Authors: Elizabeth Forbes
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress
‘Oh. My. God. Oh, poor little Cordelia. I do hope that won’t scar her for life. Perhaps she won’t notice. Ben looks good.’
Juliet looks at Ben and waves. She spent most of last night sewing cotton wool balls on to a large white T-shirt. Then she found a woollen bonnet in the discarded baby clothes box and bunged on a couple of ears which she’d snipped off Ben’s fluffy rabbit. He was getting too old for cuddly toys but when he cried she promised him she’d sew them back on afterwards. ‘Aw, thanks. Yes he does look sweet, doesn’t he?’
‘So sweet. Imagine – Mary, star role. Do you think this means she’s headed for the stage? RADA here we come?’
Juliet likes Rowena. She’s about the only woman she’s met since they moved who is becoming a real friend; someone she can trust enough to confide in. When they first arrived, Rowena turned up on the doorstep one Saturday lunchtime with a bottle of wine as a welcome present, and while they drank it Juliet was given the full lowdown on who was who and why and what. ‘Of course I get all my intelligence from the nanny,’ Rowena explained. And by ‘intelligence’ Juliet knew that it wasn’t the bit between the ears kind. Rowena was VC or VCEO or some blah- blah senior person of a swanky bank, or investment company. Juliet had been told, but to be honest, it all sounded a bit boring and technical, and anyway the last thing that they ever discussed was her job.
‘We can both take lots and lots of piccies so that our beloved absent husbands can flash them around their offices and show off their precious little ones … How’s Alex enjoying his job? Still finding it tough to adjust to city life?’
‘I s’pose. You know what he’s like – a caged animal most of the time.’
Rowena squeezes Juliet’s arm and gives her a sympathy-filled smile. ‘Guess it must be tough to adjust, after what he did before.’ Juliet and Alex never discussed ‘what he did before’, even between themselves. He didn’t want to talk about it, and she knew he didn’t want to talk about it, so it was a dead topic. Except what he did before made him into who he is now.
‘I know. But the money’s good, and he was lucky to get it.’ Security advisor for ExCo, a major oil company, with special responsibility for the Middle East. Alex’s knowledge of the Middle East and his fluency in Arabic opened many doors for him, but they weren’t necessarily the ones he wanted to step through. Still, he’d been doing what he wanted for nearly all of their marriage. It was now time to settle down and give Ben as normal a life as possible.
‘Oh Christ, look – it’s the Hunts.’ Caroline and Marcus Hunt are their neighbours higher up the avenue. Caroline sees Juliet looking at her, and so she smiles and waves, mouthing ‘hello’. Juliet waves back but her smile is tight-lipped. ‘Rupert’s been bullying Ben. He put powder paint in the sandpit yesterday and blamed Ben. Ben was really upset.’
‘Oh well … you know what kids are like.’
‘I had to stay behind and be “talked to” by Miss O’Connor – I got the whole “is everything all right at home?” lecture. Little monster. She should have been asking the Hunts that question rather than me. That’s one seriously dysfunctional family. When we first moved in I thought Caroline was really sweet. Like, amazingly welcoming. Then all that stuff … where are you from?
… who do you know? … how much does your husband earn? … trying to work out if we were worth knowing or not … I really hate that.’
‘It’s insecurity. I feel rather sorry for her being married to him. He’s a serial groper.’
‘And there’s me thinking I was special. But I reckon she’s just as bad. You should have seen her with Alex at their dinner party. Talk about a rash, she was more like a full-on dose of shingles.’ To be fair, Juliet knows that Alex was encouraging her, lapping it up and loving the attention. Afterwards, when she told him how unamused she was, he said he was doing it just to see what reaction he would get. He says he invents these little games to stop himself from getting bored. Juliet thinks he does it so that he can reinforce his belief that people aren’t to be trusted. He likes to test people by targeting their vulnerabilities. He’s like a honey trap, setting people up just so that they can fail. Alex views people either as enemies or allies. And even allies must prove themselves before they can be trusted. Jesus, what she wouldn’t give to have the old Alex back.
‘Well, I honestly wouldn’t worry about it. She’s not a patch on you. I’m afraid she’s rather overdone the Botox and fillers, poor love.’
‘God, I wouldn’t mind a few fillers, but Alex would be furious.’
‘If you went to someone really good he probably wouldn’t notice. He’d just tell you how good you’re looking. Not that you don’t … Oh hell, you know what I mean. You honestly don’t need them.’
‘Ha. Kind but not true. Anyway, he says he likes to be able to read my face.’
‘Does he, indeed? I wonder why that is … Ooh, look, it’s starting … phones ready!’
There’s something about watching small children perform the nativity that is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. Juliet watches Ben standing in front of the three shepherds. One of them has a crook – it’s Rupert Hunt – and he keeps poking Ben with it. Ben gets hold of the end and tries to tug it out of Rupert’s hand, but Rupert grips it tightly. Miss O’Connor reads the story while Joseph shuffles from one foot to the other, looking embarrassed at having to stand so close to Mary, and the Three Kings arrive blushing with mortification in their remodelled ball gowns and Accessorize tiaras. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are proffered to a nose-picking Joseph, and the baby Jesus – a floppy-limbed, grubby but life-like doll is picked up from the manger and dangled by one dislocated leg by Mary. Then the Messiah is dropped on his head provoking laughter from the audience, and Ben gives one final tug on the shepherd’s crook which sends Rupert toppling into the manger, which in turn falls on top of the concussed baby. Mary bursts into tears and runs towards the audience screaming ‘Mummy’ and Rowena whispers ‘Oh shit,’ and stands up and shouts ‘Here, darling.’
Miss O’Connor rushes to rescue the baby and rights the manger and then announces that everyone will sing ‘Away in a Manger’, which provokes even more laughter from the audience. Some bright spark of a father stage-whispers loudly enough so that all can hear, ‘Perhaps we should sing “Away from a Manger”.’
Finally, the end of term is announced. Everyone is wished Happy Christmas, and the children wait impatiently to be reunited with their owners. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end …
Then most of the parents say ‘See you later’ because more of the festive spirit will be dispensed from number 94 this evening. Juliet and Rowena go together to collect Ben and Cordelia. They’re still dressed in their nativity costumes, such as they are. Ben’s cotton wool balls are looking a little matted and grey, while Cordelia’s gown seems to be coming apart down the back. ‘You used staples!’ Juliet laughs. ‘Genius!’
‘Maybe, but it’s gonna be one hell of a job to get her out of it. I think I’ll have to attack it with scissors. Come back for a bowl of soup and a gossip.’
Juliet glances up at the clock and thinks about all the things she should be doing at home. ‘Love to,’ she says. They shuffle out between the coats and bags and bodies both small and large, and as Rowena’s house is just around the corner from the school, they walk.
‘The nanny’s supposed to be good at needlework, all that creative shit, but she arranged to be off last night, leaving it all to me. Hence the ghastly mess I’ve made of it. Poor Cordelia … But honestly, it’s all getting a bit too bloody competitive.’
‘I wouldn’t have minded the frock that Arabella was wearing for myself; must have cost a fortune.’
‘Even you wouldn’t have squeezed into it, darling.’
‘Ha ha. Guess you’re going to the do tonight?’
‘Yep. The usual round. Same every year. You can set your calendar by it. Nicholsons’ tonight, the Moores’ tomorrow, nothing on Christmas Day, thank God, and then you on Boxing Day. It’s exhausting, frankly. Rob thinks we should “do” something ourselves but so far I’ve managed to wriggle out of it.’ They arrive at Rowena’s house. It’s Georgian and five storeyed and very grand. They shoo the children in front of them and descend the stairs into the kitchen. The whole of the basement has been gutted and turned into a barn-sized area with a playroom/snug/cinema at one end. A television screen the size of which Juliet has never seen, sits on the wall, surrounded by a massive library of DVDs. Ben and Cordelia take themselves off to choose something to watch while Rowena removes a bottle of white wine from the fridge. Having poured out a couple of glasses, she finds a pack of crisps and extracts two bags. ‘OK by you?’
‘Sure, it’s Christmas … although I wouldn’t normally.’
‘You’re so good, Juliet. I do all the wrong things when Jade’s not around. I think it’s my way of being subversive – you know, Mummy is the nicest because she gives me chocolate and crisps.’
‘And I bet you let her stay up late?’
‘Christ, I’m hopeless at putting her to bed. We do the story, then she wants another one, then she wants a drink, then she says she’s hungry, then she wants a wee, and then … finally … I escape, go downstairs and the next thing is she’s frightened, she can’t sleep. Honestly, I shouldn’t be confessing to this, but sometimes I come home from work late so I miss the whole bloody bedtime rigmarole. You see, I really am a shocking mother.’
‘Yes. You are.’ Juliet giggles and takes a couple of sips of wine. Rowena returns to the fridge and pulls out some Duchy of Cornwall ready-made chilled soup; typical Rowena to go for the most expensive. ‘Mmmm, see you’ve been busy.’
‘Ha! Well if you’d gone for a pee or something, I could have chucked the packaging and conned you that I made it myself.’
‘You don’t honestly feel that guilty do you? I cheat and I’m at home all day. At least you’ve got an excuse, seeing as you’re so bloody successful and busy at work. I envy you, you know, having your own life, financial independence. I’m terrified that I’m becoming really boring. At supper parties I sit next to some man and I get the inevitable “What do you do?” and I say “Oh, you know, I look after my son, stay at home.” I can’t say the word housewife without vomiting, and then more often than not he’ll turn the other way cos there’ll be someone like you sitting on his other side. Honestly, what do I have to talk about? Ben. Ben and Ben. Or, at a push, curtains! Soft furnishings … not exactly the most scintillating topic.’
‘Well I envy
, so let’s start a mutual envy society, shall we? But before you were married, and before you had Ben, what did you do then?’
‘Before I met Alex I mucked about, did ski seasons, nightclub hostessing, the kind of work that was fairly nocturnal,’ she laughs,
‘I failed to get into art college, but I did a bit of painting, drawing, even a few dog portraits while we were in Germany. I got really quite adept at Labrador jowls. Funny, they’re all different, you know. The problem is that when you’re married to someone in the Army you can’t have a career. Not unless you’re something like a nurse, or a nursery teacher. I dunno, but if you want to move with your man and he’s on a two-year posting somewhere, well you can’t just dump your job and go that easily. You make a choice.’
‘You call it a choice? It’s a bloody sacrifice!’
‘Yeah, I suppose it is. But then no one’s forcing you to. The things you do for love, eh?’
‘You never mentioned your painting before. Why not start again?’
‘Hmm, I should.’ Juliet had had every intention of starting again when they got to the new house. She had even chosen a room for her studio, and bought all new paints and a few canvases to work on. She had
started work on a project until … Well, until that awful night.
Rowena’s busy laying the table, so Juliet gives her a hand; she wants to shut the memories out before they begin to surface. She’s learned that’s the best way to deal with stuff like that. Squash it. Forget it.
‘God, can’t tell you how glad I am that you’ve moved here. I mean it’s not that everyone isn’t, you know, nice and all that; but it’s tough finding kindred spirits.’
‘You mean someone to sink a bottle of wine with you at lunchtime?’
‘Yeah, well there is that. Oh, I don’t know what I mean. Maybe it’s something to do with living here, this area. Everyone’s a certain type. It’s all so bloody corporate. And the competition isn’t just between our kids – it’s our houses, our husbands, the cars, dinner parties, holidays. ‘Oh you went to Sri Lanka to a
did you? – we’re off to Mustique to stay in our villa. OK, I know I’m exaggerating but you jump on the carousel and it’s spinning so fast you just can’t get off it. Maybe that’s why you’re different, you two. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but being an Army wife, all that moving around, and being without Alex when he was in some fucking awful war zone, must have been
hard for you.’
‘Yep. At times.’ Juliet stares into her wine glass and Rowena notices it’s nearly empty, so she tops it up. ‘Thanks. Being an Army wife is strange, I suppose. It’s impossible to ever feel settled. Some people bought houses of their own so they could feel rooted somewhere. But I think that could make it even more difficult, because you were always longing to go home, really home; whereas we never had a proper home, until now.’
‘Why here? I would have thought Alex would have wanted somewhere in the country – commuter land, some space around him. You could have grown your own vegetables and Ben could have had a little pony. I can just see it. You and your Aga and your floral pinny.’
‘Oh, shush. Hmmm, maybe one day. Besides, it’s really convenient for Alex’s job. And we’re close to his mother, so it works. For now.’
‘I couldn’t bear the thought of being cooped up with just Robert. I’d go stark staring bonkers. I think we might kill each other.
he doesn’t like getting mud on his shoes. There’s a lot to be said for being able to walk to Waitrose. Not that I ever do …’
‘It is a bit weird, if I’m honest, having Alex home all the time.’ Juliet is now on to her second glass of wine and she knows she is in danger of saying more than she should. ‘You run everything when they’re away and then they come back and it’s like you’ve got to pretend to be less capable than you are, somehow. Otherwise you end up making them feel superfluous –’