Today I am pleased to welcome Fiona Walker to my blog with an extract from her new book The Country Set
Carly was good at moving house. An army daughter then wife, she’d done it countless times, and she was still only in her twenties. But this time they’d moved all alone without the regiment around them. And she wasn’t sure she’d wanted forever-after just yet.
Ash’s elder sister had organised a council house for them. Carly was wary of Janine, a sister-in-law-unto-herself, whose possessive, controlling hold over the family was an unwelcome part of life. It was Janine’s three-bed semi in which she and Ash now lived, number three Quince Drive. Carly hadn’t quite worked out the deal. The Turner family rented at least nine of the Orchard Estate houses from the local authority, but the names on the tenancy agreements bore no relation to their occupants. Janine lived in Granddad Norm’s four-bedroomed link-detached on Damson Road, with three teenage children, only one of whom was hers. She had never married. After Robbie Williams and nail art, the biggest love of her life was little brother Ash.
Propping Jackson in the crook of her arm, Carly clenched her fists, trying to discharge the static electricity in her fingertips. She’d felt a sense of foreboding since the storm had passed, chest tight, hands tingling. She’d suffered from it all her life, sometimes so bad that she could barely pick up a cup for the scalding heat in her fingers, the fire in her lungs making her mute. Her mum had called it a ‘healing gift’ and said it came from her grandmother. She’d been tested for asthma as a child, later high blood pressure and heart arrhythmia when pregnant, but her palpitations and hot hands were medical oddities, dismissed vaguely as psychosomatic stress.
She pressed one flaming palm to her cheek now, trying to absorb the heat. It must be because she was worried about Ash. He pretended all was well, but his temper was quicker, his tall tales longer, their conversations briefer. Her fusilier was in danger of turning into a short-fused liar.
Downstairs, Captain Barnaby’s and Peppa’s faces had reappeared at the bottom of two bowls.
‘Are you ready to go and see Spirit?’ They’d nick-named their favourite foal after the Disney horse because he was the same unusual colour that they called ‘buckskin’ in the movie but was labelled ‘dun’ in the old encyclopaedia of horses Carly had bought at the village fête.
Ellis and Sienna grabbed carrots from the vegetable rack, fighting over the biggest, then dropped down to pull their wellies onto the wrong feet. As they did so, Carly caught the glint of gold jewellery and a flash of tanned thigh as Janine paused at the side gate, pink talons scrabbling at the bolt as she let herself into the garden. A stranger to doorbells, Janine preferred the proprietorial stealth of bursting in through the back door on dawn raids.
She ran her cleaning business, Feather Dusters, like an East End protection racket, with mops and Henry Hoovers in place of firearms. She had the monopoly on domestic and commercial contracts in the village and guaranteed cheap labour from family members. Carly’s work-rate was twice that of most of Janine’s team, meaning she was always in demand for the rota. While she hoped to find a job that would give her a break from the Turner family, she appreciated the extra money, and the kids were coping fine with their nan looking after them on the days she worked. But today she had a waitressing shift at a local hotel and didn’t want Janine to strong-arm her into calling in sick so she could help her bring up a weekend cottage’s wet-room grout like new.
Never had two children been inserted into a double buggy faster, the baby carry-sack and nappy bag hooked on to each handle. Carly jumped into her trainers as she unlatched the door and – ignoring the sulphurous waft of cheap perfume coming in through the cat-flap and a muffled voice calling, ‘Only meee!’ – made her getaway through the front door, Jackson still asleep on her shoulder.
Even though it was further to walk to see the foals, she pushed the buggy straight for the path that ran alongside the allotments, avoiding the only road out of the estate. It passed next to the playground from which she could already hear the first of the day’s loud screams and tribal cries – fist-bumps, headlocks, swing-throwing and insult-trading among the under-sixteens.