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Authors: Kate Long

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BOOK: Queen Mum
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*

By the time I came back to bed my feet were frozen. It was only 3 a.m. so the room was still dark, except for the red glow of Tom’s digital clock. I lay down next to him,
pulled the cover up to my neck and curled my body round his back to get warm.

It was then that I began to wonder.

*

Juno
– So, ha ha, welcome to our family conference, and can I say right from the word go, this isn’t about me and My Rules, it’s about the family
agreeing together and reaching a compromise. Because this week is about negotiation and not imposing. Yes? All right, then. First on the agenda is the cooking.

Lee
– The boys are sorry they didn’t eat your pizza.

Juno
– It doesn’t matter, honestly.

Lee
– Fussy buggers, both of them. I don’t know where they get it from ’cause I’ll eat anything, me. I was the only one who’d eat squid
last year when we were on holiday.

Juno
– Really, it doesn’t matter, forget it. Only, I think . . . you see, what we do in our house is to give the girls an opportunity to get involved with
planning and making the meals.

Lee
– You hear that, lads? I bet I know what’s coming.

Juno
– Because there are all kinds of benefits. They’re made more aware of the cost of food, and sourcing it, and within their budget they have to compare
the qualities of various items, and then they’re learning to cook, and to consider other people’s tastes and requirements, I mean if somebody’s a vegetarian or can’t eat
gluten, and I tell you, it doesn’t half make them intolerant of faddy eaters when they’re having to take into account so-and-so doesn’t like pineapple and so-and-so’s
off mushrooms.

Chris
– So you want us to cook your meals for you, then?

Lee
– Hey up, lads.
[Laughs]

Juno
– No, no, certainly not, not all of them. But I think one a week’s quite reasonable, don’t you? Oh, come on, there’s no need to look like
that. It’ll be fun.

Lee [Still laughing] –
I agree. It’s about time they stirred their stumps.

Chris
– Thanks, Dad.

Juno
– Great. Shall we say, then, Wednesday nights?

Chris
– Both of them?

Juno
–Yes.

Lee
– Juno and I can put our feet up and watch telly while you slave away over a hot stove. Sounds good to me.

Lee [To camera]
– I think it’s good her making them get off their backsides and help out. Kim dun’t do that, she leaves them to their own devices.
Anything for a quiet life. But I don’t think they know how to boil an egg, to be truthful. They can stick summat in the microwave, that’s about it.
     Thing is, though, Juno’s got their backs up. It’s, I don’t know, the way she speaks to you, I can’t explain. And she definitely
shouldn’t have told them to take their posters of Jordan down.

Juno [To video diary]
– I said to them, and I was quite reasonable, if you can justify the role of porn in society, you can keep your girlie pictures up. But they
just went off in a strop. What can you do?
     That dog’s been on my bed again, as well.

*

Looking back, did I set out to dislike her?

Before Kim and I met for our one and only lunch date, Kieran the producer came round and had a chat with me, talked about the aims of the programme, the target audience, the great feedback
participants had got in the months after their episode had aired. I asked if he knew how Juno was getting on and he said no, that was in the hands of his colleague at the other house and they
didn’t communicate during filming. Liar, I thought. So I asked how it was going at Cestrian Park. ‘Good,’ was all he gave me.

‘How’s Manny doing?’ I said.

‘Great.’

‘And the girls?’

‘They’re great too.’

After a whole week there must have been something more to say, but he wasn’t giving it up. He did tell me that they’d film Kim and me for about an hour, then edit it down to a couple
of minutes at the most.

‘You understand, we may even cut you out altogether?’ I said I didn’t mind. ‘So, as far as you can, try to ignore the cameras. Do what you’d do if Juno was
here,’ he told me lightly.

I still expected it to be Juno when I walked into the kitchen, which is mad, I know. By rights I should have been nervous about being
on TV!
but I wasn’t; the weirdness was not the
men in black standing around with electrical equipment, but Kim being in Juno’s place. She was sitting at the table but she got up straight away and came over to give me a hug. Her hair smelt
of cigarettes. I wondered what Manny thought about that.

‘Come in, come in,’ she was saying, as if it was her house. The cameras wheeled back as she crossed the floor. ‘Let me make a brew. I’m doing cheese on toast for us, is
that OK? Or I can open a tin of soup.’

Her voice was husky, her tone friendly, and I should have liked the familiar Bolton cadences. But she was just wrong for the place.

‘Cheese on toast is fine. Have you worked out where everything is?’

‘Oh yeah. I had all the drawers and cupboards out on the first day. She’s a load of gadgets, your friend, han’t she?’

As Kim moved round the room I took in again her shape – smaller than Juno, curvier – and her fair colouring. Unlike Juno, Kim wore full make-up, and her hair was sleek and straight.
A good cleavage, and she wore her faded jeans well, with little black boots. I got the impression she was enjoying the cameras on her.

‘How are you getting on with the girls?’

‘Oh.’ She turned from the grill. ‘Brilliant. They’re smashing. I tell you, we get on like a house on fire.’

My heart swelled with pride on Juno’s behalf. ‘They are lovely, aren’t they? Very polite, and mature.’

‘Yeah, I said to Lee before I ever came, I’ll get the girls on my side from the start. Everything else’ll follow.’

You seem pleased with yourself, I thought.

Over the meal I got chance to look at her face more closely. She had a few lines round her eyes and her mascara was too thick. But she’d been pretty, in an obvious sort of way.

‘And how do you get on with Manny?’

‘Oh, Manny.’ She flicked her hair back over her shoulder. ‘Yeah, he’s coming round. He was a bit . . . you know, stand-offish at first.’

‘That doesn’t sound like Manny.’

‘I think it was just, we’d got off on the wrong foot. He didn’t like me smoking in the house, fair enough, so we agreed I’d go outside, I’m trying to cut down
anyway. But then he picked up this book I’d brought, ’cause I knew Juno didn’t work so I thought I’d be sitting around a fair while, and he sort of sneered at it.’

I thought of Sunday lunches we’d had together at the pub, Manny sharing out the paper, separating the supplements and passing them round. ‘Which are you most in need of,’ he
always said to Tom, ‘Style or Culture?’ Great joke.

I shrugged. ‘I’m sure he didn’t mean to. He sometimes looks stern even when he’s happy.’

‘Whatever. He came in later with another book and said – ’ she put on a posh voice – ‘“Have you ever read Emily Lincoln? She writes the most amazing
characters, and they’re from your part of the world.”’

‘He recommends her to everyone. He met her on an arts course once, that’s all.’

‘Oh.’ Kim licked the edge of her hand where the cheese had caught it. ‘I see. Anyway, Tuesday he goes, “Let’s watch a video,” and he showed me this
black-and-white film about – I couldn’t tell you what it was about, to be honest. There was a cow on a bed at one point. Bloody weird.’

I smiled. ‘I know the one you mean. It’s part of a surrealist collection he has. He’s got a thing about them at the moment.’

‘Then we went to the theatre, that was Thursday, and saw this play about a woman who was kept in a box because her dad had been a bear. That was the plot. I clapped at the end but I
can’t say I got what was going on. So, all in all – ’ she leaned across the table to me and lowered her voice, which was a pointless exercise with microphones everywhere –
‘I’m feeling thick.’

I wondered what would happen if I went, ‘Yes, you probably are.’ I said; ‘You shouldn’t feel that way. It’s just that Manny has this tremendous interest in the arts
because of his job. It makes us all feel inadequate from time to time.’

She beamed. ‘You’re a love. He’s all right, I’m having a nice time. But, I tell you what, do you know what I said to him when we came out of the theatre? I said,
“This isn’t
Educating Rita
, you know.” I was laughing but I sort of meant it. I think he’s under the impression I spend all my time watching
Coronation
Street
.’

‘I’m sure he’s not,’ I said.

While I filled a washing-up bowl, Kim went to the back door for a cigarette.

‘So, tell us about your friend,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘How do you think she’ll be coping round at mine?’

Where to start. ‘I was hoping you’d be able to give me an idea about that, actually.’

Kim raised her eyebrows but said nothing.

‘Well, you know she doesn’t work. But she’s not idle. As you’ll have found out this week. She does a stack for charity—’

‘I know, I’ve been in the hospice shop all morning. I’ve had ironing up to my eyeballs, like I don’t get enough with Lee and the lads.’

‘—and she gives a lot of time to the girls. She likes home-making, gardening, cooking. She’s fairly tidy and organized. She’s a very kind person and she’s, oh,
bristling with energy, all the time. She’s a terrific organizer. Say, if you wanted to throw a party, Juno would have the ideas and the drive to make it go with a swing. Last year she did a
Mexican one with a piñata hanging from the beech and we all had to take turns—’

‘I prefer my parties spontaneous; you know, everyone piling back after the pub. I can’t be doing with too much planning.’

‘Juno’s spontaneous too.’ I knew how stupid I sounded. I tried a different tack. ‘So, what changes have you made this week?’

‘Oh!’ she laughed. ‘Nothing specific. You spend a few days just sussing out how everything normally works, do you get me? Like, the way Juno’s got them all in a rota with
the washing-up and meals, fantastic. So I haven’t mucked about too much with that. But they’ve a funny set-up with the TV, I think they only watch one programme a night or something.
And they’re always, what,
around
you. My lads, they spend three-quarters of their lives shut away in their bedrooms, you wonder what they get up to, or perhaps you’re best off
not knowing. I’d say, generally speaking, they need to loosen up.’

‘Who? Sophie and Pascale?’

‘All of them.’ Kim exhaled smoke into the garden. ‘I’ve got some ideas up my sleeve for next week. Should shake them up. In a fun way.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Right.’ I wanted to argue that Juno was fun too but I didn’t know how to say it without it sounding limp. ‘Listen, from what you know of Juno
and your family, what do you think she’ll be doing in your house this week?’

Kim gave a half-smile and leant her temple against the door jamb. ‘Banging her head against a brick wall, I should think,’ she said.

Blue smoke curled up above her, off into the sky.

*

Juno
– I don’t find this funny.

Lee
– Yeah, but, you’ve got to give them ten out of ten for initiative. And there’s no washing-up, so it’s also labour-saving.

Marco
– And you did a pizza. How come your pizza’s OK but our pizza’s wrong?

Chris
– ’Cause we even got a variety of toppings, so if somebody dun’t like chilli—

Lee
– He’s got a point. Very thoughtful, lads.

Juno
– The whole idea, and you know this, was for you to plan and shop for ingredients and then to cook a meal from scratch. Not to pick up the phone and have it
delivered ready-made to your door. Apart from anything else, it’s not cost-effective. How much was all this?

Marco
– Did you get any change, Chris?

Chris
– Three quid.

Marco
– Twenty-two pounds.

Juno
– You see, you could have cooked an absolute mountain of pasta, popped in some lovely fresh veg, for about a quarter of that, do you see? I’m not being
snobby here, it’s not that I have a problem with fast food per se—

Lee
– Where did you get the money?

Marco
– It’s ours. Our allowance. She should be grateful we spent our own money on her.

Juno
– How much money do you give them a week, Lee?

Lee
– A tenner each.

Juno
– A tenner? Each? My girls get half that, and they have to do jobs to earn it.

Marco [Whispers to Chris] –
Poor buggers.

Juno
– Thank you for that.

Lee
– Look, love, I’m going to say summat now, and I don’t want you to think I’m being rude, but I earn a good wage and I’m blowed if
I’ll see my lads go short. ’Cause why else do you work, if it’s not to treat your family? They’re good boys, on the whole, but they want to go out with their mates,
enjoy themselves while they’re young.

Juno
– But don’t you think it’s teaching them money comes too easily? Do you show them how to budget at all?

Lee
– I think the best way to learn with money is to make your own mistakes. And, I have to say, Juno, I know what your husband earns and I think you could afford
a sight more than a fiver a week on your girls. I’d be the last person to accuse someone of being tight with money, but, honest . . .

Chris
– I got you olives on your pizza, see.

Marco
– She’s crying, Dad.

Lee
– Oh, bloody hell.

Juno
– It’s all right. I’m fine. It’s just been a long week. I’m missing Manny. I’m fine.

Lee
– Come on, love. Marco, pass us some kitchen roll.

Juno
– Why won’t you work with me?

Chris
– I got a Vienetta for afters.

Chapter Six

That night Tom and I had the sad, clinging-together sex that we sometimes have these days. There were months when, after we went to bed, we lay apart, weighted down against the
mattress with grief. Then, about a year after Joe died, we had a period of really frantic sex, I don’t know why or where it came from. Possibly we were trying for another baby; I left my cap
out once or twice but I never conceived. Just as well. I’m not sure I could have opened myself up to all that potential heartbreak again. Now the sex we have is, what, desperate; Tom holds me
tight as he can, pushes so far into me I can feel him in my guts, like a faint labour-twinge. Once he burst into tears afterwards, but when I tried to talk to him about it he threw the covers back
angrily and took himself off to the bathroom, locking the door.

BOOK: Queen Mum
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