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Read an extract from Happiness for Beginners by Carole Matthews

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Below is an extract from readers’ favourite and Sunday Times bestselling novel Happiness for Beginners ahead of the publication of the gloriously festive sequel, Christmas for Beginners.

Chapter One

Anthony the Anti-Social Sheep lowers his head and growls. I hold up a hand, trying to establish myself as the head of the pack – which, if I’m honest, I’m not even sure is a sheep thing. It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard with Anthony. He squares his not-inconsiderable shoulders and makes eye contact. I can, however, tell a sheep with an evil glint in its eye and Anthony, as so often, has one now.

When he’s in this kind of mood there’s really no reckoning with him and I know that I have no option but to make a dash for the gate. Anthony, in turn, knows that I’m too far away to make it. Three times this week he’s charged and up-ended unsuspecting ramblers who’ve strayed into his field. I’ve lost count of the muddy walkers that I’ve patted down while apologising profusely as they try to re-set their spectacles and gather their backpacks. It took the last one two hastily brewed cups of tea and a sizeable wedge of lemon drizzle cake before they were right again. One of these days someone will sue me for a sheep-based assault.

‘Good boy, Anthony,’ I coo, as I back slowly away. ‘You’re not really the devil incarnate. You’re just misunderstood.’

Unappeased, he starts his run towards me and, as the other infinitely more placid sheep lift their heads to watch, I turn on my heels, sprinting as fast as my wellies will allow. ‘Play nicely, Anthony!’

He is unheeding.

The five-barred gate is coming tantalisingly closer, but I can hear Anthony’s hooves thundering behind me. He’s one hell of a size for a sheep, with a big, square head and the posture of a seasoned pugilist. Technically, he’s a ram, but on this farm we try not to complicate matters. He was recently parted from the elements that specifically made him a ram in the hope that it would make him more docile. Sadly, it didn’t work.

I don’t know what’s made him so bad-tempered and disgruntled with life. I love him as much as a human can love a sheep without it being illegal. He has the prime choice of fields. He’s first in line for food. If only he could learn to love me back or at least not want to knock me over every time I enter his territory then I’m sure we would both be happier. The dogs are, quite wisely, terrified of him and he certainly has a more menacing growl than either of them. Anthony has long eschewed baa-ing as a form of communication.

As I run, Little Dog is barking encouragement at the gate. He’s been on the wrong side of Anthony many times before now and has learned not to venture into his field. Little Dog knows how much a prod with his battering-ram nose in your nether regions hurts. Big Dog, possibly brighter than either of us, is staying well clear and is, quite sensibly, cowering behind the wheels of the tractor.

‘No, Anthony,’ I shout as fiercely as I can over my shoulder. ‘NO!’

But it’s too late. His massive head makes contact with my bottom and he tosses me as hard as he can. As I’m catapulted forwards, I can feel clear air between me and the ground. Lots of it.

I land, face forward, with an inelegant ‘ouff’ in the muddiest part of the field, the bit where we open the gate, the bit that’s trodden to sludge by the hooves of many more amenable sheep. Even though I’m short and sturdily built, I’m no match for Anthony.

His work for the day done, a contented Anthony trots off to find someone else to terrorise. I swear that sheep is smiling. Little Dog, braver now that the surly Anthony has gone, squeezes under the gate and comes to lick my face.

‘You’re not much use as a guard dog, are you?’ I admonish as I push myself up on my elbows.

He looks at me with his one eye and his expression seems to say that he wholeheartedly agrees. Like everything and everyone here, Little Dog came to us damaged. I think that he must have been kicked in the face or something equally dreadful in the past, because as well as losing an eye, he has suffered nerve damage which means that his lips are permanently pulled back so he looks as if he’s always smiling. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem any the worse for it now and his weird grin makes him look like the cutest thing there ever was. Which is just as well as he’s a pretty hopeless guard dog. Unless licking a burglar to death would count.

Little Dog is probably some kind of Jack Russell/random terrier combo. He’s got stubby legs and a white coat with brown patches that’s the texture of a paintbrush.

Then there’s Big Dog. He’s my second contender for the prize of Most Useless Guard Dog. He’s blessed with only three legs, breath that would floor a dinosaur and a fear of anyone wearing a red jumper. He’s a huge beast with a tail that can clear a coffee table in one wag. He might be Alsatian-based somewhere in there, possibly crossed with a mountain dog or wolf – yet he is the scarediest dog ever.

I haul myself up, grateful that no bones are broken, and hobble to the gate. I’ll probably have a corking bruise or two in the morning, but I’ll live to fight another day.

As I don’t want Anthony making a break for it today and terrorising any random strangers, I make sure that I secure the bolt very carefully behind me.

‘You’re going nowhere today, Big Man,’ I tell him, sternly. ‘I want you to take time out to think about your behaviour.’

He gives me a scornful look and goes to annoy his fellow field companions. He’s not well-liked, my dear Anthony, and that makes me love him more. We acquired him because he was considered too much of a handful for anyone else. It seems to have set a pattern.

I brush the dirt from my hands, my jeans, my shirt. I should introduce myself to you. How rude of me not to have done it before. I’m Molly Baker. I’m thirty-eight – no idea how that’s even possible. I’m single, but I’m not a mad cat lady. I’m a mad all-kinds-of-animals lady. Welcome to my life at Hope Farm.


Chapter Two

I’d have a shower, but there’s really no point. I usually end the day filthy, so I might as well start out that way too. The animals won’t mind and the people joining me on the farm today couldn’t care less what I look like. It can wait until later.

Besides – a small but not inconsiderable point – there’s no hot water on tap. That’s due to the fact that I live on-site at the farm in a small, but perfectly formed caravan – this place was never blessed with a sprawling farmhouse – and my only bathing facility is an open-air bucket shower at the back of one of the barns. Al fresco bathing is fine in the summer months and, sometimes, I hook the bucket shower up to the hosepipe for the horse wash and go with ice-cold water. Bracing, yet enjoyable in its own way. But in the depths of December the appeal of staying dirty can be quite overwhelming. Most of the time, I quite like the process of boiling myself a kettle of water to do my ablutions, or maybe I’m just used to it. It’s time-consuming though and I don’t have the luxury of being able to set it up right now – there’s so much else to do.

My home is modest, but I do my best to make it cosy. It was originally my aunt Hettie’s home and is as old as the hills. To cheer it up, I recently gave the outside a coat of paint and strung up a bit of pretty bunting to disguise the fact that it’s living on borrowed time. I’ve made it homely on the inside and I’m constantly doing running repairs to keep it going. Mind you, as I spend most of my time out on the farm, it’s purely a place to sleep and I don’t need much in the way of creature comforts. My assistant Bev bought me some nice cushions, embroidered with cutesy farm animals, which the dogs probably love more than I do. One of our casual volunteers crochets, and has hooked me a matching blanket – again possibly more appreciated by the canine inhabitants. Although I do like to snuggle under it if I can wrest if from them. I changed Hettie’s orange 1960s curtains for pale blue gingham numbers which do look pretty. What else do I need? Bev tells me that mismatched crockery is all the rage, which is just as well as mine has achieved that status quite by accident – usually an over-waggy tail. In the summer, I swelter and in the winter it’s like living in a freezer, but it’s a small price to pay for the freedom of the land.

Today, the spring weather is excelling itself and it feels as if we’ve finally cast off the harsh mantle of winter. A hearty dump of late snow in February seemed particularly cruel when the early snowdrops were out in full force. That’s all forgotten now, as spring is most definitely in the air and the day is balmy with a gentle breeze, when so often up here in our exposed position it can be howling a gale. The sky is the palest of blues dotted with clouds tinged with grey, hinting that we might be in for a spot of seasonal rain later.

I stretch my back, which is already tight due to my lumpy mattress. The one extravagance I do occasionally miss here is a long, hot bath, particularly when I’ve got a lot of aches and pains, but then everything else makes up for that. At Hope Farm I live in a most idyllic slice of Buckinghamshire countryside, with no nosy neighbours – in fact, no near neighbours at all. This place is situated in a spot of splendid isolation – just as I like it. I look around and know that every morning I wake up here I am truly blessed.

Little Dog falls into step at my heels – his favourite place in the world. Warily, Big Dog decides that it’s safe to come out of his hiding place and joins us.

‘Come on then, you two. Before we open our doors for business, let’s see how everyone else is.’

We head first to pick up our two pygmy goats, letting them out of their overnight pen. Dumb and Dumber spend the day out in the paddock with the horses who don’t mind them as company. The alpacas tolerate them occasionally too – when they’re in the mood. They are goats of very small brain, but they’re undeniably cute and set up a plaintive bleat whenever they see us.

‘Morning, lovelies,’ I say as I let them out into the yard. ‘Are you hungry?’

Goats are always hungry.

The dogs give them a good sniff in greeting. After they’ve been fed and fussed over, the goats wait patiently to be taken up to the paddock, already familiar with the routine.

I should tell you that Hope Farm isn’t what you might call a ‘traditional’ farm. Oh, no. We don’t grow crops, we don’t have cows, we don’t *lowers voice to whisper* kill any of our animals for food. Instead, our residents live a life of pampered luxury. They’ve all had tough starts in one way and another and I think they deserve a little TLC and understanding. Much like the young people who come to spend their time here, too. You see, I run the farm as an alternative way of educating kids who have special needs or behavioural issues. How I came to be doing that is quite a convoluted tale. We should sit down with a cup of tea and I’ll give you chapter and verse. Now, I’ve just got to crack on.

Our next resident is our ‘pet’ lamb, Fifty, who is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Anthony. Where Anthony is more often in an evil humour, Fifty is one of life’s most affable sheep. He’s convinced that he’s a human or a dog or a pig – anything but a lamb – and, as such, he’s pretty much given the free rein of our farmyard. If you drew a cartoon sheep, you’d draw Fifty. He has a handsome brown face, ears that are quite possibly big enough for him to take flight and a doleful expression in his big brown eyes. He has eyelashes to die for.

He’s best friends with our monster-sized pig, Teacup, and usually snuggles up at night beside him in Teacup’s pen. Now and then, when I’m feeling particularly soft, Fifty beds down in my caravan. When he hears us, he comes up for his early morning cuddle.

‘Hello, Fifty. What’s good today?’ He leans into my hand for his favourite itch behind the ear.

Fifty was an orphaned lamb who came to us with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. He was weak, underfed and literally on his last legs. He preferred to nestle in my lap rather than feeding, so I spent hours with my finger in his mouth teaching him how to suck. Eventually, he thrived with warm milk on tap and me with many sleepless nights beside him in the hay under a heat lamp. His legs were bent and buckled beneath him, so I massaged them with lavender oil every day to cajole his wasted muscles into life and bandaged his spindly limbs until he was strong enough to support his own weight. He still walks with an ungainly limp now but it never stops him from bossing the dogs around.

Teacup wakes up and hauls himself to see us, always open to the offer of food. Teacup’s only issue was to grow into a piggy the size of a Sherman tank when his owner foolishly bought one he was told would fit into a teacup. Hence the name. Living in the tiny garden of a semi-detached house in Hemel Hempstead soon wasn’t a viable option, so someone told someone who knew someone who knew us and that’s how we inherited him.

‘Morning, boy. Did you have a good night?’ I scratch his cheeks and the pig gives me a cheery grunt in reply.

I feed and water them all, holding the dogs away with my foot so they don’t nick their brekky. We have two domestic white geese who come wandering into the yard, obviously worried that they’re missing some breakfast action. We keep Snowy and Blossom for their eggs which are popular and Bev likes to put jaunty neckerchiefs on them which they usually surrender to after a few protest pecks.

Next to Teacup we have two more pigs – Salt and Pepper. They’re New Zealand Kunekunes and are short, fat and hairy. Pepper, the lady pig, is very vocal and bossy. Poor old Salt mostly stands in the corner of his pen being the epitome of a long-suffering and hen-pecked husband. If you go to fuss them, Pepper barges him out of the way so that he doesn’t get a look-in – poor thing – so we try to sneak him treats when she’s not looking. They get their breakfast too.
Further along is a run with a dozen or more rabbits of all shapes and sizes who are used to being cuddled to within an inch of their life and seem none the worse for it. Many of the kids who come here aren’t used to animals at all, so they’re great for introducing them to the work of the farm and in learning to how to look after another creature. The alpacas will give you a nip or a swift kick if you do something they don’t like, but the bunnies are altogether more agreeable. They’re all content to sit quietly soothing a troubled teen in return for a carrot.

‘Do you want to stay with Teacup?’ I ask Fifty. ‘Or will you come with us?’

Our favourite lamb finds a spot in the sunshine next to Teacup’s pen and settles down. Looks as if I have my answer. Which is just as well as I have a lot to do and need to get a wiggle on.


Happiness for Beginners is out now or you can pre-order the sequel, Christmas for Beginners, ahead of its release on 29th October.