Sorry to everyone watching my Facebook Live with Alison May tonight who lost sound at the end of the broadcast. For anyone who wants to read it, this is the extract I was in the middle of reading from Love at First Fight (out 5th August).
‘Well, you know. I’m a rebel.’ Bridie glanced around at the sound of approaching footsteps and groaned. ‘Oh God.’
Joel followed her gaze to Ben, who was making a beeline for their table with a big grin on his face. ‘You know that guy?’
‘Yes, he’s an old schoolfriend. Well, I say friend…’
‘All right, ?’ Ben said when he reached them. He leaned over the table to help himself to a chip. ‘Still alive then, are you?’
She flashed him a wide smile. ‘Well I almost pined away when you went off on your geriatric gap year, but then I don’t know, after about ten minutes I somehow seemed to make this miraculous recovery. How’s your substitute penis?’
‘The Audi? Just like the real thing, love: sleek, sexy and ready to ride.’
‘Mmm. Or over-hyped, over-polished and comes too quickly.’
Ben looked Joel up and down as if he were some sort of specimen impaled ready for dissection, taking in his man bun and selection of Spice-themed tattoos. ‘What number’s this one then, Bride?’
‘Bloody Cal, I’ll kill him,’ she muttered. She summoned a smile for her date, who was watching their gleeful bickering with a puzzled expression on his face. ‘Um, I’m out of wine here, Joel. Do you think you could pop to the bar and get us another couple of drinks?’
‘Have you got any money?’
She lifted an eyebrow. ‘Seriously?’
‘Hey, I bought us the chips, didn’t I?’
‘Of course, you’re right. And I only bought the last two rounds, how selfish of me.’ She pushed her empty glass towards him. ‘Just tell Pete to stick it on a tab. I’ll settle up when I leave.’
‘Well, what number date is it then?’ Ben asked when Joel had gone to the bar.
She glared at him. ‘Nineteen, if you must know. And please tell your brother from me that he might want to start wearing a cricket box when he comes over to ours.’
‘So how are you finding Joel?’
‘He’s great. Really, really nice guy. Some sort of big-shot music producer, apparently.’
She grimaced. ‘All right, so he’s not a music producer. But he’s still pretty cool.’
Ben leaned over her to take the last chip. ‘What’re you two planning to do after this? Will it be the standard post-date shag, do you think, or will you be spending the night picking through Mel C’s bins together?’
She scowled at him. ‘Have you been eavesdropping on us?’
He shrugged. ‘Couldn’t help hearing a bit on my way over. Look, how about you ditch this loser and come have a drink with me and Cal? You must’ve got tired of only seeing me in your more erotic dreams this past year.’
‘No thanks. Joel might be boring, obsessive and tight as fuck, but I’ll still take his Spice Girls fixation over your tales of sleeping with the entire female population of Brazil.’
‘Whatever.’ She cast a glance over his deeply tanned arms and curled her lip. ‘You look like you’ve been Ronsealed. What do they call that shade, Werther’s Original?’
He grinned. ‘Missed you, Bride.’
‘You’re looking pretty sexy yourself,’ he said, looking over her outfit of yellow strappy top and skinny jeans. ‘I’m told you’re into wearing thongs these days.’
‘Tell Cal to make sure that’s a steel-lined cricket box, will you? Because just for him I’m about to get into wearing hobnailed boots as well.’
‘It was only a matter of time.’
She nodded to his jeans. ‘You do know your flies have been undone the whole time we’ve been talking, right?’
‘Shit, have they?’
Bridie smirked as he cast a worried glance in the direction of his crotch. ‘Made you look.’
‘Funny.’ He nudged her. ‘So do you think you’ll be going back to Joel’s place later, or is it a cosy night in with the alternative entertainment you’ve got hidden in your knicker drawer?’
She looked up to smile dangerously at him. ‘Bend over and I’ll show you.’
‘Hey, don’t threaten me with a good time.’
‘Look, just sod off, Kemp, can you? Go back to Darkest Peru, see if you can get a job making marmalade sandwiches for Paddington Bear or something.’
‘Come on, Bride,’ he said, putting an arm around her shoulders. ‘Ditch Joel and come have a drink with us. You can have lots of fun insulting me and I promise I won’t tell a single story about my many sexual conquests on the South American continent. Although you’re right, there were loads.’
‘Nope. Fine where I am, thanks. And look, here’s my date back again.’ She shrugged off his arm and fixed her face into a smile as Joel arrived with their drinks and a couple of bags of crisps. ‘Cheers, honey.’
‘Oooh. Nice touch,’ Ben mouthed.
‘Hope you don’t mind, I stuck a couple of bags of Kettle Chips on your tab as well,’ Joel said as he sat back down. ‘I spent all afternoon in the gym working on my deltoids so I’m craving carbs tonight.’ He cast an underwhelmed glance at Ben. ‘Oh. Your friend’s still here.’
‘I know, he’s failing to take the most obvious of hints,’ Bridie said. ‘He thrives on attention though. Just ignore him and he’ll soon go away.’
‘I was going anyway.’ Ben clapped Joel hard on the shoulder. ‘Look after this one, mate, she’s a real treasure.’ He winked at Bridie before strolling back to his own table.
Bridie scowled after him. God, she hated that guy.
A big happy pub day to my latest book baby, The Never Have I Ever Club! From burlesque dancing to Swedish massage, the villagers of Kettlewick have plenty of bucket list activities they’re keen to tick off. You can read an exclusive extract from the book below, as heroine Robyn discovers how members of her new club have been carpeing their diems in their spare time.
Robyn turned to Cliff and Linda Cockburn. ‘Anything to report, you two? You had some sort of special day out planned, didn’t you?’
‘Ah. Um, yes.’ Cliff had gone a bit pink, and seemed to be avoiding the eye of the Brigadier opposite him. For his part too, the Brigadier was looking anywhere but at Cliff. ‘Well, we went.’
‘And how was it?’
‘It was… fine.’ The corner shop owner ran a finger under his collar. ‘Huh. Very enjoyable.’
Felicity grinned at him. ‘Come on, Cliff, there’s no point getting prudish about it now. Tell them what happened before I do.’
Cliff stared at her. ‘You wouldn’t.’
‘Of course I would. I was laughing for three solid days.’ She looked him up and down. ‘I mean, nothing personal.’
‘It was my fault,’ Linda said. ‘I talked Cliff into it.’
Robyn tried to remember what Linda’s contribution to the group bucket list had been.
Skinny-dipping, that was it. Robyn remembered her waxing lyrical about the excitement of feeling the open air on your skin, the dangerous thrill of potentially getting caught…
‘You didn’t get yourselves arrested for indecency or something, did you?’ she asked, her eyes widening.
‘Oh, no, nothing like that,’ Linda said. ‘No, you see, after the first meeting Cliff and I decided we’d like to do something that would stand for posterity, if you know what I mean. Something to impress the grandchildren.’
‘Okay. Such as?’
‘Well, Cliff wanted to see if we could get a part as extras in a film. That did sound fun, but when we looked into it there weren’t any opportunities coming up. But, er…’ She coughed. ‘There was something happening.’
‘A sort of performance art thing. You know that famous artist who does the, er… the photos of crowds of nudes?’
Freya choked on a snort.
‘What, you mean you and Cliff—’
‘They painted themselves blue and rode up and down an escalator with a load of other stark-naked Smurfs,’ Felicity said matter-of-factly. ‘Definitely one to share with the grandkids. It’ll be like playing Where’s Wally? with Grandpa’s bum.’
‘How do you know so much about it, Fliss?’ Robyn asked.
Felicity grinned. ‘Because Norman and I were there with our bums painted blue too.’ She nudged her bright red fiancé. ‘Weren’t we, dearest?’
The Brigadier cleared his throat. ‘Yes, well. It gets you out of the house, doesn’t it?’
Will shook his head. ‘You think you know someone.’
‘So do you think you’ll be doing any more performance art?’ Robyn asked the Cockburns.
‘No, I think we can tick that one off now,’ Cliff said, still avoiding the Brigadier’s eye. The experience of encountering each other by chance, todgers out and painted blue, had clearly traumatised them. Certainly, their Rotary Club dinners were unlikely to ever be the same.
‘Moving on,’ Robyn said. ‘Winnie. Any progress on your tattoo?’
‘Er, yes. Well, you could say that. I’ve got one now.’
‘Can we see, or is it somewhere you’d rather not show us?’
Winnie sighed. ‘It’s still healing but yeah, you can see.’
He rolled up his sleeve to display the fresh ink on his lower arm.
Will squinted at the artwork. It was very detailed, like a pencil sketch, and looked as if it might have been copied from a photograph. Underneath was a scroll bearing the words: Sleep well, Jarvis, loyol freind: 2004–2019.
‘It’s a dog,’ Will said.
‘I know. A Pomeranian, I think.’
‘Was it your dog, Winnie?’
‘No. No, it was someone else’s dog.’
‘To be honest, I’m not sure.’
Robyn frowned. ‘You mean you got a memorial tattoo for a dog you don’t know?’
‘I didn’t mean to,’ Winnie said in a pained voice. ‘I wanted a lion but the tattooist had muddled his appointments. He thought I was someone else.’
‘Why didn’t you say something?’
‘Well, I didn’t like to be rude. He’d obviously put a lot of time into the design.’ He looked at his arm and grimaced. ‘I wish he’d been a better speller though.’
‘Didn’t he show you it first?’ Freya asked. ‘Normally they do a wipe-off transfer so you can confirm you’re happy with it.’
Winnie pulled a face. ‘He did, but… you remember the old days, when people got tattoos to show how hard they were?’
‘This guy was very old school,’ Winnie said, shuddering. ‘There wasn’t a bit of him that wasn’t inked or pierced, from his bovver boots to the top of his shaven head. He had this sort of menacing look in his eye when he asked if I was happy to go ahead, as if he was defying me to criticise his design, and I…’ He groaned. ‘I just smiled and said yes, that’ll be lovely, thank you.’
‘He must know now though,’ Freya said. ‘I mean, I presume Jarvis’s real dad turned up eventually.’
‘He did. And to be fair to the bloke, he did give me my money back.’
‘So it’s a free misspelt dead dog tattoo. Brilliant.’
Robyn shook her head. ‘Winnie. Are you saying you got a complete stranger’s dog tattooed on your forearm for all eternity out of social embarrassment?’
‘Yeah,’ Winnie muttered. ‘It’s not so bad. I mean, it’s very artistic, don’t you think?’
Robyn noticed Felicity shaking with silent laughter behind her hanky and turned her head slightly.
‘But you can’t go through life pretending you once had a much-loved dog called Jarvis when you didn’t,’ she said. ‘Have you ever had a dog?’
‘No. I’m allergic to the fur.’
‘Sweet baby Jesus,’ Robyn muttered.
‘I could pretend Jarvis was the name of an ex,’ Winnie said, twisting his arm to examine the tattoo.
‘Right. An ex who died this year, aged fifteen, and really liked dogs.’
‘Okay, maybe not,’ he conceded. ‘I’ll just have to go with my back-up plan and wear long sleeves forever. I’ll miss swimming, but that’s a small price to pay.’
‘This is literally the most British thing I’ve ever heard,’ Will said.
‘God help me,’ Robyn heard Eliot mutter. ‘The man I love’s called Winston Prenderghast and he’s got a stranger’s dead Pomeranian tattooed on his arm.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘El, did I just hear you use the L-word?’ she whispered.
‘Never mind that, Rob. I’ve got bigger problems here.’
The rest of the group hadn’t fared much better than poor Winnie with their bucket list tasks. Albert Jeffries was limping for a reason he refused to divulge, although on the plus side, he and his wife had finally decided to call it a day on the DVLA and apply for an allotment instead. Jane Siegfried, the lady who’d wanted to learn to play poker, had managed to lose £800 of her savings in an online casino. And Eliot had been forced to give up the ukulele after developing blisters that made it too painful for him to hold his homework-marking pen, much to the delight of his class.
Robyn rested her chin on one fist as Mr Ansari from the library talked them through the various genealogy archives available online.
This wasn’t how the club was supposed to be. No, this wasn’t right at all.
Mysterious disappearances are rocking the well-tended flowerbeds of Kettlewick. Could there be more to handsome newcomer Callum than meets the eye?
First published in the Sunday People‘s Love Sunday magazine on 8th April 2018.
Abby squinted through the peephole of her front door. Her elderly neighbour Mr Hunter beamed back, his head distorted to mammoth proportions by the glass.
‘Is everything ok, Mr Hunter?’ she asked when she’d opened up.
‘Fine, fine. Sorry to call so early. It’s about this business in the village.’ He glanced warily around the sleepy cul-de-sac. ‘The robberies,’ he mouthed.
‘Yes, I heard,’ Abby said. When you lived in a community like Kettlewick, average age of seventy-five and pension day the highlight of the social calendar, a spate of garden thefts was big news.
‘First Ethel Clutterbuck’s hardy perennials. Then Doreen’s prize sweet peas. Molly’s favourite gnome, the one in the Union Jack swimming trunks. And Sarah swears she saw a strange man making eyes at her busy lizzies.’
Abby suppressed a smile.
‘This modern world,’ she said, shaking her head soberly. ‘It’s come to something when old ladies have to start alarming their gnomes.’
‘Quite. That’s why I popped round. Young girl like you, all on your own… well, I thought these might prove useful.’
Mr Hunter reached into his pocket and yanked out a pair of huge white Y-fronts.
Abby blinked. ‘Wow.’
‘They’re mine,’ he told her proudly. ‘All washed and pressed.’
‘Do you mind if I ask why you’ve brought me your pants, Mr Hunter?’
He lowered his voice. ‘Police believe the thieves are deliberately targeting ladies who live alone. And it can only be a matter of time until they take the next step. Housebreaking!’
‘So… I should garrotte them with your undies?’
‘Hang them on your washing line. Then if they come for your begonias, they’ll think you’ve got a man about the house.’
Mr Hunter looked so pleased with this cunning plan of his, Abby didn’t have the heart to send him and his undercrackers packing.
‘Thank you,’ she said, taking the pants gingerly. ‘That’s… very thoughtful.’
‘You’re more than welcome, dear.’
He headed back next door, leaving Abby blinking at the baggy Y-fronts.
‘Not really your colour, are they?’ a deep voice observed. She looked up to see a young man with laughing eyes leaning against a removal van parked across the road.
Abby hastily stuffed the pants in the pocket of her dressing gown. ‘My neighbour. He, um… has these ideas.’
‘Racy neighbourhood. The best I’ve ever been offered is a cup of sugar.’
Her cheeks flamed. Something about the twinkle in the man’s dark eyes – not to mention the fact he’d just caught her in her dressing gown, manhandling an OAP’s tighty-whities – seemed to have brought on her blush reflex.
He came over and held out a hand.
‘Abby Samson,’ she said, shaking it. ‘So you’re this grandson Mrs Beresford loves to boast about. The landscape gardener, right?’
He smiled. ‘Shameless, isn’t she?’
Abby glanced at the removal van outside Number 35.
‘Your grandmother isn’t moving out, is she?’
‘No, I’m moving in,’ Callum said. ‘Nana’s been struggling a bit since my grandad passed away. She gets… confused. It was a choice between me coming to help out or a care home, so, here I am.’
Abby was impressed. Callum Beresford must have a pretty 50-carat heart beating underneath the roguish grin to drop his old life just like that.
‘Well, nice to meet you, Callum,’ she said. ‘Welcome to Kettlewick.’
‘Sal. Wait,’ Abby panted, clutching at a privet hedge.
Every muscle in her body was aflame. It was safe to say she wasn’t one of nature’s joggers.
‘Lightweight.’ Her friend Sal grinned. ‘I thought you wanted to get in shape.’
‘Not… this… badly,’ Abby gasped.
Sal laughed. ‘Go on, we’ll take a breather then.’
As Abby recovered and her breath returned, her hazy vision started to clear. They were on Wisteria Lane, the balmy air drenched with violets and pollen. Further down the road she could see a figure in one of the gardens, sidling furtively.
Suddenly she threw herself down behind the hedge, pulling Sal with her.
‘Ow! What did you do that for?’ Sal said, rubbing her arm.
‘It’s him!’ Abby hissed.
‘Callum Beresford. He just moved in across the road.’
‘And we’re hiding from him because…?’
‘Just a feeling. Can you see what he’s up to?’
Sal peeped through the topiary.
‘You sly mare,’ she said, smirking at Abby. ‘So he’s what the fitness kick’s in aid of, is he?’
‘Never mind that. What’s he doing?’
‘Picking something up.’
‘Can’t see. He’s putting it under his coat… getting into a car…’
Abby heard the purr of an engine as Callum sped away.
‘So what was that all about?’ Sal asked as they stood up.
‘Not sure.’ Abby shot a worried look after the car. ‘But I’ve got a bad feeling.’
It was 2.15am and Abby was staring at her bedroom ceiling.
‘The man’s a landscape gardener,’ she muttered. ‘So why shouldn’t he be in a garden? Abby Samson, you’re ridiculous.’
But he’d taken something…
Oh, this was silly. Landscape gardening couldn’t be so badly paid that Callum needed to flog pilfered gnomes on the side.
Maybe he was some sort of garden-obsessed kleptomaniac. Once he clocked an unguarded clematis, he couldn’t help himself. He just had to –
Abby stopped. There was a shuffling sound coming from outside.
Ugh, not Mr Hunter’s Yorkie digging up her flowerbeds again. The little bugger was a dab paw at escapology. She got out of bed and tramped downstairs.
When she reached the kitchen, she stopped short. In the faint orange glow of a nearby lamppost she could see a shadowy figure, armed with trowel and fork, digging in her begonia patch.
The garden thief!
She unlocked the back door and flicked on the porch light.
The silhouette looked up at once. It rose and walked towards her.
Well, we all have to go some time, Abby reflected, feeling light-headed. Some go quietly in their sleep, others get hacked to bits with garden implements.
‘Aha!’ she yelled when the figure reached her, snatching up an old dishcloth. She held it up in front of her like a matador, which seemed to make sense at the time.
Only it wasn’t a dishcloth.
‘What’re you planning to do, smother me with them?’ Callum asked in an amused voice.
Slowly, she lowered Mr Hunter’s Y-fronts.
‘You!’ she hissed.
‘You’re the one who’s been preying on lone women’s shrubberies! Aren’t you?’ She raised the pants a little, feeling safer behind their broad expanse. ‘Mr Hunter said you’d be after my begonias.’
‘After your…’ Callum shook his head. ‘Abby, I swear, my intentions towards your begonias were entirely honourable.’
‘Yeah? I saw you on Wisteria Lane today.’ She gave Mr Hunter’s pants an accusing flap. ‘Sneaking something into your jacket.’
‘It wasn’t what it looked like, I promise. Look, can I come in?’ Callum glanced down. ‘And could you stop pointing those underpants at me in that threatening manner?’
Abby’s eyes were wide. ‘Your nana?’
‘It’s like she’s forgotten how things work,’ Callum said, morosely swirling his Horlicks. ‘Three times she’s been caught shoplifting.’
‘But I saw you take something.’
‘No, you saw me swap something.’ He sighed. ‘It started when Grandad died. He’d promised Nana her dream garden, but he passed away before he could finish it.’
‘…Nana’s finishing it. She sees something she wants, she takes it. Abby, she doesn’t realise it’s wrong.’
‘And you’ve been putting everything back.’
He nodded. ‘Then a quick trip to the garden centre, replace it before she notices.’
‘What were you swapping?’
‘Gnome mix-up. Mrs Callaghan got the lad in the Union Jack briefs belonging to Mrs Florizel.’ He shot her an anxious glance. ‘You won’t tell anyone, will you? About Nana?’
‘Course not.’ She looked up to meet his gaze. ‘I’m sorry I accused you, Callum.’
‘And threatened me with loaded pants.’
She smiled. ‘That too.’
‘You’re forgiven,’ he said, squeezing her shoulder. ‘I’d better go. Sorry about the scare, Abby.’
‘Abigail!’ Mrs Beresford said when she answered her door the next day. She was heavily made-up as always, in a flapperesque sequinned dress. ‘Dear girl! Come in at once and have a sherry.’
‘It’s a little early for me, Mrs B.’
‘Nonsense,’ she trilled. ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere.’
Overruling Abby’s objections, Mrs Beresford got them drinks. Abby claimed an armchair and sipped at the syrupy alcohol, feeling like Christmas.
‘So what brings you to see me?’ Mrs Beresford asked.
‘A present.’ Abby handed over the gift bag she was holding.
Abby smiled. ‘I thought you’d appreciate him.’
Mrs Beresford peeked into the bag and squealed.
‘Handsome devil!’ she breathed, taking out the garden gnome in his red smoking jacket. ‘Oh, I must see how he looks with the others.’
Abby followed her out to the garden, where Callum was planting sweet peas. He wiped dirty hands on his jeans and joined them.
‘Callum, look what darling Abigail brought!’ Mrs Beresford held up her new gnome proudly.
‘How kind of darling Abigail,’ Callum said, smiling. ‘He’ll fit right in.’
He nodded to a cluster of garden gnomes around a little pond.
‘Go on, Nana, do the honours,’ he said, giving her a squeeze. His grandmother tottered happily off down the crazy paving.
It wasn’t what you’d call a tasteful garden. Gnomes and colourful ornaments abounded. Mismatched flowers in yellow, pink and blue socialised with joyous energy, but no real harmony. Yet it was obvious that to Mrs Beresford, her jolly, haphazard little garden was a slice of paradise.
‘So is this revenge then?’ Callum muttered to Abby.
‘It was supposed to be an apology.’
‘Seriously? Do you know the pain it gives a landscape gardener, all those gnomes?’ He smiled as he watched Mrs Beresford select a spot next to a coy Marilyn Monroe gnome for her new addition. ‘They make her happy though. Thank you.’
‘I really am sorry I accused you of shrub theft.’
‘And I’m sorry I interfered with your begonias.’ He turned to face her. ‘Let me make it up to you?’
As if reading their expressions, Mrs Beresford finished gnome-matchmaking and turned her attention to them.
‘Do you have lunch plans, Abigail?’ she called. ‘Callum’s taking me to the Black Heifer.’
‘Will you join us?’ Callum asked. ‘My treat? I do feel really bad about those begonias.’
Abby smiled. ‘I’d like that.’
He was looking at her keenly, dark eyes sparkling.
‘So would I,’ he said. ‘Very much.’
In her garden sanctuary, Mrs Beresford smiled.