When they have broken you, when you have been humiliated, bullied, deserted and destitute, can you find a place where you may dare to be happy?
Susan travels with her mother, escaping a life of heartbreak and poverty in the city, to live with their one remaining friend in a small rural village.
At twenty Susan is still bound by the trauma of her youth, but starts to blossom into womanhood, thanks to the tender encouragement of Luke, the eccentric occupant of ‘The Cherries’, who lives surrounded by books and art. It is a journey of tears and laughter, helping to heal mind and spirit.
But can the past ever be truly behind you?
Feeling safe and secure at last, mother and daughter nurture artistic talents that they had long since thought worthless, and their lives take directions they could never have imagined.
Yet, amongst the kindness and love in their new community, there lies hidden grief and a long-suppressed secret that must come to light. Something that might force Susan to another life beyond the confines of the village.
Dominic came in from the garden to find Luke rustling up a batch of scrambled eggs, grilled bacon and lightly fried tomatoes with mushrooms.
“That smells amazing! Let me wash the dirt off and I’ll be through.”
Luke piled the food on to two plates, which he placed on the kitchen table, accompanied by a rack of toast, butter, a jar of local honey and two large mugs of tea.
They munched through their meal saying very little, Dominic occasionally scrolling down the newsfeed on his smartphone and Luke revisiting the last few unsolved crossword clues on yesterday’s paper.
“I met the girl that’s staying with Viv when I was outside earlier. She and her mum are going to be there for a while. She seemed nice. A bit awkward, if you know what I mean, but really sweet.”
Luke kept his focus on the crossword, feigning disinterest.
“Did she have a name?” he asked, as if it were a trifling detail.
“The girl? Susan,” Dominic responded, and he recounted the details of their meeting.
The subject changed to the weather, and both men agreed that the fine spell they’d been having should last into the following week. Dominic discussed plans for the garden, and Luke nodded approvingly at the young man’s ideas.
When they’d cleared away after breakfast, Luke picked up a pair of thick gardening gloves and secateurs and headed outside, down a path running by the back lawn to his little rose garden. He studied the bushes carefully, selecting some of the finest stems and cutting them to form a glorious bouquet, of white, pink and yellow flowers.
Returning to the kitchen, he spread the newspaper on the table and laid the roses on it. Quickly and skilfully, he worked up and down each stem, clipping the thorns away. A rummage in a kitchen unit’s drawers produced a ball of coloured twine, from which he cut a length that he then used to hold the finished bunch of flowers together.
He glanced at his watch and felt confident that his neighbours would be up and dressed by that time.
Luke strode across the courtyard and, as he approached Vivian’s house, he saw the upper part of her stable door was open and he could hear the voices of the three women chatting.
“Knock-knock,” he called out. Vivian was sitting facing the door and gave him a smile. Marian, sitting next to her, looked up and her jaw dropped open. Susan’s back was to him, but she turned to see who the caller was and immediately turned beetroot red.
“Luke! Hello!” cried Vivian. “So glad you’ve popped by. Girls, this is my hunky neighbour, Luke. Luke, this is my best friend in the world, Marian, and her gorgeous daughter, Susan.” She paused a moment and added, “But I think you all may already know each other?”
“Welcome to our little piece of paradise,” he said, holding out the flowers. The elder women looked at Susan, who knew with excruciating certainty that, as she was closest to the door, she should take the bouquet. She did so with as much grace as she could muster.
“Thank you,” she said, “they are beautiful.” She meant it.
“I’m pleased you like them,” said Luke, with sincerity. “Dominic mentioned that a beautiful princess was staying next door, so flowers seemed appropriate.”
The words sat a little awkwardly, particularly with Susan, who wrongly assumed them to be sarcastic.
“Look, I’m sure you’re busy,” Luke continued, “but I wondered if you three ladies would care to join Dominic and me for one of our famous picnics on Saturday. Please say yes.”
“We’d love to!” said Vivian before the others could answer.
“Then it is settled,” he was gratified to say. “And please don’t be a stranger in the meantime. The kettle is always boiling at The Cherries! I’ve got to get to work now, but pop over any time. Bye.”
“Bye,” the three ladies chorused after him as he departed.
“There are vases in the hall cupboard,” said Vivian, “I think we are going to need at least two for that bunch.”
Susan trotted off to fetch them.
Marian looked at Vivian.
“Blimey, Viv, you kept him a bit quiet.”
“He’s a bit young for us, darlin’,” retorted Vivian, with a naughty smile. “I didn’t have you down as a cougar.”
“I am off men for a while,” Marian replied. “So how old is he?”
“Not sure. Mid-thirties at most. I know he moved down here about eighteen months before I did. The Cherries was in a terrible state, I’m told, and he spent a fortune having it refurbished and this place done up too. Then he sold it to me. Before that, I think he worked in the city, a stockbroker or something. I’m not sure what he does now, but I think it is some sort of internet business. He works from home, that much I know.”
Susan was back in the room, arranging the flowers in three medium sized vases she had found.
“You should definitely have one of those vases in your room, Susie,” Vivian told her, “I think he’s taken a bit of a shine to you.”
“Don’t be silly, Auntie,” Susan admonished.
“I’m good at spotting these things,” Vivian insisted.
Marian jumped slightly as her phone chimed to announce the arrival of a text.
“Blast!” she exclaimed. “Somehow I’ve missed a call from an agency. I must have been out of signal.”
“It is patchy round here,” Vivian advised. “Go and call them on the landline. But look here, honey, you don’t need to rush. Have a bit of a holiday first. You know you’re fine here for as long as you want.”
“I know, Viv, but I’ve always paid my own way,” Marian said, the firmness in her voice betraying a deep-set desire to maintain what little pride and independence she could, now that years of managing alone had culminated in her failure and humiliation. “I’ll relax when I’ve found something.”
She hurried from the room to make her call.
After a few minutes, Susan said quietly, “Please, Auntie Viv, don’t tease me. I had more than enough of that at school.”
“Tease you, honey?” Vivian responded in surprise. “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“You and Luke,” Susan whispered, “you know, calling me gorgeous and beautiful. You know it’s not true. So please don’t.”
“Susie… you’re a lovely looking girl,” Vivian replied. “Please don’t put yourself down.”
“I’M NOT!” spat Susan, flaring up. “I’m pale and scrawny, my mouth is crooked, and my hair is wrong. It’s alright for you, you always look amazing. Mum too. I’m a freak.”
“You most certainly are not!” the older woman responded hotly. “Yes, you’re skinny, but lots of people are. You’ll be glad of those genes after a couple of decades and a kid or two. Believe me, most of my life is a battle against gravity. As to a crooked mouth, I’d call it a cute smile. Luke obviously thinks you look nice, and you don’t even wear makeup!”
“He was just being sarcastic.” Susan’s voice was small. “I just want to be invisible.” Tears started to flow down her cheeks. “Please…,” she sounded strangled, “… just…”
Susan ran from the room to her bed and wept, her knees curled up to her chest, her body convulsing with the sobs.
Vivian stood to go after her, but Marian appeared in the door and stopped her.
“Leave her,” she whispered, “I’ve tried to get through to her so many times. Leave her. It breaks my heart.”
“How the hell did she get that terrible self-image?” Vivian asked, also keeping her voice low. “She was so confident when she was little.”
“She was, until she was about fourteen. Then the bullying at school started. Not like it was in our day. It was constant, grinding her down. At school from the minute she got in, at home on bloody
social media and email – the viciousness was terrible. I saw some of the messages. Using words that we never would. Telling her she was ugly, that she would be better dead, that no boy would ever touch her.”
“Oh, poor Susie,” Vivian gasped, “I never knew.”
“It all came to a head in sixth form,” Marian continued. “She’d been keeping up with her swimming, you know how good she was, and some girl managed to sneak a photo of her changing. It was shared around the school and on some online group they were all on and the boys were asked to rate her out of ten. They all hated her, so you don’t need to guess what they said. Finally, someone printed out the photo and posted it on the school message board with SKANK scrawled over it. At least that prompted the school to take some action, but it was too little too late. The bullies won. She flunked her exams and dropped out. They broke her.”
Vivian was crying. “Then we shall fix her,” she resolved.
Marian said nothing, but touched her friend’s shoulder and squeezed. She picked up a vase of roses and carried it upstairs to the bedroom she shared with Susan. She placed the spray of flowers on a small table under the window, where Susan would be able to see them from her bed. She then perched on the mattress next to her daughter, who was now lying curled up staring at the wall. She stroked Susan’s hair and leant down to kiss a tear-dampened cheek. Marian sat holding her little girl’s hand in silence, until Vivian called upstairs that lunch was ready
Thank you, D. B. Carter and Random Things Tours.
About the author
D B Carter writes contemporary drama and romance novels, dealing with difficult subjects as well has happier themes. A son of two painters, he grew up surrounded by art and through that world, he met many interesting characters. Later, he ran his own successful company for over 20 years, before taking up his life-long desire to be a writer. He lives with his wife of 30 years in rural Devon, England. A lifelong bibliophile, he loves reading classical literature, including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope; a childhood of Saturday afternoon black-and-white movies added to his appreciation of sagas and drama. His world view is, “If we look for the good, we will find it.”
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