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“This place stinks.”
Laura Neale kept the smile on her face with cheery determination as she turned to face her fourteen-year-old daughter. Maggie had yanked the earbuds from her ears as an expression of her discontent and now stood scowling in the centre of their new home, her smartphone clenched in one hand.
Carefully Laura closed the door on number three, Willoughby Close. The moving van had just left, the place was full of boxes, and their almost ten-year-old golden retriever, Perry, was making small whimpers of agitation. He didn’t like change. Neither, apparently, did her daughter. Yet here they were, and Laura was determined to make it work. Make it good.
“What about it stinks?” she asked lightly as she gave Perry a comforting stroke. The grief counsellor had told her to reflect emotions back to her children, and make sure they understood she was actively listening to them. The concept, which sounded so helpful in theory, tended to fill Maggie with rage, but Laura persevered because she didn’t know what else to do. Surely it would start working at some point.
“Everything,” Maggie stormed, case in point. “What doesn’t stink about it?” She flung her arms out to encompass the open-plan living area, which Laura thought was rather nice, if a bit small: a galley kitchen of granite and chrome in the corner, French windows overlooking a little terrace and garden—now covered in a glittering January frost—and a living area with a woodburning stove that promised to be cosy when lit, their two sofas framing it.
“Maggie, I know it’s different,” Laura said, pitching her tone somewhere between bracing and sympathetic. “And it’s smaller than our house back in Woodbridge, certainty.” She gave a commiserating smile, which made Maggie fume all the more. “We’ll get used to it,” she said as something of a last resort, and Maggie threw her arms up in the air before stomping off, except there was nowhere really to stomp off to. She stood by the cooker, her back pointedly to her mother.
Laura didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh at this pointless show of defiance. She decided to do neither as she turned to her other child, eleven-year-old Sam, with as much optimism as she could muster. “What do you think, Sam?” she asked, injecting a slightly manic note of cheer into her voice that she found herself often adopting, to make up for Maggie’s mood.
Sam didn’t even glance up from the screen of his iPad, where he was constructing some kind of trap for cows on Minecraft. “Um…it’s okay.” He’d walked into the house without looking at anything, and had been sat on the sofa, amidst a mountain of boxes, ever since.
“High praise, indeed.” Laura bent down to fondle Perry’s ears. “It’s all right, Per,” she murmured. “This is your new home.”
“Even the dog doesn’t like this place,” Maggie proclaimed in a tone of ringing contempt. This time Laura couldn’t hold the sigh in.
“He’ll get used to it, Maggie.”
“Well, I won’t,” her daughter declared, and then, for want of anywhere else to go, flounced upstairs.
Laura decided to enjoy the moment’s peace rather than worry too much about her daughter’s theatrics. There was, she knew, no point in reminding Maggie that they’d all agreed to this move two months ago, when Granny and Grandad had suggested they move closer to their house in Burford, and life in Woodbridge had started to feel so bleak, none of them able to clamber out from under the cloud of grief they’d been living with for just over a year.
“We miss Tim so much,” Pamela had told Laura, the threat of tears thickening her voice. “Having his children close by would be such a comfort.” No mention of what a comfort it would be to have their daughter-in-law close by as well, but Laura chose not to mind. Her in-laws were grieving. Tim had been their only child. And in any case, her relationship with them had always been slightly prickly.
When Laura had suggested the move to Maggie and Sam, they’d looked surprised, and then thoughtful. A new start might have been what they all needed, and her children were aware enough to know it.
“We could see Granny and Grandad more?” Sam had asked eagerly, because her in-laws tended to spoil them with presents, sweets and unlimited screen time. The other grandparent option was slightly less appealing—Laura’s father lived in a semi-squalid caravan in Cornwall and was an indifferent host at best, and her mother had died before they’d been born, when Laura was only in her twenties. She still missed her, missed having her wisdom as well as her humour. Her dad, unfortunately, offered little of either.
“Yes, loads more,” she’d told Sam firmly.
“And we’d start new schools?”
“Of course we’d start new schools, doofus,” Maggie had interjected scornfully. “We’d be moving hundreds of miles away.”
“That’s the tricky part,” Laura had explained with a sympathetic look for both of them. “Leaving everything and everyone we know here, to start over. How would you feel about that?”
Sam had just shrugged, surprisingly nonplussed; he was leaving primary at the end of the year, and would have been starting a new school anyway. And, Laura knew, he didn’t have too many friends, preferring his own company and the world he constructed on a screen than the potential bullies who teased him because he was a little different, a little shy. Leaving Woodbridge would, she’d acknowledged sadly, be no hardship for her quirky son.
“What about you, Maggie?” Laura had asked. She knew her daughter had several close friends at school, but she also knew since Tim’s death Maggie had contemptuously declared them all fakes. No one, it seemed, had been there when she’d truly needed them. Laura could hardly blame a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls for not knowing how to deal with death, but it still hurt her daughter. A lot.
Although, she suspected, whatever her friends’ reactions, Maggie would have been angry anyway. Her daughter had been in a near-constant state of fury since the police had rung her mobile just a week before Christmas and informed them that her there had been an accident. Words to freeze the blood in her veins, for her heart to still, and yet it hadn’t. It had kept beating on, relentlessly, long after Tim’s had been stopped by a skid into a tree on the side of the road.
When Laura had asked her daughter her opinion about moving, Maggie had, at least, not been angry. She’d merely shrugged, chewing her thumbnail. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“You can think about it, of course. It’s not a decision any of us should take lightly.”
Maggie had nodded, and then, to Laura’s surprise, there had been a soft knock on her bedroom door two nights later. She’d startled awake, as she often did since Tim’s death, her heart thudding in her chest, her body twanging into tense alert, sure something was wrong; it was just a question of what…
“Maggie? Is everything okay?” She glanced at the clock on the bedside table; it read two o’clock in the morning. Her heart rate ratcheted higher, panic her default setting since her husband’s death.
“I want to move.”
“Oh.” Laura had eased back against the pillows, filled with relief that nothing was wrong, or at least more wrong than it already was. “Okay, sweetheart. I’m glad you’ve made a decision. We can talk about it more in the morning.”
And when they had done so, Maggie hadn’t changed her mind. But apparently she had now.
Laura moved to the kitchen where boxes were piled on the worktop. She’d had the foresight to pack one with the essentials—kettle, teabags, and a carton of UHT milk. Unfortunately she’d forgotten to mark what box it was on the outside.
It had been typical of her, in the last year, to make such a hash of things. Her brain still felt as if it were fuzzy, as if everything was happening in slow motion, but she was the one who needed to catch up.
Her best friend Chantal, who lived in London, had told her that was normal. “Grief messes with you,” she’d told Laura seriously. “You have to give yourself a lot of time.”
Except how did one do that exactly, especially with two grieving children to shepherd and support? Time wasn’t a commodity you could buy in the shop; neither was it elastic, something you could stretch and expand to suit your needs. It simply was, and in her low moments Laura wondered if she’d ever have enough time to feel normal again. Time one day not to feel so sad…or so guilty.
Forcing these uncomfortable thoughts into a dark corner of her mind that felt as if it was getting bigger and bigger by the hour, Laura reached for the first box and tore the tape off the top with a satisfyingly loud rip. Sam looked up from his iPad, and then back down again, thumbs moving in concert over the screen.
“Ten more minutes on that thing,” she told him, “and then you can help me unpack.”
Sam merely grunted, and Laura wondered if she’d have the energy to enforce the ultimatum she’d just given. Goodness but it could be hard to parent solo. There was never anyone else to take up the slack, to step in when you needed a breather, to play the bad cop when you needed a moment or two to shine as the good one. Thirteen months on and it still felt so very hard.
The first box she’d opened was all the nice table linens she hardly ever used. Naturally. Laura opened another, to find her standing mixer and all her wooden spoons and spatulas. Why hadn’t she marked her box of essentials? For heaven’s sake.
Four boxes later she’d finally found it and was gratefully plugging in the kettle. Maggie was still upstairs, no doubt telling all her so-called fake friends back in Woodbridge how much she hated it here. Never mind that she’d said they were fake, they were the only ones she had right now, and Laura understood her need to cling to what was familiar.
Far from the first time, she wondered if moving across the country was actually a good idea when your life was already in such upheaval. When you were still grieving, or at least trying to, except over a year on and you still weren’t sure how it was supposed to feel, what life was meant to look like.
The kettle boiled and she tossed teabags into two mugs and then poured boiling water over them before Perry, true to form, came over and snuffled against her thigh, hoping for something to eat, even if it was just biscuit crumbs.
Speaking of biscuits…Laura ripped open a packet of rich tea ones. “Sam,” she said gently. “It’s been fifteen minutes. Time to get off that screen.”
With a groan that seemed to come from the depths of his lanky form, Sam tossed the iPad aside and went over to grab for a biscuit—or three. “Okay, what?” he asked, spewing out some crumbs.
“Shall we sort your room out?” Laura suggested. The kitchen was more important, but she wanted her son to be involved. Excited. And she thought she should go upstairs and check on Maggie, even if her daughter wouldn’t appreciate what she’d see as interference. She’d bring her a cup of tea as a peace offering.
“Okay.” Sam gave her an uncertain smile that made Laura’s heart ache with both love and worry. Since their dad’s death Maggie had been full of fiery theatrics, while Sam had gone very quiet. It was tempting to focus more on putting out the fire rather than making sure her youngest was okay, but she did her best to take moments with him when she could—to enjoy simple pleasures as well as to simply be, letting the sorrow spin out.
Now she ruffled his hair and he leaned in for a quick hug; that was something else that was new since Tim’s death. Her son had become cuddly. While she savoured the connection, it also worried her. Sam would never say he was afraid, or sad, or just plain unhappy. But what if he was? What was he struggling with, that he never told her about?
“Come on,” Laura said, and together they headed up the narrow, open flight of stairs that led to the cottage’s first floor. Admittedly, it was significantly smaller than their house in Woodbridge, which had had four bedrooms and two receptions, plus an eat-in kitchen. It hadn’t been a mansion, but it had been nice enough, and number three Willoughby Close was, at least in terms of square footage, a definite downgrade.
But the view was gorgeous, and the cottages were wonderfully quaint, with their wooden beams and statement stone wall. Not that her children would necessarily appreciate that kind of quaintness.
Maggie was camped out in the back bedroom, which was smaller than her room at home, but still, Laura told herself, perfectly adequate. She had enough of a guilt complex going on not to add to it with the fact her daughter had a slightly smaller bedroom than she was used to. First-world problems and all that.
“Hey, Maggie,” Laura said in the same bright voice she’d used with Sam. “I brought you a cup of tea.”
Her daughter did not reply. She was sitting hunched under the window, a curtain of dark hair obscuring her face, her fingers flying over the screen of her phone.
“So this is your room,” Laura said unnecessarily as she put the cup of tea next to her. The cottage had, unfortunately, only two bedrooms, but the caretaker Jace had offered to put up a temporary wall in the master to turn it into two. Maggie had the back one, with the window, while Laura had, in typical maternally sacrificial fashion, taken the smaller, windowless one. Sam had the front bedroom. It would do; it would have to, because it was the only property they could afford in the whole area.
“Shall we start unpacking?” Laura suggested. Boxes were stacked along one wall and the furniture from Maggie’s old bedroom—bed, bureau, chair, and desk—were all in a jumble against each other, leaving very little room to manoeuvre.
“Can my stuff even fit in here?” Maggie demanded, her gaze still on her phone.
“Considering it’s already in here, I should think so.” This time Laura couldn’t keep a very slight edge from her voice. She was tired, she had a headache, and the last thing she wanted to do was unpack everything. She’d much rather take a bubble bath and sleep for about twelve hours. She’d been in a state of perpetual exhaustion for a year.
Maggie just jerked one shoulder in the semblance of a shrug, and Laura decided to help Sam instead. Maybe if she left Maggie to it, she’d start to unpack a little on her own. Maybe she’d even get into a better mood.
When Laura came into the other bedroom, Sam was standing by the window that overlooked the little postage stamp of garden.
“Dad would have hated this garden,” he said matter-of-factly.
His words gave her heart a little twist. “Perhaps,” she agreed, “but he would have been able to do something magical with it.” Their garden back in Woodbridge hadn’t actually been that much bigger than this one, maybe twice the small size, but Tim had managed to fit a tree house, a zip wire, and several raised vegetable beds in it, although when he’d died the veg beds had been full of weeds, the zip wire broken. But that was Tim to a tee—infectious excitement veering to weary indifference and back again.
Another thought to banish to that dark corner of her mind.
Laura joined her son at the window and put her arm around his narrow shoulders. He leaned into her as they both looked out at the view—the tiny garden covered in frost, the wood and the wolds beyond, the glint of the Lea River no more than a promise on the horizon. It was a perfect wintry scene.
“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” Laura said quietly. “I’m looking forward to exploring.”
Sam didn’t reply, and she didn’t force a response from him. She felt sorrow emanating from him in a rolling wave, and she understood it. Everything about this house—this life—was different than what they were used to. It wasn’t what any of them had wanted it to be, and yet here they were.
“Shall we get started?” she asked gently, and he nodded.
They worked in quiet companionship for about half an hour; Laura located sheets for Sam’s bed and made it up while he organised all his books—mainly Horrible Histories and Minecraft annuals—in the wooden bookshelf Tim had built for him a couple of years ago. There were reminders of her husband everywhere, which was, Laura had come to realise, both a good and bad thing. She didn’t want to forget, of course she didn’t, and yet it could hurt so much to remember.
“This is a good start, isn’t it?” she told Sam, dusting her hands on her jeans, just as the doorbell rang.
“Who’s that?” Sam asked and Laura shook her head. The only person she’d met in Wychwood-on-Lea was the caretaker Jace, and then only briefly.
Feeling cautious for some reason, she headed downstairs, Perry lumbering up to follow her to the door with an expectant sniff.
“You must be the new tenant!” The woman at the door let out an embarrassed laugh. “I mean, obviously you are. I saw you guys move in. But don’t worry, I’m not a stalker.” Another laugh. “Goodness, I sound mad, don’t I? My name’s Lindy.”
She stuck out a hand, which Laura shook with an uncertain smile. “Laura Neale.”
Lindy nodded enthusiastically; she seemed that sort of person, practically pulsing with energy. About six feet tall with long, tumbling golden-brown hair, she definitely seemed larger than life. Next to her Laura felt more diminished than usual. She suspected she should invite her in, perhaps for a cup of tea, but with Maggie still pouting upstairs and boxes all around, the thought exhausted her. She had not been very good at all about socialising since Tim’s death.
“Sorry,” she said while Lindy kept looking at her expectantly. “I’d invite you in, but we’re in the middle of unpacking.”
“Oh no, don’t worry about that,” Lindy said quickly, although Laura sensed her flicker of disappointment and felt worse for it. “I just wanted to say hi. And bring you these.” She thrust a plastic container towards her. “Chocolate chip cookies. You’re not allergic?”
“No, no, we’re not. Thank you.” Quite suddenly, Laura felt as if she could cry. She hadn’t expected such kindness from a stranger, and it touched her almost unbearably. “Thank you,” she said again, and then revealingly, sniffed.
“It’s no problem. Moving can be so hard, can’t it?” Lindy gave her a look of sympathy, and Laura wondered if she somehow knew about Tim. She hadn’t told anyone in Wychwood that she was widowed—not the head teacher of the primary school where Sam would be attending, or the one of the comp in Burford where Maggie would. She knew she would have to eventually, but she didn’t want either of them to be marked by tragedy from day one. They didn’t want it, either.
As for anyone else…the only other person she’d met in Wychwood-on-Lea was Jace Tucker, and she certainly hadn’t told him.
She knew she would have to tell people here eventually—of course she would—but sometimes it was nice not to have to live every moment under that heavy knowledge and its ensuing expectation.
“Yes, I suppose it is a challenge,” she replied, managing a smile as she hugged the container of cookies to her chest. “Thank you for these. They look lovely. Proper American-style cookies.”
“That’s how I like them.” Lindy gave her an uncertain smile, as if wanting to say more, or perhaps still wanting Laura to invite her in, but she couldn’t, not when the cottage was a jumble of boxes and Maggie was still in a mood, and…she just couldn’t.
“Thanks,” she said yet again. “We’ll have to have you round soon, when we’re all sorted.” Lindy nodded, and then, with a semi-apologetic smile, Laura closed the door.
“Who was that?” Sam asked as he clattered down the stairs. “And what are you holding?”
“That was our neighbour,” Laura told him as she turned around. “And cookies. Do you want one?” She pried off the lid of the container, and with greedy gladness Sam stuck his hand in. Laura blinked back the last of her tears.
Moving was hard, especially when you still felt raw and wounded with grief, and you weren’t sure you’d done the right thing in the first place. Did she even want to be closer to Tim’s parents? Sometimes she wasn’t sure.
And what about leaving Woodbridge and all their friends, not that they’d had that many. They’d only lived there for three years, not quite long enough to feel truly settled, but long enough for friends from the last place they’d lived—outside London—to more or less forget you.
Not that everyone had actually forgotten them, of course, Laura reminded herself, not wanting to marinate in self-pity, as tempting as it sometimes seemed. Just the casual friends and school gate acquaintances, the people you rubbed along with well enough without realising quite how much you depended on them on a day-to-day basis. But they still had friends. Of course they did. Just not all that many. But enough. Chantal, for one, who had been, and continued to be, an absolute lifesaver.
Stop with the self-pity.
Laura took a deep breath and then reached for a cookie. She took a big bite; it was chewy and delicious and the gooey chocolate soothed her soul enough to smile at Sam and mean it. “So,” she asked, “shall we have a takeaway for supper tonight?”
“Yes, please!” Sam crowed enthusiastically, and Laura finished her cookie, dusting the crumbs from her fingers.
“Let me see what restaurants I can find on my phone.” Never mind that Maggie was still sulking upstairs, or everything was still unpacked, or Perry was whining by her feet, agitated again by this strange turn of events. It was going to be okay, she told herself. Eventually. She’d make sure of it.
End of Excerpt