Thin rain pattered onto the leaves above me. I cowered beneath the branches, gazing at the creeper-covered brickwork of the vicarage. A curtain twitched at the downstairs window. I shrank back. Seconds later, a slit of light split the darkness and widened as a woman opened the front door. White hair haloed in the glow, she looked down at the holdall on the step and glanced up and around before bending down to open it. I heard Finn whimper. Her voice cut through the night, sharp and shocked. ‘Gerald! Oh, my goodness! It’s a baby! The poor mite must be frozen.’
She lifted him out, one of his tiny fists escaping from the blanket as she clasped him to her shoulder and dipped down to pick up the bag. The door clicked shut behind her.
The sound ripped my heart. I leant back against the tree. She’d be calling the police, alerting Social Services. I couldn’t bear it. I heard his cries from inside the house, a mounting distress that I yearned with every fibre of my body to comfort. Voices battled in my head.
Leave him, he deserves better than you.
No! At best, he’ll grow up thinking he was unloved and unlovable; at worst, he’ll end up in the system, processed, managed and passed around, just like you were, until it’s time to spit him out and leave him prey to the worst the world can do.
Before I knew it I was running up the path and slamming my hands against the door, tears streaming down my face. A tall, grey-haired man pulled it open. A man who opened his arms to me and murmured, ‘Oh, my dear, my dear,’ as he took me into warmth and light and pressed me into an armchair. There was a fire in the grate and hot sweet tea and kind, soothing words.
‘Don’t worry. We can help you. You’ve done the right thing. Your baby needs you.
Don’t cry, my dear. You’re not on your own.’
I reached up to take Finn from his wife’s arms and glimpsed a tremor of movement through the gap in the curtains behind her. My heart beat hard. I told myself it was the wind catching the creeper, a flicker of reflection, or my wound-up nerves playing tricks.
I turned away and, as I looked down at Finn’s crumpled face, he curled his fingers around my thumb and gripped it tightly. In that moment I knew that I would rather kill than ever give him up him again.
‘Mum! You’re not listening.’
I glance up from the recipe on my laptop. ‘Sorry, sweetheart, say that again—?’
Finn pokes the blueberries dotted on his porridge and says solemnly, ‘What do you call a bear with no teeth?’
‘I don’t know.’ I switch on the oven. ‘What do you call a bear with no teeth?’
Straightening up, he flashes me a grin. ‘A gummy bear!’ He whoops with delight, flecks of porridge spraying from his mouth.
I laugh and pull a face, and he laughs some more, almost falling off his chair. ‘All right, sweetheart, finish your breakfast and get your shoes on. Tilly and Henry will be here any minute.’
I add a teaspoon of cinnamon to the mixture in the food processor and press the pulse button. Sharing the school run with another mum has changed my life. When it’s Tilly’s turn to do the mornings it gives me an extra half an hour to sort out the washing or run the hoover over the stairs before I leave for work, but today I’ve ditched the hoovering so I can knock up a batch of muffins.
‘Come on, Finnsy. Hurry up, you can’t be late for school.’
Smile gone, Finn shuffles past me into the hallway to put on his shoes. I grab his bag from the counter, check that he’s got his snack, water bottle and reading book, and I’m by the door buttoning up his coat when I hear Tilly pulling up outside. I kiss the top of his head and wave as he trudges out to the car.
Halfway down the drive he turns, as if he’s about to run back inside.
‘Go on, sweetheart. Have a lovely day.’
I keep waving until the car is out of sight and then I stand for a moment looking out across Juniper Close – manicured hedges, glistening porch lights, here and there the flicker of breakfast television between half-closed plantation shutters, and that all-enveloping quiet. I’ve been here for three months but after the non-stop soundtrack of shouts, music, slamming doors and whining mopeds that accompanied my life on the Beechwood estate, I still can’t get used to it. The noisiest it ever gets round here is when one of the neighbours murmurs a clipped hello, or the organic veg van is forced to back up to make way for a wine delivery.
I hurry back into the house. It’s a beautifully refurbished Victorian semi that screams money, good taste and happy families – the kind of house I dreamed of living in when I was a lost, lonely kid traipsing from one foster placement to the next. I still have trouble believing it’s my home. I try
not to let it bother me that Ian bought it when he got engaged to his ex. After all, I’m the one he married. Though if I’d been him, I think I’d have sold it after they broke up, and started over. But he’d spent so much money and effort ripping out everything he didn’t like and redoing the whole place exactly how he wanted it, it’s like he couldn’t bear to part with it.
I dollop the muffin mixture into the paper cases and slide the trays into the oven. I check the time, take a last gulp from my mug of tea and reach across the worktop to turn off my laptop. My fingers hover for a heartbeat. I glance at the window and drop them onto the keyboard. I type two words into the search bar; sixteen letters; one space; two capitals – I always put in the caps. Sallowfield Court. I take a breath and hit return. Google asks, as it always does, if I mean Swallowfield. I don’t. It’s Sallow, like the old word for willow, not swallow like the bird. There are hundreds of entries. None of them new. Just to be sure, I erase the search and type in another. This time for Ryan Hurley. Nothing new there, either. I clear my history and snap down the lid of the laptop. I used to check every day. After a few months it was once a week. Now, it’s only when I can’t stop myself.
I look down at my engagement ring sitting above the slim hoop of my wedding band and rock my fingers in the beam of the overhead spotlight, every glint of my beautiful diamond a reminder that I am safe; more than that, that I’m no longer on
the outside, hanging on to life by my fingertips – and I have a husband I love. The funny thing is he seems to love me too. Handsome, successful Ian Dexter. He’s a partner at Parkview Dental, brilliant at what he does and adored by his patients, particularly the female ones who were pretty astonished, not to say miffed, when Parkview’s most eligible bachelor married his dull little nobody of a receptionist. But no more astonished than I was the night he turned up at my flat and proposed. It was so unexpected I thought he must be joking. Of course, I’d fantasised about it from the moment I’d set eyes on him, but the way he’d insisted on keeping our relationship quiet from everyone at work had made me think that I was just a rebound fling, a moment of madness to get over the break-up with his hotshot lawyer ex. When I looked up into his face and saw that he was deadly serious I didn’t give myself a chance to think about the practicalities of adjusting to his world or of bringing my lies into his life. I wanted him so badly I just whispered, ‘Yes.’
My hands shook as I opened the little box he pushed into my hand. I looked down at the ring glinting in its bed of black velvet and like an idiot I said, ’Oh my God, it must have cost you a fortune!’ and he just smiled and said, ‘I wanted to show you how much you mean to me.’ Then he slipped it onto my finger and said, ‘I love you,’ and I made an even bigger fool of myself by bursting into tears, because the only
other person who had ever said that to me was Finn. He steered me over to my saggy little sofa and as he tugged off his jacket I took in the shift of muscle beneath his carefully laundered shirt, the buffed gleam of his shoes and the glint of his signet ring – and felt the doubts creep back.
‘Why me, Ian?’
He wound a finger through my hair. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You could have your pick of women.’
‘You’re everything I want.’
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. ‘A single mother, eight years your junior with a weakness for pot noodles, who’s never ironed a sock in her life? I don’t think so. What are your family and all your posh mates from uni going to say?’
‘Who cares what they think? You’ll learn to fit in in no time and I’ll be here, right by your side, every step of the way.’
We looked at each other for a moment, then he grasped my head and pulled me close. Gentle at first and then harder and faster, he drove away my fears and I told myself that I could do this. That everything would be all right. Afterwards, as we lay there listening to the estate gearing up for the night – dogs barking, the moped boys revving their engines, a shriek of what might be laughter, I looped names across my mind – Nicola Dexter, Mrs Ian Dexter, Mrs I Dexter, like a lovestruck teenager doodling in the back of her diary.
After he’d left, I stayed awake until the small hours staring at the fist-shaped blotch
on my ceiling, thinking about dresses, flowers, country house hotels, and sharing my perfect day with the people who had got me through the early days with Finn: Joyce, my old boss, in a new frock and a big floppy hat; my friend, Susy, looking stunning in something outlandish; her daughter, Gaby, hand in hand with Finn, skipping down the aisle behind me in colour co-ordinated outfits; a day of music, fun and laughter.
‘I don’t want a big wedding,’ Ian said the next day, as we drove out to a pub for lunch. ‘All that hype and expense. What’s the point?’ His hand found my knee and gave it a squeeze. ‘All we need to make it perfect is you, me and Finn.’ He glanced in the rear-view mirror. ‘Isn’t that right, fella?’
Finn nodded, happy to please. I turned away to the window, any disappointment about flowers and floppy hats swept away by Ian’s inclusion of Finn in his idea of perfection. ‘What about witnesses?’ I said.
‘We’ll grab a couple of passers-by off the street.’
‘Won’t your family be upset?’
‘But—?’ I bit my lip as Ian pulled out and overtook the car in front.
‘They know it wouldn’t be fair to fill a venue with all my relations when you haven’t got any.’
I looked over at him, touched that he was willing to give all that up for me. ‘I don’t deserve you,’ I said. ‘I really don’t.’
For most people that’s something you say: a figure of speech. For me it was – still is – a cold, unforgiving truth.
It’s been sixteen months since I got the receptionist’s job at Parkview Dental; eleven since Ian dropped a couple of patient files onto my desk and touched my heart by inviting me and Finn out for Sunday lunch at a pub he knew that had a playground in the garden; four since he proposed; and three since our wedding. And he’s been as good as his word, doing everything he can to help me adjust to his world: teaching me how to drive, introducing me to all sorts of fancy foods and showing me how to cook them, buying me new clothes. He even bought me a platinum pass for his gym so I can keep in shape. All to boost my confidence – a kiss every time I mess up, a smile when I get things right.
Lyn Burton, last in my long line of foster mothers, used to say it would take a bloody miracle to make anything of me: ‘What do you think you’re doing, Nicola Cahill? You’d better watch yourself, missy, or you’ll end up just like your mother.’ And now, after years on my own, I’ve found a man who is ready to work that miracle. Someone who wants to teach me about love and who, just as importantly, is ready to teach me about life. All the things you miss out on when you grow up as a name and a number on a file.