Authors: Annie Lyons
‘Ah well, it’s their age you see. They like to push the boundaries,’ says Rachel, feeling defensive.
‘Hmm,’ agrees Rosie uncertainly. ‘And how are you my dear? How are you finding it all? It must be tough and perhaps not the most stimulating. I mean, it’s not like they ever want to go and see a film at the NFT, or take in the latest exhibition at the V&A, is it?’
‘Actually, I did take them to the V&A once,’ says Rachel irritated.
‘Did you, darling?’ says Rosie not listening, fitting some tiny pink stilettos onto the Barbie™ doll that Lily has left, limbs askew on the table.
‘I did, yes.’ Rachel remembers a miserable day trailing the kids around London with Will declaring everything to be boring and whining because the Natural History Museum had been shut and he couldn’t visit his beloved dinosaurs. Lily and Alfie screamed the place down because they both had streaming colds and it was raining. ‘But you know it’s very difficult – with the pushchair.’
‘Quite, quite,’ agrees Rosie still not listening, preening Barbie’s hair. ‘Well, I admire you stay-at-home mums. I could never have done it. I like my own space and the thought of childbirth, my goodness! However do you manage it?’
Rachel laughs. ‘I think it’s called an epidural.’
‘Ah yes and of course the gas and air must make it all worthwhile, but it’s a bit too barbaric for me,’ says Rosie shivering and pulling her wrap tightly around her shoulders. Lily swaggers in and stands very close to Rachel as if waiting to be invited into the conversation.
‘How’s my little Picca-lily then?’ coos Rachel tickling her under the chin and smoothing her hair.
‘Mu-um! Stop it,’ orders Lily, swatting her hand away like an impatient cat flicking away a fly.
‘Sorry darling, it’s just that I’ve missed you. Did you miss me?’
Lily screws up her face as if trying to work out a tricky algebra equation. ‘Sort of. Mum?’
Lily eyes Rosie who is smiling brightly in full-on auntie mode. Lily grimaces at her and turns back to her mother, leaning in and whispering in a mock-quiet voice. ‘Why does Auntie Rosie smell like that?’
‘Pardon darling?’ asks Rachel trying not to betray her panic.
‘She smells. I asked Granny what the smell was and she said “a tart’s boudoir”. What does that mean?’
‘Here we are,’ says Edward bringing in a tray of drinks.
Rachel breathes a sigh of relief. ‘Thanks, Dad. Lily, why don’t you show me these wonderful cakes?’ she says.
‘Kitchen, Lily. Now!’
Lily harrumphs from the room and Rachel fires a quick embarrassed smile at Rosie who ignores her and starts talking to Edward.
Diana is interrogating Steve in the kitchen. ‘But it’s such a long way, Steve.’
‘I know Diana, but they do have things called trains and planes and to be honest, we’ll be able to afford a bigger place with room for you to stay as long as you like.’ Rachel gives him a look. ‘Within reason of course.’
But Diana is not going to be pacified. ‘But I’ll never see my little monkeys.’
‘Mum, it’s not decided yet,’ says Rachel. ‘We’re going to go up and have a look next month. You should come!’
‘What?’ chorus Steve and Diana.
‘Yes, why not? We could make a weekend of it. Get Emma and Martin along too.’
Steve looks concerned.
‘Well, why not?’
‘Because we need to go and decide for ourselves.’
‘Oh-ho, you think I’m going to interfere, don’t you?’ says Diana offended.
‘Not at all,’ fibs Steve. ‘It’s just that it’s got to be our decision.’
‘Yes, but we’re your family. We want to be involved.’
Steve looks defeated and Rachel feels bad for suggesting it. ‘Maybe Steve’s right. Maybe we should just go on our own and then you could all come to help us look at houses if we do go.’
‘But then it would be too late!’
‘Too late for what?’ asks Edward coming in at just the wrong moment.
‘Oh Edward, can you try to talk some sense into these two. They want to move to the ends of the earth and they won’t listen to a word I say!’
‘Oh let them make up their own minds, Diana. Stop trying to interfere,’ says Rosie interfering.
Diana looks at Rosie with murderous intent. ‘And who asked you?’
‘I’m just saying, darling, that you do have a tendency to interfere, isn’t that right, Teddy? Rachel?’
Edward and Rachel look at the floor.
‘I don’t hear anyone disagreeing,’ says Rosie with malicious glee.
Diana does not speak, and Rachel notices that her neck is almost puce, indicating that she is apoplectic with rage.
‘Maybe it’s time to eat?’ says Edward quickly.
‘And maybe Rosie would like to play mother on this occasion. I’m not hungry,’ says Diana in a quiet voice. She walks out of the room, puts on her shoes and leaves through the front door, slamming it on her way out.
‘Well,’ says Rosie after a pause. ‘Someone’s a bit tense today. Shall we eat?’
Rachel looks at her father. ‘Shouldn’t one of us go after Mum?’
Edward looks a little unsure. ‘No, it’s fine. Let her cool down a bit.’
They sit themselves at the table and lunch passes in the usual distracted chaos of trying to eat a meal with small children present. Rachel is grateful for the distraction of having to cut up Alfie’s broccoli when Rosie launches into another soliloquy about how wonderful Emma is.
‘I suppose you regret giving up work, do you? I mean your brain must feel like a bit of a mush now, Rachel?’ she says.
Steve looks at Rachel fearful of a response as sharp and poisonous as a scorpion’s attack.
‘Well, it’s true, it’s not as dynamic or grown-up a world as working at the agency, but I decided it’s what I should do and they aren’t so bad.’ She ruffles Alfie’s hair. ‘To be honest, I have bad days with this job just as I had bad days with the other one, but it’s the right job for me at the moment. Anyway, Will’s going to give me a promotion soon, aren’t you darling?’
‘What’s a promo-shon?’ asks Will, failing to see any humour.
‘Well, I think you’re an absolute saint. I’m far too selfish to give up my lifestyle for a life of domestic thrall. I think it’s marvellous.’
Rachel ignores the patronising tone and smiles at Steve, who gives her a small thumbs-up. Rosie spends the rest of the meal talking to Edward, laughing and teasing and patting his hand. They hear the front door open and the children, like Pavlov’s dogs, register this as a cue to leave the table and run into the hall.
‘Granny! Granny! Granny!’ they shout.
‘Ah, the wanderer returns,’ says Rosie with no note of warmth. Rachel gets to her feet.
‘You stay here. I’ll go,’ says Edward.
Rachel follows him out and herds the children back into the dining room. Lily and Alfie are smothering their grandmother with kisses and follow Rachel reluctantly. On her way out of the lounge, Rachel turns to see her father wrap her mother in his arms as she starts to sob. They finish the meal and retire to the conservatory. Rosie immediately slumps into a comfortable chair and falls asleep, her mouth wide open, snuffling and snoring like a piglet. Lily and Alfie watch and giggle with delight, and Rachel doesn’t scold them.
Edward returns and announces, ‘Granny’s just going to have a little rest upstairs. You’ve worn her out, you rotters. Now, who wants to try these cakes?’
The small people chorus their approval and rush to the kitchen followed by Rachel, Steve and Edward. Steve dishes up thick squares of biscuit and raisin goo, and Rachel’s father opens the back door.
‘Just going to check on the greenhouse.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ says Rachel.
Any warmth from the day is fading fast as the sun starts to melt into a pale yellow colour. Rachel wraps her cardigan tightly around her and follows her father up the path under the old apple tree, feeling worm casts and tiny hard apples under her feet. She has to stoop low to avoid scraping her scalp on the branches. She remembers summers with Emma under this tree: endless tea parties with bears and dolls, fairy banquets and balls with pretend coaches made from the bigger apples and acorn cup wine goblets from next door’s oak tree.
‘Clocks will be going back soon,’ says her father looking at the sky. Rachel murmurs in agreement. He taps the greenhouse thermometer. ‘Hmm, not too bad but I reckon there’ll be frost next week.’ Rachel wonders at her father’s ability to know this. He has the skill to sniff the air and tell which weather front is coming in next. Since the BBC introduced the red button, he is forever checking the hourly and five day forecast. It drives her mother potty, but Rachel sees how your world can shrink when you’re retired and this is his way of keeping busy. Her father uncovers some seed trays and prods them.
‘Better give these a bit of water. So, all square with Steve?’ he asks without further introduction.
‘I think so. We’re going to all go up to Edinburgh in a month or so, get the lay of the land, you know?’
‘Sounds very sensible.’
‘Will Mum be OK?’
‘She’ll be fine.’
‘And what about you?’
Her father looks up from his precious seedlings, almost surprised at the question. ‘Rachel, when you married Steve, you made a promise to stick by him through everything, didn’t you?’
‘So, this is one of those times. He’s your husband and you have three wonderful children and you must decide on your own what you should do.’
‘Yes, but –’
‘And, you mustn’t worry about Mum and me. We just want you to be happy. We’re fit and well and can come and visit you any time. OK?’
‘Good.’ He puts an arm around Rachel. ‘I’m very proud of you. You know that, don’t you?’ Rachel nods. ‘So is your mum. I know she finds it hard to say it, but she had a tough time growing up. Don’t be too hard on her, will you?’
‘I think you should tell Rosie that too.’
‘Yes, you’re probably right, but I’d rather spend my time looking after my three girls than worrying about Rosie and her sarcasm. She’s got her own issues, you know.’
‘Hmm, I can see that.’
Right on cue, the back door flies open and a voice rings out. ‘Teddy, look who’s here! It’s Emma and Marvin!’
Rachel snorts. ‘Marvin?’ She links arms with her father and they make their way back down the garden path into the house.
Emma is trying to wrestle her way out of her coat while Lily and Alfie cling onto a leg each shouting ‘Auntie Em! Auntie Em!’
Rachel laughs. ‘Hello, Em. And Marvin!’
‘Ha ha,’ says Emma. ‘Can you call off your monkeys please?’
‘Children!’ says Rachel with mock-fierceness. ‘Put your Auntie Emma down – you don’t know where she’s been!’
‘Goodness, what’s all this noise?’ says Diana, plodding down the stairs, her eyes red and her hair ruffled from sleep.
‘Dear me, Diana, don’t you own a hairbrush?’ inquires Rosie.
Diana ignores her and kisses Emma and Martin. ‘Steve, would you be a darling and pop the kettle on please? Come on, let’s go and sit in the lounge. Emma and Martin can tell us about their weekend. How are your parents, Martin?’
They all shuffle in. Rosie plonks herself down in Diana’s usual spot. Diana perches next to Emma and Martin on the sofa.
‘It was an amazing hotel, really lovely. Four poster beds, lovely grounds, great food.’
‘Ahh, is this the Clevedon?’ interjects Rosie.
‘That’s the one. Do you know it?’
‘Of course, darling. It’s my favourite weekend getaway, if you know what I mean.’ She smiles lasciviously.
Emma is mortified and says quickly, ‘Right, well actually, we’re thinking about it for the wedding.’
It’s Diana’s turn to look mortified. ‘The wedding?’
‘Yes, it’s really lovely, Mum, and we could all stay and have a wonderful weekend,’ she adds, her voice squeaking as she desperately tries to sound convincing.
‘But what about the golf club? Daddy was going to ask Philip.’
‘Oh for goodness sake, Diana. This is the Clevedon. It’s the height of sophistication. Emma is on the cusp of a glittering publishing career. She doesn’t want to have her wedding reception at some tired old suburban golf club full of red-faced fifty-year-olds and their sweaty wives. No offence, Teddy.’
Emma and Rachel look at their mother. She has gone very pale, and is looking at a painting on the wall; a watercolour of a Cornish beach with children paddling on the shore. They both know that this is the eye of the storm and definitely do not want to get caught in the tornado.
Rachel seizes the moment. ‘So, when are we going to go and buy this dress?’
‘Erm,’ Emma blurts uncertainly.
‘How about the week after next. You’ll have the kids, won’t you, Dad?’
‘Absolutely. Anything to help.’
‘Oh, how wonderful! A girl’s day out. I’d love to!’ trills Rosie.
Rachel and Emma exchange glances.
‘I’ll get onto Stella first thing tomorrow. She owes me a favour, so she’ll be only too happy to help. Wonderful, that’s settled then. Right, I must dash,’ she says checking her watch, ‘I’m having supper with Charles and Nigella tonight. She’s promised to give me the recipe for her Tiramisu. So divine. Not that I’ll be cooking it, but I shall ask little Maria to run it up for me.’ She air-kisses everyone in turn and as a parting shot says to Diana, ‘I hope you’re feeling better soon, my darling. You really look awful today.’
‘That bloody woman!’ roars Diana, when she is gone. ‘The cheek of it! And now she’s trying to hijack the dress shopping and my daughter’s big day, and –’
‘It’s all right, Mum, we’ll sort it,’ says Rachel.
‘And we haven’t even talked about Rachel’s move or your wedding venue. Oh, it’s all too much.’
‘Maaarm!’ Will’s voice is like a foghorn at the door.
‘Yes, William?’ replies Rachel.
‘Lily’s done a poo!’
‘It’s OK,’ says Lily coming into the room lifting up her skirt to reveal her bare bottom. ‘I’ve taken off my pants.’
‘OK,’ says Rachel, ‘and where are the poo and the pants?
Lily looks sheepish.
‘OK, OK, I put them in Auntie Rosie’s bag. I think she made Granny sad and she smells funny. Am I in trouble?’