Authors: Deborah Moggach
Life has smiled on Viv â chaotic, pretty, charismatic, radical, she has always been one for bold moves. Her sister Ann is less fortunate â sober predictable, now unable to have children, she has always trailed in Viv's shadow. Then Viv decides to give her sister the best present she can think of â a baby. And little thinks of the repercussions her magnanimity will bringâ¦
Deborah Moggach is the author of many successful novels including
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
, which was made into a top-grossing film starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith. Her screenplays include the film of
Pride and Prejudice
, which was nominated for a BAFTA. She lives in North London.
Also by Deborah Moggach
You Must be Sisters
Close to Home
A Quiet Drink
Hot Water Man
Driving in the Dark
Smile and Other Stories
In the Dark
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(first published as
These Foolish Things
To my sister Alex, and to Susi Hush
THERE IS A
special place behind the potting shed. Viv calls it Na-Na Land. She rules it. The ground is bald. She brings her teddy here, and her bulldozer and her police car. Sometimes she pushes them to and fro, muttering commands, and sometimes she sits there picking at her scab. When she's bored she lets Ann in, but she invents new passwords so Ann has to guess them, back to front, to prolong the longing.
Ann brings her doll, who takes up a lot of space with her frilly skirts. Viv refuses to call the doll by name, which is too soppy to say, back to front or the right way round. But sometimes she chants it, to taunt Ann, in a twee voice, higher and higher. She can make Ann cry, but the doll remains unblinking. Once Viv took off the doll's petticoat and ran it over with her bulldozer.
Viv was digging a trench. She straddled it, her skirt blowing against her legs. Sometimes she found a worm and picked it up; it twisted in her finger and she flung it out of the way. In the distance a tannoy sounded. The allotments were surrounded by factories â McVities, Heinz. With the wind blowing you could smell the soup. The far murmurs of machinery, the delivery lorries hooting, the high wire fences made these green spaces freer, airier. She was the ruler of her muddy domain. Sometimes a lark sang, high up. It was a sunny day in February.
Behind the hut the girls were silent. Viv walked round there. Three teddies were laid out on the ground and the girls were eating crisps.
âThose were for lunch,' said Viv. She looked at the teddies. âWhat're they doing?'
âSunbathing,' said Daisy.
The girls munched. Viv reached for a crisp.
âWhen're we going home?' Daisy took back Viv's crisp and, searching the bag, exchanged it for a smaller one.
âAnn and I, we used to play for hours,' said Viv. âWhere's your imaginations?'
âWe went behind the potting shed. Your grandad's. It was called Na-Na Land. You had to cover your face and walk through a swamp and talk in special back-to-front language, and you should've heard our adventures. We made our own roads and as we went along they all closed up behind us. Sometimes we took Ann's doll along with us. It was called Bo-Bo-Angela.'
âUgh,' said Daisy.
Rosie pulled at Viv's sleeve. She was the elder; she was eight, and as plump as Ann had been, with a sweet, wide face.
âMum,' she said. âLet me have a doll.'
Ann had a ding-dong doorbell. Viv loved her sister but there are some things you can never say. Beyond the door she could hear the whine of Ken's Black and Decker â Saturday sounds.
It was a street of small terraced houses, net curtains for the old residents and blinds for the first-time buyers. There was a self-respecting, Saturday afternoon air about it â a man vacuuming his car, someone painting their front door, a radio playing. Over North London the clouds had banked up, the sky darkened, and it gave the street a poised air of innocence, a toytown normality.
Viv went into Ann's kitchen and dumped some leeks into her sink. They were covered with mud.
âThey'll take all afternoon to clean . . .'
âBut think how organic I'm being,' said Ann.
âYou feeling OK?'
Ann was three months pregnant. She nodded. The sky rumbled. She had been pregnant, too, when they'd moved into this house nearly three years before. But even Viv could no longer talk to her about this. Vegetables were easier.
âHave a beetroot.' Viv took one out of her bag. âI hate them.'
âWhy do you grow them then?'
âSome ancestral prompting. Mum leaving our tea out for us.'
âBeetroot and salad cream and the tap-tap of her high heels down the road.' Ann washed the beetroot under the tap. âKen likes beetroot.'
âPerhaps that's why I grow them.'
The sky rumbled again and then the rain came down; driving winter rain. It rattled on the glass of the extension room Ken was building. He straightened up and squinted at the ceiling anxiously. He was only a few yards away but dim in a haze of dust. He had saluted to Viv, through his sandstorm, but he had the air, as always, of a man who likes to get on. Time was always short. Time for what?
The kitchen had darkened. Ann switched on the light. Ken turned back to his drilling. Viv thought: shame he's so good-looking when he's the sort of bloke who takes his Advanced Driving Test.
Across the muddy sink a worm stretched, like elastic, making for the plug-hole. Viv picked it up, with Ann shuddering, and carried it out of the kitchen door.
âYou'll get wet,' said Ann.
Viv glanced at Ken, who raised his eyebrows through the glass. She grinned, holding up the worm. Then she flung it into the flowerbed.
Bo-Bo-Angela. Ann had knitted clothes for her â tiny jumpers. And today, in her lounge, there was Ann's knitting lying on the settee. Nearly thirty years later and it was a tiny jumper again. This time it must be worn.
Viv walked back to her car under the black sky. She crossed the wet street, its gutters winking. All the little houses; all the hopes.
âKids!' says their mother. âWhy do we have them?'
She snorts cigarette smoke through her nostrils and clatters around the kitchen, tut-tutting at the trails of earth on the floor. She straightens her seams, then pats her hair in the mirror.
âCourse you like beetroot'; she purses her lips at herself. âAnd stop squabbling, the two of you. Can't hear myself think.'
She works at the Odeon, on the till. She does it, she says, to get out of the house. Their dad disapproves but she says he'd be amazed at who's taking who to the pictures, especially in the early showing, the carryings-on. Who'd have thought it in Watford? And when was money, she'd like to know, unwelcome?
When she's ready to go she looks wicked and different; when she comes home she smells of grown-ups â cigarettes and scent and indoors. Sometimes the girls go to a Saturday matinee and she calls them âmodom' in a silly voice and makes the queue grow attentive. Viv blushes, but her heart swells once she's reached her seat and thinks of her mum in her booth, her hair stiff as a starlet's.
She's late. Now she's going she smiles at them nicely and sees Ann's knee for the first time.
âI got pushed in the playground.'
âPoor pet.' She suddenly squeezes Ann's shoulders. âPoor little pet. Was it the big bully boys?'
âDad'll be back in a tick. You get him to wash that, and don't let him off.'
She goes. The front door slams. Viv turns to Ann.
âWhy didn't you tell her it was me?'
Ann shrugs and bites into a slice of bread and butter. She looks pale and good.
Viv's face heats up and she stabs at her sausage roll, hard.
Ann was two years older than Viv. She was the good one, the plodder. At school they said she tried hard and she would get there in the end. And she did, sort of. Except Viv had skipped past her to the finishing post, long before, and the clapping had died down and some of the audience had even gone home.
âIt's not fair!' Ann wailed.
This maddened their father. âLife's not fair, young lady, and the sooner you realize that the better.'
Then he would go into the garden and bang about in his shed. Viv and Ann would stay well out of the way, watching
Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men
on the telly. They were too young for the fairness of things.
That night a gale blew. Viv lay cupped around Ollie, skin to skin. The window-panes rattled and in the next room the girls muttered in their sleep. Even the cat was restless, shifting against Viv's backbone. Down in the street, glass splintered and a dustbin lid clattered into the road.
Viv dreamed of her trench, filled with tossing green water; it slopped to and fro, tilting like a bath, and she knew she mustn't look into it because that was not a sack of carrots that was lying there submerged. The sky was flushed pink and there was whispering behind the huts, which had grown up all around her, tall and upright, far too tall. Behind each one there was a voice, hissing to her about the sack of carrots but she was hot now and kept her hands pressed against her ears, while something warm moved against her back and there was breath against her neck and arms pulling her over and she turned over, sweaty and slippery, and it was Rosie climbing into bed with her, wheezing with asthma.
âThere's horrible noises,' Rosie said, pressing close, curling up her knees and digging them into Viv's stomach.
Viv stroked her. âIt's nothing. It's just a storm.'
âWe're safe,' Viv whispered, as the slates rattled on the roof. She gripped her darling daughter.
In the city you can tell there's been a storm by the angle of the estate agents' signs. This morning they leaned all ways, making the street tipsy. One had fallen against next door's car. The sky was white and the air still, like held breath. Dustbins had spilled. Viv walked back from the Pakistani supermarket. There was something about Sundays that made her street look shabbier.
Ollie had taken the children to the park. He was irritable; nobody had slept well. Viv's head ached. In the distance a siren
sounded; it would be a police car racing down the Holloway Road. From the Catholic church round the corner, bells rang for the faithful, but in this street nobody stirred. It was a row of crumbling terraced houses, four storeys high, most of them flats or else owned by the council, with large families inside them and scaffolding up, where improvements were being made. It was the sort of street where cars revved up late at night and reggae played from open windows.