The smack to my face is an almighty shock, making my heart pound like a racehorse on the gallops, and leaving me wondering what on earth has just happened.
Especially as I’d been walking along a quiet beach, by the sea, breathing in the fresh air, enjoying
the peace, and about to accept Gary Barlow’s invitation to join him for a cocktail at the deserted bar. I was ecstatic as he pulled out a chair for me, poured me a drink and asked me all about myself. All I could think of saying was that I love cheese and onion crisps and red wine – I often have a bottle open on the side and kid myself it’s for cooking. I love watching property programmes, too, and used to try to take a late lunchbreak to catch up on them, but these days I never have time to watch them.
I take a moment for my heart rate to settle and to gather my thoughts, work out where I am and what just happened. Suddenly there’s a cold wet kiss on my lips. I run the back of my hand across my mouth, then over my face, still throbbing from the slap, as the reality of the situation slowly sinks in.
As my eyes adjust to the light in the room, I roll my head in the direction of the person lying next to me: fast asleep, seemingly oblivious to the smack they’ve just delivered. I stare at the sleeping face, as angelic as it was when she was a baby, twenty-four years ago.
Nearly the same age I was when I had her. She looks so peaceful now. A far cry from the sobbing mess that turned up a few days ago with all her belongings, plus Harry and Willy, the two pug puppies. What I thought was the roar of waves on the sea shore is actually Willy snoring.
I pick up the hand that is still resting on my cheek and gently push it back to the other side of the bed. Harry is looking at me from between us and is still licking his lips.
No Gary Barlow, then. No deserted beach bar in the setting sun. I turn towards the window, feeling hot, despite the rain, as the light leaks through the threadbare curtains. I hate them. I put them up as a temporary measure when I first moved in and they’re still there.
They make my heart sink every time I look at them.
They remind me of the empty nest I left behind when my youngest turned eighteen and we had to move out of their childhood home, but it was a new start for us all. The debt my ex-husband
Rob had left me with was paid off. My son and youngest child, Luke, had gone to university to study law, like his dad, and my eldest, Ruby, had eventually settled on events management.
She’d gone to work on chartered yachts, then met and moved in with one of the on-board chefs and now works for an entertainment agency. My middle child, Edie, went to college to study art, living in a shared house and working in a local café, making cakes for farmers’ markets and festivals.
This little ground-floor flat was my new beginning, with all the kids being settled in their lives. But none of us has actually moved on. One by one the kids have come back and have filled this nest right up. Edie’s rented house share was repossessed by the bank from the landlord and now she’s back, with her boyfriend, Reggie, while they look for somewhere of their own.
On their budget, it’s hard. Luke took a gap year to go travelling after he and his girlfriend split up. But now he’s back, sooner than expected, with no real plan to return to university. And Ruby has left her long-term boyfriend.
We need somewhere bigger, somewhere we can all live comfortably. The curtains, which I found in a charity shop, barely shut out the light, or the view of next door’s garden, which is more of a dumping ground. I lie there, listening to the deep breathing of my elder daughter and her pug snoring. I take in the quiet before the whole house wakes and next door’s dog starts barking, which will set off Harry and Willy.
My phone rings and I scramble for it, but before I can get to it, it dies. ‘Bugger!’ I jump out of bed, exciting Harry and Willy, who bark as I look for the phone charger. It isn’t where I thought it was, by my bedside, so I run into the living room, where Luke is a large lump on the sofa-bed. In the pitch black, I knock over a pint glass of water as I retrieve my charger from beside him. He’s never got one.
He doesn’t stir as I use one of his T-shirts, left in a ball on the floor, to mop up the water with my foot, while attempting to plug in my phone. I realise that the glass was on top of my books, being used as a bedside table . . . my college books.
I rip back the curtains, to Luke’s annoyance.
‘What the . . .’ He groans, screwing up his face and rubbing his eyes as the morning light pours in. The room stinks so I throw open the window. Turning my attention back to my books, I use the T-shirt, a sock and some brightly coloured Oddballs pants to wipe the water from them. ‘What time is it? What’s all the fuss? Shut the curtains!’ mumbles Luke.
‘Why are those dogs barking?’ Edie comes out of the spare bedroom she’s sharing with Reggie, who teaches guitar online, while they save for a deposit on a place of their own. Edie rubs her head and pads to the bathroom in a pair of Reggie’s boxers and a T-shirt.
‘My books!’ I shout at Luke, but he just rolls over and harrumphs. There may have been a muttered ‘Sorry,’ but I can’t be sure. I head to the kitchen area, which is littered with late-night
baking detritus, presumably Edie’s. As soon as I plug my phone in, it rings again. I pick it up,
‘Hello, Price and Rutherby, how can I help you?’ I say, trying to sound like the professional estate-agent’s receptionist I am and not like I’ve just woken up, having overslept. I look around for somewhere to sit, but clothes are draped over every piece of furniture. Having cut his gap year short, he’s supposed to be considering his options – from the depths of the duvet by the look of it. I snap the phone off and glare at him.
‘Maybe you should talk to your dad about going to work for him for a bit,’ I hiss quickly, clutching the phone, but he doesn’t respond. I need to deal with this call!
I clench my teeth as I hear the lock on the bathroom door open. Edie is heading back to the spare bedroom.
I move quickly into the hall – from there, I see Harry and Willy standing on their hind legs on my dressing-table in the bedroom window, barking at next door’s Alsatian. I grab my moment, with my books, phone and charger, and run to the bathroom before anyone else can. Inside, I lock the door, slot my phone into Luke’s portable charger, put down the loo lid and sit on it. I take a deep breath to settle my shredded nerves, then redial the number.
‘Hello, Eliza Bytheway here. Sorry, we seem to have been cut off. Thank you for bearing with me. I’m working from home right now,’ I say, remembering how different life was just a few months ago, when my two-bedroom flat was home to me with the spare room set up as a home office, and occasionally housing visiting children. Now, I’m working from home, trying to finish my college course, and the place is bursting at the seams. ‘How can I help you?’ I ask.
‘Well, I’ve been ringing for a while. I’m looking for a two-bedroom bungalow or flat,’ says the voice at the other end of the line.
‘How about I see what we’ve got and if anything interests you, I could get one of the agents to give you a ring back with some more information?’ I say.
‘That would be lovely. The truth is, I’ve got far too much room in this house, these days, and it’s so quiet.’
‘Sounds like bliss!’ I say, trying to keep my hysteria from my voice.
‘Oh, it’s far too quiet for me. I’d like somewhere near to town, with neighbours. I’d like to see a bit of life,’ says the caller.
‘I’m sure we can find something suitable for you. What’s your name?’
‘Well, Mrs Fox, let us see what we can find for you.’
I look around the bathroom. Two bedrooms, one nicely fitted kitchen, opening onto a living room with a bay window. If only I could . . .
There’s a knock on the door. ‘You going to be long? I’m dying for the loo,’ says Ruby.
If only my flat didn’t come with three – make that four – grown-up children. Boomerang kids – because they keep coming back. Love them as I do, what I really need is some peace and quiet.
‘May I call you back, Mrs Fox? I’ll just check our records.’
‘Of course, dear. I’ll be here and waiting.’
I end the call, pick up my books and the charger, unlock and open the bathroom door. My daughter brushes past before I’ve had a chance to leave.
‘Thanks Mum,’ she says, and I smell her familiar perfume. Sweet, caramel and yet spicy, still clinging to her skin from yesterday as she slides past me. Too heavy for this time of the morning, though, before I’ve had a cup of tea.
There is only one thing for it. I go to the front door, remove my keys from the lock and open it, walk outside to the kerb, open my car, get into the driver’s seat, still in my dressing-gown and slippers, and lock all the doors. My neighbour walks past, the Alsatian trotting amicably beside him, and I give him a nod, hoping he doesn’t notice my attire. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, my ex-husband pulls up in his Audi TT, jumps out and does a double-take. He’s holding a birthday card for Luke, by the look of it. He frowns at me. I take a deep breath and raise a hand, as if everything about this was perfectly normal. Then I unlock my phone, staring straight ahead, glad he can’t see my toes curling under the dashboard.
‘Mrs Fox, where were we? It was peace and quiet you were after?’
‘No, dear.’ She laughs. ‘I think that was you.’
I look back towards my full-to-bursting flat, as Rob, smart as ever, delivers the card to Luke – no doubt with a little wodge of notes inside. He’s let them down in being there but he tries to make up for it with birthday bribery. I glance at his wife, sitting in the Audi, glaring at me. She’s practically the same age as my children and has one on the way, yet she still looks like she’s walked straight out of a hairdressing salon. I could barely function when I was pregnant. And after I’d given birth, the real anxiety set in. By the time our third child arrived, an unexpected surprise, I was a shadow of my former fun-loving self. The one who had met her husband in a nightclub and loved to dance like no one was watching. I was sleep-deprived and consumed by sadness, even though I had three beautiful children.
I watch Rob hugging our son, slightly awkwardly, then slapping him on the back. Neither of them knows what to do. Willy and Harry are sniffing his ankles with interest. Luke’s birthday isn’t for another week, but Rob’s card has come in the general region of the date, so that’s something. Birthday bribery done, Rob turns back to his car and I wonder how long it will be before I can get in to shower, make a cup of tea and start on my college work. I just have to choose a subject for my final essay. It’s for a foundation course at the local university, the School of Sport and Health Sciences.
I went to an open day and thought it was perfect as I want practical work I can do from home and they offer all sorts of courses in health and wellbeing, complementary health care, podiatry and sports massage. But, first, I have to complete the foundation year as I lack A levels. I was having way too much fun working different jobs to worry about details like turning up for exams. Whether I was shelf-stacking in the supermarket or peeling potatoes in the chip shop, after a shift I’d go out and party.
I smile just thinking about it. Sadly, I don’t have any qualifications so this is my time. I need to finish this foundation course. Then I can decide what I want to study to get qualified. When I’m equipped to set up my own business we’ll be able to afford somewhere bigger for us all to live. But I have to get the foundation course done. I’ve already had an extension for my final essay, twice, due to family circumstances, the old feelings of anxiety and a flexible, understanding tutor, who also retrained after her children left home. But this is my last chance. Everyone else’s work is in. I have just over two weeks. If I don’t get it in by the end of August, before the autumn term starts, there’s no way I can start a new course. I can’t blow this.
I open my iPad and see the familiar advert on the side panel.
Betty Fox was right. All I need is a bit of peace and quiet.