To celebrate the launch of Victoria Walters's new serial novel, Random Acts of Kindness, we have the chapter one available to read today!
Buy the first part here.
You can find out more information about all four parts on the Simon & Schuster website.
The endless green countryside stretched out as far as Abbie Morgan could see from the train window. The urban blanket of London had transformed into the rolling Surrey Hills as she made her way to the small town of Littlewood. It had been a nightmare of a week and her head was still pounding. Her suitcases were wedged in beside her, another painful reminder that this wasn’t a quick visit to see her younger sister, Louise, she was actually moving in with her. Hopefully not for long, but still . . .
Abbie sighed and leaned her head against the cool window so that her shoulder-length dark curls fell across her cheek, screening her from her fellow passengers. She was relieved that her train carriage was relatively empty, save for a mother and daughter a few seats away, so she could dwell on recent events in glum peace. She had lived in London for five years since leaving university and couldn’t believe she was being forced to part ways with it. But when she had been made redundant from her job at City PR, where she had worked for the last two years, she knew there was no way she could stay in the city she loved. The worst part was that her ex-boyfriend, Jack, a partner at the company, had been the one to deliver the news.
Abbie’s phone on her lap buzzed with a call. ‘Hi, Lou,’ she greeted her sister, forcing a smile into her voice, if not fully onto her face. She was grateful to her little sister for putting her up but wished she didn’t live in such a tiny town. At least the train would be quite quick for getting back to the city if she had interviews to go to.
‘I’m so sorry I won’t be there to meet you from the train,’ Louise said. ‘I won’t be much longer though. Do you want to meet me at the café near the station and we can go home together?’ Louise was a nurse at a hospital in the next, larger town, and her shift would be over soon. Abbie agreed to the plan and got directions to Brew. Louise said she was excited to finally show her town to Abbie, who hadn’t had any time since getting the assistant job at City PR to make the trip out of London. Louise had always come to stay with her when she had time off instead. To Abbie, London was the place that everyone should want to be, so she had been surprised that Louise had settled somewhere so quiet.
The train soon drew into the small station of Littlewood. Colourful hanging baskets adorned the platform. It made a stark change from the graffiti Abbie was used to seeing on her old commute. She heaved her two wheelie cases off the train and rattled along the platform with them. She had sent the rest of her things to her parents’ house in Cornwall.
After struggling through the barriers with her bags, she began to walk to the café – which turned out to be in the grounds of a grand stone house perched on top of a hill looking over the small town.
The uphill walk was not at all easy in her favourite four-inch-heeled boots, but when you were as tiny as she was, you needed the extra height at all times, so she dragged herself and her bags towards the stately home. Louise said the café stood at the beginning of the estate and was the best place in Littlewood for coffee. And, God, Abbie needed a large cup.
She heard a faint noise in the wind behind her, but she kept up her brisk London pace, thinking it was probably someone after money or something. That was usually why people tried to get your attention nowadays.
Finally, she made it to the top of the hill. The café was just through the imposing iron gates of the stately home. There was a green and gold sign proclaiming the house to be Huntley Manor – a luxury hotel, apparently. Abbie glanced at the tall, light-brown stone building as she made her way to the cute-looking café on the edge of the green. The hotel looked as if it could have been lifted out of a Jane Austen novel and Abbie resolved to explore it soon.
Abbie gratefully pushed open the door to Brew to escape the light drizzle of rain starting to fall on top of her shoulders, and she went up to the counter to order. The café was cute and colourful with small, round wooden tables with a vase of sunflowers on each and slate chairs in different shades of blue, a black and white tiled floor and a large counter at the back with a vast array of delicious-looking cakes. Abbie breathed in the fresh coffee smell that lingered on the air. She loved cafés and this one felt like home as soon as she walked through the door.
‘Good morning!’ said a lady with a messy grey-haired bun and big smile, leaning on the counter to greet her. Her apron was blue and white with ‘Have a Brew!’ written on it in big letters. ‘What can I get you?’
‘A large latte, please.’
The woman started making it immediately and glanced back at Abbie as she did so. ‘I haven’t seen you in here before, have I?’
Abbie shook her head. ‘No, I’m here to stay with my sister.’
‘Well, I’m Joy and I own Brew with my husband, Harry. He’s in the back making sandwiches. Welcome to Littlewood,’ she said cheerfully, sliding Abbie’s drink across to her. She moved to the till.
Abbie reached for her bag, but her hands grabbed air instead. ‘Oh no!’ she cried, looking down at her cases in horror.
‘What’s wrong?’ Joy asked, leaning over the counter to see.
‘But I picked it up off the train, I’m sure I did,’ she said out loud, shaking her head. She had kept her handbag balanced on top of one of the wheelie cases so she didn’t have to carry it on her shoulder. ‘I can’t find my bag,’ she admitted to Joy.
‘Oh, dear, I’m sorry,’ Joy said, sympathetically.
Abbie checked around her again, a sinking feeling in her chest. ‘What am I going to do without it?’ she said. If living in London had taught her anything, it was to keep a tight hold of your belongings at all times. She’d have to cancel her cards immediately. Oh, God. Her phone was in there. She started to feel panicky at the thought of not having it with her. How would anyone get in contact with her?
‘Look, try not to worry. You’re in Littlewood now and everyone looks out for one another here. I’m sure someone will find your bag and deliver it back to you. Go and sit down and drink your latte; you’ve had a shock and you need your coffee.’
‘But I can’t pay for it,’ Abbie admitted, her cheeks turning pink. She had never lost her bag before. This week was just going from bad to worse.
‘Don’t be silly, it’s on us.’ Joy grabbed a brownie and put it on a plate. ‘This too.’
‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly accept . . .’
Joy waved off Abbie’s protests. ‘Sit down, I insist. You can pay next time, after you find your bag.’
Abbie wished she shared Joy’s faith that her bag would be found. She carried the brownie and latte over to her table, hoping Louise would hurry up and get there so she could use her phone to ring the bank.
The door to the café banged open, making Abbie turn with a start. ‘There you are,’ a woman cried, waving something at her. ‘I’ve been chasing you from the station.’ A little girl followed her inside the café; both of them were pulling suitcases. ‘Your bag fell off when you went through the barrier,’ she said, a distinct accent to her brisk tone, holding up what Abbie could now see was her lost handbag.
Abbie recognised her from the train carriage and breathed a huge sigh of relief. ‘Oh, wow, thank you so much,’ she said, amazed that the woman had followed her all the way to Brew to get it back to her. She took it from her. ‘I’m so grateful.’
The woman, who looked a similar age to Abbie’s twenty-eight years and had a sharp, blonde bob, smiled. ‘Of course. I would be so upset if I lost mine.’
‘See? I told you it would turn up,’ Joy called from the counter. ‘All’s well that ends well.’
‘It certainly wouldn’t have got back to me so quickly in London,’ Abbie said. She pulled out her purse. ‘And now I can pay you.’
‘No, this one is still on us,’ Joy said, firmly. ‘What would you like?’ she asked Abbie’s saviour just as a tall, round-bellied man came out of the kitchen with two plates of egg and cress sandwiches for an elderly couple sitting by the door. ‘This is my husband, Harry,’ Joy told them. ‘And I can see you’re new to Littlewood too,’ she added to the blonde woman who had seated her daughter with their bags at the next table to Abbie.
‘I’m Eszter. This is Zoe. We’ve just arrived in England from Hungary.’
‘Well, we hardly ever get any newcomers and now we have three! Coffee?’
Joy took Eszter’s order and brought her drinks to the table. She glanced at Abbie who was marvelling at how delicious her brownie was. ‘You look so familiar; have we met before?’
Abbie shook her head. ‘No, but my sister Louise lives here.’
‘Is that Louise Morgan?’ Joy asked, her eyes lighting up.
‘That’s right, yes.’
Harry came over and put his arm around his wife. ‘We know Louise well, lovely girl, she helped looked after me in hospital and started coming in here then. Drinks too much coffee for a nurse, though.’
Abbie smiled. ‘It runs in the family.’
‘So, you’re here to stay with Louise, and what about you?’ Joy asked Eszter.
‘We’re here to see family too. Well, sort of family, anyway.’ She sipped her coffee with a nervous look on her face. She glanced at her daughter, who had long, fair hair and the same sharp eyes as her mother. ‘It was a bit of a rush decision to come here. We don’t even know where we’re going to stay.’ She bit her lip, then smiled quickly when Zoe looked at her. Abbie suspected she was putting a brave face on things and was intrigued by their story.
‘I’m sure we can help with that,’ Joy said. Then she clapped her hands together. ‘And, Abbie, I just remembered, you must put Eszter’s kindness to you up on the board,’ she said, gesturing to the large chalkboard that hung across one wall. It was filled with chalk scribbles in various styles of handwriting and colours.
‘This is our Kindness Board. If anyone has an act of kindness done to them, they write it up on the board. We started it this summer and it's already filling up. Eszter finding your bag is definitely worthy of being up there,’ Joy said, going back around the counter to make Louise’s regular coffee for her arrival. She held out a piece of chalk to Abbie.
‘A Kindness Board?’ Abbie glanced at her, wondering if it was a joke, but Joy told her to go on up. Sensing everyone’s eyes on her, Abbie went to the board and looked at some of the entries already up there. Feeling like she was back in school, she added Eszter’s random act of kindness to the board.
My lost handbag was returned to me by Eszter. Thank you for your act of kindness!
She added a smiley face to it.
‘And now you’ll have to pay her act of kindness forward,’ Joy said from behind her.
‘In Littlewood, if someone is kind to you, you repay their act by being kind to someone yourself.’
Abbie stared at Joy, wondering if she had walked into some kind of cult. ‘That’s a thing?’
Joy laughed. ‘We are trying to make it “a thing”, yes. Ever since Harry was in hospital, and the whole town rallied around us and helped us keep Brew going, we have tried to be kind to the community when we can. Harry thought having a board in here would encourage others to do the same.’
‘Is it working?’ Abbie was sceptical. She was certain no one had ever been what she would call ‘kind’ to a stranger back in London.
‘You’ll have to come back and tell me if it works for you.’ Joy went to serve another customer and Abbie watched her go, wondering if she was really expected to pay Eszter’s kindness forward.
Was kindness something that could be sprinkled around as if it was confetti?