Authors: Annie Lyons
‘No, not really.’ Rosie looks suddenly old, her make-up caked face sagging with some secret sorrow. ‘No, I was in love with someone else but he didn’t love me so I married Ralph but it didn’t work out. End of story.’
Emma feels as if she’s prying. ‘I’m sorry.’
Rosie snaps out of her stupor and smiles at Emma. ‘Don’t be, darling. I’m not. It’s ancient history and some things just aren’t meant to be. Anyway I am far too selfish to be a wife and I love my job too much. But enough about me. This is supposed to be about you and your gorgeous new author. I take it he is gorgeous?’
Emma feels uncertain of how to reply without incriminating herself. ‘He’s a very talented writer.’
‘Aha! Guilty as charged m’lud. Clearly the dish of the day and intelligent to boot. Wonderful.’
‘Yes, but I am practically married.’
‘Tish and pish my dearest. Enjoy it while you can. Flirt away and enjoy your job. It’s part of the rich tapestry of life. Speaking of dishes, how is Martin?’
‘He’s lovely and taking me away for the weekend to some posh hotel.’
‘Feeling guilty is he?’ says Rosie.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Excuse the bluff voice of experience, but when a man spoils his beloved, he is either expecting sex or feeling guilty or both.’
Emma remembers the flowers, champagne and home-cooked dinner coupled with the revelation of a visit to his parents. ‘He just likes to spoil me.’
‘Lucky girl! I hope you have a wonderful time. Don’t forget to pack your raciest underwear!’
‘What? I still have a pulse you know!’
‘Honestly, I am packed, but I’m not telling. I better get back to work. I need to show willing after a shocking morning and I want to leave a bit early so we can avoid the traffic tonight.’
‘Of course, of course.’ Rosie lifts her finger and the waiter is by her side with the bill before you can say ‘deliciously overpriced restaurant’.
‘Maaaarm! I can’t find my Cinderella dress!’
‘OK, Lily, I’m just trying to help Will find his Spiderman mask.’
‘Mummy. I want a cuddle!’ Alfie waves his chubby arms. Of her three children, he is the clingiest and the most loving, but he does pick his moments. Rachel kneels down and accepts his pudgy embrace, but tries to multitask by flinging Will’s clothes into the open rucksack.
‘Doan want to go Granny’s,’ insists Alfie.
‘Oh darling, Grandpa will be there and you love Grandpa, don’t you?’
‘Nooooo!’ shouts Alfie.
‘Yes you do!’ says Rachel tickling his tummy.
‘No, I don’t!’ insists Alfie, unwilling to be pacified
They are interrupted by a loud
at the door.
‘Daddy!’ cry three jubilant voices.
‘No. Guess again,’ says Rachel.
Will opens the door.
‘Grandpa!’ cheer three happy voices.
‘Grandpa!’ cheers Rachel, giving him a hug.
‘At your service, my lovelies,’ he smiles. ‘Now who wants to jump in Grandpa’s Balamory bus and come for a sleepover?’
‘Thanks, Dad,’ says Rachel and means it.
‘You,’ he says embracing her in the warmest hug she’s had for a while, ‘are more than welcome. Have a lovely weekend, don’t worry about a thing and promise me you’ll talk to Steve?’
‘I promise,’ she says and she means this too.
Once the kids are dispatched, Rachel mixes herself a large gin and tonic and flops onto the sofa. The home phone rings and she answers with a sinking feeling.
‘Steve. If you’re about to tell me what I think you’re about to tell me, I will not be happy.’
‘Chill your beans, missus. I’m phoning to see if you want red or white tonight? I’m on my way home and I want you in bed wearing something saucy by the time I get there.’
Rachel smiles. This could actually be a good weekend.
Emma opens her eyes and tries to remember where she is. She catches sight of the four-poster bed and expensive-looking heavy curtains, and remembers the weekend break. She also spots the empty bottle of champagne, underwear on the floor and stockings still tied around the bedposts.
Must have been a goodnight
, she thinks, as the form in bed next to her stirs. She moves towards him. ‘Fancy an encore?’ she whispers.
‘Mmm, yes please. Let’s seal the deal again,’ answers a voice which isn’t Martin’s.
‘Aaaaargh, Richard!’ Emma jolts herself awake. Fortunately, she can hear Martin singing Elvis songs in the shower and then she sees the empty bottle, underwear and stockings.
‘It’s like a bloody porn version of
,’ she mutters.
‘Morning, sexy,’ says Martin from the bathroom doorway, wearing nothing but a grin. ‘That was some mighty fine lovin’ you were givin’ out last night. Fancy an encore?’
Emma shudders inwardly. ‘All in good time,’ she replies. ‘A girl needs her breakfast after nothing but champagne and sex for dinner.’
‘Oh, boo-hoo,’ complains her fiancé, giving her bottom a stinging slap on his way past. ‘Woof!’
‘Thank you, Prince Charming. Whatever happened to romance?’
‘It died the day they invented filthy sex.’
‘I’m going to cleanse myself of my sins.’
‘You’re going to have to have one long shower then, Sexy Pants.’
After breakfast, Emma attempts to distract Martin’s one-track mind with a walk around the grounds. It’s a beautiful day. The autumn leaves still clinging to the trees are the perfect mix of orange, crimson and yellow and the sky is a pale blue with only the merest wisp of cloud. The air feels crisp and fresh but the sun is taking the edge off any chill. Emma has dug out her favourite long striped scarf and warm comfy boots and is kicking a trail through a spongy pile of leaves.
‘Might be dog poo in there,’ warns Martin.
Emma looks around at the stately home grandeur and shakes her head. ‘I doubt it. Or at least if there is, it will be super-posh five-star poo.’ She picks up a handful of leaves and flings them at Martin.
‘Right, you’re for it!’ he declares, picking up a large armful and chasing after her.
Emma squeals and runs down the hill towards the lake. She stops just on the bank by a large willow tree. ‘OK, OK, I give in,’ she declares, out of breath, holding up her hands.
Martin keeps walking towards her with the pile of leaves and then throws them straight up into the air so that they shower around them like confetti. ‘Der-der-deh-deh!’ he sings, attempting the ‘Wedding March’. He pins Emma up against the tree and kisses her on the mouth and then starts on her neck, working his hands down her body.
‘Martin, not here! People can see us!’ scolds Emma, although she doesn’t make much effort to move.
Martin glances around them. ‘What people? Anyway, everyone should indulge in a little al fresco loving, shouldn’t they?’ he says, working his hands under her jumper.
‘They might have CCTV or something.’
‘Well, they’re in for a treat, aren’t they? Anyway, you said yourself how beautiful it is here.’
‘Mmm, it really is,’ murmurs Emma, reaching for his flies.
‘I’m glad you think so because I’ve taken the liberty of making a booking for the wedding date we talked about.’
Emma pushes him away. ‘You’ve done what?’
Martin doesn’t pick up her tone and pulls her towards him. ‘I thought it would be a nice surprise.’
She gives him another shove. ‘Martin, have you gone mad?’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘You should have talked to me first!’
‘It was meant to be a surprise!’
‘It’s certainly that,’ says Emma, re-buttoning her coat and marching up the bank.
‘Come on, Em, I thought you liked it here.’
‘I do! It’s just that I wanted to be consulted and besides, I thought we might choose somewhere close to Mum and Dad.’
‘Oh so that’s what this is about then.’
‘It’s because it’s nearer to my parents’ than yours.’ Martin folds his arms.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s the venue for my wedding. I think I have the right to a say!’
‘What? So that your mother can take over?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Oh come on, you know what she’s like! She’ll want cousin Margery doing the flowers and Great-Aunt Pamela making the cake.’
Emma narrows her eyes. ‘Cousin Eunice actually and I don’t have a Great-Aunt Pamela. Anyway, you were the one who said she was only trying to help!’
‘OK, fine. If you don’t want to have it here, I’ll cancel it. I only paid a hundred pound deposit.’
‘One hundred pounds! Are you mad?’
Martin looks hurt. ‘I can’t believe we’re arguing about what is supposed to be the happiest day of our lives.’
‘Neither can I, but then I can’t believe you’ve booked the venue without talking to me.’
‘Right, well I can see we’re not going to resolve this now.’
‘I’m going to give you some time to cool off,’ says Martin in a way that he believes is reasonable but which winds Emma up even more.
‘Fine. I’m going to the bar.’
He watches her go, shaking his head. He pulls out his phone and notices a text. It’s from Charlie: ‘How’d Em take the news re wedding venue?’
Martin texts back: ‘Not well. Don’t think she likes surprises.’
A message pings back: ‘No pleasing some chicks.’
Martin pockets his phone and goes in search of the billiard room.
Emma is still bristling with anger as she orders a large gin and tonic from the bar. She wanders through the maze of swirly-carpeted corridors before finding a door marked ‘Library’.
Perfect. My kind of place
, she thinks, relieved to find it empty. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with shelves filled with some of the more eccentrically titled books. She notices with delight one entitled
Knitting with Dog Hair
and is about to pick it up when she spots a
; just the thing for a weekend pretending to have more money than you do. Two large bay windows overlook the garden and it is towards these and a tall, elegant chair that Emma steers herself. She inhales the delightfully musty aroma of the room and is about to settle into its sanctuary like calm with gin and Wodehouse for company when her phone vibrates with a text. It’s from Rachel: ‘How’s your w/e playing lady of the manor? Am in scary clothes shop trying to find sthing 2 enhance my muffin-top.lol.Rx’
Emma laughs and types back: ‘Had row with M. Off to drown sorrows in gin. Hope u and S having fun.’
‘Have one 4 me and hope u sort it. Rx’
She sips her drink and tries to settle into her book but her brain is whirring after the argument. She knows he was just trying to surprise her but she also feels cross that he can’t see her side of it. She looks out of the window at the view. It would be a perfect setting for the wedding. The house itself is gorgeous and dripping with history. The grounds are stunning and there’s a croquet lawn, which would be ideal for the reception. She quite fancies playing lady of the manor in a big white dress. It’s just that she’d always thought she would get married somewhere close to her parents and start the journey to her wedding from her family home. Is it wrong to feel like that? Plus she’s worried what her mother will say if she agrees to have the wedding here. Although Martin has a point: her mother does have a tendency to take over and Emma usually lets her. Rachel had the right idea by eloping but then Rachel never did things by the book. Emma envies this. No, she must do what’s right for her and Martin and if that involves being upfront with her mother, then that’s what she’ll have to do. She shudders at the thought.
Her phone buzzes with another text. It’s from Martin: ‘I miss you.’
Emma doesn’t want to give in but she doesn’t want to ruin the rest of her weekend because of an argument. Her more mature side wins and she replies: ‘Where are you?’
‘In the billiard room. Fancy a game? I’ll let you win.’
‘In your dreams, mate. Sorry ‘bout earlier. Bit of a shock.’
‘S’OK. Should have checked first. Look forward to making up.’
Emma smiles and finishes her drink. She looks down at the book in her lap and runs a finger along its spine as she replaces it on the shelf. ‘You’d know what to do with a tricky mother like mine, wouldn’t you, Plum?’ she says to the ghost of P.G. Wodehouse before heading off in search of her fiancé.
The clothes boutique window is beautifully decorated with the most desirable ‘of the moment’ tops, dresses, bags and shoes, plus a gorgeous selection of the dinkiest outfits for only the hippest children. Rachel has always felt rather out of place here, mainly because she usually has at least two snot-ridden children clinging to her legs whenever she passes.
Shopping with the children has never been a relaxing experience. She remembers an ill-advised trip to IKEA on her own with all three of them. She thought it would be nice; they could bounce on the beds and potter around while she could browse the soft furnishings. Then she’d treat her darlings to a delicious meatball lunch. Alas, reality bit. Alfie flatly refused to get out of the car. ‘Who can blame him?’ said Steve later, ‘it’s the Scandinavian version of hell.’ Lily pulled a whole raft of towels on her head and Will scarpered, but did manage to find the only person working in the store, when he realised he was lost. Rachel was so panicked by the experience, that instead of looking for a sofa bed, she bought two mismatched cushions, which fell apart three weeks after purchase, a raffia storage box and a shaving mirror, which to this day remains in its bag in the cupboard under the stairs. By the time they made it to the café, Rachel only had the strength to feed her children packet food, so their lunch was Daim bars and Fruit Shoots. The children were still bouncing off the walls by the time Steve got home.
Today however, she is unfettered and has brushed her hair and even applied make-up in preparation for a pub lunch with her husband. She is therefore feeling brave enough to attempt a casual mooch in this most intimidating of establishments.
‘C’help yoo?’ the nineteen-year-old shop assistant inquires in her best southeast London drawl.
‘I’m fine thanks, just browsing,’ says Rachel, immediately feeling uncomfortable.
The girl looks disappointed, her eyes dark with too much eyeliner and her mouth turned down in the permanent pout of the teenager. She eyes Rachel with suspicion as if she’s never seen a person over thirty years of age before and isn’t quite sure how to deal with this species. Rachel flicks through the rails in what she hopes is a casual way, trying to give off a vibe of ‘yummy mummy’. She can feel the girl watching her. Then comes the body blow.
‘We have those in bigger sizes.’
‘I’m sorry?’ says Rachel and means it.
‘Bigg-er sizes,’ stresses the girl, as if talking to a deaf person. ‘I can got out the back and find them if you like?’
‘No, it’s fine thanks. This is actually my size,’ she says triumphantly holding up a black top peppered with pink sequins, which spell out the words ‘Sexy Mutha’.
The girl looks surprised and then admiring. ‘You should definitely get that,’ she says nodding. ‘My mum bought it last week – she’s about the same age as you,’ she adds sagely.
Horrified, Rachel replaces the top and grabs the nearest thing to her, which is a string of pretty, shell-pink pearl beads.
‘I’ll take these,’ she says panicking, ‘for my daughter.’
The girl looks pleased. ‘Great choice. I’m sure she’ll love them. That will be twenty pounds.’
Rachel looks at her as a mother looks at a disobedient child. ‘What’s the magic word?’
The girl scowls, but grunts, ‘Please.’ Rachel hands over the cash and skips happily from the shop.
The air is cold and sharp, but the sun is trying to fight through to warm the day. Rachel loves days like these: blue skies, chilly air and welcome bursts of sunshine. It makes her feel as if something exciting is on the way. She remembers this feeling as a child, when summer gave way to autumn: the first conkers, the pavements matted with spongy wet leaves and Firework’s night, which started the really exciting build-up to the ultimate joy – Christmas.
Despite her apparent toughness, Rachel is ridiculously sentimental. Steve often laughs and calls her ‘the onion’ as they watch Saturday night TV and she cries along to
, even before they’ve revealed that the seventeen-year-old boy has lost his mother to cancer. She also loves her little traditions, particularly at Christmas. Last year, Will had been indignant with a ‘Not again, Mum!’ when she insisted that they all sit down together on Christmas Eve to watch and weep at
. Rachel smiles at the memory and strolls down the high street towards the pub where she is meeting Steve. She hears a loud wolf-whistle behind her. She turns, ready to scowl, and then laughs when she sees Steve walking towards her with a rose between his teeth and a vast bundle of Saturday newspapers under his arm.
‘Hello gorgeous,’ he says, kissing her passionately and presenting her with the rose. ‘How was the shopping?’
‘Eventful. I’ll tell you over lunch. Buy me a drink?’
He takes her hand as they dodge the traffic and dart into the pub. Rachel blinks, adjusting her eyes to the dark interior, and immediately decides that they should sit by the fire. Steve fetches their drinks and they browse the menu in silence apart from the occasional ‘mmm, that sounds nice’ and Steve’s comment that this pub does the best onion gravy in London. They order and Steve starts to read the sports pages until he notices Rachel’s frown. He laughs.
‘Oh, you want me to talk to you, do you? Right then, Mrs Summers, how about I start by making a little speech? Ahem!’
‘Steve, we do need to talk.’
‘I know, I know, but I need to say this first.’ He reaches out and takes her hand. ‘I know that it hasn’t been easy for you what with us trying for ages to have kids and then all of a sudden we have three.’
Rachel opens her mouth to speak but Steve holds his hand up to stop her.