Authors: Annie Lyons
‘I can strongly recommend –’ She looks up into the handsome, round face of Tom.
‘Good day, Mrs Summers. Are you going to buy it then?’
‘You’re a fan of Anne Tyler?’
‘Isn’t it a bit girly for boys?’ teases Rachel.
Tom looks at his watch. ‘That’s a new record.’
‘Less than thirty seconds and you’re already taking the mickey out of me.’
‘Anyway, haven’t you forgotten something?’ says Tom gesturing around him. ‘Where are the small people?’
‘With their wonderful grandparents.’
‘Good for you. Actually, I’m just going for a quick sandwich. Fancy joining me?’
‘Don’t you ever go to work?’
‘Not if I can help it. No, I’m using up the holiday that sad losers such as myself seem to have in abundance at this time of year. So, do you want to have lunch with me or not?’
Rachel smiles feeling more excited than she probably should. ‘I’d love to,’ she says.
‘Of all the cafés in all the world, you have to walk into ours!’
‘Hi, David. Hi, Simon,’ says Emma, her voice flat.
‘Oh dear. Someone’s having a crapper of a day. Oreo cheesecake for two is it?’
‘No, just a cappuccino, thanks.’
‘Hairy Jesus, things must be bad. Simon, any of those doughnuts left?’
‘Just the one.’
‘Put that sweet baby on a plate for Miss Emma, and Miss Ella, how about you?’
‘Just a peppermint tea thanks, David.’
‘A peppermint tea? Are you pregnant Sugar-Cheeks?’
Emma suddenly catches the thread of the conversation and looks at her friend who is blushing and looking at her shoes.
‘Emma, I’ve been wanting to tell you but actually, yes I am.’
‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’
The next five minutes is spent in a frenzy of hugging and dancing as Emma, David and Simon fire questions at Ella. Suddenly, David grabs her arm.
‘Do you know who the father is?’ he asks looking worried.
‘I think I do,’ says Emma.
‘Who?’ says Ella in surprise.
‘It’s Joel, isn’t it?’
Ella looks at her friend, with a confused frown. ‘Are you ill?’
‘Ella, I saw you.’
Detecting danger ahead, David and Simon retreat to fetch drinks.
‘The other week. I heard you having sex.’ She is trying to keep her voice down but she can see David and Simon nudging each other.
Now it’s Ella’s turn to be cross. ‘Well congratulations, Poirot, but did you honestly think I would do that to you and for God’s sake, Emma, with Joel? Do you think I have no taste?’
Emma can sense she’s made a huge mistake. ‘Oh, I see. I’m sorry. Well, if it wasn’t Joel, who was it?’
Simon and David are practically falling over the counter trying to hear.
‘Our twelve year old post-boy?’
‘He’s twenty-four actually and would probably prefer it if you didn’t call him a post-boy.’
‘Right, sorry. Wow! That’s incredible. You dark horse. But jeepers, Ella you’re pregnant! You’re going to be a mum.’
‘I know,’ says Ella in a quiet voice.
Suddenly Emma sees that she is crying and realises how selfish she’s been. She rushes to her friend’s side. ‘Oh God, Ella, I’m so sorry. Please don’t cry. It’s all going to be OK. Have you decided what you’re going to do?’ David and Simon appear with the drinks, offering red paper napkins to help Ella dry her tears.
‘Thanks, everyone,’ sniffs Ella blowing her nose.
They sit for a while and Emma takes her hand. ‘Whatever you decide to do, I’ll help you.’
‘What does Jamie say?’
‘He says he’ll do whatever I want, but I don’t want to get married or even be with him really. It was only meant to be a bit of fun.’
‘I know,’ says Emma. ‘And what fun! You filthy cow!’
‘Hey, I’ve just had a thought!’ says Emma.
‘I could be your birthing partner!’
‘Emma, you hate blood.’
‘I know, but I could stay at the head end.’
They giggle and Emma pushes a strand of hair out of her friend’s face. ‘It will all be OK,’ she says, unsure of what else to say.
Ella forces a smile. ‘Just popping to the loo.’
While she is away David brings over the drinks. ‘Is she OK?’
‘I think so. How much do I owe you?’
‘On the house, gorgeous girl.’
Emma’s phone beeps with a text and she casts a glance. It’s from Richard: ‘Did you get my email? I meant every word. R x’
Ella returns, her eyes red and puffy. ‘Do I look like shit?’
Emma takes her friend’s hands again. ‘No, you look blooming.’
Emma’s phone starts to ring and she looks at the caller ID: Martin. She switches it off.
‘Shouldn’t you get that? Who was it?’
‘It was no one. Now then, Ells-Bells, when’s your next scan? Do you want me to come with you?’
Ella’s face crumples with gratitude.
‘Now, now, none of that. I can see I’m going to have to employ the “don’t be nice to me tactics”. Right, well you’re going to get fat and your boobs will never be the same again.’
Ella snorts with laughter through a veil of tears. ‘Thanks, Em. I’m glad we’re friends again. I missed you.’
‘Me too,’ says Emma. She wishes she could talk to Ella about Martin and Richard but she realises that at this moment in time, she doesn’t know what to say.
‘And now I’m just feeling utterly confused about the whole thing.’ Rachel pops a slice of tomato into her mouth and looks at Tom.
‘Hmm, that’s not easy and I don’t really feel like the best person to advise you.’
‘Well, it won’t really be in my interests for you to go and live in Scotland.’
‘Why, will you miss me?’ asks Rachel, realising that she’s fishing for compliments.
‘I’ll miss all of you,’ says Tom blushing slightly, ‘but you are my chief counsellor so yes, I suppose I will miss you most of all. Another coffee?’ he adds hastily.
Rachel checks her watch and is pleased to see that she still has time. ‘Cappuccino please,’ she smiles.
She watches Tom make his way to the counter and scolds herself for checking out his bottom.
Get a grip, Rachel
he’s your neighbour and you’re married
. She tells herself it’s nothing more than a little harmless flirting and it is nice to reconnect with the old Rachel, the pre-children Rachel, who was attractive to men and was more than just someone’s mother.
‘What are you grinning at?’ asks Tom as he returns with their drinks.
‘I was just thinking what a lovely day I’m having.’
‘Careful, Mrs S, you’re dangerously close to paying me a compliment.’
‘Oh stop it. No seriously, I’m really glad I bumped into you. I enjoy our chats.’
‘Me too,’ says Tom, his neck flushing slightly.
They sit for a moment and Rachel, hating silence, says the first thing that pops into her head. ‘So what about your love life?’
‘My love life? Are we teenagers?’
‘No, I was just wondering why a handsome fellow like you is still single.’
‘Rachel, I wonder that myself sometimes. Usually when I’m drunk.’
‘Seriously, we should try to set you up with someone,’ she says not really meaning it.
‘Actually there is someone,’ says Tom looking a little furtive.
‘Oh yes?’ says Rachel hoping and fearing at what is coming next.
‘Isn’t your friend Christa separated from her husband?’
‘Yes, she seems very nice. Very straightforward.’
‘Well, I think she’s erm you know, strictly speaking, still with Rudi,’ says Rachel, trying to hide her disappointment. Then she glances over at Tom and sees the enormous Cheshire cat grin on his face. ‘Ha ha, very funny,’ she says, relieved.
‘Got you! Honestly Rachel, I think you’re losing your touch. Do I look like the kind of man who would dabble with the Russian mafia?’
‘No, but then I’m not sure what that man would look like, unless he had the word “stupid” tattooed on his forehead. So no romantic leads for me to follow with my cupid’s bow?’
‘Well, actually, you could offer me a bit of advice?’
‘Oh yes,’ says Rachel, her heart sinking.
‘There is a girl at work, bit out of my league probably but very nice, very funny and single.’
Rachel masks her disappointment with humour. ‘Well, ask her out then, loser! What does she look like? One or two heads?’
‘Just the one. She’s very er nice looking.’
‘Nice? Gosh, make sure you tell her, won’t you?’
‘OK, OK, I’m not very good at this. Help me please!’
‘All right, why don’t you invite her over for dinner and I’ll give you all the lines to help you seduce her.’
‘Do you think that will work?’
Rachel glances at her watch. ‘Right Mr Davies, I need to fetch the kids. Lunch was lovely. Thank you.’
Tom gives a little bow and Rachel heads back to her car wondering at how quickly her thoughts and feelings have changed in just one day.
‘All set for tonight?’
Emma looks up from her computer to see Miranda standing before her. She looks tired.
‘I think so,’ says Emma. ‘How are you? How’s Digby bearing up? I did wonder if we might postpone in the circumstances.’
Miranda sighs. ‘Yes, well, if it were my decision, we would have. But the Americans are in town so it was all planned to tie in with their visit. Anyway, the Author Party has been part of Chandler’s calendar since the early days so we couldn’t really let everyone down. Right well, onwards and upwards.’
Emma watches Miranda go, noting how she seems a little less gutsy and a little more burdened. Ella returns from her fifth toilet trip of the morning and flops into her chair
‘I won’t miss this about being pregnant,’ she sighs.
‘Poor, Ells. Do you want a cup of tea or coffee? I’m just going to make one,’ says Emma.
Ella looks pale. ‘No thanks. I definitely don’t need any more liquids. But thank you.’
‘OK,’ says Emma, ‘Or I’ve got a banana?’
Ella is now white. ‘No, it’s fine. I just need to –’ and she is gone, fleeing back to the toilet on a wave of nausea.
‘Oops,’ says Emma. Her phone rings and she picks it up with a ‘Emma Darcy?’
‘Emma Darcy. My literary heroine.’
‘Richard. How are you?’
‘I was going to ask you the same thing. Did you get my e-mail?’
Emma is silent for a moment, feeling her stomach flip. ‘Yes, sorry I’ve been a bit busy,’ she says after a moment.
‘I understand. Well hopefully we can find five minutes for a chat in a dark corner at the party?’ says Richard with a chuckle.
‘Yes, all right. See you later,’ says Emma trying to play it cool.
‘Great. I can’t wait to see you,’ he adds hanging up.
Emma replaces the phone and stares up at the photo of her and Martin on holiday in Greece. She looks into his eyes, searching for an answer, trying to picture them on their wedding day or out on a daytrip with their children. But she can’t.
On the other side of town, Rachel is folding laundry. She picks up one of Will’s pairs of school trousers and wonders at how big he’s getting. Her father is right, of course, blink and your children are no longer children. She fishes out multiple socks and starts to pair them, a job she finds strangely satisfying. She wishes ordering her own life could be so simple. Alfie ambles into the kitchen looking sad.
‘What’s up, honey?’ asks Rachel concerned.
‘Lily did be saying we’re moving house,’ he says, his little face screwed-up with worry.
Rachel sets the laundry basket to one side and holds her arms out to him. He accepts readily. He is the only one of her children that she can always rely on for a hug. He lies across her arms like a baby and she nuzzles his cheek. ‘Well listen, it’s not all decided yet so don’t worry. Anyway, it would be OK if we move. And you liked Scotland, didn’t you?’ She knows it’s ridiculous to expect a four-year-old to make a decision for her but she’s starting to feel desperate.
Alfie vehemently shakes his head. ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ he cries, tears forming in his eyes.
Rachel hugs him to her. ‘Oh baby, don’t cry. It will be OK,’ she says, hoping this isn’t a lie.
‘It won’t be OK. I don’t want to leave my house or my toys or my telly. And what about Grandpa?’
Rachel looks at her son and wants to cry herself. She takes a deep breath. ‘It’s all right, Alf. We can take all your toys and Grandpa can come and visit.’
‘But what about the telly?’ wails Alfie, his sorrow reaching its peak.
Rachel laughs. ‘We can take the telly, don’t worry, sweetheart.’
Alfie seems a little consoled by this but his face is still wrinkled with concern. ‘But won’t you miss Grandpa and Granny and Auntie Em?’
It’s like a shot to Rachel’s heart. ‘Yes Alfie, I shall. Very much.’
‘Can I have a biscuit?’ asks Alfie, sensing an opportunity. Rachel laughs and packs him off with three biscuits and strict instructions to share them with his siblings. Her mobile rings and she sees that it’s Steve.
‘Watcha,’ she says.
‘Hey, gorgeous. Would it be OK if I went out for a drink with the guys from work this evening?’
‘Is this the first of many leaving drinks?’ asks Rachel.
‘Something like that,’ says Steve. ‘I won’t be too late but don’t wait up.’
Rachel rings off, sighs and goes back to pairing socks and pretending that everything is fine.
Emma arrives at the gallery on time to find the usual suspects already knocking back glasses of champagne. She sees Ella in one corner with ‘historical fiction’ Clive, who is talking to her breasts. Ella looks over and mouths ‘Help!’ Emma grins and is making her way over to her friend when she is accosted.
‘Richard! You’re very prompt,’ she says, kissing him on both cheeks.
On the second kiss, he leans over and whispers, ‘I couldn’t wait to see you.’
‘Ah, Richard, darling! How are you?’ His agent, Joanna has joined their cosy twosome and immediately puts a protective arm around her charge. ‘Come with me. I have people I want you to meet,’ she adds ignoring Emma. Richard allows himself to be led away. Emma sees him look back at her forlornly and feels her heart race.
She spots her Cornish crime writer and goes over to give her a warm embrace. She spends most of the evening catching up with her authors. Occasionally she sees Miranda surrounded by guests and marvels at how professionally she conducts herself.
After about an hour, someone taps on a glass with a knife and everyone turns to see Philip Allen with a microphone smiling and waiting for hush. He begins his welcome and Emma takes this as a cue to duck out for some air. As she turns through the door, she feels someone catch her arm. She doesn’t need to turn around. She knows who it is.
‘Richard, where have you been?’
‘Joanna keeps introducing me to people, but I’m here now,’ he says expectantly, studying her face. ‘I need to talk to you, Emma.’
‘Look, Richard –’
‘Richard? Is this the famous Richard Bennett then?’
Emma jumps at the sound of Joel’s voice but regains her composure. ‘Joel, this is Richard Bennett. Richard, this is Joel. He works in marketing.’
Joel’s face flickers with irritation. He holds out his hand. ‘Joel Riches, Head of Marketing. Good to meet you at last.’
Richard accepts his hand and turns back to Emma. Never a man to take a hint, Joel lingers, ready to join the conversation. ‘So, Richard, have you read
Richard forces a smile. ‘Actually, I tried to once, but didn’t get further than the first thirty pages.’
Joel looks smug and pats Richard on the back. ‘Yes well, it is a very difficult read. It’s not for everyone.’
Richard smiles. ‘Very true. I can see you’re a very clever chap, Joel and I shall do my best to keep up with you,’ he says.
Joel puffs out his chest and smirks. ‘Well, it was good to meet you, Richard. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and catch up with Phil. We need to talk strategy.’
Richard gives a little bow. ‘Of course. It was very good of you to spare the time.’
Joel smiles, nods at Emma and slips away. She nudges Richard with her elbow. ‘God you’re good! You were on to him straightaway.’
Richard grins. ‘I’m a very good reader of character, Emma Darcy. Anyway,’ he says taking her arm, ‘when are we going to have our little chat?’
Emma looks back into the gallery. People are starting to disperse. ‘Well, I suppose we could go and have a drink now?’ she says feeling light-headed at her own boldness.
‘I’ve got a better idea,’ says Richard putting an arm round her. ‘We’re not that far from my place. Why don’t we jump in a cab, have a drink there and then you’re half way home.’
Emma realises how natural if feels with Richard’s arm around her. She checks her watch. It’s still early and Martin is playing football. Again. She can be home by midnight without the need for any excuse. She knows that going to Richard’s place is a dangerous step but it’s as if she’s standing at the top of a waterslide on a hot day and longing to take the plunge. She looks up at Richard. ‘
,’ she says.
‘What does that mean?’ he asks.
‘It means I hope you’ve got a lot of booze at your flat,’ she replies.
Richard grins and leads her towards the street.
‘Mum! Dad! How are you? What a lovely surprise!’ says Rachel, trying to mask her irritation at having her evening of Pinot Grigio and brain-mush TV interrupted.
‘Oh, we were just passing on the way back from bridge, darling!’ says Diana, breezing past her daughter and running a dust-testing figure along the hall shelf.
‘I thought bridge was in the other direction,’ whispers Rachel to her father through gritted teeth.
‘It is and I did try to put her off, but you know your mother,’ whispers her father in reply.
‘What are you two whispering about?’ says Diana frowning.
‘Nothing, Mum. Glass of wine?’ says Rachel, steering them towards the kitchen.
‘Lovely. And are the little cherubs all safely tucked up?’
‘Grandpa! Granny!’ squeaks Alfie’s falsetto voice from the top of the stairs.
‘Oh great,’ sighs Rachel, her evening dissolving before her eyes.
‘It’s OK. I’ll go,’ says Edward giving his daughter a peck on the forehead. ‘You talk to your mum.’
‘Thanks, Dad,’ says Rachel, squeezing his hand. She follows Diana into the kitchen, where she is already helping herself to a large glass of wine.
‘So. Edinburgh. How was it?’
‘I’m fine thanks, Mum. How are you?’
Diana is irritated. ‘Don’t be sarcastic, Rachel. Can’t a mother ask her daughter a simple question?’
Rachel wants to argue but doesn’t have the energy. ‘I don’t know, Mum. There’s still a lot to sort out.’
‘So you’re not going?’ Diana looks hopeful.
‘I don’t know. Maybe. I need to talk to Steve again.’
Diana looks stern. ‘Rachel, you have a family to think about. This is not a time for dilly-dallying. You need to make a decision.’
‘All sorted. He’d lost Bear,’ says Edward returning to the fray.
‘Edward, you have to try and talk some sense into this girl. She won’t listen to me.’
‘Diana, I think we need to let Rachel and Steve sort this out for themselves,’ says Edward reasonably.
‘Well, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job on their own!’ declares Diana with customary diplomacy.
‘Thank you, Mother,’ says Rachel.
‘Darling, I really think we should be getting home and leave Rachel to her evening,’ says Edward firmly.
Diana frowns but sees her husband looking at her with eyebrows raised and gives in. ‘Very well but please let me know when you’ve made a decision, won’t you? I need to be forewarned about the prospect of having to visit Scotland.’ She pronounces the place name as if it’s a contagious disease. ‘I’m just going to powder my nose.’
When she’s gone, Edward puts an arm round his daughter. ‘In case you were wondering, that’s your mother’s way of saying she doesn’t want you to go.’
Rachel nods and starts to cry. Her father folds her into his arms and kisses the top of her head. ‘It will all be fine, Rach,’ he says. ‘Promise.’
Rachel wipes her eyes and smiles up at him wishing she had his wisdom and foresight. After her parents have gone she pours herself a large glass of wine and flops onto the sofa. She decides to call Steve for reassurance. His phone rings three or four times before someone picks up.
‘Hello?’ says a female voice.
‘Oh hi, who is this? I just wanted to speak to Steve,’ says Rachel wondering if she’s accidentally dialled the wrong number.
‘Oh no, this is Sam. Steve’s just popped to the loo. Shall I get him to call you?’
Rachel isn’t sure why she answers as she does but she knows that she wants to end the call as quickly as possible. ‘No, it’s fine. I’ll call him tomorrow,’ she says. She puts the phone down, her mind racing. Snippets of conversation from the past few weeks flood through her mind. Sam, Sam, Sam. Sam, the IT manager who had coffee with Steve. Sam, who texted him one weekend. She thinks about the ring and the late working which Steve dismissed so casually and tonight which was meant to be ‘a drink with the guys’. Rachel is adding two and two together and coming up with five and suddenly she is seeing her rock-steady husband in a different light altogether.
‘But you’re close to your sister?’ asks Richard, his voice slurring slightly under the strain of so many glasses of wine.
‘We have the usual sibling rivalries but yeah, she’s a peach. How about you?’ says Emma, trying to sound coherent.
‘I don’t know your sister,’ says Richard.
‘No, silly!’ snorts Emma. ‘I mean I know about your mum and dad but is there anyone else?’
‘No, just me but that’s the way I like it.’
Richard launches himself onto his feet and lurches towards the globe-adorned table by the window. Emma giggles.
‘What?’ says Richard half-laughing, as he lifts the globe back to reveal a well stocked drinks trolley.
‘Oh my God, you have got to be kidding!’ says Emma leaping to her feet, ‘I’ve always wanted one of those!’
Richard looks pleased. ‘I went out and bought it the day I sold my first book.’
Emma nods with smiling approval. ‘Classy.’
‘I know!’ says Richard with unbridled glee. ‘Now, what shall we have?’
‘Oh, I think we’ve had enough, don’t you?’
‘Oh come on, Emma, surely it’s time for something in a smaller glass. Anyway, I want to propose a toast.’
‘Richard, we’ve already toasted all our family, friends, the England cricket team individually, the greatest living writers of all time –’
‘ – and the dead ones’
‘And the dead ones. Plus John Noakes, Stephen Fry and Moira Stuart.’
‘I love Moira Stuart.’
‘I know, but I think it might be time to call it a day,’ says Emma, starting to make her way across the room.
Richard reaches forward and grabs her arm. ‘No, look, I’ve got one more toast to make and it’s the most important one. Pleeease?’ He leads her back to the drinks cabinet and pulls out two shot glasses, filling them with a cloudy white liquid.