Starting afresh

Womans Weekly Fiction Special|April 2020

Starting afresh
No matter what Fran did, she couldn’t measure up to her sister-in-law’s sky-high standards
Carolyn Lewis

What? Say that again!’ Ian lifted his head and cleared his throat. ‘Susan and Dave. They’ve bought the house next door.’

I hadn’t seen that one coming. ‘Why? Why next door to us?’ Even as the words left my mouth, I knew what the answer would be and I knew how negative I sounded.

Ian shuffled and his chair squeaked. We were eating supper at the kitchen table and it seemed he’d waited for this particular moment to spring the news on me. ‘You know they’ve been looking for some time. Downsizing now the boys have left home.’

Yes, I knew all that, but what I didn’t know was why here, next to us. But I kept my mouth closed, waiting for Ian to continue.

He looked at me. ‘They’ve always liked this road. Susan’s always said how quiet it is, how close to the countryside.’

Well, that bit was true, but she also said how small the houses were and the way she said ‘small’ wasn’t in a good, cosy way, or at least I hadn’t thought so at the time.

I pushed my food around my plate, realising my appetite had disappeared. Ian loves his sister and has always thought the world of her, but me... not so much, though goodness knows I’ve tried to be polite, to get to know her. You see, the thing is that Susan really does think she’s special, that she’s not like the rest of us.

I don’t mean that in an unkind way. Well, not really. Susan just somehow swans around.

Her husband, Dave, is a marine engineer, earns a lot of money and travels the world because of his job. And that means Susan doesn’t need to work full-time, if at all, to pay the bills.

I must admit, I was surprised that Susan and Dave would think about moving here. I mean it’s a nice area; it’s pleasant, neighbours are great, but it’s not grand in any way. Not like they’re used to.

Susan and Dave’s house is posh, no doubt about it. The kitchen alone is fantastic: integrated hobs, built in state of the art appliances, you name it and it’s there. The house was decorated by a team of top-notch decorators and Susan said repeatedly that she’d project managed it. I can guess how that would have gone down.

The house next door to us is a nice house, clean, with a good-sized garden like ours, overlooking fields. I love the quietness. I work from home. I’m a translator and I work in the small loft room at the top of the house with a window with a spectacular view. I love what I do. Susan asked me once, with a tiny frown, as if she really didn’t understand, ‘But don’t you get lonely, bored, looking at sheets of paper all day long?’

Well, no, honestly, I don’t. I look at those sheets of paper in another language and I work out the best way to put someone else’s words into English, trying not to lose sense of what was written. It’s challenging and it means a lot to me that I can do that.

Only once did Susan come to the top of the house to see where I worked. She moved from my desk and over to the window, then she crossed her arms as she looked outside. ‘I can see what a wonderful view it is.’ And that was all she said.

For one nasty moment, I thought about ringing Susan, telling her that the house was haunted, it was subsiding, anything to keep her looking elsewhere. But I didn’t. I waited until Ian had finished eating and I cleared the table.

After that, Ian mentioned a few times that things were going smoothly for Susan and Dave’s move. I wasn’t sure why, but I only contacted Susan once, simply to ask if they needed any help. I thought it was the right thing to do, but I freely admit I was relieved when she said that they’d manage. ‘We’ve got rid of a lot of our big furniture. Thank you, but we’ll be fine.’

Somehow, that didn’t surprise me.

Then it was moving day and I sort of hovered, offering to make tea, to put biscuits out for everyone, but I knew I was in the way and, in the end, I left them to it and retreated to my loft room where I battled with a complex set of papers from a German academic.

When Ian and I sat down to our evening meal, we heard the sound of raised voices and Ian smiled, ‘Rather them than me.’

We were eating fish pie and, as I chewed, I felt a pang of guilt. I should have offered to make something for Susan and Dave. Something they could shove into the oven, something easy. Susan was a much better cook than I was. She had the time to make elaborate meals, poring over exotic recipes and I suppose that’s what had been at the back of my mind. I hadn’t wanted to give something that wasn’t up to Susan’s standards.

To ease my conscience, I did go and knock on the door the following morning. I had cut a bunch of sweet peas from our garden and I’d bought a box of posh biscuits. The second Susan opened the door, I held my offerings out, hoping they’d mask my unease.

‘Oh, Fran,’ Susan looked immaculate, hair freshly washed, clean jeans and a bright pink top. ‘How lovely, how nice of you.’

‘How are you getting on? Do you need any help?’

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April 2020