By Gil McNeil
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SHOW ME THE WAY TO GO HOME
It’s seven o’clock on Monday morning and the movers have been here since six. They’re busy packing up crates in the living room and tutting because I’ve lost the kettle, which must be in one of the boxes they’ve already put in the van; only I’ve lost my list so I’m not sure which one. I’m sitting in the kitchen finishing the border on Jack’s new blanket and trying to calm down, but even the familiar rhythm of knitting isn’t doing the trick. If death, divorce, and moving really are the top three most stressful things you ever have to get through with your clothes on, it’s a complete bloody miracle that I’m still standing; although I’ve got some kind of weird spasm in my back, so it’s more of a stoop and shuffle, a bit like the Hunch-back of Notre Dame, as Archie helpfully pointed out yesterday, only without the bells. Somehow I think this is going to be a very long day.
“Llamas don’t go like that, stupid. They do this.”
Archie’s making a spitting noise. Llamas? How did they get onto llamas? Damn, I’ve been zoning out while they ate breakfast and it sounds like a mega-bicker might be brewing.
“Yes, they do. We did them in our animals project, but you don’t know, because you’re only in the first class, which is the Babies.”
Jack smirks; since he’s six and a half and Archie’s only just five and a quarter, one of his favorite things is reminding Archie that he’s the Baby, and Always Will Be. And Archie’s already furious because Jack got the last of the Weetabix and he was forced into adopting advanced I-am-not-eating-Shreddies maneuvers while he was still half asleep, so he narrows his eyes and glares at Jack. “It’s not the Babies, you stupid, and it was on telly and they can spit right on your head, even if they’re standing a long way away they can. It’s great.”
Oh dear, I think I know what might be coming next.
He spits at Jack in a llamalike fashion, and Jack shrieks and spits back. Any second now they’ll be punching each other, and Jack’s already got a massive bruise on his forehead from last week in Tesco when he ended up on the wrong end of a large bottle of fabric softener.
“Stop it, both of you. Now.”
They ignore me and start shoving each other. I think this may be a good time for something from Mummy’s Little List of Useful Threats.
“There won’t be television for anyone who pushes their brother. None at all. But there can be cartoons for anybody who isn’t being Silly.”
There’s a freeze-frame moment while they consider this. If I nip in quick with a competitive moment, I might be in with a chance. “I wonder who’ll be first to get dressed today. I bet it’ll be me.”
As I walk toward the kitchen door, I’m pushed sideways by a blur of small boys racing for the stairs: pretty much everything’s about who can be First in our house, which seems particularly hard given how many hours I spent studying books about sibling rivalry and doing all the things you’re meant to do; the usurper baby bought the one Formerly Known as Prince a special present when he was born, and praise was heaped on anyone who spent more than ten seconds with the weeny one without poking him with something pointy. Although actually it was me doing most of the book stuff, because Nick said I should stop fussing and it was all bollocks and he once broke his brother’s arm in two places by pushing him out of a tree, but that’s just how boys are, and they laugh about it now; which isn’t strictly true, since James got quite thin-lipped when I mentioned it last Christmas. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck on permanent peacekeeper patrol, playing piggy in the middle and championing the virtues of peace and love like some mad old hippie, apart from brief moments of tenderness, when you catch a glimpse of what they might be like when they’re in their twenties and have stopped punching each other. Dear God. I’m definitely not cut out for this level of stress first thing in the morning.
Ted, our chief moving man, comes into the kitchen and looks at my cup of tea suspiciously. Damn.
“Have you found the kettle then, love?”
“No. I’ve tracked down a saucepan, but I still can’t find any more cups. I could wash this one and we can take turns, if you like?”
I’m having visions of a relay team of moving men lining up for their turn with the Cup. Christ. It looks like I’m going to be as useless at moving as I have been at packing; it’s been complete chaos here for weeks, endlessly searching for things that have disappeared into plastic crates and trying to keep chirpy so the boys don’t get too rattled. Maybe I should nip out and get some teas from the café down the road, because Ted has been giving me very wounded looks, and the boys have taken advantage of the fact that I’m having a beverage crisis to start shoving each other again. This just gets better and better.
“I’ll go up and get the boys ready, and then I’ll sort something out, shall I?”
Ted nods. “Good idea, love. Only we need our tea, it keeps us going.”
I’m walking toward the stairs when the doorbell rings, and if this is one of those we-were-in-your-area-and-wondered-how-many-new-windows-you-would-like-fitted-absolutely-free-of-charge salesmen, I think we can safely say he’s definitely picked the wrong bloody doorbell.
It’s Ellen. The cavalry have arrived. Hurrah.
“Hello, darling. Happy moving day. Everything all organized?” She gives me a hug.
“Sort of. This is Ted. Ted, this is my best friend, Ellen Malone.”
Christ. This is my best friend; I sound like a ten-year-old. We’ll be wearing matching hair bands next.
Ted stands with his mouth slightly open; not only is Ellen looking particularly stunning this morning, in tight black jeans and a tiny pink T-shirt, and gold sandals, which are bound to be Prada or something equally exorbitant, but she’s also the senior news anchor with Britain’s Favorite News Channel, so she’s in your living room at peak times on pretty much a daily basis.
She gives Ted one of her Big Smiles. “Hi, Ted, lovely to meet you.”
He mumbles something and seems rooted to the spot, which happens so often Ellen hardly notices it anymore, as she doesn’t notice when people follow her round Waitrose and peer into her basket, or lurk behind her in the street smiling and waving in case there’s a camera crew hiding somewhere.
“Put the kettle on, darling. I’m dying for a coffee.”
“Sorry, it’s vanished.”
“Like magician abracadabra vanished? How clever.”
“No, you twit, vanished as in packed in a box only I don’t know which one and I’ve lost my list. And there’s only one cup.”
Ellen gives me one of her Are-You-a-Total-Idiot-or-Just-Pretending? looks, which she usually reserves for politicians who make speeches instead of answering the question she’s asked them. Ted is still standing slack-jawed, and appears to be reeling from my telling one of Britain’s Favorite Broadcasters to stop being a twit.
“Well, let’s sort something out, shall we? I know, you couldn’t be a complete angel could you, Ted, and pop down the road to the café and get us all a coffee? Only I’m desperate.”
She gives him another Big Smile and hands him a twenty-pound note, and he makes a faint choking noise. Christ, he’ll be asking her to autograph it in a minute.
“Do you…I mean, would you like…?” He’s gone very red now and is clenching his fists in order to speak. “Do you take sugar, or I could nip down to Starbucks if you like, I know a back way so it wouldn’t take long, it would be no trouble, no trouble at all. And you get a wider selection there, my wife likes those frapping things; I could get you one of those, if you like.”
He’s starting to babble; and if you don’t rescue people once they go into the land of babbling, it can take ages before they come back out; we once got stuck for nearly half an hour with a woman in a noodle bar who told us in very graphic detail all about her dad’s knee operation when Ellen was doing a state-of-the-nation’s-health week, and in the end I had to use our emergency get-this-nutter-off-me technique and surreptitiously text Ellen so she could pretend an alert had come through and she needed to get back to the studio.
There’s a deafening crash upstairs, and my maternal radar, which can see through walls and up staircases, detects that my gorgeous boys are jumping on my bed and one has just overshot the runway.
“I think I’d better go up before they break something.”
“I’ll come up with you, shall I, darling? And Ted, whatever you think, if you’re sure it’s no trouble, but if you do go to Starbucks I’d love a skinny cappuccino with an extra shot, and a banana muffin, and Jo, a caramel macchiato, darling?”
“And, actually, why don’t you get a few muffins while you’re there, Ted, whatever they’ve got. Thanks so much, you’re a total star.”
If she kisses him now, and Ellen’s very fond of kissing people, sometimes total strangers, I think Ted may well have a cardiac moment. But fortunately she goes for another mega-smile instead, and he goes an even darker shade of red; I really hope he’s not going to pass out or anything, because, to be frank, I could do without my chief moving man swooning himself into a heap. The rest of the team—which consists of a very thin work-experience teenager called Kevin, who looks about twelve and manages to do most of the heavy lifting without disturbing his hair gel, and an older man called Eric, who doesn’t say much but grins quite a lot—have been standing in the living room doorway watching Ted, but they spring into action as he finally surfaces from his reverie.
“Right, let’s be off, then. Kevin, go and get the back of the van shut, and get a move on, will you, we haven’t got all day. The lady wants a coffee.”
Ted is walking toward the front door muttering “Skinny extra shot banana” when Eric steps forward.
“I don’t like them muffins, guv, they’re all bits.”
“Is that right, Eric? Well, thanks for letting me know. But I wasn’t planning on getting you one as it happens, so get in the van and stop moaning.”
Ellen starts walking up the stairs, and I follow her, marveling that someone with such a small bottom can have such a major effect on people, because I know from bitter experience that if I’d tried to send Ted off to Starbucks with a twenty-pound note he’d probably have told me to sod off, or disappeared for hours and charged me overtime, instead of desperately speeding round the back of the high street chanting his skinny-extra-shot-banana mantra. And even though I know Ellen spends ages in the gym with her personal trainer, Errol, and a small fortune on massages and facials and highlights and low-lights, I still can’t help feeling it’s bloody unfair that she looks like it’s all completely natural and effortless and she’s about ten years younger than me, even though she’s two years older. It’s bloody annoying, actually, and she’s definitely the kind of woman you’d want to kick in the shins if she wasn’t your best friend.
Ellen’s the person I call first when I’m having a crisis, and she texts me rude jokes or choice bits of gossip when she’s in the studio, sometimes even when she’s on air and they’re doing the sports or the weather. It was Ellen I called the night Nick came home from another six-week stint in Jerusalem to say he’d got the foreign correspondent job; he was supposed to have been back for Valentine’s Day, but he was two days late, and he’d only had time to give me the highlights before he went up with the boys for bedtime stories, so I texted her while I was clearing up the supper things. They were always the ones to watch, Ellen and Nick, right from when we all first met on the BBC training course. They both had that slight shimmer on camera which natural television presenters always have. Rather than the slightly glazed look that was all the rest of us could manage when we were doing our studio training; I even managed to develop a mystery stutter, and fell right off my chair during one particularly tricky session. But I was much better on the production side, and by the end of the course, I could edit a piece better than both of them put together, and we ended up getting the top three marks. Although that all seems like a very long time ago now; like another life entirely.
I was still pottering in the kitchen tidying up and thinking about us having to move abroad for the new job, and whether it would be Johannesburg or Jerusalem, which both felt quite scary, or Moscow, which would just feel freezing, when Nick came back down from story time. And I was about to ask him where he thought we’d be going, when I realized he had some more news to share, something he was less sure about, and I remember thinking, I bet it’s bloody Moscow, as he started making some fresh coffee and patting his hair down like he was preparing for a big piece to camera, some crucial bit of breaking news that would change everything. Which as it turned out it did, because the really big news was that he’d been having an affair, for just over a year, with a French UN worker called Mimi. A whole year when he’d been coming home with all his dirty laundry, demanding shepherd’s pie at midnight and saying he was exhausted, and then disappearing into the garden with his mobile phone. A whole fucking year.
He’d worked up a big speech about how he hoped we could be civilized about the divorce, because it was just one of those things, and he was very sorry, and he hadn’t meant for it to happen, but he was sure we could work something out, and Mimi loved kids and she was really looking forward to meeting the boys. And that was when it got through to me, because I’d been weirdly numb until that point, like I’d been catapulted into a parallel universe where, if he’d only stop speaking and finish making the coffee, everything would be back to normal. But suddenly I could see my boys being shuffled around airports, and I realized he was serious, and that’s when the shouting started.
I’m not usually very good at shouting, but this time I really gave it a go, and he was so bloody calm, like he was repeating lines he’d been rehearsing in the bathroom mirror, which, knowing him, he probably had; he kept doing his sympathetic-but-professional face, like he was interviewing someone who’d just had their house blown up with most of their family in it, which in a way, of course, I had. And he was so controlled and professional, right up until I threw the milk jug at him. The look on his face was priceless, a mixture of fury and panic and a glimmer of admiration; I don’t think either of us thought I’d ever be the kind of person who’d hurl china about. But God, it was worth it, even though it was me who had to crawl around afterward sweeping up all the broken pieces. And then he got furious and said I was being hysterical, and I said if he thought this was hysteria he was in for a big surprise, and if he thought he was going to be shuttling my lovely boys halfway round the world he could think again, and he stormed off in a huff saying I was being totally unreasonable, slamming the front door so hard one of the pictures in the hall fell down. I was still picking up bits of glass when Ellen turned up, in full studio makeup and clutching a bottle of champagne ready to celebrate the new job.
We were sitting at the kitchen table when the policeman arrived, looking very nervous and fiddling with the hem of his fluorescent jacket, and he didn’t really look at me but kept talking to Ellen while his radio crackled and he told her there’d been an accident and Nick had been in a car crash and the car had hit a big tree, and I remember thinking, I’m always telling him to slow down and maybe now he’ll bloody listen and stop driving everywhere on two wheels, and then the policeman’s radio started crackling again and he went very pale, and Ellen started to cry.
And then she just took over, especially in the first few days, when everything went foggy. She came with me to the hospital, to the side room with the curtains drawn and the young nurse who kept asking us if we wanted a cup of tea, and she dealt with everyone who turned up with flowers and cards, the press and all the people from work, and she was the one who sat with Nick’s parents, who’d been so proud of him and couldn’t seem to grasp that their golden boy was gone and wanted someone to blame. She was completely stellar.
Mum and Dad came over from Italy and tried to be helpful but pretty much just got in the way, like they usually do, with Mum wanting special attention all the time and Dad looking for jobs to do round the house and drilling holes in things, and my brother, Vin, came home and took care of the boys and helped me cope with Mum and Dad. Without him and Ellen, I really don’t know how I would have managed. Not that I did much coping. You always hope that you’ll be one of those stalwart people in a crisis, kind and generous and capable, but now I know that in fact I’m crap in a crisis, silent and incapable. The only thing I really seemed to be able to do was sleep. For hours. It was like I was half unconscious, deep heavy numb sleep that left me more tired when I woke up. Ellen and Vin were busy sorting out the funeral and negotiating with Nick’s mum, who wanted something very formal, with everyone in black veils and the boys in suits and a Jacqueline Kennedy moment with them stepping forward to salute, with trumpets if we could manage it, and an eternal flame in the middle of a Sussex churchyard. But they kept on going, and avoided the trumpets but arranged for music instead, Mahler and Elgar, and Vin lit candles, hundreds of them, and Archie wanted to know if it was someone’s birthday. Ellen had got a huge bunch of silver balloons for them to release at the graveside, which I wasn’t sure about because I thought there was a strong chance Archie would want to take them home, but it turned out to be very beautiful, and that was when I really lost it and behaved like a proper grieving widow, sobbing and holding the boys too tight, until Gran helped me back to the car, patting my back like she used to when I was little, stroking my hair and telling me it was all going to be all right, while Ellen and Vin took Archie and Jack for a walk.
The boys are showing Ellen how high they can bounce on my bed when I get upstairs.
“Stop jumping, now, or you’ll break the bed.”
Archie’s bright red and breathless, and still bouncing. “You can’t break beds, Mummy. You’re just being stupid.”
Ellen laughs. “Don’t be cheeky, Archie, or I can’t give you your present.”
He sits down immediately, and crosses his arms and legs like he does at school when they sit on the mat for story time.
Ellen’s usually got something highly unsuitable in one of her trendy bags, and today is no exception; she delves into a huge Tod’s leather tote and hands them each a potato gun and a large potato. How perfect. Now we can all dodge potato pellets for the rest of the day.
Jack flings his arms round her waist. “Oh, thank you, Aunty Ellen, thank you ever so much, I’ve always wanted a potato gun, forever actually, but Mummy wouldn’t let me have one.”
He gives me one of his My-Life-Is-Hopeless-Because-of-My-Dreadful-Mother looks (patent pending) and starts poking at his potato with the end of the gun. If I don’t stop him, there’ll be bits of potato all over the upstairs landing carpet, and I’m trying to leave the house as tidy as possible for the new people, because Mrs. Tewson in particular strikes me as someone who will be deeply unamused at finding bits of potato all over her new landing; she’s already asked me which cleaner I use on the kitchen tiles, which I’m pretty sure was her idea of a subtle hint.
“Hang on a minute, Jack. Let’s get you dressed, and then you can take your guns out into the garden. I wonder if the squirrel will be out?”
This does the trick, because they’re both desperate to vanquish the naughty squirrel who eats the bird food we have to put out on a daily basis since Jack overdosed on sodding nature programs. I keep meaning to write and ask them how they manage to avoid getting tangled up with marauding squirrels every time they try to hang their nuts up, but I’ve got a feeling my letter might end up in the loony pile.
“The squirrel will be very surprised if we get him with our guns, won’t he, Mummy?”
Ellen snorts. “He might just collect the bits of potato and go home and make chips.”
Archie giggles, but Jack gives her a rather worried look. “Squirrels don’t eat chips, Aunty Ellen, they haven’t got cookers.”
“Yes, they eat nuts and berries. Mostly.”
He looks at me for a spot of maternal approval. He likes confirmation when he’s got something right.
“That’s right, Jack. Now let’s finish getting dressed, and Archie, please stop doing that, sweetheart.”
He’s jabbing his gun into a black plastic bag full of clothes; I’ve run out of suitcases, and these are mostly I’ll-never-wear-this-again-but-it-was-bloody-expensive things. Suits I used to wear to work, and small summer dresses I can’t get into anymore, which I like to think I’ll be wearing again one day, when I wake up miraculously three stone smaller with a proper job, which doesn’t involve squirrel hunting with potato guns. And that’s another thing: I thought sudden bereavement was meant to make you go all pale and wan and lose vast amounts of weight, but I seem to have done rather the opposite. Possibly because I’ve spent too many consoling hours with the biscuit tin; but it was either that or vodka, and at least you can still do the school run when you’ve been mainlining Jaffa Cakes all day.
“I want to wear my Spider-Man outfit.”
“Not today, Archie.”
I’d quite like to avoid moving in fancy dress if we possibly can, but after a fairly concentrated round of stamping and shouting, we agree on a compromise; he’ll wear the top and trousers but not the face mask that he can’t actually breathe in and that makes him sound like a mini–Darth Vader. And he’ll wear his wellies to go out in the garden, even though officially Spider-Man wouldn’t be seen dead in a pair of wellies. He’s still huffing and tutting as they go downstairs with Ellen for Squirrel Wars: The Final Revenge, while I try to work out what I need in the bags I’m taking with us in the car.
Our first night in the new house seems like a fairly crucial moment, and I want to get it right, and we’ll need Archie’s night-light for definite, or he’ll never get to sleep. And Jack’s favorite dinosaur pillowcase with his name on it, and warm pajamas in case the boiler’s as useless as the survey predicted. God, I’m feeling really nervous about this; they’ve both been quite keen on the idea of moving so far, but I think that’s because we’ll be so near Gran, whom they adore, and not just because she tends to slip them bags of fluorescent sweets when she thinks I’m not looking. I think they know I’m more relaxed when we’re there, which means they can relax, too. Gran’s house has always been my place of safety, with summer picnics, and flannelette sheets in winter with a faint hint of lavender and a hot-water bottle, because Gran thinks electric blankets have a tendency to go berserk in the night and boil you while you’re asleep. But given how much more clingy and prone to tears they’ve both been over the past few months, especially Jack, they might change their minds when we get there. Jack hates change of any kind, and even a new cereal bowl can set him off, so I’m thinking a whole new house might be a bit of a challenge.
I’ve already put his old baby blanket in the car, because I’m pretty sure he’ll want it tonight; Archie’s never really gone in for special blankets, although he did get very attached to a yellow plastic hammer for a while, mainly because he liked hitting Jack with it. He even used to take it to bed with him, until the magic fairies came and cheekily swapped it for a Captain Incredible outfit while he was asleep. But Jack used to carry his blanket everywhere, and it’s resurfaced over the past few months. I’m knitting him a new one, which was meant to be done in time for the move, but I’m still finishing the border, so that’s another thing I’ve failed to organize properly. But at least knitting it has kept me sane over the past few weeks, when everything else has felt so out of control. He chose a seaside theme in honor of his new bedroom, so I’ve done pale blue cotton squares, with a darker sky blue border, and all the squares have fish motifs knitted into them, some more fishlike than others, but he loves it already, so I’m hoping it’ll help him sleep, because he’s been waking up with bad dreams again recently.
I’ve just finished putting the bags into the car when Ted arrives with what appears to be Starbucks’s entire stock of muffins for the day, carrying in the gray cardboard trays and brown paper bags while the boys hop up and down with excitement at the prospect of a Muffin Mountain.
“It’s a feast, Mummy, look. A proper feast. And I can have two, or even more if I like, Aunty Ellen said I could.”
“Well, let’s have a drink first, and see how you go, shall we, Archie?”
I’m trying to divert his attention long enough to get some juice down him before he starts on the muffins, but I don’t know why I’m bothering, because he can eat incredibly quickly when he wants to. He’s like a hamster; he simply bulges out his cheeks so he can fit more in.
Jack’s drinking his juice, looking very chirpy.
“The squirrel’s hiding up his tree and he won’t come down, so we’re shooting him up the tree, and it’s great.”
“Well, finish your drink and you can show me, love. Ellen, do you want a muffin? Only I’d get in quick, if I were you.”
- On Sale
- Mar 17, 2009
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Hachette Books