Sarah’s learning curve was steeper than she thought. Jason had left her with a list of short cuts and troubleshooting hints, as well as his mobile phone number in case she really got out of her depth, but just packing up the printer into its box and stowing it away in the garage, left her slightly confused about which of the leads went into which sockets. The laptop bag made life a bit easier because it seemed to have pockets for all the things that she needed to make everything work smoothly. She remembered most of the things Jason had told her the day before however, and was busy whizzing through international news before she’d even finished her Shreddies. The phone was curiously silent this morning, but whether Abigail had taken her threats seriously or was just lying low for a couple of hours, Sarah wasn’t sure. She phoned Roseanne just before she left the house and confirmed that there were no viewings planned for the day. Roseanne went up in Sarah’s estimation when she apologised for the incident on Friday. Sarah assured her that she had no problem with the estate agency or Roseanne – just Abigail.
Feeling more than a little light-hearted after this, Sarah picked up her laptop bag, locked the house up very securely and drove off to Jude and Dan’s house. She stopped on the way to pick up treats and surprises for the children, she always did this if she was going to be spending the day there. Fresh coffee and the smell of roast pork assailed her she walked up the drive. Jude’s smiling face at the door followed by the clamouring of the children made her feel doubly welcome. Dan was very impressed with her laptop, and set about installing some other software that he said would be very useful to her. Sarah took him at his word and went off into the kitchen to drink coffee and bring Jude fully up to speed on her situation.
Already fascinated by Oliver Standish, his show, and the very thought of being in the audience of a live TV show, Jude hung on Sarah’s every word and almost jumped for joy when Sarah said she would ask Millie about Jude getting some tickets.
“So,” said Jude as she basted the roast potatoes and put them back in the oven. “Tell me about Millie. What does she look like? I know you met at university but what else can you tell me about her?”
“Hmmm, well she’s quite tall – taller than me anyway – straight dark hair. It was very long when we were at Uni, but she wears it in a very stylish bob now. She always dressed like a hippy chick in the old days. I have a very vivid memory of seeing her off to India – huge rucksack, leather sandals, long flowing cotton kaftan, and more beads than you can throw a stick at.”
Sarah grinned. “Complete change. She was wearing very smart black trousers, a matching jacket and a red blouse. No high heels though – she says they spend so much time chasing people up and down the corridors that she’d inevitably fall and break her neck if she didn’t wear sensible shoes. Her looks have always been striking rather than conventionally pretty, she stood out at parties, but tended to scare some of the boys off because she seemed rather aloof.”
“And was she?” asked Jude, stirring a white sauce before pouring over a tray of cauliflower and broccoli.
“No, just as scared as the rest of us really. She came from quite a sheltered background – her father was a country vicar and her mum was dedicated to parish work. It must have been something of a shock to them when she came home hugely pregnant, and with no husband in tow.”
“What happened to him?”
“Millie was a bit reticent but I get the impression that Tom is Anglo-Indian and that his father was someone quite important, compared to the other guys she hung around with.”
“It sounds as if she led a very exciting life – unlike us.” said Jude.
“Oh, come on. You have Dan and the children, before that you had the job – and it wasn’t always as bad as it is now, was it?”
“No, it’s just that sometimes I think that I should have lived a bit more. You can’t help being envious of people who manage to travel the world, and embrace new ideas and cultures when you’ve never really ventured further than your own back yard. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dan and the kids more than I can ever say, and I wouldn’t want to change things, but there’s a part of me that would like to be doing something more exciting. My inner hippy chick if you like. Didn’t you envy Millie when she went to India?”
Sarah looked puzzled and thought for a moment. “I never really considered it. Mum and Dad wanted me to come home, there was a job waiting for me and I hadn’t formed any special attachments at Uni, apart from Millie and she was going off travelling on her own. I was fairly unexciting and all these years later, nothing much seem to have changed.”
Jude laughed. “What are you like Sarah! You get dumped by your very boring boyfriend, given notice to get out of the house you’ve lived in for the past ten years, meet up with a long-lost friend, and learn how to use a laptop properly, and all in the space of a couple of months!”
“Well, when you put it like that – I suppose life has moved rather quickly recently. Talking of which, next week is Operation Find Somewhere Else to Live. I have four weeks left apparently, although Roseanne told me this morning that four weeks is fairly optimistic, and conjured up by Anxious Abigail in order to get me out quicker.”
“That woman is so obnoxious. Has she nothing better to do than harass you?”
“Apparently not. She has a husband called Kevin, and two immaculately behaved children. I doubt if any of them dare give her any grief. I was quite impressed by what Andy said about her in the letter though. It seems that though he loves his little sis, he thinks she is just as much of a pain in the neck as I do. Which is nice.”
Laughing together, Sarah and Jude went into the dining room where Dan was still tinkering with Sarah’s laptop.
“Come on Dan. Stop playing now and get the girls cleaned up, we need to lay the table. Lunch will be in about ten minutes.”
“Thank you, my darling, I am almost done. This is a really nice laptop, Sarah. What made you choose it? Please don’t say it was the colour?”
Sarah looked shocked.
“As if Dan! I told the salesgirl what I wanted the laptop for, and how inexperienced I was with computers. The fact that it is metallic purple is merely a side issue. She was excellent and Jason, the guy who came over yesterday to deliver it and set it up, he was brilliant too and I can phone him up if anything goes wrong.”
Dan and Jude looked at each other knowingly.
Dan shook his head.
“Andy really made you lead a sheltered life, didn’t he? I checked the paperwork. You are tied into a maintenance deal with the company for the next three years and you’ve paid a pretty penny for it too. I would have come over and sorted things out for nothing.”
“I know you would, but I have to learn to stand on my own two feet now, and if that means paying someone to come and bail me out, so be it. I have enough money for now anyway, and if I can get a job then I’ll be laughing.”
Dan packed the laptop away into the very stylish bag that Sarah had chosen whilst Jude went to get the cutlery.
“Come along girls, I hope you haven’t eaten so much chocolate that you can’t eat this roast that your Mum has made.”
“Don’t be silly Daddy. Is Auntie Sarah staying for lunch too?” asked Emily, the eldest of the three.
“I most certainly am. Do you think I could leave this house when the food smells so good?”
“Goody. You’d better come and wash your hands too then, Auntie Sarah, even grown-ups get dirty hands.”
Sarah meekly followed Emily and her sisters out of the room and into the downstairs bathroom for some rather splashy hand washing and drying.
Lunch tasted as good as it smelled. Pork with crackling, crisp brown roast potatoes and the perfectly baked cauliflower and broccoli in cheese sauce. Dan had been up very early and prepared a fresh fruit salad with a variety of conventional and strange fruits. Emily managed to guess most of them but was thrown by the lychees and dragon fruit. After lunch Jude settled the girls down to watch one of their favourite DVDs whilst Dan and Sarah stacked the dishwasher and cleared away. Jude came back into the kitchen just as Dan was making some coffee.
“Seriously Sarah, what are you going to do about work? Your lump sum won’t last for ever.”
“Oh no Jude! You sounded just like Andy then. I must admit that the idea of going back into mainstream social work doesn’t appeal to me at all.”
“But you are so good at it! You are so calm – even with really horrible people – and you come up with such good ideas for solving issues. I hate to use the phrase but ‘thinking outside the box’ could have been invented for you.”
“Thank you, but seeing Millie again, and the way that she’s using her social work skills – well it opened my eyes up a bit. Millie says that Miles at the last agency I visited deals with all the companies at the Quays, and she said she would put in a good word for me.”
“Where would you live though? Are you sure that you don’t want to come here – until you get on your feet at least?”
Sarah smiled and shook her head. “No. What I really want right now is a nice low maintenance flat – possibly in town. When I was on the train the other day, I saw loads of old mill buildings that have been revamped into flats. I’d be no good with a garden; Andy would only let me sit in ours, and he did all the maintenance on the house. I know my skills are limited, so it makes no sense to take on anything that needs any work doing. Don’t say it, Dan! I know you’d help with anything I needed doing but you work full-time, and you have Jude and the girls as well. I’ve had ten years of relying on Andy for everything, and now I need to stand up for myself!”
Jude clapped her hands and gave Sarah a huge hug.
“I am so proud of the way you are dealing with this. I never expected you to crumble, I know you too well for that but – and don’t hate me for saying this – this might be the making of you.”
“Finally! It’s only taken me ten years to discover that I rather like standing on my own two feet.”
“Have you heard from Andy lately?” asked Dan as he poured out the coffee.
“Postcards every week in writing so tiny that I have to use a magnifying glass to read it. Geographically they are very informative, but I am no wiser as to what he is doing. He did say that he hoped that I was well, that Abigail wasn’t irritating me too much, and that the house sale wasn’t too distressing for me. I have no return address for him so it’s all rather one way really. I keep comparing his situation with Millie’s – at least Andy won’t come home pregnant but he might bring home a Thai bride – or even better – a Ladyboy!”
“Sarah! I had no idea that Andy was – you know – that way inclined!”
“He was never the most dynamic lover – not that I had anyone to compare him with anyway – but who knows what he might get up to. Imagine Abigail’s face! I hope that he does find someone to love whilst he’s over there. He isn’t a bad man – just a very controlling one.”
Jude pulled a face as she set down her mug. “I think you are being very generous to him. I still can’t believe that he worked out his notice and planned his escape without letting you know what he was up to.”
“It wasn’t all his fault Jude. I was never interested in his things, so he could have been planning to steal the crown jewels right under my nose, and I still wouldn’t have noticed. We weren’t suited, and I’m glad that he had the courage to admit it, because I didn’t.”
The end of the DVD spelled the end of adult chat, and Auntie Sarah was cajoled into a walk to the park. Jude opted to stay home and put her feet up for a while. Dan tucked a blanket round her and handed her the remote control.
“Find something non-stimulating. You can doze off then. We’ll keep them out for at least an hour.”
“Thank you darling. Have a lovely time.”
The park was only ten minutes away, and Sarah enjoyed the novelty of handling a pushchair, although Chloe insisted that she was far too big for it now. Dan took the hands of Emily and her younger sister Sadie as they walked down the road.
“Chloe thinks that she is too big for a pushchair but her legs get worn out on the way to the park and then Daddy has to carry her home.” Emily confided.
“Yes,” said Dan “And Chloe is a complete lump when she falls asleep. She still has some way to go before she can manage both ways.”
There was a brief respite once they were inside the play park and Chloe had been installed in a swing.
“So how is Jude, Dan?”
“She looks very pale today.”
“She has good days and bad days. Luckily, I can work from home when things are really bad, and now that Chloe is in nursery, Jude isn’t so run off her feet.”
“Does the medication help at all?”
“Not really and the doctors don’t know what to do. ME is one of those invisible conditions that very few people know what to do about. I suppose the infuriating things about it is that when Jude has a good day, no one would know there was anything wrong with her, but on a bad day she can’t even get out of bed. Her family don’t really help.”
“If I can help, please let me know?”
“You do help, in more ways than you realise. Jude needs things to occupy her. It broke her heart having to give up work. You and Andy splitting up has perked her up immensely – I know that sounds weird….”
“…I understand. She’s always worried about my boring life with Andy!”
“Well, he wasn’t that challenging. Are you going to sign up for any dating sites?”
“Good grief no! No disrespect Dan, but I rather like just being responsible for myself. Oh! Sadie’s fallen over; time to go back?”
Dan ran over to Sadie and picked her up, stifling her tears in a bear hug. The sobs subsided on the way home with the promise of some more of Auntie Sarah’s sweets, and the favourite DVD again.
Jude had managed some sleep but still looked tired, so Sarah took her leave knowing that Jude would go off to bed once she had gone. Driving home, she thought about Jude and Dan and the fact they never seemed to have fallen into the doldrums in the way that she and Andy had. She did feel sad about Andy; not because she wanted him back, but because it took them both so long to realise that they both wanted, and needed more than they were giving.