As the train rocked to a halt with a gentle thud, Ella rounded up nearly all her worldly goods. It seemed her life had come full circle, back where she started, except she really hadn’t been that far. Like an overloaded tortoise, rucksack on her back, pulling two cases and juggling the variety of mismatched bags, she struggled along the platform, but had to give in and make two trips up the flight of stairs before rumbling along the bridge to the car park, every step feeling more leaden than the last.
‘Ella, darling.’ Her mother darted across the car park. ‘Gosh, you do look tired. How are you?’ Her eyes, bird-bright, gave Ella an assessing look.
‘I’m fine.’ Her terse, brittle response elicited a quick worried frown. Ella looked away. One slight crack in her determined defence and her mother would prise her wide open, like a reluctant mussel, forcing everything out.
‘Let me help.’ Despite her diminutive size, her mother tried to take the larger case. ‘Good Lord, what have you got in here?’
‘Everything,’ muttered Ella with feeling, having dragged it from Shoreditch across London and then been wedged up against it from Euston to Tring for the last forty-three minutes. She’d packed as much as she could and brought along most of her art supplies and her clothes; everything else, not much at all, had gone into storage.
Her mother tutted. ‘I don’t know why you didn’t ask us to come and collect you, it would have been a lot easier.’
Ella gave a vague smile and managed to refrain from pointing out that it would have been far too much like being picked up at the end of a college term. An admission of failure. She settled into the front passenger seat of the little runaround, as pristine as the day it rolled away from the showroom with its little pockets and gadgets to keep everything in its place. Mints, de-icer, cloths, spare air freshener. For some reason all that neat orderliness irked her and she longed to run a streak through the slightly misted windscreen with one finger, just to leave a mark. Ella woz ere. Ella was somewhere. Ella was still in here somewhere.
‘Now,’ her mother started brightly, ‘your father’s going to meet us there. Magda’s left the house all ready for you and I’ve popped a few bits in the fridge. You’re to treat the place as your own, help yourself to anything you want and of course there’s—’
‘Mum, I spoke to Magda myself.’
‘Mum, you can mention Patrick’s name without me bursting into tears.’ Ella tightened her mouth, schooling her face into an impassive mask. ‘We’re just taking a break, at the moment. Taking some time to assess things.’ Even-toned, her explanation sounded perfectly normal. Well thought-out. Logical. A grown-up way to do things.
Ella winced as her mother swung out of the car park, narrowly missing taking off the wing mirror of an oncoming car. Conventional to the core, Mum and Dad had no idea about how relationships worked these days. Some days she wondered if she did.
Nausea rolled in her stomach as her mother speeded up along the straights, veered around corners and slowed to a snail’s pace when the country lanes narrowed.
‘Are you sure you’ll be all right on your own out here?’ Her mother jerked her head towards the village signpost as they passed it.
‘Mum, after living in London, I think the crime rate in Wilsgrave is considerably lower, unless of course there’s a serial killer on the loose that I hadn’t heard about.’ The first ribbon of small houses started to appear and Ella’s mother slowed down.
‘I’ll be fine.’ This already felt enough of a defeat. Thank God, she’d have the use of Magda’s car. She could be back within Central London in forty-five minutes at a push.
Her mother pulled smartly into a space right outside a pretty double-fronted end of terrace house.
Was that his new chiropractor? A tamer version of Miss Whiplash? Releasing herself from her seatbelt, Ella took the proffered keys and got out of the car. Daffodils, tulips, crocuses, and anemones danced in the dappled light cast by overhanging trees. They lined the narrow brick path leading to a front door painted in a tasteful National Trust shade of pale green, their scent perfuming the air.
For a moment Ella paused. Sunshine yellow contrasted with brilliant blue. If only she had the ability or the skill to capture the hope and promise of those spring colours, the shapes and textures, that fabulous fractured light or even the essence of the season, new life, new hope. A pang filled her chest, blooming with a fierce emptiness. Focusing on the front door, she averted her gaze and marched up the path.
Juggling with the keys her mother had handed over in the car, she stepped into a roomy hallway with a flagstone floor. She’d been to her godmother’s plenty of times before to know that to her left was a big kitchen, pretty enough if your taste ran to French provincial, and large enough to house a huge central table. To the right a door led into the wood beamed lounge with its focal open fireplace which took up most of one wall and an eclectic mix of furniture which shouldn’t have worked together but did, all of which made the room seem smaller than it was. Ahead steps led up to one large master bedroom, a second smaller bedroom and the bathroom. Beyond that the loft conversion, a long white room, almost bare of furniture, lit by skylights through which the light flooded, making it the perfect studio. This was just about the only reason she’d agreed to come and house-sit for six months. Well, that and having nowhere else to go. Work had been impossible of late, she was so behind. Incarceration in the country with nothing else to do might focus her mind and force her to address the blank pages of cartridge paper.
Carrying what looked like his own body weight in a sack which read complete dog food on the front, her father shouldered his way in through the front door, straight into the kitchen.
‘What’s that?’ Ella’s voice echoed in her head, sounding overly sharp.
‘I can see that.’ She hated herself for using the tone with Dad, ever the sweetheart and as laid back as they came. ‘I meant, what is it for?’
He instantly looked sheepish and turned towards her mother for support.
‘What? Storing dog food for people?’
Her mother flashed an over-bright smile. ‘I’ll just get the rest of Tess’s things.’
With that, she bustled back out of the tiny cottage hallway.
A clatter from the hall moments later made Ella jump, setting her heartbeat racing a thousand miles an hour.
‘What the hell?’ The angry snap escaped before she could stop it.
Her mother’s over-apologetic, sparkly isn’t-everything-peachy smile pricked all Ella’s guilt buttons as she watched her carry in some large oval of foam and fabric and a leather and metal chain-choker-dog-lead thing. At Ella’s feet, the metal bowls she’d dropped were still rattling and vibrating to a final standstill on the floor.
‘Here.’ Her mother thrust the lead into Ella’s hand. Definitely a dog lead. What the hell did she want with a dog lead?
‘What’s that?’ Ella backed away, staring down at a tubby black Labrador, sniffing furiously around the skirting boards, its tail thud-thudding against the wall.
Mum tried to hide her snigger. ‘A dog, dear.’
‘I can see that. What’s it doing here?’
‘It . . . er,’ – her mother and father exchanged a look – ‘lives here.’
‘No way on earth.’ Ella folded her arms, her shoulders rigid as tension gripped them. ‘You are not leaving that thing here.’ Fear skittered in the pit of her stomach; she couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t be responsible for anything right now.
‘She’s not going to be any trouble.’ Mum lifted her chin, standing resolute. ‘Besides, it will do you good.’ She gave Ella a sharp-eyed up and down, her mouth wrinkling.
‘You have her, then.’
‘We can’t. You’re at home all day.’
‘Mum . . . ’ Her mother wasn’t paying a blind bit of notice. Instead she unloaded another bag in the kitchen.
‘Poo bags.’ She screwed up her nose. ‘I brought you a scooper. Sorry, but I’m sure it’s no worse than babies’ nappies.’
Ella’s head jerked up, panic-spiked adrenaline roaring through her veins.
‘And you would know, how?’ Ella asked, spitting sarcasm like hailstones. They were not an animal family. She’d never even had a hamster. She was not a dog person.
The dog had moved away from the wall, head in the air as if scenting new prey.
With the precision of an Exocet missile on target, the dog headed towards her, snuffling, and her hand received a fulsome wet slurp.
‘Eeeuw! Seriously Mum, you can’t leave it here.’ Ella wiped her hand furiously on her jeans, itching to wash it immediately.
‘It’s a she and she’s lovely, aren’t you? She’s called Tess.’ To make up for Ella’s obvious uselessness with dogs Mum patted Tess with a great show, although Ella felt pretty sure the pats were vertical, carefully pushing the dog away from her immaculate cream wool trousers.
‘Mum,’ she whined, with all the grace of a petulant toddler sensing defeat.
‘It’s easy, darling. You won’t know she’s here.’
‘Of course you can. You’re here all day. It’s easy. Honestly, I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss. All you have to do is feed her twice a day. Once in the morning, once in the evening at six o’clock. One scoop only. Put water in the other bowl. Take her out for a walk once or twice a day.’ Her pasty cheeks received another narrow-eyed look. ‘Fresh air and exercise will do you good. You look so tired and . . . ’
Ella waited to see how she might diplomatically mention the pounds she’d mislaid recently.
‘And,’ her mother puffed herself up like a pigeon, ‘she’ll be company for you and your father won’t be quite so anxious about you being here on your own at night. We’re worried about you.’ Her mother’s mouth quivered.
Ella sighed. ‘Mum, I’m fine. Honestly. I’ve been busy, working really hard. I’ve got a deadline.’ One that, currently, had as much chance of being met as her and this thing entering Crufts. ‘I’m fine.’
Her mother tilted her head, turning away, but not before Ella spotted the slight sheen in her eyes. Shit. That’s what mothers did. They worried. Cared. Maternal instinct preprogrammed. When did it kick in? Hard and fast, from conception? Birth? Or did it settle in with serene grace, bedding in as the mother–child bond grew?
Crossing the kitchen, feeling a tender whip of shame, she touched her mother on the shoulder. ‘All right, I’ll take the damn dog.’
‘That’s wonderful. It’ll do you good, get you out of the house. In fact,’ she said brightly, ‘Dad only took her for a short walk earlier.’
She shot him a look. ‘A dog like this needs lots of walks – don’t you, sweetheart?’ She gave the dog another vertical pat. ‘Why don’t you take her to Wendover Woods once you’ve settled in?’
She watched as her parents in their separate cars – Dad in his faithful Mercedes and Mum in her nippy runaround – vied to let the other go first before they pulled away from the kerb. It took them a good five minutes of misplaced manners before her mother finally conceded and roared off in an irritated huff. Dad gave her a cheerful wave and followed in an altogether more sedate manner.
The minute they were out of sight, whatever backbone Ella had mustered to hold it all together upped and left without so much as a backward glance. Her inward breath sliced sharp in tandem with a half sob. Stumbling to one of the wooden chairs, she collapsed onto it, dropped her head to the table and cried. No-holds-barred sobs, tears running down her face – and she didn’t give a shit when they mingled with her running nose or when she wiped it with the back of her sleeve, sniffing with pig-like snorking noises against the tidal flow.
It was so bloody exhausting trying to pretend everything was OK, and a bloody relief they’d gone and left her in peace. A gentle whiffle around her ankles reminded her she wasn’t completely on her own. Not that a dog counted. She gave one last unladylike sniff and glared at the animal at her feet.
‘And you’re the last thing I damn well need.’
She pushed her hands against the table to shove herself upright and crossed back to the sink. Through the kitchen window, beyond the long front garden, the empty green and silent street seemed to mock her. Why had she let herself be persuaded by Magda? It might only be an hour back into town, but there were 24 hours in day, 168 in a week, 672 in a month and she had 4,032 of the buggers to fill over the next six months. (She’d worked that depressing figure out on the train on the way here.) With what? This place could have been the dark side of the moon, for all the similarity it had with London. There was nothing here.
The dog began another of its nosy explorations of the corners of the kitchen, snuffling with the gusto of a Dyson on turbo charge. As her gaze followed it, she spotted a navy blue envelope pinned to a floral fabric-backed noticeboard. Her name was written on it in Magda’s distinctive script, the silver letters flowing like moonlight across the dark colour.
She released it from the pin. It looked like a party invitation. Although it was probably more instructions for the boiler or for locking up the house. Wearily she tossed the envelope down on the table.
Rolling her eyes at her own stupidity and for the prick of guilt that lanced her, she reached for the envelope.
Mother Nature has a wonderful way of healing. Repeat this blessing daily to find your peace and centre.
Oh dear, was Magda on some spiritual kick? That was new. With a wry smile, she read the writing written on a postcardsized piece of heavy blue paper. Her godmother meant well but surely no one believed in this mumbo-jumbo. It was rather sweet, although she didn’t imagine for a moment, it would make her feel better.
Under Spring’s awakening gaze
Breathe Earth’s bountiful fragrances
Enjoy slow lengthening days
Find peace among the blossom
the warmth of deepening rays
breathing life back
and circle the blooms daily
And take peace as yours
‘She’s nuts.’ Ella shook her head. Definitely barking. Imagine a floatily dressed sergeant major and you had Magda. How on earth had the Women’s Institute stalwart that was Ella’s mum hooked up with her and stayed friends for thirty years?