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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Family Next Door

A Novel

Sally Hepworth

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


ESSIE

“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.

“It doesn’t come right away for all mothers,” her mum had told her. “You’re exhausted. Just give it time.”

Essie had given it eight weeks. And still, whenever Essie looked down at Mia’s red, irritated little face, all she felt was … flat.

Every evening Ben rushed home from work, desperate to see Mia. If she was asleep (which was rare), he was devastated.

“Can’t we wake her up?” he’d plead.

“No one wakes a sleeping baby,” she’d snap, when what she really wanted to say was: “Why would you want to?”

Maybe it was just the exhaustion. In an hour her mum would come over and assume pram-jostling duties and the world would make sense again. Her mum came by regularly, snatching up the baby and putting her over her shoulder, soothing her with a repetitive thump to the bottom that Essie could never seem to imitate. Her mum never seemed bothered by Mia’s crying or fussiness—she held her as easily and naturally as if she was one of her own limbs. Usually she ordered Essie to go take a nap and Essie gratefully obliged. Problem was, the nap would always end, her mum would go home and she’d have to look after her baby once more.

Essie inhaled, dragging all that fresh air into her lungs. She was having that feeling again. A tingling—like angry pinpricks in her abdomen and chest—that Essie had come to understand was anxiety or guilt, or perhaps some kind of cocktail of the two.

“Oh, that,” Ange from across the road said when Essie described it to her. “Yes. Get used to it. It’s called “motherhood.”

That had been a blow. Essie had assumed the anxiety was one of those fleeting parts of early motherhood—like engorged breasts and night sweats—that were there one moment and forgotten about the next. But apparently it was one of those other parts of motherhood. The parts that left you fundamentally changed.

A woman around Essie’s age was jogging toward her on the path, dressed in black lycra and hot-pink trainers. Her soaking wet hair was looped into a casual bun. Ben had been pestering Essie to start running. “A good long run always makes me feel better,” he’d said yesterday. “You should try it.” Essie would have run, if she thought it would help. She would have run to the ends of the earth. She just wasn’t sure whether she would run back.

The jogger was wet through, but she didn’t seem to mind. She had a bounce to her step that was reserved for the young and fit. The free. Essie remembered having a bounce to her step once.

Mia started stirring in the pram and Essie realized that she’d stopped jostling. The jogger bounded past, and in the time it took her to disappear from sight, Mia had moved from confused to irate. Her face contorted and her head tossed from side to side as if desperate for answers. Who had the audacity to stop moving this pram? Did you not see I was having A NAP? Her face reddened and she took a breath, sucking in enough air to make sure her protest would be loud and meaningful. Essie shoved her fingers deep into her ears.

It was strange watching Mia scream and not being able to hear it. Better, really. Her eyes shut with the effort. With the rain in the background, Essie heard nothing. She felt nothing.

After a while, Essie started for home. She stopped at Cuppa Cottage and ordered her tea, extra hot, and drank it slowly in the chair by the window. She ordered another. The rain had stopped by the time she left the café. As she walked home she felt an acute sense of being out of balance—as though she’d been roller-skating or skiing and had just put on her shoes again.

Her mum was walking up her driveway when she arrived back in Pleasant Court. She stopped when she saw Essie coming and waved cheerily. “Good to see you out and about,” she said, before peering at the empty space around Essie. “Where’s Mia?”

Essie pulled her wet ponytail over one shoulder. A trickle of water ran down the side of her jacket.

“Essie,” her mum repeated, slower now. “Where is Mia?”

Essie shrugged. “I … left her. At the park.”

Her mum’s frown froze in place. Essie got the feeling that, for the first time in weeks, her mum actually saw her. “Which park, Essie? Which park is Mia at?”

“The beach playground.”

After that her mum moved quickly. In a matter of moments they were both in the car, headed toward the beach at a speed Essie thought was unnecessary. The pram was probably exactly where she’d left it! No one would be out and about after the rain; the playground would probably be deserted and covered in puddles. Mia would be red-faced and angry. It would take hours to calm her down. Essie wished they were driving in the opposite direction.

Her mum misinterpreted her agitation and placed a calming hand on hers. “We’ll find her, Essie,” she said. “We will.

Sure enough, they did find her. Mia was right where Essie had left her. But she wasn’t alone. A trio of mothers in puffer jackets surrounded her, the tallest woman holding Mia tightly. Mia will hate that, Essie thought. Sure enough, Mia was howling. Another mother looked on while half-heartedly entertaining toddlers nearby. They didn’t seem to notice as Essie and her mum got out of the car.

“There she is,” Essie’s mum cried, running over to the group. “I see her. She’s fine, Essie. She’s perfectly safe.”

“She’s ours,” Essie’s mum shouted to the women. When she was close enough, she held her hands out for Mia, catching her breath. “Whew. Thank you so much. She’s my granddaughter. My daughter accidentally left without her.”

The tall woman made no move to hand Mia over. Instead she clutched her tighter, which made Mia even more hysterical. “She left the park without her baby?”

“Yes, well … she was tired and…”

Essie sidled up slowly.

“. . you know how your brain can be when you have a newborn!” Her mum have a half-hearted laugh and then petered out. What else could she say? There was no explanation that would suffice and she knew it.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said curtly, “but … how do we know she’s your granddaughter? We found her abandoned in a park. We can’t just hand her over.”

Essie sidled up slowly. She felt a scream building in her throat. She wanted all these women to go away. She wanted to go away. Back to a time when she was a normal, childless woman—not a crazy lady who left babies in the park.

“Her name is Mia,” her mum tried again. “She’s eight weeks old. Her blanket was hand-knitted by me and it has frayed on one corner. Mia has a birthmark on her right thigh—a port wine stain.”

The woman exchanged a glance with her friend. “I’m sorry but I really think we should wait for the—”

“What do you want us to do?” Essie cried. “Sign an affidavit? She doesn’t have any ID. Just give her to me,” she said, pushing forward. “Give me my baby!”

Essie felt her mum’s hand on her shoulder. “Essie—”

“Give her to me.”

“Essie, you need to calm d—”

“GIVE ME MY BABY!” she screamed, and that’s when the police car pulled up.


2


3 years later …

“Good evening, beloved family,” Ben announced, flinging down his sports bag. He bounded into the kitchen to kiss Essie and Mia. “Beloved wife and daughter.” He scooted a few paces to the right and put an arm around Barbara, who sat on a bar stool, doing a crossword. “Beloved mother-in-law.”

Barbara pushed him off. “Ben! You’re sweaty.”

“As you would be, Barbie, if you’d done three back-to-back boxing sessions and then jogged home!”

He took off his cap and skimmed it across the counter. It collected a butter knife and a garlic press and all three landed with a clatter on the kitchen floor. Essie shot a glance at her mother who rolled her eyes and looked back at her crossword.

“A little bird told me,” Ben said to Mia, “that you could fly.”

She looked at him skeptically. “No, I can’t.”

“Are you sure? Because I’m sure the bird said…” He grabbed Mia off the kitchen counter and flung her into the air. She shrieked in delight. He was so slick with sweat it looked like Mia may slide right through his hands.

On their wedding day, Ben’s best man had likened him to a Doberman—a fair comparison, in Essie’s opinion. Not only was he happy, hopeless and incredibly loyal, he was also large, clumsy and accident prone. Whenever he arrived in a room it suddenly felt full, which was both comforting … and a little nerve-wracking.

“See,” he said, “… you can fly.” He put her down.

Ben ran a fitness studio, The Shed, a studio created to assist people’s dreams of being their own bona fide Hulk outside the boardroom as well as inside. Eighteen months ago he’d also developed an app, Ten with Ben, which allowed people to download a new ten-minute workout and meal plan every day. The app had received huge media coverage and had even been endorsed by several high-profile football players. As a result his business had exploded. He now had ten full-time staff—and dozens of casuals—but as Ben couldn’t possibly sit still at a desk all day, he still took the classes.

“Where is beloved daughter number two?” Ben asked.

Beloved daughter no. 2 had come along six months ago. It had taken nearly two years for Essie to convince Ben to try for another baby. (“Why not be happy with what we’ve got?” he said, over and over again. “Why would we risk it?”) Obviously, Essie understood his concerns. It had taken months—and a stint as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital—for her to recover after leaving Mia in the park that day, and her doctor explained that after last time, her chances of her post-partum depression recurring were significant. But Essie did recover. And she wanted a second chance to be the mother she’d planned to be from the get-go. It was her mother moving in next door that had finally swayed Ben (also, Essie thought, a stab at having a son). Unfortunately Ben didn’t get his son but Essie did get her second chance. And much to everyone’s relief, this time Essie had been fine.

Well, mostly fine.

“Polly’s asleep,” Essie said.

“In this heat?”

It was the fourth day of temperatures above forty degrees Celsius and it was all anyone could talk about. A heatwave like this usually happened at least once during a Melbourne summer, but that didn’t stop everyone from talking about it as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. (Hot enough for you? I don’t remember it being this hot when I was a kid. I hear a cool change is due on Thursday.)

“Apparently so,” Essie said. “We’ll see how long it lasts.”

Polly had been a good sleeper to begin with, but a couple of weeks ago she’d started waking at odd intervals, sometimes as often as hourly. It felt like a cruel joke, giving her a perfect baby only to have her regress like this at six months old.

Ben leaned his elbows on the counter. “So,” he said, “apparently the new neighbor has moved in.”

“I heard,” Essie said. The whole of Pleasant Court was at fever pitch about the new neighbor. There hadn’t been anyone new in Pleasant Court since Essie’s mum moved in.

“Ange gave me the inside scoop.” Ange, from number 6, had been the agent to rent the place. “She’s a single woman in her late thirties who has moved down from Sydney for work.”

“A single woman?” Barbara said, eyes still on her crossword. She tapped the base of the pencil against her lip. “In Sandringham? Why wouldn’t she get an apartment in the city?”

“Single women can live in Sandringham! Maybe she wanted to live by the beach.”

“But it’s an unusual choice, wouldn’t you say?” her mum said. “Especially Pleasant Court.”

Essie thought about that. Pleasant Court was a decidedly family area, she supposed. A cul-de-sac of 1930s-style redbrick bungalows—and even those in need of a paint job or new foundations sold for well over two million thanks to the beach at the end of the road. Ben and Essie had bought their place when it was worth less than half that amount, but property had skyrocketed since then. The new neighbor, whoever she was, was renting, but even rent wouldn’t have been cheap. And with three or four bedrooms and a garden to maintain, Essie had to admit it wasn’t the most obvious choice for a single person.

“Maybe she has a husband and kids joining her?” Essie said, opening the fridge. She snatched up a head of iceberg lettuce, a tomato, and a cucumber and dumped all three on the bench. “Salad?”

“Sure,” Ben said. “And I doubt she has a husband joining her.”

“Why?”

“Ange said she talked about her ‘ex-partner.’ Partner,” he repeated, when Essie looked blank. “As in she’s gay.”

“Because she used the word partner?”

Ben shrugged, but with a cocked head and a smile that said he was in the know.

Essie grabbed an avocado from the fruit bowl. Though she’d never admit it to Ben, she was a little intrigued. The sad fact was, Pleasant Court was very white bread. The appearance of anyone other than a straight married person with kids was interesting. Essie thought back to her days working as a copywriter for Architectural Digest, when she had numerous gay and mixed-nationality friends. It felt like another lifetime. “Well … so what? I didn’t realize we cared so much about people’s sexuality.”

“We don’t,” Ben said, holding up his hands. “Unless … hang on, did you say … sexuality?”

Ben slipped a brawny arm around her waist. After eight years of marriage Ben still wanted sex constantly. Essie would have blamed the excessive exercise if he didn’t insist he’d always been this way. “If I was a kid these days,” he was fond of saying, “I’d have been diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin. Instead, my parents took me to the park every day to run me like a dog.” Some days that’s what Essie felt like she was doing with him in the bedroom.

“You need a shower,” Essie said.

“Great idea. Meet you in there?”

Essie’s mum put down her pencil. “For heaven’s sake! Come on, Mia. You can stay at Gran’s tonight.”

Ben’s eyes lit up. “Barbie! Have I ever told you how much I love you?”

“If you really loved me,” she said, without missing a beat, “you wouldn’t call me Barbie.”

Ben put his hand on his heart. “Scout’s honor.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Not Babs, either. Not Babby. Not Ba-Ba.”

“But those are all the good ones!” Ben cried as her mum let herself out with Mia on her hip. Then he turned to Essie. “Ready for that shower?”

* * *

One good thing about Ben, he rarely lasted more than ten minutes (Ten with Ben) and tonight Essie spent eight of them thinking about Polly. At first she’d simply been listening out for her in case she woke up, but then her thoughts had drifted to what she would do if she did wake up and then to why on earth she’d been waking so often these past few weeks.

It’s a phase, everyone said. The most irritating of all findings. A phase wasn’t a diagnosis, it wasn’t a treatment. It was, at best, something to say when you had no idea what the problem was. But Essie wasn’t going to take it lying down.

“I thought you could give Polly a dream-feed tonight,” she said to Ben when he was spread-eagled and panting beside her. She lifted her head and propped her chin in her palm. “A dream feed is when you give the baby a bottle of formula at ten P.M. to get her to sleep for a long stretch. Apparently it’s better for the dad to do it, because otherwise the baby can smell the mother’s milk.”

It was Fran, from number 10, who’d suggested the dream-feed. Fran had a daughter Mia’s age and another one a few months younger than Polly, but unlike Essie’s children, Fran’s children slept and generally did everything they were supposed to do. As such, she seemed like a good person to take advice from.

Ben stared at her. “Are you actually talking about our infant daughter? Now?”

Essie winced. “Faux pas?”

Fatal faux pas.”

Essie dropped her head back onto his chest. She lay there for a few seconds before Ben grabbed her chin and turned it so she was looking at him. Essie smiled. He did this every now and again. They’d be standing in the kitchen or out for a walk and suddenly his eyes would go all soft. He never said anything, he didn’t need to. The look said it all.

She let her fingertips flutter over Ben’s taut stomach, which was bare and smooth apart from the dark strip of hair heading south from his navel. His heartbeat was hard and loud under her ear. He’d been jogging down the street (of course) the first time she’d seen him. At six foot five he was hard to miss. She’d been about to drive past him in her car when the traffic lights changed. Essie had been so busy looking at Ben that she nearly didn’t stop in time. The car in front didn’t stop, continuing into the intersection at full speed. The smash was magnificent. Essie leapt from the car, as did a lot of drivers and pedestrians, but it was Ben who ran directly for the collision, peeling off his hoodie and pressing it to the head wound of one of the drivers to staunch the blood. Essie joined him after a few moments, offering her own cardigan while everyone else stood around the edges, gasping and whispering. There was so much blood, she remembered. And not enough clothes.

By the time the ambulance arrived, Ben was standing there in his underwear and trainers. Essie offered him a ride home, as a) he was in his undies, and b) he had just saved someone’s life, so she figured he was unlikely to be a serial killer. Also, because c) she’d seen him in his underwear and, frankly, his body was enough reason for anyone to give him a lift home.

She’d had a nice body then too, she recalled. Slim but curvy. She had auburn hair that she’d spend ages trying to make look casually tousled. Ten years later, her auburn hair was in a permanent ponytail and she had a spare tire around her middle that she couldn’t seem to shift. Ben was forever telling her to come down to The Shed and train, but whenever she did find a moment to herself, she wanted to curl up and sleep. And whenever she did take a moment to curl up and sleep … well, there was Polly.

Right on cue, Polly squawked.

“I’ll go,” Ben said. Clearly he’d just had sex. After sex, Ben always seemed to think he was a superhero—offering to do all sorts of things, from DIY projects to teaching Mia to ride a bike. Either he was very grateful or he had a burst of adrenaline he needed to work off. Essie was happy to let him go to Polly, even if she wasn’t optimistic. He’d read stories, make silly noises, pace the floor with her. (He’d probably not think to do the obvious things like give her a bottle or change her diaper.) Once he’d exhausted his box of tricks, she’d be called in. But at least it’d give her a chance to finish making dinner while he tried.

“Thanks, babe.”

She grabbed her robe and headed out to the kitchen, keeping an ear out for Polly. Every time she dared to think she might have gone off to sleep, she’d hear a coo or gurgle. She was about to go in there when there was a knock at the door.

Essie threw a tea towel over her shoulder and swung the door open. She looked up at the woman standing there. At five foot nine, it wasn’t often Essie looked up at someone, but this woman must have been close to six foot. She had blunt-cut dark-brown hair with thick bangs. Her lipstick was bloodred and she wore heavy black-rimmed glasses. She reminded Essie of an artist or an interior designer or something.

“Can I help you?”

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she said. “I’m Isabelle Heatherington. I’ve just moved in next door.”

“Oh.” Essie couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. This was the single, possibly gay woman who’d moved in next door? Essie wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but this wasn’t it. People from Pleasant Court didn’t look like this. They wore jeans or maxi-dresses. Lipstick was nude and hair was in a ponytail. Essie’s own ponytail had started sprouting grays a few years back and she hadn’t found time to go to the hairdresser to cover them. Hadn’t found time in years. “Sorry, I’m Essie Walker.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Essie. I’m just making the rounds of the neighbors, introducing myself.” Her voice, Essie noticed, had a faint husk to it.

“Oh … that’s nice.” Essie smiled stupidly at her for a minute, before realizing she was dressed in her bathrobe. “Oh, look at me! I was just—”

“—relaxing in your own house at night?” Isabelle smiled. “How dare you!”

Essie laughed. “Well, I’m sorry I haven’t popped by to see you yet. I’ve been meaning to but I have two little kids and things can get a bit frantic.”

“Yes, I saw your little ones today as you loaded them into the car. They’re very cute.”

“Oh God. I hope I wasn’t yelling at them or anything.”

“No. Actually, you looked like the perfect mother.”

Essie nodded. The perfect mother. How deceiving appearances could be.

She leaned against the doorframe. “So I hear you’ve moved from Sydney? For work?”

“Yes.”

Isabelle didn’t elaborate. If Ben were here he’d have pushed her to disclose more—Ben was a dreadful gossip—but Essie figured if Isabelle was going to be living next door, they’d find out eventually.

“My mum’s from Sydney,” Essie said. “Well, originally. We moved here while I was quite young. I’ve never been there, unfortunately. I’d like to go.”

You’re babbling, thought Essie. Just stop it. Stop babbling. Essie had never been great at meeting new people or managing the small talk that was invariably required. It was frustrating, as, like most people, she wanted to have friends. But she didn’t have Ben’s friendliness or her mother’s nurturing—or any particular charm, at least not one that was immediately evident. Essie suspected new people found her “perfectly nice” (aka dull), but for as long as she could remember she’d harbored an implausible, narcissistic believe that there was more to her personality than people saw. That there was a gregarious person inside her trying to get out.

“Well, I’ll keep making the rounds,” Isabelle said finally, pushing a folded piece of paper into Essie’s hand. “My number, in case you need it. Though you won’t need to worry about late-night parties since I don’t know a soul in Melbourne.” Isabelle talked over her shoulder as she turned back to the street. “And even if I did, I’m an early-to-bed type.”

“You’re in fine company then, on Pleasant Court!”” Essie called after her, more confident now Isabelle was leaving. “The lights are all off here by ten P.M. around here. And that’s on New Year’s Eve!”

Isabelle had a sway to her walk, Essie noticed. If she turned out not to be gay, Ange would be nervous when she showed up on their doorsteps. (Ange’s husband was movie-star handsome and she was convinced most women were after him.) But Essie wasn’t nervous. If anything, she was oddly excited at the prospect of a potential new friend, not to mention a little life in Pleasant Court.

She closed the door and returned to the kitchen. She was just finishing up the salad when Ben appeared. “Am I the best husband in the world or what?”

Essie frowned at him. “What?”

“Polly,” he announced proudly, “is fast asleep. Go on, call me the baby whisperer…”

That’s when Essie realized a miracle had occurred. For the past few minutes, She hadn’t been obsessing about Polly and whether she’d gone back to sleep. She wasn’t wondering if she was going to have to go in there, or if Polly was going to wake another fifteen times during the night. She wasn’t thinking about Polly at all.

She was too busy thinking about Isabelle Heatherington, the new neighbor.


Copyright © 2018 by Sally Hepworth