<![if !vml]><![endif]>Chapter One
Okay, so I’m not perfect. But is life this complicated for everyone? I stepped over a mountain of toys and junk, stuck my head in a cushion and screamed. It was better than sticking a fork in your eye.
The cat did a runner. But then I’ve never been fond of the cat. She was a hangover from the days when Bill (my ex) thought the house needed an animal in it. She was his cat, but he’d left her behind. He’d left me and the kids as well.
“When will there be some me-time?” I yelled. But the cushion didn’t answer, had never heard of one parent families.
It sounded like a great idea, time for yourself, where you were number one. And yes, it really did exist, claimed Alice, who’d been my best friend since college. Sure, Alice. If you say so.
“Get yourself off to a spa, girl”, she’d said. “Do you the world of good.”
Alice is a gem, but she doesn’t get it. She lives in her own bubble. Has a publishing job up in London, gets to take clients out to dinner in real restaurants, not McDonald’s. And doesn’t have to think about what to feed the kids for tea, try to get the boiler working again, write a lesson plan for tomorrow, or figure out how to scrape up this month’s child minding fees. They’d gone up again. Nothing seems to go down. Only your bank balance and your energy.
But things would improve. I knew it. And hey, I can still smile, which makes me an optimist, right? Except not tonight. Not with Millie whinging on about new trainers, and Tom refusing to eat the macaroni cheese I’d whipped up after collecting these two ungrateful brutes from the after-school child-minder.
A glass of wine waited. The saviour. But only after the kids were asleep and I’d written that lesson plan for tomorrow’s class. It’s being observed.
I’m not that fond of lesson-observations. They’re like auditions, as if you have to prove yourself all over again. Prove you can do the teaching job they hired you for in the first place, and that you’re still giving value for money. And they don’t really work, because you’ll always give your best performance for this one-off stellar moment. But how can you keep up that sort of thing all year? Demonstrating best practice. How I hate those words. Seems like I hate everything tonight, but it’s not true. It’s just been a bad day. Tomorrow will be better.
“Thought you looked tired yesterday, Jillian.”
“I’m fine,” I said, giving the words an extra little spring in their step, “autumn term’s always a long haul.”
“Sure,” agreed Emily. “For all of us. Soon be half-term though. You’ll be looking forward to spending time with the kids, I expect.”
She could expect all she wanted. She didn’t have kids. Had a husband who paid the mortgage. And she and the old man were off to the Med on a cruise for their half-term.
It’s not that I’m bitter. And don’t get me wrong, I really do love my kids. But I wouldn’t say no to a Mediterranean cruise myself.
My boss, Emily Thomson, is a decent woman who tries hard to be helpful while doing the impossible job she’s been lumbered with. She insists on calling me Jillian, though. And I’m not a Jillian, more of a Jill.
Jill Webster: Mother, English teacher, cook, cleaner (only in extreme circumstances, when the carpets change colour and the washing up reaches 3-days' worth) payer of bills (not always on time) and sole householder.
I looked at Emily. Her face was expectant, so I nodded. She’d been waiting for some kind of reaction before I’d wandered off inside my head. I sometimes do that and it can be confusing to spectators.
“I could’ve put my observation feedback in your pigeon-hole,” she said.
“Right . . .” I waited for the other shoe to fall, the one that gives you the kick in the rear.
“But I wanted to see you face-to-face. Credit where it’s due, Jillian. That was a great lesson today.”
“Thanks.” Wow! Still, I was waiting for the ‘but’. There’s nearly always a but.
“I wish I saw more like that,” she said. “You had them in the palm of your hand. And all outcomes fulfilled. Excellent.”
“Great.” Fulfilling ‘outcomes’ isn’t easy. They’re slippery little devils.
“If you were being OFSTEDed it would be a one.”
Good God! Things were looking up. A ‘one’ meant outstanding and was the highest grade you could get, like reaching the summit of Everest.
“Just one small detail - and I’ve written that in my comments . . .”
Ah, here it was. The one ‘point for future development’. Something to show that you were never perfect; could always do better. Still, not too dusty – considering the time I’d taken writing the lesson plan last night. And the two glasses of wine that had helped it along.
“Right.” Her eyes flicked over to the clock, and she seemed to be making some sort of weighty decision. “Get yourself off to the staffroom for a coffee break.”
“Have a chill and while you’re there I’d like you to think about something,” she said.
“What?” God, not more new initiatives. I was still working on the last lot.
“There’s a new vacancy about to come on line.”
“Mandy’s moving up to Bristol and I’m looking for a new Deputy. I’d rather keep it internal if I can.”
“What, me? Management?”
“Don’t fancy it?”
“Never even thought about it. But all that paperwork.”
“Not much more than you do now, and I’d be right here next door to give you advice. You’d be my second-in-command. More money . . .”
She left the final two words dangling in mid air to work their magic. Emily knew I needed all the money I could get my hands on right now. There was the dodgy boiler for a start. I wish I’d never told her about it now.
“But that’s crap. Of course you’re up to it.”
I’d told Alice about the job offer, and my own doubts about it. She’d brought over two bottles of wine and her up-beat, life-is-what-you-make-it attitude.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. She knew what I meant. Of course I could do the job, but it would mean even more time away from home. The child care bill would be humongous, and somebody else would get to know my kids better than me.
Alice sloshed more Merlot into the massive glasses she’d brought with her. She didn’t like my economy wine glasses that, unlike hers, were not hand-blown by some arty bloke in Italy. Mine came from a supermarket, but were perfectly adequate. ‘Adequate’ was a quality I specialized in.
The kids were both on sleepovers with friends, a small miracle that had been thrown my way. Even so, I felt guilty about enjoying this girly night with a takeaway and Alice’s fine Merlot. Guilt was something that dogged me, though I tried to ignore it. But they stamp the word across your forehead when your babies are born.
“What then?” Alice wouldn’t give up.
“I feel . . . conflicted.”
“Bollocks,” she said. “That’s a fancy, copout word. You know you want to take it. So take it.”
Everything was so much simpler for my friend. Like now. She’d taken a week away from her desk to stay at a retreat near Land’s End. This was to arm her for the upcoming rigours of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
She’d been driving up to Truro to visit me (when the spirit moved her). Or when she got bored with life in the tiny village of Saint Buryan where the nearby Merry Maidens Stone Circle was meant to power up her batteries.
I couldn’t imagine Alice at a retreat. She was more of a city girl, like me. Or at least I had been, B.C. Before children.
The arrival of the kids kicked in all sorts of life style changes, most of them driven by me in that headless-chicken-time following birth. Like a migrating bird, I’d dragged the family down to the West Country.
I had this pattern in my head for how children should be bought up. It didn’t come from any parenting book, but had spookily arrived the moment Millie thrust her tiny, quivering body into daylight and set up a wail strong enough to wake the dead.
It seemed a no-brainer that our pokey London flat was no nesting place for kids. But Bill didn’t see it that way, for he was nostalgic about the London borough of Hackney. Don’t ask me why. It used to be one of the most crime ridden places in London, and the words Murder-Mile given to several of its streets. Hardly something I wanted my kids to remember. Note the ‘my kids’. I think that even back then, I realised any off-spring would always be my kids and not ‘our kids’.
I was a driven woman, and put my size fours down with all the force of a Jackboot. I marvel now when I think about it, where the strength to oppose him came from. I suppose your children do that for you. Turn you into this fierce tigress protecting her cubs.
Bill finally gave in when Judith - my fire breathing mother-in-law - pointed out that moving to Cornwall would bring us closer to her in Exeter. Nothing’s ever perfect in life. If it was, I’d be in the Caribbean sipping a rum punch. She put the thumb screws on him and I pushed from my end. It’s the only time the woman and I have been on the same team.
The insistent buzz at the front door brought two immediate results. One - I yanked myself from inside my head, and two - the wine glass went spinning off into space. Sticky red wine cascaded down my coffee table and onto the beige carpet.
Beige is never a good colour when you have kids, but Bill had insisted on it. It was the one his mother had, so if it was good enough for her etc. . . . The woollen carpet was one hell of an investment at a time when we couldn’t afford it. But as Bill had pointed out, it was there for life. Pity he didn’t apply the same philosophy to our marriage.
“You can chuck some white wine over it,” Alice said helpfully.
Well maybe she could afford to use Chardonnay as a stain remover, but I couldn’t.
“Hey! Is there anybody in there?” a disembodied voice yelled urgently through my letter box.
“Shit no!” I shot Alice a frantic look. Put a finger to my lips in a for-God’s-sake-be-quiet mime. Things were complicated enough without him pestering me again.
“Who’s he?” she asked, in a voice loud enough for the nearest deaf man to hear. She’d never been good at picking up on signals. “Didn’t know you had a man on the go.”
“Shussh,” I hissed. “And I haven’t got a man.”
“Sounds like one to me.”
Alice moved to the window, peering round the side of the lace curtains. They’d been a present from Bill’s mother who had them in every room in her house. I’d been meaning to dump them for ages.
“Get away from there, he’ll see you.”
The ringing in my ears finally stopped, and I figured James had taken the hint and his hand off the doorbell. It was a surprise. The man was usually more persistent.
Alice was impressed by cars. Not my old banger, which ran on low-grade petrol and luck. But I lavished love on Jemima, and gave the old girl a friendly pat every day to show her she was just as valuable as Alice’s Beamer.
My friend had offered to buy me a new car. She had a generous heart and her family had mega-bucks, which always helps. They’d given her an expensive flat for her twenty-first and told her to go out into the world and make her own way. She had. But she’d never had to scrimp and save, like the rest of us poor stiffs. Even so, Alice never flaunted her money, or her looks, or her good luck. That’s what I liked about her.
“Looks like he’s gone,” she said. “Go on, give.”
“Well, have you? And if not, why not?”
Her eyebrows shot up dramatically into her fringe. Alice had a flair for interrogation, something she’d cultivated earlier in life working as a journalist on one of the lesser known scandal sheets. She also had a down-right nosy streak. A gift she’d inherited from her mother.
“Jill-i-an . . . You have – haven’t you?”
“No I haven’t!” I said indignantly. “We had one date, that’s all. And now he’s practically stalking me. It creeps me out.”
“Not bad looking, maybe not eye-candy, but he’s got style. And a nice ass.” My friend grinned. She considered herself an authority on asses.
“You got all that from one curtain-twitch?”
“Body language - reading it’s crucial in my job,” she said.
We went back to the wine. Correction, Alice did. Mine was still decorating the beige Wilton. The poor old carpet had taken a hammering lately, but a new one was a distant dream. It would need to line up behind the boiler repair, the gas bill; the phone bill . . . The list got longer every day. And now, Millie’s trainers.
The synapses in my brain hurled across a new thought. Maybe I should take the job offer. Then I wouldn’t have to penny-pinch the way I did now.
“Penny for them,” said Alice, managing to look wise as well as sober, even though she’d drunk the lion’s share of the two bottles. She was more practiced at it. All those late lunches. Me? It’s normally a rushed tuna sandwich in the staffroom and a mug of stewed, tepid coffee, because no one’s bothered to put on a fresh brew. And I’m certainly not in Alice’s league when it comes to shifting alcohol.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“Funny, that’s what I was thinking about. Pennies.”
“Jill,” she said, her tone impatient. Like I was some sort of lost cause. “Get a man. Take the bloody job. And send the kids off to their grandparents for a week.”
It sounded easy when she said it. A concise, three-bullet-point plan. Probably the sort of thing Alice had to come up with every day in the office. But life is far more messy. Still, if I’d known how much messier it was about to get, I might have given more than a passing thought to Alice’s strategy for sorting out my life.
Don’t you hate queuing up at the ATM? You wait for somebody to check their balance and when you think it’s safe to move closer, they decide to top up their mobile. Even so, I try to remain good humoured and good mannered. Do unto others etc. Pity we’re not all the same. Because Friday was a very, VERY bad day, Automated Teller Machine-wise, that is.
I’m still reeling from it. But the bank says they are ‘actively investigating the irregularity with my account.’ That’s okay then! And irregularity? Is that what they’re calling it now? When you have your pin number shoulder-surfed and your account emptied.
I can’t believe it’s happened. But the fraud guy at my bank seems to think it’s quite normal. His email began with one of those FYI things, which immediately put me off. If he couldn’t be bothered to write ‘for your information’ I didn’t see much chance of him catching my shoulder-surfer.
The guy said it happens all the time. Is that supposed to make me feel better? The fact that some scumbag had been hovering behind me, clocking my pin number. Marking the back of my coat with a small, chalk dot. And waiting for his mate to bump into me further down the street to steal my card. Job done.
I didn’t know my purse was missing right away. Not until I reached the supermarket check-out with a full basket, and five minutes to spare before I had to pick the kids up from the expensive childminder. Why is it when embarrassing stuff like that happens, there’s a queue of gawping rubber-neckers wondering how you’ll deal with it.
I thought I dealt with it heroically. I didn’t pout. Or blame anyone else. Just pulled together what dignity I could, left the plastic bags by the till for someone else to unpack, and took myself and my red face back to the car. Which wouldn’t start. Well I said it hadn’t been a great day.
Had to phone the childminder to say I’d be late, and wait patiently for a bus I wasn’t sure would arrive. (Reading bus time tables when you’re not used to them is like deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.)
The small rural village of Trispen, where my after-school childminder plied her trade, wasn’t that far. Not when you have a working car, that is. But having to get there on public transport was one more problem in a day splattered with them.
Still, as my mother says: “life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” She’d read it somewhere. I blame her for the underlying optimism in me that spots the faint glimmer of light in life’s dark corners.
So, like my mother, I’d stood at the bus stop making lemonade. Magically turning negatives into positives. Positive 1 – if my purse hadn’t been stolen, I might still have ignored the tiny sporran Alice bought me during one of her jaunts to the Edinburgh Festival. I’d put some money in there for luck. It might just be enough to get me and my kids back home. Positive 2 – there actually was a bus that ran out to Trispen. Positive 3 – the rain that had started to fall was only a light drizzle.
Even so, I’d allowed myself a small, indulgent sigh. As days go, it wasn’t one for the record books, but some days are like that. Still, there’s no point in griping. It doesn’t change a thing.
“Do you know how serious this is?” she said.
It had been six months since the woman had phoned me. A year since Bill himself had spoken to either me or his kids. And now here was his mother expecting me to drop everything, and turn myself inside out to find her precious, bloody son for her.
I didn’t answer. She’d phoned me. Let her fill the awkward gaps, for I didn’t have a thing in common with the woman. And she’d made it plain that I would come last in any daughter-in-law-of-the-year contest.
“Look - I know we’ve never really seen eye to eye,” she said.
Understatement, it’s an art. Judith Murdock’s tone didn’t go with her words. It was haughty, even though she wanted a favour. She hadn’t got a handle on this communication thing, for she wasn’t a people-person. Unlike her son.
Bill had been a real charmer. But it was all false. And I’d fallen for it, like others he’d sucked in; including the twenty-one year old computer tech he’d left me for. He was down-sizing. I was thirty-two.
You’d think I’d be glad to get rid of him. I mean the man turned out to be a proper bastard. But rejection is never easy. There was pain and confusion; fear about the future, how I’d manage by myself and look after the kids. My confidence had wobbled and my self-esteem took the lift to the basement. For days I’d halted by any mirror that hove into sight, checking for imperfections, taking inventory.
The face: not too ugly. Not Munroe exactly (the actress, not the guy who christened Scottish peaks). Still passable in a good light. Not too many lines there, apart from a few across my forehead when I concentrate, but then those are covered up by my fringe. Blonde hair still as thick and glossy as it was when Bill first ran his fingers through it, said it drove him wild. Body: not too bad, still slim considering two small lives had built a home in there for nine months.
“Jillian! Are you listening to me?”
I wasn’t. “What?”
“I said we’ve got to do something.”
Surely she wasn’t expecting me to join the Bill fan club.
“William was worried,” she said. “He thought someone was following him. He could be in some sort of trouble.”
“He hasn’t phoned me for two weeks. He always phones me on a Friday night before I go Sequence Dancing. It’s unlike him not to keep in touch.”
“Tosh!” (Tosh?) I don’t know what made me go for something so pathetically lame when I’d wanted to say bollocks. But keeping in touch wasn’t exactly a Bill speciality.
“Now look here . . .” she said.
“Bill doesn’t give a shit about me or the kids or anybody else on the planet. He’s gone off for some fun as usual.”
“Language, Jillian! I just thought you’d be interested in what was happening to your children’s father.”
“Children’s father? That’s rich,” I said. “He knows as much about parenting as my tits know about playing the piano, Judith. Which isn’t one hell of a lot.”
“Well really!” she blustered. And I knew I had her on the ropes.
Yes, I was interested in what Bill was up to. I wanted to know why he hadn’t paid the child support that was due. He had his own recruitment agency and was making good money.
I could hear Judith puffing away in the background, waiting for something. Don’t ask me what. She knew how I felt about her son. About the way the bastard had abandoned us. Granted he’d left us the laptop, his fancy sound system and all his techie toys, but that was only because he’d wanted a fast getaway, for he’d also stripped the money from our account.
“Jillian, please . . .”
It took an effort for the woman to plead. It wasn’t natural to her. And part of me – the compassionate me – felt a small surge of sympathy for her. She’d built her life on the shifting sands of her son, a self-centred bully. She was to be pitied surely?
“He’s the children’s father”, she whined again, as if the repetition would somehow impress me. It had the opposite effect. It buried the compassionate me and allowed the survivor to resurface. The woman who’d struggled to keep a roof over our heads when that job was down to her spoilt son, a weakling with as much backbone as a retarded worm.
“When he acts like a father, I’ll treat him like one,” I said and slammed the phone down. My hand shook.
I went to the kitchen. There was an emergency bottle of wine in the fridge. It’s not like I’m a piss artist or anything, I can take the stuff or leave it. But the kids were in bed. The dishes were washed. Tomorrow’s prep was done. And, unlike Alice, I don’t need to know which vineyard my wine comes from. Right now a glass or two of anything over 11 percent would help undo the damage done by the formidable Judith Murdock and her absentee son. Serve him right if he was in trouble.
Three glasses later (my glasses are small) I was wishing all sorts of bad luck on the man: plagues of locusts, boils and all that dramatic, biblical stuff. Not like me at all, I’m not usually vindictive. But the Californian Chardonnay was a lethal 14.5 percent. So I blame that. If Alice had been there, she’d have warned me to be careful what I wish for. But she wasn’t, so I wished away.
James McDonald was a tall, striking man with an unfortunate name, unless of course you were a fan of Big Macs. He wasn’t what you’d call buff, more on the slim side. Not exactly eye-candy, as Alice had already pointed out. But hardly an eye-sore. And there was something about him that was memorable; the way he carried himself, his confidence. He wasn’t heading for senility either. I’d put him down as late thirties, but he had one of those faces that wasn’t easy to fix a number to.
Yes, he definitely had charm. Still, as a divorced mother with two small kids and a mortgage the size of the national debt, I already had enough on my hands. I couldn’t act like a singleton and throw myself into a frustrating search for the perfect bloke. But that doesn’t mean I’m dead. A man would be good. But the right man. Not that Bill had set the bar high.
There were things I liked about James McDonald. He reminded me how good it was to laugh. But there was an unnerving directness about him, bluntness even. Questions he’d asked, and the way the dark hazel eyes had fixed on mine made me feel uncomfortable, like the protective shell I’d grown was being cracked open.
With time, I might have got used to this directness. But James had blown it. He’d become downright creepy, bombarding my phone with messages, posting notes through my letter box.
“I’m putting the phone down,” I said. I was getting braver about that sort of thing. First the demon mother-in-law and now James McDonald.
“No! Don’t do that. Please, Jill. It’ll only take a few minutes – promise. But it’s imperative I see you.”
Imperative? Hardly romantic, was it? Still, there was something in his voice, desperate but sincere. And for the first time, I thought that maybe the man had more on his mind than seeing the inside of my bedroom door.
He jumped into my silence with both feet. “Look, I need to explain some things to you.”
“What? Like who you really are? You’re not a businessman, are you?” It had suddenly come to me. A belated flash of insight, and something about the way he’d asked endless questions on our first (and last) date. More than the usual getting-to-know-you stuff.
“That too,’ he said. ‘But I like you, and I’d hate anything bad to happen to you.”
Although his tone was matter-of-fact, there was something sinister in the words, an underlying threat. And I was someone who dealt in words. Who analysed every nuance in them. Suddenly, I found it hard to breathe.
The phone was so heavy in my hand that I dropped it. The room went into a sickening spiral around me and I sank awkwardly into the sofa, watching its pattern blur, listening to the dramatic thud of my own pulse. Its amplified sound screamed in my ears, till it was replaced by the screech of tyres in the road outside, the desperate pounding on my front door - and the splintering noise as someone prised it open without a key.