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?
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.”
“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? ■