Chapter 1: Chapter One
Anna Rendell woke up on the morning of her twenty-fifth birthday and realised she’d never lived a day in her life.
Not lived , anyway. Not lived as people should live.
She sat up and looked around her bedroom. It was her bedroom, because it had her bed in it, where she slept; it led into the dressing room where her clothes were stored; it was the only room where she could close the doors and reasonably expect that if someone wanted to come in, they would at least knock, even if they didn’t wait for an answer.
But as she looked around, she realised she hated it. It didn’t look like a room someone actually lived in. It looked like a hotel room, in some kind of expensive boutique hotel with a pretension to minimalism. The walls were white, the bedclothes were white, the furniture - what there was - was white. There were no pictures, no ornaments. Everything she owned was hidden behind a white door, and if she left anything out, it would be promptly put away by one of the changing cast of staff that were constantly waiting, just out of sight, to make sure no one ever left a single stamp of living on this empty house.
The house was not entirely empty. There was one other person - Anna’s older sister, Elsa. When their parents had died, when Elsa was eighteen and Anna only fifteen, Elsa had been left as her sister’s guardian, and had taken the job very seriously indeed.
She had overseen Anna’s education, and made sure it was a good one, made sure that Anna worked hard. She’d brought her back here, to their parents’ house, and she’d made sure that she met the right people and did the right things. And nothing else. Anna didn’t know what use that education had been, when she’d never worked a day in her life - never needed to, never been permitted to. All she did was go to the gym, and take tea with her friends - none of whom she liked, or who liked her - and do charity work, which meant sitting in dull meetings where no one ever made a decision, or attend lunches and balls where she had to constantly watch herself and her behaviour.
Everyone thought she was rich. But despite the house, the car, the credit card, the charity donations - she didn’t have a single penny she could call her own and actually spend as she wished. Her parents, in their wisdom, had locked their money up tight in a trust. Elsa could use it for herself and for Anna’s expenses. But Anna would only be able to take her share once she married, or once she turned thirty, whichever came first.
The credit card bill went to Elsa. And Elsa only approved of a handful of shops. She didn’t agree with travelling (and oh, how Anna longed to jump onto a plane, or a boat, or a train going further than the city). She had Ideas about what Anna should wear, and if she didn’t like something Anna had bought, she’d have someone return it. Elsa herself only wore white, or very pale pastels, and she thought that Anna should do the same; and never, never pink or red, not with Anna’s auburn hair.
And today was her birthday. She didn’t think Elsa would plan anything, as such. Doubtless there was an extremely tasteful gift wrapped perfectly in white paper, somewhere in the house. Tasteful to Elsa and her associates, anyway - Anna was quite sure it wouldn’t be to her taste. What she’d really love was something bright, and colourful, and completely useless - a painting for her wall, a rug for her floor, a scarf or maybe a completely impractical necklace. She’d seen a woman in town, once, wearing a necklace made of huge beads in bright primary colours, and almost gasped out loud. Imagine owning something like that, and being able to keep it, and wear it and look at it whenever you wanted.
When she was thirty. Anna had a lot of plans for when she was thirty. So many, in fact, that it wouldn’t be possible to do them all - but that didn’t matter. She would do some of them.
Or perhaps she would get married first. That would also give her the freedom she wanted, though perhaps not the independence; and the older she got, the less likely it seemed that it would happen. Elsa would only steer Anna towards young men she thought were suitable, and they were all as bland and colourless as everything else in her life. Better to wait here in limbo for another five years than shackle herself to one of them .
Quietly - there was nothing to make noise, there was no one to make noise with - Anna rose, and got ready. She opened the doors of her dressing room and looked at the line of dresses hanging neatly, in colour order, though none of them were what she would call colourful. Well, today she didn’t even feel like the pale blue or the mint green or lemon yellow - she took down a white sundress, and a white cardigan to match. She wasn’t good at wearing white, it was true, but someone else always seemed able to get the stains out; and white was the colour that got the most approving looks from her sister. And it might as well be white. If she couldn’t wear what she wanted, white would do.
She put up her hair in a low chignon, and she put in her silver earring studs and strapped her thin silver watch round her wrist. That much jewellery was acceptable. Then she went downstairs to breakfast.
Elsa was already at the table; normally she would have chided her sister gently for being late (it was almost three minutes past eight), but as it was her birthday, she seemed to be allowing Anna a little licence. “Happy birthday,” was all she said, and handed over the gift and a white envelope. Anna thanked her and put them to one side; she couldn’t open them at the table. Elsa nodded and returned to her breakfast. They ate in silence.
It wasn’t until they were both finished, and the plates had been spirited away, that Elsa spoke again. “Do you have any plans for today, Anna?”
“Oh. Yes. I’m having lunch with Donna and Portia.” Donna and Portia were not particularly nice or interesting women, but they’d invited themselves to have lunch with Anna on her birthday, so she supposed she would. Oh, no, wait - was Elsa asking because she’d planned something? For a moment’s Anna’s spirits soared. “Why do you ask?”
“Stephanie asked me to tell you that the doctor’s office rang. They wanted to reschedule your annual check-up to today, it’s now at 3pm. I’m sure you’ll be done with lunch by then.”
Stephanie was Elsa’s personal assistant. Anna stared at her sister, open-mouthed. “But it’s my birthday,” she said. Goodness, she couldn’t think of anything worse than having the lengthy annual check-up on her birthday, with all the poking and prodding - internal and external - and blood tests and goodness knew what, they always managed to think of something new.
Elsa looked at her, the barest hint of puzzlement showing on her face. “You just said you had time.”
“I mean - I guess -”
“Then there’s no problem.”
Elsa stood, picking up her coffee cup. “Have a nice lunch,” she said. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
“See you at dinner,” Anna said, quietly.
Should she move the appointment again? She probably could. Stephanie would raise an eyebrow, but she’d make the call. Or Anna could ring herself, of course. But Elsa….it was probably easiest just to do it. Get it over with. Anna would time how long it took and allow herself a window of Birthday Time tomorrow.
Anna had nothing to do that morning. She read a little, and she walked in the garden, and she thought about going shopping but there wasn’t anything she wanted, or at least nothing she wanted that she would be allowed to have. So after a while she walked all the way up through the empty bare house and into the attic. If she walked carefully round the old pieces of furniture still stored up here - nice furniture, warm wood with carved designs, mirrors with golden curving frames, chairs with little curly feet and rich red velvet cushions - she could reach the window at the end. Anna pulled over one of the chairs (brushing it down first so that she wouldn’t cover her white dress in dust), and sat looking out. From here, you could see right over the garden and the fence, right over the other houses and out to the woods on the horizon. The trees were green and resplendent in the late spring. Anna put her chin in her hands and imagined them swaying slightly in the breeze. She’d walked in those woods, more than ten years ago, when her parents had been alive and everything had been different. She wondered if the bluebells were out.
Anna fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her phone. She didn’t have her headphones, but no one would hear her all the way up here, if she turned the volume low. She needed a little - just a little - John Foster to help her through today. He had definitely recorded a song about bluebells - or that always made Anna think of the bluebells, shimmering like the sea under the branches of the trees in the wood. She set it playing, tinny through the phone speakers, and closed her eyes. The sun through the window was instead being filtered through the leaves of the trees. She couldn’t smell dust, but the rich earth, teeming with green things pushing their way to the light. Maybe she wouldn’t travel, when she had her freedom; maybe she’d just go up to the woods and lie down in a clearing until her soul was clean. However much time that took.
Oh, no, speaking of time, she was going to be late for her lunch - the boring lunch she didn’t want to have, but was apparently all her birthday would be, so she’d better go and try and enjoy it. What else was there to do?
Despite the sun, the town centre was cold between the buildings. Anna’s toes froze in her white sandals (what a silly, impractical colour for a shoe - but they went with the dress) as she walked towards the restaurant. She hadn’t chosen it, Portia had - and Anna knew why, it was because she knew Anna would pick up the bill. And what did that matter? She didn’t actually have to pay it, but she still resented it, somewhere deep down. It was Anna’s birthday and maybe she’d rather eat somewhere different. Maybe she’d rather go to somewhere where you were served a decent plateful of food, food you could recognise, rather than a set of coloured blobs and smears that meant you were still hungry even as you left the place.
Her friends - she didn’t have any others, so Anna supposed that after all she’d rather claim them as such than not - were already there, and soon they were settled at their table, with glasses of wine and plates of what was probably meant to be food. Portia was talking about her dog, as usual. Anna knew that she did genuinely love the dog, but she wished Portia could talk about something else for just two minutes.
“I wish I could have a dog,” she said, when Portia paused for breath. “But Elsa’s allergic.”
“I can’t imagine Elsa with a pet,” Donna said.
“Elsa would have a cat, with long white hair,” Portia said, “And a diamond collar.”
“No, she’d just have tropical fish,” Donna said. Anna bit the inside of her lip. Why did everything always end up being about Elsa?
At half-two Anna made her excuses, paid the bill, and went out into the square. She’d meant to call a cab, but it was a nice day after all - perhaps she’d walk, it wasn’t far to the doctor’s office.
As she was leaving the square she heard someone call her name, and turned.
“Anna, please! Call me Lillian.”
“Oh, I can’t call a teacher by her first name.”
“I haven’t been your teacher in a long time. It’s Lillian. How are you, dear?”
“Oh, I’m very well, thank you! How are you?”
“I’m wonderful, dear. Just moved back to town to help them out with the bats. Have you heard about the bats? Down in Bennett’s Field?”
“They’re going to build on Bennett’s Field, houses, and of course people have got to live somewhere, but there’s a rare species of bat in the woods right there. The locals have been trying for years to get it recognised as an SSSI - Site of Special Scientific Interest, you know - so they won’t be able to build. But they can’t get there to get the evidence. So,” Lillian’s eyes glinted, “We’re setting up a camp on the field. Just until we can get this sorted out. Once they start building it’ll be too late.”
“Isn’t that - illegal?”
“Oh, not very. Hardly illegal at all. Not the kind of illegal that matters , anyway. What are you up to these days? Want to join us?”
“Oh, no!” Anna said automatically. “I couldn’t - I have to go to a doctor’s appointment -”
Lillian laughed. “I didn’t mean right now! But, the more the merrier. Do you good to get out of the house. And there’s a whole group of us.”
A young man had come out of the Co-op behind her and was waiting, holding a couple of bags. “Recruiting, Lil?” he said.
“Just another ex-student,” Lillian said cheerfully. “I need you all down there so I can boss you about, like old times.”
Now Anna recognised the man. He’d been at school with her, though a couple of years above. Gosh, he’d got tall. And broad, too, in the shoulders.
The man - Kris, she was fairly sure his name was Kris - was looking her up and down. “I wouldn’t bother with this one, Lil,” he said. “She doesn’t look the type. I’ll be in the camper,” and he walked off and down the street.
“Don’t mind Kristoff,” Lillian said. “He’s probably just talking about your lovely shoes, which are so pretty but not really right for the forest. No, you know where we are, Bennett’s Field, in the corner closest to the trees. Bring a tent and a sleeping bag, it’s just like Guide camp. We’d be glad to have you. Bring your friends,” and she walked off, waving. Anna waved back, and stood for a minute.
Then she shook herself. Doctor. She had to go to the doctor. Hopefully the appointment wouldn’t last too long.
The check-up started as it always did. Some samples taken, then questions while the samples were processed somewhere else. Then Anna was checked over, and results came back and the doctor looked at them. And then usually they would be done, but this time the doctor frowned at her computer, and tapped her fingers on the desk. Then she said “Excuse me,” and made a telephone call; then she repeated a few of the tests she’d done before.
Then the doctor said brightly that they had a new scanner, just a few months old, and Anna would need to come into the other room to be scanned. Just one last thing to check, it wouldn’t take long. This way, please.
And now Anna was dressed, and sitting back in the doctor’s office, and barely an hour had passed. But there are those moments that forever split your life into Before and After; the only one she’d known up until now was when the police officers had knocked on the door to tell her and Elsa that their parents had died. But now, this.
It was her heart. The doctor had shown her some lines on a graph, and spoken in a kind and soothing voice. Really, Anna was very fortunate it hadn’t given her any trouble up until now, and without the new scanner they might never have known. Any sudden, severe shock might cause fatal heart failure. And her heart would fail, most likely, within the year. Certainly within eighteen months.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Rendell,” the doctor finished. “I know it’s a lot to take in.”
“Yes,” Anna managed, drawing a shaky breath.
“Now, if you would like, I can refer you to my colleague in the city,” the doctor said. “There are more tests they can run and it’s possible they may be able to do something.”
“What sort of tests?”
“Well, I’m not sure. More scans, I expect, probably investigative surgery. Would you like me to do the referral?”
Anna shook her head. She couldn’t think. A year! A few months more, if she was lucky.
“Perhaps,” the doctor said, in a kinder voice, “You would like to come back in a few days and we’ll talk about it some more.”
“Yes,” Anna said, seizing on that. “Yes, I think so.”
“Now, you don’t need to do anything in particular. Just try to take things calmly. No big shocks. I’ll give you a list of symptoms to watch out for and when to go to the hospital. And I’ll put this all in writing for you, I know these things are hard to take in. We’ll talk again in a couple of days. Miss Rendell?”
“Yes,” Anna said. “Yes, I’ll - go. Thank you.”
Anna was halfway home before she remembered that she could have called a cab. Should have done. After all, she was dying. A laugh escaped her before she could stop it. She’d never lived, and now she was dying.
A loud exhaust coming towards her made her look up. An ancient VW campervan, bright orange, trundled along the road past her, the driver leaning one arm out of the window; it was Kristoff, tapping his hands on the door to the radio, listening with a half-smile on his face as Lillian in the passenger seat talked to him. The air through the open window blew his hair into his eyes and he pushed it out of the way. For a moment his eyes met Anna’s, then the campervan was gone, putt-putting its way down the road towards the woods.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
No one noticed when Anna got home, and no one noticed that she didn’t eat any dinner. She went up to her bare, sterile room and she lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling. If anyone came in they would only see my head and my hair, she thought, all in white as I am, on these white sheets. She looked down at herself and pulled her hands up into her sleeves. If I were to die right now then they would just have to carry me out, straighten the counterpane, and everything in the world would keep going the same as it always has. They’d have to tell Elsa, of course, otherwise she might not realise I wasn’t here any more.
A year. One more summer, one more autumn, one more winter, then maybe a slice of spring. And that was all.
She wondered what would happen when she told Elsa.
She’d drag her back to the doctor, that’s what would happen. She’d ask a thousand questions, and she’d insist on that referral, and they’d go to the city; and there would be so many doctors, and so many more white rooms like this one. Anna would be poked and prodded and half her blood would be run through machines; and they’d cut her open and poke around in there as well, and post her into MRI machines and goodness knew what. A year to live, and that’s how she’d spend it.
Maybe...maybe she didn’t have to tell Elsa straight away.
Maybe she didn’t have to tell her at all.
Anna slept very little that night. By the time the sun finally rose, the sunrise filling the white room with some colour for once, she’d made up her mind. On the stroke of 9am, she rang the doctor’s office, and said she’d like to cancel her appointment for next week, please. No, she didn’t want to reschedule. Yes, she’d call back if she changed her mind. Thank you.
And then she went out. It seemed like a good day to buy a red dress.
The dress was perfect. It was a rich, deep, cranberry red; it was fitted at the top with a skirt that swirled beautifully; it showed a little more cleavage than Anna was used to, but still fairly respectable - other people she knew showed a lot more, certainly. None of her shoes went with it, of course. It needed sparkly shoes. Fortunately, the shop sold those too, and a matching necklace.
Anna’s daring didn’t quite extend to wearing the dress at home. She quailed a little at Elsa seeing it, and wasn’t sure she wouldn’t end up changing, and then when she got home the dress - and shoes, and necklace - would have disappeared. But she had a charity tea this afternoon, and her outfit was perfectly appropriate. Elsa wouldn’t be there, and no one else would think anything of it.
She changed quickly in the Ladies in the reception of the hotel, and on a whim, brushed her hair down too. Her hair waved naturally, and usually had to be pulled back to keep it neat - but today she didn’t feel like looking neat. She pinned a little of it back from her face and peered at herself in the mirror. She hadn’t brought any make-up, and her freckles were showing something awful - but nothing she could do about it now.
The tea was taking place in the main ballroom. Anna gave her ticket to the staff member at the door, took a deep breath, and went in.
She did get a few odd glances. She suspected a few acquaintances didn’t recognise her immediately. Anna took a drink and said a few hellos, then she stood to one side and looked around.
It suddenly struck her how pointless this all was. No one wants to be here, she thought. They’d all rather be at home or on the golf course or conducting their tedious extra-marital affairs, but it’s for charity so here they are. Imagine how much better the charity would do if they all just donated the same amount but no one had to book the room or buy the drink or arrange for the tiny food. Anna snagged what she suspected was some kind of deconstructed cucumber sandwich from a tray. It was actually quite good. If this is an afternoon tea, though, surely there should be cake?
She took another miniscule sandwich and wandered over to the staff member who seemed to be overseeing the waiting staff. “Excuse me,” she asked him, “Is there any cake?”
“Mm. It’s not a criticism, I was just wondering. These are very good, by the way.”
“Thank you. There will be a selection of fancy cakes and meringues served after the speech from the charity representative.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you.” Anna paused. Did she want to listen to a speech? Was that really how she wanted to spend her hours on Earth, that were apparently very precious?
“D’you think I could get a cake to go?” she said. “I have to leave now. Medical reasons.”
The man hesitated, then he shrugged and disappeared towards the kitchen. Anna surveyed the room again - there was no one here she actually, actively wanted to talk to - and thought about what she could do instead. She could go anywhere. The thought was thrilling but also a little terrifying.
She remembered meeting Mrs Davies yesterday. Mrs Davies - Lillian - had been her Science teacher, back when she had gone to the local secondary school (her father hadn’t really approved of private education, he thought it gave the wrong mindset. Her sister did approve of it, or maybe she just approved of paying money to make Anna someone else’s problem, so she’d done her A-levels at a boarding school where she’d known no one and no one wanted to be friends with the girl who cried all the time). Mrs Davies - Lillian - had been an excellent teacher, friendly and enthusiastic and full of a passion for Science and nature. Anna was not at all surprised to find her spending her retirement engaging in a little light environmental protest. She’d also been Anna’s Girl Guide leader, and taken her camping a couple of times when she was twelve or thirteen. Oh, she’d love to see her again, and have a proper chat.
She knew exactly where Bennett’s Field was. She remembered, when she was a little girl, walking down there with her father. The footpath ran down the side of the field, and then skirted the edge of the woods. You had to stay on the footpath as far as the old oak tree, because the land on either side belonged to someone else, but the corner of the field and a small patch of the woods belonged to her father.
The memory stopped her short. Yes. It belonged to him. At some point when the farmland had been chopped up and parts of it sold, a small amount of the field and a corner of the woods had been bundled in with some other land her father had bought to develop. She thought so, anyway. She couldn’t see how it would have been sold, unless the developers of the field had bought it - there was no reason anyone would have told Anna about that.
She ducked out of the room and leant against the corridor wall. Imagine if it was still theirs - she would gladly, happily let the protestors stay on their corner of the field, make whatever observations they needed to in their corner of the woods. How did she find out?
Anna knew where her lawyer’s office was. She’d heard her parents’ wills being read there, and she’d been there on a handful of other occasions since she came of age, to sign odd documents and make her own will at Elsa’s insistence. It was only four’o’clock. She ran down outside and found a taxi.
Mr Owens was very obliging, and agreed to see her, despite the short notice. Anna suspected he might have some sympathies with the bats; very soon the pair of them were looking at the map, and Anna was thrilled to see that she was correct.
“I think someone used to live there, many years ago,” Mr Owens said. “Although there’s no building there now, and you’d never get planning permission - the only access is along the public footpath, no utilities. So it’s not worth anything.”
“I don’t want to live there,” Anna said, though she did, a little. “But I could camp there if I wanted, couldn’t I?”
“Yes, of course.”
“With some friends, maybe.”
“If you liked. Of course, if the wood does become a Site of Special Scientific Interest, that would affect you, too.”
“That would be alright.” Anna traced the outline of the little patch of land on the map. “And if they build on the rest of the field?”
“Then they might give you access, but maybe not. They tried to buy this land, as you know,” he said.
“I didn’t, no.”
“Your sister didn’t tell you? They weren’t willing to pay what she was asking. To be quite honest, I advised her to take whatever she could get, they were the only people who might have given you anything for it. Like I said, it’s worthless.”
“Unless you’re a bat,” Anna said absently. Had Elsa been being greedy, or had she just not wanted to sell?
“Well, I suppose that’s true.”
“Can I have a copy of this map, please?”
“You can take that one, if you like. Was there anything else?”
“No, that was all. Thank you so much for seeing me.”
“No problem at all, Miss Rendell. I’m glad I could help.”
“I might go away for a few days,” Anna announced over breakfast the next morning.
Elsa looked up from her paper. “Really?” she said.
“To where? With whom?”
“Um, you know I used to be in Guides? My old Guide leader invited me to go camping with her and some friends.” Anna buttered her toast without looking up. “I’ll have to get some camping things but there’s that shop on the retail park, isn’t there? I’ll run over there this morning.”
“Camping?” Elsa looked horrified. “Why would you want to do that?”
Anna shrugged. “Felt like it. You won’t even notice I’m gone.”
Elsa pulled a face. “I don’t think you’ll enjoy that at all, Anna. Camping! In a tent?”
“If I remember right, that’s how it goes.” Anna looked up. “If I don’t like it, I’ll come back. It’s not far.”
“How long for?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have my phone.”
“And where will you charge it?”
“I’ll get a solar charger.”
“And where exactly are you going?”
“Um. Bennett’s Field.”
Elsa dropped her paper. “Not that - Anna! You know they’re squatting illegally. That’s not camping, it’s a protest. What will you do if the police get involved?”
“Mm. But, if they moved over a bit to the north - and I was there - it wouldn’t be illegal, as such, would it.”
Elsa was quiet for a while, watching her sister’s face. Then she said, “I didn’t know you knew about that land.”
“Dad told me. A long time ago.”
“You don’t have to actually stay with them. You could just give them permission, if that’s what you want. And stay here.”
“I think I’d like to go, thanks.”
Elsa looked at her again, for a long moment, then she picked up her newspaper. “As you wish.”
Anna took a big bite of her toast. That had been easier than she expected.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
It was warm for April. The sun shone through the trees, making patches of light and shade and falling in thick beams between the branches. All around Anna was green, an almost alarmingly bright green of new shoots and buds of leaves. There were tiny wildflowers in the grass, pink and purple and blue and yellow. And from every direction there was birdsong.
The footpath was longer than she remembered. Anna moved the tent from arm to arm but it was too heavy with her rucksack as well; in the end she put the tent at the side of the path and hid it a little behind the bottom of a bush. She’d have to come back for it. The day was dry so it didn’t matter.
It was mid-afternoon by now. It had taken a little while at the outdoors shop to make sure she had everything she needed, but not more than she could carry (although that hadn’t worked out completely successfully). And she’d had to go next door into a clothes shop to buy some sensible shoes, and some sensible clothes, for that matter. And then home again to pack a few personal items. And now, finally, she’d had a taxi drop her off on the road at the end of the footpath - it seemed silly to bring the car when she didn’t know how long she’d be leaving it for - and was almost at the camp.
Anna slowed a little when she reached the stile into the field. From here she could see the little clusters of tents. It was true Lillian had invited her, but did she actually expect her to come? How would everyone react when she told them all to move over to the corner of the field? Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they’d laugh at her and send her away.
She thought about what expression Elsa would have on her face, if Anna came back home without even staying away one night.
That was more than enough to drive her on, over the stile and into the field.
There were five tents, all pitched in a rough circle around a central area that had a cooking fire in it. A few people were sitting around on camping chairs or log stumps. Anna walked slowly over. Her new shoes were rubbing already.
“Hi,” she said, looking around. She saw Lillian over to one side and smiled at her. “I think I can help you.”
That wasn’t Lilian, it was a male voice, behind her. Anna turned and saw Kristoff standing there, frowning. “We’re managing, thank you,” he said, and turned away again.
“Wouldn’t you be managing a bit better if you had permission from the landowner to be here?” Anna asked.
He was frowning even more now. Anna dropped her rucksack and crouched next to it to unzip a side pocket and pull out the map Mr Owens had given her.
“Not here, exactly,” she said.
“Oh, well -”
“Just over there.” She waved the map at him and pointed. Lillian came over.
“Anna, hello! So glad you’re here, so good to see you,” and she hugged her.
“And you,” Anna said. “Look at this.”
She showed them both - and a couple of the other campers, who joined them - her map. Lillian was excited and pulled Anna over to pace out the boundary of her land. “We won’t have to move far,” she called to the others. “And we’ll have plenty of room to put up the equipment. Anna, this is incredible, thank you!”
“The point is to be occupying the field,” one of the other women said doubtfully.
“Well, if we see anyone coming with bulldozers, we’ll still be well placed to lie down in front of them.” Lillian was almost bouncing up and down on her heels. “Right, everyone, our friend Anna has invited us to camp on her field, let’s get everything over there before dark.”
“We’ll have to move all the recorders,” Kristoff said, “But we won’t manage it before dusk. They’ll have to live dangerously for another night.”
“You play the recorder?” Anna said.
Kristoff gave her a look that was just a shade short of rolling his eyes. “For the bats. They hang in the trees. But the bats are most active at dusk and we don’t want to miss a day of observations.”
“He plays the guitar,” a young woman said. “He’s really good. I’m Rebecca, by the way. Where’s your tent? Or do you need to share with someone?”
“It’s back along the lane,” Anna said, “I didn’t have enough hands. I’ll go and get it.”
Anna left her bag as out of the way as she could, and scurried back to where she had left her tent. It was a bit covered in grass but fine; she hugged it to her chest as she walked back to the others. People were already moving belongings and arguing about the best way to move tents; Lillian was holding Anna’s map and calling to people and pointing. Anna had to throw the tent over the stile then climb over herself, but before she could pick it up, Kristoff had appeared, and was taking it and carrying it away.
“Hey!” She chased after him. “I can manage.”
He looked slightly abashed. “Sorry. You said it was heavy.”
“I said I didn’t have enough hands, with my bag and everything as well. I can manage. And I know how to put it up, thank you, before you ask.” She held out her arms and he hesitated, then pushed the tent at her. She took it and started walking back over to the camp; he walked along with her.
“I’m sorry I made everyone move,” Anna said, to fill the silence.
“It’s fine. We would have had to move the tents in a day or two anyway. To save the grass.”
Anna shifted the tent to her other arm. “What happens with food? I mean, do we all eat together?”
“Yes, Lillian has a kitty, she’ll tell you what to put in. Are you vegetarian?”
“Well, you are now.”
“That’s fine.” They were in Anna’s corner of the field; she looked around, and put down the tent in a likely-looking place. “Thank you.”
“Well, I’d better go and move my stuff.”
“You had, yes.” Anna crouched down and pulled the tent bag open. “See you later.”
He nodded, hesitated, then left.
Anna slid the tent out of the bags and spread out the pieces. It had been a few years since she’d put one up, but she could remember the basics - peg out the ground sheet with the inner on it. Then poles. Then the fly sheet. This was only a small tent, and it looked quite simple. Oh, rats, she didn’t have a mallet.
Fortunately, the woman setting up her tent next to her did. Sue was another retired teacher, though not from Anna’s old school, and Anna was able to copy her tent-building and manage very well.
“I see you’ve already got a follower,” Sue said cheerfully, waving the mallet at Kristoff. He was setting up his tent on the opposite side of the circle and Anna felt like she caught his eye every time she looked up.
“Oh, goodness,” Anna said, flushing a little. “He was just helping.”
“Pretty young thing like you, bound to happen. Let me know if he bothers you, though,” she said, her tone changing. “Can soon send him packing.”
“No, it’s fine,” Anna said. Sue raised her eyebrows.
“I mean - I only just met him,” Anna added quickly. “I’m sure he’s fine. Does he work for the conservation group, or something?”
“Oh, no, that’s all Lil - I think he’s a neighbour of hers. Loves the countryside, nature, all of that. Not sure what he does for a living but he’s been hanging around in this field for a week so it can’t be very high-powered. Nice lad. Very earnest.”
“He went to my school, I think,” Anna said.
She stood back and looked at her tent. It was only very slightly wonky, and it was definitely up. “I’d better find my bag,” she said, just as Kristoff walked by, dropping it at her feet. He didn’t say a word, just kept walking. Sue snorted.
Dinner was vegetable curry, with naan cooked on metal sheets over the fire. Then hot drinks were made, and everyone sat around in a circle, relaxing and chatting. Anna kept wanting to pinch herself. She was maybe five miles from her home, but she felt so far away. She stared dreamily into the flames and wished she’d brought some marshmallows.
“We need some music,” someone said.
“Yes, music!” someone else agreed.
“Come on, Kristoff,” Rebecca said on Anna’s left. “Get your guitar.”
Anna expected him to refuse, but instead Kristoff stood, walked away for a moment and returned with guitar in hand. He sat and tuned it, and played a few chords. Anna gasped. He gave her a quizzical look.
“Thistle Harvest,” she said. “I love that song! John Foster, he’s my favourite singer.”
Kristoff pulled a face. “If it was, it’s a coincidence.”
“He doesn’t play John Foster,” Rebecca said. “He has this weird dislike of him. Ask him to play something else before he starts ranting about ‘twee pap for the masses’ and so forth.”
“It was exactly the same,” Anna insisted.
“Coincidence,” Kristoff said again, firmly, and started playing Scarborough Fair.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
By the time Anna was tucked up in her sleeping bag in her little tent, she was exhausted - from the fresh air, and the exercise, but mainly from the new-ness of everything. She’d met so many people, and done so many things she hadn’t done since, well, Guide camp - cooking over a fire and eating outdoors, putting up tents and brushing her teeth with a mugful of water.
Outside all was finally quiet. All she could hear was a far-off sound that was probably an owl, and the wind in the tree branches. It was so still, she was just going to lie here for a minute and enjoy it.
Birds. Why were all the birds singing? And why was it so bright? She’d only closed her eyes for ONE MINUTE.
Anna rummaged under the folded up clothes she was using as a pillow and found her phone. The screen said it was just after 6am. The sun was fully up - with just a couple of layers of fabric between her and the outside world, there was no doubt there - and every bird in the world was apparently very happy about it.
Quiet footsteps went past the front of the tent. Someone else was awake. Anna scrunched up her eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but it didn’t work when all of her senses were being assaulted by the spring morning, so after a few minutes she wriggled out of her sleeping bag and unzipped the tent door.
Lillian was hanging a battered kettle over the fire and lining up some mugs. She smiled when she saw Anna, and put her hands into a T shape. Anna nodded.
“Another early riser,” Lillian whispered, once Anna had pulled on some clothes and got a bit closer. “I love to see it. We usually start the day with a bit of yoga to greet the sun, but I can’t do anything without a nice cup of tea first.”
“I’m not usually an early riser,” Anna said, “But it’s harder to sleep in out here. Who’s ‘we’?”
“For the yoga? Oh, me, Sue, you can join us if you like. Kristoff’s up but he won’t.”
Anna looked around but she couldn’t see him. “He’s feeding his puss-cat,” Lillian said. “Here we go, tea’s up.”
Anna took the tea gratefully. Her head still felt it was too early, although Nature (and Lillian) clearly did not. Feeding his puss-cat? Was that some kind of euphemism? Well, she wasn’t going to ask.
“I haven’t done yoga in years,” she said. “But I’m game, why not.” After all, this was about saying Yes, wasn’t it? About trying things. Being open to things.
The yoga Anna had done before had been, she now realised, fairly serious and intense. She’d been talked into it by a friend and felt obliged to stick with it through the whole course even though being upside down gave her headaches and every other part of her ached, too, after each session. Lillian and Sue did yoga differently - gently, and gracefully, and Anna found she could follow them perfectly well. And maybe it was a nice way to start the day.
Kristoff came walking along the path just as Anna was collapsing from the last pose. She lay on her sleeping mat - pulled out of her tent to double as a yoga mat - and looked up at the blue, blue sky. Maybe the nicest thing about starting your day with exercise was that then it was done and you didn’t have to do any more.
“Anna,” Kristoff said as she pulled herself to her feet, “You’re saluting the sun.”
“Didn’t think I was the type?” Anna said, rolling up her mat and posting it through the door of her tent.
Kristoff looked at his feet, then back up. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge just based on what you were wearing. It wasn’t fair of me.”
Anna remembered Sue describing Kristoff as ‘earnest’. She could see why. And she liked it; not just the apology, but the way he offered it. “You’re forgiven,” she said. “It was my birthday, actually, and I was having lunch with some friends.”
“I hope you had a nice time.”
Anna shrugged. “I prefer it here. Does that sound weird?”
“No, I get it.”
Lillian walked past them. “I hope you’re all wearing suncream,” she said. “Melanomas are no joke! And a sunburn will ruin your day.”
“Yes, Mrs Davies,” Kristoff said, and Anna laughed and repeated it. “Yes, Mrs Davies.”
“Children,” Lillian said, shaking her head and smiling. “Suncream!”
“We will,” Anna said.
“I already have,” Kristoff said.
“Melanomas are no joke,” he said seriously, then smiled at her as he walked off. And Anna found she was smiling too, as she went back to her tent for her suncream.
Later that day they had a visitor. A police officer, who arrived just after breakfast, apparently to make a half-hearted effort to move them on. Lillian ignored him for several minutes, but when he said “You can’t just set up camp here as if you own the place,” she looked at Anna and raised her eyebrows.
Anna took a deep breath. “Oh, I think we can,” she said. “Because I do. Own the place. Excuse me.” She ducked into her tent and rummaged for the map from the lawyer.
“This land belongs to -” the police officer started.
“No,” Anna said, and showed him the paper. “ That land, over there, might. This land here belongs to me. And my sister. She’s not much of a camper but she knows we’re here and she’s fine with it.”
The officer looked at the paper, and turned it round, and looked irritated. “Looks like the tents were set up over there, previously.”
“Yes, my friends got here before me and weren’t sure where the boundary was and made a mistake,” Anna said as calmly and cheerfully as she could manage. “But I got here a few days ago and made sure everyone was on my land. We’re camping and making observations for the Environment Agency. Can I have my map back, please.”
“Do you have another copy?”
“Not on me, but if you contact Mr Owens at Owens & Stattler in Arundel, they’ll be able to help you.”
The police officer huffed but he handed her back the map.
“Make sure you stay over here,” he said.
“We will,” Anna replied.
“Is that all, officer?” Lillian said. “We have work to do.”
He looked around the site but couldn’t seem to find anything else to complain about. “Be careful of that fire,” he managed. “Be hard to get an engine up here.”
“We will,” Lillian said, ushering him back down the path. “I was a Guide leader for thirty years and a Science teacher for forty, I’ve got things under control. Buckets of water everywhere.”
Anna did have a follower. While Kristoff was friendly and helpful to everyone, he always seemed to be near her, somehow. Not that she minded. He didn’t even seem to know he was doing it, or why he was doing it, which Anna found adorable.
Once or twice before she’d had a man who wouldn’t leave her alone, but they’d all known she had money, and she hadn’t been interested in them herself, which made all the difference, of course. But she liked Kristoff; she liked talking to him; it made her happy when he sought her out.
It seemed unfair to start something that she wouldn’t be able to finish, as it were. She didn’t want to lead anyone on. She wanted to enjoy the time she had left, but not at the expense of other people’s feelings.
Although maybe she was being a little vain, assuming that any man who was attracted to her would naturally fall deeply in love with her, given the chance. Goodness knew it had never happened before. Anna watched Kristoff play the guitar by the fire and let herself have a little daydream about his arms, and his hands, and his fingers. What did it hurt?
It was the afternoon of the third day before Elsa arrived.
Anna was helping wash up after lunch when she saw her. Elsa was climbing very carefully over the stile, in kitten heels and a pale blue dress that she was clearly anxious about dirtying. At least she came herself, Anna thought. She’d been half-expecting Stephanie.
Anna dried her hands on the tea towel, spread it in the sun to dry, and walked over towards her sister. After a moment Elsa saw her and walked up to her, looking Anna up and down, taking in her hiking boots, her yellow shorts and green t-shirt.
“Anna,” she said. “I’ve come to take you home.”
“Hello, Elsa,” Anna said. “Would you like a cup of tea? I guarantee someone will be putting the kettle on within the next five minutes. They always are.”
“Well, while you get your things together, perhaps.”
“I’m not going home today.”
“I’m staying here. We’re not done.”
“What are you actually doing? Anna? You gave permission to use the field, yes, very good. What else do you have to offer? Making the tea?”
Anna blinked hard. “Someone needs to make the tea,” she said. “Someone needs to do the drying up. And. I like it here. Everyone is nice and the countryside is beautiful. So I’m staying. As long as everyone else does.”
Elsa pursed her lips and looked around at the camp. “Anna,” she said. “I really don’t…”
“What do I have to offer at home?” Anna said, irritation overcoming her now. “What do I do? At least here I make tea and help with meals and, and they’re teaching me how to do the recordings and observations and things. I’m useful and I’m happy and I’m not going home. And you can’t make me.”
A man was walking over from the main group. Anna didn’t recognise him as having been there earlier; he was wearing a polo shirt with dark trousers and had a lanyard round his neck.
“I’m Miss Rendell,” Elsa said, before Anna could say anything. “So am I,” she added.
“Ah, both Miss Rendells, wonderful,” the man said. “I’m Neil Ipplewick, I’m with the Environment Agency. I wanted to thank you for letting us use the land here.”
“Of course,” Elsa said, “we’re glad to help.” Anna ground her teeth.
“How much longer do you think this will all take?” Elsa asked.
“Well, the actual process for certification could take months - you know how these things go - but we should have enough observations and evidence within the week, I should imagine.” He looked around. “The developers are trying to hurry things along but don’t worry, we’ll soon have a stick through their spokes. The evidence is very clear. I’ll take this now -” he held up some paper and a USB drive - “And come back on probably Monday to collect everything else. Really, very grateful.” And he shook their hands and left.
“Monday,” Elsa said to Anna. “What time do you want me to send a car?”
“Don’t bother,” Anna said. “I’ll sort something out,” and - knowing she was being rude but not able to help herself, and what did it matter, anyway - turned on her heel and went back to the main camp.
That Saturday, after she’d been at the camp over a week, Anna admitted to Lillian that she’d never actually seen a bat.
“Never?” Lillian said, incredulous. “We have a whole forest full of them, over there.”
“I’ve seen the footage,” Anna said. “But not. An actual bat. In the flesh.”
“Well, we can sort that out! They’ll all be out at dusk, in half an hour or so. If you go and sit in the woods now, sit quiet and you’ll see them all come out. Kristoff!”
“Oh, I’m sure I can manage -”
And now Kristoff was standing next to her. “What’s up?” he said.
“Anna’s never seen the bats!” Lillian said. “Go with her and make sure she sees them. You know the best spots. Go on, both of you.”
“You don’t have to…” Anna said.
“I don’t mind,” Kristoff said quickly. A little too quickly, and Anna definitely heard Lillian snort.
“Okay,” Anna said. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”
“So how do you know Lillian?” Anna asked Kristoff as they walked over, trying to make normal conversation. “From school?”
“No - well, yes - did she teach you?”
“I don’t remember you from school. Wait, did you have a sister? With blonde hair?”
“I think she was in my year. But, Lillian is my neighbour. And I inherited my house from my grandparents so when I visited them, growing up, she was around. We used to walk down the lane to see her chickens, she’d let me feed them.”
“Oh, how nice!”
“And when my grandparents got older, she kept an eye on them, got shopping in for them and things. And then about five years ago my grandmother died, then my grandfather soon after, and they left me the house. So we’re neighbours now but I’ve known her forever.”
“I always liked her at school,” Anna said. “I’m glad to get to know her properly.”
“Be careful,” Kristoff said. “You’ll get drawn into all her good causes.”
“I don’t mind.”
They’d reached the wood. Kristoff put his finger to his lips as they walked down the path. Between the trees it was already starting to get dark. “Sit still and quiet,” he said. “Here,” and he guided her to a log a little way into the bracken. Anna sat, and he sat beside her.
Anna sat, and listened. All she could hear was her own breathing, a little rustle when she shifted her feet. There wasn’t much wind, and the branches and leaves of the trees were barely moving against the darkening sky.
Kristoff was sitting very close, his leg not quite touching hers. Anna fidgeted, looking down at her hands - but looked up startled when she felt his hand on her arm. “You need to be still,” he said softly. She looked up at him. He didn’t move his hand.
This was about saying Yes. Being open to things.
She’d kissed men before, of course. She’d even slept with a couple. But it had always been out of a sense of curiosity - what happens if I do this? What does this feel like? And the answer had never been overwhelming. It had been fine. She’d not really been sure what everyone made such a fuss about, but it had been fine.
Being genuinely this attracted to someone was almost a shock.
Kristoff’s hand was still on her arm. He was watching her face, and she was sure she saw his eyes flick to her lips before meeting her gaze. Wondering if it was safe for her heart to be beating this hard, Anna leant in slightly, letting her eyes start to drift shut.
But before they were quite closed, flickers of movement in the trees caught her attention, and she started back with a gasp. Kristoff leant away from her, clearing his throat, but Anna barely noticed as she looked up at the bats, swooping through the branches. She wanted to exclaim or shout but managed to stop herself; instead she just grabbed at Kristoff’s hand and squeezed it. He squeezed her hand back, but rather than dropping it, he held it, running his thumb over the back of her hand as they sat together in the gloaming.
And Anna realised that she had to go home on Monday.
And then she had an idea.
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
By the time they left the wood and walked back to the camp, Anna’s had upgraded her Idea into a Plan.
The first step was to gather information.
“So do you live quite nearby?” Anna asked Kristoff the next day. She was helping him download the information from the data recorders onto a battered laptop; or at least in theory she was. In practice, all the job required was for someone to swap out a device and press a key every five minutes or so. It was in no way a two-person job. But he didn’t seem to mind her being here.
“Yes, about five minutes away, driving,” he said. “Which is good because I need to pop back a couple of times a day.”
“To feed your cat,” Anna said, hoping she was right.
“Yes. And in the evening, I also water my vegetable garden.” The laptop beeped; Kristoff loaded up the next device. “You live in Arundel, in the town?”
“Ah, yeah. With my older sister.”
“Just the two of you?”
“Yeah. Our parents died. Ten years ago,” she added quickly when she saw his face changing. “But, anyway, she was an adult then, just about, so it’s been me and her since then.”
“Wow. I mean, that must have been very hard. Losing your parents and for her to have to be your guardian.”
“Well, yeah. It was what it was, I guess.” Anna fiddled with her hair. This wasn’t how she’d wanted the conversation to go. “What kind of cat do you have? What colour.”
Kristoff smiled at her awkward segue. “He’s ginger and white, he’s seventeen years old and his name is Banjo.”
“My sister doesn’t like animals. I’d love a cat.”
“I inherited him from my grandparents along with the house. But I guess if you live alone you need a pet more.”
The laptop beeped. Kristoff pressed a key.
“Or I’d like a dog, maybe,” Anna said.
“Cats are lower maintenance,” Kristoff replied. “Dogs you have to walk. And sometimes I have to go away for a day or two for my work. Lillian comes by to feed Banjo when I’m away but a dog is more to ask of someone.”
Anna waited for him to tell her what he did for work, but he didn’t. “I wish I had my own house,” she said.
“It’s not very big. But it has a nice garden. And it’s right by the woods, there’s a bridleway that runs along the bottom of my garden and the forest is right behind it.”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful. ”
“Yeah, it’s pretty nice.” He changed over the recorder, and cleared his throat. “Perhaps, some time, when we’re done here, you could…”
He stopped. Anna waited. “I could what?” she said, when she realised he wasn’t going to continue.
“...come and meet my cat?”
Anna bit her tongue to stop herself saying something like Is that what they’re calling it these days? But Kristoff caught her eye and laughed at himself, blushing.
Okay. That covered it, she thought.
Secondly, she needed a character reference.
“Kristoff said he’s known you since he was little,” Anna asked Lillian as they were chopping vegetables for dinner.
“Oh, yes,” Lillian said. “Since he was three or so, I think. Oh, I’ll not forget the first time his granddad brought him along the lane to mine to say hello. Big mop of blond hair and those big brown eyes underneath. Didn’t say a word but you could see he was taking it all in.”
“Aww,” Anna said, trying to think of another casual question, but Lillian was off.
“He stayed with his grandma and granddad a lot when he was little. Two or three weeks at a time. And most of the school holidays when he was bigger. Nothing against his mother but I don’t think it was a role she chose, you know? And his grandparents were glad to have him. Lovely little lad, he was. Helped me feed the chickens. Used to dig over my vegetable beds, too, when he was a bit bigger. One winter he lost his winter hat while we were walking in the woods and was so upset, I knit him a new one, he loved it, wore it for years. Lovely boy, I’m very fond of him.” She gave Anna a sideways glance. “He’s had a couple of girlfriends over the years but nothing serious.”
“Is that so,” Anna said.
“Though I’m sure he gets lonely sometimes, in that house all by himself.”
Anna smiled to herself and shook her head. Lillian laughed. “When you get to my age you don’t have to be subtle any more. I’ve known him since he was tiny, he was a lovely boy, he’s now a lovely man and he’s a good cook. Do with that information what you will. Hand me those potatoes.”
And then it was Monday, and - once the man from the Environment Agency had collected everything, and shaken everyone’s hands, and Lillian had produced a warm bottle of cheap champagne from her tent and given everyone half a mugful - it was time for the third and final step.
This was the tricky one. But, if it didn’t work, Anna would be no worse off than she had been before. So it was definitely worth trying.
She put her empty mug down on a nearby log and fetched something from her tent. Then she walked over to where Kristoff was talking to Rebecca. When he saw Anna he turned towards her - Rebecca smiled, nodded at them and wandered away.
Kristoff crossed his arms, smiling. He looked content, happy, and Anna smiled back, taking a step closer.
“So what now?” he said.
“Aren’t you going home?” Anna said.
“I am. I meant you. Are you going home?”
He laughed at her face. “Alright, no. Where, then?”
Anna took a deep breath. It might as well be now. “Can I talk to you?” she said, looking behind her at the others celebrating. “Just you, for a minute?”
“Of course.” They walked a little way down the footpath, along the edge of the field.
“I have to say - three things,” she said. “Well, the first one is a question. But you can’t answer until I tell you the other two things.”
“The question is - will you marry me.”
She said the words all in a rush, to get them out, and was half afraid she’d spoken too fast and he wouldn’t understand - but the expression on his face said otherwise. Before he could speak, she held up her hand. “The second thing is - I have a trust fund. Um. The money my parents left me. With that I could live anywhere and do what I like, but I can’t get to it until I’m either thirty or married. And I’m twenty-five now.” Again he opened his mouth to speak, but Anna rushed on. “And the third thing is - this.”
She pulled the crumpled doctor’s letter out of her shorts pocket and handed it to him. Kristoff took it, looking at her face as if he was trying to work her out. He opened the letter, and read it - casually at first, then more seriously. He turned it over; he read the first page again. Then he looked at her. “Is this real?” he said.
“And there’s - nothing they can do?”
Anna shook her head. “So you see, I can’t wait until I’m thirty,” she said.
“So it seems.” He folded the letter carefully, and handed it to her. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I mean - it is what it is. At least I know, I’m glad I know.”
“So you can run off to live in the woods.”
“So you need to marry someone to get your money? Why me?”
“Because - I trust you. And I don’t know many people. And - I like you,” she managed. “We’d have to live together, for a while at least, so the lawyer doesn’t get suspicious, and I think - we get on well.”
“So you’re also asking to move in with me.”
“Yes.” She waited. Kristoff was staring into space, frowning slightly. “I know it’s a lot to ask,” Anna added. “You can say no. I can go home, it isn’t that bad. I just thought I’d ask.”
“Yes,” Kristoff said. “To your question. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
Anna sighed with relief. “You will? You’re sure?”
He nodded. “How much notice do you have to give?”
“Um, I googled it on my phone. You have to give twenty-nine days notice, you have to go and see the registrar, then they post it on their noticeboard, then you can get married.”
He nodded. “Okay. We can ring in the morning and set that up. And that gives us a month of living together, so that’ll look good to your lawyer, right?”
“Yes, I’d think so. If you’re sure it’s okay -”
“I said yes. I meant it. And anyway,” he said, pushing his hands into his pockets, suddenly a little shy - “Maybe I like you too.”
He took a step closer. “Couldn’t you tell?” he said.
Anna took a deep breath. She took a step closer, too, and now they were only a few inches apart. Kristoff leant forward, paused, and then kissed her gently on the lips.
There was a shriek somewhere behind Anna and it made Kristoff look up. He looked back at Anna when she put her hand on the back of his neck; and then he pulled her into his arms, and kissed her again; and she tangled her fingers into his hair and kissed him back; and the sun was warm on her back and the grass was tickling her legs and she was alive, she was alive, she was alive.
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
Anna spent the evening sitting next to Kristoff by the fire, and a few people had teased them a little but nothing too much. She’d rested her head on his shoulder and kissed him when she felt like it; and that seemed to be perfectly fine with him. He’d kissed her goodnight outside her tent then retreated to his own.
Anna lay awake for a long time. She ran over the events of the last few hours in her head, and found them good. She wondered if she should have been disappointed that he had gone straight back to his own tent, but she also definitely felt like she’d had enough excitement for one day. Her stomach was full of a million butterflies. He’d said yes . Tomorrow she was going to move into his little house in the forest, and in a month they were going to get married. She could do whatever she wanted. She’d have to make a new will; she wanted to leave half her money to Kristoff and half to - she’d have to do some research into charities. No, wait. They wouldn’t be able to build on Bennett’s Field now, so the developers would want to sell it, probably for a fraction of what they paid. If she bought it, then she could leave that to Kristoff too and no one would ever build on it ever. Maybe she could buy out Elsa’s share of the other land, too.
Anna hugged herself. What a perfect plan.
No one seemed surprised when Anna left the campsite with Kristoff the next morning.
Everyone packed up, and hugged, and said goodbye. The mood was a little more subdued but still fairly jubilant. The camp had been a success, and the bats were safe. Anna managed to get her tent back in its bag and stowed it in the back of Kristoff’s campervan, next to his. He was parked in a layby a little way down the road but she insisted on carrying all her things there herself.
“I told Lillian I was going to stay with you for a bit,” Anna said as they drove off, the camper clattering along the country road. “And do you know what she did?”
“She put one hand on my shoulder and asked if I was on the pill.”
Kristoff laughed. “Of course she did.”
“I’m not, but I have one of those implant thingies. Um, just so you know.”
“Noted,” Kristoff said, not meeting her eye. Anna bit her lip; she’d wanted him to have that information but clearly it was too soon and now he was uncomfortable. Or maybe he just thought of her as an invalid. “You have to promise me something,” she said.
“I don’t want to think about - my health. I don’t want to talk about it. I haven’t told anyone except you and I’m not going to. And I don’t want you to treat me any different that you would otherwise, like I’m delicate. Okay? I just want to forget about it and live my life.”
He glanced sideways at her. “I can do that.”
“Thank you.” Anna pulled her phone out of her pocket. “I’m going to ring the registry office, okay?”
“Sure. What’s your address, your sister’s address?”
“Aren’t we going there to get some more of your things?”
Anna pulled a face. “Ugh. I suppose we should. Can we go to yours first, though?”
“I mean, sure, if you like.”
“Let me just make this call. If you’re still sure -”
“I said yes.”
Anna found the number on the web and dialled it. She spoke to a very nice woman who told her the wait at this time of year would be several weeks; then put her on hold, then came back and said “I just overheard my colleague on the phone and we’ve had a cancellation for this afternoon. Can you come in at three?”
“Um - yes. I think so. Can we go in at three?”
“Today?” Kristoff said. Anna nodded. “I guess so. Sure.”
“Okay, yes, that’s great,” Anna said into her phone. “Do we need anything?”
“You’ll both need to bring birth certificates and passports. Have either of you been married before?”
“If so,” the woman continued, “You’ll need to bring the marriage certificate and either a death certificate or proof of divorce.”
“Do you have a ceremony booked?”
“No. We need to do that too.”
“Well, when you come in we can sort that out. Three’o’clock, you know where the registry office is?”
“Yes, thank you. Okay. Thank you, see you later.” And she hung up.
“We need to bring our birth certificates and passports. Have you been married before?”
He gave her an odd look. “No.”
“Okay. Good. I mean, that’s simpler. Oh, no, now I have to go home.”
“Might as well get it done,” Kristoff said. Anna pulled a face, but she gave him the address.
Elsa opened the door while Anna was still fumbling for her key. “I was expecting you yesterday,” she said.
“Everyone stayed another night.”
“Well, in you come. Where’s your bag?”
“I’m not coming home, I’m just here to pick up some things. I’m going to stay with - a friend, for a while. Not sure how long.”
“Mm. Someone I met at the camp. But he thinks you were at school with him.”
“Kristoff Bjorgman. He lives just outside town, he’s waiting in his car. Do I have any post?” And Anna headed for the stairs.
She got no answer. Elsa stayed in the hall, staring after her.
Anna went up to her room, and pulled out her suitcase from under the bed. Then she went round her room, gathering up a few of her clothes that she actually liked, and some jewellery and make-up and toiletries that she hadn’t felt she would need in the middle of a field. She took an old photo album with pictures of her parents, and a nice fluffy towel from her bathroom, and then on top she put her red dress and the sparkly shoes and shut the case. That would do.
Now she just needed her documents. Hopefully they were in the house, or that would set everything else back. Wheeling the case out into the hall, Anna ran into Stephanie coming out of Elsa’s office. “Oh, Stephanie,” Anna said. “How are you? Do you know where my passport and birth certificate are? I’m moving out.”
“Oh!” Stephanie said. “They’ll be in the safe. Let me just ask your sister if I should -”
“You’re going to ask my sister whether I can have my own passport and birth certificate?” Anna said. She felt a thrill; a month ago she’d have nodded and let Stephanie do it. But now she just stood there and raised her eyebrows, until Stephanie ducked back into the office and went behind the desk to the safe.
Elsa was standing by the front door when Anna came down, bumping her case down the stairs, documents in her other hand. She said nothing until Anna was actually opening the door and lifting her suitcase over the frame.
“You know his mother was a drug addict.”
“How sad,” Anna said. “I don’t want the things I left in my room, feel free to take them to the charity shop or something. Or I can come back and do it another day.”
“And does he even know who his father is?”
“I haven’t asked. Because it doesn’t matter. Goodbye, Elsa. I hope you’ll be happy.”
“There’s more to life than being happy.”
Anna pulled her suitcase to the end of the path. She waited for her sister to say something else, but she didn’t; all she heard was the door being shut behind her.
Kristoff was waiting by the camper, with the back open. He lifted her suitcase in and then went round to the driver’s side. Anna climbed back into the passenger seat.
“Okay?” he said.
She waved the documents at him.
“Okay. Better go home and get mine then.” He started the engine.
They drove back out towards the country. Anna felt her breathing ease as they left the town, as the surroundings once more became green and leafy. Partway down a winding country road Kristoff slowed and turned into a driveway that Anna wouldn’t even have noticed; they bumped down a track for a quarter of a mile, then he pulled up alongside a bungalow half-hidden in greenery.
Anna opened her door and hopped straight out of the campervan. Kristoff laughed and got out, heading to the front door. “It’s not much,” he said. “It’s basically a pile of breeze blocks covered in peeling plaster.”
Anna was bouncing on her toes. “Show me, show me everything,” she said.
“Okay. This is the front garden.” He gestured at the weedy gravel and straggly bushes along the drive. “First key, for the porch.”
He opened the outside door and led her through the porch that covered almost the whole front of the building. It had huge glass windows and was lined with shelves covered in plants, succulents and spider plants and busy lizzies. The spring sunshine through the windows made it as warm as a greenhouse. “Second key,” he said, and opened the heavier wooden door at the end.
This one led straight into the living room. One side had a cosy sofa and armchair in front of a woodstove in a tiled fireplace; the other had a wooden table and chairs, and a piano in the corner. Every wall had bookshelves, none of them matching, and there were plants on top of the piano and on the windowsills. And there was a ginger cat asleep in the middle of the table.
“This is Banjo,” Kristoff said, scritching the cat under its chin. “Banj, this is Anna. She’s going to be stopping with us for a while.”
“Hello Banjo,” Anna said. Banjo lifted his head, looked at her, then put it back down and went back to sleep.
“He’s pretty old. He sleeps most of the time,” Kristoff said. “He has a bed by the fire but he never sleeps in it.”
“You have a real fire, I love it,” Anna said, stroking the cat gently.
“There’s another in the bedroom. It’s on the other side of the same chimney. There are electric storage heaters but I don’t use them, they’re a pain.”
He went over to one of the bookshelves and pulled a box off the bottom shelf, and rummaged in it until he pulled out his passport, then an envelope with B CERT written on it.
Anna left the cat, who was fast asleep, and wandered down the hallway behind the living room. To the right there was a small kitchen, with a window that looked out onto a hedge. The opposite door, on the left, opened into the bedroom. It was a small room, with a wardrobe on one side of the chimney breast and a chest of drawers on the other, and a double bed facing them. The window looked out over what seemed to be the garden.
The third door off the hall opened into the room behind the kitchen, which turned out to be the bathroom. Anna looked at it for a minute before realising what was missing; there was a bath and a sink, but no toilet.
Kristoff had come up behind her. “It’s not a big place,” he said. “But it does me.”
“...where’s the loo?”
“Oh, sure. It’s outside.”
“Outside? Like - in the garden? ”
“I mean it’s inside. But it’s out here -” he reached past her and unbolted the back door that was at the end of the hall. It led out onto a covered walkway, and to the right there were two more doors, to two small rooms. One did indeed contain a toilet, and the other a washing machine.
“I didn’t think anyone had outside toilets any more,” Anna said. At least it looked clean.
“Well, it all works. I’ve thought of knocking it through and redoing the bathroom but that would cost a lot and take a long time so I’ve never got round to it. Also you should know that the shower is electric and twenty years old, it gets hot okay but the pressure is dismal. Baths are a better idea.”
“And this is the garden.” Kristoff walked along the path. “That’s the shed. Vegetable patch. Those are fruit trees, that’s a natural wildflower meadow that is completely deliberate and not because I don’t own a lawnmower, and that’s my office.”
The office was a new building, in the back corner of the garden. It looked a little incongruous amongst the wildflowers and bushes. Anna waited for him to tell her what work he did in the office, but he didn’t. “Through that gate is the bridleway,” he said instead, “And if you go left and walk for about seven or eight minutes, then turn right at the road and go about fifty yards, you’re at Lillian’s house.”
“I thought you were neighbours?”
“That is neighbours. Unless you go round by the road. It’s nearly a ten-minute drive. Do you want to bring your stuff into the house? Though we should head back into town soon, there’s no food in the house so we’ll need to get some lunch somewhere. And stop at the supermarket before we come back.”
“Okay. Yes, I guess I should bring my things inside.” Anna gave his office another long look, not that there was much to see. There was a window, but it had a closed blind. She should just ask. But Kristoff was already walking back into the house.
They walked back through to the front. Anna fetched her suitcase from the back of the campervan and rolled it through to the bedroom. She stopped just inside the door, not sure where to put anything.
“Um. I cleared out a drawer for you. And the wardrobe isn’t full, there should be room for your things,” Kristoff said.
“When did you do that?”
“This morning when I came to feed Banjo. You were in your tent asleep,” he added.
“Oh. Thank you.” She heaved the case up onto the bed and opened it.
“And, ah, listen, Anna,” Kristoff said. “About - all this -”
“- I don’t want you to think - I mean, I’ll sleep in the living room. I can put my sleeping mat and sleeping bag on the floor -”
“Don’t be silly!”
“I mean it. I don’t want to assume anything, or…”
“We can sleep in the same bed. And if - anything else happens - then it happens. This is your house, you don’t have to sleep on the floor.”
Kristoff put his hands in his pockets.
“You’d better not sleep on the floor,” Anna said. She took out her red dress and turned towards the wardrobe. Kristoff looked at his watch. “Let me just hang this up,” Anna said. “Then we can go.”
“I didn’t mean to -”
“It’s fine.” She hung up the dress - the wardrobe had maybe three shirts and one jacket in it, and that was all - and left the suitcase open on the bed. Kristoff reached behind her and flipped the top of the case closed. “Cat,” he explained.
“I’ve never lived with anyone before,” Kristoff said as they drove back towards town. “I’m sorry if I - I don’t know. Am inconsiderate, I guess. I’m so used to only having to think about myself.”
“I’ve never lived with anyone except my sister,” Anna said. “And she was a control freak. So I don’t really know how to live with someone in a normal way, either. I guess we just have to make it up as we go along.”
“I guess.” He still looked worried.
“Kristoff,” Anna said. “I don’t want to get in your way. I mean. I don’t want to impose too much.”
“You aren’t. Please don’t feel that you aren’t welcome. I mean. I was hoping to see more of you, after the camp was over, I just didn’t anticipate seeing this much of you.”
His expression was earnest again, and Anna felt bad for the snort of laughter that she couldn’t repress. When he looked puzzled she said “Play your cards right and you might see all of me.”
She half-thought he’d start apologising and trying to explain again, but he just laughed. “Noted.”
The meeting with the registrar went fine; Anna was half-expecting questions about how long they’d been together and why they wanted to get married so quickly but it was mainly showing documents and proving they could legally marry. Other than that it was just the registrar trying to fit them in for the ceremony - she managed to find them a slot in five weeks time - and checking how they wanted it to go.
They got halfway home, and realised they’d forgotten to go to the supermarket; then with backtracking, and unpacking, and making dinner, the rest of the day was gone. Anna was glad she’d been selective about what she brought with her; it really was only a small house, but she supposed she didn’t need much. While she was putting away her clothes Kristoff put their tents and other camping things away in the shed.
He also cooked. Anna helped him with some preparation, and insisted that she would wash up, though he said he didn’t mind. But she was determined she wasn’t going to loaf around and expect him to do everything.
“So,” Kristoff said, when they sat down to eat. “What are you going to do? Once you have your trust fund. Live it up?”
Anna picked up her fork and twirled it in her fingers for a moment. “I guess I could do anything,” she said. “I could go to - Disneyworld. Or the Maldives. Or New York.”
Kristoff nodded, swallowing. “Well, you can always come back here, in between. If you like.”
“Oh, I don’t think...I don’t know if I’ll travel the whole time, anyway. And I like being here with you.” She peeked up at him as she took a mouthful of food. “If that’s okay.”
He smiled. “I like you being here. It…” he hesitated, poking at his dinner. “I was used to living alone, I guess, but it’s almost like I didn’t realise I was lonely. Having someone else here, it’s nice.”
Anna smiled, relieved. “I’m glad. I mean. I’m not even a good cook.”
“You’re good company. And cooking is something you can learn, if you want to. It isn’t hard.”
“I’ve always wanted to bake bread. Is that weird?”
“Why would it be weird? Lillian bakes her own bread, I think. And all sorts of things. Ask her about it, she’ll show you.”
“She said she had some things I could help her with for her nature club. I was going to walk over there tomorrow.”
“It’s almost a mile. I think there’s a bike in the shed, if you like.”
“Oh, goodness. I haven’t ridden a bike in years.”
“I’ll see if I can find it after dinner. Tyres probably need pumping up.”
“I don’t have a helmet.”
“It’s bridleway most of the way. Just don’t hit any trees.”
She must still have looked doubtful, because he added “Or walk, up to you. Take a bag, though, in case she gives you any eggs. I put your rucksack by the chair. She’s got about twenty semi-feral chickens, I haven’t bought an egg in years. I’m not sure I’ve ever bought an egg.”
“Do you want to come with me?”
He pulled a face. “I would, but I’ve been neglecting my work for a while now. I should get on. Give me a couple of days and I’ll show you around the neighbourhood a bit more.”
“Yeah, I’ll need to shut myself up in my office, I’m sorry about that.”
“No, I mean...what do you actually do?”
Kristoff looked down at his plate, not meeting her eyes. “It’s not very interesting.” Anna folded her arms. “Tell you what,” he said, “If you can guess, I’ll tell you if you’re right.”
“Why? What do you do in there? Are you selling drugs.”
“No. Nothing illegal.”
“Okay, you have to make specific guesses.”
“Or you could just tell me.”
Kristoff put the last piece of pasta in his mouth and stood up, picking up his plate and cutlery. “Let me go and see if I can find that bike before it gets dark.”
“Are you a painter?”
“Do you - repair antique watches.”
“No. Washing up liquid’s in the cupboard under the sink.”
Anna washed up the plates and saucepans and stacked them neatly on the drying rack. What did it matter what he did, anyway? It was nice he had something he could do at home, and fit round the other things he wanted to do. He was very lucky in that. She guessed he couldn’t make very much, but since he’d inherited a free house he probably didn’t have to spend very much either.
Without Kristoff in the room she felt she could look around a little more. The fittings in the kitchen had a distinctly homemade look to them - these weren’t units from B&Q, someone had put these together from actual bits of wood, and some years ago by the look of it. The cups and crockery might have been fifty years old if not more. A couple of the saucepans were new, and a couple more looked as if they might have been listed in the Domesday Book.
The living room was similar. If she’d been dropped into the house with no knowledge of its occupant, she would never have imagined a young man living here; if you’d told her it still belonged to his grandparents, that would have made more sense. But she couldn’t blame him for working a job he enjoyed that let him have so much free time, if that balance with still using his grandmother’s old sofa, or a kitchen table with folded paper stuck under three of the four legs.
Anna put on her pyjamas and brushed her teeth. She wanted a bath but was too tired; she was a bit campsite-y but it could wait until the morning. At first she thought she’d sit in the living room and wait for Kristoff; then she thought she’d just lie down on the bed and read; and then she was startled awake by someone climbing into the bed next to her.
“Sorry,” Kristoff whispered. “I didn’t mean to wake you. But maybe I should have. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Am I on the right side? I mean, the correct side.”
“Yes, you’re good. Goodnight, then.”
He was lying on his back. Anna pushed herself up on her elbow and kissed him quickly on the lips. “Goodnight,” she said, then turned over and pulled the blankets around her. It was strange, sharing a bed with someone. It was quiet; she couldn’t hear any traffic, the birds were asleep, there was just Kristoff’s breathing and a rustle as he turned onto his side. It was almost eerie. Hopefully it wouldn’t keep her awake.
And then it was morning.
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
When she woke, Anna was alone in the bed. There was no clock in the room; she had to rummage on the floor for her phone before she could see what the time was. It was gone nine, and for a moment she felt bad, before realising it didn’t matter whatsoever.
She guessed Kristoff was already in his office; she knew he was an early riser and he was certainly not in the house. Anna made herself a cup of tea and some toast, and then ran a bath. The camp had had some washing facilities, but there was definitely a level of dirt that needed to be soaked out.
She also put every item of clothing she’d worn while camping in the washing machine, and after some trial and error, turned it on. The whole time she was in the bath she could hear the ancient machine shuddering and banging and probably jumping around the little room it was in. Hopefully it worked at least a little bit better than washing everything in the sink.
There was no washing line. The garden was large enough for there to be plenty of room to dry laundry, and there was no tumble dryer, and it was a lovely sunny day, and where was the washing line. Anna looked at the office door; but she still didn’t want to disturb Kristoff. She wasn’t here to get in his way. Maybe there would be something in the shed; from her brief glance yesterday it had seemed to contain pretty much everything.
The first thing she saw when she opened the door was a bicycle, or rather, two bicycles, one smaller than the other. The larger was clearly a man’s bike; the smaller looked like it had originally belonged to a teenage boy, but it was about the right size for Anna, and even had a post-it note on the handles with her name on it. She smiled, forgetting her quest, and wheeled the bicycle out and into the garden.
It moved smoothly. Everything had been oiled, and the tyres were freshly inflated. Last night, while she’d been trying to stay awake, he’d dug what was presumably his old bike out of the back of this shed and spent time making it ready for her to ride. She ducked back into the shed but couldn’t see a helmet. Well, she’d just stay on the bridleway and try not to fall off.
Back in the shed she saw a folded-down washing line, one of the ones that went up like an umbrella, and nearby, a basket of pegs. Aha.
By the time Kristoff came out for lunch she’d found the hole in the ground for the line and pegged everything out; and was lying on the grass watching her clothes waving gently in the breeze.
“Are you wearing sunscreen?”
Anna looked over at him. “Yes, Mrs Davies.”
“Melanoma is no joke.” He sat down on the ground next to her. “You worked out the washing machine alright?”
“I think so. It all smells better, anyway. I used the setting it was already on.”
“Yeah, I usually use that one.”
“And I found the dryer and where it goes.”
“You did. A productive morning.”
“Mmhmm. Did you have a productive morning?”
“Yes, thank you. Well, I’m about caught up to where I was before I spent three weeks communing with bats. But it was worth it.”
“Are you coming with me to Lillian’s after lunch?”
“No, I’d better try and make some actual progress. I’m sure I’ll see her again before long. You found the bike okay?”
“Yes. Thank you so much.”
“It’s no trouble.” He lay down on the ground next to her. “It’s much easier by bike.”
“Can you cycle into town? I mean. Does it take long?”
“Half an hour, maybe. And you have to be careful on the bends, if it’s narrow, the cars can come in a bit close. But it’s flat most of the way.” He looked sideways at her. “There’s a bunch of OS maps in the living room, help yourself.”
He smiled at her, then stood up and brushed himself down. “Come on, then. Food.”
Anna wheeled the bicycle out of the back gate and latched it behind her. The bridleway was packed dirt, with grass and weeds growing along each side, and the forest beyond. Turn left for Lillian’s, Kristoff had said. When you get to the road, turn right and it’s the first house.
She had her rucksack, and a bottle of water, and her phone. She swung her leg over the bike wheel, took a deep breath, and pedalled.
It was a little wobbly at first. The path was uneven and bumpy, and she veered from side to side until she remembered how to steer and pedal at the same time. But after a little while it came together; and then it was wonderful. Anna found she was laughing; the wind in her face was exhilarating, and the speed and open air made her feel like she was flying.
Now she was going past fields; wheat, tall but still green; then grass with a couple of horses that watched her go by; then cows, brown and white. The edge of the fields by the bridleway was overgrown with poppies and cow parsley and the trees on the other side dappled the sunlight as they swayed in the breeze.
The road took her a little by surprise, but Anna managed to stop in time. It wasn’t a busy road, and there was a footpath along to the right, so she jumped off the bike - wow, her legs were wobby already - and pushed it along to the little row of brick cottages. There was no answer at the door of the nearest, but the side gate was open, so Anna left her bike just inside it and walked through to the back garden.
There was another, lower gate by the back of the house. And the reason was obvious; the garden was full of chickens. It was a large-ish garden, but she could see at least five birds without even trying.
“Anna!” Lillian was kneeling by a vegetable bed, and pushed herself up to her feet when she saw her. “Hello, you found me! Close that gate behind you, dear, or we’ll spend hours rounding them all up again.”
“It’s a lovely ride,” Anna said, letting herself in carefully. “Though I haven’t cycled since I was little. I need to practice.”
“Don’t let Kristoff take you for a cycle ride for a while, I wouldn’t,” Lillian said. “He’ll come over here sometimes, say he’s on his way home after a ride, and casually let slip that he’s done twenty miles. I’d work up to that if I were you.” She pulled off her gardening gloves. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
Lillian had told Anna that she ran a nature club for children at the weekends, and she needed some help with preparing materials. She also happened to have a vacancy for a volunteer with the group, and a form for the police check for working with children. Anna was happy to fill it in and agree to help. She loved children and she loved nature; and one standing appointment a week wouldn’t hurt anything. Lillian gave Anna a tour of her garden and introduced her to all the chickens, then Anna cycled home slowly in time for dinner.
So now Saturday afternoons were for nature club; Anna cycled down to Lillian’s and then they drove together to the local forestry centre. But the rest of the time was entirely her own. The weather continued warm and dry for the most part; she spent a lot of time in the garden, and walking in the countryside, either alone or with Kristoff. He taught her how to cook a few simple meals, and Lillian taught her how to bake bread. Rebecca also lived within cycling distance and Anna saw her occasionally.
But most of all...no one cared what she did. In the best possible way. She could wear what she wanted - she had one pair of shorts that Kristoff clearly liked best, but whether she wore them or not was entirely up to her. She could stay in bed until noon, or stay up until the early hours of the morning. She could spend all morning reading and all afternoon climbing trees. She could do whatever she felt like. The only thing that made Kristoff wince was when he came in the house and found her listening to John Foster. He wouldn’t ask her to turn it off, but he pulled faces to himself and left straight away, so she got used to using her headphones or waited until he disappeared into his office.
Kristoff drove into town once a week or so to go food shopping and he would drop Anna in the town centre if she wanted to shop or go to the library. There were a few things she found she needed; a fluffy dressing gown and slip-on shoes so she could go out to the toilet in the middle of the night; a mirror (the only mirror in Kristoff's house was a magnifying shaving mirror). From the library she got all the books she wanted to read that she knew Elsa would have turned her nose up at. Romances with brightly-coloured covers, non-fiction books about dinosaurs and space and birds, all the fantasy and science-fiction she wanted.
She didn’t hear from Elsa, except by way of forwarded post (a circular from her bank; letters from charities asking for donations; a letter from her doctor asking her to reschedule her appointment as soon as possible, which she ignored). Sometimes she would text a picture, of the wildflowers or Lillian’s chickens or a particularly nice tree, but never got a reply so after a while she stopped. She didn’t tell her sister she was getting married. She wasn’t going to invite her, so decided it would be better to wait until the deed was done.
Anna was lying on the grass. Her back was on the grass, anyway; her legs were up the tree trunk, her bare feet against the rough bark. Her eyes were closed, and she smiled as she heard the door of Kristoff’s office open and close, his footsteps walking towards her through the long grass.
He sat down next to her, and she opened her eyes.
“Has your hair changed colour?” he said.
“I’m sure it used to be darker.”
“Well, I haven’t been having it coloured. But it was only a little bit anyway.”
“Yes. I don’t know. My sister always thought it was a bit - brash.”
He laughed. “You really used to darken your hair because your sister thought the natural colour was too bright?”
“Just a little bit! Oh, you know. It was always easier just to go along with her. And now I guess I’m ginger again.” She lifted some of her hair and peered at it. “Though I think the sun is lightening it, too.”
“I wouldn’t say ginger,” Kristoff said. He leant closer. “Copper. No, honey.”
He bent right down and kissed her, long and slow. “Honey,” he said.
The first few times they woke up close together, with maybe his arm over her waist, or her head on his shoulder, they separated quickly, embarrassed. Anna had never shared a bed with anyone before, so she didn’t know if this was normal or not, the way they gravitated towards each other in their sleep. She did know that it was cosy and nice to have another person to snuggle up with. And after a week or two, she let herself relax into it. Kristoff seemed to as well.
He also always seemed very happy to kiss her, but it never went much further than that. Anna didn’t want to pressure him in any way; didn’t want him to feel that he had to do what she wanted, to keep her happy. Every morning she wondered if this would be the day he would say he’d changed his mind and didn’t want to marry her after all. But the day would pass as pleasantly as always and she’d fall asleep next to him, sometimes with the cat curled up at her feet, content.
Anna wore the red dress on her wedding day. It was strange, putting it on - she remembered buying it, the jittery energy of that day, the adrenaline that had carried her through the first few days after her diagnosis. She didn’t regret any of the decisions she’d made then; but it was funny how much calmer she was now. The dress was still beautiful. There was no full-length mirror here, but Anna did a little twirl and smiled to herself as the skirt flared out around her legs. She hadn’t worn heels in nearly two months. Should she put her hair up? No, she’d pull some bits back from her face but she’d leave most of it down.
There was a tap on the door. “Anna?”
“You can come in.”
Kristoff opened the door, and stopped. “Wow,” he said. “You look - really nice. Beautiful.”
“Thanks.” They smiled at each other for a moment. Then Kristoff shook himself.
“Um,” he said. He held out his hand to her and opened it. “We didn’t talk about rings. But, if you want to wear one - this was my grandma’s. Not her wedding ring, but she wore it a lot.”
The ring was yellow gold, with a circular setting of different coloured gems, red and blue and yellow. Anna picked it up, and turned it over in her fingers.
“Only if you like,” Kristoff said. “Obviously you don’t have to wear a ring at all if you don’t want -”
“I do want. And this one is lovely, thank you.” She tried it on her left ring finger and it fit almost perfectly. She took it off again and handed it back to him. “I don’t have one for you. If you want to wear one.”
“That’s okay. We can get one, maybe. Argos or something.”
“Will we have time?”
“If you’re nearly ready to go, sure.”
“I am. Is that what you’re wearing?”
Kristoff looked down at himself. He was wearing scuffed trainers, worn jeans and a grey t-shirt. “I feel a little under-dressed next to you, if I’m honest.”
“I mean, it’s up to you.”
“Give me five minutes.”
Anna went out to the living room to let him change. She walked back and forth a little to practice in the heels. Banjo came over to her and rubbed up against her legs; she leant down and stroked his head. “Time to get the paperwork in order, puss,” she said. “Stop living in sin and scandalising the neighbourhood.” He meowed at her and flopped down onto the floor at her feet.
“Ready?” Kristoff said behind her, and she turned.
She’d expected him to put on a shirt, a real one with buttons. But she hadn’t even realised he owned dress trousers, or smart leather shoes. And he’d brushed his hair. “Will I do?” he said. Anna smiled. “You’ll do very nicely.”
“Then let’s go and get married.”
The ceremony took barely five minutes, and was witnessed by two women who worked elsewhere in the registry office. One of them took a picture of Anna and Kristoff, in the tiny gardens that had clearly been designed just for this purpose.
She was wearing his grandmother’s ring. She had to believe it was just because it was a ring he already had; it was very pretty, though the feeling of it on her finger would take a little getting used to. She was glad they’d had a chance to stop and get him a ring as well, the ceremony would have felt strange otherwise. She’d made him promise that he wouldn’t wear it every day unless he wanted to.
The ceremony had been the last appointment of the day so afterwards they went and got some dinner and it was almost ten by the time they got home. It was a perfect summer evening; the air was warm and soft as they got out of the camper, and Anna had already pulled off her shoes so she wandered barefoot to the door, carrying them.
Kristoff locked the van and ran after her.
“Hang on, hang on, wait,” he said. “Wait. Come here.”
“What is it?”
He reached past her and unlocked the porch door, then paused. “Is this the threshold?” he said. “Or is it the other one?”
“Both,” Anna said, and started giggling. “You have to carry me. From here. To the living room.”
“OK. OK. Let me prep that,” he said, and left her standing outside to unlock and open the second door. “Okay. Come here.”
He picked her up and she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.
“Focus,” he said, giving her a serious look, “And mind your feet,” and he carried her through the porch. Anna was giggling again, and trying to keep her feet in so as not to kick over all the plants, and when he put her down in the living room she wobbled for a minute but rallied.
Kristoff locked up, and when he came back she was still standing there.
“Okay?” he said.
“I’m good. I’m really good,” Anna said, and slung her arms around his shoulders. “I got married today.”
He smiled, putting his hands on her waist. “Sure did.”
Anna fiddled with the hair on the back of his neck. Then she pulled herself up so she could kiss him. He kissed her back, deeply, and wrapped his arms more completely around her. After a minute, Anna wriggled her hands round to his front and undid his top shirt button.
She half-expected him to pull away, but he didn’t; he carried on kissing her, and put one hand on the back of her neck; after a minute she realised he was trying to find the zip on her dress. When his fingers found it, they stopped, and that was when he pulled away from her. Anna, her hands halfway through their task, stopped too.
“How married did you see us being, exactly?” he said.
“Mm. Completely,” Anna said. “Trousers off.” She froze, thinking she’d gone too far, but he laughed. “Right,” he said, and he scooped her back up. She clung to his shoulders, giggling, as he carried her through to the bedroom and dropped her onto the bed.
“You said you had a coil or something, right?” he said as he sat down and pulled off his shoes and socks.
“Yes. No. It’s like an implant thingy in my arm. I used to get really heavy periods, and - but it doesn’t matter,” she said quickly, because Kristoff was now pulling his shirt off over his head and joining her on the bed.
His hand found the zip on her dress again, just as his lips found the skin just behind her ear; Anna shivered, and ran her hands over his bare shoulders. He pulled the zip down, and when she was sure he had it most of the way Anna rolled onto her back and pulled the dress straps over her shoulders so that she could wiggle out of it.
Now she was nervous; she was just in her underwear, and what if he decided he didn’t like what he saw? “I think I said trousers off,” she said, to cover her nerves.
“Oh, right, sorry,” Kristoff said. He was leaning up on one elbow next to her, and he flicked his gaze over her body and back to her eyes. “Got distracted.”
He rolled over enough to undo his fly, then rolled back to kiss her again. Anna pushed at his waistband and he kicked his trousers off and onto the floor. So much more of her skin was against his, now, and she wanted to wrap herself around him, pull him down against her, with an intensity that was new and exciting.
So she hooked her leg over his hip and kissed him, and he groaned and reached round to her bra strap. Here we go , Anna thought, preparing to help him, but he had it undone in seconds. “You’re keen,” she gasped, rolling onto her back and shrugging off the bra straps.
“You have no idea,” he said. “We’ve been sharing a bed for a month , Anna, but I didn’t want -”
“Didn’t want what?” as she shimmied out of her knickers.
“Didn’t want to -” he kissed his way down to her breasts - “To make you feel like - you owed me anything.”
“Why would I -” she arched her back as he took her nipple in his mouth. “Let’s talk about it later,” she said.
“Mmm.” He ran his tongue over her nipple again, then sat up, and Anna pushed herself up onto her elbows before realising he was just taking off his final piece of clothing.
“Okay?” he said quietly.
“Yes.” She took a deep breath. “Yes, yes please.”
He smiled, and came back towards her, to hover over her, his hands beside her shoulders. He looked as if he was going to say something, and she waited; but then he just leant in and kissed her, gently. When he pulled back slightly she arched her back to follow him, wanting to feel his bare skin against hers; but he was just lining himself up so that he could guide himself into her.
For a long moment they were both still, just breathing. Anna realised she had closed her eyes; when she opened them Kristoff was watching her, and as he dropped his lips to hers he started to move, slowly. Anna wriggled, tilting her hips up to him, and as he thrust into her again it felt so good that all she could do was grip onto his shoulders and break the kiss to bury her face in his neck.
“Okay?” Kristoff said, sounding slightly out of breath. “Do you need anything -”
“I’m good I’m good don’t stop,” she managed, rolling her hips in time with him.
It felt so good , and she didn’t want it to end - wanted to stay here forever, but also it was building and building and she didn’t want that to stop, either - she turned to kiss him again, but after a bare few seconds she had to pull away to cry out as she came. The speed took her by surprise. Kristoff groaned, and stopped - she felt him pulsing inside her, and she caught her breath, almost trembling. When she opened her eyes he kissed her, then started moving again. Anna pushed up against his thrusts until he groaned her name, and collapsed down onto his elbows.
After a few seconds he sighed and rolled onto his side next to her. “Okay?” she said softly.
“More than okay.” He held up his arm until she moved over and put her head on his shoulder, then put it round her and held her close. She put her hand on his chest. She had some things she wanted to say, but she was sleepy. She’d say them another time.
The next morning Anna woke first at just after five. She tried to go back to sleep but she needed the toilet too badly; finally she gave up and got out of the bed as quietly as possible, putting on a hoodie of Kristoff’s and her garden shoes on her way to the back door.
“Stupid outdoor toilet,” she muttered to herself as the unbolted the door. “It’s the twenty-first century. Stupid bladder. It’s the middle of the night.”
But it wasn’t. The sun was up; soft, warm dawn light was filling the garden, making the dew on the plants shimmer. The birds were waking up, singing from every direction. It was beautiful.
Before she went back inside, after doing what she needed to do, Anna spent a moment longer standing in the doorway. I live here , she thought. With my husband. This is my home.
“Hello, young lovers, wherever you are!” someone called from the back garden the next morning. Kristoff stuck his head out of the back door. “Hi, Lillian, we’re inside.”
“A little bird,” Lillian said, coming in and looking at them both with her hands on her hips, “Told me you got married yesterday.”
Kristoff looked at Anna. She shrugged. “What little bird?” he said.
“My sister’s cousin’s daughter’s friend works at the registry office and was devastated to learn you were, as she said, off the market. Why didn’t you tell me, you naughty children?”
Kristoff looked at Anna again. “Can you keep a secret?” she said. Lillian gasped.
“We had to get married -” Anna began. Lillian gasped again and put her hands over her mouth.
“- so that I can access a trust fund my parents set up for me,” Anna finished. Lillian looked disappointed, but rallied. “Gosh.”
“They were kinda old-fashioned,” Anna said.
“We’re together,” Kristoff said, “It isn’t all a huge scam. But that’s why we just did it quickly without any fuss.”
“I want to buy Bennett’s Field so no one can build on it,” Anna said. “And now I can.” She grinned at Kristoff and he smiled back.
“You pair,” Lillian said. “Honestly. Well, even though you didn’t invite me, I’ve bought you a wedding present. I need a strong young man to help me get it out of the car, come on.”
It turned out to be an apple tree, wedged into the back seat of Lillian’s Fiat Punto, leaves sticking out of the window. Kristoff carried it over his shoulder into the garden, and Anna and Lillian chose a nice spot for it near the other fruit trees while he fetched a spade.
“I knew you didn’t have apples,” Lillian said. “It’ll be a couple of years before you’re eating them, of course. Now, we need some water, Anna, do you have a watering can?”
“Of course,” Anna said, “I’ll just fetch it.”
She found the can by the water butt and leant on the shed wall while she filled it. Lillian was so kind, Anna loved her, but she needed a moment to stop thinking about all the apples she wouldn’t get to eat.
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight
A few days later Anna had a meeting with Mr Owens. She brought her marriage certificate and he congratulated her, then made arrangements for her to access the accounts for the money her parents had left. She also remade her will, and she’d thought she already knew exactly what she was going to do, but there were so many little niggling details that it took a long time. She wanted to leave the jewellery that had been their mother’s to Elsa, she might as well have it; but had to describe each piece. And she wanted to make sure that Kristoff got his grandmother’s ring back, of course. Then she had to decide what would happen if Kristoff pre-deceased her, or if Elsa did, or if she had a baby (and that led to some feelings that Anna quickly sealed in a box and put away. Another thing that would never happen. No point dwelling on it).
Once everything was done, she said to Mr Owens, “I’d like to buy Bennett’s Field. I’m assuming the developer doesn’t want it any more.”
He hesitated. “I believe it has already been sold.”
“It can’t be used for housing anyway, now, you know.”
“I know. Thank you.”
She walked out to the taxi rank, annoyed. It had only been six weeks or so; someone else must have been waiting. She should have made enquiries earlier, but she’d wanted to be sure of the money. At least it couldn’t be housing. Hopefully someone just wanted to put some cows on there, or something.
Anna had, by now, stopped asking Kristoff about his mysterious occupation. Sometimes it had been fun to think of things to ask (“Are you a taxidermist?” “No.” “Are you a spy?” “No.” “Are you Taylor Swift’s bodyguard?” “From an office shed in the woods? No.”), but soon she found she didn’t really care. It genuinely didn’t matter. Some days he would shut himself up and only come out for dinner; once a month or so he would go up to London on the train and often not come back until the next day. The rest of the time he worked in the garden, or took her on long walks through the countryside, or sat in the living room and played his guitar or the piano.
Anna had been surprised to find out that the piano was in perfect tune. The stool was full of odds and ends of sheet music, and half-remembered lessons from fifteen years ago came back when she sat down and tried to play. It was so much more pleasant to play whatever she wanted, without anyone standing over her or expecting her to make actual progress.
She had all the time in the world now, for other hobbies she’d forgotten about or that were alleged to make too much mess. She sketched the cat in every pose, and did watercolour painting of the flowers from the gardens. Lillian taught her how to make bread, and she got pretty good. And she cycled everywhere she felt like. Sometimes Kristoff would put both their bikes in the back of the camper and they’d go off and explore somewhere else - her legs were getting strong enough to keep up with him, now.
They also took the camper to the beach, sometimes; sometimes at the weekend during the day, when there were crowds of people and children making sandcastles, and they paddled in the sea and ate ice cream and people-watched; but more often in the early evening during the week, to somewhere quieter, where they might be the only people in miles. Once or twice they slept in the camper overnight, within sound of the waves, waking with the dawn.
That summer lasted forever and was over in a second. Anna helped in the garden and ate strawberries straight off the plant and fresh green peas out of the pod. She gathered sweet peas and poppies and daisies and filled vases in the house, but they never lasted long so in the end she started just enjoying them in the garden. Kristoff didn’t own a lawnmower, it was true, but he did hack down the grass occasionally with a scythe while Anna watched from a safe distance.
But mostly they walked. The bridleway behind the house led to a network of footpaths through the countryside, forests and farms and streams. Sometimes they took a packed lunch and stayed out all day. Anna loved it; sometimes she felt like she was living in a John Foster song. It was hard to remember listening to the music and looking longingly towards the woods, those few months ago.
One time when they were walking through a clearing Anna couldn’t help herself. The beams of sunlight hitting the forest floor were just so - she sang the refrain of Thistle Harvest softly, to the trees. Kristoff shot her a look.
“Yes,” Anna said firmly, and sang it again, a little louder. Kristoff pulled a face.
“You have a lovely voice,” he said, “But surely you know other songs.”
“That song belongs here,” Anna said. “Right here, in this clearing. Okay, okay, I’m done now. But moments like that are what that song was written for - I don’t care what you think about John Foster, it would have been sacrilege not to sing it.”
He rolled his eyes, said “Well, if you’ve got that out of your system,” and walked on down the path.
One night that stuck in her memory was after the end of a long, hot week. The temperature had climbed, and the air had grown denser and heavier until all the weather could do was break, which it did just after nightfall on the Friday. The fresh cold air came sweeping through the forest, and Anna - who had just put on her pyjamas - ran outside into the garden. Her feet were bare and she shivered, but it was wonderful, after so many sweaty days and nights, to be shivering.
“It’s about to pour,” Kristoff said from just outside the back door, holding his toothbrush. “Come in before you get soaked.” Thunder rolled.
“I don’t care if I do,” Anna said. She looked up at the sky, and shivered again at another cool breeze. “I love the air before a storm, don’t you? It feels so alive.”
Kristoff ducked back inside, then he walked across the garden to her, his arms folded. She grinned at him, and he leant down and kissed her - just as the rain started, large wet raindrops that drummed on the corrugated plastic roof of the covered path by the back door, that soaked Anna’s hair until they ran down her back and her nose.
Eventually they had to run back into the house, dripping and laughing.
“You’re freezing,” Kristoff said as they stood just inside the back door, “You’ll catch your death -” then he froze, just for a second. “I’ll get your towel,” he said, and he was gone.
If there was a point when things changed, that was it. He was still kind, and perfectly nice and friendly, and a pleasure to share a house with. But gradually he withdrew. He would still happily hug her, put a hand on her arm or the small of her back, but he kissed her less and less. The sex dwindled away as well, and Anna didn’t want to push anything. This wasn’t some kind of - slutty make-a-wish programme.
Not that she thought he hadn’t wanted to, before - he’d obviously had a crush on her, that was all, and over time it had passed. These things burnt out after a while, sometimes, she guessed. It was still a lot nicer living here than at home, and when she made noises about moving out a couple of times he very quickly told her that she was welcome to stay as long as she wanted, he liked having her here, and that Banjo would miss her, and what would he say to Lillian? So she stayed. They both still wore their rings.
I don’t care if he doesn’t love me, she thought. I hope he DOESN’T, I never wanted him to. He likes me well enough to let me live here, and to be nice to me, and try to make me happy; I don’t want him to love me. If he doesn’t love me, then when I die, he’ll just be a little sad to lose a friend. But I never wanted to break his heart. That wouldn’t be fair.
Anna told Kristoff she wanted summer to last forever. “For everything there is a season,” he said. “Autumn can be nice, too.”
That autumn was mild but wet. On dry days Anna still went for walks, alone or with her husband, but on damp ones he worked in his office and she found things to do at home. It was such a small house that it was easy to stay on top of the housework. Her big project for the autumn was knitting a jumper. Lillian had suggested it - Anna had asked her to teach her how to knit, and was expecting to make a scarf, but Lillian insisted that was boring and that a jumper on big needles would be more fun and not take much longer. They’d made a trip together to the wool shop in town and Anna had chosen soft thick yarn in a mustard yellow. She had to redo the back three times and it came out huge and with one sleeve longer than the other but she loved it and wore it constantly.
She offered to make one for Kristoff but he insisted she not go to the trouble.
She was wearing it one day when he came into the living room and found her scowling at her phone.
“Oh, nothing - well - John Foster is doing a gig in London next month, and he hardly ever does live shows, and they released the tickets literally two minutes ago and they’re all gone. I mean, I knew it’d be super-popular. But I did want to go. Not with you, obviously. But Rebecca is a fan as well. Oh, well. Never mind.”
Kristoff went up to London the next day and got back late; Anna woke when he got into the bed and snuggled up against him, then when she woke in the morning he was already up and out of the bedroom. But when she turned over and put her arm across his pillow, she found something pointy. An envelope. And inside were two tickets to the John Foster gig, paper-clipped together and with a post-it note saying ‘K. Bjorgman’ stuck to them.
“Someone I know helped me out,” was all he would say when she thanked him. “Just please don’t make me go with you.”
Winter was drier and colder. Anna was dreading having to invite Elsa for Christmas - she couldn’t leave her alone, at Christmas - and then got a short text message in mid-December from Elsa telling Anna that she would be visiting a friend over the festive period so would be unable to receive guests. Lillian invited Anna and Kristoff for Christmas dinner, instead, and it was so lovely and cosy that Anna didn’t miss her sister at all.
One day in January it snowed and Anna made a row of snowmen in the orchard. They lasted, melting stumps, long after the rest of the snow had gone, and Anna couldn’t bear to break them down but still hated to see them disappear. “For everything there is a season,” Kristoff said.
He was her best friend. She didn’t think she’d ever had one before. She could say anything to him, and she got the impression he told her things he’d never told anyone else. They were so comfortable together. Anna thought, sometimes, about all the travelling she’d imagined she would do; but why would she want to be anywhere but in front of the fire, reading or chatting or drinking tea, with her favourite person in the world?
He was still free with his hugs, even if he didn’t seem interested in anything else physical. And even without central heating, Anna was never cold at night - Kristoff was like a radiator, and in his sleep he would wrap his arms around her and she would snuggle up close. Anna had never been too fond of winter before, but this one was very bearable. Sometimes, if she woke in the night, she would even deliberately lie there awake for a while, just enjoying how warm and cosy and content she felt.
And then it was spring. And it was Anna’s birthday again.
She’d known, somehow, that she’d see it. She’d always counted on having her full year, even if that would have seemed foolish to say out loud. She told Kristoff she didn’t want any fuss, but he insisted that they at least go for a picnic; so she wore her red dress and brought the sparkly shoes, although she wore trainers to walk to the picnic spot.
Afterwards, though, she kept the heels on. What did it matter if the mud ruined them? She managed to get over a stile without help, and they were only half a mile away from home when it happened.
Their route took them along the side of a country road, and it crossed the railway line at a level crossing. The lights and alarms were going when they got to it, but the barrier was only just starting to go down, so Kristoff ducked under it and strode across the track. Anna scurried after him - while mentally tutting at him for not waiting - and nearly wrenched her ankle when her heel got caught in the rail.
“Kristoff!” she called, at first just to let him know that he was leaving her behind. But then she still couldn’t free her foot.
The barriers were all the way down now. Anna put both hands on her ankle and tugged but the heel was caught fast. Then Kristoff was there, and he was trying to turn her foot to free it - Anna was seized with a blinding panic and tried to push him away, the train must be coming - but he wouldn’t go, and her heart was beating so fast that she was certain she was going to die right here one way or another. “Go, go!” she shouted at him - and looked up, and saw the train in the distance.
She couldn’t move. Just for one second, everything froze - and then Kristoff had pushed the strap of her shoe over the heel of her foot and he was pulling her, almost lifting her bodily off the track and into the hedgerow on the other side of the crossing.
The train thundered past, horn blaring. The noise and the wheels were so close and they went on forever, then suddenly stopped.
The road was silent. The birds started singing again. Kristoff stood, and put out his hand to pull Anna to her feet; there was a fallen log lying by the side of the road, and they sat on it.
“Are you alright?” Kristoff said after a couple of minutes.
“Yes.” And oh - how she wished she could have given him a different answer. A shock would kill her, the doctor had said. What could be a bigger shock than what had just happened? But her heartbeat was slowing to normal; she felt a little shaky, but no more than anyone else would, after all that. How could that be?
“Yes. Are you -”
“I’m fine.” Kristoff stood and picked up his rucksack from where he’d dropped it, and took out Anna’s trainers. She put them on and handed him the single remaining shoe, the other so pulverised by the train that no sign of it remained. He put the shoe in the rucksack, put it back on his shoulders, and, without a word, turned and walked towards home.
When they got there he shut himself in his office and didn’t come out until after Anna was asleep.
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine
Anna woke. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but now it was clearly morning. Kristoff was sitting on the side of the bed, fully dressed.
“I’m sorry, this is such a pain, I forgot I have to go into Town today - I have to go or I’ll miss my train. Will you be okay?”
“Mm. Yes. I’m fine.” He had said something about going to London the day after her birthday, and she’d forgotten too.
“I’m so sorry, I meant to…” he looked at his watch. “I’ll come home as soon as I can, okay? And we’ll - talk. And there’s something else I wanted to do yesterday but - anyway. Later, okay?”
To her surprise, he leant forward and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you later. Go back to sleep.”
“See you later,” Anna said, and watched him go.
It was almost eight, not so very early. Anna wasn’t sleepy any more so she got up and dressed. Yesterday’s events seemed distant already, almost dream-like - but they’d happened, and she could barely sit still, she was so caught up in wondering - had the doctor made a mistake? She couldn’t think of another reason why she was still here, breathing, heart beating as normal, as she paced the length of the garden and back.
At nine she rang the doctor’s surgery and made an appointment for later that morning. Kristoff would have taken the campervan to the station but she could call a mini-cab, or perhaps ask Lillian for a lift - no, she knew if she did that, she’d end up telling her everything. She had almost told Lillian, so many times, but she hadn’t wanted to make her sad; hadn’t wanted the time they had to be coloured by it. Kristoff had been good as his word, and never referred to Anna’s health, never treated her as if her strength was any less than his, and she was unbelievably grateful for it.
He’d said they needed to talk. Was he drawing the same conclusion she was? Or was he thinking that she had lied all along?
“I see here,” the doctor said, reading her computer screen, “That you were scheduled for a follow-up from your last appointment but you cancelled it, any particular reason?”
“I - there didn’t seem much point.” Anna cringed a little, expecting to be told off.
The doctor frowned at her computer screen and clicked through a couple of tabs. “Yes, you’re probably right,” she said. “Looking at your results - not much point.”
Well, that was a little horrifying, coming from her doctor. Anna winced.
“Yes, a lot of people have these little blips,” the doctor was saying. “It’s good to have it in your records in case it gets worse but for now, no need to do anything. Have you had any further symptoms?”
“No,” Anna said. “Nothing.”
“Then I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I shouldn’t worry about…” Anna paused. “I’m sorry, I’m confused. When I saw you, last year, you said...you gave me this.” Anna rummaged in her handbag and produced the letter, now looking a bit bedraggled. The doctor took it and glanced at it; then frowned and read it more carefully; then turned to her computer again and started clicking through various screens. “Odd,” she said. “I don’t see why - ha. Yes, we did have trouble with that one…”
“Oh, the machine - it wasn’t calibrated correctly - but we called everyone back in,” the doctor said. “Didn’t you get a letter?”
“I - moved,” Anna said. Well, that was true. She wasn’t going to sit here and say that she’d had a letter - possibly, actually, more than one - and ignored it.
“Oh, goodness, I am sorry. Yes, I can see your results here but it’s definitely wrong, we’ve estimated what it should have been although of course we can redo it if you like.”
“I’m not dying?”
“No, no. A mild murmur. Won’t cause you any trouble.” The doctor was watching her face carefully. Probably wondering why I look so horrified, Anna thought dully.
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said. “I will of course follow up with the admin staff and find out why they didn’t contact you again.”
The doctor cleared her throat, then reached across her desk and picked up a card. “And if you wish to contact our official complaints service, then I’m sure…”
Anna shook her head. “It’s fine. It’s....I’m sorry, I have to go.” She grabbed her bag and stood up.
“Miss Rendell -”
“Mrs,” Anna said, and fled.
And suddenly, all the happiness of that past year was gone. All of it had been built on a lie, a lie that had ended up being at someone else’s expense. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Didn’t even get a second opinion. Anna almost ran out of the surgery and along the road to the taxi rank by the station. She saw Kristoff’s camper in the station car park and flinched away from it, even though he was miles away.
No wonder Kristoff hadn’t wanted to talk to her last night, had hidden away to avoid her. He’d realised what it meant, when the incident at the train track didn’t hurt her; he’d realised Anna was perfectly healthy, and that meant he was stuck with her forever. Or at least for another two years, wasn’t that how long it took to get a divorce? Or was it five? Either way. Oh, what if he’d thought she was lying all along; he must have been so angry. He probably wanted to talk to her later just to throw her out.
It was cowardly, to leave while he was at work, but she knew she needed to do it. She didn’t want to put him in the position of having to pretend he wanted her to stay, to say he didn’t mind. She had made him marry her under false pretences and she didn’t deserve his understanding. She didn’t deserve anything.
“Could you come back in an hour and pick me up again?” she asked the taxi driver when they pulled up at the end of the lane.
“It’s a bit of a drive out -”
“I just need to get my things together, I need to leave before he gets home,” Anna said. It wasn’t until the driver’s expression changed that she realised what she’d said.
“Of course, love,” he said. “I’ll be here. Do you want me to wait here while you get sorted? It’s no trouble.”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that -” But it would take too long to explain. “He’s at work until late. I’ll be fine, thank you.” The driver nodded but she noticed he didn’t pull away until after she’d reached the house.
It took only half the time for Anna to pack her suitcase. Banjo rubbed up against her legs as she squeezed her clothes into the case and she bent down to scratch him under the chin. “I’m sorry, puss,” she said. “I’ll miss you.”
There were a few other things scattered around the house, and as she was gathering them in a carrier bag Anna realised that she did need to tell him why she had left. She should leave a note. But the only paper she could find was the shopping list pad, which had a design of cheerful vegetables - that didn’t seem very appropriate. Or the back of an envelope. Oh, dear.
Without thinking, she ran down the path to the office. It was locked, of course, but the key was under a flowerpot - she’d seen him take it out a hundred times. She didn’t think at all about what she was doing - she was just focussed on needing a piece of paper, and this seemed the most likely place to find one.
She’d expected a desk, maybe shelves or filing cabinets. There was a small table with a laptop, but it was connected to some other electronics she didn’t recognise. That was definitely a microphone, and speakers. His guitar was on a stand in the corner. But they weren’t paper, so she didn’t pay much attention to them. Instead she spotted an inkjet printer in the corner and took a piece of paper out of the tray, then went back to the house, locking up behind her.
Anna put her case and the bags outside the front door, then she sat down at the dining table with the paper and a biro from the kitchen drawer. Her mind was racing. What could be enough? Nothing. But she had to write something.
I’ve gone home. I went to see my doctor this morning. She told me that there was a problem with the machine they used to diagnose me last year. There was never anything wrong with my heart and I am perfectly healthy and should live for decades.
I’m so sorry. I never meant to deceive you (she had to stop here for a moment to rub her sleeve across her eyes) and I hope you can forgive me. I will contact a lawyer and hopefully we can be divorced soon. I will of course pay all the costs.
Thank you for the happiest year of my life.
She took the ring off her finger and left it on top of the letter.
The taxi was waiting for her at the end of the lane. It had taken Anna a couple of trips to get all her belongings there, and the driver helped her fit everything into the boot.
She wasn’t going to cry. And she wasn’t going to look back at the house or the lane as they drove away.
The radio was on, and she asked the driver if he would turn it up, which he did quite happily.
‘....and now we have an exclusive - the new John Foster track, which I know you’ve all been waiting for -”
Oh, she’d forgotten about that. She’d seen about his new album online a few days ago, but with everything, she’d forgotten.
“- and you won’t have heard this anywhere else. I’ve heard it, and it’s a cracker, so settle down and enjoy. This is John Foster, his new single, Heartwood.’
The song began, and Anna’s brow wrinkled. This song wasn’t new - why, hadn’t she heard Kristoff play that intro a dozen times. He was always sitting around holding his guitar and playing little bits of tunes, and she’d liked that one. John Foster, you’re a plagiarist, she thought.
The lyrics began. Unusually for Mr Foster, it seemed to be a love song. There was a girl, and he loved her. He loved her, but they only had a year. For everything there is a season . That was what Kristoff always said. Well, she supposed it was no wonder she couldn’t stop thinking about him.
For everything there is a season
However many or how few
But if we only have a season
At least I spent this one with you]
She was going to cry. She concentrated on the words to try and avoid it.
[Your hair is honey in the sunlight
Your kisses honey on my lips]
Kristoff had said that. Something like that. Hadn’t he?
[When I come home and you’re not waiting for me
Your sweet smile is what I’ll miss]
For everything there is a season
However many or how few
But if we only have a season, Anna
At least I spent this one with you]
Anna sat bolt upright in her seat. Did he say her name? She was imagining it. She…
...she knew Kristoff wasn’t John Foster; she’d seen John Foster perform. But she also knew that he didn’t write his own songs, there had been a heated discussion about that online that she’d avoided, because what did it matter? The songs themselves mattered. She hadn’t given much thought to who the songwriter actually was.
Except that she was married to him. That’s how he’d got the tickets to the concert, why he already knew the tune, how he made his money. And he’d written her a love song. His first love song.
No. She’d lied to him - however unintentionally - and it was a good idea for a song. It was a nice song; he was a talented man. She hoped the people of the world loved it and he made a heap of money, which he deserved, for putting up with her all this time.
But. He’d written her a love song.
She hadn’t let herself think about her feelings for Kristoff. Because she knew what they were. She’d known for a long time. If things had been different, if she’d met him otherwise - well, who knew how that might have gone. Maybe he’d have tired of her, anyway. Maybe she’d still have ended up alone, no matter how much she loved him.
Anna swallowed hard, and stared out of the window, watching the trees give way to houses, until they pulled up outside Elsa’s door. Anna’s door.
The taxi driver helped her get everything out of the boot and carry it up to the door. Anna tipped him well, found her old door key in the bottom of her handbag and let herself in.
No one noticed her, for a little while. She brought everything inside and started to carry it up to her bedroom, which was exactly as she’d left it. Anna wondered if it had been left for her deliberately, if Elsa had thought she might come back; or if no one had thought about it at all.
She was putting away some of her clothes when Elsa appeared in the doorway. “Anna?” she said. “Why are you here?”
“Because I’m not going to die,” Anna said, sat down on her bed, and burst into tears.
Elsa clearly didn’t know what to do, but she sat down next to Anna and patted her on the shoulder, which is more than Anna would have expected. She listened while Anna told her the full story - or most of it - and she only said ‘Why didn’t you get a second opinion?’ once and ‘I wish you’d told me’ twice, which to Anna was acceptable.
“I’d actually been meaning to come and see you,” Elsa said, after they’d sat in silence together for a long moment. “I wanted to tell you something.”
“Tell me what?” said Anna, taking a whole handful of tissues and blowing her nose.
“I bought Bennett’s Field.”
“What? For what?”
Elsa hesitated, and looked at her hands. “The council has been looking for sites for a new country park. I bought the land to donate it. I thought - if you agree - we could combine it with the land we already own.”
Anna stared at her, mouth open. Then she said “That sounds wonderful.”
“I know that - you and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. I didn’t know how to be your guardian. I knew I wasn’t doing a good job, but I had no idea how to fix it.”
“It’s okay,” Anna said, automatically.
“No it isn’t.”
“We can start again. From now. As adults.”
“I’d like that.” They sat side by side for a while. “I haven’t even met your husband,” Elsa said.
Anna sniffed. “He won’t be my husband much longer.”
Elsa squeezed her hand. “You never know.”
The doorbell rang at almost eleven that night, as Anna was contemplating going to bed. She didn’t want to climb into those white sheets, alone, but it had to be done; she’d put everything away, tidied it all neatly, had a long hot shower, and now going to bed was the only thing remaining. Until the doorbell rang. Elsa answered it.
“May I speak to my wife, please?”
Anna stopped at the sound of his voice, and listened, but Elsa’s reply was inaudible. Anna leant on the wall and peered round to try and see down the stairs.
“I just need to talk to her. I think - there’s been a misunderstanding. My fault. Is she here? Please?”
Anna walked out of the hallway and onto the top stair. Kristoff was standing just outside the front door, and when he saw her he stepped forward; Elsa moved backward to let him into the house. She glanced at them both, then shut the front door behind him and disappeared into the living room. Anna barely noticed her leave. Kristoff was standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking at her with an expression on his face that she couldn’t place.
“You can come up,” she said, for want of anything else to say. “Um. If you like.” She didn’t wait for him to reach her, but walked slowly into her bedroom.
“This is your room?” was what he said when he joined her.
He nodded, slowly. Now that he was here he seemed to not be able to think what to say.
“Kristoff,” Anna said, “Are you a musician? A songwriter?”
He smiled, lopsided. “Yes.”
“I heard your song. On the radio.”
He nodded. “I knew it was being released today. I was going to play it for you yesterday, on your birthday. And tell you everything. Then I was going to do it today, but I got home and you weren’t there.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“About the songwriting?” He shrugged. “At first just because I knew you’d want to meet John and he and I don’t really get on. He’s a bit of a dick, to be honest. The record company matched us up, we aren’t friends.”
“But you don’t mind him recording your songs?”
Kristoff shrugged again. “They’re all just nonsense.”
“No, they aren’t. Kristoff, you don’t know what they meant to me, those songs, when I was alone and miserable. They’re wonderful.”
“The only one I care about is the one I wrote for you.”
He took both her hands in his. “I read your letter. You’re not going to die?”
“No. No more than anyone else, anyway.”
He squeezed her hands and she looked up to see him beaming at her. “Come home,” he said.
“You don’t want me to do that. You don’t have to be polite.”
“I can’t come back,” Anna said. “And we have to get a divorce. I’ll do whatever you need me to do. We can be friends. But I know you only married me because you felt sorry for me and wanted to help me out. And I can’t stay married to someone who doesn’t love me, no matter how I might feel about them. It isn’t fair.”
Kristoff nodded and let her hands fall. “That’s my fault,” he said. “That you think that. Alright, yes - I married you because I knew you’d be miserable if you went home, and I thought I could help you. I thought you’d stay until you got your money, then you’d be off, and I was okay with that.”
Anna opened her mouth, but he wasn’t finished. “I didn’t love you then,” he continued. “Though I liked you well enough. And by the end of the summer I realised I was falling for you - but I remembered that you were going to die. And I couldn’t - I tried, I tried to stop myself. I told myself it was nothing. But my god, when I saw that train bearing down on you, I knew that I loved you. You have to believe me.”
He was so very earnest, that was the thing. He had never lied to her; looking into his eyes, she knew he wasn’t lying now.
“I love you,” she said. Kristoff smiled. He put his hand in his jacket pocket, and pulled out the ring Anna had last seen on her letter, on the table. He held it out to her in his open hand.
“Then come home,” he said.
And Anna realised that the only thing stopping her was the little voice in her brain saying that it was too easy. It was too right. How ludicrous, to have something you wanted so much offered to you freely, by someone who desperately wanted you to take it. But how wonderful.
Until her dying day - many, many years in the future - Anna never forgot the expression on Kristoff’s face as she took the ring from his hand and put it on. Never forgot how it felt when he pulled her into his arms and kissed her, knowing that this time, it really was forever.
Anna woke, and it was so comfortable and familiar that it took her a few minutes to remember everything that had happened over the last couple of days. But she was home; this was home. Forever.
Something was unfamiliar, though. She could hear two men, talking. She got up, put on her dressing gown, and opened the bedroom door.
The back door was open, and the conversation was happening just outside it.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” one man was saying. “Either just put it in the bathroom as it is or knock through here. Or could use that space for a shower. I’ll do you a couple of quotes, if you like.”
“That’d be great, thanks.” That was Kristoff.
“Lovely spot you’ve got here. Can see why you don’t want to move.”
“We’re fond of it.”
“You know,” the other man - a builder? A plumber? - said, “This floorplan, what most people do, is put some stairs in and convert the loft. You can probably get two bedrooms up there, or a nice master suite. Keep one bedroom downstairs if you want. That storage building, it’s brick, right?”
“Breeze block,” Kristoff said.
“So it’s a permanent part of the existing building, right, you could get planning to add that onto the house. Might not even need planning permission. You could get three bedrooms in here, easy, without having to make the actual building any bigger, except maybe some dormers in the roof. Up to you, of course. Depends how much space you think you’re going to need. Just the two of you, is it?”
“At the moment, yes. Though that’s certainly something to think about.”
“I’ll put together a rough estimate on that as well if you like. You don’t want to have to move when you have kids. Lovely spot.”
“That’s very true. Though right now I mainly don’t want to spend another winter listening to my wife complain about how cold the loo seat is.”
Anna laughed, and Kristoff looked over at her and smiled. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Anna said; and it was. The first, best morning of the rest of her life.