Two years after being orphaned in a horrific car crash, twelve year old Sebby remains silent and zombie-like. His aunt and guardian Matilda hopes that a new home in the tranquillity of the Cornish countryside will help restore his health.
Sebby is quickly befriended by the precocious Winny, only child of a local farmer, Greg DeSilva. Not exactly a knight in shining armour, but Greg looks good on horseback; and even better in jodhpurs. Too bad he's already claimed by pretty, confident Mary-Jo.
As Sebby emerges from a self-imposed prison, Matilda also finds her voice; aware that she too has been drifting through life, content with "good enough" when she could be magnificent. From being afraid to say "Boo" to a goose, Matilda finally finds the strength to go after exactly what she wants on her terms.
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‘I can't believe it ‘Tilly. He’s a different kid.’
The two women perched on the wooden fence looking into the orchard. The valley was half in shade, and both wore thick cable jumpers knitted in pure unbleached cotton over shorts against the fresh spring air.
Matilda hugged her friend; amused to see the worldly Bib jolted from her usual savour faire.
They watched as Sebby urged Peddy into a canter, and then with only the briefest hesitation on the pony’s part, pop over a couple of fallen logs.
‘I know. Isn’t it amazing?’
Greg and Mary-Jo had never experienced the former zombie like Sebby, and as for Jude … I still haven't heard from him, maybe he's trying to work up the courage to apologise, and be friends again – or maybe he's scheming to get Sebby back somehow … she dismissed the image of Jude consulting with a shady solicitor, determined to cross bridges when – or if – they materialised. I won't worry about that now, she told herself firmly.
Instead, she turned to Bib, and hugged her friend, thrilled to have someone to celebrate with. ‘How long do we have you for? Please say you’ll stay for Sebby’s birthday at least!’ she urged.
‘Well if it's okay with you guys, I’d like to stay for a couple of weeks. I fancy going back to basics – just roaming the countryside with my camera and snapping away,’ Bib smiled soporifically. 'It'll make a change from airbrushing bingo wings and double chins.'
Bib had carved a niche specialising in glamorous studio photographs of middle-aged women. Husbands searching for an original gift for their wives' landmark birthdays and anniversaries snapped up Bib's "Queen for a Day" make over and photograph packages. Matilda hugged her again, thinking she might be unlucky in love, but she was blessed in having friends like Bib and Mary-Jo. After a heartbeat or two, she added Greg's name to the list.
Friends, that's all we are, Matilda told herself.
The next few days were taken up being tourists, once Sebby had been prised from Peddy. After a noisy, leisurely, cooked breakfast, all three of them went day-tripping; driving to the coast, exploring little rocky coves and wandering the cliffs. In the nearby market town, Matilda was surprised to find herself something of a celebrity. Locals knew who she was – that young maid from London who’d bought The Trout Beck Cottage. Paid in cash, her did. Grew tired of her fancy man, kicked him out, her did. On the look out for a new man. The women nodded grimly, the men chuckled as they said “Londoners! Thas's of ‘em!”
So Bib, whose unthreatening features and easy manners invited confidences reported. She laughed at Matilda’s look of horror. ‘You’m in the country now, my luvver. They’re worse gossips than townies. Sneeze in the morning, you’ve got pneumonia in the afternoon!'
They sat in the pedestrianised market square now, enjoying their pasties, debating whether to visit Truro or Plymouth tomorrow for their Saturday fix of clothes shopping. Sebby devoured his pasty then looked longingly back to the bakery.
‘Oh for goodness sakes, Sebby – here get another one if you’re still hungry.’
He grinned cheekily and jumped up from his bench seat.
‘Thanks, Aunt Bib – what-a-bout you and Mum?’ Sebby asked, snatching up the tenner, poised to dart across the road to the bakery.
‘God no! – I’m getting fat as a pig!’ Matilda said, patting her stomach. Sebby had already gone, Bib eyed her.
‘What?’ Matilda squirmed under her friend's scrutiny.
‘You! You’re not fat. I’m podgy. That,’ she nodded discretely towards a woman waddling past. ‘Is fat. You’ve fleshed out a bit, but it suits you.' Touching Matilda's cheek lightly, Bib smiled. 'That anxious frown has gone. You've got your sparkle back!'
Matilda dropped the subject. Friends tell you what they thought you wanted to hear. She watched Sebby returning, pasty in one hand, a cake box balanced in the other. School kids recently disgorged from a bus jostled him.
‘Watch it,’ his clear strident voice called.
Matilda switched to amber alert, half rising to fly to his side. Bib pulled her back. ‘He won’t thank you,’ she said, keeping a firm hold on Matilda's arm.
Half a dozen youths surrounded Sebby, and one jeered: ‘Watch what? Brush head!’
Matilda shook Bib off, aware that another youth who'd been quietly reading at a nearby table was getting to his feet, tugging the hood of his American grey tracksuit top up over long dark hair.
‘What did you call me?’ Sebby balanced his half eaten pasty on top of the cake box, and squared up to the tallest youth, who had an outbreak of acne over his cheeks and forehead.
Matilda started forwards again, Bib hissed at her to sit down and tugged her back with surprising force.
‘Brush head,’ the youth flicked at Sebby’s hair contemptuously.
‘At least I ain’t got pizza for skin. Play join the dots at night do you?’
With that Sebby barged past the taller kid, banging into the dark haired youth who had now joined the gang. Matilda feared the worst, and increased her efforts to wrestle Bib's hand off.
The ring leader recovered from the insult. ‘Winny! Didn’t see you there! Grab that little snot – I’m gonna teach him a lesson.’ Far from being intimated, Sebby gave the newcomer an appraising glance, as though finding an instant unspoken rapport. The would be bullies felt it too.
‘Back off, Winny, no need for you to get involved.’ The acne faced one said nervously, as his gang melted away.
‘I am involved. That’s my neighbour. He’s looking after Peddy. So start shit with him, you start shit with me.’ The youngster stood with the unshakeable confidence of a champion fighter.
Bib and Matilda exchanged astonished looks. Matilda shook her head. ‘Never seen him before!’ she mouthed.
The two new friends sauntered back to the picnic area; Winny agreeing with Sebby's last comment. ‘Yeah – they’re just like sheep – can’t bear anyone being different.’ Calling back contemptuously ‘Hey, Dower – like sheep aren’t you?’ Spotty pretended not to hear, and slouched away hurriedly.
‘Baaaa,’ Winny called after him, sitting back down behind a pile of books. Sebby settled in next to his new best friend. ‘Pasty?’
‘No thanks. I don’t eat meat. You’re Sebby aren’t you? Dad told me you liked to pick fights.’
With his mouth full of pasty, Sebby shook his head. Then grinned as Winny continued; ‘He told me you’ve been terrorising Peddy too. He reckons every time he calls round she’s got this look in her eye like “save me!”’
Sebby giggled. ‘It’s good for her! She’s a lean mean jumping machine now.’ Their heads lowered as they began discussing Peddy’s new regime in earnest; the familiar splutter of an engine caught Matilda’s attention. A pick-up pulled up and Mary-Jo jumped down from the driver’s seat.
‘Tilly – Babs!’
‘Bib,’ Bib muttered.
‘Can’t stop – I’m in a tearing hurry – Oh there you are!’ Mary-Jo bore down on Winny.
Shuffling books into a hold-all, ignoring Mary-Jo’s pleas to hurry, Winny whispered something to Sebby that caused a wicked grin to spread over his face.
‘Oh goodie! You’ve met Sebby. Such a nice little boy.’
Both Winny and Sebby winced. Mary-Jo rushed back to the pick-up, waving at Matilda with one hand, miming a phone call with the other. Winny trailed behind.
‘Laters,’ Sebby confirmed, hopping back to Matilda. ‘Got you and Aunt Bib a "bee-sting" cake – it's alright – they’re made with honey and honey’s good for you,’ he explained, as though his encounter with the local thugs and Winny hadn’t happened.
‘Who – what – was that Mary-Jo’s son?’ Matilda spluttered.
‘Winny? God no!’ Sebby giggled, and gave her a look that was almost pitying. ‘A nice little boy don’t you think?’ His grin spread
Matilda didn’t feel so sure. The kid had all the self assurance of Greg, but seemed only half tame. A quick glance at Bib's smirking face told Matilda she'd get no help from that quarter. She could almost hear Bib saying 'You can't choose his friends for him.'
Forcing a smile, Matilda bit down on the soft creamy sponge cake which melted like molasses on her tongue. Bib had already devoured hers, and Sebby sprung up to dispose of the paper bags and boxes in the litter bin. Matilda had just succeeded in banishing unsuitable friends from her mind when Bib leaned over to whisper, 'Wait till he starts bringing home girls. That's when the real fun starts!'
Early next morning Matilda's fears were confirmed. She’d grown use to the odd horse clattering into the court yard before their hooves were muffled as they accessed the grassy cart track running behind the cottage. But today, the clatter went on forever. Matilda ran to look out of the day room's window and saw a herd of ponies milling around. White shaggy ponies, skewbald, sleek bays and strawberry roans ranging from waist height to almost above her head. Unable to keep them still, their young riders walked them round in a ragged circle. The exception she recognised as the chestnut hunter Chanson. His rider's legs were clad in emerald green jodhpurs and were way too slim to be Greg's. Matilda guessed that the velvet riding hat hid long dark hair, and her lips tightened: Winny!
She followed Chanson's gaze to the orchard, flinching when the hunter snickered loudly to his old stable mate. It seemed Winny shared Chanson's impatience: ‘Come on, Sebby. We’re not hanging about much longer.’
Sebby held an overexcited Peddy in one hand, and tried to unlatch the orchard gate with the other.
‘Hold on. Hold your horses!’ Sebby seemed even more excited than Peddy. 'Hang on!’ He vaulted onto the pony's back, and twisted her head around to urge her into an unwilling trot for about twenty yards, his feet still seeking the stirrups. Then Sebby allowed her to swing round and like a cork exploding from a bottle, Peddy flew across the orchard. Matilda watched the pony arch her neck and fold her fore legs under her tummy to clear the gate cleanly and land with a whump onto Matilda’s lawn.
‘Whoops – sorry, mum!’ Sebby sang as he trotted by, skittering through ponies that plunged and pulled before stampeding after Peddy, their riders urging them on or holding them back according to their pecking order.
Chanson danced on the spot, fretting to be away with them. Winny held him long enough to say ‘Don’t worry, Mrs Pendance, we’re only going to the Costa Fine Plantation, back soon!’
Mouthing wordlessly, Matilda flew out of the front door and rushed around the back of the cottage to the grassy track. She was just in time to see a wall of hindquarters dip as they prepared to canter headlong into the woods, leaving a horrible silence behind.
‘At least he’s wearing a hard hat,’ Bib soothed for the tenth time. Matilda had worn a passage through the courtyard to scan the grassy track beyond, then back to the kitchen where Bib tried in vain to reason. Her ears strained for the soft clomping that would signal the kids’ return – or the frantic siren of an ambulance.
‘Tilly, he rode out of here like a centaur. Some of those kids seemed even younger. Don’t you think you’re over re-acting?’
Matilda bit her tongue. She needed to get a grip. She was furious with Winny, Greg, and Sebby. And if Bib told her one more time not to worry, she’d thump her!
Finally she was rewarded by the sound of hooves clopping into the courtyard. Sebby’s eyes shone from a face speckled with mud.
‘Mum! We’re home – everyone else has gone onto the downs but Winny thought you seemed worried so we only did the Costa Fine – you should have seen Peddy jumping!’ Dried sweat and mud covered the little mare’s flanks, and she looked at Matilda with a baleful expression.
‘Don't worry, it’s not as bad as it looks. We walked the last mile to give them a chance to cool down,’ Sebby explained, misinterpreting Matilda's glare. ‘I said Winny can stay for breakfast – that okay?’
As he spoke, Peddy made determined tracks for the orchard and her stable. Chanson mooched behind, his rider lifting a hand in acknowledgement.
Behind her, Bib laughed, and Matilda’s exasperation built.
The kids returned within ten minutes, with Sebby immediately raiding the fridge. ‘Eggs, Winny – do you eat eggs?’ he enquired with all the solicitousness of a seasoned host. ‘Or would you prefer cereal?’
‘Both please,’ Winny replied, picking up the newspaper Bib had been devouring. Both Bib and Matilda stared. A little half smile flickered on Winny’s face.
Matilda didn’t care if this was Greg’s son, it was bloody rude.
‘Sebby, we haven’t got time to cook. If you remember we’re going shopping. Bib wants to see Truro Cathedral too.’
Winny’s head shot up. ‘Truro? Great! Haven’t been there for months. Can I use your shower? Sebby – can I borrow a tee-shirt and a pair of jeans?’
'‘Sure. Help yourself. Upstairs on the left,’ Sebby said, whisking eggs and milk.
‘Oh mum - we had the most fantastic ride and Peddy wanted to be in front all the way! And there’s all these fallen logs and that to jump! It was just great!’
‘Sebby! Winny can’t come with us – what about Chanson for one thing – and Greg and Mary-Jo might have plans – and …’
‘Chanson will be fine with Peddy. And me and Winny can go off and let you and Bib shop in peace,’ Sebby replied. ‘Greg won’t mind. He knows Winny’s with us.’
Matilda had a whole lot more to say on the subject of the wilful Winny, but manners held her back. She contented herself with: ‘You and I, Sebby are going to have a little chat later about uninvited guests.’
Was it her imagination, or did his eyes flicker towards Bib? Who laughed, and said, ‘Sebby’s right. Can’t be much fun trailing round after us two old biddies.’
‘Damn straight!’ Seb smiled to show he was joking, then a movement on the stairs caught his attention. ‘Wow, Winny! You look great!’
Matilda, having taken over scrambling the eggs, followed his gaze. Then grabbed at the worktop while she did a double take. Winny did indeed look great. Long dark hair clipped back to reveal perfect bone structure, emphasising doe eyes framed with delicate eyebrows, which looked plucked.
‘Thanks, Seb,’ Winny bent gracefully to roll Sebby's borrowed and too short jeans up to mid-calf. A hair free mid-calf. ‘Mrs Pendance, can I borrow a pair of your pumps? I’m not wearing Seb’s smelly trainers.’
Matilda nodded wordlessly.
'Such a nice little boy,' Sebby teased, eyes dancing with mischief, but Winny either didn't hear, or ignored him.
‘Thanks. I think we’re about the same size.’ This time the grin revealed two seriously bewitching dimples, and Matilda’s heart was stolen away.
While Sebby showered and changed, Winny explained the origin of her name.
'Mum called me after some mad old aunt, but she still didn’t inherit anything. And I’m stuck with either Fred or Winny,’ she said bluntly. Then astonished them yet again when Bib mentioned Winifred Owen.
‘Don’t. We’ve got the war poets for GCSE English. As if teenagers aren’t depressed enough.’ She pushed her empty plate away with a happy sigh, and swigged back half a glass of orange juice.
‘You’re doing exams? But you can’t be more than fourteen.’
‘She's almost fifteen. And she’s precocious,’ Sebby announced from the stairs. ‘You lot ready?’ He was at the door opening it as he spoke, and Winny swept out in front of him.
‘No wonder they bonded so quickly!’ Bib joked. Snatching up her keys, with a quick double check to make sure the cooker was off and all was in order, Matilda followed.