PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Now that Laura has made the decision, it all seems so obvious. Everything that's wrong in her life is David's fault and everything will be so much better without him. She'll be like a new woman. Free, uninhibited, outgoing, alert, popular, successful. Happy.
Why didn't she think of this before?
The trouble with David is that he just doesn't appreciate her. And he's holding her back. There's no point in stressing herself out, wasting hours of her time trying to understand what the problem is. He is the problem. People think life is so complicated, so full of ambivalence. Actually, if enough honesty and discipline are applied, life is fairly straightforward: you just need to identify the problem and the solution to it.
David is the problem. She needs to leave him. Simple.
All she has to do now is to find the words to tell him. She practises her farewell speech in the mirror.
'Look, David, I feel you don't appreciate me and you're holding me back. Last month I went on a diet to lose the extra pounds I put on over the holiday. I ate only egg white and organic rice cakes and lost the weight in three days. You didn't notice. Not at all. Every week I arrange for new floral displays around the house, carefully chosen to reflect the season, or to accent colours in our interior decor, and you never make any comment. At best you say 'that's nice'. Last week, I arranged for our dining room chairs to be completely reupholstered in a fresher shade of duck egg blue, which involved spending many hours with the interior designer, first in the house then in I don't know how many fabric showrooms and you said nothing. I'm beginning to wonder: what is the point of it all? Why do I bother? You come from work so exhausted that you hardly speak to me. I, who have (or should that be who has? Laura is not sure) been waiting for you all day, making sure everything looks lovely for you, making sure the bloody cleaner hoovers everywhere, not just the bits you can see, and remembers to wipe under the bathroom basins as well as round them, and you just don't care!'
It is at this point Laura makes a new decision, supplementary to her last. If, when she's gone back into the bedroom and said all this, David says 'Oh my darling, I'm so sorry, I promise I'll change and I'll do it now' (or any combination of words to that effect), she'll stay with him. If he says 'What are you on about, Laura, you know I love you, I do my best, I know that's not always good enough for you but it's all I can offer, I do appreciate you, maybe I don't always show it etc etc etc' (she's heard it all before) then she'll go.
She's not unreasonable. She's prepared to give him one last chance.
Having come to this suitable agreement with her reflection, Laura adds a last coat of mascara - major life-altering scenes are best played out in full make-up - and walks back into the bedroom.
She begins. 'Look, David, I feel you don't appreciate me. Last month I went on a diet...'
But there is no point.
David, exhausted, sore, cut off in his prime David, with the grimace of the unfulfilled hovering on his lips, has fallen fast asleep.
That’s it. If David can't be bothered to stay awake for her, she's definitely going to go - get out of the house before he wakes up and before Anouschka arrives. She'll just grab some clothes, and go. Imagine his horror when he wakes up and she isn't there! Yes. This is absolutely the best idea. To shock him into realising how much harm he's done her. On the other hand, however, perhaps she should stay and for the good of her own soul - and his! - confront him and tell him that it's all over and exactly why it's all over before she goes.
That would also give her time to try on those trousers again.
She can't decide what to do. Then she remembers the drinks planned for that evening, with the business partner and his wife. She remembers what David told her: that if all goes well this evening, it could be worth millions. For him. For her. Perhaps best to wait then. Break the news after the drinks. Yes. That's what she'll do. She'll take her time, over the course of the day, to plan her departure. That patience will pay off handsomely. What's more, if she goes now, their guests won't get to see her hair-do. It would be a shame to waste such a lovely hair-do.
Laura hears a key in the door.
This must be Anouschka who is no longer the cleaner but now the housekeeper.
Thank God. Anouschka may have the mouth odour of a cheese board but for one horrible moment Laura was worried she may have to do her own cleaning.
Anouschka presents herself in the door frame, pale and thin. Laura is also thin, but she is rich-thin. It costs Laura (David) thousands each year in specialist victuals, customised exercise regimes and lymph-draining treatments to keep Laura the shape she is. Anouschka is merely thin because she often does not eat. Anouschka’s bones shine through her grey skin. Her eyes look too big for her head. It occurs to Laura that Anouschka really does nothing to add to the aesthetic appeal of the house where every fabric, every ornament has been relentlessly considered and coordinated. But then she does clean well and life is all about compromise as Laura, who lives with David, knows only too well.
'I so sorry I so late, Meesees David.' Anouschka is trembling so violently at the prospect of her employer's wrath that she can hardly control her lips sufficiently to stammer her apology.
Don't they have verbs in the Urals? Laura asks herself silently, not for the first time. She takes one step back to be out of the line of fire of Anouschka’s breath.
'Oh! Don't worry! Really! Don't worry at all. These things happen! Good heavens! I quite understand!' she cries.
This show of bonhomie scares Anouschka so much she feels her knees buckle. Meesees David has never understood anything before, not a broken ashtray, a missed fleck of dust on a carpet, nothing.
Anouschka is wearing a brittle, cheap scent which makes Laura's stomach heave each time there is a movement of air. She has spoken to Anouschka, in the past, about Anouschka's problem with perspiration, even going to the effort of buying her an anti-perspirant and demonstrating to her how to use it, explaining that, with all the exertion of vigorous cleaning, it is understandable that there should be body odour and how, with the robust application of a good deodorant, much of it was easily preventable. But instead of using the deodorant, Anouschka took it into her head to douse herself with this vile perfume. Laura sighs. She hasn't the energy now to explain that the smell of this cheap perfume is worse than the B.O. She needs the cleaning done.
'How nice your hair looks today, Anouschka. Have you done anything special to it?'
They both survey Anouschka’s locks of rich mouse brown.
'Yes. I wash them.'
'No, it's hair. Hair, in English, is in the singular unless it's... Never mind.'
Suddenly Laura feels she really just can't cope any more. Is this what her life has become? A loveless marriage and an illiterate cleaner?
Then Laura does what she hasn't done for a long, long time. She starts to cry. Soft, gentle, attractive sobs.
Anouschka is terrified. It's clearly she's something she's done wrong. But what? What?
'I so sorry Meesees David,' Anouschka whines.
'Oh, it doesn't matter,' says Laura. 'It's just that my life is, well, very hard. Do you understand? Very hard.'
Anouschka isn't sure what to say. There is an uneasy silence. 'I do kitchen floor now?' she offers sympathetically.
Laura nods heroically. 'No hoovering just yet, though, Mr Denver Barrette is still asleep'. The words falter on her lips. More tears fall. It’s unbelievable. Even at her most distressed, her most vulnerable, all Laura can think about is others.
Out in the hall where Laura is checking the effect of her upset on her mascara, the phone demands her.
It's Louella, Laura's best friend. Louella is a woman as attractive as her, almost as blonde and nearly as slim. Anything less wouldn't be fair. As soon as Laura hears Louella's voice, actually not her voice but rather her raucous smoker's cough - Louella always has a coughing fit when she makes or takes a call, it's a sort of nervous condition which comes with the territory that is Louella - Laura knows she will, she must tell her friend.
'I have something to tell you, Louella,' Laura announces. 'I'm ending my marriage.'
Louella, who has only just recovered from her 'it's me' coughing fit, surrenders to an even more violent attack of choking. Laura understands. It must come as a surprise. The choking abates to a series of gasps. 'I know, I know,' Laura murmurs wearily. Louella is not taking this well. Louella gasps again - and there is something in the tone of this last exhalation that indicates to Laura this is not a gasp of astonishment but rather a huff of irritation.
'This is rather inconsiderate of you, darling. I rang you. I rang you to tell you about a problem I'm having. I rather think you might hear my problem out before you burden me with yours.'
'Oh,' Laura says. 'I'm sorry. Of course.'
'You are not going to believe this,' Louella wails. This is probably right: Louella is prone to hyperbole. 'I mean, really Laura, you are not,' Louella insists to quell all silent protestations to the contrary. Louella proceeds to tell Laura about an unpleasant incident which has taken place in her antique shop earlier that day. A customer had placed a large order for a walnut cabinet worth a good few thousand pounds. Then, on her way out of the shop, the woman had knocked over a small Sevres dish worth a good few hundred and broken it. Louella had told the woman she would have to pay for it. The woman said it had been an accident and that it was Louella's fault for placing the plate so near the door. Louella told her it was her shop and she would put her pieces where she bloody well chose to and if the woman was incapable of conducting herself properly in a high-class antiques emporium perhaps she'd better stick to the Portobello Road. At this the woman said that if Louella persisted with her demand not only would she cancel her order for the furniture, but she would also, with the help of her barrister husband, sue Louella for all she was worth.
'What would she sue you for though?'
'I just told you! All that I am worth!'
'Yes, but why would she sue you? What for? She was the one who broke the plate.'
There is a pause.
'I don't know,' Louella replies eventually. 'I was upset. I didn't ask. Would you ask David what he thinks?’
Laura ignores this.
'So what happened next?' Laura moves the story on politely.
'Well that's just it, darling. Nothing. She left the shop. So now I don't know what to do. Shall I carry on with the order? Shall I send her a bill for the broken plate? Or shall I just do nothing and see what happens? What do you think?'
I don’t give a toss, Laura thinks.
'Send her a letter asking her if she wants to continue with the order and charge her only the cost price on the plate. It's a compromise which hopefully won't incur her legal wrath and save you the order.'
'Mmm,' Louella reflects. 'I don't know if that will work. She kept harping on about her moral rights. I wanted to tell her she was too short to merit moral rights but I held my tongue. You know how I feel about women who are five foot five and under. Anyway, thanks for the advice, but it’s really David’s brain I wanted to pick. Have a chat with him about it, would you, darling, and give me a quick call back. Would appreciate it. Bye, darling.'
'Wait! Wait! I want to tell you more about my decision to leave David.'
'Oh. Of course,' Louella mutters reluctantly.
Laura pauses. What, actually, else is there to say? There is a silence. Louella hates silences. She hates short women, fat women, navy and cerise together in one outfit, handbags with writing on the sides and silences. Spend enough time with Louella and a clear personality profile soon builds up.
'Have you told anyone else you're leaving him?' Louella asks to break it.
'Can I tell anyone else?'
'Look, angel, I can hear you're upset. But when you say it's over, it's not really is it? Every marriage has it peaks and troughs. This is merely one of the troughs. You just need to sit tight and wait for a peak to come along. Buy yourself a new dress or something, take your mind off it.'
'You're not taking me seriously,' Laura whispers angrily.
'No, of course I'm not,' Louella barks back. 'You're married to one of the nicest men I know. He adores you. He earns a fortune. He keeps you in a style to which you have enthusiastically become accustomed. Why on earth would you want to leave him? He's not cheating on you, beating you or expecting you to dress up like Cat Woman at bedtime,' Louella concludes with some bitterness (her first husband could only reach full orgasm if he entered her as a traffic warden). 'Why, exactly, do you want to end it?'
This question seems fair enough. Laura wants to end fifteen years of marriage with David just because she's had enough of him. Is that a good enough reason? Laura takes a moment to think. She's aware that this moment will be setting Louella's teeth on edge. Not only does she hate silences and this is already the second in a very short space of time but it’s a Saturday and, according to legend, Louella’s shop is always at its busiest on a Saturday. Well damn it all, Laura reckons. Her marriage is worth a few moments silence and the patience of a few customers. So she thinks - one second, two second, three seconds. And she decides.
'Simply because I've had enough of him. That's just got to be as good a reason as any, hasn't it? It's certainly good enough for me and as I'm the wife, i.e. the only interested party (apart from David), it'll have to do. I've had enough of him. Does there have to be a better reason?'
'No, I mean it,' Laura insists. ‘What if I just don't want to be married to him any more?'
'For no reason? To cause him - and yourself - all that hurt, for no reason? Are you on Prozac? You’re not menopausal yet, are you?'
What can Laura do? How can she explain, even to Louella, that she just can't cope with one more day of Life With David? That she can hardly put into words, even to herself, how she has become allergic to David, the sound of him, the smell of him, the very sight of him?
'Last time I saw you,' Louella continued, 'you spent half an hour telling me how he was driving you insane because he didn't rinse the bits of cereal out of the waste disposal unit when he tipped his half-empty bowl of cereal down it. Half an hour, Laura. And I didn't say anything at the time but all the while you were talking I was thinking - all we're talking about here is a half-empty bowl of breakfast cereal, about three, maybe four bits of cornflake attached to the side of the waste disposal, bits of cornflake which your cleaner is going to wash off for you anyway, - '
' - but it's the principle -'
'- be quiet, and you're telling me how that's indicative of his complete disregard for your feelings, how you've told him maybe a hundred times to rinse it out straight away with the cold tap so it doesn't stick to the side and how he says he will but he never does and how if he doesn't listen to you about that it means he's never listening to you about anything!'
Louella pauses here for breath and a heavy sigh which she hopes will convey definitively to Laura the utter ridiculousness of it all.
'I mean,' she continues, 'if you were to leave him, what exactly would you say to him?'
'I'd say - David, it's over.'
'OK. And then what?'
'Then what what?'
'He'd say - 'Oh my god Laura. Oh my god. Why?' Louella conveys this with rather more drama than Laura thinks is strictly necessary but she's prepared to play along. She can see that Louella, her best friend, is only trying to help.
'Yes. Why? You can't say - oh because I've had it, I mean I've really had it this time with the way you leave bits of cornflake in the waste disposal. Can you? Can you imagining going to your divorce lawyer, standing up in court and saying that?'
'What about you? You told me once that you had to get rid of Peter, one of the boyfriends you had between your second husband and your third, because he made a funny clicking sound with his tongue once every 13 seconds and you ended up locking yourself in the bathroom so you wouldn't hear it.'
'Yes - but that's hardly comparable.'
'Because he was only a boyfriend. And he was unemployed. He wasn't rich like David, for god's sake.' Laura waits for Louella to laugh, to show this is meant as a joke. Louella doesn't laugh. Louella says, 'I think you'll regret this the moment you've done it. You're going to lose everything. Your security, your house, your friends...'
'I wouldn't go that far. I think most of our friends like me for myself, not just because I'm David's wife, don't you?'
Louella says nothing.
'Sorry!' Laura cries. 'Is the fact you're not answering me meant to be your way of telling me that in fact you think people do only like me because I'm his wife?'
'No - it's because I'm just watching some bloody woman who has just let her dog crap on the pavement right outside my shop. Right outside! People'll be treading it into my parquet. I've a good mind to call the police. In fact I think I will. Must go.' She tells Laura to call her if there is anything, anything she can do for her and plonks down the phone.
Almost immediately the phone rings again. Louella. ‘Just a quick thought. If you do decide to leave David, can you remember to ask him about my customer problem thing first? Thanks. Love. Bye.’
Laura reflects on the call. She knows that Louella thinks she is mad, and that her reasons for wanting to leave David are petty. Only now is Laura beginning to realise how brave and utterly courageous she is to be leaving a man like David simply because of her principles. Louella just doesn't have Laura's ethics. All at once Laura starts to feel giddy with her own vertiginous values, with the altitude of her own integrity.
In fact Laura wants to cry again. The moment feels right for her to cry, but just in time she remembers her make-up and desists. Cornflakes in the waste disposal. Crazy perhaps. Petty? Yes, even petty. But that's where love is. In the little things. If David can't understand, even now, even after all the times she's asked him to, that it's important for her that he shows enough consideration to wash down the waste disposal unit after he's tipped his cereal bowl into it, then what hope is there?
All Laura knows is that she’s had enough. Why can't she put her finger on quite what it is about him, cornflakes aside, that she's had enough of? Maybe it's just boredom. Fifteen years is a long time. A long time to see the same man, have the same conversations, look at the same face (and tooth), live with the same habits day in, day out. If someone made you eat the same food every day for fifteen years that would be considered cruelty, but for some reason you're expected to have to put up with the same man.
Nevertheless, in one way Louella is right. Even if it’s valid enough for her, Laura cannot confront David, her family and his, all their friends, her agent, her hairdresser and tell them the reason she's was leaving him is because she's had enough of him generally and e.g. specifically the way he never rinses the cornflakes out.
If she is going to leave David, she needs a good reason to do so.
Leaving him would be easy. Saying why was going to be hard.
There must be a reason why.
Now she just has to find out what it is.
‘I'm ending my marriage.’
‘I've had enough of him.’
Was that “ending” or “mending”? To have enough of someone - does that mean being fed-up with them or some state of sexual satisfaction? Anouschka is not sure. She was trying to focus on cleaning the already immaculate kitchen floor, trying so hard not to listen to Meesees David's conversation on the telephone in the hall but she couldn't help it. She heard every word. Understood almost half of them. And now her poor heart is beating so fast that she can hardly stand up straight and needs to get herself a glass of water (from the tap, not the mineral water from the fridge - Meesees David has explained the difference) before she keels over.
The more she thinks about it, the more Anouschka knows she cannot lie to herself. She has understood perfectly well. Meesees David is leaving Meester David. Her grandmother always told her 'Dobroe vaznay bosch mibet dal vaznay.' This means - 'Be careful of your dreams in case they come true'.
After so many weeks of hoping and praying, Meester David is to be hers. From the very first moment she saw him, that Saturday eleven weeks before, she knew he was her 'vashnashka' (literally: ‘life destiny man'). That's the only reason she'd stuck with this awful job, with the horrible Meesees David accusing her of using too much bleach in the bathroom and emptying the hoover bags before they were really full. She could put up with anything if it meant seeing Meester David. She saw him maybe only once or twice a week, on days when Meesees David had asked her to stay late to turn out a shoe cupboard or polish up the entire canteen of silver cutlery. Even then, these were fleeting moments as he walked past on his way in from work. Usually he said nothing to her, as if she were not there. Once, when he almost tripped over her while she was cleaning the underneath of a chest of drawers in the bedroom, he said sorry and gave her a half-smile. Such a beautiful smile. She didn’t reply. She didn’t need words. Electricity is a silent force.
Recently, the passion had been getting stronger and stronger. All Anouschka had to do was see the back of his head as he walked out of a room or see his cufflinks on a table and she felt faint. Last week she had actually stolen one of his socks from the washing pile and taken it back to her little bedsit in Queensway and cuddled it all night. She was so worried about her obsession that when Meesees David insisted she come in today, on a Saturday, when she knew he would be there all the time, Anouschka had told her she was ill. She was no longer sure of her own strength to resist him.
Now, it seemed, that strength was not necessary. There had been a reason God had wanted Anouschka to be here today - to hear the words from Meesees David's own mouth. She no longer wants her husband. Meester David is a free man. Anouschka is trembling from head to toe and all the bits in between.
At that moment the doorbell rings. It takes Anouschka a few moments to remember that she, now, in her new and improved capacity of housekeeper is expected to open the door when she is there. She tries desperately to recall the script that she and Meesees David had practised together.
'Welcome to DenverBarrette's house'. Or was it 'Welcome to DenverBarrette's home'? Her palms sweat so feverishly as she struggles to remember which version Meesees David decided in the end had a better ring to it that Anouschka can hardly grip the door handle to open it.
'Welcome to DenverBarrettehousehome!' she announces energetically. (Even as the words come out Anouschka remembers it was DenverBarrettehouse that Laura wanted her to say, not home. She’s happy. She knows for next time.)
'Oh do shut up,' says the woman, shoving Anouschka to one side.
Laura, who has been hovering in the drawing room to let Anouschka greet guests in the manner they have rehearsed, recoils in horror as her mother charges in. She was just about to settle down for a quiet half hour with her interior design magazines - God knows she never seems to have the time during the week.
'Guests are supposed to wait for me in the hall,' Laura mutters irritably.
'Don't be a fool. I am your mother!' Lydia proclaims, not for the first time.
The two women stand and inspect each other. Laura sees a 73 year old woman with cropped hair dyed an acidic shade of red, in a red leather miniskirt which barely covers her underwear, pink silk shirt and thigh high boots. She is overwhelmed by an instinctive and familiar longing for a mum called Jane in specs and pleated paisley. She sees herself being scrutinised, evaluated, partially accepted, primarily rejected. Laura reminds herself that, at 35, she has no longer any need to feel agitated in her mother’s presence. She reminds herself of this several times before she can stand it no longer and returns wordlessly to the drawing room to the safety of the sofa.
Lydia forces herself to cope with her daughter’s hostile manner. Thank god for that gin she had for breakfast otherwise she really would not be able to. Why Laura is quite as impossibly frosty as she is Lydia cannot imagine. When she thinks of all that she has sacrificed to be a mother, of all the postcards she would send to Laura’s boarding school during term-time and how carefully she would vet the nannies in whose care she left Laura during the holidays… Lydia wonders now why she bothered. Anyway, over time she has learnt to be impervious to her daughter’s uncongenial ways. And she is here today on a mission: last time she saw her daughter Laura was wearing a rather nice ivory chiffon blouse which Lydia fancies wearing to a dinner she is attending tonight. She will go to Laura’s wardrobes and find the blouse. If her daughter is incapable of affection, the least she can do is provide her with a nice top for the evening.
Yes. Because Lydia must now enjoy every day as if it is her last. She only went to see her GP to complain of a weak bladder. First he told her this was to be expected at her age, which was a pity because she was just on the point of inviting him round for a dinner à deux and this remark rather spoilt the moment. Then – the bombshell: that if she did not cut down on her drinking it would kill her. Delivered just like that, with the stark and callous brevity of a thirtysomething who has no concept of the anguish of mortality. Knowing she is imminently to die is, of course, very painful for Lydia. She had hoped to share some of this pain with her daughter today, but looking now at Laura’s set features Lydia realises that there is no hope of that. She is going to have to carry the cross of this death sentence on her own.
(But when Lydia is dead, how Laura will suffer! Her guilt will consume her! Her remorse will torment her!)
Lydia follows Laura and Anouschka follows Lydia into the drawing room. Anouschka is all primed to offer them coffee (coffee before 12, tea before 5, and wine thereafter) but before she has a chance to form the words ‘is now good coffee please?’ she hears Meesees David's mother announcing 'There is something, something wrong, is there not, my darling?' and the double doors of the drawing room are shut firmly in her face.
Anouschka's heart leaps. This is her destiny unfolding. She tiptoes up the stairs, along the corridor, into the heavily curtained bedroom. Meester David is asleep, his head thrown back, his mouth open, snoring. It is the sound of angels. Anouschka takes off her clothes, gently lifts the edge of the bedclothes and creeps in beside him. If she were to die now, she would not mind. She wished she could die now. Perhaps she would die - die of happiness. The bed is warm, soft and cosy. She snuggles deeper down under the heavy covers. It's now or never, she decides. Meesees David doesn't want him. He belongs to her, only her, his Anouschkina.
Slowly, gently, deftly she moves her hand down towards Meester David's thighs.
Dobroe vaznay bosch mibet dal vaznay.
'There is something, something wrong, is there not, my darling?'
Lydia likes repeating herself. And why not. What she has to say is so good it's a waste to say it only the once. Laura, meanwhile, remains silent. Like all of her mother's questions, this is one which requires not even a response, much less an answer. Laura hangs her head. Her mother is a scary woman. Not so much because she is so relentlessly critical, so heartlessly insensitive and so ruthlessly intransigent - but because she is all of those things and she is always right.
Lydia flings herself expansively onto the sofa, cerise silk layers flapping. 'Of course, my darling, you know your moon is in Saturn. I have warned you about this before. We have to expect the worst.'
Since her earliest years her mother has been warning Laura about her astrological chart which had her cast as impetuous and capricious at birth, with a catastrophic trine, not to mention her fifth house in Taurus.
‘Where is David, by the way?’
‘David? Oh, yes, still asleep, he was very - ’ Laura begins enthusiastically, hoping against hope that the inevitable zodiacal analysis might yet be circumvented.
‘So?' Lydia continues stoically, 'how bad is it? I am sitting at home, I am busy, of course, working to a deadline, always deadlines governing my life, tormenting me, but the dream I have had last night is pounding, pounding in my head.' Lydia bangs her forehead, presumably to show Laura what pounding means, or indeed where her head resides. 'And you know what I have dreamt? Of you; and you are in the desert, buried to your knees, only your knees, in the sand. We can talk about why to the knees later. And you are sick, dehydrated, the sand is on your tongue, and in your eyes. And a man - I can only assume this man is David - rides past on a stallion - chestnut, proud, magnificent. The man alights from his horse and offers you his water bottle. 'Take it!' he demands. But you turn away. The winds blow over you and when you turn your face back to him again, you have no mouth, no nose. Only your eyes, now no longer seeing but encrusted completely in the searing sand. The man returns slowly to his horse. He knows there is nothing to be done. He rides away.'
Lydia's dream visions usually have as the basis of their plot and location whatever film was on TV the night before but few are those who would be brave enough to mention this. Anyway, there is no point. Lydia is a certified sex psychotherapist so any criticism you care to make of her she can immediately re-assign to some defect in your own psycho-sexual infrastructure.
'So! What do you think! What would you think if you were a mother and were to dream that about your daughter!' (The chance for a little dig at Laura's childlessness is never passed by. Even though Lydia, unmarried, got pregnant with Laura by accident and spent the first twenty years of Laura's life complaining to her about it, she has spent the next twenty intimating to Laura the state of superiority which motherhood confers.)
'Lydia, this is a bad time.'
'I know, darling! That is why I am here!'
'No, I mean, just now, right now is a bad time. Generally it's not, I mean everything's fine.'
Lydia looks at Laura with that look to show her she is not afraid to let Laura see how puzzled she is by this remark. She pats the seat next to her. 'You are in denial, sweetheart. How many times do I have to tell you - don't be afraid of your shadow side! Befriend it! Embrace it! Incorporate it!' she cries, the veins bulging in the taut, restyled skin on her forehead.
'Would you like coffee, Lydia? I can ask Anouschka to…' Laura murmurs miserably.
Lydia shakes her head. 'This is no good, Laura. I understand what you are doing.'
'I'm offering you a cup of coffee.'
'No, you are pushing me away, you are denying your shadow side! Why the knees, Laura? Why to the knees only are you buried in the sand?' Lydia seems to think that a convoluted syntax makes her sound more interesting, more mystical. Her clients love it. The weirder her grammar, the more she can charge for a consultation.
'You're right. The knees,' Laura concurs wearily. 'I just need a moment to think about it. Just give me a moment to ask the cl-housekeeper to put the coffee on and I'm going to focus on my knees.'
'And I'll make a wee-wee!' Lydia trills in triumph. Laura disappears in the direction of the kitchen. Lydia pours herself a nip of a drink from the fine selection in the cabinet then heads for Laura’s dressing room. As she creeps through the bedroom she realises that this is going to be more of a challenge than she thought. The curtains are all still drawn and David, she remembers, is still in bed. She tiptoes past. David is snoring loudly. Actually it is more of a grunting than a snoring. Not a very pleasant grunting to tell the truth. Once inside the dressing room it requires some careful fumbling to locate the blouse. And all through her tactile inspection of Laura’s extensive range of designer couture Lydia is thinking to herself: these noises David is making, they are really not very nice. Perhaps he is unwell? Screwing up 146 years collective worth of eyeball she strains to see through half-open dressing room door, though the half-light, to the bed. She identifies the brown curls of her son-in-law. Then she sees another head. Blonde. And she realises that the first head appears to be making enthusiastic love to the second head in the bed.
'Oh dear,' thinks Lydia. Discretion itself, she manages to hold on to her priorities. She slips the blouse off its padded hangar in Laura's wardrobe and stuffs it into her bag. She waits until David’s head is lost between the blonde head’s legs - her experience in this area tells Lydia it is unlikely a man will notice much at that angle - and then slinks back past them and away.
Laura has been obliged to arrange the coffee cups on the tray herself, bloody Anouschka having disappeared to some unknown corner of the house as was her wont. Maybe it was an Eastern European thing, this need to scuttle away to secret places all the time. She was just about to set off to find her, and her wretched mother come to that, who was no doubt in the process of rifling through the contents of Laura’s dressing room yet again, when the phone demands her.
‘Crisis over,’ Louella gasps exultantly. ‘Not only did the woman have a poop-a-scoop with her but she came in and bought that painting of a dead rabbit that's been clogging up the second window in the shop for months for three thousand pounds. Just goes to show you, doesn’t it?'
‘Shows you what?’
‘It’s an expression, Laura, A turn of phrase. Really, my darling, you can be quite pedantic at times.’
'So you didn't call the police?'
'Call the police? I'd have scooped the stuff up in my bare hands to get rid of that painting. One of those purchases you make and you regret even before the chap's brought down his hammer. And, you're not going to believe this,' Louella insists, 'but I've just had that other woman in the shop again. The one who smashed the plate.'
'Look, Louella, I can't talk now. I've got my mother here.'
'How nice. And how lucky for you, still to have your mother. I often wonder how different my life would've been if my own mother was still around. Very different, I suspect. Anyway, mustn't dwell. Mustn't mope. Moping brings on the frown lines! How is Lydia, by the way? Last time I saw her she was sucking the air out of some young barrister at one of your drinks things. Remarkable that a women of her age should still have the desire for it. Did they go all the way, do you know? Does she confide in you with that sort of thing?’
‘No, thank god.’
‘Mind you, I had an aunt who ran 3 lovers and a husband well into her eighties. Marvellous. Of course, at that age one must be very dry but my aunt would always say that selecting the lubricant was always half the fun. How is sex currently with David anyway?’
‘How is sex with David? What sort of a question is that? I’ve told you, I’m leaving him!’
‘So when did you last do it?’
‘God I don’t know…’
‘Um – this morning actually.’
‘This morning! So – ‘
‘Yes, yes, but we didn’t do it properly. I mean, I cut him short.’
‘He wanted me to tell him that I loved him and I thought, Jesus, I’m having sex with you aren’t I? How much more do you want?’
‘Oh, I know, I know. I don’t care for the ones who want chit-chat while you’re doing it either. And who want to drag it out endlessly with all that touchy-feely stuff. A nice short sharp shag is always the best. Get it over and done with and on with the day, that’s what I always say. Talking of which, that’s exactly what I must do now. It is Saturday, Laura darling, you do understand. Saturday’s my busy day. You have that wonderful husband of yours to earn oodles of money for you but as for the rest of us, well, life is lived a bit nearer the coal face! I must be going now.’
‘Of course,’ Laura agrees irritably, ‘go. And might I just remind you that it was you who rang me so – ‘
‘Wait! I almost forgot! That woman! We’ve been so busy talking about you that I’d forgotten I was in the middle of something important about me. I must finish telling you the story about her. So she walks in, bold as brass, and says she wants to apologise - apologise! Can you believe it! - About the incident earlier. It turns out she'd just found out her husband was having an affair and was shopping her way through her pain. She said her plan was going to get him back where it hurt him most - through his bank account. And suddenly I warmed to her, you know. She said she'd booked a flight to Paris to leave this evening - she was going to stay at The Georges V and spend herself silly. Oh, you don't want to bother with Paris, I say. Milun is the only real place to shop. Is it, is it really, she says? Why yes, I say, I was there only two weeks ago and there was the most fabulous grey dress in the very first shop I walked into. I bought it there and then and wore it to that charity bash I went to last week. Grey, she says. Your colouring can handle grey but it makes me look so washed out. Well, she had a point actually, but I said nothing, customer always right and all that. Did you wear your hair up or down? she asked. What for? I say. Oh, for the charity thing, she says. Oh, up, definitely up, I say. That kind of thing, got to pull out all the stops, you know. She understood entirely. Shoes? she asked. You see, I do like a woman who understands the importance of shoes. Oh, I say, there's this marvellous little man off the Fulham Road who dyes my shoes for me and got a little silk pair the perfect grey to match. All a bit of a rush and I had to pay through the nose but the end justifies the means. Anyway, finally I managed to persuade her about Milun and so we ended up sort of agreeing we'd go together. I hope you don't mind, darling. I know we always said we'd go to Milun together, but this is a good time for me, the shop's quiet and you've got David.'
'Why do you keep banging on about David? I've told you, Louella. I'm leaving him.'
'Yes, you did, darling, of course you did. But that's going to take ages, isn't it? What with the lawyers and everything to sort out and in the meantime the shops in Milun will have sold out of all the best stuff for the new season! Anyway, I'll send you a postcard, and we'll talk before I go. And don’t worry, you don’t need to ask him about this woman suing me. I mean, if she and I are going to be best chums now – I mean, obviously not best chums in the way that you and I are, of course, Laura darling, but you know what I mean. Anyway, you needn’t bother David about it. OK? Love you lots. Byee.'
By the time Louella has decided the call is definitively over, Laura's mother is back, looking pale. Pale with the guilt of swiping whatever item of Laura's it is she has bulging in her leather handbag, Laura presumes. Although it is true that Laura always gets the stuff back, perhaps a little stained and generally worse for wear but almost as good as new after Anouschka has taken it to the dry cleaners, she somehow never fancies wearing it again. She's never quite sure where it's been, who it's rubbed up against. Which kind of takes the pleasure out of wearing it. And dropping off such big carrier bags at the local Oxfam once a month gives one such a nice, warm feeling.
Anyway, the point is that Laura cannot face any more of her mother one-on-one this morning. She's had a stressful week and now with all the hassle of the marriage break-up she's got enough on her plate without Lydia’s antics to put up with. She's going to get David up and out and he can deal with her. He actually likes her, for Christ's sake.
'Sorry, I've been on the phone. I'll just go and wake David up. He'll be furious if he knows you're here and I didn't get him. Unless of course he already knows you’re here,’ she adds with a sudden rush of courage.
Lydia looks alarmed, then disgusted, a combination of expressions she often favours when listening to her daughter. ‘Laura, my dear, if he is, as you say, asleep in the bedroom, he would only know that I am here if I had been into the bedroom and why, can you tell me, would I have done that?’ she challenges her offspring.
Because you’re always creeping through there to snoop through the stuff in my dressing room, is what Laura wants to say. But in the firing line of her mother’s leering stare the words stay tamely and safely tucked in Laura’s pre-frontal cortex. ‘I must find the housekeeper and tell her to get the coffee on,' she mumbles instead.
'Yes. The housekeeper, you know, Anouschka.'
'Anouschka? She's the bloody cleaner, darling, not a housekeeper.'
Laura feels the familiar surge of frustration well deep within her. Only her mother can infuriate her with quite such precision and alacrity.
'Lydia, there's no degree course in housekeeping. If I decide she's my housekeeper, that's what she is, do you see? There are no special skills required, it's just a title, that's all.'
No, no special skills, thinks Lydia, finally identifying the blonde head in the bed. Only the ability to open your legs and come quietly. Unexpectedly, momentarily, she feels a pang of compassion for her pompous, ignorant daughter, but like all pangs involving feelings other than her own, Lydia suppresses it quickly and returns to first base.
So - her son-in-law is banging the hired help. How predictable; how vulgar. And not what she would have expected from David, to be honest, but if she has learnt one thing from her encyclopaedic experience of men it's never to expect anything of them. Anyway this is not the point. What is the point is that David is the one who earns the money and pays not only for Laura and her lavish lifestyle but also for Laura's mother. And Laura's mother, knowing which side her bread is buttered, is buggered if some cleaner is going to come between her and her shopping trips to Harrods. She may be about to die but as she had fled the surgery sobbing before the doctor had a chance to elaborate on his prognosis she wasn’t sure whether she had merely days to live or possibly weeks or even months. And if the latter, was she going to live them out in vile impecunity simply because that thing which had answered the door had not yet learnt the English for ‘no’?
'Lydia, are you listening to me? I’m going to wake David. I'll be back in a minute.'
'No! Wait!' She grabs her daughter by the elbow. 'Laura, darling, I must talk to you. I have something I must tell you. Something... seminal.'
Laura groans. Lydia's somethings are always seminal. Lydia spreads her fingers, and shuts her eyes as if invoking divine guidance to help her find the right words. She inhales deeply, opens her eyes and begins. The article from The National Geographic open on the table in front of her provides a natural autocue.
'My darling, listen. I've spent all morning in the British Museum. When you spend time there – ‘
‘ – I thought you said you were at home working to a deadline?’
‘ – please listen. When you spend time there, with the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, with the Aztecs and the Assyrians, you realise how insignificant we are. With our filthy burger bars and seedy interpretations of the arts - we are a civilisation in decline! I stood, for what must have been the best part of an hour - and of course this is not the first time I have worshipped it - before the stone panel of The Dying Lion, taken from the palace of King Ashurbanipal. Enrapt, I mean totally engrossed, I neither saw nor heard the crowds who were standing staring at me whispering: 'she looks transfixed' - 'she's been there for ages' - 'I wish I could see it through her eyes' - etcetera - etcetera. Could we produce something so exquisite now? No, we could not. Do our lives mean anything in the light of - and the gargantuan shadow cast by - these civilisations which have come before, never to be seen again?'
'Have you been taking too much Royal Jelly again, mother?'
'Oh,' sighs Lydia, drawing Laura's elbow which she clutches ever closer to her, because the monthly allowance which David pays his mother-in-law is a very generous one and there's no way she's going to risk it by letting her daughter disappear too soon, 'don't worry. I know. This is probably all above your head. What I'm trying to say is that your problems with David, such as they are, probably hold some importance for you, but believe me, my darling, in the greater context, in the historical context, they mean nothing. Focus on that. Focus on the historical perspective and see your life in its sharpest relief!'
This is why her mother drives her mad. How does she know that there are problems with David? Laura didn't know herself until she woke up this morning.
'Lydia, why are you shouting? You'll wake David!' Which is what both of them wants to happen, of course, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. And right on cue David duly appears.
He is, it has to be said, in rather a strange mood. He’s still in his dressing gown. His co-ordination isn't quite right. All the colour has gone from his face. This pantomime, Laura knows, is designed to pay her back for what happened in the bedroom earlier. She is not impressed. But she is happy to have him there because that means she can cut short her analysis with her mother. And Lydia is happy to have him there because that means Laura won't catch him shafting the cleaner and she can still buy that pair of white leather boots she's got on order at Harrods, not to mention keep a roof over her head and eat for whatever time it is she has left to her. And David, when he catches sight of her, is happy to have Lydia there because that he won't have to look his wife in the eye after what he’s just done.
So everyone's happy, which is nice.
David likes his mother-in-law. He was worried at first that being a sex psychotherapist she would constantly want to be analysing his performance in that arena. On his wedding day, however, Lydia confidently assured him that if he ever wanted any advice she only provided consultations for a fee. She was joking of course – he was son-in-law after all – but David was nevertheless careful to steer clear of the subject during the course of his marriage. (This was not hard for David as he never talked about sex with anyone. What was there to say, after all? When you wanted to do it you did it and when you didn’t you didn’t. He wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, honestly he wasn’t.) Lydia, furthermore, had always displayed a very positive interest in David’s job (which is more than can be said about her daughter) and seemed to be fascinated by all the detail of his legal cases. David liked this. He also liked the way she kept reminding him that his astrological birth chart reveals that his has his tenth house in Leo and therefore he would always be successful, popular and a leader amongst men, he's had a soft spot for her. 'Lydia!' he cries. 'I thought that was your voice I could hear. What a lovely surprise!' He kisses her. She recoils slightly at the smell of cheap scent on him. 'Wow! You're looking great, better than ever, really good. The hair is amazing!' Laura's face curdles. Lydia loves it. She smugly pats her freshly dyed inch-long jet black hair. 'Ah! I was wondering someone would notice my hair,' she comments dryly. Laura knows this is her prompt to say something complimentary about her mother's hair but personally she thinks that kind of army crop looks ridiculous on a woman in her seventies.
'So, David, last night I was looking again at your astrological charts. Have you got something big coming up at work?' she demands while elegantly selecting one of Laura's expensive coffee-table chocolates. (Laura tries to remind herself when she told her mother about David's business deal - was it Wednesday or Thursday?) 'I don't know, it wasn't clear, ' Lydia continues, as David opens his mouth to answer. She holds her temples, struggling to re-connect with her inner dream-world. ‘I saw you in some sort of arena - possibly the coliseum. You are surrounded by wild beasts. I see teeth, I see horns. And I see blood. I see the bodies of all those who have been slaughtered by others before you. When you appear, the beasts howl. They bare their fangs. Then they slink back and lie prostrate at your feet.'
'This gladiator, he didn't have an Australian accent?' Laura asks casually, because people might not think she has a sense of humour but deep down she has really.
'You have a sword,' Lydia continues triumphantly, unabated by the sad cynicism of her daughter, 'but you do not kill them. No. You walk valiantly from the ring. The crowd' (for there is a crowd as well, apparently, although whether it was computer-generated or not we shall never know) 'goes wild. You walk with the savage beasts meekly at your side. So tell me, David, what does this mean?'
This means David flushes crimson with pleasure. This means David gives his mother-in-law a big hug and wishes, not for the first time, that his wife could have inherited some of her mother's positive spirit. He understands what it is that Lydia has foreseen: his success of his business venture this evening.
'Well, we'll see,' David murmurs languorously. 'But enough about me. Let's talk about something more interesting. Let's talk about you,' he croons to his mother-in-law. Lydia's face, which given, the volume of surgical readjustments it has enjoyed, should know better, zings into a manifestation of delight. She wonders, not for the first time, whether an affair with her son-in-law would be totally out of the question, especially as she has now discovered he has no scruples about fidelity. Lydia herself, of course, has never enjoyed the warmest relationship with morals. And now she knows she is about to die a debate on the ethics of sleeping with her daughter’s husband now seems irrelevant to the point of absurdity. 'Well, if we must,' she giggles, crossing her long blackstockinged legs with ease beneath their red micro-mini and popping the chocolate seductively into her mouth. 'Shall I tell you about my experience at the British Museum this morning?'
At this crucial point, however, Anouschka appears.
David feels his bowels contort in a way they haven't since he was six and his mother found him with an entire bag of liquorice in his mouth.
'I would love to hear about the Museum,' he mumbles, 'but I really must go to the gym now.'
'The gym?' Lydia demands.
'Yes,' David replies desperately. 'I've hired a new personal trainer and my lesson starts soon.'
'Of course this is typical,' Laura adds, spreading her fingers, the better to see how the colour of her new nail polish responds to being held at different angles. 'Have I been told any of this? About a personal trainer? Have I? And what if I had planned something for us to do this morning, what about that?’
But no-one is taking any notice of Laura. They are staring at Anouschka, poised in the doorway with a dustpan and brush in the air on either side of her, like a monarch brandishing sceptre and orb. Anouschka, no beauty even on a good day, looks positively deranged. Her hair is sticking out in all directions and her cheeks are a vibrant purple.
‘I must say you all something,’ she announces.
Yes. She is going to tell them. Her mind is made up. The blood is leaping through her veins, her heart is pulsating with excitement. She hasn't had sex for two and a half years since she last saw her fiancé back home and even then, they were neither of them quite sure which way round you were supposed to do it, having both had reticent parents. David certainly knew which way to do it. Anouschka had read about what an orgasm was in one of her employer's magazines and seen the pictures to match (it was amazing some of the stuff you could find under people's beds). Even so, she was sure it was meant to have stopped by now whereas she was still rippling and bubbling with pleasure.
Even at its best with Boris, it had never been like this.
At this moment, however, it's not Meester David she's feeling most passionately about. No. It's Meesees David. Anouschka is looking at Meesees David in a whole new light. Recently, to be honest, she'd been thinking about handing in her notice. Some of the things Meesees David had asked her to do, like retrieve an earring from the bottom of the toilet bowl with her bare hands or squeeze the blackheads on the bits of Meesees David's back which Meesees David couldn’t reach herself, were surely more than a respectable cleaner on £4.60p an hour should be expected to endure. Meesees David also often forgot to pay her at all at the end of the week and then forgot at the beginning of the following week that she'd forgotten she'd forgotten and would argue with Anouschka as to whether she'd really forgotten or not.
Now everything was forgotten. Everything was different now. Meesees David had relinquished Meester David, her own husband, to Anouschka. Nothing else mattered. She will always be grateful to Meesees David for this act of sacrifice. All bad thoughts are gone. Meester David is hers. Anouschka loves Meester David. And Meester David loves her back! Because you cannot make love to someone as passionately as this and not have feelings for them! She could hardly believe it! A fine, important, handsome man like Meester David! Inside her! Anouschka felt the tingle run up her stomach once again. He'd been so tender and so - so firm and had whispered such nice things in her ear, not all of which she'd fully comprehended but she'd got the gist. Now Anouschka knew she would never leave the Davids. She felt loved, like one of the family.
Anouschka looks fondly at them both. She is going to tell them that. She is going to say what she really feels. Everyone is staring at her. Meester David. Meesees David. Meesees David’s mother. Why does she see such terror in their eyes? She wants to speak. How they stare at her! She tries so hard to find the words. But the words she wants to say don't come.
'I do kitchen floor now,' she whispers.
What she wants to say is: 'I love you, Meester and Meesees David, I love you both.' But she has not the courage, so 'I do kitchen floor now' is what comes out.
David goes to get ready for the gym.
Laura is once again, stuck with her mother. Extreme situations demand extreme measures, she decides. She says: 'Mother, I'm going to tell you something but I have to be sure, I mean completely sure, that it will go no further. Will you promise me?'
Lydia is just sitting thinking how boring she finds her daughter. She wonders how a woman like herself could have produced a creature like Laura. She was sure it wasn't right, to think your own daughter so tedious. Surely a mother should always instinctively, spontaneously love her own child but, speaking frankly, Lydia didn't love Laura. She'd been a dull baby, a drab child and now she was an immensely dreary adult and it was just as well she was so good looking or she'd never have pulled a catch like David and they'd both, Laura and Lydia, be up the swannee.
Watching her daughter's painted lips move, seeing her impeccable features contort to a position of discomfort, Lydia reflects that Laura is about to announce that she is afraid her husband may be having an affair. Lydia is going to have to bite her lip to stop herself from saying - yes, he is, sweetheart, and, speaking frankly (Lydia likes to speak frankly, if only inside her own head), who can blame him? But of course she could not say that, could not tell Laura that she had caught her own husband shagging the cleaner in her own bed in her own house that very morning (which had a certain panache to it, if nothing else), because Lydia is the kind of high-maintenance mother-in-law who would not take well to having to cancel her account at Fortnum & Mason's and moving out of her cosy flat in Knightsbridge to somewhere like Battersea or Wandsworth or any other of those ghastly south-of-the-river type suburbia where all the inadequates go. Even if she is about to die, she cannot contemplate that. Lydia had once earned her own very healthy income from her psychoanalytical consultations but with age, the energy required to diagnose the shortcomings of needy people had abandoned her. There had been a time when she was able to spin out a single insecurity into two years of lucrative sessions; now she was bored with it after five minutes. Having affairs with so many of her patients - male and female, Lydia was discerning but not discriminating - did not help matters much either. A couple of times things had got messy. When Laura had married David and David had suggested that he provide for his mother-in-law, it seemed as if Lydia understood for the first time why she’d bothered to have a daughter in the first place.
Meanwhile Laura is looking at her mother and asking herself this: why is she about to tell her that she is leaving David? Why, at the age of 35, is she still not able to take any significant action in her life without her wretched mother’s approval and approbation?
If only one could divorce mothers as well as husbands.
'Do you promise me?' Laura insists.
I promise I'll go mad if I have to listen to much more of you, Lydia thinks. 'Yes, my darling, I promise,' she replies gravely.
'The thing is Mother, what you were saying earlier - well, you were right. There is a problem between David and me.'
Lydia gasps in mock shock horror. 'Moon is in Saturn! What did I tell you!'
'Yes, well, I don't want to go through all that right now. The thing is, Lydia, that I'm going to leave David.'
Now Lydia gasps for real. 'Laura? Are you mad?'
'I know, I know. David is going to die. Die! He so adores me. But I can't stand it any more. He limits me! He oppresses me! He suffocates me!'
'I see,' says Lydia slowly, because it's the first thing that comes to mind.
She has to stop this. She clutches the edge of her seat. She wants to cry but she’s not sure there are any tear ducts left since the last facelift. 'Ahime! I never imagined things would come to this. Divorce! My own daughter. The issue of my womb!'
Laura reels in silent supplication that this will not, yet again, be the cue for Lydia to launch into the story of the hysterectomy she was forced to have after giving birth to her. Laura reels to no purpose.
'Still I bear the scars of when you tore me as you came into this world. Still echoing in my ears the renting of my flesh as you forced your way into existence. Now must I bear the humiliation of divorce from my own child, my only child, the child who closed the gate of my fertility behind her?'
Laura wonders in admiration at the dearth of shame in her mother, this being the woman who had slept with so many men that the identity of Laura's father would have required the services of an entire forensic science team.
'There's no point to all this, mother. I have made up my mind. I’m leaving him and that's it.'
'Aieeeee!' Lydia wails, like one impaled. 'Aieeeeeee!'
'Oh do be quiet. You're the one who's always telling me to get in touch with my shadow side. Well this is it.'
'But David is not your shadow side, you foolish girl. He is a wonderful, caring, considerate, wealthy husband! You should be kissing the ground he walks on, not preparing to eject him!'
At this point, Lydia composes herself sufficiently to run to a mirror and check her demeanour, rearranging the folds of skin at the sides of her face just the way the surgeon showed her to. Meanwhile, Laura, who has been trying to comprehend the vehemence of her mother's negative reaction (her mother has always thrived, personally and professionally, on emotional crises and normally welcomes them with open arms) hears the word 'wealthy' and all becomes clear.
'You're worried about your allowance, aren't you? The little arrangement you have with David. Do you think I don't know about that? Do you think he wouldn't tell me, his own wife, about that?'
'His own wife? What sort of an expression is this?' Lydia counters in disgust. 'Do you think maybe you might be somebody else's?'
'Shut up! Shut up! Don't change the subject! Tell me – isn’t that what you're worried about?'
'So do I shut up or do I tell you? I am confused.'
'I'm right, aren't I?' Laura is yelling now. She rarely yells. 'You honestly thought I knew nothing about that, didn't you. And how long has it been going on now, seven, maybe eight, nine years? A couple of thousand popping up in your account, as if by magic, every month. Do you think David wouldn't tell me?' (Actually David hadn't told Laura about this. He was worried she might find it humiliating to know that her mother could no longer support herself and had quietly gone ahead and set up the standing order without discussing it. Laura had only found out when she had gone though some of David's personal papers while he was away on a business trip in Brazil a few years back.)
Before Lydia can answer, David comes running back into the room. ‘What's wrong?’ he cries. ‘What's all the shouting about?' Mother and daughter stare at each other. Who's going to win this one? Laura has an idea but Lydia is too fast for her daughter. She stands up and faints, conveniently in the direction of the well-upholstered sofa.
'Oh my god,' David cries. 'What have you done to her? What have you said? Quickly - call Dr Aben!'
Lydia, who has a passion for surgeons but a violent dislike of doctors, starts groaning and attempting to prise open her eyelids under the weight of her false lashes.
'She's coming round! Thank god. Laura, go and prepare her some hot tea, with plenty of sugar, nice and sweet.'
'And a drop of whiskey, darling, just to help it go down,' Lydia croaks almost inaudibly.
David picks up his mother-in-law in his arms and carries her up to one of the many spare bedrooms. She seems to be in rather a state. She’s emitting low semi-sensual groans and unless it is David’s imagination going wild, her right hand which got trapped somewhere down near his groin when he picked her up from the sofa seems to be twitching and clutching at that part of him. It must be an involuntary reaction of the muscles to the stroke. Tenderly he lays her out on the bed. ‘Ah David, my love,’ she whispers but then she is probably delirious by this stage. She clasps a scrawny hand round the back of his neck and appears to be pulling his mouth down towards her. He understands: she wants to tell him something, make a confession, a last wish. David holds his ear to her mouth. ‘Kiss me, David,’ she croaks. So he does: a gentle, almost paternal kiss on his mother-in-law’s strangely clammy forehead. Once again, she cries out in something akin to pain. Sensing she needs rest and peace, David turns off the light and leaves the room.
‘Wait!’ Lydia cries, moments before he can make good his escape.
With sudden coherence she forces out the words: ‘I must tell you something, David, please, let me, before you go. Something you must know.’
Just when Laura thinks she has hated her mother with every ounce of energy available to her, something happens and she finds new reservoirs, entire new power stations of megawatts of animosity. Laura is angry as in read-to-exterminate anger. She careers into the kitchen, and is almost killed herself as she falls over the bucket of water into which Anouschka is nervously dipping her mop.
'Bloody hell! What a bloody stupid place to leave a bucket!' Laura cries.
Anouschka starts crying. 'But I do kitchen floor here. Where else I put it?'
'I don't bloody know!' Laura yells, side stepping the dribble of dirty water now making its way slowly but surely over the surface of the polished limestone floor. 'You're the bloody cleaner, you sort it out.' Laura slams on the bloody kettle for her bloody mother’s tea. She recognises that what she has just said is a bit much, even for her, but she knows enough from the scores of cleaners she has worked her way through over the years that one of the first rules of employing them is never to apologise. If you do, they get the upper hand, and then you're done for.
Laura starts scrabbling in a drawer, looking for her old address book with the name of the local florists who can do displays and have them delivered within the hour - she's unhappy with the flowers in the hall and wants a couple of new arrangements there for the drinks this evening. The drawer is full of rubbish; she wishes she'd transferred the number to her new address book, she wishes she'd stayed in touch with the woman