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Authors: Catherine Alliott

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“Yes, why?”

“You look rather uncomfortable.”

“Not in the slightest,” I snapped.

“And you seem to be coming adrift.” He gestured vaguely at my chest with his fork. I glanced down to see one of my black bra cups poking cheekily out of my cleavage.

“Shit!” Clutching my chest I dived under the table and tried to poke it back in, but the body-glue seemed to have lost its stick. In the end, in desperation, I had to pull it out, and then of course the other cup had to come out too. No handbag to stuff them in, so I sat on them. Face flaming, and making absolutely sure I didn't look at Pat, I turned back to Piers. Luckily he was offering to refill my glass.

“Oh, please.”

“After all, you're not driving.”

“No, quite!” I was, though, nearly passing out with the pain in my nether regions, and it occurred to me that I might really faint. I had to get up. Piers was telling me about a horse that suffered from something called bog spavins as I slowly levered myself upright.

“…hocks look as clean as a whistle, but then, blow me, hack him out and he goes hopping lame! Everything all right?” Piers looked up, surprised.

“Yes, thanks. Might just nip to the loo, though.”

I had to get them off, that much was clear. Even if it meant everything bulged and spilled in a revolting manner, these pants had to go. I tottered painfully away.

The downstairs loo was occupied. I waited and waited, but clearly some dowager duchess was taking ages to spend a penny and then reorganise her petticoats. I glanced up the huge staircase. Could I face tottering up there? No. Instead I limped through the green baize door and down the back passage to the other loo.

“Won't be a mo!” sang out a fruity male voice as I rattled the handle.

Damn. Unable to bear it any longer, I went further on down the passage and out of the heavy back door by the boot room. The cool night air was welcome on my flushed cheeks and in a trice, I'd hitched up my dress and peeled the wretched things off. Ooh, the relief. I flicked up my dress and scratched my buttocks vigorously. Then I rolled the pants in a ball and glanced around furtively. No handbag, so—

“I should pop them in the azaleas,” came a voice out of the night.

I froze, horrified. “Who's there?”

“Won't be the first time a pair of knickers has been found in the Latimers' garden. Or the last, I'd hazard.”

A wisp of smoke drifted up my nostrils, and at the same moment, I made out a dark figure in the shadows by the wood pile. My neighbour from dinner was leaning back against the logs, grinning delightedly, his teeth white in the darkness.

“I like a girl who takes her bra off at the table then nips out to take her knickers off too,” he drawled. “Hadn't realised it was that sort of party. Things
are
looking up.”

“How dare you spy on me!” I gasped, horrified.

“Hardly spying. I was here first. Having a mid-course ciggie since the Latimers don't approve. I must say, I never expected to get mid-course entertainment too. What's next, the dress? Or are you going to set fire to yourself again?”

Suddenly I realised whose dinner-jacketed arm had shot across the room and flicked my bag in the fire, before melting into the crowd again.

“Although I have to tell you, if it
is
the dress, I'm not sure I can retain my sangfroid at the table. Not sure I can sit next to you making small talk if you're going to be wearing nothing but a smile and a pair of high heels.” A faraway look came into his eye. His face brightened. “Actually, I'm willing to give it a go.”

“How dare you!”

He threw back his head and roared with laughter as I turned on my heel and stalked back inside. Clutching my pants, face flaming, I walked, head high, and with everything jiggling about a fair bit, down the passage and back into the dining room. As I neared the table I realised, with horror, my bra cups were still on my chair, for all the world to see. Oh, this was a
horrible
dinner party, I thought miserably as I added my pants to the sorry little pile and sat on them. A couple of women opposite exchanged raised eyebrows.
Horrible
.

Somehow I managed to get through the rest of the evening. I monopolised Piers during pudding, and only when politeness dictated that he turn to address a few comments to his other neighbour did I steel myself to turn to mine and deliver a few icy words about Peeping Toms. His chair was empty.

“He's pissed orf,” the woman on his left informed me loudly, and a trifle drunkenly. She leaned across his empty chair conspiratorially and rested a heavily jewelled hand on his seat. “Knowing Pat, he's got some gel in the next parish keeping his bed warm.” She chuckled, showing very yellow teeth. “Gone to give her a good seeing-to, no doubt!”

“Ah.” I smiled thinly. “Yes, I might have known. You can always tell the type, can't you?”

She chuckled. “You certainly can.” She picked at her horsy teeth distractedly. “I hair you're hair for the duration?”

I blinked. “Yes, we're hair—here, for about six months.” My head was aching with the effort of being part of
The Archers
cast one minute and a Noël Coward play the next. Luckily my toothy friend felt we'd exhausted all avenues of conversation, and with a brief nod, went back to her sorbet.

I glanced down the table to where Alex and Eleanor, heads close together, almost touching, were deep in conversation. Suddenly I felt very empty. Very alone.

A while later, during coffee in the drawing room, I slipped away. I didn't say good night to anyone, didn't break up the party, just stole upstairs and into the spare room, throwing the hateful dress on the floor and crawling into bed. As I lay there, staring at the ceiling, listening to the sound of the chatter and laughter drifting up from below, tears fell silently, sideways down my cheeks, soaking my pillow.

Sometime later, Alex crawled into bed beside me, smelling faintly of port, but I could smell her perfume too. He gathered me in his arms and kissed my cheek, then realised it was wet.

“Why are you crying?” he whispered.

“I…don't know,” I whispered back. “I think I'm just tired.”

“Don't cry, Imo.” He kissed me full on the mouth, his body warm next to mine. He kissed me again, opening my mouth with his lips. “Don't cry. It'll all be fine. I'll make it fine. You'll see.”

And then he made love to me: beautifully, gently and tenderly. And when, later, he rolled over with a deep sigh and went to sleep holding my hand, I realised my cheeks were wet again. This time, though, they were tears of relief.

Chapter Nine

The following morning at breakfast, Eleanor apologised for the ghastliness of the evening.

“We do have to do these things periodically,” she grimaced, putting a rack of toast in front of me. “Marmalade?”

“No, thanks.”

“And it was Sod's law that you were here, but at least it gave you a flavour of country life. In at the deep end and all that.”

“Absolutely,” I murmured, sipping my coffee and watching Rufus take the top off his boiled egg. Shafts of dusty sunlight were streaming through the huge sash windows on to the duck-egg-blue walls, skimming his auburn curls. Piers had taken Alex for a walk around the fields so Eleanor and I were alone with the boys.

“I rather enjoyed it, actually,” I lied.

I hadn't, on any level, but was still on air after last night. I felt ridiculously smug sitting here in her sunny kitchen, knowing that, after all her efforts, my husband had come up those stairs and made love to me. Of course it wasn't a victory—that would make me a very sad individual—but in my present state of mind, it was a secret to add to the other one I was hugging. We wouldn't be staying.

“Pat's amusing, isn't he?” she said lightly, packing Theo's book bag for school as he sat tapping his empty, upside-down eggshell and chanting a rhyme with Rufus. He was the youngest of her brood and, as such, had not yet been sent away.

“Mm, very,” I agreed.

“He's from Ireland, as you probably gathered. Single too. Split up with his wife last year. He's set a few hearts a-fluttering in the village, I can tell you!”

She waited, and I knew she was hoping I'd want more; lean forward over my coffee mug, and ask what he did, where he lived—but instead I leaned back and nodded out of the window at her garden.

“Fabulous daffodils, Eleanor. In fact the whole place is looking a picture. You must have a terrific gardener.”

She looked momentarily disappointed, then rallied.

“Dick? Yes, he's very good. He's Vera's husband, you know. They were here with Piers's parents. We inherited them. Ah, talk of the devil.”

At that moment, Vera and her army of helpers, three very solid-looking women in housecoats, bustled past the window up to the back door with buckets. We heard them clattering about and laughing as they came down the passage, then Vera stuck her head round.

“Morning, all!”

“Morning, Vera!” Eleanor sang.

“You want us to start down at Shepherd's Cottage then?”

“Please, and I think it'll take you most of the day. It's in a bit of a state, I'm afraid.”

“Right you are.” Vera grinned at me, revealing an unusual dental arrangement. “Gather you came a day early, like. Couldn't wait to get in there, eh?” she cackled.

“Something like that,” I murmured.

“Must 'ave got the shock of your life when you saw it then. But don't worry, luv, I'll have it gleaming like a new pin in no time.”

I drained my coffee and got to my feet. “I'll give you a hand. Alex has gone off with Piers, but Rufus and I could help out.”

“Ooh Lord, no, I wouldn't hear of it. Not in them nice London clothes. Tell you what, you come down 'bout tea time when we've finished, eh?” She let the door bang noisily behind her and disappeared with her cronies, still talking at the top of her voice.

“Do that, Imogen,” Eleanor advised me. “Let Vera crack on, she'd much rather, and then you can spend the day with me,” she said happily. “I've only got to take Theo to school and pick something up in the village. Then I thought we could go shopping and have lunch somewhere. There's a terrific new bistro in town I haven't tried yet.”

I smiled. “I'd love to, but actually, I promised Hannah I'd have lunch with her today. She rang this morning, and they haven't seen Rufus for ages and he starts school the day after tomorrow. Mum's there too.”

Eleanor looked disappointed. “Oh, yes, I forgot your sister lives round here.”

Eleanor knew everyone in the county but my sister and Eddie would not register on her social radar.

“Oh, well, maybe some other time?” She regarded me anxiously. “I would so love us to be friends.” It was said with candour, and her hazel eyes were wide and hopeful, but I'd seen those eyes before, when she was advising Alex not to give Tilly a decanter, but a pair of earrings.

“That would be lovely,” I said pleasantly. “But right now, if Vera's sure she's all right, I might get off and do a quick food shop. I gather there's a Tesco in town?”

“There's a Waitrose too. In fact I'm going that way myself, maybe I could—”

“No, no, don't worry, I'll find it.” I waved away her offer and, taking Rufus's hand, practically dragged him off his chair. “I like to explore, feel my way around.”

How rude, I thought as we went outside to the car; how very rude of me indeed, but actually, this was all about self-preservation. Last night had shown me just how easily I could become a fly in a web, how easy it would be to be manipulated. I had to keep my wits about me, and if it was only for a few months, I could do that. I could do that easily.

When Rufus had stroked every horse's nose in the stable yard and tickled the sheepdog's tummy, we got in our car and purred down the front drive, admiring the mares and foals grazing behind the post-and-rail fencing as we went. At the stone entrance gates by the lodge, we turned left down the hill, through the woods and into the village. Clearly there'd been a downpour in the night but now the clouds had rolled back to reveal a glorious spring morning. Every cottage garden we passed was a riot of daffodils and primroses scattered with tiny raindrops glistening like glass beads. It went some way to taking the austerity off the stony faces of the houses, I thought, as I peered into darkened windows. I wondered how much Eleanor had to do with the village, as we purred on through it. Did she know many of the people here, or did she just sweep through it in her four-wheel drive on her way to the hairdresser's?

“Is that where I'll get my humbugs?” asked Rufus, pointing.

“Er, possibly.” I looked doubtfully at the Spar.

“Can we go in?”

“Yes, why not? I'll get the newspaper.”

We parked on the forecourt and went inside. “I thought you said there'd be a bell,” remarked Rufus.

“What?”

“Above the door. A tinkly one.”

“Oh. Sorry, darling.”

“You'll 'ave to move that,” a voice came from behind a copy of the
Daily Mirror
. “I don't allow vehicles up against the window like that.” A woman behind the counter, with a tight perm and steel-rimmed glasses, lowered her newspaper. I glanced back at the car. It wasn't particularly close, but…

“OK, I'll move it. Choose some sweets, Rufus, and I'll be back.”

“And I don't allow unaccompanied children, neither. Not under the age of ten. There's a notice to that effect, just there.” She jabbed at a piece of paper above her head. “Cause no end of trouble, they do.”

I regarded this charmless individual in her pink jogging suit.

“He's not unaccompanied. I'll be back just as soon as I've moved the car.”

“Even so, you can take 'im with you.” She rustled her paper again and I found myself looking at David Beckham on the back page.

“Right,” I muttered. “Come on, Rufus.”

Silently we withdrew, reparked, then came back. Rufus chose some Polos—humbugs not appearing to be an option—and I picked up my
Daily Mail
. We approached the counter again. I flashed a wide smile as she took our things.

“I'm Imogen Cameron, by the way. We've just moved into the village. We're in one of the cottages on the Latimers' estate.”

A couple of old ladies by the freezer turned and stared. Pink Jogging Suit looked at us as if we'd just tucked some wine gums up our sleeves. She carried on ringing up her till.

“I expect you know them,” I said pleasantly. “The Latimers.”

“Oh, yeah, we know the Latimers.” She caught the eye of one of the old biddies and they exchanged looks. “Yes, well. I expect we'll be seeing more of each other. Rufus is going to the village school, so I'll probably pop in for my paper when I drop him off. And you are…?”

She regarded me a long moment. “I am what?”

“I mean, your name is…?” There was a weighty silence. I could feel myself going red. Rufus looked up at me anxiously.

“Mrs. Mitchell,” she said eventually.

“Right,” I said faintly. “Mrs. Mitchell.”

As we left the shop I heard one of the old ladies say, “…and a packet of Rennies, please, Linda luv.”

“Linda. Her name's Linda,” Rufus said as we got back in the car.

“Evidently.”

We drove off in silence.

“Not particularly friendly,” he observed at length.

“No,” I agreed, thinking longingly of the lovely wise-cracking Khan brothers, Shied and Tac, who ran the 7-Eleven at the end of our road in Putney. “But then, they do say you have to live in a village for about three generations before you're accepted.”

“How long is three generations?”

“About a hundred and fifty years.”

He looked at me in horror.

“No, Rufus,” I assured him, “we are not staying here for a hundred and fifty years.”

***

Having located Tesco and filled the boot of the car with groceries, we set off for Hannah's.

“Is Daddy meeting us there?” asked Rufus as we cruised into their village, or more accurately, their strip of ribbon development along a fast country road.

“No, Daddy's going into work today. Don't eat those sweets all at once, Rufus.”

“Is he?” He turned to me in surprise, his tongue poking through a Polo. “I thought he went out walking with Piers.”

“Yes, but he's going in after that,” I said shortly. I too had assumed that he'd taken the day off and would be joining us for a jolly family day out, but apparently an urgent piece of work on his desk required his attention.

“But, Alex, you won't get there till mid-morning,” I'd said as he'd rung me at the cheese counter in Tesco. “Is it worth it? You know, if you're going to do this commute properly, you need to get a really early start.”

“You're quite right, and in future I'll be on the seven fifteen, but I just thought, since it's our first morning, I'd have a leisurely start and pootle round the farm with Piers. Find out what I've let myself in for!”

What
I'd
let myself in for, you mean, I thought as I snapped my mobile shut and snatched up my piece of Dolcelatte. How was he going to feed a herd of cows from the city? And I couldn't help thinking this Urgent Piece of Work had only materialised when I'd told him where we were going today. My sister was not high on his list of priorities, and actually, he wasn't high on hers either. Hannah had never really got over her initial disapproval of Alex, and he in turn found her bossy and domineering. My husband liked his women pretty and compliant, and Hannah, these days, was neither.

We drew into the tarmac drive of their small, red-brick semi and I glanced up at the hermetically sealed double-glazed windows. It wasn't exactly the pretty thatched cottage with roses round the door they'd envisaged when they'd first moved out of London, but then rose-decked cottages came at a premium they hadn't envisaged either. A couple of teachers' salaries didn't go very far, and I knew they struggled to make ends meet. At least they looked out on to fields at the back, I thought, as I got out and gazed at the sheep-flecked meadow beyond, even if the traffic did zip past their noses at the front.

“Hi-ya!” I called through the letter box, knowing the bell had long since given up the ghost.

No response and the radio was blaring, so I pushed the door, which was on the latch, and went through to the narrow hallway. It was as cluttered as ever, and I tried to ignore the piles of books and files and newspapers as I brushed past them, tried not to think of it all as evidence of Hannah being consciously scatty. Hannah wasn't scatty, she was supremely organised, and used to run a very tight ship, but these days it suited her to bustle around a chaotic house complaining she was far too busy to tidy up. I think a tidy house with nothing for her to do would have left her profoundly depressed. I did wonder Eddie didn't complain about the dust, though. A pile of what I sincerely hoped was jumble—old clothes, a bird cage, a wet suit, a couple of lamps and some more books—blocked my way to the sitting room, but I skirted round them to the kitchen, where Hannah was making fairy cakes in her Sea Scouts uniform, complete with scarf and toggle. The bright blue skirt and shirt were stretched tightly over her ample bosom and bottom, and it occurred to me she'd put on even more weight. She must be nudging fifteen stone, I thought, quietly shocked.

“Ah,” I smiled. “Scouts today?”

“No, Eddie likes it,” she replied drily.

I giggled and gave her a kiss. She was still quick on the draw, even if she'd let herself go in other respects.

“Yes, quite right, Scouts today. We had a meeting this morning about the jumble sale, and Akela, can you believe it, likes everyone in uniform, even though the boys aren't there. How weird is that?”

“Very, but then again, give a man a whistle and a pair of shorts and he turns into a raving fascist. It's probably the only authority he commands in his sad little life.”

“Doesn't say much for my little life then, does it?” she replied tartly.

“Oh, I didn't mean…” But she'd already bent down to embrace Rufus enthusiastically.

“Hello, angel,” she beamed. “How are you?”

“Fine, thanks. Where's Eddie?” My son, not one for small talk, cut ruthlessly to the chase.

She laughed. “Out in the garden with Granny. Your uncle has decided to dig a pond, and your grandmother is advising him, horticulturally speaking.”

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