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Authors: Julia Williams

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Pastures New

BOOK: Pastures New
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JULIA WILLIAMS

Pastures New

For Joseph Henry
Moffatt
and John Douglas (Roger)
Williams, for sharing their wisdom

Forever Autumn

In the allotment:
Harvest the crops, dig over the soil, and prepare
the ground for winter.

State of the heart:
Barren, cold, dead.

‘There’s a fire on the anti-clockwise section of the
M25
, just
before the junction with the M1, and the traffic’s backing
up to junction 26, so do avoid that if you can
…’

Hopefully that will have cleared by the time I get back, thought Amy, as Sally Traffic made way for a debate about gun crime. She’d always hated driving on the motorway, and never more so than now, when she had to do it alone.

Oh Jamie, I miss you so much

The thought came unbidden and unprompted, and she blinked back the sudden tears.

This would never do.

Pull yourself together, girl, Amy admonished herself sternly, straightening her slight shoulders and gripping the steering wheel tighter. If she really was going to make this move, she had to be strong. She had to. Hold on to that thought …

At least it was a gloriously sunny day, and the soft undulating Essex countryside was looking its best. Field after field of sun-drenched corn. Thanks to the rotten
summer, the harvest was late, but here and there bales of hay indicated that it was finally underway. And the smell of burning stubble was a reminder that summer really was drawing in. Constable country, Amy thought to herself. She wouldn’t be surprised to find a haywain round the next corner.

The journey from North London had taken much longer than she had envisaged, but eventually Amy found herself driving over the little humpbacked bridge that, according to her map, marked the boundary between the Essex and Suffolk sides of the pretty market town of Nevermorewell. A feeling of excitement grew in her as she pulled the car into the picturesque high street, dwarfed by a large Norman church, and flanked on either side by tiny quaint shops with mock Tudor cladding. It was perfect. Just what she was looking for.

Amy pulled into a parking place – amazingly there were several empty ones. So different from Barnet, where she would have been driving around fruitlessly for hours before finding a spot miles away from home. That had to be a good omen.

She took a deep breath and stared at herself in the rear-view mirror. She teased out her fair curls so they didn’t look quite so tangled, and put on a bit of lippy – bright red to boost her confidence. She rarely wore makeup – Jamie had always said her light natural complexion didn’t need any, and now she didn’t see the point. But lippy was good. Lippy was part of the mask she needed to face each day. The mask she needed right now to persuade Josh of the wisdom of this move.
It didn’t help that she was so racked with guilt about it, that she wasn’t one hundred per cent convinced herself.

‘Right, Josh,’ she smiled brightly at her five-year-old son, who was sucking his thumb and looking out of the window. ‘We’re here. And we’re going to look at some new houses for us. Isn’t that fun?’

‘Is Granny coming too?’ asked Josh.

‘No, sweetheart,’ said Amy. ‘You remember, I told you. Granny’s staying in her house, and we’re going to have a new house. Won’t that be nice?’

‘Oh,’ said Josh, his face puckering a little. ‘But we won’t see Granny very much, will we?’

‘No, but she can come and visit any time she likes,’ said Amy, more brightly than she felt. Damn. She thought she’d squared that with him. But then, he was very close to Mary, it was only natural he would feel the loss of her.

And she of him. Amy’s stomach went into spasm as she recalled the conversation she’d had with her mother-in-law a few weeks earlier.

‘So you’re serious about this move then?’

As Amy was in the middle of packing up a pile of books at the time, it was hard to resist a sarcastic remark, but she bit her lip and said, ‘Yes, Mary, I am.’

‘What about Josh?’ Mary had sniffed. ‘He’s not going to know anyone in the country.’

‘Children are very adaptable,’ Amy had snapped back. Mary had touched a nerve, as it was what Amy herself had agonised about over and over again.

‘That may be so,’ Mary had replied flatly, ‘but it’s such a long way.’

‘I know,’ Amy had said. ‘And I’m sorry.’

‘But that’s not going to stop you, is it?’ The comment had been barbed, and hit home as it was intended to. Amy had flinched, but held firm.

‘No, Mary, it’s not,’ she’d replied, wishing beyond all measure that there was an easy way of doing this, an easy way of creating some distance from her memories.

Sighing, she got Josh out of the car, and peered down at the map the estate agents had given her. According to it, their office should be on the corner.

‘Come on, Josh,’ she said, taking his hand, ‘it’s this way.’

They were just coming up to a little cartway when Josh let go of Amy’s hand.

‘Hey, cool!’ he said, running towards the toy shop on the other side to look at the Spiderman poster in the window.

‘Josh! Come back!’ shouted Amy.

At that moment a motorbike came roaring up the cartway.

‘Josh!’ screamed Amy.

The motorbike braked and swerved, the rider just about avoiding Josh and retaining control.

‘Josh, are you okay?’ Amy ran to her son and took him in her arms, trembling violently. ‘You never, ever run off like that again, do you hear?’

Josh burst into tears – whether because of the telling-off or the fright he had had, Amy wasn’t sure. But he was all right. She took a deep breath. That was all that mattered.

‘Just what the hell did you think you were doing?’
she screamed at the rider, fear turning to fury.

‘I could say the same thing about you,’ spat out the rider, taking off his helmet to reveal dark hair, brown eyes and a strong, chiselled face, which would have been stern if it were not lightened by a ready smile. ‘Your son ran across the road.’

‘You were going too fast.’ Amy’s tone was accusing.

‘I was doing less than twenty,’ replied the rider. ‘Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to stop.’

They glared at each other.

‘Is your son okay?’ The rider glanced at Josh, who was squirming out of Amy’s grasp.

‘No thanks to you,’ snapped Amy.

‘I’m sorry to have given you a fright,’ said the rider. ‘And I’m glad your son is all right, really I am. But you shouldn’t let him run off like that.’

Amy couldn’t speak. This stranger was right. Her moment of inattention had nearly got her son killed. She nodded mutely. Tears pricked her eyes. What if the bike had been going faster? She would have lost Josh as well as Jamie.

As if sensing her change of mood, the rider gently said, ‘Look, no harm done, eh?’ He squatted down next to Josh, and added, ‘Hey, tiger, you make sure you hold your mum’s hand really tight when you cross the road next time. You promise?’

‘I promise,’ mumbled Josh.

The rider got up, climbed back on his bike, and roared off up the road.

‘Who was that man, Mummy?’ Josh asked.

‘No one,’ said Amy, as she watched the departing
bike, wondering why a stranger’s moment of kindness had made her feel so lonely. ‘Come on,’ she said, rallying herself. ‘Let’s go and find our new home.’

‘And this is the garden …’ The estate agent motioned Amy towards the rickety wooden door leading from the kitchen. Josh, who had been trailing behind them, immediately perked up and pushed his way forwards. Amy took a deep breath. It was still going to be a tough call selling Josh this move, and so far he had been deeply unimpressed, but a garden might just swing it. The shared patch of earth that passed for a garden in their two-bedroom flat in Barnet didn’t amount to much, and Josh was desperate to have somewhere to kick a ball.

‘It’s stuck,’ Josh said, disappointed. The door seemed to have swollen from the recent rain and was rather stiff.

‘Here, let me.’ The estate agent, whom Amy had silently christened Smarmy Simon, had a go. He really had to tug it, but eventually, with a rather worrying rattle, the door opened and they all trooped outside.

Amy knew she should be concerned about details like that. Jamie would have been making a list by now of all the things that were wrong with the place. But she couldn’t – not with the tingling feeling of excitement that had been growing inside her as Smarmy Simon showed her round. It was a long time since she had felt that mixture of hope and anticipation.

The house was perfect. It could have been made for her and Josh. A Victorian terrace, full of character as requested. Three bedrooms, so more than enough room for the pair of them. The downstairs wasn’t huge, and the bathroom was inconveniently next door to the kitchen, as was the case in all these old terraces, but it didn’t matter. There were marble fireplaces, and real wood floors. The kitchen was oak throughout. It was quaint. Even the little archway that joined the house onto its neighbour was attractive. Like the rest of the house, it had charm. It was the house she and Jamie had always dreamed of.

Don’t go there, she admonished herself, reciting the mantra that she had long since perfected to retain her sanity as she emerged into the sunlit garden. It was a bit overgrown, but someone had evidently tended it well in the past. Amy spotted lobelia tumbling out of a couple of cracked earthenware pots, and down one side of a whitewashed wall the honeysuckle was going wild, though beginning to look a little past its sell-by date. There were marigolds in the flowerbeds – self-sown, probably, as it didn’t look as though anyone had planted bedding plants there for a while. They were nestled with wild poppies and nasturtiums. It was beautiful, and Amy longed to start work on it immediately.

‘If you’ll notice, at the end of the garden,’ Smarmy Simon was saying, ‘there’s a gate that leads onto the allotments. I believe the owner still pays rent on hers, and if you were interested she probably wouldn’t have any objection to you using it.’

‘May I?’ Amy asked, pointing at the gate.

‘Oh, yes, of course,’ said Smarmy Simon. ‘It’s open. No one bothers to lock things much around here.’ His phone started to ring. ‘Will you excuse me for a minute?’ He answered it while waving her on down the path.

As Amy opened the gate, she had to restrain herself from letting rip to whoops of delight. Josh ran round and round in excited circles, shouting loudly. Amy tried to shush him – there didn’t appear to be any other children on the allotments, and she didn’t want to irritate people – but his enthusiasm was infectious. It was perfect, absolutely perfect.

From the road, she would have had no idea this was here. The allotments spread out before her, a tiny green oasis in the middle of a small but busy market town. They were alive with the sound of birdsong, and looked well cared for. Presently, being the middle of the day, they were mainly empty. She heard the sound of a mower in the distance, and was startled by the appearance of a rather hairy-looking man, dressed in black leather, who appeared to be talking to something in a bucket.

‘There you are, me beauties,’ he was muttering, ‘have I got a treat for you.’

Passing by his plot, a ramshackle affair with gnarled fruit trees protected by netting, and strange wooden contraptions that Amy supposed were homemade compost heaps, she and Josh wandered down a wide path. This was glorious, quite glorious.

She could see another man pausing from digging up vegetables on one of the other plots. A black Labrador sat at his side, panting in the midday sun.
The man had obviously been exerting himself – he had taken his shirt off, and was swigging some water. There was something vaguely familiar about him. He leaned on his spade for a moment, before returning to his digging. Amy turned away.

This place, it was wonderful. When she had seen the details of the house Amy had had no idea it backed onto allotments, and it was the icing on the cake. She squinted in the sun, taking in the beauty of her surroundings. There were blackberries ripening in the late August sunshine, and beans, tomatoes and potatoes all coming into fruition. The odd hut was dotted about, and some plots seemed to consist of fruit trees. It had been a poor summer – today was one of the few hot days they’d had – but the trees seemed laden with fruit anyway. There was a sense of abundance, and ripeness – the time for harvesting near. Amy couldn’t help the catch in her throat, as she thought about how much Jamie would have loved this. Autumn had always been his favourite time of year – a golden time to catch his golden girl he had used to tease her. They had met in the autumn, nearly fourteen years ago, the early days of their courtship punctuated with long country walks crunching their way through leaf-strewn fields. If they had only been able to do this together.

Together
. They would never do anything together again. A hard, familiar knot tightened in her stomach. It was nearly two years ago now, but the thought of never seeing Jamie again was still enough to take her breath away. She had promised herself she would be strong for Josh, but it took all her self-control not to
let out the raw pain, which she concealed so well these days. She was determined to leave all that behind her. This was a new start for her and Josh. A new beginning, a way forward to slough off the pain of the past.

She took a deep breath and stared around her once again. She and Jamie had always dreamed of decamping to the countryside and living in an old farmhouse. A memory forced its way into her mind – a snapshot of a perfect day on a long weekend, not far from here, a sunny day in late summer, much like this, visiting Amy’s Auntie Grace in Aldeburgh.

BOOK: Pastures New
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