Authors: Tess Stimson
‘Of course it’s not mine,’ Cate snaps, when I finally dredge up courage and corner her a few days later.
‘Are you quite sure, darling?’
‘Get real. Like I’d wear anything that sad.’
‘So you haven’t been to the Bayswater flat recently?’
Her eyes slide away. ‘I told you, not for months.’ Now I know she’s lying.
‘Cate,’ I venture, ‘you and Dan, you will be careful, won’t you? I’d hate to see you—’
‘What? Trapped like you were?’
She doesn’t mean it. She’s a teenager. She doesn’t realize how much it hurts.
‘Miss out on chances you could have had,’ I say calmly.
Her pretty face twists. ‘I’m so sorry to have been such an inconvenience,
. If I’d
known I was depriving the world of the next Picasso, I’d have taken care not to have been born.’
‘Give it up, Mum. We all know how much you wish you’d never had us. Well, don’t worry, there’s only me left at home now,
you’ve managed to get rid of Sam and Ben. I’ll be out of your way soon. Then you’ll have Dad all to yourself, just like you’ve always wanted.’
‘You know, if that corset isn’t mine and it’s not yours, whose can it be, I wonder?’
I realize with shock that she
me to think it belongs to another woman. She’s enjoying this.
Does she really hate me that much?
‘Caitlin, I’ve never wished I hadn’t had you for a second,’ I say with sudden passion. I grip her fiercely by the
you and your brothers. You’ve brought more happiness into my life than you can possibly know. Motherhood is much harder than you expect, but I wouldn’t undo a second of it. I
just wish I’d had a bit more time to find out who
was before I took on responsibility for someone else, that’s all.‘
Cate trembles. With anger, misery or impatience, I don’t know.
I let her go, and she immediately puts the width of the kitchen between us. Much as I want to, I resist the urge
to chase after her and hug her like I used to when she was small.
‘Cate, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you,’ I say. ‘The world’s your oyster. Don’t be in such a rush. Do
all the things I never had time to do,’ I add, trying not to sound bitter. ‘Follow your dreams. Be a journalist if you want to. Win that Pulitzer – oh, Cate, I’m not blind. I know how much it means to you to go to NYU. If
that’s what you really want, I’ll support you. It’s your father you have to convince, not me. But don’t think I won’t worry about you and miss you every second you’re away, because I will.’
Confusion and yearning chase across her pale features. For a second, I almost think I’ve reached her.
Then the phone rings, and the moment is broken.
‘Cate, darling, wait, please wait—’
The door slams. I want to go after her, but realize I’ll only chase her further away. She has to come to me.
Miserably, I pick up the phone.
‘Beth, it’s Anne.’
Oh, Lord. The last person I want to talk to now is William’s mother. I never know what to say to her. Her son’s refused to speak to
her for twenty years; against his wishes, I’ve maintained sporadic contact, mainly for the sake of the children, but also for Anne, as one mother to another. I just have to think how I’d feel if Ben or Sam were to cut me out of their
Or Cate, of course.
I try to sound welcoming. ‘Anne, how are you?’
‘Not that good, actually, Beth,’ she says briskly. ‘I’ve just come from the doctor.’
‘Oh dear, poor you. Is everything OK?’
‘Actually,’ she says, ‘that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.’
Fortunately, given the appalling way I let her down last week, Eithne doesn’t stay angry with me for long –
‘It’s lucky I love you,’ she sighs, ‘or I wouldn’t tell you about the three red
stickers currently adorning your paintings; oh, calm down, Beth, I
you they were good’ – and it’s she who gets me to see the funny side of the fiasco with Dan.
he fancy you?’ she demands, tilting her head (green this week, in honour
of St Patrick’s Day) to one side in that way she has. ‘You’re the experienced, exciting older woman Cate will grow into one day. No wonder he’s smitten. And before you ask, he’s the spitting image of William twenty years
ago, which explains
She makes it sound so safe; so
I cheer up immensely. Every foolish, ever-so-slightly-lovestruck
middle-aged woman should have a friend like Eithne.
So when Dan rings my mobile and begs me to model for our life class this evening – ‘Please, Beth, it’s for my teaching credits,
my usual girl ran away with a trapeze artist, no, don’t laugh, please, it’s
’ – well, how can I refuse? Frankly, after that depressing conversation with William’s mother, I could do
with letting my hair down. And if there’s a little guilty
, well, where’s the harm? It’s not like I’d ever
I go home to change. Well, not quite change – after all, it’s not like I’m going to be wearing
clothes – but
I burst into the kitchen feeling rather giddy and light-headed.
‘Oh! William! You’re home already.’ I blush to the roots of my hair. ‘I’m not stopping, just needed to get a few
bits, then I’m going back for the life class – I did tell you I’d be out tonight, didn’t I?’
He gives his steak a grumpy bash with the hammer.
‘You don’t mind, do you, darling?’ I venture. ‘I don’t have to go, of course, but they don’t like us to miss
classes and I did promise—’
‘Of course I don’t mind. I told you, I think it’s good for you to get out a bit.’ He shoots me a suspicious look.
‘You are taking your pills, aren’t you, Beth? We don’t want another repeat of—’
‘Yes, yes, all right,’ I say crossly.
I fidget, screwing up my courage to tell him about Anne. Got to tell him, got to, got to. Can’t leave it any longer. Maybe, I think in
burst of wild optimism, he’ll even be pleased, once he’s got over the surprise.
The words come out in a rush. ‘William, I invited your mother down for lunch on Sunday.’
The blood drains from his face.
Oh, God. Oh, God, this is going to be even worse than I thought.
I gabble nervously. ‘It’s Easter Sunday, William, and she’s eighty on Tuesday. You can’t let this silly row go on for
ever. I mean, twenty
. I thought now was as good a time as any to let bygones be bygones, and since Ben and Sam will be home tomorrow too—’
‘You – did –
‘ – and I knew you’d just say no if I asked. Come on, darling. I know you don’t get on with her, but my mother
isn’t all sweetness and light either, and I manage to—’
He looks like he wants to brain me with the tenderizer. ‘It’s hardly the same thing!’
‘Yes, but I understand how you—’
‘Your mother didn’t kill your father!’
is he so pig-headed? I appreciate that he needs to blame someone, but the only person responsible for
his father’s suicide is his father. No one drives another person to suicide. They choose it despite – to spite – you. I know that better than anyone.
‘Nor did yours, William.’
‘You weren’t there.’
He wasn’t there either: a child never knows the reality of its parents’ marriage. But of course I can’t say that to him. I
‘She’s your mother, William,’ I say faintly.
There are times I almost hate my husband. ‘I can’t, it’d be too—’
‘Please, William. If something happens to her and you still haven’t—’
‘Aren’t you going to be late for your class?’ he snaps.
She has leukaemia!
I want to cry. She won’t reach her eighty-first birthday and if you don’t
make it up with her, you’ll feel even worse about her than you do about your father!
But I know this isn’t a battle I’m going to win. I hoist
my bag on to my shoulder, and quietly let myself back into the night.
‘Is it warm enough in here?’ Dan asks.
I nod nervously, still strung out by my row with William.
The six students sitting in a semicircle around me are suddenly very busy with their paper and pencils.
Dan hands me a long red silk robe. ‘You might want to put this on for now. Easier to slip it off when you’re ready.’
I shut myself in the tiny bathroom to change. Oh, Lord.
did I agree to this?
Get a grip, Beth. This is ridiculous. You stripped off happily in front of a thousand people the other weekend. Bit late to come over all
Quickly, before I lose all confidence, I whip off my clothes and fold them into a small, neat pile on the loo, tucking my greying granny knickers
out of sight beneath my jeans. Maybe if I pose carefully I can hide the floppiest bits of my tummy. Sort of lose them beneath the chenille throw on the chaise longue. I could squinch my bosoms together with my arms so they don’t splay sideways like
two fried eggs. And if I tilt my head back, that’ll get rid of the double chin—
Oh, for heaven’s sake. I’m forty-one, and the mother of three children. Short of turning out all the lights and blindfolding the
students, I can’t hide it.
I put on the silk robe and mentally gird my (rather cellulity) loins. I don’t care what Dan thinks. It’s not like he hasn’t
seen it all before.
I settle myself on the chaise longue in the centre of the room. At least we’re in Dan’s private
studio, not the huge one at the school. Though I do wish it wasn’t
so bright and revealing in here—
‘Are you ready, Beth? Can I get you anything?’
I gulp and shake my head.
‘OK. Whenever you’re ready.’
I untie the belt of my robe, and let it fall from my shoulders. There are no indrawn gasps of horror. No one runs screaming from the room. Six
pencils scratch at six easels, and I slowly start to relax. This isn’t going to be so bad. It’s only one class. I can do this.
‘Feel free to chat, everyone,’ Dan says, moving between the students. He puts on some music; I recognize it as Davy Kirkland from
Cate’s endless playing. ‘Let’s keep this nice and relaxed. Beth, how’s your painting coming along? Finished that triptych yet?’
‘Last panel’s almost done,’ I say, pathetically grateful for the distraction.
‘Can’t wait to see it. Did you try out that ochre pigment I told you about?’
We discuss light, and fresco techniques, and then the conversation moves on to more general topics: books we’ve read, films we’ve
seen, the new logo he’s designed for William’s firm. Before I know it, the hour’s flown past and Dan’s telling the students to put their pencils down. ‘You can get dressed, Beth,’ he says absently, leaning over a
student’s shoulder to study his work. ‘Make yourself a cup of tea next door if you want. I won’t be long.’
I get up and knot my robe, wincing at the pins and needles in my legs. I could do with something hot to drink, actually. I’m rather chilled
from sitting still so long without moving.
As I let myself into his flat, my silk belt catches on the door. Twisting round, I try to free it, but succeed only in tangling it
‘You’ll have to step out of it,’ Dan calls, ‘the fabric’s hooked on the hinge.’
Flushing, I shrug out of the robe. Dan frees the snagged belt, then holds it up for me to slip on. His hands linger a fraction too long on my
shoulders. My nipples harden automatically. It would be so easy to turn and fold myself in his arms, to give myself up to this – so easy—
I pull away, wrapping the dressing-gown tightly around my body. ‘Dan, what are you doing?’
‘Yes, Dan,’ says my daughter from the doorway, ‘what
I crawl into the bathroom and clasp the toilet bowl. This is all Clem’s fault. She said she hadn’t made them too strong. I don’t
think I’ve ever been so drunk in my life as I was last night. I even smoked half a pack of cigarettes – my mouth tastes like an ashtray, and I’ve burned my oesophagus practically down to my stomach.
Oh, God. Surely I can’t be sick
I puke into the loo, and wipe my mouth with a wet flannel. There’s nothing left to barf up. I am never,
going near vodka or strawberry jelly again.
Actually, I feel a bit better now. Maybe I’ve finally got it all out of my system.
I throw on some old clothes, and scrape my hair into a ponytail. Where’s a bit of parental discipline when you need it? Dad should never have
let me go round to Clem’s when her parents are away. Has the man no sense of responsibility?
I hear the sound of raised voices outside, and peer out of my bedroom window.
Poor old Mum is bent over her weeding, while Granny Clara waves her arms and chases her along the flowerbeds like Lady Macbeth. Bitching about the
whole Eithne drama, I bet. She couldn’t wait to come and say ‘I told you so.’ Bloody ambulance chaser.
Dad, like, totally freaked last night when he found out what Eithne had been up to. He and Mum had a huge row. They’ve barely spoken since. I
guess whatever deal they cooked up in Paris is off now. It was never going to work, anyway. OK, he’s bought her all this fabulous stuff and came home early for a few weeks, but he looks like someone’s cut out his heart. We did
at school last term. You’d think Mephistopheles had just paid Dad a call.
I open the window for some fresh air. Granny Clara’s voice drifts towards me like sulphur.
‘ . . . Absurd idea in the first place. Jetting off to the Continent to mess about “discovering art” at your age. Lord knows what
would have happened to your poor family when you were gadding about Europe.’