The day started like any other. Ezra crept into their bed at his usual 5.30 in the morning, his little hands sneaking round Sara’s neck, his head nuzzled into her shoulder as he mumbled a sleepy ‘Are you awake, Mummy?’ She pretended she wasn’t, hoping he might settle and drift off to sleep for another couple of hours. He gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek. ‘I love you, Mummy,’ he said in a stage whisper. She opened her eyes and looked into his four-year-old face, his skin lit by the chink of light that slid across the room from the open doorway into the hall. ‘Love you too, little smudge.’ She kissed him on the nose and cuddled him to her for a moment before whispering, ‘Come on, let’s go downstairs, shall we?’ She knew from experience if she didn’t move now, Ezra’s voice would grow louder, the questions would start, and Matt would get cranky about being woken up so early. Matt was a night owl, rarely coming to bed before midnight, whereas Ezra was an early bird, and the two things added a new dimension to Sara’s marriage as she tried to juggle both of their needs. At least Sophia and Amelia – or Milly, as she preferred to be called – were old enough at fourteen to look after themselves in the mornings and help a bit around the house. As identical twins, they reflected a mirror image of each other, inheriting their father’s angular face, light brown hair and wide-set grey eyes. They’d always been a tight unit, two halves of a whole, making Sara feel a bit redundant as a mother at times because they relied on each other so much. Ezra, though, took after her in looks, with his wavy black hair and almond-shaped brown eyes. Unlike his sisters, Ezra was a cuddly child, a sensitive little soul, who loved spending time with her. He’d been a surprise baby, born when the girls were ten and they’d had no plans to expand their family.
Not a mistake, more of a bonus, a joyful addition to the clan. It had meant putting her own plans on hold for a while longer, but Matt had been ecstatic to finally have a son. ‘A boy to play football with, do all the rough-and-tumble stuff,’ he’d said. Which was ironic, given that the girls were both mad keen on football and played in the local team while Ezra, so far, seemed to hate anything physical. He liked to think and question and do crafty things and bake cakes and draw. Not exactly the son Matt had hoped for, whereas he possessed many of the qualities Sara had expected but not found in her daughters. She got out of bed and clasped Ezra’s hand in hers, putting her finger to her lips to make sure their exit was as quiet as possible. Funny how life turns out, she thought, a warm glow spreading through her at the thought of her family and their little peculiarities. They padded down the stairs and into the lounge, where Sara flicked on the lights and Ezra ran to the art box and opened the lid. ‘I’m going to draw you an elephant,’ he declared, while she stretched and yawned and wandered through the dining area into the open-plan kitchen.
The new layout downstairs was still a source of joy to her, inspired by a TV makeover series, and although it had cost an alarming amount of money and meant they’d had to extend their mortgage, it had made life so much easier. Three rooms had become one big L shape, where she could cook and keep an eye on Ezra and help the girls with their homework all at the same time. They’d even gone for bifold doors opening into the back garden, a luxury that Matt had persuaded her would add value to their Victorian end-ofterrace property should they ever decide to sell. After years of struggling with ill-fitting cupboard doors and drawers that kept coming off their sliders, even the simple act of watching the cutlery drawer close on its own made her smile. Simple pleasures, she thought, grinning to herself as she opened the new dishwasher to retrieve her favourite mug. Matt had bought her a coffee machine for her birthday, which had become her prized possession and something of a lifesaver with these early starts and the lack of sleep. She put in a pod, topped up the water and switched it on, breathing in the scent of freshly brewed coffee as it spluttered and gurgled into her mug. She was hoping Ezra would sleep a little later once he started school in September, but that was still months away, and in the meantime, she wondered if she should go and ask the doctor for something to help with her insomnia. Then she remembered her sister Hailey’s experience with sleeping pills, how she’d become addicted and struggled to get herself right again, and decided that the new yoga class at the community centre might be a better alternative. ‘Mummy, look!’ Ezra called as he came running up to her with a piece of paper flapping in his hand.
She took the drawing and gazed at the grey squiggles. ‘That’s lovely,’ she said, unable to remember what he’d said he was going to draw. It could be any number of things and he got offended if she didn’t know what his pictures were supposed to be. ‘Let’s put it on the fridge with the others, shall we?’ He jumped up and down, clapping his hands, excited to see his artistic efforts displayed. ‘Are you ready for breakfast?’ Sara asked, pulling a carton from the fridge and pouring milk into his Thomas the Tank Engine mug, the only one he’d drink from. He guzzled it down, licking the white moustache from his upper lip. ‘Not yet. I’ve got more drawing to do.’ And off he went, back to the art box. She watched him for a moment as he carefully chose the right colours for his next picture.
She picked up her coffee mug and cradled it to her chest, a to-do list for the day writing itself in her mind. So many things to remember with three kids, a husband and a house to manage. Especially now she’d started working part-time as well, something she’d been desperate to do, if only for a bit of adult interaction. But meeting everyone’s needs, including her own, was like herding cats, and she inevitably forgot things. She sipped her coffee, relishing the taste, the warmth of it in her throat. The best cup of the day. She watched Ezra, his tongue poking out as he worked away, and knew she wouldn’t change a thing; even if it was a bit chaotic and hard work, it was worth every minute. Matt and the kids were the centre of her world, and keeping them all happy was her job, her reason for being. After the shambles of her own upbringing, it was the focus of every decision she made, and she was determined that her children would have the stability she’d craved when she was growing up. I’m never going to turn into my mother, she promised herself.
However hard things get, we’ll make it work. Her childhood memories were something she refused to visit voluntarily. Instead they wormed their way into her brain at night, waking her in the form of nightmares, chilling her heart. She and her sister had a tacit agreement to never discuss it. It was the past; they’d got through it and it was best forgotten. That was the theory. But how did you forget being taken into care from the age of six? The first time, it was eight months before she was allowed to go back and live with her mum again and was reunited with Hailey. After that, it was a cycle that was repeated with a dreadful regularity until she was eighteen and was spat out of the care system. Life changed when she went to university, funded from a bursary for underprivileged children. A label she’d felt was tattooed on her forehead, making her a silent teenager, a wisp of a girl who slid in and out of rooms unnoticed, just keeping herself to herself and studying with a grim determination to make a better life.
She shuddered, shaking the thoughts from her mind, letting them fall away as she gazed around the beautiful room they had created, the wonderful home she and Matt had worked hard to afford. She had everything she’d ever wished for and never expected to achieve. Don’t ever take it for granted, she cautioned herself, aware that her tiredness had made her snappy recently. Her gaze settled on the studio portrait that hung on the dining-room wall. My family. Her heart swelled with love as her eyes moved from face to face. They were all that mattered, and she knew she’d do anything, anything at all, to keep them happy. CHAPTER TWO THREE WEEKS LATER ‘I’ll be late tonight,’ Matt said, as he grabbed his bag and took his car keys from the hook next to the back door. He was a snappy dresser when it came to work, one of those men who actually looked good in a suit, his brown hair kept short at the sides, combed back on top, his face clean-shaven, bucking the facial-hair trend. ‘What? Again?’ Sara couldn’t hide her desperation.
‘I’m supposed to be going to see that tribute band tonight with Hailey.’ Matt stopped and turned. ‘Christ, is that tonight?’ He looked surprised, even though she’d been talking about it only the night before, reading out the rave reviews, her excitement mounting. ‘Yes.’ She closed the door of the dishwasher more forcefully than usual and dried her hands on a tea towel. ‘It is tonight. I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks. You know I have.’ It wasn’t often she went out, and managing to coordinate a date with her sister, free from the distraction of children, had become as rare as hen’s teeth. Hailey worked for a charity that supported young people in crisis; they were short-staffed and her work hours were variable, as she had to be on call.
Recently, every time they’d tried to go out for an evening together, just the two of them, an emergency had flared up and Hailey had cancelled. But this time, she’d promised Sara she’d move heaven and earth to make sure they got to the gig. Now it was Sara who would have to cancel. Matt pulled an apologetic face. ‘It’s work, I’m afraid. I told you we lost that big contract and it’s all hands on deck to try and pull more work in.’ He glanced towards the door, keys jingling in his hand. ‘I know I’m working stupid hours, but I’ve got no choice.’ ‘Oh Matt, we’ve had this organised for months.’ Her words clogged in her throat and she looked at the floor while she tried to wrestle a surge of emotion under control.
‘You know that. And I told you—’ The door slammed shut. She looked up and hurled the balled-up tea towel at the space where her husband had been standing, snarling with frustration. Yet again, her plans had to make way for his. For the last few months he’d been working late most weekdays, except for Thursdays, when he went to football training with the girls after work, an activity he magically managed to make time for. Then there was the obligatory Saturday out with the lads, going to the match and then on somewhere after. No question. No interruptions to his plans. She took a deep breath, reminded herself they relied on his income to pay the bills and it wasn’t his fault if he had to work long hours. But still… She’d been really looking forward to a few hours of proper relaxation, a time to kick back, be herself and forget for just a little while that she was a mother and a wife, not to mention administrator at the busy community centre.
With an exasperated sigh, she slipped her phone out of her back pocket and dialled her sister to tell her there’d been a change of plan, leaning on the worktop while it rang. ‘Hiya!’ Hailey sounded cheery and upbeat this morning, which made Sara cringe. She hated cancelling plans. ‘How’s things?’ ‘Oh… you know.’ It wasn’t possible to explain in a sentence how things really were. That would take a few hours and probably a bottle of wine for Dutch courage if she was going to be completely honest. ‘Fine, everything’s fine.’ From the despondent tone of her voice, this was obviously a long way from the truth. ‘Well, you don’t sound fine. You sound like someone’s stolen your secret chocolate stash.
’ Hailey laughed. Sara burst into tears. ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ Hailey said, suddenly concerned. Sara sniffed, unable to speak for a moment, and when she finally found her voice, it sounded thin and weedy, not like her at all. ‘I’m going to have to cancel tonight.’ ‘Oh no! I’ve been looking forward to seeing Fake That for ages!’ ‘Matt’s got to work late.’ Hailey cursed under her breath, then said, ‘It’s your day off, isn’t it? Are you at home? I’m in town, not far away, and I’m kicking my heels for half an hour or so, waiting for social services to get their shit together. Shall I come round?’ Sara tried to swallow the lump in her throat, but couldn’t seem to manage it, her silence enough of an answer for her sister. ‘I’ll be there in ten,’ Hailey said, before she rang off