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Starting Over
Jen Silver

Chapter One

Introductions

 

Robin carried her coffee out to the old stable block, the single-story stone building across the farmyard. It was their studio and already she could hear the pottery wheel turning. Ellie was concentrating on the clay in her hands, throwing another pot. Robin didn’t disturb her, going straight to her own work area. There was a pattern forming in her mind, a swirl of colour she wanted to experiment with. Her coffee cooled as she tested different combinations on her artists’ sketchpad. The colours had looked brighter on the screen of her laptop but fine adjustments with the paints were needed to make the pattern come alive as it had in her imagination.

“Looks good, Rob.” Ellie had come in quietly and was leaning against the doorframe, her hands still covered in wet clay.

Putting her paintbrush down, Robin went over to her and lightly brushed the loose strands of blonde hair away from her face. “So do you.”

Ellie sidestepped her before she could move in for a kiss. “Don’t. I’m not in the mood.”

“No, I guess not.” Robin stood still, looking down at the earthen floor.

“Why is she coming here?”

“She asked.”

“You could’ve said no. We had an agreement...”

“I know. But, well, things have moved on a bit. She wants to see where I live. And, she wants to meet you.”

“Why? So we can compare notes?” Ellie paused. Looking up, Robin could see plainly the pain in her normally clear blue eyes. “Like what a shithead you are,” she added before turning and stalking out.

Robin leant back against the rough stone wall and closed her eyes. It had obviously been a mistake. Ellie wasn’t ready to meet her lover, maybe she never would be. But she hadn’t been able to say no to Jas when she asked to spend her week off with her, here.

Here was the pottery business she and Ellie had built up over the last nineteen years at Starling Hill, an isolated former sheep farm perched amongst the rolling hills above the town of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. At first they had barely covered costs, selling pottery at market stalls and arts and crafts fairs. Their overheads were low because the farmhouse and land belonged to Ellie’s family. But with the advent of the website boom in the late 1990s they had gradually built up a solid customer base. Ellie had initially stuck to making standard stoneware items, establishing a range of distinctive mugs, plates and bowls, all with a trademark starling imprint. With the website set up to take online orders at the turn of the century, she started making bespoke tableware sets. Recently, she’d expanded her repertoire to create raku-style vases, using Robin’s design skills to produce a recognisable Starling Hill style.

When Robin first met her, Ellie was living at the farm with her mother and teaching at the local secondary school. Her subject was history but she also taught a few geography and geology classes. One of her favourite parts of the school year had been accompanying a group of keen sixth formers on a yearly geology residential field trip to Arran. Ellie’s interest in archaeology, and Roman history in particular, had led her to want to try making her own pottery. It amused her to think that in a thousand years remnants of her pots would be found and an expert would enthuse to a multiverse-wide audience, “Oh, yes, definitely one of the Eleanor Winters range, 1990 AD or thereabouts.” She had learned to throw pots at an evening class and continued to develop her skill by setting up a work area in the stables with the help of another local potter and her mentor, Kieran Taylor. The farm, by then, consisted only of a dozen laying hens and two goats. When the goats died the old stable, a long, low-ceilinged building, was converted into a workshop with her pottery wheel and kiln. The stalls had been knocked together and partitioned off from the main pottery area. This was where Robin mixed paints and experimented with different styles for the glazes.

Taking a deep breath, Robin thought about the last time she had been with Jas, her London lover. On her most recent visit to the city, she had met her from the train and they’d gone straight to a restaurant for dinner. By mutual consent they decided to skip the dessert course and barely made it back to Jas’s flat with all their clothes on. Lovemaking with Jas wasn’t often a gentle business, and she’d been particularly intense that evening. Robin could still feel the scratches on her back where Jas had raked her long nails. Even though she enjoyed the sessions with Jas, there was nothing she would have liked more right now than to be able to crawl into bed with Ellie and hold her close.

Maybe it was age catching up with her, she would be forty-three on her next birthday. She had only been twenty-four when she met Ellie, having previously had no thoughts whatsoever of settling down with anyone. In her line of work at the time she could sleep with a different woman every night. Falling in love hadn’t been part of her life plan. Falling in love with a woman ten years older with a teenage son was something she would have laughed at had anyone suggested it could happen. It wouldn’t happen to her.

Starling Hill farm had been her home, as well as her main place of work, for the last eighteen years—apart from the hiatus when Ellie had her midlife crisis the previous year. They still hadn’t fully recovered from that, but after several months of pain and indecision they had decided they could manage to live and work together. Sometimes Robin thought it was like a married couple staying together for the sake of the kids. In their case, the kids were the pots.

 

 

Ellie sat at the farmhouse kitchen table, her hand wrapped protectively around a mug of coffee. She usually enjoyed the peace of working in the early predawn hours before Robin stirred. And, usually, she could handle Robin’s presence, absorbing herself in her work. But she’d hardly slept since Robin told her Jas was coming to stay for a week. She had lost more than one night’s sleep in the last few months as she realised this woman, whom she’d thought was only one more of Robin’s flings, had gained a foothold in Robin’s affections. The knowledge that it was her fault didn’t help her gain any peace of mind.

If only she hadn’t given in to what she thought now had been a mad impulse to sleep with someone else. Sleep with—one of the English language’s most misleading euphemisms—it had been lust, pure and simple. And at the time it had been exciting and helped assuage her feelings of desperation at reaching fifty. Somehow fifty seemed too old. Too old for someone like Robin. Their ten-year age difference had bothered her right from the start. She had kept Robin at arm’s length for several months after their first meeting, but Robin kept coming back. And Ellie wouldn’t entertain the idea of them living together while her mother was still alive. Her mother thought Robin was a boy—so polite and helpful, that boy. When’s he coming back, Ellie?—she would ask after each one of Robin’s visits to the farm.

Robin had played up to her shamelessly, always calling her Mrs Winters. Nothing was too much trouble; she would fetch and carry whatever her mother wanted. Ellie smiled at the memory of the three of them together watching television, her mother in her chair with everything she needed within reach; Robin seemingly absorbed in whatever was showing on the screen, but in reality using the hand that was out of range of her mother’s limited vision to caress her breasts.

It hadn’t been a romantic way to meet. Ellie had been travelling back to Huddersfield after another fruitless meeting with her ex-husband about Aiden’s upbringing. She had little enough say in it as it was, only seeing her son every other weekend. Having just made the decision to leave her teaching job in order to look after her mother, she had asked Gerry if Aiden could spend more of his upcoming summer holiday at the farm. Gerry had been his usual uncompromising and condescending self, reminding her why she didn’t have custody and wasn’t fit to be a mother. The fact that Ellie’s affair with the woman she had left him for was well and truly over, didn’t make any impression on him.

The midweek, midafternoon train from Manchester wasn’t full and she had been pleased to get a seat at a table, plenty of space to wallow in her misery. The train had left the station and was starting to pick up speed when she became aware of someone plonking down in the seat opposite, someone who thoughtlessly dumped their bag in front of her and scrabbled through it, throwing items on the table. It was only when the stranger finished rummaging and reached up to put the bag on the overhead shelf that she realised it was a woman, getting a close-up glimpse of her bare midriff as she stretched.

Her annoyance reached a crescendo when this female yob then settled down in the seat, put headphones on and turned up the volume on her Walkman so loud that Ellie could recognise the tune.

“Excuse me,” she said loudly. No response. She snapped her fingers in front of the girl’s face. “Turn it down!”

“What?”

“Turn it down, or go and sit somewhere else.”

The stranger paused the music and looked at her. Ellie was immediately struck by the intensity of the young woman’s hazel-brown eyes. “What’s your problem?”

“The problem is the train’s half empty and I would like to sit here on my own without having to listen to your crappy taste in music.”

Shrugging, the stranger said, “Sure. No problem.” To Ellie’s surprise she calmly took the headphones off and wrapped the cord around the Walkman, then put it down on the table between them. “Do you mind if I just sit here and look at you instead?”

“What...?”

“Sorry, that was a bit rude. My name’s Robin.” She grinned at her.

“Why would you want to sit and look at me?”

“You looked so sad.”

“Do you think my mood’s improved having you invade my space?”

“Maybe not. But if you want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.”

And strange as it seemed to her afterward, Ellie opened up to this stranger. She told her about the meeting with her ex-husband, her worries about her son, her mother’s fragile state of mind, her new lack of career. And Robin told her nothing about herself. Only when she mentioned that she was setting up a pottery studio in the stables did Robin say she would like to see it. Before Ellie knew it she’d invited her to visit the farm.

 

 

Jasmine would be arriving in a few hours. Unable to concentrate after Ellie had walked off, Robin wandered out to the chicken run. The hens ignored her as usual and carried on clucking about, searching for things to eat on the barren ground. Ellie had names for them but she couldn’t tell them apart. They were, she knew, all named after Roman goddesses. The only ones she could remember were Minerva, Venus, and Luna. The roosters were called Jupiter and Apollo—she suspected they were gay, as they seemed to spend their days in each other’s company, cowering on the other side of the compound from the hens.

The total absorption of the fowl in their search for food was soothing to watch and calmed her nerves. She should never have agreed to let Jas come to the farm. Ellie was right—they had an agreement. When she returned, after Ellie said the affair with Kathryn was over, they had both said it was to be on a strictly professional basis. If either of them wanted to have affairs, that was fine, just don’t bring them home. And so far, she’d stuck to it. But the liaison with Jas had lasted longer than most, maybe because they only met up every few months when she visited London to meet with clients.

Her part of the pottery business didn’t occupy her full time. She made more money with the sideline of creating websites; it had been a natural progression from her original career as a graphic designer. When she met Ellie, she’d enjoyed a productive and exciting few years designing CD covers for some of the top bands in the UK and Europe. She had been travelling back from a gig in Liverpool when she met Ellie on the train. Well, met wasn’t exactly the right word for it. She’d spotted her from the platform before boarding the train and been immediately enchanted. Maybe it was just the aftereffect of five testosterone-filled days and nights in the company of an all-male group, but she wanted to reach across the table to this woman and kiss away the sadness from her face.

Leaving the hens to their constant pecking, Robin walked across the yard and leant against the fence. She never tired of the view, across the meadow and beyond, the wooded hillside on the other side of the valley. It was a magical place. She’d felt it on her first visit when she’d ruined the tranquility of the scene by roaring up the farm track on her motorbike. Ellie had greeted her coolly, introducing her to her mother and playing hostess with a spread of tea and scones. When Mrs Winters finally fell asleep in her chair, Robin urged Ellie to show her the pottery setup. She had been impressed with the work even though Ellie said she was still at the experimental stage.

It was starting to get dark when Robin managed to steal a first kiss. Up to that point she still hadn’t been sure she was on the right track with Ellie, just trusting to instinct that she was one of her persuasion. The kiss hadn’t been entirely satisfactory. Ellie pushed her away.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” she said.

“Why not? Feels good to me.”

“Do you ever think before you do anything?”

“No. It just complicates things. Ellie, I want you. What else is there to think about?”

“Maybe about whether I want you.”

“I think you do.”

They were standing a foot apart and Robin could no longer see her features clearly. But she could feel the pounding of her own heart. Ellie made no move towards her. Finally she turned away and walked slowly back to her bike. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as she rode off, laying some rubber with a bitter sense of satisfaction.

The next few weeks had been busy with a new commission. And although she found some solace with one of the group’s castoff groupies, a sixteen-year-old sexual tourist, thoughts of Ellie kept intruding at inconvenient moments. When the final proofs had been signed off, she couldn’t block out her feelings anymore and found herself somehow riding in the hills above Huddersfield on a mission; this time she wouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

Partway up the long climb to the farm, she saw a hitchhiker. Brushing aside considerations of moors murderers, she pulled in ahead of the forlorn-looking figure. She realised, with relief, that he was only a young lad, fourteen at the most. “Hey, where you headed?” she asked, not removing her helmet.

“Starling Hill farm.”

“Bit of a trek, then.” It was still three miles, at least, and that was just to the end of the mile-long track leading to the farm itself.

“Yeah, missed the last bus. My mum’s going to kill me.”

“Hop on, then, and hold tight.” She smiled to herself. This must be Aiden.

“You sure? Wow! Cool.” He climbed on behind her eagerly.

She took it slowly, making sure he was safe, but he seemed at ease leaning into the curves. When they arrived at the farm, he hopped off nimbly. She set the stand and climbed off, removing her helmet.

“Gee, thanks, that was great. I hope I haven’t taken you out of your way.”

“Not at all. I was on my way here. Aiden, I presume. I’m Robin.”

He shook her outstretched hand, “No shit. I mean, my gran thinks you’re a boy. She keeps asking Mum–when’s that nice boy, Robin, coming again?”

“Yeah, I know.” She winked at him. “Maybe best not to tell her otherwise.”

Ellie had thanked her politely for giving Aiden a lift, but not before she’d given him an earful about the perils of hitchhiking. He disappeared into the house, leaving Robin standing awkwardly again, feeling about fourteen herself. Ellie had that effect on her.

“So,” she said, arms folded protectively across her chest, “you just happened to be passing?”

“Yeah. Seemed like a nice evening for a drive out in the country.”

“Robin, I can’t...”

“Ellie, please.” Robin found the courage then to move and place herself in front of Ellie. She placed her hands gently on her shoulders. “Please, just let me hold you.”

Their first real kiss. Robin had never forgotten it. All her senses were on fire and she was certain Ellie was feeling the same way with the heat radiating from her body and the soft yielding of her lips. But then she had pushed her away again saying she couldn’t do this with her mother and son in the house. Robin wasn’t used to being rejected but she somehow knew that if she persevered it would be more than worth the effort. Ellie wasn’t just another meaningless conquest. She was a formidable challenge and gaining her trust was the driving force for Robin. When Ellie did finally let her in, the passion she ignited was something Robin had never encountered with any other woman.

Now, so many years later, she was experiencing that frustration all over again. She was sure that on some level Ellie wanted her but Robin knew she was going to have to work a lot harder now to gain her trust once more. Too much history, too many lapses, the latest of these now on the way to the farm. Robin didn’t know how she was going to get through this day let alone a week. Ellie was right. She should have said no.

 

 

The second time around the ring road and Jasmine felt she’d entered one of Dante’s circles of hell. Hadn’t she passed the university twice now? She had trusted Robin’s directions rather than the sat-nav, which Robin told her was useless in this area, likely to direct her to the bottom of a reservoir, a drowned village from the past, like Atlantis.

Then she saw it, the exit she wanted, but she was in the wrong lane and there was a constant flow of traffic either side of her. She was doomed to make another pass of this circle. The circle of the damned! What had she done to deserve this version of hell?

Falling in love with Robin. Could that be counted as a heinous sin? It had started as a casual one-night stand, and then expanded to a series of one-nighters, sometimes two, whenever Rob visited London. Now she was hooked; she wanted more. And what was she going to find at Starling Hill farm? Whenever she tried to fish for more information, Robin would deflect her. So far she’d only learned she lived there with her business partner. Googling it, she scoured the pottery business website for clues. There had only been one small photo of the potter, Eleanor Winters; a black and white professionally shot publicity photo, which didn’t give any useful information like hair or eye colour. Even so, the woman didn’t look like someone who would attract Robin. Rather mousy, she thought. But she obviously had some kind of hold over her lover.

What was it that Robin wouldn’t tell her? Well, she was going to find out for herself, if she ever got off the Huddersfield ring road.

Arriving at the farm an hour later than planned, Jasmine was in a foul mood when she finally drove into the yard. Negotiating the narrow lanes hadn’t improved her state of mind; fear of another car coming around each uphill twist and turn or having to brake suddenly for sheep crossing had her worrying for the silver metallic paintwork on her precious C Class Mercedes saloon. It was a company car but she prided herself on keeping it in prime condition.

There were several vehicles parked up, an ancient Jeep, an equally ancient Corsa, and a much newer, sleek black Harley Davidson motorcycle. At least the presence of the bike showed that Robin was here. She pulled into the space next to the rust-heap of a car and climbed out, feeling the stiffness in her knees. Her lower back screamed at her as well. Damn! She should have taken the train.

The place looked deserted, in spite of the number of vehicles. The house had a lonely, forbidding air, its narrow windows and grey stone façade giving it a decidedly gothic look. She gazed at the other structures: a chicken enclosure and a run-down barn. Trying the house first seemed the best option. Knocking on the door, she wondered again if this hadn’t been a colossal mistake. A quick cup of tea and she would head back to London.

The door opened when she pushed on it. Of course. She was in the country now. Feeling like an overdressed burglar she stepped into the gloom of a low-ceilinged room.

“Hello!” Only the ticking of a clock from somewhere in the room greeted her entrance. “Anyone home?” Christ, how could anyone want to live here? The deathly quiet atmosphere was starting to creep her out.

She reached into her bag and pulled out her phone. No messages. So, Robin hadn’t even been concerned that she was late. Angrily, she clicked on Robin’s name in her Contacts list. She hadn’t driven two hundred miles to be ignored. Into the silence came the sound of Robin’s ringtone. She followed the sound into the kitchen. The ringing stopped as she reached the device, sitting on the counter next to a mug of cold coffee. A large ginger cat on the window ledge opened one eye and closed it again.

“Fuck’s sake, Robin! Where the hell are you?”

“And, who, may I ask, are you?”

Jasmine turned around and found herself looking at the mouse-like creature from the website. Older than she had expected, the photo on the website must be twenty years old, at least, but blonde, blue-eyed and unfortunately, more attractive than the picture suggested. She put on her best smile and held out her hand. “Jasmine Pepper. You must be Eleanor.”

The woman ignored the proffered hand and walked past her. She filled the kettle and put it on the Aga, which Jasmine now noticed took up one wall of the kitchen. Without turning from the stove, the other woman said, “Robin’s in the studio.”

Sensing that was all she was going to get in the way of conversation, Jasmine said, “Okay. Thanks.” She found her way back out into the yard. The studio must be in the dilapidated-looking barn thing. For the second, or possibly third, time that day, she thought she should cut her losses and head back to civilisation.

 

 

Robin had given up trying to work. She played another round of Temple Run 2. Her stats on the endless running game weren’t great but she enjoyed watching Scarlett’s butt swinging across the chasm on a rope. The intrepid explorer escaped from the Temple with a stolen treasure and outran the demonic ape, collecting coins and powerups, until disaster struck and she fell off a cliff. Robin knew her concentration levels were at low ebb if she couldn’t travel fifteen hundred metres on the game without meeting disaster. RUN AGAIN? Sure, why not? Robin tapped the button on the screen to restart the game. Ellie had pushed her away, again. Not without cause, but she wasn’t sure how long she could bear it. She had come back to the farm because she wanted to be near Ellie. The separation had been hard and she wished they could both turn back the clock and start again. The sound of the outer door of the stables opening distracted her and Scarlett crashed headfirst into a tree. Putting the iPad down, she went through to the pottery studio hoping it was Ellie. Instead she came face-to-face with Jas, standing in the middle of the room looking extremely pissed off.

“Hi,” said Robin from the studio doorway.

“Thanks for the welcome. Are you even bothered that I’m here?”

“Yes, I am...bothered, that is.”

“Well, great. I’ll just sod off back to London, shall I? I’m looking forward to spending another hour on that fucking ring road.”

“Look, Jas, it was your idea...”

“You didn’t say no, did you?”

Robin shrugged.

“So, do you want me to stay, or don’t you?”

It shouldn’t be like this, thought Robin. But it would never have happened if Ellie hadn’t taken up with that other woman. The biter bit, she couldn’t handle the thought of Ellie with someone else but Ellie had put up with her fucking any woman who crossed her path when she was on the road. And now she was treating Ellie the same way Gerry had, unable to forgive one single mistake.

And here was Jas. A one-night stand that had gone on too long, demanding more from her than she could give. “Do you want a drink?” she asked, moving past her towards the outer door.

“You know what I want, Robin.” Jas followed her outside into the startling brightness of the afternoon sunlight.

“Is Ellie inside?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Wait here.” Robin set off towards the house at a run.

Ellie was in the kitchen, sitting at the table, Soames sat contentedly on her lap enjoying the sensation of her fingers stroking him; long, leisurely strokes, starting at the top of his large ginger head continuing down his spine and caressing the length of his tail. Both Ellie and the cat had their eyes closed, but only Soames was purring.

Robin watched from the doorway. Lucky Soames. It had been a long time since Ellie had stroked her with such tenderness. It seemed a shame to disturb them but she needed to move forward to get to the fridge. She had just reached out to open the door when Ellie opened her eyes.

“What do you want, Robin?”

“A couple of beers.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know.” Robin took two beers from the fridge then turned to look at Ellie. She had closed her eyes again. Soames, though, had jumped off her lap at the sound of the fridge door opening and was now curling around Robin’s legs, looking up at her hopefully. Fickle beast.

The silence between them lengthened. Robin could feel the cold bottles warming in her grasp. Even Soames gave up on her and stalked off somewhere. What did she want? The question she had been avoiding since coming back to the farm, now out in the open.

I want you, was the answer waiting to be spoken. And now, just as she was on the verge of saying the words aloud, Jas appeared at her side. She slid a possessive arm around Robin’s waist and asked, “Are you going to open those, babe, before I die of thirst?”

Robin looked over Jas’s head and saw Ellie’s mouth quirk into a smile. She could almost see the speech bubble erupting...Babe! She’d never live it down. And Jas had her pinned to the counter so she couldn’t move unless she shoved her unceremoniously away.

Ellie stood up, found the bottle opener and passed it to Jasmine on her way out of the kitchen. “There you go. Enjoy, babe!”

Jas helped herself to one of the bottles Robin was holding and popped the cap. Freed from her grasp, Robin moved away from her. She picked up her phone, lying where she’d left it. Clicking it on, she saw she had three messages, all from Jas.

“I guess she doesn’t like me. I thought you said it was finished between you two. Looks like unfinished business to me.”

Robin didn’t say anything. She opened the Facebook app on her phone.

“So, yeah, I get it now. You have this cosy little setup here and then just play away. It works, as long as you keep things separate.”

Robin kept her eyes on her phone. Status updates and a message from Aiden. Stopping by for a visit on their way back from Glastonbury...he and Sophie had some news for them. Probably getting married. They’d been together for a few years now and Aiden wasn’t getting any younger, he’d been thirty-three on his last birthday. That was okay, she liked Sophie and marriage would be good for Aiden.

“For fuck’s sake, Robin. Do you think you could even look at me? You’ve said hardly a dozen words to me since I arrived.”

“Glastonbury. That was this weekend, wasn’t it?”

“Shit, I don’t know. I’m not interested in that hippie crap. Robin, are we going to talk about this?”

“Sure. But not right now. I’ve got to do some shopping.”

“What?”

“Supplies. Ellie’s son is on his way to visit and he still has the appetite of a horse.”

Robin started for the door, grabbing keys from the dish by the door.

“Fine. I’ll come with you.”

 

 

“How do you think they’ll take the news?” asked Sophie as they continued their journey up the M6. Having spent two nights in an overpriced yurt at the festival, they’d stopped over in Marlborough to visit friends on Sunday and were now on their way up north. Seeing the Rolling Stones in concert had been the highlight of the Glastonbury weekend, and Aiden was still on a high.

“They’ll be cool.”

Sophie smiled. Although Aiden was six years older than her he often sounded six years younger, at least.

“I expect Robin will be cool but I’m not sure about your mother.”

“She’ll be good. It’s just the kind of boost she needs. She’s had a rough year.”

“I wish they’d sort it out.”

“They will.”

They lapsed into silence. Sophie knew that Aiden’s connection with Robin was in some ways stronger than with his mother. He’d had years of conditioning from his father, telling him his mother didn’t want him, that Ellie had abandoned him when he needed her most. And although they’d built a fragile bridge over his teenage years, it was mainly through Robin. As an adult he was able to see that his mother wasn’t the evil witch his father had made her out to be, but it was hard to shut out the swirling emotions he’d felt as a five-year-old.

She slept for the rest of the journey, only jerking awake as Aiden turned off the road onto the track leading up to the farm. Sophie sat up and looked around. She loved Starling Hill, especially at this time of year when the sunlight on the hills brought everything into sharp focus. The bare hillsides, sheep grazing in the distance, clouds moving slowly across the clear blue sky, marred only by the occasional fading jet trail. The views of the wooded hills across the valley moved her as well. She put a hand on Aiden’s knee. He turned his head to smile at her; she knew he felt it too.

He turned off the engine and looked around the yard. “Mum’s out, I guess, the Jeep’s not here. We should’ve phoned.”

“I’m sure she won’t have gone far.”

And sure enough, at that moment, the Jeep came roaring up the lane behind them and juddered to a stop not far away. Robin leapt out and slammed the door. She looked extremely hot and bothered with her hair was sticking up, her shirt hanging out of her jeans. Sophie wanted to laugh; there were times when Robin reminded her of Heathcliff. She had that kind of wild, sexual energy associated with Haworth’s most famous fictional son.

Her smile froze, though, when she saw the woman who had climbed out of the passenger seat and come round to meet Robin at the back of the Jeep. Robin yanked the back door open and pulled out a bag of groceries. She shoved these at the woman and said something to her. The woman gave her what could only be described as a lecherous grin and swaggered off into the house.

“Isn’t that...?” Sophie whispered.

Aiden looked as shocked as she felt. “Yes.” He opened his door and got out. “Hey, Rob, need a hand?”

Robin smiled when she saw them. “Great timing, guys. You can carry the beer, Aid.”

“What’s she doing here?” he asked, somewhat aggressively, Sophie thought.

“Who?”

“You know who! We watched her go into the house just now...Jasmine bloody Pepper.”

“How do you know her?”

“Had to work with her a few times.”

“Sounds like it wasn’t a great experience.”

“She’s a prize bitch. So, what’s she doing here, Rob?”

Robin closed her eyes and leant against the side of the Jeep. “Look, could you just take the beer? I’ll bring the rest.”

Sophie jumped in then, sensing Aiden wanted to continue probing. “Come on, love. I’m dying for a pee.”

Aiden picked up the box and set off towards the house. When Sophie looked back, Robin was still leaning against the back of the vehicle with her eyes closed.

“What’s that all about?” Aiden still sounded peeved.

“It’s not too hard to figure out.”

Aiden staggered, almost dropping his load. “No way! Robin wouldn’t bring her shit here.”

“Doesn’t look like she had much choice. Doesn’t look like she’s too happy about it either.”

 

 

Ellie reached out to touch the paint palette Robin had been working on earlier. She could see what she was trying to achieve, another Japanese-style design. If only she could talk to her. For weeks she’d been working herself up to talking about this stupid agreement. Then Robin dropped the bombshell about Jasmine and she was back to square one. She went through a range of emotions each day—pent-up desire for her ex-lover, anger, and self-recrimination. Unable to contain the feelings Robin’s touch in the stables had ignited any longer, she gave in to the tears that had been threatening since their early morning encounter.

Just as she was giving in to a good old cry, a ball of fur landed in her lap. Fleur, mother of Soames, looked up at her with bright green eyes. The comfort of cats, Ellie thought, as she started to stroke her.

There was a time when they would talk, or rather, she would talk and Robin would listen. She was, as she’d said at their first encounter, a good listener. One day, not long after the evening she had rejected Robin’s second clumsy advance, they had bumped into each other in the town centre. She had been trying to find a birthday present for Aiden, searching through the rock section at HMV, at a loss, when a voice at her shoulder said, “No, I don’t think so,” and there was Robin, grinning at her. “Something for Aiden, you won’t find it here.” She steered her over to another section and quickly picked out the latest CD of a well-known rap artist.

“I can’t give him that. I’m his mother.”

“Yeah, and he’ll think you’re really cool.”

She not only let Robin persuade her to buy the CD but to have coffee with her. Ellie found herself telling her things she wouldn’t have said to anyone, even her mother.

She told her about the guilt she felt, about her affair that had cost her the right to bring up her child. She hadn’t been sorry about the breakup of her marriage; meeting Susan had opened her eyes to a depth of relationship she’d never experienced before. And being in love, truly in love, for the first time in her life, she had been blind to the effect it had on her husband. And he had used that to ensure he was granted custody. It hadn’t gone to court because she was afraid to fight it, afraid she would lose her job as well if they had a public battle.

Robin bought her a large cappuccino and a blueberry muffin and listened. After a time she reached over the table and put her hands over Ellie’s. “Look, in a few years, he’ll be able to choose. And, I think he’ll choose you.”

“Why? Why would he choose me? All I’ve ever done is abandon him.”

“At some point he’ll realise how much his father manipulated the situation. You’re not a bad person. Why wouldn’t he love you?”

Ellie found herself looking into Robin’s eyes and was caught by the intensity, like a rabbit frozen in a car’s headlights.

“I want to love you, Ellie. Won’t you give me the chance?”

And, from that moment, Ellie was ensnared. She invited Robin to come for tea that evening. After her mother had gone to bed, they made love for the first time, on the living room floor. Robin’s passion had overwhelmed her; she seemed to instinctively know all her erogenous zones, unerringly inflaming every nerve in her body. Luckily her mother was a sound sleeper as well as being hard of hearing. Ellie hadn’t thought she was capable of making noises like the ones Robin’s hands, tongue, and writhing hips, brought forth from her.

And when her mother died in the spring of 1995, having succumbed to a bout of pneumonia, she was happy for Robin to move in with her. Robin had already started helping her develop the pottery business with sales and designs.

She had never expected Robin to stick around, this twenty-four-year-old who acted closer in age to her son. When Aiden was there it was like having two teenage boys—they were messy, left clothes wherever they shed them, jam jars open on the countertops, noisy music blared from the radio—talking endlessly about groups she’d never heard of. Unknown to her at the time, Robin took Aiden to his first music festival when he was fifteen. It was one of the weekends when he wasn’t with her so she couldn’t even be angry with her. If anything had gone wrong, Gerry would have been blamed as the careless parent. She knew she had Robin to thank for the thawing in her relations with her son, but it was Robin he adored. Ellie was under no illusion about that, she was clearly only tolerated by association.

During her time with Kathryn, Aiden had only visited the farm once to pick up something he’d left in his room. Even though he was over thirty, she’d kept his room for him in her attempt to remind him he had a home with her. As soon as Robin returned he was back to visiting on a regular basis. She knew they communicated these days via Facebook and Twitter. She only had an email account because Robin had set it up, insisting she needed to join the twenty-first century and go digital. But she couldn’t get to grips with it.

 And now it had come to this. She desperately wanted to talk to Robin again but there was a barrier between them. At first, it was the barrier called Kathryn. She knew how hurt Robin had been and she couldn’t even explain to herself how it had happened. Then when it was over, Robin had reacted much the same way as Gerry over her earlier affair. So, the business with Jasmine, when it started, was no doubt just another way to punish her.

“Mum! Are you in here?”

Ellie started and Fleur jumped out of her arms. She hadn’t been expecting a visit from her son.

“In here,” she called, standing up and brushing herself down. She wiped at her face, hoping it wouldn’t look too blotchy.

Aiden came in and, unusual for him, pulled her in close and hugged her. “What’s happening, Mum? Why is that woman here?”

Ellie started to shake. She let him hold her close as she calmed herself, steadying her breathing. Aiden wasn’t much taller than her; they weren’t a tall family. At five foot five inches, he hadn’t grown much since he was fourteen, but he felt solid, good muscle tone.

“She loves you, Mum,” he whispered in her ear.

“Funny way of showing it,” she mumbled into his shoulder.

“I don’t think Rob’s that pleased to see her. It’s obviously a mistake.”

“A mistake!” Ellie pulled back from him. “One of many. Why am I the only one around here not allowed to make mistakes?”

 She ran out into the yard, her eyes blurred with tears. And stopped. Was it a mirage? Coming slowly up the track from the road, a colourfully painted VW van, looking as if it had emerged from the mists of time, 1968 at least. As it drew closer, she could see the driver, a woman with long curling hair, and next to her a dog, paws on dashboard looking eagerly around.

 

 

Robin shot out of the farmhouse front door. The day was taking on the surrealism of an art house movie. The camper van came to an abrupt shuddering stop in the middle of the yard. She could see Jo’s wide smile through the windscreen before she opened the door and her large black-and-white dog streaked out and jumped up to lick Robin’s face. Jo followed, more sedately.

“Harry, leave her alone!” Jo pulled the dog off and made him sit.

“Jo! What are you doing here?”

“You invited me, don’t you remember?” She moved in for a kiss as well.

Robin held her off, aware now of Ellie standing near the stable door. “Um, not really.”

“Sure, you said to drop in if I was ever passing. And here we are.” She beamed, opening her arms wide, expecting Robin to welcome her more warmly.

“Well, I...” Robin was at a loss for words.

Ellie came over and bent down to stroke the dog. Then she straightened up and said to Jo, “Hi, I’m Ellie. Welcome to Starling Hill. Would you like a drink...tea, coffee, something stronger?”

Jo looked from Robin to Ellie and back, then she smiled at Ellie. “Yes, a cup of tea would be great. Do you mind if Harry comes in as well? It’s too hot to leave him in the van.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’d like a look around the farm. He seems to know Robin.” She turned to look at her business partner. “Just don’t let him bother the hens.” Ellie took Jo by the arm and led her towards the house, leaving Robin gaping after them.

The night spent in Jo’s van was one Robin remembered well enough, the mingled smells of incense, dog, and sex. That she’d invited her to visit the farm was lost in the ether.

Aiden came out of the stables in time to see his mother walking into the house with a strange woman and Robin standing and looking down at a black-and-white dog that was looking up at her expectantly. He walked around the camper van and came to stand next to her. “Who’s that, Rob? One of Mum’s arty friends?”

“No.”

“Then, who...fuck’s sake, Rob. Not another one?”

Robin shook her head, slowly. “Come on, Harry,” she said to the dog and started to walk towards the field.

Aiden followed. “Rob, what’s going on here?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting her.”

“But you were expecting the Pepper woman?”

“Yes.”

“So, who’s she?”

“Just someone I met in Hebden Bridge a few months ago. She let me use part of her stall at the market to sell pots.”

“So you slept with her? As payment?”

Robin shrugged. “Yeah, well, we don’t make much profit.”

“Oh, I guess that makes it okay then.”

“Look, I’d totally forgotten about her until I saw the van just now.”

“Is that where you did it? In the van?”

“Oh, grow up, Aiden. Since when did you care who I sleep with or where?”

“Since you’re hell-bent on hurting my mother by bringing your casual fucks here.”

“She didn’t care much when she took up with what’s-her-name.”

“Jesus, Robin. That was one woman to how many in eighteen years? Like she said to me just now, why is she the only one not allowed to make mistakes around here?”

Robin stopped and looked at him. “She said that?”

“Yeah. And if you ask me you’re just as bad as my dad? You wouldn’t believe the things he used to say about her. It’s taken years to shake off the brainwashing he inflicted on me. I grew up thinking she was a wicked scarlet woman only concerned with her own gratification. Seems to me now that her only crime was falling in love with the wrong people.”

“Does that include me?”

“Yes.”

“She knew what she was getting into when we met.”

“I somehow doubt that. Look around you, Rob. This is her life. She’s a country girl...”

“She’s not stupid, if you’re trying to make out she’s some kind of country bumpkin.”

Harry raced joyously around the field, stopping to lift his leg and sniff at everything in a high state of excitement. Robin leaned against the fence with Aiden stopping a few feet away from her. She could feel the tension radiating from him.

“You’re like him, you know?” he said finally.

“Like who?”

“Harry. Running around, marking out your territory. They’ll run out of blue plaques...Robin Fanshawe slept here with...fill in the name...”

“Very funny.”

“And, you’re not getting any younger. Middle age for women starts now—mid-forties—you’re already over the hill.”

“Gee, thanks. Glad you didn’t take up social work.”

“Just saying...”

“I hate it when people say that!”

“So, what are you going to do about these two?”

Robin turned her head to look at him. He was still in an aggressive stance, looking like he wanted to punch her. “Jo’s not a problem. She’s more interested in the pottery. I remember now, I did say she should come and have a look at the setup.” She looked back over the field. “Jas will leave if she doesn’t get what she wants.”

“And will she get what she wants?”

With a deep sigh, Robin turned back to look at him again. “No. It’s over. She just doesn’t know it, yet?”

“What do you want, Robin?”

“We both know the answer to that. But does she want me back?”

“Oh, I think so. But you two need to talk.”

Robin picked at the wood railing and called Harry. The dog bounded over and wriggled through the gap, his whole body shaking with joy. Robin reached down and rubbed his ears. “Where do I start, Aiden? I’ve really screwed up this time, haven’t I?”

“How about telling her you love her.”

“Oh yes, she’s really going to believe that with Jas trying to rip my clothes off every time I’m near her.”

 

 

Inside the house, Ellie sat in the kitchen and listened to Jo talk. She was something of a free spirit, she realised, with a touch of envy. Jo managed to make a living creating knickknacks out of a wide variety of materials, mostly scraps and things other people discarded. Dream catchers were particularly popular, she told Ellie. Fusing plastic bags to make wallets and belts, this had gone down very well when Hebden Bridge had declared itself a plastic bag free zone. She had even made Harry a dog bed from old towels. When Robin had pitched up at the market to sell some of Ellie’s pottery, she had been inspired, she said. She had always wanted to learn how to make pots.

Ellie was aware of Jasmine sitting at the opposite end of the kitchen table, nearest the door, stifling a yawn. She was sucking on another beer bottle. Pathetic, thought Ellie, a woman her age trying to look like someone younger. At least Robin could pull it off with her youthful, boyish looks and the way she acted. This woman was trying too hard to be hip, or whatever the term was now. Stylishly cut shoulder-length black hair, possibly her natural colour, framed a rather square face. The plucked eyebrows really didn’t do her any favours. Maybe it was the in thing in the big city. What Ellie knew about fashion of any sort wouldn’t have filled the blank side of a postage stamp.

As far as she knew, Sophie was lying down in the cool of the living room, listening to her iPod. No doubt trying to stay out of this, whatever this was. A trio of Robin’s women sitting in the kitchen, all very different. As she’d always suspected, Robin wasn’t fussy about who she shagged; only needing a willing body. At least Jo had an attractive personality, and possibly a good figure, although it was hard to tell with the loose, flowing garments she was wearing. She recalled the sign on the Burnley Road coming out of the town with the wording, That was so Hebden Bridge. These people are so up themselves is what she’d thought at the time. Now, she thought, maybe the wording on the sign was representative of the cultural time warp that was Hebden Bridge. Everything about Jo screamed 1968, flower power, free love, make peace not war...from the brightly painted VW van to the flower print skirt and Birkenstock sandals, to the not-so-subtle whiff of patchouli oil, no doubt masking the smell of an illicit substance...the hills are alive with the growth of marijuana plants.

Watching Jasmine out of the corner of her eye, idly peeling off the label on the beer bottle, Ellie realised that neither of these women could possibly threaten her way of life. She liked Jo and thought that perhaps it really had been a one off with her and Robin. Jasmine, though, was something else. She wanted Robin and nothing was going to stand in her way. Ellie could almost see the wheels of her mind turning, plotting to lure Robin away to the big city. If she thought that was going to happen, she was deluding herself. She obviously didn’t know Rob that well.

 

 

Jasmine yawned again. It was warm in the kitchen and, as far as she was concerned, these two women were certifiable. Nothing they said made any sense to her. How could you make money out of recycled rubbish? Well, maybe you could if you were prepared to live in a shit-hole like this. It was possible, she thought. God knows what it was like in winter. The barren landscape had few redeeming features, even now at the height of summer.

Robin couldn’t possibly want to stay here. She could offer her so much more. Jas had been in no doubt of what she wanted on the long drive up from London. There were other women in her life; women who helped fill the lonely nights when Robin wasn’t there. And although she had known these women longer than she had known Robin, spent more time in their company—going out to plays, conversing at dinner parties—it was Robin who set her pulse racing. Whenever she knew Robin would be in the city she cancelled any other plans. They spent most of their all-too-brief times together in bed, or out of it—the living room floor, the shower, the kitchen counter—Robin had fucked her in just about every position, everywhere in her flat. It made her smile for days afterwards whenever she remembered where Robin had last touched her, last caressed her breasts, licked her from top to bottom, literally.

And now, here she was—a stranger in a strange land—with no reference points, unaware of the local rules. Robin drew away when she touched her. She had tried to reach out to her while they were driving back from the supermarket. Jas was desperate for some acknowledgment from her lover, any sign at all that she wanted her.

But Robin brushed her off at every turn. It surely couldn’t be the mouse-woman. They didn’t act like they were lovers. And checking out the upstairs rooms when she went up to use the bathroom, it looked like they slept in separate bedrooms. As for the hippy-dippy woman, someone Robin had met at a market, a market for weirdos it sounded like listening to Jo’s stories, no worries there. She just needed to get Robin on her own. It shouldn’t be beyond her.

Sophie appeared in the doorway then. With her tousled, sleepy look, the younger woman immediately drew the attention of the three older women in the kitchen. Jas remembered now where she’d seen her before. It was at a high profile company’s fiftieth year celebration when she’d had a stand-up row with the boss of the events management company. Sophie had been there in the background with her boyfriend, Ellie’s son. She’d clocked the good-looking blonde, but hadn’t really taken much notice of the man she was with, even though he’d waded into the argument as well, obviously a minion of the arsehole she was reaming out.

“Are we going to eat anytime soon, Ellie?” Sophie asked. “I’m starved. We didn’t stop anywhere on the way up from Marlborough.”

Looking at her youthfully rounded limbs and full-looking breasts, Jas didn’t think there was any danger of the young woman wasting away through the lack of one meal. However, Ellie immediately got up. “Of course, sweetheart. Let’s see what Rob managed to forage from the supermarket.” She didn’t look at Jas when she added, “I’m sure Aiden or Robin will show you around the pottery studio.”

Jo, of course, offered to help prepare the meal, but Ellie shooed her out. And Jasmine followed, if only to see if she could indeed get Robin on her own.

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