I was running late. Of course I was. Why would I expect it to be otherwise? I threw the bag of bed linen into the back of the VW Beetle and swung the door shut aggressively. It didn’t assuage my feelings even the slightest bit. I stomped up the drive, back to the house. It started almost before my foot crossed the threshold. She was obviously listening out for me.
“Muuuum! There’s no milk.” Sarah had a particularly whining tone, probably left over from her babyhood cry, which went through me and wound my nerves like the strings of a violin. They were already twanging tight and slightly off-key. I tried ignoring her, burying myself in the closet as I rummaged around her stuff, which she had helpfully piled in there, trying to reach my jacket.
Sarah was too tenacious in her demands to ever be countered by such a move and she charging into the hall.
“Mummy? Mother! Are you in the closet? Can you hear me?”
I pulled my head out reluctantly and staggered over her knee-length boots as I battled my way clear.
“Yes, darling, the hearing hasn’t given in to old age just yet.”
She gave me a brief pained look, then suddenly scrabbled for her hanky and emitted an enormous sneeze. Sarah always had her timing down to perfection. She should have gone on the stage. I threw my jacket onto the bannister ready for flight and then swooped into the kitchen. The trick with Sarah was to keep moving, never give up ground because once you did she would pounce and therein lay defeat.
“Will you just stop and listen to me for a minute.” Sarah wailed and then began a coughing fit which left her watery-eyed and wheezing. I had to concede that it did seem genuine, but honestly, she is not the only mother of a baby to come down with a cold. Besides she has a husband - why must the lot of caring for her fall to me? I’ve done my duty by her, several times over; she belongs to someone else now. I just get the fun role of playing with my granddaughter whenever I want, don’t I? I thought that was how it was supposed to work.
“Look, Sarah.” I still kept my feet moving in a petty act of defiance - she hadn´t stopped my progress altogether. “I should have been on the road half an hour ago.” I picked up the box of supplies casting a quick glance over it to make sure she hasn’t taken anything out. Biscuits, I can see immediately she has swiped those. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. It’s hard work looking after a baby at the best of times. I have to go.” I delved around on the sideboard sorting through Sarah’s clutter. I couldn’t understand why she had come with so much stuff. I found the biscuits hidden behind a bag of nappies. I wielded the pack triumphantly then put it back in the box. I turned on my heels, box balanced on one arm ready to grasp my jacket in the other.
Sarah came chasing after me.
“So there’s no milk?” She was starting to sound a little desperate, but I was strong. Unless she cried; I could definitely hold out until then.
“In the freezer,” I called over my shoulder, “but if you just go home I’m sure you’ll find milk there or you can get Alistair to buy some. I’m sure he’ll happily take care of you and Joanie whilst you’re ill.” I dashed out of the door and made it to the car without being waylaid. I placed the box of food on the front passenger seat and threw my jacket over the back of it. A quick pause for inventory and I had almost everything.
Sarah pounced when I opened the door. “I can’t ask Alistair to care for us or buy some milk for that matter because as I told you, more than once, he is at a conference in Stockholm.”
“Is he?” I muttered, not really paying attention, the whereabouts of my keys of greater importance in my mind. Sarah always brought chaos; she took over, swamping everything in her wake. I tried not to let my irritation show; my keys had been placed next to my handbag but not any more. If I snapped at her a fight would follow and I hated confrontations. I avoided them at all costs. If I had the misfortune of finding myself in the middle of one, I always backed down. I knew that’s why Sarah was the way she was. She generally walked all over me, but things would never change now; it was far too late.
Her voice pierced my concentrated search.
“God, Mummy, you never listen. Are you even listening now?”
I glanced at her guiltily, sofa cushion in one hand, the other pushed into the crevice between seat and armrest delving for the keys. I felt like a naughty child being admonished for having my hand in the sweetie jar. I shook off the feeling and continued my search.
“I said, I hate being in that house on my own ...”
The problem was Sarah insisted on giving Joanie my keys to play with. Joanie was a robust toddler of fourteen months who not only liked to chew them but had an amazing ability to hide them in the most obscure places.
“…he’s working all the time, we hardly see him ...”
The sofa yielded one of Sarah’s earrings, which she snatched from me irritably, and a bit of old rusk. I surveyed the room. I needed to think like a toddler, small and excited by anything. I noticed the shining brass poker lying under the small table that held a photograph of Sarah and her father on the beach in Cornwall. Sarah was eight and the apple of Michael’s eye. He spoilt her rotten and then had the temerity to die young leaving me with a hormonal, grieving teenager to raise alone.
I picked up the poker and walked over to the fireplace. In the stand was a half chewed Noddy figurine. I plucked it out and replaced the poker.
“…I smelt it on his shirt when I was doing the washing…”
I grasped the little wooden box that held Joanie’s favourite chew toys. I gave a cry of triumph - there they were nestled next to Sophie the giraffe and a rather mangled monkey.
“…he’s probably with her now.” Sarah had subsided onto the sofa sobbing quietly. I paused, keys in hand, staring at her in amazement. This was most unSarah-like behaviour. She never cried quietly to herself. She always did big emotion aiming for the maximum effect. Something was definitely wrong. I sighed, I knew it was wrong of me but I wished her away at that moment, in her own house. I wished she was there dealing with her problems alone, not here sobbing them out to me on my sofa. God, I could admit quite easily that I was the worst of mothers. Who else would begrudge their child comfort in a time of crisis? I looked at my watch, three-quarters of an hour late. I couldn’t make myself sit beside her, so I hovered, half-heartedly standing there patting her head. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, giving me the perfect excuse to escape for a tissue. As I yanked the last tissue from a chewed and crushed tissue box, some of her words came back to me and their meaning finally sank in.
“Oh God, no, please, I can’t have her moving back in with me.” I whispered all the while knowing that I truly was a bad person.
Joanie started to cry. I could hear her upstairs muttering “ma ma,” between snuffles. I waited, tense with anticipation, but no sound came from the sitting room except for my daughter´s muffled sobs. My shoulders sagged in defeat and I went upstairs to fetch my granddaughter.
She was standing up in her cot, waiting for someone to come, her big blue eyes swimming with fat tears. I could feel myself relenting against my will; against my better judgement. I swept her up in my arms and hugged her; she cuddled me back with small chubby arms and gave me tiny kisses on my cheeks. Well, you’d have to be made of stone not to soften to a greeting like that. I carried her downstairs.
“Shall we go and find mama?” I cooed at her.
“Mek!” Joanie said in her best imperious tones.
She was her mother’s daughter.
“Okay, milk first and then mama.”
I rummaged through the bags littered across my kitchen work surface and found a carton of formula and Joanie’s cup. She weighed a tonne already and my arm was going dead by the time I had located the scissors. I sat her squirming on the side, talking loudly to cover the sound of her still sobbing mother.
“You sit there and don’t move! I’m going to cut the carton and put it in your special cup.” I chatted, narrating my every move. The child watching the milk with the determined gaze of a Labrador watching a biscuit. I can make that analogy with certainty because we used to have one. When Sarah was fourteen, Michael turned up one day in the middle of the afternoon, when he should have been at work, with a puppy. No discussion, no debate, he just brought it home and handed it to Sarah. The two of them “oohed and aahed” over it in the garden whilst I watched from the kitchen window, tight-lipped, furiously washing salad. They named her Cecil, don’t ask me why, and that was it, she lived with us for the next eleven years. I don’t really like dogs, I never have. I didn’t want any animals, but you can guess who did the lion share of dog walking, dog feeding, dog shopping, and clearing-up of dog evacuations.
Looking back now I suppose that was when he found out he was ill. He was changed from that day. He worked less and spent more time with Sarah. He even tried to be a better husband, I think, but by that point in our marriage I had given up caring so his efforts were lost on me.
I gave Joanie her cup and she gulped it down with fierce dedication. I sat her in a chair at the table and stood in the middle of the kitchen listening to slurping of milk and the quiet sobs coming together in a strangely harmonious melody of sounds. I looked at my watch again. It was nearly an hour past the time I had hoped to leave. The car was packed and ready. The temptation to slip out was strong. I could see my keys and handbag together on the side table in the hall. I could creep out and Sarah would be none the wiser until she heard the sound of the engine in the drive. I shouldn’t even be thinking of it, should I?
There are plenty of grandparents in the world who delight in reliving their younger years through their children and grandchildren; people who want to give their time caring for young children through their twilight years; parents who gladly sacrifice their own savings to help their family acquire houses, cars, and good schools. I’m just not one of them. I gave up a lot for my daughter. I gave up my career in the bank so I could be home for her, twenty-four hours a day, ready to cater to her every whim. I stayed in an unhappy, loveless, almost sexless marriage for her. I lived in this house, which I always hated, for her sake, first to be near her school, then to give her a feeling of stability when Michael died, and then later because she wanted her daughter to spend time in the house. I drew the line at handing it over to her, which is what she really wanted. She didn’t pause to think where I might go if I relented to that demand.
I had not shirked off the demands of being a good daughter to my ailing mother. I was still very evidently here for my daughter and granddaughter, but wasn’t there somewhere in all of this that was meant for me?
The answer was, “yes” and I was trying to get there now.
“Mummy, where are you?”
I cast a last, longing look at the front door and turned to the sitting room.
“I’m here, darling. I just gave Joanie some milk.” On cue the toddler came marching in from the kitchen, cup in hand, a trail of milky spots following in her wake on the floor.
“Ma ma,” Joanie gave a delighted gurgle and climbed up onto Sarah’s lap. Sarah dabbed at her red eyes with the soggy tissue. I sat across from them on the chair.
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’ve already done it,” she replied, her voice sounding tremulous. “I’ve left him.”
I reached forward to clasp the needy hand she held out to me trying not to picture my tiny Cornish cottage by the sea, sat empty and forlorn as it awaited my arrival. I pushed aside the image of the beautiful white sand beach, the shimmering sea, and the green tufted cliffs. I held Sarah’s hand tight in my own. She was in crisis and this was my duty and I was nothing if not dutiful. In another hour I was going to get desperate; I’d have to make a phone call if I was still in the middle of this then.
“Have you told him your suspicions?” I asked her, frantically trying to think of a way to resolve this before it was too late for me to leave.
“Confronted him about his affair? Are you mad?” she shrieked.
“Well, if you don’t talk to each other then there is no chance for you is there?”
“This coming from you, the queen of confrontation,” she snapped.
I flinched at her tone and watched as Joanie, roaming about the room, selected the remote control and began to chew on it industriously. I didn’t say anything, glad she was occupied for the moment.
“Yes, but we aren’t talking about me, are we? This is about you and you normally have no problem in taking anything head on.”
She clasped my fingers hard.
“I know but I’m afraid he’ll tell me that I’ve been a bad wife and he doesn’t want me any more.” More tears rose to the surface so I jumped in quickly to distract her.
“Have you been a bad wife?”
She looked taken aback for a moment and then, to give her some credit, she sat thoughtfully, chewing her bottom lip as she turned the question over in her mind.
“I would say, no,” she said slowly, “but if I was to compare myself to you, then I would have to say, yes.”
It was my turn to be surprised. I would never have characterised myself as a good wife, I’m pretty sure Michael wouldn’t have either.
“You really shouldn’t compare my marriage to yours, darling.” I warned her, unable to quite swallow down the catch in my throat.
“What else should I compare it to?” she asked. She looked at me with guileless blue eyes. Her father’s eyes, large and deep, they were what had attracted me to him that first time we had met. I lost myself in his eyes and I never really found myself again. “You gave everything to me and Dad. Whenever we needed you there you were. You never had your own career; if you missed one you never complained or made us feel badly for it.
“I’ve already enrolled Joanie in pre-school and I´m marking off the days until I can go back to work. Staying at home is driving me nuts so in turn I drive Alistair nuts. You were always calm and efficient. Dad said it was all down to him that he had chosen you for my mother and it was the best thing he had ever done, persuading you to marry him.”
I laughed out loud. Joanie looked up from her studious efforts to gouge out the buttons from the remote and joined in, a wide beaming smile and the same clear blue eyes sparking with delight.
“I married your father because we had no choice. We were a little foolish and fell pregnant.”
I studiously ignored the shocked exclamations that came from Sarah and watched Joanie instead. Joanie was watching her mother curiously.
“Bloody hell, mother!” Sarah said in a voice which grated my nerves. Joanie began softly chanting something which sounded suspiciously close to what her mother had just said. “I bet Gran wouldn’t have been happy about that.”
“She wasn’t, hence the marriage.” I replied tersely, not really enjoying this raking up of old memories.
“So you and Dad lied about when you were hitched?”
She looked confused; I grit my teeth. “I lost the baby.”
“You lost the baby but found yourself married to Dad,” she said quietly. I saw her mind clunking away, drawing conclusions which would only cause us both pain.
“I really think you should talk to Alistair before you make any rash decisions.”
She didn’t answer, instead she shot up from her chair and launched herself across the room in time to save a small potted palm from being upended on the carpet by a curious Joanie.
The phone rang. I escaped the uncomfortable conversation eagerly.
“Hi, it’s Philip.”
I knew he was eager; it was amusing for some reason I really couldn’t comprehend.
“Oh, I’m glad you called.” I said into the phone.
“How are you getting on?”
“I haven’t left yet.” I cupped my hand over the telephone, edging my way surreptitiously towards the stairs trying to keep my voice low. Futile actions if she chose to be curious.
“Why on earth not?” I could hear the sudden tension in his voice.
“My daughter is having a bit of a crisis.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s left her husband.” I said with some sympathy. I was pretty sure he must be feeling similar emotions to the ones I had been experiencing a few moments earlier.
“Is that something that will take long to sort out?”
“I would imagine so.” I answered, feeling less amused now.
“Well, can’t it wait until you get back?”
“No, it can’t.” I said, becoming annoyed. “Look, she needs me. I am her mother.”
“Yes,” he snapped impatiently, “but she’s thirty-seven. Isn’t that old enough to stand on her own two feet?”
“Not at a time like this and with my granddaughter in tow.” I snapped back. “Where are you now?” Although to be honest I didn’t really care because he was irritating me and I’d had a lifetime of being irritated by men.
He didn’t answer for a moment then drew a deep breath, “I’m sitting outside the cottage.”
“What? You’re there already?” Well, that stumped me. He wasn’t supposed to be there until tonight, in another five hours. I had wanted to get there first so I could get settled before he arrived.
“Don’t you have a spare key somewhere so I can get in?” I didn’t like his tone.
“No, of course not.”
“Well, why not? What would you do if you came all the way down and forgot the keys?”
“I wouldn’t go there without my keys.” I was finding it hard to remain sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Philip, but you’ve had a wasted journey. You should have stuck to our original plan. Then I could have told you I was going to be delayed, before you left.”
“That doesn’t help me now, does it?” I could hear him pacing up and down, probably in front of my lovely little cottage. It wasn’t fair - I should be there rather than him. “Would a neighbour be able to let me in? Or the cleaner - if you send me her number I could call and arrange it.”
It was time to get tough. “No, Philip. I don’t want you in my home without me being there.”
“Why on earth not?” This seemed to utterly floor him, the fool.
“It’s my home and I don’t want you in there.”
He paused for a beat, absorbing this revelation.
“You don’t trust me.”
“No, I suppose I don’t.”
And with that we were finished.
I had been looking forward to getting away, packing with great enthusiasm. I realised it wasn’t Philip that had me light on my feet, but the prospect of my darling little house by the sea. I’d inherited it from an elderly cousin on my mother’s side. We weren’t particularly close, the odd phone call now and then, a card at Christmas and birthdays. She had left it to me six months before and I was so delighted with it I had kept it a secret. It was mine. Mum knew but, luckily for me, Sarah was far too wrapped up in herself to bother about mum, especially now she was so frail. It had become a means of escape from all of this.
I realised the other end of the line had been quiet for a while. “I think it best we don’t contact each other for a while.” I said down the phone. I heard a quiet, “Yes,” so I put the phone down, satisfied to have dealt with the situation so efficiently. Now if I could just take care of the other, I could still get to my cottage tonight.
Fortunately Joanie had obligingly filled her nappy, keeping Sarah far too occupied to come nosing into my telephone call. A sudden flash of inspiration and I quietly backed out of the room before she had acknowledged my presence, too busy wrestling my reluctant granddaughter into a new nappy and clean tights. I crept upstairs and dialled on the extension.
The phone didn’t even ring, “Hello?” I could hear tiredness and strain on the other end. Sometimes I thought I liked Alistair a lot more than I did my own daughter. I think it would have been better with a son. More patient with less demands upon me. Maybe it was just a case of the grass being greener.
“She’s here with Joanie,” I said.
“Thank you, I was worried.” His relief was evident. That was good - he was welcome to have them back.
“I think you and Sarah need to talk. She’s got it into her head that you’re having an affair.”
“What? How could she possibly have come to that conclusion?”
“I don’t know, you tell me.” I countered.
“I couldn’t possibly manage one, I just don’t have the time or the energy.” I could hear genuine amazement in his voice. Alistair is not the type of man to cheat on his family, he is just too loyal and far too grateful that my loud, outspoken, insensitive but genuinely amazing daughter had married him and then given him a daughter. “Not that I would ever want an affair.” He stuttered as an afterthought.
I smiled into the phone.
“Get yourself over here, now.” I commanded.
“Yes, I will.”
“Make sure you start with the bit about not wanting anyone else.”
“Oh, God, yes.” he groaned.
I replaced the hand set and crept back down the stairs to where Sarah was filling the kettle whilst Joanie was munching on a rice cake.
“I wish I could eat all the time like that.” I said, watching the fat hands attempt to break the cracker into bits whilst also cramming it into her mouth.
“Me too. Tea?” Sarah asked.
“Please.” I sat down at the table and began to flip through a magazine. It was a homes magazine filled with white walls and furniture and wooden floors. I tossed it aside with disgust; as if I could ever achieve that level of tidy perfection anywhere I chose to live.
“I’m sorry, you were trying to get away. I’ve ruined your plans.”
My head nearly shot off as I flung it up in amazement. I can honestly say I had never heard my daughter express any recognition of my life outside of being her mother or Joanie’s grandmother. She’d certainly never exhibited any sign of regret at interfering in it. I was suddenly worried by this uncharacteristic behaviour; perhaps she was suffering far more than I had realised. Perhaps she was depressed. I clenched the mug she handed me hard until my knuckles turned to white and the heat began to bite into my skin.
“It doesn’t matter, Sarah. I wouldn’t have been happy knowing you were here alone.” It was true, I actually would rather be here right now for my daughter. This rush of motherly devotion was a relief. After a disastrous marriage and the total inability to form a close relationship with anyone else since, I did wonder if I was capable of any normal human emotion.
It was all right. I still had a connection with my daughter.
“Was it really awful being married to Dad?” The question came so out of the blue it nearly knocked me sideways. I sat open mouthed, stuttering a few times before I managed coherent speech.
“No, not awful.”
“But it was a loveless marriage, wasn’t it?” She didn’t look at me, her eyes focused on her tea.
“No, we both loved you and that more than made up for the lack elsewhere.” Another truth I had not been totally aware of. “It was very different from what you have with Alistair.”
“I know.” she mumbled.
“You do?” I looked at her sharply, “Then what was all that about an affair?”
“I think I just feel a bit lonely. He´s working all the time and when he is home, he’s too tired.”
“Well, that is the big bad world of life, I’m afraid.”
“I think we over stretched ourselves with the mortgage.”
“I think you’re probably right.”
We both spun around to find Alistair standing in the kitchen doorway, looking totally dishevelled. He strode over to Sarah, grabbed her by the shoulders, and kissed her on the mouth. I was relieved; they would soon make up. I had to clear my throat several times to break up the love scene which was getting to be a bit more than I could stomach. They laughed happily and a feeling of release occurred somewhere deep down. I could go now and they would be all right.
I stood by the Beetle, in the twilight, keys in hand, and looked up at the house. It was never my choice. Michael wanted it for Sarah. Perhaps I would become one of those sacrificing parents after all and give them the house. It was too big for me and it was never really home. I could retire peacefully to my cottage, safe in the knowledge that if my daughter needed me again, I was safely tucked away, three hours down the motorway.