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Authors: Suzanne Bugler

This Perfect World

BOOK: This Perfect World
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Heddy Partridge was never my friend. I have to start with

Heddy Partridge was never my friend because I was pretty,
popular, clever and blonde and my friends were pretty, popular,
clever and generally blonde, too.

Heddy Partridge was none of these things.

Heddy was dark and lumpen, with heavy eyebrows and
an unfortunately large mole on her left cheek, right below
her eye. Heddy wasn’t popular. In fact I couldn’t tell you
who her friends were at school, but I certainly wasn’t one
of them, even though she was always there in my life like a
misplaced shadow, a stain, a sort of negative of myself, until
we were streamed in the third year of senior school and I
was put in the top stream and Heddy in the bottom, confirming
her as thick and finally shunting her out of my life, to be
more or less forgotten, until now.

When the phone rings I am distracted, caught off-guard.

It’s a hot afternoon in May. Arianne is in the garden with
her little friend Molly and Molly’s mother, Belinda, and I’m on
my way indoors to fetch cold drinks. Soon it will be time to
collect Thomas from school. I snatch up the phone when it
starts ringing and this rusty voice crackles down the line saying,
‘Laura Cresswell? Can I speak to Laura Cresswell, please?’

‘It’s Laura Hamley,’ I say automatically, stuffing the phone
between my chin and my ear, and holding it there with my
shoulder while I carry on into the kitchen, ‘speaking.’

‘Yes, dear,’ this tired voice comes back at me while I take
glasses down from one cupboard and plastic cups from another,
‘of course it is, dear.’ There’s a pause then, and I get the
strangest sense of
coming down the phone;
gets my
attention far more than the use of my maiden name. In the
garden the girls are singing ‘Le Chat à la Promenade’ at full
volume, with Belinda leading the way. I move away from
the window, away from the noise, and that thin voice says in
my ear, ‘It’s Mrs Partridge here, dear. Helen Partridge’s
mother. You remember me, don’t you, dear? You remember

Oh, I remember Helen all right. I remember Heddy.

Memory comes rushing back – dormant, never gone. I
stand in my kitchen with my phone against my ear, waiting
to be accused.

‘I got your number from your mother,’ Mrs Partridge says,
‘before she moved. She said you were living in Ashton, now.
It’s nice to keep in touch, I said to her. Your family were
always very kind to us. It’d be nice for Heddy, you know, to
hear from you. You were such good friends, once.’

She’s lying, saying that. Oh, my family was nice to her family
all right, but Heddy and I were never friends. She breaks off
again, and the heat is burning in my face. There’s want in her
voice, though she isn’t getting to the point. I can hear that want
in every word. Though what it could possibly be that Mrs
Partridge wants from me, now, after all this time, I cannot

They’ve stopped singing outside. It’s nearly a quarter to
three and Belinda is calling through the kitchen window, ‘Do
you need a hand in there, Laura?’ I can see her face through
the glass, distorted by the sunlight, looming.

‘It’s lovely to hear from you, Mrs Partridge,’ I lie into the
phone, ‘but I’m really sorry, I can’t talk now. I was just on
my way out.’

‘Can I call you back then?’ she asks quickly. ‘Later?’

‘Yes, yes, of course,’ I say as I take water from the fridge,
and orange juice, and start pouring.

‘This evening?’ she persists. ‘Would that be convenient?
Say half-past seven?’

When I walk back through the conservatory and out into the
garden, carrying my tray of drinks, Belinda is singing another
song, French again. ‘Frère Jacques’ this time. She knows all
the words, and the actions to go with them too. And she’s
teaching them to the girls, moving her mouth and arms in
this ridiculously exaggerated way. She’s kicked her shoes off
and she’s crouching down at their level, bare toes spreading
into the grass. She squats the way they show you to squat at
antenatal classes, legs open, like she’s about to give birth. In
between gestures she plants her hands on her thighs, for added
balance, and bobs up and down slightly, like a toad. Her
trousers have scooped down at the back, revealing an expanse
of white skin and the top of her blue-grey pants. I can’t
help noticing the label sticking out over the elastic: M&S
size 16.

In my head I join in with the other version, the school-dinner
chant of:

Mashed potato, mashed potato,
Soggy peas, soggy peas,
Sloppy semolina, sloppy semolina,
No more, please

I think maybe I’ll tell Arianne my version later; she’ll like
that. I especially think she’ll like that when I see her poor
little face peering at me over Belinda’s shoulder. Molly is
doing so well, earning big nods of approval from her mother,
but Arianne looks totally bemused; one hand is up by her
face, two fingers up her nose and one in her mouth. With
the other hand she half-heartedly tries to join in with the
actions, and gets it wrong.

‘Drinks, girls,’ I say, putting Arianne out of her misery,
and Belinda turns to look up at me, pushing her bobbed hair
back behind her ears.

‘You should send her to French classes,’ Belinda says,
sitting back on the grass and stretching out her legs. She
has very short toes, attached to very short feet; I try not to
notice as she wiggles them shamelessly. She is badly in need
of a pedicure. ‘Molly goes every Tuesday, after Tumbletots,’
she says all enthusiastically. ‘It’s amazing how quickly they
learn, at this age. Josie Hall’s sending Katie; they’re bringing
her up bilingual. They’re teaching her the French word for
everything, as well as the English. Isn’t that such a good
idea? She’ll have such a head-start when she goes to school.’
She takes the glass that I hand her and gulps down her
drink. ‘Of course they’re a bit worried because she’s still
not talking yet, but they’re getting her seen by a speech
therapist. And Josie says Katie loves it when they talk
French to her.’


Later, when she is still warm and damp from the bath, I wrap
Arianne up in her fluffy white towel and curl her up on my
lap like a baby. The ends of her hair are wet from the bubbles.
Gently I rub at them with the edge of the towel and watch
the curls spring back. Holding her like this is such a joy. I
can never do this with Thomas, he’d wriggle and squirm and
escape, always off somewhere, always busy.

‘Mummy,’ Arianne says suddenly, snuggling deeper into
my arms, ‘why does Molly’s mummy sing strange songs?’

‘They’re French songs.’ I press my face against her hair
and breathe her in; she smells of heaven.

‘What’s French songs?’

‘Songs people sing in France,’ I say.

She turns in my arms and looks at me, a little frown
creasing her forehead. ‘Are we in France?’

I laugh. ‘No, darling, we’re not.’

That little frown gets deeper. ‘Is Molly in France?’

‘No, darling, she isn’t. Nor is her mother.’

‘Then why do they sing French songs?’

‘I don’t know, darling,’ I say and pop a kiss onto her
serious little face. ‘I don’t know.’

No wonder poor Katie Hall has got delayed speech. The
poor child is probably totally confused. Bilingual, indeed!
Non-lingual is more like it.

I slide Arianne off my knee and start putting her into her
pyjamas. ‘Listen,’ I say. ‘I know some funny words to that song.’

Soon she’s running round her room singing, ‘Mashed potato,
mashed potato, soggy peas,’ and Thomas comes bounding in
wearing nothing but his Bob the Builder pyjama top, and
joins in.

‘Soppy Semolina, Soppy Semolina . . . Who’s Semolina?’
Arianne asks.

semolina,’ I say. ‘School dinners.’

‘Argh!’ Thomas clutches at his throat and falls to the floor,
dead. ‘School dinners – argh!’

I think Mrs Partridge won’t call back, but she does, at bang
on seven-thirty. This time she’s concise, to the point. I have
the feeling that she’s been there all afternoon, by the phone,
waiting until the allotted hour.

‘It’s about poor Heddy,’ she says. ‘You know she hasn’t
been well. Your mother would have told you . . . I often used
to see your mother down the High Street, before she and
your father moved away. She always asked after poor Heddy,
she was always so kind. So kind to take an interest.’ I can’t
remember what my mother may or may not have told me
about Heddy Partridge over the years; whatever she said
would have gone in one ear and out the other, not interesting
me. Not relevant any more. ‘She’s not been well at all,
dear, Heddy hasn’t. She’s in the hospital now, in St Anne’s,
out past Hounslow. You know it, don’t you, dear? St Anne’s?
They have a unit there. That’s where Heddy is, in the unit.
They’re keeping her there. I have the boy, Nathan, staying
with me now. I had them both staying with me till all this
. . . And glad to have them with me too, I am. I do my best
for poor Heddy, but . . . It isn’t right that they’re keeping
her there. It isn’t doing her any good. She isn’t getting any
better . . .’

Her voice starts to crackle and she breaks off on a cough.
I have to say something, but all I can manage is platitudes.
‘That’s terrible, Mrs Partridge,’ I say, ‘I am sorry.’ It’s kind
of disturbing the way she assumes I’d already know all this.

When she speaks again her voice is clearer, bolder. ‘I need
to get her out, dear,’ she says, and suddenly I know where
this is going. ‘She needs to be home, with me, and with
Nathan. Your mother told me how well you were doing,
living in Ashton now, and your husband being a solicitor.
And she said to me before she moved, she said that I could
call on you if ever I needed any help, dear. She gave me your
number. This number and your mobile number as well, dear.
So kind.’ She falters a little now, and no wonder. ‘So that’s
why I’m calling you, dear,’ she says as if I hadn’t got the
message. ‘I need your help.’

I feel a hard knot of anger tightening up in my stomach.
But who is it that I should be angry with? Mrs Partridge
for phoning me up out of the blue like this, or my mum, for
telling her to? I can just picture it: my mum and Mrs Partridge
in Forbury High Street. And my mum doing her Lady Bountiful
act, for the benefit of passers-by. I picture her hunting in her
bag for a pen and a scrap of paper, and scribbling down
my phone numbers and pressing the paper into Mrs
Partridge’s hand.
Do call Laura if you need anything

I picture this, and the knot tightens.

But even so, it was just a throwaway line, surely? Surely
my mum didn’t
it? And what business has she got,
giving out my mobile number to anyone, let alone Mrs
Partridge? She could ring any time. She could ring when I’m
, for God’s sake.

I feel myself trapped; cornered and exposed.

‘Mrs Partridge,’ I say, ‘I am sorry to hear about Heddy.
But I really don’t see that there’s much I can do.’

‘But your husband, dear. I thought if you spoke to him.’

‘James is a property lawyer, Mrs Partridge. He doesn’t
know anything about hospitals.’

‘He’ll know about the law, though. He’ll know about
rights.’ I hear the plea of desperation in her voice, driving
her on. ‘Perhaps if you’d just speak to him, dear—’

‘Really, Mrs Partridge, I don’t think he’ll be much help.’

‘But perhaps you’d ask him. And if I was to phone you
again in a day or two . . .’

‘The thing is, Mrs Partridge, James is really busy at the
moment. We both are.’ I say this, but then the silence on
the other end of the phone has me adding, ‘But I will try.’

‘You’ll speak to him?’

‘I’ll do my best.’

I know I won’t, though. Oh, I might mention it to James
in passing, but it won’t make any difference. I doubt if he’d
know any more about hospitalization and patients’ rights
than I do. He doesn’t have a magic wand that he can wave
at every turn, dispensing legal advice like fairy dust. And more
to the point, he doesn’t have the time. ‘Tell her to go to the
Citizens Advice Bureau,’ he’d say, ‘or to her local solicitors.’

BOOK: This Perfect World
6.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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