Breaking Free – Do One, Abigail

The runner came back for Sarah, and led her along the corridors that she had seen previously on the screen at the back of the stage.  There were a few curious looks from some of the staff, but Sarah just smiled at everyone she saw and was gratified when she received some smiles in response.

Millie was waiting in one of the anterooms and patted the seat next to her.

“Well? What did you think?” Millie grinned.

“I have a confession to make,” said Sarah as she sat down. “I have seen the show before. I didn’t want to say because you were in a rush to get back and I thought you might not invite me to stay.”

“So, come on then?”

“My friend Jude taped some episodes for me and we watched them together. One of the women I worked with had a client who was having custody issues with her ex and they had a huge row on the show.  I felt really stupid when they started talking about it in the office. Not Andy’s type of thing at all you see.  So, Jude and I spent an entire afternoon watching episodes back-to-back. We ate popcorn and drank cider so we were a bit silly towards the end.”

“Did you hate it?”

Sarah wrinkled up her nose. “I didn’t actually hate any of the episodes. Some of the people made me angry, others made me cry, and for most of the afternoon I wanted to bitch slap Oliver.”

“That’s a fairly standard reaction. We all feel like that at times. Sssh, here he comes!”

Oliver Standish, his shirt unbuttoned a little more to expose his greying chest hair, strode into the room.

“Aha!” he said, “So this is your friend from student days, Millie. Do I merit an introduction?”

Millie and Sarah got to their feet, and Sarah shook Oliver’s outstretched hand.

“Oliver Standish, meet my oldest friend, Sarah Gibson.  Like me, she has a social work degree, and shedloads of experience.”

“Impressive. What did you think of my show though?”

“I was just about to tell Millie.  I’ve never seen behind the scenes of a televised show before. I was fascinated by the organisation involved in getting people on the stage, finding the right camera angles, sound, and all that running down the corridor after people!”

Oliver looked a little disappointed. Sarah carried on quickly.

“I was very impressed with the way you coaxed information from people, and how you can change from the hard guy into an empath though. It must be very difficult “

This seemed to appease Oliver and sooth his ego.

“I work on gut feelings, you see Sarah.  Did you have any gut feelings about any of my clients this morning?

“Not at first, but I began to have misgivings about whether Tina really was the good-time girl she was making herself to be.  I wasn’t suckered in by the mother who was allegedly being abused by her son either.

Oliver winked at Millie,

“When I read the research papers, I wondered how long it would be before the audience saw her true colours. Hideous woman.  We can help the lad though, and it looks as if Darren and Tina have patched things up too. Beki will be okay too, especially if she dumps that hideous jumper and gets her hair done! I like it when we can get them sorted out. Nice to meet you anyway Sarah – any friend of Millie’s – you know?”

With that, Oliver stalked out of the room again, leaving Millie and Sarah giggling like a pair of silly schoolgirls.

“Right! What are you doing now?” said Millie, grabbing a pad of paper and a pen off the table.

“Back home on the train – if you can call it home.  The house is a shrine to Andy’s beloved parents still, and when he left, nearly everything in every room sprouted envelopes of typed instructions and post it notes. Andy’s horrible sister Abigail is liaising with Roseanne the estate agent. The pair of them are busy selling the house from under me, but I don’t really care.  It was never my house anyway. My new laptop and printer are being delivered tomorrow, so I shall inevitably call on the skills of Jude’s husband Dan to come in and set it up for me.”

“Tom is my IT guy. I’m not sure how I will cope without him. He’s been gone a fortnight, and there’s only me and the cat. I feel quite bereft. God knows how you feel Sarah.”

Sarah smiled and shrugged.

“Numb, confused, relieved, free?  A whole host of emotions.  I am amazed that Andy has done anything as exciting as running away to Thailand. I’m not surprised that he kept it all from me, he’s always been rather secretive, that and the fact I wasn’t really that interested in the things that he was interested in.”

“Have they got anyone for the house yet?”

“Not yet.  I try to keep the place reasonably tidy and go out whenever they have a viewing. Abigail comes in and blitzes the place the place every week anyway.  She doesn’t touch my stuff; I make sure that it’s all stowed away.”

Millie doodled on the pad of paper.

“How much stuff have you got then?”

“Clothes and shoes mostly; books and DVDs, and my new laptop and printer.  All the furniture was Andy’s and I don’t particularly want the bedding and towels. I always hated his taupe towels. It won’t be hard to move out – when I finally go. I can probably fit all my stuff in the car. I don’t know where I want to move to yet. My experience with those agencies this morning has put me off moving up here really.”

“Wouldn’t you miss your friend Jude and her family if you moved?”

“No, Jude and Dan live halfway between here and Andy’s anyway.  They offered me their spare room but it isn’t really spare. They have three children, and their eldest should really have a room of her own. They are wonderful people and going there is like an oasis, but I want to keep it that way.”

Millie handed Sarah a piece of paper, complete with flowery doodles.

“This is my address, home telephone number and email. You’ve got my mobile number on the card. I’m going down to see Tom this weekend but I’ll be back Sunday night. Let me know how you get on with the laptop? Maybe we can meet up for lunch again next week?”

Sarah wrote down her address and mobile number for Millie.

“I don’t use the landline. All I ever get when I check the messages is nagging Abigail. I’d love to meet up. To have found you again after all this time – especially when my whole world has just been turned upside down – it must be fate!”

“I’ll see you out, they are sticklers for security here – not surprisingly.”

She laughed and led Sarah through another series of corridors, stopping to drop off Sarah’s pass and lanyard.  The tall, well-built, but rather attractive security guard told her that she could keep the wristband as a memento.

“Don’t throw that pass away Al, you may well be seeing this lady again.  We’ve been separated for years and I have no intention of losing her again!”

Al smiled and shook Sarah’s hand. He was surprisingly gentle for such a large and well-muscled man.

Outside on the concourse, it was getting dark and the array of lights were twinkling through the trees. After hugging Millie goodbye, Sarah hurried over to the tram stop and was lucky enough to get on one going back to the station straight away. Looking out of the tram windows, Sarah couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to work in such a big city after ten years in a small town where nearly everything was a familiar landmark. The train station was bustling and busy with commuters going home.  Her next train was in ten minutes so Sarah indulged in another cup of the kind of coffee that Andy would sneer at. With that in mind she asked for an extra shot of espresso, and a double chocolate chip cookie.

The train was in when she got to the platform and she was extremely lucky to get a seat. The feeling of contentment that settled over her as she sipped her coffee and nibbled the cookie, was similar to the way she felt when she visited Jude and Dan and yes, similar to the way she felt when she and Millie saw each other again.  It wasn’t a long train journey, and fairly quiet as once again, nearly everyone in the carriage was busy on a device of some kind. The coffee kept her awake however, and the thought that by this time tomorrow she would have her own laptop to play with made her smile. Best of all, there would be no Andy to look on disdainfully when he caught her playing Solitaire instead of writing up her reports and case notes.

Throwing caution to the winds, Sarah decided to take a taxi home instead of waiting for the bus.  Andy’s extremely organised lighting system made the house look occupied anyway, but Sarah was surprised to hear voices in the lounge when she unlocked the front door.

Dumping her bag on the floor and throwing her coat over the newel post in a manner that would have deeply distressed Andy, Sarah walked into the front room to find Abigail and Roseanne deep in discussion.

“Oh, hi.” She said, forcing a note of cheerfulness into her voice.

“Where have you been all day, Sarah? This is most inconsiderate.” snapped Abigail

“Not that it is any of your business what I do Abigail dear, I’ve been on a lovely train ride and met up with an old friend from university. Did I miss something?”

“Roseanne has found us a buyer for the house so I’m giving you four-weeks-notice to leave.” said Abigail smugly. “Don’t you ever check your messages? I left one this morning telling you that we had a viewing. I had to rush over and do some tidying up; you left a dirty bowl in the sink.”

If Andy’s face bore a resemblance to a goat, then Abigail’s was distinctly porcine. Her snubby little nose wrinkled with disgust at the thought of Sarah leaving dirty crockery around when there was a perfectly good dishwasher that her brother had provided for the inconsiderate Sarah.

“Okay.” said Sarah. “Is that it? Only I’ve had a long day and I’m really hungry.”

“Well, there’s hardly anything in the fridge, all that nice food that Andy left for you. I’ve had to recycle it today!”

Sarah grinned.

“That’s okay. I’ll order up a pizza – or a kebab – or maybe even a curry! Not sure what I fancy yet. Was there anything else you two wanted? Only I have it in writing from Andy that this is my house until it is sold, and the keys are handed over to the new owner. With all due respect I don’t particularly want to share my food with either of you.”

Roseanne got to her feet, slightly embarrassed by the situation. She quite liked Sarah, who had made efforts to keep out of the way, whereas Abigail tended to turn up at viewings, singing her brother’s praises, and being very rude about Sarah.

“I must be off anyway. There won’t be any cause to disturb you over the weekend, Sarah but the buyers might want to visit again next week, if that’s alright with you?”

“I keep telling you Roseanne, Sarah doesn’t have a say in it. This house belongs to my brother Andy. It was our childhood home and he has done his best to keep it in good condition.  I dread to think what our mother would say about Sarah having lived here all this time, and not even having the courtesy to marry my brother.”

“Woah! Hold on there, Abigail!” said Sarah angrily. “We never married because he never asked me. Just like we never had children, for which I am extremely grateful under the circumstances. Right, off you go, and I will do my best not to hold any weekend raves and trash the places. Stop gaping Abigail, it makes you look even more gormless. Bye-bye, you two.  You can see yourselves out.”

Abigail got to her stubby little feet and clutched her tasteless taupe coloured bag in front of her. Her face was red with rage and Sarah hoped that she might explode.

She didn’t.

“I’ll just remind you Sarah, that under the terms of Andy’s instructions – which were noted and verified by our solicitor, that you will be held responsible for any damage to the house and grounds until such time as you have left the premises permanently.”

“Abigail.”

“Yes?”

“Do one. No offence Roseanne, but you can do one too.”

Roseanne stifled a giggle and headed for the door with an angrily stomping Abigail in her wake.

Once she was sure that they had left the house, Sarah locked the front door and hunted out the takeaway menus she had hidden in her bookshelf.

Pizza sounded like a very good idea indeed.

Breaking Free – Hello Old Friend

“Sarah! Is it really you?”

“Millie?”

“Still Millie!” 

The face that had once been so familiar hadn’t really changed that much over the past nineteen years. Millie. Sarah’s staunch companion through university who had gone off to find herself long before Andy even thought of the idea. It appeared to Sarah that Millie hadn’t just found herself, she was doing very well for herself too. Her style of dress was a little more conventional than it had been when they were students together, but then so was Sarah’s.

Millie stood at the side of the table beaming, then threw her arms around Sarah in the biggest and happiest hug she had ever received.

“I want to say that you look wonderful Sarah, but I can see that you’ve been crying.”

Millie sat down next to her and Sarah wanted to cry again but not here, in this crowded coffee shop with the three people that Millie had walked in with watching her.

“What are you doing here? Are you here for long? Can we meet up for lunch?”

Millie’s questions spilled out like rapid machine gun fire.  Sarah smiled again.

“I’m visiting for the day, I have loads to tell you that will probably make me cry, so can we have lunch somewhere quiet where people won’t look at me?”

“Of course, I know just the place. I can’t stop now because we’re in the middle of filming a show, and we just had to escape for five minutes to let things calm down. It should be me that is doing the calming down, but I’m breaking in a new runner so I’ve left him to cope. “

She pulled a card out of her pocket and thrust it into Sarah’s hand.

“I’ll meet you here at one o’clock. The restaurant is just round the corner. Here’s my number in case anything happens. It is SO good to see you again.”

Another hug and a warm kiss on the cheek left Sarah feeling as if her world had just been turned upside down, but in a good way. Millie returned to the counter, and with a parting wave, grabbed up her coffee and joined her colleagues rushing across the concourse.

Sarah was in shock.  She turned her attention back to her own latte and a sticky cake that seemed far more appetising now. As her watch confirmed that it was only five past eleven and that left almost two hours of browsing in shops that Andy would hate, and probably buying things that Andy would hate too.

Yes!

Avoiding the camping and mountaineering shop, Sarah spent a pleasant hour in a shop full of the kind of weird and wonderful oddities that fascinated her and infuriated Andy; a miniature sewing kit inside a ladybird, a cactus shaped massage ball that she could keep in her handbag and use on her aching back at the end of the day, a sketchpad and some coloured pencils so that she hoped might reawaken her inner artist. This successful and emotionally- freeing shopping trip gave her the confidence to walk into the computer shop and open her heart to a very young, but extremely knowledgeable girl who took note of Sarah’s needs, showed her various laptops and printers and helped her to choose something that was efficient, smart and not too heavy.  Sarah paid up and arranged delivery for the following day.

Another result!

With a lightness of step, Sarah returned to the coffee shop and waited for Millie to return. She wasn’t expecting her to be on time; thirteen years was hardly enough to give Millie the ability to be on time. Dead on one o’clock however, a smiling Millie appeared and bestowed yet another hug.  Grabbing Sarah’s arm, she steered her around the corner to an Italian restaurant that was so full of red gingham tablecloths and empty Chianti bottles sporting wax dripped candles, that Sarah felt she had stepped back in time. A smiling waiter ushered them to a corner booth at the back of the restaurant, handed them menus and took their drink orders.

“Okay Sarah, what have you been up to?”

Sarah shook her head. “You first.  The last time I saw you, you were toting a rucksack almost as big as you, and heading off to India. I would guarantee that your life has been far more interesting than mine.”

Millie took a deep breath. “Maybe, maybe not. I’ll give you the potted version and we can fill in the gaps at a later date. Trust me Sarah, the woman you see before you is a world away from the girl you waved off at Heathrow.”

“You look a lot better dressed, and you’ve obviously got a good hairdresser.”

“Yes, well Chapter One of the story of Millie; I went to India, fell in love, fell out of love – times that by seven in short succession. After the seventh I fell pregnant, and came home to give birth and shame my poor parents. After Tom was born, I did some top-up training, put Tom in a creche and worked with the poor and needy of Tower Hamlets.  There have been several men that I thought could be potential husband and father material, but none of them turned out to be Mr Right. A friend tipped me off that a TV presenter was looking for a trained social worker to provide support on his show; I went for the job, we argued with each other, and he decided that I was just what he needed to make the show a hit. I don’t appear on set much but when I do I have to look reasonably well-kempt, hence the decent clothes and the good hair. Two years ago, production of the show moved North, so Tom and I moved up here too. My boy has done very well at school and college, so well in fact, that he has just left me and the cat to start training for a medical degree in Cambridge. I miss him. Your turn.”

Sarah shook her head in disbelief. it was hard to imagine Millie as a mother, let alone the mother of a Cambridge undergraduate. She drew in a deep breath.

“After you left on that plane to India I went home to my parents, got a job in children’s social care and led a very boring and mundane life for six years.  Mum died of breast cancer and secondaries in that time. She said that she had been too busy to go to the doctors.  Dad was broken-hearted and went downhill rapidly after she died.  I’m not sure if you remember them, but I was a change of life baby, and they were already retired by the time I graduated. I looked after Dad as best I could but I don’t think I helped him much – all those years of social work training, and I couldn’t put it into practice for the one man who needed it.”

Millie took Sarah’s hand in hers. “Join the club love, social workers are lousy at organising their own lives.”

The waiter brought their drinks over and in accordance with his suggestion they both ordered garlic bread with mozzarella and the special, seafood ravioli in a crab and sweet pepper sauce.

“More?” said Millie, raising her glass of red wine.  Sarah smiled as their glasses met.

“A friend persuaded me to take Dad on a tour of one of the local stately homes. He wasn’t really that interested, but he’d always enjoyed gardening so I thought he’d like the gardens there. They were beautiful.  It was a mistake though. It just reminded him of Mum, and he sat down on a bench and cried like a baby.  One of the gardeners came over; he seemed a nice chap and he helped me get Dad back to the car so I could take him home.  He asked for my phone number. I thought it was because he was interested in Dad so I gave it to him.”

Sarah took a long sip of her wine.

“Dad had a stroke that night and was unable to call for help. By the time I went into him with a cup of tea the next morning the damage was done. He died three weeks later in a hospice. The nice gardener – Andy – called to ask after Dad several times, and even came to see him in the hospice.  Andy was very kind to me, a real gentleman, and he stopped me from falling apart when Dad finally died. I clung to Andy like a drowning woman, and inevitably our friendship grew into something more serious.”

“You got married?” Millie asked.

“No. That was against Andy’s principles.  I found out later that he had a great many principles but at the time he was all that I had. I sold the house and moved in with him. We were together for ten years. He was promoted to head gardener, and I worked my way up to senior practitioner level. I suppose you could say that I led a double life; competent and composed at work, subservient to Andy when at home, although of late I have been rebelling. I met Jude at work, she is my very best friend. She’s given up social work now because she has three children to look after.  Andy and I agreed that we didn’t want children though, and he had a vasectomy because he thought I was too scatty to remember to take the pill.”

“Oh nice! I can’t wait to meet him.”

“You’ll have to go to Thailand. Six weeks ago, he dumped me. Told me he was going to Thailand and selling the house, so I’d have to find somewhere else to live. In for a penny in for a pound, I took voluntary redundancy, and took the train up here today armed with my CVs, in order to find a new job.”

“Oh Sarah! You are well rid of him. It wasn’t Andy you were crying about, were you?”

“No.”

Sarah shook her head and explained about the disastrous agency visits.

“Miles is okay,” said Millie. “We use Miles when we need any extra staff. I’m not surprised that you opened up to him, he has the reputation of being something of a ladies’ man.”

This news cheered Sarah a little.  She hadn’t been looking forward to starting the rounds of agencies all over again.

The garlic bread arrived and Sarah steered the conversation back to Millie’s present job.

“Oliver is the presenter of the show – you’ve undoubtedly heard of him although I don’t suppose you watch it.  He specialises in stripping away facades and getting to the ‘truth’.  Most of the people who come on his show have had a very colourful past; drink, drugs, prostitution, domestic violence, custody issues. The show provides counselling, detox, rehab, and organised access, and that is where I come in. I run the social work side for the psychologist.  I make all the arrangements for after care, and sometimes I get called in to give an opinion or mediate with the really difficult cases. Oz isn’t a social worker or a psychologist, but he is very skilled at getting people to open up and talk about their issues.  He opens Pandora’s box and I have to jam the lid back down again.”

Wiping her garlicky hands on the napkin, Sarah said “You don’t like him much, do you?”

“For the first couple of months I hated him, and hated the show, then I realised that for every ten awful chavs who just wanted the publicity, there was always going to be one that wanted help, and that we could provide it in a way that no one else can. Oz is not the nicest of people, but he is honest about what he does and how he feels. We frequently disagree but that adds to the interest. More wine or some water?”

“Water please. I have to get home on the train yet.”

The waiter brought plates of steaming ravioli in a delicate peach coloured sauce. It was heaven, and there was little conversation until they had both cleaned their plates. Sarah excused herself and went off to the lavatory, a haven of black tiling and white porcelain with her favourite hand driers. When she returned, she found Millie poring over the dessert menu with a big grin on her face.

“Guess what! I just phoned Oz, and he said I could smuggle you into the audience this afternoon – only if you want to and you don’t have any other plans, mind?”

It might have been the wine, or the Marsala-filled zabaglione that finished off their dinner, but Sarah felt light-headed and ridiculously happy as Millie took her arm and led her over to the studios. She had to fill in several security forms in order to get a pass. ‘Access All Areas’ made her feel incredibly important.

Millie introduced her to people as they walked through corridors and small ante-rooms. Sarah smiled back at everyone; they were all very busy but found time to say hello to Millie’s long-lost friend. By the time they got to the studio, people were beginning to filter in; shown to their seats by a number of black clad assistants wearing headsets.  Millie took Sarah to a seat right at the top of the tiered seating.

“You’ll be okay here. Just follow the instructions from the floor manager and stay put whatever happens. And Sarah …”

“Yes?”

“Welcome to my world. It’s a joy to have found you again.”

Breaking Free – Living Alone

As Andy had pointed out, in yet another neatly typewritten note left in the cupboard where he kept his muesli and oats, and her chocolate Shreddies, he was leaving her on a Friday so that she had the weekend to get over it, and put on a brave face when she returned to work on the following Monday.

Two days to get over ten years of unmarried tolerance.

Jude had done her the world of good coming over with food and wine the night Andy flew out of her life.  Emboldened by red wine, the two of them had ignored all of Abigail’s calls, giggling like two schoolgirls, as the voice on the phone grew angrier and more frantic by the minute.

They stayed up late; watching rubbish films and nibbling on pieces of kebab meat. Sarah found other notes from Andy positioned strategically around the house; in the bathroom cabinet a yellow post-it reminded her that she had to make a dentist appointment, another note was sellotaped to the wall of the garage requesting very politely that Sarah did not use his mountain bike.  The bike was firmly chained to the garage wall in three places, and whilst Sarah contemplated buying a bolt cutter and giving the freed mountain bike to the first homeless person she saw, she decided that she would probably buy the wrong bolt cutters and have to leave the mangled mess for Andy to crow over when he returned.

The she remembered.

He wasn’t returning.

At least, not to this house.  This house was for sale and, if Roseanne the estate agent was to be believed, there were dozens of couples dying to buy it. Roseanne and Abigail had turned up at the house on the Sunday morning. Sarah let them in and half-heartedly apologised for not answering the phone. The she delivered some more apologies for the fact that the house was already a tip after only one and a half days of being Andy-free. Abigail brought out a frilled apron and a pair of Marigolds from her capacious handbag.  Sarah felt nauseous but watched sullenly from the sofa, whilst Abigail moved around the house like a miniature whirlwind; tidying up, wiping down, and separating the rubbish from the recycling. Roseanne wandered around the house too, identifying the fixtures and fittings that were to be sold with the house. Sarah felt strange; the numbness she had felt when Andy left, returned like protective armour against Abigail’s shrill complaints, and Roseanne’s endless advice about moving on and moving out sooner rather than later.

On the Monday morning Sarah phoned in sick.

She wasn’t lying, she was sick.  Sick and tired of finding Andy’s notes, and listening to the endless litany of Abigail’s phone messages. She and Jude had talked long into the night about what the future could hold for Sarah, and came to the conclusion that now was the time to make some drastic changes. Although she had worked her way through the ranks of social care to a reasonably senior position, Sarah had become disenchanted with the work several years ago.  She refused to apply for further promotions, and was known to be obstinate and bloody-minded, especially when her department started employing trouble-shooters with no social care experience to run the department and cut down on expenditure.

There had been mutterings in the office about voluntary redundancies but most of the staff, like Sarah, were afraid of change and decided to stay put in the safety zone.

“Except I’m not afraid of change now!”

Sarah said to herself as she jumbled up the cutlery in the drawer, and left an empty glass tumbler unwashed on the draining board.

“Change has been foisted on me and I’m going to do something about it.”

Jude was always there for her, if not in person, at least at the other end of a phone, but she had three children and a kind husband whilst Sarah had – well nothing much really. After having a long phone conversation with her manager, Sarah applied for, and was granted voluntary redundancy. She had to work a month’s notice but would get a reasonable lump sum that would tide her over until she knew what she wanted to do.

She didn’t want to carry on living in Andy’s house. He had put notes and post its in the most ridiculous places, and after six weeks she was still finding them, and what had seemed like a concerned fondness for so many years, was now seen as the act of a control freak. Jude had offered Sarah the use of their spare room, but it wasn’t really spare because it would mean moving their eldest child back in with her sisters. She had thanked Jude profusely, but explained that she felt the need to live in a completely new space. She just didn’t know where that space would be.

Three days after leaving her office for the last time, Sarah decided to go on a train ride. She and Andy had been on trains before, but they were always unusual, and had been restored by men in navy boiler suits, who enjoyed the way Andy bombarded them with technical questions whilst Sarah looked on, reading old station posters until she knew them off by heart.

This was an intercity train ride, taking her away from her provincial town and into the heart of things. After leafing through a couple of social work magazines, she’d drawn up a list of agencies in the city that she liked the look of, and with a sheaf of CVs in her bag, she was armed and ready to see what a change of environment could do for her. She had taken her good suit to the dry cleaners and ironed a clean blouse – Andy had left a post-it on the iron which she screwed up and threw away, then retrieved and straightened it out because she couldn’t remember how to use the iron. With hair freshly washed, and a reasonable amount of make-up applied, Sarah had looked in the hall mirror before she left the house and decided that she looked very employable.

She had always been on the thin side and Andy’s healthy diet had kept her that way – despite the chocolate Shreddies.  People were supposed to lose weight when they split up; she was sure that she had read it somewhere in one of the glossy magazines she now felt able to buy without Andy snorting with derision.  Drinking wine and eating unhealthy food had caused Sarah to put on a little weight, but she could still get into her clothes, and Jude’s husband Dan said she looked better for it.

The thought of going into an agency and trying to sell herself seemed a little daunting but then she turned the situation on its head, and reminded herself that she had been going into strange houses and telling people how to live their lives for so many years now, that her nerves abated within seconds and the calm, controlled Sarah took over.

Watching the houses and fields go by, Sarah wondered idly what Andy was up to now. He sent her a postcard each week; his tiny writing full of descriptions of the places he had been and the people he had met.

They were SO boring.

She had to face up to it. Andy was boring too. He hadn’t made her feel happy or excited, or even interested for years. They had just plodded on; two people sharing the same airspace but with no interests in common, and no desire to encourage an interest either. Nevertheless, she had pinned each one, picture side up, on the kitchen noticeboard as a record of his travels. It appeared that he still hadn’t found himself though.

Looking around the fairly crowded carriage, Sarah noticed that nearly everyone was plugged into a computer device of some kind; large unwieldy laptops that took up all the room on the few tables in the carriage, smaller brightly coloured tablets and Kindles. She felt something of an oddity, and was reluctant to bring a dog-eared and much-loved paperback out of her bag. Despite his desire for efficiency, Andy despised modern technology and would just about tolerate her bringing her work laptop and mobile home. When she gave up her job and lost both useful items, Jude and Dan took her shopping for a new mobile phone that seemed to possess more apps than she knew what to do with, but had the advantage that neither Abigail nor Roseanne knew the number. When Sarah’s phone rang now, she knew that it was either a friendly call or someone wanting to sell her a new kitchen or boiler system. Whenever that happened, she told them that she was only renting, and passed on Abigail’s phone number, a smile of secret glee on her face when she thought of how much this would irritate Andy’s unlovely sister.

Looking around at her travelling companions, Sarah resolved to buy a new laptop if she did nothing else today.  She would go into one of those big stores, throw herself at the mercy of some squeaky-voiced youth that knew all there was to know about technology, and get herself kitted out with an all-singing, all-dancing, lightweight something or other in an unusual but functional bag. The thought of polluting the non-technological atmosphere of Andy’s house with such an item made her feel very happy, and it was with a lightness of step that she got off the train in the vast, glassy dome that was the station.

Dan and Jude had very kindly set up the sat nav on her phone and loaded in the addresses of the three agencies that seemed most likely to want to utilise her skills and talents. The first two were in easy reach of the station, but she would need to get a tram out to the third and had resolved to treat herself to lunch at the Quays, and a little retail therapy afterwards.

It was a long time since she’d had to attend any kind of a formal interview so Jude had given her some tips; don’t tell them that you are about to become homeless, don’t tell them that your partner of ten years has just left you and run off to Thailand, and most of all, don’t tell them that you took voluntary redundancy because you had become so bored and frustrated by your job that you had to force yourself to go in every day. Instead, she was to tell them that she was relocating to the city because she was looking for a new challenge, that she was flexible with regard to location and client group, and was available for work within a week. Jude also went through Sarah’s CV and updated it removing most of the information that had appeared so vital when she’d put it together ten years ago. Condensed down to two pages, even Sarah thought it looked impressive as Dan printed off several copies for her to take away.

A printer! She’d have to buy a printer too, but that would be too heavy to lug around with her today. Sarah shook her head. She was thinking of the large unwieldy printer stations dotted around the offices at work. They must make smaller ones than that surely?

She walked purposefully to the first agency, experiencing only the smallest hint of nervousness as she entered, and introduced herself to a bored-looking receptionist who took her CV and ushered her over to a row of chairs that had seen better days. There were two other people sitting on the chairs and Sarah felt perplexed as she took covert glances at them.

The male had huge holes in his ears and nostrils, made by the large ear and nose rings inserted there.  She could also see a line of stud piercings over one eyebrow. He had bothered to put on a shirt and tie, but the black tie looked out of place against his multi-coloured Hawaiian shirt, torn jeans and tattered red Converse boots. He wore no socks and looked about sixteen.

The female was no better. From the feet up she wore huge studded platform boots, fishnet tights that had seen better days, a tiny black net skirt and a yellow vest that showed her multitude of tattoos off to great advantage. Her hair was a back-combed nest of unfeasible green, and her tiny face sported even more piercings than her male companion. She might have been pretty once.

The receptionist beckoned Sarah over and led her down a dark corridor.  She knocked on the door before opening it and announcing, “Sarah Gibson to see you. Her CV is on the top of the pile.”

It was a very short interview.

The owner of the agency was very impressed by Sarah’s CV and would need to make some enquiries, but she was sure that she could find something suitable within the next month or so. In the meantime, had Sarah thought of doing domestic cleaning, caring or shop work? No, Sarah hadn’t and she didn’t want to, either. They parted with a handshake that convinced neither of them that a working partnership had been formed.

The second agency was even worse.

It appeared to be a meeting place for the disenfranchised youth of the area; the primary attraction being a free hot drinks machine, a large flat screen television, and armchairs. Sarah didn’t wait to be seen, she just dropped off her CV and got out of the door as quickly as she could.

Dispirited, Sarah decided to find the tram stop and start her retail therapy early.

The movement of the tram soothed her to some extent, and its low speed meant that she could take in the beautiful architecture of the city, and work out where the decent shops were. She liked the Quays though. It was one of the few places that Andy had taken her to that she actually appreciated.  Well, she didn’t really appreciate the War Museum, but she had been given the opportunity to go off and browse in the nearby outlet centre, provided that she didn’t buy anything for the house. She didn’t buy anything at all. She just looked and enjoyed.

The third agency was in the middle of the Quays, and a sudden change of mind inspired Sarah to get it over and done with so that she could enjoy the rest of the day. Walking in through the plate glass doors, she was glad that she hadn’t come here laden with shopping bags and tired from her exertions. The only other person waiting to be seen was wearing similar clothes to Sarah. No piercings, tattoos or strange coloured hair, she too was clutching her bag a little nervously and shot a tentative smile at Sarah when she sat down. Sarah smiled back.

The interview this time was more complex. The male interviewer went through Sarah’s CV with a fine toothcomb, and before long she found herself admitting to all the things Jude had told her not to say, and even, worst of all, getting slightly tearful when she talked about the break-up of her relationship. She was handed a box of scented tissues and tried to dab daintily although she desperately wanted to give her nose a good blow. Her CV was accepted however, and her hand was shaken very firmly on leaving. The interviewer and owner of the agency, now known as Miles, pointed her in the direction of a nice coffee shop. Sarah felt slightly more optimistic than she had at the previous two agencies and decided to treat herself to a large latte and a sticky cake to go with it. She had just sat down on a seat near the large glass windows when she heard a familiar but long-lost voice calling her name from the door.

Breaking Free – A Sign of the Times

The ‘For Sale’ sign outside her house came as a bit of a shock. She didn’t remember putting it up for sale and she didn’t recall her partner Andy saying anything about it. Sarah parked her car outside the house, grabbed her bag and files, locked up and went to inspect the sign again. It looked new.  Had the estate agent made a mistake and hammered it into the garden of the wrong house? She looked at the houses either side of hers and shook her head. Surely one of them would have said something; they were on good terms with all their neighbours and putting your house up for sale was the sort of thing you let other people know about.

Wasn’t it?

Still puzzled, Sarah let herself in and put the files on the hall table, bag on the floor and keys in the designated bowl. Andy bought the bowl for her; partly out of affection and partly exasperation as they were late for yet another of his trainspotter meetings because she couldn’t find her keys. It was a very pretty bowl. White pottery with a pattern of delicate poppies and cornflowers. It was feminine in a way that, try as she could, Sarah could never achieve. She didn’t do little dresses with frills, spend hours over her hair and makeup, nor squeeze her feet into fashionably high and uncomfortable shoes.  She was aware of the fact that she would never be Andy’s ideal woman, but then for the last ten years, he had been anything other than her ideal man.

“Andy? Hello?” She shrugged off her coat and hung it on the neat but characterless coat stand.

“Up here.” Came the reply. His voice sounded odd, and she wondered what she had done this time. Taking extra care to put her boots neatly on the shoe rack, Sarah walked slowly up the stripped pine stairs. He wasn’t in their bedroom. She turned around and went into the guest bedroom, not that they ever had any guests. Andy stood behind the bed, which was covered with clothes, toiletries, and a very large rucksack that still bore the label of the outdoor pursuits shop Andy loved to frequent. He looked up and gave a slightly guilty smile that made him look even more goat-like than he normally did.

She frowned.

“Some idiot’s gone and put a For Sale sign up in our front garden. I was just going to ring the estate agents and ask them to remove it. What’s all this Andy? Are we going somewhere?”

“Erm, WE aren’t. I am. The sign isn’t a mistake. I’m putting the house up for sale.”

“Our house? Why?”

“My house. My mother’s house originally. I’m going away.”

“But – but – we’ve lived here for ten years. Where are you going?”

Sarah sat down on the very edge of the already crowded bed.  She didn’t like the house. She had never tried to remove the remnants of Andy’s childhood, and his mother’s desire for a neat, orderly and feminine environment.  Any attempts on her part had been gently but firmly rebuffed, so she gave up eventually.

“We aren’t going anywhere Sarah. I’m leaving tonight and I’ve put the house sale in the hands of my solicitors. You can stay here until the house is sold of course, but the estate agent thinks that she can get a fairly quick sale.”

Brain whirring as she tried to process Andy’s words, Sarah sat immobile on the bed. Andy continued packing things into the rucksack.  He was an excellent packer; she would say that for him. He folded clothes very precisely, and knew exactly which of the Velcro pockets of the rucksack would be best for the object in his hand.

“Where are you going Andy? Shouldn’t we have talked about this?”

Patiently, he put down the pair of immaculately ironed shorts that he was rolling into a sausage that would prevent any travel creases.

“I’m going to Thailand. I’ve worked my notice already, and my plane leaves at twenty-hundred hours. I have booked a taxi to take me to the airport. I don’t want any scenes; you know how embarrassing I find them.”

“Why Thailand? Why now? Are you going alone? Why are you selling the house? Why didn’t you tell me this a month ago when you handed in your notice?”

“So many questions Sarah. I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand, and whenever I raised the subject, you made some silly comments about ladyboys and kidnapping. Some idea you got from one of those trashy novels you read, I suppose.”

“But – but – but what am I going to do? I won’t have a home anymore, what will our friends think?”

“MY friends already know, and think that I am making the right decision. We’ve gone stale Sarah.  We were never that compatible in the first place, but your untidiness and slapdash ways have been driving me to distraction for years. It was charming at first, but now it’s just self-indulgent. My sister will be coming over to pack away my belongings and put them into storage while I’m away, so I’d be grateful if you could start looking for somewhere else to live so that she has less to go through.”

Sarah hated Andy’s sister Abigail with a passion.  The thought of her rummaging through the house, their house, made her feel incredibly angry.

“Don’t I have any say in this at all?”

She shouted at him, her hands clenched into tight fists that desperately wanted to punch him in the face, to grab hold of that silly ginger goatee beard and tug it till his eyes watered.

“Ah yes. Time for the hysterics. This is why I didn’t tell you before. You really are rather predictable.”

“I hate you, Andy!” she said vehemently.

“Good. That makes it a lot easier for me.”

He picked up a neatly typed list and handed it to her.

“This is an inventory of the contents of the house. Those typed in black belong to me, those in red are yours, or things that we bought together that I don’t wish to keep. Abigail, my solicitor and the estate agent all have copies of this letter too.  Would you mind moving off the bed now please? I have to finish my packing.”

Sarah stood up and walked slowly to the door.  She felt numb, unreal. Her instinct was to go into their bedroom, throw herself on the bed and cry extremely loudly. This would have no effect on Andy whatsoever. Passion of any sort was alien to him.

She went into the bedroom nevertheless and got under the duvet. She rolled over to Andy’s side of the bed and sniffed his pillow hoping that the remaining scent of his hair might break through the wall that was building up around her.

Nothing.

He’d changed the bedding.

Sarah wanted to scream, and shout, and rave. How dare he! How dare he plot and scheme behind her back in this way? She’d seen no change in his manner over the past month, had she? She rewound her memories and found no major arguments.

Nothing.

She found no major moments of happiness either.

Andy would wake her with a cup of coffee, then he would shower and shave round the edges of his beard, eat his horribly healthy breakfast, and be out of the door before she had even made up her mind as to whether she would shower or have a bath. The choice was usually dictated by how long she had lingered over her coffee and the news. They had been embroiled in a cold war over the television in their bedroom almost from the start of their relationship. It was Sarah’s television, and she needed its cheery morning information to wake her up.  Andy had no time for lingering, and lost no opportunity to express his disdain. 

The more she thought about it, the more Sarah had to admit that Andy was right. They were going through the motions of a relationship but there was no laughter left, no fun. Just a distant, healthy, athletic landscape gardener and an untidy, disorganised social worker who found her partner’s style of living both reassuring, and stifling.

It was warm and comforting under the duvet and, as had always been her habit, Sarah fell into a deep sleep that wiped away all that had happened since she had arrived home. It was such a deep sleep that she barely registered the affectionate peck on the cheek and the gentle ‘Goodbye’ as the bedroom door clicked shut.

When she woke, the house was quiet, too quiet.  She reached for the remote and turned on the television in time to catch the end of the ten o’clock news.  It wasn’t until she’d finished watching the weather that she remembered Andy.

“Andy?”

She called, half hoping that he would reply but knowing that he had gone. She rolled out of bed and wondered for a moment why she had been in bed fully clothed in her going-to-meetings suit and vaguely pretty blouse that she had allowed Andy to buy her.

“Andy?”

She called again and pushed open the guest bedroom door. The bed was bare now, save for another copy of Andy’s inventory list. She pushed it onto the floor in disgust and decided that she was hungry. Making as much noise as her be-socked feet would let her, Sarah stomped down the stairs in a manner guaranteed to annoy Andy, if he was there.

But there was no response.

The curtains in the lounge were drawn and the sidelights on, the kitchen was similarly put into evening mode by Andy before he left.

Thoughtful to the last.

Thoughtful!

How could it be thoughtful to abandon your partner of ten years and sell the house from under her? Sarah pouted as she opened the fridge door looking for immediate food. The shelf containing Andy’s macrobiotic foodstuff, and bottles of water was empty. Her shelf was always more interesting anyway. It certainly was now; Andy had stocked it with the items that he usually found disgusting. Sarah extracted a can of Diet Coke, some sliced cheese and bread.

She made her sandwich and left the knife and chopping board on the worktop. She didn’t even bother with a plate, as ten years of Andy’s rules flew out of the window. It felt good to be curled up on the sofa, balancing her sandwich and can on the leather arm, whilst flicking through the TV channels for something other than wildlife and gardening.

The phone rang and without thinking, Sarah jumped to her feet knocking over the can and spreading breadcrumbs onto the floor.

She looked at the phone.

Abigail.

No thanks.

Leaving the answerphone to deal with her much-loathed sister-in-law, Sarah dug her mobile out of her bag and went back into the lounge, stepping over the sticky mess on the floor. She could hear Abigail’s annoyingly sweet voice being patronising over the phone as she left a message guaranteed to patronise and infuriate Sarah.

When in doubt, phone a friend.

“Jude?”

Sarah could feel her voice cracking already.

“Hello Honey. No need to explain. I got home from work today to find a type-written note from your ex-beloved explaining why he was running away to Thailand without you and selling the house. Little rat!”

“Why didn’t you call me Jude?”

“Your phone was off.”

“He must have done it before he left. Pig!”

“He’s gone then?”

“Yes indeed!”  Sarah tried to inject as much enthusiasm into her response as possible.

“And I bet you are drinking Diet Coke and eating a sandwich in the lounge without a plate or coaster in sight.”

“Right again. I’m not sure what to do now though. I spilt my drink on the floor and there are crumbs everywhere.”

“I’m on my way. Are you still hungry?”

“Yes, this cheese sandwich is disgusting.”

“Good, what we need is red wine and kebabs.”

“Won’t Dan mind?”

“No, my darling husband sends his love and hugs, and asks that you send me home in one piece tomorrow. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Stepping Back – That Nightshirt and Those Pigtails

Mark tried to open the front door as quietly as possible but Pluto was already on the other side of it, tail wagging furiously.  Rachel wasn’t far behind, and Mark couldn’t help smiling at the sight of her.  Pigtails, old navy cotton nightshirt, and spectacles perched on the end of her nose. 

His Rachel.

He tugged one of her pigtails and pulled her close. “I’ll take Pluto out for a wee now, and then you can get into bed.”

“No way!  I took him out about an hour ago so he can hang on while you tell me what’s happened.”

Rachel pulled Mark into the living room and sat herself down on the sofa while he kicked off his shoes and wriggled his toes.  Not content with having Rachel sat next to him, he pulled her onto his lap and buried his nose into the softness of her neck. “Okay.  The guy, whose name is Jason by the way, had arranged to meet up with Pete with money for the heroin, but Pete didn’t show because he had been beaten up by the smugglers when he couldn’t pay them.  He’d managed to hide the drugs, which is why we found them when he turned up here after being on the run.  Although we have the Portuguese end of the smuggling ring under lock and key, Jason is our link to the people buying and distributing the drugs.  They are not going to be happy about having lost their money as well as the drugs. Jason is absolutely terrified and singing like a bird in exchange for protection.  He’s in a bad state and needs some legal medication to keep him alive. We will provide it, but the tentacles of these organisations spread throughout the penal system, as well as quiet country villages like this one.  We can keep him safe until he testifies but once the court case is over, we can’t guarantee anything.”

“Will you have to go back to work now?” asked Rachel, a little sadly.

“No.” said Mark, pulling her even closer.  “This is a really big case that is already being dealt with by the Met.  They are grateful to us for giving them another piece of the jigsaw but this is their area of speciality, and I for one, am very happy to hand it over.  This won’t be the last time though Rachel.  The job I do isn’t very safe; apparently, with my colouring, I have the knack of blending in rather than looking too obviously like a copper.  It also means that you might have to put up with long hair, designer stubble, a beard, a moustache or even both.  Can you deal with that?”

“I may need to wear my spectacles more often, and buy some new flowing scarves.  Can you cope with me when I have a deadline to meet, and I need to shut myself away?”

“If you can cope, then so will I.  Perhaps you could wear that green scarf that I saw in the wardrobe?”

“Just the green scarf?”

“Rachel, you are most definitely not the shy girl my little sister took under her wing at Uni.  What’s else has been going on in our part of our world?”

“Mrs K and I had a drink after you left; we have put the world to rights one way or another.  She approves of pale peach for our bedroom and will be scrubbing the walls and wardrobes with sugar soap while we are out shopping in the morning.  I had to Google sugar soap so that I’d know what she was talking about.  I have also spent some time looking at the merits of gloss and emulsion, masking tape and whether brushes are better than rollers and paint pads.  It’s complicated.”

“What else did the two of you talk about?”

“The funeral, bright clothes for the girls…”

“And babies.  Don’t tell me that you avoided talking about babies?”

Rachel shook her head. “I tried, but you know what she’s like when she puts her mind to things.”

“And her opinion is?”

“Leave it to fate. If we are meant to have children, then we will, and if we aren’t, we’ll still have Lou and the girls. Oh, and she said you should stick to wearing boxer shorts and avoid tight jeans.  Much better for male fertility apparently.  I Googled that as well, and she may have a point.”

“Time to put Pluto and the laptop to bed.  It sounds as if we might be a bit busy in the morning.  Mrs K is a very light sleeper though, and always knows when I come in late, so with any luck she won’t be tapping at the bedroom door with a pail and some sugar soap.”

“I’ll go and get my dressing gown; better to be prepared. Mrs K doesn’t think that this nightshirt is particularly attractive.”

“That nightshirt and those pigtails are making me feeling wide awake again.”

“Good.”

Rachel ran down the corridor to collect the dressing gown that she had left on the bed that morning. Mrs K had hung it up on the back of the door of course, as well as vacuuming the space where the dressing table used to stand. Mark had settled Pluto down and was waiting for her in the corridor. He smiled and picked her up in his arms; a move reminiscent of the early days of their relationship when he had to carry her to the bathroom and back, every day. This time was different; this time she held on very tightly and kissed him as he pushed open the door with his foot, and then shut it very firmly behind them.

“Talking about babies…” he said, as he laid Rachel very gently down on the bed.

Stepping Back – Wedding Dresses, Walls or Wardrobes

The journey home in the dark from Lou’s house was completely different from Rachel’s first walk with Mark. Pluto took the opportunity to sniff and anoint every tree, bush and lamp post, giving Rachel the opportunity to broach the subject of contraception and babies.  He listened intently, as she knew he would, and when she finally ran out of words, he stopped walking, told Pluto to sit and took her in his arms. “Lou is right; I never wanted children with Sorrel, she was too self-centred and used to get impatient with pregnant friends or those who already had children.  Then I met my nieces, and I don’t need to tell you how much I love them.  You don’t know if you can have children, although I dispute the comment about you being too old.  Life is a lottery and we seem to have won first prize so far; if you get pregnant and all goes well, then that is just another benefit of being together.  If it doesn’t work out, we have each other, Lou and the girls, not to mention the other side of things.”

Rachel looked at him quizzically. “The other side of what?”

“Doh!  Do I really have to explain what happens when two people want to make babies?”

“Oh yes, of course. We do seem to be getting rather good at that side of things.”  Rachel felt thankful that her blushes couldn’t be seen under the streetlight, but even more relieved that yet another concern had been laid to rest.

Just as they were approaching the house, Pluto began to snarl, and then bark in his most ominous stranger-danger manner.  A male emerged from the bushes and held his hands up.  Rachel recognised him immediately; the skinny young man she had seen talking to the Portuguese travellers on the beach months ago.  Even in the darkness, his soiled and bedraggled appearance was obvious,

“Who are you and what do you want?” said Mark.  “Before you say anything, I should warn you that I am a member of the police force, and that this is a police dog.”

The man stood very still and Rachel pulled her rape alarm out of her handbag, just in case.

“Looking for a mate of mine.  Name’s Pete.  I’ve been calling at all these houses to try and track him down.  The woman next door told me to wait here for you because you know Pete.”

Mrs K popped up from behind the fence, and outside the man’s view.  She mimed the telephone again, and Rachel took this to mean that she had already contacted the police. Mark nodded and handed Rachel Pluto’s lead. “Before I let you inside my home, I would like you to turn out your pockets and put them on the bonnet of the car.  Have you got anything that might cause any damage to yourself or anyone else?”

The man pulled out a paltry collection of coins, some keys and a tattered piece of paper.  Mrs K pointed towards a bush where Rachel could see the dark shape of a rucksack; Mark had spotted it too, but not knowing what it contained, he chose not to pick it up. “Do you have anything else?” he asked.

The man shook his head and did his best not to look in the direction of the bag.  Mark was torn; he didn’t habitually carry handcuffs on him when he went out to dinner, but going inside to get them might put Rachel at risk.  Mrs K came to the rescue once again, and threw Mark the handcuffs that she had grabbed from his wardrobe after nipping into the house through the patio doors, when she first set eyes on their visitor. The man seemed a bit surprised at being cuffed and cautioned, but hung his head in defeat when Rachel and Pluto approached the bag in the bushes.  Pluto, the police dog who had proved unsuccessful at sniffing out drugs, ammunition and money, set up a very excited bark, followed by several sneezes.  Rachel made sure that she placed a tissue over the handle to make it more obvious but knew that she shouldn’t touch it otherwise.

“When did you last have something to eat or drink?” Mark asked.

“Can’t remember.  Pete was supposed to meet up with me a couple of days ago but he was a no show, and the usual people I deal with at the cottages were gone too.  The others wouldn’t speak to me.  I didn’t see anyone there that I recognised anyway.”

Further interrogation was halted by the appearance of two of the local bobbies, driving a police van and quite excited by Mrs K’s summons. They loaded the man into the back of the van; Mark let Rachel and Pluto into the house and rummaged in his wardrobe for some gloves and a couple of evidence bags.

“I’m sorry.” he said as he held Rachel very close again.  “Are you sure that you want to get involved with someone who is never really off-duty?  I made the arrest so I need to go back to the station with the lads.”

Rachel kissed him. “What do you mean ‘get involved’?  I am involved and I intend to keep it that way.  At least you’ve had a decent meal; good job we were drinking fruit juice.”

Mark shook his head. “Sometimes I get an instinct about something; I felt that it would be better to wait and have a drink when we got home.  Copper’s nose maybe? I also had visions of Damaris and her trout pout trying to run us down again. Don’t wait up though, you don’t need to.”

“Rubbish!  Pluto and I will watch trashy late-night TV on the sofa until you are back home.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can.  I’m still technically on leave so I can pass a lot of the paperwork to whoever does the interviews.  You say you recognise this bloke?”

“I saw him with the Portuguese people about four days after I arrived.  It was the morning after I dropped the glass of water and broke the light bulb.”

Mark also smiled at the memory of their first meeting. “A night I will never forget.  If we can tie this guy in with the drug smugglers, we’ll have even more evidence.  I’m not telling anyone that Pluto has finally found his paws as far as spotting contraband.  The contents of that rucksack could prove very interesting as well.”

There was a gentle tap on the window and the sight of Mrs K giving a thumbs up. Rachel let her in through the patio door and they waved Mark and the police van off. Mrs K instinctively took the sherry bottle and some glasses out of the cupboard and sat down with Rachel at the kitchen table. She brought Mrs K up to date with regard to the funeral, furniture moving, painting, decorating, and building a flat pack desk once it had been acquired. Pluto settled down at their feet; his head on Rachel’s shoe and a paw extended to rest on Mrs K’s.  Time to bring up the most delicate subject.

“There’s something else Mrs K, and as you are the next best thing to being a Mum that Mark and I’ve got, I want you to know about something that is important to us both.”

“Well, I know you’ve been busy, but you can’t possibly be pregnant yet, or is there some new-fangled way of finding out really early?”

Rachel laughed and blushed at the same time. “I don’t even know if I can have children. I mean, I was on the pill for a long time and the subject never arose with Sam, but with Mark…”

“He’s a smashing uncle to Lou’s girls and if you are lucky enough to fall, then he’ll be a brilliant dad.  How does he feel about it?”

“We’ve agreed to leave it up to fate for now. What with planning Pete’s funeral and sorting out the house a bit first, it’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.  What do you think about a pale peachy colour?”

“Wedding dress, or walls and wardrobes?”

“The latter.  Lou’s girls are already planning their wardrobes for the funeral.”

“Not black though; children shouldn’t wear black.”

“I think we’re all agreed on that.  We’re celebrating the Pete that we all used to know, and he was never a person for darkness and gloom in the old days. Jenny is going through a bit of a Goth phase, but I’m sure she can be tempted to get something more cheerful if Mark and I are paying.”

“You are a good girl, Rachel.  What were you saying about flat pack furniture?”

“We’re going out tomorrow to get decorating stuff, and a desk and chair for my old room. I need to do some research on the Internet about what we need.”

“First things first; once you’ve gone out, I’ll give the wardrobes and walls a good wash down with some sugar soap.  Pale peach will lighten up that room no end, and make the dressing table look less out of place.  I’m going to bed now.  I’ll leave you and Pluto to nod off on the sofa; I know you won’t be happy till he’s back home and safe but you’ll have to get used to it.  He’s no ordinary policeman, and there will always be times when you are home and worrying.  You know where I am though.”

“I do.  We both do.  Goodnight.”

Stepping Back – Rachel’s Powers of Persuasion

The voyage of discovery took longer than expected and by the time Mark and Rachel were about to leave the house, Sally had already been on the phone declaring that she was starving to death.

“Just one thing,” said Mark as they got into the car.  “How did you get the complaints dropped?”

“Me?” said Sally innocently.

“Yes, you.  Total honesty, remember?”

“When I went to get dressed there was a message from Tony on my phone.  He wanted to know why Sam was in the office looking smug.  I texted him about the complaint, and I may have reminded him about the clause in our contracts that threatens dire consequences if an employee is found to have brought the company into disrepute.  Whatever way you look at it, Sam and Adele both did that by breaking the law.  Sam’s latest piece openly acknowledged that he drove without insurance, and that Adele’s car had originally been taken without consent.  Although she changed her mind, she had to admit all the parking and congestion charges that hadn’t been paid. Tony spiked Sam’s piece as a consequence because it was a clear admission of guilt and did not reflect well on the company.  He was told to go away and write more objectively about the way the locals helped to rescue the car that his girlfriend had lent him.  That’s all.”

“All! You should have been a lawyer. No, that’s wrong.  You are what you are and you are brilliant. Thank you.”

He kissed Rachel very soundly before starting the car, and having to concentrate on the short ride to Lou’s house, where Sally was standing in the front door and rubbing her stomach in agony.

“Over-dramatic Sal.  Have you all decided what you want to eat?” said Mark, picking Sally up and whirling her around.

“Chinese!  We all want Chinese, don’t we Mum?”

“We do,” said Lou, hugging Rachel and whispering in her ear, “Jenny and I have been making up excuses for you two.  I have no intention of asking what took you so long.”

Jenny had already identified the required dishes for everyone bar Mark and Rachel; once they’d added their choices to the list, Mark rang up and ordered the food. “Twenty minutes.  Whose coming with me? If you smile and ask nicely, I’ve heard that they add extra prawn crackers to the bag.”

“Me, me, me.” said Sally as she jumped up and down hanging on to Mark’s arm.

“And me too.” said Sarah.

“You can stay here Pluto.  We’ll make sure that there are enough prawn crackers for everyone.”

“Do dogs eat prawn crackers?” asked Sarah.

“Pluto does.”

Mark kissed Rachel and hugged Lou before being dragged out to the car by his nieces.

Lou looked suspiciously at Rachel. “In the kitchen.  There’s something worrying you and we need to sort it.”

Rachel followed meekly and sat down on her favourite kitchen stool. Lou knew her too well. “Thing is Lou, I was on the pill all the time that Sam and I were together. He wanted children even less than he wanted commitment. I just went along with it.  One of my final acts of rebellion when he left was to throw the pills in the bin.  I haven’t bothered to do anything about it since and well…”

“You and my big brother have been at it like a pair of rabbits.  Sorry to be so crude, but the two of you can barely keep your hands off each other.”

Blushing, Rachel nodded but had to admit the truth of Lou’s assertion. “Neither of us felt this way before.  One thing we are agreed on, is that sex with our previous partners was just that and nothing more. Making love with Mark is incredible, and wonderful, and you are right, we cannot keep our hands off each other.”

“And now you are worried that all this bonking is going to result in a baby?  Have you talked to Mark about this?”

“Not yet. It only really occurred to me just then, watching him with Sally and Sarah. I don’t even know if I can have children.  I’m getting on a bit, and they say that being on the pill for a long time reduces your fertility. He may not even want children.”

“Rubbish.  One thing I remember Mark saying in the days after Sorrel left, was that he would have loved to have children, but that she was incapable of caring for anyone but herself.  You on the other hand, are a brilliant auntie and would make a wonderful mother.  Talk to him tonight when you get home?”

“I will.  Things are looking up workwise for both of us.  All the complaints have been dropped so Mark can go back to work when his leave is over, and Tony has definitely got the book deal for me – and the paper.  We are going to talk about my working from home permanently.  Mark and I are going out to buy me a proper desk and office chair so that I can work more comfortably.  Oh, and paint. We both hate Mark’s dark brown wardrobes so we’re going to paint them in a more soothing colour.”

“You two certainly move fast when you get going.  Though I have to admit that there have been times over the past six months that I’ve wanted to give you both a good kick up the bum to get you going.”

“It was me that needed a kick, not Mark.  He’s known right from the moment we met, but he also knew that he had to give me the space to make my own decisions and not pressure me.  It’s another of the things that I love about him Lou.  It wasn’t until I came here, spent time with you and the girls, and then met Mark, that I realised how much of myself had been lost while I was living with Sam.”

“I know.  I also knew that that for as long as we’ve been friends, you’ve always had to make your own mind up.  I suppose that not having proper parents made you allow Sam to take charge.  Mark will never do that – unless he’s being a policeman of course.  Talking of which, here comes the cavalry with our dinner.  Don’t be upset if Sally and Sarah prevent you from sitting next to your intended.  They might take a while to get used to the situation.”

There was enough food for several banquets, and as Lou predicted, Mark was commandeered by two of his nieces. Jenny consented to come down and join the feast for a while, but found the whole engagement business a bit boring – or so she said.  Lou had a feeling that Jenny was just as torn between Mark and Rachel as her little sisters were. Food settled everyone down however, and gave Mark the opportunity to talk about the funeral arrangements.  “We need to know what you would like before we speak to the funeral directors, girls,” he said. “I know that your Dad went away, and that makes you feel sad, but he was a very popular man once.  Your Auntie Rachel and your Mum knew him best in those days, and so did most of the older people in the Village.  Whatever happened when things went wrong with him and he went away to Portugal, he loved your Mum once, and he has always loved you girls.  What we want to do is to give him a proper send off, a proper goodbye from all of us and from the Village.  What do you think?”

“Will we have a party?” asked Sally.

Lou raised her eyebrows. “It’s called a ‘wake’ darling.  It’s a kind of party, but once it’s over we can have a proper party to celebrate Auntie Rachel and Uncle Mark’s engagement.”

“Can we have new dresses for the funeral?”

“Of course.  Nothing black though.  Your Dad wouldn’t have wanted you dressed like little old ladies.”

“Can we have new dresses for the engagement party too?”

“Definitely.” Mark smiled at Rachel across the table.

“If you are going to get married as well, does that mean you’re going to have bridesmaids and a big white dress like a meringue?”

“Bridesmaids yes.”  Said Rachel. “White meringue no.  I’m relying on you and your Mum to help choose something that is more me than a big white dress.  Perhaps Ben’s friend will have some ideas?”

“That was something else I forgot to tell you Rachel.” said Mark.  “When we were talking about wedding rings, he also mentioned that he had some antique wedding dresses in the back of the shop, but he wouldn’t let me look at them because it was bad luck apparently. I picked something else up in the shop though.”

He handed her the blue velvet box he’d put in his jacket pocket.  Rachel opened it up; a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings that matched her ring, and shone in the lamplight.

“Oh Mark!” she said.  “I didn’t even see you buy these. They are beautiful!”

Lou admired the earrings and gave Rachel a hug.  “Bruv, you are full of surprises. We could spend hours browsing in that shop, Rachel, but between the tea room, cooking and feeding this lot, I don’t have much of a social life anymore, and nothing to dress up for.”

“That will change.  Trust me.” Rachel winked at Lou and mouthed ‘Doctor H?”

Lou blushed and threw a napkin at her before taking plates and cutlery out to the kitchen.

“You entertain these young ladies Mark, Lou and I will clear up.” said Rachel.  “There are still some prawn crackers left and Pluto has his eye on them.”

Stepping Back – Furniture Moving

The little pine dressing table should have been easy for two people to move from one end of the house to the other, but Pluto decided that it was a new game, and getting the way was his main aim.  Just as Mark and Rachel were beginning to feel slightly desperate, relief came in the form of Jenny, Sarah and Sally who had arrived to take Pluto out for a walk – and to find out about the exciting news. Rachel proudly showed off her engagement ring, and explained that they were getting takeaway for tonight’s dinner.

“Does that mean that you and Uncle Mark are getting married?” asked Sally.

“Of course, it does silly. Eventually anyway.” said Jenny.

“We need to arrange your Dad’s funeral first, and when that’s over and done with, we’ll have a big engagement party in the Village, and start planning the wedding.”

“Thank you, Uncle Mark,” said Sarah.  “I never really liked that Sorrel lady that you were married to. I think you’ll be much happier with Aunty Rachel.  You suit each other.”

“Hmm, babes and sucklings and Mrs K, eh?  Can you girls take Pluto home with you after his walk.  We have some furniture moving to do and he doesn’t like it much.”

“Why are you moving furniture?”

“Shut up Sarah.  What kind of takeaway are we having?”

“Whatever you like Jenny.  Have a chat with your Mum, and we’ll be down a bit later.”

“What’s wrong with the furniture?  I don’t understand.”

“I’ll explain on the way home.  Come on.”

Mark winked at Jenny, but wasn’t sure that he had overstepped his role as a sensible uncle just a little. Getting the dressing table into its preferred place was much easier without Pluto.  There was plenty of room but the pale pine made the huge built-in wardrobes look even darker.

“What colour should we paint them?” asked Mark as he sat on the bed and surveyed the bedroom with an ill-disguised dislike.  Rachel sat down next to him and leaned against his shoulder. “Not white or magnolia – too insipid.  How about a sort of pale peach? It would pick up the colours in the dressing table and lift the whole room.”

“Are you any good at painting?”

“I did the flat when I first moved in.  It was totally magnolia and white gloss.  I didn’t go for all this feature wallpaper stuff but I added a bit of colour here and there. It was quite liberating, actually being able to decorate my own space after years of boarding school, halls of residence, and rented houses.”

“You’re one up on me then.  The flat in Edinburgh was decorated by a friend of Sorrel’s.  Much in the way of garish wallpaper, clashing colours, and hideously expensive.  I always felt that a home should be a soothing place, not somewhere that you get migraines every time you look at the walls.”

Rachel lay back on the bed and smiled.  There was a great deal to look forward to. Mark leaned over and kissed her. “It’s only four o’clock. We’ve a couple of hours until we need to leave for Lou’s. So?”

“So, go and double lock the front door – just in case Mrs K decides to pay us an unexpected visit.”

Mark was out of the room like a shot and would have been back even quicker but his work phone rang as he was passing.  Rachel took the opportunity to take off and fold her dress carefully, before getting into bed.  She didn’t hover by the door this time, but Mark wasn’t gone long and when he returned, he was smiling broadly. “Did you squeeze in an opportunity to contact Tony this morning by any chance?”

Rachel shrugged. “I might have done. He likes me to check in every now and then. We had a quick text while I was getting changed into my new dress.”

“Did you tell him about the complaints?”

“I had to.  It was important that nothing happened to get you into more trouble.  What’s up?”

“Nothing.  All complaints against me have been dropped and my enforced leave has been cancelled.”

“Oh.” said Rachel looking rather disappointed, but happy that Tony had somehow managed to persuade Sam and Adele to see sense.

“I told my boss that I would like to take some leave anyway.  He was quite understanding when I explained that you and I had Pete’s funeral to organise, and that we’d just got engaged.  I am on leave for another two weeks which should be enough time to get the funeral out of the way, redecorate and buy some new furniture, shouldn’t it?”

“How much time have we got left today?”

“Plenty.” said Mark. “It was very dark last night, and I think that we were too occupied with taking that first step to get to know each even better.”

“Would that be the first time, the second or the third time?” asked Rachel.

“Three times? I intended to have a full voyage of exploration in the daylight this morning and kiss you all over, starting with your very beautiful toes, but Mrs K’s vacuum disrupted me.  Now I will be making a complete investigation, and ensuring that your pyracanthas scratches and wounds have well and truly healed.”

Rachel giggled. “Something Sam would never do. Far too demeaning.”

“Sod Sam.” said Mark, but this time he said it out loud.

Stepping Back – Mr Davenport-Hooper

By the time they arrived back at the Square, Mrs Kneller had well and truly spread the happy news and everyone they met wanted to admire Rachel’s engagement ring when giving their congratulations. Well, nearly everyone they met.  Edward Davenport-Hooper was sitting on the same bench that Lou’s daughters had occupied when his sons had started their attempted reign of terror.  He stood up when he saw Mark and Rachel walking across the Square. He looked stern, but a little sad. “Hello Mark. My wife has been arrested apparently; attempting to pervert the course of justice regarding her lies about the date of birth of my sons, speeding, dangerous driving, and aiding and abetting an attempted assault.  My boys have been sent back to school and put under a very strict curfew.  My daughter looks like something out of a freak show and won’t leave the house.  I have advised the police that any complaints made against you should be withdrawn.  We are getting a psychiatric assessment for my wife because she doesn’t appear to be in her right mind – if she ever was.  I don’t understand the situation, but I do feel that I need to apologise for the other members of my family.”

He held out his hand to Mark, who took it and shook it warmly. “I know that you have never been involved in this Sir.  Is there any way we can help?”

“Now that my daughter is staying home, she has started learning to cook and do a little housework.  Our housekeeper is giving her lessons, and as it’s estimated that it will take six months or more before the stuff in her face goes down, she has plenty of time to learn and practice.  I think that the boys are safe where they are for now, but my wife may need to go away somewhere for a rest cure. Thank you for asking Mark, and I believe congratulations are in order.”

“Thank you, Sir. Can I introduce you to Rachel; my fiancée.”

Mr D-H took Rachel’s hand and kissed it. He looked up and she was sure that she saw a hint of a smile on his face. “I’ve read some of your work; Damaris and my wife showed the articles to me.  I think that I was supposed to be cross but I couldn’t help chuckling.  Well done on catching those drug smugglers too, Mark.  I’d better be off. I need to sort out the shrink for Doris as soon as possible.”

With that, he doffed his hat and set off across the Square in an almost jaunty fashion.  Lou had come out of the tea shop to see what was going on and grabbed Rachel’s hand to examine the ring. “It’s lovely! So very YOU as well.  I know that I shouldn’t compare, Mark, but it’s far more beautiful than that chunky knuckle duster that Sorrel wore. I always worried that she’d take someone’s eye out with it.”

“Hmm.” said Rachel. “That would have been an arm, several legs and an eye, not to mention the compensation.”

Mark laughed and put his arms around her. “Rachel’s warped sense of humour is just one of the many things that I love about her. Can I treat us all to dinner tonight, Lou? I’d suggest going out but Pluto’s been home all day long and could do with some company.  How about a takeaway to give you a rest from cooking?”

“That would go down well in all areas; you won’t be able to have a celebratory drink if you’re going out to get food though Mark.”

“I’ll drop the food off and take the car back home.  Rachel and I should be safe walking back now that Damaris is off the road.”

“And her mother I hear?”

“That leaves Sam and Adele’s father as far as the complaints are concerned.  To be honest, I am quite glad to have some time off.  Rachel and I need to talk about the house and making a few changes.”

“Did Mrs K actually catch you at it?” said Lou, giggling.

“No, but it was a close thing, and I should have remembered that she comes in earlier on Mondays because of visiting the old people. I think we are forgiven though, and once she actually sees the ring; we will definitely have her blessing.  Ben’s friend says he has another friend who does wedding jewellery, nothing like Sorrel’s hideous lump, just plain gold with a simple pattern that can echo the theme of Rachel’s engagement ring.”

“So that’s what you two were talking about.” said Rachel, unable to avoid admiring the ring again. “It was all very mysterious Lou.”

“Where are you off to now?”

“Back home.” said Mark.  “I think we may need to rearrange some furniture, and look at how we can brighten the old place up a bit.”

Rachel frowned.  “I love it as it is. It’s quirky.”

“Nothing major.  You noticed that the wardrobes in my – our bedroom – are extremely dark and depressing.  I’ve always felt that a dab of paint would improve them but never got around to it.”

Rachel squinted, trying hard to remember the state of the wardrobes but all that had happened since she first saw them had made the memory fail. “I shall look at them with fresh eyes now.”

Just as they were about to get in the car and go home, Mrs Kneller appeared, and departure was delayed whilst she admired the ring and administered maternal hugs. “I called the police and got them to take my copy of the birth announcements from the Evening Echo of Daw’s twins.   That’s put that lie to bed anyway.  I hear she’s been arrested?”

“We spoke to her husband; he was very apologetic and thinks that his wife has flipped.”

“Oh, there’ll be a nice little holiday away for her then.  I took Pluto out in the garden before I left so he’s done his business.  Might need a bit of fussing though.”

“The girls will come up to take him out for a walk in about an hour – so be warned.” said Lou.  “I’ll let you break the news about your engagement and tonight’s takeaway though.”

Driving back home there were a couple of things that puzzled Rachel and needed sorting out. “Did Sorrel like the house?”

“Never saw it.  She was long gone when I bought it.  We lived in a very posh fully furnished rented apartment in the Marina complex when we moved down to help Lou.  Mrs K did for most of the residents and we kind of took a shine to each other from the start.  Sorrel didn’t. When she left, I was looking around for somewhere smaller and more homely that didn’t have any lingering memories, and Mrs K asked if I wanted to have a look at her next-door neighbour’s house.  The owner had passed away in a hospice and his family were looking for a quick sale.  I’d sold our flat in Edinburgh, so I had enough to be a cash buyer, and as soon as I set eyes on it, I knew that it was the bolt hole that I needed.  Something about those funny little porthole windows at the front, and the sail loft.  I bought new furniture.  You can rest assured that you are the only other person to share my bed.”

Rachel blushed but at the same time felt immensely relieved that Sorrel’s ghost would not be haunting them.  Once the London flat was sorted out and sold, Sam’s ghost could also be banished.  She just hoped that her plan to get him and Adele’s father to drop their complaints against Mark had worked.

Pluto was indeed overjoyed to see them, and wandered around in a happy tail-wagging fashion as Mark and Rachel surveyed the bedroom with new eyes.  The wardrobes were of a very old-fashioned dark mahogany, and there was distinct lack of a dressing table and drawer space.

“Could we move the dressing table in here Mark?  I think Mrs K is right about keeping my clothes where they are.  Your police stuff takes up a lot of room, doesn’t it?”

“Considering how rarely I wear it, but I have to be able to access some of it in a hurry.  There’s plenty of room for the dressing table, and I had a thought about your old room.”

“What?”

“Writers need their space, don’t they?  If we’re rearranging furniture, how about buying a proper desk for you to work at, and a decent chair?  You’d have a lovely view of the garden and it would be an improvement on using the kitchen table – although if you want to use the kitchen table, I’ve no objection to that either. You need to write in a place where you feel comfortable and inspired.”

Pluto started dancing around the room and barking as Rachel sealed her answer with a kiss.

“You’ll need to get used to this mate.” said Mark.

Stepping Back – It’s Official!

It was a short but very happy drive down to the Square; they waited patiently while Lou served some customers and tried to avoid holding hands or showing any signs of affection.

“Hello you two.” said Lou.  “I understand that you are ‘on leave’ Mark because of false complaints made against you.  You look remarkably cheerful under the circumstances.”

“We have some other news for you; much better news.”

Rachel looked over at Mark and took a deep breath. “How do you feel about me actually becoming a real member of the family Lou?”

Lou shrieked. “Are you two – are you really, truly an item now?”

Mark nodded. “Mrs K was a little disapproving when she found us sharing a bedroom this morning, but changed her mind when I announced that I wanted to make an honest woman of Rachel.  She has given us till midday to break the news to you, before it goes public.  In the meantime, we are off to find an engagement ring.  Any ideas Lou?”

“I’m too gobsmacked to think.  Oh Rachel, I am so happy I could skip round the Square!  There’s Ben! Call him over, you have to tell him too.  He’ll be over the moon. Go on Mark, go and get him.”

Rachel took Lou’s hands. “While you are being ecstatic there is something that I need to ask you about.  Pete’s funeral. I know it’s painful but the girls need to have a way of saying good bye, and so do many of the Villagers who knew him.  I will always be grateful that you let me help out with your Mum all those years ago, and now that I know she was Mark’s Mum too, it means even more to me.  Mark and I talked about it yesterday, and we want to pay for the funeral and organise it – if you’ll let us.  This is not something you need to go through on your own, and once it’s over and done with we can get on with happier events.”

“Like?”

“Well, I guess we should have an engagement party, and maybe, a wedding?  What do you think?”

“You’ve chosen the right day to drop this on me.  I suppose I do owe it to the girls to give Pete a good send-off.”

“Splendid.  According to Mrs K, you being a widow woman makes you even more attractive to Dr Hussein.”

“Did she really say that?”

“She did, and who knows better than Mrs K?”

Mark and Ben appeared in the tea shop doorway.  Ben swept Rachel up in a huge bear hug. “Rachel!  You shameless hussy!  You’ve gone and stolen the lovely Marky from underneath my very nose!  I take it that Mrs K hasn’t started up the Village semaphore yet?”

“She gave us till midday; after that, the whole world will know.” said Rachel managing to detach herself.

“We need your help though, Ben.” said Lou.  “Where can they buy an engagement ring?”

“Nothing flash or expensive.” said Rachel as Mark took her hand in his.  “Perhaps something antique?”

“You need look no further than my friend across the water.  He has some exquisite jewellery as well as those gorgeous dresses, one of which you just happen to be wearing today. It suits you.”

“One other thing Ben.  Who can we go to about Pete’s funeral?  Mark and I will be helping Lou and the girls, but I’ve no idea where to start.”

“I am your fairy godmother indeed!  I know a lovely couple of chaps who live up the road and run their own funeral service; cars, flowers, organising the service, and if you don’t want a religious do, one of them is a humanist celebrant.  Shall I give them a call and ask them to contact you, Lou?”

“Sounds good Ben, but I’d rather they dealt with Mark and Rachel for now.” Lou was looking rather overwhelmed by the whole situation, coupled with the fact that the early lunch hour crowd was heading towards the tea shop.

“We’ll leave you in peace Sis.” said Mark as he kissed Lou goodbye.   “I’m going to carry Rachel off on the little pink ferry to see if we can find a suitable ring on the other side of the river.  We’ll be back before closing. Concentrate on sarnies and cupcakes; everything will sort itself out.”

Mark took Rachel’s hand and followed Ben outside into the Square, where he was busy spreading their good news.  After numerous congratulations, they went down to the Quayside and took their places on the little pink ferry.  It was something that Rachel had been promising herself since she had arrived months ago, and she felt quite moved that Mark had remembered how much she wanted to make the short trip across the river. The boat trip was every bit as sweet as she had remembered; being able to look back at the Village and see the Marina in the sunlight, was just another memorable aspect of the day.  Mark sat with his arm around her, and looked every bit as happy as she felt.  The shop wasn’t far from the ferry dock, and Ben had already been on the phone to his friend, who greeted them with enthusiasm, as well as asking Rachel to do a quick twirl in her new dress.  He pulled chairs out for them both in the shop, and after passing over a tray of rings, went into store room, and brought out a bottle of champagne and three glasses.

Rachel saw the ring straight away; a tiny diamond set in gold, surrounded by eight petal shaped sapphires. Gingerly, she took it from the tray and tried it on, anxious in case it was too big, or too small.  Just like Cinderella, it fitted as if it had been made for her.  Mark smiled and raised her hand to his lips.  Rachel gulped, and Ben’s friend handed her a tissue and a hastily poured glass of champagne.

Mark took the ring off her finger and knelt down. “I ought to do this properly.  Rachel, I love you more than I ever thought possible.  Will you marry me?”

“Yes! Oh Mark! Oh!  Is the ring very expensive?”

“It’s the right ring for us, so the cost doesn’t matter.”

Mark handed his credit card over, paid and pocketed the contents of a small blue velvet box as well.  He had a feeling that now the ring was on Rachel’s finger, nothing would remove it.  She sat staring at it and absent-mindedly sipping her champagne while the transaction was taking place. 

An engagement ring!  

Something she knew Sam would ever have entertained, and looking over at Mark, who was smiling happily, Rachel was glad that the subject had never arisen, and that she had made the right choice in the end. The pink ferry was getting ready to leave just as they got to the dock, and the journey back to the Village was even more magical.  Rachel kept looking at her hand, and at the blue and white stones echoing the bright blue of Mark’s eyes and the colours of the river around them. It was definitely the right ring.

“Tell me honestly Mark, was it very expensive?”

“Honestly. No.  The only other experience I had of buying an engagement ring was Sorrel’s.  She insisted on having it made from Cornish gold by a friend of hers.  It was abstract and ugly, cost me an arm and several legs, and I never liked it. The wedding rings were even worse.  It was a good job that I didn’t have to wear mine when I was working.  This ring is you.  It suits you and if I’d looked at the tray first, this is the ring I would have chosen for you.  True blue of the sea and the river, and an absolute diamond to all those who love you.  Pretty scary to those who don’t, though.”

He kissed her in a very thorough way that made her shiver and feel relieved that they were the only people on the ferry apart from the captain, who very discreetly kept his back to them and his eyes on the river.