An Extract from The Empty Nesters

Chapter One

The arrangements for the last day of term were as complex as aircraft holding patterns over Heathrow at the height of summer. Five sets of parents would take a table at the St Crispian’s leavers’ ball and five children – no, not children any more, thought Clover – five teenagers would be on another table with their friends, as far as possible from their parents at the other end of the marquee.

Getting involved in the ball took Clover’s mind off the yawning gap that was about to open up in her life. Today, and from now on, she would be a spectator in her daughter’s life. She was no longer the cornerstone, the anchor . . . the pivot around which Holly’s existence revolved. But, on the other hand, there would always be milk in the fridge when she wanted a cup of tea. She would be able to find a pen when she wanted to write a note. And she and George might finally get to drive from the east coast of America to the west.

Clover dropped Holly, Lola and Jamie off at school for the last time, at eight o’clock in the morning on the last day, marking all the ‘lasts’ with a sense of foreboding. Clover, Laura and Lola’s mother Alice had shared the school run for years. They had ferried Ben and Holly Jones, Jamie

Dangerfield and Lola Fanshawe to and from school, Cubs, Brownies, rehearsals, football, riding lessons and – increasingly – exams, parties and sleepovers. Alice and Laura were Clover’s closest friends, and their children were also part of the same gang. It worked beautifully. They holidayed together. Exchanged childcare. It was like having a huge extended family.

Clover and Laura were the original core. Laura and Tim lived in an immaculate eighteenth-century yellow brick farmhouse on the slope of an idyllic valley. Their view consisted of fields, a half-timbered black and white medieval cottage, two barns, a herd of rare-breed cattle and a wood. Inside, their house was tastefully painted in shades of blue, terracotta and off-white with a Shaker kitchen and smart cream sofas.

Two miles away, in the raggle-taggle village of Pilgrim’s Worthy, Clover and George lived at Fox Hollow, an extended Victorian cottage with a front door painted the grey-green of lichen. It shared a flint garden wall with St Mary’s church, and was shaded by ecclesiastical yew trees and the Norman church’s stone tower. The interior of Fox Hollow was a jumble of colour and pattern, with a scrubbed pine kitchen table, a claw-footed bath beneath a sunny window and apologetically squashy sofas, one of which was usually occupied by Diesel, a grey lurcher from a rescue kennels. The Joneses’ cats, Bonnie and Clyde – formerly feral strays but now plump, smug and sleepy – occupied the high ground: perching on a Welsh dresser stacked with blue-and-white china, a distressed grey wooden settle or the top of a battered oak chest with dozens of small, carefully labelled drawers. Clover was a magpie, picking up anything – and anybody – that could be rescued.

Then, five years later, Alice had bought a dilapidated sixties bungalow at the other end of Pilgrim’s Worthy. It had looked like a garage dropped at random on the edge of the village, but she had extended it into a much-photographed example of contemporary living with huge windows looking out on the hop gardens and pastures beyond.

Geography had drawn the three very different women together, as Pilgrim’s Worthy was almost out of the St Crispian’s catchment area. Although, as Laura often pointed out, Alice didn’t figure in the school runs quite as often as the other two. Lola spent much of the time living with the Joneses, while Alice, who was a single mother, worked tirelessly and travelled the world setting up her mail-order clothing company, Shirts & Things. She needed help. So Alice and Lola joined Diesel, Bonnie and Clyde – and, of course, George, Ben and Holly – under Clover’s wing.

As tradition dictated, the teenagers kicked off the elaborate set of Last Day of School rites with the exchange of boys’ and girls’ uniforms. They photographed each other, the boys in skirts, the girls striking poses in askew ties and blazers.

Then they shoehorned themselves into their leavers’ uniforms, in a style unchanged since the eighteenth century. St Crispian’s was one of the oldest grammar schools in the country and behaved like a private school. It had traditions, and these were encapsulated in thousands of tiny buttons, done up by a hundred and ten excited pairs of hands. Fifty-two pairs of newly hairy male legs tackled the intricacies of sock suspenders for the first – and probably only – time in their lives. More photographs were taken as groups formed and reformed in the quadrangle: the boys, then the girls, the boys and the girls, the rugby team, the netball team, the drama group, the best friends, the jazz club, the Crew – Holly, Lola, Sandeep, Adam, Lucy and Jamie, plus about eight others, who’d been together, with a few exceptions, since they joined the school in Nursery.

They all shuffled in to the school hall for prize-giving. Laura bustled around, petite and trim in a neat turquoise jacket, buzzing with enthusiasm. ‘Such a lovely brooch,’ Clover heard her say to one woman. ‘I love your hair,’ to another, and ‘Haven’t you lost weight?’ to a third. When Laura was nervous she went on a charm offensive but, occasionally, she dropped her voice and hissed to Clover: ‘Where’s Tim? I’ll kill him if he’s late. His only son’s last-ever school assembly . . . ’

The Empty Nesters is available from all good bookshops from September 1st 2011.