Authors: Janet Davey
Lorna Parry lives with her three sons, each one lurching uncomfortably into adulthood. In the claustrophobic loneliness of her own home, Lorna orbits around her sons and struggles to talk to them; she's still angry at her ex-husband, uncomfortable around her father's new girlfriend, and works quietly as the only employee left in a deserted London archive. Life seems precariously balanced. Then a shocking event occurs in the stationery cupboard at the boys' school and her world threatens to implode.
Praised for her taut and subtle prose, Janet Davey returns with an unsettling new novel about family and strangers. Her portrait of lives at crisis point is a masterful study in rendering the everyday beautiful and surprising.
Janet Davey was born in 1953. She is the author of
, which was longlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize,
First Aid, The Taxi Queue
By Battersea Bridge
The Taxi Queue
By Battersea Bridge
To Tom Cary
A WALL IS
down and a small room, the receptionists' sanctum, has been exposed. Red-and-white striped barrier tape cordons off the area. Polythene sheeting, thick with peppery plaster dust, lies under a work platform of ladders and planks. Light fittings dangle from wires. Homely objects, previously glimpsed through the hatch â an electric kettle, the more comfortable chair â have been removed. There is nothing to peer at and I suppose the bell to summon will have been discarded too.
I check my phone for messages and, since I am alone, put on some lipstick, mouthing at myself in the make-up mirror. A vanity project, I think, as I snap it shut. They cut drama from the curriculum and tart up the foyer.
Although I have attended school meetings and dos for the last ten years on behalf of one son or another, I have no grasp of the layout of Lloyd-Barron Academy and often get lost. The main school, an Edwardian building, flanked by two 1960s modernist slabs, debouches into annexes that were constructed from the cheapest available materials and named after water birds â Grebe, Shearwater, Bittern, and so on â for no known reason. The arrangement of these additions accords with no topological sense. I start from the front entrance and, via changes of level, abrupt turns and sudden plunges into open air, follow the wrong person along corridors of lino worn shiny by wear and end up in a cul-de-sac; a science prep room or a claustrophobic, bleach-scented anteroom to a set of lavatories.
A sudden rise in the temperature, a September surprise after a lousy summer, has caught me wearing the wrong clothes: black / 10 per cent Lycra / long-sleeved. A bath or shower would have been welcome but then I would have wondered what to put on in order to look as if it were a fluke that I am here at all â a last-minute decision to attend the sixth-form social evening â since part of me sides with the parents who fail to turn up on these occasions from ineptitude or sheer lack of interest. By the time I reach the sixth-form block, I am fanning myself with the evening newspaper.
They are full of goodwill, the parents who turn up at these school events, though this does not preclude whingeing. I wait for the pen to be free and write âRoss Doig' on one of the blank labels provided, then add âLorna Parry' in brackets. My T-shirt is too tightly stretched for the pin so I re-fasten the label round the strap of my bag from where it immediately slides down out of sight.
âHere we are again,' a father says, as I approach the refreshments table. âSeems like ten minutes since we were doing this for Jacob and Oliver.'
âYes, doesn't it? How is Jacob?' I take a ready-poured cup of black tea and slop milk into it from a stainless-steel jug.
I cannot remember the first name of the man who has come up to me, though I must once have been told. His label, wonkily attached to a well-darned crew-necked jumper, says âNina Levine'. We are all our children's parents. He is a tall bear of a man with a neatly trimmed beard and spectacles mended with a flesh-coloured plaster. He strikes me as more normal than some of the dads.
âI've no idea.' Nina Levine's father takes a gulp from his glass of red wine and grimaces. âGod almighty, the wine doesn't get any better, does it? Oh, you're drinking tea. Wise choice. No, we never hear from him. He's out in Guatemala. Been there since term ended. My wife goes on Facebook to check that he's in the land of the living. Ah! There he is. Just spotted him. Hi, Jacob. Good to see you.' He waves at a film projected onto a section of wall of the sixth-form common room. It shows students from the cohort which left in the summer and is already tinged with nostalgia. The soundtrack is switched off and the students in their white shirts and black trousers or skirts take part in noiseless discussions and conduct silent lab experiments. Teachers open and close their mouths. Chairs move as though lubricated. It is a fluid world that travels from sequence to sequence without strain â though the young people who are part of it seem vulnerable, as if on the brink of disaster.
The real-life boys and girls who hang about in small groups or perch on tables, fondling their phones, scent the air with cheap perfume and the gutsy, animal smell of their bodies. They are noisier and more brazen than those on screen. They might cope with life â not because they are stronger or more intelligent but through a plodding pedestrianism that, while not getting them far, should keep them safe. In home clothes (âmufti' so-called by the head) â drop-down jeans for the boys and various tight tops, little dresses, skinny jeans and leggings for the girls â they seem set fair for whatever might come their way, whether gap years, university, or NEET: the current limbo, or purgatory, of being in neither education, employment nor training.
âOliver's away at Porthkerris in Cornwall,' I say. âNight diving this time. My father paid for him to have lessons. He feels the lure of the ocean. He carries on wanting things, of course â wetsuit, masks, fins, BCDs, whatever they are, the latest pieces of electronic kit. Money, money, money. An ever-rolling stream.'
âAt least they didn't have gap years. What are they
? Private-school kids have them, don't they? On the whole, I disapprove. They're a hybrid of finishing school and a bloody long holiday.'
âIt would be more of an adventure to ditch the mobile and go to Rotherham and live with a landlady.'
Nina's father guffaws. âThey conform. That's probably the sole point. You've got a third son, haven't you? Still at uni, is he? How's he doing?'
âEwan? He's OK. Trundling along.'
My companion sloshes the wine around in his glass, getting a small eddy going into which he stares. âIt's a shame Miss Bhimji left. She was great. Ross is doing English, isn't he?'
âYup. I don't know who they've got. Ross doesn't speak to me.'
âAlan Child, apparently. Nina says he's been here a year. This will be his first go with the sixth form. They like to give the young staff a turn. Watch the results go down. Could that be him?' He indicates a man standing alone in front of the lockers.
âHe's the right age. Too young to be an Alan, don't you think? I wonder whether he has adopted the name to give himself gravitas in the staffroom. He doesn't look overly inspiring, does he? A bit of a tit? He keeps rolling his shoulders. Oh dear. I hope he's not going to take time off for physiotherapy. The jacket's too big for him. It slips about like a borrowed silk dressing gown.'
âEnough, Lorna! You're as bad as Nina. Well, I suppose we'd better mingle. Meet the teachers. That's what we're here for, isn't it?' Nina's father grins and shambles away.
Groups are beginning to cluster around individual members of staff. Unworldly Mrs Anstey with her grey hair loose about her shoulders and floor-length wraparound skirt. Mr Frost, whose bloodshot eyes become more vacant with every year that passes. Though the occasion is billed as social, and it is less than two weeks into the new term, parents cannot stop themselves from lining up and asking about Harry's progress. Douglas Milner, head of sixth form and pastoral mainstay, has been trapped by Deborah Lupton. She talks and gesticulates while he nods slowly above her, his wine glass empty. The older members of staff are teachers through and through. Line them up in an identity parade and anyone would guess their profession. It is all those days of virtual imprisonment without the opportunity to pop out to the shops, breathe fresh air or go for a decent lunch. Schools are, more often than not, away from society, at the far end of long, meandering roads, served by only one bus. They have this in common with municipal cemeteries. To whatever teachers suffer in the way of a commute can be added this extra leg that takes them from a recognisable landscape through increasingly surreal terrain that seems to go on for miles. Somehow it affects the psyche. They become different people from the ones who set out.
Grace Lu's mother has taken up a position behind the refreshments table and is serving coffee. She belongs to the inner circle of parents who take part in fund-raising activities. They know each other and understand the urn.
âSorry. The chocolate biscuits have all gone,' she says.
Another mother finds this sublimely funny and bursts out laughing.
THE ENGINE IS
running and the passenger door wide open. Ross hops from foot to foot on the driver's side and makes signs to me to open the window.
âFor God's sake, Ross, just get in. Where were you all evening?'
At one point, I saw him walking aimlessly between the display boards but failed to nab him. In his school uniform, he stood out among the mufti-wearers. âAre you coping, man?' his friend Hunter called out, his teeth embedded in a sandwich. When I signalled to Ross that I was keen to leave he held up a hand, fingers spread, and mouthed that he would meet me in the car park in five. He wandered out again through a different door. I waited in the car, listening without much attention to a medical programme on Radio 4 about a link between taking sleeping pills and early death.