Please, don’t let it be cancer, Lucy Fletcher thought, huddled next to Rose in the surgery. Not Mum.
Every young woman harbours dreams for their future and Lucy was no exception. For as long as she could remember, three things would make her dreams come true.
Firstly, she’d opened an art shop in Cirencester that sold the usual assorted materials the lively and spritely retired townspeople used to create their chocolate box paintings. Art was her life and now it was her successful business. But Lucy wanted so much more.
Secondly, she wanted to make enough profit to help other aspiring artists. When the time was right, she planned to extend the shop into an art gallery for her own paintings and local artists who exhibited real talent. Once her fortune was made in the town, she would move to Oxford and hobnob with the elite among the gleaming spires. Only then could she proceed to step three—buy Walnut Cottage.
Situated on Song Thrush Lane in the small Cotswolds hamlet of Netherbridge, the quaint and vacant cottage had lain empty for about two years when the previous owner, Wendy, died. As a child, Lucy sat cross-legged on the green, surrounded on four sides by cottages, but only Walnut Cottage held her in its mysterious grip. She sketched the whitewashed, two story cottage with crayons before running home to Rose to show off her latest drawings. The cottage grounds bore a magnificent walnut tree whose branches overhung the Cotswold stone wall during harvest time. However, the walnut tree that once boasted a proud harvest of nuts, which Wendy allowed the villagers to pick at their leisure, was being slowly strangled by thistles and weeds wrestling for fertile ground. The cottage was fading from its former beauty and looking weather-beaten. Surely it was time to move out of home and fulfil her dreams.
As soon as the sale sign is stuck in the ground, I’ll buy it.
That was the plan anyway, she thought.
However, as Lucy found out when Rose became ill, plans are easily scuppered by misfortune, mistiming, and sometimes the unforeseen consequences of just being human—like the one she faced that afternoon inside the doctors’ surgery.
Outside the small Cirencester surgery, willow trees swayed with the breeze, their foliage capturing the sunlight that Lucy usually brought to life with a canvas and oils. On any November day like this, it was usually cold or wet, but today no clouds tainted the eggshell blue sky and the gleaming sun made her squint. Right then, the weather was ideal for sitting on the Green and painting Walnut Cottage.
With her eyes closed, Lucy tried to shift her thoughts away from what would happen very soon. She cast her mind back to Netherbridge and watched enthralled as sunlight turned the grey thatch into rich earthy browns. Then sadness swept over her once again as she saw the cracked and weathered paintwork because there was no owner to care for it.
Lucy opened her eyes and dabbed the tears threatening to spill over her lids. Sunny afternoons should be spent strolling through Netherbridge’s wild meadows peppered with gorse and yarrow, not in a doctor’s waiting room. During the previous month, as Lucy and Rose strolled through one of the meadows, they’d laughed together as they made daisy chains and blew dandelion seeds from their stems under the solace of the autumn sun. The first sign that something was wrong with Rose still lay freshly imprinted with pinpoint accuracy in Lucy’s mind. It started with a groan as Rose attempted to climb a stile on the journey home. While they staggered home, Rose clutching her stomach, Lucy knew then that everything had its season.
Lucy stared out of the window, away from the glum faces of patients nursing flu, teething babies and old age pensioners with chronic arthritis and varicose veins. But Lucy was inseparable from Rose and all she could do now was hold her mother’s hand, watch people come and go from the surgery, and wait for the nurse to call her name.
The wait felt like eternity.
Lucy glanced at her sick mother. She knew the diagnosis wasn’t going to be good. It wasn’t just woman’s intuition. She’d watched her mother slide from a healthy and care-free woman into a frail shell of her former self. During spring and summer, Rose had spent most evenings in the garden preparing the ground for another dazzling display of flags, foxgloves, irises, roses and rhododendra. Maybe this would be the last time Rose would ever have the best kept cottage garden in Netherbridge.
Lucy squeezed her hand. ‘It won’t be long now, Mum.’
She inhaled a deep breath and looked at the clock again. What else could she do? It felt as if time had stopped and she was powerless to change anything.
‘I’m scared.’ Rose gulped and squeezed Lucy’s hand. ‘What if it’s…you know?’
If only Lucy could rip out her own heart to quench the pain, but instead she gripped her mother’s hand tighter.
‘Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, won’t we?’
God, it sounded so trite to even utter those words.
She felt the fast beating pulse and tremors in her mother’s hand. The wait was just as traumatic as the diagnosis about to be revealed.
And what if it was cancer? Rose leant her head back into the chair and closed her eyes. Lucy could only second guess the amount of stress she had coped with in her life so far. Glancing at Rose, Lucy knew that even though she looked peaceful right then, it was an act. Lucy was positive about that. Her throat tightened and her chest felt compressed. Lucy couldn’t comprehend a life without her mother—the sole provider during her teenage years and the one who’d raised her into the woman she was today. When her father suddenly died just after Lucy’s twelfth birthday, they fended for themselves. Although Rose had been strong and the best mother Lucy could have wished for, she craved for a father to hold her when times were hard. After twenty years with one parent there was a real possibility that she would lose her mother too. The prospect frightened her more than anything and the fear of being all alone twisted like torsion in her gut.
A nurse pushed the door open and looked at her notes. ‘Rose Fletcher,’ she shouted, peering around the room and noticing Rose heave herself from the chair.
‘Come on, Mum, let’s get this over with.’ Lucy breathed out slowly and gripped Rose’s hand. The screaming child opposite them, held tightly in its mother’s arms, paid no attention. The mother was oblivious as she texted somebody on her phone. Looks of sympathy from the older patients and a smile from an older gentleman who seemed to empathise with her situation didn’t make Lucy feel any better.
Lucy helped Rose to her feet and trudged towards the doctor’s room. Just last month, they’d strolled for three miles in daisy and dandelion meadows, and now, Rose hobbled on a tiled floor. Whatever the diagnosis, Lucy felt robbed.
But at least whatever the doctor was going to diagnose, she would know within ten minutes. And in ten minutes her life would alter forever.
Lucy stifled her tears.
There’ll be plenty of time for tears later.
The journey back to Netherbridge in Lucy’s blue Renault Clio seemed like the hardest and longest trip she’d ever undertaken. Apart from the potholes and speed humps that made Rose wince with pain, Lucy’s nerves were frayed. For the entire trip Rose hid her face and gazed through her passenger window in silence while Lucy drove on auto pilot, hoping the diagnosis was incorrect and it would all be just a bad nightmare. Shops and houses blurred and merged like a time-lapse film until the town gave way to the hazy shades of green country hedgerows and trees.
As Lucy approached Netherbridge Green, she replayed every word the doctor had spoken sweetly in his claustrophobic room. Thirty minutes earlier the doctor had indeed uttered the cancer word. Overwhelming feelings of nausea ebbed and flowed in Lucy’s stomach. It couldn’t be true.
It just couldn’t.
Mum isn’t old enough.
It’s so unfair.
Lucy turned into Mistle Thrush Lane and parked outside Rose cottage. This had been her family home for thirty-three years and now she faced a future on her own. Rose pushed back her tears and forced a smile. All Lucy could do now was be there for Rose—strong, stalwart and faithful mum. The world wouldn’t stop for two women. With tearful eyes, she took hold of her mother’s hand.
Rose’s maternal complexion, that not so long ago warmed Lucy, had turned jaundiced, and her once sparkling eyes looked dimmed and hopeless. Silence descended between them as the full force of shock gripped and twisted Lucy’s guts; every muscle tightening and pinning her to the driver’s seat. Rose struggled to free herself from the seat and climb from the car.
‘Are you coming in?’ Rose asked as she leaned inside the car.
Speechless, Lucy shook her head.
‘I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.’
‘I’ll be there shortly, mum. I just want some time alone for a while.’
There’s nothing I can say. Lucy gripped the steering wheel and watched Rose struggle up the path. I really should get those flagstones evened out. Ridiculous—mum’s going to die and all I can think of is the bloody path. She thumped the wheel and wanted to scream, but her throat felt as if it was being strangled.
The last ten years had been a struggle and mum had been there every step of the way. When Sean jilted her and ran away to London, Lucy tried hard to get on with life. It had been a financial struggle to start her business, but she’d done it anyway. Just as Lucy’s bank balance looked healthy enough to make plans for the art gallery extension, everything would have to be put on hold.
How will I ever work and care full-time? Something has to give. Through the hedgerows, Lucy glimpsed Walnut Cottage and knew she’d never own that either. But Mum comes first. She always will. However difficult the future’s going to be, I’ll give up everything to spend every moment with you.
How could her dreams be shattered by so few devastating words?
Rose will need a lot of care. Have you got immediate family who can help?
The answer was obviously no. Since her father died twenty years ago, there were no other relations anywhere. Lucy was definitely alone.
Lucy stepped from the car and leant against the bonnet. Roses perfumed the air. Their soft touch as Lucy’s hand flowed over the petals reminded her of mum’s tender care in the garden – the same gentle touch she’d used throughout Lucy’s life. She choked back her tears and headed for the door. Nearby rooks jeered at Lucy from their rookeries. She wrapped her arms around her knotted stomach trying to ease the pressure building up since the diagnosis. All she had left was Rose and their home.
But what kind of a home will it be without you, Mum?