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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Ready?”

“As we’ll ever be. I think.” Jenna looked around the kitchen, ticking items off on her fingers. “Food – check. Drink – check. Did you put the juice out, Rosie?”

“Yes, it’s on the dining table. Along with the wine and the fizzy water.”

“Corkscrew?”

“Just in case anyone brings some posh plonk that hasn’t got a screw cap,” said Saskia helpfully, because Rosie was looking rather bewildered.

“I think it’s in here,” Jenna said, ferreting through the contents of the cutlery drawer.

“There’d better be a bloody corkscrew, darling, or there’ll be carnage. Good,” Saskia added, as Jenna waved the implement triumphantly. “I’ve seen more efficient looking ones, but that’ll do. Indy, sweetness, is the music sorted?”

“Done,” her daughter said from the direction of the sitting room, and to prove her point, something with a loud, insistent beat began to thud against their eardrums.

“No, it’s not,” Saskia said, and swept imperiously through the door. There was sudden silence, and then a pause, during which Rosie and Jenna grinned at each other, followed by the familiar, joyous introduction to ‘Dancing Queen’.

“You can’t please everyone all at the same time,” Saskia said, returning, followed by Indy, who rolled her eyes at Rosie. “But considering most of us are oldies, darling, I think retro is safest.”

“And the cheesier the better,” Jenna added. “I hope Ruth hasn’t invited too many people. Any more than about a dozen and we’ll be wedged like sardines.”

“Well, we can always spill over into the garden, if you don’t mind getting frostbite,” said Saskia. She shivered ostentatiously. “Which reminds me, what about fireworks? I completely forgot.”

“We can’t have fireworks, Mum,” Indy pointed out. “They’d scare the kittens.”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t think anything short of a nuclear explosion would scare those particular kittens, but you’re right, best avoided for the sake of the little dears. Now, are we really ready? It’s after nine, people should be arriving soon.” She turned to Jenna. “And by the way, darling, forgot to mention it earlier, but you look fabulous.”

“Really?” Jenna flushed with pleasure. “I haven’t taken much trouble.” She’d spent some time wondering what to wear this evening: a New Year’s Eve party cried out for sparkle and glamour, but she hadn’t wanted to overdo it, this was a small gathering of friends, after all. She’d tried on the blue and yellow 50s dress she’d bought from Saskia after the fashion show, and decided that, lovely though it was, it was definitely just for summer wear. In the end she’d settled for an embroidered, close-fitting crimson velvet top and black trousers, with minimal make-up, a plain gold necklace and her favourite earrings, red rose studs. The woman looking back at her in the mirror, with her chic hair cut and unaccustomed mascara and lipstick, wasn’t really her, despite the presence of her trademark green eyes and freckles: hardly the tired, soon-to-be-divorced mother of three adult children which she’d assumed to be her current identity. This woman was confident, assured, comfortable in her skin, which was still youthful: she didn’t have to colour her hair yet, either. She wondered wryly when childish freckles became transformed into elderly liver-spots, and decided firmly that it wouldn’t be for many years yet.

“Well, it doesn’t look like it,” Saskia assured her. “You’ll knock ‘em dead. Any unattached men on the guest list?”

“I have no idea,” Jenna said, truthfully. “And don’t you dare do any stirring. I’ve just been dumped by one love-rat man, I really don’t want to start trying to hook another.”

“Leaving the field clear for me,” said Saskia with satisfaction. She was wearing a sequined silk kaftan teamed with skinny jeans, her brilliant hair tied up in a scarf and her trademark bracelets jingling up both arms. “You don’t mind, do you, Indy my love?”

Her daughter rolled her eyes again at Rosie. “Please don’t be too embarrassing, Mum.”

“Embarrassing? Moi? The very idea!”

“Just remember that you’re going home tomorrow, but I’ve got to live here and face people,” Jenna said with a grin, and went through into the sitting room for a final check.

The stove was glowing nicely, and the room smelt of the dried hops she had bought at a bargain price in a shop in Aldeburgh after Christmas, and wreathed above the hearth. Wine glasses were ranked on the dining table, along with a selection of wines, juices and water, and a big bowl of Saskia’s hot winter punch, which tasted so innocently of spice and fruit and sweetness, and was actually lethal. She had set out trays and bowls of nibbles – nothing very special, just crisps, nuts and ready-made canapés – and tried to put some order into the clutter of books, ornaments and photographs ranged along the shelves on either side of the fireplace. The room was small, unpretentious and even a bit shabby, but she was pleased with the effect: it didn’t look as if she was trying too hard to impress.

Agnetha and Anni-Frid were urging her to feel the beat of the tambourine, and Jenna hummed along. She straightened one of the pictures, a soft watercolour of bluebells she’d bought years ago at an exhibition in St. Albans, and then plumped up the cushions on the sofa and rearranged the throw to disguise the place which Artemis had decided she would use to sharpen her claws, despite the presence of the cat tree. One thing was certain, with the kittens now part of the household, it was impossible to be too precious about possessions – already a porcelain mug had been consigned, minus its handle, to the waste bin, the curtains were looking a bit the worse for wear after Apollo had learned to shin up them, and a suspicious damp patch in a dark corner on the landing had had to be disinfected. As Saskia had warned, Burmese were more radical and extreme than ordinary felines: the Talibans of the cat world.

There was a rap on the knocker, and her heart began to thump faster with anticipation. She went through into the hall and opened the front door. As she had hoped, it was Ruth and Gary, smiling broadly and bearing a promising looking bottle with the neck wrapped in gold foil. Behind them, half of Orford seemed to be also hoping for admittance.

“Hello!” Jenna said, exchanging a kiss with them both. “Thank you so much for coming.”

“I won’t say happy New Year yet,” said Ruth cheerfully, handing over the bottle, “but I hope you don’t mind – we’ve brought quite a lot of company for you. Can you manage to fit us all in?”

“The more the merrier,” Jenna said, as half a dozen complete strangers trooped past her, all encumbered with coats and bottles and, in one case, most welcome, a large and extremely expensive-looking box of chocolates. Bringing up the rear was a tall man whom she recognised at once. “Hello, Jenna,” he said, stopping and smiling at her. “Nice to meet you again.”

“Hi,” she said, feeling an unwanted flush of embarrassment suffusing her face. “Don’t worry, no dogs this time. Sammy’s safely shut away next door.”

“Yes, I renewed my acquaintance with him just now.” He held out his hand. “Marcus King.”

“Jenna Johnson. I’m really sorry –“

“I’ve had a lot worse happen to me than being showered by a scatty spaniel, believe me. All forgiven and forgotten.”

“That’s a relief,” she said, with a grin. “It’s been keeping me awake at night. Joke,” she added, seeing his expression.

“Okay.” He eyed her rather dubiously, and allowed her to take his padded jacket, which was the same expensive brand that Rick preferred. She hooked it over the newel post at the bottom of the stairs, along with all the others, and ushered him into the sitting room.

Ruth performed the necessary introductions. “This is Nikki Freeman, she teaches at a school in Aldeburgh, and her husband Rob –“ a couple about the same age as Jenna, she short and round, he almost as short with bristly greying hair – “John and Paula Woodman –“ elderly, both rather too smartly dressed for the occasion – “Jim Hesketh and Andrew Marshall. Jim sails –“

“And I don’t,” said Andrew Marshall cheerfully. He had a florid complexion, a purple velvet bow tie and glasses, and it was obvious that he and Jim, a bronzed and wiry man in his sixties, were a couple despite their physical differences. “Is that a bowl of punch, perchance? Lead me to it!”

Ruth carried on regardless. “And Marcus King you’ve already met. This is Jenna, our neighbour and host for the evening, her daughter Rosie, and her friend Saskia and her daughter India. Now, that’s my job done, I think I’ll join Andrew at the punch. It all looks really lovely, Jenna, you’ve worked so hard to make it homely.”

To the continued strains of Abba, now informing them, as if Jenna didn’t know it already, that it was a rich man’s world, the party broke up into chat. To her amusement, she saw Saskia sizing up Marcus King with a distinctly predatory eye, and wondered if he was single. At least if he’d spent time in Afghanistan, he presumably wasn’t the kind of wimp her friend despised most.

With a cup of hot punch in her hand, she began to circulate, hoping that some of Ruth’s guests were more interesting than they’d first appeared. It was an unworthy thought, and she knew that she was being unfair in thinking that because the Woodmans looked as though they’d be happy in her mother’s company, she wouldn’t be happy in theirs. She spent some time talking to Nikki, the teacher, with whom she found plenty in common, as she worked in a primary school and currently had a Year 3 class. They spent some time discussing the iniquities of government interference in the curriculum, and Nikki asked her if she’d ever considered going back to teaching.

“Not really,” Jenna confessed. “I haven’t stood at the chalkface for twenty years, and I’d need a pretty comprehensive refresher course before I applied for anything.” She grinned. “But of course it isn’t chalk any more, is it? It’s whiteboards and projectors and PowerPoint.”

“Well, you could always be a teaching assistant and ease yourself back in that way,” Nikki suggested. “My own TA is a former teacher, she gave up to start a family, like you did. She’s quite happy doing that, though, she says she can live without the hassle and responsibility of being in charge. Why not look on the jobs website? There are lots of posts advertised there. Or you could become a dedicated assistant to a child with special needs or a disability, accompany them right through their school career. We’ve got a girl with cerebral palsy at our school, she has her own TA to help her and she manages brilliantly.”

Jenna thanked her, and said she’d take a look online. In truth, though, she wasn’t enthused by the thought of returning to education, even as a lowly teaching assistant. She’d done her time with young children, and now she wanted to do grown-up things, with grown-up people. But, she reminded herself, beggars couldn’t be choosers, and while she was hardly a beggar, she did badly need a job, and the time might come when a return to the classroom became the only way of getting one.

Paula Woodman approached. She had spurned the punch in favour of a glass of orange juice and sparkling water, from which Jenna guessed she must be driving. “I know Ruth introduced us,” she said, holding out her hand, “but not what I’d call properly. Paula Holland. I see you’re a reader,” she added, with a glance at the crowded shelves on either side of the hearth. “Fancy joining our book group?”

Slightly dazed by the pounce, Jenna said, “I – I’m not sure. What sort of books do you read?”

“Oh, anything. We’re currently doing Les Miserables. Have you read it?”

“No, but I’ve seen it on TV.”

“Well, if that doesn’t appeal, we don't just do the classics – I admit that last month it was Bleak House, but before that, Chocolat.”

“Oh, I love that book,” said Nikki. “The film was good, too.” She winked at Jenna. “And it had Johnny Depp in it.”

“So it’s not entirely literary, then,” Jenna said. Paula Woodman was, clearly, an organiser, and she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to be organised – at least, not yet. On the other hand, joining a book group would be a good way of getting to know people. She added cautiously, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll pass on Les Mis, but what are you doing after that?”

Paula waved a hand. “No idea. We take it in turns to suggest a title. We haven’t done any non-fiction in a while, so it might be a biography, or something historical. Ruth tells me you’re a historian.”

“That was my degree, yes, but I ended up teaching primary, like Nikki.”

“Well, even if you haven’t read Bleak House, come along to our next meeting, we could do with some new blood, there are only eight of us at present. Ruth’s a member too, she’ll tell you where it is. I know I’ve asked you before, Nikki, do you still not want to?”

“Sorry,” said Nikki, with a glint in her eye that implied she wasn’t sorry at all. “But to be honest, I’m shattered most evenings during term time, and I’d rather spend any spare time I do have with my own kids.”

“Pity. But I can count on you, Jenna? Good. It’s on Wednesday week, my house, seven thirty, we take it in turns, there’ll be food, nothing fancy, looking forward to it. Hello, Andrew, will you be gracing us with your presence? We all missed you last time. What was it, man flu?”

Jenna glanced at him, interested to see how he was taking this gibe, but he was obviously used to Paula’s very abrupt manner and answered good-humouredly. “No, a severe allergy to Dickens. Hello, Jenna, I see you’ve already been roped in. Now you’re officially a proper member of the community, rather than one of those dastardly second homers, Paula will take you in hand, and she very rarely takes no for an answer.”

“Now come on, Andrew, you make me sound like a member of the Gestapo.”

Andrew Marshall winked at Jenna. “All I can say is, ‘Ve haff vays of making you join.’”

Perhaps fortunately, at this moment there was a knock on the outer door. Jenna excused herself and went to answer it. As she’d hoped, Fran stood on the threshold, Flora by his side, and three vague figures in the darkness behind them. “Great, we’ve found you,” he said, with a grin, “but I can’t say it was easy. I think the whole street must have the same postcode.”

“Probably,” said Jenna, holding the door wide despite the cold draught. “Hi, Flora, how are you?”

“Very well, thank you, Jenna,” said the child primly. She had changed her hairstyle – a loose pony-tail rather than the Wednesday Addams plaits – and it suited her much better, making her look a lot less scary. She added, “We’ve brought some friends, we hope you don’t mind.”

“Hello, Jen,” said a familiar voice, and its owner came forward into the light. “I thought I’d surprise you.”

He had. “Jon!” she said, feeling suddenly nervous. “Great to see you. Come on in.”

There was a brief flurry of friendly cheek-kissing, neatly evaded by Flora. Following Jon, Jenna saw two teenagers, the boy in skinny jeans and a hoodie, the girl wearing a very short sparkly dress over thick black tights and sturdy boots, as if she couldn’t make up her mind whether it was summer or winter. “My kids,” he said. “They’re with me over New Year, so I brought them along. Freddie, Alice? This is Jenna.”

There was some resemblance to Jon in the girl, Alice, who had red hair and an almost arrogant air of self-confidence. Freddie was more like Sarah, dark and rather shy, and gave Jenna a distinctly hunted look as he passed her into the tiny hall. At that moment Rosie appeared, and she and India immediately took over, to the newcomers’ obvious relief. While Jenna hung the coats up, Jon’s children, and Flora, had been issued with a plateful of nibbles, a soft drink apiece, and whisked away upstairs to Rosie’s lair, where doubtless they would spend the time until midnight playing with the kittens and various games on Indy’s Wii, which she had brought with her. Jenna looked round the sitting room, seeing everyone cheerfully engaged in conversation, and then nipped into the kitchen, where she found Fran and Jon unloading a selection of bottled beers from a rucksack. “The kids have all gone upstairs,” she said. “Rosie and Indy will look after them. How old are your two, Jon?”

“Alice is sixteen and Freddie’s fourteen. Yes, I know he looks older, he’s grown like a weed this last year. They’re at that awkward age where they want to go off and do things independently, but Sarah was adamant she didn’t want them attending some dodgy mate’s New Year parent-free bash in Reading, so she sent them off to me.” He gave a wry smile. “So they’ve been sulking – and believe me, Alice can sulk for England.”

“And Flora can sulk for Scotland,” Fran said. He tipped the contents of one of the beer bottles very gently into a glass, and then looked up at Jenna. “It’s good of you to ask us.”

“Don’t be silly, you’re almost a neighbour, of course I was going to ask you. And it’s really nice to see you again, Jon,” she added. “Are you staying with Fran?”

“I think ‘camping’ is a more appropriate term,” Fran said. “Though at least the plumbing no longer leaks, and the central heating works.”

“He makes it sound as if the place is semi-derelict.” Jon took the glass of beer from Fran, and grinned. “And believe me, it’s not. Show her the pictures.”

“Yes, please, I’d love to see them.” As Fran, with a comical show of reluctance, produced his mobile phone, she went round to stand beside him. He scrolled through a variety of shots, mostly of Flora, a couple of hulking fishing boats on Aldeburgh beach and some very old and gnarled trees, and came to a house Jenna immediately recognised. Thatched, built of flint and brick with pointed, Gothic windows, it was surrounded by overgrown shrubs and draped with ivy and other assorted climbers, but the general air of neglect only added to its charm. Delighted, she said, “Oh, it’s the witch’s house!”

“Witch’s house?” Jon queried, raising his eyebrows.

“That’s what Rosie calls it. We’ve been past it loads of times, on the Butley road by Staverton, right in the woods. I’ve always loved it and wanted to know who lived in it – and now I do!”

“Well, I only bought it back in September,” Fran said. “Before that, it’d been empty for years – I think its previous owner was in a care home for a long time. It needed a hell of a lot doing to it, new thatch, new kitchen and bathroom, central heating, chimneys rebuilt, damp proofing, and the next project is to soundproof that dilapidated old outbuilding so I can turn it into a small studio.”

“So this is where you’ve been hiding!” Saskia sashayed into the kitchen, a brimming cup of punch in her hand, her eyes bright with curiosity. “Jenna, darling, I don’t think I’ve yet had the pleasure...”

Trying not to smile too much, Jenna introduced Fran and Jon, and explained their relationships to the youngsters that Rosie and India had taken upstairs. She would have liked nothing better than to have stayed in the kitchen talking about old times, but she was guiltily aware that she had a roomful of other guests next door. With a mad memory of Patricia, urging her at some cocktail party to ‘circulate, Jennifer, you must circulate!’, she excused herself and went back into the sitting room.

Of course, the people that Ruth and Gary had brought with them all knew each other, and they were standing by the table, listening as Jim Hesketh told a long and complicated story involving incomprehensible sailing terms, after which they all laughed. Jenna felt the same shy awkwardness that had characterised much of her childhood, but she reminded herself that she was no longer ten, and moved forward with a smile. “You’ll have to take me sailing, just so I can understand what everyone’s on about.”

“Never done it, then?” said Jim Hesketh.

“Well, I loved ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when I was a child.”

“I thought you said you’d taken her out, Gary?” Jim asked.

“No, I took Rick, last year I think it was.”

“Rick?” Jim enquired.

“My ex-husband,” Jenna said, feeling she had to explain. “We split up recently – that’s why I’ve moved here.” She realised, with a jolt of dismay, that she hadn’t informed either Fran or Jon of this salient fact, and mentioning it now might make her seem, well, a bit desperate – ‘Hey, guys, guess what, I’ve suddenly become available, so form an orderly queue!’ But of course, she reminded herself, even now Saskia was probably filling her friends in, with every gory detail emphasised.

There were some rather awkward expressions of sympathy, and then Jenna, wanting to divert the subject, asked Jim about his boat. In the next five minutes she was treated to more information about the Pride of Orford than she had ever realised she didn’t know, but his enthusiasm was quite infectious and she found herself agreeing to a day trip on some fine day in spring when the tide would be friendly and the winds light. “We wouldn’t go to sea,” Jim assured her. “Just down to Shingle Street and back, see a few seals and avocets, give you a feel for it.”

“More than he’s ever managed to do with me,” said Andrew Marshall, with a laugh. He popped another smoked salmon canapé into his mouth. “Delicious, did you make them?”

“No, afraid not – Mr. Sainsbury is my chef tonight.”

“What a coincidence, he works for me too.” Andrew winked at her, and took another, washing it down with a generous quaff of punch. “So what made you choose Orford? Lovely place, I know, but there are plenty of other lovely places along this coast, and if you don’t sail ...”

“I just like it,” said Jenna. “And I fell in love with Wisteria Cottage as soon as I saw it. But I’d always wanted to be close to the sea – my grandmother lived in Maldon when I was a kid, and Orford reminds me a little of that.”

“Maldon, eh? An Essex girl, are you?”

“No, north London. But I think my family may come from Essex, way back – I’ve been doing some research.” She found herself elaborating, without mentioning the casket, and Andrew proved a knowledgeable and attentive listener. “I’ve done a bit myself, taken my mother’s family back to the 1820s, but unless it’s a very unusual name, or you’re extremely lucky, it gets very much harder before there was central registration.”

“Tell me about it,” Jenna said wryly. “I’ve only got as far as my great-great-grandmother and I’ve already run into problems. Still, I’ll carry on, the next generation back is out there somewhere, I’ve just got to track them down.”

John Woodman had come over, glass of red wine in hand. He wore a tweed jacket and tie, and his trousers had been immaculately pressed, presumably by the formidable Paula. “Talking pedigrees?” he said genially. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, Jenna, Andrew can be a trifle obsessive.”

“Obsessive? Me? Surely not!” Andrew was obviously used to such teasing. “Anyway, you have my leave, Jenna, to tell me the instant I become boring.” He grinned at her, and she grinned back – he didn’t take himself very seriously, that was plain, and it was a characteristic she’d always found very likeable.

“Apparently you have a history degree,” John continued. “We’re always after new members for our local history group, if you fancy joining. Orford has a rich and fascinating past, as I’m sure you’re aware, and whatever period you’re interested in, you’ll find like-minded people. We also have links to the local archaeological society, and there are plans for a dig at the castle in the summer, if you fancy taking part.”

Jenna smiled politely and said that it all sounded very interesting, though at the moment she had a lot on her plate. Andrew passed her the plate of canapés and took another one. “Can’t say I blame you. Wait until the dust has settled, eh? Size us all up. Wise move. I do like the smoked salmon and cream cheese combo. Punch is pretty good, too, what did you put in it?”

“I didn’t make it, my friend Saskia did, and she keeps the recipe a closely-guarded secret. But I do know it usually contains orange and lemon juice, selected spices, brown sugar and industrial quantities of rum.”

“A woman after my own heart,” said John. “Now, I wonder if you’ve ever tried this ...”

The conversation turned to various punch recipes, and then Saskia herself appeared from the kitchen and was quizzed on the ingredients. She was followed by Jon and Fran, who made a bee-line for the canapés, and in five minutes the gathering had coalesced into several cheerfully chattering groups. Jenna was pleased to see that although her guests fell into two distinct sets, her own friends and Ruth’s, they seemed all quite happy to talk to each other. She nipped upstairs and stuck her head round Rosie’s door. To her surprise and amusement, the four teenagers and Flora were sitting on the floor in a circle around her daughter’s battered old Monopoly board, playing a game so intense and serious that none of them noticed her presence. The two kittens were curled up together on Rosie’s bed, fast asleep. She quietly withdrew, and went back down to her adult guests.

“How are they doing up there?” Fran asked her. “Causing mayhem?”

“As if! No, they’re all playing Monopoly. Rather sweet, really.”

“You mean they’re not clustered round a screen? Wonders will never cease,” said Jon.

“When my three were younger,” Jenna said, remembering it with a smile, “they and their mates liked to cook sausages on an open fire at the bottom of the garden, and then play hide and seek in the allotments over the fence. They were still doing that when they were fourteen, believe it or not.”

“It sounds idyllic,” said Marcus, who had joined them by the table and was also eying up the canapés: after Andrew Marshall’s marauding, there weren’t many left. “Where was this?”

“St. Albans,” Jenna told him. “And in all fairness I have to say that they did a good deal of screen-gazing as well, it wasn’t all Famous Five stuff.”

“I expect Orford seems like a quiet backwater by comparison. Is your daughter at university?”

“Yes, Rosie’s at Norwich, and I’ve also got twin boys, they’re backpacking in Australia at the moment. Do you have kids?”

“No. No, I don’t.” He didn’t elaborate, and Jenna wasn’t going to pry. She said, “Ruth told me you’re a GP – in Woodbridge, I think she said.”

“Yes, that’s right. A bit of a change from being an army medic, I must say.”

“You were in the army?” said Saskia with interest. “In Afghanistan? I should think that bandaging bunions and prescribing cough medicine is a bit boring compared with patching up wounded soldiers.”

“On the contrary, it’s something of a rest cure,” said Marcus, seemingly oblivious to the predatory glint in Saskia’s eye, and soon the two of them were deep in conversation. Jenna, with some amusement, helped herself to another glass of punch, and Fran came over with the same purpose. “Sorry to hear about you and your husband,” he said quietly.

“How did – oh, of course, Saskia. Well, these things happen, and life has to go on.”

“I know – been there myself, of course. Though Krystal and I were only together, if that’s the right word, for a couple of years. Long enough to have Flora, and for both of us to realise that in every possible way, we weren’t suited.”

“Rick and I had been married for twenty three years.” Jenna shook her head in wry disbelief. “Nearly half my whole life. So it came as a bit of a shock.”

“To put it mildly, I expect. Yes, I can understand that.” Fran’s tone was quietly sympathetic. “Is that why you decided to move to Orford? To make a fresh start?”

“Yes – of course I’ve got friends in St. Albans, and my mother lives in Berkhamsted – oh, sod it!” She clapped her hand to her mouth. “I promised to ring her earlier this evening – she was going to some do at the Conservative Club – and I completely forgot. Bugger! Now I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“You could get her on her mobile.”

“She probably won't have it with her,” said Jenna, with a grimace. Seeing Fran’s expression of surprise, she added, “Yes, I know, in this day and age. But my mother is a bit of a technophobe. No computer, no internet, and a mobile she only takes with her when she remembers. She’s got a microwave, though.”

“For cooking nice little meals for one?”

“How did you guess?”

“I mind your mother well. She drove you to the house the day we all moved in, didn’t she? And spent the next three hours complaining about everything from the cupboards in the kitchen to the state of the neighbour's garden.”

Jenna laughed. Jon, who had also come looking for a refill of punch, joined in. “I remember that. And I can remember your face when you unpacked the box she’d given you. Full of ‘nice little meals for one’, courtesy of the local Waitrose. Mind you, my mother wasn’t much better. She gave me a bottle of Milk of Magnesia, because she was sure I’d get food poisoning.”

“Mine gave me a sheaf of government leaflets on drugs, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases,” said Fran. “Great to know your parents have faith in you, isn’t it?” He grinned. “Da was convinced I was gay – I wasn’t his idea of a real man at all. He wasn’t sure even after Flora was born. He had very old-fashioned attitudes, my Da, but par for the course in Inverness in the Eighties.”

“So what did you give your kids before packing them off to uni?” Jon asked. “Alice will be going in two years, with any luck, and I could do with some tips.”

“For the twins, a shopping spree in Sainsbury’s home department, and a book on student cooking. Rick gave them the drugs, booze and sex lecture, but they didn’t tell him that a, they’d heard it all before at school, and b, they’d already had so much practice that the theory was a bit superfluous.”

Jon groaned. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Alice is sixteen going on twenty-five, and Sarah is terrified she’ll get pregnant before she even takes her A Levels. Hence packing them off to me rather than risk this dubious New Year party.”

“You mean this one isn’t dubious?”

“Oh, it’s the height of decadence,” Fran said. “Monopoly, smoked salmon, kittens... my Da would have had a fit.”

It was lovely, Jenna thought later, that she, Fran and Jon had so easily fallen back into the old relaxed banter of their university days, despite the intervening years, filled with children, work and failed relationships. And strange, too, that a more or less random collection of six very different students had managed to become friends, and that their friendship, though long dormant, seemed to have burst back into life. True, she’d only managed to keep in touch with Jules, and that was because she’d ended up marrying Jules’s big brother, but now it didn’t seem to matter. She knew they wouldn’t lose touch again.

Several more Orford people turned up, friends of Ruth and Gary, and the evening became a blur of laughter, chatter and music. She talked to Nikki and her husband, to Marcus, and even exchanged a few stilted words with Alice and Freddie, who’d come back downstairs in search for more food and drink. As midnight approached, Fran came up to her. “OK, shall I do it?”

Punch, tiredness and the sheer effort of being the hostess had slowed Jenna’s wits. “Do what?”

“First foot, remember?” He patted the pocket of his jeans. “I’ve got the coal.” Seeing her obvious bewilderment, he added, “It’s the tradition. First footers bring a gift, usually a lump of coal for some reason. Shall I nip out the back? Is there a way round?”

“Yes, but you’ll need a torch, there’s one by the back door. Go down to the end of the garden, there’s a gate and a place to park the cars behind it. Turn right and right again down the track, and that’ll bring you back past the side of the next door cottage and round to the front.” She grinned at him. “Thanks, it’s a lovely idea.”

“No problem. I’ll know when the hour is struck, I expect, by the noise, and I’ll knock a few minutes afterwards. See you later!”

He vanished out of the kitchen door, and she shut it behind him, feeling more awake and alert for the welcome blast of cold night air. Saskia came in, still enviably full of energy. “Where’s your Scotsman going?”

“Don’t ask,” said Jenna with a grin. “Only a few minutes to go, we’d better get the kids downstairs for the great moment.”

Saskia went up, and returned with all of them, though Flora was looking distinctly flushed and heavy-eyed: Rosie whispered to Jenna that she’d lain down on the bed to play with the kittens, and had fallen asleep half an hour ago, with Apollo and Artemis snuggled up against her. On the TV, the countdown had begun, and the crowds on the Embankment were shouting out the numbers. Everyone in the cottage, even the Woodmans, joined in. As Big Ben announced the start of the New Year, fireworks burst into life both on the screen and outside.

“The kittens!” Indy cried, but too late, Saskia had already captured one of her arms and Rosie the other, and beckoned to Jenna to bring the other guests into the line. As they all sang Auld Lang Syne, there was a thunderous knock on the front door, even louder than the fusillade of rockets that someone had let off near the Quay.

Jenna, breathless, disentangled herself from her guests and went to answer it, while everyone else peered through the open doorway into the hall. When she flung the door open, Fran stood there in his long black coat, outlined in moonlight and starbursts, holding out a lump of coal in one hand and a quarter bottle of whisky in the other. “Happy New Year! Can I come in, Jenna lass?”

“Of course you can,” she said, and welcomed him back into the warmth he’d so recently left with a hug and a friendly kiss. “Happy New Year, and thank you. Shall we put the whisky in the punch, if there’s any left?”

“If you do, I’ll never speak to you again – it’s a Speyside twelve-year single malt. Save it for a special occasion. Anyway, I don’t think you’ll need it, wasn’t that a champagne cork?”

When they returned to the sitting room, Saskia was pouring the contents of a very large bottle into an array of different shaped glasses, hastily washed. “I wondered where you’d gone,” she said to Fran. “Then I realised. What did you bring, a lump of coal?”

He showed it to her, while keeping the whisky, Jenna noted with amusement, out of her line of sight. The champagne was handed round – even Flora, at her father’s nod, was given a small glass, which she sampled with a comical expression of disgust – and a toast drunk to everyone’s health, wealth and happiness in the year to come. Outside, the fireworks continued, and Indy hurried upstairs to check on the kittens, returning to report that they were fast asleep on Rosie’s bed, completely oblivious.

“I knew it,” Saskia said. “Burmese are bullet-proof. Come on, let’s take a look at those fireworks – they’re so loud, they must be good.”

So in the first few moments of the New Year, they all piled out of the cottage and stood on the green in front of it, gazing up at the sky as showers of brilliant fire exploded above the Quay. The four teenagers and Flora ran off up the road, hoping for a better view, but before they’d gone more than a few yards, there was one last huge flowering and a great shower of multicoloured sparks, followed by darkness and distant cheering.

“Well, that’s it, darling,” Saskia said. “I bet you’re glad to see the back of last year.”

“Too right.” Jenna shivered suddenly: the sky was black and clear, the grass crunchy with frost under her sandals. “Here’s to this one – a fresh start.” She grinned at her friend, light-headed suddenly with the fizz of champagne. “Thanks for being there when I most need it, Sass. You’re a rock, I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

“Coped,” said Saskia cheerfully. “You’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for, darling. And remember, even when Indy and I are back in St. Albans, I’m only a phone call away, day or night. Who knows, I may be coming down here quite frequently.” She winked. “Checking out all the local talent.”

“You’re incorrigible, do you know that?”

“If you can pronounce ‘incorrigible’ correctly at this stage of the evening, darling, you haven’t had nearly enough champagne. Come on, let’s go back in, it's freezing my tits off and there’s still plenty left in the bottle. Not to mention that single malt your Scotsman thought he’d kept out of my sight.”

“I heard that,” Fran said, appearing on Jenna’s other side. “Damn it. I told Jen to save it for a special occasion.”

“And what could be more special than this? A new year, new life, goodbye and good riddance to the old one. Come on, darlings, let’s make this a Hogmanay to remember. And not a Hootenanny in sight.”

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