Martha felt the phone almost fall from her hand at the words uttered by her aunt, she'd not gone home enough, she didn't call enough, and now her Dad was ill. Really ill. There had been so much distance between them for so long, for SO many reasons. She thought of the man her father was, the man she loved SO much, the tall burly figure who would throw her up on to his a shoulder and stride across fields as though she weighed nothing even when she was in her teens. He was the strongest man she knew, getting up before dawn to manage his farm land before heading to the restaurant he ran, and sitting up until late helping her with her homework. He was invincible, immortal, the strongest hulk that she knew, wasn't he?
She hung up on her Aunt and called the hospital, the Stroke Unit.
"He's settled, its early days, and he's been very ill, but he's making steady progress."
She bit her lip, not wanting to cry, "will you tell him I called? I'll be there in the morning."
And so knew there was nothing for it but to head home.
Not a place she'd thought of too often, since she'd left five years ago she'd restricted herself to occasional visits, around Christmas, maybe birthdays...not much else. Not through choice, but through necessity and duty. With bile rising in her throat and pain in her heart she got back to the house as quickly as she could. Stephanie, her godmother and ultimately her saviour, was as serene as ever, glamorous to the letter, stood in her perfect cashmere twinset and pressed trousers and the heels she was never seen without, cooking dinner without a single splash on her perfect attire. Not that she cooked very often. When she stepped in to the room the older woman sensed her presence and looked up from the stove to smile, then immediately she sensed Martha's anxiety.
"Are you ok?"
Martha nodded, "was everything ok today?"
Stephanie laid down the spoon she was using to stir the pot of soup in front of her, "we're fine. Why? What's happened?"
"Aunt Lucy called. My father's had a stroke."
Stephanie looked like she'd been slapped; the fear on her goddaughter's behalf was palpable, "really? Oh shit. I'm so sorry. Are you going?"
Martha nodded, not remembering hearing Stephanie using a profanity in the past, even one as mild as shit. "I just need to get some things ready."
"I'll pack you something to eat."
Martha couldn't thank this woman enough, in her hour of need she'd stepped in and supported her, for five years had been like a mother to her, and when something happened like this, she just took the responsibility without complaining. "This will be really hard for you."
Stephanie smiled, "it's fine. I can cope. You NEED to be home with Carl. Ok? Give him my love."
Martha was still in a daze as she got in her car and waved goodbye to her home, then started the journey back to the place that had been home for twenty three years.
As the motorway headed away from London, the roads changed from well maintained carriageways, to narrower single lane roads, and then lanes. She'd been born in the house on Carrowbrook Farm twenty eight years earlier, in those days the village of Denbrooke had been just that, a large village. A few houses, the pub, the church, then the couple of dozen farms that flanked that, and the restaurant her parents had cultivated from nothing. Over the last twenty years more and more of the east side of the area had been sold to property developers, and now, the village was more like a town, and a suburb of the nearest city, large estates of social housing had changed the demographics of the area greatly, but Martha didn't realise quite how much until she finally drove along those roads and truly saw them for the first time in years. All her previous visits had been rushed and excited, she hadn't really seen where she was driving, now with too much time, too much silence it was all she could do, think and see.
As she pulled through the centre of the town her phone rang, connecting the call she answered with a weary "hello?"
She'd left for work at seven am that morning, the clock in her car told her it was eight thirty, and already dark, it had been the longest day, and she'd had to call in every favour she had to get away like this.
"Martha? It's James. I wasn't sure if you'd heard about your father."
She smiled, James had been in her class throughout school, his parents ran the Royal Oak the main pub in town, and had done since they were kids. Since she'd left the town five years ago she'd barely seen anyone other than her father, but with the benefit of social media she had been in loose contact with some school friends. As she informed him she was driving through town as they spoke, he was ecstatic.
"Come to the pub when you're settled, I can't wait to see you, I'll treat you to dinner, I bet you haven't eaten! I know this isn't the best of circumstances, but it will be great to see you."
Normally she slipped in and out of town rather evasively, avoiding everyone bar her father and Aunt Lucy, and it was the last thing she wanted to do, a public appearance in town for the first time at such a fraught time could disarm her. But her stomach gave a traitorous rumble. And it was then James added, "look I know you probably don't want to see everyone yet, it's been a while, but think, a Thursday night is a million times quieter than a Friday in town. It'll be like a half way thing, not so intimidating. I presume you're going to be home a lot more for the next few weeks anyway. You've nothing to lose."
"Will HE be there?" she asked at a whisper, dreading the answer.
James sighed, "haven't seen him around for months. Honestly, it'll be fine."
The farmhouse had always been a dominating feature on the left of the road half a mile past the village, but now a supermarket, a large supermarket at that, sat between the town and the driveway to the farm, hiding its presence. Nothing stays the same, she thought. The track that connected the road to the farm was however exactly the same, two tyre tracks in what felt like knee length grass. Total hell, for an old sports car more used to the well paved streets of London.
Pulling up at the front of the house, the wheels locked in the mud, and she knew that this was to be the resting place for 'Herman' as she affectionately named her car, for a while at least. Climbing out of the vehicle she made for the house. There was the hint of a light on, in the lounge, that meant that Aunt Lucy was up, though it was almost nine o'clock, and that was unusual in itself. Aunt Lucy rarely stayed up after nine.
Tessa the collie and Portia the rather highly strung sheep dog met her as she stepped out of the car. They had kennels near the backdoor and a dog flap into the coach house, an annex off the back of the kitchen, which meant they were always around.
Stooping to scratch both their heads, she sighed, it had been SO long. As she entered the house Harriet and Kitchen the ridiculously named cats wound around her ankles affectionately, Tinker the youngest girl was nowhere to be seen, but then she was half feral. Not a people animal.
"Hello?" She called out pushing open the kitchen door. But there was no answer. Opening the door to the lounge she stopped, there fast asleep in a chair next to the fire was her aunt, her mother's older sister. She was seventy five, and had been ill and frail for as long as Martha could remember, but tonight she looked peaceful. She didn't want to shock the woman, so she started to make subtle noises, calling out, shutting doors until the eyes started to flicker open.
Martha had such mixed memories of her aunt. Since her own mother died suddenly when she was only eight, Aunt Lucy had moved in, admittedly her father needed help with her, the restaurant was an antisocial job for him, and he'd needed someone to be there for his daughter after school and in the evenings. But she'd been strict had Aunt Lucy, quick to criticise her and her father, in fact, she often wondered whether the two adults had hated each other. Despite that she felt affection for the woman who was slowly opening her eyes.
Lucy smiled at Martha, "darling! It's so wonderful to see you!"
Martha crossed the room and stooped down for a hug. "How's Dad? What happened?"
Aunt Lucy sighed, "he collapsed, this morning after breakfast. I wanted to go to the restaurant, but since my hip..."
Who could forget her Aunt's hip replacement? Barely a conversation passed without her mentioning it.
"Of course Aunty, and I wouldn't expect you to. I've managed to take a month of emergency leave. Hopefully I can help the guys keep everything running here and the restaurant. I called the hospital and I can't visit until the morning, I've been worried sick. How was he?"
Aunt Lucy sighed, "he's a strong man, physically anyway he'll get through this, you'll see, he's still as soft and gullible as ever in so many other ways though." The comment was accompanied by a condescending look.
Martha treated the snipe with the contempt it deserved, "Aunt Lucy, you need to stop!"
The older woman laughed, "trade hasn't been the best in the restaurant, times are hard, he's been stressed, then there's constant pressure to sell land, housing agents are here ALL the time wanting to buy his fields. Then HE was here last week, I swear that influenced things."
Martha gasped, "HE was here? Really?"
Her aunt nodded, not appreciating the seriousness of her comment, "haven't seen him since though. And then there's the lodger!"
"Lodger?" Martha was still trying to fathom the fact that the man she never wanted to see was in town, despite James' promise so she could barely contemplate anything else. Her nerves were on edge and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
"Yes! I mean when money is tight then it's ridiculous to let some fly-by-night lodger live rent free in the coach house. It's no wonder your father is ill. I'm going to bed."
And with that she left the room meaning that Martha didn't even need to justify that last comment. Her father took in every stray animal this side of London; hence the strays and feral animals that lived in the yard, so it was no surprise to know that he had someone lodging in the outhouse. Not that it was the exact lap of luxury above the tack room!
Her father had inherited the farm, but had found the life too difficult for it to be his sole career, he and her mother set up the restaurant fifteen years ago, and it had been hard at first. Then a couple of years into the venture her mother had died. Her father had thrown his heart and soul into the business, running the farm down to nothing. He rented out fields to people for various uses, some were farmed, others held livestock. He had always intended to get the farm back up and running, but it had never happened. Until he'd bought a few horses to breed a couple of years back. She had no idea how she would keep everything running without him at the helm, but she could only try, luckily the chef at the restaurant was well established and not as hot-headed as the last one, so hopefully that would be okay for a while at least. Her biggest concern were the horses. Over the last five years her father had branched out into breeding an expensive type of horse. He swore it would make his transition to some sort of retirement easier, they were labour intensive but would sell he assured her for a lot of money. Now all that was up in the air. She'd spotted the field of animals as she'd come onto the farm, and she now had to figure those into her schedule too.
Martha looked around the room, nothing had changed in the last twenty years, the farm was like a snapshot of the seventies, the mismatched Chesterfield chairs, the open fire, and the ancient mirrors and lamps were unchanged from her childhood. The kitchen was more modern, but the whole place looked neglected and unloved. But then she'd not been there.
Climbing the stairs with her bags, she entered her old bedroom, the large antique bed was still there, dominating the room, and the dressing table with the huge mirror, even her Take That stickers still adorned every surface, and posters covered her wardrobe. Nothing had changed. Running her finger over the photo on the bedside table she felt a lump in her throat, it was a photo of her and her dad, taken days before she'd left. When things were SO different.
Martha was such a long way in SO many from her home in London. She'd left the place five years ago, running away from the very public and disastrous end to a doomed relationship with the golden boy in town Scott Oldbury, and through it had she'd become the latest hot gossip at the time, and now what? She was about to set all the tongues wagging by waltzing into the heart of the town again having not been there for years. If her father was there he'd protect her, but he was weak, frail and struggling in a hospital bed somewhere, and she still hadn't seen him.
Martha glanced at her reflection, her dark hair hung as it always did, in an unruly fashion to her shoulders, her face was plumper than she would have liked, but her hectic life stopped her visiting the gym as often as she should. Glancing down at her body she shuddered, she'd always imagined that the next time she waltzed into town she'd be perfect, traffic stopping, but she was more lumpy than hourglass, and she hadn't brought anything glamorous to wear with her.
With a sigh of resignation, she delved in her handbag and pulled out her least dried out mascara, and waved it over her eyes, she had no lipstick, or even gloss, this was exactly what happened, she rued, when you travelled at such short notice. But then she'd expected to see her father, then go to bed. Instead she had missed visiting hours, and now she was about to launch herself back into her own personal nightmare.
Whilst the farm was out of town, there was a path that led behind the new supermarket and into the centre of the town. She used to walk it in the dark uncaring, but five years in London had made her more nervous. She marched to the Royal Oak with her house keys poised like a knife in her hand, her ears sensitive to the slightest sound. But as was typical with this side of town, it was a quiet and uneventful journey.
She paused at the door to the pub and took a deep breath. Then walked in. The pub had a central bar, one side serving their restaurant and conservatory, the other the lounge. It was a large place, and the layout meant that you could see into all the rooms when you stood at the bar. She had walked into the restaurant side and it was deserted, so taking another steadying breath, she made for the door into the bar.
He'd been sat in the corner nursing his drink for half an hour, it had been a stressful day, and he'd hoped time here would help him unwind. But it hadn't. He was itching for something, anything. The adrenaline, the anger, the anticipation was mounting in him rather than easing and he knew that if he didn't do something constructive he'd end of fighting, or fucking, or maybe even both. That was how these nights played out. That was how he dealt with these moods, these feelings. Tonight he wanted it to be different.
He barely noticed the door open, but when it did he looked up, and that was it. He was transfixed. He'd know who this was just from the stories he'd heard even if he hadn't seen her photo in her father's wallet a dozen times. But the photo hadn't done any justice.
There were several groups scattered around the room, maybe thirty people, quiet for here, but every single one of them had silenced the second she'd walked in. He felt pity for her, it was a position he'd found himself in so many times in the months since he'd moved to this godforsaken town. The silence, the looks, the gossip. He'd never known a place like it.
But then he'd never seen a woman like her.
He watched as James, the man who treated him with more contempt than most approached her, pulling her into an embrace that was meant to be a welcome to an old friend, but he wasn't stupid, the son of the landlord was immediately after more from the woman than friendship. A few other people walked over to say hello, but she wasn't comfortable. She didn't want to be there.
He heard someone whisper something to his right, so did she, but she held her head high, smiling at James and ignoring the unwanted attention. He liked her spark, her bravery. Something had happened, there was some reason why she was the centre of attention, but then there would always be a reason why she left and never returned. The old man hadn't shared that information; he'd find out, he knew that.
She ordered a drink at James' request, and he was pleased that she ordered a whisky, straight up. A no frills drink, he glanced at the two fingers of vodka that sat in front of him and thought 'snap'.
As she hiked herself on to the stool next to James he studied her, liking that no one noticed him sat away in the corner alone. Her hair was glossy, shiny, bouncy, and he loved that it was far more attractive than that of the girls who'd fill the place the next evening, Friday, having spent hours teasing their hair into some sort of style, and yet he instantly knew that she hadn't spent hours in a mirror trying to make it look that way. Her eyes were shining, he couldn't see what colour they were, but with her dark colouring he presumed they'd be dark too. She had a bravado about her as she broke into a smile and accepted hugs from a few more of the locals, all of whom obviously knew her. But he could see she was stressed, anxious...didn't anyone else pick up on that?
He'd loved women, all women, but he'd never found bigger women specifically more attractive, but there was something captivating about this one, not that she was big, she was just not waif like, that seemed to be the fashion at the moment. No, she was amazing. Her legs were long, slim, but she was curvy, more than that, and her hips and arse were rounded, and on her that was enticing, and she had what appeared to be the most perfect breasts. But it was her smile that hooked him; he instantly thought he'd do anything for that smile.
Not that he'd ever have that chance. She was good, pure...and her father's daughter. There was no way that he'd venture anywhere near her. But he was enjoying the time to sit, watch, and appreciate, as the pantomime played out in front of him, and for once he wasn't the star.