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Everything is Beautiful exclusive extract

Read an exclusive extract from Everything is Beautiful, Eleanor Ray’s beautiful and uplifting debut novel.

Chapter One


It really was too much. Amy’s colleagues were nice enough, in their way, but she’d spent all the working week with them. Surely on Friday evening she should be free to go home, take off her shoes and
relax on her sofa. Alone.
But here she was. Standing in a cloud of cigarette smoke outside a crowded pub, shoes cutting into her feet, being jostled by people struggling to carry a round of three pints in two hands. Something was bound to get broken. Amy felt her body tense in anticipation, and she clutched her warm glass of Prosecco closer to her chest.
‘It’s a lovely change to have you out with us, Amy,’ said Mr Trapper, one of the eponymous partners in Trapper, Lemon and Hughes, the medium and not- at- all- growing firm of financial advisers where Amy ran the admin team. ‘Good to let our hair down once in a while.’ He laughed, tapping his balding head to signal it was a joke at his own expense. Amy’s dark hair stayed tightly pulled back in a ponytail. ‘Builds morale,’ he added. He had a Prosecco bottle in hand and proceeded to refill Amy’s glass.
‘I couldn’t miss Emma’s leaving drinks,’ said Amy. She’d tried. When five o’clock came she’d stood up, shaken Emma’s hand and wished her all the best for the future. Duty done. But Emma had clung to her, insisting that she come to the drinks. Amy couldn’t for the life of her work out why Emma seemed to think they were friends; Amy had been nothing but businesslike. She’d given her adequate instruction on what her role was to be and what was expected of her. She’d declined all the meeting requests for awful sounding ‘girls’ lunches’, and she’d certainly ignored all of the little messages with smiley- face emojis on the office instant- messaging system that some of the team used to waste their time.
Thinking about it, she had made the mistake of once making Emma a cup of tea when she found her crying in the toilets, presumably the result of a boyfriend’s actions. She’d even patted her gently on the back. And now in return she could see her plans for a comfortable evening dissolving like the Alka- Seltzer poor Emma would need the next morning.
Mr Trapper moved on to refill more glasses, and Amy was left on her own for a moment. She glanced at her watch. She’d been here forty- five minutes. Now was the perfect time to make her escape. ‘Hey Amy,’ said a voice. Amy spun around and found herself face to face with Liam, the new head of marketing. ‘I haven’t seen you out for drinks before,’ he said, smiling at her.

‘I’m usually busy,’ she replied, stepping backwards. ‘And actually, I need to—’
An arm snaked round her waist from behind. Before Amy had time to react, she felt a wet warmth by her ear. She spun round again; people from the office kept sneaking up on her. Thank goodness at work she had a desk with its back to the wall.
‘I’ll miss you,’ said Emma, her voice already a little slurred as she leaned into Amy. Amy smelt Red Bull and Jägermeister on Emma’s breath and was suddenly reminded of the Christmas party she’d been forced into attending two years ago. Emma looked at Amy’s expression and laughed, giving her a wet kiss on the cheek.
‘You’re special.’
‘Yes,’ said Amy, disentangling herself. ‘Indeed.’ Carthika appeared, and Amy successfully transferred Emma across. They swayed together in what Amy assumed was meant to be some kind of dance. ‘Just nipping to the loo,’ she said, as she saw Liam approaching her once more.
The swarm around the bar was four people deep, but the rest of the pub was quiet. It was a warm day in early July and people had chosen the pavement rather than the dark pub room. An abandoned wine bottle sat on a sticky round table, with two empty glasses for company. Amy paused and glanced at the bottle. It looked almost black in the dim light of the pub, but Amy could tell it would have a beautiful green translucence if held to the light: like the lime flavoured boiled sweets Tim used to enjoy.
Amy climbed the steps to the loo and sat down in the cubicle, thankful for a few moments to herself with the weight off her feet. She thought about the bottle again. It had a perfect shape to it: a long elegant neck and straight body. Symmetrical. Perfect. It couldn’t just go in the bin. It wouldn’t be right. She went back downstairs and discovered that the bottle still sat there. Empty. Forlorn. Amy made sure no one was watching. Thankful for her large handbag, she grabbed the bottle and popped it inside. The neck peeped out like a little lapdog, but Amy didn’t think anyone would notice. She fought the urge to take the glasses too. They looked so sad, sitting there. No. That would be stealing.

But the bottle wasn’t stealing. No one wanted it.
She’d make sure it was taken care of.
Amy found she was glad she’d come after all.


Normally, the train home on Fridays was less busy than the rest of the week. People paused for drinks after work, spreading the usual five p.m. commuters thinly as butter across the evening.
Not today.
Two trains in a row were cancelled. Amy joined the throngs of people staring up at the departures board as if it were a movie screen. Every once in a while a new number appeared, and a portion of the throng separated and rushed to their platform. A collective sigh of disappointment was released by those left behind.

Finally, Amy’s train was announced and Amy allowed herself to be carried along in the commuter current. She boarded, spotted a single seat in a group of four, made her way towards it gratefully and sank down. The train filled up, and she noticed a man near her. He was standing a little awkwardly, and Amy looked at him more closely.
His arm was in a sling.
Of course, there was only one right thing to do. Amy immediately stood up, stepped to one side and gestured with a silent half- bow that he should take the seat. It was only fair. Before he could, a young woman with a nose ring pushed past him and hurled herself into the new vacancy. Somewhere a whistle blew and the train started to move.
Amy looked at the man. He was maybe in his late forties, about ten years older than Amy herself, and he seemed tired. She noticed that his shirt was wrinkled and she felt a little flicker of recognition in her heart. He had no one to iron it for him while his arm was out of action.
The man caught her gaze and gave Amy a good- natured shrug, accompanied by a little ‘the youth of today’ eye roll. He stoically held on to a pole with his good hand.
Perhaps it was the warm Prosecco. Perhaps the blister developing on her heel. Perhaps the way the wrinkled- shirt man just accepted his fate. Amy found she just couldn’t bear it.
‘Excuse me,’ said Amy, her voice polite. The woman was peering at her phone, completely engrossed. She didn’t look up. Amy coughed. ‘Excuse me,’ she said more loudly. Some of the other commuters glanced at her. Still the woman ignored her. Amy stepped forwards, entering the sacrosanct space between the facing seats. Knees on both sides of her recoiled as if they were snails retreating into their shells.
‘She can’t hear you,’ said a man sitting next to the nose- ring girl. He was wearing a pretty floral shirt. ‘She’s got earphones in.’
Amy looked. Sure enough, the woman had bright white wireless earphones nestling snugly in her ears. Feeling bold, Amy reached forwards and tapped the woman on the shoulder. Finally she looked up.
‘What?’ the woman asked. She removed one of the earphones and frowned at Amy.
‘That man has a broken arm,’ said Amy. ‘I gave up my seat for him. And you sat down.’ She waited for the woman to jump up and apologise.
‘This isn’t a disabled seat,’ said the woman, not moving.
‘I’m not disabled,’ ventured the man with the sling. ‘I just fell down some stairs.’
‘That’s not the point,’ said Amy. ‘It was his seat. I gave it to him because he needed it.’
‘I don’t see his name on it,’ said the woman. The other commuters, sensing the start of some unexpected drama, looked up to watch.
‘But he’s got a broken arm,’ said Amy.
‘It’s actually my wrist that’s broken.’ Both women ignored him.
‘He can have my seat,’ said the man in the floral shirt. He made to get up.
‘She should stand up,’ insisted Amy.
‘Make me,’ said the woman, a latent threat lacing her voice. Amy stepped back, alarmed by the escalation.
‘Calm down, love,’ said a suited man sitting by the window, glancing up from his paper. Amy looked at him, and to her surprise he was looking back at her. He was telling her to calm down, after that woman had clearly threatened her.
‘I’m not the one who needs to calm down,’ she said, realising her voice was starting to crescendo. ‘That woman stole a seat from a man who needed it and now she’s threatening me. You all heard her.’ She looked around the train carriage. A silence took hold, as if people had suddenly remembered that no one was meant to speak to strangers in the city. Certainly not on public transport. ‘Didn’t you?’ she asked. Her voice sounded too loud, even in her own head.
‘I’m fine to stand,’ said the injured man, looking embarrassed for his part in the drama.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ the seat thief asked Amy.
As if complicit with the commuters, the train jolted. Amy was thrown forwards. She clutched a pole and regained her balance, but her bag swung from her shoulder and the empty wine bottle fell out. It hit the floor of the carriage with a thump and rolled under a seat.
‘She’s drunk,’ declared the seat thief, as if that justified her own actions.
‘I am not drunk,’ said Amy. ‘I just . . . ’ She saw everyone staring at her.
It was none of their business why she had that bottle. It was none of anyone’s business.

Amy bent down to escape their gaze and retrieve the bottle. It rolled further away from her and Amy found herself on her hands and knees on the sticky floor, surrounded by shoes. She saw a blue M&M, an empty Coke can and a half- eaten burger under the seats. It smelt of pickle. The bottle had gone, rolled out of sight as if it were embarrassed by her too.
It was too much.
The train came to a halt, the doors opened, and Amy felt fresh air rush into the carriage. It was three stops early but Amy knew she had to get into that air. Away from these people. Away from the bottle that had abandoned her.
Maybe it didn’t deserve to be rescued after all.
She stood up, pushed her way off the train and stepped out into the July evening.


It had taken three full trains to go by before Amy was finally ready to reboard. A ten-minute walk from the station later and here she was.
Amy felt better just seeing her front garden. Her beautiful pots guarded the house faithfully. She held her key ring tightly in her hand as she finally slid her key into the lock. Amy went in and closed the door behind her, ready to forget that the evening had ever happened.
She stepped forwards into her hallway and tripped. Damn. One of her giant stacks of newspapers had fallen over. Again. Newspapers were mingling with unopened mail and dried petals. The debris lined the floor like autumn leaves. She shuffled through; she couldn’t face clearing up the mess. Not this evening. Some of the other towers of newspapers looked precarious too, reaching floor to ceiling like Doric columns. Her hallway reminded her of the Acropolis.
The Acropolis after a party, she thought, stumbling over an empty wine bottle. She used to store her collection of green bottles in the kitchen, but she’d had to move some so she could get into the fridge. Ten or twenty privileged bottles sat neatly on her hallway shelves; a couple had even been transformed into vases with stems of honeysuckle. But that had been some time ago, and the flowers had dehydrated into crunchy brown husks.

Many of the bottles lounged empty on the floor, still waiting for a purpose.
A second chance.
Most of Amy’s clothes were in a wardrobe that she could no longer access. Tim’s clothes would be in there too. He hadn’t taken any of them. After it happened, Amy had used the base of the wardrobe for extra storage, then a few things had accumulated in front of it. Mirrors, bottles, a couple of indoor pots. She’d tried to get an outfit out one morning a few years ago, and realised it wasn’t worth the effort. She didn’t really want to wear bright colours now, in any case, so she’d just left their old clothes in the wardrobe and replaced them with an assortment of grey and black essentials; some smart for work, others comfy for home. She kept her ‘active wardrobe’, as she called it, spread on top of one of her boxes, and made sure that she could always still get to the washing machine and the iron. She didn’t want to waste more money on clothes than she had to, not when there were so many beautiful things that she wanted to buy.
It was Saturday morning, so Amy picked up her jeans and a black T- shirt. She made a special effort not to catch a glimpse of herself as she dressed. It was a challenge, as many mirrors lined the room. She knew that mirrors were meant to make a room feel spacious, but today it felt as if they were making the room smaller. Piles of boxes were reflected back at her, towering up and reaching for the ceiling. But even so, many things could not fit in a box and instead littered the room. Vases, unopened bottles of hand lotion, stacks of ashtrays. And the mirrors themselves, of course, mocking her with infinite reflections.
Amy swore under her breath as a shot of pain flew up through her foot. She looked down; she’d just trodden on a cigarette lighter. Good. Nothing damaged. She sat down again to pull her slippers on. Slippers seemed to be the thing that took the most delight in hiding from her in the house, so she’d taken to buying several pairs at a time.
She was very careful with her vases and bottles, of course she was. But every now and again, one decided that it had had enough of life and flung itself to the floor. Shards of broken glass had embedded themselves in Amy’s feet a number of times, until she’d made the wise choice to invest in rubber- soled slippers.
She made her way down the stairs, holding tight to the handrail to make sure she didn’t lose her footing over the boxes and crates that had somehow ended up squatting on the staircase. Edging through the hallway and sighing at the sight of the newspapers littering the floor, Amy went into the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.
The choice of mugs was a favourite moment in the day. So many beautiful options lined her counters. She’d just decided that today was a china teacup with a gold rim sort of day, when the doorbell rang.
It gave her a bit of a fright. It didn’t ring often and was never who she hoped for. It didn’t help that the bell delivered an ungainly rendition of the first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth that would make the great man turn in his grave. Amy added a new doorbell to her mental shopping list and decided to wait it out and hope whoever it was went away.
The person outside, finding the bell ineffective, started pounding
on the door.
Then silence.
Amy peered into the hallway in the hope that whoever it was had given up. A pair of brown eyes stared back at her, framed by her letterbox. There was a clatter as the eyes disappeared and a mouth adorned with a peachy shade of lipstick came into her rectangular field of vision.
‘I can see you,’ said the mouth. Of course it was all a lie; mouths can’t see. ‘Please open the door.’
Amy debated opening the door only to the extent that the chain would allow, but that always made her feel like a paranoid old lady. She hadn’t yet turned forty. Instead she extracted her keys from her handbag, opened the door just enough to squeeze outside, then deftly swung it closed behind her before her visitor could see any more of her hallway.
Her next-door neighbour, Rachel, was still crouching with her mouth pressed to where the letterbox had just been and it left the women awkwardly close, Rachel at crotch height to Amy. It was a position neither relished, and Rachel stood up and stepped backwards, looking put out.
‘Can I help you?’ enquired Amy, with the least helpful tone she could muster.
Rachel made a sighing sound that reminded Amy of a horse. ‘Smudge found another mouse,’ she said. ‘He dragged it across our new ivory carpet last night and left a trail of blood. I can’t get it off.’
Amy glanced at her front garden, deciding that it was time to water her potted geraniums again. The plants had grown leggy and the flowers, once postbox red, were rather brown, but the glazed pots they lived in were still a beautiful shade of crimson. Her rose had little green buds of promise that matched its own green pot and she could smell her honeysuckle, clinging to the front of her house as it snaked up from the large, deep blue pot that reminded her of the ocean.
‘Amy!’ said Rachel. Amy looked back at her neighbour. ‘Are you even listening to me?’
‘I’m sorry for the mouse, poor little thing,’ Amy replied eventually.
‘But Smudge is your cat. I really don’t know why it’s got anything to do with me.’
‘You know why.’
‘Of course I don’t,’ replied Amy, wondering why Rachel blamed her problems on Amy. Too much time on her hands, she suspected.
‘I’ve had enough. It’s the final straw. Things have to change.’
‘You’re getting rid of Smudge?’ suggested Amy.
‘No,’ said Rachel. ‘I’m going to call the council. The mice are coming from your house. I know they are.’
Amy was sure Rachel could know no such thing, unless she spent her evenings tracking mice through the cellars of Ivydale Close. The walls were thin enough for Amy to know that that was not what she did of an evening. She argued with her husband, watched EastEnders and then had noisy sex, presumably with said husband.
The smell of cigarette smoke used to follow all three activities, but recently Amy had smelt something sweeter. She wondered briefly if Rachel had made the unlikely transition from smoking to baking, until she realised it was the saccharine flavour of a vanilla vape wafting through the air.
‘I’ve never seen a mouse in my house,’ Amy replied.
‘They’ll be hiding under all your rubbish.’
‘There is no rubbish in my house,’ said Amy, with pride. Her house was fairly full, of course, but that was because it was filled to the brim with treasures.
‘We both know that’s not true,’ replied Rachel.
‘And I’d thank you to keep that cat away from my property,’ continued Amy. ‘I hate to think of the damage he could do to my birds.’
Rachel rolled her eyes at the mention of Amy’s birds and opened her mouth, but her words remained unspoken. Both women were distracted by the growl of a large engine. Their little street of suburban terraced two- up two- downs rarely saw much traffic, and they both turned to watch as a large moving van pulled in.
‘Old Mrs Hill’s place. It must be,’ said Rachel. The women enjoyed a temporary truce as they watched the van attempt to park.
Amy missed Mrs Hill. She’d been a perfect neighbour, quiet and undemanding. Even when Amy had shared the house with Tim and Chantel, they’d never made it beyond a gentle nod of greeting and an occasional muttered ‘hello’ if either was feeling particularly gregarious. In fact, she didn’t even notice that Mrs Hill was gone until her grown- up children turned up one day to fill up their cars with her possessions. Sad as she’d been, there followed a glorious time with no neighbours at all on that side, a luxury rarely afforded in the area. Then the ‘For Sale’ sign was replaced with a triumphant boast from the estate agent. Sold.
And now, here they were. Her new neighbours.
Well, not exactly. Two men in bright blue overalls emerged from the truck and opened it up. ‘I’m going to see if they’d like a cuppa,’ said Rachel, trotting over to the van. She turned back to Amy as she went. ‘Sort out the mice or I will be forced to report you. I mean it this time.’
She watched Rachel smiling at the removals men while trying to get a good peek inside the truck. Amy went back into her house. She couldn’t help but want to nose too, but she decided to take a subtler tack and headed to her living room.

Even she had to admit, this room was at capacity. Boxes were piled up like pyramids. Some had mirrors leaning on them, some had vases still waiting for flowers. There were several clocks that had long since ceased to tick. Lighters were scattered like confetti on what little floor space there was.
Many boxes were adorned with birds.
Amy kept as many of her birds out as she could. It seemed cruel to have them cooped up in darkness when they loved the sunlight, but Amy couldn’t make space for them all to be free at once. She’d kept the sofa mostly clear to give herself a rather indulgent place to sit, and she’d also made sure she had a thin walkway to the window. She traversed her miniature ravine, then turned back to admire the room.
Hundreds of little china eyes peered back at her. She’d quite a collection in her aviary, as she liked to call it. Inquisitive blue tits, exotic parakeets, diving swifts, angry jays, proud kingfishers. Perched on shelves, on boxes, on the windowsill.
She felt she shouldn’t have favourites, but she couldn’t help herself. She approached the windowsill and placed a gentle hand on Scarlett’s back. Amy still remembered the moment she’d found her in the bargain bin of Amy’s favourite charity shop. The china body of a robin, her breast bright red and her eyes gleaming. Full of hope. But her delicate legs were broken and her feet were nowhere to be seen.
Amy had frantically rummaged through the bin, to the amusement of the volunteer staff, until she emerged triumphant with the robin’s china perch, complete with spindly feet still tightly gripping the branch. She’d bought the bird at once and rushed home. Some glue and a nervous wait later, and the robin was whole again, albeit with legs that would forever be crooked.
That didn’t matter to Amy, of course. She loved her all the more for her imperfections. She pulled the curtain to one side and they looked out of the window together.
Rachel was flicking her hair around and laughing at something the younger of the two removals men had said, and the older man was unloading chairs from the van alone. He had a round belly and nasty cough. Amy peered at the chairs. There were four: wooden and nondescript. Not much to be gleaned about the new neighbours from that.
Amy had barely noticed it at first, but the area, once having rather a grimy edge, had gradually become desirable. Laundromats had been replaced by artisan bakeries and the price of a cup of coffee had gone up fourfold. Couples and young families were snapping up properties like organic croissants. The houses were small and terraced, but came with gardens and an easy commute into the city. Amy supposed that she should be pleased that her house, which she had scrimped and saved for when her landlord wanted to sell it, had gone up in value. But the truth was it made no difference to her. She couldn’t imagine ever moving.
What if Tim came back?
She watched Rachel walk past Amy’s house and back to her own. Amy was pleased to see that the older man had the help of his companion again. They lifted a table out of the van, then unloaded something garish, bright yellow and plastic. Amy strained her eyes, trying to work out what it was.
A car. She looked again. No, a bed in the shape of a car. A child’s bed.
It was inevitable, she supposed, and there were other children on the street. But right next door? Her hand found Scarlett again, and for a moment, she imagined the robin to be quivering with fear. Children were breakers. They both knew that. Silently she promised Scarlett that she would keep her safe.
She watched more furniture as it was paraded past her window. A futon. Bean bags. A number of house plants at various stages of dehydration. Numerous boxes, their contents a mystery.
Rachel emerged from her house clutching a large plate with what looked to be a Victoria sponge sitting on top. She certainly hadn’t had time to bake it – she must have run to the local shop. Amy leaned forwards, pressing her forehead against the windowpane. Sure enough, Rachel was panting as she made her way past Amy’s house to old Mrs Hill’s place. Amy couldn’t see the door from her house, but she heard the bell ring and a woman answer. Not one but two children emerged from the house and into her field of vision.
Both were boys. Amy couldn’t help but feel that was even worse news. A nursery rhyme about slugs and snails and puppy- dog tails started to play in her mind.
The older child might have been eight or nine and began kicking a red football at the side of the removals van. Footballs could cause a lot of damage. Amy watched him kick, wondering if he had enough power to get it through her window. The younger child was perhaps three, and was watching his brother and sucking his thumb, and every once in a while throwing a little air kick.
‘Charles Frederick, stop kicking that football at once,’ commanded a woman’s voice from inside the house. ‘You’ll break something.’
It was exactly what Amy had been thinking, and she was pleased to see that the boy obeyed her. He nestled the ball under his arm and bent down to pet Smudge, who’d left Amy’s front garden to entwine himself around the boy’s legs.
The men left a pile of boxes on the pavement and all the adults disappeared inside the house. The voices stopped. Presumably Rachel and the men had been invited in for tea and maybe a piece of the cake. Amy found she was hungry herself and almost wished she’d been friendlier and could join them all. She decided to prepare a snack. She was pretty sure she still had a lump of cheddar in the fridge, and some crackers somewhere. She’d eat with Scarlett. She watched the older boy attempt to pick up Smudge, but the cat made a run for it.
She heard a thud. The heartbreaking sound of something being smashed. Amy closed her eyes and put her hand to her head, fearing the worst. A sob broke out.
It all came from outside, she told herself. Not her house. She opened her eyes and looked. Sure enough, one of the boxes had fallen. The smaller child was on top of it, his face crimson and his mouth bellowing in anguish. He must have tried to climb the boxes and had knocked one over.
Amy hated the thought of anything at all being broken, but at least it was nothing of hers. The larger boy abandoned the cat and the ball and grabbed his brother in a big hug. The little boy held out his hands and his brother inspected them and dusted them off. The ball rolled away, making its escape from the scene of the crime.
‘Charles Frederick!’ Amy watched as their mother charged out of the house, ignored the small crying child and started to lambast his older brother. ‘What did I tell you about kicking your football here?’
The boy muttered something inaudible, but Amy could tell from the hang of his head that he was taking the blame.
‘It’s the last straw,’ the woman continued. ‘I warned you. Didn’t I?’ Amy listened. There was something in the tone of voice that she didn’t like at all. For a moment she hesitated, wanting to keep the neighbours at arm’s length. Then she rushed out of her house, forgetting to close the door behind her.
‘It wasn’t him!’ she declared to the woman, who scowled at her for a moment before turning her gaze to the smaller child.
He was holding his brother’s leg and had a little scrape on his knee that attested to his guilt. Amy found herself temporarily distracted by his T- shirt – a dinosaur sniffing anachronistically at a lighthouse.
‘Daniel Joseph!’ said the woman. ‘Was it you?’ The smaller child cowered and started to cry again. Amy felt terrible. This little boy getting in trouble wasn’t what she intended, even if he was to blame. A trickle of clear snot joined forces with the tears on his face. He paused from his crying to lick it up and Amy found herself feeling a little nauseous.
His mother looked momentarily sickened too. ‘Get your brother a tissue,’ she said to the older boy.
‘It was me,’ said Charles Frederick, wiping his brother’s nose with his sleeve. ‘I knocked over the boxes. That woman is lying.’
‘You mustn’t accuse strange women of lying,’ said his mother.
She turned to Amy and squeezed out a smile. ‘I’m so sorry about that. I don’t know where he gets his manners from.’ She wiped her hands on her jeans and reached one hand out to Amy, who was wondering what to feel about the ‘strange woman’ comment. ‘I’m Nina. These two are my partner’s children.’ She shrugged a little, looking as though she was feeling better now Amy knew that they were not her offspring.
Inspiration struck Amy. ‘It was Smudge,’ she said.
‘Excuse me?’ said Nina.
‘Smudge knocked over the boxes,’ she said triumphantly. ‘Rachel’s cat,’ she added in explanation, seeing Rachel emerge from the house at the commotion, with a little cream at the corner of her mouth.
‘Oh gosh, I’m so sorry,’ said Rachel. ‘Of course I’ll pay for any damage.’
‘No need, I’m sure it’s nothing,’ said Nina pleasantly. Amy looked at the two women, uncomprehending. How could they be so relaxed when something could be damaged? ‘Let’s go back inside.’
‘Don’t you want to check the box?’ asked Amy. ‘What if one of your things is broken? A bottle, maybe, or a glass? You might need to repair it.’
‘What if it’s one of my diggers?’ asked Charles, looking anxious.
‘It’s not going to be urgent, is it?’ laughed Nina. ‘Will you join us for cake?’
Amy’s stomach rumbled but she declined. ‘I’d really feel better if you checked in the box,’ she said. Rachel gave Nina a knowing look, and Amy had the impression that she’d already been a topic
of conversation.
‘This is your new neighbour, Amy Ashton,’ said Rachel, sounding apologetic.
‘Can I look in the box?’ Amy was feeling increasingly sick. ‘I have some glue . . . ’
Nina shrugged and walked to the box. ‘A few mugs and some toys were all that was in here,’ she dismissed, as she opened it. ‘Nothing valuable.’ Amy followed her, peering over her shoulder. A jumble of little yellow cars looked back at her. No, not cars. Diggers.
‘Are my JCBs okay?’ asked Charles, rushing over to the box and leaning in so far it seemed he might tumble inside. ‘My remote controlled metal die- cast excavator was in there!’ He began to take out the toys one by one, including several still in their original boxes. He lined them up on the pavement. Smudge came over and gave them a curious sniff.
‘We’re trying to move into the house, not onto the kerb,’ said Nina. ‘Take those inside.’
‘They’re all OK,’ said Charles, looking relieved. ‘Tough machines, JCBs.’ He smiled at Amy.
Amy looked at what remained in the box. An assortment of mugs, one clearly damaged. Nina followed her gaze. ‘Only one mug broken,’ said Nina cheerfully. ‘No real harm done.’
It was no wonder a mug had been broken. The packaging was a couple of sheets of loose bubble wrap, woefully inadequate. Amy looked at the casualty. It was a beautiful shade of yellow with a pretty sheen to it, like butter melting on a summer’s day. The handle had come off and the mug itself was broken in two. It would always have a hairline scar down the middle, but all the pieces were there.
Amy was sure she could fix it.
‘Stop,’ she exclaimed, as Nina went to toss the pieces into a large wheelie bin. ‘I can repair it.’
‘It’s just a cheap mug,’ said Nina. ‘Don’t bother.’
‘Let her,’ said Rachel. ‘It’s easier.’
‘Fine.’ Nina passed her the broken pieces and Amy cradled them carefully. ‘Thanks,’ Nina added, clearly not meaning it.
Amy hurried back to her house. The door was still open, which was lucky as she’d not brought her key. It still made her uncomfortable. What if Smudge had crept inside? It could have been carnage for her birds. She vowed not to forget herself like that again. But despite her hurry, she could hear Rachel talking to Nina. ‘She didn’t used to be like this, apparently,’ she said, the excitement of gossip audible in her voice. ‘Poor Amy. It’s tragic, really, what she’s been through.’
Amy had no desire to hear her story told by Rachel. She closedher door with a thud.


October 1998

‘Who put the Spice Girls on?’ asked Amy, looking around the room. The house party was in full swing and no one answered, though she suspected it had been the two girls dressed as cats, busy touching up their whiskers with eyeliner as they peered into a small mirror. Amy shuffled through the CDs and selected the new Garbage album. ‘Dance?’ she suggested, skipping to the second track.
Chantel pulled herself up from the sofa and joined her. Amy lifted her arm and Chantel twirled out and then back again, her black skirt swirling up to reveal her stripy yellow and black leggings. It was their signature dance move, so of course it came out at every opportunity, even shoeless on the carpet at this party Seb had thrown for Halloween while his parents were out of town.
‘Take a break?’ asked Chantel, as the CD came to an end and someone replaced it with The Verve. Her voice was already a little breathless and her face sweaty. ‘It’s hot work being a bumblebee.’
‘Sure,’ said Amy as they both sank back into the sofa. ‘You must be roasting in those leggings.’
‘True, but they’re the best bit of the costume,’ said Chantel. ‘If I take them off I’d just look like a naff fairy.’ She gestured to her small wings, designed for a fairy costume.
‘Or a fly for my web,’ said Amy, wiggling her fingers at Chantel in a not very convincing spider impression. She was pretty pleased with the costume she’d pulled together. She’d had inspiration from a black vest top she’d had already, with silver cobwebs printed over it. She’d added a black woven skirt, fishnet tights, and as many plastic spiders as she could sew to her clothes.
‘I can tell you’re an artist,’ said Chantel, looking at the costume.
‘You’ve got that eye.’
‘I can’t wait to start my foundation course.’
‘Your costume is freaking me out,’ said Chantel. ‘I keep thinking you’re crawling with real spiders.’ She shuddered and passed Amy the plastic Coke bottle they’d topped up with the Malibu. Amy took a deep swig and handed it back, feeling the room spin a little. A whiff of cannabis floated through the air. Amy knew that Chantel would be bound to sniff it out and befriend whoever’d brought it.
‘It would have been better if you’d come as a flower,’ said Chantel.
‘You’d match my costume and you wouldn’t be quite so terrifying.’
‘Or a jar of honey,’ mused Amy. ‘Not very Halloween- y though.’
‘I smell the good stuff,’ interrupted Chantel inevitably, sitting up and eyeing the room like a meerkat. ‘Want some?’
‘No,’ said Amy. ‘I’m fine with the Malibu.’
‘Probably a good idea. You’d terrify yourself, wearing those insects stoned.’
‘Spiders aren’t insects,’ she started, but Chantel was gone. Amy looked around the party. Seb, dressed as a cowboy, was fervently snogging a witch on the sofa. The two girls with cat ears and black noses had put Five on the CD player and had taken her and Chantel’s place dancing. She briefly watched them bouncing up and down while counting to the music on their fingers. She took another swig of her drink.
‘I’ve always liked spiders,’ said a boy, in a bright orange T- shirt and black jeans. ‘And Garbage.’ Amy felt he was slightly familiar, but she didn’t think she’d spoken to him before. He had an apologetic slope to his shoulders typical of the very tall, a Noel Gallagher haircut and he was, Amy realised, excessively handsome. ‘Mind if I join you?’
‘Sure,’ said Amy, trying to sound nonchalant. Foggily she felt as if he were someone she’d admired at one time. Perhaps he’d been a couple of years above her in school. Or maybe he’d even been on telly.
‘What’s that?’ she exclaimed, the admiration dissipating as she caught sight of something orange and mushy hanging from his earlobe.
‘Damn, is there more?’ he said, his hand reaching for his ear. ‘I thought I’d got it all.’
‘What on earth . . . ?’
‘I’ve blown my cool, haven’t I?’ he said with a grimace. ‘Maybe this will help explain.’ He rummaged through a plastic bag, the ubiquitous royal- blue kind that comes from every corner shop. Amy heard a bottle clink against something, then he produced a shard of pumpkin and a small hammer. Amy took the pumpkin piece, turning it over in her hand. It was wet and sticky.
‘I was trying to be authentic,’ he said. ‘But instead I’m just pumpkin flavoured.’
‘Smashing Pumpkins,’ said Amy. ‘That’s who you’ve come as.’
He grinned back at her. ‘You’re the first person to get that,’ he said. ‘Turns out it was a terrible idea.’
Amy laughed. ‘Plastic spiders seem like genius now,’ she said.
He smiled back at her, and Amy noticed his eyes crinkling in the corners. ‘I know you from somewhere,’ she said.
He bit his lip. ‘I am famous round these parts,’ he said.
‘No,’ he said, with a laugh. ‘But my band did have our first ever gig last week, even if it was in the back room of a pub.’ He sounded proud and a little embarrassed all at once.
‘Of course,’ said Amy, the pieces falling into place like a reassembled
pumpkin. ‘You played at the Firkin!’
His mouth fell open. ‘You saw us?’ he asked. ‘Maybe I’m more famous than I think.’
Amy laughed again. ‘You did have to tell me before I recognised you.’ She paused. ‘You were pretty good though.’
‘You’re my first groupie!’ he declared. ‘You can be my Yoko.’
Amy felt herself colouring a little. The band had been good. Really good. She’d loved them.
‘I don’t suppose you have a corkscrew?’ he asked. He lifted a bottle of wine from his bag. ‘I think we should celebrate.’
‘Sorry,’ said Amy, wishing desperately that she did have a corkscrew. Suddenly her plastic bottle of Malibu and Coke seemed terribly uncool. She gave it a gentle flick with her heel and it rolled under the sofa out of sight. She glanced around the room. A few boys were gulping from beer cans and a bottle of overproof rum was doing the rounds. ‘I don’t think anyone else here is drinking wine,’ she said, getting to her feet. ‘I’ll check the kitchen.’
‘I’m too sophisticated for my own good,’ he said.

Amy laughed. ‘That would be more convincing if you didn’t have butternut squash in your ear,’ she said.
‘Pumpkin,’ he corrected. ‘Give me some credit.’ He followed her into the kitchen. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘If we can’t find a corkscrew here, how about we take a walk and try to hunt one down. I could do with the fresh air.’
Quietly, Amy opened a drawer and pushed away the corkscrew she’d just found. She closed it again.
‘Nothing here,’ she said, knowing she was a terrible liar.
‘We’ll have to.’
‘Great.’ He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
‘I’ll just let Chantel know . . . ’ She looked around the party and saw Chantel kissing Dean Chapman again, who she insisted was not her boyfriend but who she always snogged when she’d had a couple of drinks. ‘Oh,’ said Amy. ‘She’s busy.’
‘I’ll get my coat,’ he said. ‘My name’s Tim, by the way.’
‘I’m Amy,’ she told him. ‘Amy Ashton.’


It felt cold but fresh outside after the smoky haze of the party, and Amy breathed in deeply. ‘It’s good to be outdoors,’ said Tim, as if reading her mind. ‘But you must be cold.’ He took off his jacket, a heavy leather affair, and draped it round her shoulders. Amy had seen men do that in films, but it had never happened to her in her seventeen years. The boys at school were not that gentlemanly, and she suddenly felt as if she were in a proper love story. With a rock star. She shivered a little.
‘If you’re still too cold we can head back inside?’ he said.
‘No,’ she said quickly, pulling the coat closer round her. ‘I’m fine.’ She smiled at him. ‘Thank you.’
‘I hope there’s no pumpkin on that,’ he said.
‘Me too,’ she agreed. ‘Spiders hate pumpkins.’
‘I’ve no idea,’ she confessed. They both laughed, and walked on. This bit of Amy’s home town was new, sprung up in response to the railway extension that suddenly made it possible to live here and commute to work in London. The houses were almost identical for miles and it was easy to get lost or think you were walking in circles.
‘So are you a full- time rock star?’ teased Amy.
‘Sort of,’ said Tim. ‘I finished my A levels last year and my dad wanted to pack me off to university to study law, but I’m taking a break instead to try to make a go of the band.’
‘A rebel,’ said Amy, calculating that he must be two years older than her, itself rather exciting. ‘Very rock and roll.’
‘Yes,’ said Tim. He paused. ‘So you liked the band,’ he prompted.
‘It was awesome,’ said Amy, honestly. ‘I loved that song about missed sunsets.’
‘ “Already Dark”?’ exclaimed Tim. ‘I wrote that.’ Amy noticed his back was a little straighter. She was tall, but he towered above her. He must be well over six foot. And handsome and funny and talented and his leather jacket smelt like her favourite chair at her grandmother’s house.
‘It was very sad,’ said Amy. ‘And very beautiful.’ Amy felt Tim’s fingers interlace her own at her words. Her heart felt as if it had grown larger, swollen by the warm hand embracing her palm.
‘It’s about my mother,’ he said. He bit his lip. ‘She died when I was ten.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Amy, feeling awkward. She wanted to say something that would help, that would provide comfort. But she had nothing. She squeezed his hand instead.
Tim squeezed back. ‘I haven’t told anyone else that’s what the song’s about,’ he said. He turned to her and Amy found herself staring into eyes the colour of conkers.
‘I feel like I can trust you,’ he said. ‘Already.’ Tim released her hand and wrapped his arms around her back.
‘You can,’ said Amy. She felt the bottle he was holding brush against her as she closed her eyes and leaned in.
‘Zombie alert!’ shouted someone. Tim quickly released the embrace as a drunken crowd of Halloween revellers stumbled by, pulling scary faces at the two of them and laughing. They watched them go, then walked on themselves, the moment gone. His hand found hers again. ‘I think there’s a corner shop up here,’ said Amy. ‘They would probably sell corkscrews.’
‘We don’t really need one,’ said Tim. ‘I’m afraid I got you alone on false pretences.’
‘Oh,’ said Amy. He must have seen her hide the corkscrew in the kitchen. She let go of his hand, feeling embarrassed.

‘It’s nothing sinister,’ he added quickly. ‘Although, lying to get a pretty girl on her own in the cold dark night surrounded by zombies – maybe it does sound a little on the creepy side.’
‘Lying?’ queried Amy, although inside she was busy being delighted about the ‘pretty’ comment.
He sheepishly held up the bottle. ‘Screw top,’ he said.
Amy laughed. ‘There was a bottle opener in the kitchen,’ she confessed.
‘I know,’ he replied. He smiled. ‘Is that a little park?’ he asked.
‘It looks nice.’
‘That’s a bit of grass in the middle of a roundabout,’ said Amy.
‘Care to join me for a swig of cheap red wine from my screw- top bottle in the middle of a roundabout?’ he offered, with a small bow, proffering his hand.
Amy took the hand and smiled again. ‘That’s the sort of offer I don’t get every day,’ she said. ‘At least not from a rock star with pumpkin in his ears.’
‘And wine,’ he replied, twisting open the bottle as they sat on the rough grass. ‘Don’t forget the bottle of wine.’ He handed the bottle to Amy. It felt cold in her hand, but the wine warmed her throat. She passed it back to him and watched as he drank. The bottle caught the moonlight and glowed a deep, beautiful green.