Five Unforgivable Things Vivien Brown Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins A division of HarperCollinsPublishers www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) HarperImpulse An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd The News Building 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins 2018 Copyright © Vivien Brown 2018 Cover layout design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Cover photographs © Shutterstock.com Vivien Brown asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. 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. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. 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Source ISBN: 9780008252144 Ebook Edition © July 2018 ISBN: 9780008252151 Version 2018-05-16 For all the babies we have longed for, loved or lost Table of Contents Cover (#u61f7fb99-4206-52d9-924a-a996f8b6ddd9) Title Page (#u218f3f08-5a76-5154-8935-35ad2bbf43ec) Copyright (#ubf6ca537-b62c-57fe-a436-3a568fe37ed8) Dedication (#ude275366-104e-599f-8cad-2e2705e76913) Prologue (#uc7565e69-3d7b-5b86-8eb0-f9a088f5ad57) Number One (#uf5f39bb0-f4c7-54f0-ab45-cb59df1735f9) Chapter 1 (#u99307d41-ae15-5f56-bda2-5d2e326c766e) Chapter 2 (#u37811e83-4794-5ba8-a33c-9bc8f953f7f2) Chapter 3 (#u10a47b24-ffcf-5d6f-96c6-c3b876bba636) Chapter 4 (#uc3483a40-7c91-5162-a4b2-b5e7cff032bc) Chapter 5 (#u4cedc2e6-e30e-5ed8-9b5d-d85eb9fe2c08) Chapter 6 (#u4de1858c-77fa-5d31-9411-828e93831fef) Chapter 7 (#u3a18e7c7-d031-5b8f-b617-4cd95ddede4b) Chapter 8 (#u276ad2be-7d5e-5a5f-b0e1-05be550dec44) Chapter 9 (#uf769a54e-8edb-59ba-b1a2-9f19d9b669bb) Number Two (#u0ab8c305-ac79-5569-b719-9a7925ad2269) Chapter 10 (#u66456501-cf05-5ac1-8b45-ff4265debd7c) Chapter 11 (#u3c3f5b44-c568-5116-b30e-bd799284a6a5) Chapter 12 (#u0a9cf110-cec1-5d37-9bc1-d783cde01037) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25 (#litres_trial_promo) Number Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 33 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 34 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 35 (#litres_trial_promo) Number Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 36 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 37 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 38 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 39 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 40 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 41 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 42 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 43 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 44 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 45 (#litres_trial_promo) Number Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 46 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 47 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 48 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 49 (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Prologue (#u1a1c33b2-eb0f-5c67-a498-a0b839a55244) Kate Idon’t know why I’m talking to you. It’s not as if you can do anything to help, or undo what’s already been done. You will listen, though. I know that much. You’ll listen and you’ll let me talk, let me work things out for myself, just as you always have. You don’t tell me what to do, the way Dan does, or tries to, even now. Dan and me. We were happy once. For a long time, we were happy, when it was just the two of us, loving and laughing, living in the moment, just enjoying being young. And being together. It seemed enough back then; more than enough. But it wasn’t. Not in the end. Dan wanted more, and when it came down to the now-or-never moment, so did I. A baby, a family, a happy-ever-after. But it wasn’t what we got. One last throw of the dice, that was what we were offered. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, with six numbers on it, and it could have landed on any one of them, or none of them at all. We both knew that. It all came down to luck, in the end. And to nature. Maybe even fate. Like most things in life, if you don’t take control of them, if you take your eye off the ball… I did all right for a while, dealt with all the bad stuff the best I could. There are ways, you see. Tricks I learned, disguises I plastered across my face, masks I hid behind. Ways to get from day to day, coping, managing, putting one foot in front of the other. Ways to go forward, when all you really want to do is go back. Not thinking too hard. Or trying not to think at all. Being grateful for what you have, instead of dwelling on what you’ve lost. Keeping busy. Well, that one was easy enough. Sleep, when you can get it, which wasn’t so easy at all. Pills… If there is one thing you’ve taught me, it’s that pain fades, dampens into something less raw. And so do memories, if you let them. But I can’t forget the mistakes. Everyone makes them, I suppose. But, for us, there were just too many. Things we did. Things we didn’t do, but should have. Things we did wrong. Oh, it wasn’t just Dan. It was me too. I admit that. In fact, it was me who started it. Me who told the lie that set everything in motion, like a runaway train it’s impossible to stop. Yes, we made mistakes. Big ones. Mistakes that can’t be undone. Mistakes it’s almost impossible to get back from, no matter how much you wish you could. Moments in our lives, when the things one of us chose to do would alter everything for both of us, alter the course of our marriage. And they did. They altered it, almost irrevocably. And very nearly broke us. Five unforgivable things. NUMBER ONE (#u1a1c33b2-eb0f-5c67-a498-a0b839a55244) Chapter 1 (#u1a1c33b2-eb0f-5c67-a498-a0b839a55244) Kate, 1976 The first time I set eyes on Dan Campbell, I didn’t fancy him at all. He was younger than me, for a start. Only by a couple of years, as it turned out, but enough for it to show. And his hair was a strange kind of half-blonde, half-mouse colour. A bit streaky, like it was neither one thing nor the other. I wasn’t sure if he’d made an attempt to colour it himself with some dubious home-dye kit or if it was what nature had dealt him, but in any case I had always preferred tall, dark handsome types, and Dan fell down on all three counts. I was at a party in someone’s flat, part of a tall Victorian terrace, indistinguishable from a hundred others, with a dirty brown front door and crumbling windowsills, somewhere in West London, with just a bit of gravel and a low wall and a badly- lit pavement lying between it and the main road. The flat was up three flights of stairs. It was a bit grotty, with threadbare carpets and dodgy paintwork, and a dead spider plant on a shelf by the door with piles of bent fag ends squashed into what must once have passed as compost. Every time I went into the kitchen to look for another drink it felt like my shoes were sticking to the floor. Beer spurting in all directions when people pulled the tabs on shaken-up cans didn’t help, not to mention the cheap wine dripping as it was poured, inexpertly, into plastic glasses, and the odd dropped sausage roll trodden greasily into the lino. Still, nobody seemed to notice, or care, except me. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure whose flat it was, or even whose party it was. Back then, once the pub closed, it didn’t take much to get me to follow whoever I happened to be with to wherever they happened to be going. Anything was better than going back to my mum’s, now that Trevor was there. That particular Saturday night, though, I wasn’t really in the mood for partying. I’d only been there an hour or so, and the bloke I thought I was with had clearly had other ideas and moved on to a rather over-loud redhead with a low-cut top and eyelashes long enough to swat a fly. Not that I minded. He was hardly the love of my life. Still, his defection had left me worrying about how I was going to get home. Whether I’d missed the last bus, how far it was to walk, and how safe. Whether I could afford a taxi. I was picking my way down the last of the narrow litter-strewn staircases, holding my bag in one hand and clutching the rickety banisters with the other, heading for the front door, when Dan Campbell walked in. Only, I didn’t know who he was then. Just some random stranger, letting himself in, not even seeing I was there. He had his head down, dripping rain from a long grey mac. He was fumbling a set of keys out of the lock and back into his pocket, and carrying a soggy carrier bag, bottles chinking together inside it as he stopped to stamp his shoes on the doormat. I peered out past him, through the open door, into the darkness, split only by the glow of passing traffic, still heavy despite the time of night, wipers thrashing, headlights on, hazy at the edges. Rain. Lots of it. It hadn’t been raining when I’d arrived and it wasn’t something I’d bargained for when I’d dressed to go out. Taxi it was, then, if I didn’t want to ruin my new heels, or my hair. I’d just have to raid Mum’s secret tin when I got home if it turned out I didn’t have enough for the fare. Not that it was much of a secret when I knew exactly where she hid it. But Trevor didn’t know, and that was what mattered. I reached the bottom step and hesitated, waiting for this drenched man to finish wiping the water from his glasses and the mud from his shoes and notice me, move aside, leave my exit clear, but the door slammed behind him, shutting out the rumble of the traffic, enclosing us in that small space, with just the thump of the music above us, oozing its way through several layers of ceilings and floors. And then he lifted his face and looked at me, a bit startled, and I looked right back at him, a lot less so, and you know how, sometimes, you just feel it? A connection, an understanding, something in the eyes that says, ‘Stay. Stay and talk to me. It’s much too early to leave. Come and re-join the party. You know you want to.’ Actually, he may have said it for real, not just through his eyes. I can’t be sure now. Whether he was already a bit drunk, or I was. It’s a long time ago, and the combination of time and lager tends to tamper with the finer details, shroud them all in a woozy kind of fog that may or may not have been entirely unpleasant, or unwelcome. But, for whatever reason, or possibly for no obvious reason at all, I picked up my bag from where I’d been resting it on the table in the communal hallway, the one with all the junk mail on it, and I followed him back up the stairs to the party. Even though he was clearly too young, too short, too streaky, not my type at all. Even though all those things ran instantly through my head and were just as instantly dismissed, I still followed him up those stairs. I still did as he asked, and stayed. And it wasn’t until the next morning, when I woke up in a different flat, with a pounding headache, wearing an unfamiliar man-sized t-shirt and no knickers, and watched him pull back the curtains and hand me a cup of tea and a broken custard cream, that I finally found out his name. ‘Hi, Kate. Just in case you don’t remember, I’m Dan,’ he said, sitting down at the end of the bed. ‘Dan Campbell. And if you want a couple of aspirin with that, just say. I’m sure I have some somewhere.’ I shook my head. A nip to the toilet and a quick escape into the fresh air were all I really needed right then. And answers to the sort of awkward questions I suddenly felt totally unable to ask. How exactly had I got here? In this bed? His bed? And did I …? Did we …? I sat up, pulling the rumpled sheets and a mound of blankets up with me, careful not to let the t-shirt ride up and reveal anything it shouldn’t, and drank my tea. It was way too milky and could have done with more sugar, and the biscuit was bordering on being stale, but I was feeling self-conscious enough just being there without complaining about the catering. ‘I’ll leave you to get up when you’re ready.’ He stood up and tossed a dressing gown onto the bed. ‘Here, use this if you like. Bathroom’s just through there. And I’ve got eggs, if you’re interested.’ He took the empty cup from my hands. ‘And more tea. Plenty more tea. Anyway, I’ll be in the kitchen. Pop in, please, even if it’s only to say goodbye.’ He closed the door behind him and I lay back and just let myself breathe. Well, he was a gentleman, I’d give him that. Protecting my modesty, not trying to peek, or cop a feel or anything. I looked around the bedroom. It was small, quite dark and old-fashioned in dåcor, with a high ceiling and one of those big round paper light shades hanging right above my head. The walls were lined with shelves, piled high with records, paperbacks, magazines, all chucked in any old how. I was dying to see what they were, to work out what his taste was in music, what sort of stuff he read. I even had a strange urge to start tidying them for him, setting the books upright, shuffling things into some kind of order, but I didn’t want him to come back in and catch me being nosey, interfering. It was none of my business what possessions he had, or how he chose to store them. It wasn’t as if I had any plans to see him again, after all. In the bathroom, I sat for a while, draining my bladder dry, waiting for the throbbing in my head to subside. I ran the taps in the sink for ages, but the water stayed alarmingly cold. I splashed it about as briefly as I could get away with, over my face and hands, under my armpits, then slipped back into the clothes I’d worn the night before. I’d found them all heaped up on a chair next to the bed, knickers on top, as if I’d removed them last. Or he had. My mouth still tasted of alcohol, or the stale remains of it, at least. I picked up a rolled-up tube of toothpaste with the lid missing, squeezed a drop onto my finger and ran it backwards and forwards over my teeth, and did the best I could to sort out my tangled hair, short of actually washing it. There was a waste bin under the sink. The most likely place to find evidence, if there was any. I bent down to pick it up. There wasn’t a lot in it. A used razor, a cardboard tube from the middle of a toilet roll, a lump of dried-up chewing gum, but no sign of an empty Durex wrapper, which worried me. A lot. Either we hadn’t, or we had done it without taking any precautions. Oh, my God. Doing it with a man I’d only just met would have been bad enough, but not being careful was unthinkable. I took a deep breath and opened the door. It was time I found my way to the kitchen. ‘Before you ask …’ he said, as soon as I walked in, as if he was some kind of mind-reader. ‘No, we didn’t. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to. But you were pretty drunk, and I’m not that sort of a bloke. Okay? It was late and you had no obvious way of getting home, and I couldn’t let you even think of doing it alone anyway, in your state, so I offered you a bed. My bed. Apologies that I didn’t change the sheets, but I’d had a few drinks myself, and the sofa was calling …’ I nodded with relief and sat down at the small formica-covered table. ‘Well, I’m glad we’ve cleared that one up. I don’t usually … you know … with men I’ve only just met. But thanks, for the bed. And for putting my mind at rest. I did need to be sure.’ ‘Understood. Say no more about it.’ He pulled at the fridge door and rummaged about inside. ‘Now … eggs. Scrambled or fried?’ I suddenly felt starving hungry, and Dan Campbell, it transpired, cooked exceedingly good eggs. Big and white with bright runny yolks, and bread cut into thick soldiers that we dipped and dripped with sheer abandon as we sat together and talked, starting slowly to feel a little less like strangers. Dan was twenty-two, which surprised me as he looked younger, and a trainee accountant, which, taking one look at his dark-rimmed glasses and the pale, rather serious, face that peered out from behind them, somehow didn’t surprise me at all. He lived three floors below last night’s party, which was where we were now, in the flat to the left of the downstairs hallway. He told me that he shared it with someone called Rich, who, according to Dan, was probably still crashed out in a drunken post-party stupor on some grimy armchair upstairs and was unlikely to be back for a while yet. Did I remember Rich? Tall, ginger hair, covered in freckles … I tried to, but I couldn’t. In fact, there was very little about the party after I re-joined it that I could remember with any clarity at all. I really should stop drinking so much. It didn’t help with anything. With not having a proper job at the moment, or with still being stuck in my old room at Mum’s, with the tape marks from my old pop posters still liberally splattered over the wallpaper, hideous flowery curtains and all. And it definitely didn’t help with the Trevor problem. I wasn’t sure that anything, except hiring a hit man, was going to shift Trevor, so it was probably time I just accepted he was there to stay. Mum’s house, Mum’s rules, Mum’s choice. A bad one, but she’d have to find that out for herself. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t made a few bad choices myself recently. ‘Would you like to meet up again? Go for a drink or something?’ Dan was clearing away the plates and had his back to me so I couldn’t see his face, whether he really meant it, or was just being polite. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Why not?’ He turned back towards me and there it was again, that look, that connection, as his gaze locked on to mine. ‘I think you might actually enjoy it. If you let yourself. Go on, Kate, take a chance. What’s the worst that can happen? We sit in some pub all evening with nothing to say to each other? Find we have nothing in common? You discover I’m the world’s worst kisser, or I bore the pants off you, or you can’t stand my aftershave? At least you get a free half of shandy and a ride home. Let’s be honest. You have nothing to lose!’ And he was right, of course. I had nothing to lose but my heart, and by the time I walked out of that flat just thirty minutes later, into a bright cloudless Sunday morning that suddenly sparkled with possibilities, I was fairly sure a big chunk of it was already gone. Chapter 2 (#u1a1c33b2-eb0f-5c67-a498-a0b839a55244) Natalie, 2017 Natalie hesitated outside the bridal shop. The lights were on inside, so it was still open, even though it was almost five-thirty. The dress in the window was absolutely stunning, in sleek sculptured ivory satin with just a hint of lace in all the right places, and tiny buttons that glinted like pearls. It was exactly the kind of dress she had longed for ever since she and Phil had finally set the date, but going inside a shop like that by herself would just feel way too strange. Even if she tried the dress on, which she so wanted to do, how would she know it was right with nobody there to oooh and aaah and spin her around in all directions and take sneaky pictures on their phones? Natalie wasn’t used to doing things alone. In fact, these last few days had probably – no, definitely – been the first she had ever spent entirely by herself. Phil was away at a work conference so boring she didn’t even want to hear about it when he called, let alone be there with him, and Mum was off on one of her regular retreats, her mobile deliberately switched off. Jenny and Beth were visiting some seaside spa place together on a cheap mid-week deal for two. Natalie hadn’t been able to get the time off work to join them, even if squeezing an extra bed into their room had been a possibility, but the truth was she hadn’t been asked. Despite their distance, the bridesmaid question still hung in the air between them, unspoken but so obviously there, and she knew that by the time they came back, it needed to be answered. Natalie shook her thoughts away, tentatively leaned into the glass door of the shop and eased it open. Although the best of the summer was over and the days were already starting to get noticeably shorter again, the sun was bright today and she could feel her spirits lift along with it. The path through the park was bordered by bouncing rows of tiny-headed purple pansies, newly planted in neat rows, and, after a week of relentless drizzle, her raincoat and boots were at last stuffed back in the hall cupboard in favour of a lighter jacket and her favourite sandals. There was something about the change in the weather that seemed to promise better things to come, making her feel suddenly bold. It was her wedding, after all. Not theirs. And she would do things the way she wanted to, whatever any of them said. The shop’s interior was an oasis of beauty and calm. There was a deep cream carpet and floor-to-ceiling mirrors without so much as a smudge on their shiny gilt-edged glass. The sweet scent of jasmine drifted in the air but, in the absence of any real flowers, it seemed to be coming from a huge fat candle that floated in the centre of a bowl of water on a shelf, well out of harm’s way, behind a small desk in the corner. Little red velvet-covered chairs were dotted about around the edges of the room, between tall slim glass cases with the most wonderful satin shoes, beaded bags and glittering tiaras displayed on their shelves. One wall, the longest one, off to her right, was swamped by an unbroken row of big billowing floor-length dresses that brought the phrase ‘as far as the eye can see’ instantly to her mind. There was nobody else about and, for a moment, she just came to a standstill right in the centre of it all, feeling completely overwhelmed. ‘Can I help you?’ A small bird-like woman, with a slight foreign accent Natalie couldn’t quite place, and a tape measure looped loosely around her neck, emerged from behind a curtain at the back of the shop, revealing a brief glimpse of a hidden workroom beyond, with a sewing machine and scraps of satin and lace strewn across a cluttered table in the centre, and yet more dresses, draped on hangers from an over-full coat stand and all encased in see-through plastic bags. Natalie saw the look of surprise that flickered across the woman’s heavily made-up face before it was swallowed up in what was clearly a well-practised customer-friendly smile. It was a look she was used to, one that told her she was not quite who, or what, had been expected to come rolling in. ‘Sorry … about the carpet.’ Natalie turned her head to indicate the small trail of dirt and soggy leaves her wheels had brought in with them. ‘That’s all right. Can’t be helped.’ The woman’s face flushed as she came forward, fiddling nervously with the tape around her neck. ‘I’d like to look at a dress, please,’ Natalie said. ‘The ivory one in the window. And, I’m sorry, but I might need a bit of help to try it on.’ *** The house felt cold and empty when she got back, echoing with an unfamiliar silence as she eased her chair into the hall. The one thing you could say about a house normally full of women was that it was rarely quiet, and Natalie was surprised just how much she was missing the hustle and bustle of her family in full swing. Only two nights and the girls, at least, would be back. Mum was a different prospect altogether. If she wasn’t standing on her head or wrapping her legs around her own neck at some yoga class, she’d be trying out a new aromatherapy course or letting herself be hypnotised into thinking she was once Cleopatra, or sitting in a circle in the woods with a group of protesters, waving ‘Save our copse’ placards while communing with the lesser-spotted tree frog. This time it was something involving immersing herself in healing water, though quite what it was that needed healing, Natalie wasn’t at all sure. She’d said she’d be back on Sunday but, with Mum, it was best to take all plans with a pinch of salt and just wait and see what happened. She knew she should go and check on Ollie but the thought unsettled her. She never knew what mood he might be in, and if it was a bad one she didn’t want to have to cope with it alone. If he’d just lay off the booze for a while, it might help. Laura had been gone almost five months now, and his way of grieving, which involved nothing more than bemoaning his life and the world in general through the bottom of a bottle, was never going to work. Oblivion, yes, but bringing her back, no. And as for even the slightest movement towards acceptance or recovery, definitely not. Natalie had liked Laura. Loved her, even. She and Ollie had lived together for almost two years and they’d all thought of her as family. Natalie had been thrilled at the prospect of the little niece or nephew they’d announced was on the way, and Mum had been so excited she’d got an old pair of knitting needles out, not that anyone had ever actually seen her use them. In the end, she didn’t get the chance. The miscarriage had been devastating, for Laura, for Mum, for all of them, but on the face of it, Ollie had seemed to cope remarkably well. He’d done all the right things, assuring Laura they could try again, that it was just one of those things, and that everything would be fine next time. But, as things turned out, it wasn’t. And Natalie knew it was hard for him, being the man, trying to be the rock that Laura needed, when it was so obvious that all he wanted, every time, was to curl up in a ball and just sob his heart out. Laura left after they lost the third. Just after Easter. Said she couldn’t take any more, that Ollie deserved someone better, someone whole, someone who could do this one simple thing that her body was refusing to do, and no amount of pleading would change her mind. Natalie had always expected Laura to come back. Ollie probably had too. At the start, anyway. Her giant Easter egg was still sitting on the dining table, unopened, unmoved, untouched, since the day she went, its huge yellow ribbon like one of those ‘Come home’ messages tied around a tree that you hear about in songs. But she didn’t come back. She just went off, not even leaving an address behind, asking them all to respect her decision and not come after her, and poor Ollie still hadn’t got over it. Losing her, or the babies. There were three tiny crosses on the wall over the bed at his flat, each one carefully carved out of wood. He’d put his heart and soul into making those crosses. Not bad for a man who said he didn’t believe in God, and who spent far too much time with a glass of whisky in his hand, even more so in recent weeks, when there had been no work to think about. Natalie used to envy him those long school holidays, with nothing but a bit of lesson planning to think about, but now she was grateful that September had come around and he’d finally had to go back. He wouldn’t risk his career, would he? Ah, but it was Wednesday, she realised, with a sudden sigh of relief. Ollie’s chess club night. He’d be out for most of the evening, and with other people, so she wouldn’t have to do her Good Samaritan act after all. He’d probably be drinking, between games at least, but there was little she could do about that. She wasn’t his keeper. None of them were, even though Mum seemed to think it was their mission to help him. To save him, even. But then, Mum knew, better than any of them, how it felt, struggling to have babies, and losing them. No matter how many survived, it was still the ones lost along the way that left their special mark. She poured some baked beans into a pan and toasted a couple of slices of bread. She’d have a quiet evening in, with an easy meal and a good book, and make the most of this rare time by herself. It might give her the chance to think clearly about the wedding arrangements too, without the constant input of the world and his wife telling her what to do, who to invite, what was expected, how much they all wanted to play their part. Why was it so wrong to want to keep things small? Phil wouldn’t care one way or the other. He was happy to leave the decisions to her. Whatever made her feel most comfortable. All the fuss of parading up the aisle, with everyone watching, and bridesmaids and ushers … none of that mattered in the grand scheme of things, did it? It wasn’t as if she could link her arm through Dad’s and walk beside him. She’d have enough trouble managing her dress and making sure her hem didn’t get caught in her wheels. That was the bridesmaids’ job, really, if she relented and decided to have any, but short of crouching down next to her or edging along on their knees, she couldn’t picture how it could be made to work. In fact, beautiful though that dress was earlier, the impracticalities of wearing something like that, something meant to flow and sway and skim along the floor, probably made it a no-go. Dresses like that just weren’t meant for the likes of her. After a lifetime of trying to be as unobtrusive and normal as she could, so people wouldn’t stare at her or ask all those embarrassingly awkward questions, it wasn’t easy to find herself thrust forward, forced to take centre stage. Wasn’t it possible to just be the bride, to slip into the church and marry the love of her life without having to lead an attention-grabbing cavalcade of followers up the aisle? And in a dress bunched up around her lap too? It was a shame, but wedding dresses – proper wedding dresses – were expensive. It was a lot of money to spend, money they were going to be quite short of once they’d paid for the honeymoon and all the adaptations Phil’s small house needed just so she could get comfortably through the front door and up the stairs. No, it would have to be something simpler, shorter, cheaper … When the phone rang it made her jump. She’d been staring ahead at the wall, imagining the worst, as usual. The beans had gone cold on the plate and she was surprised to find she had tears in her eyes. ‘Hey, Nat. How are you, sweetheart? I miss you.’ Phil. Wonderful, kind and caring Phil. Not for the first time, she couldn’t help wondering what on earth he saw in her, Natalie Campbell, a girl who couldn’t walk or run or even give him a playful kick when he deserved one. Why her, when he could have had anyone? She didn’t know the answer, never had, but she did know she was so very, very lucky to have him. Chapter 3 (#u1a1c33b2-eb0f-5c67-a498-a0b839a55244) Kate, 1977 Dan was so bloody annoying sometimes. He knew I couldn’t get away from the bank much before five – I hadn’t worked there long enough to feel I could ask for favours – and he’d booked us onto a six o’clock train. How was I meant to get home, changed, packed, back out again and onto a train in less than an hour? I hadn’t even decided what to wear yet. What sort of thing was expected in the wilds of rural Somerset in mid-September, at a farm I had never seen but had always imagined as a mixture of elegant low-beamed interiors and squelching knee-deep mud imbued with the smell of cows the moment you stepped outside? And what did he expect us to do about food? I was sure it wouldn’t be the sort of train that served meals, not on our limited budget, and I’d only had a cheese sandwich and the edible half of a windfall apple at lunch. I hadn’t met his family before and wasn’t totally sure I was ready to now, but there were only so many excuses I could come up with and, after almost a year of going out together, I’d pretty much exhausted the list. No, this was it. The packed Friday-evening train, the awkward introductions when they came to pick us up at the station, assorted aunts and uncles and cousins all coming to get a look at me at the party on Saturday evening, and the spare bedroom that had once been his sister Jane’s set aside especially for me, no doubt with a vase of freshly picked flowers awaiting me beside the bed. It was all arranged, set in stone and there was no getting out of it now. Of course they would all be lovely. Well, they were Dan’s family, and Dan was lovely, so they were bound to be. But I was nervous, if not actually downright scared, and had no idea how to admit it. It felt so important that they liked me, and accepted me, because Dan was without doubt the best thing ever to happen to me, and I badly wanted these people, their home, their way of life, to accept me, wrap themselves around me and let me in. But what if they didn’t? What if I wasn’t what they had in mind for Dan at all? After all, what did I know about farming or about living in the country? I was strictly a town girl and always had been. I had never even owned a pair of wellies! ‘My mum will love you,’ Dan had assured me when I’d tried to voice my concerns the night before. ‘Almost as much as I do. And Dad … well, you’ll probably hardly see him. But right now, Rich is out and I have the flat, and you, all to myself, so …’ And he’d nuzzled my neck and run his fingers through my hair, and steered me gently towards his bedroom, and after that I’d got so caught up in other things I’d forgotten to worry about it any more. Trevor was slumped in front of the telly when I got in from work. It was only a quarter past five but he was already asleep, his head lolled to one side, his big grunting breaths lifting the edge of the newspaper that lay open across his chest and dropping it down again, as regular as the clock ticking away behind me in the hall. I kicked off my shoes and padded past the open door of the living room, trying not to wake him up, and went into the kitchen, flicking the kettle on and grabbing a digestive biscuit from a packet which someone, probably Trevor, had left open, with a trail of careless crumbs scattered not only on the table but across a good part of the floor as well. Still, there wasn’t time to start making any sort of meal, so I took another couple and ran up the stairs with them, hurriedly peering in through each of the open doors at the top, but there was no sign of Mum. Just when I could have used her help, too. I threw my small case open on the bed and piled in all the essentials I didn’t have to think about. Toothbrush and paste, shampoo, hairbrush, pyjamas, a spare bra and tights, three pairs of knickers – not the slinky ones, just the everyday kind, as there seemed little chance of Dan getting anywhere near them. I’d travel in jeans and a jumper, with a coat in case of chilly country weather and the high probability that someone would expect me to walk somewhere, involving fresh air and fields, so all I really had to do now was sling in another pair of trousers, a t-shirt or two and choose a dress for the party. Oh, and shoes. What on earth should I do about shoes? *** We made it to the station with moments to spare, the case heavier than I’d expected it to be, bumping hard against my knees as we ran, hand in hand, along the platform and clambered in to the waiting train just before the guard started slamming the doors shut behind us. ‘Okay?’ Dan said, shoving our bags up into the rack above our heads and plonking down into the seat beside me. ‘All set for the big welcome?’ ‘As I’ll ever be, I suppose.’ ‘They’re not ogres, you know. A bit rough round the edges, maybe, but that’s just how it is, being farmers. You won’t even notice after a while. All the crumpled corduroys and big boots and mucky fingernails …’ ‘And that’s just your Mum!’ ‘Ha, ha. No, seriously though, Kate, they’re probably just as nervous as you are. A city girl in her posh clothes turning up in their little village, seeing things through city girl’s eyes.’ ‘Posh clothes? You must be joking. Look at me!’ ‘I am looking at you, and you look great. Okay, not posh, then, but smart. Different. Smart clothes don’t usually figure all that highly where I come from. Not every day, anyway, but they know how important you are to me. They’ll make an effort to make a good impression, I’m sure. You won’t be looking at overalls or mucky boots this evening. Dad will have been ordered to have a shave. And probably a bath too! Believe me, Kate, they’ll want you to feel comfortable while you’re staying, and to have a good time. Just take them as you find them, and they’ll do the same. They’re family. My family …’ ‘Yes, I know.’ I gazed out of the window as the train started to chug its way out of the station. ‘It’s just me being silly.’ ‘Well, don’t be.’ ‘So, how about the party tomorrow? I didn’t know what to bring. Long dress, short dress, jewellery, high heels?’ ‘Whatever you’ve brought will be fine. It’s not a fashion show, and nobody’s judging you. Although Mum will have got her pearls out specially, I bet. And bought her first new dress in yonks. It’s not every day a couple get to celebrate twenty-five years of marriage, is it? I wonder if we’ll be that lucky?’ I was still staring out of the window into the darkness, the buildings rushing past unseen, so I could only see him as a shaky shape reflected in the glass. Us? Lucky? Could he possibly mean …? No, now I really was being silly. If Dan was talking about marriage, about us getting married, he wouldn’t do it like this, would he? Dropping hints on a packed train. He’d do it properly, romantically, privately, and when we were both ready. But maybe he was ready. Maybe we both were? Oh, my God! Was this why he was taking me home to meet his parents? Was he going to propose? I didn’t look at him. Whether it had been a deliberate ‘looking for a reaction’ moment or just an unguarded slip of the tongue, I’d let it go. Say nothing. Do nothing. Pretend I hadn’t noticed. I closed my eyes and leant my head against the cold glass, visions of rings and flowers and me in a stunning white dress floating through my mind. I waited, hardly daring to breathe, but he didn’t say any more. When I did finally turn my face back towards him, he was reading a newspaper, his legs crossed, his body turned away from me, and whatever the moment had been, it was clear that it had well and truly passed. As it turned out there was no reception committee. Dan’s dad was waiting outside the station, by himself in the dark, sitting sideways in the front of an old Mini that seemed too small to accommodate his long legs, and parked a bit haphazardly beneath a tree. I got the impression he’d been there some time, no doubt ushered out early to make sure he wasn’t late, because when I first saw him he was almost certainly asleep, his mouth open and his forehead marked with a big wide crease where it had been pressed for too long against the glass. Dan laughed as he tapped on the window and his dad’s head flew up in surprise. ‘Oh, there you are, lad.’ He opened his door and slowly unravelled himself out onto the pavement. ‘And this must be Kate …’ He took my hand in his large weathered one and unexpectedly lifted it briefly to his lips before lifting my bag up as if it was light as a feather and chucking it onto the back seat. ‘Now, you sit up front with me, and our Dan can rough it in the back with the luggage. I’m Dan’s dad, by the way, as you’ve probably guessed. Samuel Campbell, at your service. But you can call me Sam. Everybody does. Now let’s get you home in the warm and see what Mother’s rustled up for supper, shall we?’ I liked Sam straight away. He had one of those crumpled brown faces that comes from spending a lot more time out of doors than in, and the car smelled of warm straw and a gentle hint of unidentifiable animal that I soon came to realise hovered about him most of the time, whether he was in the car or not. We drove at breakneck speed through unlit country lanes so narrow I could hear the bushes brush and scratch against the side of the car on every bend. More than once I felt myself flinch, convinced we were about to find ourselves upside down in a ditch, but Sam obviously knew the area like the back of his own hand and we arrived, promptly and safely, at the farmhouse in less than ten minutes. An old black and white collie came rushing out into the yard as soon as we opened the car doors and immediately leapt upon Dan, frantically nudging him with his nose and licking his hands, as if they were long-separated brothers. Which, in a way, I suppose they were. ‘Hello, boy.’ Dan knelt down in the gravel and let the dog lick his face. ‘Kate, this is Micky. He’s twelve, but it feels like he’s been here much longer than that. For ever, in fact. He’s half blind these days, but a more loving and loyal dog you couldn’t wish to find. Come over and say hello. Give him a hand and let him get your scent.’ I wasn’t used to dogs, let alone being slobbered over by one, but I did as Dan asked, which was why, when his mum appeared in the doorway, the hand I slipped into hers to be shaken was decidedly damp and smelly. She didn’t seem to mind, moving swiftly into a hug, one of her soft plump arms still draped around my shoulders as we went inside. ‘Dan’s never been great at introductions,’ she said, not in all honesty having given him much chance to try. ‘But I’m Molly. And I am so glad to meet you at last.’ There were just the four of us that first night, sitting around the huge kitchen table eating the most delicious beef with mounds of potatoes, which Molly proudly told me she grew herself in the vegetable garden right outside the window, adding that I was more than welcome to take some home with me as I’d clearly enjoyed them so much. I tried to say that they might be a bit heavy, what with us travelling by train, but somehow I already knew I’d have to take some just to keep her happy. The bedroom Molly had prepared for me was just as I had expected it to be. A big metal-framed bed was piled high with layers of blankets and feather pillows, topped with a home-made patchwork quilt, and next to it, on a small pine cabinet, was a lamp with a frilly edged, slightly faded shade and the vase of flowers I would have bet money was going to be there. Deep-red dahlias, a couple of their spiky petals already detached and lying alongside. Across the room, facing the window, was a small dressing table with one of those old-fashioned three-sided jointed mirrors that let you see yourself from all angles at once. The top two drawers had been cleared to make space for my things, and the lower ones, which I shouldn’t have looked in but did, were crammed full of all sorts of old stuff left behind by the previous occupant, Dan’s now-married sister, Jane. No wardrobe, which worried me a bit, having brought the kind of dress that would definitely benefit from being hung up for a few hours to de-crease itself. I later discovered that Jane had taken the wardrobe with her when she’d left, her new home having a greater need for it than her abandoned and now little-used bedroom here. Still, when I closed the door to get changed in private, I did find a plastic hook glued to the back of it. That would just have to do. The small window looked out over fields; not that I could see them until the next morning as it was so utterly, scarily, pitch dark outside on the night we arrived. Not a streetlight or a passing set of headlights to shed even a glimmer across the all-enveloping blackness. And the quiet! I couldn’t get to sleep, and in the end, I had to open my door just enough to pick up the distant comforting sound of Dan’s familiar snoring seeping out from his room across the hall. *** Dan’s family was nothing like mine. Different places, different values, different lives. If it wasn’t for that chance meeting with Dan at the party our paths would never have crossed. But that’s probably what happens to all of us, isn’t it? How friends, colleagues, couples come together. Sheer chance. A meeting of place and time, and circumstance. If he’d arrived a few minutes later at the door I would have been long gone, out into the rain. Earlier, and I would have been still upstairs, just another blurry face, merging into all the others in the dark of the party. They say opposites attract, don’t they? Farm boy, city girl. Him so careful, always planning and worrying, while I just took my chances, took life as it came. Together, and happy, nevertheless. But sometimes I think we just wanted different things. Expected different things. And, even though it was Dan who broke us, I know I played my part. Maybe we were doomed to fail, or is that just the sad me, the defeated me, talking? Star-crossed lovers. Isn’t that what Shakespeare said? Not that Dan and I were anything like Romeo and Juliet, but we did love each other. Shared something passionate and caring, and special. For a long time, we did. The girls think I’m off communing with nature somewhere. I never elaborate, never try to explain, how much I need these talks we have, how much I need to get away sometimes, just to be alone. How much I need you. I sometimes think you’re the only one who understands, the only one who never judges, who sees me exactly for what I am. I don’t think of you as my guilty secret. Never that. I don’t want anyone to think I’m mad. Or desperate. But you are my secret, just the same. *** Twenty-five years! I watched Dan’s parents taking an inexpert but exceedingly happy turn around the dance floor, and wondered how different things might have been if my dad had lived long enough for my own parents to celebrate such a momentous anniversary. As it was, there was just Trevor, like a big balding cuckoo in the nest, trying to fill my dad’s shoes and failing miserably. It was hard to imagine being with the same man for so long. Day in and day out, living, breathing, eating, side by side. Sharing the same bed, going on holidays together, making babies. None of my boyfriends had lasted more than a month or two before Dan, and most of them I would be perfectly happy never to set eyes on again. It made me wonder what I’d seen in them in the first place, how I could have been dragged in by some phoney chat-up line or the lure of muscly arms or twinkly eyes, but I suppose you have to work your way past the initial attraction to find out if there’s anything solid enough underneath to make a man worth keeping. With Dan, I knew I had finally found it, and this weekend, with me being included in the celebrations and so thoroughly embraced by his family, I was getting the impression that Dan felt the same way, that this really could be some kind of trial run for something more permanent. Our future together was starting to feel more secure, more certain, more wonderful, every moment we were here. I had never been to a party quite like it before. It was in a big open-fronted barn tucked away behind the house, on their own land, with a couple of spotlights attached to electric cables draped high over the beams and managing to provide enough light to dance by, while fat white candles flickered more intimately on the tables. I did worry the flames might be a little too close to the bales of hay, or straw, or whatever it was, stacked around the edges, but that was just the townie in me talking. These were country people who lived with barns and straw every day of their lives, and I had to suppose they knew what they were doing. They certainly knew how to have a good time. There was a long table stretching right across the back wall, heaped with so much food I couldn’t help thinking that the local pigs would have a field day with all the leftovers in the morning, but everyone who arrived seemed to squeeze on yet another plate of food they’d brought from home, until it was just about impossible to see the tablecloth any more. Some had even brought their dogs along, so nothing dropped on the floor stayed there for long. A couple called Dolly and Frank were providing the music, perched on stools with two battered old guitars and a tambourine, switching over to an enormous ghetto-blaster that pumped out disco hits whenever they needed a break or the dancing needed livening up. It was very amateur but strangely hypnotic, and enormous fun too, with nobody too embarrassed to let themselves go a bit, all whooping like kids, kicking their legs up and swinging each other around the floor. Dan was like a different person that night. He had stopped being the quiet, smart, suited accountant I had grown to know and love and transformed into Dan Campbell, farm boy. He wore an open-necked checked shirt I was sure I had never seen before, and moved around the room, kicking his heels and swaying his shoulders to the music and greeting every newcomer as if he’d known them all his life, which he probably had. Every now and then, when he could tell from my face that I was struggling, he would come and rescue me from a baffling conversation about milk quotas or silage and pull me back into his arms to dance. ‘Well? What do you think? Is country life what you expected?’ he said, sitting me down in front of a plate of bread and cheese and spooning a dollop of his mum’s home-made pickle out onto the side. ‘Not at all. But I’m sure it’s not like this all the time, is it?’ I gazed at his face as his warm fingers brushed against mine and the candlelight sent tiny flecks of colour bouncing and sparkling in his eyes, and just for a moment I wondered what it would be like to give in to what I was feeling, to forget the world outside, Mum and Trevor, my job at the bank, and just stay here in this magical place for ever. ‘Of course not. Dad will be up milking at the crack of dawn as usual, and Mum will be out here with a broom in one hand and probably feeding the hens with the other! It’s who they are. Creatures of habit. Hard workers. At one with the land and all that. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and probably not mine, to be honest … Now, come over and meet Helen. She was the first girl I ever kissed! A long time ago, in the playground when we were five, but I’ve never forgotten it, even though she probably has!’ The floorboards creaked later, on the landing between Dan’s room and mine, as he crept across and closed the door behind him, like a naughty schoolboy sneaking about after lights out, but suddenly I couldn’t bear the thought of us sleeping separately, and if anybody heard us they were probably too tipsy to care. I couldn’t bear the thought of him kissing anyone but me either, even if it had been years ago when this Helen friend of his was just a little girl with pigtails. I’d met her tonight and she wasn’t so little nowadays, particularly in the breasts department. And Dan was mine now. Whoever he had chatted to, danced with, even flirted with in a mild kind of way, during the party, it was my bed he was curled up in that night, and my breasts that were squashed, snugly and sweatily, against his skin. I think that was the night I decided I would marry him. Not that he’d asked me yet, despite his mumblings on the train, but it was coming. I knew it was. I could feel it. And big happy dreams of our future life together filled my head as I slept, my head resting on his bare chest as it rose and fell, and the gentle contented sounds of his snoring filled the room. Chapter 4 (#u1a1c33b2-eb0f-5c67-a498-a0b839a55244) Ollie, 2017 Ollie put his glass down and reached for another handful of crisps. He really mustn’t drink too much tonight. He needed to keep his wits about him and create a good impression if he could. He took a deep breath, feeling the familiar tightness that he often felt in stressful situations, wished he had thought to bring his inhaler, and turned his attention back to the girl sitting in front of him. She was small and pretty, with a rather chubby but cheeky face surrounded by an unruly mane of dark curly hair. In the brief silence that fell while they were both thinking of something to talk about next, she was toying nervously with the stem of her wine glass. Her fingernails were painted in a shiny shade of pale pink with a strange darker pink band sweeping across the tip of each, and he wondered how long it must have taken her to do that, and why she would even want to. The bell rang and she stood up. ‘Well, it’s been nice meeting you, Ollie.’ He took her hand and half rose from his chair to lean forward and kiss her on the cheek. Were you allowed to do that? Probably not. Still, she didn’t seem to object. ‘You too …’ Oh, no. His mind had gone blank and he had no idea of her name. ‘Yeah, you too!’ Within seconds another girl arrived to take her place across the table. ‘Hi, I’m Caroline.’ ‘Ollie.’ He could already tell that this one was not his type at all. Too tall, too loud, too heavily made up. Still, he only had to be polite to her for three minutes. How hard could that be? He reached for his drink, took a swig and started counting the seconds off, one by one, in his head. He hadn’t told anyone he was coming here tonight. He wasn’t really sure why he had come, except that there had to be more to life than sitting alone most evenings and feeling sorry for himself. He missed female company, someone to have a laugh with, to chat to, someone to share a bottle of wine with, to stop him drinking it all himself. And, yes, he missed the sex. Of course he did. He was a young man, a man on his own, and it had been a while. He should have been at the chess club tonight, silently gazing at a wooden board, the clock counting down beside him as he pondered his next move. He hadn’t played much chess since he was a child but he’d come back to it recently, finding it somehow therapeutic, something to focus the mind. He smiled to himself. The chess club wasn’t actually all that dissimilar to where he’d ended up, was it? In the back room of the Crown and Treaty, a very plain and ordinary West London pub, facing a series of strangers over a small table, with only minutes to decide when and if to make his move. Winners and losers, and not hard to guess which he was likely to be. There were a lot more girls here than guys, which struck him as odd but, in theory, should work in his favour. Not bad looking most of them, which made him wonder why they were here at all, why they were finding it hard – perhaps as hard as he was – to meet someone in a more conventional way, or pluck up the courage to do something about their lives. It was probably all just a bit of fun for most of them, though, groups of girls giggling together at the bar afterwards as they compared notes and decided whether to put ticks or crosses against the names on their little slips of paper. Nobody would choose him, of course. He’d not taken the trouble even to try to impress, either in what he was wearing (old jeans, frayed at the hem, and his favourite comfy grey jumper that hadn’t seen a washing machine in weeks) or in what he’d said. In fact, he’d sat back and let each of them do most of the talking and just added the occasional nod or grunt when it seemed expected. Was that because he couldn’t be bothered, or had he lost the art of conversation? Forgotten how to chat up women? It all seemed like such a lot of effort for so little reward. He was hardly going to find the love of his life tonight, was he? Not when he already knew exactly who she was, and where. Not here, that was where. Hundreds of miles away, probably, and not coming back. The last girl stood up and moved away. He didn’t kiss this one. Didn’t feel the urge to. Looking down at the slip in front of him, he realised he’d stopped making any sort of mark on it three girls ago, when he’d rather rashly put a tick against the busty one. Julie. Not that he could remember much about her face, but he did like a good pair of tits, and you never knew, she just might let him have a feel later, if he bought her a few drinks and offered to share a taxi home. The drivers didn’t usually care what went on in the back, so long as you tipped well and kept bare flesh and bodily fluids off the seats. Oh, God! He was starting to think like some kind of perv. Perhaps it was time to slip away before having to face the embarrassment of finding himself without a single match. He glanced at his watch. The chess would still be on down at the Scout hut. A bit late to get a game, maybe, but he could sit and watch, and have a quiet drink or two while he did. He pulled his coat off the back of his chair and put it on, crumpled up his voting slip (and with it any chance of becoming better acquainted with Julie’s cleavage) and dropped it onto the table, then went out into the street before anyone could call him back. The sounds of laughter dimmed as the heavy wooden door swung shut behind him. The offie should still be open on the high street, and it was a lot cheaper option than buying drinks here in the pub, that was for sure. He pulled his collar up against the rain and quickly walked away. Chapter 5 (#ulink_0183e3b9-d627-5878-93a8-c46259a8ef6f) Kate, 1978 I’ll never know for sure why Dan proposed when he did. Perhaps he’d been thinking about it for a while, just as I had. Perhaps he had already chosen the ring, and the place, and the date. Love and marriage, going together like the inevitable horse and carriage. The traditional route through life. Our life. Perhaps it would always have been our next step. Or perhaps it was simply because of the baby. We hadn’t planned on me getting pregnant. In fact, like most couples our age, still building our careers, still enjoying a life that revolved around pubs and music and each other, we were pretty active in trying to prevent it at all costs. And the pill was almost fool proof, wasn’t it? All you had to do was remember to swallow it and the rest just took care of itself. So, when my period failed to arrive on time, I didn’t worry. In fact, I didn’t even notice at first, and when I did, about a week later, I was quick to put its absence down to just about everything but the obvious. I must have marked the wrong date on the calendar. It must be some kind of hormone thing. I must be stressed or overdoing things at work or coming down with a cold. I put off buying a test for as long as I could, wearing a sanitary towel in bed every night, expecting every morning to find it soaked, or at least trickled, in blood. Waiting for the inevitable crippling cramps, that would probably be worse than usual, what with being so late in coming, so I might even need a day off work, curled up with a hot water bottle on the sofa. I couldn’t see my boss being too pleased, could already imagine the muttered tut-tuts that signalled his utter inability to comprehend the inner workings of the female reproductive system but, if the bloody (ha, ha!) thing would just hurry up and come, then putting up with all that would be worth it in reassurance levels alone. It didn’t come. I re-checked the calendar and decided to wait. Just one more day. And then another. I was in denial, pushing the thought of what it might mean out of my head, telling no one. Burying my head in the sand doesn’t even come close to covering it. Of course I was pregnant, as the little blue line told me in no uncertain terms within a minute or two of dipping the stick into my traitorous wee. Still, it could be a mistake, couldn’t it? A false reading, or something contaminating the stick, or me not understanding the instructions properly. So I bought another pack, a different make this time, read the leaflet from beginning to end, waited another twenty-four hours to make sure my wee was extra early-morning strong, washed my hands and the sink and every little nook and cranny in the space between my legs … and the second test told me exactly the same thing. I was definitely, absolutely, one hundred per cent pregnant. It all felt so unlikely, so unexpected, so unreal. I was twenty-six, with no husband, no savings, no home of my own. I wasn’t ready. And I was pretty sure Dan wasn’t ready either. *** We were in his room when I told him. We’d not long been home from work and Dan was still wearing his suit, and a blue and grey striped tie that made him look like some sort of public schoolboy. Somehow the formality made it easier. Like it wasn’t the real Dan. Like I was telling it to someone else. ‘No! Oh, Kate, you can’t be.’ I watched his face turn white right in front of my eyes. ‘Yes, I can. And I am.’ ‘Well, how the hell did that happen?’ ‘The usual way, I imagine. As far as I remember it, you took my clothes off, we kissed for a while, and then you put your penis inside my …’ ‘Yes, okay. I know that part, so you can cut the sarcasm. I mean, how did it not work? The pill? I thought you said …’ ‘That it was safe? I know I did, and I believed it, honestly, but it looks like I was wrong.’ We both sat there, side by side, on the edge of his bed, and stared at everything but each other. The alarm clock ticked rhythmically beside us. We didn’t speak for what felt like ages. Well, what was there to say? The enormity of the situation was only just starting to sink in for me, and I’d had a few days to get used to it, so what must it be like for Dan? I could hear his flatmate Rich moving about in the kitchen down the hall, banging a spoon against a pan as he cooked something that was bound to be red and spicy – it always was – for our dinner, singing along tunelessly to the music on the radio. The Bee Gees, ‘Night Fever’, turned up way too loud. Even without being able to see him, I knew the moves he would be making as he danced like Travolta’s poor ginger-headed relation, jabbing his long spiky arms into the air, whatever was on the spoon flicking off and landing in little splatters across the tiles. Thank God he didn’t have a white suit! ‘So, what do you want to do?’ ‘Do?’ ‘About the pregnancy. About the baby?’ ‘I don’t know, Dan. At the moment I’m trying not to think about it as a baby at all. I’m only a couple of weeks overdue, so it’s very early days. I don’t suppose it even has arms or legs or anything yet.’ ‘Like some sort of amoeba thing, you mean? Just a shapeless blob?’ ‘Maybe.’ ‘We still have to do something though, don’t we? Make decisions, I mean. It may just be cells or jelly or whatever, and nothing like a proper baby yet, but it isn’t going to stay that way for long.’ ‘No.’ ‘So?’ I closed my eyes and screwed my fists into balls, feeling my jagged nails dig in to my palms. I’d been nibbling them a lot these last few days, and not very expertly either. ‘I don’t know. All right? I just don’t know. I need more time to think about it.’ ‘Okay. I guess I do too.’ We both jumped as Rich thumped hard on the door. ‘Dinner’s up, you two! Come and get it!’ ‘Shall we?’ Dan reached for my hand and pulled me to my feet. ‘Well, I don’t suppose putting it off for a few hours is going to make much difference, is it? And I’m starving.’ ‘Eating for two already?’ He forced a smile and ran his hands in little cautious circles over my tummy. ‘It’s not funny, Dan.’ ‘I know.’ He sat down again and untied his laces, slipping his feet out of his shoes, then pulled off his tie and flicked the top button of his shirt open. I caught a glimpse of a few lone hairs curling high on his chest, and there was a big hole in the toe of his sock. Dan. This was Dan. Ordinary, down to earth, and suddenly vulnerable, Dan. Not some stranger in a suit, but my Dan. This was the man I loved, the man I had accidentally made a baby with, and nothing could change that. It was done, and whatever happened now, we were in it together. ‘Not a word to Rich, all right?’ I slipped my hand into Dan’s and squeezed it. ‘Not so much as a hint.’ ‘Of course not. And if we decide to … you know … then there’ll be nothing to tell anyway, will there?’ ‘Decide to what, Dan?’ ‘Come on, Kate.’ He shook his head but he wouldn’t look at me. ‘That’s enough for now. No more talk. We need time, like we said, okay? Time to think, before we do or say anything else. Before we decide. Together. Now, let’s go out there, just act as normally as we can, and eat, shall we?’ But I knew what he meant. It was as near as either of us had come to saying the dreaded word out loud. Abortion. The word that had been banging around in my head, almost from the moment I’d known. But it wasn’t the only option, was it? And Dan obviously didn’t think so either, because three days later, kneeling amongst the damp autumn leaves rotting to mush on the path as I sat shivering on a bench in the park, he pulled out a ring in a red velvet box and asked me to marry him. *** There didn’t seem much point in waiting. Hanging on until we’d saved enough for a big glitzy wedding or the deposit on a house was pretty pointless in our situation, because it would have taken years, and we didn’t have years. We were getting married for two reasons only: because we loved each other and because I was pregnant. And it made sense to do it as soon as possible, before the baby was born. I hadn’t been inside a church, except for the usual hatches, matches and despatches, for years, so the local register office would have suited me just fine, but Dan had other ideas. ‘We Campbells are a very traditional family,’ he said, clasping my newly ringed hand in his and wearing his serious face. ‘So, if you don’t have any particular leanings towards a church around here, then I’d quite like us to do it back at home, in the church in the village. It’s a lovely old building, ivy on the walls and all that, and it’s where my parents got married, and Jane, and where we were both christened. Mum will take care of the flowers, and the food. It’s what she’s good at. And we can use the barn again, for the party afterwards. It’ll be easy to arrange – and quick – and it will hardly cost us anything. What do you think?’ ‘I suppose we could. But how about my family? My friends? My mum?’ ‘They can all come down. It’s not far on the train. Your mum will be very welcome to come and stay at the farm, of course, for a few days. Or for as long as she likes. And Trevor.’ ‘Trevor?’ ‘Well, she’ll want him there, won’t she? And you’ll need him there to give you away …’ ‘Oh, no, I won’t.’ ‘Sorry. I just thought that, without a dad, he would be the next best thing, and you might …’ ‘No way!’ ‘Well, who then?’ ‘I don’t know. Can’t your dad do it?’ ‘I don’t think it works like that. It’s meant to be someone from your family, someone handing you over to me. You know, body and soul, to be my chattel for ever, in exchange for a few camels, that kind of thing. And so I can have my wicked way with you whenever I want to!’ ‘Well, it will be pretty obvious to everyone that you already have if we don’t get a move on. I would like to be able to squeeze into an at least half-decent dress on the day. Not some great baggy tent thing that the guests are likely to mistake for a marquee! Maybe I can have Mum do the giving-away bit?’ ‘Okay. It’s a bit unconventional, but we can ask. The vicar’s a family friend – well, a sort of second cousin, actually – so I don’t think he’ll say no. So that’s it? We can do it? Get married in Somerset? Set a date?’ Oh, he could be persuasive when he wanted to be, but I didn’t have an alternative plan, or the energy to argue. In fact, sitting down with my feet up and letting Molly Campbell sort it all out for me was actually quite an attractive prospect. ‘Yes, we can. But soon, all right? Before I’m the biggest balloon in the barn, and definitely before I’m anywhere near ready to pop!’ ‘We’ll tell them at Christmas, when everyone’s in a good mood and feeling festive. We can go down there together, or do it on the phone. Whichever you prefer. And talk to the vicar, to book a date. There’s nothing like news of a new baby to make Christmas complete!’ ‘I’m not the bloody Virgin Mary, Dan. And this,’ I lay my hand on my tummy and patted it, ‘is not the baby Jesus.’ He laughed. ‘I know. And there will be no mangers, I promise, even if we do have the wedding in the barn.’ Chapter 6 (#ulink_5f844a3c-e904-54c0-aea9-0908f0b8ea56) Beth, 2017 ‘It’s a very long way to come just for a spa! Surely there was somewhere nearer to home?’ Beth dragged her case up the hotel steps and banged her way through the revolving doors. ‘All the time we were stuck on that stupid train we could have been lying back luxuriating in a whirlpool bath or whacking down a cocktail or three in the bar.’ ‘Oh, stop your moaning. We’re here now, aren’t we?’ Jenny followed in her wake, stopping in the foyer to admire the giant floral displays and gaze up at the glittering chandeliers. ‘And, you have to admit, it looks great!’ ‘Wait until we’ve seen our room, dumped this lot and found our way to the pool, and then I’ll tell you if it’s great.’ ‘Oh, you are such a spoilsport sometimes. We got it half price, remember? And there’s a complimentary head massage thrown in later on, so let’s just get on and enjoy it all, shall we? And the first drink is on me, by the way.’ ‘Well, now you’re talking. And, while you’re doing that, you can tell me why we’re really here.’ ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ ‘Oh, yes, you do! We didn’t come all the way up here just to eat three calorie-controlled meals a day and get our heads rubbed, and you know it.’ ‘Campbell. Room for two. We have booked.’ Jenny had turned away and was sorting out the room keys with the woman behind the reception desk, but not before Beth had seen the red flush that was flooding her face and making its way up the back of her neck. She knew damn well there was more to this trip than her sneaky so-called sister was letting on. The lift came quickly and transported them just as quickly up to Room 316. ‘Ooh, look, there’s a mini-bar!’ Beth was working her way around the room, opening cupboards and exploring light switches before Jenny had so much as found somewhere to put her case down. ‘Little dinky bottles of wine. Coke. Lager. They’ve even got peanuts!’ ‘And they’ll all cost a fortune. We don’t need them, Beth. Just wait until we get to the bar. Or, better still, find a shop and stock up with our own supplies. No point throwing money away.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ Reluctantly, Beth closed the fridge door and started pulling clothes out of her case and chucking them all over the bed by the window. ‘You always were the voice of reason, weren’t you? Dad’s daughter, that’s for sure! He’ll make an accountant out of you yet!’ ‘I don’t think so. All those boring spreadsheets and columns of numbers you have to balance. There’s nothing I’d like less.’ ‘Except dipping your hands into vats of smelly perming lotion and confronting other people’s nits, like me, I bet!’ ‘Believe me, wiping old men’s bums comes pretty close!’ ‘Ugh! Rather you than me.’ Beth sat down among the piles of clothes on the bed. ‘I didn’t always want to be a hairdresser, you know. If Mum and Dad had been a bit better off, I’d have liked to have ballet lessons or learned the piano or gone off to some posh stage school and learned to act and sing, and then I might even be famous by now. Musicals, maybe. I can just see myself as Dorothy, tripping down the yellow brick road in a pair of ruby slippers, or swishing my skirts about being Nancy in Oliver, or having a bash at Evita … Making a living with a microphone in my hand, not scissors and a soggy towel.’ ‘I remember! You dancing about all the time when we were kids, like some demented prima donna. But I have to admit, you can sing pretty well. A lot better than me, anyway. And it’s never too late, you know.’ ‘Oh, I think it is.’ Beth stood up, bounced onto her toes and did an exaggerated twirl. ‘It’s just me, hankering after what I can’t have and dreaming about what might have been, just like everybody else. Hairdressing’s okay, really, and I am pretty good at it, though I say so myself, but the best bit about coming away like this is the not having to stand up all day, listening to people’s boring holiday stories. It wouldn’t be so bad if I had a proper holiday of my own to look forward to. Still, this will do for now. Pool first, is it? I still feel all hot and sticky from the journey. Then I’ll take you up on the offer of that drink you promised me.’ ‘I’m not so sure about that. Not now you’ve nabbed the best bed. Just look at that view. And what have I got over on my side of the room? A kettle, a pile of tourist leaflets and three steps nearer to the toilet! Whatever happened to democracy?’ Jenny stood with her hands on her hips, trying to look stern, but there was a twinkle in her eyes that made it clear it didn’t really matter. ‘We could have tossed for it.’ ‘Now who’s moaning?’ Beth laughed, burst into a rousing chorus of ‘Don’t Cry for me, Argentina’, and disappeared into the bathroom with a swimsuit in one hand and a bottle of screw-top wine she’d just grabbed from the mini-bar in the other. *** ‘We need to go into dinner early tonight.’ They’d spent most of Thursday, barring a break for lunch, having their backs pummelled by a rather over-zealous and over-talkative woman with green fingernails and a white coat, and then lazing about in the water to giggle about it and get over it. Now Jenny was drying her still-tangled hair under a particularly noisy dryer in the ladies’ changing room. It didn’t seem to occur to her just how loudly she was speaking. ‘Ssshh!’ Beth put her index finger up to her lips, noticed how horribly wrinkled it was from being too long under water, and put it down again. ‘We don’t want the whole hotel to know.’ ‘Sorry!’ Jenny mouthed, now so quietly Beth could hardly hear her at all. She flicked the switch off to silence the dryer and put it back into its holder on the wall. ‘So, why do we have to eat early? I thought eight o’clock worked really well last night. Just right for a few drinks before and a bit of TV after. What’s your hurry? Or, more to the point, what’s your game? I know you’re up to something.’ Jenny didn’t answer straight away, choosing to fiddle a bit more with her hair before throwing her damp towel into the wicker laundry bin provided and turning back towards her. Beth was sure she was looking especially shifty, the way she used to when she’d broken a plate and didn’t want Mum to know, or when she’d sneakily borrowed a top from her or Nat and tried to put it back without owning up to the streaks of make-up down the front. ‘And, while we’re at it … You told Natalie this place was somewhere at the seaside, and it’s not, is it? We’re miles from the sea. Now, why would you do that? What if she expects a postcard or a stick of rock or something? We won’t even be going back with sand in our shoes!’ ‘Oh, Beth, you are always so suspicious.’ ‘With every reason, it seems to me. Now, come on, spill!’ ‘Well …’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Well, there’s someone I’ve arranged for us to meet. This evening, at half-past seven.’ ‘Now we’re getting somewhere. The truth at last. So, what sort of someone? And why’s it so secret that you couldn’t tell me before now? Or Nat? What are you up to, Jen? It’s not some internet date or something like that, is it? Someone you were too scared to meet in the flesh without a chaperone? Because I’m not playing along unless you tell me. And I don’t fancy playing gooseberry either. I’ll get a table for one at eight and then have an early night, and you can go and meet your mystery person by yourself!’ Jenny was squirming now. ‘Nat’s got enough on her plate, with the wedding to sort out. I didn’t want to add to that. And if I’d told you any sooner you might have blabbed. Or refused to come with me. And I needed you to come with me …’ ‘So, one: this is going to worry Nat, and two: I can’t be trusted to keep my mouth shut. Charming, I’m sure! So, who the hell are we meeting, Jen?’ ‘Well … look, it might all come to nothing. I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, that’s all. It was hard enough to track her down at all, and even harder to talk her into meeting up.’ ‘Her?’ ‘Yes. It’s Laura.’ ‘Ollie’s Laura?’ Beth’s eyes had widened almost as much as her mouth, which was now gaping open in shock. ‘Well, not Ollie’s any more, obviously, seeing as she left him months ago. But I kind of hoped that now the dust has settled, I might be able to talk her into coming back. Ollie misses her so much. I miss her. But there’s something you need to know, Beth. Because you’ll realise anyway, as soon as you see her.’ ‘She’s not married someone else, has she? Or got engaged? Not so soon. Ollie will be heartbroken if she has. Not that he isn’t already, poor bugger.’ ‘No. Not married.’ Jenny picked up her bag and started back towards their room. ‘But she is six months pregnant.’ Chapter 7 (#ulink_00df16fd-0879-5d7a-a862-d3c3c4b4f974) Kate, 1979 We opted for a January wedding. It was long enough after Christmas for the shops to be open again and decoration-free, so we could at least hope that any presents would be wrapped in something other than silver foil with robins on it. And for the trains to be running at half empty again, with the fare prices back to normal. But soon enough to beat the bulge. The last thing I wanted was for my tummy to dominate not only the photos, but the gossip too, on what was supposed to be the most wonderful day of my life. Mum had taken the news well. Naturally she would have preferred her only daughter to be a shining example of purity, gliding down the aisle in a dress like a meringue, but the thought of an imminent grandchild soon overrode all that. And she liked the fact that I’d told her first, before Dan’s mum, who she had still to meet. ‘You must let Trevor and me help pay for the wedding,’ she insisted. ‘I know you say it won’t be a grand affair, but maybe we could cover the cost of the car or your dress or something. And buy the pram. Grandmas always buy the pram, you know. It gives us the right to first push round the park!’ I liked seeing Mum so happy. I had wondered if the inevitable reminders of her own wedding day might have been a bit much for her, but she didn’t say anything. Only that Dad would have been so proud, and would have loved to be there, taking me down the aisle. And that being asked to do it in his place was absolutely the next best thing. She drove down with Trevor. They offered us a lift too, but I knew I’d rather go on the train. That way, Dan and I, and my friend Linda from work, could all travel together. Linda had agreed to be my chief bridesmaid – my only bridesmaid – and the Campbells had offered us rooms at the farm the night before the ceremony, and for a few days afterwards too, if we wanted to stay on. We let Mum take all the bags in the car, though. My dress and Linda’s, our posh handbags and new satin shoes, Dan’s suit, and a big vanity case stuffed with toiletries and lipstick and lemon-scented shampoo. All we had to carry with us was a packed lunch that Linda and the other girls at work had insisted on putting together, made up of all the posh things we would never normally have eaten but that felt somehow appropriate for a bride and groom on their way to seal their fate. Smoked salmon sandwich triangles with the crusts cut off, strawberries (God knows where they got them from in January!), fancy chocolates in an even fancier box. There were a couple of quail’s eggs too, still in their shells, and wrapped up tightly in foil, although none of was quite sure what to do with them, or if we actually fancied trying them at all. But it was the thought that counted and, by the time we arrived, a good hour ahead of Mum and Trevor, and with Dan and Linda already a bit tipsy on the wine I had righteously, as a woman in a certain condition, refused to drink, it dawned on me at last that we were really going to do this. In less than forty-eight hours I was going to be the new, and ever expanding, Mrs Dan Campbell. The dress. What can I say about the dress? We did try a few bridal shops, Mum and me, and a couple of local dressmakers who worked from their front rooms, but apparently it takes time to make one, a proper posh one anyway, and time was something I didn’t have a lot of. With all the detailed measuring involved, I also knew damn well that, weeks later, the thing would never fit the way it should, unless I came clean about being up the duff. And why should I? To some total stranger. So, we trawled around the ordinary shops, the department stores and boutiques, looking for something at least partially white, and long, and a teensy bit loose. What we found was pretty, in its own hippy kind of way. It was made of thin creamy-coloured cheesecloth, with several layers of lining to give it a bit of shape and stop the sun shining right through and revealing my knickers, a wide lace-edged neckline, and a big bow that tied at the back. I twirled about in front of the full-length mirror in a changing room no bigger than an under-stairs cupboard, and tried to imagine myself wearing it in the church. Was it just a touch too ordinary? A touch too flimsy? Would I be too cold? What would it look like from behind? That was the view everyone was going to get throughout the ceremony, after all, except for the groom and the vicar. I bought it, though. Or Mum did, insisting on paying for the shoes too. I held it again now, staring out at the fields, the steeple of the small village church poking its old head above the lines of leaf-stripped trees. I was in the same bedroom I’d had that first time I’d visited the farm, but sharing with Linda this time. A vase of holly, packed with fat red berries, had replaced the flowers, but everything else was just the same. I had hoped we might have snow to make things just a little more magical, but despite a harsh grey sky and a chilly draught that seeped in through the gaps around the ancient windows, it had not obliged. Linda and I had unpacked the bags all over the bed, declaring the room a girls-only zone and banning Dan, and in fact anyone of the male persuasion, from crossing the threshold at any time from now until the wedding was over, and were now giggling like tipsy teenagers as we moved an old towelling dressing gown, trying to guess who it belonged to, and hung our dresses in its place on the hook on the back of the door. ‘You sure you want to do this, Kate?’ Linda said, shoving the messy heap of toiletries and underwear aside and flopping down flat on her back on the eiderdown. ‘It’s a bit late to ask me that now, isn’t it?’ ‘Of course not. It’s never too late, right up to the bit where you say ‘I do.’ A cousin of mine did a runner the moment she stood in the church doorway and saw all those people inside in their fancy hats, all standing up and turning to look at her when the organ started knocking out the music. She said that was when it all became real. What she was doing, and committing to, for ever. All that expectation on their faces. Up until then it had just been a fantasy thing, the chance to dress up and be the centre of attention. She ended up being that, all right, legging it down the road in her wedding dress and hopping on the first bus that came along!’ ‘Linda! I’m not going to do anything like that, all right? I am getting married because I want to.’ ‘And because you have to.’ ‘Oh, don’t say it like that. I didn’t have to do it at all. There are always other options, but we chose not to take them. So, no, I am not backing out. And neither is Dan.’ ‘Fine. Just felt I had to ask. A bridesmaid’s duty and all that. Especially as you haven’t got a dad to do it.’ ‘Is that what dads do? Is that why you see them whispering a few last words to the bride before they come arm in arm down the aisle? It’s the ‘last chance to stop it all’ speech, is it?’ ‘Do you know, Kate, I think it quite often is. Really. Even when dads have spent all that money they will still abandon the whole thing if they think for a moment that their precious little girl might be making a mistake.’ ‘Oh, stop it. You’re making me cry now.’ Thinking about my dad did that, a lot. Would he have approved of Dan, considered him the right choice, or urged me not to be hurried into something I might regret? I’d never know, would I? ‘Sorry. Had to be done. But now I am going to be the perfect bridesmaid and make sure you are extra specially cosseted and super-happy, like a beautiful blushing bride should be.’ Linda bounced back upright, swung her legs over onto the faded rag rug beside the bed, and made for the door. ‘Blushing?’ ‘Well, I could have said blooming, but we don’t want the guests to put two and two together, do we? Now, where’s the toilet? I’m bursting after all that drink I put away on the train.’ *** ‘Ready?’ Linda put the hairbrush down, tweaked a few loose strands around my face, and gazed into the mirror. ‘I think so.’ ‘You look lovely.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘And Dan will think so too. He’ll be bowled over, I just know it.’ Linda looked at her watch. ‘In around … forty eight minutes. Assuming he turns up!’ ‘Well, if he doesn’t, he won’t be hard to track down and drag back, will he? Not in a village this size, where most of the locals have shotguns! And he’s not likely to get lost or stuck in traffic, either, when the church is only five minutes down the lane.’ ‘I guess the wedding’s going ahead, then! How are you feeling? Nervous?’ ‘A bit sick, actually. And I’ve got butterflies in my tummy, bumping around so much they must think they’re having a party!’ ‘Want a tablet? ‘ I put a hand on my tummy and shook my head. ‘Better not.’ ‘Brandy?’ I laughed. ‘I’d love one, but …’ ‘Better not?’ ‘It’s no joke being pregnant, is it? So many things I can’t have, can’t do …’ ‘Is sex allowed?’ ‘Linda!’ ‘Well, it is your wedding night tonight. It’s expected. And it’d be a shame not to, wouldn’t it? Grounds for annulment if the deed doesn’t get done, so I hear.’ ‘Probably not in our case, with a baby on the way. It’s pretty clear the deed’s already been done! And who says either of us would want an annulment anyway? This marriage is for keeps.’ It took me a while to realise that the pains might be more than just nerves. The sick feeling was getting worse, and my back was hurting. It reminded me of the worst kind of periods, the ones that creep up on you and strike right out of the blue and take your whole body over. From okay to agony in minutes, so all you want is a bed and a hot water bottle, and to be left alone to curl up and cry. But this couldn’t be a period, could it? I hadn’t had one of those in a while. And the chances of being left alone, today of all days, were absolutely zero. ‘I think I need to have a bit of a lie down, Lin.’ I turned away from the dressing table and stood up, clutching the edge to stop me from wobbling. ‘Just for a moment or two. I don’t feel quite right all of a sudden. How long have we got?’ She checked her watch again. ‘Twenty-two minutes and …’ She giggled. ‘Fifteen seconds!’ ‘You know, I might have to risk a couple of tablets after all, just to sort me out before we set off.’ ‘Oh, my God!’ ‘What? What’s the matter?’ Linda’s hands had flown up to cover her mouth and she was staring at me as if she’d seen a ghost. Suddenly she wasn’t laughing any more. ‘I don’t want to panic you, Kate, but I think you should just take a look over your shoulder. In the mirror. Your dress …’ So I looked, thinking maybe there was a spider on my back, or my zip had burst open at the seams, but no. It was much, much worse than that. There, seeping through my lovely cream dress, right on the bit I’d been sitting on just seconds before, was a small red stain. ‘No! No, it can’t be. Not blood.’ I wanted to collapse in a heap, to sit right back down again and tell myself I was wrong, but I knew I wasn’t. ‘Can it?’ ‘I’m pretty sure it is. What are you thinking, Kate? Is it normal to bleed this far into a pregnancy? Like a show or something?’ ‘I don’t think so. And it hurts, Lin. It bloody hurts. This can only be a miscarriage, can’t it? I must be losing it. Oh, hell, what do we do? What do I do?’ ‘I don’t know.’ She was looking as pale and helpless as I felt. ‘Call a doctor? Ambulance? For now, at least lie down flat and cross your legs or something, try to keep it in …’ ‘But my dress?’ ‘Come on, pull it off quickly … Okay. It’s not too bad. We can sponge it off, and stick it under a hairdryer or something. But I don’t think the dress should be our main worry here, do you? Here …’ She grabbed the old dressing gown we’d found behind the door. ‘Put this towelling thing on the bed and lie down on it, and keep still. Don’t move, okay? Shall I try to find Dan?’ ‘No. Not Dan. He’ll be at the church by now. Let’s not worry him yet. Not until we know …’ ‘Okay, you’re right. But we need help. Stay here, and don’t panic, all right? I’m going to get your mum … or Molly.’ ‘Mum. Get Mum. Everybody else will have already left the house.’ I listened to her feet thundering away down the stairs, leaving just an eerie silence into which thumped my own heartbeat, faster, louder than I had ever heard it before. And then, from across the fields, the church bells started to ring. Ding-dong-ding-dong. Ding-dong-ding-dong. A happy tune that just kept repeating itself, over and over, as if it was waiting for something to happen and wouldn’t stop until it did. My wedding. Mine and Dan’s. I lay still and waited for Linda to come back. Maybe she’d have a sanitary towel in her luggage. If not, I’d wrap myself layers deep in every pair of knickers I could find, pad them out with toilet paper or cotton wool, anything to hold things at bay. For an hour. Just an hour, that’s all I needed, or maybe two. For me to get to that church, and for Mum to walk me down the aisle, and for me to stand there just long enough to say the words that would turn me into the new Mrs Dan Campbell, and to get our photos done outside. Then they could cart me off to hospital, or confine me to bed, or hang me upside down with my legs in the air, or whatever it was they had to do. But for now, it was going to take more than a drop of blood to stop me. The bells were calling and I was going to that wedding, my wedding, come hell or high water. Or quite possibly both. Chapter 8 (#ulink_d9342296-c369-540f-868a-3fa57c14210c) Jenny, 2017 When Jenny spotted Laura coming towards them along the street, she looked different somehow. It wasn’t just the obvious pregnancy bump emerging from the front of her open coat. It was her thin, pale face, and the way she walked, slowly, with her head down, as if she was finding something vaguely fascinating about her own feet. She wasn’t looking radiant or blooming or any of that stuff. Not like a woman who had finally achieved her life’s dream. In fact, she just looked small and lost, and defeated. Jenny rushed forward and flung her arms around her. ‘Oh, Laura. It’s so good to see you.’ ‘You too.’ ‘Are you okay? We’ve all been so worried about you.’ Laura looked past Jenny at Beth and gave a little wave. ‘Hi, Beth. I didn’t know you’d be here as well.’ ‘Sorry about that.’ Jenny linked her arm through Laura’s and started to lead her towards the door of the pub where they had agreed to meet. ‘I just thought …’ ‘Safety in numbers? Or that it would be easier for two of you to grab me if I tried to run away again?’ ‘No. No, not at all. But you’re family, aren’t you? Or as good as. And I thought, hoped, that if we both came, you’d feel more … well, loved, I suppose. And missed.’ ‘Right.’ They found a table in a corner and took off their coats. ‘Wow! It’s real, isn’t it?’ Jenny gazed at Laura’s unfamiliar shape in awe. ‘You really are having a baby!’ ‘Of course I am! Did you think I was lying? Or that it was just wishful thinking?’ ‘Sorry. Course not. It’s just so lovely to see, after all the previous … Oh, you know what I mean. Let me get everyone a drink. White wine, Beth? And …’ ‘No alcohol for me, obviously. Just an orange juice, please.’ Jenny went to the bar. There was a queue, but leaving the others alone together for a while might not be a bad idea. Beth could be very persuasive when she wanted to be. And someone had to persuade Laura to come home, for Ollie’s sake, before he drank himself into a hospital bed, or worse. If only Laura’s new no-alcohol rule applied to him! When she returned to their table, they were talking about something totally different. A book they had both read, and the TV adaptation of it that had got them both swooning over the leading man. Jenny put the drinks down in front of them and waited for a lull in the conversation. ‘Oh, it’s so nice to be back together,’ she said, taking a sip. ‘It’s just like old times.’ ‘No Nat? Kate? I’m surprised you didn’t hire a minibus and bring the whole family.’ ‘Don’t be daft. Mum’s gone off somewhere herself for a few days anyway, so she doesn’t even know we’re away from home. And Nat’s up to her eyes in wedding planning. Oh, I do wish you’d come, Laura. We’d all love you to be there. You do know where it is, don’t you? And the date?’ ‘Of course I do. Unless she’s done a massive u-turn, the details of this wedding have been set in stone for what seems like years! But … oh, you know. It’s still weeks away. A long way off. Anything could happen. You didn’t tell her, though, did you? Nat? About finding me?’ ‘No. Poor girl’s got enough to worry about.’ ‘Is that what I am?’ Laura cut in. ‘Just another thing to worry about?’ Jenny put her hand on Laura’s. It was surprisingly cold. ‘Well, we have been worried. All of us. You’ve no idea how hard I had to work to track you down. Finding your aunt, and then twisting her arm to get even a hint of where you might be.’ ‘So, why did you?’ ‘To start with, it was just curiosity. To find out where you’d gone and to make sure you were okay. But then, when I dragged it out of you about the baby … that changed things. And the truth is that I brought Beth with me because … well, if I couldn’t get you to come back home, then I hoped maybe Beth could.’ ‘I haven’t said anything about coming back home.’ ‘No, I know. But now you’re having a baby – Ollie’s baby – I thought maybe you would. Or at least think about it. Babies need two parents; parents who stick together whatever life throws at them …’ ‘Of course they do. And you know about that more than most. But this is different.’ ‘Is it?’ ‘You haven’t told him, have you?’ ‘Ollie? No. It’s been hard not to, though. I haven’t told anyone at all, not even Beth until this afternoon. I promised I wouldn’t, so I won’t.’ ‘So, why haven’t you told him yourself?’ Beth had been saying very little up until now, but she’d finally asked out loud what Jenny had been dying to ask ever since she’d first found out, although she wouldn’t have chosen to come out with it quite so bluntly. ‘Only, I do think he has a right to know, don’t you? Unless he’s not the father, of course.’ There was a stunned silence, broken only by a strangled sob coming from somewhere deep down in Laura’s throat. ‘Is that what you think of me, Beth? Really?’ ‘I don’t know what to think, actually. I thought you left because you couldn’t give him a baby, and now here you are, clearly several months gone – which is what you both said you wanted so much – and you’re cutting him out of the equation altogether. It doesn’t make any sense to me.’ ‘Beth!’ Jenny turned towards her sister and tried to stop her from saying anything else, but it was too late. Laura was already up and shoving her arms down the sleeves of her coat. ‘I shouldn’t have come,’ she said, pushing through the gap between them as best she could, one hand protectively covering her bump. ‘I knew you wouldn’t understand. Any of you.’ Jenny followed her out into the street. Pregnant women not being the fastest of movers, she wasn’t too difficult to catch up with. ‘Laura. Wait!’ ‘What for? I came because I thought it might be good to see you, and maybe to try to explain. I didn’t expect you to start ganging up on me.’ ‘That’s not what we’re trying to do. Honestly. Come back inside, Laura. Please. We’ll go easy on you, I promise. And I do keep my promises, as you well know. If I didn’t, it would be Ollie standing here right now, pleading with you. Not me.’ Laura hesitated for a moment, but Jenny could tell she had given in. In fact, there seemed very little fight left in her at all. ‘All right. I’ll come in, but that doesn’t mean I’m coming back home, or telling Ollie. Not right now, anyway. Just because you make all these rash promises doesn’t mean that I have to, okay?’ Jenny slid her arm through Laura’s. ‘Of course you don’t. Whatever you want is fine by me. But I do want to hear all about junior here. Boy or girl? Due date? Possible names? Everything. Wow, Laura, I’m going to be an auntie, aren’t I?’ She laughed. ‘That sounds really funny, doesn’t it? Auntie, aren’t I! But I am. Going to be an auntie. Auntie Jen, the practical one, that’ll be me, opening it a savings account and buying it sensible shoes. And Auntie Beth can take it partying and do its hair, and Nat can … oh, I don’t know, take it for wheelie spins in her chair! It’s going to be just great.’ ‘Slow down, Jen. This baby isn’t even born yet, and on my past record it still might not be.’ ‘But you’re six months gone. You won’t miscarry this one. Not now. You’re home and dry!’ ‘If only I could believe that, but there’s still a long way to go. Anything could happen. Anything could still go wrong. And not a day goes by, Jen, not an hour or a minute when I don’t worry that it will.’ Jenny didn’t know what to say. The sheer misery etched on Laura’s face brought tears stinging into her own eyes. ‘It will be all right, Laura.’ ‘Will it? You can’t possibly know that. And it’s what I thought the first time, isn’t it? And the second. And this is the fourth, remember. Four! I hardly sleep, and when I do I just dream these horrible dreams. I can’t settle, or relax, or plan. Ever. It’s like I’m in a living nightmare, Jen, and it’s one I’m not going to wake up from until this baby is born safely, all in one piece, and lying in my arms. Do you think I could put Ollie through all this too? No! Never. It’s best he doesn’t know, doesn’t have to feel what I’m feeling, fret and stress and tie himself up in knots. Best he doesn’t have to go on blaming himself – or me.’ ‘Blaming? For what?’ ‘Oh, God, Jen, you really don’t understand, do you? Please, let’s go back in to Beth and find something else to talk about for once. Books, clothes, the sodding weather if we have to. But any more baby talk and I think I just might explode!’ Chapter 9 (#ulink_235a1197-155f-5f06-ac46-d45f7d9a1f92) Kate, 1979 I packed my pants with a double layer of padding, swallowed three aspirins, and wore the dress back to front. Nobody would know. The neckline was a bit higher at the front than it would have been and the shaping, such as it was, was all wrong (thank God for small breasts), but the giant ribbons attached at the sides had been as easy to tie one way around as they had the other, and I was now eternally grateful I hadn’t gone for something with a train that would have made such improvising pretty much impossible. The small stain, still damp and not quite invisible, despite Linda’s frantic scrubbing, was now at the front of the dress, disguised, along with my bump, by the long trailing bouquet I was clutching so tightly that my knuckles had gone white. Mum gripped my hand on the step. ‘Sure you’re okay to do this, love?’ she said, looking anxious. ‘Maybe you should have stayed lying down. It might make a difference.’ ‘I doubt it. I don’t think babies fall out just because the mother is upright, do you? If I’m going to lose it, there’s not a lot I can do to stop it now. And I will see a doctor as soon as I can, I promise. But I think we all know it might already be too late.’ I took a pace forward to the door and tried not to think about what was happening inside my own body. If I’d thought too hard about it I would probably have crumpled, gone in there crying my eyes out, tripped over my own feet or something. Somehow it was easier to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t happening, tell myself that none of it was true. This baby had not been planned but over the last few weeks I had grown to love it, to want it. And now all I wanted was for it to hang on and live, to become a part of our brand-new family. Baby Blob, that was what Dan had taken to calling her, his hand stroking over my belly, his ear pushed against my skin as if he could hear her breathe. Her? Why did we just both assume it was a she? Little Baby Blob. No, don’t think about it. Concentrate on what’s happening right now. The wedding. Dan. Us … Peering into the church, I could just see him standing at the front. Dan, with his back to me, hopping from foot to foot and straightening his tie, and Rich standing beside him, fiddling with something in his pocket. Probably the rings. And between them and me, a small rolling sea of heads and hats, a general murmuring of whispered conversation, and an unmistakable air of anticipation. I was late. Only by ten minutes, which we’d needed to try to sort out the dress, but that was probably enough to get tongues wagging. Where is she? Is something wrong? Is she going to turn up? The flash of an image popped into my head, of that woman Linda knew, seeing it all ahead of her, turning away and running scared, all the way to the bus. But not me. For better or worse, that’s what this was all about. And things didn’t come much worse than this. ‘Do you want me to slip in there and have a word with Dan? In private? Tell him what’s happening?’ Mum asked, her forehead creased into a frown, as she pulled a mirror from her handbag and had a last check of her lipstick. She looked, like me, as if all she really wanted was to get on with it, get it over with, as quickly as possible. ‘No, Mum. It’s not as if there’s anything he can do. And you whispering in his ear in front of that lot in there could hardly be less private, could it? Let him enjoy his own wedding, eh? No point all of us worrying ourselves sick, is there? Ready, Lin?’ Linda nodded as she pulled my hem into line and did a final tweak of my hair. ‘Then, let’s get in there, shall we? There’ll be time enough to tell Dan afterwards. When it’s too late for him to change his mind!’ They both laughed in a muted, nervous kind of way, but a little piece of me wondered if it was true. If he was only marrying me because of the baby, and now there was no baby … The bells stopped ringing then and, having spotted us waiting in the open doorway, the organist started up and everyone suddenly stood and turned and stared. It was too late to do anything but go through with it. I grabbed Mum’s arm and pulled my flowers hard against me. Then, taking a big collective breath, all three of us stepped over the threshold and into the church, and made our way, very slowly, up the aisle. *** Was that it? The moment I sealed my fate. Our fate? Walking down the aisle without telling him? Without saying a word? I knew it was the baby – the accidental baby – that had brought us there, to that day, that church, that rushed decision we might never otherwise have made. And now there might not be a baby, I could have stopped it all, the whole charade. Not that he ever complained, but it must have crossed his mind from time to time, later on, mustn’t it? That I’d tricked him somehow, not given him the choice. I was wrong. I know that now. I could have – should have – just told him, stopped the wedding, set him free. Or at least given him the option. But I didn’t. It wasn’t easy to think straight. Everything was happening too quickly. I was bleeding, I was in pain, I wasn’t in control. Yes, I know they just sound like excuses now, but it would have taken more courage than I could muster to stop it. All those people, all that expectation, and no convenient bus waiting to whisk me away, blood-stained dress flapping wildly in the wind. I loved Dan. Reliable, responsible, oh-so-conventional Dan, wearing a new suit and a carnation, and already there, waiting for me at the front of the church. Not only for me, but for our little blob of a baby too, because we came as a package now, didn’t we? One hidden away inside the other, like Russian dolls. I should have told him the package had come undone, that our plans were already unravelling like an unruly ball of string. I should have given him the choice, to tie the knot or let it go, but I didn’t say a word, until it was too late. It was the first big lie in our relationship, the first truly unforgivable thing I had ever done. And no way to embark on a life, a marriage … I think I may have been paying for it ever since. *** According to Rich, who’d travelled down by train early that morning with three more of Dan’s friends, and with the sole intention, best-man duties aside, of having a bloody good time, the reception was a hoot. Knowing how much booze that lot were able to put down their gullets, and Rich in particular, I was surprised he was able to remember it at all. ‘These country folk sure know how to party, don’t they?’ he said, perched by the side of my hospital bed, with one elbow on the blankets, and working his way through the grapes he’d brought with him, spitting the pips into his hand. ‘Drinking cider and chomping through mounds of food – delicious, by the way – and dancing the night away like there was no tomorrow. How your dad manages to get up and milk cows after a night like that I’ll never know. I take my hat off to him. My head’s still pounding like a sledgehammer, and I left before any of them. And the price of a taxi at that time of night, you wouldn’t believe! It was only five miles to our hotel too. Should have walked.’ Dan chuckled. ‘Walked? Staggered, more like, knowing you lot. And down those little dark lanes? You’d have ended up in a ditch.’ ‘Bit rough though, wasn’t it? You two missing your own reception.’ ‘At least we made it to the wedding. That’s the most important thing.’ Dan squeezed my hand and I felt my new ring push its way gently into my flesh. His eyes were looking watery again and he quickly rubbed a sleeve over them. He’d been with me all night, dozing beside me in a chair, and had held my hand this morning, just as he was doing now, when the scan had shown us what we already knew. The baby was gone. Rich looked uncomfortable, and I knew it wasn’t just because of his hangover or the hard plastic chair he was sitting on. He wasn’t good with emotional stuff, and the sight of his best mate on the verge of tears was not something he knew how to deal with. ‘Well, I just wanted to look in before I left,’ he said, bundling the last of the bunch of grapes, which by now wasn’t much more than a collection of stalks, back into their paper bag and dropping them on the bedside cabinet. He held out a hand to shake, but Dan walked around the bed and pulled him into an awkward bear hug. ‘Thanks for coming, mate. And, you know … for not losing the rings and everything.’ ‘My pleasure. And I’m sorry about the baby.’ ‘Yeah, I know.’ We watched in silence as Rich walked away down the ward, turning to wave before heading out towards the lifts. Dan idly lifted up the paper bag, opened it and peered inside. ‘Grape?’ he said, plonking himself down on the bed and holding it out to me. ‘I don’t really fancy them now. Not having seen him spitting all those pips.’ ‘Cup of tea, then?’ ‘I’d love one. Although, now I’m not pregnant any more, I suppose we should push the boat out and have a proper drink. Of course, we may have to improvise a bit until we get out of here.’ ‘Champagne, to celebrate?’ ‘Well, maybe not celebrate exactly, in the circumstances. But at least to toast our future together, as we didn’t get to do it at the reception. Which reminds me, I never got to hear your speech, did I? Or the best man’s.’ ‘Good job. They were rubbish anyway.’ And that was how our married life began. Just the two of us, where there should have been three, trying desperately hard not to cry, and sipping weak hospital tea with our eyes shut, pretending it was bursting with bubbles. NUMBER TWO (#ulink_9cd851a5-3ae9-516f-9871-174c35b648d5) Chapter 10 (#ulink_60883e2f-715b-5964-a1cc-2ee0c200ae11) Natalie, 2017 ‘Welcome home, you two.’ Natalie watched her sisters drop their coats and bags in the hall and went back to stirring a bowl of pasta sauce on the hob. She lifted the wooden spoon, licked it carefully – they were family so nobody would mind – then put it back into the pan. ‘So, what did you get up to on this spa break of yours?’ ‘Oh, you know, just chilling out really,’ Beth said, bounding into the kitchen and sniffing the air appreciatively. ‘Lettuce leaves for lunch, a bit of swimming, some woman bashing away at our backs and rubbing our heads too hard. That kind of thing.’ ‘Did you get to the beach?’ ‘Not really the weather for it.’ ‘And we didn’t get a lot of time,’ Jenny cut in, slipping into a chair and fiddling with the cutlery Natalie had already laid on the table. ‘So, sorry we didn’t bring you anything back.’ ‘I didn’t expect you to.’ ‘When’s Mum home?’ Natalie tilted the steaming pan and started spooning the sauce over plates piled high with too much spaghetti. ‘Sunday, I think. I’ve not heard from her. She didn’t take her phone. I found it on the hall table.’ ‘Typical!’ Beth carried two of the plates to the table and went back for the third. ‘Got any Parmesan, Nat?’ Jenny was already twirling the pasta inexpertly around her fork and dropping most of it back onto the plate. ‘Anyone would think I’m the only one who lives here! You know where the fridge is.’ ‘Don’t bother yourselves, either of you,’ Beth said, using her best put-upon voice. ‘I’m still standing. I’ll get it.’ She rummaged around in the fridge, tore open a bag of ready-grated cheese, poured it into a bowl and sat down with it still in her hand. ‘And thanks for cooking, Nat. It’s been a very long journey and I’m famished.’ ‘Not that long,’ Jenny said. ‘But I think all that sea air must have made us hungry.’ Natalie wheeled her chair over to the table and slid it into her usual place. ‘I’ve missed this,’ she said when they were all settled and eating. ‘I know you were only gone two nights, but …’ ‘Better get used to it, girl. You won’t have us two around all the time once you’re married, you know.’ ‘I know. It’s like the end of an era, though, isn’t it?’ ‘You didn’t say that when Ollie left home.’ ‘That was different somehow. This is … well, I don’t know, I love Ollie, of course I do, but maybe it’s just because we’re the girls. It feels like the break-up of the Three Musketeers or something. You know, all for one and one for all.’ If only it was really like that, she thought. The three of them doing everything together. Because, although she knew they meant nothing by it and the last thing they would want would be to hurt her, they did make her feel a bit left out sometimes. Sharing a room for so long had brought the two of them closer, along with all the whispering and giggling together after lights out that had inevitably come with it. And hadn’t they just been away together and left her at home? Still, she shouldn’t blame them. Her wheelchair made it harder to do things together. Normal things, that didn’t need loads of planning and thinking about stairs and ramps and space. It even put her at a different level, a good couple of feet below everyone else, so even hugs were hard sometimes. But she was being too harsh. She knew she was. Just look at how Beth had carried the plates and gone to the fridge for the cheese. They were always making allowances for the things Natalie couldn’t do as easily, or as quickly, as the others, anyway. Both of them, always being extra kind, extra helpful. And they were her sisters, for God’s sake. They knew her inside out, but for weeks now the elephant had been stomping about in the room. The wedding they seemed to find it so hard to talk about. The wedding that Natalie wanted, and the one – the very different one – they were trying to push upon her. If they still didn’t understand that all she needed was to feel normal and relaxed and comfortable, especially when it came to her own wedding, what hope was there that anyone else would? ‘Is Phil back at the weekend too?’ Beth said. Natalie nodded, her mouth too full of food to talk. ‘More wedding stuff to sort out, I suppose. You really should get out more and have some fun, you know.’ ‘Yes, you’re like an old married couple already,’ Jenny added. ‘Still, not long to go now, eh?’ Natalie swallowed the pasta and wiped her mouth. Ah, here we go, she thought. They’ve brought the conversation back round to their favourite topic. She wondered what had taken them so long. ‘Eleven weeks. As you well know!’ ‘Chosen the dress yet?’ Jenny asked. ‘Only, you do seem to be cutting it a bit fine.’ ‘Well … I did try something on, but I’ve decided I’m going for simple. I can’t be doing with all the flounces and trains and stuff. Probably straight from a shop rail, so I’ve still got plenty of time. For now, it’s getting invitations out and making sure you all get something to eat at the reception that’s taking priority.’ ‘Oh, so we are invited, then?’ Beth said, sounding very much like she was only half-joking. ‘Of course you’re invited! You’ve already had the ‘save the date’ card. In fact, I can see it from here, stuck on the fridge door. Oh, I get it. This is about the bridesmaid thing again, isn’t it? Look, I want you there as guests. Very important guests, but I’ve already told you I don’t want bridesmaids.’ ‘And we don’t believe you. Everyone has bridesmaids! And if you leave it much longer to change your mind, we won’t have time to get our dresses sorted out.’ ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake! I haven’t even got a dress myself, and you’re already worrying about yours. Whose wedding is it anyway?’ ‘Yours, Nat. And that is why, as your loving and loyal sisters, we don’t want to see you make a mistake you will come to regret, like not having a big white dress and us right there behind you. As your bridesmaids. In pink.’ ‘Pink? You’ve already chosen the colour?’ ‘Well, it’s up to you, obviously, but we’ve talked about it, just in a what-if kind of a way, and we do think pink would look best. The bright-fuchsia kind of pink, obviously, not the wishy-washy baby kind. Or maybe some kind of purple. Blue or green don’t really work for bridesmaids, do they? Too cold. Although Mum’s planning on wearing blue, so she says. And I know it’ll be nearly Christmas, but red would just be way too much like we were trying to look like robins, or Mrs Santa Claus! And, besides, I’ve seen the most gorgeous shocking- pink satin shoes. Not too high. I know you won’t want us to look too tall …’ ‘Beth!’ Natalie had to raise her voice to be heard. ‘Beth!’ ‘What?’ ‘Okay.’ ‘Okay what?’ ‘Okay, I give in.’ Natalie couldn’t help but laugh. Beth was nothing if not persistent. ‘You can be my bridesmaids. Both of you. But we do it by my rules, okay? And no fuchsia pink. Absolutely, definitely no fuchsia pink.’ Chapter 11 (#ulink_6e8a2d1c-d0e9-5954-bcc4-829a1c5f7360) Kate, 1983 Four years had been a long time to wait. Mum had offered, had said that Dan could move into my room at home, that the two of us could treat her house as our own home for as long as we needed, but living with Mum would have meant living with Trevor and I felt I’d done that for more than long enough already. No, living at Dan’s place hadn’t been too terrible in the end, and Rich wasn’t too bad as flatmates go (he tidied up, cooked well and smelled okay), so things could have been a lot worse. In fact, those first four years of married life were fantastic. Like they say about schooldays, they were probably the best days of our lives. And nights. Being one half of a couple was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Living together, taking the good with the bad, sharing the chores and the worries and the joys, and learning to become the invincible team we had always suspected we were meant to be. And being squashed into that small room wasn’t so bad either, or into that not-big-enough bed, as we curled up under the covers at night, moulded sweatily together like two smoothly curved spoons that fitted inside each other as if they had been made to do nothing else. Whispering so Rich couldn’t hear us, and giggling when he banged on the wall, making it clear that he had. But it was good to finally have saved enough for the deposit to buy a place of our own, where we could spread out, make noise, run around naked if we felt like it, and start buying the furniture and curtains and sets of matching plates we needed to make a proper home together. Working at the bank had turned out to be a godsend when it came to getting an affordable mortgage, and now we’d painted the small lounge and smartened up the kitchen, it was time to turn our attention to the bedrooms. There were three, although the smallest was little more than a box room, with just about enough space for a single bed and a wardrobe. ‘This will make a great nursery,’ Dan said, standing in the middle of the empty room with a paintbrush in his hand. ‘Are you sure you want it this neutral magnolia colour? Not covered in Disney characters or Winnie the Pooh or something? It would save having to change it again later.’ ‘Nursery?’ It was the first time either of us had mentioned the possibility of another baby and just hearing the word stopped me in my tracks. ‘Well, not right away, obviously, but one day soon …’ ‘Really? But, Dan, we haven’t even talked about it.’ ‘Then maybe it’s time we did. I’ll be hitting thirty soon, and you’re …’ ‘Yeah, I know. There already, and beyond. Don’t rub it in. But a baby? I didn’t think you were that keen. I mean, last time was an accident, so it’s not as if it was something you’d ever said you wanted. Or me, for that matter. Much as we’d got used to the idea …’ ‘Baby Blob. Remember?’ He grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. ‘Of course I remember.’ ‘I do wonder about her sometimes, you know. What she would have looked like. A little bit of me and a little bit of you. Can you imagine it, Kate? She’d be four now, wouldn’t she? Probably starting school.’ ‘She!’ I smiled at him, my hand automatically moving to draw little circles over my tummy. ‘Why did we always think of it as a girl? It could have been a boy, you know.’ ‘Maybe the next one will be.’ ‘Oh, Dan, really? Are we ready to try again, do you think? What if something goes wrong again? I don’t think I could face it … And shouldn’t we get the house the way we want it first?’ ‘How long can that take? We’re halfway there already. Another couple of months, maybe, to decorate up here and buy a few more bits and pieces? And babies do take nine months to cook, don’t they? Plenty of time, even if you fell straight away. And there’s no reason to fear the worst, is there? The doctor said there was no reason we couldn’t have more, didn’t she? When the time was right.’ I sat down on the bare floor and rested my back against the wall. ‘You’ve really thought about this, haven’t you? Where was I when you were plotting away with a calendar in your hand?’ ‘Don’t be daft. But I do think it’s something we should be thinking about now, and talking about. Maybe even doing something about …’ He lay the paintbrush down on top of the tin and sat down next to me, throwing an arm around my shoulders and planting a kiss on my forehead before moving his lips down to cover mine. ‘What? Now?’ I laughed, pushing him away. ‘Why not? Don’t you think it’s time we added a little heir to the Campbell empire? What’s the point of having three bedrooms if we don’t fill them up? Come on, Kate, at least think about it. We’re not getting any younger, are we?’ ‘But, what about my job?’ ‘Women do it every day, and so can you. Work, bring up babies, find help …’ ‘Women give up work too. Look after their own babies, and stay at home getting fat.’ ‘Well, if that’s what you want, I’m sure it’s a possibility. We’ll manage somehow, money-wise. For a while, anyway. But don’t get fat. Please don’t get fat.’ He grinned. ‘I don’t think I could cope with that!’ We sat for a few minutes, saying nothing, his fingers playing with my hair, a jumble of images suddenly flashing through my mind. The blood on my dress, the pain, the awful empty feeling when it was over. Did I really want to risk all that again? But there really was no reason to think anything would go wrong again. Just one of those things, the doctor had said. Everything in working order, ready to try again. And this time we could do things properly, couldn’t we? Actually try. Not just let it happen. We could plan things. Get excited instead of scared. We had a nice home now. We’d be good parents. And I’d know for sure this time that Dan wasn’t just saying he wanted it. That he really did. As much as, or maybe even more than, I did. ‘Hold back on the magnolia, then.’ I looked around the room, slowly, the morning light flooding in through the window and throwing a long bright beam across the floor at our feet, tiny dust motes dancing in the air, a thin strand of lacy cobweb dangling high up in the corner. ‘Maybe lemon, so it will work for a boy or a girl. And, actually, I do quite like Pooh Bear …’ ‘You mean it?’ Dan turned my face to his and gazed into my eyes, a look of sheer joy on his face as I nodded. And that’s how we did it, just like that, made a momentous life-changing decision in minutes, over a big tin of emulsion that never did get opened. *** I knew getting pregnant could take time. There was nothing unusual in having to wait a few months, maybe a year, before things clicked. I’d read enough magazine articles and agony aunt problem pages to know that. Not many couples get lucky in the first month they try. But I’d been there before, managed it without even trying at all, and while taking the pill as well. What did that say about my fertility levels? And Dan’s? So, I half expected a quick result. ‘What are you grinning at?’ Linda said at work one morning. ‘You look like the cat that got the cream. The whole jug, in fact!’ I was a day late. Only one, but I was normally pretty regular, so I had already convinced myself this was it. ‘You’ll know soon enough,’ I said, refusing to explain. ‘Ooh, now I’m intrigued.’ We were opening up our adjacent tills, ready for the onslaught of customers that always greeted us first thing on a Monday, so there was no more time to talk, or for her to start guessing. If she did, I knew it wouldn’t take her long. There are only so many happy secrets it’s possible for a woman to have. By the time we stopped for lunch, it was too late. There was no secret, and no baby. I was bleeding. ‘Never mind,’ said Dan, when I got home and told him the news. ‘It’s early days. Put your feet up and I’ll cook tonight. And if you’re really good I might even make you a hot water bottle.’ ‘If I’m good?’ ‘Well, you know what I mean. No crying, or worrying about it. We’ve got plenty of time, and having a few more practice goes at it could actually be quite fun. Practice makes perfect, after all! Now, what do you fancy to eat? Fish fingers or chicken pie? I think there’s one in the freezer somewhere.’ ‘Fish please. It’s good for baby-making. I’m sure I read that somewhere.’ ‘Really? Maybe it’s time we read up on all this stuff, eh? Get our facts straight. You know, loose underpants and cold showers, and timing things with a thermometer and all that. Give ourselves the best chance. We’ll get a book out of the library.’ Typical Dan. Methodical, organised, a planner through and through. I suppose that was the accountant in him. Left to me, we’d be taking things as they came, letting nature take its unpredictable course, leaping into an early bed a bit more often and just enjoying the ride. ‘Okay. No harm in that, I suppose. And can I have carrots with my fish fingers?’ ‘Carrots? I thought they were for helping you to see in the dark.’ ‘Well, I’m going to need to do that too, aren’t I? If we’re planning on doing a lot of under- the-covers baby-factory stuff, I would like to see what it is I’m getting hold of!’ ‘How about we just leave the light on?’ ‘Or get a torch? I used to have one to read in bed when I was a kid. You know, all sneaky, under the blankets when I was meant to be asleep. Dad used to do his nut when he caught me. ‘You’ve got school in the morning,’ he’d say. He even took the batteries away once!’ ‘Ah, but we don’t have to be sneaky, do we? We’re in our own home now and we can leave the lights on all night if we want to. In fact, we can do whatever we like. Even things that involve batteries, if you fancy it! And, besides, I don’t want to be the one holding the torch. I rather like having both hands free for …’I giggled as he grabbed me, one jumper-covered breast neatly cupped in each of his open palms. ‘Not tonight, Josephine! I’m bleeding, remember?’ I pushed him off, pulling his face down towards me for a kiss. ‘Now, go on, get out in that kitchen and make me that hot water bottle you promised me. Oh, and chips. Got to have chips with fish fingers.’ ‘Yes, your Majesty. Whatever you say, your Majesty.’ He backed away, bowing and laughing at the same time. ‘Your wish is my command.’ *** Dan looked funny in boxer shorts, his legs pale and spindly. I’d bought him some plain white ones, a pack of six, and deliberately a size too big, to be on the safe side, and he’d come home with a bright-red pair with little Mickey Mouse faces all over them, which he was now modelling in front of the bedroom mirror. I marvelled at how our tastes could be so different at times. ‘How can I take this whole thing seriously if I have to look at those monstrosities every time you take your trousers off?’ I said, bundling up all his old bottom-hugging clingy y-fronts and chucking them in the bin. ‘I won’t be wearing them every time, will I? In fact, if you don’t like them, I’ll keep them for my day off.’ ‘Day off?’ ‘You’ve bought six pairs. Monday to Saturday, right? I’ll wear the Mickeys on Sundays. So, no sex on Sundays, okay? My day of rest.’ ‘Dan, that’s not how it’s done. We’re not supposed to make love every night. Not even six out of seven. We’re not machines. It still needs to be fun, not some sort of chore. And sperm has to build up its strength a bit, over a few days, if you want it at its best.’ ‘I know how it feels!’ ‘Dan, we’ve hardly started. Anyway, it’s quality that counts, not quantity.’ ‘You’ve been reading the book.’ ‘Of course I have.’ ‘You’d better draw up a timetable, then. Make sure I don’t accidentally get an erection on the wrong day!’ ‘Now you’re just being stupid. But I am going to start taking my temperature every day, and when that tells us the time’s right, you’d better be ready. All guns blazing.’ ‘I’ve only got one gun, sweetheart.’ ‘One’s all we need. So long as the bullets you’re firing aren’t blanks.’ ‘Not likely, is it? We’ve made a baby once, so things must be in working order.’ ‘True. So, do you fancy a trial run?’ ‘Now, you mean?’ ‘Well, not if you have something better to do. Like mow the lawn or clean the oven, or something.’ ‘Well, come to think of it, there was that silver tankard I’ve been promising myself I’d polish …’ ‘Dan!’ ‘Oh, all right then. Seeing as you’ve asked so nicely. I dare say the silverware can wait.’ ‘But you’re still wearing the Mickeys. Didn’t you say no sex when you’re …’ ‘Oh, don’t you worry. That’s easily solved. I’ll take them off. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier naked, isn’t it?’ And, with that, he pushed me down onto the bed and wriggled me out of my jeans, and we tried really, really hard to make a baby. Chapter 12 (#ulink_32b1fc83-8ccc-54e5-a694-108bf663111b) Ollie, 2017 A teacher who drinks. Is that what he was turning into? Was that the kind of example he was setting the kids he worked with? Not that they knew. But he knew. And, if he carried on this way, it would only be a matter of time before someone smelt it on his breath or he got caught swigging from a hip flask in the games cupboard, and then what? Career over. Reputation in tatters. Ollie peered at his face in the mirror above the bathroom sink. He looked tired. When he bared his teeth they had taken on a dull yellowish tinge, and his tongue was coated in a layer of white gunk that tasted like old socks, or the way he imagined old socks to taste, having never actually tried any. He spent longer than usual scrubbing away with his toothbrush, until he tasted blood and knew it was time to stop. Not only to stop brushing, but to stop drinking too, and feeling sorry for himself, and moping over a woman who was very clearly never coming back. His first class of the day was athletics. The field stuff, not the track. Okay, so it was September, but there were only so many more chances to enjoy being outside before the kids were confined to using the shoddy gym equipment in the hall or out battling the elements with their hands and faces turning blue with cold on the hockey field come winter. And it could be fun. Ten and eleven year olds, having their first go at holding the javelin (the school only owned one), learning to carry it, launch it safely, aim it in a graceful arc (some hope of that happening!) through the air with only a small chance of it landing where it was supposed to. Like Cupid’s arrow, he thought, flying wildly about and finding its own spot, no matter how hard you tried to tell it where you wanted it to go. But now he was being fanciful. They were no cherubs, they were just kids, kitted out in baggy shorts and school polo shirts, half of them out for a lark and enjoying the freedom of escaping their desks, and the rest – mainly the girls – wishing they could be somewhere else entirely. And, amongst the lot of them, maybe one, just one if he was lucky, who might have some shred of athletic talent and ambition. He couldn’t help wondering sometimes why he bothered wasting his time, why he hadn’t opted to teach secondary school kids, where he might have at least run into a spark or two of enthusiasm. He pulled on his jacket, checked the pockets for stray cans, and threw his finished cereal bowl into the sink to join all the plates and cutlery and pans that had been accumulating there over the weekend. He’d wash up later. But then, that’s what he always said, and later there was usually something else more pressing or enticing, or more than likely liquid, vying for his attention, and that meant he never quite got around to it. He closed the door behind him and stood for a few seconds, breathing in big gulps of cool, clean morning air. The school was only a twenty-minute walk away. That’s why they’d chosen this flat, to save on fares and petrol, and if a games teacher wasn’t fit and healthy enough, barring the asthma that had hung around since childhood and still reared its ugly head from time to time, to manage a brisk walk to and from work every day, then, as he’d jokingly said many times, there was something wrong with the world. The trouble now was that he was living in the flat all alone, so something very definitely was wrong with the world, or his small part of it at least. Whatever the advantages of its location, Ollie wasn’t good at being alone. From as far back as he could remember, he had never had to be alone. They say that twins have a special bond, having started out side by side from day one, their tiny growing bodies curled together in the cramped space of their mother’s womb, being pushed out into the world within minutes of each other, sharing all of childhood’s little milestones and miracles. But this, this connection he felt with his sisters, was something else. Something bigger, greater and even more infuriating. It was something so few people had, or understood. He quickened his pace, glancing at his watch. He was going to be late again, and it was starting to rain. Little rivulets ran over his collar and trickled down his neck. Year six, taking on the javelin in the rain. Was that the only highlight his day had to offer? Oh, what joy! For a moment he thought about turning back, going home and hiding under the crumpled duvet cover he hadn’t washed in a while. Or even going back to Mum’s for a few days and letting her look after him, the way she had when he was small and feeling under the weather, smothering him in blankets and sympathy and soup. But it was only the third week of term. Time off mid-term was frowned upon, unless he said he was sick. Lied. The thought of it was certainly appealing, going back to bed, or the sofa, losing himself in sleep, waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting for something, anything, to happen that would shake him out of this hole he’d been sliding into ever since Laura had left. The hole with such slippery sides that escape just got harder and harder to envisage. But they’d find him and pull him back, however deep he fell. His mum and his sisters. They always did. Because they knew. When he was in trouble, when he was in pain, they just knew. And that was exactly why he was avoiding them. *** ‘I know it seems early to be thinking about Christmas …’ Ollie stood in front of the head teacher’s vast and surprisingly empty desk. He had half expected his summons might have something to do with his drinking, that he’d been rumbled somehow and was about to be given his marching orders. During the short walk from the staff room, he had been bricking it, his mind whirling about, trying to come up with answers before he even knew what the questions might be. But Christmas? ‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ he said, lamely, with no idea what was coming next. It was only the end of September, for heaven’s sake, and they’d hardly seen the back of summer yet. The kids’ holiday memories, in all their poetic and artistic glory, were still pinned to the walls in the library. Christmas remained a distant nightmare he was nowhere near ready to contemplate. ‘But if we want to do something well, I do think it’s important to give ourselves plenty of time to plan, don’t you, Oliver?’ ‘Yes, of course.’ ‘And now you’re wondering why I’ve asked you here this morning? To be honest, it’s to ask a favour. I would normally have felt able to count on Mrs Carter as usual, but, as you know, she’ll be on maternity leave over the Christmas period, so I need someone else to step in. I was hoping that someone might be you. It’s a job that calls for great enthusiasm, organisational skills, and a certain amount of … well, stamina, for want of a better word.’ ‘Now I’m intrigued.’ ‘The nativity play, Oliver. Staff, children, a few willing parents, all working together, you know? We’ve done nativity plays for as long as I can remember. Tea-towel head dresses, the girls squabbling over who’s going to be Mary, the boys desperate to avoid being in it at all, not to mention the plastic baby Jesus. Let’s just say I have visions of something a little different this year. More lively. Costumes, music, perhaps bringing a more modern twist to it. Mrs Carter will be missed, of course, but her absence does give us an opportunity for change, do you see?’ Ollie nodded, not entirely sure that he did see at all, but it usually paid to agree with the boss. ‘And, er, how do I fit into this exactly?’ ‘I want you to lead, Oliver. Plan, produce, put a team together, casting, rehearsals, all of that. Organise the whole thing. You know, from a different perspective, the whole thing seen through fresh eyes …’ ‘Me?’ Ollie pulled a chair over from a corner, deciding this was as good a time as any to sit down. He could be here for some time. ‘But I have absolutely no experience of anything like that. I don’t go to church, so the religious side of a nativity is … well, not really my thing. I can’t act, I can’t sing, and I haven’t been inside a theatre since I was at school myself. Hamlet, I think it was. I can still see him holding that mouldy old skull. Gave me nightmares for weeks afterwards.’ ‘Hardly the same thing. And I said organise it, Oliver. I’m not asking you to lead a church service, or to get up on stage and perform. Unless you want to, of course. Sometimes you don’t know where your talents lie until you try. Now, take your class earlier this morning, for instance. I was watching through the window, and little Victoria Bennett threw an almost perfect javelin, didn’t she? Never touched one before, I bet. We could even have a future champion on our hands.’ ‘Lucky fluke, more like.’ ‘That may be so, but she tried something new, and look what happened. So, my request stands. Go away and think about it if you like, but I would like to get the ball rolling sooner rather than later. Perhaps I could have your answer after lunch?’ *** He left it until the bell rang for the end of the school day. Well, half-past three still counted as after lunch, didn’t it? The Head was busy with a mound of paperwork, a cup of coffee gone cold beside him, and Ollie knew better than to linger too long. They both knew he didn’t want to do it, but neither of them seemed surprised when he said he would. As he left he ran into Victoria Bennett and her mother, dithering about at the school gates, two younger kids clutching not quite dry paintings and clinging to the handle of a pram, which was occupied by presumably yet another Bennett, one that Ollie hadn’t even known had been expected, let alone born. The mother was fishing about in an enormous shopping bag, pulling out various bits and pieces, including a brown mushy banana and a roll of nappy sacks, until she managed to locate and extricate a bright-green plastic purse. ‘Now, only get the cheap stuff, you hear me?’ she said, pushing a pound coin into her daughter’s hand. ‘And no dawdling on the way home.’ ‘Bread …’ she said, by way of explanation, standing aside to make room for Ollie to pass as Victoria ran off in the direction of the corner shop. ‘She’s a good girl, really. Just a bit scatty sometimes.’ She laughed. ‘But then, you’d know that, wouldn’t you, sir?’ Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39789337&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.