Georgie Taylor pulled on the handbrake, turned off the engine and caught the eye of the small green-haired gonk that spent its life hanging from her driver’s mirror. ‘So here we are in Brighton,’ she said to it, lifting one aching shoulder then another, in a vague approximation of a yoga class she had once been to. ‘A long way from home, right?’
The gonk, unsurprisingly, didn’t respond. Georgie’s boyfriend Simon would have snorted if he could have seen her conversing like this with a small inanimate creature with seriously bad hair, but Georgie had come to feel rather fond of the gonk’s benevolently smiling face, its wide plastic eyes never judging her atrocious parallel parking or wonky reversing. Sometimes she would glance over at it after a terrible overtaking manoeuvre and it was as if they had shared a little moment, never to be confessed to Simon. What happens in the car, stays in the car. Or something. Maybe she was over-thinking this, on second thoughts.
Anyway – here she was: Dukes Square, her new address, her new city, her new life! Hello, Brighton, she thought, clambering out of the car, legs stiff and heavy after the five-hour drive south. So this is what you look like. She gazed down past the busy road at the bottom of the square to the beach beyond, where the warm April sunshine was bouncing off the sea like a thousand glittering sequins. She’d driven past the Palace Pier a few minutes earlier, with its roller coasters and souvenir stalls, and there below was the promenade with ornate Victorian lamp posts and duck-egg-blue railings. She could smell chips and seaweed and diesel, so different from the clean wet grassy air she was used to in the Dales. Despite the trepidation she’d felt about packing up their life in Yorkshire for the move, she couldn’t help feeling the merest flicker of excitement too all of a sudden. Living by the sea! They were actually going to be living by the sea, just the two of them, in a cosy little love nest together. A new adventure. A new chapter. Fun times ahead!
Hi! she texted Simon. I’m here! Are you on your way?
She scanned the horizon while waiting for his reply, smiling to herself as she imagined him pelting up the hill towards her and then the two of them in a slow-motion run, arms outstretched. Two whole weeks they’d been apart, after all. Two weeks of her lying awake at night listening to all the weird noises their house made in the dark and worrying that she’d left a window open somewhere. Two weeks of him living it up in a posh hotel down here while he got stuck into his new job. It felt like the longest time when you had spent your entire adult life with the same person, which they had.
Georgie and Simon had dated the whole way through sixth-form, then gone to Liverpool university together, before returning to Stonefield upon graduation. There they’d both found local jobs – her as a librarian, him as an architect. And while she was a mediocre sort of librarian if she was honest, preferring rainy days when the library was quiet and she could sit sucking boiled sweets and reading detective novels, he, by contrast, had turned out to be really good at his job. Within five years, his distinctive style had become sought after by all manner of people around the north – and now a former boss had requested his input for this new project down in ruddy Brighton: transforming a vast derelict Victorian mansion just out of the city into a state-of-the-art hotel. It was to be the biggest project he’d worked on, and he’d been thrilled to have his designs chosen out of the many who’d tendered for the job. ‘They want me to project manage the whole thing, I’d be mad to turn it down,’ he’d said, eyes shining. ‘It’s only going to be for six months or so, and this could really put me on the map, George. This could be the big time.’
Because she was a nice, generous-hearted sort of girlfriend, Georgie had been pleased for him, and proud too. Of course she wanted him to earn his place ‘on the map’, of course she hoped he would hit this mystical big time. But because she was also a human being who couldn’t quite square his new career development with the happy-ever-after she’d always envisaged for the pair of them – the dog, the kids, the lovely big house up in Yorkshire, maybe another dog for good measure – she also felt kind of unsettled. ‘So what am I meant to do if you’re down there for six months?’ she’d asked, trying to keep the petulance she felt from her voice. ‘Twiddle my toes the whole time?’
He’d looked a bit pained at her question. He’d actually pulled this ‘Search me’ face where he didn’t meet her in the eye, as if the question of her, his beloved, hadn’t particularly crossed his mind in the whole decision. As if he didn’t care! ‘We can talk on the phone, Skype each other . . . ?’ he’d replied haltingly.
‘For six months?’ She’d stared at him, horrified by how nonchalant he seemed at the prospect of so long apart. Meanwhile in Stonefield, her best friend Amelia had recently got engaged (Valentine’s Day, the lucky cow) and was already talking about wedding dresses. Their friends Jade and Sam were due to get married in summer, too. When Simon had told her he had something to say that evening, Georgie had assumed that it was her turn – finally! – to have that question popped, and she’d gone all quivery inside. In the past, she had wondered (many times) how she might react to this moment: a scream of joy, her arms flung around his neck, an exuberant dance on the spot, maybe even a spontaneous double-fist air-punch. It looked as if she was going to have to wait a bit longer yet to find that out, clearly.
There had been a too-long pause where he’d frowned uncertainly, as if trying to work out the right thing to say. ‘You could . . . come with me?’ he had suggested in the end.
She didn’t want to have to go with him, that was the thing. Especially when the offer had been made so half-heartedly, like an afterthought rather than a serious proposition. She would have much preferred for both of them to stay right there in Stonefield, playing house in their tiny terrace with its cosy wood-burning stove, going to the pub with their mates every Friday night, hearing the bells ring in the old stone church every Sunday morning. (Okay, so maybe not the church bells on second thoughts. They were actually a pain in the neck waking you up so early, and brutal if you had a hangover.) Venture somewhere new where she didn’t know anyone, where she didn’t have a job or any friends? It sounded awful. But then again, whenever she had imagined her boyfriend down in Brighton on his own for six long months, surrounded by all kinds of temptations, while she was stuck up north, she wasn’t sure that that was any better an alternative.
‘You should keep an eye on him,’ Amelia had pronounced ominously, sucking her teeth and twiddling the engagement ring on her finger. She’d been to her cousin’s hen do in Brighton the year before and now considered herself an expert on the place. ‘It’s like the Wild West down there on a Saturday night, I’m telling you. Hen parties. Stag parties. Bare bums and bad behaviour everywhere. There’s no way I’d let Jason out of my sight for five minutes there, let alone six frigging months, George.’
Georgie was the first to admit that her boyfriend was extremely fanciable to other women, with his broad rugby-player shoulders, sandy hair and easy smile, and thus it was the vision of him surrounded by sex-crazed hens, maybe even lassoed by a raunchily dressed cowgirl, that finally sealed the deal. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Simon, she told herself. She was making the move with him because she was a loyal, supportive girlfriend, that was all. And he’d do the same for her, wouldn’t he, follow her to the end of the country, if their positions were reversed? Of course he would.
Anyway. They were taking the plunge and that was that. He’d moved down a fortnight ago, while she handed in her notice at the library, put a load of their stuff in storage – well, her parents’ garage, same thing – and arranged for tenants to rent their house for six months. In that time, Simon had found them a place to live and now here she was, in the centre of debauchery, apparently, although the genteel surroundings where she now found herself seemed infinitely more respectable than she’d imagined.
She gazed around at the large square which sloped up from the seafront, bordered on three sides by white and cream-painted bow-windowed Regency houses, with a huge communal lawn in its centre. Which, she wondered, was her new front door? (‘Seriously? You’re letting him choose your flat, without you even seeing it first?’ Amelia had screeched, hand clutched to throat – she had always been the dramatic sort. ‘That’s very . . . trusting of you,’ she said, although Georgie could tell from her expression that she meant ‘completely mad’ instead of ‘very trusting’.)
Georgie felt quietly confident, though. She had given Simon very specific instructions about what she wanted in their new home: a sea view, for starters, or at the very least, huge windows through which she could nosey out at the rest of the world passing by. A lovely big living area, in which to entertain friends (not that they knew anyone here yet but she had always been the sort of person who could make new pals in the ladies’ loos, on a bus, in the Debenhams lift once, even). A bedroom large enough to house her books. (‘You don’t need to bring all your books,’ he’d told her. ‘Of course I do!’ she’d told him right back, astonished that he could suggest otherwise.) A living room with an open fireplace. (‘For roasting chestnuts,’ she’d said dreamily. ‘In April?’ he’d replied, disbelieving. ‘All right, to have sex in front of then,’ she’d said instead, which she knew would do more to convince him.) Oh yes, and a garden, just in case they decided to get a dog, was her final request. (‘We’re not getting a dog,’ he’d said, flat-out, but Georgie, who adored dogs, and could think of nothing that would make a place more homely than a bouncing bright-eyed mutt of some description, had ignored this last statement. Simon just needed to warm up to an idea sometimes, that was all.)
There was still no sign of her boyfriend so she began walking up the hill to seek out their new home, number eleven, apparently. (‘Ooh, the eleventh house, that’s very lucky,’ Amelia had said immediately when Georgie passed on the address. Amelia was into astrology in a big way, and took the whole thing extremely seriously. Astral Amelia, they’d called her at school. ‘The eleventh house in astrology is the house of friends, hopes and wishes, goals and ideals. Couldn’t be better!’)
Seven . . . nine . . . eleven. There it was. An imposing black front door, three storeys, that gorgeous curving bow window at ground level – the sort of elegant old house, in short, where you could imagine Victorian ladies emerging, long petticoats rustling on the white-painted steps. So there, Amelia, she felt like texting, and held up her phone to snap a photo of it, just as a huge dusty Land Rover with tinted windows swerved up from the main road below, obscuring the view. The driver flung the vehicle into a parking space (with enviable panache, it had to be said; no need for any gonk-commiserations in that car) then swung herself down from the vehicle: a brassy-haired woman in sunglasses and a black asymmetric dress, heaving a massive zebra-print handbag over one shoulder whilst apparently bollocking someone on the phone. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ she said tartly as she marched over the road.
Georgie gulped as the woman strode up the steps of number eleven. ‘Well, that’s not my problem, is it?’ she snapped into the phone before hanging up abruptly. Then she glanced at her watch, pursed her lips and stood waiting, arms folded expectantly.
If Georgie wasn’t very much mistaken, this somewhat intimidating woman might well be her new landlady. And seeing as Simon still hadn’t replied to her text – or made any kind of sprinting appearance – it seemed there was only one way to find out.
‘Perfect timing!’ the woman declared with a wide red-lipsticked smile when Georgie approached and tentatively introduced herself. Her eyes were as blue and sparkling as the sea but there was a keenness about them too, a sharp sort of interest as they rested on Georgie. ‘Hello, I’m Angela Morrison-Hulme, the owner of the apartment block. Nice to meet you.’
Georgie wished she was wearing something a bit more glamorous than faded blue jeans, a striped T-shirt and her naff old trainers that had seemed like a good idea when facing a 250-mile drive. She probably didn’t smell all that fresh either, come to think of it. ‘You too,’ she replied, her voice emerging in a nervous sort of bleat. ‘I’m not sure where Simon – my boyfriend – is, but he should be here any minute. I’m Georgie Taylor anyway. Hi.’
‘Well, then, Georgie Taylor,’ said Angela, who, unlike her grubby newest tenant, gave off a waft of heavy perfume that had probably cost more than Georgie’s car. ‘I can’t wait around all day for this boyfriend of yours, so let me give you these.’ She unhooked two sets of keys from the vast jingling collection that emerged from her handbag. ‘This key is for the front door, okay? And this smaller one is for your flat. If you lose them, there’s a twenty-pound charge for replacement, plus you run the risk of triggering my notoriously explosive temper, so try not to do that, all right?’ She gave a loud laugh to show that she was joking. At least, Georgie hoped she was. ‘Shall we go in?’
After a last searching glance each way down the seafront to check that Simon wasn’t panting towards them – unfortunately not – Georgie heaved a suitcase and sports bag out of her car boot and followed her new landlady through the front door of the house. ‘Wow,’ she murmured, stepping into the entrance hall. It had a cavernous ceiling and a wide red-carpeted staircase winding up and back on itself, the oak banister polished smooth by hundreds of hands over the years, while the wrought-iron sides of the staircase somehow gave off a Parisian sort of glamour.
Mrs Morrison-Hulme looked pleased. ‘You like it?’
Georgie nodded. ‘It’s amazing,’ she said, unable to help comparing it to the narrow staircase of their Stonefield home where you could touch both sides of the wall with your elbows if you stuck them out at right angles.
They went up the stairs to the first-floor landing and Mrs Morrison-Hulme unlocked the door marked ‘3’. ‘Welcome!’ she said, holding it open so that Georgie could step inside.
Georgie found she was holding her breath as she walked into a narrow hall, off which another door led to the living room. Setting down her case and bag and gazing around, her heart sank down to her festering trainers. There were no two ways around it, her first impression was . . . disappointment. Back in Stonefield, she had worked hard to create a cosy, luxurious-feeling living room with dark varnish on the floorboards, a soft white rug, a big squishy leather sofa with fluffy cushions, and the wood-burner which chucked out tons of heat on a frosty evening. By way of complete contrast, this room was small and musty-smelling with an ageing navy blue sofa that sagged in the middle and dusty velvet curtains which even the most generous person couldn’t fail to describe as ‘shit-brown’. Despite the filthiness of the sash window, there was no disguising the fact that their ‘view’ was one of a tiny back courtyard and a pair of wheelie bins rather than any grand vistas featuring the sea. Oh, Simon, she thought in dismay. No wonder he hadn’t shown up on time. Too embarrassed to face her in light of this Not-Ideal-Home situation.
‘So . . . this is obviously the living room,’ Mrs Morrison-Hulme said, walking briskly into the room beside Georgie and waving an arm around as if showing off an opulent space.
‘Yes,’ Georgie replied faintly, unable to dredge up any further comment, let alone enthusiasm. She should have listened to Amelia. She should have insisted on Simon Skyping her through every flat-hunting session. What had he been thinking?
‘Your bathroom is along here . . .’ the landlady went on, retreating back to the corridor and indicating the next white-painted door. ‘The kitchen’s obviously here’ – she gestured to a blue-tiled galley space with a sink, fridge and cooker and two small cupboards, then demonstrated how to adjust the thermostat and use the greasy-looking hob. ‘And the bedroom’s down at the end. Okay? I think that’s everything, other than to remind you – no smoking, no sub-renting, no pets, no parties, no music after eleven o’clock at night.’
‘Right,’ said Georgie, her voice a croak. No fun, basically. No enjoyment. And definitely no gorgeous, funny dog, bumping his nose against her hand and lolloping after tennis balls on the grassy square outside.
Angela pulled a business card from her handbag and pressed it into Georgie’s palm. ‘Anything else, give me a call – here’s my mobile number. My son Paul helps out with the business, so you’ll have either me or him at the other end.’ She winked a turquoise-shaded eyelid and leaned closer. ‘He’s very good-looking by the way, my Paul. If it all goes pear-shaped with the unreliable boyfriend – where is he, anyway? – then a nice girl like you could do a lot worse. Just saying!’
Georgie tried to smile but it was an effort when panic was crashing through her like the waves down on the beach. Oh God. What had she done? What had she agreed to? And why on earth had Simon chosen this dump of a flat? Call himself a great architect, a designer of beautiful buildings? Why hadn’t that artistic vision extended to their new love nest? ‘Thank you,’ she managed to say, as the questions beat about her head like midges, and then, feeling belatedly defensive about her relationship, added, ‘He’s probably got tied up with something at work.’
‘Of course he has,’ replied Mrs Morrison-Hulme with another meaningful wink that said she didn’t believe it for a minute. ‘Anyway, I’d better be off.’ Her heels left small indentations on the carpet as she took the few steps back to the front door. ‘All the best. Welcome to SeaView House!’
The door closed after her, and then it was just Georgie on her own, completely overwhelmed with the awfulness of this new situation. SeaView House, my arse, she thought indignantly, remembering the ‘view’ of the dustbins out the back. She could smell the pong of something rotten in the kitchen and there was a damp patch on the ceiling. What would Amelia say if she could see her now? Oh my God, George. Total nightmare! What the actual frig? Tears pricked her eyes at the thought of her best friend’s shocked voice, and she had to fight the impulse to dash out to her car again and drive straight home. ‘Big mistake,’ she imagined herself telling the gonk as she made a wheel-spinning U-turn. ‘Disaster!’
But then her phone rang: Simon. ‘Hi,’ she said warily. ‘Where are you? I’m in the flat.’ Please tell me there’s been a mistake and this is not our actual new home, she thought, poking a toe at a dustball on the carpet.
‘Sorry,’ he said. She could hear conversation in the background, another person laughing. ‘Something came up here. You met the landlady all right, though?’
‘Yeah. She’s been and gone.’ Georgie raked a hand through her hair and leaned against the wall. Now that she was finally in the same city as him, she no longer knew quite what to say. I hate the flat! she wanted to wail. I can’t live here! But she knew he hated her making a fuss. And besides, she didn’t want to be the clingy sort of girlfriend who made fusses. Gritting her teeth, she made a gigantic effort to banish the lump in her throat and pull herself together.
‘Bit of a character, isn’t she? And I know the flat is kind of spartan but I just loved how light it was – and it’s a great location, right? Couldn’t be nearer the beach! We can go for early-morning swims together.’
She gave a hollow laugh. ‘Yeah.’ Er, no. Was he mad? What about the list she had given him? Had he even listened to a single word she’d said? ‘So are you on your way over now?’ she asked. Everything would feel better once he was there too, she reminded herself. They could laugh about the decor, she could tease him about his terrible lack of taste, they could test out the double bed. (Well. Maybe after she’d hoovered it for bed-bugs and sprayed it with several gallons of Febreze, anyway.)
‘I can’t really get away right now but I’ll make sure to leave at five, all right?’ he said and her spirits sank all over again. ‘We can get fish and chips and a few beers, sit on the beach and toast our new start, yeah?’ There was another burst of laughter behind his voice and Georgie had to press the phone to her ear in order to hear him. ‘I’d better go anyway. See you later!’
‘See you.’ She hung up and took a deep breath, trying not to give in to dejection. Fish and chips and beers with Simon later, she reminded herself. The beach. Their new start. Come on, George, chin up, it’ll be fine.
Wandering into the poky living room, she peered out of the window to see two gulls tussling over a chip wrapper in the courtyard, wings beating, beaks lunging. She was not a quitter, she reminded herself, as one eventually flew off, victorious. Definitely not. She had once queued all night in Leeds to be near the front of the queue for the Kate Moss collection at H&M, hadn’t she? She had stuck out a Saturday job at the hairdressers for two years as a teenager as well, even though the endless hair-washing had made the skin on her fingers crack and weep pus. And she had taken her driving test three times before passing, so determined was she to succeed. She didn’t give up on things, that was the point. And there was no way she’d give up this time either, and slink back to Yorkshire only to endure all the pitying looks that her friends, however well-meaning, would give her. Absolutely not.
So that was settled. She would unpack and make the best of it. It wasn’t all bad, was it? There was the sea right there, just a few hundred metres from her front door, blue and shimmering, with its percussion of pebbles in every wave – plus there was a whole new city for her to explore too. Adventures to be had! Fun to seek out! Maybe even new friends and a bit of work here and there. She could do it. She could cope. She would go and write her and Simon’s names on that flat listing downstairs for starters.
‘Right then,’ she said aloud. ‘Let’s do this.’
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