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Authors: Trisha Ashley

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Not for the first time I suspected that, whatever he said, Ben liked being the centre of my world and didn’t want to share it with anyone, even children (or my one close friend, Libby). Like a big cuckoo chick in a nest, really…

I wondered if all hugely talented artists were that egocentric.

Ben gave me another squeeze and then, obviously considering the matter closed, sat back down in the rocking chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him. Changed back into old, worn jeans and sweatshirt, his light brown hair tousled, he was the
Ben I knew and loved, rather than the distinctly smarter London version who had returned to me earlier that day, but it still didn’t stop me feeling exasperated with him.

‘It’s so good to be home,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I’m shattered. At least here no one expects anything of me and I can just sink back into my groove.’ But then he sat up again as a thought struck him. ‘Unless…Libby’s not staying with us, is she?’

‘No, she moved into Blessings the day after the viewing.’

He subsided again. ‘That’s what I said—fast worker!’

Of course, I phoned Mary as soon as I had a minute to myself, to congratulate her and, if truth were told, to find out all about the Chinese herbalist.

‘This is such great news, Mary! I don’t know how you managed to keep it to yourself for so long.’

‘Well, I would have told Ben sooner only—’

‘I know,’ I broke in sympathetically, ‘you wanted to hug it to yourself for a while, make sure everything was going well, didn’t you?’ I suppose that explained why she’d been a bit distant and reluctant to talk to me for ages too.

‘Yes, there was an element of that until I was at the three-month stage,’ she admitted, ‘but also I felt so sick all the time, which was a bit distracting, though that’s better now. Just as well, because I’ll have to go on teaching as long as I can. The two courses of IVF we paid for meant we had to increase our mortgage, so we still need my income coming in. But afterwards, Russell and I will have to arrange our classes so that one of us can baby-sit while the other is teaching.’

They both lecture part time and since Mary’s are mostly evening classes, that should work well.

‘I bet Russell’s delighted!’

‘Oh…yes. And relieved, I think.’ She gave an embarrassed laugh. ‘It’s only now it actually looks as if I will have this baby
that I realise quite how obsessed I’ve been with it. It’s lucky we’ve managed to come through it all as a strong couple.’

‘I thought you’d given up any thought of getting pregnant after the last attempt.’

‘Oh, no! I had to give up the IVF—it was way too expensive and the whole regime of drugs and stuff very invasive—but I never gave up hope.’

‘Ben said you were taking a kind of herbal medicine?’ I prompted.

‘Yes,’ she said eagerly, ‘about a year ago Olivia told me about a Chinese herbalist who specialised in infertility problems, so we went together, for courage.’

‘Olivia?’

There was a pause, and then Mary said, ‘Oh, she’s a fairly new friend you haven’t met. But she’s in her early forties so she was getting even more desperate than I was. Anyway, we were given this rather foul concoction to take three times a day, plus recommendations to balance our yin and yang and stuff like that.’

‘And do you think that’s what did the trick?’

‘I honestly don’t know. It might have been just the relaxing part of it that was crucial, though, goodness knows, we were relaxed enough when we were first married and nothing ever happened then—and we were both younger, so it should have been easier to get pregnant.’

And what happened to your friend? Did it work for her too?’

‘Well, that’s the amazing thing. She fell pregnant about a fortnight after I did! But again, who knows whether it was because she stopped trying so hard or due to the healthy regime and the medicine?’

Who knew, indeed…but it sounded at least worth a try!

‘Mary, do you think you could give me the contact details for this herbalist? It’s all natural, isn’t it?’

‘I haven’t got them by me, but you can look her up on the internet,’ she said, and I jotted down the name.

‘Thanks, Mary.’

‘Are you sure you want to try it?’ she asked. ‘It’s very expensive, though not on the scale of IVF treatment, obviously. And pregnancy does change things. Ben said to me once that he really didn’t mind that you hadn’t had children because he liked you just to himself, the two of you, and having a family would have changed the dynamics of the relationship.’

‘Ben said
that
?’ I thought about it. ‘He’s always gone along with me when I’ve said I wanted children, but you’re right, he’s never actually been bothered by them not coming along, except on my account. But then, I suppose
I’ve
always gone along with things he’s felt strongly about in the end, like his going all anti-marriage, even when it upset Granny. She would have loved to have seen me married.’

‘Ben does dig his heels in about things sometimes,’ Mary agreed, ‘and then he never changes his mind. Not that I’ve seen much of him the last few months. I—’ She broke off. ‘Sorry, thought I heard Russell come in. What was I saying?’

‘That you’d hardly seen Ben lately, but I suppose he’s pretty busy when he’s down, especially now he’s taken on studio space. I take it you are one of the Camdenites too?’

‘Yes. Some of my big sculptural ceramic pieces are going into the first exhibition. It’s all looking very promising, though in a way we’re all currently riding on the coat-tails of Ben’s success.’

‘I don’t think he sees it that way—we’ve all been friends so long. And it’s been kind of you to let us use your spare room. I know I haven’t visited for ages, but it’s a relief knowing that Ben’s staying with friends when he’s down in the Big Smoke. But I expect you’re going to turn it into a nursery soon, aren’t you, so he’ll have to find himself another place to stay?’

‘I—yes,’ she said, and then added hurriedly, ‘Look, I’ve left something on the stove, I’ll have to go. But it’s been lovely talking to you, Josie.’

‘Yes, we really should—’ I began, but I was talking to empty air.

What she’d said about Ben not being that keen on the idea of children really crystallised what I’d long suspected myself. He would have accepted it, had it happened, but that was as far as he was prepared to go. And that wasn’t far enough.

It would be terribly devious if I did something about it behind Ben’s back, but it didn’t stop me looking up that website. Mary was right about the expense, but then, we had money in the bank, some of it earned by my cake business, not just from Ben’s work. And the regime seemed to involve a healthy diet and destressing more than anything, which could only be good.

It was surely worth a try? And if babies changed the dynamics of a relationship, it was in a
good
way, so if anything came of it, I expected Ben would get used to it. He’d have to.

As I started to bake the first in a series of small, round dark fruitcakes from which to construct the wedding cake of Libby’s dreams, I kept wondering if the Chinese medicine had really been what had made the difference to Mary, or if it was just coincidence—or even hope and positive thinking?

It was an exciting prospect, though. All aspects of my life seemed to be exciting lately!

Chapter Five
All Apple Pie

It’s been such a good year for the apples and pears that we get from a member or our Acorn barter group, that I’m starting to feel sick of the sight of them! The best have been individually wrapped in tissue and stored in boxes. Festoons of dried fruit rings hang from the kitchen ceiling, there are jars and jars of apple jelly, apple and bramble jam and apple sauce, and one side of my second freezer, in the garden shed, is stacked with pies, crumbles and
purée.
The apple press has been fully employed and demijohns of wine bubble gently in the kitchen inglenook.

I’m appled out!

‘Cakes and Ale’

‘Why do you want to do the whole church wedding thing, with a meringue dress and all the rest of it, Libby?’ I asked curiously next day. ‘I mean, it
is
your third time and you’re already living with Tim!’

We were standing in one of the bedrooms in the Elizabethan part of Blessings, the one with the window that had blown in and been left hanging open, so that the rain had made a mess of the floorboards beneath. Harry had been over to mend the catch that morning and we’d just finished pinning a sheet of polythene over the broken panes to keep any more rain from getting onto the floorboards, until they could be replaced.

We were both wearing jeans and jumpers, though of course
Libby’s was designer, lush oatmeal cashmere, to my jumble sale and hand-knitted (by Pansy Grace). Libby had incongruously topped her ensemble with a long wedding veil and, since it was a dark day, she looked rather ghostly against the pale plaster walls studded with heraldic emblems, most of them grimacing creatures.

She turned to look at me, opening her round, forget-me-not-blue eyes even wider, like a surprised kitten just before it inserts its needle-sharp teeth into your hand. ‘Yes, but I’m widowed, Josie, and Tim’s ex-wife is a Catholic and managed to get the marriage annulled on some technicality, so we’re
allowed
the full monty if we want it.’

‘Non-consummation of the marriage?’ I asked with interest, that being the only grounds for annulment I’d ever heard of. (And I hadn’t known about Tim’s brief early marriage before she told me, either—that had been a surprise.)

‘Absolutely not!’ she said decidedly. Then a soft smile appeared on her face, one that was totally different from any expression I’d ever seen her wear before the advent into her life of Tim Rowland-Knowles. Soft was something she had never been, even as a mother.
Especially
as a mother, since I’m sure she was so terrified that Pia would turn out like her granny that she was often way too strict with her. No wonder the poor child had rebelled!

Anyway,’ she added dreamily, ‘this time it’s entirely different. Before I met Tim I only allowed myself to fall for rich men—and I
did
truly love Phillip and Joe, you know I did.’

I nodded, because she had been rosy and starry-eyed both times being, despite her crisp-shelled exterior, a romantic at heart.

‘But I hadn’t realised I could feel so—so deeply head-over-heels, and fluttery in the stomach when I see Tim, and as if everything is new and bright and beautiful. So I want to trip down the aisle looking and feeling like a Madonna—totally pure and
extra
virgin.’

‘You will,’ I assured her, touched, and I didn’t ask which Madonna she had in mind because I thought I could guess. Indeed, she was humming a very familiar tune as she adjusted about three miles of antique gossamer thread veiling, secured by a pearl and diamond tiara, on her natural (if slightly enhanced) golden hair.

It was a Spottiswode heirloom and had been Tim’s mother’s bridal veil, which Dorrie had bestowed on her earlier that morning, as a familial seal of approval. Libby looked like an angel in it—but actually, she looks like an angel in
anything.
I sometimes wish I did too, but I’m tall, sturdy and grave, with perfectly nondescript blue-grey eyes, a cloud of unruly, fine, dark auburn hair and pale, sallow skin.

‘I’ll have to take the veil with me when I go down to London to find my wedding dress,’ she said, ‘or it won’t match. It’s going to be difficult finding something off the peg that’s suitable, especially in petite, but there’s no time to have one made. I’ll take your measurements with me, Josie, but you’re a pretty standard size twelve, so I should be able to find you
something’

‘I can’t imagine why you want me to be a bridesmaid, when you must know hordes of younger and prettier women.’

‘Yes, I do, and that’s precisely the point: I don’t want my thunder stolen and you’ll make a perfect foil,’ she said frankly, examining her flawless and Botoxed-smooth complexion in a clouded mirror, before pushing the veil back a little so that a few more gilded curls peeped out. ‘I’d have had Pia too, but since she put the phone down on me as soon as I told her about Tim and now isn’t answering my calls, I don’t think she’s going to turn up. I don’t even know where she is.’

‘You’re worried about her, aren’t you?’

‘Of course I’m worried, but what can I do? She’s turned eighteen and she’s got money—she’s out of my control. She hasn’t listened to a word I’ve said since she hit the teens anyway, so it’s probably as well I don’t know what she’s getting up to.’

She shrugged resignedly and returned to the subject in hand. ‘You know, Josie, you shouldn’t put yourself down all the time, because you
are
pretty in your own unusual way when you scrub up, besides being the only real female friend I’ve ever had, so I truly want you at my wedding, as my bridesmaid.’

‘Well…OK,’ I said, touched. She had asked me the previous two times, but luckily there had been hordes of little granddaughters of the bridegroom simply
panting
to climb into fuchsia silk taffeta, so I’d managed to get out of it. ‘But do you think you could find me a dress in any other colour than pink?’

To be honest, I’m not a terribly girly girl, which is probably just as well. It wouldn’t be practical to go all pastel and frilly when I spend most of my time working in the garden in jeans and wellies, and the rest wrapped in a huge pinafore cooking, jamming, wine-making or baking and decorating cakes.

‘I suppose blue
would
be better, especially the same dirty French blue as your eyes, and it would flatter your sallow skin more,’ she agreed candidly. ‘It’s a pity the wedding is late in the year, because you look
so
much better in the summer when your skin has a bit of a glow.’

‘Thanks.’

‘But pink is more weddingy and anyway, it’s going to be a question of what I can find in your size. Besides, I’m going to have a hint of pink in my bouquet and in the roses on the cake, so it would tie in.’

‘You’re quite
sure
about the cake design before I start putting it together?’

Libby had certainly sounded definite about what she wanted—the Leaning Tower of Pisa, with an ascending swirl of blush-pink roses entwined around it. Hence all the little round cakes I’d been baking, ready to stack up high and ice.

‘Oh, yes, and I’ve told Gina to send me some postcards of the tower, to help you get it right,’ she said, Gina being her devoted
tuttofare
, or maid-of-all-work, in Pisa.

‘If Pia does change her mind once she’s over the shock, she could take my place as bridesmaid,’ I suggested hopefully, because although I’d always secretly yearned to walk down the aisle, it was as a bride, not an also-ran.

‘I hope she will change her mind, but I’m not holding my breath. But look on the bright side, Josie, if Ben sees you looking all bridal, flowery and pretty, perhaps he’ll finally decide to tie the knot. And, come on, you
know
you want to!’

‘No I don’t! We don’t need to be married to show we care about each other,’ I lied firmly. ‘Especially not at this stage. Weddings are for other people, not us.’

Libby, who knew me all too well, blew a raspberry and even as I said the words, I was feeling the familiar pang of sorrow and regret that Granny had never seen me walk down the aisle, as she had so desperately wanted to—and now she never would. It had felt very selfish of us not to give her that happiness—or selfish of Ben, because of course
I
would have loved to…

Still, the upside was that at least I hadn’t got Ben’s ghastly, social-climbing mother as my ma-in-law. I hadn’t even seen them since they moved to Wilmslow several years previously, though Ben visited them sometimes. They still thought I ruined his life by making him move back to Neatslake instead of staying in London and becoming famous, which they were convinced he would have been before now. But it was his decision just as much as mine. I sometimes wondered if he had ever told them that. But I expect he had and they just didn’t believe it.

‘Ben and I’ve been together since I was thirteen, Libby. That’s rock-solid enough, isn’t it,’ I asked, ‘even without a wedding ring?’

She gave me a sideways look from her deceptively innocent eyes. ‘But haven’t you ever found that a bit smothering? You’ve never really fallen
in
love, or
out
of love, just jogged comfortably along on a plateau of contentment, doing everything the way Ben wanted it.’

‘The way we both wanted it,’ I corrected her. ‘I’m living the
life I always dreamed of and I’m not a slave, even if I do think it’s important to create a comfortable environment for him to work in. And, what’s more, I did fall in love with Ben, the moment he first spoke to me!’

‘Puppy love!’

‘Maybe it started that way, but it’s still going strong. If you remember,
my
game plan was the direct opposite of yours. I just wanted to stay in Neatslake for ever when I grew up.’

‘Which you have, apart from two years in London, while Ben was at college. But while I’ve just really and truly fallen deeply in love for the first time with husband number three, there you are, still ambling along in your little rut with Ben. I don’t suppose you’ve ever even looked at anyone else?’

‘No—well, apart from Sting, before he started to look like that coconut head in the Tom Hanks castaway film. But Ben hasn’t looked at anyone else either, Libs. We’re fine as we are. Everything in the garden is perfect…or
almost
perfect,’ I qualified honestly. ‘I wish he didn’t have to go off to London so much lately, for instance. That is a fly in the ointment.’

‘It’s the price of fame,’ she shrugged. ‘You should be glad he’s finally made it big and his work is fetching good money. All the more reason to marry him now, before some other woman decides he’s a good prospect and snaps him up.’

I smiled. ‘Libby, that’s not going to happen and you know it!’

‘You can’t bank on that. He looks pretty tasty in an expensive suit and with a decent haircut.’

‘It wasn’t expensive. He bought it from Tesco, though it was quite a good fit.’

‘The one I last saw him wearing didn’t come from Tesco,’ she said positively.

‘Oh? Actually, he
did
say something about buying another one and he’s got some smarter jeans, but he mainly keeps his London clothes at Russell and Mary’s flat so I haven’t seen most of them.’

‘You should see that suit. I wouldn’t have known it was the same
Ben, when I popped into the opening of his one-man exhibition at the Egremont Gallery in May.’ She paused. ‘He didn’t see me; he was talking to a tall blonde for ages—fortyish, expensive-looking. He seemed quite engrossed in what she was saying.’

I grinned. ‘I think I know who that must have been. He told me all about her—he calls her his patroness! I’ve forgotten her name, but she’s an investment banker and nearer fifty than forty, though I expect she’s very well preserved. There’s family money too, and she must be very well off because she’s bought several pieces of his work and he’s charging quite steep prices now.’

‘Hmm…Well, he certainly
looks
expensive these days,’ Libby said ambiguously, ‘and I still think you ought to go down to London with him more often and keep an eye on him.’

I felt a sudden, unexpected, pang of doubt. It was true that the Ben I knew and loved, the tall, rugged one in hand-knitted jumpers and tattered jeans, with his thick, light-brown hair rumpled and all on end, had to spruce himself up a bit when he was away and often even returned looking like a total stranger, until he’d changed back into his old clothes again.

But I said firmly, ‘I trust Ben and he hates having to leave me so often. He phones me up every night when he’s away, from Russell and Mary’s house. We both enjoyed living in London when he was at the RCA, but it wasn’t where we wanted to live for ever, and now we just prefer it for visits. Neatslake is home.’

‘Is Mary still making those dreary pots?’

‘Mostly large one-off ceramic pieces, and they sell very well. She and Russell have studio space in a converted warehouse in Camden and Ben’s just taken one there, to give him a London base to store his stuff. He and some of his ex-RCA friends have formed a group to exhibit together, but of course his inspiration is here, so he’ll always want to spend most of his time here.’

‘Well, I still think you ought to make more effort, Josie—spice the relationship up a bit. And with men, even old ones, never,
ever
take your eye off the ball.’ She thought about that for a
minute, blinked her preposterously long, tinted eyelashes and amended, ‘Balls.’

She may be the expert on most men, but Ben was different. ‘I know you mean it for the best, Libs, but you don’t understand. Ben loves me the way I am and we’re happily living the life we always wanted. Money, material things and marriage have never been that important to us. Ben’s work is, though, and it’s wonderful that it’s getting the recognition it deserves at last. Besides, even if I wanted to go to London with him, I couldn’t keep going off and leaving Harry to cope with everything. He’s getting so frail now that I’m always afraid he’s going to fall over and really hurt himself.

‘You can’t build your life around an elderly neighbour, even if you do have some sort of gardening commune going with him!’

‘You know Harry is far more to me than just a neighbour, Libs, and he’s been a huge support over the years. But now he’s getting too frail even to walk his dog every day…and then sometimes he forgets to shut the hens up and I’m afraid that that fox I saw one evening will come back and take them.’

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