- Published: 16 June 2021
- ISBN: 9781760898205
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $32.99
Someone I Used To Know
Neither then nor now…
… but sometime in between
The farm is visible as soon as the taxi crests the brow of the hill.
‘There it is,’ I say to the driver.
‘Hard to miss,’ he responds good-naturedly.
When I left at five thirty this evening, it was still light, but now, at almost eight, the fields are blanketed in darkness, save for the occasional glowing window from neighbouring farmhouses – and our place, which is lit up like a giant Christmas tree.
Jamie really went all out with those fairy lights, I think with a mixture of guilt and envy.
I wish I’d done more to help him set up. This is my parents’ joint seventieth birthday/retirement bash and I haven’t even managed to stay for the duration of the celebrations. The party kicked off at three, but I had to take Emilie back to the Airbnb in Harrogate after only two and a half hours and she took ages to settle. Hopefully she’ll stay asleep until we return. The babysitter, Katy, seemed competent, but I wouldn’t wish our screaming fifteen-month-old on anyone.
‘Would you be able to come back for my husband and me later?’ I remember to ask the driver.
‘Afraid not, I’m clocking off after this. My mate could probably do it, though. What time are you thinking?’
‘Midnight? Could he also take our sitter home afterwards? She lives a few minutes away.’
I wait until the return journey is arranged before getting out of the car, wincing a split second before my black high heels connect with mud. But the soles of my shoes hit only grit because, as I now remember hearing, ‘Jamie was out here all morning, sweeping the whole courtyard and the length of the drive.’
Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…
My brother, more of a son to my parents than I am a daughter, it often seems, yet he is not my blood.
He has done an incredible job, I acknowledge, as I pay the driver and get out of the car. This place has never looked better.
Festoon lights criss-cross from one side of the courtyard to the other, reflecting in the darkened glass of upstairs windows and casting a warm glow onto the sandy stone walls of the farmhouse and barns. Tealights in lanterns sparkle atop brightly painted metal outdoor tables, and colourful bunting sways overhead, dispersing the ribboning smoke from cigarettes below.
A scan of the crowd confirms that my parents have retreated inside along with their friends. They never were ones to outstay their welcome where the younger generation was concerned.
My gaze comes to rest on Theo, who is sitting at a sky-blue table with Jamie and a girl I don’t recognise. His dark hair falls just shy of the collar of his black shirt and a lit cigarette is resting all-too-familiarly between his long slim fingers. He brings it to his lips and inhales deeply, his face flaring briefly to reveal a sharp jaw and a perfectly straight nose.
I’m snapped to attention by the taxi doing a U-turn. Moving out of the way, I track its headlights as they sweep across the field, illuminating the small wood in the lower paddock. The white trunk of a solitary silver birch tree shines back like a beacon before it’s enveloped once more by darkness.
Technicolour synths and drumbeats explode from the outdoor speakers as Cid Rim’s ‘Repeat’ featuring Samantha Urbani kicks into gear.
Jamie has hijacked the music.
I smile and set off towards the courtyard.
Jamie sees me first, bouncing to his feet and almost bumping his head on an outdoor heater. He’s fairly tall at five foot ten, but his hair – black, short at the sides and wild and curly on top – adds at least another three inches to his height.
Arms open wide, a huge smile lighting his face, he hollers at the top of his voice, ‘SNOW WHITE!’
It’s the nickname he gave me years ago in the dead of winter when my skin was, admittedly, as white as snow – especially compared to his warm brown complexion. That was as far as my resemblance to the fairy tale princess went: my hair back then was long and light brown, not ebony, and my eyes are hazel rather than brown. But at the time, before I could rustle up any sort of comeback, he warned, with a perfectly straight face, ‘Careful, don’t be racist.’
Theo shoots his head around to look at me – along with every other person in the courtyard, thanks to Jamie bellowing – and quickly stubs out his cigarette. He gives me a cheeky, guilty grin as I approach.
‘I quit! Absolutely-one-hundred-per-cent-for-good this time!’ I mimic his words of only a few months ago.
‘I only had one,’ he replies in a huskier voice than usual.
‘Sure,’ I say drily.
‘Okay, maybe this is my second.’ He smiles up at me with his best puppy-dog please-don’t-be-mad impression. ‘You’ve been gone ages!’
‘I know,’ I reply grumpily, indulging his change of subject.
The girl at the table freezes theatrically, her big bright eyes boggling up at me from behind a thick coppery fringe. ‘Leah?!’ she asks.
Out of the blue, I’m hit with a memory of a mousier, plumper, younger version of her.
‘Hello!’ I cry as she jumps up to give me a hug.
I rack my brain wildly for her name.
‘Danielle,’ Jamie mouths helpfully at me over her shoulder.
How could I forget?
‘Danielle!’ I exclaim, drawing back to study her as Theo grabs a pastel pink chair from nearby and swings it around to face the table. ‘I need a drink,’ I murmur meaningfully.
‘I’ll get you one,’ he replies.
‘What took you so long?’ Jamie demands as I sit down.
‘Emilie was wired. I swear someone fed her a bag of sugar.’
‘She did eat two pieces of birthday cake earlier, plus all your dad’s leftover icing,’ he tells me casually.
‘Bloody hell! Why didn’t he stop her?’
‘I don’t think he noticed.’
‘Why didn’t you stop her?’ I think to ask.
‘She looked happy,’ he replies laughingly, palms up.
I roll my eyes long-sufferingly at him and smile at Danielle. ‘How are you?’
Danielle, Jamie, and many of the other twenty-and thirty-somethings here tonight were fostered by my parents at some point in their lives. I left home for university in London when I was eighteen and made the city my home, so there are people here that I hadn’t met before today. Others are more familiar to me, like Shauna, who was with us for two years and who still lives locally.
Some flitted through briefly: Danielle stayed only a few months while her mum was in rehab. And then there’s George, who left a scar on my heart that still takes me by surprise, considering the relatively short time I knew him.
But Jamie hurtled into our lives at the age of thirteen and never left. He turned thirty recently and although he hasn’t lived at the farm in almost a decade, he turns up nearly every day to visit my parents. They’d be lost without him.
Mum and Dad have finally retired from fostering, but they will never retire from parenting, and that’s what they consider themselves to be to every young person who ever walked through their front door: parents. Those who came to them left knowing that this place would always be open. Fostering wasn’t a job to my parents, it was a vocation. It’s why they’ve stayed in touch with so many of their former charges, why so many of them have made the effort to travel here tonight.
Of course, there are exceptions.
‘I should check on Mum and Dad,’ I say to Theo when he returns with my drink.
I find them in the living room, in the midst of their friends. My parents are fit, healthy and active, but neither looks young for their age. Dad is head down and deep in conversation with some of his fellow stallholders from Masham market, his hair now entirely white and as wild as ever. Mum appears more polished with her make-up still intact and her neat light-brown bob clipped back at the sides. She’s been dyeing her hair for years, but the lines around her eyes and mouth betray her age. They seem to have expanded even in the few months since I’ve seen her.
She’s talking to Veronica, our closest neighbour and the mother of Becky, my old school friend.
‘Have you only just got back?’ she asks me with surprise.
I nod reluctantly and raise my glass to chink hers and Veronica’s before taking a sip.
Mum tried to convince me to put Emilie to sleep in their bedroom, but the thought of waking up a teething toddler in the dead of night and expecting her to transfer to her cot after a twenty-minute taxi ride… She would have kept us awake for hours.
We could have stayed here, but… nice solitary Airbnb vs full house… No contest. It seemed worth sacrificing the return journey time for the peace and quiet.
‘Never mind, you’re here now.’ Mum pats me on my arm.
She doesn’t do ‘I told you so’, Supermum that she is.
I’m not even being sarcastic.
‘I hear you’re moving to Australia?’ Veronica chips in as my father excuses himself from his friends and comes over.
‘That’s the plan,’ I reply with a smile at Dad as he throws his arm around my shoulder.
‘As long as neither of them gets a criminal record before their visa application is sent off,’ Dad teases, repeating Theo’s joke from earlier.
He gives me a kiss on my temple, the smell of whisky on his breath. The weight of his arm is familiar and comforting.
Oddly, I miss him, even though he’s standing right next to me. Is this what anticipatory homesickness feels like?
‘How’s Becky?’ I ask Veronica, feeling bad that I don’t already know the answer.
‘She’s really well,’ Veronica replies warmly as Dad lets me go again. I shoot him a smile, hoping he doesn’t stray far. ‘Did you know she’s expecting?’
‘No!’ I feel a pang at my ignorance. ‘When’s the baby due?’
‘Late August, so he or she will either be the youngest in their year, or the oldest if they don’t grace us with their presence until September. Becky doesn’t mind either way; she’s just glad it’s not Christmas.’
‘I bet,’ I say with a laugh.
Becky’s own birthday is overshadowed by Christmas. Emilie was also born in December, but she was an accident, so her date of arrival was down to the luck of the gods. I have no idea if Becky and her husband were trying for a baby or not.
‘She was so sorry she couldn’t be here,’ Veronica continues. ‘She would have loved to have caught up with you. She and Robin are in Canada at his sister’s wedding. I have a horrible feeling Becky’s going to like it there so much that she’ll also decide to emigrate.’
‘Oh, no, she won’t,’ Mum says dismissively, trying to reassure her old friend.
Her reaction makes me feel guilty: my parents are gutted that we’re moving abroad.
‘I would have loved to catch up with her too,’ I say, and it’s true. Once, my high school bestie and I were inseparable, but now an entire year can go by without us exchanging a word. It’s not that we meant to grow apart, we just did.
‘She and Robin sent a lovely card.’ Mum nods at the crammed side table.
‘Jamie read them out earlier,’ Veronica adds.
‘You missed the telegrams!’ Mum realises with dismay.
I stare at her and she has the grace to look awkward.
So, not only did Jamie read out all the messages sent by those who couldn’t make it – something that surely should have been my responsibility – but I wasn’t here. Did anyone even notice my absence?
‘There was one from George,’ she adds, and my jealousy is immediately scrubbed out by another emotion I couldn’t even begin to describe.
‘George Thompson?’ I ask with barely contained disbelief.
Mum nods, blissfully ignorant of what this news is doing to me.
In a daze, I walk over to the side table and pick up card after card until his handwriting leaps out at me, immediately recognisable with its small neat letters and left-handed slant.
Dear Carrie and Ivan,
I saw the article in the paper and felt compelled to write. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get in touch, but I wanted to say thank you for all that you did for me. I’ve thought about you often over the years. I’m doing okay and hope you are too. You look well in the picture.
Wishing you both a very happy birthday and a (hopefully) relaxing retirement.
His handwriting has hardly changed in almost thirteen years, yet he sounds completely alien.
Suddenly I see him clearly inside my mind: long legs, high cheekbones, chestnut curls, dark eyes…
Every hair on my body stands on its end.
George saw the article?
The local rag ran a piece about my parents and it was picked up by one of the nationals. But where did he see it, the local or the national newspaper? Somewhere online? Where is he?
I turn the card over, searching for a return address and finding nothing.
The sound of Theo’s voice causes me to spin around. He looks at the card and then at me, with my rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights expression.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he says flatly. ‘Jamie read it out earlier.’
‘I heard.’ My hand is shaking as I return the card to the side table.
‘Thought he was gone for good.’ His tone is quiet, uneasy.
‘I thought so too.’ I swallow hard and turn back to him.
We both start as Alfred, an elderly farmer from the surrounding area, interrupts from a nearby huddle. The old man hobbles over to say hello, unaware that we’re having a ‘moment’.
‘Now then! How are you, lad? I swear you look more like your father every time I see you.’
‘Hello there,’ Theo replies amiably, somehow managing to sound cheerful.
I step closer to his side and take his cool hand in mine as Alfred persists in making small talk.
If there’s one thing Theo hates, it’s being compared to his father.
He squeezes my hand, hard.
‘Oh, baby,’ I murmur, brushing Luke’s hair away from his forehead as he fights back tears.
There aren’t many rules of singlehood, but I have made a few for myself in the two (if anyone asks, but really it’s four) years in which I’ve been single.
The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border.
Carra Finlay stood under the clothesline and watched in dismay as all her dreams blew away in the wind.
One hundred and thirty-five metres above London, with one of the most spectacular city views in the world as your backdrop, who could say no?
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.