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Malcolm leans over to the other side of the bed and kisses Hillary on the cheek.
'Happy birthday, pumpkin,' he says as he hands her a large parcel wrapped in re-used paper. Hillary assesses it and grins. It's a large box - easily big enough for the foot spa she's been hinting at for months.
When she unwraps the present it takes her a few seconds to process what she sees. Eventually she squeaks, 'A wormery. Gosh!'
'Now I've taken over that other allotment as well we're going to need more compost. The wormery should help no end.'
Not trusting her voice not to wobble, she just smiles.
Malcolm reaches under the bed and pulls out another present. 'This is from Sophie.'
'She could have given me it tonight.'
'We thought you might appreciate having them together.'
When she unwraps the present she stares at it for a moment. It's a book. Not a novel, or even a cookbook, but a book about composting with worms.
'It's got very good write-ups,' Malcolm says, taking the book and flicking through it. 'Gosh, I can't wait to get started properly on the new plot. I was thinking I might move the hens there when it's sorted a bit. I managed to clear some of it last night when you were at yoga, but it's still full of rubbish - old shoes, wellies...'
'Isn't it a waste of effort if the Vicar's going to sell off the land for houses?'
'We won't let that happen!'
Hillary sighs and eases herself out of bed. 'We'd better get up.'
'True. A busy day ahead.'
'I'm tired before we even start. Why did I plan a party? It's such hard work and Sophie's not even going to be around to help us.'
Malcolm pats her hand. 'It's important she gets her dissertation finished. Anyway, there can't be that much to do, surely. It won't take you five minutes to pick the veg and I've made the falafels and put some beans on to soak. I'll finish off when I get back.'
'Back from where?'
He peers at her over the top of his glasses. 'The emergency allotment committee - I did say.'
''I put it on the calendar, pumpkin.'
'But what about all the party preparations?'
'I can't miss the meeting.'
He ruffles her hair. 'We should be done and dusted by mid-afternoon.'
Hillary reads over her party food list. She's been busy for weeks freezing puddings, but apart from Malcolm's uninspiring efforts, there's still all the savoury dishes to make. She assesses the pile of vegetables she's just picked - it doesn't much look like party food - much of it is covered in dirt, the tomatoes are barely ripe and the courgettes are nearly the size of marrows.
Before she embarks on the preparation, she makes herself a piece of toast, then in desperation, another. She feels annoyed with Malcolm and Sophie for buying her such awful presents and for abandoning her to do all the cooking. The food will have to be perfect - their friends are all such foodies - obsessed with tending their organic allotments and with their visits to the farmers' markets to buy artisan bread, cheese and rip-off olive oils. Sometimes they make her want to stuff her face with white sliced bread and Dairylea cheese triangles.
The doorbell rings as she is attacking the first courgette. It's her neighbour, Barry, holding a box of strawberries. 'Malcolm said you'd be glad of these.'
She peers at the tiny berries. 'Lovely. But can you spare them?'
'We're inundated and Malcolm said you'd want some to make pavlovas for the party.'
When Barry eventually leaves, she tips the strawberries into the colander. They just look as pathetic as the ones in their allotment. It's not been a good year for strawberries - too wet, or too dry, she can't remember which. With little enthusiasm she hulls the berries, puts them into a glass bowl and sprinkles them with sugar. That will have to do. She has no intention of making meringues. If Malcolm's so desperate for pavlovas, then he should be here, not wasting his time on some hopeless mission. People need homes and there's no real arguing with that, though no doubt he'll give it a good try.
She finishes chopping the courgettes and starts to peel a pile of dirt encrusted potatoes. It's another bad batch - tiny and full of slug holes. When she reaches the fourth one and it's speckled with brown spots, she swears and chucks them all into the compost bin.
Picking up her purse and car keys she marches out of the house.
Hillary looked round Marks and Spencer's food hall before, but she's never bought anything. She wanders round the aisles and without bothering to check that the eggs are free-range or the vegetable organic, selects a few items. When she sees a normal-looking woman casually picking up three large containers of potato salad, she does the same. Emboldened, she loads the trolley with ripe tomatoes, Greek salad, frittatas, tomato and mozzarella tarts, pasta salads and ready-washed lettuce.
When she reaches the last aisle, she examines her haul. It all looks so appetising. She'll have to distress it, of course, so no one guesses, but that shouldn't be difficult. It would be easy to get used to all this, she thinks - easy to adapt to a life that didn't involve constant cooking, scraping mud off potatoes or rushing out into the rain to shut up the hen coop.
She takes out her mobile and texts Malcolm: 'How is the meeting going?' A few seconds later he replies: 'Not good. Vicar's playing the starter home card.'
She put the phone back in her bag and smiles. Giggling, she adds four large meringue nests to her trolley and almost skips to the check-out.
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