A Merry Little Christmas

An absorbing novel about family, love and friendship from the bestselling author of Last Christmas.With four children, a Christmas cookbook to write, and her mum suffering from dementia, Cat Tinsall has plenty to juggle. When her eldest daughter, Mel, starts going off the rails, Cat has even more on her plate.Pippa Holliday adores her family, although often finds her hands full. When Dan is involved in a terrible accident, Pippa’s world is suddenly turned upside down.Balancing her job as a school teacher with twins and her step-son Steven isn’t easy for Marianne North. With her husband’s ex causing trouble, life is getting even trickier.As Cat, Pippa and Marianne help each other through a difficult year, they’re all hoping for a much brighter Christmas.
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A Merry Little Christmas

   

JULIA WILLIAMS A Merry Little Christmas


   AVON

   A division of HarperCollinsPublishers

   1 London Bridge Street

   London SE1 9GF

   

   Copyright © Julia Williams 2012

   Julia Williams asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

   A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

   This novel is entirely a work of fiction.

    The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

   All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

   Source ISBN-13: 9781847560896

   Ebook Edition © October 2012 ISBN: 9780007443253

   Version: 2015-07-28

   For my gorgeous girls: Katie, Alex, Christine and Steph And in loving memory of Rosemarie Williams

   Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

    Last Year

    December 22

   

   The last rays of a winter’s sunset sent streaks of orange and pink across the white fields. Dusk was settling as a motorbike roared its way through the snowy countryside. Large groups of birds took to the air as it sped past, and flocks of sheep ran wildly round in circles. The sound of the engine echoed down the country lanes, disturbing the chilly peace. The leather-clad rider wore a black jacket with a flaming sword emblazoned on his back which, along with his gold and orange helmet, made him resemble a modern day knight. As the rider stopped at the top of the hill overlooking Hope Christmas, he took off his helmet and stared down into the town. The Christmas lights were still twinkling in the High Street. The lamps from the houses down below gave the place a cosy homely feel, as if the whole town were drawing a collective sigh.

   The rider flexed his hands, and smiled; the words, Dux, on one set of knuckles and Michael on the other, just visible underneath his fingerless gloves. He was good looking, with a dark complexion, devastating cheekbones, curly dark hair which tickled the collar of his jacket, and piercing blue eyes.

   ‘So Hope Christmas, long time no see,’ he muttered. ‘Uncle Ralph was right, it’s a beautiful little place. I shall look forward to renewing my acquaintance with you.’

   He put his helmet back on, revved the engine, and roared down the road and into town, noting the quaint little shops; the antiques market, flower stall, the bookshop and market square where a Christmas tree stood proudly in the centre. The town was deserted, with only one or two brave souls prepared to come out on such a cold night. One of them, a pensioner tootling along on a mobile buggy, stopped to say hello.

   ‘Well, Michael Nicholas, as I live and breathe. Your uncle said you might be coming. It’s good to see you after all these years.’

   ‘And you, Miss Woods,’ Michael smiled a devilishly handsome smile. ‘It’s been far too long.’

   ‘Will you be staying a while?’ she asked.

   Michael looked around him. ‘That, I think depends on who needs me,’ he said.

   ‘I think you’ll find there’s always a need,’ said Miss Woods.

   ‘Then yes, I think I’ll be here a while,’ said Michael, his smile crinkling up to his blue eyes.

   ‘I look forward to it,’ said Miss Woods. ‘Happy Christmas.’

   ‘And to you,’ said Michael, before climbing back on his bike and speeding off to Hopesay Manor.

   It was good to be back.

New Year

   Cat Tinsall unwound the fairy lights from her suddenly bereft Christmas tree, then carefully placed them in the Santa sack which was bulging with the rest of the Christmas decorations. She sat back on her heels and looked out of the large patio door onto her frozen garden, where a lonely looking robin pecked at the crumbs on the bird table. It was a grey cold day, the sort that sapped your soul in early January. She sighed and tried not to feel too bereft herself. Even the Shropshire hills (the view of which was one of the reasons they’d bought this old converted farmhouse when they’d moved up to Hope Christmas four years earlier) were shrouded in grey gloom.

   Christmas, her favourite time of the year, was over once more. The bright shiny new year, which had beckoned so enticingly at Pippa’s New Year’s bash through a happy haze of mulled wine and champagne, now seemed less so; reality being grey and drab in comparison. Noel was already back at work, groaning as he’d left in the dark to look at a project the other side of Birmingham, where he’d be meeting Michael Nicholas, Ralph Nicholas’ nephew, for the first time. The kids were at school (Mel to mock-GCSEs for which Cat had seen no evidence of any revision over the holidays), and Cat herself had a pile of proofs to tackle for her new cookbook, Cat’s Country Kitchen. They’d been guiltily shoved aside in a pre-Christmas planning frenzy, but she knew she could ignore them no longer. She looked at the picture of herself on the front cover – thanks to the power of Photoshop, looking more glamorous and slimmer then she felt right now. No doubt it would add fuel to the tabloids’ ‘Top Kitchen Totty’ moniker that had haunted her since the launch of her first book, Cat’s Kitchen Secrets, three years earlier.

   All in all it had been a good Christmas, Cat thought as she carried the Santa sack up the creaking stairs of their old country cottage, to put back up in the loft later. Even Mel’s moodiness had done little to put a spanner in the works. It was weird how a previously model daughter had morphed into the teenager from hell over the last year. From having once enjoyed a close relationship with her daughter, Cat felt constantly baffled by Mel now. Noel was always telling her she needed to relax and not force the issue so much, but she couldn’t help wanting to find out what was going on in her daughter’s head – while realising that the more she pushed, the further Mel retreated from her.

   It was just that now, with her mum’s dementia having taken her away from them forever, Cat wanted that closeness with Mel even more. One of the most heart-wrenching sights this Christmas had been seeing Louise looking so bewildered as she sat down to join them for Christmas dinner. It still gave Cat such a pang to see her mother like this; to see her refer to Mel as ‘Catherine’, and watch her wander in to help with the turkey, stirred by some memory of Christmases long ago, then stand around with an air of uncertainty saying, ‘This isn’t my kitchen.’ None of this behaviour was unusual, but somehow it was always worse seeing her mother away from the home, where for the most part there could be at least a pretence that things were quite well. Cat knew she should be used to it by now. But she was not, and probably never would be.

   The trouble was, every time she saw her mother, she remembered what they’d had, what they’d lost. It had just been her and Louise throughout Cat’s childhood, a two-woman united team, and Cat had always assumed she would share that same easy closeness forever – and when she had children of her own, replicate it with her own daughters. Mel was proving her wrong about that on a daily basis. Cat tried to think of any major moments of rebellion in her childhood, but there hadn’t been any. There had been no need. She loved her mum, knew how hard Louise had to work, and had no intention of making her life harder than it already was. Whereas Mel … Cat sighed. Where had she gone wrong with Mel? Maybe it was, as Noel seemed to think, that her daughter was jealous of the attention James had garnered as her cooking companion.

   The TV company who’d produced her original series, Cat’s Kitchen Secrets four years ago, had pounced on James when they spotted how often he was in the background helping her out. With his cute (then) ten-year-old goofy grin, cheeky manner and angelic good looks, they’d realised he was ideal TV fodder. Mel, a gawky twelve-year-old, was far too self-conscious to appear on the TV, even though she’d been given the option to.

   None of them could have predicted what a success James would have been. Now fourteen, he was relaxed in front of the camera, and having been a natural cook from an early age, had always showed far more interest in helping her in the kitchen than his sisters. The girls enjoyed baking but couldn’t be bothered to cook a meal, whereas James was developing his own creative ability to cook up tasty food. Although to be fair, his menus did include a lot of pizza and nachos. Consequently, a TV series of his own aimed at kids was in the offing, and he was already (with Cat’s help) writing his second book, James’ Top Tips for Hungry Teens.

   Cat had tried really hard to ensure that the attention hadn’t gone to his head. Luckily James was a down to earth sort, just as happy kicking a football about with her friend Pippa’s sons, Nathan and George, as lording it in front of the TV cameras. And as for writing cookery books, that was clearly far too much effort, so Cat was writing most of it for him. Cat tried to make up for the attention James was getting by focusing as much on the other things the girls did, like Paige’s singing or Ruby’s dancing, and so far they seemed unaffected. Paige was so sure she was going to be on X Factor, and aiming at being twelve going on thirty that she couldn’t care less, while Ruby was still too young to notice.

   Mel, on the other hand was another matter. One by one, she’d dropped the activities she used to enjoy, no longer playing tennis, attending Scouts, or to Cat’s great disappointment, playing the piano. Instead she spent far too much time mooching about in nearby Hope Sadler where she worked in a café at the weekends. On top of that, having initially mixed with a crowd of pleasant, hard-working girls when they’d first arrived in Hope Christmas, Mel seemed to have dropped them all to hang out with the rebels of the year. From what little Cat had gleaned, they seemed to mainly spend their time in the local parks, smoking and drinking. Mel always denied joining in, but Cat had long since given up completely trusting her daughter. Something she’d never before imagined could happen.

   Cat sighed again and climbed up into the loft with the decorations. Time to get back to reality.

   Marianne North drove into the large sweeping farmyard of the home she shared with Gabe, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Their ancient farmhouse had never looked more welcoming. Gabe had been home for a week already. It was difficult for him to take any time away from the farm, so he’d come back early, while Marianne had ended up stuck at her mum’s for pretty much the whole fortnight of Christmas, the longest time she’d spent there since university days. But Mum – feeling cheated that her precious grandchildren had missed their first Christmas at Nana’s (Marianne’s protestations that three-month-old twin babies were pretty nightmarish to take anywhere had fallen on deaf ears and despite an invitation to Hope Christmas, Mum had resolutely refused) – had been so martyred about how the twins’ other granny saw so much more of them that Marianne had had to capitulate and trek down to London this year. Gabe’s mother Jean, whom Marianne knew would miss the twins dreadfully, was fortunately immensely generous and said, ‘I’ll survive without you all. I do get to see the twins a lot more than your mother,’ which was true, especially as she looked after them twice a week while Marianne was working. ‘I had a demanding mother-in-law and always promised I wouldn’t be the same. David and I will have a nice quiet time together alone.’

   Marianne had hugged her with gratitude, and they’d had a pre-Christmas lunch with Pippa and Dan and their family the week before the big day. Marianne had then set off two days before Christmas, and Gabe and Steven had joined them on Christmas Day. Poor Steven had been nearly as bored as she and Gabe were. There was precious little for an eleven-year-old boy to do in the drab London suburb where Marianne had grown up, particularly when he knew no one there. Then Gabriel had taken Steven over to his mum, Eve, for a few days. Eve, though in the past an unreliable mother, seemed in recent years to have sorted herself out, even managing to hold down both a good job and a rich boyfriend, Darren. Gabriel was much more relaxed about Steven visiting her now, and this time around Steven had leapt at the chance to go, Marianne noticed, a little sadly. She worried that since the arrival of the twins, Steven had felt left out, and it must be really hard to take on an extra set of grandparents, who, let’s face it, weren’t really interested in him. Though Marianne noticed, gratefully, that Dad had made huge efforts as far as Steven was concerned, but Mum just couldn’t help herself from cooing over the twins. You couldn’t blame her in a way, she’d waited a long time for grandchildren and then to get two for the price of one … Marianne loved her mother dearly, but it was the sort of relationship that benefited from distance – two hundred miles was just about right.

   ‘Hi Gabe, we’re home.’ Marianne unloaded the car, while the children slept in the back. So much crap for two little people who hadn’t reached the age of two yet; nappies, buggies, car seats, toddler seats for sitting at dinner, two travel cots … And that was without the presents Mum had insisted on buying – a pram set for Daisy and a toy car for Harry – nothing like clinging to stereotypes – as well as countless soft toys, rattles, shiny things with plastic knobs and buzzers on. Marianne felt sure her parents must be nearly bankrupted by the arrival of their twin grandchildren, but nothing she said would stop her mother from buying stuff for them. (‘You can’t spoil babies,’ she’d trilled when Marianne faintly tried to suggest that maybe it was all a bit much.)

   ‘And it’s fab to see you.’

   Gabe. Her heart still did that funny little skipping thing when she saw him standing in the farmhouse doorway in a thick knit sweater and jeans, his dark brown hair slightly mussed up where he’d been running his fingers through it, those deep brown sensitive eyes. She loved that wonderful thrill of knowing he was hers.

   ‘God, I’ve missed you so much,’ said Marianne, burying her head in his shoulder as he enveloped her in a warm bear hug. ‘Never ever let me stay that long with my parents again. Next year they are so coming to us. The twins haven’t slept all week. I’m exhausted.’

   ‘Me too,’ yawned Gabriel. ‘I had a lamb born last night. The mother had gone off in the dark, and it took Steven, me and Patch ages to find her.’

   ‘Did Steven have a good time with Eve?’ Marianne felt a pang of guilt. She should have been back in time for Steven to start back at school – she normally was. But her mum had insisted she stay an extra day and come home on Monday. Steven and Gabe had assured her they could cope, but she still felt bad. Since she and Gabriel had got together four years earlier, she’d always been around for the start of term. It didn’t feel right staying away. But since having the twins and juggling her career with motherhood, Marianne had got used to a familiar feeling of being torn in two.

   ‘I think so,’ something in Gabe’s tone stopped her. He looked pensive, the way he used to when they first met, when Eve had left him and he was coping with being a single dad.

   ‘What’s Eve done now?’ said Marianne.

   ‘You remember that choir school she mentioned back in the autumn?’ said Gabe.

   ‘Yes,’ said Marianne, remembering a conversation about the impossibility of them affording to send Steven to a fee-paying school, however good his voice was.

   ‘She’s persuaded Steven he should try out for it,’ said Gabe. ‘She’s talking about moving up near Middleminster, and having Steven stay with her and Darren at the weekends. That means we’re going to be fifty miles away, and they’ll be on the doorstep. We’ll never see him.’

   ‘What does Steven say?’

   ‘He wants to go,’ said Gabriel. ‘She’s got him so excited about it, and I don’t want to bring him back down to earth.’

   ‘But surely we can’t afford it,’ said Marianne. ‘Even if we all pitched in together?’

   ‘There are scholarships apparently,’ said Gabriel, running his fingers distractedly through his hair. ‘I don’t know, Marianne, I know it’s a big opportunity. But to be away from us? I don’t think I could bear it.’

   ‘Maybe it won’t come to anything,’ said Marianne. ‘After all, he’s got to get in first.’

   ‘True,’ said Gabriel, ‘but he’s a clever boy, you said so yourself, and with your help he could do it. And Darren knows the Head of Music there. Eve seems to think he’s got a really good chance.’

   ‘Then you can’t deny him a shot at it,’ said Marianne firmly. ‘If that’s what he wants to do.’

   ‘I know,’ said Gabriel miserably. ‘I feel really guilty about this, but I don’t want him to go.’

   Pippa Holliday slammed down the phone with uncharacteristic anger. ‘Of all the small-minded, patronising, bloody useless pieces of–’ A clicking to her left reminded her that Lucy was there, so she curtailed the expletive she was going to use and said, ‘Oh Luce, it’s that social worker.’

   Lucy tilted her face to one side and pulled a grumpy face and shook her head.

   ‘No, we don’t like her,’ said Pippa with a smile. Lucy always managed to make her laugh, even when things were really grim. ‘She’s being so unhelpful.’

   Unhelpful. That was one way of putting it. Yes, Pippa understood there were cuts. Yes, she also understood that Lucy’s case was only one of many that Claire King dealt with daily, and yes probably to Claire-I’ve-no-idea-how-you-do-it King, Pippa and her family weren’t a priority, living as they did in a comfortable house with a reasonably good income, and inconveniently Dan was neither an absentee father nor a wife-beater. Pippa knew she didn’t help her case by presenting a calm unhurried manner to the world, but it was the only way she knew of coping with the difficulties life had thrown at her.

   From the first catastrophic moment when she and Dan had been told that their precious longed-for baby daughter had cerebral palsy, and would grow up needing constant care, Pippa had known she would manage, because what other choice was there? Besides, when she, to her everlasting shame, had fallen apart at the news, Dan had been so together, so strong for the two of them, she knew they’d get through it somehow. Without Dan, she doubted she would have been so calm, so capable, so coping. So many men in his position might have walked out on them, but Dan loved their daughter with a constant and devoted tenderness that Pippa could only marvel at and be grateful for. His support and love had kept them all afloat, making huge efforts to ensure the boys never missed out on activities because of Lucy; always trying to be there for hospital visits when he could, and running the farm to boot. Dan. Her perfect hero.

   And they had coped and managed all this time because eventually, after long years and battles, Pippa had organised respite care for her daughter, giving the rest of the family precious time together. Pippa hated to use the word normal – but doing the things that other families took for granted, going for long walks in the country, having a pub lunch without establishing first whether they had disabled access, and having to face out people’s stares. People could be so cruel, even in this allegedly enlightened day and age. And now that was all about to be taken away from them, as Claire bloody King had just informed her that due to a tightening of budgets, Lucy might lose her precious respite care.

   ‘It’s not definite, but–’

   Reading the subtext, Pippa knew Claire thought there were more needy, deserving families than hers. There probably were, but that didn’t make it right. Since Lucy had been going to respite care, Pippa had had some precious time for herself. Not a lot, but enough for her to be able to cope with the demands of her beautiful, gorgeous daughter, and feel she was still looking after her boys and husband too. Without that lifeline she felt she might sink.

   ‘I’m sure you’ll manage,’ said Claire, ‘you’re so calm. And you have so much support. It will be fine.’

   ‘And what if it’s not?’ said Pippa frankly. ‘Having the respite care is what keeps me calm. Without it I don’t know what I’d do.’

   She put the phone down in frustration. There was no point taking it out on Claire. The woman was only doing her job. But still. She looked at her precious daughter, sitting in her custom-made wheelchair, sighing to cheer her up – Lucy had an instinct for sniffing out when Pippa was sad and stressed, which was one of the most lovable things about her – and wondered how they would cope. Lucy was nearly ten now and getting bigger all the time. There might come a point when Pippa couldn’t lift her or bath her, or do all the little jobs she needed. It was like having a toddler for life. A large overgrown toddler, with hormones. For the first time since that terrible day when Lucy had been born, Pippa really felt overwhelmed. What if, after all she couldn’t cope? What would they do then?

   Marianne was simmering a lamb stew on the Aga, in the homely country kitchen she and Gabriel had recently renovated in oak, while the twins sat in their high chairs banging spoons on the table, giggling away at each other. It was a deep and abiding relief to her that they were so happy in each other’s company; they kept themselves usefully occupied when she was busy. It was a wintry Monday afternoon and Gabriel had taken Steven over to have a look around Middleminster. Marianne had thought of coming with them as she wasn’t working, but decided that the twins would probably be too distracting, and it might be better for Gabriel to do this with Steven on his own. She also hoped that it might persuade Gabriel that this was really a good idea.

   She was just serving the twins’ portions into two identical plastic bowls when an animated Steven burst through the door, followed by Gabriel, looking slightly less than thrilled. Marianne was caught afresh with the realisation of how similar father and son were getting. Steven had grown a lot recently and his hair had darkened, and his eyes, though blue, retained something of his father’s look about them.

   ‘So what’s it like?’

   ‘It was fab, Marianne!’ Steven was jumping about with glee. ‘They’ve got a brilliant football pitch and I could get to play cricket too!’

   Steven had started playing cricket the previous summer, and been disappointed to learn that the local secondary school hadn’t got cricket on the curriculum.

   ‘What about the choir?’ laughed Marianne, caught up with his infectious enthusiasm. ‘I mean, that’s the main reason for going.’

   ‘It was cool, wasn’t it, Dad?’ Steven’s eyes lit up. Unusually for a boy, he loved singing – and had a talent for it too.

   ‘Very cool,’ agreed Gabriel, ‘but you have to get in first.’

   ‘We’d better get started on those practice tests, hadn’t we?’ said Marianne, giving Steven a hug. Since the idea of Middleminster had first been mooted in the autumn, she had occasionally run through a past paper with Steven. He was a bright boy, and she saw no reason why he couldn’t get in, but he needed more experience of the entrance tests if he were to stand a chance. Marianne looked at Gabe and gave him an encouraging smile. She knew how hard this was for him. On the one hand, he wanted to give his son the best chance he could have, of course he did. But on the other, Gabe had no desire to lose Steven to a choir school fifty miles away, despite Marianne’s pointing out it was a good opportunity if Steven wanted to take it.

   ‘Mum says Darren knows someone at the school who might be able to help,’ said Steven.

   ‘I gathered that,’ said Gabe. ‘If you’re going to get in, I’d rather you did it on your own merits.’

   ‘So you did like it then?’ Marianne said as Steven disappeared upstairs to play on his Xbox.

   ‘It’s a great school,’ admitted Gabe. ‘And I could see Steven loved it. Hell, I loved it. You should have seen the facilities they have. I think Steven could do well there.’

   ‘That’s good isn’t it?’

   ‘Yes …’ Gabriel had a slightly forlorn look on his face. One she hadn’t seen in a long time.

   ‘I sense a but here,’ said Marianne.

   ‘Eleven is very young to be away from us,’ said Gabriel. ‘I hate the thought of him going away. And if Eve does move up here, we won’t even have him every weekend.’

   ‘I know,’ said Marianne, ‘and I do understand, but if Steven really likes it …’

   ‘And he does,’ said Gabriel with a rueful smile. ‘I’m being selfish.’

   ‘No you’re not,’ said Marianne giving him a hug. ‘You love your son. Which is perfectly natural, and is one of many reasons that I love you. And here’s another.’

   She handed Gabe Daisy’s bowl, and she took Harry’s, and together they fed the twins. It was one of the most fun parts of a hectically busy domestic routine, and one which always made her happy and grateful that she’d found Gabriel four years ago, when she’d nearly left Hope Christmas after Luke Nicholas had broken her heart. As she’d hoped, five minutes of making aeroplane noises for the twins cheered Gabriel up no end, and his mood was much lighter by the time they were clearing up.

   ‘Try not to worry about Steven,’ Marianne said, lifting Daisy out of her high chair and popping her into the playpen that sat in the corner of the kitchen. ‘I know it’s hard, but even with a nod from Darren’s mate, he’s not certain to get in.’

   ‘True,’ said Gabe, carrying Harry to join his sister. ‘And even Eve admitted we can’t afford it if he doesn’t get a scholarship.’

   ‘There, you see,’ said Marianne, kissing him. ‘No need to waste your energy on ifs and buts. It might never happen. Why don’t we just enjoy what we have?’

   Pippa was baking; her kitchen smelling warm, comforting, and safe. It was her default position when stressed. Plus she was part of the volunteer group who kept the local shop open, stocked and supplied with local produce and home baking. The rate she was going today, the shop was going to be well stocked for weeks. She’d spent all morning making chocolate brownies, blueberry muffins, and scones – all to put off facing up to the unpalatable news that Lucy’s social worker, Claire King had given her that morning.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ had been Claire’s opening gambit, ‘but we’re all having to cut our budgets for the next financial year, and one of my more unpleasant jobs has been working out which services have to be cut. One of the options we’re looking at is reducing our respite care packages. It has to go on level of need, I’m afraid …’

   The pause spoke volumes.

   ‘And ours isn’t great enough,’ Pippa said flatly.

   ‘I wouldn’t go as far as to say that,’ Claire was clearly floundering a bit, ‘and I’m not saying this is a definite, or that you’ll lose the respite altogether …’

   ‘But it’s a possibility?’ said Pippa.

   ‘I think it’s more likely that Lucy will be receiving respite care once a month in the foreseeable future, rather than once a fortnight,’ said Claire, ‘and rest assured we will be working hard to sort out an alternative for you, but …’

   But that was no guarantee of help in the long term. Reading between the lines, and given the level of cuts being imposed on social services, it was highly unlikely that Lucy would be having any respite care in a year’s time. Pippa was desperately looking round for alternatives, but as far as she could see there were none. She’d written a letter to her MP, Tom Brooker – without much hope of success, given that it was his party implementing the cuts – and was now trying to drum up support from other parents similarly affected. The trouble was, most of them, like her, were worn down by the years and years of fighting a system that at its best could be brilliant, but at its worst was cold, indifferent and cared little for individual sob stories.

   Her next port of call was going to be Cat Tinsall. With her media contacts, Cat might be able to help, not just Lucy, but the other kids who got help from the Sunshine Trust. And Cat, Pippa knew, would understand. When Cat had first moved to Hope Christmas just under four years ago, they had instantly bonded over children, cooking and how hard it was being a carer. Cat’s mother, Louise, suffered from dementia, and Pippa knew how tough she found it. She empathised with the guilt, the feeling that maybe you could do more, be better, be less selfish.

   ‘Mmm, something smells good. Bad day?’ Dan’s six-foot frame filled the kitchen. He had a way of dominating a room. He’d come fresh from the outhouse where he scrubbed down after milking the cows, before entering the house. He’d been out since dawn and had come back now to have breakfast. Pippa’s heart swelled. However hard life was, she had and always would have Dan. A sudden memory snuck its way into her brain, of her and Dan, lying together in their field at the bottom of the hill on a sunny day, Dan saying quite seriously, ‘Love you forever,’ when Pippa had only just got round to thinking the ‘L’ word. Everything was manageable with Dan by her side.

   ‘How did you guess?’ asked Pippa, lifting her last batch of scones out of the Aga and putting them on the pine kitchen island in the middle of the kitchen, replacing them with muffins. She took a broom out and swept away the mud Dan had brought in with him.

   ‘You always bake when you’re in a bad mood,’ said Dan.

   ‘And you always bring mud in from the farm,’ she said.

   ‘I did wash up,’ protested Dan.

   ‘But you forgot to take your boots off, as usual,’ Pippa rolled her eyes at him.

   Dan responded by picking up a scone and taking a bite. ‘Delicious.’

   ‘Oi, they’re not for you,’ said Pippa. ‘But why don’t you sit down and I’ll make you a cuppa and a fry-up.’

   ‘No, you sit down,’ said Dan, ‘and tell me all about it. What’s that bloody woman done now?’

   ‘Nothing more than usual,’ said Pippa, loving him for so perfectly tuning into her mood. ‘She’s wrung her hands as much as she can, but the upshot is we still have respite care for the short term, but monthly not fortnightly.’

   ‘Well, that’s something at least,’ said Dan.

   ‘I know,’ said Pippa. ‘But it’s the long term I’m worried about. What happens if we lose it altogether?’

   ‘We cross that bridge when we come to it,’ said Dan, handing his wife a cup of tea.

   ‘Why are you always so positive?’ said Pippa. ‘Here I am finding problems, and you go round making out it will all be okay.’ That was Dan all over, her rock, her strength. He always managed to help her see a way through, when she felt overwhelmed.

   ‘One of us has to be,’ said Dan, ‘and you do enough worrying for the pair of us. Something will turn up, you’ll see.’

   ‘Oh Dan,’ said Pippa, suddenly feeling a bit teary. ‘Whatever did I do to deserve you?’

   ‘I don’t know,’ said Dan with a grin, ‘but if I’m allowed another one of those scones, you never know, I might even stick around a while.’

   Cat was on the set of Cat’s Country Kitchen, her new TV show which was due to air in the autumn, when her phone buzzed. She’d been busy talking to Len Franklin the director about setting up a shot of her chopping onions for her Shropshire hotpot, which she was meant to be doing without crying. The phone buzzed insistently again. Damn. She thought she’d turned it off. Cat took it out of her pocket and saw, to her dismay, the school phone number. Her heart sank. Now what had Mel done?

   ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ she said to Len. She hadn’t worked with him before, and found him a little taciturn and unfriendly, so she wasn’t quite sure how he’d take the interruption. ‘Would you mind if I take this?’

   ‘If you must,’ said Len in long-suffering tones. ‘But please be quick, we’ve got a busy schedule and a lot to get through.’

   ‘Thanks,’ said Cat, smiling apologetically at the film crew, and wandered to the back of the studio.

   ‘Hullo, Catherine Tinsall here,’ she said. ‘Sorry to keep you waiting. How may I help?’

   She dreaded phone calls from school, which seemed to be happening with monotonous regularity of late.

   ‘Mrs Tinsall?’ The crisp tones of Mrs Reynolds, the school secretary, always made her turn to jelly. ‘It appears that Melanie is absent from school, and we haven’t heard from you. I take it she is ill?’

   ‘Ill? No of course not,’ said Cat in bewilderment. ‘I saw her off to school myself. Did you send me a text message?’

   ‘Of course,’ said Mrs Reynolds.

   ‘Oh,’ Cat checked her messages. She’d missed one. ‘Yes I did get it. I’m at work, and didn’t pick it up. Didn’t Mel come in at all?’

   ‘Apparently not,’ said Mrs Reynolds frostily. Cat knew it was paranoid, but she always got the impression Mrs Reynolds thought all mothers should stay at home till their children had left school.

   ‘I am so sorry,’ said Cat. ‘I’ll try and find out what’s happened and where she is.’

   She put the phone down, her heart thumping. Bloody hell. She’d had far too many conversations this year with Mel’s form teacher about her bad behaviour, but usually it was about cheeking the teachers, or not working hard enough. She’d even been suspended for a day for being caught smoking. Why on earth would she have skipped school? It was probably because she was due to get her mock results. Mel had been grumpy as hell for the last few days, and judging by how little work she’d done over the Christmas holidays, Cat wasn’t expecting miracles. It was the first time Mel had ever bunked off. That is, if she was bunking off, and not dead in a ditch somewhere. Oh God, Cat thought, what if something had happened to her?

   ‘Don’t even go there, Cat,’ she muttered to herself, and rang Mel’s mobile. Switched off, of course. She sent a text instead. You’ve been rumbled. RING ME, Mum.

   She texted both James and Paige at school, though she knew, technically, they weren’t supposed to have their phones on them.

   Do you know where Mel is?

   No idea. James’ response was swift and to the point.

   Paige took longer to reply.

   Saw her talking to Andy outside school.

   Andy who?

   Dunno was the helpful response.

   Great. Thanks for nothing, Paige.

   ‘Ahem, if we could get on?’ Len was tapping his watch, the film crew were looking bored, and Cat was conscious everyone was looking at her.

   ‘Yes, of course, nearly done.’ Cat made one last phone call.

   ‘Noel, I’m really sorry to do this, but Mel’s bunked off. I’ve no idea where she is and I was due on camera five minutes ago. Can you deal with it? I assume she’s in town somewhere. Possibly with a boy named Andy.’

   ‘Cat–’ began Noel.

   ‘I know, I’m sorry,’ said Cat, ‘I’ll get away as soon as I can, I promise.’

   ‘Okay, leave it with me,’ said Noel, ‘I’ll go out on a recce.’

   ‘Thanks,’ said Cat. ‘I owe you.’

   ‘Again,’ said Noel, who had, she realised guiltily, been picking up more of the domestic slack than her of late. ‘I’ll bloody kill her when I find her.’

   ‘Not before I do,’ said Cat.

   ‘When we’re ready,’ interrupted the director, sharply.

   ‘Ready,’ said Cat, turning her phone off.

   She allowed the make-up girl to touch up her face, and stood in front of the shiny hot plates on which she was about to demonstrate making her twist on a traditional Shropshire stew.

   ‘Hello and welcome to Cat’s Country Kitchen, where I’ll be showing you recipes old and new from Shropshire, the food capital of Great Britain,’ she said, trying with all her might to forget about errant daughters and concentrate instead on cooking. After all, that’s what she got paid for.

   ‘And, cut.’ Eventually Len was satisfied. It seemed to have taken ages to get the exact shots he’d wanted, and Cat had been itching to get off the premises for the last half hour. As soon as she decently could, Cat made her excuses and, heart hammering, dashed to the door. She switched her phone back on, to one text message from Noel: Got her. Thank God for that. Cat felt herself unwind slightly. At least Mel wasn’t in danger. But now she knew they were going to have the sort of confrontation Cat always dreaded, with Mel screaming in their faces and her losing her rag. She tried to stay as calm as Noel somehow managed to, but Cat found herself bewildered by their daughter’s unreasonable behaviour. Mel had everything she wanted, why did she have to put them through the mill like this?

   Noel was always saying she should try and see it from Mel’s side more. Mel would no doubt say that she had everything but her mum’s time, Cat reflected. Guilt, guilt, guilt. Her default position. They’d left London so Cat could spend more time with the family, so how was it she seemed to spend less? And now there was more guilt, when she discovered Noel had had to leave an important meeting with Ralph Nicholas’ nephew, who had just joined the firm. If it had been Ralph, Noel was sure he would have understood, but Michael Nicholas was still an unknown quantity according to Noel, and while he hadn’t said anything, Noel had felt awkward about curtailing the meeting to deal with an absconding teenager.

   ‘Next time, it’s your shout,’ said Noel. ‘I can’t keep doing this.’

   ‘I know, I know,’ said Cat, thinking well, I can’t either. The trouble was she had been so busy filming over the last few months she had dropped lots of balls into Noel’s lap, from dental appointments to meetings with Mel’s teachers. She sighed and wished more than ever Louise hadn’t become ill. Life in Hope Christmas with Louise on hand to help out would have been perfect.

   ‘So where was she?’ asked Cat while rooting around in her bag for her keys.

   ‘I found her in the café,’ said Noel. ‘They were a bit dim, really. It wasn’t hard to track them down.’

   ‘And where’s Mel now?’ said Cat.

   ‘In her room, sulking,’ said Noel.

   ‘Oh joy,’ sighed Cat. ‘I’ll be home soon.’

   She got in the car and put her foot down, and soon found herself escaping the gloom of Birmingham’s high rises for the snow-capped hills of her adopted county.

   ‘Blue remembered hills indeed,’ she murmured, as she drove down the main road towards Hope Christmas, seeing the hills she and Noel loved to walk on looming in the distance. It was a grey winter’s day, and shafts of light streamed out underneath the louring clouds, as she sped her way home.

   Snow had started to fall as she finally drove into the large gravel driveway in front of their oak-beamed house. Their home in Hope Christmas was so different from their London abode – a converted farmhouse with a fabulous kitchen, its gleaming modern steel apparatus still managing to retain a traditional feel when married to grey flagstones and marble-topped work surfaces; creaking stairs, wooden beams, and a huge wood burning stove in the middle giving it a cosy aspect, particularly on a gloomy January day, like today.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ said Cat as she walked through the door, into their lounge, where the fire was already lit and the sweet smell of wood smoke filled the room, ‘I just couldn’t get away.’

   ‘No worries,’ said Noel, looking vaguely up from his laptop. He pushed his glasses up his nose in an absentminded gesture and smiled in a way that still made her go weak at the knees. ‘At least I found her.’

   ‘Did she say why she did it?’

   ‘Nope,’ said Noel with a sigh, rifling his fingers through his greying hair. ‘I read the riot act, and all that did was produce floods of tears. I couldn’t get her to say a word about what she’s been up to. So I’ve just left her to stew on it. Now might be a good time for some softly softly.’

   Okay, time to gird her loins. Cat made her way to the top of the house, and to Mel’s low-beamed bedroom where she spent a huge amount of time in splendid teenage isolation. She disappeared up there for hours, plugged into either her iPod, her phone, or her laptop. (Cat was vaguely aware Mel had an anonymous blog, but she had no idea what it was called and despite her massive curiosity about it, at Noel’s suggestion had kept away – ‘Give her some space,’ Noel was always saying, ‘if you read her blog, it will be the equivalent of your mum reading your diary.’ Except she’d never written anything worth hiding from her mum in her diary. At fifteen, Louise had known all Cat’s secrets.) Mel was only secretive as far as Cat was concerned, hiding anything dodgy on Facebook, and chatting to God knows who on BBM, and for all Cat knew making a bunch of unsuitable friends.

   It had been so different when they’d first got to Hope Christmas, four years earlier. Having been bullied at her old school, Mel had been happy to fall in with a bunch of self-confessed geeks, and not felt the need to worry about it. But in the last year Mel had drifted away from them, becoming close to a girl called Karen whose entire raison d’être seemed to be going out and getting as drunk as possible. She hadn’t been a very good influence in Cat’s opinion – but she didn’t dare say so. The more Cat and Noel criticised Karen, the more intransigent Mel got.

   ‘May I come in?’ Cat poked her head round the door. Mel was lying on her bed looking moody, listening to her iPod.

   ‘Suppose,’ was the ungracious response. ‘But if you’re going to give me a lecture, it’s okay; Dad’s already done the third degree. And now I’m like, grounded, forever.’

   ‘Mel, what did you expect?’ said Cat, her hackles rising. ‘You weren’t at school and we were worried about you. You can’t just bunk off because you don’t feel like going in.’

   ‘I was okay,’ said Mel.

   ‘Yes, but we didn’t know that,’ said Cat trying to keep her voice level. ‘And besides, until you’re sixteen you have to go to school every day, like it or not.’

   Mel just grunted, and shifted awkwardly on the bed.

   ‘So who’s this boy then?’ said Cat after a pause.

   ‘A mate,’ said Mel.

   ‘Does his mum know he’s been bunking off, too?’

   ‘He’s not at school,’ said Mel.

   ‘Christ, how old is he?’ Mel was still only fifteen. Cat had visions of her dating a twenty-one-year-old.

   ‘Nineteen,’ said Mel sulkily. ‘And before you go off on one, he’s got a job.’

   ‘So why wasn’t he at work?’ said Cat.

   ‘Day off,’ said Mel.

   ‘And what does he do?’

   ‘Farm labourer,’ said Mel. ‘He works for Pippa sometimes.’

   At least that was something, Cat supposed, making a mental note to quiz Pippa about him later.

   ‘Well, I can’t say I’m impressed that you’ve found yourself a boyfriend who’s encouraged you to bunk off,’ said Cat. ‘Tomorrow, I want you to go into school and write a letter of apology to Mrs Carter. And I shall be taking you into school for the rest of the week to make sure you get there.’

   ‘But, Mum,’ wailed Mel. ‘I’m not a kid anymore.’

   ‘But Mum, nothing,’ said Cat. ‘I’ll treat you like a grown-up when you learn to behave like one.’

   ‘That’s so unfair,’ said Mel.

   ‘That’s as maybe,’ said Cat, ‘but it’s still what’s happening.’

   She left Mel still in a strop, no doubt texting the whole world to complain about her lot in life, and made her way downstairs with a heavy heart. Sometimes she felt like her daughter was an alien from another planet. When Mel was little Cat had never imagined that she would ever think it, but life had been so much easier when she was five.

   Pippa had just parked on the village square, outside Hope Christmas Community shop – known locally as Vera’s (in tribute to Vera Edwards who ran it with her husband Albert) – to deliver her baking, when she saw Marianne’s slight form struggling with her double buggy in the doorway. Like a lot of buildings in Hope Christmas, it was quaint and old, but not terribly baby friendly. Pippa put down her boxes of cakes and ran over to help. Marianne smiled her thanks as she pushed the twins into the dark interior of the shop. Her dark curls were held up in a loose ponytail, and her blue eyes looked pale and tired.

   ‘You look done in,’ said Pippa, following her in with the cakes.

   ‘I am a bit,’ said Marianne. ‘The twins are teething and they keep taking it in turns to wake up. Thank God I’m not teaching today. Otherwise I would have been a zombie.’

   ‘Have you time for a coffee?’ Vera’s was not only a thriving village shop and post office, but it also housed a café run by volunteers which was the hub of the local community. Thanks to their help, Vera had been able to keep her post office going when it was under threat of closure.

   ‘That would be great, thanks,’ said Marianne, settling herself down at a creaky table by the window overlooking the village square, which allowed enough room for her to fit the buggy in. Luckily the twins appeared to have dozed off.

   ‘I’ll just give the cakes to Vera,’ said Pippa, ‘back in a minute.’

   She went over to the counter, handed over her cakes and ordered their drinks at the same time, before going back to join Marianne.

   ‘How are things?’ said Marianne. ‘Sorry I haven’t seen much of you since I’ve been back from London. As soon as I’m back in work mode, I don’t know what happens to the days. And yet when I’m home with the twins I couldn’t tell you what I do all day.’

   ‘I remember that feeling very well,’ laughed Pippa. ‘The upside of the kids getting bigger is that I do have a bit more time.’

   ‘Oh, and thanks for looking after Gabe when I was away,’ added Marianne. ‘He and Steven would probably have lived on baked beans if you hadn’t fed them every other night.’

   ‘Looking after Gabriel is my default position,’ laughed Pippa. ‘I’ve been doing it since he was a baby.’

   Though Pippa and Gabriel were cousins, having been brought up on neighbouring farms, they were closer than many siblings. Now that their respective parents had retired, Pippa and Dan ran one farm, and Gabriel the other, and each helped the other out when they could.

   ‘Have you heard any more about Lucy’s respite care?’ said Marianne. ‘I know you were waiting for a call before I went away.’

   Pippa pulled a face. ‘She’s only going to get monthly help instead of fortnightly, but at least they haven’t cancelled it altogether. For the moment the Sunshine Trust is still guaranteeing its respite care, but it’s only a matter of time. It’s a small independent centre which is mainly funded by charitable donations, and the respite care is funded by Social Services. With all the cuts I can see them pulling the plug.’

   ‘But that’s outrageous,’ said Marianne. ‘What will happen to all those families?’

   ‘I know,’ said Pippa. ‘It makes me so angry, but what can I do?’

   ‘Can you get together and find some private support?’

   ‘In this day and age?’ said Pippa. ‘No one has any money. But if the money could be found to support the respite care package, then maybe the Trust can still provide it. I’m thinking of starting a campaign, but I’m not sure it will make any difference.’

   ‘That’s not like you,’ said Marianne. ‘Come on, you’re the campaign queen. Look at this place – it wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for your help.’

   Pippa looked around at the busy shop, bursting with produce from local farms – hers included – and the café, packed as it was with a combination of local mums and the occasional brave winter walker. It was true that without Pippa, the campaign to help save Vera’s livelihood wouldn’t have happened. But that had been four years ago, and there had been a lot of water under the bridge since then.

   ‘I know,’ said Pippa. ‘But I’m so tired. I’ve been fighting and fighting for every scrap of help I can ever since Lucy’s been born. I’m not sure I have the energy to fight anymore.’

   ‘Well, let us help you, then,’ said Marianne. ‘Come on, you can’t give up on Lucy now.’

   ‘Your friend’s right,’ a leather-clad man sitting at the next table suddenly butted in. He was good looking, with dark tousled hair and deep blue eyes, and a captivating voice. Pippa thought she spotted tattoos on his knuckles; not the usual sort you got in Hope Christmas. ‘You owe it to your daughter to keep on fighting.’

   ‘And what do you know about it?’ Pippa bristled. How dare this stranger tell her what to do?

   ‘More than you’d think,’ said the stranger, touching his nose and giving her a wink. He got up to go. ‘I’d say nothing’s impossible till you’ve tried it.’

   And with that, he was gone.

   ‘Well of all the–’ said Pippa in disbelief. ‘What business was it of his, the cheeky sod?’

   ‘Maybe,’ said Marianne, ‘but he did have a point.’

   ‘I suppose,’ said Pippa gruffly.

   ‘And did you see how good looking he was?’ grinned Marianne. ‘Ladies of Hope Christmas, beware! Trouble’s coming!’

   Pippa laughed. For some reason, she suddenly felt better, as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders for a while.

   ‘Okay, then,’ she said, ‘what do you think my plan of action should be?’

   ‘We’re off for a stroll up the hill,’ said Gabriel brightly, to Steven who was crouched over his Nintendo DS. ‘Care to join us?’

   ‘Do I have to?’ whined Steven. ‘It’s cold out there.’

   ‘It will be refreshing and good for you,’ said Gabriel. ‘We should make the most of the moment. We haven’t had many opportunities to get out recently.’

   ‘Come on, Steven,’ said Marianne. ‘It’s been ages since all of us have done anything together.’

   ‘We can’t do anything with babies,’ grumbled Steven, but Marianne sensed he was weakening. Steven loved his baby siblings, and it was rare for him to moan about them. ‘They don’t do anything.’

   ‘So, we need you to keep us company,’ cajoled Marianne, she was always careful to make sure Steven knew how important he still was, and that the twins hadn’t replaced him. ‘The twins can’t tell us interesting facts they’ve discovered.’

   One of the joys of being in Steven’s company was that he had an encyclopaedic brain and could trot out all manner of fascinating information about anything from astronomy to what really happened to the dinosaurs. But more and more of late he had retreated into himself and wouldn’t tell them anything.

   ‘Go on,’ said Gabriel. ‘You never know, you might even enjoy it. Plus Patch needs you too. You could bring your sledge, and take it down the valley if you like.’

   ‘Oh, okay,’ muttered Steven, going off to get ready, while Marianne and Gabriel went to wrap the twins up warmly and put them in their backpacks. It took forever to get sorted, but eventually they set off up the lane.

   Having the twins with them meant they couldn’t take the more difficult paths, so they kept to the lower slopes, which had the advantage of meaning Steven didn’t moan quite as much as he might have done if they’d made him climb up the really steep bits.

   But Marianne thought wistfully of the walks she used to take before the twins arrived. Then she hadn’t thought twice about heading off up to the top, walking on her own among the heather and the sheep for several hours. She wouldn’t be without the twins for a minute, but she was taken aback sometimes at the feelings of resentment that sometimes came from nowhere. It seemed to have got worse since she’d gone back to work. She had naively thought she’d just slot back into being a teacher, just the way she had done before. No one had told Marianne that it wasn’t that straightforward; no one had prepared her for the feelings of been split in two, feeling she was neither doing the job she loved well, nor wholeheartedly enjoying her babies. She hadn’t figured on feeling that resentful about the loss of her freedom when she was pregnant, and she felt guilty for it. And for the first time Marianne appreciated Eve, Gabriel’s first wife, who, woefully unsuited as she had been to life as a farmer’s wife, had been trapped by being a mother. Marianne loved her country existence, but at times felt stifled by the twins. Thank God for Gabe’s mum, Jean. Without her help, Marianne would have gone nuts by now. And she also felt guilty about Steven, aware she was giving him less attention since the twins arrived. No wonder he was stroppy with them.

   Only not today. They arrived at the end of the path that led onto a large slope which led them straight back down into the town. Steven whooped when he saw that it had become pretty much like an ice rink. Luckily for Gabe and Marianne there were steps and a banister to hold on to so they could get down safely, while Steven leapt on his sledge and went hurtling down to the bottom of the hill. He was in his element, his face flushed with exertion, his eyes bright and sparkling. Particularly when Pippa’s husband Dan showed up with Steven’s cousins, Nathan and George.

   ‘That was brill!’ he said running over to them, with an enthusiasm they hadn’t seen in months. He gave Gabe a hug and ran straight back up the hill with his sledge.

   ‘I feel exhausted just watching him,’ said Gabriel with a grin.

   ‘See,’ said Marianne squeezing his hand. ‘He is still ours. He’s just growing up and we need to give him some space.’

   ‘You’re probably right,’ said Gabe, and together they watched Steven having fun as the sun set on a snow-filled field, while the twins slept cosily in their backpacks behind them.

   Being a mum was definitely tough, Marianne thought, and it required huge sacrifices, but moments like this made it all worthwhile.

   ‘So how exactly can I help?’ Cat Tinsall had tucked her tiny frame behind the ancient oak table which had been in Pippa’s family for generations, and was nibbling on a muffin and sipping a cup of hot chocolate. ‘I have to say, this is the perfect combination on a cold and windy January day. These muffins are delish. Can you give me the recipe?’

   ‘It’s only my mum’s, which I adapted,’ said Pippa.

   ‘The best kind,’ grinned Cat. ‘Anyway, tell me what’s going on.’

   One of the things that had endeared Pippa to Cat on first meeting her was her can-do mentality. She was willing to help out at the drop of a hat, and frequently had Nathan and George over, without ever asking for anything in return.

   ‘Well, like I said on the phone, it looks like we’re losing Lucy’s respite care,’ said Pippa. She was sitting opposite Cat, cradling her cup of chocolate, and feeling very gloomy. ‘And I’m not sure what to do about it. I want to get a campaign up and running to save the services, but I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference. After all, everything’s being cut at the moment. Who’s going to care about one family’s small problems …’

   Her voice trailed off miserably. Pippa was trying to keep positive about it, but she was a realist. The money had run out. Simple as. And Lucy was only one of many many people who needed help.

   Cat whistled sympathetically.

   ‘What a nightmare for you,’ she said. ‘As if things weren’t tough enough.’

   ‘Apparently, I’m one of the lucky ones,’ said Pippa. ‘Other people have it worse. At least I’ve got Dan, and the boys are really good and helpful. They could easily resent the time it takes to look after Lucy and they don’t – or they don’t seem to. Of course, I could be in for a whole load of teenage angst, but it hasn’t happened yet.’

   ‘Be thankful they’re boys,’ said Cat. ‘James is a dream compared to the girls. Mel’s a total nightmare at the moment, and all Paige wants to do is read magazines, wear lots of make-up and listen to rap music with inappropriate lyrics.’

   Pippa laughed. ‘It’s not that bad, surely?’

   ‘Worse,’ said Cat. ‘I swear Paige speaks a language all of her own. Have you any idea what “bad boy” or “peng” mean?’

   Pippa looked understandably blank.

   ‘Me neither. And as for calling me a “swaggerdon”, I have no idea what she’s on about most of the time.’

   ‘Ah, that I do know,’ said Pippa. ‘It’s from The Only Way is Essex. I think it’s meant as a compliment.’

   Cat laughed, ‘Well, you could have fooled me.’ She sat back and had another sip of her chocolate. ‘I do love your kitchen, it’s just the way a farm kitchen should be.’

   ‘What – old and falling down?’ chuckled Pippa, taking in the ancient welsh dresser with the soup tureen inherited from her great grandmother, the kitchen range that looked like it came out of the ark, and the worn-out flagstones.

   ‘It has character,’ said Cat. ‘I like it. Anyway, back to Lucy. Have you had any thoughts about what you can do? I’ll help in any way I can.’

   ‘I’ve written to the local MP,’ said Pippa, ‘but funnily enough – him being part of the government making the cuts – have had no response, so far. And I’m in the process of sorting out a petition. But what we really need to do is figure a way that the centre Lucy goes to can be self-funded and run at a profit. The basic problem is lack of funds – it needs to be able to keep offering the same services, but Social Services are cutting their budgets, and I’m not sure there are any charities who’d be able to step in.’

   ‘Any of the private care companies shown an interest?’

   Pippa pulled a face.

   ‘I don’t know if that would help. I’m a bit cynical about these companies. You don’t read much good about them in the papers.’

   ‘The one that runs Mum’s nursing home seems okay,’ said Cat.

   ‘Still,’ said Pippa. ‘I was thinking of more of a kind of cooperative. If the people who actually benefit from the centre could also be involved, that would be brilliant. But money’s a problem …’

   ‘Isn’t it always,’ said Cat.

   ‘So the only thing I can think of for now, is to run a major PR campaign and raise the centre’s profile, and find out if there is a way to get it to self fund. But these services are expensive. Dan and I could pay some of the cost towards Lucy’s care, but lots of the families who use the centre can’t. They need help too.’

   Cat thought about it.

   ‘I’ve always been a bit reluctant to use my mum for the purposes of newspaper articles,’ she said carefully, ‘but I think everyone who cares for someone else is in the same boat. I’ll pitch an article about caring to a few of the mags I write for if you like, and see if I can somehow write a feature about the centre, if you think that would help?’

   ‘Anything would be fantastic,’ said Pippa. ‘Although I feel a bit shameless, picking my famous friend’s brains.’

   ‘I’m hardly that famous,’ laughed Cat, ‘and besides, we’re mates. You and Dan made Noel and I feel so welcome when we came here. I’m happy to help.’

   Cat slowly drove into the home where her mother lived on the other side of Hope Sadler. It was a bright modern building, on the edge of an old estate, so every room had a view of the impressive gardens that had one day belonged to a long-forgotten local gentleman. It was a lovely location, and Cat was really grateful for the care her mum had received. The home she’d been in briefly in London hadn’t been up to much, and getting Mum up here had assuaged a lot of Cat’s guilt about being unable to look after Louise. She knew it wasn’t practical, but still, she wished she’d been able to.

   Ruby had come with her today. Cat never forced the kids to see Louise but she was grateful that even though they referred to her as ‘Mad Gran’, they all still loved and accepted Louise the way she was, and came to see her when they could. Even Mel took herself over here on the bus from time to time. As it happened, Ruby was quite happy to prattle on about what she’d been up to, regardless of the fact that Granny didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, or could barely remember her name. It made visiting easier.

   It was getting harder and harder visiting Mum. For a start there was the sheer loneliness of knowing that she could no longer reach her mother in the way she once had. They had been so close once, and Cat missed her mother’s wisdom. Louise would have known how Cat should deal with Mel, and Cat felt all at sea without her support. Noel was much more relaxed about it. He too had been a rebel in his teens and kept telling Cat that Mel would get over it, which was probably true. But, Cat felt a massive failure for not having managed to create the same strong mother and daughter bond she’d enjoyed with Louise before her illness. Guiltily, she felt she’d let Mel down somehow, and the further Mel retreated from her, the less certain Cat was that she would ever get her back.

   Their latest row had been about Mel’s mock results which, as predicted, were abysmal. Mel’s response to being told off was to spend even more hours out of the house, presumably at Karen’s, though Cat never knew if she was there, because Mel barely deigned to tell her. Andy’s name hadn’t been mentioned again, and if Cat tried to broach the subject, Mel clammed up, leaving Cat worrying why her daughter was being so secretive about it. Short of locking her in her room to prevent her going out, Cat didn’t know what more she and Noel could do.

   Cat and Ruby knocked on Louise’s door, and found her sitting in her chair, rocking back and forth slightly, as was her wont.

   ‘Hallo, dear,’ said Louise with unseeing eyes. ‘How nice of you to come. I’m waiting for my daughter, she’ll be here soon.’

   ‘I am your daughter,’ said Cat, holding up the picture of the family which she kept by the bed for this express purpose. ‘See, here I am, it’s Cat. And here’s Ruby, your granddaughter.’

   ‘What, this little girl?’ said Louise. ‘My granddaughter? Well I never.’

   ‘Hallo Granny,’ said Ruby, ‘I made you a picture.’

   Cat could have hugged her for taking it in her stride.

   ‘How lovely. What a kind little girl you are,’ said Louise, ‘My granddaughter. Amazing.’

   Ruby rolled her eyes at Cat, and said, ‘Yes, Granny,’ before proceeding to rattle off a manic account of her week, which mainly consisted of the fact that Maisie Cordwell was really mean and it was unfair the boys got to play football and the girls didn’t.

   Towards the end of her visit, Louise asked to go in the lounge.

   ‘I need to see Alfie,’ she said. ‘We’ve got a date.’

   Cat grinned. One of the few good things to come out of Louise’s condition recently had been meeting up with Alfie, a fellow Alzheimer’s patient. They could barely remember each other’s names, but they seemed to get on like a house on fire.

   ‘Of course you do,’ said Cat. ‘Here, let’s take you down.’

   Taking her mum’s arm, she gently led her downstairs to the lounge where several of the residents were assembled to hear the piano being played by an equally elderly gentleman.

   Alfie, a dapper eighty-year-old, whose tidy appearance belied the vagueness of his mind, came straight up to Louise and pecked her on the cheek.

   ‘Hello me darling,’ he said. ‘Let me take you on a spin around the room,’ and with that he took Louise into his arms, and led her in a waltz, lustily and tunelessly singing ‘Daisy Daisy, give me your answer do!’, while Louise spun round with him looking pink and flustered. She’d clearly forgotten they were there. Cat grinned. ‘Time to go, Ruby,’ she said, ‘I don’t think Granny needs us anymore.’ It wasn’t all bad. Mum was safe and warm and well cared for. Things could be a lot worse.

   Marianne rushed into the staffroom, five minutes late for the staff meeting, conscious that her curly dark hair was rebelliously falling out of the clips which she’d shoved back into them, after Harry pulled them out just before she’d left for work. She was late because Daisy had smeared porridge down her top, necessitating a quick change. In fact she wasn’t the only member of staff to arrive after the official time of the meeting’s start, but the way Mrs Garratt, the new Head teacher of Hope Christmas Primary School, looked at her, made Marianne feel that she was a real lightweight.

   Mrs Garratt had been brought in by the governors as ‘a new broom’, according to Diana Carew, after the previous incumbent had left under a slight cloud involving missing amounts of money that the bursar couldn’t account for, but she seemed keen to sweep everything else clean too.

   Marianne’s mood didn’t get any better when, during the course of the meeting, she had to admit that she wouldn’t be able to help on the Year 4 residential trip to the Black Mountains, as it coincided with a week when Jean and David were away, so she had no childcare. Ali Strickland, who had taken over as Year 4 coordinator while Marianne had been on maternity leave, looked smug as she took over and explained to everyone where the trip was taking place, and what the schedule was. She was taking credit for a trip that Marianne had organised the previous year, before she went on maternity leave. She’d left it all ready for Ali just to pick up the pieces, but unfortunately the original date had fallen through, and without telling her, Ali had rebooked for a date Marianne had been unable to attend. Marianne could see from the slightly pursed look on Mrs Garratt’s face that her lack of commitment had been noted. Mrs Anderson might have had her hand in the till, but at least she’d understood about family life.

   In a way, Marianne couldn’t blame Ali. Theirs was a small village school, and there were precious few opportunities for promotion. Marianne had just about managed to negotiate a part-time job share with Jane Sutherland, who’d had a baby the year before her, but Mrs Garratt had made it clear that the situation could be reviewed at any time. Her view was that part-time teachers were not the most effective way of managing staff maternity leave, and Marianne felt conscious that she was under the microscope, the previous five years’ worth of dedication she’d given to the school seeming to count for nothing. But, it was money, she was still hanging on by her fingertips, and for now, Marianne had to be content with that.

   She became vaguely aware the meeting was winding up. Marianne was so tired, she had not exactly been dozing, but her mind had certainly been elsewhere, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation she heard Mrs Garratt saying, ‘So, Marianne, I understand it is normally your job to put on the local nativity. Can we count on you to help the community out again this Christmas?’

   Biting back the retort that, if Mrs Garratt was really interested in the community, she would have known that Marianne had put on the nativity as usual only a month ago.

   ‘Er, to be honest, I haven’t given it much thought,’ said Marianne. ‘I’ve only just got over last year’s efforts.’

   ‘I understand,’ said Mrs Garratt, ‘and I appreciate it’s a long way off, but I was just thinking it would be an excellent opportunity for Ali to show us what she’s made of. So I thought that perhaps next year, we’ll hand it over to her.’

   Marianne had in fact been thinking that putting on the nativity was a bit much now she had family commitments, but the idea that something she’d put her heart and soul into over the last few years could just be taken away from her like that was a further kick in the teeth.

   Miserably, she went to her classroom, and started writing up the literacy topics for the day. Once upon a time she’d loved this job, now she was beginning to hate it. What’s more, every day she was here was a day away from the twins. She felt like she had the worst of all possible worlds.

Mel

   FACEBOOK status Karen. Message me. Urgent!!!

   Kaz: What’s up babe?

   Mel: Andy. ONLY TOLD ME I’M FIT.

   Kaz: WOW!!! What about Kelly R thox? :-S

   Mel: Kelly who? She’s history.

   Kaz: You’re sure?

   Mel: Totes. He thinks I’m hawt!!

   Kaz: And you are, babe!

   Mel: Meet tomorrow for beef!

   Kaz: Laters.

   Mel: xxx

   Teenage Kicks

   Random thoughts of an Anonymous Teen

   Saw the Boy today. It’s the first time since that whole Dad finding us in the cafe shit. He hasn’t been replying to my texts, so it was always going to be AWKWARD. Christ. He must think I’m such a loser. To have a dad like that …

   So I try to play it cool. I say hi, and pretend I’ve come in to collect my wages. I sashay slowly up the aisle, hoping he’s looking at me. Instead I stack over my new platforms & look like a total douche. I get up feeling an idiot & I want to die.

   But then he looks at me and my heart goes all funny and he says, ‘Hey babe, I know you like me, but you didn’t need to fall at my feet.’

   Which isn’t true actually. I didn’t fall at his feet. I want to die even more, but then I realise he’s grinning at me, and so we have a coffee together and he says it’s ok that my dad shouted at us.

   ‘It’s cool,’ he said, ‘He’s your dad. If I had such a fit daughter I’d probably do the same.’

   He thinks I’m fit. I can’t believe it. The Boy, who just happens to be the most amazing, gorgeous guy in the whole world, thinks I’m fit.I am going to ignore those rumours going round school that he’s been seen out with the Chav Queen. I’m sure she started them anyway, ever since Best Mate told the whole class how I snogged the Boy at her New Year’s Eve party. It’s me he likes. I know it now.

   He’s asked me to meet him in town again. After school. I was sooo nervous. I made Best Mate come with me till we saw him. I could barely speak. Best Mate, said there’s another rumour about him and a girl who doesn’t even go to our school. ‘Be careful, babes,’ she said. I know she’s looking out for me, but I wish she’d shut up. I know the Boy isn’t interested in anyone else, cos he told me. Said not to listen to any silly rumours. I’m the only girl for him. Held my hand and said he loved me. I think I love him too . . . Does it always feel this exhilarating and mad, and miserable and mental? How do you KNOW for sure?

   Marianne came home from work after another depressingly difficult day, feeling shattered and miserable. But her step lightened as she walked into the house and heard the babies gurgling in the kitchen. However crap her day had been, no one could take away the pleasure the twins brought her. She went to open the door, and then she heard voices. Steven was talking to Gabe’s mum.

   ‘I really liked Middleminster, Granny,’ he said. ‘But Dad doesn’t want me to go.’

   ‘Of course he does,’ said Jean. ‘But if you do go there, he’s going to miss you.’

   ‘I don’t think I’m going to get in anyway,’ said Steven gloomily. ‘I’ve been practising with Marianne, and the tests are really difficult.’

   ‘I’m sure you’ll do fine,’ said Jean, ‘and if you don’t get in, it’s not the end of the world. You can go to Hope Sadler School with your friends.’

   ‘But I don’t want to go to school with them,’ Steven burst out miserably. ‘Apart from George, they all take the mickey out of my singing. And it’s what I want to do more than anything.’

   Steven sounded so miserable, Marianne’s heart contracted. Poor poor thing. She and Gabe had been so caught up in their worries about losing him they hadn’t stopped to consider properly how Steven felt.

   Feeling she’d eavesdropped enough, Marianne called out, ‘Hi, I’m home,’ and entered the kitchen. She really wanted to go and give Steven a hug, but thinking it would be hard to explain without giving away the fact that she’d been listening, just grinned at him instead, and said, ‘Good day?’

   ‘It was okay,’ he grunted.

   ‘And how have the twins been?’

   ‘Fine,’ said Jean, ‘no trouble at all. You know how much I love looking after my grandchildren.’

   The twins sat in their highchairs smiling at her, their faces covered in dinner.

   ‘You sure about that?’ laughed Marianne and went to give each of them a sticky cuddle. It was difficult with two not to feel guilty that she might be favouring one above the other, so cuddles were on a strict rotation. Sometimes she thought she was being a bit bonkers. After all would sixteen-month-olds even notice? But she wanted to be fair.

   ‘Here, let me clean up,’ said Marianne, starting to load the twins’ dinner plates in the dishwasher. She was glad that when they’d revamped their kitchen she’d persuaded Gabriel to buy both a new dishwasher and washing machine. Both had had their work cut out since the babies had been born.

   ‘Have a cup of tea, first,’ said Jean pulling up a kitchen chair. ‘I insist. It’s a long day that you work.’

   ‘And I couldn’t do it without you,’ said Marianne, immensely grateful that her mother-in-law provided her with the support to allow her some of her old life at least. She loved the twins dearly, but she also loved her job. She’d thought at first she was lucky to be able to have both, but Mrs Garratt was certainly making it harder to feel like that. Marianne was getting fed up with the snide little comments about pulling her weight. More often than not, she was one of the last to leave work, just to prove a point. Often she wondered if it were worth it.

   Ten minutes later, while Marianne and Jean were sitting at the table having a cup of tea, each with a baby on their laps, Gabe walked in cuddling something in his arms. It was a newborn lamb.

   ‘The mother died,’ he said. ‘Found this little chap in the fields, baaing away. He’s nearly frozen to death. Steven, do you want to keep him?’

   Steven, who had been assiduously working on one of the test papers, looked at his dad in disdain. ‘No, I don’t,’ he said, ‘I think pet lambs are babyish.’

   ‘Steven–’ said Jean, but he’d got up and walked out.

   Marianne looked at Gabe, wishing she could take the hurt away from his face.

   ‘He’ll get over it,’ she said. ‘He’s just trying to find his way at the moment.’

   Gabriel didn’t say anything, but set about making a home in a cardboard box by the fire for the lamb, while Marianne cleared the rest of the dinner away, and Jean sorted the twins out.

   The evening wore away, and by the time Jean had gone home, the twins were settled in bed, the washing-up done, and the lamb comfy in his new home, it was gone eight-thirty and there had been no sign of Steven.

   ‘He’s being picked on at school, you know,’ said Marianne carefully. Gabriel was so sensitive about the whole choir school thing, she had learnt to tread warily when discussing it, lest he fly off the handle.

   ‘Is he? About what?’

   ‘His singing,’ said Marianne. ‘I overheard him telling your mum. I can’t say I’m surprised really. There are some tough little cookies in Year 6, and Steven’s so sensitive. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned it to me. That’s one of the problems being part time, I’m out of the loop.’

   ‘Oh,’ said Gabriel. ‘Now I feel even worse, thanks.’

   ‘He just wants you to be happy about his choices,’ said Marianne. ‘Go up and tell him it’s okay. That you’re fine about him trying out for choir school.’

   ‘Even if I’m not?’ said Gabriel.

   ‘Even if you’re not,’ said Marianne firmly. ‘It’s not about us, it’s about him. If that’s what Steven wants, we should back him all the way.’

   Ten minutes later, Gabriel and Steven were downstairs, both wreathed in identical smiles. Marianne warmed at the sight of them. Her two lovely boys, so alike and yet so different. She hated to see them at odds with each other. They were so close normally.

   ‘Can I feed the new lamb?’ said Steven.

   ‘Of course,’ said Marianne, and sent him to fetch a bottle of milk.

   ‘Well that went well,’ said Marianne. ‘What on earth did you say to him?’ she whispered.

   ‘I said I didn’t mind if he goes to that school, so long as I can get us a season ticket for Shrewsbury Wanderers, and come and take him to the football once a month.’

   ‘Bribery will get you everywhere,’ laughed Marianne softly.

   ‘Well it worked.’ Gabriel nudged her and they watched Steven across the room gently pick the lamb up and give him some milk. Not so grown up after all.

   Pippa felt extraordinarily self-conscious. She’d arranged a meeting for all the families in the area affected by the proposed loss of respite services at the Sunshine Trust. She hadn’t been sure whether anyone would come – parents of special needs children were often stretched to the hilt. Who had time to fight the system even further? And while she had been involved in numerous campaigns, from helping set up the communal village shop, to fighting for a safe crossing by the children’s school, this was different. This was her call. She’d started the ball rolling, and she was going to have to deliver.

   Pippa looked around at the hugely expectant faces, all waiting to hear what she had to say. They were relying on her, all these people, to help keep the Sunshine Trust respite services open to give them the lifeline they so desperately needed. It felt like an awesome responsibility. She couldn’t bear it if she failed them.

   ‘Hallo, and thanks so much for coming,’ she said. ‘I know lots of you have come a long way’ – Shropshire being a big county, the majority of people who used the respite centre came from far and wide – ‘We’re here today to set up a campaign to try and protect our services. All of us who use the Sunshine Trust know what a vital resource it is for families to gain much-needed respite. The issue isn’t so much about the centre closing, but the withdrawal of the respite care which is funded by local government. We need to find a way of paying for these services by alternative means. So to start with I’d say beg, borrow and steal from everyone you know. If you have links with local businesses, let’s see if we can’t get them to pledge some help.’

   ‘What about lottery money?’ someone said.

   ‘We’re applying for a grant,’ said Pippa.

   ‘And telethon charities, like Children in Need or Red Nose Day?’ said someone else.

   ‘Good idea,’ said Pippa, ‘but we want this to be sustainable in the long term, so we need to find somebody prepared to fund it, run by sympathetic professionals who know exactly what is required.

   ‘We’re also petitioning our local MP, Tom Brooker, but so far we haven’t heard anything back from him. I’d urge you all to write to him yourselves, so he realises the depth of feeling about it. And you’ll all be delighted that Cat Tinsall has kindly volunteered to give us some free PR by writing a series of articles highlighting the excellent work of the centre.’

   Soon a barrage of suggestions was coming in: some helpful, some not, but by the end of the meeting Pippa felt she’d at least achieved something. It was a start. She wound up, having agreed to create a steering committee which would look into all the feasible suggestions, with a promise they would report back in six weeks.

   ‘How did it go?’ Dan hugged her as she came through the door. It felt safe and warm to walk back home into his arms. So long as Dan was there, she felt anything was achievable.

   ‘Okay, I think,’ said Pippa. ‘Are the boys in bed?’

   ‘Not yet,’ said Dan. ‘Probably time to winkle them off the Xbox.’

   Pippa grinned and went into the lounge to find the boys heavily engrossed in some game that seemed to involve an inordinate amount of shooting. She extricated them from it with difficulty and shooed them up to bed.

   She climbed the stairs and checked on Lucy to see if she was asleep, and watched from the doorway as her daughter made her usual alarming snuffly noises in her sleep. Her beautiful daughter. People didn’t always see that, pitying her for having a child with such special needs. But they couldn’t see her uniqueness, or her inner beauty, or the joy she took in life. They couldn’t see how secretly subversive Lucy could be, often sharing jokes with her or Dan via the electronic keyboard they had recently bought for her, which had become her window to the world, or pulling faces when she thought someone was treating her like an idiot. It was hard, so hard sometimes, having a daughter like Lucy – Pippa would be the first to admit that. It was difficult for all families who had special needs children. But what people didn’t realise was that along with the struggle came something exceptional and different. Lucy showed her every day how to accept the simple things in life, and to be grateful for everything she had. But she couldn’t do it without Dan by her side, or without the help she got from the Sunshine Trust. Which was why it was so important to her. Without it, Pippa knew she wouldn’t be able to cope. They had to keep it open at all costs.

   Cat woke up feeling lousy. She often did these days. She put it down to middle-aged exhaustion, coupled with being that scourge of the Daily Mail, a middle-aged binge drinker. Although of late, she’d been too tired even to manage that.

   As Noel was constantly telling her, she did too much, but Cat had never been one to sit still for long, and between the demands of teen and preteen children, her poorly mother, devoted husband and her job, sitting still wasn’t always an option. Oh well, at least it kept her thin. Mind you, that didn’t stop her having a less than flat stomach, which seemed to bulge slightly more as time went by. When she was in London, she’d kept it down by a rigorous gym routine, but somehow that didn’t fit in with a country lifestyle, though regular long walks kept her fit. Now when she looked down at her stomach it seemed to have filled out, sagging more than it used to. If she didn’t know any better, she might have thought she was pregnant. But with her periods having become increasingly sporadic over the last year, it was far more likely that she was heading for the menopause and middle-aged spread. Oh joy.

   Besides, she and Noel were so knackered most of the time, sex was rarely on the agenda these days. In fact, rather shamefully, she realised that they’d probably not had any since New Year’s Eve. Must do better, she muttered to herself. Lack of sex had nearly done for them in London, when she and Noel had been so busy they’d ended up leading parallel lives. The move to Hope Christmas had cemented their marriage; she mustn’t let it slip again. Noel meant the world to her. Their relationship had become even stronger since they’d moved up here. Even after all this time, she felt her heart sing when one of them had been away from the other.

   Noel was already showered and ready by the time she got down. She kissed him as he went out of the door. Paige was preening herself in the hall mirror.

   ‘You’re not allowed make-up at school,’ Cat reminded her, before going into the kitchen where James half asleep and yawning, was crouched over his toast and Ruby was chattering away to anyone who would listen (which was nobody) about the excitements of her coming day. Of Mel there was no sign. Great. First row of the day would be getting Mel out of bed. In the past, Cat’s response to Mel’s laziness had been to make her face the consequences of being late and getting a caution. But since the bunking off incident, Cat had been terrified that left to her own devices, Mel just wouldn’t bother going to school. And with the results of her mocks showing them just how much work she needed to do, Cat felt she had to be on her case, however unpopular that made her. But as she had said ruefully to Noel, ‘I’m not here to win any popularity contests.’

   ‘Mel, are you up?’ Cat gingerly knocked on her daughter’s door.

   ‘Humph.’ A groan was the only response.

   Cat opened the door into a pit. Crikey, it was worse than normal. There was barely a piece of the floor not covered in clothes, clean and dirty, shoes, bags, books and paper.

   ‘Mel, time to get up,’ she said, ‘NOW!’

   ‘I’m just getting up,’ said Mel. ‘No need to shout.’

   ‘I’m not shouting,’ said Cat between gritted teeth. ‘But I will be in a minute. You’ve got twenty minutes until your bus goes. And by the way, when you get home tonight, I expect to see this pigsty cleaned up.’

   ‘Will you get off my case!’ said Mel belligerently.

   ‘If you behave yourself, then yes,’ said Cat restraining herself with difficulty. ‘Now get up.’ She resisted the urge to say, ‘or else,’ because she knew the response would be ‘Or else, what?’ The reality was that, short of physical violence, there was very little she could do to make her errant daughter do anything she didn’t want to. And they both knew it.

   The power was all with kids these days. Cat was sure it had been different when she was young. Then power had definitely been with the grown-ups. Just her luck to have been born into the generation which had lost the plot.

   She went back downstairs with a sigh, and an automatic, ‘Wipe that make-up off your face, Paige,’ and receiving a rushed, ‘Off now,’ from James. And then it was just her and Ruby, still chattering away, Cat guiltily noticed, wondering what exactly she had missed.

   Mel eventually appeared looking as mean and moody as her dark eyeliner would allow. There were bags under her eyes, and she’d lost weight. Cat felt a twinge of worry. Maybe there was something wrong and she was handling it badly. All the books said you should listen to your teenagers. Perhaps she didn’t do that enough.

   ‘Mel–’ she began.

   ‘Oh will you leave me alone,’ snarled Mel, grabbing a slice of toast. ‘I’m going now!’ And with that, she was out of the house, slamming the door in a whirlwind of fury and resentment.

   Cat shut her eyes, feeling sick with misery. Another successful morning.

   Ruby came over and took her hand. ‘Don’t worry, Mummy. Mel’s like that to all of us. Not just you. It’s her hormones.’

   ‘What do you know about hormones?’ laughed Cat.

   ‘Paige says I’ll get them when I’m grown up and then I’ll understand,’ said Ruby. ‘But Mel has them a lot and that’s what makes her grumpy.’

   ‘Right,’ said Cat, giving her youngest daughter a hug. At least she had Ruby, sweet, innocent, chatterbox Ruby. How little had she realised just a few short years ago how much tougher parenting was going to get. She should have made the most of it when she had the chance. Cat cleared away the breakfast things, and tried to put the row behind her. Mel would have probably forgotten it by the time she got home. Maybe she’d be in a better mood then. Then again, maybe not.

   Cat got out of the car and walked up to the doorway of an imposing Victorian house, which was the main HQ of the Sunshine Trust. It was a gothic, grim-looking building – but as she went across the threshold and was introduced to Kim Majors, the centre’s director, Cat quickly realised that appearances could be deceptive.

   ‘Thank you so much for coming, Mrs Tinsall,’ Kim said, holding out her hand. She was a small round, cheerful kind of person, bubbling with goodwill. Cat warmed to her instantly. ‘We’re so grateful to you for letting us tell our story.’

   ‘Call me Cat, please,’ said Cat. ‘And it’s my pleasure. Pippa Holliday is always singing your praises, and I know what a difference the respite care makes for her and Dan. I’m pleased to be able to help, if I can.’

   ‘Let me show you around,’ said Kim.

   The house was huge, but felt comfortable and homely. The rooms were brightly lit and cheerful, and Cat was amazed at the general air of fun. There was a games room, where two boys in wheelchairs whizzed back and forth playing table tennis, a soft play area, with younger children enthusiastically hurling themselves about, and several lounges, in which children, some in wheelchairs, some not, were lounging about, chatting or watching TV.

   ‘These are our chillout zones,’ said Kim, ‘the kids can come and relax here on their own, or when their families come, they have plenty of space for private time. During the week we often arrange recreational pursuits, like games evenings. For a lot of our children, it’s about being heard – people look at them as if they are stupid, when it’s their bodies which don’t work so well, not their minds. That’s not true for all of them of course, but it is for the vast majority.’

   The tour of the home took over an hour, including showing Cat round some of the more modern buildings where the children who lived here permanently stayed, and an impressive hydrotherapy pool, where Cat witnessed a child with severe muscular dystrophy getting the chance to stretch her muscles and just enjoy the water. Cat was impressed by the range of activities available to the children and could see what a vital resource it was. Kim was an informative guide, who clearly found her job rewarding. She explained that the respite care service had only been in place for a few years.

   ‘You remember the good old days, when the government had so much money sloshing around they could pay for it? Now of course that’s no longer the case. And as we’re a charity, we’re having to work harder and harder for donations. We could really do with a generous benefactor. Unfortunately, as things stand we won’t be able to keep the service going if our funding is withdrawn.’

   ‘That would be terrible,’ said Cat. ‘I’ll do my best to drum up interest. I know one or two documentary film makers who might be interested in this kind of thing. I’ll sound them out, see if any of them are interested in doing something about this issue.’

   ‘That would be wonderful,’ said Kim.

   ‘I can only try,’ said Cat. ‘I’m so impressed by everything you do here. And really humbled too.’

   It was true, Cat reflected, as she got in the car to go home. She did feel humble. Watching the dedicated staff, treating a child with muscular dystrophy in the state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool; observing a teacher communicate with her class purely through sign language; seeing a nurse gently turn a child who was on permanent ventilation. This place was incredible, and helped so many people. Cat had always been aware how incredibly fortunate she was to have four bright, healthy children, but today she sent a silent prayer of gratitude for her good fortune. Those families, like Pippa’s, who needed the Sunshine Trust’s help so badly, had so much to contend with. Cat had very little to complain about by comparison. Even with a stroppy teen.

   ‘Hi Pippa. You’ve been busy again.’ Vera opened the door of the village shop with a cheerful smile, as Pippa came in with her latest supply of cakes.

   ‘Well, you know,’ said Pippa, grinning. ‘I have to do something to keep me out of mischief.’

   After a fractious start to the day, involving lost football boots (Nathan), a sudden meltdown about ‘forgotten’ Maths homework (George) and an unusual strop from Lucy about what she was going to wear that day, Pippa had spent the morning baking. As usual, having the delicious smell of cakes and muffins wafting through the kitchen calmed her nerves, and by the time she had put the finishing touches to her cupcakes, Pippa was in a much better frame of mind.

   Her mood was further improved by a couple of emails from interested local businesses whom she’d tentatively approached to see if they would be interested in getting involved in helping Sunshine Trust in some way. It was a small start, but it was something. As she was getting the cakes ready to take to Vera’s, Cat rang up to see if she wanted to go for a coffee, as she had some news about a possible TV programme.

   ‘I’m just off to take some cakes to Vera’s,’ said Pippa, ‘meet you in ten.’

   Having deposited her wares, Pippa bought a large latte and a toasted teacake and went to sit in a cosy corner of the café, near to the fireplace. A cold miserable February day was made much brighter by coffee and cake, she decided, while she waited for Cat to arrive. The coffee shop was packed with mums and toddlers, and as usual the place gave off a noisy happy vibe. Remembering how close Vera had come to losing her livelihood only a few years before, and how the community had come together to create such a brilliant and lively hub, gave Pippa renewed hope. Nothing was impossible if she put her mind to it.

   ‘Sorry I’m late,’ Cat came in shaking rain out of her umbrella. ‘I got stuck on a long phone call with my editor.’

   ‘It’s okay,’ said Pippa, ‘I’ve been having an enjoyable time sitting still and watching the world go by for once. So, what’s the score?’

   ‘Well, I’ve been putting some feelers out, and it’s possible the Beeb may be commissioning a series of programmes about cuts in social services and how they affect real people. And they may be looking at one on families who have special needs children. I’m sure they’d love to hear about you and Lucy.’

   ‘I don’t want it to be just about me,’ protested Pippa. ‘There are lots of other families affected too.’

   ‘Yes, but your story is an emotional one,’ argued Cat, ‘and if it helped get your campaign on the map, it would be worth doing.’

   ‘I suppose so,’ said Pippa reluctantly, not quite sure she could see herself as a TV star in the making. ‘So long as they concentrate on how we’re trying to save the respite services, I don’t see what harm it can do.’

   ‘You never know, you might even enjoy it,’ said Cat. ‘And I bet Lucy would.’

   ‘She’d certainly play up to the cameras,’ said Pippa. Lucy was a natural show-off, and Pippa could see her having a ball. ‘Thanks so much for doing this for me, Cat. I’m beginning to feel this isn’t quite such an uphill task.’

   ‘Have you thought about organising some fundraisers?’ said Cat. ‘When we were in London, some friends of ours used to organise an annual ball, with a charity auction for a local hospice. It made tons of money.’

   ‘That’s a great idea,’ said Pippa. ‘Perhaps we could do something coming up to Christmas.’

   ‘You could call it a Snow Ball,’ said Cat. ‘People could have fun while raising money. It’s a win-win situation.’

   ‘And I do love an opportunity to get glammed up,’ said Pippa, ruefully looking at the battered old Barbour, ragged jumper, jeans and wellies which was her default costume most days. ‘Being a farmer’s wife means you don’t often get the chance to. That’s a great idea, Cat.’

   Cat smiled. ‘Pleased to help,’ she said. ‘Where would be a good venue do you think?’

   ‘We could let you have Hopesay Manor for free, if you like.’ A figure dressed in black leathers who’d been sitting on the other side of the fireplace got up, holding out his hand. Pippa recognised him instantly as the handsome dark stranger who’d offered her advice the last time she’d been in here with Marianne. Suddenly the penny dropped.

   ‘You must be Michael Nicholas,’ she said. Everyone knew that Ralph’s nephew Michael had come to Hope Christmas to help run the family business while Ralph was away in the Maldives, but Pippa hadn’t met him before.

   ‘The very same,’ said Michael bowing. ‘I hope you don’t mind me interrupting, but I’m a Trustee of the Sunshine Trust, and I’d be happy to help.’

   ‘Thank you,’ said Pippa. ‘That’s an amazingly generous offer.’

   ‘It would be my pleasure,’ said Michael, ‘nice to meet you, ladies. Cat, I hope Noel is getting used to me hanging around. I think my uncle made a very wise choice in hiring him.’

   ‘He did?’ Cat looked as bemused as Pippa felt. ‘Glad to hear it.’

   ‘Now if you two ladies will excuse me, I have business to attend to elsewhere,’ Michael said, bowing slightly again, before placing his crash helmet on his head, and walking out of the door.

   They watched him go into the square, climb on his motorbike and roar off into the dull February day.

   ‘Noel’s kept that quiet,’ said Cat.

   ‘What?’ said Pippa.

   ‘How good looking Michael Nicholas is,’ laughed Cat. ‘Just as well we’re both happily married women.’

   ‘Isn’t it just,’ said Pippa with a grin. ‘Such a shame though …’

   Marianne ran up the lane in a panic. She’d promised to get home early so she could help Steven go over a couple of practice papers. His exam was less than a week away, and he was getting very nervous. Damn Mrs bloody Garratt. She always seemed to have something urgent to tell Marianne at five-thirty. Before she’d joined the school, although everyone worked hard, and stayed late if they had to, most people left around five p.m. each day. Now you were seen as a slacker if you left before six p.m. Jean was incredibly generous, but Marianne was conscious that it was a long day for her with the twins, and Gabriel couldn’t always be guaranteed to be home in time to relieve his mum, so it was up to her to get back as soon as she could. Unfortunately, telling Mrs Garratt she had to get home because of childcare issues cut no ice. Despite having a child of her own, who was allegedly at nursery from seven a.m. to seven p.m., she gave no quarter to Marianne, the implication seeming to be, if I can do it, so can you. The phrase, work/life balance was clearly lost on her.

   The warmth of the house hit her, as she eventually got in from the cold. And the unwonted exercise had made her a little breathless. She really did need to get out walking a bit more, but what with work, looking after the twins and Steven, there was precious little time for Marianne to get exercising at the moment. It wasn’t as if Gabriel didn’t help out, it was just that farming was even less forgiving than teaching in sucking up all your time. He seemed to have been working harder than ever recently. There were some days when she’d barely seen him.

   As she dumped her bags down and took off her coat and scarf in the hall, she realised she could hear raised voices coming from the lounge.

   ‘Dad, you don’t get it!’ Steven was standing mutinously shouting at Gabriel, who had one baby in his arms, while the other grabbed his legs, giggling. Marianne’s first instinct was to giggle too, he looked so comical, but then she saw the set and angry look on Gabe’s face.

   ‘I do get it, Steven, but there’s no need to be rude!’ said Gabriel. ‘I know you’ve got your exam next week, but Marianne has got a lot on …’

   ‘It’s okay,’ interrupted Marianne, ‘I was late back, I’m sorry. I had promised to help,’ she said gently.

   ‘I don’t want your help!’ said Steven raging. ‘I know you both want me to fail anyway.’ He threw the books he’d been carrying onto the floor, and stormed past Marianne, slamming the door shut behind him, making the whole house quiver.

   ‘What was all that about?’ said Marianne, extricating Daisy from Gabriel’s legs.

   ‘Steven was having a meltdown,’ Gabriel replied, running his hands wearily through his hair.

   ‘Look, he’s probably just stressed about the exam,’ said Marianne. ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll get the twins ready for bed, and then I’ll go through the papers with him.’

   ‘You don’t have to,’ said Gabriel.

   ‘I do,’ said Marianne, warmly. ‘I promised. It’s not his fault that Misery Guts Garratt delights in making my life a misery.’

   Gabriel kissed Marianne on the top of her head. ‘Come on, we’ll sort these two out together,’ he said. ‘Then we’ll tackle Steven.’

   At least, she had Gabriel’s support, Marianne thought, even if she felt she was being pulled in too many directions at once.

   ‘So, are you all prepared, Steven?’ said Marianne with a smile, as she prepared his breakfast while attempting to feed the twins their porridge. With one hand she was stirring scrambled eggs, and the other was shoving porridge into whichever baby had their mouth open at the time. She’d never known the meaning of the phrase multi-tasking until she became a mother.

   ‘How are you feeling?’ said Gabriel, giving his son an encouraging smile, as he put some bread in the toaster. Marianne had spent the last few weeks coaching Steven for his exam, and today was the big day.

   ‘Okay,’ said Steven. ‘My tummy feels a bit funny.’

   ‘That’s perfectly normal,’ said Marianne. ‘Everyone feels like that before tests.’

   ‘And all you can do is your best,’ said Gabriel.

   ‘What do you care, you don’t even want me to go!’ burst out Steven, before hunkering down at the table to eat his breakfast.

   Gabriel opened his mouth as if to say something, but Marianne shushed him. ‘Ignore it, he’s just nervous,’ she whispered.

   Marianne and Gabriel had both decided to go along with Steven, leaving the twins with Jean. Gabriel was worried that Eve and Darren would be there too.

   ‘They’re bound to wind him up, if they come,’ he had said to Marianne as they’d gone to bed last night.

   ‘Try not to think about it,’ said Marianne, but she knew Gabe was probably right. Eve had ‘wind-up’ hardwired into her system.

   While Jean was looking after the twins, Gabriel’s dad, David, was out on the fields of the day. Despite being officially retired, he frequently helped Gabriel and Dan out on the farm when he could.

   ‘Good luck, Steven, I’m sure you won’t need it,’ said Jean, managing to elicit the first smile from Steven of the day.

   They drove pretty much in silence the fifty miles or so to the small cathedral town of Middleminster, each alone with their thoughts. Gabe, Marianne knew, was feeling nervous for his son, but anxious about the future, and guilty for half wishing Steven wouldn’t get in.

   ‘I know I should want this for him,’ Gabriel had told her the previous night, ‘but I hate the thought of him being away from us. I hate the fact that I can’t seem to want what’s best for him.’

   ‘Whatever will be, will be,’ said Marianne. ‘Let’s just get him through the test first, and hope everything works out for the best.’

   She was still hoping that as they eventually arrived at Middleminster. Steven was a clever boy, and had done well in the practice tests she’d done with him. But she didn’t know how stiff the competition was, and he was very young. Nerves could let him down on the day.

   They entered the school via an impressively long drive, with sweeping views of frosty fields overlooking the pretty medieval town of Middleminster, and pulled up in front of an imposing redbrick Victorian building, where queues of small boys were lining up to go in for the exam.

   ‘Bloody hell,’ said Gabriel, looking in dismay at the numbers. ‘I’d no idea there would be so many of them taking the exam.’

   Eve, who’d clearly been waiting for them, leapt out of her car with Darren following behind, and ran up to Steven, and gave him a hug.

   ‘Go and knock ’em dead, kid,’ she said. ‘I know you can do it.’

   ‘See, someone will be pleased I get in,’ said Steven.

   Gabriel said, ‘Of course I’ll be pleased.’

   ‘So will we be,’ said Eve. ‘Darren will give you a BlackBerry when you pass.’

   Gabriel was about to protest, but Marianne nudged him as they saw the look on Steven’s face, so they both said nothing.

   ‘Thanks, Mum,’ Steven said, his face lighting up at the sight of her. Marianne felt sad, despite herself. No matter how many years she’d looked after Steven when his mum was unable to – she could never replace Eve. Not that she wanted to, but seeing how happy Steven was to be with his mum, she wondered if it had been right for him to be away from Eve so long, however flaky she was.

   Hours passed slowly in the school café, where Marianne and Gabriel felt obliged to make polite conversation with Eve and Darren. Although by the time they’d heard for the zillionth time just how big Darren’s Christmas bonus had been, Marianne felt like screaming. She had never met anyone so incredibly self-centred and money orientated in her life. He clearly had no interest in what she and Gabriel did, and she suspected, precious little interest in Steven. Unfair of her or not, Marianne had the distinct impression Darren was only getting so involved to impress Eve, because while the rest of them frequently checked their watches and fretted how Steven was getting on, Darren almost seemed to have forgotten why they were there.

   Never had three hours passed so slowly, but eventually it was over, and hundreds of small boys poured out of the examination hall, ready to be reunited with their parents. Marianne spotted Steven in the middle of them, a small pale looking figure with an air of defeat about him. She longed to go and hug him, but knew that would be counterproductive, as Steven was very clear that hugging in public was way too embarrassing for an eleven-year-old.

   ‘How did it go?’ asked Gabriel carefully.

   ‘Awful,’ said Steven and burst into tears. ‘It was really difficult. I’m sure I’ve failed.’

   He looked so miserable that, forgetting her resolution, Marianne automatically gave him a hug.

   ‘I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that,’ she said. ‘Exams often seem worse than they are. Maybe we could go through some of your answers together.’

   ‘I think what Steven needs is to forget all about it,’ said Darren.

   ‘I know,’ said Eve, ‘why don’t Darren and I take you out for the afternoon? I’m sure it will all work out. That will be okay, won’t it, Gabriel? We’ll bring him home for seven.’

   ‘Oh please. Can I?’ Steven’s face lit up.

   Gabriel looked at Marianne helplessly.

   ‘Of course, that’s fine.’

   ‘Great,’ said Steven. ‘Mum, you’re the best.’

   Hardly glancing back at Gabriel and Marianne, he walked off excitedly with his mum and Darren, talking nineteen to the dozen.

   ‘Great,’ said Gabriel heavily as they watched him go. ‘Why do I get the feeling we’re losing him?’

   Marianne gave him a reassuring hug. It was on the tip of her tongue to say don’tbe silly, but looking at how cheerful Steven seemed, it was hard not to dispute Gabriel’s gloom. The trouble was, if Steven wanted to spend more time with Eve and Darren, there was very little they could do about it – whether she and Gabriel liked it or not.

   Pippa was at home with Lucy, who was having an inset day. It was nice to have Lucy to herself. At the weekends, when the boys were here, Pippa felt conscious that sometimes, in her bid not to let the boys miss out, she didn’t spend enough time just being with Lucy. Despite her wheelchair, and her inability to talk directly, Lucy had a lively and vivacious personality, and through her electronic keyboard could convey more than adequately how she felt about things. The keyboard was a fairly new acquisition which had come about at the suggestion of Kim from the Sunshine Trust, and it had transformed their lives. Lucy had always managed to get on with other children, but now, to Pippa’s delight, she’d been able to strike up a proper friendship with Ruby, Cat’s youngest, who seemed to have a total blindness when it came to Lucy’s disability. The two girls shared a similar sense of mischief, and Ruby was often round now at the weekends, which Pippa had to admit made life a lot easier.

   You sorted my care out yet? Lucy keyed in, as she overheard Pippa’s long conversation with Claire King about their options (none) should the respite care be taken away altogether.

   ‘What do you think?’ Pippa rolled her eyes at her daughter.

   Slacker, keyed Lucy, and laughed her head off.

   ‘Cheeky,’ said Pippa grinning. Thank God for Lucy’s sense of humour. It made the tough bits bearable. ‘But I’m working on it, so there. I’m just going to make some phone calls now.’

   Talking to Clare King was having the effect of galvanising her into action. Every time Claire put an obstacle in her path, Pippa felt duty bound to clear it away.

   She rang up the first of two companies who’d contacted her. It was a medical equipment company, who wanted, ‘To give something back,’ as the director told her. The second company made some positive noises, but she couldn’t get anything more concrete out of them.

   ‘These are difficult times,’ the friendly lady on the other end of the phone said, ‘so I’m afraid we can’t commit at the moment, but keep in touch, and maybe things will be different in a few months’ time.’

   ‘Thanks, that’s very kind of you,’ Pippa said, she gave the thumbs-up to Lucy, who grinned at her. ‘I’ll do that.’

   She put the phone down and high-fived her daughter.

   ‘See, not such a slacker after all,’ she said.

   Okay. I let you off, typed Lucy.

   ‘You better had,’ said Pippa, with a grin, ‘I’m working my socks off for you.’

   She filed the details of her phone calls away, and made a note of the dates she’d arranged for her meetings on the calendar, before thinking about what to cook for lunch. As if on cue, Dan walked in from a morning’s hard graft.

   ‘How are my gorgeous girls today?’

   ‘Ugh, you smell of cows and pigs,’ said Pippa, pushing him away in a mock serious way.

   ‘You know you love it really,’ said Dan with a grin.

   Smelly Dad, typed Lucy, putting on such a pained expression, they all laughed.

   At moments like this, Pippa knew they’d be all right. Dan would always be by her side, Lucy was a total joy, the boys were a great support. She was going to fight with every fibre of her being to save the respite care package, but whatever else happened, no one could take her family away from her. Not even Claire King.

   Cat stood in the chemist’s irresolute, holding the pregnancy testing kit, checking swiftly that there was no one she knew in there. Hope Christmas was a great place to live, but everyone knew your business before you did.

   Should she buy the kit or not? Surely she couldn’t be pregnant at her age? Her periods had been erratic for months, but she knew the tell-tale signs, that awful taste in her mouth, the completely debilitating exhaustion, the gentle swelling of her tummy. They hadn’t been careful at New Year. It was just possible – if appalling to contemplate. Cat had enjoyed her time as a young mum with babies and toddlers, but she was now enjoying the freedom of having older children. There was no way she wanted to go back to all that.

   After hovering around the counter for ten more minutes, during which time the vacant looking teenager behind the counter (whom luckily she didn’t know) had started to stare quite pointedly at her, Cat bought the kit. She fled home as fast as possible, feeling vaguely guilty and paranoid someone might have seen her. This was ridiculous. A pregnancy scare at her age. Because that’s what it was. A scare. She’d just wasted seven quid because she and Noel had behaved like irresponsible teenagers. She’d laugh about it with him later.

   Getting home, Cat found herself putting off the moment. There was no point rushing to take the test, it could wait. Never the most assiduous of housekeepers, she found herself impelled by the urgent need to tidy Ruby’s bedroom. Two hours later, knee deep in plastic bags of tat, unfathomable amounts of string, pieces of paper and broken toys, Ruby’s room looking better than it had done in months, the floor actually being visible, and the desk under the high sleeper bed being clear, Cat felt she could put the inevitable off no longer.

   She went back downstairs, picked up her handbag and walked straight into the bright modern ensuite she and Noel had had installed when they moved in.

   Best get it over with. No time like the present. Cat had forgotten how ridiculous it felt to pee on a little white stick, or how very long it felt to wait for the result. She sat on the edge of the bath, staring at the blue and white patterned bathroom tiles, realising that not only did they need a damned good clean, but it was about time she got rid of the spider’s webs. Anything to stop herself staring at those two windows. They were both blank every time she peeked anyway. Good. False alarm.

   Cat decided that rather than staring at her filthy tiles, she should really do something about cleaning them. Nearly ten minutes had elapsed since she’d taken the test. Time for one last look …

   Oh God. Oh no … Five minutes later Cat was sitting on the edge of the bath, reeling in shock. She looked again at the blue line in the window. Two blue lines. One immensely strong. She’d only taken the test to prove to herself how immensely stupid she was being. She couldn’t be pregnant. Not at her age. She couldn’t possibly be. She felt sick to the pit of her stomach. Ruby was nearly nine; Mel would be off at university in a couple of years, the others following on fast at her heels. Cat’s career was going really well, and she and Noel were finally beginning to find some time for themselves occasionally. How could she go right back to the beginning again and have a baby? She’d be ancient by the time the baby went off to college, and Noel would be retired. She knew she was being selfish. But a baby – it would ruin everything.

   She turned the test over slowly. But what was the alternative? To get rid of it? Once upon a time, she might have been able to do that, but not now, not after four children, not after seeing the twelve-week scans, and seeing a little person, or hearing the heartbeat, or feeling that silverfish darting movement for the first time. She could no longer kid herself it was a collection of cells, or a blob. To her now, the baby was a future Mel, James, Paige or Ruby. By her calculations she must be at least eight weeks pregnant. By then babies had fingernails. How could she get rid of a blob when it had fingernails? There was no choice.

   Bloody hell. Another baby, at her age. A horrible vile thought came into her head. What if there was a problem with it? She’d been lucky before having four healthy children. But she was older now. What if her luck ran out? Cat thought about her visit to the Sunshine Trust. All those children with their complex needs. Cat didn’t think she could be as calm or capable as Pippa was in the face of that kind of difficulty. She could barely manage her rowdy family now, how would she and Noel cope if their new baby had special needs? What would it do to the family dynamic? Would that be fair?

   Stop! Cat admonished herself. She was letting her imagination run riot. First things first. She was eight weeks pregnant. She needed to tell Noel. She needed to see her GP. And then they would have to take it from there.

Mel

   FACEBOOK status Birthday. Woooo!!!

   Andy: Happy Birthday, to my legal babe.

   Kaz: Happy Birthday to my bezzie xxx

   Kyra16: Hey Mel, happy birthday Join the legal club!!!!

   Ellie: Happy Birthday to the Melster! You’re hot hot hot!!

   Fi: Happy birthday, babesxxx

   Jen17: Have a great day, Melx

   Jake: Happy Birthday Melanie

   Mel: Oh I am so hot and gorgeous. But not as hot as Andy.

   Mel: Red face. That was my little sis fraping me. Soz.

   Kaz: ha ha

   Andy: What you don’t think I’m hot?

   Mel: Andy BBM ME NOW

   Mel: Thanks for all the birthday wishes everyone! xxx

   

   Teenage Kicks

   My sixteenth birthday. What a let-down.

   It’s not like I thought it would be at all. Mum and Dad kind of forgot. Well, they got me a present – a laptop since you ask – which would be great but they want me to use it for studying. BORING. And Dad’s put some crappy filter on it which means I can’t use the internet after a certain time. GREAT.

   But today, they were in such a hurry to go to work, they forgot to say happy birthday.

   And they won’t let me have a party in case I trash the place. It wasn’t my fault last year that the Chav Queen found out on FB and came with loads of her mates and got pissed and threw up in the flowerbed.

   I did have loads of birthday wishes on BBM and Facebook which was cool. But Best Mate was the only one who remembered to buy me a present.

   And as for The Boy. I’d kind of hoped for a bit more. He sent me a text saying, Happy Birthday to my legal babe, then VILE Little Sis put something really embarrassing on my BBM status and we had a chat, but that was it.

   Why does he keep doing this to me? Making me feel all churned up and stuff. Is it always going to be like this?

   I was thinking about sleeping with him. I kind of hoped we might do it on my 16th. But he hasn’t contacted me. Mum always said boys are after one thing. I thought the Boy was different. Maybe I was wrong.

   Marianne was whizzing round the house gathering up toys and discarded toddler cups, while the twins had a late morning nap. It wasn’t going to be long before they dropped it altogether, so she was making the most of the time while she could. It always amazed her how much chaos two small children could create in a matter of seconds, and the place would be untidy again as soon as they were up, but she did like to have the occasional point in the day when the lounge was pristine.

   Marianne plumped up the faded cushions on the sofa, and moved it out so she could start hoovering. Although she and Gabe had brightened the lounge with a cheerful makeover when she’d moved in, they’d made a deliberate choice not to get a new sofa or carpet when they found out about the twins. Which was just as well, as Marianne had lost count of the number of times they’d been sick and spilt drinks over both.

   As she moved the sofa back into position, Marianne glanced once more at the envelope on the mantelpiece, practically burning a hole in it. Addressed to the parents of Steven North, with a postmark from Middleminster, there was no mistaking the letter that could change their lives forever. Marianne was dying to open it, but she and Gabe had promised Steven they would let him do it. She’d been staring at it on and off all morning and the suspense was killing her.

   Marianne yawned. Gabe had gone out early for a sheep which was in labour, and although she’d tried to get back to sleep, Harry and Daisy had had other ideas. The biggest downside to having them, she decided, was lack of sleep. Marianne had forgotten what it felt like to be fully rested. Although most of the time the twins slept through the night now, they both seemed to think getting Mummy up at around five-thirty a.m. was essential. Marianne tried to compensate by going to bed earlier, but she found by the time she’d cleared up, sorted out dinner for her and Gabriel, and had a short relaxing half hour in front of the telly, it always seemed to be midnight, and either she or Gabe had fallen asleep on the sofa. Just as well they’d decided to stop at the twins, as they had no chance of ever conceiving again.

   She heard the first burbling sounds coming from upstairs which indicated that the twins were waking up. She stopped to listen for a moment as Harry gurgled in his cot, and Daisy responded with a giggle. The sounds never failed to brighten her day. Exhausted and frazzled she might be, but the simple chuckling she heard all day from the twins made her exhaustion more than worthwhile.

   Marianne went upstairs to their room to find Harry sitting up, playing with the musical toy attached to his cot, while Daisy was wriggling around in hers, laughing. They’d taken a loan out to convert the attic into a bedroom for Steven, so that later on the twins could have a separate room each, while still enabling them to have a spare room. The nursery was cheerful and fun, with stencils of animals she and Gabe had painted on the wall when she was in the middle of her pregnancy. It had been such a lovely time, the three of them anticipating the birth of the twins. Marianne sighed a little. She felt life had become a bit more complicated since then.

   ‘Come on you two, lunchtime,’ she said. Harry was already trying to climb out of the cot, so she picked him up first and then changed his nappy, by which time Daisy was clamouring to get out. There was certainly never a dull moment with twins.

   She took Harry downstairs first, as he was likely to get more grumpy about being left behind, and leaving him in the playpen, went to get Daisy. She’d just settled them down with a few toys when Gabriel came in from the fields, where he’d been working with Dan, for an early lunch.

   ‘Letter’s here then,’ he said, immediately spotting it on the mantelpiece.

   ‘Yup,’ said Marianne.

   ‘Aren’t you just the tiniest bit curious?’ said Gabriel.

   ‘Of course I am,’ said Marianne, as she helped Daisy rebuild a tower that Harry had knocked down.

   ‘Do you think Steven would mind if …?’

   ‘Don’t even think about it,’ said Marianne. ‘Steven will kill you if you open it before him.’

   ‘You’re right,’ said Gabriel, ‘but I’m dying to know. Aren’t you?’

   ‘Of course I am,’ said Marianne. ‘It’s been driving me nuts all morning. Come on, help me get the twins ready for lunch.’

   ‘We could always steam it open,’ said Gabe, as he lifted Daisy into her highchair.

   ‘We so couldn’t,’ said Marianne, strapping Harry into his.

   ‘Could.’

   ‘Could doesn’t mean we should,’ said Marianne firmly, going to the fridge to get the toddler-friendly chicken stew she’d made the previous day.

   ‘He’ll never know,’ said Gabe.

   ‘He might.’

   ‘Oh go on,’ said Gabe, helping her fill the bowls with stew, ‘you know you’re as desperate to know as I am.’

   Which is how Marianne found herself hurriedly shoving a bit of bread into each of the twins’ hands to keep them going, and turning the kettle on. Gabriel self-consciously held the envelope over the steam, and then carefully opened it.

   ‘Go on then, what does it say?’

   For a moment, Gabriel didn’t say anything, the colour draining from his face. Then he wordlessly handed her the letter.

   ‘Oh no,’ said Marianne. ‘He failed.’

   ‘No,’ said Gabriel. ‘He passed. Steven got in to Middleminster. Now what do we do?’

   Cat and Noel sat in the busy waiting room at their GP’s surgery, feeling faintly ridiculous. The place was full of old people and young women with small children. Cat felt completely out of place. She shouldn’t be here at all.

   ‘Pregnant at my age,’ said Cat. ‘It’s mental.’

   ‘I know it’s not part of the game plan,’ said Noel, reaching out and holding her hand, ‘but I don’t mind. In fact, I’m quite pleased in a way. I kind of miss having little ones around.’

   ‘You are kidding,’ said Cat raising her eyebrows. ‘When they were little, you couldn’t wait for them to grow up.’

   ‘Ah yes,’ said Noel, ‘but that was before Mel did.’

   Cat laughed.

   ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘All those books we read about taming toddlers, and little did we realise having teenagers would be even worse.’

   It was true. Cat had fondly imagined when the children were small, that life would improve as they got older, but while physically things had got much easier, she couldn’t claim that parenting had. Cat felt constantly torn by the competing needs of her children. Although Mel’s bad behaviour was her major cause for concern, if she wasn’t worrying about that it was James’ apparent lack of a social life and completely laidback attitude to school, or Paige’s desire to reach adulthood without actually passing through puberty. Ruby at least was relatively straightforward, but at times her relentless upbeat chattering could be utterly exhausting. The thought of adding a baby in the mix was making Cat feel weak at the knees. At least Noel seemed positive about it – just as well one of them was.

   Cat sighed, thinking about Mel again. She was so hard to talk to these days. Maybe it was her own fault, wanting so badly to be close to her daughter; perhaps she pushed Mel too much.

   ‘Do you think I give Mel enough space?’ Cat said to Noel as they sat on the uncomfortable waiting room chairs. Although Noel did get cross when Mel went too far, he seemed to be more tolerant of her than Cat was, and on the rare occasions when Mel did want to talk, she seemed more likely these days to confide in Noel.

   Noel laced his fingers round hers, and kissed her.

   ‘I think,’ he said, ‘you worry too much. Mel is young and rebellious, just like I was. Don’t force her to come to you, let her be, and she’ll do it in her own time.’

   ‘Easier said than done,’ said Cat. She had never been the rebellious type, so Mel baffled her. Although Mel’s social life seemed to have dwindled recently. However, if asked whether anything was wrong, Mel’s replies were monosyllabic and perfunctory. She seemed to have fallen out with Karen, for which Cat wasn’t sorry. As far as she was concerned, Karen was a Bad Influence. The mysterious Andy seemed to have vanished into thin air – presumably the reason for Mel’s moodiness. Cat hoped it was nothing more serious than that, but if Mel didn’t talk to her, what could she do?

   ‘Catherine Tinsall for Dr Stewart,’ the receptionist called over the intercom.

   ‘Here we go,’ said Cat, her stomach in knots. ‘I feel as daft as a teenager.’

   ‘We can’t be the first middle-aged parents she’s seen,’ said Noel squeezing her hand. ‘Come on, let’s get it over with.’

   Feeling as stupid as a teenager, Cat led the way to Dr Stewart’s room.

   ‘I’m almost too embarrassed to tell you why we’re here,’ said Cat, as they sat down.

   ‘It happens,’ said Dr Stewart cheerfully, when Cat revealed her condition, ‘particularly at your age.’

   ‘I was just settling in for the menopause,’ said Cat, ‘I’m too old for babies.’

   ‘Nonsense,’ said Dr Stewart. ‘Plenty of women go on to have healthy babies at your age.’

   ‘But the risks …’

   ‘Are higher for things like Downs, granted,’ said Dr Stewart, ‘but on the other hand you’ve had four healthy babies, there’s no reason to think you won’t produce a fifth. I can always arrange for you to have an amnio and other tests, if you like.’

   Cat looked at Noel.

   ‘Doesn’t that increase the risk of miscarriage?’ she asked.

   ‘It can do,’ said Dr Stewart.

   ‘Then, no,’ said Cat, suddenly feeling protective towards the blob for the first time. ‘I think we’ll just take our chances and hope it will be okay.’

   ‘You’re sure you want to go through with this then?’ said Dr Stewart, ‘you still have time to change your mind.’

   Cat swallowed hard; it was what she had thought about constantly, ever since she’d found out about the pregnancy. She’d been scared to mention it to Noel in case he agreed with her.

   ‘Absolutely,’ said Noel, he looked puzzled, as if the answer was obvious. ‘Why wouldn’t we want to have this baby?’

   Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.


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