Life took on a lazy but comfortable similarity over the next few days; the scratches and the cut healed up and with the end of the antibiotics, came an energy that Rachel didn’t feel she had experienced for some time. Although she did her job on the paper, and did it well, she knew that she had been operating under Sam’s shadow for far too long. After reading the guidance that Jenny had printed out for her, she had sent off a specimen article to Tony; nothing too extreme but with a tantalising taste of what goes on in village life. He liked it. In fact, he liked it so much that he said it was one of the best things she’d written for years. Tony was not one for compliments so his email made her feel very happy. And strangely free.
Mark didn’t ask to read the article before she sent it off. She was pleased that he accepted that this was her work, and that she knew what she was doing. Sam had always made a point of checking her submissions, and although his suggestions were valid and sometimes an improvement on the original, it often made her feel that she had lost possession of her own words. Whilst Rachel was still housebound, Mark had gone down to Lou’s and rescued some board games; they proved an even match for each other at Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, but Rachel had the upper hand at Scrabble. She could never have done anything like this with Sam; he was not a good loser, and either announced that he was bored, or went off into a sulk that could last for hours, or even days. Rachel learned quite quickly that it was easier to lose to him.
Stop comparing Rachel!
Before Mark went back to work, they took the opportunity to go out in his car and visit some of her old haunts. Rather than risk the pink ferry on a cold and windy day, he drove her round to the dress shop belonging to Ben’s friend. Mark stayed outside in the car park however, which made Rachel feel more relaxed about choosing clothes that she liked rather than having to seek approval, or succumb to someone else’s taste. They had a long and leisurely pub lunch afterwards, then sat in the car park watching the boats and the people passing by.
Sam and Sorrel were usually the subjects of their conversations, but no longer in such a sad, or longing way. Rachel admitted to Mark something that she had failed to admit to herself; all through the relationship, she was only an extension of Sam’s life. She wore the clothes that were appropriate to their social status, if they went out for a meal, she felt herself automatically pushing her own plate away shortly after Sam had decided that conversation with other people was more important than eating the food in front of him. When she found herself thinking so negatively about Sam, she initially put the thoughts away as being unfair to him, but after blurting this out to Mark, he confessed that he felt quite free to have uncharitable thoughts about Sorrel now. After all, leaving him was her choice. Rachel longed for a time when she could accept Sam’s desertion with the same alacrity, and not feel that it was a reflection on her any more. For Mark, Rachel was a wonderful source of information about the mother he shared with Lou, that he’d never met and whose very existence was always denied by the grandparents who raised him.
Lou, Mrs Kneller, and Ben to a lesser extent, kept their beady eyes on the friendship that was growing between Rachel and Mark. Lou knew her friend of old, and she could see that Rachel’s personality and confidence were coming back gradually; time was the one thing that she, and Mark needed more than anything. Although he didn’t really want to go back to work, Mark knew he was needed there, and he also appreciated that he had to give Rachel more space now that she was physically and emotionally feeling independent. Mrs Kneller and Lou could be relied upon to keep an eye out for her, and from what Rachel had told him about life with Sam, Mark realised that making her own decisions was her way of resolving all that she felt she had lost.
As it was Sunday and the tea shop was closed, Lou and the girls decided to go on a clothes shopping spree with Rachel now that she was up to driving again. It was time to buy some new, pretty but practical underwear, and although she avoided the kind of lacy, girly nightwear that Mrs Kneller recommended, Rachel managed to find some cotton shorts pyjamas, and a warm dressing gown that would provide decent cover. It took some cajoling from Rachel and the girls, but Lou eventually agreed to accept new outfits all round, including a couple of tops that would add a bit more interest to her tea shop tabards.
Lunch at a local pizza restaurant was on Rachel too, and although she was quite taken aback at how much she missed Mark’s company, spending quality time with the rest of her rediscovered family, made her feel even less like returning to the solitude and silence of the London flat. It was garrulous Sally who pushed the point home however.
“When are you going back to London, Auntie Rachel?”
“I see, trying to get rid of me now that you’ve been fed and clothed.” said Rachel smiling.
Lou put her hand over Rachel’s. “She doesn’t mean that do you, Sally? She means that she wants you to stay and needs to know how long we have with you – as do we all.”
“The first article has gone down well, although Tony wants me to spice it up a bit. Any gossip gratefully received. Mrs K assures me that I am no trouble, and Mark…”
“What about Uncle Mark? I bet he wants you to stay as well. He fancies you something rotten.”
“Shut up Sally!” said Jenny. “You are so embarrassing!”
“It’s okay Jenny.” said Rachel. “Your Uncle Mark has been a very good friend to me, and I have to admit, I am far more comfortable and relaxed in his house than I would be back at my flat in London. Mrs K says I have roses in my cheeks, which is good because that’s a far more attractive look than pyracanthas scratches.”
“Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you Rachel!” said Lou with a familiar twinkle in her eyes. “One of Damaris’ chums came into the shop boasting about how Mummy had paid for a week-long spa holiday so that Damaris could recover from having her heart broken by Mark, and her shop front defaced by a still unidentified vandal.”
“Poor dear. Have we found out who did the art work yet?”
“Well, Miss Sharp has taken up her paintbrushes again; she is doing commissions and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone paid her to do a job on ‘Dee’s Designs’. The best bit about Damaris and her holiday is that she had lip fillers done at the spa, and now looks like a trout. I got that bit of gossip from another friend of hers who had a glimpse of the pouty face when she called round with some sympathy flowers.”
“Oh well, life should be a bit quieter now, those filler injections can take months to subside.”
“Don’t count your chickens Auntie Rachel,” said Jenny. “Her brothers are due home for the holidays soon. They are both stupid and will do anything Mummy or Damaris tell them to do.”
“She’s right. Last time they were home they spent most of the holiday hanging around the Square and insulting the passers-by. I had to shut the tea shop early on a couple of days because I was so fed up with the noise and rudeness. Oh! I’ve just had a text from Mark. He says can we all call at the house before you drop us home, Rachel? He has a surprise, and so far, he has Mrs K’s blessing.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“No, Auntie Rachel, that sounds great! We haven’t had a nice surprise since you decided to come and stay.”
Rachel gave Sarah the hug that she so deserved, and unable to stand the suspense any longer, she paid the bill and hustled them all into her car. The girls played guessing games on the way back; Rachel and Lou were hoping that it wouldn’t be a horse, or a llama, or even an alpaca, although the general consensus was that alpacas were very sweet.
Mark was waiting for them in the doorway; grinning sheepishly about his surprise.
“Okay Bruv!” said Lou, grabbing his arm. “What have you got tucked away in there?”
“Before I let you in, this is subject to Rachel and Mrs Kneller’s approval.”
Mrs K popped her head out of the kitchen window. “It’s a yes from me!”
Rachel felt just a little backed into a corner. “Let’s get it over with but if it’s a tarantula, I’m going straight back to London!”
Mark went back in the house and came back leading a very sweet but rather bouncy young chocolate Labrador. “His name is Pluto; he’s been in training to be a police dog but he hasn’t done too well. He doesn’t like biting people; money and drugs make him sneeze, and he’s far too friendly for his own good. I’ve brought him home for a holiday because the alternative was rehoming at the dog shelter. He is on trial at the moment, but only if you and he take to each other Rachel.”
There was a moment when everyone but Rachel held their breath. One look into those big brown eyes, and for a moment she was reminded of Sam, but then Sam would never have sat sweetly at her feet holding out a paw. She crouched down and took Pluto’s paw, receiving a slightly slobbery lick in response. “I always wanted to have a cat or a dog to keep me company in the flat while Sam was away, but he claimed that he was allergic to pet hair. I never had pets as a child because of boarding school, although Lou and I won a goldfish at the fair when we shared a house.”
“What happened to the goldfish Mum? You never told us about the goldfish!”
“Ah. Yes. The goldfish. Will you tell them Rachel, or shall I?”
“Sorry girls. It expired. Lou was away sailing one weekend with your Dad, and I forgot to feed it. When I remembered, I gave it too much food and it ate itself to death.”
“I think you owe us a pet then Auntie Rachel. We’ll come and take him out for walks if you like, and you can come too now your legs are better.”
Rachel looked over at Mark, who appeared to be holding his breath while he waited for her response. A part of her felt pressured but looking at the girls’ excited expressions, and then down at Pluto’s happy little face, her choice was easy. “Let’s go inside and talk to Mrs Kneller. There will be more vacuuming to do with a dog in the house.”
Rachel and Pluto led the way, followed by the three very happy girls, and Mark who was giving his sister a very big hug.
“You seem to have made quite a few people happy at once. I suppose you were worrying about Rachel being in the house on her own now that you are back at work?”
“Partly that and…”
“And finding yet another reason for Rachel to stay?”
“She seems to be happy, especially now that she can drive, and walk with the stick. She likes her independence.”
“She’s happy because you are giving her the space to be herself again. She’s a lot more like the Rachel I used to live with. Last time I visited her in London she was quite cold and official. Sam seemed to have sucked all the life out of her. Does she talk about him much?”
“Not as much; we talk about Sorrel sometimes. I know I should have talked to you about her after she left but I thought that you had enough on your plate with Pete going.”
Lou punched him in the arm. “You fool! I’m always there to listen but right now, I think you and Rachel can be the best therapy for each other.”
“As friends.” Mark turned his head away so she wouldn’t see the guilty blush.
“As friends of course, and if that friendship develops into something else, we’ll all be happy but NO pressure. You are further on the road to recovery than Rachel is.”
“Funny, that’s almost exactly what she said. I know she needs space and time, but I confess that, as the girls say, I fancy her something rotten! I think that she needs to laugh more, and that’s where you and the girls come in.”
“From the noise I can hear coming from the garden, I think Pluto might be playing a big part in that too.”