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Authors: Margaret Forster

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How to Measure a Cow

BOOK: How to Measure a Cow
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



About the Book

About the Author

Also by Margaret Forster

Title Page

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X



Tara Fraser leaves London to start a new life in a Cumbrian town selected at random. She plans to obliterate her past, which contains a shocking event that had serious consequences, by becoming a completely different personality from her previous volatile self. She is going to be quiet, even dull, and very private.

But one of her new neighbours, Nancy, is intrigued by her. She wants to become her friend. Equally determined not to be discarded are three old friends who Tara feels let her down when she most needed them.

Tara fights to keep herself to herself, but can she do it? And does she really want to? Slowly, reluctantly, she discovers the dangers of trying to suppress the past and reject other people.


Born in Carlisle, Margaret Forster was the author of many successful and acclaimed novels, including
Have the Men Had Enough?
Lady’s Maid
Diary of an Ordinary Woman
Is There Anything You Want?
Keeping the World Away
The Unknown Bridesmaid
. She also wrote bestselling memoirs –
Hidden Lives
Precious Lives
and, most recently,
My Life in Houses
– and biographies. She was married to writer and journalist Hunter Davies and lived in London and the Lake District. She died in February 2016, just before her last novel,
How to Measure a Cow
, was published.


Dame’s Delight

Georgy Girl

The Bogeyman

The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff

The Park

Miss Owen-Owen is At Home

Fenella Phizackery

Mr Bone’s Retreat

The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury

Mother Can You Hear Me?

The Bride of Lowther Fell

Marital Rites

Private Papers

Have the Men Had Enough?

Lady’s Maid

The Battle for Christabel

Mothers’ Boys

Shadow Baby

The Memory Box

Diary of an Ordinary Woman

Is There Anything You Want?

Keeping the World Away


Isa & May

The Unknown Bridesmaid


The Rash Adventurer

William Makepeace Thackeray

Significant Sisters

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Daphne du Maurier

Hidden Lives

Rich Desserts & Captain’s Thin

Precious Lives

Good Wives?

My Life in Houses


Selected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning


, free. She walked in a public park, her legs heavy, and yet she felt untethered, floating, waiting for a wind to blow her along. All the green of the trees ahead made her eyes feel muzzy. She blinked constantly, to clear the shimmering. There were groups of people about, sitting on the grass having picnics, or sauntering along the pathways in the full sun. She came to a pond. She took in a woman throwing sticks for a dog, and another, watched by a child in a buggy, feeding ducks. She swayed slightly, and wondered which path she should take. Then she registered a man, all in black, standing on a hillock above the pond. He had a phone held to his ear, and was talking, though he was too far away for her to hear any words. She turned, and began to go up a hill opposite the pond, up a path with no one on it. Suddenly, halfway up, she realised someone was walking in step with her, saying something.

His voice was quiet. He was now so absolutely in step with her that she couldn’t see him properly.

‘Are you her?’ he said.

Calm, she told herself, calm. She didn’t reply. This was mid-afternoon in a public park, plenty of people about.

‘Are you her?’ he asked again.

He still had the phone pressed to his ear though this ear was covered by the flap of a hat, the sort pilots used to wear. She decided to turn and walk back the way she had come. He turned with her.

‘Who are you then?’ he said, voice still soft. ‘If you aren’t that bitch, who are you?’

She quickened her pace. He quickened his. He might follow her out of the park. Panic made her stumble. He took hold of her arm.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said. ‘Eh? What’s wrong? You dozy bitch.’

All this time, his voice remained low. No one passing would be able to hear it. Common sense told her he was either merely eccentric or else harmlessly mad, but her body was reacting differently. She was trembling. He was talking again, but she couldn’t take in what he was saying. It was ten years ago. He couldn’t possibly have recognised her. She took a deep breath. Probably this was some sort of game he regularly played. ‘Are you her?’ meant nothing. It was merely an opening gambit. She was nearly out of the park and into the road. She turned left, towards the bus stop, and he turned and went back into the park.

She sat down at the bus stop, flushed and sweating, and closed her eyes. She would have to leave London. They had told her it would be advisable, but she hadn’t listened. London was full of weird people.
Once, that had been part of the thrill of living here, but not now.

Where should she go?

She bought a map of the British Isles and opened it out flat on the floor of the room they’d given her. Somewhere north would be best, but she didn’t know anything about the North, or even the Midlands. She took out a clip from her hair and, closing her eyes, she jabbed it on the map. It had landed on a blue shaded area of sea, somewhere between Wales and Ireland. She turned the map round and shut her eyes again. This time the point of the clip hit land, just south of a town she saw was called Workington, near the sea. She liked the idea of being on the coast and she liked the name of the town. Workington – a working town, honest, straightforward. It appealed to her. Did Workington, too, have deranged people wandering in parks? Surely not in the way London did. Nowhere was safe, but for her, this Workington might be safer than London.

She would have to ask if she could move there. That was one of the conditions. There would probably be objections, all of them justified, all made with her welfare in mind, as she would repeatedly be told. It made her tired, just thinking of the meetings there would have to be, all the reasoning she would have to listen to, how ‘good’ she would have to be. She wouldn’t dare tell them that she wanted to go to this northern town because she’d hit on it with the point of a hairclip pressed on to a map. With her eyes shut. She would have to invent some reason, some connection, however vague. Well, invention was her forte. It shouldn’t be too difficult. A great-grandmother,
perhaps, now dead? But they were suspicious enough to go to the bother of checking that. Oh, never mind, she’d think of something.

She made the necessary phone call.

At first, Nancy couldn’t be absolutely sure that someone had moved into Amy’s old house. No removal van had arrived. Nobody had been seen unloading a van or car or getting out of a minicab laden with suitcases. But the upstairs curtain wasn’t right. Nancy was quite shocked to realise it had taken her twenty-four hours to notice this. ‘I must be slipping,’ she said to herself, aloud. (Talking to yourself was fine so long as you knew you were doing it.)

The little terraced house had been empty a whole year, ever since Amy went into hospital and then a nursing home and then died and was buried in that awful cemetery full of miners, the last place she would have wanted to end up. There were cemeteries and cemeteries and this wasn’t one of them. No tidy graves, everything overgrown and ugly. No white marble angels or crosses, only ugly black lumps of some granite-like substance with the lettering on them barely discernible. No flowers. Nobody came to this cemetery to put flowers on the neglected graves. It was a scandal that Amy had been bunged in there. The nephew said it was a family grave. That’s what he told Nancy.

‘Family?’ Nancy said, knowing she was laying on the sarcasm heavily. ‘Family? Don’t make me laugh.’ And she shut the door in his face.

A mistake, really. She always acknowledged her own mistakes afterwards, when it was much too late. She could have said nothing. It would have been
quite enough to raise her eyebrows, and stare. But she’d spoken her mind, though by no means all of it, and she’d shut the door on the nephew. The obvious consequence was that she wasn’t told what was going to happen to Amy’s house. It wasn’t rented. Amy owned it, definitely. Most of the houses in their street, either side, were rented, but Amy and Nancy both owned theirs. It was a link between them. They were householders, and they were widows, and they were both childless. Nancy had made her will as soon as her husband died. She wanted no disputes over who was to get her house. But had Amy made hers? Was the nephew to inherit it?

He’d been in and out of the house several times but that wasn’t necessarily significant. First thing he did was close the curtains in Amy’s old bedroom, the room directly facing Nancy’s. It annoyed her. There was no need to do this. There was already a net curtain decorously draping the window, and nobody except Nancy could see into that room anyway. But the nephew had closed the other, thicker red velour curtains over it, and they stayed closed. Every night, closing her own curtains, it upset Nancy to look out on that dark square opposite. She tried not to mind, but she did mind, and she minded most of all not knowing why she minded. It was silly, she was silly. There were all kinds of trivial things like this that made her feel silly, a feeling to which she objected but failed to do anything to correct.

One of the red curtains had been pulled aside. Only one. Did this mean there was someone now in residence? Or had the nephew been in, looking round, and had he opened the curtains to get a better view
of the room and then forgotten to close both afterwards? Nancy contemplated going to knock on the door. Where would the harm be in that? Suppose burglars had got in. It would look bad if she’d noticed the curtains, but had done nothing. Was that being a responsible citizen? No, it was not. And if someone had moved in, then it would be proper to welcome them to the street, to introduce herself. What was the worst that could happen? Only that she could have the door shut in her face. Well, if so, she would know where she stood. Definitely.

The rent was cheap. She hadn’t yet adjusted to the prices of things but even she could tell it was cheap, so cheap she thought she’d misheard. But once she was inside the house, she understood why. There was no central heating. In the living room, there was an electric fire, and that was it. The kitchen, described as ‘basic’, was primitive, but that didn’t upset her. She hardly needed a kitchen. She didn’t mind the small size of the rooms either, or the lack of light. The house came furnished and the furniture was shabby, ugly and uncomfortable. Except for the bed in the front bedroom. It didn’t fit in with everything else. It seemed new, one of those divans with a deep mattress. How odd, to find such a bed here. She lay down on it, relishing the comfort. So important, a good bed, something she hadn’t enjoyed for a long time. There were no sheets on it, no duvet or blankets. It had been stripped. Everything else left untouched, but the bed stripped.

One of the red velour curtains was pulled back. She got up, and stood looking out of the window, though not directly in front of it. She didn’t think she’d ever
seen a street of houses quite like this one. The bricks were all blackened, a long, tight-fitting terrace of squashed houses, only the doors distinguishing one from another. The bright blue of two of them spoke of valiant attempts to brighten the street up, but they failed, only emphasising its general dreariness. The door of the house she was in hadn’t been painted for many years. It was a brown colour almost as dark as the blackened bricks either side.

She had a job all fixed up for her. It was a humble one, but she knew she was lucky to have it, this being an area, and a time, when there was fierce competition for any job. In fact, especially for mundane jobs that anyone could do. She was to have an induction day, and then she would be issued with an overall, which it would be up to her to wash at the end of every week. Getting to work would involve taking a bus from the end of her street, and then a ten-minute walk. That would suit her fine. She thought she might walk the whole way. It would take maybe as long as an hour, she hadn’t tried it yet, it was just an estimate. But she was an early riser now, after all the years of being forced to rise early, and she could leave for work at seven in the morning. Coming back, if she were tired, as she expected to be after spending most of the day on her feet, might be different. She might get the bus then.

BOOK: How to Measure a Cow
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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