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Authors: Kate Long

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BOOK: Queen Mum
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‘Come through,’ said Manny. ‘I’m afraid most of the spread’s been demolished.’

‘Ally didn’t feel too good,’ said Tom, his hand on my back protectively.

‘Just a migraine. It’s gone now.’

‘Oh, Ally. You OK?’ Juno looked up from where she was sitting with May Owen. May smiled in my direction but didn’t meet my eyes.

‘Mmm.’ I thought it best to be noncommittal.

‘Come in the kitchen and see what’s left of the buffet. If you’re up to eating?’

I let Juno take me through. ‘Has it been busy? I’m sorry, nearly everyone’s gone—’

She cut me off with a cheery laugh. ‘Every single person I invited turned up, when does that ever happen? Just as well I made all this olive bread. Can you manage a mouthful? What can I
get you to drink?’

‘White wine, please. Just a drop. So how’ve they all been with the news? Any dissenters?’

‘No, no. Everyone’s been charming about it, they all say they’ll vote for me. I thought some people might be sniffy but perhaps reality TV’s so much a part of our lives
now, it has a certain cachet. Quite a few of them wanted to be in it, milling about in the background, that sort of thing.’

‘What did you say?’

‘That it wasn’t up to me. It’s not, either. We’re all supposed to carry on as normal, that’s the brief.’

‘I bet there’s some serious dog-walking goes on past your window while the camera crew’s here, though.’

‘You bet. I did wonder about you popping round one day.’

‘What, while they’re still filming? You are joking?’

Juno shook her head and took a handful of peanuts from the table. ‘Thing is, we’re always having lunch together, aren’t we? And they don’t want me – this other
woman, rather – to stop any of my usual routines.’

‘Oh, but . . . ’

‘It probably won’t be shown, anyway. They film for two weeks and edit it down to an hour, that’s thirty minutes for each mum, so you’ll almost certainly end up on the
cutting-room floor.’

‘Suits me.’ Christ; me on telly. ‘I’m not sure, Juno. I’m not the type.’

‘Look, if you really hate the idea, forget it. Just a thought.’ She gave me a big warm smile to show she wasn’t cross.

‘Let me think about it,’ I heard myself saying.

May appeared in the doorway. ‘I was telling Manny, I’d better be off. I was about to leave nearly an hour ago. And I’m JP-ing tomorrow, Family Court.’ She was grinning
madly, goggle-eyed. I know that nervous rictus.
OH GOD, YOUR SON DIED AND I MUSTN’T MENTION IT!

As Juno showed her out I stayed where I was and picked olives out of my bread. When she came back, I said, ‘Have you heard anything about the family you’re swapping with
yet?’

‘Mm, yes. She’s a secretary in a timber merchant’s, and he’s a builder. Kim and Lee, they’re called. From your neck of the woods, actually. I mean, where you came
from.’

‘Bolton?’

‘Yeah. And they’re slightly younger than us, and they’ve got two teenage boys. That’s all, really. We haven’t seen pictures or anything.’

‘What, of the brickie and his brood?’ said Manny, strolling in and sitting himself at the pine table.

Tom stayed in the doorway, sipping whisky.

‘Don’t be so snobby,’ said Juno. ‘Don’t you dare say that sort of thing on TV, they’ll crucify you.’

‘Just stating facts. The man lays bricks for a living. Nothing wrong with that. But that’s what he does.’

‘Some might say it’s a more useful job to society than funding arts projects,’ said Juno, smiling sweetly. ‘Building homes for people, offices for them to work in. It
could be argued that his taxes pay for your council-funded job.’

Manny smiled back. ‘I wondered how long it would take you to construct that particular argument. You’re the one who’s been wondering if Kim’ll be able to operate the
Gaggia and whether she’ll remember to buy Fair Trade bananas.’

‘That’s not being snobbish. Is it?’ Juno turned an open face to us but Tom had picked up the free paper off the fridge and was leafing through it. I shook my head.

There was a thumping noise above us, as if something heavy and solid had fallen over, and a bass beat started.

‘God. That’ll be our lovely children. I dread to think what they’re doing. Manny, could you pop up and have a word?’

Manny’s chair scraped across the quarry tiles as he got up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Juno to Tom, ‘I’ll tell the girls to turn it off when you go. You don’t want Rawshock blasting into the night air, do you?’

‘No,’ said Tom.

Over our heads, the music stopped.

‘Ben’s into ambient stuff at the moment; some of that’s quite pleasant. His problem is, he gets an obsession with the same song for weeks and he plays nothing else. At the
moment we have that miserable “Shamed” track whenever he’s fed up, it’s pretty wearing. But he went through his top-level screaming-vocals stage when he was eleven or
twelve.’

‘Lucky you. I play classical in the afternoons, it’s lovely and peaceful, then the girls come home and it’s thud-thud-thud. Still . . . ’

What sounded like shouting was coming through now, Manny’s deep boom. I couldn’t make out any words though because Juno started talking again.

‘Do you miss Bolton? I know you go up to see your mum, Ally—’

‘It’s where we met, where we married, where we had the boys,’ said Tom. ‘I’d go back and live there like a shot.’

‘Would you?’ I was amazed. ‘I never knew you felt like that.’

‘There was never any point in saying it. There’s no point now. I have to go where ICI send me, and they sent me to Ellesmere Port.’

Juno was watching me.

‘I thought you liked your job,’ I said.

‘I do. I just . . . We had some happy times there.’ The happiest, I knew he was thinking. ‘Those years I was at UMIST and you were working at Skittles doing your NNEB.
We’d just got married and everyone was saying, It won’t last, you’re too young, why don’t you wait and finish your education. And we didn’t care, did we? That bloody
minute bathroom and that God-awful carpet. There was mould in the kitchen where the extension hadn’t been put on properly, and no water pressure in the evening. But it didn’t
matter.’

‘You were poor but ’appy,’ said Manny, walking back in and looking pleased with himself. ‘I’ve told Pascale that if the noise starts again, I shall take a boat trip
along the Dee and throw her CDs into the water one at a time. I would, too.’

‘I know you would,’ said Juno.

I wanted to ask about Ben, was he OK, was he behaving himself. Instead I said, ‘Of course, Chester’s a lot more aesthetically pleasing than Bolton. Lots of history. Nice
shops.’

‘Oh, nice
shops
,’ said Tom.

‘And you like Meadowbank,’ added Juno. ‘I know you love working there. You’ve said lots of times how much nicer the kids are.’

‘Toddlers are toddlers. They’re all nice, anywhere.’

There was a clattering on the stairs and, seconds later, Sophie burst into the kitchen followed by Pascale and Ben.

‘Can we light the garden flares, Dad?’

Manny opened his mouth to speak but it was Juno who answered. ‘Absolutely not. It’s too cold and too late. Soph, are you wearing lipstick?’

Sophie scraped her top teeth over her lip and grinned. ‘Only gloss. Anyway, you said I could, round the house.’

‘You don’t need make-up,’ I said, stroking her long dark hair as she leaned against the unit next to me.

‘You mean she’s too young.’

‘I mean she’s too pretty.’

Sophie flicked her head back in a model-pose and pouted.

‘Gorgeous, darling; give me more,’ said Pascale, clicking an imaginary camera.

Girls are so much older these days. It seems like only last week that Sophie was a little stick-girl running about wildly in the garden. Now, at thirteen, every move is studied. She could easily
get into any night club. Pascale, at fifteen, could pass for twenty, no probs.

Sophie dropped her head back down and glanced at Ben from under her lashes in a moment of pure flirtation. It had occurred to me before that she might have a tiny crush on him – he’s
a nice-looking boy – but I didn’t know whether he’d noticed or even whether he’d be interested. I wasn’t sure how he saw the girls, for all their charms.

I didn’t know my son at all, really.

Pascale pushed forward and came to sit at the table, where she picked up the near-empty bowl of hummus and began scraping her finger round the rim.

‘Oh, honestly,’ said Juno. ‘You’d think they’d been brought up by wolves.’

Pascale smacked her lips together. ‘Yum, love that stuff. Can we have some more wine, then?’

Juno rolled her eyes but slid the bottle forward on the table. She believes in them drinking alcohol young. That way, she reckons, they’ll learn to handle it sensibly. The girls have been
having watered-down wine with their dinner since they were eight, or something.

Pascale wiped her fingers on a paper napkin, then reached across and caught the bottle by the neck. ‘Ben?’

Ben’s eyes swivelled to me. ‘Yeah.’

‘Soph, you’ll want some, won’t you?’

Sophie nodded and leaned forward to take the glass.

‘Anyone else while I’m here?’

‘Top me up,’ said Manny.

I saw Pascale’s slim bare arm extended as she poured, her skin smooth and brown, and for a moment she made me think of when I was her age. All that energy and excitement and drama and joy;
waking up every morning with my mind fizzing. Not that I was ever half so self-assured as Pascale. ‘We don’t push ourselves forward,’ was Mum’s mantra, ‘we don’t
draw attention to ourselves.’ Whereas Juno tells her daughters, ‘You go for it! Of course you can do it!’ No wonder they’re so confident.

‘Cheers,’ said Sophie, knocking her glass against Ben’s. Impossible to read his expression, lips turning up at the corners but whether with embarrassment or happiness I
couldn’t have said.

‘Yes, cheers to you all,’ I said, raising my glass. ‘To a successful coronation, Queen Mum.’

‘Thanks,’ said Juno. ‘I think we’re on our way now.’

Afterwards, back home in bed, I imagined talking to Ben about the girls.

— Sophie likes you, you know.

— Does she?

— I think so. Yes, I’m sure; properly likes you. Fancies you.

— Yeah?

— Do you fancy her?

— No.

—  She’s beautiful. And she’s nice with it. And clever. She’s got everything going for her.

— She’s thirteen, Mum.

— Too young for you?

— Sheesh. I don’t know. Get off my case, will you? Next to me, Tom shifted under the duvet and sighed. His eyes were closed but I didn’t think he was asleep. We could have
talked; I’d have liked that tonight.

— Would you mind me being on telly?

— What do you think?

— It wouldn’t be a big deal. A walk-on part, at most. I’d like to support Juno.

—  Of course you would. Do it if you want. As long as I’m not involved in any way, shape or form. I’ve told you what I think about it.

— Tom?

— Yeah?

— Do you really want to go back to Bolton?

— I’d like to go back to that time. Wouldn’t you? As we walked away I’d looked back at the house and seen Manny and Juno through the stained glass of their front
door, kissing.

— Yes. Good God, yes. Like a shot.

*

Sophie
– Mum’s always on the go, she’s always dashing around—

Pascale
– She goes, ‘I’ll meet myself coming back one of these days’—

Sophie
– Yeah, I reckon she chews that guava gum, Buzz Gum thingy, to keep herself going—

Pascale
– No, she’s addicted to caffeine, that’s how she has all this energy. She’s always on about drugs—

Sophie
– God, yeah, is she ever—

Pascale
– But she’s the biggest junkie of us all. She’s just in love with that espresso machine.

Sophie
– Amphetamines for the middle-aged.

Pascale [Giggling]
– Oh, God, Soph, you can’t say that on TV—

Sophie
– I just did!

Manny [To camera]
– Juno’ll cope fine wherever she is. She’s got such a positive attitude. She’d have been great in, you know, the war, cheering
people up in their bomb shelters, knitting socks for the boys at the front. She gets on with everyone. She meets all types in her charity work. Old ladies, single mums, low-income families; she
never bats an eyelid, just asks what she can do to help. I suppose she is competitive, but in the nicest possible way. Anyway, competition is what drives the human spirit, isn’t it? My
idea of hell? A wife who sat around all day, I think. Someone who expected to be entertained, who whinged a lot. Because Juno’s got this household running like clockwork, like an army
camp. We all, any time of the day, know where we’re supposed to be and what we should be doing. She never stops. Never.

Juno [Voiceover]
– I’m hoping it’s going to be a sort of cultural exchange. Like going to France. Or something.

Chapter Three

After Joe died I went back to work at Meadowbank. ‘Is that sensible, wanting to carry on there?’ Mum’s neighbour said. It must have seemed like the most
painful place I could have been. Joe’s coat-peg sticker was there still from the six months he spent at the nursery before starting big school. His outgrown anorak was in the spare-clothes
box.

All I can say is, being among children felt as right as anything could have done. I could stroke all the little heads I wanted in there. Light, innocent contact, not the touching of someone
who’s rigid with guilt, or so full of their own pain that they duck away from your arms. Just normal, unthinking fingers curled round yours.

Tom had been worried I might do something crazy. ‘Are you sure it’s wise, Ally?’

‘You mean am I about to go on the run with a toddler under my arm?’ I’d yelled back. I’d been so livid with him that I’d broken the door off the ice compartment in
the fridge, then lain on Joe’s bed and thought about taking an overdose. It was my good luck that Juno turned up as the frenzy was passing. Anyone else, I’d have pretended I was out,
but she’d got a special doorbell ring – her idea – so I went down and let her in. When I told her what Tom had said, she scoffed. ‘Utter tosh,’ she said. That was all,
but I felt instantly better.

BOOK: Queen Mum
4.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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