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Authors: Zoe Chamberlain

The Garden of Stars

BOOK: The Garden of Stars
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The Garden of Stars

Zoe Chamberlain

Troubled young mother Vivian Myrtle arrives one day in the quiet town of Ivory Meadows, trailing her young daughter Rosie and a mysterious past. Moving into an isolated and eerie house in the woods, she begins to settle in and find her place in the idyllic little town, but soon learns of a corrupt development scheme that is set to destroy the place she now calls home. Hatching a plan with the rest of the community to save Ivory Meadows, everything is far from plain sailing, with a brawl, a fire, and a near drowning, and to cap it all Vivian's past finally catches up with her.

This is a story of hope, love, friendship – and fighting for what you believe in.

Prologue

The toadstools appeared at the bottom of the garden on the tail end of a wet and windy August. They were tiny, insignificant to start with, but in less than a week they'd grown to the size of tea-plates.

It was Rosemary who noticed them first.

 We hitched up our skirts and waded through the long grass to take a better look. They were bright white, the colour of freshly fallen snow. For an entire week after their arrival, the sun shone over our home and there was not a cloud in the sky.

 Then everything changed. I should have known it would.

 But I didn't spot the signs, back then.

Chapter One

The town of Ivory Meadows was postcard pretty.  It seemed the perfect place in which to escape and hide. I thought it would be a safe haven for me and my daughter, Rosemary.

But trouble seemed to follow me like a stranger in a hooded cloak, lurking in the shadows, waiting ready to pounce. This was something of a nuisance, seeing as all I wanted was a quiet life.

 Let me explain.

 The day Rosemary and I arrived in Ivory Meadows, we found it brimming with banners and Union Jack flags, bunting zig-zagged across the street from every roof top, dancing happily in the breeze. Fairy lights twinkled over the crumbling little bridge, their reflection in the river lighting up the grey summer's day. It was as if the place hadn't changed a bit in hundreds of years. Many of the black-and-white timber buildings were clearly in need of urgent repair and yet the whole place felt alive and breathing and beautiful. It felt good to be there. It felt for the first time in as long as I could remember like I, too, was alive and breathing, maybe even beautiful.

 Ladies hovered in rows along the pavement with their daughters, being careful not to dirty their best dresses, while men and boys chatted nearby in their hats and suits.

 A large imposing church stood right in the centre of the town, like an island in the midst of the tiny road running around it, shops lining each side of the street. The road was, for some reason, closed to traffic today. The walls of the church had been blackened by the passing of time and exhaust fumes, but it had a pretty bell tower and a huge stained-glass window, across which an enormous banner had been hung, saying ‘Welcome Home!' A pretty flowerbed of roses stood just in front of the church, shielding it from the cars. The entrance was a battered old wooden door to the shady side of the church, opposite a hardware shop.

 Stood on the pavement outside the shop was a large man wearing a white apron, which was splattered with blood. His enormous hands were wrapped around his rotund belly as he watched the townsfolk gather. In spite of his forbidding demeanour, he had a kind face with heavyset features that seemed to smile without his lips moving. I guessed from his apron that he must be the local butcher and stopped to ask him what the celebration was in aid of.

 ‘Vicar and his new wife are coming home from honeymoon,' he said, in a strong country accent.

 ‘Oh, I see,' I said, not sure that I did.

 ‘Used to be tradition, back in Georgian times when the town was built, that when a local clergyman married while in office, the whole town would be decorated to welcome the happy couple home.

 ‘Reverend John Baker's done a lot for our town so we decided to bring back the custom as a surprise for him.'

 ‘That's a lovely thing to do,' I said to the butcher.

 ‘You think?' he asked, raising his eyebrow. ‘The supermarket chains tried to close me down, as they did the greengrocers, Dennis and Barbara Sullivan, Mr Morris from the hardware store, and Gillian the florist.

 ‘The vicar managed to persuade the local people to continue to shop at home rather than being tempted away by cheaper, substandard food and free parking.'

 ‘Has it worked?' I asked.

 ‘Oh it's working all right but it's taken a good year, mind. There was them stubborn types who wouldn't budge, thought development and progress was good for the town. Good for Ivory Meadows? That's a lot of pantomime good for the town, more pantomime good for their pockets.'

 He winked at me and I smiled, grateful to him for not cursing in front of Rosie.

 ‘But it's working; as I say, it took a good long time and we nearly had to knock it on the head but it's working.' There was a pause as I waited for him to continue. ‘As I say, we've got a lot to thank him for.'

Suddenly, there was a loud shout and everyone around us started to clap and cheer. The butcher immediately broke into a run, as if he'd heard a wild bull was charging over the hill. He darted across the road, and into the church, faster than his size looked able. Within seconds, a peel of bells echoed in the street.

 ‘They must be home,' I said to Rosie, lifting her up so she could get a better view across the scores of people lining the street down to the bridge over the river.

 We watched as the vicar and his wife got out of their car in front of the church, looking somewhat bewildered. The crowd flocked around them, shaking the clergyman's hand, patting him on the back and kissing his wife. The couple waved, said thank you, then took one look at each other and bolted for the car, locking the doors and driving quickly through the crowds round the church and up the vicarage drive.

 It seemed ungracious, considering all the trouble the townsfolk had gone to. He didn't seem half the character the butcher had built him up to be.

 ‘Don't like a fuss, the vicar, that's his way,' said the butcher, who was now back at my side.

 ‘I'm sorry,' I said, ‘My name's Vivian, Vivian Myrtle.'

 ‘Pleased to meet you,' he said, ‘m'name's Bill but you can call me whatever you like.' And with a twinkle in his eye he was gone.

We made our way up the hill to our new home, Rosie, arms outstretched as if she were a bird and me tottering behind, trying to catch up in precariously high heels. I hadn't had the chance to pack anything more sensible and, in any case, I kind of liked them. We'd left behind almost everything we'd owned, such had been our great rush to get out of London. The two of us had certainly stood out from the crowd. Rosie looked like a ray of light in her yellow T-shirt with her long, curly, red locks streaming out behind her as she ran. She barely looked like me. My features were dark, with my thick wavy hair generally a mop on top of my head within minutes of my combing it. I kept it short to try to tame it but it made little difference. Catching up, I grabbed Rosie and spun her round. With the sun setting behind her head, she looked like an angel.

 I hoped I hadn't forgotten the way home. I knew it wasn't far from town but it was a very steep hill. It had been a long and tedious journey that morning from London, firstly by train, then by taxi, which seemed somewhat extravagant considering our severe lack of finances. We popped into the local estate agents to collect the keys and had tried to follow their instructions to our new home but failed miserably. I had never been blessed with a sense of direction. Luckily, we stumbled into a stern but pleasant enough elderly lady who offered to guide us there, taking us through more fields than I cared to remember, before pointing out a wooden gate, strewn with brambles, then promptly disappearing before I even had chance to thank her.

 Cherrystone Cottage, our new home, stood in a clearing in the middle of a dense forest. If you didn't know about its small latticed gate, you'd have never known it was there. We'd arrived, plonked down our bag bearing just a single change of clothes each on the kitchen table, and headed straight back into town to grab some chips for dinner. We wolfed them down, our fingers shiny with grease, suddenly realising it felt like an eternity since we'd last eaten.

 Returning now at dusk, our little cottage was even trickier to spot. Feeling in the undergrowth, we found the gate and it creaked open. The whole forest seemed to stir. The damp, dusk air suddenly filled with the intoxicating scent of honeysuckle and jasmine that grew along the path. At the bottom of this path stood our home, the prettiest house I'd ever seen. More than two hundred years old, the cottage was the colour of buttermilk and surrounded by cherry orchards.

 Even though it was mid August, we were both shivering in the shady glade so we ran up the path to the back door. We'd already learnt that morning that it was impossible to use the front door; the overgrown ivy was holding it tight as if it didn't want to be disturbed. The back door led us into the dark, dusty kitchen, straight into the heart of the home. A huge Aga and an old wood-burner dominated the room. Next to the fireplace was a pile of freshly cut wood. I hadn't spotted it when we'd arrived first thing but someone had clearly been here not long before us.

 I was unsure how to light a fire but it almost seemed to light itself and within no time the whole room was filled with a cosy orange glow. We huddled together in front of it for a while, not moving: Rosie transfixed by the dancing, spitting flames; me trying to come to terms with just how much our lives had changed in the space of a week.

 In no time Rosie fell asleep and, picking her up and carrying her in my arms, I slowly climbed up the twisting staircase and, stooping so as not to bang my head on the ceiling, I shuddered as I heard the scurry of mice in the attic. As soon as Rosie had laid eyes on her room that morning, she'd taken her sleeve and, wiping the dust from the window, found she could see right the way down to the river. She immediately fell in love with it and adopted it as her own, not even mentioning the lumpy bed that lost a spring every time she bounced on it.

 Lying her down, I rubbed her nose. It was covered in glitter. She always seemed coated in sparkly dust. It was as if she was made of the stuff and it poured through her skin and her hair, leaving little trails on the floor behind her.

Stepping up a couple of steps into my room, I felt a kind of peacefulness unlike anywhere else I had been. A beautiful, hand-stitched patchwork quilt lay on the bed and, as I sat down, it filled the room with dust, dust full of memories from decades past. We were home.

Bright and early the next morning, I took Rosie to Ivory Meadows Primary School, which was just ten minutes across the field and down the lane from our home. I'd spotted the pretty little primary with its brightly coloured playground from our taxi window the day before. Rosie had loved the look of it, immediately trying to guess which might be her classroom next month. Today, unsurprisingly, the place was empty as it was the school holidays but we did manage to find an out-of-hours office number taped to the pillar-box red front door. I took a note of the number then we walked hand-in-hand into town to find a telephone box. The lady in the central council office was very friendly over the phone and promised she would send me all the forms to enrol Rosie ready for the September term.

The next task on our list was to find a job for me. I desperately needed an income if we were to survive here. We'd arrived with just a handful of bank notes and, although the rent on the cottage was startlingly low compared to London prices, I knew I had to earn enough to keep us there. But most of the staff in the shops and offices we visited looked at us with suspicion and told me they had no positions vacant. Listlessly, we wandered into the greengrocers to buy some vegetables for our tea.

 ‘Cheer up, it might never happen, love,' whispered the lady behind the counter. With permed and highlighted hair, she had a no-nonsense look about her but her big brown eyes were full of kindness and I instantly warmed to her.

 ‘Oh, I'm afraid it already has,' I said, then smiled and told her of our unproductive day.

 ‘Just so happens we need someone, part-time mind, but perhaps that might tide you over for a while?'

I was so happy, I could have hugged her. Rosie and I danced round the shop and repeated our thanks so many times, Barbara Sullivan, as she told us her name was, ended up blushing. In the end she bade us goodbye, telling us to clear off while she introduced the idea of a new member of staff to her rather hen-pecked looking husband, Dennis.

By the end of my first week, I had found I loved working for Barbara and Dennis at the greengrocer's shop. They kindly said Rosie could quietly play with their two youngest sons in the flat above the shop while I worked, just until the school term started. Barbara's mum came to keep an eye on the boys and she said she enjoyed having a girl around the house a few days a week. Rosie loved her time with Ben and Charlie. And she was good as gold, making us all beautiful paintings which Barbara graciously put up around the shop. When it was quiet, Rosie was able to come downstairs and help pack apples, berries, and potatoes into their right boxes on the shelves. The shop was something of an Aladdin's cave, an old-fashioned place with drawers behind the counter full of spices and different blends of coffee. There was also loose tea leaves, peppercorns, caraway seeds, nutmeg and chilli powder, each with its own little scoop tucked inside so as not to confuse the flavours. Rosie and I concocted stories that they were elusive potions shipped in in carpet bags from overseas then sold surreptitiously on street corners for vast sums of money. Of course, in reality, they were everyday household food stuffs as the people of Ivory Meadows had no desire for the exotic. In fact I soon learned they were generally suspicious of anything brought in from outside the town, let alone overseas.

At home, Rosie adopted a stray cat and called him Whisper because she said he told her lots of secrets. My mother had always said a strange black cat in the house was a sign of prosperity so I told Rosie he could stay until we found his rightful owner.

 Rosie and I had grown to love walking in the woods and fields near to Cherrystone Cottage. It was so peaceful and quiet and yet there was so much to see and enjoy at the same time. The forest was an enormous 8,000 acres, full of oak, beech, and birch trees, their leaves rustling in the wind, sharing the tales they clung onto from hundreds of years before like circles of haggard old women, waving their twisted fingers at each other. We often walked barefoot, the mosses and lichens creating a luxurious carpet on the forest floor. High up above, the elm trees stood so tall they looked like stairways to the sun. I was tempted to hitch up my skirt and climb as far as I dared then sit, arms outstretched, pretending I could fly, just like I had done when I was a child. It was so completely different to the noisy, dirty city life we'd been used to.

 We were becoming familiar with the bird-songs, and were able to spot the difference between the voice of a starling and that of a blackbird, and notice how the markings of the blue tit differed from the great tit. I loved the way the cuckoo called repeatedly after a rain shower. One day we saw a kingfisher, bright blue and beautiful, on the water's edge, and spent several minutes transfixed by his grace and extravagance before he flew off. No wonder he was said to be the first bird Noah set free from the ark.

BOOK: The Garden of Stars
8.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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