Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Village Shop For Lonely Hearts’ by Alison Sherlock.
The Village Shop for Lonely Hearts
Amber Green stood in the pouring rain and sighed. The things you do for family, she thought.
As the taxi drove away, she drained the last of the coffee that she had picked up at Heathrow Airport even though it was now stone cold. She was past caring. She just needed the caffeine.
A rough overnight flight from JFK trying to find a comfortable position in a cramped economy seat hadn’t allowed her any sleep. The passenger in the next seat had hogged most of her personal space as well so she had been bunched up in the corner next to the cold window for most of the night.
To add insult to injury, the airline had sent her luggage to the Caribbean by mistake, so presumably it was now enjoying a cocktail on a sunny beach instead of the drizzly and damp English village she was now standing in. She wished she could join it.
The jet lag had kicked in, she was exhausted and she really didn’t want to be in Cranbridge. And yet, here she was. Still being bossed around at the age of thirty and trying to please everyone but herself.
‘You will go, won’t you?’ her mother had said on the phone only a fortnight ago. ‘Cathy is my oldest friend as well as your godmother.’
‘Who I haven’t seen for about ten years,’ Amber had reminded her.
‘That doesn’t matter,’ her mum had told her, as usual dismissing her daughter’s point of view. ‘You know that we talk almost every day. Breaks my heart not to see my best friend any more. She’s like a sister to me. She’s had such a rubbish time, what with being widowed and then getting so poorly. I just thought that you could pop in to cheer her up before coming on to see us.’
‘Pop in!’ Amber had laughed with incredulity. ‘Mum, I’m in New York! You’ve just moved to New Zealand. England is the wrong way round the world.’
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter,’ her mum had replied. ‘People catch flights to England every day from New York.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ Amber had said, rolling her eyes down the phone line. ‘Look, I haven’t got time for this. I need to find a job.’
‘Maybe you could find one in Cranbridge. It’s got quite a few shops, including Cathy’s, of course. Cranbridge Stores has been in the village forever. It’s ever so sweet.’
Amber didn’t want to upset her mum, but Cathy’s local village shop wasn’t sounding much like Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
But you don’t work at Saks any more, Amber had to remind herself. With the retail sector struggling so much everywhere, even the luxury shops in Manhattan weren’t immune to the economic downturn. So she had found herself included in the wave of recent redundancies at the famous department store.
She still felt numb from the shock that after two years of working in New York, she’d been let go. With no other jobs to go to, her work visa had run out, so she could no longer live and work in the United States. Thanks to the financial crisis spreading worldwide, none of the big shops back home in England were taking on window dressers either. With nobody recruiting, her career and life had crashed to a sudden halt.
Having to leave the United States was bad enough, but even worse, her parents didn’t live in England any more. As far back as Amber could remember, her parents had been looking for their next big adventure. Amber had spent her entire childhood trailing around as they moved from home to home, north to south of the country and back again whilst they tried their hand at running a restaurant, a bed and breakfast, owning a bookshop and even a brief sojourn into the world of gin distilleries.
However, this time they had really outdone themselves and had emigrated to New Zealand a couple of months ago to become sheep farmers, despite never having kept sheep or even run a farm before! There was no other close family in England and her parents had never stayed anywhere long enough for her to make any real friends during her childhood. As an only child, it had been a lonely start to her life, which had carried on into adulthood.
She felt completely adrift at the unexpected turn of events in her life that summer. Window dressing and design had been her lifeline during the lonelier moments of her life. It had been something to lean on when things had become really tough. And now she didn’t even have that to comfort her.
When her mum had originally suggested that she join them to live in New Zealand, Amber had laughed at the limited career options for her on a sheep farm.
Take a look at where you’ve ended up instead, she thought, standing in the drizzle that autumnal morning.
‘You’ll love Cranbridge,’ her mum had told her. ‘You used to play in the river when you were little.’
‘I don’t even remember it,’ Amber had replied.
‘I always loved going back to see Cathy there,’ her mum had said. ‘I grew up there, you know. The people are lovely. It’s such a beautiful vibrant village. It’ll be a nice little holiday for you after working so hard.’
Amber stared across the river which split the village into two halves. Vibrant wasn’t quite what came to mind. Deserted, definitely. She didn’t know which village her mum had been describing but it certainly wasn’t Cranbridge that Monday morning.
The only thing she had to concede was that it was rather beautiful as a setting, with its sandy coloured brick cottages lining the river banks and the green rolling hills surrounding the village peeping through from between each house. Instead of a main street, there was a wide shallow river running down the middle of the village, with three ancient pedestrian stone bridges connecting either side over the clear, bubbling water.
Next to where she stood was a pub, a faded sign showing The Black Swan. Or rather, that was what she guessed it was supposed to say as it was missing a couple of letters and the sign actually read The B ack Sw n. It could be quite pretty if you ignored the rotten windows and air of shabbiness about the place. In fact, she realised as she looked around once more that the whole village appeared to have an air of neglect about it. It was hardly the idyll that her mother had tempted her with as a short stay holiday destination.
On the opposite side of the river, there were four detached buildings which ran along the grassy bank and wide path. Amber could just about make out the words on a faint road sign proclaiming it to be Riverside Lane. All four of the detached buildings were shops. They each had the same pretty coloured stone with wobbly chimney pots and slate roofs. However, they were all as equally run-down as the pub; each one appeared more dilapidated than the last. Roof tiles were missing. Window frames appeared rotten. Two of the shops were completely boarded up.
At the very end of Riverside Lane, almost hidden by the large willow trees that flanked the river, was a water mill, although the huge wheel looked as if it hadn’t turned in many years. It added to the sense that the village had long since closed down.
But whereas the run-down nature of the shops and businesses was a surprise, what was most shocking was the fact that there were no people. Amber blinked and looked around the village once more, but, no, there wasn’t a person in sight. Yes, it was drizzling. It was also Monday morning, but where was everyone?
Used to the crowded, chaotic streets of New York whatever the time of day, all she could hear was birdsong and the river bubbling up against the narrow bridges as it slowly meandered through the village. The peace unnerved her. She was used to being on her own. In a big city, wasn’t everyone? But this was more than a little strange.
Finally, she looked across the narrow bridge in front of her at Cranbridge Stores, the first shop on the corner of Riverside Lane, facing out towards the river.
It was a detached brick building in the same honey-coloured brick as the rest of the village. On the upper floor were three sash windows, above which the roof narrowed to a point. On the ground floor, the main shop had a large front door in the middle, flanked by two huge bay windows on either side. Outside the shop was a large wooden veranda that ran the entire width of the shop, covered by a wonky roof in the same dark oak. It looked shabby with its faded sign adding to the air of neglect.
Amber screwed up her eyes and tried to connect the ramshackle shop with her godmother. She had last seen Cathy Kennedy at her twenty-first birthday party in London. She was a warm, attractive woman who always gave out the most enormous bear hugs.
Amber could just about remember Cathy’s husband, the infamous Todd Kennedy, laughing with her dad about something. Todd had been a man who didn’t appear to take anything seriously, as begat a man who had been a rock guitarist for most of his adult life.
Then there were two sons, Josh and Pete, but she couldn’t remember them at all, having not seen them since she was ten years old or so.
But that all seemed a long time ago now. She wondered why a famous musician with a dazzling personality had ended up bringing his family to such a quiet village.
Aware that the drizzle was beginning to frizz up her long dark blonde hair, Amber took a step forward towards the bridge and found something crunching underneath her Converse trainers. She looked down to see a carpet of acorns that had fallen from the oak tree beside her.
It was autumn already. That back-to-school feeling after the long summer holidays. The nausea washed over her as she glanced down at the jeans and leather jacket which she had travelled in. She instantly felt frumpy. Weird. A loner.
The school bullies’ taunts went around and around inside her head – Oh my God, look at her shoes! Have you seen her earrings? Her hair is awful! She’s got no friends. Just spends all her time alone, drawing.
She automatically tucked a long lock of blonde hair behind her ear and then wondered whether it made her ear stick out and drew it back in front of her face. Since leaving school well over a decade ago, she had told herself that the bullies hadn’t won. After all, she had lived and worked in London and New York in some of the most famous shops in the world. But, in truth, the endless bullying throughout her childhood had shattered her self-esteem. She had tried to tell herself that she must have been talented to have been headhunted for the job in New York. But she continued to doubt her abilities each and every day.
When she had first moved out to Manhattan, she had been excited. She imagined Sex and The City-type cocktail nights and swanning down Park Avenue with her takeaway coffee, catching the eye of some hunky guy in an expensive suit.
And yet the reality wasn’t so dreamy. She had actually felt desperately alone in the big city. Friends had been hard to come by and whenever she had tried dating, it had been an utter disaster. One guy just wanted to hear her swear in her British accent. Another had conveniently forgotten to tell her he was engaged to be married.
So, she retreated back to her safety net of channelling all her efforts into her work and then stayed in each and every night. It was better that way, she told herself. If you hid yourself away then you couldn’t be hurt.
But that seemed to make things even worse, she had found. If you’re lonely we recommend you join a club, the magazine articles said. Go out and meet new people. But Amber’s lack of confidence held her back. So she had tried to remain positive whilst keeping inside her rented room each night and watching box sets on Netflix whilst eating peanut butter out of a jar.
Occasionally, she got cross with herself over her drab existence and would head out on her days off to one of the many museums to study design or to ride the Staten Island ferry, determined to live the New York dream. But it never completely stemmed the loneliness.
A sound on the opposite side of the river made her focus back on the present day. In the distance, she could see that a man had just come out of the Cranbridge Stores. He was the first person she had seen so far in the village. At least it showed her that the shop was actually open.
She was looking forward to seeing Cathy, who had been so unwell during the past couple of years. At least they could catch up before Amber booked her forwarding flight on to New Zealand in a few days’ time.
Thinking that her aunt may be beginning to worry about where she was, Amber began to walk across the narrow bridge. It wasn’t until she was almost halfway across that she realised that the man who had just come out of the shop was also heading over the same pedestrian bridge towards her. She glanced at his face as he grew nearer and realised that she recognised him. But he also looked to be in an absolutely foul temper. With his leather jacket and five o’clock shadow, he had an air of menace about him.
Amber quickly decided to step to one side to let him by as the bridge was barely wide enough for two people.
However, she was still jet-lagged and not quite with it and so took a misstep as the toe of her trainers got stuck in the raised edge of the bridge. She flailed, her arms swinging around like a helicopter. Beginning to lose her balance, she reached out and grabbed the man’s arm in a panic.
Then, as if in slow motion, she dragged the man with her as she fell off the side of the bridge and into the river below.
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