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Authors: Lucy Diamond

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BOOK: Hens Reunited
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‘’Course you can,’ he replied easily. ‘You don’t need some patronizing bloke coming round here with his drill and rawl plugs, do you? Sorry. I’ll leave you to it, then. Bye!’

He raised a hand in farewell, and Alice felt wrong-footed. Had she offended him? ‘Thanks,’ she said, going along the path a few steps after him. ‘Cheers, then. Bye!’

He was off, loping to the gate and dipping his head again as he went through the rambling-rose arch that adorned it. Suddenly Alice wished she hadn’t been so hasty to get rid of him. She hadn’t meant to sound rude, it was just that this was supposed to be her first stab at independence, wasn’t it? It would have been a bit pathetic if she’d caved in and accepted help from the first random stranger.

All right,
second
random stranger, if you counted that old guy who’d advised her about shoving against the front door. All these men so keen to interfere and meddle with her new start! She felt like some prim Victorian governess repelling their advances, shooing them away.

Anyway, what did this Dom person expect, coming into her house – into her bedroom! – uninvited like that? There was friendly, sure, but there was in-your-face, too. She hoped the rest of the village weren’t going to be so full on. They were probably all discussing her in the shop already. ‘Seems a bit clueless to me. Couldn’t even get into the house on her own!’

‘Right bad-tempered she was to me. I was only trying to help!’

Alice stalked into the house, heaving up a suitcase as she did so. Dom would probably be back on his tractor or mucking out the pigs now, or whatever it was that he did. The old guy would be supping a pint of warm ale on a velour banquette in the Duke of York, the pub she’d seen on the main street. Meanwhile, she had stuff to do. She had to clean the floor before she dared put Iris down on it for starters. She had to tuck the stuffing back into the armchair too, before her eagle-eyed daughter spotted it and tugged out a handful to press into her little wet mouth.

Then she had to unpack her meagre possessions, get some shopping in for their tea tonight and . . . Oh yeah. She still had Iris’s cot, all in bits, in the boot of her car, to reassemble. Bugger. She wished more than ever that she’d taken Dom up on his offer now. She hadn’t a clue how to fit the damn thing together.

She heaved a sigh and set to work.

 

Chapter Four

Love Ain’t Here Anymore

Saturday, 14 June 2008

‘I can’t believe you said no. Are you completely insane?’

Katie could hear Georgia puffing smoke down the phone and found herself flinching away from the handset as if coils of the stuff might start filtering through the holes. ‘I don’t think so,’ she replied, considering. ‘Just . . . freaked out. It was a bit of a shock.’

‘God,’ Georgia said. ‘I can’t believe it. You really said no?’ She sounded incredulous. Appalled, even. Katie could imagine her dark eyebrows shooting into a ten-to-two position. ‘Why? What’s got into you?’

Katie snorted. ‘What’s got into me?’ she echoed. ‘Since when did you become Ms Happy-Ever-After? I thought you were on my side, that marriage was a waste of money and . . . and a pointless charade, or whatever it was you said?’

‘Oh yes, I agree with all that – for me, anyway,’ Georgia said. ‘But
you –
you’re the marrying kind, Kate. In the nicest possible way, obviously . . .’

‘You mean, I’m the sensible, traditional type while you’re the bohemian free spirit,’ Katie put in sarcastically.

‘Well, no, but . . . Yes, kind of,’ Georgia conceded. Georgia didn’t just give you the truth, she beat you round the head with it sometimes. ‘It’s just . . . I don’t know. I’d have thought you’d have said yes, that’s all.’

‘Well, I didn’t. I said no. So there you go. Maybe I’m not as predictable and sensible as you think.’

‘I never said—’

‘How about you, anyway, how’s work?’ Katie asked, to change the subject. The disastrous proposal had thrummed around her head ever since Steve had asked That Question. It was like radio static, crackling away in the back of her mind, irritating, niggling.

Georgia sighed. ‘Yeah, it’s good, but . . . Hang on—’ There was a muffled whooshing noise, like waves breaking on a beach, and Katie guessed she’d put her hand over the receiver. Then came the faint strains of Georgia snapping petulantly at some poor sod or other, ‘Look, I’m on the phone! All right, keep your hair on!’, then she came back on the line. ‘Sorry about that. Aaaargh, the joys of nutters in Euston,’ she said. ‘I’m only off up north for my sins, aren’t I? I’d better go. Train leaves in a few minutes and I’m still out here with my ciggy. Speak to you soon.’

Before Katie could even say goodbye, Georgia had hung up.
Strange
, Katie thought. Off up north? Surely Georgia wasn’t actually going to visit her family for once, was she? As far as Georgia was concerned, family life was further down the relevance scale than the breeding habits of woodlice, say. She’d had to be persuaded (by Katie) into inviting her family to her wedding, even! She’d said they would hate it, so what was the point?

‘The point is that they’re your family!’ Katie had argued. ‘You’ve
got
to invite them!’

Georgia had caved in eventually, but only two weeks before the wedding itself, in the hope that none of them would be able to make it. Obviously, they’d cancelled all their plans and come Down South for their Georgie’s Big Day though.

It had, admittedly, been a mistake. The poor clan of Knights had been unilaterally shunned by the wild-eyed bride with the same kind of contempt reserved usually for a dog turd on the pavement. Katie had tried to make up for Georgia’s shocking rudeness by over-compensating on the niceness front to them, to the point where they seemed to think she was rather odd, a stalker possibly. ‘Who
is
that girl?’ Georgia’s nan had said in the end, in a too-loud whisper. ‘Why does she keep talking to us?’

Katie sighed, and put the phone back on its base. She felt disconcerted by the call. Of all people, she’d have thought Georgia would be the one who’d understand best. ‘Good for you!’ she’d imagined Georgia hooting, with perhaps a punched fist in the air. ‘Well said. Marriage, my arse!’

That was why Katie had phoned her in the first place, to get some support, some acknowledgement that yes, of course she’d done the right thing in turning Steve down. Accusations of insanity had
not
been what she’d expected.

She stared miserably out of the kitchen window at the back garden. The lawn looked parched and brown. Plants were wilting and drooping where they hadn’t been watered during last week’s shock heatwave.

Steve’s face when she’d told him no . . . something in him had seemed to collapse and wilt, too. She’d tried to say it kindly, tried to explain how she felt, but he’d taken it so personally he hadn’t seemed able to listen past that initial ‘no’. A rejection of him, that was how he’d seen it. It wasn’t, though! It wasn’t at all.

‘Being married to Neil . . . it was a mistake,’ she’d told him, sitting on the bed, reaching for his hand. ‘There was nothing good about it, nothing. As soon as we’d made our vows, it was over, practically. It was as if he enjoyed the chase, but once we were man and wife, the thrill evaporated for him. And for me too, if I’m honest. I felt trapped. And I don’t ever want to get in a situation like that again. End of story.’ She’d stared at his fingers, unresponsive and stiff in hers. ‘Sorry,’ she added quietly.

His eyes were baffled; he looked like a child who’d had a toy snatched away from him. ‘But it wouldn’t be like that with us,’ he’d said. ‘Us being married would be different to when you married your ex. Completely different.’

Would it?
She hadn’t replied. Steve was in another league to Neil, sure. Steve wouldn’t expect her to drop everything in order to produce his heir(s), cook his tea and go on pant-washing patrol. Steve had done his fair share of hoovering, toilet-cleaning and supermarket-shopping in the six months since he’d moved in, admittedly. He put his dirty clothes (and hers) in the washing machine. He straightened the duvet if he was the last one up. He cooked, too, if he was the first one home. Spag bol
à la
student was a particular speciality, with grated Cheddar on top, or sometimes a cheat takeaway from the Indian. Not that she was complaining. At all. But . . .

‘Is that it, then?’ he’d asked. ‘All over?’ A bitterness had crept into his voice
.

She sat there feeling worse than ever as she saw the bag of her things that he’d packed and brought to the hotel – her make-up, her perfume, nice knickers, toothbrush . . . He was so kind. So thoughtful. Other women would be clambering over her to get that ring off him, wouldn’t they? Other women would drag him up the aisle in an iron grip. So what was
her
problem?

‘Oh, Steve,’ she’d said. A lump was in her throat. ‘No! Of course it doesn’t have to be all over. I mean, I still—’

‘You still what? Like me?’ He looked at her, his eyes hard. ‘Is that what you were going to say?’

She put her head in her hands. ‘I
really
like you,’ she said into her fingers. ‘I love you.’ Christ, how had they reached crisis point so quickly? Two minutes ago, they’d been cruising along Romance Boulevard; now, they seemed to have taken a wrong turn and had ended up hurtling towards Dumpsville. ‘I don’t want us to split up over this. Can’t we just carry on like we were before? I mean, what was so wrong with that?’

She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. His shoulders were slumped; he looked defeated. ‘Nothing was
wrong
with it,’ he replied. ‘I’d just like things to move on, that’s all. Show the world that we want to be together. Make some vows. Make a commitment.’

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t explain why the word ‘commitment’ gave her the urge to run for the hills. It wasn’t as if she wanted to be back in the singles scene or anything – God, no thanks! – but somehow, being an unmarried couple felt freer than being a married couple. Commitment brought to mind his and hers dressing gowns, monogrammed with their initials on the pocket, hanging together on the back of the bedroom door. She didn’t want a uniform his and hers anything. She didn’t want ‘’til death do us part’. She wanted to hold back, keep some independence.

‘Steve, I . . .’ The words failed her. ‘You are so lovely, to have thought all this up, planned everything so brilliantly.’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘I sense a but coming,’ he said.

She managed a weak smile. ‘
And
,’ she went on, ‘I’m flattered that you feel that way – really, I am. But commitment doesn’t have to be about spending thousands of pounds on penguin suits and a meringue dress, and a buffet for Great-Aunt Edna and all those weird relatives you never see, and . . .’

‘No, I agree,’ he interrupted. ‘It doesn’t have to be those things at all.’

‘ . . . and it doesn’t even need to be official,’ she went on, sensing that he was misreading her point on purpose. ‘Commitment can be about us living together, owning a house together, sharing our lives, supporting and loving one another.’

He nodded. ‘Sounds like a vow to me,’ he said.

‘Well . . . what I’m trying to say is . . .’

He put a hand on hers. ‘I know what you’re trying to say,’ he put in. ‘But it’s not just about getting married or not. How do you feel about having kids, for instance? We’ve never really talked about that.’

Oh Christ, thought Katie. He was really wheeling out the big guns for this conversation. ‘No, we haven’t,’ she replied cautiously, trying to buy herself some time. Damn right, they hadn’t – and deliberately so, for her part. She swallowed. ‘How . . . how do
you
feel about having kids, then?’

‘I’d love to have kids,’ he said simply. ‘Our kids. I’d love to be a dad. I’ve always assumed I would be.’ He was smiling as he looked at her, but she couldn’t smile back. ‘And now that I’m with you and we’ve had two really great years together, well . . . we should start thinking about it. It’s not as if either of us is getting any younger.’

Katie felt as if she were falling down a deep, deep hole. She could no longer hear what he was saying. She’d always been one for making plans, sure – lesson plans for the term ahead, weekend plans with friends and family, Christmas plans – oh yes, she liked all of those, ticking off lists in her notebook, making spreadsheets on the computer. She was an organized person.

But
life
plans . . . marriage and children . . . these were not on the spreadsheet. Not in the notebook, waiting to be neatly ticked off. These were things she had purposely ignored for a long time.

Steve had stopped talking. This was obviously her cue. But what should she say?

‘Wow,’ she murmured. ‘I . . . I don’t know. This all feels a bit sudden.’

He put an arm around her back, shuffled along the bed so that he was closer to her. ‘There’s a lot to think about, I know. But the thing is, Kate, we have to make some decisions. Because, to be honest with you, I . . .’ He broke off. ‘This is going to sound really melodramatic, like some kind of ultimatum. It’s not. I’m just laying my cards on the table. If you really really don’t want the same kind of future as I do – I mean, the family life thing – then . . . I need to know. Because it’s important to me.’

She felt as if her breath had been sucked out of her. Bloody hell. Not an ultimatum? It sure as hell sounded like one. His cards were on the table all right, facing up for the world to see: King, Queen and three baby Aces.

She stared straight ahead but she could feel her hands shaking in her lap. ‘I appreciate your honesty,’ she said. She felt very formal all of a sudden, as if she were speaking politely to a stranger. ‘And . . .’ She licked her lips. ‘And I think I need a drink.’

What was it with blokes and their ‘marriage and children’? That was what Neil had wanted too. He’d got progressively more and more pissed off when Katie’s period arrived each month. Little did he know, though, that she’d been taking the pill non-stop, ever since she met him. She didn’t want a baby – no chance. Hadn’t she always had it drummed in to her from her mum what a burden children were, how they wrecked your life? She was only twenty, after all. She’d rather be back at college than pushing a pram.

BOOK: Hens Reunited
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