Read Not Quite Perfect Online

Authors: Annie Lyons

Not Quite Perfect (4 page)

‘Simon, you’re as perceptive as a girl and yet such a loss to the female race!’ says Ella.

‘Ah but gorgeous girl, I am seriously high maintenance and would spend much longer in the bathroom than you. Apart from that and the aversion to fannies, you’d turn me in a heartbeat.’

Ella giggles like a schoolgirl. When Emma brought her mother here for lunch, Simon had her eating out of his hand and Diana kept trying to hook her up with David: ‘What a catch he’d be, Em!’ Emma didn’t have the heart to tell her, but luckily Martin came along and she had another prospective son-in-law to fix her hopes on.

‘Are we in full-scale “don’t be nice to me” mode?’ inquires Ella.

Emma looks up at Audrey Hepburn gazing down at them in that ‘yes, I am more beautiful that you could ever hope to be but I won’t make you feel bad about it and could actually be your best friend if we met’ way. ‘I think we are,’ Emma replies.

‘Right,’ says Ella feeling uncomfortable at the prospect of having to insult rather than hug her friend.

David appears with their order. ‘Here we go. I’ve given you a dollop of homemade vanilla ice cream as well. All on the house today girls.’

Ella sees Emma’s lip begin to wobble and ploughs in. ‘Who wants to publish that kind of fiction anyway?’

‘I do,’ says Emma. ‘Can’t you do any better than that?’

‘OK,’ says Ella unsure. ‘Well it won’t make us any money and will just be a pain in the arse to get off the ground.’

‘Now you sound like Joel.’

Ella looks crestfallen. Emma knows she’s just too lovely for this kind of thing. Then she surprises her. ‘Well you’re a crap editor and it will better off at another publisher.’

‘Ella, steady on!’

‘Sorry, you know I’m not much good at this game. How about “the author’s probably a tosser”?’

‘Actually, that might be true.’

Ella raises her eyebrows quizzically.

‘Well there are the rumours that he’s a ladies’ man and he did seem to enjoy watching me squirm during the pitch meeting.’

‘There you go then,’ smiles Ella, pleased to have found a negative for her friend to cling to. ‘That probably explains why he writes about relationships so well.’

‘Yes, all right. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me about how much better off I am without this man and his novel?’

‘Oh yes, sorry. Well it has its flaws.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well the title’s a bit girly.’

‘Girly?’

‘Yeah, I mean how many blokes want to read a book with a flower in the title?’

‘OK, it’s a viewpoint. What else?’

‘Erm, it’s too long?’

‘Too long?’

‘A bit’

‘Do you think Tolstoy would have created one of the masterpieces of fiction if his editor had told him
War and Peace
was a bit on the lengthy side?’

‘S’pose not. Do you think you would stop feeling sorry for yourself with a gob full of cheesecake?’

‘Good point.’

Despite a noble effort from Ella and two more pieces of cheesecake, Emma returns to the office with a heavy heart and even heavier stomach. Her phone shows two missed calls from Martin. She calls him back. ‘Lo?’ she says in a flat voice.

‘I take it we’re not celebrating this evening.’

‘Oh Martin, it was bloody awful.’

‘You poor thing. Do you want me and Charlie to go round and sort him out for you?’

‘It’s a kind offer but I’d rather have a hug.’

‘Now that won’t be difficult. Listen, I’ll cook you your favourite tonight and we’ll drown our sorrows. Spaghetti Bolognese is it, madam?’

‘Thanks darling. I love you.’

‘Love you too.’

After a morning of trying children, a nagging mother and cheery singing, Rachel is ready for something far stronger than a skinny latte. However, the coffee shop does offer the next best thing with its promise of grown-up interaction and sugar-infused treats for the children to prolong this grown-up interaction. Despite its coffee chain décor of dark wood tables, fat dark brown sofas and sepia pictures of corpulent grinning ‘roasters’ and couples enjoying the coffees of their lives, Rachel has a fondness for this place. She has come here since Will was a baby and knows most of the baristas by sight. Plus they welcome the mothers of the town and don’t balk at mashed muffin or spilt smoothie. They have circled their buggies like wagons, bought their coffees and the children are distracted with cake. Rachel is recounting the details of last night’s argument with Steve.

‘Edinburgh?’

‘I know!’

‘Wow!’

‘I know!’

‘It’s an amazing city, really beautiful.’

‘Yeah, OK but I’m wallowing in self-pity here and you’re supposed to be helping.’

‘Right, sorry. It is bloody far away too.’

‘Exactly.’

‘And the weather’s shit. Al went to uni there. He loved it but always says the weather was appalling.’

‘Precisely.’

Christa laughs. ‘You English and your weather. It’s a national passing of time, isn’t it?’

Rachel smiles. ‘I just don’t want to bring up my kids so far from my family. Sorry, Christa, that was a bit insensitive of me. You must miss your family terribly.’

‘It is OK, Rachel. To be honest, I do not really get on with my family, not since my mother’s sex change.’

Sue nearly chokes on her muffin. ‘Her what?’


Ja
, she was name of Wilhelmina and now she is just Wilhelm.’

Rachel notices Sue ram the rest of her muffin in her mouth to stop herself from laughing.


Mein
poor father did not see it coming. I think it was the shock
das
killed him.’

‘God, that’s awful Christa,’ says Rachel unsure of what else to say.


Ja
, that and the prostitute he was with the night he died. His
herz
was never very strong, you see.’

Rachel doesn’t dare make eye contact with Sue and pats Christa’s arm, trying to look earnest.

‘But I’m so sorry Rachel, you were saying about moving away from your family. Are you very close?’

Rachel thinks for a moment. She adores her father, her mother interferes but means well, and Emma is, well, her baby sister.

‘We’re as close as any family and I just don’t really want my kids missing out on the chance of those relationships.’

Sue has regained her composure. ‘What does Steve say?’

‘Well, he, erm,’ Rachel says, ‘actually, I don’t know. I kind of shouted him down and didn’t really ask him.’

‘Sorry, dear friend, I’m as ready as the next militant feminist to blame men for everything from global warming to why the plughole’s always full of hair, but even I think you need to talk this one through properly.’

‘I know, I know. You’re right. What would you do then, oh wise and rational one? Would you up sticks and go?’

‘No comparison, my friend. The family is all tucked up safe and sound in the North. I’d probably jump at the chance to be honest. I mean, London’s all right, but this south-east corner isn’t exactly Hampstead and you don’t really get the benefit of living in the big smoke with kids. I mean, when was the last time you went to the cinema or a gig?’

‘2003. Duran Duran reunion gig. Bloody fantastic. Anyway, I grew up round here and it’s not that bad. I bet more people get mugged in Hampstead.’

‘Maybe. I just don’t know if I want Joe to be a teenager around here. All those knives and gangs. I say think about it. Rationally,’ says Sue with a grin.

‘You’re supposed to tell me to stay,’ says Rachel crestfallen.

‘Rach, you know I’ll probably just take the kids to the pub and the bookies if you ever leave us, but all I’m saying is think about it.’

Christa is looking wistful. ‘It must be nice to have a husband who is there and who values your opinion. My Rudi is never here.’

‘He works for a drinks company, doesn’t he?’


Ja
, he is Russian and spends a lot of time in Moscow. I think he has a mistress.’

‘Christa, that’s terrible!’


Ja
, but I have my boy and Rudi would never forget his responsibility to his boy.’ She ruffles Roger’s ginger mop of hair.

‘Now, let’s have another coffee and perhaps some
kuchen
? My treat,’ Christa smiles broadly as if she has just given them details of a lovely holiday rather than a life in turmoil.

‘That poor woman,’ whispers Rachel while Christa is ordering for them.

‘I know. Fancy have a mum with a willy, called Willy!’

Rachel explodes with laughter. ‘Susan, you are going straight to hell!’

‘Yeah, baby and you’re right behind me!’

Chapter 4

Rachel stacks the plates from lunch into the dishwasher and listens, enjoying the sweet sound of silent children enjoying the chaotic capers of a talking dog and his hippy friends. Will has declared
Scooby Doo
to be a ‘baby’s programme’, but Rachel has noticed how he grasps one of Lily’s hands when the janitor dressed up as a ghost tries to spook the characters. She looks in on them now; three perfect forms with wide eyes and open mouths, rapt in a state of unbridled joy at the action playing out on screen, barely aware of her presence. Lily glances round.

‘Look, Mummy, Scooby’s going to have another snack!’

‘Oh my goodness! Is he? I bet that’s his third or fourth so far!’ says Rachel.

‘Fifth actually, Mum,’ corrects Will, ever hot on his facts.

‘Well enjoy, my darlings; Mummy is just going to do something on the computer.’

‘Can Alfie look too?’ asks Alfie, his eyes not leaving the screen.

‘In a bit darling, you watch
Scooby
with Lils and Will.’

Rachel takes her chance and sneaks away, tragically excited about a few precious moments away from motherhood, even if it’s just to pay some bills. She feels a mild thrill as the computer starts up and she connects to the internet, her mind filling with expectation at what she might find. It reaffirms that there is still a world out there, even if she often feels disconnected from it. It seems ridiculous that her house is filled with chaos and yet she feels so lonely and detached from it, like a character watching life play out before her. Rachel stares at the glowing screen, its possibilities welcoming her, inviting her in
: Do you feel lucky? Just click here, madam. Not sure what you’re after? Just punch in a couple of words and we’ll do the rest
.

She is methodical however and goes straight to her e-mails. She sends her sister a message asking about the book pitch and gets a response almost immediately: ‘Cock-up of the century. Too depressed to speak. Have just eaten my own body weight in cheesecake. How’s Alf?’

Rachel grins. She considers telling Emma about the possible move to Scotland but can’t face it. Instead she writes, ‘No lasting damage. Never mind about the book – bet it was a pile of crap anyway. Let’s go and drown our sorrows soon. R x’

‘Ok. Speak soon. Big hugs to you all. E x’

Rachel looks around her, trying desperately to remember what she is supposed to be doing on the internet. She finds her brain increasingly unable to retain this kind of information, like some kind of leaky bottle. The other day, she had stood in front of the fridge for a good five minutes before she remembered that she was looking for the cheese.

She glances to her right and notices that Steve has left his BlackBerry at home. She looks back at the screen trying to ignore the urge that is starting to overwhelm her. She looks back at Steve’s phone. Its blue flashing light seems to tempt and console her at the same time:
Go on, have a look. No one will ever know. It’s not as if you’re going to find anything incriminating anyway
.

Rachel shakes her head and turns back to the computer, desperately trying to remember what she was going to search for.

‘Oh bollocks!’ she mutters grabbing Steve’s phone and clicking it into life. She’s not sure why she’s looking or what she’s looking for, but almost without knowing it, she finds herself looking at Steve’s e-mails. One is from someone called Sam and is entitled ‘Coffee’.

Hmm
, thinks Rachel,
never heard of Sam before
. She clicks on the message feeling a bit sordid for checking up on her husband.

Hi Steve, are you still OK for coffee at 11 today? Need to talk about rolling out training on new IT system to your team. Thanks, Sam.

Rachel sighs, feeling guilty for even suspecting infidelity when all Steve is doing is having coffee with some geeky bloke from IT. Suddenly, her eye is caught by an e-mail entitled ‘Edinburgh’ and she has clicked on it before she’s had the chance to question her actions. The message, from Steve’s boss, Doug details, ‘our discussions regarding a possible move to start up a new office’ and was sent a month ago. Rachel is outraged. She reaches for her mobile and punches buttons until she finds Steve’s office number. It clicks straight through to his voicemail. Rachel flings the phone across the room with a growl of anger. Her heart is pounding and she has scared herself by flying off the handle so readily.

‘Mum?’ Lily appears at the door looking concerned, but not surprised by her mother’s outburst

Rachel is caught off guard. ‘Darling, sorry, Mummy was just –’

‘When’s Daddy coming home?’ asks Lily interrupting her.

Rachel is irritated by the question. ‘No bloody idea,’ she says.

Lily looks unimpressed. ‘Don’t swear, Mummy. It’s rude.’

Rachel watches her go, amazed that this bundle of morality is her child. Her mobile chirps into life and she sees the caller ID. She stabs the button and thrusts the handset to her ear, ready for a fight,

‘Rach? Everything OK?’

Steve’s calm voice seems to fuel her anger. ‘No Steve, everything is not OK. Tell me, when exactly did you know about this move to Edinburgh?’

‘Rach, can we talk about this later?’

‘No, I want to talk about it now.’

‘Rachel, I’ve got a meeting and I’m going to be home a bit late. Sorry.’

Rachel continues, not wanting to miss her moment. ‘Over a month. Over a sodding month, Steve, and you didn’t have the balls to tell me.’

‘Look, Rach, I’m sorry, really I am, but is it any wonder I didn’t tell you?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Listen to yourself, Rach, any excuse for a row, any chance for a fight and you’re there, aren’t you?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Face it Rach, you do have the tendency to be a bit unreasonable. I was just trying to pick the right moment.’

Rachel is struck dumb for the second time that afternoon and furious that Steve is stealing her moment of thunder. ‘Steve?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Piss off.’ Rachel cuts him off before he can respond and immediately phones Sue.

‘Hi, love, are you OK?’

‘No, not really. Steve is being a prick.’

‘Had that rational chat then?’

‘Hmm.’

‘Do you want some company?’

‘Yes please.’

‘OK. I’ll be round in twenty minutes. I hope you’ve got a bottle chilling.’

Rachel stalks downstairs to a peaceful living room with the children slumped coma-like now watching
Tom and Jerry
. Rachel watches with them for a while. She’d always hated Tom, and found herself as a child, rooting for the cheeky chancer, Jerry. On watching again, she realises that he’s actually a pretentious little tosser and Tom is the eternally tortured soul, whom no one understands.

‘Unbelievable,’ she mutters to herself as she heads to the kitchen. ‘I’m empathising with a cartoon cat now.’ She checks the fridge first for wine and then decides to be an über-mother by preparing something wholesome for the kid’s tea. On further inspection of the contents of the fridge, she decides that another dose of Omega 3 via the medium of fish fingers will do them no harm.

As she scans the surprisingly tidy kitchen, her eye is caught by a picture Will did a month or so ago entitled ‘My Family’. It had made them laugh because he had drawn them all as Power Rangers. Rachel looks closely, smiling to herself, but this time notices the expressions on the faces. He has drawn himself, his siblings and Steve with enormous cartoon grins but she notices that her face is not smiling but slightly turned down. She tries to dismiss it with her usual humour, questioning whether he is a new Leonardo and is seeking to recreate the
Mona Lisa
, but something about it makes her feel sad and rather lonely. She is interrupted by a polite tap at the front door.

‘You took your time,’ she declares flinging it open.

‘I did?’ says Tom smiling.

Rachel is momentarily flummoxed. ‘Sorry, I thought you were someone else’

‘Oh.’ Tom looks slightly disappointed and then grins again.

‘No, it’s OK. It’s nice to see you. Are you all right?’

‘Fine thanks, Mrs Summers. I’m just playing Postman Pat. I took this parcel in for you this morning.’

‘Oh, thanks very much.’

‘Where’s Postman Pat?’ Alfie inquires suddenly at Rachel’s legs, peering up at Tom.

‘I’m here and you must be Alf Thompson. Hullo Alf!’ says Tom putting on a Postman Pat Yorkshire accent.

Rachel is impressed. ‘Good knowledge!’

Tom winks at her. ‘My nephews and nieces have trained me well. I can do them all, Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder.’

‘Where’s Jess?’ says Alfie, oblivious to the mild flirting which is going on above his head.

‘She’s at home having a rest. We’ve had a busy morning delivering all these parcels.’

‘Where’s your van?’ continues Alfie.

‘Er, round the corner.’

‘Ha!’ laughs Rachel. ‘You’re rumbled mate!’

Tom laughs. Alfie screws up his face with scepticism and runs back to the living room.

‘Fancy a glass of wine?’ Rachel asks, surprising herself.

‘Erm, OK, why not? Only if I’m not in the way though.’

‘Don’t be silly. You can keep us entertained with your repertoire of children’s characters.’

Rachel leads him down to the kitchen just as her mobile starts to ring. It’s Sue: ‘Listen, darl, I’m really sorry. I’m not going to make it. Joe’s just thrown up everywhere. Can we speak tomorrow?’

‘Of course. Don’t worry. I hope he’s better soon.’

‘Take care, lovely, and talk to Steve. He’s one of the good guys, you know.’

‘I know,’ says Rachel feeling suddenly exhausted.

Rachel turns to find Tom filling up two wine glasses from the bottle he’s found in the fridge.

‘Sorry, I took the liberty.’

Rachel accepts the glass feeling suddenly shy. She is relieved when two sets of three-year-old feet come stampeding down the corridor. Alfie and Lily appear in a state of heightened excitement.

‘That’s him,’ says Alfie pointing at Tom.

Lily looks Tom up and down, like an old lady inspecting a joint of meat. ‘Why are boys so stupid? That’s not Postman Pat. It’s Tom from next door.’

It’s getting dark as Emma leaves the office, joining the flow of commuters in a hurry to get home because it’s Monday and no one goes out on a Monday. The sky has that London light-polluted glow which means it never goes completely dark, even at night. It’s chilly and a little rain has dampened the streets. Emma is feeling fed up and ready for a bath, a large glass of wine and the welcoming arms of her fiancé. She feels her phone vibrate in her bag. Fumbling through a mess of keys, lipstick and receipts, she locates it just in time, seeing Martin’s caller ID on the screen.

‘Hi, handsome. I’ve just left and I’m looking forward to my spag bol and maybe an encore of last night’s performance?’ says Emma with a smile.

‘Hey, Em,’ says Martin sounding guilty. ‘Thing is I forgot I’d said I’d play five-a-side football with Charlie. Any chance we could postpone it til tomorrow night?’

‘Oh, right.’

‘Look, Em, I’m really sorry and I’ll come home if you want me to. I know you’ve had a crap day,’ says Martin in a tone that is begging to be let off the hook.

Emma sighs, knowing that she’ll feel mean if she forces the issue. ‘No, it’s OK. You go. I’ll probably just head home and have a bath and an early night. I’m a bit knackered.’

‘Sure?’

‘Sure.’

‘Sure you’re sure?’

‘Yes, you loser, now bog off to your little football game,’ laughs Emma.

‘OK, well spag bol tomorrow night and then how about that encore?’ says Martin. ‘I’ll do anything you want.’

‘Anything?’

‘Apart from the washing-up. I’ll see you later, OK? Love you, Em.’

‘‘Course you do. I’m bloody lovely!’ she declares. She throws the phone into her bag and starts to trudge towards the Tube feeling like a lost soul.

‘Emma! Emma!’ The voice is an unwelcome interruption to her thoughts of home and at first she thinks it’s Joel. She spins round, her face set in a scowl. ‘Woah, woah, woah!’ says the voice’s owner. ‘I come in peace!’

Richard Bennett stands before her, an apologetic smile on his face, his hands held up in surrender. Emma is unsure what to do or say, so he jumps in. ‘Look, we didn’t have the best of starts.’

‘Slight understatement,’ says Emma arms folded. She’s let one man off the hook this evening, Richard Bennett isn’t going to have such an easy time. He looks floored for a moment and Emma would almost feel sorry for him if she weren’t so fed up. ‘Well, if that’s all you came to say, I would really like to go home now please.’

He blocks her path. ‘Look,’ he begins again, ‘come and have a drink with me.’

‘Why?’

Richard considers the question. ‘You want to know why?’

Emma detects that he doesn’t get turned down that often. ‘If it’s not too much trouble.’

Richard’s brown eyes flash with amusement. ‘I’ll give you three reasons actually.’

‘Go on then.’

‘One, I am really very sorry for what happened today. Two, I thought your pitch was wonderful. And three, your boyfriend stood you up so you may as well.’

Emma is gobsmacked. ‘You were spying on me!’

‘No, I just came along at the right moment. So what do you say? One drink. I get to absolve my conscience and you get to spend an hour in the company of a glittering literary talent,’ he says grinning.

She considers her options. One drink can’t hurt and she is intrigued by this man. Even if he has an ego the size of Big Ben, he does write a bloody brilliant book and that’s always of interest to Emma. Plus it’s not as if she’s got any better offers and she could murder a glass of something crisp, dry and white. ‘Oh all right then.’

‘Brilliant,’ says Richard seeming genuinely pleased.

The nearest drinking establishment is one of those central London pubs that would have been lovely if they hadn’t let a eighties wine bar designer get his hands on it. The once dingy brown ceilings and walls, which always remind Emma of pubs she used to go to with her dad, have been replaced with a light airy space and pale wooden floor the size of a football pitch. The bar and surrounding tables and stools seem a little higher off the ground giving the impression that they have wandered into a giant’s kingdom.

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