The Family Next Door Page 1

Author: Sally Hepworth

Genres: Fiction , Mystery



“Fresh air!” Essie’s mother had said to her that morning. “Get that baby out in the fresh air! It will do you both the world of good!”

Now Essie stood under the dubious cover of a palm tree, while the rain slapped against the tin slide of the nearby playground. Just a few minutes ago the weather had been fine. A perfect spring day. She’d been powering along the Sandringham beach path when the sky began to darken—at the halfway point of her walk, of course, leaving her no option to turn back and bolt for home.

What was so great about fresh air anyway? Given the choice, she’d have opted for the less fresh, temperature-controlled air of the indoors any day. She wanted to be indoors now, preferably at Cuppa Cottage, drinking a cup of English Breakfast out of a vintage teacup. Better yet, she wanted to be in bed, catching up on the billion hours of sleep she’d lost in the past eight weeks. But no. She needed fresh air.

Mia appeared to be deeply asleep under her rain cover (Essie doubted there was anything “fresh” about the plastic fumes she was inhaling), but the moment the pram stopped moving Essie knew Mia’s eyes would spring open and the crying would start. As such, since Mia’s birth, Essie had become an expert in keeping the pram moving, wheeling it rhythmically from room to room as she moved about the house, not allowing it to sit idle for more than a second or two. When Essie sat—which was rare—she could keep the darn thing moving with only three toes. According to Ben, she even rocked in her sleep.

“And when, exactly, have you seen me sleep lately?” she’d demanded, her voice wavering slightly. “No, really. Tell me.”

Suddenly Ben had had something urgent to do in the garage.

Last week, after jostling the pram for so long Essie was sure she’d developed carpal tunnel, she pushed it down to the back of the garden and left it there. Just for a little while. It was a fine day, she reasoned, and she just needed some time to herself and perhaps a cup of tea. But she was barely back inside when her neighbor—who had a baby Mia’s age who never seemed to do anything but sleep and smile—appeared at the door saying she’d heard Mia crying and was everything all right.

“Fine,” Essie had said. “Everything is fine.”

The rain continued to beat down and Essie kept the pram crunching back and forth on the damp, sandy path. The sea had deepened to a dark blue and the air was sharp and salty. On the road above, the cars swished by on the damp bitumen. Maybe she should make a run for it—head to Cuppa Cottage and order that cup of English Breakfast? Then again, with her giant three-wheeler pram she’d almost certainly catch the eye of another pram-wheeling mother and fall into the predictable back and forth that she loathed—boy or girl? how old? sleeping well? Essie didn’t think she could stand it. Of course, other mothers talked about how hard it all was—the sleep deprivation, the breastfeeding, the washing!—but they always did it with a cheerful laugh, an insistence that “it was all worth it.” That was the problem. Essie wasn’t sure it was.