A Different View
Dot watched the departing car until the last flash of the brake lights blinked out onto the road and was gone. Such a vulgar colour, that little car of Deborah’s, she thought absently, but her mind wasn’t really on this perennial grouse, she had far more than that to think about.
Something had happened over the past hour, and she wasn’t quite sure what it had been. If it was meant for an olive branch, it had borne more resemblance to the whole tree, uprooted and flung at her head; it had been flagrant defiance on the part of her two daughters, with distinct overtones of blackmail - and she knew who could have taught them all about that! She should have felt resentful, furious and justifiably hurt at their behaviour, instead, she felt strangely relieved, as if a heavy weight had fallen from her shoulders. A wall of intransigence had grown between herself and Deborah and Susan lately through which there had seemed to be no door, but today they had simply blown the whole construction apart. What happened now, as they had made quite clear, was up to her, and that, she reasoned, had given her back the upper hand.
Or had it?
She had thought that they had made their choices and walked out of her life to join the two highly unsuitable young men that they had chosen over their mother and against her pleading and advice. She had grieved over it, not understanding where she had gone wrong, for surely any reasonable mother would wish to protect her daughter from a working class ex-convict with a conviction for violence and a penchant for blackmail, or,come to that, from exploitation by a vagrant fortune-hunter who lived by his pen on a boat, particularly when her precious grandchildren were involved. But by trying to protect them, she had lost them, or so she had believed.
Except that it now appeared that she hadn’t lost them. They were ready to put up a fight, but they were also prepared to discuss making peace. All she had to do was to accept the terms of surrender they offered.
Terms of whose surrender? She suddenly wasn’t sure.
The whole business with Deborah and that criminal from a council estate had raised issues that Dot really didn’t wish to think about. He had appeared on her doorstep, she remembered with a shudder, after she had offered him more than generous terms to remove himself from the scene. He hadn’t been at all what she had expected: she had imagined a small-time crook who managed a public house in a Cornish backwater and served microwaved fast food for his clients so that he could call himself a chef, and had envisaged him as flashily good looking and on the whole, despicable, specious and blatantly on the make. What she had brought down upon herself had been a full-blown menace that had terrified the wits out of her. Threatening. Solid, pugnacious, and rougher than she had ever dreamed, a big-time yahoo with no scruples, who had turned her one weapon – money - on herself and used it to force her hand. She had found it horribly easy to believe that he had killed his brother-in-law and had, at his brutally expressed instigation, gone to her best-beloved daughter’s wedding against her proclaimed intentions.
But not to the reception. In spite of the wonderful smile that had appeared on Deborah’s face when she saw her mother in the back of the church, she wouldn’t cross that man’s threshold, even had she been welcome there, which he had made quite clear she was not. Defeated, she had returned home to Embridge and this big, beautiful, lonely house that had never been the home she had longed for it to be, in spite of the presence of a husband and three children.
Something else that she didn’t understand.
They were all gone now: the first husband who had inconsiderately died, leaving her to bring up his child alone, the second husband who had returned finally to his first love, the stepson who had defied her all his life, the dutiful daughter of her first marriage, the joy of her heart that was the daughter of her second. Her grandchildren. She was a lonely woman, legally separated from her husband, whose children had gone off into the world and never once looked back to the mother who had reared, nursed and cared for all three of them, whatever their parentage. Her life had become empty, her friends proved false.
And that last had been that thug’s fault, too.
For a minute, Dot had an awful feeling of things slipping out of her control. For her son-in-law, the reviled and feared Mawgan Angwin, had unexpectedly hit the small screen that autmn and metamorphosed into the latest celebrity chef. The public loved him, loved his cheeky grin and rich, creamy Cornish accent, his friendly approach and his obvious talent and warm charm. And he had won his appeal against his conviction for manslaughter and emerged whiter than white, and only she seemed to know that he really was that thug from the wrong side of the tracks that she had correctly taken him for. Worse, all the sympathy her friends had felt for her over Deborah’s headstrong behaviour and disastrous marriage had evaporated like snow in a sudden thaw. She had become a laughing stock overnight. She could only feel relief that none of them had ever seen the historic old Cornish inn that she now knew he actually owned, not just managed: that would have put the tin lid on her humiliation. There was no guarantee that none of them ever would, and contemplating this possibility, Dot suddenly found her legs giving under her, and she sat down. It had been a bad morning.
They had appeared unexpectedly, her errant daughters, sweeping up the drive in Deborah’s showy, bright yellow, foreign car: unmistakable, unexpected, and wholly welcome, when she had begun to wonder if she was ever going to see either of them again. But she should have known, she told herself as she hastened to the front door. They had come to apologise, to ask her advice and beg for her forgiveness, as she had always made herself believe that they would.
Only it seemed that they hadn’t, not exactly.
‘Why, what a lovely surprise!’ she had cried. ‘Why didn’t you let me know that you were coming? I would have prepared a special lunch!’ The hug she gave them came from her heart, but she couldn’t help thinking that they looked shifty. As well they might, she considered, but nevertheless a very slight cloud of uneasiness crossed the shining sun of her pleasure. ‘Come in, sit down, let me look at you both.’ Deborah was more than six months pregnant with that thug’s child, she looked radiant, lovelier than ever. Dot tried not to think about the father, and continued, ‘Oh my darlings, how nice this is! I’ll just go and ask the girl to make us some coffee and then we can have a lovely chat!’
She had hurried from the room, and was halfway across the hall before she recognised a frisson of ... no, surely not uneasiness? Their own greeting, she realised, had been less than warm, but surely they didn’t think she would turn them away? She gave instructions about the coffee more thoughtfully and returned to the drawing room, her pleasure in their arrival, inexplicably, very slightly dampened. They were sitting there in separate armchairs, silent; beautiful blonde Deborah, and pretty brunette Susan who, sadly, took after her father’s family and had always been overshadowed both by her half-sister and her good-looking stepbrother, Oliver, but a good, sensible girl nonetheless - until recently, that is.
‘Now then,’ she had said, seating herself where she could see them both. ‘What brought you here so unexpectedly? How are you, Deborah darling?’ It was impossible to ignore her daughter’s condition, even though it stuck in her throat considering who was responsible. ‘Are you keeping well?’
‘Yes thanks, Mum.’
‘I hope you’ve given up sailing those boats of yours, it won’t be good for Baby you know,’ Dot said, warningly, for Deborah and her friends ran a sailing school down in Cornwall. Deborah had muttered something that Dot didn’t quite catch. She smiled at her and turned to Susan.
‘And you, Susan dear? Is everything all right at home? The children aren’t too upset?’
Susan had divorced her husband and almost straight away invited her new boyfriend to share the new home she had created down in Cornwall for herself and her two children, Annabel and Sebastian. Another thoroughly unsuitable young man, although not actually criminal so far as Dot knew. He lived on a boat and worked for Deborah as an instructor at her sailing school on the Helford River, and had ambitions to write a book, although Dot had little faith in this ever happening. Susan’s money, however, would doubtless enable him to waste time on the attempt.
Getting no real response from either of them, for Susan didn’t even bother to reply, she smiled at them instead. ‘Well I never, what’s the matter with the two of you? Usually, I can’t get a word in edgewise and here you are, hardly a syllable between you!’
And so they had told her. What they had said had amounted to blackmail - no doubt in Dot’s mind as to who would have taught them that! They were prepared to come to her house and organise a pre-Christmas party for her friends, dinner or a buffet would be her choice. Mawgan would do the catering with help from Susan, Carl would see to the wine, Debbie would do whatever unskilled jobs needed doing. The prestige of having the latest celebrity chef cooking for her party would go a long way to silencing her enemies. The downside, of course, was that she would have to welcome those two young men to the house and thereafter continue to do so. That last was made perfectly clear.
Something else had been made clear, too. Susan knew exactly what her mother had done in the run-up to Deborah’s wedding, and presumably also how her brother-in-law had retaliated.
That made Dot feel slightly sick. She hoped that Deborah didn’t know too. To cover her shock, she had asked confrontationally, ‘And the other young man?’
‘He has no idea you ever banned him from the house, I haven’t told him,’ Susan had replied. She hadn’t sounded conciliating.
Nonetheless, the offer was a lifeline. She would have to accept it, but there was not, Dot decided, any need to grovel. She said, ‘Will you bring the children, too?’ in the voice of one who didn’t expect to be refused.
‘If it’s not in school time, of course we will.’
‘But not the dog,’ said Dot, taking a firmer stand. Susan’s dog was a large black labrador, and in Dot’s opinion, he smelt of dog even after a bath and was always underfoot: she couldn’t understand what Susan and the children could possibly see in him. Susan laughed.
‘No, not the dog. We’ll leave him with Chel, or Gosia and Roger maybe. I know he’s not your favourite.’
Gosia, or Maria as Dot preferred to think of her, was another sore point. She had been Susan’s au pair and had precipitated a frightening family crisis by her negligence, and the man she still thought of as her son-in-law, Tom Casson, had dismissed her out of hand, quite rightly in Dot’s view. She had turned up in Cornwall along with the rest of the hangers-on that took advantage of her wealthy daughters, and unfortunately seemed set to stay.
‘Well,’ said Dot, because she had no options, ‘we’ll call that settled then, shall we?’
She didn’t say thank you, and she didn’t press them to stay for lunch. They had made their point, but just for a while, she really didn’t want to look at them any more.
Now, in the aftermath of their brief, cataclysmic visit, she found herself wondering how Susan knew, and assuring herself that Deborah couldn’t, and on balance, neither feeling very proud of herself nor savouring the taste of defeat.
Defeat, however, wasn’t something that Dot felt she deserved, and neither was she going to admit to it outside the privacy of her own head. It was necessary to confront it, yes, but only in order to turn it into a victory. With this in mind, she got decisively to her feet and went to pick up the phone. Time to start restoring her social position, they wouldn’t be laughing now, those fair-weather friends!
Alex Hetherington returned from his office at the end of the day, his mind still more than half on a problem that was beginning to go critical, to be greeted, as he came through his front door, by a wonderful smell of beef casserole and a smiling wife with a glass of his favourite whisky in her hand. Ingrid wasn’t the sort of wife who took no interest in her husband’s business, and she knew all about the problem, although she had yet to learn how it had suddenly escalated. She had some news of her own, she believed, that would make him put it on the back burner.
‘Bad day at the office?’ she asked, seeing his face.
‘No worse than usual, but I’m going to have to do something ... what are you grinning about, woman?’ He took the glass and smiled at her. ‘Found the secret of the universe? I wish!’
‘Not exactly, but I have got something to tell you.’
He grunted, and flopped down to relax in his favourite chair. ‘Something good, I hope.’
Ingrid perched on the arm, her own glass of sherry in her hand. ‘Very good. And very funny, too, if you’re in the mood to be amused. It’s about Dot.’
Alex groaned and took a hefty swig.
‘Oh no! Not Dot on top of everything else. She’s the last person I wish to hear about!’
‘No, listen, you’re going to love this. Susan and Debbie came up from Cornwall to visit her today.’
‘Unwise of them. They should have left her to get over her tantrum on her own.’
‘They did better than that. I think they gave her an ultimatum, although she didn’t exactly put it like that.’ No, she wouldn’t. But he had begun to look interested. Ingrid reached for the whisky bottle and poured him a refill. ‘Anyway, the upshot is that she’s thinking of having a dinner party, probably the Saturday before Christmas. “For my family and all my dearest friends” she said, I suppose that includes us?’
‘I should think it’s only us,’ said Alex. His tolerance of Dot Nankervis was beginning to run thin. It was, in any case, largely based on his friendship for the late Henry Worthington, her first husband and Susan’s father. In spite of the quarter century gap in their ages, the two men had got on well together. Alex, then an up and coming young accountant, had been recommended to Henry for the handling of his personal tax affairs by a mutual acquaintance from the Yacht Club, Jerry Nankervis, who had also been Henry’s solicitor. Henry’s business had been worth having: a wealthy investment broker with his work based in London but with his principle residence in Embridge, his patronage and recommendation had sent Alex’s star rising fast, and a mutual respect and liking had grown between the two. When he had found himself an expectant father at the age of sixty-five, Henry had drawn up a trust for his unborn child and Alex and Jerry, together with the child’s mother, had been appointed as joint trustees. Up until recently, the duties involved had been fairly nominal, but the recent break-up of Susan’s marriage to Tom Casson, who to complicate matters worked in Alex’s office, had meant that Alex had seen rather more than he really wished to of her difficult mother. He knew Ingrid liked Dot, for reasons that escaped him, but on the whole, he didn’t, much. He considered her to be manipulative and destructive and rejected his wife’s insistence that she was really rather a sad person, basing his opinion on the fact that her second husband, father of Debbie and incidentally of her half-brother, Oliver, was that same Jerry Nankervis who had been Henry’s solicitor and friend. Dot, Alex thought with hindsight, had always meant to have him; he felt sorry for Jerry’s beautiful and talented ex-wife.
There was time for most of these thoughts to replay themselves in his head before Ingrid said, ‘I know what you think about her ...’ very slowly. Alex looked up into her serious face. The laughter had gone from her eyes, and he was sorry. No point in taking his own problems out on Ingrid.
‘So tell me,’ he said. ‘What’s the joke about this dinner party of Dot’s?’
‘Her son-in-law is doing the catering. And, one presumes, the cooking too.’
‘Good God! You mean to say he offered, and after all she’s said about him?’
‘I doubt if he actually knows what she’s said about him, and I don’t think he so much offered as was volunteered. Wouldn’t you agree?’
Alex thought about this. ‘Clever of them, if so. Do you think it will work the miracle required?’
‘I think that will depend on him, rather than on Dot. Dot’s had some salutary lessons lately.’
‘She couldn’t have known that he’d pop up on her telly and wow everyone.’ It went against the grain to put in even a mild word on Dot’s behalf, but he said it anyway.
‘I think that’s rather what I mean. Be sure your sins will find you out, or something.’
‘Poor old Dot,’ said Alex, but it was perfunctory.
‘Lucky old Dot, I think you should say, to have such forgiving children. And lucky old us too, if we get an invitation.’
Alex considered this, and found the reflection pleasing. He appreciated good food and the building reputation of Dot Nankervis’s unwanted son-in-law was enviable. He sighed and took a sip of his whisky. Life began to look a little better.
‘Of course,’ Ingrid was saying, ‘she may choose to invite the people she wants to make eat her dust, but on the whole, I hope she doesn’t do that. It would be such a waste.’
‘Far more satisfactory not to invite them,’ Alex agreed. He went on, as casually as he could manage, ‘Did she say how Susan’s getting on?’ Susan was his goddaughter; he had a soft spot for her and deplored her recent marital problems, which were not unconnected with his own office ones. But Ingrid shook her head.
‘No, she was more taken up with her own affairs.’
That sounded like Dot, Alex reflected. He took another sip, and allowed the silence to develop. Ingrid stood up to fetch the bottle and top up his glass.
‘Do you want to talk about it, darling? Have you made a decision?’
Alex turned his glass slowly between his hands, looking at the tipping liquid as if he was studying its amber colour, but did not, in fact, see it at all. Alex’s troubles revolved around his retirement, imminent in the next year or so. He had once planned that Susan’s ex-husband, Tom Casson, the senior accountant in the business, would take over in his place, but recent events had begun to change his mind. Without Susan behind him, Tom had revealed himself as a colourless plodder, and moreover one with a shaky sense of loyalty. He had betrayed Susan consistently with a succession of girls, both in and out of the office, until she had thankfully had enough and called time. Tom would never have taken that step himself, Alex realised. He might not love his wife, he might have ignored the welfare of his children, but he wouldn’t have left Henry Worthington’s money of his own accord, and for that, Alex was finding it hard to forgive him, even if he hadn’t believed that lack of loyalty in one respect implied its possibility in others. But the problem remained: Tom was senior, and he had never made a serious mistake in his work, even if he had never, on the other hand, showed any particular flair. His private life should be no business of his employer. Alex’s impulse to send him packing rather than award him honours was therefore possibly unjustified. He wished he could be sure about that.
He became aware that Ingrid was waiting for his answer.
‘Yes ...’ He spoke slowly. ‘Yes, I think I have. Only, it isn’t going to go down well with Tom Casson.’
‘Oh?’ Ingrid prompted, after a significant pause. Alex took a bigger sip of his whisky.
‘You know I had advertised for someone who would fill the gap when I finally retire?’ She did know, of course, but he felt it necessary to set out the cards properly.
‘Yes,’ Ingrid said, cautiously.
‘They’ve been a run-of-the-mill lot, up until today, nothing to choose between them. That might not matter if I’d finally decided on Tom as my successor ... but then, this afternoon ... well, this afternoon I interviewed an applicant who isn’t run-of-the-mill at all.’
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’
‘Better than you know. He’s re-locating from London because he’s getting married and wants to make changes to his lifestyle. Excellent references, it sounds as if his present employers had plans for him and are sorry to lose him.’
‘So why choose here?’
x spoke with satisfaction. ‘Born and brought up in the area, passionate about sailing which is one reason he wants to come back. His father is chief superintendent here in Embridge, you probably know his wife.’
‘Valerie Harries? Yes, I do. Not well, but I do know her.’ She paused. ‘So, why the long face? It sounds to me like the perfect solution if you think he’ll fit in and do the job.’
‘Yeah ...’ Alex drew the monosyllable out almost into a groan. ‘So, what do I do about Tom Casson?’
‘Two options?’ said Ingrid, on a query. ‘Keep him on, or let him go? It seems to me a simple choice.’
‘Oh, it’s a choice - a straight choice, even. But simple? I don’t think so.’
‘Because your goddaughter dumped him? He deserved it. In my opinion, she should have done it years ago.’
‘And if I give him the boot hard on the heels of that? How’s that going to look?’
‘I think that would depend on your precise motive.’
‘Oh dear.’ Ingrid held out the bottle. ‘Would another one help?’
Alex shook his head with a rueful smile. ‘No. I mustn’t let Tom Casson drive me to drink.’
‘I think,’ said Ingrid, slowly, working it out as she spoke, ‘that you need to ask yourself what your motive would actually be. Because, you see, I don’t think that you kept him on all these years justbecause of Susan. He must also have been competent, or even for her, you wouldn’t have done it.’
‘He was. “Competent” describes him exactly. Without Susan, he can be seen as exactly that, and not a jot more. She gave him standing, and that gave him a spurious confidence. Now she’s gone, he has no standing, no flair and no confidence either. He’s an also-ran who does a passable job, no more.’
‘Come on Alex! She didn’t do his job for him!’
‘She entertained his clients; she was the social face of his working life, he warmed his hands at the fire of her natural integrity. People judged him by her place at his side. I judged him, God help me. Now, poor man, he’s standing naked in the chilly winds of reality.’
‘And there’s me thinking accountants didn’t have a poetic bone in their bodies!’
‘It isn’t funny, Ingrid.’
‘I just wish I could see the way clear.’
‘If he kept his job,’ Ingrid speculated, ‘and you put ... what’s his name? The Harries son and heir?’
‘Valentine, poor bastard. Val.’
‘All right, you put Val Harries in over Tom’s head, what could Tom do?’
‘Put up with it, or ask for his cards and walk.’
‘There you are then. No problem.’
‘His walking would certainly present none. I’m not sure about his putting up with it and staying on. Tom is very bitter over Susan. He would consider it a deliberate slight on my part.’
‘And you’re quite, quite sure that it wouldn’t be?’
‘Good God, of course I’m not! What can you be thinking of? No, I genuinely don’t think he could handle the position, but he tried to take Susan for a small fortune, pressuring her over custody of the children. If I could do it without ending up in front of a tribunal, I’d get rid of him tomorrow and it would be for entirely personal reasons!’
‘Oh dear,’ said Ingrid, again.
‘If he had any guts at all, he’d go of his own accord. He must realise he’s blotted his copybook irretrievably.’
‘And his parents are such nice people, too.’
‘Doesn’t follow, unfortunately.’
‘They’ll be so disappointed. Sally hasn’t said anything, but I know she must be beginning to wonder about all those horrible things he said about Susan, now she’s fallen straight into a new relationship.’
‘Tom says she’s just trying to prove a point and will come unstuck.’
‘And do you agree?’ Ingrid heard a chill in her own voice, but it wasn’t only for Alex. Fortunately, he didn’t disappoint her.
‘No. I’ve never met the man, but Susan has too much sense to fall for a line a second time. And she cares very much for her children’s welfare and happiness, which is more than their father does for all his fine words. I would hope, and on the whole, trust, that her new partner is a man of an integrity to match her own who loves her for herself and doesn’t care a fig for her money. There must be some around.’
‘He went around telling everyone she was frigid - Tom did,’ said Ingrid, accusingly.
‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he? It’s the oldest excuse in the book for playing away.’ Alex sounded tired: to be truthful, he was sick to death of Tom Casson and his affairs. Ingrid stood up. She knew a full stop when she heard one.
‘If Dot invites us to her party, you’ll very possibly meet him and can judge for yourself. Finish your drink, I’ll go and check the casserole. It’ll be on the table in ten minutes.’
Debbie dropped her sister off outside the house on the creek side of St. Erbyn’s main street after a drive that had been mostly silent, but contentedly so. It had been a nerve-racking interview with their mother, but the outcome had been hopeful. Susan, leaning down to peer in at her sister as she went to shut the nearside door, underlined this conclusion, if with moderation.
‘I think we can call it a result, anyway.’
Debbie made a face, shadowy in the dim light from the dashboard.
‘It’s the next move I’m looking forward to - or am I? Are you coming down to the pub later?’
‘Might do. If Gemma can babysit and we feel like it. At the moment, I’m just glad to be home.’
‘Know the feeling. Might see you later, then.’
She drove away, and Susan went up the short path to her front door. It opened onto a narrow, stone-flagged passage, a large and friendly dog, and a wonderful smell of curry. The sound of chatter and laughter came from the open kitchen door. Susan smiled, happily. Coming home had never been like this in the old days; Annabel and Sebastian would be shut away in their upstairs playroom with the au pair keeping an eye on them, and Tom, if he was even at home, would be reading the evening paper in the drawing room with a drink in his hand, very adult and self-centred. She would greet him without getting much response, and go off like a good wife to prepare his dinner with barely a word to her own children, passing on, she now saw, her husband’s attitude. It was one kind of a life. Not this one, though.
Preceded by the bouncing dog, she went to the kitchen door and looked in, and her partner looked up from the pan he was stirring on the stove with a smile of welcome.
‘Susie!’ He put down the spoon and held out his arms. ‘Good trip?’
Susan walked into his embrace and was thoroughly hugged. Sebastian, busy laying the table, looked up with a solemn grin.
Annabel, her face serious, was peering at something in the oven.
‘Carl, should these come out now? They look done.’
‘And how, tell me young Annabel, does an onion bhaji look “done”?’ Carl released Susan with reluctance and went to check on the bhajis and Sebastian moved into his vacated place, hugging his mother round the waist, his grin broadening.
‘We’ve been cooking the dinner,’ he announced. ‘I think it’s ready, Mummy.’
It was Annabel’s turn for a hug, as Carl took the tray of bhajis from the oven and set it on top of the stove. Her greeting was silent but warm.
‘It just about is,’ Carl confirmed. ‘Do you want five minutes, Susie? You’ve only just got through the door.’
‘Just time for a quick wash and a comb through my hair?’ Susan smiled at them all. She knew that she hadn’t answered Carl’s original question, and that he had noticed that she hadn’t, but it would wait.
‘I’ll pour you a drink for when you come back down,’ said Carl, unruffled.
But it wasn’t until the curry and its adjuncts had been eaten, the fruit and custard that followed it was only a memory, and the children had raced upstairs to play on Sebastian’s computer, that the subject was re-opened over the washing-up. Susan, trying to think if she had ever, in her whole marriage, come home to a dinner cooked by Tom and then companionably shared the washing-up, was brought back to the more cheerful present by Carl saying, ‘So, was it a successful foray into enemy territory?’
‘Not exactly enemy ...’
‘Not exactly friendly either.’ Carl placed a plate carefully into the rack and set about the next one. He didn’t look at her. ‘I can see her point about Mawgan, but once the situation was explained, surely ...?’
‘She loves Debbie,’ said Susan. It didn’t really explain things. Now, Carl did turn to look at her.
‘And you. Be sure of it. Mothers are like that with their children, you should know.’
‘Yes.’ Susan let out an audible breath and picked up the draining plate. ‘But Debbie is her favourite, because Jerry was her favourite husband.’
‘Unjust, when your father seems to have been so much the kinder of the two.’
‘Are you trying to pick a quarrel?’ asked Susan, with interest, but he only laughed.
‘No. Just trying to put in some demolition work on your inferiority complex.’ He flicked her cheek with a soapy finger and returned to the job in hand. ‘I’ve told you before, you persistently undervalue yourself. Did you tell her it was Oliver’s idea?’
‘No.’ Susan set the plate aside and picked up the next one.
‘You should. Oh, maybe not now - after. When the party has been a success and you’re all friends again.’
Susan stopped drying the plate and looked at him curiously.
‘Why, particularly? I mean, you said that as if there was a reason.’
‘There is. She’s your mother. Work it out.’
‘I can’t,’ said Susan, after a pause spent trying.
‘I’ve not met her yet, but isn’t it possible that you and she are alike in more ways than the bossiness you say you inherited from her?’
Susan thought about it. ‘You mean she has an inferiority complex, too? Nah!’
‘Consider it as a possibility. Chel says that nobody thought you had, either, until you fell off your perch.’
‘Oh did she?’ Susan was indignant, but only momentarily. The statement was too true to challenge, for one thing. She had, she knew, hidden her private self behind her talent for organisation, and that she certainly had inherited from her mother. Deb too, but Deb had the confidence that came with knowing exactly who she was. Susan, up until recently, had never even known that her natural father had three much older children from a previous marriage. The discovery had been both a shock and a revelation. She thought about it now. The thought took her into an unexpected byway. ‘Actually, I know very little about my mother. She’s almost as much of a mystery as my father was.’
‘Surely not. You grew up with her.’
‘Well yes, but she’s hardly ever talked about her family. I must have rather taken her for granted, I can’t think of one thing I really know about her except that she was an only child.’
Carl considered this for a moment, while continuing to pile plates onto the rack. ‘Keep working, we’ll be here all night. Didn’t you know your grandparents?’
‘Depends what you mean by “know”,’ Susan said, considering. ‘They were still alive until I was almost in my teens, and we went to see them, duty visits like Sunday lunch, Boxing Day, you know the kind of thing. Usually just me, and Deb after she was born ... and Mother, of course.’ She paused.
Carl picked up her discarded tea towel and placed it back into her hands. ‘Dry. Not Oliver?’
‘No. Not Oliver, not as we got older. They didn’t like him, he was too direct for them. He said what he thought.’
‘And they didn’t say what they thought?’
‘No,’ said Susan, thinking back. ‘I don’t believe that they did. But they did say he was rude, and to be fair, he often was. It was very uncomfortable if he was there.’ She picked up a plate and began to dry it. When the pause had gone on for too long, Carl broke it.
‘So, what were they like, apart from not liking Oliver?’
‘They weren’t keen on Jerry, either, come to that. They were very religious, and he was divorced, of course, and Oliver was his first wife’s child. Carl, I’m sorry, that’s really all I can remember. Grandma died when I was about eleven, some illness, heart or something and Grandpa followed her not long after, for no particular reason I ever knew. Someone said that he couldn’t bear living without her, I remember, but people do, don’t they? Say that, when ...’ She tailed off and picked up another plate. ‘I can’t remember missing them. Sad.’
‘Go on,’ prompted Carl, after a pause.
‘I can’t. There’s nowhere to go to, that’s it.’
‘It can’t be. She’s your mother, for God’s sake! You have to know more than that.’
‘She went to boarding school,’ Susan offered. ‘All very jolly-hockey-sticks, she was Captain of Games or something. I don’t think she was particularly academic. I get that from my father.’
Carl asked, idly, ‘And did you go to boarding school, too?’
‘Oh yes. Oliver and I both did. Oliver went to Winterbourne, and then on to uni, and I went to a B-list place called Griffon College and then got married to the first man who offered.’ She had named two public schools, one big and eminent, one not. She had stopped drying the plates again.
‘Now, stop that!’ Carl commanded. ‘Lots of people feel that education is less important for girls, even today, and we already know your mother is one of them. And Griffon College is OK, even I’ve heard of it. What about Deb, did she go there too?’
‘No,’ said Susan. ‘No, she didn’t. She went to the college in Embridge - not the Art School, a posh private school for girls. And she was a daygirl, at least up until the fifth form she was.’
‘Didn’t she want to board?’
‘I don’t think she was ever asked. Mum just didn’t want to part with her.’ She put down the tea towel again and turned to him, and Carl gathered her into his arms, tossing the dishcloth into the sink with a splash behind her back.
‘Come on, that’s enough. Snap out of it!’
‘Sorry.’ She stayed where she was for a moment or two, and then pushed him away. ‘I’m tired, and it’s not been an easy day.’ She resumed the drying of the plates, and went on, more lightly, ‘Did you go to a public school?’
‘Me? Heavens, no! We didn’t have that kind of money - or ambitions, come to that. I went to the local comprehensive - it was a good one, but even so, and on to a redbrick university - one up on Mawgan, though, if you look at it like that. Personally, I don’t.’
‘Several up on Mawgan,’ said Susan, on a sigh. ‘And Oliver didn’t exactly go to Oxbridge, come to that.’
‘What did he study?’ asked Carl, curiously, and Susan made a face.
‘Social Science, can you imagine it?’ She dried the last plate and placed it on the pile. ‘He only did it to annoy everyone. He nearly got sent down for drugs, scraped a third class degree, and then ran away to sea.’
‘And he’s been running ever since, if you want my opinion - which I daresay you don’t.’ Carl pulled the plug and spread the dishcloth to dry. ‘That’s that, then. D’you want to go down to the Fish later, mull things over with the tribe?’
‘No,’ said Susan, considering. ‘Not really. Deb did suggest it, but I think I’d rather chill out in front of the telly once the kids are in bed. Chel and Oliver will be minding their young anyway.’
‘Deb must be shattered too, if you are.’
‘Oh, come on Carl! You know her better than that! She’s thriving, even the prospect of moving house in the New Year doesn’t seem to bother her - even though they’ve no furniture worth mentioning. She just says she’s looking forward to hitting the January sales, I ask you!’
‘Not having any furniture will make it that much easier,’ Carl pointed out. ‘The stores will simply deliver it. She’s a one off, your sister, I’ll say that, so what will she make of being someone’s mum, do you think?’
‘A right pig’s ear, I would suggest. Are you coming?’ She paused on her way to the door, suddenly aware of a space behind her. ‘Carl?’
‘Just something I’ve been wondering about,’ said Carl, slowly, not moving to follow her.
Susan bit her lip. She thought she knew what was coming: she had been waiting for it, since Carl was an intelligent man, but please, not tonight! Today had been bad enough.
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘I haven’t met your mother. Not even spoken to her, and yet we’ve been living together for quite a few months now. Your Dad, yes, often. Your brothers and sisters and cousins, but not your mother. Does she ... well, put it another way. Is Mawgan her only problem?’
The problems her mother had with Carl ranged from his age - three years younger than Susan - through his living on a boat when she met him, all the way to his not being Tom Casson. Susan, said, on a note of desperation, ‘I think she’d prefer it if we were married.’
‘Well I’m with her on that one,’ remarked Carl, by the way. He saw her face and took a quick step across the room towards her. ‘Don’t look like that, Susie.’ He caught her outstretched hands in his. ‘It’s not a criticism, just a comment. I know how you feel on the subject, and that’s fine too. So, did she ban me from the house as well?’
‘Sort of,’ muttered Susan. ‘Not just like that, not like with Mawgan, she just said, well, if we got married ... but she’s no right to - to bully us like that.’
‘No,’ said Carl. ‘She hasn’t.’ And it had made Susan even more stubbornly opposed to the idea, he could feel it. He said, trying to speak lightly, ‘Well then, she’ll have to learn to make the best of things, just like the rest of us. And don’t look at me that way. I love you, I’m not going anywhere.’
‘It’s not about you,’ said Susan, but they had covered this ground many times already. Carl gave her hands a squeeze and dropped them, spinning her round to face the door.
‘March. It’s time for a drink, if we’re not going out.’ He made his voice deliberately light, for of course it was about him, at least in the sense that it was about any man who wished to marry her, and even more, the one who had done so. But he wouldn’t push her, and he was angry that her mother had. Surely she realised what Tom Casson had put Susan through? Or did she put the blame on Susan, so carelessly sidelined all her life? For a second, Carl felt quite murderous, but where was the point, really?
‘Did those two do their homework when they came in from school?’ Susan was asking.
‘So they said. I confess I didn’t check. Have you done yours?’
‘I should hope so! I did it yesterday, I’ve college tomorrow.’
The awkward moment had passed. They went into the living room together and Carl poured two brandies from the bottle on the bookcase. He handed Susan’s to her and raised his own.
‘To tomorrow,’ he said. ‘From the looks of you, it can only be better.’
‘Amen to that,’ said Susan.
Just as Susan had done, once she was away from her sister and in the peace and comfort of her own home, Debbie began to suffer from reaction. It was all right to begin with; the friendly familiarity of the flat above the bars at the Fish was welcoming, and Mawgan had drawn the curtains and left the lights and the fire switched on. She sank into one of the big leather armchairs, propped her feet on the coffee table, and prepared to be lazy. She was tired, she realised; Susan had insisted on doing the bulk of the driving but she had done her share, and even just sitting in the car, when some other party was kicking seven bells out of your intestines, wasn’t exactly restful. Travel seemed to excite the young Angwin; just like his father he was shaping up to be a live wire. She gave a deep sigh of contentment and wondered if she was hungry.
Then the goblins began to gather in the corners, and her contented mood evaporated.
It wasn’t a very happy feeling, remembering what she and Susan had just done to their mother. Yes, Mum had been stubborn and intractable but surely, the ultimatum they had issued had been unforgivable? They loved her, for God’s sake - yes, in spite of everything, they did. Had that undutiful confrontation been a suitable expression of filial affection?
No, it probably hadn’t.
On the other hand, what had been the alternative? To leave her lonely, or to bow to her decree and only visit her on their own, without Mawgan, the father of her own unborn child, or Carl, the star of Susan’s suddenly summer sky.
Acceptable? No. But neither was what they had actually done. She hated to think how their mother must have felt, must be feeling now. Her eyes went to the telephone - but no. They had administered the medicine, better not to interfere with its effect or the dose might be wasted. She couldn’t do it again, that was a dead cert.
Looking at the phone seemed to have set off a chain reaction; it rang. Debbie dragged herself from the depths of the chair and picked it up. ‘Fisherman’s Arms.’
‘Deb,’ said her brother’s unexpected voice. ‘Tommy said you were back. I’m in the bar, fancy a drink?’
‘Oliver! Honestly, I’m shattered, I don’t think I could face the crowd, but thanks anyway.’
‘I’ll bring one up then. I suppose you’d better not have alcohol, orange juice?’
Suddenly, Debbie wanted his company. She said with relief, ‘Pineapple, please. With ice.’
‘And have you eaten?’
‘Not yet. I’m not hungry really, and I can’t be bothered to cook.’
‘Be honest, you can’t cook! I’ll order you a steak down here, they can send it up. Five minutes.’
Before she could argue, he had gone. She went back to her chair and flopped back into it. She was surprised that Oliver was here, he and Chel weren’t such regular visitors since the birth of their daughter, but she was glad that he was. Come to think, Oliver was about the only person she wanted to see right now, and that included her husband.
It was nearer to ten minutes before he finally appeared, bringing with him three cans of beer and two bottles of pineapple juice but no glasses. ‘I knew you had some up here,’ he explained. ‘Where are they? In the kitchen? I’ll find them.’
‘The bottle opener is in the drawer,’ Debbie mentioned, without getting up. He grinned at her, sympathetically.
‘Not been a good day?’ He diverted into the tiny kitchen, appearing soon with a glass in each hand. He handed the juice to his sister before sitting down in the armchair opposite. Debbie said, ‘Did you leave a message where we are - in case Suse comes in?’
‘Tommy’ll tell her. So you tell me, how did it go? I felt a heel leaving you both to do it when it was my idea, but it really wouldn’t have helped if I’d come too.’
Debbie shuddered at the bare idea, and took a gulp of juice. ‘To start with, she just harped the old song, but when we said we weren’t prepared to visit her on our own, she ... well actually, it was rather sad. I felt awful, Oliver.’
Oliver said, gently for him, ‘You’d have felt worse if you hadn’t done it. Believe me.’
‘Yes. You’re right of course, but that doesn’t seem to make it better.’ She paused. ‘I thought at one point, Suse was going to chicken out, and I’d have been glad, Oliver. I really would.’
‘But she didn’t, I take it. And neither did you.’
‘So is the party to take place?’
‘So it seems. I don’t quite see what you mean it to achieve.’
‘Reconciliation - of a sort - obviously. Surely that’ll be worth something?’
Debbie let out a long, unintentionally weary, sigh. ‘I feel it all goes a whole lot deeper, and honestly, it makes me feel tired. Just tired. What can we do? Really?’
Oliver considered before he answered. There were two ideas in his head, but he wasn’t sure where either of them was going. He and his stepmother had never got on, in fact he actively disliked her, but he also considered that she was a very unhappy woman, some of which was his fault. That was one thing. The other was more difficult to pin down. He had - no, not exactly disliked Susan, but found her very easy to quarrel with, for most of his life. Susan was like her mother in some ways, but not, it now appeared, in others. She had turned out to be bitterly unhappy too, and frustrated which might have been more fundamental. In retrospect, ninety per-cent of her confrontational attitude had been defensive. Now, with a different partner, happy children, a new family and a satisfying career as an archaeologist in her sights, she had become another person. Still abrasive, but that was Susan. Strong, loyal, level-headed and ... well, fun to be around. And he and Chel owed her the survival of their marriage and also, he had a suspicion, the survival of their baby daughter, who thanks to her quick wits had been born safely in a hospital, and not messily beside the road on the way home. The big question was, how far could you equate Susan with her mother? Or the other way about? None of them, not even Susan, had ever met her father, which made it hard to evaluate.
A lot of Susan’s problems had stemmed from her feeling herself to be an outsider. Insecurity, in fact. He didn’t want to follow that path to its logical conclusion.
Fortunately for Oliver, before he found himself too deep in the mire, the door opened to admit his brother-in-law, bearing a tray that he dumped unceremoniously onto the coffee table before stooping to salute his wife.
‘Deb, I heard you were home, everything OK? I got five minutes, then I must go back down.’
‘The party’s on, if that’s what you’re asking.’ Debbie leaned forward and lifted the cover off the plate that sat on the tray. ‘Wo! That never came from the pub.’
‘I thought you might need cheering up.’ Mawgan exchanged a glance with Oliver. ‘Hi, glad you’re here.’ He didn’t enlarge on this, but went on to ask, ever practical, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve any idea of when she wants it?’
‘No, but knowing her, she won’t consider your priorities, so be prepared for just before Christmas.’ Debbie knew her mother well enough to know that she would only concede what had been forced from her, and while she grieved for it, she also slightly sympathised: it must have been a bitter pill to swallow. She was relieved when Mawgan took her guess calmly. He had, she knew, been forced into agreeing to the plan - plot, rather - in the first place, although she fortunately had no idea of exactly how little love was lost between her mother and her husband, or for what reasons. Oliver, who had done the forcing, had no idea either which was perhaps fortunate too, for he would have found his stepmother’s behaviour impossible to condone, and come to that, might have had trouble with Mawgan’s, too.
‘Not a problem,’ Mawgan said now, cheerfully enough. ‘One advantage to having a top quality chef, with enough experience to trust, is the chance to slope off now and then. Doug will love it.’ Doug was Australian, highly talented, and in Debbie’s opinion the best thing that had happened to Mawgan for years; he might even have the chance to know his own son when the time came, which hadn’t looked like an option before.
‘Does that mean we can take more than one night?’ she asked, hopefully, but Mawgan only laughed and said “We’ll see, shall us?’ and stood up, ready to leave. ‘See you later bird. Have an early night; I’ll probably be late, we’ve a full pack tonight.’ He was gone, leaving behind a sensation that the air was settling in his wake. Oliver grinned.
‘He doesn’t improve, does he?’ he observed. ‘Eat your dinner. It looks too good to waste.’
The subject of Dot seemed to have been shelved, rather to Debbie’s relief. She picked up her knife and fork and looked with appreciation at the juicy fillet steak sitting on her plate, that she should probably not be eating at this time of night, but intended to enjoy anyway.
‘So how’s the family?’ she asked, digging in. She had only seen Chel and little Zoë yesterday, but it felt as if she and Susan had been away for a year after the day they had spent.
‘They’re fine,’ said Oliver. He opened his second beer and poured it expertly. ‘Chel’s up in the air - she had a piece of good news this morning that set her off.’
‘Oh?’ asked Debbie, when he didn’t go on. Oliver took a swallow of his beer. ‘Her mother rang, it seems that brother Mike is quitting the army and coming home for good.’
‘That must be a relief,’ said Debbie. Chel’s brother Mike had been in some hotspots and given his family not a few bad moments over the years. She looked at her own brother curiously. ‘You haven’t ever met him, have you?’ It seemed unlikely, when you considered how long Oliver and Chel had been married.
‘No. It’s never worked that way. Tracy and Tom and the monsters, yes, often. Richie and Louise and that small child whose name I can never remember, once or twice. Mike and I have always managed to miss each other.’
‘He’s Chel’s favourite,’ stated Debbie.
‘What’s he going to do when he’s home? Help run the shop and take over when Chel’s Dad retires?’
‘I don’t know, but I would doubt it. After the life he’s lived the past fourteen years, I imagine a village shop will be very small beer. On the other hand, since I don’t know him, perhaps that’s his dream for civilian life.’
Debbie smiled, she was feeling better by the minute. ‘Looking at the rest of the family, I think I’m with you. For heaven’s sake, he’s Candy’s uncle!’
‘A sobering thought. It almost makes you sorry for the enemy, doesn’t it?’
‘What was he? Royal Artillery, or something, wasn’t it?’ It was an idle question; since neither of them had ever so much as set eyes on the absent Mike. A pause filler, Debbie, thought, and Oliver said, as idly, ‘Engineers. REME.’ All right, make that an awkward pause, then. Debbie decided that she was too tired to backtrack to her original question, and that it would be a shame to spoil a good steak. Mawgan’s brief interruption had been timely, she decided; if they tried to talk tonight, they’d only get bogged down, and it was becoming apparent by now that Susan had decided to call it a day. It seemed that Oliver had come to the same conclusion, for he smiled across at her and raised his glass.
‘Here’s to your bright eyes, Deb. You’re looking better, when I came up you looked grey and shattered.
‘Merci du compliment!’
He stayed for another half hour, talking about this and that, but never Dot, until Debbie had finished eating and set the tray aside, declining his offer to make coffee on the grounds that it gave her indigestion these days if she drank it in the evening. ‘It’s the one thing he can’t seem to take,’ she explained. ‘He tosses and turns all night. It’s such a weird feeling, having another person inside you.’
‘It must be,’ said Oliver, unable to imagine it.
‘I can’t believe how Chel overlooked it.’ Her sister-in-law’s child had come as a complete surprise - not to say shock.
‘She had other ideas in her head,’ said Oliver, quietly. ‘Deb ... there’s something we need to discuss with you, I’m not sure if this is the moment.’
‘Depends what it is.’
‘Sounds simple enough to me. You are having one, then?’
‘Chel wants it, and it’ll please all the parents. Anyway, we want Suse to be Zoë’s godmother.’
‘So where’s the problem?’
‘We thought,’ said Oliver, not meeting her eyes, ‘that it might be nice to leave it a month or so, and do the two of them together.’
Debbie thought about this, on the face of it, practical idea, and immediately saw the big snag that made it questionable. She understood Oliver’s reticence. ‘I can see the advantages, of course,’ she said, feeling her way. ‘A lot of people will be asked to both, so killing two birds with one stone is the obvious thing to do ... but Oliver, you do realise, it’ll mean asking Mum. We can’t not.’
‘That,’ said Oliver, carefully, ‘was the general idea.’
The first thought to enter Debbie’s head was that she really didn’t want to think about this one tonight, the second was that she might sleep better if she did.
‘I see .’ She hesitated, and was relieved when Oliver gave her a sudden brilliant smile.
‘No you don’t. I’ll tell you.’ But even so, he hesitated. Debbie waited.
‘The thing is,’ said Oliver, feeling his way towards something that he only half-understood himself. ‘The thing is, Chel and I think she ought to be there for Zoë’s christening ... but the way she’s going these days, if we asked her, she’d very likely throw the invitation in ourfaces. This way, she’s got - well, space to manoeuvre, I suppose it would be.’ Then, as Debbie was still silent, he said, impatiently, ‘Oh, come on Deb! She brought me up, for whatever reason, and she tried to do her best. It was me that didn’t, and look where it’s got us all!’
Debbie found her voice. ‘You want to offer an olive branch?’
‘Not wantto, no. I just think - and Chel agrees - it’s something we have to do. Me, particularly. It’s time to bury the hatchet, deep, deep down where hopefully we can never find it again. If last summer’s shenanigans proved nothing else, it proved that.’
‘Last summer’s ...?’ Debbie felt herself to be in such alien territory, she was almost afraid to speak.’
‘All that business over Annabel and Sebastian. She’d slammed the door in your face, she’d finally bullied Susan into a full-scale revolt, she was desperate not to lose all of you. That stood out a mile. Chel said she’d ridden her horse into a canyon, and knew it was one way only, no room to turn round. I only know that it all had a distinct flavour of total panic. However unlikely it sounds, she was shit scared of losing everyone, is all I can think of.’
‘Manipulating Tom over the custody issue wasn’t the best way to deal with it.’ It felt odd to be arguing with Oliver against her mother, but it had to be said. Oliver laughed, without mirth.
‘Deb, darling, your mother has never worked out the best way of doing anything. That’s her problem. Nonie says she was often almost certain that she meant well, she just didn’t have the knack of bringing it off.’ Anona Theodorakis was his own godmother, once a close friend of his mother, privy to all the secrets and uncomfortably clear-sighted. His father thought so, at least. She wasn’t afraid to speak out, either, and some of the things that she had said had brought Oliver up short, as in the past they had made Jerry break stride and sweat a little too. She had once said, among other things, that Dorothy Nankervis didn’t know how to be loved - not be lovable. Loved. Oliver was still trying to work this one out. He didn’t repeat it now to Debbie.
‘It all ended happily, that’s one thing,’ said Debbie, now. Almost, both she and Oliver thought, as if she was making excuses for her mother.
‘Yes,’ said Oliver, not without relief to be past that hurdle. ‘So, shall we do that?’
Their conversation had covered so much ground in such a small space of time, that for a moment Debbie couldn’t think what he was talking about. She stared at him for a blank moment, and then said, in relief, ‘Oh, the christening! Yes, of course. It’s only common sense when you think about it.’
Oliver had finished his third pint. He put the glass down. ‘Then, if you’ve finished licking that plate clean, I’ll put all this in the kitchen and go home to my wife and daughter. And you should follow your husband’s advice and take yourself to bed. You’ve had a long day.’
Debbie grinned at him.
‘Pregnancy isn’t an illness, you know. But if you insist, I’ll probably have a good soak in the bath and take a book to bed. Will that satisfy you?’
‘Yes.’ He gathered all the glasses and plates onto the tray and picked it up, standing for a moment looking down at her. ‘Sleep well, Deb. Sweet dreams.’
‘Oh, go home and polish your halo, you!’ She stood up so that she could reach to kiss his cheek. ‘You want to watch it, brother mine. You’re in danger of turning into a normal human being since you became a daddy!’
‘That’ll be the day.’
When she had shut the door on his departing back, Debbie wandered back into the flat and stood for a moment, uncertain what she wanted to do, in spite of what she had said to Oliver. She felt better, for in spite of its slightly curious final direction, their talk had done her good, she wasn’t sure why. She no longer felt as if they were banging their heads on a brick wall over their mother; although she couldn’t see how, she began to hope there might be a way through, over, or even under her intransigence. If they could find it, that is. She made a face, although there was nobody there to appreciate it.
And then, an odd thought came into her head.
Since their father had returned to his first wife, he had become a different man. With his parents reunited and his mother in a way reconciled with him, so too had Oliver. There was a clue there, if only she could find it. And Susan, reunited with her natural father’s family, stretching her intelligence on a degree course, and living with a man that she had chosen for herself, was unrecognisable.
So, what had their mother been trying to achieve?
The answer to that question might be interesting to know. She thought no further than that.
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