello, but she didn’t want to get dragged into friendships, and answering a simple ‘isn’t it a grand day?’ could be disastrous. Replying would mean a full-blown conversation and she didn’t want to talk to people, she wanted to be left alone.

   It wasn’t hard today. The village was quiet. At this time of year, the tourists were few and far between. But Virginia knew that once Easter came, the place would be crammed with people stopping at the Widows for a plate of smoked salmon and a blast of traditional music. They clambered out of cars and buses in droves to admire the painted houses and the quaint arts and crafts shop which did a roaring trade in hand-knitted sweaters, bits of lace, plaques with Irish family names on them, and odd pottery bits and bobs made by the hippies who lived in a commune far up the mountains. The hippies were tolerated, Virginia knew thanks to overhearing a conversation in the post office, because they kept themselves to themselves.

   But the hard-working local people with businesses were always nervous of a whole tribe of crusty travellers arriving and setting up messy shop in a field somewhere and ruining the successful business of tourism.

   Virginia had seen one of the hippie women once: tired-looking with yellow dreadlocks, tattoos on her arms and a child glued to each hip. Close by, a business-suited young woman marched out of the estate agent’s and climbed into her Mercedes sports car, rushing and ignoring everything around her. Both would have looked out of place in the Kerry of Virginia’s youth.

   Today, Virginia had the place pretty much to herself, apart from a couple of women standing outside the butcher’s with their striped plastic bags, having a chat now that they’d bought the dinner. As she walked, her hip twinged a bit. Why you got arthritis in one hip and not the other, Virginia didn’t know, but that was no excuse for not getting her daily walk. She walked firmly on. She was nearly half way there after all.

   The phone was ringing furiously when she got back and she raced into the hall, still in her leaf-covered walking boots.

   ‘Mum,’ said the chirpy voice of her daughter-in-law Sally in London, ‘how are you?’

   ‘Fine, Sally,’ Virginia answered, pleased to hear from the only member of her family who didn’t say hello with the expectation that Virginia would burst immediately into depressed tears. ‘How are you lot? Is Alison still ruling the roost with Dominic wrapped round her little finger?’

   Sally groaned. ‘Don’t ask. He ruins her. She’ll have a bike, a pony and a toy motorbike before she’s two if Dominic has anything to do with it.’

   They chatted away for a few minutes, talking about how Jamie had been in London and had come round to dinner one night with his new girlfriend, ‘very pretty and clever. Dominic kept teasing that she was much too clever for him.’

   Virginia smiled a little wistfully. That was what she missed: being a proper part of her sons’ lives, being there to meet new girlfriends and give her opinion on them. Laurence, who was a dentist, had told her about Barbara, the fabulous dental nurse he’d only just met and how Virginia would love her to bits, but the three of them hadn’t managed to meet up yet. Still, she mustn’t dwell on things. She’d chosen a new life because it was a break from the pain of the past. What was the point in whingeing about parts of the old life that she missed?

   They talked about Alison’s sleeping pattern or rather, her non-sleeping pattern; how tired Sally was from looking after her and working from home; and how much she and Dominic were looking forward to their skiing holiday in Austria over Christmas.

   ‘Virginia,’ Sally said suddenly, sounding anxious. ‘We won’t go to Austria if you’d like us to come to you, you know that. I don’t want you to think that we wouldn’t want to come to you. We’ll cancel Austria and hop on the ferry…’

   ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Virginia interrupted. ‘I wouldn’t dream of it. You need a proper holiday as a family, not one where you’re forced to visit me. I’ve told you I’m spending Christmas here this year and you’re all to stop feeling guilty about it.’

   Virginia thought of a fridge magnet she’d seen: ‘my mother is a travel agent for guilt trips.’ She’d laughed heartily at the idea because it had been a fair description of her own mother.

   Therefore, Virginia had been determined never to lay guilt trips on her three boys. Even in the darkest days after Bill’s death, she’d refused to let herself beg for their help. Laurence had stayed with her for a week but then she’d sent him back to his apartment in Swords.

   ‘I’m the mother and you’re the child,’ she’d told him firmly. ‘It’s not your job to mind me. I’ve got to get on with it myself.’

   By the same token, Dominic and Sally deserved to spend Christmas any way they liked without worrying about her. Besides, she felt even more wretched than ever when the kids were tiptoeing around her. The joy of having them to stay was overwhelmed with the sense that Bill should be there too, which was just too painful.

   At least when she was on her own she could deal with her grief on the bad days. If that meant spending the entire day crying with her face as red and raw as beetroot, then she was free to do just that. When there were other people around, pride made her stifle the tears.

   Virginia changed the subject. ‘I’ve just come back from a long walk and I’m looking forward to having a hot bath and curling up with my new book.’ This wasn’t entirely true. Virginia hoped that a hot bath would ease her aches but she couldn’t cope with reading any more. Her favourite novels just made her cry at their memories of happier times. She managed the newspaper and that was it. Even the crossword reminded her of Bill asking for help with eight across.

   ‘It’s great that you’re walking again,’ said Sally. ‘Is your hip bothering you much?’

   ‘Not at all,’ lied Virginia. ‘There are some very pretty walks around here. The village is lovely. You’ll have to come and stay. In the summer,’ she added rapidly, in case she sounded all needy again.

   ‘We can come…’ Sally began.

   ‘Sally love, I need this time alone,’ Virginia interrupted. ‘I really do. Please make Dominic see that, you know I can’t tell him myself.’

   ‘I know. He only wants to help,’ Sally said quietly. ‘We all do.’

   Virginia shrugged. ‘Nobody can help me but myself.’

   Nicole Turner looked as if she was working – for once. Her dark head was bent over her desk and there was no tell-tale grin on her impish face which would have been a sure sign that she was telling jokes with her next-door neighbour, the equally feckless Sharon Wilson.

   From her position at the top of the room, Ms Sinclair, claims department supervisor, narrowed her eyes as she looked at the bane of her life. Nicole Turner could look demure and hardworking even when she was secretly planning some prank that would cause uproar in the busiest department of the London headquarters of Copperplate Insurance. Like that time she’d rigged the big clock behind Ms Sinclair’s desk so it was half an hour early, meaning that everyone left for lunch at half twelve instead of one.

   Naturally, Nicole had switched the clock back during lunchtime, so that when everyone arrived back at two, they’d actually had an hour and a half for lunch. In Ms Sinclair’s eyes, this was a sacking offence but she had no proof that Nicole was responsible so nothing could be done. And the section head pointed out that Nicole’s work was always excellent, so there were no grounds for firing her.

   You had to watch her all the time, Ms Sinclair decided darkly. It was a task she relished.

   At her desk at the back of the room, Sharon Wilson’s phone rang and she picked it up.

   ‘Hello, claims department,’ she trilled.

   ‘Is that old bitch still watching me like a hawk?’ asked Nicole, who was less than three feet away but who knew that clerical staff talking without actually being attached to their phones were in for a big black mark from Ms Sinclair.

   Sharon peeked up the room. ‘Yes. Actually, she’s really staring at you now.’

   ‘Shit.’

   Out of the corner of her eye, Sharon could see Nicole stand up and search through some files on her desk, her brow furrowed as if she’d been asked a sticky question by a customer and needed to check it out. Nicole located the big Copperplate Insurance manual and sighed theatrically as though her greatest wish in the entire world had been granted because she’d found the manual. She flicked through the pages and stopped in the middle.

   ‘Ms Wilson,’ she said now in her best placate-the-customer voice, ‘I’m afraid we won’t be able to cover your claim for the deer running out onto the road and flattening your Mini Cooper…’

   Sharon giggled and had to hide behind her computer so nobody could see her.

   ‘You see, Ms Wilson, we happen to know that you were down the Three Crowns public house on the night in question and had seventeen pints of best bitter, before you climbed into the driver’s seat and drove home, with your boyfriend in the seat behind you attempting to remove your brassiere; a feat not recommended in the Rules of the Road handbook. Therefore, we feel unable to cough up the twenty-seven thousand pounds you feel entitled to. We will be, however, paying for plastic surgery for the deer, alright?’

   Sharon giggled some more.

   ‘Seriously.’ Nicole had switched into her normal voice although to any onlooker, her expression was as grave as if she was on company business. ‘I’ve just got an e-mail from my pal Bacardi King. One of his friends is getting married and the stag party’s in the Red Parrot tonight and if you’re interested, we can go.’

   ‘To a stag party on a Thursday?’ said Sharon dubiously.

   Nicole allowed herself to smile. ‘Ms Sin-Free-Zone-Clair isn’t in tomorrow so we can be as hungover as skunks and nobody will mind. And all Bacardi’s female friends are going. Having men only at stags is very old fashioned.’

   ‘OK,’ said Sharon, who adored Nicole and who felt that in the three years she’d worked with her, her own social life had improved no end. Nicole hung up and returned to her e-mail.

   ‘Hi B-King, love to hit Red Parrot with u. Is dressing up part of plan? Haven’t dressed up since I went to hallowe’en night party as a mummy – all rolled up in loo roll taken from the last pub. The bouncers in the night-club didn’t see the funny side of it, for some reason. Said I could be charged with robbing loo paper! No sense of humour. See u at 8.

   Nicole.

   Thursdays were perfect for going out. Her gran came over on a Thursday, so Nicole didn’t have to worry about who was going to be babysitting five-year-old Pammy.

   At six o’clock on the nail, Nicole got up from her desk, dragged her backpack from underneath it and stalked off to the loos on her gravity-defying knee-high boots, regardless of the fierce glares from Ms Sinclair.

   Sharon watched her friend enviously. Nicole just didn’t care about what people thought. Nicole never got embarrassed when she went to buy her round and found she didn’t have enough cash, and she’d just laughed the day they’d been running for the bus and she fell into a puddle of water, with at least thirty people watching. Sharon would have been puce with embarrassment. Nicole groaned good humouredly because the entire front of her skintight jeans were damp.

   ‘I’ll look like I wet myself,’ she said, ‘and we haven’t even had a drink yet!’

   At five past six, having delayed for a few minutes because that way, it looked as if she was so engrossed in her work that she hadn’t noticed the time, Sharon gave her desk a cursory bit of tidying and rushed to the loos. Nicole was there, having a forbidden cigarette before she put on the minuscule amount of make-up she wore.

   That was another reason to be jealous of her best friend, Sharon thought with a resigned sigh as she compared their reflections in the mirror. Nicole was so beautiful. Her café au lait skin glowed no matter how exhausted she was, and the tigerish amber eyes with their feline tilt at the outer edges dominated her triangular little face. Her concession to make-up was lots of glossy lipstick because her mouth, inherited from her mother instead of from her Indian father, was on the small side.

   Her hair was her one vanity: she spent a fortune on conditioning treatments and shine products and it hung in a long, glossy curtain down her back. Even her body obeyed her. Tall, and slender as a reed, she had fantastic legs that looked scarily long in the black PVC mini-skirt she’d just changed into.

   But Nicole was just about the best friend in the entire universe, which meant you couldn’t be jealous of her.

   ‘Want a fag?’ Nicole asked now in her husky voice.

   Sharon took one, lit it and went into a cubicle to pee. They weren’t supposed to smoke in the loos but if Nicole could do it, so could she.

   ‘Are you up for karaoke tonight?’ Nicole said, pulling off her cream work jumper and wriggling into a small pink T-shirt with glittery stars emblazoned all over the front.

   From behind the toilet door, Sharon groaned. ‘You know I can’t sing and I’m not making a fool of myself in front of all those guys at the stag night.’

   ‘Oh come on,’ Nicole begged. She needed someone to get up and sing with her or she’d feel stupid doing it. She hated show offs. Nicole adored singing and had been exercising her raw husky voice in private since she’d been a child. She often wrote her own songs but it was only for fun. Singing publicly was another matter. There was nothing worse than people who thought they were Kiri Te Kanawa getting up at family parties and sounding like a collection of drunken crows. Nicole couldn’t bear that. But since, at the age of fifteen, she’d sneaked into the local pub for an illegal drink and discovered karaoke, she’d loved it. While the other people she partied with thought that the sing-a-long part of an evening was just drunken fun, for Nicole, it was the best bit. She adored singing to Tina Turner and Whitney Houston tracks and loved having her pals waving their beer bottles up at her happily as they hummed along and cheered. But you had to get someone to get up there with you in the first place, Nicole felt. Otherwise you looked like a stupid show off.

   ‘Ready?’ she asked Sharon.

   ‘Just a minute,’ said Sharon, struggling with mascara that promised lashes like Cindy Crawford’s.

   ‘Right. I’ll phone my mum,’ Nicole replied. Using the office phone saved her from spending too much on the mobile.

   She slipped back into the office where Ms Sinclair was still at her desk tidying up. Nicole immediately crouched down and crept along behind the desks until she reached her own. She took the phone down and wriggled into the space underneath where she’d be safe from detection. Sinclair would kill her for using the phone for personal purposes. At least during office hours, you could always pretend you were on a work call. It was annoying that Sinclair hated her so much. It wasn’t that Nicole didn’t work hard: she did. But Sinclair didn’t understand that Nicole could finish her work more quickly than most people in the department, and then she got bored. She couldn’t help the practical jokes, they helped pass the time.

   Her mother answered on the first ring. ‘Hello love,’ she said to Nicole’s whispered hello.

   ‘Hi Mum,’ hissed Nicole.

   ‘I can’t hear you,’ said Sandra Turner in her soft, breathy voice. ‘Speak up love.’

   ‘I can’t,’ hissed Nicole. ‘I’m at work.’

   ‘Oh yes,’ said Sandra vaguely. There was a pause.

   There were always pauses in conversations with Nicole’s mother.

   ‘I’m going out for a bit tonight, Mum. That’s OK, isn’t it. I know you’ve got Bingo but Gran’s coming over for a few hours, isn’t she?’

   ‘I suppose. She didn’t phone.’

   Another pause.

   ‘Shall I check if she’s coming over, Mum?’ Nicole volunteered. ‘We can’t leave Pammy on her own and she hates bingo.’

   ‘OK. You do that. Oh, the doorbell. I’ll get it.’

   Nicole heard the phone drop and then her grandmother’s voice with the strong accent that was a strange hybrid of Cockney and Irish even after fifty years in London. A few minutes passed before her mother picked up the phone again. ‘Your gran’s here so I’m going out. See you later.’

   She hung up before Nicole even had a chance to speak to her grandmother to ask what time she was staying until. Slowly, Nicole put down the receiver. She was glad her grandmother was there: it gave her a chance to have a night out without worrying about Pammy. She needed someone looking after her and sometimes, even though Nicole hated to admit it, her mother wasn’t up to it.

   She crept back the same route to the office door where Sharon was waiting for her, all done up now and reeking of Eternity.

   ‘Let’s hit the pub, babes,’ Nicole said brightly.

   

   The Red Parrot in Camden was not Dickie Vernon’s idea of a nice venue. It was a young people’s pub for a start, full of computer games, with lots of different coloured condoms in the dispenser in the loos and very loud karaoke. But in his job as a talent scout, Dickie had been in lots of headache-inducing places. Not that he ever said he was a talent scout. No, he was a manager, or so he told people to impress them. It was a great pity that his greatest find, the golden-voiced Missy McLoughlin, hadn’t had the balls for the music business. She was something else that girl. If she’d made it, he’d have been home and dry for life. Fifteen per cent of millions, he’d been sure of it. No more sitting around horrible old clubs looking for the next Celine Dion. The independent record label had been so interested until he’d got greedy and asked for more money. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. When they backed off at his increasingly outrageous demands, Missy’s nerve had failed her and she was now the proud mother of a toddler, lived in an Aberdeen semi and sang at weddings and funerals.

   Dickie was back to managing the Val Brothers, a barber shop quartet, and taking care of the affairs of a country and western girl singer whose only resemblance to the successful Nashville ladies was her big, blonde hair. Anyone listening to her murdering ‘Jolene’ would immediately start looking for cotton wool for their ears. Still, she looked the part and that was half the battle, wasn’t it?

   His trip to the Red Parrot was to meet up with a small record shop owner who was going to introduce him to a teenage rock band who were all still at school. The record shop guy was late and Dickie, bored rigid now he’d done the crossword in the Daily Star, was sinking whiskies. The karaoke machine was switched on and two drunk rugby playing types were howling their way through ‘Purple Haze’. Jimi Hendrix would turn in his grave, Dickie thought.

   It was definitely a stag party. There were around thirty lads, all plastered, and one with a blow up rubber doll on his lap. The stag himself, stupid git. Dickie looked away and ordered another whisky. It was half nine, he’d give the record shop owner another half an hour and he was gone.

   He blanked out the dreadful singing from the stag night people who were performing one dreadful rendition after another. A curvaceous brunette wearing spray-on jeans and a clingy red top sat at the table next to his. Dickie admired the way her small waist made her bum look curvier. She turned round and smiled at him. Dickie smiled back, giving her the full works, gleaming capped teeth and the Jack the lad cheeky grin that had been working since he was fifteen, a good twenty-five years before. The brunette winked at him.

   He might stay a bit longer after all.

   The strains of the old Al Green hit, ‘Let’s Stay Together’, drifted out from the karaoke machine and Dickie didn’t notice. He was considering asking the brunette if she wanted a drink when the vocals started. Two voices were singing, one flat and terrible, the other husky and rich. The husky voice penetrated the room, soaring above the music.

   Dickie stared, the brunette forgotten. There, on the Red Parrot dais, stood a tall dark-skinned girl belting out this incredible noise. She was young, maybe twenty. But that voice: throaty and full of age, experience and sex. She sang like a world-weary divorcée who’d had it up to here with drink, drugs and men. Life in the very fast lane. If he hadn’t seen her for himself, Dickie would have sworn blind the singer was at least forty and a chain smoker with tired, hard eyes. Her voice resonated with experience, sex, excitement and power.

   And incredibly, it was coming from a young, slim girl with an unlined little face that reminded him of a cat’s, slanting eyes and a profile like an Indian princess. Watching that tiny little face transported as she sang, Dickie felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He’d found her. His star. His ticket out of here.

   ‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ said the brunette flirtatiously.

   ‘Wouldn’t be seen dead here normally,’ Dickie said flatly and went back to watching Nicole Turner. The brunette flounced off.

   When the song ended, the audience applauded loudly and Nicole and Sharon bowed happily.

   ‘Sing another one,’ roared Bacardi King.

   ‘You sing on your own, Nicole,’ urged Sharon. ‘You’re so much better than me.’

   ‘No,’ insisted Nicole. ‘You’ve got to stay.’

   Normally, the sound of ‘The Power of Love’ at a karaoke session promised the sort of drunken howling that put you in mind of dogs at the full moon but not the way Nicole sang it. Dickie smiled beatifically as her lovely voice reached every high note, swelling where the song demanded it and fading down to gentleness at exactly the right moments. He watched her, mesmerized. He had to talk to her.

   She was perfect, made to be a star. But he’d had too much to drink and probably looked more than a little worse for wear. He’d just hit the men’s loos for a minute and make himself respectable, then he’d approach her. After all, who’d believe he was a top-flight manager if he looked seedy and pissed. It would only take a minute.

   

   Nicole flopped onto a seat and fanned herself with the cocktail menu. She felt exhilarated and tired. Now that the fun of the evening was over, she thought she might go home. Duty called, the way it always did. It was half ten and Gran liked to be in her own bed by eleven, come what may. Who knew if Mum was home yet.

   The stag night boys were playing a drunken party game that involved discussing your wildest dreams.

   Nicole was beside the groom-to-be, who was now wearing a pirate’s hat and eye patch. The blow up doll was sitting on his other side and had a pair of black lacy knickers on her head. The stag put an arm around Nicole and grinned drunkenly at her. With her little cat’s face glowing from the lights and her eyes glittering from her singing triumph, she looked stunning.

   ‘What would you really want if you could have anything in the whole world?’ he said, pulling Nicole closer to him and breathing in the scent of her hot, slender body, a musky scent mingled with Sharon’s Eternity.

   Nicole smiled wryly. She knew what he was thinking: the stag wasn’t ready for the night to end yet. He was getting married in two days and yearned for one last wild fling to finish off his days of bachelorhood. Nicole was mildly amused that he’d even dreamed that she’d be up for it. He absolutely wasn’t her type and he was roaringly drunk. What a plonker.

   ‘Go on,’ he crooned, obviously thinking he was onto a good thing. ‘What would you like?’

   ‘I’d love a place of my own,’ she said suddenly. ‘My own flat where I could come and go as I liked and didn’t need to be there for anyone, total freedom.’

   ‘Wayhay!’ roared the groom. ‘I’ve got my own place and we could go back there now, I’ve got drink and everything…’

   ‘That’s not what I meant, you toe rag,’ Nicole said, calmly emptying the remains of her beer all over him. She’d had enough to drink.

   He squealed with horror and Nicole daintily leaped up from the seat beside him, blew him a kiss and then tapped Sharon on the arm. ‘I’m outta here,’ she said, ignoring the furiously mouthing groom.

   Dickie Vernon came out of the men’s room, looking much more together, much more like a successful manager of incredible talent. Thank God they still sold those mini toothbrush and toothpaste combos in toilet dispensers. Slicking back his dark hair, he made his way over to the stag party and looked around for the young, dark girl. But she was gone.

   

   Nicole locked the front door and pulled over the curtain that kept the draught from blowing straight up the stairs. 12a Belton Gardens was a great place for draughts. Sometimes, the winter wind whistled from the front door right through the flat and out the back door again, making the kitchen and the narrow hall no-go areas. Nicole had tried draught excluder but it kept falling off so she’d bought a big curtain for over the front door instead. If only her mother would remember to draw it.

   She walked into the small cosy sitting room where her mother was sitting on the old flowery couch wrapped up in a tartan blanket and watching a late night film. A mug of tea sat in front of her and she had a bowl of popcorn on her lap.

   ‘Hello love,’ she said, not taking her eyes off the screen.

   ‘Hi Mum,’ Nicole said, sitting on the faded pink armchair beside the fire. Her mother’s collection of china pigs glared down at her from the mantelpiece, alongside several scented candles which Nicole was always in mortal terror would set the place alight.

   Her mother kept chewing popcorn. Nicole picked up the TV guide to see what was on. It was a 1970s Goldie Hawn film. Her mother loved Goldie Hawn. With her baby-soft blonde hair and sweet, faded smile, she liked to think she looked like Goldie too. Only in Sandra’s case, the kookiness wasn’t an act. Sandra Turner was kind, terribly naive and possessed of a vague dizziness that made her utterly unsuited to dealing with normal life. She felt helpless around domestic problems or money matters, hated confrontation of any kind and was addicted to the herbal tablets she took for her nerves. Men, especially, adored her helpless female act, until they discovered it wasn’t an act.

   If Nicole didn’t do the grocery shopping and make sure that the bills were paid on time, the small Turner family would never have survived. Not that Nicole ever complained. Fiercely protective of her lovely, dizzy mother, she wouldn’t let anyone say a word against her. There may have been just the three of them but they were still a family and Nicole dared anyone to say otherwise. She knew that it had been hard for her mother to rear her on her own and that many men over the years had steered clear of dating a single mother. Sandra’s one chance at happiness had been with Pammy’s father. He’d been a nice man, Nicole remembered. But it had somehow gone wrong and the Turner girls were on their own again.

   The film cut to a commercial break and Sandra Turner came to life.

   ‘Have a nice evening, love?’ she asked, turning to her daughter.

   ‘Lovely, Mum. How about you? Did you win?’

   Her mother’s face scrunched up into an irresistible grin: ‘£100, love!’ she said jubilantly. ‘I’m going to get my hair permed and buy new shoes. They’ve got lovely ones down the market, just like Versace but they’re not the real thing.’

   ‘Good for you, Mum,’ Nicole cheered, mentally chocking up some more overtime. They were late paying the electricity bill.

   She watched a bit of Goldie and then decided to go to bed.

   ‘I’m knackered, Mum,’ she said, leaning over to give her mother a kiss. ‘I suppose Gran’s asleep in my bed?’

   Her mother bit her lip, like a small child asking forgiveness. ‘I was a bit late and you know she hates getting a cab home after eleven. You can sleep with me,’ she added eagerly.

   Nicole checked the kitchen to make sure everything was switched off then climbed the stairs. She passed her own tiny bedroom and went into Pammy’s. Barbie predominated. There wasn’t any bit of Barbie equipment that Nicole hadn’t bought her little half-sister. Quiet as a mouse, she peered down at her fondly. In sleep, Pammy looked even more angelic than she did awake. Her tousled white-blonde hair stuck up at all angles and her soft, babyish cheeks were plump and innocent. She was only five and Nicole completely adored her. She thought guiltily back to what she’d said to the drunken groom in the pub: yes, she’d love a place of her own, somewhere she could be utterly on her own and not responsible for any other human being. But she’d miss little Pammy so much. And her mum. No matter what her gran said about Sandra being a few sandwiches short of a picnic, she was a good mum and she did her best. She was Nicole’s responsibility and that was that.

   

   Pammy woke Nicole up at half six by climbing into the small double bed and bouncing up and down. Sandra moved just enough to pull the duvet closer around her neck.

   ‘Nicole, wake up!’ sang Pammy before she started trying to tickle her big sister under the arms.

   ‘C’mere, brat,’ she growled in her best tiger voice and pulled Pammy’s small, squirming body under the covers where she began to tickle her, much more successfully.

   ‘Lemme go! Lemme go!’ squealed Pammy delightedly as she tried to wriggle away.

   ‘No, the tiger has got you!’ growled Nicole. ‘Grrr, grrrr, I love yummy little girls in the morning…I’m hungry, grrrr…’

   After a bit more growling, she let Pammy go and then swung her legs out of the bed, shivering in the coolness of the bedroom. She pulled on her mother’s dressing gown and went downstairs with Pammy to get her breakfast.

   By seven forty-five, they were both fed, dressed and ready to leave the house. Nicole took a speedy cup of tea up to her grandmother.

   ‘Thanks love,’ said Reenie Turner, sitting up in Nicole’s bed. ‘You’re a good girl.’

   ‘Sorry I didn’t see you last night, Gran,’ Nicole said. ‘But I’ll see you on Sunday. Don’t forget to wake Mum before you go. She’s due at work by ten today.’

   She ignored her grandmother’s snort of disapproval. Despite being mother and daughter Sandra and Reenie Turner were like chalk and cheese. Keeping the peace between them was a full time job. Reenie disapproved of Sandra’s part-time job as a manicurist and the way that Nicole took care of Pammy as though she were her mother. And Sandra hated Reenie’s comments about her occasional men friends.

   ‘Once in a blue moon I meet a nice man for a drink, once in a blue moon, that’s all. Just because I’ve got kids doesn’t mean I have to live like a nun, you know,’ she’d snap.

   ‘Fat chance of that,’ Reenie would sniff unfairly.

   Nicole hated her grandmother criticizing Sandra. For all that her mother was dizzy, she’d worked hard to bring her and Pammy up and hadn’t so much as dated a man when Nicole was a kid. It was only when Nicole was a bit of a teenage tearaway that Sandra had met Pammy’s father.

   Pammy danced along the wet footpath with Nicole, singing tunelessly to herself. She’d settled incredibly well at St Matthews, for which Nicole was grateful. Apart from the first day when her lower lip had wobbled when Nicole finally left her in the capable hands of Miss Vishnu, she’d run happily into school ever since. Miss Vishnu was very young and sweet and the children appeared to love her.

   Once Pammy was dispatched into school with her Poke-mon lunchbox, Nicole had to rush to the bus stop to catch the five to eight. She had to stand for nine stops but finally got a seat on the top deck where she could sit and listen to her CD Walkman as West London rolled by.

   She enjoyed those moments to herself on the bus or tube, even if she was surrounded by people. There was still a solitariness to it that she liked: listening to music and not having to talk to anybody.

   

   Copperplate buzzed with the usual Friday morning excitement of ‘only a few more hours and it’s the weekend!’ In the canteen, plans were being made for lunchtime shopping expeditions for new clothes and discussions were going on about what everyone was doing that night. Top Shop had a sale and there was great enthusiasm for butterfly tops like one Jennifer Lopez wore which were reduced to twenty quid.

   Nicole bought a cup of tea and sat in the smoking section of the canteen. She flicked through a paper that someone had left on the seat beside her, scanning the news rapidly before reaching the horoscopes. Leos were in for a good day, she read. Be prepared for breathtaking news to hit you. How you react could be very important but remember not to do anything rash.

   Breathtaking news could mean she got the sack, Nicole thought, lighting up another fag even though she didn’t really want it. Sharon appeared at the canteen door, face lit up with excitement.

   ‘You’ll never guess!’ she yelled at Nicole as she ran over to the table.

   ‘We’ve been given a day off?’ Nicole suggested. ‘Ms Sinclair Bitch has been run over by a truck? You’re engaged to Leonardo DiCaprio?’

   Sharon slid into the seat beside her friend and passed a small, rather grubby card over to her. ‘Better than that,’ she smirked.

   ‘Dickie Vernon, manager,’ Nicole read. ‘What’s this mean?’

   Sharon beamed. ‘He heard you sing last night in the Parrot. He’s a top class band manager. He told me about some huge band he managed but I can’t remember which one. Anyway, he wants you!’ Sharon could barely contain herself. ‘He thinks you’ve a wonderful voice and you could be a pop star! Imagine it.’

   Nicole laughed. ‘This is mad, this is. Just have a look at my horoscope. It says I better not do anything rash.’

   ‘Rash?’ demanded Sharon looking up from what the day foretold for Geminis. ‘They’ll never let you on Top of the Pops with a rash.’

   Nicole had never felt so nervous in her whole life. Her hands were actually shaking as she peeled the cellophane from the cigarette packet. She’d better get a grip or she’d sound like one of those dolls who stutter ‘Mama’ when their string is pulled. Taking a huge drag of Rothmans, she let the nicotine enter her system and give her the hit. The drug did its thing. Great. She sagged a little in her new high leather boots and leaned against the wall as her body relaxed. Then she jerked away: this place was such a dump. Who knew when it had last been cleaned. You’d probably get rabies from just leaning against the scummy wall.

   From the way Dickie had spoken about the small recording studio owned by a friend, Nicole had been under the impression that she was practically going to Abbey Road. Instead, she was in a dingy old premises in Guildford with a warren of rooms and a studio that looked as if it hadn’t been used since the sixties. And the equipment looked even older, like stuff from the Antiques Roadshow.

   The man who owned it seemed nice enough, though: a skinny old guy who wasn’t exactly threatening, which was good. Nicole had been a bit nervous about going there on her own with Dickie.

   ‘What if they’re rapists who just use this “you could be a singer” line to get you on your own?’ Sharon had protested. ‘I’ll go with you; you need moral support.’

   But Nicole had insisted she went to the studio on her own. ‘If we both take a sickie on Tuesday, Sinclair is going to figure something’s going on. She’s not that stupid,’ Nicole pointed out. ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll take my army penknife just in case.’

   ‘I thought the actual knife fell off,’ Sharon said suspiciously.

   ‘I’ll stab them to death with the bottle-opener bit,’ Nicole retorted.

   She had the penknife in her bag but she didn’t think she was going to need it. Dickie may have looked like a total sleazoid but he seemed genuinely only interested in her singing ability.

   ‘You shouldn’t be smoking,’ he’d said, scandalized, the first time he’d seen Nicole light up, the seventh of her twenty a day.

   ‘Who the hell are you? My bleedin’ mother?’ she demanded.

   ‘It’s bad for your voice. No top singer would ever smoke,’ Dickie said.

   Tough bananas, Nicole thought, stubbing out one cigarette and extracting another from the packet. She needed to smoke. She’d never be able to sing otherwise. She had the words and music to one Whitney Houston song ready not that she could read music, but it looked good.

   Dickie came back into the studio. ‘Everything’s ready to go,’ he said breezily. ‘Just one more thing.’ He casually held a piece of paper out to Nicole. ‘You just need to sign this, love. To make it all legal and formal, you know.’ He held out a pen with the other hand.

   The corner of Nicole’s mouth twitched. Did this guy really think she was that dumb? Just because she’d taken a chance by going to a studio with him, he couldn’t honestly think she would blindly sign a bit of paper that would undoubtedly give him rights over her and her unborn children for the rest of her life?

   She gave him her Bambi look, the one where she widened her eyes and blinked slowly, as if blinking quickly was too much of a mental strain. ‘Sign this?’ she repeated.

   Dickie nodded, more confident now.

   ‘I don’t know,’ Nicole said, still in Bambi mode.

   ‘It’s legal stuff, nothing to worry about,’ Dickie urged.

   Nicole took the paper and skimmed over it. What did Dickie think she did at Copperplate Insurance: make the tea? She may have been on the bottom rung of the office ladder but she still spent enough time dealing with insurance claims to know about the law. Plus, she could probably work out percentages more quickly than Dickie could and fifty per cent was a bit steep in her opinion. All at once, she decided that it had been a mistake to come here. If she wanted to be a singer, she’d have to approach it another way. She folded the piece of paper up and stuck it in her handbag, while Dickie stared at her open-mouthed.

   ‘Wha…?’ he started to say.

   ‘I’d never sign anything without getting a lawyer to look at it,’ Nicole said with an impish grin. ‘And I think that asking someone to sign something without explaining what they’re signing, is described as “sharp practice”.’

   She waved at the skinny guy behind the glass plate. ‘Thanks but no thanks.’

   ‘You can’t do this!’ roared Dickie as the penny dropped. ‘You can’t walk out like this. I’ve invested time and money in you, I’ve talked you up.’

   Nicole gave him a wry look and headed for the door.

   ‘I’ve got people interested in you, you stupid little black bitch,’ he shouted.

   That did it. He’d been fine until he’d called her that. How dare he? She was proud of her Indian heritage and her colour, not that she knew much about India really, but she was proud of it anyway. Rage coursing in every vein, Nicole whirled round. She wanted to hit him but pride stopped her. He could behave like scum from the gutter but she wouldn’t.

   ‘When I’m famous, Dickie, I hope you’ll remember that you could have been a part of it.’ She gazed at him superciliously. ‘Except you got too greedy. And I will be famous, I promise you.’ With that, she left, her long silky hair flying as she strode out of the building.

   She would be famous. She knew it in her bones. Dickie had done one good thing for her: he’d shown her that she wanted to make it as a singer. She’d been hiding from it for years but he’d helped her see that she could do it – and that she wanted to. She owed him that. Maybe she’d send him a ticket for her first gig.

   

   Sharon was furious. ‘The scumbag,’ she raged. ‘I knew he was trouble. I’ll go round and kill him meself. No, I’ll get my brother to do it.’

   ‘Don’t waste your time,’ Nicole said. ‘No, what I need you to do is help me with some research. I need to make a demo tape and I want to know where I can do it cheaply. Secondly, I’ve got to find out who to send it to. Put your thinking cap on, Shazz. Between the pair of us, we must know somebody who can help.’

   

   Sharon’s second cousin’s flatmate knew a studio engineer who wouldn’t mind a bit of moonlighting as a one-off. He knew who to send demos to but warned Sharon that record companies got zillions of tapes every year. ‘They probably file them in the black plastic filing cabinet,’ he said.

   Nicole shrugged. ‘I’ll take that chance.’

   The cheapest studio time for recording sessions was in the middle of the night, so at two a.m. two weeks later, Nicole, Sharon and Sharon’s second cousin, Elaine, lined up in Si-borg Studios. The engineer had drummed up four musicians to play along with her and, to hide her nerves, Nicole whispered to Sharon that the musicians mustn’t be much good if they were prepared to play in the middle of the night for damn all money. The money was from Nicole’s building society account and she still felt anxious every time she thought of spending it on something so ephemeral.

   ‘Shut up,’ hissed Tommy, the engineer, ‘or they’ll all go home. They’re not that desperate.’

   Embarrassed, Nicole lit up. Nobody looked askance at her. At Si-borg, it was the people who didn’t smoke who looked out of place. The musicians, engineer and even the receptionist all puffed madly so the entire premises was fuggy with smoke and the walls were stained a cloudy vanilla thanks to years of late-night Marlboro sessions.

   The first hour was hell for Nicole. Used to launching into a song as soon as the karaoke machine played it or singing her own compositions alone in her bedroom, she found it impossible to stop and start as the real musicians warmed up by snapping strings, getting riffs wrong and grumbling about unfamiliar songs.

   ‘What’s wrong with them?’ she whispered to Tommy as they took a break, mindful of keeping her voice down in case the musicians walked out.

   ‘Whitney Houston and Sade are not their thing,’ he grinned. ‘If you wanted to launch into something by the Manic Street Preachers, these would be your men.’

   ‘Charming.’ Nicole stomped off to the loo. She leaned her head against the mirror and closed her eyes wearily. This wasn’t working out as planned. She’d taken Tommy’s advice and had gone for covering other people’s songs instead of her own ones because he said her voice was the main thing and the demo would have greater impact that way.

   She’d been so excited at the thought of working with real musicians and had had visions of herself belting out flawless hit after hit with everyone in the studio watching her in admiration.

   Instead, all she had was a sore throat from the combination of singing and smoking too much, and she really wished she hadn’t worn those ultra tight pink snakeskin jeans and high-heeled boots. She felt bloated because she was pre-menstrual and the waistband of the jeans was cutting into her flesh like cheese wire. Why was she doing this? She must have been mad. Just because she could hold a note didn’t make her Mariah Carey. Would it be awful if she told them all to go home because she couldn’t keep going?

   ‘Nicole!’ said Sharon, dancing into the grimy loo clutching a can of beer and a roll-up that Nicole would swear was filled with more than just tobacco. ‘Isn’t it exciting? God, they love you. I just overheard the bass player telling Tommy that you had a fantastic voice and wondering if you needed a band?’

   Nicole stood up straight and blinked tiredly. The harsh fluorescent light hurt her eyes: they were red-rimmed with tiredness, no matter how much kohl she’d painted around them.

   ‘They said what?’

   ‘That you’re marvellous! That you’ve got “star quality”,’ Sharon said happily. ‘Well, I could have told them that but it’s good that they think so, don’t you think?’ She prattled away about the bass player and how he’d said that Nicole was ‘mega’.

   Nicole half listened and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Underneath the tired face and the weary eyes, there was a certain radiance. She smiled and the radiance shone out at her, bypassing the tiredness instantly. Star quality, huh?

   ‘Have you got any of that bright red lipstick on you, Sharon?’ she asked. ‘I left my bag downstairs and I look like death warmed up.’

   Sharon rummaged around in a handbag the size of Santa’s toy sack and found the lipstick in question.

   With a slightly shaking hand, Nicole applied a thick buttery layer. On her dark little face with her eyes glowing like jet, the rich crimson looked incredible. Sexy and mysterious at the same time. Nicole pouted theatrically at herself. ‘Let’s go get ‘em,’ she said with a huge grin.

   Millie’s roars could be heard in three counties at least.

   ‘Don’t want to be in the car!’ she bellowed, her small face screwed up with anger and rage.

   ‘Neither do I,’ muttered Hope tight-lipped as she negotiated the hire car along the winding road, oblivious to the wind and rain swept scenery they were passing by. When the plane had banked before it arrived in Kerry’s airport, Hope had done her best to peer out the window and see what sort of fabled, emerald isle she was landing on, but Toby had chosen that moment to grizzle miserably at the jerking motion of the aircraft, so she’d dragged her eyes away from the slightly bleak looking patchwork fields and comforted him. Now the rain was lashing down, giving the whole place a dismal air that was at odds with Matt’s description of it.

   ‘I remember sitting with Gearóid on the steps in the sun, him with a bottle of Guinness, the sound of the bees droning around us and the smell of hay being cut in the fields nearby. Everything was rich greens and soft golds…’

   They must both have been drinking Guinness, Hope reflected, because there was nothing sunny or golden about the modern version of Kerry, even allowing for the fact that it was a blisteringly cold November day. Any bees buzzing around would have been drowned in the downpour.

   This was not what she’d hoped for. Definitely not.

   ‘It’s going to be fabulous,’ Dan had said enthusiastically at the Parkers’ leaving do in the Three Carpenters two days before Matt’s departure. ‘The way Matt has described Ireland to me makes it sound magical.’

   ‘We all envy you so much,’ said a swaying Betsey, who’d come from a publicity launch in London for a new perfume and was half-plastered on free champagne, not to mention reeking of free scent. ‘You’ll have a blast.’

   Hope, still exhausted from the stress of packing up the house and the misery of having to hand in her notice in the building society, sincerely hoped she would, although she felt that a week in a health farm was probably what she needed to relax her.

   ‘You will keep in touch, won’t you?’ begged Yvonne, who was unexpectedly tearful at the thought of Hope leaving. ‘I’ll miss you, you know.’

   Hope hugged her. ‘ ‘Course I will. I’ll be back in no time at all. And you can come and visit us. Matt tells me it’s a beautiful place.’

   He’d talked longingly of sitting on the coast on the Beara Peninsula looking over the rugged Atlantic, listening to the sound of the curlews as you created perfect prose. And he’d told her how Redlion nestled in a valley that protected it from the cruel winds that blew in off the sea. ‘Idyllic’ had been his word for it.

   It didn’t seem very idyllic at the moment, though. Hope began to think that the original idea of Matt driving her Metro via the ferry to Ireland ten days earlier to get the cottage shipshape hadn’t been such a good idea. Travelling with the children was always a nightmare and she could have done with some help. It would also have been nice to have some reassurance that it didn’t rain all the time and that this downpour was unusual she hoped.

   But Matt had insisted that someone had to do some work on the cottage because the lawyer had mentioned it was a bit ‘uncared for.’ And he’d also been keen to meet the artistic community people he’d been corresponding with, in relation to working in their centre, as soon as possible.

   Hope tried to concentrate on the road, which wasn’t easy with Millie yelling. Their progress since landing had been slow to say the least. Just when Hope was panicking about being stranded without their luggage, her five suitcases had finally turned up. Battling through the small but incredibly crowded airport with two fractious children, she’d picked up the sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle she’d booked in advance and had just managed to hump all their cases into it without giving herself a hernia when Millie decided to throw a tantrum.

   A visit to the ladies, bribery involving biscuits and juice, and the purchase of a cuddly bear in an Aran sweater had all been useless. Millie had decided she was not in a good mood, wailing so hysterically that a cluster of little old ladies disembarking from a coach at the airport doors had looked at Hope as if she was wearing a sign saying ‘unfit mother.’

   True to form, Millie had yelled and cried at full blast for the last hour as her harassed mother read the map, worked out where she was going and made it out past the lunchtime rush in Killarney. Trying not to mow down pedestrians had been the biggest problem. People in Killarney just seemed to walk out in front of the car, not caring that she was a few feet away from them in a deadly piece of all-terrain vehicle with bull bars on the front. Did they look right and left before crossing the road? No, they just threw themselves blithely into the traffic, hopping over puddles and treating the passing cars like nuisances. The Irish were all mad, she decided darkly. She wished Matt had been able to collect them but as the Metro had burst a gasket and was currently languishing in the local garage, it made more sense to rent a car because they’d need transport until the Metro was fixed.

   Toby sat quietly in the back, strapped in carefully. Millie, feeling liberated because the car seats were coming later, kept trying to remove her seat belt until Hope had to stop the car and attach her even more firmly. Outraged at being unable to move so freely, Millie decided to roar even more.

   Finally, Hope could stand it no longer. The rain had practically stopped and they all needed a bit of fresh air. A

   few miles outside Killarney, she stopped the car by a gate at the side of the road, got out and unhooked the children.

   It was windy and there was still a fine mist of rain that dampened the children’s hair immediately, but Millie didn’t care. Delighted to be free, she bounced over to the big rusty gate, surprising the herd of muddy black and white cows huddled next to the ditch.

   ‘Cows,’ she said as happily as if she’d just discovered a herd of rare beasts.

   Toby clung to his mother nervously. He wasn’t keen on big animals and when he’d been taken to the zoo, he’d sobbed at the sight of the elephants. Millie, on the other hand, had had to be restrained from clambering up the monkey enclosure, waving her ice cream enticingly.

   ‘It’s all right, darling,’ Hope said now, hoisting Toby onto her hip and carrying him to the gate. ‘They’re friendly.’

   As if to disprove this point, one of the cows lurched towards the gate in investigative mode.

   Millie squealed with delight and Toby hid his face in Hope’s shoulder, shuddering with fear.

   ‘Mummy, will we have cows?’ demanded Millie excitedly.

   Hope had absolutely no idea. If cows were included in the property, Matt hadn’t mentioned them. His memory of Uncle Gearóid’s had included a quaint cottage covered with old fashioned roses and an expanse of wild looking garden out the front. He’d been a bit woolly on the other details although the lawyer’s letter had mentioned four bedrooms, a kitchen with a genuine iron range and a bathroom with an antique claw foot bath. It all sounded lovely, but then, so did novels about the Middle Ages where nobody mentioned the pain of not having dentists and how women routinely died in agonizing childbirth. Hope thought about her lovely, only-just-paid-for modern freezer and the shower in their house in Bath where you’d swear you were being stabbed with millions of exquisite tiny needles when you turned it on at full blast. She didn’t hold out much hope for a quaint cottage having such a marvellous plumbing innovation. But then, who knew? Uncle Gearóid could have been a modern sort of man with a passion for Bang and Olufsen stereos, giant kitchen equipment with icemakers, and a jacuzzi. The unknown was exciting, Matt had said before he left.

   However, on the phone since then, he’d sounded a bit dreamy and short on facts about things like plumbing and installing two phone lines for the e-mail so he could correspond with the office. Men liked the unknown, women didn’t, Hope decided.

   ‘It’s so unspoiled,’ he’d said the night before over a crackly phone line. ‘You’re going to love it.’

   Mind you, he’d thought she was going to love the black lace thong underwear he’d purchased for her birthday on a trip to Bristol. Sam had insisted that if you wore thongs for two weeks, you never went back to normal knickers again. Hope had given up after two days.

   Still, they had the house in Bath. If the rural writing retreat proved too rural, she could always up sticks and bring the children home. So, they had rented it out for a year but Hope was sure she’d find a way round that. That’s what lawyers were for.

   ‘Come on,’ she said now in bright Mummy-speak. ‘Back to the car, we’ve got a bit longer to go and then you can explore our new home!’

   The children clambered back into the car and Hope strapped them in, thankful they’d fallen for her faux enthusiasm. Back on the road, she admired the scenery and tried to pretend that it didn’t look very bleak. Beautiful, certainly, with those majestic purple mountains looming in the horizon and a faint mist covering them like icing sugar rained down by some heavenly cook. Everywhere was astonishingly green in the rain but a tad desolate. Not really like the idyllic, sun-drenched place she’d seen in the Discover Ireland travel book.

   So far, Hope couldn’t imagine the sun ever shining in this remote part of the world. She liked visiting romantically desolate spots for cosy weekends, enjoying going for a walk in the woods as long as there was a glorious hotel complete with log fire in the bar when they got back so they could roast their wet socks, giggle over a couple of hot ports and plan what to wear for dinner.

   Real life desolation all the time was a different proposition. The scenery around her looked so…well, untamed. The countryside around Bath was green too, but it seemed more laid out and more normal. Here, the fields were all sizes with stone walls and briar hedges going off in all directions. The drivers were all mad too: she’d nearly been forced off the road by some little old man in a van who could barely see over the dashboard and at least six flashy new cars had overtaken her in exasperation on dangerous bits of road, obviously furious to be behind a hire car going at a respectable forty miles an hour.

   At a tiny crossroads with no signpost at all, she consulted her map again. If it was to be believed, she had to take the right turn, follow the road for a few miles and then she’d come to a town. She drove carefully until she came to the first signs of habitation.

   ‘Quaint, untouched,’ had been Matt’s verdict on Redlion, the small town where their house was situated.

   ‘Really quaint,’ Hope thought grimly as she drove into it a few minutes later.

   She had to turn off before she got to the main street, therefore not seeing all of the place, but on first viewing with the rain pelting down in a sheet, Matt’s quaint town was anything but. What she could see consisted of a winding line of terraced houses, one battered pub, a tiny post office, a convenience shop with security bars that looked capable of stopping a tank, and a caravan park with its signpost hanging drunkenly from one corner. Thinking she must be in the wrong place, because this could hardly be the pretty place Matt had described, she came to a hump backed bridge. An elderly green water pump over the bridge signalled that she was, indeed, in Redlion. Matt had mentioned both the bridge and the pump and according to him, she had to take the next left which was a winding road that led away from the town to her new home. It was official, she decided: she was now in The Back Of Beyond.

   

   With an increasing sense of doom, Hope drove down a narrow lane with a grass spine in the middle and big puddles of mud either side. She felt the same way she’d felt when she and Sam had gone to big school for the first time: a little bit excited at the thought of being a big girl, a bit more excited about her school uniform with the dark blue jumper, and absolutely terrified at the thought of all those other girls with their normal families who’d think that she and Sam were weird having no parents and only a mad old aunt to pick them up from school.

   She rounded a corner, past a giant monkey puzzle tree that bent out over the lane, and then she saw it. Her new home.

   If the outskirts of Redlion had been given a grievous battering with the ugly stick, Curlew Cottage had escaped. Gloriously pretty, it sat snugly in a wilderness of hedges and beech trees and looked as if it been drawn by an illustrator who was trying to imagine a home for the Seven Dwarves. From the small windows with their latticed shutters to the fat wooden door with black iron fittings, it was adorable. The pretty climbing rose that Matt had waxed lyrical about had been cut back and, as it was November, there would have been no flowers clustering round the door anyway, but that was the only negative thing she could see. It was a bit run down but what would you expect from an elderly man living here on his own for years?

   Hope sighed with relief. At that exact moment, an unseen cockerel loudly proclaimed that this was his territory and that they better back off. Toby shrieked with fear and Millie shrieked with delight.

   ‘Let me out Mummy,’ she roared, desperate to explore.

   The cockerel crowed again.

   An attack hen, Hope decided, feeling her sense of humour return.

   The rain had stopped, so she let the kids out, warning them to stay close. Toby didn’t need any telling and clung to her trouser legs. Millie, on the other hand, raced off after the cockerel.

   ‘Come back!’ yelled Hope nervously with her city-mother mentality. ‘Right now!’

   Millie wavered long enough for her mother to grab her anorak hood. With Millie reined in and wriggling crossly and Toby sucking his thumb nervously, they made their way to the front door.

   ‘Where’s Daddy?’ Millie said with interest.

   Good question, Hope thought. She’d hoped he’d be waiting for them, ready to run out, throw his arms around his family and say he’d missed them desperately for the past ten days. She’d been watching too much TV, she reckoned. Husbands only ran out in thrilled delight on made-for-TV movies or romantic dramas. They never did it in real life except when they were famished and you’d just been at the shops buying food.

   She knocked at the front door. No reply. After a moment, she turned the handle and the door creaked open a fraction. Should they go in or not? She dithered until an ominous rumble in the sky signalled an end to the brief interlude of dry weather.

   Rain started pelting down again like a tropical storm. ‘Gosh, isn’t this exciting,’ Hope said gaily to the children as she pushed the door fully open.

   Inside, the adorable cottage scenario went awry. The first thing to hit Hope was the cold. Still warm from the steamed-up atmosphere of the car, the cool November air had barely registered with her at first. Now, standing inside the cottage she was struck by an arctic sensation. Stone floors, stone walls and no visible source of heat made for a combination of bone-chilling damp and cold. In fact, everything in the cottage looked damp and cold. Instead of the hand-crafted wooden furniture, lovingly made frilled curtains and air of sparkling cleanliness she’d prayed for, she was faced with a big bare room with no curtains at all. The only furniture was a coffee table and two elderly tweedy armchairs with disturbing dark, oily patches on the cushions.

   Hope held the children’s hands more tightly as she gazed around her in horror. This wasn’t fit to live in: it hadn’t been painted for years and was completely filthy. The cobwebs that festooned the ceiling were the least of her worries. Matt had made the entire family emigrate and their new home wasn’t a cosy cottage but a dishevelled shed. She wanted to cry. Her thoughts were broken by the sound of a car engine and a slamming door.

   ‘Millie, Toby! Sorry I’m late, love. Just got caught up with the gang!’ Matt rushed into the room, hair plastered down on his forehead, wearing an unfamiliar sludge brown jacket, mud splattered corduroys, Wellington boots and a welcoming expression.

   He gave Hope a brief warm kiss and then picked a child up in each arm, hugging them to him.

   ‘Did you miss Daddy?’ he demanded.

   ‘Yes,’ said Millie huskily, burying her little head lovingly in his shoulder. ‘Lots and lots and this big.’ She demonstrated how much she’d missed him by holding her arms wide.

   Hope didn’t want to break up this cosy family thing. She felt like the bitch from Hell about to remind Snow White that it might not be a good idea to shack up with seven small men who were looking for a cheap housekeeper, but it had to be done. Besides which, Matt hadn’t thrown his arms around her.

   ‘Matt,’ she said in her everything-in-the-garden-is-rosy voice so as not to alarm the children, ‘we need to talk about the cottage.’

   ‘Isn’t it lovely,’ he said. ‘So naïf.’

   ‘What?’ she said, rosy garden voice disappearing to be replaced by sour-milk voice.

   ‘You know, unspoiled,’ he said artlessly.

   ‘How about unclean, unpainted and utterly unsuitable for two small children,’ she snapped back at him, tiredness and a general feeling of being unloved making her cross. ‘Not to mention freezing. We’ll all get hypothermia if we live here. This is a dump. I don’t suppose you were roughing it here?’

   ‘Well, no, I was at Finula’s and I know we have a lot to do here and I’m sorry I haven’t really got started but I thought we could manage for a few days with those portable stoves and then get some work done on Monday…’

   ‘Matt, you mean you haven’t told Hope the place wasn’t ready yet?’ said a low, throaty female voice. ‘How bold of you. Slap, slap.’

   They both turned to face the newcomer. Tall, rotund and exuding rural friendliness, she was forty-something and wore a selection of flapping garments that all appeared to be patterned by the hand of Laura Ashley. Hope identified pyjama-style trousers, a voluminous shirt and a rakishly-angled hat, all flowery and pink. A big tartan shawl completed the outfit.

   ‘Hope, meet Finula Headley-Ryan, the leading light of the artistic community in Redlion and the lady who’s been so kind about getting me into the writers’ centre at short notice.’

   ‘Tsk, tsk,’ said Finula, clearly delighted with this description but pretending she wasn’t. ‘I’m only an old dauber, hardly an artist at all.’

   She sailed over to Hope and held out a freckled hand, weighed down with elaborate old gold rings. The glamorous effect was slightly ruined by chipped scarlet nail varnish that revealed yellowing nails underneath.

   ‘I’m sure you’re not so pleased to meet anyone when this house is like the wreck of the Hesperus,’ she said in that low, thrilling voice. ‘Matt, you are a melt for not telling the poor girl that the place isn’t habitable. Think of the shock she got when she thought this was her new home in all its freezing glory. What are you like?’

   ‘Well, I wanted Hope to come and I knew she’d hardly be keen if I told her what was left to do,’ he said, giving Finula the benefit of his handsomest smile. ‘Anyway, Hope,’ he added, slightly wheedling, ‘I’ll get the workmen to start on Monday.’

   ‘Obviously, the children can’t stay here,’ Hope said, her shock at the state of her new home overcoming her dislike of getting personal in front of strangers. ‘We’ll have to stay in a hotel.’

   ‘Nonsense,’ Finula declared. ‘You’ll stay with me. The only hotel round here is five-star and would cost a bomb. We’d love to have you. A couple of days and we’ll have this house spick and span. It’s not at all fit for children.’ She leaned over and rubbed Millie’s cheek.

   Instead of scowling the way she usually did when someone she didn’t know touched her, Millie dimpled up at Finula.

   ‘Little dote, isn’t she?’ sighed Finula. ‘My Cormac is twelve now, too big for cuddles but they’re lovely at that age.’

   Thinking of Millie’s waking-the-dead tantrums on the journey from the airport, Hope managed a weak smile and said yes, lovely.

   ‘Now, follow me,’ Finula ordered.

   Within minutes, she’d bundled Hope and the children into her car, a battered green station wagon that had been side-swiped so often there were only stripes of green paint on the doors.

   ‘Matt can take your car,’ Finula said, crunching gears as she drove over a few bushes doing a five-point turn. ‘My house is down an awful pot-holed bothreen and you’d be tortured following me.’

   The inside of the car was as messy as the outside, with a filthy pair of Wellington boots on the back seat and several smelly waterproof coats, exuding a scent of mud and wet dog, crumpled up on the floor.

   Hope sat in silence as they drove at high speed along a narrow road. She was suddenly exhausted after her journey and so angry with Matt for expecting her to live in such squalor that she was incapable of making polite conversation. Finula, however, kept up a stream of talk that, luckily, required no response.

   ‘There are seventeen of us in the community who live here full time. Mainly artists but we’ve got three novelists and two poets. I’m sure you’ve heard of Maire Nic Chinneide.’

   Before Hope had time to nod dishonestly at this, Finula was off again.

   ‘Amazing poet, so lyrical. Her poems about the traffic on the Killarney Road would bring a tear to your eye. Anyway, as I was saying, as well as the full timers who live in the area, at least two hundred artists and writers come during the year, and we have a wonderful time. I’ve been here ten years and I feel like part of the furniture. Myself and Ciaran – Ciaran’s a novelist by the way – came from Dublin originally. I wouldn’t go back for all the tea in China. There are no twenty-four-hour shops here or high rise buildings: it’s heaven.’

   Hope, longing for a twenty-four-hour shop and a couple of high rise buildings, said nothing.

   Finula described the entire artistic community, how often they met in the Creativity Centre (every day, as far as Hope could make out) and what sort of wonderful entertainment was available (weekly dinners during the high season and two creativity workshops during the year when the place sounded as if it was over-run with would-be writers and painters.) Matt had explained all this to Hope previously but when he’d said how it worked, it hadn’t sounded like some demented religious commune. Feeling more and more anxious, Hope wondered if there were other women with small children.

   ‘The locals don’t bother with us much, they think we’re all mad artistic types,’ Finula tittered.

   Hope privately thought that Finula relished being a mad artistic type. Compared to Finula’s flamboyant floral rig out, Hope felt like a mouse in her serviceable navy chinos, navy wool polo neck and beige casual jacket. Would she have to start wearing loads of mascara, plenty of shawls and her Liberty nightie to fit in?

   ‘I’m sure Matt has told you all about us,’ Finula said, swerving rapidly as she made a right hand turn into a beautifully-kept driveway.

   ‘Not really,’ Hope hedged, vowing never to get in a car with Finula ever again.

   They pulled up outside a big homely farmhouse set amid a forest of pine trees. Unlike the cottage, this was beautifully maintained, with big planters full of dwarf conifers in a regimented line beside the porch and ornamental wagon wheels set along a veranda. A swing seat took pride of place on the left of the veranda, complete with stripy canopy. The entire premises would not have looked out of place in a Doris Day movie.

   ‘Let’s get you all in and get some food into the little ones,’ Finula bossed.

   Finula’s home was everything Hope wanted in a rural retreat. Rambling yet cosy, with plenty of squashy sofas, Turkish rugs on the stone floors and lots of pictures, ornaments and books to enliven the place. Her kitchen was the sort of place that highly successful television cooks always seemed to have: a triumph of golden wood complete with an Aga, butcher’s block and bulbous copper saucepans hanging from the ceiling. Hope had always wanted one of those saucepan-hanging things.

   ‘I know it’s a shock when you up sticks and move to the country for the first time,’ Finula said when Hope and the children were installed at the huge wooden kitchen table, the children with home-made yoghurts and home-made apple juice, Hope with a big glass of red wine – thankfully not home made.

   ‘But it’s so good for the children. You can have a chance to bring them up the right way here, to teach them about life and nature, to feed them natural, organic foods and to be with them all the time. It’s a quality of life you can’t get in the big city. No rapists, murderers or burglars.’

   Hope took a slug of wine and mused on how the locals had managed to keep murderers, rapists and burglars out: with an electric fence, perhaps?

   ‘Of course, personally, I think those degenerate hippie people up the road aren’t to be trusted,’ Finula added nastily, ‘but we’ve had no trouble with them yet. Matt’s been telling me how you’ve longed to spend time with the children, that you were tired of the rat race.’

   Hope wished Matt hadn’t been quite so free with his confidences. Finula already seemed to know everything about her. She idly wondered if he’d mentioned her premenstrual tension or that time he’d had shingles and been off sex for a month, just to give a rounded psychological picture of them as a couple.

   ‘Wait till you’ve had the thrill of growing your own vegetables,’ Finula sighed.

   Now did not seem like the time to mention that Hope only liked her vegetables fresh from the supermarket counter and that the last thing she’d grown was a peace lily given to her when Toby was born. It was long since on a tip somewhere, withered because she’d forgotten to water it.

   ‘And hens, you’d love hens,’ Finula said. ‘Old Gearóid had a lovely hen house out the back and you’d be mad not to get hens. Think of it,’ Finula’s eyes went misty, ‘your own free range eggs. You have to watch the foxes, mind,’ she added, waving a finger to illustrate how dangerous foxes were. ‘Matt really needs a gun, you know. For the foxes, although I doubt if he’d get a licence for one.’

   ‘I can’t imagine Matt shooting anything,’ Hope ventured.

   ‘Well, he’s great at fishing so I assumed he could shoot as well.’

   Hope stared at her. ‘Fishing? I didn’t know he could fish.’

   ‘There’s no point hiding your light under a bushel here!’ Finula wagged a finger. ‘He’s wonderful fisherman. He didn’t let on at first, but we soon got it out of him. There are no secrets in Redlion. I’m sure you’re very into organic food as well. I wouldn’t dream of having anything else in the house. And as for convenience foods, tsk!’ Finula’s snort indicated what she thought of convenience food. ‘Shop bought meals and tins of food, they rot your insides, believe me.’

   It occurred to Hope that she’d have to visit the village shop under cover of darkness if she was to purchase things like fish fingers, Lean Cuisines and the tinned spaghetti the kids adored. Then again, maybe the village shop didn’t have things like fish fingers or tinned spaghetti. Maybe it only sold tofu, yak’s milk and bean sprouts. And not a single packet of crisps and Hula Hoops. Suddenly, she yearned for a delicious packet of Hula Hoops, full of non-organic preservatives and things Finula would disapprove of. Gorgeous.

   Finula was still talking. Did she ever shut up? ‘Cormac has done so well since he came here. We spend quality time together. You don’t get that when you work outside the home,’ she said beadily.

   Hope wanted to stand up for working outside the home. Millions of women have to work, they have no choice, she wanted to say. And many more want to work, they want a career. That doesn’t mean their children suffer. But she said nothing. Matt had obviously painted her as an earth mother who couldn’t wait to give up her job, so there was no point. She hardly knew this woman after all and they were her guests. So Hope smiled her polite smile and wished she was at home in her own kitchen in Bath, doing the ironing. Yes, that would be a suitable swap. A mound of ironing as big as a house would make up for being in this mad woman’s kitchen feeling her life spiralling out of control.

   At that moment, Matt arrived and to Hope’s utter surprise, started to make himself a cup of tea, seemingly completely at home in Finula’s kitchen. ‘Ciaran and I put the cases in the two back bedrooms,’ he said. ‘Finula’s been putting me up since I got here. Isn’t she wonderful?’ he said to Hope, patting her arm affectionately.

   ‘Yes,’ said Hope, tight-lipped.

   Tired from their journey, Toby and Millie miraculously went to bed without a fuss. Hope would have loved to have thrown herself onto the double bed in her and Matt’s room and joined them in the land of Nod, but she knew she had to have dinner with the others.

   Ciaran, who turned out to be a short, bald and spectacled man looking a million miles away from his description as an arty type who wrote historical novels, was making his special beef in Guinness, the family’s favourite recipe.

   ‘You’ll adore it,’ said Finula throatily to Hope. ‘Oh my dear, do meet my lovely little Cormac.’

   Cormac was a big, sullen lad who was anything but lovely. He wolfed down his meal almost before the rest of them had picked up their forks and immediately shoved his seat back from the table and left.

   ‘Homework,’ said Ciaran.

   Bad manners thought Hope.

   It was a strange evening. Over dinner, Hope watched her husband laugh, joke and tell stories about the advertising rat race and how he was glad to be out of it. There was no trace of the focussed, ambitious ad man who lived and breathed for his job and who read the advertising magazine, Campaign, as if it were the Bible.

   She also watched Finula gaze raptly at the handsome happy face like a dog drooling for a marrow bone. Matt seemed utterly unaware of Finula’s admiration.

   ‘I love this place,’ he said, squeezing Hope’s hand. ‘It makes me feel alive.’

   Hope squeezed back. It was wonderful to see Matt happy again and to feel that there was new life in the marriage. It was only for a year after all.

   The local people were, according to Ciaran and Finula, all very boring. Having overheard herself being described as boring more than once, Hope felt a glimmer of pity for the locals.

   ‘I have tried, believe me,’ Finula said querulously after her sixth glass of wine. ‘I’ve tried to get them involved in the community. We had that Thai evening in June and invited everyone to come. I even got a Tai Chi teacher to come in for a demonstration, I thought it would be lovely to start local classes. But no.’ She sniffed. ‘Only a few came and they were out the front door like a shot as soon as Su Lin started the demonstration. Although my tiger prawns went down well. They’re all only interested in business and the prices of property. Honestly, we came here to get away from all that. And the women are always on about this Macramé Club they have going. I ask you, macramé. That went out in the seventies.’

   ‘Not everyone’s into stuff like Tai Chi,’ volunteered Hope. ‘I mean, I’m not. I love aerobics though. I hope there’s a class round here, otherwise I’ll balloon. I could certainly do with a few sessions of tums and bums.’

   She looked up from her meringue with blackberry coulis to see Finula staring at her in shock.

   ‘Aerobics,’ said Finula as though she was speaking of tertiary syphilis, ‘is hardly the same as Tai Chi.’

   ‘I know, I know,’ said Hope, backtracking, ‘but that’s what I like. Everyone likes different things. You can’t make people interested in Tai Chi if they’re not…’

   She felt Matt’s hand gripping her thigh under the table. ‘Hope, love,’ he said, ‘that’s the point of the community. It’s not just about letting a group of artists work in a supportive atmosphere, it’s about fostering culture in Kerry. Teaching people that there’s more to life than existing in the humdrum working world.’

   He sounded so earnest when he spoke that Hope wondered if her real husband had been body snatched and replaced with this look-alike. And no wonder the locals weren’t keen on the artistic gang. It was a bit rich to turn up in an area and basically accuse everyone of being culturally illiterate.

   ‘I understand,’ she said gravely.

   In the end, Matt drank so much of Finula and Ciaran’s lovely wine that he got plastered and by the time they climbed into the comfortable big bed, Hope knew there was no point in raising the state of Curlew Cottage again, and adding that she’d be on the first plane back to Bristol if he didn’t take immediate action to make it habitable.

   The next morning Hope got up at seven with her energetic offspring and went downstairs to make them breakfast. Her reserved soul didn’t like the idea of pottering around in someone else’s kitchen. There was no sign of Finula or Ciaran. Sleeping off massive hangovers, she supposed. Being artistic seemed to mean sinking an awful lot of booze.

   Coco Pops were the current favourite breakfast with Millie. But true to her beliefs, Finula didn’t have a single packet of manufactured cereal anywhere. Not even cornflakes, which were practically a health food in Hope’s book. There was just a big jar of home-made muesli that looked for all the world like mouse droppings.

   ‘Want Coco Pops,’ whined Millie after a few minutes’ waiting. Toby sat quietly as usual, turning the pages of his Silly Pig Finds A Friend picture book.

   ‘I can’t find any,’ Hope said. She opened another cupboard and bingo: no Coco Pops but lots of lovely home made bread.

   They breakfasted on toast and jam, with milk for the children and coffee for Hope.

   Afterwards, she wrapped them all up in anoraks and Wellingtons and they set off to explore. If the previous day had been dismal and wet, this was the perfect example of a glorious winter day. Crisp and cool, with a bright wintry sun shining low in the sky, dusting the landscape with piercing light. It was beautiful. Today, the hills in the background looked picturesque instead of brooding and Hope could pick out a myriad of colours in the landscape instead of yesterday’s dull, rainy grey. She could see warm peat browns, soft umbers and rich plums. The stone walls that criss-crossed the land were a flinty grey and there were traces of green everywhere, from the gleam of dewy grass to the faded verdigris of moss clinging to the walls. It would be a wonderful place if you were a painter. She breathed deeply, letting the sharp country air permeate her lungs. In the distance, she could see two cottages and one two-storey farmhouse but for at least a mile on either side of Finula’s house there was nothing. Incredible, she thought. This really was the country.

   ‘Let’s go for an adventure,’ she said. ‘We might find some animals.’

   Toby looked unsure. ‘Mummy will pick you up if you’re scared,’ Hope told him gently, ‘but we’ve got to get used to cows and things. Maybe we’ll find some baby cows.’

   She had no idea if this was possible. Did cows have calves in winter? Or maybe they had them at Easter. Or was that lambs she was thinking of ? Who knew. The countryside was very mysterious.

   The ground crunched as they walked down the drive and out onto a lane bordered by a low stone wall. Holding both the children’s hands, Hope walked slowly, admiring the stark leafless trees, bent and gnarled as they clung low to the ground.

   The ground was mucky after the previous day’s rain and she stepped around puddles delicately, while Millie struggled to jump in them.

   A car drove past and the driver raised a hand in greeting. When the driver of the second car waved, she decided that the local people were simply friendly and waved to everyone. The next vehicle was a tractor with a grizzled old farmer sitting on it.

   ‘Let’s all wave,’ said Hope enthusiastically.

   ‘Helloooo!’ they all yelled.

   The farmer kept both hands on the steering wheel and looked at them as if they were mad.

   They found a herd of cows clustered around a trough of hay, all up to their hocks in mud. Millie was fascinated as to why they were all so dirty.

   ‘Mud, darling,’ Hope said.

   ‘Oooh look!’ Millie yelled as one beige coloured cow lifted her tail and let forth a stream of manure. ‘Cow pooh pooh, Mummy! Cow pooh pooh! Can we smell it?’

   Back at the house, Finula was up and already organizing.

   ‘PJ Rice will be down at the cottage at eleven and he’ll discuss what work you need done,’ she told Hope bossily.

   ‘Is he a contractor?’ Hope asked, extracting Millie from her Wellington boots and hoping that she didn’t have cow pooh on them.

   ‘He does a bit of everything,’ Finula said.

   ‘Surely we need a separate plumber and heating man…’ Hope began.

   ‘Nonsense. We’ll all muck in with the painting and as for heating, sure Gearóid had a great range that’ll heat the entire cottage. All it takes is to get it cleaned out and a bit of a knack to keep it running.’

   ‘We saw cow pooh pooh, Daddy,’ squealed Millie happily as her father appeared, clutching a glass fizzing with soluble painkillers.

   

   Hope had had her suspicions about PJ, but after three days of back-breaking work from all parties, the cottage was looking better. Homes and Gardens wouldn’t be desperate to photograph it for their latest issue, but at least Curlew Cottage was fit for human occupation.

   PJ had installed a new shower in the bathroom and the pipes in the kitchen no longer rattled ominously when you turned the taps on. The big cream range was going and indeed, it did heat the whole cottage, although it gobbled up fuel at an horrific rate.

   Matt had rented a sander and the floors upstairs were soon smooth and pale gold. The downstairs flooring was icy stone slabs and Hope vowed to buy nice rugs for them as soon as she got a chance. PJ’s two colleagues, a couple of hard working teenage lads, painted the entire inside of the cottage with white paint because Matt said it would be a good idea to lighten the place up as the windows were so small. However, as the two painters painted any dirt and dust into the walls at the same time, Hope soon learned that she had to scrub and clean each room before they started. The bathroom was the biggest nightmare because under the infamous claw footed bath was a thriving and wriggling community of bugs.

   ‘Clock beetles,’ PJ remarked laconically as several jet black insects scurried out from under the bath, frantically running in different directions. ‘They’re lucky, you know.’

   ‘Not in this house,’ Hope said with feeling.

   Worn out and with reddened hands from plunging them into buckets of soapy water, Hope insisted that Matt deal with the wild life in the bathroom.

   ‘I hate creepy crawlies,’ she shivered, handing him the soapy cloth and the bucket, ‘even lucky ones.’

   On Thursday, Matt bought three beds and a second-hand couch in Killarney, along with a fridge freezer and washing machine. All were to be delivered on Friday. The few bits of furniture they’d had shipped from Bath were due to arrive at the same time.

   ‘What about a cooker?’ asked Hope suddenly, realizing that there was one vital omission from Matt’s shopping list.

   ‘We can cook on the range,’ Matt shrugged. ‘Anyway, I’m too broke now to buy anything else. Paying PJ and paying for this lot cost a bomb.’

   Hope bit back the retort that it had been his idea to come here in the first place and if he hadn’t thought they could afford it, they shouldn’t have come. He wasn’t going to have to cook on the horrible old range, that would be her job.

   She stormed off to their bedroom. So much for the wonderful revitalization of their marriage.

   

   By Friday evening, five days after their arrival, the family were finally installed in their new home. Matt’s computer was set up in the tiny box room, ready for the consultancy work he was going to do part-time for Judd’s, and the kids’ rooms were as perfect as they could be under the circumstances, full of their toys and pictures, if a little barren.

   Their own bedroom was a bit of a mess with just an old rail for hanging clothes and two upturned boxes as bedside tables. Everything was still a long way from her vision of country life with the cosy cottage, Hope thought. Instead, she’d found herself in what looked like a barren holiday cottage where the owners had never really made themselves at home.

   ‘It’s a bit sparse,’ she said, looking around the sitting room with its meagre furniture and no pictures on the walls.

   ‘Yeah, I remember Gearóid having lots of oil paintings, stuff his friends had painted. I suppose he had to sell them in the end. Money was always tight with him. I thought he was brilliant but he never had much success with his poems.’

   ‘How many books did he have published?’

   ‘Three and they’re out of print now,’ Matt said sadly. ‘Poor Gearóid. He was talented. Still, let’s not get maudlin. We’ll be so happy here.’ He hugged her. ‘Thank you for this, Hope. I know it’s been strange for you this week, but it’ll be fantastic for us all from now on. We need this, I need this.’

   He kissed her tenderly, the way he’d kissed her on their wedding day: as if he didn’t believe it was all for real. For the first time in ages, Hope felt her insides contract. She hadn’t felt even vaguely sexy all week. It was the strain of sorting things out. But she felt a definite frisson now. It was wonderful the way he could do that to her. They loved each other, she knew, they’d survive anything.

   ‘Let’s go to bed early tonight,’ Matt murmured.

   As he pottered around in his study, Hope walked through the cottage thoughtfully. She had plans for it. She’d drape throws over things, the way Finula did to such effect. The modern silver frames with their wedding photos and pictures of the children looked somewhat wrong too. Perhaps she could learn how to make curtains. It couldn’t be too hard, it was a challenge. Hadn’t women always travelled to strange destinations to be with their menfolk. They had followed armies in centuries gone by, enduring enormous deprivations just to be with the ones they loved. They had in Jane Austen’s time, Hope reflected trying to feel suitably noble. If they could do it, she could.

   She fried some of Finula’s homemade sausages and free range eggs for dinner. It was the only thing she could think of to cook as she had no idea how to deal with the range. It could take twenty minutes to boil the kettle on it – Lord knew how many years it would take to cook a chicken casserole.

   After dinner, she sat in front of the range with a cup of cocoa and watched Matt fiddling around with the television trying to pick up a signal. There was no noise outside, no sound of other people or car doors slamming or horns blaring. Nothing. Just the silence of the countryside.

   Used to the madcap atmosphere of Ciaran and Finula’s where people arrived at all hours, unannounced and wandering into the kitchen to make themselves tea, it felt strange to be on their own again.

   Finula had been very kind but she was so overbearing, as if she wanted to lay claim to the newcomers as her own possessions. Matt couldn’t see it and felt that any criticism of his new friend was a sign of ingratitude after all she’d done for them. Well, they wouldn’t see that much of Finula from now on, would they?

   

   Matt cursed under his breath as the snowstorm effect on the television got worse instead of better. He’d been fiddling with the damn thing for half an hour and so far, all he’d managed to locate was an Irish language television channel, which was going to be bugger all use to them. Maybe they had sub-titles for the films: that was going to be the best they could do at this rate.

   ‘We could always watch with the sound turned down and make up our own dialogue,’ he joked, turning round to Hope. But she was deeply asleep, squashed into a corner of the uncomfortable old brown sofa with a cushion wedged against her head. Matt watched her for a moment, smiling at the way her fair hair was all fluffed up around her face, lots of little curls running wild because she probably hadn’t run a comb through it since that morning. She hadn’t bothered with make up either and her long, thick eyelashes rested palely against her flushed cheeks. She looked very vulnerable in sleep, her rounded face defenceless against the world, her gentle coral mouth moving as she dreamed. She certainly didn’t look like a thirty-seven-year-old mother-of-two. More like a naive, trusting twenty-something. Naive, that was certainly Hope, Matt thought with a twinge of guilt. Despite his fierce belief that this was a good move for them all, he couldn’t help feeling selfish for bringing her here. Dear Hope loved her routine, the comfort of the familiar. A creature of habit, she was nervous of the unknown and yet he’d transplanted her from her own world into a strange place where she knew nobody.

   He knew she’d follow him to the ends of the earth and that was why she was here: because she loved him utterly.

   And he was here for purely selfish reasons. Sure, he’d managed things so that he’d have a job to go back to in Bath, and their mortgage there was taken care of by letting the house out. So the family wouldn’t lose out financially. But the reason they were here was because of his dream, not theirs. He wanted the peace to write and he’d brought them all here because of that.

   Hope would forfeit every dream in her life just to make sure her beloved family were happy and content. And he’d forfeit all their contentment so that he could be happy. Matt thrust that thought out of his mind. Redlion was a beautiful place. He loved it here, he felt connected to it on some deep, emotional level. He’d had such wonderful holidays here as a child. Hope would learn to love it too. He’d work his backside off to make his book a success, then they’d have real financial security for the rest of their lives. He could do it: he was sure of it. Whenever he thought about the book, he felt a fresh burst of excitement.

   He’d started it in a rush of ideas, racing to get his thoughts on paper, eager to tell the story of a man on the verge of a breakdown who takes off around the world to escape his misery but ends up in a parallel universe where he’s living fifty years in the past. In his fantasies, Matt imagined literary magazines reviewing his novel with words like ‘lyrical’, ‘exquisitely written’ and ‘a breathtaking new talent.’

   It wasn’t going to be easy, he knew, but life wasn’t easy, was it? He’d write a wonderful book with the drive and determination he was well known for. He’d work deep into the night every night if necessary but there was no way he would fail. He dismissed the idea. After all, he smiled to himself, his drive and brilliance had worked magic for Judds, making them the hottest agency in the area. He could do that again, for himself this time. When had he ever failed at anything?

   

   ‘You’re the new people from old Gearóid’s place,’ said the elderly man behind the counter at the convenience shop when Hope went in to buy groceries for her newly painted cupboards.

   ‘Er yes,’ said Hope, a bit startled. It was the day after they’d moved into the cottage and this was her first time in the village. How did he know who she was?

   ‘Lovely house, say it’s a bit wild on the inside. He wasn’t the full shilling, old Gearóid. Them hens had the run of the place, inside and out.’

   ‘Really,’ Hope said politely as she dawdled in front of the eggs. She wanted to buy free range but they were more expensive and she’d better economize until she knew how their finances were going to pan out. The hire car had gone back and they were stuck with her Metro, which had been fixed at great expense.

   ‘Would you be thinking of getting hens yourself?’ the old man inquired sweetly.

   ‘Well, I don’t know…’ Hope hesitated, disarmed by his twinkling faded blue eyes in a warm old face. Finula had suggested she got some, she just hadn’t felt ready for livestock just yet.

   ‘They’re very easy to look after. Just throw in a bit of feed and sure, you’ve got your own eggs. You could even sell the eggs and make a few bob. The tourists are mad for eggs in the summer. And the winter,’ he added hastily. ‘I know just the man you should see.’

   

   The six baby chicks tweeted maniacally all the way back into Redlion. Muffled thumps from the big cardboard box in the back of the car made it sound as if they were clambering hysterically over each other, falling off and landing painfully on each other’s fragile yellow feet. Slowing down, Hope peered in the back. The chicks were clambering hysterically all over each other and were making desperate, upset baby noises at being separated from their mother. Oh God, what had she done, Hope wailed out loud. Matt would kill her. It had sounded like a brilliant idea for saving money when Emmet, the man from the shop, had explained it.

   All she’d need now was a feeding trough, some hen meal and maybe to put a light bulb over the box to keep them warm at night. The chemist was also the animal foodstuffs provider, Emmet’s brother, Paddy said happily as he waved her off, her cheque in his hands. It seemed a lot of money for six little birds but Paddy insisted they were pedigree.

   The kind-looking woman in the chemist, who introduced herself as Mary-Kate and who, like Emmet, seemed already to know who Hope was, was sceptical: ‘Pedigree, my backside. That old rogue Emmet Slattery sold you his brother’s runts. Nobody else would buy them at this time of the year. It’s too cold to have them outside for months unless you put central heating into the hen house. You’ll have them killed with pure temper long before you’ve got an egg to your name. What are they?’ she relented. ‘Speckled or Rhode Island Reds?’

   ‘I have absolutely no idea,’ Hope said. They both peered into the cardboard box in the car.

   Mary-Kate’s hard face softened at the antics of the tiny balls of yellow fluff.

   ‘I love chicks but they’re not always easy,’ she sighed.

   ‘I thought they were no trouble at all,’ Hope said anxiously. ‘Finula said they weren’t. So did Paddy.’

   ‘Finula Headley-Ryan has killed more pullets than the chicken factory,’ snorted Mary-Kate. ‘Don’t mind her. She thinks farming is so easy a child could do it but she hasn’t a clue. She’s a city girl born and bred and until she landed here, the only time she’d ever seen a hen was in an illustration over the frozen chickens in the supermarket. And as for that pair of old bandits, Paddy and Emmet, I wouldn’t listen to a word they said. Come on in. I’ll make you a cup of coffee and tell you what to do with your hens.’

   Smiling guiltily at the thought that the spectacularly efficient Finula wasn’t as brilliant at everything as she thought, Hope opened a window in the car for the chicks and followed Mary-Kate, not thinking that it was unusual to be asked in for coffee when you were shopping. This was Redlion: everything was different here. Talking to total strangers seemed bizarrely normal.

   Mary-Kate’s office at the back of the chemist was a cosy nook complete with a comfortably worn couch, portable television and a sophisticated looking Italian coffee machine. Three darling kittens played in the corner, taking turns to mangle a knitted mouse. While Mary-Kate began the complicated business of brewing coffee, Hope sat down and watched her hostess. She was tall, thin and on the wrong side of forty. Soberly dressed in a grey dress with her brown hair cut in a neat, shining bob, she was as far removed from the flamboyant Finula as it was possible to be. She also had an intense, clear gaze. ‘What you see is what you get,’ said Mary-Kate’s honest expression.

   ‘Are you settling in?’ she asked.

   ‘Well, it’s a bit difficult,’ Hope said, wanting to be loyal to Matt. ‘The house is a bit of a mess and I have to admit that it wasn’t my idea to come here,’ she amazed herself by revealing.

   ‘I’m not surprised the house is a mess. Your husband’s uncle was a complete nut,’ Mary-Kate remarked, handing Hope a cup of coffee. ‘He used to say he couldn’t get married because he was too eccentric for any woman to live with. The truth was he lived like a pig. I had to throw him out of the shop on many occasions because he’d put the other customers off with the smell of him.’

   Hope laughed. ‘So far, everyone I’ve met has claimed he was a misunderstood genius who deserves a statue erected for him.’

   ‘Genius doesn’t mean you can’t wash your clothes,’ said Mary-Kate, proffering biscuits. ‘If they erect a statue to old Gearóid, I hope it’ll have a scratch ’n’ sniff bit to get the whole effect.’

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