Read on for an exclusive extract from Autumn Dreams at Mermaids Point by Sarah Bennett.
‘Ah, Gareth, you should see the way he makes her smile. It’s like a light comes on inside her.’
Nerissa closed her eyes for a moment, picturing her niece, Laurie, as she’d seen her in the pub the previous evening, head tilted as she listened to whatever Jake was whispering in her ear. It had been a rare night out for the whole family, a chance to welcome Jake’s mother to Mermaids Point and introduce her around. Nerissa still wasn’t sure what to make of Linda – she wasn’t at all convinced it was a good thing for Jake to have her back in his life, especially when his relationship with Laurie was still finding its feet, but she’d held her peace until now.
Shifting to ease the ache in her hip from sitting cross-legged on the ground too long, Nerissa confessed her doubts to the one person she was always able to speak her heart to. ‘Honestly, Gar, she’s such a mousy thing, it’s a struggle to make even the most basic conversation. I don’t think Linda’s had an opinion of her own all her life.’ She sighed, knowing she was being unfair given the little her sister-in-law, Sylvia, had told her about what both Jake and his mother had been through over the years. ‘At least she’s free of that awful man now. Given time, she might come out of her shell a bit more. If anyone can help her, it’ll be Sylvia.’
Nerissa loved her sister-in-law with all her heart, but she knew from personal experience what Sylvia was like once she found a pet project.
Glancing down at the bunch of sunny yellow daffodils in her hand, Nerissa gave a small laugh. ‘With any luck, she’ll be so busy with Linda she won’t have time to try to fix me up with anyone for a bit. I don’t know why she’s still bothering after all these years.’
She rearranged the bouquet to release one of the golden trumpet flowers which had twisted at an odd angle. Other women might prefer roses or extravagant lilies, but daffodils had been Nerissa’s favourite since the first time Gareth had turned up on her doorstep. Tanned and fit after weeks of basic training, he’d presented her with a bunch of daffodils, a nervous smile tugging at his gorgeous full lips. He’d kissed her for the first time that day, down by the caves on the beach where he’d taken her for a walk. He’d told her he loved her that day, too, that he was tired of waiting for her to notice him, that she was his girl now. Forever.
She raised her free hand and pressed it to the echo of the warm glow that had heated her cheeks when he’d said those words. She’d been noticing her brother’s best friend from the moment he’d picked her up and brushed gravel off her knees when she’d tripped over by the swings in the park. He’d been eleven to her seven, and had interrupted a noisy kick-about with her brother and the rest of their pals to set her back on her feet and wipe away her tears with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. Her heart had been his from that moment on, though, of course, she’d been too young to understand or articulate anything beyond the feelings of security and happiness she felt whenever he was near.
Those fledging feelings had developed into a full-blown crush once her hormones caught up with her heart. Her early teens had been an excruciating torture of unspoken adoration and blushes whenever he popped over to the Morgan family home – which had been practically every day, especially during the holidays. When he’d announced at twenty-one that a life on the fishing boats wasn’t for him and he was off to join the army, the scandal of it had rushed around the village like wildfire. Nerissa had lain on her bed and wept silent tears into her pillow, thinking him lost to her forever. And then he’d come home on leave to reveal those messy, wonderful things she’d been feeling for him weren’t unrequited after all.
Swallowing around the tight ball in her throat, Nerissa laid the daffodils on the square of neatly clipped grass in front of the plain white headstone. ‘I love you, Gareth,’ she whispered, touching her fingers to her lips before pressing them to the engraved letters of his name. ‘Happy birthday, sweetheart.’
Rising to her feet, Nerissa turned away before the first tear dripped down her cheek. Gareth had always hated to see her cry, and though it’d been over twenty years since he’d last been able to brush them from her cheeks, she still didn’t like to do it here in the little graveyard behind the parish church where he’d been laid to rest after a road accident during a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans. Such a waste of a life, of the promise of their life, their future together.
She clutched the diamond and sapphire ring dangling from a chain around her neck, squeezing it until the imprint of the stones hurt. She’d taken it off when the band had grown too tight but hadn’t been able to let it go. To let Gareth go.
With the ghosts of memories they’d never share swirling around in her mind, Nerissa ducked her head and hurried along the path to the lychgate guarding the entrance to the churchyard. So fixated was she on the past, she didn’t notice the woman coming the other way until they were practically on top of one another.
‘Nerissa.’ The lack of inflection in the word sent a chill rippling down Nerissa’s spine.
‘Hello, Margot. How are you?’ She winced the moment the stupid, automatic words left her lips.
The death of the man they’d both loved above all others could’ve brought them together in solace and mutual grief, if only Gareth’s mother had been willing. She’d never forgiven Nerissa for him joining the army, even though it’d been a decision he’d made on his own. Gareth had told his mum of his plans for a future with Nerissa before he’d said so much as a word to her. In Margot’s mind, it was therefore Nerissa’s fault he’d quit the boats and left the village in hopes of giving them both a better, brighter future. Two decades had hardened that initial irrational, if understandable, need to blame someone for the loss of Margot’s son, into a lasting bitterness.
Desperate for a way to cut through the frigid atmosphere between them, Nerissa nodded to the enormous bouquet of white lilies and roses Margot carried. ‘Those are nice.’
‘They’re the ones I always get. The same as for his funeral.’ Margot didn’t meet her eyes, every stiff inch of her posture radiating a fervent desire for Nerissa to go away. Not that she’d ever say as much, because Margot’s disdain was as polite as it was cold. Nerissa wished just once she’d let it all out, scream and rail and call curses down upon her head. Perhaps if Margot could give voice to all that resentment, she could finally let it go, instead of allowing it to consume her from the inside out.
Holding back a sigh, Nerissa took a step back and to the side, clearing a path for the other woman to pass through the lychgate. ‘I’ll leave you in peace, Margot. You know where I am if you ever need anything.’
The only response was the sharp click of Margot’s heels on the path as she strode away.
Shaking her head, Nerissa passed beneath the roof of the gate, trying not to think about that awful rainy day when the pall-bearers had paused beneath it with Gareth’s coffin on their shoulders as they marked the symbolic passage of his life from this world to the next. Margot was never going to change, and it was way past time for Nerissa to stop trying. As she paused at the kerb to check for passing cars, she knew it was a fruitless thought. It wasn’t in her nature to let someone hurt if she could help it.
With that in mind, she changed direction and headed the opposite way to her niece’s pretty seafront café which had been her intended destination. Both Laurie and Sylvia were waiting for her there with hugs that would ease the ache in her heart and a slice of her favourite Victoria sponge to lift her spirits. As much as she needed that right now, there was someone who needed it more.
After a couple of weeks holed up in Sylvia’s spare room, Linda had recently rented one of the small holiday cottages in the centre of the village while she tried to decide if she wanted to make a more permanent move to Mermaids Point. With a little coaxing, perhaps Nerissa could get her to join her for a walk on the beach and on to the café, where they would both find a warm welcome. Though her beloved Gareth had been nothing like the awful bully Linda had been tied to for years, she understood loss better than most. So she would extend the hand of friendship and offer what comfort she could to the recently widowed woman.
And just maybe they’d both feel a little better afterwards.
When she reached the old fisherman’s cottage, Nerissa lifted the heavy iron knocker and rapped hard a couple of times and waited. And waited.
Stepping back on the pavement, she raised a hand to shield her eyes and studied the windows. The upstairs curtains were pulled closed, which wasn’t all that surprising as they were catching the full force of the summer sun, but the downstairs curtains were also drawn shut behind the lacy nets which shielded the windows from nosy passers-by.
A movement at what Nerissa knew to be the lounge window caught her eye – was Linda in there or had the breeze stirred the curtains through the horizontal upper window which had been opened to its fullest extent?
Feeling a bit awkward, Nerissa checked around her to make sure no one was watching her snooping, then went to stand directly beneath the opening. The muffled sounds of a television show drifted out. Nerissa strained her ears, trying to pick up any indication of Linda moving around. The sound changed abruptly, the music switching from a romantic melody to a thumping beat.
Nerissa waited another minute and it switched again to the sound of two men arguing, followed by a rapid burst of gunfire which made her jump. Pressing a hand to her racing heart, Nerissa laughed to herself as she realised it was a rolling stream of programme previews. Linda must’ve gone out and left the television on. She might even be at the café already.
Nerissa was about to turn away when soft sobs reached her ears. Maybe it was coming from the television? Stretching on tiptoe to get closer to the window, she recognised a comedy series she’d recently binge-watched.
The sobbing came again, sounding totally out of place against the snappy dialogue.
‘Linda?’ Nerissa called, keeping her voice soft. ‘Are you there?’
The sobs cut off immediately as the television in the background rolled through to another preview.
Legs aching, Nerissa dropped down to her heels for a moment before stretching back up to the open window. ‘Linda? It’s Nerissa. Is everything all right?’
A long silence, then a strained terse reply. ‘Go away.’
‘Sorry, I just wondered if you fancied joining me down at the café…’
‘Okay, well, hopefully we’ll catch up soon. Give me a call, anytime.’
Embarrassed at herself for prying, Nerissa abandoned her spot beneath the window and turned away, pulling out her phone as she started to walk back the way she’d come.
She fired off a quick WhatsApp message to Sylvia.
On my way. Just called to see if Linda wanted to join us and I think she’s crying. Can’t tell as she won’t answer the door, but she told me to go away. ☹
An instant later, the word typing appeared at the top of the screen, followed shortly by a reply.
Did you try the front door?
Nerissa stopped on the pavement to tap out a sharp response.
NO! I left the poor woman to it. I already feel bad for snooping around under the window.
Go back and see if the door is open. Those old cottages have a latch that works from the outside.
Of course, Sylvia would know that. She seemed to know everything about everything in the Point.
As though sensing Nerissa’s hesitancy, Sylvia sent a follow-up message.
Just try the door, Ner, we can’t leave her on her own if she’s upset.
Against her better judgement, Nerissa retraced her steps.
The front window was now closed, the curtains still drawn tightly. ‘This is a big mistake,’ she muttered under her breath as she reached for the old-fashioned metal latch and pressed her thumb to it. When it clunked down, Nerissa took a deep breath and forced herself to nudge open the door. ‘Linda? I’m so sorry to intrude,’ she said as she stepped onto the stone flags of the hallway floor and edged the door closed behind her. ‘I just want to make sure you’re okay and then I promise I’ll go away and leave you in peace.’
Stepping into the darkened interior of the front room, Nerissa’s gaze flickered over the array of dirty cups and plates on the table, past the small pile of crumpled tissues on the sofa cushion and met Linda’s reddened eyes. Her mousy hair hung limp around her face, and the thickness of the seam on the sleeve of the cardigan she was huddled into suggested she had pulled it on inside out. Moving cautiously the way one might around a skittish animal, Nerissa made her way to the nearby armchair and sat down. With the window closed, the heat was stifling, but Linda didn’t appear to notice. Reaching out, Nerissa pressed the mute button on the remote control, cutting off a canned laughter track. Tension settled as thick and unpleasant as the air.
‘Is there anything I can get for you?’ Nerissa asked, hoping a neutral question might help her ease her way into the conversation.
‘I told you to go away.’ Linda punctuated the words with a noisy blow of her nose into a sodden-looking tissue.
Nerissa leaned forward and nudged the Kleenex box on the table nearer to Linda. ‘I thought you might have learned from the way Sylvia and the rest of the family invaded your home that us Morgans aren’t very good at minding our own business.’
When Linda’s husband, Nigel, had died unexpectedly six weeks previously, their son Jake had gone home for the first time in ten years to deal with the fallout. Unwilling to let him handle things on his own, the Morgan clan, minus Nerissa, had descended, uninvited, to help him manage the arrangements, and to try and get Linda back on her feet a bit. It had seemed like she was making progress, and they’d all hoped a stay in the Point might give Linda a bit of breathing space and a chance to make some decisions about her future, without being surrounded by constant reminders of what she’d lost. From the state of both Linda and the little cottage, those hopes were misplaced.
‘True.’ Linda gave just the glimmer of what might have been a smile, and Nerissa felt her shoulders relax.
‘If you really want me to go away, I will,’ Nerissa promised. ‘But at least let me get you a cup of tea or a cold drink first.’
Silence stretched long enough for the knot of tension in Nerissa’s shoulders to return and she was about to get up when Linda sighed and said, ‘There’s some sparkling water in the fridge.’
Nerissa took her time fetching them both a drink, giving Linda a minute or two to collect herself. Once she’d set the glasses on the coffee table, Nerissa circled the sofa and tugged open the curtains a couple of inches to let in a little bit of light and propped the upper window back open. By the time she retook her seat, Linda’s face was dry and she was holding the cool glass against one cheek. After a sip of her own water to wet her lips, Nerissa took a breath and hoped she could find the right words.
‘Grief is a funny thing, and it doesn’t come with any rules.’ When Linda remained silent, she stumbled on. ‘I… I lost someone very special to me. It was a long time ago now, but some days are harder than others. It would’ve been his birthday today.’
‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
When Nerissa glanced across, it was to find Linda’s attention was fixed on her, rather than her glass. ‘Thank you. Like I said, it was a long time ago. I just wanted you to know that I understand some of what you’re going through.’
‘Do you?’ Linda’s laugh was harsh and bitter. ‘I don’t expect you do at all.’
Startled, Nerissa took another sip of her water to cover her shock at the ugliness in Linda’s tone. ‘Well, of course, everyone’s experience is different. Gareth and I had barely a year together, not a lifetime shared like you and Nigel.’
‘And you loved him.’
Oof. Those four words and the untold story they hid all but stole the breath from Nerissa’s lungs. Wishing like hell she’d ignored Sylvia’s urgings and carried on her way to the café, Nerissa braced herself for another peek beneath the lid of the Pandora’s box she’d inadvertently opened. ‘From the little bits Laurie has told me, I understand Nigel could be difficult.’
‘Difficult?’ Linda laughed that bitter laugh again. ‘Bloody impossible, more like.’ Her head turned sharply away as though she hadn’t meant to uncork the bottle of repressed feelings and didn’t know how to stopper it again before she said any more.
Nerissa didn’t blame her. She wasn’t at all sure she was the right person for Linda to be talking to about this, but then again, who was? Poor Jake had enough on his plate coming to terms with his own grief – not that he’d shown a flicker of emotion. Well, maybe things were different when he and Laurie were alone, but when he was around the rest of the family, it was as if he’d shrugged it off and was determined to focus only on the future. Nerissa didn’t blame him for that either, perhaps if she’d done a bit more of that she wouldn’t be suspended as she was in a life half-lived. Her hand hovered at the base of her throat, drawn once more to the engagement ring she hadn’t worn long enough to develop a tan line on her finger. No, she couldn’t do anything to help Jake, but Linda was a different matter. ‘Tell me.’
Linda’s shoulders slumped, her body curling in upon itself. ‘He was so charming when we met. I was sixteen and it was the first time I’d been allowed to go to the Apple Blossom fair without my parents. I went with a little gang of pals from school. Nigel and his friends were a bit older and they pushed in the queue with us just as we got to the dodgems. Somehow they split us up and I ended up riding in the car with him.’ She raised her glass and gulped at her water like a survivor crawling out of the desert, not stopping until its contents were drained. ‘God forgive me for saying so, but sitting down in that bloody bumper car was the worst mistake of my life.’
‘Given everything that’s happened, I don’t think anyone would blame you for feeling that way.’ In the darkest, quietest moments of the past twenty years Nerissa had wished Gareth had never shown up on her doorstep.
Linda’s next words were barely above a whisper. ‘But then I wouldn’t have Jake, and what kind of woman, what kind of mother wishes away a life that gave them a child?’
‘Regretting your life with Nigel and wishing Jake away aren’t the same thing,’ Nerissa responded in a fierce voice, furious with the dead stranger who’d tied Linda up in so many Gordian knots.
‘He’d have been better off without us,’ Linda muttered.
Reaching across the narrow coffee table, Nerissa grabbed Linda’s limp hand and gave it a hard shake. ‘Look at me.’ It took a few moments, but when their eyes finally met, Nerissa tightened her grip. ‘I’m not here to absolve you of guilt for past actions, that’s something for you and Jake to sort out between yourselves, but you’re free now to make your own decisions about how you move into the future.’
‘But that’s the whole problem. I don’t know how to make those kinds of decisions.’ Linda placed her empty glass on the table, then covered her face in her hands. ‘Nigel did everything, and I went along with it.’ Her hands fell limply to her lap. ‘I knew I’d made a terrible mistake within the first six months of our marriage, but when I spoke to my parents, they told me I’d made my bed and I had to lie in it. I don’t think they really understood how difficult it was, or maybe I didn’t explain it well enough…’ She glanced across at Nerissa. ‘We weren’t the sort of family that really talked about those sorts of things.’
Nerissa’s heart ached for the woman. Nerissa had grown up in a boisterous, loving family, and though she was a bit more introverted than her older brother, she’d always had someone to talk to, someone who would listen. Yes, she’d been told a harsh truth a time or two by their mother, but she’d never been brushed off in the way it sounded like Linda had been. She wondered what her mum would’ve made of Linda’s situation and a wave of longing struck her. Merrow Morgan had passed away three years ago – long enough to adjust to her not being around, but it was another hole in her life that felt too big.
Focus. Giving herself a little mental shake, Nerissa rose from the armchair and rounded the coffee table to take a seat on the sofa beside Linda, taking her unresisting hand once more. ‘I don’t want you to feel under pressure to talk if you’re not comfortable with it.’
Linda returned her touch with the tiniest of squeezes. ‘You are kind. It’s just another thing I don’t know how to do. I feel… useless. A waste of space. I shouldn’t have come here, I’m a millstone around Jake’s neck.’
‘I’m sure he doesn’t feel that way,’ Nerissa said, not being entirely truthful, but Linda’s confidence didn’t seem like it would take another blow. ‘But I understand you not wanting to feel like a burden to him. Why don’t you let me help you – I know Sylvia would say the same if she were here. You’re not on your own, Linda. We’d like to be your friends, if that’s something you’d like too.’
Linda swallowed so hard, Nerissa could see the bob in her throat. ‘I don’t know how to be a friend. Not any more. Nigel never wanted me to spend time with anyone other than him, even when he was at work.’
‘Oh, fuck Nigel!’
The two of them shared an equally shocked look before they both burst out laughing.
‘I’m sorry,’ Nerissa gasped around her giggles. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’
Linda raised her free hand to wipe the tears from the corners of her eyes. ‘Yes, you should, and I should have too – a long time ago.’ Tilting her head back, she opened her mouth and yelled, ‘Fuck you, Nigel Smith!’
Nerissa couldn’t stop another snort of laughter escaping. ‘Bravo!’
With a long sigh, Linda closed her eyes and her hand tightened around Nerissa’s palm. Nerissa pressed back, giving what strength and support she could and the time to process what must be a tumult of emotions.
When Linda finally spoke, her words broke Nerissa’s heart. ‘I don’t know who I am.’
‘You’re free now, Linda. Free to be whoever you want to be.’
As she watched the other woman wipe away the last of her tears, Nerissa decided she needed to listen to her own advice. For too long she’d allowed the past to shackle her, allowed others to mould and shape her life, instead of taking control. And she knew exactly where to start. She’d let Doc dither and delay over making a decision about his retirement for too long. As his live-in housekeeper-cum-receptionist, whatever decision he made would have a profound effect on the next chapter in her own life. The prospect of being both jobless and homeless at the age of forty-three was frankly terrifying, which was why she’d let things drift. It felt hypocritical to sit here urging Linda to seize control of her destiny and not do the same.
Her fingers rose to toy with the ring on her necklace. Change was coming for both of them, whether they liked it or not.
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