Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘One Day In Summer’ by Shari Low.
One Day In Summer
I remember her so clearly.
There’s an image in my mind of her standing on the observation deck at the top of the Empire State Building in New York. She was about twenty-one and it was a cold day, but she didn’t care that the wind made her long red hair fly and her eyes glisten as she threw her arms out wide. The sheer joy she was feeling radiated from every pore, her smile wide and irrepressible. Like it would never fade.
Another memory. Maybe a year later. Sitting on the end of a cold Scottish pier in the early hours of the morning with a man she was madly in love with. She said he was the third love of her life. Or was it the fourth? It was a standing joke with her friends that her romantic history was like a constant repetition of death defying leaps. She’d fall from a great height into the abyss, but, as if on a bungee cord, she’d snap right back out again at warp speed a day, a week, a month later, leaving a few cases of whiplash along the way.
Another flashback, to the following summer. On a beach in Malibu, watching the surfers at dawn, making lines in the sand with her toes. I knew the whole holiday had been put on a brand new credit card and the expense sent it straight to its limit, but she gave that no thought at all. All that mattered was that moment. That experience. Life is for living. Her mantra. A cliché, but, yep, life is for living, she’d say.
Along the way, she’d met him. The one who made her forget everyone else. Dizzy with love and optimism, she said yes to the happy-ever-after dream, and prepared to waltz up the aisle with him. But they didn’t make it. Life took her on another path and into the arms of someone else.
It was just a detour. A blip.
Still, she would dance, she would throw back shots and bounce the glass on the bar, she would start a party in an empty room and watch as people flocked to join the fun.
She would talk about how there were no limits to how great her life could be, and you couldn’t listen to the enthusiasm and certainty in her voice and not believe her.
At twenty-three, she thought nothing could stop her, that she was indestructible, that there was absolutely nothing she couldn’t do or achieve if she wanted to.
Perhaps it was the naivety of youth, but she didn’t even see the perfect storm coming.
Marriage. Children. Ailing parents. A mind-blowing betrayal. A chain of events that would hijack her world, changing her until the person she was no longer existed.
Yep, life is for living, she would say.
Until she became nothing more than a battle-weary survivor, who set aside her own life just to get through the days.
I remember that young, carefree woman so clearly.
Because she was me.
Saturday, 30 May 2020
8am – 10 a.m.
It was like the sound they played to warn of imminent tornadoes in disaster movies. Agnetha McMaster – ‘Aggs’ to her pals – banged the button on her phone, silencing the alarm that was wailing like a foghorn about twelve inches from her ear. Thankfully, there was no tornado. And, also thankfully, the mug that she knocked off the pale grey chest of drawers beside her bed was empty. This wasn’t her first ‘tea dregs flying across the room first thing in the morning’ rodeo, so she’d been sure to drain the cup before switching off Grey’s Anatomy, snuggling down alone and falling asleep.
Pushing herself up in bed, she stretched her arms to the top of the silver velvet headboard. Redecorating this room had been her twins, Skye and Isla’s, idea and they’d all spent last weekend sanding, painting and then scouring the aisles of Dunelm for new furniture and accessories to replace ones that had been in residence here since Aggs was a teenager. They’d come home with a thick white duvet, a grey and pink tartan throw and scatter cushions that she wasn’t entirely sure what to do with. She didn’t mind. All that mattered was that she was glad she’d given in to the pressure from her daughters to treat herself, and now, on the morning of her forty-fifth birthday, and ten years after she’d sold up her house and moved back into her parents’ flat above their family’s cafe, it no longer felt like her childhood bedroom. It still felt like her home, though; the one she’d had for most of her life. She’d grown up in this very room, with her parents in the next bedroom, and her grandparents at the end of the hall. She’d moved out when she got married, then moved back in with her girls after her divorce, finding comfort in the aromas that drifted upstairs from the café that had passed from her grandparents, to her parents and then to Aggs.
She pulled on her specs, gathered her long red messy mane up into a ponytail and picked up her phone, grinning as she saw that Skye had already sent a ‘Happy Birthday’ gif to the WhatsApp group she shared with her daughters.
She checked the time: 8 a.m.. The doors of The Ginger Sponge would be opening downstairs, but Isla had insisted that she didn’t come down until at least noon. It was her first lazy morning in years and she intended to milk it – at least until 8.30, when she’d inevitably succumb to the guilt that would no doubt get the better of her, and she’d make some excuse to go down and get to work. Café owners – especially this one – didn’t have the luxury of sleeping late.
The bedroom door slammed open and her twenty year old daughter marched into the room, tray first.
‘Don’t even think about it,’ Isla warned. She was already in her warm-day work uniform of a black vest top, jeans that were cut off just above the ankle and black Vans.
Aggs automatically adopted a face of innocence. ‘Think about what? Brad Pitt on a sunlounger, wearing nothing but suncream and a smile?’
‘No and eeeew, that’s so inappropriate. Mothers your age are not allowed to have sexual fantasies. I’m sure there’s a law about it somewhere,’ Isla winced as she placed the tray down on the empty side of Aggs’ new double bed. It was laden with a huge mug of coffee, two slices of pumpkin-seeded toast and a glistening apple Danish that Aggs knew would have come out of the oven five minutes ago.
‘Fine. I won’t tell you about what Matt Damon might get up to in my utility room then. Anyway, what have I not to think about?’
Isla made gagging sounds before dissolving into giggles. ‘Don’t even think about getting up and coming downstairs.’
‘I wasn’t even contemplating it.’ Blatant lie number one of the day was met with a knowing grin, hands on hips and raised eyebrows of doubt. Aggs immediately buckled. ‘God, I’d be a rubbish spy. One sign of a sceptical look and I fold like a deckchair. Okay, so I was planning to come down. But only because I don’t want to leave you on your own in case it gets busy.’
‘I’m not on my own. Val and Yvie are downstairs. They came to help because they knew you wouldn’t be able to relax. Val says if you come down before noon she’s shutting up shop and picketing the front door with placards saying we’ve got mice.’
Despite the undoubted authenticity of the threat, Aggs found herself laughing at the thought of her two friends pitching up and doling out orders. And she knew better than to call Val’s bluff.
Isla squeezed onto the bed next to the tray, tucked a tendril of red hair the same shade as her mum’s behind her ears, then leaned over and gave Aggs a hug. ‘Happy birthday, Mum. Are you okay? Are you missing Gran?’
Aggs hesitated, giving her time to swallow the lump in her throat. This time last year her mum had still been with them, although she’d been in the final stages of her illness. Now, the pain of watching her suffer had been replaced by the pain of losing her, but her mum, more than anyone, would be telling her to ‘just get on with it, love’.
‘I am, but you know what she’d be saying…’
‘Just get on with it, love,’ Isla said softly, her impersonation of her grandmother’s voice absolutely on point. Isla had been in the fifth year of high school when they’d discovered she’d been bunking off lessons for years, by calling the school and using her gran’s voice to claim Isla was sick. Aggs had been furious, but her mum had thought it was hilarious. She never could get upset with her granddaughters. Isla shifted the mood back to happiness. ‘So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re planning to give you your presents later when Skye gets here, but in the meantime please stay here. Relax. You deserve it.’
Isla’s last word was restricted by the tightness of the squeeze Aggs was delivering, her heart bursting with gratitude. ‘I love all this. And you. Thanks so much, sweetheart. How did I get so lucky to get you?’
‘Because God had to make up for Skye somehow,’ Isla shot back with a grin.
‘Hey! Don’t talk about your sister like that.’ Aggs feigned outrage, but Isla was already up and out the room, chuckling as she went.
‘Tell you what – if she decides to grace us with her presence, I’ll be nice to her all day.’
‘Best birthday present I could have!’ Aggs shouted in her wake.
Twins. Double trouble. Isla and Skye definitely had a love, irritate, love, relationship. It didn’t help that while they looked undeniably alike, with their flaming hair (Isla’s falling past her shoulders in waves, whereas Skye had a more reserved chin-length bob) and green eyes, their personalities were completely different. Isla was more of a free spirit who had taken a couple of years out after school to volunteer with a school-construction charity in South America. On her return, she’d come to work in The Ginger Sponge for a couple of weeks until she decided what to do next. A year later, she was still there, still undecided and that showed no sign of changing any time soon. The fourth generation of the Sanders family to work in the café. After running it for a decade on her own, Aggs harboured a hope that Isla would one day take over from her, but she’d leave that up to her daughter to decide.
Skye, on the other hand, was following in her father’s footsteps and studying law at the University of Glasgow. She had already mapped out the next ten years of her life, set on being a top-flight international property lawyer by the time she was thirty. Moving in with her dad the year before had been a strategic decision and Skye made no secret of the fact that she’d done it so that she’d have his brilliant legal mind on hand to help with her studies. Aggs completely understood, and saw the sense in it, but the house was definitely too quiet without Skye around. Aggs even found herself longing for the familiar sound of her girls bickering about the most inane and trivial stuff. If it wasn’t for the resemblance and the fact that Skye dropped into the birthing pool just two minutes before Isla, Aggs wouldn’t be convinced that there was any genetic link between them at all.
The coffee scalded her lips as she took a sip, but she barely noticed, enjoying the heat of the mug on her hands as she stared at the tiny specs dancing in the rays of sun that were forcing their way through the slats of the shutters on the wall next to her. A sunny day. She’d hoped it would be. Although, this was Glasgow, so there could be torrential rain by lunchtime, a heatwave in the early afternoon, and a warning of frost by dinner time.
A sigh escaped her. So here it was. Her forty-fifth birthday. She was normally far too busy with the café, the accounts, the ordering, the invoices and the other hundred jobs she did every day, to allow herself the indulgence of introspection, but now the peace and silence was giving her way too much time for reflection. This was the first year without both Mum and Dad, the first one since the flat and café had officially passed to her, the first one since Skye had moved out, but definitely not the first one without someone lying beside her in bed.
It had been ten years now since the divorce. Ten years since that crushing betrayal that had spurred her to return here with the twins. Ten years with no time to herself to think about the simple things like getting her roots done, never mind the big stuff like personal relationships and life plans.
History had shown that neither were exactly her areas of expertise, but it wasn’t too late, was it? Decorating her bedroom had been a first, tiny step towards doing something for herself. It was a notion that had grown since her mum’s funeral.
She missed her every single day. Missed her laugh. Missed her company. Missed her love. Missed chatting over cups of tea in the morning and getting told off for not making the most of herself. ‘The day I go out without my lippy is the day it’s over for me,’ her mum would tut.
Aggs doubted that there would ever be a day that she didn’t think of her, but over the last few months she’d worked on picking up the pieces of her life. Now, for the first time in twenty years, she didn’t have the responsibility of looking after other people. The girls were taking care of their own lives, her parents were gone and there was no one depending on her but herself.
Her eyes went to a photograph that the girls had found in an old suitcase when they’d been clearing out this room to decorate it. They’d slipped it into a new white satinwood frame and put it on her dressing table.
It was a picture of Aggs. Around twenty-three. In a white bikini on a Malibu beach. Head up. Hair blowing behind her in the wind. Arms outstretched. Laughing at the sky. That’s who she used to be. And that wild, free, young woman bore no resemblance to the exhausted, depleted, weighed-down person that she’d become, someone who went through the motions, did what was required of her, but put herself at the bottom of the priority list.
After laying her mum to rest, though, she’d gradually taken steps to heal the scars left by too much loss, and after a while something in her had shifted. Years of tension had begun to unfurl and something else had taken its place. Was it… hope?
An involuntary shiver made her toes curl as another glance at the picture threw up a memory that popped her bubble of bliss. This date had another significance, another association, one that now, over twenty years later, still made her stomach twist with regret and embarrassment. With a ferocity that almost made her glasses rattle, she shook her head, shutting down that thought.
That birthday, twenty-two years ago, had been the day that changed everything.
Nope, not going back there. Hadn’t she learned that you could do nothing to change the past? Hadn’t she been doing her best to have a new, bright, sunny outlook? From this day forward, the Agnetha ‘Aggs’ McMaster of the last two decades was behind her. The woman who’d lived for other people, who’d taken care of everyone else, was going into retirement, and the new independent, optimistic version of herself was in charge now.
A buzz from her phone made her jump and she picked it up to see a text with that familiar name on the screen. The flush that crept up from her neck was equal parts excitement and guilt.
Happy birthday, gorgeous. Have you told them yet?
She’d promised she would break the news before today, but of course she’d chickened out. It was too big. Too scary. Too radical.
With a sigh, she turned the phone over without replying.
She’d tell them at some point, when the moment was right.
Today was the first day of Aggs McMaster’s plan to claim back a life on her own terms. She just had to take the first step. And then decide if she had the courage to see it through.
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