Home > The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins' Sweet Shop #3)(11)

The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins' Sweet Shop #3)(11)
Jenny Colgan

But with a class, he came alive. He was funny, patient, kind. His group leader, Faustine, who had thought of him as a drifting posh boy wandering through gap years for want of direction, instead found him committed, engaging and devoted to his charges, as he took on everything from teaching them how to use sterilising tablets, singing funny songs, attempting to give them a notion of world geography from an atlas published in 1957, to fearlessly killing a snake that crept into the toilet hole one day, a feat that, had Stephen told him about it, would have given his father much pleasure.

Everywhere he went in the village, he was accompanied by Jabo and his little brother Akibo, who were both absolutely devoted to him, so when Stephen planned the field trip to see the rarely flowering cactus one of the other aid workers had mentioned, they were of course right up the front, carrying the water bottles proudly, touching Stephen’s shirt from time to time to show the rest of the class that they were with him.

Civil war had supposedly ended there six years before; the region was supposed to be cleared, and safe from landmines.

People make mistakes.

Waking up in the military hospital to which he’d been evacuated was the single worst moment of Stephen’s life. The noise, then the deafening quiet; the evisceration; the sight of his own blood pumping away into the sand – so much of it: that only came back during his dreams, on the nights when Rosie held him so closely he could forget where he stopped and she began; could draw the strength he needed from her warm body to bring him back to life.

But waking up miles away, his leg a ragged mess, unable to move, knowing he had not saved the boys: that was with him always. He did not like to receive emails from his old employers. He wished Rosie was home.

Stephen picked up the phone. His therapist was a thin, whip-smart, very quiet older woman who let him get away with nothing. Moray had recommended her and he had been absolutely right to do so; Stephen would have turned frosty under too much empathy, or combative against too much intellect, but Diane had the right mix of sharpness and a calm kindness – so sharp, in fact, that he never once suspected that although she returned home every night to her immaculately tidy apartment, ate a healthy dinner with her incredibly clever and intellectual husband as they discussed the serious issues of the day, went often to the theatre and smart restaurants with their equally clever and intellectual friends, she spent all night dreaming that she was instead in the unforgiving arms of a taciturn man with a limp.

She was based in Harley Street in London, and they often had phone consultations.

Stephen told her everything that had happened, and how painful it was, particularly at school, where they were doing a project on Africa and starting a charity to add money to the fund he was putting together. Rosie also had a tin in the sweetshop. Their first object was to fund Célestine to get to the mission hospital to have her baby. After that, Faustine, Stephen’s ex-colleague from Médecins Sans Frontières, had suggested that rather than just give money to the family, which could provoke resentment, they should attempt to help improve the school, which at the moment was still the large, boiling shed Stephen had known so well. Stephen had agreed with this.

‘But it’s just … ever since … I mean, it was interesting to begin with, with the two babies growing, but now … now it’s all fallen apart and I can’t help thinking about it. And I keep replaying Africa in my head over and over, and it isn’t helping me and it sure as hell isn’t helping Rosie.’

He swallowed hard. There was a long pause. Finally Diane, in her cool tones, suggested something she believed could work extraordinarily well: facing up to your worst fears, if it could be done, seeing them and taking away their power, had had spectacular success with PTSD, phobias, all sorts of trauma.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘You could visit.’

Stephen had about a million reasons immediately as to why he couldn’t possibly: school term, the cost of getting out there, which would take away from the fund-raising, leaving Rosie.

‘Would you need to leave her?’ said Diane. ‘You could take her with you. A trip somewhere else, away from all her memories and routines.’

‘To see a pregnant woman,’ said Stephen.

‘The world is full of pregnant women,’ said Diane gently. ‘That’s something she’ll have to get used to on her own. And you can always have another baby. Might be a good idea to take the trip before it’s too late.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Stephen. ‘But thank you. As ever, it’s good to talk to you.’

Diane smiled ruefully to herself as she replaced the phone.

Chapter Four

‘So, we’re having black napkins for the men, and white for the girls, and mixed black and white almonds …’

Tina was blathering on. Rosie wasn’t listening. Instead she was wondering. She knew, she knew, everyone said, that she should probably be over it by now. She was otherwise well, if worried about the future, but oh, she was still so sad.

Every baby she saw, every advert, every television show seemed to be there to taunt her. Stephen had mentioned Célestine from time to time, and she couldn’t bear to hear about that either. She wasn’t sleeping well, absolutely anything made her cry and she still hadn’t told Stephen about the awful news from the check-up. She had to get a grip, she had to. Lilian was worried about her, which wasn’t good for Lilian; and she knew she was no fun any more, that it was rubbish for Stephen to get home every night to a tired, washed-out, miserable fiancée.

‘How about,’ he had said the previous weekend, ‘how about we get together and go through wedding plans? Mother wants to know.’

She had been so grateful to him for making an effort; it was so kind of him, and thoughtful, even if the very idea filled her with horror at the moment. She had gone with him, though, up to the big house.

‘So,’ Lady Lipton had sniffed. Tall and broad, she was dressed, as usual, in numerous layers of clothes of obvious quality but dubious age. ‘I think we’ll use the same seating plan from my wedding. So we’ll keep all the Yorkshire families apart from the Lancashire ones, obviously, then we’ll put one bishop per table; they get terribly dull unless you space them out.’

Rosie had smiled weakly, doing her best. This wasn’t like her at all, but sometimes with Lady Lipton it was easier just to kind of lean back and let her roll all over you.

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