Authors: Trisha Ashley
Jean Ashley, 1927-2009, who took joy in my success
When Josie awoke in hospital, unscathed except for concussion and an impressive array of bruises, she had no recollection of the crash. Granny, red-eyed but stoical, had to break the news to her.
Somehow she managed to blank out most of the weeks immediately following the accident too, so that when she looked back later it seemed to her that one day she was living in St Albans with a full set of parents and several good friends, leavened with the usual teenage-years angst and a heartfelt, if destined to be forever unrequited, passion for Sting, and the next she was being whisked off alone to Granny’s cottage in Lancashire, to start a new life.
‘It’s just thee and me now, flower,’ Granny was all too often to remark, though with the best of intentions. But it wasn’t likely that Josie would forget
fact, even if amnesia and anger were her current first lines of defence. For she was totally and illogically furious, both with her parents for so selfishly getting themselves killed, and with poor, grieving, gentle Granny for being truly ancient, so that Josie was convinced that she would also soon be snatched away, leaving her totally bereft.
It would be better to love no one, to feel nothing at all—much safer.
All that summer, she silently and sullenly followed Granny around the garden while she hoed, dug, planted and harvested,
or helped Uncle Harry (who lived next door and was not a real uncle, only having married Granny’s cousin) to tend the poultry. And slowly Josie began to gain some comfort from the cycle of cultivation, the clucking hens and the drowsy, contented humming of bees; while across the Green, the ancient church bells repeatedly rang a joyful wedding peal, a signal that hope and happiness still existed and might one day be hers again.
Only in the evenings, lying in her narrow bed among the transplanted possessions of her former life, the mournful screams of the peacocks next door in the gardens of Blessings would pierce right to her heart with unbearable sadness, and she would put a pillow over her head and weep.
She didn’t take the bus to her new school on the first day. Instead, Uncle Harry drove her there in the yellow Vauxhall Cavalier that was his pride and joy. And then, embarrassingly, he and Granny both stood at the gates like the oldest parents in the world while Josie went on alone. She turned once, and they waved at her, as she had known they would: it was comforting but deeply uncool.
Catching sight of her, a passing youth—tall and broad-shouldered, with floppy, light brown hair—stopped dead and gave her a big, drop-dead-gorgeous smile. Suddenly breathless, she gazed into his warm hazel eyes, and it was as though she already knew she’d found a kindred spirit, a soul mate—recognised that fate, having taken love away with one sweep of the dice, had then, fickle, tossed her a perfect six.
‘Hello!’ he said, his voice deep, friendly and confident. ‘I’m Benjamin Richards—but you can call me Ben…or anything else you like.’
Flustered, she stammered shyly: ‘I’m Josie. Josie Gray.’
‘Nice to meet you, Josie Gray.’ He smiled again before rejoining his waiting friends, who were all nudging each other and laughing.
She was jerked out of her trance by a voice at her elbow saying,
‘You’ve been here five minutes and dishy Ben Richards
to you? Wow!’
A small, slender, impishly pretty blonde girl was looking her up and down from under her fringe as if she wasn’t quite sure what the attraction had been. ‘You must be the orphan—only we were told not to mention that.’
‘You just did,’ snapped out Josie, who had become used to people tiptoeing around her as though she were some kind of delicately balanced explosive device.
The girl shrugged. ‘Well, you can’t go pussyfooting around things for ever, can you? I’m Libby Martin, and if it makes you feel any better, my mother’s an alcoholic slut and I have no idea who my father was.’
make Josie feel better, and she grinned. Then the bell went and everyone started to stream towards the door.
‘Come on—Miss Price told me I had to show you where to go
I’ve got to look after you all week,’ Libby said. ‘God, I’m so glad you don’t look naff—apart from that terrible haircut. If we’re going to be friends, you’ll have to do something about it.’
‘Granny cut it and I think it looks cool,’ Josie said defensively, then added,
we going to be friends?’
‘Oh, I think so, don’t you? Probably end up BF.’
‘Best friends.’ Her blue eyes went wide. ‘Where on earth are you
‘Huh.’ Libby looked unimpressed—clearly she’d never heard of the place. ‘I’ll tell you about my big plan at break, if you like.’
‘Big plan?’ Josie echoed.
‘Well, I don’t want to be Libby Martin with the slutty mother from up the council estate for ever, do I? So I’m reinventing myself.’
‘Great idea,’ Josie conceded, suddenly dying to know what her new friend was going to reinvent herself as, and how she intended
to do it. ‘What—’ she began, but then the bell rang for the second time and Libby grabbed her arm and started towing her along. Practically everyone else had already vanished indoors, including the gorgeous Ben Richards.
‘No time now—I’ll tell you later, so get a move on or we’ll be late. Though come to think of it, I suppose that’s OK today,’ Libby added, again with an impish smile. ‘You’re my “get out of jail free” card.’
At lunchtime Libby outlined her plan, which seemed to be directed at leaving Neatslake as soon as possible and marrying a rich man.
‘Isn’t that a bit…’ Josie searched for the right word,
Out for what you can get? What about love?’
‘But I wouldn’t marry a man unless I
him,’ Libby said, looking shocked. ‘No way would I do that! But I’m only going to let myself fall in love with someone well off, who will look after me.’
‘Right,’ Josie said doubtfully, because this kind of ambition had never cropped up when she’d been discussing future careers with her friends in St Albans.
‘But first, I have to get ready to live that kind of life—you know, like in
Pride and Prejudice
, when they keep going on about all the accomplishments you need to be the wife of a rich man?’
‘Well, yes, but I think they meant speaking Italian and doing embroidery, that kind of thing, didn’t they?’
‘Yes, but translate that into the twentieth century,’ Libby said impatiently. She dug a notebook out of her bag and flipped it open. ‘I’ve got a list of things I need to learn, like speaking without a broad accent. Mrs Springer, the English teacher, is helping me with that.’
‘I like your accent,’ Josie said.
‘You’re mad!’ Libby said, then moved her finger down the page and continued, ‘Horse riding, tennis, skiing…’ Here she paused,
uncertainly. ‘Rich people do a lot of skiing, but that could be difficult round here. We don’t get a lot of snow and the nearest dry ski slope is miles away.’
‘Are you sure you need all of those?’
‘Some of them, anyway—as many as possible. You can help me.’
‘OK, but I’m not mad about horses—they’re so big.’
‘Don’t chicken out on me before we start,’ Libby said. ‘What about you, what do you want?’
‘I don’t know, really. My parents thought I ought to…’ She suddenly trailed off, her voice trembling.
‘Look, don’t go all wobbly on me!’ warned Libby, and to her surprise Josie saw that her new friend had tears in her large blue eyes. ‘If you start crying, then I will too, and then everyone will know I’m as soft as butter and I’ll be done for. I’m only cool to know because they think I’m hard as nails.’
Josie sniffed back the tears. ‘Sorry. My—my parents wanted me to go to university, but I don’t know…Now I just feel I’d like to stay in Neatslake for ever and help Granny with the gardening and Uncle Harry with the hens. Granny’s teaching me how to bake and make jam and stuff too.’
‘You can’t make a career out of any of
‘Yes I could. I could be a gardener, and I think I’d like that.’ She caught sight of Ben Richards in the distance, in the middle of a group of boys. He was taller than the rest so he was easy to spot.
Libby saw where she was looking. ‘Ben’s fourteen, in the next year up from us, and he’s very popular. His parents wanted to send him to some public school but he decided he’d rather come here with his friends and he’s very stubborn. He’s brilliant at art—he’s done his O level already—but he’s totally thick about everything else.’
‘I’m sure he isn’t!’
‘He’s good at football,’ she conceded. ‘I’m not sure how clever you have to be for that, but it makes him popular with the boys too.’
They watched him in the distance and then Josie sighed and said, ‘I don’t suppose he’ll ever notice me again. I suppose it was just because he practically fell over me and I was a new face.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Libby said, looking at her thoughtfully, then added immodestly, ‘You’re not pretty like
, but sort of attractive in a different way. I’ve never met anyone else with hair that really dark red—or eyes that bluey-greyish-lilac sort of colour.’
‘Thanks, but I’m not sure I want to be different.’ Her eyes returned to Ben, now playing football with a group of other boys. She was also tall for her age…
‘Ben asked me out once, but I had to turn him down,’ Libby said.
Josie turned and stared at her new friend, feeling a pang of jealousy. ‘Not part of the big plan?’
‘No way.’ She shook her head. ‘And I think he only asked me because his friends dared him to. They probably told him I was easy, like Mum. Anyway, I don’t want to get tangled up with some village boy; I have to concentrate on the bigger picture. I’m saving myself for Mr Right. Mr Rich
Right,’ she added, then giggled. ‘It might have been worth going out with Ben, though, just to see his parents’ faces! They’re so snobby and stuck up, especially his mother, they’d have had fits.’
‘Oh? What does she do?’
Absolutely nothing, but Ben’s father’s a hospital consultant and they live up a lane the other side of Church Green, in a converted farmhouse. Ben’s already got his own studio in one of the outbuildings, because his mother doesn’t like mess in the house.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘One of his friends told me.’
‘Granny’s house is on the Green,’ Josie said. ‘That pair of cottages by the really old black and white building. My uncle Harry lives next door to us, but he’s not really an uncle, he just married Granny’s cousin.’
‘The old house is Blessings,’ Libby nodded. ‘It’s Elizabethan.’
‘Granny says she used to go there to clean, years ago.’
‘In that case, don’t get ideas about Ben Richards. His parents would probably think a granny who was a cleaner was only one step above a slutty mother.’
‘I don’t see why,’ Josie said defensively. ‘Anyway, she was a nurse during the war, but it damaged her back so she took up cleaning afterwards—just light stuff. She still gets a bad back sometimes, but that’s probably just because she’s really, really old. My mother was a nurse too, and my dad was a policeman. We lived in a police house in St Albans.’
‘Well, don’t start crying again, or you’ll set me off,’ Libby said briskly.
Josie gave a watery smile. She’d got the measure by now of Libby’s kind heart under her sometimes brusque exterior, and her friend’s lovely blue eyes were, indeed, brimming again with sympathetic tears.
‘A dad who was a policeman is at least a couple of rungs up from not knowing who your father is—and my sister, Daisy, doesn’t know either, except that we have different ones,’ Libby pointed out. ‘Maybe it’s better not to know.’
Libby left the bus before her new friend, at the other end of Neatslake, but Ben Richards and a couple of other boys got off when Josie did, suddenly swinging down the spiral stairs from the upper deck as the bus stopped, and jumping off first.
She didn’t think he’d noticed her, but as she turned the corner towards Church Green, he fell into step beside her as if he’d been waiting for her. Which he had.
‘I hear your granny makes the best cakes in Neatslake,’ he said, with that warm, irresistible sideways smile, and Josie felt the glacier around her heart crack into a million fragments and melt away.
* * *
‘Well, that’s going to put the cat among the pigeons,’ Granny said thoughtfully when Ben had finally—and reluctantly—gone off home, full of cheese straws hot from the oven and several slices of butter-rich fruitcake. ‘But he seems a nice boy—considering.’
?’ Josie demanded, coming out of a pleasant trance. Her mouth ached a bit from all the smiling she’d done this afternoon, and she wondered if her face muscles had atrophied over the last few months from disuse. She got up and looked at herself in the small, cloudy mirror beside the coat pegs, but it was about as much good as a reflection on water, all ripply.
‘If you two are going to be friends, I don’t think Ben’s parents, especially his mum, will be too pleased about it.’
‘I’ve heard she’s a snob, Granny. Do you know her?’
‘Oh, yes. Many’s the time Nell Slattery’s sat here in the kitchen with your mother,’ she said unexpectedly. ‘They did their nursing training together and started working at the same hospital together too, and they were quite good friends in those days.’
Josie frowned. ‘So why won’t she be pleased if me and Ben are…’ she blushed, ‘friends?’
‘Well, flower, for one thing her husband is a consultant pathologist and the very instant the ring was on her finger she chucked the nursing and most of her old friends with it, and got Ideas. And for another—well, her husband fell for your mother first, you see, and Nell got him on the rebound.’
‘Ben’s father once went out with
?’ Josie said, amazed.
‘No, she didn’t have any fancy for him, but he pestered her until she met your father and they got married—then he turned and wed Nell instead. Since then she pretends she’s never met me if we pass in the village. Cleaners are below her notice. Though I suppose,’ she added with humour, ‘if she
didn’t, she’d be trying to employ me!’