‘Where is the exit?’ I cry for what seems like the hundredth time. ‘I can’t find it!’
All around me are people. People crying. People shouting. People panicking.
None of us can find the exit. None of us is going to get out of here.
But then the deafening noise of the voices that have engulfed me for so long stops, and I can hear nothing. Not a sound.
The silence is a welcome relief, but at the same time weighs heavy upon my already weary shoulders. As the voices stop, so do the people, they stop moving and stand still – too still. Everyone is motionless, frozen like statues in some ghoulish museum. All these people. People with lives. People with families.
This is where it will end for them.
‘I have to get out of here,’ I cry in anguish, this time into the eerie silence. Otherwise, that’s it – the end for me, too.
I sit up in bed – covered, as always, head to toe in sweat.
I reach for my bedside lamp and switch it on. The soft light immediately cuts the cord that joins the trauma of my mind to my physical reality, and allows me to begin my recovery.
I take a sip from the glass of water by my bedside, and try to control my shallow fast breathing, until it returns to something more manageable.
Then I climb slowly from my bed and retrieve the fresh pyjamas I always leave on my chair in case this happens, and I exchange them for my cold damp ones.
After I’ve splashed some cool water on my face, I return to my bed and, with the light still on, I pick up my phone with the intention of scrolling through monotonous social media posts until I feel calm enough to try to sleep again.
This was nothing new to me. The nightmares, night sweats and subsequent attempts to get back off to a patchy night’s sleep have been a constant in my life for over a year now. I’m well practised at this routine, but it never gets any easier. I look at the screen on my phone – I have a new email notification from the letting company. I open the email and read:
Dear Ava Martin,
You recently registered interest in renting properties in the Cambridgeshire area. I am pleased to tell you that a property fitting your requirements has just become available on a short-term lease in the beautiful village of Bluebell Wood.
Please find enclosed details of the property ‘Bluebird Cottage’ below.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us should it be something you love as much as we do.
Bluebell Wood . . . I think, as I click on the link and look over the property they’ve suggested – a pretty cottage in a quiet and attractive village.
You could be just what I need . . .
‘Are you sure you’re going to be all right here on your own?’
I turn away from watching my scruffy grey- haired dog tear around on the unmown grass and look at my daughter.
‘I’ll be perfectly fine,’ I try to reassure her. ‘This is what I want right now, Han. No, correction: this is what I need.’
Hannah sighs. ‘But this cottage, it’s so . . . remote,’ she says, looking at me with concern. ‘And so quiet. Listen . . . ’
I listen with her for a moment. ‘I can’t hear anything,’ I say after a few seconds. ‘Only a few birds singing in the trees.’
‘Exactly. There’s nothing around here for miles once you leave these tiny villages.’
‘I know, isn’t it lovely?’
Hannah sighs again. ‘But what if you need something important, Mum? You know your . . . health hasn’t been too good lately.’
‘My mental health, you mean,’ I correct her. ‘Don’t be scared about saying it.’
‘I’m not. But we worry about you, we both do.’ Matthew, my son, emerges through the French windows of the cottage to join us in the garden. ‘I think that’s the last of your stuff in now,’ he says. ‘I can’t actually believe we got all that packed into my car.’
‘Thank you, Matt,’ I say, smiling at him. ‘It was good of you to drive me.’
‘Don’t be daft, Mum. We wanted to make sure you got here okay.’
‘Wanted to nose around my new home, you mean!’
‘Well, there is that!’ Matt says, grinning. ‘This village is so old-fashioned, isn’t it? I can’t quite believe places like this still exist. There are no modern homes here at all, as far as I can see. It’s like something from a cosy Sunday- night TV drama.’
‘Cosy is exactly it. Cosy and remote. It’s just what I need right now.’
‘And that’s all that matters,’ Hannah says, putting her arm around my shoulders and giving me a squeeze. ‘Just as long as you’re happy in this cottage, then we are too. Aren’t we, Matt?’
Matt nods. ‘Yeah, we only want you to be happy again, Mum.’
Again. My children just want me to be happy again. Because I hadn’t been truly happy for well over a year now.
‘You two might not think much of this little cottage, and how remote it is,’ I continue, deciding now is not the time to dwell. ‘You’re both used to living in places with lots of people. But I really like Bluebell Wood. I think I’ll be very happy here.’
My new cottage isn’t exactly in the middle of a wood, just on the outskirts, to be precise. And contrary to what my children think, the village of Bluebell Wood is really not that small, but it is quiet. Still, it has everything you could need: a tiny village shop with a post office counter, a small old- fashioned primary school, and a very pretty little church. There’s even a pub – quaintly named The Daft Duck.
‘Plus, don’t forget I have my new friend over there to keep me company,’ I say, and we all look over to the scruffy little dog keenly investigating his new home. ‘I think Merlin will sprinkle some magic over this place, just like his namesake.’
‘You’re going to keep calling him that, then?’ Hannah asks.
‘We wondered if you might change his name.’
‘No, I like it, it suits him.’
At my children’s insistence, before I’d moved from the city to the country, I’d adopted Merlin from a local dog shelter to keep me company in the new, more solitary life I was about to embark on. I’d been hesitant at first; some days I felt I could barely look after myself, let alone a dog. But Hannah and Matt had been adamant that I couldn’t live here all alone. So as much to appease them as to help me, I’d relented, and Merlin had accompanied us to my new home in Bluebell Wood.
I watch my new companion carefully sniffing around the base of some overgrown bushes, then equally as carefully lifting his leg to avoid the spiky thorns. ‘Merlin!’ I call. ‘Merlin, come here!’ I pat my thighs in encouragement. Merlin pricks up his ears and looks at me quizzically. ‘That’s it,’ I call again. ‘Come here, boy!’ Merlin bounds over to me in great excitement, sits down and looks up expectantly.
‘I think he’s expecting a treat,’ Matt says knowingly.
‘Maybe that’s what his previous owner gave him if he came when called?’
Merlin’s previous owners had been killed in a car accident, which he had miraculously emerged from unscathed. He was a resilient little thing, though, with a happy nature, and I hoped some of his confidence and zest for life would rub off on me as we got to know each other better.
‘I’m sorry,’ I tell Merlin, crouching down next to him and tickling him under the chin. ‘I don’t have a treat on me, will a fuss do instead?’
Merlin’s dark eyes look directly into mine, then he nuzzles into my hand, turning his head to one side so I’m now rubbing his ear instead.
‘That seems to be acceptable,’ Hannah says, smiling. ‘I think you two are going to get on just fine.’ She looks across at Matt.
Matt nods. ‘We’re going to have to get going soon, Mum. Or the traffic on the A1 will be horrendous.’
‘That’s fine,’ I say, standing up again. ‘I really appreciate the two of you helping me move. I know you both have busy lives.’
‘Don’t be silly, Mum,’ Matt says, hugging me this time. ‘We wouldn’t have let you come here alone.’
‘I know. But I’m still very grateful.’
‘And you’re sure you don’t want any help unpacking?’
Hannah asks, looking back at the cottage, where boxes and suitcases full of my belongings await. ‘We don’t mind.’
I shake my head. ‘No, it will give us something to do, won’t it, Merlin?’
‘See? He agrees with me.’
Hannah sighs. ‘And you’re still sure?’ she asks again. ‘About being here all alone, I mean. I don’t think I’d like it.’
‘You’d hate it, Han,’ I agree. ‘And so would you, Matt. So would I a couple of years ago, but things change. What I need right now is peace and solitude, and you two to promise me that you’ll be careful.’
I beckon them over and I put my arms around them – marvelling once again at how tall they both are now. When had they stopped being my babies and grown into such wonderful, kind, caring adults? ‘Promise me,’ I say again. ‘Promise me you’ll both take extra care at all times – you never know what’s around the corner, what people might be thinking . . . ’
‘Of course, Mum,’ they both say at the same time. They’d heard me say something similar a few too many times before.
‘I mean it. I totally understand you both wanting to live in busy cities – you’re young, why wouldn’t you? You think you’re invincible. I certainly did at your age. But none of us is – not these days.’
‘Mum, we’ll be fine,’ Hannah insists. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘Keep in touch, won’t you?’ I insist. ‘And you too, Matt.’
‘Of course,’ Matt says. ‘I’ll text you and speak to you onFacetime as often as I can – although we’ll have to get used to
the time difference . . . ’
‘What time difference?’ I ask. ‘What do you mean?’
Matt looks uneasily at his older sister.
She glares back at him.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask, looking between them both.
‘You’ve got to tell her now,’ Hannah says, looking and sounding annoyed.
‘Tell me what?’
‘I’m going to New York for six months,’ Matt blurts out, his cheeks flushed. ‘As part of my university course. We talked about this ages ago, didn’t we, before the . . . thing.’ He glances at Hannah, but she simply shakes her head dismissively. ‘Only I didn’t know where I was going to go then. But now I’ve been offered a work placement with a firm in Manhattan, and I’ve accepted it.’
I continue to stare at Matt. I’m trying desperately not to show it, but inside I’m horrified. My little boy in New York. Yes, I’m pleased for him, of course I am. But why did it have to be there?
‘I’m sorry it had to be New York, Mum. I know you’ll worry about me in a big city – even more than you usually do. But it really is an amazing opportunity.’
‘Yes, yes, of course it is,’ I say, recovering enough, on the outside at least, to speak. ‘I . . . I’m pleased for you, Matt; honestly I am.’
I reach forward to hug him, and suddenly his twenty- yearold, six- foot- two frame feels like it’s shrunk, and in my arms I’m holding a wiry, short- for- his- age eleven- year- old boy, who needs his mum because he’s scared of his first day at secondary
‘I’ll be fine, Mum,’ he says, trying to reassure me just as I’d been the one reassuring him back then. ‘I’ll be as safe there as Hannah is when she visits London for her job.’
I hear Hannah sigh heavily behind us at her brother. She clearly thinks he’s said the wrong thing . . . again.
‘Look,’ I tell them both, taking their hands in mine, ‘you’re adults now. I know I can’t tell you what to do, where to go and where to live. But I’m your mother, I’ll always worry about you wherever you go, you have to understand that. All that I ask is—’
‘We be careful!’ they cry in unison.
‘Please stop worrying, Mum,’ Hannah pleads. ‘What’s important right now is that you feel secure and happy again; and if this little cottage in the middle of nowhere is going to help you to heal, then if you promise not to worry too much about us, we’ll promise in return not to spend all our time worrying about you. Deal?’
‘Deal,’ I say, trying my best to sound as confident as they both did. But worrying, anxiety and general fear was what I experienced on a daily basis these days. My state of mind was one of the things I hoped this move to the country might help me with. But hearing the news that my son was going to live somewhere I considered dangerous like New York was not getting me off to the best start.
So as Merlin and I wave off my two children, I know in my heart of hearts that promising not to worry about them was a promise I’ll never be able to keep.
by Ali McNamara
An Ali McNamara novel is the perfect escape.
Welcome to Bluebell Wood where the sun shines, the locals are kind and there's something more than a little bit magical about the place.
Ava loves city life but when something happens to make her feel unsafe, she retreats to the calm and quiet of Bluebell Wood. The once high-flying Ava now locks herself away in her fairy-tale cottage, only leaving to explore the trails of the nearby woods or to potter in the garden with her dog, Merlin.
When Ava begins to feed the wild birds that flock to her bird table, they start leaving her trinkets of appreciation in return. The gifts seem innocent at first, but they soon seem to take on a deeper meaning.
It isn't until Ava meets Callum, the handsome parish priest, that she can't help but wonder if the birds might have been trying to get her out of the house all along. But will their curious behaviour help to heal Ava, and transform her and Callum into the lovebirds they clearly long to be?
Praise for Ali McNamara:
An enchanting escape. Pure magic!' Heidi Swain
'A perfect, sparkling, summer read.' Cathy Bramley
'Fun and endearing' Katie Fforde
'Perfect easy reading' Sun
An irresistible, feel-good story infused with infectious humour' Miranda Dickinson
'Funny and light-hearted' Heat