I’m all on track for a May release! My test readers and final edits are done, and I’m down to the finishing touches: proofreading, formatting, and finalising the cover.
So to celebrate, here’s the prologue plus first three chapters of my forthcoming young adult fantasy, The Edge of the Woods.
Hope you enjoy!
I barely remember my father.
I’m told he was a good, respectable man, and that he had many friends in the village. I know he was kind to me, and to Mama. I know he wore thick oval glasses, and that his fingers were constantly bandaged from pricking himself with the sewing needle. I know he died from a watery cough when I was four years old, and I know his death meant the end of my mother’s hope of a good life for us.
* * *
We were moved from our apartment above the shop into a tiny one-room house on the edge of the village the week after his funeral. Most widows were allowed to stay in their husband’s houses until their sons or sons-in-law inherited them, but shops and the apartments above them belong to the village. We were lucky, in a way, that there was an empty house for us at all.
Mama did her best to make the downgrade seem like an improvement: now we could sleep in the same room every night and whisper to each other until we fell asleep. Now we would always be warm, because our beds were in the same room as the kitchen. Now our window overlooked the meadow, so we would have the nicest view in the whole village.
For that first year, we were happy. At least, she never let me see that she wasn’t. We fixed up the house as best we could with cheerful curtains and bunting and jars of wildflowers. We baked and played games in the morning, and she gave me lessons and read to me in the afternoons. Sometimes we would go visiting in the village, and I would play with the other children my age while she drank tea and gossiped with the wives of Father’s former friends.
* * *
On my fifth birthday, as a special treat, Mama set out a picnic in the centre of the meadow. The meadow began right beside our house, and ran all the way down the hill to the woods. I had picked flowers from the side of the lane many times, but this was the first time I had ever been allowed into it. As Mama laid out a crisp white cloth for us to sit on, she stressed that I was never to go there without her.
Thinking back, I remember the sadness in Mama’s face as she unpacked our lunch, though I didn’t notice at the time. We had come to the end of father’s money, and she had spent the last of it on me. Now she would have to find a job and earn her own money – shameful for a woman in our village, and shameful on the man who hadn’t been able to provide for her. Father, however talented he had been, died too young to put away enough for us to live on.
Our picnic was set up in the very centre of the meadow, where the hill plateaus for a good twenty feet before sloping down to the trees below. Poppies, buttercups, daisies and snowdrops danced around us on all sides. It reminded me of an image from a book Mama had read me not long before. A small, white boat lost in the high seas. I told her about it, and she laughed and launched at me, pretending to be one of the pirates from the story.
I squealed and ran, diving from the safety of the white cloth into the colourful ocean. Mama chased after me, shouting and laughing. But as I ran for the slope and down, her tone changed.
‘Emma, stop!’ she shouted, sharper than I’d ever heard her before.
But the slope was too steep, and I thought it was part of the game. I couldn’t have stopped my little legs even if I’d wanted to. I crashed to the bottom, landing in a carpet of bluebells. In front of me was a single white tree, completely bare, and a little further beyond loomed the frontline of the woods.
‘Mama!’ I called, delighted by the change in flowers. They ran all the way into the woods and beyond. ‘These are even more like the sea!’ I picked a handful and held them close, breathing in the smell. Fresh and clean, clearing my head like the best kind of winter’s morning.
But Mama had lost all interest in playing. She grabbed me by the wrist, pulled me to my feet and slapped me sharply across the cheek. It wasn’t painful, but the shock made my eyes well. I dropped my bluebells and hid my face behind my fingers as she marched me back up the hill.
‘Mama,’ I blubbered, tugging uselessly. ‘Mama, you’re hurting me.’
She didn’t look at me until we reached our picnic. Only then did she release my wrist, pulling my hand away from my face and grabbing me by both shoulders.
‘You never, ever go near the trees,’ she almost yelled. Her own eyes were glistening, and what I saw wasn’t anger, but fear. ‘Not for anything. No matter who you’re with, or what you see. Do you understand me?’
I nodded, tears spilling over. ‘I didn’t mean to.’
Mama’s face softened, and she pulled me close and kissed me on both wet cheeks, rocking me. ‘I know you didn’t,’ she assured me, her voice soft and gentle again. ‘I’m sorry I hit you. You scared me, that’s all. The woods are too dangerous to play near.’
‘Why?’ I sniffed.
‘People disappear in them,’ she told me, serious. ‘Young people. Not very much older than you.’
I looked back to where the hill sloped down. The tops of the trees swayed gently in the breeze. They didn’t look threatening, but Mama’s words had given them a new sense of power. ‘Why?’
‘Nobody knows why. Sometimes the older children get too close to the trees, and then days or weeks later they vanish.’ She looked down at me, holding me so tight her fingers dug into my arms. ‘I couldn’t bear it, if you ever disappeared.’
‘But what happens to them?’ I asked in a scared whisper.
‘It might be monsters,’ Mama confided, wiping her eyes. Her tone had changed. It was lighter, less serious. She was trying to distract me.
But I was captivated. ‘What do they do?’
I didn’t notice Mama’s hand creeping around my back. ‘They gobble you up!’ she yelled, putting on a funny voice and tickling my sides. I squealed with fright, and then with laughter. The tickle war raged on until we were both on our backs, out of breath and giggling.
Mama reached for the food beside the picnic basket and looked at me, smiling. ‘What do you think about starting with dessert? Just this once?’
I bolted up with excitement. ‘Can we?’
She put a cake frosted with pale purple cream and covered with fresh fruit in front of me, cutting a wide slice. I wolfed it down, so thrilled at the thought of eating a meal backwards that I didn’t even protest when Mama handed me a plate heaped with the boring meat and vegetables.
‘Now this is dessert!’ I laughed, scooping up a spoonful of beans. Everything tastes better when you call it dessert.
When we were done, Mama poured herself a cup of wine and a juice for me, letting me clink my cup against hers like a real grown up.
‘Blessed birthday, Emma,’ she smiled.
‘Blessed birthday, Mama,’ I replied solemnly but incorrectly, trying my best to emulate her. She just laughed and took a long drink of her wine.
We lay on our backs and took turns finding pictures in the clouds. Soon enough, the food in our bellies and the warm summer sun lulled us both to sleep.
* * *
I woke to a flash of light.
I sat up, shivering against the breeze. The sun had disappeared behind a thick layer of cloud, casting the meadow in shadow. Mama was still asleep. I remember thinking she looked like a princess from one of our books, sleeping peacefully in the flowers.
Reaching over to shake her awake, something caught my eye. A small glinting thing, hidden in the long grass stalks. Forgetting Mama, I carefully picked my way towards it, trying to creep up on whatever it was.
The glint bobbed up into the air the moment I pounced, but as I crashed down on empty air I caught a proper look at it. A firefly. Sometimes Mama and I caught glimpses of them in the trees after dark, but I’d never seen one up close before. I crowed with delight and tried to snap my hands around it, but it bobbed further away.
I chased it round and round the picnic, calling out to Mama to wake up and look. But I had learned from sleeping in the same room as her that only a sharp shove could wake her before she was ready.
The firefly broke out of the loop bounced over to the top of the slope. I skidded to a halt, remembering Mama’s slap, but it bounced up and down enthusiastically. Waiting for me.
I looked back. Mama still hadn’t moved.
Promising myself I would only go to the edge, I crept towards the firefly with arms outstretched. It hovered in place until my finger was a hair away, then skipped merrily out over the drop.
I stamped my foot. ‘Come back!’ I ordered, digging my shoes into the earth and reaching out further.
Another firefly sprung up from the flowers beside me, twirling around my body. Startled, I tried to grab at it and overbalanced, tumbling backward down the hill and rolling to the bottom.
Dizzy and afraid of what Mama would do if she found me here again, I tried to stand up and immediately fell. Groaning as the world spun around me, I rolled onto my back and stared up at the rumbling sky and towering bluebells until they slowed to a halt.
The fireflies reappeared above me. I held out my hand and one landed on an outstretched finger, rewarding me for playing along. Its scratchy little legs tickled as it crawled over my skin, making me laugh.
I sat up and blew, sending it back into the air to join the other one. All at once, I heard a sound so faint I couldn’t tell if it had only just begun or if I’d only just noticed it.
Craning my head to listen, I caught snatches of a simple, cheerful tune. Before I knew what I was doing, I was on my feet, following the sound to the white tree.
A little shiver ran through me as I touched the cool, smooth bark. I was afraid to be so near the woods, afraid of Mama yelling at me, but for some reason I couldn’t turn away.
The music was much louder there, and my feet itched to dance. The fireflies flew past me, swirling around the trunk to settle on a little shape sitting in the roots on the other side. The shape moved, and I shrank back in alarm. But the happy tune continued, and with it in my ear it was hard to be afraid of anything.
Inching around the tree, I peeked out at the shape. It was a boy, about my age, playing a wooden flute.
Relieved, I crept closer and put a hand on his smooth, naked shoulder. His skin was warm, almost hot to the touch. ‘Are you a monster?’ I asked.
The boy dropped the flute, flinching away and staring up at me with bright, startled eyes.
* * *
Mama shook me awake, the picnic basket over her arm. The sky was angry and dark, growling as the first drops of rain spattered down. ‘Emma, we have to get inside!’
Blinking, I let her lead me up the hill. But where had the boy gone? Where were the fireflies?
Twisting around, I searched for a sign of them.
Mama stopped and scooped me up, wrapping the picnic cloth around me to shield me from the rain. We reached the top of the hill and got inside the house just as the sky opened.
Breathless, Mama dropped me on my bed and dried me off. I could see that she was speaking to me, smiling and pointing at the window as the rain hammered against it. But my head felt woolly, and all of her words were muffled. Like she was talking to me from behind a pane of glass.
‘Emma?’ Mama frowned. ‘Are you all right?’
I wanted to tell her about the boy, but something told me it would just upset her. Besides, with every second his face grew fuzzier behind the fog in my head.
Without waiting for me to answer, Mama touched a hand to my forehead and pulled it away with shock. ‘Lord, Emma, you’re burning up!’
With the speed only a worried parent can muster, she had me in my nightclothes and tucked up in bed, a compress on my head and a steaming mug of tea on the windowsill. She stood over me, wringing her hands, as I drifted into a troubled dream of half heard whispers and circling fireflies.
My eyes open half an hour before the roosters are due to crow.
I stretch and sit up, blinking in the morning light. Mama lies on her back on the other side of the room, mouth open and snoring. The sound is almost too loud to come from such a small person, bouncing off the empty wooden walls of our house to echo in and harmonise with itself. But it doesn’t bother me. That snorting, choking thunder is the sound of home.
Swinging my legs over the bed, I pad over to the pail beside the door. Mama has put the scrubbing brush on top of the soft cloth I prefer to clean myself with, probably hoping I’ll finally give in and scrub myself raw like she does. Fat chance.
Bracing myself against the chill of the air and the cold water, I strip and wash myself quickly. I don’t bother to keep quiet, letting the water swish and the bucket clang against the floorboards. Even if Mama could hear me over her snoring, it wouldn’t wake her. She sleeps like the dead.
I’m pulling on my stockings when the crowing fills the air. The snoring hiccups its way to a complete stop as Mama slowly wakes up – more from habit than anything the roosters could do.
It takes another few minutes for her to sit up, and another few to ease herself out of bed. She complains of the cold more often now, and grunts when she stands. I glance at her from the corner of my eye as I prepare breakfast. She’s not old, but the years have not been kind to her. The pretty face I remember has been hidden behind worry lines, her full cheeks worn away. She’s lost too much weight, spent too much time on her knees scrubbing other people’s floors.
‘Breakfast, Mama,’ I call when she’s finished scrubbing herself. She waves her hand at me, as she always does. She’ll be ready when she’s ready, the gesture says.
She eases herself down at the table, skin scoured to a bright, angry red, and we eat in a comfortable silence.
I finish my breakfast and clean my teeth in the pail, leaving the plates for Mama to deal with. ‘I’m going, Mama.’ She stands and inspects me, same as she does every morning. My hair is neat, my clothes are spotless, my nails bitten down to the quick. She nods her approval at everything but the latter, pursing her lips at my stubby nails but choosing not to say anything. Mama surrendered the war on my nail biting years ago.
‘Speak to Andrew today,’ she instructs me. ‘Ask after his mother.’
‘Yes, Mama,’ I agree, trying not to sigh. Andrew seems about as interesting as dry toast.
She stands on her toes and kisses me on each cheek. I squat down to help her, trying not the let her notice that I’m doing it. I’m tall for a girl and she’s short for a woman, and Mama doesn’t like to be reminded of either.
‘Blessed birthday, Emma,’ she whispers.
‘Thank you, Mama.’
‘Seventeen,’ she shakes her head, taking my face in her hands and pulling me down further to look at me, eyes searching every inch of my face. She does this every year, memorizing me at each stage of my life. I used to giggle and try to squirm away, but now I just pick a spot on the wall behind her head and stare awkwardly at it until she’s done.
Mama finally releases me, the ritual over, and returns to the table.
‘Be good,’ she bids me, easing herself back into the chair.
* * *
The village has begun to stir to life as I walk down the high street. The air is thick with the smell of baking bread, thankfully masking the smell of the butcher further down the way. I wave to some of the shopkeepers through the window, getting polite nods from the men and enthusiastic waves from their wives in return.
There are a few travelling traders in town, carts and stalls set up as normal around the village square. We see them often, peddling jewellery and spices and fabric, things we can’t grow or make in the village. We usually see the same traders several times a year, with others passing through less often and some only once.
‘A beautiful necklace for a beautiful neck,’ one calls to me with an accent and a cheerful glint in his eye. I’ve never seen him before, but the necklaces on his stall are lovely. A silver chain dotted with glittering blue stones catches my eye.
‘Do you do birthday specials?’ I ask, baiting him. We both know he’s only flattering me for the fun of it. The plain, rough cloth of my dress has already told him I can’t afford anything he’s selling.
‘Of course, dear girl,’ he jokes. ‘Six for the price of five and a half.’
I laugh and keep moving, bidding him good morning.
‘Most joyous birthday,’ he calls after me. It must be what they say, where ever he comes from. I start to wonder where that is, but squash the thought. It’ll only get me in trouble.
* * *
The schoolhouse is a long, simple building on the other side of the village. The yard is bare, a few wooden benches and a deteriorating rope swing hanging from a tree. Children don’t go to school to play, the mayor tells us, but to learn to be adults.
The woods lie within distant sight of the schoolhouse, separated from it by the farms. Mostly the schoolyard smells like cow manure, but when the wind blows the right way I sometimes get a hint of the crisp scent of bluebells and rich earth.
Every few years, usually when an overly superstitious mother or father’s first child goes to school, there’s talk of moving it further inside the village. But there’s never enough free space, and with every year between us and the last disappearance, everyone feels a little safer.
I’m usually the first person at school. The teachers are always late, helping their husbands open their shops and tending to their family for the day before they head over. Our teachers are volunteers – or volunteered – from the ranks of the village wives. Other than a few solid instructions from the mayor regarding curriculum, they’re not given any training. It’s not an ideal system – most have no idea what they’re doing.
I let myself into the schoolhouse and begin preparing the room for class. The room is divided in two by screens: the girls take the left hand side, and the boys the right. I ignore the boys’ side of the room and arrange the girls’ chairs in a large circle, setting out our books, cloth and thread.
‘Emma, you’re a treasure,’ my teacher remarks as she and the other students begin to arrive. I smile modestly, ignoring a scowl from Nicole, another girl my age.
On the other side of her is a girl with unruly hair bursting out of a tight braid: Mona. She good-naturedly rolls her eyes at me, then mouths ‘Blessed birthday,’ from behind her book.
‘Thank you,’ I mouth back.
‘Our Lord asks us to be gentle, and patient,’ our teacher begins. Her name is Eileen, but almost everyone just refers to her as the butcher’s wife, or ‘Teacher,’ if they’re a student. Almost every adult in the village is referred to by their job, and for the women that means ‘wife’.
Eileen the butcher’s wife talks for a long while about what our Lord requires of us as women and future wives and mothers. We all know the speech by heart – she only has three approved of and supplied by the mayor. Today’s is patience. Tomorrow’s will be selflessness. The day after will be loyalty and purity. Then she’ll start again. She delivers them in a dull monotone, bored by her own voice.
Staring out the window at the sad rope swing, I wonder idly what we’ll be doing after the mandatory speech. As members of the older class, all of our lessons are skills we’ll need to take care of our future husbands and children: cooking, cleaning, sewing, reading, manners.
I hope it’s reading. We sold most of our own books years ago, mostly to the traders, but a few ended up at the school.
‘Take up your cloth,’ Eileen announces, and I slump with disappointment. The butcher’s wife loves to sew. Her fingers are skewed from years of it, just like Mama’s. ‘This week we’ll work on our embroidery.’
‘More carnations?’ Mona asks, exasperated. We’re not supposed to speak up in class, but she doesn’t pay as much attention to rules as the rest of us.
‘Of course, Mona.’ Eileen frowns. ‘What other flowers could you want?’
‘What about the wildflowers?’ I suggest, hoping to take the focus off Mona. She gets into too much trouble already. ‘The poppies are beautiful this time of year, and the bluebells have just come into bloom.’
Eileen’s frown deepens. The other girls snap their heads towards me, mouths open.
I’ve definitely made them forget about Mona.
‘We will be focusing on our carnations,’ she says in a controlled voice.
I drop my eyes, nodding meekly and picking up my cloth.
* * *
‘Were you trying to get yourself in trouble?’ Mona asks, dropping onto the bench beside me and pulling an apple from her satchel. Today is our day to stay back and assist with the younger class. Every girl in her final year has to help in the afternoons, though between the four of us we only have to do it every other day. On her days off, Mona works in the orchards just outside the village.
‘Were you?’ I retort, biting into a stale cheese sandwich.
She grins. ‘Always.’ She pulls a second apple from her satchel and hands it to me. I trade her the other half of my sandwich. It’s a ritual so old we don’t even acknowledge it.
‘Do you think she’ll tell the mayor?’
‘No. She’ll tell the tailor’s wife, and she’ll tell the mayor.’ The teachers are notorious gossips, and everyone knows they make weekly reports to the mayor. ‘But you didn’t say anything too bad. You liking bluebells isn’t exactly a well-kept secret.’ She pulls something from her satchel and hands it to me. ‘Here. Blessed birthday.’
‘Oh!’ I examine it. It’s a little cloth bag with a blue and green thing embroidered on the front. ‘What is it?’
Mona pretends to be insulted. ‘It’s a bluebell!’
I squint, and I can sort of make it out. ‘Ah.’ I smile at her, slipping the strap over my head. ‘It’s beautiful.’
She laughs. ‘It’s terrible. I’m sorry. But I made the bag as well.’
The bag is well made, with blue ribbon braided into the strap, but Mona’s always had trouble with embroidery. Her satchel has three pink blobs in the corner, which are meant to be carnations. ‘Thanks, Mona. It’s my favourite present.’
She knows it’s my only present, and laughs again. ‘No problem.’ She flicks a stray curl of hair away from her face. ‘I hope she lets us move onto initials tomorrow. If I have to spend another morning bent over a carnation I’m going to stick my needle in her eye.’
‘Maybe we should let one of the other girls ask her.’
As if on cue, Eileen exits the schoolhouse. She nods at us politely. ‘Good afternoon, girls,’ she says, perfectly pleasant.
‘Good afternoon, Teacher,’ we echo.
‘I bet she doesn’t even know how to sew anything else,’ Mona whispers when she’s gone. ‘The mayor’s banned everything but carnations from her brain.’
I chuckle, and look around warily out of habit. The mayor has the final say on everything in the village. Nobody knows what would happen if someone was caught speaking badly of him, and I don’t want to be the one to find out.
The boys’ class begins to filter out, laughing and shoving each other as they go. ‘Oh, no,’ I groan. ‘I’m supposed to talk to one of them today.’
‘Which one? Andrew?’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Come on, then.’ Putting aside my food, I follow her to stand beside the path from the schoolhouse door.
The oldest boys come last. There are only two of them our age, and though we all used to play together as children, we’ve barely spoken in the years since. They nod at us, and I half curtsey back at them. Mona only curtseys when adults are watching.
‘Andrew,’ Mona singles him out bluntly. ‘Did you know it’s Emma’s birthday?’
Andrew clears his throat. ‘Oh, um. No, I didn’t. Blessed birthday.’
‘Thank you.’ I eye the broad boy behind him. Samuel, the mayor’s son. I hadn’t expected him to stay. Having an audience throws me. ‘How… How is your mother?’
Andrew toes the dirt, looking cornered. ‘She’s…’ he searches for the word.
‘Well?’ suggests Samuel.
‘Yes. She’s well. Thank you.’
I smile politely. Obligation to Mama fulfilled, I can’t think of a single thing to say to him.
Andrew takes the opportunity to bow again and make his excuses. He all but runs away, leaving Mona and I alone with the mayor’s son.
I look at him expectantly, waiting for him to follow Andrew.
‘Did your mother give you anything special?’ he asks instead.
I study his face, trying to work out whether he’s making fun of me or not. Everyone knows Mama and I are poor. ‘Yes,’ I lie curtly.
‘So did I.’ Mona holds up the cloth bag. ‘Don’t you think it suits her?’
Samuel squints at the bag. ‘What is that?’
‘It’s a flower,’ I say defensively, even though I’d had the same reaction.
‘Ah. So it is.’
‘It’s a bluebell, actually. They’re her favourite,’ Mona tells him, and I resist the urge to smack her.
‘Unusual choice,’ he remarks, glancing at the woods far behind us.
‘I like the colour,’ I mutter, embarrassed.
One of the younger girls arrives, pausing uncertainly at the sight of Samuel. Samuel notices her and gives her an apologetic bow. She giggles. He turns back to us and bows again. ‘I’ll let you finish your lunch. Blessed birthday, Emma.’
‘Good afternoon,’ Mona calls after him.
I shake my head at her. ‘What were you doing?’
She snorts and bites into her apple. ‘Nothing.’
* * *
Mona and I walk to the high street together after class, lingering in the square before we part ways. She lives on the other side of the village to me, in the Strangers Green – the only place Strangers have been allowed to settle.
‘Are you going to talk to Andrew again tomorrow?’ she teases. ‘You did so well today.’
‘You’ll never get married with that attitude.’
‘Can’t I just marry you?’ I suggest. ‘You can work in the orchard, and I can cook and clean the shack for you. Or you can move in with me and Mama.’
‘All right,’ she agrees, straight faced. ‘If Andrew doesn’t ask you, I will. And then we can both watch the mayor’s head catch fire.’
I laugh and look at the rosy pink sky.
‘I have to get my errands done,’ I sigh. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘I’ll make a list of chores you can do once you move in,’ she jokes, waving.
I wave back and watch her cross the square. The adults don’t say it openly, but they don’t like or trust the Strangers. Though the first Strangers came before Mama was even born, and many of them have been born here since, the villagers still clutch at their purses and fall quiet when one walks past. Even the children are looked at with suspicion. Mona’s never been treated well by any of our teachers, and the other girls stopped speaking to her when they were old enough to inherit their parents’ stupidity. But I don’t feel sorry for her. They’re the ones missing out.
Mona disappears down a lane. Tugging her wonderful, ugly little bag further up my shoulder, I turn and make my way towards the butcher’s shop.
* * *
The butcher has set aside a small chunk of cooked beef for me, the baker a hard crusted loaf. I thank them both, paying them with a few of the coins Mama leaves out for me at the end of each week. There’s enough left over for a few vegetables, some crumbly cheese, a bottle of juice and a quarter of a chicken. It’s not much, but we’ve had enough practice to know how to make it last the week.
Night has fully fallen by the time I get home. Mama is waiting for me and, despite her aching bones, she has a steaming cup of chocolate waiting for me on the table. She must have kept a little money to herself to surprise me with. It’s too expensive to include in our weekly budget.
‘Oh, Mama!’ I kiss her in thanks and take a long sip. The cup stays in my hand as I prepare dinner, and it’s finished all too soon.
‘Did you have a nice birthday?’ Mama asks as I set beef and bread down in front of her.
I nod, lifting up my new bag for her to see. ‘Mona made me this.’
Mama grimaces at the tangle of blue and green ribbon on the front. ‘Well. You can always fix it.’
‘I like it,’ I say defensively. I’ve already transferred everything from my old bag into it. Mona’s done me a favour by messing up the embroidery. I’d never have been allowed to walk around with a bluebell on display. People think they’re a bad omen.
‘Did you speak to Andrew?’ Mama asks, tucking in.
‘Yes,’ I reveal reluctantly. ‘But I don’t think I did very well. He ran away.’
Mama shrugs, unperturbed. ‘Men always do that. Speak to him again tomorrow.’
‘What about? We’ve already covered his mother. She’s fine, by the way.’
‘Emma, we’ve talked about this,’ Mama puts her food down. ‘The proposals will come in just a few months, and you need to receive one of them. And with less boys than girls we’ll have to fight for it.’
‘I know that,’ I sigh. ‘I just don’t know how to talk to him. It’s so awkward.’
‘You need to keep yourself in front of him. You don’t need to be clever, or interesting. Just smile and let him talk about himself until he gets used to you.’
‘That’s marriage,’ she says flatly. ‘Would you rather be an Unmarried?’
The Unmarried women are as much of a horror story to the young girls of the village as the woods are. Women who were passed over when they came of age and left to fend for themselves as servants, or beggars when the work wasn’t there.
There aren’t many: most choose to leave, either by the road or swallowed by the woods. Those who remain are shunned, walking through the village with their eyes fixed permanently to the ground.
‘No,’ I mumble.
‘Andrew is a good boy,’ Mama assures me. ‘He’ll inherit a modest house, a modest living. It’s all we need. And you’re much more agreeable than that Nicole. He’ll have to choose you.’
I nod, resigning myself to trying again. I take a big bite of the beef and have to chew hard to get it to go down. If I marry Andrew, at least we’ll be able to afford the better cuts.
‘Samuel asked after you today,’ Mama says, almost as an afterthought. But I can see she’s watching me closely.
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. ‘What?’
‘Pardon, Emma. Not what.’
‘Pardon,’ I correct myself.
‘As I was leaving in the afternoon,’ she reveals. Mama cleans the mayor’s house three times a week. He refused to remarry after his wife died, citing that it’s the wish of our Lord that every soul marry only once. Cleaning for domestically impaired widowers is where all of our money comes from. ‘He asked if you were well.’
‘But he’d only just seen me,’ I say, confused.
Mama’s mouth forms a line. ‘You spoke to him?
‘At lunchtime,’ I explain. ‘He stayed for a few minutes after Andrew ran off, but Mona did most of the talking.’ Mama doesn’t look impressed. I’m not sure why. ‘He was just being polite, Mama.’
She leans back in her chair, chewing thoughtfully. ‘He’s never spoken to you before?’
‘Only to say hello, just like everyone else does.’
Her face relaxes a little. ‘Well, all right then.’
‘What’s wrong, Mama?’
‘Nothing. But if he talks to you again, be polite and quiet and let Mona chase him off. The mayor’s already decided to marry him off to the doctor’s daughter, the last thing you need is him sniffing around you.’
I chuckle at the idea that the mayor’s son would ever sniff around me. ‘Yes, Mama.’
‘Good girl,’ she pats my hand.
* * *
Mama is already fast asleep by the time I’ve cleaned the plates and tidied the kitchen. I cover a yawn, picking up the heavy pail of dirty brown water and empting it outside at the top of the meadow. I like the sound the water makes as it gushes down the hill, slowing to a trickle among the tangle of flower stalks.
The well is in the centre of the village square and I walk quickly, head bowed in the cool night air. I see a few of the younger boys from school doing the same, and I keep my eyes downcast as I wait my turn. Collecting water is a man’s job. That Mama and I have to do it for ourselves is another reason people laugh at us.
Returning home with the pail and trying not to let the water slosh out, a happy little tune comes into the back of my mind. Suddenly I think of fireflies and summertime and running barefoot through fields of bluebells at dusk.
Stopping outside the house, I leave the pail by the door and take the few steps back to the top of the meadow.
It’s hard to see them in the moonlight, but the tops of the trees stretch out below me, black and rustling, disappearing into the night. By day the woods look like they go forever, and maybe they do. Standing here, watching the faint twinkle of fireflies between the leaves, it’s much easier to believe the stories about them.
A memory bubbles up of a dream I had, a long time ago, of two fireflies bouncing in the sun.
Realising I’ve been humming the tune out loud, I shake my head and retreat indoors. Placing the pail in its spot by the door, I change into my nightclothes and lay out a fresh dress for tomorrow.
But as I blow out the candle and climb into bed, my mind fills with the image of a little boy playing a wooden pipe in a sea of blue flowers.
Andrew is aware he’s being hunted.
Nicole hovers by the school gate almost every day after class, waiting to ambush him. And when she’s not there, I am. It’s painfully obvious to everyone in the village, let alone him.
‘Lucky lad,’ I overhear the baker chuckle to a customer on my way home from class. But Andrew doesn’t act like he’s lucky. He seems annoyed, as though Nicole and I fighting for a chance at a real future is somehow taxing for him.
I don’t let his attitude stop me, even though some of the adults – loudly and publicly – think I have an uphill battle ahead of me.
Nicole doesn’t have that much more money than I do. Certainly not enough to make a difference. Neither of us is any prettier than the other, and gangly Andrew is still taller than I am.
The only real advantage she has is that her father works with Andrew and his father on the farms, and they drink together at the pub. But the teachers all prefer me, and I do better than she does in all of our classes. I’d make a better wife. I just need to work out how to make it obvious to everyone else.
My attempts to engage Andrew in any sort of conversation haven’t improved.
One week after my birthday, I managed to corner him coming out of the schoolhouse.
‘How is your father, Andrew?’ I asked, pasting on my best enthusiastic face.
‘He’s the same,’ he answered, confused by the question. ‘He’s always the same.’
Four days after that, I followed him into the sweet shop.
But I was running out of family members. ‘How are your brothers and sister?’
His jaw tightened. Apparently it took all of his patience to respond. ‘Don’t you see two of them in the afternoons?’
I felt my own jaw clench. Of course I do. His younger sisters are both in the afternoon classes. That clearly wasn’t the point.
The following week I bumped into him in the bakery, but he looked so annoyed I let him go with nothing but a strained, ‘Hello.’ He looked so relieved I wondered if I’d have better luck promising to leave him alone until after the wedding. Thinking back, he’d never been that friendly even when we were children.
‘I’m not any good at this,’ I complain to Mona, picking at my sandwich. ‘He hates me.’
‘That doesn’t mean anything,’ she points out, ribbon between her teeth as she re-braids her hair. ‘Andrew hates pretty much everyone.’
I look at Nicole waiting for him by the fence. Unaware anyone’s watching her, her expression is somewhere between bored and annoyed. She hasn’t made any progress with Andrew either. ‘I suppose that’s true.’
‘You’ve just got to keep trying,’ she advises, smoothing her braid down. A curl has already bounced free to rest above her eyebrow. ‘You’ll wear him down eventually.’
‘How? I’ve already run out of family members to ask about.’
She smirks at me. ‘Just start back at his mother. It’s been two weeks. Something must have happened to her.’
* * *
I track Andrew down the following day, waiting for him in the square instead of competing with Nicole in the schoolyard. ‘Andrew!’ I call, a little too desperately.
He approaches warily, too polite to ignore me but clearly unimpressed with my plan. ‘My family is well,’ he says quickly. ‘All of them.’ Someone else could have said it kindly, or playfully. Not Andrew.
‘Oh, good.’ He’s on the very verge of saying good afternoon and leaving. I try a different track, saying the first thing I think of. ‘Are you working on the farms today?’
He nods, eyeing the high street behind me. Probably planning his escape.
Racking my brain for anything I know about the farms, I think of the paddocks behind the schoolhouse, dotted with miserable, moaning cows. ‘Do you work with the cows?’ I ask lamely, cringing at myself.
He seems surprised by the question. ‘I do. Do you like cows?’
I’ve never thought about a cow for longer than four seconds in my entire life. ‘Of course,’ I lie. ‘They’re… cute. What do you do with them?’
‘Milking, mostly,’ he shrugs. ‘It’s all they’re really supposed to let us do until we come of age.’ He brightens. ‘But they birthed a calf the other week. I got to help.’
I’m not sure how to react to this, but my face seems to settle on horrified. The doctor came to class at the beginning of the year to talk the oldest girls through pregnancy and birth, and the whole concept left me feeling a little ill. ‘Goodness,’ I say, hoping he’ll mistake my expression as being impressed. ‘That’s… amazing.’
Thankfully he does, and begins describing the birth of the calf in excruciating detail.
Behind him, Samuel passes with Dominick, a boy a year younger than us. I overhear Dominick saying something awful about one of the girls his age, and notice that Samuel looks as trapped as I feel. He meets my eye and makes a face. I almost smile, but remember what Mama said and force my attention back to Andrew.
* * *
Mama is thrilled with me when I tell her about the cow birthing conversation, which continued almost until he was due on the farm.
‘We’ll bake him something soon,’ she decides, rubbing her hands together gleefully. ‘You need to show his parents what a wonderful wife you’d make. That other girl hasn’t done that yet, has she?’
Mama knows Nicole’s name, but she’s never been a good sport. ‘Not that I know of.’
‘Then we’ll beat her to it.’ She grabs my hand and pulls me into a silly little dance. ‘Oh, Emma. You’ll have such a nice life.’ It’s hard not to get swept up in her excitement, and we dance until she complains of her joints hurting again.
* * *
The good mood stays with me the next morning.
‘What is that?’ Mona asks me, settling in her seat as I lay out the books. She occasionally arrives early, but never helps.
‘What was what?’ I ask, confused.
She pushes a stray curl away from her face. ‘That song. You were just humming it.’
‘I didn’t even notice.’
‘It sounded happy. Did Andrew propose?’
I laugh. ‘He talked about putting his hand inside a cow.’
She screws up her face. ‘Lord. The boy needs even more help than you do.’
‘Good morning,’ the voice makes us both jump. Samuel stands beside the room divider. I don’t remember him being early for school before.
‘Boys aren’t supposed to come over this side,’ Mona points out innocently. ‘Did you need something?’
‘Just wanted to be polite.’
Samuel glances at me. ‘No. That was it.’
‘Bye then,’ she dismisses him, turning back to me and raising an eyebrow. I shrug and return to my seat as the other students begin to arrive. Andrew arrives last, peering over the divider and greeting me with a nod. I give him a brief smile in return. It’s not much, but it’s something.
Returning my attention to the class, I find Nicole glaring at me, knuckles white around her book. The fury in her face takes me aback. Swallowing hard, I’m not sure what to do.
The doctor’s daughter, Roslyn, nudges her as Eileen finally arrives. Nicole drops her eyes, but I still feel the heat from them. I glance at Mona to see if she witnessed it, but she’s doodling in her book of the Lord.
* * *
I don’t try to speak to Andrew at lunch. I can’t think of anything new to ask him about himself, and even if I could, I don’t think I could smile and nod through another farming lecture.
As Mona and I trade our share of lunch, I wonder why he hasn’t bothered asking me any questions about myself in return. He hasn’t even asked after Mama. He’s getting married too, shouldn’t he put in some effort to get to know me or Nicole?
‘Look out,’ Mona smirks as the boys’ class is released. Andrew nods at me again and, maybe because I’m clearly leaving him alone today, rewards me with a ‘Good Afternoon.’
Behind him, Samuel nods as well. ‘Goodbye, Emma, Mona.’ I like that he acknowledges Mona. Andrew hasn’t so far.
‘Goodbye,’ I allow. He smiles almost triumphantly, nods again and moves along.
Nicole waits predictably by the gate, and today Roslyn stands with her. She usually doesn’t bother – nobody is challenging her for Samuel. He stops to talk to them both, but Andrew barely stays long enough to make his excuses.
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if that one decides not to marry either of you,’ Mona remarks. ‘I’ve heard that boys can.’
The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. ‘Of course they can,’ I mutter darkly.
Samuel bows to Roslyn and Nicole and moves on. There’s nothing else to look at in the bare schoolyard, so I watch them. It looks like the two girls are having an argument. ‘What do you think that’s about?’
Mona shrugs and focuses on her food, completely uninterested.
Whatever they’re fighting about, Roslyn loses. Nicole turns and marches towards us. Roslyn throws her hands up and follows.
‘Do you have any idea how ridiculous you look?’ Nicole hisses at me.
‘Pardon?’ I ask, bewildered.
‘Chasing after Andrew! The whole village has seen you following him around. You’re embarrassing yourself.’
Roslyn takes her arm, but is shrugged off.
‘And you’re not?’ I raise my eyebrows, indicating the gate. ‘You wait there every day and you still can’t make him to stand still long enough to talk to you.’
She stamps her foot. ‘It’s different.’
‘Nicole,’ Roslyn says warningly.
Nicole ignores her, her cheeks flushed with anger. ‘Because he’s not for you.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You’re practically an Unmarried,’ she spits. ‘You’ve got no father, no brothers. You’ve never even lived in a real house. What sort of wife would you make?’ She looks at Mona out the corner of her eye. ‘Especially when you spend all your time with them.’
‘Nicole!’ Roslyn gasps. Perfect, prim Roslyn is mortified.
‘But at least she knows her place,’ Nicole continues. ‘You don’t see her begging someone to marry her.’
‘Well, you wouldn’t,’ Mona says dryly, somehow untroubled by Nicole’s onslaught. ‘I’m very subtle when I beg.’
But I’m not so noble. I stand up, livid. ‘She has a name,’ I snap. ‘Don’t you dare look down at us. You barely live in a better house than I do, and having a father doesn’t make you a better person than either of us. Everyone in the village likes me better than you. Including Andrew. And I’ll bet his parents will, too.’
Nicole looks as if she’s been slapped, but she won’t lose the chance to have the last word. ‘They don’t like you, they feel sorry for you. They’ve been laughing at your scrubbing mother behind her back for years, and the only reason they’re nice to you is because they know you’ll end up even worse.’
Now I’m the one who feels slapped. I have nothing to come back at her with, and she knows it. ‘You might as well throw yourself into the woods and get it over with,’ she smirks. ‘Do us all a favour.’
With that, she turns and storms away.
My fists are clenched tight and trembling as I watch her go. Mona puts her hand over one of them, pulling me gently back down to the bench.
Roslyn stays with us, good manners too deeply ingrained to just leave. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘She’s just… you know.’
‘No,’ I say flatly. ‘I don’t.’
Roslyn forces a smile and a curtsey. ‘Well. Good afternoon.’
‘Don’t take it too personally,’ Mona assures me when she’s gone. ‘None of that was really about you.’
I stare at her, shocked. ‘What are you talking about? How was that not personal?’
‘She’s just scared.’
I can’t believe it. ‘Are you actually taking Nicole’s side? She insulted you too, you know.’
‘Of course I’m not,’ Mona says. ‘I heard what she said. I’ve heard it more often than you.’
Chastened, I sit back. ‘What did you mean, then?’
‘Andrew paid attention to you today, in front of people, and then ignored her. That means she’s losing, and you know what that means for her.’
‘So?’ I protest, still angry. ‘We’ve had nothing and we’ve done all right. She’s acting like living like us would be worse than dying.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Emma. Of course nobody wants to live like us. Not even you, or else you wouldn’t be bothering with Andrew.’
‘What about you, then?’ I shoot back.
Her jaw locks, a note of bitterness creeping in. ‘I don’t exactly have your options, do I?’
The guilt hits me hard, and I regret complaining. ‘I’m sorry.’
She smiles, sweeping the hair from her face. The bitterness is gone, or maybe just hidden. ‘Don’t be.’
‘I wish I didn’t have to think about all this,’ I sigh. ‘Chasing boys and fighting other girls. Tell me what to do.’
‘Practice your listening face,’ she says sagely. ‘You’re not nearly as good a liar as you think you are.’
* * *
Nicole’s words stay with me through the rest of the day, poisonous little barbs weaving through my every thought. Walking home through the square, I wonder how much of what she said was out of fear, and how much was truth shared in the heat of the moment. How many of the villagers I thought I was friendly with have been laughing at me behind my back? How much of their kindness has really been condescension?
I shouldn’t be surprised. I know they do it to Mona and the other Strangers, and often the older wives will fall quiet when I get close, gossiping about Mama.
But it’s different, somehow, knowing it could be about me as well. I can feel angry for the others. But I can only feel hurt and humiliated for myself.
Evening falls as I pass the meadow, and on a whim I stop and sit at the top of the hill. The poppies tickle my arms as I stare down over the flowers, eyes settling on the trees. The sound of the rippling leaves and the gentle swaying of the treetops as they fade into the night calms me.
‘Emma?’ The front door creaks open and Mama sticks her head out.
She frowns at the meadow as I come inside, but closes the door behind me without saying anything about it.
‘We’ll speak to Andrew after Deference,’ Mama decides. ‘You need to start putting yourself in front of his parents.’
‘Mama?’ I ask, opening the front door a crack to spy on the neighbours. Dressed in their best Sunday whites, they wander up the lane towards the high street. ‘Don’t you think-’
‘Come away from there and get your stockings on,’ she orders, pulling on her dress only to have it snag over her head. I move over to rescue her, tugging the thick wool over her shoulders. ‘Hurry up,’ she grumbles, without a word of thanks.
I always put my stockings on last, enjoying a few moments of having bare legs beneath my mustard dress. Mama hates it. Our Lord intended knees and ankles to be kept to ourselves, she insists. It’s why He made them so ugly.
Picking a small bouquet of wildflowers from the top of the hill, we make our way to the high street and join the procession to the town hall. We stand out, as always. A speck of mustard and grey among the river of white dresses and crisp white trousers. There are some families with noticeably yellowed or faded whites, threads baring at the edges, but even they snicker at us. Old whites are better than none at all.
The seats in the hall are already filling up as we arrive. We lay our bouquet at the base of the podium and retreat to the back row of seats. We always sit here, making sure we’re seen in attendance and then removing ourselves from as many sniggering eye-lines as possible.
Deference isn’t mandatory, but heavily encouraged. Anyone who isn’t seen at least most Sundays is the subject of gossip, every aspect of their lives suddenly under scrutiny in the light of their unfaithfulness. Only the Strangers are constant absentees, and as far as the others are concerned it proves everything everyone ever suspected about them.
Not that attending did them any favours, either. Mona and her grandmother came to every Deference until she was fifteen.
Beside me, Mama scans the hall for Andrew. Her roving squint is so obvious I’m glad nobody can see us.
‘He’s over there,’ I mutter, indicating the middle of the hall. ‘In front of Nicole.’
Mama grunts her disapproval. Nicole, seated between her younger sister and her mother in their dulling whites has beaten us to it.
‘I think we should wait for another day,’ I whisper, tugging self-consciously at my dress. ‘When we don’t stand out so much. People will look…’
‘Hisht,’ Mama shushes me, as if she wasn’t the one who started it. ‘Pay attention.’
I sigh and look to the front of the hall, where Mayor Jones is taking the podium. It’s hard to see the slight man from here, but when his honey voice fills every space in the hall without having to yell, it’s easy to see why the village leans forward to hang on his every word.
Mayor Jones is the voice of our Lord in the village. He makes every major decision, every rule, and makes sure we live our lives according to our Lord’s words.
He terrifies me.
Even at the back of the hall, I feel as if he’s staring straight at me as he lectures us on duty: a woman’s duty to her husband and her father, a man’s duty to his village. Everyone’s duty to our Lord.
He’s relentless and repetitive, threatening punishment and separation from our Lord if we fail. It feels like the whole hall holds its breath until, hours later, he reaches a familiar conclusion: ‘To turn our backs on even one of our Lord’s teachings is to turn our back on our Lord. And they who fall into our Lord’s shadow are never seen again.’ Half the congregation murmurs it with him, the words rustling through the hall in hushed, fearful tones.
The mayor steps away from the podium and is replaced by Roslyn. Unaccompanied, she begins to sing in a high, clear voice. If some people are born blessed by our Lord, then Roslyn, it seems, is His favourite.
Relaxing, the hall is alive again as the congregation begins chatting quietly to their neighbours, standing to leave or mingle.
‘Quickly, go,’ Mama urges me, standing up.
‘Thank you, Mama,’ I breathe with relief, stepping into the aisle to leave. But Mama grips my sleeve and pulls me in the other direction, down the aisle to where Nicole’s mother speaks to Andrew’s. ‘Mama, no,’ I beg in a whisper. ‘Please. Not while they’re there. We’ll look desperate.’
‘This is your life, Emma,’ Mama hisses back at me. ‘Fight for it.’
I don’t have time to retort before she nudges me forward, right between Andrew’s mother and Nicole.
‘Good afternoon, Elise,’ Mama says brightly, completely ignoring Nicole and her family. Nicole’s eyebrows shoot up so high I think they’re going to disappear into her hair. ‘Doesn’t the doctor’s daughter sound wonderful today?’
‘Yes,’ Elise allows, not managing to cover her surprise. Mama hasn’t approached anyone with pleasantries in years. ‘She does. Sarah and I were just discussing that.’
‘Hello,’ Nicole’s mother says shortly.
I notice people glancing at us. Nicole sees them too, shooting me a superior look. At least Andrew has already wandered off to join his father with a group of men talking and laughing by the door.
‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ I jump in before Mama can continue her small talk. She looks annoyed, but I keep going. ‘I just wanted to ask you a question before we leave.’
‘Yes?’ Elise asks, recovering her composure. She even manages an encouraging smile. Nicole and her mother exchange a smug look. I’m being improper with my directness, and they expect it to get me nowhere.
I swallow my embarrassment and paste on a smile, eager to get this over with. ‘I wondered if you’d like to have tea with Mama and I this week. Or whenever is most convenient for you.’
‘Of course,’ she agrees politely. Nicole and her mother exchange another look, and this one is more satisfying. ‘Why don’t I come to your house on Wednesday afternoon?’ I hear Nicole snort at ‘house’.
‘That would be lovely,’ I curtsey. ‘We’ll leave you to your Sunday.’
I loop my arm through Mama’s and practically drag her away. ‘You were lucky,’ she shakes her head at me. ‘That’s not how it’s done.’
‘People were looking,’ I mutter. ‘I’m sick of being laughed at.’
‘Then get married,’ she says simply. ‘And pray he outlives you.’
* * *
I spend every Sunday afternoon with Mona, meeting her in the square after Deference to look at beautiful things we can’t afford on the traders’ stalls. Today there’s a leathery old woman selling roasted chestnuts, and I have just enough money to buy a small bag.
We retreat back to Mona’s house to share it, though it’s generous to call it a house. It’s more of a shack, built a long time ago from whatever spare pieces of timber and tin Mayor Jones’s father would let the Strangers have. It’s smaller than my house, and leaks when it rains. All of them do.
Mona’s house sits on the road leading out of the village. Leaning our backs against the strongest part of the wall, we stare at where it disappears past the farms and into the trees. We keep hoping to catch sight of one of the traders, or even the rare traveller coming or going, but we never do. They travel before the sun comes up, moving on without warning. Off to whatever lies on the other end of the empty road.
‘Ezra told me about a tower that touches the sky,’ Mona confesses dreamily, eyes on the road. The traders aren’t supposed to talk to villagers about anything other than their goods, but there’s no such rule for Strangers. ‘It’s made of rods of metal so thin it looks like it should fall over, but it never does.’
‘He’s lying,’ I dismiss the story, holding a chestnut to my face and breathing in the rich, summery smell. The old woman’s used some sort of sweet herb on them. ‘What would anyone use it for?’
‘To see. He says there’s a thousand steps to the top, and from there you can see the whole world.’
‘Has he been to the top?’
‘No,’ she chuckles. ‘He says he’s afraid of heights.’
On the other side of the road is a patch of land reserved for the traders to set up camp. Finished with their business for the day, they begin to light their cook fires. It’s a signal to the Strangers, who drift across the road in family and friendship groups of twos and threes.
‘He talked about the cities too,’ she adds. ‘Just like the silk maker and the piano man and that jewellery hawker with the funny beard. They must be real.’
I try to imagine a village a hundred times larger than ours, filled to the brim with people and colours and sounds. I shiver. The imagined chaos is already too much for me. ‘What do they do there?’
‘They live, however they want to.’
‘Sounds nice,’ I smile wistfully.
‘Everyone who lives there comes from somewhere else,’ Mona reports softly. ‘So everyone’s a Stranger, and everyone is friendly. There are houses for everyone, and jobs, and you can talk to anyone you like. And if you ever get tired of the city, you can just get back on the road.’
I feel a pang. She doesn’t often sound so sad. ‘Let’s go, then.’
Mona scoffs. ‘You’d never.’
‘No,’ I agree. ‘But it does sound wonderful.’
A round of laughter erupts from the cook fires. The Strangers and the traders share food and news often, talking about things forbidden to the villagers.
‘Mona,’ a middle-aged man with a long, greying braid calls out. ‘There’s meat tonight.’
Her eyes light up. ‘Really?’
‘You don’t help cook, you don’t help eat.’
‘Coming, Papa!’ Although they’re not related, Papa Stone’s been keeping a special eye on Mona since her grandmother’s death.
The Strangers aren’t allowed an official leader, but Papa Stone is practically it. He speaks to the farmers on behalf of the Strangers, trying for years to increase the quality of the food they’re paid in, bargaining for a few extra coins per person for new clothes. Once he even went to the mayor’s house to demand building supplies to fix up the shacks and build more. And though he’s failed on every count, the Strangers still respect him.
‘Wait a second,’ Mona stops me as I stand up to leave. She disappears inside for a moment and comes back with a small bag of raspberries.
‘Mona!’ I gasp as she hands them to me. Raspberries are expensive – there’s no way she was given them. She holds a sly finger to her mouth, then waves as she runs across the road to join the others.
I leave the rest of the chestnuts on Mona’s doorstep and turn for home, holding the bag of raspberries close.
* * *
‘Mama,’ I exclaim as I come through the door. ‘Look!’ I hold out the raspberries for her, and her eyes crinkle with a wide smile.
‘They’re prefect,’ she crows, taking the bag.
‘Mona sent them over.’
‘Bless that girl,’ Mama holds one of the berries up to the light, giving it a gentle squeeze. ‘We’ll bake scones. You can take them to Andrew in the morning.’
My face drops. ‘Andrew?’
‘How often will we have this chance?’ Mama asks impatiently. ‘We won’t impress his parents with a plain cake or an apple pie.’
‘But we never get raspberries,’ I complain.
‘And neither do they. Quick, get to the bakery and beg me some soda before they close up.’
I reach for a raspberry but get my hand smacked away. ‘They’ll think we stole them,’ I point out, but am ignored and directed firmly to the door.
The high street is almost deserted after nightfall. The bakery’s windows are dark, the lights transferred upstairs to their apartment above the shop. I want to turn around and go home, but if I return empty handed I’ll disappoint Mama. And Mama knows how to make her disappointment very loud.
I knock on the door, the sound echoing loudly around the empty street. It takes a long time for the baker to peer out the window. I think I see him sigh before he opens the door a crack.
‘I’m sorry to bother you so late,’ I say quickly, before he can shoo me away. ‘Mama sent me for some soda. Just a little. It’s an emergency.’
‘A baking emergency?’ he asks sceptically.
I nod lamely. ‘And… and we can’t pay,’ I add, reluctantly. The baker sighs again, but bids me to wait while he disappears back inside the shop.
He returns a moment later with a tiny pouch of baking soda. ‘Tell your mother this is the last time,’ he says, shaking his head.
‘I will,’ I promise. ‘Thank you.’
He bids me good evening and shuts the door. I wish his wife Caroline had come down instead. She teaches the boys in the afternoons, and she’s always liked me. But women don’t answer the door after dark.
I turn to head home, coming face to face with Samuel.
‘What are you doing out so late?’ he asks, before I have a chance to. I hold up the pouch in answer. ‘Strange time to be baking,’ he observes.
I look behind him to see the downstairs light switch off in the tailor’s. ‘Strange time for a fitting.’
He takes the lid off a long, thin box. Inside is a heavily embroidered scarf. ‘Not for me.’
‘Thank our Lord,’ I say without thinking. The scarf is hideous.
He laughs and replaces the lid. It’s a nice laugh, genuine and infectious. I can’t help but smile in response. ‘Can I walk you home?’
I think of Mama’s face if I turned up with any boy other than Andrew in tow. ‘No, thank you.’
‘You’re not afraid to be out alone after dark?’
I shake my head. ‘I have to do it all the time.’
‘I suppose you would,’ he acknowledges, then bows deeply. ‘Well, I’ll see you at school.’
This is where I’m supposed to curtsey, but instead I just nod. ‘Good night, Samuel.’
‘Walk safe, Emma,’ he calls after me. And for some reason, it makes my cheeks feel warm.
* * *
Mama sends me out early the next morning with the scones carefully packed into a basket.
‘Go straight to his house,’ she instructs me at the door. ‘Make sure you speak to his mother, and tell her how much you’re looking forward to tea. And then you thank Mona again.’ She smiles, smug. ‘There’s no way they’ll be able to match this.’
She reaches up to kiss my cheeks, then hands me something. A raspberry. ‘I couldn’t resist,’ she admits. I laugh and give her a hug goodbye, popping the raspberry in my mouth as she closes the door.
Wanting to make the best impression, I pick a few poppies and bind them together with the stem of another, laying them across the top of the basket. The effect is quite pretty.
Andrew lives on my side of the village, and before I know it I’m standing at his front door. Still, it takes me a minute or two to force myself to knock.
His mother answers, thankfully, and smiles knowingly at the sight of me and my basket. ‘Emma,’ she says loudly. ‘What a pleasant surprise.’
‘Good morning, Elise,’ I say formally, holding out the basket. It’s easier to talk to her here, with nobody watching. ‘Mama and I were baking yesterday and we made too many.’ It’s a terrible lie, and Elise graciously plays along. ‘They won’t keep until our tea, so Mama thought you might like the extras.’
‘Of course we would, thank you,’ she takes the basket and peeks at the goods, her eyes widening. ‘Lord, Emma, are those raspberries?’
She takes a scone and smells it, sighing with happiness. ‘I’m not even going to ask how you got these,’ she laughs. ‘Thank you.’
‘It’s no trouble,’ I curtsey. ‘I should get to the schoolhouse. Mama and I are both looking forward to seeing you on Wednesday.’
‘Wait a moment,’ she stops me. ‘Andrew!’ she calls into the house, louder than necessary. He appears after a moment, dressed but with his hair sticking in all directions. ‘Walk Emma to school, love.’
‘We’ll be early,’ he protests.
‘You can stand to be early for once in your life,’ she says pleasantly, but there’s an underlying tone. She hands him a scone. ‘Look what she’s brought us.’
Andrew looks at the scone, then grudgingly gives in. ‘Give me a second.’
‘I’ll wait out here,’ I say, curtseying again at Elise. A triumphant little thrill runs up my spine.
Andrew reappears after a few minutes, hair tidied and munching on a scone. ‘Come on, then,’ he says, barely stopping for me. I trot a few steps to catch up and fall in beside him, but I don’t bother speaking. The silence seems to throw him.
‘Do you want to get married?’ he asks finally, as we hit the square.
I’m surprised by the question, but it’s clear it’s not a proposal. ‘To get married is to serve our Lord,’ I say dutifully.
‘But do you actually want to? To me?’
He seems genuine, though his eyes are fixed on the ground in front of him. I should lie, but somehow it seems different than pretending to care when he talks about the farms, or forcing pleasantries.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘Not really.’
He rips the scone in half and offers me the end he hasn’t chewed on. I want to snatch it and cram it into my mouth whole, but I resist and take it gracefully.
‘What’s this for?’ I ask, trying to take dainty little bites.
He smiles, the first I’ve seen from him. ‘I don’t want to marry you, either.’
It should be funny, but the scone turns to sand in my mouth. ‘Nicole?’
‘But those are your options.’
‘So what does that mean?’ I ask unsteadily. ‘You still have to choose one of us.’
He doesn’t answer.
We arrive at the empty schoolhouse. I want to yell at him. But instead I keep my voice low, barely. ‘You know what happens to us if we don’t marry,’ I point out.
‘I know,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry, Father will choose one of you.’
His father. Which means however long he can stand to talk to me, however much his mother seems to like me, Nicole is still winning. Their fathers work on the farms together, drink at the pub together. I have no father or brothers to send to him to speak for me. All I have on my side are women, which might as well be nobody.
Nicole was right. Andrew was never meant for me.
‘I just thought you should know that you don’t have to waste your time on me. I’ll go along with whatever he decides.’
‘You’re not even going to try?’ I ask, furious. ‘You’re a boy, if you have a preference he’ll have to listen to you.’
‘We should get in,’ he says, ignoring me. ‘Thanks for the scones.’
I chew on my lip, so angry I could scream. ‘We need that basket back,’ I snap, parting ways with him at the room divider. It’s feeble, but I had to leave him with something.
* * *
The day drags by. At lunch I escape and go to my favourite hiding place, behind the schoolhouse. Nobody ever comes here. It feels too close to the woods, with nothing but a paddock and a couple of low-lying fences in the way. I stare at the trees, but today even they don’t calm me down.
Mona finds me after a few minutes. This is her place, too. She sits beside me in the shade.
‘Mama made me give the raspberries to Andrew’s mother,’ I tell her after a while.
‘You’re upset because of that?’ she asks, dubious. I should have known she’d notice my mood. I bite my thumbnail and report what happened this morning, repeating my conversation with Andrew.
‘Your mother was right, then,’ Mona observes sensibly. ‘You just have to focus on his father now, that’s all. You’d have had to do it in the end anyway.’
‘But he knows Nicole’s father,’ I remind her. ‘They’re friends.’
‘But not close friends. You still have a chance,’ Mona insists. ‘He’ll still eat the scones, and I can steal you some more good fruit. If Elise likes you, she’ll talk about you to him. You think a man wants to live in a house where his wife and daughter-in-law don’t get along? Just sew something nice for her until I can get near the blackberries, and then ask if he has any socks that need fixing.’
I smile, grateful. ‘How do you know all this?’
‘You villagers are too predictable,’ she rolls her eyes. ‘You do the same thing over and over again and act like you’re the first person in the world to do it.’
‘So how does this end, then?’ I ask, playing along.
‘He chooses you,’ Mona chuckles. ‘And you have a good, boring life with a husband who never speaks to you.’
I laugh with her, but it sounds hollow even to my ears.
* * *
Walking home and running my errands, I try not to let myself give in to defeat. Mona’s right, I would ultimately have had to win Andrew’s father’s approval in order to get a proposal anyway. I’d been counting on Andrew’s endorsement, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over. After all, he won’t be putting Nicole’s name forward either.
I just have to prove that I’m the better daughter-in-law. Starting with tea on Wednesday. I need to get Elise to invite me over to dinner.
‘Elise liked the scones,’ I report, closing the door behind me. I decide not to tell Mama about Andrew. ‘She let Andrew walk to school with me. People saw and everything.’ I sort through my bag of groceries. ‘Do you want a cup of tea with dinner?’
Mama doesn’t answer. Sitting solemnly at the table, staring at the wall, she hasn’t heard a single word I’ve said.
‘Mama?’ I touch her shoulder. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘We’ve been invited to dinner,’ she says dully. ‘This Friday.’
I’m confused by her tone. ‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it? The scones worked even better than you hoped.’
‘Not by Elise and Bill,’ she says. ‘By the mayor.’
‘What?’ I ask, faint.
‘Oh, Emma.’ She sounds so tired. ‘What have you done?’