Publication day of The Summerhouse by the Sea is not far away. Why not have a read of the first chapters to whet your appetite? Grab a cup of tea, curl up and enjoy…
Ava was standing at the crossing when her phone beeped. She took it from her pocket at the same time as glancing left for traffic.
Instead of looking right, Ava opened the WhatsApp message from her brother, Rory: Gran in hospital, it read. She frowned down at her phone and wondered how Rory could ever think that was enough information. But then the horn of the 281 bus stopped all other conscious thought.
The shriek of the brakes filled the air at the same time as she saw the huge windscreen, the wipers. The face of the driver in slow motion, mouth open. Her whole body tensed. She felt her hand drop the phone. Time paused.
There was a fleeting thought that this was actually really embarrassing.
And then – smack – she didn’t think anything else. Just felt the hard pain in her hip, then the thwack of her head as she was thrown down on to the tarmac, and an overriding sense of unfairness because she wasn’t yet ready to die.
The nurse waited patiently as Ava tried once more to get through to her brother.
‘It’s voicemail,’ Ava said, apologetic. ‘Everyone’s on voicemail. No one’s answering their phone, I’ve tried everyone. I’m really sorry.’ All her friends were in meetings or on the tube or at lunch, unreachable.
‘It’s fine.’ The nurse’s nametag read Julie Stork. Ava wondered if using her name might aid familiarity – she found it a bit creepy when the man at Starbucks called her Ava because he’d written it on a cup every day, but she could do with an ally. The alternative was another nurse, Tina, who Julie was talking quietly with now. Tina was terrifying. Her uniform stretched tight over her solid figure, hair scraped back in a ponytail, all-seeing eyes like hungry jackdaws. She’d been the one to inform Ava that she couldn’t go home without someone to watch over her for twenty-four hours, while making it very clear that they needed the bed back as soon as possible.
Without the pressure of having no one to come and get her, Ava might have quite enjoyed her hospital stay. Starched white sheets, lamb chops and green beans, sponge pudding and custard, and a tatty out-of-date copy of OK! magazine. But her eyes hovered distractedly to her phone the whole time, her fingers scrolling through her contacts every few seconds, texting, WhatsApping, refreshing.
She felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment as she heard Nurse Tina mutter, ‘There must be someone.’
So when her phone beeped she pounced on it. A text from Rory: Can’t get away. Jonathon coming to get you.
Ava put her hand over her mouth. How could her brother send her ex-boyfriend, of all people? Send his PA, one of the runners on set, anyone. Not the guy he’d set her up with and who she’d split from three months ago.
She sat up quickly to get dressed and out of the stupid hospital gown that did up at the back, the magazine clattering to the floor. She tried to check her reflection in anything she could find: a knife from her plate. She scrunched her flat hair. She felt dizzy. She paused on the side of the bed and looked up just in time to see Jonathon sauntering up the hospital aisle with a sardonic grin on his face.
‘Hi, Jonathon,’ she said with an embarrassed half-smile as he stopped, hands on hips, at the end of her bed.
‘Hit by a bus, eh?’
She nodded. Tried to stand up but felt faint and sat down again. He swooped round the side of the bed to help her. ‘Thanks,’ she mumbled.
‘It’s fine. Take your time.’
She remembered how familiar his face had been. The wide brown eyes and ruddy cheeks. The frustrated look he’d given her when she’d told him that she didn’t think they were going to work as a couple. That she wasn’t very good at relationships and she didn’t think that she was what he was looking for. That she was good at being on her own. And the wide eyes narrowing as he said, ‘Yes you are. You’re going to have to be. Because honestly, I don’t think I know you at all.’
Now he looked all bright and breezy, the collar of his navy striped rugby shirt turned up, jolly eyes sparkling, while Ava was struggling to stand in her open-backed gown. She shuffled on bare feet to close the curtain, a task which Nurse Tina took over, drawing it with a quick flick of her wrist, hustling the exit process forwards.
‘You need any help?’ Jonathon asked, picking up the magazine from the floor and having a flick through.
Ava shook her head.
Jonathon went to stand outside the cubicle as she picked up her socks. The effort of pulling one on was like clambering over a brick wall. Waves of tiredness made her want to snuggle back down into the pillow. She tried to undo her gown but couldn’t reach the strings at the back. Limbs heavy and useless. She tried again.
In the end she sat, hands either side of her, and shutting her eyes said, ‘Jonathon.’
‘Yep,’ his head poked through the curtain.
‘I think I’m going to need some help.’
She saw the raised brow, the slight quirk of his lips. Then he walked in and carefully undid the back of her gown. She held it to her front as she took out one arm at a time and he handed her her T-shirt. She felt him watching with veiled amusement as she tried to get her top on without exposing any more of her body. But when it came to her skinny jeans she finally had to relent, her toes lost somewhere in the tight denim and the waistband halfway up her thighs. ‘Could you help me pull them up, please?’ she said, cursing Topshop. If she wasn’t so completely shattered the humiliation would have been unbearable.
Finally dressed, Ava had to take a second to sit on the bed and get her breath back. She realised the window behind the bed made the perfect mirror as she saw her flat hair and white face staring back at her.
Jonathon gave her his arm and she took it reluctantly to stand up.
‘You know, this is the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen you,’ he said, chuckling at her obvious displeasure at needing help.
They walked out slowly, Nurse Julie watching with an expression that presumed they were a sweet young couple heading home to eat chicken soup and curl up in front of Homes Under the Hammer. Nurse Tina glanced up from her desk with a satisfied nod and handed Ava a leaflet on concussion and signs to look out for.
Ava just wanted to curl up and sleep, but Jonathon was still talking. ‘That’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? Given we went out for more than six months.’ He paused as he held open the door and added with a grin, ‘I’m still a pretty good catch, you know, Ava . . .’
She managed a smile.
As he bundled her into the soft leather seats of his Volvo, the vulnerable, mildly concussed side of her realised how easy it would be to cosy on down with him in front of some daytime TV. To slip back into the warm, comforting familiarity. But she knew it wasn’t right. Her litmus test was to imagine introducing him to her mother, had she been alive. The three of them sitting down to afternoon tea and her mother’s attention drifting as Jonathon talked politely about his job, his hobbies, his military fitness training. Her mother immediately sizing him up as average. Ava imagined herself cutting in with his achievements, with the fun they had, and her mother with an expression that questioned who she was trying to convince.
Jonathon turned to look at her as he cruised down the main road. ‘I’ll drop you at Rory’s and then head straight off, got to get back to work, OK?’
And Ava realised that the ‘good catch’ statement was just that, a statement, to show her what she’d missed. There was no Homes Under the Hammer option available to her, even if she wanted it. ‘Yes, absolutely fine.’
When they pulled up outside Rory and his wife Claire’s Victorian semi, Jonathon came round to open Ava’s door, but she’d opened it on her own. He shut it after her instead.
‘Got all your stuff?’ he asked, as he followed her to the pavement.
Ava nodded. ‘Thank you. You know, for . . .’ She gestured to her clothes and the car. ‘Everything.’
‘It was my pleasure, Ava,’ Jonathon smirked, leaning in to give her a quick peck on the cheek, then waving to Claire who had just opened the front door. As he slipped back into his heated leather seat, he added, ‘It was actually quite enlightening. Getting to see beneath the . . .’ He made a gesture to her face and body, then coughed and said, ‘Not literally. You know what I mean?’ Then shook his head and with an awkward wave pulled the car door shut.
Ava watched him drive away, the grey sky merging with the road and the pavement. She didn’t have time to dwell on what he’d said because her ten-year-old nephew Max came bounding to her side.
‘Aunty Ava! Where’s your bandage? Mum said you’d been hit by a bus. Wow! That’s so cool. It must have really hurt!’
Claire appeared behind him. ‘Sorry I couldn’t pick you up, I was getting Max from football. You OK?’
Ava rubbed her head, felt the tears of the day pushing behind her eyes. She shook her head. ‘Not really,’ she said.
Claire reached out and put her arms around her, enveloping Ava in the kind of hug mums give on TV adverts, that make everything better and smell of fabric softener and strawberries. Ava was momentarily jealous of little Max standing next to her on the drive, eating chocolate digestives and watching YouTube on a laptop balanced precariously on his arm.
Ava stepped out of the hug, brushing her hair back, wincing as she felt the huge bump on the side of her head. ‘Thanks,’ she said to Claire, who nodded in understanding and ushered her inside, into the bright kitchen diner where she sat down on a battered club chair at the far end, next to the bifold doors that opened out on to the decking and the neatly mown lawn.
‘What do we need to do?’ Claire asked as she put the kettle on. Ava handed her the hospital leaflet, momentarily relieved to pass all responsibility over to someone else. Someone who was just innately caring, practical and kind. Who got a bag of frozen peas out of the freezer, wrapped them in a tea towel and put them carefully on her head, who made her a cup of tea and put sugar in for the shock, and went and found a blanket for her shoulders even though the house was completely warm enough.
Claire ruffled Max’s hair as she walked past him, and once again Ava thought how lucky he was.
Her phone started beeping with replies from her friends, finally out of all-day meetings and finished at the gym, asking if she was OK, whether she needed anything. Ava closed her eyes.
Max plodded over with his laptop and the packet of digestives. ‘Do you think anyone filmed it, Aunty Ava? We should try and find out,’ he said through a mouthful of biscuit crumbs. ‘Because you could send it into Ultimate Fails and they’d put you on YouTube.’
The front door slammed and a man’s voice said, ‘That’s enough, thank you, Max.’
Max rolled his eyes. ‘Hi, Dad,’ he said, perching himself on the armrest of Ava’s chair and disappearing back into his laptop.
Rory strode into the kitchen like a businessman might in a film. Cool and confident, a little distracted, emanating stress. He looked like he always did, just older. Top button on his shirt undone, blond hair a fraction ruffled, sleeves rolled up. He looked at Ava.
She felt like a fool with peas on her head and a blanket round her shoulders.
‘You alright?’ he asked, leaning up against the duck egg kitchen unit.
‘Nothing broken?’ He poured himself a glass of water.
Ava shook her head.
‘Good,’ he said, downing the drink in one.
She was about to tell him how annoyed she was that he’d sent Jonathon to get her when he asked, ‘Up to travelling?’
Ava narrowed her eyes. ‘Why?’
Rory rolled his lips together, ran his hand through his hair. Glanced at his wife who had paused in the doorway. ‘Not good news, I’m afraid.’
‘What?’ Ava asked. She suddenly remembered the WhatsApp she’d read before the bus hit.
‘She’s died,’ he said, typically matter-of-fact. ‘Gran’s died.’
Ava felt her whole body shrink.
‘All very natural. Peaceful,’ he said, refilling his glass. ‘And they don’t waste any time in Spain. Funeral’s tomorrow.’
Ava sat very still, trying to stop her bottom lip from wobbling, not wanting to cry in front of Rory, hugging the frozen peas absently to her chest. Wishing that today and every other to come was yesterday.
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