Authors: Elizabeth Forbes
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress
‘Mummy … COME heeeere …’ Ben whines from the bathroom.
‘In a minute … just WAIT!’ She shouts back. Sometimes the weight of motherhood bears down on her so hard. And this is no rehearsal. If it all goes wrong it’s always the mother that gets the blame. You spoilt him, gave in to him, gave him too much love; or you were cold, unapproachable, not cuddly enough, too strict. Juliet is his guide, his keeper, his protector, the
of Ben and
Ben. Who else other than Juliet can catalogue and caretake the small, seemingly inconsequential details that define the little space that Ben occupies in the world? Just look around the room, where there are boxes filled with toys, drawers stacked with puzzles and games; on the mantelpiece the painted wooden letters that spell out BENJAMIN … from his godfather James. Dear James. Juliet reaches out and traces her finger around the curves of the ‘B’, and shivers. There but for the grace of God. She blocks the feeling, refusing to allow the thoughts to spread. They’re too painful; too close to home. She should have asked Heather, his widow, to spend Christmas with them. She’s one of Juliet’s closest, oldest friends, but Juliet was too cowardly and now she’s feeling ashamed of herself. She supposes there’s a fear of contagion from Heather’s grief, and also a sense of guilt that Alex survived, that they still have this supposedly perfect little family while she has nothing, not even a child. Some clumsy person had apparently told Heather that not having children would make it easier for her to move on, to meet somebody else. People can be
stupid. But perhaps most of all Juliet feels that she and Alex are not grateful enough. She doesn’t want Heather to see the cracks. Juliet is the lucky one. She got Alex back. To be anything less than perfectly happy – and grateful – would somehow be an insult to James’s memory and Heather’s loss. It’s complicated, guilt. It can make you behave in peculiar ways.
Juliet pushes the feelings – and the guilt – aside and distracts herself by straightening the special set of tin soldiers which line up in front of the slate hearth. They’re too fragile to be played with – a special gift from Alex’s mother as ‘she’d saved them all this time in the hope of a grandson.’ They have sharp, rusted edges and more than likely lead paint, so even these lifeless little facsimiles of soldiers come with a health warning.
She stands up and finds herself looking at the picture over the mantelpiece. It’s a pre-Raphaelite-style painting of a small boy in an old-fashioned white linen smock, blond curls tumbling around his shoulders, blue eyes shining above pillowy, cherubic cheeks, a chubby fist reaching out for something beyond the picture. It was a very un-Juliet choice, but it is fabulously kitsch, and it did look a lot like Ben had done at the same age. It slightly redeems itself by having a decent gilded frame which looks original. It is the sort of romanticized, iconic image of a perfect child that can never really exist in real life. Rose-tinted cheeks of that hue could only appear if the child was febrile, Juliet knows. She imagines that the boy in the painting would have had an old-fashioned, proper nanny in his idealized and sanitized life. A sensible, no-nonsense sort of woman in a dark blue dress under a starched white apron; the uniform of the nation’s child protectors; nothing like a uniform, eh? One of those Mary Poppins-type coats with a velvet collar, and a hat for when she wheeled her charge into the park and competed with all the other nannies as to who had the smartest perambulator, the springiest coachwork, the shiniest spokes; the most spotless starched pinafores on their charges. Just the sort of nanny that Alex would have hired if they were into nannies.
There is really no point Alex interfering in Ben’s upbringing, because he can never be relied on to help, and because she’s always had to do everything, it seems perfectly reasonable that it has to be done her way. Alex has missed so many of Ben’s big milestones – birth, learning to walk, first birthday, first day at school, pretty much everything that has mattered so far – it’s only natural that she’d resent his interference when he came out. Being married to a soldier was like being a single mum a lot of the time.
But the best thing about Alex being out is the fact that they live here. The house is one of the larger houses in the road because it’s been extended upwards and outwards. They have a loft conversion to accommodate a large master bedroom with en suite bathroom – one of Alex’s many hated expressions – and a dressing room, which was really just a triple set of wardrobes along one wall. Many of the other identical houses in the street had used the smallest bedroom on the first floor as the nursery, but Alex and Juliet can afford to use the larger room, the room which would have been the spare, as the nursery. It isn’t just Ben’s room, it’s her special place. She’s chosen everything in it for Ben and it all looks just so.
The two sash windows facing the street have striped blinds edged with twists of primary colours, and swirly, circus-tent like knobs on the ends of the poles. She remembers agonizing over wallpaper sample books to choose the frieze which marches underneath the picture rail with its Noah’s ark collection of animals, and the
style hippopotamuses poised like cartoon ballerinas on circus plinths repeated over and over again across the wallpaper. The seagrass-covered floor is scattered with cheerful rag rugs positioned strategically to make it soft for little feet. She’s even found a sort of toy version of a tiger-skin rug in Peter Jones which goes with the whole scheme just perfectly. Ben had been terrified of it at first, thinking it might eat him all up in the night, but after a week or so he’d calmed down.
Getting the house just right had been Juliet’s major project. On a whim she had emailed a few photographs of the house to the
magazine website, and by the time she got the phone call months later, she’d forgotten all about it. The photography crew arrived together with a journalist who oohed and aahed over every perfect period detail and suggested they feature it in the Christmas issue. Juliet had made sure it all took place while Alex was away on business because she could guess what he’d say, and once it was done – well there wouldn’t be much he could do about it. She knew he’d object because he had this thing about strangers being in the house, seeing all their stuff, not knowing who they were. But she didn’t see the harm in a few photographs featuring in a low-circulation magazine. It was September and the magazine crew arrived with a van full of Christmas, even down to crackers, seasonal foliage, walnuts and fairy lights for Juliet’s box lollipop trees. They decorated the tree with all things edible; the sort of things full of poisonous E Numbers that Juliet would never let Ben near in a million years. They had shortbread iced stars, gingerbread men, and those clever little biscuits that had melted boiled sweets set into them so that they looked like they had mini coloured glass windows. They entwined an ivy wreath up the banisters, and the dining table was laid with festive runners and a ludicrous amount of silver tea lights. And they’d even brought a cooked turkey and stuffed bay leaves up its bottom and surrounded it with satsumas and plastic Brussels sprouts. When Ben came home from nursery school it took a lot of explaining, because
he then expected a visit from Father Christmas, not least because a giant Christmas stocking was hanging from the drawing-room mantelpiece. Juliet did fret about what kind of psychological effect the whole charade had on Ben. It had taken ages to settle him that night because despite what Juliet said, he was insistent that Santa would visit. In the end she’d got cross and told him that he had to behave better if Santa was to come. Yet another thing to feel guilty about. She’d told Ben not to tell Alex, but as soon as he walked through the door Ben had rushed to him, sobbing, saying that Santa had forgotten him. So then she’d had to explain the whole bloody thing and needless to say he’d been furious. He’d asked her what the hell she thought she was playing at, and so she’d said, ‘What do you mean, playing at?’ and he’d said, ‘Not only traumatizing Ben, but this ghastly thing, this awful exposure of us … what were you thinking?’ and Juliet had laughed. Whenever she felt threatened by Alex she always ended up laughing, probably some weird kind of defence mechanism. And so that had really wound him up. ‘I don’t know what on earth you think is funny about this, Juliet. Just how could you have been so unbelievably stupid!’ She’d watched how he’d squeezed his hands into fists and she’d stuck her chin out and said, ‘Well you weren’t bloody here to discuss it with me, were you, and what do you want me to do all day – sit around and paint my bloody nails? I thought it might be good for the value of the property. I thought it was fun. Remember fun?’ she’d said.
‘And what about the security, did you think about that? The fact that all our things – paintings, silver, clocks – are all up for cataloguing by any common felon.’
‘Common felon. Honestly Alex. If you mean a bloody burglar it’s not as though our address is going to be printed anywhere. It won’t even say which road we’re in. If you’re so worried about security why don’t you just tear your fucking face off, and then we can all relax a bit.’ She chose not to recall what happened next. There were things she shoved into a secret drawer so she didn’t have to think about them.
When the edition of the magazine came out towards the end of November, Juliet couldn’t believe that this was really the house in which she lived. Things had been moved in order to dress the set; for example the vase of spectacularly tall red amaryllis, circled by wired-in limes, appeared in every room, posing itself prominently in the drawing room, the dining room and grandly in the centre of the hall table. When Juliet realized what they’d done she worried, she actually worried, that people – and by people she obviously meant people she knew – would think that she hadn’t the imagination to produce more than a repeat of
floral arrangement, and as everyone knew, fruit and flowers together were becoming so last year. OK, so it might seem shallow, but the way you show yourself to the world, and how the world sees you … these things …
And so many bloody tea lights. Alex detested tea lights. Of course when one had old family silver candlesticks which were the real deal, what was the point of silly cheap little things that were available in sets of fifty from IKEA. She knew that Alex thought it smacked of affectedness, artificiality, attention-seeking, the sort of naffness that he attached to people who invited
into their homes to show off nothing so much as an immense lack of class.
Deep down, Juliet fears that she has gone through the wrong set of sliding doors, but having invested so much thus far, she has no alternative but to see it through. For the moment. For Ben’s sake. But if someone were to ask her when she had last felt truly happy, she would find it a struggle to answer. No. The real truth of the matter is that she feels that her life has become a kind of grand pretence, a sort of theatrical production which she has to stage for the sake of Ben, and in order to cope with Alex, and that if she lets the mask slip, she just might be capable of going out and slitting someone’s throat.
Boy, does she have some weird thoughts. The basic Will Ben go to sleep tonight without waking up and waking me up develops into What if he goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up at all, which quickly becomes What if he dies in the night … What if no one believes it was a natural death … What if she is unable to prove that she hasn’t smothered him … What if she went to prison and then got attacked, murdered even, for being a child killer. And how awful would it be, losing a child, the terrible bereavement, and then of being falsely accused, of having to live with the horror of being labelled the killer of your own child. It happened to someone in real life, and hadn’t she committed suicide even after that so-called expert evidence was proven to be flawed and the guilty verdict overturned. That was a truly terrible story. And Juliet has a collection of equally horrible, sad stories in her head that she’s read about. The awful things that people do to each other. But why? Why is her head filled with all this shit when all she’s doing is tidying Ben’s bedroom before getting him out of the bath, into his pyjamas and reading him a story. Just like any other night. And somehow she’s managed to get herself from the salubrious surroundings of south-west London to Wormwood Scrubs, or wherever it is they send women to. Ford, was it? Or was that reserved for MPs these days? Is this level, or these layers upon layers of worry, normal? How normal is it to imagine locking your child into the washing machine, accidentally? Or getting a hand stuck in a running Magimix? (That was a really revolting one.) Not putting it in there, or anything
-y like that, just ‘What if …’
She would never hurt Ben. He is her most perfect production. Her beautiful, beautiful boy. Sometimes she tries to imagine an older Ben. A Ben with a gravelly, breaking voice, but finds it impossible to imagine him in any way other than he is right now. Somehow it seems inconceivable that he will grow up – oh no … sorry, God, she didn’t mean that
it just seems inconceivable that he will grow up and away from her. That he will shrug her off as easily as his outgrown clothes. She wants him to stay like
– small, vulnerable and dependent upon her for everything. She knows that she is biased, she knows that all mothers think the same, but he really is the most perfect child, sweet and kind and popular. Juliet will not hear anything negative said about her Ben, because he is her creation. Her very greatest achievement and he is the most precious thing she has ever had. Ever.
‘MUMMMMMMY …’ Ben screams.
‘Coming …’ She shakes her head as if to shake out all the weird thoughts, like dust from a blanket, and mutters ‘
For fuck’s sake …’
under her breath.
‘Where were you …? I’ve got soap in my eye, and it really stings.’ Ben is crying, but Juliet suspects they’re not real tears. She hands him a corner of the dry towel. ‘Sorry, my darling. Here, wipe it with this.’