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