Being a cash buyer, and buying from a vendor with no chain, meant that the purchase of the house was simplicity itself and as the survey didn’t throw up anything untoward I was able to leave London and David’s broken vows behind almost immediately. Thankfully I could afford to take a year out, which would give me time to adjust to life on my own and update my new home.
I was very happy to be moving to somewhere where no one knew me. My London friends had all been David’s friends originally and the majority were nearer his age than mine. It was only natural that when the moment came they had rallied round, but then drifted back into his orbit. I didn’t mind that my own was empty. In fact, the clean slate this move was offering had become the one welcoming beacon in the sea of sadness I had been treading water in.
‘Thanks for everything,’ I called from the gate as the removals men set off back to London with a hefty tip, and heartfelt thanks, for lugging about and rearranging some of the furniture that had been left behind.
‘You’re welcome love. Good luck.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, heading back down the path, but not before I’d spotted some curtain- twitching antics in the house on my right. ‘A little bit of luck wouldn’t go amiss,’ I muttered as I closed the door and surveyed my box- filled new abode.
I was annoyed that my mother had been right about everything, even if she had miscalculated the timing; however, it had been one of her perfectly crafted comments which had led me to Norwich rather than back to Wynbridge. ‘You know it’s the only sensible thing to do,’ she had said while trying to convince me to return home, and she was right. Returning to my childhood home and the nurturing embrace of my family would have been the ‘sensible’ thing to do, and that was exactly what stopped me doing it.
As out of character as it was, I didn’t much feel like being sensible any more and I certainly didn’t feel up to facing the head- bobs and pitying glances that I knew would be waiting for me in the flat Fenlands of Wynbridge should I return home to nurse my broken heart.
It had been my brother, Tom, whom I had called on for support when I found what looked, online at least, like the perfect sanctuary for an emotionally drained, and soon- to- be divorced, thirty year old woman who was having to face the rigours of creating a whole new life for herself because her seemingly perfect happy ever after had fallen so spectacularly apart.
Smiling out from the screen the little house in Nightingale Square looked like the answer to my prayers. Somewhere unassuming I could hide away in and nurse my shattered soul in peace and privacy. Yes, I had fallen head over heels in love with it at first sight, and yes, that was admittedly an impulsive trait which hadn’t served me well in the past, but I had everything crossed that it was going to be just the distraction I needed.
My sister- in- law, Jemma, however, hadn’t been convinced.
‘Are you sure Jemma can spare you?’ I asked Tom as we made arrangements to view the house via Skype.
‘Of course she can spare him,’ she butted in. ‘Although she’s really hoping you’ll hate it and decide to come home.’
It was interesting that practically everyone in the family still assumed I considered Wynbridge my ‘home’ even though I had left over a decade ago for university and hadn’t properly lived there since. ‘Norwich is hardly the other end of the earth,’ I reminded her as her knitted brow popped into view and I cringed at the thought of moving back into my childhood bedroom.
‘But it’s hardly next door either, is it, Kate?’ she pouted back.
‘It’s only two hours away, Jem. One hundred and twenty short minutes along the A47, that’s all.’ ‘That feels like two days with this pair in the back,’ she moaned on, jerking her head in the direction of where my feisty niece and nephew were tucking into their dinner. ‘We just want to look after you. You’ve been through so much . . .’
‘I’ll be there,’ Tom cut in, ‘but I’m not telling Mum.’
The train journey from Liverpool Street to Norwich had given me ample opportunity to mull over the nightmarish events of the previous few months and strengthen my resolve that not moving back to Wynbridge was the right thing to do. I had stared out of the window as the world flashed by, the landscape becoming steadily cleaner and greener.
I just knew that the house was going to be the ideal bolthole for me; it was still in a city, albeit a far smaller one than London, but it would offer the same urban level of anonymity I craved and that was just as appealing as the original sash windows and stained- glass panelling in the front door.
I had initially been drawn to Norwich because of its history and unusual castle. The fact that it wasn’t somewhere I was familiar with was an added bonus. The newness of it all certainly felt right. I didn’t want to live somewhere where memories and ghosts lurked around every corner, threatening to leap out and remind me of all that had gone before. My life was facing an unexpected fresh start and Norwich was a blank page with a fascinating past that I was looking forward to learning more about. Besides which, it conveniently put enough miles between me and Wynbridge to stop the family popping in to re- stock the fridge every five minutes, yet was close enough for an organised day trip. ‘You’re too thin,’ Tom had predictably said when he hugged me at the station, ‘and you have bags the size of suitcases. I had rather hoped Skype was just showing you in a bad light, but . . .’
‘I’m heartbroken,’ I answered him simply, but truthfully. ‘What did you expect?’
I dreaded to think what he would have said had he known the details of everything I’d had to cope with. Had it simply been a case of good old- fashioned infidelity which had pulled my marriage apart, as I had let everyone believe, I might have been able to gradually piece it back together, but there had ended up being so much more to it than that and not even my rose- tinted desire for a Disney- inspired happy ever after could make me forget it.
‘But you still don’t hate him?’ Tom frowned.
‘No, I still don’t hate him.’
Had my brother been privy to the part I had played in the catastrophe, and the colossal guilt I lugged about as a result, he would have understood why I was incapable of hating David for what he had done. I knew that had I not tried to force my beloved into changing his mind about something I had been so readily prepared to sacrifice when we first met, then our marriage would have merrily skipped along much the same as it had for the last few years. I would have still been living my fairy- tale dream rather than sweeping up the leftovers of a Hammer House Horror.
You see, I was a firm believer in one true love, a fully paid up member of the club in fact and now I had been blackballed. I had single- handedly screwed up my one shot at eternal happiness, and David’s too, so hate was an emotion I simply couldn’t reach, unless of course you counted the self- loathing which crept in during the darkest hours of the night.
‘Mum would have forty fits if she could see you,’ Tom tutted as he slipped his arm through mine and studied my face.
I knew my blue eyes had lost their sparkle and my usually jaunty ponytail was a little on the limp side, but thankfully he forbore to comment further.
‘Of course, she would,’ I agreed, refusing to give in to the tears his familiar and comforting bulk threatened to unleash. ‘And that’s exactly why I don’t want you to show her how to Skype.’
I knew it wasn’t fair, my selfish desire to keep her at arm’s length, but the sticking plaster she would try to apply to cover the hurt would be accompanied at some point by the inevitable, ‘I did try and warn you Kate.’ And I was nowhere near ready to admit that I hadn’t heeded a single one of her
warnings but had rushed, like a giddy schoolgirl, headlong into trust and consequently, heartbreak. Not that the blow had struck within the rather mean six months she had given us on our wedding day, but it had come nonetheless, and I sometimes wondered if she was as furious for herself as she was for me. My mother, as David had predicted, hadn’t been easy to win over, but his unremitting charm and flattery had worn her down in the end; I couldn’t help thinking she felt as much of a fool as I did, albeit for very different reasons.
‘I did warn you it was a bit of a hole,’ the estate agent, who was leaning against a sleek black Audi, had called out before he had even introduced himself when Tom had pulled into Nightingale Square. ‘I hope you aren’t already thinking you’ve wasted your time. You are Mrs Harper?’
I had winced, jarred out of my stupor by the sound of my married name as it tripped off his lips. ‘Yes,’ I remember nodding, ‘I’m Kate.’ The estate agent matched the clichéd image I had conjured up during our telephone conversations to a T. The second he had discovered where I was travelling from he had assumed I had London money to throw around and then spent most of his time trying to convince me to look at far bigger properties with far more impressive postcodes, but my heart was already set on Nightingale Square and keeping the rest of my money safely in the bank.
My eyes had swept beyond him to the slightly wonky wooden gate and overgrown front garden and I realised that the house, which was the smallest of seven situated around a lush, fenced- in green, was just like me. Clearly it had been loved once, but was now in need of a little TLC. The clever wide- lens photographs online had played down the shabby state of the place, but I didn’t care about that at all. I was in love with it and its interesting story already.
My fascination with history had led to me spending hours on the internet and in the library researching all about the Square and the man with the philanthropic vision who had built it. Burying myself in the past was thankfully still the one thing that I found I could focus on doing for longer than five minutes.
Charles Wentworth had been the wealthy owner of one of the twenty- six shoe factories which, from around 1860, had overtaken weaving as the main industry in Norwich and, from what I could deduce, he was the perfect man, the archetypal romantic hero. Not that I was sure I still entirely believed in them any more, my faith having received a hefty knock, but as he was consigned to the history books, I reckoned he was about as close to perfection as I was likely to get.
An astute businessman, with a heart as large as his financial resources, he had chosen to live in the sprawling Victorian mansion house which stood directly opposite the factory, so he could keep an eye on his investment. Once satisfied with the set- up he had then overseen the building of seven homes on the land in between to accommodate the factory managers and their families.
Once upon a time there had also been houses for the general workers but they, along with practically everything else from that time, were gone now. The back to back terraces had been demolished decades ago, replaced with larger, more attractive, villa- style properties with gardens, and the former factory site now housed a row of little shops.
From what I could make out, the only things left of Mr Wentworth’s legacy were Nightingale Square and his home Prosperous Place which, I had noticed when I turned around to admire it, also happened to be for sale and looked to be in a similar state to the house I had set my heart on.
From what I had read, Charles Wentworth had left his family well provided for, but in earning his fortune he hadn’t stepped on anyone’s toes or exploited any of his workers as so many others did at that time and I hoped his descendants were proud to be related to such a worthy forefather.
‘Shall we get on?’ I had said to the agent, my eyes moving back to the gate.
‘Of course,’ he had smiled, his misplaced confidence restored.
‘I’m Toby Fransham by the way. Let’s have a quick look here and I’ll take you to view a couple of those hi- tech new- builds I was telling you about, next to the bypass. This place might be dead in the water, but those beauties on the other hand . . .’
‘Are worth twice as much in commission,’ Tom had cut in before I had a chance.
Toby Fransham did at least have the grace to blush.
‘Why don’t you show me the garden?’ my clever brother had suggested, ‘and we’ll let Kate look around inside in peace.’
The golden glow of a late September afternoon showed the house in a halcyon light, but as I stepped over the threshold, stooping to pick up the pile of post that had become wedged behind the front door, I knew the place would have seduced me even in the depths of winter.
‘It’s been in the same family ever since it was built,’ Toby Fransham had sniffed as Tom quickly steered him along the hall towards where the kitchen led to the garden. ‘The last resident lived here all her life, but by the looks of it she never had much done by way of modernisation, hence the price.’ ‘You said the family were keen to secure a sale,’ I had called after him. ‘I do like the place, Mr Fransham, but I’m not about to make a fool of myself over money.’
He had carried on while I took my time exploring first the little sitting room with the bay window which overlooked the front garden, and then the dining room with the intensely swirling orange and brown carpet that led to the archaic kitchen. There was a large cupboard under the stairs and as I followed them up, I found a double bedroom at the front, and two singles, one of which you had to walk through to access the bathroom. Although the avocado suite and MFI kitchen had clearly been fitted a long time ago, everything appeared to be in working order, despite a thin layer of dust.
‘What do you think?’ Tom had asked when he caught up with me as I was looking out of the front bedroom window again.
There was an uninterrupted view across the green to Prosperous Place and I imagined Mr Wentworth and his wife doing the rounds, making sure everyone was happy and that the houses were all up to scratch. The vision was almost enough to stir my jaded romantic heart a little.
‘I think I could be happy here,’ I had sighed, bracing myself for the arguments against buying the place that my sensible brother was bound to come up with. ‘In spite of the . . . interesting upholstery.’ I hoped he wasn’t going to protest too strongly because I was amazed that I had even entertained the idea that I could ever be happy again, let alone suggested it out loud.
‘I think you could too,’ he had agreed, taking me completely by surprise. ‘This place is right up your street, isn’t it?’
‘You don’t think I should be moving back to Wynbridge then?’
‘No,’ he had said, taking my hand and giving it a squeeze. ‘You don’t need us lot fussing around you, and like you said to Jemma, it’s only a couple of hours away in the car.’
‘Thanks, Tom,’ I had said, smiling up at him and feeling relieved.
‘There’s plenty to do to here,’ he acknowledged, looking around at the few bits of furniture that had been left behind and the thick gloss paint that covered the little fireplace and mouldings, ‘but that’s no bad thing. It’ll keep your mind off—’
‘Come on then,’ I had interrupted before my mind was filled with what I was moving here to forget. ‘Let’s go and find Mr Toby Fransham and tell him he needs to keep looking for someone else to stick in those new- builds he’s so fond of.’
Considering we were standing on the pavement in the middle of a city, there had been little to hear beyond a lone scolding blackbird and the distant rumble of the ring road. It was a far cry from the constant barrage I had grown accustomed to in my marital home in London.
‘I daresay it livens up a bit in the evenings when everyone comes home from work,’ Tom had said when I commented on the quiet. ‘There’ll probably be cars parked everywhere then.’
‘You aren’t trying to put me off buying it all of a sudden, are you?’ I had responded as a movement behind an upstairs curtain in a house on my right caught my eye.
‘Of course not,’ he had grinned. ‘I wouldn’t dream of it. Just don’t tell Jemma.’
‘You’re actually thinking of putting in an offer, are you?’ asked an astounded Mr Fransham, who until that moment had been annoyingly engrossed in something on his phone.
‘I most certainly am,’ I had quickly replied. ‘I’m going to suggest seven less than the asking price.’
He had drawn in a sharp breath and shook his head. It was the classic estate agent’s reaction to hearing numbers they didn’t like.
‘I’m not sure they’ll go for that,’ he had frowned. ‘And the office rang a minute ago to say there’s been another enquiry about the place today.’
I had been pretty certain that he was bluffing. The girl I had spoken to had told me the place had been languishing on their books for well over a year.
‘Well, they won’t get a penny more out of whoever buys it, with that disaster of a bathroom still in situ, will they?’ I had told him briskly. ‘And I know it’s been empty through one harsh winter already, so I’m fairly confident the vendor will snatch my hand off.’
Tom had winked and then began to laugh.
‘I’ll be in the city for the rest of the day,’ I had shouted as I marched purposefully back to the car and Mr Fransham muttered something about number crunching. ‘Let’s just see if we can get the ball rolling before I’m back on the train, shall we?’
I had felt certain I wasn’t going to need to worry about crunching anything.
‘I thought you were down,’ Tom had beamed as he helped me with my seatbelt because my hands were suddenly shaking so much.
‘I am,’ I had willingly confirmed, ‘but when it comes to parting with money, I’m not completely out.’
Less than an hour later my offer had been accepted and I had started to brace myself to face a change of life that I didn’t feel at all ready for; but at least lovely Nightingale Square was as good a place to be moving to as any.
I was interrupted from my musings by a sharp rap on the front door knocker. This was wholly unexpected and I froze, a mug in one hand and a jar of coffee in the other, staring at the door and the silhouette the other side of it. Another knock finally galvanised me into action.
‘Sorry,’ the woman was apologising before I’d even seen her warm smile and friendly hazel eyes. ‘Sorry. I know you’ve literally only just arrived and I don’t want to interrupt your unpacking, but I thought you might like these.’ She nudged a carrier bag at her feet and it was only then that I noticed she had a smallish child tucked under one arm and a pumpkin under the other.
‘Well, not this, obviously,’ she laughed, hoisting the boy a little higher up her hip, ‘but the pumpkin and sweets are all yours if you want them.’
I was at a loss.
‘It’s Hallowe’en,’ she explained, her smile faltering as she no doubt began to wonder whether I was going to say anything at all. ‘The Square will be crawling with kids by teatime and I thought if you put these on your step you might get some peace.’
‘Right,’ I said, transferring the jar and mug to one hand before stooping to pick up the bag, ‘sorry. Thanks. That’s very kind of you.’
‘When I spotted the lorry turn up I thought you probably wouldn’t have had time to sort anything for yourself.’
The little boy under her arm began to wriggle so she set him down.
‘Do you want to come in?’ I asked. ‘I’ve just found the coffee and some mugs.’
‘Well, as long as you’re sure.’
I wasn’t really, but I hadn’t expected a neighbour, assuming that’s who she was, to descend so soon after my arrival and I wasn’t familiar with Nightingale Square’s visitor etiquette yet either. In London I didn’t know a single one of my neighbours. I probably couldn’t have picked them out in a line- up.
‘Of course,’ I said, holding the door further open as the little lad toddled into the hall. ‘Come in. I’m Kate by the way.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ said the woman, following his lead. ‘We were all so excited to see the sold sign go up. This little place has been empty since Doris moved on and we’ve all been hoping someone lovely would take it.’
I wasn’t sure I was capable of living up to everyone’s expectations of loveliness.
‘Anyway, I’m Lisa,’ she added. ‘I live two doors along that way,’ she pointed vaguely in the direction of her home, ‘and this is my youngest, Archie.’
Not the curtain- twitcher then.
‘Hello, Archie,’ I smiled, and he grinned up at me, babbling something I couldn’t make out. ‘I also have Tamsin and Molly,’ his mum happily continued, ‘and a husband called John. He’s the biggest baby of the lot, but that’s men for you!’
I was amazed that she had three children, four if you counted the husband. She only looked about my age.
‘We were childhood sweethearts,’ she giggled when I didn’t say anything. ‘We started young. Have you got any of your own?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘no kids.’ I didn’t add that I had no husband either. ‘How do you take your coffee?’
A few minutes later, and much to my surprise, Lisa had made herself completely at home. She arranged Archie on the kitchen floor with a few pots and pans and a wooden spoon from the nearest packing box to bang on and then began to scoop out the belly of the pumpkin on the Formica- topped kitchen table, which she had thoughtfully covered with the free newspaper I had found on the doormat when I arrived.
‘I’ll leave you to carve it,’ she said, when she spotted me watching. ‘And I’ve put a couple of tea lights in with the bags of sweets and my spare gas lighter thingy.’
‘Thank you,’ I said tipping out the bag and marvelling at the array of sugar- coated items. Archie began to make mewing noises when he spotted the brightly coloured bags.
‘No chance,’ Lisa told him sternly. ‘If you’re anything like your big sister you’ll be hyper for days.’
Archie, clearly used to not getting his own way, went back to his drumming.
‘You’ll have to tell me how much I owe you,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Lisa laughed, ‘it’s all from the pound shop anyway, but I’ll take this pumpkin flesh and the seeds, if that’s all right?’ she asked, pointing at the plastic container she had been decanting it into. ‘I’m making soup for us all tonight and roasting the seeds for my other half to snack on. We’re both trying to lose a few pounds,’ she added confidingly.
I was impressed she could find the time to make soup from scratch with three children to look after, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was a shame she was trying to lose weight as
her curvy figure suited her. Although I didn’t tell her that, obviously.
‘I used to be really skinny before I had the kids,’ she tutted, ‘but never mind.’
We had another coffee and she explained that everyone who lived in the Square was getting together on 5 November to have a little bonfire and let off some fireworks.
‘We do it every year,’ she told me, which came as something of a shock given that I had been expecting the same level of remoteness from my neighbours here as I’d experienced in London. ‘We’re all a very friendly bunch. We also have a summer party and go first footing on New Year’s Eve. There’s a real sense of community here.’ She sounded very proud.
‘First footing?’ I queried.
‘Yes,’ she grinned, ‘Have you never heard of it? The first person over your threshold after midnight on New Year’s Day brings gifts.’
‘Coins, bread, coal, whisky, that sort of thing.’
They sounded like unusual ‘gifts’ to me.
‘It’s for good luck,’ she elaborated, with a smile. ‘And a year filled with warmth, food and flavour. You’ll soon get the hang of it,’ she laughed. ‘And us.’
‘Well, that all sounds lovely,’ I swallowed, my tummy rolling at the thought of getting roped in when all I really wanted to do was draw the curtains and hide away from the world as well as my neighbours.
‘I was hoping you’d say that,’ Lisa beamed. ‘You and your husband would be most welcome to join us for the fireworks. In fact, we’re all hoping you will.’
I had no idea where she’d got the idea that I had a husband to bring to the party, but I felt obliged to accept her kind invitation and before I knew it I’d been talked into providing a tray of toffee apples for the children along with some extras for bobbing.
‘I won’t bombard you about who lives where,’ she said, scooping Archie up into her arms and kissing the top of his head as he leaned keenly back towards his instruments. ‘You’ll meet everyone at the fireworks and you can tell us all about yourself then.’
‘I’ll look forward to it,’ I swallowed, following her back through the house to the front door.
‘I can tell you’re going to fit right in here, Kate,’ she said, turning her lovely smile on me again. ‘You’re really going to love living in Nightingale Square!’
I hoped she was right.
So there we go! That was the last of the Nightingale Square taster chapters. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know Kate and her feisty neighbour, Lisa. She's a real force to be reckoned with. If what you've read so far has left you wanting to know what happens next, here's a link to take you to the paperback...
As always, lovely readers, thank you so much for your support and enthusiasm. I look forward to welcoming you to Nightingale Square at the end of May.