I know exactly where I’m going.
I’ve only been to the restaurant once before, but as soon as I step off the train at Richmond everything looks completely familiar. I touch my Oyster card and turn left immediately outside the station. A young busker with wild dreadlocks plays ‘Walking on Sunshine.’ He throws his whole body into it, strumming and twitching and singing to the darkening London evening, as if he can make it midsummer noon with the force of his will. I dig into my jacket pocket and drop a pound coin into his guitar case amongst the litter of money.
I check my watch; I’m meeting Quinn in five minutes. I’m cutting it fine, but from what I remember, I have plenty of time to get there. I pass familiar shop fronts and turn right at the junction. The restaurant, Cerise, is round the next corner: it’s a brick building, painted yellow, with a sign made of curly wrought iron. It’s a treat for both of us after our separate days of meetings in London, Quinn’s idea because I’ve told him they serve the best crème brulée I’ve had outside of Paris. I turn the corner and I don’t see the restaurant.
I stand for a moment, peering up and down the street. Maybe they repainted it. I look from building to building, but there’s no wrought-iron sign, no wide window with a view of the tables inside. Anxiety rises up from my stomach into my throat.
A little bit late isn’t a problem, said my editor Madelyne this afternoon, just a couple of hours ago, on the other side of London. But this is more than a little.
I shake my head. Of course. The restaurant isn’t on this street, it’s further on. How silly of me. I stride to the end of the road and over the junction.
Quinn is never late. Quinn is frequently early. He’d prefer to wait outside wherever he’s going, looking around him or reading a newspaper, than to be rushed or rude. You’d think he’d know me well enough by now to build in some leeway when he’s meeting me, but he never does. I tried suggesting this once, breezily, and he listened, as he always does when I try to explain something, and then he shook his head. ‘I’d still rather read the paper for a little while,’ he said, and that was it. I’ve learned that Quinn is Quinn, and he does not change.
And even though he never acts impatient or annoyed, I try not to be late so often. I even bought a watch. I hate to think of him waiting, over and over.
It’s warm and I’m still feeling anxious, so I take off my jacket and drape it over my arm. The restaurant should be right here, on the left. Except it’s not; it’s a Starbucks. I frown. I must have got turned round the wrong way, somehow. This Starbucks looks exactly the same as every other Starbucks in the world, and definitely not like a French restaurant. I probably went too far down this road. I turn around and start back the way I’ve come.
My phone rings. It’s Quinn. ‘Hello hello,’ I say, as cheerfully as I think I should.
‘Hello, love. Where are you? Are you still on the train?’
‘No no, I’m in Richmond, I’m on my way. I took a wrong turn, I think, but I’ll be there in a tick.’
‘Right,’ he says. ‘See you in a minute, love.’
He hangs up and I put my phone back in my handbag. He always says love, always, leaving in the morning or greeting me when I come in the room or ending a conversation on the phone. It punctuates beginnings and endings. It’s something his father does with his mother, and he’s slipped into the habit as if he were born to it.
At the corner I catch a whiff of scent, something familiar, someone’s perfume.
I stop walking. ‘Mum?’ I say.
My mother isn’t here. Of course she isn’t here. But the scent is so strong, it’s as if she’s just walked past me.
I glance around. Two teenage girls sharing earphones, a man walking a terrier, a young couple, her with a hijab and him with a pushchair. There’s a woman near the end of the street, walking away from me. She’s wearing a sleeveless top and rolled-up jeans, her shoulders tanned. Her hair is a long silver plait down her back. The scent of flowers trails behind her on the warm air.
‘Mum?’ I hurry after her. She turns the corner, and by the time I reach it, she’s gone.
But I can still smell her perfume. It’s so familiar I can’t think of the name of it, and my mother never wore perfume anyway. This smell, though, is my mother: it tugs something deep inside me, makes my heart leap with hope and a kind of sweet agony. I run further along the street and think I see the woman ahead of me, crossing the bridge over the Thames.
It can’t be my mother. It’s impossible. But I’m still thinking of everything I need to tell her: I’m married, I’ve bought a house, I’m sorry. So sorry for what I made you do.
I collide with the plastic shopping bag held by a man coming the other way over the bridge, and it falls onto the pavement with a clang of tins. ‘Oi, watch it,’ he says.
‘I’m sorry, so sorry,’ I say, maybe to him, maybe to the woman ahead of me. I reach for his bag but he’s snatched it up again. He’s eyeing me up and down.
‘Don’t worry beautiful, it’s my pleasure,’ he says.
‘Sorry,’ I say again, and carry on over the bridge, quickly.
‘Smile,’ he yells after me. ‘It might never happen!’
People are between us and she’s walking rapidly; my moment with the man with the shopping bag has put me even farther behind her. But the scent is as strong as ever and as I get closer, dodging around pedestrians, my heart beats harder and harder. It’s impossible that when I catch up to this woman she will be my mother, Esther Bloom, and she will turn around and say, Darling. It’s impossible that she could take me into her arms and I could be forgiven. I know it’s impossible, and yet I can’t look away from her. It’s as if my body doesn’t know what my mind does. I can’t stop my feet from following her, faster now, running, my ballet flats pounding over the pavement, sweat dampening the cotton collar of my shirt. My jacket slips off my arm; I stuff it into my handbag, mindless of wrinkles, and hurry forward.
The woman opens the door of a pizza takeaway. Panting, I clasp her by the shoulder.
It isn’t my mother’s shoulder. It feels all wrong, and this woman is darker than my mother, with more grey in her hair which is finer than my mother’s was, but my body has that irrational hope that when she turns around, her face will be Esther’s.
‘Mum?’ I gasp.
It isn’t. It’s a stranger. She looks nothing like my mother at all.
‘My mistake,’ I say, backtracking. ‘So sorry, I thought you were someone else.’
She shrugs and goes into the takeaway. The scent of flowers is gone, replaced by a whiff of baking dough and melting cheese.
My mother didn’t even like pizza very much. I rub my forehead, which is damp, and look around. It’s starting to get dark; the streetlights have come on, and this street is entirely unfamiliar, even more unfamiliar because not ten minutes ago I thought I knew exactly where I was, exactly who I was following. It’s as if the street has changed around me. As if the world has changed around me.
In my bag, my phone rings. I know without looking that it’s Quinn, wondering where I am. I don’t answer it; I’ll be with him in a minute. I hurry back along the bridge and along the road, which seems quite busy now, the cars with their lights turned on. I see a sign pointing the way to the station and I turn that way. This street looks strange too, but if it takes me back to the station that’s good because I can definitely find my way from there.
Though I didn’t just now.
How did I get so lost?
I reach for my phone to answer’s Quinn’s call. Sometimes it’s better to admit defeat and get somewhere that little bit quicker, and Quinn loves giving directions anyway. And also it would be sort of nice to hear his voice, his habitual calm. Hello, love.
Two things happen at once: my phone stops ringing, and I see the restaurant. It’s thirty metres away, on the other side of the road from where I’d expected it to be, and Quinn is outside it, on that other side of the road, his phone in his hand. He’s wearing the same grey suit he was wearing when he left this morning to get the train to London, though the tie’s been removed and he’s unbuttoned his collar. His dark hair, as usual, is sticking up in the front because he’s been running his fingers through it. The restaurant is painted yellow, with a wrought-iron sign outside. Light spills through the window. Everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be.
He spots me and runs across the street, dodging a cab. I kiss him on his cheek, where there’s a couple of days’ growth of beard.
‘You had me worried, love,’ he says, kissing me back. ‘What happened?’
I look at my husband: slender, pale, serious, with his grey eyes and his dedication to facts. The newspaper he’s been reading while he’s been waiting for me is tucked underneath his arm. He’s never been late in his life, and he’s certainly never followed a woman who doesn’t exist anymore, except in his memory.
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘I just took a wrong turn.’
On the train out of London, I lean against Quinn’s shoulder and half doze, trying to recall the scent I followed in Richmond. It’s fading already in my memory. Something floral, definitely. Something exotic. Something I’ve smelled many times before, though I’m not sure where or why.
It didn’t necessarily belong to the woman I followed; maybe someone else was wearing the perfume, which is why it seemed to vanish when I caught up with the woman. Maybe it was a flower growing in a flower box, or in a garden. Maybe it was a perfume exuded out onto the street from a posh boutique, and happened to be similar to another perfume that I know.
As we drive home to Tillingford from the station, I open the window so the fresh air will wake me up a bit. ‘So Madelyne is anxious for your new book?’ Quinn says, though we’ve discussed this already at dinner. Or at least we’ve discussed it as much as I want to.
‘She says she’s looking forward to it.’
‘So am I. Did you come up with any ideas together?’
I sit up straighter. ‘Pull over,’ I say.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes, yes! Pull over!’
He pulls into a layby and I jump out of the car. ‘Come on!’ I say, and begin climbing the fence.
‘What are you doing, Felicity?’ Quinn has turned off the engine, but left the car lights on. He stands with the door open, looking after me.
‘Turn off the lights and come climb this fence! We need to see.’
‘Are you—oh, all right.’ The car door shuts. I climb the wooden fence and jump over. A nettle stings my bare ankle, but I keep on going, threading through the stand of trees. There’s just enough silver light from ahead of me to see. Behind me, I hear Quinn climbing the fence. I wait for him to catch up, and when I feel him standing beside me I walk forward, through the last of the trees into a field.
Without the trees in the way we can see the full moon. It’s silver and enormous, perfectly round, hanging in the sky.
‘Is this why you had me stop the car?’ Quinn asks.
‘Isn’t it worth it?’ I gaze up at the moon. He stands beside me and gazes up at it too. ‘I wish I knew what all of those shapes on it are called.’
‘Mare Tranquillitatis,’ he says. ‘Mare Serenitatis, Mare Imbrium.’ He points to different parts on the huge disc. ‘Sea of Tranquillity, Sea of Serenity, Sea of Showers.’
‘They’re beautiful names. How do you know them?’
‘Many, many misspent hours with a telescope and a book. There’s an Ocean of Storms, and a Lake of Clouds. All on a surface with no water at all.’
‘It was worth stopping the car, wasn’t it?’
He takes my hand. His fingers are warm in the night, which has become cool. ‘Yes.’
I look up at the moon some more.
‘I know whose field this is,’ Quinn says. ‘He’d be quite surprised to see me standing in it at this hour.’
‘Let’s sit in it, then.’ I sit down on the rough grass at the edge of the field. As I sit, there’s a crinkle from my handbag and I pull out a box of macaroons. I offer one to Quinn. ‘Macaroon? It’s only slightly crushed.’
He begins to laugh. ‘You’re as daft as a brush,’ he says. ‘I do love you.’
‘I love you too.’ I lean my head against his shoulder and let my thoughts float away into the tranquil seas of the moon.
‘A little bit late isn’t a problem,’ my editor Madelyne said yesterday afternoon, ‘but this is more than a little. It’s been eighteen months, and we have schedules to think of. Don’t you have anything to show me yet?’
We were in her office, in the corner, overlooking the park. Her assistant had made us tea in a proper teapot, on a proper tray. There was a little box of macaroons, which Madelyne insisted I take because she was on a diet. The whole office was so quiet, as if everyone was reading at the same time. Books lined every wall that wasn’t a window. Above the door I’d come in there was a framed original of the cover of my first picture book. I could feel Igor’s wide owl eyes staring at the back of my neck as I sat in the wooden chair.
‘I’ve been working on it,’ I said to her, lying. ‘But nothing seems to come out quite right.’
We’d always met in restaurants before. Long, boozy lunches where we got the business bit out of the way at the beginning and spent the rest of the time trading gossip, tossing around ideas. Behind her desk, Madelyne seemed different. Her posture was straighter, her pulled-back hair more severe.
‘I’m sure it will all be fine,’ I added.
‘Even some sketches would be useful,’ she said. ‘A title, something we could bring to Frankfurt Book Fair. We’ve already put back publication twice. I’m worried that we’ll lose the momentum on this series, with such a long gap.’
‘I understand. I completely agree.’
‘We all love Igor so much! And we miss him.’ She smiled then, for the first time, and put down her cup. ‘I know you’ve had a very eventful couple of years. So many ups and downs, with getting married, and your mother—’
‘Yes, but it’s fine. It’s fine. I’ll send you some sketches.’
‘I can help you with ideas, you know. That’s what I’m here for. You can pass me anything and we can bounce it around together.’
But not if there aren’t any ideas at all. Not if the only thing I’ve ever been any good at has gone forever. ‘Of course.’
‘And you know that if you ever want to talk—’
‘Yes. Of course. I’m sorry the book is so late, Maddie. I’m always late for everything. I was even late to my own wedding.’
And we both laughed, even though it was true.
The next morning, I wake up after Quinn has gone off to work and I go straight into my studio, pulling on a dressing gown and pushing my hair into an elastic band. I turn on the computer and the scanner, even though I don’t have anything to use them for yet, and I clear off a stack of books from my chair beside the window, pick up a sketchpad and a pencil and look out at the morning
My studio is actually the back bedroom of Hope Cottage, the house Quinn and I bought when we married. It has better natural light than the front bedroom where we sleep, and looks out over the garden, a jumble of flowers and weeds, lawn that needs trimming, crooked fruit trees. Petals from the cherry and the apple have drifted over the grass like pink and white snow. On warm days sometimes I bring a cushion out to the metal bench, painted with flakes of peeling blue, and read in the shade. I fell in love with the garden as soon as we saw this cottage: overgrown, neglected, wild, the sort of garden that harbours fairies in foxgloves. I love the cottage too, with its crooked floors and bulging walls, the suspicion of damp in the dining room, and thatch that really should be replaced soon, this summer or next. But the garden is my favourite place.
A blackbird hops across the grass. I make a mark on the page, a black curve of head and wing, then fill in sharp beak, gleaming eye. I sketch in the dandelions behind him. This is all very well, but it’s not Igor the Owl.
I’ve drawn and written six Igor the Owl books in the past four years, all of them before meeting Quinn. They’re not complicated things: Igor is a tiny, fluffy owl, much smaller than all of his owl family and owl mates. To make up for being so tiny and fluffy, not much bigger than a chick, he solves puzzles.
For example, in the first book, Igor the Owl Takes to the Air, Igor has a problem because his wings are too little. He can fly in a fluttery way, but he can’t soar on silent wings like the rest of his family, and he’s feeling quite down about it. He’s worried he’ll never be a proper owl. Meanwhile, he makes friends with a family of squirrels who are living in a hole in a dead tree by the river. When the river floods, Igor tries to help his friends but he’s too small to carry them to safety, so he quickly invents a sort of hang glider thing with wings made out of discarded feathers and a framework made out of twigs, and the squirrels use it to fly to safety. And then Igor uses it to soar with his family, on silent wings. He’s the only hang-gliding owl in children’s literature, apparently, and the book sold much more than I expected it to, so I drew more of them for publication, though I would have continued drawing them anyway.
Igor has also solved crimes, in Igor the Owl and the Monkey Puzzle (nobody else noticed the ants stealing the nuts), and saved lives, in Igor the Owl and the Good Eggs (he was so small he could crawl right into a broken eggshell). In his last book, the one I wrote and illustrated nearly two years ago now, before I knew my mother was ill, Igor the Owl had started his own Owl School, where he taught other woodland creatures to solve puzzles, but he was sabotaged by a jealous magpie. In the end, Igor worked out who the culprit was, and they became friends.
I press my lips together and draw Igor next to the blackbird I’ve sketched. Big eyes, smiling beak, stubby wings. I never have a problem drawing Igor; I’ve been drawing Igor for years, ever since I was a teenager and invented him to amuse my mother and me during long train journeys, or on candlelit nights when the power would go out because Esther had forgotten to pay the bill. My mother, a proper artist, worked best on big canvasses; I liked scraps of paper and ballpoint pens. I would breathe on a window and draw in the mist. I could tell a story anywhere with a few lines and shapes, as long as it was a little story.
I’ve been on plenty of trains since my mother got cancer, and I’ve even been in a power cut. But I haven’t found any new stories that I want to tell, any puzzles that a tiny owl could possibly solve.
Sighing, I rest my elbows on the sketchpad and stare out at the garden. The old glass is uneven, and when I move slightly to either side the grass appears to bulge. Madelyne was pleasant and kind, charming as always, but she wasn’t pleased with me. Perhaps I should do something else for a job. But this is the first thing I’ve done which I’ve really liked. Before I stumbled into it, I was waiting tables, working in bars or shops, earning enough money to travel and then spending it all. People said they were interested in my art, but that was just because of who my mother was. Drawing Igor, writing out his story, being paid for it, holding the book in my hands – all these made me feel as if I were finally taking root somewhere. Finding the sort of life I was meant to have.
What will happen if I can’t think of any more stories? I’ll be dropped by my publisher. I’ll have to pay back my advance, probably, which wouldn’t be a huge problem, but it would be humiliating. I’ll have to find something else to do, something that the other wives in the village do to use up their time if they haven’t got a job. Coffee mornings. Charity events. Book clubs.
I think back to the rising sense of panic I had yesterday on my way to the restaurant. Was it fear, because somewhere down deep I knew that Igor was finished for me, that I’d used up all the stories I made up to amuse my mother because I loved her, and I would have to decide to do something else with my life? Because I can’t fall back on what I used to do now. I can’t get a job in a bar somewhere and flit off to India when I’ve saved enough money. I’m married, I’ve chosen to live here in Tillingford with Quinn, and all the possibilities of my past life have faded into air.
What was the perfume that woman was wearing who passed me on the street? It smelled so familiar. It made me think of the past, some unspecified moment, something I’ve forgotten.
The phone rings and I sit up. Outside it’s started to rain, and the blackbird has flown away; inside, my computer screen has gone to its screensaver of random moving lights, each one leaving a coloured meteor trail behind it. My sketch pad is empty aside from two birds, one real, one imaginary. I make my way through the dark cottage to the kitchen, where the phone is.
‘Hello love,’ says Quinn. ‘How are you getting on?’
‘Can I help?’
‘Oh, thank you, no I don’t think so. I’m just having an off day.’
‘Envelopes keep on disappearing from the stationery cupboard here. You could have Igor solve that.’
I pick at an unravelling hem on the flowered tablecloth. People who aren’t creative, people who spend their lives structuring real-life stories and checking facts, rarely have any idea of the energy that’s generated by a really good idea. They think you can choose any old thing and make it work. My mother never used to make suggestions for the Igor stories; she would wait for them to happen, and then she would listen.
‘I was joking,’ Quinn says.
‘I thought you were in meetings all this morning.’
‘It’s lunchtime,’ he says, and when I look at the clock over the sink, it is. ‘Anyway, I just thought I’d ring to see how you were getting on. You seemed . . .’
‘I’m fine. Everything’s fine.’
‘. . . Preoccupied.’
On the draining board are Quinn’s mug and his bowl from breakfast which he has washed up and left to dry. He has, I see, left a mug out for me by the kettle, my favourite one with the leaves painted on it. I know without looking that he’ll have put a tea bag inside it, so I wouldn’t lose vital seconds when I could be drawing. It’s sat here while I’ve been in my dressing gown, staring out at the garden, accomplishing nothing. I should thank him, I should say something warm and loving to make his lunch time special after a morning of meetings, but I’m irritated by this as well because it reminds me of a time when I might have nothing better to do but Quinn’s washing up, nothing better to do but make tea.
I close my eyes. This is another thing about marriage: second thoughts. Doing what’s best, saying what’s best, instead of what you feel.
‘Sea of Tranquillity,’ I say. ‘Wasn’t the moon amazing last night?’