This book will launch on Nov 4, 2019. Currently, only those with the link can see it.🔒

At 21, Shalini Bhalla knew where she was heading in life.

Born into a successful Indian family in Kenya, Shalini – at university in England – was preparing to one day take over the family business. Everything was mapped out… until she met and fell in love with her English neighbour, Jeremy. Then her world turned upside down.

For the first time in her life she found herself at odds with her parents and was faced with an agonising choice: to follow her heart or to submit to her parents’ wishes.

Shalini’s decision would take her on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery – one that took in family estrangement, severe depression, spiritual and physical renewal, devastating loss and, finally, hope.

Always With You is the gripping and inspiring story of one woman who found the strength and courage to carve out her own path…

Above all it is a testament to the power of love.

A Rabbit in the Garden

Destiny will place you in those particular circumstances; it will dictate that you will encounter a certain person, at a certain time, and perhaps in a certain place.”

Dr. Brian Weiss  

There is a rabbit in my garden eating my freshly planted flowers! I watched, outraged, from the upstairs window of my new home as a very fat white rabbit hopped around my lawn, helping himself to all the new flowers I’d planted just the day before – a riot of brightly-coloured wallflowers, pansies and camellias. The cheek of the thing! 

I raced downstairs and out onto the lawn to get a better look at my unwelcome visitor. I knew practically nothing about gardening but I’d done my best in the last few days to make the place look a little better than when I’d moved in a few weeks before in early February. The garden had looked pretty bleak back then but as the weeks passed, the winter frost loosened its grip and hopeful buds of spring began to poke through the ends of bare branches. I had arrived in the UK the previous year, in September 1996, and the long, cold English winter had come as a real shock to me. The dark nights drawing in so early, the cold damp that seemed to penetrate my bones, bitter winds that made breathing difficult and the greyness that seemed to pervade everything. It was a far cry from the warmth, sunshine and colour of Kenya – my home - and a strong feeling of homesickness had gripped me throughout the winter. But my mood had begun to lift as the pretty cherry blossoms emerged on the trees along our street and the sun enticed small flowers from bulbs in the ground. It was enough to tempt me into a garden centre with the aim of cheering up my own garden. I knew little about plants, other than what I thought looked nice. So, I filled a trolley with the most colourful and healthy-looking flowers I could find, learning their names from the plastic labels at the front of the pots; invested in a trowel and some compost and got to work on the beds, digging up weeds, removing stones and planting an eclectic mix of flowers. Hours later, I sat back on my heels to admire my work. Not bad for a girl who had never attempted gardening before!

Now, I was dismayed to see that most of the flower heads had been chewed off and a good many leaves sported tell-tale nibbled edges. I sighed. My mother would have been so proud to know I was giving our house a makeover. An astute businesswoman, it was her idea to buy this place, 15 Miller Road, on the outskirts of Guildford in Surrey. While I studied for my masters in Tourism Education at the University of Surrey, my mother decided to invest in the UK property market – and provide a place for me to live at the same time. We agreed that she would put down the deposit to buy the house and I would be responsible for the mortgage and bills while I lived in it. Then, when I was due to return to Kenya to join the family business, we would sell up and both profit from the joint investment.

My mother was herself a wonderful gardener, filling the beds in our garden at home with dozens of sweet-smelling roses. There was no competition to be had here, I thought miserably. Where had this rabbit come from? It was still there, barely giving me a second glance as it sat on his well-fed haunches, munching through my garden with impunity. I peered over the fence to my neighbour’s garden on one side – no clues there. Then I walked to the other side, where I looked over and saw a couple of young girls, aged about 10 or 11, playing with two rabbits. Aha! In the corner was a large homemade hutch, which was clearly where my hungry friend belonged. The girls were engrossed with the other two rabbits and didn’t seem to have noticed that the third had escaped.

Who were they? I racked my brains for the answer. I had met several of my neighbours already and some had introduced themselves to me when I first arrived. But I hadn’t met this one yet… what was his name again? A divorcee, he lived on his own and his name was… Jerry? Or Jeremy? I remembered that he had three daughters who came to stay on the weekends when I often heard them playing in the garden. 

The sun was shining and a warm breeze rustled the trees outside so I didn’t bother putting on a coat. I just slipped on my Kenyan bata slippers and left the latch on while I walked up the path to Jerry/Jeremy’s front door. His front garden, I noticed, was beautifully tended. He must be a pretty good gardener, I thought, admiring the attractive tulips and colourful rock garden. The rabbit clearly hadn’t found its way to the front of the house yet. I rang the doorbell.

In a matter of seconds, the door swung open to reveal a striking-looking man with piercing blue eyes that perfectly matched his crisply-ironed shirt. 

‘Hello?’ his voice was both deep and soft at the same time. It had a smooth, pillowy quality. For a second I completely forgot why I was there. Wow! Those eyes! 

Instinctively I smiled and he smiled back - a broad, handsome grin which lit up his whole face. My stomach did a little somersault and I had to fight the urge to giggle. My goodness! What’s going on? The whole reason for my visit suddenly seemed utterly absurd.  

‘Hello,’ I finally managed to blurt out. ‘Hello. I’m your new neighbor, Shalini. I moved in a few weeks ago.’

‘Oh yes,’ he grinned again and nodded. ‘Hello Shalini – lovely to meet you. I’m Jeremy.’

He put out his hand to shake and when I offered him mine, he grasped it firmly and pumped my arm up and down a couple of times. His grip was strong and firm and his hands, warm. How very English, I thought.

‘Welcome to the area. I hope you’re settling in all right. You know, if there’s anything I can do…’

‘Yes, well, there is actually. I think your rabbit has broken into my garden and he appears to be eating his way through my flowerbeds.’

Jeremy had looked so confident and cool at first – now his face collapsed in confusion.

‘Really? Oh no, I’m so sorry.’

‘Yes, it’s a big white fluffy rabbit. Is it yours?’

‘Erm… yes. At least, I think so. Just give me a minute.’

Jeremy disappeared and I heard him shout through the hallway,

‘Jenny! Katie! Have you got Fluffy?’ 

A pause, then footsteps again and Jeremy reappeared at the doorway, looking awkward and embarrassed.

‘I am so sorry about this, Shalini. The girls got the rabbits out and he must have slipped under the fence somehow. They hadn’t even noticed he was gone. What a little rascal! I’ll come round now and get him back.’

Jeremy stepped out of the doorway and joined me as we walked towards my house. 

‘I wouldn't mind, really, it’s just that I planted all these flowers yesterday and now, well, there isn’t much left,’ I said, as I opened the front door and we crossed the living room through to the patio doors.

‘You didn’t, did you? Oh no!’ Jeremy appeared genuinely upset about the situation.

‘I can’t apologise enough. Really, Shalini, I’m so sorry. Here’s you moving into a new home and it’s not exactly the best start, is it?’

Opening the back door we both saw the rabbit sitting, rather proudly, in the centre of the lawn.

‘Yes, that’s Fluffy. Right, come here, you little rotter…!’

Jeremy lunged towards the bunny, who darted away in a split second. He might have been a hefty fellow but he certainly moved fast.

‘You cheeky bugger!’ Jeremy exclaimed. 

Now that Fluffy was alert to what was going on, he bounded off into a corner of the garden, right up against the fence, and sat there watching us warily.

‘Come on Fluffy…’ Jeremy called out in a singsong voice as he crept forward, crouching low, arms outstretched.  

‘Come here…come on then…’

Fluffy sat, immobile, his little nose twitching suspiciously. Jeremy edged closer and closer. He was going to do it this time, I felt sure. I held my breath as he crept nearer and nearer to his target… then… pounced! But once again, the agile creature bounced off in the opposite direction. Jeremy ran after it now, not even attempting the singsong voice. He literally jumped on it this time but somehow Fluffy managed to wriggle out of his arms. I burst out laughing.

‘Hey!’ Jeremy said ruefully, straightening his back.

‘Whose side are you on?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I laughed. ‘Don’t get me wrong; I want him out of here. I’m on your side, but he’s cleverer than he looks.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ Jeremy whispered, his face set in solemn determination. ‘We’ll see…’

It must have gone on for about ten minutes, this crazy game of cat and mouse, or, more accurately, man and rabbit, as Jeremy chased his pet from one side of the garden to the other. As he ran, he couldn’t stop apologizing for all the disruption and for messing up my garden. It was sweet, funny and completely ridiculous. I had completely forgotten about my flowers, but I didn’t mind. Not one bit. The entertainment was well worth it and I loved the way Jeremy said my name. Shalini. Shalini. It sounded so right in his voice. I could have listened to him all day but finally he caught up with his dastardly pet and managed to scoop him up in his arms. 

Beads of sweat peppered Jeremy’s forehead and his blue eyes sparkled triumphantly as he held the rabbit aloft, as if brandishing a first-prize cup.

‘Got him!’ he panted. I clapped appreciatively. 

‘You’re going back into your cage, you blighter!’ Jeremy addressed the rabbit before turning to me: ‘Lovely to meet you, Shalini, and again I’m really very sorry. I’ll get this one back home now and later today I’ll work out where it he got out and fix it. I promise he won’t be bothering you anymore.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Thank you. It’s been nice to meet you too.’

He had such charming manners, this man. I felt sure that if it weren’t for the large rabbit in his arms, he’d be trying to shake my hand right now. 

Later, as I sat down to start a course assignment, the memory of that day made me smile again. I like him! I knew that straightaway. He was handsome, of course, and I noticed his strong, athletic physique as he raced around my garden. But there was more to it than that. There was something special about this man and I felt that I wanted to get to know him better.  

Although I had experienced crushes before, I’d never really had a proper relationship with a man. And that didn’t bother me because I hadn’t been interested. I had been brought up in a fairly strict Indian family, where it was expected that I would eventually marry a good Hindu boy with a successful career and from a well off, respected family – very much the suitable boy. Even with my western education and outlook I would still in the end be required to go back to Kenya and be the good Indian girl. But it was something I was not wholly comfortable with. I was fiercely ambitious and independent and knew I would never need a man to make me feel complete. I was a strong woman, a proud feminist and I laughed at the folly of those women who obsessed about men and the state of their love lives. What for? I had bigger aspirations than making a man happy. I was set on achieving a high-flying career and I certainly wasn’t going to let a man get in the way of my ambition. Still, when I put my mind to something, I usually saw it through. And since it wasn’t likely I would get another bunny invasion any time soon, I had to think of another way to see Jeremy again. 

So, the following week, I walked over to his house and knocked on his door. 


‘Hi Jeremy,’ I said, quite casually. ‘Since I’m new to the area, I’m doing a little bit of entertaining… you know, trying to get to know my neighbours. I wondered if you’d like to come over for drinks one evening next week?’

‘Yes, that sounds lovely.’

‘Great – which night are you free?’ Yes, it was brazen but I didn’t care. I had chosen my words carefully, making the invitation sound like a friendly and neighbourly get together, nothing more. 

‘Tuesday’s good for me,’ he replied. 

‘Tuesday it is. Shall we say 8pm?’

I felt a thrill and a sense of rebellion that I had never felt before. I had always towed the line with my parents and always met their expectations. I had always been the dutiful Indian daughter. Until now. 

About the author

I'm an award-winning entrepreneur and Director of Just Jhoom! a Bollywood-inspired, dance-fitness programme. I've suffered with depression throughout my life, and worked to raise awareness of mental health issues. I am now the author of 2 books and a motivational speaker and performer. view profile

Published on July 04, 2018

Published by

80000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Biographies & memoirs

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