Authors: Sue Moorcroft
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
'I was relieved when Ian's wife, Melanie, said she knew of a nice rental, and now I'm happy and comfortable here.
'And then you come along and say, "But it's
house!" And it is. But you're out of order - it's my home. Until the twenty-first of August, in law, this is my home. It's kept well, you've no grounds for eviction. You can examine every room if you want to, the empty beer cans are about the worst you're going to find. Sorry, but I don't feel too co-operative.'
He twisted the letter over and over between the fingers of his good hand, the jerky movement the only sign of any agitation. 'So if you've run home in a stress because you've had a row with your boss or been dumped by some man who doesn't realise when he's well off...' He threw down the letter. 'Tough. I'm not inclined to roll over this time. Because the woman
gets the house, and I'm sick of it.'
His tone was calm, but Judith could see anger in his eyes.
She clenched her hands. Her voice was low. 'I'm sorry to even ask it of you.'
'Don't be sorry. You've been refused.'
'I can offer financial compensation for the inconvenience.'
It's a flaming liberty!' He snapped his lips shut around his words as if regretting the letting of emotion. Then, more quietly, 'It's not going to happen.'
Her eyes began to burn. She blinked. He was right to be annoyed. She
out of order, she'd entered into an agreement with him, and now she wanted to welch. He had every right to be cross and recalcitrant.
But, oh, her heart was sore and she didn't like living with Molly and Frank! She wanted to creep off with her own things, her own phone and computer, where she could decide whether the television went on and what to watch. Her own place to lick her wounds and recover. And this was her house!
She sucked in a big breath, and then let it out slowly, looking away for a moment to let her expression close. 'Mr. Leblond, would you... would you consider just taking my word for it that I had a pressing reason to come home? That I'm in an emotional state that makes getting settled in Brinham and back on an even keel desirable? Without me going into detail?' She looked back at him, and noticed that he was watching her mouth.
Gently, he shook his head, as his eyes flicked back to hers. 'Sorry, Mrs. McAllister.' As his hair was drying it was lightening, becoming a silver-streaked version of the chestnut colour she remembered, sliding down at one side.
She closed her eyes for an instant, and swallowed. The ticking of the clock on the wall seemed suddenly very loud. She rose, hitching her bag onto her shoulder. 'OK, you're right. It's a man.' She saw a look of derision fleet across his face. 'He hasn't exactly dumped me. But it doesn't look as if there's a future for us.'
And, without warning, tears rose up and choked her.
'Hell,' he sighed.
There were no sobs, she was far past that. The tears just sprang silently from her eyes and poured down her cheeks. Judith opened her handbag and scrabbled for a travel pack of tissues. She'd used a whole rainforest of paper handkerchiefs in the last two months.
She pressed a wad of tissue against each eye in turn, and sniffed inelegantly. Another jerky breath, and her voice came out through a throat that felt stretched like wire. 'I'm staying with my sister, but I need to be on my own. Or I wouldn't ask you to start looking for somewhere else immediately.'
'I'm sorry,' he repeated. But this time he sounded as if he might mean it. He hesitated. Asked gently, 'You don't think you'd be better with your sister, for a while? Rather than being alone?'
Judith gave a strangled laugh through her tears. It was odd to be laughing and crying at the same time. It made her feel as if she might soon be flailing for whatever smidgen of control she had left. 'She's driving me nuts. She makes me these meals. Proper square meals, nutritionally balanced.
. I don't even want to look at food, and she wants me to
He laughed briefly. He'd forgotten to keep his hand out of sight, and she caught a glimpse of zig-zag lines across the palm like white lightning, new pink skin across the strange, shiny knuckles. 'But you do look as if you need to put on at least a stone.'
'I know, I'm a scarecrow.' She wiped her eyes and sniffed again.
'Not as extreme as that. Perhaps a chicken carcass.'
'Thanks a bunch.' She tried a watery smile and he grinned suddenly, and winked.
But he didn't offer her the house back.
The Water Gardens were not so splendid now as when built in the late Victorian era. All the eight fountains of varying sizes were dry and the people of Brinham were left with just one algae-ridden, scalloped-edge pond. Either side, smaller ponds in the same design had long ago ceased to function, and were now flower-beds.
The parks department had planted up the waterless tiers of the fountains with French marigolds and catmint to clash gaily with the scarlet salvias and purple lobelia in the flower-beds below. The weedy grass around the beds and paths was mown and the benches thick with bright green paint, glossing over last year's
Baz luvs Katee
Northampton Town F.C.
The park made a pocket of colour just off the town centre, somewhere for office workers to eat their sandwiches on hot days, gangs of teenagers to hang out once they'd exhausted their money at the shops, or the odd street-roamer to loll on a bench and drink special brew. Shoppers nipped through between town and the car park, a bare line in the grass where they cut diagonally across.
Judith had charged her British mobile phone the evening before and now found a vacant bench and pulled it from her bag to ring Kieran, pushing the little rubbery keys with mounting anticipation.
She got him straight away, raising his voice against the happy background clamour of a pub. 'Hey!' he said. 'I e-mailed you this morning, isn't this call costing you, like, loads?'
'Actually, I'm in the Water Gardens,' she said, brightly, making her voice level and serene. 'I'm home.'
'Shut up, shut
!' she heard him yell into the escalating racket around him. Then, into the phone, 'What, the Water Gardens in Brinham? You're in
? How cool is that? I'm, like, in The Punch! Stay put!'
She folded the phone shut, and waited, her gaze on the old black iron arch that led to the lane threading between two hotels and into the town centre, her heart thrumming gently with anticipation. The Punch was a bar in the cellar of The Duke of Brinham Hotel on High Street. When she'd been a youngster it had been a popular venue for discos or parties. They'd tried to pretend it was The Cavern Club.
Judith had been Kieran's stepmother for the nine years from when he was seven until he was sixteen, really important years. Such a little mouse he'd been when she first knew him, an unlikely son for big, bullish Thomas McAllister. While Tom made her the subject of an exciting, conspicuous courtship, Kieran and Judith quietly clicked, the little boy who'd lost his mother, the woman who'd never had time for a relationship sufficiently lengthy to consider children.
Her gratitude to his mother, the unknown Pamela, was boundless. She felt guilty, as his father settled possessively on Judith for his second wife, to see Kieran dance with joy and demand to be allowed to call her 'Mummy'. Pamela's death gifted Judith a son, a dear little boy with an endless capacity for love.
Tom was a big cattle rancher of a man, gruffly kind to Judith and gratifyingly active in bed, but on her wedding day Judith probably loved Kieran more than she loved Tom. She loved Tom. But, oh, she did love Kieran!
She should have pushed harder for the adoption that would have given her parental rights. But whenever she brought the subject up, Tom merely pulled her into his arms and kissed her roughly. 'He
your son, he more or less chose you himself. We don't need any fuss in the court.' And so Judith settled down to the novel position of mother.
She loved it. Swimming lessons, football club, friends for tea, parties, school open evenings, new school uniform, bedtime stories. She took a five-year break from her career as a surveyor and invested herself in Kieran until he was safely settled in senior school.
had been more satisfying than
. Constantly resisting being just another of Tom's possessions became wearing.
And when, after almost a decade of Judith being with Tom, Exotic Liza came on the scene, Judith was almost relieved. Tom's betrayal gave her back her freedom.
But then Tom tripped her up.
Because she might have thought twice about removing herself from a suddenly crowded marriage if she'd realised for just one instant that Tom would avenge himself in his enraged bitterness at her lack of forgiveness by roaring, 'You can forget about keeping in touch with Kieran!' Would she ever forgive Tom for using highly-strung, gentle Kieran against her like that?
Sixteen or not, Kieran wept. Judith lost her head, screaming at Tom, 'You overbearing arse! You never have his best interests at heart! No wonder the poor boy's scared of you!'
Her hasty words compounded the damage. If she'd kept calm and reasoned with Tom he might have rescinded his edict. She should have negotiated, cajoled if necessary. Tom, desperate to patch things up, was trying to force her to heel, she knew that.
Well, his clumsy strategy hadn't worked. Kieran, growing up fast, sneaked in meetings with her between school and home, meetings he didn't bother advertising to his father. And Judith certainly felt no compulsion to own up.
Tom's fury at Judith for refusing to pardon him his infidelity eased in time, of course, but Kieran had moved on to seventeen, then eighteen, and was well into the habit of being secretive with his father. Judith moved to Malta to work with Richard while Kieran was at Sheffield University, and had since funded his visits to her, as well as timing her visits home to coincide with his.
Thank God for e-mail.
And suddenly he was there, running into her view, multi-coloured trainers on jet-propelled feet, brown spikes of hair tossing over his forehead, eyes scanning the benches to find her. She sprang to her feet, her lips stretching effortlessly into a great grin of welcome. She faltered slightly when she realised he was towing along a slight, teenage girl in tight, turned up jeans who must, she realised with a spurt of irritation, be the fabled Bethan he'd talked endlessly about in every recent phone call and e-mail. But then Kieran let go of the girl and sprinted the final yards across the grass and Judith threw her arms open wide.
His long arms swept her completely off her feet. 'Mum! Wow! This is so good, so cool! When did you get here? I didn't know you were coming!' He hugged her so tightly that she literally couldn't inflate her lungs, and when he let her go she had to cough for breath.
'Let me look at you,' she gasped. 'You look so well, darling! How are you? How's the new job? It's great to see you!' She wasn't a small woman, but her stepson gangled over her. His height contrasted with his boyish looks so that the impression was of a seven-foot-tall twelve-year-old.
With a final squeeze, Kieran let her loose. 'Mum, you have to meet my Bethan.' He swung around and hauled the slight girl forward. 'Beth, this is my mum. My stepmother, I mean, Judith, who I talk about all the time, not Liza, obviously. God, this is so great! I can't believe I'm finally getting to introduce you guys!'
Bethan smiled shyly. 'Hey.' She looked as if she might still be at school, a tiny elf-child in an enormous hooded top, her hair artificially black and showing fair at her centre parting and above her fringe, as if someone had stood behind her and drawn a large T on her head. Silver studs ornamented her nose and lip, to go with teenage spots on her forehead. Kieran, Judith noticed suddenly, now had an eyebrow pierced.
Judith made herself smile and offer an enthusiastic, 'Hey!' to Bethan, although she felt a swell of disappointment. Was it very mean of her to want Kieran to herself? She normally saw him only every few months, and had to fill the gaps with phone calls and e-mails that she sucked up whole into her memory to turn over and over until the next time.
Still, she was home now, and as Kieran was living with his father she'd have loads of time to get him on his own.
So she settled down to enjoy his company, his news, his excitement and enthusiasm for his new job, which was with the local water authority. But when two of Bethan's friends, as breakable-looking as her, wandered into the gardens on wooden-soled sandals, Judith grabbed the chance of Bethan leaping up to greet them. 'I need to talk to you alone, Kieran.' She swallowed against a suddenly closed throat. 'Later, perhaps. Or tomorrow after work?'
The sparkle faded from Kieran's eyes as they searched hers, and he looked suddenly concerned. 'I suppose there had to be a reason for you suddenly turning up. Hang on.' And he ran across the grass to consult Bethan, who nodded, waved sketchily at Judith and turned to clomp off with her friends.