Second Novel -
A sequel to Domestic Bliss And Other Disasters-
Published 29th September 2022
One of Red Magazine's ten best new books out in September 2022
First Novel -
Domestic Bliss And Other Disasters
Published by Bluemoose Books March 2021
Shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize - 2021
Times Radio - Book of the Week - 13th April 2021
Irish Independent - Recommended Summer Read - 10th July 2021
One of Daisy Buchanan's. - Six Books of the Year - 28th December 2021
67% Five Star ratings on Amazon UK
62% Five Star ratings on Amazon UK
Read the beginning of Domestic Bliss And Other Disasters here.
Chapter 1 – June
I have two very close friends who I’ve known for most of my life and I don’t get on with either of them. Despite the long years during which we have remained friends, if they and I were stuck in a lift together for thirty-six hours, I am not confident that all three of us would emerge without wounds.
I’m comfortable with this, because a combative togetherness is what we have grown to expect from each other. We don’t always see eye to eye, we are more likely to see eye to the back of the other’s head, but up until now we have observed the three basic rules which determine whether a friendship will survive. We make an effort to meet up, we don’t punish each other by being too successful, and very occasionally, we’re honest with each other.
So when Jen told me what she was planning to do, I thought she was crazy, and said so. I didn’t think she’d be daft enough to agree to it. I tried to make her reconsider, but now it’s too late, she’s done it.
She is leaving. She has sold the house she loves, and she has left her job at the doctor’s surgery which has given us so many curious insights into human nature over the years. She has said goodbye to her treasured garden and her favourite coffee shop, and to me, her closest friend. Why? So that she can move three hundred miles north to be her daughter’s child-minder.
When Jen first told me of this plan, I wanted to save her from this surge of self-annihilating maternal instinct. I felt that she was sacrificing herself on an altar to her grandchildren. The plan reminded me of a nature programme I watched years ago. It featured a spider who carried her eggs around on her back until they hatched, and then she lay down and allowed her infants to eat her alive to save them the trouble of looking for food elsewhere. I shouted at the television, ‘Get up! Get up and shake them off!’ But her infants were chewing at her ears, so she didn’t hear me.
Obviously, I needed to be more subtle with Jen. I couldn’t suggest to her that she shake her grandchildren off. So I just asked her whether she thought she was doing the right thing by giving everything up to become her grandchildren’s child-minder. In my experience 'Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?' is a very unsettling question. It engenders a sense of dread. I’m always quite happy with my decisions until someone asks me whether I’ve made the right ones. Then in an instant my resolve is shaken, I think I’ve made the wrong decisions, and I’m doomed if I don’t change course.
So I asked Jen whether she thought she was making the right decision to move north to provide childcare for her grandchildren, and then I followed that up by saying it sounded like banishment into servitude to me. I said, far be it from me to interfere in a family decision, but I thought this family decision was completely wrong-headed. I said going into exile to be an unpaid child-minder was a terrible idea from her point of view, and she should be fighting it, not embracing it.
Jen understood that my reasons for wanting her to stay put were purely selfish. She knows as well as I do that a friendship built up over more than twenty years is not easily replaced, however dysfunctional it might have turned out to be. It takes years to know someone well enough to tell them they’re an idiot. So instead of telling me to butt out and shut up and mind my own business, Jen said more tactfully that I might be putting a rather negative spin on things. She said it would be wonderful to see more of her grandchildren, of course it would. This could only be a good thing, surely?
I told her that the problem here is not that she will see more of her grandchildren, the problem is that she will see no-one but her grandchildren, and how could that possibly be a good thing? I reminded her that she is still young, only fifty. Her own youngest has only just left home. These should be her Prosecco years, not more years of baby formula and disposable nappies and whoops-never-mind-I-didn’t-like-that-necklace-anyway. She should be letting her hair down, not tying her hair back to keep it out of the zinc ointment and whatever else might be going on close by.
Jen said she took my point, but she was in a difficult position. Her daughter Emily had suggested the move, telling her that the twins missed her and loved her so much and wanted her to look after them when their mummy and daddy were at work. Emily said she knew how devoted Jen was to her grandchildren, and it would be wonderful if she moved north and they could all be together. Jen didn’t think she could then say to her daughter, ‘Actually Emily, I think I’ll pass on that one if you don’t mind.’ And so the plan has rolled on to fruition. And now she’s gone.
Just before Jen left, but after she was committed to the move, she had a little panic about moving out of the city and living in the country, on the edge of a small town. She said it’s probably irrational, but fields make her nervous. She was anxious because for the first time in her life she will not be able to hear the soothing background noise of a big city when she falls asleep at night. She’ll miss the planes overhead, the thrum of traffic, car doors slamming shut, intermittent sirens, and voices calling to each other across the street. She said without her metropolitan lullaby it would be too quiet in the country, and too dark at night. She would find it impossible to sleep, tossing and turning in the peace and quiet, missing the orange glow of city lights and having to make do with moonlight. It was as if an umbilical cord she had relied on all her life would suddenly be cut, and she would be set adrift, diminished and diminishing. Uncorked. She would be so far away, with no friends and just her family for company, contemplating the severed end of her umbilical cord and losing substance.
I said I would visit her, and told her she could come back and stay with me whenever she liked. Her chin began to wobble, and it wobbled in a way that was not consistent with great anticipatory joy at being an on-tap grandma.
For her sake if not my own, I tried to think of some positives. I said I’d heard there were roads in the north you could drive on for over an hour without stopping, and there are hills up there with actual points on the top, and you can buy a nice little house and garden without mortgaging your DNA. There’s space up there and clean air to breathe, and proper Yorkshire pudding. I said, no matter how far north, I’d come and see her, once she claimed some territory and secured her borders.
She said she would be on the wrong side of the country for proper Yorkshire pudding, but she was looking forward to getting her teeth into some Cumberland sausage. She is going to view a nice little house, perfectly adequate, a fraction of the price of her house down here, and after selling up she now has money in the bank which she plans to be very vague about when talking to her family. She quite liked the idea of living a more simple life, without clutter and surplus possessions to tie her down. I asked her where she would put her collection of thirty-eight china cruet sets. She said she has already sold them on eBay to someone who should have known better, and she hopes they like fannying around with a duster.
So, she left yesterday, we embraced on the pavement and she got into her little Polo and headed off towards the M25. I can hardly believe it, after all the confidences we have shared over the years during our more harmonious exchanges. I am the only other person in the world who knows what her husband used to shout during sex. You have to know someone really well before they tell you that kind of thing. It’s not something you would share with a work colleague. If someone tells you that kind of detail about their life you know you are a trusted friend.
Anyway, it’s academic now, because the poor chap died of a heart attack during a surprise quickie before Match of the Day. He managed to shout out, apparently, but Jen said as last words go, his was not very profound. She certainly couldn’t put ‘Goal!’ on his tombstone. And now Jen has sold up and gone, and left me with her confidences and her pot plants. There’s twenty of them in my front garden huddled together in pots of various sizes. They look as if they are hatching a plot to trot off after her.
It will be a while before I see Jen again, so I will not be sitting down with her to talk about Dan. Dan has come home from university with debts and no means to support himself. He is at a loose end. He is ranging about the house picking things up and putting them down again and staring out of the window and asking me what I do all day. It would be great to have him around the house again, if he wasn’t giving every impression of having stumbled into the wrong life.
Dan told me last week that his latest plan is to make a living from performance art. I don’t like to undermine him but, to be brutally honest, I can’t work up any enthusiasm for this performance art career plan. Maybe I lack vision, or faith in miracles, but performance art seems to me to be a precarious career choice, compared to say, training as an accountant. I’m not saying Dan should abandon performance art and train as an accountant, but I had hoped that he might settle on something that would combine both strengths. Although I admit, there aren’t many performing accountants making a go of it out there.
If I had suspected for a while that he was planning to make a living as a performance artist I would have had time to get into the brace position. But he sprang this idea on me before I could think of a smooth and well-formed response, so my initial response leapt out, ill-formed and covered in verbal spikes. I used words like ‘idiotic’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘completely mad’, words that you should try to avoid in these situations. And now, Dan’s gone off in a huff. Thinking about it more calmly and with the benefit of hindsight, I should never have said that I have been putting on premenstrual performances for years and no-one has ever paid me a penny.
In truth though, your children should learn to give you warning when they intend to make sudden announcements about their future, then you would have time to buttress yourself against involuntary shrieking. If you had advance warning of them telling you, ‘I’m going to ride a unicycle around the equator to raise money for orphaned parrots’, you might be able to say, ‘That’s an interesting idea, let’s take a moment to consider it,’ instead of saying, ‘What? Like hell you are! Stuff the bloody parrots!’
It’s being caught off guard that’s the problem; it can make us sound so unsympathetic. It’s the element of surprise we can’t cope with, not just the idiotic proposal itself. Years ago, Laura came home from school and said to me, ‘Mum, I’ve told Sarah we’ll look after her pet rats when she’s on holiday.’ I think we were both surprised by my response.
Anyway, Dan has gone off to contemplate my lack of sympathy for his life, leaving me to think about my unsympathetic maternal responses to his plans. Maybe I wasn’t very sympathetic but… a career in performance art? Give me strength. Better still, give me his university tuition fees back, if this is where it’s got us.
Also, I could do with talking to Jen about Laura. There’s something going seriously wrong there. We were so pleased, Jen and I, when Laura got married last year, but now she’s had a baby and she keeps ringing me up and asking me why I didn’t warn her about what a massive commitment it is to have a child. She says she didn’t realise what she was taking on and I should have made it clear to her, warned her. I don’t know how much clearer I could have made it, I’ve done my maternal best for her for twenty-six years – you would have thought she’d got the message that having children isn’t exactly a rest cure. Apparently, I should have sat Laura down and explained to her that her life would never be the same again.
Jen and I used to have a bit of a rueful laugh about the belief entertained by most expectant parents that that they will be able to have children and carry on their lives unchanged afterwards. From our perspective, it seemed akin to thinking you could invite a rhinoceros into your home and hardly notice it. But now Jen’s left, it doesn’t seem quite so amusing.
Dan and I had a little heart to heart discussion this morning, or perhaps it was more of a spleen to spleen. He told me, apropos of my wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee career advice the other day, that I trample over his dreams. I told him I was having a few nightmares that he might be responsible for. He said the trouble with me was that I had lost my creative energy, my joie de vivre, my sense that anything is possible if you just have the passion to make it happen. He said his driving force was Carpe Diem.
I thanked Dan for pointing out what the trouble with me was, and at the same time I warned him that it was entirely possible to Carpe the wrong Diem. That’s the trouble with all these little life-affirming slogans painted on wooden boards in gift shops. The last one of those I saw was in ‘Coffee and Toffee’ with Jen, and it said, ‘All You Need is Love.’ She looked at it and said to me, ‘Well, that’s a lie for a start’. And it is.
Anyway, I had the feeling this morning that Dan was building up to telling me something, so I was readying myself for another hare-brained scheme, but still, when it came it was a shock. He began by saying he needed some independent living space, and at first I thought, oh – he’s going to move out, he has somewhere to go, maybe a friend with a spare room. He’d have to pay rent of course, so that would mean getting a proper job. We could be moving in the right direction here, I thought.
But that wasn’t it. He wasn’t planning to move out and get a proper job, he was planning to construct an extension to our house from recycled materials and live there independently, apart from meal times, which he would share with us. I said, after collecting my thoughts which were bouncing erratically around the room, ‘But Dan, you have no experience of building anything. You can’t build a shelter just like that, with no experience.’
Apparently, I’m wrong. More than half the world builds rooms and whole houses without any formal training at all. None. Dan explained to me that if mankind had needed an NVQ in Building and Construction to build a shelter, we would only just be moving out of caves. He said the Ancient Egyptians had built the pyramids without an NVQ between them.
I tried to be reasonable. I said I took my hat off to the Ancient Egyptians. I said credit where credit’s due, the pyramids are stunning. They are all beautifully proportioned, and every single one of them is the right way up. But things were different then, there were no health and safety regulations, people didn’t want windows, and the flat roof hadn’t been invented. And then I changed tack because I thought I might be talking rubbish, and I reminded Dan that he always hated his Meccano set. He was always losing the little screws and wanting to use nails.
Dan said this would be nothing like building with Meccano, he would be using recycled materials, crates and plastic bottles and the kind of stuff you see at recycling banks. It would be intimately eco-friendly.
So I said – again too spontaneously – ‘My God, Dan, you can’t be serious! You might as well go down to the recycling bank and carve out some sort of burrow for yourself and live there like a derelict Hobbit. Carpe Diem? You need to Carpe some common sense.’
He said I was mocking his ambition, and I had no faith in his ability to make something beautiful out of rubbish. I told him a building made of rubbish would very likely look like rubbish. Sad, but true. He said it would be the best show case for his performance art, and I said it would knock £50,000 off the value of our house. There was no meeting of minds. His mind was in the sky, my mind was on the ground. He didn’t mind, and I did.
Jen texted me just after dinner, to say How r u doing?
I texted her back, Fine. I’ve fallen out with Dan over career plans.
But it’s good to spork, she texted. She had obviously had a tiring day. Glad you’re ok. I’m feeling low. Grandchildren wonderful but v young. Maybe I need a man? Think I do. Lonely here.
Chapter 2 - July
I spoke to Bill last night about Dan’s rubbish extension. Bill is Dan’s father, and I like him to be fully briefed on all his son’s eccentricities. I don’t believe in shielding him from his children’s bizarre decisions just because he’s a very busy man. I tell him as soon as I see him if either of his children plan to do something particularly stupid. So I outlined Dan’s plan to build a one-bed studio out of waste products to the side of our house, and Bill said, ‘Why not let him do it? If he’s adding an annexe made of plastic milk bottles to the side of our house, he won’t have time to hang around the pub hoping someone will buy him a drink. Much better to have him working out how to construct a bachelor pad out of the contents of our recycling bins. If it falls down around him, at least it’s not likely to be very heavy, he should survive it.’
I thought about it and decided there might be something in that argument. If Dan is building a rubbish annexe, then he’s not doing anything worse, and this should be a cause for celebration.
So, I have given Dan the go-ahead to throw rubbish at our house, and he and I are friends again. He asked me this lunchtime if I would collect all our used plastic bottles because he will need them for his window installations. His construction will be called ‘Aspire’. It will speak to his generation and say, 'Re-Cycle and Build your Life!' Unfortunately though, when it speaks to my generation it will say, 'There’s a Pile of Crap Stuck to the Side of your House!'
I got my hair done this afternoon. Highlights and a trim. Abbi usually does it, but she was off today because she has accidentally poked herself in the eye with her contact lens, so Denise did it. She looked about the same age as Dan, and we got chatting while she was wasting yards of tin foil putting highlights in my hair.
I asked her if she was living at home still, or if she had a place of her own. She said she was living at home with her parents. I said that’s nice, but apparently it’s not. She said her parents complain about her all the time. Oh dear, I said, why is that? Thing is, she said, she has to put her earphones in as soon as she gets home from work, so she doesn’t have to listen to her mum and dad talking, and she spends as much time as she can in her bedroom on Facebook and Instagram. Well, I said, clutching at straws in what seemed to be a pretty bleak landscape, I expect you all watch a bit of telly together in the evenings? No, she said, she doesn’t watch telly hardly at all. Sometimes she takes her dinner upstairs into her room and eats it there.
I looked at her in the mirror and thought she must be a little ray of absolute sunshine to live with, and I felt better about Dan at least talking to me about his plan to live in a pile of rubbish at the side of the house.
When Denise was finished with my hair she asked me if I would like tea or coffee so sweetly that her mother would have swooned to hear it. I declined politely, because I wasn’t quite sure what she might do to it, given that I was the same generation as her parents. So off she went for half an hour, leaving me with my hair all packed away in neat parcels of tin foil, reading a copy of 'Hello!' like an extra-terrestrial searching for some meaning to life on Earth.
I rushed off to meet my friend Judith in Marks and Spencer’s café after my hair. Judith and I were at school together, I’ve known her longer than Jen, but we have just started meeting up more regularly again. Judith has three adult children, and they are all, every one, doing extremely well. I try not to let her talk about her children if possible. There’s one at Oxford University and one at Cambridge University and another one shitting gold bars somewhere in America. You’d think she’d have the decency not to mention them, but no, as soon as the toasted tea cakes arrived she told me that the one at Cambridge is going to do a PhD in something very clever, Neurofuckingology I think she said, and then she waited for me to be very impressed. She wanted me to say, ‘Wow! Neurofuckingology? How amazing! That’s so clever! Wow!’ But instead I said, ‘Shall I pick up a pot of jam to go with these teacakes?’
Judith doesn’t give up easily. She ignored the jam query and told me that when her daughter gets this PhD, she’ll have a very lucrative future in plastic polymers. I told her to try not to get upset about it, it would probably turn out all right in the end.
Honestly, it does me no good to meet up with Judith. I’m a nice person when we sit down together but, by the time we leave, I’m not. I don’t bear her any ill-will, I just wish she didn’t exist. We’re meeting up again in a fortnight.
Bill’s mother is coming to us tomorrow for lunch, so there will be conversation then of a different kind. My mother-in-law usually comes with an agenda of topics she’d like to talk about, and once she’s gone through the list she starts again at the beginning. Last time she came, Bill excused himself when she’d gone full circle and began again, saying this was where he came in.
Bill’s mother, Ella, comes to us most Sundays for lunch. When she came in today she said that we seemed to have a small shanty town springing up to the side of our house, and what was the problem exactly? I said not to worry, it was a project Dan was involved in. She said good, she was glad he was making himself useful, and the sooner he got the whole lot cleared away, the better.
Dan opened his mouth to say something, but I caught his eye and gave him a look which meant, ‘Don’t stir this pot Daniel, your grandmother will never approve of any plan to build with recycled packaging materials, however eco-friendly you tell her this is.’ It was necessarily a complex look, but Dan understood my meaning, and he didn’t say anything. Instead we covered the usual topics over lunch, including all the old favourites. We discussed how difficult it is to get good help in the garden, how lucky you are to have good help in the house, how there is no-one around to help you in the bank, and so on and so forth.
Problems with her high-street bank are exercising Ella particularly at the moment. She said she used to go in there and have a chat with the bank tellers, and they all knew her name, and they helped her out if she made a mistake when she had to fill in forms. Her visits were a pleasant experience. But now when she goes to the bank and is confronted with all those machines lining the walls, the atmosphere is hostile. She says she may as well be in an episode of Dr Who. She daren’t interact with the machines in case they start flashing and shouting ‘Exterminate!’ and waving little stalks at her. Dan loved the idea and said if the cash machines did that he would look for a job in a bank.
After lunch Ella likes to reminisce. She asked us if we could remember Lily Cooper, originally from Bolton, who used to keep a horse in the field behind her house in the country. Ella had urgent news concerning Lily, so she pressed us to remember her. We did our best. We racked our brains to remember Lily Cooper. You must remember her, said Ella, you were so fond of her horse. We tried to remember her horse, we tried to recall our fondness for the horse, we tried to visualise the field, the horse, the woman, the horse in the field, the woman on the horse, Bolton, women in general – but we drew a blank.
We confessed, and said we just couldn’t remember Lily Cooper, or her horse, or our love for her horse. But tell us about her anyway, we said, it might jog our memory.
‘Well’, said Ella, ‘she’s dead. Died last Tuesday of a stroke.’
Oh. We looked at each other. That’s that then. We can’t remember her – and now she’s dead. There was a general sense of relief. ‘How’s the horse?’ said Daniel.
I got up to make the coffee, and when I brought it in on a tray, Daniel had gone out somewhere, to see someone about something. Bill thought he would take his coffee upstairs because he had some preparation to do for a meeting tomorrow, if we two ladies didn’t mind. Go ahead, I said, your mum and I will chat over coffee. No problem.
So Ella and I drank our coffee, and I heard about her dizzy spells and her constipation and all the kind of stuff that men can’t be trusted with. We puzzled over that little rash that won’t go away. Ella said it was a shame the rash was on her bottom, because she thought it would benefit from being exposed to some fresh air. After about half an hour Ella asked me if I remembered Jill Robertson. I said – is she dead? Ella said no, she’s having the outside of her house painted buttermilk yellow.
Oh good. Better news for Jill.
Daniel rang me when Bill was taking his mother home. He doesn’t usually ring when he’s out so I was expecting trouble. ‘Mum,’ he said, ‘I’m bringing a friend round. She’s going to help me with Aspire, but she hasn’t eaten for a few days so I’ve asked her round for the rest of that roast.’
‘Why hasn’t she eaten for a few days?’ I asked him. He said he didn’t know, he hadn’t asked her, and anyway, it was none of our business. I said I thought it was our business if she was going to turn up and eat the rest of our roast.
Anyway, Daniel arrived with Gentle Rain at about ten o’clock, just as Bill and I were going to watch the News.
Yes, Dan’s friend is called Gentle Rain. She has long blonde hair and a sweet smile and she came in and said softly, ‘Hello Daniel’s mum, I’m Gentle Rain’. I’d had a glass or so of wine by then and I said, ‘Hello Gentle Rain, pleased to meet you. I’m Big Roast Dinner’. Bill laughed but Daniel didn’t.....