The Place Where Love Should Be – Read an extract

Evie has been invited to her sister Joanna’s house for Sunday lunch, her brother-in-law Andy has come to fetch her:

Andy follows me into the living room and hovers, waiting for instructions. I see his eyes flick round, taking it all in: the piles, the clutter, the chaos. He trips on a cereal bowl on the floor by the couch.
‘Is Mark home?’ he says.
‘He’s round the back loading the van. He’s leaving again first thing.’
‘Ah, that’s tough.’
‘No choice really, it’s just the way it is.’ Andy has no idea how it is, any more than Joanna does.
I call down the garden to Mark who’s piling up paving slabs by the back gate. ‘I’m going now, see you later.’
He looks up briefly but doesn’t smile. I miss that, his smile. The way his face hides the secret beneath.
‘Have fun,’ he says and stoops to pick up another slab.
I begin to put random baby things in Edward’s go-bag, oddly named since we haven’t ‘gone’ anywhere at all. I’ve no idea where to start, what I might need for an afternoon out. We’ve scarcely left the house since Edward came home from hospital. How in God’s name do people do it? I have friends who’ve gone back to work after six weeks.
Andy takes the bag and holds it open for me. ‘Don’t worry about too much stuff,’ he says, ‘Jo has everything stashed away somewhere if you need it.’
Yes, I bet she does. Well, I can manage, I will manage.
I stuff in a handful of nappies, take the bag again, sling it on my shoulder and make for the door. But then remember Edward sleeping in his car seat in the corner, swaddled in numerous layers. Mark has strapped him in already, I didn’t trust myself to fasten it properly, now I can’t bring myself to carry him or fix him safely in the car.
‘Andy,’ I say, ‘can you, please…?’
Andy whisks Edward out to the car parked on the pavement by the front door, his latest vehicle – something black and solid. At least it’s solid.
The journey to Joanna’s house takes less than half an hour. I sit in the back staring through the window, my hands sticky, pressed together on my lap. The sun shines, gaudy over-brightness after weeks in the endless dark at home. I blink at the window, a nocturnal creature turned out into the light. Across the fields, wind turbines turn three-legged cartwheels. By the roadside, sunlight flicks between the poplars, strobe lighting that hurts my eyes. I close them, breathing slowly, inhaling leather from the seats, Andy’s aftershave and
something else, something rank. It’s the smell of my own hair.
Andy turns on the radio and chats above the music, sounds from the distant past. He talks about work, the children, his father who needs full time care. I half-listen; it keeps my mind from the fact that we’re hurtling along in a metal box at 70 miles an hour.
But when we reach Joanna’s village, I’m beginning to feel sick, an arrhythmic knock against my ribcage. I shiver, don’t want to be here, don’t want to see Joanna, can’t bear the thought of all the fuss, the noise, the children, the excess, the oh, such a wonderful life my sister lives.
I can’t do this. I can’t get out of the car. I want to be home.


Evie’s stepmother Francine has returned to France following her mother’s death. She is staying in her old family home – the village bakery – attempting to sort out the house and contents


Francine got up and pulled on her coat. There was no dressing gown apart from her mother’s old one and it seemed ghoulish to wander around in that. Too often now she caught sight of her mother when she looked in the mirror – a set of the jaw, a lift of the eyebrow. The years were catching up: fine lines on her face in the harsh morning light, greying hair screwed up in a clasp. Old-looking. Upset with the image, she felt angry with William, as if it were his fault she’d aged, as if by association she’d grown old before her time. She was only fifty-four – un certain âge. No wonder Simon’s attentions had suddenly seemed so welcome.
In the kitchen, she made coffee and attempted to light the fire by breaking the kindling into smaller pieces. Again she avoided washing in the icy bathroom and was beginning to feel grimy and sour. William had phoned last night; he’d sounded so far away, so vulnerable. This business had shaken him, she feared it had aged him too. The eighteen years’ difference in their age stretched out between them, a vast space now – William’s ‘other country’ foreign, unknowable. His past had always been a closed book; Francine had only dealt with what was there, in front of her: his loneliness, his children, his home. With caution, she’d taken on the uneasy mantel of second wife, of stepmother, together with his kindness and gratitude. That William cared for her, that he cherished the years she’d given bringing up his daughters, was never in doubt. But Francine knew too that a man does not recover from desertion, even one as self-deprecating as William. In his heart, she believed he still held a morsel of hope that his first wife would return. She had nervous problems, William had said. Should have been locked up, was his mother’s verdict. For Francine, an ex-wife – even a dead wife – was one thing, but an absent wife, one who was out there leading a life none of them knew about, was something she had never quite come to terms with.
Francine pulled out another overflowing drawer from the dresser, tipped the contents onto the table and spread it out, removing all the items not made of paper: string, plastic bags, paper clips, scissors and, for some reason, a potato peeler. She began to wind the string, to look for a pot to house the paper clips, then gave up and dumped the whole lot in the bin.