Auntie Pam is supposed to collect me from school but instead I see Mummy at the gates, smiling and waving at me. She’s wearing her red coat and she has on her pearl earrings, the ones daddy gave her when they got married. She’s promised to give them to me when I am eighteen. I can even wear them for special occasions before that, she says. When I get my ears pierced. I’m not allowed to have my ears pierced until I am ten. Only three and a half years to go!
Sometimes, when Julia, my cousin, comes to our house, Mummy lets us play with her jewellery box. We lay out all the rings and necklaces and pearls on her bedspread and play jewellery shop. We take turns being the shop assistant and the customer. I like being the customer best, because then I can try on everything.
Mummy bends to kiss me. Her face is cold. She has her gloves on, and she tells me to put my mittens on too, as it is a very cold day. She brings me to the car and straps me in my seat. From her bag she produces a box of Smarties and tells me I am allowed them, just this once, because I am a very good girl. I can hardly believe it. Smarties. Not just a tube. A whole box. ‘Do I have to share with Robert and Hugh?’ I ask her. ‘No, darling. Auntie Pam is giving them dinner this evening. They are going to sleep at her house too. Daddy’s away on business until next week, remember?’ She looks at me over her shoulder. ‘It’s just us to-day. Isn’t that nice?’ She drives through the town in the opposite direction to our house and pulls up outside a small bungalow. She goes to the front door and rings on the doorbell. Two dogs come rushing out and jump up at her. They are very friendly. Our dogs at home would bark at a stranger. She bends down and pats them.
A man comes out and waves at me. He is tall, with dark, curly brown hair reaching to his collar. He’s wearing a black jumper and looks what daddy would call untidy. It’s Mr. Weller, my brothers’ piano teacher! He comes to our house twice a week to give Robert and Hugh piano lessons. He’s been coming for a long time now. Robert is hoping to get into Oxford to study music next year; he’s a talented musician, Mr. Weller says. Robert says Mr. Weller is a pillock. Hugh calls him Fats Weller. It’s because he’s so thin, he explains.
Sometimes Mr. Weller has a glass of wine with Mummy in our drawing room after the lessons while they discuss my brothers’ progress. We have our dinner in the kitchen with Isobel, our housekeeper, while they are talking. Mummy wants me to learn the piano too, but I prefer to concentrate on becoming a ballet dancer. I go to Mrs. Mumford’s ballet class every Saturday. Mummy thinks I should be a singer when I grow up, like she used to be before she had us. But I would rather be a ballet dancer. Or a vet. Daddy might buy me a pony for my birthday next year. But I must be very good, he says.
Mummy runs back to the car and tells me to sit quietly and eat my Smarties. I am not, under any circumstances, to get out of the car. She turns on the car radio and blows me a kiss. She wants to talk to Mr. Weller about Robert and Hugh’s music exams, she says. She will be out in a minute. I’m listening to some pillock on the radio going on and on about miners being trapped in America or somewhere when she comes out and gets into the car. I’ve eaten almost all the Smarties and I’m thirsty.
‘Put on a CD, Mummy,’ I yell. ‘That pillock is so boring, and I’m really thirsty. Are we going home now?’
She backs out of the drive and waves at Mr. Weller. He stands at the door, his hands crossed over his chest, as if he has a pain in his heart.
‘You mustn’t say pillock, darling, it’s not polite. I’ll get you a drink when I pick up some petrol.’ She puts a CD in the player. ‘Let’s have Paolo Nuttini. You like him, don’t you?’ We listen to the Paolo CD twice before we stop for petrol. Then she takes me into a restaurant, where we have pizza and salad, just the two of us. Then I have some raspberry ice cream. She lets me have a diet coke! She has a glass of wine. Afterwards she takes me to the Ladies and tells me to brush my teeth with a toothbrush she buys from a little machine. In the mirror I see her face all pink and gleaming. She looks happy, but a bit serious too. She smiles at me in the mirror. ‘What an adventure, eh?’ she says. We go outside and she puts me in my car seat again. From the boot she takes out a blanket and wraps it around me. She gives me Rabbit, my favourite cuddly bedtime toy. I got her when I was a baby; my very first present from Mummy. Passing her silky ears under my nose always makes me feel cosy and sleepy. ‘Snuggle down now, darling,’ she says. ‘Think happy thoughts.’ Her phone rings. She scrabbles for it in her bag, looks at it, but doesn’t answer. She pulls out into the traffic. From the back I see her take a road marked To the South.
The next thing I know, Mummy is shaking me awake. We have pulled up outside a hotel. ‘Wake up, sweetie,’ Mummy says. ‘We’re going to sleep here for the rest of the night.’ She takes a small suitcase out of the boot of the car. She talks to a man behind a desk, and then we go up the stairs. The room is very small, but Mummy says not to fuss about it as we won’t be here long. She puts me in my pyjamas and tucks me in the big bed with Rabbit. ‘Get some sleep now, darling,’ she says. ‘We have to be up early in the morning.’ The bed is soft and warm. Mummy lies next to me and strokes my hair. She tells me to think happy thoughts. ‘Everything is going to be all right darling,’ she says. ‘It will be wonderful, I promise you.’ I can hear the smile in her voice when she says that. I close my eyes and think happy thoughts. I imagine myself on the stage, dancing in my pink tutu, twirling and bowing, like Angelina Ballerina. I’m wearing Mummy’s pearl earrings, and her gold bracelet, and her very best diamond ring, the one daddy gave her when she had me, when she was forty.
When I wake up, I see Mr. Weller coming out of the bathroom, with a towel wrapped around his waist. I want to ask him what he is doing here, but decide it’s best to say nothing as I would get into trouble for not being polite. It is very important to be polite at all times, daddy tells my brothers and me. He is always telling us that. Having good manners is a sign of breeding, he says. Mr. Weller has lots of hair on his chest. His legs and arms are hairy too. I think Robert is right; he is a pillock. He smiles at me and says good morning. I don’t say anything. I hide Rabbit under the duvet. I don’t want him to see her. Mummy comes out of the bathroom. She has a towel around her too. It’s a big white one. She tells me to hop out of bed and get washed and dressed quickly, as we must leave soon. First though, we have to have a good breakfast. We’re going to need it, she says. She seems very cheerful. ‘Where are we going?’ I ask. ‘You’ll see,’ she says. I ask if Mr. Weller is coming with us, and she says yes, but that I can call him Vincent now, or Vince, if I like. She smiles at him. He puts his hairy arms around her and they kiss. My throat feels as if someone is choking me. ‘I think I’d like to go home,’ I say, as politely as I can. Mummy scoops me up out of the bed and hugs me and kisses me and calls me pussens and tells me she loves me and not to worry, that everything is going to be all right. ‘I promise you,’ she whispers in my ear, ‘it will be fine. You’re my best little girl in the whole wide world.’ I wrap my legs around her waist and bury my head in her neck. It is still damp from her shower. She feels so soft and warm. She smells lovely. She puts me down and leans over me, holding my face between her hands. She wipes away the tears I have been trying to keep in my eyes. I notice she doesn’t have her rings on. ‘Come on, darling,’ she says. She straightens up and smiles at me, and then at Mr. Weller. She puts on her cowboy voice. ‘Let’s git goin’, pardner.’ Mr. Weller looks as if he might hug me with his hairy arms, but before he does, I scoot into the bathroom and close the door.
We speed down a huge road, with thousands of cars and lorries trundling past. We drive past fields, but they seem flatter, and greener than the ones at home. Mummy is driving. She and Mr. Weller are singing along to a CD. I know it’s opera, because Mummy often plays opera CDs at home and every year we have a concert at our house and all the important people in the town come. She wears a beautiful long dress and she sings opera songs. Last year was the first time Mr. Weller accompanied her on the piano. After Mummy sings, Robert and Hugh usually play and then they have a buffet supper in the dining room. I have to go to bed then. When I am older I will be allowed to stay up and have supper with the grownups. Now they are singing something I’ve heard before, but I’m not sure what it is. ‘What’s that you’re singing, Mummy?’ I yell. She turns the volume down and looks at me in the rear mirror. Her eyes are all crinkly and smiling. ‘It’s the love duet from Act I of Madame Butterfly, darling,’ she says. She turns to Mr. Weller. He takes her hand and kisses it. ‘But in our case,’ she says to him, ‘I’m the baby snatcher.’ They laugh their heads off at that. Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha! I ask her what a baby snatcher is but she says she’ll explain later. ‘When I was young I used to sing this,’ she tells me over her shoulder. I didn’t quite make it to La Scala, or even the English National Opera, but maybe I could have if I’d not given up so easily. When I had Robert, your father insisted I stay at home. And then Hugh came along two years later, and I just gave up.’ ‘You had to wait a long time after that before you had me, didn’t you Mummy?’ ‘I certainly did, but you were the most wonderful surprise, sweetie.’ She smiles at me in the mirror. They start singing again. It is beautiful. Perhaps I might be an opera singer after all. I’ll speak to daddy about it when we go home. If I promise to be the politest and best girl in the whole world he might buy me a pony and pay for singing lessons for my birthday.
The next thing I know Mummy is shouting at me to wake up. We are in London. She claps her hands and says hurray! Mr. Weller is driving now. He was born here, Mummy tells me, and knows his way around. We cross over a bridge. Underneath, the river is wide and brown and the buildings are huge. He pulls up outside a jewellery shop and Mummy and I get out. She takes a bag out of the boot and Mr. Weller drives off. I’m glad to see the back of him. Pillock. ‘Vincent is just parking the car,’ Mummy says, and then he’s going to buy some new mobile phones. He’ll meet us for lunch later.’
We go into the shop. It is full of glittering rings and necklaces and bracelets and jewels. The shop is so sparkly it hurts my eyes. I must remember it all and tell Julia about it when I go home. She would love it here.
Mummy asks to speak to the manager and they show her into a room. She shakes hands with a man and sits at a desk opposite him. I sit at a little table nearby. Mummy gives me a colouring book and some pens and then she goes back to the man. She takes her jewellery box out of the bag she brought from the car. From their little compartments she takes out her rings and her pearls and her bracelets and her necklaces and lays them on the table. The man looks at them through an eye-glass. They lean their heads together and talk quietly for a long time. I tell Mummy I need the bathroom and the man asks a lady from the room next door to take me.
She helps me to wash my hands after and then she brings me into a little kitchen and gives me a biscuit and a glass of orange juice. I say thank you very much. She says I’m a very polite little girl.
When I get back the man and Mummy are shaking hands. Mummy is smiling. When she gets outside the shop, she does a little skip. She’s not wearing her earrings. She doesn’t have her jewellery box! I grab her arm and scream at her that she’s forgotten it but she says not to worry about that now, she’ll explain everything later. First, we have to meet Vincent. She holds my hand tightly and we hurry towards the restaurant.
I have a sick feeling in my stomach. I need the loo again.
In the restaurant Mummy tells me I can have anything I like to eat. She calls the waiter over and orders champagne. I’m not hungry. She puts on some very red lipstick. She is smiling a lot and looking at the door all the time. Mr. Weller comes in. He looks as if he owns the world. They kiss each other for a long time, like they do in soppy films. My throat feels as if someone is choking me again. ‘I’ve got the mobile phones,’ he says. ‘They’re in Faisal’s now, being charged.’ ‘Does he have a cash buyer for the car?’ ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ he says. They laugh their heads off again. Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha! ‘How did you get on at the jewellers?’ ‘Have a look at that.’ She passes him a piece of paper. ‘Bank draft.’ Mr. Weller’s eyes open wide. ‘Jesus,’ he says, ‘Jesus.’ I don’t think he’s very polite, swearing like that. ‘AND I’ve got that money I’ve been salting away,’ she says. The waiter comes with the champagne. He pours it out and they have a big drink and laugh and kiss each other again. They pour a little champagne into my glass. I taste it. It’s horrible. I look at Mummy. Her eyes are glittery with tears but she is smiling. Around her mouth I can see lines where her lipstick has got a bit stuck. Mr. Weller doesn’t have any lines on his face at all. I stare at my mother and then at him. No, no lines at all. Pillock.
We are to sleep at Faisal’s house to-night. I want to get into Mummy’s bed, but she tells me I must sleep on my own. She sits on my bed and kisses me, and strokes my hair. She tells me that to-morrow we are going to a country where the sun shines all the time. It will be lovely to get away from this cold weather, she says. ‘Which country?’ I ask, but she says to wait and see. It’s a surprise. She has the tickets in her bag. For her and me and Mr. Weller. ‘Will Mr. Weller’s dogs be coming too?’ She laughs and says no. His friend is looking after them. ‘What about our dogs?’ ‘Robert and Hugh will look after them.’ ‘Will Robert and Hugh come later?’ She hopes they will. After they have finished their exams, perhaps. ‘But what about Daddy?’ I ask. She kisses me again and tucks me in. ‘He’ll be all right,’ she says. ‘He won’t miss us. He has his work. The boys will keep him company and Isobel will cook for him. Close your eyes now, darling,’ she tells me. ‘Think happy thoughts.’ She goes out, but leaves the door open a little so I can see the light in the hall. I snuggle Rabbit very tightly. Her ears are good for catching the tears that leak from my eyes. I hear them laughing downstairs. I try to think happy thoughts. I imagine I am Angelina Ballerina in my pink tutu, dancing and twirling. I feel myself leap gracefully upwards. I float through the fluffy clouds to a land where the sun always shines. Far below, like vanishing pictures in my colouring book, I spy my daddy, my brothers, the dogs.
Madeline Parsons has been writing seriously for about eighteen months now that she has more time since retiring from full time work. She is currently working towards compiling a collection of her short stories with a view to approaching an agent in the near future. She is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but has lived in the UK for a long time.