I think I must be entering my second childhood. I always thought this meant going back to childish ways; dribbling your food, banging cutlery on the table. Wetting your pants. But at the grand old age of 52 (believe me it doesn’t seem like much from where I’m sitting) I’m missing the wild part of me that I spent years trying to forget.

I’m never going to go bra-less under a tight tee-shirt again but I may start wearing clothing with statements emblazoned across my chest. My sister has bought me many over the years and I regret I didn’t have the confidence to wear WONDER WOMAN out and about. I wore it for exercise and knocking around the house. It was my nick-name for a while in my London days.

Today I wore my REVOLUTION a la Russell Brand tee-shirt to pick up a prescription from the chemists. A silver haired man engaged me in conversation. It felt good and safe that he wanted to know all about revolution and not just to stare at my ‘charlies’. I may dig out that PARIS IS A STATE OF MIND I’ve always felt too awkward to wear. Just because I’ve never visited said city, but I do have plans to. So there.

I asked my husband for a leather biker jacket for my birthday. Of course I had one, back in the day. With a leather fringe which went out of fashion too soon. I wore it to the Anti-Heroin festival in Crystal Palace, and on the back of BSA’s, Triumph’s and Suzuki’s. Holding on to long haired boys while my own waist-length mane twirled into knots in the wind.

Thinking about it I used to wear a lot of statement tee-shirts – the one with tyre marks that I wore to Stonehenge Free Festival. And the rather scary graveyard one that I leant to my cousin and never saw again.

I wore stockings of every colour and print, coupled with mini-skirts before they came back in fashion. If I had been born later I would have worn them with shorts but I stopped wearing shorts ten years ago. I donned ripped jeans because I’d climbed mountains in them, gate crashed parties by crawling under fences with an opened bottle of French red in one hand. I’d earned those rips. The store-bought, ready-made torn jeans of today wouldn’t suit me. It’s been a long time since my ‘scotch eggs’ (rhyming slang) were skinny.

A couple of years ago I started buying scarves (which I hadn’t previously got the hang of – what to do with them?). Not just to hide my ageing neck, they suddenly seemed like a good idea. And I love them still but I want to wear them with my Connies and my kick-arse second childhood threads. I’ve discussed dyeing my hair purple (once the grey arrives) with the husband. He’s not sure but I want to be Helena Bonham-Carter not Jackie O. There’s life in the pre-menopausal, temperature-challenged, slightly moody old cow yet.

Christmastime, oh Christmastime

Christmastime and the past festive times are snugly bedfellows. As parents we try to bring, or avoid, our Dickensian ghosts of Christmas past. The husband lived in a huge house and the family Christmas tree was tall enough to reach two floors – the living area had a galley that ran around the top. High enough for many a childhood accident, and to put the angel on top of the tree I suppose.

Christmas Day involved three trips to church and presents were given out by Pop after the Queen’s Speech by the warmth of the fireside.

Meanwhile in the shires, our new build (updated every year or so) was without a fireplace. Father Christmas was clever enough to dump a Santa sack filled with toys at the end of our beds. Presents from family and friends were neatly wrapped, but for some reason (economics and time probably) my practical Dad decided not to wrap the gifts from him and Mum. There were a lot of them and this decision made access easy, after midnight when the man in red left the house. Shouts and the turning on of lights regularly disturbed the remaining night until dawn arrived and we all gave up.

Our tree was made of plastic, and green and silver tinsel. It was placed on a table to give it stature. Dates and nuts gathered round its red plastic pot.

No Queen’s speech for us. Top of the Pops was king. Waiting to hear who’d made the top slot in the charts before lunch. Slade and Wizard dancing energetically on a tiny stage. Looking back at the disc jockeys who presented it our 70’s childhoods has a dark side now.

In the present, no pun intended, we have our traditions on the other side of the globe. Stockings on the mantelpiece after dark on Christmas Eve. Gaudy tinsel blowing in Queensland’s humid breeze. The real tree I insist on, although huge, not as big as the husband’s childhood one, the bigger presents jostle for space under it. It took me and the kids years to talk the husband into opening the presents earlier in the day. Especially since the Queen’s Speech isn’t shown until bedtime.

We have Christmas pop songs playing from late November, our family lunch out, our Boxing Day cinema date. And on Christmas Eve I’m massaging butter under the skin of the turkey, muttering under my breath and listening to shouts of joy coming from the pool.  Even the dog’s in there.

Christmas morning I’m cooking a lunch which really belongs in the Northern Hemisphere. We play board games after lunch but now the boys are almost grown. Son no.1 has a girlfriend and they will make their own traditions. I remember the husband, when he was just the boyfriend, and our Christmas Eve tradition of cheese fondue and Drop Dead Fred on the telly. I implore my kids to spend at least one future Christmas in the colder climes. There’s nothing quite like it.


This morning, the last day of January, two thirds into summer I looked up and noticed the light streaming through the trees into our home. Why had I not noticed this before? Why had I not visited the beach? (Dot-to-dot patterns of tiny moles and freckles might have had something to do with it.) Why was I smiling again?

The temperature at 9.00am was below mid 20’s. The needle hadn’t pointed to 30 at eight in the morning. I can choose to take a dip in the pool – my life doesn’t depend on it. I won’t have to spend the day in wet soggy swimmers in order to get my chores done. I am free.

Every summer seems to get hotter as I let the flame of menopause lick my boiling head.  We live in the hinterland, miles from sea breezes. Our house is nestled in a small valley. Our cottage is full of holes – all the better for snakes to get in but without basic insulation. “We can’t put in a air-conditioner. It won’t work unless everything is sealed,” the husband says. I’ll seal him if he doesn’t watch it.

Pool dips, cold water splashes. Sitting under fans. Mild heatstroke which had me peering into a bucket expecting a vegetarian panini to resurface.

I have an arsenal of cooling devices for bedtime. Ceiling fan, two pedestal fans strapped to the foot rest of our bed. A very loud machine with an internal fan. We filled it with ice and water and directed its flow to be swept up by the two aforementioned fans. Before bed I had a total immersion shower and headed upstairs with an ice bucket. I soaked a sarong in the water and draped it over my poor hot body. Soaked a small towel and placed it over my middle-aged glow-in-the-dark neck. The whole operation took about half an hour. I laid awake wondering how the husband had talked me into moving to Queensland.

We missed our lovely trip to New Zealand, cool breezes and cold oceans, because the husband broke his leg, had four operations and complications just before Christmas. He asked the doctor if air travel was possible. He mouthed the words DEATH and TRAP.

It’s getting worse for me every year but this year the husband kissed my beetroot coloured head before he went off to sleep, muttering something about research. Air-conditioner. Next year. I think I heard.

February please be kind. And hopefully next summer I’ll drift off to sleep in a polar blast of icy air, and my face will no longer be heart attack purple.





I’m a rugby mum. I have two strapping teenage boys who charge the field; tackling, going hard, ripping the pill, fending and running fast.

But I’m a nerd, a book worm. Was always last to be picked in sports. I remember the shame as my back prickled with horror as it rubbed against the fence while I made myself as small as possible. Skinny and pale from lack of sun. My two don’t get their sporting genes from me.

From February to September I drive my boys to training. I’m there at the school gates, kit bags packed, snacks at the ready. My youngest and my eldest, a friend or two, pile in. I drive a round trip of an hour and a half to get them there. And back home again. The car less fragrant after training. Rugby socks and sweaty armpits, the scent of them clog my nostrils.

Games on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. The jersey wash. Rep rugby runs simultaneously with the club season. Weekend tournaments on the Gold Coast, driving to Kempsey. Scary motel rooms.

During the season I see myself as supportive mummy. A woman of integrity and grace. Chatting to parents on the sidelines. Clapping politely when either team score. I am a pacifist. I wear a half-smile. I’m a woman of substance.

Until the Grand Finals.

I turn into a lunatic. I scream, I shout, I bellow. I punch the air aggressively. Blood runs steaming hot through my body. I jump up and catcall while everyone else remains seated. But I can’t stop.

And I cry. Sob even. My youngest, the captain, giving a speech. A speech he is teased for by his mates. The low voice-breaking wobble. Forgetting to thank everyone. To me he’s Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill. Bono.

I bawl my eyes out win or lose. Then comes the realisation that I’m free. I don’t have to live in my car for the next five months. Six layers of clothes in the foot well, three changes of shoes. I can be home before dark. Have time to cook.

But first comes the post-rugby season blues. That rugby shaped hole at my centre. I try to reconcile graceful mummy with the crazy witch from the weekend.

“You’re very aggressive, Mum.” My eldest tells me. My bottom lip wobbles. He smiles. “But in a good way.”

At Seventeen

I’m of a certain age. I’ve started admiring gardens, forgetting vital ingredients in a dish. I’m also more fearless, confident and bold. I only worry for a few hours that I might have offended a person I like. At one time the angst would have ridden me for weeks. Years even.

At 17 I was young and thin. I hardly ate a thing. I lacked energy because of it. I was fearful about the smallest things. I left school in bewilderment. There was a lot of unemployment in 1982 (thanks a bunch Maggie!) and few people secured their first position easily. Jobs were offered where you knew someone.

I wanted to become a writer but sought employment typing out other people’s words. My Dad was a big one for safe. Safe employment; in a bank (no pun intended), an established firm. Start at the bottom and crawl your way up. I begged him to send me to art school but no daughter of his was going to wander around in a duffle coat with a portfolio gripped under one armpit. I should seek a husband who could support me. I’ve never had huge material needs. Scruffy second hand paperbacks and black eyeliner would suffice. Same now as then. Except I wear navy eyeliner – it makes me look less tired.

My politics are the same, leaning as far to the left without falling over. I was a feminist too in a world where if you were pinched on the bum you were supposed to be grateful. But all these yearnings and leanings were kept buried inside. I didn’t speak of them. I hardly spoke at all. I wasn’t equipped to shout out, to give my opinion. Unless it was to complain. Of the cold, of hunger (self-induced) of tiredness and boredom.  I didn’t really know who I was, where I was heading. I got that safe job in local government. Hung round a bunch of long hairs with motorbikes. Married young to a boy even more scared and confused than me. I was dragged along from 17 to 21 in a murky sea, hardly buoyed, with a slow moving current.

All the pieces were there but I didn’t have the courage to believe in them. It all worked out in the end but I didn’t discover true happiness until my thirties. Perhaps it’s the same for everyone. Perhaps not.

My eldest son is about to turn 17 in a matter of days. He wants to play rugby for his country, he has a dream. He doesn’t want to incur a university debt, he’s sensible. He’s strong but I see in him something of the girl with a light footprint, me at his age. He’s a terrible procrastinator. I still am. But he won’t bend to anyone else’s will. He knows he doesn’t want to work in an office. He’ll probably be self-employed as he doesn’t like being told what to do, something his teachers could testify to. His health is important. He eats well, looks after himself.

He says he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend. Between rugby and the gym, his Year 12 work. I used to cling to my boyfriends; channelling myself through their bravery. Or lack of it. My son stands firm. He picks us up on any injustices. He doesn’t like gossiping. He’s a better person.

I can’t call him mine for much longer. He’ll go into the world. And when he visits me I’ll try not to cling, as my mother did with me. Joy and melancholy wrap around each other, threads in a strand. Life moves on. Sometimes quick, sometimes slow. It will go. It frightens me but still I’m glad. It’s the order of things.


Into the New, Out of the Old

In 1982 I experienced the best year I have had since birth. I have now had even better years, but in 1982 I had no idea this would be so. I fell in love, I finished school, I did a spot of child minding in a time of great unemployment in the UK; thanks Maggie. I started a better job in a very posh building that smelt of beeswax and ended the year with a kiss from the love of my, then, short life.

It is one year that is preserved in aspic. Untouched by the terrible and not so terrible things that would follow. I knew, in 1982, with a clarity and surety that I had never felt, before or after, how my life was going to turn out.

I was going to live in a farmhouse, built in times past, in the green of the English countryside, with my husband and five children. Victoria, Louise, Charlotte, and two boys whose names I wasn’t really that interested in. Something fun and manly at the same time I suppose. I would have a wonderful kitchen in oak and bake Women’s Institute style dishes and cakes. I would pause from this industry on occasion to look upon the green fields, either in the bloom of spring or covered in frost. Nell Gwyn-cum-Martha Stewart. Who knew then the latter would end up in prison.

It all went tits up the following year. I can’t say I’ve ever seen the future so clearly since. I was obviously pretty crap at fortune telling.

My 17 year old self would be surprised that I would marry, divorce, and marry again with a bit more forethought. Move to the other side of the world, have two boys (with actual names), and a mad dog called Bolly. Suffer a mental illness and not discover a talent for cake making. My house is tumbledown – full of half mended appliances and small holes. Spiders and a refusal to stay clean. The kitchen is made of cheap pine I painted in lime green, purple and pillar-box red.

My sons were both born in April, as was the husband. I spend that month – the month of the cursing and butter smears – in my shabby-shabby (it’s not chic at all) kitchen trying to produce light sponge cakes without dips in the middle. It’s intense.

My home is surrounded by 12 acres of green grass and gum trees. I follow my dream of writing. I’ve given up my dreams of perfectionism. I’m happy. As I write, I realise that actually my life does bear a resemblance to the vision of my teenage self. An untidier, less controlled, less perfect version. Perhaps I should dig out that scarf and big earrings.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I know how differently things turn out. We can’t really control the future. Be kind. Be hopelessly optimistic. Don’t give yourself a list of goals you know you cannot hope to achieve. The gym surges with unexpected membership in January, a large proportion of whom will not be hogging the shoulder press by March.

Have an imperfectly messy Happy New Year.


Mostly Normal

Where does the line between madness and plain old eccentricity lie? Is it in the lines that mark my smiling mouth? The smouldering coals of my eyes. Where madness sits.

And the rages. Boil and trouble.  Most people cool off after them, mine stay. Seep into my body. Build up over weeks, sometimes months. Gather; in my gut, my steely blood, my nerve endings.

I can stop it, stem the tide if I notice the taste of metal in my mouth. Or a rage that storms from a standing start. I scream like a hag, run to shake it off. To the highest hill or to the bedroom upstairs, where I sit, still boiling, at how other people are wrong. How I’m sane and they’re mad.

I take deep breaths. House, and its people are silent. My family hold their breath. On which half will I land? Once I would have taken the car, or run away. Told strangers about the hell my life is. When it isn’t.  At all. If I swallow it down, keep the madness in my body, I go from mania, slipping into psychosis. No focus. Brain re-arranged and put back wrong. I need chemicals to put it back right. The legal sort.

I know what side my bread is buttered. I breathe and breathe. Grip onto the mattress, or grab handfuls of grass viciously. Until the craziness subsides, until it goes away. Shouts, demands, the whispers. Backing quietly from the space.

My friends know calm me, serene me. Only a few have seen me bouncing off the walls. Like a user of elicit drugs, who doesn’t. Use that is.

There’s little eccentricity in madness. Nor madness in eccentricity. There is no solid black line either. It’s smudgy. Ragged even. The colours don’t quite fit the shapes.

Most of the time I’m normal. I am.


It’s book character dress-up day in school today. My sons haven’t entered into the spirit of it. I am quite sure that son no.2 didn’t mention it deliberately. The last few years I suggested that he should wear one of grandma’s home knits, sew an ‘R’ on the front and go as Ron Weasley. I even offered to buy an orange wig from a dollar shop. He wasn’t keen.

Son no.1 mentioned this morning that one of his more clever friends was going as Arthur Dent. Pyjamas and a dressing gown. Wearing slippers and I hope, not forgetting his towel. It helps with hitchhiking onto to alien space craft’s.

Oh how I wish I could go to school and play book character dress-ups. A young (but over-sized) Hermione. I have her hair in the first year down to a tee. And it’s naturally like that. Or or or. I could go as Aunt Fanny in the Famous Five series. Kind, stoic and always patient with Uncle Quentin. What about Mrs Twit? I could have lots of fun with that. And I wouldn’t need to brush my hair. There’s always Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine. I sometimes sound like her in the mornings, trying to get two teenage boys into my very small car.

I have been an obsessed reader since the age of six when I found my mum’s Famous Five collection on the bookshelf. I went from Blyton to Lewis Carrol. Alice in Wonderland, through the looking glass. Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Through the Glass Elevator. Judy Blume, until I finally fell completely bonkers in love with Douglas Adams.

I’ve taken my children on a similar journey. I read to son no.1 when he was in his cot. Alice.  Later to both my sons. The Famous Five. About children who escape their parents and have adventures. Julian, Dick and Anne’s parents were shadowy figures in the background. We don’t know much of Alice’s – although her sister gets a mention.

The first Dahl I read them was The Twits. Apparently written by Dahl to do something about beards. He hated them. Mr Twit had a terrible beard, full of food eaten and hardened in its ghastliness. The awful couple were paid-back when their mistreated monkeys and a roly-poly bird used Mr Twits own glue to stick the Twit’s furniture to the ceiling. Making the dreadful couple think that they were living in an upside down world. Brilliant. I was fifteen when this book came out and didn’t actually read it until I read it to my eager sons. As a child I often wished the world was upside down and spent hours staring at ceilings and imagining it. That’s perfectly normal, isn’t it?

Then came Harry Potter. And the last series I read to them: The trilogy (there were in fact four books) of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some people have a blanket as a comforter when times are confusing and upsetting. Some a soft toy. The first book in the series – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy –  was my comfort book. I have been known to wander around clutching it.

Sometimes when someone says ‘I don’t read’, I visibly shudder.

We can read fiction set in time and place. We can travel there and immerse ourselves in the culture and history of anywhere, in any time. Just by reading. It’s a kind of magic.

PS I apologise for any typos. My proof-reader (husband) is out.


I am the eldest of four. I think I am a nice older sister. Kind and patient. Of course it does help that I live a very long way from my siblings. Perhaps if I lived nearer I would be bossy and controlling. Wanting things my own way.  The eldest is supposed to be nurturing of the youngest, perhaps copying the parent when they are told what to do.

Nurturing, ha! Try telling that to the four year old sister I left at school. I was supposed to walk her home from school for lunch. I completely forgot. My head stuck up in a cloud where I imagined I was an only child, bouncing on a sparkly space-hopper. A cross mum and a very tearful little girl stuck a pin in my fantasy. Still, they went on to trust me. I wouldn’t have.

I remember her being born (I’m not naming names to protect the innocent). An aunt turned up with a present for the baby, but not for me. What was she thinking? I was two and half at the time and I still remember the indignation. Perhaps I should have had therapy.

The next few years I spent passive-aggressively getting my own back. Mostly with a crude punch, followed by her screams, then my punishment. Not subtle enough hey? I can remember breaking tiles in the bathroom and leaving a note saying my sister had done it. Complete with her signature. I was five, she two and half. Do you see the flaw in my plan? Yep. She couldn’t write.

I could be very cunning too. I once dragged my sister, who annoyingly had gleaming blonde hair (mine was mousey and unmanageable – still is), into our parents’ bedroom, a space we weren’t allowed in. I took out one of mum’s lipsticks and spread it all over her face. ‘Hold this’, I said offering her the tube with a wicked grin. She complied trustingly, albeit with watery eyes and a wobbly bottom lip. I ran from the room at speed, shouting at the top of my voice. “Muuuuum!! You’ll never guess what she’s done now?”

I didn’t get away with that either. I almost despaired.

My sister got the brunt of my horribleness. I started to think there might be something wrong with me.

My brothers weren’t spared. I remember tricking one to climb into a blanket box (hide and seek don’t you know?), coercing the other two to sit on the lid with me. Pretending we couldn’t hear the poor love’s screams. Or the time I pretended to phone a man to take away the younger child as he was not doing what I told him. I curdle with shame. This brother has a good memory – I’m sure he could come up many other awful things I did.

I grew out of this behaviour. Honestly. But not before one summer evening when I decided that the television should be turned off while I directed them all in a play. Out of the goodness of my heart. They were crap and I began shouting at them. My sister had received a tape recorder as a Christmas present that year. She waited until I’d run of our steam and played it back. What was this terrible screaming? A witch, a banshee, experimental music?

I’d like to say that I was overcome with horror, that I apologised to my nearest and dearest, took them in my arms and hugged them tightly. But that would have been completely out of character. It went something like this. ‘Get out you ungrateful urchins! I will never direct you in a play again, not even when I’m famous!’

They filed from the room, giggling behind their little hands.

As for me, I was cured. I became the best sister in the known world. Not really. There was a fair amount of teenage screaming when my youngest brother broke into my four hour session in the bathroom with a screwdriver.

Did I imagine their gleeful faces as I waved goodbye to live on the other side of the planet? Of course I’m a changed person now. I’m really quite nice.

I went on a playwriting course recently. I wonder…? Do you think they would?


A part of this story was published on-line for an anthology of Queensland writers. It was also awarded a Highly Commended by the Perilous Adventure competition a few years ago.

Ellen’s footsteps echoed along the corridor overlooking the courtyard which wasn’t bathed in Italian sunlight but the distant lukewarm glow of a London afternoon. The town planners had thought to call it ‘Lincoln Fields’ There were no fields and Lincoln was a good three hours drive away. Trees were planted in tiny soil circles and imprisoned by concrete, much the same as her mother who had been imprisoned here since she was a young vibrant woman. Ellen had escaped. Unemployment, drug abuse, spotty teenage mothers with ugly howling babies at their hips, soiled nappies smells and rough tobacco. Ellen’s hair looked different to her old friends on the estate. She had acquired a sheen to it, whereas the estate girl’s hair clumped and matted.

“Or-right, Elle?”

She nodded at Chantelle or Jazmyne, she could never tell one estate girl from another. Ellen’s expensively tailored suit and French perfume a world away from the girl’s sweat shop acrylics. She didn’t feel proud here, she felt embarrassed. If her mother hadn’t raised her to appreciate beauty she would be trolling up and down the corridors of doom in flip-flops and fake designer-wear herself.

The key caught in the lock. She must get that seen to, one day it would refuse to budge and her mother would be trapped forever..

“Haven’t seen your mum for a few days, Elle.”

Chantelle was still there, breathing instant coffee fumes in her face. Her unwashed hair hung in strips like flypaper. Ellen felt guilt tapping on her bones, a light tapping, a tiny hammer like the one that broke the toffee at Christmas. She should come more often. Chantelle slinked away and cold lack blew from her childhood home as Ellen crouched over the letterbox. “Mum? It’s me, I’ll use my key. Don’t get up.” A couple of visits ago Ellen had waited at the door while her mum shuffled up the hallway. A broken ankle, swollen three times its normal size.

“I did it dancing.” Her mother had laughed. It was a lie of course, it had been years since her mum had gone dancing. More likely she had fallen on the wet linoleum in the bathroom. Those horrible woolly mats she had down didn’t have a non-slip rubber underside, what with a leaky shower and the lack of damp proofing it wasn’t just the floors that sweated, it was the walls too. There had been a time when her mum loved to dance. She’d go up West to the clubs with Queenie. Like most of her mum’s friends they didn’t stick around for long. It didn’t help that Linda constantly talked about a more beautiful life, packing it all up in one of those fancy suitcases and pushing the key through the letterbox on her way out. Moving to somewhere on the continent where she would work hard and enjoy the sun. Meet a rich man with a yacht big enough to do the Tango on. Linda had dark exotic looks, no one was quite sure where they came from.

When Linda went dancing up West she forgot she even had a child. She would tell Ellen of her dreams but the girl had worked out early on that her mother hadn’t included her in her plans. “Of course you’d be around, Elle but men don’t like snotty children hanging about now do they?” Even Queenie had one of the girls on the estate to watch her Jason. Linda’s babysitting money was taken up with jazz club entry fees and a taxi home. Drinks were provided by shady men. “I can’t do it all, love.” When it got dark, seven year old Ellen would turn all the lights on, the telly up loud for company and squeeze under her bed, clutching a bear won at the fairground, when her mother had had a relationship which went beyond sex and dancing.  A tall man with a strange accent had shot a couple plastic ducks and won it for her.

He was the closest she’d come to a father but her memories of even him were sketchy and hard to pin down. Linda had never told her real father that she existed which seemed harsh in the world she lived now. “How can he not know?” Daniel, her boyfriend had asked. Linda had moved out of her violent family home and been given a small council flat on account of her pregnancy. The first space all of her own before she gave birth to Ellen who was by all accounts a small, sickly infant. Linda had been embarrassed that her child’s screams could be heard through paper-thin walls but she was too proud to apologise. She had painted those walls in bright colours that were looked upon with distrust by the few friends she brought home. There was something too vibrant about her, as if she belonged somewhere else, somewhere foreign. Ellen was fair but had good bone structure and she was tall. Linda held a stray memory of the good looking stranger who wore a smart grey suit. Pressing up against him in a doorway in Kings Cross.

“There you are Mum.” Ellen leaned down and slid her Channel covered lips across her mother’s papery cheek. She tried not to recoil. Her mother’s wrinkles were deepening and the layers of skin seemed to separate, taking air between them like shrunken pillows. Linda was dressed in a shapeless, grey dress and a sad blue cardigan into which she seemed to be shrinking, shrinking from life. How long would it take her to disappear and then Ellen wouldn’t have to visit this sink estate, the stain on her life? Shocked at her unkind thoughts she fussed over her mother, straightened her clothes so she looked more human, less like Mrs Pepperpot before she shrank.

“I’ll make coffee, Mum. I’ve bought that exotic blend you like.” As Ellen moved briskly about the kitchen she told herself it wasn’t her job to save her mum. She could rent a two-bed flat of for the two of them, a garden flat with somewhere green for her mother to sit, instead of sharing with Nicola from the bank and Matt the male nurse. But she didn’t. Ellen used her surplus salary to dress herself smartly in designer suits and heels. Everyone in London knew if your clothes weren’t the real thing. They’d look down on you, pass you over for promotion. Her dear old mum still thought Marks & Spencer was posh.

“Where’s the cafetière I bought you?” Ellen leaned her head through the door, hair manicured like a well kept garden. Linda looked up, as if she’d only just noticed her daughter. Her eyes betrayed fear and bewilderment then recovered.

“They’ll nick anything round here you know. Thieving wotsits.”

Ellen came through and sat on the edge of the couch. “No one comes round here except me. Do they?” Her mother shrugged. “Well. We’ll just have to have tea then. I bought you that new one from Harrods’s. You said you liked it last time.”

Ellen opened the cupboards. That desolate wind of lack blew through them too. “Mum. Where the hell is all your food?” She’d shopped herself only a few days ago. Jars of preserves and tea drunk by the Queen herself. Those tiny sponge fingers her mother had always loved. Jars of pickled walnuts and sophisticated pots of honey with pictures of bees on them.

Linda smiled at her as she walked through. “Hello, love. When did you get here?” Ellen’s insides lurched and rolled.

It had started a few months ago. Small things, easy for Ellen to ignore. She was busy with a new project at work, late nights and the odd morning waking up smelling of Chianti at Daniel’s flat in town. Her mum hadn’t been answering the phone. Ellen called every evening at 8.00pm, sometimes from meetings in the bar and once, before Daniel, from the bathroom of a man whose name she’d never asked. She rang to check Linda had eaten, quizzed her in case she was lying. Then the problem had been the reverse, the food wasn’t disappearing. Ellen made the arrangements on the office phone where she worked in PR. Words like meals on wheels lurked distastefully in the glass and steel constructed building where image was everything. Both colleagues who shared her space, they didn’t call them offices anymore, raised their heads as Ellen’s other life lifted its corner to show its dirty underwear.

She’d found her mothers phone in the kitchen bin, under an unopened batch of the magazine Ellen had subscribed to on her mother’s behalf. ‘Good Housekeeping’. Ellen plugged the phone back in and cancelled the subscription. Another time she’d found shampoo in the fridge and biscuits in the bathroom where the toilet brush had once lived. The toilet brush never did turn up. “I’m telling you, love. They’ll nick anything. Ugh. Something as unhygienic as that.”

They’d both laughed and Ellen had allowed herself an out breath. Anyone would go a bit mad living on their own, talking to yourself and putting out jars of coffee instead of empty milk bottles on the doorstep. Not that Ellen had ever lived on her own, didn’t think she’d like it.

Before Linda had got pregnant she’d had a dream of becoming an air hostess. Dressing in a uniform of a clean white blouse and navy pencil skirt, a job where her make-up skills would be valued. She’d travel to regal Europe, exotic Asia, maybe even darkest Africa. Faraway from her parents crumbling council house where the garden was littered with old sinks and toilet bowls her dad had picked up cheap but was too bloody lazy to fit.

You needed exams before the airlines would take you, maybe even a language or two. Linda’s dad made her leave school early so she could get a proper job. No daughter of his was going to become a glorified air-bound prostitute. Linda’s ears rang and her cheeks turned deep crimson when he’d bellowed at her.

“Anyway, I don’t want you moving somewhere else. Who’s gonna look after yer mum and me? Eh?”

They were sitting at the card table in the kitchenette where they ate their meals. Linda was drawing circles in the dust. “What about Billy or Ray? They’re working local.”

Her father looked down at his only girl and a bitter laugh escaped from his lips, where a clump of shepherd’s pie still lingered. “You can’t expect a lad to look after his folks. It’s woman’s work.”

Linda looked over at her mother, who rarely said two words. Her eyes were blank and the only time she parted her lips was to insert the unlit end of a cigarette.

Linda’s friend Margie worked for the council. Single mothers could put their names down for a flat in one of those new tenement buildings, the ones that had been built after the council knocked down the old twenties and thirties jerry-built houses. They weren’t anything flash but she craved new things. Everything she had ever owned had belonged to someone else first. The only space she’d had was the box room bedroom at her mum and dad’s place. She’d tried to make it her own by putting glitter on the walls and knitting a pretty throw for the bed, using her favourite colours of orange, pink and mauve. It gave her something to do while she sat around the telly with her mum and dad, watching endless game shows. Her brothers went to the pub and sometimes her dad joined them. Only then would her mother speak, softly as if she thought her husband could hear her, two blocks away. Sometimes she would cry silently, Linda didn’t know what to say. There was no making it better. But sometimes she’d switch over to the BBC, to one of those costume dramas. All bonnets and bosoms but a place to escape to. Rome on an aeroplane or Regency England on the telly. It all amounted to the same thing. Linda got a job at a haberdashery store, a bus ride into town. She went back to it after Ellen was born. Linda’s mother would look after the baby secretly while her dad was at work. Until the cheap gin and Embassy Royals ended her miserable life.

When Linda became agitated Ellen would calm her down by going through the biscuit tin where she kept her photos. The glaring flash and faded colours of the seventies looked sad to Ellen but her mum loved them. Most photos were of Ellen, smiling and dressed in tutus and strings of fake pearls. Her mother had put together a fantastic dressing up box, sourced from her job in the haberdashery. Fun fur in rainbow colours, glitzy plastic tiaras.

Linda picked up a photo from the box, held it in her trembling hand.

“What is it, Mum?”

Ellen leaned over to have a look. An old photo, handled many times, blurry as if the photographer’s hand had shaken. There was a fairground carousel in the background. She recognised her mothers face before time and sickness had sketched their story on her bones. She was smiling down into the camera and next to her stood a tall man with a moustache. He looked young and happy and Ellen felt a spark of recognition. Linda stroked the blurred face of the man on the photograph. “He never minded you being around. He was the only one.” She shook her head, dropping the picture, letting her box of memories fall to the ground.

“I think I’ll have nap now.” Her mother didn’t move, she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Ellen picked up the photos and put them back in the biscuit tin. All except for the one her mother had been holding. She turned it over, scrawled on the back, ‘Jack, Great Yarmouth 78’.

‘Baker Street’ by Jerry Rafferty, the saxophone floating on a light evening breeze which smelt of fish and chips. Her mum and Jack laughing like music. “Come on, Chipmunk. Take a picture of me and your Mum.” He showed her what button to press on her mum’s instamatic camera. She remembered trying to keep it straight. It was long and thin with one of those flash cubes on the top. The camera slipped slightly as Ellen pressed the button, a bright light blinked different colours. The memory was real, and she wondered why she hadn’t recalled it before. She heard the music, a sad song for a happy occasion. She was excited by the smell of fish and chips Jack had promised for their supper. Nothing else. No memory of a fish and chip supper on the front under the coloured lights strung from lampposts or the drab guest house they were inevitably staying in. The dips she must have taken in the sea during the day.

Ellen looked over at her mum who was dead to the world, her jaw slack, mouth opened slightly, gently snoring. Her hair was coarse and grey, no longer raven and neatly plaited, like the young woman in the photo. She wanted to ask her mum about Jack. Why hadn’t she remembered him? The date on the back of the picture, she must have been five. It’s not like they took a lot of holidays. Sometimes one of mum’s men friends would drive them to Margate or Broadstairs for the day. A couple of times Linda had saved her money to get the train down there and back. They’d stay for a couple of hours, ride the dodgems and eat candy floss. Laugh as the wind blew the spun sugar into their hair. Racing to the end of the pier, first one chose the treat. Vinegar chips in newspaper or iced doughnuts. All too soon it would be time to walk to the train station, holding their skirts wet from daring each other to go in too deep, their fingers entwined round their sandal straps. They’d sit waiting for their train, the platforms crowded by then, after teatime. Linda would point out the latest fashion.  Things had started to get ugly, her mum said. Women with footballer’s perms and youths wearing tartan jeans with chains.

“You wouldn’t catch Catherine Deneuve dressing like that. Now there’s a lady with style.”

Ellen looked at her watch. Did she have time to wait for her mother to wake up? To ask her about Jack. She’d always thought her memories of her childhood had been clear and strong but they were shifting. It would have to keep until next time. Daniel had booked dinner at Nobu, the waiting list was long. He was an efficient man, practical, worked as a financial adviser. He didn’t like to be kept waiting. There was always another time to ask her mum. As she wound her silk scarf round her neck she looked back. It felt wrong to stare at her, off her guard but she hadn’t noticed her mum’s sense of style starting to drop along with her face. Linda’s neck looked fragile and exposed, gathering in folds. As Ellen cleared away the tea things and rinsed the cups in the tiny kitchen where once she’d eaten Shredded Wheat and spaghetti hoops, she promised herself she would bring her mum something beautiful on her next visit. A new blouse in a bright shade of red, an orange beret to cover her hair. Maybe a silk scarf like her own.

It was a warmer day when Ellen walked along the corridor again. Her feet hardly made a sound. She was wearing her gym shoes, her Saturday shoes. She’d parked her car five miles away and jogged there and back. Daniel played golf on Saturday mornings. He’d never met her mum, after eighteen months, he’d never asked. Ellen had never offered. Daniel knew more or less where her mother lived, he’d given her a rape alarm.

It wasn’t until Ellen reached the front door that she realised the key was in her handbag on the back seat of the car. Usually she would put it in her backpack, along with her mum’s shopping. Today she was empty handed and in a hurry except for the gift in her tracksuit pocket. She was going to the country with Daniel, he’d booked a hotel. Ellen was suspicious of the countryside, she didn’t understand it, didn’t know the names of trees or plants being a sink estate girl. Daniel thought her funny.

Ellen leant down opening the letterbox. “Mum! I’ve forgotten my key!” Footsteps on the carpet tiles, they sounded light and quick.

“Oi right, Ellen.” There stood Chantelle. Her body stretching her polyester track suit in odd places, a cheaper brand than her own. It wasn’t that the girl was fat, Ellen mused, just out of shape. Ellen got a whiff of old cigarette smoke and stale body odour.

The door creaked open and the girl made a space for Ellen to enter. She hesitated and the younger woman laughed. “You never can remember my name”

Ellen walked through to the lounge room her mother had spent a weekend in the mid-nineties painting jade green. “It’s relaxing, Ellen. Do you like it?” she’d said. Ellen hadn’t then and didn’t now. Its brightness had faded and was chipped at the skirting boards. Her mum sat on the couch, her leg stretched out in front of her. There was a tray with two dirty cups, a cigarette butt spent in one of the saucers. Ellen shot the girl a look. Her mother spoke.

“Don’t you worry about that, Ellen. Lauren helps me out, it’s the least I could do to let her relax with a tea and a fag.”

Ellen said nothing, she picked up the tray and took it through to the kitchen. Her hands trembled with anger. What was this girl doing with her mum? Ellen was her mum’s only visitor. Lauren appeared at the door, smiling.

“What are you doing here? I look after mum as best I can.”

“I know you do, Ellen, but she gets lonely and sometimes she needs help. Her legs are bad, she fell in the bathroom again. Don’t worry, they’re only bruised. Not sprained like last time.”

“You know about last time?”

Lauren nodded. “I’ve been coming here for a while. Sorry. She wanted to keep it secret, thought you might get upset.”

“I expect you have the time, not working and everything. I do appreciate what you’re doing but…”

Lauren laughed, not unkindly. “I don’t do it for you. Linda’s a friend. Anyway, I work evenings.”

Ellen’s eyebrows raised and Lauren grinned. “I’m not a prostitute, Ellen. I’m a nurse at Guys. We’re not all in gangs and doing crack cocaine on the estate, you know.”

Ellen’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry. But I don’t understand. Why did mum want to keep your visits a secret? It’s not as if I couldn’t do with the extra help, I can’t do it on my own.”

Lauren looked down at her cheap trainers, quiet for a moment. When she looked up her gentle eyes met Ellen’s. “She’s ashamed of you. The way you talk to people. You’ve forgotten where you come from.”

“I think you should go now.”

“I will but I won’t stop coming here. Linda needs more care, soon she will need more than the two of us, round the clock care. She’s getting worse.”

Lauren closed the door gently behind her. Ellen put the kettle on and went through to see her mum. She sat down in the chair next to her. The flat was silent now and she wondered if her mum had heard her conversation with Lauren. Ellen wondered why a stranger wanted to spend more time with her mother than she did. Blood collected in her cheeks.

“How did she find you? If you were on the bathroom floor again”

Linda’s eyes were defiant. “She has a key.”

Ellen looked down at her bitten down nails, the only piece of her that wasn’t perfect. She would think about Lauren later, at home with a glass of something strong. Another question burned her mind. “Mum, who’s Jack?”

Linda’s face seemed to fold but her eyes were dry. “Mr Almost-Right.”

“Did you stop seeing him, like the others? Wasn’t he good enough for you?”

A weak smile. “He was married, love. I thought I could deal with it, he was so good with you. He made me see that I couldn’t compromise, that I had to find a man who could turn the two of us into a family.”

“But you never did.”

“I never stopped trying.” Linda’s voice echoed in the room, indignant.

Ellen thought back to the long line of men who had sat on the couch her mother was lying on now, hogging the remote, waiting for Linda to make them their tea.

“None of them were good enough for you, Ellen.”

Ellen took Linda’s hand, stroked it lightly. “Mum, we have to talk about you moving somewhere else.”

“Not quite ready yet. Make me that cup of tea and bugger off and see that man of yours.”

Ellen washed both cups in the sink, made a telephone call and went to sit with her mum. Linda looked askance. Ellen said, “If he’s worth it he’ll understand. I can’t think of the last time I spent Saturday night with you.”

“Baked beans and Miss Marple? You sure you’re up for it?”

Ellen smiled and remembered the bulge in her pocket. A silk scarf, hand painted in red, orange and mauve. She tied it loosely round her mother’s neck. The colours were kind and hid the folds of skin. Ellen sat with her for a moment before going through to the kitchen to search for the tin opener.