Mother’s Day begins badly. No one has remembered, and Lowly, the weirdo dog, has found one of The Beauty’s dirty nappies in the rubbish bin in the bathroom and has disemboweled it. Glistening white beads of indestructible gel are sprayed like polystyrene snow across the carpet, and there is a malodorous whiff in the air. Instead of lying in bed receiving trays of breakfast, heaps of compliments, kisses, and lovely flowers like every other mother, I spend the first part of the morning vacuuming and spraying air freshener in a hygiene frenzy.
It is eleven o’clock, and none of the children is visi- ble or audible. This can mean only one thing—the Nintendo machine. Sure enough, I unearth a full complement of offspring in the playroom, their noses pinned to the television screen. Giles, aged eleven, should be old enough to know better by now but in fact is the child most on the edge of his seat and is air-punching exultantly: “Yessss, forty of them as dead as dodos, and we’re on to the next level.”
Felix, who is nine, will never be old enough to know better—it simply isn’t his way. He is draped elegantly along the back of the sofa, a line of squat metal lumps stretched like vertebrae before him to the other end of the sofa back. These are his army men, a cohort of Deathmasters and elves with whom he is locked in a War Hammer bloodbath. Perched next to him, and wearing her beloved purple tutu with red frill over her pajamas, is The Beauty. She is just three and doesn’t need to know better as she is convinced that she always knows best.
“Mummy, sit down. Look! It’s Dinosaur Death Run. Such fun,” she urges in her mad Enid Blyton way. Squalor in the playroom is extreme. Even though the curtains are drawn, I can see strewn orange peel and sweet wrappers all over the floor, and also my eagle eye detects that Giles’s toenails need cutting. Glorious sunshine has been barricaded out, but through the gap between the curtains I glimpse our two remaining Bohemian pigeons swooping on a spring breeze, and a twig of cherry blossom scratching at the windowpane. The perfection of outside increases my rage one thousandfold. On the television screen some foul-looking dinosaurs are hopping about. Their bloodcurdling roars are nothing like as frightening as mine.
“Will you turn that thing off. You know it’s banned until after dark. You know I hate it. And it’s Mother’s Day.”
Sit down on a small pink chair, squashing one of The Beauty’s tiny tea parties, which are set up all over the house, and burst into tears. Felix rushes to embrace me and Giles hastily removes all Nintendo equipment from within arm’s reach—he is used to this scene, and knows that I may hurl vital components into the bin, or the fireplace, at any moment.
“We’ve got a surprise for you,” Felix soothes, patting my shoulder kindly. The Beauty hovers anxiously at his side, proffering a small white handkerchief, either in truce or to blow my nose on.
“Cheer up, Mum,” says Giles. “At least you aren’t forty yet.”
Hadn’t even thought of worrying about that milestone, but can now add it to my list of near-future neuroses.
The Beauty squats in front of me, peering interestedly. “Don’t cry. Blow your nose. And get off my cuppa tea,” she commands, ramming the handkerchief into my face. I have an overpowering sense of panic. I have forgotten how to manage my children on my own.
For the past year I have been mollycoddled and buffered from single motherhood by the presence of my lovely handsome tower-of-strength boyfriend, David. Before he moved in I must have managed somehow. The children’s father, Charles, used to have them for the odd weekend, and still does when he can fit them into his ghoulish schedule running a chain of pet cemeteries and, more recently, setting up an animal fu-neral service on the Internet called deaddog.com. More than two years on, I now quite like the poisoned dwarf Helena, and am indeed grateful to her for luring him away from our unhappy life together. Less sure about Holly and Ivy-Eff, the petri dish twins, as they may jeopardize my own children’s position. Their role so far has been gurgling and toddling, but last year’s Christmas card from Charles and Helena (not, of course, sent to me, but shown me by a well-wisher) had Giles and Felix sitting cross-legged on the grass with The Beauty, the twin blobs propped between them. The Beauty’s expression of disdain spoke volumes, as did the larger than usual alimony check, which arrived for me in lieu of the frightful card. Charles always sends more money when he does something underhand: it is his saving grace.
It was on Christmas Day, when David and I borrowed a boat and chugged across the basin of sea at the head of the creek to Alborrow Sands for a bonfire and picnic, that we decided we would go away, just the two of us, in March. The children were with Charles, my first ever Christmas without them, and David made sure there was no time for me to brood. Up and out on an ice gray morning to catch the tide, wearing a scarf as soft and pink and warm as midsummer rose petals, which he wrapped round me saying, “First Christmas present of the day,” when we reached the harbor. The second present was a bailing bucket, and scooping water from the floor of the leaky boat kept me warm as we crossed. The sun came out and sent dancing golden rays to race ahead of us on the still water and up onto the shore. “Elevenses,” said David, and pulled a bottle of champagne out of the basket he had brought and wouldn’t let me look into.
Fueled by a cold glass, drunk with our arms round each other, looking out at the horizon, we gathered wood to build our fire, on which we cooked steak and baked potatoes. He had even brought a Christmas pudding, and we lit it, holding it up to see the purple-pink sky through the smoky flame, then we ate it fast, with spoonfuls of brandy butter, before the sun went down and we returned to the twinkling fairy lights of the harbor town. And David shouted above the boat engine and the roar of the sea, “Today was perfect. Let me take you away somewhere like this but warmer. Let’s go at the end of winter. I’ll organize it, I’ll ask your mother to have the kids. All you will have to do is pack.” He cut the engine, and we floated into the jetty. He climbed out and held out his hand to me. I jumped off the boat and he pulled me into his arms, and the skin of his cheeks was so cold it almost felt hot against mine. “I promise it will happen. It’s your Christmas present,” he whispered.
Huh! is all I can say. The end of winter came, and David got a brilliant job in Bermuda. An old friend of his was out there doing a fashion shoot and set it up. Now David is staying in a house called Pointy Fingers on Banana Patch Road, and will be there for weeks, no doubt. He is building a library for a bloated old screenplay writer, and now he’s been asked to do a colonnade too. Actually, for all I know the scriptwriter may be a lissome twenty-two-year-old, but I prefer to keep my mental picture very hideous. David’s job makes me alternately paralyzed with envy and incandescent with rage. Colonnades and libraries and kidney-shaped pools are a million miles from the scene here and now. Norfolk is charmless in March, soggy, gray, and mud-ridden. My life has shrunk to a monotonous routine of school run, washing clothes, and digging drainage ditches. Cannot bear to think of David lolling next to turquoise swimming pools and sipping cocktails with film stars and moguls. Because he is working flat-out, or so he says, I am not able to visit him, so am denied even the fun of being carpenter’s assistant and thus achieving a version of a winter-sun holiday. It is all too much for Mother’s Day.
Sense of ill use carries me into the kitchen to dispense cereal, and is utterly confounded. The children have laid the table with my favorite gold-luster teapot and cups, and have created a vast cream-puff effect with bananas and yogurt as a breakfast centerpiece. Each of them has made me a card. The Beauty’s offering is very contemporary, a piece of kitchen roll with felt-pen dots of pink and purple in one corner. Giles has drawn Betty Boop wiggling toward a sink full of washing up, which has a big red cross through it. She is batting her eyelashes at a giant balloon in front of her which says, “Put your feet up, Mum. Let someone sane take the strain.” Not sure how to take this, but am overcome by Felix’s vast pink square of cardboard, on which he has written a poem that begins with the couplet
You’re as fast as a cheetah and as pretty as roses
I love you, Mummy, everybody knows.
More mawkish weeping, and Giles gets out the ice cream to have with the banana melba to celebrate. Become carried away, and introduce the boys to the inimitable Coke float, favored drink of my childhood and certain death to teeth.
Open the curtains to a gray morning with frost glittering on the branch of the lime tree outside my window. The view is wrapped in fine mist, and the air is brittle with cold, but the sun is rising. I open the bedroom window and lean out to enjoy the spectral loveliness of my knot garden. Frost is a definite improvement on rain, and the shimmer of the pink sun marbles the sky until it becomes iridescent, and a rainbow of color drives back the mist and the gray to make a pink morning. Allow myself a few seconds of wallowing in missing David before closing the window and trying to muster enthusiasm for the preschool rush.
David telephones at seven o’clock, just as I am going downstairs to make myself tea before waking the children. “Hi, gorgeous,” he says lightly. “How are you?”
“Fine thanks.” Am suddenly aware of his voice, the first male voice I have heard for days. I close my eyes and pretend I don’t know him, and try to imagine a face for the sexy voice.
“I’m about to go to bed, I know it’s school time for you lot. I just wanted to tell you I love you, I miss you,” he says and, of course, I just imagine him.
“I miss you too,” I murmur. I am downstairs now, thanks to the cordless phone, and I want to curl up in the chair by the Aga to talk to him and try to seduce him home. He sounds sad, I bet I can get him to come back. I open the door into the boot room to get some milk from the fridge. Lowly has emptied the rubbish all over the floor.
Forget sodding seduction. Instead shriek into the phone, “Buggering hell. Hateful Lowly swine hound! Now I’ll have to clear it all up.” Become even shriller, not allowing David a moment to speak. “Anyway. This really isn’t the moment. I’ve got to get everyone ready for school and the car will be covered in frost. I’ll speak to you later. When you get up, I mean.”
Put the phone down and wish to saw off my tongue. Absolutely no need to be foul to him, he is simply doing his job. He can hardly be blamed for the time difference, which means that he is tucking himself up in bed when I am dragging the dustbins down the drive with the dogs licking their lips behind me.
Distracted from the dustbins for a moment by a patch of hellebores next to the front door, nodding graceful pale heads toward a small clump of vivid blue scillas. Remember that the white hellebore is the Lenten rose, or is it the Christmas rose? Anyway, it must be Lent now because it’s March. What shall I give up? Is it too late? Surely a little is better than none as far as self-denial goes.
Can’t see the point of giving up chocolate as I undoubtedly will not be able to stick to it, particularly as the house is practically made of gingerbread, like the witch’s cottage in Hansel and Gretel, due to volumes of tuck required for the perpetually starving, always growing boys. Quite impossible to know biscuits, for example, are there in the biscuit tin and not sample one at elevenses or tea, now there is no one else in the house save The Beauty to check up. Biscuit life took a very dangerous turn last week on the discovery of some caramel-covered chocolate digestives on special offer in the supermarket. Stupidly bought them, pretending it would be a treat for the boys, then even more stupidly ate the whole lot.
Toy with the idea of abandoning alcohol until Easter. This too seems unwise, as I might have to at- tend a sales conference for Vanden Plaz hotels soon, in order to suck up and get more work writing their brochures. This annual evening of frightfulness is made bearable only by the very high quality of food and drink. Generally have about four glasses of champagne and start inviting people I have just met to stay. Last year I asked the whole corporate hospitality team, and the leader seemed very keen. It came to nothing, thank God. Allow myself to imagine the horror of entertaining six strangers for a weekend, and trying to produce food for them while looking like a top-efficiency copywriter who deserves a pay rise. Giving up alcohol may be my salvation.
Return to the kitchen from the dustbins to find the children running on peak efficiency. Giles is making scrambled eggs, Lowly and Digger, David’s Labrador, are eating the eggshells under the table, and The Beauty has dragged a chair over to the sink and is doing the washing up. Occupying another area of high ground is Felix, who is standing on the window seat watching the second hand of his watch. “Well done, Mummy, you’re back within the allotted time. Have you seen my goalie gloves?” He jumps down, interrupting before I manage to say no. “In fact, I think I may have left them in the henhouse. Time me.” He chucks his watch at me and hurtles out of the back door and across the yard to the dilapidated henhouse, crouching to open the nesting-box doors, then vanishing save for his legs as he leans in to look for gloves and, I hope, eggs. The cockerel sticks his head out of the door to see what sort of day it is and, finding it to his taste, emerges onto the lintel, groaning and clucking to warn us all that he is about to crow.
In order to crow, he needs to feel tall, so he hops onto the handle of The Beauty’s pink tricycle, and manages the first part of the triumphant morning call before losing his balance due to over-exertion and splashing in a dust of feathers to the ground again. Felix scatters a few grains of corn and dashes back to the house. I refrain from sending him out again to give the bantams more than just the half teaspoonful he has found adequate, because I want him to eat his breakfast right now, and because none of the hens has come out yet. There are only three, and I think they have all decided to be broody together, which is tiresome as we shall have no eggs this summer.
The sun breaks through and dispenses a weak dose of uplift as we pass the pig farm on the way to school. The pig farm is often a haven of picturesque loveliness, but not today. Something has happened to the muck heap, and it has avalanched across the road in front of us, so our path is steaming and pungent. Abruptly shut my window and attempt to drive through the slurry, but in moments the wheels are spinning and we are embedded.
“Phew, it stinks,” says Giles, turning the radio up as if he thinks this will make a difference.
I rev the engine once more, to no avail. “Hell and buggeration, we’re going to be late.” Open my door and step out, heart sinking as feet do the same into warm manure. Have not worn my Wellingtons, and as I squelch toward the barn, looking for a shovel, bits of straw and soft slime stick to the soles of my shoes and float in over the tops to lie beneath my heels. Find a spade, and a broom, but no farmer to assist me, so stomp back to the road in a big rage.
My life seems entirely made up of shit-shoveling episodes, be they after dogs, pigs, children, or hens. Am fed up with it. Am fed up with David being away, and never being able to speak to him because it’s always the wrong time of day. Whenever he does ring, it is a bad moment and I am in a rush or unable to concentrate and the conversation becomes dyspeptic, or dysfunctional, or just plain disagreeable. He will never want to come back at this rate. Must work out a way to improve this state of affairs, and also my appearance. This is foul, as a few moments in the bathroom after the school run demonstrate. Am loitering in front of the mirror, killing time while The Beauty busies herself with her babies, whom she has lined up against the wall and to whom she is administering medicine and dabs of hand cream along with kindly kisses on the head. This absorbing occupation gives me plenty of time to notice the leaden texture and pallid tone of my skin. Must implement a thorough purification regime forthwith. However, by the time I have wiped all the babies, put away the hand cream, and restuffed the whole packet of baby wipes The Beauty has discarded and thrown into her sock drawer, I have lost interest in purification. Dump The Beauty in her cot, praying that she has forgotten that she now knows how to climb out, and retreat to my own bed, promising, “I’ll just lie down for ten minutes.”
Surface again at midday, flushed with the sense of achievement which comes from having read a whole Georgette Heyer at one sitting, and spurred by the merry dance of true love in Cotillion, to a more cheerful level of existence.
Good cheer is beginning to drain away again as I stare out at the blank sky and try to decide whether it would be more ghastly to do my work or to go to the supermarket. There is no loo paper, no cereal, no washing powder, and no milk. After some consideration, choose to do my work, as the shopping option involves more than meets the eye: a multitude of chores, each one more urgent than the last, will be unleashed by a visit to the supermarket. Also, it is one thing gliding up and down the aisles with The Beauty, humming away to piped music and wondering which Teletubbies video to buy today, but it is quite another to be back home, dragging vast, splitting bags of stuff out of the car and into the house, where the final insult still awaits in the form of unpacking and putting away, accompanied by a hovering and stamping Beauty, who needs her supper. Work, on balance, is the easy option today.
Five minutes at my desk has me riffling through the wastepaper basket and then my diary in search of something interesting to take my mind off the Vanden Plaz Conference Catering brochure. Discover from my diary that Easter is almost upon us and telephone my friend Rose in London to invite her to stay. She is out, so have to make do with her answerphone. Try telephoning my mother for a spot of work avoidance instead. She is at home and is sniffing back tears. Fortunately they are of joy.
“Oh, Venetia, it’s so wonderful. I was just about to ring you. You will never believe this—never. Desmond has asked Minna to marry him and she has agreed.” There is a pause, and the deep intake of breath required for a huge puff on the celebratory cigarette crackles down the line. I am speechless. I must digest this extraordinary news. My brother Desmond is getting married. Surely he is not grown-up enough. He is certainly old enough, and has been for years, but old is not the same as grown-up.
“Gosh, that’s fantastic. When? How? Where?”
Have a sense of urgency, and a potent desire to have the whole thing sewn up before Minna changes her mind. But perhaps she won’t. After all, they have been together for nearly two years, which is certainly a record for Desmond. My mother’s excitement is gathering force.
“Wait there,” she commands. “I’ll just pop into Aylsham for a bottle and I’ll come over to tell you everything.”
She arrives with Egor, her bull terrier, hanging out of the passenger window of her car, yapping hoarsely. This sets Rags and Lowly off, and Digger joins in, so there is a hellish cacophony of dog reverberating through the house. The telephone rings, and I leap to answer it. Pick up the receiver but am distracted from saying hello by The Beauty, who has thrown herself at my mother and is warbling, “Grannee, Grannee. Come and have a cuppa tea now.”
“No fear,” says Granny, “no tea for me. I’m celebrating with vodka and tonic.”
“Vodka tonic, vodka tonic. No fear,” parrots The Beauty.
“. . . Can you hear me, Venetia?” blares in my ear. It is David sounding tetchy. Decide to punish him by pretending I can’t hear him.
“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Oh, well, there must be something wrong. I expect whoever it is will try later.” I hang up and turn to greet my mother. She and The Beauty have settled at the kitchen table and are watching in admiration as the bull terrier Egor and his idiot offspring Lowly run in circles of pleasure, holding one another’s tails.
“Do look, Venetia. They are clever,” coos my mother, sloshing vodka into two glasses The Beauty has brought her from the cupboard. She sighs, leaning back in her chair, and muses, “I must say, I always thought you would be married before Desmond. In fact, I never thought Desmond would be married at all. It’s marvelous.” The telephone rings again, and I battle with my better self, my bad fairy alter ego telling me not to answer it. Better self wins and I grab the phone. “Hello, who is it?”
“Hi, Venetia, it’s me, David, missing you already today and I’ve only just got up. I tried calling a minute ago, but there must have been a fault on the line.” Decide to ignore this, particularly in view of my mother’s remarks, which have deflated me to the size of a worm. Almost burst getting the words I want to say out without sounding resentful or expectant.
“Guess what, David, Desmond’s getting married!” The silent jaw dropping I can imagine down the line from Bermuda is as expressive as any exclamation.
“Darling, do get off the phone, I want to tell you everything.” My mother has tired of the dogs and is poised for a chat at the table, and The Beauty has found a straw and is making purposefully toward her glass.
I cut in on David’s laughter and the tumble of questions he is asking. “Sorry, David, I’ve got to go before The Beauty starts on the vodka. Call me later, darling.”
Barely hear his resigned “Okay then” before hanging up and moving across to the chair opposite my mother and as far as possible from The Beauty, who is stripping off her red corduroy skirt in favor of a pair of Chinese trousers from the dressing-up box and a pink feather boa from my bedroom. Sip the first delicious mouthful of vodka and tonic, experience great dizziness and rosy glow of well-being, decide there is no room for resentment or jealousy today, and get stuck into wedding details.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Summertime by Raffaella Barker. Copyright © 2002 by Raffaella Barker. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.