Authors: Melissa Nathan
To Joshua, Eliana,
and, of course,
Avital, my Tallulah
In memory of Allan Saffron
In Highgate, north London, Vanessa Fitzgerald, accounts manager at Gibson,â¦
Jo Green's eyes glazed over as she stared at theâ¦
There was so much to take in, Jo didn't knowâ¦
“Leaving?” repeated Hilda. “What do you mean? Leaving?”
When Jo's train pulled out of Stratford-upon-Avon station she wasâ¦
Jo could probably have coped with the wake-up call ofâ¦
A fortnight later, back in Niblet, Shaun reached the pubâ¦
On Sunday morning Jo discovered that all advice from herâ¦
When Jo's head hit the pillow, she was out forâ¦
Jo's head hurt so much the next morning that herâ¦
Over the next week, Jo discovered that the average accountantâ¦
Vanessa sat in the Monday morning status meeting hunched overâ¦
It was teatime and Jo had invited Pippa and Georgianaâ¦
Shaun was visiting that weekend, so Jo would be unableâ¦
Saturday morning, Jo woke early. She listened intently for anyâ¦
Jo woke early on Monday morning, aware that Josh wouldâ¦
By the time Jo was rounding up the children forâ¦
Saturday morning, Vanessa woke to feel someone gently stroking herâ¦
Jo was awake before six. She stared at Mickey andâ¦
Jo was so busy in her first week at homeâ¦
Monday morning came bright and breezy. Hilda had come downstairsâ¦
It was another few days before Sheila finally returned herâ¦
Stupidly early on the Monday morning of her fifth weekâ¦
Josh woke early the next morning and found the kidsâ¦
Josh was so livid he could barely drive out ofâ¦
The next morning, Jo stood in her bedroom, checking herâ¦
Things at the Fitzgeralds' abode were changing fast. Josh andâ¦
Lunchtime a week later, Sebastian James sat bulkily on topâ¦
On Friday afternoon, Cassie made a moving-out card with Zakâ¦
Next morning, Jo's brain was Pot Noodle. The first thingâ¦
Toby carried four choc-ices upstairs and waited outside Tallulah's bedroomâ¦
In Highgate, north London, Vanessa Fitzgerald, accounts manager at Gibson, Adams and Bead Advertising Agency and mother of three, stared at her new nanny, eyes wide with disbelief.
“Leaving?” she repeated. “You meanâ¦a holiday?”
“No,” said Francesca slowly and firmly. “I meeen leeving.”
“I think she means leeeeving, dear,” said Vanessa's husband, Dick.
“I wunt toâ¦erm, 'ow yoo saiy? Trrabel,” explained Francesca. There was a long pause. “Ze glawb,” she clarified.
Vanessa scrunched up her face in concentration. “You want toâ¦?” She trailed off.
“Trrabel ze glawb,” repeated Dick, finishing his whiskey. “It's very simple, darling.”
“Dick, you are not helping,” said Vanessa. “This isn't funny.”
“It sounds funny.”
“But it's not.”
Vanessa returned her attention to Francesca.
“You want to travel the globe? The world?” she tried.
“Yais!” cried Francesca excitedly.
There was a pause.
“And you can't take the children with you?” asked Vanessa.
Francesca frowned at her boss.
“Now who's not being funny,” said Dick, putting his tumbler in the sink.
“Well who's going to look after them then?” shouted Vanessa suddenly. “And don't leave that in the sinkâput it in the sodding dishwasher!”
Dick turned slowly to his wife.
“I can't imagine why our nannies keep leaving,” he said calmly, placing the tumbler in the dishwasher with elaborate care. “Maybe they don't like being shouted and sworn at as much as I do.”
Vanessa shot Dick a look that hit him where it hurt. Straight between the eyes. His was a small brain, but she still knew how to hit it in a single go.
“Or maybe,” she told him, “they're just sick of putting your tumblers in the dishwasher for you.”
Francesca coughed lightly. Dick and Vanessa ignored her. She'd just handed in her notice, they didn't have to be nice to her anymore.
“It will be me who has to find a temporary nanny,” Vanessa told her husband, “at the same time as interviewing for full-time nannies at the same time as keeping down my own jobâsorry, careerâbecause you're too busy poncing around in that bloody excuse for a shop.”
“I happen to work in that shop six days a weekâ”
“You drink latte and scratch your balls six days a week, and you know it.”
Dick smiled at his wife and changed the subject. Vanessa turned away from him and concentrated on the matter at handâto keep breathing.
God, she'd thought today had been bad enough. First the tube strike, then that bastard new client rejecting their latest offering because it “just didn't sing to him,” and then her PA announcing that the tight abdominal bulge she'd passed off thus far as a bad case of lactose intolerance, was in fact a baby, due in four months' time.
The only thing that had kept Vanessa going all day had been the thought of coming home to some peace and quiet, the children all tucked up neatly in bed, some takeoutâunless the nanny had happened to leave something from lunchâsome vino and a video of last night's EastEnders. Instead, she'd come home to a nanny who wanted to trrabel ze sodding glawb.
She took a gulp of Pinot Grigio. To help with the breathing.
“Okay, Francesca, thanks for letting us know,” she heard Dick say, as if Francesca had just mentioned that one of the children had lost a sock. Francesca left the kitchen. Dick spoke first, quietly, putting his arm round his wife's shoulder.
“Come on,” he said. “You didn't even like her.”
Vanessa whined, but Dick squeezed her tighter.
“You know it's true,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head. “She lost Tallulah the other day.”
Vanessa leaned her head on his shoulder, exhausted.
“She found her again,” she mumbled into his sweater.
Dick snorted and put his arms round her, his hands resting gently on the curve of her back. “She can't even speak the language properly.”
“Neither can the children,” pointed out his wife, “but I don't want them to leave. Not for ages.”
“Good,” said Dick. “Neither do I. Let's have sex.”
“I've got a better idea,” she said. “Let's find a new nanny, then have sex.”
Dick sighed. He knew better than anyone that Vanessa was perfectly capable of keeping to her word if there was a principle involved.
“How long will it take?” he asked.
Vanessa shrugged. “Depends on how much we're willing to pay.”
“Well that's easy then,” said Dick. “Let's pay gold dust.”
They smiled at each other. It was a deal. After all these years, Dick Fitzgerald knew exactly how to seduce his second wife.
Jo Green's eyes glazed over as she stared at the half-eaten cake on the table, twenty-three candles now splayed messily around it.
, she thought. One minute ablaze with light, warmly celebrating life's journey; the next, a crumbling testament to the disappointment and guilt that life's little highs invariably bring. Then she decided she really must stop listening to Travis.
She yawned. With the kitchen lights off, a soporific mood had descended upon them all like a sudden fog.
Her father, top trouser button undone, rubbed his hand over his stomach in smooth, rhythmic circles, conducting his body's quiet celebratory wind sonata, in several movements.
Jo and her mother exchanged glances.
“In some countries that's a great compliment,” said Jo.
Hilda snorted. “Oh he's multilingual, your father.”
Bill belched softly again and proceeded to rub his stomach the other way.
“I don't like to stop him,” Hilda muttered. “He has so few hobbies.” She shifted herself from the table. “Right. Who wants another cuppa?”
“Don't mind if I do,” answered Bill.
“I'll make it,” said Jo.
“On your birthday?” Hilda's eyes crinkled up in a smile that created so many lines in her flesh it left almost no room for her face. “Don't talk daft.”
Bill slowly and carefully smoothed the edge of the tablecloth with his hand, manfully ignoring the female battle of wills being fought around him.
“Nobody makes coffee cake like your mother,” he told Jo, pointing his finger at her.
“You can't have another piece.” Hilda switched on the overhead light.
“Oh come on.” He blinked. “It's the girl's birthday.”
Hilda leaned back against the sideboard, hugging her grey cardigan round her while the kettle boiled.
“Go on then.” She sighed.
Bill winked at Jo. “Another slice for the birthday girl?” he asked, wiping the knife clean on the edge of the cake plate.
“A sliver,” said Jo. “Thanks.”
“And for the chef?”
Hilda swirled hot water round the special-occasion teapot.
“Oh, go on, we might as well finish it off.”
Jo watched her parents and when she remembered they could see her, smiled. And then her thought patterns executed a downward swoop of epic proportions. They started high up with
Aren't I lucky?
before nose-diving without warning into
Is this it?
Then, with seconds to spare before exploding into a fireball of self-pity, up they arched, regaining their grip on the world with,
Ooh. Must return video
Jo's emotions had been trampolining all day. Her first waking thought as a twenty-three-year-old had been that she had joined the ever-growing group of birthday haters. Until last night, she'd always considered herself one of those lucky types who loved birthdays. She now realized that this was because, up until now, she had been young. Twenty-three, for some reason, signaled the end of an era for her more conspicuously than a Hollywood sound track.
As her emotions continued to yo-yo, with rather more emphasis on the downward than upward “yo,” the Green family started their second round of tea and cake in a cosy, yet somewhat reverential, silence.
All too soon normal service was resumed.
“Seeing Shaun and the others tonight?” began her mother.
“Nice lad, that Shaun.”
Hilda's concentration was temporarily waylaid by an untidy slice of coffee cake, but before long she was back on track.
“Sheila's a good girl, too.”
“Just needs to lose a little weight,” added her father, bang on cue.
More cake, more tea.
“Wonder when James'll do the honorable thing and make an honest woman of her,” mused Hilda.
“When she's lost a little weight I shouldn't wonder,” concluded Bill.
Her parents drained the last of the tea, the predictability of their conversation satisfying them that the earth still spun on its axis, while Jo had a disturbing snap vision of birthday cake hurled against the floral wallpaper.
“Thanks for the cake, Mum,” she said quickly, and got up. “I'll be off. See you later.”
“Bye, love,” chorused her parents, her mother heaving herself up to clear away the birthday things.
As she shut the front door behind her, Jo took a long, deep breath and set off for the pub. She tried not to hear in her head the conversation she knew her parents would be having now about Shaun's intentions toward her. She tried to concentrate on her walk.
Jo loved walking. It reminded her she was connected to the earth, a living, breathing masterpiece of functional perfection, an act of God that proved miracles really did exist, a monument toâ
“Who's got a face like a slapped arse then?” came a sudden voice.
Jo turned to face John Saunders, who was loitering on the corner of the deserted village High Street. Being told your face resembled a slapped arse would be an insult from anyone, but coming from John Saunders, whose face appeared to be on inside out, was enough to put anyone on a downer.
Jo managed a smile for her old classmate.
“All the better to bullshit you with,” she said. “Ooh, that Man-at-JCPenney's look really works for you.”
John's eyebrows flickered, his mouth twitched, and a general air of confusion surrounded him like a palpable aura, which Jo knew meant his brain was cranking into gear. She decided to leave before steam started escaping from his ears.
As she walked away from the High Street toward the bridge, her emotional yo-yo flicked neatly upward. The bridge always reminded her of her first kiss with Shaun. Then she realized that was six years agoâonly one year away from the seven-year itchâand she could almost hear a whirring sound of the downward “yo.”
At the end of the bridge, she turned abruptly to the right without looking back and crunched her way over the gravel path past the church graveyard, enjoying the noise underfoot.
She stopped and looked at the graveyard. She was transported back to her first cigarette (with Sheila on her fifteenth birthday behind
Rachel Butcherson 1820â1835
). She felt a fleeting moment of remembered exhil
aration, (upward “yo”) before realizing that something as prosaic as cigarettes would neverâ
neverâbe that exciting again. And downward “yo.” There were certain things in life, she reflectedâjobs, friends, loversâone naturally grew out of. They started off as a thrilling challenge, then, before you knew it, seamlessly transmuted into a comfortable fit, then somehow, invisibly shrank. But the excitement of
? Was it possible to grow out of that, too? She came to a slow halt.
Oh well done
, she told herself, trying to flick her yo-yo up again.
You've talked yourself into a depression. You must be very proud.
Then she turned the corner and, despite everything, stopped to take in the view. Every season, every day, every hour, a different perspective of beauty.
On the horizon, trees stretched their bony branches upward and outward to a sky of deep pinks and blues, as if trying to clasp the clouds of gently whisked egg whites.
Empty fields yawned toward her, and an idyllic vision of a country pub cosied itself between two hills like a contented cat.
, she thought.
In the end, life is good
There was something to be said for village life, she decided as she approached the pub.
“Oy!” shouted John from behind her. “Slapped arse!”
She stiffened. Yes, there was definitely something to be said for village life. You couldn't escape the village idiots.
Jo was the first one from the gang in the pub that night. She sat in their usual corner looking out at the view. From her side of the pub she couldn't see the sun's swan song blush, so the sky was now a heavy lid of charcoal grey. From here you'd think there had been no sun in the sky all day. She wondered idly about moving seats, fully aware that the effect would be totally spoiled by the gang's complaints and derision.
Was that what was wrong with her life, she wondered idly. Was all the light being blocked by others? Was she simply living in the wrong place, the place without any light? She stopped herself when her thought patterns started to remind her of her mother, an increasing and alarming phenomenon. A wonderful woman her mother, but not the kind of person you'd want to get stuck in a lift with.
She needed distractions. She focused hard on the more somber beauty the view offered. She didn't need to catch the reflection in the window to
know what was going on behind her. Old Budsie would be sitting by the bar, smiling at everyone, slowly drinking his life away. The latest load of lads would have arrived for the evening, laughing loudly at their own jokes while scanning the pub for anyone with a decent amount of estrogen and peroxide.
Jo knew every last one of the lads since they were all in school five years below her. She knew that Tom Bath, with his shaved head and eyebrow stud, had played Joseph in the 1990 nativity play and wet himself on stage. He'd said it was the donkey, but everyone knew. Chris Saunders, with his leather jacket and gelled hair, had vomited all over the climbing frame when Annabel Harris had tried to kiss him in Year 4. And then there was Matt Harvey, whose dad was a policeman. Matt had been smoking dope at school since he was thirteen in a desperate attempt to undo the damage his dad's job had done to his corridor rep. Unfortunately, no amount of dope could change the fact that he had ears like a rabbit.
The door opened, and Jo turned toward it. She watched Shaun come in, cheekbones first.
You've got to respect that in a man
, she thought. Whatever might be happening to the rest of him (a slight solidity around the girth, a hint of receding around the hairline, and more and more laughter lines around those baby blues) his cheekbones were here to stay.
“Alright, babe,” he greeted her softly. “Happy birthday.” He kissed her on the mouth, his hand stroking her upper arm. “My treat,” he said, and was off to buy drinks.
Jo watched him wander toward the bar, where he produced a wad of tenners from his jeans back pocket and greeted the barman with a familiar nod. She started to wonder what would happen if she suddenly changed the habit of a lifetime. If she stood up in the pub now, and cried, “
I don't want a Southern Comfort and lemonade! I want aâ¦a Bloody Mary!”
She could imagine the stunned silence. The confusion in Shaun's eyes. And the ripple effectâothers would feel forced to reconsider their own drinks. It was too much to think about. She could see the piece in the
Local Girl Changes Drinks Order
Her Parents Are Too Shocked to Talk
“Niblet-upon-Avon just isn't the kind of place where this sort of thing happens,” said the landlord yesterdayâ¦
On the other hand, she thought, Shaun might be treating her to some surprise champagne. As he turned and approached, she offered him a big smile. He plonked down one Southern Comfort and lemonade and one pint of Guinness on the table with a grand flourish. The flourish, she realized (downward “yo”), was her birthday treat. As he returned to the bar to collect the pints for James and Sheila, Jo briefly considered pouring them all over his head.
Before Jo and Shaun had finished their first swig, James and Sheila, the other half of the gang, appeared by the table. They took off their coats and settled down for the evening.
Sheila had been Jo's girlfriend and life-event gauge for the best part of ten years, and by miraculous coincidence, James, her longtime boyfriend had been best mates with Shaun at school. Miraculous coincidences were considerably less so in such a small village. The foursome had become an institution almost before their individual relationships had.
“You'll never guess,” breathed Sheila, all flushed cheeks and bright eyes.
“What?” asked Shaun without turning round, eyes fixed firmly on his pint.
Sheila moved to her seat next to Jo, grinning at each of them in turn, leaving a dramatic pause before answering. Meanwhile, James hitched up his chinos and sat down next to Shaun, opposite Sheila.
“Ah, the ubiquitous Mr. Casey,” he greeted Shaun, as if Sheila hadn't spoken.
“Ah, the ubiquitous word âubiquitous,'” answered Shaun, pushing James's pint toward his friend.
“Ah, the ubiquitous word âword,'” responded James, taking his pint.
Jo watched them raise their pints, elbows jutting outward to claim man space. She didn't think she'd ever heard Shaun and James actually have a conversation. They just had endless game-set-and-matches using their tongues and brains instead of rackets and ball. She wondered what would happen if they ever had anything to actually communicate to each other. They'd probably spontaneously combust.
The men eventually put their pint glasses down and wiped their mouths.
“Ah,” started James again, “the ubiquitous pintâ”
“Shut up, James,” cut in Sheila, “or I'll knife you.”
James shut up.
“Hey, Sheila,” said Shaun. “Just say what's on your mind.”
“Hah!” exclaimed Sheila. “You'd never recover, old man.”
James mumbled something incoherent into his pint, and Jo thought she caught the word “harpy,” but couldn't be sure.
Sheila turned to Jo and gave her a present.
“It's crap, and you've probably got one.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Jo. “You shouldn't have! Shall I open it now orâ?”
“So!” exclaimed Sheila. “I swear! You'll
Jo put her present on the floor by her bag.
“What?” she asked.
“Maxine Black andâ¦” dramatic pauseâ¦“