Authors: Sue Lilley
To my sister Jan Small, fellow writer and chief cheerleader. Thanks for all your encouragement and support. I finally got there.
Afterwards, Evie was never quite sure what had made her ring Joe that morning. The house was too quiet with Claire away and she was at a loose end, recovered now from the trauma of emergency surgery and itching to get back to work. But even so, it was unusual for them to speak to each other during the day.
When his mobile went to voicemail, some sixth sense made her try his office landline. If she hadn’t, would he ever have told her what had gone on?
“Mrs Marsh, did you hear me? I said your husband doesn’t work here any more. I’m surprised you didn’t know.”
Clearly far from surprised, the girl’s barely disguised snigger made Evie feel sick.
“Are you telling me he was fired?”
“I can’t give out confidential information.”
“Well, can you tell me when he left?”
“Three weeks ago, maybe four? Joe really hasn’t told you yet?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
Evie swallowed hot tears as the giggling in the background hit her like a slap. She suspected she’d been put on speakerphone. Didn’t the company have rules for things like that? And why was the girl so keen to rub it in? Evie had always thought Joe was popular at work. Too popular, if she was honest. What on earth had he done? But she wouldn’t dig herself further into the mortifying hole by asking.
“May I help you with anything else?”
Like what? Evie wondered as she put down the phone. Help her feel even more of a fool? Tell her where Joe had been going every day in his precious new Hugo Boss suit, lying to her face for three whole weeks?
She swiped away the angry tears as she sat on one of the statement chairs Joe had bought for the new kitchen. They were beyond uncomfortable and she wondered now why she’d indulged his liking for showy labels. It wasn’t a quirky edge to his personality. It was downright irritating. Why did she always let him get round her?
He was well aware her first priority had always been Claire and time and time again, she’d allowed him to take advantage of that. Evie had always been desperate to keep the family together and Joe always had a story to talk her round.
But this time? Was she meant to just sit there, patiently waiting? If he’d left it nearly a month already, maybe he wasn’t planning to tell her at all. How did he think they were going to manage if he wasn’t working? Did he even care?
A lone tear plopped onto the granite counter. She swirled her finger in it, more sad now than angry. She was tired of living with constant disappointment. Maybe it was time to accept that he didn’t care, not the way she wanted him to. Maybe he was never going to love her. How much more evidence did she need?
Joe was putting off going home. He’d decided to come clean to Evie but was still figuring out what exactly to tell her. He could usually convince her he was misunderstood, rather than the complete shit he sometimes felt. But this time, the line was looking a lot more blurred.
The dangerous blonde wasn’t helping, gold skirt sliding an invitation up her thighs as she leaned against him. Flimsy black top cut very low. Real, he decided, enjoying the eyeful of raspberry nipple before he remembered, just in time, he was meant to be turning over a new leaf.
“Another drink?” she offered.
His glass was nearly empty and his mouth was very dry, not helped by his tongue hanging out as he watched her playing with her nipple, taking her time tucking it back inside her top. He was only in the bar for a shot of Dutch courage and his new leaf was looking less shiny by the minute.
“Probably best if I don’t, thanks all the same.”
Jesus! Had he said that out loud? Being a dead-ringer for the local Italian striker had its advantages and Joe had never been great at resisting temptation. But now he’d decided all that was going to change.
“Not even a quick one for the road?”
The girl giggled, running her thumb up the inside of his thigh. They both knew she didn’t mean a drink. She slid off the stool to perch between his knees, her mouth an open promise, lips scorching his ear as she described what she wanted to do to him. He let her kiss him as the dance music throbbed around the bar.
“The function room’s empty upstairs, if you’re shy?”
Bloody hell! She was persistent. She smelt hot and hungry and for a moment he was tempted. If they didn’t get caught and thrown out, nobody need know. But a little voice kept nagging at his conscience. Shagging a random blonde on the very day he’d decided to make a proper go of things with Evie wouldn’t be the best way forward. He downed the last of his Jack and coke.
“Not tonight, thanks, I have to be out of here.”
“You’re joking, right?”
He gave her an apologetic shrug and made a swift exit before he changed his mind. Hardly able to believe he’d turned down such a sure thing, for what was probably the first time ever, he made his way along the bustling Quayside, heading for the taxi rank.
He took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder, hooking a finger in his tie to pull it loose. Even with the May breeze wafting over the river Tyne, it was too warm for his classy new suit. Hugo Boss, no less. Not even paid for yet. But he’d worry about that later.
He might have screwed his bonus this year, but at least he hadn’t been fired. Not technically, anyway. But a fat lot of good resigning had done him when none of his contacts had come through. Today, down in Leeds had been the very last of his options. He was still smarting from the feedback.
“You’re a top salesman Joe, but word gets around. You’re trouble. Nobody wants to touch you with a bargepole at the moment. You best keep your head down for the time being.”
What was he meant to do now? Wear his designer suits to sign on?
When he spotted the scrum for taxis, he decided to walk home. It would help to clear his head and it was only a couple of miles to their townhouse on the edge of Jesmond. It was just far enough from the bedsits of student city that he could be proud of his address. He didn’t want to consider the possibility of losing it, if something didn’t turn up.
But he had to get to Evie before she found out from somebody else. She’d rung him today, he remembered, which was a bit odd. But she hadn’t left a message so he hadn’t rung her back, unable to face talking to her until he’d decided what he wanted to say.
Maybe when he told her he was finished with sales, that he fancied a change of direction, something more worthwhile and challenging, she’d buy into a new start? Not dwell on it being another one? He had a hell of a lot to confess. But how much was too much? It was bringing him out in a cold sweat.
He’d thought he’d be able to rehearse his speech as he walked through the city but he was unusually bothered by the party vibe around him. He was thinking, all of a sudden, there had to be more to life than sleazy nights on the pull with half dressed jailbait.
How had he never noticed these girls were barely older than his daughter? When did cool guy about town become dirty old man? He shuddered. He needed to get home and sort his life out.
Evie had accused him once of treating her like comfortable old shoes. He’d laughed, won her round and changed the subject. But recently, he’d realised there was some truth in what she’d said. He’d been doing a lot of thinking. Not a great lot else to do, these past few weeks. He’d been selfish, he knew that. But this time, he was serious about making a go of things. He hoped he could convince her he meant it.
Even years after his argument with a truck, his leg still bothered him and it was aching like a bad tooth by the time he got home. The house was in darkness and although it wasn’t late, his first thought was relief that Evie had gone to bed. Tomorrow was Saturday and he wouldn’t have to pretend to go rushing off to work. And with Claire enjoying herself in Italy for a week, they’d have the house to themselves, and all the time they needed for a heart to heart.
He headed for the flash new kitchen, smiling when he saw the yellow post-it stuck on the kettle. Evie knew he liked his ritual builder’s tea before bed. Hopefully she’d have made one of her fabulous cakes to go with it. But when he’d read the scribbled message, the smugness froze on his face.
“Gone to the cottage? What the fuck does that mean?”
His aching leg forgotten, he raced up the stairs. Her wardrobe doors swung open, empty hangers showing the amount of stuff she’d taken. Drawers were empty. Make-up gone. But her hair straighteners were still on the floor next to the plug she always used. Left in a hurry, clearly, which wasn’t like her at all. What was going on?
He sat on the bed to think. She was due back at work in a couple of weeks and she’d said she was looking forward to getting back to normal. Maybe she just fancied a few days away? But she’d have told him, wouldn’t she? And she’d taken more than she needed for a couple of days.
Why had she suddenly gone off today? And why to her grandmother’s cottage after all the rows it had caused? Cornwall was the other end of the bloody country and the place was so back-of-beyond it didn’t even have TV or a phone.
He remembered seeing her mobile still charging in the kitchen. Surely she wouldn’t have left it behind on purpose? Not driving all that way. Unless she was telling him she didn’t want to talk to him.
But if she’d rushed off and forgotten her phone as well as her straighteners, something must have really upset her. She never did stuff like this.
What was he meant to do now? Go after her? Maybe she was testing him, wanting him to make a bit of an effort to find out what was wrong. But Jesus, after their year from hell he could really do without it. How the fuck was he meant to know?
Evie scrubbed at her wet face with the sleeve of her grandmother’s nightdress. She couldn’t look at him. Couldn’t begin to speak, she was so overwhelmed by years of anger and hurt.
“I’m from the garage. I fixed your car.”
“The boss said you drove from Newcastle then it wouldn’t start after you filled up last night? He dropped you off, said he’d have somebody bring it over for you lunchtime, when we closed? It was a dodgy fuel line.”
His voice tailed off. He sounded young, puzzled that she didn’t know what he was talking about. But she’d been in such a state, last night was a bit of a blur. She tried to pull herself together. She must look like a lunatic.
“Thank you.” Her voice was a croak.
“No sweat. Not every day I get to drive a new Beemer. So, I’ll go, if you’re okay? My lift’s outside for band practice.”
As he gave her the keys, she went to put down the photo frame she’d been clutching. But she missed the mantlepiece and as the glass smashed on the slate hearth, her eyes stung again.
“You might want to sit down for a minute. Mind your bare feet on the glass. Is there a brush somewhere?”
He led her to the armchair by the dusty grate and disappeared to look in the kitchen. Evie sat there helplessly, wondering what was wrong with her. She could barely move, never mind think. He brought her some water and she sipped it gratefully while he dealt with the broken glass.
The photo had come out of the frame. He brushed it against his jeans and looked at it curiously before he handed it to her. He was tall, standing over her in his faded red T-shirt. His messy black hair flopped over his face. There was the faintest smell of oil.
“That your husband and kid?”
She felt a strange urge to explain herself. “It just got to me, seeing it again. It was only a caravan in Scarborough but we were happy then, I think.”
Claire had been three. It had poured relentlessly but they’d gone to the beach anyway, getting filthy building sandcastles, warming up afterwards with hot chocolate and toast, the three of them snuggled together in the lumpy caravan bed. Had even that been a lie?
“Shit happens,” he shrugged. “If you can’t fix it, gotta move on.”
She almost laughed. Was it so simple? “I walked out. Sorry, I don’t know why I just told you that.”
“Feel free, I’ve likely heard worse.”
Her heart skipped a beat, so tempted suddenly to keep him talking that it scared her. How could she be thinking like that? He was a total stranger. And a young and scruffy one, at that.
“Didn’t you say something about a lift waiting?”
“I’m the lead singer, they can’t start without me. Need help with that suitcase before I go? It weighs a ton. You left it in the boot so I brought it inside.”
“That was kind. Thanks.”
She followed him back into the kitchen, saw the case at the foot of the awkward staircase. She’d forgotten all about it last night. Left herself without even a change of clothes. He must think she was a complete idiot.
As he bent to pick up the case, his eyes swept over the nightdress. She was naked underneath and the fabric was almost sheer with age. Cheeks burning, she grabbed the white cardigan she’d driven in and quickly pulled it on. But she knew by his easy smile that he’d already seen more than he needed to.
The thought of him in her bedroom was oddly disturbing so she waited for him to come back down, arms crossed in front of her like a shield.
“What should I do about the bill?” She hadn’t meant to sound so abrupt but he was making her nervous.
“Boss said to call in next time you’re passing. It was a five minute job, anyway.”
“Well, thanks for all your help.”
“No sweat. You sure you’re okay?”
She nodded and he touched her arm, hardly at all, but she felt a jolt and saw in his rich brown eyes that he’d felt something too. It was all too much and she willed him to go, holding her breath to stop herself bursting into tears all over him.
At last, the door clunked behind him and she groped for a seat at the scrubbed oak table that had stood for ever in the window of the mismatched kitchen. Hiding her face in the soft cotton of her cardigan, she gave in to the tears brought on by his kindness. He’d made her feel less lonely but she knew he’d have forgotten her already and the last thing she needed was to start crying about that. Hadn’t she wanted some time on her own?
It was a few months since Granny Barbara had died but the cottage still had a comforting warmth. As Evie started to pull herself together, she wondered if it had been a premonition that had made her oppose her family’s plan to sell the place. It felt so right to be there, snuggled into the tapestry cushions, faded now by years of the Cornish sun. Such comfortable chairs, built for dreaming.
She glanced out at the garden. The overgrown hedges were blocking the usual view of the sea but there was such a sense of peace. Cliff Cottage was so isolated, she could rest and think for as long as she wanted. Nobody would know she was there. Nobody except her husband, who wouldn’t care anyway. And the sexy young mechanic who’d mended her car.