Neighbours

There was little conversation over breakfast, as Edward wolfed down the delicious and high quality food Bella had prepared.  Truth be told, even if it had been the cheapest economy fare, cooked in the grubbiest, greasy spoon café, he would have eaten it with relish.  All he’d had the day before was an egg sandwich—the least costly option at the motorway services—and the bowl of soup Bella had given him more than six hours ago.  As for the day before that, he couldn’t actually remember whether he’d eaten anything at all.

Bella watched with alarm as Edward ate, and when he used the last piece of toast to mop up his fried egg, she stood and put some more bread in the toaster.  Despite the impoverishment of her upbringing, she could never remember being really hungry in the true sense of the word, and her heart ached for this malnourished young man.  She buttered the extra toast and carried it over to the table, putting both slices on his empty plate.  He looked up at her, smiling sheepishly and offering a quiet thanks, before reaching for the jar of marmalade and spreading a generous portion on each piece.

Once they’d finished, Edward offered to clean up.  Much as Bella wanted to take the opportunity to quiz him on the circumstances which had brought him to this point in his life, she knew she needed to make some calls.  Excusing herself, she went upstairs to her room, where her new phone was charging, and started going through the messages on her old one.  Inevitably, there were numerous voicemails and texts from Jake, but she had no compunction in deleting them all without listening to or reading any of them.  She then started calling the important people in her life to give them her new number, and explain that she had left Jake.  She let them know that she was safe, giving her new address to those who needed it, asking that they not share the information with Jake, should he contact them.  She knew she could trust them not to, as none of them had particularly liked him.

By the time she’d talked to everyone, she was surprised to note that she’d been on the phone for over two hours.  She suddenly felt overwhelmed with tiredness, and despite thinking she ought to check on Edward, and maybe even try doing some writing, she decided to lie down and take a nap.

~o0o~

It was dark when Bella awoke, feeling inexplicably panicky when she realised how late it was.  She went to the bathroom and splashed some water on her face, noting with relief that it felt a little less painful than it had that morning.  Making her way downstairs, she first checked the sitting room, where she noted that the fire had been built up and was burning merrily away, casting a warm glow over the whole room.

She took a moment to turn on the wall-mounted lighting, then headed to the kitchen, where she found Edward busily preparing dinner.

“Hey,” she greeted him, smiling.

He grinned at her, putting down the knife he was using to dice an onion, and walking over to the sink to rinse his hands and fill the kettle.

“Hi.  I hope you don’t mind, but I thought I’d make a start on dinner.  Is spaghetti Bolognese okay?”

“Oh, uh, yeah, that’s great.  But you didn’t have to do that...”  She was pleased he was offering, but unsure what his cooking would be like.

“I know I didn’t have to, but it’s the least I could do.  I can cook, if that’s what you’re worried about—and it’s only spag bol. 

She looked around at the ingredients neatly set out on the island, the large pan sitting on the hob, the pile of well-chopped onion and garlic, and realised that he did, indeed, seem to know what he was doing. 

“Well, you seem to have everything under control—what can I do?”

Edward directed her to making the salad, whilst he transferred the onion and garlic to the pan.  They continued to work together, as Bella silently admired his obvious kitchen skills.  Soon, a large pan of Bolognese sauce was bubbling away, and giving off a mouth-watering aroma.

As they finished off the preparation of their meal, the sound of crunching snow underfoot alerted them to the possible arrival of a visitor, swiftly confirmed by a knock on the back door.  They both glanced across the room and then back at one another, neither one making a move to answer it.

The knock came again, this time accompanied by a rather jolly female voice.

“Yoohoo, anyone home?”

Bella recovered first, glancing quickly at Edward and noting a look of relief cross his features which, coincidentally, duplicated her own.  Putting down the wooden spoon she’d been stirring the sauce with, she went over to the back door to loosen the bolts and unlock it.  When she opened it a blast of freezing air enveloped her and she shivered in her sweater and jeans.  Immediately assessing the absence of any risk presented by the tiny woman and her blond companion standing on the back porch, she stood back and ushered them both in, slamming the door shut behind them.

“Hello.  Please excuse the invasion, but we’re your neighbours, and thought we’d just come check that squatters* hadn’t moved in!”  The woman laughed softly and beamed at Bella, before looking up at the tall man beside her.

He smiled warmly and held his hand out.  “Hi, I’m Jasper Whitlock, this is my wife, Alice, and you, I’m guessing, are Miss Swan.”

Bella took Jasper’s hand and shook it firmly, before offering her hand to Alice, who completely ignored it and wrapped her arms round Bella in a warm hug.

“Oh, it’s so good to meet you at last,” she said as she pulled back.  “I do hope you don’t mind us just dropping in on you, but when we saw the lights and the chimney smoke, I have to admit we were dying of curiosity.”

Bella laughed and then smiled at Alice.  “It’s lovely to meet you—and thank you for tramping out in this bloody awful weather to check on us.”

“Oh, that’s okay, we’re right next door,” Jasper replied, pointing towards the back wall of the property.

At this point, Alice had turned to look at Edward, who had remained silent during the initial introductions.

“Hello,” Alice said, smiling brightly at him, and Edward found it was impossible not to return the smile.  Then he looked at Bella, unsure if he should introduce himself.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  This is… my, uh, friend, Edward… oh, and I’m Bella, by the way.”

Jasper and Alice moved across the kitchen to similarly welcome Edward, before turning back to Bella.

“Well, as I say, we just wanted to check you were okay, and that you managed to lay in some supplies.  The forecast is terrible, and there’s a good chance the village could get cut off—it’s happened before,” Alice informed them.

“Gosh, really,” Bella looked at Edward, and then back to Alice.  “Well, we managed to get everything we needed this morning from Asda, and, um, actually, it seems that my grandmother was anticipating some kind of nuclear holocaust or something, because the pantry and basement are packed with canned and bottled food, plus all sorts of other stuff.”

“Wait, Cynthia Copeland was your grandmother?”  Alice glanced up at Jasper, then back to Bella.  “Gosh, how did we not know she had a grand-daughter?”

“Oh, well, it’s kind of a long story.  I never really knew her…”  Bella trailed off, unsure how much to say to these people who were virtual strangers, and who seemed to have known her relative a good deal better than she.

“Sorry, it’s none of our business, of course, and you’re obviously in the middle of preparing dinner, so we’ll leave you to it.  Come on, Jazz.” 

Alice turned to go, but Bella reached out and put her hand on Alice’s arm.

“No, it’s okay.  Listen, we’ve made an absolute shedload of food—it’s just pasta and salad, but if you’d like to join us, you’re very welcome.”  She smiled as she looked from Alice to Jasper.  She wasn’t sure why, but she felt intuitively that she could trust them.

The couple looked at one another, seeming to communicate wordlessly, before Alice turned back to Bella, grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh, that would be fab, we’d love to.”

Behind her, Bella heard Edward clear his throat and she looked round to see him shuffling awkwardly towards the door.

“Um, well, I’ll just get out of your way…” he mumbled, pointing towards the door.

Bella frowned.  “What?  Where are you going?”

“Uh, well, I’ll just go read my book upstairs.  I’ll grab something later—”

“What are you talking about, Edward?  Don’t you want to eat with us?”  Bella was utterly nonplussed.

He shook his head, looking equally bemused.  “You’ve got guests, you don’t want me hanging around.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t be silly!  You live here—at least for the moment—and they’re our guests.  Now, why don’t you go open a bottle of red and I’ll get Alice and Jasper settled in front of the fire.”

Edward stood still, looking a little uncertain, but when Bella made a ‘shooing’ motion, he shrugged and went into the pantry to find the wine.

At the same time, Bella ushered their guests into the sitting room, where a big fire crackled in the grate.

She took their coats and invited them to remove their wellington boots as well, then went in search of Edward and the drinks.  She found him still in the kitchen, extracting wine glasses from the Welsh dresser.

“Hey, you okay?” she asked quietly.

He turned and looked at her, before dropping his gaze to the floor.  “Yeah.  Look, I’m sorry about earlier, I… well, I didn’t want to put you in an awkward situation, and I didn’t know what you would want me to do.  I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” he told her, his voice barely more than a whisper.

Bella laughed.  “You didn’t embarrass me at all, Edward… although I’d wager you’ve got Alice and Jasper ultra-curious!  They’re probably in there now, desperately trying to work out who—and what—you are to me.  In fact, looking the way you do, they probably think you’re a male escort, or something.”

He looked up, smiling sheepishly, two spots of colour blooming in his cheeks.  “You think I look like a male escort?”

Bella could feel her own blush suffuse her face as she realised what she’d said.

“Um, well, they could, being as you’re so good-looking… at least, they probably think you’re good-looking… not that I don’t think you’re good-looking… I mean, obviously, you are good looking…”

Oh, God, please let me stop saying he’s good-looking.

“Ohh-kaay, so I’ll just take the wine in to them…”

“Uh, yeah, great… good idea… I’ll, uh, check the… uh… sauce…?”  Bella grimaced, feeling her face getting hotter and hotter.

They went to pass one another, doing one of those odd side-stepping dances, until Edward grabbed Bella’s shoulders and swivelled her around so that they had swapped places.  He then picked up the wine and two glasses and headed towards the sitting room, controlling the smirk which pulled at his lips until he’d turned his back.

Bella stood in place, her mind solely focussed on the fact that she could still feel the warmth of his hands on her shoulders.  She leaned forward and placed both hands on the worktop, taking a deep breath, as she tried to figure out what had just passed between them.  However, before she could give it further thought, he was back, and she made herself turn quickly to the hob where the Bolognese sauce was bubbling gently.

“Uh, Bella?”

She hummed in response, but didn’t turn around, concentrating on improving her stirring technique.

“Um, is it okay if I have a lager instead of wine?  I mentioned to Jasper that you had some cans of Fosters in the fridge, and he asked if he could have one.”

Bella finally turned round, frowning at Edward’s tentative enquiry.

“I don’t drink lager, Edward, I bought them in case you’d like one.  As far as I’m concerned, everything I bought today is for us to share—well, apart from your clothes, of course—so if you want something, just help yourself, you don’t have to ask.  So the answer is, yes, it’s okay if you want a lager, and you can take one in for Jasper as well.”

She turned back to the stove, but then seemed to remember something.  “Oh, and that applies to the stuff we found in the pantry and the basement too.  Okay?”

He smiled and nodded, murmuring a quiet ‘thanks’, before going to the fridge and extracting two cans of Fosters.

“This is pretty much ready.  Let’s join our guests for a quick drink and then I’ll put the pasta on.”

In the sitting room, Alice and Jasper were sitting together on the sofa, so Bella and Edward each took one of the big, wing-backed chairs.  Despite the weather, the room was snug and warm, and they were all comforted by the sound of the crackling fire and the rich aroma of the simple but tasty meal awaiting them.

Sipping their drinks, Bella asked about her new neighbours, who were happy to chat about themselves.

Jasper revealed that he was Professor of History at Bristol University, and Alice owned and ran a small bookshop and café in the village. 

“Gosh, that must be hard to make a go of in this day and age of Amazon and all the other online bookshops.  Even the big book retailers seem to be struggling and closing down.  Borders has gone and it’s hard to find a Waterstone’s anywhere.  How do you manage?”

“Actually, it’s doing pretty well.  We don’t have any of the big chains here—the nearest are in Cheltenham or Bristol—and I think people still rather like the idea of browsing in a bookshop, especially if they can sit down and read their purchases over a cup of coffee.  I sell magazines as well, and I’ll order in specialist publications for those who want them.  Also, we used to have a library, but spending cuts have meant that it was closed down, which means the nearest one is in Cirencester.  So I’ve got a second-hand section, from which people can borrow books for a small deposit, and then, if they want to buy a particular book to keep, I deduct the amount of their deposit from the discounted price.  I also buy back or part-exchange any books they’ve purchased new to add to the second-hand section.  So far, the scheme seems to be working pretty well.”

Edward frowned.  “But doesn’t that mean they just borrow books instead of buying them new, then purchase them at a knock-down price?  Surely you would lose money that way.”

“You might think so, but actually, it’s turned out really well.  I still get more people buying new than borrowing, plus most of the borrowers and a lot of the buyers tend to use the café, which more than makes up for any loss on the discounted books.  I do really well during the holiday season, and because I have an open fire, I get a lot of people in during the off-season too.  In fact, when the shop next door became vacant, I took it over so I could knock through to provide a bigger café, which allowed me to expand the library and second-hand sections.”

“Wow, that sounds fantastic, Alice—I’m going to have to call in once the weather improves,” Bella told her.

“Oh yes, you must.  It’s called ‘Wonderland’, right in the middle of the High Street.  Actually, this weather is a bugger, because everyone is going to have to stay home.  Chipping Mallard is in a kind of basin, so when it snows like this, we get pretty much completely cut off.  Do you remember when it snowed back in November 2010?  Even the snow ploughs couldn’t get to us then.  That’s probably when your grandmother decided to stock up in case it happened again.”

Bella and Edward exchanged a look and then smiled at Alice.

“Well, it really is a treasure trove, so if you guys run out of anything, just let us know, because I’m sure we can help you out.”

Jasper grinned.  “We may well take you up on that if it doesn’t stop snowing soon.”

~o0o~


A little later, as they all sat round the dining table, Jasper and Alice quizzed their hosts, which became a rather more difficult conversation.

Alice was the first to delve, asking Bella to explain the ‘long story’ about her grandmother, to which she had alluded earlier.

“Oh, well, there’s nothing much to tell, really.  My mother was her daughter, and, it seems, married ‘beneath her’.”  Bella rolled her eyes as she said this, and shook her head.

“My grandparents didn’t approve of my father or the marriage, and pretty much disinherited my mother.  Apparently—although I have no memory of it—mum took me to see my grandparents a couple of times, but I must have been very young, and certainly don’t remember them ever being in our lives or even talked about, so I guess they were pretty shitty to my parents.  In fact, I was astonished when I got a letter from a solicitor telling me that grandmother left me this cottage.  Apart from anything else, mum always told me she came from Berkshire, so I couldn’t figure out why the old girl moved here.”

Alice frowned at her.  “Well, she didn’t really live here full time, it was just a holiday cottage, I think.  Although, after her husband died, she did start spending more time here.  I understood she had a big house and estate near Windsor, so that would tie in with your mother coming from Berkshire.  Did you inherit that as well?”

“What?!  No way.  Everything but this cottage was left to a cousin of my grandfather’s or something.  I didn't get any money, but then this place must be worth a pretty penny, I suppose.”

“Gosh, yes, I’ll say!  There’s a cottage very similar to this on the other side of the village which sold for over half a million in the summer.  I know house prices have dropped a bit since then, but these places are still in demand.  Are you planning to live here permanently?”

“Um, well, I’m not sure.  I think I’d like to—I’ve always lived in London, but it’s so beautiful here and I’m pretty sure I could work here.”

Jasper spoke up.  “Oh, what do you do?”

“I, uh, write, I suppose… and I’m an illustrator.”  Bella still felt weird describing what she did—it still seemed so surreal to her.

Edward looked at her, eyebrows raised, then back at Alice and Jasper.  “Bella is I M Swan, author of—”

Alice gasped.  “Oh my God!  You wrote ‘The Dark House’?”

Bella blushed, smiling shyly.  “Yep, that would be me.  Have you read it?”

“Absolutely!  It’s so good.  Are you writing another one… oh, please say you are!”

Bella grinned at Alice’s enthusiasm.  “Well, I’ve got a storyline sketched out and was hoping to get started on it after Christmas.  I’ve got to finish a book tour in the run up to Christmas, and then I need to work on the illustrations I’m doing for Angela Weber’s new children’s book, but then I need to get stuck in, as I’ve got a July deadline to meet.”

“Oh, this just keep getting better.  You illustrate the ‘Ashkran World’ books?  Good God, woman, you’re a literary and artistic genius!”

Bella laughed out loud.  “Hardly, but thanks for the compliment.”

“No, really.  Angela Weber’s books are one of the biggest sellers amongst the mothers and kids, especially now that Harry Potter’s done and dusted.”

Suddenly, Alice’s eyes went wide and she clapped her hands together.

“Bella, I’ve just had the most wonderful idea—if you’d be willing, of course.  Would you consider letting me display some of your artwork in the shop?  Maybe one or two of your Ashkran illustrations in the children’s section, and… oh, I don’t know, maybe something original in the café?  Oh, do say you’ll think about it!”

Bella laughed.  “I don’t have to think about it Alice, I would love to give you something.  You’ll have to give me time to sort out a studio here, and go through my work—and I’d need to talk to Angela about the ‘Ashkran’ drawings, but I’m betting she will love the idea.  Maybe I could even come in when the weather’s improved and sign a few copies of my book, if you think they’d sell.”

“Think they’d sell?!  Oh, Bella, people will be queuing round the corner to get a signed copy—I’ll have to get in extra staff,” she laughed, only half joking.

The conversation continued to flow easily between Alice, Jasper and Bella, although Edward spoke little, feeling a little out of place.  He concentrated on his food, and listening to Bella, whose laughter made him feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside—or maybe that was just the alcohol.  He also found himself unable to look away from her profile—the uninjured one—for more than a few seconds at a time.  Indeed, so distracted was he by his hostess, that he failed to notice when Jasper turned and directed a question specifically his way.

“Edward?”

“Sorry?”

“I was wondering what you do… what brings you to these parts.”

“Oh, uh…”  Edward frowned, and looked at Bella, whose gaze was fixed on his face.  “I, um—”

“Edward was heading to Bristol to see a friend, so I said I’d give him a lift, but the weather’s kind of put a kybosh on all his plans, as his friend probably won’t still be around by the time the snow clears, so he’s going to stay on here for a bit and help me out with the house.” 

Bella was aware that she was making stuff up as she went along, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.  She looked at Edward, who was staring back at her, eyes wide and mouth open. 

She gave a nervous chuckle.  “No need to look so surprised, Edward, it’s what we agreed this morning… you remember… when we talked about you helping me sort out whatever needs doing around the house… you know… like, uh, setting up the studio?”  She was grasping at straws now, but discovered that she really wanted to find a reason for him to stay.

After an interminable pause, when Jasper and Alice looked between the couple before them, who seemed to be trying to communicate telepathically, Edward finally spoke.

“Uh, no, I haven’t changed my mind, I was just… uh, not sure if you had.  But, uh, yeah, obviously… it’s what we agreed, so yeah, I’ll, uh, stay on… you know, as long as you need me to.”

Alice regarded Bella and Edward as they continued to lock eyes.  There was a lot more to their relationship than met the eye, and she would dearly love to know what was going on with them… and who gave Bella a black eye.  Not Edward, of that she was pretty sure, but there was a story here and she was burning with curiosity to find out the details.  She knew from the author notes on the cover of Bella’s book that she was in her late twenties, and clearly Edward was significantly younger, but that, of course, meant nothing.  She suspected there was no relationship as yet—at least, not a sexual one—but there was definitely something going on between them, and she decided that it was only a matter of time before sparks flew.

She smiled to herself.  Bella looked like a woman who could use a friend, and Alice knew in her bones that the two of them could be great friends.  As for Edward, she could almost feel the pall of sadness which surrounded him.  This was a boy who had known very hard times indeed, but maybe here, in this beautiful, tranquil place, he could find his nirvana, with Bella. 

She resolved to make it her new mission to help both of them.

 


* Clarifications:

Squatters – People who break into empty properties and take up illegal residence.