As Weekends Go (Choc Lit) (2 page)

BOOK: As Weekends Go (Choc Lit)
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Rebecca dabbed away the film of tears threatening to spill over. ‘Yeah … I’m sure it’ll all sort itself out.’ She casually looked at her watch. ‘Hey, I’d better make tracks. I’ve a cheesecake to bake this afternoon. Abi’s coming over straight from work with fish and chips. She’s invited me to York this weekend for a bit of a pamper-fest.’ The words were out before she could stop them.


What
? You kept that one quiet,’ said her mum, marginally out-grinning Lorraine and Kim. ‘Please tell us you’re going?’

‘I’m not sure, what with everything else going on.’

‘Oh, Becky, please go, it’ll do you the power of good,’ said her mum, welling up. ‘These opportunities don’t arise very often, love. Grab it with both hands. That’s what I say!’

‘Hear, hear!’ shouted Lorraine and Kim in unison.

Chapter Two

‘My sentiments exactly,’ Abi said as Rebecca relayed the family verdict later that evening, after they’d demolished two large cod and chips and half a lemon cheesecake, and were perched at Rebecca’s mosaic-tiled breakfast bar enjoying a glass of chilled rosé. ‘Now, feast your eyes on this, my little travelling companion.’ She pulled a glossy brochure from her bag and passed it to Rebecca. Image upon image of Hawksley Manor, each one more sigh-inducing than the last, courtesy of Abi’s boss, Richard Murray, whose name was scrawled across the front cover in black marker pen.

‘Poor Richard. He’d planned to drive up there tonight but his wife’s operation has been brought forward,’ said Abi, flicking a stray crumb off her lilac shift dress.

‘Ooh, nothing serious, I hope,’ said Rebecca, re-lighting one of her citronella tealights.

‘Nether regions.’ Abi winced as she said it. ‘Richard’s gutted. Not that he begrudges nursing his own wife, he adores her, it’s just that he’d hoped to take part in some charity golf event the manor is hosting tomorrow. The pair of them had planned to make a long weekend of it before his parents descend upon them from Norfolk for a month.’

‘And he offered you their room, just like that?’

‘Spa treatments too,’ said Abi, smoothing a hand over her sleek, brown bob. ‘I think he feels guilty for all those chronically boring evening consultancy meetings I’ve had to minute. His chance to say thank you, I suppose.’

‘And rightly so. He’d be lost without you. They both would. You don’t only run his diary, Abs, you’re his travel agent, come personal shopper, come sounding board. You’ve earned this break.’

Abi smiled. ‘We could have travelled up there tomorrow if we’d wanted to, but that’s too short notice. Even for me.’

‘What, and Friday isn’t?’ Rebecca laughed, tugging the bottom of her black sleeveless top back into shape.

‘Fair point.’ Abi gave her a cheeky grin. ‘Richard assumed I’d take Nick, but when I told him he was flying to Spain tomorrow afternoon, he suggested I take a friend instead.’ She eyeballed Rebecca over the bottle of rosé before topping up both their glasses. ‘So what do you say, Mrs Stafford? I realise Greg doesn’t even know yet, but please tell me we have a date?’

Greg doesn’t even know yet.

Five little words that prevented Rebecca from shouting, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’

Greg might be acting like a plum at the moment, but if the conference sucked, she’d feel rotten for not being there when he returned on Sunday. Conversely, if it was a roaring success, he’d be buzzing to tell her all about it.

He also trusted Abi about as much as he did the withdrawal method.

And then there was his mum’s seventieth birthday to consider. Pearl may well be in Jersey for the main event with his dad and half the bridge club, but with Greg having touted the idea of them hosting a small gathering for her at their place on Saturday week, Rebecca would have a cake to bake, lists to make and so forth.

Or was she obstacle building?

Pearl’s birthday party would hardly be crowds ‘r’ us and Rebecca had hosted so many family gatherings over the years that she could cater for them with her eyes shut.

‘You’ve gone all quiet on me,’ said Abi.

‘Sorry.’ Rebecca nudged down the volume on the radio. ‘I think I should run it past Greg first, that’s all. It’ll only antagonise him otherwise.’

Abi leaned across the breakfast bar. ‘Hey, you say I’ve earned this break, well, so have you. I know Greg’s taking you to Cyprus at the end of August, but that’s seven or eight weeks away yet. When was the last time the two of us spent a few days together?’

Majorca. Pre-Greg. It was ingrained in Rebecca’s mind.

As were the caravan breaks in Weymouth together as kids with Mum and Dad; camping in Wales with Abi’s mum and moody stepdad; weekend road trips to wherever the dart landed on the map, and several jaunts around several Greek islands. So too, all their past raucous nights out together. Which begged the question: What if, in York, Abi should want to go clubbing? Rebecca hadn’t been clubbing for years. What on earth would she wear? She and Abi might share the same dress size, but image-wise they were poles apart. It amazed Rebecca at times how their friendship had lasted. Even their other halves had nothing in common except football.

Which was, Rebecca suspected, down to Greg’s pride being wounded when he and Nick had first met. Being told you facially resemble Eric the fishmonger from someone’s local boozer in Mitcham when you’re expecting to hear Clive Owen is a kick in the balls by anyone’s standards. Especially by a man eleven years your junior.

Even so, Rebecca enjoyed their rare evenings out together as a foursome.


Well?
’ said Abi, hands cupped together under her chin in prayer.

Rebecca gazed longingly back down at the brochure.

‘Oh, come on, Bex. I bet your eyes sparkled like fairy dust when you saw my email this morning. Put yourself first for a change. Lord Stafford’ll be away until Sunday. We’ll be back on Monday. Let him run his own bloody bath for one night.’

‘Don’t exaggerate,’ said Rebecca, laughing. ‘It’s all right for you. Nick doesn’t fly back from Spain until Tuesday.’

‘Yes, and he can take his dirty washing home to his own flat,’ said Abi, pinching her freckled nose. ‘I don’t want five days’ worth of lager-stained football shirts on my new parquet floor, thanks very much. That’s if he even makes the flight out tomorrow. He’s staying over at Deano’s tonight, so they’re bound to sink a few pints together. Good job they’re only ten minutes from Stansted. Anyway, lady, I digress. How often has Greg left you to fend for yourself? If Nick even thinks about going AWOL the day we ever move in together,
especially
for work reasons, I’ll—’

‘Use his bollocks as doorstops?’ Rebecca had heard it a dozen times.

‘Just testing,’ said Abi, grinning. ‘Not that we’d be able to afford anything as posh as this for a fair while.’ She swept open her arms, indicating Rebecca’s house in general.

Ironically, it had been Greg who’d instigated their move. Issues like graffiti and thumping car stereos hadn’t bothered him before he’d gained executive status. Then, all of a sudden, Croydon was a shithole. Rough in parts, granted, but they were hardly dodging bullets every night. He’d clearly decided this new image of his needed upholding though; cue their switch to a cul-de-sac in Purley – a leafier and, in his eyes, more upmarket south London town.

Rebecca appreciated the bigger kitchen, conservatory and horseshoe drive she’d acquired, she just wished he hadn’t been so snotty about it all.

No wonder Abi got frustrated with him.

They heard the front door slam.

‘Let me ask him,’ Abi hissed.

‘Ask me what?’ said Greg, flinging his sports bag down as he entered the kitchen. He was wearing jeans, a white polo shirt and the usual frown that befell his face whenever he saw Abi anywhere over his threshold.

‘Hello, you,’ said Rebecca, rising to flick on the kettle. ‘Tea or coffee?’

‘Coffee, please.’ Greg tossed his car keys on the side, barely looking at her. ‘Ask me what,’ he repeated, slumping down next to Abi at the breakfast bar.

‘Patience, Mr Stafford.’ Abi tilted her cheek for a kiss. ‘Good game of squash?’

‘No. Shocking. Tim played like a donkey.’

‘Don’t be cruel. He’s not long recovered from knee surgery,’ said Rebecca, spooning two sugars into Greg’s Crystal Palace football mug.

Yet another of his newly acquired habits she found hurtful. The way he slagged off his younger brother at every chance. Tim might not be as ambitious or as sporty as Greg, but he’d always been there for him.

‘How did your meeting go this afternoon?’ she asked, turning round to hand him his drink.

He didn’t answer. He was too busy leafing through the Hawksley Manor brochure.

‘This yours?’ he asked Abi, waving it under her nose.

‘My boss’s.’ Abi laid her head on his shoulder. ‘In a better mood now, are we?’

‘Depends what you want?’ said Greg, eyes savouring a shot of the manor’s glorious architecture.

Heart pounding, Rebecca set down his coffee along with the biscuit barrel as Abi peddled the tactful version of why she’d invited her to York; including her boss’s involvement in it all.

‘Hawksley Manor?’ said Greg, in a tone that suggested he couldn’t see Abi fitting in. ‘Top golf course there, evidently.’ Greg always judged a place by its fairways. ‘When exactly did you say you’d be going?’

‘Friday morning. By train, if there are still tickets available. Otherwise, I’ll take my car.’

‘And back Monday?’

‘Yes. Why? Is that a problem?’

Rebecca could see Abi biting back her frustration with him as he contemplated the idea over a chocolate Hobnob. She’d already told him all this the first time around.

Greg stared at Rebecca, then at Abi. ‘S’pose not,’ he finally answered.

Rebecca’s look of shock mirrored Abi’s. Greg even offered to source and collect their train tickets and, depending on the timetable, drop her and Abi at the station on Friday morning before driving down to the coast.

By the time Rebecca’s brain had absorbed all this, Abi and Greg had moved on to discussing Nick’s trip to Spain. Abi was moaning about Nick wanting to take her long-cherished digital camera with him.

‘I mean,
why
?’ she said to Greg, draining the dregs of the rosé. ‘He’ll be so pissed half the time, he won’t be able to focus properly.’

‘If he’s close enough to the podium, he will.’

‘Oh, very funny. If Nick even thinks about going to a strip club, I’ll swing for him.’

‘Now, now,’ said Greg, rubbing his hands together. ‘If I’d known he wanted a camera, I could have got him a healthy discount on a nice new one. Perks of the trade, Abigail. Might have cost him three months’ wages, mind—

‘He’s an electrician, Greg, not a leaflet dropper.’

‘And she calls
me
moody!’

‘I’m not moody. It just irritates me when you imply that Nick earns a pittance when he doesn’t,’ said Abi. ‘You do it all the time!’


Another drink
?’ Rebecca dived in so quickly it came out as a half-screech. She wiped her clammy hands down the front of her cut-offs. Greg just couldn’t help himself, could he? And Abi wasn’t entirely blameless; the two of them were forever point scoring. Rebecca refused to get caught in the crossfire.

‘Not for me, thanks, Bex,’ said Abi, throwing Greg a sideways pout. ‘I’d better order my cab. I want to phone Nick while he’s still compos mentis. Re York, my boss has said he’ll ring through the booking changes for us. I’ll just need confirmation about the train tickets.’

‘Trust me. I’ll sort it.’ Greg gave a hefty sigh, eased his mobile phone out of his jeans pocket, and wandered into the conservatory, furiously texting as he went, dashing any hope Rebecca had of him offering Abi a lift home as he’d come in a bit earlier than expected. Abi’s apartment, as she liked to call it, was only ten minutes away.

After seeing Abi into her cab, Rebecca returned to the kitchen. Slim chance of striking up any conversation with Greg now as she could hear him tapping away on his laptop.

Oh, well …

She called out to him that she was off to bed, receiving barely a grunt of acknowledgment from him in return.

She didn’t hear him follow her upstairs, but at four a.m. she awoke to the sound of him snoring beside her.

She crept out of bed, as she did most nights, yet it wasn’t her customary worrying about her marriage that had set her mind racing this time, but Greg’s nonchalance about her going to York with Abi.

It wasn’t his usual way of going on. This impending conference of his must have addled his brain. Anyone would think the Queen was invited.

Chapter Three

Come Friday morning, despite her doubts and sporadic butterflies, Rebecca felt strangely calm. She’d even been blessed with six hours sleep on the muggiest night of the year thus far.

It was Greg who’d been restless, thrusting his presentation notes under her nose as she’d handed him his second mug of tea at six thirty, demanding her opinion, which was odd because speaking to a roomful of people usually came as naturally as breathing to him. Since then he’d been crashing through the house with all manner of conference paraphernalia.

Rebecca could see him from the porch doorway, crouched over the back seat of his car, dressed in jeans and his beloved U2 T-shirt, carefully hanging up his new suit. It was like watching someone dismantle a nuclear warhead. One crease and the world would end.

Still, however wounded she felt at having been his footnote for months on end, tomorrow would be a big day for him, so for now, she’d support him like she’d always done.

Besides, he
had
offered to drive her and Abi to King’s Cross. He’d also managed to wangle them discounted train fares. ‘First class!’ he’d stressed, reducing Rebecca’s appreciation of this as he’d laboured the point.

She glanced down at her bulging blue holdall, sitting ready by the open front door, wondering if bootleg jeans and a white round-necked T-shirt was the wisest choice of clothes to travel in. She’d probably feel this warm dressed in a bikini it was that airless. Her sister Kim had certainly been right about the weather forecast. If York was this hot, Rebecca would come back with a suntan.

Seven o’clock.

Half an hour before they were due to pick Abi up.

Rebecca padded barefoot down the hallway into the lounge for a last minute check round.

Greg blustered in behind her, raking a handkerchief across his sweaty forehead. ‘Where’s my iPhone charger?’

‘Sorry?’

‘You know. White, square thing you plug into a socket. I need to take it with me.’

‘Okay. Don’t bark at me! It was originally on top of the dressing table where you usually fling it, but I brought it downstairs with me. It’s on the bottom stair, along with your patience.’ She blew a raspberry at him to lighten the mood.

A slight concessionary smirk crossed his face.

Rebecca wondered whether to risk tactfully slipping it in about needing to talk to him on her return from York, but then decided she’d enjoy her time away with Abi and deal with it afterwards.

‘Bex, why have you got that ridiculous Winnie the Pooh plaster wrapped round your big toe?’ Greg asked, having bent down to re-knot one of his trainer laces.

A reasonable enough question but with the added exaggerated finger pointing as though she were bleeding all over the carpet, one that annoyed her.

‘It was the only one I could find. One of the kids must have left it here after a sleepover,’ she said, meaning their various nieces and nephews. ‘I stubbed it rushing around yesterday.’

But Greg had already switched off and was staring into the cosmos.

Normal service had resumed, it seemed.

Rebecca pushed past him and headed off to the kitchen, reminding herself as she stashed three cereal bars into her handbag for the car journey to London, to slip the good luck card she’d bought for him yesterday into his briefcase before they left.

She wasn’t sure why she’d even bothered.

But she had to keep trying, didn’t she?

By seven thirty they’d collected Abi and her absurdly large – for a long weekend – pink Samsonite, and were sitting in Greg’s Lexus, listening to his
Power Ballads
CD.

He and Abi spent half the journey trying to out sing each other.

They then hit an almighty traffic jam, arriving at King’s Cross station with just five minutes to spare. The only lyrics now coming out of Greg’s mouth, Rebecca noted, watching him yank Abi’s case from the boot, were expletives.

She darted forward for a farewell hug and kiss, but Greg had turned away and was already back round the driver’s side with the door semi-open and one leg in.

‘Have you forgotten something?’ called Rebecca, open-mouthed with disbelief.

He twisted his body, his expression genuinely sheepish, raised a hand to his mouth and blew her a kiss. ‘Here’s one in lieu! Quick, go, or you’ll miss your train. Love you!’

‘Love you too,’ she whispered, hearing his car door slam.

She grabbed her holdall and chased Abi across the concourse to the ticket barriers, then right the way along the platform to the train. She felt ready to drop by the time they’d heaved themselves and their belongings on board.

‘Looks lovely,’ she said under her breath, double-checking their tickets in case they’d made a mistake. They’d been allocated two singles either side of a table set for breakfast.

‘Proper cutlery too,’ Abi said, helping Rebecca to stow her holdall in the overhead luggage rack before mooching off to find a home for her trunk.

The dour-faced suit sitting across the aisle from them rustled his broadsheet.

Grateful for the air conditioning, Rebecca flopped down into her seat and retied her ponytail. She switched her phone to silent mode, not expecting anyone to call her in transit as the train eased out of the station.

Nine thirty. Bang on time, she noticed, checking her watch.

She glanced round the carriage. Primarily men bashing away on iPads and laptops, and two older women, one scrolling through photos on her mobile, the other with her nose buried in a John Grisham novel.

Rebecca lowered her gaze as the woman reading looked up from her book. She couldn’t remember being in a carriage this empty before. She seldom caught the train these days. Greg’s aversion to public transport meant, as a couple, they drove everywhere. Or rather,
he
did. Her Renault Clio only got a look in if he wanted to have a drink or needed a lift somewhere. He’d bounce naked through Purley on a spacehoppper before he’d let her drive his Lexus.

She focused on the hilarious absurdity of this image, willing it to override the hurtful one of Greg’s departure.

He hadn’t even kissed her goodbye.

She watched Abi sweep back down the aisle, minus her trunk, thinking how unruffled she looked in her grey combats and pink sequined vest top, shades perched atop her head like an A-lister, the bob of two days ago exchanged for a last minute crop. Rebecca wished she had the nerve to experiment occasionally. Having her highlights done twice a year was about as bold as it got.

Abi slid into her seat. ‘We’re off then?’ She delved through her handbag. ‘Where’s my mirror? My hair feels like wire wool. I might have some caramel streaks put in when we get back.’ Naturally brunette, Abi changed colours more often than she did styles.

Rebecca managed a quick thumbs-up before the tannoy burst into life, welcoming them aboard their Virgin Trains East Coast
service to Newcastle.

Newcastle?

Rebecca’s panic receded as she listened to a friendly female voice reel off the stops en route, York included, in a delightful Geordie accent, plus the array of on board services available.

‘So, did we ever establish why Greg’s company conference is tomorrow?’ Abi asked, replacing her mirror in her bag, one eye on the slowly approaching waitress. ‘I mean, I’m not complaining, but it does seem a bit of a cheek to hold it on a Saturday.’

‘Only time they can get everyone together, I suppose. Most of the sales people are on the road Monday to Friday,’ said Rebecca, clenching her rumbling tummy. ‘Although I suspect it was more to accommodate certain business reps who are going.’

‘Major players, are they?’

‘Well, from the little I know, depending on how impressed they are with Greg’s firm, some big new leasing contracts could be coming their way.’

‘Which explains his fixation with his presentation twenty-four-seven. Still, I’m not going to bang on about that. It was very kind of him to treat us to our train tickets.’

Rebecca agreed, even if she did, in this particular case, question his motives. Her husband may have his faults, but no one could ever accuse him of being stingy. ‘Oh, you know what he’s like where money’s concerned.’

Abi’s phone distracted them both – its bouncy salsa ringtone shattering the peace.

Holiday inspired, Rebecca guessed, watching Abi flash an apologetic smile around the carriage before answering it.


Nick!
’ Abi stood up, indicating to Rebecca that she’d take the call out by the loos, only to stomp back down the aisle minutes later, lips pursed.

‘Can you believe he was half-cut?’ she said, thumping down in her seat opposite Rebecca.

‘What? At ten o’clock in the morning?’

‘It’s eleven in Spain. Not that it makes much difference,’ said Abi, chucking her phone on the table between them.

‘Oh, come on, Abs. It’s a stag do. You know what blokes are like.’

‘You know what Nick’s like, you mean.’ Abi said this like Nick was some old wino. ‘I know it’s a bit pot calling the kettle, but he gets really silly when he’s had a drink and I’m worried he might …’ Her voice faltered.

‘Might what?’

‘Oh, nothing. Ignore me,’ said Abi, shoving a polo mint into her mouth and grabbing the menu. ‘The waitress is nearly here. Let’s order some breakfast. I’m starving.’

‘No, come on,’ said Rebecca, leaning forward as the train jerked onward. ‘Are you saying you don’t trust him?’ Abi sank further down in her seat. ‘You’ve been together for eighteen months. What’s brought this on?’

‘Oh, I don’t know … the crowd he’s gone with, I suppose. Especially that sleazeball Gary Swan. He’ll be out on the pull every night. He wears so much fake tan, he’s orange.’

‘Not as orange as Greg’s mate, Owen, at Butlins, I bet?’

Abi burst out laughing. ‘The walking tangerine! How could I forget?’

Rebecca knew this would cheer Abi up. Yet, as funny as that eighties-themed event at Butlins in Minehead nine years ago had been, she also knew that their first encounter with Greg while they were there wasn’t one of Abi’s fondest recollections.

Still laughing, they ordered tea for two and bacon rolls, each recounting certain incidents as was customary whenever the subject of Butlins came up. Carefree memories, Rebecca thought: her and Abi in the packed clubhouse on fancy dress night, wearing puffball skirts and oversized jackets with enormous shoulder pads, guzzling Malibu and lemonades.

But as they sat there munching in silence, Rebecca would also bet that Abi was visualising Greg, not embracing the party spirit of it at all, slouching beside them at the bar, and then having a go at Rebecca in front of everyone, when she’d had the audacity to ask him to move along an inch so they could get served.

‘Charmless bastard!’ Abi had muttered in her ear at the time.

Greg’s orange-faced mate had blamed it on the booze. ‘Greg’s not normally like this,’ he’d said, pulling them to one side, looking as serious as one can in a blonde mullet wig and that much bronzer. ‘Had a bit of a rough ride with his ex, you see. It’s made him a bit prickly.’

‘You’re just a sucker for a sob story and broad shoulders,’ Abi had teased, after Greg had sought out Rebecca at the end of the evening, apologised profusely for being so ill-mannered, and told her how pretty she was as they’d slow-danced together under the glitter ball. ‘He’s got rebound stamped all over him!’

Rebecca knocked knees with Abi under the table. ‘Hey, maybe we should go back to Butlins some time. Do you think Nick would be up for it?’

‘Absolutely! He loves anything retro. I’ll dig out that red and blue afro wig I bought from your sister’s shop,’ said Abi, her smile returning twice as wide.

‘Didn’t Greg borrow it for one of the big footie finals he went to?’

‘Yep! You’re right. Oh, well, he’d best keep it then, in case he needs it this year.’

Rebecca didn’t have the heart to tell her the football season had finished in May. Abi knew as much about the game as Rebecca did the London club scene. She only knew so much, herself, because Greg was such a big fan. She’d got quite into it over the last few years. Much more so than she had with his other two sporting darlings – golf and cricket.

‘Talking of social gatherings,’ she said, placing her hands on the table. ‘We’re having a bit of a do at ours next Saturday night for Greg’s mum, if you and Nick fancy it? Sorry it’s short notice, but Greg only confirmed it yesterday. I spent half of last night on the phone, inviting people, most of whom, luckily, can make it.’

‘I thought Pearl was celebrating her seventieth birthday in Jersey.’

‘She is. But as none of us will be there, Greg wants to mark the occasion. His brother offered to host it but Greg insisted we do it at ours as there’s more room.’

‘Leaving you to organise everything as usual?’ Abi drew an imaginary zip across her mouth. ‘Sorry … small relapse … I’m thinking if we’re away until Monday, you’ll be rushing around like a nutter, that’s all.’

Rebecca shrugged and drank the rest of her tea.

‘Not much to look at, is there?’ said Abi after a while, peering out of the window at field after field. ‘No decent talent on board, either.’ She slanted her head towards the paper-rustler who’d been snoring since Peterborough.

‘Er … what was that you were saying earlier on about Nick in Spain?’

‘I know … I know …’ Abi buried her face in her palms. ‘I just wish he’d hurry up and move in with me. That’s why I get so touchy, I suppose.’

‘Hold on. Rewind. So you’re definitely moving in together?’

‘Well, let’s face it, he stays over at mine most nights and that shoebox of his in Mitcham isn’t cheap.’

‘Well, I think it’s a great idea,’ said Rebecca, beaming. Nick was so different from the other losers Abi had dated. So down to earth.

Half-Italian on his mother’s side, Abi had met him when her firm had hired him and his brother to rewire her office. Rebecca had taken a clandestine phone call from her to report that some fit electrician in tight overalls was eyeing her over the water cooler. Bit rough round the edges, Abi had observed, but with a grin to die for.

‘Well, if he does move in, he’ll have to smoke outside. Those bloody fags of his reek,’ said Abi, having a good stretch. Unlike Rebecca who, unbeknown to Greg, still had the very occasional crafty cigarette, Abi was a raging ex-smoker. Her phone beeped. ‘Text from Richard,’ she said, glaring at it.

BOOK: As Weekends Go (Choc Lit)
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