#88 — A silver trail

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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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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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#86 – Where the heart is

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I twist around in the passenger seat of our rented car, which Oliver is driving at 25mph past some M1 roadworks, and look at the children. All three are fast asleep, their mouths slightly open. Jack is snoring. If only they had been like this on the red-eye flight from Boston last night, I think; instead, they chose to be “those children” who fidget, cry, kick the seats in front, and provoke people in the seats behind into making loud comments about kids needing to be banned from transatlantic flights and why do babies need European vacations anyway.

“They’re going to see their grannies, you small-minded, provincial hicks! We are a global family, unlike you, who apparently have never travelled outside your hometowns before!” I wanted to yell — but, of course, I didn’t. I didn’t yell it because it would a) have been rude and b) not the whole truth.

Yes, the Patricks are having a spontaneous couple of weeks in the old country, and the children are going to see their grannies. But that’s not all of it. Not by a long way.

The real reason we are here is that, with the nights drawing in and the autumn winds howling around the eaves at night, I don’t want to be alone on Halloween in our antique Massachusetts house after Oliver leaves for a long business trip to Rotterdam.

Not while Jack is still carrying on animated conversations with something or someone only he can see, I don’t.

It wasn’t difficult to persuade Oliver to let us come with him, because his mother has been dropping unsubtle hints about visiting us at Thanksgiving. Given the disasters that occurred last time she spent Thanksgiving with us, when I ended up in hospital twice — first with turkey-poisoning and then with a sprained ankle — Oliver was happy for an opportunity to avoid more medical bills. Four extra plane tickets seemed like a bargain in comparison.

It wasn’t just the thought of living with Jack’s pretend friend that made me want to pay a visit to Blighty, though. Getting Jack out of the awkward environment of his kindergarten class also played a part.

Patsy Traynor, flouting the wishes we voiced at the parent-teacher meeting, went ahead and arranged for Jack to see the school psychologist on a daily basis, without telling us. This subterfuge might have gone undiscovered if I hadn’t called into school one day with Jack’s forgotten lunchbox and found him sitting in the admin office with a grey-haired man, drawing a picture of a girl which he’d labelled “Mi Frend M”. When Jack saw me and jumped up to give me a hug, the grey-haired man hastily tried to hide the evidence of Jack’s art therapy, but it was too late. Words were said, threats were issued, and sabbaticals from school until the permanent teacher returned from sick leave were planned. It’s kindergarten, for heaven’s sake — what is the worst that can happen if a child misses a few months of kindergarten? He fails nap time? Two weeks away from school while everyone cooled down would hurt no one, least of all Jack.

And then the final reason: last month I was reading my diary and came across the New Year resolutions I’d made at the beginning of 2013. One of them, quite overlooked in the drama of having to find somewhere else to live in Woodhaven, was this:

2. Go to England and see what sort of a dog’s dinner Sandra has made of our house.

When Sandra moved into our house, in July 2011, she was supposed to stay for just a few months until she found somewhere permanent to live; yet here we are in October 2013 and she’s still dossing around there, rent-free.

Oliver has been no help at all. He doesn’t see it as an issue.

“It’s not a problem,” he kept saying, whenever I suggested it might be nice to have a paying tenant to help with the mortgage. “Money’s not everything. She’s keeping the place aired. It’s someone we know. She’s looking after it.”

Except I now know he has no idea whether she’s looking after it or not. He’s never been inside the house since the day we moved out. Although he visits his mother on trips back to the head office, I found out, after some careful questioning, that she always finds a reason to meet him in a coffee shop or pub, rather than at the house.

“And you don’t find this arrangement suspicious?” I asked him.

He gave me a blank look. “Should I?”

For someone who is supposed to be intelligent, Oliver can be very dense at times. Particularly, as we already know, when it comes to his mother. He doesn’t find it suspicious that she, a woman who once covered herself and some swinger friends with white emulsion and daubed hand- and buttock-prints on the wall of the spare bedroom in a previous rented house, would prefer to meet Oliver in Starbucks or The Dog and Duck? Please.

Initially on this trip I’d planned on staying with my own parents and paying a surprise afternoon call on Sandra, but when I phoned Mum to break the glad news that her daughter and three grandchildren were descending on her house, the short notice of our impending visit sent her into a flat spin with a migraine.

“If only you’d given us more warning,” she kept saying at the end of the phone call. I could hear pill bottles rattling in the background as she looked in the medicine cabinet for Nurofen. “But the spare bedroom needs decorating, and Jack will have to sleep in your old room, and it doesn’t seem right to make a five-year-old boy sleep in a room with pink wallpaper, so that’s two rooms we have to strip and paint before you can come.”

Only my mother could think this a reasonable excuse.

“Stay with mine, then,” Oliver said, after I’d clicked the phone’s off-button as hard as I could. (I miss the old phones that you could bang down when you hung up on someone.) “It’s our house, after all — she can hardly refuse to let you and the kids stay because the bedrooms need decorating.”

He was taken aback, therefore, when Sandra was nearly as uncooperative as my own mother when he told her we were coming to stay for a few days.

Oliver, as well as being dense, can be very naive.

*  *  *

Oliver signals right, and we turn into Acacia Drive. It’s more than two years since I’ve seen the street where we lived for such a long time, and it feels both familiar and foreign at the same time.

We park in front of our house. It is not, I realise with a little shock, quite our home any more.

It’s not just because the paint on the front door is peeling, or that Sandra hasn’t pruned the yellow rosebush I was so fond of.

It’s as if a little of the love has faded.

It’s like bumping into an old boyfriend after a few years and wondering what you saw in him, and why you wasted time and energy crying when he dumped you at the school dance for that tart Zoe Watkins.

“Are you glad to be home?” Oliver asks. “It must be hard for you, coming back to the house with someone else living in it.”

I look at the house again. The picket fence we put up to stop Jack from running onto the road has lost a post and looks like a gap-toothed kindergartener itself.

I wonder what Sandra has done or not done inside, and am sadly surprised that I don’t care as much as I did even fifteen minutes ago.

“Not as hard as you’d imagine,” I say.

© 2013 Kate Allison

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

#85 – A trick of the light

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Talk about déjà vu. January last year,  all over again.

I sit on an uncomfortable plastic chair on one side of a teacher’s desk. On the other side of the desk, in a larger, more padded chair, sits Patsy Traynor: Jack’s ex-preschool teacher and now kindergarten teacher. Behind her is an expansive window, west-facing, and the afternoon sun blasts through the glass, forcing me to squint if I want to read her expression. This is a little intimidation trick of hers that I’ve encountered once before; although in this case forewarned doesn’t mean forearmed.

A hostile silence hovers between us as she opens a manila folder labeled “Jack Patrick” and runs a fingernail down the middle crease — her shell-pink nail varnish is chipped, I note with satisfaction — then picks out a sheet of paper with the heading “Behavioral Report”.

She looks up and smiles. I don’t smile back, because it’s not a friendly smile. It’s a smile of pleasurable anticipation, and the pleasure belongs only to her.

“Mrs. Patrick,” she says. No cosy first-names today, although she knows mine well enough. She looks down at the report in front of her. “Mrs Patrick. I asked you to meet me here today because—”

“I know why you asked me here,” I interrupt her. “Actually, the letter you sent home with Jack was addressed to both me and my husband, so if you don’t mind, we’ll wait until he arrives before we start.”

The smile falters a little, and she looks pointedly at the clock on the classroom wall.

“The appointment was for four p.m., and we are already running five minutes late.”

“Some people work full time,” I say, and smirk to myself as Patsy swells up with indignation.

If you really want to piss off a teacher, simply insinuate that their workday finishes at three-thirty.

I fold my arms and sit back in my chair, waiting, avoiding catching Patsy’s eye. In the far corner of the room, inside an igloo-shaped tent, Jack is ordering around Beth and George. He’s trying to make them sit still and listen to his newfound skill of reading a Dr. Seuss book about dogs and cars. Beth and George aren’t impressed with his instructions to stay in the tent when there are so many exciting playthings outside it to scatter and destroy; George registers his disapproval with a determined “No!” (his current favourite word) while Beth lets out a high scream. There is the sound of a hard object hitting the floor with some force. After a pause, Jack’s voice cuts clearly across the room:

“If you don’t behave, I’m going to tell M and she will break your favourite toys.”

I feel rather than see Patsy’s smug moue, and I squeeze my eyes shut. It’s a defensive reaction, against both Patsy and the sunshine behind her that dazzles me.

Hurry up, Oliver. I need some backup here.

On cue, to my relief, the classroom door opens and Oliver strides across to the desk. He’s in his best suit, not for Patsy’s benefit but because he’s been meeting new customers today,  and is still in professional work mode. He exudes brisk confidence and an air of brooking no nonsense.

I’ve never been so glad to see him in all my life, and that includes the time he was late for our own wedding because his best man was in the throes of an almighty hangover and drove to the wrong church. Oliver must also have had an almighty hangover, because the pair of them waited outside for half an hour before realising that a locked church, a lack of guests, and no vicar might be significant.

Oliver shakes hands with Patsy, introducing himself, then, before sitting down, he moves to Patsy’s side of the desk and twiddles with the venetian blind behind her chair, moving the slats so that the sun shines upwards instead of directly in my eyes.

“Better?” he asks me.

We exchange small, conspiratorial winks, and I bite my lip to stop myself laughing at Patsy’s expression. Her face is red and her eyes very wide, as if she can’t believe that someone has had the gall to do now what she should have done out of courtesy fifteen minutes ago.

She picks up Jack’s Behavioral Report again, although with not as much assurance as before. Oliver seems to have flustered her.

“I asked to speak to you both because of issues Jack is having in the classroom. He appears not to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction, and while we encourage strong, lively imaginations, we do try, at this point in child development, to make it clear to our students that the two viewpoints are separate.”

“So in other words, you’re saying Jack is a liar.” Oliver slices neatly through the spiel of  edu-jargon.

Patsy’s face reddens further. “Not at all, but—”

“In that case, you must be saying that he’s telling the truth?”

“Not quite, but—”

“You must be saying one or the other. Which is it that he’s telling you? Fact or fiction?”

“Well—”

“Fact or fiction? Quick!”

Oliver’s not giving Patsy a chance to get a word in. He reminds me of Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction: “Say ‘What’ again! I dare you! I double-dare you!”

“Imaginary friends are one thing!” Patsy bursts out. “But his obsession with this particular friend, Emily, or whatever her name is—”

“It’s M,” Jacks voice says from inside the nylon igloo, and I stifle a giggle with my hand. “She likes being called M.”

“—This obsession is out of hand. And I would like your permission to refer him to the school district’s educational psychologist for further assessment.”

Oliver stands up. “If that’s all you called us in for,” he says, “you might as well have phoned. Because the answer is No. Jack is not a liar, and he’s not a psycho either. You, on the other hand, I have always had my doubts about, and I’m not about to take childrearing advice from someone who accepts bribes for playground equipment. Come on Libs. Kids!” he shouts in the direction of the igloo. “Time to go home now. If we have to be in a madhouse, I prefer the homegrown type. No wonder homeschooling is so popular,” he adds to Patsy.

*  *  *

“And then what?” Maggie asks me the following day, when Jack is at school and I’ve taken the twins to see their adopted granny. Their adopted ex-grandpa, thank goodness, is busy in the back yard, splitting logs for Maggie’s wood-burning stove.

I shrug. “We went home, and Oliver sat down with Jack and lectured him long and hard about differentiating between fact and fiction.”

“So he was only standing up for Jack against Patsy at school. He doesn’t really believe the story that there is the ghost of a little girl in your house. Although you do?”

I think back to the day we found the shattered Dresden shepherdess. It was in the centre of the dining room floor, a long way from the shelf where I’d put it. To get to its final resting place, it would have had to jump seven or eight feet through the air. We don’t own a cat, and to my knowledge, there had been no freak earthquake that morning. And yet, all my life, I have pooh-poohed the idea of ghosts and ghouls.

In other words, I am having a crisis of faith.

“I believe there is something,” I say finally. “I just don’t know what, exactly. The china shepherdess broke in the dining room, which happens to be the room that won’t warm up, no matter what you do to it. And there’s Fergus — he wouldn’t come in the house at all. I’ve heard that dogs are sensitive to… things.” I shiver, despite the warm sunshine that is shining through Maggie’s windows. “It could just be circumstantial, of course. Logic tells me that it probably is, and everything can be explained by rational argument. But whenever I start to explain things away with logic, I come up against the biggest obstacle — that I honestly believe Jack thinks he is telling the truth.”

Maggie nods thoughtfully, and rocks back and forth in her rocking chair. Beth, who is sitting on her lap and playing with Maggie’s long string of amber beads, leans back, puts her thumb in her mouth, and closes her eyes.

“I remember Cathy saying that Chuck had an imaginary friend when he was a little boy,” she says at last. “In that very house.”

“So you said, in one of your emails. He grew out of it, though.”

Maggie wiggles her hand in a comme ci comme ça gesture. “He was very old to have a pretend friend. Eleven, twelve. And I don’t know, but… I got the impression that he said he’d grown out of it, to humour her. I remember visiting the house once, and he didn’t know I was there, and he was talking to someone – someone who wasn’t there. He’d have been about fifteen at the time.”

I sit still, turning over possibilities in my mind. George waddles over to me and puts his head on my knee. Any minute now, he will go to sleep, standing up where he is.

“He was very keen that I read the folder of old documents relating to the house. It’s full of papers to do with plumbing and roofs, but there’s also records of people who used to live there, a couple of hundred years ago. Perhaps I should read it more carefully.”

But later, in bright sunshine, when the house is full of real people and real laughter. Right now, I’m not very keen on going back to my silent, empty house with two sleepy toddlers.

“What did you say Jack’s friend was called?” Maggie asks. “You told me in an email but I’ve forgotten.

“He calls her M. Like the character in James Bond. Or Dial M for Murder.”

I shiver again., then notice that Maggie has stopped rocking in her chair and is rubbing her arms.

“Are you cold?” I ask. “I thought it was just me. Shall I turn the heat up?”

Maggie shakes her head, and I see that she has lost some colour from her cheeks.

“Chuck used to love the film The Wizard of Oz. Cathy said he’d named his imaginary friend after one of the characters.”

I laugh. “Like, Dorothy? Toto? Tin Man?”

Maggie is still shaking her head. “No. Cathy always thought it was an odd choice, but assumed it was because Cathy and her husband didn’t have any brothers or sisters. He named her after the aunt.”

I stare at Maggie, and start to rub my own arms, which have sprung a rash of goosepimples.

Aunt Em.

Em.

M.

© 2013 Kate Allison

 

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#84 – Stages of youth

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“No. For the last time, she can’t come to school with us,” I say to Jack, as I lock the front door behind us and start to hustle the three children into the car. “We’re already late. You want to meet your teacher today, ready for when school starts tomorrow, don’t you?”

Jack pouts. “But she wants to. M says she’ll be lonely if I go without her. She says she’ll break something in the house if we leave her on her own.”

You know, I’ve had just about enough of Jack’s overactive imagination and this pretend friend.

“M” has been an invisible fixture in the house for the last six weeks, and she’s a demanding little sod — worse than my own three, live, already demanding children. I have to lay an extra place for her at every mealtime, and recently I’ve been evicted from my favourite spot on the recliner chair in the living room because Jack says that M is already sitting there.

Now the brat is ready to smash my china if she doesn’t get her own way.

I could just play along with the game and say, “Of course M can come with us”, but that would precipitate the need for an extra car seat because M is not old enough to sit in the front seat, Jack says.

And the name. What sort of name for a girl is “M”, for crying out loud, unless you happen to be Judi Dench in a Bond film?

“She’s very upset,” Jack says, with the air of someone washing his hands of all blame for the consequences. “You’re going to be sorry.”

“I hope you’re not threatening me,” I say, as I make sure his seat belt is fastened properly. “Otherwise it won’t be me who is sorry. I promise you that.”

Jack is unrepentant.

“I was just telling you what she said.”

Thank goodness school starts properly tomorrow, is all I can say, when Jack will (I hope) make new, human friends and forget about the fictitious girl in our house. The same girl who now has the nerve to  threaten vandalism if I don’t allow her to come along to kindergarten orientation with us.  I mean, it’s obvious she can’t come. She isn’t even enrolled at the sch–

Oh, this is ridiculous.

It’s got to the point where I almost believe in her myself.

*  *  *

Before I take Jack to meet his new teacher, I drive to Maggie’s house on our old street. Maggie is looking after the twins while Jack and I go to school for the morning.

“So it’s not Jack’s first proper day of school today?” she asks. “It’s just a meet and greet with the teacher, find out where the sand box is, that kind of thing?”

“Breaking them in gently, that’s right.”

“Didn’t happen in my day,” a Southern, male voice chips in from Maggie’s armchair. “My mother stayed in bed and let me walk to school with the neighbour’s kid on my first day.”

Derek. Maggie’s ex who, if I’m not mistaken – and I hope to God I am mistaken — will shortly be her ex-ex.

He arrived in Boston with her on the flight from Miami nearly three weeks ago, and seems in no hurry to return to his home in Virginia, or Maryland, or Delaware, or whichever state he comes from. We met on the second day of his visit, and took an immediate dislike to each other.

“We Northerners must be made of softer stuff than you tough Southerners,” Maggie says in a sugary voice that’s quite unlike the acid tone this comment would elicit from her had it been made by anyone else.

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 starting to become 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.

Maggie’s my best friend, and I don’t want to see her hurt. But what can I do?

*  *  *

At the elementary school, Dr Felix Roth, the Principal, is in his element as he greets all the parents in the foyer.

I tell a lie. He doesn’t greet all the parents. He greets the parents who know him well enough to call him by his first name because they’re on the PTA, and he gives a weak smile down his nose to all the others. I get my own back by pretending not to know who he is, and Jack and I make our way to Room 43, where Jack will be spending the next year with his kindergarten teacher, Mrs Healy. My friend Willow tells me that Mrs Healy is a plump, cosy, grandmotherly type, close to retirement age.  A lucky class placement for Jack, says Willow.

Room 43 is heaving with babies, toddlers, and five-year-old children. Jack pushes his way into a group of boys who are playing in a nylon igloo tent, and I look around the room to see if I recognise anyone.

With a sigh and feeling of déjà vu, I see Jodee Addison, mother of Jack’s Valentine crush this year, Crystal. Then, to my absolute dismay, I see Caroline Michaels.

Caroline, the wife of Oliver’s boss, whose son Dominic was the catalyst for Jack’s defection from Patsy Traynor’s nursery school. I’d heard on the grapevine that Caroline was going back to England and divorcing her boss husband after the fiasco at the Christmas party last year, but her presence in the classroom suggests that she prefers the expat-married-to-a-slimeball lifestyle to the divorced-and-living-in-Milton Keynes version.

As the teacher doesn’t seem to have arrived yet, I move closer to Jodee and Caroline, who are venting their opinions on something, and eavesdrop shamelessly.

“It’s too bad,” Jodee is saying loudly. ” You’d think someone in her position of trust would look after her health better instead of eating saturated fat all day. Such a bad example for the children.”

“It’s not just her suffering because of her bad health choices,” Caroline says, her lips pursed self-righteously.  ”I mean, a heart attack? Really? Only herself to blame. Thoughtless, I call it.”

Jodee nods vigorously.

Wow. Some woman has had a heart attack and this is the sympathy these witches give her. I wonder who they’re talking about. Poor soul.

Caroline says: “There should be mandatory six-monthly physicals for teachers, and they should be made to diet down to an acceptable weight or lose their jobs. Having a heart attack in your late 50s, when it’s entirely preventable, is nothing short of selfish. And now our children have to suffer.”

Wait. Is she talking about Mrs Healy?

I’m about to turn and ask the mother next to me, who is also listening, jaw on the floor, to Caroline and Jodee, when the Principal enters the room.

In his high, squeaky voice, he tells the gathered parents that, as some of us may already know — here, Jodee and Caroline look smugly at each other — Mrs Healy sadly had a heart attack two days ago, and is still in the ICU at St Whatsit’s Hospital. Her condition is stable but critical, and she will not be coming back for the foreseeable future. With school starting tomorrow, parents will appreciate that time was of the essence, he says, and the school is extremely fortunate to have found a longterm substitute teacher with much experience, who comes with glowing recommendations.

“Someone who is probably known to many of you from pre-school,” he adds, with a smile that can only be described as arch. “May I introduce to you —” he looks behind him, out into the corridor, and beckons to someone with his arm “– Mrs Patsy Traynor, who will be taking over the captain’s wheel of your child’s kindergarten ship until Mrs Healy is able to return to work.”

Patsy looks over the classroom, sees Jodee and Caroline, and beams broadly at them.

Then she sees me.

I wonder how easy it is for Jack to be transferred to another school.

*  *  *

Two hours later, back home, I unlock the front door and Jack races into the dining room.

“M! I’m back!” he shouts.

And then: “Mummy, I told you she wouldn’t like it if I went out.”

On the dining room floor, in shattered pieces, is the despised Dresden shepherdess that my mother’s aunt gave Oliver and me on our wedding day.

Well, I reflect with a shiver, as I sweep up the bits before Beth and George can toddle over them in their bare feet – everything is clear now.

And I suppose that,  if we have to have a poltergeist in the house, at least this one appears to share my taste in internal decor.

© 2013 Kate Allison

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

#83 – Letters from afar

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From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 1, 2013

Hi Maggie!

Sorry to interrupt your holiday – or should I say “vacation”? – but I thought I’d better drop you an email. Fergus wasn’t very well last week, not eating, looking very sorry for himself, and I took him to the vet. The vet says it’s nothing to worry about, probably just the heatwave getting him down.  So I have to make sure he stays hydrated, and I’ve got a huge horse-tablet supplement that I squash up and hide in his food. Which, of course, he won’t eat.

It might help if the stupid dog came into the house instead of staying outside in the heat on hunger strike, but he won’t. Pining, I suppose. Such a drama queen.

How’s Florida? Has your ex arrived yet? (!)

Love, Libs

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 2, 2013

Hello my dear

Not to worry, I’m sure Fergus will be fine. It will take more than a bit of outdoor sulking to finish him off.  If you’re passing by my house, there’s an unopened bag of those organic treats he loves in the pantry. Just keep them away from Jack and any of his little lady friends

Florida is very hot.  Well, naturally. It is August. On balance, though, I prefer unbearable Florida heat to unbearable Massachusetts cold. At least you don’t have to shovel ninety-five degrees of sunshine from your driveway.

Derek isn’t here yet. He arrives tomorrow. I have deliberately not cleaned the apartment, because I wouldn’t like him to think I’ve changed in our years apart and am now the perfect housewife. I am not, and never will be, a replacement for his dear, departed, oh-so-perfect second wife, Cassie.

I try not to speak ill of the dead, but since I spoke only ill of the woman while she was alive, a death certificate with barely dry ink shouldn’t make any difference.

Much love, Maggie

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 4, 2013

Ouch! Well, no one can ever accuse you of being a hypocrite

I got the treats from your pantry, as you suggested, but to be honest, Fergus seems fine as long as I don’t force him to come in the house. So – I can’t believe I did this for the ungrateful hound — I’ve set his bed up in the children’s Fisher-Price playhouse, in the back garden. Jack plays in his bedroom or the uber-air-conditioned dining room most of the time, so it’s not a problem.

Did I tell you that Jack has a new imaginary girlfriend? Her name is M, he says. Just M.  She was born in England like him, he says, and her dad is in the army, and she’s lonely. I’m always amazed at children’s imaginations, but I’m not convinced his obsession with “M” is entirely healthy. We even have to set an extra place at the dinner table for her.

Hopefully, this nonsense will stop in September when he goes to kindergarten and makes some real friends.

How’s Derek? Are you playing nicely together, or is he turning out to be an imaginary friend also?

Libs

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 7, 2013

Sorry I didn’t answer right away. (That’s the difference between emails and old-fashioned letters – no one expected an immediate answer in the good old days of first class stamps and duck egg blue Basildon Bond.)

Derek has been here four days now. I must confess that when I offered him the chance to spend two weeks in the Keys with me, I was a) feeling sorry for him and b) drunk on our daughter’s wedding champagne. Sadly, he can hold his drink better than I, and therefore remembered my offer the next morning. I could have argued, but Sara and her new husband were witnesses.

Will explain more later, but I have to go now. Derek and I are heading off for a catamaran cruise this afternoon. All the years I have been coming to the Keys on vacation, and I have never been on one before — isn’t that strange?

M x

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 11, 2013

When you said you would explain more later, I was expecting another email from you the minute you got back from your cruise. Don’t leave me in suspense like that!

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 12, 2013

So sorry, Libby!  I should have said — the catamaran involved was in South Beach, Miami, and instead of coming back immediately, we decided to stay a few days. Neither of us had been before, and it’s a wonderful place. Very romantic, if you’re that way inclined. Which, obviously, having acrimoniously divorced forty years ago, we are not.

M

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 12, 2013

Acrimoniously divorced people don’t generally vacation together. There is nothing obvious about your situation at all.

L.

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 14, 2013

Back in the Keys now.

By the way, don’t let Jack’s imaginary girlfriend bother you.  It’s a phase a lot of children go through.  I remember Chuck when he was small, living in the same house — he had an imaginary friend, too. Cathy was quite worried about it, but as you can see, Chuck turned out fine.

M.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 15, 2013

It must be nearly time for Derek to go home now, am I right? Are you sorry or glad?

L.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 19, 2013

Maggie? Are you there?

L.

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 20, 2013

Sorry! It’s been a busy and surprising few days. Spontaneity – the zest of life, I find.

I keep meaning to ask – did you ever get round to looking through the folder of old papers about the house, the one that Chuck left for you? And dare I ask if you’ve checked out the basement?

M.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 21, 2013

I did indeed. There’s quite a history. The house as it stands now is not the original. There was an older building on the grounds before it, built before the Revolutionary War. Someone kept meticulous records, and even the names of some of the family members are there. Funny to think there were children Jack’s age running around the place two hundred and fifty years ago.

Have I been in the basement? You have to be kidding me.

I take it that Derek has gone back to Virginia and you’re on your own again. Remind me which day you’re coming home? Do you need me to pick you up from the airport?

L.

~

From: Maggie Sharpe
To: Libby Patrick
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 23, 2013

Tomorrow, August 24th. We’ll get a taxi from Logan, so don’t worry.

M.

~

From: Libby Patrick
To: Maggie Sharpe
Subject: Re: Having a good holiday?
Date: August 24, 2013

Wait — “We”?

© 2014 Kate Allison

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

#82 – A chilly reception

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Well, here we are.

After all the trials, tribulations, tears, and tantrums, Oliver and I — and Jack, George, and Beth, of course — are finally in Our House.

Our house.  How wonderful to be able to say that again.

I can’t begin to describe the feeling of being in a house that we own, or at least pay a mortgage on, rather than being in a house owned by a sociopathic landlady with the hots for Oliver.

It’s not perfect, of course. These last few days, the northeast of the country has been sweltering in ninety-five degree constant sunshine, with no cooling thunderstorms to break the heatwave. When you live in an old, cedar house such as ours — Ours! That word again! — air-conditioning under such circumstances is a good idea. Working air-conditioning, that is: the kind that kicks in when the thermostat reaches a certain level and cools the air down again. While the AC unit we have makes a big deal about kicking in, with lots of vibrations and shaking of the foundations, it doesn’t pay much attention to the part of the process where it’s supposed to pump cold air through the house. There’s only one room where it works, and that’s the dining room with the French windows at the back of the house. In fact, the room seems to be a cold air terminus, getting all the cold air while the rest of the house has none. We alternate sitting in that room to cool down, and sitting in all the others to warm up again.

So “Replace AC Unit before next summer” figures pretty highly on the house-repair list, which is growing at an average rate of four items per day.

“I can’t see it getting any smaller,” I say to Maggie, who has popped round for one last morning coffee before she disappears to the Keys for a month. At the moment she and I are in the Cooling Stage, sitting in armchairs in the icy dining room.

“It will,” she says. “It might never disappear completely, but I’m sure the list will shrink.”

I don’t find this as comforting as she probably intends it to be.

“It was in tip-top condition when Cathy had all her faculties,” she goes on. “She was always having something or other done to it. Which reminds me…” She delves into her tote bag, and pulls out a bulging manila file. “Here’s the paperwork from Chuck.”

I take the file from her and look at a few of the most recent papers on top. There are receipts for repairs to the central heating — we’ve yet to see how the house stands up to the frigid chill of a Massachusetts winter, and the number of repair bills here doesn’t look encouraging — and yellowed instruction booklets for kitchen appliances that were state of the art in 1975. Nothing that seems relevant to the immediate tasks of unpacking our belongings from Sonoma wine boxes and cleaning every room in the house. And goodness me, there are a lot of rooms.

“I’ll go through that properly later,” I say, then ask, “Did you bring Fergus? I haven’t seen him.”

“Jack took him to play in the back yard.”

I look through the glass of the French window and nod, satisfied. That’s the other great thing about living here. Despite the house having twelve acres to its name, there’s a fenced yard that the children can safely play in. Just like the back garden at home in Acacia Drive, only twenty times the size.

“I’ll miss Fergus while I’m away,” Maggie says.

Call me slow, but it hadn’t occurred to me that Fergus wouldn’t be jaunting off to Key Largo with his new owner.

“Who’s looking after him?” I ask. “Anna?”

Maggie shakes her head. “The Pooch Hotel. I’m dropping him off this afternoon. It’s very nice, they look after the dogs well, I’m sure he’ll be fine—”

“But it’s for a month! Kennels for a month will cost you a fortune!” I’m horrified that the dog I persuaded her to take off my hands is eating into her retirement fund like this. “Why on earth didn’t you ask me to have him for you?”

Maggie wriggles in her seat. “Moving house and everything? I couldn’t possibly impose upon you at such a time.”

I smile at her, feeling a rush of affection for her that, God help me, I rarely feel for my own mother without being quickly overridden by irritation.

“You could never impose,” I tell her. “Not on me. Call the kennels this minute and cancel Fergus’s booking. Any cancellation fee will be cheaper than paying for the full month.”

She looks relieved, I think, but still goes through the ritual of “No-I-couldn’t-possibly-Are-you-sure-Well-all-right-then.”

“Of course I’m sure,” I say. “Who better to look after him than his previous owners? Jack will be thrilled. Go get his things right now, before you change your mind.”

*  *  *

I’ve been dying to hear more about Maggie’s holiday plans, ever since she told me that she was vacationing with her newly rediscovered ex-husband, Derek. But Maggie’s a private person, and there’s no point trying to wangle information out of her if she’s not ready to give it.

Today though, perhaps as a quid pro quo for me looking after Fergus for a month, she’s ready to spill the beans.

“Derek won’t be in Florida with me all the time,” she says, once she’s returned with Fergus’s basket, personalised dishes, and a mound of dog toys. She spoils him, and I hope he’s not expecting the same five-star treatment at the Patrick Pooch Hotel. “He’s only visiting for the middle two weeks. He was going to get a hotel room, but I told him that was silly, I’ve got an apartment with plenty of space.”

She sets Fergus’s dishes on the floor of the mud room — we’ve moved back into the non-airconditioned part of the house to get warm again — then straightens up.

“I only hope I won’t regret this. Forty years ago, I was ready to kill him after five minutes in his company, and here I am now, offering him two weeks in my spare bedroom.”

I’m relieved to hear he’s in the spare bedroom, given Maggie’s racy reputation of her younger days.

“I felt sorry for him, though,” she continues. “At Sara’s wedding, I mean. He’d lost his wife, Cassie, only four months before, and he seemed utterly lost. It was such a long time since I’d seen him and I was reminded of the very first time we met. In my wilder days,” she says, and laughs.

I’m standing at the sink in the mud room, washing dishes that are covered with ink from the newspaper we packed them in. I hold my breath, hoping she will tell me more and not stop with a story half told, as she so often does.

“It was quite the whirlwind romance,” Maggie says, staring out the window at the garden, although her eyes are unfocused and I can tell she’s not really watching Jack and Fergus playing on the lawn. “I was visiting the States for the first time, hitchhiking my way down the east coast. One young man stopped to give me a lift in his Corvette, then foolishly gave in to my nagging and let me drive it. Derek pulled me over for speeding.”

I cough. “Derek was a cop?”

“A state trooper. He gave me a warning, then insisted I come sit with him in his police cruiser. I thought he was going to drive me to the station and have me deported or something. Instead, he asked me out to dinner. We were married a few weeks later, and I never used my return ticket back to England. In the years after, though, I often wished I had.”

Yet here she is today, planning a holiday with her ex.

“What’s changed?” I ask.

Maggie doesn’t answer for a while.

“I suppose,” she says at last, “I’m hoping that our thirty-odd years apart have been more helpful than our five years together.”

*  *  *

When Maggie has said goodbye and gone to finish getting ready for her trip tomorrow, I call Jack and Fergus in from the garden in a futile attempt to disprove the theory that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Jack runs himself a glass of water from the fridge then takes it into the dining room, shouting at Fergus to follow him.

“Fergus is thirsty too, Jack. He’ll be with you in a minute.”

I fill Fergus’s water bowl, and he drinks for a long time. Then he trots across the kitchen and stops at the doorway that leads into the cool dining room, where Jack is brandishing a Matchbox car at Beth and repeatedly asking her if she knows what sort of car it is. (Beth, it appears, to Jack’s disgust, does not.)

“Go on,” I say to Fergus. “Go to Jack.”

But Fergus just sits on the kitchen floor and whines.

And even when the temperature on the kitchen thermometer hits 85 degrees, he still won’t enter the beautiful — if rather chilly — dining room.

© 2013 Kate Allison

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#81 – Send the past packing

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The best thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

And the worst thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

Chuck, you see, nice, reasonable man that he is, has given Maggie the keys to his mother’s house and told us to move our stuff in before the official handover date. “Make things easy for yourself,” he said.

Fantastic — or so Oliver and I thought at first. We could take our time and move everything in stages, starting with the least critical items. But after a couple of days of wrapping china in newspaper and getting our hands and clothes covered in printer’s ink, we began to see why most sensible people fork out a big pile of dollar bills and pay someone else to do it.

We used cardboard wine crates from the local liquor store to pack everything in, then, after only four trips over to the house with the car filled with Napa Valley Cabernet Shiraz boxes, Oliver announced he was leaving for a business trip to Vancouver.

“I’ll be back on the eleventh,” he said. “That gives us four days to get everything together. No problem! Piece of cake!”

What, pray, does Oliver know about cake? About as much as he knows about packing, I’d say.

Before he went, we’d barely made a dent in it — packing, not cake — and now, with less than a week to go before we hand the keys back to Melissa, it’s all down to me to pack the rest up and move it across town. Not the big important pieces like bed, chests, tables, or sofas, you understand, but the fiddly, inconsequential things like clothes, toys, non-perishable food, ornaments, books, CDs, Oliver’s extensive collection of rocks and dead beetles that he catalogued when he was twelve and can’t bear to throw away…

Piece of cake. Right.

“I’ll help,” Maggie said to me, after she saw Oliver trundling his carry-on case towards the taxi marked Airport Shuttle Service.

I protested out of politeness, but not enough for her to change her mind.

“No, I insist,” she said. “It will take you twice as long on your own to transport the boxes, because you will have to take the children with you. This way, I can stay with the children while you drive over to the house on your own.”

Well, when she puts it like that… Sometimes a girl has to take whatever kind of me-time she can get.

* **

Maggie sits on the floor of our living room and wraps up a Dresden china figurine in the sports section of the Boston Globe. I don’t like the ornament, and one part of me is hoping that it will get broken in the move, “accidentally”, of course. My mother’s aunt gave it to us for a wedding present, and while it was very kind of her, Dresden china isn’t our style. Great Aunt Esther might as well have given us a set of antimacassars or an aspidistra.

“Chuck left me a big folder of paperwork relating to the house, to give to you.” Maggie carefully places the Dresden in a cardboard crate and moves onto the next item — a pair of Wedgwood candlesticks from my grandmother. “Old paperwork. Old deeds, plans, that kind of thing.”

“Oh yes?”

I confess, I’m not paying too much attention to Maggie. I’ve just found Oliver’s badminton racquet case with the stuffed tiger in it, and I can’t help but remember the awful chain of events it precipitated last year, shortly after the twins were born.

“Mmm. I haven’t looked at it, because the house will be yours, not mine, but it could be interesting. For example, while the official date of the house is 1830, I remember Cathy saying that she thought there might have been another building there before. Something to do with the basement being only a few feet high and her not being able to stand upright in it. I’m not sure what her reasoning was, but maybe you’ll find the answer in the folder.”

I jam the badminton racquet and all its emotional baggage in a suitcase.

“Your friend Cathy must have been very tall, then,” I say. “The basement’s like any other. Dark, creepy, and full of noisy machinery. I can stand upright in it, no problem.”

“No, not that part. I mean the part behind the furnace.”

Maggie falls silent, and at first I think she’s admiring Granny’s Wedgwood candlesticks, but then I realize she’s been distracted by the packing paper and is reading about the dramatic arrest of a New England Patriots player accused of murder.

I think hard about the basement in the house we’re buying. I remember the furnace, because it was surprisingly new in such an old place. But it was next to a wall. There was no more basement space behind it.

I tell Maggie this, and she tears herself away from the gory details of local sports scandals.

“Oh no, you can’t see it now. Cathy had some work done on the house, back in the late seventies. Had the basement sealed off behind the furnace, because it was neither use nor ornament since you had to bend over double to get in there.” She places the Boston Globe-wrapped candlesticks in the box with the Dresden shepherdess. “Or at least, that’s what she… Goodness me, are these your wedding photos?”

She holds up a cream suede album.

“May I look?” she asks.

I wave my hand graciously. “Be my guest.”

I’ll have to put her in charge of the mugs and glasses. She’s too easily distracted. Still, this has reminded me of something.

“You never showed me the photos of your daughter’s wedding at Christmas,” I say, and wait as she slowly turns the pages of our album. She’s stalling for time, I think. “You promised you would, and then forgot. And we won’t have time next week what with moving, and the week after that you go to the Keys for a month.”

She looks up from the photos. She’s on the page where Oliver and I have our hands on the knife, ready to cut the wedding cake. It was a traditional, heavy fruit cake, and I recall thinking at the time that a circular saw would have been more useful than that dinky, ivory-handled cake knife.

“After we’ve finished packing for the day, how’s that?”

She sounds rather strange, I think. And I’d bet a lot of money, or at least a Dresden shepherdess and a couple of candlesticks, that she’s hoping I’ll have forgotten by the end of the day.

* * *

I make five trips to the house on Main Street, and by the end of the fourth, the sun is bobbing along behind the trees, and the children are getting cranky. To make it easier for Maggie, who is also looking tired and cranky, I decide to take Jack along with me for the last trip. He’s very excited at seeing the new house again, and wants Fergus to come along too, so we have a little family outing — me, Jack, and Fergus — which makes me feel strangely nostalgic, because it’s how we used to be in Milton Keynes, before America and before the twins were even thought of.

At the new house, I dump the boxes with all the others in the living room while Jack and Fergus play in the back garden, then I walk down the hallway to the dining room at the back of the house. The room has French windows that open out into the garden — or at least, they should open out but they’re stuck together with many layers of paint. I knock on one of the small panes at Jack, and beckon him to come back in the house.

After a few seconds I hear his running footsteps on the wooden floor, and he bumps into me as I’m closing the dining room door. He’s alone.

“Where’s Fergus?” I ask. Fergus, now that he no longer lives with us, slavishly and perversely follows Jack around whenever they’re together.

Jack points. “He’s tired.”

Fergus is lying down next to the open front door at the other end of the hallway.

“Fergus! Here, boy!”

He sits up and whines softly, but doesn’t move any nearer.

“Guess that’s a hint that he’s had enough house-moving for today,” I say to Jack. “You know what? I know exactly how he feels.”

* * *

Back at Juniper Street, I deliver Fergus to Maggie, and she murmurs something about turning in for the evening, but I’m not letting her off that easily. I remind her of her promise to show me Sara’s wedding photos and how she’s off to Florida for a month, so she trots over to her house to get them.

When she returns, I have to stop myself from snatching the album out of her hands. I’ve heard so many rumours about Sara Sharpe, this mystery woman of Woodhaven, that I’m dying to see what she looks like. A femme fatale, I imagine… The sultry looks of Nigella Lawson and the seductiveness of Greta Garbo.

I’m disappointed. She’s serious-looking, her hair dark and smooth, as severe as a ballerina’s. On most of the photos, she wears a little frown as if she’s thinking very hard about what she’s doing — and, let’s face it, you shouldn’t have to think hard about a wedding on a beach in the Seychelles. She looks absolutely nothing like Maggie.

“No,” Maggie says. “She’s the image of her father, that’s what she is.” She points at a man in the photo. “Him. Derek. My ex-husband, whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years until that day.”

“That must have been awkward,” I say. I try to imagine meeting Oliver for the first time in thirty years at Jack’s wedding, and fail utterly. “I suppose that’s one advantage of Sara being an only child. You won’t have to meet him again.”

I hand the photos back to Maggie, and I see that her face has turned pink.

“Are you OK?” I ask. “Do you want me to turn the air conditioning up?”

She shakes her head.

“No, I’m fine.” She throws her pashmina around her shoulders and stuffs the photos into her handbag. “It was, as you say, a little awkward meeting Derek again.”

She looks down, fiddling with the clasp on the bag. “He’s widowed now, poor man. I never liked my replacement, but he obviously did. I felt sorry for him.”

“Not your problem any more, though, right?”

Her face goes a bit pinker.

“I might as well tell you, Libby. My vacation in Florida — I’m spending it with Derek. My ex-husband whom I divorced in 1976.”

© 2013 Kate Allison

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#80 – A place of our own

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© Tiff20 | Dreamstime.com

Melissa stands in our hallway and jabs at her clipboard with a purple pen. I feel my upper lip curl into a sneer; I don’t trust anyone who uses purple ink.

“So,” she says, prodding the clipboard and tapping her high-heeled foot in a staccato rhythm. All she needs is a washboard and bells and she could be a one man band. “So. The scratches on the floors in the foyer –”

“I keep telling you, they were there when we moved in! Fergus and the kids had nothing to do with those. More likely you caused them with your stupid shoes.”

She smirks. “Prove it.”

I can’t, of course. When we moved in, it didn’t occur to us to take photographs of every floorboard, every rug, or every kitchen cupboard.

“The scratches,” she continues. “The stain on the master bedroom carpet –”

“Caused by the disrepair of the skylight, which was your responsibility.”

She waits patiently for me to finish, then says, “Replacement of locks, permanent marker on kitchen cabinet, scratched hardwoods, and stained carpets. I’ll get a quote for repairs but it won’t be less than $600. Professional cleaning, $400. Landscaping outside because you let it get overgrown…another $400 or so.”

I swear, she makes this stuff up as she goes along. The garden is no more overgrown than it ever was, but again — we don’t have photographs to prove it. And professional cleaning? Really? I’m perfectly capable of coming in myself with a vacuum cleaner and duster, and frankly, if the professional cleaner is the same one who came before Oliver and I moved in, I’ll do a better job. Just give me the fee.

After a quick calculation, I say, “That leaves $200 to come back from our security deposit, correct?”

She frowns. “Oh, and I nearly forgot — the deck needs power-washing because you let it get splashed with grease while you were barbecuing. So that will be…”

Let me guess. $200 to clean the deck.

“…another $200. Looks like you won’t be getting any of your security deposit back, Libby!”

*  *  *

“Where are you moving to?” she asks as she pokes through the closet in the hall; looking for something else to bill us for, I suppose. Her oily voice suggests she knows exactly where we are going to live, but I tell her anyway.

“The apartments near the mall, until we find a house we are able to buy.” I choose my words carefully. Are able to buy doesn’t mean the same as can afford.

“Have you looked at the new houses in Banbury? They’re very nice.”

Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Seeing as she’s the selling realtor and her new boyfriend built them.

“Yes,” I say, unable to keep my temper any longer. “We’ve looked at them, but frankly I’d rather live in a cardboard box in the middle of the road than line your boyfriend’s pockets by buying one of those crammed-on little hen-houses.”

An error of judgment to let my temper show. Melissa emerges from the closet and announces that there’s a cracked floor tile that needs replacing, which will cost another –

OK. That’s it. I’ve had enough of Melissa Harvey Connor and her real estate bullshit.

“Of course,” I interrupt, “we really wanted to buy that old house on Main Street. The antique. But the owner didn’t accept our offer, and we weren’t willing to offer more because it needs such a lot doing to it.”

I watch her. She’s avoiding my eye and has a fixed smile on her face, the one she always has when she’s trying to hide something.

“That’s right,” she says. ” I talked to the owner and gave him your offer, but to be honest, he was insulted. It’s priced very reasonably as it is.”

Actually, it isn’t. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done some investigating, and although the price might have been OK a year ago, if at the top end of the range, house prices in this area have taken a nose dive since then. It’s now way overpriced. All right, so our offer might have been cheekily low, but seeing as no one else had bought it, you’d think the seller would be willing to enter negotiations.

And anyway, how did she talk to the owner? Maggie has been trying to get in touch with him for two weeks with no luck.

“You’d think the seller would have made a counter offer, though,” I say to Melissa, fishing for more clues. “If you were talking to him on the phone, I’m assuming you tried to actually, you know, sell the house for him.”

She opens and shuts her mouth a couple of times, looking like a surprised trout that I’ve caught and am slowly reeling in.

“He was much too insulted,” she says eventually. “He said he’d rather burn the place to the ground than sell it to someone who offers such a stupid price.”

Lies, all lies. I know when Melissa is lying, and I’ve seen “Melissa’s patented excuse” expression before. While she might fancy herself as an actress, she’s not going to give Meryl Streep any sleepless nights.

“Seriously,” Melissa says, trying to look serious but failing, “you should look again at those houses in Banbury. They’re really cute. I don’t know what you’ve got against them, they’re ready to move into, they’re brand new, not like that dusty old barn on Main Street. Who would want to buy that old shack?

“I can think of someone.”

Melissa and I both jump, and we turn towards the voice at the front door. While we’ve been arguing, Maggie has quietly let herself in with the spare key I gave her for emergencies.

“Maybe one person who would like to buy it is the selling realtor,” she says. “The one who has done her best to keep the ‘old shack’ for herself until she can get rid of her tenants and sell the house she’s been renting out. Then she can buy the ‘old shack’ and sell it to her property developer boyfriend for a little more profit. But he still gets a good deal because he’s going to parcel up the 12 wooded acres it’s built on, apply for planning permission, and put a couple of dozen cookie-cutter houses there instead. Of course,” Maggie adds, “it would help if more people would buy his latest batch of cookie-cutters in Banbury because right now he doesn’t have the means to buy the ‘old shack’ himself, which is why Melissa here is trying to get it for a good price by feeding the seller of the house a lot of lies about how no one is interested in it.”

Melissa puts her hands on her hips. She’s put weight on recently. She has a lot more hip than hand.

“I could sue you for that,” she says. “That’s libel.”

“Only libel if it’s in writing, although you’ve given me an idea. My contact at the Woodhaven Observer might be interested in a little investigative journalism. By the way,” Maggie gestures to a tall figure stepping into the hallway, stomping his wet shoes on the doormat, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”

The man finishes wiping his feet and nods at me and Melissa.

“Who is this?” Melissa demands. “Are we having a party here or something that I didn’t know about? I came here for a professional visit, and you just barge in with your boyfriend and your spare key –”

The man turns to Maggie. “Yep. I see what you mean about her.”

“Melissa.” Maggie’s voice is soft. Dangerously so. “If we’re going to talk about professionalism, I’d be careful what I said, if I were you.”

She smiles brightly at me and Melissa. “As I was saying. This is a friend of mine. Or more accurately, the son of a dear, deceased friend of mine. I believe Melissa has corresponded with him on occasion.” She emphasises the last word. “And this,” she says to him, “is my very good friend Libby.”

The man steps forward and holds out his hand to me.

“Chuck Morande,” he says. “A pleasure to meet you, Libby. I hear you’re interested in buying my mother’s house. If I hadn’t had a phone call from Maggie here, I would never have known, so I thought a trip to my hometown was in order to take care of things properly. Woodhaven realtors today aren’t the professionals they were in my day, it seems.”

And however much I regretted not having a camera at the ready to take photos of this house two years ago, it was nothing compared to the regret I felt at being without a camera now to take a picture of Melissa’s face.

* * *

“A toast, I think.” Maggie takes a bottle from her fridge and pours out four glasses of sparkling wine for the adults, and three plastic cups of cranberry juice for the children. We decided to come back to Maggie’s house for celebrations; the air in our own was still too thick with the atmosphere of accusations and Melissa’s defeat. “To Chuck — for making the trip from Montana when a telephone call would have sufficed.”

Maggie, Oliver and I raise our glasses. “To Chuck.”

Chuck sips at his wine and looks faintly embarrassed. “It was only an airplane ticket.”

“Ah, but without that ticket, Libby here would have to live fifteen miles away near the mall, and I wouldn’t see her anymore.” Maggie smiles at me. “I’d be quite lonely without Libby in Woodhaven. As it is, she will be living in Cathy’s old house just five minutes away.”

“I wouldn’t have sold my mother’s house to that realtor anyway.” Chuck drains his glass and holds it out to Maggie, who refills it. “My own toast now — to Libby and Oliver. I hope you’ll be as happy in that house as my parents were.”

Oliver and I exchange glances. Chuck had been more than willing to accept our “insulting” low offer, and had even offered another reduction to help us with our closing costs. He was just pleased that his mother’s property was going to a family who loved it for what it was and who wouldn’t turn it into twelve acres of McMansions.

“I’m sure we will,” Oliver says, “thanks to you. In a few weeks, we’ll be in a place of our own again.”

He clinks his glass against mine.

“We’ve missed that, haven’t we, Libs?”

I nod, barely able to speak for the lump in my throat.

A place of our own. Yes.

© 2013 Kate Allison

Posted in Episodes 71-80, Libby's Life Episodes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

#79 – Gladiator games

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June.

Summertime. Crickets, cicadas. Long evenings, hot days.

Or, back on Planet Earth in 2013: June. Thunderstorms. Hailstones, lightning. Flood warnings, incessant rain. Central heating returning for another encore, and cabin fever causing small children to ricochet off walls and demand opportunities to test the effectiveness of recently purchased wellington boots.

Rain or no rain, after several days cooped up inside, we are going for a walk this afternoon.

It’s a slow process, though, I’m discovering. It’s taken nearly five minutes to get Jack, plus the twins in their double pushchair, from the front door to the other side of our street, because the very puddles I need to avoid with the pushchair are those in which Jack wants to jump with his new, camo-patterned rainboots.

As the children and I bicker and squelch past the entrance to Maggie’s long gravel drive, I spot Maggie trotting from her house towards us, holding a black and red golfing umbrella above her head and squinting into the driving rain.

“You do know,” she shouts, “that if someone who is not English sees you out in this downpour, they will call child protection services? Or at the very least, they’ll call the men in white coats?”

We laugh. The Woodhaveners’ attitude to rain is a private joke between me and Maggie. Woodhaveners will happily cope with two feet of snow and an ice storm, but send them a bit of rain and they flap around, panicking about damp basements and aquaplaning cars.

I explain about the cabin fever and Jack’s new wellies. “What’s your excuse for going out in it?” I ask.

“Checking the mail for Montana-postmarked letters,” she says, and I groan softly.

Maggie’s been waiting for a letter from Montana for about a week now. A letter from Chuck, the current owner of the house I want to buy. Chuck is strangely inaccessible by modern communication. After our liquid lunch in the Maxwell Plum, Maggie phoned the emergency number he gave her a few years ago — his neighbours’ number — and left a message.

The message was that Maggie thought he should know that someone (me) was interested in buying his mother’s house, and Maggie had reason to believe he might not know this (because we think Melissa, his real estate agent, hadn’t told him we’d put in an offer) so would he please call Maggie back ASAP.

After two days with no response, she phoned again. Chuck’s neighbours sounded slightly annoyed and told her they’d most certainly passed on the message to Chuck, who had said he would write a letter to Maggie. Yes, they told her, a real letter. On paper, in an envelope, with a stamp, with her address on it. Surely she had heard of such an invention in Massachusetts?

“More to the point, hasn’t he heard of Facebook in Montana?” I asked. “Who writes letters on real paper these days, for goodness’ sake?”

“People who live in the middle of nowhere and communicate mainly with horses, apparently,” Maggie said.

Now, as Maggie opens her mailbox and I see that it contains only this week’s issue of the Woodhaven Observer, I’m starting to think that he’d decided to bypass the postal system and deliver it himself. On horseback.

I voice this theory to Maggie, who looks at me sympathetically.

“At least you’ve got somewhere to live in July now,” she says. “You won’t be homeless.”

This is true. Oliver, via his company’s HR contacts, has managed to get a three-bedroomed apartment near the mall, in the same complex we stayed when we first arrived in America, two years ago. So, no, we won’t be homeless –  but the apartment faces the freeway, it’s noisy with the heavy traffic, and I’m not counting on many undisturbed nights from the twins. It’s most irritating, because they’d both just started sleeping through the night.

We looked at some new houses in Banbury, two towns away. The houses that Melissa’s new boyfriend built. This detail would have been enough to put me off buying one, if the cost hadn’t already done so. The base prices of the houses seemed reasonable enough, but once you started adding in the cost of options, the real prices zoomed vertically, because the “options” weren’t terribly optional. The houses don’t come with decks, for example; not a big problem, you might think, until you realise that the French windows (or French doors, as they call them here) leading out into the back garden have a five foot drop to the ground when you open them.

Both Oliver and I want, more than ever, to stay in Woodhaven, in the magical old house that used to belong to Maggie’s friend, Cathy.  Oliver even calls it “our house” whenever we drive past it.

If only we could speak with Chuck, the actual seller, instead of having to go through real estate agents who have their own unscrupulous agendas. Because Maggie, Oliver, and I are absolutely convinced that Melissa has her own agenda in all this. It’s no coincidence that a house with a lot of acreage and a need for fixing up isn’t selling if she’s a) representing the seller and b) dating a local builder/property tycoon.

But without Chuck’s side of the story, we have no proof.

As we all stand in the rain, a black Escalade tears up the street and drives through the water-filled pothole next to us in the road, sweeping a wave of muddy rainwater onto the sidewalk and all over our little group. Beth and George are safe behind their clear plastic rainshield, but Jack, who was nearest the road, is drenched. He bursts into tears, and sobs that his new rainboots are broken because they’re filled with water.

“No, they’re not broken. They just don’t work when the puddles come from above,” I say, mopping his face as best I can with a tissue that is similarly damp. “We’d better get you home and dried off. Honestly, some drivers, no common courtesy or even common sense…”

“That’s our Melissa, all right,” Maggie murmurs.

I look up. The black Escalade is now parked on the driveway of my house and, sure enough, Melissa Harvey Connor is getting out of it.

“What’s she doing here?” Maggie asks.

“Beats me. Can we disappear up your driveway and hide until she goes away?”

Too late. She’s already seen us and is gesturing furiously.

“I suppose I’d better see what she wants. You wouldn’t like to come with me for moral support, would you?”

“Much as I love a nice bit of gladiatorial entertainment with my afternoon tea,” Maggie says, “I’m expecting a parcel delivery, so I’d better not. Good luck,” she adds, as she starts to wade up her driveway towards her house.

Who is the gladiator and who is the lion?  She doesn’t say.

I look across the street at Melissa, who has seemingly forgotten I changed the locks on her house eighteen months ago and is trying to open the front door with a key that doesn’t work.

When I eventually reach the door, I get my own key out of my purse and Melissa steps aside.

“I’m here to inspect the house for damage,” she says, and my heart sinks. Three children, two adults, and a dog have lived in this house in the last two years. “You know, for things that have to be put right before you move out, that you have to pay for.”

She holds up her useless key.

“New lock system, for example.” She smiles, baring sharp canine teeth. Or perhaps feline.  I’m the gladiator, it turns out; the one facing a big cat. “Cost to you: $300. And that’s before we even get inside the house, Libby.”

© 2013 Kate Allison

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