Start reading this book:
Share This Excerpt
Maggie Halloran wasn’t entirely sure when it happened that she got more satisfaction from completing a sudoku than from having an orgasm, but the realisation came with more of a whimper than a bang, and surprisingly with barely a hint of regret. Maybe because getting to orgasm lately was such a palaver.
All that effort. The straining. The mental imagery. The working up and hanging on and trying to get the timing just so, only for one mis-stroke to trip her up and send her into a faltering finale rather than fling her headlong into the abyss.
It was even harder if Nigel was there.
No, she just couldn’t be bothered these days.
Far more satisfying to settle back into the pillows with a cup of coffee and a puzzle and use her brain. She loved sudoku. The sense of order appealed to her. A nine-by-nine grid divided into nine blocks; where the numbers from one to nine could only appear once in every row, column, and block; and where just a few of the numbers were given. There was always an answer, always a solution, and the sense of satisfaction for solving a tricky one came with a blissful sigh.
Oh, yes, way better than sex.
Her eyes zeroed in on a square where a three belonged, which clued her in to where it fit in the next block of nine, and then the next, until she’d solved the puzzle for all the threes. She blew out a long, satisfied breath. Two coffees down and a puzzle half-solved, this was shaping up to be the perfect morning. It might be eight thirty A.M., but there was no rush, it wasn’t like she had to be anywhere. Not these days.
From the skies outside came the raucous caw and shrieks of gulls, sounds that signalled the usual rooftop turf wars as spring lured back to the Cornish coast the birds that had wintered inland. Come summer and the influx of unsuspecting tourists it brought, there wouldn’t be an ice cream or pasty safe around the beaches of St Ives, the seagull capital of the world.
Not that the gulls bothered Maggie. She loved everything there was about her new home. Her divorce nine years ago had seen her swap the stockbroker belt of rural Hertfordshire (with its easy commute to London for her stockbroker ex) for the picturesque South-West. She’d joked at the time that she’d got a divorce for her fiftieth birthday, but in hindsight, the move that followed had been a stroke of genius. She’d landed a job in property management in an estate agency in Plymouth and settled nearby, content to be living within ninety minutes of her parents in Penzance, instead of the six hours it had previously taken. Until Maggie’s father had died and her mother had needed moving, and ninety minutes was still too far away. That’s when Maggie had happened upon the stale listing for the old fisherman’s cottage in a row of terrace houses in St Ives. Two times the sale had fallen through, the chain irreparably broken up the line, and Maggie, like one of St Ives’s infamous seagulls, had swooped.
The cottage was a mess, a deceased estate sporting an unsympathetic nineteen sixties renovation that had stripped it of any character it once owned. The cottage desperately needed work and a lot of it, but it had two bedrooms and one and a half baths and was a mere twenty-minute drive from Penzance. Close enough if Maggie was needed, and yet not so close that her mother could pop in for a cup of sugar. It was perfect.
Maggie had settled and moved nine months ago, engaged a builder she knew of through her property connections, and over the last few months had seen her new home transformed into a modern, yet character-filled, three-level home. The fourth level, a junk-filled loft space, she hadn’t bothered with, despite its dormer window looking across rooftops towards the sea. Having storage space in the loft, she’d figured, was a bonus.
So yes, her sea-change had been a stroke of genius. The icing on the cake had been taking early retirement from her property manager job a month ago.
People complained about growing older, but there was an upside, too. Like the independence it brought. Like your daughter being all grown up and off your hands and living in London, while your mother was now safely ensconced in the Cliff Haven Retirement Village.
There was freedom in her new life. She loved that she could wear pyjamas all morning if she wanted, that’s if she even bothered getting out of bed. Loved that she could spend all afternoon wandering along the bays or cliff walks that surrounded this town, or visiting one of the many galleries. Loved that the days were hers to enjoy.
Sure, it had taken the best part of sixty years to get here, but life was just the way she wanted it for now.
Quiet. Undemanding. Perfect.
‘Aha,’ she said, as she found a square in her sudoku only a seven could occupy, and that sent her off on a trail to track down more. She so had this puzzle!
The ominous first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth rang out from her bedside table. Maggie regarded her phone suspiciously, before picking it up and swiping at the screen. ‘What’s wrong, Mum?’
‘Why should anything be wrong?’ her mother croaked, her husky voice, legacy of her once twenty cigarettes a day habit, now overlaid with a hefty dose of grievance.
‘Because I thought…’ Maggie sank back in the pillows. ‘Because you’re never usually up this early. You tell me never to call you before ten.’
‘You’re not calling me, I’m calling you. And I bet you’ll never guess why.’ She paused for a beat, before, ‘Go on, then, guess.’
Maggie rolled her eyes, wishing that just for once her mother could tell her news like any normal person. ‘You won at bingo last night?’
‘How could I?’ her mother berated. ‘Last night was Wednesday. Bingo was Tuesday.’
Of course, it was, what was wrong with Maggie that she didn’t remember an important detail like that? She scrolled back through her memories for any clue of what it could be—a recent medical test she’d had—she was always having those, and then forgetting that she’d already told Maggie that she’d got the results. ‘Oh, so you got your bone density results back?’
‘Pooh, I got them back Friday. I already told you. You’ll have to try harder than that.’
Maggie sighed. ‘Why don’t you just tell me, then?’ And put us both out of our misery.
‘Where’s the fun in that? Try to think of something really exciting,’ Daphne said, offering encouragement, her husky voice lighter, her mother clearly delighting in the game. ‘Something you’d never guess in a million years.’
That ought to narrow it down. ‘I don’t know. You’ve taken up skydiving? No, forget that. Way too dull. You’re buying a ticket to Mars?’
Her mother snorted, and not in a good way. ‘Now you’re just being ridiculous.’
‘So, give me a break,’ Maggie said, looking longingly at her sudoku, itching to get back to her puzzle. ‘Tell me what it is that’s so exciting.’ And let me get back to my perfect morning.
Maggie heard a huff of annoyance. ‘Oh, all right. If you really can’t work it out, I suppose I’ll just have to tell you. I’m getting married!’
Maggie sat bolt upright, her puzzle and pen flung from her lap.
And her mother thought Maggie was the one being ridiculous? ‘What? What did you say?’
‘Didn’t I tell you it was exciting? We’ve lodged the paperwork and of course we have to wait four weeks, but that’s not long with all we have to get organised between now and then—and I want you both to give me away, you and Alice, I thought that would be a nice touch having both my daughter and granddaughter walk me down the aisle. You’ll let her know, won’t you? Save me a call when I’ve got so much on my plate to deal with.’
‘Back up a minute, Mum—’
‘And I need you to take me shopping for a dress. I was thinking cocktail length—and not white.’ She made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a giggle. ‘I don’t think white would be appropriate at my age, do you? Although cream might be nice. You and Alice should have no trouble coordinating outfits with that. Maybe a nice pastel?’
Maggie grimaced. She hadn’t worn a nice pastel since she was a teenager with a love of powder blue with frosted eye shadow to match, and there was no way she was going back there. ‘Mum,’ Maggie said, trying to let her mother down gently. ‘Just hold on for a moment. Take a breath in an out.’ Maggie waited a moment. ‘Have you done that?’
‘All right, all right, I’ve done that, although I don’t see why I needed to.’
‘It’s just that, Mum, are you sure this isn’t some kind of dream you were having?’
‘Excuse me, Margaret Eileen Richards? You think nobody would want to marry your mother? Well, that’s just charming, coming from my own daughter!’
Oh god, now her mother was resorting to Maggie’s full birth name. Daphne really was upset. ‘No, it’s not that.’ Maggie threw back her duvet and swung her legs onto the floor. This was not a conversation she could have sitting in bed. You couldn’t pace in bed, for a start. ‘It’s just, it’s a bit of a surprise. Who are you marrying?’
‘Robert, of course.’
‘Robert who?’ Her eighty-four-year old widowed mother had never hinted at having a love interest, and now she was talking marriage?
‘Robert McCurdie. He’s president of the Cliff Haven Residents’ Social Club. Surely you’ve heard me talking about Robert?’
Maggie rifled quickly through her memories. Okay, so her mother might have mentioned a Robert once or twice—something about helping him organise the Easter raffle? ‘Maybe in passing. But you never said you were romantically involved.’
‘Then you probably weren’t listening. You never listen, I’ve always said that, and it must be true, otherwise you would have remembered I’ve already had my bone density results. So, I need you to take me shopping. It’s not like Robert can come with me—it wouldn’t do to have the groom get a peek of the wedding dress before the big day.’
‘And I need to get some invitations. Just something simple will do. We could try WHSmith for those. They have lovely ones. You’re not doing anything today, I assume. Now that you’re retired, you’re no doubt bored and looking for things to do. You could pick me up at eleven. I could be ready by then.’
‘Mum,’ she repeated, panic setting in as she realised her mother was serious, ‘I don’t understand. What about Dad?’
‘Well, I don’t know what your father’s got to do with it. He’s the one who left me all alone.’
‘Oh, be fair,’ Maggie said, with the lump in her throat that formed every time she was reminded of the way her father had slipped away at the end, three days of sitting at his bedside before that one final hard-fought breath and then—gone. ‘He didn’t leave you on purpose, Mum. He died.’
‘Well, yes, but he knew how much I was looking forward to that sixtieth anniversary greeting card from the queen. He could have hung on just a few more weeks. That wouldn’t have been too much to ask, surely?’
‘Dad didn’t do it to spite you.’ Maggie didn’t know why her mother needed to be told but someone had to stick up for her father. ‘It wasn’t like he had a choice.’
‘Maybe not, but you have to admit, his timing could have been better. It’s not like I’m going to get another shot at it, is it? It’s all Vesna in number eight can talk about at cards. Her card from the queen that she’s got framed on the wall where you can’t miss it. She even got a write up and picture in the local paper, though given how ill poor old Boris was looking back then, I wouldn’t have been in such a rush to hang that up on my wall. Sixty years! Robert and I will be lucky if we manage ten, and you get tickety-boo for that. I’ll have to wait until I turn one hundred now to have any hope of getting a card and now it will be from the king, and the way Vesna’s sugar levels are heading, it’s not like she’ll even be around to appreciate it.’
Maggie sat down on the bed and squeezed her eyes shut. This conversation couldn’t really be happening. It must be Maggie who was dreaming. Any second now she’d wake up and find she’d fallen asleep halfway through her puzzle. She’d have a good old chuckle then.
‘Maggie!’ Her mother’s grating voice hurtled down the line and smacked into her ear. ‘Are you there? You will take me shopping today? Only it’s the Cliff Haven morning tea tomorrow, and I want to hand out those invitations then, because Saturday Robert is taking me off to the Isle of Wight for the weekend to celebrate our engagement, so I won’t have another opportunity to go shopping before next week, and I don’t want to wait that long.’
Maggie opened her eyes and sniffed. So, not a bad dream then. ‘I’m here,’ she said.
‘You’ll pick me up at eleven, then?’
It was barely a twenty-minute drive over to Penzance, so getting to Cliff Haven by eleven presented no problems. No problem other than Maggie’s perfect day was rapidly shimmering into nothingness. No problem at all.
‘All right, I’ll be there. Just…are you absolutely sure about this Robert fellow?’
‘Of course, I am. He loves me and I love him. We wouldn’t be getting married if we didn’t love each other, would we?’
Love? Maggie’s right eye twitched. Never in Maggie’s near six decades had she heard her mother utter the L word—it was one of the words tucked away in a lead-lined chest filled with words that her mother either considered rude, anatomically too correct for polite conversation, or that sounded remotely soul-baring. Her mother had long since thrown away the key to that chest, and yet here she was using love three times in one sentence.
Either aliens had stolen her real mother, or dementia must be kicking in. Only one thing was for certain—those aliens would be sorry.
She heard a sound in the background. Something that sounded suspiciously like a voice. A male voice. And the coffee Maggie had downed earlier threatened to make a return appearance. She swallowed down on the urge so she could squeeze out the words. ‘Um, where exactly are you calling from, Mum?’
‘Where do you think I’d be calling from at this hour of the day? It’s way too early to be out of bed. You said yourself I’m never up before ten.’
Maggie heard another murmur. Followed by a giggle.
Her mother, giggling.
Maggie’s coffee performed a tumble turn in her stomach. Her mother was in bed and giggling, and with a man that wasn’t Maggie’s father. Some things you just couldn’t unhear. Some things you just couldn’t un-imagine. ‘So, um, is that Robert with you now?’
‘Yes, he is here, as a matter of fact. Would you like to have a word? Maybe then you might believe that I’m serious.’
‘No! That’s not nec—’
But it was too late because the next words she heard were. ‘Hello, Maggie. I’ve heard a lot about you.’
He was Scottish, she realised, with a burr that sounded exactly like Sean Connery’s. She’d always loved Sean Connery’s toe-curling voice. Okay, so maybe her mother wasn’t completely insane. But still…
‘Um, Robert. Hello. I don’t think we’ve met.’
‘No, but I’ve seen you popping in and out of the village, and I know we’re going to be good friends, Maggie.’
Oh, that accent. So James Bond! But no. This was a man currently in bed with her mother. Her eighty-four-year-old mother, for heaven’s sake! This was no time for Maggie’s toes to want to curl, not when her mother was in bed with a man not twenty kilometres away. In bed and having…
Her toes spasmed. Thinking about her mother having sex was not toe curling at all.
‘Daphne’s a fine woman,’ he continued. ‘I’m looking forward to taking her for my wife. I hope that she has—well, that we both have—your blessing.’
‘Though I have to let you into a little secret,’ he said, his voice sounding so decidedly conspiratorial, she could almost imagine his hand cupped around the phone. ‘My intentions are strictly dishonourable.’
‘Lovely,’ Maggie said, possibly too brightly, but at a loss for anything else to say. Not that it mattered—the way Robert was roaring with laughter, there was no way he could have heard her anyway.
‘Tell Mum I’ll pick her up at eleven,’ she said when his laughter had abated, and she could say good-bye before she could hear any more.
Dazed and more than a little shell-shocked, Maggie sat back down on her bed. Where was she before that bombshell had lobbed in and blown her perfect morning apart? That’s right, halfway through a sudoku. She swooped up her puzzle and pen and tucked her feet back under the covers and took a deep breath. What she needed right now was order. Logic. A puzzle that promised and delivered a solution and that restored her faith in a world gone mad. Her mother. Getting married. At what, eighty-four years of age?
She blinked, trying her best to concentrate, using trial and error to eliminate options and narrow down the possibilities, jotting down numbers in squares as she isolated them, although it was hard trying to stop her mind wandering from the puzzle.
Her mother. In bed with a man before nine in the morning, and she’d bet her cotton socks that good old Robert hadn’t arrived for a cup of tea ten minutes previously and merely slipped under the covers to warm his tootsies. It didn’t bear thinking about. She only hoped they’d been wearing pyjamas.
But her mother. In love? What the hell was that about? Maggie’s father must be spinning in his grave. ‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what she’s thinking.’ She sighed as she narrowed in on a row with only three numbers left to solve for—a one, a six, and an eight—and checked the corresponding columns and found one of her missing eights. Aha! Which meant only a one and a six to solve for.
Only one column without the number one. Yes! She filled in the square. Which meant the last square in the row had to be a six. Brilliant. Just a few more blank squares. She was home and dry.
Her pen hovered over the remaining square, a feeling of disbelief mounting inside her as she checked and double-checked and checked once again to be sure, because it just couldn’t be.
Except it was.
There was already a six in the column.
Two sixes and no way to work backwards and figure out where she’d gone wrong. And disbelief turned to a sense of betrayal because her beloved sudoku had let her down.
No blissful sigh.
And Maggie’s perfect morning turned to custard.
End of Excerpt