Icy rain streaks down my face. My pyjamas are soaked through, clinging to my frozen skin. My throat is raw from screaming, fists bruised from battering the back door repeatedly to no avail.
‘Let me in!’ I cry for the hundredth time. ‘Open the door! Please.’ My voice is carried away on the moaning wind, drowned by the creak and swish of the trees. I curl my fingers into a fist once more and pound the wooden door.
The flat within is dark. I don’t even know if he’s still in there. I can’t work out which is worse – the thought that he’s inside listening to my pleas, yet choosing to ignore them, or that he’s left without telling me.
A sharp crack of thunder judders through my bones. A flash of lightning as bright as daylight illuminates my reflection in the kitchen window. I look like a ghost. A spectre of misery. Hair plastered to my head. Face pale as death. Eyes wide.
What should I do? What can I do? I step away from the back door and gaze up at the flat above. It too lies in darkness. But as I squint through the driving rain, I’m startled to make out a shape through one of the windows. A silhouette.
Someone is staring down at me.
I take a deep breath and offer Zac the keys. ‘Do you want to do the honours?’
He accepts them with a nervous grin and inserts the gold Chubb key into the lock, followed by the Yale into the slot above.
I drink in the front of the property – our property – swooning over its gorgeous exterior. The mix of brick and white-rendered facade, the wisteria around the pale-blue front door, the gravel drive and mature trees. Even now, in the third week of September, with everything dying back, with the chilly rain and grey skies, it still feels magical.
I catch a movement from one of the upstairs windows. A twitch of curtain. A shadow. It must be the people in the upstairs flat getting a sneaky look at us, their new neighbours. The estate agent said they were a couple in their early thirties, same as us. Hopefully, they’re nice.
Zac was wary of buying a flat. He’d rather have had a small house in a not-so-nice area. Something about having neighbours in such close proximity put him off. But this place isn’t like that. It’s one big house split into two apartments. We’ve bought the downstairs flat – 15A Mistletoe Lane. Included is the front driveway, a large private rear garden, and a fantastic outbuilding – my new office and storeroom.
The upstairs flat has its own entrance around the side and a private parking spot, but no garden. So even if the neighbours aren’t our cup of tea, we’d barely have to see them. Obviously, it would be great if we all got on. Even better if we became friends. This feels like a fresh chapter for Zac’s and my relationship – new place, new opportunities. A chance to leave the past behind us. It’s exciting.
Even from three roads back, I can hear the roar and pound of the waves. It thrills me to be this close to the beach. Zac wanted to be nearer to the town centre, but I’ve always loved this part of the coastline, having spent time here as a child. Friars Cliff in Dorset is quiet without being boring. It’s beautiful without being too much of a tourist trap. Zac’s mum, Sandra, said that living by the sea is a con invented by estate agents – that it’s always windy, the salt air wrecks the house, and the sand gets everywhere. Not to mention the fact that your money doesn’t get you half as much. But, even though I love Sandra, on this matter I disagree with her one hundred per cent. To me, it’s perfect. Everything I ever dreamed of.
‘Nina? Are you coming in, then?’ Zac’s warm brown eyes beckon.
I realise I’m standing on the doorstep in a dream while Zac has already stepped into the hallway. Suddenly, I’m giddy with nerves and excitement. I can’t wait to get inside, but I’m also a little anxious. The one and only time we saw the inside of the flat was three months ago before we put in the offer. I knew we had to move fast to secure it. Property gets snapped up so quickly in this area. I hope it lives up to my memory.
I follow Zac into the hallway. We walk into the living room on the right with its open fireplace and high ceilings.
‘It’s nice,’ he says, running a hand through his dark blonde hair and grinning at me.
‘Come on.’ He reaches for my hand and pulls me back into the hallway and through to the other large room at the front of the house.
‘Our bedroom.’ I twirl around, arms outstretched.
‘Let’s set up the bed first.’ Zac takes my hand and pulls me close, starts to kiss me. ‘Or maybe we don’t need the bed.’
My body responds, but I’m too impatient to see the rest of the flat to be seduced right now. Too distracted. I pull away gently. ‘Later,’ I promise and pull him out of the bedroom without checking his reaction, which I know will be disappointment.
There’s a small, plain bathroom next door, then at the back of the house are a good-sized second bedroom, a gorgeous dining room with French doors out to the garden, and finally a basic wooden kitchen – not my taste, but we can change it.
‘Okay, so if we’re not going to christen the bedroom right now, shall we start getting everything in?’ That’s the thing about Zac – he doesn’t stay down for long.
He’s a self-employed plumber and heating engineer, so luckily we’ve got his van to move our things from the rental flat. We don’t own a lot of furniture, so it should only take a couple of trips. He’s always super busy, but has managed to book a few days off for the move and it’s great to get to spend some time together. Even if it has been somewhat hectic and stressful.
We raise an eyebrow at one another before turning towards the sound of a man’s voice, followed by a knock at the front door, which we must have left open. I run my fingers through my brown wavy hair, and smooth a hand down my leaf-print shirt and bottle-green cargo pants.
We leave the kitchen, and I follow Zac into the hall where a tall dark-haired man in jeans and a grey sweatshirt is peering through the front door, clutching a bottle of red wine.
‘Hi.’ I give a tentative smile.
He doesn’t respond to me at all. Instead he looks at Zac. ‘Hello. Just thought we’d pop down to say hi. We live upstairs at 15B. I’m Chris Jackson, and this is my wife, Vanessa.’
I smile again, trying to catch his eye. ‘Is it still raining out there? Come in. It’s so good to meet you. I’m Nina Davenport. This is my boyfriend, Zac Ainsworth.’
Chris gives me a fleeting glance and steps over the threshold. He’s followed by a small woman with short ash-blonde hair. She’s carrying a Tupperware box, holding it in front of her as if it were a bomb about to go off.
‘Hi.’ Zac shakes Chris’s hand. We all stand facing one another in the hallway, and it’s ever so slightly awkward for a few seconds.
‘This is for you.’ Chris steps forward and presents Zac with the bottle.
Zac glances at the label. ‘Very nice. Thanks, mate.’ Zac’s more of a beer drinker, but it’s a lovely gesture.
‘Oh, and Ness made you a cake.’
‘Wow, thank you so much.’ I step forward and take the proffered Tupperware box from Vanessa. ‘That’s so kind.’
She gives me a brief shy smile and rests a hand on her rounded stomach.
Chris notices my gaze. ‘Ness is five months pregnant. It’s our first.’
We congratulate them before I remember my manners. ‘Would you like to stay for a cuppa and a slice of your cake? I’ll just have to grab the kettle and mugs from the van.’ I take a step in the direction of the front door. Thankfully, I packed a separate container with items I knew we’d need straightaway.
‘No, that’s okay, we won’t keep you,’ Chris says. ‘Just wanted to say welcome, and if there’s anything you need, please give us a knock. Our front door’s round the side.’
‘Cheers,’ Zac replies. ‘Likewise.’
The Jacksons wave goodbye and leave. Zac and I give one another a look.
‘They seem okay.’ He walks into the kitchen and sets the wine bottle down on the counter.
‘It was lovely of her to make a cake. And it’s so nice that they’re welcoming. Did you notice she didn’t actually say anything? Chris did all the talking.’
‘Maybe she’s shy. Shall we get this stuff in?’
We spend the next two hours unpacking the contents of the van before deciding to stop for a tea break. Zac and I gratefully dig in to Vanessa’s chocolate cake. It’s so good we polish off two slices each. Refuelled, we make the final trip to our old flat, load up the rest of our belongings, and make the return journey to our new home.
The first time I saw the place, I knew it was the one. Love at first sight. Can you say that about a property? Well, I can… After that first viewing, I was a goner. Unfortunately, Zac wasn’t quite as certain. He needed to be wooed. To have the good features pointed out. To be reassured that the electrics could be upgraded. That the overgrown back garden could be tamed into a beautiful private oasis. That the original sash windows were a bonus – who cared that the place might be draughty? No one wants to live in a sealed-in box, right?
My wooing eventually paid off, and here we are after months of rejected offers and mortgage applications, of surveys, and meetings with financial advisers. Of trying to calm Zac as he asked if all this shit was worth it and why we couldn’t just carry on renting. I despaired of Zac and I ever reaching this point.
During the five years we’ve been together he’s always been a free spirit, an eternal traveller, so to get him to commit to a mortgage was quite a big step, especially as he’s never been great with money. He’s definitely more responsible since becoming self-employed, but it’s me who usually sorts out the financial side of things. I think Zac thought that working for himself would give him more freedom than it actually does. Who knows if he’ll ever commit to marriage and babies. Good thing I’m not ready for that either. Not yet anyway.
Owning our own place has always been my dream. I thought we’d be renting forever. It’s taken years of saving to get here and, even now, I can’t believe it’s actually happening. I keep expecting someone to come along and tell us it’s all been an unfortunate mistake and of course you don’t own it. I try not to think about the size of our mortgage and our monthly repayments. No. Today, I’m going to enjoy the feeling that we’ve come this far all by ourselves.
As the van trundles along, the wipers swishing back and forth, I let my mind drift towards the future. Towards what this move means for me and Zac. Although I’m already thirty-one, I feel like this, right now, is the start of my life. I’m going to be working from home on my start-up online fashion store. I created my business just over a year ago, but I had to change the original name as it was too similar to a competitor’s. There was some unpleasantness with them and they threatened to sue. It was stressful and horrible. Zac came up with the idea to rename my company Mistletoe Lane after our new street once we’d exchanged contracts on the flat. It was a total pain to change the name and branding, but I love the new image – it conjures up cosy vibes, luxury and treating yourself, which is what my brand is all about.
This is something I’ve been wanting to do for years, but it’s only now starting to get off the ground, thanks to an investor who sees the potential in me and what I’m trying to do. It’s all quirky curated pieces made ethically and sustainably. I’m also trying to use up-and-coming new designers. I want it to feel fresh and new.
Zac interrupts my thoughts. ‘I think I ate too much of that chocolate cake.’ He changes gear and puts a hand on his stomach which growls so loudly I can hear it over the engine.
‘It was quite heavy.’ His mention of the cake has made me feel queasy. I take a breath. I’ll be glad to get out of the van. I don’t think the motion is helping.
‘I don’t feel too good, Nina.’ All of a sudden, Zac swerves into a layby. The driver in the car behind sounds his horn and throws us an angry glare as he drives past. Before I can ask if he’s okay, Zac flings open his door and staggers out into the driving rain. He’s now throwing up on the grass verge.
Just watching him makes my stomach protest in sympathy. A hot flash of nausea sweeps over me. Oh no. I think I’m going to be joining him. I unclip my seatbelt and edge around the van to another area of grass where I’m violently sick. I can’t remember ever feeling this bad. Not even when I had gastroenteritis from a dodgy shrimp salad in Portugal a few years back. Ugh, why am I even thinking about that?
Once I’ve stopped retching, I look over to see Zac staggering my way.
‘What the hell was in that chocolate cake?’ he croaks.
I shake my head and groan. ‘Cali said there’s a bug going round.’
‘Whatever it is, I feel bloody awful.’
Zac puts a hand on my shoulder and we stare mournfully at one another as cars speed past, and cold rain spatters down our faces.
Of all the ways I imagined today going, this isn’t one of them.
It’s been two days since Zac and I have been able to eat anything other than dry crackers. I’m trying not to take it as a bad omen about our new apartment. It’s just one of those things – bad timing, a story that one day we’ll look back on and laugh about. But I feel so frustrated by what a waste of time this sickness bug has been. Zac’s due to go back to work tomorrow, and we haven’t even made a start on any of the things we said we were going to do, let alone tackled the unpacking. The unopened boxes in every room are just mocking me right now.
I leave Zac sleeping, heave myself out of bed and wobble into the bathroom for a shower. At least we’ve stopped throwing up. Hopefully, we’ll start to feel better soon. We can’t be sure whether it was the Jacksons’ cake or a nasty stomach virus that’s caused our sickness but, either way, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look a chocolate cake in the face again.
As the hot water pounds my body and sluices through my hair, I hear the faint sound of a doorbell. I think it’s ours, but can’t be certain. My immediate thought is to turn off the shower, grab a towel and answer it, but the water feels so good, so reviving. Maybe Zac will get the door. I stand under the jets for a few more seconds before reluctantly turning them off and reaching for my towel. I crack open the bathroom door and listen.
A draught sweeps down the hall from the open front door, making my skin turn to gooseflesh.
‘Mum…’ Zac’s voice is still groggy with sleep.
‘Sorry, love, did I wake you? How are you feeling? I’ve come to give you a hand.’
I relax my shoulders. It’s Sandra. Zac texted her yesterday to say we’re ill, and not to come round for lunch as arranged. But it looks like she’s turned up anyway.
I rearrange my towel, open the bathroom door and step into the hallway to greet her.
‘Nina, love! How are you? I’m so sorry you’ve been feeling poorly.’ Sandra looks up at me from beneath her blonde windswept hair, her soft features pulled into a concerned frown.
‘Hi, Sandra. It’s lovely to see you. Sorry we didn’t get anything in for lunch.’
‘Don’t be daft. I brought you round some clear soup, and picked up something from the pharmacy to help settle your stomachs.’ She waves a couple of carrier bags at me and Zac, then pushes the front door closed behind her. The air settles. ‘It’s blowing a gale out there. Summer is well and truly over.’
I nip back into the bedroom to get dressed in joggers and a sweatshirt, while Zac takes a shower, then I join Sandra in the small kitchen where she’s already started unpacking boxes.
‘You don’t have to do that.’ I gesture uselessly as Sandra unwraps mugs and plates, setting them down on the counter.
‘I want to,’ she insists. ‘I’ve cleaned out these two cupboards, so I’ll start putting things away.’
‘Thank you. You’re so kind.’ I was actually looking forward to finding a home for all our things myself, but right now I don’t have an ounce of energy, so it’s lovely to have Zac’s mum take over. Sandra’s what I think of as a proper mum – she’s warm and friendly, a hugger, a nurturer. I can’t help comparing her with my mother, who’s more polished and considered. Aloof, I guess you’d say. Mum loves her family, but she holds back, concerned with how she comes across. It makes me wonder what I’d be like as a mother…
Zac eventually joins Sandra and me in the kitchen, where she’s already warming up soup in a pan she brought with her.
‘I think this is the first time I’ve felt hungry since we were ill.’ Zac leans back against the counter. ‘That smells great, Mum.’
‘It really does,’ I add.
‘Not too much room in here,’ Sandra comments on the three of us squished into the compact space. She looks up from the cooker. ‘But the view through the window is nice. I think you might have a few fruit trees out there. Looks like plums, pears and apples – lovely. You’ll have to get that grass cut, Zac. You can borrow my mower if you like. That’s if the rain ever stops. Have you met any of the neighbours yet?’
I tell her about our visit from Chris and Vanessa upstairs. I make a mental note to do something reciprocal once Zac and I are better. It would be great if the four of us could become friends. I have hopeful visions of us sharing fun dinner parties and summer barbecues.
‘We think it might have been their cake that made us sick,"