FIONA GIBSON Pedigree Mum
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First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2013
Copyright © Fiona Gibson 2013
Fiona Gibson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9781847562616
Ebook Edition © February 2013 ISBN: 9780007478439
For the delectable Miss Wendy Rigg
PART ONE Arrival
‘Welcoming a new addition into your home is a decision not to be taken lightly. The impact on your family will be enormous.’
Your First Dog: A Complete Guide by Jeremy Catchpole
So it actually exists. The perfect family day out, as peddled by the glossy magazines, featuring unfeasibly photogenic parents and children enjoying beach picnics in the sunshine – ithappens in real life, Kerry realises. To her left, a family entirely populated by curly-haired blondes are tucking into a Niçoise salad from a huge transparent pink bowl. They’ve even brought salad tongs (pink to match the bowl) and it appears to be fresh tuna, not tinned. There’s also a huge pastry oblong which looks like one of those savoury French tarts, with anchovies draped all over it – Kerry is amazed to see it being happily consumed by persons under eight years old – plus a dazzling array of fresh fruit.
At another gathering, kids in Breton tops are tucking into what looks like a week’s worth of five-a-days at one sitting, and not your boring old apples and tangerines either. Kerry spots mangoes, papayas and gnarly little testicle-like things that might possibly be kumquats or maybe ugly fruits … God, she doesn’t even know the names of the more exotic varieties. Is it any wonder she can’t persuade her own children to acquaint themselves with pineapple? Here on Shorling beach, in the glorious April sunshine, no one is whingeing or picking out bits they don’t like. There appears to be not one Cheesy Wotsit on the whole beach.
As for acceptable picnic attire, Kerry realises this is Petit Bateau territory, with a liberal sprinkling of Boden and Gap. It’s also clear that Mia, who at seven years old favours scruffy denim shorts and has already splattered ice cream down her T-shirt, doesn’t quite belong. And it’s a miracle that Freddie, who’s wearing the hideous black and orange tracksuit that’s permanently welded to his lithe five-year-old body these days, hasn’t been politely asked to leave the beach. Kerry might be feeling paranoid, but she’s sure that kumquat-slicing mum over there is giving her children a look of distaste, as if fearful that they might pitch up beside them and start slugging Fanta and ripping open packets of Jammy Dodgers.
She chuckles to herself, focusing now on her husband Rob as he turns and motions for her to catch up. Their children are running along at the water’s edge while Rob is marching ahead, laden with bags, having decided that the far end of the beach will be more suitable for kite flying. However, Kerry has lagged behind deliberately, swivelling her eyes from left to right in order to amass as much information as possible about the picnicking etiquette at Shorling-on-Sea. After all, they might live here one day. It’s just a hazy idea, but still, research must be conducted in these matters.
At least Roblooks the part, she decides. Tall, dark-eyed, handsome Rob, who’s been scouring the shops these past weeks for a top-notch kite, especially to bring today.
‘Think this is a good place?’ he asks as Kerry catches up with him. They have left the picnicking groups behind now, and she experiences a wave of pleasure as she surveys the sweep of flat, empty sand.
‘Looks perfect,’ she says. ‘D’you think there’s enough wind?’
‘Yeah, ’course there is,’ Freddie declares, unselfconsciously pulling off his sodden tracksuit bottoms. He points at a father and son over by the rocks who are expertly manoeuvring a box kite.
‘That’s impressive.’ Rob grins at his son. ‘Reckon we can do that, little man?’
‘Yeah. Let me go first.’ Freddie tries, unsuccessfully, to snatch the kite from Rob’s grasp.
‘You said I could, Daddy!’ Mia declares, scampering towards them.
‘Of course you can both have a go,’ Rob says. ‘It’s for you guys, not me. Just let me see if I can get us started, okay?’ Amidst the children’s protests, Rob strides away while Kerry unpacks her own picnic offerings: ham baguettes, a little squashed, bananas having mysteriously blackened during the two hour drive from London to the south coast. But at least her blueberry muffins have endured the journey well. She almost wishes the anchovy tart mum would venture over and see them: they’re home-made, you know, and there’s fruit nestling inside …
Actually, no she doesn’t, because all’s not going well on the kite front. Having decided he does need assistance after all, Rob is urging Mia to launch the kite as he simultaneously charges away, gripping the spool as if trying to control an exuberant puppy. Kerry traps a bubble of laughter as, no matter how fast he runs or tugs ineffectually at the line, the bright yellow kite still smacks straight back down onto the sand.
‘I really don’t think there’s enough wind,’ she suggests, sitting cross-legged on a spread out towel.
Rob blows out air and glances at the father and son with the box kite. ‘They don’t seem to be having any problems,’ he huffs.
‘Yeah,’ Freddie grumbles, ‘why haven’t we got one like that?’
Mia fixes her father with a thoughtful stare. ‘Is it our kite’s fault, Daddy, or is it you?’
Slinging the kite on the sand beside the picnic basket, Rob plonks himself down beside Kerry. ‘Guess it must be me, sweetheart. Guy in the shop said even a dumbwit can fly this. It’s guaranteed to fly like a bird, he said.’
‘He lied then,’ Freddie says.
‘Can you get your money back?’ Mia wants to know.
‘Oh, I don’t think I’ll bother. Maybe I should leave kite flying to those alpha-dad types.’ Rob grins, putting an arm around Kerry’s shoulders.
‘Well,’ she says, ‘that box kite probably took six weeks to build, and I bet he’s president of some horribly competitive kite-flying club …’
‘And the kid hates it,’ Rob cuts in. ‘He’d much rather be at home, plugged into his Xbox …’
‘Have you noticed how he hasn’t let the boy have a go?’ Kerry has barely spoken when the man hands the kite’s controls to his small, eager son who continues to manoeuvre it in majestic swoops.
‘There must be some different kind of air pocket system going on there,’ Rob says, taking a bite of a muffin. ‘These are delicious by the way.’
‘Thanks. New recipe.’
‘Excellent work, Mrs Tambini.’
She laughs, kissing him lightly on the lips, relieved that she managed to persuade him to come down here today. The children are clearly enjoying it too, having wandered off back to the water’s edge.
‘D’you think it’s okay,’ Rob ventures, ‘Freddie wandering about in his pants like that?’
‘It’s a beach,’ she laughs. ‘Of course it is, as long as no one realises they’re from Primark. We’ll probably be arrested if they do.’
Rob smiles. ‘You really like it here, don’t you?’
‘I love it, even though it’s gone posh. I always have, ever since I was a kid.’ She glances at him, deciding not to ask him again whether they should take up her Aunt Maisie’s offer of buying her home on the Shorling seafront at a ridiculously low price. Admittedly, the cottage needs work, but it’s the perfect size, with a great primary school within walking distance. Maisie is keen to move to Spain where her oldest schoolfriend, Barbara, has an apartment. She’s out there now, ready to embrace a new life, and Kerry feels she, Rob and the children are too. Rob has cautiously agreed that London is commutable – seventy minutes by train – and as a freelance songwriter, she could easily live and work here. And the children, who have now joined forces to build a sandcastle, would love it …
Rob strolls over to help them dig a moat, and Freddie squeals with delight every time a wave rushes in to fill it. As she watches the three of them digging frantically, Kerry is overcome by a surge of love for her husband. Rob seems to have been struggling at work lately, no doubt due to a clear out of virtually all of the old, faithful team. His new editor sounds utterly obnoxious, so is it any wonder he’s seemed a bit distant and distracted?
Kerry gets up to join her family, helping to reinforce the moat’s walls after each wave.
‘We’re winning against the sea!’ Freddie yells until their castle finally melts away.
‘Let’s try the kite again,’ Rob suggests, ‘now that over-achiever with the box kite has gone.’
Perhaps because the pressure’s off, this time the kite soars up easily – a canary-yellow diamond against a dazzling blue sky.
‘Here, you try,’ he says, passing the spool to Freddie while Mia claps delightedly.
‘You did it, Daddy!’ she cries.
‘Hero,’ Kerry murmurs teasingly. ‘Kite maestro superstar.’
‘Hey, it was nothing.’ Rob chuckles, his smile dissolving as the kite spins erratically before dive-bombing a child-free couple who have just set out their picnic à deux. ‘Shit, bollocks,’ he blurts out, haring towards them to apologise profusely.
‘It’s fine,’ the woman snaps. ‘Don’t worry about it.’ She extracts the kite from a fluted glass dish and hands it to Rob.
‘Shit-bollocks,’ Freddie sniggers into his hand as his father returns, brushing cous-cous off the kite with the flat of his hand.
It doesn’t spoil the day though. The afternoon drifts by in a pleasant blur, and Rob is even persuaded by Mia to roll up his pristine Levi’s and have a paddle. The muffins are devoured, plus delicious crab sandwiches from a nearby cafe. The children are engrossed in playing with a bouncy white terrier now, throwing a wrecked tennis ball for him with the approval of his elderly lady owner.
‘I wish we had a dog,’ Mia announces. ‘Why can’t we have one, Mummy?’
‘Please don’t start on about that now,’ Kerry says, resting her head on Rob’s shoulder.
He turns to her in the pinkish evening light and gently brushes a strand of hair from her eyes. ‘This is beautiful, Kerry. I don’t think I’ve ever realised how lovely it is to be by the sea.’
‘It’s been a perfect day,’ she agrees. ‘We should come down here more often.’
He nods, and there’s a pause, as if he’s taking care to choose the right words. ‘You know what? I think we should do it. We should take up Maisie’s offer and move here.’
She sits up and stares at him for a moment, wary of overreacting and causing him to backtrack. Then, unable to help herself, she flings her arms around his broad shoulders and kisses him long and hard on the lips.
‘Are you sure?’ she says finally. ‘You’re not feeling pushed into it, are you?’
‘No, I’m not. Look at this place, and how the kids are here – it’s so much better for them than a tiny backyard …’
‘Well, I think so.’ She swallows hard, watching as the yellow kite, now being flown single-handedly by Mia, darts gracefully, as if performing its own excited dance. The posh picnics have long been packed away and the beach is deserted apart from a couple of dog walkers in the far distance.
‘Let’s talk to her,’ Rob says, ‘as soon as she comes back from Spain.’
Kerry nods. ‘Okay.’ Closing her hand around his, she squeezes it tightly. ‘It’ll be great for us,’ she adds. ‘I can just feel it, Rob. I think it’ll turn out to be one of the best things we’ve ever done.’
Chapter Two Four months later
Certain activities should be left until the children are safely tucked up in bed. Sewing falls into this category. With all the swearing and blood loss involved, it’s best not undertaken with impressionable young people around. Kerry has already acquired a repetitive injury from jabbing herself with a needle; all this to stitch a few name tapes onto school uniforms for the new term ahead. Could she get away with writing their names in biro on the wash-care labels instead? It’s considered slovenly, Kerry knows this, but surely it’s better than sending the children to their new school in blood-stained tops?
As a fresh scarlet bead seeps from the wound, Kerry manages tolocate the first aid box from one of the many packing crates. These are still full and stacked precariously along one wall of the living room, like reinforcements against floods. Opening the tin of plasters, she selects one disguised as a bacon rasher (Freddie requested these last birthday; the set includes an egg, sausage and a blob of beans – a full English breakfast in plaster form). The name tapes are too thick, that’s the trouble. The biro option hovers tantalisingly in Kerry’s mind, even though she has already surmised that Shorling-on-Sea is a sewn-in-name-tapes sort of place.
The small, compact seaside town had a very different vibe when she spent childhood holidays here, in this very house where her Aunt Maisie used to live. Back then, the place bustled with visitors eating burgers on the seafront and children plucking tufts from pink candyfloss clouds. Where the town once smelt of fried onions, these days it’s all organic bakeries and seafood restaurants. Apparently, more scallops and langoustines are consumed per capita in Shorling than anywhere else in Britain. Eating a doughnut in public would probably have you shot. The Gold Rush Arcade is now a Wagamama, the World’s Biggest Museum of Tattoo Art has become a glass-walled restaurant filled with glossy people tackling crustaceans with an impressive array of little metal tools. The bleach-blonde ladies in velour tracksuits who once ran the numerous B&Bs – where did they all go, Kerry wonders? – have been replaced by glowing-skinned women with long, glossy hair, perfect teeth and children called Lottie and Felix.
Of course, it had been clear on kite-flying day that Shorling had gone upmarket. But it wasn’t until they’d actually moved that the extent of the transformation had truly sunk in. Still, Kerry reflects, at least there’s one final week of summer holidays. She’d noticed a sign advertising a children’s end-of-summer beach party, and if Freddie and Mia could make some new friends, surely starting school would be a little easier. And what about her? Without lurking weirdly around the dog-walking women who hang out on Shorling beach, she hasn’t the faintest idea how she’ll meet anyone. Maybe it’ll be easier at the school gates. Even more important, then, that Mia and Freddie’s names aren’t biro-ed on.
This flicker of optimism leads Kerry to picturing Rob selling their London home. Although it’s on with an agency, Rob is adamant that estate agents are clueless, and that as deputy editor of a men’s magazine, he is far better equipped to point out its numerous Unique Selling Points. Reassuring herself that the house will sell, and that Rob will soon join them in Shorling, Kerry turns her attentions to the large, square chocolate cake sitting solidly on the table to her right.
In contrast to her pitiful needlework skills, Kerry can decorate cakes pretty nicely, even if she says so herself. Nothing fancy – no detailed scale models of a Loire Valley chateaux – just intricate piping that usually garners her a few brownie points at the children’s birthday parties. For Freddie’s last birthday she replicated an entire comic strip from one of his much-loved Tintin books, and when Mia turned seven she crammed the entire Simpsons cast, including many lesser-known characters, onto a ten-inch Victoria sponge. She even created a magazine cover to mark Rob’s tenth anniversary of working at Mr Jones – ‘The Thinking Man’s Monthly’, as the magazine’s tagline goes.
This cake, too, is for Rob, but Kerry can’t decide what to put on it. A simple ‘Happy 40th Darling’? No, too generic. She could do a portrait in glacé icing but, while her beloved is undeniably handsome with his dark-eyed Italian looks, she wouldn’t be able to resist exaggerating the long, strong nose and full, curvy mouth (trying to do a flattering portrait on a cake would be ridiculous, surely?) and she’s not sure he’d appreciate that. As his new twenty-something boss has brought in an editorial team of equally youthful pups, Kerry senses that Rob is not entirely delighted about reaching this milestone. No – better tread carefully with this cake.
She ponders some more, deciding that if she doesn’t get a move on the icing will set in the piping bag, leaving her with a cone of solidified sugar. Think, think … Taking a deep breath, and a gulp from the glass of now tepid chardonnay at her side, Kerry pipes carefully, transforming the cake into an elaborate book cover with delicate curlews all around its edges. In the centre, in her very best curly writing, she pipes:
THIS IS YOUR CAKE!
Yep, pretty good. Kerry knows he finds exclamation marks vulgar, and is tempted to add more (CAKE!!!!!!!) just to wind him up, but manages to restrain herself. Anyway, he’ll be delighted when she turns up to surprise him tomorrow morning at their London house. He’ll be wowed by the cake, plus the smoked salmon, bagels and champagne she intends to pick up on the way for a special birthday brunch. The plan had been for Rob to head down to Shorling tomorrow afternoon, after showing more prospective buyers around their home. However, Kerry has arranged a far more enticing proposition. They’ll celebrate his birthday by having a much-needed child-free Saturday together in London, and a night all by themselves (she has already de-fuzzed and selected reasonably racy black lingerie in readiness). Even now, after thirteen years together, the thought of lovely, unhurried sex with Rob sparks a delicious shiver of desire. Then on Sunday morning they’ll pick up the children from her best friend Anita’s, when they’ll present Daddy with home-made cards and gifts.
It’s just what he needs, Kerry reflects, clearing up in the kitchen before heading upstairs. She peeks into Mia’s room where her daughter is sound asleep after an entire day on the beach. Picking up a bundle of sea-damp clothes, Kerry then steps quietly into Freddie’s room where there’s a curious odour. No, not just curious – rank, actually, like rotting fish.
‘What’re you doing, Mummy?’ he asks sleepily.
‘There’s something stinky in here,’ she whispers, her bare foot knocking against a plastic bucket half-tucked under his bed.
‘They’re my crabs.’
‘You brought crabs home? I didn’t realise. Ugh, they’re really pongy …’ In the bucket, fragments of crab shell contain the remains of flesh at various stages of decay.
‘I was keeping them in the garden,’ Freddie explains, ‘but I didn’t want them to be cold at night.’
‘Oh.’ She peers into the bucket again. ‘But they’re dead, sweetheart …’
‘Yeah, I know,’ he says brightly. ‘I’m gonna make crab sandwiches with mayonnaise on like we had with Daddy.’
‘What, you mean that day with the kite?’
‘Yeah. They were yummy.’
‘Er … yes, they were, darling, but I’m sorry – if you ate these, you’d be very, very ill.’ Picking up the bucket, and ignoring his grumbles of protest, she plants a kiss on his forehead before making her way downstairs.
Even when the bucket’s contents have been bagged up and deposited in the outside bin, the crabby odour still seems to permeate the house. Sloshing in extra orange-scented oil as she steps into her bath, Kerry decides that the smell’s probably just in her head now – like her fears that things aren’t quite the way they should be between her and Rob. She’s probably imagining that too.
She’ll get those name tapes sewn on tomorrow, and her plans will all come together beautifully. Yes, Kerry tries to convince herself – Rob’s fortieth will turn out to be the best birthday he’s ever had.
‘Planning to stay here allnight?’ Eddy calls good-naturedly across the editorial office of Mr Jones magazine. Rob looks up from his screen to where his new boss is pulling on his jacket.
‘Just got a few things to tidy up,’ he replies.
‘Oh, c’mon, Rob. It’s Friday night and it’s gone seven o’clock. Come out for a quick drink. Nearly everyone else has been down there since six …’
Rob shakes his head. ‘Thanks, but I’ll just head off home. Got people to show round the house tomorrow, better make sure it’s ship-shape …’
Eddy makes a bemused snort. ‘Just a quick one. It’ll do you good. What’re you working on anyway?’
‘Well, you said you wanted some alternatives to the magazine’s strapline …’ Secretly, Rob strongly believes that ‘The Thinking Man’s Monthly’ does the job perfectly well, conveying the message: Listen, mate, we run features on politicians and serious-looking leather briefcases. If you’re looking for topless women you’ve come to the wrong place because we’re Too Posh For Boobs. However, Eddy thinks it’s not ‘dynamic’ enough. Mr Jones isn’t supposed to be bloody dynamic, Rob mouths silently as his editor banters with Frank, the art director. That’s the whole point. We once ran a four page feature on the history of Gentleman’s Relish and that’s what our readers expect. Sensing tension radiating upwards from his back to his neck, Rob glares at the straplines he’s managed to dredge up so far:
• For men who mean business
• The discerning man’s glossy
• The glossy man’s best friend
Jesus, what the hell is a ‘glossy man’? And ‘best friend’? That sounds like a dog. He ponders some more:
• The magazine that was once respected and is now a bit shit
• No naked girls here – we’re too refined for that …
Then he adds, smiling to himself:
… Although we do feature the odd, deeply patronising sex tip which suggests that our ‘thinking’ readers aren’t that hot in the sack.
He sits back, about to add to his personal rant when he realises with alarm that Eddy is lurking behind him, pink-cheeked like a baby and flaring his nostrils at the screen.
‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I’m thinking of upping the sex content, Rob. We should run a few more features, practical advice, A–Z of foreplay …’
‘Youknow – the usual get-her-into-bed stuff but delivered with a punchy edge …’
Rob blinks at Eddy. Try as he might, he cannot get his head around what an ‘A–Z of foreplay delivered with a punchy edge’ actually means.
‘Well,’ he says, frowning, ‘if you really think our readers—’
‘What, have sex?’ Eddy guffaws. ‘No, you’re right, Rob. The uptight little farts probably aren’t getting that much. All the more reason to give ’em a helping hand, eh?’ He guffaws at his own joke.
‘Er, I suppose so, yes.’
Eddy slaps a hand on Rob’s shoulder. ‘I don’t mean we’d do it tackily. It’d be tastefully done …’
Nodding sagely as if taking all of this on board, Rob toys with the fantasy of opening a new document and typing out his resignation letter. How can he possibly do his job properly with a twenty-six-year-old idiot at the helm? The last magazine Eddy worked on was full of drinking games and Britain’s Best Bum competitions. It’s rumoured that the winner’s ‘prize’ was to sleep with Eddy.
‘You could write it,’ Eddy adds, giving Rob’s swivel chair an irritating jiggle.
‘Oh, I don’t think so. I’ve got a lot on and I’m sure we could find a freelancer, an expert. I could start putting out some feelers …’
Eddy shakes his head. ‘You’re the best writer here. On all the magazines I’ve worked on, I’ve never come across anyone as versatile …’
‘Really?’ Rob asks, flushing a little.
‘God, yeah. You can turn your hand to anything, can’t you? Interviews, travel, food, politics … You come across as this serious, keeps-things-ticking-along-nicely type, but actually you’re a pretty intelligent guy!’
‘Um, thanks, Eddy …’ Why don’t you patronise me a bit more, you arsehole in your pale pink shirt and Dolce & Gabbana suit …
‘So don’t tell me you can’t knock out a monthly sex column. Under a pseudonym of course – we’d have to make out it was by a woman, a sort of “what’s going on in her mind” type of thing.’
Rob jams his back teeth together, wishing Kerry were here to witness this. He’s not sure he’s managed to convey to her how awful things have been here lately.
‘We could call you Miss Jones!’ Eddy announces, triggering a bark of laughter from Frank on the other side of the office.
Rob squints at his boss. ‘Or we could just commission an actual woman.’
‘Yeah. Well, let’s think about it. Anyway, that’s enough about work – can I drag you out for that drink?’
‘Yeah, come on, Miss Jones,’ Frank sniggers, swaggering across the office from the art department.
Rob takes a moment to consider what to do next. He knows he should make an effort to socialise, as he did with the old team – the ones Eddy shunted off to the publishing group’s less prestigious magazines like Tram Enthusiast and Carp Angler. He is also aware that he doesn’t fit in with the new dynamic attitude which Eddy announced will replace the ‘stuffy, gentlemanly tone’, and that he’s lucky to still have a job. In truth, though, the thought of going out drinking with these reptiles makes him want to gouge his eyeballs out.
‘So? Can we drag you away from the coalface?’ A smirking Eddy is beckoning him now, his loyal servant Frank looking bemused at his side.
‘Well …’ Rob hesitates before shutting down his computer. ‘I don’t see why not. Where are we going then?’
Rob nods approvingly, wondering how to negotiate this. He’s not a member of Jack’s, and is tempted to point out that he belongs to another private members’ club – the one he, Simon and the rest of the cosy old team used to frequent. But now he’s worried that even a casual mention of The Lounge will remind Eddy of his vintage, and he’ll make a mental note to bung Rob over to Horticultural Digest first thing on Monday morning. When did life become so worrying?
The move to Shorling – that’s started to concern him too. He knows it makes sense, and he was all for it that lovely day on the beach with the kite. Yet he can’t help feeling a little anxious about the enormity of leaving the city in which he’s spent his entire adult life. Even Kerry seems slightly less enamoured with Shorling since she and the children moved down there, and he can’t quite imagine how she’ll fit in with those posh women with their haughty voices and BMWs.
‘Er, I’m not actually a member of Jack’s,’ Rob admits as the three men head for the third floor lift.
‘That’s fine, you’ll be my guest.’ Eddy sweeps back his mop of fair hair and jabs the lift button.
‘Great. Thanks.’ Rob’s mouth forms a tight line. The lift doors open, and they ride down in slightly awkward silence (despite the invitation, Rob suspects Eddy has only asked him out of politeness). It’s a relief when they step out into the early evening bustle of Shaftesbury Avenue. The warm September evening, and the good-natured hubbub around him, raises Rob’s spirits a little. He experiences a pang of missing Kerry and the children, and decides his one drink policy should mean he’ll catch Mia and Freddie for a phone call before they go to bed. This time tomorrow, he reminds himself, they’ll all be together. Maybe he’ll treat his family to a special Sunday lunch at that seafood restaurant in the big glass cube, see what the kids make of the crustacean-crushing implements. That would be fun. Despite his anxiety about the move, he is heartily sick of being alone in London from Monday to Friday.
At Jack’s, Eddy and Frank make a big show of being on first name terms with Theresa on the door.
‘Has anyone ever told you you have beautiful eyes?’ Eddy drawls, at which she chuckles indulgently and tosses back her glossy raven hair.
‘Yes, darling. You, last week.’
‘Oh, you play so hard to get. Isn’t she a terrible tease, Rob?’ Eddy emits a spluttery laugh, and Rob senses the tips of his ears turning a violent shade of puce. God, imagine having to be pleasant to wankers like this, every night of the week. Rob almost wants to apologise on behalf of all mankind. Just a quick one, he reminds himself as the three men descend the narrow stairs to the basement, so I don’t seem like a stand-offish old bugger …
His thoughts are cut short as he follows Eddy and Frank into the bar and realises that all of the Mr Jones editorial team are here – the clueless designers, the bewildering fashion team who describe clothes as ‘pieces’, and the writers who look like they’ve barely acquainted themselves with razors yet. Even Nadine, the young editorial assistant who doesn’t seem to like him much, is smiling over the rim of her glass. And they’re not only here, having a casual drink after work, but assembled before him in a rabbly semi-circle, all grinning and staring as they burst into song:
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Robbeeeee …
Robbie? It sounds as if he’s in a boy band. Rob’s not a Robbie, but never mind that because here comes a cake, ablaze with candles and dusted with sugar (clearly, Jack’s is too cool for the kind of garish iced creations Kerry creates), carried on a big silver board by a beautiful girl with red hair cascading down her back. Shock has morphed into pleasure as someone hands Rob a drink (how did they know he likes vodka and tonic?), and his colleagues cluster around him as the cake is cut.
‘Well, thanks,’ he blusters. ‘I didn’t think, I mean I didn’t realise …’
‘Hope you don’t mind us hatching this little surprise,’ says ‘Stewie’, the new features editor whose pallid complexion suggests he spends most of his free time huddled over a games console.
‘No, of course not. Not at all.’ Rob grins in disbelief. ‘I’ve never had a surprise party before. I’m really touched …’
‘Feel okay about the big four-o?’
‘Oh yeah, it’s fine …’
‘And I hear you’re going to be our new sex columnist!’ exclaims fashion editor Ava, her severe black bob swinging excitedly.
‘Er, it hasn’t exactly been decided yet,’ he says, a little less freaked out by the prospect now he’s quickly downed most of his drink. How did she know, anyway?
‘Eddy seems to think it has,’ Ava says, raising an eyebrow. ‘Once he gets an idea in his head there’s no shifting it.’
‘Well, I suppose I’ll manage to, er …’
‘You’ll do a brilliant job,’ declares Nadine, startling Rob with her friendliness. Usually, she regards him with cool indifference as if he’s the maintenance guy.
‘Er, thanks, Nadine. I’ll give it my best shot, I suppose …’
She giggles, sweeping a hand over her cute gamine crop, and he feels himself blushing. Rob wonders briefly if she’s teasing him. Perhaps she finds it hugely amusing that the oldest man in the office – the Granddaddy of Mr Jones – has been chosen to write a sex column. He’s faintly relieved when Frank beckons him over to the bar to share a filthy joke.
No, he’s just being paranoid, Rob decides, which is understandable, considering the sweeping changes Eddy’s been making. Anyway, he feels better tonight, now buoyed up by his second vodka and tonic. Nadine has reappeared at his side, and is telling him about working with Eddy – ‘I follow him around like a little limpet,’ she explains with a grin – and Ava is complimenting his jacket. As the evening continues with much banter and laughter, Rob decides to socialise more often, and to try to remodel his work persona, which he suspects comes across as too earnest for Eddy’s ‘dynamic’ regime.
Rob might not be a member here at Jack’s, and he might be hanging onto his job by the tips of his neatly-filed fingernails, but right now, turning forty doesn’t seem so bad. And hours later – even though Rob rarely stays out late on a school night – he doesn’t see why he shouldn’t go along when someone suggests continuing the party at Nadine’s Baker Street flat.
‘Mum. Mum! MUUUUM!’
Kerry snaps awake and peers at the alarm clock on her bedside table: 1.37 a.m. ‘What is it, Freddie?’ she croaks.
With a groan, Kerry hauls herself out of bed and blunders barefoot in a rumpled T-shirt and knickers across the landing. By the time she’s in his room – which still retains its crabby whiff – she has already decided he sounds too perky to be ill or traumatised by a nightmare.
‘It’s the middle of the night, Freddie. What’s wrong?’
‘Can’t sleep.’ His brown eyes gleam in the dark.
‘Why not? Did something wake you up?’
‘What was it?’
‘The sea?’ she repeats.
‘Yeah.’ He nods. ‘It’s noisy.’
Kerry kneels at his bedside and rubs her eyes. ‘There’s not an awful lot I can do about that, sweetheart. I mean, I can’t turn it off.’
He scowls, radiating disappointment in her mothering abilities. ‘Well, I can’t sleep with it on,’ he growls.
‘You’ll get used to it, love.’
‘How long have we lived here?’
‘When will I be used to it?’
How is she supposed to answer that? On September twenty-fifth at eight p.m. you will stop noticing those infuriating swishing waves …
‘Listen,’ she says, mustering up a hidden reserve of patience, ‘just close your eyes and think of happy things, okay? That’s what I do and it really works. You’ll soon be asleep.’
He’s quiet for a moment. ‘I’m thinking about a happy thing, Mummy.’
Small pause. ‘I’m thinking about when we have a dog.’
Kerry exhales loudly. ‘Don’t start on about dogs now, Freddie.’
‘But you said, you promised—’
‘I’ve never promised …’
‘You did!’ he shrieks.
‘Shhh, you’ll wake Mia—’
‘You said we could have a dog when we’re not in London and we’re not in London now.’
‘I didn’t say definitely. I said maybe when you’re older and can take him for walks by yourself and—’
‘I’m older NOW!’
For God’s sake. What would Rob say now, if he were here? He’d say she should have been one hundred percent firm about the dog thing, instead of her feeble ‘maybe-one-day’ wafflings. Rob is exceptionally good at pointing out what Kerry should have said after the event. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that, as she has only worked part-time since having the children, she has had to make thousands more child-related decisions than he has.
‘I’m going back to bed now,’ she says firmly, tucking Freddie’s duvet, with its prancing Captain Haddocks and Snowies, around him.
‘Mum!’ Freddie cries as she leaves his room.
‘Freddie, you’ll wake your sister …’
‘Can I phone Dad?’
‘No, not in the middle of the night.’
‘I wanna talk to him! I wanna say happy birthday …’
‘It’s not Dad’s birthday yet, not till tomorrow.’ Actually, it is tomorrow, she realises; it’s nearly two a.m. and Rob is officially forty years old. But better not tell Freddie that. ‘Good night, Freddie,’ she says firmly from the landing, realising there’s no point in going back to bed, as she is now shimmeringly awake.
Pulling on Rob’s soft grey cashmere sweater over her T-shirt, Kerry heads downstairs into what used to be Aunt Maisie’s dining room, and is now her designated music room. A music lecturer until cuts swept the university, Kerry is now trying to carve out a living as a freelance songwriter. While this might sound glamorous, her latest commission is for Cuckoo Clock, a long-established TV show for pre-school children (the over-zealous presenters wear bird costumes and sinister-looking rubbery yellow feet). The show is being given a facelift, including a whole stack of new songs, and at least they want her, Kerry thinks defiantly as she sits down at her piano. It might not be quite the illustrious future she’d in mind for herself at music college, but the money’s good, and she also plans to teach piano from home. Isn’t that the modern way of doing things – to have several strings to your bow, so to speak? And surely dozens of parents in a well-heeled town like Shorling are desperate for their little ones to learn the piano. Kerry doesn’t have any pupils yet, but she plans to put ads on all the newsagents’ noticeboards in the next day or two. God, she hasn’t even finished unpacking or organising the house yet. It still amazes her, despite the fact that she should be used to it by now, how little you get done with children around. And the people at Cuckoo Clock’s production company don’t seem to understand that even bouncy little bird songs can’t be hammered out in five minutes.
It’ll be easier when Rob moves down, she tells herself firmly. Then we won’t feel like cuckoos ourselves, stealing someone else’s nest … They’ll also be able to buy Aunt Maisie’s house, which will hopefully make it feel properly theirs. At the moment, thanks to her aunt’s generosity and keenness to move, Kerry and the children are living here rent-free.
After taking a moment to gather her thoughts, she starts to sing and play quietly so as not to disturb the children.
Welcome to the cuckoo clock,
It’s time to say to say hello,
What’s behind the little doors …
‘“What’s behind the lit-tle doors?”’ comes the mockingecho behind her.
She whirls round. ‘Freddie! What are you doing out of bed?’
His lightly freckled face erupts into a wide-awake smile. ‘What are you asking that for?’
‘Because I told you, it’s the middle of the night—’
‘No, about the doors.’ He rakes a hand through his dishevelled brown curls.
‘Oh. Er … to build up tension, I suppose, so it’s a surprise …’
‘But it’s a cuckoo, innit? That’s what’s behind the doors.’
Kerry blinks at her son. She is chilly now, despite the cashmere sweater, and goosebumps have sprung up on her bare legs.
‘You’re right,’ she says flatly. ‘It’s a cuckoo. It really couldn’t be anything else.’
Freddie grins triumphantly and starts swinging on the door. ‘Ha, I knew it was. Now can I phone Dad?’
Nadine’s flat might only be forty-odd miles from Rob’s new house by the sea, but the way he feels now, he might as well have landed on a different planet. The huge living room is girlie in the extreme, its sofa and chairs strewn with fluffy throws and an abundance of embroidered cushions. There are fairy lights, glowing red lamps and a multi-coloured chandelier. The effect, he muses as Nadine dispenses drinks (aided by a rather worse-for-wear Frank), is a little nauseating.
‘So d’you like my place?’ Nadine asks, curling up beside him on the vast purple velvet sofa.
‘It’s really, um, stylish,’ he tells her, enunciating carefully in the hope of appearing sober.
‘Thanks.’ She smiles prettily. ‘It’s a bit of a mish-mash but I like it.’
‘Yeah, but it’s not yours, is it?’ Eddy teases from his cross-legged position on the pink shag-pile rug. ‘It’s Daddy’s.’
Nadine rolls her eyes good naturedly. ‘Yep, but I’m here for the time being, darling. You don’t think I could live here on an editorial assistant’s salary, do you?’
‘Thank God for Daddy,’ Eddy guffaws, stretching the joke a little thin in Rob’s opinion. He glances down at the gnarled oak table on which the remains of his birthday cake look a little ravaged on a plain white plate, wondering why he’s suddenly feeling protective of Nadine. Her slight haughtiness in the office is, he suspects now, a desire to seem properly grown-up when she’s barely emerged from her teens.
‘So you’re off to your new place tomorrow?’ Ava asks Rob, rearranging her bony limbs on a giant floor cushion.
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘after I’ve shown a couple of people round the house.’
She smiles, her teeth Tipp-Ex white against the blood red of her lipstick. ‘I don’t know if I could ever do that.’
‘Show people around a flat, you mean?’
‘No, silly! Leave London.’ Ava winces.
‘Well,’ Rob says, ‘it just seemed like the right time.’ He can’t explain about the education issue now, and how several friends have faked addresses and religions in order to get their children into decent schools. Mentioning that in front of all of these young things would make him sound about five hundred years old.
‘What’ll you do with yourself down there, Rob?’ Nadine’s voice cuts into his thoughts.
‘Er, just get on with life, I suppose. Get fit, start running, go for long walks on the beach …’ Agh, why is he saying that? Eddy will have him shovelled off to Rambler’s Monthly.
‘I love the sea,’ Nadine says wistfully, ‘but I can’t imagine living away from all the shops and bars.’
Typical, he thinks without bitterness. Just the kind of thing a privileged girl with nothing to think about but chandeliers and cushions would say. Rob, whose father is Italian and his mother a straight-talking Yorkshire woman, is at least aware that life happens north of Watford – or south of Croydon, come to that.
‘Well, I’ve been here for twenty years,’ he explains patiently. ‘The noise, the traffic – I’ve had my fill, to be honest.’
Now he’s sounding like Granddad again. Nadine nods, and at some point the others seem to drift away to different parts of the room, leaving just the two of them sitting very close on the sofa. She isn’t his type at all – too girlie and far too young with her silver cowrie shell necklace which was probably acquired on some gap year jaunt, or maybe Daddy bought that for her too. In fact the thought of having a ‘type’ hasn’t crossed Rob’s mind since he met Kerry. But now, having drunk more than in recent memory, he can’t help but notice how mesmerising her blue eyes are, framed by a sweep of dark lashes, and how her dainty nose is incredibly cute. For some reason, despite knowing the others for far longer, she has chosen to sit next to him. It no longer seems to matter that, while he was getting to grips with disposable nappies and jars of sludge-coloured baby food, Nadine was still in high school. Exquisite is the word that springs to mind now. This girl is exquisite, like a jewel.
‘I hope you don’t mind me saying,’ she murmurs, shuffling even closer with her feet tucked under her neat little bottom, ‘but you seem like your heart’s not really in this seaside thing, Rob.’
‘Er …’ A wave of dizziness engulfs him as he blows out air. ‘Yeah, it’s freaking me out a bit. The practical side, the train and stuff – that’ll be okay …’ Hell, he is slurring now. Is he even making sense?
‘But …?’ She smiles sympathetically.
Rob blinks at her. ‘God, I don’t know, Nadine. It’s half two in the morning …’ She nods, encouraging him to go on. ‘Am I ready to move? I don’t know. It started off as a vague idea, something we might do when we were properly grown-up’ – he laughs self-consciously, feeling a little sick – ‘then wham, it’s happened, Kerry and the kids are there already and there’s this awful pressure to sell the London house …’ No, stop it, that came out all wrong. What about that lovely day on the beach with the kite? It had felt completely right then …
Nadine is studying his face. ‘Does Kerry know you’re having doubts, Rob?’
‘It’s too late to stop it now. We’ve taken the kids out of their London school and enrolled them in Shorling. And anyway, she’s convinced we can make it work. It’ll just take time, she reckons …’ He takes a big gulp from his glass, grateful that the others have wandered through to the kitchen in search of something to eat.
‘You poor darling.’ Nadine places a delicate hand on his knee. ‘So you feel trapped …’
‘Well, um, kind of …’ Rob looks down at her hand, feeling no less startled than he would if a rare butterfly landed there. He can hardly swat it away, but nor does he feel entirely comfortable with her leaving it there for much longer. Anyway, why is he grumbling about the move? Is it the vodka, or a pathetic desire to say what he thinks he should say to a girl who can barely have turned twenty? Her hand is showing no sign of removing itself from his knee, and he wonders what the others will think as they come back into the room, armed with a lump of Cheddar and some crackers on a pink chopping board (clearly, neon pink is a theme around the flat). Of course, they won’t think anything. Eddy’s new team are always hugging and mauling each other. It’s not unusual for Ava to give Eddy a languorous shoulder massage in the middle of a features meeting.
Rob swallows hard and tries to centre himself by picturing Mia and Freddie on the beach last weekend, sculpting a sand mermaid with seaweed for hair. He attempts to think of ordinary things: the numerous cracks and leaks he must fix in the Shorling house, and the lone nit Freddie made him examine with a magnifying glass as it writhed on a sheet of white paper.
By the time Eddy, Frank and Ava get up to leave, Rob realises he’s even more inebriated than he first thought. Nadine springs up to fling her skinny arms around her friends before resuming her position on the sofa.
‘So, Rob,’ she starts, ‘what are you going to do?’
He drains the last of his vodka and tonic. ‘I have no fucking idea.’
‘Well,’ she says, ‘for what it’s worth, I have this mantra, okay? And it’s that we should all be true to ourselves …’
Normally, Rob would snort at the kind of fluffy sound-bite so beloved of women’s magazines: Follow your dreams. Life’s not a rehearsal. Be true to yourself … But it’s approaching 3 a.m. and her eyes are incredible – piercing blue, emphasised with the kind of flicked black eyeliner which makes him think of sexy French girls in arthouse movies.
‘You’re right,’ he blurts out. ‘The thought of leaving London …’
‘It’s like leaving a part of yourself,’ she suggests.
‘Yes! That’s exactly it. It’s where I’ve lived and worked my whole adult life …’
‘And you’ve done really well, Rob.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ he murmurs bashfully.
‘But you have! You virtually run the office … I’ve always found you a bit intimidating, to be honest.’
‘God, I hope not.’
‘No, that’s just me being silly.’
‘Well,’ he says with a grin, ‘I’ll try to be less intimidating in future …’
And so the night goes on, Rob now too drunk to care about whether he’s slurring or not, and sensing the little knots of tension starting to loosen in his shoulders and neck. He knows he should call a cab, but being here with Nadine is so much nicer especially as, with most of his family’s possessions transported to Shorling, ‘home’ feels like a bleak shell with a bed and a sofa plonked in it.
‘Look, Rob,’ Nadine is saying, looking sleepy now, ‘you can crash out here if you like. This is a sofa bed and I’ve got plenty of spare bedding.’
‘I …’ he starts, knowing he should continue: Thanks, butI’d better go home. But he can’t. He is physically incapable of coherent speech because every fibre of his being is focused on Nadine’s red lips.
They are getting closer and closer and Rob knows without doubt that she is going to kiss him. He also knows there is no way he’ll be able to resist kissing her back. Then they are kissing – snogging, actually – the just-turned-forty-year-old father-of-two with undeniable talents in the Lego department, and the beautiful rich girl who lives in Daddy’s flat and trots off to India whenever she feels like it. They pull apart, laughing in disbelief, and immediately she’s up on her feet, making up the sofa bed while he stares into space, wondering what the hell just happened. Perhaps it was a hallucination. He’s never kissed anyone but Kerry – not for over thirteen bloody years. But it’s okay, it didn’t mean anything …
Dizzy and overwhelmingly tired now, Rob is vaguely aware of saying goodnight to Nadine, then undressing to his boxers and falling into bed alone as the mauve-tinted dawn creeps into the room. Yet, when he wakes at 8.47 a.m., with his dried-out tongue gummed to the roof of his mouth, a tiny and naked Nadine is curled up on the sofa bed beside him.
Kerry was up early – 6.35 a.m. – despite Freddie’s nocturnal wakening and that Cuckoo Clock theme tune chirping away in her brain for much of the night. But at least she has been able to shower uninterrupted and even managed to blow-dry her hair. Normally she lets it dry naturally, which makes it sound like a considered move, in the way a celeb might share a beauty tip: ‘I try to avoid exposing my hair to heat.’ However, it’s more to do with the fact that, since having Mia, and especially since having Freddie, Kerry’s ‘beauty regime’ (she can’t help twitching with mirth whenever she hears that term) has been whittled down to a spot of Nivea on her face before bed. Rob is more high-maintenance than she is these days.
Kerry has also managed to unearth her old favourite red shift dress, plus glossy heels that match – not the dress, obviously (that would be too much red) but each other, which feels like a major achievement. It’s a bit much for daytime, she suspects. But Kerry is hoping for maximum impact when she shows up to surprise Rob.
She’s at the bathroom mirror now, applying make-up under the watchful gaze of Mia, who rarely sees her mother beautifying herself. Teeth, Kerry thinks a little late in the proceedings, prompting Freddie to bellow, ‘Why are you sawing your mouth?’
‘I’m not sawing. I’m just cleaning the little gaps between my teeth.’ She has a fleeting memory of a time when she could perform bathroom-related duties alone.
‘Why?’ Mia asks.
‘Er, so my breath’s nice and fresh.’ Explaining about plaque and mouth germs seems a little unnecessary at this early hour.
A sly smile creeps across Freddie’s face. ‘That’s ’cause you’re gonna kiss Dad.’
Kerry drops her used dental floss strip into the bin. ‘Yes, well, I hope so, sweetheart. That’s the general idea, seeing as it’s his birthday.’
‘Can we phone Daddy now?’ he asks, plucking her used floss from the bin and bringing it up to his own mouth.
‘Freddie, put that back in the bin! It’s dirty …’
He throws it down at his feet. ‘Can I, Mum?’
‘Yeah, I wanna call Dad,’ Mia exclaims.
‘In a little while,’ Kerry says, brushing on mascara. ‘It’s only half eight and he might be having a lie in, seeing as it’s Saturday.’ She tries to remember what time he said the first people were coming round to look at the house. Around ten, was it? ‘We’ll call in about half an hour, okay?’
Mia sucks her teeth. ‘You never let us phone him.’
‘Sweetheart, that’s not true. Ow.’ Kerry jabs the mascara wand into her left eye, causing it to fill with tears. ‘We speak to Daddy nearly every evening …’
‘Yeah, but …’ She makes a little pfff sound.
‘Come on, darling. Dad’ll soon be living with us, then you’ll see him every day.’ Dabbing her watery eye with some loo roll, she glances down at her children who are perched on the edge of the shabby enamelled bath. Still friendless in Shorling, Kerry has taken to counting the days until Rob comes home for the weekends. Yet, when he is here, she detects a sense of distance between them, almost as if they’ve forgotten how to fit together.
’Cause you’re gonna kiss Dad. Freddie’s words echo in Kerry’s mind as she dabs away the mascara smears from around her eye and packs away her make-up. Actually, she can’t remember the last time they kissed properly, and wonders how Rob will react to her black lacy lingerie. She’s slightly worried that he might claim to be tired or, worse, not even react at all. What would she do then?
‘So, can we have a dog, Mum?’ Freddie asks as they all trot downstairs.
‘Oh, Freddie, don’t start that now …’ She zips up the children’s overnight bags which are packed and waiting in the hall.
‘But you promised!’ he exclaims.
Kerry sighs, calculating how much there’s still to do – breakfast, washing up, the gathering together of the last of her own bits and pieces – before she can be granted her small blast of freedom.
‘I can’t think about getting a dog right now,’ she tells him, filling two bowls with the only cereal her children will tolerate (virtually pure chocolate – confectionery, not breakfast, as Rob once pointed out).
‘Why not?’ Mia asks, fiddling with the banana-shaped hairclip at her forehead.
‘Because I’ve got too many other things to think about right now.’
Oh, you know – getting this house sorted out and you two settled into your new school, not to mention figuring out how I’ll earn enough money and make some friends – you know, have an actual adult to talk to occasionally …
‘Just things,’ she says, turning away to make coffee.
‘Daddy would get us a dog,’ Mia says with a sigh.
‘Yeah,’ Freddie snarls. ‘We’ve got the meanest person on earth as our mummy.’
Anita is clearly not the meanest, most despicable person on earth, as Freddie and Mia are delighted to be having a sleepover at her place tonight. Having grown up in Shorling, where Kerry first met her during one of her numerous holidays to Aunt Maisie’s, Anita and her family headed inland as soon as the Cath Kidston wellie brigade surged to the coast.
‘Can’t stand it,’ Anita had announced at the time. ‘It’s all artisan-this, artisan-that. What if I want a completely un-artisan pint of milk or some frozen peas?’
The final straw had been trotting along to the cheap and cheerful kids’ clothes shop, from which Anita had managed to kit out her four children, and discovering it had turned into a chi-chi boutique selling cashmere pashminas for babies.
‘Wish they still lived in Shorling,’ Mia declares as they turn off the main road and follow the twisting lane towards Anita’s Sussex village.
‘Me too,’ Kerry says, more forcefully than she means to.
‘Did they move ’cause we live there?’ Freddie asks.
‘No, of course not,’ Kerry laughs, glancing back at him. ‘They came here a couple of years ago, long before we thought of moving to Aunt Maisie’s. Anyway, they’re not too far away. Only forty-five minutes. Look – can you see the church spire in the village? We’ll be there in a few minutes …’
‘Yey!’ he cries, unclipping his seatbelt in readiness and ignoring Kerry’s barked command to put it back on again. Minutes later they are pulling up outside Lilac Cottage, the ramshackle house which Anita and her husband Ian plan to renovate, but haven’t got around to yet.
‘So it’s the big surprise today,’ Anita says, hugging her friend as their children greet each other in a whirl of excitable chatter.
‘Yep.’ Kerry smirks. ‘Scare the socks off him, poor sod. He’ll probably have a cardiac arrest.’
Anita laughs as all six children descend on a tray of just baked, as yet un-iced cakes. Cramming their mouths, they surge as one – tailed by Bess, an excitable spaniel – into the living room where the TV is turned on at deafening volume.
‘Our mummy doesn’t like dogs,’ Freddie announces loudly, causing Kerry to laugh mirthlessly as Anita hands her a mug of tea.
‘Bad, bad Mummy,’ Anita teases her. ‘Imagine, not wanting to be wading through great drifts of hair and being hammered with vet and kennel fees.’
‘I know. I’m such a bloody kill-joy, aren’t I?’ She sinks into the faded sofa, nudging aside a distinctly doggie-smelling blanket. Everything about Anita’s house is tatty but immensely comfortable. Armchairs and rugs are strewn with dog hair and toys, and scratched internal doors are further evidence of canine presence. Anita recently told Kerry with a resigned shrug, ‘What we’ve done, you see, is the opposite of one those home make-overs.’
‘Our goal is to actually destroy this place,’ Ian had laughed with a roll of his eyes. Although his work as a marine engineer takes him away for weeks at a time, Kerry slightly envies their marriage. (‘Oh, he ticks all the boxes,’ Anita, ever the pragmatist, once joked.) Whereas she’d once found Rob at his laptop at 2 a.m., sweating over his Style Tip of the Month page, Kerry can’t help thinking of Ian’s job as proper work. Not that penning Cuckoo Clock songs could remotely be called that, of course.
Anita takes a seat beside Kerry and pushes back a mass of light brown curls. ‘A home-made cake, your gorgeous dress and blow-dry …’ she remarks. ‘Poor Rob’ll think you’re having an affair.’
‘Probably,’ Kerry agrees. ‘I’ve even booked a restaurant for tonight – a little Thai place where we went for our first proper date.’
‘You two are so romantic.’
‘D’you think so?’
‘Oh, come on, Kerry. You know much Rob adores you. He’ll be bowled over by this. What are you planning for tomorrow?’
‘A long lie in, hopefully. Then we’ll head back here to pick up the kids about two-ish, if that’s okay with you …’
‘No rush,’ Anita says firmly. ‘They’ll be as happy as Larry all together. Just make the most of your weekend.’
Kerry glances over to where Ruby, Anita’s only daughter, has wandered into the kitchen with Mia.
‘We didn’t win the sandcastle competition last year,’ Ruby complains. ‘It wasn’t fair. Ours was the best, wasn’t it, Mum?’
‘It was pretty impressive,’ Anita says. ‘Why don’t you join forces with Freddie and Mia this year? I’m sure you could come up with something amazing …’
‘D’you still go back to Shorling for that?’ Kerry asks, remembering her and Anita’s unsuccessful attempts to win when they were their daughters’ ages.
‘Yep, never miss it, even though the stakes are much higher these days. Remember when it was just plain old castles? We’re talking complex architectural structures now. Last year, the winners built Buckingham Palace and even had little guards in front with fluffy black hats made from glove fingers.’
Kerry shudders. ‘Good God. That must’ve been the parents’ work, surely.’
‘Of course it was,’ Anita says with disdain. ‘Kids barely get a look-in these days.’
‘Can’t we do it together?’ demands Mia, looking hopefully at Ruby.
‘Well,’ Kerry says, ‘if it’s okay with everyone …’
‘’Course it is,’ Ruby declares.
Anita laughs. ‘There you go then. Team Tambini–McCoy!’
‘We can plan it today,’ Ruby adds, while Mia crams another cake into her mouth.
Anita turns back to Kerry and grins. ‘Just like us, aren’t they, when we were that age?’
Kerry nods, overcome with a wave of affection for her friend.
‘Who’s just like you?’ Mia asks.
‘You two,’ Kerry says, smiling. ‘Anita and I were your age when we first became friends, did you know that?’
Mia nods. ‘Uh-huh. You were on holiday and had no one to play with …’
‘… And there she was,’ Kerry continues, ‘this wild little girl in a grubby T-shirt and knickers with a bucket of mussels that she’d collected. Hey,’ she adds, ‘maybe that’ll happen to you too, Mia. You’ll find a best friend just like that, the way I did.’
‘Ruby’s my friend,’ Mia says simply, taking her hand.
‘Of course she is,’ Anita says. ‘Anyway, maybe we’d better let Mummy get off to see your daddy now?’
‘I suppose I should.’ Kerry gets up, quickly brushing Bess’s hairs from her dress. ‘Thanks so much for this – I really owe you one.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Anita says firmly. ‘And listen, you scrub up very well, Mrs Tambini. I have a feeling Rob’s in for a pretty special birthday.’
Kerry glances down at her red dress. ‘I just wanted, you know … a big ta-daaaa moment when I walk in through that door.’
‘It’s ta-daaaa all right,’ Anita laughs.
It takes a full ten minutes for Kerry to say her goodbyes, and Anita and all six children come out to see her off. As Kerry finally drives away, she glances at the paper carrier bag on the passenger seat, containing Rob’s birthday cake in its huge, square tin. Ignoring the twinge of doubt in the pit of her stomach, she tells herself that she’s doing the right thing.
Rob is slumped over the washbasin in Nadine’s bathroom, breathing deeply and trying not to throw up. It’s gone ten and there are two missed calls from Kerry on his mobile. How did he manage to sleep in with the traffic noise and merciless sunlight streaming in through Nadine’s huge living room window? Booze, of course. Far too much of it, on a virtually empty stomach too. All he ate last night was a meagre slice of lemon cake.
The thought of Kerry having phoned, and the prospect of explaining where he’s been, causes Rob to retch painfully into the washbasin. So what did happen last night? He has absolutely no recollection. Oh, he remembers the early part all right – being made a fuss of at Jack’s, like he actually belonged in the new team, then coming back to Nadine’s and her quizzing him about moving to Shorling, then … just a big, fuzzy blur. Surely, he tries to reassure himself, the very fact that he can’t remember anything would indicate that nothing went on? God, he hopes so. He has never once felt even the faintest urge to sleep with another woman and, despite Nadine’s obvious attractiveness, the very possibility that it might have been on the cards hadn’t even occurred to him last night. Perhaps she’d been drunker than she appeared, and had just happened to stumble onto the sofa bed and under the covers, wrapping her naked body around his entirely by accident. After all, mistakes happen. Eddy is always regaling the office with the time he peed into a former lover’s clarinet case, and how he once tried to exit a girl’s bedroom via her wardrobe …
Rob glances up dizzily from the plughole and focuses on a glass bowl sitting on the windowsill. It contains those effervescent ball things for the bath. Mia had some in her stocking last Christmas, he recalls with a twist of acute discomfort, containing secret glitter which clung to the sides of the bath for weeks. Nadine’s chalky orbs are encrusted with shrivelled petals, suggesting to Rob what his traumatised liver might look like right now.
Oddly enough, gazing steadily at the bath bombs is helping him to untangle his thoughts. By now, he’s managed to convince himself that he simply fell asleep last night. Yep, he’d definitely have been too drunk to manage anything else. Thank Christ for the withering effects of alcohol on a man’s ability to ‘perform’, as they rather cringingly describe it in Mr Jones (it always makes Rob think of bounding into a woman’s bedroom brandishing flaming torches, followed by a naked cartwheel).
We didn’t do anything, he tells himself firmly, peering at his waxy reflection in the mirror. Even if I’d been able to, which I definitely wouldn’t, part of my brain would have yelled ‘Stop!’ Yet there’s still the tiniest, niggling doubt, and he needs to know for sure. Could he possibly think of a way of asking her without it sounding completely insulting? ‘Er, I know we had a really nice time last night, but, um … would you mind filling me in on the details? It’s just a bit … hazy.’ Which leads him to picturing Nadine and Eddy having a good old chortle in the office first thing on Monday morning. They did have a bit of snog, Rob recalls now as bile rises in his throat, but that’s not the end of the world. I only kissed her, he imagines himself confessing to Kerry, before the saucepan clangs over his head, rendering him unconscious on the kitchen floor.
Mopping a lick of sweat from his brow with Nadine’s fresh white towel, Rob considers what to do next. Hell, he’s already missed that first appointment. He’d better dress quickly, hurry home and get ready to show the next lot of people round the house. That would at least make him feel purposeful, which might help to cancel out the pool of unease currently simmering away in his stomach. They’re due at one, he vaguely recalls, and he needs to clear up before they arrive. Then he can head down to Shorling and carry on with his weekend as if nothing has happened. He needn’t even wake Nadine. Sure, it might be a little awkward on Monday, but he’ll steel himself and just be casual with her and find out the actual facts then. That’s Nadine sorted, he decides, inspecting his tongue in the mirror and deciding it looks corrugated. So what about his wife? He could confess everything (not that there’s anything to confess), but what would that achieve? Despite being apparently ‘good with words’, according to Eddy The Patroniser, he doubts if he could fully convey what actually happened (especially as he still can’t recall the details).
‘Rob?’ Nadine’s voice makes his heart jolt. ‘Rob? You okay in there?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ he calls in an overly-bright voice through the locked bathroom door. No way he can disappear quietly now. He clears more foul-tasting gunk from his throat and spits it into the basin.
‘Want some breakfast, sweetie?’
Sweetie? Good lord … ‘Uh, no thanks.’ He shudders and splashes cold water onto his face. Then, after patting it dry, he unbolts the door.
Nadine is standing there in the cool white hallway, a tiny lilac T-shirt flung on over a pair of little fleecy tartan shorts. She’s not wearing a bra, which is distracting.
‘Hey,’ she says with a sleepy grin.
‘Hey,’ he says, focusing firmly on her face.
‘Are you really okay?’ She raises a dark brow, and the flecks of last night’s eyeliner around her cornflower-blue eyes are oddly fetching.
‘Well …’ He rakes back his hair and follows her into the living room. ‘Guess I overdid it a bit.’
‘It was your party, you’re allowed to.’ She takes his hand and leads him to the sofa which has already been folded away. ‘It’s okay, Rob,’ she adds. ‘It was really nice, actually …’
‘Was it?’ he croaks.
She laughs, showing perfect white teeth. ‘Yeah, it was lovely.’
‘Oh.’ He senses a vein pulsating in his neck.
Nadine widens her eyes. ‘You don’t remember, do you?’
He shakes his head. ‘Er … I’m really sorry, Nadine, but it’s all a blur. I remember us talking, and me telling you I felt weird about leaving London and all that …’
‘And then you went on to talk about your kids who sound adorable …’
A tidal wave of relief crashes over him until he remembers the kiss again, which definitely did happen.
‘But, er …’ He frowns. ‘Are you saying … nothing else happened?’
She chuckles softly. ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about, Rob.’
‘But we did both, um … spend the night on here …’ His neck reddens as he prods the sofa.
Nadine nods. ‘My fault really. You were so sweet, and it was so late by then, I just wanted a cuddle and you said it was okay …’
‘So …’ Rob’s breath catches in his throat. ‘That was it?’
She nods. ‘We just had a little cuddle as friends.’
‘Oh.’ Rob isn’t entirely sure what that means, and is even less certain that it would go down well if Kerry were to find out – but, hell, things could be a lot worse. He just cuddled (as friends) this cute, ditsy girl who’s turned out to be nothing like the frosty little princess he had her down for at work. And now … ‘God, I’d better go,’ he says quickly, checking his watch.
‘Got to be somewhere?’
‘Yes, I’m showing some people round the house and need to get it ready …’ His new-found decisiveness is helping to shift the terrible gloom. After all, he is forty today: he must act his age and seize control of the day.
‘You’ve got to clean the place?’ she asks.
‘Well, I just like to freshen it up when people are coming.’ He swallows, hoping that doesn’t sound too OCD. Secretly, though, he’s itching to get home and polish the taps.
‘Why don’t I come along and help you?’ she asks brightly.
‘Oh, you don’t want to waste your Saturday doing that.’
‘I do, honestly!’ She laughs huskily. ‘It might sound weird but I love cleaning. I like all the products – the squirty stuff for the bath, all the little wipes and dimply sponges …’ Rob smiles, unsure of whether she’s having him on or not. ‘And you can’t spend your birthday all by yourself,’ she adds. ‘That would just be too sad.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind, and anyway, I’m off down to Shorling later …’
‘You live in Bethnal Green, don’t you?’ Nadine cuts in.
‘Well, I was planning on heading over that way anyway. My friend Jade lives in Hackney. She’s a hypnotist. She’s helping me deal with anxieties.’
‘Come on, Rob, I’ll keep you company and we can whip round your house with a J cloth. It’ll be so much quicker if there’s two of us.’
Rob nods, his hangover abating slightly as he thinks: Why not? She only wants to help, and she’ll probably get bored and head off after twenty minutes.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘D’you think you could get ready quickly, though? I really need to make a start.’
‘Sure,’ she says with a grin. ‘You know what, Rob? I really think you’ll sell it today. I’ve a feeling I’ll be your lucky charm.’
A few streets away from her old London home, Kerry pulls in and stops off for provisions. She is excited now, the way she used to be on her way to meet Rob, when she’d barely be able to eat for the delicious anticipation swirling inside her. Yet a seed of doubt is niggling too. Why wasn’t he at home when she and the kids called him this morning to wish him happy birthday? They’d all been poised, ready to burst into raucous song – yet the answerphone had clicked on. Although they’d sung anyway, it had felt faintly pathetic, singing to a machine. And why hadn’t he answered his mobile either? He was probably busy showing people the house, she reflects, loading her wire basket with smoked salmon, bagels and a bottle of champagne. Rob takes his house-selling duties terribly seriously, having clued himself up on the type of electrical wiring system they have – stuff which Kerry feels she should know about, but which overcomes her with ennui. As far as she’s concerned, these things only warrant attention when they stop working. She finds Rob’s earnestness endearing, though. It makes her want to hold him close and reassure him that everything will be okay.
At the thought of him opening the door to her, surprised and perhaps even gasping in delight, Kerry’s heart does a little flip. This weekend is just what they need to prove they still fancy each other. With his film-star looks, Rob is hard to resist … but does he still fancy her, now she’s just a pusher of chocolate breakfast cereal and songwriter for grown adults who wear rubbery bird feet?
‘Special occasion?’ The middle-aged man at the checkout smiles flirtatiously.
She chuckles. ‘Yes, it’s my husband’s fortieth. I’m buying a few treats to surprise him.’
He waggles a bushy eyebrow. ‘Very romantic. He’s a lucky man, love.’
‘Well,’ she replies with a smile, ‘I hope so.’
This small exchange has buoyed up Kerry to the point of simmering excitement as she bags up her purchases. Why doesn’t she do this more often? Their weekends in Shorling are filled up with practical talk about estate agents and the myriad of eccentricities of their new home. Is it any wonder they’re feeling a little adrift, when all they seem to do is talk about radiators and stinky drains?
Kerry carries her shopping to the car, stashes it on the back seat and sets off, passing Freddie and Mia’s old primary school. Although Freddie seemed fine – he’d only been there a year – Mia had been targeted by a mini thugette who, despite being called Peace Matthews, had a fondness for hitting, kicking and pushing other children off their chairs. And when Kerry had marched into school to discuss the issue, the teachers – known as ‘Lucy’ and ‘Jane’ and seemingly incapable of raising their voices above a timid whisper – had suggested ‘all getting together and having a little chat’. Which had never materialised because, apparently, Peace was ‘a little stressed at the moment’. So she bloody should be, Kerry thought furiously, when she’d picked up Mia with a ripped sweater and a graze on her cheek. (By then, she had added ‘great schools’ to her mental list of Reasons to Say Yes to Aunt Maisie’s Unmissable Offer).
Their old terraced house is in sight now, pretty enough with its wooden external shutters and glossy black door, freshly painted by Rob to create a good first impression. The living room light is on, as it usually is, even during the day – without it, it’s cave-like in there. This is her first visit back since the move, and Kerry is relieved to notice an absence of longing. Remembering Peace Matthews has made her absolutely certain they’ve done the right thing.
As luck would have it, there’s a parking space outside the house. Kerry unloads her bags and stands at the front door. Would bounding straight in be more dramatic (the ta-daaaa! moment she’s hoped for)? Or would it be better to knock instead, so Rob thinks it’s just a delivery or one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses who patrol this street from time to time? Unable to suppress the smile twitching at her lips, she gives the polished brass knocker a firm rap.
At first, there’s nothing. Maybe Rob’s upstairs, Kerry muses, showing people the bedrooms. Or perhaps he’s on the loo.
‘Come on, Rob,’ she mutters under her breath, rapping the knocker again.
This time, she hears a voice inside. It’s a girl – an undeniably young and rather posh-sounding girl whose voice Kerry doesn’t recognise.
‘Someone at the door!’ the voice trills. ‘Shall I get it?’
Something tightens in Kerry’s chest, and she frowns at a lump of gloss paint on the door. No, she must have misheard. Perhaps it had come from next door …
‘Robbie, want me to get that, babe?’
Robbie? Babe? Kerry has barely processed these words as the door opens. And she’s no longer aware of her pinchy shoes or the carrier bag handles digging into her fingers because a girlis there – a girl with short dark hair and red lips, tipping her head to one side.
‘Can I help you?’ she says in a breathy voice as a wild thought courses through Kerry’s brain: I’ve come to the wrong bloody house. Jesus. Writing those Cuckoo Clock songs has sent me mad …
The girl is still looking expectantly at her when Rob appears – sorry, Robbie, babe – babbling, ‘Kerry, hi! This is, um, Nadine …’ His eyebrows shoot up, and he and Nadine step back into the house as Kerry follows them wordlessly in. ‘A friend from work …’ Rob is explaining, raking his hair with his fingers. ‘Came over to help me spruce the place up …’ Kerry sees him glance down at her flesh-pinching shoes.
‘Really?’ She frowns and places her bags carefully on the floor. This girl, this Nadine, is wearing a figure-hugging vest top and the tiniest denim cut-offs Kerry has ever seen – they’d barely fit one of Mia’s Barbies – and looks about nineteen. ‘What’s going on, Rob?’ she asks coolly, trying to cut out the girl from her vision.
‘Nothing, I told you, she’s just helping.’ Rob clamps his mouth shut, and Nadine shoots him an alarmed look, as if expecting instructions on what to do now.
‘You make it sound as if you’ve been living in squalor,’ Kerry remarks. He’s lying, she knows it; Rob cleans the cooker hob daily and replaces his toothbrush if so much as one bristle flares out.
‘The place was looking a bit unloved,’ he mutters. ‘People are coming round, I’ve already missed the first lot—’
‘How come you missed them?’
‘Er, I was just out … just popped out for a few minutes …’
‘Really? Where did you pop out to?’
His dark eyes meet hers imploringly. ‘Okay,’ he says, exhaling forcefully. ‘It was a big night last night. The guys at work had put on a bit of a party for me and I had too much to drink. Crashed out at Nadine’s place because it was handy …’ His bottom lip twitches as he tails off.
Kerry glances at Nadine, then back at Rob. ‘So why didn’t you just say that?’
‘I knew what you’d think,’ he mutters.
‘We were just chatting, Kerry,’ Nadine offers, her voice rising to even breathier heights. ‘There was a whole gang of us from the office. It was just an impromptu get-together, a bit of a laugh, you should have been there …’ She smiles nervously, then glances at the living room window as if considering launching herself through it.
‘And then,’ Rob cuts in, clearly getting into his stride now, ‘Nadine said she’d come over and help me do some, uh, scrubbing … didn’t you?’ He turns to her and she nods over-enthusiastically.
‘Yeah! Er, anyway, I think I’d better go. Really nice to meet you, Kerry.’ Nadine flashes a wide, fake smile and hurriedly lets herself out.
‘Um … bye,’ Rob mutters to the floor.
‘So,’ Kerry says flatly when she’s gone. ‘What the fuck was all that about?’
Rob reddens. ‘Nothing. I told you, she was just helping.’
Feeling ridiculous now in her dress and shoes, with her make-up carefully applied and that black lacy bra and French knickers underneath, Kerry wills herself not to cry.
‘Don’t insult me,’ she gulps. ‘It’s absolutely obvious what’s going on …’
‘Oh, so I can’t have female friends, is that it?’ Rob barks. ‘D’you know how hard it’s been for me at work since Eddy and the new lot arrived, how stressed I’ve been about the move and the possibility of losing my job and—’
‘Poor darling,’ she snaps.
‘Stop being like this!’
‘Being like what, Rob? Do you know what I was, just ten minutes ago when I was buying champagne? Excited, that’s what …’ She gives the carrier bag containing the bottle a fierce kick. ‘And I was excited putting on my red dress and heels—’
‘You look lovely,’ he blurts out. ‘Very, er … done up.’
‘Done up? What does that mean?’
‘No, no … I mean nice. You look, er … sexy.’
‘Really?’ she barks. ‘You know what you look? Post-bloody-coital …’
He shakes his head and rubs his hands across his face. ‘That’s ridiculous.’
‘Is it?’ she rages. ‘Just tell me, Rob. Did you sleep with her?’
‘Of course not!’ he cries. ‘God, Kerry, I can’t believe you’d think—’
‘Oh,’ she cuts in, ‘and I made you this …’ She bends down to snatch the cake tin from its bag and whips off the lid.
‘Er, that’s … lovely. You’re great at, um, icing …’ He winces involuntarily.
‘Don’t bloody patronise me, Rob, after you’ve spent the entire night with a girl who must be half your age. Don’t think you can make it all right by telling me what a great icer I am …’
‘Happy birthday,’ she snaps, accompanied by a gulping sob, the words ROBERTO TAMBINI THIS IS YOUR CAKE! mocking her now as she finds herself lifting the sponge from its tin. The tin falls to the wooden floor with a clang, and now Kerry is gripping the huge, squishy confection with both hands, registering her neatly-applied red nail polish for a second before the cake starts to fly, almost gracefully, in a strange sort of slow motion, hitting Rob squarely in the chest.
‘For God’s sake!’ He looks down in horror.
She eyes him coldly. ‘Oh, is that your Paul Smith T-shirt?’
‘I don’t care about the sodding T-shirt.’ He stares at her, open-mouthed. The collapsed mound of sponge lies at his feet like a scene from a child’s birthday party gone horribly wrong.
‘Bye, Rob,’ Kerry says, feeling eerily calm now. ‘Enjoy the rest of your birthday.’
‘You’re not going, are you? This is mad, you’ve gone insane …’ Kerry is aware of Rob saying her name over and over as she marches out to the street and climbs into her car.
‘Kerry,’ he mouths through the window as she turns on the ignition. Fixing her gaze determinedly ahead, she indicates and pulls away, revving violently and ignoring the angry toot from a black cab behind her. Glancing back just once, she sees her husband – deputy editor of the Thinking Man’s Monthly – distraught on the pavement with chocolate ganache icing splattered across his chest.
‘Stick that on your Style Tip of the Month page,’ she yells as she drives away.
Chapter Nine One week later
‘Why can’t we have a dog?’ Freddie is standing, hands on hips, in nothing but a rather shrunken looking banana-yellow T-shirt.
‘There are lots of reasons,’ Kerry replies, assembling the picnic for when Anita arrives to whisk them all off to the beach. Thank God for her life-saving friend, offering to take all six children to the sandcastle competition, and allowing Kerry a precious couple of hours for a Private Talk with Rob.
‘What reasons?’ Freddie asks.
‘Freddie, please put some pants on. We don’t have much time …’ She frowns at the food laid out on the table. Although Kerry won’t be there, she feels it’s important to raise her game in the picnic stakes; hence the big tub of strawberries, the sliced peaches and nectarines and the home-made brownies dusted with icing sugar. There are egg mayonnaise sandwiches too, made from rough-hewn brown bread instead of the usual white sliced which her children prefer. Could she get away with sneaking in a bunch of those peelable processed cheeses which the kids love?
Making no move to acquaint himself with pants, Freddie stuffs a strawberry into his mouth. ‘What reasons, Mummy?’ he asks again.
‘Time, for one thing,’ she says briskly, packing the picnic into the hamper. ‘Dogs take a huge amount of time and effort. We’d have to walk him at least twice a day, and train him, and I don’t know anything about how to do that …’
‘I do! You say “Good boy” and give him a biscuit.’ He grins and reaches for a brownie.
‘Leave the food alone, Freddie. It’s for later. Anyway, there are loads of other reasons, like the vet’s bills and all the medicines dogs need …’ He frowns and prods at his genitals.
‘Please stop playing with your willy.’
‘Because you’re poking about with the food, it’s not very nice …’ She glances up at the kitchen clock, a sense of dread pooling in her stomach as she realises that Rob is probably half-way to Shorling by now. Kerry has been so intent on maintaining a cheery demeanour in front of the children all week, she’s barely had a chance to figure out how she feels about last Saturday’s incident, and whether she’s still furious with him for spending the night with a teenager. Actually, she’s tried not to think about it too much – been in denial, probably. Which she suspects is terribly unhealthy and has probably triggered the start of an ulcer. Yet, even if he and Nadine didn’t do it, as he has vehemently claimed during their terse phone conversations, she has to admit that it’s still Not Right. In fact, the thought of being alone with her husband makes her feel quite nauseous.
Reluctantly, Freddie snatches a pair of pants from the radiator and pulls them on. ‘Everyone else has a dog,’ he mutters, reaching for his beloved black and orange tracksuit that’s strewn over the back of a chair.
‘You can’t wear that tracksuit,’ Kerry barks.
‘Because … because it’s too hot out there. You’ll be all sweaty and uncomfortable, and it needs a wash …’
‘It’s fine, Mum.’ He rolls his eyes, already pulling the wretched thing on. As Mia appears, brandishing her carefully drawn design for a potentially prize-winning sand sculpture – ‘That’s fantastic, darling,’ Kerry says distractedly – she realises she doesn’t have the energy to cajole him out of it. Anyway, at least he’s dressed.
‘You didn’t look at it, Mummy,’ Mia huffs.
‘I did! It’s amazing. You’ve put so much thought and work into it …’
Mia scowls and slams her drawing onto the table. The jeans she’s wearing finish at her ankles, Kerry notices, and her once purple T-shirt has faded to a chalky mauve. Is it worth trying to persuade her to change? Probably not. With the picnic packed, and a bag of towels, plus numerous buckets and spades in readiness by the door, Kerry checks the time again. Anita is due any minute now. As soon as she and the kids are all safely installed in the competition area of the beach, Kerry will hurry off to meet Rob in Hattie’s, a chintzy tearoom at the far end of the seafront.
‘Auntie Anita’s got Bess,’ Freddie reminds her as she grabs a big plastic bottle to fill with diluted orange. She realises that the other children will probably have little cartons of organic apple juice, but it’s too late to worry about that now.
‘Yes, well, that doesn’t mean we have to have one, does it?’
‘But I want one! You said if I was a good boy and I am a good boy …’ He gives the elasticated waist of his tracksuit bottoms a fierce twang.
‘We’d never be bored if we had a dog, Mummy,’ Mia chips in. ‘We’d always have someone to talk to and be our friend.’
Something twists in Kerry’s stomach, and she busies herself by swilling out the bowl she’d used to make the egg mayonnaise.
‘But you do have people to talk to, sweetheart,’ she murmurs. ‘You have me and Daddy and all your old friends in London, and you’ll soon make new ones here …’
‘I won’t,’ Freddie says.
‘Why not?’ Kerry asks. ‘What about those nice boys we were chatting to on the beach yesterday?’
‘They had a dog …’
‘Yes, Freddie, but not everyone—’
‘I don’t want new friends,’ he barks at her. ‘I ONLY WANT A DOG.’ At which the doorbell pings, and Kerry almost weeps with relief as she rushes to greet Anita and her children at the door.
As she hugs her friend, amidst hugs and excitable chatter about multi-turreted sandcastles, she clearly hears Freddie muttering away in the kitchen.
‘I hate egg,’ he announces. ‘It stinks and Mummy does too.’
Here she comes, Rob notes with a surge of relief, as Kerry crosses the road towards the tearoom where he’s spent the last twenty minutes waiting for her. It’s a breezy, early September afternoon, and she looks … normal, he’s pleased to see, in jeans and a plain navy T-shirt – not that he didn’t like her in that red dress and heels. Actually, no, he hated the red dress and heels because the image of her all done up is intermingled with the horror of her throwing that cake at him.
Kerry pushes open the teashop’s glass door and marches straight for his table.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ she says briskly, dropping her bag onto the floor and plonking herself on the spindly wooden chair opposite him. Her face is slightly flushed and make-up free, her long dark hair tied back in a ponytail with a few stray strands poking out.
‘That’s okay,’ he says, resisting the urge to reach straight for her hand. He can already detect a chilly vibe, which he’d expected, and is determined to do whatever it takes to put things right. This past week has been terrible. While he’s managed to scrape through five interminable days at the office – relieved that Nadine has been perfectly friendly, but not overly-friendly – he’s missed the children dreadfully, and been unable to quell the persistent sense of dread that he’s utterly screwed up his marriage. He’s been unable to sleep, and trying to write his first sex column for Mr Jones caused him untold grief. He sat up for hours in bed with his laptop, trying to dredge up something to write about foreplay ‘with a punchy edge’, when all he could think about was his wife yelling and him ending up splattered in chocolate frosting. In desperation, he’d rattled out a column about using food during sex. (It was sprinkled with phrases like ‘tasty treats’ and ‘finger-licking good’; the days of lengthy essays about classic Hitchcock movies were clearly long gone).
‘Just an Americano please,’ Kerry tells the waitress. ‘You having another, Rob?’ She eyes him coolly.
‘Um, no thanks.’ He glances at his cup of lukewarm coffee, knowing that a refill will make his nerves jangle even more alarmingly than they are now. The waitress glides away and a tense silence descends. ‘So, er … are the kids okay?’ Rob asks tentatively.
‘Yes, Anita’s with them on the beach.’
He nods. ‘That’s good of her. Um, but I actually meant, how have they been these past few days?’
Kerry smiles her thanks as the waitress places her coffee on the table. ‘They’re fine. They don’t realise anything’s happened, of course. Anyway, you’ve still spoken to them every evening.’
‘Yeah, I know. I’ve just been …’ He looks around, wishing she’d agreed to meet at the house, as he’d suggested, rather than in a cafe in the kind of town where you can’t paint your front door without it being trumpeted on the front page of the Shorling Advertiser. ‘I’ve been worried about them,’ he adds, taken aback by the intensity of Kerry’s green eyes. ‘Anyway, thanks for agreeing to see me.’
‘Of course I’d see you,’ she says tersely. ‘And the kids’ll be pleased to have some time with you later, especially with you being ill last weekend …’
This is what Kerry had told them: that a dreadful cold had caused him to stay in London last weekend, instead of seeing them on his birthday as planned. ‘Don’t make me feel worse than I do already,’ he murmurs.
‘Well, they were a bit put out that they couldn’t give you the cards they’d made, and now you’ve got get well cards waiting for you too. Your correspondence is starting to stack up.’
Get well cards. God. The thought of Freddie and Mia busying away with their felt tips crushes something inside him.
‘What else could I do?’ she asks. ‘I couldn’t tell them what happened, could I?’
‘Kerry,’ he hisses, relieved that the other customers seem too engrossed in their own conversations to be listening in, ‘I told you, it was nothing.’
Her eyes narrow. ‘I still think it’s weird. Why didn’t you say straight away that you’d spent the night at her place?’
‘Because I knew you’d blow it up out of all pro-portion …’ A tall, statuesque blonde has wafted into the tearoom, and Rob’s heart slumps as she smiles in recognition. Her blondeness is a little brassier than the usual refined Shorling look, her jeans a tad on the tight side and her patterned top daringly low-cut. She is clutching the hand of a small child with a tangle of light brown hair that would really benefit from a little involvement with a hairbrush.
‘Hi,’ the woman says with a big, bold smile, right up at their table now. ‘I think I’ve seen you at Maisie Cartwright’s house, haven’t I?’ She turns to her child. ‘Remember you chatted to those nice children over the wall, darling?’
‘Yes, that’s us,’ Kerry says warmly when the child fails to respond. ‘I’m sure I’ve seen you too …’
‘That’s our favourite part of the beach,’ the woman explains, ‘right across from your house. I’m Brigid, by the way …’
‘I’m Kerry, this is Rob …’ Her chilly demeanour has evaporated. How do women do this, he marvels, switching on a smile so easily as the occasion demands?
‘Not joining in with the sandcastle competition today?’ Kerry asks the child pleasantly.
‘We decided to boycott it,’ Brigid laughs. ‘It’s not really for the children anymore. It’s just an opportunity for parents to show off.’
‘Oh, I know,’ Kerry agrees. ‘It’s ridiculous really …’
Please leave, Rob urges her silently. My wife and I are busy trying to repair our marriage.
‘So how are you both settling in?’ Brigid wants to know.
‘Oh, we’re loving it,’ Kerry replies. As the women chatter on, Rob glances from Kerry to Brigid, wondering when they might run out of idle chit-chat.
‘I saw your ad for piano lessons,’ Brigid goes on while Rob clamps his back teeth together. ‘How’s that going?’
‘I’ve had a few calls. Hopefully things’ll start picking up once the children are back in school …’
‘Bet you’ll be inundated.’ Brigid looks down at her sullen offspring. ‘Would you like piano lessons, hon?’
‘Nah.’ There’s a fierce shake of the head.
‘Oh.’ Brigid guffaws. ‘Well, that’s that then. Worth trying, I guess. Anyway, we’ll leave you two lovebirds in peace.’ With another huge grin, Brigid ushers her child of indeterminate gender towards two chrome stools at the high table by the window.
Now, Rob realises, it’ll be impossible for him and Kerry to talk properly. Brigid and her ill-mannered kid are within earshot – in fact, the child keeps throwing him startled glances as if he might have something terrible growing out of his nose – and the companionable chatter from the other customers has died down to a murmur.
‘Is that a boy or a girl?’ he whispers to Kerry.
‘A boy of course,’ she hisses back. ‘His name’s Joe.’
‘It’s just, with that messy long hair …’
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ She exhales loudly. ‘Lots of children have hair like that these days.’
Rob stirs his cold coffee, wondering how to steer the conversation towards the matter in hand.
‘Anyway,’ Kerry adds, ‘the sandcastle competition finishes at around three. We should probably make our way down there soon.’
‘But we’ve just got here,’ he exclaims, feeling helpless.
‘Well, maybe we should get there for the judging. They were planning to make this 3D treasure map. Mia’s been drawing a plan and cutting out lots of little flags which she stuck onto toothpicks …’
Kerry’s talking too fast, Rob decides. It’s as if the faint staleness of a decade-long marriage has merged with the awkwardness of a terrible first date. The effect is hugely unsettling, and although Rob is trying to appear riveted, he couldn’t give a damn about little toothpick flags right now. Clearly, she wants to get out of this tearoom – and away from him – as quickly as possible.
While Kerry rattles on, Rob tries to mentally transmit to Brigid that she and her snotty-nosed child must leave the cafe this instant because he needs to talk to his wife. He glances at his watch: half two already. Joe is now amusing himself by ripping open paper sachets of sugar and sprinkling their contents onto their table.
Glancing over, Brigid notices Rob’s irritated glare. ‘He’s exploring texture,’ she explains with an indulgent smile as Joe flicks a pile of sugar onto the floor.
‘Oh, right.’ He laughs hollowly.
‘Well, I hope they win,’ Kerry says.
Rob frowns. ‘Sorry?’
‘The kids. Haven’t you been listening, Rob? I said I hope they win the contest …’
‘Er, Kerry …’ Rob begins, distracted again as Joe swipes his mother’s teaspoon and drips coffee onto the sugary piles. What’s he doing now – exploring how to make a bloody great mess?
‘Oh, God, Joe,’ Brigid cries. ‘We’ll have to go, you’re meant to be at Oliver’s party …’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Anyway, Kerry, we must get our boys together to play sometime.’ With a big flashy smile, Brigid grabs Joe’s hand as they clatter out of the cafe.
‘I can’t stand that,’ Rob mutters as a sense of stillness descends.
‘Stand what?’ Kerry asks.
‘That. Kids throwing sugar everywhere, mothers pretending they’re engaged in some valuable learning experience when all they’re really doing is being bloody infuriating …’
She laughs and shakes her head, and he senses the tension dispelling a little. ‘God, Rob, when did you become such an angry old man?’
‘Hey, less of the old …’
‘Anyway,’ she continues, ‘ours aren’t perfect either, remember. But yes, I know what you mean. Brigid seems nice, though, and I really need to get to know some people around here. I wish they were all as friendly as she is …’
‘Kerry,’ Rob butts in, reaching for her hand across the table. ‘Let’s … let’s forget all this. Can we do that, please?’
She slides her hand out from under his. ‘Last weekend, you mean?’
Rob nods. ‘I know how it looked …’
‘Oh yes, your friendly little cleaning lady.’
‘… I want us to move on from this because we have to decide what to do.’
Kerry blinks at him. ‘What d’you mean?’
‘Er …’ He plucks a sugar sachet from the bowl, accidentally rips it and quickly puts it back. ‘The estate agent called me yesterday. That couple, the ones who came round to see the house after the, er …’
‘What, last Saturday?’
‘Yes, them. Well, they’d needed a few days to talk it over and they’ve decided they want it.’
‘They’ve put in an offer?’ Kerry asks, eyes widening.
‘Yes.’ He glances around the tearoom; even the fridge seems to have fallen silent now. ‘The asking price too,’ he adds.
‘Really? Wow, that’s great …’
Rob looks at his wife, thinking how lovely she looks today with her glossy dark hair pulled back and those few strands dancing prettily around her face. She looks relieved, too, about the London house. Rob is trying to seem pleased, but he also owes it to Kerry to be absolutely honest. He pauses, wondering how best to put it, knowing he must get it absolutely right.
Around the corner from Hattie’s, tucked away on a quiet cobbled side street, a new upmarket sandwich shop is struggling to survive. James Delaney, who’s helping his son to get the place in order, was up this morning at 6.35 a.m. He’s already walked his dog, Buddy, along Shorling beach, forced six-foot-three Luke out of bed and sliced a mountain of prosciutto, tomatoes and Emmental. He has also apologised numerous times for the fact that they don’t have any rocket today. Luke messed up the greengrocer’s order (again) so, while he held the fort, James raced around town, amassing as many acceptable lettuce varieties as he could manage. Although he failed to locate rocket, he did track down lollo rosso, butterhead, cos and lamb’s lettuce – how many leaf varieties do people actually need? What would customers do if presented with plain old iceberg – burst into tears or attack him? It’s one of the things that drives James mad about Shorling these days: this utter wankery about food. Which is unfortunate, really, as Luke’s business idea – to set up a sandwich shop to out-posh all the others – was built upon the new residents’ adoration of fine cheeses and hams nestling between organic sourdough.
With the main lunchtime period over – the term ‘rush’ would be over-stating things – James pulls off his navy blue and white striped apron. Hanging it beside the enormous string of garlic behind the counter, he heads for the door of the shop. ‘Just popping home,’ he says.
‘Okay, Dad,’ Luke replies.
‘I’ll only be half an hour. Maybe you could clear the decks a bit, set out some more smoked salmon, chuck some lemon and black pepper over it …’
‘Pepper, Luke,’ James says with exaggerated patience. ‘You do know how to operate a pepper grinder. It’s that twisty gadget with the little black things in.’
‘Sure, Dad,’ Luke says with an amiable smile. James blinks at his son, exasperated, yet unable to feel irritated with him for long. Luke is a handsome, stubbly-chinned boy who, while not wildly academic, has the knack of charming the pants off girls and money out of his wealthy friends’ parents’ bank accounts (hence being able to set up his own business at twenty-two years old). James can’t help admiring his entrepreneurial streak; the way he managed to write a business plan, design the shop and amass the funds, when he’d felt sure the whole idea would come to nothing. Unfortunately, though, Shorling residents and day-trippers haven’t gone mad for fillet steak with baby spinach and grilled artichoke hearts. Maybe, James reflects as he strides down the narrow street, it’s just too much. After all, there’s nothing much wrong with a plain cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps. He and Luke are virtually living off unsold food, their fridge crammed with leftovers. James has started waking up at night, nauseous after a supper of smoked trout, stilton and figs.
It also became apparent that, while Luke has never lacked enthusiasm, he needed someone with him in the shop to keep things running smoothly. As he can’t afford to pay one of his floppy-haired friends, James saw no option but to step in, cramming his own freelance website design work into the evenings to get things on track. ‘Just a few weeks,’ he’d told Luke. ‘Six at the most. Then you’re on your own.’ However, they both know that James will never leave Luke in the lurch.
James is back home now, and lets himself into the neat redbrick house with the not-so-neat dangly gutter, making a mental note to get it fixed.
‘Hey, boy,’ he says as Buddy charges towards him. ‘Been on your own too long, huh? C’mon, just a quick walk …’
He clips on the lead, catching sight of himself in the small mirror in the hallway. God, he needs a haircut. He likes it short, no-nonsense, and before his involvement with Luke’s (after much debate, his son decided the simplest option was to name the shop after himself), James would have regular trims at the old-fashioned Turkish barber’s. Lately, though, such non-essentials have slipped off the radar. And, although he’s glad to escape from the shop for a while, he’s beginning to wonder if looking after Buddy is something he could do without too. Luke’s on-off girlfriend Charlotte used to undertake dog-walking duties, but the status is definitely ‘off’ at the moment.
James sets off with Buddy pulling hard on the lead, panting and straining towards a dropped ice cream cone on the pavement. He barks suddenly at an elderly man on a mobility scooter, and James has to quickly haul him away before he pees against a bucket of fresh blooms outside the florist’s. A woman with a wiry grey terrier – impeccably behaved – glares at him as she struts by. ‘Should get him some training,’ she mutters.
Oh, really? James wants to call after her. Don’t think I haven’t tried that. We’ve even seen a behavioural expert – a dog psychologist – who diagnosed severe anxiety caused by trauma. He wasn’t like this before my wife left, you know. Buddy was very much Amy’s dog but, weirdly enough, she wasn’t too keen on taking him when she moved up to Sheffield with her hairdresser – sorry, colourist … Said Brian ‘isn’t good with animals’. Oh, really? James wasn’t particularly ‘good’ with being dumped without warning either, but he’d had to deal with that.
Halting his racing thoughts – the tutting woman has long since disappeared – James takes a short cut through the alley towards the beach. While Buddy stops to investigate a damp patch on the pavement, James glances at the glass-covered noticeboard on the newsagent’s wall. Sandwich Express, he reads. Bespoke buffets delivered to your workplace. Contact Gary for a slice of the action. Hmmm. Should he and Luke start a delivery service? It seems over-ambitious seeing as they’re struggling to keep the shop afloat, but every little helps.
Buddy is pulling again now and starts barking sharply, startling a passing teenager on a bike who gives James a two-fingered salute. Since Amy’s departure, Buddy has become fearful of cyclists, motorbikes and lorries – most vehicles, come to think of it. Despite the fact that he’s gripping Buddy’s lead, James hopes that, if he keeps staring ahead, any passers-by will assume that this dog has nothing whatsoever to do with him. He fixes his gaze on the newsagent’s ads. Most are offering boats for sale, holiday cottages to let, and essential services such as chakra realignment and ‘a full feng-shui survey to breathe life into your home’. Then a small white postcard catches his eye: Piano Tuition.
There’s a burst of laughter from down on the shore. The beach is packed with children, he realises; must be the annual sandcastle competition, which Luke won with an impressive marble run construction when he was seven or eight (he’d been able to charm a whole horde of people to help him, even back then).
James turns back to the noticeboard.
All levels, abilities and musical styles – in your own home or in my music room in Shorling. Whether you wish to work towards ABRSM exams, or learn to play purely for fun, call qualified tutor Kerry Tambini on 07776 456 896.
He smiles. A little hobby to slot in is the last thing he needs, but still …
Without considering what he’s doing, James slips the loop of Buddy’s lead over the bollard at the end of the alley and delves into his jacket pocket. He’s forgotten his phone, but he does have a crumpled shopping list scrawled on a paper napkin. He pulls out the tiniest stub of a pencil and scribbles down the number, thinking how mad it is, assuming he’d be capable of learning anything new at forty-three years old. Anyway, hadn’t he planned to sell Amy’s piano, seeing as she clearly doesn’t want that either?
Another barking outburst interrupts his thoughts as Buddy starts leaping wildly, clearly furious at being tied up. The sight of a small dog across the street – one of those poochy creatures with a bow at its fringe – has sent him into a frenzy. James hurriedly lifts his lead off the bollard, simultaneously making apologetic gestures to the dog’s owner in her prim floral dress while snapping, ‘That’s enough, Buddy. Calm down.’ Shooting him a furious look, the woman scoops up her quivering pet, as if fearful that Buddy might savage it. About to explain that he’s just nervous, defensive, or whatever you want to call it, James momentarily loses concentration, enabling Buddy to break free from his grasp and charge across the road in a blur of black and white fur, red leather lead flying behind him. The woman shrinks back in fear, but Buddy is no longer interested in her yapping hound. He’s now pelting down towards the beach with a cursing James in pursuit.
To his horror, Buddy is heading straight for the sandcastle competition, paying no heed to the fact that most of these structures have clearly required weeks of careful planning and complex architectural plans.
‘Buddy!’ James cries, carefully stepping around what looks like a scale model of the Sagrada Família with wet sand dribbled over its majestic spires. ‘Come here right now.’
Buddy stops for a moment, investigating the remains of a picnic spread out on a rainbow-striped blanket. A bearded man who might have stepped out of the Toast catalogue shoos him away, and a bunch of children yell in protest as Buddy scampers over a mound of sand with little flags stuck all over it, like some kind of gigantic pin cushion.
‘It’s ridiculous!’ someone cries. ‘That dog’s out of control.’
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ James mutters as he tears after his dog, who has now cocked his leg against the judges’ trestle table for a hasty pee before continuing his explorations of the beach.
‘Could the owner of this dog please remove him from the area,’ a male voice booms over the PA system. ‘A Beach Buddy has already been informed …’
Ah, the illustrious BBs, jumped-up volunteers in lilac T-shirts who appear out of thin air on the rare occasion that someone dares to stub out a fag in the sand. They don’t take kindly to dogs venturing into the wrong zone – as James has been reminded on several occasions by a zealous-dad type with a shiny ‘BB’ button badge, who clearly derived great pleasure from having the authority to tell people off.
At least Buddy has left the competition now, and is prancing delightedly in the shallow waves. James marches towards him, not realising that the paper napkin with the piano teacher’s number has fluttered away behind him and is being carried away by the light breeze. By the time he’s marched Buddy back to the promenade, wondering if 3 p.m. is too early for strong alcohol, he has forgotten that he even wrote it down.
Kerry had always assumed that a mid-life crisis involves the purchase of an enormous motorbike and ill-advised leather trousers. But now she thinks maybe they’re more complicated than that. More like a forty-year-old man gets monumentally pissed with younger colleagues, stays over at the flat of some little princess, then announces that perhaps moving to the south coast wasn’t such a great idea after all, despite being one hundred percent certain that blissful day with the kite. And that now he’s had time to ‘really think things through’, and despite the fact that they have an offer on the house, maybe they should hang onto their London home for a while longer, as a sort of … ‘base’.
‘What d’you mean, a “base”?’ Kerry asks. She and Rob have left the tearoom and are waiting at the pedestrian crossing to cross the road to the beach.
‘Just … somewhere I’d stay,’ Rob says, ‘one or two nights a week instead of commuting every day, until we’re sure about selling it.’
‘But I thought we were certain,’ she points out. ‘I seem to remember you saying, “Let’s do it, tell Maisie we want to go ahead.”’ She looks at him expectantly, baffled by this new development. ‘And now you’re completely backtracking,’ she adds. ‘I don’t know what the hell’s going on with you, Rob.’
For some reason, Kerry is finding it hard to breathe. Aware that in just a few minutes she’ll be required to be all perky and smiley in front of hordes of mothers at the sandcastle competition, she exhales fiercely and starts to cross the road.
‘I’ve just been mulling things over,’ Rob says, hurrying to keep up with her.
‘Well, I don’t see how we can afford to run two homes – not with your job being so precarious and me just starting freelancing. We’ve got to buy Maisie’s place sometime. We can’t expect to live rent-free forever.’
Rob presses his lips together as they reach a group of shiny blonde teenage girls dressed in skimpy shorts and Abercrombie sweatshirts, talking in loud, braying voices.
‘Anyway, when you say you want a “base”,’ Kerry adds as they make their way along the seafront, ‘do you mean a shag pad?’
‘Of course I don’t mean that. For God’s sake, that’s ridiculous.’
‘So why would you need it, unless this thing with Nadine—’
‘There’s no thing,’ he snaps. ‘I thought I’d finally managed to get that across to you …’
She glares at him, wishing she wasn’t obliged to spend another moment in his company. ‘Why d’you want to keep the house, then?’
‘I’m just trying to think practically,’ he mutters. ‘It is quite a schlep every day …’
Kerry throws him a baffled look. ‘But you said you’d be fine with the train, and you can always stay over with Simon or Phil if there’s something on after work …’
‘I … I just think,’ Rob starts, ‘maybe we’re being a bit hasty in selling it. It all feels a bit sudden, that’s all. Maybe we’d be better renting it out instead?’
‘I wish you’d have the courage to admit you’re having cold feet about moving,’ she replies bitterly.
‘No, I’m not. I just think … this might be a more sensible option, for us not to burn our bridges, you know? You’ve said yourself how you haven’t managed to make any friends yet, and I was thinking, perhaps that’s why last Saturday happened. I’m not making excuses, but maybe I’m not quite ready to make a complete break, and that’s why I went out and drank too much and crashed out at Nadine’s like a fucking idiot. Maybe it’s just been building up and I needed to let it all out …’
‘What did you need to let out?’ Kerry barks. ‘Your sperm?’
The woman in the creperie kiosk stares at them, brandishing her spatula in mid-air.
‘I can’t talk to you when you’re being like this,’ Rob hisses, quickening his pace. ‘That’s really going to help us settle in around here, isn’t it, shouting about sperm in public?’
‘Well, you obviously don’t want to settle in, so what does it matter?’
‘Kerry, listen to me.’ He grabs her arm and they stop and glare at each other. ‘Just forget what I said about the house. Let’s accept the offer – I’ll ring the agent first thing on Monday, okay? And once I’ve done that, can we please just forget this whole thing?’
She focuses hard on his handsome face, which looks as tired and stressed today as it had during the early parenting years when sleep was snatched in hour-long segments. Kerry inhales, feeling her anger fading slightly and deciding she has to get over this. Rob is far too prim and proper for a one-night stand; in all their years together, she has never seen him even flirting with anyone. As for the house cleaning incident – Cif-gate, as she and Anita have named it – Nadine is probably nurturing some mild, Daddy-type crush on Rob, and insisted on tagging along. A woman would have to strip naked and launch herself, missile-like, at Rob for him to realise she found him attractive. ‘Come on,’ she says coolly, shrugging away his hand. ‘They’ll all be waiting for us at the beach.’
Spotting his parents treading gingerly between the sand constructions, Freddie leaps up and waves frantically.
‘It got run over!’ he yells.
‘What did?’ Kerry hurries towards Anita and the children.
Anita pulls a wry smile. ‘Well, Sand Island looked great until a dog ran right across the top of it.’
‘Oh no.’ Kerry frowns at the collapsed mound, its toothpick flags scattered everywhere. Daniel, Anita’s youngest, has burst into tears, and Anita pulls him onto her lap.
‘I’m sure it doesn’t matter,’ Kerry tries to console him. ‘The judges probably looked at the sandcastles before the dog came—’
‘No they didn’t,’ Freddie thunders.
‘Dogs shouldn’t be running about loose on the beach,’ Rob declares.
‘Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate,’ Anita explains. ‘Some guy was chasing it, it must have got loose …’
‘Then it was his responsibility to keep it under control,’ Rob huffs as Kerry and Anita exchange glances.
‘My mummy won’t let us have a dog,’ Freddie bleats loudly to anyone within earshot.
Sitting beside Kerry on Anita’s tartan rug, Rob takes Kerry’s hand in his and squeezes it. ‘Quite right, Mummy,’ he whispers with a smile.
The tinkle of a brass bell from the judges’ table calls everyone to attention.
‘After that unfortunate little incident,’ announces an elderly lady, her gold-rimmed glasses glinting in the weak sunshine, ‘it’s time to announce the winners of the annual Shorling sandcastle competition. Everyone ready?’
‘Yeah!’ Freddie yells. Kerry removes her hand from Rob’s slightly clammy grasp.
‘Okay. It’s been a tough decision but, in third place, I’m delighted to announce … Team Tyler-Jones for their fabulous Hogwarts!’
‘Boring,’ chime Freddie and Anita’s boy Jacob.
‘Shush, Freddie,’ Rob hisses.
The judge tinkles her bell again. ‘Second prize … Team Marshall’s amazing Eiffel Tower!’
‘Show-offs,’ Anita whispers with a grin. ‘Their dad did the whole thing anyway, barking orders at his children like Hitler in a yachting cap.’
Kerry snorts with laughter, sensing the tensions of the past, miserable week starting to drift away, despite the fact that Freddie appears to be the only child here in a tracksuit.
‘And first prize … Team Crawly-Jones and their amazing replica of the Sagrada Família …’
Mia’s face droops. ‘What’s a Farm-ear?’
‘Just some old church,’ Kerry murmurs.
‘I wouldn’t quite put it that way,’ guffaws the yachting cap man. ‘I think you’ll find it’s Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece although, granted, there’s been controversy over the more contemporary aspects of the restoration …’ He smiles smugly and pops a shiny black olive into his mouth.
‘Has there really?’ Kerry asks, feigning wonderment as the woman at the judges’ table calls the assembled crowd to attention.
‘Everyone?’ she calls out. ‘We just had a quick chat among ourselves and decided to award a very special prize to the team who put in so much effort, only to have it all destroyed …’
Mia and Freddie gawp at their mother expectantly.
‘… Team Tambini-McCoy with their treasure island – at least that’s what we think it was before the unfortunate event – so if the children would like to come forward …’ All six surge towards the judges’ table, their rowdiness garnering the odd look of disdain as they return, delighted, with their booty.
Admittedly it’s just an ice cream token each, but Rob is dispatched to the old-fashioned red and white striped kiosk with the children dancing around him as if they’ve scooped a major prize.
Anita stretches out her slender honey-tanned legs on the blanket. ‘So …?’ she says when Rob is out of earshot. ‘How did it go?’
Kerry pulls off her canvas plimsoles and digs her toes into the warm sand. ‘Okay, I guess. He’s still adamant that nothing happened.’
‘Which is feasible …’
The small pause is filled with the blur of children playing, and there’s a palpable sense of relief among the kids now the competition is over. Kerry glances at her oldest friend, the one who made all those summers in Shorling so special, and to whom she’d write excitable letters in multi-coloured felt tips during the long months until her next stay at Aunt Maisie’s. When Kerry turned seventeen, her parents had been filled with a new sense of adventure, perhaps relieved that they no longer felt obliged to take their only child back to Shorling every summer. Her father bought an ugly beige campervan – nothing so stylish as a VW camper – and he and her mum took to trundling around France while Kerry started holidaying with friends. The year it had happened – the motorway crash just south of Bordeaux – Kerry and Anita had been in a rowdy resort in Crete. As the red sports car had cut up the campervan, and Kerry’s dad had braked suddenly, veering into the forest below, Kerry and Anita were probably downing fierce cocktails in the Banana Moon bar. What if Anita hadn’t suggested the trip, and Kerry had gone on holiday with her parents instead? She still plays the ‘what if?’ game occasionally.
‘Kerry?’ Anita says gently.
She indicates the small crowd clamouring around the ice cream kiosk. ‘Look at poor Rob. The kids are probably confusing the hell out of him. Imagine, having to remember six ice cream flavours all at once.’ They laugh as, surrounded by children, he throws up his hands in mock surrender. ‘You do believe him, don’t you?’ Anita adds.
Kerry nods. ‘Yes, I suppose I do. I’ve only been here a month, but maybe I’ve already lost touch with the real world, you know? I mean, the fact that people make friends in the office and go out after work. It’s all perfectly normal, isn’t it? You socialise with the other teachers …’
‘Yes, of course I do.’
‘Though you don’t have sleepovers.’
‘Er, no.’ Anita gives her a wry smile. ‘No one would dare. You wouldn’t believe what staffroom gossip is like.’
Kerry chuckles. ‘It’s different for Rob. He’s had an awful time since his new editor arrived, and I think he just had to let off a bit of steam.’
‘We all need to do that sometimes,’ Anita says.
Rob and the children are heading back towards them now, the two girls charging ahead of the pack.
‘I still can’t believe what I did to him, though,’ Kerry says, shaking her head.
‘God, I know,’ Anita laughs. ‘What a bloody great waste of a cake.’
Chapter Thirteen Jack’s, three weeks later
Jack’s might be thronging on a Friday night, but on a rainy Monday evening at the start of October it’s an entirely different story. Nadine, who’s been pleasant enough since Rob spent the night at her place, had hung around in the office after everyone else had left.
‘Not like you to work late,’ Rob had remarked, which had come out sounding ruder than he’d intended.
‘Are you implying I’m a slacker?’ she’d responded with an arch of her brow.
‘Of course not,’ he’d replied quickly, before adding, ‘You okay, Nadine? You seem a bit fed-up today.’ She didn’t seem to be working, at least not on anything obvious. She was just sitting at her desk, rearranging her novelty pens with the fluorescent gonks on their ends and flicking idly through the latest issue of Mr Jones. Then she’d closed the magazine, and her eyes had met his across the office.
‘Um, actually I’m not okay, Rob,’ she’d said. ‘D’you have time for a quick drink?’
So here they are – even Nadine is a member of Jack’s, it transpires – with Rob waiting to be served in the basement bar. At a quarter to seven, they are the only customers in the place. Apart from Theresa with her clipboard on the door, there’s no sign of any staff either.
Standing at the elegant, curved bar, Rob glances back at their table and wills someone to materialise and serve him. He’s only planning to stay for a quick one, just to be nice; he’ll hear her woes (she really does look miserable now, all pale and hunched in the corner) then get home sharpish. In fact he isn’t entirely comfortable about being in a drinking establishment with Nadine at all, not after last time. He’s managed to smooth things over with Kerry by the skin of his teeth. He’s accepted the Ramsays’ offer on the house and, after making an utter arse of himself, now feels ready to embrace that new life on the coast.
Ah, there are signs of life from the nether regions of Jack’s. From a back room emerges the stunning red-head who’d presented him with his birthday cake, and he waits for her to recognise him.
‘Yeah?’ she says blankly.
‘Er, a Kronenbourg and a tomato juice please.’ Weird drink, a tomato juice. No pleasure in it as far as he can work out. It probably has negligible calories, though, which is clearly high on Nadine’s agenda. Come to think of it, he isn’t entirely sure she actually eats. Maybe she gleans her nutrition from the garnishes in drinks.
‘Here you go.’ The red-head places the drinks on the bar – Nadine’s has a sliver of celery stuck in it – and takes his money without thanks or any hint of being human. Perhaps she’s an android, Rob reflects as he carries the drinks back to the table. Or maybe there’s a secret rule that over-thirties aren’t supposed to be in here.
‘So,’ he says, taking the seat opposite Nadine.
She pulls a tight smile.
‘Everything all right?’
‘Like I said, not really.’ She twizzles the straw in her drink.
‘Er … is it something to do with Eddy?’
‘What?’ She looks aghast.
‘I mean …’ Rob scratches his chin, relieved that the red-head has disappeared into the back room again. ‘I just wondered if it was something to do with work, if you were worried about—’
‘I’m not worried, Rob,’ she says sharply.
‘Oh! Well, that’s good. You shouldn’t be. I know you’re only the editorial assistant but—’
‘Only the editorial assistant?’ she repeats.
Shit, this is hard work. He’d give anything to be down in Shorling now, snuggled up with Kerry and the kids, watching a movie together.
‘What I mean is,’ he explains, ‘you’re just starting out and I know things are a bit shaky in the company at the moment. But Eddy’s obviously really happy with you and I’m sure your job’s secure …’
Nadine purses her lips and shifts in the plush red seat. ‘Well, I am worried but it’s not about work.’
‘I’m pregnant, Rob.’
‘Are you? God!’ He emits a strange combination of gasp and laugh and glances down briefly at her stomach, which appears to be frying pan flat, then back up at her face. Her expression has settled into one of extreme distaste, as if a terrible odour is drifting up from her glass. ‘That’s er … amazing,’ he adds. ‘That’s really incredible news. Wow!’
Nadine blinks slowly. ‘Yes, that’s what I thought too.’
Rob bites his lip, wondering why she’s selected him, alone, to share her news. ‘I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend,’ he adds, regretting it instantly: since when was Nadine’s love life any of his business?
‘I don’t,’ she says.
‘Well,’ he says with a stilted laugh, ‘I might be ancient but as far as I remember it does take two people to make a baby.’ Nadine looks down at her drink and stirs it unnecessarily. Poor girl, he muses. It was obviously a one-night stand, and maybe the heartless git has left her in the lurch. ‘Um,’ he goes on, ‘are you sure you really are pregnant and it’s not just a false alarm?’
I did the test at the end of last week,’ she replies flatly, ‘and I’ve thought of nothing else all weekend.’
‘Of course,’ he says, relaxing a little and quickly deciding that the role of sympathetic older, wiser colleague is the one to adopt. ‘It’s a huge thing, Nadine. I mean … you’re only twenty, aren’t you? It’s a big, big change. If you ever want to talk, or grab a coffee or something …’
She raises her brows in mock amusement. ‘To talk about what, Rob?’
‘Uh, the pregnancy, having a baby …’ He shrugs lamely.
‘You’ve had a lot of experience of that, have you?’
Jesus, he thinks, there’s no need to be like that, to keep arching those brows in such a, such an … arched manner. He’s only trying to be a friend, when he could be at home packing up the last bits and pieces.
‘I know my kids are older now,’ he says huffily, ‘but I can just about remember the baby stage.’
‘Oh, right.’ Her voice wavers and her eyes mist, causing Rob to place a hand over hers on the table without even thinking about it. ‘You mean,’ she croaks, ‘you can give me some tips on nappies and feeding and burping and all that. Yeah, that’d be great, Rob. Cheers …’
‘Nadine,’ he murmurs, shaking his head, ‘are you sure you actually want to go ahead with this?’
‘Of course I do, Rob. It’s my baby. God.’
I only bloody asked, he thinks bitterly. ‘It’ll be okay,’ he adds quietly.
‘Will it? How d’you know?’
‘I … I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s just the shock, that’s all. Like you said, you’ve only just found out …’ He keeps his hand on hers, feeling strangely protective of this poor, accidentally pregnant girl. Imagine, though, having a baby at twenty years old. It doesn’t bear thinking about …
Nadine slides her hand out from under his. ‘That depends,’ she says.
He frowns. ‘On what?’
‘I don’t understand …’ Something shifts in him then, and he senses the lighter, happier mood of the past four weeks dispersing into the slightly stale air of Jack’s basement bar.
Nadine gives her tomato juice another stir and looks up at him. ‘It’s yours, Rob,’ she says. ‘It’s your baby.’
James lifts a tray of unsold rare breed pork and leek sausages from the oven and flips them onto two plates.
‘I’ve arranged to have another three hundred flyers printed,’ Luke tells his father as they sit down at the kitchen table to eat.
‘We can’t afford printing costs at the moment,’ James reminds him. ‘Remember, we’re only just managing to meet the suppliers’ bills.’
‘Yeah, I know. I had a chat with Marcus’s dad and he’s going to run them off for us for free.’
James grins as Luke picksupthe new squeezy ketchup bottle and shakes it ineffectually over his sausages and mash. ‘How did you manage that, then?’
‘Just explained that we need to raise our profile, and as we can’t afford to advertise the next best thing is to distribute flyers in all the right shops. They’ll be on thick, matt card and I’ve put a special taster offer on, too.’ He pauses and frowns at the apparently malfunctioning sauce bottle.
‘Yes, I understand the theory,’ James says, ‘and it’s great – but how do you manage this?’
‘To persuade people to do things for you for free.’
Luke laughs. ‘Just my natural charm, I guess. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with what we’re offering, Dad. It’s the location, I think. Too tucked away. I know we couldn’t afford the seafront but we need to work harder to let people know we exist.’
James nods thoughtfully. ‘You’re probably right, and I think the flyers are a great idea. Here, give me that bottle.’ Taking it from him, James removes its top, peels off the foil seal and replaces the stopper. ‘There. Think you can manage now?’
‘Oh, thanks, Dad.’ With a smirk, Luke squirts ketchup noisily all over his plate and proceeds to shovel in his dinner with enthusiastic chomps and slurps. Christ, James thinks, he’s capable of thinking creatively and blagging all kinds of favours and freebies, but he still needs his dad to open a new sauce bottle. And he eats like he’s at a trough in a farmyard, not at a kitchen table – yet is capable of engaging in extremely noisy sex under this very roof.
James blinks down at a bowl of leftover potato salad, trying to forget the terrible rumpus he heard last night, signalling that Luke and Charlotte had got back together. He should be happy for his son – he suspects that Luke is deeply in love with her – but, like buffalo copulating or people being cut open in hospital, he doesn’t feel it necessary to be subjected to every gruesome, sick-making detail.
Although James likes to think he’s a reasonably modern man, he couldn’t help thinking: What would Amy make of this? She adored her only child, coddling him like a delicate egg. (James isn’t quite sure what a coddled egg is, but it’s surely not dissimilar to a younger Luke who was still having his fish fingers cut up into dainty pieces at ten years old). But she’s been out of their lives for two years now – Luke was so aghast that he’s shunned all attempts at contact – and James is left with the task of trying to ease his transition into being a capable grown-up man. Sure, he’s full of ideas and enthusiasm. It’s the practicalities – like remembering to order butter and clean the meat slicer – that he’s not so hot on.
Pushing his plate aside, James glances down at Buddy, taking a few seconds to register the rich odour which is beginning to permeate the kitchen. It definitely isn’t sausage or potato salad and, as far as James is aware, nothing is rotting in the bin.
‘Look, Dad,’ Luke exclaims, jabbing his fork in the direction of the cooker. There, sitting in front of it, is a large turd.
‘I don’t bloody believe it.’ James leaps up, sending his chair clattering backwards, at which Buddy scoots out of the kitchen.
‘That’s disgusting,’ Luke observes as his father clears it up. ‘Why did he do that?’
‘Because he needed to go,’ James snaps.
James stomps out to the back garden, drops the carrier bag-wrapped gift into the bin and marches back inside. ‘Luke,’ he says sternly, ‘we had an agreement, right? I do the morning and lunchtime walks and you do the evening—’
‘We wouldn’t have to,’ Luke interrupts, ‘if you put up a higher fence that he couldn’t jump over. Then he could just have a little wander about in the garden.’ Ah yes – another of Buddy’s newly-developed quirks. For years, he had pottered about happily on the lawn, without showing any desire to escape.
‘I don’t exactly have time to build another fence right now, Luke.’ James frowns at his son, wondering if he plans to place his dirty plate and cutlery in the dishwasher or – the favoured tactic – expects them to spirit themselves into the appliance all on their own.
To avoid the issue, he wanders through to the living room and sinks into the sofa, overcome by a wave of exhaustion. He starts to flick through the newspapers he brought home from the shop. It had been Luke’s idea to add two small tables by the window, plus a rack of newspapers, to encourage customers to linger over a coffee and snack. So far, they’ve been the only ones to read them.
‘Dad …’ Luke has appeared in the doorway. ‘I was just thinking, maybe we should take Buddy to a trainer again.’
James looks up at him. ‘Remember what they said last time? That he seemed to have trouble grasping basic commands. That was a polite way of saying he’s a hopeless case.’
‘What’ll we do then?’
James studies the handsome young man who turns heads every time he saunters through town. Luke has inherited his grey eyes, but Amy’s striking cheekbones and long, rangy build.
‘Um … what would you think if we found him another home?’ he asks hesitantly.
There’s a beat’s silence as Luke studies his fingernails. ‘I’d feel bad but …’
‘Yeah, I know. Me too.’
‘I mean, I love him,’ Luke adds, ‘and he’s a great dog, but …’
Buddy trots into the room and arranges himself comfortably at James’s feet. ‘I just don’t think he gets enough attention from us two,’ he says, reaching down to tickle behind his ears. ‘Maybe that’s the real problem. He’s playing up because he’s lonely.’
Luke nods sadly. ‘He was Mum’s dog really, wasn’t he?’
James starts to speak, horrified that his eyes have started to water.
‘Hey, Dad.’ Luke lands beside him on the sofa and puts an arm around his shoulders. ‘Maybe it’s the best thing to do.’
‘You really think so?’
Luke’s phone bleeps with an incoming text, but he has the decency to ignore it. ‘Yeah. Sometimes I reckon Buddy doesn’t really like us very much.’
‘We’re too male for him,’ James suggests.
‘God knows what it is. If we advertised him, though, would we mention him being scared of everything and occasionally crapping on the floor?’
James musters a weak smile, enjoying just being here with his son, and Buddy lying at their feet. ‘I think,’ he says carefully, ‘we might just keep those little details to ourselves.’
It’s a bleak, wet Tuesday and Rob has called in sick. He never throws a sickie, and he despises those who do, such as fashion editor Ava who had the audacity last week to claim she’d ‘caught something’ the morning after she’d been to the lavish PR party she’d spent all afternoon getting ready for. Eddy doesn’t seem to mind skivers. Perhaps that’s all part of the new ‘dynamic’ attitude: being so ‘out there’ that sometimes you can’t be arsed to go to work.
This morning, though, Rob couldn’t face the office so he called in, feigning a migraine. Which was true, sort of. The terrible reality – that Nadine says she’s having his baby – is creating a terrible tension around his frontal lobe, as if his brain is in danger of bursting out of his skull. And now, hell, Kerry is phoning his mobile.
‘Hi,’ he croaks, digging a fingernail into the well-worn corduroy sofa.
‘Hi, hon, sorry to call you at work, hoped you’d be on your lunch break—’
‘Is everything okay?’ It’s his knee-jerk reaction. Any time Kerry calls during the day, he fears that one of his children is being stitched back together at A&E.
‘Yes, it’s fine, it’s just … I know this sounds stupid, but I’ve just been out for a walk to clear my head. Been working on those Cuckoo Clock songs all morning …’
Nadine’s having my baby rings loud and clear between his ears.
‘… Anyway,’ Kerry continues, ‘I spotted this ad on the noticeboard at the newsagent’s and … God, you’re going to think I’ve gone stark raving mad …’
A baby. A real live baby. So what’s it to be – suicide by downing the entire contents of the bathroom cabinet? As far as he can recall there’s only some ancient Sudocrem and a mangled tube of Anusol in there …
‘I just think it might be good for us,’ Kerry continues, sounding slightly breathless as if she’s walking at a brisk pace. ‘I know we’re okay here but … I don’t know … it feels like there’s something missing, Rob. Well, you, obviously …’ She chuckles. ‘God, we can’t wait till you’re here, you know. Only a couple of weeks to go now …’
‘Yeah,’ he says dully.
‘Why don’t you just move down properly next weekend? You could hire a van, couldn’t you, and get Simon to help? I mean, it’s not as if there’s anything to stay for now, and the kids miss you so much …’
‘I miss them too,’ he says, feeling as if he might cry.
‘Anyway,’ Kerry continues, ‘that’s not what I called about. I just wanted to tell you …’
Rob is incapable of tuning in to what she’s saying. He is replaying what Nadine told him in Jack’s last night: ‘Maybe I should have been honest and told you we’d had sex. But you’re a lovely, decent guy and I knew you’d feel terrible about Kerry … I just didn’t want to put you through that stress …’
‘So what d’you think?’ Kerry asks.
He grips the phone. ‘About what?’
‘Rob, have you been listening to me at all?’
He’s sweating now, his entire head tensing as if being slowly crushed by some kind of enormous clamp. ‘Sorry, Kerry, just got a few things on my mind …’
She lets out an exasperated sigh. ‘That’s okay, you’re at the office, you should have said instead of letting me prattle on. All I was saying was—’
‘I’m not at work actually. I’m at home, not feeling very well …’
‘Oh, what’s wrong?’ Her sympathetic tone makes his insides twist with shame.
‘Just … a migraine.’
‘Aw, never had one of those before, have you?’ No, and I’ve never had a twenty-year-old who I barely know suddenly announcing she’s having my child …
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Taken anything for it?’
‘Er, just paracetamol.’
‘You could probably do with something stronger.’ Yes, too bloody right, like something to render me unconscious for a very long time, perhaps until the blessed release of death … ‘Anyway,’ she adds perkily, ‘all I was saying is, I’ve just seen an ad for a dog that some guy wants to rehome – family-friendly, lovely with people and other dogs, sounds perfect. There’s a photo of him and he looks adorable – a big, shaggy, cuddly thing. And I thought, seeing as I’m based at home now, and considering the kids are struggling to make friends …’ She pauses. ‘I think,’ she adds softly, ‘they deserve it.’
‘I, er, dunno,’ Rob mutters.
‘You mean you don’t think it’s a good idea?’
He tries to clear his parched throat. ‘I, um, don’t see the point …’
‘Of course there’s a point! He’d be theirs, they could learn how to look after him. Animals are good for children, everyone knows that …’
‘No, I know there’s a point to dogs, if you’re blind or in the police force or need drugs sniffing out but—’
Kerry bursts out laughing. ‘You’re mad, Rob. But yes, dogs can be useful, which just shows how intelligent and easily trainable they are.’
‘Kerry, I …’
‘Think how excited they’d be!’ she cuts in. ‘Oh, I know that picking up poo with the little black bag isn’t hugely appealing but I’m sure we’d get used to it. It’s probably like baby poo. You know how changing other people’s babies’ nappies is completely disgusting?’ God, can’t she tell there’s something terribly wrong here? How can she go on and on like this as if everything’s normal? ‘ … But your own – well, that’s different. When it’s come out of someone you love, it sort of loses its disgustingness, doesn’t it? Isn’t that weird, Rob, don’t you think?’
Not half as weird as me allegedly making a girl pregnant and having absolutely no recollection of doing it …
‘Not that I’m saying it’ll be like having another baby,’ Kerry laughs, clearly oblivious to his pain. ‘I suspect it’ll be a tinier bit easier than that. Like, there’s no weaning or night waking, hopefully, or strangers marching up to you and telling you he should have a hat on or a warmer jacket …’
Stop it, stop it, stop it. Please stop talking about babies …
‘D’you remember all that?’ Kerry asks fondly. ‘You’d come home from work and I’d be ranting on about some woman in the park who’d told me to put brandy in Mia’s bottle.’
‘Er, yeah …’
‘And you were really helpful,’ she sniggers. ‘You said, just tell them to fuck off.’
‘Er, Kerry, I really need to talk—’
‘So, listen, shall I phone that guy from the ad?’
‘The dog one! Oh, go on, let’s do it …’ She pauses, and he can tell she’s smiling. There are faint street noises in the background and he pictures her green eyes shining, her dark hair blowing messily in the breeze. Tears spill onto his cheeks and he quickly wipes them away. ‘If we do,’ Kerry adds, ‘let’s make it a surprise and not say anything until the dog’s actually here. You won’t tell them, will you?’
‘God, I’m so excited! Oh, Rob … this just feels right, you know? Everything feels right. I’ve had a few enquiries from my ad, did I tell you? I just need to spruce up the music room, then I can start booking some pupils in.’
‘Er, that’s great.’
‘Well, it all feels positive anyway.’ She pauses for breath. ‘It’s still lonely here without you but soon we’ll all be back together, a proper family …’ She tails off, but this time Rob can’t respond. ‘Sorry, sweetheart,’ she adds. ‘I’m ranting on and you’re stuck at home with a horrible migraine. I’ll shut up now and let you get some rest …’
‘Okay,’ he says dully.
‘And Rob, I love you, you know that, don’t you?’
He opens his mouth, but more tears are falling and all he can do is make a strange, puppy-like yelp.
‘Rob? Are you okay?’
He clears his throat, his face now utterly wet as he says, ‘Kerry, I’m so sorry. There’s something you have to know.’
They say grief comes in stages. Maybe it does, if it’s the kind associated with running out of eye cream or scuffing the toe of a favourite shoe. Not a husband saying, I know how this sounds but I promise you I can’t remember a thing … yes, it does seem impossible but it has happened before – er, yes, with you … Only once or twice during the early days when we’d been out and come home drunk – no, of course I didn’t admit it, you’d have been horrified …
And that had been that. Thirteen years together melted away in an instant, like candyfloss on a tongue. As for the ‘stages’ – anger, grief, depression in whichever order they’re supposed to come – Kerry hasn’t had time for anything so orderly. The rest of yesterday had passed in a blur (she was too blown away to even cry). Rob had called twice more, sobbing inconsolably and begging to drive down and see her; she’d had no option but to cut him off mid-flow. After collecting the children from school, she’d spent an hour on the phone to Anita, and the rest of the evening had been spent Acting Normal in front of the children. It was only later in bed that she’d allowed herself to cry – and, once she’d started, she’d feared that she might never be able to stop. And now, at 8.10 a.m. on a grey Wednesday morning, Kerry must continue to behave as if nothing untoward has happened. Her marriage may be over but she must still brush hair, put out juice and cereal and locate gym shoes and playtime snacks deemed acceptable at Shorling Primary (e.g. little pouches of dried apricots from the wholefood store; crisps, it would appear, are regarded as the devil’s work).
The landline rings and, without thinking, she grabs it. ‘It’s me,’ Rob croaks.
‘What d’you want?’
‘I need to talk to you …’ His voice is thick and hoarse, as if he’s been up all night.
Kerry blinks rapidly. ‘I can’t, not now …’
‘Please listen to me,’ he implores her. ‘Okay, it happened, but you have to believe that I can’t remember anything—’
‘Does that mean it doesn’t count?’ she snaps.
‘No, of course it does, I didn’t mean …’
‘Mummy, who’s on the phone?’ Mia demands from the breakfast table. ‘What doesn’t count?’
Kerry rubs her eyes and growls, ‘I’ve got to go,’ before abruptly ending the call.
‘Was that Daddy?’ Mia asks, grinning.
‘Why did he phone?’ Freddie wants to know.
‘Oh … he just wanted to check something …’
‘Why didn’t he want to speak to me?’ Mia tosses her spoon into her empty cereal bowl.
Kerry blinks slowly. ‘He was in a rush, sweetie.’
Mia nods, apparently satisfied with this. ‘Remember it’s the feast today, Mummy.’
‘What feast?’ Kerry asks, hoping her pink, swollen eyes will continue to pass unnoticed.
‘The feast. I need my stuff, Mum. It said in that letter.’
‘What letter?’ Kerry chooses to ignore the fact that Freddie has picked up his bowl and is noisily slurping chocolate-tinged milk.
‘That letter from school,’ Mia says with a roll of her eyes. Ah, yes, Kerry vaguely remembers now. How remiss of her to allow torturous thoughts of her husband having energetic sex with a girl who was born in something like 1992 – she’s not even old enough to remember Britpop, for God’s sake – to take precedence over preparing for Miss Pettifer’s Egyptian banquet. Now, as she focuses hard, she vaguely recalls Mia’s teacher’s request for the kind of delicacies people would have enjoyed four thousand years ago, but she’s darned if she can remember what they are. The letter doesn’t appear to be lurking in the teetering pile of unattended-to mail on top of the microwave. Nor is it hiding in what Mia has christened the ‘everything drawer’ which, although they’ve only lived here for six weeks, is already jammed with take-away menus, matted hairbrushes and any random small item which has yet to be allocated a proper home.
‘We’ll have to forget about it,’ Kerry says briskly. ‘I’m sure everyone else will bring lots of things to share. I’ll write a note to Miss Pettifer saying I’m sorry but I totally forgot.’
Mia stares at her, aghast. ‘You can’t do that.’
‘I’ll be the only one!’ Mia’s mouth crumples and her dark eyes fill with tears.
‘Darling …’ Kerry puts an arm around her daughter but is abruptly shrugged off. ‘I’m really sorry but it’s quarter past eight and there isn’t time to get anything together.’
‘No one’ll let me share,’ Mia cries. ‘They’re not my friends …’
‘What makes you think that, hon?’
‘They’re just not!’ she shouts. ‘I’ve got to take something. We can buy stuff on the way to school …’
‘We could,’ Kerry says, feeling helpless, ‘but we don’t know what to buy.’
‘Stuff the Egyptians liked,’ Freddie offers helpfully.
‘I know, Freddie, but I don’t know what they liked.’
‘Why not?’ He throws her a disdainful look.
Because, sweethearts, your father has made someone else pregnant. Although I know that’s a shoddy excuse and, if I were a proper mother with one of those hyper-efficient maternal brains, I’d still be able to locate a typical menu from a pharaohs’ feast …
‘I can’t remember,’ she says, feeling horribly close to crying herself. The landline rings again; Kerry lifts the receiver and bangs it straight back down again.
‘Google it then,’ Mia commands.
Kerry tries to blink away the moisture that keeps blurring her vision. She thought she’d been doing so well today, breezing through the morning routine as if nothing untoward had happened. Now she’s hastily Googling ‘Egyptian food’ but all she can find is a theme restaurant called Cleopatra’s in nearby Sandhead where it appears that the waitresses wear gold crocheted headdresses.
Now Mia and Freddie are both looming over her as she scowls at an image of Lamb Koftas – ‘poos on sticks’, Freddie announces delightedly – on her laptop. With the best will in the world, these cannot be knocked together in the thirteen minutes before they must leave for school. Kerry flicks through other options: rice-stuffed pigeon. Yoghurt pudding with fried onions and a puddle of chicken broth. Honey and cinnamon pie …
‘You could take a jar of honey,’ she announces. ‘I read that someone discovered some from Ancient Egyptian times and it was still fine to eat …’
Mia shudders. ‘No, ew, it’d be dirty.’
‘No, ours wasn’t dug up. It’s from the Co-op. But it’ll still taste just like the kind they used to have—’
Mia shakes her head. ‘Don’t wanna take honey.’
‘What about fruit then? They must’ve had fruit …’ But when she Googles ‘Egyptian fruit’, all that pops up are Egyptian fruit bats for sale, £250 for a breeding pair.
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