NIKOLA SCOTT THE GARDEN BENCH
A poignant journey into the past gives Hope the strength she needs to move for ward…
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.
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