The Art of Friendship

Содержание:

The Art of Friendship

   

Art of Friendship Erin Kaye


   For the ‘Fabulous Four’ who inspired this story.

Table of Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   People said that time heals all wounds. But Janice Kirkpatrick knew that wasn’t true. She could remember every minute of that New Year’s Eve – the one just after she’d turned eleven – as though it were yesterday. She bit her lip, closed her eyes and, by sheer force of will, made the memories disappear. Just as she had done for the last twenty-seven years.

   She opened her eyes and tried to focus on the present. It was the thirty-first of December and she was locked in the en-suite bathroom with her dearest friends – Patsy, Clare and Kirsty. Downstairs, the party was in full swing, the thud of a glam rock hit from the seventies reverberating through the thick walls of the house in Ballyfergus.

   ‘Okay. Who’s going to make their New Year’s resolution first?’ asked Patsy, a buxom, petite blonde perched on the lid of the closed bidet, her satin peep-toes the colour of bubble-gum. She hiccupped and slapped her hand over her mouth. Janice and the other two women giggled, the sudden exhalation of their breath causing the flames of nearby candles to flicker.

   Janice, who was lying in the empty claw-foot bathtub, a champagne flute held aloft, felt suddenly uneasy. She wasn’t in the habit of making resolutions, not public ones anyway.

   ‘Aren’t you supposed to keep them a secret?’ asked Clare, at thirty-five, the youngest woman in the room. She had one of those faces that could, with the right grooming, look striking. But in spite of all Janice’s encouragement and advice over the years, Clare just wasn’t cut out to be a glamourpuss. Tonight, enthroned on the closed toilet seat, she wore a plain black dress and sensible low heels, her long brown hair tied back severely in a diamanté clasp – her only apparent concession to the festive season.

   ‘No,’ said Patsy, waving the objection away with her hand and coming perilously close to spilling champagne on her black pencil skirt. ‘Sure, if we can’t tell each other,’ she said, stopping to suppress another hiccup, ‘who can we tell?’

   Janice didn’t like New Year’s Eve and the retrospection and sentimentality that accompanied it. And the alcohol she’d consumed wasn’t quite enough, yet, to obliterate all the dark thoughts. The idea of hosting the party – which she did every year – was to fill the house with noise and laughter in an effort to displace the depressing nostalgia she always associated with this night. However, she was well aware that her three closest friends had a more optimistic take on life and resolved to humour them.

   ‘How about you, Kirsty?’ said Janice, addressing the woman seated cross-legged on the laundry bin, a solid teak chest specially imported from Thailand. It suited the oriental theme of the black-and-grey tiled room – Janice’s serene retreat from the world beyond. But before Kirsty had time to answer, Janice added, ‘I know what your resolution should be.’

   ‘You do? Oh, don’t tell me. Let me guess. Time for me to get myself a man,’ said Kirsty, rolling her pretty grass-coloured eyes. Unlike Clare, Kirsty’s natural beauty did not require much in the way of enhancement. Tonight she wore little more than mascara and lip gloss and she looked gorgeous in a green halter-neck dress that matched the colour of her eyes and complemented the autumnal reddish tone of her shoulder-length hair. She could do with being a tiny little bit thinner – if she was a size eight, like Janice, and a tad taller, she would be model material.

   ‘Not exactly,’ laughed Janice. ‘But it is time for you to have some fun. Time to get out and about and start dating. You need to remind yourself that you’re a woman.’

   ‘I know I’m a woman,’ tutted Kirsty good-naturedly, swiping her hand in Janice’s direction. ‘I don’t need a man to find that out.’

   ‘Janice’s right enough, though,’ said Patsy, who was the oldest of the group, a full decade older than Kirsty and fancied herself a bit of an agony aunt. ‘It might do you good to get out and meet new people,’ she said euphemistically, though what she really meant by ‘people’ was men. She pulled herself up to her full seated height, the buttons of her grey satin blouse, the colour of Janice’s eyes, straining against her large bosom. Patsy’s eyes, the grey-green colour of the sea on a dull day, twinkled with mischief.

   Kirsty let out a soft sigh and smiled, her eyes moist in the candlelight. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ she said and immediately Janice regretted any pain she might have inadvertently caused. But before she could speak, Kirsty cleared her throat, raised her champagne glass and said gamely, ‘My New Year’s resolution is to…to get out more and date.’

   ‘Too vague,’ said Clare.

   Kirsty’s hand dropped to her side in frustration and she looked imploringly at Janice and Patsy. ‘What should I say then?’

   Janice spoke first. ‘Clare’s right. You need to be more specific. How about saying that this year you will date at least ten men?’

   ‘Ten?’ gasped Kirsty incredulously.

   ‘Steady on, Janice!’ said Patsy, almost choking on a mouthful of champagne. She pointed at Kirsty. ‘Where in the name of God is she going to meet ten decent men? Have you seen what passes for eligible bachelors in Ballyfergus?’

   ‘Point taken,’ said Janice with a giggle. ‘How about five, then?’ Patsy raised her right eyebrow just a fraction and Janice rolled her eyes.

   ‘Okay. Four. Come on! That’s only one a quarter. Surely you could manage that? Unless of course the first one turns out to be The One and then you don’t have to date any more!’

   ‘Chance would be a fine thing,’ said Kirsty with a wry smile and then, more upbeat, she added, ‘Okay then. This year I will date at least four eligible bachelors.’

   ‘Great. Well done, Kirsty,’ said Patsy, sounding like a proud mum.

   ‘Okay, someone else now,’ said Kirsty, looking pleased to have her turn, like a visit to the dentist, over and done with.

   ‘Kirsty, darling, do the honours,’ said Janice, presenting an empty crystal glass to Kirsty who reached into the icefilled sink and pulled out a bottle of Bollinger. Using a fluffy hand-towel to capture the beads of water that ran off the bottle like perspiration, she refilled Janice’s glass.

   ‘Thank you, sweetheart.’

   ‘Anyone else for a top-up?’ asked Kirsty and, in response to the murmurs of assent, she proceeded to dispense the effervescent straw-coloured liquid in the over-careful manner of the mildly inebriated. When everyone’s glass was filled to the brim, she put the empty bottle back in the sink, alongside the one they’d finished earlier.

   ‘So, what about you, Patsy?’ said Kirsty. ‘What’s your resolution going to be?’

   ‘Well, you know I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and on safari?’

   ‘Yes!’ said Clare. ‘I remember you talking about it the very first time we all met at that art class. How long ago was that?’

   ‘Fifteen years this September,’ said Janice, quick as a flash. She’d signed up for the art class within weeks of moving to Ballyfergus, a busy port on the East Antrim coast, in the hope of finding new friends.

   ‘God, you’ve an amazing memory,’ said Clare. Janice smiled and wished this wasn’t true – she wished she could edit her memories like digital photographs, ruthlessly choosing which ones to keep and which to discard.

   ‘We should celebrate,’ went on Clare, earnestly. ‘It’s quite special, isn’t it, staying friends, the four of us, all this time?’

   ‘I know! How about a girlie weekend in London?’ said Patsy. She slapped her thigh like Doris Day in Calamity Jane.

   ‘New York!’ cried Janice. ‘Think about the shopping.’

   ‘Steady on,’ said Clare, with a nervous laugh. ‘We haven’t all got platinum credit cards.’ She flushed slightly and chewed the skin on the side of her thumb. Janice silently chided herself for being thoughtless. Clare was a stay-at-home mum to two small children and she and her accountant husband Liam had limited means.

   ‘Mmm, Clare’s got a point,’ said Patsy. Her forehead creased into a frown, she rested her chin on one hand and pouted her red lips. Then she sat up suddenly and cried, ‘I know. We could use my brother-in-law’s place in London for free. Eamonn only uses the flat during the week. He’s always on at me and Martin to go there.’

   ‘He wouldn’t mind us lot pitching up?’ said Kirsty cautiously.

   ‘Hell, no!’ laughed Patsy.

   ‘We could get a cheap flight,’ said Clare thoughtfully, now chewing the nail on her little finger.

   ‘Okay then. Let’s do it,’ said Janice decisively.

   ‘Brilliant! No time like the present,’ said Patsy, rising unsteadily on her heels. She tugged at her skirt, bunched up around her shapely hips. ‘I’ll go and ask Eamonn right now. He’s here tonight.’

   ‘But what about your New Year’s resolution? I’m the only one who’s made one so far,’ said Kirsty, sounding peeved about the fact.

   ‘Whoops!’ Patsy sat down again abruptly, and grinned lazily. ‘Forgot about that.’

   ‘You were talking earlier about the African safari,’ prompted Clare, who appeared the most clear-headed, though it was hard to tell. She could drink copious amounts and still appear relatively sober.

   ‘Oh, yeah,’ enthused Patsy. ‘It’s something I’ve always dreamt about. Ever since I was a little girl. It’s our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this September. And this’ll be our second honeymoon. The one we never had first time round.’ She stared at the wall, an enigmatic smile on her lips.

   ‘What did you do for your first?’ asked Kirsty.

   ‘A week boating on the lakes of Fermanagh.’

   ‘Sounds romantic.’

   ‘It was,’ said Patsy and she gave Kirsty a suggestive wink that made her friend blush. ‘We never had the money back then to go abroad or do anything fancy. Martin had just got promoted to Assistant Manager in Bangor and he wasn’t earning much. And neither was I. We spent the first four years of marriage saving up to buy our first house. Then I fell pregnant and there was never the money to go off and do something so indulgent. With kids there’s always something more important to be spending your money on, isn’t there?’

   ‘You can say that again,’ agreed Kirsty with a vigorous nod.

   ‘But this – this’ll be special,’ went on Patsy dreamily. ‘I know it’ll be expensive but I’ve been stashing a bit away here and there from the gallery’s profits. It’s going to be fantastic!’

   ‘Does Martin know?’ said Janice, thrilled by Patsy’s infectious enthusiasm.

   ‘That’s the best bit! It’s going to be a complete surprise. I’m going to book it all and then only tell him at the last minute.’

   ‘He’ll need his jabs though,’ cautioned Janice, a seasoned traveller. ‘He’ll know something’s up then.’

   ‘Okay, so I’ll keep where we’re going a secret. I’ve been looking at Botswana and September seems to be a good time to go – it’s between rainy seasons.’

   ‘We’ll have to do our London trip after then,’ observed Janice. ‘Maybe October.’

   Kirsty looked at Clare. ‘And what’s your resolution?’

   ‘I’m going to take up painting again,’ Clare said quickly, as though she had been waiting to be asked. ‘Seriously this time, no amateur stuff. That’s my resolution.’

   There was a short pause while everyone took in this unexpected news.

   ‘Jesus, you’re a dark horse, Clare McCormack,’ said Patsy, sounding surprised. ‘You never said a thing before.’

   ‘I’ve been thinking about it for a while,’ said Clare, staring at the empty glass in her hands. She sounded like she was making a confession. ‘I’ve done the mummy thing and, well, it’s about time I got back into the real world, I think. That’s why I’m thinking of painting.’

   ‘Commercially?’ said Patsy, and she sat up straight, her interest as art connoisseur and gallery-owner stimulated despite her lack of sobriety.

   ‘Don’t you think I’m good enough?’ asked Clare, too quickly, her glance bouncing between Patsy and the glass in her hand like a ping-pong ball. Then, as though it was too much of a distraction, she set the flute on a shelf behind the loo and folded her arms. She blushed, her insecurity laid bare.

   ‘Hell’s bells. You’re more than good enough,’ enthused Patsy. ‘Sure, before you had the children, your pictures sold like hot cakes at the annual art show,’ she added, referring to Clare’s striking watercolours of local scenes. Janice nodded in agreement.

   ‘Yes, but that was all very…very amateur,’ said Clare. ‘I’m thinking of trying to make a career out of it.’

   ‘And you will, Clare. Won’t she, girls?’ said Kirsty, looking round the room for support.

   Everyone nodded. ‘Just think, you could be the new Sam McLarnon,’ Janice said, referring to a highly regarded local artist who, like Clare, specialised in watercolours of the East Antrim coast.

   ‘If I was half as good as Sam, I’d be delighted,’ said Clare.

   The conversation turned to the going rate for a McLarnon watercolour and Janice tuned out. It was her turn next to make a resolution but she had no idea what to say. Clare’s clear-headed ambition served only to underline the inherent futility of her own existence. She didn’t make resolutions as a rule, past experience having taught her that what happens, happens. You just have to ride the wave of life, deal with it, cope. Just as she had always done. Fate dealt you a hand and it was foolishness, almost bordering on arrogance, to think that you could actually influence it.

   Just as she hated looking back, Janice abhorred the notion of planning ahead. She’d discovered long ago that the best way to deal with life was to live, like a child, in the moment. The making of resolutions implied that you had control over your life. And Janice knew that this was not the case.

   Still, she had more sense than to share these deterministic views with her friends. She didn’t want them to think her depressing on this of all nights, when as well as looking back, everyone wanted to look forward with hope and optimism. And most of all she didn’t want to disappoint them.

   ‘Your turn, Janice,’ said Clare, right on cue.

   ‘Well,’ said Janice, clearing her throat. ‘I’ve decided that this year I’m going to…to start a new project.’

   There was silence, the others waiting for her to go on, assuming she had some further clarification to share with them. Patsy nodded her head encouragingly.

   A loud rap on the door saved her. ‘Janice, are you in there?’ said her husband’s voice.

   ‘Yes, Keith!’ she shouted in response. The women collapsed into a spate of girlish sniggering, like they’d been caught smoking behind the bike sheds at school.

   ‘Who’s in there with you?’ said Keith, not waiting for her to answer and sounding slightly peeved. ‘You’ve been gone ages. People are wondering where you are.’

   Janice peered at the gold Rolex on her arm and said, in a stage whisper, ‘Shit! Is that the time?’ She pulled herself to her feet, hoisted her long black velvet dress to her knees and stepped gingerly out of the bath. ‘It’s just me and the girls in here, Keith,’ she shouted. ‘We’re coming.’

   And then to the other women she added in what she thought was a whisper, ‘Come on, girls. It’s gone eleven.’

   They filed sheepishly out of the bathroom into the bedroom, where Keith stood with a smile on his face, but not in his eyes. At fifty-two, he was fourteen years older than Janice but he still had the build of a rugby player – stocky legs, broad shoulders and muscled arms. He wore smart dark blue jeans with a brown belt and soft chocolate suede shoes. His white shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. His greying hair suited his tanned face – by anyone’s standards, he was a handsome man.

   ‘What were you doing in there?’ he whispered, as he took Janice proprietarily by the elbow and steered her along the landing after the others.

   ‘Not so fast, Keith,’ she protested, shaking off his hand. ‘I can’t walk in these heels.’

   ‘You can’t just go off in the middle of a party and leave me like that,’ he persisted.

   She stopped to face him at the top of the stairs. Down below in the hallway, people milled about, the sound of their chatter rising like a chorus, and the rhythmic beat of tooloud music filling the air. In heels she and Keith were on a level, nose to nose. She could see from the softness in his hazel eyes that he wasn’t really angry with her. Just a little annoyed. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t realise we were in there so long.’

   ‘But you’re neglecting the other guests.’

   The truth was Janice didn’t really care about the other guests. She wanted to spend time with her best friends. Most of the people downstairs were business contacts of Keith’s. Though she would never admit this to her husband, she found them intimidating. They were lawyers, barristers, doctors and the like – all the well-heeled of Ballyfergus. She felt intellectually inferior to them.

   ‘Aren’t the staff doing their job?’ she said, referring to the caterers they’d hired in for the night to serve food and drinks.

   ‘Yes. But that’s not the point, Janice. You’re the hostess and it’s rude to abandon your guests.’

   Janice opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. He was right of course. And then she remembered, as she had done every single day for the last fifteen years, what she owed him. This knowledge didn’t loom large over their marriage – and no doubt rarely crossed Keith’s mind, if at all. But it was never far from Janice’s, and it moderated all her thoughts and actions. She did not resent Keith because of the debt she owed him, far from it. She was inordinately grateful. But it was there nonetheless.

   ‘Janice?’ said Keith.

   ‘Huh?’

   ‘What are you thinking?’

   ‘Nothing,’ she said brightly and smiled. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t…think. It was rude of me. Come on, let’s go down.’

   ‘Just a moment,’ he said, reaching out to flick a lock of dark chestnut hair off her shoulder. ‘Have I told you that you look gorgeous tonight?’

   ‘Thank you,’ she replied automatically and returned a frozen smile, self-conscious and awkward. Keith’s frequent compliments had her spoiled. So often had he told her he loved her and that she was beautiful, that she had become immune to his praise. It wasn’t that she doubted the sincerity of his words. They just did not penetrate the surface of her, as though they were arrows meant for some other target, someone more worthy.

   ‘There you are, Janice! Keith!’ came the sound of Patsy’s voice from the bottom of the stairs, demanding their attention. ‘You’ve got to come and see this. Hurry up!’

   ‘We’d better go down,’ said Janice, without looking back, and she picked her way down the steps. At the bottom, Patsy grabbed her by the hand and pulled her in the direction of the large drawing room. When she glanced over her shoulder Keith, swallowed up by the crowd, was nowhere to be seen.

   Patsy led her into what used to be the playroom. Now that Pete was nearly eighteen, it served as a second, more informal, lounge. Someone had pulled both of the black leather sofas into the centre of the room facing each other, thereby switching the focus from the big flat-screen TV in the corner to the coffee table between the sofas. There were a dozen or so people in the room.

   Patsy let go of Janice’s hand and, sauntering her way across the cream shag-pile carpet, called out, ‘Don’t start without us!’

   Janice spotted Martin sitting on the edge of the sofa fiddling with his mobile phone, his huge feet like plates on the floor. His legs were so long his bony knees jutted up awkwardly, like he had been badly folded. Skinny as the lamp in the corner, he had a tousled mop of brown curly hair and a long, thin face. Physically he was not Janice’s cup of tea, but he was a great guy. And, in spite of the physical differences between him and his curvy wife, they were a perfect match for each other. Patsy hopped onto the arm of the sofa, put her arm round Martin’s shoulder and kissed the top of his head. He looked up and winked, beaming.

   ‘Come over here, Janice,’ said Patsy, waving her across the room with an urgent flapping of her right arm. Janice went and stood behind Martin so that the coffee table was in clear view.

   ‘This’ll never work,’ said Martin.

   ‘Give it a chance,’ said Liam, Clare’s husband, who sat opposite him.

   Liam’s slight build and boyish face made him seem younger than a man in his late thirties. This impression was reinforced by his bright periwinkle eyes and, when he became very animated, the peculiar and entirely unconscious habit of raising the pitch of his voice. Clare and Kirsty, who were almost the same age and great friends, had gravitated towards each other and now stood talking behind the sofa. They each held a fresh glass of white wine in their hands and paid no attention to what was going on around them. Even though Janice was only a few years older than them, she had more in common with Patsy – perhaps because, unlike Clare and Kirsty, they both had grown-up children.

   Liam spotted Janice and said, ‘Great party, Janice. Come here and see this.’ He pointed to the table where three mobile phones were laid out in an arc.

   ‘What are you doing?’ asked Janice, perplexed.

   ‘A party trick! Just watch,’ declared Liam with gusto. ‘Ah, there you are. Thanks, Pete.’

   At the mention of her son’s name, Janice looked up, surprised. Under his choppy highlighted hairstyle his face was lightly freckled and his delicate frame was bony under a t-shirt and low-slung jeans. He dropped a handful of caramel-coloured kernels into Liam’s hand, a half-smile on his face. Or smirk, depending how you looked at it.

   ‘Right. We’re ready to rock,’ said Liam. ‘Just need one more mobile phone.’

   Another phone hastily appeared. Liam placed it on the table with the others so that they formed an even-armed cross shape, with a space in the middle. The top of each phone was six inches from the one opposite. Liam said, ‘Now call each mobile on my signal.’

   Janice was sure Pete caught her glance but, if he did, he chose to ignore her. She fixed her gaze on the mobile phones. Pete wasn’t supposed to be here – he had said he was going out. He must’ve changed his plans, she thought, and tried not to allow his presence disturb her. Pete folded his arms and watched Liam with a bemused expression on his face.

   ‘Okay, key in the phone numbers now,’ said Liam and he scattered a few of the kernels on the table, in the space at the centre of the cross.

   ‘Popcorn!’ exclaimed Patsy.

   ‘Hit dial now!’ ordered Liam and, after a few seconds’ delay, Martin’s phone began to ring followed quickly by the others.

   The room fell silent, everyone fixated on the vibrating phones. Even Clare and Kirsty suspended their conversation to watch.

   ‘What’s supposed to happen?’ said Janice, but no-one replied. The phones continued to trill. After several rings, they stopped, presumably as they tripped to voice mail. Janice looked around at a roomful of puzzled faces. Pete had his hand up to his mouth. He seemed to be trying not to laugh. Janice looked away.

   ‘I don’t understand. I saw it on YouTube just the other day,’ said Liam, and he glanced at Martin who raised his eyebrows and shook his head. ‘The energy in the mobile phones cooks the popcorn.’

   Suddenly Pete emitted a loud burst of laughter and everyone looked at him. ‘Oh man!’ he cried and slapped his thighs theatrically, his wiry frame bent double with hysteria. Then he straightened up and composed himself enough to say, ‘I can’t believe you actually did that. Everyone knows that YouTube video was a hoax. It’s, like, months old.’ The left side of his lip curled up in an Elvis-style sneer. ‘How could you think a few phones would emit enough energy to pop corn? You’re a total dork, Liam.’

   Janice closed her eyes briefly, her face already aflame with embarrassment. Liam bit his bottom lip, grabbed his mobile off the table, and stuffed it in his pocket. Clare shot Pete an angry look and Janice opened her mouth to speak, then closed it.

   Pete was nearly a grown man. He should know better. More to the point, she and Keith should’ve taught him better and she, and everybody in that room, knew it. She put a hand over her eyes in shame.

   ‘Any more drinks?’ called a cheerful voice and Janice looked up, grateful to see a young man, one of the waiters, holding out a tray of glasses – red and white wine and champagne. The tension in the room was dispelled immediately as several people made a dive for the drinks and a chorus of goodhumoured ribbing went up from the men in the room.

   ‘Well, Liam, boy,’ said someone. ‘It looks like you’ll have to get a microwave to make your popcorn, like everyone else.’

   ‘It’d be a lot cheaper than four mobile phones,’ said someone else while Pete slipped from the room.

   ‘And you can do more than four kernels at a time,’ added another and Patsy, in a fit of giggles, nearly fell off the end of the sofa.

   ‘Okay, okay. Point taken,’ said Liam, permitting himself a glimmer of a smile and raising his hands, palms outwards, above his head, surrender fashion. He added, through gritted teeth, ‘Bet I wasn’t the only one duped, though.’

   ‘I thought it would work too,’ said Clare, in defence of her husband. ‘And you don’t know till you try, do you?’ She placed her right hand on Liam’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. Fleetingly, he touched her hand with his own.

   ‘Phew!’ said Patsy. ‘It’s only clever people with degrees in science and physics and…and whatever would know it wouldn’t work.’

   ‘Hey, are you saying we’re not clever?’ said Martin good-naturedly, as Janice walked quickly over to the door just in time to watch Pete sauntering up the hallway. All merriment had evaporated – she was suddenly and completely sober. She felt a hard, cold knot in her stomach like a stone. She snatched a glass of champagne from the tray, knocked it back in one, replaced the glass and followed him, keeping her eyes fixed determinedly on the place between his jutting shoulder blades.

   ‘Janice!’ called Keith’s voice. ‘Over here.’

   ‘I’ll be there in a minute,’ called Janice, her voice like iron. She did not move her eyes from Pete.

   He stopped to talk to two of his friends in the doorway to the kitchen – what were they doing here? Free drink of course, she realised, noting the beer can in Al’s hand and the crystal tumbler full of amber-coloured liquid in Ben’s. From the glazed expression on Ben’s face it looked like he was already well-acquainted with the contents of the spirit cabinet. But that was the least of her concerns right now.

   For just then a young waitress, not more than sixteen, with her blonde hair scraped back in a severe ponytail and not a scrap of make-up on her fresh face, turned sideways to navigate her way past the boys, who were blocking her way into the kitchen. Not one of them made any attempt to move. She raised the tray above her head, facing Pete and smiled at him in an embarrassed sort of way. In one swift movement, so quick Janice almost missed it, he put his hands up, grabbed the girl’s breasts and squeezed them hard. The girl let out a yelp like an injured puppy, pulled the tray down like a shield across her chest and stumbled past him into the kitchen.

   Seconds later Janice reached him. Ignoring Al and Ben, she grabbed Pete by the arm and dug her nails in hard enough for him to flinch. Pete didn’t appear surprised to see her. In fact when he turned to face her with that knowing smile on his face, it was almost as though he was expecting her. She put her palm on the handle of the cloakroom door and hissed, ‘In here. Now.’ His friends had the grace to stop laughing and look at the floor.

   Pete flicked his long black eyelashes at her, looked away, looked back, sighed audibly. When he returned his gaze to her, it was full of insolence.

   ‘Now,’ she repeated through gritted teeth.

   ‘Whatever,’ he said, looking away again. She released her grip and he followed her into the cloakroom, slowly, making her wait. Janice flicked on the light and closed the door behind them. The room smelt of rugby boots and wet wool.

   Janice folded her arms. ‘I saw what you just did.’

   He stared at her insolently.

   ‘Are you drunk?’

   ‘Nope,’ he said and she knew from his clear-headed gaze that he was telling the truth. She wished he wasn’t – she wished that he was pissed out of his head. At least that would partly explain what she had just seen – and his unspeakable rudeness to Liam.

   She exploded with rage. ‘How dare you touch that girl! How dare you! She’s an employee in this house and she should be treated with respect. She doesn’t look a day over sixteen, poor thing.’

   When this failed to make any impression on Pete she added, ‘You could be charged with sexual assault, you do know that, don’t you?’

   ‘I never touched her. She just bumped against me on her way past. Big deal.’

   ‘Liar.’

   He shrugged, looked away.

   ‘And how dare you talk to Liam McCormack like that?’ she said, her voice more controlled now, the rage simmering underneath. Her heart pounded against her ribcage, the adrenaline, released by fury, coursing through her veins. It felt like she was looking at him through a tunnel.

   Again, Pete shrugged his shoulders, sharp at the edges like a hanger. ‘He deserved it. Anyway, I was only having a laugh. Don’t be so uptight, Janice.’ He’d stopped calling her Mum when he was nine, much to her irritation and hurt.

   ‘I didn’t see anyone laughing,’ said Janice. Apart from you. You were unforgivably rude and what’s worse, you encouraged him, knowing the trick would never work.’ In spite of her best efforts, her speech became more rapid and high-pitched as she went on. ‘You set him up. You deliberately set him up.’

   Pete rolled backwards on the heels of his Hush Puppies, the middle-aged man’s shoes now inexplicably hip among his age group. His face was expressionless.

   ‘Why didn’t you tell him it was a hoax as soon as you realised what he was doing?’

   ‘You gotta admit it was funny,’ he said.

   ‘It wasn’t funny. It was horrible.’

   ‘That’s a matter of opinion. Al and Ben thought it was fly when I told them.’

   ‘What are they doing here anyway?’ said Janice. ‘I thought you were going out?’

   ‘We are. Later.’

   ‘If you leave it much later it’ll be tomorrow. And Ben’s had enough to drink. It’s time he and Al left.’

   Pete turned and Janice said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’

   ‘I’m leaving,’ he said, opening the door. The sound of the party, a wall of noise, came crashing through the door. ‘Isn’t that what you want, Mummy dearest?’

   Janice resisted the urge to smack him like she had sometimes done, to her shame, when he was younger. Pete had always pushed the boundaries in a way she was quite sure other kids did not do. She lunged at the door and pushed it closed with the flat of her hand, muffling the noise.

   ‘You’ll go and apologise to that girl first. And then Liam.’

   He snorted derisively. He furrowed his brow in an exaggerated fashion, pretending to give grave consideration to her demand. ‘Nah,’ he said at last, bringing his lazy gaze back to Janice. ‘That ain’t gonna happen.’

   ‘You bloody well will,’ said Janice, putting on a brave face but knowing already, from previous form, that it was a battle lost. How could she make Pete apologise? She had long ago lost the ability to influence him, let alone control him.

   Pete folded his arms and said, ‘And who’s going to make me?’

   ‘We’ll see what your father has to say about this,’ said Janice. Deferring to Keith was her last resort and an ineffectual one at that. She was defeated, and both she and Pete knew it. Angered by her powerlessness, she flung the door open and marched into the hall.

   ‘There you are, Janice!’ cried Keith, over a sea of heads, his face flushed with beer and excitement. He side-stepped a circle of people engrossed in conversation, and, when he reached her, thrust a glass of champagne into her hand. ‘Here, quick, you need a drink! This way.’

   Never more pleased to see him, she followed him into the hot and noisy drawing room. A temporary bar had been set up against one wall, behind a table covered in a nowdrinkstained white cloth. The table was littered with beer-bottle tops and dirty glasses and underneath the table there were great plastic bins of ice containing bottles of white wine and champagne and cans of beer. A thin, pale-skinned young woman brushed past proffering a tray of full champagne flutes. She held the tray in both hands, biting her bottom lip in concentration.

   ‘Did everyone get a glass of champagne, now?’ Keith asked her.

   ‘I think so, Mr Kirkpatrick. Emma’s been round the rest of the house already,’ she said, referring to the other waitress. The one, Janice assumed, Pete had just molested.

   ‘Good, good. You’re doing a grand job,’ he said and the girl smiled, showing uneven teeth. She visibly stood up a little straighter. Keith had the special knack of making everyone that came into contact with him feel that little bit better about themselves.

   ‘Can we talk, Keith?’ said Janice. Her anger had started to subside, replaced by the onset of distress. She felt a pricking sensation at the back of her eyes – if she wasn’t careful she would break down in tears. And she was determined not to cry. If she did, Pete would’ve won – again. ‘About Pete. You’ve no idea…’

   ‘Not now, Janice. Later,’ said Keith. ‘It’s nearly twelve! Lads!’ he called to a group of men from work. ‘It’s nearly time for the bells.’

   The countdown chant arose from the playroom, where someone must’ve switched on the TV, and it rolled out like a wave through the rest of the house.

   ‘But…’ began Janice.

   ‘…five, four,’ shouted Keith, as the chorus grew around them. He threw his arm around Janice’s slim waist and squeezed her until it hurt. He raised his glass into the air like a trophy.

   ‘Three, two, one,’ she joined in. She forced a smile, determined not to spoil this moment for Keith, furious that Pete had spoilt it for her. But he wouldn’t get away with it, she’d make sure of that.

   ‘Happy New Year!’ cried Keith and he clinked his glass against Janice’s so hard she thought the crystal might crack. Then he pulled her to him until they were chest to chest.

   ‘Careful!’ she cried, teetering precariously on her stilettos, the glass in her hand tilting dangerously. ‘You’ll spill the champagne.’

   Keith loosened his grip and placed a soppy kiss on her lips.

   ‘Happy New Year, darling,’ she said, returning the kiss, and he beamed happily. How she envied his contented nature, his ability to always look on the bright side, to see the good in everyone and everything. She loved him for it. Indeed, it was one of the reasons she had married him.

   She had hoped, mistakenly, that some of Keith’s magic would rub off on her, that she would become a happier person just by being around him. But it hadn’t worked that way – in fact she worried that, if she wasn’t careful, the opposite might be true. She thought that if he knew the full extent of her pessimism, she would destroy him. Worse, he would stop loving her. For these reasons she did not share with him her darkest thoughts. Like how she really felt about Pete. Tonight, however, she thought determinedly, the issue of Pete’s behaviour could not be ignored.

   ‘Keith?’

   ‘Yes, darling?’

   ‘I know now’s maybe not the time,’ said Janice. ‘But we need to talk about…’

   ‘There you are,’ shrieked Patsy, appearing from nowhere. She threw her arms around Janice and cried ‘Happy New Year!’ into her left ear.

   ‘Happy New Year, darling,’ said Janice, embracing Patsy. Her soft, maternal body was comforting – Patsy’s perfume enveloped her like a blanket. She didn’t want to let go.

   Soon Janice was surrounded by well-wishers, and, when she looked over at him, so was Keith, his head thrown back in laughter, radiating bonhomie. Janice glanced through the door to the place in the hall where Pete and his friends had been only moments before. They had disappeared. It looked like the topic of Pete would have to wait.

   Clare and Liam appeared suddenly, Liam with his navy sports jacket on and Clare carrying a black wool coat over her arm.

   ‘You’re not leaving already, are you?’ she said, disappointed.

   “Fraid so,’ said Clare. ‘We need to get back for the babysitter.’

   ‘Our taxi’ll be here any minute,’ confirmed Liam. The people around them peeled away like onion skins until only the three of them were left.

   ‘Well, thanks for a great party, Janice,’ said Liam.

   ‘Yeah, thanks a million. It was fab,’ said Clare.

   If Pete wouldn’t apologise to them, thought Janice grimly, then she would have to…

   ‘We’d better get going, Liam,’ said Clare, ever the worrier. ‘We don’t want the taxi driving off without us. They’re like hen’s teeth on New Year’s Eve,’ she added, trying to be lighthearted.

   ‘Liam. Clare,’ began Janice.

   They stared at her, waiting.

   ‘I must apologise to you about Pete’s behaviour earlier.’

   ‘No, no, no. There’s no need,’ mumbled Liam, stuffing his hands in his trouser pockets and finding sudden fascination with his shoes.

   ‘None at all,’ said Clare, shaking her head and avoiding eye contact with Janice.

   ‘Just high spirits,’ said Liam, looking at his wife. ‘A few drinks too many, that’s all.’

   ‘We’ve all been there,’ said Clare, nodding her head at Liam. ‘Haven’t we?’

   ‘Oh yes,’ he agreed. ‘I insult people on a regular basis, don’t I, pet?’ he said and laughed. Then he added hastily, his face colouring, ‘Not that I was insulted, you understand. No, not in the least. I just meant…I…’

   His voice tailed off and there was an awkward pause. Their efforts to mitigate Pete’s crime only served to embarrass Janice further. They were too nice to be honest. Janice took a deep breath.

   ‘He was unforgivably rude to you and for that I must apologise,’ said Janice. ‘And I wish I could put it down to drink but I can’t. He was completely sober. I asked him to apologise but he simply refused,’ she said blankly, laying out the bare facts. The temptation to invent excuses for him was great. But she would not spare herself the censure that was rightly hers.

   ‘Taxi for McCormack,’ hollered a rough male voice from the hallway and the relief on the couple’s faces was obvious.

   ‘Come on, Clare,’ said Liam. ‘We need to go.’

   ‘God, yeah!’ said Clare, suddenly flustered. Her bag slipped and she juggled it and the coat until she had secured them both safely in her arms again. ‘Well, Janice. It was a fabulous party. Thank you so much,’ she said with a broad smile, placed a kiss on Janice’s cheek and then they were gone.

   Janice, grim-faced, headed for the kitchen, looking for Emma, only to find out that she had gone home early, ostensibly with a headache.

   Later Janice sat alone in the drawing room as Keith saw the last guests to the door. She nursed a glass of water, her shoes at her feet. The room had been cleared of glasses and bottles and the bar dismantled. The furniture needed to be put back in place, ornaments reinstated where they had been removed for safe keeping, and the room given a good clean. But there was little real damage, bar a few spillages on one of the rugs. Nothing that couldn’t easily be rectified.

   She wished the same could be said of Pete. That the blots on his character could be shampooed out like the stains on a carpet. But she feared his nature was too ingrained now. This realisation shocked Janice for, up until now, she had always held out hope that Pete would somehow be redeemed. She had been doing so all his life.

   From the very early days when, as a toddler, he bit other children so hard he left bruises, right up until tonight, she had told herself it was a ‘stage’ he would grow out of. And Keith was happy to buy into that fallacy too. They mistook Pete’s maliciousness for mischievousness, cunning for cleverness and deviousness for precocious development. They shut their eyes to the fact that his behaviour didn’t improve with the years. It just became more covert as he gradually began to understand what he could get away with, and what would get him into deep trouble.

   And, when the hoped-for brothers and sisters for Pete failed to arrive, they, Keith especially, indulged him. If they had been able to have children together Janice wondered if it would’ve made any difference to the way Pete turned out. He wouldn’t have been so spoilt, but somehow she doubted if his character would’ve been fundamentally different. So much of character was down to genes, wasn’t it? Janice bit her lip and blinked back the tears. At one time she had convinced herself that good parenting would be enough to overcome the curse of Pete’s legacy. And she had been proved wrong.

   Keith came into the room, let out a long, weary sigh and collapsed onto the elegant green sofa opposite Janice. He rested his elbow on the arm of the couch and rubbed his brow with forefinger and thumb, as if smoothing out wrinkles.

   ‘I’m knackered,’ he yawned. He kicked his shoes off and put his feet on the coffee table.

   ‘Me too,’ said Janice, exhausted by the emotional rollercoaster of the last few hours. She rubbed the tender red welts across the arches of her feet – the painful price of fashion.

   ‘Do you think everyone enjoyed themselves?’ asked Keith, resting his head on the back of the sofa.

   ‘Everyone except Clare and Liam. And Emma, the waitress, ’ said Janice, her anger reignited.

   ‘What are you talking about, Janice?’

   Janice, feeling suddenly chilled, pulled a beaded beige cashmere throw off the back of the sofa and draped it across her shoulders. ‘Pete.’

   Keith sighed loudly. ‘What’s he done now?’ The uninterested tone of his delivery irritated Janice. Her husband was always quick to jump to Pete’s defence.

   Janice rolled her shoulders to ease the tension across her upper back and took a deep breath. She told Keith what had happened and tried not to colour the story with her opinions and prejudices.

   ‘Oh, Janice. Is that what had you storming out of the cloakroom with a face like thunder?’ he said when she had finished. Janice felt herself bristle with indignation. ‘It sounds like nothing more than a case of high jinks to me. And that’s hardly a crime on New Year’s Eve, is it?’

   Janice took a deep breath and counted to five. Getting Keith to understand that there was something wrong with Pete was an uphill battle. ‘He assaulted that girl right in front of my eyes. And it isn’t so much what he did to Liam. Yes, I can see how it might sound like a harmless prank. And handled the right way, perhaps it might’ve been funny. But it was the way he did it. He wasn’t joining in the fun, he was poking ridicule at one of our dearest friends.’

   ‘It doesn’t mean anything.’

   ‘I’m sorry, Keith,’ said Janice stiffly, ‘but you weren’t there. There was this awful silence and people didn’t know where to look. Everybody was embarrassed. And Liam was furious.’

   ‘You’re imagining things.’

   ‘I’m not,’ she said patiently.

   ‘Well. Look,’ said Keith. He removed his feet from the table, leant forwards and held his hands out wide, palms upwards as though weighing the truth in them. ‘Did Clare and Liam say anything to you about it? I saw you talking to them just before they left.’

   ‘No,’ said Janice and shrugged her shoulders. ‘Of course not. They’re far too polite to criticise their host’s son. I apologised to them though.’

   ‘And what did they say?’ said Keith.

   ‘They made out like it was nothing,’ she was forced to admit.

   ‘There you go then,’ said Keith, dropping his hands and relaxing back into the seat again, barely managing to keep the smile off his face.

   Janice was reminded yet again of the pitfalls of arguing with a barrister. Keith had a way of rounding an argument into a corner, like a sheepdog. And once he had you cornered, you felt just as stupid as a sheep. She gripped the edges of the wrap and pulled it tighter, like a swaddling blanket.

   ‘I always said you let him wind you up too easily, Janice. The trick with Pete is not to let him know he’s got to you.’

   Ignoring this comment she said, ‘And what about him molesting that waitress? You’re not going to shrug that off too, are you?’

   He said, ‘Again, I think you’re over-reacting. Maybe they were just messing about – both of them. I don’t know. But a quick grope in the hallway hardly constitutes sexual assault.’

   ‘She didn’t ask for it, if that’s what you mean, Keith. It wasn’t like that. It was totally inappropriate. She was horrified and when I went looking for her later on, I was told she’d gone home.’

   ‘Her going home may have had nothing to do with Pete.’

   ‘You’re not taking me seriously, are you?’ she said, balling her fists in frustration. ‘You never believe me when it comes to Pete.’

   ‘I never believe you,’ he repeated, nodding his head slowly. ‘Hmm.’ This was one of his favourite devices in a debate. By drawing attention to her inaccurate generalisation, he was attempting to divert the argument into a siding. She knew what was coming next. ‘Do you think it’s fair to say that “I never believe you when it comes to Pete”?’

   ‘That may be an exaggeration,’ said Janice quickly, determined not to let him deflect her. ‘But you persistently fail to accept that Pete isn’t…isn’t…’ She floundered, searching for the right word. ‘He isn’t right.

   Keith rubbed his hand through his hair until it stood up on end. ‘He’s a normal seventeen year old, Janice. And, yes, I acknowledge that his social skills aren’t as refined as we might like. But that’ll come with experience. You know sometimes you talk about him as though you don’t even like him.’

   ‘Don’t be ridiculous. He’s my son,’ protested Janice.

   Keith sighed. ‘Look, if it makes you any happier, I’ll get him to phone Liam tomorrow.’

   ‘Thank you,’ she said ungraciously, pleased to have made some ground but frustrated that she had had to fight so hard for it.

   ‘Though I’m sure he’ll wonder what on earth Pete’s calling him for…’

   ‘No he won’t,’ said Janice.

   ‘I’ve said I’ll get him to apologise, Janice. What more do you want?’

   ‘And what about the waitress?’

   ‘I’ll talk to him about that. It wouldn’t be…wise,’ he said, placing careful emphasis on the last word, ‘for him to contact the girl about that. Just in case she decided to take it further. But I’ll make sure,’ he added firmly, ‘that he understands his actions were unacceptable.’

   Janice sighed. That was something. ‘Okay,’ she said quietly, mollified but not entirely content.

   ‘Right. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?’ he said.

   She nodded.

   ‘Let’s go to bed,’ he said and came over to her and held out his hand. She took it, stood up and he kissed her on the forehead – without heels, she was three inches shorter than him. ‘I know you worry about Pete, Janice. But he just needs to find his own way a bit. And he’s going to be alright. I know it. Let’s forget about him for now.’

   Janice rested her head on his shoulder and swallowed the lump in her throat. She had a terrible sense of foreboding. Something bad was about to happen; no, more specifically, Pete was about to do something bad. And yet when she tried to articulate this thought, it sounded ridiculous. She closed her eyes and tried very hard to believe Keith’s optimistic words.

   ‘Oh Keith,’ she said, ‘I do love you.’

   ‘I know you do,’ he replied, with the unerring confidence of someone who believes that good things are their due.

   It was Saturday afternoon, a fortnight after the party at Janice’s, when Kirsty stood by the bedroom window in her unnervingly quiet house, facing up to the reality of making good on her New Year’s Eve resolution. Janice had talked her into her first blind date – her first date of any kind – in over fifteen years. And while Janice and Keith would be there to support her at the meal in a local restaurant – and she was sure Janice would not pair her up with someone horrible – she was absolutely petrified. She puffed up her cheeks, then blew out slowly, trying to calm her shaky nerves.

   Her instinct was to cancel, but that would be the coward’s way out. She would be letting Janice and Keith down and insulting Keith’s colleague, Robert. She told herself that there was nothing to be afraid of. She was sure Robert would be perfectly charming. But it wasn’t him Kirsty was worried about.

   She had no idea how to act on a date. Not any more. She was so out of touch with everything. She had only the vaguest handle on current affairs. She had no idea what was hip in the music world. The only movies she went to see were romcoms with her girlfriends. All she had to talk about, really, when she thought of it, was her two sons and re-runs of CSI, House and Numbers – her favourite TV shows. Not for the first time, she told herself, she should get a job – at least then she would have something interesting to talk about and, God knows, she could use the money. But this time she really meant it. She should’ve made that her New Year’s resolution, forget about men, and save herself all this emotional angst.

   But focusing on work wasn’t the answer. She was lonely and the only remedy was male company. She had not been with a man since her husband, Scott, died three years ago. He’d been killed while out cycling early one crisp Sunday morning in November, by an old man driving his battered Peugeot 107 to church. Scott’s helmet had not been secured properly, it had flown off in the impact and he died instantly. The first Kirsty knew about it was the call from the police.

   Looking back, it comforted her to know that Scott was not alone when he died – that members of his cycling club, people who cared for him, were there. She prayed that he hadn’t endured even a second of consciousness in which to remember her and his little boys – or to realise that he was never going to see them again. She prayed that he died still believing that she loved him.

   Three years was a long time to be alone. Since the accident, everything had revolved around looking after the children and helping Scott’s devastated parents, Harry and Dorothy, come to terms with their loss. More and more Kirsty found herself dissatisfied with the narrowness of her life. And, increasingly, she found herself ready to face the world again. Not only did she need a job – Scott’s insurance money had almost run out – she wanted a job so that she could meet people, laugh with colleagues and feel part of something. But above all, she wanted to be loved.

   Instinctively Janice understood this. Kirsty had allowed herself to be coaxed into tonight because, in spite of her fears and excruciating shyness, she did really want to meet someone and fall in love. And Janice was right – she wasn’t going to meet him sitting at home every night watching TV, or going out with her married girlfriends.

   Kirsty turned and stared at the long panelled skirt which lay on the bed. It was made from black-and-grey tartan wool fabric, with decorative pouches at the hem, each one embellished with ivory embroidery. The tartan reminded Kirsty of her Scottish roots, and the bohemian design of her days at the Glasgow School of Art where she had met Scott.

   She smiled, remembering, and lovingly touched the fabric of the garment as if it could transport her back to that world. Scott Elliott had been a second-year student studying Product Design when she met him. She was a first year, specialising in ceramics and textiles. He was full of infectious enthusiasm about all the ergonomic products he was going to design which would make the world a better place. And which would make his fortune.

   She was swept off her feet. Their affair was intense and sustained over the next two years and, when Scott graduated with no prospect of a job and was persuaded to go back home to Ballyfergus to work in his father’s paper mill, their romance survived the separation. When she graduated the following year, she followed him there.

   The phone made Kirsty jump.

   ‘I was just ringing to see how you were?’ Patsy said when she picked up. ‘Janice hasn’t rail-roaded you into tonight, has she?’

   Kirsty laughed. ‘Well, just a bit.’

   ‘You don’t have to go, you know,’ said Patsy quickly. ‘Just tell her you’re not feeling well.’

   ‘It’s alright. I’m nervous as hell but Janice is right. I do need to start putting myself about a bit.’

   ‘I certainly hope not, Kirsty,’ said Patsy with a snigger.

   ‘That wasn’t a very good turn of phrase, was it?’ Kirsty giggled, then said, serious again, ‘Janice is doing me a favour. She’s giving me the push I need. I would like to meet someone and I’m not going to do that unless I start going out on dates, am I?’ She pressed on. ‘Actually, I’m just trying to work out what to wear. It’s blooming freezing out there tonight.’ She wrapped her free arm around her waist and glanced out at the grey sky.

   ‘What are you thinking of?’ said Patsy.

   Kirsty looked at the skirt as she described it and Patsy said, ‘Nice. What are you going to wear with it?’

   ‘I was thinking of that black and lace top with the satin trim and…’

   ‘Mmm, a bit fussy,’ said Patsy, doubtfully, stopping Kirsty dead in her tracks.

   ‘What?’ she said, her heart sinking. She sat down abruptly on the bed beside the skirt. Never mind knowing how to behave on a date, she wasn’t even capable of dressing herself for one.

   ‘Do you want to know what I think?’ said Patsy and ploughed on, without waiting for an answer. ‘I think it would look fabulous with a plain black polo neck. You know the ribbed, cotton type. Have you got one?’

   ‘Yes…’ said Kirsty, cheering a little in the face of Patsy’s enthusiasm. She got up and opened the wardrobe door. Thankfully the polo neck was there and not in the laundry basket.

   ‘Now imagine it with one of your big funky necklaces, a big black belt and your black suede boots. The ones with the wedge heels. And that grey fur gilet of yours. Better still wrap the belt round the gilet – that’s very now.’

   Kirsty hastily assembled a mental picture of the ensemble and breathed a sigh of relief. It was chic without being old-fashioned and she knew exactly which handcrafted necklace she would wear. Along with a chunky belt (the one with the big silver buckle, designed by one of her old pals from college), she would be true to her bohemian instincts. ‘Patsy,’ she said, ‘you’re so right. The last thing I need is a fashion disaster on top of my nerves.’

   ‘You’d look great whatever you wore, Kirsty. You’re so pretty. But in that you’ll be absolutely knock-out.’ Kirsty smiled into the phone, grateful for the blessing of her wonderful friend. There was a short pause and then Patsy spoke again. ‘Where are the boys?’

   ‘Dorothy and Harry have them for a sleepover. They collected them just after lunch. They were planning to take them to the pictures in Ballymena and then for a McDonald’s.’

   ‘The boys will love that,’ chuckled Patsy. ‘Harry and Dorothy are fabulous, aren’t they?’

   ‘The best,’ said Kirsty. She held her in-laws in the highest regard. The only complaint she had about them was that, in their generosity and love, they could sometimes be a bit suffocating. But that was a small price to pay for the unstinting affection they lavished on the boys, and the practical help they had selflessly given Kirsty over the last three years – and continued to give, without thought of return.

   ‘What do they think of you going on a date?’ said Patsy.

   Kirsty paused. She worked at an old splat of white paint on the window with her fingernail. It wouldn’t budge. ‘I haven’t told them. They think I’m just going round to Janice’s.’

   ‘Oh,’ said Patsy, and there was an awkward silence which Kirsty felt obliged to fill.

   ‘I don’t know why I didn’t tell them the truth. I just feel a bit awkward about it. I know it’s ridiculous.’ She sank down on the bed again, careful not to sit on the skirt.

   ‘You’re not being unfaithful to Scott, you know, if that’s what you’re thinking,’ said Patsy.

   ‘It’s not that…’

   ‘And Scott would want you to be happy, Kirsty.’

   ‘I know,’ agreed Kirsty, with a long sigh. She wrapped her legs around each other until she was all tied up in a knot. ‘But it’s his parents…Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I just don’t want to hurt them.’

   ‘You should tell them. They’re going to have to face up to the fact that you’re only thirty-six, for heaven’s sake. Wish I was thirty-six again,’ she said wistfully and then went on, ‘it’s only natural for you to want a life of your own. Sooner or later you’re going to meet someone and everything will change.’

   ‘I think that’s what they’re afraid of. I think they like things the way they are. And part of me likes it too. I’ve got used to living this celibate life within my comfort zone.’

   ‘You deserve more than that, Kirsty,’ said Patsy. ‘Don’t sell yourself short.’

   ‘I won’t. And that’s why I’ve agreed to this date tonight. Much as I’m dreading it.’

   ‘It’ll be fine,’ reassured Patsy. ‘Just try to relax and be yourself.’ And then, ‘Oh, gotta go. Someone’s come into the gallery. Now you go out and have a blast! And don’t forget we’re meeting at No.11 on Wednesday night. You can tell us all about it then. Bye.’

   Kirsty threw the phone on the bed and dropped her chin onto her chest, rubbing her forehead with the heels of her hands. Patsy was right – she ought to tell Harry and Dorothy. Ballyfergus was a small place and it would be unfair if they heard it from someone else. She reminded herself that she was perfectly entitled to go out with whoever she liked. As a widow for three years, she was a free woman, for heaven’s sake. So why did she feel so uncomfortable with the whole idea? And why so very guilty?

   She sighed and stood up. Dusk was already starting to fall, bringing to an end the short winter day. The rest of the afternoon and early evening lay ahead of her, long and empty with nothing to do but get ready. As a single mother, Kirsty wasn’t used to luxurious stretches of time to herself. Other women might have revelled in the opportunity for some serious pampering; Kirsty was at a loss what to do with herself.

   She went over to the window, put her palms on the cold glass and stared out at the deadened garden, prettily shrouded in a blanket of hard frost. The street-lamps came on, illuminating a circle of tarmac at the side of Kirsty’s property, which glistened with frost. The garden was plunged into darkness. Little whorls of ice began to form on the outside of the window. She shivered, flicked on the bedside lamp and closed the curtains.

   She thought of Janice’s luxurious en-suite bathroom and the rows of exquisite glass bottles that lined the shelves above the bath. Janice knew how to pamper herself. Kirsty could learn a thing or two from her.

   ‘Right,’ she said and clapped her hands together. ‘Let’s do this properly, girl.’

   She ran a scented bath, lit some candles and put on a Mariah Carey CD. She removed her flaking nail polish and, when the bath was ready, peeled off her clothes and got into it. She eased herself in slowly. The water was hot – just at that exquisite point between pleasure and pain. The sensation when her shoulders submerged was like a lover’s caress. She closed her eyes, concentrated on the music and tried to cultivate a positive frame of mind.

   At the very worst her date could be a complete bore but she would still have a good time with Janice and Keith – they were always good fun. However, first she would have to get off this guilt trip she was on. Easier said than done. Because her guilt about dating stemmed not from concern for Harry and Dorothy, or for her children, or because she felt that she was betraying Scott’s memory.

   It arose from the fact that, for the last three years, Kirsty had been living a lie. Cast in the role of heartbroken, grieving widow, it was a mantle she wore uncomfortably, especially around Harry and Dorothy, who were so clearly devastated by the death of their beloved only son. When Scott died Kirsty had been traumatised, there was no doubt about that. She’d ended up on tranquillisers for a full six months after the accident.

   But the crucial difference between her and Scott’s parents was that, at the time of Scott’s death, she no longer loved him. For a while after he died, she tried to convince herself that she had – it would’ve made all that well-meaning sympathy easier to bear. She tried so hard that she almost came to believe her own fantasy that they had just been going through a bad patch. Witnesses to her anguish at the time put it down to grief – she wore herself out trying to re-write the past.

   But, with the passage of time, she was forced to concede that she was kidding herself. She had loved Scott once, with a passion. But, at the time of his death, their relationship was on the brink of falling apart. There were no histrionics or arguments. No violence, door slamming or walking out. Just insidious bickering between two people who had drifted apart and no longer had anything to say to each other. They had not slept together for six months before Scott’s death. The only thing that had kept them together was the children.

   Falling out of love with Scott hadn’t been her fault, she told herself regularly, even though she felt guilty about it every day. Scott had changed. Not in any dramatic way, not so that other people would notice. He wasn’t a monster – he provided for his family and he’d never laid a hand on her or the children in anger. But he’d come to hate working in the family business and, in his frustration, he’d hinted more than once that if it weren’t for the responsibilities of marriage and children, he’d be long gone. He never made it clear if he meant long gone from Ballyfergus, or long gone from her and the kids. He was grumpy and irritable at home – and nothing she did seemed to make it better.

   Instead of finding release in talking to her, he found it in cycling, and increasingly he took to going off on long weekends. She’d tried to get him to do more family-oriented things instead but he was never interested. She was truly shocked the time she took the kids to Belfast Zoo, on her own again, and realised that she hadn’t thought about him all day. It was then that she realised she no longer loved him.

   Harry and Dorothy heaped constant praise on her for her courage and strength, for supporting them and the children when she herself was mourning the loss of her husband. And she was torn between the desire to tell them the truth about her and Scott so that she could assuage her terrible guilt and the need not to. Clearly, more harm would come from telling them than good. They were heartbroken enough as it was. It would’ve been pure selfishness to add to their misery.

   And so she told no-one, not even her closest friends. Because to do so would’ve meant disparaging Scott’s character. It would’ve meant saying, directly or indirectly, that he was flawed. And Kirsty was simply not prepared to do that – she would not tarnish his memory. It was all she had of him now. She would not talk ill of the dead. Plus it wasn’t all Scott’s fault; she must bear some of the responsibility too. Or perhaps no-one was to blame. Sometimes these things just happened.

   Luckily, she had only spoken in the vaguest terms about her marriage difficulties to her closest friends. But if they had ever suspected all was not well, as soon as Scott died, no-one asked her about the state of her marriage again.

   Kirsty slid her head under the water and tried to block out these thoughts. She was beating herself up over something which she could not change. And much as she would’ve loved to offload her guilt so that she could feel better, doing so would mean hurting Harry or Dorothy, both of whom she loved. She would not do that. Painful and lonely as it was, she would keep her own counsel.

   The bath water was getting cool – it was time to get out and have a shower. From experience, Kirsty knew she could not wash her hair in the bath. The bath milk would leave a residue on her hair, which would result in lank, dull locks. Pampering, Kirsty concluded, was hard work.

   Three hours later Kirsty was buffed and polished, painted and combed, fragrant with perfume, her shabby nails transformed into dark red talons. She stood in front of the mirror in the outfit Patsy had advised and felt pleased with the result. Her shoulder-length auburn hair was smooth and shiny, her face well made-up, her clothes immaculate. Her wedge boots added an extra two inches to her height making her look slimmer than she was, though she had never been bothered by her weight. She was a size twelve and the same weight, more or less, that she had been in her early twenties. She smiled at her reflection. Patsy would be proud of her.

   And she was proud of herself for getting this far. Here she was, about to go on a date and, though it was unlikely, there was a chance that this man might be The One. The possibility made Kirsty feel alive again. The doorbell went.

   ‘Wish me luck,’ she said to her reflection, and smiled.

   Izzy sat at Clare’s kitchen table. A High School Musical lever arch file was propped against the glass fruit bowl, opened to a page of notes untidily scrawled in blue ink. On the table lay a jotter, the virgin pages as yet unsoiled by Izzy’s hand. Alongside the jotter was a Hannah Montana pencil case – Izzy chewed on the end of a matching pencil. Everything of Izzy’s had to be themed. When Clare was her age – God, was that really twenty-three years ago? – she didn’t have a branded item in her battered denim satchel. How times had changed.

   Simultaneously, with her right elbow resting on the table, Izzy twirled a lock of blonde hair between her forefinger and thumb, the tiny earpieces of an iPod jammed in her ears. Izzy insisted that music helped her concentrate. But, as far as Clare could see, the expression on her pretty face was more vacant than inspired. This, ostensibly, was Izzy doing her homework. Clare bit her lip. Izzy was Liam’s twelve-year-old daughter by his first marriage and, much as she wanted to, it wasn’t Clare’s place to tell the child what to do.

   Clare rolled her eyes at her daughter Rachel, just four months shy of her second birthday. She was seated happily on her booster seat eating beans and toast from a blue bowl with her fingers, a yellow plastic spoon discarded on the floor. Rachel grinned back joyfully, her face and hands smeared with tomato sauce. Four-year-old Josh had already wandered off to watch Space Pirates on CBeebies, his half-eaten meal abandoned. She really ought to wrestle him back to the table, thought Clare, but tonight she just didn’t have the energy. She cleared away his plate.

   Clare bent down to load Josh’s plate and cutlery into the dishwasher and shook her head, torn between the urge to smile at Izzy’s idleness and the urge to intervene.

   But, as far as Izzy was concerned, any interference by Clare was a violation of her human rights. As she frequently pointed out, Clare was not her mother and had no right to tell her what to do. Which made life very awkward, for she was sometimes in Clare’s sole care. Like now, on a dark Wednesday evening, with Liam not yet home from work.

   Clare glanced at the clock. She bit her lip, stole a sideways peek at Izzy, and wished Liam would hurry up and get there. And not just because of Izzy. She wanted him to take over from her so that she could get ready to go out with her friends. He had been late almost every night these last two weeks. Clare shook her head and let out a long sigh – so much for the New Year’s resolution. What a joke that was, she thought. So far her attempts to paint had been laughable. She’d managed a few hours here and there but, without more support from Liam, she really couldn’t see how on earth she was going to realise her dream.

   Izzy drummed her pencil on the jotter in time to whatever music she was listening to, the page still blank. Clare certainly wasn’t going to say anything and risk getting her head bitten off. Well, if she didn’t get down to it, thought Clare a touch spitefully, Zoe, Izzy’s mother, would just have to supervise her homework when she got home.

   Clare thought Zoe got off lightly. Liam had Izzy three weekends out of four, plus every Wednesday night. Izzy usually stayed over on Wednesdays, but not tonight. Liam had to be in Londonderry for nine the next morning so he wouldn’t be able to take her to school. Wistfully, Clare wondered what Zoe did with all that spare time on her hands.

   ‘Rachel!’ squealed Izzy all of a sudden. In one fluid movement, she leapt from her place at the table like a scalded cat and flattened herself against the fridge door.

   At the same time, out of the corner of her eye, Clare saw Rachel send her bowl flying off the table.

   ‘Shit!’ she cried and instinctively lunged from sink to table, her right hand outstretched in an attempt to thwart disaster. Amazingly, she made contact with the bowl but, slippery with sauce, it slid out of her grip, flew upwards into the air and then descended, disgorging its contents over her. It continued its descent to the floor where the melamine dish made a satisfying crack on a ceramic floor tile. Rachel clapped her hands in delight.

   Stunned, Clare looked down at her just-clean-on blue polka-dot apron, now splattered with baked beans. Sauce dripped from her hand. It was everywhere – sprayed across the table, over Izzy’s jotter and pencil case, up the cream wall and on the skirting board. It was splashed across the floor like blood – splattered up the chair legs and on her beautiful cream Shaker-style kitchen units. It was amazing just how much coverage you could get from half a cup of Heinz tomato sauce. Miraculously, Izzy had escaped unmarked.

   Izzy stood shoeless, both hands clasped over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror. She looked from Rachel to Clare and back again. Skinny legs, encased in opaque black tights, emerged from beneath her minuscule black skirt. She wore an Argyle multi-coloured knitted tank-top over an open-necked white shirt, this rag-tag ensemble passing for a school uniform.

   Suddenly Izzy began to laugh, her delicate hands still covering her mouth, her slight frame bending with mirth like a sapling in strong wind.

   ‘Oh, Rachel,’ she cried, removing her hands, her face now red with hilarity. ‘You are a naughty girl.’ And she laughed again, holding her right side this time, a child once more, her usual attitude forgotten in the heat of the moment.

   Josh appeared in the hall doorway, drawn by the commotion. He pointed at Clare’s head and smiled. Just then a cold baked bean slid down her nose. She caught it with her tongue and ate it. Josh squealed with delight. Rachel battered her small fists on the table and shrieked with joy. Their high-pitched voices filled the room like Christmas bells.

   Clare looked at the mess all around her and smiled. Then she started to laugh. What else was there to do? Sometimes things were just so bad, you had to see the funny side.

   ‘I’m supposed to be going out in two hours’ time,’ she said, shaking her head. She removed a cold baked bean from her hair and examined it. She gave Izzy a wry smile.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ gasped Izzy. ‘That is just soooo funny, Clare.’

   ‘Oh dear. I’m going to have to wash my hair now,’ Clare said, which sent Izzy into more peals of laughter.

   It wasn’t often that she and Izzy shared a moment like this when they were both just themselves, their defences disarmed. Clare grasped it, almost giddy with pleasure, not wanting the intimacy to end. She gave her stepdaughter a wide grin and for once it was returned by one of Izzy’s less guarded smiles. Not a completely open, warm smile; that wasn’t in Izzy’s nature. Not now, anyway.

   Clare had not known Izzy before her parents’ divorce, but there was no doubt in her mind that the girl had been damaged by it and by the ongoing hostility Zoe bore towards Clare and Liam. Not that Zoe had any rightful cause to bear a grudge against Clare. She wasn’t a marriage breaker. Liam was already separated, and in the process of divorce, when they’d first met.

   Izzy, a clever child with a high level of emotional intelligence, had learned to navigate her way through the minefield that was family life. Her main objective, as far as Clare could determine, was to stay ‘on side’ with her mother. She had very quickly worked out that the best way to achieve this was not to be too friendly towards Clare. By keeping a frosty distance from her stepmother, Izzy could successfully walk the tightrope that was her life. It wasn’t fair on her, thought Clare – no child should have to walk on eggshells all the time.

   And it meant that, try as she might, Clare found it wellnigh impossible to integrate Izzy into her own little family unit. Instead she hovered on the margins, cautious, watchful, reserved. It wasn’t for want of trying on Clare’s part. She felt genuinely sorry for Izzy and for Liam’s sake she tried very hard with her stepdaughter. So an unguarded moment like this with Izzy felt like a breakthrough.

   Now that the drama was over, Josh ran out of the room, cackling with laughter. Rachel slid off her booster seat and made to follow him.

   ‘Not so fast, young lady,’ said Clare, her laughter ebbing but a smile still on her lips. She caught Rachel in her arms as she scooted past, carried her over to the sink and rubbed her face and hands vigorously with a wet flannel.

   ‘There, that’s better,’ she said, releasing the wriggling child. As soon as she set her daughter on the floor, she padded out of the room.

   Izzy’s hysterical laughter had subsided. She wiped tears from beneath her eyes and sighed.

   ‘Here, you’ll need one of these,’ said Clare, proffering the big box of Kleenex she kept in the kitchen for such domestic disasters. ‘Your mascara’s all run.’

   ‘Has it?’ said Izzy, plucking a tissue from the box.

   ‘Uh huh.’

   Izzy dabbed at the black stains under her eyes and asked, ‘That better?’

   Clare nodded and there was a pause. Izzy looked away and fiddled with her hair. Feeling the moment slipping away, Clare sought to retain it. ‘How’d you get on with your homework?’ she began, and regretted it as soon as she said it.

   ‘Fine,’ said Izzy indifferently, pulling the shutters instantaneously down. She took a step away from Clare.

   ‘Here’s a cloth to wipe your things,’ said Clare cheerfully, acting as though she had not noticed the return of Izzy’s habitual coolness. She threw a damp dishcloth onto the table. A knot of sadness formed in her stomach like indigestion. ‘I don’t think you’ll get the tomato sauce off that jotter, though,’ she chattered on nervously. ‘You’ll need to rip those pages out.’

   Izzy said nothing, picked up the cloth and wiped the table, her pencil case, file and jotter, smudging the pages with ugly orange smears. She did not remove any of the damaged pages and settled down at the table again.

   ‘Aren’t you going to tear out those dirty pages?’ said Clare, unable to let the fact that Izzy had ignored her pass unremarked. She forced a laugh, trying to sound lighthearted. ‘You can’t submit homework on that, now can you?’

   As soon as she’d said it, Clare bit her tongue. She’d broken the cardinal rule about interfering. And Izzy wasn’t slow to react.

   ‘Aren’t you going to get on with cleaning up?’ she said, throwing a careless glance over her shoulder at the messy room.

   ‘I would get on better if I had a bit of help,’ snapped Clare, her balled fists on her hips.

   Izzy snorted. ‘It’s not my job to do the cleaning. That’s what you stay-at-home mums are for, isn’t it? Cleaning up everybody’s…sh…’ She stopped, thought better of it, and finished the sentence with, ‘mess.’

   Clare closed her eyes and counted to ten while bright flashes of colour throbbed behind her eyelids. She would not rise to Izzy’s bait. The child was no doubt repeating her mother’s sentiments, but that knowledge did not make the remarks any less offensive.

   Clare opened her eyes and, determined to ignore Izzy’s last remark, glanced at the clock. A wave of panic washed over her. She had to clean up the mess in the kitchen, bath both children and put them to bed, plus get herself ready to go out. Of all nights, why did Liam have to be late tonight? He simply had no idea how stressful home life could be, especially when complicated by the addition of Izzy with her attitude and raging hormones in tow.

   How was she ever going to carve out the time to paint?

   ‘Do you fancy giving me a hand with Rachel and Josh tonight, Izzy?’ asked Clare, knowing how much Izzy loved to play with the children, especially when Clare wasn’t around. ‘If you could get them washed, it’d give me a chance to clean up down here. You know how they love it when you bath them.’

   ‘Sorry, I have to do my homework,’ said Izzy with a sly sideways glance, the end of the pencil back in her mouth. Clare could’ve swung for her. She’d sat at the table for a full forty minutes and not written a thing. Now that Clare was under pressure she was refusing to help, and cutting her nose off to spite her face, simply to get at her stepmother.

   ‘Right,’ said Clare. She picked up the melamine bowl and threw it forcefully in the stainless steel sink. ‘You do that then.’ Her voice came out cold and brittle like thin ice. She found a cloth under the sink and started to wipe down the wall.

   ‘Where’s Dad?’ said Izzy sharply, after a few minutes had passed. Her voice was accusing. As though it were Clare’s fault that Liam wasn’t here.

   ‘You know he’s been held up at work, Izzy,’ said Clare irritably from a crouched position under the table, panting with the exertion of wiping the chair legs. ‘You know he would be here if he could.’

   ‘What’s the point of me coming on a Wednesday if he can’t even be bothered to be here? The whole point is so that we can spend some time together.’

   ‘And see your brother and sister.’

   ‘They’re not my brother and sister.’

   ‘Alright, stepbrother and -sister then,’ said Clare, seething. She added sharply, ‘I thought you said you had homework to do?’

   Izzy did not reply. Instead she smiled to herself, inserted the iPod earpieces in her ears and, miraculously, started to write in her jotter. Clare glared at her, but Izzy was now entirely engaged in scribbling furiously away. She had allowed Izzy to rattle her cage and Izzy knew it. One-nil to Izzy.

   By the time Zoe rang the doorbell at eight o’clock, Clare was standing in the bedroom in her underwear – bra, pants and pair of black knee-socks. Both Rachel and Josh were settled in bed and Clare had managed to shower, wash and dry her hair and apply make-up. She heard the front door open and close and then Zoe’s sharp voice drifted up the stairs. ‘What? He’s not home yet? Have you been sitting down here all on your own?’

   Clare came out of the bedroom and stood on the landing, out of sight, listening.

   ‘Yes,’ said Izzy, sounding sorry for herself. ‘Clare took Rachel and Josh upstairs just after six and she hasn’t come down yet. I was left downstairs on my own watching TV.’

   ‘Get your coat. I’m taking you home.’

   Clare wasn’t going to let Izzy get away with that. She ran back into the bedroom, grabbed the first dressing gown that came to hand and pulled it on. The belt was missing but there was no time to change. She wrapped the gown around her body, held it in place with her hands and marched down the stairs.

   Zoe stood at the bottom, scowling, her lips pursed up like a prune. When she saw Clare coming, she folded her arms aggressively. She was dressed entirely in designer black with polished high-heeled boots and a bold silver necklace resting on a fine cashmere polo. Her long blonde hair flowed over an open black leather jacket. As usual, she looked skinny and stunning and successful. Which she was – Zoe owned three boutiques in as many towns. Izzy, looking sheepish, pulled a coat on over her slight shoulders.

   ‘Izzy decided not to help with bathtime tonight,’ said Clare by way of greeting, pulling herself up to her full height in what she hoped was an assertive manner. And then, giving her stepdaughter a hard stare, she added, ‘She had homework to do. Didn’t you, Izzy?’

   Izzy looked at the floor and, though she said nothing, at least she had the grace to blush. Not that Zoe was watching. She was too busy staring at Clare – her cold, critical gaze took in the entire length of her body from head to toe and back again in three seconds flat.

   ‘And hello to you too, Clare,’ she said pointedly.

   ‘I’m getting ready to go out,’ said Clare, suddenly feeling at a disadvantage. She pulled the gown closer to her body and, looking down at herself, realised what a sight she was. A white toe sporting an unpainted yellow nail poked through a hole in the sock on her right foot. She curled her toes in embarrassment. The dressing gown was an old grey flannel one of Liam’s. She remembered now that Josh had ripped the belt off by swinging on it. Clare kept meaning to sew it back on but had somehow never got round to it. She pulled the gown closer and felt her face go red.

   ‘Somewhere nice?’ said Zoe.

   ‘Just No.11 with some girlfriends.’

   ‘Well’ Zoe.’s pale blue eyes narrowed. ‘I hope you’re not relying on Liam to babysit. God knows when he’ll be home. Used to do it to me all the time.’

   Clare’s anger was now directed at Liam as much as Zoe and Izzy. Not only had he left her with both of the little ones to put to bed when he knew she was due to go out, but he had placed her in this mortifying situation with Zoe. He should be here to deal with his ex-wife and he should’ve been here for Izzy.

   Just then the front door opened, letting in an icy blast of dry air, and Zoe said, clearly enjoying herself, ‘Speak of the devil.’

   Liam stepped into the hallway, his overcoat opened to reveal a top shirt button undone and his tie askew. His briefcase hit the floor with a heavy thud and he slammed the door closed. He rubbed his hands together, blew into them and looked at the faces of the three females in the hall, each one, for different reasons, glowering at him.

   ‘Oh, Izzy,’ he said and went to put his arms around her. She stiffened and pulled back.

   ‘Where were you, Dad?’ she said, sounding pained.

   ‘I’m so sorry, babes,’ said Liam, and his arms dropped to his sides. His boyish face was lined and tired-looking. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly and gave Izzy a crooked smile. Clare was torn between being angry with him and wanting to hug him. ‘You’ll never believe what happened,’ he said animatedly. ‘I was in the car park just about to get in the car when this spaceship landed right next to me and guess who stepped out?’

   ‘Dad…’ said Izzy warningly, without a hint of a smile.

   ‘Okay,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I couldn’t get away. I tried, but this thing in work blew up and…well, I just couldn’t leave.’

   ‘Couldn’t you?’ said Zoe, her voice laden with scorn. ‘You only have Izzy one night a week, Liam. Is it too much to ask that you organise your diary around that?’

   ‘It’s not always that simple, Zoe,’ Liam muttered. ‘Sometimes it’s complicated. You know that.’

   ‘It’s not rocket science either,’ snapped Zoe.

   Clare had to bite her lip. How dare Zoe speak to him like that! And why did he take it from her? She treated him like dirt and he let her.

   ‘Let’s not bicker about it,’ said Liam, with a glance at Izzy. He was always the one to back down, always the one placating Zoe.

   Zoe turned her attention to Izzy and said brightly, ‘We really need to be getting home now.’ She placed a proprietorial hand on the small of her daughter’s back and said in a wheedling tone, ‘Did you get something to eat, pet?’

   ‘Beans on toast,’ mumbled Izzy.

   ‘That was what she said she…’ began Clare, but Zoe talked over her.

   ‘Never mind, darling,’ she tutted. ‘We’ll get you something decent to eat when we get you home. Excuse me,’ she said, this last icy comment directed at Liam. He stepped out of her way and she opened the front door. Izzy ducked her head against the wall of cold and pulled her coat tighter around her.

   ‘I’m so sorry, Izzy,’ said Liam as Zoe propelled their daughter through the door. ‘I’ll make it up to you,’ he called out, but Zoe had already slammed the door in his face. Liam sighed again and traced around his eye sockets with the middle finger of both hands.

   ‘I’m sorry, love,’ he said.

   Clare was angry about so many things she didn’t know where to start.

   ‘Did you hear her?’ she demanded. ‘Implying that I didn’t feed Izzy properly. She refused to eat the casserole I made. She asked for baked beans on toast.’

   Liam shrugged. ‘All she did was ask Izzy what she had to eat. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.’

   ‘You never see, do you, Liam?’ said Clare. ‘You take everything Zoe says at face value. That was a pointed remark aimed at me.’

   ‘It’s not worth getting worked up about, Clare.’ Liam hung his coat on the hat stand. ‘You shouldn’t let her come between us.’

   ‘You let her come between us. I don’t know why you ever divorced Zoe and married me. All she does is insult me and all you do is defend her.’

   ‘Hey,’ he said, raising his hands in the air, palms facing outwards towards Clare. His usually mild demeanour was gone, and an angry look flashed across his features. ‘That’s really not fair.’

   Clare blushed, knowing that she had gone a step too far but, now on a roll, she could not stop. ‘You’re intimidated by her, aren’t you?’

   ‘I’m not intimidated by Zoe. I just prefer not to be confrontational with her.’

   ‘But you let her walk all over you. And in front of Izzy.’

   ‘That’s the way you see it.’

   ‘That’s the way it is.’

   Liam sighed again. ‘I prefer not to argue with Zoe in front of Izzy. Listen, Clare, Zoe has problems. She’s on her own and life’s not easy for her. She doesn’t have many friends and I still feel guilty about leaving her. I guess I feel sorry for her. I wish you would show a bit of compassion too.’

   ‘Compassion?’ Clare nearly choked on the word. ‘You want me to show compassion to Zoe? Liam, in case you hadn’t noticed, she’s a…a first-class bitch.’ The last words sounded common, harsh, unkind.

   ‘That’s enough now,’ he said sharply and Clare bit her lip, annoyed with herself. She’d lost the moral high ground and deflected the argument away from her main gripe – that Liam did not do enough to defend her against Zoe’s persistent, insidious put-downs. ‘Look,’ he added, in a conciliatory tone, ‘I’m just trying to keep the peace, Clare. I’ve had a rotten day.’

   ‘Well, so have I thanks to you. And don’t you ever do this to me again,’ said Clare, remembering just in time that wagging a finger at Liam would necessitate letting go of the dressing gown, making her look even more ridiculous than she already did. Instead, she folded her arms tightly across her chest.

   ‘What?’ said Liam.

   ‘Come home at this time when you know I’m supposed to be going out. How often do I go out with the girls, Liam? Once or twice a month? Is it too much to ask you to be home on time just this once?’

   ‘Clare, that’s unreasonable. If I could’ve been here earlier, I would’ve been. You know that.’ He ran his hand over his face. ‘I’ve had a hellish day.’

   ‘And to leave me with Izzy as well.’

   ‘Sure, Izzy’s no bother,’ said Liam.

   ‘She’s a little madam, Liam,’ snapped Clare. ‘When you’re about she’s all sweetness and light and when you’re not she’s a complete pain. Like tonight.’

   ‘What did she do that was so awful?’

   ‘She…she refused to help bath the kids.’

   ‘Well, to be fair, that’s not really her job, Clare.’ Liam raised his eyebrows, and cocked his head to one side the way he did when he thought she was being unreasonable. This infuriated Clare even more.

   ‘You don’t understand. The kitchen was a mess – Rachel had spilt baked beans everywhere,’ said Clare, waving her hands about in an agitated fashion. The dressing gown gaped open. She snatched it shut, gripping the collar of the gown under her chin. ‘ asked for her help and she refused just out of spite. And then she was making out to Zoe just now that I’d left her downstairs all on her own when it was her choice.’

   Liam shook his head, not really listening. ‘Clare, I’m sorry but I just don’t have time for this right now. I’m only just through the door,’ he said, consulting his watch, ‘and you were supposed to be at No.11 ten minutes ago. Look, why don’t you go and finish getting ready and we can finish this conversation another time?’

   ‘I suppose so,’ said Clare flatly, torn between the desire to pursue the argument, and the desire to meet her friends before the evening was ruined. She suddenly noticed that Liam looked exhausted and guilt diluted her anger. ‘Why don’t you go and get something to eat?’ she suggested, softening. ‘There’s a casserole in the oven and a crusty loaf in the bread bin.’

   ‘I will, thanks, love.’

   ‘What was so awful about your day?’ said Clare.

   ‘Oh, the usual. Office politics. You don’t want to know.’

   He was right – she didn’t. And she conveniently interpreted this as meaning that he didn’t want to talk about it. ‘I’m sorry for going on about Zoe.’

   ‘It’s alright. I know what she’s like. Believe me, I’d rather battle Boadicea than Zoe any day.’

   Clare giggled. Liam looked at her from under a cocked eyebrow and the corners of his mouth turned up in one of his irresistible smiles. ‘But have I told you that you look very fetching in that ensemble?’ he said. He put his arms around her waist and pulled her to him. ‘I always think a woman looks very sexy in her man’s clothes,’ he breathed into her ear.

   ‘Not in this old thing!’ said Clare, looking down at the dressing gown and smiling. ‘I’m buying you a new one and this one’s going straight in the bin!’

   ‘Go on, then,’ he said, patting her bottom. ‘You’d better get yourself ready before I ravish you!’

   Clare ran up the stairs, giggling, and remembered that Liam’s ability to make her laugh was the reason she had fallen in love with him in the first place.

   By the time she finally made it to No.11, Clare was half an hour late. No.11 was a small bistro housed in the front of a former hotel on Quality Street. The rest of the hotel had long since been turned into apartments. The original sash windows had been replaced by concertina floor-to-ceiling ones that were pulled back in the summer months and tables placed on the sunlit pavement outside, continental style.

   Tonight, though, the windows were firmly shut against the bitter January night. The room was warmly decorated in stylish shades of brown and strategically placed lamps cast pools of warm yellow light on the artfully worn wooden floor. Clare headed over to the table by the window occupied by Janice, Kirsty and Patsy. They were all cosily dressed in trousers, warm jumpers and boots, in marked contrast to their party-wear of a few weeks ago.

   ‘Come and sit down, Clare,’ said Patsy, patting the seat of the remaining unoccupied brown-leather chair. ‘We wondered where you’d got to.’

   Clare greeted everyone with a kiss, sat down and apologised for being late.

   Janice, who was, as always, immaculately dressed in a pink cashmere v-neck with grey check trousers, said, ‘What’re you drinking?’

   ‘White, please.’

   ‘I’m having soda water and lime,’ said Patsy rather proudly, raising her glass up for inspection. ‘I’m on a detox.’

   Janice tutted and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll see how long that lasts. Last year you managed five whole days.’

   ‘Cheeky cow!’ exclaimed Patsy, and lifted her nose in the air in mock indignation.

   The others laughed and Clare said, ‘Well, I could certainly do with a glass of wine. Especially after the day I’ve had.’

   ‘Sounds ominous,’ said Janice and she floated off to the small bar at the far end of the room. The only member of staff on duty was Danny – all five foot seven inches of him. With his short, spiky blond hair and cherubic face he looked like a boy trying to be a man, even though he was well into his twenties.

   ‘Well,’ said Janice once she had returned from the bar, set two very large glasses of white wine in front of herself and Clare, and settled down in the chair opposite. ‘Tell us all about it, darling.’

   ‘Just a minute,’ said Clare, took a long slug of wine and immediately felt herself relax. She set the glass on a coaster. ‘It all started at teatime,’ she began, and the women listened attentively as she related the day’s events.

   ‘You poor thing,’ said Kirsty when Clare had finished. She put her hand on Clare’s knee and left it there – an act of solidarity. Kirsty’s propensity to touch still caught Clare off-guard sometimes. Like now. She sat there feeling slightly uncomfortable and sorry for herself, fighting back tears, feeling both foolish and annoyed for letting Zoe wind her up so much.

   ‘That Zoe Campbell,’ said Janice, ‘is a right cow. You shouldn’t have to put up with her.’

   ‘I don’t have any choice,’ said Clare miserably. ‘Because of Izzy. Sometimes she drives me up the wall but she is only a kid after all. I don’t really blame her.’

   ‘No, I blame Zoe,’ said Patsy firmly, folding her arms across her motherly bosom. ‘She’s poisoned Izzy’s mind against you. And I bet the wee thing’s too scared to go against that witch of a mother.’

   ‘Mmm,’ said Clare, thinking that her friends had a point. Zoe had forced Izzy to take sides. ‘It’s just so disappointing,’ she went on. ‘I so wanted Izzy and I to have a good relationship – for my own sake as much as Liam’s. I didn’t realise how hard it would be to make this family work.’

   ‘It’s not your fault, Clare,’ said Kirsty in her thoughtful, measured way. ‘Stepfamilies are never plain sailing. You just have to accept that you can’t make it perfect.’

   Perceptively, Kirsty had pinpointed the primary cause of Clare’s grief – her desire to have the perfect family. She’d come to Ballyfergus to escape her hometown of Omagh where she’d been raised, an only child, by parents who fought all the time, mainly over money. Clare had not forgiven them for her lonely, miserable childhood and, even now, she rarely saw them or spoke to them on the phone. Clare felt the tears threaten to sting again. For, try as she might, she could not ‘fix’ Zoe, or Izzy, and she found that failure hard to accept.

   ‘We’ve been married five and a half years now. I’ve known Izzy since she was seven and, if anything, things between us are worse than ever.’ She plucked at a loose thread on her black wool slacks.

   ‘She’s at a difficult age, Clare,’ said Patsy, nodding her head vigorously. ‘All twelve-year-old girls are a nightmare. It will get better. Honestly.’ Patsy was an authority on the subject, having raised two daughters of her own, but Clare remained unconvinced. She hid her scepticism by putting the glass to her lips and taking another long, welcome drink of wine.

   She believed that Izzy had resented her from the day they met and would never forgive her for marrying Liam. She suspected Izzy still harboured dreams of her parents getting back together. Zoe was still single and, from what Clare could gather, hadn’t had a serious relationship since splitting up with Liam. Perhaps if she met someone who made her happy, it would assuage some of her anger towards Clare – and Liam…

   ‘At the end of the day, Clare,’ said Janice, holding out her upturned hand as if offering Clare the gift of her wisdom, ‘it’s Zoe who has the problem, not you.’

   ‘If it was just Zoe, I could cope with that,’ said Clare. She realised she was picking at the hangnail on her left index finger. She squeezed her hands together in an effort to stop. ‘I don’t have to see her. But Izzy spends a lot of time at our house.’

   ‘Have you tried talking to Liam, sweetheart?’ asked Patsy. She leant forwards, her hands clasped together between her knees, unconsciously pushing her breasts together. The low cowl neck of her grey mohair jumper revealed a handsome cleavage.

   Clare put a hand on her own chest and gave a hollow laugh. ‘He thinks I’m being paranoid. When she’s around Liam, Izzy’s perfectly pleasant. But when she’s with me she’s quite different. Rude and uncooperative. Like tonight.’

   ‘And what does Liam have to say about all this?’ said Kirsty. ‘She’s his daughter, after all.’

   Clare shrugged. ‘I don’t think he really understands. When I report the things Izzy’s said, or done, he argues that she’s just being a normal teenager. I don’t know. Maybe he’s right,’ she said and Patsy nodded.

   ‘It’s just a stage. It’ll pass,’ she agreed confidently. ‘You’ll see.’

   There was a long pause and then Kirsty brought a welcome change of subject. ‘What about your plan to get back to painting, Clare? How’s it going?’

   Clare let out a long breath. ‘It’s not.’

   There was a collective sigh of empathy from her friends.

   ‘Why not?’ said Patsy.

   ‘I tried a few times but the problem is that I don’t have anywhere to paint. Not somewhere dedicated anyway. I set my easel up in the study but it’s just not working out. There’s not enough space and Liam needs to be in there to work, so I have to clear my stuff away every time I finish. I’m only able to paint in snatches – an hour here and there because of the children – so it’s completely impractical to keep tidying the room. And the floor’s carpeted so I’m paranoid about staining it. It’s very frustrating.’

   ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Patsy and she frowned, thinking. ‘If I can come up with anywhere…’

   ‘I know!’ cried Janice, interrupting. ‘What about Keith’s study?’

   ‘Keith’s study?’ said Clare.

   ‘Yes. You know the way he got that old garage in the garden converted a few years ago. He had this idea that he would work from home a couple of days a week. Of course that didn’t work out as planned.’

   ‘Yes, I remember,’ said Clare, her hopes rising. Janice had shown her the study a couple of years ago, just after the conversion. It was a large, north-facing room with floor-to-ceiling windows installed in place of the old garage doors. It sat in the grounds of Janice’s house, fifty yards or so from the back door. Clare set her drink on the table and sat on the edge of the chair.

   ‘Why don’t you use that? The floor’s stone so you wouldn’t need to worry about carpet stains.’ Janice became more animated as she went on. ‘There’s heating and light and even a toilet. And do you remember the tiny kitchen in the back with a sink and a kettle?’

   Clare nodded excitedly. It could almost have been designed as an artist’s studio.

   ‘It’s got everything you need. In fact,’ said Janice, with a childlike clap of her manicured hands, ‘it’s absolutely perfect. Why didn’t I think of it before?’

   ‘Oh, Janice. It sounds wonderful,’ said Clare. It was the answer to her prayers – but one that was beyond her reach. ‘But I don’t think I could afford to rent just now.’

   ‘Who said anything about rent?’ cried Janice, her eyes ablaze with excitement. ‘I don’t want anything for it. Sure, it’s lying there empty. And we’re paying for the heating anyway so that it doesn’t get damp.’

   ‘But won’t Keith want to use it?’

   ‘No. I can’t remember the last time he was even in there,’ said Janice. ‘If he ever does the odd bit of work from home, he uses the study in the house. There’s nothing in the office but a dusty desk and an old office chair. To be honest, Clare, I’d rather see it used than lying empty.’

   ‘Why, Janice,’ said Clare, and she paused for a moment, lost for words. ‘I don’t know what to say.’ She put the cool flat of her palms against her hot cheeks. The pessimist in her found it hard to believe what she was hearing.

   ‘All you have to say is “yes”,’ said Janice.

   ‘I can’t believe it,’ said Clare, searching in the faces of the others for affirmation that she wasn’t imagining things. Patsy and Kirsty were all smiles.

   ‘My own studio. It’s a dream come true. I can’t thank you enough,’ said Clare, ‘I really can’t.’ She fought to hold back tears of gratitude brought on by Janice’s largesse.

   ‘I’ve always fancied being a patron of the arts,’ said Janice. ‘And now you can help me become one. I have high hopes for you, Clare McCormack!’

   ‘I hope I don’t let you down,’ said Clare. Her stomach made a sound and she placed a hand on her solid belly, tight with excitement and nerves.

   ‘You won’t,’ said Janice firmly. ‘Now come round first thing in the morning and I’ll give you the keys.’

   Clare swallowed. ‘I really don’t know what to say. You don’t realise what this means to me.’

   ‘I think I’ve a fair idea,’ laughed Janice.

   ‘I am so very blessed in you,’ said Clare, holding her right hand over her heart. She closed her eyes momentarily, opened them, and looked at each of the three women in turn. ‘So very blessed to have you as my friends. All of you.’

   The women exchanged happy glances and there was a long, not entirely comfortable, silence. Kirsty’s high cheek-bones went red and Clare wondered if any of them realised just how much their friendship meant to her. In spite of the differences between them, they were the sisters – the family – she had never had growing up.

   A little later, Clare, realising that they had talked about nothing but her for the last half hour, said, ‘What about everyone else’s New Year’s resolutions? How are you getting on?’

   ‘Kirsty’s got something to report,’ said Janice, with a mischievous smile and a glance at Kirsty. ‘She’s been on a date.’

   Immediately Kirsty felt her cheeks burn even brighter. She did not like to be the centre of attention, preferring to be an observer. Even among her dearest friends she was quiet and reserved.

   ‘Of course! How did it go?’ demanded Patsy, crossing her legs and settling into the chair to listen, her glass balanced on her knee.

   ‘Do I have to?’ pleaded Kirsty, recalling the evening with discomfort. It had been a disaster but not one that she was ready to laugh at just yet.

   ‘Yes!’ the others chorused.

   ‘Oh, okay then. Well, you all know we went to Alloro.’ Alloro was a posh Italian restaurant on the High Street Kirsty had never been to. ‘The food was very good,’ she said. ‘I had…’

   ‘For God’s sake, we don’t want to hear about the food,’ tutted Patsy, waving her hand dismissively in the air. ‘What about the date?’

   ‘Well, he was a lawyer friend of Keith’s.’

   ‘Oh, a lawyer no less,’ said Patsy playfully, pretending to be impressed.

   ‘So. What was he like?’ said Clare gently, ignoring Patsy’s teasing.

   Kirsty thought back to the moment she’d first seen Robert and the pool of disappointment that had settled in her stomach. His dishwater-grey eyes had stared out at her from behind thick glasses – strangely, he’d hardly blinked, reminding her of a goldfish. His dark hair was thinning slightly on top and his smile was reserved, as though he was holding something of himself back. It had the unfortunate effect of making him appear as though he felt himself superior.

   ‘Average really. Average height, well built,’ said Kirsty, picking her words with care, not wanting to be unkind and reminding herself that she couldn’t afford to be choosy at her age. The pool of available men clearly had its limitations.

   ‘You mean heavy,’ corrected Clare.

   ‘No, he wasn’t heavy. Just, you know, solid.’ He had, in fact, one of those stocky, thick-necked builds that could so easily go to fat. Kirsty preferred men who were fit and lean.

   Clare looked at Patsy, put her hand up to her mouth and said in a loud, theatrical aside, ‘Fat.’

   Patsy grinned and said, ‘Nothing wrong with a bit of beef on a man. But more to the point, did you like him?’

   ‘Mmm, not really,’ admitted Kirsty. ‘He ignored me most of the night.’

   Janice nodded in agreement and Clare said, with a cross frown, ‘What do you mean?’

   ‘Exactly that,’ said Kirsty, the annoyance she had felt that night rekindled. She put her arms around herself and gave herself a hug. ‘He spent more time talking to Keith than me and Janice put together. He wasn’t interested in a date. Not with me anyway. At one point I turned to speak to him and Robert actually put his elbow on the table, like this,’ she demonstrated, ‘so that I was totally excluded from the conversation he was having with Keith. And then he cut me dead when I was telling him why I didn’t like lamb. Isn’t that right, Janice?’

   Patsy and Clare looked at Janice.

   ‘She’s right,’ nodded Janice. ‘Turns out Robert’s looking for promotion to partner. I think he thought it was a great opportunity to get the ear of Keith. Maybe he was hoping he would put in a good word for him. I’m sorry, Kirsty. If I’d known I never would’ve suggested the night out.’

   Kirsty shrugged, pretending that it was water under the bridge, that the rejection hadn’t hurt as much as it had. Her first date in fifteen years and the guy had hardly even looked at her. Even Keith, out of politeness or, more likely, because Janice had primed him, had commented on her appearance. Robert hadn’t given her a second glance, let alone a compliment all night.

   ‘Well, screw him!’ declared Patsy crossly. ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea. And you can do far better than a toad like him. Can’t she, girls?’

   ‘Mind you, you might have to kiss a few more frogs before you meet your Prince Charming,’ teased Janice.

   ‘Oh, God,’ said Kirsty, putting a hand to her throat and pulling a face. ‘Don’t even talk about kissing him. It makes me feel quite queasy.’

   The others roared with laughter and Kirsty felt marginally better. She reminded herself that there was nothing wrong with her. Rather it was her date who had the problem.

   She tried to brush it off lightly, but it was a blow to her confidence. All that getting ready – what a waste of time. She could’ve been sitting at home with a tub of Häagen-Dazs watching re-runs of House. She sighed and took a very long slug of wine.

   After a few moments, when the hilarity had died down, Kirsty said, ‘What about everyone else? What about your resolution, Janice? You never did say what your project was going to be.’

   ‘I’m going to get some new equipment for the gym and get this tummy back in shape,’ said Janice, patting her enviable, almost-flat, abdomen. Kirsty instinctively tightened her stomach muscles and sat up straighter. And tried not to glance at Clare, who at a size fourteen was the biggest of them all.

   ‘Sure, there’s not a pick on you,’ said Patsy. ‘You don’t need to be worrying about losing weight. Not like me.’ She looked down at her boobs, which appeared even bigger than usual under the fluffy jumper, and frowned.

   And for a fleeting moment Kirsty thought that Janice’s resolution seemed a little vacuous. With all the money and time Janice had at her disposal, surely she could do something more worthwhile, more rewarding? Like charity work, for example. Then she blushed, ashamed of her tendency to judge others.

   ‘I have to exercise or I would get fat,’ argued Janice and then added quickly, changing the subject, ‘Now, Patsy, tell us all about the safari…’

   Liam was still awake, reading a set of company accounts, when Clare got home. She threw herself on the mink-coloured bedspread beside him, fully clothed, her high-heeled boots still on her feet. The smile on Clare’s face had been fixed there for the last hour and a half. Her facial muscles ached with the effort and yet she could not stop grinning.

   Liam looked up and smiled. His chest was bare; he never wore anything in bed, even now in the depths of winter. ‘Good night?’

   ‘The best! You will not believe what happened.’

   Liam laid his papers to rest on the bedside table. ‘Tell me.’ Unusually, for a man, Liam took vicarious pleasure in the gossip she invariably brought back from a night out.

   Clare threw herself onto her back, stared at the ceiling, and marvelled at her good fortune. ‘Something wonderful, Liam. Something absolutely wonderful.’ There was a pause. Clare turned her head to look at him. ‘Janice has just gone and offered me a studio to paint in. And – wait ‘til you hear the best bit – it’s completely rent-free.’

   Liam frowned and said, ‘Really?’

   ‘I know, it’s amazing, isn’t it?’ She went on to explain all about Keith’s old office.

   When she’d finished, Liam said, ‘That’s certainly a very generous offer.’

   ‘It is, isn’t it?’

   ‘You didn’t accept, of course.’

   Immediately Clare felt her hackles rise. It was a win-win arrangement between friends. What on earth could go wrong? And what possible objection could Liam have to the proposal? She raised herself up on one elbow, facing him, and said, ‘Of course I accepted.’

   Liam whistled air through his teeth and said, ‘I’m not sure we should, Clare.’

   ‘What do you mean, “we”?’ snapped Clare. ‘She offered the studio to me.’

   ‘But Keith doesn’t know a thing about it, does he? He might not agree.’

   ‘Janice wouldn’t have made the offer if she wasn’t sure he’d be okay about it.’

   ‘All the same, I don’t feel comfortable accepting it gratis.’

   ‘Well, I do. I can’t afford to pay for it and Janice knows that.’ Clare rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling again, her body hard with tension, her hands balled into fists at her sides. ‘Janice doesn’t want money, Liam. She certainly doesn’t need it. She wants to be part of what I’m doing. You should’ve seen her face. She was so pleased to be able to help me. It would’ve been downright churlish to say no.’

   ‘What exactly are you doing, Clare?’

   Clare turned her head to look at him again, annoyed by his line of questioning. How many times had she talked about her dream? ‘I’ve told you,’ she said, narrowing her eyes. ‘I’m trying to establish myself as a painter.’

   ‘You mean more than a hobby, then?’

   ‘If all goes to plan, yes,’ said Clare patiently. ‘Patsy said my work’s as good as Sam MacLarnon, you know. But I can’t sell paintings unless I’m producing them, and I can’t produce them without a decent place to work.’ Clare paused for a moment and said, ‘Why are you asking me these questions, Liam, when you know the answers already?’

   ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Clare.’ Liam paused, lowering his voice. ‘But how are you planning to find the time to do this? With Rachel and Josh to look after, and the house to run as well, you’re run off your feet as it is. I can’t see how you’ll have the time to paint.’

   ‘Mmm…’ said Clare and she wrinkled her nose in the face of this rather unpalatable truth and stared at the headboard. ‘I guess I’ll have to work evenings and put the kids into nursery a few mornings a week. Or with a childminder.’

   ‘Expensive,’ said Liam, ever the accountant.

   ‘I know. And it would be a leap of faith. But we’d have to look at it as an investment. Once my paintings start selling I’ll recoup the costs.’

   ‘It’s not only the expense,’ said Liam, in not much more than a whisper.

   ‘You don’t want me to do it because of the effect it’ll have on your life, do you?’

   ‘It’s not my life I’m worried about, Clare. It’s the kids’.’

   Clare turned her gaze on him again, her anger now abating to be replaced with anxiety. ‘What d’you mean?’

   ‘I don’t want strangers looking after my children,’ he said and gave her a hard stare. His right eyelid twitched involuntarily. ‘I thought we agreed this when you gave up work. That you would stay at home with the children at least until they were both at school.’

   Clare bit her lip and looked away. He was right. That was what they had agreed. But he wasn’t the one who’d given up a good job as Arts Officer for the local council to stay at home and play earth mother. And if truth be told, had she known what was involved in being a full-time mother to two under fives, she never would’ve agreed to it. She would’ve kept on working, at least part-time. And she would’ve definitely kept on painting.

   ‘Izzy was practically raised by childminders,’ went on Liam, in the face of her silence. ‘I don’t want that for Rachel and Josh.’

   ‘Neither do I. But I’m only talking about a few sessions a week. And things change, Liam. It’s time for me to be thinking about going back to work. And, if you think about it, painting is perfect. I can be my own boss and I can fit it round the family. This is my big break and I don’t want to fluff it.’

   ‘You’re talking it up, Clare. All that’s happened is that Janice has offered you an old office to work in rent-free. That same offer would probably still be there three years from now. At least by then Josh and Rachel would both be in school.’

   ‘I can’t wait that long.’

   ‘Why not?’

   ‘I just can’t.’

   ‘You mean you won’t. You’re not prepared to.’

   Clare sighed and said, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like being at home with young children all day, Liam. It’s absolutely mind-numbing.’

   ‘And I think you’ve forgotten what the pressures of corporate life are like, Clare.’ He picked up the sheaf of papers he had been reading, scowled at them, threw them down again. ‘Do you think I like sitting in bed at night reading this crap?’

   ‘No,’ lied Clare. He had surprised her. She had come to believe that Liam was wedded to his job. It suited her to believe that he enjoyed working long hours, that he was passionate about what he did for a living.

   ‘Are you unhappy at work?’ she asked, considering this possibility for the first time.

   Liam rubbed his chin. The stubble rasped against his palm. He sighed. ‘No, not really. It’s just that sometimes…sometimes I’d rather be doing other things. Like spending more time with the kids.’

   A mixed blessing, thought Clare, but also a point well made.

   ‘I know I’m fortunate to be able to spend time at home,’ said Clare, choosing her words like she was walking through a minefield. ‘But I resent it too.’ She ignored Liam’s sharp intake of breath, and addressed the flimsy paper lampshade hanging above them. She’d meant to replace it when they’d moved in four years ago but, like everything else in her life, such tasks had played second fiddle to the all-consuming activity of child-rearing. ‘I know that sounds like I’m contradicting myself. But it is possible to feel both. I know I do. Maybe other women don’t. Maybe there are women who can give themselves wholly and completely to mothering without a sense of loss of self. Do you know what I mean?’ she asked and looked at him.

   It was clear from the blank expression on Liam’s face that he did not. She felt a pressing desire to connect with him, to make him understand what painting meant to her sanity.

   Clare touched the space between her breasts, pressing down on her ribcage with the pads of her fingers until it hurt. She closed her eyes and said, ‘There’s this need inside me to express myself. I haven’t painted since the day Josh was born and every day it feels as though a little of me…sort of disappears. And I’m afraid that if I don’t do something about it soon, I’m going to lose my identity altogether.’

   ‘That is sad,’ said Liam, but without a hint of compassion. ‘Having two healthy children and the inability to enjoy them.’

   Her disappointment stung like a fresh burn. She had opened her soul to him only to be met with cruel cynicism. She wanted to cry then but would not give him the satisfaction. It took her a few moments to compose herself before she could bring herself to speak again.

   ‘You’re wrong, Liam. I do enjoy my children,’ she said in a steely voice. ‘I love them and I treasure every precious moment with them. But is it wrong to ask for precious moments away from them too? Is it wrong to desire more from life? If we don’t have our dreams, Liam, then what do we have?’ A tear, cold as glass, slid out of the corner of her left eye and dropped onto the pillow.

   ‘Reality, Clare.’ He sounded sour, like milk gone off.

   ‘You used to have dreams once, Liam.’

   ‘I still do. I’m just a bit more realistic about achieving them than you are, Clare.’

   ‘I’m not asking for the earth, Liam. I’m asking for a few hours a week so I can go somewhere on my own and paint. It will cost little and harm no-one. And I might just make some money out of it.’

   Liam reached out an arm, switched off the bedside lamp, pulled the covers up to his chin and faced the wall.

   ‘If that’s what you want to do, Clare, then don’t let me stop you.’

   And Clare lay there for a full half hour until Liam went to sleep, thinking. Then she undressed, got into bed and lay awake, Liam’s opposition radiating from him like heat from a fire. After a while, her thoughts took flight and she pictured herself in the studio, working in the quiet solitude of the ghostly winter months and later, in the spring, the garden bursting with new growth and the light flooding in through those big windows. She heard the rushing silence, felt the brush in her hand and saw a picture of the Black Arch, near Ballyfergus, take form under her hand. She smiled.

   And by the time she drifted off to sleep, she knew that this was something she had to do, with or without Liam’s support. Painting was essential to her existence, as necessary as breathing. She wished she could make him understand that.

   All things considered, thought Patsy, trying to ignore the sound of her two daughters bickering upstairs, she and Martin had made a pretty good job of rearing their family. Both were well-rounded, kind, loving. Not like some she could think of – like Pete Kirkpatrick. She’d known him from the age of two and had never warmed to him.

   Patsy drained the rice, turned the oven off and went and called up the stairs, ‘Will you two stop that this minute? You’re not kids any more.’ Silence. Good. She sweetened her tone and added, ‘Dinner’s almost ready. Hurry up and come down.’

   Back in the kitchen, Patsy lifted a sizzling chicken and broccoli bake from the oven and set it on a trivet on the table, along with a dish of rice and one of sweetcorn.

   Sometimes the girls irritated her no end, like just now, but she wouldn’t be without them. Her life was full, what with working at the gallery, running the home and making time for her circle of loyal friends. She particularly enjoyed running the gallery and she was justly proud of her success which had been achieved through sheer hard work. She’d started the gallery seven years ago, after a break from work to raise the girls, with a small business loan from the bank. She’d built it from nothing, ending up with an enviable clientele of loyal customers and a rounded portfolio of artists. She was proud of the fact that she’d repaid the bank loan within three years.

   But it was her family which gave purpose to Patsy’s day. It was Martin and the girls that made her want to get out of bed in the morning. She would do anything for them.

   Patsy filled a plate for Martin, who’d just phoned to say he would be late. She covered the food with metal foil and placed it in a low oven to stay warm.

   As well as making a significant contribution to the family income, the gallery was her insurance against empty-nest syndrome, the idea being that it would keep her too busy to miss the girls when they eventually left home. But her nest was far from empty and it looked like staying that way for the foreseeable future. She and Martin might never be rid of the girls! At least that was what she joked over a glass of wine in company. Truth was, she didn’t want them to leave home. She wanted them to stay right where they were.

   Not that she would ever admit this, not even to Martin. She didn’t want to be seen to be holding the girls back in any way. But at the end of the day, all that really mattered to Patsy was family. And with her parents both dead, and her siblings living overseas, family meant Martin and the girls.

   Sarah had gone off to do nursing at Queen’s in Belfast three years ago but, after graduation last summer, she’d been driven back home by low wages and the high cost of living. By the time she’d paid for her car (essential to commute to Antrim Hospital where she worked), clothes, entertainment and the rest of it – she paid no board at home – there was nothing left at the end of the month.

   Patsy encouraged Sarah to spend, told her she deserved ‘treats’ and plugged the holes in her daughter’s shaky finances. In short, Patsy made sure life at home was very comfortable for Sarah. No girl in her right mind would give it all up to go and live in some grotty bedsit in Antrim where she would struggle to make ends meet.

   So, just as Laura prepared to embark on a life outside the family home at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, Sarah had come back to fill her shoes. Patsy knew she couldn’t hold onto the girls for ever, and she truly wanted the best for them – good careers, happy marriages and healthy children. But she made no apologies for trying to keep them with her just as long as she could.

   The door overhead slammed shut and Patsy sat down at the table, calmly filled her plate and began to eat.

   Sarah padded noiselessly into the room, wearing black tracksuit bottoms and a pair of battered, sand-coloured shearling boots on her feet. Her long auburn hair hung loose, framing a perfect oval face, delicate mouth and green almond-shaped eyes. She pulled at the sleeves of her hoodie, stretching them down her long arms to the knuckles, as though the backs of her hands were cold. At five foot ten Sarah towered over her mother and her figure was lithe like a cat. Nothing like Patsy at all, who had always struggled with her weight. She thanked God that both girls had inherited their father’s ‘slim’ genes. Sarah flopped into a seat and piled her plate with food.

   Laura appeared soon after, dressed in tight jeans and a canary yellow angora sweater. She gave her sister a narrowed-eyed glare and sat down opposite her at the table. Laura was shorter and slimmer than her sister, blonde where Sarah was a red-head and her prettiness was of a different nature, emanating more from her vibrant personality than classical good looks. And while Laura hadn’t inherited Patsy’s frame she had inherited her mother’s bosom, giving her the most amazing Barbie-doll figure, with an incredibly slim frame and disproportionately large breasts. That chest could turn heads – Patsy had seen it in action on Ballyfergus High Street.

   Laura sighed softly at the sight of the food. ‘This looks delish. Thanks, Mum.’

   ‘Yeah, thanks Mum,’ chimed Sarah.

   ‘You’re both welcome,’ said Patsy. ‘But I wish you two would stop fighting. It gives me indigestion.’

   Immediately Laura, always the one to cave in first, addressed Sarah. ‘Can I borrow your straighteners, please?

   ‘Course you can,’ returned Sarah, fast as a tennis ball.

   Laura stared at her sister, her clear hazel eyes wide like saucers. ‘What was all the fuss about upstairs, then?’

   ‘You didn’t say please,’ said Sarah quietly, a sly smile creeping onto her lips.

   ‘You’re a big kid, Sarah. Do you know that?’ said Patsy, starting to giggle and soon the three of them were laughing uncontrollably. Patsy held her hand over her belly and, said, ‘You two crack me up, you really do.’

   When they’d quietened down, Laura helped herself to some food and asked, ‘When’s Dad coming home?’

   Patsy glanced involuntarily at the clock. ‘Don’t know. He’s going to be late again.’

   ‘He’s always late,’ said Sarah, her mouth full of food. ‘These days anyway.’

   Patsy paused, considering this. Sarah was right. Martin had been getting in later and later, rarely making it home before eight. He blamed it on pressure at the bank in Belfast where he worked and the ever-worsening commuter traffic that clogged up the city’s arteries like cholesterol.

   ‘Is everything alright, Mum?’ said Laura, helping herself to more chicken. ‘I mean with Dad.’

   ‘Of course it is. He’s just busy, that’s all,’ she said, the maternal instinct to protect them springing forth. Some habits were hard to shake.

   She pushed her plate away, the food like a balled fist in her stomach while the girls ate in silence. Since Christmas, Martin had been withdrawn, uncommunicative. She’d put it down to the January blues and, if truth be told, she’d been so busy she hadn’t really paid too much attention. Was it just work, like he said? Or something more sinister? She glanced at the clock again. Could he be having an affair? Her heart stopped, started again. She shook the notion off energetically like water from an umbrella.

   ‘Where are you off out tonight?’ said Sarah to her younger sister, scraping her plate clean.

   ‘A crowd of us are going round to Catherine’s to watch a DVD.’

   ‘Tell me something, Laura,’ said Sarah. ‘If you’re just going to watch a DVD at Catherine’s what d’you need to straighten your hair for?’ Sarah winked at Patsy. ‘Will Kyle Burke be there?’

   Laura blushed, still young enough to be embarrassed by a crush on the best-looking boy at St Pat’s. ‘He might be,’ she said casually, looking at her plate. ‘I don’t know.’

   ‘Leave her alone, Sarah, will you?’ said Patsy, standing up and carrying her plate over to the sink. ‘Come on. Help me clear up.’

   Laura collected the glasses from the table and Sarah stacked the plates. Patsy said, ‘Aren’t you going out tonight, Sarah?’

   ‘No. I’m tired,’ she said, punctuating her sentence with a yawn. ‘I’m going to watch the telly and have an early night.’ She carried the plates over to the dishwasher.

   If she’s tired at twenty-one, thought Patsy, what’s she going to be like when she’s my age? She rubbed the small of her back, achy from being on her feet all day. Sarah loaded the dishwasher and Patsy regarded her thoughtfully.

   Her elder daughter was a self-contained, solitary girl who was a bit of an enigma. Patsy was proud of Sarah and she loved her, of course, but she did not easily identify with her. Laura she understood. Like Patsy she was fun-loving, gregarious, people-orientated, always in the thick of any social action. She hated even being in the house alone.

   And Patsy had known, almost from the moment of her birth, that Laura was her favourite. She had accepted this realisation with equanimity; she didn’t love Laura more than Sarah, she just enjoyed her more. And because she was acutely aware of this favouritism, she took great care to make sure she treated the girls equally.

   ‘You can’t stay in on a Friday night,’ scoffed Laura, who had been out for the last three nights on the trot.

   ‘Not everyone’s like you, Laura,’ said Sarah pointedly, picking a cherry from a bowl on the island unit and popping it in her mouth. ‘Some of us are quite content with our own company.’

   ‘Oh, my God! Look at the time,’ cried Laura suddenly. ‘I’d better get ready. Louise is coming for me at eight.’ She dropped the glasses in her hands into the sink with a loud clink and ran out of the room.

   Sarah opened the bin, spat the cherry stone into it, and let the lid slam shut. ‘She goes out too much,’ she observed. ‘She should be studying.’

   ‘Ach, sure she might as well have some fun while she can,’ said Patsy indulgently.

   ‘You’ll not be saying that if she fails her exams,’ said Sarah darkly.

   ‘She’ll knuckle down when she has to,’ said Patsy. She hung her apron on a brass hook on the back of the kitchen door and wondered how two siblings, raised the same way, could be so very different in nature and temperament. ‘So what’s on telly?’

   ‘NCIS and Numbers,’ said Sarah, moving towards the door into the hall. ‘Fancy watching them with me?’

   ‘No, thanks, love. I’ve got some work to do,’ said Patsy. ‘I might as well get it done before your dad gets in.’

   Half an hour later, Patsy was engrossed on the PC, looking at dates for the Irish art fairs. Perhaps Janice, Clare and Kirsty could be persuaded to join her at the Art Ireland spring fair at the end of March – the perfect time for an overnighter in Dublin, a warm-up for their more ambitious trip to London later in the year.

   ‘Well, that’s me off,’ said Laura, bouncing into view at the door. She’d changed into another (even tighter) pair of jeans, with the over-priced and completely impractical grey knitted Ugg boots she’d so desperately wanted for Christmas. One good rain shower and they’d be ruined. Her face was shining with youth and vitality.

   ‘Well, you have a great time, love. And be…safe,’ said Patsy. ‘Tell Louise to drive carefully.’

   The doorbell went and Laura said, ‘Gotta go.’ She gave her mother a forceful hug and kissed her on the top of the head. ‘Bye, Mumsy,’ she said and Patsy laughed.

   Laura bounded out of the room. Patsy got up immediately and followed her but only as far as the landing so that she could watch her daughter trip nimbly down the stairs, open the front door and slam it shut behind her. Coatless as usual. Patsy pulled her cardigan tighter and smiled, remembering the thrill of going out at that age. The feeling that the whole world was there to explore, that endless possibilities awaited you. The feeling of having your whole life ahead of you.

   A few moments later a car pulled up outside. A door slammed and Martin came in, pushing the door to quietly. He did not see Patsy watching him. He put his keys in his jacket pocket, set his briefcase on the floor and then paused. He put both his big hands over his face and stood there for some moments, rocking back and forth, in a state of private grief. He might have been crying.

   Patsy put her hand to her throat, shocked. Martin rarely showed emotion. She had never seen him cry. Not even when the girls were born or when his father died. Suddenly she felt like a peeping Tom, observing while herself unseen. She took a few steps back, so that she was out of Martin’s sight line should he happen to look up, and waited.

   ‘Patsy,’ came his voice after a few moments, sounding just like normal. ‘That’s me home.’

   She took a deep breath and stepped out onto the landing again.

   ‘Hello, darling,’ she said brightly and descended the stairs. ‘Laura went out just now. Did you see her?’

   ‘I saw her in the car. With Louise,’ he said and attempted a smile. His face was tired, wretched even, but he acted as though nothing was wrong. ‘Where’s she off to, then?’

   ‘Oh, just round to Catherine’s.’

   Patsy went over and put her arms around Martin’s waist, still slim but thicker than it had once been – but then he’d been a beanpole when she’d first met him. She rested her head on his chest and asked, ‘What’s wrong?’

   ‘Nothing. I’m tired,’ he said, and he stiffened a little. He did not put his arms around her. ‘And I’m starving.’

   Was this how people kept secrets? Using half-truths as diversions? Acting as though everything was normal when clearly it wasn’t?

   Patsy swallowed the lump in her throat, broke away and said, ‘I’ll get your dinner. Do you want to change first?’

   What on earth was he hiding from her?

   ‘No,’ he said, pulling roughly at the dark blue tie around his neck. It bore narrow green stripes and the bank’s logo, a gold harp intertwined with shamrock. He discarded the tie on a nearby chair. ‘I’ll just eat like this.’ He took off his suit jacket and threw it carelessly on the coat stand.

   Patsy moved automatically to the kitchen followed by her husband. He went to the fridge, got himself a bottle of Becks, flipped the cap off and sat down at the table. He took a long swig as Patsy set his dinner in front of him.

   ‘Watch, it’s hot,’ she said, letting the plate slip gently from her gloved hands onto a wicker place-mat and removing the metal foil she had used to cover it.

   ‘Thanks, love,’ he said. ‘That looks great.’

   ‘I’m just in the middle of something,’ mumbled Patsy, laying the gloves and lid quietly on the granite worktop. She slipped from the room and left him there, eating at the table alone, because she could not bring herself to engage in meaningless chit-chat. Not when her heart was so heavy and Martin was lying to her.

   She went into the snug and sat with Sarah, watching the television but seeing nothing, and thought of all the things he could be hiding. Drugs, alcohol, gambling debts – all the usual vices that people fell victim to, even people like Martin who were sensible and balanced. But none of them rang true. None of them seemed to fit the Martin that she knew. And neither did adultery. He must’ve received bad news of some sort. But, if so, why hide it from her? Was it his health?

   At this thought she got up immediately and went back into the kitchen. Her timing was perfect: just as she walked through the door, Martin pushed his empty plate away.

   ‘That was good,’ he said with a smile and ran his hand over his face as though wiping away his worries. But whatever they were, they remained etched on his face.

   Patsy sat down on the chair opposite him, rested her elbows on the table and clasped her hands together, as though she was about to pray. ‘Martin, I know something’s wrong. Are you going to tell me what it is? Or are you going to lie to me?’

   Martin’s pleasant expression, placed there by a square meal and the beer, fell away. He looked like he’d been caught out, taken unawares. The corners of his wide mouth turned down and he stared at her for some moments, long enough to make Patsy uncomfortable.

   ‘Are you ill?’ she asked softly and blinked. And when he did not answer immediately, she stretched her hand out and put it over his. ‘Are you, Martin? Because whatever’s wrong you know I’ll face it with you, don’t you?’

   He laughed nervously and made a tutting sound. ‘Of course I’m not ill. I’m perfectly well. Just tired, that’s all.’

   He slipped his hand out from under hers and went and got another beer. He prised the cap off and stood there drinking it, in front of the open fridge door. ‘The share price fell again today.’

   ‘Again?’ said Patsy and she put a hand to her throat. Almost all of their hard-earned savings were in bank shares – they’d planned to sell shares to fund Laura through uni, just like they’d done with Sarah. But they’d had to watch helplessly these last few months as the markets fell and the value of their investment plummeted.

   ‘They’re now worth less than a pound, Patsy. From nearly six pounds just a few months ago.’

   ‘The value of shares can go up as well as down.’ Patsy reminded herself, as much as Martin, of this mantra. She removed her hand from her throat. ‘All we have to do is hold onto them and they’ll go up, won’t they?’ she said, optimistically. ‘Maybe the worst is over.’

   ‘It’ll be years before they recover.’ Martin shook his head and took another reckless swig of beer. ‘I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid, Patsy,’ he said angrily and stared at her, his face tight and pinched. ‘We shouldn’t have put everything in the bank’s shares. It’s such a fundamental error – not to spread the risk. I don’t know what I was thinking…’

   ‘Please, Martin, don’t beat yourself up about it. It was a…a joint decision,’ said Patsy, limply. ‘Who could have foreseen this happening to banks?’

   ‘I should’ve.’

   Patsy did not refute this. Martin was the financial expert – she’d always left these things up to him. What did she know of investments and shares and stock markets? But even she knew not to put all your eggs in one basket. She relied on him and he’d got it wrong. Her resentment took her by surprise – she bit her lip and tried to focus instead on what this meant in practical terms.

   ‘Well, what’s done is done,’ she said, trying not to sound like she blamed him. ‘There’s no point fretting over it now. We’ll still be able to put Laura through uni, Martin. That’s the most important thing. We’ll just have to cut back on luxuries for the time being. It’ll be tight but we can do it out of our income. And, if worst comes to worst, she can take out a student loan.’

   Thanks to careful management of their finances, Sarah had graduated unburdened by debt. And even if Laura had to take out a loan they would repay it for her – eventually. The situation was disappointing but not desperate.

   ‘Hmm,’ said Martin dully.

   ‘Cheer up, love,’ said Patsy. ‘It’s not the end of the world. All we have to do is weather the storm and the shares will eventually recover their value. Other people are much worse off. Other people are losing their jobs.’

   She took Martin’s plate and cutlery over to the sink where she rinsed them. She hummed loudly and thought nervously of the deposit she’d laid out for the safari. She glanced at him. He was seated again, long legs splayed apart, with a third bottle of beer, already half-drunk, in his hand. He was staring at the black-and-white poster of the Eiffel Tower on the wall opposite. A place they’d visited with the girls when they were in their early teens.

   Twenty-five years they’d been together and they’d never had a holiday like the one she’d planned, just the two of them. They’d no money in the early days and then, when the children came along, holidays were always family-focused – Disney, Eurocamping and, lately, packages to the Med where they’d all squeezed into too-small apartments so the girls could spend a fortnight topping up their tans. If ever they needed a holiday like this, it was now.

   She thought of Martin’s thinning hair, her own recurrent backache. They were getting older faster than she liked and they weren’t as close as they used to be. She longed to rekindle their romance – she wanted to feel the way she did when she’d first met Martin and truly believed she could not live without him.

   It probably wasn’t prudent to take a luxury holiday in the midst of economic uncertainty but, if they didn’t go this year, when would they go? It would never be the right time. There’d always be something else to spend money on – in a few years it would be weddings and grandchildren. She had saved hard for this holiday – her own, hard-earned money Martin knew nothing about – and it meant so much to her. It was now or never.

   ‘You need a holiday, love,’ she said, into the sink.

   ‘The way things are looking at the moment, we might not be taking any holidays for a while,’ said Martin glumly and took another swig of beer.

   ‘Now, now,’ scolded Patsy, coming over and sitting down in the chair beside him. She patted his bony knee and gave him a sparkly smile. ‘I thought we’d agreed not to be pessimistic.’

   ‘I’m not,’ he said and the corners of his handsome mouth turned up in a laconic smile. ‘I’m being realistic.’

   ‘Well, you have to take some time off, don’t you?’ said Patsy.

   ‘I guess so.’ The corners of his mouth fell as he shrugged and looked away. Took another swig of beer.

   ‘Well, look, why don’t you book the last three weeks in September?’

   ‘Why three weeks? Why September?’ he said, sounding slightly irritated.

   ‘Oh,’ said Patsy. ‘No particular reason. Just that Laura should be off to uni by then. It seemed like a good time.’

   ‘It’s the worst time if you ask me.’

   ‘Maybe we could book a nice holiday, just the two of us,’ she ploughed on, ignoring his last comment.

   ‘I dunno,’ he said, uninterested, and a little knot formed in her stomach. Did he not want to go on holiday with her? And had he completely forgotten it was their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in September? She tried not to let his indifference hurt.

   ‘Don’t let’s make any rash decisions just yet,’ he said. ‘Let’s wait and see how…how things turn out with the economy.’

   Patsy got up and busied herself with tidying away the supper things. She thought back to the image of Martin standing in the hallway earlier, wracked with grief. Sure, he’d made an error of judgment about the shares, but it wasn’t that big a deal. They would adjust their finances, work round it. She couldn’t imagine that was what was upsetting him so much. No, there was something else. Something he wasn’t telling her.

   When Martin got up to leave the room she went over to him and put her arms around him. She raised her face to his but, before she could speak, he stiffened and turned his face away. ‘I need to get changed,’ he said and simply walked out of the room.

   Tears pricked Patsy’s eyes. She put her hands to her face and blinked fiercely to prevent them flowing. Something was wrong, seriously wrong. She knew it in her heart. Was he lying about his health? Had he done something stupid he was trying to hide from her? But what? She wracked her brain. And then the cold hand of fear settled on her shoulders, causing her to sink into the nearest chair. Had her first instinct been right? She thought of all the nights he’d been late home from work. And much as her heart told her it couldn’t be true, her head told her it could. Was he, after all these years, having an affair?

   She thought of the vows they had taken all those years ago – vows she had believed in then and still did. The question was, did Martin? She’d hoped the safari might help them re-connect, inject romance back into their lives, help them find each other again. Now she needed it to do much more. She needed it to save her marriage.

   ‘Dorothy,’ said Kirsty. ‘It’s really good of you to have David and Adam overnight. Again.’

   ‘It’s no trouble, love,’ said Dorothy, a comfortably rounded woman, with jet-black hair from a bottle and bright red lipstick. She smelt of face powder and Chanel No.5 and was well-dressed in a smart black skirt, patterned blouse and scarlet cardigan. She wore a set of pearls round her neck and discreet diamonds twinkled in her fleshy earlobes.

   They were standing in the hall of Harry and Dorothy’s handsome Victorian three-storey home on The Roddens – the house in which Scott had grown up. The boys had been here since lunchtime – Kirsty had been grocery shopping and called in on her way home to deliver their overnight things.

   A grandfather clock tick-tocked at the foot of the stairs. The bold floral wallpaper, now fashionable again, dated back to the first time Kirsty had visited this house nearly eighteen years ago, when Scott had brought her home to meet his parents. The collection of china plates, each one depicting an agricultural activity of a bygone age, which covered the walls and snaked up the stairwell, had been in its infancy back then. And Kirsty had gone back home to Scotland with the impression that Dorothy and Harry had not approved of her.

   The wallpaper might be the same, but everything else had moved on. Grief had a way of changing people. Now she felt accepted by her in-laws, loved even. And every birthday and Christmas since had seen a new addition to Dorothy’s plate collection – it certainly simplified the task of buying presents for her – until every inch of wall space was covered.

   David and Adam ran in from the garden where they’d been kicking a ball about and shouted, ‘Hi Mum!’ in unison. Then they threw off their coats, hat and gloves, kicked off their mud-coated shoes and left everything in a tangled heap by the front door.

   David was well-built with ears like question marks, sandy-coloured hair, grey eyes that were a little too close together and highly coloured cheeks. His little brother had inherited more classically handsome looks – he had a pretty cupid’s bow mouth, china-blue eyes, darker hair and a slighter build. Neither child looked much like their father but Dorothy was never done rooting out family resemblances on the Elliott side of the family.

   Suddenly Kirsty noticed something different about them. ‘Their hair!’ she exclaimed.

   ‘Yes, I gave them both a wee trim. Thought they needed it. You know, for school.’

   Kirsty swallowed and tried to smile. Their haircuts, while not a complete disaster, had been crudely done. Adam’s fringe was slightly crooked and David’s thick hair was cut just a tad too short above his ears.

   ‘But I always take them to Alison at Faith’s,’ said Kirsty faintly. ‘I was going to take them next week.’

   ‘Ach, no point wasting good money when you can do it for nothing at home. I always cut Scott’s hair when he was a boy.’

   Kirsty’s heart sank. ‘I really would rather you didn’t do it in future,’ she said quietly and felt her face redden.

   The smile fell from Dorothy’s face and she gave Kirsty a sharp glance. Then she gave her shoulders a quick shrug. ‘As you wish,’ she said shortly and she ruffled Adam’s dark thatch. ‘Your grandpa’s on the top floor,’ she said. ‘Go and see what he’s up to. I think he might have something for you.’

   ‘SWEETS!’ screamed Adam. ‘It’s sweets, isn’t it, Gran?’

   ‘Let’s go and see,’ said David, always the leader.

   They scampered up the stairs on all fours, like monkeys, almost delirious with happiness. They were so loved in this house, so spoilt by their grandparents – like all children should be. Kirsty felt a lump in her throat and swallowed. She just wished Dorothy and Harry wouldn’t overstep the mark.

   Dorothy extended her hand to Kirsty and said, ‘Sure, you know we love to have them. We’d do anything for those boys.’ Her gaze drifted to the top of the stairs.

   Kirsty stared at Dorothy’s outstretched hand, and tilted her head to the right. It took her a few foolish moments to realise that Dorothy was waiting for her to hand over the boys’ overnight bag. Not that they needed much – among other things, Dorothy kept pyjamas, dressing gowns and toothbrushes for them here. The bag contained only clean clothes for the next day.

   ‘Are you sure it’s not too much trouble? I could always get a sitter,’ said Kirsty, clutching the bag to her breast.

   The smile on Dorothy’s face fell away as did her hand and she said, ‘Now don’t be silly, Kirsty. Where would you get a sitter so late in the day?’ She paused, adjusted her tone, and went on, smiling brightly as though to reinforce the truth of her words. ‘We’re their grandparents, Kirsty. They belong here.’

   No, they don’t, thought a horrified Kirsty, they belong with me. She put her hand to her mouth as though she had uttered this realisation aloud. And in that instant her relationship with Dorothy altered for ever.

   Scott’s death had united them all in grief. Although they did not live in the same house, in many respects the family unit consisted of grandparents, Kirsty and the children. The parenting of David and Adam had become the business of Dorothy and Harry as much as Kirsty. They often collected the boys from school, fed them, helped them with their homework, played with them, took them places and regularly had them to stay. They had even taken them on holiday twice, both times for a week in Portrush, to give Kirsty a break. But now, the dynamic had unexpectedly shifted. More precisely, Kirsty had changed.

   Her life these past three years had been meshed with Dorothy’s and Harry’s. Together, they had focused all their energies on coping with Scott’s death – and the shared goal of minimising the effect of this disaster on the boys. And between them, they had made a very good job of it. The children seemed well-adjusted, happy, polite. And both were doing well at school. Kirsty couldn’t have coped without her in-laws, and her gratitude knew no bounds. They were good people and she loved them.

   But three years on, she longed for a more independent life for herself and the boys. That was selfish of her, for the boys’ close relationship with Dorothy and Harry was entirely, and overwhelmingly, positive. Sadly, they did not know their maternal grandparents well – they were aged and suffered from ill health and did not like to leave Cumnock, on the east coast of Scotland where they lived.

   And while Kirsty reminded herself of the importance of extended family, she couldn’t help but feel increasingly uncomfortable with the level of Dorothy and Harry’s involvement. It was time to put some distance between herself and her in-laws. At the back of her mind was the vague notion that her future happiness depended upon it. If she was to stand a chance of meeting a man – and making a new life for herself – she couldn’t have her in-laws living in her pockets.

   But how on earth was she to disentangle herself and the boys without hurting Dorothy and Harry? They lived for their grandchildren – they had made them the centre of their lives.

   ‘Can I have the bag?’ said Dorothy, startling Kirsty.

   ‘Oh, yes. Of course,’ said Kirsty. She pushed it into Dorothy’s arms eagerly, to compensate for her earlier caginess. ‘And thanks again.’

   For the first time Kirsty felt under an obligation to her in-laws. Before it had all been easy and uncomplicated. Now, as if she were looking through a different lens, she saw every act of kindness as a further nail in the coffin of her independence.

   ‘So, where are you off to tonight?’ asked Dorothy. ‘You mentioned Ballymena.’

   ‘Yes, there’s some art exhibition on that Patsy and Clare want to see. Me and Janice are just going along for the ride.’

   ‘Hmm,’ said Dorothy, her interest already beginning to wane. She had always struggled to understand Kirsty’s fascination with all things arty. She placed little value on art, financial or otherwise – it was simply something to fill a space on the wall. Dorothy’s interest extended only as far as her painted plate collection.

   ‘Do you have time for a cup of tea?’ said Dorothy, glancing at the ornate face of the grandfather clock.

   ‘Please,’ said Kirsty, and she paused before blurting out, ‘There’s something I want to talk to you and Harry about.’

   ‘I see,’ said Dorothy, and she gave Kirsty a searching glance.

   ‘Ah, here she is,’ came Harry’s voice from the top of the stairs, providing a welcome distraction. He descended gingerly, holding onto the banister, dressed in rust-coloured cords, a green checked shirt and worn brown suede slippers. With his greying hair and moustache, he looked like a picture-book grandfather.

   He came over to Kirsty and placed a warm kiss on her cheek. His skin against hers felt thin and papery. ‘My favourite daughter-in-law,’ he said and looked at her for a few seconds, holding onto the forearms of her jacket. It was an old joke between them. They were no other daughters-in-law. Their surviving child, Sophie, was married to a doctor and lived in Dublin.

   ‘Kirsty’s going to stay for a cuppa,’ said Dorothy and she led the way to the cosy kitchen at the back of the house.

   Dorothy made tea, noisily, and Harry and Kirsty exchanged small talk. When they were all seated with thin china cups and saucers in front of them and a plate of Rich Tea biscuits on the table, Dorothy poured the tea and said, ‘So what was it you wanted to talk to us about?’

   Kirsty put her spoon in her cup and stirred the tea, even though she had added no sugar. She took a deep breath. ‘I’m thinking about going out to work.’

   ‘Oh, love. You don’t need to be doing that,’ said Harry with one of the tolerant smiles he usually reserved for the children when they said something silly. ‘Sure, she doesn’t, Dorothy? There’s plenty of time for that when the boys are grown.’

   ‘They are grown,’ said Kirsty into her cup, unable to meet Harry’s gaze. Her voice was little more than a whisper. ‘Grown enough anyway. I’m in the house on my own most of the day. There’s only so much cleaning and cooking and coffee mornings you can do.’ The spoon clattered against the saucer when she set it down.

   ‘What’s brought this on all of a sudden, Kirsty?’ said Dorothy, her brows knitted. Her gaze, when it met Kirsty’s, was like a laser.

   Kirsty took a biscuit and broke it in half. Pale golden crumbs littered the spotless table. ‘It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while,’ she said. ‘Ever since Adam started school last year.’

   ‘I see,’ said Dorothy and she lifted her cup to her lips and took a sip of tea. She let the silence sit between them like a fog. Harry stroked his moustache, a nervous habit, and stared at his reflection in the window. He looked confused. Disappointed.

   ‘I’m only talking about part-time,’ said Kirsty, looking at their unresponsive faces.

   Cocking her head to one side, Dorothy placed the foot of her teacup in the depression on the saucer, as though she were putting a jigsaw together. ‘Do you have something in mind?’ she said.

   ‘There’s a job advertised at the museum.’

   Ballyfergus’s small museum was housed in the old Carnegie Library on Victoria Road. The building, which dated from 1906, had been beautifully refurbished and now housed a bright modern museum dedicated to the history and heritage of Ballyfergus and the surrounding area.

   ‘It’s only twenty hours a week,’ said Kirsty.

   ‘What about school holidays and when the boys are sick?’ said Dorothy.

   ‘I’ll arrange childcare.’

   ‘But me and Dorothy would look after the kids,’ said Harry, sounding slightly affronted.

   ‘I…I…well, that’s a very kind offer but I can’t expect you to drop everything to look after the boys. You have your own lives,’ Kirsty added, though she didn’t really believe this to be true. Their lives revolved around their grandchildren.

   ‘That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it, Dorothy?’ said Harry, sounding a bit annoyed.

   Dorothy nodded and Harry went on, ‘They’re my grandsons and I don’t want some stranger looking after them.’

   ‘Well, okay then. If it’s what you want…’ said Kirsty, feeling yet again that she had been bulldozed into something she didn’t want. But she couldn’t very well deny them access to the boys. She would pay for it though, in an indirect way – book a holiday for them, or something.

   Harry, suddenly warming to the idea, said, ‘Maybe Kirsty’s right, Dorothy. It might do her good to get out a bit.’

   Kirsty’s spirits lifted at finding an unlikely ally in Harry. Dorothy’s eyebrows, as effective a means of communication as her speech, crept up her brow a fraction. She waited for Harry to go on.

   ‘But don’t you see? There’s a much better way to go about it than this,’ he said firmly, pleased with himself.

   ‘There is?’ said Dorothy, the space between her eyebrows puckering.

   Harry grinned broadly at them both, revealing a set of perfect dentures. ‘Kirsty’s a highly educated girl with a lot to offer.’

   Kirsty smiled at him, grateful and relieved. And surprised. Of the two of them, she had expected more resistance from Harry.

   ‘I’ll tell you what, Kirsty. You can come and work for me at the mill,’ he said grandly, presenting his offer with all the flair of a generous gift.

   Kirsty swallowed hard and tried to smile. She thought of the InverPapers mill, the relentless hum and thud of machinery and the sickly-sweet smell of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process – a nauseating stench that had permeated Scott’s hair and clothes and which, no matter how many times he showered or how many times she washed his clothes, never completely went away.

   ‘She could work in the office, Dorothy, like you used to do. Help with the accounting, payroll, bills, that sort of thing. You can use a computer, can’t you?’ Though supposedly semi-retired, Harry still played an active part in the business. Kirsty pictured the stuffy office with its worn eighties furniture and single-glazed aluminium framed windows – and froze in horror.

   She had never worked in an office in her life. She couldn’t think of anything more depressing. The factory employed one hundred and fifty people and it produced toilet roll. Toilet roll! Millions of sheets of toilet roll a year. Bog roll, Scott used to call it. Harry wanted her to work in a bog-roll factory. She bit her lip and blinked to stop herself from crying.

   ‘I don’t think…’ began Kirsty, faintly, when she could bring herself to speak.

   ‘Mmm,’ said Dorothy, as though Kirsty had not spoken, her eyebrows uplifted with possibility. ‘Now that is a good idea. You could work the hours that suited you, Kirsty, and take all the time off you need.’

   ‘Don’t you see, love?’ said Harry, laying a cool hand on Kirsty’s sweating one. ‘It’s perfect. You can work whatever hours you like. And keep it in the family. I like that idea. I think Scott would’ve liked it, too. Don’t you, Dorothy?’

   At the invocation of her dead husband’s name, Kirsty stared down at her lap. For all his faults, Scott would never have condemned her to work in the family business. He’d hated it himself.

   Harry rubbed his hands together as though he’d just closed a deal and said, ‘And I’d make sure you were handsomely remunerated, of course.’

   There was a long silence and Dorothy said, ‘What do you think, Kirsty?’

   ‘I think…I’m not sure. It’s not exactly what I had in mind.’

   Harry frowned and looked from his wife to Kirsty.

   ‘I really like the idea of working in the museum. I think it would be interesting.’

   ‘The paper industry is interesting too,’ said Harry.

   ‘I’m sure it is, Harry. And I’m very appreciative of your generous offer. But I’m not sure I can accept it.’

   ‘Sure you can,’ he said. He folded his arms across his chest like a buffer.

   ‘Harry,’ said Dorothy, who had been quiet for some moments. ‘I don’t think it’s a case of not being able to accept. I think it’s a case of not wanting to. Is that right, Kirsty?’

   In spite of her burning cheeks, Kirsty was determined to show them that she meant business. So often in the past she had been persuaded to go along with things that went against her better judgment. Little things, like how much TV the children were allowed to watch and what time they went to bed when they had sleepovers. But this time it was her life, her future, at stake.

   She sat up straight and said, ‘Yes. That’s right.’

   Harry let out a long sigh and visibly deflated. He rubbed his nose with the back of his right hand, sniffed, and refolded his arms. ‘I was hoping the boys would take over the business one day, you know,’ he said. ‘I would’ve been retired by now if Scott…’

   ‘Harry,’ said Dorothy tenderly and she paused, then lowered her voice. ‘That’s got nothing to do with this discussion.’

   Admonished, albeit gently, Harry shrugged and looked out the window, though there was little to see in the rapidly falling dusk. Kirsty reached out and touched his elbow. ‘Harry?’ she said. He glanced at her hand and looked out the window again. She had offended him and for that she was truly sorry. But the offence was inevitable. He would never see things from her point of view.

   ‘You’d better watch your time, love,’ said Dorothy with a glance at the clock on the wall. ‘It’s gone five.’

   ‘Has it?’ she said dimly, without taking her eyes off Harry. She did not want the conversation to end on this unpleasant, unresolved note. She realised that she wanted them to give her something they could not – their wholehearted support.

   But, for now at least, she had been dismissed. Kirsty stood up and said goodbye to her in-laws, awkward in their company for the first time in over three years. Then she slipped upstairs to say goodbye to the boys and, when she came down again, Dorothy was waiting for her at the front door. ‘Don’t you pay too much attention to Harry, love. He’s just…’

   ‘Hurt?’

   ‘Aye, that. And grieving. Still.’

   Kirsty sighed and pulled on her coat. ‘I didn’t mean to offend him.’

   ‘I know. But he doesn’t think sometimes.’

   Kirsty buttoned her coat and slipped on a pair of black leather gloves.

   ‘You apply for that job at the museum, Kirsty. And we’ll help you with the boys when you need it.’

   ‘It’s very good of you to offer,’ said Kirsty, rather formally. She gave the older woman a brief hug, stepped outside into the cold, damp night and onto the gravel path.

   ‘Just one thing though,’ said Dorothy.

   Kirsty turned around, the gravel screeching under the ball of her foot.

   ‘Don’t ever forget how much we love those boys,’ said Dorothy.

   ‘I won’t,’ said Kirsty brightly, understanding only too well the plea – or was it a warning? – behind this statement.

   Kirsty marched purposefully down the path towards the car but stopped as soon as she heard the front door close behind her. Then she turned and stared at the house, the windows bright with yellow light, her two sons happily and safely ensconced inside. And separated from her, it seemed, by more than just a Victorian brick wall. A few flakes of snow began to fall, swirling in the wind. She shivered, pulled the collar of the coat around her neck and hurried to the car.

   The exhibition was in Cornerstone Gallery on Mill Street, Ballymena – directly opposite the Town Hall. The gallery was spread over two floors and Paul Holmes’ paintings were displayed on the ground floor. It was busy and noisy, people elbow-to-elbow with their complimentary drinks clutched like talismans in their hands. Kirsty did not have the means to splash out hundreds of pounds on original watercolours, however handsome. But she appreciated the high quality of the artwork, exchanged a few words with the artist himself and enjoyed the buzz. They didn’t stay long, mindful of the falling snow outside and the treacherous drive home over Shaneshill which awaited them. Parts of the road were lonely and deserted and at a higher altitude than the surrounding countryside so that snow often lay where there was none in town.

   By nine o’clock they were back in Ballyfergus and settled at their usual table in No.11. The bar was two-deep with the familiar faces of local businessmen, ties removed and top buttons undone, who had dropped by for their regular Friday pint, or two, on the way home.

   ‘Good job you booked, Janice,’ said Patsy, ‘or we’d never have got our table.’ She arranged the folds of her wool skirt round her knees and ran her fingers through her short, dyed hair. She’d worn it in the same spiky, youthful style all the time Kirsty had known her. It showed off her good bone structure, and suited her lively personality. When she moved her head large diamond earrings winked in each lobe.

   Janice, urbane in a black cashmere roll-neck, figure-hugging black skirt and boots, handed round the menus. ‘Let’s order quickly, shall we? The kitchen closes in half an hour.’

   Once the food was ordered and they all had a drink in front of them Kirsty asked, ‘So what did you think of the competition, Clare?’

   Clare downed a third of a glass of white wine before answering. She was more casually dressed than the others in black jeans and a patterned shirt. Around her neck, on a green leather thong, she wore a piece of pink shell sculpted into the shape of a flower. As usual her face was bare of make-up, and her long brown hair was freshly washed and fell around her shoulders like a waterfall. Over the years Clare had put on the pounds and it did not suit her. She had been prettier when she was slimmer. ‘Well, Paul Holmes’s got talent, that’s for sure.’ Clare let out a long sigh. ‘I’m not sure my work’s up to that standard.’

   ‘Oh, don’t say that,’ said Kirsty, loyally. ‘You paint just as well. Better even.’ If Clare had a fault it was that she fluctuated wildly between confidence and self-doubt – and more often the latter. She was always putting herself down. ‘How’s the studio?’

   ‘The studio’s fantastic,’ said Clare, enthusiasm returning to her voice. ‘Complete peace and no interruptions from screaming kids! So far I’ve managed a couple of evenings and a few hours on Sundays.’

   Janice smiled broadly.

   ‘And how’s the painting coming on?’ asked Patsy.

   ‘The painting…’ Clare’s voice trailed off. She wrinkled her nose. ‘Well, let’s just say I’m a bit rusty.’

   ‘We just need to get you oiled then!’ cried Janice, laughing. ‘Speaking of which,’ she added, raised a glass and took a long drink. ‘That’s better.’ Clare almost finished her wine.

   Janice looked round at the others and said, ‘Seriously though, Clare showed me and Patsy what she’d done and it was good. As good as what you were painting four years ago, Clare. Isn’t that right, Patsy?’

   Patsy shook her head distractedly. ‘I’m sorry. What did you say?’

   ‘I said, Clare’s work is good, isn’t it?’

   ‘It is so,’ said Patsy, nursing her glass and staring at Clare. ‘Do you know what I think, Clare? I think you’re too hard on yourself. Way too hard.’

   Clare blushed, and looked at a spot on the floor which she rubbed with the toe of her brown boot.

   ‘I know what we should do!’ exclaimed Patsy and everyone said, ‘What?’ at the same time.

   ‘I think we should plan an exhibition for you.’

   ‘No,’ said Clare with a gasp, and she put the tips of her fingers to her lips. Her nails were badly bitten and her hands work-worn – the scourge not only of mothers of young children but artists too.

   Patsy cocked her head to one side. ‘I’m thinking something pretty low-key, maybe in conjunction with another artist. Someone who works in a different medium. Mmm, let me think…’ She sat back in the tub chair and was quiet for a few moments, then came to life again. ‘I know. I was hoping to do a wee exhibition for Bronson in the spring.’ She was referring to an old friend of hers, the unlikely-named Bronson Gaffney, a local artist who did traditional landscapes in oil. ‘I could have a chat with him and see if he would be willing to do a joint exhibition. I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem. It would get you a bit of exposure, in a low-pressured way, and give you something to work towards. And Bronson’s just lovely, so he is.’

   Clare’s fingers pressed against her lips until the colour leached from them but her eyes were alive with excitement. ‘Do you really think I could do it?’

   ‘Of course you could,’ said Patsy. ‘And what’s more, I bet you I sell every one of your pictures!’

   It took Clare only a few seconds to consider the offer. ‘In that case, okay then. You’re on!’ she cried and the others gave a little cheer.

   ‘I’ll give you a call tomorrow and we can talk about it some more,’ said Patsy.

   ‘I think that calls for another drink,’ said Clare, flushed with excitement. She got up and went to the bar. Patsy, who was driving, declined the offer of another drink. When Clare returned, Kirsty asked, ‘So, how’s everyone else getting on with their resolutions?’

   ‘I ordered a new treadmill for the gym,’ said Janice.

   ‘I thought you had one already?’ Clare frowned in puzzlement.

   ‘Oh, we did, but that’s absolutely ancient,’ said Janice with a dismissive wave of her hand. ‘This one’s state of the art.’

   ‘Well, rather you than me,’ said Patsy, unconsciously skimming her stomach with the flat of her palm. ‘There’s nothing of you as it is, Janice. If you exercise any more you’ll disappear!’

   ‘Always room for improvement, my dear,’ retorted Janice good-naturedly.

   Listening to this exchange, Kirsty wondered why Janice, poised and elegant, was so obsessed with continual self-improvement. There was nothing wrong with making the most of yourself – and Kirsty was as vain as the next woman – but Janice pursued physical perfection with religious fervour. For the first time it crossed Kirsty’s mind that, perhaps, Janice wasn’t as happy as she appeared. In exercising every pick of fat away, was she exercising away demons too? Kirsty might have known her for fifteen years, but did she know the real Janice?

   ‘Have you been on any more dates recently?’ asked Patsy, rousing Kirsty from her reverie.

   She let out an audible sigh and smiled wryly. ‘If you could call the last time a date. I think I need a few weeks to recover from that experience and drum up the enthusiasm to give it another go. I should have made a different resolution,’ she went on, seriously. She was sick already of the others asking her about dating. ‘I should’ve made it something simple. Like getting a job.’ Something, she thought, that she could realistically achieve.

   ‘Are you thinking about going back to work, then?’ said Janice, leaning forwards with interest.

   ‘Yeah. I’ve seen a job advertised. At the museum,’ she said.

   ‘That’s exciting. What does it involve?’ asked Clare.

   ‘The job title’s “Museum Learning Assistant”. I’d look after groups and schools coming in for visits, as well as welcome visitors. There’d be a bit of admin – answering email and telephone enquiries, that sort of thing. To be honest, the job description’s very varied and a bit vague. Which is a good thing ‘cos I think it’d be easy to make the job my own, if you know what I mean.’

   ‘Yes, once you’ve got your feet under the table,’ said Patsy, shrewdly.

   ‘That’s right,’ said Kirsty, realising that the more she talked about this job, the more she wanted it. ‘It’s only part-time and Dorothy and Harry have offered to help with the boys. But they didn’t hide the fact that they’re not happy about it,’ she added glumly. ‘Well, Harry isn’t.’

   Patsy gave Kirsty a knowing look. ‘Not that it’s any of his business.’

   Kirsty tilted her head in Patsy’s direction, acknowledging the comment but giving it no credence. Patsy didn’t understand how it was. Kirsty’s existence was so bound up with her in-laws, she had difficulty separating her life from theirs, especially when what she chose to do impacted on them. ‘He warmed to the idea after a bit,’ she went on. ‘But only because he had the bright idea that I would work in the factory office.’

   ‘And that’s not something you want to do?’ said Janice.

   ‘God, no!’ exclaimed Kirsty, jerking with such sharpness that some wine slopped out of the glass in her hand onto the table. ‘I couldn’t think of anything worse. I think it would kill me. He suggested I do the books, pay the wages, that sort of thing. Apart from hating it, I don’t have the background for office work.’

   ‘I’m sure he meant well,’ said Janice gently, patting the back of Kirsty’s hand with her French-manicured one.

   ‘He did. But he doesn’t seem to understand that I need to build a life of my own. Neither of them do.’

   ‘I take it you said “no”?’ said Clare.

   ‘I did and he took the huff. I think he was hurt.’

   ‘He’ll get over it,’ said Patsy. ‘I know it’s hard for them. It’s understandable that they want to be as close to their grandsons as possible. And that’s great – you wouldn’t want it any other way. But they mustn’t expect you to be answerable to them. They have to respect your right to an independent life.’

   ‘Hear! Hear!’ said Clare and she gave a little round of applause.

   Right Patsy may be, thought Kirsty, but it put her on a collision course with Dorothy and Harry.

   ‘You’re much more likely to meet an eligible man working in the museum than stuck in that factory all day,’ mused Janice.

   ‘That hadn’t occurred to me,’ said Kirsty, unable to contain the smile that sprang to her lips. Janice was far more interested in finding a man for Kirsty than she was herself. All the same, the observation helped to strengthen her resolve. ‘But you’re right, Janice.’

   ‘Are you going to apply for it, then?’ said Clare.

   ‘I’ll have my application in first thing, Monday morning. Wish me luck!’

   ‘To Kirsty,’ said Clare, always quick to raise her glass, and the others copied. Then the food arrived and everyone was absorbed in eating and exchanging chit-chat.

   When Janice was finished – she’d eaten only half of what was on her plate – she leant forwards in the chair, and said conspiratorially, ‘Now, what’s the latest on your safari, Patsy?’

   Patsy started and her napkin dropped to the floor. She bent down under the table to pick it up and reappeared somewhat flustered-looking. She shook the napkin in the air and laid it across her lap.

   ‘Well, I’ve paid the deposit,’ she said.

   Everyone was silent, waiting for her to go on. It wasn’t like Patsy to be so reticent. Kirsty was just beginning to wonder if something was wrong when Patsy’s face broke into her more familiar smile. ‘It hasn’t been easy keeping it a secret from Martin, let me tell you,’ she said brightly. ‘I had to hide the holiday brochures under the bed and I’m terrified someone from the travel agency’s going to call when he’s there and spoil the whole thing!’

   ‘What’s the itinerary, then?’ asked Janice. Patsy pulled a slim brochure out of her bag and passed it to Janice, who flicked through the pages and nodded approvingly while Patsy talked.

   ‘We’re going to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve – it’s the second biggest in the world. And the Chobe National Park, which has sixty thousand elephants. Then there’s the Makgadikgadi saltpans, which are supposed to be amazing.’

   ‘Saltpans?’ asked Kirsty, picking up the brochure from where Janice had discarded it on the table. It all sounded so incredibly exciting, so far removed from her dull, everyday existence.

   ‘They’re very remote, shallow basins containing salt deposits from an evaporated lake. They stretch for miles and you explore them on quad bikes.’

   Kirsty nodded, her eyes coming to rest on a picture of a vast white plain, the edges disappearing in a shimmering heat-haze. In the photograph a rugged explorer sat astride a black quad bike, a pair of slender arms wrapped round his waist.

   ‘I know it’s just a holiday,’ said Patsy, looking round at the others, her grey-green eyes misted. ‘But for me it’s a dream come true. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and Martin. I doubt if we’ll ever do anything just as exciting, or expensive, as this again. It’s going to be the proper honeymoon we never had. I’ve been thinking we could renew our marriage vows.’

   ‘Ohhh,’ the women chorused in unison and Kirsty said, ‘That’s so romantic.’

   ‘It would be, wouldn’t it?’ said Patsy and paused. ‘When you’ve been married a long time, well, you have to do things to…to re-connect every now and then. It’s easy to lose each other in the everyday business of living, isn’t it?’

   ‘I know what you mean,’ said Clare and Kirsty wondered if that had been part of her and Scott’s problem. Had they allowed themselves to drift apart? Given up too easily? If he had lived would they have been able to re-connect? Would she have been able to save her marriage?

   Kirsty eyes pricked with tears and she picked up the brochure and stared at the glossy pictures of majestic lions and leopards, a prehistoric-looking hippo, vast herds of antelope, and a great cloud of long-legged birds rising from a lake. It was a magical world, so remote from small-town Ireland, so exotic, primeval even.

   Maybe one day she would go and see these things for herself. She’d like to. But not on her own. It was an experience to share with someone – and not just anyone. Your soulmate. She threw the brochure down in the middle of the table as though it had suddenly become too hot to hold and pushed the remains of her spaghetti carbonara away. Her appetite had evaporated.

   She had so much to be grateful for, but she was fed up being alone. Fed up standing on the sidelines of life watching other people, like Patsy, getting on with theirs. She was absolutely delighted for her friend but she couldn’t help but wish it was her planning the holiday of a lifetime with the man she loved.

   She would just have to try harder. She glanced at the men at the bar, almost all of whom she knew – or knew of. Ignoring the married ones, she studied the four available men in her age group, three divorced, one single. The fact that Vincent Agnew, plumber, was in his forties and had never, so local gossip went, been in a committed relationship didn’t bode well, Kirsty thought. And not only did she know the ex-wives of the others – she even knew the names of their children. That was problem with Ballyfergus; you knew far too much about everybody and you never met anyone new. And try as she might she didn’t find any of them in the least bit attractive.

   She averted her gaze and looked out of the window instead. Outside an icy fog had settled and the crisp night air was punctuated only by the soft haze of the street-lamp and squares of yellow light in the low-rise block of flats opposite. The only males she liked spending time with these days were David, Adam and Harry – how sad was that? Things, she decided firmly, would have to change.

   The letter from the council finally came on a wet and windy Friday morning in the last week of February. Kirsty, recognising what it was at once from the frank mark on the envelope, retrieved it from the doormat before the boys trod on it in their muddy shoes. She set the long white envelope carefully on the hall table, drove the boys to school and could think of nothing else ‘til she was back home.

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