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'Happy birthday, darling.'
On the other end of the phone, Connie Partridge silently counted to three as she awaited her mother's next comment.
It arrived on cue.
'Goodness, I can hardly believe you're thirty-four today.'
Connie rolled her eyes. The edge to her mother's voice – which had made its first appearance on Connie's thirtieth birthday – was now all too familiar. It did not infer "gosh, how time flies", but rather "I can't believe my only child is hurtling towards middle-age, has zero career prospects, is unmarried, technically homeless, and, with not so much as a sniff of a man on the horizon, has absolutely no hope of producing grandchildren".
Mind you, being perfectly honest, Connie couldn't believe her lack of achievement in these areas either. On her last birthday she'd dared to imagine she might be making some headway – in the relationship area at least. She'd imagined that, after five years together, Charles might have considered her notching up another year as the perfect time to Pop the Question. But he hadn't. Instead, four months ago, she'd discovered him popping something – or rather someone – else: Stacey – his ridiculously glamorous co-worker. In the bed he shared with Connie.
After the initial shock of walking in on the pair – including being secretly awestruck at how immaculate Stacey's hair looked after what appeared to have been a particularly sweaty session – Connie had engaged in much shouting, cursing and hurling about of things, before instructing Charles to vacate the premises forthwith. When he'd replied – with some diffidence – that the flat belonged to him, Connie had been forced to concede that he did have a point, and had subsequently made a hasty retreat herself – back to her parents' three-bed semi in Surbiton – where her mother, predictably, had been less than impressed by developments.
'Men don't stray without reason, Constance,' she'd sniffed, with a knowing toss of her auburn bob.
The observation had done little to revive Connie's dwindling self-esteem, which, never buoyant at the best of times, had continued to plummet further over the ensuing months. Aided on its progress by yet more cutting – and sadly accurate – maternal remarks.
'You really need to reconsider your career options, darling. I don't mean to sound harsh, but you have no prospects, aren't exactly earning a fortune, and it's not even as if you enjoy what you do.'
None of which Connie could argue with. Her parent had, once again, hit the nail on its increasingly jaded head. But the tirade hadn't stopped there.
'And it's so solitary. Your job does nothing for your social life, which, let's face it, isn't exactly buzzing.'
Yet again, Connie could not demur. Working from home as a self-employed proofreader was incredibly solitary – zero banter with colleagues, no office politics to chunter about, and, on the rare occasion she found something to titter about in her reading matter – like an extra "t" added to the word "far", there was nobody to titter with.
'You need to get out more, dear. How else are you going to meet another man? After all, you're not getting any younger.'
Her mother's mutterings, combined with her thirty-fourth birthday lurking just around the corner – had not only made Connie feel like the world's biggest failure, but had made her realise she really did need to make some changes to her life. Exactly what changes, she was still pondering, when she'd received an interesting phone call from her best friend, Anna.
'Hugh's been posted to Sydney for six months,' she informed Connie, referring to her banker husband. 'And I've wangled a temporary transfer to the agency's office there.'
'Trust you,' huffed Connie. Anna had what Connie – and indeed most mere mortals – would deem The Perfect Life: a gorgeous husband who worshipped the ground she walked on, a great job as a booker for an international modelling agency, and the most to-die-for house in an idyllic Cotswolds village. As much as Connie loved her, Anna was not the woman to have around when your life resembled a plus-sized, reinforced-gusseted pair of pants. As did hers at the moment. Nevertheless, despite turning pea-green, she'd done her best to whip up some enthusiasm for her friend's exciting news.
'It sounds amazing. A fantastic experience for you both.'
'I know. I can't wait.'
'When are you going?'
'Next week, can you believe? I have a million things to do.'
'I wouldn't mind two million things to do if it meant six months Down Under,' muttered Connie, gazing out at the drizzly May morning. 'Make yourself a long list and crack on with it.'
'Already have. And you're at the top. We were wondering if you'd like to come down and housesit for us while we're away.'
Phone pressed to her ear, Connie's eyeballs had almost sprung from their sockets. 'What? Move down to Little Biddington and stay in your fabulous house for six months?'
'Yes. But only if you want to. The one stipulation being that you look after Eric – the most decrepit, indifferent, pathetic greyhound on the planet. As much as we'd love to take him with us, I'm not sure his dodgy ticker is up to the journey.'
Relief and excitement had whooshed through Connie's veins. 'I'd love to.'
'You don't have to make up your mind right now. You can think about it. Call me back later.'
Connie had shaken her head. 'Anna, I'm in my mid thirties and sleeping in a single bed in a room next to my parents. Believe me, there is nothing to think about. I'm coming.'
And she had. A few days later she'd shoehorned a mountain of bags into her little Punto and trundled down the M40, eventually swapping the fume-filled madness of the motorway for sleepy country lanes filled with fresh air and fringed with May blossom.
By the time she'd reached Little Biddington, where Anna's gorgeous Grade II-listed house, built in golden Cotswold stone, nestled among wisteria, hydrangea and foxgloves, Connie felt like she'd entered a different world. And even now, a couple of weeks on, she still occasionally had to pinch herself to ensure she wasn't dreaming: that this little piece of heaven was indeed hers – for the next few months at least.
'So, are you doing anything special for your birthday?' asked her mother, hauling her back to the present.
Perched on a stool at the island in Anna's exquisite kitchen – where modern dove-grey units were stylishly juxtaposed with traditional beams and exposed stone – Connie cast an eye over the pile of fresh vegetables on the granite worktop – chunky carrots, glistening aubergines, bulbous onions and sun-ripened tomatoes. Next to them sat four ramekins ready to be filled with the creamy chocolate panna cotta she was about to whip up – which would then chill in the fridge for several hours before being topped off with juicy oranges later that evening. At the thought, excitement began bubbling in her stomach. 'Er, no. Nothing special,' she lied.
Well, it had only been a teeny tiny lie, Connie assured herself, putting down the phone after winding up the call. Indeed, some would argue it hadn't even been a lie at all. After all, spending the evening in a kitchen, slaving over a hot stove – or, in Connie's case, a magnificent, shocking-pink Aga – wasn't what most people would categorise as a "special" way to spend one's birthday. The general populace would doubtless prefer to don their Sunday best and be taxied to a culinary establishment with subdued lighting, expertly chosen wine, and a menu designed to rouse the taste buds into such a climactic state that one didn't bat an eyelid at the number of noughts on the bill. Connie, though, had endured quite enough of those birthdays. For the last two years at least, Charles had made a great show of pretending he hadn't forgotten the occasion. And, for reasons she really didn't want to dwell on, she'd played along, pretending not to have heard him in the bathroom on her birthday morning, making hasty calls to expensive restaurants to reserve a last-minute table. And feigning belief when he'd slapped his palm to his forehead and called himself all kinds of names for having left her present in the office. Names Connie was now calling herself for having put up with the two-timing, egotistical, self-centred knob.
But that had been then, and this was now.
This birthday, there was no one to let her down, no one to snip away another fragment of her fragile self-esteem, no one to make her feel she deserved less than the best. This birthday, Connie occupied the driving seat, tentatively hoping she might – at last – be steering her life to a place called Positive; a place where she didn't merely settle for the easy, non-fuss-making option, but where she assumed control, did what she wanted, rather than trying to please everyone else all the time.
And this evening would be her first foray into that brave new world.
It had been something Anna had said the day of her arrival that had sparked the idea ...
'I haven't had time to tell the neighbours you're housesitting so if a hunky policeman knocks on the door demanding to see your credentials, it's all my fault.'
'Don't worry,' Connie had giggled. 'I'll tell him I'm a Russian spy on a secret mission.'
'You can tell him whatever you like. Make up a mysterious, intriguing past. Inject a bit of spice into the village. The place might look idyllic, but honestly, the most exciting thing that ever happens is the book club announcing its next title.'
Connie had snorted with laughter, but, at the same time, Anna's words had struck a chord. She didn't know a soul in the Cotswolds. And for all she wouldn't have minded a complete reinvention of self – preferably something along the lines of Beyonce – she knew she couldn't carry it off. What she could do, though, was maximise this opportunity: shrug off some of her inhibitions; use the change of scene to rebuild her flagging confidence; start taking steps to clamber out of the rut she'd unwittingly slithered into. After all, as her mother insisted on pointing out, she really wasn't getting any younger. In another year she'd be nearer forty than thirty – practically middle-aged. Time was careering by at a worrying rate of knots. Which was precisely why she should stop wasting it doing things she didn't like, and make more of it for things she enjoyed. And, above all else, there was one thing Connie absolutely adored:
So, mind awhirl with ways to pursue her passion, Anna's casual remark had inspired a brainwave: if the village had a book club, why couldn't it have a cookery club? People these days were – judging by the glut of TV programmes – mad for cooking. Surely the bored housewives and yummy mummies of Little Biddington would jump at the chance of something different to fill their time.
Five days into her stay, Connie had tentatively run the idea past Anna, who – in between enthusing about her and Hugh's rental apartment with its view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge – had deemed it an excellent one, and confirmed she would be delighted for Connie to forge ahead with her plan.
More motivated and liberated than she'd felt in years, Connie had begun to map out her venture – compiling lists, jotting down ideas, researching other clubs. She'd spent an age agonising over the name: Connie's Cookery Club sounded too much like a children's picture book. The Little Biddington Cookery Club sounded too exclusive. Several other options had been briefly tossed about then discarded, before the obvious choice had slammed into her head – The Cotswolds Cookery Club.
Delighted with the moniker, she'd plucked up courage, printed out a card with basic details and her mobile number, and trotted along to the village newsagent's.
Cementing Connie's already established opinion that the Cotswolds formed a tiny segment of green and leafy heaven, peppered with stunning properties, grazing cows, quaint churches and tinkling streams, the village newsagent's bore absolutely no resemblance to the establishment serving the same purpose in the overly bright, modern, tiled precinct in Surbiton. This one boasted a bow window, a thatched roof, a plethora of hanging baskets rioting with colourful blooms, and a sixty-something owner – rioting with auburn hair, pink lipstick and an orange-beaded top.
Being from the capital, and therefore acutely aware of Little Biddington's diminutive proportions and, therefore, the likelihood of said owner being acquainted with most of the residents, Connie deemed it only polite to introduce herself.
'Welcome to the village,' the woman gushed, luminous lips stretching into a wide smile as she extended a hand. 'I'm Eleanor and I'm very pleased to meet you. How are you finding it here so far? Bit different from London, eh?'
'Just a bit,' agreed Connie, returning the effusive handshake. 'But I'm loving it. The village is gorgeous.'
'Isn't it? But I hope you don't find it too boring. Nothing exciting ever happens here. More's the pity.' Her gaze slid to a spot in the middle distance while she puffed out such an almighty sigh that Connie wondered the pile of neatly packaged magazines atop the counter didn't float to the floor.
As Eleanor then seemed to drift off into a world of her own, Connie chewed her lip, attempting to assemble an appropriate riposte. She was on the verge of uttering something about having Eric the greyhound to keep her occupied when the shopkeeper promptly rallied.
'Oh, take no notice of me,' she tutted, plastering another dazzling smile onto her face and waving a dismissive hand. 'I'm just a decrepit old widow. I'm sure a youngster like you will find plenty to keep you busy. Now, what can I do for you today?'
As two green eyes – circled with heavy blue liner – pinned her with an enquiring gaze, Connie swallowed hard. Reaching into the pocket of her cardigan and making contact with her neatly written card, every bit of her newfound optimism immediately exited the building, hounded out by a battalion of terrifying questions: what if Eleanor found the cookery club idea completely absurd? What if Cotswold residents would rather die than be seen in an apron whipping up a soufflé? What if word of her preposterous plan spread through the village so that every time she left the house someone pointed or sniggered?
Heart rate gaining worrying pace, it occurred to Connie that perhaps there was much to be said for the anonymity of London. There, she would simply have handed over the ad and – after a cursory scan by the proprietor to ensure she wasn't offering services of a dodgy nature – scuttled off.
Here in Little Biddington, she doubted one could scuttle anywhere without being observed. Perhaps, then, she should just buy a packet of wine gums instead.
'Ooh, I can't wait to read this month's edition,' Eleanor suddenly gushed, producing a pair of scissors from under the counter and snipping away the tape binding the magazines in front of her. 'I love reading all those gorgeous recipes. Not that I ever try any. There's no point when you're on your own, is there?'
Another shuddering sigh and more drifting off followed this observation.
This time, Connie didn't dwell on it. Recognising the magazine as her own favourite monthly reading matter – the Galloping Gourmet – she dived straight into the tailor-made opening. Tugging the card from her pocket, she handed it over. 'Actually, on the subject of cooking, I wondered if you'd mind displaying this.'
Eleanor's increasingly dilated pupils danced over the text. 'A cookery club! Heavens. What a wonderful idea.'
Connie grimaced. 'Do you really think so?'
The shopkeeper nodded effusively, her brassy curls bobbing up and down. 'I most certainly do. They'll be queuing up to join. You can count me in for starters. Oh! Starters! There you go, you see. I'm already gearing up for it.'
As she snorted with laughter, Connie couldn't resist a giggle, relief pulsing through her that she hadn't been laughed out of the shop.
'I was just thinking the other day,' continued Eleanor, beaming at her, 'that it's nearly four years since my husband died, and all I've done since then is tread water. I need to move on; do something to spice up my life a bit. Oh! Spice! There I go again.'
Excerpted from "The Cotswolds Cookery Club"
Copyright © 2017 Alice Ross.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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