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Anna Mowbray dug her thumb deep down into the compost, enjoying, somewhat perversely, the feel of the soil sinking underneath her nail. There was something satisfying about doing work that got you dirty. Something wonderful about planting a seed, letting it grow.
She dropped the seed into the tiny well she’d made and then covered it with more compost, patted it down. It was the fifteenth she’d done that morning, all the little pots lined up on the potting bench, her breath coming out in frosty puffs as she worked.
The greenhouse at Embthwaite Farm hadn’t been used in ages, probably not since she’d left, thirteen years ago. She’d wandered into its cobwebby interior when she’d first returned a few weeks ago, completely at a loss at being back at the place that held so many painful memories, which she’d walked away from in something of a stupor, not that Anna could explain that to the people who mattered most—her two grown-up daughters.
A soft sigh escaped her, and she reached for another pot and began to fill it with compost. There was something both miraculous and natural about planting something, she reflected. It amazed her every time she saw the first tiny green seedling shooting up through the soil, truly a miracle, and yet the way the whole world worked.
It made her draw rather unfortunate parallels to motherhood, which was also both natural and miraculous, or at least was meant to be, if you believed the greeting cards, the parenting books, the Instagram feeds. It hadn’t been either for Anna, which was why she was out here, on a freezing January morning, instead of inside with her children, making memories. Good ones.
After being away for so many years, she’d been back at Embthwaite Farm for just two weeks. She’d come when her older daughter Rachel had texted her to say her father, Anna’s ex-husband Peter, was dying of a brain tumour. Both Rachel and her sister Harriet were tending to him, and Rachel had written, rather repressively, that she’d only texted because she thought Anna ought to know. Her oldest daughter hadn’t invited her back, not specifically; her attitude had been more one of simply relaying factual information. And yet Anna had come.
Two weeks later, she was continuing to wonder why. It had not been an easy landing, but then she hadn’t expected it to be. You couldn’t more or less abandon your children—even if they had been nearly eighteen and nineteen years of age—for so long and not expect some painful repercussions. Hostility, even hatred, or cool indifference, which in its own way hurt even more.
Anna felt as if she’d experienced the whole range of those unpleasant emotions since she’d been back—the indifference from Rachel, the hostility from Harriet. The situation had thawed a little bit over Christmas, or at least Anna had felt as if it had, when they’d celebrated the opening of the hotel owned by Harriet’s boyfriend Quinn. Harriet had made cookies for the Christmas party and had been buzzing with orders ever since. Rachel, who had relocated to the farm when Peter had first taken ill, was starting her own investment management company; her office was the dining room, and she was often with their neighbour Ben Mackey, with whom she’d recently started a relationship.
They both seemed busy and happy, and Anna was delighted that their lives had turned out so well. She just wished she could be a part of it all, instead of hiding out here in the greenhouse. She’d come back ostensibly to help care for Peter, but her daughters had insisted they could manage on their own. She’d barely seen her ex-husband since she’d arrived; admittedly, he’d been sleeping a lot, but when she’d dared to peek in his bedroom, he’d simply glanced at her, harrumphed, and then looked away.
Well, had she really expected any other kind of response? It was more than he’d given her for most of their marriage, although maybe that was unfair. It was so easy to let your mind snag on the painful memories rather than the good ones, the way your jumper might get caught by brambles. Tugging yourself free hurt, and usually ended up with something being wrecked.
Anna didn’t want that to happen this time, which was why she was still here, two weeks on, with her daughters stepping around her like she was a stranger, or maybe even a statue. A guest they didn’t want to stay, at any rate, and yet she hadn’t gone because if she left now, she feared they would never reconcile. She would lose her daughters forever, something she couldn’t bear to think about, even though they’d already been lost to her, more in the case of Harriet and a little less for Rachel, for thirteen years already.
Still, as long as she was here, there was hope…or so she kept telling herself. She continued with the planting for another half hour, filling pot after pot with compost, pushing the snapdragon seeds down into it. She wasn’t even sure why she was doing it; the state of the greenhouse and garden suggested no one had planted a thing since she’d left, and she most likely wouldn’t be here long enough to nurture these seedlings, plant them out and watch them grow.
There was another parallel there and one Anna didn’t want to make, yet her mind inexorably went there, stayed. You didn’t stay to see your daughters grow. You didn’t help them with their struggles. You are the most unnatural mother in the world.
She drew a breath that was only a little bit ragged and then pushed her neat, silvery hair behind her ears. Her fingers were freezing, and she was desperate for a coffee. She was simply going to have to brave going back to the house and bearding the two lionesses in their homely den.
Anna slipped out of the greenhouse, her boots crunching on the frost-tipped grass. On this January morning, the world looked magical, the mist drifting up in ghostly shreds that caught on the hills rising sharply behind the farmhouse, the sun filtering through the white cloud that would most likely melt away by midday. Everything that could be was rimed in frost—every leaf, every twig, every blade of grass, a world outlined in sparkling white, glinting under the sunlight.
She took a moment simply to stand there and breathe it all in, remember just what she’d loved about this place, before it had all gone wrong…although, realistically, it had all gone wrong before anything had even started. She just hadn’t realised it at the time. Still, she had loved this place, once upon a time. It had felt magical, especially after a childhood in the bleak and boring suburbs of Reading, living in a brick semi-detached with two parents who had worked all the time, not seeing the point of anything outside of academia. Coming to a place where you could breathe properly, and see the world around you, and set your own hours, and start to dream…it had felt wonderful, for a little while.
The light in the kitchen at the back of the house was on, and Anna could see someone moving around. Harriet or Rachel? Her girls looked so similar—dark hair and eyes, Rachel willowy, Harriet a bit curvier. Both of them resembled their father so much in his colouring—so unlike Anna’s fair, now silver, hair and pale blue eyes—that it amazed her that Harriet had been convinced she wasn’t Peter Mowbray’s biological daughter. It was understandable, of course, because he’d been convinced of that fact…even though it was as obvious as the snub nose on Harriet’s face, the same as her father’s, that it couldn’t possibly be true.
Even if you said it was?
Yet another regret, piled on top of so many others, an immovable heap in the middle of Anna’s heart, a heaviness she carried with her everywhere, so she sometimes felt as if she were dragging something behind her, or maybe on her back, haggard and limping from the effort.
At the back door, she eased off her welly boots and left them upside down on the boot rack before she opened the door and stepped into the warm, welcoming kitchen. The rumble of the Rayburn, the smell of fresh coffee and yesterday’s baking, the laundry drying on the rack hoisted above the stove…it all felt so homely, and for a second, Anna could remember when she’d felt happy here, or at least convinced herself, for a short while, that she was.
Then she saw Rachel standing by the kettle, about to pour herself a cup of coffee, the relaxed look on her face turning instantly guarded as she caught sight of her mother.
“Good morning,” Anna greeted her as lightly as she could. It took so much effort to keep sounding relaxed and friendly when she wasn’t getting a single thing back; after two weeks, she felt positively drained from it. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, I suppose.” Rachel lifted the French press, about to pour out some coffee, and then glanced at Anna. “Would you like some coffee?” It sounded as if it had cost her something, to ask such a simple question, and as if she’d really rather Anna said no, she didn’t.
“I’d love some, thank you,” Anna replied as warmly as she could without sounding desperate or deranged, both of which she sometimes felt. She wanted her daughters to forgive her, to accept her, to open up and talk honestly. So far, it hadn’t happened. “It’s really cold out there,” she remarked as she took off her coat. “Beautiful, but cold.”
Rachel took another cup from its hook and began to pour. “What were you doing outside so early? Going for a walk?”
Anna hesitated and then said, “No, I was in the greenhouse, planting up some snapdragons.”
Rachel raised her eyebrows, a look of surprise as well as blatant scepticism on her face. Clearly, she didn’t see the point in her mother doing such a thing, and Anna couldn’t really blame her.
“How long will those take to grow?” she asked, and Anna struggled not to wince at the implication—the same thought she had, that she wouldn’t be around to plant them out.
“About seven to fourteen days for the first seedlings to sprout,” she replied. “But they’ll stay in the greenhouse until the danger of frost has passed.”
Rachel shook her head slowly as she splashed milk into two cups. “I don’t think anyone has stepped foot in the greenhouse in years,” she said, and then glanced at her mother in something like challenge. “Not since you left.”
“No, I don’t suppose anyone has,” Anna replied. “It doesn’t look as if anyone has, at any rate.” Still with the light tone, although it pained her. Yet how else could she be? She’d already had an attempt at a heart-to-heart with Harriet a few days after she’d first arrived, when Harriet had been practically pulsing with pain from her father’s rejection. Anna had tried to explain what had happened all those years ago without actually giving much away, because she didn’t feel like the story was hers alone, or maybe she was just being cowardly.
In any case, while the conversation had reassured Harriet that she was Peter’s biological daughter, it hadn’t seemed to move her and Anna’s relationship forward. Harriet still avoided her, or threw her fulminating glances over the dinner table, and Anna was at a loss at how to proceed. She didn’t want to force herself on her daughters…and yet she was still here.
“No, we couldn’t really see the point of the greenhouse, I suppose,” Rachel stated rather flatly, and Anna felt herself stiffen. There was something accusatory about the way her daughter had made the remark, as if it was her fault that they hadn’t planted a garden or made use of the greenhouse, the way she had when she’d lived here.
“And I suppose you were busy at university,” she pointed out mildly, only to have Rachel glare at her.
“Yes, I’m well aware of that,” she replied shortly, and thrust a coffee cup towards her so Anna had to grab it, hot liquid sloshing onto her fingers.
Rachel turned and walked out of the room without a word while Anna stared after her blankly. What had she said that made Rachel so prickly? Rachel had been, over the years, the more reasonable one; they’d met up every so often—less and less, it was true, as the years had gone—for stilted conversations over lunch in some London restaurant. Anna had loved and hated those afternoons in equal measure; she wanted to see her daughter, but she hated the strained silence, the way Rachel treated her like an acquaintance, the palpable relief her daughter felt when she finally rose from the table. Well, I guess I’d better be going…
As for Harriet…she hadn’t spoken to Anna at all, for thirteen long years. Anna had called her, a few months after she’d first left, hoping to build bridges, only to have Harriet hang up on her. They hadn’t spoken since, although Anna had tried on various occasions, but admittedly not as hard as she could have. What were a few voicemails and texts when you were somebody’s mother?
And yet each ensuing rejection had felt like a kick to the teeth; how long could you keep putting yourself through that kind of masochistic torture? Eventually she’d stopped, for her own sanity.
Still, something had clearly nettled Rachel about her remark; Anna just didn’t know what it was, and she didn’t know her daughters well enough anymore to guess.
She sat down at the table, nursing her mug of coffee, trying not to feel entirely disconsolate. Perhaps she’d drive to the garden centre outside the nearby town of Mathering, or take dear old Fred, now sprawled in his usual place in front of the Rayburn, for a walk. The fresh air might clear her head, even if she already knew it wouldn’t help heal her heart.
“What do you think, Fred?” Anna asked, and the spaniel’s plumed tail beat against the slate floor as he looked up at her with his droopy eyes. Ben had bought him for Rachel about a year before Anna had left; he’d still been a puppyish ball of energy when she’d walked out the door. “Shall we go for a walk?” she asked. His tail beat harder, but he didn’t move so much as an inch from his place on the worn carpet by the warm stove. Anna smiled faintly. “I don’t blame you,” she told the dog. “It’s cold out there.”
She couldn’t help but acknowledge that the most significant interactions she’d had in the last week were with the dog. Suppressing a sigh, Anna sipped her coffee—just as she heard footsteps down the front stairs, and then Harriet came into the kitchen, checking herself at the door.
Her daughter was dressed in her usual eclectic mix of brightly coloured wool and corduroy—in this case, a green jumper splotched with bright yellow sunflowers and an aqua-blue corduroy skirt with matching tights. Her curly hair was pulled up on top of her head, and she wore a pair of fuzzy slippers on her feet. Anna’s heart ached to see the closed look come over Harriet’s face as she caught sight of her.
She’d really hoped, after their conversation just before Christmas, Harriet might have thawed a bit towards her. Anna had felt as if she had, during the Christmas party at Quinn’s hotel, when Harriet had thrown her a few cautious smiles across the room, each one feeling like an olive branch. Anna had hoped it would lead to more conversations, more healing, but it hadn’t.
Whatever festive bonhomie her daughter had been feeling then had hardened into the usual stoic silence in the new year. They hadn’t spoken properly, or even at all, in over a week, and the conversation where Anna had reassured Harriet she was Peter Mowbray’s biological daughter seemed a long time ago now. It was clear she still hadn’t been forgiven…for anything.
“Would you like some coffee?” Anna asked when Harriet didn’t seem as if she was going to move from the kitchen doorway. “Rachel just made some, and I think there’s a bit left in the pot.” Anna started to rise to check, but Harriet shook her head firmly as she came into the kitchen.
“I’ll have tea,” she stated as she switched on the kettle, and Anna sat back down in her chair. She watched warily as Harriet moved around the kitchen, making tea and then putting oats in a pot on the Rayburn, adding milk, her movements all a little brisker than normal. The crack of the teapot being placed firmly on the counter made Anna wince.
“Would you like some help?” she offered humbly. “I could stir the oats, if you like.” She sounded desperate, she knew she did, but she couldn’t help herself. She didn’t know how else to show her daughters that she cared. She’d always cared…even if they refused to believe that.
Harriet drew a breath as if to reply, and then she placed her hands flat on the counter, her head bowed as she slowly breathed out. Anna watched apprehensively, unsure what was coming next.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do this,” Harriet stated flatly, her head still bowed. She straightened and turned to face Anna, folding her arms. “I can’t play happy families with you right now, like we don’t have decades of history between us. I can’t, and I won’t.” She stared her down, her dark eyes simmering with what looked like fury, while Anna’s mind spun, trying to think how to reply.
I just wanted to make the porridge didn’t seem like a helpful answer right then.
“I don’t want to pretend, Harriet,” she finally said, her voice quiet and a bit croaky. “I want to…” She hesitated, unsure how to finish that sentence.
Harriet arched her eyebrows, looking as sceptical as Rachel had about the snapdragons. More. “You want to what?”
“Make things better,” Anna replied after a moment. “If I can.”
Harriet appraised her coolly for a long moment. “I’m not sure you can,” she finally said. “There might be too much water under the bridge.”
“Okay,” Anna answered after a pause. She wasn’t sure what else to say. She didn’t want to ask Harriet if she wanted her to go, because she didn’t want to go. Not yet. Not before she’d done…something. Something more, although she wasn’t sure what that was. What her daughter would let it be.
“Look,” she said at last. “I know you’re angry and you have every right to be. I’m not trying to push anything. But I’m here, and I can be helpful. At least let me help in some way…with your father.”
Harriet’s lips twisted. “Why do you care about him now?”
“I was married to him for twenty years, Harriet,” Anna replied quietly. “That did mean something, you know.” Even if it hadn’t to him.
“It didn’t seem to mean much to you, in the end,” Harriet tossed back, her tone caught between flippancy and jagged pain.
Anna resisted the urge to close her eyes, will it all away. Of course Harriet was lashing out. She understood that. She really did. She just wanted it to stop…eventually. “You’re very busy with your baking enterprise,” she said steadily. “And Rachel’s trying to get her own business going. I’m here, kicking around, wanting to do something. Will you let me?”
Harriet shrugged. “No one’s stopping you.”
Actually, they more or less had, always fobbing her off, telling her they could manage, taking Peter his meal trays and medication, checking on him throughout the day. That had come more from Rachel than Harriet, it was true, but there still had been a definite sense from both of them that she wasn’t needed.
“All right, then,” she said, trying for a smile, determined not to cause an argument. “I’ll take him his breakfast when he wakes.”
Harriet hesitated, and then shrugged again. “Fine. He likes a fried egg, runny in the middle, and toast with marmalade, no butter.”
Anna had to press her lips together to stop the instinctive reply. I made your father breakfast just about every morning for twenty years. I think I know what he likes. Somehow, her leaving this farmhouse all those years ago had negated, in her daughters’ eyes, all the time she’d spent in it. All the meals she’d made, the toilets she’d scrubbed, the Halloween costumes she’d sewn by hand, the birthday cakes she’d decorated, the medicine she’d doled out, the clothes she’d ironed, day after day after day. None of that counted for anything anymore.
“Great,” she replied lightly. “I’ll get started.”
“Fine,” Harriet said and, taking her tea, she left the kitchen, leaving the pot of oats on the Rayburn, untouched.
End of Excerpt