Read Meet Me Under the Mistletoe Online

Authors: Abby Clements

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Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (9 page)

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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‘Well,’ Rachel said, nudging Milly, ‘he is quite handsome, isn’t he? Not many men like that in Skipley. Your dad aside, of course.’

‘Bit old,’ Milly said. ‘But not bad, no.’

Rachel looked at her daughter for a moment – a flush in her smooth teenage cheeks. It definitely wasn’t all about horses any more, that was for sure.

‘What are you two whispering about?’ Zak said, tugging at Rachel’s wool coat. ‘Can you hurry up and open the door? I need a wee. Really bad. Which one is it?’

Directly in front of them were two doors: on the left side, a green door with a tarnished bronze letterbox and two panels of what looked like original stained glass. To the right, a bright white one, with a single frosted glass panel and chrome door fittings. ‘That one,’ she said instinctively, pointing to the white door, then saw a stylish chrome 8 at the top that confirmed it. Rachel put the key in the lock and turned it.

Zak bombed past her into the flat. Rachel spotted the white carpets everywhere and thought of the mucky state of Zak’s trainers. ‘Zak! Come back and take your shoes off,’ she called out, removing her own sheepskin-lined brown boots.

Zak came back and Rachel put her bag down to help him with his shoelaces. She quickly located the bathroom and directed her sock-clad son into it.

Rachel and Milly wandered through into the living room. A large bay window with slatted blinds faced out towards the road, the carpets were white and the contemporary furniture was in shades of grey, the largest piece a charcoal, L-shaped sofa in the corner. A large, thin TV screen was wall-mounted and block-colour Rothko prints hung on the wall. Above the old mantelpiece, one of the only original features, was a wide, chrome-framed mirror. Rachel made her way to the sofa and sat down. This must be the one Laurie had told her about which folded down into a bed. Rachel took the cushions off, lifted the base down and tried it out for size. She attempted a bounce, but the base was firm. Not the comfiest, but Zak would be fine on it.

‘Wow, Mum, look at this,’ Milly called out from another room. Rachel got up and headed towards her daughter’s voice, glancing around as she walked, peeking into the bathroom – immaculate, with carefully folded, bright white towels and flannels. Aside from the expensive hair products and the rows and racks of shoes in the hallway, it was as if no one lived here at all.

In the spare bedroom at the back of the house, Milly had her arm slung around a dressmaker’s dummy. ‘This is Matilda,’ Milly said, with a smile. They were about the same height; Matilda’s torso covered in dark green linen, and Milly, wearing cut-off jean shorts and black leggings, Converse boots and a heart-printed cardigan, her dark-red sweeping fringe hovering just above her eyelashes.

‘Ah, I know Matilda well, as it happens,’ Rachel said, smiling as the memory flooded back. ‘Laurie bought her when she was just a bit older than you. Saved up when she was doing her textiles A-Level.’

‘Laurie said I could use this stuff if I wanted,’ Milly said, pointing to the corner of the room. A desk near the small window held a sewing machine, with a rack of fabric to the left of it.

‘Oh, did she?’ Rachel said, remembering that Milly and Laurie occasionally emailed each other and sent cards. ‘Well, that was kind of her.’ She glanced around the rest of the room – there was a single bed there, and a window that looked over the neighbouring gardens. This would be a nice little room for Milly. ‘Do you want to get settled?’ she said.

‘Mum, what’s this?’ Zak yelled from the kitchen. When Rachel got to the kitchen he was already hauling down a Breville sandwich maker from the counter. ‘No, Zak. Hang on.’ She took the machine off him and put it back where he’d found it. ‘Leave that. I’ll fix us something to eat.’ Zak wandered out.

She opened the fridge, then the bread bin – both empty. Rachel knew Laurie wasn’t big on cooking – but the cupboards, freezer – there was nothing in any of them. On the side there was just a half-empty bottle of Diet Pepsi and some wine. She looked through the metal tins on the counter and thought of the pie she’d made for Laurie’s arrival at the cottage – then opened the last tin, marked ‘Tea’. Nope, no teabags.

‘Kids,’ Rachel said, popping her head around Milly’s door. Zak was perched on Milly’s bed, his head buried in a copy of one of his Horrible Histories books, and Milly was lying on her front, legs in the air, looking at her phone, her belongings turfed out of her rucksack into a heap on the floor.

‘I’m going out to get some dinner. Do you want to come too?’

Milly shook her head no, and Zak copied her.

‘OK. I’ll see you in twenty minutes. Milly, keep an eye on Zak. And please try not to trash the place.’

Rachel stepped out into the street, wrapping her thick red scarf around her neck. A group of teenage boys with their hoods up were crowded around BMXs at the corner, talking in lowered voices, music pumping out of a stereo.

‘Hello,’ she called out cheerily, smiling and waving over as she passed them. The young men looked back at her blankly and said nothing. Siren wails filled the air, drifting from the direction of the high street. She tried once again. ‘Hi!’ she called, and one of the smaller boys finally gave her a little wave back, his friends sniggering and digging him in the ribs.

This felt, well, a bit different from Skipley. Rachel pulled her duffel coat more tightly around her. She got out her phone and flicked to Laurie’s number.

Laurie picked up almost instantly. ‘Rach,’ she said.

‘Hello,’ Rachel greeted her. ‘How are you? Did you get to the cottage OK?’

‘I’m on my way now,’ Laurie said, ‘but the train seems to have dropped me in the middle of nowhere.’

Rachel laughed. ‘Yep, sounds like Skipley. The train station’s on the outskirts. Don’t worry, the village is a little livelier.’

‘Oh, good.’ Laurie sounded relieved. ‘And you, are you in the flat? Did you guys get hold of the keys OK?’

‘Yes, we’re here, everything’s fine. I’ve just popped out to do some shopping. How come you never mentioned what a total dish your neighbour is?’

‘Who, Jay?’ Laurie said.

‘Yes. Wow. Gorgeous.’

‘I guess,’ Laurie said, nonchalantly. ‘I don’t know, I can’t see it myself.’

As Rachel reached the high street, commuters flooded out of the station, engulfing her in a greypinstriped tide.

‘Listen, I’d better go,’ she said, raising her voice to be heard over the noise, ‘but let me know when you get there, and if you need anything at all, just give me a shout.’

‘Sure, Rach. Bye!’

Rachel put her phone away and carried on walking. Sharp-suited men and glamorous, high-heeled women pushed past in the opposite direction, knocking into her with their briefcases and handbags. The first turning she reached was Electric Avenue; reggae and hiphop competed from sound systems on each side of the street, and traders called out to market their wares. The market was full of movement – locals jostled, picking out brightly coloured ingredients and haggling with the stallholders. Up and down the street, slabs were heavy with fresh meat and seafood, fruit and vegetables in every colour, pots and pans, pirated CDs and DVDs.

Rachel stepped towards the nearest fruit and vegetable stall and gawped at the fruits. Giant mangos, starfruit, ugli fruit … bananas hung in fat bunches above oranges and grapefruits that looked so juicy they might burst. She reached a hand out towards a pile of large dark avocados.

‘No squeezing!’ the middle-aged woman running the stall shouted out, making Rachel jump. ‘Ha, I frightened you, didn’t I?’ the woman said, putting her hands on her generous hips and letting out a hearty laugh. Rachel smiled back, relieved. ‘Look, darling,’ the woman continued, sorting through the avocados. ‘I’ll pick out the good ones for you. But if I let everyone have a squeeze there’d be nothing left but mush at the end of the day. Now, how many are you after?’

‘Four, please.’ As she looked at the array of exotic fresh fruits a smile crept on to her lips. ‘And I’ll have a pineapple, four bananas, two mangos and a yam too, please.’

‘My, what a pretty lady,’ said a man walking past, with a cheeky wink. Rachel looked around her to see who he was talking to.

The woman running the stall laughed again as she passed Rachel the bagged-up fruit. ‘How’s that – a pretty woman and she doesn’t even know it.’

 

 

Carter,

Hello from the Big Smoke! I’ve only seen a bit of London so far, but it’s definitely different from Skipley. In a good way (is there any other?). There are some great shops near the flat.

So, me! (Well, you did ask – the good, the bad and the ugly, right?).

I love everything to do with Paris – the style, the fashion, the films. Everything, basically. It’s my dream to go there. I used to like horses, I still sort of do, even though I don’t ride much any more. I hate the Kardashians, who are famous for what? But then I never miss an episode. I like sixties girl groups like The Supremes and The Ronettes. I have a little brother called Zak, the one I had to babysit for. He’s only six, loads younger than me – blatant accident, even though Mum and Dad swear he was planned. He makes me laugh 80 per cent of the time.

But you asked for the bad and ugly stuff too (?!) Let’s see. The bad is that the other 20 per cent of the time I want to kill Zak. The ugly is that I smoke out of my window some nights at home, and then spray perfume all around in case my mum or dad walk in. Mum acts like we’re friends, I know she’s always wanted us to be, but the truth is I don’t tell her half the things I do. Oh, also – I borrowed Kate’s top the night you met me and I’ve brought it down to London with me, by ‘mistake’ …

Anyway, this is a bit weird isn’t it? Talking to you when I don’t really know you. But there’s no one else to talk to around here (no offence), so it’s nice to write.

Zak’s poking me in the side right now, it’s really annoying. I’m going to go so that I can tickle him and show him who’s boss.

Is Carter your real name, or a nickname? What should I call you?

Milly x

CHAPTER
9

 

Wednesday 29th November

Laurie paid the driver, got out of the taxi and got her suitcase from the boot. As they’d turned off the high street on to Snowdrop Lane, she’d recognised the seventeenth-century thatched cottage right away, from the photos. She smiled – from the carefully tended garden to the Christmas wreath hanging on the front door, it was Rachel all over.

As she strode on to the rustic paving stones of Rachel’s front path, one of her stiletto heels got stuck in a crack, denting her newly positive attitude. Resting on her suitcase with one hand, she battled to wiggle the heel free, an icy wind coming straight through her blazer jacket to her delicate silk top. It was pitch black outside and she could barely see what she was doing. She swore loudly into the cold night air, then finally managed to pull her heel free.

Stepping carefully in the centre of the paving stones, pulling her suitcase after her, she reached the large wooden front door of Hawthorne Cottage. Remembering Rachel’s instructions and using the light of her iPhone, she found the key under a terracotta flowerpot near to the doorstep. She eased it into the lock and pushed the heavy door open.

Laurie flicked on the lights, put her bag down, closed the door and took in her new surroundings.

After her phone conversation with Rachel back at the station, Laurie had spotted a lone Ford Escort waiting in the taxi rank.

‘You headed to Skipley village, love?’ the driver, an older man with greying sideburns, had asked, leaning out of his window.

‘Yes I am, as a matter of fact,’ she said, ‘Snowdrop Lane’.

‘Where’s it at?’ the man asked, squinting against the rain that had just started to fall.

She showed him the screen on her phone with the address on it. ‘Oh, Snowdrop Lane,’ he said, as if she’d said something entirely different. The rain was picking up and she wanted to be inside and dry as soon as possible. ‘On’t other side of hill, that is. Jump in then.’

Talk radio blared from the front seat. Thankfully the driver didn’t seem any more in the mood for conversation than she was. Rain on the window streaked the brown and green landscape, hills and dales, an occasional cottage or pub breaking up the nature. Laurie wound down the window and tentatively sniffed at the fresh air. Her nostrils filled with the smell of cow dung.

‘Don’t go letting in the rain back there,’ the driver shouted grumpily over the local news. Rachel wound the window back up.

A sheep lorry they’d been caught behind finally turned off the main road and the taxi drew up to the village high street. It was getting dark, but Laurie could make out the main street sweeping uphill, with flower shops, charity shops and cafés lining each side and a clock tower at the top with a tall Christmas tree by the side of it. Little clusters of fairy lights were threaded through the trees and on the streetlamps, creating the illusion of giant snowflakes falling. Laurie smiled to herself, and felt something she hadn’t expected – a shiver of excitement. Skipley was beautiful – like something out of a film.

Inside now, Laurie looked around the cottage. There were low, beamed ceilings and an open-plan kitchen, dining and living room. Oatmeal carpet, thick curtains and a large sofa warmed the living room and embroidered cushions were strewn on the sofas and across a window seat. It didn’t look bad – Rachel had style, but it was so – well – cluttered. How did Rachel find anything? How did she have space to think with all these soft furnishings going on? The country kitchen was dominated by an Aga, and huge, unfamiliar copper cooking implements hung from hooks.

Laurie’s eyes drifted to the winding staircase – the bedroom must be up there, she thought. As she walked over, she paused to look at the framed photos that lined the walls. Aiden and Rachel on their wedding day – outside the Bromley church they’d got married in. Rachel looked so young, in that strapless white dress Laurie had helped her to pick out in Debenhams, her blonde hair pinned up and threaded through with pink roses. Aiden stood proudly next to her, at least a foot taller, broad-shouldered and dressed in an off-the-shelf suit. There, in another photo, was Rachel, a little older now, and a young Milly in the garden, then one of Aiden and Rachel on the beach with both the kids. The perfect family.

At the top of the stairs Laurie found the large, oakbeamed bedroom. Against the far wall was a kingsized bed with a pretty, handmade quilt draped across it.

She peeked into the room on the opposite side of the landing. As she flicked on the lights she saw a mural on the wall of waves and a distant desert island, then caught sight of the centrepiece – the bed – decorated as an elaborate pirate ship, with a toy parrot hanging from the rigging and a pirate captain painted on to the wall behind it. Laurie smiled to herself – so this must be Zak’s room. A quick look at the jigsaws and toys overflowing from the shelves and boxes confirmed her suspicions.

The last room on this floor must be Milly’s, she deduced, crossing the landing towards it. She put on the light, casting the room in a pale purple glow and looked around. The mural on the left-hand wall was a painting of the Champs Elysée, with Parisian cafés and boutiques painted on in simple black detailing, leading to a painting of the Eiffel Tower by the window. Framed French film posters covered the wall to Laurie’s right. Translucent fabric was draped from the ceiling, veiling Milly’s bed, and French wooden wine crates stored her school books and shoes.

Laurie raised a hand to her mouth – the room was stunning.

She walked downstairs, tapping out a text to Rachel:

Arrived at the cottage, everything OK. Love Milly and Zak’s rooms! Lx

Rachel’s reply came back a couple of minutes later:

Great. Glad you like! Room cheaper than a trip to Paris for M. Ha. P.S. Aiden might pop around later. Love Rx

Laurie set a bath to run, put on Rachel’s fluffy pink dressing gown and then went downstairs. She put an M&S chicken dish in the Aga to heat up and then put the radio on while she relaxed in the bubbles.

An hour and a half later, Laurie awoke to the sound of the smoke alarm’s eardrum-piercing screech. Jumping out of the bath, she dashed downstairs, opened the Aga’s door and the kitchen filled with thick smoke, blackening the walls around it.

Laurie searched for the alarm, desperate to stop it – the smoke wasn’t helping at all. Waving her arms out in front of her to clear a path in the fog, she followed the sharp screeches. The ding-dong of the doorbell chimed. Pulling Rachel’s dressing gown more tightly around her, her wet hair still dripping, she went to answer it.

‘I’m guessing there isn’t an actual fire,’ said the neatly turned-out blonde at the door. Dressed in a lilac blazer and matching skirt, she marched straight past Laurie, giving her no more than a cursory glance. ‘The alarm’s over here,’ she said, grabbing a wooden chair, climbing up on it and detaching the battery. ‘There,’ she said, rubbing her hands together smugly. ‘That’s better. Peace at last.’

She stepped down from the chair and turned towards Laurie. ‘Rachel mentioned she was having a friend come and stay,’ her tone was measured and cool. ‘You must be Laurie.’ Laurie nodded. ‘I’m Diana. Now, what on earth have you been doing to their kitchen? Don’t you know how to work an Aga?’

No, Laurie thought, she didn’t. In her block they had ovens, and central heating, and she’d really never found either of those lacking. Siobhan thought Agas were cool, of course, along with every other nearextinct household item, but Laurie couldn’t understand why anyone would want a hulking great mass of metal in their kitchen.

‘I thought I’d be able to smell it when the food was cooked,’ Laurie said, in her own defence. Diana took out the embers in disgust. ‘Is this a ready meal?’ she said contemptuously, pulling apart the more recognisable pieces of meat and holding them up to get a closer look.

‘Yes,’ Laurie said, reaching over the sink to open the kitchen window to clear a bit of the smoke, ‘but it had the oven option on it.’ She shrugged her shoulders as nonchalantly as she could manage. Diana widened her eyes in disbelief and put a hand up to her necklace of delicate pearls.

‘Oh dear, no,’ Diana said, bringing her thin, plucked eyebrows together and causing tiny creases to appear around her cat’s-bum mouth. ‘That’s not the way.’

‘Yes, thanks,’ Laurie said, snatching the charred packaging from Diana and putting it on the hob to cool off. ‘I can see that now. It doesn’t help much, though. Do you happen to know if there’s a good takeaway round here?’

‘Takeaway?’ Diana repeated, spitting out the word as if Laurie had just asked her where she could go to meet some fellow swingers. ‘I don’t really know. I prefer to cook from scratch, myself.’ A look of profound distaste was fixed on her face, as if she feared that some of Laurie’s culinary incompetence might rub off on her if she didn’t keep her distance. Laurie wouldn’t have even asked if she wasn’t bordering on desperate – she’d only picked up the one M&S meal from the station, which was now in blackened pieces, and after the long journey she was starving.

‘There’s a farmers’ market on in town on Saturday,’ Diana said. ‘You’ll be able to get some healthy supplies in then.’ She gave Laurie, in the pink dressing gown she’d borrowed from Rachel’s bathroom, a look up and down.

Laurie returned Diana’s stare. She longed to give the stuck-up woman a piece of her mind – but bit her tongue. She owed it to Rachel not to ruin her neighbourly relations on her very first day.

‘OK. Well, thanks, Diana, for your help,’ Laurie forced herself to say as she ushered her visitor towards the door. Diana didn’t need much encouragement, striding out the front door without a backward glance.

Laurie closed the door after her and leaned against it for a moment. She looked around Rachel’s cottage, at the smoke-filled kitchen, freezing air now coming in through the open window, and let out a long sigh. It was only later, once she’d got dressed, that she saw the bottle of wine on the table. Rachel had left a bottle of Oyster Bay, her favourite, out for her, and next to it was a typed, laminated house manual. She looked at the handwritten note that was clipped to the front of the manual.

Welcome to our home, Laurie. I hope you have a really happy stay! Here are some details to help you get settled
.

Rach x

P.S. There’s some food for you in the pantry
.

Laurie located the little room that led off from the kitchen and found the home-made pie that Rachel had left her. Typical Rachel, Laurie thought, with a smile. But as much as she longed for a proper hot meal, Laurie couldn’t face the Aga again. Instead she found a cupboard full of snacks, presumably for the kids, and opted for a feast of Mini Cheddars, Quavers and dryroasted nuts, grabbing the packets and filling bowls. She picked up the house manual and took a seat in the armchair near the fire – or where the fire would be when she’d worked out how to light it – and poured herself a large glass of white wine. She popped a Mini Cheddar in her mouth and opened the manual, flicking past the carefully word-processed details about the heating, searching for the wireless password. She brought her iPad out of her handbag and tapped it in, clicking on the page that allowed her to remotely access her Seamless work emails.

Danny had told her before she left that Jacques would be in charge of handling her work emails, but she was sure he’d have a hundred queries. Poor Jacques would probably be desperate to hear from her by now. She watched the tiny buffering circle creak around on her screen, anticipating design queries and requests, and then an error page came up. The same one she’d seen on the train: access denied. She refreshed the page and tried again.

Laurie drained the rest of her glass of wine, refreshing the page repeatedly until what had happened finally became clear. Danny had locked her out.

Laurie was startled by a knock at the front door: after polishing off a couple of glasses of wine trying to soften the blow of her total work ban, she was still struggling to take it all in. She made her way to the front door, bracing herself for the gust of cold air.

‘Hi, Laurie.’ Aiden was standing on the doorstep, wearing jeans and a dark coat.

‘Hello,’ she replied, running a hand over her hair to tidy it. ‘Wow. It’s been a long time since I saw you last.’

He leaned forward to kiss her hello. ‘Yes. Years.’

Aiden hadn’t really changed – the same broad shoulders, hazel eyes and strong jaw. There were patches of grey hair at his temples now, and perhaps he was a little fuller in the face, but other than that, he looked the same. At school there was something about Aiden, a vibe, that made you want to be around him – and even in that brief moment when they said hello, Laurie noted that he still had it. She wondered for a moment if he was assessing her in the same way.

‘I just thought I’d pop by and check you were settling in OK.’

‘Thanks,’ Laurie said, smiling. Then she remembered the blackened mess of the kitchen walls. You could faintly smell the smoke from the doorway.

‘Could you just wait here for a second?’ she said, her heart racing. She ducked back into the kitchen, leaving Aiden open-mouthed in surprise on the front step of his own home as she closed the door on him.

She dashed into the kitchen and scanned the shelves, then flung open the kitchen cupboards – eventually she located some air freshener under the sink and sprayed it liberally around the kitchen and into the living room. The blackened walls glared at her accusingly and the smell lingered. In the open-plan living area they were impossible to hide. Shit. She’d have to fix that, but there was no time now.

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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