Authors: Amanda Prowse
This outburst of passion was good for them: spontaneous, rushed and wonderfully physical. It was rare that they were both home, without Celeste and not too tired to take advantage of the frisson. Kicking off her jeans and trainers, Romilly climbed into the dark, slightly fusty space and lay down. Laughing, David joined her after closing the door. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.
‘Did you ever think when you sat next to me in the library that it would lead to this? This grown-up life in this grown-up house?’
He held her face in the dark. ‘I didn’t, Bug Girl, but you know the best thing?’
‘What?’ she whispered as he met her skin to skin.
‘We get to do grown-up things in our grown-up cupboard!’
Suddenly, Romilly froze and gripped his arms. ‘What was that?’
‘What was what?’ He sighed, slightly irritated by the diversion.
‘I heard something!’ Her tone was urgent.
‘No you didn’t.’ He bent his head and kissed the side of her neck.
Romilly closed her eyes and tried to let the moment take her, before shoving at his chest and sitting upright. ‘David! I did hear something! I think someone’s at the door!’ She pushed her husband.
‘All right! Stop pushing me!’ He laughed.
‘It’s not funny!’ She giggled, hiding her fear. ‘I heard someone knocking! It might be the removal men! Oh shit!’
‘Okay, okay, just calm down.’ The sound of rapping was now clear and crisp in their ears.
‘Calm down? David, we are stark bollock naked in the cupboard and the only way out is into the bloody hallway where the window has no curtain and there is glass in the front door and whoever is knocking will see us!’
‘Ssssssssh!’ David wheezed his laughter.
‘I don’t see what’s funny!’ She felt around on the cupboard floor to see if the previous owner had miraculously left a blanket or a large dressing gown in the vicinity. They hadn’t. ‘Supposing it’s our new neighbour?’ she squawked. ‘Or the vicar!’
‘Why would the vicar call?’ David giggled.
‘I don’t know!’ She shrank back against the wall. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Okay…’ His voice was calm. ‘This is what’s going to happen. I’m going to crawl out and put my jeans on and open the door as though nothing is amiss. I’ll either get rid of whoever it is and come back and join you, or if I can’t, if it is the removal men, I’ll usher them upstairs and come and knock on the door and you’ll know it’s safe to come out. You can then grab your clothes, scurry to the loo, pop them on and reappear. Okay?’
She felt her pulse quicken. ‘Couldn’t we just make out we aren’t in?’ She grabbed his leg.
‘No! They’ve only got this afternoon to unload the lorry or we’ll have to pay for an overnighter and another day tomorrow. It’ll be fine. Trust me.’ He kissed her on the forehead as the knocking grew louder and more impatient.
She grabbed his leg. ‘So, when do I come out again?’ Her mind had gone blank.
‘When I knock! It means they are upstairs and the coast is clear.’
With that, he left her alone in the darkness. She could hear his voice but couldn’t quite make out the words; he was being loud and friendly.
Hurry up, David! Don’t bloody chat, get them upstairs. This is my worst nightmare!
Suddenly, the knock came. Romilly sprang into action. Crouching forward onto all fours, her foot caught the edge of the spare piece of carpet. As she fell, the door flew open and she landed flat on the hall floor. With her head down and eyes low, she spied her clothes with her underwear sitting neatly on top. She lunged for the pile. As her hand touched the cold denim of her jeans, Romilly looked up for the first time. And there, standing in the hallway, was her mother-in-law, looking shocked, and her little girl, who pointed at her naked form.
‘Yes, darling, nudey-dudey.’ Romilly scrabbled herself into a sitting position and picked up her pants before sliding her foot into the leg hole, as if it was the most natural thing to be doing on this sunny afternoon.
‘Did you do a wee-wee?’ Celeste asked, toddling forward and helping by passing her mum her bra, assisting in the way Romilly had assisted her on numerous occasions.
‘No, darling. I… err…’ She was trying to think of what possible explanation she might give when there was a distinct whistle from the open front door. Romilly, now in her pants and trying desperately to re-hook her bra, smiled at the three removal men who were crowded on the front step and giving each other wide-eyed looks. Slowly, she gathered her jeans and top and made her way to the downstairs loo.
‘Hi there!’ She waved. ‘Just give me a mo and I’ll pop the kettle on.’ She smiled as she disappeared into the tiny cloakroom.
It wasn’t until early evening, when Sylvia had left, the removal men had off-loaded the last of the boxes, and Celeste was sitting on the floor engrossed in her dollies, that Romilly and David had the chance to collapse in a helpless heap on their sofa.
‘Why did you knock?’ She beat at his chest through her tears of laughter.
‘I didn’t! It was Celeste; she was like a little homing pigeon. She literally marched straight in and banged on the cupboard door.’ He wiped away his tears at the memory.
‘You could have shouted out, warned me, said something!’
‘Like what? I was standing there with my mother!’
The two laughed until they cried, gripping each other tightly. Celeste, alerted by the fun, toddled over to the sofa and climbed up to sit on them.
‘Do you like your new house?’ Romilly asked as she brushed her little girl’s hair from her forehead.
Celeste gave an exaggerated nod.
‘Do you like your new big-girl’s bedroom?’ David asked.
‘Yes.’ She nodded again, before giving an involuntary yawn.
‘Are you sleepy, baby?’ Romilly wrapped her daughter in a hug, kissing her scalp.
‘Why don’t you go get her off to sleep. I’ll find a cold bottle to celebrate our new home and we can make a night of it.’ David grinned.
‘Don’t know. I’m a bit out of practice at drinking.’ She kissed his hand, which rested on her shoulder.
‘It’s like falling off a bike, Rom. You’ll be fine.’ He winked, trying to remember in which box he had packed the wine glasses.
‘Or like falling out of a cupboard?’ she quipped, still giggling as she carried her little girl up the wide staircase of their beautiful new home.
We moved into our family home when I was two. The plan was for me to have a raised bed with storage beneath. The storage never materialised; instead there was a gap of just over a foot in height, where a broken doll used to lurk, living on a dusty mat with a discarded sock and sticky wrappers, evidence of chocolate bars that I had eaten illicitly. This gap was my hiding place whenever going downstairs felt scary. It was dark and cosy and I imagined it was the place that alien mayflies went to die. I talked to them sometimes, asked them what it was like to live in a different world and whether they were sad to leave their children behind. That imaginary world under my bed was like my safety blanket, a small space that was all mine. Mum found me there once or twice and one time, she lay on the floor and put her hand under the bed until it found mine and we lay there in the dark, me under the bed and her on the rug with my hand safe inside hers as she sang to me. It was the song she always sang, ‘You Are My Sunshine…’.
And the house, for which I will always have a key, pulls me back. I know it so intimately that I can picture it and smell it with my eyes closed, even when I’m on the other side of the world. Dad mentioned moving once, after Mum… but I’m glad we didn’t. Glad he didn’t pursue it. I think the look on my face must have spoken volumes. I just can’t imagine leaving the house where our story sits between the bricks and lurks in every scuff on the wall, behind the plants and trees in the garden. No matter what was happening in my life, that house, my room, was the one constant. Even though there were times when I would retreat to the gap under the bed where the alien mayflies lived, squeezing my eyes shut to try and block out what was going on all around me, it was still home.
Three years after they moved in, on a remarkably similar day, a removal truck blocked the Wells’ cul-de-sac from morning until late afternoon. All the residents noticed it, but no one complained. Instead, they peered at it from behind the net curtains or had a good gawp while they tended to their bins or watered their tubs. Everyone tried to glean clues as to who the new occupants might be. Was there a kid’s bike to be seen? A teenager’s drum kit? Fancy sofas?
Romilly and David hadn’t regretted stretching themselves financially while they were so young, knowing that things would continue to get easier as they headed for middle age. But with both of them still under thirty, that still felt like a long way off. Romilly was highly regarded at work and her pay reflected this; apart from a sometimes irritating commute, her job was everything she’d hoped it would be. David’s career continued to go from strength to strength and he was on track to become one of the youngest partners in the firm. His mantra hadn’t changed: ‘Have you noticed, Rom, that the harder I work, the luckier I get?’
Such was the nature of the neighbourhood that everyone found a way to accommodate the inconvenience of the large truck that didn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. They drove up onto pavements, waving good-naturedly at the new arrival and shouting out offers of tea and biscuits as they exchanged names.
Sara Weaver, they soon discovered, was a divorcee. She had bought the house from the Hensons, who had traded in their ‘highly sought-after four-bed, three-bathroom home with landscaped back and front gardens’ for a cool four hundred grand, with which they then purchased a snazzy apartment in a gated community in Naples, Florida, issuing invitations to all the neighbours to visit them whenever they wished. This struck Romilly and David as particularly funny, given that the Hensons only ever socialised at Christmas, when they threw their annual cocktail party, roping in the older kids in the area to serve canapés and stack the dishwasher for a tenner each. They were quite certain that if they did turn up in Naples with a suitcase in tow, the Hensons would duck behind the breakfast bar and hide out like a Victorian widow being chased for overdue rent. Still, it was nice to be asked and just for a minute or two picture themselves in that Florida sunshine while Mrs Henson whipped up a batch of her much admired eggnog.
Sara Weaver was a different kettle of fish entirely; she was about as social as they came. Even the removal men seemed to be having a great time, whisking tables, metal bedsteads and a washing machine up the path as though they were feather light, encouraged by Ms Weaver’s raucous laughter, gentle ribbing and generous helpings of tea and Mr Kiplings. It felt more like a street party than a hectic removal day.
She appeared at their front door the day after she moved in. Romilly had been polite, neighbourly, as ‘Call me Sara!’ leant against the kitchen worktop, telling her how her dentist husband had done a runner with his dental assistant, leaving her high and dry after six years of marriage. She had of course taken him for as much money as she could, threatening to make him wait the statutory five years for his divorce, which would have proved most upsetting for his very pushy new beau. She had given him his divorce, eventually, but it had cost him. Sara had been wronged and, as she explained, felt no qualms at the fact that the new Mrs Weaver and her ex were shacked up in a flat on the wrong side of Whiteladies Road; she was certain that his earning capacity would see him back on track in no time.
Romilly found everything about her fascinating: her tight jeans, heels and vest, which were more appropriate for a nightclub than a neighbourly pop-in, her tendency to over-share, her loud voice, and her laugh, which was only ever a sentence away from erupting. Romilly placed her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and pushed her forward. ‘This is Celeste. Our daughter.’
Celeste stood in front of her mum, her thick, mousey-brown hair hanging against her pale face, from which large eyes shone.
‘Say hello, darling!’ Romilly prompted.
‘Oh, wow! She’s gorgeous!’ Sara gasped.
Romilly grinned. Yes, she was.
The little girl walked forward and gave a shy wave.
‘Oh goodness, you’re so pretty! Do you go to school?’
Celeste took a step backwards as Sara bent down and looked her in the eye.
‘I go to Merrydown Juniors. I’m five,’ Celeste whispered, wary of the woman who acted as familiar as Aunty Carrie and Aunty Holly but was actually a stranger.
‘Oh, I can tell you are a Merrydown girl! But I would have thought you were at least seven.’ Sara’s eyes twinkled.
Celeste beamed, delighted by the compliment, and ran off to watch the telly.
Sara straightened. ‘Do you work, Rom?’
Romilly was a little taken aback at the woman’s presumption, abbreviating her name when it was usually only family and close friends that called her ‘Rom’.
‘Err, yes. I’m a scientist. An entomologist.’ She still got a kick out of announcing her non-standard profession.
‘Good God!’ Sara raised a carefully shaped eyebrow. ‘A what?’
Romilly laughed. ‘I work for a biopharmaceutical company. I’m an expert on insects, so I help them look at how best to protect crops, keep bugs away and things like that.’
‘Oh shit, it’s not that GHD stuff, is it? The one that if you feed it to chickens they get born with three heads and if it gets into my cornflakes my tits will fall off?’
Romilly giggled out loud; Sara was quite unlike anyone she knew. ‘I think you mean GMO not GHD and no, it’s nothing to do with that. Your tits are quite safe.’ She giggled again.
‘Good. I would hate to think of all that money of Neil’s going to waste!’ She placed her hands under the inflated cups and pushed her breasts upwards. ‘You have great tits too, if you don’t mind me saying.’
Romilly stared at her. ‘Err, no! I just don’t think anyone has ever said that to me before – my husband possibly, but certainly not on our first meeting!’