By Katie Fforde
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1996 Katie Fforde
All rights reserved.
'Mum,' said a voice, reproachful yet forgiving. 'Have you been drinking orange juice straight out of the carton again?'
Althea made a gesture of admission and apology tinged with indignation at being found out. 'It had gone all thick, anyway, you wouldn't have drunk it.'
Her seventeen-year-old son shook his shaven head in mock reproof.
'I didn't want to dirty a glass,' she went on. 'I only wanted a drop.' Asserting her motherhood, she continued: 'If you ever rinsed out a mug, or even loaded the washing-up machine, you'd appreciate my economy.'
'A dishwasher is what we call it nowadays.'
'I don't care what you call it, sweetie, just occasionally put something in it!'
William, tall, slightly spotty and to his mother's eyes quite beautiful, marred his looks with a grin full of metal. The train-tracks, top and bottom, added a bizarre touch to his broad smile. The combination of smile and braces was irresistible and she smiled back.
'Juno's coming round soon.' Althea was hoping that her son would take the hint and help her tidy up.
'Is she? That'll be fun for you.' William didn't approve of Juno, she was too materialistic and bound up in 'self. But then, as a Buddhist, he applied this epithet to most people.
Althea sighed. 'Do give me a hand. You know how critical she is.'
'She's your sister – your younger sister. If you don't mind living in a mess, why should it bother her?'
'I don't like living in a mess. It's just something that happens to me. And it does bother her, you know it does. She tells me off.'
'That's your problem, Mum. You allow people to walk over you.'
'Yes, and you've got the biggest feet.'
'Nonsense. I only want the best for you.'
Althea scowled. There was a point when role-reversal ceased to be funny. 'The best for me right now would be a little help in the kitchen.'
William lobbed an apple core in the general direction of the rubbish-bin. It missed.
Althea noted where it fell. 'I thought Buddhists were supposed to be nice to their mothers ...'
William made a face. 'Oh, all right. I'll blitz the kitchen, but I won't hang around and join in your trivial conversation. I've got work to do.'
'School work?' Althea hardly dared to hope. William spent a lot of time studying enormously expensive Buddhist texts, but didn't think A levels were important. Lacking them herself, his mother did.
William shook his head and picked up a cloth which he dabbed under the tap. 'No, mother dear. I've got to study a bit on detachment.' He made a swipe in the direction of the tea-stained work surface. 'I'm leading the discussion tonight.'
Althea sighed, got up from the table and kissed him. 'Think what good karma you're building up. I'll run round with the vac.'
She ran, bumping the furniture but avoiding actually moving anything, while her mind chewed anxiously at the knowledge that very soon she would learn whether or not she still had a job.
It was cruel, she decided, making people apply for their own jobs. Except in the eyes of the Whickham School – soon to become Whickham and Dylan's Combined Primary and more than doubling its size – it was not her job she was applying for, but that of secretary of a much grander operation. For although she had run Whickham School to everyone's satisfaction, the great and the good in charge of the new operation and of her fate might well consider that a younger, brighter, better qualified – albeit less experienced – person might suit their needs better. Mr Edwards, the head teacher she had worked with so happily for so many years, was taking early retirement.
Having examined the worst-case scenario many, many times, Althea concluded that telling her sister Juno she was out of a job would be the worst part. Juno was a strong woman, who had Althea's best interests at heart and felt these interests were best served by knowing and advising on every detail of Althea's life. She would have a lot to say about Althea's unemployment, which, Althea suspected, she would hear even if she did get the job.
William, who was sluicing the germs around in the cups so they covered every surface, watched critically as his mother swept a pile of papers off the kitchen table and put them on the dresser, where they would join other papers swept up there on other days, and disappear.
'You really shouldn't do that, Mum. Tomorrow you'll be frantic looking for Rupert's report and turn the house upside down. Why don't you be more organized?'
Althea, knowing he was right, made a face. 'I get bored with being organized. I am organized at school. At home, I am who I want to be.'
'No, you're not, or you wouldn't be flapping round like a blue-arsed fly because Juno's coming. You're a victim of your desire to conform.'
'I'm a victim of my bossy sister and my bossy children.'
'Then it's time you took control of your environment, like I do.'
Althea, who'd grown accustomed to such statements over the past year, snorted. 'I'm doing my best! You only manage to keep your room so minimalist because you keep your junk in the sitting room.'
'That's not junk, it's the school work you consider to be so important.'
'Well, it takes up a lot of space. I'd be grateful if you'd take it up to your room.'
'Yeah, Mum, like you always keep all your stuff in your room.' He dumped a cleanser-covered necklace which he'd found in a cup into her hands. 'That's me done. I'm just going to make some scrambled eggs.'
Althea added the necklace to a couple of others which hung from a hook on the dresser. 'No chance of you making them in the microwave, I don't suppose?'
'They're not the same in the microwave.'
'Then please wash the pan afterwards.'
'I always do!'
Althea reflected that her children wouldn't realize that putting cold water into a saucepan isn't the same as washing it until after they had left home and run out of saucepans.
She opened a packet of digestive biscuits and put them on a plate. Juno was an advocate of food combining and Althea could never remember what time of day she could eat what, but the biscuits were a gesture. Absent-mindedly she put a broken half into her mouth and, realizing what she'd done, started guiltily. Someone at school had given her a fridge magnet which said, 'Little Pickers wear Bigger Knickers.' Its trite, essential truth always flashed into her mind a moment too late.
At four o'clock – exactly the time Juno said she would call – the doorbell rang. Althea checked her face for crumbs and went to answer it. As much as she loved her sister, she was always a little nervous of her. Juno was one of those people who actually do put face powder on their cheeks while they make up their eyes so it's easier to remove any smudges. Althea didn't know anyone else who'd bother.
'Hello, darling,' she said, kissing Juno, who was, as usual, perfectly groomed and smelt marvellously of some new and unpronounceable perfume. 'Come in.'
Juno returned the hug. 'I've brought some magazines I've finished with, and a pair of shoes I bought in a sale which are far too big for me. You might like to try them.'
'Angel, how lovely.' Althea depended on her sister's passion for bargains for all her smarter clothes. 'Now come in and have something. What would you like? Tea? Coffee? Drink?'
Juno followed Althea down the passage to the kitchen. 'It's far too early to start drinking,' she said firmly, although Althea had actually meant something soft, 'but I'd love a cup of tea.'
William was draining the kettle into his personal cafetière as they entered the kitchen.
'Hi, Juno!' he greeted his aunt. 'How are you? Want some coffee? If you do, I'll make it. There's some technology' – he indicated the cafetière – 'Mum just can't get behind.'
'There's a lot of technology you can't get behind,' snapped his mother. 'Like the broom and the duster, and Juno's having tea.'
'I'll make it for you, then,' said William, revealing his orthodontistry with great charm.
'Thank you, William,' said Juno, slightly taken aback. 'That would be kind.'
Althea knew that William's kindness was likely to degenerate into teasing at any moment. 'Shall we go through into the conservatory?'
'If there's actually space in there for people. When I was here the other day, it had the last remaining corner of the rain forest in it.'
Taking this as a compliment, Althea picked up the plate of biscuits and led the way to her favourite room in the house.
It was packed with plants and smelt of scented geraniums, damp soil and the lemon tree Althea had grown from a pip. As always the scent made her nostrils crinkle with pleasure.
Like many properties in the area, the house was on the side of a hill, and so the conservatory was elevated. From it, there was a panoramic view of where the Cotswold hills flattened out into the Severn Vale. On winter days with the leaves off the trees and just a hint of rain in the air, Althea could see the curling snake of the river and beyond to Wales.
Now, in early May, the south-west aspect of the conservatory made foreign holidays unnecessary, even if she could have afforded them. But even without the views, Althea could never have torn herself away from the garden in summer.
Bozo, her small spaniel, was sitting on the one decent wicker chair, guarding a vegetarian sausage. Not being vegetarian herself, Bozo didn't actually want to eat the sausage, but was anxious that none of the cats should get it. She had been carrying it around for days.
Bozo, seeing Juno, got down from her chair and leant her paws on Juno's legs, blinking affectionately. Juno patted the dog's head, which Bozo hated, and took her recently vacated seat. Althea took the chair opposite and offered the plate of biscuits. Bozo, forgetting the sausage immediately in the presence of something edible, waited, head on one side, for her share of this snacklet.
Juno declined the biscuits and Bozo turned her attention to her mistress, always an easy touch. Althea defiantly broke off a corner of digestive, waited for the little dog to sit, and then gave it to her.
'Honestly, you shouldn't encourage that dog to beg,' said Juno.
'She doesn't beg, she just asks nicely,' said Althea.
'It comes to the same thing. Now, tell me how the interview went?'
Althea shrugged. 'I don't know. I didn't like the new head teacher of the combined school much. His mobile phone was practically welded to his ear the whole time I was showing him round. And during the interview, he hardly looked me in the eye once. He kept talking about "dragging the new school into the new millennium", and asking what my "attainment targets" were.'
'Well, Mr Edwards was rather old-fashioned.'
'Mr Edwards was a dear who loved the kids and loved his school and let me run the office. He'll miss it all terribly when he retires.'
'When do you expect to hear?'
'Any day now.'
'You must be worried sick.'
Althea shrugged. 'I'm not sure I could work with that man anyway. As a school secretary you have to work very closely with the head. It's worse than being married, sometimes.'
Juno, whose own husband was well under control, tapped her foot impatiently. 'But you've got a good chance?'
'Well, I have been doing the job more or less for seven years, but the others were younger. And more glamorous.' Althea sighed and noticed an ant emerge from between the floorboards. Damn, how was she going to get rid of an ants' nest with a Buddhist in the house?
'You could be glamorous if you took a little time and trouble,' said Juno, but without conviction. Getting her big sister to smarten up her act was not yet a lost cause with her, but it was one of the tougher tasks she had set herself. And at the moment, the timing was against her.
They lapsed into silence, Althea hoping that Juno wouldn't notice the ants which were now forming an orderly queue behind a biscuit crumb. If Juno spotted them, she'd demand kettles of boiling water and other instruments of death, William would get upset and there would be the nearest thing to a row as was possible when one of the contenders forbade himself to feel anger.
'Have you heard from Frederick lately?' asked Juno, still in ignorance of the trail of sentient beings at her feet.
Frederick was Althea's ex. He had decamped when Merry, who was now twelve and perfectly civilized, was a tiny, colicky baby, constantly crying or pooing. Now, he bullied Althea from afar, reminding her how unreasonable she had been by refusing to send the boys (Merry's education wasn't so important, seeing as she was a girl) to boarding school. If ever there was the tiniest hint that his offspring might not be getting As in everything, he told Althea it was all her fault for sending them to the local comp. Consequently, when she could have done with a bit of support in getting them to buckle down, she couldn't possibly ask for it.
'He rang William the other day, but you know I don't speak to him unless it's really necessary. He nags me about the children's school work.'
Childless herself, Juno, who agreed totally with Frederick on the matter of private education, pursed her lips. She knew Althea was deliberately vague about letting Frederick know how the children were doing at school and disapproved thoroughly. 'Well, you'll have to tell him if you're unemployed. You won't be able to keep up the mortgage payments.'
'It isn't a large mortgage. I wouldn't be unemployed until the end of August. And I would get redundancy money.'
'I don't know.'
'I bet it's pathetic.'
So did Althea. And Juno was right, if she lost her job, she would have to tell Frederick, who, with much muttering and I-told-you-so-ing, would probably make the payments. But he had always wanted the house for himself and his girlfriend. Would letting him pay the mortgage for a few months give him a larger stake in it than the one quarter he already possessed? Perhaps she should give up the struggle sooner rather than later.
'I think I'd rather move than let him pay.'
'But why should you?' Juno's wavering loyalty instantly corrected itself. 'It's your home – your children's home.'
'William'll only be here for another year and I've got to sell it anyway when Merry's no longer in full-time education. Unless I can afford to buy Frederick out. Which doesn't seem likely at the moment.'
'But it would break your heart to leave your garden!'
'Probably, but I could always make another one and, really, I can't afford to be sentimental.'
'I'm sure Frederick wouldn't mind paying. He can certainly afford it, and whatever you say, he's always seemed pretty reasonable to me.'
Althea actually felt Frederick had always seemed more than just 'pretty reasonable' to Juno. 'Pretty damn attractive' might be a more accurate summing up of her opinion. But Frederick had long since ceased being able to cause Althea pain, and while deploring her sister's taste, she didn't hold the secrets of Juno's heart against her.
However, she was not above making little digs at Juno's perceptions of the proper way to carry on. 'I could of course take in lodgers to help with the mortgage. A couple of Job Seekers on full benefit might cover it.'
Juno was horrified. 'You couldn't do that.'
'Why not? I've got a spare bedroom with a wash basin, and separate loo and shower.' Althea had only mentioned lodgers to annoy her sister, but now she thought of it, the idea had its advantages. 'Seriously, a nice quiet lady teacher would be no trouble.'
'A nice quiet lady teacher would never cope with sharing your kitchen.'
'Why not? I'm not in the least territorial.'
'Maybe not, but you are extremely messy. No, Frederick will have to support you.' Juno rearranged her beautiful legs, her un-scuffed heels leaning at a graceful angle, and obviously considered her sister's unemployment a foregone conclusion.
'But he won't. You know he won't.'
Juno tsked and swept some non-existent crumbs off her skirt. 'Only because you're so awkward about the boys' education. He'd have paid you alimony as well as their fees if only you'd sent them to decent schools.'
Althea suddenly felt very tired and anxious about her job prospects. 'Oh, let's not go into that again.'
'Yes, well, we did agree to disagree about that years ago. And I must say that, on the whole, the children are a credit to you.'
Althea gazed out of the window at her pond, grateful that Juno didn't know her children's academic results were less impressive than their interpersonal skills. 'Thank you.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from Wild Designs by Katie Fforde. Copyright © 1996 Katie Fforde. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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