The plane landed as smoothly as it had taken off—although it seemed to be just as much an ordeal for Jenn, despite the amount of “nerve-steadying alcohol” she had consumed. In fact, she gripped the armrests so tightly, I thought she would wrench them off the seat, and her face was so white when we finally touched down that I began seriously wondering if I should have followed the instructions on the Safety Sheet and stuck an oxygen mask over her head. She breathed a huge sigh of relief as the plane finally taxied to a stop and the seatbelt sign was switched off.
As usual, there was a mad scramble as everyone suddenly seemed seized by a rabid desire to grab their bags and get off the plane. Jenn sprang up in the frenzy, dragging a trolley case out of the overhead compartment and shouldering her bag as she joined the line shuffling towards the nearest exit.
“Lovely to meet you. Hope you have a good trip back to Oxford!” she called over her shoulder as she hurried away.
I waved and smiled, then sat and waited until the initial stampede was over. Really, I didn’t know what the mad rush was for: all those people pushing and jostling to get off first—and all that would happen is that they’d probably end up standing in the luggage hall, waiting in vain for their cases to arrive!
Getting up at a leisurely pace, I retrieved my own holdall from the overhead compartment and glanced over my shoulder to check that I hadn’t left anything on the seat. That was when I noticed the scarf. It had been pushed down between the two seats and only the edge of the fringe showed. I reached over and pulled it out. It was a thick woollen scarf, in a bright turquoise pattern. It must have been Jenn’s, I realised. She had forgot something after all.
I glanced quickly down the aisle—it was empty now, except for a middle-aged gentleman who was slowly packing his briefcase—but I might still catch Jenn in the Luggage Hall. I was about to hurry off when something else caught my eye. A piece of paper sticking out of the seat pocket. I reached across and extracted it. It was a boarding pass with the name “J Murray” printed next to the seat number. Tucking it into my handbag, I hurried off the plane.
When I reached the Luggage Hall I was dismayed to find that, for once, my cynical predictions had been wrong. The bags from my flight had arrived early and most of the passengers had already retrieved their luggage and gone through Customs. My own case was making its lonely way around the conveyor belt. I grabbed it and shoved it onto a nearby trolley, then looked around for Jenn but I couldn’t see her anywhere. Sighing, I gave up and wheeled my trolley out into the Arrivals Hall. I had barely stepped out when I heard a familiar voice calling:
I scanned the crowds and saw an elegant, middle-aged woman hurrying towards me. She was wearing a pale pink cashmere twinset and pearls, and had a vintage-style boxy handbag over one forearm, the way the Queen would hold it. In a hall full of people in frayed jeans and “travel loungewear” (read: shabby tracksuits), my mother stood out like a well-groomed poodle in a pack of scruffy mongrels.
“Darling!” She swooped in to give me a peck on the cheek.
“Hello, Mother,” I said, returning her kiss.
“Darling! I’ve been counting the hours!” cried my mother.
I blinked. Blimey. I hadn’t realised that my homecoming would mean so much to her. My mother was normally of the Old School and believed that a proper lady should never show her emotions too obviously in public. I hadn’t seen her get this excited since Whittard of Chelsea brought out a Queen’s Jubilee herbal tea range. Still, I am her only child, so of course she would miss me terribly, I thought smugly.
I reached out and squeezed her hand. “It’s great to see you too, Mother—I didn’t realise you were waiting so eagerly for me—”
“Well, of course, darling! I’ve been desperate for you to sort out my i-Tap. I just don’t know what’s wrong with it—I can turn it on but these strange little messages keep popping up on the screen… they’re called Notifications, apparently, but I’m not sure what they’re notifying me about. Something about an apple?”
I stifled a groan. I might have known that my mother’s eagerness to see me was nothing to do with maternal love and more to do with technical desperation. Ever since she had followed her friends and bought an iPad a few weeks ago, I had been turned into Emergency IT Support and been bombarded with phone calls and messages at all times of day and night.
“Don’t worry, Mother,” I said. “I’ll sort it out for you.”
“Oh, thank goodness, because I’m becoming quite fond of my i-Tap. Do you know—you can play bridge on it and do crosswords… and Helen Green tells me that she even reads newspapers on it! You must show me how to do that on the i-Tap.”
“I will—and it’s an iPad, Mother. Not an i-Tap.”
My mother looked at me in surprise. “But I am tapping.”
“I know you’re tapping but it’s called a pad. Like a writing pad—except you tap on it.”
“I do tap on the i-Tap,” my mother insisted.
“No, no… I mean, yes, you are tapping but the thing you’re tapping on is called a pad. You pad on the i-Tap… I mean… you tap on the iPad!” I growled, “Arrgh! Now you’re mixing me up!”
“Don’t worry, darling. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. It can be a bit confusing in the beginning,” my mother said kindly.
I ground my teeth and suddenly remembered why I went off to Australia in the first place. My mother chattered on, oblivious, as I followed her out to the car park. It wasn’t until we were on the motorway that I remembered Jenn’s scarf.
“Oh bollocks!” I said in annoyance.
My mother gasped. “Language, Gemma! Is that how you speak in Australia? A lady never swears or uses coarse language.”
“Sorry, Mother,” I muttered. “It’s just that I picked up a scarf belonging to the lady sitting next to me on the plane. I meant to leave it at the airport Lost and Found, in case she called up looking for it. But I forgot and it’s too late to go back now.”
“Well, can’t you post it to her?”
“I don’t have her address. Although… I do know where she’s staying—at the Cotswolds Manor Hotel. I suppose I could ring up and leave a message for her there.”
It was mid-afternoon by the time we got back to Oxford and I was itching to get out of my travel-stained clothes, have a hot shower, and just drop into bed. Somehow, although I had slept for much of the flight, I felt exhausted. Maybe it was the jetlag. However, I had barely got into the house when my mother said brightly:
“Now you’ll just have time to freshen up, darling, before Mabel and the others get here.”
“Who? Mabel who?”
“Mabel Cooke, darling—you remember her! She used to live near us in Meadowford-on-Smythe. In fact, she used to babysit for me when you were very little and we still lived in the village. We had lost touch for a while but I’ve been seeing much more of her again recently, since I joined the Meadowford Ladies’ Society. Anyway, she has been dying to see you so I’ve invited her over for afternoon tea, together with her friends Glenda Bailey, Florence Doyle, and Ethel Webb. They’re lovely—in fact, you might remember Ethel in particular. She used to be the librarian at the village library. She always used to give you a special sticker for returning a book on time… do you remember? They are so excited to see you. And since I was baking anyway, I thought I might as well invite them round for tea.”
I groaned inwardly. Yes, I remembered Mabel Cooke: a bossy, formidable woman with a booming voice and a no-nonsense manner. I had been terrified of her as a child—she used to swoop down on me, claiming that I had a spot of dirt on my cheek, then lick her fingers and try to wipe the smudge off with her saliva. Eeuuww! Why did parents and older people always do that to children? I used to squirm in revulsion but never dared to say anything or move until she had released me.
Now, tired and jetlagged as I was, the last thing I wanted to do was sit and have afternoon tea with a bunch of old crones who had terrorised me in childhood. Mabel Cooke was probably in her eighties by now—but somehow, I didn’t think that she would have mellowed much.
My worst fears were realised when the doorbell rang half an hour later and four little old ladies marched into the house. Mabel was in the lead—I recognised her instantly—and she had hardly changed. Her helmet of woolly hair might have been whiter, perhaps, and her skin more wrinkled around the eyes, but otherwise her voice was as stentorian as ever and her manner just as brisk and bossy.
“Gemma, I’m glad you’ve finally seen sense, my dear, and come back to England,” Mabel said as soon as we all sat down in the living room.
The coffee table was laid out with a full Royal Doulton tea service and a selection of freshly baked scones, hot buttered teacakes, little lemon curd tarts, and home-made shortbread biscuits. My mother was a fantastic baker. I helped myself to a piece of shortbread—beautifully rich and crumbly—and decided that the delicious baked treats almost made having tea with Mabel and her friends worth it.
My mother poured the tea and handed the cups out, then passed around the plate of scones, still warm from the oven.
“I told your mother a convict colony is no place for a nicely brought-up girl,” Mabel said as she cut a scone in half and slathered it heavily with jam and clotted cream.
“Er… Australia isn’t a British colony anymore, Mrs Cooke,” I said. “And there haven’t been convicts sent out there since the 1800s. Sydney is actually a really beautiful, cosmopolitan city—”
“Humph! Don’t get cheeky with me, young lady,” said Mabel. Then she leaned forwards suddenly, narrowing her eyes. “Is that a spot of dirt on your nose? Here, let me…”
“GAH!” I jerked backwards as Mabel licked her thumb with a big wet tongue and reached out towards me.
“Gemma!” My mother frowned at me.
“Sorry, Mother,” I said as I hastily scooted a few inches farther down the sofa, away from Mabel Cooke. “I… er… it must be the jetlag.”
“Ohhh—I’ve heard that flying does terrible things to your body,” said Glenda Bailey, her pretty wrinkled face screwing up in horror as she balanced a teacup on her knee. “One gets swollen joints and horrible dry skin and even…” she dropped her voice to a delicate whisper, “…bad breath!”
“Yes, it is from being up so high and having so little oxygen,” said Florence Doyle with a shudder which shook her plump body.
“It’s not quite as bad as that,” I protested.
“I read a book once when I was still working at the library,” said Ethel in her gentle voice. “It was all about the dangers of flying and it said that you were exposed to dreadful radiation from space when you were up in the air—enough to give you cancer several times over! And jetlag is so disruptive that it can lead to heart disease and psychiatric disorders.”
Well, thanks very much, I thought. This is exactly what I wanted to hear after I’d been flying for twenty-plus hours, continuously zapped by cosmic rays, and now struggling with jetlag, since it was the middle of the night back in Sydney. I guess all I had to do now was sit back and wait for the cancer and heart disease and psychotic breakdowns—oh, and let’s not forget the bad breath—to get me.
“Constipation is the worst thing about flying,” said Mabel suddenly in her booming voice.
There was a moment of awkward silence as even my mother’s usual polite English aplomb failed her. Then she picked up the teapot and said brightly, “More tea, anyone?”
Mabel accepted a fresh cup, then continued, undaunted. “Flying in an airplane gives you gas, bloating, and constipation. But don’t worry—I know just the thing. When my Henry and I went on holiday, I made sure to take a bag of prunes with me on the plane. Marvellous things, prunes. Much better than any of those laxatives you can buy at the chemist.” She leaned towards me again. “I’ll bring some over for you, Gemma—I’ve got some stewed to a special recipe. Never fear, we’ll get your bowels going again!”
I really began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake coming back…
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Oh – and for all those who have emailed me to ask about Book 5 – don’t worry, that’s still on track for a September release. I’m hard at work on it as we speak! 😉