Other Peoples Children
By Joanna Trollope
Chivers North America Copyright ©1999 Joanna Trollope
All right reserved. ISBN: 0754053105
BEHIND HIM, SOMEONE said, "They shouldn't be called weddings."
Rufus felt his ears glow. He leaned forward and stared at the tips of the new shoes his mother had persuaded him to wear instead of sneakers. The person who had spoken behind him had been a woman. She sounded vaguely familiar.
"Not second time round," she said. Her voice was calm, as if she had no personal ax to grind but was simply stating a fact. "There should be another word for second time round."
Rufus raised his head very slowly and transferred his stare from his shoes to the wall twenty feet ahead of him. The wall was covered with white satiny paper, flowered and ribboned in more white, and on it hung a picture of the queen in a white dress and a tiara and a broad blue ribbon running across her bosom with a brooch thing on it. Just below the queen was the neat brown head of the lady in the gray suit and gold stud earrings who was, Rufus's mother said, the registrar. Being a registrar meant you could marry people to each other. This registrar--who had smiled at Rufus and said, "Hello, dear"--was going to marry Rufus's mother in a minute. To Matthew. Rufus did not let his stare slide sideways from the registrar to include his mother and Matthew. Matthew had a graysuit on, too, and a yellow flower in his buttonhole, and he was half a head taller than Rufus's mother. He was, also and above all things, not Rufus's father.
He was, however--and this fact lent added alarm to an already disconcerting day--several other people's father. He had been married before, to someone else whose name Rufus couldn't remember, and he had three children. Three. All older than Rufus. And all--Rufus swallowed hard--people he didn't know. Actually standing beside him was Matthew's younger daughter, Clare. She was repeatedly doing up and undoing the bottom button of her black cardigan. Below the cardigan she wore a crumpled orange skirt almost to the floor, and black boots. She was ten. Rufus was eight. Rufus's mother had said that he and Clare would get on because they could play computer games together, but to Rufus, Clare was as foreign as if she came from another planet. She was like someone you see on a bus and know you won't ever see again. So was her brother, Rory, standing on her far side, in a black leather jacket and black jeans. Rufus's mother had made him wear a tie, but Rory was wearing a T-shirt. He was twelve, and his hair had been shaved up the sides and back of his head, leaving him vulnerable and gawky--soft-looking, like a baby bird. He had played football with Rufus earlier that day with a Coca-Cola can, kicking it around the patio of the house that Rufus was now going to share with his mother and Matthew. And, some weekends and during school holidays, with Clare and Rory and Becky, who was fifteen and who had--well, she didn't go straight down in front, under her sweater. Becky was chewing gum, Rufus thought. She wore the denim bomber jacket she wore all the time except in bed, and every so often, she gave the left breast pocket of the jacket a little tap. Rufus knew why. She kept a pack of Marlboro Lights in there, and she wasn't supposed to. When she tapped her pocket, she looked pleased and defiant.
Rufus's grandmother, on his left side, stooped toward him a little. She was going to say, "All right, darling?" He waited.
"All right, darling?"
He nodded. She tried to take his hand. Rufus liked his grandmother, but he did not wish to hold her hand, especially not in public, with Clare and Rory and Becky in their enviable solidarity of being three, not one, on his right-hand side. He put his hand in his trouser pocket. There was an acorn in there, and a screw of foil from a Kit-Kat, and the rubber stopper from a water pistol. He held the acorn. It was warm, from being in his pocket, as if it had a little kind life of its own. He had picked it up on a walk months ago, a school walk to the playing fields, in Bath, where he used to live, where his father lived now and would be, at this minute, at this very minute, instead of being here in this white room with the glass lights and Rufus's mother. Where Matthew was, instead.
Matthew took Josie's hand under the restaurant tablecloth.
She smiled, entranced, but not daring to look at him because of all the other people sitting round that table, and mostly looking at her.
"Mine," he said again, squeezing her hand. "Can't believe it."
"Now, now," Matthew's father shouted jovially from the far side of the table. "Now, now, you two."
"It's perfectly legal," Matthew said, "as of an hour ago." He sounded quite at ease. He raised Josie's hand from under the cloth and, in view of everyone, kissed her wedding finger. "Legally Mrs. Mitchell."
"Good luck to you!" his father shouted. He seized a nearby champagne bottle and sploshed wine approximately into all the glasses he could reach. "Drink up! Drink to them!"
"Good luck, dears," Josie's mother said. She lifted her glass. "Long life together, health and happiness." She nudged Clare, who was next to her. "Raise your glass, dear."
"I don't like it," Clare said. "I don't like champagne."
"You can pick up your glass," Josie's mother said, "can't you? You don't have to drink out of it." She looked across at Rufus. He was sandwiched between Rory and Matthew's younger sister, Karen, who was a nurse. Rory had drunk two glasses of champagne already, very quickly, and was looking dazed. Rufus looked, his grandmother thought, as he used to look just before he sang a solo in his school nativity play and was certain something would go wrong. She indicated to him to raise his glass.
"Toast to Mummy and Matthew, darling. Come on."
She glanced toward her daughter. Josie looked so happy, so pretty, in a cream silk suit with her red hair done up somehow behind her head, that it seemed downright unkind to have misgivings. But how could she not? As a divorced woman herself of thirty years' standing, with Josie her only child, how could she not have terrible apprehensions about Josie's leaving Tom Carver and all the settled, acceptable comfortableness of that life in Bath for a secondary-school deputy headmaster with three uncouth children and an eccentric-sounding ex-wife apparently spitting tacks with rage from the hovel in Herefordshire she'd taken herself off to? It wasn't that Matthew wasn't a nice man, because he was nice, and quite attractive if you liked men who needed to shave twice a day, but he--well, his position, to be fair, seemed so perilous beside Tom's. And he knew it. He'd said, when they'd had their first awkward prospective mother-in-law, son-in-law meeting, shifting glasses of indifferent white wine about on beer mats in a local pub, "I suppose, Elaine, I should apologize."
She'd looked at him, startled.
"What for? For taking Josie? Nobody's ever taken Josie in her life. Josie's never done anything Josie didn't want to do. You needn't apologize for that."
"I don't. But I'm not the catch Tom Carver was."
Elaine had looked at her wineglass. She thought of the house in Bath, of the long windows on the first floor, of the immaculate basement from which Tom ran his architectural practice, of the little walled garden behind with its statues and stone urns. Josie had told her that Matthew Mitchell earned thirty-three thousand a year. She had also now seen the house they would live in, always two of them, mostly three, and sometimes six. It had three bedrooms. She took a swallow of wine.
"No good pretending," she'd said to Matthew. "But no. You're not."
She looked round the restaurant now. It was Italian, with rough white walls and rush-seated chairs and a menu that featured, among other things, fifteen kinds of specialty pizza. That's why it had been chosen. For the children. Pizza for the children.
"Are you strong enough for this?" Elaine had said to Josie. "Are you sure? Can you really take these children on? It's harder than climbing Everest."
"Mum," Josie said, "I've been there and done it. I've been a stepmother."
"But that was different. These children are younger and--well, not very amenable--"
"We'll do it together," Josie said. She'd been brushing her hair, that astonishing coppery river that gave her a glamour disproportionate to the rest of her. "I love him. He loves me. We'll cope with the kids together."
Now, beside Elaine, Clare, Matthew's youngest child, said, "What's this?"
"This," Clare said. She jabbed her fork at her pizza.
"It's an olive," Elaine said.
Clare dropped her fork.
"Yuck. I'm not eating it. Looks like a beetle."
"Leave the olive, then," Elaine said. "And eat the rest."
"I can't," Clare said. "I can't. Not if the olive's been there."
Across the table, Rufus and Rory ate ravenously side by side. Rory was tearing at his pizza with his fingers, Rufus was just eating steadily, mechanically, looking at nothing but his plate. On Elaine's own plate lay a little mound of pasta shaped like bows in a sauce of salmon and dill. She didn't feel like eating it. She had never felt less like eating anything. She turned to Matthew's daughter, Becky, on her other side. She had a nose stud shaped like a tiny crescent moon, and alternate fingernails on both hands were painted black. The pizza in front of her was completely untouched.
"Aren't you eating?" Elaine said. She had meant to say "dear," but the word had not somehow emerged.
"No," Becky said. Her right hand strayed to the left breast pocket of her denim jacket.
"Aren't you hungry?"
Becky turned briefly to look at her. Her eyes were a startling, pure, pale delphinium blue.
"I'm dieting," she said.
Karen, Matthew's sister, tried to avoid her father's eye. He was overdoing it, drinking too much, shouting false jolly things across the table to try and cover up the fact that Matthew's mother should have been there, and was not because she had refused to come to the wedding. She'd not only refused to come but had made a continued and noisy fuss about refusing, culminating in shutting herself in her bedroom on the wedding morning.
"I'm not getting her out," Karen's father said. "I'm not even trying. There's disapproval coming from under that door like black smoke, and she can just choke on it."
Karen had a headache. She'd just finished eight days of night duty on the geriatric ward, and a large part of her was so tired she didn't really care who married whom. She thought wearily of all the seventeen years that Matthew had been married to Nadine, and the steady stream of abuse of Nadine that her mother had kept up, of Nadine's appearance and lack of housekeeping skills and wrongheaded (in her view) political commitment and endless student zeal to embrace new skills, new languages, new causes.
"When will she stop playing about and damn well earn some money?"
But when Matthew had fallen in love with Josie, Karen's mother's tune had changed overnight. Nadine became "Matthew's wife," "the mother of my grandchildren," "my daughter-in-law," as if she'd suddenly sprouted a halo. Nadine, to her credit, took no more notice of the change of opinion than she had of the original one, but Matthew was up in arms. He'd had blazing, bellowing, roaring rows with his mother, pursuing her round the house bawling and yelling and telling her, over and over again, that her real trouble was that she was jealous, plain, bald, ugly old jealous, because he had had the guts to leave a bad marriage for a prospect of happiness, and that she'd never had the nerve to do the same, but preferred to grind on as she was, taking her disappointment out on everyone around her in revenge. Which was true. Karen sighed and picked up her champagne glass, which she had managed to make so smeary it had lost all its brief look of festivity. Of course it was true. What else, she sometimes wondered, but the spectacle of her parents' palpable unsuitability to spend a weekend together, let alone a lifetime, had ensured that she was still unmarried at thirty-six and had never even lived with anyone for more than a month? She took a swallow of champagne. It was flat and warm and tasted sour. Beside her, Josie's little boy Rufus had put down his knife and fork and was sitting back in his chair, far back, as if he felt he didn't belong.
"You okay?" Karen said.
He was a sweet-looking kid. He said, "I got tomato on my tie."
"Shouldn't worry. Look at my dad. I should think he's got half his lunch down his. D'you want some ice cream?"
Rufus shook his head. He looked, Karen thought, like those kittens and puppies you saw in pet shop windows all begging you to take them home with you. He looked so lost. He probably felt it. Karen had seen plenty of kids in his position in the hospital, trailing down wards to see parents who weren't their parents, who never would be or could be, except in the mere name society gave them, for its own convenience. A lot of those kids looked stunned, as Rufus did, as if the process of mourning for the loss of a previous family--not even, in many cases, the tidy acceptable birth family--had been so painful at first, terrified glance that they simply hadn't done it. They'd gone, instead, into a dazed, accepting stupor, as if they knew at some deep level of their heavy hearts how powerless in all this they were. Karen touched Rufus's arm.
"You'll like him, you know. Matthew. When you know him better."
Rufus blushed slowly.
"He's good with kids. He likes them."
Rufus bowed his head a little but didn't speak. Karen looked past him to her nephew Rory. He had eaten all his pizza except for the very rim and was drinking Coca-Cola rapidly out of a can.
"You should put that in a glass, Rory. This is a wedding."
He paused in his breathless drinking to say, "They gave it me like this."
"That's no reason," Karen said. Rory was a bright kid, all Matthew's children were, but he had, as did his sisters, Nadine's defiance. Nadine thrived on defiance: defiance of the orthodox, the traditional, the accepted way of thinking and behaving. It was this defiance that had attracted Matthew to her in the first place, Karen was sure, because it appeared so fresh and vital and questioning, after the rigidly respectable limitations of his and Karen's own upbringing. Nadine had seemed like someone flinging open a window to let great gales of wild, salty air into the confined stuffiness of Matthew's life, and he had adored her rebelliousness. But then in time it drove him mad, so mad that, just before he met Josie, he'd gone to live in a rented room for a month, a bed-and-breakfast place, and they'd all had to cover up for him in case the parents at his school found out and thought he was going round the bend. He nearly had. It started when Nadine had gone off to join a women's camp at the gates of a military base in Suffolk almost eight years ago, and even though she came home again, she couldn't stop. She fell in love with being anti things--antimotherhood, antimarriage, anti the educational endeavors of Matthew's school, anti any kind of order. She hunted stereotypes down as if they were sewer rats and stuck radical slogans to the fridge door. She was, Karen knew, impossible to live with, but she had something, all the same. All that crackling energy, and the jokes, and the mad meals cooked in the middle of the night, and the sudden displays of affection that won you over, time after time, even though you'd vowed to tell her she was a selfish cow, and you meant it.
Karen stretched across and put a hand on Rory's arm.
"You should look after Rufus."
Rory didn't glance at her.
"Because he's your stepbrother now, and there's three of you lot."
"Don't show off," Karen said.
Rory said, staring across the table, "Nothing's changed."
"Mum said. About this wedding. It doesn't change anything. She said."
Karen took a breath.
"Excuse me, but it has. A lot's changed. You've got a stepmother and a stepbrother now, and you'll have to get on with it."
There was a small sound between them. A tear, quite unbidden, was sliding down Rufus's cheek, and he had flung up a horrified arm to stop it.
"Oh, my God," Karen said.
Rory took a last swallow of Coke and shoved his chair back.
He said, without looking at Rufus, "Want to play Kick the Can?"
"Okay?" Matthew whispered.
Josie nodded. Despite her elation at the day, at being truly Matthew's, she hadn't been able to keep her gaze from straying permanently to Rufus. He looked to her incredibly small, much smaller than eight, as small as the first day she had taken him to primary school and he had said, looking at the playground he had visited so often the previous summer term in order to accustom him to it, "No."
"Rufus," she'd said, "this is school. This is what you've been longing for. You'll love it."
He had taken his hand out of hers and put it out of her reach behind his back.
"No," he'd said again.
He couldn't say no now, in the same certain, careless-of-opinion, five-year-old way, but he could look it. Everything about him looked it--the way he sat hunched over his plate, the way he wouldn't look at anyone, the way he only spoke in whispered monosyllables. Josie had seen Karen trying to talk to him and had then sensed rather than seen, because her view was blocked by Karen's half-turned back, some kind of little incident that resulted in Rory slouching away from the table followed by Rufus, with his head down. Neither had asked permission to go.
Matthew leaned closer. She could feel his breath warm on her ear.
"Can't wait till later."
"The boys have gone--"
"They'll be scuffling about in the car park. They'll be fine."
"I don't think any of the children are fine."
"No," he said. He took her hand again. "No, they aren't. But they will be. This is just the beginning."
"Perhaps we shouldn't be going away--"
"Honey," Matthew said, "we are going away for three whole nights. That's all. And that's for us. Like today is." He glanced round the table. "Look. Your mother, my father, our children, your best mate, my sister, my best mate, all here for us, because of us, because of what we're going to make of the future, what we're going to repair of the past." He shook the hand he held. "I love you."
"Same," she said. "Same. I tell you though, my best mate thinks we haven't done it quietly enough. She thinks we should have just sloped off at dead of night with a couple of witnesses."
"Let her," Matthew said. "Let her. We're not marrying her. We're not marrying anybody but us."
"I don't like being disapproved of," Josie said. "Not even by someone I know as well as I know Beth."
"How lovely," Matthew said. "How just lovely that you mind." He gazed at her, his eyes on her mouth in a way that always made her feel faint. "Nadine would have relished every moment."
On the other side of the table, Beth Saddler, Josie's oldest schoolfriend from long ago schooldays in Wimbledon, asked Matthew's father if it would be all right if she smoked.
"Don't see why not," he said. "Ashtrays everywhere, aren't there? I'd join you except it's the one thing I've given up that I'm sticking to."
Beth took out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her handbag and put them beside her plate.
"I've been dying for one for hours."
"It's times like these," Matthew's father said. "They give you the fidgets."
"I was at Josie's first wedding. It was the full white works, in church. Even though she was pregnant. Was Matthew's?"
"Nope," Matthew's father said. He emptied the last of the nearest bottle into his glass. "It was registry office and a curry lunch." He made a face. "I can taste it still."
"I can't quite take this talk of weddings, somehow. A second marriage isn't a wedding, it's just a second marriage. It ought to be so quiet you can hardly hear it. Is that how your wife feels?"
Matthew's father drained his glass.
"I haven't had the foggiest, for forty-five years, what my wife feels."
Beth said, almost as if he hadn't spoken, "I mean, it's this step thing. I know it's frightfully common and all that, but a stepparent must be a very unsatisfactory parent for a child to have. I know it's nobody's fault. I know it's just a fact. But all today we've kind of assumed that it's all going to be all right, this wedding, this marriage, these children, that it's natural."
Matthew's father looked at her.
"No," Beth said, "but I've been living with someone for seven years."
Matthew's father grunted.
He scratched his ear.
"Seems to me," he said, "that there's good parents and there's bad parents and there's good stepparents and there's bad stepparents and the whole thing nowadays is such a bloody muddle that if you get a good one of anything you're pretty bloody lucky."
Beth picked up her cigarettes and her lighter, and then put them down again, neatly and sharply, one on top of the other.
"Oh," she said.
"She's smoking," Becky said.
Ted Holmes, who had met Matthew on a climbing holiday in France twenty years before and had remained a friend ever since, said so what.
"So I'm going to," Becky said.
Ted eyed her. She was tall for her age, with a pronounced bosom already and her mother's astonishing blue eyes, as light and blank as the eyes of beautiful, dangerous aliens in a John Wyndham novel.
"Who are you aiming to upset, then?"
"Your father. Your grandfather."
Becky said, "Mum doesn't care."
"She isn't here," Ted said, "to care or not to care."
Ted had always found Nadine a complete nightmare. Matthew had met Nadine soon after that first climbing holiday, and Ted had been horrified.
"Boy," he said to Matthew. "Boy, don't do it. Don't. She's chaos. She's crazy."
Matthew had punched him. They'd had an awkward, clumsy unpracticed fight in a pub car park that the publican had easily broken up by simply telling them to stop. Matthew had gone ahead and married Nadine, and then Ted had met a girl at his local squash club and had embarked on a courtship so long and uneventful that he sometimes thought it would still be going on if she hadn't said she'd leave him if he didn't marry her. He liked being married, once he was. Penny was an even better wife than she'd been a girlfriend, and after five years, without much fuss, she gave birth to twin boys who were now at home, with measles, and Penny was at home, too, nursing them, instead of being here with Ted in an Italian restaurant in Sedgebury supporting old Matthew.
"I think," Ted said to Becky, "that you want to leave that cigarette until you're on the train. You're going back to Hereford tonight, aren't you?"
"Mum meeting you?"
"If her old banger makes it. It's a complete wreck. It's all Dad'll give her."
"It's got a hole in the floor in the back. You can see the road."
"Your mother," Ted said, eyeing Becky's piebald fingernails, "she got a job?"
"If she had a job, she could buy a better car."
"Why should she?"
"We've all got to try," Ted said. "We've all got to do our bit."
Becky pulled a strand of hair out in front of her face to inspect it.
"Not when it's all unfair."
Becky said, not looking at Josie, "She's got a new house, hasn't she? And their car is pretty nearly new."
"And who's that unfair to?"
"Becky," Ted said, suddenly not caring, "your mother wouldn't know something fair if she met it in her porridge."
She dropped her strand of hair and glared at him.
"Pig," she said.
He shrugged. "Okay," he said. "If it makes you feel better."
She took a breath.
"Nothing does!" she shrieked. "Nothing does! And nothing ever will!" and then she burst into tears and banged her head down into her cold and untouched pizza.
"Ted said sorry," Matthew said.
Josie, lying back with her eyes closed against the headrest of the passenger seat of the car, said, "Why did he feel he had to?"
"For upsetting Becky."
"What did he say?"
"He wouldn't tell me, but it was something to do with Nadine. Some home truth, no doubt. He couldn't stand Nadine."
Josie felt a small glow of affection for Ted Holmes. It warmed her, creeping across the chill that had settled on her, despite all her earlier happy excitement, at the moment of saying good-bye to Rufus. He was going to stay with Elaine, her mother, for three days. He held up his face for a kiss, and his face was quite empty of expression, as if he were being kissed by someone he hardly knew because he'd been told to allow it.
"Bye," he said.
"Have a lovely time," Elaine said. "Don't worry. Don't think about him."
Josie looked at her gratefully. None of this was what Elaine would have chosen, but she was trying, she was really trying to accept it, to make something of it.
"Mum was good," she said to Matthew now.
He reached out for her nearest hand.
"She was," he said. "And Dad was fine and Karen was fine and my mother was a disaster."
Josie rolled her head so that she could see his profile and the jawline she so much admired, which was such a surprising turn-on when she was never conscious of even noticing men's jawlines before.
"And the children--"
"Josie," Matthew said. He took his hand away from hers and put it on the steering wheel again. "Josie, we've got three nights together and two days, and during those three nights and two days, we are not even going to mention the children." He paused, and then he said in a voice that was far less positive, "We've got the rest of our lives for that."
Excerpted from Other Peoples Children by Joanna Trollope Copyright ©1999 by Joanna Trollope. Excerpted by permission.
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