There are some things which people say which are so trite, so blindingly bloody obvious and so irritating. “You don’t miss them till they’re gone.” “Enjoy life while you can.” The list of anodyne observations seems to be endless and in the past few months I have had most of them showered upon me. I think people are trying to be helpful, to put a cloak of normalcy around a life slowly going haywire, but all I can feel is a burning desire to put my hands around the speaker’s neck until they shut up. Permanently if necessary. I am shocked by the strength of my passion; I’ve never felt the urgent desire to do anything before. It’s a pity that now it seems to have been channelled into thoughts of violence. So much more useful if I had the urge to write a bestseller, raise funds for cancer research or even get the bike out of the shed for once. But right now I am imagining my thumbs throttling the woman in front of me as she prattles on, cliché chasing cliché.
To prevent an unexpected death in suburbia I pick up the empty mugs and make some show of clearing up, suggesting that the conversation is drawing to a close and she might like to shove off home and leave me in peace. God, I must have been a terrible child for instead the punishment continues.
“Shall I get us another? No, you stay there I’ll make these, you put your feet up for once, you could do with the break.”
Too right, I could do with a break. But instead I am condemned to another half an hour of advice and platitudes. The garden is looking good. Odd that nobody comments on that. Careful planting has provided a show of tulips from March and as the Queen of the Night drops her last black petal the columbine takes over, racing up the wall and into next door’s garden. It is living proof that the oldest memories are the last to go. Years and years of planting plans, layered in her mind like fine gauze maps one on top of the other producing a three dimensional plan of her garden. Long after her language had become a comprehension lottery she could still make it quite clear that the clematis needed pruning and that I had failed to deadhead the roses to her complete satisfaction. I glance at the clock and with a wave of relief call into the kitchen.
“Gotta go Lindsay. Need to pick Mum up. Can’t be late.” I shoot out my excuses like a finely trained sniper, eject my unwanted guest from the house and get myself into the car in less than five minutes. Almost, but not quite a record.
The traffic is suspended in that brief and peaceful hiatus between school run and rush hour. There is the occasional streak of Range Rover through a not quite amber traffic light on its way to pick up the last child at the school gates. But for the most part it is a quick and easy drive. I pull up outside the hairdressers. Thank God for small businesses in small backstreets, parking is a breeze.
It is the oddest of hairdressers. Most of the clientele come in once a week for the company, their hairstyles unchanged for decades; short, shoulder length at a push, perhaps a bit of a perm. My arrival drops the average age by twenty years and I am no spring chicken. But, and this is a big but, Belinda is waging a one woman war to bring funk and fashion to this time lapsed corner of middle England. Now somewhere in her early twenties Belinda started out as a Saturday girl sweeping up the trimmings and making endless cups of milky tea with two sugars. One or two of her friends came for a cheap cut and asked for bright Mallin streaks or choppy asymmetrical cuts with a dash of blue across the side. Terrified by the requests Yvonne handed the scary new clients over to Belinda, who by then had been promoted to Junior. Now officially a Stylist, Belinda has quite a following. However, clad in the anonymous black hairdressers cloaks her clients are indistinguishable from the rest, except from the neck up.
Mum is sitting next to a young lad having the tip of his long floppy fringe bleached bright white. He sits patiently with bacofoil dripping over his forehead reading The People’s Friend to Mum. I’ve stopped being surprised. Mum doesn’t look up when I came in. Yvonne unwinds the black cape from her chair and guides her over to me while I pay the bill. The bacofoil boy turns back to his book, The People’s Friend abandoned.
There is something about having one’s hair done that puts a spring in one’s step, even if one is no longer entirely in tune with the world. I don’t know if anyone has ever actually committed suicide over a bad hair day, but I can completely understand how it can be a compounding factor. Mum may never again sip martinis on the lawn, but for a moment as she strokes her newly cut hair I can glimpse behind the rheumy eyes the woman who once gave up tea and drank only gin and tonic for an entire summer as her contribution to the water shortage.
“For God’s sake Amanda put that bloody book down and help me with the sodding hosepipe.” I sighed; nobody else had a mother who swore quite so publically as mine. Nobody had a mother quite like mine at all. I put down the book, Harold Robbins, his sex scenes were far better than any I had come across anywhere else and my education was in desperate need of all the help it could get. Not that there was much chance of putting any of my new found knowledge into action. Boys were an endangered species as far as I could see.
My mother was hanging out of the upstairs bathroom window waving a hosepipe around. It was caught in the apple tree. I tried to avoid her ruthless gaze but I was far too weak and always gave in. I tightened the belt around my shorts lest they catch on a branch and add to my humiliation just as the gorgeous boy who sometimes helped out Mrs Rossi next door turned up and slowly made my way up the tree. With nowhere else to put it I shoved the loose end of the hosepipe in my mouth and retraced my steps back down.
“Okay you suck; I’ll hold the other end in the bath.” I don’t know why she bothered with the instructions; it was the same every time. She claimed her weak chest made it impossible for her to suck hard enough to draw the dirty water out of the bath and onto her precious roses. I dared not suggest that perhaps if she gave up the filthy Russian cigarettes she insisted on smoking her lungs might have a chance against the onslaught of everyday life. Instead I sat down and began to suck. Lewd images prompted by the Harold Robbins filled my teenage mind but I kept on sucking until I got a mouthful of lukewarm soapy water and immediately directed it on the roses. “Make sure it’s even, don’t drown them.” Fat chance I thought.
From the other side of the house I heard the doorbell ring. “Oh Shit!” echoed my mother from upstairs. Siphoning the water from the bath to the garden was a two man job, but the door was not going to answer itself. I heard more expletives and the gush of grey water turned to a dribble. I left my mother to the visitor and returned to Harold Robbins. It was too bright to read and my eyes began to water as I strained to make sense of the letters on the page.
A damp black nose followed rapidly by something not unlike a small Labrador shoved the book out of my hands. Doofus was one of my mother’s lost causes. She collected them the way other women amassed Readers Digest condensed books or monthly china thimble collections. There was no plan or thought, lost causes just arrived on a fairly regular basis and were quietly absorbed. There was the year she invited the entire Back Pew to Christmas lunch. The Back Pew were a mismatched group of occasional communicants at St Peter’s, the church my mother had also taken on as a lost cause. The Back Pew would arrive in dribs and drabs during the first hymn, stayed for communion and then walked back up the aisle and straight to The Kings Head next door to continue their imbibing whilst everyone else shuffled quietly back to their pews. Determined to inject a little more colour into their lives my mother managed to collar them and extract their assorted life histories. All they had in common seemed to be a liking for copious quantities of alcohol, a faint need to cover all the bases (hence the appearance at church every now and then) and no family. So we shared our Christmas lunch with Henri elderly violinist from Chartres, Maggie ex-professional female wrestler who brought her own vodka and mixed it with everything from lemonade to the port my father carefully poured into the special crystal glasses (Maggie decanted hers into her water glass and topped it up with Budgens Own Brand Vodka 40%) and Bob. I don’t know anything about Bob, he arrived silently, ate dinner with us silently and left silently. We found a box of Milk Tray on the hall table after he had gone. He even left his presents silently.
Doofus presented as a small Labrador puppy. Six months later it was quite clear he was no puppy but fully grown and entirely untrained, his size being not the result of age but dubious parentage. There were few local cats who had not had the pleasure of an up close and personal meeting with Doofus and few cat owners who had not had a run in with my mother over said meeting. My mother always won and Doofus continued his takeover of our small suburban backwater. I gave up on the book, I was bored with flicking ahead for the next sex scene anyway and wondered whether the contraband copy of Valley of the Dolls hidden in my knicker drawer might prove more instructional.
“Come on monster.” Doofus bounced round my heels and I tripped over the abandoned hosepipe as we headed towards the kitchen.
“Amaaaaanda!” Doofus scarpered and I sighed, wishing I could follow him.
“Aunty Dorothy,” I whimpered back as I was enveloped in a cloud of Rive Gauche. Eventually I was released and then subjected to ritual scrutiny and observations on my growth.
“Leave her alone Dorothy, she’s a teenager, they grow, that’s what happens. Here have a G&T; I’ve given up anything with water as my contribution to the shortage. Start buying shares in Victoria Wine, I’m keeping them in business.” She poured a huge slug of Gordon’s into a tumbler with one hand whilst holding the fridge door open with her hip and grabbing a pre-sliced chunk of lemon and a handful of ice from the icebox. She was like a dancer; well practised, the movements were precise, sparse and accurate. No unnecessary energy was expended, which in the current heat was no bad thing. I grabbed a bottle of lemonade and escaped upstairs to the cool of my bedroom and Jacqueline Susan.
Dorothy had been at school with my mother, they had the kind of history that transcends a diametrically opposite lifestyle. God knows they had little enough in common today, but there was something that tied them together, some kind of friendship DNA. Dorothy had apparently left school with a clutch of outstanding results and announced she had had enough of education and was going off to have fun. Which is precisely what she did for the next twenty or so years. She nannied for the rich and glamorous in Beverly Hills, worked her passage on luxury charter yachts in the Caribbean and spent a couple of seasons in Barbados building up a chic beach bar for the bright young couples who were looking for night out somewhere a bit grittier but not so gritty as to dirty their sparkly new Courrèges or Pucci. As I grew older there were postcards from St Moritz, of fairytale castles that I didn’t believe could exist in real life. There was a brief hiatus when I was about seven when she settled down in Brighton with a chap who wrote Biology text books. Settle down is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. I was forbidden to visit and there were murmured conversations about the kind of “parties” she and Cyril held. But like everything else that too ended in tears. Dorothy was incapable of sticking at anything, jobs or boyfriends, they all had a very limited lifespan and their death was always celebrated or commiserated at our house. While my friends had grandparents or cousins come to visit for their allotted ten days over Christmas or the summer, we had Dorothy arrive for an indeterminate time. She came with drama, frequently with tears and almost never when my father was home. This summer was no different.
I escaped upstairs. I’m a fast reader. I romped through Ms Susan with a practiced eye. I dispatched whole chapters of uninteresting descriptive prose in my search for the nuggets of gold that would lead to the kind of glamorous lifestyle to which I aspired. Downstairs I could hear the clinking of glasses as Dorothy and my mother moved out onto the patio. There was a heavy scraping noise, presumably the loungers being pulled under the shade of the apple tree. Snatches of conversations floated upwards. I gave up on the book and lay back on my bed. The sheets were cool and I stripped down to my bra and knickers and tried to eavesdrop.
“I couldn’t possibly do anything else, as soon as I got the letter I had come here.”
“You’re over exaggerating as usual. It’s not that serious, it’ll blow over.”
“Really? I think I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been there before, several times.”
There was a pause in the conversation, I heard the ice cream van jingle from across the park.
“There’s precious little difference.”
“Women are more practical, more sensible and understand things better.”
“Ha! When you’ve met as many wronged wives as I have you can reconsider that statement.” I had to agree with Dorothy on that one. After Cyril she had a very short fling with Charlie a nightclub owner from London. I met him once when Mum and I went to London to buy my bridesmaid’s dress. We had lunch together in a restaurant overlooking the Thames. It was called the White Elephant on the River, I remember because my mother thought the name was stupid. I thought it was unspeakably glamorous. While my mother and Dorothy were shown to their seats at a huge round table covered in at least three thick white tablecloths and more glasses and cutlery than we even owned, Charlie took me up to the bar, sat me on a barstool, introduced me to William the barman and instructed him to create a new cocktail for me. It had real strawberries, pineapple, coconut, lemonade and some pink stuff. He called it a Magical Mandy. I think that was probably the first time I fell in love, certainly nobody ever invented a cocktail for me ever again. When Dorothy’s affair came to its predictable end Dorothy fled to Mum to recover, swiftly followed by Charlie’s wife who screamed at her from the gate while Dorothy sobbed in the back garden. It was very exciting.
“Amanda! Come and help put supper together. Dorothy’s going to be staying for a few days.”
I dressed and sloped downstairs. Mum was waiting at the bottom with her purse. “Can you pop round to Bells and get some more milk?” I slipped the lead around Doofus’ neck and reluctantly walked down the road.
We settled into a routine of sorts. I got up early and took Doofus for a walk before the rest of the local pets had surfaced. It was easier for everyone that way and he even got a brief run off the lead in Empire Park. We often spotted a Great Dane taking a middle aged woman for a stroll but we kept our distance. Me out of fear that Doofus would disgrace himself and by association me, and Doofus presumably out of fear that the Great Dane might consider him breakfast. I’ve no idea why the Great Dane avoided us, but he never let his owner anywhere near us and that suited everyone down to the ground. I stopped at the corner shop on the way home. Mrs Singh and I had a brief conversation about her son’s progress as a rock musician, the weather, the lack of rain and the appearance of stand-pipes in Devon, where she had a sister. I purchased The Times for my mother and The Telegraph for Dorothy. Depending on how much I had managed to filch from the housekeeping purse my mother kept in the kitchen drawer I sometimes got an ice-pop, the more lurid the colour the better. Even at eight in the morning it was hot.
Despite the heat Dorothy and my mother settled down to boiled eggs (water saved each day for the next and topped up only when essential, they could keep the egg pan going for several days) with toast (white bread only, butter not margarine) and thick disgusting coffee (which I now realise was to help the G&T hangovers) and most importantly of all the crosswords.
“Like water vessel, number dipped in river?” My mother chewed the end of her pen (pencils were for wimps). “Five letters, U something, something, A, something, L”.
“Urnal, pass the milk.” My mother passed the coffee, filled in the missing letters and continued to nibble her pen.
Breakfast finally over they moved out onto the loungers, this was when it all got a bit more interesting. It was time to discuss The Problem. I hadn’t worked out exactly what The Problem was. It was presumably A Man, it usually was, but other than that I was still pretty much none the wiser. It had taken me a couple of days to find the best place to position myself so that I could eavesdrop, sneak off for cold drinks and avoid being detected by either my mother or Doofus whose barking had a tendency to give me away. My bedroom was the most comfortable and convenient spot, I could sit on the windowsill directly above them but I lost too much of the conversation and Doofus wailed outside my door. The apple tree itself was perfect in terms of hiding place and ensuring I didn’t miss anything but clearly getting up and down was an immediate give away and it was far too uncomfortable for long term espionage. In the end I settled on the wall between our garden and that of Mrs Rossi next door.
Mrs Rossi was not Italian. She retained her broad Somerset accent, there was nothing Italian about her at all other than her late husband. Salvatore Rossi left his home in Cagliari in Sardinia to join Mussolini’s army in 1940. By 1941 he was living in a Nissan hut at POW Camp number 44 in Bridgewater, Somerset. The route had been circuitous taking in Libya, Egypt, South Africa, Liverpool and Acton. By the time he landed at Henry Peppin’s farm near Dulverton he was glad the travelling was over and settled in to milking and general farm duties with the same enthusiasm with which he had left his village in his khakis some eighteen months earlier. After a few months he developed a similar enthusiasm for Molly, Henry’s middle daughter. Molly was equally enthused and Henry astonished his family by allowing the romance to develop and sponsoring Salvatore to remain in the UK at the end of the war. Henry was a shrewd man. Salvatore was a hard worker, Henry had no sons. The farm prospered and Molly and Sallie retired comfortably. When Sallie died the grim pebble dashed Catholic church behind Mrs Singh’s shop was bursting. There were few who hadn’t brushed up against him at some point over the previous thirty years and the experiences were almost universally remembered fondly. Molly Rossi wore only black from the day of Sallie’s death. Whether this was in respect for his faith, family and tradition or the fact that her black outfits immediately helped her to stand out in a middle England suburb was never quite clear.
Molly lived in a neat bungalow built on a hole created by a stray Luftwaffe pilot desperate to offload his payload before heading home. Neat, twee and comparatively modern it stood out in stark contrast to the Edwardian semis surrounding it. Ours was one of the few detached houses in the street and unlike the majority of our neighbours who made do with flimsy wood slatting we had a good solid wall between our houses and an abundant rose hedge (the joint pride of my mother and Molly) between our gardens. If I slipped out the side door from the kitchen (or the utility as my mother liked to call it, but it really was nothing more than an adjunct to the kitchen, an aspiration of a utility room) I could climb up out of sight of the loungers on the patio and slide along the wall from the kitchen door to the apple tree. From there I could set up camp with my book (still Jacqueline Susann) an ice-pop and a cushion stolen from the long abandoned lounge (it was far too hot to sit inside) propped up against the huge branch of the apple tree which leaned over Molly Rossi’s garden. I was usually ready long before my mother and Dorothy. So by the time they arrived with what was left of the crosswords and a jug of iced tea (a throwback from a summer in Long Island the year before Cyril the Biology text book author) I was in a perfect position to catch up on the gossip.
“You are a fool Elizabeth.”
“Pot and kettle come to mind. I still have a husband.”
“Really? Where is he now?”
“Oh for God’s sake Dorothy don’t be so bloody.” I watched my mother take a deep drag on one of her cigarettes. I’d tried one at the beginning of the holidays; I’d thrown up over my best skirt and had to pretend I’d got food poisoning. I’d missed the Hawaiian pool party held at the corporation lido, apparently Theresa Malley got off with Steve Eddison. I hoped they both caught something painful and very itchy.
Daddy had been away for almost a month. It was “work” and he came back every now and then, but even I had to agree that it was easier when he wasn’t around. Mum and I had a routine, we knew what each other needed and wanted and we got on with life. When Daddy turned up it was all very exciting for a while but he did tend to get in the way and after a while he and Mum just yelled at each other and even threw the odd wine glass across the room. I had no idea then what Daddy’s work was and even now it is all a bit of a blur. But that was Daddy all over, a bit of a blur. He whizzed in, brightly coloured and exciting and then whizzed out again. Whoosh, blink and you missed him.
“Does he know?”
“Bloody stupid question.” Mum topped up her tea and fumbled for another Black Sobranie.
“Does he have any idea?
“Of course not, he’s hardly here anyway. I could dance naked with the Aga Khan and it wouldn’t even show as a blip on his radar.”
“When did you tell her?
“Last week, Amanda was over saying goodbye to Jane before she left for Cornwall. We met at the cafe in the park. I couldn’t go on any longer. The hiding, the pretending it was all normal when it wasn’t, it was all wrong. Oh it was terrible Dorothy. She just went pale, she didn’t say anything. She just looked at me and then got up and walked away.” I felt my heart slow, I could hear every beat, the slower it got the louder it became. Time paused. It wasn’t Dorothy who had been having an affair, it was my mother. My mother, my dependable if a little eccentric mother, had been having an affair. Dorothy hadn’t come to have her broken heart repaired she had come to repair my mother’s.
“And what about him? What does he know about your meeting?
“I’ve no idea. He’s been away with his son camping in the Chedder Gorge. He’s back next weekend.”
I glanced over the wall to see if Molly was listening in too. She wasn’t but I reckoned it was only a matter of time before she was out in the garden with her deckchair and her hearing aid turned up. I wriggled into a more comfortable position.
For a moment I wondered if that was it, show over. Dorothy didn’t ask any more questions. She took a deep breath as if she was about to say something very important, the life changing announcement that puts all things in their correct place at last. But she just closed her eyes and let the precious breath out again. I waited.
She returned to her crossword, only stopping to rearrange her sunglasses on her head and waft my mother’s smoke gently away from her eyes. My mother pretended to do likewise, staring at the newspaper on her lap, but I knew her heart wasn’t in it. Doofus prodded her with his nose and she gave an appearance of reluctance as she followed him into the kitchen but I could almost touch her relief as she escaped from Dorothy’s questions. Dorothy put her paper down and closed her eyes, but not before looking up right at me. She gave no hint that she could see me at all, she stared right through me. In the late morning heat I shivered.
The next day was no better, nor the day after that. We existed in the heat, suspended like a lump of pork in those awful aspic jellies my grandmother used to make us eat for Sunday High Tea. Unable to move, and only just able to see through the haze of the endless heat. Doofus and I set off earlier and earlier each day for our morning circuit of Empire Park in order to escape the relentless sunshine. I began to wonder what it would be like to live in an igloo, or at the very least to feel a cool breeze. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I were ten years older and had a handsome boyfriend to whisk me off to some glamorous beach on the French Riviera. But I didn’t, it was me, Doofus and Harold Robbins. I wondered if my life was over before it had ever had a chance to begin. Dessicated in suburbia. It would look good on my tombstone I thought. The unrelenting sameness of every day was mind numbing.
“Big Ben’s stopped,” yelled my mother from the kitchen where she was replenishing the morning coffee. Dorothy hardly raised her eyes from her crossword.
“Good, it’s about time there was some peace and quiet in Westminster. Can they do anything about James Callaghan. Can’t bear the sound of his voice. I’d rather listen to that Thorpe chap squeak his way through the yellow pages.”
“For God’s sake Dorothy, it’s too hot for politics. Are you sure you want coffee, shall we go straight on to the iced tea?”
Dorothy didn’t bother to reply. Instead she called me over, well to be more precise, she looked at me and beckoned with a red tipped finger. “What are you up to today young lady? It must get jolly boring, not to mention uncomfortable on that wall all day. You must have a numb bottom by lunchtime.” I felt my cheeks defy me and turn an instant beetroot red. “Oh don’t mind me. You can sit and evesdrop all summer for all I care. But be careful.” And with that she picked up her pen, returned to the crossword and ignored me.
It took all the self control I had ever had to walk away rather than run. She might not have been looking at me, but I knew she could see me. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of seeing me squirm. But in reality Dorothy had ceased to notice that I existed. She was lost in anagrams and cryptic clues. She had been genuine in her warning and I paid it no attention.
By the time we make it back from the hairdressers it is getting late, my mother is getting tetchy and pulling things in and out of her handbag. It is years since there was anything of any value in there but she needs the prop. And why not? I could manage perfectly well with my phone, cash, credit card and keys shoved in a pocket, yet I own an impressive collection of bags. I am a bit of a bag snob. Apart from two Mulberries, one a present from my ex and one a present to me from me when said ex and I parted, I prefer not to have handbags with labels. I like a statement bag, preferably made by an obscure designer that only a few people know. It doesn’t have to be expensive (though expensive is perfectly okay) but it does have to be different and it does have to be good. I don’t do cheap. I have much the same approach to perfume and can’t bear the thought that somebody might recognise what I am wearing, or worse, be wearing the same one. I can be a little hard to buy presents for.
My mother mutters something unintelligible and throws a bag of mint imperials into the foot well where they join the half eaten Bounty from a few days ago. I shut my eyes to the mess and ease her out of the car and up the path. Our arrival coincides with that of the postman who now offers a late afternoon almost evening service, presumably one day to be marketed as a gesture to working families for whom the early morning service was an irritation.
It is a far cry from my fourteenth birthday, that Dorothy summer. I remembered racing downstairs before breakfast to find cards and packages scattered beneath the letterbox. My mother and Dorothy had been collecting and hiding them for days, throwing them on the floor just as Paul the postie deposited the phone bill and another reminder to share your bath with a friend and a dirty car was a patriotic car. Now I don’t so much dread the thud of post but I certainly don’t look forward to it. Nobody writes anymore, certainly not to me. The only handwritten envelopes I get are from the last few people who don’t use mail merge to address their Christmas cards. I should probably keep them; they’ll be worth a fortune one day.
I don’t recognise the postman, but he seems nice enough and says hello to Mum. I take the post and shove it in Mum’s bag as I struggle with the front door. After a rash of burglaries last summer I had been scared enough to fit uberlocks to all the doors and windows. In retrospect I doubt they would keep out even the most inept of burglars but they do a fine job in slowing me down. The anonymous postman keeps Mum occupied while I battle with Messrs Yale and Banham. The door swings open reluctantly and I release the postman from Mum’s ferocious grasp.
It doesn’t take long to get Mum into the sitting room with a glass of wine and the television. I am a great fan of the television, it is a fine machine and doesn’t just babysit children. I collapse at the kitchen table with the post and the rest of the wine whilst the television chunters along next door. I have no idea what’s for supper and hope that Ed has left some eggs before he disappeared off camping in the Lake District. Teenage boys are not renowned for their forethought, but Ed is better than most and can even be relied upon to take his grandmother to the supermarket and still keep his purchases pretty much on list.
The post is unremarkable. Ed has left eggs and using the contents of the bottom of the fridge I can probably pass off the combination as a Spanish omelette. I can’t imagine any self-respecting Spaniard eating it, but Mum and I are less discerning. I chop a soggy red pepper and listen to Eddie Mair on the radio. Mum brings in her empty glass; she sits down at the kitchen table and deftly skins a clove of garlic without a knife. She tilts her head towards her glass and I refill it. Silently we work together, companiable at last. I don’t trust her with a knife and I do all the chopping but she rummages in the fridge and finds some coriander, left over boiled potatoes and broccoli. The latter is probably a little unusual but we throw it in anyway. Mum is a little heavy handed with the Tabasco, but I’m used to that. She has always had a penchant for chillis. Her chilli con carne was famous. Not many mothers veered away from the meat and two veg variety of tea when I was a child. Mum made colourful pasta dishes, could bone a chicken and stuff it with spicy couscous when most people thought couscous was a notifiable disease. But she was most famous for her chilli. She didn’t use mince, she instructed the butcher precisely on the steak she wanted and how it was to be cut. She used to add chocolate, real chocolate and lots of chilli. She acquired the recipe on one of the rare occasions she accompanied Daddy on a business trip. I was farmed out to the grandparents for safekeeping and she came back from South America with a sheaf of recipes and a box full of weird and exciting jars of herbs and dried vegetables. Apparently real chilli con carne had to have chocolate in it. She never shared the recipe but I’ve always added chocolate too and I have to agree it does give it an unusual depth of flavour.
Mum lays the table. She is particular about how this should be done and I have, since I was a child, found it easier to let her get on with it rather than do it myself and be corrected with heavy sighs and crashing of incorrect cutlery. We finally sit down and for a moment I can forget the last ten years. For a second we are two women sharing a meal, we eat, we smile, we sip our wine and then the veil slides down again. I exchange the knife for a spoon and chop up Mum’s omelette. While she chases broccoli and egg around her plate I start on the post. Most of it goes straight into the recycling bin unopened. I wonder if I can apply to the Guinness Book of Records as the recipient of the most Boden catalogues in a six month period. I rip through the last three envelopes. One well disguised begging letter from the Red Cross, a circular from the bank and a letter from Messrs Aikten and Rumsbottle. It is only chance that stops me throwing it in the recycling with the Red Cross letter. I catch sight of the words Dorothy Cameron, but not before Mum sees them too. God knows what links she is making in her mind, but she knows what she saw and her hand darts out and snatches the letter. She looks it up and down, but the veil is too thick and she hands it back to me.
I don’t think she has a clue about the contents. To be honest I am still not quite sure myself. Well that’s not true, I can read. I know what the words say. But I don’t know what they mean. The Dorothy Summer was a long time ago. I don’t know that either of us wants to remember it, even if we both can. Mum has the advantage over me, her memory is more selective than most. I can remember every single day from the moment Dorothy arrived until the very end.
I swear the sun was brighter every day. I turned over to face the wall and pulled the sheet over my head. It was pathetic at blocking out the sun but anything heavier was too hot. I gave up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. My bedroom was completely inappropriate for somebody who was about to turn fourteen. Good God I was old enough to leave school in a couple of years and I still had a dolls house and Laura Ingalls Bloody Wilder on the shelf. I gave myself twenty four hours to turn my room into something more appropriate for a teenager. Better start with getting the dog walk out of the way. I pulled on yesterday’s shorts and a clean tee-shirt.
Doofus waited, not so patiently, as I got the lead and rummaged around for wherever I had last left the front door key. I used to have to wear it on a pink ribbon around my neck. Last year was perhaps my most embarrassing summer. I had a crush on Peter Jennings and was desperate to impress. A large gold Yale key dangling from an electric pink ribbon had zero pulling power. Mum and I had plenty of rows that summer and I managed to lock myself out a lot. This year I had graduated to a key ring but now had a sneaking nostalgia for the pink ribbon. I could never find the key ring.
Mum had left her housekeeping purse by the phone so I nicked 20p plus the legit money for the newspapers. We followed our usual route along Carlyle Drive and then took the Cresta Run (so called for its brilliant sledging potential) down to Empire Park. Great Dane and Owner were already in position on the other side so I reckoned it was safe to let Doofus off. I could hear the drone of a moped in the distance. Everybody was allowed to ride them, everybody except me. Even Marie Spence, the soppy girl who lived the other side of the Pembridge Estate was allowed to ride her brother’s and she wasn’t even going to be fourteen until November. My mother flatly refused on the grounds of everything she could think of from the illegality of it, to safety and the mess it would make in the front garden. The front garden was an arid yellow desert for crying out loud. A moped would probably be an attractive feature, distracting viewers from the desiccated remains of the geraniums so lovingly planted by my father on his last visit home. Oblivious to the drought warnings splashed across the newspapers he had driven across town to the new garden centre which had opened with a flourish the previous summer enticing suburban gardeners with promises of floral abundance. Whilst everyone else queued up with boxes of self assembly garden tables and dragged the last remaining deck chairs out to their Volvos and Granadas (depending on which side of the Pembridge Estate they lived) my father and I ferried out box after box of bright red geraniums, all destined to shrivel and die under the draconian drought laws and my mother’s preference for roses.
I hadn’t been paying attention and Doofus had taken advantage and disappeared across what remained of the boating pond towards the cafe. At half past eight in the morning it wasn’t open yet but the bins were unemptied and provided superb opportunities for foraging. Doofus was working his way through a soggy bag of chips which he would no doubt regurgitate later in the morning. I dragged him away by the collar and slipped the lead over his head. Doofus made one last lunge for the chips and I swear I saw the Great Dane stick his tongue out at him as we headed over to Mrs Singh’s. I bought myself a King Kong lolly, which was a mistake because it didn’t taste a bit like a banana and was really rather vile. I made a mental note to stick to ice pops or Fabs. By the time I got home Mum and Dorothy were in their usual spot on the patio. I left the papers on the table Mum had dragged outside and went upstairs to turn my bedroom into something worthy of a teenager.
Intending to start with a tidy up before the big clear out I sat at my desk and moved around the revision that hadn’t been moved since the end of the summer term some three weeks earlier. Bits of conversation wafted up from below. I was desperate to eavesdrop but was cautious after Dorothy’s warning. I swept the dead ladybirds off the windowsill and sat down to listen.
“There’s another letter.”
“Pretty much. I’m heartless, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve ruined her life.”
“Leaving her life aside for a moment, what have you done to yours?”
“God knows.” I heard her draw deeply on her cigarette. Neither of them spoke. I flicked a ladybird out of the window. It went further than I expected and I flicked a few more, it wasn’t as if there was a shortage.
Suddenly there was activity below. Dorothy jumped off her lounger.
“Come on; let’s have a picnic, a day out. There’s bugger all to do here and I’m fed up of wilting under this bloody tree.”
So we did. I buttered a loaf of Mother’s Pride; Dorothy raided Mrs Singh’s cold cabinet. It wasn’t up to her cosmopolitan standards but she managed to find electric pink ham, gherkins and something marketing itself as scotch eggs. I added a bottle of Tizer and the remains of the fruit bowl.
It turned out to be a surprisingly cheerful lunch. Whatever they were drinking was clearly far more potent than my Tizer, and we became sillier and gigglier by the minute. The park was already busy when we arrived. There was no chance of a spot under a tree so Mum paid for deckchairs by the bandstand and dragged them into the shade. Several old ladies tutted as she interrupted the Gilbert and Sullivan medley, but she and Dorothy were past caring and practically whooped as they collapsed into their chairs dropping bags of food around them. Spending an afternoon with two tipsy middle aged women might not have been high on my wish list, but it turned out to be quite good fun in the end. We played backwards I Spy; the kind where you mustn’t be able to see the thing you are thinking of and some weird card game where the loser had to have their nose smudged in soot, Dorothy had a cork in her handbag and we used that. It never occurred to us that it was a bit odd to have old wine corks littering one’s handbag. We abandoned the deck chairs and lay back on what was left of the grass giggling hopelessly, our faces covered in soot whilst Doofus hovered up the last of the egg mayonnaise. Mum reached out and grabbed my hand and pulled me up, Dorothy followed suit and we were in the middle of the first round of a particularly silly game of Ring a Ring a Roses when somebody cleared their throat behind us.
Like a cobweb in a high wind the thread holding us together disappeared.
“Elizabeth?” The thread took the sunlight with it as it broke. The sun was still in the sky but the all the warmth and brightness disappeared. They slipped into the gouges in the hard, drought ridden ground. We looked round, our faces still smudged with soot. A woman was looking down at us, backlit by the sun. She smiled, but I could see the ice in Dorothy’s eyes as she smiled back. Mum was still, very still.
“Cara.” Bloody hell, were they going to spend the rest of the day exchanging names. I looked from Mum to the woman. They managed to avoid each other’s eyes without actually looking away. Suddenly the soot and the silly games seemed just that, silly. Mum and I wiped our faces with the backs of our arms, Dorothy stood up, defiant and black nosed. She held out her hand, sticky with ice lolly.
“Dorothy. I don’t think we’ve met, but I’m sure you’ve heard as much about me as I have about you. Terrible I hope. I have a reputation to consider.” Her words slurred. I’d never seen anyone drunk before. I thought I had, but they had just been cheerfully, or even miserably tipsy. Dorothy was meanly drunk. My mother put her hand on her arm, but it was a futile gesture and Dorothy shook it off like one of the ladybirds that I had flicked out of the window. She began to speak again but the new woman, Cara, stopped her. She didn’t say anything she just looked, not at Mum, not at Dorothy, but at me. She drank me in. I waited for her to spit me out again, but she didn’t. She inspected me, like a patron considering the work of a protégé she rolled her eyes up and down me looking for imperfections and misuse of colour. It was hard to tell whether she liked what she saw. She ignored Dorothy and when she was finished with me she returned her gaze to my mother. The look she gave her was more inquisitive as if she wasn’t entirely sure who she was or who she was meant to be. It was the first time I remembered seeing Mum on the back foot. The first time she didn’t have the upper hand.
Around us families picnicked, children played rounders and dogs sniffed around crisp packets. Somebody had brought a radio and a couple were openly snogging. The woman’s long yellow sundress rode up her thighs as Elton John and Kiki Dee warbled from the box next to them. The sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees gave her legs a dappled look. I stared at them to avoid looking at Mum or the strange woman. Something was terribly wrong, but nobody seemed to have noticed except me. I wanted to jump up and scream, but instead my brain became caught in an endless loop of “Don’t go breaking my heart.”
Eventually it was Dorothy who spoke. “Just leave her alone.” She spoke more kindly now. “Stop sending the letters, it doesn’t help.” She flicked a letter across the no mans’ land between them. The woman flinched as if Dorothy had gone to hit her. She stepped back, mumbling something and then put her hand to her mouth and turned and stumbled away, disappearing into the haze.
Despite Cara’s unexpected fascination with me I knew that this wasn’t about me. I slipped into the background as my mother and Dorothy picked up the rubbish around us. The sun was still shining but the picnic was over. The letter lay on the parched grass but nobody seemed to notice it. I picked it up and slipped it the back pocket of my shorts and followed my mother and Dorothy as they silently retraced their steps back home again.
We spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around the garden. There wasn’t much to do; the weeds were just as badly affected by the drought as my mother’s precious roses. But displacement activity is good therapy and Dorothy was determined to keep my mother, and by default me, busy. The washing up water from breakfast was carefully retained and once the sun started to cool I was sent out to share it amongst the thirsty plants. I transferred the grimy water into a watering can, Doofus followed me. Job finished I didn’t really want to go back inside. Dorothy and my mother were finishing off the crosswords and the gin. After hanging out the washing and reorganising two kitchen cupboards my mother seemed to have put the afternoon’s events behind her, but the atmosphere was charged and I felt out of place, and very out of my depth. Suddenly thirteen didn’t seem so grown up after all.
I sat on the grass and contemplated the rest of my life, or at least the rest of the summer. Jane wasn’t due back from Cornwall until the day after tomorrow. There was nothing to do and nobody to do it with. Mum suddenly wasn’t the person I thought she was, I was confused and there was nobody to talk to. Doofus rested his head on my arm, well apart from a dog. I rolled over to tickle his tummy and something scratched my back. I took out the letter that Dorothy had flung across the grass at Cara. Leaning up on my arms I began to read. It wasn’t complete, there was only one page, and the writer had only used one side. Mum must have hated that; she couldn’t bear waste of any kind. She kept old envelopes for shopping lists, cut up rubber gloves for elastic bands (those were the days before the post office was on mission to cover the country in red elastic bands for free) and worst of all when I was little she used to cut the toes out of shoes when I grew out of them and turn them into sandals.
The writing was neat, italic and written in a proper ink pen. I was impressed.
“….you are lying. Nothing, not one single word of what you said was true. You might be able to fool that superior friend of yours, but not me. The way you walk, the way you hold your head. You’ve got lust written all over your face. Don’t think I can’t see it…”
The wronged woman. Cara had come to wreak her revenge on my mother. I buried my face in Doofus’ soft velvety tummy.
It wasn’t long before somebody realised the letter was missing. Jane was back from Cornwall and I was curled up on the telephone seat in the hall while she went on about the surfers on the beach. I’d seen Hawaii Five O and I was insanely jealous. I shifted to get more comfortable and find a cooler bit of the wall to lean against. I’d been on the phone at least twenty minutes and although Mum didn’t know it was me who had called Jane and not the other way around that didn’t normally stop her tapping her watch and making disapproving faces when she thought I had been talking too long.
“For goodness sake, she only lives down the road. Put the phone down and go and talk to her in person. I can’t afford for you to waste money gossiping.” At this point she usually took the handset away and after telling Jane much the same thing, replaced it neatly in its cradle and shooed me out of the front door. Today, she ignored me and shuffled furiously through the post and newspapers piled in the window by the door.
“Gotta go. I’ll be over after lunch.” I slammed the phone down and darted upstairs. I knew exactly what she was looking for and I didn’t want her to find it in my room.
It was not a pretty sight. My attempts to upgrade my room into something worthy of a teenager had resulted in a disapora of possessions. Nothing was where it came from and nothing looked as if it had settled in its new home. The sheet began to move jerkily across my bed and onto the floor. Doofus finally appeared, his tail wagging furiously bringing the rest of the sheet with him.
“Where is it?” His tail wagged faster. In a mirror image of my mother I moved paper and stuff around in a hopeless attempt to locate the letter. Panic began to well up. If I couldn’t find it there was surely little chance that she could and with my room in the state it was in she was unlikely to venture too far in. On the other hand, even if she didn’t find it, one look at the chaos would bring the four horseman of the apocalypse upon my head. My mother could not stand mess. There was little option other than to tidy and find the letter at the same time. I sneaked downstairs and called Jane.
“Come over here,” I whispered. I decided against sharing the information that she would be spending the afternoon sorting through my collection of Pink magazines and Bay City Roller scrapbooks. Instead I tempted her with my willingness to listen to her undoubtedly farfetched stories of bronzed beach bums. She fell for it and promised to be over within the hour.
“Well you were the one who threw it at her in the first place.” My mother stabbed her knife into a jar of chutney and slapped great chunks of dark brown goo over a cheese sandwich. Dorothy sat across from her at the yellow Formica table and sipped on a cold drink. She made no effort to help with lunch and didn’t seem particularly concerned about the loss of the letter. The newspapers lay abandoned and I could see that my mother was twitchy about the lack of order. If it was lunchtime then the table should be cleared of everything other than that required to make or eat lunch. Newspapers, pens and cigarette boxes did not fall into either of those categories. I removed the offending items and wiped the table down with a cloth, my mother visibly relaxed. Dorothy remained oblivious.
“Does it matter? It’s only a letter. It’s probably on its way to some tip alongside yesterday’s papers and a couple of hundred cans of Party Seven.” Presumably deciding that the topic of this conversation was unsuitable for me my mother declined to reply and took out her anger on the remaining sandwiches. Dorothy caught my eye and smiled. For one horrifying moment I thought she knew, but she was just trying to be conspiratorial, friendly in the face of adversity.
We took our sandwiches outside. Dorothy opened a couple of bags of crisps, a rare treat. They were usually kept for social events. I grabbed a handful before my mother could object and climbed up on the wall.
“Come and sit at the table.”
“Let her be Elizabeth.”
My mother sighed and went inside for paper napkins and glasses. Dorothy rolled her eyes at me and I grinned back.
We never did find the letter. Jane and I made quite a good job of my room. By the time she left all outward signs of childhood had been hidden or thrown away. I kept the dolls house, some of the books and Pudding Bear but most of the rest went. I wasn’t a child anymore. I was almost a grown up. It was time to move on.
Something changed that day. There was an inevitability that only became clear with the benefit of hindsight. My mother lost her enthusiasm. I assumed it was the heat. We were all getting fed up and bored. Strangely Dorothy became more animated, as if whatever dreadful event had brought her here was now resolved and she was free to resume normal service. On this particular evening this resulted in taking us all out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. I had never had curry before, and suspected that despite her air of nonchalance, neither had my mother.
Unsurprisingly we were the only people in the restaurant. Few people chose to go out to dinner in the middle of week. Even fewer chose to go to a new fangled Indian restaurant with its dark interiors and heavily curtained windows when it was still almost seventy degrees outside. But Dorothy was in charge of dinner and she wasn’t much of a cook.
“You’ll love it,” she called as my mother locked the door and hurried down the street after her. The Star of India had been opened the previous year and I was fascinated by the menu in the glass box by the door and the strange but enticing smells that occasionally wafted past as I walked home from school. Jane had been there for her father’s fortieth birthday. It had been an unexpected choice for a celebration which had caused much discussion in the queue at the corner shop. Nobody seemed to think it odd to question why anyone would want to go out for an Indian meal in front of Mrs Singh. It was as if she didn’t count as Indian. Strictly speaking I imagine she was Pakistani but that was a subtlety lost on most of us.
So, even if my mother was suspicious I was quite excited. Dorothy led us in and we were shown to our table. If we had been wearing coats they would have been whisked away and reverently hung up, but in view of the weather my mother didn’t even have her “evening cardigan” on. The tables were covered in starched white tablecloths and the waiters wore black tunics with big brass buttons. It was unimaginably glamorous. Perhaps not quite in the same league as the White Elephant, but not bad for Middle England. I leapt onto the padded bench that ran all along the wall leaving my mother and Dorothy to the two chairs opposite, both held out expectantly for them. Another waiter brought a plate of giant crisps and little jars of strange looking jams or pickles. I sat on my hands and waited to see what Dorothy did.
“Two gin and tonics and a Coke please.” She smiled at me. Mum didn’t approve of Coke, lemonade was okay but there was something about Coke that she thought was a little risky, as if I might willingly be led away to the White Slave Trade if I imbibed too much. Three huge leather bound menus appeared. I took mine politely, opened it, looked at the unfamiliar words and promptly closed it again. My mother did not open hers at all. “Shall I order?”
“That would be sensible.” My mother was determined to be as miserable as Dorothy was light hearted. Dorothy showed me how to break off bits of the strange crisps and dip them in the chutneys. One was so bitter it made my eyes water, but I didn’t show it. We giggled and ate and then metal bowls of food began to arrive. Strange, exciting foods that I had never tasted before. It was the best meal I had ever had, even my mother’s gloom began to lift and by the time we left the restaurant, so full we could hardly face the walk home, we were all in high spirits.
One of my abiding memories of that summer was the noise in the evening. Because it was so hot, people stayed outside much longer into the night. I realise now that people drank a lot more as well, not the binge drinking of today, but certainly a lot more than they were used to. A couple of beers easily became four or five, or in my mother’s case several large gins. Impromptu parties took place and we discovered barbecues and al fresco eating. So it didn’t really register on anyone’s radar when we heard the sirens or the shouting and noise from across the park. Dorothy tutted and my mother tapped her arm. “We were young once, they’ll learn.” She turned the key in the lock and we collapsed onto the sofa in the cool dark sitting room.
I was just about to go up to bed before I was sent there when the phone rang. My mother had put on the kettle. I can still hear the clink of the spoon in the cup as Dorothy picked up the phone. She didn’t say very much, I saw her nod and after a moment she thanked the person at the other end and replaced the receiver very carefully.
“Good night Amanda.” She looked pointedly at me. For a split second I thought she might have let me stay if I had been defiant. But she inclined her head, only an imperceptible amount, but enough to make it quite clear that I was in the way and she walked into the kitchen.
I lay in bed for hours trying to hear what they said, to find out what the phone call had been about. But they were both very quiet. Eventually I heard gentle footsteps as Dorothy came upstairs. I never heard my mother come up. I think she spent the entire night sitting out looking across the garden at the park.
Doofus woke me for his walk. Together we crept into the kitchen. I half expected to see my mother still sitting there but she must have come upstairs in the end. Their cups were neatly washed and stacked on the drainer.