It was the cup of milk that saved her. That and the salty bacon she’d fried for her supper many hours earlier, which had left her mouth dry.
If she hadn’t been thirsty—if she’d still been upstairs, sleeping on the ridiculously expensive mattress that had been her eightieth birthday gift to herself—she wouldn’t have been alerted to danger.
As it was, she’d been standing in front of the fridge, the milk carton in one hand and the cup in the other, when she’d heard a loud thump. The noise was out of place here in the leafy darkness of the English countryside, where the only sounds should have been the hoot of an owl and the occasional bleat of a sheep.
She put the glass down and turned her head, trying to locate the sound. The back door. Had she forgotten to lock it again?
The moon sent a ghostly gleam across the kitchen and she was grateful she hadn’t felt the need to turn the light on. That gave her some advantage, surely?
She put the milk back and closed the fridge door quietly, sure now that she was not alone in the house.
Moments earlier she’d been asleep. Not deeply asleep— that rarely happened these days—but drifting along on a tide of dreams. If someone had told her younger self that she’d still be dreaming and enjoying her adventures when she was eighty she would have been less afraid of ageing. And it was impossible to forget that she was ageing.
People said she was wonderful for her age, but most of the time she didn’t feel wonderful. The answers to her be- loved crosswords floated just out of range. Names and faces refused to align at the right moment. She struggled to re- member what she’d done the day before, although if she took herself back twenty years or more her mind was clear. And then there were the physical changes—her eyesight and hearing were still good, thankfully, but her joints hurt and her bones ached. Bending to feed the cat was a challenge. Climbing the stairs required more effort than she would have liked and was always undertaken with one hand on the rail just in case.
She’d never been the sort to live in a just in case sort of way.
Her daughter, Liza, wanted her to wear an alarm. One of those medical alert systems, with a button you could press in an emergency, but Kathleen refused. In her youth she’d traveled the world, before it was remotely fashionable to do so. She’d sacrificed safety for adventure without a second thought. Most days now she felt like a different person. Losing friends didn’t help. One by one they fell by the wayside, taking with them shared memories of the past. A small part of her vanished with each loss. It had taken decades for her to understand that loneliness wasn’t a lack of people in your life, but a lack of people who knew and understood you.
She fought fiercely to retain some version of her old self—which was why she’d resisted Liza’s pleas that she remove the rug from the living room floor, stop using a step ladder to retrieve books from the highest shelves and leave a light on at night. Each compromise was another layer shaved from her independence, and losing her independence was her biggest fear.
Kathleen had always been the rebel in the family, and she was still the rebel—although she wasn’t sure that rebels were supposed to have shaking hands and a pounding heart. She heard the sound of heavy footsteps. Someone was searching the house. For what, exactly? What treasures did they hope to find? And why weren’t they trying to at least disguise their presence?
Having resolutely ignored all suggestions that she might be vulnerable, she was now forced to acknowledge the possibility. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so stubborn. How long would it have taken from pressing the alert button to the cavalry arriving?
In reality, the cavalry was Finn Cool, who lived three fields away. Finn was a musician, and he’d bought the property precisely because there were no immediate neighbors. His antics caused mutterings in the village. He had rowdy parties late into the night, attended by glamorous people from London who terrorized the locals by driving their flashy sports cars too fast down the narrow lanes. Someone had started a petition in the post office to ban the parties. There had been talk of drugs, and half-naked women, and it had all sounded like so much fun that Kathleen had been tempted to invite herself over. Rather that than a dull women’s group, where you were expected to bake and knit and swap recipes for banana bread.
Finn would be of no use to her in this moment of crisis. In all probability he’d either be in his studio, wearing headphones, or he’d be drunk. Either way, he wasn’t going to hear a cry for help.
Calling the police would mean walking through the kitchen and across the hall to the living room, where the phone was kept and she didn’t want to reveal her presence. Her family had bought her a mobile phone, but it was still in its box, unused. Her adventurous spirit didn’t extend to technology. She didn’t like the idea of a nameless faceless person tracking her every move.
There was another thump, louder this time, and Kathleen pressed her hand to her chest. She could feel the rapid pounding of her heart. At least it was still working. She should probably be grateful for that.
When she’d complained about wanting a little more adventure, this wasn’t what she’d had in mind. What could she do? She had no button to press, no phone with which to call for help, so she was going to have to handle this herself. She could already hear Liza’s voice in her head: Mum, I warned you!
If she survived, she’d never hear the last of it.
Fear was replaced by anger. Because of this intruder she’d be branded Old and Vulnerable and forced to spend the rest of her days in a single room with minders who would cut up her food, speak in overly loud voices and help her to the bathroom. Life as she knew it would be over.
That was not going to happen.
She’d rather die at the hands of an intruder. At least her obituary would be interesting.
Better still, she would stay alive and prove herself capable of independent living.
She glanced quickly around the kitchen for a suitable weapon and spied the heavy black skillet she’d used to fry the bacon earlier.
She lifted it silently, gripping the handle tightly as she walked to the door that led from the kitchen to the hall. The tiles were cool under her feet—which, fortunately, were bare. No sound. Nothing to give her away. She had the advantage.
She could do this. Hadn’t she once fought off a mugger in the backstreets of Paris? True, she’d been a great deal younger then, but this time she had the advantage of surprise.
How many of them were there?
More than one would give her trouble.
Was it a professional job? Surely no professional would be this loud and clumsy. If it was kids hoping to steal her TV, they were in for a disappointment. Her grandchildren had been trying to persuade her to buy a “smart” TV, but why would she need such a thing? She was perfectly happy with the IQ of her current machine, thank you very much. Technology already made her feel foolish most of the time. She didn’t need it to be any smarter than it already was.
Perhaps they wouldn’t come into the kitchen. She could stay hidden away until they’d taken what they wanted and left. They’d never know she was here. They’d—
A floorboard squeaked close by. There wasn’t a crack or a creak in this house that she didn’t know. Someone was right outside the door.
Her knees turned liquid.
Oh Kathleen, Kathleen.
She closed both hands tightly round the handle of the skillet.
Why hadn’t she gone to self-defense classes instead of senior yoga? What use was the downward dog when what you needed was a guard dog?
A shadow moved into the room, and without allowing herself to think about what she was about to do she lifted the skillet and brought it down hard, the force of the blow driven by the weight of the object as much as her own strength. There was a thud and a vibration as it connected with his head.
“I’m so sorry—I mean—” Why was she apologizing?
The man threw up an arm as he fell, a reflex action, and the movement sent the skillet back into Katherine’s own head. Pain almost blinded her and she prepared herself to end her days right here, thus giving her daughter the op- portunity to be right, when there was a loud thump and the man crumpled to the floor. There was a crack as his head hit the tiles.
Kathleen froze. Was that it, or was he suddenly going to spring to his feet and murder her?
No. Against all odds, she was still standing while her prowler lay inert at her feet. The smell of alcohol rose, and Kathleen wrinkled her nose.
Her heart was racing so fast she was worried that any moment now it might trip over itself and give up.
She held tightly to the skillet. Did he have an accomplice?
She held her breath, braced for someone else to come racing through the door to investigate the noise, but there was only silence.
Gingerly she stepped toward the door and poked her head into the hall. It was empty.
It seemed the man had been alone. Finally she risked a look at him.
He was lying still at her feet, big, bulky and dressed all in black. The mud on the edges of his trousers suggested he’d come across the fields at the back of the house. She couldn’t make out his features because he’d landed face- first, but blood oozed from a wound on his head and darkened her kitchen floor.
Feeling a little dizzy, Kathleen pressed her hand to her throbbing head.
What now? Was one supposed to administer first aid when one was the cause of the injury? Was that helpful or hypocritical? Or was he past first aid and every other type of aid?
She nudged his body with her bare foot, but there was no movement.
Had she killed him?
The enormity of it shook her.
If he was dead, then she was a murderer.
When Liza had expressed a desire to see her mother safely housed somewhere she could easily visit, presumably she hadn’t been thinking of prison.
Who was he? Did he have family? What had been his intention when he’d forcibly entered her home?
Kathleen put the skillet down and forced her shaky limbs to carry her to the living room. Something tickled her cheek. Blood. Hers.
She picked up the phone and for the first time in her life dialed the emergency services.
Underneath the panic and the shock there was something that felt a lot like pride. It was a relief to discover she wasn’t as weak and defenseless as everyone seemed to think.
When a woman answered, Kathleen spoke clearly and without hesitation.
“There’s a body in my kitchen,” she said. “I assume you’ll want to come and remove it.”
The Summer Seekers is the uplifting, feel-good new novel from Sunday Times bestselling author Sarah Morgan! Coming May 2021. Available to pre-order from: Amazon | Waterstones | Foyles | Hive | Bookshop.org