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Two Weeks Earlier ...
Anna took a deep, cleansing breath as she knocked. The name on the door read 'Barry Smith, Editor-in-Chief'. The faint trace of Tipp-Ex, where Sheryl had crossed out Smith and written White at last year's Christmas party, still remained.
'Come in,' boomed the voice.
Anna opened the door, gripping the handle tightly as she tried to control her nerves.
Barry looked up briefly from his computer, a sheen of sweat glistening across his bulbous, bald head. 'This had better be good, Compton. I'm trying to make a meal out of the crap you lot give me, and you know what? I've said it before, I'll say it again, I don't know why I put up with it. I could fire the lot of you and start again.' He pinched the top of his nose and rubbed his eyes using his free hand, his spectacles jiggling up and down. 'Come in, Compton. Sit, for God's sake.'
Anna moved forward, closed the door behind her and smoothed her skirt. As she did, she caught sight of the remnants of her son's porridge near her behind. She grew hot under the collar and then realised she must also have got caught downwind of her daughter's milk tsunami. The smell of gone-off cheese started to permeate her nostrils and she tried to remained focused.
'Barry,' Anna started, taking a seat as requested, 'I'm leaving The Post.'
She had been hoping he might show even a vague sense of regret but, instead, he grinned.
Anna cleared her throat. 'Yes, that's right.'
'Going anywhere good?'
Anna clenched and unclenched her fists, kneading her skirt. 'Barry, I just said I'm leaving.'
Barry let out a bark of a laugh. 'What do you want me to do? Cry?'
'No,' Anna started. 'Oh, do you know what, you can stuff your job. I was going to ask for a reference, but frankly ...' As Anna spoke, her head was buzzing with regret (she needed a reference, she had children, she was going to the great unknown). 'I don't need a sodding reference from you. I mean, who'll have heard of the The Post in Trumpsey Blazey?'
Barry chuckled. 'Ah, so you're making a break for the countryside, old gal.' He paused. 'I presume you've got a job, or have you ...?' He grinned. 'No, Anna Compton cannot have found a new man – a millionaire?!'
Anna stood. 'I don't need to take this rubbish from you. I've found a beautiful home, the children are going to a wonderfully rated primary school and I ...' She stammered. 'Will find another job with a reputable country paper.'
'You mean the Hare and Hound Gazette?' He laughed, his belly shaking unpleasantly as he did so. 'I know Tim, the big man behind that little number, and you won't get work with him.'
Anna stuck out her chin. 'Why ever not?' She bristled with anger.
'He only employs men.' Barry looked back at his screen, then said seriously and with no sense of irony, 'He's quite the chauvinist.' Barry returned his gaze to Anna and then to his screen, then back to Anna. Anna grew immediately worried. She could almost see his brain steaming and puffing with the energy of an idea.
'Well, I'll be off,' Anna said, turning on her heel before she got involved in whatever strange idea he was concocting. 'Good luck with the paper.'
As she pulled the door open, Barry spoke again. 'Compton, I've just had an idea.'
She turned slowly.
'You know what this paper needs? It needs fresh air, it needs something different, something fun, something rural, something idyllic.' He stood now, his podgy hands flying through the air. 'It needs to see a woman making the most of Blighty!'
'Barry?' Anna almost didn't dare ask.
'You clearly don't have a job, and you have children to think about, Anna.' He smiled, as though he really was the saviour. 'I'm offering you the chance to write a weekly column for the paper.' He drew his hand across the air in front of him. "Anna's Little Cottage in the Country", that's what we'll call it!' He moved inelegantly from around the desk and shuffled his excess weight towards Anna, who grimaced at the sight of her (ex) boss moving in on her, like a puffer fish. 'What do you say, Compton? Give us the lowdown on what it's like in the Wild West of Wiltshire?'
'Um, that's very, um ...' she started, her mind whirring. 'Well, Barry, the thing is ...'
'You need money? You want to keep your foot in the door as a successful journalist?'
'Successful journalist?' She reeled under the weight of such a compliment; one he had never, ever come close to giving before.
'Well, a. ... you know ... an OK one,' he clarified. Then, wagging his finger in front of her face, 'But you could become a wonder. You could personally help this paper survive with your take on rural life.'
'Really?' She wasn't convinced.
He looked at her intently. 'Yes, it'll be brilliant. Well ...' He paused. 'You need to make it brilliant. Join in, make friends, get a loooovverrr ...' He purred this last word in such a way, Anna had to turn away from the sudden gust of stale coffee emanating from his mouth.
'Barry, the thing is, I want a fresh start.' She was resolute.
'Yes, but the thing is, Compton, you can have a fresh start, but you have to think of your children. You need money.'
She turned towards the door again, took one step out.
'When do you leave?'
'Two weeks,' she said, her back to him.
'Excellent! Give me something juicy in two and a half.' He grinned. 'Actually, I might talk to Diane, see if she can't take some shots.' His mind was whirring and his upper lip glistened as he smacked his lips together. 'People will love to follow your story ... I can see it now. City girl living the dream.'
With that, he started to close the door and she shuffled forward before he could catch her ankles with it.
'Good luck, Compton. Over and out,' he wheezed from the sudden exertion. 'I'll get Sheryl to ping you over the details.'
The door slammed behind her, totally befuddled by what had actually just happened. But then, she realised, he had a point. Anna shrugged. She supposed she did need money, and at least she wouldn't have to see Barry every day. She imagined herself happily typing her column in the pretty cottage garden, the birds tweeting and the twins making daisy chains under the dappled light of the apple tree.
'And so the next chapter begins,' she thought as she made her way to her desk to pack away her notebooks, pens, laptop and snowglobe.
Arriving in Trumpsey Blazey
Anna grinned as she sped towards the countryside, leaving London and her past firmly behind. She felt as if she was, in fact, stepping where no thirty-two- year-old divorcee with two young kids had ever been before (she allowed herself this slight exaggeration). She was unstoppable. She knew she was on the verge of something spectacular. She was totally in control and her heart lifted at the sign: Welcome to Wiltshire. Yes, she had made it. Goodbye Big Smoke, hello Country Glamour Queen, Domestic Goddess and Yummy Mummy Extraordinare.
She beamed as she pressed 'Play' on the stereo system – OK, she admitted, not quite stereo system: more like tape deck – of her 1989 Nissan Micra and started to sing (wail) along to the first track on her homemade mix tape.
'Born to be wiiiiiiilldddd. ...' She looked in the rear-view mirror and her smile quickly faded. 'Freddie, don't put a Smartie up Antonia's nose.' She glanced quickly at the road and turned in her seat, batting the air behind with her free hand in an attempt to stop her five-year-old son sticking a chocolate up his twin sister's nostril. 'Freddie, have you stuck the chocolate up her nose?' She looked at him.
Her son grinned back at her, his angelic face flashing a mischievous grin, and she forced herself to focus once again on the road. Oh bum, she thought, why now? Why today? She needed to pull over and somehow lever a Smartie from her daughter's nose without causing long-term damage. She imagined a repeat of the Blu-Tack-in-ear incident and, remembering the doctor's words, winced.
'Antonia will be OK, but this is not a rerun of ER, Ms Compton. It's best if you leave it to the professionals.'
'Mummy.' She glanced in the mirror at Freddie's chocolate-smeared face. 'Look.' He pointed.
She turned quickly in her seat. 'What are you talking about?'
She flicked her eyes back to the road and let out a scream. 'Oh bugger!'
Slamming on the brakes, the car came to an abrupt halt as she narrowly avoided driving the Nissan Micra up the rear end of the animal. The rider turned and scowled, backing his horse up in an over-the-top dressage-like fashion and moving alongside her now-open window.
'You know, you could kill someone like that, yah?' He looked down at her, his eyes narrowing. 'That was awfully dangerous.'
Anna watched his mouth, trying to make out exactly what he was saying. It appeared he was speaking from the back of his throat and not actually using his lips. 'Pardon?'
He rolled his eyes. 'I mean, you need to be more careful. There's a hunt on, yah?'
'A hunt?' she repeated.
'Yah, you know, horses, dogs, a fox.' He scowled again.
'Oh, a hunt. Right.' While the man in the strange black riding hat and red jacket ranted, she took the opportunity of having come to a standstill to turn and look at Freddie again. 'Freddie, where's the chocolate?'
He smiled and held up his hand to reveal a green palm with rapidly melting chocolate stuck to it. Anna smiled with relief. 'Good boy. Just eat it.'
'What the ...?' She jumped at the touch of something wet and slimy running up and down her forearm and swivelled in her seat, coming face to face with the horse happily nuzzling her steering wheel.
'You've made a friend,' the man on top of the horse said and smiled.
When he smiled, he didn't look quite so officious. She thought how he actually looked like a normal human being and less like a Stubbs painting brought to life.
'The name's Spencerville ...' He paused. 'Horatio.' He held out his gloved hand and she shook it.
'What's so funny?' He raised an eyebrow.
'Nothing.' She laughed. 'Well, it's just funny to hear someone introduce themselves using their surname first.'
Clearly affronted, he hit the flank of his horse with his crop and started to trot. 'Well, there's nothing funny about driving at speed. Just be careful, yah? You could injure someone, yah?' He rode off down the road. Oddly, Anna couldn't see any other riders.
She revved her engine in annoyance. 'How dare he bloody tell me how to drive. Horatio ...' she muttered. 'Who's even called bloody Horatio? Riding around like a Rear Admiral.'
'Mummy,' Antonia's voice came from the back.
'Yes?' she said, taking the turn towards Trumpsey Blazey.
'Why was that man dressed silly?'
'He looked like a plonk-ah,' Freddie said.
'Freddie, I've told you not to use that word.'
'S' OK, Mummy, I don't think you're a plonk-ah.'
'How kind.' She slowed the car as they approached Trumpsey Blazey: their new home. Tears filled her eyes at the sight of the Cotswold stone bridge crossing the infant Thames and the chocolate-box thatched cottages either side. This was all theirs to enjoy.
The news had come out of the blue. Anna had been battling with the children over the merits of eating peas, in the kitchen, when she had received the letter from her dear aunt's solicitor: she was to inherit her Auntie Flo's country home. Auntie Florence was stepsister to her mother, Linda. There had been very few details, but the idea of moving from their tiny, mildew-covered, two-bed flat in London to the fresh country air was beyond exciting. It was her chance to give her children a better way of life. After all, she had failed at marriage with their father, Simon. She was, she hated to admit, lonely too. So very lonely, and when she thought about her aunt and remembered how very active her social life had been, she thought that, yes, she too could have that! This might be the way of making everything better. After all, she thought, in the midst of dreaming up freshly baked pies from her Aga, she had just received the dreaded news that her children would not be afforded the privilege of places at the best state school, but the one ten miles away that was deemed 'dire'. She had phoned Simon (the ex) to explain the situation. She had thought this would be an appropriate time for him to step up, show himself to be the man and father he should always have been.
'Simon, it's Anna.' She had breathed deeply into the receiver. 'The twins haven't been accepted at Royal Oak.'
'What?' he screeched and, for once, she knew they were on the same page. 'They're not going to ...'
'Yes. Sully Oak.'
'Oh, Anna, blimey.'
She knew then, in that shared moment of grief, that they had failed their children. What she wasn't expecting was the next curveball.
'Can't you get more work? Surely, someone needs an article on ...' She could hear his brain whirring, grasping at straws. 'On the micro-climate of Hammersmith.'
'Thanks, Simon.' She held back a sob. 'Thanks for making me feel even more shit.'
'Well, you know, if I had the money ...' He was a cameraman for the Beeb.
Anna was about to argue, knowing full well he'd just sold his house and shacked up with some bird from the PR department, but she held back. She reminded herself that she had what she wanted: her children. Nothing mattered but them and he had threatened, not that long ago, to take her to court for access to his children. Anna wouldn't give him any room for manoeuvre.
She had hung up.
After receiving the news from her aunt's solicitor, she had a good cry in the privacy of the loo (where she often escaped, glass of wine or Bailey's in hand, for a moment's peace).
She had adored her aunt. Flo had been a dear friend as well as surrogate sunt. The immense sadness that threatened to overwhelm her was tinged with a sense of hope. They could escape London and the poor state school. Within minutes, she was online checking out the Ofsted 'Outstanding' merits of Trumpsey Blazey Primary and reading about all the various clubs and village traditions they could be part of. There was even some giant pie-rolling competition. She chuckled at the thought of how much fun it all sounded.
Once Anna had had a quiet cry in the loo, she grabbed the twins' hands and they danced and danced around their poky kitchen until Anna thought maybe she would jinx her luck by showing no remorse for her aunt's passing. And so she solemnly toasted Aunt Flo with a Thomas the Tank Engine beaker. She knew neither Freddie nor Antonia really understood, but they affably joined in.
Anna could see the cottage so clearly in her mind's eye; although, she realised guiltily, she had been so caught up in her own downward spiral of barely scraping by, that she had only exchanged letters with Aunt Flo in the last two years and had last visited the cottage ten years ago, Aunt Flo preferring to come up to London to visit.
She brought her mind back to the here and now as she scanned the small row of houses on the main high street, her heart lifting in anticipation at each house plaque she read. Anna thought she remembered the house standing gleaming and proud at the head of Trumpsey Blazey. Half an hour later, and with no one around to ask, she tried to bring up Google Maps on her phone. It was pointless as she couldn't read maps, but she hoped for some sort of epiphany moment where all those years of orienteering the Bristol Downs at school would come into their own. Public-school education was character-building, her father had claimed when she phoned home asking – no, begging – to go to the local state comprehensive.
'Dad, I hate it.'
'You can't hate it. You've only been there a week.'
'Yeah,' she had moaned, 'but they sent us out into the countryside with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a map and compass.'
'Weren't you just on the Downs? I remember doing the same exercise when I was at the school.'
'Yeah, but we had no food for hours. It's clearly illegal and some form of child abuse.'
'How long were you out there for?'
'Two hours,' she had wailed, thinking she might have broken him this time. 'Then we were allowed back for tea.'
She had been greeted by the sound of a long, dead dialling tone.
Not dissimilar to the one she was hearing now. Not dead – but no signal, to her mind, was as good as dead. 'Bloody hell. What is the bloody point of a mobile if you can't be bloody mobile with it?'
'Mummy, bad word,' Antonia said.
Excerpted from "The Little Cottage in the Country"
Copyright © 2017 Lottie Phillips.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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