Something has woken me. A voice.
I lie in bed and stare around the semi-darkness, wondering if an old, lost spirit lingers in the whitewashed walls of this Georgian cottage. I have no idea what time it is; the only clock in the room is that on Oliver’s cell phone which is lying on the window seat in our bedroom, its little green light flashing every few seconds. With no phone signal in the village, Oliver’s phone has become merely an expensive timepiece. The idea that the Voice might not be of this world discourages me from getting up to check its display, so it could be the middle of the night or nearly dawn for all I know; morning arrives later here than in Massachusetts, and winter, it feels, will not be long coming.
Perhaps one of the children has had a bad dream? I strain to listen for any sounds of wakefulness from the little bedroom next to us, where the three of them are tucked up. Hearing nothing, I decide I must have been dreaming myself, or that the jackdaws who helpfully drop twigs down the chimney into the fireplace are on night duty, cawing and pacing on the roof. I am about to turn over and reclaim some precious sleep when the Voice comes again: outside, under our bedroom window. A hoarse whisper, no doubt fondly intended to be quiet, but in reality raucous enough to awaken the whole street and the dead in the churchyard opposite.
“Yoohoo! Coo-ee! It’s me! Oliver — are you awake?”
I stay still for a second, not believing or wanting to believe what’s outside. Something that shouldn’t have been here for another three days. Should I ignore it? Will the voice and its owner go away if they get no response?
Chance would be a fine thing.
I sigh, resigned to our family’s fate for the rest of the day — the week, even — and nudge Oliver awake less gently than he’d like or is used to.
“Wake up, O dearest one. Rise and shine. Go open the front door. Your mother’s here.”
* * *
“So yesterday I said to this girl in your office, Oliver — Melinda, I think her name was — I said, ‘But he’s not arriving in England until tomorrow, so he must be there with you.’ And she said, ‘No, he definitely left last Sunday and he’s staying in the goonies in the back of beyond for two weeks.”
“Melissa, not Melinda. Boonies, not goonies.”
I shift George onto my other hip, and one-handedly fill the kettle. It had proved impossible to return to sleep once Sandra entered the house, screeching and cackling, so with bad grace I’d got out of bed and dumped some small children on her. If she was going to arrive three days early, she could make herself useful.
“Melissa, that’s it. She sounded like a lovely girl. Anyway, she said Oliver would be here all week, so why didn’t I ring him on his mobile phone? But I couldn’t get through, I just kept getting his answerphone message, so I thought, sod it, I’ll get an early train tomorrow to Bath. It’ll be a nice surprise for them.”
As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to murder Melissa Harvey Connor in cold blood.
I sit George in the rental cottage’s one highchair and get the teapot ready, putting an extra teabag in for Sandra who likes her brew a violent shade of orange.
“Oh, no tea for me, please!”
I turn, surprised. “No?”
“Not unless you’ve got green tea.”
I hold up the box of PG Tips.
“Evil stuff,” she says. She who once gave my three-year-old Red Bull. “Haven’t drunk it for a week now. I’m on a health kick. Green tea only for me, please.”
I pour boiling water into the teapot. “Haven’t got any.” If you’re going to turn up out of the blue and visit people unannounced, you’ve got to have what you’re given. “It’s PG Tips or apple juice. Or you can have the twins’ Cow and Gate if you’re desperate.”
It’s funny, I think — at one time I’d have been polite, even offering to run out and find some in the village. The health food shop at the other end of the high street probably sells green tea, after all, and as it’s now 8:30, the shops will be open.
But after the crisis that Oliver and I have had, all due to Sandra’s insistence upon Oliver’s silence about his family history? Sandra can damn well sing for her green tea.
“Are you sure you don’t want a cup?” I ask.
Sandra leans over to Beth who is kicking one foot in a bouncy chair, and strokes her cheek.
“Evil stuff,” she says again. “Give me a glass of water and I’ll go outside for a smoke.”
* * *
“What are we supposed to do with her?” I ask Oliver in an emergency conference in our bedroom. “We were going to Windsor to Legoland tomorrow, but I really don’t want her tagging along, moaning about nowhere to smoke and them not having herbal tea. Anyway, the car’s not big enough for all of us. Thoughtless woman.”
Oliver opens his mouth then shuts it again. Presumably he was going to defend Sandra, but over the last few weeks he’s learned that my sympathy threshold for his mother has plummeted. Her mention of Melissa only serves to make things worse.
Since we arrived, I have tried to worm information out of Oliver about Melissa, but every time I bring her name up — casually, nothing accusatory, asking about her job — he shoots a hunted, sideways glance at a random object in the room and changes the subject. I am getting nowhere, not to mention frustrated as hell and more suspicious by the minute.
“I could stay here and you take her out with the children. Go round Bath or someth—” He trails off. I imagine my expression reflects the outrage I feel.
“Your mother, your problem,” I say. “How about you take her round Bath and I stay here with the children and go to the park?”
At least he’s getting to know when he’s lost an argument.
* * *
They’ve gone. The house is quiet, or as quiet as it gets with a preschooler and two six-month-olds. But it’s significantly quieter than when an overgrown teenager in her fifties is added to the equation.
“Can we go to the park now?” Jack asks.
I smile at him. “Of course. Put your jacket and shoes on while I get the twins ready. I’ll just nip upstairs and get changed.”
I strap Beth and George into their double pushchair, then run up the stairs.
In the bedroom, I pull on a sweatshirt, straighten the bed, then cross to the window to draw back the curtains — and stop. In the few days without a phone signal, Oliver has evidently lost his habit of taking his phone everywhere he goes. The phone is still lying on the window seat, its green light winking.
Because I’ve had to turn the alarm off on it every morning, I know Oliver’s password to unlock it.
I unplug the phone, slip it into my jeans pocket, and run back downstairs.
“Let’s go,” I say to Jack.
* * *
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