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'We're far too young to be doing this, Jeffrey.' Kate looked round the crumbling village hall and put her equally crumbly fruit cake down beside her tepid cup of tea.
'What?' Her husband looked up from the bright yellow book that listed English gardens open to the public.
'This.' Kate gestured at the peeling paintwork. She lowered her voice. 'Everyone else in here looks like they need a walker to even move.'
Her husband peered over his glasses at her. 'It's not that bad. You do exaggerate.'
'Can you see anyone here who isn't likely to be in the post office next Tuesday, drawing their old-age pension apart from us?'
Jeffrey surveyed the room. He took off his glasses and had a closer look. His mouth twisted uncertainly. 'We've just caught them at a bad time.'
'I think we're the ones who are at a bad time.'
At this, he put down the book with a sigh and folded his arms. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
'We've turned into trainee pensioners.' She tugged her dark hair back from her forehead with a frustrated jerk, showing the spark of her vivid blue eyes in their full glory. 'We can't walk a hundred yards without feeling faint and needing to be resuscitated by angel layer cake and tea with too much milk.' Kate picked up her cup and put it down again disconsolately.
Her husband looked puzzled. 'But I thought you were thirsty?'
'I am thirsty, but that's not the point. We are in the prime of our lives,' she said emphatically. 'We should still be passionate about things.'
'I'm still very passionate.'
She flopped back in her orange plastic chair, causing it to wobble on its rickety legs. 'About what?'
'I liked that bubble pond and splashy fountain thing in the last garden Whatsit Cottage,' he ventured, scanning the book to find it, without success. 'Didn't you think it was nice?'
'And that's being passionate?' Kate picked up a fragment of her cake and tossed it in her mouth. 'We've not yet climbed the hill to forty and we're behaving as if we're ready for our retirement home.'
A hurt look flashed across Jeffrey's face. 'Don't you enjoy nosing round other people's gardens?'
'Yes,I do. But perhaps I'd enjoy doing something else more.'
'Like rollerblading or windsurfing or rock climbing.'
Her husband frowned at the dregs of cold tea in his pale green utilitarian china cup complete with designer chip.
'You've no sense of balance for rollerblading. You hate getting wet and you don't like heights.'
'Well, something else then.'
'The children enjoyed our outing today,' he reasoned.
'Doesn't that worry you?'
'No, I think it's rather nice.' He smiled benevolently in their direction.
Kate followed his glance to the Women's Institute homemade produce stall, where a cornucopia of hand-written labels and cellophane-wrapped sponge cakes graced an unsteady trestle table. 'They're looking at home-made jam,' she said disbelievingly. 'They're ten and twelve years old and they're looking at home-made jam happily.'
'Well, what's wrong with that?' Jeffrey asked.
'Look at them. They don't argue. Ever. They play nicely together. They sit and watch Neighbours without fighting over the channel changer. And I can't get a twitch of interest out of them for the lust of Heartbreak High.'
The father of Joseph and Kerry Lewis cracked his knuckles, a tried and tested indicator of supreme exasperation.
'I mean,' she continued drearily, 'when did we last have to go up to their schools and be lambasted about their disruptive behaviour?'
'My point, exactly.'
'What do you expect?' Jeffrey's brow creased in consternation. 'We've brought them up nicely. Would you rather they were behind the bike sheds dropping E or shooting up heroin?'
'They should be old enough for a bit of illicit smoking, at least. I've searched both of their bedrooms and there's nothing. Nothing.' Kate flicked back her mop of raven hair. 'Sonia said Andrew's got three copies of Playboy and a packet of multicoloured condoms, ribbed for extra sensitivity, hidden under his bed already.'
'He's eleven years old!' Jeffrey looked disgusted. 'Isn't she the one with the problem, not us?'
Kate ignored him. 'They shouldn't be like this, Jeffrey,' she went on, her eyes troubled. 'They're quite happy to be dragged round looking at gardens with their parents on a Sunday afternoon when they should be locked away in their bedrooms, playing computer games and trying to find pornography on the Internet. They actually like fresh air.'
'It isn't a crime.'
'It isn't normal either.'
'What were you like at their age?'
'Little Miss Goody Two-shoes,' she said miserably. 'I couldn't move an inch for fear of incurring my parents' disapproval. I was nurtured to death in a meticulously kept semi-detached emotion-free box.'
Jeffrey smiled sadly. 'I was the same,' he said. 'It was called good parenting then in the days before social workers were invented. They did their best.'
'That's not what I want for our children,' she sighed. 'I want them to be free to make their own mistakes. I want them to run before they can walk and do what they want to do, not what they think they're expected to do.'
'They're young. They're still finding their feet. Give them time.'
She pointed surreptitiously at them. 'But jam, Jeffrey, jam. We have two middle-aged children and it's all our fault.'
'I know you worry about this, but let's not have a fight today. 'He reached out and took her hand.
This wasn't the first time that she'd made these kinds of noises, and clearly Jeffrey didn't want her to cause a scene.
'They're all right,' he said gently, 'really they are. Perhaps they'll be late developers.'
'I must have potty-trained them too young,' Kate said. 'It causes them to be repressed as adolescents. I read it in Parent and Child magazine. They're too perfect and it's all because I was fed up with lugging truckloads of Pampers from the supermarket.'
'Don't be ridiculous, you're a wonderful mother. You should be proud of them.'
'I know.' Her voice wavered.
Jeffrey stood up, causing his chair to screech across the wooden floor. The roomful of pensioners looked up from their iced cherry fancies and glared at him. He smiled apologetically. 'Let's make a move,' he told his wife. 'We seem to have exhausted the delights that Great Brickworth gardens have to offer.'
Kate picked up her cardigan from the back of the chair and slipped her hand in his as they walked to the door. 'I've spoiled the afternoon now, haven't I?'
He squeezed her hand. 'Of course you haven't.'
The children fell in step behind them. 'Can we have some jam, Mummy?'
'We've got a cupboard full of it at home.'
'Yes, but this has big lumps of strawberry in it,' Kerry insisted. 'Not like that horrible processed stuff from Sainsbury's which is full of artificial colour and preservatives and probably gives you toxic poisoning.'
'Why don't you make jam any more?' Joe asked.
'I've been busy.' Doing what? 'I'll make some this week,' Kate promised.
'Great!' They raced ahead into the sunshine.
It was one of those sweltering Mediterranean-type days with an impossibly blue sky one of those days when you can believe global warming is really happening and isn't just something made up by bored scientists to keep themselves in a job. And yet as they began to walk back to the car, the welcome heat that was searing into the skin of her arms singularly failed to bring any warmth to Kate's soul.
'You're quiet,' Jeffrey said.
'You know' he fiddled with her fingers 'I think this is more about you feeling restless than anything to do with the children. They're perfectly content.'
'I know.' She squeezed his fingers back. 'I wish I could feel so delirious at being fobbed off with the vague promise of home-made jam.'
'Maybe you should stop thinking about making jam and do something more interesting. Get out more.' He stared at the lane ahead of them. 'I know you've not been finding things easy recently.'
She stopped and looked at her husband. Her other half. Jeffrey was so sure, so confident, so at home with himself. If he was her other half, why didn't he make her feel whole any more? Where had their oneness gone? The children didn't need her, either. Not like they used to. They loved her, as Jeffrey did, but they didn't need her. So long as there was a meal on the table, clean socks in the drawer and someone to drive them around in the car, they were perfectly self-sufficient individuals. She had been a wife and mother for longer than she cared to remember even longer than Regis Philbin had hosted LIVE. They'd had the best years of her life and now she no longer knew who she was. Her brain had been sucked dry by domestic duties until she felt like one of those sad women on TV ads who get their meagre kicks out of sniffing the fresh lemon tang of their new-improved fabric conditioner. Suddenly, the fulfillment she had experienced from being the hub of her family had flown out of the window, along with the ability to drink more than two glasses of wine without getting pissed and endure more than two consecutive late nights. The feelings of doubt and insecurity that had been bobbing below the surface of her consciousness broke water.
'Do you think I'm boring, Jeffrey?'
'Of course I don't.'
'I do.' She snapped a stem from the lavender bush that cascaded over the weathered stone wall next to them and twisted it in her fingers, inhaling its soothing scent. 'I've nothing interesting to say these days. My whole life revolves round the home. I feel like a hamster on one of those little treadmill things. I scurry around wearing my legs out for no good purpose. My week is spent shopping and cleaning and cooking and making sure that the kids are washed and ironed and ready to go to school. I do nothing for myself.'
'You go to the gym with Sonia.'
Kate gave a sad little laugh. 'It's not exactly the meaning of life, is it?'
Jeffrey turned to her and the look of bewilderment on his face churned her insides. 'I had no idea you were so unhappy,' he said quietly.
'I'm not,' she said. 'Truly, I'm not. It's just that . . .' Suddenly her throat had closed and there was a nasty hot stinging behind her eyes. 'It's just that . . .' She gulped the tears away. 'There must be more to life than this.'
'What more do you want?'
I want to feel alive again. She trailed her hand along the rough stone, enjoying the pain on her soft skin. Anything rather than the numbness there was inside. 'I used to wake up in the morning wondering what new challenges the day ahead would hold. I couldn't wait to get out of bed! Now I just wonder how much of the ironing I'll be able to get through before the kids come home and need feeding. I don't measure my pessimism by whether a wineglass is half-full or half-empty the ironing basket is my gauge.'
She turned to Jeffrey, but the expression on his face said that he was lost when it came to sorting out her problems. She was the sorter-outer in their household. The lawnmower breaks Kate fixes it. The washing machine floods Kate mops up after it. The goldfish dies Kate digs the hole, buries the fish and provides the tissues for the weeping children. Kate also arranges replacement goldfish, having trawled half the pet shops in the surrounding area for its identical twin.
'What do you want to do?' he asked, with the air of a man who isn't sure whether he really wants to know the answer.
'Perhaps I should get a job,' Kate said. 'I don't even know what I could do. Shorthand, telex machines and manual typewriters were all the rage when I was last in an office.' It was pathetic to admit, but she wouldn't know one end of a computer from the other. They were something that the children used and that she steadfastly had tried to ignore. 'I'd have to update my skills. How would I cope?'
'You could do something completely different.'
'Like what? I don't even get the time to think about what I might be able to do.'
She was supposed to be a new millennium woman, for heaven's sake. Wasn't having it all the key to the meaning of life? What did all mean, exactly? She'd got the big house, the nice car, the executive professional husband, the 2.4 children and the cupboard full of Fruit 'n' Fibre breakfast cereal. What was she supposed to want now? A taxing job and the joy of juggling home plus career and doing neither well? Voluntary work? Would two days a week in an Oxfam shop reeking of old clothes make her feel like a valuable part of the human race again?
'Maybe you need to get away by yourself for a few days,' Jeffrey suggested. 'I don't know, maybe to a health farm or something. Have some quality thinking time.'
'Go away?' Kate was shocked. 'Without the children?'
'It's not unheard of.'
'It might help.' Jeffrey didn't look convinced that it would.
It might help or I might decide I never want to come back again. Where would I go? What would I do? Who would remember to feed the cat?
'It's a thought,' she said uncertainly. 'Would you mind?'
'Of course not.'
They'd reached the car a top-of-the-range Mercedes supplied by her husband's employers, Hills & Hopeland Chartered Accountants.
Jeffrey blipped the remote-control central locking and the kids leapt inside. He turned and scuffed his thumb across her chin. 'Not if it makes you happy again.'
The tears threatened to splash out of her eyes, a bit like the bubble pond that Jeffrey had so admired and she had thought was so pathetic. She got into the car, swallowing down the emotion that had lodged in her throat. Jeffrey slid in next to her. How could she feel so far away from this man who was physically so close to her, a man she had known for over half of her life. He patted her knee gently. 'The kids and I could manage without you.'
'Could you?' It came out more bitterly than she'd intended.
'For a few days,' he said with a smile that was so sweet and uncomplicated that it nearly broke her heart.
That smile had been the reason she married him.
Jeffrey swung the car into the narrow country lanes and the car purred effortlessly along. Kate looked at her husband as he concentrated on the road. He was a good man. Kind, thoughtful, a bit intense. He had what her mother called 'intellectual good looks', which essentially meant he wore horn-rimmed glasses. His brown eyes were gentle, but you could never quite tell what was going on behind them. His face was smooth and youthful, with a high intelligent forehead that could be attributed to the steady retreat of his fair hair. 'Staid'was his middle name. Jeffrey was the sort of man who could work the video recorder all of it. Even the special functions that no one ever used and were written half in Chinese and half in Latvian. He knew how the self-timing oven worked, how to record a new message on the answerphone and had read the manual supplied with every piece of electrical equipment in the house. From cover to cover. He liked having thirty-two equally spaced drapes in the lounge curtains and was even known to count them on occasions. Over the years she too had become accustomed to a certain amount of regularity in curtain folds.
In the back of the car the children were smiling like a pair of Rubens' cherubs. They started to sing Ten Green Bottles. The countryside whizzed by the canary-yellow fields of rapeseed, a sprinkling of scarlet poppies in the hedgerows, birds flitting from telephone wire to telephone wire.
'And if one green bottle should accidentally fall . . .'