The courier arrived with the wormery two days before Christmas. He was hooded and hunched, trying to shield what he was carrying from the sheets of rain that were coming at him sideways. She saw how he was getting drenched, but she hesitated before opening the door to the porch. He was taller than the regular postman.

When the door finally opened to him, he huddled in, all etiquette swept away by the weather. The sound of the rain slapped the glass around them. She stepped back, arms raised slightly. A mixture of cold air and cheap cologne hit her senses, stopping the hello in her throat.

‘Just grab that clipboard there, will you?’ He tipped the box and the clipboard slid towards her. She caught it with a quick intake of breath and stepped back into the house.

‘Where do I sign?’

‘Just anywhere down the bottom.’

She looked for a line or a box or something more specific; there was none. Holding the board into her stomach, she signed as neatly as she could. It was black ink and she hated black ink.

‘Will I just leave it here?’ He had stepped into the hall behind her. Why couldn’t he have just stayed in the porch? Without waiting for her reply, he offloaded the box by the old grandfather clock. ‘Last minute shopping I suppose.’ His hands now free, he pulled his hood back and wiped his face. She didn’t reply but handed the clipboard back to him, her mind quickly taking in his features and deciding they were unexpected.

‘Well, that’s you sorted.’

‘Yes.’

‘Happy Christmas then.’ He shrugged the way people do when stating the obvious.

‘Happy Christmas.’

With that he turned and disappeared back under his hood. When he closed the porch door behind him it sounded like the zipper on a freezer bag; she was sealed in again and her breathing steadied off.

She didn’t open the box straightaway because she knew what it was and she wanted to finish her lunch first. Sliding back into her chair, she pulled it so tight up to the table that she had to sit completely upright. Picking up her knife and fork, she measured out the angle of her elbows and began eating.

The courier had been good-looking. Now that she wasn’t begrudging his intrusion, she was able to recollect his features and admire them. Spreading out her coleslaw, she decided that it had been his jawline she’d liked best. It had been taut and his face had risen up hollow to high cheekbones. She was sure that if he were to lean over her she would be able to confirm the entire lack of fat in his face; yes, his features would hold nicely.

Her tea had grown cold. Extracting herself from the table and chair, she went to put on the kettle. There wasn’t enough left on the plate to warrant sitting down to it again in any fashion so she picked up a wedge of bread and polished off what was left while standing. Then she went to fetch the box.

It was big but light; no strength was needed to lift it but her arms wrapped awkwardly, unfully, around its edges. How strange to think that it held live beings. A tinge of regret seeped into her as she set it down and looked for the closest sharpish object to cut the tape with.

The whole thing was to be James’s present to her. She let the butter knife seep into the cardboard, but it wouldn’t cut and she had to jab and pull. It was distasteful to have to organise her own present but she couldn’t see any way around it. She couldn’t leave the worms under the tree for two days—she would be convinced the whole time that they were suffocating. What she would do though is wrap up the box and leave it under the tree. It should at least be a surprise for Lucy. Lucy would get a real kick out of it.

Splashing the freshly boiled water on top of the old tea, she sat down with the instruction leaflet. Scanning through the introduction, she paused and frowned. It said that the worms couldn’t be left fully outdoors during the coldest months, that they had to be sheltered in a shed or some such. This had not been her plan. The whole point was to have them handy, to have them right outside the kitchen door. They already had a compost heap at the bottom of the garden—the whole point of the wormery was so she wouldn’t have to walk so far. She bit into the side of her thumbnail; should she send it all back? But she couldn’t, could she? It had been her idea. And besides, what would she open on Christmas morning?

It had to be assembled, but it didn’t look too difficult. The drawing had each piece hovering in formation—ready to go but gravity-less. She took them all out of the box and lay them on the tiled floor, glad to see that each piece was easily recognisable.

It looked like a dark toy with its hard black plastic and chubby screws. She half followed the instructions, but it really would have been difficult to go far wrong. The parts knew where to put themselves and when everything was slotted and screwed in neatly, she hardly felt like she had accomplished anything at all. The only ingredient missing then were the actual worms.

They came in a plastic bag of soil and as she squeezed it gently, their fat bodies surfaced, only to disappear again. When she set it down on the table and looked at it from a distance, she couldn’t make out the presence of anything wriggling or alive at all. And they had come all the way from England; how ridiculous really.

‘I can’t put too many scraps in yet,’ she informed James when he came home that evening.

‘Why not?’

‘They have to settle in apparently.’

‘Oh.’ He glanced at the drawing on the front of the instruction leaflet that she’d left by his place on the table. ‘Why has it got a tap?’

‘Worm tea.’

‘Piss?’

‘Well, some sort of excrement.’ She frowned. ‘I don’t know. I’m not an expert.’

‘She’ll be on the bus from the airport now.’ He glanced at the clock and pushed the plate with the pasta he didn’t care much for away to the side. She might have it herself for supper.

‘I still think we should have gone up to collect her.’

‘She wouldn’t be wanting that.’ His tone was so self-assured she felt herself getting annoyed with him again. How many times this week had it been? She was like a pregnant woman counting the time between contractions. The increased frequency could no longer be ignored.

‘Is it still off with your man?’ James asked, getting up to do the dishes. He did always know when to change the subject.

‘Yes, so it seems. She’ll not be single long though.’

‘Not likely.’ He took her plate from her and lifted the one from lunchtime with its scraps of tell-tale coleslaw from the bottom of the sink. ‘Do worms eat that kind of thing?’

‘What kind of thing?’

‘I dunno. Dairy?’

‘I’m sure they do. But I don’t think you’re supposed to give it to them. Not for compost.’

‘We’ll have to make a list or something.’ He scraped the bits of soggy carrot and lettuce into the normal bin. ‘It’d be nice if she could meet a local lad.’

‘God. She’d have them for dinner.’

Lucy looked thinner but then she always looked thinner. ‘You look lovely,’ she told her.

‘The house looks great,’ Lucy replied, pulling out a chair and hanging her coat on it. It wasn’t a coat she’d seen before and it looked expensive. Her hair looked expensive too, come to think of it. It was still bright blonde but softer, less brassy, and the cut—a long bob and fringe—sat well around her features.

James flitted around the kitchen, his movements lighter now that Lucy was there. She turned to watch as he pulled at the doors and left them open. It was as though he were assembling something very complicated but with the light eagerness of a child. She turned back to Lucy and smiled. ‘So how’s everything in London?’

‘Same old.’ Lucy was now fiddling with a coaster, standing it on its side, then letting it fall into her palm. Until she gauged it wrong and it fell the other way. She patted it then, as if to say ‘stay’. ‘How’s everything here?’

‘Fine, fine.’ She reached for the small bottle of coral nail polish that she’d left out on the table and forgotten to use. It calmed her nerves to slick on the colour; even the too-strong smell pleased her. There was nothing nostalgic to it, the way there sometimes is with smells. She didn’t have any sentimental images of watching her own mother, or any other woman in fact, paint their nails. It was just something that she herself had always done. It was only familiar to her through her own repeated actions. She glanced over at Lucy’s hands; the nails were short and clean.

‘There you go,’ James set the plate down in front of Lucy and lifted the warped plastic microwave cover as though it were made of the finest silver. The smell of the tomato and basil mingled strangely with the nail polish, but nobody said anything. She stood up to fan her hand at a greater distance. From the other side of the room she watched the small mound of pasta and steam; it looked like it might come to life and she thought of all the children’s books she used to read to Lucy where that would be an entirely plausible plotline.

Lucy’s room had had to be put together again. In the years since she’d left, it had morphed into a kind of wardrobe-slash-ironing room. It was strange now to see it stripped bare, emptied of all her extra clothes rails and baskets of towels and bed sheets. She had thrown a couple of extra cushions on the bed and brought in a vase of flowers to take the naked look off it.

‘It’s always smaller than I remember,’ Lucy said, lugging her suitcase in through the doorway and pushing it up against the side of the walnut wardrobe. There were still tell-tale marks where the childhood stickers had been; little white traces of paper and glue that had never got scraped off fully.

‘It looks huge to me without the clothes rails.’

‘I don’t know why you hang on to all that stuff. You never wear it.’

‘Are you still a minimalist?’

‘I never said I was a minimalist.’

‘So you’ve bought new things?’ She thought of the teal coat on the kitchen chair.

‘Yes.’ Lucy opened the doors of the wardrobe and counted the hangers inside. ‘And got rid of old things. Like I keep saying you should do.’

The amount of stuff her daughter had dumped the last time she was home had amazed her. Something like envy had bubbled up as she’d watched her bin even sentimental things like letters and ticket stubs. A digital copy was all that was needed apparently; she remembered watching Lucy hovering over the scanner for a full morning, feeding in all the little scraps that she had harvested from the bottoms of drawers. And then everything had been dumped, quite unceremoniously, at the garage door. It had been up to her, of course, to sort it out for recycling and cart it off.

As the evening wore on, the house began to smell of unfamiliar shampoo and perfume. Steam from the bathroom clouded onto the landing and when she entered it she found the newer, nicer towels, now damp from use, draped across the radiator and stool. A smart looking wash bag stood on the unit by the sink. It had been left unzipped and she pried it open gently with her fingers.

It was full of travel-size pots and tubes and aerosols. There was an unopened box of tampons, a wooden comb with some little ecological logo on it and a pack of hair bands, the cardboard soft and frayed with age. A pack of miniature pills with the days of the week on the foil caught her eye. She removed her hand and, picking up the towels, headed back out onto the landing.

The laundry basket, wedged between the banister and a dead-space alcove, had been empty that morning but now she couldn’t see the bottom. The entire outfit Lucy had arrived in lay on top—a tangled ball of dark denim, white cotton and grey wool. Underwear peaked out, a matching bra and briefs in black with fluorescent orange trimming. There was something else underneath it all that looked like a blanket but she couldn’t tell. She pushed the towels in on top and let the lid fall. Walking slowly down the stairs she could hear music come from Lucy’s room and decided the coast was clear.

The garage was dark, but she didn’t want to switch on the light. She waited for her eyes to adjust and when the shine of the new black plastic began to manifest she picked her way across, managing to avoid tripping over things like the lawnmower and leftover planks of wood. The wormery seemed small next to the tetris-packed junk.

‘Hello little ones,’ she said as she lifted the lid. She picked one of them up and rolled it between her fingers. What did its movements mean? Of course, pinched like that, she was moving it more than it was moving itself. She placed it in her other palm and waited. It wriggled alright but the longer she watched, the more it seemed like it would never get anywhere at all. Did it need the friction of the soil to get going? Was the skin on her palm too smooth for it?

‘Mum? Are you in there?’

‘Shit.’ Flinging the worm back in, she struggled to her feet. ‘Hold on!’

‘What on earth are you doing in the dark?’ She got to the door just as Lucy’s hand found the light switch.

‘Don’t come in, it’s filthy. You’ll get covered in dust.’

Lucy shrugged and stepped back into the small alley that separated the house from the garage. She was holding her elbows from the cold. ‘I was wondering if I could get a lift into town?’

‘Did you not ask your father?’

‘He says he’s already had a drink and doesn’t want to be chancing it.’ They moved back to the kitchen where the lights seemed too bright now and the heat stifling. ‘Do you mind?’

‘No, it’s fine. What time do you want to leave at?’

‘Well, now would be good.’

The inside of the car was as cold as outside and when they bent their heads to fasten their seat belts their breath, clearly visible, met and mingled.

‘Who all’s going out?’

‘Some of the girls. Fiona and Bee. Maybe Maria.’ Each name came with an exhale like it exhausted her to list them out.

‘How are they?’

‘Fine.’

As she concentrated on pulling out of the drive, Lucy turned on the radio and adjusted the volume so that, though not loud, it put off conversation. Then she turned her face to the side window even though it only reflected what was in the car, staying like that for most of the journey into town. Every minute or two the phone would come out and the glow would hit their jawlines. She tried to soften her face and think of something to say but nothing would come out and she drove that little bit faster to have it done with already.

‘You have the spare key, don’t you?’ she asked as she double parked in front of the pub.

‘Yeah, yeah.’ Lucy checked her reflection one last time in the mirror; the blunt fringe was patted down and some getaway red lipstick was wiped off with the little finger of her left hand. A car beeped behind them and, rolling her eyes, she got out. ‘Thanks.’ It sounded like an afterthought and the car door slammed shut on her voice, the noisy night air hardly getting a chance to slip in.

The town was full of cars stopping and starting and the taxi ranks looked like relay teams with their steady streams of cabs pulling in and out. Her hands tightened on the steering wheel as she found her place among them, only relaxing when she got back onto the blacker roads and left the busyness behind.

James had gone off to the pub so she was completely alone in the house. Making some tea and toast, she calculated how many episodes of House of Cards she could squeeze in before anyone got home. A small plate of scraps was sat out by the microwave and she thought of the worms and how she should bring them something. But she couldn’t be wasting any time; she’d visit them later. The small patter of anxiety kicked in her chest and out of the corner of her eye she could see all her movements play out in the dark reflection of the kitchen window. In between loading her supper on the tray, she leaned over the sink and yanked down the blind.

The first episode did everything she wanted it to do but as she let the second one start she knew that her mind wouldn’t hold to it. What was being held down came up and she felt physically repelled by the sofa and how her body was sunk into it. The softness of it all made her want to push and pinch. She felt how terrible her posture was, how terribly hunched over she’d become, and she berated herself for it.

In the end she hit the remote, her thumb pressed exaggeratingly on the button until it hurt and the mark was left on her skin. Then she kicked off the throw and stood up, a small fury racing through each new movement. As she loaded everything back onto the tray, the tears came. They pushed down her face, only making her angrier at herself, and it was all she could do not to fling the lot against the hard corner of the base of the woodstove.

James came through the door just as she reached the sink. She kept her back to him and made a fuss of filling the basin up with hot water even though there weren’t enough dirty dishes to warrant it. Then she sank her arms into the suds and felt around the bottom for something sharp. Anything at all would do. Not to cut with; just to press, to stay tethered.

‘Did you leave a key out for Lucy?’

‘She has the spare.’

‘She looks well, doesn’t she?’ There was the sound of him pulling out a chair and her neck muscles protested. Could he not just go on to bed?

‘A bit thin.’ She immediately regretted not just agreeing.

‘But not thinner. I think she looks well.’

‘If you say so.’ She rinsed the same cup out three times before reluctantly offering it to the draining board.

When James finally went to bed she took the plate of scraps out to the garage. But in the exact moment before turning on the light she knew what she would see—the lid of the wormery propped up against the wall. Hurrying over, she found one escapee on the ground and a couple of others hanging off the sides. She scooped them up roughly and threw them back in. It was impossible to tell if any others were missing and she couldn’t decide if she was angrier at her own negligence or at their disloyalty. Either way she decided to withhold the crusts.

In bed she couldn’t sleep so she thought of the courier, conjuring up his face as she pushed her own into the pillow. It had escaped her all day but came back into focus now. Using a hooked toe, she pulled down the leg of her pyjama bottoms and rolled over onto her front. She tried to remember the shape of his hands, the satisfying angle of his thumb and forefinger; his grip on the box and how he had cradled the clipboard. It was always easier with props.

*

The morning held the house quietly and she set about getting as much done as early as possible. Now that they had reached Christmas Eve, it was time to start lighting the fire in the good room. She’d hardly spent any time in it since setting up the tree. It was James who went in each evening to turn on the decoration lights; she invariably forgot and he would notice when he pulled the car into the darkened driveway coming back from work.

Her to-do list was full of things she could very well have done at an earlier date: wrap stocking fillers, send an e-card to her brother in Canada, pick up the turkey, iron the dress she had decided to wear to her mother-in-law’s. She felt both hassled and pleased at the necessity of these things. But first things first.

She pulled out the tray of old ash and covered it with a sheet of newspaper. Gingerly she made her way out into the hall, through the kitchen and out the back door into the garden. Too late she realised she was still wearing her slippers and felt them soak up the moisture from the dew-filled grass. Eventually reaching the border with the neighbouring field, she tipped the ash out. Standing there in the loose morning light, she let her gaze linger on the bottom corner of the garden where the old compost heap stood. It looked enormous behind its wall of old wood. There was no shiny black plastic, no tap, and no reluctant groundskeepers. The wormery suddenly struck her as a delicate, exotic plant; why had she decided to get it at all?

Lucy didn’t surface until noon. On the sofa in her pyjamas, she looked like a teenager again. The remote control lay in her lap and looked to fall every time she leant over for her tea.

‘I’m heading into town.’

‘Okay.’ Lucy’s head didn’t move from the propped-up cushions.

‘Fancy coming with?’

‘Now?’ She wrung the word out with disbelief.

‘I could do with your help.’

‘No, mum, I’m too hungover.’

She left and headed for the kitchen, just about resisting the urge to slam the door. Resisting, in the end, because if confronted on it, what would she say was her reason?

By the time she got back the daylight was already dipping. The depths of winter was what people called it and yes, it was true, it did feel deep. It was like they were all stuck at the bottom of some well, raised up in a bucket for no amount of time at all and then plunged back down again. It didn’t help that they were in the countryside, that there were no footpaths or streetlights. By four o’clock, if you were to step out onto the road, you would be taking your life into your own hands. She would complain if she hadn’t chosen it.

She offloaded the groceries onto the kitchen table and shrugged off her coat. She could hear Lucy moving around upstairs. There was pacing and then the creek of the bed. In her mind’s eye she could see her daughter sitting cross-legged, tapping and scrolling into her laptop. Maybe messaging friends back in London, probably complaining about being cooped up with ‘the fam’.

Lucy had her blocked on Facebook, but sometimes things would come up on her feed through mutual contacts and she would get little glimpses into her online life. It seemed to involve a lot of photos of feet and that awful cat. A couple of times she had considered asking to be unblocked. Lucy wasn’t a teenager anymore, after all, shouldn’t she feel comfortable sharing things with her at this stage? But why should she have to ask, she would always conclude, and so she never did.

‘Lucy was looking for the wrapping paper.’

‘Christ, I didn’t hear you come in.’ She set down the jars of cranberry sauce she’d been carrying and squinted at James. ‘The wrapping paper?’

‘Yeah, she’s upstairs sorting out her presents.’

‘Oh.’ The little image in her mind disintegrated. ‘I think it might be in our wardrobe.’

Later she found a small stack of presents peeking from below the lowest branches. Bending down, she examined the labels and recognised Lucy’s carefully careless handwriting. ‘Mum xx’ and ‘Dad xx’ each scrawled in oversized loops four times over. Far behind them, tucked into the back, was the festively wrapped but empty wormery box, one of its corners buckling the side of the tree.

‘I don’t think I feel up to going to your mother’s.’ She was sitting on the bed, looking at the dress she had ironed and hung up on the wardrobe door that morning. James was in the en suite but the door was ajar and she knew he could hear her because he’d just knocked off the tap.

‘You can’t not go.’ The side of his razor smacked against the enamel.

‘I know.’

‘I mean, what would I say?’

‘I know.’

‘We won’t stay long anyway.’

She hunkered down beside the wardrobe; there was a small mountain of shoes in the space between it and the wall. She needed to pick a pair—she had three options but still hadn’t decided. James came into the room and stepped around her to get to the chest of drawers where he stored his ties. He didn’t say anything else. After a few minutes she settled on the pink ones.

‘I don’t know why you didn’t just stay at home.’ Lucy’s voice was too low for what she was saying. It was fully dark out now, the bottom of the well, and as the car weaved through town, the only people around were midnight-mass goers.

‘It’s not normal.’ There was the anticlimactic sound of a fist hitting upholstery. ‘It’s not fucking normal.’

James remained silent. Even when the girl grabbed her headrest and started shaking it, he didn’t say a word. She matched his silence until she couldn’t and ordered him to stop the car. He didn’t acknowledge her at first.

‘Stop the car,’ she repeated. It took him a minute or two to find a place then and by that time her hand was at her mouth. Some of it was caught, some got on her good dress, and some made it to the pavement. James handed her his handkerchief and Lucy, slumped back in her seat, said nothing and closed her eyes. Once she’d cleaned herself up and closed the door, they drove on.

She had not planned on locking herself in her mother-in-law’s bathroom. It had not been a premeditated act or show. She’d just needed the space. And then she’d just needed the time. A little longer then. And then a little longer. Until it went on too long and it was suddenly hard to justify and hard to stop. Lucy had knocked on the door and she had put her hand on the latch, but there had been nothing in her that could find the will to open it.

After a while she had started examining the contents of the room. She had perched on the edge of the bath and picked up each bottle, tube and pot, and, with each one, she’d set about slowly reading their respective contents and instructions. It wasn’t until the shape of James’s face had appeared at the bubbled glass window that she knew she’d somehow gone too far.

James and Lucy were talking heatedly in the kitchen. She’d been in the good room stoking the new fire, but she had run out of coal. Hovering in the silence of the hall, she tried to pick out their words through the closed door, but it was useless. When she walked in, they dipped into silence and matching them with her own, she stalked through the room, out the back door, across the alleyway, and into the garage.

Faced with the wormery for the first time all day, she wanted to kick it. But what good would that do? And she was still in her good shoes; she didn’t want to scuff their soft baby-pink suede. Her eyes felt hot in her head and her throat close. She took the lid off, using only the tips of her fingers; the coral nail polish was chipped in places and she made a mental note to touch it up later. Using the coal shovel, she scooped out the wormery’s contents and tipped them, worms and all, into the black plastic bucket that was not new and did not shine. For a few seconds she stared at how it moved, then covered it all with regular fuel and made her way back in. This will show them, she thought, even though they’d never know.

‘Are you awake?’ James asked her later when she repositioned her head on the pillow. She didn’t reply and he didn’t insist.

On Christmas morning there was still a bit of heat coming from the fireplace. She examined the ashes, noting their anonymity. The first awake, she was dressed and she even had time to touch up her nails before James and eventually Lucy got up.

‘You shouldn’t have,’ Lucy said robotically when they went into the good room and she saw the small pile of presents laid out for her. She sat down cross-legged and keeping her back indifferently straight, started picking at and peeling back the paper.

One by one, she unveiled the small, predictable presents; a diary, After Eights, mittens, a manicure set. Each unwrapped gift was given a moment’s attention, then set down again. A designer purse got more of a reaction, but then she remembered herself and reigned in the enthusiasm.

‘You have to open your presents too,’ she said when she had finished. She got up and fetched them from under the tree.

‘Thanks.’ How strange that, amidst everything, Lucy had spent the time on going out and selecting something for her, something that she might like. It buoyed her.

The slim package was obviously department-store-wrapped, the paper tasteful, its folds as clean and symmetrical as a piece of origami; she tried not to rip it. Underneath was a thin box which she opened, again carefully. Her hands moved like soft floating things; how different her movements were when her thoughts were good.

Inside, shielded in light blue tissue paper, was a silk scarf so exquisite she could already imagine it being a talking point. ‘Look,’ she could hear herself saying. ‘My daughter got it for me for Christmas. From London. Beautiful, isn’t it?’ And the fact that it was not accompanied by the usual chocolates and fillers made it all the more precious.

‘Thanks,’ she repeated. ‘It really is beautiful.’

After James had opened his present, Lucy turned back to the tree.

‘So what’s the big box then?’

‘That’s my present to your mum.’ James went over and bending awkwardly, slid it out, knocking off two metallic baubles. They made a small cracking sound as they hit the hardwood floor.

‘Do you know what it is?’ Lucy asked. The tone was almost accusatory.

‘I might.’ Annoyance licked her words, ready to spoil her short good mood, but she stayed focused on the box and concentrated on ripping the paper. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Lucy tilting her head to read the print on the side that was just becoming visible: tigerworms4u.co.uk

‘But you already have a compost heap.’

‘This is a wormery.’

‘Yeah, but it’s the same idea is it not?’

This was not how it was supposed to be. She had wanted Lucy to be interested in it, amused even. Then she had planned on announcing that she was sending it back, that she didn’t want it after all. Now she had no option but to defend it.

‘I can have this by the kitchen door. It’ll save me going to the bottom of the garden.’

Lucy shrugged. ‘Well, let’s see it then.’ Her eyes were still on the box.

‘It’s not here.’

‘What do you mean it’s not here?’

‘It’s in the garage,’ James interjected.

‘Why is it in the garage?’

‘To protect them from the cold,’ she said.

‘Because it was a surprise,’ James said at the same time and why couldn’t he have kept his mouth shut?

‘What do you mean a surprise? She knew she was getting it.’ Lucy waved her hand towards her as though she were talking about a child.

‘We wanted it to be a surprise for you,’ James continued and there was no stopping him it seemed.

‘You may show it to me so.’ She looked as though she were going to roll her eyes but didn’t.

‘Let’s have some tea first. I’ll show it to you later.’

‘No. I want to see it now.’ Lucy walked towards the door. ‘What are wormery worms like? Are they different to regular worms?’

She didn’t answer but busied herself with scooping up all the wrapping paper and pushing it through the top flaps of the box. It wouldn’t do any good to lie.

‘Well? Are you coming or what?’

‘I want to tidy up here first.’

‘Jesus. I’ll go out by myself then.’

‘Leave that, I’ll do it.’ James took the ball of paper from her fist. She flinched at his touch, surprised by how warm his hands were. When was the last time they’d touched? ‘Go out with her,’ he said.

The garage was its usual dark self but colder than normal. Lucy picked her way over to the small clearing and stood facing the wormery.

‘It’s much smaller than I was expecting.’

‘You can add more tiers to it.’

‘So where are they?’ Lucy was still in her pyjamas and when she bent down, the bottom and belt of her dressing gown brushed the floor.

‘You’re going to get dirty.’

‘How do I open it?’

‘The tap is for worm tea.’

Lucy bent her head this way and that and ran her fingers down the front of the black plastic, as though looking for a drawer. She eventually realised that the top came off.

‘It’s empty.’

‘Yes.’

‘Why is it empty?’

‘The worms are arriving separately.’ The lie, when it came, felt surprisingly easy.

‘Oh, I thought I’d get to see them.’ She replaced the lid and stood up. ‘Well, that’s disappointing.’

She shrugged. ‘Let’s go back inside. It’s cold.’

‘So what did you think?’ James asked.

‘Well, it would be more exciting with actual worms.’

‘Didn’t you see them?’

‘They’re not here yet.’ Lucy looked from James to her and back to James again.

‘Yes, they are.’

‘I’m going to light the fire.’ She headed for the front room where she laid out the kneeling pad, and adjusting her skirt, let her knees sink into the mint green foam. She took the brush from the cast-iron fire set and, as carefully as possible, started sweeping together the ashes into a small mound. She heard someone come through the door; from the soft shuffle of slippers she knew it was Lucy.

‘Where are the worms, Mum?’

‘I got rid of them.’ The truth, too, came out easy.

‘Why?’

‘They were a bad idea.’

‘They were your idea, were they not? You wanted them.’

She shrugged and kept slowly sweeping. ‘I changed my mind.’

‘Jesus. So what are you going to do with the wormery?’

‘Does it really matter?’ The whole thing was boring her now. She stood up and turned to face her daughter. ‘What do you care anyway?’ The volume of her voice swayed upwards without her meaning it to.

‘Good.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes, good. Shout at me.’

‘I’m not shouting.’

‘I want you to shout.’

‘I’m not shouting.’

‘You nearly did.’ Lucy tugged at the towel belt, her fists clenching and unclenching around it. ‘I want you to shout. I want it more than anything.’

‘What a ridiculous thing to say.’

‘Dear Santa. This Christmas I want my mother to shout.’ Lucy’s own voice was on the verge of giving way. She dropped the belt and crossed her arms too tightly across her chest. ‘I promise to be a good girl. Just let my mother shout.’

‘What nonsense are you talking?’ She still had the small cast-iron brush in her hand. She went to return it to its place, each of her movements taking much longer than was warranted.

‘Don’t do that!’

‘Do what?’ She straightened up. Lucy was looking at her directly so she found the fallen baubles with her eyes and focused on them instead.

‘Don’t just…’ The belt was tugged at again. ‘When did it start?’

‘I need to talk to your father.’ She walked forward and Lucy blocked the doorway. ‘Oh, don’t be so dramatic.’

‘What do you need to talk to Dad about?’

‘The worms.’

‘Alright then. Tell us all about them. I’m dying to know.’ Lucy moved out from the doorway and started walking towards the kitchen, turning every half-second as though she were leading her and worried she’d stray.

But James wasn’t in the kitchen and when they called around the house he didn’t reply. She went upstairs, thinking he must be in their en suite. She didn’t even want to talk to him, she just wanted to put him between her and Lucy.

‘He must be outside,’ Lucy pronounced when they saw that he wasn’t anywhere upstairs. ‘He must be in the garage.’

They found him surrounded by four pieces of black plastic. He was wiping each one down with a dampened jay cloth and she noticed then the box, stripped of its wrapping paper, set out behind him, its flaps open and waiting. The instruction leaflet with its drawing of a tap had been uncomfortably forced back into the plastic sleeve and lay on the floor by his feet.

Lucy went over and started placing the cleaned pieces in the box. It was quite the little show. She didn’t move from the door but leaned slightly against the frame and watched them marry their movements.

She knew then that nothing more was going to be said. The box would be sealed and pushed against the wall, the clearing would get filled up again with an undergrowth of other boxes, Lucy would go back to London the day after next and James would never ask her what had happened to the worms. If she sent it back, the same courier might pick it up, she thought. And if he did, she would invite him in. Yes, she would invite him in, sit him down at the kitchen table and then, before anything else could happen, she would tell him what she’d done.