Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Coming Home to Seashell Cottage’ by Jessica Redland.
Coming Home to Seashell Cottage
Welcome to Whitsborough Bay
‘What the hell is that in the fruit bowl?’ I cautiously leaned forward on Ben’s sofa to get a closer look, hoping it wasn’t an enormous spider about to scuttle over me.
‘Apples, pears, kiwis and bananas,’ Ben said. ‘Don’t tell me that you’ve reached the grand old age of thirty-three and you still can’t identify your basic fruits.’
I raised my eyebrows at him. ‘Ha ha! You’re hilarious. You should be on stage, so you should.’ I reached my hand out towards the object.
‘Argh!’ yelled Ben as I was about to touch it.
I snatched back my hand, screaming.
‘Sorry. Couldn’t resist.’ He rolled around on the sofa, laughing hysterically.
‘You eejit!’ I whacked him with a cushion. ‘You scared the life out of me! Is this what it’s going to be like living with you? Because if it is, I can check into a hotel for the next few months instead. Are you ready to say goodbye to that new kitchen?’
I worked for a company called Prime PR, managing public relations campaigns for large corporates. Having recently been promoted, I needed to relocate from London to Leeds. Ben – or Saint Ben, as I called him – was the brother of my best friend, Sarah, and he lived in Leeds so I’d adopted him as my meal buddy for the past few years every time I visited on business. Meeting up with a friend for some good craic was far more appealing than dining in a hotel restaurant surrounded by suits staring into space, eating meals for one. On my last trip, I’d moaned about the prospect of living in a hotel for a month or two while I found somewhere to rent and, being the saint he was, Ben immediately offered me his spare room. Grand idea. It meant I could pay Ben rent using my allowance for not staying in a hotel, giving him the funds to refit his prehistoric kitchen. Win-win. Of course, he refused to accept payment, but I wore him down eventually.
Ben put his hands up in surrender as I lifted the cushion to whack him again. ‘Sorry. But you’d have done the same if it had been the other way round. You know you would.’
I smiled. He was right. ‘So, what is it, then?’
Ben reached into the fruit bowl, then held out the black object in the palm of his hand.
‘It’s a chess piece,’ I said, looking at the black king. ‘Why’s there a chess piece in your fruit bowl?’
He shrugged. ‘I came home from work last Tuesday and, quite randomly, it was on the front doorstep.’
‘With a note?’
‘No note. Just the king on his own.’
‘And it’s yours?’
‘Nope. I don’t play chess.’
‘Oh. Very random. But do you know what’s even more random? Why the hell it’s in your fruit bowl instead of the bin.’
‘It seemed like a good place for it.’
‘But you don’t know where it’s been. It could have been peed on by a dog. Or worse.’
Ben looked at the king thoughtfully. ‘Good point. Just as well it was between the bananas and kiwis, then, wasn’t it? They’ve got skins.’ He leaned forward and put it back.
‘Ben! Put it in the bin.’
I reached forward but he grabbed me and started tickling me, which he knew was a pet peeve of mine. I squealed, leapt to my feet and darted past him into his kitchen. Thankfully, I was saved from another attack by the arrival of our Indian takeaway.
‘Get your hands washed before you touch that food,’ I ordered Ben.
He winked at me. ‘I love it when you’re bossy.’
I dug out some plates and we busied ourselves dishing up the food.
‘Shall we watch a film while we eat?’ Ben asked. ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’s on TV and I’ve never seen it. My mate Pete said it’s really good.’
‘Is that the one with Jim Caviezel in it?’
‘I think so. And Guy Pearce.’
‘Ooh, two hotties. Grand. Count me in.’
* * *
‘Your friend Pete was right,’ I said, when the closing credits started rolling. ‘Cracking film. What did you think?’
‘I agree. The king thing was a spooky coincidence, don’t you think?’
In the film, best friends Edmond and Fernand exchange a chess king when one of them overcomes a challenge, to symbolise who is ‘king of the moment’.
I nodded towards the king nestled in his fruit bowl. ‘Did you plant it there knowing it was in the film?’
Ben shook his head. ‘Honestly, I’ve never seen the film or read the book so I didn’t know about the chess piece. I genuinely found that bad boy sitting on my doorstep, just like I told you.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Have you ever known me to lie?’
He made a good point. He was one of the most honest people I knew, although, unlike me, he was tactful with his honesty. Generous to a fault, ridiculously considerate of others and gifted in spades with patience, Ben definitely deserved his nickname of ‘Saint Ben’. By contrast, I could be pretty blunt and to the point, not particularly patient and quite selfish. I was lucky he only called me ‘Irish’ because I probably deserved something a little less affectionate.
‘Tell you what we can do.’ He grinned at me, wrinkled his nose in a clear act of mischief, then lifted the king out of the fruit bowl. Picking up a chilli pepper discarded from his curry in his other hand he said, ‘If you eat the whole chilli, you win the king.’
I was about to refuse his stupid challenge, but then he added, ‘I bet you can’t do it.’
Defiantly, I picked up the chilli and shoved it in my mouth. Tears streamed down my face, my nose ran like a tap and my head felt as if it were about to explode. But that king was going to be mine. Nobody told me what I could and couldn’t do and I would come out on top whenever challenged. Always.
‘Oh my God! I can’t believe you just did that.’ Ben handed me a box of tissues. ‘Serious respect to you, Irish.’
I gasped for breath and rasped, ‘Wait till I tell your sister what a mean boy you are.’
He laughed. ‘You’re king of the moment, Irish. He’s all yours.’
And so it began.
Three Months Later
‘I now declare you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.’
Sarah radiated happiness as Nick gently kissed her before they turned to face the congregation. I put my fingers in my mouth and released a piercing whistle that echoed around the church. The vicar’s eyes widened and he looked as if he were about to protest at my crassness in a place of worship. Bollocks to that. I whistled again, then started a round of applause, which everyone joined in with. I gave the vicar a hard stare, challenging him to stop me, but he surprised me by smiling and joining in instead.
Sarah and Nick signed the register and posed for some photos.
‘Nice whistling,’ Ben whispered to me, as we shuffled out of the pew. He was an usher and I was a bridesmaid alongside Sarah’s bestie since primary school, Elise, and Nick’s sister, Callie. ‘I thought the vicar was going to tell you off, though.’
‘So did I. But he didn’t scare me.’
‘I don’t imagine anyone or anything scares you, Irish.’
I laughed, but my stomach did a somersault. There were two people who still scared me. I wasn’t going to let them ruin my day, though. Time for a change of subject.
‘I’m liking the morning suit on you,’ I said, taking in the navy three-piece Ben was wearing. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a suit.’
‘That’s probably because I don’t own one.’
‘It’s just as well Lemony isn’t here. She’d probably get ideas of dragging you up the aisle herself after seeing you dressed like this.’
He raised his eyebrows at me. ‘It’s Lebony, and you know it.’
‘Either way, it’s not a real name. So, what’s Lebony’s excuse for missing your sister’s wedding?’
Ben didn’t get to answer the question, as the photographer shuffled us towards opposite sides of the line-up. After several photos at the church, we moved onto the reception at Sherrington Hall. An ivy-covered Georgian manor house perched on a clifftop about twelve miles south of Sarah’s North Yorkshire coastal hometown of Whitsborough Bay, it was pretty impressive as a venue. It was four days before Christmas and Sarah, a florist, had certainly pulled out all the stops to decorate it beautifully and achieve a balance between Christmas and nuptials. Swathes of ivy, bunches of mistletoe, and church candles everywhere was pretty special. Champagne-coloured roses and teal flowers – no idea what type; not my specialist subject – matched the colours of our dresses and the men’s waistcoats.
As Sarah and Nick cut the cake and giggled together after the meal, I smiled and had what Sarah would describe as a ‘warm and fuzzy moment’. They were a good match. I liked Nick a lot. Despite my cynicism about relationships and marriage, it warmed my heart to see my best friend and her new husband looking so happy together.
Elise leaned towards me. ‘Are those tears in your eyes, Clare?’ she teased.
I cleared my throat. ‘Tears? You talk bollocks. As if I’d cry at a wedding. Unless it was in sympathy for the poor buggers for ruining their lives and blowing their savings on what’s effectively a big piss-up.’
‘You can deny it all you want, but I know that’s not how you really feel.’ She nudged me gently. ‘It’ll be you one day, you know.’
I turned round to face her, confident that any tell-tale tears had retreated. ‘Me? Married? Are you for real? Aside from the fact that I think marriage is a pile of shite, you have to be in a relationship to get married and, as you well know, I don’t do relationships.’
‘That’s because you’ve never met the right person. I reckon your Nick’s out there somewhere and you just have to open your heart up to finding him.’
I stared at her, wondering for a moment if she was just winding me up, but something told me she wholeheartedly believed what she was saying. ‘Do weddings turn you a bit loopy? Never met the right person? Open my heart and I’ll find him? Seriously?’
Elise smiled. ‘Yes. Seriously. We’re ten days from New Year and I reckon you should make a New Year’s resolution to actually let someone in, for once.’
I shook my head as I topped up my glass of wine and took a sip. ‘This sort of bollocks is one of the many reasons you and I haven’t always been friends.’
Elise twiddled one of the auburn ringlets dangling from her up-do. ‘Does that mean we’re friends now?’
I’d walked into that one. I had to admit that, despite battling with her for a decade or so, I now really enjoyed Elise’s company. It had taken a huge bust-up while planning Sarah’s hen do, where we’d both said some nasty things – particularly me – for us to get over it and start behaving like adults. We’d probably have plodded along tolerating each other if I hadn’t discovered Elise’s secret and been there to support her as she came to terms with it.
I grinned back at her, a feeling of genuine affection flowing through me. ‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘But I can easily scrub you off my very short and very exclusive friends list if you keep spouting bollocks like that. Anyway, why aren’t you jaded and cynical like me, after what you’ve been through this year?’
‘Because I still believe in love.’
‘More fool you.’ Elise had discovered that her husband, Gary, was gay when she walked in on him in the shower with our friend Stevie’s best mate, Rob. During twelve years of marriage, Gary had managed to kid himself that their friendship was enough to make their marriage work. Eejit. To help her get through her divorce, Elise started seeing Daniel who also turned out to be a liar and a cheat. Then she discovered she was pregnant. With her sister giving birth to twins and Sarah’s wedding approaching, Elise was adamant that she didn’t want to steal anyone’s thunder by announcing her own news so only a select few people knew and Sarah wasn’t one of them.
I really felt for Elise. She’d been desperate for a baby but having one as a result of a brief fling with a tosser like Daniel wasn’t quite the way she’d planned it. But when did life ever go to plan?
The meal was delicious and everyone on our table had a great craic. It was good to catch up with Ben who I hadn’t seen so regularly since moving into my rented apartment in Leeds city centre.
While we ate, I couldn’t fail to notice Elise and Stevie chatting animatedly. If ever there was another perfect match, it was those two, but neither of them was ever going to make a move. Just as well I’d never been one for pussyfooting around things. When Stevie excused himself, I turned to her and challenged her on making her move that evening but she indicated her stomach.
I shook my head. ‘I think he fancies the arse off you too and the baby should make sod all difference to you getting together.’
She wasn’t buying it, insisting he’d made it clear that all he wanted was friendship since finding out she was pregnant. Bollocks. Friends do not look at each other the way Stevie had been looking at her all night.
When I spotted him returning, I suggested she give him some sort of sign that she was interested because I was certain he’d respond. I hoped she’d be brave enough to give it a go.
When the coffees had been served, the conversation turned to what everyone was planning for Christmas and New Year. Arse. Worst subject in the world, ever. Sarah’s Auntie Kay told us her plans, then her partner, Philip, looked towards me. Oh no! Here goes…
‘What will you do, Clare?’ he asked.
I gritted my teeth. Must try to sound light and friendly. ‘Absolutely nothing.’ He stared at me, frowning, and I realised I wasn’t going to get away without explaining it. I took a deep breath. ‘Christmas is family time. As far as I’m concerned, I have no family. Therefore, I don’t do Christmas and I’ve always hated New Year.’ There. I’d said it! I hoped nobody had noticed the shake in my voice.
‘What about you, Elise?’ Philip asked, quickly averting his gaze from me.
‘I’m going to my sister’s for Christmas…’
Everyone continued to chat about their plans while I shrank back into my chair, hoping nobody would try to bring me into the conversation. Surely my response to Philip had given the very clear message that Christmas and New Year were taboo subjects.
Ben turned to me and said quietly, ‘If you’ve got no plans for Christmas, why don’t you join me at Mum and Dad’s? It’ll be strange with no Sarah.’
I was very aware of Elise listening and could almost hear her willing me to say yes. No doubt, she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone being on their own on Christmas Day. ‘Thank you, but no thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m fine on my own.’
‘New Year, then?’
‘Why? Why would anyone subject themselves to hot, smelly pubs packed with obnoxious, drunk eejits, then pay five times the normal taxi fare to get back home? Assuming someone hasn’t already nicked their pre-booked taxi, that is. I can’t think of a more hideous way to spend an evening.’
‘And that’s not how we’d be spending it,’ Ben countered. ‘I’m going to a party at Pete’s house and it’s walking distance from mine so you can crash in your old room.’
‘Because it’s New Year’s Eve. I don’t care whether it’s spent in a pub, at a house party or at home in front of the TV. I still hate it.’
‘Ben! I suggest you drop the subject. Right now!’
Desperate for some space away from the questions and judgemental looks, I grabbed my empty wine glass and a part-finished bottle. ‘I’ll be going to freshen up,’ I muttered to nobody in particular. ‘See you later.’
Without waiting for a response, I stormed across the room, through reception, then took the stairs two at a time until I reached my bedroom.
Empty wine glass and bottle still in my hands, I pulled open the doors to the Juliet balcony and gulped in the cool night air, waiting for my heartbeat to return to normal and the butterflies in my stomach to settle. Every year. Every single year. They’d done this to me. They’d turned me into this. I hated this time of year, thanks to them. Hated it.
But I hated them more.
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