The Promise of Happiness
Louise McNeill arrives home to the idyllic Irish town of Ballyfergus, hoping that it will provide the sanctuary she desperately craves. Starting again with her three-year-old son Oli, Louise's heart is full of apprehension.
To make matters worse, Louise's sister Joanne seems far from happy as she watches Louise's little family blossom. But as Joanne grapples with her 'perfect' marriage, is everything as idyllic as it seems?
Meanwhile Louise's youngest sister Sian has decided she doesn't want children and wants to dedicate her life to ecological living with husband Andy. But is this a mask to disguise a bigger issue? And is Andy ready to sacrifice parenthood?
Join the McNeill family as they attempt to come together to provide the love and support that they all need whether they know it or not. Perfect for fans of Maeve Binchy and Cathy Kelly.
Nearly there, Oli! said Louise McNeill brightly to her three-year-old son, Oliver James.
Somewhere in the bowels of the ferry the engine growled and a shudder ran through the ship. Louise put her hand on her belly and her stomach lurched though not with nausea. Shed spent her youth sailing on these waters in the sheltered safety of Ballyfergus Lough or, sometimes, venturing out into the choppy waters of the Irish Sea and not once had she been seasick. And she wasnt pregnant. No, her nausea was caused by nerves. Louise took a deep breath, glanced at Oli and wondered panicked suddenly if she was doing the right thing by coming home.
Oli, restless, banged the fleshy pads of his palms against the sloping window, leaving smudges on it. Now, now, said Louise, fretting that he might pick up germs from the glass. Instinctively, she reached out and caught one of his hands in her own. Oli's olive skin tone came from his fathers side it certainly inherited from the pale, Celtic-skinned and fair-haired McNeills. She touched a dimple on the back of his hand with her thumb he was losing his baby fat rapidly, moving onto another stage of development.
Oli was a constant source of fascination to Louise every new word was an achievement, every task accomplishe'd a source of wonder. Each step along the long, slow road to independence seemed like a miracle. And it was a miracle rather he was a miracle. Her baby. Hers alone. The child she had thought she would never have. Love and pride swelled in equal measure, threatening to choke her.
Are we nearly there yet? said Oli, in the high-pitched monotone common among children of his age. Louise found listening to other peoples children grating, but never Oli. He let out a long sigh, having long ago lost interest in the view of the calm, glittering sea, pale blue sky and swooping gulls. Louise put her arm around his waist where he stood on the blue leatherette bench beside her. She pressed her face into the small of his back and inhaled, knowing that if they were ever separated she could recognise him by smell alone.
The boat swung slowly round on it's axis and hot July sunshine flooded through the glass. She squinted as the land mass of East Antrim, and the town of Ballyfergus, came slowly into view.
The town was just as Louise had remembered it. The shoreline was dominated by the big working port with it's hulking cranes and drab, pre-fabricated buildings. A docked P&O ferry discharged it's cargo, an endless stream of lollipop-coloured container lorries, onto the shimmering black asphalt of the quay. Further inland, arcs of slate-roofed white houses, none more than two-storeys high, inched up the hills like cake mixture on the side of a bowl. And beyond that the gentle rounded green hills.
Look, she said and pointed through the window. Thats Ballyfergus. Where Nana and Papa live. Thats where were going to live too. The idea of this, of bringing Oli home to his grandparents, to be amongst his own, filled her with pleasure. And the feeling of doing something right by her child momentarily displaced the gnawing doubt that she had failed him.
Where? Where are we going to live? persisted the child. His dark brows came together in a frown and he glared mistrustfully at the lush green hills overlooking Ballyfergus Lough, oblivious, it seemed, to the breathtaking beauty surrounding them.
There, said Louise pointing at the town, which had served as a port and gateway to the rest of the province for over one thousand years. She remembered that Oli had last visited when he was two and would not recall the trip. See those houses there. Not up on the hill. Down there. She pointed at the sprawling cluster of grey and brown buildings on the flat plain. They look really tiny, don't they?
Thats because were so far away. Were going to live in a house down there. She pointed roughly in the direction of the indoor swimming pool, a grey block of a building, which sat only metres from the shore.
With Nana and Papa?
No, Oli, said Louise and he plopped down suddenly onto his bottom. Just you and me. Like always, she added, careful to deliver this news in a neutral tone and eradicate any hint of disappointment or anxiety from her voice. She brushe'd his straight brown fringe, so different from her fine fair hair, off his forehead. He swatted her hand away absent-mindedly.
Why? said Oli.
Oh, said Louise, not expecting this question, not here, not now. Well, she said carefully and took a deep breath. Because your daddy doesn't live with us, does he? He lives in Scotland. But of course it might not always be just the two of us. One day Mummy might meet a nice man and
Suddenly, Oli slid onto the floor and disappeared under the table. Mischievous brown eyes, the same colour as her own, stared up at her. But why cant we live with Nana and Papa?
Louise put a hand over her heart and let out a silent sigh of relief. In her zeal to ensure Oli understood, she had yet again answered the question she thought Oli had asked, rather than the one he actually had. It was a fundamental pitfall she'd read about more than once in the library of parenting books that now lay in storage, boxed up in some Edinburgh warehouse.
Come on out of there, Oli, she said, pulling him gently out from under the table. You don't know whats on that floor.
Louise extracted a bottle of antibacterial gel from her bag. We cant live with Nana and Papa because they havent got enough room for us. Their house is very small.
But Oli was now more interested in the gel than pursuing this topic of conversation. Louise held his hand by the wrist and squeezed a translucent green blob onto the centre of his palm. Thisll kill all the nasty germs. Now, rub your hands together like this, she said, squirting some of the gel onto her own palm and rubbing her hands briskly together.
Oli held his hand inches from his face, stared at the gel and said, it's got bubbles in it, Mummy.
Yes, I know darling.
It just has.
He extended his hand towards her face, his chubby fingers spread like the fat arms of the starfish that Cameron, her former husband, had once fishe'd out of Tayvallich Bay on the west coast of Scotland. Together theyd knelt on the pebbly beach and wondered at it's pale lilac beauty, heads bent together like children. Oli smeared a blob of gel, wet and surprisingly cold, on Louises nose. She blinked, surprised, and he let out a squeal of delight.
She laughed then, coming back to the moment, to her perfect boy, and he said, I love you Mummy.
She swallowed, fought back the tears of joy. I love you too, my sweet angel. She beamed at him and added, Now, hurry up. It goes runny if you don't do it quickly.
Okay, Mummy. Oli slapped his hands together, sending splatters across the Formica table. He let out a cry and looked up at her, slightly shocked-looking, for reassurance.
Louise smiled. Thats it. Now rub them together, she said and Oli complied.
She loved the unquestioning trust her son placed in her. She was the epicentre of his world, his everything. And he was hers she craved his neediness and the fulfilment it gave her as a mother. And for the last three years no, from the moment of his conception he had been her obsession.
Her decision to relocate from Edinburgh to Ballyfergus had been taken entirely with Oli's welfare at the forefront of her mind. Though it was also true that, after many years in Edinburgh, she now primarily associated the city with disappointment and heartache. She had been glad to leave. Her only regret was leaving her best friend, Cindy, behind. But this, she told herself bravely, was a new chapter for her and Oli, though coming back to the town of her birth induced an odd feeling. It was a fresh start but it also felt like she was returning to an old, familiar life. A life she had carelessly left behind as an eighteen-year-old without so much as a backwards glance.
A voice over the tannoy told them to return to their car and Louise gathered up their possessions colouring books and crayons, books, snacks, a copy of Marie Claire magazine (an optimistic purchase from the shop on the ferry) and her mobile phone. She stuffed them into the stylish, capacious patent leather bag that had become her constant companion since Oli's birth. Not that she cared much for fashion not any more. She liked to look her best, of course, and she had not, like some other mums she knew, let herself go.
Louise descended the first lethal flight down to the car deck, gripping Oli's hand like a vice. Twice he slipped on the steep metal steps and she hauled him back to his feet. Her left shoulder ached with the weight of the bag and her heartbeat accelerated, her brow beaded with sweat. Her stomach flipped with nerves and excitement. She squeezed Oli's hand even tighter. He glanced up at her.
Watch where you're going, pet! she said, as his foot slipped again and he almost landed on his bottom on the ribbed metal floor at the foot of the stairs. Doors led off from this landing to the top level car deck.
A portly middle-aged man, a member of the ships crew, stood on the landing dressed in a short-sleeved pale blue shirt and navy polyester trousers with a perma-press crease down the front of each leg. Do you want a hand, love? he said, in the hard-edged, down-to-earth accent of North-East Antrim, and stepped forward with one hand outstretched. If you carry the wee man, I'll help with your bag.
No, thanks. I'm fine, bristled Louise automatically. She missed no opportunity to demonstrate to the world in general that she couldcope alone. I can manage.
The pleasant smile fell from the mans face. He said nothing more, stepped back and adopted his guard-like stance once again, hands behind his back, and nodded in a tight-lipped manner to the person behind Louise. Realising how rude she had sounded, Louise ducked her head and proceeded quickly to the top of the next flight of stairs, her face flaming with embarrassment.
She told herself she was tired and emotional. The drive across Scotland to the port of Cairnryan had taken the best part of four hours, including a stop for lunch. And she'd not slept well the night before, her sleep disturbed by dreams of Cameron. In the dream she was following him in a storm along a narrow cliff pathway on the southern side of the Firth of Forth a path they had once walked together in happier times. He wore a bright red jacket, his dark hair plastered to his scalp by the driving rain, his face dripping with water. It was high tide and she could hear the ferocious crash of waves on the treacherous rocks below. She stopped and called out to him that it was too dangerous, that they should turn back. And then, right at that moment, without any warning at all, the coastal path crumbled and Cameron plunged over the edge of the cliff, lost to her forever.
They had been divorced for three years she had not seen him in as long. Why was she still haunted by dreams of him? Perhaps it was understandable after living with someone for fifteen years you couldnt expunge all the memories of your life together from your consciousness. And she didn't want to. For some of the happiest times of her life had been spent with Cameron. She had given up so much in leaving him. It had taken such courage. And such bravery to build the independent life she now enjoyed.
Why was she thinking of him now, on this day? Annoyed with herself, she tossed her head, shaking off thoughts of him like raindrops, and brought her analysis to bear on the present.
There you go again, she mumbled under her breath as she and Oli picked their way carefully down the next flight of narrow metal steps into the gloomy bowels of the great ship, Pushing people away to prove your independence. She hadnt always been like this only since Oli. She wanted to run back up the steps and apologise to the man but it was too late. Instead she resolved to stop interpreting kindly offers of help as assaults on her independence.
Not long now, honey! she said, doing up Oli's seatbelt. She jumped into the drivers seat, clapped her hands together and rolled her shoulders in an attempt to ease some of the tension that had built up between her shoulder blades. She I'magined her parents, and her older sister Joanne and her three children, all squeezed into the modest home on Churchill Road watching and waiting eagerly for their arrival. It was going to be alright, she told herself.
Once she'd negotiated the tricky ferry ramp, she set off along Coastguard Road, the old route into Ballyfergus, avoiding the harbour bypass. She passed landmarks as familiar as the back of her hands.
Look, she cried, slowing the car down to a crawl, and staring out the passenger window at a nineteen-sixties concrete block fronted by a big, unimaginative rectangle of dusty tarmac. Thats where I went to school, Oli. Thats where you'll go to school too when you're a big boy. In the rear-view mirror she saw Oli straining for a better view, his eyes wide with curiosity.
A car behind tooted. She waved good-naturedly and accelerated away. And look, there's the fish and chip shop, she said, as they passed a cluster of small businesses on Upper Cross Street. But on closer inspection she saw that the fish and chip shop was gone, replaced by a plumbing suppliers. Oh, it's not there anymore. But look, there's the library. I used to go there every week with my Mum, and we will too, Oli. Would you like that? She kept up this bright trail of chatter, seeking out familiar, reassuring places and noticing changes too, changes that reminded her how Ballyfergus had moved on.
Then, at last, she turned into Churchill Road, where children played in the blazing sun just as she had done as a child. Her hands began to tremble and the perspiration on the palms of her hands made it difficult to grasp the steering wheel. She pulled up outside her parents semi-detached house and took a deep breath to calm herself. She smiled to reassure Oli, who was looking at her with his thumb stuck in his mouth, then cut the engine. She stepped out of the car into the sunshine and a warm westerly breeze rolling off the Sallagh Braes, a ring of dramatic rounded cliffs overlooking Ballyfergus. Today the hills were framed by a cloudless cobalt sky, the brilliant shades of green softened by a heat haze rising from the black tarmac.
Louise tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and remembered the first time she'd brought Cameron home and theyd parked in the very same spot. Hed been driving then he always did. Hed looked at the modest house and said, Is this it then? and she'd felt herself blush, embarrassed for the first time by her humble origins.
Cameron had been to Watsons, a private school in Edinburgh and studied English Literature at Edinburgh University. Although only a few years older than Louise he had lived in Paris for a year and spoke fluent French. He seemed so sophisticated and experienced. His worldliness contrasted with her sheltered, mundane upbringing. She realised she had so much to learn about everything and she was his willing pupil. The tone of their relationship was set from the outset. He was the leader, the decision maker she was the follower, happily compliant. She allowed him to educate her, coach her, mould her. She had told him once that she would follow him to the ends of the earth and she'd meant it.
And here she was all these years later, back it seemed, to where she had started.
Joanne ran out of the house and Louise jumped out of the car. They briefly embraced and cried, Look at you! in unison.
Joanne gave an I'mpression of girlishness despite her forty-five years with her tight-waisted, delicate frame and long wavy blonde locks. The illusion was further reinforced by a knee-length floral printed dress, flat ballerina pumps and a cropped cerise cotton cardigan.
Joannes olive-green eyes gleamed with emotion. Welcome home! she cried and they hugged again. Louise put her hand on Joannes back and was surprised to feel a hard and bony frame under the thin layers of clothing. She realised now how much weight her sister had lost.
It's good to be back, she choked, her eyes filling up.
And then the neat, small figure of their mother appeared at the doorway to the house, her hand raised feebly in greeting. And behind her was their dad, with his hand on their mothers right shoulder. Quite unexpectedly, and uncharacteristically, Louise couldnt control her tears.
Later, after theyd eaten a lasagne made by Joanne, and Oli was happily watching TV in the little room at the back of the house with his cousins, the women Louise, Joanne and their mother sat in the lounge, around the coffee table, chatting. Louises dad was in the kitchen with Frankie Cahoon, a neighbour from two doors down, drinking whiskey and talking about their days in the GEC factory. Louise looked down at the dainty china cup and saucer balanced precariously on her knee. It was her mothers best china a wedding present from her parents adorned with delicate red roses and rimmed in gold leaf. If only her cosmopolitan friends could see her now, thought Louise, with a deliciously wry sense of humour.
What are you smiling at? said Christine McNeill, pale blue eyes, the colour of washe'd denim, staring at her daughter from behind steel-rimmed glasses. At seventy-three, she had lost none of her perceptiveness. Her gnarled hands rested on the arms of an upright Parker Knoll chair.
Oh, I was just thinking how the house hasnt changed at all, said Louise, casting her gaze around the cluttered room. The big flowery paper pressed in on every side, so loud it almost screamed, and the nineteen-fifties walnut cabinet was stuffed to bursting with all manner of trinkets and old-fashioned ornaments.
Her mother followed her gaze and said, a little defensively, Well, I like it. I don't like all this modern design. Bare walls and hardly any furniture. I like a place to feel homely. Her nod was like a full stop at the end of a sentence. Now, would you like some tea? Without waiting for an answer she leant forward and gripped the handle of the china teapot with her right hand.
Why don't you let me began Joanne.
Ouch! cried her mother and she let go of the pot I'mmediately. It wobbled uncertainly for a few moments. A little spurt of brown liquid slopped onto the pristine tray cloth and spread like a bloodstain.
Did you burn yourself? cried Louise, already out of her seat and by her mothers side.
It's her arthritis, said Joanne flatly.
It's all right, said Christine, and she held her hand protectively to her chest. It'll pass in a minute.
Joanne sighed loudly. I wish you wouldnt do that. You know you cant lift heavy things.
Louise sat down again and Joanne poured the tea.
A teapot isnt heavy, said Christine, glaring at the pot, her lips pressed together in a thin line.
It's too heavy for you. You know that. Joanne sounded cross and harsh. She passed round the milk.
Joanne, said Louise warningly and glared at her sister.
What? Joannes eyes flashed defiantly. She set the milk jug down on the tray, avoiding eye contact.
Don't Louise lowered her voice. Don't talk to Mum like that.
Shes only got herself to blame.
What? For her arthritis?
No, of course not. But shes always doing things the doctors told her she mustn't.
Their mother blinked and said, as though she'd not heard this last exchange, it's so frustrating not being able to do all the things I used to take for granted. She looked at her hand, the thumb joint red and swollen, and suddenly Louise was struck by how much her mother had aged since she'd last seen her. Now that she looked more closely she noticed how grey her mothers hair had become and how lined her face was. Sitting perched on the chair she seemed shrunken somehow, as though she was slowly disappearing.
I know, Mum, said Joanne, her voice softening. But it's best not to try. You only end up hurting yourself.
Louise swallowed the shock like a dry, hard crust. Up until now she had clung to an I'mage of her mother as she had always been capable, reserved, self-effacing. The constant, steady backdrop to a happy childhood. Louise remembered sleeves rolled up on wash day revealing taut arms stronger than they appeared; slender pink hands, slimy with sudsy water, hauling clothes out of the twin tub, the water grey from previous washes. She remembered a slim, resolute woman who moved through her narrow life with purpose and busyness, ever watchful for extravagant waste and moral laxness.
She recalled the relentless, tight-fisted management of household finances so that there was always just enough money for Christmas and a week-long summer holiday in a grotty boarding house in Ballycastle. And the going without on her mothers part that this rigorous budgeting required.
Her mother shifted in her seat, and winced. She flexed the fingers on her right hand and looked at the deformed knuckles with a scowl on her face. The doctors put me on a new drug but he says it'll take weeks, months even, before I notice any difference. Maybe I need another one of those injections
I'm sorry, Mum, said Louise, feeling a sudden rush of compassion for her mother and a creeping sense of guilt. Balancing the cup and saucer on her knee, she reached over and patted her mothers knee. I'll be able to help out more now. Why hadnt Joanne, or Sian, warned her that her mothers health had deteriorated so?
Thinking of their younger sister, Louise said, Wheres Sian and Andy tonight?
Joanne replied, Oh, she and Andy had to go to some meeting about that eco-development at Loughanlea. Joanne fiddled with the tiny shell buttons on her cardigan, her small feet neatly tucked together under her knees. She seemed restless, on edge and she radiated what Louise could only describe as ill-will. As Chair of Friends of Ballyfergus Lough, Sian said it was really I'mportant that she was there for tonights meeting, she went on, and then added rather formally, She sends her apologies.
Thats okay. I'll see her tomorrow. Louise held her breath while her mother shakily lifted the cup to her lips, it's dainty handle sandwiched awkwardly between her forefinger and swollen thumb. She managed to take a sip and return the cup to it's place on the saucer without a spillage. Louise relaxed while Joanne, still on edge, let out air like steam.
She ought to have been here to welcome you. But you know Sian. Saving the world comes before her own family.
Oh, Joanne, said Louise, scolding gently, I'm sure she would've been here if she could. And I don't mind. it's better for Oli this way. Meeting too many people all at once would just overwhelm him.
Joanne raised her eyebrows and looked out the window, unconvinced. Louise, wanting to avoid further discord, ploughed on with a change of subject, Anyway, hows the redevelopment of the old quarry at Loughanlea coming on? It must be nearly finishe'd. The disused cement works, located just a few miles outside Ballyfergus on the western shore of the Lough, had blighted the landscape for over two hundred years. Four years ago ambitious plans for it's regeneration had finally received the green light from the authorities.
According to Sian, said Joanne, most of the major construction works completed. As well as the mountain bike centre, theyre building a scuba diving centre, a bird watching centre, a heritage railway centre and God knows what all else. And when it's finishe'd, the eco-village will have over four hundred homes. It'll cover the northern part of the peninsula. She was referring to a wing-shaped spit of land formed from basalt excavated from the quarry and dumped into the Lough.
And when's Sian and Andys house going to be ready?
September, I think. Theirs is going to be one of the first to be completed.
Louise nodded thoughtfully. Shed been so wrapped up in her own plans she'd almost forgotten that Sian was about to move home too, albeit not halfway across the UK.
Her mother tutted loudly, shook her head and set the cup and saucer down noisily on the table. I don't know what Sians thinking about, buying a house with a man shes not even married to. Don't get me wrong, your father and I are very fond of Andy. She folded her arms across her chest, But we don't approve of this living together business.
Louise rolled her eyes at Joanne who said, Everyone lives together before getting married nowadays, Mum.
You didn't, she snapped.
Joanne thought for a moment. Well, maybe I should have. You cant really know someone until you live with them.
And a fat lot of good it did me, said Louise, looking into her cup. She sighed, took a sip of tea and added, Mind you, I I'magine an eco-village, whatever that is, will be right up Sian and Andys street.
Oh, you should hear the two of them banging on about it, said Joanne, diving back into the conversation with sudden energy. they're like religious zealots. What they don't know about sustainable living isnt worth knowing.
They're always on at your dad and I to grow our own food, interjected her mother, nodding, and make compost out of our used tea bags. She snorted. I think they forget that your father and I are in our seventies.
Her mothers uncharacteristic ridicule took Louise slightly by surprise. Well, the whole project sounds very exciting, she said feebly, feeling a little guilty at her participation in the mean-spirited mockery, albeit gentle, of Sian and her fianc. And it's good that Sian and Andy are involved. You need passionate people to get something like that off the ground.
Joanne pulled the edges of her cardigan together. Hmm I'm just glad she found someone like Andy who shares her views, thats all. But she said it like she was affronted, rather than pleased.
Andys lovely, said Louise. He really is.
Her mother nodded. Yes, he is a decent fella. A pause. In spite of his ideas.
Well, said Louise, there's nothing wrong with being concerned about the environment.
Joanne snorted dismissively like Louise didn't know what she was talking about. She folded her legs and said, snippily, it's not what they do that bothers me. it's going round telling the rest of us how to live that grates. It drives Phil nuts.
Joanne had been married to handsome Phil Montgomery for fifteen years. A little flash of envy pricked Louise. She wishe'd she had a husband and everything that went with it the sharing of worry and responsibility, the freedom to have as many kids as they pleased, the security of two incomes, the social inclusion. But envy was a destructive emotion she tried to put these thoughts out of her mind.
Wait till Sian starts on you, said Joanne, raising her eyebrows and running the flat of her palm, down a smooth tanned leg. you'll know all about it then. She stood up suddenly, while Louise was still formulating a reply and slung her bag over her shoulder. Well, I suppose Id better take my lot home and give you a chance to get Oli to bed. Oh, how could I forget? The keys to your flat! She pulled a yellow plastic key fob from the bag and passed it to Louise. It was the best one I could find. Furnishe'd flats are a bit thin on the ground in Ballyfergus.
Thanks. Louise nodded, staring at the two shiny Yale keys, the passport to her new life, and rubbed one of them between her finger and thumb. You know it's really weird moving in somewhere I havent seen, even if it is only rented. The pictures on the internet looked nice.
I think you'll like it, said Joanne and frowned. Though it's not as big as you're used to.
I'm sure it'll be just fine. Thanks for sorting it out for me.
Nows the time to buy, you know, said Joanne, dusting something imaginary off the front of her cardigan.
And I will, said Louise, just as soon as I get my place in Edinburgh sold.
Are you moving in straightaway? said Mum.
Tomorrow. The removal vans due at eight-thirty but most of my stuffs staying in storage until I buy a place.
I'll meet you there at nine to give you a hand, said Joanne. Phil can look after the girls for a change! She laughed humourlessly, then marched purposefully out of the room. Moments later howls of protest echoed up the hall.
Her fathers voice bellowed from the kitchen, not sounding nearly as scary as he intended. Will you wee ans keep the noise down in there? Were trying to talk.
I'd better go and see what your dads up to, said her mother, hauling herself to a standing position and hobbling painfully out of the room.
Louise went and stood at the door to the TV room which seemed so much smaller than she remembered it. She slipped her hands into the back pocket of her jeans, and leant against the door frame. The two younger children seven-year-old Abbey and Oli were seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV. Abbey wore a grubby candy pink T-shirt and mismatched fuchsia-coloured shorts. She insisted on choosing her outfit's herself and it showed. Ten-year-old Holly, thin-faced, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, was draped over the sofa.
Maddy, womanly at fourteen, was perched on the arm of the sofa, texting furiously with the thumbs of both hands. She possessed a full chest, brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair streaked with blonde. She wore a short denim skirt over bare orange-brown legs and, even though it was summer and warm outside, a pair of fake Ugg boots. A fringed black and white Palestine scarf was draped around her neck a fashion, rather than a political, statement.
I said it's time to go, said Joanne, authoritatively. She picked up the remote, switched the TV off and threw the control on the sofa with some force. Instantly the air was thick with tension. Holly glanced at Maddy. Louise bit her lip, sensing a confrontation, afraid to watch, afraid to look away. Abbey leapt instantly to her feet, placed her hands on the place where she would one day have hips and stared at her mother, her face hard with anger.
Put it back on! I hadnt finishe'd watching, she demanded. Blonde hair, tied up in two pigtails, stuck out either side of her head. Her freckled cheeks were pink with indignation and her entire body shook with rage. Oli's cherubic mouth fell open in amazement.
The muscles on Joannes jaw flexed. I said it was time to go, Abbey.
But you don't understand. it's not finishe'd yet, Mum! wailed the child, arms held out to convey her frustration at her mothers ignorance.
Oli stood up, a toy car dangling from his right hand, his mouth still gaping open, utterly transfixed by his cousin.
Mum, there's only a few minutes left to go, ventured Maddy, looking up momentarily from her texting. Why don't you ...
Thats enough, snapped Joanne, pushing her hair back. I don't know why you lot cant just do what you're asked. Just once. Her voice rose to a shriek. Would that be too much to ask? I work my fingers to the bone for this family and I ask you to do one thing. One thing! And you cant do it.
Maddy sighed loudly and turned away, her features hidden by a curtain of hair. Joanne put her hands over her face, stood like that for a few moments and then removed them. You can finish watching the programme another day, Abbey, she said, her calm voice barely disguising hysteria. She gave Holly a poke in the leg with her finger. Now come on all of you. it's time to go. Oli needs to go to bed.
It's not even dark yet, said Holly huffily from her slouched position on the sofa, arms folded across her chest. Her skinny legs stretched out Bambi-like from beneath a flowered skirt.
Maddy looked up and said, Holly, can we just, like, go please?
But Abbey would not give up. it's not a DVD, Mum! she screeched. Don't you understand? it's on TV. I'll never, ever get to see it again. Youre you're She bubbled with rage. so stupid.
Don't you dare speak to me like that young lady! snapped Joanne, and she reached forward and swiped ineffectually at Abbeys legs the child, too quick for her mother, side-stepped nimbly out of harms way.
Louise bit her lip and winced. Oli ran over to her and peered out from behind her legs, no doubt keen to see, as Louise was, how this fracas would play it'self out.
Maddy groaned quietly, rolled her eyes at Louise and returned to her texting. Common wisdom dictated that an only child was harder work than a bigger family, the idea being that an only child, with no sibling to play with, always looked to the parents, or in Louises case parent, for entertainment. Louise wasnt so sure that the theory held. Shed never attempted to hit her child like Jaonne had just done. Louise wondered what was going on with her sister. She seemed to be on the verge of losing it.
Abbey looked about feverishly, spied the remote and dived for it, just as Holly scooped it off the couch and clutched it to her chest. Mum said the TV was to stay OFF, Abbey, she said sternly, and gave her sister a devilish smirk.
It had the desired effect. Abbey pounced on her sister screaming and both rolled on the couch wrestling with the device.
Mum, get her off me! yelled Holly. She pulled my hair.
Give me that, hollered Abbey, throwing her head back to reveal a face red with exertion and two missing front teeth. Give me that now!
Thats enough both of you! screamed Joanne, her eyes bulging with rage, her face puce.
Immediately the children went silent even Maddy paused in her texting and stared at their mother. Joanne closed her eyes and sliced the air horizontally with a slow cutting motion, like a conductor silencing the orchestra. She lowered her voice until it was full of menace and barely audible. I have had enough, she said, pronouncing each word like an elocution teacher.
Frankie Cahoon shouted a goodbye from the other end of the hall and the front door slammed.
Whats going on in here? came her fathers genial voice over Louises shoulder. He smelled of whiskey and aftershave. What remained of his hair was grey and short and his bald patch, browned by the sun, shone like a pOli'she'd bowling ball. His jaw was slack with age but