Abby Rhodes is just starting to get her life on track. After her fiancé’s unexpected death, she returned with her young son to the small village where she grew up and threw herself into helping her ailing grandmother run the town's beach café. Then one evening, her mother, Laura, shows up in Hartley-by-the-Sea and announces her plan to stay. After twenty years away, she now wants to focus on the future—and has no intention, it seems, of revisiting the painful past.
Laura Rhodes has made a lot of mistakes, and many of them concern her daughter. But as Abby gets little glimpses into her mother's life, she begins to realize there are depths to Laura she never knew. Slowly, Abby and Laura start making tentative steps toward each other, only to have life become even more complicated when an unexpected tragedy arises. Together, the two women will discover truths both sad and surprising that draw them closer to a new understanding of what it means to truly forgive someone you love.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
“Are you all right?”
The Cumbrian greeting that could have offcomers stiffening defensively made Abby Rhodes smile. The man who’d asked, another parent with a child in the Reception class at Hartley-by-the-Sea Primary, was waiting stony-faced for the expected answer: “all right,” or areet, as a Cumbrian would say, and Abby was a born-and-bred Cumbrian even if she’d only been back in the Lake District for not quite two years.
“Areet,” she said firmly, because standing in the school yard with the sun shining down, she knew she was. She hadn’t always been, and even a few months ago she might have given a different answer, or at least her “areet” would have wavered a little. But not now. Now she was starting to finally feel as if she’d made a place for herself and her son.
The farmer nodded in apparent satisfaction and looked away, the conversation clearly over. Abby leaned against the stone wall of the school yard and gazed out at the village spread below her in a living map, the terraced houses and the whitewashed cottages giving way to a patchwork of rolling sheep pasture and fields of bright yellow rapeseed that led to the sea, a hazy gray-blue on the horizon.
It was a warm day in mid-June, a day of mild breezes and benevolent sunshine that could almost make Abby forget the freezing temperatures and slanting rain of just a few weeks ago. Everyone had been remarking about the weather; reaching sixty degrees in Hartley-by-the-Sea was considered a newsworthy event and definitely classified as a heat wave. On the way to school that morning, Abby had seen Eleanor Carwell in only half of her usual twinset, emphatically waving a fan in front of her face as she took her daily walk to the post office shop. “Isn’t it red-hot?” she’d exclaimed, and Abby had, of course, agreed.
Now from her vantage point at the top of the village, she could just glimpse the tan strip of beach, visible since the tide was out, and the low, ramshackle building on one end of the concrete promenade that was the beach café as well as her home.
It had been nearly two years since she’d limped back to her grandmother in Hartley-by-the-Sea, drained and still grieving, not just for Ben but for everything she’d lost, clutching her three-year-old son, Noah, and needing a job as well as a place to stay. Two years that had seen her start to revitalize the shabby café by the beach, make a few friends, and begin to feel a wary, fragile happiness that could be blown away on the next sea breeze—God knew it had been before. But she was starting to think that maybe this time it wouldn’t be.
Are you all right?
Yes, she really was.
Abby refocused her gaze on her son, who was barreling towards her from the front doors of the school’s Infants’ entrance, a blur of dark hair and pumping limbs. He tackled her straight on, skinny arms wrapping around her middle as his head burrowed into her stomach.
“Oof.” Abby rolled her eyes good-naturedly at a few of the other parents who were smiling in sympathy at her son’s exuberance. “Well, hello, Noah.”
He tilted his head up to grin at her, silky hair sliding away from his eyes, his gap-toothed grin—he’d lost his first tooth a few weeks ago—like a fist squeezing her heart. She ruffled his hair, noticing how he jerked away, her baby already a little boy, starting to grow away from her. It made panic clutch at her insides even though she knew it was normal and necessary.
“Can we go to the beach? Please? Please?” he asked, his words tumbling over themselves. “It’s so nice out—”
Abby managed one last ruffle of his hair before he was darting away, moving on his tiptoes, ever in motion. “I suppose we can.”
She smiled at a few of the other mums whom she’d gotten to know over the last year; most of them were a decade older than she was, but Meghan Campbell was the same age as well as another single mum, and she gave Abby a cheeky grin as she led her own son, Nathan, by the hand down the steep lane that led to the high street.
“We’re going to the beach,” Abby called to her. “If you and Nathan want to come along.”
“Why not?” Meghan called back. “Can’t waste this weather, can we, Nath?” She turned to Abby. “You know this means it will pour rain the whole six weeks of the summer holiday, don’t you?”
“Of course. This is Cumbria. We can’t have that much good weather.”
They kept up the banter all the way down the high street to the turning on the beach road; unable to resist the straight stretch of pavement with sheep pasture rolling away on either side, Nathan and Noah took off, and Meghan and Abby both watched with rueful affection.
“On a day like today,” Meghan said as she tilted her face up to the sky, “I almost don’t mind living here.”
“Oh, Meghan. You like living here, don’t you?”
Meghan lowered her head with a gusty sigh. “Since I haven’t lived anywhere else, I suppose I can’t really say.” She glanced at Abby. “What about you, Miss Liverpool?”
Abby laughed wryly and shook her head. She’d once lived in Liverpool, yes, but it felt like a million years ago now, as did the trappings of that life: an unfinished degree in veterinary science, a fiancé, a future. She’d been planning to apprentice at a vet’s in the city; she’d seen herself and Ben living in a chic city center flat, pursuing their careers, living their carefree lives. So much had changed since those heady days, but right now she couldn’t begrudge the loss of any of it. She had her son; she had her grandmother; she had a business she enjoyed.
“I’m all right here,” she said, and they walked on.
They’d just reached the beach car park, the boys sprinting towards the playground on the field above the promenade along the sea, a few bright kites circling in the air above them.
“Slow down,” Abby called, and then came to a halt herself when she saw her grandmother waving from the beach café’s doorway, one hand clutched to her side, her face red with effort.
“Oh no,” she muttered, and Meghan glanced at her.
“Gran . . .” Abby nodded towards Mary. “Noah—,” she called, but Meghan stopped her.
“Go on. Whatever it is, it will be better for you if Noah isn’t underfoot. I’ll watch them at the park for a bit.”
“Would you—,” she began in relief, only for Meghan to wave her away.
“Easier for me if Nath has a friend there,” she assured her with a grin. “Really, I’m doing myself a favor. I’ll drop him back in an hour or so.”
Abby called her thanks as she started hurrying towards the café. Her grandmother had had a heart attack two years ago, which had, at least in part, prompted Abby’s return. There’d been no one else to help Mary Rhodes run the place, and Abby had needed somewhere to go. Since then, she’d been gently taking over the management of the café; Mary wasn’t one to let go of anything easily, and the beach café had been in her family since the 1940s.
“Gran,” she called as she reached the cracked concrete steps. “What’s wrong—”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Mary wheezed. “Just wanted to catch you before anyone else did.”
“Okay. But you look like you need to sit down.” Abby tried to speak mildly; Mary resisted any suggestion that she wasn’t completely recovered from her heart attack.
“I’m fine,” Mary answered, her words erupting in a cough before she fanned her face and took a few gulps of fresh sea air. “It’s just you know how gossip spreads in this village.” Mary’s face was red and shiny even as she managed a wry smile. “Worse than measles.”
“I didn’t realize there was anything to gossip about.” Abby took her grandmother’s arm and attempted to gently steer her back inside, but Mary Rhodes wasn’t having it. She shook her head, staying Abby with one hand.
“It’s no good standing about in the heat, Gran.”
“I won’t melt in what passes for a Cumbrian summer,” Mary retorted. “Even if I’m doing a good impression of it.” She took a well-pressed handkerchief from the pocket of her skirt and dabbed her forehead. “Abby, love, look. I know it will be a shock, but . . .” Mary paused, the hesitation so unlike her grandmother, who always had a quick comeback or a sharp word coupled with a ready smile, who had done her best to struggle back after a heart attack and bypass surgery. She took a deep breath, her ample chest expanding like a bellows. “Your mother’s inside.”
The words didn’t immediately compute. Abby simply stared and Mary added, her voice choking a little, “It’s true. Laura . . . my girl’s finally come home.”
Abby registered the look of tentative hope on Mary’s face and didn’t know how to feel. When had her mother last visited? Six years, at least. Abby had been pregnant with Noah. It had, as far as she could remember, been as awkward and tense as all the other sporadic visits. And yet my girl. Her grandmother seemed to be marking this visit more than any other. Mary had never seemed that maternal; like mother, like daughter, Abby supposed, although Mary had acted more or less as a mum to her since she was two, when Laura had left for good, her spurts of sentimental affection broken up by impatient cuffs and sharp words.
But Laura, back here, now? Abby simply stared, trying to probe how she felt about it, the way you would a sore tooth, anticipating that sudden lightning streak of pain if you touched a certain spot.
She felt nothing. She couldn’t tell if it was a true emptiness of feeling or merely a thin veneer of numbness, and she didn’t want to examine the lack of emotion too deeply. In any case, how could she expect to feel something for a woman who had barely been part of her life? Laura had left when Abby had been only a toddler, hightailing out of Hartley-by-the-Sea for a hostess job in a nightclub in Manchester. She’d visited on rare occasions, once a year at most, and then, when Abby was twenty-one, pregnant and alone, Laura had moved to New York. At that point Abby had been too tired and jaded, everything about her life already too broken, to care.
“What is she doing here?” Abby asked, her voice coming out flat.
“She wants to see you—”
As if. “And give you another heart attack?” Abby finished. “Let’s get you inside, Gran.”
It was easier to concentrate on settling Mary than thinking about her mother. “I’m not an invalid, you know,” Mary grumbled, but she didn’t resist as Abby led her inside and to a chair at one of the café’s rather rickety tables. She sat down with a heavy sigh and then looked up at Abby.
“You will go talk to her? I know it’s been a long time, Abby, but it could be different now and I’m not getting any younger, you know. I’d like to see something good come of all this.”
So her grandmother wanted to orchestrate some reconciliation? She’d always had a soft spot for sentiment, and yet the idea was laughable. Offensive, even, because when had Laura made any effort at all? A few presents, the occasional awkward visit, were as far as she’d ever gone to forging a relationship. Her mother was, and always had been, a deliberate stranger. Abby bustled about, neither meeting her grandmother’s eye nor giving her an answer. Mary wasn’t fooled.
“I will, Gran. Talk to her, I mean.” She let out a weary breath. “I will.” Abby glanced around the café, taking comfort from its worn familiarity. Fairy lights strung over the door, and paintings by local artists adorning the walls. The community notice board she’d put up when she’d first arrived was full of advertisements and flyers for local events; admittedly most of them were a couple of weeks or even months old, but Abby liked seeing people scan the board as they waited for their teas and coffees, noting a toddler morning or a weekend ceilidh.
Right now the café was empty save for a few pensioners at a table in the corner, lingering over scones and tea, and a handful of people at the ice cream counter. Sophie, a young woman Abby had hired for sunny afternoons such as this one, stood behind it, doling out the scoops. Her mother, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen, although perhaps Abby wouldn’t recognize Laura Rhodes if she saw her.
The voice she recognized. Low, melodious, attractive. Laura Rhodes had always worked at seeming attractive, always been confident that she was. Abby had recognized that even as a little girl, watching her mother spritz perfume and smile carefully at the mirror, her eyes narrowed as she assessed for lines, wrinkles. Cracks in the perfection. Once Abby had asked if she could try one of her mother’s lipsticks. Her mother’s smile had faded, her gaze still on her own reflection, and she’d murmured, “Let’s not have you start all that.”
Now Abby turned around and faced her mother. Laura stood in the doorway that led back to the flat adjoining the café, and Abby first saw the clothes: stiletto heels, a pencil skirt, a silk blouse, all looking expensive. Hardly the kind of outfit you’d wear in Hartley-by-the-Sea. Reluctantly she allowed her gaze to move up to her mother’s face.
Laura wasn’t smiling; she rarely did, since it caused wrinkles. Just one of the pearls of wisdom Abby had picked up from her mother during one of her infrequent visits. Laura’s dark hair, the same color as Abby’s but expertly highlighted with blond and lighter blond streaks, was pulled up in some fancy style and diamond studs glinted on her ears. She’d certainly gone for the classy look. Last time, if Abby remembered correctly, she’d had more of a sexy thing going on, leather trousers and a camisole top that had shown her toned, tanned thirty-seven-year-old body to perfection. Abby, thirteen weeks pregnant and throwing up every half hour, had felt dumpy and ugly and fat.
“Well?” Laura lifted her eyebrows, her mouth curving in the smallest of smiles, the kind that didn’t reach her eyes. “I know it’s been a long time, but—”
“What do you want me to say?” Abby’s voice came out sounding angry. And she wasn’t angry. She didn’t care enough to feel anything but indifference. Or at least that’s how she wanted to feel. How she’d trained herself to feel over all the empty years. The last thing she wanted to do now was throw some hissy fit, but then her mother had often provoked this feeling inside her, helpless frustration and hurt that she wasn’t important enough to stick around for.
“Abby,” Mary protested quietly, reaching out to put a hand on her wrist. “It’s your mother.”
Abby almost snapped that Laura didn’t deserve that title. If anyone did, it was Mary, who had raised her from toddlerhood and opened welcoming arms two years ago, when she’d returned with Noah. Now she looked down at her grandmother’s still-red face, her mouth turned down at the corners, sympathy softening her eyes. “Please,” she said quietly, and Abby knew that for Mary’s sake alone she wouldn’t cause a scene.
Besides, any kind of altercation would be all over the village in minutes, and the next time Abby walked up the high street, the comments would come: So your old Mum’s back, eh? Not so old, though, really. What do you think to that? She always was a looker.
She took a deep breath, letting it fill her lungs and steady her. First things first. “Let me get you some water, Gran. You need to stay hydrated in this heat.” She moved to the kitchen in their private flat, brushing past her mother on the way to the sink. She felt her own body trembling. Why did she have to react this way, after all this time? Six years since the last visit and she still felt raw. Still hurt by her mother’s absence, her deliberate disinterest.
Laura followed her back into the flat’s kitchen, a tiny room with a wedge of countertop and a round table that fit the three of them for meals. No room for Laura. But then of course she wouldn’t be staying. She never did. The realization brought the usual rush of relief mixed with an unwelcome sliver of disappointment that reminded Abby of her entire childhood, waiting for those rare visits, not quite daring to beg them to be longer or more frequent. Her nose pressed to the rain-splattered glass of the café, looking for that familiar, elegant figure walking down from the train station, a figure that never quite seemed to come close enough.
“Well, this isn’t much of a homecoming,” Laura remarked dryly, and Abby nearly slammed the glass on the counter. At the last second she managed to slow her hand. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected much, after all these years.” Laura’s voice was light, with a hint of humor, just as it always was. She always spoke as if she was looking down on everyone from her lofty, stylized perch, amused by the people who just couldn’t seem to keep from inviting her into their lives time and time again.
“You know Gran’s been ill,” Abby said, her back to her mother. “She had a heart attack two years ago, not that you even called.”
“Your grandmother is partly why I came back—”
“I want to see you, as well, of course. And . . .”
This time Abby did laugh, a harsh bark. “Noah. Your grandson’s name is Noah.”
“I knew that,” Laura answered, and now she sounded a little stiff. “Of course I knew that.”
“Just took you a minute to remember?” Abby filled the glass with water and moved past Laura without looking at her. For the next few minutes she focused on her grandmother, conscious of the pensioners in the corner, who were drinking their tea with too much deliberation, ears straining to hear the gossip, or crack, as Cumbrians would call it. And there was certainly some good crack to be found here. The Rhodes family had been providing crack for the village for generations.
Briefly Abby closed her eyes, regretting her outburst in the middle of the café. Sophie had gone still, the ice cream scooper dangling from one hand, as she watched their little domestic scene unfold. Abby knew she could gossip for the entirety of England. The news that Abby’s mother was back and the reunion hadn’t been a happy one would be known from here to Egremont, and once again the Rhodes women would be on everyone’s tongue.
She should be used to it by now. The tongues had wagged when she’d been a child, fatherless and virtually motherless, as well. And then again when she’d returned aged twenty-four, a child in tow and no man to speak of. History repeating itself yet again. People weren’t unkind in Hartley-by-the-Sea, but they liked to talk. And they shook their heads in either pity or judgment; to Abby, it didn’t matter which. They felt the same.
Mary covered Abby’s hand with her own knobbly, arthritic one. “Go back there, love,” she said. “I know it’s difficult, and you’re not best pleased to see your mam. I understand that, I do. But she’s here and she loves you, and that counts for something, even if you don’t think it does.”
“I know, Gran,” Abby said dutifully, even though she doubted her mother loved her. Love looked different to Abby, at any rate. The love she felt for Noah was all-consuming, almost frightening. It had been just the two of them against the world for so long the possibility of losing him could wake her up in the middle of the night, air bottling in her constricted lungs. When she’d sent him off to Reception last September, she hadn’t brushed a tear from her eye as some of the other first-time mums had; she’d put her hands on her knees and focused on her breathing, an icy sweat prickling between her shoulder blades, as she tried to stave off a panic attack. The experienced mums who had been happy to see their little ones toddle off had looked both amused and slightly pitying.
Now Abby tried to think of the last time she’d heard from her mother: perhaps a postcard from California when she’d gone there on holiday two years ago. Having a lovely time! Hope all is well, Laura. And Mary thought her mother loved her? Or was that just a desperate hope?
Wearily she patted her grandmother’s hand and walked back into the flat. Laura was still in the kitchen, her back to Abby as she gazed out of the tiny kitchen window towards the sea. Abby closed the door behind her, just in case they raised their voices. Not that Laura had ever raised her voice. She’d never stayed long enough to get angry. And Abby was determined not to give in to that, or any, emotion.
“It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” Laura remarked as she nodded towards the window. “On a day like today, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.”
“Seemed like there were plenty of places you’d have rather been over the years,” Abby replied, and Laura let out a sigh, as if Abby’s snark had disappointed her. It annoyed Abby, as well. She didn’t want to snip at her mother, didn’t want to give her that much power, but how was she supposed to be? Her mother had chosen to be a stranger. It wasn’t something she could just gloss over or pretend hadn’t happened. Yet she could at least be a little more adult about it.
“So what’s brought you back, exactly?” she asked, trying to keep her tone interested or at least neutral.
“I thought it was time.” Time for what, exactly? “Where’s Noah?”
“Playing at the beach with a friend.”
“He must be quite big now.”
“He just turned five.” Laura had never seen him. Never even asked for a photograph.
“Goodness.” Slowly Laura turned around. The sunlight streaming through the window highlighted the crow’s-feet by her eyes, the more deeply drawn lines from nose to mouth. “You’ve done some nice things with the café, as far as I can see. The art on the walls . . .”
“It’s done by locals. We’ve sold a bit too, to the tourists mainly, although some residents buy them, as well. We had a party, a kind of gallery showing. . . .” She stopped abruptly, hating that she was acting as if she wanted to impress her mother. In any case, “gallery showing” was a bit of an exaggeration for what had been a handful of friends and a box of white wine. Still, it had been good fun.
“What a good idea,” Laura said. “You’ve inherited my business sense.”
Abby opened her mouth to say she hadn’t inherited anything from her mother save for a few unfortunate genes and maybe a propensity to get knocked up, but then she closed it and shook her head. “So what do you mean, it was time? Why are you here, exactly?”
“I wanted to see you all. And . . .” Laura trailed off, color appearing in her cheeks with their suspiciously sculpted cheekbones. Abby wouldn’t put a little—or even a lot of—plastic surgery past her mother.
“And?” she prompted, an edge to her voice.
“And I thought it was time I came home,” Laura finished, spreading her manicured hands, the tips shiny and pink and also suspiciously artificial looking, with an elegant shrug. Abby didn’t think it was what her mother had been going to say.
“This hasn’t been home to you for a long time.”
“True.” Laura sighed, as if this whole conversation was tedious but expected. “But it’s still where I was born, Abby. Where I grew up.”
“The place that you left.”
“So did you, Abby.” Laura’s voice turned sharp. “I’m not the only one who wanted to escape Hartley-by-the-Sea, you know. Or the only one who decided it was time to come back. My mother’s ill and I’ve never met my grandson. I came back for all of you.”
The words were right, but they didn’t quite ring true. Or maybe they did, and Abby had simply lost the ability to trust her mother. “That makes a first,” she snapped, and then wished she hadn’t. She wasn’t hurt. Not after all this time.
“That’s true,” Laura answered. No apology, no remorse. There never had been.
“Okay.” She needed to get ahold of herself. She was showing too much emotion, feeling too much pain. It aggravated her, especially because half an hour ago she’d been musing about how happy she was, how settled. Her mother’s arrival didn’t have to change any of that. “So, how long are you here for?” Abby kept her voice brisk as she moved around the kitchen, flinging dirty dishes into the sink. Laura moved out of her way, studying the Star of the Week magnet on the fridge that Noah had gotten at school.
Laura would most likely be here for only a few days. She’d never stayed for longer than that. And Abby could handle a few days; she had before. When she’d been little, her mother’s departure had brought disappointment; now the prospect brought only relief. Almost.
“Well? A couple of days?” Abby turned to face her mother, hands on her hips, eyebrows raised. Laura was smiling faintly, but not in a good way.
“I’m not sure,” she said after a pause. “A while.”
“A while?” Abby stared at her, her stomach starting to churn.
“A good while,” Laura said, and her smile stretched like an elastic band about to snap. She took a deep breath, that fixed smile still in place. “Actually . . . for good.”
Laura stared at Abby’s appalled expression and told herself she shouldn’t have expected anything else. She knew full well she wasn’t going to get some kind of mother award, like Noah’s Star of the Week magnet. No smiley faces for her when it came to the whole motherhood thing. No, her attempts at motherhood deserved a lot of red ink, angry cross-outs, and a scrawled Needs Improvement. She knew that, but Abby’s look of blatant horror still put her on edge.
“Keep frowning like that and you’ll have wrinkles,” she said lightly, and moved past her daughter. She’d forgotten how tiny this kitchen was. It smelled like bleach and baked beans, and the mix of scents turned her stomach. She’d forgotten how the whole flat affected her, made her remember things she’d rather not. Her father lying on the sofa, his breath coming in awful, wheezy gasps, like a broken bellows. Abby screaming from the tiny bedroom, shrill, colicky cries that Laura had not known what to do with. Her brother, Simon, slamming the front door.
And now she was back. It was the right thing to do—she believed that; she had to believe that. It wasn’t as if she’d had a lot of other options. And she’d known coming back was going to be hard, but knowing something didn’t make putting up with it any easier.
“What . . . what do you . . . ?” Abby spluttered, clearly shocked by Laura’s announcement. She wished now that she hadn’t said it quite like that. Back for good. It revealed too much need, and in any case she had no idea how long she was staying. She still had some savings. She could start over somewhere else eventually, as dispiriting as that prospect felt. But first she wanted to make amends, even if right now that felt utterly impossible. Her mother had been glad enough to see her, at least. Laura suspected Mary felt guilty over the way things had gone down when Abby had been two, although she knew her mother would never admit to it. But Abby was another matter entirely. Winning her daughter round was going to take more energy and conviction than Laura feared she possessed. “What do you mean?” Abby finally demanded. “You can’t stay here.”
Can’t? That was a step too far. “It’s my home too,” Laura reminded her, trying not to sound too tart. So Abby could slope home with a toddler in tow, but Laura couldn’t? At least she wasn’t bringing a kid with her. She’d never been good with children, no matter that she’d had one of her own.
“Laura, you’re forty-three. It hasn’t been your home for over twenty years.”
“Actually,” Laura answered, and now she definitely sounded tart, “I’m forty-two. My birthday’s in August. And I didn’t realize there was a statute of limitations on calling a place home.” She folded her arms, annoyed in spite of her determination to stay calm, distant. That was the only way she could handle coming back to Hartley-by-the-Sea. As if none of it really mattered. As if none of it could touch her or remind her of how she used to be. Fresh start, she’d told herself, but now she wondered if someone like her could have such a thing in a place like this. Cumbrians had long, long memories.
“Laura . . .” Abby just shook her head, and Laura suppressed another prickle of annoyance. Abby had never called her Mum or Mummy, not even as a toddler, when Laura had actually been around. And after she’d left, from then on it had always been a careful, polite Laura, Abby always watching her warily with those sad, dark eyes, as if her mother wasn’t someone to be trusted or even liked. And maybe she hadn’t been, because God knew she’d messed up enough. But it would have been nice if Abby could have been a little more mature about things now. A little more enthusiastic.
“Don’t throw a fit,” she said. She shifted from foot to foot; there was no place to move in this kitchen. It was tiny and airless, despite the open window and the sun shining outside, children’s laughter drifting on the sea breeze. “I don’t actually mean for good, for good.” She laughed lightly, the sound only a bit brittle. “I just meant for a while. Long enough to . . .” She hesitated, resisting anything that would sound sentimental, knowing Abby wouldn’t take to it. One thing she’d never been was maudlin.
“To what?” Abby demanded.
“To get to know my grandson. And you. I could help out with the café, if you like.” She smiled, trying to inject a note of enthusiasm in her voice. “You’ve done wonders with the place, but you could use a bit more help, I’m sure.”
Abby stared at her, arms folded, mouth still puckered, eyebrows drawn together in a frown. She should really get those plucked, Laura thought distantly. Honestly, her daughter had never known how to make herself look a little better. Long, dark hair in desperate need of a trim and a highlight, kept back in a messy ponytail, sallow features without a scrap of makeup to brighten them up. It didn’t even look like she was wearing concealer, for heaven’s sake. She could use a serious makeover. Not that Laura was going to suggest that now.
“How long are you staying?” Abby asked. She’d ignored Laura’s suggestion of help.
“I don’t know. Until . . .” What? She found another job? Another place to live? Another life? “Until I feel like moving on.”
“Until you feel like it?” Abby repeated. She must have realized how ungracious she sounded, because, with a sigh, she continued in a more measured voice. “It’s just there’s not a lot of room.”
“I know how big the place is, Abby. I did grow up here.” Briefly Laura looked away. She didn’t want to start bickering.
“Noah has the smaller bedroom. . . .”
Which had been her brother Simon’s. It was small, barely big enough for a bed and a bureau. “I’m sure you can double up with Noah for a bit,” Laura returned, and then could not keep from adding, “That’s what I did, you know. With you.”
Abby’s mouth dropped for a fraction, and Laura was almost savagely glad that she’d gotten the better of her daughter in that particular exchange. Except it was all so petty, sniping at each other this way, and just being here at all was exhausting her utterly. She was starting to feel like the idea she’d had back in New York, when her life had fallen apart and she’d actually missed Hartley-by-the-Sea, had yearned for the family she’d turned her back on, was a terrible one, born in a moment of self-pitying desperation. Still, she was here now. And there wasn’t another train until tomorrow. “I’ll go get my suitcase,” she said, and left the kitchen without looking back.
The low murmur of voices and the clink of cheap china cups and tin teapots ceased as soon as Laura walked through the door into the café. Her mother had retreated behind the counter, and was leaning heavily against it, her face still red and shiny. She glanced at Laura, apprehension and hope evident in her face, and Laura managed a small, tight smile.
“All right?” Mary asked, as if she thought one conversation would sort everything.
“I’m just going to get my things,” Laura said, catching the eye of a beady old lady in the corner.
Her step faltered for a second; there was knowledge in that bright, narrowed gaze. The old bat probably remembered Laura from her youth. She’d most likely been coming to the café for the weekly ritual of tea and a too-heavy scone for decades. Mary had never had a light hand with pastry.
Laura looked away and kept walking, grateful when she reached the glass-fronted door, wrenched it open, and stepped outside. The air was fresh and tinged with salt and the view was Hartley-by-the-Sea’s best: the sea glinting bright blue in the distance, the beach a lovely, long golden strip, with children and dogs racing over the damp sand. The red sandstone headland looked a little more crumbly than Laura remembered, but that wasn’t all that surprising considering the coastal path on its cliff top had to be moved inland every year because of erosion.
Above the headland, green meadows dotted with both buttercups and sheep rolled on to an impossibly blue horizon. You couldn’t imagine a lovelier scene, and yet for years Laura had looked out at that beautiful sight and felt as if the sky and sea and cliff were all closing in on her. They had loomed, menacing, no matter how blue the sky or how pastoral the scene. And in any case, most days it was sleeting rain that blew sideways into your face and kept you from seeing anything at all.
Yet right now Laura wanted to forget all the hard memories of living here and simply enjoy the almost startling beauty. The air was so fresh it felt like drinking a glass of water, and the colors were all Technicolor-bright—yellow rapeseed, green grass, blue sky. It was like the drawing of a child who’d gone a little crazy with the crayons.
Laura picked her way down the cracked concrete steps to the tiny, rutted car park. Abby had done some good work with the café, but it still need serious amounts of TLC, or maybe just cash. It had been stupid to wear heels in this place, but she felt better in them. Stronger. Of course, most of her wardrobe would look ridiculous in Hartley-by-the-Sea. Pencil skirts and silk blouses didn’t go down well when you were navigating sheep poo and mud puddles. Sighing, she opened the boot of her rental car and took out her one suitcase. Gucci, not that anyone would notice. Maybe she could sell it on eBay. She’d need the cash eventually; the nest egg she’d nurtured over the last few years wasn’t going to last forever. Maintaining the lifestyle necessary to her profession had been expensive—and it was all gone now, every last bit of it.
The loft apartment in Soho, the designer wardrobe, the high-flying vacations, the jewelry, and the top-of-the-line phone and laptop, all of it, gone. The funny thing was Laura didn’t even feel so much as a flicker of regret. Just a sense of emptiness, an internal spinning, because she had no idea what she was going to do with the rest of her life. She was forty-two, but she felt about eighty, ready for the end. And as far as her colleagues in New York had been concerned, she’d been as washed-up as all that.
Face it, Laura. You’ve had it. It’s over.
A few well-meaning friends had given her some leads, suggested a sideways move into behind-the-scenes PR or marketing. And she’d considered it, because the alternative seemed worse. But in the end she simply hadn’t had the energy to embark on something new. She’d attended one horrendous job interview where a smug and slightly leering twenty-four-year-old had demanded why he should hire her. Laura had stared at him, feeling tired, jaded, and as washed-up as a dirty dishrag. “I have no bloody idea,” she’d said, and walked out. An hour later she’d booked a flight to Manchester.
Now she lugged the suitcase up the steps, wincing as it bumped on each one, scuffing the leather. Yes, that life was certainly over. She just hoped there was a beginning to be had in Hartley-by-the-Sea.
Back in the café the muted chatter halted for only a second before continuing, deliberately, a little bit louder. Mary was still at the counter, chatting with an elderly woman who was wearing a twinset, tweed, and very sensible shoes.
“You remember my daughter,” Mary said, unfounded pride in her voice, as she nodded towards Laura, standing in the doorway with her scuffed suitcase.
The woman turned, clocking Laura with a bright, beady gaze. “Yes,” she said. “Of course. I taught her English in Year Six.” It was Mrs. Hampton, Laura realized with a jolt. She tried to smile, but her face felt stiff. “I always thought you had a lot of promise,” she continued. “Your creativity was marvelous, but your spelling was atrocious.”
“I’ve afraid it hasn’t much improved,” she said lightly, and the old lady cracked a smile.
“Well, it’s good to have you back. I like to see families together.”
Laura managed a smile in return and then stepped aside so Mrs. Hampton could stump through the doorway, aided by a knobbly-looking cane.
“Nothing much changes here,” she remarked to Mary.
“That’s why people like it. You can depend on Hartley-by-the-Sea.”
Laura knew there was no point in remarking that she hadn’t been able to, at all. That was her fault, she knew, for making some spectacularly bad choices. Hopefully coming back here wasn’t another one. When she’d arrived, Mary had looked almost comically shocked, staring at her for a good thirty seconds in silence before Laura had finally said, her tone light and wry, “Hello, Mum.”
Mum. It didn’t sit all that well, after all these years. Never had, really; perhaps Abby had gotten that from her. Not a great track record, the Rhodes women, as mothers, but Mary seemed to be making up for it as a granny, or trying to, anyway.
Now Mary eyed her with a mixture of apprehension and apology that didn’t sit well with Laura, either. “So.” She rested the suitcase in front of the till and subjected her mother to the smile she’d perfected over the years, with only her lips, not the eyes, and touching the tongue to the back of her teeth. It kept her jaw from sagging and her eyes from wrinkling. She’d even practiced making it look sincere. “I assume I’ll bunk in Simon’s old room?”
“Noah’s in there now. . . .”
“He can share with Abby, surely?” Laura let a slight edge creep into her voice, the tiniest reminder of days gone by. Sleepless nights with a teething toddler sharing her single bed and her fourteen-year-old brother slamming through the house, shouting how he couldn’t sleep for “that effing kid.” And then dear old Mum, telling her accusingly that if she hadn’t gotten herself knocked up, they wouldn’t be having the row. Because of course it was always her fault. Always had been.
The surge of bitterness this memory caused felt like swallowing acid, tasting bile. Laura forced it back. There was a reason she didn’t think about those two years in Hartley-by-the-Sea, a teenage mother to a daughter she hadn’t known what to do with. There were a lot of reasons.
“I suppose,” Mary said uncertainly. Her breathing was still coming in unhealthy-sounding huffs. “Did you ask Abby?”
“No,” Laura replied. “I told her.” And then, not wanting to feed the village’s relentless gossip mill any more, she grabbed her suitcase and walked towards the door to the flat.
Abby was banging around in the kitchen, getting out pots and slamming them onto the stove, and Laura bypassed her completely, heading for the stairs at the back. The stairs were particularly claustrophobic, tiny and narrow and steep, the walls with their pea green flocked wallpaper seeming to close in on her. If she ever had a chance, she was going to suggest some new wallpaper or, better yet, fresh paint.
Upstairs Laura shouldered her way into her brother’s old bedroom, now decorated with lurid dinosaur appliqués on bright blue painted walls, and a toddler-sized bed with a duvet that also featured dinosaurs, these ones inexplicably wearing cowboy costumes. Laura stared at the bed in rueful dismay. Dinosaurs with ten-gallon hats aside, she was supposed to sleep on a bed that was a good two feet shorter than she was? Sighing, she hauled her suitcase on top of it, causing the bed to creak alarmingly.
Abby was right. She couldn’t stay here. Not for long, anyway. When she’d decided to come back to Hartley-by-the-Sea, she hadn’t thought through it all that carefully. It had been more of a visceral, gut reaction, a deep instinct that after twenty-three years, she couldn’t run anymore. Couldn’t live life as if it had started in Manchester, aged nineteen.
The trouble was, where else could she go? The hollow feeling in her stomach that had been plaguing her since she’d been fired two weeks ago emptied out a little more at the realization yet again of how few options she had. How few friends. Which is why she’d come back . . . because at least here people knew her. Whether that was a good thing remained to be seen.
With a sigh Laura sank onto the bed, next to her suitcase, a wave of fatigue crashing over and nearly felling her. Starting over in Hartley-by-the-Sea was going to be hard. She had to face her own memories as well as everyone else’s, and right then she didn’t know if she had the energy. Starting over somewhere else held a reluctant, depressing sort of appeal—yet what kind of job could she get now? She was middle-aged with no real qualifications and she was finished in the clubbing world. Too old, too wrinkled, too has-been. Nightclubs, as Tyler Lawton, the brassy new owner, had informed her, didn’t want grannies carding them. Not that she’d actually carded anyone. She had bouncers and bartenders for that sort of thing. She had some class, unlike Tyler, a shiny-faced Harvard grad who reeked of new money and collected nightclubs like baseball cards.
The best job she could hope to get now was likely to be a manager of some tacky diner, a Little Chef in a poky market town, or, back in America, a weathered-looking Denny’s or Applebee’s. She no longer had the contacts for the kind of high-profile jobs she might actually want. The thought of that kind of existence, becoming washed-out and hard up while obsessing over fryers and two-for-one breakfast specials, was too dire to contemplate. She’d rather ossify here. Maybe.
From downstairs Laura heard a door being flung open and then the thundering sound of someone sprinting up the stairs. She barely had time to process the sounds before the door to her bedroom creaked open and a little dark-haired boy stood there, hands planted on his hips, hazel eyes wide with amazement as he looked at her.
Laura looked back, frozen in place. This was her grandson, which made her feel about a thousand years old.
“You’re Mummy’s mummy,” he said. His voice was high and piping, and Laura managed a smile.
“Yes, that’s right.” She could not picture this boy calling her Granny. She couldn’t picture him calling her anything, and yet already she was noting his silky dark hair, so like Abby’s as a child. He had her hazel eyes.
“What are you doing in my bedroom?”
“Well.” She cleared her throat. She’d never been good with children, and had avoided them almost entirely since her own failed attempted at motherhood. She felt no familial tug of love or longing for this little boy; despite the hair and the eyes, he was an utter stranger to her. If that made her abnormal, so be it. “I was hoping you’d let me sleep here for . . . for a while.”
“Sleep here?” His face brightened at this prospect, which surprised her. “You mean, like a proper sleepover? Mummy says I’m too young for those still.”
“Well, sort of like a sleepover,” Laura hedged. “But you’ll sleep in with your mum.” The thought of sharing this tiny bed with his wriggling body and flailing limbs made her inwardly shudder. Still she kept a smile on her face, or hoped she did. She hadn’t scared him off, at any rate.
“Okay.” At least he seemed amenable to her suggestion. But then, to Laura’s horror, Noah squeezed onto the bed next to her, his hot little leg pressed next to hers and wrinkling her skirt. “Do you like dinosaurs?”
“Umm . . .” Laura shook her head helplessly. She’d never been good at this. She couldn’t do the singsong voice, the abnormally wide eyes, the over-the-top trill that other women seemed to take on naturally when talking to small children. “Not really.”
“Oh.” Noah sucked in his bottom lip as he gazed around the tiny room. “Maybe I should get you another duvet, then.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll be fine with this one.” Laura edged away from the sweaty boy; he had sand in his hair and he smelled like sunshine and peanut butter. It turned her stomach, not just the scent but the whole reality of him, a living, breathing reminder of her own failures. He looked happy and well-adjusted, secure in his place in the world, addressing her with unflinching confidence. Abby, she supposed, was a far better mother than she’d ever been. “Thank you, though,” she said politely, and Noah beamed a gap-toothed grin.
“Sure.” He studied her with open, unabashed curiosity; Laura kept her smile in place with effort. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so scrutinized. “Where do you live?”
Here. “I last lived in New York City, in America. Have you heard of America?”
“’Course I have.” The lofty tone made Laura blink. How on earth was she supposed to know about a five-year-old’s intelligence?
“Well, then,” she said, and meant it as a dismissal. Noah just kept looking at her.
“You smell funny.” He took a big sniff, and Laura leaned back even more. He was saying she smelled? “Like . . . a department store.”
Ah, her perfume. Alexander McQueen’s Parfum for Her. Her last bottle. “Thank you,” she said. “I think.”
Her grandson didn’t say anything else, just kept looking at her. Laura was tempted to ask if she passed, but she stayed silent, not sure if he’d take her seriously or get the joke—if she even had been joking. Coming back here had been, in part, to get to know this boy, and yet right then she had no idea how to go about it.
“Noah?” Abby called, and Laura heard the creak of the stairs as Abby came upstairs. Neither she nor Noah moved. “Noah?” Abby called again, and then poked her head in the doorway of the bedroom, surprise widening her eyes to see the two of them pressed together on the little toddler bed. “What are you doing in here, Noah?”
Noah puffed up in indignation. “It’s my bedroom—”
“Not while . . . she’s here,” Abby said, and Laura knew she’d struggled with what to call her. No Granny for Laura, not that she’d expected it. “Come on. You can come help me downstairs.” And pulling on her son’s arm, Abby left Laura alone in the bedroom, with the dinosaurs and their cowboy hats and a faint, lingering smell of peanut butter.
Excerpted from "A Mother Like Mine"
Copyright © 2017 Kate Hewitt.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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