May 27, 2021
May 18, 2021
The Summer Seekers
A brand new summer read from Sarah Morgan coming in 2021!
Kathleen is eighty years old. After a run-in with an intruder, her daughter wants her to move into a residential home. She’s not having any of it. What she craves – needs – is adventure.
Liza is drowning under the daily stress of family life. The last thing she needs is her mother jetting off on a wild holiday, making Liza dream of a solo break of her own.
Martha is having a quarter-life crisis. Unemployed, unloved and uninspired, she just can’t get her life together. But she knows something has to change.
When Martha sees Kathleen’s advert for a driver and companion to take an epic road trip across America, she decides this job might be the answer to her prayers. Travelling with a stranger? No problem. She's not the world's best driver, but it couldn’t be worse than living with her parents again. And anyway, how much trouble can one eighty-year-old woman be?
As these women embark on the journey of a lifetime, they all discover it’s never too late for adventure…
Morgan’s latest, possibly her best yet, is the ultimate road-trippin’ beach read and just what we all need after the long lockdown.” —Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
It was the cup of milk that saved her. That and the salty bacon she’d fried for her supper many hours earlier, which had left her mouth dry.
If she hadn’t been thirsty—if she’d still been upstairs, sleeping on the ridiculously expensive mattress that had been her eightieth birthday gift to herself—she wouldn’t have been alerted to danger.
As it was, she’d been standing in front of the fridge, the milk carton in one hand and the cup in the other, when she’d heard a loud thump. The noise was out of place here in the leafy darkness of the English countryside, where the only sounds should have been the hoot of an owl and the occasional bleat of a sheep.
She put the glass down and turned her head, trying to locate the sound. The back door. Had she forgotten to lock it again?
The moon sent a ghostly gleam across the kitchen and she was grateful she hadn’t felt the need to turn the light on. That gave her some advantage, surely?
She put the milk back and closed the fridge door quietly, sure now that she was not alone in the house.
Moments earlier she’d been asleep. Not deeply asleep—that rarely happened these days—but drifting along on a tide of dreams. If someone had told her younger self that she’d still be dreaming and enjoying her adventures when she was eighty she would have been less afraid of ageing. And it was impossible to forget that she was ageing.
People said she was wonderful for her age, but most of the time she didn’t feel wonderful. The answers to her beloved crosswords floated just out of range. Names and faces refused to align at the right moment. She struggled to remember what she’d done the day before, although if she took herself back twenty years or more her mind was clear. And then there were the physical changes—her eyesight and hearing were still good, thankfully, but her joints hurt and her bones ached. Bending to feed the cat was a challenge. Climbing the stairs required more effort than she would have liked and was always undertaken with one hand on the rail just in case.
She’d never been the sort to live in a just in case sort of way.
Her daughter, Liza, wanted her to wear an alarm. One of those medical alert systems, with a button you could press in an emergency, but Kathleen refused. In her youth she’d traveled the world, before it was remotely fashionable to do so. She’d sacrificed safety for adventure without a second thought. Most days now she felt like a different person.
Losing friends didn’t help. One by one they fell by the wayside, taking with them shared memories of the past. A small part of her vanished with each loss. It had taken decades for her to understand that loneliness wasn’t a lack of people in your life, but a lack of people who knew and understood you.
She fought fiercely to retain some version of her old self—which was why she’d resisted Liza’s pleas that she remove the rug from the living room floor, stop using a step ladder to retrieve books from the highest shelves and leave a light on at night. Each compromise was another layer shaved from her independence, and losing her independence was her biggest fear.
Kathleen had always been the rebel in the family, and she was still the rebel—although she wasn’t sure that rebels were supposed to have shaking hands and a pounding heart.
She heard the sound of heavy footsteps. Someone was searching the house. For what, exactly? What treasures did they hope to find? And why weren’t they trying to at least disguise their presence?
Having resolutely ignored all suggestions that she might be vulnerable, she was now forced to acknowledge the possibility. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so stubborn. How long would it have taken from pressing the alert button to the cavalry arriving?
In reality, the cavalry was Finn Cool, who lived three fields away. Finn was a musician, and he’d bought the property precisely because there were no immediate neighbors. His antics caused mutterings in the village. He had rowdy parties late into the night, attended by glamorous people from London who terrorized the locals by driving their flashy sports cars too fast down the narrow lanes. Someone had started a petition in the post office to ban the parties. There had been talk of drugs, and half-naked women, and it had all sounded like so much fun that Kathleen had been tempted to invite herself over. Rather that than a dull women’s group, where you were expected to bake and knit and swap recipes for banana bread.
Finn would be of no use to her in this moment of crisis. In all probability he’d either be in his studio, wearing headphones, or he’d be drunk. Either way, he wasn’t going to hear a cry for help.
Calling the police would mean walking through the kitchen and across the hall to the living room, where the phone was kept and she didn’t want to reveal her presence. Her family had bought her a mobile phone, but it was still in its box, unused. Her adventurous spirit didn’t extend to technology. She didn’t like the idea of a nameless faceless person tracking her every move.
There was another thump, louder this time, and Kathleen pressed her hand to her chest. She could feel the rapid pounding of her heart. At least it was still working. She should probably be grateful for that.
When she’d complained about wanting a little more adventure, this wasn’t what she’d had in mind. What could she do? She had no button to press, no phone with which to call for help, so she was going to have to handle this herself.
She could already hear Liza’s voice in her head: Mum, I warned you!
If she survived, she’d never hear the last of it.
Fear was replaced by anger. Because of this intruder she’d be branded Old and Vulnerable and forced to spend the rest of her days in a single room with minders who would cut up her food, speak in overly loud voices and help her to the bathroom. Life as she knew it would be over.
That was not going to happen.
She’d rather die at the hands of an intruder. At least her obituary would be interesting.
Better still, she would stay alive and prove herself capable of independent living.
She glanced quickly around the kitchen for a suitable weapon and spied the heavy black skillet she’d used to fry the bacon earlier.
She lifted it silently, gripping the handle tightly as she walked to the door that led from the kitchen to the hall. The tiles were cool under her feet—which, fortunately, were bare. No sound. Nothing to give her away. She had the advantage.
She could do this. Hadn’t she once fought off a mugger in the backstreets of Paris? True, she’d been a great deal younger then, but this time she had the advantage of surprise.
How many of them were there?
More than one would give her trouble.
Was it a professional job? Surely no professional would be this loud and clumsy. If it was kids hoping to steal her TV, they were in for a disappointment. Her grandchildren had been trying to persuade her to buy a “smart” TV, but why would she need such a thing? She was perfectly happy with the IQ of her current machine, thank you very much. Technology already made her feel foolish most of the time. She didn’t need it to be any smarter than it already was.
Perhaps they wouldn’t come into the kitchen. She could stay hidden away until they’d taken what they wanted and left.
They’d never know she was here.
A floorboard squeaked close by. There wasn’t a crack or a creak in this house that she didn’t know. Someone was right outside the door.
Her knees turned liquid.
Oh Kathleen, Kathleen.
She closed both hands tightly round the handle of the skillet.
Why hadn’t she gone to self-defense classes instead of senior yoga? What use was the downward dog when what you needed was a guard dog?
A shadow moved into the room, and without allowing herself to think about what she was about to do she lifted the skillet and brought it down hard, the force of the blow driven by the weight of the object as much as her own strength. There was a thud and a vibration as it connected with his head.
“I’m so sorry—I mean—” Why was she apologizing? Ridiculous!
The man threw up an arm as he fell, a reflex action, and the movement sent the skillet back into Katherine’s own head. Pain almost blinded her and she prepared herself to end her days right here, thus giving her daughter the opportunity to be right, when there was a loud thump and the man crumpled to the floor. There was a crack as his head hit the tiles.
Kathleen froze. Was that it, or was he suddenly going to spring to his feet and murder her?
No. Against all odds, she was still standing while her prowler lay inert at her feet. The smell of alcohol rose, and Kathleen wrinkled her nose.
Her heart was racing so fast she was worried that any moment now it might trip over itself and give up.
She held tightly to the skillet.
Did he have an accomplice?
She held her breath, braced for someone else to come racing through the door to investigate the noise, but there was only silence.
Gingerly she stepped toward the door and poked her head into the hall. It was empty.
It seemed the man had been alone.
Finally she risked a look at him.
He was lying still at her feet, big, bulky and dressed all in black. The mud on the edges of his trousers suggested he’d come across the fields at the back of the house. She couldn’t make out his features because he’d landed face-first, but blood oozed from a wound on his head and darkened her kitchen floor.
Feeling a little dizzy, Kathleen pressed her hand to her throbbing head.
What now? Was one supposed to administer first aid when one was the cause of the injury? Was that helpful or hypocritical? Or was he past first aid and every other type of aid?
She nudged his body with her bare foot, but there was no movement.
Had she killed him?
The enormity of it shook her.
If he was dead, then she was a murderer.
When Liza had expressed a desire to see her mother safely housed somewhere she could easily visit, presumably she hadn’t been thinking of prison.
Who was he? Did he have family? What had been his intention when he’d forcibly entered her home?
Kathleen put the skillet down and forced her shaky limbs to carry her to the living room. Something tickled her cheek. Blood. Hers.
She picked up the phone and for the first time in her life dialed the emergency services.
Underneath the panic and the shock there was something that felt a lot like pride. It was a relief to discover she wasn’t as weak and defenseless as everyone seemed to think.
When a woman answered, Kathleen spoke clearly and without hesitation.
“There’s a body in my kitchen,” she said. “I assume you’ll want to come and remove it.”
“I told you! Didn’t I tell you? I knew this was going to happen.”
Liza slung her bag into the back of the car and slid into the driver’s seat. Her stomach churned. She’d missed lunch, too busy to eat. The school where she taught was approaching summer exam season and she’d been halfway through helping two students complete their art coursework when a nurse had called her from the hospital.
It was the call she’d dreaded.
She’d found someone to cover the rest of her classes and driven the short distance home with a racing heart and clammy hands. Her mother had been attacked in the early hours of the morning, and she was only hearing about it now? She was part frantic, part furious.
Her mother was so cavalier. According to the police she’d left the back door open. It wouldn’t have surprised Liza to learn she’d invited the man in and made him tea.
Knock me over the head, why don’t you?
Sean leaned in through the window. He’d come straight from a meeting and was wearing a blue shirt the same color as his eyes. “Is there time for me to change?”
“I packed a bag for you.”
“Thanks.” He undid another button. “Why don’t you let me drive?”
“I’ve got this.” Tension rose up inside her and mingled with the worry about her mother. “I’m anxious, that’s all. And frustrated. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told her the house is too big, too isolated, that she should move into some sort of sheltered accommodation or residential care. But did she listen?”
Sean threw his jacket onto the back seat. “She’s independent. That’s a good thing, Liza.”
Was it? When did independence morph into irresponsibility?
“She left the back door open.”
“For the cat?”
“Who knows. I should have tried harder to persuade her to move.”
The truth was, she hadn’t really wanted her mother to move. Oakwood Cottage had played a central part in her life. The house was gorgeous, surrounded by acres of fields and farmland that stretched down to the sea. In the spring you could hear the bleating of new lambs, and in the summer the air was filled with blossom, birdsong and the faint sounds of the ocean.
It was hard to imagine her mother living anywhere else, even though the house was too large for one person and thoroughly impractical—particularly for someone who tended to believe that a leaking roof was a delightful feature of owning an older property and not something that needed fixing.
“You are not responsible for everything that happens to people, Liza.”
“I love her, Sean!”
“I know.” Sean settled himself in the passenger seat as if he had all the time in the world. Liza, who raced through life as if she was being chased by the police for a serious crime, found his relaxed demeanor and unshakeable calm occasionally maddening.
She thought about the magazine article folded into the bottom of her bag. Eight signs that your marriage might be in trouble.
She’d been flicking through the magazine in the dentist’s waiting room the week before and that feature had jumped out at her. She’d started to read it, searching for reassurance.
It wasn’t as if she and Sean argued. There was nothing specifically wrong. Just a vague discomfort inside her that reminded her constantly that the settled life she valued so much might not be as settled as she thought. That just as a million tiny things could pull a couple together, so a million tiny things could nudge them apart.
She’d read through the article, feeling sicker and sicker. By the time she’d reached the sixth sign she’d been so freaked out that she’d torn the pages from the magazine, coughing violently to cover the sound. It wasn’t done to steal magazines from waiting rooms.
And now those torn pages lay in her bag, a constant reminder that she was ignoring something deep and important. She knew it needed to be addressed, but she was afraid to touch the fabric of her marriage in case the whole thing fell apart—like her mother’s house.
Sean fastened his seat belt. “You shouldn’t blame yourself.”
She felt a moment of panic, and then realized he was talking about her mother. What sort of person was she that she could forget her injured mother so easily?
A person who was worried about her marriage.
“I should have tried harder to make her see sense,” she said.
They would have to sell the house—there was no doubt about that. Liza hoped it could wait until later in the summer. It was only a few weeks until school ended, and then the girls had various commitments until they all went on their annual family holiday to the South of France.
A wave of calm flowed over her.
France would give her the time to take a closer look at her marriage. They’d both be relaxed, and away from the endless demands of daily life. She and Sean would be able to spend some time together that didn’t involve handling issues and problems. Until then, she was going to give herself permission to forget about the whole thing and focus on the immediate problem.
Sadness ripped through her. Ridiculous though it was, the place still felt like home. She’d clung to that last remaining piece of her childhood, unable to imagine a time when she would no longer sit in the garden or stroll across the fields to the sea.
“Dad made me promise not to put her in a home,” she said.
“Which was unfair. No one can make promises about a future they can’t foresee. And you’re not ‘putting’ her anywhere.” Sean was ever reasonable. “She’s a human being—not a garden gnome. Also, there are plenty of good residential homes.”
“I know. I have a folder bulging with glossy brochures in the back seat of the car. They make them look so good I want to check in myself. Unfortunately, I doubt my mother will feel the same way.”
Sean was scrolling through emails on his phone. “In the end it’s her choice. It has nothing to do with us.”
“It has a lot to do with us. It’s not practical to go there every weekend, and even if they weren’t in the middle of exams the twins wouldn’t come with us without complaining. ‘It’s in the middle of nowhere, Mum.’”
“Which is why we’re leaving them this weekend.”
“And that terrifies me too. What if they have a party or something?”
“Why must you always imagine the worst? Treat them like responsible humans and they’ll behave like responsible humans.”
Was it really that simple? Or was Sean’s confidence based on misplaced optimism?
“I don’t like the friends Caitlin is mixing with right now. They’re not interested in studying and they spend their weekends hanging out in the shopping mall.”
He didn’t look up. “Isn’t that normal for teenage girls?”
“She’s changed since she met Jane. She answers back and she used to be so good-natured.”
“Hormones. She’ll grow out of it.”
Sean’s parenting style was “hands off.” He thought of it as being relaxed. Liza considered it abdication.
When the twins were little they’d played with each other. Then they’d started school and invited friends round to play. Liza had found them delightful. That had all changed when they’d moved to senior school and Alice and Caitlin had made friends with a different group of girls. They were a year older. Most of them were already driving and also, Liza was sure, drinking.
The fact that she might not like her daughters’ friends was a problem that hadn’t occurred to her until the past year.
She forced her attention back to the problem of her mother. “If you could fix the roof in the garden room this weekend, that would be great. We should have spent more time maintaining the place. I feel guilty that I haven’t done enough.”
Sean finally looked up. “What you feel guilty about,” he said, “is that you and your mother aren’t close. But that isn’t your fault, you know that.”
She did know that, but it was still uncomfortable hearing the truth spoken aloud. It was something she didn’t like to acknowledge. Not being close to her mother felt like a flaw. A grubby secret. Something she should apologize for.
She’d tried so hard, but her mother wasn’t an easy woman to get close to. Intensely private, Kathleen revealed little of her inner thoughts. She’d always been the same. Even when Liza’s father had died, Kathleen had focused on the practical. Any attempt to engage her mother in a conversation about feelings or emotions was rebuffed. There were days when Liza felt that she didn’t even truly know her mother. She knew what Kathleen did and how she spent her time, but she didn’t know how she felt about things. And that included her feelings for her daughter.
She couldn’t remember her mother ever telling her that she loved her.
Was her mother proud of her? Maybe, but she wasn’t sure about that either.
“I love her very much, but it’s true that I do wish she’d share more.” She clamped her teeth together, knowing that there were things she wasn’t sharing, either. Was she turning into her mother? She should probably be admitting to Sean that she felt overloaded—as if the entire smooth running of their lives was her responsibility. And in a way it was. Sean had a busy architectural practice in London. When he wasn’t working he was using the gym, running in the park or playing golf with clients. Liza’s time outside work was spent sorting out the house and the twins.
Was this what marriage was? Once those early couple-focused years had passed, did it turn into this?
Eight signs that your marriage might be in trouble.
It was just a stupid article. She’d met Sean when she was a teenager and many happy years had followed. True, life felt as if it was nothing but jobs and responsibility right now, but that was part of being an adult, wasn’t it?
“I know you love your mother. That’s why we’re in the car on a Friday afternoon,” Sean said. “And we’ll make it through this current crisis the way we’ve made it through the others. One step at a time.”
But why does life always have to be a crisis?
She almost asked, but Sean had already moved on and was answering a call from a colleague.
Liza only half listened as he dealt with a string of problems. Since the practice had taken off it wasn’t unusual for Sean to be glued to his phone.
“Mmm…” he said. “But it’s about creating a simple crafted space… No, that won’t work… Yes, I’ll call them.”
When he eventually ended the call, she glanced at him. “What if the twins invite Jane over?”
“You can’t stop them seeing their friends.”
“It’s not their friends in general that worry me—only Jane. Did you know she smokes? I’m worried about drugs. Sean, are you listening? Stop doing your emails.”
“Sorry. But I wasn’t expecting to take this afternoon off and I have a lot going on right now.” Sean pressed Send and looked up. “What were you saying? Ah, smoking and drugs… Even if Jane does all that, it doesn’t mean Caitlin will.”
“She’s easily influenced. She badly wants to fit in.”
“And that’s common at her age. Plenty of other kids are the same. It will do the twins good to fend for themselves for a weekend.”
They wouldn’t exactly be fending for themselves. Liza had already filled the fridge with food. She’d removed all the alcohol from the kitchen cupboard, locked it in the garage and removed the key. But she knew that wouldn’t stop them buying more if they wanted to.
Her mind flew to all the possibilities. “What if they have a wild party?”
“It would make them normal. All teenagers have wild parties.”
“I know. You were unusually well-behaved and innocent.” He put his phone away. “Until I met you and changed all that. Remember that day on the beach when you went for a walk? You were sixteen. I was with a crowd.”
“I remember.” They’d been the cool crowd, and she’d almost turned around when she saw them, but in the end she’d joined them.
“I put my hand up your dress.” He adjusted his seat to give himself more leg room. “I admit it—my technique needed work.”
Her first kiss.
She remembered it clearly. The excited fumbling. The forbidden nature of the encounter. Music in the background. The delicious thrill of anticipation.
She’d fallen crazily in love with Sean that summer. She’d known she was out of step with her peers, who’d been dancing their way through different relationships like butterflies seeking nectar. Liza had never wanted that. She’d never felt the need for romantic adventure. That meant uncertainty, and she’d already had more than enough of that in her life. All she’d wanted was Sean, with his wide shoulders, his easy smile and his calm nature.
She missed the simplicity of that time.
“Are you happy, Sean?” The words escaped before she could stop them.
“What sort of a question is that?” Finally she had his full attention. “The business is going brilliantly. The girls are doing well in school. Of course I’m happy. Aren’t you?”
The business. The girls.
Eight signs that your marriage might be in trouble.
“I feel—a little overwhelmed sometimes, that’s all.”
She tiptoed cautiously into territory she’d never entered before.
“That’s because you take everything so seriously. You worry about every small detail. About the twins. About your mother. You need to chill.”
His words slid under her skin like a blade. She’d used to love the fact that he was so calm, but now it felt like a criticism of her coping skills. Not only was she doing everything, but she was taking it all too seriously.
“You’re suggesting I need to ‘chill’ about the fact my eighty-year-old mother has been assaulted in her own home?”
“It sounded more like an accident than an assault, but I was talking generally. You worry about things that haven’t happened and you try and control every little thing. Most things turn out fine if you leave them alone.”
“They turn out fine because I anticipate problems before they happen.”
And anticipating things was exhausting—like trying to stay afloat when someone had tied weights to her legs.
For a wild moment she wondered what it would be like to be single. To have no one to worry about but herself.
No responsibility. Free time.
She yanked herself back from that thought.
Sean leaned his head back against the seat. “Let’s leave this discussion until we’re back home. Here we are, spending the weekend together by the sea. Let’s enjoy it. Everything is going to be fine.”
His ability to focus on the moment was a strength, but also a flaw that sometimes grated on her. He could live in the moment because she took care of all the other stuff.
He reached across to squeeze her leg and she thought about a time twenty years ago, when they’d had sex in the car, parking in a quiet country lane and steaming up the windows until neither of them had been able to see through the glass.
What had happened to that part of their lives? What had happened to spontaneity? To joy?
It seemed so long ago she could barely remember it.
These days her life was driven by worry and duty. She was being slowly crushed by the ever-increasing weight of responsibility.
“When did we last go away together?” she asked.
“We’re going away now.”
“This isn’t a minibreak, Sean. My mother needed stitches in her head. She has a mild concussion.”
She crawled through the heavy London traffic, her head throbbing at the thought of the drive ahead. Friday afternoon was the worst possible time to leave, but they’d had no choice.
When the twins were young they’d traveled at night. They’d arrive at Oakwood Cottage in the early hours of the morning and Sean would carry both children inside and deposit them into the twin beds in the attic room, tucking them under the quilts her mother had brought back from one of her many foreign trips.
“I really don’t want to do it, but I think it’s time to sell Oakwood Cottage. If she’s going into residential care, we can’t afford to keep it.”
Someone else would play hide and seek in the overgrown gardens, scramble into the dusty attic and fill the endless bookshelves. Someone else would sleep in her old bedroom, and enjoy the breathtaking views across fields to the sea.
Something tore inside her.
The fact that she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d had a relaxing weekend in Cornwall didn’t lessen the feeling of loss. If anything it intensified the emotion, because now she wished she’d taken greater advantage of the cottage. She’d assumed it would always be there…
Ever since her father had died, visits home had been associated with chores. Clearing the garden. Filling the freezer. Checking that her mother was coping with a house that was far too big for one person, especially when that person was advanced in years and had no interest in home maintenance.
She’d thought that the death of her father might bring her closer to her mother, but that hadn’t happened.
Grief sliced through her, making her catch her breath. It had been five years, and she still missed her dad every day.
“I can’t see your mother selling it,” Sean said, “and I think it’s important not to overreact. This accident wasn’t of her own making. She was managing perfectly well before this.”
“Was she, though? Apart from the fact she did leave the door open, I don’t think she eats properly. Supper is a bowl of cereal. Or bacon. She eats too much bacon.”
“Is there such a thing as too much bacon?” Sean caught her eye and gave a sheepish smile. “I’m kidding. You’re right. Bacon is bad. Although at your mother’s age one has to wonder if it really matters.”
“If she gives up bacon maybe she’ll live to be ninety.”
“But would she enjoy those miserable, bacon-free extra years?”
“Can you be serious?”
“I am serious. It’s about quality of life, not just quantity. You try and keep every bad thing at bay but doing that also keeps out the good stuff. Maybe she could stay in the house and we could find someone local to look in on her.”
“She’s terrible at taking help from anyone. You know how independent she is.” Liza hit the brakes as the car in front of her stopped, the seat belt locking hard against her body. Her eyes pricked with tiredness and her head pounded. She hadn’t slept well the night before, worrying about Caitlin and her friendship issues. “Do you think I should have locked our bedroom?”
“Why? If someone breaks into our house they’ll simply kick the doors down if they’re locked. Makes more mess.”
“I wasn’t thinking of burglars. I was thinking about the twins.”
“Why would the twins go into our bedroom? They have perfectly good rooms of their own.”
What did it say about her that she didn’t entirely trust her own children? They’d been suitably horrified when they’d discovered that their elderly grandmother had been assaulted, but had flat-out resisted her attempts to persuade them to come too.
“There’s nothing to do at Granny’s.” Alice had said, exchanging looks with her sister.
“Besides, we have work to do.” Caitlin had gestured to a stack of textbooks. “History exam on Monday. I’ll be studying. Probably won’t even have time to order in pizza.”
It had been a reasonable response. So why did Liza feel nervous?
She’d do a video call later so that she could see what was going on in the background.
The traffic finally cleared, and they headed west to Cornwall.
By the time they turned into the country lane that led to her mother’s house it was late afternoon, and the sun sent a rosy glow over the fields and hedges.
She was allowing herself a rare moment of appreciating the scenery when a bright red sports car sped round the bend, causing her almost to swerve into a ditch.
“For—” She leaned on her horn and caught a brief glimpse of a pair of laughing blue eyes as the car roared past. “Did you see that?”
“Yes. Stunning car. V-8 engine.” Sean turned his head, almost drooling, but the car was long gone.
“He almost killed us!”
“Well, he didn’t. So that’s good.”
“It was that wretched rock star who moved here last year.”
“Ah, yes. I read an article in one of the Sunday papers about his six sports cars.”
“I was about to say I don’t understand why one man would need six cars, but if he drives like that then I suppose that’s the explanation right there. He probably gets through one a day.”
Liza turned the wheel and Sean winced as branches scraped the paintwork.
“You’re a bit close on my side, Liza.”
“It was the hedge or a head-on collision.” She was shaken by what had been a close shave, her emotions heightened by her brief glimpse of Finn Cool. “He laughed—did you see that? He actually smiled as he passed us. Would he have been laughing if he’d had to haul my mangled body out of the twisted wreckage of this car?”
“He seemed like a pretty skilled driver.”
“It wasn’t his skill that saved us. It was me driving into the hedge. It isn’t safe to drive like that down these roads.”
Liza breathed out slowly and drove cautiously down the lane, half expecting another irresponsible rock star to come zooming around the corner. She reached her mother’s house without further mishap, her pulse rate slowing as she pulled into the drive.
Aubretia clung to the low wall that bordered the property, and lobelia and geraniums in bright shades of purple and pink tumbled from baskets hung next to the front door. Although her mother neglected the house, she loved the garden and spent hours in the sunshine, tending her plants.
“This place is a gem. She’d make a fortune if she ever did decide to sell it, leaking roof or not. Do you think she will have made her chocolate cake?” Sean was ever hopeful.
“You mean before or after she tackled an intruder?”
Liza parked in front of the house. She probably should have baked a cake, but she’d decided that getting on the road as soon as possible was the priority.
“Can you call the kids?”
“Why?” Sean uncoiled himself from the front of the car and stretched. “We only left them four hours ago.”
“I want to check on them.”
He unloaded their luggage. “Take a breath, will you? I haven’t seen you like this before. You’re amazing, Liza. A real coper. I know you’re shaken up by what’s happened, but we’ll get through this.”
She felt like a piece of elastic stretched to its limits. She was coping because if she didn’t what would happen to them? She knew, even if her family didn’t, that they wouldn’t be able to manage without her. The twins would die of malnutrition or lie buried under their own mess because they were incapable of putting away a single thing they owned or cooking anything other than pizza. The laundry would stay unwashed, the cupboards would be bare. Caitlin would yell, Has anyone seen my blue strap top? and no one would answer because no one would know.
The front door opened and all thought of the twins left her mind because there was her mother, her palm pressed hard against the door frame for support. There was a bandage wrapped around the top of her head, and Liza felt her stomach drop to her feet. She’d always considered her mother to be invincible, and here she was looking frail, tired and all too human. For all their differences—and there were many—she loved her mother dearly.
“Mum!” She left Sean to handle the luggage and sprinted across the drive. “I’ve been worried! How are you feeling? I can’t believe this happened. I’m so sorry.”
“Why? You’re not the one who broke into my house.”
As always, her mother was brisk and matter-of-fact, treating weakness like an annoying fly to be batted away. If she’d been frightened—and she must have been, surely?—then there was no way she would share that fact with Liza.
Still, it was a relief to see her in one piece and looking surprisingly good in the circumstances.
If there was one word that would accurately describe her mother it would be vivid. She reminded Liza of a hummingbird; delicate, brightly colored, always busy. Today she was wearing a long flowing dress in shades of blue and turquoise, with a darker blue wrap around her shoulders. Multiple bangles jangled on her wrists. Her mother’s unconventional, eclectic dress style had caused Liza many embarrassing moments as a child, and even now the cheerful colors of Kathleen’s outfit seemed to jar with the gravity of the situation. She looked ready to step onto a beach in Corfu.
Despite the lack of encouragement, Liza hugged her mother gently, horrified by how fragile she seemed. “You should have had an alarm, or a mobile phone in your pocket.”
Instinctively she checked her mother’s head, but there was nothing to be seen except the bandage and the beginnings of a bruise around her eye socket. Even though she’d tried to enliven her appearance with blusher, her skin was waxy and pale. Her hair was white and cropped short, which seemed to add to her air of fragility.
“Don’t fuss.” Kathleen eased away from her. “It wouldn’t have made a difference. By the time help arrived it would have been over. My old-fashioned landline proved perfectly effective.”
“But what if he’d knocked you unconscious? You wouldn’t have been able to call for help.”
“If I’d been unconscious I wouldn’t have been able to press a button either. The police happened to have a car in the area and arrived in minutes, which was comforting because the man recovered quickly and at that point I wasn’t sure what his intentions were. Charming policewoman, although she didn’t seem much older than the twins. Then an ambulance arrived, and the police took a statement from me. I half expected to be locked up for the night, but nothing so dramatic. Still, it was all rather exciting.”
“Exciting?” The remark was typical of her mother. “You could have been killed. He hit you.”
“No, I hit him—with the skillet I’d used for frying bacon earlier.” There was an equal mix of pride and satisfaction in her mother’s voice. “His arm flew up as he fell—reflex, I suppose—and he knocked it back into my head. That part was unfortunate, but it’s funny when you think that bacon may have saved my life. So no more nagging me about my blood pressure and cholesterol.”
“If I’d cooked myself pasta I would have been using a different pan…nowhere near heavy enough. If I’d made a ham sandwich I would have had nothing to tackle him with except a crust of bread. I’ll be filling the fridge with bacon from now on.”
“Bacon can be a lifesaver—I’ve always said so.” Sean leaned in and kissed his mother-in-law gently on the cheek. “You’re a formidable adversary, Kathleen. Good to see you on your feet.”
Liza felt like the sole adult in the group. Was she the only one seeing the seriousness of this situation? It was like dealing with the twins.
“How can you joke about it?”
“I’m deadly serious. It’s good to know that I can now eat bacon with a clear conscience.” Kathleen gave her son-in-law an affectionate smile. “You really didn’t have to come charging down here on a Friday. I’m perfectly fine. You didn’t bring the girls?”
“Exams. Teenage stress and drama. You know how it is.” Sean hauled their luggage into the house. “Is the kettle on, Kathleen? I could murder a cup of tea.”
Did he really have to use the word murder? Liza kept picturing a different outcome. One where her mother was the one lying inert on the kitchen floor. She felt a little dizzy—and she wasn’t the one who had been hit over the head.
Of course she knew that people had their homes broken into. It was a fact. But knowing it was different from experiencing it.
She glanced uneasily toward the back door. “You left it open?”
“Apparently. And it was raining so hard he took shelter, poor man.”
“He’d had one too many and was most apologetic, both to me and the police. Admitted it was all his fault.”
“You look pale.” Kathleen patted Liza on the shoulder. “You stress about small things. Come in, dear. That drive is murderous…you must be exhausted.”
“Could everyone stop using that word?”
Her mother raised her eyebrows. “It’s a figure of speech, nothing more.”
“Well, if we could find a different one I’d appreciate it.” Liza followed her into the hallway. “How are you feeling, Mum? Honestly? An intruder isn’t a small thing.”
“True. He was actually large. And the noise his head made when it hit the kitchen floor—awful. I never should have asked your father to lay those expensive Italian tiles. I’ve broken so many cups and plates on that damned surface. And now a man’s head. It took me forever to clean up the blood. It’s fortunate for all of us that he wasn’t badly hurt.”
Even now her mother wouldn’t share her true feelings. Her talk was all of bacon, broken plates and floor tiles. She seemed more concerned for the intruder than herself.
Liza felt exhausted. “You should have left the cleaning for me.”
“Nonsense. I’ve never been much of a housekeeper, but I can mop up blood. And I prefer not to eat my lunch in the middle of a crime scene, thank you.”
Her mother headed straight for the kitchen. Liza didn’t know whether to be relieved or exasperated that she was behaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. If anything, she seemed energized, and perhaps a touch triumphant, as if she’d achieved something of note.
“Where is the man now? What did the police say?”
“The man—his name is Lawrence, I believe—is doing very well, although I don’t envy the headache he’ll have after all that drink. I remember one night when I was in Paris celebrating—”
“What? Oh—the police. They came back this morning and took a statement. A very pleasant man but not a tea lover, which always makes me a little suspicious.”
Liza wasn’t interested in his choice of beverage. “Are they charging him? Breaking and entering?”
“He didn’t break anything. He leaned against the door and it opened. And he apologized profusely, and made a full admission of guilt. He had impeccable manners.”
Liza fought the urge to put her head in her hands. “So will you have to go and give evidence or something?”
“I truly hope so. It would be exciting to have a day in court, but it seems unlikely I’ll be needed as he admitted everything and was so remorseful and apologetic. I thought my life would be considerably enlivened by an appearance in my own courtroom drama, but it seems I will have to content myself with the fictional variety.”
Her mother fussed around the stove, pouring boiling water into the large teapot she’d been using since Liza was a child. The tea would be Earl Grey. Her mother never drank anything else. It was as familiar as the house.
The kitchen, with its range cooker and large pine table, had always been her favorite room. Every evening after school Liza had done her homework at this same table, wanting to be close to her mother when she was at home.
Her mother had been one of the pioneers of the TV travel show, her spirited adventures around the world opening people’s eyes to the appeal of foreign holidays from the Italian Riviera to the Far East. The Summer Seekers had run for almost twenty years, it’s longevity due in no small part to her mother’s popularity. Every few weeks Kathleen would pack a suitcase and disappear on a trip to another faraway destination. Liza’s school friends had found it all impossibly glamorous. Liza had found it crushingly lonely. Her earliest memory was of being four years old and holding tight to her mother’s scarf to prevent her from leaving, almost throttling her in the process.
To ease the distress of Kathleen’s constant departures, her father had glued a large map of the world to Liza’s bedroom wall. Each time her mother had left on another trip, Liza and her father would put a pin in the map and research the place. They’d cut pictures from brochures and make scrapbooks. It had made her feel closer to her mother. And Liza’s room would be filled with various eclectic objects. A hand-carved giraffe from Africa. A rug from India.
And then Kathleen would return, her clothes wrinkled and covered in travel dust. She’d bring with her an energy that had made her seem like a stranger. Those first moments when she and Liza were reunited had always been uncomfortable and forced, but then the work clothes would be replaced by casual clothes, and Kathleen the traveler and TV star would become Kathleen the mother once again. Until the next time, when the map would be consulted and the planning would start.
Liza had once asked her father why her mother always had to go away, and he’d said, “Your mother needs this.”
Even at a young age Liza had wondered why her mother’s needs took precedence over everyone else’s, and she’d wondered what it was exactly that her mother did need, but she hadn’t felt able to ask. She’d noticed that her father drank more and smoked more when Kathleen was away. As a father, he had been practical, but economical in his parenting. He’d make sure that she was safe, but spent long days in his study or in the school where he was head of the English department.
She’d never understood her parents’ relationship and had never delved for answers. They seemed happy together and that was all that mattered.
Liza had thought about her mother exploring the desert in Tunisia on the back of a camel and wondered why she needed her world to be so large, and why it needed to exclude her family.
Was it those constant absences that had turned Liza into such a home lover? She’d chosen teaching as a career because the hours and holidays fitted with having a family. When her own children were young she’d stayed home, taking a break from her career. When they’d started school she’d matched her hours to theirs, taking pleasure and pride in the fact that she took them to school and met them at the end of the day. She’d been determined that her children wouldn’t have to endure the endless goodbyes that she’d had as a child. She’d prided herself on connecting with them, and encouraging conversations about feelings, although these days those conversations were less successful. You can’t possibly understand, Mum, as if Liza hadn’t once been young herself.
Still, no one could accuse her of not being attentive, another reason she was feeling uneasy right now.
Sean was chatting to her mother, the pair of them making tea together as if this was a regular visit.
Liza glanced around her, dealing with the dawning realization that clearing out this house would be a monumental task. Over the years her mother had filled it with memorabilia and souvenirs from her travels, from seashells to tribal masks. There were maps everywhere—on the walls and piled high in all the rooms. Her mother’s diaries and other writing filled two dozen large boxes in the small room she’d used as an office, and her photograph albums were crushed onto shelves in the living room.
When her father had died, five years before, Liza had suggested clearing a few of his things but her mother had refused. “I want everything to stay as it is. A home should be an adventure. You never know what forgotten treasure you might stumble over.”
Stumble over and break an ankle, Liza had thought in despair. It was an interesting way of reframing ‘mess’.
Before her mother could sell this place it would need to be cleared, and no doubt Liza would be the one to do it.
When was the right time to broach the subject? Not yet. They’d only just walked through the door. She needed to keep the conversation neutral.
“The garden is looking pretty.”
The French doors in the kitchen opened onto the patio, where the borders were filled with tumbling flowers. Pots filled with herbs crowded around the back door. Scented spikes of Rosemary nestled alongside the variegated sage which her mother sprinkled over roast pork every Sunday—the only dish she ever produced with enthusiasm. The flagstone path was dappled by sunlight and led to the well-stocked vegetable patch, and then to a pond guarded by bulrushes. Beyond the garden were fields, and then the sea.
It was so tranquil and peaceful that for a moment Liza longed for a different life—one that didn’t involve rushing around, ticking off items from her endless to-do list. She just wanted to sit.
Her quiet fantasy of one day living near the sea had all but died. There had been a time early in their relationship when she and Sean had discussed it regularly, but then real life had squeezed out those youthful dreams. Living on the coast wasn’t practical. Sean’s work was based in London. So was hers. Although teaching was more flexible, of course.
Sean brought the food in from the car and Liza unpacked it into the fridge.
“I had a casserole in the freezer, so I brought that,” she said. “And some veg.”
“I’m capable of making food,” said her mother.
“Your idea of food is bacon and cereal. You’re not eating properly.” She filled a bowl with fresh fruit. “I assumed you weren’t set up for an invasion of people.”
“Can two people be an invasion?” Her mother’s tone was light, but she gripped the edge of the kitchen table and carefully lowered herself into a chair.
Liza was by her side in a moment. “Maybe I should take a look at your head.”
“No one else is touching my head, thank you. It already hurts quite enough. The young doctor who stitched me up warned me that it would leave a scar. As if I’m bothered by things like that at my age.”
Was this the moment to mention that it was time to consider a change?
Across the kitchen, Sean was pouring the tea.
Liza paused, nervous about disturbing the atmosphere.
She tried again to encourage a deeper conversation. “You must have been frightened.”
“I was more worried about Popeye. You know how he dislikes strangers. He must have escaped through the open door and I haven’t seen him since.”
Liza gave up. If her mother wanted to talk about the cat, then they’d talk about the cat. “He’s always been a bit of a wanderer.”
“That’s probably why we get on so well. We understand each other.”
Was it crazy to be jealous of a cat?
Her mother looked wistful and Liza resolved to do what she could to find Popeye. “If he’s not back by the morning we’ll search for him. And now I think you should have a lie-down.”
“At four in the afternoon? I’m not an invalid, Liza.” Kathleen put sugar in her tea—another unhealthy habit she refused to abandon. “I don’t want a fuss.”
“We’re not fussing. We’re here to look after you, and to—” To make you think about the future. Liza stopped.
“And to what? Persuade me to wear an emergency buzzer? I’m not doing it, Liza.”
“Mum—” She caught Sean’s warning glance but ignored it. Maybe the subject was best raised right now, so that they had the whole weekend to discuss details. “This has been a shock for all of us, and it’s time to face some difficult truths. Things need to change.”
Sean turned away with a shake of his head, but her mother was nodding.
“Things do have to change. Being hit over the head has brought me to my senses.”
Liza felt a rush of relief. Her mother was going to be reasonable. Turned out she wasn’t the only sensible person in the room.
“I’m pleased you feel that way,” she said. “I have brochures in the car, so all we have to do now is plan. And we have all weekend for that.”
“Brochures? You mean travel brochures?”
“For residential homes. We can—”
“Why would you bring those?”
“Because you can’t stay here any longer, Mum. You admitted things have to change.”
“They do. And I’m in the process of formulating a plan I will share with you when I’m sure of the details. But I won’t be going into a residential home. That isn’t what I want.”
Was her mother saying she wanted to come and live with them in London?
Liza swallowed and forced herself to ask the question. “What is it that you want?”
“Adventure.” Kathleen slapped her hand on the table, setting cups rattling. “I want another adventure. I was the original Summer Seeker and I miss those days terribly. Who knows how many summers I have left? I intend to make the most of this one.”
“But Mum—” Oh this was ridiculous. “You’re going to be eighty-one at the end of this year.”
Her mother sat up a little straighter and her eyes gleamed. “All the more reason not to waste another moment.”