November 9th. The day the central heating broke. The day Sarah Latimer decided to leave Lyme Regis behind and spend the winter in Sri Lanka.
She watched sheets of water sluice down the window—hated November, when daylight battled to find space between the nights. After the children left home, she and William always flew somewhere hot at this time of year. Her heart twisted as she remembered. For the first five years after he’d gone, the bricks and mortar were so saturated with memories of him she almost sold the house. She was glad now she hadn’t, even though she still felt like an untethered boat drifting and bumping aimlessly about.
She contacted the central heating engineer, then phoned her son, Tom, and told him of her plans.
There was a long pause. ‘Mum…have you thought this through? It might stop raining soon.’
‘It’s not just that, Tom. It’s time I did something. Next year’s the big five-oh and…’
‘You’re not going on your own?’ He sounded alarmed. ‘I know you’ve been all over India, but that was with Dad.’
‘I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.’
‘Where will you stay?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve only just decided to go.’
‘What did Jen say?’
‘She doesn’t know yet. Everything all right with you, Tom?’
There was a pause. He swallowed. ‘Yes, I’m fine, thanks. Got to go, Mum, sorry. Keep me posted.’
Frowning, she put the phone down. What wasn’t he saying? She wrapped her cardigan more tightly around herself, her confidence beginning to ebb. Maybe her plans were a bit ambitious, after all—she’d never travelled anywhere on her own before.
There was no reply from Jen’s phone so she left a message asking her to call back, then set up her laptop on the kitchen table. While she waited for a connection—always slow here—she considered where to head for. The capital, Colombo? Or Galle with its Dutch buildings? What about one of the hill stations amid the tea plantations? A ripple of excitement ran through her.
The door flew open and a small body swathed in yellow oilskins came into the kitchen in a burst of wind and raindrops. Lily. A warm glow filled her. Whatever would she have done without her these past few years?
‘Morning, best friend.’ Lily beamed at her as she struggled out of her waterproofs then left them in a sodden heap on the doormat. ‘What’s new?’ She tested the temperature of the kettle with the back of her hand and reached up to take two mugs from the shelf.
‘Funny you should ask. I’m thinking of going to Sri Lanka for the winter.’
‘Where?’ She stopped, hand and mugs in mid-air. ‘Why?’
‘Well the boiler’s playing up and—’
‘A buggered boiler is not a reason to—’
‘And it’s rained every day for the last seventeen.’
She made the coffee and brought it over. ‘Yes. Well…I think so.’ The chair screeched as she pulled it out and sat down.
‘Good for you.’ Lily squeezed her hand. ‘About time you started living again.’
‘I’m a bit scared,’ she whispered.
‘You’ll be fine.’
‘I wish you could come with me.’
‘I wish I could, too. What bliss that would be—but you know what it’s like in my place, never more than two steps away from financial disaster.’
‘You don’t think I’m mad?’
‘I do not.’ She pulled her chair closer. ‘Right, show me where you’re going.’
Sarah clicked on a tourism site and Lily squealed, clutched her arm. ‘Will you just look at that sand, those palm trees?’
She pursed her lips. ‘I’m not really a beach person.’
Lily sat back and stared at her. ‘Aren’t you? I thought everyone was. Imagine stretching out on a sunbed sipping a rum punch—or whatever they drink in Sri Lanka.’
Heat blazed in her cheeks. ‘I’m just…I’m not too comfortable getting my kit off…’
‘Are you mad? Bet you look sensational. Wish I had half your chest—I’ve got no tits at all. What did the kids say?’
‘I couldn’t get hold of Jen. I told Tom and he sounded worried.’
‘He’ll get over it. You staying in a hotel or will you rent somewhere?’
‘What about flights? Let’s look at flights.’
After almost an hour of poring over one site after another, Lily heaved herself to her feet with obvious reluctance. ‘Got to go. Beds to make, rooms to clean.’ Zipping herself into her waterproofs, she pulled a face. ‘Hate to ask you again, but any chance you could help me with breakfast tomorrow?’
‘Don’t be daft, it’s my pleasure. I enjoy it.’
‘Seem to be asking you quite a lot recently.’
Sarah hugged her, felt her thinness under the cold, damp of the oilskins. ‘It’s not a problem, really it’s not. Anyhow, if…when I go shooting off, I’ll need you to keep an eye on the house for me.’
The wind fought Lily for the door, and after it had slammed behind her the room echoed with silence. Sarah watched her friend run up the path then switched on the kettle for more coffee, shivering a little. She looked around the kitchen, absorbing its familiarity: the blue, checked curtains, the white enamel jug containing utensils, the potato masher with its split wooden handle. Did she really want to leave all this to travel halfway across the world? She knew her limitations, liked routines, not surprises.