NIKOLA SCOTT THE GAR­DEN BENCH

A poignant jour­ney into the past gives Hope the strength she needs to move for ward…

My Weekly Special - - Fiction First Class -

Well, James, loveli­est and most clue­less of all hus­bands, the best of luck to you. Hope smiled wryly as she imag­ined her fam­ily surg­ing in on the usual tidal wave of dirty shoes, balled up jack­ets and school bags this af­ter­noon. Mu-um! I’m – Hun­gry. Thirsty. Knack­ered. Need money, clean blouses, home­work help, head­phones found, spots re­moved from dressy skirt in time for the party on Satur­day… Pleeeease.

James al­ways too­tled in well af­ter din­ner when all was cleared away and the house qui­et­ing down. He’d come in and run up the stairs to say good­night to his brood. All is calm, he’d grin, tak­ing the last step at a jump to pull her into an ex­ag­ger­ated hug that lifted her off her feet. She hugged him back, her tall, smi­ley hus­band, but she did some­times won­der whether he thought young peo­ple came like that, barefaced, sleepy and smelling of minty tooth­paste. Well, he was about to find out, wasn’t he?

There was a bit of traf­fic ahead of the Ta­mar Bridge, cars wait­ing to cross into Corn­wall. Tiny sail­boats glinted on the wa­ter be­low. Hope wound down her win­dow to let in the salty breeze, felt the sun warm on her arm and tried to sort through the strange buzzing in­side her head. She wasn’t a rash kind of per­son, not usu­ally. Yet, this morn­ing, sur­vey­ing the re­mains of Max’s vol­cano project spread across the liv­ing room, the iron­ing pile on the sofa and the aban­doned break­fast ta­ble, some­thing had snapped in­side her. She’d found her overnight bag – stuffed be­neath Faye’s bed and smelling faintly like mu­sic fes­ti­val and muddy tent – wrote a note in big let­ters across the vol­cano project in­struc­tions and got into the car.

At first, she’d just driven aim­lessly, half-thrilled, half-afraid at what had come over her. But then she’d found her­self on the mo­tor­way and re­alised that she was head­ing west on the M4, and all of sud­den, there was only one place she’d wanted to be. Starfish Cot­tage.

The cot­tage had be­longed to her mum, Lila Tre­mayne. And now me.

Hope’s smile faded a lit­tle as she watched a sail­boat slowly chug to­wards the bridge. Hope had grown up there, on the south coast of Corn­wall, had wo­ken ev­ery day to the sound of wind and waves and the fish­er­men call­ing to each other as they pulled out of the har­bour.

She’d left when she was eigh­teen, had gone trav­el­ling, then to nurs­ing school in Bris­tol, ea­ger to see some­thing of the world. Oh, she’d come back, of course. With James, then later the chil­dren and a boot-load of buck­ets and spades.

Even­tu­ally, how­ever – in­ex­pli­ca­bly, re­ally, be­cause there was no real rea­son for it – her vis­its had dwin­dled. Her mum had con­tin­ued to in­vite them down for Christ­mases and sum­mers and any week­end you can spare, dar­ling. But with three chil­dren, one thing or an­other al­ways cropped up. Sports camps and class trips and friends’ birth­days. She’d end up ring­ing her mum, promis­ing a “proper” visit as soon as things slowed down a bit.

It’s not go­ing any­where, she’d say, guilt mak­ing her more im­pa­tient than she meant to be. The long, slow swell of the waves at their favourite beach in Tre­burn Cove. Ice cream down on the quay. The foot­path hug­ging the coast­line, per­ilous in places and breath­tak­ingly lovely in oth­ers. All the smells and sounds and colours that were

Off to Starfish Cot­tage. Back in a week. Love, Hope PS. Lau­rie, blue shirt in dryer. Faye, class trip money on dresser. Max, lis­ten to your sis­ters. PPS. James…

She should have made time not ex­cuses, not been so caught up

Corn­wall’s own se­cret magic would al­ways be there.

But then – Hope’s hands tight­ened around the steer­ing wheel – out of the blue, Lila was gone. She’d died of a heart at­tack last year, so un­ex­pect­edly that Hope had felt it like a phys­i­cal blow to her core. For weeks and months, it had kept pound­ing away at her in­sides, the un­ex­pect­ed­ness of that loss, and when it fi­nally dulled, a lin­ger­ing sense of re­gret re­mained. A faint feel­ing of guilt and missed chances. She should have made time not ex­cuses, shouldn’t have been so caught up in her life. When had she be­come too busy to come home?

The man in the car next to her was singing along to the ra­dio. She’d for­got­ten that peo­ple down here seemed to have more time. In Lon­don, some­one would have tooted their horn at the lady who stalled her car as the queue fi­nally started mov­ing across the bridge. The hur­rieder you go, the be­hin­der you get, her mum had of­ten laughed when Hope had picked up the phone, rushed off her feet, stir­ring din­ner with one hand and let­ting the cat out with the other.

Think­ing of din­ner, Hope prayed that Lau­rie would be able to make cheese on toast with­out burn­ing the house down and that James wouldn’t be too late. She had to call him be­fore too long and –

Stop! she said out loud, bang­ing the side of the car and star­tling the mu­sic man, who eyed her wor­riedly and pulled ahead. This was ex­actly the kind of thing she wasn’t go­ing to do for the next seven days.

Starfish Cot­tage hadn’t changed at all. Hope slowly got out of the car and crossed the lane to­wards the gate. The gar­den was a joy­ful riot of bushes, late-bloom­ing flow­ers and ap­ple trees, the thatched roof neat and tidy above white-washed walls and deep-set win­dows. Only now, some­one else was liv­ing here, was sleep­ing in Hope’s room, bring­ing out a cup of tea in the morn­ings to sit on the old gar­den bench and watch the sea.

Hope had rushed to get the house sorted last year, as if she could for­get her mother’s ab­sence by sim­ply keep­ing busy. She emp­tied the rooms, hired a stor­age unit, drove to B&Q for paint.

“Slow down, love,” James had said wor­riedly. “Are you sure about this?”

Yes, yes, quite sure. She’d grit­ted her teeth and painted an­other coat of white over her mum’s pas­tel liv­ing room.

They’d got a ten­ant in, a nice­sound­ing older lady called Mar­garet, who, ap­par­ently, was much beloved in the vil­lage al­ready.

Blink­ing hard, Hope turned and walked back to the car. Turned around, stopped. This was ridicu­lous. She was forty-eight years old, she’d just run away from home, which was in it­self quite mad. “Ex­cuse me!”

An older woman had ap­peared in­side the gate. “Can I help you with any­thing?” The woman’s smile was po­lite but a lit­tle un­cer­tain.

“Oh no, it’s just that… well, I used to know, er…” Hope thought fast, “The Tre­maynes.”

The woman’s ex­pres­sion cleared. “Come back for a visit, have you? It’s ever such a lovely place.” She squinted at Hope’s flushed face. “Un­usu­ally hot to­day, though,” she hes­i­tated, “Would you like a glass of wa­ter? The bench is lovely this time of day.”

Yes, Hope knew that her bench was lovely, this time and any other time.

“I’m fine.” She backed away, re­mem­bered to add, “But thank you.”

“Oh, go on. I’d love some com­pany.” The woman beck­oned her into the gar­den. “I’m Mar­garet, by the way.”

So where are you stay­ing?” Mar­garet asked when they’d sat down. She reached for some­thing through the open win­dow be­hind her.

“Er, just, down in the vil­lage,” Hope lied. She hadn’t booked any­where, hadn’t even re­ally known she’d be here. De­cid­ing that she should make her es­cape, and fast, she drained her wa­ter and started to get up when she sud­denly heard a low click­ing sound.

“I’m a hope­less granny,” Mar­garet sighed when she caught Hope’s look at the tan­gle of knit­ting in her hands. “It’s meant to be a hat but it’s look­ing more like a toi­let pa­per cosy if you ask me. Here, would you mind hold­ing that skein just so? It keeps slip­ping oth­er­wise.”

Hope’s throat was thick as she felt the wool run through her fin­gers in time with Mar­garet’s nee­dles, saw the flash of pur­ple above the sil­very grey of the old gar­den bench.

They’d loved this bench, Lila and Hope. Spring evenings and sum­mer nights, wrap­ping up when it turned cool in the au­tumn, drink­ing hot ap­ple cider from a flask and watch­ing the sky darken above the sea.

Lila, who was a bril­liant knit­ter, had made an enor­mous woollen stole es­pe­cially for their bench-sit­ting evenings. When­ever she put it away in the spring, Hope knew that sum­mer was just around the cor­ner. And when it had been brought back out, the coun­try­side would start smelling of au­tumn.

Hope blinked away tears and Mar­garet knit­ted on, a sound as fa­mil­iar to Hope as her mother’s voice, as com­fort­ing as a grey-blue stole when the weather turned cold.

“I grew up here, ac­tu­ally,” she blurted out. “I’m sort of… your land­lady. I’m sorry…” she fin­ished lamely.

Mar­garet put down her knit­ting and frowned at her, clearly try­ing to de­cide whether she’d just in­vited a de­ranged mad­woman into her gar­den. But there must have been some­thing in Hope’s face that made her nod.

“Your mum passed away last year, isn’t that right?”

“Yes. Some­how, this morn­ing… some­thing made me come back,” Hope said, look­ing down at her hands, still hold­ing the glass. “I’d been so busy

She knew with­out words what Hope felt about home; Mum al­ways knew

be­fore, I was al­ways too busy to…” She broke off.

“Some­times that’s how we cope,” Mar­garet said gen­tly. “No harm in that. It’ll catch up with you at some point, if you give it a bit of room to breathe.” “Yes,” Hope said qui­etly.

A mem­ory came to her, of the night be­fore she left for nurs­ing school, al­most ex­actly thirty years ago. She’d been buzzing with ex­cite­ment, kept think­ing of more things she might need even though her mother’s tiny car was al­ready crammed to the gills. But then, as the first stars ap­peared – tiny, bright spots on the inky can­vas above – the sea had be­come a long strip of sil­ver in the dis­tance and Hope had grown quiet.

She’d reached for Lila’s hand, try­ing to put into words all the things she felt about Starfish Cot­tage and about leav­ing. For­ever, it just hit her. She couldn’t though, her throat was all choked up with that word – for­ever – and she’d taken a long swal­low of hot cider that made her cough. But Lila had squeezed her hand and reached for the blue-grey stole. It barely fit around both of them now that Hope was as tall as Lila, but it smelled of the lemon ver­bena sa­chets her mother al­ways tucked into cup­boards and it re­minded Hope of the ebb and flow of their years to­gether.

Christ­mas would come and Hope would re­turn and the fol­low­ing sum­mer she might get a sum­mer job here. She’d come down for her au­tumn break, maybe bring a friend. In­side their scarf-co­coon, Lila had pat­ted her daugh­ter’s shoul­der. She knew with­out Hope hav­ing to say what she felt about home. Her mum al­ways knew.

Hope picked up the wool again, ex­haled the long shud­dery breath she seemed to have been hold­ing since this morn­ing. She looked around her mum’s gar­den where dusky shad­ows started cling­ing to bushes and trees, the sun dip­ping lower in the hori­zon, clouds tinged with pink. There was an au­tumn nip in the air.

Sud­denly Hope knew ex­actly what she’d do. She’d book a room at the har­bour B&B and spend seven per­fect days here, do­ing all the things she’d been putting off these last few years.

And spring next year, she’d bring her fam­ily. Maybe in the sum­mer, too. She’d teach Max sail­ing and take the girls sun­bathing in Tre­burn cove. They’d eat ice cream on the quay. In the evenings, they would sit on a bench – not this one but some­where else, it didn’t re­ally mat­ter where, as long as it was fac­ing the sea. They’d sit and drink hot cider from a flask and watch the stars.

Turn to page 59 for our ex­clu­sive au­thor in­ter­view

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.