Knocking on sixty, Barbara Stirling is too busy to find herself, while caring for her mother, husband, children, and grandchildren. But when she loses her job, everything changes. Exhausted, lonely, and unemployed, Barbara is forced to face her feelings and doubts. Then a troubled, vulnerable little boy walks into her life and changes it forever.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||755 KB|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Barbara, before you go, could I have a word?”
“Actually, now’s not great. Could it possibly wait until lunchtime?” After everything that had happened that morning, Barbara was feeling the strain. Plus she was due to teach a class in a few minutes. What she needed was a quick breather to clear her head. What she suspected she was about to get—since these days Sandra banged on about little else—was another sermon on the unacceptable levels of swearing in year four. In Barbara’s view, it had improved—sort of—and she’d told Sandra so. “At least now when kids call me a cunt, they say, ‘You’re a cunt, miss.’” Sandra flinched. Then she went all head teachery and looked at Barbara over her spectacles. “Barbara, we’re talking about ten-year-olds. This is no laughing matter.”
She wasn’t really laughing. Swearing was an issue. But Jubilee was a school in an impoverished neighborhood. Everybody swore. Kids only copied what they heard. Barbara—along with most of the staff—believed there were more important problems to be tackled, like the four – and five-year-olds starting school not toilet trained.
“I’d rather do it now,” Sandra was saying. “If you don’t mind.”
“Maybe you should sit down.” Sandra gestured to the chair on the other side of her desk.
“OK, now you’re making me nervous.” Barbara remained standing. She wasn’t the leg-buckling type.
“I thought I should tell you before you received the official letter.”
“Official letter? I don’t understand. Have I don’t something wrong? Am I about to get a telling off?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. The thing is, earlier this morning I got an e-mail from the Education Department. I want you to know that I’ve been fighting this for months.”
“I do wish you’d sit down.”
“I don’t want to sit down. Sandra, what’s going on?”
“At the beginning of last term, the Education Department wrote to me. I was informed that because of budget cuts, I needed to lose a teacher.”
It took her a moment to work out what Sandra was saying. “What?. . . And you’re saying that teacher is me? You’re sack – ing me?”
“Of course not. You’re being made redundant.”
“Oh, and you think semantics sweetens the pill? You think that being told I’m of no use—surplus to requirements—is an improvement on ‘you’re sacked’?”
“Barbara, I know you’re angry, but please don’t take it out on me. This isn’t my fault. I sang your praises to the department, told them what a huge asset you are to the school. But a post had to go, and they insisted it should be the person closest to retirement. They thought it seemed fairer that way.”
“Retirement? I wasn’t remotely thinking about retirement. I’ve got years left. You know as well as I do that this job is everything to me. It’s my life. It’s who I am.”
“I’m so sorry, Barbara. But there was nothing I could do. In the end, my hands were tied.”
As she sipped her coffee in the early-morning calm, there were no augurs or omens to suggest that before lunchtime, her life would be in the toilet. Her breakfast egg was boiling on the stove. Through the kitchen window the sky was streaked optimistic orange. The elderly heating boiler was roaring away. In a moment the pipes would start their reassuring ticking and knocking. She relished this time to herself—before the day kicked off, before everybody began demanding bits of her. She would have relished it even more if it hadn’t been for Mark Zuckerberg.
Barbara had issues with Mark Zuckerberg. Granted, she was fifty-eight, going on fifty-nine, and walking in the valley of the shadow of her seventh decade. But did the boy mogul with practically his whole life ahead of him have to ram the point home quite so often? This morning—as usual—Barbara’s Facebook sidebar contained another “fifty-nine next birthday?” ad for a “cheap, no-fuss” funeral plan. Underneath was an invitation to take part in a medical trial aimed at detecting early-onset Alzheimer’s. Then there were the plus-size clothing outlets pushing New Year’s discounts. Zuckerberg knew she was a size fourteen because he had elves—thousands of invisible Web stalkers—who were forever peering over her shoulder as she shopped. She imagined them sniggering and nudging one another each time she clicked on a pair of big knickers or an XL “leisure pant.”
But the advertisement that really got to her was the one for a Norwegian river cruise. In Barbara’s book, a cruise ship was God’s waiting room. A touring hotel that practically did the sightseeing for you. Effortless—like Velcro, Crocs, or elasticized waistbands—cruises were catnip to people her age. Of course, some of Barbara’s friends took cruises not so much to take it easy, but to show off. When couples of a certain age treated themselves to around-the-world cruises, it was a chance for them to bask on the sun loungers of their success. Good luck to them. But it disturbed her that so many people her age had stopped striving and seemed to be happy to talk of their successes in the past tense.
Cruises, no matter why they were taken, were the first sign of the dying of the light and to be fought at all costs. (Elasticized waistbands, on the other hand, had, since the arrival of her ample postmenopausal belly, become her secret pleasure.)
Barbara topped up her Queen of Fucking Everything coffee mug that her best friend, Jean, had given her for Christmas and checked the time on the kitchen clock. Just past six. She always got up early on school days. After thirty-odd years as a teacher, she still panicked about being late and even more so on the first day of a new term, which it was today. Her anxiety stemmed from her miserable childhood.
She spooled down the page of status updates. Her sister-in-law, Pam, had posted another selection of kitten pictures. She and her husband, Si, had recently moved to the Costa del Sol—somewhere near Málaga. For months she had posted nothing but beach snaps: “Me on the beach,” “Si on the beach,” “Me and Si on the beach.”
If they weren’t lazing on the sand, they were to be seen basking by the pool knocking back sangria. “This is the life,” Pam would proclaim with a line of exclamation marks. For the first few weeks she got twenty or thirty “likes” every time she posted a picture. But the thumbs-ups and “lucky old you” comments gradually waned as people got fed up with hearing about Pam and Si’s sun-and-sangria life. Pam appeared to take the hint—which was unusual for her. From then on the beach and poolside photographs stopped and she went back to her pre-Spain habit of posting syrupy animal snaps.
Today there were kittens poking their doe-eyed faces out of saucepans and toilet bowls. There were kittens cuddling puppies, kittens lapping from dinky bone-china teacups. Farther down, she had added one of her bumper-sticker affirmations. The fancy lettering wafted out of a sun-dappled bluebell wood: Life isn’t measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away. “So true,” Pam’s old school friend Heather Babcock had commented, adding a line of hearts and smiley faces.
Barbara couldn’t understand why, the moment they hit fifty, so many previously cool, fun women turned into syrupy sentimentalists. Take Heather Babcock for example. In 1983, at Pam’s hen night at a pub in Camden Town, Heather had stood on a tabletop and sung a “feminist” song she’d penned. The chorus went: Oh . . . don’t go jogging in a white tracksuit when you’ve got a heavy flow. Even the blokes had joined in.
Now Heather, Pam and their ilk were cooing over infant animals on Facebook and buying tapestry cushions and bookmarks embroidered “To my dearest hubby.” Their living room shelves were rammed with snow globes, faux Fabergé eggs and porcelain babies dressed as angels. It seemed to Barbara that as soon as women ran out of estrogen and could no longer reproduce, they became driven by a new biological imperative—to fill their houses with kitsch crap. Old Mrs. Brownstein from down the road called them her tchotchkes. Barbara had once made the mistake of agreeing to a cup of tea with Mrs. B. What had followed was an hour-long guided tour of all her china ballerinas and harlequins. It upset the old lady no end to think of her children disposing of them after she’d gone.
If she was honest, Barbara had felt twinges of the condition herself. These had resulted in her dispatching more than one birthday e-card depicting penguins cutting a rug to the “Minute Waltz.” And although she had watched Breaking Bad and appreciated its genius, another of her secret pleasures, along with the elasticized waistbands, was an evening in with reruns of Roseanne or The Golden Girls.
Pam, on the other hand, combined her syrupyitis with a fervent desire to bring back hanging. What was more, she had no qualms about expressing this on Facebook. Her posts on the subject—invariably accompanied by a picture of a giant noose—appeared every time a black person was convicted of killing a white one. Barbara had thought about unfriending Pam—but in the end she decided against it. Pam would find out. There would be an argument, which would result in a family rift. Best to leave well alone.
Out of politeness, Barbara “liked” both the kittens and the affirmation. Pam almost never returned the compliment. She steadfastly refused to “like” or comment on Barbara’s links to newspaper articles on child hunger or first-world poverty. Maybe she thought the way to deal with it was to hang the poor—or give them a kitten.
She dunked Marmite soldiers into her boiled egg. The yolk wasn’t as runny as she liked it, but it was her own fault. She’d got so wound up about Facebook that she’d left it on the stove for too long. She wondered if it was possible to e-mail Mark Zuckerberg—not to complain about Pam et al., but about his ageist advertisements. She knew she’d never get around to it, but she hoped others might. He should be taken to task—left in no doubt that people of a certain age didn’t care to be reminded of their mortality over their morning boiled egg. They were perfectly capable of doing that for themselves, thank you very much. Maybe he was like the Apple chap. People had been able to e-mail him and apparently he even replied to a few. What was his name? Always wore black polo-necks. The one who died. For crying out loud, he’d been one of the most famous people on the planet. But his name escaped her. These days Barbara had a real problem remembering names—and not just people’s names. It was the same with objects.
Last week it had been “colander.” She’d been simmering chicken joints and vegetables on the stove to make stock and needed to drain off the liquid. She’d taken the saucepan to the sink and asked her husband, Frank, if he would go to the cupboard and fetch her “the whatsit . . . you know . . . the strainy thing.”
“That would be the colander,” Frank had said, getting up from behind his newspaper. He duly located it, handed it to his wife and went back to his newspaper. Meanwhile, Barbara poured the golden chicken stock into the colander. Then, for what must have been a full five seconds she stared into the sink, convinced that some kind of magic was about to reverse the calamity. But it didn’t. The last drops of stock flowed into the plughole. All she had left was a colander full of overcooked meat, bones and veg. Frank thought it was hilarious, but Barbara was close to tears. “I never forget to put a bowl under the colander. Never.”
“Well, this time you did.”
“Yes, because I’m going bloody senile.”
“Oh, stop it. We’re all going bloody senile. The other day I found myself on the landing and I couldn’t remember if I’d just come upstairs or was heading down.”
After the chicken stock debacle, they’d gotten changed for Jean’s party. It was her sixtieth birthday, and she’d got caterers in to do posh bangers and mustard mash, along with a trio of puddings. Frank put on his navy Paul Smith suit that they’d bought at an outlet mall last year. Barbara could never get over the effects good tailoring could have on the chunky male figure. He’d teamed the suit with a white button-down collared shirt, open at the neck, and trendy black suede brogues. When he sat down there was a glimpse of bright pink sock.
“You know,” he said, looking at himself in the full-length mirror, “for a paunchy middle-aged git, I still scrub up OK.”
She had to admit that he did. When he was at home he shuffled around the house in the baggy old jeans and jumpers with elbow holes that she threw out when he wasn’t looking, but when he went out he liked to look a bit sharp.
“So, what about me? How do I look?” She was wearing a knee-length black tunic with a dramatic asymmetrical hem, over leggings and high-heeled boots.
“Great. But you always do. Have I seen that top thing before?”
“Only about a dozen times.”
“Really? Well, I like it. Suits you.”
As soon as they arrived at Jean’s, Frank disappeared to the loo. His prostate didn’t care for the cold weather.
Barbara helped herself to a glass of seasonal mulled wine and went in search of the birthday girl. She spotted Jean’s sister, Val, on the other side of the packed room. They shouted “hi” and exchanged waves but couldn’t get close enough for a proper hello. From what Barbara could tell, the only other family members in attendance were Jean and Ken’s boys, Oliver and Adam—along with Adam’s fiancée, Emma. Mostly the gathering was made up of the usual crowd—Ken’s colleagues from the gastroenterology department at King George’s.
Years ago, when Barbara and Frank were first introduced to them, they were skinny junior doctors in flares and mullets who told drunken stories about digital rectal exams and—famously—the guy who came into the ER insisting that his penis was dead. Now they were tubby senior consultants with ear hair and unruly eyebrows.
“I don’t get it,” Frank had said on the way over. “Ken’s still a good laugh. But his mates seem to have become so bloody dull as they’ve got older. Not one of them has got any real conversation. If they’re not talking shop, they bore on about wine and all the posh restaurants they’ve been to. Then they get on to hitting things with sticks.” Frank referred to any sport that wasn’t football as “hitting things with sticks.” It was partly a class thing. He loved the grassrootsness of football. Everything else was for posh boys or just plain pointless—although he did make a notable exception for cricket. He thought golf was especially preposterous and had no qualms about offending golfers he met.
“Ah, Jeff, I hear you play golf. So, do you own your own bag of bats?”
• • •
Eventually Barbara spied Jean, who was wearing a pair of big sparkly antlers, handing out nibbles on the other side of the room. “Suburban snacks, anybody?”
Try as she might to reach her, Barbara kept getting waylaid by doctors’ wives—whose names she couldn’t bring to mind—eager for a natter and a catch-up.
“Barbara! Long time no see. Come over here and say hello to my new knee.”
But before she could reach the knee and its owner, another familiar face she couldn’t put a name to was smiling a greeting.
“Barbara, how are you? Frank still working?”
“Actually, we both are.”
“Good Lord. You’re real suckers for punishment. Graham took retirement a couple of years ago. Couldn’t wait. It’s bliss. I cannot tell you. He’s busy working on his autobiography, which he’s planning to bring out as an e-book later in the year. I walk the dogs, potter in the garden. My asters did awfully well last year. Oh, and I’ve just started this brilliant antique-collecting course.”
Barbara couldn’t imagine a life being reduced to asters and antiques. She knew she was being snotty and contemptuous, not characteristics that she admired in herself, but she couldn’t see the point of carrying on if you didn’t have a proper, people-are-depending-on-you reason to get up in the morning. On the other hand, she was envious. These people could afford to give up work. She and Frank couldn’t, even if they wanted to.
Barbara finally caught up with Jean at the bar. This was actually Jean’s dining room table covered in a white cloth and bottles of supermarket fizz.
“Hey, birthday girl,” Barbara said, giving her friend a hug. “You’re looking gorgeous . . . and I’m lovin’ the antlers.”
“Ken thought I should wear a tiara, but since it’s still Christmas, I thought these were more seasonal.”
“Quite right. So have you had a good day?”
“Fabulous—and thanks again for the pressie. You really shouldn’t have. Issey Miyake perfume and body lotion. You must have spent a fortune. That said, it is my fave.”
Barbara had been worried about sending a parcel full of glass in the post, but she’d wanted to make sure it arrived that morning. Jean was a big kid when it came to her birthday. Every year she opened her presents in bed with Ken while they ate warm buttered croissants and drank champagne with floating strawberries.
“Oh, who cares about money?” Barbara said. “You’re only sixty once.” Since her credit cards were maxed out, she’d put the Issey Miyake on the charge card she’d used to pay for all the family Christmas presents. She dreaded to think how much she’d spent. Since Boxing Day, she’d been fretting about the bill landing on the mat.
“So,” Barbara said, “what did Ken get you for your birthday?”
“A fancy-schmancy spa day, and he’s whisking me off to the South of France for a week in July.”
“Wow. Lucky old you. Your old man’s still nuts about you. You know that, don’t you?”
Jean laughed. “I do . . . and you’re right. I am a very lucky girl.”
Just then Ken appeared, glass in hand.
“So what do you think of the wife? Isn’t she gorgeous? I keep telling her she doesn’t look a day over thirty-five.”
“Idiot,” Jean said, bashing him on the arm.
“Right, I suppose I should go and mingle,” he said. “Barbara, where’s that husband of yours? Talking to him makes such a change from all these boring old farts. You know they’re all retiring, don’t you? Bloody idiots. Mark my words, they’ll be dead in ten years. It’s what boredom and lack of purpose do to you.”
“Ken fully intends to keel over at ninety, shoving a tube up some poor sod’s rectum—don’t you, Ken?”
“Too bloody right. . . . OK, I’m off to find Frank.”
As he turned, he started to sway. Barbara and Jean exchanged glances.
“Ken, just look at you. You know you can’t hold your booze like you used to. Now do as I say and switch to water.”
“You know I really love it when you’re bossy.” He squeezed Jean’s waist.
“Believe me, if you don’t do as you’re told, there’s plenty more where that came from.”
“I can’t wait.” He winked at his wife and left.
“I do envy you two,” Barbara said to Jean. “So loved up after all these years.”
• • •
It wasn’t long before everybody was merry on mulled wine and Tesco Finest bubbly and Jean was organizing party games. After “Gargle That Tune,” there was “Murder in the Dark” and “Pin the Lips on Mick Jagger.” This was followed by dancing. Funny, Barbara thought as she dragged a protesting Frank into the melee—how the middle-aged women could still get their groove on, whereas most of the men—Frank included—could manage only the kind of jerky-limbed abandon that would have had their children and grandchildren squirming and covering their eyes . . . before sharing the video on Facebook.
At midnight, Barbara, Jean and Jean’s sister, Val, who by now were all pretty worse for wear, found themselves sitting on the sofa, getting maudlin.
“So Ken thinks we should buy a futon,” Jean said, adjusting her antlers, which kept slipping down over her eyes. “He reckons it’ll be good for our backs, but I’ve told him there is no way that my deathbed is going to be a bloody futon.”
“Too right,” Val said as she flicked cigarette ash into her empty champagne glass. “You tell him. Oh, and talking of deathbeds, Steve and I have found the most incredible burial plots.”
Jean looked at her sister. “Bloody hell, Val. You’re not even fifty-five.”
“I know, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime offer. The plots are in this glorious little glade. It’s like this dinky fairy glen. . . .”
“But when the time comes,” Barbara said, “won’t you and Steve be too dead to notice?”
“That’s not the point. . . .”
“I wanna be stuffed,” Jean declared. “And have the boys and Ken bring me out every Christmas. They can sit me at the top of the table and stick these antlers on my head.”
“I’d like to die having an orgasm,” Val said.
Jean laughed. “Good for you, hon. I’ll drink to that.”
“OK, I think we should stop all this talk about death,” Barbara said. “It’s depressing. I don’t know about you two, but I’ve still got plenty of living left to do. Everybody says sixty is the new forty.”
“Then that would make thirty the new ten,” Jean said.
“Yes, necessarily,” Val came back. “It’s simple arithmetic.”
“I don’t care,” Jean said. “It’s legacy that counts. You need to leave a legacy. You know . . . like Einstein. Or Cher.”
• • •
“We really ought to do it,” Frank said to Barbara as they got into bed. “It’s been ages. I’m worrying that we’re getting out of the habit. And I really fancied you tonight.”
“Ditto. You looked incredibly handsome.”
“On the other hand, it’s one in the morning and it’s such a bloody rigmarole. It means I’ve got to get up and take a tablet. Then we have to wait for it to work.”
“I could put the kettle on.”
“Oh, very erotic . . . sitting in bed drinking a mug of Yorkshire Gold while I wait to get a hard-on.”
If she was honest, she wasn’t that bothered about sex these days. There had been a time when she liked Frank to tie her up. When had that waned? Around the time her hot flashes and vaginal dryness had waxed. HRT patches had helped improve her libido a bit, but it wasn’t what it was, and like Frank said, these days it was such a rigmarole.
“Let’s just have a cuddle?” she said.
Barbara snuggled into him. After a couple of minutes, Frank said his nostrils itched. He got out of bed to find his nose hair trimmer.
• • •
Back in the kitchen, Barbara fancied another slice of toast, but she was watching her carbs. Post-menopause fat cells—particularly the ones around her middle—seemed to swell up if they got even the faintest sniff of a scone or hot buttered crumpet. She’d just put the loaf back in the bread bin when her cell rang. She padded over to the kitchen table and picked it up. When she saw the number, she let out a groan. Even for her mother, this was early.
“Hi, Mum. How are you?”
Rose would have been up since five, had her up-and-down wash, eaten her muesli and banana, and now she was bored and looking for some action.
“I’m fine. I was just calling because I’ve forgotten what time you said you’d be over today.”
“I told you last night. I’ll be there straight after school. If the weather’s not too bad, maybe we could go for a walk in the park. It’ll do you good.”
“Lovely. I’ll make sure I’m in.”
Barbara found it both sad and amusing that her mother, who these days left her flat only to go shopping or to the hairdresser, always spoke as if her social calendar were packed with engagements. Right now she would be staring out of her living room window, waiting for it to get light and for the postman to arrive. Frank said she was becoming agoraphobic like Stan—Barbara’s late father. Barbara didn’t agree. Rose went out every day to shop and run errands. When necessary, she even took the bus. Barbara put her mother’s behavior down to nothing more than inertia. In the last few years so many of her friends had died. On the one hand, Rose was lonely. On the other, she couldn’t see the point of going out and making new friends who would only die on her.
“But you need to do something to keep yourself occupied,” Barbara had said repeatedly. “What about joining a seniors club?”
Rose could think of nothing worse. “What, and spend my days being patronized by idiots who assume that as soon as a person turns seventy, their brain seizes up and all they’re interested in is playing bingo and doing the ‘Hokey Pokey’? No. I’m better off on my own.”
So she spent her days standing at the window or sitting in front of the TV.
Barbara still wanted more toast. Instead of reaching for the bread, she forced herself in the direction of the fruit bowl and helped herself to a handful of blueberries. Above her the floorboards creaked. Frank was up. She would take him a cup of coffee.
She found him in his study, staring into his laptop. When he made no effort to relieve her of the mug, she made some space among his mess of papers and put it down.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
“Oh, right, cheers,” he said, eyes still fixed on his screen. Then: “Oh, for fuck’s sake. I don’t believe it.”
“The exec producer at Channel Four is saying they want an entire re-fucking-edit of the Bolivia film. That’s going to take forever.”
“Frank, calm down. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. So you’ll negotiate more time, and it’ll work out like it always does. But getting het up isn’t going to help. Come on . . . drink some coffee.”
“I don’t think I can manage it.” He grimaced and let out a long belch. “Bloody stomach acid. And I can’t find my pills.”
Frank made TV documentaries—the kind that came with a warning: “The images you are about to see may cause distress.” Did they ever. Audiences wept watching them. Frank got acid reflux making them.
Informing the world about torture, human trafficking, war crimes—essentially any kind of human rights abuse—was Frank’s passion, if “passion” was the right word. Maybe “calling” was more apt. His work frequently involved him putting himself in danger. To make his award-winning film Inside North Korea, he’d got himself into Pyongyang on an official tourist trip. But each day he’d managed to give the tour guides the slip for a few hours and hook up with a group of activists who took him to wretched, impoverished neighborhoods full of starving families and street children. Barbara was Frank’s most ardent advocate and admirer—his enthusiasm and energy were the things that had drawn her to him all those years ago—but that didn’t stop her worrying herself sick that one day he would get captured by bad people on one of his escapades and be left to rot in some third-world jail. Or worse.
“They’re on the shelf in front of you,” Barbara said, regarding the pills. She stretched across, grabbed the box and handed it to him. “So you in for dinner?”
“Nah. Too much on. I’m going to be working late on this reedit.”
The story of her life.
Years ago—when their eldest, Jess, was a baby and Barbara was fat and lactating—it occurred to her that Frank wasn’t spending all those nights working late and that he was cheating on her. Once, around midnight, she’d shown up at his tiny office in Soho—Jess asleep in her buggy. All she found was her husband cursing into a TV screen as he alternately downed mouthfuls of meat samosa and Cobra. He was really hurt and angry that she’d felt the need to check up on him, but more than that, he was furious with her for dragging Jess from her cot. She was forced to agree that removing her sleeping infant from her bed and schlepping her to town on a freezing winter’s night, purely to indulge her own paranoia, wasn’t entirely sane.
“You have to start trusting me,” he’d said afterwards, when they were in bed. “I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in other women. It’s you and our little family that I want, but at the same time, my work means a huge amount to me. I never made a secret of it. You knew what you were getting into when you married me.” He was right. She had gone into the marriage with her eyes wide open. In the end she just accepted her lot as a married single mum and got on with it.
Jess and Ben, who had no idea what it was like to have a dad who worked nine to five and had never known anything different, didn’t seem to mind. In fact, their dad being away so much had definite advantages. When he returned, he always came laden with gifts. Ben still remembered being three or four and Frank arriving home from a trip to Tokyo and presenting them with a giant McDonald’s restaurant kit complete with paper hats and plastic burgers and pickles.
“So if you’re not in for dinner, what will you do?” Barbara said.
“I dunno. I’ll probably get a curry.”
“You eat too many curries. They’re full of fat, which is bad for your reflux. . . .”
Not to mention his weight. He must have put on forty pounds in the last couple of years. But she rarely raised the subject with him, and when she did, she was always tentative. Reason being: she knew from her own experience how hard it was to shed pounds in middle age. If she ate like a bird for a month she could drop a pound or two, but that was as good as it got. When she complained about her weight, Frank accused her of boring on. He said she was fine how she was and so what if she’d gained a few pounds. It happened at their age. She found it hard to nag him when he was so accepting of her.
Nevertheless, she wished Frank would make some effort. Yes, he looked great in a suit, but that only disguised the problem. She was in no doubt that it was the stress of his job that made him eat too much. He self-medicated with food.
The kids didn’t hold back though. Jess would pat her father’s paunch and say things like: “So, Dad, you opting for a natural birth or an epidural?”
“OK, I’ll get sushi,” Frank said to Barbara now. “So long as you give me a break.”
“I’m sorry, but I worry about you, that’s all. Maybe after you finish the edit, you should get a checkup.”
“I’ll do it when I’ve got time.”
That would be a no, then.
“Oh, by the way,” Frank said, popping one of his proton pump inhibitors out of the foil. “I got the go-ahead from BBC Two for the Mexico film.” This was going to be about human rights abuses in the Mexican mental-health system. “Not sure how long I’ll be away. Could be a while.”
Barbara was so used to these announcements—so used to him leaving her for weeks or months at a time—that they barely registered. But lately—over the past year or so—she’d started to feel sad and resentful when he told her he was going away. “So, when are you off?”
He downed the pill with some coffee. “Dunno. It’s all up in the air right now, what with this reedit. Plus we’ve still got to agree to the budget. But I’m hoping to get away in a couple of weeks.”
“But you’ve only just got back.” He’d spent the last month making a film about the use of child labor in Bolivian silver mines. While he was there, his car had been followed and he’d received death threats from mine owners.
“Bar, the day has hardly started and so far you’ve done nothing but give me a hard time. You’ve never nagged me about going away. Please don’t start now. What would you have me do?”
She resented him accusing her of nagging. He was right. Over the years she’d been positively stoic about him being away so much. It was only now that they were getting older that she thought they deserved some time together.
“Come on,” she said, trying to sound loving rather than combative. “You know I loathe the idea of retirement as much as you do and I’d never ask you to stop working. This job is your life, and for your sake I hope you carry on doing it until you’re ninety, but couldn’t you cut back just a bit? And maybe you could think about covering stories that don’t put your life in danger.” She looked at his belly, the way it strained against his T-shirt and hung over his boxers. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“I’m always careful. You’re not going to lose me. And you know as well as I do that I can’t cut back on work. We need the money.”
He was right again. They did need the money. Contrary to popular opinion, TV documentary makers—even award-winning ones like Frank who were always in demand—didn’t make a great deal of money. Over the years they’d remortgaged the house twice to help pay for the kids’ education. Among their friends, they were the only couple that didn’t own their house outright. They were also the only ones who hadn’t come into a substantial inheritance. When Frank’s parents died a few years back, there had been no property to pass on because they’d rented their flat. Their only hope was Rose. But if the time came when she needed to go into a care home, her place would have to be sold. Private care cost a fortune, so all the equity would be swallowed up in fees. That would leave them with nothing. They’d be forced to sell their home to finance their old age and be left eking out their days paying rent on some rabbit hutch of a rented flat.
“I know we need the money,” Barbara said, “but I hate seeing you under so much stress. If third-world thugs don’t kill you, then stress will.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, but whether you like it or not, I plan to carry on working and earn enough money to pay for our old age. In other words, I fully intend to have my cake and eat it. So, unless you have another solution . . .”
“That’s not fair. Don’t make this my problem. It’s our problem. We need to work it out together.”
“Look, I can’t have this conversation now. I’ve got a stack of e-mails to reply to. Then I need to get in the shower.”
It seemed to her that he always found some excuse or other not to have this conversation.
“Oh, by the way,” he said. “My sister’s been posting more pictures of kittens on Facebook.”
“I know. I saw. And some affirmation about life being less about breaths you take and more about the moments that take your breath away.”
“I don’t get it,” Frank said. “Pam’s always liked to show off and flaunt her money, but she’s never been a flake.”
“That’s what menopause does to you,” Barbara said. “Lack of estrogen makes women crave all things saccharine and schmaltzy.”
“Well, that’s my theory, for what it’s worth. I’m not sure it would stand up to rigorous scientific analysis. . . . With me it’s The Golden Girls.”
“Huh . . . I hadn’t noticed.”
Of course he hadn’t. He was never here.
“I don’t know how you can watch that rubbish,” he said.
“Yeah, well, I’d rather have my brain go a bit syrupy than succumb to the male meno-Porsche.”
“Male meno-Porsche? Me? What are you on about? You and I share a crappy old Saab.”
“Yeah, but that’s only because you can’t afford a Porsche. If you had money, you’d be so in there. . . .”
“Actually, I wouldn’t get a Porsche. I’d get a Harley.” He started making vrooming noises. “Come on . . . be honest. How much would it turn you on to see my paunch encased in skintight black leather?”
“You have no idea,” she said, grinning.
• • •
Since Frank would probably be at his desk for another few minutes, Barbara decided to grab the first shower. On her way to the bathroom, she stopped to listen at Ben’s door for signs of him stirring. Some hopes. The TV was on quietly, which meant he’d probably been up most of the night and had dozed off in front of it. She opened the door a crack. Her son was asleep on his back, arms splayed, mouth slightly open. His laptop, along with the stinky remains of a plate of bacon, eggs, beans and ketchup, was on his nightstand. Dirty socks, pants and towels were scattered over the floor. She could only guess what time he’d fallen asleep. Ben—eighteen months out of uni—was trying to make it as a music journalist. He wrote at night, claiming that he worked better in the quiet. “Stop worrying,” he’d say, whenever his mother registered concern about his unhealthy sleeping pattern. “I was the same at university. My whole life was spent pulling all-nighters.”
What Barbara knew for certain was that her son would remain unconscious for most of the day—probably emerging from his adolescent pit about the time she got home from work. She closed the door as quietly as she could.
The point was, of course, that Ben wasn’t an adolescent. He was twenty-three. But in many ways he was still her baby. A couple of years after having Jess, they’d tried to get pregnant again, but each month had ended in disappointment. There was no obvious physical reason. Just bad luck, the doctors said. Then, almost a decade later, when they’d given up hope, along came Ben: their little miracle.
“This can’t go on,” Frank had said last night when Ben was out. “Us bankrolling him while he sleeps all day. We’re too bloody soft on him. Have you any idea how much his December phone bill was—the one that I just paid? Two hundred quid. And that’s on top of the ton of money you spent on Christmas presents and Jean’s birthday.”
“It was bloody Christmas, for crying out loud. And Jean was sixty. What was I supposed to do?”
“OK, next year you can be in charge of all the present buying. . . . Look, I know Ben’s costing us a fortune, but it’s hard for kids these days. They come out of university with decent degrees only to discover that nobody wants to employ them. This is the worst job market in decades. Lots of his friends are in the same boat. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in three men aged twenty to thirty-four still lives with his parents. I read it in the Guardian.”
“Sod the Office for bloody Statistics and sod the Guardian. It’s indulgent Guardian-reading parents like us who’ve mollycoddled our kids since they were born who are responsible for all this. We’ve infantilized them, turned them into these delicate flowers who are too scared to go out into the world and get their hands dirty. Ben needs to find a job. Any job. That’s all there is to it.”
Barbara reminded him that Ben volunteered twice a week at the food bank, distributing groceries. “He’s a good kid. His heart’s in the right place. He takes after you.”
In the seventies, Frank had spent some time volunteering at a soup kitchen.
“I also had a paid job.”
“Yes, but right now there are no jobs.”
“There are if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty.”
Then Frank went on about how, during his gap year—when the economic situation was so bad that the population was working only a three-day week—he’d found work as a porter in a hospital mortuary. “In my day kids had initiative.”
“And you enjoyed that job, did you?”
“It was OK, and anyway, it wasn’t about enjoyment. Coming face-to-face with death toughened me up—made a man of me.”
“Really? Because according to your mum, you lasted less than a day. She said a leg on one of the corpses shot up and you ran out, screaming like a girl.”
“Rubbish. I didn’t scream like a girl. I screamed like a man.”
• • •
Barbara turned on the shower and got undressed. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for Ben, but Frank had a point. They were being too soft on him. From the moment Ben moved back in they should have laid down some rules. Rule one: if he wanted to make it as a music journalist he needed to meet the world halfway and start typing stuff out.
Granted, he was doing a bit, writing blogs for online music magazines, but it wasn’t enough. And mostly he wrote for free. A few magazines paid, but rarely more than fifty quid.
She’d read some of his stuff. Most of the time she hadn’t the foggiest what he was going on about. He tended to write about obscure bands with “fearless sonic curiosity” or whose latest “tensely coiled” offering had “an alchemical knack of deriving inspiration from limitation.”
Ben’s knowledge didn’t surprise her. He’d been immersed in music since he was a teenager. He’d taught himself to play guitar at age fourteen, and in his first year at university he formed a punk band called Grandma and the Junkies. They were pretty good by all accounts. By the time the boys left university, they were gigging all over the country—mostly in crappy clubs in godforsaken towns, but that was the way it worked. You slogged away for years, and if you were any good, you might get a break. But after a year or so they realized that none of them had the stomach for the long haul. What’s more, the lack of any A&R interest—despite them posting endless videos on YouTube—prompted a reality check. Grandma and the Junkies were good, but they weren’t great. They were just another standard uni band.
They broke up. It was the first time in his life that Ben had failed at something, and for a while he was pretty miserable. It didn’t help that despite the recession, the other boys landed on their feet and found jobs.
Ben wasn’t saying anything, but Barbara suspected that even now, months later, he was still reeling from his failure. He’d been denied his dream. She imagined how angry he felt. He was clearly sleeping to hide from his emotions. Despite his bits of writing, she suspected that deep down his passion for music had faded. His heart wasn’t in it. Barbara had tried talking to him about how he was feeling.
“I know you’re miserable, but you did your best to make a go of the band. And people in the music industry are always going on about how success is so often down to luck more than talent. Plus you admitted that none of you really had the commitment to keep going.”
“We didn’t have the commitment. . . . But you’ve got this all wrong. I’m over what happened to the band. Honest.”
But she wasn’t buying it.
Sad as she felt for him, it didn’t alter the fact that Ben needed to earn some money. It wasn’t simply that they couldn’t afford to keep financing him. It wasn’t good for him to be in his twenties and so dependent on his parents. She dreaded to think what effect it was having on his self-esteem. He needed to get a part-time job with a paper hat and start paying something towards his upkeep. She resolved that she and Frank would sit down and have a serious talk with him. And sooner rather than later.
After her shower, Barbara dried her hair, checked her chin in the mirror for whiskers and replaced her HRT patch. She’d tried coming off the hormones, but within a few days the hot flashes returned and she turned into Crazy Psycho Woman. Frank said it was like living with Mrs. Satan with PMS. Her doctor said she would probably need to be on HRT for life.
Getting dressed was easy—thanks to her stomach bulge. Barbara’s tight tops and jeans were long gone. She slipped on a navy tunic and a pair of matching palazzo pants. These days her wardrobe was full of dark palazzos, leggings and long A-line tunics that skimmed her upper body and vaguely hinted at a waist. According to the magazines, tunics, long scarves and heels lengthened the torso and drew the eye away from a thickened midsection. Today she accessorized her uniform with chunky earrings, a couple of thick bangles and the obligatory long, jazzy scarf.
• • •
Her mother, Rose, is getting ready to go out. She and Stan—Barbara’s dad—have been invited to something called a “function.” This is a sort of party. Her parents go to lots of functions. As usual, Mrs. T is coming to babysit. Mrs. T is old and seems to like Barbara. She’s teaching her how to knit.
Barbara goes upstairs to watch her mother dress. Rose’s wardrobe is full of beautiful clothes. Barbara likes the evening gowns best. She sits on the big bed studying how her mother applies her eye shadow, the way she dots her face with Pan Stik and then with swift, skillful strokes, smudges it over her face so that it’s perfectly even. She watches her adjust her breasts in her low-cut, floaty chiffon dress covered in twinkly beads. “You look like a princess,” Barbara tells her mother. She stands up on the bed, reaches over and throws her arms around Rose’s shoulders. She gives her a big kiss on the cheek.
“What’s that for?” It’s her mother’s usual response when her daughter attempts to show her affection. Barbara is confused. Is it wrong to kiss your mum for no reason?
“Barbara, please let go. You’re spoiling my makeup.”
• • •
Barbara missed clothes shopping. Even in her forties she’d still been slim and able to find the odd thing in Topshop that she could get away with. That seemed light-years away now.
Jean was one of the lucky ones who hadn’t put on weight in her fifties. “Look at you in your tight jeans. You still look amazing.”
“No, I don’t. I look like Andy Warhol.” She was referring to her flyaway bleached-blond hair.
Being overweight in middle age did have one compensation, for which Barbara couldn’t help being grateful. Fat was a natural filler, and even if she did say so herself, her face was holding up rather well. That said, it hadn’t stopped her being pissed off about her thirty-nine-inch waist. A few weeks ago, Pam had posted on Facebook that when she felt old and unattractive, she thought about the young women she’d known who had died. Thinking about those beautiful women who didn’t make it always makes me feel grateful for what I’ve got—even if these days Father Time and Mr. Gravity are taking their toll. For me it’s a privilege just to be alive.
Barbara closed the front door behind her. Steve Jobs! That was the name of the Apple bloke. She felt a bit less senile now that she’d remembered.
On a good day it was no more than a ten-minute drive to Jubilee Primary. The school was over the road from Orchard Farm. It went without saying that this was neither an orchard nor a farm, but a public-housing estate. It was also one of the worst in London. Orchard Farm: a mean joke of a name, Barbara thought. The Daily Mail referred to the place as the “Hammer Housing Estate of Horror.” As soon as they turned five, all the Orchard Farm kids started at Jubilee.
There was a reason apart from her punctuality neurosis that Barbara liked to get in early. Each morning, the school provided breakfast for the pupils, and she thought that it was important to be there. It was a chance for her to sit down and chat with the most underprivileged, vulnerable youngsters and check how they were doing. She knew these kids well, as they tended to be the ones who left their classes for a few hours each week to come to her cubbyhole of an office for extra tutoring. Barbara was one of the school’s remedial teachers, although the staff were careful never to use the word in front of pupils. But even the little ones had her sussed. “Oy, miss, is it true that people only come to your classes ’cos they is retards?” Her charges were often bullied and taunted in the playground. “Tyler is special nee-eeds. . . . Tyler is special nee-eeds.” Despite frequent lectures from the principal in school assembly, the harassment didn’t stop.
In Barbara’s opinion, many of the children who came to her were perfectly able. It was their emotional problems, which resulted in them acting out or throwing violent temper tantrums, that affected their ability to learn. She’d spent years trying to get the local education authority to fund a permanent on-site counselor, but there was never any money. Class teachers tended to be at their wits’ end with these children. How did you even begin to teach a class of thirty when some kid with attention deficit disorder was throwing books and chairs about? Barbara provided the teachers with a break.
Since university, all Barbara had ever wanted to do was try to make a difference—to help kids like the ones at Jubilee—kids whose lives were threadbare and godforsaken. And she’d always known she would be good at it because in some ways she could identify with neglected kids. Granted, she’d never been cold or gone hungry. She hadn’t grown up with useless, drug-addled parents, but she knew how it felt to be neglected emotionally. She’d also read enough pop psychology books to realize that by trying to rescue other children, she was trying to rescue the abandoned child in her. That was one of the reasons that her work was so addictive and why she couldn’t contemplate parting with it.
Over the years, several head teachers at schools where she’d worked had suggested—always with a nod and a wink—that she apply for this or that senior post or headship, but she’d always refused. She was a teacher, not a manager.
A few hundred yards down the road, Barbara pulled over and ducked into Bean and Gone to pick up a double-shot latte. The hit from her early-morning mug of coffee was starting to wear off.
Barbara and Frank had moved to the East End soon after they got married—because it was cheap. Back in the midseventies, the first wave of gentrification was just beginning to hit. They’d bought their tiny flat for less than ten grand, when the only place approaching a coffee shop was Jim’s, the greasy spoon on Mare Street. It was always full workmen and blokes in flat caps reading the Racing Post while they downed bacon, eggs and beans—and maybe a slice of Jim’s fried bread. Jim didn’t serve poncy, frothy coffee. That was for poofters. It was either thick orange builder’s tea or instant coffee. By the eighties they had moved around the corner, into the Victorian terraced house where they still lived. Today there were two independent coffee shops, a whole-food deli, a Reiki healer and an organic butcher within two hundred yards of Barbara’s front door.
Bean and Gone used to be an ironmonger’s. The owner had been a bloke called Derrick. In the warm weather, his old mum used to sit outside on a kitchen chair, resting her bulk on one of those three-pronged metal walking sticks. The entire neighborhood called her Grandma. Presumably Derrick knew her actual name, but nobody thought to ask. You couldn’t pass the shop without being collared by Grandma. Barbara had one memorable encounter: “Aw right, darlin’? ’Ere, jew know everybody can see your arse in that skirt?”
A workman on some scaffolding had heard her and yelled: “No, Grandma—you sing it and I’ll hum along.”
Grandma burst into a bronchial cackle. “Still you’ve got the legs for it. Good luck to yer, darlin’.”
Barbara missed the old characters. She wondered what Grandma would have made of all the hipster newcomers. “Oy, mate . . . yeah, you in the woolly hat. You do realize it’s bleedin’ August, don’t you?”
That said, Barbara loved the energy, the cosmopolitan-ness, the twenty-four-seven, artisan macaroonness of the new East End. What she loathed were the dirt, the bag people, the smell of exhaust, the sirens, the gangs, the knife crime. As she returned to her car with her latte, a dispatch rider with a wobbly exhaust roared off, leaving a toxic cloud of black in his wake. There were times when she found herself craving a life in the country. She yearned for fields, woods to wander in, babbling brooks, birdsong that wasn’t drowned out by traffic noise, a rolling hill or two. But the desire didn’t last long. She couldn’t imagine living in one of those twee hang-’em-and-flog-’em Tory stronghold villages where you never saw a black or brown face from one fox-hunt ball to the next. The countryside was also where people her age went to retire—to play bowls on the village green, to exchange gossip about the latest parish council meeting or church bazaar . . . to embrace the dying of the light. Barbara leaned forward and turned on the CD player . . . Like a bat outta hell I’ll be gone when the morning comes . . . As she pulled away, she turned up the volume and sang along while beating out a rhythm on the steering wheel.
A few minutes later, as she pulled up at a red light, she was still singing and thinking that she must tell the kids she wanted them to play Meat Loaf at her funeral. She was paying almost no attention to the Porsche in front of her and would have carried on paying it no attention had the driver not rolled down his window and dropped a paper cup onto the road. She waited for a couple of moments to see if it had been accidental. Surely the driver was about to open his door and get out to retrieve the cup. But he didn’t.
Aware that the light could change any second, Barbara was out of her car. She was always saying that one of the best things about being a stout middle-aged woman was that you looked harmless. Barbara had learned that she could confront people in public about their rudeness or blatant disregard for civic duty and mostly they didn’t pull a knife.
She tapped on the driver’s window. Inside, the thirtysomething chap in a Mr. Toad check jacket and flat cap looked taken aback. The window slid down.
“Er, excuse me, sir . . .” She always began by being superpolite in these situations. Not that she’d been that polite to the antiabortion protesters she’d come across last week, camped outside the offices of British Pregnancy Advisory Service. She’d shouted and hectored them about how banning abortion would force women to return to the days when they bled to death on the kitchen tables of backstreet abortionists. Today, faced only with a litter lout, she was feeling far less combative.
“Sorry to trouble you, but I think that somehow this cup found its way out of your car and onto the road.” By now she had picked it up and was dangling it in front of the driver.
“Oh, right. Gosh. Most awfully sorry. My mistake.” He took the cup.
If she’d been younger, he would have continued to behave like the asshole he was and ignored her or told her to fuck off. But she probably reminded him of his nanny. Posh, well-brought-up assholes didn’t dare tell Nanny to fuck off.
“No worries.” Barbara smiled. “You have a nice day.”
The light had changed, but she hadn’t quite made it back to her car. She expected the traffic to be honking like crazy, but the woman behind her was beaming and giving her a thumbs-up. “You’re a braver woman than me,” she called out through her window. “I wouldn’t have dared to challenge him. You never know what they’ll do.”
One of the many things that pissed Barbara off about the world was people seeing wrongdoing and refusing to get involved or speak up. Why was everybody so feeble? She blamed the Daily Mail. If you believed their hype and scaremongering, half the population was armed with knives.
As she pulled away, she checked the time on the dashboard clock.
• • •
Her mother is standing in front of the hall mirror, spending what seems like hours doing her hair and makeup. The wrought iron and frosted-glass telephone table is littered with lipsticks, pots of eye shadow and rouge—a giant can of Aqua Net extra hold. Barbara is standing beside her in her green gymslip and crested blazer, checking the minute hand on her Timex watch. Barbara enjoys watching Rose get ready to go out, but not when school starts in less than fifteen minutes.
“Mummy, hurry up. I’m going to be late again. . . . Mummy, please. You always make me late. . . .”
“Will you stop nagging?” In as ladylike a fashion as she can muster, Rose spits onto the solid block of mascara and scrubs at it with her brush. “So what if you’re a few minutes late?”
“I’ll get kept in at playtime.” Barbara is close to tears.
They arrive at the school gates to find the bell has gone and the playground empty. Once again, Barbara is made to stay in at break and do hard division sums.
When Rose collects her from school, Barbara grizzles and whines about the sums and how she missed playing with her friends. “It was horrible. I was all on my own. Please can we get to school earlier?”
“Oh, stop making such a fuss,” her mother says, handing her a packet of cheese and onion potato chips. “At least you didn’t have to carry three bags of shopping home in the teeming rain. Missing playtime is hardly the end of the world. You’ll play with your friends tomorrow.”
Whenever Barbara moans to her mother—which isn’t often—Rose makes her feel as if she’s being selfish and naughty.
• • •
Barbara had just parked her car in her usual spot around the corner from the school when her cell rang. Jess.
“Mum, I know it’s short notice, but I was wondering if you could pick the kids up from school and look after them for a few hours. I wouldn’t ask, but I’m desperate. We’re doing this outside catering job, and I’m in the middle of making two hundred vegan canapés. The babysitter’s got this stomach thing that’s been doing the rounds, and I’m not sure I’ll be finished by school pickup time.”
Jess and her husband, Matt, had just opened their own organic deli-cum-grocery-cum-eatery a mile or so down the road from Barbara and Frank. Since it was early days, the only help they could afford were a couple of part-time assistants-slash-waitresses. Jess, who always said her culinary talent came about as a reaction to her mother’s lack of interest in cooking, prepared all the ready meals and did the baking. Matt worked behind the counter, took care of the ordering and did the books.
“Sweetheart, you sound really stressed. You sure you OK? You know, I do worry that you and Matt have taken on too much. I mean, what with the kids . . .”
“Mum, don’t do this now . . . please. I’m too busy. I just need to know if you can get Atticus and Cleo.”
“Of course. No probs, but they’ll have to come to Nana’s with me.”
“Fine. Get her to show them her photographs from the olden days. They love that.”
• • •
Jubilee School was a dirty, yellow brick, churchlike edifice surrounded by asphalt and tall railings. It still had its original stone plaque in the shape of a shield over the main entrance: JUBILEE MIXED INFANTS AND JUNIORS. 1887. It also had the original two entrances—one for boys and one for girls, which had been preserved purely for historical interest.
Barbara opened the school gate and made her way across the playground. A group of year-six lads—white, Asian, black, Eastern European—were kicking a ball around and yelling at one another in half a dozen languages. Some of their mates were leaning against the wall trying to look cool as they played games on their phones. Phones weren’t allowed in school, but the oldest kids in particular—not to mention their parents—weren’t about to be told. Whenever a phone was confiscated, an irate mother or father—who had never shown up to a single parents’ evening—came marching into school insisting that they knew their rights and accusing the school of abuse. In the end Sandra had decided it was a battle she couldn’t win. She relented and let the top years bring in their phones. “What I don’t understand,” she had said to Barbara the other day when they were chatting in the staff room, “is why families who are struggling always make such bad choices. I mean, if you or I were hard up, we’d buy food, gas and electricity—not big-screen TVs and smartphones for our kids. And they wonder why they’re always in debt.”
Sandra—Mrs. Nichols to the kids—had worked at Jubilee for five years. Before that she’d spent two decades teaching at a small private school just outside Oxford. By the time she’d left, she was deputy head. She was married to a wine merchant named Charles. There were no children. Whether that was down to bad luck or lack of desire, Barbara had never been able to establish. Since Sandra never raised the subject, she suspected it was bad luck.
Barbara—along with most of the staff—had always considered her an odd fit for a school like Jubilee.
“I needed a challenge,” she’d said when Barbara had asked her why she’d given up such a comfortable, stress-free job. “In the end, comfortable becomes tedious, and superbright, privileged children can be so dull. They’re like automatons, a lot of them. The boys know they will go into the law or banking. The girls end up in PR or working in art galleries. As a teacher, you start to think, what’s the point? What do I have to offer?”
What Sandra liked to think what she offered Jubilee kids was discipline. She insisted on teachers setting homework three nights a week—although little got done. Children had to wear the regulation blue sweatshirt with the school logo. Sandra believed that taking pride in one’s school led to greater self-esteem. It didn’t. Stewart, the deputy head, summed up what the rest of the staff already knew: “All it does is make it easier for the police to identify the little buggers.”
Sandra’s other innovation was playtime detentions. Miscreants would be made to sit alone and write apologies to their victims. Most were short—on words as well as remorse: Soree I stabbed you in the neck with my pensel. I will give you a kwid after school.
Their contrition, such as it was, lasted until the next time they thought it might be fun to stick somebody with a pencil or demand money with menaces.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Novels of Sue Margolis
“Delightfully funny...compulsively readable.”—Susie Essman, Actress, Curb Your Enthusiasm
“Margolis’s characters have a candor and self-deprecation that lead to furiously funny moments.”—USA Today
“Sharp-witted humor with warm, breathing characters.”—RT Book Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Barbara is a grandmother, mother, wife, daughter, teacher and an active member in her community and as things start to unravel she starts to unravel and those around her some help, but some assume that she will just take care of herself as she has always done. I don't tend to read a book with a main character is of the advanced age, but I love this author, so I wanted to try this one out and I wasn't disappointed. Although I am not in that stage of life, I still was able to relate with the character in that I am also a woman who wants to be there for anyone and be all things for everyone, so I loved seeing that at any age a woman can get overwhelmed and need a break from life.