“There it is.”
Nicky jabbed her finger at the windscreen. “Ooh look, Richard, look. Just like
the photo in the brochure.”
Grabbing the estate
agents’ particulars, Nicky leapt out the car and strode across the road. Three
terraced cottages nestled together like old friends, gnarled stems of ancient
ivy clinging to their walls, with the evening sun lighting up their slate roof
tiles. In the garden of the middle property stood a ‘for sale’
The latch on the
wrought-iron gate opened with a satisfying click. Bees hummed around lavender
bushes along the path leading to the front door. “Ah.” Nicky stopped to draw
the heavy scent into her nostrils. Then again. “Ah.” She grabbed Richard's
arm. “Come on. I have a good feeling about this one. This is going to be
“Hang on. We
haven’t seen inside yet.” He rang the doorbell. “Funny name, isn’t it?
“I read in the
brochure this afternoon,” said Nicky, “that it’s Manx and means ‘Kate’s
“Manx? This isn’t
the Isle of Man.”
Nicky fell in love
with the cottage all over again while they were viewing the interior. “It’s
beautiful,” she said to Josh, the estate agent. She wanted to add, “We’re going
straight back to the office. Now. To make an offer.”
“Er… yes… thank
you,” said Richard.
“Well?” asked Nicky
the instant they were through the gate.
He didn't reply.
“Well?” she said
again, as they climbed back into the car.
“It was lovely.” He put his key into the
“Not was. Is.”
“More than we can
afford, love.” He smiled that slow smile of his, with dimples on either side,
filling his square jaw.
“Only just above
our price range. We could make an offer.” But the energy in her words seemed
to bounce off that smile.
“Not one they’d
“No, Nicky, no.”
As he eased into the road, he tilted his chin upwards and slightly to the right,
a gesture she knew all too well.
When Josh rang
Nicky at work next morning to ask how they liked the house, she said they were
still thinking. He warned her not to wait too long, as he had other clients
scheduled to view that evening. “No, no,” she wanted to cry down the phone,
“don't let them.”
She would talk to him again. As soon as possible. She knew she was right about
this. The trouble with Richard was he dug his heels in, always had done. Even
at primary school, there had been things Richard wouldn’t do: country dancing,
for instance. She would never forget that incident.
Richard," Miss Wilson had said. "You can be Nicky’s partner.”
Nicky’d tapped her
Start-Rite shoe on the tiled floor of the school hall. She and the other
children were lined up, ready to start the 'Gay Gordons', and they had been
waiting for several minutes. "Richard's a big wally," she'd said to the girl
standing next to her.
He, however, had
remained rooted to the spot, tilting his chin slightly to the right. At ten
years old, he had been a miniature version of his adult self, thick-set with a
square jaw and rectangular face.
“Do come along,
Richard,” their teacher had said. “We haven’t got all day. Don’t you want to
be in the dancing display at the fete?”
By now the class
had fallen silent, making not a murmur, not a movement, for fear of missing
“Not really,” he'd
answered in a calm, quiet tone.
The instant she
replaced the receiver after speaking to Josh, the phone rang again. “Can we
meet up for lunch?” Richard’s voice was just about audible. “It’s important.”
She knew that
already. Richard didn’t waste his almost silent tone on trivial
She joined him at
the pub down the road from the factory where he worked. She was just opening
her mouth to tell him about her conversation with Josh, and how they needed to
make an offer on Croit Chatreeney right away, when he said, “Nicky,
Woolton’s are making people redundant.”
"Oh." She laid her
hands over his clenched knuckles. "You?”
“I won't know for
definite until next month, but...” He looked at her from under his hooded eyes.
“I heard this morning about a company advertising for skilled electricians. In
Saudi Arabia.” His words hung in the air.
“Saudi?” The bar,
the barman and the rainbow colours of the drink bottles danced a gig in front of
her eyes. Richard had come back into her life about a year ago, when he had
walked into the doctors’ surgery where she worked as a receptionist. Watching
him at the counter, filling in forms to register as a patient, she’d known his
face but hadn’t been able to place him. He’d recognised her straightaway. When
he’d told her he’d been in the army, she’d pictured soldiers on parade being
called to ‘atten-shun’ and one asking, in a mild voice, “Why?” No longer
children, they had hit it off immediately.
“Two year contract,
Nicky,” he said. “That’s all.”
She forced herself
to smile. “Is it what you want to do?”
“Looks like I don't
have much choice.” He shrugged. “I'd be all right. I can do heat. And
desert. I've been to Afghan, haven’t I?”
She struggled to
keep smiling. “When would you have to go?”
“Not sure. Quite
He stared at beer
mat in front of him, tracing its tight scalloped edge with his thick, stubby
finger In the background, the jukebox played 'Waterloo' by Abba, a song Nicky
used to like. “Would you… would you… come to Saudi?”
“Of course I
will.” Her words spluttered from her like an explosion, the sweetness of her
orange juice catching the back of her throat.
“We wouldn't be
able to have the sort of wedding we've been thinking of. We'd have to get
married quickly. Within the next couple of months." He leant forward. "We'd
be living on a compound, with the other Western workers. From what I've heard,
we’d have a one-bedroomed flat. Nothing like Croit Chatreeney, I'm
“We’d be together.
That’s the important thing.”
The two years in
the Middle East passed quickly. When they returned, Woolton’s were doing much
better and Richard was offered a job as a foreman. With baby Jessica, they went
to stay temporarily with Nicky’s mother, but conditions
were cramped, especially as
one family member was taking up all the space in their room with her huge boxes
of nappies, changing mat, Moses basket, car-seat and other paraphernalia. The
heavy rain, which started on the Saturday morning of their first weekend in
England, was a novelty – to start with.
Richard spent a
large part of Sunday afternoon watching from the window, with Jessica asleep on
his shoulder. He was not a man for sitting around. “We do need a place of our
own,” he kept saying.
looking now,” Nicky replied, picking up her laptop and typing into Google the
name of the first estate agent she remembered. For several moments she watched
the hour glass until, at last, a list of properties with photos appeared on
screen, just one dull, boxy house after another. Suddenly, she found herself
looking at a slate-tiled roof glowing in the sunlight and a wrought-iron gate,
with yellow hollyhocks framing the front door.
“What?” He peered
at the screen from over the baby's head.
weren’t there when we went before,” said Nicky.
“N-no,” he said at
She frowned. No
what? No hollyhocks? Or no, he wasn't interested. She clambered to her
feet. “Fancy a cup of tea?” She had to think this through.
She took her time
in the kitchen, taking a mug to Mum and stopping to chat with her. When she
re-joined Richard, he was still looking at the tiny photo of Croit
Chatreeney on the screen. “You really loved that place, didn’t you?” he
said, lifting his head to meet her eyes.
“No. No. I never
said that,” he said, furrows forming on his brow. “Too expensive back then.
We’ve got more money now, after Saudi. Do you want to see it again?”
Next day, when she
rang the estate agent’s office, she was delighted to discover that Josh was
still working there. He told her that the person who had bought Croit
Chatreeney two years ago had been forced to move after only a year because
of his job. How disappointing to have to give up something so beautiful,
thought Nicky. All day long, as she fed and changed her baby daughter, she
couldn’t help smiling. “The little house is absolutely lovely, Mum” she said.
“So much character.”
afternoon grey lines of rain smashed against the window pane and by five o'clock
dusk had fallen. “What do you expect in November?” said Richard when they set
off to view after his return from work. The musty smell of their soggy coats
inside the car reminded Nicky of primary school cloakrooms on a wet morning.
But they were going back to Croit Chatreeney.
property in the rain and the dark was well-nigh impossible. They drove past the
row of brick-built terraced houses several times, until he spotted the
hollyhocks, now broken-stemmed and blackened by frost. Nicky’s foot squelched
on the sodden grass verge as she stepped outside, and the fierce wind flung icy
droplets of rain into her face. It’s quite exposed, she thought.
The instant Josh
opened the door, they tumbled inside to escape the elements. Suddenly… now…they
were in Croit Chatreeney again.
Nicky feasted her
eyes on every half-remembered detail. Of course, the hallway wasn't the best
bit, and was actually quite poky, with three painted off-white doors glaring
back at her. Hungry to see the real thing, she opened every door in turn. The
living room, with its big bay window, ceramic fireplace and inglenooks either
side, was exquisite, although smaller than Nicky remembered, but she’d forgotten
about the pea-green melamine units in the kitchen. Could they paint them, or
replace the cupboard doors? With growing impatience, she flitted from room
to room, hungry for the magic of two years ago.
“Thank you,” said
Nicky to Josh as their heavy winter shoes clattered down the rustic wooden
stairs. “Sorry to drag you out on a night like this.”
“No problem.” He
forced a smile. “What did you think?”
Richard raised his
eyebrows at Nicky.
She took several
paces towards the front door, opened it, and set one foot on the doormat outside,
before pausing to turn and take one final look. “Thank you,” she said again,
before heading back down the path. The lavender had gone and she couldn't hear
the click of the catch above the roaring wind.
She shivered as
they climbed back into the car. “Come on. Let's get home.”
“No.” She fastened
her seat belt with a clunk.
“Yes.” She’d lost
something that evening, a golden memory broken apart in the November wind.
“I'm so glad," he
said, smiling his square smile. "It was nice, very nice, and… Okay, if you’d
insisted, I would’ve gone along with it, but the thing is, Nicky, Croit
Chatreeney is… well… Kate’s Cottage. Someone else’s house.”
She nodded slowly.
"What I'd like is
somewhere that needs doing up, which we can make our own. Nicky and Richard’s