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Authors: Lucy Diamond

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BOOK: Hens Reunited
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Liz pulled a face. ‘Joshua Wakefield’s parents,’ she moaned. ‘Competitive as hell, I seem to remember – even about art. Last time they were here, they kept asking about tests and grades, and whether Joshua was in the top group . . . in art, for fuck’s sake!’ The paper clip pinged out of her fingers as her voice rose. ‘Let’s hope they’ve chilled out a bit this time. Who’ve you got?’

Katie glanced down at her list. ‘Kelly Stevens,’ she said. ‘I don’t remember meeting her parents before, though. Can’t wait to break it to them that Kelly is the class fidget and more interested in applying herself to love-texts and graffiti on the desks than to solving equations.’

Liz grinned. ‘Ahh, if anyone can, it’s you, Katie. Oh – parents at twelve o’clock, I spy. Our evening of fun starts here . . .’

Katie drew herself up straighter in her seat, trying to present the right image to the approaching mums and dads: professional, smart and caring, rather than hungover, knackered and wishing-she-was-at-home. So . . . now to play Spot Kelly Stevens’ Parents. Kelly was small and skinny, with lots of brown hair, pale freckled skin and a nervous energy that seemed to channel itself through her mouth. She liked to chat, did Kelly.

Katie scanned the room. Big bald bloke, man-boobs jiggling as he strode in, dragging a dumpy wife behind him . . . nah. Surely they wouldn’t have produced a live wire like Kelly. She was right – they were heading towards Wendy Grey, the elderly music teacher.

Next up: an extremely smart-looking couple – him in an elegant suit, her with swishy shampoo-advert hair . . . nope. Too posh to be Kelly’s. Off they strode to Lucas Walker, one of the chemistry teachers.

Ahh. Here came a woman with bobbed brown hair, a red short-sleeved top and cropped jeans, walking confidently in Katie’s direction, checking the table numbers. She had the same slim build as Kelly . . . and there was something vaguely familiar about the way she walked, too. Hmmmm. Katie couldn’t put her finger on it. Had they met before?

The woman drew nearer, searching the rows of tables, head darting from side to side as she looked. Then she paused, clocking Katie’s number – 28 – and slid into one of the empty seats in front of her. ‘Hi,’ she said breezily, smiling as she held out a hand across the table. ‘I’m—’ She broke off, and stared at Katie. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she said, whitening suddenly. ‘Katie – is it you?’

Katie stared back at the woman in surprise . . . and an image flashed into her mind – of them both sitting around a T.G.I. Friday’s table years ago, her with that hen-night tiara slipping in her hair . . . ‘Oh my
God
,’ she said, losing every shred of professionalism in one breath. ‘Nicki?’

Could it really be her, her ex-sister-in-law? Katie hadn’t seen her since that disastrous Watkinson Christmas when Neil had presented her with a Kenwood Chef mixer and she’d just wanted to heave it up from the torn red wrapping paper and brain him with it. Nicki was married by then – yes, to Anthony Stevens! – and had seen fit to scold her brother for the gift. ‘Neil! That’s not very romantic! Honestly, Katie, what is he like?’

And here she was now, Nicki Stevens, née Watkinson, sitting here in front of her, fourteen or so years later. Kelly Stevens’ mum. Yikes.

‘I can’t believe it’s you!’ Nicki said. She was pale, her eyes never leaving Katie’s. ‘I thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth. And here you are, Ms Taylor, teaching maths to my Kelly. Wait till I tell Neil!’

Katie winced at the words. It was madness that after all these years her ex-husband’s name could still send a shaft of guilt piercing her skin. Crazy that her instinct had been to blurt out ‘Don’t tell Neil!’ as if she was worried he’d want to track her down and marry her all over again. Because they both knew
that
wasn’t going to happen.

She tried not to squirm in her chair, wondering what to say, then checked herself. This ten-minute slot was meant to be about Kelly, not ancient history. All the same, she found she needed to defend herself. ‘I don’t know if you heard what happened with me and Neil, but . . .’

Nicki’s eyes were soft. ‘I heard,’ she said. ‘Linda O’Connor, wasn’t it? And the rest of them. What a prat.’

Katie stared down at the table, pained at that casual ‘the rest of them’. Right. She didn’t know exactly how many times Neil had been unfaithful – didn’t want to know either – but clearly word had got round that there had been several conquests. Katie had even heard a rumour that he’d tried it on with someone – Amy Phillips, was it? – at the actual wedding itself. How lovely. How very tasteful. ‘Maybe we should talk about Kelly now,’ Katie said, steering away from the subject.

Nicki waved a hand, dismissing her daughter’s mathematical offerings from the conversation. ‘I haven’t seen you for about five hundred years,’ she said. ‘So how
are
you? How’s it all going?’

Katie looked at her warily. She hadn’t anticipated a cosy little chat about ‘how it was all going’. And how could she reply to that, anyway?
Oh, well, my latest boyfriend just walked out on me because I couldn’t commit, and I might have snogged someone last night but I can’t remember because I was too pissed, and . . .

Not bloody likely. She couldn’t let that sort of detail get back to Neil. He’d probably laugh his head off. ‘What a hypocrite,’ he’d say. ‘After all the grief she gave me for putting it around, too!’

‘Fine, thanks,’ she said cautiously. ‘You?’

‘Oh, you know, married, three kids, working part-time at the big Toys R Us in Brislington . . .’ Nicki reeled off. ‘We moved to Bristol just after Kelly was born. I still can’t believe I’m sitting here opposite you! It must be . . . how long? Years, anyway.’

‘Fourteen years,’ Katie said, nodding. ‘How . . . how is he? Neil, I mean?’ There. The question had been hovering unspoken between them ever since Nicki had sat down and gasped in recognition.

Nicki rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, well, you know Neil,’ she said. ‘Can’t make his mind up, that one. He was with Louise for a while – and they’ve got Harry, who’s twelve. And then they broke up and he started seeing Tracey. Had Grace – she’s ten now. And then he married . . . what was her name? Carla. Didn’t last two minutes. No kids, luckily. Now he’s with Marianne and she’s up the stick. Poor woman. You’d think she’d have heard about his track record, right?’ She shrugged. ‘You’re lucky you got away when you did, Katie. I don’t want to diss my brother but . . . well. Fact is, he’s a git. My own brother and I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.’

Katie gulped. All those women . . . all those children. Neil certainly hadn’t wasted any time pining over her. ‘Blimey,’ she said faintly.

‘I know,’ Nicki said. ‘Bet you’re glad you dumped him when you did, eh? I just hope he didn’t put you off men for life!’

She was laughing, saying the words lightly, but Katie felt a wrench inside. The truth was . . . he
had
put her off, for a long time. Too long.

‘Just as well they’re not all like Neil, right?’ Nicki was saying.

Katie managed a smile in return. ‘Just as well,’ she agreed. And suddenly, she was longing to see Steve again. Steve, who’d never mucked her around. Steve, who’d never done the dirty on her, or bailed out.

Until now, of course. Until she’d gone and lost him in the blink of an eye.

Something shifted in the periphery of her vision, and she noticed that another couple were waiting at a polite distance behind Nicki. The next parents on her list of consultations. ‘Oh God, sorry, Nicki,’ Katie said, trying not to sound too thankful. ‘We’re going to have to finish here – and I’ve not even talked to you about how Kelly’s getting on with her maths.’

Nicki wrinkled her nose. ‘She’s not going to be a mathematician, is she?’ she asked.

Katie shook her head. ‘She’s not, I’m afraid,’ she replied. ‘But if she could just concentrate a bit harder . . .’

Nicki laughed as she got up from the chair. ‘I know my Kelly. Too much concentrating on boys and eyeliner. But I’ll have a word. See what I can do.’

‘Thanks,’ Katie said. She swallowed, feeling awkward again. ‘And . . . it’s nice to see you, Nicki. Say hi to Anthony for me. And . . . er . . .’ She stood up and suddenly hugged her, her ex-sister-in-law. ‘All the best,’ she said.

Nicki squeezed her back. ‘Lovely to see you, Kate,’ she said. ‘Really lovely. I’m glad things have all worked out for you. Wait ’til I tell Neil you’re a maths teacher!’

It almost sounded mocking, the way she phrased it, as if being a maths teacher was something to poke fun at. But before Katie could protest and throw in a few more post-Neil achievements – ‘Yeah, and tell him I got the highest marks in my year for my teaching degree while you’re at it, won’t you? Tell him I’ve got my own house! Tell him walking out on him was the best decision of my life!’ – Nicki was waving and walking away.

Maybe it was just as well she hadn’t had the chance to say all of that, Katie thought, watching her go. It might have made her sound rather . . . well, desperate, if she was honest. And Nicki wasn’t the sort to mock, it was just her getting on the defensive.

She glanced down at her list and gave the waiting parents a bright smile. ‘Mr and Mrs Lovell – nice to see you again. Come and sit down. I’m pleased to say Bradley has made
excellent
progress in maths this year . . .’

She could hardly think straight for the rest of the evening. Neil and his harem of women, eh? It made her feel better about her failed marriage, in a funny sort of a way. No one else seemed to stay married to Neil very long either. So perhaps it wasn’t some failing in her, Katie. Perhaps the fault was all down to Mr Lover-Lover himself. It made her all the more relieved she’d taken the pill secretly throughout their brief marriage, when she heard about all those children he’d fathered. Well, that figured, too. He had been gutted when she couldn’t – or rather wouldn’t – produce one for him, had made her feel shit about it, as if she was a failure, a freak of nature. She’d wanted to wait a few years, have some fun first before she thought seriously about motherhood, but then, when she’d found out he’d been playing away, she’d left the marriage feeling hollow. Good, she’d told herself. Who wanted kids anyway? She’d probably only turn out a rotten mum, as useless as her own had been. She didn’t need a man
or
kids, she could get by on her Jack Jones – for now and for the rest of her life.

It had been terrifying, sure, rocking up to the station and getting the London train on her own, just that one bag of possessions to show for herself. Her bravado had shrivelled away to nothing by the time the train had hissed into Paddington. Could she really go through with this? Did she really have the bottle? But the thought of her husband gripping Linda O’Connor’s podgy shoulders as he heaved himself into her was enough to propel Katie through the station and onto a bus to find the house Alice and Georgia were renting. And then, thankfully, they’d greeted her with open arms, a box of wine and the start of a new life.

Georgia had never liked Neil, had always looked down her nose at him for his stonewashed jeans and taste in music (‘I’ve never met a bloke into Level 42 and Dire Straits who wasn’t a crap shag’). Alice wasn’t quite so vocal about her dislike, but she was quick to tell Katie she’d done the right thing. With a little help from her friends, Katie had her life back again, and the lid had closed tight shut on Neil Watkinson.

Until now, when the memories kept seeping out. It made her shudder.
You’re lucky you got away when you did, Katie
, Nicki had said. How true was that!

She tried to concentrate on the matter in hand, discussing Zoe Eldon’s trouble with getting homework in on time with her earnest, mousy-looking parents, but her thoughts kept sliding back to Neil and his line of conquests. What a sleaze. He was like an animal, moving from one mate to the next.

‘Ms Taylor?’ Zoe Eldon’s mum asked, puncturing her thoughts. ‘Are you . . . all right?’

Katie jumped back to the here and now. Christ, how long had she been lost in her reverie? She shoved Neil to the back of her head with great force and pulled herself together. ‘Sorry,’ she said. What a space cadet she must seem to them! ‘As I was saying, Zoe is very bright in lessons, confident to have a go at solving a problem in front of the rest of the class, and . . .’

She broke off as Nicki went through her field of vision once more, lining up to see Peter Barton, head of science. What had she been talking about again? ‘So that’s about it, really,’ she finished lamely. ‘Tell Zoe to keep up the good work!’

The Eldons walked away and Katie all but put her head in her hands and groaned. Why couldn’t she get a grip and concentrate? Her reputation would be in tatters by the end of the night if she didn’t sort herself out.

She shook herself. She was not enjoying this evening at all. Ten short minutes of chat with Nicki and she was all over the place.

Concentrate, Katie. Not long to go. Concentrate!

The next parents on her list were those of Conor Graham. Ahh. Conor, and his brilliant mind. One pupil she’d actually enjoyed having in her class, with his lightning-quick brain, the way he sat there, soaking up everything she said, relishing homework, really loving being challenged and stretched . . .

Well, until recently, that was. ‘Conor is very able,’ she told his parents with a smile. ‘He’s got a genuine talent for maths – a fantastic problem-solving brain.’

Mrs Graham was puffed up with motherly pride. ‘He’s always been like that, right since he was a littl’un,’ she couldn’t resist confiding, her eyes glistening. ‘I don’t know where he gets it from. Nothing to do with me or his dad, is it, John?’

Mr Graham shook his head, smiling. ‘Definitely not,’ he agreed. ‘He can run rings round the both of us when it comes to numbers, can’t he?’

‘He can,’ Mrs Graham confirmed, nodding so violently her fleshy chin wobbled.

‘The only thing is,’ Katie went on carefully, ‘I’ve noticed a change in Conor recently.’

That took them by surprise. The nodding stopped, as did the proud smiles. ‘A change?’ Mrs Graham repeated uncertainly.

‘Yes,’ Katie said. ‘He didn’t score as well as he might have done in a test a few weeks ago – it was when he was very hay feverish, and I’m sure that’s the only reason he slipped up.’

BOOK: Hens Reunited
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