Authors: Caroline Anderson
James felt sick. Sick with the thought of what could have happened, sick with the fact that yet again he was going to have to fall back on his mother's rapidly diminishing goodwillâand even if they went to hers, it could only be for one night. There was no way they could stay there for weeks.
âCan I light the gas fire in the sitting room?' he asked, clutching at straws. âOr use the cooker?'
âYeah, sure. I'll cap the supply to the boiler so you'll still have gas, but what about hot water?'
âUmâthere's an immersion heater.'
âIs it working?'
He shrugged. âProbably not, knowing my luck. I've never tried it.'
The plumber smiled. âLet's have a look.'
He opened the door and pulled out a pile of towels and sheets, and Joe stuck his head in and turned on the switch. âLet's have a cup of tea while that heats up and I cap the boiler, and then I can tell you if it's OK,' he said, so James obediently put the kettle on, watched him sort out the gas before they had a crisis. No sooner had he made the tea than Freya started to cry, and he went and lifted her out of her cot and brought her down to the kitchen to meet the plumber.
âThis is Joe,' he said, and Joe grinned at her.
âHello, love. You look about the same age as my youngest. What's your name?'
âF'eya,' she said, and then suddenly became overwhelmed and burrowed into her father's neck. He hugged her gently, then met the plumber's eyes.
âShall we find out the verdict on the immersion heater?' he asked, and they trooped up to the landing and Joe reached his hand in and felt the top of the tank under the old jacket that barely covered it, and shook his head.
âDead as a dodo. Sorry, James. You haven't got any hot water.'
âCan you change it?'
âI don't know. It's been there so long it might be seized in. I'll try for you, I've got a spare on the van. Give me a minute.'
But it was hopeless. He couldn't free it without risking twisting the fitting out of the thin copper wall of the cylinder, which meant no hot water.
Joy. No heat, no water.
And no home.
He swallowed hard as he shut the door behind the plumber. He'd refused to charge him, which might have been something to do with Rory coming out of his bedroom and telling him he was cold and asking Joe if he could fix it, the hopeful look in his eyes dashed by Joe's reply.
âI'm cold, Daddy,' Rory said now, shivering in his little pyjamas with one foot crossed over the other for warmth as he stood in the chilly hall, and James gathered him into his side and hugged him.
âI know. I'm cold, too. Let's go in the sitting room and light the fire,' he said, and he got their bedding and snuggled them down in the room, then when they were settled he went out to the kitchen and phoned Kate to give her the news.
She was mad.
She had to be mad. They weren't her problem, she kept telling herself crossly as she trekked across the farmyard to the house and let herself in.
Not in any way her problem.
âWhat's the matter?' her mother asked, shooting her a keen look as she went into the drawing room, and she sat down next to the fire and sighed.
âJames,' she said. âHis boiler's broken, the plumber says he needs a new heating system, he's got no hot water and they're huddled round a little fire in the sitting room, freezing. And his mother's got a tiny flat with a very small second bedroom, a four-foot sofa and a very low opinion of his ability to cope.'
âAnd we've got the barn,' her father added softly.
She sighed. âHave you got any bookings for it?'
âOnly the family coming for Christmas, but that's not for two weeks, and even then I'm sure we can squeeze everyone in. We always do. Why don't you give him a ring?'
âNo, he won't,' her mother said firmly. âHe'll think of the children. I'll go and make the beds up. Andrew, give me a hand. Kate, ring him.'
So they went back to the barn, Kate to her side to ring him, her parents to the other side to turn the heating up from frost protection to full blast and make the beds.
She dialled James's number and he answered on the first ring.
âHi, Kate. Have you found a boiler fairy in the
? I hope so. We're freezing.'
She laughed. âNo. I haven't found a boiler fairy, I've found you a warm house. I want you to come here. You and the children. You know I told you the barn's got a holiday cottage as well as my house? Well, it's empty, and my mother says you're to come.'
âKate, I can't,' he said with only the slightest hesitation, but he sounded tempted. Very tempted.
âI said you'd say that, and she said you wouldn't, you'd think of the children.'
There was a silence, then a ragged, untidy sigh. âKate, Iâ'
âDon't argue, James,' she told him, softening her voice. âPack some clothes, get the children in the car and come over. It's sitting here going begging. It would be ludicrous not to use it.'
âThey'll have to let me pay,' he said, and she stifled a smile.
âWhatever,' she said, knowing there wasn't a prayer her parents would take a brass farthing off him. âJust get here.'
She gave him directions, went next door to help them finish off and her mother looked up from the cot and met her eyes and said, âWell?'
âHe's coming,' she said, and her mother smiled.
âI said he would.'
âHe said no. He's talking about paying you.'
âDon't tell him that until the children are safely asleep,' she advised drily, and her father laughed.
âLike that, is he? We'll sort him out. I'm sure he's a sensible man and won't let macho pride get in the way of his children's wellbeing.'
âI don't think he'll let anything get in the way of his children's wellbeing,' she said softly, remembering their conversation about adoption. Grabbing the quilt, she stuffed it into the cover, gave it a hearty flap and tucked it into the cot.
âI've switched on the electric blanket on the double bed, but I'll get hot-water bottles for the children,' her mother said, looking around. âOh, and I'll bring over some milk and bread and butter so they can have breakfast. I might even have a box or two of cereal tucked away.'
âI'll go and give her a hand,' her father said, leaving Kate there checking the toiletries in the bathroom and running a duster over the sitting room. Then the lights of James's car swept across the farmyard and she went out and opened his car door and smiled at him.
He nodded, his face defeated. âKate, this is so good of you. I feel so guilty, I can't even manage to house my family properly.'
âDon't. Save it, James. You're a good man. You're just in a bad place at the moment. Come on inside and let's get the children tucked up in bed.'
She looked into the back of the car and met the children's eyes, confused and unhappy, and her heart ached for them.
âCome on, kids,' James said softly, and helped Rory out. He reached back in for Freya, and Kate held her hand out to Rory, touched when he put his trustingly into it and leaned against her side.
âOur boiler's broken,' he told her solemnly, and she nodded.
âI know. This one isn't, though. Come on inside, it's lovely and warm. Do you want a nice hot drink?'
âThey've had two already to keep them warm. They'll be up and down all night,' James said, emerging from the car with Freya in his arms. Ruffling Rory's hair, he grabbed the bag he'd slung on the floor behind his seat and met her eyes. âCould you manage this? I've got another one with all our clothesâthat's just Freya's emergency bag.'
She took it and watched him as he lifted another bag out of the boot, locked the car and then turned to her. âRight. All set?'
âHave you got Mummy's teddy?' Rory asked, and Kate's heart hiccuped.
âIt's in the case,' James promised, and then they were ready and she led them inside.
He couldn't believe it.
It was warm. Not just warm, but cosy, and welcoming, and beautifully decorated and furnished in lovely soft neutrals and earth colours, with lots of brick and wood and great thick beams.
It made his house look likeâwell, like what it was, he thought wretchedly. Shabby and rundown and sad. And cold.
Rory was wide-eyed. âWow,' he said softly, looking all around. âIt's huge, Dad!'
âIt's only because it's all one room,' Kate said with a smile for his son. âThe kitchen's in here,' she told them, and led them through an open studwork wall into a room the size of his sitting room, with solid wood cabinets and granite worktops and every possible appliance.
Not that you'd know. She had to open the doors to show him where the fridge and freezer and dishwasher were, and it brought it home to him yet again just how far he had to go to sort his house out.
âAhâhere are my parents,' she said, and he turned to see a smiling woman armed with a basket of food. Without hesitation she plonked it down on the worktop and reached for him.
âJames, welcome,' she said, enveloping him in a brief, hard hug, patted Freya on the shoulder and said hello, then smiled at his little son, who was stroking the worktop in awe, as well he might. âYou must be Rory. You've had a bit of an adventure, haven't you?' she said calmly, and filled the kettle.
âOur boiler's broken,' he said again. âDaddy says it's screwed and so are we. What's screwed?'
James nearly choked, but Kate's mother took it in her stride.
âWellâimagine you've got a bit of paper and you twist it up until it's all crumpled. But you can straighten it out again,' she said. She met James's appalled gaze, laughter dancing in the blue depths of her eyes. âCan't you, James?'
âAbsolutely,' he said, his voice sounding strangled.
She straightened up from the fridge. âThere you areâI've put a few essentials in there to start you off, so you can get sorted out in your own time. Kate'll show you where everything is, I just wanted to say hello. I'm Sue, by the way, and this is AndrewâAndrew?'
âI'm here, I was just putting some wood on the fire,' he said, coming through and dusting off his hand before extending it. âWelcome, James,' he said, and James felt his throat starting to close up.
âThank you,' he said, his voice suddenly gruff, and he pressed his lips together and eased in a long, slow breath. They were such good people, and without them he didn't know what would have happened to them.
âRight, we'll leave you in peace. There are hot-water bottles in the children's beds, and your electric blanket's on. Kate'll sort you out. We'll see you tomorrow.'
âLet me show you where the bedrooms are so you can get the children off to sleep,' she said as soon as they'd gone, and headed for the stairs, Rory at her side chattering nineteen to the dozen and pretending not to yawn.
âStay and have a drink with me.'
She looked up into his eyes, on the point of refusing, and saw despair and pride and above all loneliness in them.
âI tell you what, I was just having a glass of wine,' she told him. âWhy don't I go and bring the bottle?'
âMy boss, a wino?' he said softly, and she smiled back.
âYou don't have to join me if it's against your principles. You can have tea if you like.'
âNo way. Go and fetch it. I'll see if your mother's put anything like bread in there. I seem to have forgotten to eat and I could kill for a piece of toast.'
âMe, too. Make lots.'
She went back to her house and retrieved the bottle, then swung back the bookcase and knocked on the communicating door that led from her hall through into the lobby behind the stairs. âJames? Unlock the door!'
She heard the scrape of the key, then he opened the door. âIt's connected,' he said, pointing out the obvious, and she grinned mischievously.
âTen out of ten. I'll have to get you a pay rise,' she said, pushing past him and heading for the kitchen. âIt was done so that when the family all come down they can take over the barn, but it's usually locked on both sides. Yum, the toast smells good. Here, find a couple of glasses and pour the wine and I'll butter the toast.'
âThe family?' he said, clinking glasses. âYou make it sound like there are thousands of them.'
âOh, there are. Well, not thousands, but lots. My parents foster children. Not so much now, but they have done, for years, and they've grown up and got married and had children and they all come backâand then there are their own children, of course, three of them, and me and my brother.'