I am absolutely thrilled to be today's stop on The Olive Branch Blog Tour by Jo Thomas and have an exclusive extract from this wonderful book to share with you. The Olive Branch was published by Headline on 2nd July 2015.
My hand hovers over the mouse. My heart is pumping and I’m not sure if it’s the Prosecco we’ve drunk or pure madness racing through my veins.
I take in the bare room around me. It’s soulless, empty of furniture and feelings.
I look at my friend Morag, her eyes bright with excitement.
The clock is ticking, and with every passing second my heart beats louder.
‘Ten, nine . . .’ The timer clicks down. My mouth is dry.
‘Eight, seven . . .’ I feel sick, again not sure if it’s due to Prosecco or tension. This is insane.
‘Six, five . . .’ I look around the place I once called home – now an empty shell, like me.
‘Four, three . . .’ I consider my options. There’s only one as far as I’m concerned.
‘Two . . .’ And it’s utterly reckless.
‘One.’ I glance at Morag, who looks as though she might burst, and I don’t know if I do it intentionally, or if my finger just twitches involuntarily. But I press the button, and we fall giggling into a Prosecco-fuelled slumber on the lumpy settees.
The next morning, after paracetamol and gallons of water have started to take effect, a slow realisation creeps over me like cold custard. I rush to the computer and check my emails. There it is, in black and white, bringing back my moment of madness and reminding me of why it should be compulsory to take a breathalyser test before using the internet late at night.
Congratulations! You were the successful bidder! My heart jumps into my mouth and bangs noisily against my ears. Now what am I going to do?
My panicked thoughts are interrupted by a knock at the door, and as I stumble across the room to open it, my heart thunders some more.
‘Hi, we’ve come for the sofas,’ says the bright, wellspoken young woman who is standing there with her eager boyfriend. I look at the couch where Morag is still sleeping. ‘We’ll just be a moment. I’m nearly done here,’ I say as the young couple start lifting the sofa that was my bed until a few minutes ago. There’s only one thing I can do, says the mad, impetuous voice in my head. And I realise it’s mine.
As I watch the goat marching up and down the courtyard, like a foot guard at Buckingham Palace, I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
‘Recalculating! Recalculating!’ My sole companion for the entire journey continues shouting, her voice cutting through me like a dentist’s drill. I switch her off firmly, with pleasure, before turning off the engine of my little Ford Ka. The windscreen wipers let out an exhausted whine and the screen is a whiteout of water in seconds, like fake rain in a low-budget film. Only this is not fake, it’s very real, I remind myself, as the water drums noisily on the car roof.
I take a deep breath. It’s been like this ever since I left Bari, the sprawling port at the top of Italy’s heel, where I stopped off to do a quick shop in Ikea for essentials and lunch. This is another thing I wasn’t expecting, aside from the goat: torrential rain in summer in southern Italy.
I gaze out of the car window and pull my lightweight hoodie closer around me. A collection of silver bangles jangles on my wrist and I look down at my Rolling Stones T-shirt, which I’ve cut into a crop top, and my paintsplattered cut-off Levi’s. I’m definitely underdressed. Grabbing my favourite vintage leather jacket from the seat beside me, I pull it on and shiver. I should be in waterproofs and wellies.
Taking another deep breath, I pull the handle and push the car door open against the driving rain. I straighten up, holding one hand over my eyes, and shiver again as I look down at the envelope in my hand.
The rain lashes against the paper, making the ink run, and I have to keep shutting my eyes against the deluge. The goat glances in my direction and I’m sure I hear it snort.
I use one hand to shield my eyes and strain to look at the house in front of me, then back at the long, potholed drive I’ve just driven down. I can hardly see the big stone pillars and red metal gates at the entrance. I shove the envelope back in my pocket and pull out a printed picture of the house. The image is papier mâché in seconds, disintegrating and landing on the wet stones at my feet. If I’m not quick, my canvas slip-ons will go the same way. This has to be the right place; there’s nowhere similar nearby.
I passed a couple of small houses on the way in, as the narrow road led me up and down and round and round like a fairground ride, with occasional potholes for added fear factor. Some of the houses had curved roofs, while others were modern and flat-roofed. I also spotted the occasional collection of dilapidated trulli – small circular houses with conical roofs, like clusters of field mushrooms. But I’m not looking for a trullo. The house in front of me now is like something from a film set. It’s old, weatherworn, faded pink and big – much bigger than I imagined. There’s nothing else like it on the lane. This must be it.
I hold my hand up against the punishing rain, and half wonder whether a plague of locusts is going to follow next. Perhaps this is a sign . . . I push the silly thought away, along with the memory of my mum’s despairing phone messages and Ed’s disapproving emails.
My T-shirt is stuck to my skin and the rain is dripping down my short hair and on to my face, running off round my nose stud like a little waterfall. There’s no point in rummaging in the boot for my raincoat now, so I sling on my lavender leather satchel and wonder what I’ve let myself in for. I could get back in the car, drive away from here as quickly as possible and email Ed to tell him he was right all along: I am daft, impetuous and irresponsible.
But then again, at least I’m not boring and stuck in my ways. There’s only one way to go: forwards! I bow my head, pull my bag tighter to me and run towards the listing veranda groaning with an unruly and neglected bougainvillea.
With my chin tucked into my chest, I spot a large pothole and sidestep it, slipping and skidding on the worn cobbles. I’m startlingly close to the cross-looking goat, which is now standing across the front door. I am in the middle of my worst nightmare.
‘Maah,’ the goat bleats, making me jump. God, that was loud. I stare at the goat and it stares back at me. Its eyes are different colours: one scarily yellow, the other blue. For the first time in weeks, I have no idea what to do. Guard goats were not on my list of essential information.
I wonder whether ‘shoo’ has the same meaning in Italian as it does in English. It’s not something I can remember covering in my evening classes. But I need to do something. I’m freezing out here.
‘Shoo, shoo!’ I say, waving my hands in the goat’s direction and backing away at the same time. I don’t want it to run at me with its horns, which look pointy and sharp. You don’t get goats standing in the way of your front door back in Tooting. The odd drunk camping out for the night, maybe, but somehow they seem easier to overcome than this.
‘Shoo, shoo!’ I try again, this time with more handwaving. The goat flinches, as do the terrified butterflies in my stomach, but still it doesn’t move from its position in front of the big, dark wooden door. Even the three-day drive down through France and Italy, with stop-offs in laybys to catch forty winks and only an irritating, indecisive satnav for company, is nothing compared to this.
I’ve spent the past six weeks dealing with estate agents, flat viewings and solicitors, packing up and dividing the belongings Ed and I shared. I separated everything out and gave over custody of our joint retro record collection and the player I found on eBay. I sold off redundant furniture, oversaw its collection and moved myself out of our flat. It all went without a hitch; nothing fazed me. But territorial goats? No idea! I throw my hands up and turn my back on it.
Opening up my satchel, I search around for some kind of magic bean that will help me out here. Then I spot it: a half-eaten Kit Kat I bought in a service station somewhere outside Rome. I thought the sugar boost might get me round the greater ring road – that and Dolly Parton on the CD player. It sort of worked. I got round on a wing and a prayer, nerves jangling, heart in mouth, high on energy drinks and with a lot of hand gestures and horn honking – not necessarily mine. I pull out the Kit Kat and wave it at the goat. It steadfastly ignores me, looking the other way from its sheltered position. I quickly pull back the wrapper.
‘Come on. It’s chocolate.’ I wave it, immediately feeling like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and break off a piece to toss in front of the goat. As it backs away, I think I’m going to have to give up and look for somewhere else to stay tonight until I can find the owner. Then it sniffs at the taster and snaffles it up with appreciative noises, walking towards me, no doubt hoping for more.
‘See, it’s good.’ I break off another bit, tossing it in front of the goat, which is now moving faster and faster. I walk backwards, getting quicker all the time. I feel like I’m in a scene from You’ve Been Framed. I’m miles away from home, in the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen, with my worldly possessions in a Ford Ka, trying to tempt a goat away from a front door with half a Kit Kat. I’m beginning to understand how Noah felt, and I’m debating whether there would be room for goats on my ark.
This is all Ed’s fault! I think irrationally. And my mum’s. The goat keeps hoovering up the Kit Kat and I’m nearly at the edge of the slippery forecourt. I step back and my heel hits a low stone wall, giving me a reality check.
I step up on to the wall and my phone springs into life. I pull it out, hoping for some kind of encouraging words. Two text messages and some missed calls. I don’t bother to check the calls. The texts are from Ed and my mum. That’s all I need. If Ed knew that at this moment I was trying to bribe a territorial goat, he’d start by saying ‘I told you so,’ with lowering eyebrows. It’s his reaction to everything I do – he thinks I’m impulsive; ‘hot-headed’, he calls it. He’s forever telling me I always leap before I look. He, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything without consulting Google or Facebook first. We’re total opposites. At first, that was the fun part about it. But now he thinks I knee-jerk-react to everything. I think he thinks too long and hard about things and doesn’t take risks. It could’ve been the perfect combination. But it wasn’t.
If Ed had been here, it would be a whole different story. He wouldn’t have stepped out of the car without a team of health and safety officers inspecting the place first, and he’d’ve employed Bear Grylls himself to get rid of the goat.
No, I can’t fall at the first hurdle now, even if this goat does have the guarding instincts of a Rottweiler. It pushes its face up towards my hands and I can’t move. I do the only thing I can: reach out a tentative hand and scratch it between the eyes. It seems to like it. But I’m stuck here now. If I stop, it nudges me, hard. There’s nothing for it, it’s now or never.
I throw the last piece of Kit Kat as far as I can, beyond the uneven cobbles. The goat turns and nearly topples over in its excitement to get to it, slipping, sliding and clattering across the stones before leaping on the tasty treat. I throw myself towards the front door. My hands shake as I pull out the big, rusting key and push it into the lock, whilst trying to keep one eye on the goat. In the process, I drop the envelope on the wet floor. I pick it up and push really hard against the door. It doesn’t budge. The goat is trotting back towards me. I pull away, dip my shoulder and give the door an almighty shove; it flies open just as there is a huge crash of thunder and a silver sliver cracks across the sky. I fall through the front door, desperate to escape the elements, into a cavernous room, along with the goat.
‘Maah,’ it says loudly, dripping all over the floor. A great wave of despair washes over me. What on earth have I let myself in for?
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