Hello everyone. Today, I am pleased to be welcoming Annie Lyons to Novel Kicks with the blog tour for her new book, Choir on Hope Street which is due to be released on 6th April by HQ.
The best things in life happen when you least expect them
Nat’s husband has just said the six words no one wants to hear – ‘I don’t love you any more’.
Caroline’s estranged mother has to move into her house turning her perfectly ordered world upside down.
Living on the same street these two women couldn’t be more different. Until the beloved local community centre is threatened with closure. And when the only way to save it is to form a community choir – none of the Hope Street residents, least of all Nat and Caroline, expect the results…
Thanks to HQ and Annie, we have an extract to share with you today. Enjoy!
(Strong language warning.)
‘I don’t love you any more.’
That was it. Six words delivered so simply, as if he were reading the news.
‘Good evening and here is the news. The marriage of Natalie and Daniel Garfield, which lasted for fifteen years, is over. In a statement today, Mr Garfield said, “I don’t love you any more.” Mrs Garfield responded by punching him in the face and trashing the house.’
At least that’s what I wished I’d done later but at the time an odd sensation of calm descended. It was as if this wasn’t really happening to me. It was at best some kind of joke and at worst something that could be sorted.
This wasn’t in the plan. This kind of thing was never going to happen to us. Other people split up, their marriages disintegrating like a swiftly disappearing desert island, but that was never going to happen to us. We were rock-solid – a steady ship; Nat and Dan, Dan and Nat.
It had the ring of one of those American teen shows that Woody loved to watch on Nick Jr.; all jazz hands and sparkly teeth.
We were a great couple. Everyone said so. We were the kind of couple that others looked at with awe and secret envy.
Everybody loved Dan. He’s just one of those men who people like – old ladies, babies, men, women, children have all told me over the course of our marriage, what a really great guy he is.
I would go on nights out with my female friends as they ripped apart their partners and husbands, picking over their faults like vultures feasting on carrion. I would nod with sympathy but never really had anything to add. They would often turn their sleepy, drunken gaze to me, pat me on the shoulder and slur, ‘Course you’re lucky, Nat. You’ve got
Dan. He’s such a lovely guy.’
And he was. Possibly still is.
Dan was my husband, my soul mate. Of course he had his faults. The underpants on the floor and the toilet seat in the perpetual ‘up’ position were an irritation, but not exactly a major crime against domesticity. He was, is a good man – a good husband and father. He was my happyever- after.
Naturally, we had disagreements and wobbles. Who doesn’t? We didn’t spend as much time together on our own as we would like but that’s to be expected. We’re busy with work, Woody and life. Obviously it would be lovely to go on the odd date-night or even have sex but frankly, we were usually too knackered. I’d always thought that the shared bottle of wine o n Friday night with a movie was good enough. Clearly I have been labouring under a major misapprehension.
Initially, I went into full-on denial mode when he dropped the bombshell. I wondered later if my body had actually gone into shock in a bid to protect myself from the truth. Certainly at the time, my brain sent me a quick succession of messages to counter his statement: he didn’t mean it (he did), he’d been drinking (he hadn’t), he was tired (true) and angry (not true). It wasn’t until I’d picked over the remnants of that evening with various friends (my turn to be the vulture now) that I’d fully taken in the order of events.
It was a Tuesday evening. I hate Tuesdays. They make me feel restless and impatient. Monday is supposed to be the worst day but for me, it has always been Tuesday. I can deal with the post-weekend slump and Monday is usually my most productive day but by Tuesday, I am longing for the week to move ‘over the hump’ towards the downhill joy of Thursday. I often long for a glass of wine on Tuesday evenings but on this particular day I was disappointingly sober because I was having a so-called healthy week.
At least I was before he said it.
It was around 8.30 and we had just finished dinner.
Woody was reading in his room before lights-out and I had been about to go and tuck him in. I normally love this part of the day: the feeling that another episode of motherhood is successfully complete; no-one died. Everyone is safe.
If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that Dan was particularly uncommunicative during dinner.
Again, it wasn’t until later that I recalled the details: his downward gaze and hands fidgeting with the cutlery, his water glass, the pepper mill.
I had been telling him about a problem with my latest book. I am a children’s picture-book writer and have enjoyed some success with my series of books about ‘Ned Bobbin –
the small boy with the big imagination’, as my publisher tags it. There have been six books so far and my editor wants another three but I was struggling with ideas and wondering whether to take him down the super-hero route.
When I recalled the conversation later, I realised that I had done all the talking; posing and answering my own questions with just the odd ‘mhmm’ or nod from Dan. That was the problem with being a writer – you spent too much time at home on your own with no-one to talk to.
I talk to myself all the time when I’m working. I read back what I’ve just written, talk to the radio or hold imaginary conversations with all manner of people, including Ned.
I read somewhere that adults have a certain number of words they need to say in a day and that the word quota for a woman is higher than a man’s. I believe this. It isn’t unusual, therefore, for me to unpack my day to Dan when he gets home. I thought he liked it. Maybe I was wrong about that too.
I had finished my dinner: an unimaginative stir-fry containing any vegetable-like items I’d found in the fridge on opening it at 7.30. Woody had eaten earlier. He was eight years old and always starving when he returned home from school so I tended to feed him straight away and then either Dan or I cooked our dinner later.
I stood up to clear the plates, reaching out for Dan’s.
He looked up at me and only then did I notice how pale he looked – his face, slightly pinched with age, but still handsome. He stared at me, unsmiling and I realised he was nervous.
‘What?’ I asked with an encouraging smile.
He swallowed and bit his lip. Then he said it.
At first I assumed he was joking.
‘Yeah right, and I’m having an affair with James McAvoy.’ I shook my head and made for the door.
I paused, turning to look back at him. He was crying and that was when I knew it wasn’t a joke. It was the first rumble of a threatening storm. Still, my brain told me to keep going, carry the plates out, kiss Woody goodnight, come down and sort this out. It was just another thing to be sorted, like pairing the socks in a basket of washing.
I could hear my heart beating in my ears as I padded upstairs, pausing outside my son’s bedroom door. I focused for a moment on the wooden letters stuck to the upper panel, spelling ‘WOODY’. Each letter was represented by an animal with the same corresponding first letter and I reached out a hand to stroke the wombat’s cheery face.
I will sort this out. I’m good at sorting. All will be well.
I pushed the door open, blinking into the half-light, feeling immediately reassured by the sight of my son.
He was sitting up in bed, reading by the light of the twisty snake-lamp we had given him last birthday, propped up by the patchwork cushion my mum had made him when he was born. His chin was resting on his chest, that customary frown creasing his perfect face. He flicked his gaze in my direction and then back down at his book.
‘How’s Mr Fox doing?’ I asked, as if nothing had happened, as if my world was still intact.
Woody sighed. ‘Not good. Boggis, Bunce and Bean shot him.’
‘Ooh, that’s not good.’
Woody shook his head in agreement but kept reading, his eyes darting left and right. I looked around his room at the dog-eared football posters, the framed prints of scenes from my Ned Bobbin stories, the Lego models and the shelves stacked with books. Woody was a bookworm. He had learnt to read at the age of three and not really stopped since.
He had probably read Fantastic Mr Fox at least fifty times. I felt a sense of calm descend. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to nestle down at the end of Woody’s bed, to pretend Dan hadn’t said what he had just said and hope that it all went away. I felt safe there.
‘Time for lights-out, fella,’ said Dan’s voice from the doorway. I jumped, jolted back to reality. I couldn’t see his face properly but his voice was throaty from crying.
Woody glanced at him and then me. ‘Can I just finish this chapter, please?’ His expression was wide-eyed and impossible to resist.
Dan stepped forwards and ruffled his hair. ‘Okay, but then straight to sleep.’
‘’Kay,’ replied Woody. ‘Night, Mum.’
I leant down and kissed him. ‘Night, darling boy. Love you. Sleep well.’
‘Love you. Sleep well,’ repeated Woody like a robot.
‘Night,’ said Dan. He turned towards the door and paused, looking back over his shoulder at me. ‘Coming?’
I stared down at my son as if he might offer a solution.
He sensed my hesitation and looked up. ‘Night, Mum,’ he said again with a trace of impatience.
‘Night,’ I answered, turning and following Dan out of the room and down the stairs. We didn’t speak again until we reached the dining room.
‘I’m going to get a glass of wine,’ I said. ‘Want one?’
‘No,’ sighed Dan. ‘Thanks. We do need to talk, Nat.’
‘And that’s why I need a glass of wine,’ I said, making my way to the kitchen. I poured a polite helping and then doubled it. Taking a large gulp, I refilled it and carried the glass into the dining room. Dan was sitting at the table, his hands in prayer position.
I slid into the chair opposite. ‘So,’ I began, trying to stay calm and matter-of-fact. ‘What’s this all about?’
Dan ran a hand through his neatly parted hair and stared up at the ceiling. ‘I’m leaving.’
I was surprised to learn that two gulps of wine could inflame immediate righteous anger. ‘Because you don’t love me any more?’ I almost spat the words.
‘I think so.’
‘You think so?’ I snapped. ‘Because that’s a fucking big statement if you’re not sure. Do you love me or not?
Simple question.’ My voice was increasing in volume and it unnerved me. My childhood had been punctuated by anger between my father and mother. As an adult I had made a monumental effort to keep mine under control but all bets were off now. Red was the new black.
Dan stared at his hands, unable to look me in the eye.
‘No, I don’t and I’m sorry.’
The sarcasm devil took control of my brain. ‘Well that’s all right then. If you’re sorry then I forgive you. That makes it all just fine.’ I folded my arms and stared at him.
I couldn’t get a grip on my brain somehow, couldn’t work out what I was supposed to say or how I was supposed to feel. I had no point of reference for this moment. It felt like somebody else’s life.
Dan tried to be reasonable. That was one of his greatest strengths. He was eternally reasonable and always took other people’s opinions seriously. We rarely argued and this was largely down to Dan. He was able to defuse a situation like the most practised of bomb-disposal experts.
‘I understand that you’re angry, Nat, and you have every right to be, but if you’ll let me, I’ll try to explain.’
I took another deep gulp of wine before holding up my glass as if proposing a toast and saying, ‘Please. Be my f****** guest.’
Dan swallowed. ‘It’s nothing you’ve done or said.
You have always been the perfect wife.’
‘If you’re about to use the words, it’s not you, it’s me, I will get violent,’ I retorted.
Dan looked at me, tears brimming in his eyes. ‘I have tried to stay in love with you but I just don’t have those feelings for you any more. I love you but I’m not in love with you.’
My head was spinning from a combination of wine and fury. I stood up. ‘So you’re planning to leave?’
Dan nodded. ‘I want to speak to Woody first.’
‘Very decent of you, but you’ll have to come back to do that another time because I want you gone.’
People talk about a red mist and others talk about an out of- body experience but for me it was neither. I thought nothing and felt nothing but pure white-hot fury as I smashed the wine glass to the floor and screamed, ‘GO! NOW!
I WANT YOU F******* GONE!’
Whether out of self-preservation or respect for my feelings, Dan left the room. Moments later he reappeared with a bag, which I realised he must have been hiding in the back of his wardrobe for goodness knows how long.
Waiting for the right moment. He had clearly been waiting for the right moment for a while.
He didn’t try to speak to me again before he left and I was oddly grateful to him for this. I heard the front door close like a full stop to my life so far. I looked around the room, numb with anger, unable to cry. I looked at the shards of broken glass and swore.
The annoying thing about a burst of righteous anger is that you have to clear up afterwards. I went to fetch the dustpan and another glass of wine.
I actually thought that I was going to kill her. It was as if she had some kind of death wish. She just stepped into the road without even looking just as I was turning the corner.
It was incredible. If I hadn’t stood up on the brake, I would have hit her much harder. Luckily, I was able to swerve so that I merely touched her and she sort of sat backwards onto the kerb. Of course, it had to be right outside the school, immediately after drop-off. Typical. I had to park on the hazard lines right outside the school, which obviously isn’t allowed until 9.30 a.m. The headmaster was standing at the gate and he glanced my way as I leapt from the driver’s seat.
‘Apologies, Phil!’ I cried, giving him a cheery wave.
I noticed a gaggle of school mums who I knew from the PTA and tried to give them a reassuring nod as I hurried round to check up on her. I hoped they would just disperse but they had seen what happened and one of them was already on her way over. I recognised her as an annoying woman called Nula, who had been particularly disparaging about my idea to sell ‘Loom Bands’ at the summer fair.
‘They’re an absolute nightmare,’ she had moaned.
‘My cleaner is forever getting them stuck in the Dyson.
And Alexis nearly took her little brother’s eye out with one last week.’
She was one of those mothers who attends every PTA meeting, criticising each idea and failing to offer any of her own. She also insisted on running the Pimm’s stall every year and drinking most of the profits. Her daughter had spat at Matilda when they were in Reception and I had obviously been on her hate list ever since I’d complained to their teacher. I didn’t care though – you have to learn to rise above these things when you’re the Chairwoman of the PTA. She was simply jealous that I had been elected to the post for a third consecutive year.
It took all my powers of control not to poke her in the eye as she rushed over, ignored my presence except for a haughty flick of her hair and sat down next to the woman, putting an arm around her shoulder.
‘Are you all right, Natalie?’ she asked in soothing tones.
‘I saw the whole thing and can act as a witness if you need me to?’ She flicked her gaze in my direction, her nostrils slightly flared. ‘What were you thinking, Caroline?’
Trouble-making viper. Luckily, Phil had arrived on the scene. ‘Are you all right, Mrs Garfield? Mrs Taylor. Would you like to come inside?’
‘I think she’s in shock,’ said Nula. ‘We should probably call an ambulance. And the police.’ A shadow of smug satisfaction passed over her face as she uttered this last sentence. That’s it, I thought, no Pimm’s stall for you this year. Three hours of Splat the Rat, you interfering shrew.
The woman had been staring at the ground all the while but now she seemed to come to her senses. She looked up at us all, her face wide-eyed and fearful. I noticed with distaste that she was wearing pyjama bottoms and a hoody with trainers. To the untrained eye, the trousers could have just about passed as a pair of those awful floral things that everyone insists on wearing these days but she didn’t fool me. I can spot M&S nightwear a mile off. Her eyes were heavy with dark shadows and her hair was scraped up into a loose bun. Many people think you can achieve this hairstyle in a matter of seconds but many people are wrong. The wispy-haired look takes practice and effort.
This woman hadn’t applied either.
I don’t mean to sound judgemental but I despair of playground mothers sometimes. Where is their selfrespect?
We’re all pushed for time in the mornings – the least we can do is apply a little eyeliner and make ourselves presentable. We’re supposed to be role models for the next generation, after all.
I realised that I needed this problem to go away and fast.
I knelt down in front of the woman and took her hands.
I also remembered that you should never apologise in an accident situation. It makes you culpable. I leant forwards and smiled. ‘It’s Natalie, isn’t it? How are you? Is there anything I can do?’ I felt Nula’s grip tighten around her shoulder but I pressed on. ‘Are you hurt at all?’
Natalie stared at me. I gave her a reassuring smile, which she seemed to accept as she squeezed my hands.
‘I’m okay,’ she murmured. ‘I just want to get home.’
‘I can take you!’ I cried.
Nula pursed her lips in irritation. ‘Are you sure that’s wise? Shouldn’t we get you checked over, Natalie?’
Natalie shook her head. ‘No, really, I’m okay. It was my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going, but if you could take me home, I’d be grateful,’ she replied, looking up at me.
Nula dropped her arm from Natalie’s shoulder, barely able to mask her disappointment.
‘Of course!’ I said, helping her to her feet. ‘No problem at all. Thanks, Phil. Thanks, Nula,’ I said, flashing a particularly saintly smile at the latter.
Phil nodded. ‘Take care, ladies,’ he said, before disappearing back through the school gate.
Natalie walked towards my car and opened the door.
‘Let me know if you need anything, hon,’ called Nula, squeezing Natalie’s arm as she walked past. ‘Bye, Caroline.’
I acknowledged her with a nod before jumping into the driver’s seat. Natalie climbed in alongside me and slammed the door shut. ‘Ooh, mind the paintwork!’ I cried, trying to keep my voice light.
‘Sorry,’ she muttered, reaching over for her seatbelt.
‘So, where to?’ I asked.
‘Hope Street, please, number thirty.’
‘Oh, I live on that road,’ I said. ‘Number 232.’
‘Ahh.’ Natalie nodded. ‘The posh end.’
Some people might have taken this as a criticism but I didn’t. That house was my pride and joy. It had been a shell when Oliver and I had bought it in pre-Matilda days.
We had worked hard to restore and rejuvenate it and it was a labour of love, particularly for me. We’d converted the loft, restored the brickwork, opened up the kitchen and made it into the perfect family home. I made no apology for the money spent or the effort made. We worked hard and we deserved it. Jealousy was a cheap and easy emotion.
However, I could tell that Natalie was only teasing as she made the comment with an almost-smile. I rewarded it with a breezy laugh. ‘What a start to the day!’ I remarked as we made the short journey back to her house.
She didn’t answer so I looked over and noticed that her shoulders were shaking. At first I thought she was laughing until I noticed her tear-stained face. It was like something from a soap opera. She was nearing hysterics.
Two thoughts entered my head; how am I going to stop her doing that and how can I deposit her back home as quickly as possible?
I scanned the numbers and pulled up outside her house.
It was a pleasant enough terraced Edwardian. Oliver and I had looked at a couple of these during our property search but had found them too poky, at least that was what I felt.
Oliver was happy to go along with me. He’s good like that.
I remember when we first viewed our house, it had been dark and shabby, the overwhelming stench of old person lingering like rotting stew.
The estate agent, an upright impeccably dressed woman in her late fifties, who had reminded me of my wonderful headmistress, Mrs Biggs, had chosen her words carefully.
‘This was a treasured family home but it needs to be updated, of course.’
‘You can say that again,’ said Oliver, taking in the peeling wallpaper, damp stains and alarming orange-swirl carpet.
‘It could do with being condemned and re-built, if you ask me.’
The estate agent had shot him a look not unlike one Mrs Biggs might have given one of the cheekier girls at our school – amused but firm. ‘It just needs a little TLC.
Mrs Brown hadn’t been able to undertake any home improvements in recent times.’
I had adopted my best Kirstie Allsop persona and walked from room to room, trying to avoid deep breaths because of the smell, opening my mind as one word emerged from the back of my brain.
‘I think it has great potential,’ I observed, keeping my expression neutral. That’s one thing my father had always taught me. ‘Keep a poker-face, Caroline. Never give anything away.’
Oliver was watching me now. Unlike the estate agent, he could read me like a book. ‘I saw your eyes light up like a child’s on Christmas morning,’ he observed later. ‘I knew we’d found the one – resistance was futile.’ He kissed me on the nose as he said this. ‘My girl must have exactly what she wants.’
He was always so sweet like that back then. It was different when we were both working at the bank. We worked hard and partied even harder. They were very happy times, working all week, doing up the house at the weekends.
We had builders in to start with but we finished it all ourselves. I can remember Saturdays, listening to cheesy music on the radio while we decorated. I feel as if I know every inch of that house.
I smiled at the memory but my thoughts were interrupted by a loud, gasping sob. I stared at Natalie. I’d almost forgotten she was there. She looked truly awful, her face red and blotchy. I watched with disgust as she used a sleeve to wipe one eye. I reached into the glove compartment and retrieved a tissue as I might do for Matilda. I held it out for her and she seemed so touched by this tiny act of kindness that it brought on a fresh round of tears.
‘Thank you. Sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘You must think I’m a nightmare.’
Of course I did but I’m never rude. ‘Not at all,’ I lied.
‘We all have off days,’ although of course I rarely did.
‘Would you like to come in for a coffee?’ she asked, dabbing at her nose with the tissue.
‘That would be lovely but I’m afraid I have an appointment.’ This was only a half-lie as my cleaner was coming at ten and I always liked to be home to make sure she did her allotted two hours. I’d caught her leaving ten minutes early once.
Natalie nodded and smiled. There was an awkward pause as if she was waiting for me to say something, possibly ask her what was wrong, but I wasn’t going to do this. I barely knew her and I had a policy never to get involved with strangers’ problems. People loved to be so dramatic these days, longing for others to notice them, to affirm their existence with a ‘poor you’ or a Like on Facebook. It was all very needy. I don’t want to sound harsh but I can’t bear needy people.
Happily, there was a tap on the car window. It was our postman and he was smiling in at Natalie. He was one of those men who insist on wearing shorts whatever the weather and he always seemed to be tanned and relentlessly cheerful. I couldn’t recall his name until Natalie opened the passenger door and greeted him.
‘Hey Jim. How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks Nat. You look a bit down. What’s up?’
I took this as my signal to escape. ‘I’ll let you get on then, Natalie,’ I said.
She turned her head towards me. ‘Okay then. Thanks for the lift, Caroline,’ she replied, climbing out of the car.
She shut the door with a slam. Again. ‘Sorry,’ she winced, holding up a hand in apology.
I smiled and shook my head, pretending it didn’t matter before driving off. I glanced at Natalie and Jim in the rearview mirror. They were already deep in conversation as he handed over a pile of letters, his face creased with concern.
Natalie was obviously unloading that day’s drama. I couldn’t believe that she would be telling her troubles to the postman. The world had gone mad.
As I reached home and opened the front door, I exhaled with relief – another crisis averted. I noticed a plug of fluff hanging from the bottom of the radiator. I made a mental note to ask Rosie to give them a good clean and check the skirting boards while she was at it. I always took pride in keeping a clean and tidy house. Appearances are everything, after all.
Having worked in the worlds of book selling and publishing, Annie Lyons completed a creative writing course, did lots of reading and drunk an extraordinary amount of coffee. The result was Not Quite Perfect, which went on to become a number one bestseller.
Her second book The Secrets Between Sisters was nominated in the best eBook category at the 2014 Festival of Romance and Life or Something Like It was a top ten bestseller.
Her latest book, The Choir on Hope Street, is a story of power ballads, community, cake and hope and is due for release on 6th April.
Visit Annie’s website: https://annielyons.com/