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Authors: Louise Wise

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BOOK: A Proper Charlie
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Faye glared at him, her hands on her hips. ‘And your reason?’

You’re black.’

Faye stroked the back of her neck, then placed her hands back on her hips. ‘Forget the obvious,’ she said.

As a superior member of staff,’ he said, quoting her and dismissing her simultaneously, ‘discuss this at lunchtime. Charlie,’ he said, turning back towards her, ‘meeting at the vending machine, pronto.’

Charlie gave a mock salute. ‘Aye, aye, Cap’n.’

At the machine, Melvin ordered two coffees. It served tea instead, but as they were lucky to receive anything at all from the temperamental machine, they didn’t complain.

As I was saying, everyone needs an office clerk and you make a great one, doll,’ he said. ‘Anyway, Fanny reckons the Mid Group will keep all staff on. It’ll still be
London Core
, and you and me will still have jobs. Look on the bright side, doll, we might even get a promotion.’

Good luck never lasts, Mel, you know that,’ she said. ‘And I’ve had too much of that lately.’ She raised a hand and began to count off her fingers. ‘Us,’ she indicated herself and Melvin, ‘Andy, and then a job with
. I even passed my driving test and got a little car! Mel, the luck simply can’t last.’

You’re talking alien again,’ he said and Charlie punched him on the arm.

So why weren’t we told about this takeover earlier? I mean, as from next week some guy called Donald Middleton will be our boss.
Donald Middleton, in fact. Will I have to curtsy?’ She chewed on her lip.

That’s just royalty, doll.’ He smiled down at her affectionately. ‘I don’t recommend you try it. Old Middleton might think you’re taking the piss.’

She pouted, but already felt better. Melvin always did that to her; made her feel wanted and worthwhile.

He suddenly enveloped her in a bear hug. He was Charlie’s best friend/brother/father figure all rolled into one tall, skinny frame. And with cropped blond hair, several ear piercings and black eye-lined eyes he was as gay as a Maypole.

As long as we have one another,’ he said. ‘We’ll always be bessy mates, won’t we?’

Always,’ she said the best she could with her face pressed against his chest.

Feeling better now?’ he asked, releasing her.

Charlie nodded.

Good. So, is going as a Spice Girl official, even though the ugly sisters are joining the group?’ he asked.

Charlie laughed. ‘I guess. Girls on News are going as Girls Aloud. Jen wants Jimbob to go as Simon Cowell just because she’s Cheryl Cole. But I think going as a Spice Girl is more recognisable, don’t you?’

Only because you want to wear the Union Jack frock.’

She grinned. ‘Yeah. I shall look on eBay.’

He laughed. ‘So, who’ll go as Posh?’

Juliet did say she’d come with me.’ They both looked across as Juliet stood to retrieve a mound of paperwork from a shelf above her desk. Her shirt sleeves fell back to reveal many tattoos. She plonked the paperwork on her desk and the motion caused her family-pack of cheesy puffs to fall to the floor. She swore, snatched them up and filled her mouth.

Good choice.’

Charlie nodded. ‘I shall ask Andy to come with me. He could go as Bon Jovi. He loves his music.’

Pete Doherty would be better.’

Charlie threw him a look, and Melvin looked back unashamed.

OK,’ he said. ‘So maybe Doherty is a little tame for Andy Pandy.’

Charlie exchanged her look for another light punch. ‘Andy’s off drugs now. He told me.’

Melvin raised twin eyebrows. ‘Run out of benefits?’

I will not dignify that question with an answer,’ she said primly.




icole dabbed her eyes and gave a last, shuddering sob. Her dramatized whimpering was loud in the hushed church. People in front turned their heads and Ben Middleton flushed as though the eyes were on him instead of his sobbing girlfriend

God’s sake…’ muttered his sister, Camilla, on the other side of him, but her hand crept into his as their mother’s coffin was carried down the aisle to the tune of
Over the Rainbow.

It was an emotional moment, and Ben was almost tempted to snatch Nicole’s handkerchief for himself. He looked to the front, not trusting himself to look at his younger sister. He was afraid of what he would see. Pain and grief he’d understand, but he would see confusion and bewilderment too and he just didn’t know how to handle that.

He looked at the back of his father’s head, sitting in front next to his elderly in-laws. Donald Middleton was staring straight ahead. Ben wondered when, or if, his father would respond to his grief. He didn’t seem affected by the procession at all. The congregation was silent as pallbearers lowered the coffin onto a raised platform and Eva Cassidy’s voice faded away.

Grace Middleton had been diagnosed with cancer in March. She had kept the lump she’d found in her breast to herself, and by the time she approached a doctor the cancer had long since spread to the lymph node in her armpit and had started to attack her liver. Despite treatment her prognosis wasn’t good. In August the cancer was in her bones and by September she was dead.

She was fifty-eight.

Reverend Church walked slowly forward, his robes billowing, a Bible clutched to his chest and his head lowered. The congregation lowered theirs.

He’s aptly named,’ Ben whispered.

Camilla couldn’t raise a smile, and as Ben finally risked a glance at her, he saw tears being squeezed from between her tightly closed eyes. His hand tightened around her fingers even more.

Oh Ben, this is s-so hard,’ wailed Nicole, and pushed her arm through his. She laid her blonde head against his shoulder. ‘You’re so brave,’ she added looking across him and pointedly at Camilla.

Camilla rewarded her with a scornful glance.

Reverend Church cleared his throat and raised his head.

Oh, here I g-go,’ said Nicole pulling out her handkerchief again. ‘S-sorry,’ she said as she began to cry. ‘Oh, poor G-Grace.’ She leaned forward and lightly touched Donald’s shoulder. ‘Poor Donny,’ she said.

Ben winced at his father’s shortened name, but the man didn’t turn and bark at her as he normally would have done.

Ben looked up as Reverend Church began to talk about his mother, but his mind took him back to when Grace let loose a mammoth secret.

She had mumbled and prayed for forgiveness over an affair she had, and spoke of the ‘glorious summer of 1991’ as if she was reliving the event in her thoughts. Her mind, confused and dulled with drugs, revealed that Camilla was not Donald Middleton’s true daughter.

Only Grace had never realised that Ben and Camilla were sitting at the end of her bed.

Sorry Don, sorry… but you knew, didn’t you?’ Grace had muttered. Her words were surprisingly clear, and her pale face was tense as if determined to make herself heard. ‘Knew th-that Camilla wasn’t… wasn’t yours. I’m sorry. Camilla is Peter’s daughter. Thought I loved him… but I was wrong… wanted to tell you before… before… sorry…’

Ben stiffened on the edge of the bed; he didn’t dare look at Camilla. She sat in the old rocking chair. She had been reading
magazine aloud to her mother and Ben could see her rapidly whitening knuckles as the magazine crumpled in her hands.

She thinks you’re dad,’ she said at last, and Ben finally looked at her. Her face was shockingly pale, and her eyes sparkled.

Cam –’ he began.

But Camilla rose and went to take one of her mother’s paper-thin hands lying on top of the pink duvet. ‘What was that, Mum?’

Ben stood from the bed and looked down at mother and daughter. ‘She said, “Dad wasn’t your real father”,’ he offered.

Camilla’s blue eyes snapped up at him. ‘I did hear,’ she said.

Grace’s eyes were closed, but she smiled as she heard Ben’s voice. ‘I’m sorry, Donald. Love Cammy for me…’

Camilla is Peter’s daughter”,’ Ben quoted, frowning deeply. ‘Who is Peter?’

My God!’ said Camilla, her hands flying to her cover her mouth. She was clearly shocked, but Ben’s only ability to deal with this highly emotional situation was to analyse it so he could fix it.

The only “Peter” I know is Peter Fielding but he died before you were born, so he –’


Ben stopped, and stared at her stupidly. ‘What?’

Camilla knelt beside her mother’s bed, and stroked her hair. ‘Mum,’ she said. ‘Who’s Peter? Who’s…’ her voice wobbled, and Ben’s heart cracked at her distress. ‘Who’s my father?’

Grace’s eyes remained tightly closed, her face serene but pale.

She can’t have meant what she said, Cam,’ Ben said trying, as always, to ease the situation.

Camilla stood. ‘It explains everything.’

It explains nothing,’ Ben said. ‘Please keep your voice down. Mum…’ he made a motion with his head towards the thin form of his beloved parent.

But Camilla was too wounded by the colossal secret her mother had revealed. It all made sense now; her blonde hair, whereas the rest of the family was dark; and her detached relationship with Donald. Ben was helpless to watch the calculations chase one another across her face before she raced from the room to seek out Donald Middleton, the man who she once believed was her father.

Ben didn’t follow; he’d rather not listen to another of their arguments. His father and only sister were the most volatile people he knew. It may turn out that biologically they weren’t father and daughter but somehow they shared the same temperament.

Ben sat in the rocking chair, watching his mother’s face. She looked peaceful. Was she in pain? The nurse had assured him she wasn’t.

Autumn is almost upon us, Mother,’ he said. ‘The garden is littered with leaves already.’

Grace remained passive; her eyelids closed. Her breathing had altered: became shallow and Ben’s stomach spasmed.

Footsteps sounded outside the bedroom, and then voices in the corridor. The voices were angry – Camilla and his father. Camilla sounded distraught. Donald, Ben could imagine, wore his usual face of disdain and not one of reassurance, as he should.

But what had Camilla expected? Donald had never been demonstrative towards his children – the opposite was true in fact. He called it character building.

Accusations, blame and an entire childhood of resentment rained upon Donald as Camilla screamed at him. Ben sat in the rocking chair, gripping the arms, unable to move.

Now I know why I didn’t fit in!’ Camilla yelled. ‘I wasn’t yours! I was the product of another man!’ The laugh that followed was hollow. ‘Shame mum didn’t leave you for him, and take me with her.’

A shame indeed, it would’ve solved a whole lot of heartache!’ Donald bellowed back, and Ben winced.

Ben slipped from the chair, and on his knees at his mother’s side, he pressed his lips to her cold temple. It felt like marble. ‘Don’t listen,’ Ben whispered, closing his eyes. He held his lips against her forehead as if to shield her from the onslaught that was going on outside.

Don… promise… look after Cammy…’

I promise,’ he said.

The argument outside continued while he sat over her; her breaths becoming further and further apart. She died as Camilla and Donald yelled.

Ben sobbed, while the argument raged and as he listened, helplessness set in. He hated confrontation, always had done. It had been a tortuous six months while his mother battled with her illness, and with Camilla’s parentage suddenly under speculation, Ben felt overwhelmed. But a promise was a promise, even if his mum had thought she was talking to her husband.

And now, five days on they were burying Grace, together with the rest of her secrets from 1991. Since then, Camilla had been silent and withdrawn, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. She’d lost both her mother and her father all in the same hour.

Ben looked at his father again. His back was rigid. His father hadn’t taken his wife’s death well; or had it been the disclosure of his once-thought-daughter’s parentage? He’d collapsed after Ben had broken the news that Grace had died. Ben and Camilla thought he had a heart attack and called 999, but once at the hospital it turned out to be angina.

People’s heads lowered as Reverend Church read a prayer.

Do you think he knew all this time?’ whispered Camilla. ‘You know, about the, er, affair?’

I don’t know,’ he whispered back. ‘But if he didn’t, finding out like that must’ve been one hell of a shock.’

It was a shock for me too, Ben,’ she said.

He wanted to explain that what he meant was that their argument might not have been the cause of his angina attack because he knew she was still beating herself up about that. The shock of finding out that your daughter wasn’t really yours, would be a big enough blow for any heart condition. But while he hesitated, Camilla said,

BOOK: A Proper Charlie
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