Esme opened her eyes. The autumn sun streaming in through a chink in the curtains was mellow, like apples aged in a hayloft, illuminating the dust that spun in the beams. She took in the details of the old bedroom, so familiar and yet rendered strange by absence: wallpaper patterned in delicate florals; the old sheepskin rug covering the floor and worn flat by years of bare feet; the antique dressing table she’d once been mortified to spill blue nail varnish over, layered by generations of polish and the stains of her accident still visible; the old iron bedstead creaking as she shifted. In that bright moment, all her troubles seemed distant. She was safe and warm in the arms of the past, a place where Warren didn’t exist and couldn’t hurt her. How wonderful it would be to stay here forever so she wouldn’t have to face the present again. As for the future, she barely had any interest in that right now either.
‘I thought you might like tea,’ she said, setting it down.
Esme pushed herself up and reached for the drink. ‘How did you know I’d be awake?’
‘The sun always comes round to this window at this time of the morning and it’s hard to stay sleeping when it fills the room.’
Esme’s smile was a faint, brief shadow. Of course it did – how could she have forgotten all those teenage weekend visits when she’d complained about not being able to stay in bed because of where the spare bedroom was? A peculiarity of Thimble Cottage’s location that had always been a natural alarm clock to wake Esme for a day of fun with Granddad during her prepubescent years had become a torture to be endured when she’d wanted to sleep the day away during her teenaged ones. And Esme had made no bones about how much it annoyed her. She coloured at the memory. God, she’d been a royal pain in the butt at that age. It was a wonder her grandparents hadn’t put a stop to her visits entirely. More than a decade had passed but she felt like that much of a pain now, though the reasons were very different.
Esme shook her head, eyes burning again. After the previous night, how could there be any more tears? She’d lost so much, so many of her dreams had been shattered – the wedding that would now never happen, the life she’d mapped out for herself that she’d now never have. She’d wept so much for those things that there couldn’t possibly be anything left. And yet, the mention of what had driven her back to Little Dove Morton after three years away tightened her throat once more. Fat teardrops spread dark pools on the bed sheets.
Grandma rubbed a gentle hand over Esme’s. ‘When you’re ready; there’s no rush at all.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Esme whispered.
‘You’re here now, that’s the only thing I care about.’
‘You’re not angry? I didn’t give you any warning…’
‘How could I be angry with my best girl? I’m happy you chose to come here to see me instead of suffering in silence alone – I couldn’t bear to think about that. Whatever ails you, I’m glad you chose me to help. And when you’re ready to receive that help, I’ll be ready to give it.’
Esme gave a jerky nod. Words of gratitude and love whirled in her head, just out of reach, and even if she could grasp them they wouldn’t have been big enough or profound enough to express what was in her heart for Matilda Greenwood, the grandmother who would never let her down, who would always make space in her life for Esme, no matter what.
Matilda took the cup and saucer from Esme’s shaking hands and placed it back onto the bedside table.
‘It’s a little hot right now,’ she said, her understanding instinctive. Esme’s fragile mental state would be all the worse for anything drawing unnecessary attention to it, making it an issue they would have to discuss sooner rather than later. Her grandma understood – she always understood – that Esme would talk when she was strong enough, and that time wasn’t now. ‘I’ll leave you to finish up when it’s cooled. And if you like, have a lie down afterwards – the sun will move round the house soon enough and you look as if you need some extra sleep.’
‘There’s a lovely pack of bacon in the fridge from the farm shop,’ Matilda continued. ‘For when you feel hungry. I can easily get some eggs.’
‘Don’t go out on my account. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat much today.’
Matilda patted her hand again. ‘Get some rest.’
Esme nodded shortly again and turned onto her side, tears soaking the pillow where she settled. Her grandma rose slowly from the bed, her steps across the room stiffer and slower than Esme remembered, and closed the door, the wood dragging on the old carpet as she left the room.
It was mid-afternoon by the time Esme felt able to go downstairs, too late for a bacon breakfast but her grandma cooked one anyway. Esme had asked her not to, knowing she’d struggle to eat any, which would only add to the list of reasons her arrival was bad news for her grandma, but the remarkable woman who was Matilda Greenwood, née Smith, the woman who had brought up Esme’s father practically alone while her husband, Stanley, travelled the world as a merchant sailor, would have none of it. The villagers had gossiped and wondered why he stayed away, and they hadn’t stopped until he’d finally come home to stay, but Matilda hadn’t given it a moment’s attention. And as the salty smell of frying bacon drifted through the house, and the old radio babbled in the corner with the silken tones of Matilda’s favourite presenter, Esme sat at the table and sipped hot, sweet tea, and it was like salve for her soul. The future lightened by degrees, so that the long tunnel of hopelessness she’d constructed for herself shrank before her eyes, and she could almost see the pinpoint of light beckoning her to something better.
‘Do your parents know you’re here?’ Matilda spooned beans onto a plate next to two crisp rashers of bacon.
Esme shook her head. She had refused to discuss much of what had brought her back to Little Dove Morton and, so far, Matilda had seemingly been content to wait for explanations. But this time, Esme knew she wanted an answer. ‘Would it make any difference if they did?’
‘I think so.’ Matilda turned back to the stove, adding a golden-yoked egg to the plate.
‘They made their feelings clear the last time we spoke.’
‘It takes two to have a fight.’
‘A difference of opinion?’ Matilda wiped a hand on her apron. ‘Hmm. A difference of opinion so strong that it’s stopped you going home when you’re in trouble?’
‘For landing on your doorstep like this.’
‘Trust me, I don’t think they’re as bothered as you imagine.’
‘I’m not sure they know the full extent of the situation you were in.’ Matilda stopped and paused, her back still showing to Esme. ‘I suspect none of us really do, and if they did know perhaps things could be sorted. All it would take is a phone call—’
‘Stubborn as the day is long.’
‘That’s Mum, not me.’
‘And where do you think you get it from?’
Esme tried to smile but it wouldn’t come. ‘Maybe. I can’t phone them yet and that’s that. It’s just too complicated for me to think about.’
‘But you will think on it?’
‘Good.’ Matilda turned to face her. Slowly, with that same stiffness Esme had noticed before, she brought a plate loaded with bacon, eggs, black pudding, beans and fried bread to the table. Esme suppressed a groan – there was no way she could eat even a fraction of that.
‘I know,’ Matilda said, plonking the plate down in front of Esme before lowering herself into the opposite chair. ‘You don’t need to eat it all, just take what you can.’ She reached for the teapot. ‘Would you like a top-up?’
Esme nodded, the world looking warmer and brighter by the second. Returning here had been instinctive, but now she knew this was the only place that could heal her. She watched as tea spilled from the spout of the old chipped pot that her grandma would never part with, its lid stained from years of use, and she took comfort in the fact that whenever she wondered if she’d made the right decision in leaving Warren, she would only have to think of this moment to know that she had.