I’m following a nineteenth century tradition and publishing some of “Leefdale” by Michael Murray in weekly instalments.
You can find the links to previous instalments on this page.
So, if you like the Dickensian idea of reading your novels in weekly instalments,
read on …..
As soon as Greg left the cottage Sharon went upstairs for a shower. Afterwards, she returned to the sitting room dressed in a loose top, jeans and trainers and sat pondering what to tell Louise. She knew the child would be bitterly disappointed. Best not to mention then that she hadn’t even told Greg they’d be leaving. But what to say? What excuse could she give for breaking her promise?
Sharon glanced down at the carpet and was immediately reminded of what she and Greg had been doing there earlier. It was the sex which had made it impossible to keep her promise to Louise. It had reminded her that imperfect as the present arrangement was, she didn’t want to give it up. She was happy with the way things were. She’d never expected Greg to leave Pam, but if she told him she was leaving Leefdale he’d assume that’s what she was trying to get him to do. The last thing she wanted was to set up home with Greg and endure all the mess of his divorce; see Pam deprived of her kids at weekends and holidays. All that blame and guilt, who needed it? It wasn’t as if she actually loved him. Or rather, she didn’t think she loved him anymore. Love had been replaced by habit. But habit had its advantages. Right now she didn’t want any radical changes that would drastically alter the balance of forces in her life. The present situation was quite convenient. Besides, she had no intention of leaving Honeysuckle Cottage. To move out would be to acknowledge that her mother and father were actually dead, and even now, at the age of thirty, she wasn’t able to do that.
Sharon looked around the room that contained so many of her mother and father’s possessions. While she remained in these familiar and secure surroundings, mum and dad would always be alive and she’d feel close to them, as she’d always done. She was sure any number of people would tell her it was stupid to cling so obsessively and irrationally to the past. But that was easy to say when you weren’t obsessive and irrational, wasn’t it?
Invariably, such uncomfortable reflections on her circumstances precipitated the opening of a bottle. She stood up, went into the kitchen and returned with a big glass of Australian Merlot. She resumed her seat and took a long sip. That was better! Of course, she knew how desperately unhappy Louise was, particularly with all the taunting from Jade and others about her absent father. It was a horrible situation for the child to be in: living a life of deceit. She was determined to do everything she could to make Louise happy. Everything, that was, except leave Leefdale.
Despite the consolation of the wine, Sharon found she was still vexed. “Never make a promise you can’t keep”. That’s what her father had always said. So why had she made that rash promise to Louise, knowing she’d never go through with it? She struggled to comprehend the thought process that had led her to make such a crazy decision, but could only recall the wonderful feeling of relief when she’d made it. There was no use denying it, a big part of her longed to be free of a situation that was becoming more and more abnormal. She wanted to leave Leefdale just as much as her daughter. That’s why she’d promised Louise she would tell Greg they were leaving. At the time it had seemed the easiest promise in the world to make. But, almost immediately, all the usual doubts had returned along with that inner voice urging her not to tell him.
But why not tell him? It was ludicrous for a woman of her age to be so unwilling to let go. To be paralysed by her fear of change. After all, it was hardly an ideal or desirable situation to cling on to, was it? To be living just down the road from your secret lover, whilst stopping your child revealing to his family that she was his daughter? Surely, if only for Louise’s sake, she should leave? But that would mean conquering her fear of the unknown and she wasn’t up to it. She knew it was unhealthy and preventing her growth as a human being but there was nothing she could do about it. She was comfortable with the person she was. If she left Leefdale that person would no longer exist, and she was terrified of losing that person.
More practically, if she moved away there would be no more popping in by Greg on some gubernatorial or Community Watch pretext. Their relationship would be difficult to sustain. The sex even more impossible to organise. It might even result in discovery. And then what? He’d be forced to choose. She didn’t want to be the one responsible for breaking up his marriage and destroying his family.
How could she possibly explain to Louise all the complex reasons for breaking her promise to her? No, it looked like she’d just have to lie. Perhaps she could say she’d started telling dad they were intending to move, but he’d got so upset and distressed at the thought of it she’d backed off and promised they wouldn’t. She’d no wish to disappoint Louise and upset her, but she couldn’t allow her life to be dominated by the needs of an eleven year old.
After an inner struggle, Sharon succumbed to a second glass of wine; and then, much later, a third. At nine fifty-five the darkness outside her window reminded her that the “Oliver” rehearsal finished at ten and Mrs Henshall had specifically asked that all the children involved be collected from the village hall by a parent or another responsible adult.
Leisurely Sharon went upstairs and slipped on her fleece. She then returned to the sitting room and picked up her car keys from their usual place in the empty fruit bowl. Immediately, remembering the three very large glasses of wine she’d consumed, she threw the keys down again.
She went over to her handbag and rummaged around in it for her mobile. She accessed the number of Louise’s mobile and pressed “Call”. There was a short delay and then Louise’s phone signalled its presence somewhere in the house. Sharon darted up the stairs and into Louise’s bedroom. The unmistakable ring tone was emanating from a wardrobe. Sharon flung it open. Louise’s waterproof was still hanging in its place on the rail. The disturbing noise was coming from one of the pockets. Sharon ended the call and the sound stopped.
Carrying Louise’s waterproof, Sharon ran downstairs to the sitting room. Without the car she was going to be very late. Louise would be the last child to be collected. She visualised Mrs Henshall’s disapproving expression. What kind of a mother would she seem to her? Panicking now, she let herself out of the front door and set off down almost pitch black main street.
The half mile between Honeysuckle Cottage and the village hall had never seemed longer, and she suddenly broke into a curiously inelegant half-running, half-loping trot. As she hurried on past the curtained and lighted windows lining the street, she imagined that behind them the parents who’d already collected their kids from the village hall were self-righteously condemning that appalling Sharon Makepiece who’d sent her poor daughter to the rehearsal without a coat or a mobile phone and hadn’t even bothered to come for her when it was over.
She continued on into the darkness, cursing the refusal of the parish council to erect street lights. Greg and the Major had done their best but in the end had been defeated by the conservatism and intransigence of the other councillors.
Fortunately, ahead of her were the brightly lit windows of The Woldsman. She shivered slightly as she drew near the pub. It was still only April and although the days were warmer, the nights were very chill. Without her coat the poor kid would be freezing. She hoped Louise was waiting outside the village hall, as she’d promised, and not taken it into her head to set off alone. Sharon forced herself on, stealing a quick glance into The Woldsman as she passed, to see if Greg or any of the other parish councillors were in there. But there were only the regular faces around the bar. The meeting obviously hadn’t ended yet.
She hurried on, consoled by the thought that as she was so late there ought to be no risk of meeting Pam who’d probably collected Jade already. She felt awkward enough in Pam’s presence at the best of times. It made her cringe to imagine them standing outside the village hall chatting mumsily about the advantages of different secondary schools knowing that just a couple of hours ago she’d been shagging the woman’s husband senseless.
Sharon had only gone a few yards beyond the pub when a car appeared in the distance, its headlights flooding the black and unlit street with artificial daylight. The vehicle drew nearer. Oh no! It was one of those owned by Greg and Pam. The driver tooted and pulled up. Sharon peered in. Pam was driving and next to her in the front passenger seat was Jade. Louise was in the back, sitting next to Pam’s younger children. Pam pressed a button and the car’s nearside window slid down. Sharon bent towards the opening.
‘We thought you’d got lost so we gave her a lift,’ Pam trilled in that infuriatingly calm and complacent way of hers that suggested nothing ever mattered or was any trouble. ‘She looked so cold and forlorn waiting on her own, poor thing.’
‘Thanks. I didn’t realize it was so late. And then the car wouldn’t start.’
That’s all I need, thought Sharon. She cursed herself for drinking those extra glasses. ‘Thanks, but there’s no room.’
‘We can squeeze you in.’ Pam turned to the children in the back. ‘Gwen. Ian. Shove up and make room for Louise’s mum. Come on, chopity chop.’
Mindful of the alcohol on her breath, Sharon pursed her lips, opened the rear passenger door and slid in next to Louise.
Pam said, ‘Do you want me to send Greg round to have a look at the car?’
‘No, it’s all right, thanks. I’ve got the AA.’
‘Did he manage to catch you?’
Sharon was never sure how much Pam knew or suspected. That’s why she always examined everything she said for nuances, subtle insinuations.
‘Yes. He got his minutes.’
Louise’s highly sensitive nose immediately detected that her mother had been drinking. So that’s why she hadn’t been there to collect her! The child experienced an inexplicable feeling of apprehension.
‘He’s hardly in the house five minutes before he’s off to some meeting or other,’ said Pam. ‘I told him you don’t have to be on the parish council and the Magnificent Britain Sub-Committee. You don’t have to be chair of school governors and the Community Watch. Give something up. Let someone else do it.’ Pam continued to complain about her husband’s civic commitments at some length. Sharon wondered if Pam was implicitly criticising her for monopolising his time. She often wondered what interpretation Pam put on Greg’s visits to Honeysuckle Cottage, and if in private she harangued him about them.
‘He thinks more about his parish council commitments than he does about his own job,’ said Pam.
How can mum bear it? Louise wondered. Why doesn’t she tell her he comes round to see us whenever he can and I call him dad and he listens to my reading? Why doesn’t she tell her Jade and Gwen are my half- sisters? And Ian’s my half-brother? Why does it have to be like this? I can’t stand it. Thank God we’re leaving. We’ll never have to speak to them again.
‘Did you have a good rehearsal?’ Sharon asked Louise.
‘She’s been thrilling everyone with her singing and dancing,’ said Pam. ‘And she acts brilliantly too.’ Then, noticing her own daughter’s altered expression, she added quickly,
‘Jade was good as well.’
‘I’m only one of Fagin’s gang,’ said Jade.
‘You do it well, though,’ said Pam.
Jade regarded her mother from beneath resentful brows. ‘How do you know? You weren’t there.’
‘I came in at the end.’
‘It was better with the grown-ups playing,’ said Louise.
‘It’s a difficult score,’ said Pam. ‘It needs experienced players.’
An image appeared in Sharon’s mind of Pam’s husband and herself naked on the carpet.
‘What on earth are we going to do about these two girls?’ asked Pam, driving off.
Sharon said, ‘Yes, I got a letter from Mrs Henshall, too.’
‘It’s very worrying. I mean they used to be such good friends.’
‘I’ve asked Jade what it’s all about but she won’t tell me.’
‘No, Louise won’t say either.’
Louise pulled a face and mouthed at Sharon, ‘I did. I did.’
Fortunately, apart from Sharon, no-one heard Louise. The car was a noisy diesel and in need of servicing.
‘It’s so strange,’ Pam went on. ‘I’ve told them they’ve got to make up and be friends again and stop all this silly nonsense.’
‘It’s Louise’s fault,’ said Ian, seizing the opportunity to make trouble. ‘She’s always picking on Jade.’
‘I’m not,’ Louise protested. ‘Jade’s always the one that starts it.’
‘Yes, you do. You’re always saying I’ve got no dad.’
Pam’s equable composure vanished. She was plainly shocked and embarrassed. ‘Do you Jade? Do you say that?’
‘I should hope not!’
‘I don’t. I don’t.’
‘Then why’s she saying you do?’
Jade said nothing. Sharon felt inexplicably sorry for her. Yet she wanted to tell her to stop lying and tell the truth.
‘Louise has got a dad just like you,’ said Pam. ‘He’s not at home that’s all.’
Fortunately, they had now pulled up outside Honeysuckle Cottage.
Sharon could see the conversation was taking a dangerous direction. She quickly opened the car door. ‘Well, we’ll have to see what Mrs Henshall says about it.’
‘Yes, she’ll sort it out,’ said Pam. ‘Six of one and half a dozen of the other, I expect.’
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The beautiful English village of Leefdale seems reassuringly tranquil. But appearances can be deceptive.