Happily Never After: A laugh-out-loud romantic comedy

Chapter One

Everyone knows that a single woman approaching forty needs a husband.

At least, that’s what Rory’s mother thought.

Sheila hadn’t let up since they’d arrived at the house. ‘It’s time you had someone, Aurora. Belle is growing up and…’

Christabel, Mother. She was named after a suffragette, not a Disney princess. That joy was all mine.’ Rory caught her daughter’s glare at the use of her full name. Get used to it kid; I’ve had thirty-eight years of that.

‘We named you after the sunrise on the day you were born, not Sleeping Beauty, as you well know.’ Sheila wasn’t about to be distracted. ‘Nevertheless, Christabel will be going off to university in two years’ time. Why do you need a house this big? And this…’ – she wrinkled her nose – ‘dusty?’

The estate agent details had alluded to the fact that the place would need some ‘cosmetic work’ and would suit someone wanting to ‘take on a project.’ But when Rory had walked in the week before, something about the light through the huge sash windows, the high ceilings and the fact that all this could belong to her and her alone, had dazzled her into making an impulsive offer. Now, seeing it through her mother’s eyes, she realised the full extent of the wreck she was standing in. The walls were flaking, there were missing floor tiles and the radiators looked as if they hadn’t had heat through them this side of the 1970s. They’d walked around the upstairs accompanied by a full range of creaks and groans from the floorboards, supported ably by her mother’s full range of tuts and sighs.

Rory was defiant, though. It was close to school, within her budget and, due to it having been empty for the last year, they would be able to move in pretty quickly. They might even be in and have started renovations before the new academic year swallowed up all her spare time. But was she mad to take on this much work?

Sheila peered around as she walked further into the sitting room. Rory was quite enjoying watching her fastidious mother try to move around without touching anything. Shame she couldn’t levitate really.

Sheila folded her arms. ‘Maybe it was this ol’ house that Shaky Steve was singing about all those years ago.’

Belle screwed up her face. ‘Shaky who, Gran?’

Rory sighed. ‘It was Shakin’ Stevens, Mum. And Belle’ – her daughter nodded approval at her preferred name – ‘he was a singer a long time before you were born.’ Rory strode ahead and turned slowly. There was something almost literary about the proportions of the place. The walls were patchy and calamine pink, but the cornice was beautiful – apart from the fact it was painted turquoise. ‘It’s got nice high ceilings. I’ve always wanted to live in a house with high ceilings. Makes me feel like Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë.’

Sheila squinted at the ceiling as if it might fall on her. ‘Can you actually call that a ceiling, Aurora? The parts you can see beyond the cobwebs, I mean.’

‘Stop making that face, Mother. And stop calling me Aurora.’ Rory pulled at a corner of the paisley patterned carpet, bringing with it a cloud of dust. Underneath, the floorboards looked in a decent condition. The more Sheila was critical of the place, the more Rory was glad she’d made her offer on it. It was a familiar pattern.

Sheila sneezed and rummaged in her bag for a tissue, which she placed over her nose and mouth. ‘I’ll stop calling you Aurora when you stop calling me Mother.’

Belle stepped in. ‘I think it’s got real potential, Mum – like those places on the home programmes. Let’s go and look at the kitchen.’

Rory put an arm around her daughter’s shoulders as they walked. It still came as a surprise to her that they were almost the same height. With Belle’s long, dark ponytail and fresh face it was easy to pretend that she was still a little girl. Thank goodness Rory had been spared the rumoured teenage angst and screaming matches. Belle was sixteen now. They were home and dry.

The kitchen was a bit of a shock, even to Rory, who’d seen it before. It was large – with plenty of room for the island Rory coveted – but the cupboard doors were more grime than pine, and two doors were missing completely. There was a whiff of something greasy and the floor was sticky. Rory didn’t want to know why.

She took her arm from around Belle’s shoulders and thrust her fingers into her own short, dark hair, massaging her scalp. She had to be sensible. It wasn’t only her and her bloody-minded will of iron who would be living in this mess. Belle had always been more dolls and dresses than hammers and hard hats. Rory closed her eyes. Think with your head. Your heart can’t be trusted. Life is not a fairy tale.

Rory heard the squelch of Sheila’s shoes enter the room. She opened one eye and looked at her mother. Sheila looked at Belle. Belle looked at Rory.

Then they all started to laugh.

‘Well, if this room doesn’t put you off, nothing will. I give in.’ Sheila wiped her eyes. ‘I know better than to try and change your mind.’

Rory kissed her mother’s cheek. ‘I can still retract my offer if I do have second thoughts. Let’s go back into the sitting room; this smell is making me queasy.’

Belle went first and sat on the deep windowsill in the big bay window. ‘We could put a window seat in here, Mum. Then we could read our books and eat apples like Jo in Little Women.’

Her daughter knew exactly how to play her.

Rory joined her at the window. ‘Do you think you could cope with all the chaos whilst we are doing it up, though? We’re going to have to do most of the work ourselves, including all the boring prep work. Stripping wallpaper, ripping up the carpets, cleaning everywhere. It’ll take a while.’

Sheila turned an incredulous gaze on Rory. ‘Surely you wouldn’t move in while it is like this?’ She swept an arm around the room: the flaking plaster, the tatty carpet and the door which hadn’t seen a paintbrush since ‘Shaky Steve’ was in the charts.

‘We’d have to, Mum. We can’t afford to rent somewhere else and pay the mortgage on this place. It’ll be okay.’ Rory had no idea yet whether it would be anywhere near okay. But there was a roof, walls, a floor. How bad could it be?

‘There must be somewhere you can stay? I have a spare room in my new flat at Seymour House, but I’m not sure there’s room for both of you.’

Belle twisted her ponytail through her fingers. ‘Dad did say we could stay with him a bit longer.’

Sheila nodded and readjusted her jacket. ‘As much as Scott is not my favourite person right now, that might be a good option. You can stay where you are until this place is habitable.’

‘Absolutely not.’ Rory was not going to be swayed on this. ‘Scott and Megan are about to have a new baby; there’s no way we can stay there. It’s bad enough at the moment, with him moving his stuff back in and all the baby things too.’ Watching the two of them ooh and aah over their baby bath had given her murderous ideas. Scott had not been so interested when Rory had been scraping together the necessary supplies for Belle sixteen years ago. The New Man performance was nauseating.

‘I can’t believe he is just chucking you out like that, after all these years.’ Sheila, almost forgetting where she was, leaned against the wall and then quickly righted herself. She crossed her arms. ‘Particularly Belle. His own daughter.’

‘He didn’t chuck us out, Granny. Did he, Mum?’ Belle was always quick to defend her dad. To be fair, when they’d broken up – nearly fifteen years ago – he’d let Rory and Belle carry on living in his house and he’d been the one to move out. Scott had been a crap husband, but he wasn’t a bad dad.

‘No, he didn’t. They can’t live in that poky little flat with a baby, Mum. The house was always his. He has every right to want to live in it and, as Belle says, he told us we could stay as long as we wanted. I just don’t want to.’ She rubbed Belle’s back. ‘But you can, Belle. He’s your dad.’

Belle shook her head then put it on Rory’s shoulder. ‘No Mum, I want to be with you.’

Sheila sighed and patted her hair. ‘You are as stubborn as your mother, Christabel. You’ve both got Frank’s blood in your veins.’

This from the woman who had moaned that her house was far too large for one person but had taken twelve months of persuading to even look at a retirement apartment.

‘Of course. Dad was the stubborn one, wasn’t he, Mum?’

Sheila poked a damp spot on the wall with her finger then pulled her hand back as if it had bitten her. ‘I just wish I hadn’t sold the house already; you could have stayed there. There was plenty of room. We could have all lived there together.’

Live together? Rory loved her mother dearly, but Sheila was all coasters and regular mealtimes whereas Rory was more toast-on-the-run.

‘It was too far from work and Belle’s college anyway. Thanks for the offer, but we need to have our own home at long last.’ Rory looked around and held out her arms. ‘I’m beginning to get a feel for this place.’ She smiled at Belle. ‘I think we can do this, you know.’

‘Of course we can. We can do anything we set our minds to. What is it you say, Granny? Nothing a bit of elbow grease won’t fix.’ Belle kissed Sheila on the cheek.

‘Well, now you’re using my own words against me I don’t have a chance, do I? Next you’ll be putting on one of your Disney CDs and encouraging the local wildlife to come in and help you make it spick and span.’ Sheila turned to Rory. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any point in me trying to persuade you out of this? Your dad was a builder. I know how much work is going to be involved in something like this.’

Rory shook her head. ‘No, Mum. There’s no point. I want a house rather than a flat, and we can’t afford one that’s already done up round here on my wages. This is our only option.’

‘In that case, let me give you some…’ Sheila trailed off at the look on Rory’s face.

Rory squeezed her hand. ‘Mum, I’m grateful. But I don’t need your money. You should enjoy the profit from the house. Spend it on gin and Italian waiters.’

Sheila made a harrumphing sound. ‘I might just do that and bring one home for you, my girl.’

Rory shook her head. ‘I won’t have time for amore; I’ll be too busy painting walls and laying carpet.’

Sheila was back on her favourite subject. ‘You will need to make time for it sometime, Aurora. You’re not getting any younger, you know.’

Rory rolled her eyes. ‘I know. I know. But if we’re back to Aurora, it must be time to go.’

As she shuffled the two of them out of the front door, Rory looked back up the hallway and through the door to the sitting room. This place wasn’t so much in need of a facelift as full reconstructive surgery. She knew how it felt. There was an awful lot of work to be done and, apart from following her dad around when she was young, she didn’t actually have any DIY experience. Would she be taking on more than she could manage?

Sheila stood on the front step and it crumbled beneath her feet. ‘Are you really sure about this, Aurora?’

There was a huge oval mirror hanging near the front door. Rory blew the dust from its centre and looked through the scattering motes at her reflection. With a bit of polish, it could be made to look beautiful again.

She’d make a start with that.