we don’t have anywhere particular to be until Later so we decided to stay in bed and write (what a lovely sentence to be able to say) as we are writing a minimum (on most days) of 1000 words into (not of, but into) the new novel.
firstly a few photographs we took before – on a trip to London – just to add Context – and get you in the right Feeling or mood.
There is something quite lovely about an English early spring morning. True – there was still rain on a daily basis. But in between there were glossy bursts of sunshine, which brought out birds and children and dogs in a fit of activity. Annabelle stood at her kitchen window and watched the sparrows tussle with each other in the guttering. A door banged and shook the windowpanes slightly and the birds scattered up and away, onto the back garden shed and over the rooftops. Annabelle looked in the direction of next door. That must have been Marion leaving for her new job.
Annabelle took down a tea towel and started to dry the dishes, in something of a dream. Secretly she wished she had a job. It must be nice to have somewhere to go. She finished drying the plates and put the kettle on to make a pot of tea. A note from her son’s school was lying on the table. She picked it up and frowned. Mark was not doing well and she had no idea how to help him. Her daughter, Libby, was the smart one and, to make it worse, somewhat athletic too. But Mark was different: lost in thought most of the time, in his own world.
She picked up Mark’s textbooks and started to read about the Tudors and the Stuarts. It engrossed her so much she did not notice the kettle whistling furiously on the stove. Annabelle stopped reading and turned off the kettle then, without knowing why, she walked quickly into the garden and threw some seeds out for the birds. It was a few moments before she realized she could hear voices in the next garden.
“But why ENGLAND?” said a woman’s voice – an American voice.
Annabelle crept closer to the fence that divided the two parts of the house and sat down under the apple tree on a low bench.
“Why not PARIS?” said the voice.
There was a pause.
“They speak English, don’t they? Well, I’d pick it up.”
“You’re killing me. This is like something out of a PBS Masterpiece special with Dame Maggie Smith and her cohorts of strange village women in tie-dye robes and I just don’t see why I got punished. The numbers were great. You know they were great. They were off the chart great!”
Annabelle was fascinated by the woman’s voice. She realized it must be Marion. She sounded so brave, so present and so gloriously angry and defiant. It was exhilarating. Annabelle felt desperate to see what she looked like. She decided to risk peeking through a hole in the fence.
At first she could not see anything. Just a mass of newspapers strewn across the picnic table, which she knew was a bit wobbly because it used to live in their garden. There was a large coffee container from the American chain on the corner – that must have been why she heard a bang this morning – Marion leaving to go up into the high street.
And then she saw her. A woman with sleek blonde hair but not brassy blonde, expensive, high-end salon Hollywood movie star blonde – and she was running her fingers through it in frustration. The cellphone was clamped to her ear and she was wearing dark glasses. Annabelle was impressed. She had never seen anyone wearing Jackie Onassis large dark glasses in Hampstead, especially not in their own back garden, before nine AM.
But her clothes! Annabelle got as close to the fence as she dared to take a better look. Marion appeared to be wearing pajamas under a Macintosh raincoat. But not the sort of pajamas one found in John Lewis – those sensible ones in flannel with unflattering drawstring waist and saggy bottom.
Marion’s pajamas were white satin with a thin navy blue piping down the front and a monogram on the pocket from some fancy store in New York probably, thought Annabelle. And the way the trousers flowed was so elegant, just skimming Marion’s long legs at the top and occasionally touching her ankles gently as she stormed around the garden. She must be wearing some sort of silk tank top under the button-down jacket as the thin material glowed gently in the spring sunshine. She was a vision, thought Annabelle, quietly hugging herself on the other side of the garden fence.
The phonecall ended abruptly. Marion threw the phone onto the picnic table where it skimmed off the newspapers and fell onto the grass. She left it there and stormed inside, banging the back door loudly. Annabelle leaned back against the tree and tried to breathe evenly. She could not remember the last time she had been so exhilarated by someone.
The rest of the day passed in a slow rhythmic haze of tasks and chores and rather too much sitting down reading about the bloody battles of England in Mark’s textbook. Annabelle knew she should feel guilty for not really enjoying her life, but nobody knew she didn’t. The house was sort of tidy. There were meals and outings and she always showed up at parent’s evening at her children’s schools. She loved her husband. It was impossible not to. The whole of Hampstead appeared to love Simon Jones. And it was not as if there was something necessarily missing.
But ever since her family divided the house and rented out the other half and Elyse’s accident – she shook her head – the therapist had told her not to dwell on either matter so she would not.
Marion slammed the back door hard. She was furious. The office in New York was adamant. She had to stay here in England, at least for a year. She would much prefer Paris. It’s true, she did not speak French, but she would learn. Americans did so much better in Paris, everyone knew that. Why England? She fumed and stormed up and down the hallway, making the umbrella stand rattle and the rugs bunch up as her slippers scuffed on the tasseled hems.
Had someone been watching her from next door? She heard a sound when she threw the phone on that wobbly picnic table, a giggle and a shuffling from behind the fence. Where was her phone? She looked around. Still outside. She walked out into the garden again and grabbed the phone. Then she stopped and listened. Perhaps that person had gone back inside. Marion walked up to the fence and peeked through the slats, which were coming apart. Their garden was actually lovely. An apple tree, not yet in blossom, a small garden seat encircling the tree, a sturdy long table set with two benches and a stone flagged pathway leading up to the back door.
Marion wondered what their lives were like next door.
Her white pajamas had green grass stains on the bottom and her slippers were soaked from the morning dew where the sun – what sun there was – had not dried out the lawn. She turned around and leaned back against the fence, getting the back of her pajamas jacket stained from the mud-spattered wood slats. She closed her eyes and sighed. She must make the best of it here. They were not going to let her go back to New York for a long time after…………but best not to think about that now. Maybe if she did well they would let her go to Paris in a year. Was there even a Paris office? If not, she would open it.
Slightly less angry for a moment, Marion considered the damage to her pajamas. From what she knew about England, there probably wasn’t a twenty-four hour dry cleaning pick-up service. She turned back to look over at the eaves of the house next door, just where the apple tree curved over the roof. Maybe her next-door neighbor would know about the local cleaning services. What was her name again? Arabella? Isabelle? Annabelle. Yes, that was it. She would ask Annabelle about the area. It would be good for her to have an English person for research purposes. After all, if she was going to have to sell products to the English that they didn’t know they needed, she was going to have to tap into their psyche.
For a start, she needed to know what did people who lived in houses like this and had benches round an apple tree feel?
Pleased by her strategy, Marion decided to get dressed. Tomorrow was her first day in the office. Later on today, she would meet Annabelle from next-door. Excellent.
Her mobile was ringing. An American number but she did not recognize it. Not New York. Not a 212-area code. Where was a 310 number? Oh, right – Los Angeles.
“Hello?” she said.
There was a click on the other end.
Marion dialed the number back. It was engaged. She tried again. Still engaged. Odd. Then her phone rang. An English number this time. She picked up.
“Marion?” said an English voice.
“It’s Diana Knoll-West – just checking up on you!”
“Everything’s great, thanks.”
“Oh, good. Well, if you need anything just ring.”
“Actually, there is something,” said Marion, looking down at her pajamas. “Is there a dry cleaning pick-up service?”
“A pick-up? Sorry, don’t quite see what you mean there.”
“A dry cleaning service that will come and take away my clothes to be cleaned.”
There was a pause.
“I do believe that Mr. Brown on the High Street is open tomorrow, you could ask him if he could dry clean your clothes for next week.”
“Next week? Wait. He’s not open today?”
“Gosh, no, I think he only works Wednesdays.”
“Let me get this straight – a dry cleaning service that doesn’t pick up and is only open once a week and takes a week to dry clean?”
Diana took a deep breath, she was equal to this; of course she had read all those articles about New York and its 24-hour delivery culture but, really, imagine. “Marion, this is England, remember, not New York!” she tried a gentle laugh on the other end but there was silence from number 28 Church Row.
Finally Marion spoke. “Where do you English people buy pajamas then?” she said. Only dry-cleaners in New York could probably remove grass stains from satin piping.
Diana was thrilled to help. “Oh, we always buy PJs at Peter Jones,” she said, “Do you have a pen? I’ll give you the address in Sloane Square.”
“You mean you people still go to an actual store?” said Marion, in disbelief, “Don’t they do online same day delivery?”
“Gosh. I have no idea. We’ve always gone to Peter Jones and had lunch at Oriel after, such a treat, delicious scones. Yummy Eton Mess and Pimms.”
Marion had no idea what Diana was talking about but it sounded like major carbohydrates. So this was England – no 24-hour dry cleaning pick-up service or online same-day delivery from whatever Peter Jones was. She wondered how long it would take Brooks Brothers to deliver from Manhattan.
“OK, thanks, Diana. I’ll ask my assistant at the office tomorrow to get me orientated.”
“An assistant? What fun!” trilled Diana, but Marion had already rung off and walked into the kitchen to find something to eat.
She opened all the cupboards but apart from some tins of treacle pudding – whatever that was – and the cookies in a plastic Tupperware – and some (she blanched) full-fat milk – that had to go – she poured it down the sink – and (white) pasta – there was nothing she could eat. She looked in the freezer. Several packets of frozen peas, some cheese topping pizzas and, she noted, no ice-cube tray. In a drawer by the stove she found some delivery menus for Chinese and Indian food. She put them back. Could not risk getting fat this year. Not if she was going to run the Paris office at some point.
There was nothing else for it – she would have to get dressed and head back up to the High Street to find a salad or something light. Marion would not admit it, but she was almost excited to explore the new area, but just until she could go back to New York or move on to Paris, and only in the name of research to study these British people without 24 hour dry cleaning services and a desire to still go to actual stores and buy things and then carry them home. Marion shook her head in disbelief and went upstairs to get dressed.
Annabelle was baking. She kept consulting the Nigella Lawson cookbook but was utterly convinced that whatever she was making would never look like the photographs in Nigella’s book. She was so absorbed by the food porn photography that she did not notice her daughter, Libby, poke her head around the door.
“Homework!” said Libby, quickly, and then clattered up the stairs, banging her schoolbag behind her.
Annabelle rushed to the hallway. “Not so fast, young lady!” she said. But there was silence from upstairs behind closed doors. Sally padded into the hallway to help Annabelle and looked up at her with her huge brown eyes. Annabelle crouched down to bury her face in Sally’s fur and stroke her. Sally started to lick her with some ferocity and clearly deep pleasure and Annabelle realized she was covered in cake mixture. Was that dangerous for dogs, she thought? Sally did not think so and Annabelle wondered again at her lack of natural ability at this housekeeping-children-and-animals activity. Looking up at the stairs again she decided to take charge and headed for Libby’s room.
She knocked tentatively at first and then more firmly until Libby answered, her face visible but the rest of her body covered behind the door. Annabelle had an inward panic. Full body tattoos? Piercing? Was her fifteen-year-old daughter wearing a slut-walk-outfit of something feminist yet ironically streetwalker-esque?
Annabelle and Libby did a stand-off from either side of the door. Ever since Libby had turned a teenager there had been little communication. Libby looked furious and with a pent-up anger that Annabelle remembered well from her own teen years. At least she had shared a room with her sister who got to hear all her angst. Libby just had a younger brother and he refused to do anything but lark around which drove Libby mad.
“I’m doing my homework, what do you want?” Annabelle could not remember why she had come upstairs. Libby narrowed her eyes. “Where’s my hockey kit?” she demanded.
Suddenly Annabelle also felt angry, but she did not know why. “Are the workings of the washing machine completely unknown to you?” she spat. Libby shrunk back, suddenly scared.
“You’re the mother.”
“Mother, yes. Slave, no.” There was nothing else to say.
Mark Jones, thankfully, chose that moment to come home from day school. He stood in the hallway and looked into the kitchen – nobody there – and heard voices. He knew his mother and sister would be arguing so he threw his dirty boots into the hallway cupboard and called to Sally, who came rushing down the stairs, thrilled at his arrival. They ran around the garden and waited for the storm upstairs to subside.
“The prodigal son returns!” called Annabelle from the top of the stairs. Libby closed her door firmly and Annabelle made her way back to the kitchen. Mark came in from the garden all scabbed knees and sweaty and seemingly taller than he was when he left that morning.
“What’s for supper, mum?”
“The cry of the disaffected youth returning from a hard day in the salt mines of education.”
Sally and Mark exchange glances and the dog slumped down onto the kitchen rug, looking hopefully at the cake mixture on the counter.
“My own expensive education is utterly wasted on you children. I thought we could converse about Keats and Milton.”
Mark was used to his mother’s plaintive wailing. He patted her arm and walked to the freezer. “Shall I put in a frozen pizza?” he said, realizing that there was nothing but cake mixture on offer right now.
“Do we possess such a product in our humble pantry of organic delicacies?”
Mark grabbed two boxes from the freezer, opened the Aga’s top oven expertly and popped two pizzas in. Annabelle looked suitably abashed, but grateful, and went back to staring at the photography in Nigella’s book and back at her cake mixture. There was the sound of the front door opening and closing and a cheery voice talking to someone on his cellphone. Simon Jones entered the kitchen and surveyed the scene, proudly. His pretty wife was baking, his son was suitably covered in mud from some sporting activity, there was a dog and – he checked the room covertly – the scary teenage daughter was safely ensconced in her bedroom and not snarling at him for once.
“Darling.” He kissed his wife
“Mark is rustling up a couple of frozen pizzas,” said Annabelle, nuzzling into her husband’s neck with happiness at his return from a business trip.
Simon looked at his son with pride. “We are sending him into the world fully equipped,” he said. He ruffled his son’s messy hair.
“You two are so weird,” said Mark, and took an apple from the bowl on the table.
“He even makes balanced nutritional choices,” smiled Simon as Mark started to bite into the apple, pause, and then offered him some. Simon took the newspaper from his briefcase and headed to the table, grabbing a bottle of scotch from the sideboard. “Snifter, darling?”
“Not until I’ve finished baking,” said Annabelle.
He poured himself a generous measure of Scotch into a thick crystal glass that was part of their wedding anniversary set from his parents. All felt right with the world. “Baking? Haven’t done that for a while, darling?
Annabelle paused. “I’m turning over a new leaf.”
Simon didn’t really hear her. He read the paper. “Sorry, darling – leaf?”
“I’m re-embracing the female arts.”
Mark put his head in the fridge. He emerged with a stick of cheese. “What, mum?”
“The female arts,” said Annabelle.
“Mum’s acting weird again,” said Mark to his father. “Maybe it’s the Change, we learned about that in biology.”
Simon looked up from his newspaper, suddenly worried. His wife was not yet forty. “Good lord, where are we schooling our children? They only did rugby and Latin in my day.”
Annabelle wiped her hand on a tea towel and comes over to the table. “It’s got nothing to do with hormones. I just wanted to see if I could really do this.”
Simon put down his paper, walked over to her and looked into her eyes carefully. He really loved her. But sometimes she got the oddest notions in her head. “We are very happy with the creative chaos around here.”
Annabelle blushed. She really loved him too. “I met someone at the shops today.”
Mark puts his head into his hand. “You’re getting a divorce!” he cried. Annabelle laughed. Simon looks a bit shocked at his son, why would he think that so quickly?
“No – a woman,” laughed, Annabelle.
Mark looked interested. “You’re a lesbian!” Simon looked worriedly at his son. He was only eleven. How did he know about divorce and homosexuality already? Perhaps the day school was more liberal than it appeared.
He turned back to his wife. “Are you, darling? You can tell me,” he smiled, indulgently.
“You know her – Lydia James. She lives in the big house on the High Street.”
“The one with the flowing robes?” said Simon, absentmindedly, half-watching the clock. Mark saw him look and suddenly jumped up.
“The match!” Mark ran out of the room and Annabelle heard the television go on. Simon wrung his hands and looked guiltily in the direction of the television room. She laughed and waved him out with her tea towel.
Annabelle looked down at Sally on the kitchen rug and confided in her. “Apparently Lydia is the leader of a goddess cult,” she said. Sally raised an eye to the other room and wondered whether to watch the football match with the boys. “She told me that I’m about to have a big awakening.” Annabelle leaned in to look at the author photograph of Nigella Lawson and wondered if Nigella had had a big awakening at some point. Of course she had, she smiled to herself, she’s Nigella Lawson. And she finished the baking, put the scones into trays bought from Peter Jones in Sloane Square and slid them into the bottom over of the Aga. Then she poured herself a Scotch and walked into the garden, pulling a soft cashmere cardigan from Jigsaw, that she’d had since university, around her shoulders and looking at the house next door for a long while.
(we thought the muses would approve and it’s ever such a nice shop too).
btw (as the young people say) we are Not comparing ourselves to the Terribly Smart Ms. Winterson (although we do admire her greatly) – we’re sort of aiming for the Genre of the Domestic Drama (isn’t that what Publishers call such things?) so well-explored by Shirley Conran and Jilly Cooper/slash/E.M.Delafield (helpfully there’s an article by Jilly – can we call her Jilly? on E. M here) – but with a twist (quite a few twists, actually – we Do like to slip magic into the Plot).