Home From Home by Su­san Black­burn

I had agreed to move house at a low point in my life. Had it been the right de­ci­sion?

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IHAD just set­tled into bed with a com­fort­ing hot choco­late and my new­est novel when my tele­phone rang. “Granny?” “Rachel, is that you? Are you all right?”

I was con­cerned. Why would my sev­en­teen-yearold grand­daugh­ter be ring­ing me at this time?

“Granny, I’ve got my­self in a jam.” I could hear the panic and tears in her voice.

“Tell me,” I said calmly, though my thoughts were chaotic.

“Mum and Dad wouldn’t let me go out with Tris­tan, this guy I met at a barn dance last week. They said he was too old for me.” Rachel’s voice was dis­torted by tears.

“I thought they were be­ing re­ally un­fair, so I sneaked out and he picked me up down the lane. But he was hor­ri­ble.

“He took me to a pub and was a real show-off and his mates kept mak­ing fun of me for be­ing so young and not drink­ing.

“And then he started, too, call­ing me a baby. So I left. But now I’m stuck. There are no buses over this way and I daren’t ring Mum and Dad to pick me up. They’ll kill me.”

“Af­ter I have,” I said dryly. “Where are you?”

“Where the road branches off to­wards the es­tate. I’m so sorry! I’m in a smelly old phone box. I daren’t start walk­ing, it’s so dark.

“Oh, Gran, what am I go­ing to do?”

My heart went out to her, al­though I trem­bled at the thought of what might have hap­pened.

“I’ll come and fetch you,” I found my­self say­ing, pur­pose and adren­a­line flood­ing over me and, to some ex­tent, drown­ing out my anx­i­ety. “Stay where you are.”

Con­cen­trat­ing only on the fact that Rachel needed me, my thoughts took me back to where this had all be­gun . . .

****

The di­ag­no­sis last year had come as such a shock to me.

Jan­ice, my best friend, was with me when I got the re­sults of the nu­mer­ous tests. It was for­tu­nate she was – I didn’t take in any­thing af­ter the con­sul­tant ut­tered the word can­cer.

I had never longed so much for my beloved Jonathan to be with me, his quiet strength mak­ing me strong. But he’d gone six years be­fore, his sud­den death rock­ing my world.

Still, I sur­vived. And I made a new life for my­self: a good life.

Chemo left me weak and shaken, a shadow of my for­mer self.

The treat­ment, hap­pily, was a suc­cess, but my usual get-up-and-go hadn’t so much gone as limped off into obliv­ion. Even get­ting out of bed be­came a ma­jor trauma.

On their next visit, my daugh­ter, Fiona, be­gan her of­fen­sive, along with her hus­band, Rick.

Rick was a wealthy Scot­tish es­tate owner, and when they’d fallen in love, he’d whisked Fiona away to the wilds of the High­lands. Over the years, they’d given me my two won­der­ful grand­chil­dren.

“Mum,” Fiona be­gan, tak­ing my hand in hers, “af­ter we lost Dad, I al­ways hoped that you would move closer to us. I know you come to see us, and we visit you as of­ten we can.

“But, Mum, it’s not the same as be­ing to­gether as a fam­ily,” she fin­ished, sound­ing so wist­ful I found my­self apol­o­gis­ing.

“I’m sorry, dar­ling. I’ve been ab­so­lutely fine, and I will be fine again,” I promised her.

My voice sounded so fee­ble I knew I wasn’t con­vinc­ing any­one, least of all me.

The prob­lem was, I couldn’t see my­self ever be­ing fine again. My head felt empty, as if my brain had gone on hol­i­day, leav­ing at home only the ba­sic essen­tials to keep me breath­ing.

I awoke the next morn­ing to find Jan­ice sit­ting on my bed.

“Fiona and Rick have gone shop­ping. I’ve made you a cup of tea,” she de­clared.

I made a gar­gan­tuan ef­fort to sit up and take the prof­fered tea.

“Then I want you to shower and get dressed,” Jan­ice in­structed briskly. “I can’t. Too much ef­fort.” “Then, sweet­heart,” Jan­ice said, “the prog­no­sis is this. Your kids are go­ing to whisk you away to the back of be­yond, where you don’t know any­one ex­cept them, and where they all have their own lives to lead. So the ques­tion is, Mel, do you want to go?”

“I don’t know. I think so,” I whis­pered, tears gath­er­ing again. “It’s prob­a­bly for the best.”

In the end, it was eas­ier to go along

with them. And the prospect, tired as I was to the depths of my soul, of be­ing near my fam­ily with no re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, be­gan to look ex­tremely at­trac­tive.

****

At first I was re­lieved that the de­ci­sion was made. I was scooped up and taken to con­va­lesce in the Big House, as their home on the es­tate was known.

But grad­u­ally I could feel my strength be­gin­ning to re­turn. My zest for liv­ing, if not ex­actly rear­ing its head, at least be­gan to peep over the para­pet.

And then, where ill­ness had weighed me down, con­cern took its place. Be­cause I knew I had made the wrong de­ci­sion. I hadn’t be­lieved I’d ever feel well and strong again.

Now I knew, given enough time, I could be. And, I re­alised, the last thing I wanted was to leave the life I had made for my­self.

But ev­ery­thing had gone too far. The gatehouse at the end of the sweep­ing drive to the Big House, close enough for con­ve­nience and far enough away for in­de­pen­dence, was nearly com­pleted.

Fiona was be­side her­self with ex­cite­ment.

“It’s go­ing to be won­der­ful, Mum, with you be­ing so close. And I’ll be able to keep an eye on you.”

My grand­chil­dren kept say­ing how ex­cited they were to have me liv­ing so near. How could I let them all down now?

Jan­ice soothed my hys­ter­ics when I rang her.

“Give it time, sweet­heart. And if, given time, you know it’s still not work­ing, we’ll sort some­thing out. I prom­ise you, my dear­est friend. Re­mem­ber, noth­ing, ab­so­lutely noth­ing, is writ­ten in stone. OK?”

I’d agreed and wiped my tears. I had to re­mem­ber that. My san­ity de­pended on it.

When it was ready, my fam­ily were so proud as they showed me around the gatehouse, ob­vi­ously pleased to have me there.

They’d done a fab­u­lous job with my new home. It was colour­ful and bright, with spec­tac­u­lar views over the un­du­lat­ing coun­try­side.

I should have been thrilled and ex­cited.

“I’m so sorry, my dears,” I said when I couldn’t bear their an­i­mated chat­ter a sec­ond longer. “Would you mind? I’m feel­ing rather over­whelmed with all of this. I just need to rest now.”

“Oh, Mum, I’m sorry. We’re be­ing selfish. It’s so won­der­ful to see you here at last, in your new home. But, of course, it must be over­whelm­ing for you.”

I watched Fiona’s an­i­ma­tion drain away, leav­ing me guilty as well as over­whelmed.

“The in­ter­com’s just there.” Fiona pointed to a but­ton on the land­line they’d in­stalled for me. “Just ring if you want any­thing.”

I nod­ded, be­yond speech, try­ing des­per­ately to stem the tears that had built up into such a dam I could scarcely breathe.

As soon as the door closed be­hind them, I grabbed a sun­shine-yel­low cush­ion and hugged it to me, try­ing to con­tain my­self.

But it was no use. The dam burst and tears of re­gret cas­caded out. What had I done? Oh, what had I done?

The parox­ysm of weep­ing over, I wiped my eyes and put the ket­tle on.

For­ti­fied by tea and choco­late bis­cuits I’d dis­cov­ered in a cat-shaped bis­cuit bar­rel (the face sport­ing such a com­i­cal ex­pres­sion I’d had to laugh), I re­mem­bered Jan­ice’s re­as­sur­ing words and tried hard to count my bless­ings.

Look­ing around me, I noted, with a surge of warmth and grat­i­tude, that from the quirky bis­cuit bar­rel to the colour scheme of my favourite yel­lows and browns, the gatehouse had all been done out with such ob­vi­ous love and at­ten­tion to de­tail I felt my spir­its rise a notch.

The fridge was full of cheeses, smoked sal­mon, eggs and ba­con: ev­ery­thing to make a quick and easy nour­ish­ing meal.

Even a cou­ple of bot­tles of dry white wine, my pre­ferred tip­ple, were chilling in there.

A loaf of crusty bread nes­tled in the snazzy bread bin on the work­top, which was a cheery sun­shine yel­low that was re­flected in the ket­tle and toaster.

I truly had a lit­tle palace to live in, with my fam­ily around me.

This could work, I re­alised, my spir­its ris­ing an­other few notches.

****

And for the first month or so it did work. My adored grand­chil­dren re­ally did seem thrilled to have me there.

Rachel con­tin­ued the habit she’d started dur­ing my con­va­les­cence and vis­ited most days af­ter col­lege to tell me about her day.

Felic­ity, at eleven, all long hair and a tan­gle of gan­gly limbs, would fly in like a whirl­wind, moan­ing in­ces­santly about her new school which was “gross, Granny”, her class­mates who were “crass”, and her bur­gundy and green school uni­form that was “foul”. And she had a point . . .

It was won­der­ful to re­dis­cover the close­ness Fiona and I had had be­fore her mar­riage took her so far from me.

But as my en­ergy in­creased, so did the rest­less­ness within me.

My fam­ily spent as much time with me as they could in their busy sched­ules, but, I re­alised with grow­ing mis­ery, it wasn’t enough.

I missed my friends, my house; be­ing able to walk around the cor­ner into the bustling and di­verse high street.

The es­tate, pic­turesque and mag­nif­i­cent as it was, was miles from any­where.

Why did I give up driv­ing, I be­rated my­self. I’d passed my test not long af­ter I’d mar­ried Jonathan.

But an ac­ci­dent a year later, where some­body had shot out of a side road in front of me and I’d crashed into them, had shat­tered my con­fi­dence.

In­cred­i­bly, nei­ther my­self nor the other driver had been hurt, but I’d never dared drive again.

“You’ll re­gret it,” Jonathan had warned me. But, see­ing the state I got into be­hind the wheel, he’d had to let it go.

I still had my li­cence, though. Per­haps I could take re­fresher les­sons and get my­self a car?

At least around here, I thought wryly, the roads could cer­tainly be de­scribed as quiet.

Yet even as I thought it, my body re­acted as if it were yes­ter­day, and I started to shake, my fore­head and palms be­com­ing clammy.

Per­haps not, then, I thought de­spair­ingly. What on earth was I go­ing to do?

To cap it all, my six­ty­fifth birth­day loomed large on the hori­zon.

“Sixty-five isn’t old!” Jan­ice laughed at me when I wailed down the phone to her about be­ing on the scrap heap.

“It is,” I replied sadly, “when I’m stuck here in the back of be­yond, try­ing des­per­ately to keep up a cheer­ful front for my amaz­ing fam­ily who do ev­ery­thing in their power to make me happy.

“I’ve made the most dread­ful mis­take, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to put it right.”

“We’ll work it out some­how,” Jan­ice said.

I wished I could be­lieve her.

On the morn­ing of my birth­day Fiona and Rick led me to the garage that be­longed to the gatehouse.

Fiona threw the doors open with a flour­ish and I nearly ex­pired on the spot.

In­side, sport­ing an enor­mous yel­low bow, was a bright red Mini Coun­try­man.

“Mum, the truth is, we never thought you’d make such an amaz­ing re­cov­ery,” Fiona ad­mit­ted. “It is ab­so­lutely bril­liant.

“But what isn’t so bril­liant, al­though you’ve been so good in try­ing to hide it, is that you

haven’t enough to do and that you’re bored.” She gave me a bear hug. “So al­though, with good rea­son, you’ve been scared to drive, we thought if we got you a car and some re­fresher les­sons, you might think about giv­ing it a try again.

“Then you could get out and about and de­velop new in­ter­ests and make new friends.

“What do you think?” I stood there, var­i­ous emo­tions flood­ing over me, drain­ing me of co­her­ent thought.

I was over­whelmed at my fam­ily’s gen­eros­ity and their thought­ful­ness, but the shock of see­ing a car that I would have to drive made all the old fears come rush­ing back.

I was also fu­ri­ous that I’d let them see, de­spite all my ef­forts, how dis­sat­is­fied I was with my life. How dread­fully ungrateful I must seem.

Tears welled up, and try as I might, I couldn’t hold them back.

“It’s hap­pi­ness,” I bluffed. “Sheer hap­pi­ness.”

That night at my party I burst into tears again. This time, though, they were brought on by hap­pi­ness as Jan­ice slipped into the chair next to mine.

“Sur­prise!” she said, hug­ging me close. “Happy birth­day, dear­est Mel.”

****

“I’m so glad you’re here – I don’t know what to do,” I told Jan­ice the next day as, arms linked, we tramped through the woods bor­der­ing the es­tate.

“Do you want to stay here?” Jan­ice asked prac­ti­cally.

“No – yes. I don’t know,” I whim­pered.

“As I see it, you could have it all, you know,” Jan­ice said. “I adore your place. It’s cosy, prac­ti­cal, and the views are to die for. You have your fam­ily around you.”

She paused.

“I know you hate the idea and it ter­ri­fies you, but you could re­fresh your driv­ing skills and be in­de­pen­dent.

“You’ve never faced your fears, Mel, so the idea of driv­ing might ac­tu­ally be more ter­ri­fy­ing than driv­ing it­self.”

Jan­ice swung me round and gazed into my eyes.

“You could truly make a new life for your­self.”

“If only you were here,” I said mis­er­ably.

“I know,” Jan­ice said, “and I miss you dread­fully, Mel. But my life is back home. Just as, be­fore long, I’ve a feel­ing your life is go­ing to be very much here.”

****

My first les­son was a to­tal dis­as­ter. Davey, a re­tired driv­ing in­struc­tor of about my own age, was a big, twinkly bear of a man, and won­der­fully pa­tient.

“It’s as­so­ci­ated fear,” he ex­plained calmly when, af­ter go­ing through all the ba­sics, I’d driven a few yards and then promptly imag­ined a car ma­te­ri­al­is­ing in front of me.

I’d jammed on the brakes and burst into tears.

“It’s so real!” I blubbed, tempted to bury my face into his broad, de­pend­able chest.

Then I gig­gled at the thought of his re­ac­tion if I did just that.

Davey ob­vi­ously thought I was hys­ter­i­cal. He pat­ted my hand, gave me a copy of the High­way Code to re­vise and booked an­other les­son for the next day.

I’d just set­tled into bed that night with a com­fort­ing hot choco­late and my new­est novel, when my phone rang.

“Granny? I’ve got my­self in a jam . . .”

“I’ll come and fetch you,” I found my­self say­ing.

****

I col­lected my shaken, fright­ened and very sub­dued grand­daugh­ter and de­liv­ered her home.

“Go to bed, Rachel, then come and have break­fast with me in the morn­ing,” I said as we got out of the car.

“I will, Gran, and thank you so much.”

Rachel flung her arms around me, gave me a kiss and stum­bled off into the Big House.

“Well, young lady,” I said as I poured cof­fee for us both next morn­ing. “I trust you’ve learned a valu­able les­son.”

“Yes,” Rachel whis­pered. “Oh, Gran, how could I have been so stupid? Are you go­ing to tell Mum and Dad?” Her voice trem­bled.

“I don’t see the point, love. You’ve learned your les­son, had a bit of a fright, and I think we can put it be­hind us.” I chuck­led. “Be­sides, it cer­tainly got me driv­ing again.”

“Oh, Gran, I love you.” My beloved grand­daugh­ter threw her­self into my arms.

****

Davey couldn’t be­lieve the change in my driv­ing when he took me out the next day.

“It is amaz­ing what a good night’s sleep and a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude will do,” I told him air­ily.

At the end of my course of re­fresher les­sons I’d even driven through the lo­cal town, parked up and treated Davey to cof­fee and cake.

“There’s a lo­cal WI in the town I can join!” I bab­bled ex­cit­edly to Fiona that evening. “And a book club; even an art class run by the U3A.

“Davey told me about them. He goes to the book club so I sug­gested we take it in turns to drive.”

“I’d have taken you to all those things you know, Mum,” Fiona said, sound­ing de­fen­sive. “I did men­tion them.”

“Oh, dar­ling, I know you would.” I squeezed her hand. “But when you first told me about them, I couldn’t sum­mon much in­ter­est, and then when I could I didn’t want to trou­ble you. You’ve so much on.

“No, dar­ling.” I sighed hap­pily. “Ev­ery­thing’s hap­pened, as it so of­ten does, just when it’s meant to.”

****

Of course I stayed, set­tling hap­pily into my new and now hec­tic life.

I’ve ac­quired a kit­ten. She’s black and white, to­tally gor­geous, and I call her Dash af­ter the white streak she has over one eye.

Davey’s tak­ing me out to a spe­cial restau­rant this evening. He’s told me mys­te­ri­ously he has some­thing to ask me.

As we’ve be­come ever closer since my driv­ing les­sons, I have a fair idea of what his ques­tion might be. And my an­swer will be yes.

Af­ter all, home is where the heart is. Isn’t it? ■

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