This is the Preface and Chapter One of Sue Nicholls’ first novel which you can download free to read on your Kindle or mobile device. Find out more about Sue — buy the full ebook here.
When Fee Thomas meets two fellow mothers as they all wait for their children in a theatre coffee bar, it soon becomes clear that they have one particular thing in common: their unhappy marriages. One by one they abandon their husbands, and take their small children to live a dream life together.
As their husbands struggle to cope with domesticity and child care, they deal with adversity in their individual ways, and our sympathies vacillate from them to their wives. Paul, Fee’s husband, is angry and aggrieved. Reluctantly he takes the advice of a colleague and begins counselling sessions with Max Rutherford, a specialist in marriage breakdown and anger management. Gradually Paul begins to heal, but his peace of mind is hard fought and not without its pitfalls.
Despite promises to each other that they will wait, the women begin to seek furtive relationships with men, but disastrous events begin to strike them and their children. Relationships are tested and adjusted again and again. Is there something sinister going on and if so, who is responsible?
Chapter One — The Meeting
The broad staircase of the small theatre is purple-shabby. Fee’s footsteps are hushed by the fading carpet, and she glides her fingers along a hand-rail polished smooth by countless others before her. She is trying to suppress anxiety about her small daughter. Kitty has just waved goodbye from among several other little ones, variously sucking thumbs, hopping, and looking expectant. There is no indication that Kitty is worried by the bossy woman running the drama class so Fee decides to focus on the benefits of this new activity.
She sweeps her eyes over the muted foyer. There are people, but not many for a Saturday. Through a smoked glass wall to her left are spectral outlines of diners and drinkers in the cafe-cum-restaurant where she’s decided to pass this forty minutes of Kitty’s absence. She heads for the scent of coffee.
Waiting for a skinny cappuccino she scans the busy room for a vacant table, and spots one on the far side, next to a couple of women, chatting amid a tumble of squashy bags and folded coats. She fixes her eyes on the spot, hoping nobody will grab it before her order is ready. Coffee takes so long to make, these days. From the corner table a boy-child makes a tottering bid for freedom. One of the two women reaches out and grabs him by the arm, and her flossy locks bounce in the soft light. The other girl, Mediterranean in colouring, sips from a thick, white cup, and pushes a buggy back and forth.
Fee weaves between diners to bag her spot, and drapes her jacket over the back of a chair. The two women at the next table are worrying about the officious drama teacher. It’s hard not to eavesdrop.
There’s a muffled squawk from the buggy and the petite and appealing, olive skinned girl bends to the small hollow of the pram and extracts a tiny, lolling infant with cappuccino coloured skin and a dandelion clock of black hair. She places it on her shoulder and rocks her body, patting the infant’s back. The new-born, perhaps finding this treatment objectionable, raises its wobbly head, belches and ejects a glob of creamy white liquid before subsiding again onto the sweet and slippery shoulder. Fee grabs the napkin from her saucer.
‘Here, let me,’ she offers, and soaks up what she can from the back of the girl’s coat.
‘Thanks very much.’ The young woman screws her head in Fee’s direction. ‘If you could take Lucas a moment I’ll get this thing off.’
Fee accepts the child, and as the girl shrugs off her pea jacket, regrets wearing her Burberry sweater.
A familiar aroma of milk and lotion rises from the tiny bundle, and Fee finds herself enveloping him in her arms, and staring, fascinated, into the tiny face with its curdled-milky chin.
The flossy mother sits passively on the opposite side of the table with a small boy on her lap. His eyelids droop, and chubby digits twist and tug at a lock of the straw coloured hair draped over her slender shoulders.
‘I’d forgotten how that happens,’ Fee remarks. ‘You think you won’t forget but you do.’
‘He’s so sicky. I should have learned by now.’ The girl smiles a huge and open grin that transforms her face. ‘Thanks so much for your help.’ She holds out her arms for the child and Fee passes him back.
‘I’m Millie.’ She proffers a small hand under her son, and they shake fingers. Millie indicates the other mother with a small movement of her head as she shifts the baby and sits back down.
‘Twitch and I are waiting for our older children; they’re upstairs doing a drama class with a terrifying lady.’ She makes a comical face.
Fee remains standing looking down at her. ‘Me too. She was pretty terrible, wasn’t she? I hope they’re OK.’
Across the table, Twitch, her young son dozing on her lap, regards Fee comfortably – not ‘Nervous Twitch’ then. ‘Come and join us?’ Her voice is deeper than her wraithlike features might suggest. Fee slides into a seat at the table and lies her jacket across her knees.
Huddled in her corner, dark haired Millie breast feeds, and tells with engaging openness of her family. She has two mixed race offspring, Olivia upstairs, and the pukey baby. Her husband, Mick, is from Ghana. She drapes a terry nappy over her shoulder and winds Lucas without mishap then gathers him to her.
‘So, what about you, Fee?’ She asks as she buttons her shirt. ‘Do you only have your little girl or is there a New Man at home with a brood of others?’ She announces the words New Man, like the MC at a function.
‘There’s just Kitty. She’s plenty for me – us. I work full time so having another baby would be a strain.’ She avoids tackling the New Man reference. ‘How about you, Twitch?’
‘I’ve got the two. I’m just beginning to raise my eyes towards the future again, I feel as if I’ve been surrounded by nappies and feeding routines for ever!’
‘What might you do?’ Millie gazes at the translucent eyelids of her son.
‘Oh I don’t know. Escape.’ Millie looks up and she and Fee regard Twitch in silence. Twitch looks at them both with a hopeless expression. ‘Sorry. I can’t think about anything else at the moment. I shouldn’t have said that. You hardly know me – I hardly know you.’ She shrugs her shoulders. ‘I hardly know anyone!’
Fee leans on the table with both arms, and bends towards her companion, but Twitch is backing off.
‘It’s just the usual stuff: boredom, inattentive husband, abandoned career.’ She flaps a hand in the air as though batting at a wasp.
‘Well, if you ever need a shoulder…’ Millie smiles.
‘Thanks.’ Twitch gives a forlorn smile and picks up her cup.
The remaining forty minutes pass in small talk, then Millie, with Lucas on her shoulder, drags her buggy to a space beside the bottom step, and they make their way up the stairway, hoping the lesson has been a success.
A crowd of boys and girls muddle out of the room, full of excitement, and Fee forgives the teacher. She’s human after all.
They retrace their steps, passing portraits and landscapes by local artists, on the walls of the corridor. The older children dance ahead, already friends, and the women, less impetuous, agree to meet again next week, then part, each in a different direction.
Fee grasps Kitty’s hand, and heads for the underground car park. When she glances back through the glass entrance doors, Twitch’s straw-coloured hair and ochre skirt catch her eye, swinging from side to side like pampas grass.
The parking floor is gloomy, and their footsteps echo off concrete walls.
‘What did you do today, my poppet?’
‘Well, we had to be tiny.’ Kitty releases Fee’s hand and stops to crouch into a ball. ‘Then we had to be tall.’ She takes a few steps and throws her arms into the air. ‘Then we made ourselves as wide as a tree.’ Her arms fly out to become branches, ‘and really, really thin like a pencil.’ This calls them to a complete stop as Kitty holds her breath and stands to attention, her whole being focused on being still and narrow. Fee needs to get 0n, there is a mound of work to do, but first, Kitty has a swimming lesson.
‘Show me when we get home Kitty.’ She opens the car door.
Has Paul started the chores? She suspects he’s still in bed, and sighs as she seats herself in the driver’s seat.
Kitty chirrups away during the short journey to the sports centre, while Fee prepares herself for what awaits her.