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Chapter 1 “Elizabeth Arden?”
It was the third Saturday before Christmas and Stephanie Glassman, resident pianist at the Oxford Street branch of Debenhams, was sitting at a white baby grand on the ground floor, playing “Winter Wonderland.” She couldn’t have looked less Elizabeth Arden–like if she’d tried. Unless, of course, Miss Arden used to celebrate the festive season by dressing up in a tacky Mrs. Claus Christmas outfit, which included a fur-trimmed thigh-high skirt and Teutonic blonde wig with plaited Alpine shepherdess-style earphones.
As she carried on playing, Stephanie looked up from the keyboard and saw a bulky, tweedy woman standing at her side. She was weighed down with carrier bags, and her face exuded faint desperation and the urgent need of a large gin. Stephanie had been at Debenhams for two weeks now and the haunted, get-me-out-of-here Christmas shopper look was one she had come to recognize only too well.
“I’m looking for her Perpetual Moisture,” the woman panted, desperation rising. “It’s for my sister-in-law in Stoke Poges. She swears by it. Lord knows why she bothers. Got a face like a fossilized custard skin. Harrods and Selfridges have both run out. Of course, if I had my way the poisonous old boot would get a box of Newberry Fruits and a Jamie Oliver video and be done with it.”
While the woman paused for breath, Stephanie gave her a warm, sympathetic smile.
“The Elizabeth Arden counter is just over there.” She nodded. “Behind Dior.”
“Right, well, if they haven’t got it I think I’ll plump for a foot spa. That way I can always live in hope she might electrocute herself.” Stephanie thought it best to remain noncommittal—at least regarding the electrocution bit. “A foot spa’s always useful,” she said. “Or gardening gloves and a pair of pruning shears, maybe.”
With that the woman huffed off toward the Elizabeth Arden counter and Stephanie segued into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Being Jewish, Stephanie’s family didn’t do Christmas—something for which she knew her mother, Estelle, had always been eternally grateful. The spring cleaning, shopping, baking and fish frying frenzy of Passover was enough to send her racing for the Valium—without having to cope with Christmas as well. Stephanie, on the other hand, had always rather resented the family’s lack of Christmas celebrations.
Traditional as they may have been where Passover was concerned, her parents weren’t particularly observant. For a start, they ate nonkosher food. When she was a kid they went out for Chinese dinner nearly every Sunday night. Her father was a ferocious advocate of cha siu pork, believing its medicinal qualities to be infinitely greater than those of chicken soup. Her grandmother, who usually accompanied them on these jaunts, refused to touch the pork. On top of this she always insisted on going through what Stephanie called her preening ritual, whereby she painstakingly picked out all the pork and prawns from her yung chow rice and piled them up in her napkin.
Christmas was like pork. You could “have it out”—like the turkey lunch at the Finchley Post House, even the midnight carol service at The Blessed Virgin down the road (her mum loved the tunes)—but on no account was it to be brought into the house.
As a child, Stephanie ached to take part in all the Christmas excitement and always felt jealous of her non-Jewish friends. Each year at junior school, just before they broke up for the holidays, all the kids in her class (except her, David Solomons and the Qureshi twins) would stand around in groups, busy competing about what they were getting for Christmas and having impassioned debates about whether Father Christmas really existed or whether the fat old bloke who delivered presents was just your dad dressed up.
She could still remember walking home from school on those dank December afternoons. It was teatime and in all the non-Jewish houses, the tree lights were being switched on. Every so often she would stop and stare at the twinkling windows, feeling she was peering into a never-never land. Ordinary houses, with their boring tarmac drives and UPVC window frames, became enchanted fairy grottoes. Her eight-year-old heart quite literally ached not just for Santa and the pillowcase of presents, but for the tinsel, the Christmas tree baubles, the crackers, the ritual of leaving mince pies outside for the reindeer—the sheer wondrous, sparkling magic of it all.
Of course she had Hanukkah, which happened around the same time as Christmas, but it wasn’t the same, lighting a few pathetic candles and getting a fiver pressed into your hand by some whiskery old aunt.
When she gave birth to Jake, two and a half years ago, she promised him three things: her unconditional love and support, that she would never allow him to own a motorbike while he lived under her roof, and that he would have a childhood full of brilliant Christmases. Although this was his second, it was the first he was old enough to appreciate. As a result, Stephanie’s living room ceiling was thick with paper chains, streamers and balloons. In the alcove next to the fireplace stood a garish, overdressed, six-foot-tall Norway spruce, which—since there was no husband or boyfriend to do it for her—Stephanie’s father, Harry, had insisted on schlepping back from the greengrocer’s around the corner, on the strict understanding it was to be referred to as a Hanukkah bush. Deciding that she shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Stephanie agreed.
She looked down at her watch. Almost three. Time for her break. Although she loved Christmas, she loathed her Mrs. Claus getup. What she hated even more was walking through the store wearing it. She didn’t mind the short skirt so much because it showed off her long—and even if she did say so herself—shapely legs, as did the long stiletto-heeled boots she’d been given. No, what she loathed was the earphones wig. It made her look like that woman in The Sound of Music who, having been handed second prize at the Salzburg Music Festival, refused to stop bowing.
Women who noticed the earphones tended to smile in sympathy, but blokes always made some kind of smart remark. “Can you get the football on ’em, then?” Yesterday a shaven-headed youth in a Manchester United football shirt, loitering suspiciously with his mates by the watches, had yelled out: “Whassit like shagging Santa, then?”
“Not that good, actually,” she’d replied, grinning. “He only comes once a year.” Ho bleeding ho.
What worried her most about being Mrs. Claus was the thought of being seen by somebody who knew her, such as her parents’ rabbi, or an ex-boyfriend, or perhaps some girl from school she hadn’t seen for years and who now looked like Gwyneth Paltrow and was in mergers and acquisitions. It wasn’t just the costume she would have to explain away. Far more important was why, more than ten years after leaving university (English, honors) and a successful stint at drama school—not to mention her great singing voice—she could aspire to nothing more elevated, careerwise, than a temp job as a cheesy, piano-playing Mrs. Claus in a middle-market chain store.
Stephanie finished with a quick burst of “Jingle Bell Rock” and then stood up. The place was teeming with the fraught and the frazzled. A few feet away, a middle-aged couple seemed to be having a major fight about driving gloves. Then: “Coooeee.”
Her heart sank to her stiletto boots. It had finally happened. Somebody had recognized her. OK, she could always say her dad played golf with Mr. Debenham and she was just helping out because the store’s regular piano player had come down with Ebola.
She turned toward the voice. Instant relief. It was only the tweedy woman bent on electrocuting her sister-in-law in Stoke Poges. She was holding up a Debenhams carrier bag.
“Mini carpet bowls,” she cackled. “Byeee. Merry Christmas!”
Stephanie gave her a small wave and watched the woman disappear into the crowd. She was just trying to work out whether she had time to go to the loo and get to the toy department to buy Jake his main present—a Bob the Builder tool belt, on which she was entitled to a 20 percent staff discount—when she saw someone even more embarrassing than Rabbi Nodel.
She recognized Frank Waterman at once. Dark, swept-back hair, eyes the color of conkers, just a hint of well-tended stubble. They’d been in Cabaret together at the Nottingham Playhouse, six or seven years back. Stephanie had been in the chorus and he’d played Cliff Bradshaw, the romantic lead. During their time together, she developed the most almighty crush on him, but nothing ever happened between them. They exchanged hellos at rehearsals, went drinking with the same gang after the show, but since he was so resoundingly A-list to look at and always had stacks of women (not to mention a couple of blokes) sniffing round, she’d never plucked up the courage to flirt with him.
The show had been on for a couple of weeks when the message filtered down to London that the production was particularly excellent and a theater critic from one of the broadsheets turned up. He raved about the show and Frank’s performance in particular, saying he possessed that indefinable quality common to all great actors and that celebrity undoubtedly beckoned. Frank had never looked back. These days, he was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rising star—and she was Mrs. Claus with earphones.
Now he was coming her way, but since he was busy chatting to the woman with him, Stephanie was pretty certain he hadn’t noticed her. Plus it had been years since they’d last met and it wasn’t as if they’d had much to do with each other back then. Chances were that even if he saw her, he wouldn’t recognize her. Nevertheless she sat back down on the piano stool and buried her head in her music book.
“Steph?” Bugger. OK, play it cool. Do not let him see you’re flustered. She looked up and forced her mouth onto full beam. “Frank? Frank Waterman?”
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “I knew it was you. I said to Anoushka”—glorious cheekbones, Fulham highlights—“I’m sure that’s Steph from Cabaret. God, it must be what, four, five years ago?”
“No. As long as that?”
“Yup. Time flies.”
“God, doesn’t it? So, you’re Mrs. Christmas.”
He was looking at the wig and smiling. Her hand sprang self-consciously to her left earphone. “A bit Heidi, I know.” A smirk of agreement from Anoushka. “Still, it’s only until Christmas Eve. Pays the bills.”
“But what about the singing? Don’t say you’ve stopped. You had such a fantastic voice. You were into blues and jazz, if I remember. Ella, Peggy Lee, that sort of stuff.”
“That’s right.” She was gobsmacked. Utterly astounded that he remembered. He turned to Anoushka. “One night in the pub when we were touring, Steph got up and sang ‘My Melancholy Baby.’ She was outstanding. Had us all in tears.”
“Really?” Anoushka said with a brief, polite smile.
There was a moment’s silence. “Wow, stunning earrings,” Stephanie said to Anoushka, noticing the glistening pinkish-red stones. “I love rubies.”
“They’re pink diamonds, actually.”
“Anoushka designed them herself,” Frank said. “She runs her own jewelry business.”
“Oh, right.” Stephanie nodded. Then the penny dropped. Anoushka didn’t run a mere business. It was a full-frontal corporate empire. “God, of course, you’re Anoushka Holland. I read that piece about you in last month’s Vogue. Didn’t your company just get bought out by Theo Fennell for eleven million quid?”
“Eleven point five,” Anoushka corrected. Having been put in her place, Stephanie didn’t quite know what to say next. Frank picked up on her awkwardness.
“So,” he said to Stephanie, “are you still singing?”
“Yes. I do a couple of gigs a week at the Blues Café in Islington. And I’ve had the odd bit in Chicago and Les Mis. Nothing major, though.”
“Oh, it’ll happen one day,” he said. “With a voice like yours, it has to.”
“But what about you? The critics loved you in Othello.”
He blushed ever so slightly. Before he had a chance to reply, Anoushka broke in: “We really ought to be going, Frankie. I need to pick up a few bits at the General Trad- ing Company.” She put a proprietorial arm through his. “We only popped in to buy that Dustbuster thingy your grandmother was after.” That last remark was clearly for Stepha- nie’s benefit—to explain why the likes of Anoushka, her highlights and her eleven point five million, were slumming it at Debenhams.
“And don’t forget,” she went on, “we’re due at the wedding planner’s at six.”
“Tying the knot in the spring,” Frank explained.
“Thanks. We’re off to discuss harpists and doves. Bit bloody camp if you ask me. Plus I’ve got visions of two hundred guests turning up to the reception covered in bird turd.”
“Frankie,” Anoushka said, laughing, but Stephanie could tell she was cross, “how many more times? Otto has promised faithfully they don’t feed the doves for three hours before the ceremony. Now then, we really must get going.”
“Yes, we must,” he said. “Sorry, Steph. It’s been great seeing you.”
“Sweetie,” Anoushka simpered.
“Perhaps Anoushka and I could catch you at the Blues Café one night?”
Anoushka had already started walking away. “Yeah. That’d be good,” Stephanie said.
“Catch up on old times.”
He gave her a soft smile.
“Bye,” she said. A moment later he had caught up with Anoushka, who turned her head and gave a little wave. “Bye Beth, lovely meeting you.”
Stephanie arrived home just before seven. She rented the house—a large four-story Victorian terrace in Muswell Hill—from Jimmy, who was best mates with her friend Cass. He was also filthy rich. In November, having been dumped by his lover, Brian, he decided to take off to Phuket for six months “to heal myself.” He had simply wanted somebody to look after the house and feed Liberace the cat, a Persian with a coat of the palest peach. Stephanie had to persuade Jimmy to take any rent at all. In the end he asked her what she was paying for her flat round the corner—which was so small it would have virtually fit into Jimmy’s living room. She told him and he said she might as well pay him the same.
Since Jimmy was a film set designer as well as gay, the place had been totally decorated when she moved in. With its overstuffed sofas, chandeliers (in the bathroom), swags and tails curtains—not to mention the Cath Kidston cowboy ironing board cover—it was just a bit too camp for her taste. She was more of a black-leather-sofas-and-white-walls-covered-in-huge-abstracts sort of a person. But since she could barely afford the Habitat catalogue, let alone buy anything from it, she wasn’t about to get picky. Stephanie had been there eight weeks and still couldn’t believe her luck. Even now she was still pinching herself whenever she walked through the door.
“Hi, Mrs. M.,” she called from the hall. “Sorry I’m late. Had to let three trains go at Oxford Circus, they were so packed. God, I forgot, it’s your darts night tonight. I haven’t made you late, have I?”
“Don’t worry, darlin’,” Mrs. McCreedy’s voice came from the kitchen. “Doesn’t start until eight. I’ve got loads of time.”
She hung up her coat and went into the kitchen, where Jake—aged two and a half—was sitting astride his red plastic road digger, eating Marmite soldiers. His face—what she could see of it under his rather too-big policeman’s helmet—was smeared in a crust of dried-up baked bean sauce. The moment he saw her he jumped up and came charging toward her.
“Hi, poppet,” she said, scooping him up and kissing him on a patch of bean-free face. “So, how are you?”
Jake didn’t really understand the question. A couple of months ago, when he was getting over chicken pox, he’d overheard people asking Stephanie how he was. She’d said, “Oh, much better.” This had led him to believe that “better” was the correct and only response to the question. “That’s good,” Stephanie said. “And what did you have for lunch?”
“Chickens.” For some reason Stephanie had yet to work out, Jake only ever ate meat in the plural. “Hard noses, Mummy. Hard noses.” Before she’d had a chance to protest, Jake was pressing his nose against hers with all his might. She tried to give as good as she got, but Jake’s tiny young nose was so soft, he felt no pain. “Enough. Enough,” she cried out, eyes watering.
“Now then, Jake,” Mrs. McCreedy said, closing the dishwasher and wiping her hands on her tabard overall, “will you stop hurting your poor mammy when she’s just come in exhausted from work.”
“Me won! Me has won!” He wriggled down and got back on the digger.
“How’s he been?” Stephanie said to Mrs. McCreedy.
“Not a moment’s trouble. He slept until four, though. He’s not going to be ready for his bed in a hurry.”
Poor Mrs. M. sounded so apologetic—she must have seen Stephanie’s face fall ever so slightly. She adored Jake, was always desperate to see him when she got in from work, but what she wanted more than anything right now was a long soak in the bath and an early night.
“Now then,” said Mrs. McCreedy, “how’s about a nice cuppa?”
“No, you sit down. You’ve been on your feet all day. I’ll get it. On second thought, I think I’d rather have a glass of wine. What about you?”
“Ah, go on, then.” Mrs. McCreedy smiled, pulling out a kitchen chair. “Twist my arm. It is the festive season, after all.” She landed heavily on the chair. Then she leaned over to where Jake was sitting on his digger and gave him a gentle, conspiratorial nudge in the ribs. “But you’re not to go telling on your mammy and me. Understand?”
Jake gave a solemn shake of his head and Mrs. M. rewarded him with another Marmite soldier.
“So,” Stephanie said, pulling the rubber wine stopper out of a half-finished bottle of Jacob’s Creek, “the darts team in good shape for tonight?” She was referring to the Duke’s Head pub ladies’ darts team. Mrs. M. had been a member for fifteen years. Tonight they were taking on the team from The Crooked Billet.
“The best we’ll ever be. Not that it’ll get us very far. That other lot—crooked by name, crooked by nature.” She lowered her voice. “Two of them are bloomin’ whatyoumacallits. Trans something. That’s it, transsexualists. Apparently they look like women, but according to my friend Audrey, they’ve still got their willies and everything. I always say, live and let live, but what chance do we stand with them and all their male hormones still raging?”
“I get the point,” Stephanie said, battling to keep a straight face. She handed Mrs. McCreedy a glass of wine and sat down next to her at the long kitchen table. Whenever Stephanie thought about Mrs. McCreedy, she couldn’t believe her luck. She was Ballykissangel meets Mary Poppins—except she had a good fifty years on Ms. Poppins, couldn’t sing a note and had a dodgy hip. She was, however, magic. At least where Jake was concerned. Nobody could bring him down from a tantrum like Mrs. M. Or get him to eat like Mrs. M. Her methods would have caused Penelope Leach to take a Valium and lie down in a darkened room, but they worked. Mrs. M., who had raised nine children of her own back in Cork, was a firm believer in bribery. This took the form of cakes. Mr. Kipling Fondant Fancies.
“Eat your dinner, Jakey,” she would say, “and I’ll see what I can find.” He would clean his plate and she would pull a Day-Glo pink Fancie out of her handbag the way Mary Poppins produced a hat stand. Stephanie suspected he had already developed a three-a-day habit.
On the one hand, Stephanie lived in fear of Jake starting school with a full set of dentures; on the other, she was loath to confront Mrs. M. in case she got offended and left.
Jake adored Mrs. M. as much as he adored his grandmother. In fact, they adored each other. It was true love. Stephanie couldn’t risk losing her. Plus she was cheap. On what Stephanie earned a month, she couldn’t begin to afford a proper nanny.
Mrs. McCreedy always said she didn’t look after Jake for the money, she did it for the company. After her husband died, she moved to England to live with her widowed sister. When the sister died a couple of years ago, she realized she needed something to fill her days. She refused to go back to Ireland to live with her children because “they had their own lives” and it would mean leaving her friends on the darts team. Stephanie knew she would have to say something about all the sugar, but not just yet.
Of course, there was a much more serious issue with Mrs. M.: her arthritic hip, which had gotten much worse over the last few months. It had been barely noticeable two years ago when she first came to look after Jake, but now she walked with a heavy limp and Stephanie could see how she struggled to chase after Jake. Suppose she slipped on the stairs? At least Jake did the stairs on his own these days, so she didn’t have to carry him. She also insisted on a leash when Mrs. M. took him out for a walk, but this didn’t stop Stephanie having nightmares about Jake running into a busy road and Mrs. M. being too late to catch him. Something had to be done. But sacking Mrs. M. was unthinkable. She lived for the time she spent with Jake. Stephanie took a huge glug of wine. She would think about it again after Christmas.
“Right, I’ll be off, then,” Mrs. McCreedy said. As she stood up, they both noticed Jake over by the kitchen cupboards. He had poured half a packet of flour onto the floor and was jumping up and down in it. “Oh, darlin’—not the flour.”
“Jakey! No.” Jake hated being shouted at and burst into tears.
“Oh, now then, now then,” Mrs. McCreedy soothed, limping over to him. “Stop your tears. Let’s see what I’ve got in my bag, shall we?”
Jake sniffed and took Mrs. M.’s hand and the pair of them proceeded back to the kitchen table, Jake leaving a trail of floury footprints. Stephanie looked on as Mrs. M. said the magic words: “Issie wizzie, let’s get busy.”
“Ooh, I know,” Stephanie said, attempting to interrupt, “why don’t I—” She was about to suggest reading him a story to calm him down, but she was too late. Mrs. M. had already dug into her bag and, with a flourish, produced a fluorescent yellow Fondant Fancie. Jake yelped with delight.
While he sat on his digger demolishing the Fancie, Stephanie swept up the mess, but not before Liberace had come mincing in. Before she could stop him he’d walked through it and left a mixture of wet mud and flour prints all over the floor.
In the end it needed a complete mop and Mr. Clean. Then, because it was an expensive wood floor, she had to get out Jimmy’s electric polisher, which was huge and unwieldy, the kind that required wearing a sports bra to operate. It was well after eight by the time she’d finished. She decided they might as well take their evening bath together. Jake laughed to the point of hiccups as she deposited clusters of bubbles on his nose and head and made shampoo horns with her hair.
As they played, she found herself thinking about Frank and Anoushka—how hugely successful they were and how she longed to be part of some smug self-satisfied couple with their own Web site. Since having Jake, she’d had a couple of short-lived relationships, but nothing serious. The last one had ended just before she moved into the house. She was getting to the stage when, hard up as she was, she would hand over a winning lottery ticket for one single night of passion. The last time she’d slept with somebody had been after her fat cousin Miriam’s wedding. At the reception she’d been put next to a bloke called Lewis, who was in dried fruit. She could tell he fancied her because all through dinner he kept on and on about how a cross section of a dried pear resembled a vulva. He was cute enough, but much as she tried to steer the conversation off dried fruit, somehow they always came back to the pear thing or to EU fig quotas. The only light relief came when they spent half an hour discussing the ins and outs of his impending laser eye surgery. Apparently he was blind without his lenses.
That night she went home with Lewis. It was more to end her sexual drought than anything else. Jake was spending the night at Stephanie’s friend Lizzie’s. Normally, she never slept with men she had just met, and it occurred to her that Lewis might be some mad pervert. She decided it was unlikely, though, since he was cousin Miriam’s boring, straight-as-a-die husband’s best mate.
She’d expected him to be from the “brace yourself” school of foreplay, but he wasn’t. He spent ages getting her warmed up. Finally he suggested getting some K-Y jelly. She insisted she didn’t need it—what was it with this bloke and the dried pear metaphor?—but he insisted. He returned from the bathroom, said he’d run out of K-Y jelly but had found a jar of Vaseline. Then he asked her in a rather naff, doctorish way, which she found herself rather enjoying, to open her legs. She let her knees fall apart and waited, heart thumping. A moment later she was screaming, but not with delight. It wasn’t a jar of Vaseline poor, myopic Lewis had found in the bathroom, it was Vicks VapoRub.
As well as sex, she desperately wanted a decent singing gig. When she left drama school her mates and her tutors all said that if anybody was destined to make it in musicals, she was. But it just hadn’t happened. There had been the small solo part in Chicago, but mainly all she got was chorus stuff. Occasionally she was called in to do a TV advertising jingle, which was always good news because ads paid top dollar. What with that, the theater and the odd stint playing the piano in hotel lounges and department stores, she just about managed to pay the bills. The Blues Café paid virtually nothing, so it didn’t count. She did it for pleasure and in the hope that one day she might get discovered by some hot impresario.
The Billie, Ella and Peggy stuff was in her soul. Her dad was a fanatic and their music—those melting, melancholy melodies—formed some of her earliest memories. She’d lacked confidence as a child, and her parents thought singing lessons might help. Not only did she find her confidence, she found her voice—a deep, velvet, practically black voice, her singing teacher said. Had she ever thought of singing blues? The first time she sang in public—“Summertime” at a school do—and she felt the adrenaline, saw how she could touch an audience, she knew she wanted to do it for a living.
Her parents and teachers urged caution and she did the sensible thing and went to university—Leeds—and carried on singing in local clubs. Then she joined the drama society and discovered that she could act too. After she graduated from university, three drama schools offered her a place. These days, plenty of people—apart from her mum, dad and grandmother, who were clearly biased—said she should be doing better professionally. Nobody could understand why she hadn’t landed a lead part in a musical. Sheer bloody bad luck, they said. But she could understand it perfectly. She knew the way show business worked, and that it was perfectly possible her luck might never change. She was thirty-two. When she went back to work six months after Jake was born, she gave herself two years to land a decent part in a musical or get some kind of recognition as a solo jazz singer. Her time was up. For weeks now she’d found herself looking at courses in teaching English as a second language in The Guardian.
From time to time she’d thought about changing agents. Eileen Griffin, who was in her sixties, had represented her for years and was starting to lose her edge. Not that she’d ever had much of one. The booze had seen to that. Two or three years ago Stephanie had even made a demo CD to send out to other agents. Then just as she was about to do the deed, Eileen would get her six weeks in Chicago or Les Miz and she would put it off. Maybe the time had finally come to send out that CD. If nobody else was interested, then she would think about giving up. At least then she could say she’d tried everything.
Of course Jake wasn’t remotely tired even after the bath and they had to go downstairs to make Play-Doh green eggs and ham. Then he had a tantrum because she put the eggs and ham on the same plate, when he had apparently made it abundantly clear that they were to go on separate ones. By nine she insisted they go upstairs to his brand-new “big boy’s bed” and read stories.
“Do Fatapillow,” he shouted, bouncing on the Thunderbirds duvet. “Do Fatapillow.”
This meant she should sit on the bed reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Jake’s all-time favorite read, over and over again while he lay in bed and “zizzed” his label. Other kids went to bed with bits of smelly old blanket. Jake had a grubby Mothercare label torn out of an old T-shirt, which he rubbed, or, in Jake argot, “zizzed,” between his fingers. Every time her voice faltered or her eyes started to close he would prod her. “Read, read. Read, read.” Four rounds of Fatapillow later and he was still wide awake. “Sing, sing. Sing, sing.”
“Jake, Mummy’s totally knackered,” Stephanie pleaded, virtually on the point of offering him an entire box of Fondant Fancies if he would only go to sleep and let her go to bed with the telly, the wine bottle and a Be Good to Yourself lasagna.
“Sing, sing. Sing, sing.”
“OK . . . Your baby has gorn down the plughole / Your baby has gorn down the plug . . .”
“Not that one. Not that one.” She looked at her beautiful, innocent child and felt instantly guilty.
“Say night-night Daddy now,” Jake said. He picked up the picture of Albert from his bedside table and licked it. “Jake, you know that’s not a kiss. Now I have to clean all your slobber off Daddy.” She wiped the glass with her sleeve.
“My daddy come for Christmas from ’merica?”
“I hope so, darling, I hope so.”
Albert had this habit of saying that he was coming for a visit, then a job would come up and he would cancel at the last moment. To give him his due, though, he always turned up eventually, laden with guilt presents. Of course, the timing never mattered much when Jake was a baby, but now he was old enough to understand about daddies and to be hurt by broken promises.
“Come on, Jakey, sleep time.” She pulled the duvet up over his shoulders.
“Sing, sing, Mummy. Sing, sing.”
“All right.” She turned off the bedside light, slipped in bed beside him and began stroking his head.
“There were birds, on a hill / But I never heard them singing . . . Till there was you.”