All my life I’d only wanted one thing. To live by the sea in a quaint old cottage. One with a huge hearth that would warm the entire house up during the cold winters and a conservatory where I would be able to watch lightening hitting the stormy waves. There would be a pretty little garden, filled with rose bushes and foxglove plants, and it would have a perfectly proportioned patio where I could entertain my friends with glasses of cold, sparkling wine during balmy summer nights.
As a kid, I’d draw pictures of my dream cottage; resplendent with cheerfully coloured curtains in the windows. There would be smoke pouring from the chimney, and the front door was always painted red. I would draw myself, a smiling stick figure wearing a triangle dress, perched on a swing dangling from a sturdy branch of an oak tree. Or sometimes, proudly holding a basket full of fruit collected from the myriad of fruit trees dotted around the garden.
I sighed as I scrolled aimlessly through my Social Media feed. All of my friends and acquaintances seemed to be living an idyllic life. Living on the edges of the country and thriving for it. My heart sank as I saw yet another friend who had finally moved out of the city, and were about to move to their new home. A beautiful, quaint cottage with a conservatory, a bright red door and a small copse of trees in the garden overlooking the rugged coastline.
It’s not that I wasn’t content in my life; I was. I am. I lived in a beautiful house with an absurd amount of bedrooms and bathrooms. But it was in the middle of the city; surrounded by concrete and traffic. There was no air, not really; stepping outside would often result in stepping into a cloud of diesel fumes as a bus would chug past. My lungs wanted the fresh, salty air of the coast. My soul did too. And it’s not as though I begrudged my friends for buying my house. Not that much, anyway.
My phone pinged with a new notification. My heart sank as soon as I saw Louis’ name. Why did he insist on tagging me in every single update about the cottage? Every picture was like a punch to my stomach. I bit my lip as I scrolled through the latest album, trying not to wince as I saw that he’d placed the antique Chesterfield armchair I’d bought as an engagement gift for him and Harry in the exact place I would have put it if it had been mine. He’d even placed the exact black and green tartan cushion I’d always envisioned on the seat pad.
The screen became blurry, and for a second, I wondered if it was because I’d somehow transferred grease from my thumb onto it. Until I realised my eyes were tearing up. Angry with myself, I put the phone on the table and drifted into my pristine, white kitchen. I grabbed a paper towel and delicately dabbed the corner of my eyes. When I’d finished, I crumpled the tissue and tossed it into the garbage can. It landed with a hollow ping.
Everything in this house was hollow. It was empty. I was empty. On the outside, it looked as though I had everything. A well-paid job, a stunning house, my health. To the casual observer, I wanted for nothing. If anyone ever paid attention, the façade would crack and crumble, much like a sandcastle built with dry sand.
It had been two weeks since Harry and Louis had moved into the cottage. They’d invited me to their housewarming, asking me to supply a ‘bottle of something fizzy’ with me to help them celebrate. I was almost tempted to choose a bottle of unbranded cola, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that petty. It was a close-run thing though. As I drove down the winding country lane that led to the village the cottage was near, the cleansing, briny sea air began to fill my senses. I wound the windows down, letting the wind whip my hair back and inhaled a lungful of the crisp air.
As I pulled up to the cottage, my heart rose into my throat. Well, not literally, but it felt as though it lodged there. I could almost feel it beating as I tried to swallow it down. There was a gravel drive leading through the gates, which ended a few yards away from the bright read front door. The windows were mullioned and had little flower boxes on the ledges; riots of colour spilled from each of them. The lawn on either side of the drive was a bright, emerald green and trees provided shade under their lush, verdant foliage. A swing danced lightly in the slight breeze.
I tore my eyes away from the sight as the door creaked open, and Harry appeared on the step. He was wearing faded denim shorts and a wrinkled linen shirt, with a pair of battered old sandals on his sock clad feet. There was something almost apologetic about how he smiled warmly, his eyes crinkling as he waved me over to him. For a moment, I hesitated; wondering whether I should have come at all. It’s not that I wasn’t pleased for them, finally having found a home after so many years drifting from lodgings to lodgings; I was. But why did it have to be this home? The one I’d longed for my entire life.
Louis had been my shadow for as long as I could remember. As children, we’d been friends all through school, and both of us received the best grades in the county; the local news had been called to do a report on the two exceptional students from the same school. When we both won a scholarship to the same university, we’d laughed about it, patting each other on the backs and swearing we’d be a force to reckon with. The news turned up again, wondering who would be the first of us to out do the other. I’d laughed and said we weren’t like that; we would support each other forever and never become competitive. Friendship was more important.
Things began to change in university. Louis was studying for a degree in law, while I was concentrating on economics. Louis joined the debate club and begged me to come along for moral support. As it turned out, I was quite good at debating, and soon found myself debating opposite my friend. In my second year, I was nominated as a candidate to be a representative of the Student Union. Louis was nominated in his third year. When in the third year, I was nominated as president, he ran for the captaincy of the debate club. We both graduated with First Class Honours. I was over the moon for him, and cheered loudly when his name was called. When my name was called, he clapped politely and looked bored.
Soon after graduation, I met the love of my life. A week later, Louis fell in love with Harry. At my engagement party, he proposed to Harry. On my wedding day, Louis informed everyone that he and Harry were signing up to adopt. At my husband’s funeral, he announced that they’d set the date for their wedding.
I’ve never thought he did those things on purpose, to be centre of attention. He just had no sense of propriety. He never had. After my husband’s death, he and Harry had moved in with me and helped me arrange the funeral as well as manage his estate. They’d been worried about me, not wanting me to rattle around my huge house on my own. Louis had barely left my side, and had practically barked at anyone who might have been about to say anything even remotely insensitive. I could understand why he’d announced his wedding at the wake – most of our mutual friends from school and university had gathered together for the first time in almost a year. It had turned out, they’d been at their venue, booking it, when my husband was hit by a car. It was the first chance that he’d had to share his happy news. And I was happy for him.
But the cottage was too much.
I’d been on the phone to the estate agents when the police officers knocked on the front door. Trying to arrange a down payment on my dream cottage, by the sea. The very cottage I was now standing in the garden of. That Louis had been relentlessly tagging me in photos of. Harry’s shoulders had slumped as he saw my hesitation, recognising my intention to flee. Louis appeared at his shoulder, his smile wide and slightly smug.
“Mica!” he called, his voice already slightly slurred. “Welcome to my home!” I didn’t miss the inflection on ‘my’. Nor did I miss Harry’s slight flinch as he said it. “Come on in, Meesh. I can’t wait to give you the grand tour.”
With slow, measured steps, I walked up to my friends. The bottle of sparkling wine clutched tightly to my stomach. I forced a smile onto my lips, feeling my skin pull taught over my cheekbones. Harry stepped forward and gave me a quick hug and whispered that he was glad I’d come. Louis smirked at me as he waited excitedly in the hallway.
“It’s perfect, Meesh,” he gushed as I stepped carefully over the threshold of the home that should have been mine. “Just wait till you see the patio.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay the night?” Harry asked me as I pulled on my jacket. The party had ended an hour ago, and I just wanted to slip into my pyjama’s and snuggle up in bed. I shook my head and offered him a small, sad smile.
“No, thank you,” I answered quietly. “I really should be heading back. I have an appointment in the morning.” My hand fluttered almost unconsciously to my stomach. “Besides, I don’t think Louis is very happy with me, right now.”
“You can say that again,” Harry snorted as he gave me another quick hug.
I’d found out I was pregnant almost a month after the funeral. My period hadn’t come, but I’d just put it down to the stress of my husband’s sudden death. But when the next one didn’t arrive, I made an appointment at the doctors. I’d almost fainted when he told me that I was carrying twins. That was seven months ago.
Louis and Harry had already moved out of my home, leaving me to grieve in my own space. I hadn’t announced the news on social media, unable to face the outpouring of fake sympathy and offers of vague help from my friends. Only the people I worked with knew – and Harry – my twin brother. So, when I showed up at Louis’ house-warming party, the size of a house myself and walking with a waddle to rival penguins... well, it was the first inkling that most people had that I was pregnant.
And that the twins were due to be born tomorrow by caesarean-section.
Finally, I’d out done Louis. And he was the one left green with envy.