The first thing Molly noticed was how empty the bed was.
She smiled to herself, shunted over into the middle, then stretched out until her fingers and toes poked out from under the duvet. “That’s better,” she murmured.
That was when she remembered the bed shouldn’t have been so empty. She was only briefly worried. Then she remembered that Lucas had decided to take up running. She sniggered at this thought. She always did. She had even laughed when he’d first suggested it. After that, he had been in a foul mood the entire weekend. You never laughed at Lucas Burke.
But Molly couldn’t help it. The idea of him doing anything like exercise always made her laugh. For all his vanity and posturing, the man had the upper-body strength of damp towel, and the stamina of a geriatric. But, in spite of his shortcomings, she still supported him. Until he gave it all up, that is. Then she’d loyally never bring it up again.
She glanced at her phone. Six-forty-nine. He must have gotten up early. That really did surprise her. Lucas wasn’t the sort to take anything seriously. Well, anything other than making a profit. Sitting up, Molly groaned. Today was the Big Day. That was how Lucas described it. To her, however, it was just a Big Hassle.
A charity gala hosted by a used car salesman? The only thing that made it more questionable was the fact the salesman in question was Lucas! She couldn’t blame him, of course. His rival, Freddie Vroom (the fact he had actually changed his name by deed-poll still astounded Molly) had run a similar event in the spring, and in six months had seen his profits triple. Lucas wanted a slice of that cake. No, that was wrong. Lucas wanted all of the cake, and if he had to spare a few crumbs for the less fortunate, well, that was a sacrifice he was willing to make. And that really would be the only active part Lucas would take in the whole ordeal. Making the event happen? That unhappy task landed with a crash on Molly’s shoulders.
“It’s for the good of the business!” he had whined, having taken her out to the nicest restaurant in town in an effort to make the proposal more appealing. “If it could work for the Vroom, Vroom Emporium, you know it’ll work for us!”
And she had said yes. Of course. Not because he had taken her out for a nice meal. Not because she agreed that it would be good for the business, though at this point she was willing to try anything to increase profits. No. She did it because Lucas asked. How many times a day did she kick herself for being that way? All he had to do was flash that victorious little smirk, and she’d be putty in his hand. It had been that way since the day they’d met. But why?
Because she loved him, obviously. Yeah, that was why.
Molly’s thoughts were cut off by a hectoring buzz from the floor. Groaning, she heaved herself out of bed and stared down at where she had dropped her phone. It was her mum. Video calling. At just gone seven. Molly uttered several choice words, then reluctantly answered.
Her mother’s forehead suddenly filled the screen.
“Hello? Hello, Moll? Moll, love, am I through? Are you there?”
Molly forced herself to count to five before answering. “Yes, mum, I’m here.”
The close-up of her crinkled forehead suddenly pulled back. Seeing her daughter, the woman flashed a lop-sided smile. “Heya, love,” she slurred. Molly fought the urge to tut. She took in the tanned, and deeply lined face. She noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes, and her glazed look. She had never before met a woman who enjoyed pedalling her way into her seventies quite as much as her mother.
“What do you want?” Molly snapped.
“What? A loving mother can’t call her own daughter for a simple chat?”
“Not at this bloody time you can’t.”
“No? Why? What time is it over there?”
“It’s seven in the morning,” Molly frowned. “Why? Where are you now?”
“Cornwall,” her mum replied with a hiccup.
“Cornwall?! That’s the same bloody time!”
“Yeah, but I was up all night with Carol. We made some new friends, you see.”
Yes, Molly could see. She could see it in the older woman’s eyes, especially in her pupils. Her mum suddenly frowned. “Seven? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for work then? Or has his lordship given you the day off, finally?”
“Mum, don’t talk about him like that.”
“Oh, he’s in your good books again then, is he?”
“What have I told you? If you can’t say anything nice, shut the Hell up!”
Her mother pouted her lips like a scolded schoolgirl. “Are you working today, or not?”
“I am, but later,” Molly muttered, regretting with a burning intensity that she ever answered the phone. “We’re hosting a charity gala tonight, and I’m in charge of preparation.”
“Ooh, look at you,” her mum cooed. Her eyes softened. “I am proud of you, you know that, right?”
Molly reeled. The sudden tenderness in the woman’s voice was like a punch to the gut. “Oh . . . erm . . . thanks?” she said, fiddling with the strap of her nightgown.
“I do hope you’re happy, though,” her mum added.
The fire behind Molly’s eyes, the flames that always lit when she spoke to her mother, now returned. “I am happy,” she snarled.
“Are you? You don’t sound it, Moll. You never sound it when we talk.”
“Yeah? Well, maybe that’s no coincidence.”
“Ah, I see, I get what you’re saying,” her mum said, the softness in her eyes boiling away in an instant. “But you’re wrong,” she added.
“I don’t think I am.”
“It’s Chaffley. It’s that bloody town. It’s a Hell hole. Everyone leaves.”
“I know, and look at you. You’re miserable.”
“I won’t be when I hang up.”
“You should get out of that town; I’ve been saying it for years. Do what I did.”
Molly opened her mouth, but then she caught the look on her mum’s face. That was what she wanted. She may be a pensioner with a passion for parties, but she was also as sharp as a blade. Instead, Molly bit down on the remark, and offered her mother a twisted smile. “And how is Carol?” she asked, as sweetly as a jar of vinegar that was past its best.
“She’s having a nap in the camper van,” her mum responded, deaf to her daughter’s tone.
“Good,” Molly said, not knowing what else to say. “Well, as always, it’s been a treat. Until the next time you randomly ring up after a bender.”
“It wasn’t a bender,” her mum hissed. “It was two women enjoying their retirement in the company of some very excitable teenagers who, I will have you know, are not as experienced as they think they are. I certainly taught them a thing or two last night.”
Molly winced as the mental image slapped itself across her mind. “Okay, I’m officially done for the day,” she declared.
“Do the right thing, Moll.” The woman’s voice was suddenly as sober as a Mother Superior’s. “Get out of that town, get away from that man, and make yourself a life!”
“I have a life,” Molly growled.
She hung up the phone. After a moment, she chucked it across the room for good measure. Though she was careful to make sure it landed on a pile of dirty laundry in the corner. She didn’t have the money for another new one. That old bat certainly had a horrible way of getting under Molly’s skin.
It had been so long that Molly had forgotten what it was like having a morning off. Forgotten how boring it could be. After she had pulled herself out of bed, and into some clothes, Lucas had returned from his run. He had instantly jumped into the shower, using what little energy remained to try and coax Molly into joining him.
After he had been forced to wash alone, he threw on some clothes, stole a slice of her toast, and bounded back out of the doors. Molly had watched him go with a pang of longing. She checked herself when she realised that she was more jealous than upset at his departure.
She had long ago promised herself she wouldn’t become a jaded, work-focussed machine like so many of her kind grew up to be. Instead, she sat at the kitchen table and tried to enjoy the peace and quiet. After three minutes of that she swore very loudly, went into her room, retrieved her laptop, and started scrolling through work emails. As she typed away, the bedroom light kept catching on her new ring. For more reasons than the obvious this annoyed her.
The proposal had come as a shock to her. A shock that Lucas had got down on one knee, and a shock that she had said yes. After all, for weeks she had been adamant that he had been cheating on her. A suspicion that had not evaporated at the sight of an engagement ring. But still, she said she would marry him.
Why was that?
She was sure her therapist would have a litany of answers, but Molly had stopped seeing her years ago. It didn’t matter how often people said otherwise, sometimes the best way to deal with the past was to bury your head in the sand.
But sometimes the sand wasn’t deep enough. The bedroom light caught on the ring, reflecting back into her eyes, and with it came all the doubts and fears she had held. All the late nights at the office, the cancelled dates, the phone calls he’d take in the – Molly suddenly paused and looked up. “Fuck,” she said aloud. “I really am a cliché.”
No, she added silently. Not quite. I’m not going to have a breakdown; I’m not going to confront him; I’m not going to set fire to his shirts and cut his ties into ribbons. What was she going to do?
Wait. That’s what she was going to do. It was Annie, she knew it. It had to be Annie. Who else was there in this grubby little town that might catch his attention? That woman who worked in the coffee shop? Or Glenda from the post office? The woman had undergone three hip replacement surgeries in the last five years. No, it was Annie. And she didn’t mind. What? Of course, she minded. She was bloody furious. But there was nothing she could do about it. She knew Lucas. Much better than he would have liked, in fact. He’d get tired of Annie and slink back to Molly. Back to good old, reliable Molly.
Maybe she could leave him. No, she thought. Then what would happen? Stay and work with him? And if she left to work somewhere else, just where would she go? Go and do what Annie’s dad has done and work in a café? She hoped she would never plummet to those sad depths.
Well, why does she have to stay in Chaffley? Maybe her mum was right. Maybe it was time for her to leave. After all, it was hardly an idyl, now was it? Even the seagulls avoided landing if they could.
No, she thought again, bitterly scolding herself. She wasn’t like her mum. She wouldn’t just run away because things weren’t what she expected them to be. Besides, she’d put a lot of time, effort, and money into her company. She wasn’t going to abandon it. Not without a fat severance package, that is.
Before her mind could wander any further down that murky alley way, Molly snapped her laptop shut, and decided she’d had enough of a day off. Time to go to a place where thinking wasn’t an option.
Molly firmly believed that the key to any healthy relationship was distance. Time apart made you realise what you missed about your partner. Too much time up close reminded you of all their flaws.
Molly and Lucas not only lived together, but also worked together. Distance wasn’t something they got much of. However, in a desperate effort to remedy this, Molly had ensured that their offices had been as far from one another as possible. In fact, they had an entire showroom filled with a dozen used cars separating them. This made her feel a little better. She liked knowing she had her own space. But she also liked having the hubbub of the business in the distance. It was something to focus on when her thoughts started to stray.
In fact, she was guaranteed to never have time for inner reflection because – and she could see it through the blinds now, in just three, two, one . . .
Nick threw his head into her office, an anxious look on his amateurly tanned face. “Molly,” he said, nearly breathless, “we need you on the floor.”
She could almost use him as an alarm clock. Barely an hour passed without Nick crashing into one of their offices, panic tattooed across his face, and in desperate need of assistance. Whether it was a fault with one of the cars, or even his fear of using the photocopier, Nick never managed to make it through a sale without someone holding his hand. In one case literally.
Molly had argued to have him fired on numerous occasions. But Lucas had put his foot down. He had a real knack for hiring people that, through their incompetence, always made him look like the paragon of success and professionalism. He was never going to give that up. Also, Nick was one of the few people who genuinely laughed at Lucas’ jokes.
“What is it?” Molly asked.
“We’ve got a guy out here who’s really winding Lucas up,” Nick said, his eyes flickering back to the showroom. “I think he might be getting ready to hit him!”
Nick nodded, and Molly felt a little groan well up in her throat. If it had been him on the receiving end, she might have been more eager to intervene. Wait, was that something she should be thinking about her fiancé? Perhaps not. But her fiancé who she suspected of infidelity? Absolutely.
But the last thing the company needed was lawsuit, so Molly had no choice. She followed Nick as he scuttled away, anxiously looking back over his shoulder like a worried toddler. Molly rounded an overpriced Ford Focus and froze.
“Daniel?!” she exclaimed. Two of the men rounded on her, the third, Nick, was already escaping to the staff kitchen.
“You know this guy?” Lucas asked, the smile on his face as fake as the colour of his hair. For a man who prided himself as a businessman, he had a habit of hating his customers. And having a man like Daniel as a customer, well, that was just asking for a patented Lucas tantrum.
“Yeah – yeah, I do – or rather, did,” Molly said, hurrying up to the pair as her heart started drumming, and her mind started crumbling.
“It’s been a while, Moley,” Daniel said. It had been a long time since they’d last seen one another, and seeing that half-smirk on his face brought a flow of emotions she hadn’t felt since she was a teenager.
“Yeah, yeah it has,” she said, trying to limit her own look of glee.
Lucas flashed a jealous look at the pair. “’Moley’?” he sneered. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Because I played Mole in Wind in the Willows when I was six,” Molly said, suddenly angry that Lucas was even in the building.
“No,” Daniel said, adopting his usual haughty tone. “It was because you always used to roll in the dirt when we were kids.”
“I did not!” Molly snapped, directing some of her anger towards Daniel. But, if anything, his little smirk grew larger.
“Well,” Lucas snarled, his grin now as friendly as a razor’s edge. “I guess I’ll leave you to catch up then.”
Molly tried to ignore the relief she felt watching Lucas walk away. Instead, she decided to focus on Daniel’s everlasting, and always irritating smirk. “Must be a laugh a minute working here,” the man declared, “with a boss like that.”
“I don’t just work here; I co-own it.” Molly allowed herself a flicker of amusement as she saw Daniel’s smile falter. “Also, Lucas and I are engaged.”
She hadn’t expected the sight of that smirk vanishing to punch so hard. In that instant she remembered that she wasn’t a teenager anymore. Neither of them was. She cleared her throat, hoping the awkwardness had been reserved to her own head. “So,” she said, her voice sounding shrill in her own ears. “What drags you back to Chaffley?”
Daniel shrugged, turning his studious gaze away from her. “Just saying goodbye, that’s all.”
“Goodbye?” she said. “You left – what is it? Seventeen years ago, now?”
“Eighteen, actually,” Daniel said. As if Molly didn’t know. As if she hadn’t been counting the years. Had she? She hadn’t even realised that she’d been keeping track. Watching as the gulf between her and those days grew wider and wider. “Why say goodbye now?” she asked. The words sounded calm, even cold, perhaps. But inside her head her thoughts were a storm.
“I’m moving away,” he said, pausing slightly. “To America.”
And, like that, the storm was gone. Everything was gone, except for the gulf. “A-America?” she said, trying to laugh. “But you always used to say you hated it there!”
Daniel shrugged. “I hate a lot of things I do,” he accurately pointed out. “I’ve got a job, you see. I’m writing for some new sitcom.”
This time the laughter erupted out of her. “You? Writing for an American sitcom?” she exclaimed. “You said you’d rather shoot yourself than do that!”
“Well, you know what they say,” Daniel remarked sourly. “In America the streets are paved with guns. So, I should be fine.”
“Why?” The question was out before she’d even realised it, and the look of alarm in Daniel’s eyes surprised her even further. “Why say goodbye though?” she quickly added, feeling the blood flooding into her face.
For a moment he looked like he wasn’t going to answer. His lips trembled and his eyes widened; it was the expression of a terrified child. “My sister,” he finally answered. “I’m here to say bye to her.”
“Oh,” Molly said. “Do – do you know where she is? Because tonight she’ll be at –”
“I’ve already seen her,” Daniel said quickly. “We bumped into one another on the train in.”
“I see,” Molly shifted awkwardly as her mind raced to find some excuse to keep him from leaving. “What about Annie? Have – have you seen her? She works here as well, you see, so you could always hang around –”
“Actually, I need to get back home,” Daniel said, cutting her off with uncharacteristic curtness. “Lots of packing to do.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Daniel went on, staring at the rows of cars. That was only natural, Molly thought. We’re in a car showroom, he wants a car, why wouldn’t he look at them? Only, in her deepest thoughts, she couldn’t help but feel he was looking at them in order to avoid looking at her. Or, is that what she hoped? “I need a car to get back. The next bloody train isn’t until ten tonight, and I don’t really want to hang around.”
“You want to buy a car just to avoid waiting for a train?” Molly asked.
“What? No! I just want to rent one. Can I do that?”
“Rent? No, no, we don’t rent our cars. We sell them, Daniel.”
“Really?” he said, screwing up his nose.
“We do rather well, actually,” she snapped.
Daniel gave a half-shrug. “I guess, when people are that desperate to get out of town, anything will do.”
And there it was. How could she have forgotten how aggravating Daniel could be? You could go a whole conversation thinking he’s a normal, endurable person, then he’d make a comment and his irritating, haughty personality would hit you like a crashing jumbo jet. Even Lucas didn’t achieve those heights, though he did try his best. Maybe it was just men in general, she thought. Perhaps mum has the right idea.
“How long have you been engaged?”
The question flew out and slapped her across the cheeks. Her head snapped to face Daniel and, for a moment, she was speechless. There was no superior smirk, there was no cocked eyebrow that she had once caught him practicing in one of the mirror’s at school, there was just . . . she didn’t know. It was an expression she had never seen on his face before. It sent a dull chill down her spine. “Not long,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “Three weeks.”
Daniel nodded. “So, if you realise that he’s a prick and decide to leave him,” he commented, “you won’t have lost too much.”
With that, the anger flowed back into her. “Lucas is not a prick!” Molly declared, her words echoing through the, thankfully, empty showroom. “And I’m not going to leave him,” she added, lowering her voice awkwardly. “If you’re not buying a car, Daniel, I’m not sure how else I can help you.”
The pair stood silently, their eyes avoiding one another. Finally, after what felt like a decade to Molly, he gave a little sigh. “Fair enough,” he said, his tone as snooty as ever. “I would say ‘see you around’, but, well, I won’t.” In that moment Daniel’s eyes met Molly’s and she felt a bridge appear between the pair. The gulf could be crossed, finally. But, then, he looked away and the bridge collapsed. As Daniel left the showroom Molly felt the chasm yawn ever wider.
Making a rare trip, Molly wound her way towards Lucas’ office. She told herself she was just going to pop her head in and tell him that Daniel was gone. But was that the real reason she wanted to see him? To be in the same room as him? She paused, however, at the window and simply watched him through the blinds. He was sat at his desk, completely ignoring the mountain of paperwork waiting for him. Instead, not to her surprise, he was glued to his mobile, a small grin on his face. A thousand nasty little thoughts danced through her head upon seeing that smile.
She turned away and returned to her own office. Once inside she slumped in her chair and stared down the dirty alleyway of nostalgia. One night, when Molly was eight years old, her mum left. She remembered being tucked into bed, like normal, and receiving the usual peck on the forehead, and sensing nothing strange in her mother. But, in the morning, she came downstairs to find her dad sitting in the kitchen, and staring mournfully out of the window.
“She’s gone,” he announced in a hollow voice, his eyes blazing red. If she had left behind a note, Molly never saw it.
For several months after that day Molly used to sit in bed, waiting for her mother to walk back into her life. She eventually learned that that would never happen. Her dad, however, always believed. Even on his deathbed, Molly felt he was still expecting his ex-wife to miraculously appear. Sure, there had been other women in his life. But they never lasted.
This attitude of his had never bothered her; not as a child, nor in later years, as she watched him waste away. It was just the way he was. Now, however, she was looking at it differently. Had she felt the same way about Daniel? She told herself that, after he left town, she stayed behind to look after her dad. But was that the real reason? And, if not, when had she stopped feeling those things?
She had simply forgotten what they meant. It was like living with a train track at the back of your house; the noise was deafening to begin with but, one day, you stopped hearing the trains altogether. Now he was back and Molly didn’t know what to do.
A sudden yowling from her stomach dragged her out of the tunnel and back into the cold embrace of reality. Lunch, she thought, get some lunch. That’s what she ought to do. Molly realised with alarm that it was nearly two o’clock. She had been mired in her own thoughts for hours! The fact that no one had disturbed her in all that time also worried her. Things never normally ran that smoothly.
She stepped out of her office and drifted across the showroom floor, nodding briefly towards Nick and Pete. Steeling herself, Molly popped her head through Lucas’ door. His head snapped up, an almost guilty look on his face. She tried to ignore the way he tilted his phone out of her sight.
“I’m going to grab some lunch,” she said. “Want anything?” Her attempt to sound upbeat only made her voice seem shrill and brittle. Not that Lucas would ever notice.
He offered her a bland smile, the sort he’d offer an easily conned customer. “Nah, I’m good; lots of work to do,” he added.
Molly nodded, hoping the grin she flashed seemed the sort you’d give a loved one.
“Is everything sorted for tonight?” Lucas asked, just as she was making her escape.
Taking a deep breath, she turned back. “Yeah,” she answered. “The caterers are turning up at five; they’ll finish setting up the hall for us.”
Lucas nodded. “Great stuff,” he said.
This time nothing stopped her from leaving.
She didn’t go back to her office. She marched across the showroom, pointedly ignored Pete and Nick, then burst out of the building, gulping down the fresh air as if it would clear away the dense fog that was filling her head.
The image of that tilted phone was burned onto her mind. She knew why he’d tried to hide it; but why didn’t she care? The answer danced in front of her, taunting her with its simplicity.
She was almost at her car when she almost crashed into Annie. The two women reeled away from one another, then locked eyes. Molly felt the heat rise in her cheeks as she noticed the awkward flash in the younger woman’s eyes.
“Oh,” Molly murmured. “Annie, Lucas told me you had the day off?”
“I did,” Annie answered. “But he called me in to help with some paperwork.”
I just bet he did, Molly thought. She noticed that Annie was avoiding her gaze. At least she had the decency to look somewhat ashamed. “Well, make a note of your hours,” she said, hurrying away.
Once she was inside the piece of junk that she called a car, she heaved a sigh that ended with a slight tremble. If she was a cliché, she would start beating the wheel with her fists. Or her head.
But she wasn’t. Instead, once she had brushed the hair out of her eyes, she turned the key in the ignition.
There was a weak whirr from within the car’s bowels. Now Molly did whack her head against the steering wheel. “You told me it was fixed!” she declared to world in general. She gave the key several more turns. The engine continued to protest feebly.
“One more chance,” she murmured. “If you don’t work this time, I swear I will . . .” The threat wasn’t needed. After twisting the key with enough force to snap it, the car thundered into life. Molly tore out of the carpark without a glance back.
Daniel had stood, flicking pebbles onto the surface of the water, and hoped it made him look brooding and interesting. This image had been shattered when, every time a stone had landed in the sea with a sad plop, he had sworn loudly and kicked at the waves lapping dully at his feet.
Molly remembered laughing wildly whenever this happened, and that had made Daniel smile. Well, not smile. In all the years she had known him, she wasn’t sure he had ever smiled in the way normal people would describe. But she made that little smirk lengthen in a way no one else could. He had never minded her laughing at him.
“When do you leave?” she had asked as he scooped up some more pebbles from the beach.
“Soon,” he answered, tossing another stone into the grey, depressing mass that served as Chaffley’s stretch of sea. Even the water was disappointing in this town. “My sister’s picking me up.” She laughed as he shuddered at this thought.
“Will your niece be in the car as well?”
“I still can’t believe that Donna has a baby,” Molly had said. “Or that she’s married.”
“It’ll never last,” Daniel declared matter-of-factly.
Molly shrugged. She knew if she said anything after that Daniel would blaze down a highway-long rant about his brother-in-law. It was one of his favourite subjects. Instead, she just watched him. She didn’t mind that the wind was picking up, allowing a chill to stab at her exposed skin. She didn’t care that the stones were digging into her backside. She could almost ignore the deluge of rubbish that permanently decorated this part of the beach, and its accompanying stench. Molly was determined to enjoy this moment.
“Do you have to go?” she asked, almost too quietly to hear.
But he had had heard. “Yeah,” Daniel answered, turning to face her. “I’ve already put it off for a year. There’s no way I’m sticking around here any longer.” He dropped the few stones he had left, then ambled over to where she sat. “What about you?” He asked, landing beside her with a thud. “How long are you going to stay?”
She shrugged again. “Dad keeps getting ill,” she had said. “And there’s nothing at Uni that can’t be learned whilst working.”
The pair had sat like that for a few minutes, watching the tide lazily draw in. “Is that the real reason?” Daniel finally murmured.
Molly felt the breath catch in her throat.
“How long has it been, Moley?” Daniel went on. “Ten years? If she was really going to come back –”
“That’s not why I’m staying!” Molly barked. “I’m not like dad.”
Daniel fell silent again. He picked up a pebble and began turning it slowly between his fingers. “This guy asked me for my advice recently,” he said.
“Poor guy,” Molly responded.
“Shut up. He wants to tell someone something, but doesn’t know how to say it.”
“Doesn’t sound anything like you,” Molly said. “You say everything that pops into your head, whether or you should or you shouldn’t.”
“Did I say it was me?”
“It usually is when someone starts the sentence with ‘a friend of mine’.”
“He’s not a friend, he’s just someone I know.”
“All right,” Molly said, holding her hands up in mock-surrender. “What does this person you know want to say?”
“There’s someone he has feelings for,” Daniel had said, after a slight pause. “But he hasn’t felt like that before, and he doesn’t know how to let her know.”
“I see.” Molly remembered every detail of that moment. She could still hear the screech of a gull overhead; she could see the crisp packet flickering in the wind from the corner of her eye. The stones still dug into the flesh of her palm. Now that she thought back on it, everything that had happened afterwards did so because of that one brief conversation.
“What did you tell him to do?” she had asked.
“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted. “I’m not used to giving that sort of advice, am I?” He turned to look at her. “What would you tell him to do?”
“I’d tell him to go for it,” Molly had said, her heart thundering in her throat. “If he really feels that way, he should tell her.”
The pair had stared at one another for a long time at that point, neither one quite knowing what would happen next.
“You’re right,” Daniel eventually answered, his voice cracking slightly.
What might have happened had Daniel’s sister not turned up at that point had haunted Molly for years. But what did occur was barely even a blur these days. She remembered the blaring of the horn tore into the moment with animalistic ferocity, startling the young pair. The next thing she could recall was them both standing on the steps that led back to the road. Daniel had looked down at her, a sad look in his usually stoic eyes. “Don’t hang around forever,” he had said. “You can’t spend your life waiting.”
And then he was gone. Oh, sure, he had promised to come back. Every summer and Christmas, he had said. But, if he did, she had never seen him. He had stepped into that car, and out of her life.
Just like her mum, Daniel had come back. The only question was: Why?
As she sat in her car, staring out at that same beach, she considered that question. She also wondered why, of all the places in Chaffley, she had decided to return here. The idea of coming back to this derelict stretch of pebble-strewn coastline would cause Daniel to give off his most venomous sneer. The sheer sentimentality of it all would wound his pride. But, having read quite a lot of Daniel’s writing, Molly knew that coming back here was exactly the sort of thing he would do.
So, she sat and waited.
Back to say goodbye to his sister? That was a crock of shit if ever she heard it. He could say goodbye to her any time, any place. Hell, knowing Daniel, he’d be fine with just sending a text moments before stepping on the plane. So, why? She felt – no, she knew that if she could just work that out, the gulf that she felt between her and Daniel might finally shrink to something Molly could step across.
Her phone began buzzing in the passenger seat. It had been doing that on and off for hours now. Caterers, guests, Lucas, Nick, Pete, everyone wanting her to do something, or fix something. Swearing like a sailor, Molly snatched up the phone, almost ready to chuck it out the window. Then she saw the name.
She answered and held it to her ear.
“Hey, Moll, how are you, love?”
Well, she sounded sober, at least. “I’m fine,” Molly lied. “What do you want? It’s not like you to call twice in a month, let alone in a day.”
“I wanted to check in on you,” her mum said. “You sounded stressed this morning and, I’ll admit, I was a bit worse-for-wear when I last called.”
“You can say that again,” Molly said, smiling in spite of herself.
“But I’ve had a nap, so I’m feeling much better. Now, what’s wrong?”
“What makes you think anything’s wrong?”
“Call it a mother’s instinct.”
A whole litany of remarks sprang to Molly’s tongue in response. But, instead, she bit down on them and took a deep breath. If anything, she suddenly thought, this might be the perfect time to get some answers.
Instinctively, Molly placed a trembling hand on the wheel. “Mum,” she said, slowly, “why did you leave?”
There was nothing from the other end. She was still there; Molly could hear her ragged breaths. “I . . . I wasn’t expecting that!” her mum said, chuckling weakly. “Molly, you – you know why I left, surely? I couldn’t stay with your father; it wouldn’t have been right. I’m a lesbian, Moll!”
“Not him!” Molly snapped, her cheeks flushing and her eyes itching. “Me! Why – why did you leave me?”
Molly waited, gripping the wheel until her knuckles turned white. Finally, her mother spoke again. “I wasn’t happy, Molly. That’s the honest truth. Don’t get me wrong, I loved you – of course, I did! But not my life. Not what it was, because it wasn’t really me. So, I knew, I had to leave.
“I didn’t mean to stay away for so long, I really didn’t. But, your dad – no, that’s not fair. I felt that, if I did come back, then . . . I’d stay, and that wouldn’t have been . . .” There was a long, ragged sigh. Molly felt her own shuddering breath catch in the back of her throat.
“Sometimes, Moll,” her mum went on, “the easy thing to do isn’t the best thing. I put it off for too long – far, far too long, and for that any number of apologies won’t be enough. But, please, never believe that I didn’t think of you every single day.”
Molly scrubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand and bit down on her bottom lip.
“Uh-huh,” she eventually managed to grunt.
“I – I am sorry,” her mum croaked, probably doing the same in Cornwall as Molly in Chaffley.
“So . . . will you tell me what’s wrong?”
The young woman sighed and stared out the window. She watched the slate grey waves roll in and out. “It’s nothing,” she replied.
“I love you.”
She ended the call, then chucked the phone back onto the passenger seat. There was a lightness in Molly’s chest that she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. Perhaps she had never felt it, in fact. But she knew it wouldn’t last. Not if she made the wrong choice.
Every part of her life was temporary, she realised that now. Molly stared at the ring Lucas had given her not so long ago. She didn’t care about his affair because she knew, at some point, she was going to leave him anyway. She co-owned a business, yes, but one that was permanently teetering on the edge of failure, no matter how many schemes Lucas cooked up. Even this shitty little car, one that had been sitting in the corner of the showroom for years, was something she kept telling herself was only for now. Molly lived her life always ready to leave. So, why hadn’t she?
Because she was waiting. Waiting for Daniel. And he had come back. But he hadn’t said what she had always wanted him to say. The gulf had been bridged for just one moment, and both of them had backed away. Well, Molly refused to wait any longer.
The mobile buzzed yet again, trying to throw the shackles back onto her. Molly ignored it. The sky outside was darkening, and the streetlights were flickering into life. The gala should have started by now, she thought. She grasped the key and turned it.
There was a weak purr from the bonnet, then silence. Molly stared in disbelief. “No!” she exclaimed, wrenching the key back and forth. But still the car stayed silent.
“Maybe I should have invested in a more permanent car,” she declared aloud. She waited a moment, then twisted the key once more, hoping the sneak attack would startle the Mini back into life.
It did not.
Molly threw the door open and clambered out. Slamming it shut again, she stared up at the sky and swore so loudly a flock of seagulls rocketed into the sky with alarm. She glowered at the car, then up and down the street. If she went east then she’d be on the road out of town. If she went west, she’d be heading back to the town hall.
She hesitated, her head spinning from left to right. What was she thinking? She couldn’t walk out of Chaffley. And, even if she did, what then? She had no clothes, barely any money, and her phone was nearly dead. She looked back up the road. It would take twenty minutes to walk to the gala. Thirty if she really dawdled. She didn’t have to stop there, she thought. If she kept walking, she could get home, pack a bag, then call a taxi. She glanced at her watch. If she was quick, she might even be able to catch the last train.
With a resolute nod, Molly strode away from the car and back into the heart of Chaffley. After a few minutes the fire in her mind began to die down, and she realised that she’d left her phone in the car. She paused, then turned back. Perhaps she ought to go and get it. Of course, once she got it, she’d have to charge it up again. That would take a couple of hours, at least. She chewed on the inside of her cheek, anxiously. Maybe she shouldn’t leave tonight, she thought. She may not like Lucas all that much, but to leave him in the lurch like this? To leave the company like this? After all the effort she’d put into making it somewhat respectable?
Molly winced as she tasted the warm tang of blood in her mouth. What was she doing? Now she understood a little better how her mum must have felt that night. Going home would be so much easier.
A pair of lights suddenly appeared on the horizon, slowly drawing closer. A car, she thought. And then, as if she was reading it on the approaching headlights, an idea come to Molly’s mind. Slowly, she raised her hand. It won’t stop. It won’t. This isn’t the eighties. Who does this anymore?
But the car did stop. As it did so, its headlights shone out and enveloped Molly. She stared for a moment, watching the obscure shadow behind the windscreen, then looked behind her. A twenty-minute walk and she’d be back.
Molly stepped into the car.