The perfect life is as easy to bake as the perfect pie... Hetty Greengrass is the perfect wife and mother. Spending the last twelve years helping her husband Dan run Sunnybank Farm certainly keeps her busy, but when her daughter Poppy picks her aunt as her inspiration for a school project, Hetty is left full of self-doubt. How did she not become her daughters hero? Sure her biggest talent - baking deliciously pies - has been limited to charity work and the village fete. But when she signs up to a competition run by Cumbria's Finest to find the very best produce from the region she hopes to make her daughter proud . . . and maybe reclaim something for herself. Except that her life that had seemed so apple pie perfect is suddenly changing around her... Cracks are starting to appear in her marriage and shocking secrets are beginning to come to light. Now her world is crumbling around her and Hetty has to decide where her priorities really lie... *Published in the UK as Hetty's Farmhouse Bakery * *** Readers are captivated by Cathy Bramley's heartwarming stories: 'Funny and sweet and as satisfying as a homemade apple pie' Milly Johnson 'As comforting as hot tea and toast made on the Aga!' Veronica Henry 'A delicious tale of friendship, family and baking... I loved its warmth and charm' Cathy Woodman 'Delightfully warm with plenty twists and turns' Trisha Ashley
Release date: March 21, 2019
Print pages: 290
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The Bakery on the Hill
I gripped the steering wheel tightly and willed the tractor in front of me to turn off. The driver had twice beckoned me to go around him, but on these narrow country lanes and in my ancient Renault Clio, I didn’t dare attempt it. I didn’t want to be late for parents’ evening, but I didn’t want to end up under an oncoming lorry either. Today had already earned itself the label of being ‘one of those days’. I didn’t need any more stress.
Deep breaths, Hetty. Okay. I wasn’t late yet; I could still make it on time. My fourteen-year-old Border collie Rusty might be very poorly, but he was in safe hands with the vet, and even though this tractor was slowing me down, it gave me a chance to appreciate the wild flowers growing in amongst the long-grass verge. And as I rounded the bend and began a steep descent, the glorious vista of the Eskdale valley came into view.
My heart lifted and along with it, my spirits. The beauty of Cumbria never ceased to move me.
Despite the distances necessary to complete a simple task – like getting to school or popping out for milk – living here had many, many plus points and I wouldn’t swap my little village for the world. The beguiling landscape with its craggy peaks puncturing the clouds and its valleys threaded with lakes and tarns; the simple joy of emerging from dark green woods to discover a waterfall tumbling over mossy rocks, or an ancient stone bridge forming a perfect arch over a crystal stream; it never grew old. I loved the timelessness and the feeling of belonging somewhere special. And even though Cumbria was a Mecca for other explorers, if you picked your route with care you could walk for miles and not bump into a soul, with just a happy dog for company. Unless your dog was at this minute undergoing multiple tests and quite possibly might never walk again …
I squeezed my eyes shut for a millisecond to block out the image of poor Rusty, and turned on the radio to distract myself.
At last the tractor turned off and I could finally put my foot down. I glanced at the time on my car’s dashboard: with a bit of luck and a following wind, I just might make it.
I got the last free space in the school car park. I quickly ran a comb through my dark copper hair and applied an ancient stump of lipstick.
At college, I’d once been described by one particularly toxic girl as a poor man’s Kate Winslet, at which point Dan Greengrass, the boy I’d had a crush on since for ever, leaned over and looked at me so intensely that my stomach flipped. He whispered that if that was the case he hoped he’d be poor for the rest of his life and would I go out with him. My heart virtually exploded all over the common room and my acceptance came out as a squeak and a nod. Today my cheekbones were less prominent than Kate’s, my hips a little more padded and my locks had sprouted their first grey. By contrast, Dan still looked pretty much as he had back then, but with even more muscle. We were also still poor.
I got out and was brushing the red dog hairs – don’t think about him – from my cardigan when I spotted my best friend Anna by her car. She worked here and was loading a cardboard box into her boot.
‘Hey! Hetty Spaghetti,’ she yelled across the car park, her customary wide smile lighting up her pretty face.
‘Anna Bananna!’ I laughed and waved.
My school nickname had been coined due to my long thin legs; now it was more likely to refer to my messy hair. Her nickname didn’t mean anything, but it was fun, which meant that it suited her.
I kissed her cheek. ‘Good. We can walk in together now and I won’t be last to arrive.’
‘I’d rather be last.’ Anna arched an eyebrow playfully. ‘I like to make an entrance.’
I always felt like a giant next to Anna. She was tiny and birdlike with short blonde hair and eyes the colour of sapphires, which danced permanently with mischief. She slammed the boot and opened her handbag.
‘No Dan?’ She peered over my shoulder before applying a posh lipstick which still had its pointy end, unlike my old thing.
I shook my head. ‘A section of electric fence has come down; he had to stay and mend it. They’re escape artists, those sheep. I’m sure they patrol the edges of each field looking for weak spots.’
She laughed at that.
‘And it would help if parents’ evening was actually in the evening instead of three thirty in the afternoon,’ I added.
‘I suppose it’s hard for him to take time off in the daylight. He’s a grafter, your husband.’
‘So am I!’ I retorted.
‘I know you are; you are Super Woman!’ She whipped out her mascara and flicked it over her pale lashes. ‘I’ve seen you racing across fields on a quad bike in winter to rescue a new-born lamb, your red hair flying. I’m in awe. You even look sexy in a woolly hat and wellies. Whereas I look like a garden gnome.’
She could never look like a garden gnome. I smiled, watching as she took her time to do her face, even though we were already late. In many ways we were chalk and cheese, but she was as close as family; the sister I never had.
We met when we were sixteen. My parents had just emigrated to Cape Cod, leaving me home alone. They’d planned on waiting until I went to uni, but Dad received an offer to buy his business unexpectedly and so after reassurance from me that I’d be fine, they’d decided to go early. I’d thought living on my own would be fun, but I’d been lonely and, although I hadn’t liked to admit it, a bit scared too. Mum called constantly to check I was okay. I’d said I was fine, but secretly I wanted them to come back.
Then Anna came along. She’d been living with her glass-half-empty grandmother since her mum had died and the two of us gravitated to each other like magnets. Before long she’d unofficially moved in and we’d been close ever since.
Dan sometimes grumbled about Anna and me living in each other’s pockets, but I thought it was par for the course when you lived in a small village like we did. Besides, he was probably a bit envious of our friendship. His own best friend, Joe, left home after college and never came back. I’d been sad about it, but my husband was a man of few words and shrugged it off as ‘one of those things’.
‘You’re right; Dan does work longer hours than me,’ I admitted. ‘But it frustrates me sometimes. Introduce yourself as a farmer and everyone puffs out their cheeks, sympathizing with what a hard life you have. But say you’re a farmer’s wife and people go all misty-eyed imagining a contented, apple-cheeked woman in an apron, sliding pies into the oven before settling down to bottle-feed an orphan lamb …’ My voice petered out. Anna tried to suppress a snort. Okay, so that was me to a T.
‘Oh, shut up. Anyway, Poppy’s last report was less than glowing and I would have liked some moral support this time.’
‘Wouldn’t we all?’ she replied with a sigh.
I grinned at her. ‘Really?’
Anna was a single parent; her son Bart was in the year above Poppy. He was my godson and I loved him almost as much as I loved Poppy. Anna had attended every appointment and meeting since the day he was born and was rightly proud of how well she coped on her own. But she was exceptionally protective of Bart and a bit of a control freak.
She pulled a face. ‘Okay, probably not, but sometimes I think it would be nice to share the burden.’
To be fair, I did most of the domestic and childcare duties by myself too; it was part of my job description as a farmer’s wife. Besides, being a farmer wasn’t exactly a nine-to-five job; if it was light, Dan was at work and if it was dark … well, he’d probably still have things to do.
‘The burden being your gorgeous, caring, well-mannered son?’ I nudged her arm playfully. ‘Poor you.’
‘Good point well made.’ She inclined her dainty head. ‘Come on, stop fannying about or we really will be late.’
She locked the car and set the pace at a swift march across the car park towards the school entrance, where our children would be waiting in the hall. She pulled a bottle of perfume from her bag without breaking her step and spritzed it liberally in a cloud around us both.
‘Sorry, but I honk,’ she said, laughing as I began to cough. ‘I’ve had unprotected sex, two asthma attacks, a vomiting incident in the PE toilets and an unexplained two-inch gash to a forehead and I need to get rid of the smell of disinfectant.’
‘What an image.’ I winced. ‘I’ve made ten pies for the old people’s monthly luncheon and some little gift bags for my mother-in-law for this week’s Women’s Institute raffle. I thought that was enough.’
I’d also sat up half the night in front of the Aga with Rusty as he’d been struggling for breath and too weak to make it up to his usual spot on the landing outside my bedroom door, but I kept that to myself. Anna and I shared everything usually but it would only take the slightest kindness to make me cry; she knew how much I loved that dog.
‘Honestly,’ she went on, ‘being a school nurse in a secondary school is worse than working the Saturday-night shift at A&E. Hold on, nearly forgot.’
We’d reached the bottom of the steps which led to the revolving doors. She stopped to roll up the waistband of her skirt, then pulled a pair of stilettos out of her bag, swapping them for her sensible shoes.
I had to smile; she was thirty-three, but sometimes she acted like the teenager she’d been when I met her. ‘You’ll embarrass Bart doing that.’
‘Pfff. He’s only a baby; he doesn’t notice that sort of thing.’
Somehow I managed to hold my tongue; she was kidding herself there. Poppy said he was very popular with the girls. ‘What are you doing it for, anyway?’
‘Who, you mean. Look out for Bart’s form tutor, Mr Purkiss. I mean, what a name, it’s got purr and kiss in it.’ She winked. ‘Plus, he’s hot to trot.’
That was the other thing about Anna that hadn’t changed: she was always on the lookout for the perfect man.
Inside, the hall was packed with gangs of teenagers, all doing their best to stay with their friends and away from their parents for as long as possible.
Anna scanned the room for her son, while I looked for Poppy. Bart wasn’t difficult to spot; he was tall for his age and had the same white-blond hair as his mother. He stuck his hand up self-consciously, Anna went straight over and I smiled at him, feeling a sudden wave of sadness that his father would never know what an amazing human being he’d helped to create. Bart was the result of a one-night stand early on in Anna’s gap year and she had no way of tracing the father. She’d arrived back in Carsdale with a baby boy. But other than knowing he’d been named after his father, Bart knew nothing about him and I sometimes wondered how he felt not having a man to call Dad.
‘Mum? How’s Rusty?’ Poppy sidled up, her face, under a heavy fringe of auburn hair, was etched with concern. She had a crumpled appointment card in her hand, her shirt was untucked, there were two large holes in her tights and pen drawings all over the back of her left hand. She reminded me of me at her age and my heart filled with love for my only child.
‘Doing okay.’ I resisted the urge to stroke her face, but gestured to her appointment card instead, avoiding her eye. ‘He’s at the vet’s now. Sally’s giving him a full check-over; we’ll find out later. Card please.’
Her fingers brushed against mine as I took the card from her and she gave my hand a quick squeeze. Hugging your mother at school was social suicide, but I could see she was dying to fold herself into my arms.
‘He’ll get through it,’ she said. ‘He gets through everything.’
‘I hope so.’ I looked at my girl, wondering when she’d started sounding so grown-up, and wished I could believe her. She was almost as tall as me now, her blazer was looking a bit tight across the chest and short at the sleeves too; she must be having another growth spurt. Another expense we could do without.
She leaned in towards me. ‘We could just skip this and go and find out?’
‘Nice try. Sally will call us as soon as she knows anything.’ I looked down at the list of teachers’ names. ‘Come on. Who’s first?’
Together we walked into the cafeteria where all the teachers were sitting behind small tables in rows and clusters of eager parents were hanging around trying to jostle for earlier appointment slots.
‘Maths.’ Poppy’s shoulders fell. ‘Ugh. I mean, seriously, who even cares?’
‘I love maths!’ I retorted.
‘I know. Mum, please don’t say that so loud,’ she muttered. ‘It makes you sound weird.’
I mimed zipping my mouth. ‘What’s your teacher’s name?’
‘Mr Purkiss,’ she groaned. ‘He hates me.’
‘I’ve heard he’s hot.’
Poppy gasped in horror just as Mr Purkiss looked up and beckoned us to his table. He half stood to shake my hand. His hands were warm but dry, thank goodness. It was amazing how many teachers got clammy hands during parents’ evening. I could see what Anna meant about him, though: he was quite attractive. In a boyish way. He had floppy dark blond hair and a slim-fitting navy suit, which made the colour of his blue eyes pop. His face was clean shaven and he smelled of something harsh but manly, as if he’d just had a good spritz of deodorant in the staff room.
‘Mrs … Greengrass?’ he said, looking at Poppy for confirmation. She nodded reluctantly, her pretty face slightly pinker than usual.
‘That’s right,’ I said with a smile. ‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Purkiss. Goodness, you’re young.’
Poppy’s jaw dropped. The poor teacher gave a bark of embarrassed laughter. I’d meant that he was young for Anna. And I hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
‘Sorry, ignore me,’ I continued, willing myself not to blush. ‘It just popped out!’
‘No need to apologize.’ He cleared his throat and pulled Poppy’s report from the pile.
I sat down, placing my handbag at my feet to avoid his eye.
‘Not that you’re too young. I’m sure you’re old enough for … well, anything really,’ I blathered on. Poppy looked on the verge of committing matricide. ‘Anything at all,’ I went on with a shrug.
Mr Purkiss looked scared. He scratched his head.
‘Um. You’re young too,’ he said gallantly. ‘You don’t look old enough to be Poppy’s mother.’
‘I was a child bride,’ I said, brushing off the compliment with a wave of my hand.
‘Oh?’ He looked a bit taken aback.
I wondered how to get this conversation back on topic. Once one embarrassing comment slipped out, it was as if the floodgates had opened and there was no end to my ability to humiliate myself and my child.
‘No you weren’t.’ Poppy frowned. ‘You were twenty-five.’
‘I did marry at twenty-five.’ I smiled at Mr Purkiss, who was looking left and right as if he might be contemplating his escape, or possibly looking for a security guard. ‘But I’d already had Poppy by then, at a very young age. A legal age, I hasten to add, I wasn’t fifteen or anything.’ I laughed, to show him that nothing untoward had happened. No crime had taken place. ‘And I did marry her father. I don’t want you to think I was off willy-nilly having affairs during my teenage years.’
Mr Purkiss clasped his hands in front of him and swallowed. ‘I wasn’t thinking that.’
‘No. Why would you?’ I laughed a bit too loudly, aware that my face felt hot. ‘How old are you, incidentally? Asking for a friend.’
‘Oh my God,’ Poppy muttered, sinking low in her chair.
‘Twenty-six.’ He cleared his throat and made a show of finding Poppy’s name on the list in front of him.
I nodded thoughtfully. ‘Not too young.’
That would make it a seven-year age gap. Probably the biggest Anna had had but I don’t suppose she’d say no. I looked across at Poppy who was staring at me as if I’d gone mad. I bet she was wishing I’d stuck to talking about my love of maths after all.
‘So.’ She launched herself forward and leaned on the table that separated us from her maths teacher. ‘Shall we discuss my last test results?’
‘Yes,’ said Mr Purkiss with evident relief.
Five long minutes later I was shaking his now very clammy hand.
‘For the record,’ Poppy said through clenched teeth, ‘Dad can come next time. Not you.’
Forty minutes later, we’d nearly finished. Most of the teachers agreed that Poppy was a bright and competent girl but needed to work harder in school. I could see their point, she could drive the tractor now that her feet reached the pedals, stay up all night to help with the lambing and had her own business selling eggs to the teachers at school, but ask her to analyse a William Wordsworth poem or list the properties of sound waves and she stared at you blankly. She and I both. There was just one teacher left on the list – Poppy’s least favourite. She groaned as Miss Compton beckoned us to her table …
‘It’s simple: you need to engage more.’ Miss Compton was not only Poppy’s form tutor but her English teacher too. She turned to address me. ‘The class was studying A Christmas Carol last lesson and I asked Poppy to pick out an example of use of imagery. She couldn’t answer because she didn’t even know which book we were reading.’
‘Oh dear,’ I replied. It occurred to me to ask why on earth the teacher thought that reading a Christmas story in May would ever interest a class of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, but I managed to restrain myself.
‘But, Miss, there was a pair of robins outside the window, and each time they landed on the fence, their little beaks were stuffed with insects to take back to the nest; I couldn’t stop watching.’ Poppy turned to me for support. ‘Robins make such good parents.’
My heart leapt for my girl; she loved being outdoors, would spend all day on the farm if she was allowed. A Victorian novel would never hold any appeal for her.
‘I’m sure they do,’ I said, ‘but you can see Miss Compton’s point of view, Popsicle.’
I realized my error straight away: never use her nickname in public.
Poppy sunk down in her chair, muttering ‘so embarrassing’ under her breath.
‘Do you even know the main character’s name, Poppy?’ asked Miss Compton.
Poppy tilted her chin. ‘Do you know how many trips per day a robin makes to the nest to feeds its babies?’
‘No, but I don’t need to.’
‘Yeah, well, I feel the same about Dickens.’
The teacher and Poppy glared at each other for a moment and then Miss Compton looked at me for help.
‘Your education is important, especially English; you must concentrate,’ I said firmly, earning myself a nod of approval.
‘What’s the point of reading stuff like that? When am I going to use it?’ Poppy asked, quite reasonably.
‘Well, because …’ I faltered, and smoothed down the front of my shirt while I ferreted about for a suitable reply. ‘You’ll use it when …’
I wasn’t much of a reader either, unless cookery books counted. A few options occurred to me, such as the information might come in handy in a pub quiz, or because it will keep the teachers happy, but before I could formulate something more motivational the teacher leaned forward and cocked her head to one side.
‘Who inspires you, Poppy?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean?’ Poppy’s eyes narrowed.
‘She’s only twelve, she …’ I hesitated, I was about to add that she was only a child but that would have earned me more black marks.
‘Almost thirteen,’ Poppy put in.
‘So?’ Miss Compton continued. ‘Who’s your role model? You’ll leave home one day, perhaps go to university, travel the world; whose footsteps do you want to follow?’
The teacher and I both looked at Poppy and I held my breath. I didn’t for one second expect it to be me; I liked to think I was a good person, kind, happy-go-lucky, but I’d done nothing remarkable with my life, nothing that would seem brave or inspirational to a twelve-year-old. Nonetheless at that moment I’d never wanted anything more.
Poppy’s eyes met mine and she smiled, and my heart began to beat a merry tattoo. ‘Auntie Naomi’s quite cool, isn’t she?’
I swallowed and somehow managed to return her smile. ‘She is.’
Dan’s sister, Naomi, had converted a little row of farm buildings her dad had left her in his will into an award-winning farm shop. She had a head for business, she was good to her staff, gave fantastic customer service and on top of that was the best sister-in-law I could have wished for. And right now I felt inordinately jealous of her.
‘Naomi Willcox, from the farm shop?’ Miss Compton gave a bemused smile. ‘I was thinking of someone a little further afield.’
‘Why?’ Poppy frowned. ‘I don’t get all this “go out and see the world” stuff. What if I like it in Carsdale?’
Poppy and I were alike in looks, but complete opposites in other ways; I’d been dying to leave when I was her age. For once, the teacher hadn’t got a ready response but pulled a face as if she was chewing a wasp. I cleared my throat and picked up my bag from the floor; this discussion wasn’t going anywhere.
‘I take all your points on board, Miss Compton, and my husband and I will see to it that Poppy starts showing more interest in her studies.’
‘Good.’ The teacher started to shuffle her papers. ‘Because her schoolwork has to take precedence over her love of nature.’
Poppy pushed her chair back and stood up. ‘Do you want your usual half-dozen eggs tomorrow, Miss?’
Miss Compton’s cheeks turned pink. ‘Er, yes please, Poppy.’
Poppy nodded. ‘Okay, but you still owe me a pound from last week.’
The teacher fluttered her hand up to her neck and smiled sheepishly at me. ‘I didn’t have any change.’
‘Scrooge,’ said Poppy, hefting her school bag over her arm.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Miss Compton’s head reared up.
‘The main character in that old book,’ she replied innocently. ‘And the answer to my question is up to one hundred times a day.’
‘Oh right, yes.’ The teacher’s blush deepened. ‘Well done.’
One nil to Poppy, I thought, with a rush of pride as we walked out of the school hall.
‘Home?’ Poppy asked, pulling off her school tie and flinging it on to the back seat a few minutes later when we’d made it back to the car.
I grimaced as I did up my seat belt. ‘Sorry, love, shopping first.’
We set off to the sound of Poppy complaining that for once she’d just like to get home at the same time as normal people. She usually travelled on the school bus, which due to its circuitous route took over an hour to reach Sunnybank Farm. I reminded her that at least she’d only got one more day before school finished for a week and promised her a treat if she pushed the trolley for me.
I was keen to get home too but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit a proper supermarket while we were in town. Carsdale only stretched to a couple of little grocery stores, both of which were very pricey, and although I bought local as much as I could to support them, it was nice to do a big shop every now and again.
With Poppy steering the trolley and me tossing item after item into it, we soon managed to accumulate a mountain of food and after half an hour we headed to the tills. The shop was busy and by the time we’d loaded all our shopping on the conveyor belt, quite a queue had built up. Poppy wasn’t keen on packing, so while she retreated to sit on the bench with her pot of pomegranate seeds, chosen as her treat, and check for vitally important messages on her phone, I began loading the bags.
And then an image popped into my head: my little blue purse sitting on the kitchen table.
‘Oh no,’ I said suddenly, with a bolt of panic.
I’d taken my purse out of my bag to pay a bill over the phone this morning. I reached for my bag now, already knowing it wouldn’t be there.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked the cashier, a pale-faced girl who, judging by the long and consonant-heavy name on her badge, may have been Polish.
The other people in the queue stopped to stare as I rummaged in my bag. My phone, car keys, bottle of water and tub of dog treats: all present and correct. No purse.
‘I haven’t brought my money,’ I said, feeling the heat rise to my face. And my armpits. ‘I’m so sorry; I can’t pay for my shopping.’
A collective groan went up from the queue, two of whom had already started unloading their shopping on to the belt. The two behind them pulled away from the queue and dashed to the other open till.
‘No cards at all?’ The girl blinked at me with large worried eyes.
‘Poppy?’ I called, grasping at the ultimate straw; I didn’t even know why I was asking. ‘You haven’t got any money on you, have you?’
Bless her, she reached into her blazer pocket. ‘How much do you need?,’ she said, holding out a handful of coins.
‘Ninety-five pounds,’ said the pale-faced assistant, chewing her lip. ‘You might have enough to pay for the pomegranate.’
Yep. Definitely one of those days.
Poppy strode out ahead with the car keys, leaving me to return the trolley. I stowed the empty shopping bags back in the boot and we headed for home.
Before long we’d left the supermarket and relative metropolis of Holmthwaite behind but my darling daughter was still laughing.
‘Only you could do that, Mum,’ she snorted after she’d finished messaging all of her friends about my disaster. ‘You should have seen your face. You’re hilarious.’
‘You might not think that when you see what’s for dinner,’ I said stoutly, turning on the radio. ‘Check my phone in case the vet has called, will you?’
The smile dropped from her face and she scooped my phone out of my bag, but there had been no word from Sally yet.
‘That probably means he’s absolutely fine,’ Poppy said lightly as we passed what counted as the high street in Carsdale and took the steep lane up towards the farm.
I glanced across at her and my heart squeezed with love for both her and Rusty. She had never known life without him. He’d guarded her proudly when she was a baby sleeping outside in the big old Silver Cross pram which had been Dan’s and Naomi’s before that; and when she’d learned to walk, it had been Rusty who’d stood patiently, letting her grip his fur as she’d planted one wobbly foot in front of the other. Being brought up on a farm had exposed her to the sharp end of both life and death, but Rusty was more than just an animal, he was a big part of our family.
‘I hope so, Poppy, I really do.’
We turned in through the farm gates, rattled over the cattle grid and followed the track between a long sweep of hawthorn hedge. Finally, we rounded a bend and there, amongst the soft hills that led down to the River Esk at the bottom of the valley, and up to the distant peaks that were often snow-covered long after spring had sprung elsewhere, was Sunnybank Farm.
The farmhouse might not win any prizes for design but as far as I was concerned it. . .
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