© Rosie Clare
Mum’s door was ajar. There she was, sitting on a stool at the foot of the bed, her arms and torso dancing. But there was no music.
She looked up at me and held out her arms.
“Dance with me!… Dance with me, Annie.”
I stepped forward slowly and clasped her hands in mine. She rose to her feet and we waltzed round the room, tumbling lightly and easily round the furniture.
Gradually, the familiar dewdrop welled up on the tip of her beautiful aquiline nose. The tears glistened in her deep, brown eyes. I guided her round, still dancing, back to the stool and one hand still holding hers like my life depended on it, I felt for the chair and pulled it under me. My legs were shaking. We sat opposite one another, knees interlocked, fingers woven.
“What is it, Mum? What’s happened?”
“He’s explained it all.”
“He’s explained it to me. And I understand. I know what’s going to happen, Annie. Now I need you to understand, too.”
“Understand what, Mum? Is it the consultant you’ve talked to? What’s happened?”
“I won’t need any more operations. That’s good, isn’t it?”
Good? Was it good? She sounded upbeat as she said it, but we were both trembling.
“What exactly did he say?”
“A year,” she whispered, her eyes focussed on a point well past the confines of the hospital room. But then she seemed to muster a surge of courage. “He said I’ll probably have a year at most if I don’t do anything else.”
“But, I thought the operation went well. That they’d taken the tumour out.”
“It did.” She paused as if trying to remember something. “They did. But it’s too late.”
I had to know the facts. I needed to know exactly what he said.
“What does he mean - a year, Mum?” She didn’t answer. “The cancer’s spread, hasn’t it?” We fell silent again.
“So what’s ‘anything else’? Chemo?”
“He said a year if I did nothing, or possibly three to four if the chemo was successful. I’ve got to do it, haven’t I? I’ve got to try.” She contemplated for a few moments. “Hold me, Annie. Please hold me.”
I wrapped my arms slowly round her waist and held her. She wiped the tears from my eyes then her own.
Mum pulled back and sat upright.
“I have plans,” she said. “It’s all right, you know - I have plans. I’m going to make every day count for two.”
“He said I probably wouldn’t lose my hair.” She sounded strangely cheery. “Anyway, even if I did it wouldn’t matter, would it? You’d help me find a wig?”
“Of course, Mum. Anyway, it would save you a fortune - you wouldn’t have to dye a wig!”
“That’ll please your father!” she smiled. “Thirty-five quid every six weeks.” She shook her head. “I’ll soon find something else to spend it on though, don’t you worry.”
“Have you told Dad?”
“That it costs me thirty-five quid. No, of course I haven’t.”
I knew she was evading serious conversation. For a moment I thought I should let her, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“Mum, you know what I mean.”
She looked down and I felt the calluses below her rings as she rubbed her palm gently over the back of my hand. I wasn’t going to press her. Her silence said it all. She squeezed my hand and then took hers away.
“Anyway come on,” she said. “Let’s not think about it for now. Pass me that magazine over there. I want to show you something.”
I reached for the magazine. She started leafing through it, her eyes shining as she scanned the pages.
“There,” she said. She showed me a glossy advertisement for a cookery holiday at a chateau in Western France. “We train professional chefs and those who have never cooked before,” it boasted. She pointed to the words “never cooked before”, underlining them with her finger. “What do you think of that?”
“You’re never going to get Dad to go on that.”
I read on. “Set in twenty acres of parkland, our guests enjoy walking, cycling and fishing in the beautiful surroundings of the Northern Périgord.”
“It’ll be fun,” she protested.
“Fun for who?” It was not an image that came easily to mind: Dad with a pinny on, learning to pan-fry magret de canard, dousing it gently with raspberry vinegar. “Could we not just start by teaching him to boil an egg?”
“Why are you pulling that face?”
“Come on Mum.” I said. “You came in here to have your ovaries removed. Did you take up the special offer on a half price frontal lobotomy? You’ve got to be kidding. He won’t do it.”
“Shame,” she shrugged. “I really rather fancied the idea of the four-poster bed with your father stripping down to a frilly pinny and serving me champagne and canapés from a silver platter.”
“Learn to create a sumptuous spread,” she read. “I can do sumptuous spread,” she said, running a theatrical hand down the length of her elegantly reclined, silk-clad torso.
“And I expect Dad could knock up a couple of French tartes if he put his mind to it.”
“Hmmm,” she said. “Perhaps you’re right. Are you staying for some lunch? Your father said he’d be here about half one.”
“No, Mum. Thanks, but Nick’s picking me up about then on his way back from cricket.”
“Bit early for cricket isn’t it?”
“It’s just a practice session.”
“Are you sure you won’t both stay for lunch? Nick’ll be hungry won’t he if he’s been playing cricket? You’ve got to look after that husband of yours, Annie.”
“Nick’s a big boy, Mum. He can look after himself.”
“I could order you a nice club sandwich,” she offered, looking like she could taste every flavour as she said it.
“No, honestly, Mum. We’d better get back. I’ve got heaps to do.”
Mum picked up the menu and studied it for a while.
“I’ve got broth, today.” She rolled her eyes. “Still it’s a step up from the ‘Nil by Mouth’. I did ask for a half a bottle of Chablis in the other arm, but they weren’t having it.”
Mum’s broth arrived on the dot of 12.30.
“I never thought that broth and water could look so appetising,” she mused. It was served on a small tray, with a pink napkin and a tumbler of water complete with ice and a slice.
“Maybe the hospital chef spends his holidays at Le Chateau.”
“Uhhm,” she said, tasting the thin liquid. “Not bad, actually. All it needs is one of those nice little pain rustique from Waitrose.”
“And the half bottle of Chablis,” I added.
As it neared one o’clock, I said I had to dash, blaming a full car park as an excuse to leave before Dad arrived.
Nick was early. By the time I’d got down, he was already getting out of the car.
“How is she?”
“Well her sense of humour is still the same. She seems really well actually. She looked radiant.” I paused, searching for the courage to say it. “It’s not good though. The cancer has spread and they can’t operate any more. They’ve offered her chemo. How was the cricket?”
“Good,” he said, allowing me the change of subject. “Quite a good turn out really, for the first session, especially considering it’s Easter Sunday. Anyway, are we going back in? I wasn’t expecting you to be down here.”
“Do you mind if we just go home?”
“I’d like to see her too. Can’t I at least pop in and say hello?”
“Please, let’s go home. I can’t face seeing Dad. Not yet. Not today. She hasn’t told him.”
His arms enveloped my trembling body and I felt the warm tears as they trickled down my neck.
We drove home in silence. The spring sun shone boldly through the glass. I felt patronised by its warmth. ‘There, there. It’ll be all right in the morning,’ it said. I wanted to scream, to cry. It wasn’t all right. Where was the justice?
I wanted to hate the world, to feel hard done by, to feel sorry for myself. But there was no empathy from the outside world: only the sunshine, the cherry blossoms, the gentle comings and goings of a suburban Sunday afternoon; the bird song, the children laughing, hair dripping as they sauntered back from the swimming pool, soggy towel rolls tucked under armpits, chocolate bars half munched.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Nick checked for the thousandth time.
“If you mean ‘will I be able to walk after a twenty mile bike ride’ then I’ll let you know in the morning.” I wrestled the towel back from him. “If you mean ‘do I mind entertaining your friend for the day while you sod off to play cricket’ then no I don’t mind. He’s nice.”
“I don’t have to play.”
“I know. But it’s fine, honestly. I need bit of fresh air and exercise anyway.”
“So I see.”
“Oy! Watch it!” I warned. “Anyway, what I want to know is would you be trusting me all day with him if he wasn’t gay?”
“Not a chance!” He eyed me up and down as I pulled on my new cycle shorts. “Very sexy.”
“I feel like I’m wearing a sodding nappy.” I adjusted the crotch as best I could. “Are you ready?”
“We’re ready. We’re just waiting for you. Surprise, bloody surprise.”
We dropped Nick off at the cricket ground and Herb and I headed over to my parents’ house for the planned cycle expedition with Dad.
“Wow. This is beautiful. Is this where you grew up?” Herb looked overawed as we turned into the driveway and pulled up outside my parents’ very English country house.
“Yes. It is lovely,” I sighed, realising that I rarely appreciated the beauty of the place.
“Come on, let’s go and meet the folks then.”
“Just be warned,” I said. “You never know what you’re going to walk into when you step through that door. I turn up sometimes and there are ten cars in the drive or thirty kids picnicking in the garden.”
“They are expecting us, aren’t they?” Herb asked.
“They know we’re coming, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. Things just seem to happen here. Mum just expects everyone to muck in. We can always toddle off on our own if Dad’s been roped into something else.”
We walked up to the front door of the majestic stone farmhouse. The windows were its eyes, looking on and inviting you in. The whole building seemed to welcome you. There was always a feeling of anticipation as I approached the decaying wooden door, which on another house might look sad, but here it looked wise; it was the door of experience, of history.
I pulled at the cord of the big brass ship’s bell to announce our presence, expecting it would be ignored. As we went in Mum was on her way out, clad in an old sundress, towel bundle in hand, bits of bikini dangling.
“I hope this clip holds,” she remarked fiddling with the bikini top. “Or I’ll be skinny-dipping again.” She didn’t look like that would stop her. “I’m going to take the boat round to the Johnsons’ and maybe have a bit of a swim. Why don’t you stop by on the way back? Hello, you must be Herb.” She proffered a hand in welcome then off she swanned, the return greeting still poised on Herb’s lips.
“Ok. Enjoy your swim,” I called after her, hoping Herb hadn’t noticed the 'yum, breakfast' look she’d given him.
We ventured into the hall. I was hoping for a more normal greeting from Dad, though it would have been no surprise to find the house full of people I’d never met before, but who all seemed to know me. And even worse, they’d all know Herb, when Mum or Dad had never actually met him. Do parents live to relate their children’s lives to all their friends? Dad wasn’t so bad for that, but Mum was always doing it.
We went through to the kitchen. No one was about. I peered through the French windows and there was Dad, cycling gloves and hat in one hand, bicycle tyre in the other. So he had remembered.
“Puncture?” I asked, without even bothering with a hello or attempting an introduction.
Herb said “Hi! You must be Harry.” They shook hands. “Nick’s friend from across the pond. Andrew Hancock. Everyone calls me Herb. Nice to meet you.”
“So is that your bike or Mum’s?” I asked.
“Oh, this is your Mother’s. I was just scraping off a bit of mud. I don’t think she’s been on it since Scotland and it still had half the Queen Elizabeth Forest floor round its wheels. But it goes. At least it would if I could remember how this bloody thing goes back on. It’ll do it good to be used for a bit. Your mother and I just haven’t had the time lately. It’s been wall-to-wall visitors.”
Mum had retired at Christmas, after thirty years in teaching, and her bike was going to be the lynch pin of her new fitness regime. I’d had the blow-by-blow account of all the cycling they’d done on holiday in Scotland. Dad was clearly hooked, but Mum hadn’t mentioned it since her operation, so we’d arranged for Herb to borrow her bike for a couple of weeks.
We set off towards the village.
“This is actually the only hill for miles. We’re just on the edge of the Thames floodplain,” I said to Herb, swerving as I pointed vaguely in the direction of the river.
“Where are we going then, Dad?” I called as he pedalled off ahead. He waited for us to catch up. We’d barely started and I could see that I was going to be outstripped in the fitness stakes by my own father. Where’d he got his new lease of life from?
“How far do you want to go? We could go up Marriage Hill and back down past The Rose Revived.”
“Sounds neat!” Herb glowed with anticipation.
We cycled on up the lane and on to the bridle path, clattering over a bridge to get to the towpath.
I was glad of the opportunity to spend some time with Dad. I was working away three to four days a week and most weekends seemed to involve seeing friends in London, so I’d not had much time with Mum and Dad over the last few months and the times we had spent together had been fun but weren’t exactly the opportunity for heart to heart chats. Still Mum seemed in fine fettle and so did Dad. It was a shock to find out about the cancer, a wake up call I suppose, but Mum was a strong-minded person. She ate well, she was fairly fit, never smoked and she told me the chemotherapy was doing wonders. Dad and I had never managed to talk about it. We just didn’t mention the C-word. At first, I was worried about how he’d take it. But they both seemed to be just getting on with life. Still, I wanted to know that everything was ok. Mum was very good at brushing things under the carpet and papering over the cracks. When I’d broken an arm when I was seven she’d brushed away the tears and said it was a good job I had two of them.
“So what’s this about a boat then?” I asked Dad, skirting the real questions that were burning on my lips.
“Oh, your Mother’s bought a dinghy for the kids.”
“The Johnsons. Don’t you know them?”
“I don’t know. I might do. From school?”
Of course it would be from school. Teaching had been more than just a job for my mother. ‘School’ had been her life. It had always seemed like it had owned her, possessed her, dominated her. It oozed out of everything she did, everything she said. I remembered one summer evening: Dad was away on business – keeping well out of the way I guess. I was home alone finishing an English essay. I looked at my alarm clock. Ten thirty. The house was quiet and dark. I crept down to make a cup of tea. I peered out into the twilight gloom. No car. Where could she be? I couldn’t remember her mentioning going out. I made my tea and went back upstairs, drawing the curtains, shutting out the loneliness as I passed. I sat up on my windowsill and reread my work, keeping half an eye on the drive. Eleven o’clock. I got into bed and put a tape on. I tried to recall. Had she said something? Was she out somewhere? I buried myself deeper under the duvet, trying to avoid catching a glimpse of the clock. Mum would never be out late on a school night. She was normally in bed straight after Coronation Street if not before. Where the hell was she?
I was pacing the floor. What had she said? At long last, the scrunch of tyres on gravel. Thank god. It had to be her. I collapsed into bed.
“Where’ve you been?” I screeched, my head buried under the pillow to stifle my rage.
“I’ve been at school.”
“It’s Open Day on Saturday. I was just putting up the displays. Why didn’t you phone if you were worried?”
“If I’d known where you were to phone you I wouldn’t have been worried, would I?”
Of course this wasn’t the first time she’d worked long hours into the night. It was just the first one I’d noticed. I’d often blocked out how busy she was, throwing myself into all the extracurricular activities I could fit in, spending time with friends to help with their homework, and I was a dab hand at scoring for the boys’ cricket matches after school. Mum and I had our own little competition for who was busiest.
For Mum there was the extra coaching, the marking, the reports, the anxious parents on the phone. I may have been an only child, but I’d always had to share my mother with a hundred other children and their needy parents.
The path turned away from the river, then on up a hill. The effort of the incline broke me from my thoughts and I pushed away the strange feeling of jealousy, creeping over me, a cold shadow from my childhood.
I felt my calf muscles tightening as we edged towards the brow of the hill. I was feeling the ‘can I get to the top without my bum leaving the saddle’ dilemma.
“Don’t they say ‘what goes up has to come down’ over here?” Herb gasped. “All we’ve done is go up.”
According to Nick, Herb was an avid cyclist. But the glow had turned from anticipation to perspiration. Phew! I felt a little better about my own bum up, bum down dilemma.
At the top of the hill we met a lane. It was like cycling on air - heaven, after the boneshaker of a towpath. Thank goodness for the padding on the lycra shorts.
“This is awesome,” Herb enthused. I had to agree. We looked back towards the river. You could just make out the bridge and the pub where we joined the bridle path. The verdant valley stretched out before us, the meandering river, the wooded hillside with its Victorian mixture of oaks, hazels, beech interspersed with sculptured Scots pines. We inhaled the glorious scent of English summer.
I’d had a happy childhood growing up in rural England, but I’d always looked at it as somewhere I’d leave. Somewhere I’d escape from into the glorious wide world; the world of glitz, glamour and opportunity. I looked out across the valley now with fresh eyes. What was there to escape from?
“Downhill all the way now!” Dad called back to us.
I felt the adrenaline surge as we swept round the first corner. Dad veered off to the left down a small track. I jerked the handlebars and just made it round the corner, brushing the hedge as I went. Herb followed rather more elegantly. Dad had stopped and we pulled up either side of him.
“Is this right?” I asked.
“I’m not so sure. I thought we’d come out the other side of that church over there. Where’s the soddin’ gate? It’s a good job your mother’s not with us or I’d be in dead trouble. It’s a long old climb back to the main road.”
“When did Mum do this?”
“We’ve done it lots of times. This is her favourite. But it’s been a while. The chemo really knocks her for six. She’s not really had the energy for this one lately.”
Energy was something my Mother had always had a limitless supply of. She was the Duracell Bunny of the family. She was usually first in bed and last out of it, but once out she charged through each day at a hundred miles an hour. I couldn’t really picture her with her batteries flat and I hadn’t seen any evidence of it myself. Maybe her illness was a call to make her slow down, take it easy, enjoy the little things in life. Maybe it was time to become the Cadbury’s Bunny or the pre-Raphaelite beauty from the Flake advert. Now, that, I could see.
She sometimes drove me mad with her boundless bustling. I’m sure it drove Dad nuts too. She didn’t mean to do it but it just made us feel so bloody inadequate. Sometimes we just wanted to find the off switch.
I was feeling pretty inadequate now. Of course it would have to be not only beautiful, but challenging to earn the title of my mother’s favourite. I looked back up the hill. “Come on, it’s got to be worth a look.” I was more than tired. “Surely we’ve done enough hills for one day,” I pleaded.
We pedalled across the lush meadow leaving three trails of silver grass behind us. There was a stile over the wooden fence into the churchyard. Herb raised his bike over the fence and hopped over the stile. Dad followed making it look like child’s play. I lifted my bike to shoulder height and it teetered dangerously round my ears.
“Here. D’ya need a hand?” Herb offered, lifting the bike down. “Solid, hey?” He gave an untimely glance at my thighs.
We crossed at the lock gates and took a farm track.
“Are we calling in to see your mother?” Dad asked.
“Will she still be there?”
“Oh I should think so. We can go and see. We pass it anyway.”
We turned the corner into a yard, leading up to the Georgian farmhouse, with ivy clad walls and Stonesfield slate roof. The garden looked well manicured. I could hear voices, children’s laughter. We leant the bikes against the wall and Dad rang the doorbell, but there was no answer.
“They must be in the garden.” He pushed the door open. “Come through.”
It all felt a little over familiar. Herb looked at me and I shrugged as we followed Dad through to the garden. I took a deep breath and prepared my sweet smile.
There was Mum with a blonde lady who looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. There was no doubt she knew me though. The two of them were both in bikinis, stretched out on loungers, feet up and drinking Pimms. There were three children - two girls of about eight and eleven, and a boy who was perhaps thirteen. They were in the pool, playing with a blue plastic dinghy.
“So that’s the mysterious boat,” I said.
The jug of Pimms looked very tempting.
“Can I offer anyone a drink?” our hostess proffered from the comfort of her padded sun bed. I felt I should get my own drink. The scene looked too perfect to disturb. “Sam, darling, be a good chap and fetch some more glasses would you?” Ah well. I needn’t have worried.
Sam disappeared inside and came out carrying three glasses. Our hostess went to pour out some Pimms and I forced myself to decline with a ‘No, I mustn't. I’m driving’.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“Oh, a glass of water would be lovely. Dad’s wiped us out.”
“Sam, be a darling!” she said.
Sam had been on the very point of launching himself into the pool, but he obediently and comically swung himself round in an exaggerated gesture, caught his balance and headed off towards the kitchen. He returned minutes later with a jug of iced water complete with slices of lemon and lime. I was impressed.
I poured myself some water and did my best not to gulp it down. Herb sipped his Pimms with an expression of sheer delight.
I watched Dad as he discarded his shorts and top and adjusted his rather tired looking swimming trunks. The girls shouted to him to come and play. Their faces lit up at the very sight of him. Just before he was asked to perform waiter duty, Sam had clambered out of the pool to retrieve a plastic bucket. I could see the mischievous sparkle in his eye. I was mapping out the scenario. Had his mum done the same? And that was why she was calling him away to get drinks. I thought the bucket was about to be filled and chucked at Dad, as if this was to be his greeting, an incitement in an ongoing play fight.
The children were egging Dad on to try and get in the boat. I cringed at the thought of it, imagining groin strain at the very least. But he did his usual and approached the whole thing scientifically, throwing problems at the kids for them to solve. Between them they came up with an ingenious plan, which was then executed with minute exactitude and lo and behold Dad was sitting ceremoniously in the little boat with a triumphant grin on his face, at which point the children disappeared off, returning with trainers and tennis rackets.
“Hey you lot. You can’t just run off and leave me here,” Dad shouted after them.
“The little sods!”
“So how are you going to get out of that one then?” I shouted over to him.
“With difficulty, I dare say. Where’s the paddle?”
“I forgot to bring it,” Mum teased. “Did you say something about a creek, Darling.”
Dad flapped his way to the edge of the pool, but the boat looked no more likely to tip up near the edge as it had been in the middle and the whole scenario seemed far more dangerous now there was a concrete wall in close proximity to Dad’s head. I went to help.
“If I were you,” I held back the snigger. “I’d just try and slip out pool side. If the boat drifts, you’ll be half on half off and feeling very grateful that your fathering children days are behind you.”
As Herb and I held onto the side of the boat as best we could, Dad gradually raised himself to a squatting position, pushed up and belly flopped over the side, showering us as he went.
The kids cackled from the tennis court. They had barricaded the gate with a chair under the handle so the adults couldn’t get in.
“I’ll get you for this,” Dad threatened.
They went back to their tennis game and Dad clambered out of the pool with a ‘serves me right’ look on his face. I chucked him a towel from Mum’s chair.
I was intrigued by the rapport, the relationships. Snippets of conversations floated back to me. Mum had talked about these people, she’d talked about the children, I just hadn’t taken it in. They were minor details nestling amongst the trivialities we’d offloaded to each other for the past ten years on a more or less weekly basis. But now, seeing Mum and Dad with these friends, these children who clearly meant a lot to them, fleeting comments, throw-away lines from phone calls took on new meaning. It came together in the form of the real-life tableau that I had only by chance become a part of.
I didn’t want to leave. I liked this Middle England bliss. But time was getting on and it was a good hour back to the cricket ground where we’d abandoned Nick. I was already feeling the doghouse coming on.
“Must you go?” Mum sighed.
“Well, Nick’s miles away. So we ought to be setting off. I’ll see you again soon if you can fit me in between your gallivanting and your dinner parties.”
“Yes, Mum, you. Anyway, we must go. Thanks again for the bike.”
“Yes, thank you, Penny. It’s great,” Herb added.
“I’ll bring it back in a couple of weeks, Mum. Is that ok?” Mum didn’t look as though she’d missed out by not joining us on the cycle ride. She inspected her tan lines and poured herself and her friend, Susie, another glass of Pimms.
We prised ourselves away, leaving Dad there and made our way back to the house. Manoeuvring both bikes onto the back seat we set off to pick up Nick.
The cricket ground was deserted. There were a couple of cars parked, but no one was about. There was no sign of any clubhouse or pavilion so we drove into the village.
We pulled up at the first pub. Herb jumped out and peered through the window. He was just about to go in when I saw Nick, getting up from a bench across the road. I shouted to Herb and he doubled back.
“I thought you’d have gone for a drink.” I said to Nick.
“Well everyone just left.”
I tried to brush aside my lateness and asked him how the cricket went but my attempts at cheeriness seemed misplaced. My mood spiralled down and I felt consumed by guilt.
It had felt good to spend some time with Dad, even though I hadn’t found the courage to ask him how he was, he seemed happy. In fact he’d oozed radiance, he’d looked ten years younger, enjoying the countryside, then relaxing by the pool teasing and playing with the children.
I suppose I’d realised really that we should have just gone on home, rather than calling in to see Mum. But it had been so nice to share that little bit of her life, to see her so relaxed, not running around after other people. There was so much of her life that remained a mystery to me. I’d always thought we were close yet there was so much we didn’t share.
I knew my feeling of guilt was disproportionate to the circumstance. It was just Annie being late again. Nothing new. At that moment, though, I felt torn between two lives, two places I needed to be.
If you were told you had a year. You’d take a year. If it were a day, you’d take a day. It felt like it was me who’d been given that sentence. That it was decision time. Why? My inner being was screaming at me, demanding that I make the most of every minute of every day. But how?
I fought back the tears as I drove us home. Herb squashed in the back diplomatically. Nothing was said. No judgement had been passed, except by me. Nick was just grumpy because he’d lost. He didn’t begrudge me those precious moments with my Mum and Dad. I was telling myself he should be angry with me for being so late. It would have been easier if he were. We could just have had a brief row, apologised, cried, well, I’d have cried. Then we’d kiss and make up. And move on.
But there was no anger, so no apology, and no kissing away tears.
I sought solace in my designer kitchen when we returned home. The kitchen was compact. Room just for one. That suited me fine. At that moment in my head there was only room for one. It was gone nine. I poured a dash of olive oil into the wok and let it start to sizzle then tossed in some chicken. I ground the black pepper onto the chicken and added some designer pre-washed vegetables from the designer fridge, then dropped in some soy sauce and a few tears for flavour.
“That’s better.” Herb came down from his shower. “D’ya want some help?”
“No thanks, I’m cheating. It’s just a chuck it all in job.”
I was coming round, but wasn’t quite ready to show my face. It was odd that I could have such a wonderful day, then the bubble would burst in a moment. What if she did die? Surely she wouldn’t. She looked so well.
“So Nick tells me you’re having a teenager for a couple of weeks.”
“God! I hadn’t really thought of it like that. A teenager. I suppose he must be almost. I can’t remember. Yeah, twelve maybe thirteen. Rémi. I was his au pair before I went to college.”
“And you’ve always kept in touch?”
“Yeah. We just send Christmas cards really, sometimes the odd postcard. But I always said he could come and stay with me when he was older so he could improve his English.”
“Did ya teach him to speak English when you were over?”
“Not exactly. I taught him to sing Teddy Bears’ picnic.” Herb looked puzzled and Nick obliged with a harmonious rendition. I let the excited phone call to Mum replay in my mind, boasting to her how perfectly Rémi had sung in English as if I were recounting the achievements of her own grandchild.
“So you two will be Mum and Dad to a thirteen year old boy for two weeks. A baptism of fire. I think every prospective parent should do it.”
Prospective parent? “I never thought about it like that,” I said. “What are we actually going to do with him? What are thirteen year olds boys into? I should have got the low down today from Mum’s friend. Or do you think it’s better I just don’t ask? If she tells me all he does is play with his bits, fleece his school friends at poker and read his dad’s dirty magazines, then my image of Jurassic Park with popcorn and a Coke is a bit tame.”
“What do you reckon, Nick? Haven’t you been playing with your bits since the age of four? I know I have.”
“Of course. That’s what they’re for,” Nick teased. “But Annie still won’t believe me. I certainly wasn’t fleecing my friends at poker though. I could never manage the bluffing.”
“Oh god.” What had I been thinking? “How the hell am I going to cope with a teenager?”
“Hey you’ll do fine, Annie, sure ya will.”
We tucked into dinner and Nick poured us another glass of wine.
“So what are you planning to do on Monday then, Herb?” Nick asked. “You are working aren’t you Annie?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to ignore the implication that my job was of lesser importance than Nick’s. “I’ve got to get this project finished by the time Rémi comes because otherwise I’m going to struggle to get the time off.” It was dawning on me that even temporary loco parentis was a pain in the arse to organise. “I thought we’d do the London thing when Rémi’s here too, if that’s ok with you. Are you into that?”
Herb nodded, piling in a mouthful of mange tout.
“Don’t you guys worry about me. I’ll take myself off somewhere on Penny’s bike. Hey, doesn’t she look like she’s doin’ good?”
“She does. She looks wonderful,” I agreed. “And so relaxed.”
“It’s hard to believe she’s got cancer, man. How long’s she had it?”
“We don’t really know,” I said. “She didn’t have any symptoms as such. She went in to have her appendix taken out in January. So it was only by chance they discovered the cancer.”
“And she’s just retired?”
“Yeah. Cruel,” Nick said under his breath.
“She’s a character.”
“She certainly is,” I agreed. “I don’t know where she gets her energy. She’s like a whirlwind.”
“How’s your Dad taking it?” The question came so easily to Herb.
“I think he’s working a bit less, which is good,” I said, not really knowing where to go next. For a moment I felt the tears welling up but I pushed them aside. They both looked so fit and well, after all, and so happy. But they were changed though. I could see that.
“Mum is going to pull through,” I said. “I’m sure of it. She looked radiant today. I think they’ve both learnt from it. They both seem to be looking after themselves and really making the most of life. It makes you think, though, doesn’t it?”
“So, was that the church where you guys got hooked?” Herb pointed at the watercolour above the dining table. “You got photos?”
Nick cleared away the plates while I went to retrieve the wedding album.
“Hey, this is some party.”
“Penny’s fair hand of course,” Nick added.
“Who’s this then? He’s cute?” Herb asked.
“Hands off. He’s married,” I laughed.
“I thought you were loved up with that teacher fellow?” Nick asked.
“I was, for a while, but it kinda didn’t work out.”
“He really wanted to have kids an’ all that. He’s married now. I guess they make an okay couple.”
“You still in touch?” I was getting the feeling he hadn’t fully moved on.
“Yeah. They’re in the neighbourhood so I see them around. They’ve got a kid on the way. But I met someone. He was gonna come over with me, but it was kinda the wrong time. But hey! You guys. You’re good.”
“Yeah!” Nick said. “She’s a pain in the butt sometimes. But it’s a cute butt.” I gave him kick under the table to add to my ‘watch it’ look. Beautiful but challenging. Uhhm. My mother would approve of that.
“Hi darling. How’s things? Are you all set for Rémi?” Mum asked me when we spoke on the phone.
“Well, yes and no. I have just one more site to go and they are really holding things up.” You can’t train people to use a computer system before they’ve got the bloody computer. “If I can’t get them to commit by tomorrow lunch time I won’t get a flight and he arrives on Friday.”
“Well don’t worry darling, you can always bring Rémi over here if you need to go one day next week. Anyway, I’m organising a summer camp for the children.”
“The Johnsons who you met on Saturday and the Roystons. The older ones are about the same age as Rémi, so he’d have some company. They’re going to camp in the paddock and we’re going to build a fire pit and have music and singing round the campfire.”
“Sounds wonderful. How come?”
“Well I just thought it would give Jim and Susie a bit of couple time. They are going off to London for a show. I said I’d look after the children. So then I thought I’d have them all round and really have some fun.”
“I can’t believe you sometimes, Mum. Do you never just feel like having a rest? No responsibilities, just yourself to think about.”
“There’ll be plenty of time for that soon enough, don’t you worry.”
“Give me a ring when you know which day you’re going,” she carried on, ignoring my protest.
“Okay. Will do.”
I pulled up at the house, exhausted by the flight and the drive, yearning for a gin and tonic. I’d been there all day and they hadn’t even offered me a cup of coffee, never mind anything to eat.
I smoothed down my crumpled suit as I got out of the car and braced myself for whatever might lie behind that creaky, old front door. I rang the ship’s bell then pushed to see if it was open. It was. I kicked some shoes gently to one side to make room for my laptop in the hall. It looked like a shoe graveyard. Shoe after shoe dislodged from its pair. A jumble of colours and sizes and generations.
As I went through to the lounge I was taken aback by the teen-scene sprawled before me.
Rémi was entwined on the sofa with a young girl I was sure I recognised. That same face, same smile, same hairstyle even, from when I’d seen her as a five year old in my mother’s reception class. But here she was before me a young woman, hips and boobs, well almost, stretched out on the sofa with her gorgeous new boyfriend. Suddenly Rémi aged a couple of years before me. Oh my god, I felt myself ageing by ten, right there in front of a room full of teenagers. Get a grip, Annie.
“Hi!” I uttered, wondering what the hell to say. I could have been looking at a bunch of aliens. “Have you all had a good day? It’s a gorgeous evening. Has it been nice all day? It’s been so grey and overcast in Belfast. I thought your camp might have been a bit of a wash out.”
My barrage of small talk met with blank expressions. I could see that none of the teenagers knew whose responsibility it was to respond to my prattling, so I whisked myself through to the kitchen.
I called to Mum but there was no answer. I made a cup of tea then sought refuge with the paper at the kitchen table. I leafed through it, taking in the headlines as if by osmosis, just by touching the pages. I hadn’t read a word. My mind was racing. What had I talked about when I was thirteen? I fell into a daydream trying to remember scenes, snippets of conversation. I could remember certain feelings, a certain rapport. Things just clicked. Life just happened. In the evening we used to spend hours on the phone talking to friends we had spent the whole day with. There was always something to say. Yet I couldn’t at that moment remember any conversations. What we had talked about, I just couldn’t imagine. I could picture scenes, as if looking on from behind a soundproof screen, but I could hear no words.
I rinsed my cup and placed it on the draining board. Then, none the wiser about the day’s news, none the wiser about what to say to the happy campers, I slipped quietly out of the back door and wandered into the garden.
Mum was on the patio deadheading petunias in the fading light. I said hi and joined in the therapeutic task.
“Hi darling. How was Belfast?”
“Do you know, I really couldn’t tell you. Aeroplane, taxi, office block, taxi, aeroplane. That was my day. Belfast, Berlin, Bognor. Could have been anywhere.”
She looked up and listened, hands poised above the fading petals.
“In fact I don’t think I even looked out of the window the whole time I was in the taxi. I was reading through my course notes. God knows why. I’ve been spouting it for three months. But that’s it I guess. The project’s finished now. Do you know, I feel it’s a bit of an anticlimax.”
“Well, it’s bound to, darling. But have you enjoyed it? That’s the main thing.”
“I don’t know really. I’ve been to thirty cities for this one. Well thirty-two actually, and I couldn’t describe a single one. God knows what’s next. If they said to me that I wasn’t going to travel anymore. Do you know? I really wouldn’t care.” Relief flooded through my tired body as I released my pent-up rant. Mum didn’t say anything. She returned to her deadheading, giving new life and vigour to the rambling plants, as she whipped away each tired and broken flower.
“Anyway,” I said. “What have all these kids been up to? How did Rémi get on?”
“Fine. He gets on best with Charlotte.”
“So I see.”
“Sam’s dead jealous because Charlotte was his girlfriend. Well so Sam thought anyway. I think Charlotte has different ideas. But it’s his own fault because he doesn’t make any effort. Charlotte makes the effort and speaks to him in his own language.”
“Oh, so he’s learnt heaps of English then.”
“Oh, he’ll learn all right. Just from listening, I can see he is trying to follow every word. But you know very well how tiring that is. So it’s just nice if the others try to speak a bit of French to him. Well Charlotte has. So of course they’ve got on very well.”
“How does that become Sam’s fault?”
“Well if Sam had made a bit more effort like Charlotte did then there’d have been less of a friendship between Charlie and Rémi. Charlie and Rémi - that sounds quite good.”
“You love it don’t you!”
“It’s all a bit of fun.”
“What d’you mean a bit of fun? Fun for who? It might well be fun for you. A great spectator sport, hey! But there could be waves of emotion. I’ll bet it’s serious stuff for them.”
“They’re young. It’s how they learn about life. It’s how we all learned about life. It is serious stuff for them, but it’s lessons in love. Do you fancy a Pimms?”
“Come on, there’s some salad left if you want some.”
We went back into the house. It was cool, compared to the balmy evening air. Mum grabbed the bottle of Pimms on her way past and chucked me an orange. I fumbled around in the drawers looking for a knife and some matches. I listened to the glug, glug of the tonic as Mum poured it into the jug and the weariness of the day slipped down my body into my shoes. I kicked them off and felt the cool of the stone floor pressing up from the soles of my feet. Bliss. I reached for a couple of highball glasses and tossed the orange into the jug. Mum was cutting cucumber. We returned to the patio and sat down at the rickety wooden table. I lit the tea light in the storm lantern. Mum poured.
“Cheers,” I said.
“Here’s to young love,” Mum smirked.
“And here’s to old love too. Dad tells me he has a rather snazzy little birthday treat planned for you.”
“He does?” Her eyes sparkled. “But less of the old if you don’t mind.”
“Well, just to love then.” We chinked glasses.
“Yes” she said with a cheeky smile. “He is being rather nice to me. Cheers.”
“Come on love, get your arse out of bed. I’m going to be late.”
I flung out an arm and pulled Nick to me.
“Kiss me,” I mumbled and he obliged. “I just want to stay here.”
“I’m sorry, hon, but if I have to come back and get you after the game it could be gone nine. Your Mum’ll have a fit.”
“Uhh!” It was never going to work. I so wanted to stay tucked up in bed, my bed, my very own lovely bed. But Nick needed the car to get to cricket in Oxford and we were due at Mum’s for dinner. That meant me going with him, unless…I sipped at the coffee Nick had brought me.
“Hon, I could do with being on the road in twenty minutes,” Nick called.
“Uhhm. I have a plan,” I told him, wondering if my backside could manage another weekend jaunt in lycra. Herb had toddled of to Paris, or was it Prague? So we needed to get Mum’s bike back to her. “You go and I’ll cycle over on Mum’s bike later.”
“Well, in that case,” Nick said, coming back into the bedroom presumably to check for sarcastic facial contortions or possible onset of madness. “You can keep your lazy arse in bed for a while longer. What do you want me to take?” I propped up my pillows to better direct operations while Nick packed an overnight bag. He leant over me and kissed each nipple in turn then, lingering on my lips briefly, he left me to my boudoir.
The last couple of weeks had whizzed by in a whirlwind of trips here, there and everywhere entertaining Herb and Rémi, fitting in work as and when I could. Since Rémi’s arrival we’d played a million games of UNO, walked miles in search of the latest Airwalk trainers, and having been assured that he’d seen them all before with his Dad, watched every Bruce Lee movie at least twice. I had earned a lie-in.
I leafed through last month’s Cosmo my mind not really taking in the bikini diet tips and best beaches. My thoughts drifted to our two weeks of surrogate parenthood. Nick had come with me to the airport. He’d taken the afternoon off. We stood holding hands, as we watched Rémi disappear towards the gate with the chaperone from ground staff. “He’ll be fine now,” she’d said, with a stop fussing tone to her voice.
“Well then, Mummy,” Nick said. “What d’you reckon? We could do it couldn’t we?”
I was tempted. But could I really swap Cosmo for Practical Parenting? It just didn’t seem like me.
I checked the hall mirror one last time to make sure I looked the part and set off on my expedition towards the cricket ground. It was about thirty miles, cross-country, maybe thirty-five. I was so pleased with myself. I was really getting the bug with this cycling lark, and putting thoughts of pregnancy aside, I,was picturing the slim, trim Annie Simpson that was the shape of things to come.
This was surely a great way to spend more time with Mum and Dad, and Nick wouldn’t miss me if I went while he was playing cricket. And if Mum and Dad could conquer Marriage Hill, then so could I.
I pedalled up through the town and out towards the main road. I only had about half a mile of the by-pass to negotiate, then I could turn off onto the country lanes and it would be plain sailing from there on.
Panic was just setting in as I realised I’d never negotiated a dual carriageway on a bike, when my very own fairy godfather appeared in the form of a lithe figure in head-to-toe lycra atop a streamlined racer. I slowed and pretended to adjust the drink bottle I had strapped to the cross bar, then as he passed me I pulled out after him and nonchalantly pedalled off towards the dual carriageway following his lead.
Once on the country lane I set my own pace and I’d been heading up hill for what had seemed like an hour. Fiddling desperately with the gear combinations I tried to find a last surge of energy, but the hill went on and on and on. We drove that way regularly to avoid the traffic on the A43 and I’d never even noticed it was uphill. Giving in, I got off, feeling I was only moments from falling off. The whole of my chest was tightening up. I sat for a bit on the verge opposite a tatty farm entrance, my bike plonked down beside the remains of an old fridge. “Annie Simpson, you’re a crazy idiot!” I thought.
Looking back down the hill I could see a white van approaching, hairing round the corners like it was on The Lombard. I forced myself up and set off towards the top of the hill. Two tattooed lumps of testosterone leered at me from the cab. I struggled on and managed to pick up a rhythm. It wasn’t turning out quite the idyllic hobby it had seemed when I’d cycled with Dad.
I arrived, exhausted at the cricket ground, the dust from a whole army of combine harvesters coating my sticky body, and with a fetching Clint Eastward gait, suggesting that at least I wasn’t going to be worrying about the rights and wrongs of nooky under my parents’ roof.
“Did you see my catch?” The glee in Nick’s eyes told me the answer should have been a yes.
“Uhhm,” I tried to think of better way of saying that I was too knackered to care.
Nick pulled me to him, mingling his own sweet scent of sweat with the perfume of my perspiration and the cheesy stench wafting up from my feet.
The bike stashed in the back seat, we headed over to Mum and Dad’s. Pleasant smells emanated from the kitchen as we arrived. Mum wore a daisy print halter-neck and what I could have sworn was a just-shagged look. I realised we were earlier than she’d expected. She kissed Nick on both cheeks and then looked me briefly up and down.
“Do you want a quick shower, darling, before we eat.”
“Please, Mum,” I said, ignoring her disapproval. “That would be great.”
“Harry’s in the garden, Nick. Do go through.”
By the time I’d rinsed the English countryside out of my hair, Nick and Mum and Dad were in full swing on the patio.
“Sorry, love,” Dad said. “Nick looked like he was in need of a drink. Here.” He handed me a glass of Bollinger and we chinked a belated Happy Birthday to Mum.
The old wooden table had taken on an air of nobility, draped in a delicate lace tablecloth and bedecked with a threatening array of cutlery.
Mum’s recount of their holiday in France was a gastronomic diary. She took us in detail through each geraniumed terrace and ivy-clad courtyard, through Rillettes du Mans to Tarte Tatin, through Plateaux de Fruits de Mer to Iles Flottantes. Dad held his glass aloft, watching each perfect bubble work its way to the surface. He looked pleased with himself, as he listened to the glorious tale of triumph that had been his birthday treat to his beloved wife.
Mum made a move towards the kitchen and I went to help her.
“Can you sort these out for me darling?” She handed me a jar filled with dubious looking grey lumps appearing through a glutinous yellow mass.
“Just heat them gently for a couple of minutes,” she said, handing me a skillet. “Then poke the snails into those.” She indicated the pile of gleaming shells in a bowl on the table.
“Are you sure these are snails, Mum? They look more like slugs.” I winced at the thought of it.
“Well, slugs, snails, whatever they are, they’re bloody lovely.” She smacked her lips in anticipation. “I shan’t bother with oysters, though, even if they are supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Euch. It’s like swallowing …” She stopped short. “That’ll do.” She whipped the skillet out of my hand. “They’re quite delicate. You don’t want to overcook them.”
I realised I’d never had a cooking lesson from my mother.
I peered into the gloom ahead of me. I shifted in my seat and pulled at my safety belt. There were no shops, no houses, no petrol stations certainly. At least, not open ones. It was only just gone nine on Sunday night. I thought everywhere was at least open ‘til eleven, if not all night these days. It was already that half-light: just enough light for your headlights to be ineffectual, but not enough light to see clearly. The evening sky was thick with cloud. It had drizzled all day.
Another half an hour and the light would be gone. I really didn’t fancy walking miles along a dark dual carriageway trying to find a petrol station or a phone box. I couldn’t believe I was doing this, cutting short my weekend to drive this tank of a company car a hundred miles on a Sunday night to crash out on someone’s floor, get up at six in the morning and drive another hundred miles so I could fit in a ten hour day and then drive to the next stop. Why was I doing this? I couldn’t even get the radio tuned in. Hello and welcome to Crackle FM.
I was mid prayer when I saw some lights up ahead. Oh please, oh please, be a petrol station. I turned onto the forecourt and prayed that there was a sticker on the petrol cap. I had no idea what to put in it. I pulled up at the unleaded, and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the ‘I love unleaded’ sticker. I love naff stickers.
Why did I do this to myself? I should have left earlier, got petrol earlier. But it was always the same. Work always encroached too much on personal time. We’d got up late, and far too full for cooked breakfast or Sunday lunch, I’d made us a salad, to show my mother I too could be a domestic goddess, and we’d drifted through the day in rural bliss. We’d talked about helping Mum in the garden, but the weather had been miserable.
Dad spent the afternoon building himself a new wine rack ready for next month’s en primeur that he was already getting excited about. Nick and I helped Mum sort out a motley collection of plants that she had dug up the previous week from the herbaceous border at the far end of the lawn. It made a nice change from hacking down to London for the weekend, eating and drinking too much and sleeping too little, which is what we still seemed to do on a regular basis.
Time was getting on so we left Mum to label up the last few clumps and drove home via the office for me to pick up a company car for the week.
I went straight upstairs to grab the things I’d need for my week away. Nick poured himself a glass of red wine from the bottle we’d left unfinished on Friday night, and brought it up to the bedroom. He took a sip of wine and kissed me on the lips, teasing me with the smell. I licked my lips and imagined the chalky texture. My jeans were damp from putting Mums pots out into the garden. Nick helped me out of them and showed me everything I was going to miss while I was away for the week. We eventually tore ourselves apart and I headed off in the company Mercedes for my drive north, feeling bad that I had left it so late and even worse that I was leaving Nick alone again for the whole week.
Now I was stressed and tired, and the week hadn’t even started yet. I bought a bottle of diet coke to keep me going and set off again. It was almost dark now. I must have been about half an hour away. I took a swig of coke before I pulled out of the garage and back onto the main road. I was longing for a sign, telling me how many miles of this torture I had left.
I messed with the radio a bit more to try and get a station, but just more crackles. Fighting my way onwards I melted with relief when the lights of the big roundabout up ahead announced that I was on the edge of town. Ten minutes, not more. There’d be no traffic on a Sunday night. I just had to go carefully and make sure I didn’t miss the turning and I’d be there: not a moment too soon.
I pulled into a nice wide space on the opposite side of the road. I was too exhausted to mess about trying to reverse a huge car into the spot outside Charles’ flat. I reached across and grabbed my bag. As I got out of the car I looked up at Charles’ window. There was no light. My heart sank. Oh surely, he can’t have forgotten I was coming. I scrabbled around in my handbag for a pen and reached for a scrap of paper to leave him a note.
As I fumbled around I felt a sudden slap across my bum. I screamed and swirled round.
Charles was standing there, smiling his little sheepish smile.
“Hi! Good journey?”
“Oh god, it’s you. You frightened me. I thought you were out. I was about to leave you a note and try and find a hotel somewhere.” I calmed down and picked up the strewn contents of my handbag.
“I saw you pull up, so I came down. I thought we could go straight out for something to eat. It is getting on a bit.”
“Yeah sorry, come on.” I gave Charles a peck on the cheek.
“Good journey?” Charles tried again.
“Oh, okay, I suppose, if there can be such a thing.” Charles was admiring the car. “Especially in this penis extension,” I added, to show him just how misplaced I thought that admiration was. “Why they can’t have a nice Clio or a 205 for a company car, I just don’t understand. Anyway, how was your weekend?”
“Excellent!” Charles smiled a wry smile.
“So you pulled then?”
“Oh come on, give us the gossip,” I probed.
We set off in search of sustenance. I’d promised Charles a meal and a gossip in return for kipping on his floor. I was so fed up with hotel rooms. It just seemed like a good chance to catch up with a few far off friends. Charles had recently done the move from London and though he too often did the Friday night hack down to be with the gang we weren’t seeing as much of him these days.
“Shall we head in to town?” he suggested, clearly hungry. “There must be something still open.”
We stepped up the pace as much as my inappropriate footwear would allow and stopped at a Mexican that looked inviting.
“Fancy that?” I asked. We chose an empty table and Charles beckoned a glaring waitress.
“I’ll be with you in a minute, sir.”
“Well, she could have been with us in a minute with two G&T’s, couldn’t she?” he protested.
“Come on, never mind. I want to know what you got up to last night.”
“You don’t expect me to confess all on an empty stomach do you?”
“Well, no. That’s why I’ve brought you here. So you can confess all on a full stomach.”
The waitress with the glare was storming purposefully towards us. We were in luck. We ordered our drinks and she slopped a couple of menus down on the table. I opened mine and scanned the list, hoping for inspiration. I still felt full from the previous night’s feast. Charles suggested fajitas, so we both ordered that.
“Did you two do anything exciting?” he asked, delaying his own confession.
“Not really,” I said, thinking that spending the weekend with my Mum and Dad wasn’t exactly going to appear cool. “Nick was playing cricket. Then we went over to my parents’ for dinner.”
“How is your mum?”
“She is as fit as a fiddle at the moment. Just back from a holiday in France.”
Charles tucked into his sizzling fajitas and I picked at mine.
“Uhhm, holidays. When’s the next one?” Charles mused.
“Me or Mum?”
“Well you, I was thinking you, or us really. But where’s your Mum going? She never stops.”
“I know. Well, she’s off to Versailles in December on a trip with the school she used to teach at. And then she’s going skiing in January.”
“Are you and Nick going too?”
“Well no. We’re not invited. She’s got this whole great big party of friends going. She used to teach their kids. Mum has booked to go to La Plagne with them.” I’d felt a bit excluded, strangely, when she told me.
“Well can we going skiing then?” I could see the excitement cross Charles’ face at the very thought of it. And I could feel the blush cross mine.
“Well actually, I quite fancied going to Tuscany instead.”
Charles was just taking a slug of gin as I said it and he spluttered as he took in the words. You’d have thought I’d said I was going to Jupiter or Mars.
“I’ve heard that Tuscany is lovely,” I said, keeping to myself the thought that Tuscany sounded more romantic than Tignes for conceiving baby Simpson.
“It’s a bit Middle English, though isn’t it, going to Tuscany? Have you got two point four children and a Labrador hidden away somewhere, Annie?” Charles laughed. “Surely you want to go skiing as well?”
“I thought we’d give it a miss this year. It’s so expensive and I don’t think Nick really enjoys it that much anyway.”
“I saw this really great deal for a chalet holiday. It was a small place but with access to the entire Three Valleys area. I’m sure even Nick would like it there. Anyway if he doesn’t fancy it, why don’t you come on your own?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Come on, you’d love it.”
“But what? I’m sure you’ll manage without each other for just one week. Come on, you’re not going to get back now until Friday night are you? That’s not far off a week anyway. So what’s the difference? Then you won’t feel like you’re wasting money on an expensive holiday that Nick doesn’t really appreciate and you can do something together another time.”
“The thing is, it isn’t really about the money. And Nick doesn’t mind going. He certainly wouldn’t stop me from going. We don’t always live in each other’s pockets, you know. It’s just... Oh, it doesn’t matter.” I checked myself abruptly.
I wasn’t sure this was the time to tell Charles. But then again how do you tell someone? Is there ever a right time? I tucked into my dinner and contemplated. Where was I heading anyway? Why was I thinking it was the wrong time to tell him? Surely, it didn’t matter anyway. He’d just be really happy for us, go off skiing with Dan and Sue and Sally and that would be that.
We both ate silently. I felt a little stiff and uncomfortable. Something wasn’t quite right. I’d hinted at something and then stopped. It’s so infuriating when someone does that to you. Is it because they don’t trust you? Or don’t they think you’re worth telling? Close, but not that close. You just can’t help but wonder.
I had to tell him. I had to finish what I’d started. But well how do you actually say it? I’m thinking of trying to get pregnant. Too clinical. Thinking of starting a family. Too mumsy. Thinking of having a baby. Well let’s go and choose one right now. Shall we make that Tesco or Sainsbury? I just couldn't think of the words. We are thinking about having children. Yes, good idea. Misses out all those messy bits like the smelly nappies and that sickly mess they call baby food.
And then what if it didn’t happen anyway? What if we were sitting here in seven years time? I mean, it can take years. You hear of people being almost driven mad through the desperation of wanting. Wanting so much, but not able to have, children. I felt the lump in my throat swell rapidly, and the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. It was like having your mates waiting outside the examination centre while you were taking your driving test.
Did everyone go through this? Or should it just feel natural and right when it was right? But, that was just it. It did feel right. I just didn’t know why. Surely there would never be a really logical obvious time to take the plunge into parenthood.
I was being unfair to Charles, expecting that he would even think about passing moral judgement on my decision. I would just mention it - in a just passing kind of way.
I tried to swallow the lump away. I wriggled in my chair and straightened my shoulders, looking for that inner courage that would help me. We’d both fallen into an expectant silence.
“About the skiing, Charles,” I began. “Well, what I was going to say was that we just thought we might not be able to go skiing this year for one very good reason. We are thinking about trying to have a baby. And well, if I manage to get pregnant, I don’t really think you are supposed to ski when you’re pregnant. It’s all just hypothetical because, we haven’t really decided anything yet. We just thought we might .... You look surprised.”
Charles sat upright and took a drink. I looked at his face, fixing my gaze right into his eyes. I wanted to know what he really thought. I scrutinised his face for signs.
“You know the other weekend I was watching my parents playing with their friends’ children.” I recounted the scene to Charles. “I was actually quite jealous. I thought: that should be our children they are playing with.”
“What’s the matter?” I asked him. He looked troubled. “We’re only planning to have a baby, not emigrate to Mars or something. I thought you’d be happy for us.”
“I am, I am. I’m delighted,” Charles effused. It rang out with a certain shallowness.
“But you don’t seem to be,” I said.
“No, I am. I’m delighted.”
“You’re not, Charles. I can tell. By the look on your face anyone would think I’d just told you someone had died.” Charles looked shocked. “What is it?” I persisted. “Tell me Charles. What have I said?”
“I don’t really know. It’s nothing.” Charles winced. He looked puzzled himself. As if he didn’t really know. But quite clearly something was bothering him.
“You don’t think I can do it, do you?”
“It’s not that. Of course you can do it.”
“You think I’m cut out to be a career woman, not a home bird. Just because I, we choose to have children, doesn’t mean I can’t work. Anyway, perhaps Nick will take the career break. Maybe I’ll go back to work and he’ll look after the children. We are not all that far away from my parents. Mum isn’t really a baby person. I guess that’s why I’m an only child. But she loves children. Later on, she’d help out.”
“Whoa! Stop,” Charles blurted out suddenly.
“What?” I looked at him, pleading for an explanation.
“That’s it. That’s the issue. I think it’s great, but.”
“But what?” I snapped.
“I think maybe you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
“In what way?”
“Well, tell me honestly. Do you want to have a baby now, because you desperately want to have a baby, because of some immense maternal instinct, that has just come over you? Or do you want to have a baby because you think it might be nice for your Mum and Dad to be grandparents. No.... don’t say anything. Let me finish. I’m not criticising at all.”
“Well it bloody well sounds like it from this side of the table.”
I was choking back the tears but Charles went on. Now he’d got this far there was no going back. He was careering down a one way street, the wrong way, with no room for a U-turn. But I realised I had to listen. I’d led him down that one way street. I had to get to the bottom of his thinking, his reasoning. I had to test my own judgement, however painful that was going to be.
“Look, we can change the subject if you like. But you pushed me, Annie. You pushed me into this. I’m not criticising, I’m just asking. You can picture yourself in rural bliss, with your mum and dad playing with the kids. You’ve put yourself in that scene. And it’s maybe, just maybe, got out of hand. You’ve formulated this dream, this image of family fun, lazy Sunday afternoons in the garden. I hate to sound harsh. I hate to break the bubble, but Annie, your mother is seriously, seriously ill. She is terminally ill. She may be feeling really well at the moment. But sooner rather than later she’s not going to be here anymore. Look, your mum might live for three years, maybe four. And it will be wonderful. But she’s not going to get better. And a couple of years down the line, you and Nick will have your baby, but she’s not going to be there, you know that, don’t you Annie. She’s not going to be there. I think it’s great that you two want to have children eventually. Nick was made to be a Dad. Look at how he is with those lads at cricket. Constantly coaching them. He was made for it.”
What about me? Was it so obvious I wasn’t cut out to be a mum? I could learn. I could cope.
Charles reached out for my hand. “Annie, I’m not for one minute suggesting that you wouldn’t be the perfect mother. I’m just saying that if you think you might want to have children, think it through carefully. Take your time. Make sure that you know who you are doing it for. I think you are under the illusion that this is a joint enterprise, and that once the physical part is over, you can take a back seat and watch everyone else get on with it. It is not like that. No matter how forward thinking you might be, the world isn’t ready for it yet. Nick would make a great househusband. I can picture it now, as he oversees the Simpson estate. Baby in one arm, telephone in the other, the row of nappies, freshly laundered, blowing gently in the breeze outside and the smell of fresh bread, emanating from the Aga. But get real, a few years down the line and the kids are at school all day and he’s going to have to pick up on his career again. And it just won’t work. The world isn’t ready for it yet. The captains of industry can’t cope with role reversal. What I’m saying is that you have to realise that no matter how much Penny, or even Nick, wants a baby, it is you who really matters. It really has to be you who is doing the wanting. This is not a decision you can take for other people. Do you want to have a baby Annie?”
I fumbled around by my feet for my bag, desperate to find a tissue. I could feel the floodgates ready to burst. Surely Charles had no right to be doing this. It had all seemed so straightforward, but now I was just hurt and confused.
We walked back wordlessly in the cool, damp night air. It was already late. Nearly midnight. I desperately wanted to try and lighten up the conversation. I didn’t want to leave on this note. But it was all I could think about. It was my whole word being turned upside down. And no matter how hard I tried to push it to the back of my mind, I just couldn’t think of anything to say. Charles wasn’t obliging either. He was never usually short on small talk. I thought about asking him about his weekend. He’d not told me anything. But the thing was I didn’t care.
Charles’ flirtations now seemed irrelevant, trivial, not even remotely interesting to my troubled mind. I wished I could just obliterate the whole evening. Press the delete key and it would be gone. Where was that light heart that was digging at Charles to tell me of his trials and tribulations, his latest saga? It was gone. And I couldn’t tempt it back.
It was seven fifteen. I had hoped to be on my way an hour ago. I wanted to get there in the light. Not least from the point of view of safety and driving unknown winding roads in the dark, but I had the opportunity to travel what I assumed must be one of the most beautiful roads in England. The A69 from Newcastle to Carlisle, crossing the Pennines, following alongside Hadrian’s Wall. I kept thinking about Jack Kerouac’s romanticisation of Route 66. I looked at the map as I prepared to set off. I headed out of the city following the signs. I was being drawn all the time towards the A66, next road south across the Pennines. Concentrate, girl. A69. Come on. A69, let’s get this right. I tried to put Route 66 out of my mind and think Hadrian’s wall. I lured myself onto the right road and felt a sense of relief. One good thing about this road was that there was only one way, now I’d found it. It just wound its way up and over the Pennines and came down the other side at Carlisle.
The countryside was softer than I’d imagined. I’d thought it would be more rugged. But the green hills just rolled away on either side. Every few miles I’d see the little brown tourist signs pointing right, to Hadrian’s wall. Half a mile, a quarter of a mile. I kept glancing to the right, hoping to catch sight of the famous wall, not so easy as the road turned one way then another. Not a soul, did I see. I passed through a few sleepy villages, but not a soul was in sight. And as I swayed this way and that way alongside Hadrian’s Wall I felt drawn by it, intrigued by the history, the lure of that most ancient thing.
But time urged me forward. Not to a graceless, characterless travel hotel, this time, but a B&B. I’d phoned them before I left and told them I may be late. The lady of the house had urged me to try to get there before 9.00 p.m. as she had a sick mother in law and would be anxious to return to her bedside vigil after letting me in. Scary, I thought. I’d actually have to talk to real people. Somehow the anonymity of the previous night had been easier to face. I wasn’t sure that I was really comfortable with the idea of a B&B. I felt that my defences might get broken down. Who was I? What did I do? The how are yous in the morning. All that belonged to another world: an altogether friendlier, more caring, but more intrusive world. Without even having stepped foot inside the door I was already privy to the landlady’s woes.
I pressed on, still trying to snatch a glimpse of the wall, but daylight was fading now. Time was not on my side. I descended from the hills towards the coastal plain just as the twilight came upon me. ‘Twilight’. Where did that word come from? That state between light and darkness, a state of uncertainty. I thought back to my evening with Charles. I was in that twilight state. Uncertain. Betwixt and between. Not quite sure of the way. But didn’t it always get dark before it would grow light again. As I swept down from the hillside towards the lights of Carlisle it was like a revelation. I could see now that darkness would fall and then it would become day. I would delve further into the depths of uncertainty before I would be able to focus clearly on the next phase of my life.
Reaching Carlisle I tried to gain clues from the road signs. I saw the sign to a school, St. Mary’s School. I was looking for St. Mary’s Road. I could see the school on the map. A flush of relief, and at the same time, a wave of exhaustion swept over me as the adrenaline left.
I parked up and grabbed my bag. I rung the doorbell and a neat looking woman in her mid fifties opened the door. Inside was pristine in soft powder blue and cream, with floral curtains and matching cushions on Queen Anne chairs.
“Mrs Simpson?” she enquired gently.
“Yes. That’s right.”
“Do come in. I’m Rose. Mary has been called away.” I realised that the mother in law must have taken a turn for the worst. Even though I’d never met Mary, I felt a twinge of sadness deep in my heart.
Rose showed me to a floral bedroom with an inviting double bed, a little tea tray, and a small television in the corner. There was a door through which, I guessed, would be a bathroom. Rose had proudly informed me that all rooms had en suite facilities.
I placed my bag on the dressing table stool and kicked off my shoes as I stretched out on my back across the cosy bed. I lay there, wondering what Nick would be doing, longing for his arms to be wrapped around me. I covered my eyes with the tips of my fingers and took in a few deep, calming breaths. It had been an exhausting day. It wasn’t just the physical demands of the driving or the concentration, or the trying to listen to all the criss-crossing conversations as one person insists it should be done this way, another says that won’t work.
Someone else thinks it is all a big waste of money and it will never work and they don’t know why they are even bothering to come to the meetings. I wondered that too, inwardly. Why did I bother? Why did I ever like this job?
I resisted the urge to just close my eyes and drift off to sleep. I looked round the room to see if there was a telephone along with the ensuite bathroom, tea and coffee facilities and colour television. Sure enough, there it was fixed to the wall just to the side of the bed. Okay, so now for the big dilemma of the evening. Phone call or food first. Well, that was about as exciting as it was going to get tonight.
The phone call was the low calorie choice but I didn’t think I could hold out until breakfast. If I didn’t get going soon everything would be closed, but I didn’t want to leave it too late to phone Nick.
“Hi darling, how’s things?” I asked, trying to find an upbeat tone.
“Are you ok? You sound upset.”
“No, no. I’m fine. Just tired.”
“Have you eaten?” Nick asked, perhaps detecting the wavering in my voice.
“No, not yet. I’m just hoping there’s a Seven-Eleven somewhere in the vicinity.” Nick admonished me for working late and not eating properly. “What did you eat?” I countered, suspecting that the planned three month pre-pregnancy health kick was not getting off to a flying start for either of us.
“So much for healthy eating, hey.”
“There’s lots of vitamins in potatoes you know. It’s in Cosmo.”
“Since when have you been a Cosmo reader?” I wondered if he was wearing my underwear too. “What exactly have you been reading?” I looked forward to finding out.
“What exactly have you been reading?” He turned the question back to me. “I hope you took notes on page 57.”
“You’ll just have to see,” I teased.
Suitably chastised for not looking after myself, I went off in search of food. I took a glance at the map and thought I’d better take the car. I set off in search of sustenance, with only Crackle FM for company.
I headed towards town. There were a couple of Greek tavernas and a rather seedy looking pub, then a one-way system. Everything looked pretty closed. Even the inevitable chippy proved elusive. There can’t be a town in England that doesn’t have at least one chip shop, surely!
I drove round one more time, trying to roughly keep an eye on my bearings. No joy. I pulled up at a petrol station and resigned myself to an overpriced, under flavoured pasty and a packet of crisps.
I manoeuvred my Mercedes back to St Mary’s Road and sat there, inspecting the dimly lit Edwardian street while devouring the pasty and most of the packet of crisps. Then despite feeling just as hungry as before I’d eaten, I sloped upstairs to my floral boudoir, vowing to do things properly next time.
Do things properly? How many times had I said that before? But, surely, with a bit of forward planning I could manage something healthier than a pasty and a packet of crisps for dinner. I lay down on the bed and flicked on the television. Why is it that men always seem to enjoy business travel? They swap their suit for the cords and jumper and then blend in with the scenery of the local hostelry where they enjoy a pint of something to wash down their steak in ale pie, served with thick cut chips, the proper English kind, with a few peas as the token vegetable. They chat to the barman or read the paper. No one bothers them except to ask them if their meal was to their liking and would they like another pint in there?
I’d tried that ‘I can do it too, attitude’ on Monday night in Middlesbrough. I’d taken my book, headed down to the bar and ordered from the menu as I sipped my lime and soda. I just felt uncomfortable. There was the rather characterless, but predictable motorway-side motel on Tuesday, where I went for the safe but dull room service option of linguini in tomato and basil sauce washed down with a half bottle of chilled Chardonnay accompanied by suitably trashy chick-lit featuring a glossy business woman who whilst ordering her G&T at the bar, glances up from the menu and the man of her dreams says he recommends the langoustines and would she care to join him.
Then there was last night’s option; five star hotel with its ‘notice for lady guests’ suggesting that they might like to try their special tables in the restaurant reserved for lady guests. At last, I thought, a recognition that not all their business guests were men. I phoned up to book a table, thinking that I could freshen up with a nice shower, and then stroll down to the restaurant and enjoy the fine cuisine, then retire relaxed and replete for a good quality BBC Mid Week drama and finally enjoy the world of business travel so revered by the opposite sex. “Sorry, madam. We haven’t quite got that initiative up and running yet, but I could reserve you a table in a quiet corner of the restaurant.”
“It’s okay thanks, I’ll just have the linguini and a half bottle of chardonnay please, …. in my room.”
I examined the miniature collection of bath potions, and found them suitably floral and colour co-ordinated. I ran a bath and bathed away my boredom with a long soak, before retiring to bed with my book. I’d read about two paragraphs before career woman strolled into the conservatory restaurant to find long lost friend contemplating the wine list. They hug and kiss and then retire to a table to catch up on old times as they share fine French cuisine and a good bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. Oh please! I riffle the tea tray for the custard creams. At least I only had one more night to endure – until the next trip.
I pulled up in the driveway so relieved to be home. Charles’ car was parked outside. Nick hadn’t mentioned he was coming. In fact, I was sure Charles said he was going to London. He must just be calling in on his way down. Well I was definitely not going to London, if that’s what they were plotting. I’d driven far enough. All I needed was my own bed, my own husband and a night of unbridled passion that wasn’t in paperback.
I stretched my legs as I got out of the car and brushed the pasty crumbs off my skirt. I hadn’t had a chance to get any lunch. Well I hadn’t made the chance. I’d just wanted to get done and get on the road, so plumped for the customary pasty when I stopped for petrol.
I grabbed an armful of junk off the front seat and pushed the door shut with my hip contemplating the level of padding I’d managed to add to it in a week. The patio door was open. I slung the laptop over my shoulder and went in through the back gate.
“Hi!” I called. I could hear the two of them bustling about in the kitchen and whatever was in progress smelled delicious. It had better not be linguini in tomato and basil.
They hadn’t heard me come in. I sorted out the bits of paper I‘d brought back and shoved the laptop away behind the sofa. Not getting much of a welcome, I went off to see what was cooking. Nick and Charles sounded like they were arguing about something.
“I just think you should think carefully about the reasons. Are you doing it for yourselves or are you doing it as a magnanimous gesture for someone who quite honestly might pop her clogs before you’ve changed your first nappy? Yes, of course I think it’s wonderful and you’ll make fantastic parents when you’re ready. But that’s the whole point. It has to be when you’re ready, not just because Penny would like to see her grand children before she pegs it.”
“She’s not going to peg it.”
“She’s got cancer, man.”
“She’s a real fighter.” I could hear the tears sticking in Nick’s throat as the words came out. “She’s a fighter.”
“I’m sorry mate. I know I’m being harsh but… it’s just I think you’ve got your head buried in the sand – you both have.”