Tuesday 26 March 2019

Exclusive extract from Emma Hannigan's last book, The Gift of Friends

'The Gift of Friends' by Emma Hannigan
'The Gift of Friends' by Emma Hannigan

Danielle felt as if she were having some sort of a weird out-of-body experience. One minute she was helping Justin to move things into their new home, and the next she'd been catapulted into a neighbour's kitchen that suddenly seemed full of people all looking at her expectantly.

The introductions were swift and she hadn't really taken in any of the names. She was confused as to who even lived here. Two of the women seemed to be in charge and she was trying to work out if they both lived in this house. They were all being friendly to her, but they were a bit scary. They were very posh and kept staring at her as if they were waiting for her to entertain them.

She didn't know whether she should tell them a bit about her and Justin or not. Was that considered bad manners or good manners? She wished her mam had taught her about this kind of situation. But then, she could just imagine what her mam would say about this group: "I'd rather eat my own leg off than walk into a room full of poshies like them."

She silently cursed Justin for dumping her right in it. One of the women, the small older lady who was dressed in a skirt and blouse and a navy blazer with a perfectly tied silk scarf, had come over with a big smile and a hamper of stuff and basically insisted she go with her.

Danielle had surveyed the chaos of her life that was being dumped from the van and said "No, thank you" about 50 times, but the woman was stubbornly insistent.

"Just pop in and say hello for five minutes, that's all. The other women are dying to meet you. It would be so lovely. You'll come, won't you?"

Danielle had begun shaking her head yet again, so the woman had switched her attention to Justin. "Can you spare her for a few minutes, do you think?"

Justin grinned and reached over to take the hamper from the woman's hands. "Oh of course! Take her. She'd love to go and meet everyone, wouldn't you, darling?"

She'd glowered at him, but it was too late. The lady had taken her by the arm and frogmarched her into the house opposite Danielle's.

There were two other women there, too, sitting in the perfectly spotless kitchen. It was so clean, Danielle even tried to breathe minimally. She'd accepted a cup of tea and a small home-baked biscuit and tried to focus on the conversation. They all seemed to know one another very well and she hadn't the first clue what to do or how to be. All the talk was about some party that was clearly happening soon.

"Of course, you two will have to come along," said the most glamorous one of the bunch. She was exactly the type of woman Danielle would normally avoid - red lippy, a ton of mascara, fake tan and cleavage all pushed up so that it was straining out of her shirt in a way that was far too eye-catching. All glam and no shame, as her mother would have said.

"Freddie and I are celebrating 20 years of marriage, God help us all. I'm having a major blow-out in the garden. Well, in a tent in the garden."

"A marquee, Maia," said the one who'd dragged her here.

"Oh yeah, sorry, in a marquee," she said in a put-on posh voice. She cackled laughing and Danielle forced a laugh. This was torture. She'd be making damn sure Justin didn't throw her to these lions ever again.

"Stop talking about me, I've arrived," a voice called from the hallway, then the door to the kitchen pushed open and an even older lady walked in, smiling widely. "We weren't talking about you," said the glam one, going over to hug her. "And if we were, it would be about how adorable you are."

"Adorable, my ass!"

"Nancy, for goodness sake," said the lady in the blazer and she looked shocked. "Language, please."

"Lighten up, Betsy," the woman said, grinning at her. "My ass is entirely inoffensive, I can assure you." They all started giggling at that, even blazer Betsy, even Danielle.

She felt like this woman was different from the others. She was older, for starters, but she was funny and didn't seem to give a toss what the rest thought. Dressed in an ankle-grazing dress covered in a daisy motif that looked as if it were genuinely vintage, she had a warm and inviting smile. When she sat on a high stool beside Danielle, they were all treated to a view of her bright Kelly-green patent Mary-Jane shoes. The look was finished off with a headband of yellow artificial flowers.

"Hi, I'm Nancy," she said, extending her hand. Danielle shook it awkwardly. "I'm Danielle. I just moved in to the road."

"Did you now? I passed the removal vans and was wondering who was joining us on Kingfisher Road. Well, I hope you'll be very happy here. We're all great friends and I'm sure you'll fit right in too. I live in number five, at the bottom of the road, and you're welcome any time."

"Thank you," Danielle said, sure she'd never have the guts to knock on any of their doors, and hopefully never the need to either.

"Have you been introduced to the rest?" Nancy said, looking around.

"Of course she's been introduced," Betsy said, sounding offended again. "What kind of a home do you think I run?"

Nancy winked at Danielle.

"What's her name?" she said, pointing to the woman who was the quietest one. Danielle blushed. "Em... I'm not..."

"Hah, you see," Nancy said triumphantly. "You overwhelmed her and she's not taken anything in. I knew it from the look of her, like a frightened cat."

She turned to Danielle and smiled. "That woman is Pearl," she said, and the quiet woman waved at her. "She's in number two, next door. This is number one, Betsy's house. Utter perfection, I think you'll agree. And that looper over there is Maia, our resident hot chick. She's in number three."

"What about the other five houses?" Danielle asked, looking towards the door and fearing another stampede of people and names to remember. Nancy ticked off five fingers.

"Unfriendly widower who won't even look at you if you're not his grandkid; high-flying couple who spend only about one month here a year; another high-flying couple, retired but still on aeroplanes most of the time; a businessman who seems to treat it as a pad to shag his mistress; and finally an opera singer who we suspect has it only for tax purposes."

Danielle's head was reeling from this rapid-fire delivery of strange information about her unseen neighbours. "Oh, right," was all she could manage.

"Nobodies, basically," Nancy said with a shrug. "And then there's us, who look out for each other and have a bit of fun together and it suits us. You'll have to find your side of the fence, I suppose, but I hope it's here with us."

She smiled again, and Danielle liked her even more. She was a straight talker, that much was obvious.

"So, how is everyone feeling this morning?" Nancy asked, looking around at the others. "Because I'm pretty whacked."

"At least you could have a lie in," said Maia. "I had to bring the twins to swimming early this morning. Honestly, I can't drink the way I used to and get away with it. Ugh, I just die if I go hell for leather."

Danielle tried not to stare at Maia. She was a typical yummy mummy, with a loud, booming voice with a slight whine added in for good measure. Her accent seemed to be a mish-mash of at least two and much as she was trying to be open-minded, Danielle wasn't drawn to her.

She guessed she drove a massive jeep and let the nanny raise the kids most of the time. She seemed to be looking for a medal for turning up at the swimming pool this morning.

"Well, let me tell you," Nancy continued as she elbowed Danielle to get her attention, "I had a lesson on how the young ones do it these days. It's all shots and slammers. We were at a wedding in Pearl's house," she said leaning across her to pat Pearl on the leg. "They put on some spread."

"Was it your son or daughter's wedding?" Danielle asked politely.

"My niece's," said Pearl. "Lily-Rose. She's a dote and we were delighted to host it because we have the space after all. She lives in Westwood and their house doesn't lend itself to large weddings."

"I'm from Westwood," said Danielle.

"That's where me and Seth came from originally," said Pearl. "I thought I recognised the accent. What are your parents' names? Maybe I know them."

"My mam is Rachel O'Brien." Pearl shook her head. "No, the name doesn't ring a bell. But you must introduce us if she's ever over visiting you."

"My husband is from County Meath," Danielle said, changing the subject. "His family are all into horses, but I prefer this type of place. I'm not a country girl."

"Oh I don't blame you," said Pearl. "Given the choice between Kingfisher Road and a mucky horse yard, I'd pick here without a contest." '

"A horsey family sounds very la-di-dah, though," Maia said, studying her. "What did you say Justin's surname was?"

"I didn't," Danielle said, staring right back at her. There was an awkward pause, then Maia started laughing.

"We're doing the nosy neighbours things, aren't we?" she said. "But there's no use pretending we don't want to know about you, is there?"

Even though she was annoying, Danielle couldn't help admiring her honesty.

"He's Justin Johnston," she said. "Although we're not married, so I'm just plain old Danielle O'Brien."

Maia's mouth fell open and she stared. "What, as in the Johnstons from Meath? The filthy rich lot?"

"Yes," said Danielle. "Those Johnstons." She didn't look away, but she hated having to admit who Justin was because it made her feel like people were looking at her and wondering how the hell she had managed to land a catch like him.

She was afraid someone would actually ask some day because she couldn't answer it herself. She had no idea why Justin had fallen for her like he did. She wasn't from his circles at all, and yet he was mad about her. She wasn't a Maia, all dickied up and sexy, she was completely ordinary. She was sure that's what they were all thinking as they stared at her in silence now.

"That's a wonderful family," Betsy said, beaming at her.

"Maybe you'll end up in the family business," Pearl said.

Not on your nelly, Danielle thought to herself. If this lot had actually met the Johnstons, they'd soon realise money couldn't buy you intelligence, or manners for that matter.

"Jesus Christ," Maia said, her eyes still wide. "The bloody Johnstons. You are a dark horse, Danielle, if you'll excuse the pun." She looked delighted with her little joke.

Just then, there was a loud beeping sound and they all saw the truck reverse by the window and then pull out on to the main road.

"Looks like we're all moved in," said Danielle, standing up.

"It's been lovely to meet you all, but I'd better get back to Justin."

"You're moved in already?" asked Maia. "When we moved here it took ages to empty the trucks. You must have hardly anything if they're finished. I would have thought you'd have oodles of fancy stuff with money like that."

Danielle was trying not to take an instant dislike to this Maia one, but it was challenging.

"That's because most of the trucks were probably full of your shoes and handbags, Maia!' said Nancy.

"You're not wrong," said Maia as they all laughed.

'The Gift of Friends' by Emma Hannigan is on sale now (Hachette, £13.99) To donate €4, text CURE to 50300 or go to www.breastcancerireland.com

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