February 14 - Seven Valentine cards have been delivered to the house this morning by the postman, and not one of them is for me. Three are for Giles, who is eight and therefore at an age where the bolstering effect of a Valentine card goes unnoticed; two are for Felix, six, who is in a big rage that anyone has dared to be so sissy as to send him any; and two are for Charles, forty-one, who had not planned to be at home, but an airport strike prevented his business trip to Paris.
"How did they know I'd be here?" he murmurs, a smirk of smug spreading over his face. He drops the one his secretary always sends him without opening it and looks at the other. It is not from me.
"The postmark is smudged. Can you read it, darling?" he says to me, and, hating to miss an opportunity for one-upmanship, adds, "Did you really not get any cards? How odd."
Scrutinizing his envelope, I drop it in the washing-up water.
"Oops, sorry, Charles, it's a bit soggy now."
He looks at me with loathing. I smile sweetly.
Breakfast is an orgy of martyrdom on my part, as usual unnoticed by spouse and offspring, who according to age and inclination are reading their Valentine cards/the Beano comic/the cereal packet. I clear away, deliberately not asking for help, and return to bed. The telephone clicks a couple of times, and I know better than to pick it up. Charles has a sixth sense for an overheard conversation and will insist he's simply checking in with the office. I think he's having an affair, and am shocked to find that I don't care. Even being five months pregnant doesn't make me care; in fact it cushions me from any feeling toward Charles stronger than mild dislike. So glad the hysteria and throwing things phase has passed.
After an hour or so of luxuriating with a romantic novel, Regency Buck (my second-favorite by the peerless Georgette Heyer; I have just finished my namesake and favorite, Venetia, for the seventeenth time), I am renewed and can face the day, so rise again with a view to gardening. Downstairs, the boys hover in an aimless fashion, kicking things and playing "Greensleeves" repeatedly on the piano. Their father is still on the telephone. They need fresh air.
"Come on, I need help, you two," I urge. "Please will you come and clip the yew hedge with me?" Giles continues to play "Greensleeves" in various keys. Felix shoots at me with a bow and arrow but misses and loses his arrow behind a painting which is propped against the wall, still waiting to be hung.
"Do we have to?" he whines, hurling himself backward onto the sofa. "I hate outside, it's really cold. I want to play cowboys in here with Dad."
"Dad is going outside too," I say firmly, as Charles sidles toward the serenity of the drawing room with his newspaper. He glares, but complies. Felix is won over by the discovery of a magnificent pair of secateurs in the conservatory. Thus armed, he takes a stepladder to my token topiary, a gloriously sculpted ten-foot-tall chicken, and prepares to strike. Charles is passing at this moment, and although he fails to register the chicken crisis, he wants to use the stepladder, so Felix and his flashing blades are diverted to ground level and a less precious bush. Giles, having condemned me as "really sad" for asking him to help, is forty feet up a tree, shouting instructions to the rest of us about where to find the wheelbarrow, the rake, and all the other garden implements he can see scattered in the long grass, relics of last weekend's attempt to get the children to help outside.
"Mummy, you've completely missed that spade; go back ten paces and then a little to the right and you'll see the trowel as well."
It is pointless to ask him to come down—he won't, and an unseemly shouting match will ensue from which he will emerge victorious and possessor of the high ground—literally. Can't help wishing that instead of encourag- ing him to think of himself as one of life's commanders, his school would exercise a few more Victorian dictums. "Seen and not heard," "polite to elders and betters," "helpful and courteous at all times" could all be drummed in to great effect. Sour-lemon thoughts are interrupted by his appearance from the tree with a spray of cherry blossom, a joyful hint of pink in its tiny buds.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Mummy," he says. February 14—One Year Later Woken by the doorbell instead of The Beauty, and dash down to find the postman, grinning, with a handful of cards.
"Happy Valentine's, love," he says. "You're a bit popular, aren't you?"
Leafing through them in the kitchen, am relieved that he did not notice the names on them: four are for Giles, which seems excessive to me, two for Felix, and one for The Beauty. None for me. Can't help remembering last Valentine's Day. Improvements since then include having become mother of The Beauty (now eight months old), and having shed faithless husband (divorce now three weeks old), but still no Valentine cards. So much for the glamorous life of the divorcée.
Spluttering and growling noises similar to those made by a small lawn mower announce over the intercom that The Beauty has woken and will require breakfast. So will the boys, now clumping downstairs uttering the usual litany of "Mum, where are my shoes? Is there any food? Can we get a Nintendo Sixty-four?"
Felix freaks out when presented with his cards. "I hate them; I don't want anyone to send me Valentine cards. They're for girls. You have them, Mum." He hurls his spoon into the porridge saucepan, and porridge rises like a tidal wave and slops onto the Aga hot plate.
"But one is from Dad," says Giles. "Look, it's definitely his writing."
Felix is placated by this, but I am irritated. The school run mother of the day arrives and the boys depart like a mini tornado, books, biscuits, and pencil cases whirling around them, closer and closer until they vanish into rucksacks. The Beauty waves regally, bouncing on my hip as we let the hens out and throw them a few scraps. The air is steel-cold and heavy on the lungs; the hens, plump in ruffled feathers, groan and cluck a bit, then troop back into the henhouse. They are protesting against the weather, and none of them has laid an egg since October. February 17 Odd communication from Charles asking me if I want to sell my shares in Heavenly Petting. He will give me a markup on their value. Instantly suspicious as Charles is the ultimate nipcheese, so send his letter straight to Maurice Salmon, my lawyer.
Heavenly Petting began life in an old electrician's workshop on the Bedford Road in Cambridge and came into being because Charles was keen on shooting and wanted to employ a taxidermist to stuff various bird corpses. While investigating taxidermy, Charles became morbidly obsessed with dead animals and quickly recognized a business opportunity. As he had never liked live animals at all, I couldn't take the idea seriously, but he persevered, working day and night to build his first crematorium, before moving out into the local streets to chat up the old ladies who lived in the terraced houses which fanned out from Cambridge into the fens. His first client was a blue budgerigar called Billy. Charles charged Mrs. Day £7 for Billy's funeral service and a cardboard box containing his ashes. The funeral service comprised handing Mrs. Day a piece of paper with Billy's name, type, and age on it, then standing with her in the whitewashed workshop for three minutes listening to a tape of Albinoni's Adagio.
"We will bring you the ashes a little later. We like to check up on the bereaved to make sure we have done all we can to help," Charles gravely told her, patting her hand as she dabbed her nose with a mournful mauve handkerchief. Mrs. Day tottered home to an empty cage, immaculate, as she had scrubbed it to keep herself busy before the cremation. Charles scooped a spoonful of ash out of the incinerator into which he had chucked Billy's little body sometime earlier, filled a household matchbox he'd painted blue that morning, and arrived on Mrs. Day's doorstep before she had had time to make herself a cup of tea. She couldn't bear the empty cage, she said, so Charles offered to take it away. He sold it for £10 the next day, and hey presto, Heavenly Petting was launched and running at a profit on its first transaction.
That was ten years ago. Charles had just left the army, I was pregnant with Giles, and we wanted to live in the countryside. My grandmother had left me some money, and with it and some of his own, Charles bought his first incinerator and the inaugural premises of Heavenly Petting. I found the house, and Heavenly Petting paid for us to live in it. And still does. I suppose any marriage guidance expert, or indeed fortune-teller, could have told me that a marriage to a man who fries cuddly animals for a living would not last, but I never had time to look ahead until too late.
Excerpted from Hens Dancing by Raffaella Barker. Copyright © 2002 by Raffaella Barker. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.