Willow had asked for nachos for her farewell supper.
Laura was pathologically incapable of doing
what most normal people would have done: plonked a
saucepan of chilli on the table with a packet of tortilla
chips and got everyone to help themselves.
Instead, by five o’clock the evening before Willow
was due to go to university for the first time, a huge
cauldron on the hot-pink Aga belted out a cloud of steam
scented with cumin and cinnamon and chilli. On the
worktop were bowls filled with grated cheese, soured
cream, guacamole, jalapeños, spicy beans, finely chopped
coriander and chargrilled sweetcorn salsa. Wedges of lime
were waiting to be stuffed into bottles of beer – ‘cerveza’,
Laura teased herself with a Spanish lisp.
She had stopped short of making margaritas because no
one would want to face the next day with a hangover: it
was a six-hour drive to York and it was going to be a difficult
enough day without a thumping tequila headache.
She’d put a row of tiny cactuses in pots down the
middle of the slate-topped island and empty milk
bottles filled with bright pink, yellow and orange gerbera.
A donkey piñata hung from one of the hooks in
the ceiling. She’d managed to refrain from filling it with
sweets. This wasn’t an actual party, after all, just a goodbye
to Willow from her family and her friends, and a few
neighbours, and . . . well, Laura didn’t know exactly who
else, but by eight o’clock the joint would be jumping.
That was how things rolled at Number 11.
It was Laura’s schtick to go to immense trouble, but her
efforts on this occasion were doubled, masking the fact
that tomorrow was the day she had been dreading more
than any other in her life – and there had been a few. She
stood for a moment in the quiet of the kitchen.
This kitchen was her safe place, where she felt love and
gave love. There was always a sense of calm underlying the
chaos. No one else knew how she did it.
‘How do you make it look so effortless? I always have
a nervous breakdown when I’m entertaining. Nothing
looks right, nothing tastes right, and I worry myself to
death.’ Her best friend, Sadie, was eternally mystified by
her entertaining skills.
‘Because I love it? Because I don’t have a career? Because
I don’t look as if I’ve just walked off the pages of Vogue?’
Sadie owned La, the most fashionable boutique in
Bath, and always looked incredible. ‘But you’re naturally
gorgeous. You don’t have to spend hours making yourself
look ravishing. You just are,’ she complained.
It was true, with her eyes the colour of maple syrup and
her tousled dark mane. Laura, however, thought she was
overweight and unkempt, as it was all she could do to pull
a comb through her hair. She wore skinny jeans, because
her legs were like matchsticks, and had a selection of linen
shirts and sloppy sweaters that covered her embonpoint
and her tummy, about which she was unnecessarily selfconscious.
She didn’t see her own beauty.
‘I’m top heavy,’ she complained. ‘Like a robin – far too
big for my silly little bird legs.’
She felt distinctly unglamorous at this moment, her
hair tied up on top of her head with the elastic band the
postman brought the letters in, a blue and white apron
wrapped round her and a wooden spoon in her hand,
dishevelled and covered in tomato sauce. She was also
finding it desperately hard to stop herself from seeing how
Willow was getting on with her packing.
The back of the car was already loaded up with everything
a new student could possibly want, mostly courtesy
of Ikea to keep the cost down. But Laura had spoiled
Willow with a few things. A luxury mattress topper, essential
for making a strange single bed comfortable. A fleecy
blanket to snuggle up in when it was cold and Willow
was missing home. And some Jo Malone bath oil, because
Laura believed in the power of smell to comfort you.
Willow, however, was a girl who liked to leave everything
to the last minute. Even now her favourite sweatshirt
was rolling around the tumble dryer because she’d only
fetched it from her friend’s house this morning. Laura,
who laid everything out on the spare bed a week before
they went on holiday, found it nerve-racking.
Dom told her not to worry. If Willow forgot anything
she could do without until she came back for the weekend.
‘I probably won’t come back till Christmas,’ Willow
had pointed out. ‘York’s miles and I won’t be able to
afford the train fare.’
Laura’s stomach lurched at the thought of three months
without seeing her daughter, but she squashed the feeling
down. Instead, she sat down at the island and picked up
her Berol pen. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d
written a proper letter, but she wouldn’t be able to say
what she wanted to say without blubbing. As she began to
write, in her best handwriting, she relished the satisfaction
of forming perfect letters, the ink running smoothly across
the paper, the loops and the circles and the curlicues.
Number 11 Lark Hill
My darling Willow,
Apologies in advance for doing one of those embarrassingly
sentimental mum things. You know how good I am at
those! But I wanted to send you off on your adventure with
something to remind you of home, and I couldn’t think of
anything better than these recipes. They all come from the
little recipe box I keep in the pantry. You and Jasmine have
used them often enough over the years because they still
have your sticky paw prints on them!
The oldest recipes go all the way back to your greatgreat-
grandma – the flapjack and the Yorkshire pudding
come from her (also good for toad-in-the-hole!). The
crumble and the tea loaf come from Kanga – she used to
cook them during the war for the people she had living with
her at Number 11. The avgolemono and the spanakopita
are from my mother, from her travels in Greece . . . I was
not the only thing she brought back!! You can taste the
sunshine in them – they are for when the wind is howling
outside and you want to feel warmed.
The rest are from me: things I have made for you over
the years. Brownies and pancakes and sausage rolls for
sharing. And your favourite suppers: spag bol and chilli
and Thai curry. I know you probably know how to cook
them, but I wanted you to have a keepsake, a little bit
of family history to keep with you. And I know you will
probably live on Cheerios and Cheesy Puffs and Chinese
takeaways, but maybe from time to time you might want
some proper home-made comfort food to share with your
I’m so proud of you, darling girl. I know you will fly, and
make the most of this wonderful opportunity.
With lots of love and kisses
Laura looked down at the letter, the inevitable tears blurring
her eyes, then folded the sheet into three. She tucked
it inside the Moleskine notebook she had bought specially.
Each page held a different recipe, carefully copied. It had
taken her over a week to write it, as she’d had to hide it
from everyone. She wanted it to be a surprise, but she was
also a bit self-conscious. Was it too sentimental?
‘My goodness – it smells absolutely wonderful in here.’
‘Kanga! You made me jump.’ Laura put a hand to her
chest. ‘I was miles away.’
Kanga walked through the kitchen, lifting the lid on
the pot and smelling it appreciatively. She looked around
‘What is this? Fiesta time?’
‘You know me. I can’t help myself.’ Laura grinned, sliding
the notebook into a drawer. ‘I’m sure Willow would
much rather go to the pub with her mates.’
‘She did that last night. Tonight’s for family – she
‘Yes. I want it to be a good send-off, though.’
‘You’re a good mummy.’
‘I had a good role model.’ Laura smiled at her grandmother.
Kanga had brought her up from the age of four,
when Laura’s mum had died. The tiny, thoughtful Laura had
decided that she didn’t want to call her ‘Granny’ any more,
as she was so much more than that, and had christened her
Kanga, after her favourite Winnie the Pooh character.
At ninety-three, Kanga was still more than just a
grandmother – though she looked barely seventy-three.
She was in a pale-pink linen shirt and black trousers and
soft boots, her bright white hair cut close to her jaw, her
dark-grey eyes with their hooded lids missing nothing.
Of course Laura worried she was too thin, but Kanga
had laughed that her appetite had gone with her libido
many years ago, and she was much happier for it. ‘I have
so much more time now I don’t have to think about sex
or food,’ she claimed. Laura wasn’t sure what else there
was to live for.
‘No Dom?’ asked Kanga, taking a seat at the island.
‘He’s got a meeting with the quantity surveyor this
afternoon. So he’s bound to stop off at the Wellie on the
The Wellington Arms was Dom’s favourite watering hole,
where he and his property mates cut deals and watched
rugby and sneaked in dirty pints on a Friday afternoon.
Kanga frowned. ‘Even on Willow’s last night?’
‘It’s fine. He’d only drive me mad if he was here. It’s
always much better if he turns up five minutes before
every one else and doesn’t interfere.’ Laura pulled the elastic
band out of her hair, wincing as it caught. ‘Can I leave
you to keep an eye on everything while I get changed?’
‘There’s wine in the fridge.’
In her bedroom, Laura tipped her head upside down
and sprayed dry shampoo onto her roots then ran her
fingers through her curls. There was no time now for a
shower. She pulled off the sweatshirt she’d been cooking
in and rifled through her wardrobe for something
to wear. Sadie was incredibly generous and always gave
Laura things from La for her birthday she would never
dare choose for herself. She pulled out a pearl grey shirt
with pintucks and pearl buttons, pulling it over her head.
It looked perfect – it fitted in all the right places, as expensive
clothes tend to.
‘Hey, Mum.’ Willow sauntered in. Laura’s heart
squeezed. Every time she saw her she wanted to hold
her tight. All her fears whooshed in – a runaway bus,
an insecure balcony, a virulent strain of meningitis . . .
Oh God, had Willow actually had all the jabs she should
have? Laura knew she’d checked a trillion times, but what
if she thought she’d arranged it but had forgotten? The
familiar dry mouth of anxiety hit her and she worked her
tongue to get some saliva.
‘Have you finished packing?’
‘I think so. I’m going to do make-up and stuff in the
morning.’ Willow flopped on the bed.
‘Are you excited?’
‘I don’t know about excited . . .’
Of course. Excited wasn’t cool. ‘Looking forward to it?’
‘It’ll be what it is, won’t it?’
‘Well, I think it’s exciting. York’s lovely. We can explore
tomorrow. Maybe an open-topped bus tour if it’s sunny.’
‘What?’ asked Laura, hurt.
‘You’re so funny, Mum.’
‘I’m not trying to be funny.’
‘I know. That’s why you are.’
Willow jumped up and put her arms round her. Laura
breathed her in. Sugary, powdery perfume and Wrigley’s
and the awful incense she insisted on burning in her
bedroom. Not like Jasmine, who was driving back to her
third year at uni in Loughborough by herself the next
morning, who smelled of chlorine and talc and muscle
Laura had always been grateful for Jasmine’s love of
sport. It had given their life structure at a time when
everything else was chaos. Asthma was nothing if not
disruptive. They had never really known when Willow
might have an attack. There’d been a team of mums ready
to help whenever she did: the netball mafia were fiercely
loyal and supportive, taking Jasmine home for tea or for a
sleepover or dropping her home. Laura could never repay
them as long as she lived, but they didn’t want repaying.
Of course not.
Jasmine could have told her she was going to Timbuktu
on a skateboard and she wouldn’t have worried. They were
close, but in a very different way. When Jaz had gone off
to Loughborough, Laura had treated them both to a day
at the spa in Bath, swimming on the rooftop and sitting
in the Roman steam room and the ice chamber and the
celestial relaxation room; a physical treat for the physical
Jaz, who rarely sat still for a moment and didn’t really
But Willow . . .
She felt tears fill her eyes. She didn’t want to go down
to the kitchen and share Willow with everyone else. She
wanted to curl up on the bed with her, watch a few
episodes of Gilmore Girls on Netflix, eat a bowlful of
M&M’s, let her daughter fall asleep in her arms, like they
always used to when she was recuperating.
‘Do you think I should take Magic?’ Willow asked.
Magic. The white toy rabbit whose fur had worn away
to nothing, he had been hugged so much. So called because
he was the Magic Rabbit who helped her fall asleep
in a plethora of strange hospitals. Laura felt fearful for
him. What if he got lost or stolen or thrown out of the
window as a student jape?
‘If you want to leave him here, I’ll look after him.’
‘I kind of want him, but I don’t know if you’re supposed
to take your cuddly animals to uni.’ Willow made
a face. ‘Of course Jasmine didn’t, but we all know Jaz
doesn’t need looking after.’
Jasmine’s teddy was as pristine as the day it had been
‘I’d leave him here,’ said Laura, not wanting to admit
that Magic had been as much a talisman for her as Willow.
‘You will look after yourself, won’t you?’
‘Mum.’ Willow sat up and fixed her mother with a
stern stare. ‘Will you stop worrying? I’m not an idiot.
And it’s been nearly eighteen months.’
‘That doesn’t mean you won’t have an attack. Anything
could trigger one.’
York, thought Laura. If something went wrong, she
couldn’t be there quickly. Even London would have been
nearer. But maybe Willow felt the need to escape. She
knew she’d been guilty of smothering, but what mother