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Authors: Amanda Prowse

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BOOK: Perfect Daughter
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All four laughed, eagerly trying to think of the next joke.

It was Martha who came up trumps as Jacks fed her mum her next mouthful. ‘I might not eat my chilli actually. In fact I’m thinking of trying that new restaurant they’ve built on the moon, but I’ve heard it lacks atmosphere!’

Jonty wheezed with laughter and Pete laughed to see his son so happy.

‘Cracking!’ Jacks guffawed loudly. ‘Brilliant, you lot!’

All four were brought back down to earth by Ida’s sudden loud sniffing. Her distress was evident.

‘Oh, Nan! What’s the matter?’ Martha was sweet, leaning towards her nan, her voice soft.

‘What’s up, Mum?’ Jacks placed her hand on Ida’s arm.

‘I need to find something, but I don’t know where to start. I need some help!’

And just like that the joy was sucked from the room and everyone finished their meals in silence, broken only by the sound of Ida’s sobbing between mouthfuls of brown chilli that dribbled down her chin.

Jacks kissed Jonty’s forehead and snapped off his bedside lamp.

‘Why does Nan get so upset?’ he whispered.

‘Because she’s confused, love. She feels sad and she doesn’t really know why. Sometimes she thinks she’s young again, waiting for Grandad to come home. Other times I think she’s sad because she realises he’s gone and she misses him.’

‘I miss him.’ Jonty pulled the duvet up to his nose.

‘Me too.’

‘He’d have liked my jokes, wouldn’t he?’

‘Oh!’ Jacks shook her head. ‘He would have loved them!’ She watched as Jonty turned onto his side and pushed his face against the wall, cocooned in his Batman duvet, snug as a bug.

She made her way over to Martha’s side of the room and ran her palm over her daughter’s beautiful thick blonde hair, which in a certain light had a glint of ginger streaked through it. ‘Night night, love.’

‘Night, Mum.’

Jacks stood, hesitantly, and pointed at the book in Martha’s hand. ‘Not too late, now.’ She knew Martha sometimes read until the early hours.

Martha nodded.

‘He seemed like a nice boy, the one that knocked for you earlier?’

‘Mmm…’ Martha’s face split into a grin. It was almost automatic.

‘Do you know him from school?’

‘No. He left a couple of years ago. He works with cars and stuff.’

‘Oh, right. And is he a friend of Steph’s?’ She tried to sound casual.

‘No, he’s a friend of mine.’ Martha raised her arms over her head on the pillow and sighed.

‘What’s his name?’

‘God, Mum, what is this, twenty questions?’

‘No, no. Just haven’t seen him before and I’m interested in your mates – which is a good thing, some parents take no interest at all.’ Jacks tried to appear nonchalant as she folded a T-shirt, retrieved from the floor.

‘How do I get parents like that? Sounds quite nice!’

‘Ha ha!’ Jacks threw the T-shirt at her daughter.

‘His name is Gideon Parks. He’s twenty. And he is really nice and clever. He works with cars, but he’s very artistic too. He’s got great plans.’ Martha blushed.

‘Well, it’s nice to have friends to hang out with before you go off to uni and make new ones. Definitely.’ Jacks couldn’t help but reinforce the idea that this wasn’t her life; her life was what would happen when she left this place. Like him, like Sven, who went away and never came back.

‘Sweet dreams, darlings,’ Jacks whispered as she backed out of the room and closed the bedroom door.

Jacks tidied the kitchen, wiped down the surfaces and washed up the remaining pots and plates, then popped a wash load into the machine before climbing the stairs to bed. Pete was already propped up on his pillows, reading a tatty motorbike magazine in his vest and pyjama bottoms.

‘Tell you what, Jacks, seven grand buys you a very nice bike.’ He winked.

‘That’s a great idea – let’s blow our savings on a motorbike. It’ll give us the space we need and solve all our problems. Maybe we can balance on its saddle at meal times, or Jonty can sleep on the petrol tank and give Martha her room back!’ She added a jokey brightness to her voice but couldn’t avoid noticing the twist of disappointment to his mouth.

Jacks climbed beneath the duvet and let her tired muscles sink into their old mattress. Her eyes roved over the yellow roses on the wallpaper that she had liked when it went up over fifteen years ago. Martha had been a toddler and she and Pete had laughed as they got to grips with the wallpaper paste and long, fiddly strips of paper in the confined space. Everything had made them laugh back then.

‘You going to read for a bit, love?’ Pete asked over the top of his magazine.

‘No. I’ve left my glasses downstairs and I can’t be bothered to go and get them.’

‘Do you want me to go?’

She smiled at her husband. ‘No. But thank you. I quite like the fuzzy world without my goggles. It definitely has its advantages. When I see my face without glasses, I don’t look too bad, not exactly dewy and glowing, but, you know, not as bad as some. The thing is I sometimes forget I’m not sixteen any more. I look in the mirror and get the shock of my life at the face staring back at me. I’ve definitely got the beginnings of a tash and when I crinkle up my eyes, they look really liney.’

Pete snorted his laughter. ‘When anyone crinkles up their eyes they look really liney! You look lovely to me, Jacks. I don’t know why you worry about what you look like or why you bother with that face cream and stuff.’

‘It’s to try and turn back the clock!’ She jutted her chin and stroked upwards.

‘Don’t know why you’d want to turn back the clock and anyway, cream’s not the answer, you’d need plastic surgery.’

‘Well, thanks for that! Are you saying I should go under the knife?’ She sat up, resting on her elbows.

‘No!’ He laughed. ‘I’m just saying that all those potions are a waste of time.’

‘Why would I go to the trouble of plastic surgery, Pete, even if I could afford it, when all I have to do to look better is remove my glasses and I’m back to fuzzy perfection!’

‘You’re mad, you are.’ He leant over and kissed her head before straightening quickly. ‘Ooh, my bloody back! I’ll tell you what, I’m getting a bit old for this landscaping lark. I try to keep up with the young lads on the site, but I get slower every year.’

‘Blimey, you’re only thirty-six, you’re in your prime!’ She laughed.

‘Yep, that’s what they tell me. Just wish someone would tell my back.’ He paused. ‘I am going to have a think about things though, Jacks, going to look at our options.’

‘What’s the plan, Pete? What can we do?’ She swallowed.

He shook his head. ‘Don’t know yet. Something’ll come up. You’ll see. Things have a funny way of working out.’

She nodded sadly. He’d been saying that since they were in their teens.

Jacks placed her head on the pillow and closed her eyes. She thought about how she lay next to her man night after night largely without feeling the slightest flicker of desire. She liked him, loved him of course, but it was as if they had turned a corner, waved goodbye to that aspect of life, become so comfortable in their routine that anything spontaneous, sex included, didn’t even figure. She occasionally considered how she might initiate it, assuming she could summon the energy, and couldn’t. If anything, she was embarrassed to touch him sexually, it had been so long. It saddened her. An image of Sven filled her head. She wondered whether, if it were him she lay next to every night, she would have been happy to wave goodbye to her libido without putting up a fight. She squashed the thought instantly.

‘I love you, Pete.’ She did that regularly – uttered this cure-all to dampen disloyal thoughts.

‘I know.’ He patted her hip under the covers.

Jacks sighed and felt her shoulders sink into the mattress. She was tired. Her eyelids fell in slow blinks that lasted longer and longer until finally they closed. One, two, three seconds later, her breath was even, her mouth slightly open. And then the bell rang from across the hall, rousing her from sleep and pulling her from the warm dip in the mattress where she yearned to stay.

Jacks fumbled with her dressing gown. ‘Coming, Mum,’ she said, trying to get the volume right, loud enough to reassure her mum but not so loud as to wake the kids. Her fist hit a wall of fabric as her arm struggled to find the armhole on the dark landing.

She creaked open her mum’s bedroom door. The nightlight picked out her silhouette against the headboard.

‘You’d better put the shower on!’ Ida spoke firmly, lucidly issuing her instruction.

Jacks approached the bed and her nose wrinkled. Pulling the bedspread down, she blinked away the tears. ‘Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.’ She eased her mum into a sitting position.

‘Mu-um? Can you get me a drink of water?’ Jonty’s voice growled in the darkness.

‘Yes, love. One second!’ she called over her shoulder.

Without warning, the sob built in her chest and her tears came in a torrent.
Come on, Jacks, you’re just tired. Just tired. It’ll be okay. Pete’s right, things have a funny way of working out.


Nineteen Years Earlier

Sven marched ahead as they tramped across the playing field, tripping in the dips and stumbling over the uneven tufts. Their clumsiness, along with their nerves, made them laugh. Jacks tried to ignore the tremble in her limbs as Sven quickened his pace heading into the encroaching darkness. She didn’t dare look at the large trees that edged the field. At that time of night they conjured a myriad of shapes, all sinister. The wet grass soaked through the gaps in her school shoes and drenched her white over-the-knee socks.

‘This is it,’ he announced matter-of-factly, as though there were something scientific to his decision. He stopped in the middle of the field and placed his hands on his hips, then promptly lay down on the ground. ‘You need to lie flat on the grass and look up at the sky!’ Sven urged, pulling her down on to the damp ground.

‘My uniform will get soaked!’ she protested as her knees buckled in submission.

‘Come on, don’t be such a baby! What does it matter if your clothes get wet? They’ll dry. I don’t think you ever heard Vasco da Gama say, “Oh no! I can’t cross the ocean in my quest for knowledge because I don’t want my cloak to get wet!”’

She stared down at him. ‘I never heard him say anything actually and the difference is, he didn’t have to go home to my mum and explain why his cloak was soggy.’ She laughed, knowing she would do his bidding.

Tucking her skirt under the backs of her legs, she slowly sank down, positioning herself next to him in the darkness, her body centimetres from his. As the evening dew seeped through her cardigan and shirt, cooling her skin, she regretted declining the earlier offer of her dad’s cagoule. But it took only a few seconds for her to stop thinking about the ruinous mud and grass stains on her clothes or the fact that her hair was curling against her neck; instead, she felt her head grow heavy as she relaxed and looked upwards as instructed into the night sky. It looked vast and beautiful. And the more she stared, the more she saw. It had never looked so clear or so close.

Sven reached across and took her hand in his. She smiled, happy to have her palm coiled inside his like a warm secret. He raised his free hand. ‘If you look straight up at three o’clock you can see the Plough. It’s a constellation of seven stars and you will always be able to make it out by the shape…’ He traced the edge with his fingers. ‘Because you can see the seven stars quite distinctly. Some people call it the Big Dipper because it looks a bit like a ladle. Can you see?’

She nodded. Yes! Yes, she could.

‘And even more amazing, if you follow a line from the two stars on the right of the Plough and look upwards, about five times the length from those two, you’ll see the Pole Star, part of what’s known as Ursa Minor. It’s one of the brightest stars in the sky and my absolute favourite. Can you see?’

‘Yes!’ Jacks squinted as she stared at the inky sky, where stars punched pockets of light in the most intricate pattern. The silver moon looked huge, hanging on the edge of the sky. They were silent for some seconds, breathing clouds from warm mouths.

‘Okay, now do this. Make a fist and then lift your thumb and close one eye – you can fit the whole moon behind your thumbnail.’ They both did just as he described. ‘Amazing, isn’t it? The moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and it’s just over two thousand miles wide and yet you can fit it behind the nail of your thumb! That one fact alone makes me realise how very mysterious our little universe is and how our understanding of things can be dramatically altered, depending on how you look at them.’

They both stayed like that for some seconds, with one eye closed and an arm sticking up into the air.

‘How do you know so much about everything?’ Jacks asked, hoping not to sound too much in awe of him.

Sven laughed. ‘I don’t. I only know a little bit about a few things, but I figure if I keep impressing you then I’m in with a chance.’

More than a chance. I think I love you. I really do…

‘You know more than a little bit,’ she gushed. ‘Don’t forget, I’m in nearly all your classes. You never seem to get stuck like I do.’

‘The secret is to read ahead. You only need to know a bit more than what they’re teaching you at any one time – it’s not about being clever, just good planning. I try to stay one chapter ahead.’ He laughed again.

‘I don’t know if I could be bothered to plan like that, it’s bad enough having to do homework.’

‘You are lucky. You don’t need planning or homework, you are special. You are unique, not like those sheep-girls who all look the same and chase the same sheep-boys and listen to the same sheep-music and waste their miserable lives. You’re different. And you are beautiful, beautiful inside and out. And as unfair as it is, your beauty will take you places. You will have an amazing journey. I, on the other hand, I need clever. It’s all I have.’

She squeezed his hand.
I’d swap it all for a small slice of clever. That would be my ticket and I’d take you with me.

‘What do you think you’ll do when you leave?’ She tried to sound nonchalant.
Less than a year from now and you will be gone, I know it. University and travel… Even the thought of you leaving makes my heart flip.

BOOK: Perfect Daughter
4.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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