#94 -The most terrible poverty

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This episode is told from Maggie’s point of view.

My mother, rest her soul, copiously littered her speech with quotations. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because she didn’t have many original thoughts of her own, or because she wanted people to think she was well-versed in the classics when in fact she gleaned her sayings from back copies of Reader’s Digest in doctors’ waiting rooms. She would trot out her bon mots at regular intervals, often at inappropriate moments which may or may not have been purposely selected. She once went to dinner at the home of my newly married brother and his wife and, just before leaving, decided to quote Boswell’s Life of Johnson at them: “A dinner lubricates business.” My sister-in-law, still suffering from PTSD after a high school education by unsated nuns, was unable to look at her again without turning an artistic shade of magenta.

In my present circumstances (I read a lot of books, as my access to the internet is severely limited) my own collection of homilies steadily grows, although I don’t — daren’t — voice them aloud. From Katharine Hepburn, for example: Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then. Or from Mae West: Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.

The one that keeps coming back to me, though, originates neither from Reader’s Digest nor from Hollywood.

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Mother never quoted this one. Not even she was that hypocritical. She liked nothing better than to discuss, in detail and at length over a nice pot of tea, the failings of others. Of course, we are all guilty of doing this from time to time, with or without the aid of tea, but most of us keep our inner judgments to ourselves. I certainly have tried to, with increasing success over the years as maturity has delivered its wisdom.

Recently, though, I’ve wondered if even unvoiced condemnation is enough to invoke karmic retribution.

I’ve known my young friend Libby for several years now and am aware that I have become a substitute mother for her, just as she has become a replacement for my own daughter. I have tried to be a better mother to her than I was to Sara — see above, re: maturity delivering wisdom — and part of that process means stepping back and letting your child make her own mistakes. You don’t say, after everything ends in tears, “I told you so.” You don’t even voice an opinion.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion.

Libby puts up with a lot. She was whisked away from her home and family at a moment’s notice, and has very little backup from Oliver, who pays more attention to his mother’s feeling than to his wife’s. Her mother, Jane, is too busy pandering to her own monstrous husband to give Libby any sound advice about how to deal with Oliver.

I say nothing, other than to offer assistance when I can.

Despite my external silence, I’m ashamed to admit that my inner voice — the internal eighth-grader we all have, the one that interrupts our higher intentions if we let our guard down — was, all the while, chirruping smugly.

You would never be a doormat to your husband and kids like Libby is.

or

You walked out on your husband rather than tolerate a second-rate existence.

And so on.

Of course, I smothered the voice, but nonetheless congratulated myself that I’d reached independence on my own terms, with no husband like Oliver telling me how to live my life. Been there, done that, left the party. A free woman of the world, an early example of the women’s liberation movement: that’s what I was.

I was still smugly congratulating myself when I went to Sara’s wedding in the Seychelles and met my ex-husband for the first time in nearly four decades.

I’d been apprehensive about the meeting — we had parted on catastrophic terms, after all — and expressed my concern to Sara, who said, “Mom, it’s entirely up to you, of course, You must do what feels right. But I’d love both my parents to be at my wedding now that it’s finally happening. Besides, it’s god knows how many years since you last saw Dad, and he’s been married and widowed and become a father and grandfather since then. He’s hardly going to sue for custody of me now. Just how much of a problem do you think he will be, in a public place, for 48 hours?”

She was correct, of course. (She was particularly correct when she said that I must do what feels right, but unfortunately I ignored that part.)  Time appeared to have mellowed Derek. He walked our daughter down the aisle and quietly blew his nose as he sat down next to me. The proud parents of the bride, behaving decorously, as if their last meeting had been over coffee in a Starbucks instead of over…well, something more sinister than an iced latte.

At the reception, while the champagne flutes were refilled time and again by discreet, hovering waiters, the copious alcohol and minimalist hors d’oeuvres unleashed waves of nostalgia. Tsunamis of the stuff.  Derek reminisced about his thirty years of blissful marriage to Cassie — my successor, his recently departed wife — whom he missed so much. He had tears in his eyes when he spoke about her, and I, poor fool, had tears in my eyes too. He talked about their two sons, Declan and Dermot, and how proud he was of them, and I wondered, for the first time, if things might have been different if I’d stayed with him in 1976. If maybe I’d been too hasty in my damning verdict of our marriage and even hastier in its execution.

No, I told myself. It was the right thing to do at the time. We were both too young.

But…we were older now.

When five bottles of Brut had been emptied by our table of six (which included two teetotalers) Derek was done reminiscing about his time with Cassie. As the sixth cork popped, he began to reminisce instead about his time with me, and how proud he was of his beautiful, successful, only daughter, and how he wished he’d been a better father to her. And a better husband to me. He couldn’t blame me one bit for leaving him as I did. He would have left him, if he’d been married to himself. He wanted to make it up to me. To show me the better man that he’d become.

I gazed at my ex-husband, hypnotised, wondering what would have become of our lives if I’d given him another chance. Just one more.

“Maggie, I’m truly a better man than the one you had the misfortune to meet when you were twenty.”

And like an idiot, I lapped it all up.

I should have remembered that he was a smooth-talking, lying bastard when he wanted something. I should have remembered the shouts, the threats, the hurled pieces of wedding gift china. I should have remembered that there are two sides to every story and maybe Cassie’s version of their thirty-year partnership would have been quite different from his, and that death could been a blissful, or even unchosen, release for her.

In short, I should have taken a taxi there and then back to the airport and the comparative sanity of Woodhaven. But instead I sat by him, bewitched by the romance of the evening as our daughter and her new husband danced under the palm trees and the full moon, and I let that scumbag reel me in, just as he did in 1967.

I let him reel me in, all the way to the Chapel of the Bells in Las Vegas, some months later.

* * *

Another quotation I read recently. Charlotte Bronte: The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.

When I was single, I was alone, but never lonely.

Now I’m half of a couple again, and destined to spend my remaining years with another soul.

I’ve never been so lonely in my life.

 

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Posted in Episodes 91-100, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

#93 – Setting the bar

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The problem with Oliver having Sandra as his mother — obviously there are many problems, but let’s talk about this one for now  — is that he still has a low bar when it comes to defining “normal”. As far as he is concerned, Sandra is “normal”, whereas anyone else having a brushing acquaintance with her would use a different and less flattering description.

Oliver’s screwed-up idea of normality, therefore, makes it difficult for him to understand how bad things are Chez Maggie.

In vain, I try to explain to him that our friend — our lovely, compassionate, eccentric throwback to Mary Quant and Woodstock — has had a complete change of personality and needs our help in reclaiming her old one.

“Her handmade quilts have gone,” I tell him, “and all her rocking chairs. Her house looks like a Scandinavian furniture catalogue, it’s so streamlined and perfect. And as for her teapot cats, they’ve all been replaced by this awful stainless steel and glass thing that doesn’t dribble over the sandwiches. I swear that it’s all Derek’s doing, and he’s holding her hostage or something.”

I wait for Oliver to agree that there is something desperately wrong with this situation and that he will immediately come with me to Maggie’s house and sort it out, by force or SWAT team if necessary. Naturally, I am disappointed.

“It’s about time she got rid of that tatty furniture,” he says. “And those god-awful, useless teapots, too. She nearly ruined my favorite pair of trousers once,  dribbling boiling tea all over my leg. No, those updates were well overdue.”

“That would be all very well,” I say, “if those updates were her decision, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t. They were his. Derek’s. Cream leather sofas just aren’t Maggie’s style.”

Oliver frowns. I can see him struggling to understand why I think new sofas aren’t an ok development.

“Our sofas are cream leather,” he says at last. “Do you think that’s a problem too?”

“No,” I say, trying to be patient, “because you and I chose them together. It was a joint decision.”

“And can you prove Maggie’s home improvements weren’t also joint decisions?”

Of course I can’t. This is where hunches and female intuition comes in. I wave the Beatles CD that Maggie gave me at Oliver.

“This!” I say. “It’s an album called Help! Maggie said I’d lent it to her, but I hadn’t. It was her cry for help!”

Oliver pats me on the hand.

“And I’ve told you before, she’s probably going a little bit gaga. Forgetful,” he amends. “It’s only to be expected at her age.”

He gets up from his chair and starts to walk of the room. I’m childishly tempted to stick out my foot and trip him up.

“For goodness sake, she’s not 70 yet. Why on earth is ‘going a little bit gaga’ only to be expected at her age?”

“Why shouldn’t it?” he calls from the hall where he’s putting on his shoes, clearly bored with this discussion and willing to walk to the mailbox in the rain to avoid any more of it. “My mother’s been like that for years, and she’s younger than Maggie. It’s perfectly normal, I’d say.”

 

 

 

Posted in Episodes 91-100, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged | 7 Comments

#92 – Help me if you can…

The new Maggie twists slightly on her unforgiving sofa, and asks in a too-bright tone if I would like some tea. The old Maggie would have simply put the kettle on with nothing being said. Her Miss Manners style of etiquette is infectious, though, and I find myself answering:

“That would be perfectly lovely, thank you.”

She rejects my offer of help in the kitchen — something else the Maggie of old would not have done — so I stay seated and watch her walk into the kitchen. Even her dress code has changed: no more dirndl skirts or hippy kaftans, no more peasant blouses or wooden beads. I remember, when we first met, my impression of her was “Biba meets Miss Havisham of Great Expectations.” Today, a first impression might be “Botox meets Liz Claiborne of Stepford Wives.”

What, I ask myself, can make a strong woman like Maggie turn into a drone?

It’s a rhetorical question. When you take into account the variables of Maggie’s life, only one has changed: her companion. Her ex-ex who, even when absent from the room as he is at present, keeps Maggie in a zombie-like trance by remote control.

Maggie’s personality started to alter quite a while ago, of course. My own diary pinpointed the moment as early as last September:

I have no idea what witchcraft Maggie’s ex has spun on my friend, but in the four weeks she was in the Keys, Maggie changed. She’s never been one to show or act her age — “Age is but a number” she is fond of saying — but since she came back, she’s been nearer in mental age and outlook to Jack than to me.

I did wonder if she was becoming prematurely senile, until I saw Maggie and Derek together one afternoon. Then I realised what had happened.

They’ve teleported themselves back forty years. She is behaving as she did when she was nineteen, and he thinks he’s the dashing young state trooper who stopped a redheaded English woman for speeding in a borrowed Corvette.

And it won’t work. You can’t be teenagers when you’re drawing a pension — at least, you can’t be the same teenagers that you used to be. By all means, have a second youth; but the key word there is “second”.

Reliving their first one will end in a pool of tears, I’m sure of it.

Ignoring Miss Manners’ probable advice to stay put on the sofa as my hostess had indicated I should, I follow Maggie into the kitchen.

She looks up as I approach, and I could swear that her expression is one of alarm.

“Let’s have a nice chat while the tea’s brewing,” I say, leaning cosily against the counter. “I haven’t seen you for ages. Not even in the shops, although I’ve seen Derek there a few times. How are you doing?”

Maggie’s alarmed expression returns to one more bland. She smiles and nods once to acknowledge her satisfactory wellbeing, and counts out spoonfuls of looseleaf tea into an angular, stainless-steel teapot that resembles not a tabby cat but part of a car engine.

I stare at the stainless steel monstrosity — no doubt an example of engineering perfection that it wouldn’t dream of dribbling over teatime cake and biscuits — and rage quietly to myself. How dare it decide that Maggie’s old china teapots weren’t good enough?

The answer to that is: it didn’t. Something else did.

Someone else did.

“And how is Derek?” I ask. “You haven’t kicked him out yet?”

Maggie’s eyes widen. She looks around furtively before replying.

“Of course not. Why would I do that?” she says. “We’re just getting to know each other again.”

She pours boiling water on the tea leaves, lets it brew for exactly two minutes, then pours me a cup. It’s not her usual brand of bright orange PG Tips. This stuff is pale grey with a slice of lemon floating in it, and it smells of lavender potpourri.

“The house looks beautiful,” I lie, after I’ve taken a sip. Not only does the tea smell like potpourri, but it tastes like it too. “Very tidy. Very clean. Very…” I can’t think how to describe the new, angular, clinical style that is so out of place in Maggie’s cosy home.

“Very not me, I think you’re trying to say.” Her voice is barely audible.

It’s the first sighting I’ve had of the real Maggie for several months, and in my surprise, I almost drop my cup.

“So why did you do it?” I ask.

Maggie purses her lips: Shush. Then she jerks her head slightly towards the door in the kitchen that leads to the den.

“Can you talk?” I whisper.

She shakes her head.

In a louder voice that will carry to the den where her ex-ex presumably is, she says, “Derek and I have plans to go out very soon, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to stay long. But before you leave, remind me to give you the CD you lent me last summer. I do apologise for keeping it so long.”

Again, a pursing of lips to silence any bemused reaction on my part. I’ve never lent Maggie any CDs. Ever.

I swig back the remnants of my lavender-flavoured tea and Maggie hustles me towards the front door. As I step out onto the porch, she thrusts a CD case at me. I shove it in my handbag without looking at it, get in the car, and head off home to see the children who have been tormenting a local high schooler who was foolish enough to volunteer to babysit.

Later, after dinner, I tell a slightly bored Oliver about the mysterious changes in our old neighbour. “And then, just before I left, she gave me a CD she says I lent her…but I’ve never lent her any CDs.”

“What was it?” Oliver asks.

I rummage in my handbag, which is a large sack-like affair in which everything falls to the bottom in a jumble of loose change, gas receipts, and Happy Meal toys, and pull out the CD case that Maggie had given me.

“A Beatles album,” I tell him, and hold the case up for him to see.

He squints. “I can’t see without my glasses. Which one?”

John, Paul, George, and Ringo; dressed in blue uniforms, holding their arms in various semaphore positions.

“‘Help’,” I say.

© 2014 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 91-100, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Woodhaven Observer Article: Kindergarten Teacher Returns To School

Woodhaven Observer logoKindergarten teacher returns to school; kids and parents “overjoyed.”

PTA president claims it’s a bad example to kids to allow unfit teachers in classroom.

Kindergarteners at Woodhaven Elementary finally got to meet their teacher this week when long-time educator Cybelle Healy returned to class after a six-month absence. 

Mrs. Healy, 62, suffered a heart attack two days before the start of this school year and has been recuperating ever since.

“It’s been a long road to recovery but I finally made it. I’m glad to be back,” said Healy, an educator with 40 years’ experience, and for decades a firm favorite with kids, parents, and co-workers alike.

Her loss was felt deeply by the incoming class of kindergarteners, and it is believed that several parents removed their kids from the care of substitute teacher Patsy Traynor, choosing instead this year either to homeschool or to boost the funds of the Montessori School in Banbury.

“We are ecstatic to have Mrs. Healy back,” said one mother whose child currently attends Montessori. “The private school fees have crippled us. But you make sacrifices for your kids, don’t you?  I’m happy she came back in time for summer, though. It means we will be able to join the pool club AND the country club. Also I can go back to getting weekly mani-pedis and shopping at Whole Foods.”

Not everyone shares this mother’s enthusiasm, however. Jodee Addison, President of Woodhaven Elementary’s PTA, and organizer (and sole entrant) of Woodhaven’s 50k Fun Run last year, was particularly vocal when we asked for her reaction to the news.

“I think it’s a really bad example to the kids,” Addison said. “She was totally unfit. Someone in her position should look after her health and not eat saturated fat. I’ve seen her eating cupcakes in front of the kids at Valentine’s parties, for God’s sake. You can’t behave irresponsibly like that and not be prepared to accept the consequences. It’s very upsetting for the children, having this incredibly important year of their school career disrupted by something that was self-inflicted by a person who obviously doesn’t care about her students.”

Principal Dr. Felix Roth said he was “delighted to welcome Mrs. Healy back to Woodhaven Elementary’s family fold.”

He declined to comment on Ms. Addison’s remarks, other than asking the Observer to remind parents that voting would soon begin for the election of next year’s PTA board.

© 2014 Kate Allison

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#91 – The Stepfordization of Maggie

Maggie’s house used to feel like my second home. Every part of it was an extension of her, my “other” mother: the black wood-stove, the teapot-cats she didn’t have the heart to throw away, the colourful patchwork quilts draped over rocking chairs and love-seats.

I loved the stove’s smoky smell that wound through the house, even in summer, and clung to my clothes after every visit. So similar to cigar smoke, which I cannot bear, but so comforting in a way that tobacco residue never is.

I loved the china cats, gathering dust on the shelf above the kitchen window. They were as ugly as they were useless; cats of any material were never designed to hold hot liquids, and during afternoon tea, as Maggie tipped them over to pour, they would dribble incontinently over her plates of digestive biscuits and slices of Victoria sandwich.

And the quilts? I loved, simply adored, the stories that each quilt told.

“Now this white taffeta here, that’s from my wedding dress. Well, I say ‘dress’, but there wasn’t much of it. You couldn’t get more than a couple of patches out of it. It was the Sixties, and the skirt was noticeable more by its absence than presence. The blue seersucker, though, is from a party dress that Sara wore when she was five. It had a Peter Pan collar and puffed sleeves, and she looked like Miss Pears in it. And see this lime green? That’s part of the shirt I was wearing when I decided, just like that, that I’d had enough of Derek. I packed a bag for me and Sara and we left at midnight, like a pair of Cinderellas, while he was on night shift.”

The last story, about a patch of lime-green cotton commemorating her independence, is the one that keeps coming back to me as I sit with Maggie now in her living room.

Correction. This is not Maggie’s living room. Not anymore. It belongs to someone else who lives here now.

It’s as if the lime-green shirt lost its life in vain.

Gone is the wood-stove, replaced by a wall fire resembling a plasma TV.

Gone are the ceramic cats in the kitchen. The shelf where they used to sit has also gone, and in its place is a calico Roman blind. The countertops, which used to be barely visible for all the bric-a-brac — half-opened letters, a basket of middle-aged Golden Delicious, assorted supermarket receipts and special offer coupons — are clear of paraphernalia and smell faintly of lemon and ammonia. Only a coffeemaker and a toaster grace the surfaces.

And gone are the worn wooden rocking chairs and threadbare love seats, usurped by two cream, leather sofas, the type with angular seats that dig into the backs of your knees, and backrests that are too low to lean your head on.

Naturally, the life-history patchwork quilts are nowhere to be seen.

It’s like an “after” picture on a home makeover program.

Very sleek, very chic, very neutral. Devoid of personality.

Devoid of Maggie.

Well — devoid of the old Maggie, the Maggie who lived here a few months ago, the one whose personality was too big for this little cottage.

Since her ex has been living with her, though, her personality has been on a starvation diet.

© 2014 Kate Allison

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Woodhaven Observer Article: Local Realtor Questioned

Woodhaven Observer logoKindergarten teacher returns to school; kids and parents “overjoyed.”

Stuart Miles|FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Woodhaven realtor questioned by police in connection with recent house fire.

The community was rocked this week when local realtor, Melissa Harvey Connor, was questioned in connection with the recent destruction of several brand new houses in Banbury, near Woodhaven. Ms. Connor, a lifelong resident of Woodhaven, denies any knowledge of the cause of the fire that destroyed nine single-family homes which had remained empty since their construction nearly a year ago.

Connor is known to be a good friend (and, some say, with “benefits”) of the owner of Brentnor’s Bricks and Stones, builder of the Banbury subdivision.

A source for the Observer, speaking on condition of anonymity, claims that for the last year Connor has been deliberately withholding buyers’ offers from the house sellers whom she represents.

“That’s horse- [expletive] and you know it,” was Connor’s response to our journalist’s questions on the matter. “This kind of, like, disrespect would totally never have happened when Patsy Traynor’s uncle was in charge of this newspaper. These days, it’s nothing more than, like, a thyroid [sic] at a grocery store checkout,” she said, before driving away, holding her cell phone to her ear, to her home on Juniper Street, Woodhaven.

Editor-in-Chief Traynor (to whom Connor referred) worked for forty years at the Woodhaven Observer before his retirement to the Caribbean last year. Since his departure, it has become apparent that his female intern and many thousands of dollars from Observer funds also retired to the same location. His wife is still a resident of Woodhaven.

© 2014 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 91-100, Woodhaven Observer Articles | Tagged | Leave a comment

#90 — The other woman

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(This episode is told from Oliver’s point of view.)

The phone buzzes in my hand, and I look down at the telephone number on the screen.

“I have to take this one,” I say to her. Even to my own ears, I sound apologetic. “It’s someone from work.”

As I get up from the sofa and head to the kitchen to take the phone call, she pouts and says, “You don’t have to lie to me. I know it’s her on the phone. Libby.”

* * *

“Oliver?”

Libby’s voice is echoey. She must be in the study which is empty at the moment, ready for its transformation next week into habitable living space. I love our new house — more than I thought I ever would — but it is an almighty money pit.

I pull the kitchen door shut so that our conversation won’t be heard. Or, more to the point, so that Libby won’t hear the other voice.

“I’m here, love.”

“Oh good. I thought the line was breaking up for a minute there. Are you all settled into your hotel?”

“As settled as you can be in a hotel room. It’s no fun, being on the road.”

“No fun for me, either,” she says. Poor Libs. I’m not at home much, these days. “What do you say we go away for a couple of days when you’re back? One of those indoor water resorts, maybe, where we can pretend it’s summer? I’m so fed up of the snow.”

“Sounds great.”

Actually, it sounds hideous. The last thing I want to do after a fortnight on the road is to go away again to another hotel, even if it’s with Libs and the kids. Today, I had a six-hour flight from Boston to Heathrow, checked into an airport hotel for the next two weeks, and immediately got back in the car for an hour and drove here. Not that Libs knows about the last hour of that journey, of course; as far as she’s concerned, I’m still holed up in an anonymous room at the Heathrow Radisson.

A clattering of glasses behind me from the cosy living room, and the faint pop of a cork being ejected from a wine bottle. I know she’s been saving a special bottle of Rioja for my visit – it’s one from the year I turned 21. I cup the speaker part of the phone with my hand in case Libby can hear the sounds as well.

“Libs, can I phone you back in a couple of hours? I’m expecting a call from work — everyone’s still in the office where you are, obviously — and then I’ll need to get a few jobs done before they all go home.”

Libby agrees cheerfully and without question; if I felt like a turd before, I feel like King Turd now.

A few whispered niceties and exchanged promises of commitment, and I click the screen to finish the call.

Back in the living room, I pick up the glass of ’97 Rioja from the coffee table.

“Cheers.” I smile at her, but she’s already spoiling for a fight.

“You could have left that phone call,” she says, pouting again. Christ, this woman has a lower lip like a soup plate. “You didn’t have to answer it. We were having such a lovely time together.”

I briefly close my eyes.

“Don’t be silly,” I say. “Libby called to make sure I’d arrived safely. She’d be worried if I didn’t answer.”

Not to mention suspicious.

A sniff, a sharp tilt of the head to point her nose at the ceiling. We are past the pouting phase of the sulk now, and she’s going to make me suffer. I should be used to this by now and therefore able to ignore her, but I can’t. I seem to have stereotyped myself into the role of Peacekeeper.

“Come on,” I say, annoyed to hear a hint of pleading in my voice. “Come on. Let’s not spoil it. We don’t have that much time together.”

“And whose fault is that?” She fold her arms and stands in front of the fireplace.

“It’s no one’s fault!” I say. “It’s just how it is! I can’t change things. You’re here, and I’m over there, in Woodhaven.”

“You could change things. If you really wanted, you could change things.”

This is getting to be such hard work. I came over for a pleasant evening, to drink some wine, to have something to eat, to make up for the dreadful argument we had last time I saw her, but here we are, arguing again already.

“I couldn’t change things,” I say. “Not yet. I’m under contract to stay there for a few more years, as well you know.”

And frankly, it’s easier for me to see her in England while Libby is safely in Woodhaven. Keep the two of them apart. Libby would be none too pleased if she knew where I was today.

There’s a silence, and she stares down into her wine glass.

She seems to be getting over her tantrum — until she speaks again.

“You could always leave her. I have no idea why you married her in the first place.”

* * *

It’s so difficult, juggling a life with two women: Libby and her. I don’t know how other men manage, although plenty do, I suppose.

But I can’t let her last comment pass me by. Even though there are things I have to sort out with her after our last meeting – things that Libby won’t ever know about — I can’t let her get away with that last remark.

I stand up and rummage in my jeans pocket for the car keys.

“Right, that’s it. I’m off. I’ll come back when you’re in a nicer mood. Give me a ring at the hotel when you feel like being more rational.”

I head out of the living room to the front door, the one I painted white, years ago; the one that still has a gouge in it where Jack rammed it with his little wooden tricycle, the one through which, for a laugh, I carried Libby, hours after our wedding.

I’ve almost shut the door behind me, when her words run through my mind again — “You could always leave her” — and suddenly, I’ve had enough of being nice and being reasonable and trying to please everyone. Grow a pair, Oliver, for Chrissakes. Just this once.

I open the front door again. She’s sobbing in the living room, but I’m not taking any notice.

“And when I come back,” I shout; the sobs ebb a little, because she’s probably waiting for me to apologize and say it’s somehow my fault that she’s being a vindictive, possessive cow, “that spare bedroom had better be empty of all wildlife and reptiles, like you told me and Libs it would be, three months ago. Do you hear me?”

The sobs stop completely. I wait a second, nod to myself, and softly pull the door shut behind me.

Yes. My mother heard me, all right.

© 2014 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 81-90, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

#89 – Catching Up

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It’s snowing in Woodhaven.

I sit at the antique oak desk in front of our dining room window and watch the flakes fall onto the deck. They linger for a few seconds before dissolving into the wooden boards, but it won’t be long before they gang together into a hefty depth; eight inches of the little blighters before dawn tomorrow, if the weather forecast is correct. The outdoor thermometer, which gave a springlike reading of 45 degrees two days ago, now stands at 28 degrees, and the mercury is dropping fast.

Wait! Rewind.

I’m sitting in the dining room in Woodhaven. The room into which I wouldn’t go alone three months ago because it was the favourite spot of Jack’s invisible friend, Em.

How things have changed.

Yes, I know. It’s a while since you heard from me. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year — they’ve come and gone again for another year. But I’ve had a break, and you know what?

I needed it to regain my sanity.

When you won’t stay in a room, or even an entire house, because your kindergartener has convinced you there’s a nine-year-old poltergeist in it, you need to remember where you last left your sanity. It’s not as simple as remembering where you last left your car keys.

So this break was not just a vacation, it was a necessity. A necessary break to convince myself that cold dining rooms are due to ineffective central heating or over-effective air conditioning, not due to a spiritual cougar dreamed up by my five-year-old son because he can’t get a real girlfriend yet.

A break from watching my good friend Maggie turn herself from Germaine Greer into Betty Crocker, as she misguidedly resurrects her long-abandoned marriage to Derek Sharpe. Someone (me) needs to tell her (soon) that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely; that you can be lonely even when you’re not alone. An ex-husband who wants you to be his house-servant in your twilight years is not a satisfactory trade for being alone; indeed, this particular ex is not even a good trade for being lonely. I have so much to tell you about this man — but not yet.

And lastly, a break from Woodhaven, a break from being a foreigner. Instead, a few weeks in good old Blighty where people understand my accent and don’t incessantly comment how “adorable” it is. (I get so tired, in Woodhaven, of being told how adorable I sound. I’ve even made a “two strikes” rule about it: if, during our third meeting, a new companion is still trying to copy the way I say certain words, there will be no fourth meeting.)

But, you might be asking, what’s happened chez Patrick since November?

After the Sandra-snakes-and-snails fiasco — another topic to elaborate on later — Oliver jetted off to Rotterdam to see his customers, and the kids and I stayed at a hotel near my mum’s place for a few days. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than staying in the parental home; something I should have remembered from the last disastrous time I stayed there with Jack, just before we moved to Woodhaven, nearly three years ago. While I love my parents because, well, they’re my parents, I would never want to live in the same house with them again, not least because it would result in news stories with intriguing headlines.

Elderly couple missing for two years found in their own freezer. Daughter pleads not guilty; says it was suicide pact.

Teetering along a fine line between “elderly” and “borderline senile”, my parents have forgotten what it’s like to have small children. After an afternoon involving one twin trying to eat a block of toilet cleaner (the sort that hangs from the rim; George thought it was a lollipop), the other twin sinking her teeth into the plastic bananas and pears in Mum’s fruit bowl, and Jack adding crayon stick-figures to the leather-bound journal in which Dad was writing his memoirs (as if anyone would ever read them anyway!) Mum and I tacitly agreed to meet at more neutral venues in shopping centres. Not Dad, though, who made a big deal of cancelling all engagements in order to rewrite his memoirs into a brand new, unsullied leather-bound journal.

When I’d spent more hours than is humane with Mum in “neutral venues” — mooching round Primark and M&S was her idea of an entertaining afternoon for small children and, being reliant on her transport, I couldn’t argue — Oliver finished his business in Rotterdam and came to rescue us. He turned up in an ugly, green Renault people carrier rather than on a white charger, but after a week in Primark and M&S I’d have loaded me, the kids, and the luggage onto a Shetland pony and trotted all the way to Heathrow. Oliver had even managed to get us all tickets on the same flight to Boston, which was a relief. Going to the supermarket on my own with the sprogs is hair-raising enough, never mind going on my own with them across the Atlantic.

A few hours of assorted children crying at frequent intervals, squeezing into aircraft bathrooms to change nappies, and playing “I Spy” with Jack until even he got bored (“I spy with my little eye something beginning with A-C.” “Another Cloud?”) and there we were…back in Woodhaven.

Back home.

Home?

Yes. A couple of years ago I couldn’t think of Woodhaven as home, but something keeps changing. The combination of paying a mortgage to the bank instead of rent to Melissa H-C, and the cold-water-splash reality check of visiting Milton Keynes — somewhere I used to call “home” but isn’t any more — made me realise where home is.

It’s not where you’ve lived, but where you make a life. Life is here, in this funny little house with the wood panelling, temperamental wiring, and uneven floorboards. It’s where my children are, where Oliver is — most of the time, anyway.

I look up from my journal. The snow is settling now; about an inch has gathered on the deck since I started to write.

The children are in bed, and Oliver is away, as usual, this time in Seattle. A floorboard creaks behind me, but I don’t turn round. This old house creaks all day long; the rise and fall in temperature and humidity in a wooden construction makes unexpected noises inevitable.

If it isn’t merely the falling outdoor temperature — and at night, alone, my stern self-admonishing to grow up and stop being so silly can lose its power — well, that’s OK.

Our home is where we’ve made our lives, of course. But many other people made their lives in this enchanting house before we came along. I can understand if some don’t want to leave yet.

As I’m always telling Jack, George, and Beth — it’s nice to share.

© 2014 Kate Allison

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#88 — A silver trail

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© Tiff20 | Dreamstime.com

It’s a cozy enough scene, I suppose, if one were to look at it quickly through the living room window. Granny, Beloved Son, Doted-On Grandchildren and, OK, Tolerated Daughter-in-Law, all sitting in squashy chairs and sofas around a real (gas) fire. Tea and biscuits on a tray on the coffee table. Everyone chatting together, like people used to do before TVs and iPads and smartphones came along.

You could paint the scene and put it in the National Gallery: a snapshot of family life at the beginning of the third millennium. A couple of hundred years later, some author would see it as an escape route from writer’s block, and write a book about it – a bit like “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”, only this would be “The Family Without Facebook” — and the idyllic life of the Patrick family would be immortalized in print as well as watercolour, on paper. Or whatever they make books out of in the 2200s.

The story two hundred years hence, of course, would be nothing like the reality of today. The reality of our get-together is less idyllic than it appears from that quick glance through the window.

Although pictures can say a thousand words, those words sometimes get lost in translation.

* * *

Oliver, in the armchair to the left of the fireplace, leans forward, his elbows on his knees. He’s tired and cross, annoyed that he’s had to come back to Milton Keynes for an emergency family summit instead of having a child-free lie-in tomorrow at an anonymous airport hotel. He should be so lucky. Since I opened the door of the fourth bedroom, the children and I have been staying in one room at the local Travelodge.

He looks in Sandra’s direction – at her left ear, her right shoulder – but doesn’t catch her eye.

“You do understand, don’t you, Mum?” he says.

Sandra sits rigidly upright in an identical armchair on the other side of the fireplace, folds her arms, and lifts her chin up. You don’t have to be an expert in body language to hear “Defiance” screaming from every limb placement.

Playing with a toy Ferrari on the floor at her feet, Jack announces excitedly to the room that he can see right up Granny’s nose and it has hairs growing out of the left side.

Sandra drops her chin a little to make her nostrils less obvious, and hunches her shoulders as she hugs herself. In doing so, her stance loses the defiance and becomes defensive.

“I said, you do understand?” Oliver repeats his question, but his voice is gentle. He is a much nicer person than I am, at least when it comes to dealing with his mother. “You see that we can’t let you keep—”

“They’re not doing any harm!” Sandra hugs herself more tightly as she blurts out the words. “They’re just minding their own business, in the spare room. I don’t see how any reasonable person can object to that.”

“Yes, but, when we agreed that you should live in our house, it was on the understanding that you didn’t keep–”

“You didn’t say anything about it.” Sandra hunches over even more, looking like a naughty child who’s been caught stealing chocolate biscuits after being told she can’t have any. “You only said ‘No dogs’.”

Oliver nods slowly, seeming to consider this miscarriage of justice. “That’s true,” he says at last. “When you put it like that, I suppose we don’t have any grounds to…”

Oh, for goodness’ sake. I leap up from the sofa.

“When Oliver said ‘No dogs’,” I say to my mother-in-law, pointing my finger at her, “it should have been perfectly obvious that he meant ‘No dogs, no cats, and no Boris The Tarantulas. Certainly no geckos, no turtles, no rats or mice, no giant African snails or any of the other slimy creatures you’ve got living in our spare bedroom, and —” I pause to take a breath, and the last part comes out as a semi-scream “— most definitely not a six-foot boa constrictor on the loose.”

“Libby.” Oliver tries to take control, but I’m on a roll. I shake my finger at Sandra again, and she cowers into the armchair.

“Are you incapable of using common sense, or does everything have to be written into the lease? Ah, yes, I forgot. Oliver didn’t want you to have a lease, did he? You’re family, he said. You’ll look after the house, he said. Clearly,” I say, shooting a slit-eyed look at Oliver, “having an exotic pet collection in what will be Beth’s bedroom in a couple of years is his and your idea of looking after the house.”

Oliver’s expression and body language echo those of his mother. Two naughty children caught in the biscuit tin.

“The animals…they’re not actually doing any harm in the spare bedroom. To be fair,” he adds.

I try counting to ten, and get as far as three. I’m not in the mood to be fair.

“When I went into that room to look for rainboots,” I say, as evenly as I can, “that giant snake had escaped from its box and was curled up under the radiator.”

“That’s why I call him Houdini,” Sandra says. “He doesn’t like being in his tank all the time.”

“It’s not a tank!” I shout. “I might not mind as much if it were a real, actual tank! It’s a plastic box, just like the one in the attic that we used to keep our rolls of Christmas wrapping paper in, and its lid is loose, just like that one…” I stop. “I don’t believe it. It’s the same box, isn’t it? You’ve recycled our storage bins into serpent bungalows.”

Sandra nods reluctantly. “I put the wrapping paper through the shredder and used it as bedding for the rats. It seemed the least I could do for them, give them a nice colourful bed before they were fed to Houdini. Now that the wrapping paper is gone, I give them the colour magazines from the Sunday newspapers.”

Surreal. I’ve had a lot of imagined conversations in my life, but not one of them has been about interior decorating styles for rodents on death row.

“What else have you done?” I ask. “What else has been recycled? Is the conservatory now a bird sanctuary, or the oven a retirement home for aged scorpions?”

“Libs…”

I wave at Oliver, a dismissive “shut up, I’m not finished” flap of the hand.

“And this living room,” I continue. “Very convenient that you choose to get it decorated three days before we arrive, isn’t it?”

“That’s going too far.” Oliver stands up. “Mum had this room done to keep the place nice for us. It’s terrible of you to say she had ulterior–”

“It was the snails.” Sandra’s voice cuts across Oliver’s protests. We both turn to stare at her. “The giant African snails. I put them on the fireplace.”

Oliver and I look at the fireplace. I’ve always hated it: a relic from another decade, stucco-covered brick. We’d kept intending to rip the thing out and replace it with something nicer, but it was such a messy job that we never got round to it.

“You put the snails on the fireplace?” Oliver’s confusion matches my own. “What were you doing? Roasting them for supper?”

Sandra shakes her head. “I’d run out of eggshells.”

Oh, right. She should have said before. Everything’s perfectly clear now.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask.

Sandra sniffs. “Will and Kate — that’s what I call them — they need calcium for their shells, and I usually give them eggshells to eat. But I wasn’t very well, and I ran out of eggs and couldn’t go out, so I took Will and Kate out of their tank and put them on the fireplace, because that white bobbly stuff has calcium in it.”

“It’s true,” Oliver murmurs at me. “I’ve read about it. Florida has an infestation of those creatures, and they love the stucco on the houses there.”

“And then because I was poorly, I fell asleep and when I woke up, they’d gone for a little walk all over the walls.”

“Leaving a silver snail trail behind them.”

Sandra shuffles around in her chair and gazes at the carpet.

“And other things too. So when you phoned and said you were coming, I thought I’d better get the decorators in.”

Oliver turns to me. “Those things carry meningitis. And they’ve been crapping all over our living room walls.”

Much as I am sickened at this idea, I’m pleased that Oliver has switched from being Dutiful Son to Dutiful Husband. He finds it difficult to play both roles at once, but, to paraphrase a great Prime Minister, he will always do the right thing once he has exhausted all the other possibilities.

“They can’t stay,” he says to Sandra. “Either they go and you stay here, or they go and you go with them. But they can’t stay. Fergus and Boris are one thing, but Houdini and Will and Kate are another. I don’t care where they go, as long as they go safely. I don’t want to read in the newspaper a few days from now about cats and Yorkshire terriers mysteriously going missing in Milton Keynes. We’ll come back in a few days to make sure they’re gone, and I want that spare bedroom returned to human living quarters.”

“But they’re such good company!” Sandra wails. “They’re my babies!”

She could be right, I reflect. It would explain an awful lot.

* * *

“Now what?” I ask Oliver as I open the hotel room door at the Travelodge. “The kids and I can’t stay here for the next week and a half, and I’m not sure I could bear to stay with my own mother, even if she’d have us.”

We bundle the three kids inside the room before one of them decides to make a break for it down the corridor.

“We’ve seen the house, we’ve sorted out the problems. Stay here for a couple more days until I can get you an earlier flight, and then go home. I’ll follow in a week or so when I’ve finished my work in Europe.”

I think about this. It would mean being without Oliver in the house in Woodhaven for a while. Just me, Jack, George, Beth – and Em. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this week, it’s that there are worse things to have around the house than centuries-old spirits of nine-year-old girls.

Em, at least, does not spread meningitis or slither around on my living room walls.

“Sounds good,” I say.

© 2013 Kate Allison

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#87 — Behind closed doors

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© Tiff20 | Dreamstime.com

I wish she wouldn’t do this.

I wish my mother-in-law would be uniformly odd and infuriating all the time, so I can feel justified in complaining about her and accusing her of doing terrible things to my Sophie Conran wallpaper.

Instead, I bear the guilt of having to look at our beautiful, newly decorated living room — an elegant duck-egg blue I would have chosen myself – in our old house in Milton Keynes. If I’m honest, the place looks nicer inside after two years under Sandra’s care than it ever did under ours, especially after Jack added his own interior designs with crayons and dirty Tonka tyres. Maybe the house exterior needs a bit of TLC, but I suppose an outside paint job is our responsibility.

Oliver stands next to me, oozing smugness from every pore, and I want to slap him. He glances sideways at me, smirking with triumph.

“The house looks wonderful, Mum,” he says. “You’ve really looked after it for us. And the living room – it must have been done very recently, because I can still smell the paint.”

“They only finished two days ago.” Sandra crosses the room and adjusts the new, silver-grey, slub curtains so they hang evenly on either side of the patio doors. Surely they aren’t real silk? They look as if they could be. Even if they’re not, they’re a major improvement on the unlined drapes we’d left behind. “I’d decided to get the house spruced up, one room at a time. It seemed like it was the least I could do with me living here rent free. The decorators had just arrived, and then you phoned to ask if you could all come and stay. That’s why I was a bit off with you and had to let you know later if it would be all right. Didn’t want the kiddies sleeping in a house where there’s lots of paint fumes.”

Another puffed-out chest from Oliver, another I-told-you-so look in my direction, another pulled punch from me.

Except — and God forgive me if I’m wrong — this is Sandra talking. Sandra who, when Jack was a newborn, thought it was perfectly OK to feed him a bottle held in one hand and puff on a Benson & Hedges held in the other. Sandra, who thinks Red Bull is an acceptable beverage for a three-year-old. Yet suddenly she’s worried about her grandchildren inhaling paint fumes?

Either she’s taken a crash course in child care, or she’s up to something. Oh, come on. You know what I mean. What are the odds of us phoning her just as the decorators arrive?

There’s no point voicing my suspicions to Oliver, though. He’ll just say I’m being paranoid and nasty, and that nothing his mother does is ever good enough for me.

Without any concrete proof, he’d be right, too. But those nagging hunches persist.

Oliver runs outside through the rain to get the luggage from the car, while I show the children round the house. Jack, of course, spent the first three years of his life here, and he remembers parts of it, like the cupboard under the stairs where he once managed to lock himself while playing an overenthusiastic game of hide and seek with Fergus. I can tell he’s enjoying feeling superior to his brother and sister, whose first time it is here. But all the furniture Jack remembers is in Woodhaven, and this house in Acacia Drive looks very different with Sandra’s eclectic taste.

I say “eclectic”. “Eccentric” or “hippie” would be another way of putting it. A bead curtain in the kitchen, a hammock in the home office, a poster of Jimi Hendrix gracing the dining room. The important thing, though, is she hasn’t changed the infrastructure of the house, and any redecorating she’s done – only the living room, as far as I can tell – has been in keeping with our taste.

Jack and I are showing the twins Jack’s old bedroom (it’s still got his Lightning McQueen lampshade hanging from the ceiling, and Jack is very excited to see this old friend) when I hear Oliver trundling the suitcases into the hall and stomping his feet on the doormat. You forget how much it rains in England when you don’t live there for a while, and it occurs to me, too late, that rain gear didn’t feature highly on our packing list.

“I’ve put you and Libby in your old room.” Sandra’s voice wafts up the stairs. “The children are all in Jack’s old room, and I’m having the spare room while you’re here.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but bedtime will be a nightmare if all the kids are in one room. They’ll never get to sleep.

“Could I put Jack in the little bedroom?” I call to her. “Move his mattress in there?”

Sandra’s face appears over the banisters, looking up at me. “It’s full,” she says. “I use it as a storeroom. I’ve been collecting, um, china, and there are lots of breakable things in there. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve kept that room locked. I’d hate the kiddies to hurt themselves.”

“You see?” Oliver mutters at me as he heaves the two suitcases on the double bed. Goodness, but it feels weird to be sleeping in someone else’s bed, in what used to be our bedroom. “You see? She’s looked after the place beautifully. She hasn’t even got any weird animals – not a tarantula in sight! You were worried about nothing.”

I don’t answer him.

My experience with Sandra is that, sooner or later, something will turn up to fill the worry void.

* * *

Oliver stays with us for a couple of nights before he heads off to his series of meetings in Rotterdam, and promises to be back the following weekend “if he can.” I’m not fooled by this. “Can” will soon turn into “I’ve got work to do and I’ll be more productive doing it in the hotel” which loosely translates as “I’ll be able to have a weekend lie in at the Marriott.”

The past two nights were sleepless for us both, due to all three kids operating on Eastern Standard Time and refusing to adapt to GMT. At least, as far as bedtimes go. They still haven’t got off to sleep before 1 in the morning, but are nevertheless happily bouncing around at 6:30am. Jack, in his leading role of big-brother-who-has-lived-here-before, has taken it upon himself to heave each twin out of its travel cot in the morning, and if I don’t get up to keep an eye on them all, that lovely duck-egg blue living room will need its paint touching up sooner than Sandra anticipated.

Sandra herself we don’t see much of, which has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s peaceful without her, of course. She’s got herself a little job now, working as a cashier in a pet superstore a few miles away, which I suppose explains why she hasn’t got a menagerie of her own anymore. She’s not there during the day to look after any dogs or tarantulas that her weirdo friends have foisted on her.

A curse, though, because it leaves the kids and me with a mobility problem – we can’t go anywhere. Sandra takes her car to work, and Oliver returned our hire car to Heathrow.

“You won’t need it, will you, Libs?” he said before he left.

“Not at all!” I said, throwing myself back into English living. “I’ll show the children what it’s like to get on a bus at the end of the road instead of driving everywhere! I’ll take them on a double-decker. They’ll love it.”

But:

“Taking the bus?” Sandra said with a smoker’s cackle, when I announced our plans for the first day on our own. “What bus? That bus route closed about two months after you moved to America. If you want to get a bus into town now, it’s a mile and a half to the nearest stop. That’s a long way in this weather.”

“Never mind.” I waved my hand around airily. “The rain will stop.”

Except it didn’t. Since Oliver left, we’ve been prisoners in our own house because my packing list didn’t allow for days of torrential rain. The children have only sneakers in the suitcase, and it hardly seems worth buying three pairs of wellingtons just to use here. We’ll never use them back home. In Woodhaven, you either need sneakers, flip-flops, or snow boots. Never wellingtons. Besides, we need wellingtons to get to the shops to buy wellingtons. It’s a vicious circle.

As an aside, when I had to explain what wellingtons were to a blank-faced Jack, I knew he’d crossed an invisible nationality line.

Coming home, it seems, can be even more of a wrench than living away.

* * *

In the middle of Day Four, as I look out of the window at more rain and black clouds and listen to the sound of three children with raging cabin fever, I remember about The Box.

The Box, or rather, a series of Boxes, is stowed in the attic in this house. It contains things like outgrown clothes of Jack’s, Christmas decorations, small electrical appliances that we couldn’t take to the USA but didn’t want Sandra to use, and — if I remember rightly — old clothes that Oliver and I used for gardening and decorating. Clothes like, for example, rubber boots. And I’m pretty sure that I never got around to throwing out Jack’s old, sturdy shoes. I bet I can find things up there to fit all four of us.

The hatch to the attic is in the spare bedroom. After making sure none of my offspring is strangling the other two, I walk upstairs and open the door.

At least, I try to, before remembering with a sigh that Sandra has locked this room safely away from prying little fingers.

I hunt around in kitchen drawers and bedside tables for a key — in the process discovering that the house’s tidiness is indeed only skin deep — but have no luck.

“Sorry, kids,” I say. “It’s another day in paradise. Yet another day of CBeebies.”

Jack’s memory comes to our rescue, however.

“It’s like when I locked myself in the cupboard under the stairs when Fergus and me were playing hide and seek,” he says. I’d told him the story only yesterday.

“It is indeed–” I begin, and then stop.

Because, if I remember rightly, I used the key from the spare bedroom to get him out. I remember talking calmly to him, telling him to wiggle the key on the inside of the cupboard door and pull it out, darling, so that I could put the key in the outside and turn it myself and let him out… I’d tried all the spare keys in the house, hoping that one would fit and that I wouldn’t have to call the fire brigade.

So if the key to the spare bedroom works in the understairs cupboard lock, that means it should work vice versa. Right?

The key to the understairs cupboard is still in the lock. I take it out, fit it in the spare bedroom’s keyhole, and — Yes! The key, with a bit of persuasion, turns. One step nearer to raingear and freedom.

And then, as I push the door open and step into the room, I understand exactly why Sandra wants to distract us with freshly painted living rooms, and why she keeps the spare bedroom locked, and why she isn’t keen on her grandchildren — or her daughter-in-law, for that matter — having access to it.

Given the choice between our resident poltergeist and what Sandra has in here?

Come back, M.

All is forgiven.

© 2013 Kate Allison

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