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To this day, she doesn't know what made her do it. Feminine intuition perhaps.
The day started the same as any other. Jo was rushing around getting the kids ready for school; Jeff was rushing around thinking only of himself. As usual, he had already asked several moronic questions as if he were merely a guest in the house in which they'd lived for four years. "Where are the clean towels? Is there any milk? How does the central heating timer work? We're running out of toilet paper" And so on. It was a never-ending assault on Jo's senses, like having a third child.
Trouble was, Jeff was one of those men who had grown up with a mother who did everything for him. All his life, he had been accustomed to just dropping an item of clothing on the floor and not seeing it again until it miraculously reappeared in his closet, washed, ironed, and hung neatly on a padded hanger. Jo suspected Jeff's mother prided herself on being there to catch her son's discarded clothing before it touched the floor. There was little doubt she had been disappointed by her son's choice of such a shambolic, disheveled wife.
This morning, the Planet Hollywood T-shirt Jo had worn in bed the night before was tucked into a pair of baggy-bummed, black tracksuit bottoms, and her dark-blond hair was scraped back into a messy ponytail. On her feet were a pair of those flat airline socks designed for people with no ankle, heel or arch.
Thomas and Sophie were sitting at the breakfast table. Thomas, who was eight, wore only the bottoms of his Batman pajamas; the top was tied around his head like a pint-size commando. His shock of blond hair was in its early morning Woody Woodpecker style, and he was spilling cornflakes over the floor as he turned to watch the TV set flickering in the corner.
Like most six-year-old girls, Sophie was in her pink phase. Barbie pink phase to be more precise, with Barbie nightdress and slippers, and a Barbie hairslide wedged on one side of her head, giving her hair the attractive swept-over look favored by Arthur Scargill. She was drawing a misshapen heart on a piece of scrap paper with one hand and eating a jam-covered bagel with the other.
Jo was frantically buttering two rounds of Marmite sandwiches for their lunchboxes when Jeff burst into the kitchen adjusting his tie. He had two pieces of tissue stuck to his face where he'd cut himself shaving.
"Have you been using my razor on your legs again? It's blunt."
"No." Jo wiped a buttery finger on her trouser leg. Well, it wasn't strictly a lie. She had used the razor...but on her bikini line.
Jeff looked businesslike in a dark-blue Jasper Conran suit and royal-blue shirt. His hair was still damp from the shower and combed back in the Gordon Gecko "lunch-is-for-wimps" look favored by the eighties yuppie. As soon as it dried it fell forward into a more attractive flop, making him look less like a solicitor, Jo thought. Jeff was a partner in a local practice that relied heavily on conveyancing work, divorces and legal aid cases. It wasn't exactly Skadden, Arps, but it paid the bills.
"Behind the door." Jo answered him before he could complete the question he asked every morning.
Grabbing his briefcase, he rushed up to each of the children and kissed the top of their heads.
"Be good, you two," Jo mouthed to herself.
"Be good, you two." Jeff''s voice was in perfect sync with her mime.
"Daddy, look!" said Sophie excitedly, waving a scrap of paper at him as he headed out of the kitchen door. "This is for you."
Clearly irritated by this delay, Jeff stopped in his tracks and came back to the cluttered table where Sophie was brandishing her little drawing of a heart. "To daddy, lots of love, Sophie" was scribbled on it.
"That's a lovely apple, darling," he said, glancing at it then leaving it on the table. Jo's heart lurched as she saw the disappointment on her daughter's face.
"Silly daddy, it's a heart, isn't it, sweetie?" she said, picking up the drawing and holding it out to Jeff. "Here, take it to work and pin it on your wall."
With an ostentatious I'm-a-terribly-busy-person sigh, he threw his briefcase onto the table and flipped open the lid. Inside was a packet of photographs. "Oh here, I forgot. I got that film developed. There are some nice snaps of you and the kids from that weekend at your mum and dad's." He threw the packet on the table.
"Thanks. What time will you be home tonight?" Jo tried desperately to sound casual. It was her greatest fear in life that she might turn into a nagging wife, but life with Mr. Slippery sometimes made this hard to avoid.
"Not sure. Got a late meeting I think. Call you later." And he was gone.
She stood and stared down the hallway as the front door closed behind him, and wondered at what point they had stopped communicating with each other. He had stopped kissing her good-bye in the mornings some months ago, and it now seemed their lives were linked by little other than the children and a hefty mortgage.
She sent the children upstairs for their morning ritual of washing faces and cleaning teeth, then wandered down the hallway to the large, sunny room at the front of their Victorian semi in leafy west London.
She stood in the bay window and let other people's lives wash over her for a moment. The block of flats opposite was always a good source of amusement, whether it was the gay couple in 4c having a loud row with all the windows open, or Mrs. Hobbs, the eighty-year-old woman who lived on the ground floor. Jo had made quite an effort to get to know her when they had first moved in, knowing she would be useful for keeping a curtain-twitching eye on the house whenever they were out. Then, one day, when they were chatting about the other residents in the block, Mrs. Hobbs had brought the subject round to the poetically-suited Derek and Eric in 4c.
"They're homosapiens you know," she whispered conspiratorially, screwing up her deeply wrinkled face in disapproval.
Jo laughed, and replied, "So am I." Mrs. Hobbs had given her a wide berth ever since.
This morning, a smartly dressed young couple came out of the communal doorway, both clutching briefcases and umbrellas. It was starting to drizzle slightly, and he took her umbrella from her, opened it out, and handed it back. It was a simple act of consideration, but one that reminded Jo of how detached her and Jeff's lives had become. Those little gestures were so important. Someone pouring you a drink before you'd got around to asking for one, running you a bath because you looked tired, or opening your umbrella before you even thought of doing it yourself. The last time Jeff had done anything for her had been about six months ago when she was struck down by food poisoning. And that was only because he had to, she thought ruefully. The young couple shared a tender kiss and went their separate ways.
With a sigh, Jo walked back through to the kitchen, pausing briefly at the foot of the stairs. "Get a move on you two, your uniforms are on your beds." She picked up the photographs from where they lay on the kitchen table, half-covering Sophie's heart drawing which, after all that, Jeff had forgotten to take.
The first two pictures were of her dad, Jim, peering around the door of his potting shed at her parents' Oxford home, where he did more pottering than potting. It was his refuge from Jo's mother, Pam, and he would spend his time reading old crime novels or trying to have a crafty fag without being nagged to death. Jo often wondered why they were still together as they seemed to have so little in common. A couple of years earlier she had asked her father that exact question and he'd replied, rather bitterly she thought, "Saves spoiling another couple."
The next few photographs showed her mother, pinched and uptight, standing with the children on the small patio area at the back of the house. She was not a naturally affectionate woman and obviously found it difficult having them to stay. Thomas hated going there because his grandparents' television was too old to accommodate his PlayStationa blessed relief as far as Jo was concerned. The thought of her mother catching sight of "Mortal Kombat" was right up there with another Status Quo comeback concert on the list of things you don't want to see. And as for Sophie, Jo lived in constant fear of her breaking one of the hideous but plentiful ornaments that adorned the neat little bungalow with its ruched lace curtains and latticed windows.
Adding to the stress of staying with her parents was the fact that Jo worked as an interior designer, and had been itching to get her hands on their dreadful decor for years.
"Don't come here with your fancy ideas," her mother said sharply when Jo once dared to suggest redecorating. "We like it this way."
The rest of the photographs were taken up with Sophie's sixth birthday party at the house, a couple of weeks after their Oxford visit.
Jo and Jeff had invited fifteen of Sophie's friends along and booked a children's entertainer to keep them occupied. But on the morning of the party "Jolly Jake" had rung to say he had flu and couldn't make it, so Jeff got out his old guitar and tried to amuse the children with his appalling rendition of "Smoke on the Water." Within seconds of one of Sophie's more forward friends declaring, "Your dad's crap," he had resorted to putting on the Spice Girls CD and took several photographs of all the children high-kicking their way around the room to the torturous strains of "Wannabe."
Jo's brow furrowed as she patted the photographs into a neat pile to place back in the packet. There didn't seem to be enough. She counted them. Nineteen prints out of a possible twenty-four. Strange, she thought. The film had been developed digitally so there were no negatives, just a small plastic cassette. The contact sheet that usually came with them was nowhere to be seen.
"Can I see them, mum?" Thomas had come back downstairs and was looking over her shoulder. Sophie stood in the doorway picking her nose, with her school skirt tucked into the back of her knickers.
"No, we haven't got time now. You can both see them when you get back from school. Come on." Jo stuffed the photographs into her overflowing handbag and they all headed out of the door.
It was still niggling her as she walked to the local shops after dropping off the children. Only nineteen prints and no contact sheet. Maybe the shop had cocked up the developing and were trying to pull a fast one. Most people would have let it go, but Jo could be obsessive about detail. Her best friend Rosie called her anal retentive.
So, fifteen minutes later, she walked through Boots to the photographic counter at the back. The place was quiet except for a confused pensioner with a problem she couldn't quite get to grips with. The assistant was speaking in loud, deliberate tones.
"You've used the same film twice, madam," she bellowed, showing some woman a picture of herself in ghostly form standing over some bougainvillea.
A bored second assistant came out from a back room. Silently, she extended a hand in Jo's direction.
"Hello, could I have another set of prints and a contact sheet off this please?" Jo handed over the little cassette.
"When d'ya want 'em for?" She had six gold studs in one ear and a necklace which spelled out the name "Cheyenne."
"That's fine. I'll be back at about ten-thirty then."
She headed for a little French cafe just down the road, stopping briefly to buy a copy of the Sun. Heaven was a child-free time slot in which to read a newspaper from cover to cover.