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Authors: Catherine Alliott

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“No, but I don't think he should be doing this, either. I mean what's this all about?” He'd plucked a piece of tapestry Mum had given Rufus from behind a sofa cushion and waved it at me.

“It's just a bit of sewing,” I'd said, snatching it angrily. “What's wrong with that?” Though I myself had wondered guiltily about Rufus taking it into school.

“Are you sure you want to take that, darling?” I'd said, eyeing him nervously one morning as he packed the sewing in his bag. “I mean, when will you have time to do it?”

“Oh, I do it at break,” he'd said calmly. “When the other boys are playing football.”

“Right,” I'd breathed. “But don't they think that's…you know…odd?”

He'd shrugged. “I don't know. Is it?”

“No! No, of course not.”

I'm ashamed to say, though, that the following morning, when he went to look for it and couldn't find it, it was at the bottom of my underwear drawer. And I was relieved, when I went to pick him up later, to find him in the thick of a card game with his great mates Arthur and Torquil, a couple of embryonic professors from recorder group.

“A sensitive, musical child,” his teacher had smiled at Alex and me one parents' evening as we'd sat facing her like giants on tiny Lilliputian chairs; “but not a shrinking violet by any means. Oh, no, he can hold his own in class discussions. He's got it up here.” She'd tapped her head and I'd glowed proudly. “Why, only the other day on our nature walk he was telling us the difference between a buttercup and a celandine, and then went on to identify a cowslip for us. He's definitely our wild flower expert!”

I couldn't look at Alex.

Now, though, Rufus was settling down with his peanut butter sandwich and his yo-yo in front of
The Simpsons
, which surely was what any other nine-year-old boy who'd already spent an hour in after-school club and another at a friend's house would be doing? Aside from sitting down to a proper cooked tea with vegetables, of course.

I hovered in the doorway. “No homework, Rufus?”

“Only reading, and I've already done it.” He kept his eyes on Bart and Marge.

“Right.” Probably finished the book, if I knew Rufus.

“I've finished the book.”

I smiled. “Well done, darling.”

He turned. “Mum, go. We don't need quality time every night and I've had a play with friends so I've done the interactive bit, and there's protein in the peanuts and fibre in the bread, and I promise I'll have an apple for pudding, so go.”

Spooky, this child.

“Well, I might just pop up for half an hour, if you're sure.”

“Course.” He turned back to the television. “And if the phone goes I won't say you're painting, I'll say you're in the middle of turning out the treacle tart, OK?”

I grinned and picked my way through the debris to the stairs. This was a reference to being accosted at the school gates one morning by Ursula Moncrief, class rep and all-round terrifying professional mother, who, flanked by a couple of flunkeys, had said accusingly, “I rang last night about your contribution to the Harvest Festival, and Rufus said you were upstairs painting!”

From her tone Rufus might just as well have said I was upstairs flaying a couple of naked rent boys, tied up with satsumas in their mouths.

“Um, well, yes, I do occasionally,” I'd stammered, as a wave of disapproval rippled around the Ursula camp. “Most nights, actually,” I added bravely.

“So where's Rufus?”

“Well, he's…downstairs. Doing his homework,” I added quickly.

More teeth sucking at this, because of course I should be down there with him, strapped into my pinny, frying fishcakes, and ready to spin round and help him spell “alligator,” if need be.

“Tell them to fuck off!” Alex had roared helpfully when I'd reported back.

I didn't, but was grateful for his support. Alex had little truck with the mummy mafia, having seen it all before with Lucy and Miranda, his daughters from his first marriage, now sixteen and fourteen respectively. His views on school-gate mothers—“a load of frustrated, overqualified women channelling their thwarted careers into overstimulated children”—were trenchant, and possibly true. Nevertheless, I was easily cowed, and these days Rufus and I were more circumspect about my whereabouts. The treacle tart ruse seemed to work.

Yes, the girls. It was probably time they came to visit again, I thought nervously as I mounted the stairs. My heart began to pound at the thought and I clutched the banister.

Lucy and Miranda lived with their mother, a stunningly beautiful woman called Tilly, who, after the divorce, had gone to America. When we were first married and the girls were younger, I'd hardly seen them at all because Alex often had business in the States and visited them when he was there. Last year, however, now that they were teenagers, they'd crossed the pond alone, to stay with us in London. It hadn't been the most auspicious visit. They were possibly the most beautiful, long-limbed, self-possessed, scary creatures I'd ever encountered, with their low-slung Miss Sixty jeans and Ugg boots and yards of silky dark hair. I remember coming back from Tesco one afternoon, laden with shopping, to find both of them draped across Alex on the sofa, two pairs of long legs over his knees, the room in darkness, curtains drawn as they watched a movie. Instinctively, I'd said, “Oh—sorry.”

Lucy had mocked me with her eyes. “Why are you sorry?”

I blushed. “Well, I just meant…” I laughed gaily. “I felt like I'd intruded!”

“Bit late for that, isn't it?”

I remember my face burning as I went through to the kitchen to unpack my shopping. It wasn't even a justified remark. Their parents' marriage had been over long before I came along. Alex had come up behind me and put his arms around me as I unpacked.

“She doesn't mean it,” he whispered in my ear. “She's just a kid.”

I turned round in his arms. “I know, but…Alex, doesn't she know about Eleanor?” I searched his face.

He shrugged and looked away. “I guess not. Eleanor's her godmother, Imo. She adores her. I can't tell her that.”

“But surely Tilly's told her? Told her what happened?”

He shook his head. “I doubt it. Tilly's far too proud.”

Right. So I took the rap. I was The Other Woman who'd broken up the happy home. And he was right, why dig up the past? But it just seemed so unfair, and sometimes I wanted to say to them, “It wasn't me, you know! Ask your precious godmother all about it!” But that would hurt them even more, and Alex was right: they'd been through enough.

And I'd try harder with them next time, I thought, going on up the next flight of stairs and opening the studio door. Make more of an effort. Take them both shopping on the King's Road perhaps, although the very idea brought me out in a muck sweat. What, hold up belts and scarves as potential purchases as their eyes ridiculed my choices? I scuttled across to my paints in panic. My paints. In this tiny, north-facing, and therefore perfect, room, which was my sanctuary, my retreat. Here I could unwind. Be me.

Under the slanting dormer window that looked on to the street, an old pine table was covered in paint tubes, rags, drawing pads, books, pencils and my palette, almost an art form in itself it was so stiff with paint. The heady, oily aroma hit me as I stood over it, making me beautifully woozy for a second. I turned. The room was chaotic, but only to the uninitiated: I knew where everything was. Stacked on the floor around the walls were my canvases, or, more recently, boards, painted in my swirling, free style, lots of them—I was nothing if not prolific—and in the middle of the room, my easel, with a half-finished painting in it. I pretended to ignore it as I went past to get my smock from the back of the door, a common trick, snubbing it, as if I wasn't terribly interested, but even before I'd thrown on my old lab technician's coat and squeezed some paint on the palette, my eye was drawn. It was a stubble field in winter: a grey, chilly scene, and since Putney didn't throw up many stubble fields, I had a photo of one propped up behind it.

“Isn't that cheating?” Kate had asked in astonishment on a rare visit to my sanctum. This was not an uncommon reaction, but still one that surprised me.

“Why? I'm painting from a photograph, not another work of art. How is that cheating?”

She'd made a “suppose so” face, but I was aware people still felt it wasn't quite right. A bit rum. I wasn't actually
in
that field, feeling that light, those shadows. But then again, punters liked country landscapes on their Fulham walls and the odd one or two I'd sold so far had all been executed thus. Needs must.

As I took a brush from a jar of turps and wiped it on a rag, I spotted Kate emerging from her house opposite. She came down the path, looking supremely elegant in a little black jacket, short pink skirt, and kitten heels, and slid into a waiting taxi at the kerb. It purred off, bound for Sheekey's, where Sebastian was meeting her for a little pre-opera supper, whilst meanwhile Sandra bathed the children and read them bedtime stories. I smiled. Other people's lives. I turned back to the easel. Now. That beech tree in the corner—surely the sun shouldn't be filtering through the branches quite so fiercely?

I was just getting to grips with the sky, fussing about its greyness and adding a touch of Prussian Blue amongst the swirling clouds to darken it, when a head came round the door.

“Oh! Rufus. You startled me.”

“There's nothing on, so I'm going to bed.”

“Already? But you haven't had a bath or anything yet.”

“It's ten o'clock, Mum. When are we going to get Sky?”

“Is it?” I glanced at my watch, horrified. “God, so it is. You should have been in bed ages ago. Come on, chop chop.”

Guilt making me brisk, I put my brush down and hustled him off to his room and into his pyjamas, muttering darkly as if it was
his
fault, for heaven's sake. How would this child turn out with such a distracted mother? I quickly made his bed and plumped up his pillow. No need to draw the curtains as they hadn't been opened. As I kissed him good night and turned out his light, I remembered Kate telling me about a house she'd picked Tabitha up from, where upstairs she'd found unmade beds, loos that hadn't been flushed, closed curtains, and knickers with skid marks on the floor. I went hot as I nipped to the bathroom to flush the loo and pick up yesterday's pants. Not for the first time, I decided, my painting had got out of hand. Instead of heading back to my studio where I knew I could stay until midnight, I went determinedly downstairs, did the washing up, tidied the sitting room, turned off all the lights, then headed on up to bed. An early night for once, I decided. And then when Alex came home, well, maybe…

I had a quick shower and got into bed, loving the feeling of my warm, tingling body under the cool duvet. The street outside was quiet now with only a distant roar of traffic in the background. I tried to stay awake for Alex but was aware of my eyelids growing heavier. At some point I stirred as a taxi drew up and rumbled outside. I listened for Alex's tread, but it was Kate and Sebastian, paying the driver, and then Kate's voice as Sandra came to the door, asking her how the children had been, what time they'd gone to bed; then silence.

Sometime later, Alex crept in beside me.

“Sorry, darling,” he whispered. “Did I wake you?”

“No, it's fine,” I murmured sleepily. “I wanted to wait up for you. How was your evening?”

He groaned. “Averagely ghastly, thanks. I suggested a light supper in a wine bar, thinking I'd get away with just one course, but the Cronin brothers were over from the States and wanted to be shown some traditional English fare. We ended up in Simpson's, having roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I think I'm about a stone heavier.”

I smiled and rolled over to hug him from behind, my cheek on his back. “Well, you don't feel it.” I nestled up to him and ran my hand up his bare thigh.

“Humph,” he grunted.

“Poor you,” I murmured softly, still stroking his leg. “Perhaps you need to wind down?”

He sighed. “If I wasn't so exhausted, that's exactly what I'd like to do. But I'm shattered tonight, Imo.”

My eyelashes brushed his back. “You're right,” I agreed. “It's late and I'm pretty tired too.” I rolled back on to my side of the bed.

Ten minutes later I was aware of my husband's rhythmic breathing beside me; of faint catches in his nose and throat as he exhaled. The land of Nod had claimed him. It took me a while longer, though. My eyes were wide and staring in the dark for quite some time. Eventually, though, I did fall asleep.

Chapter Three

The following morning Alex put his lips to my ear.

“Guess who's downstairs.”

“Hmm? What? Who is it?” I opened my eyes blearily. He was standing over me in his dressing gown, a broad grin on his face, cup of tea in hand. He put it down beside me.

“Your mo-ther!” he sang.

“Oh God,” I groaned. “You're kidding.”

“Nope. Apparently we're all going to this match of Rufus's this afternoon, a nice big family outing. I for one can hardly wait. Please tell me your sister's coming too?” His eyes widened in mock appeal.

“Of course she's not,” I snapped, “and the match isn't till three, so what the hell's Mum doing here at seven? How did she get here?”

“She cycled, apparently. Waved good-bye to her neighbours in Belgravia and trilled, ‘Just off to the country!' before peddling down to rural Putney for the night.”

“She's staying?”

“Well, she seems to have an awful lot of carrier bags with her if she's not, but I haven't questioned her too closely.”

I swung my legs over the side of the bed. “Oh Lord. And where's Rufus?”

“Downstairs having a passive cigarette with her.”

I giggled. “Probably in heaven.” I pulled on my dressing gown.

“Oh, he is. There's undoubtedly a note of high excitement in the air, but I took the liberty of opening a window on their little soirée. It smells like a brewery already.”

“She's not had a drink!”

“Not yet, just the Gauloise, but she tells me in France she always has a café Calva for breakfast and that in Provençal society it's rude not to.”

“Yes, well, she's in South London society now so she can jolly well have PG Tips and lump it.” I tied my dressing-gown cord smartly and took a slurp of my own tea. “How are you, anyway?” I eyed my husband over the mug rim. “After your night on the tiles?”

“God, hardly.” He sat down heavily on the end of the bed. “Americans are very clean-cut these days. Gone are the days of lining up bottles of Chablis and taking them to some lapdancing club—thank God. No, it was a Club Soda apiece and then they bustled back to the Waldorf.”

“But you got the deal?”

“Who knows, Imo, who knows.” He rubbed the side of his face wearily. “They were kind enough to let it slip at the end of the evening that they were seeing two other firms, though.”

“Ah.”

My husband nonchalantly swept back his blond hair from his high forehead and straightened his back in his navy dressing gown, but his blue eyes were troubled and I knew better than to ask more. Alex had been specifically employed at Weinberg and Parsons to drum up new business and, so far, the only business being done was old.

“It's the same all over,” I soothed, “you said so yourself. The city's in turmoil, no one's having an easy time of it. But it'll get better, you'll see. These things go in waves.”

“In my case with a wave byebye.”

“Oh, don't be ridiculous,” I said staunchly. “Your glass is always half empty.”

“Either that or I've got the wrong glass. But you're right, things go in cycles, so who knows? Anyway, meanwhile you'd better get downstairs before your mother cleans Rufus out of pocket money.”

“Gee-gees?”

“No, cards today.”

“Ah.”

I picked up my mug and hastened downstairs: through the sitting room, which was indeed knee-deep with bulging carrier bags, and into the kitchen, where…oh, I see.

The air was heavy with cigarette smoke, but through the fug, perched on stools either side of the breakfast bar, I could make out Mum and Rufus, three cards apiece, reenacting a scene from
The Sting
.

“Twist,” said Mum tersely. “Twist again…Twist…Stick.”

“You can't stick,” pointed out Rufus. “You're bust.”

“No I'm not.”

“Yes you are, look—ten, nine and three is twenty-two. It's pay twenty-ones.” He reached across and took her coins.

“Morning, Mum.” I eyed her beadily. “You're early.”

“Oh, not really, darling,” she said in her gravelly voice, dealing out the cards again. “When you get to my age you only need a few hours' sleep—ask Margaret Thatcher. I've been up since five. Dealer takes all.”

“You were dealer last time,” Rufus reminded her.

Mum eyed him defiantly, opened her mouth to object, then shut it again and handed him the pack.

“She cheats,” Rufus observed to me, without rancour, as he dealt.

“I know, I grew up with her,” I said, reaching in the cupboard above their heads for the cereal packets. “I'd check her sleeves, if I were you, and if she scratches her ankle, check inside her shoes. Rufus, what have you had to eat?”

“Granny bought me a
pain au chocolat
. I don't want any cereal.”

“Oh, fair enough. Mum? Cup of tea?”

“Please, since there's nothing stronger.”

“Well, you can have Earl Grey?”

“I think I had him in the seventies, darling,” she drawled. “Conceited little aristo, as I recall. Twist…twist…damn!” She threw down her cards.

She really minded about winning, I thought, watching her with a smile. And, of course, that was why Rufus enjoyed it so much. He knew her mind was on the job as much as his was. She wasn't indulging or patronising him—oh, no, she was after his pocket money. She'd take it gleefully too, only handing it back grudgingly when he won it back off her next week. I watched as she scrutinised Rufus's shuffle, perched straight-backed on her stool, slim and elegant in a cream jacket with the sleeves pushed up to reveal tanned arms and bangles, khaki cargo trousers, lots of beads, a cigarette poised in jewelled fingers, her fading red hair piled loosely on her head and stuck about with combs. Always stylish, her clothes now had a French flavour as she'd spent much of the last ten years at her house in the South of France. Her story was she'd moved there for the weather, and she certainly got that in her idyllic sun-baked stone farmhouse just outside Aix, but my sister, Hannah, and I privately thought she'd gone abroad to get over losing Dad to Marjorie Ryan. Why she was back now, swapping the glorious colours and scents of a Provençal spring for the rainy streets of Belgravia was a mystery to us, but she seemed happy enough in the little flat she'd rented and loved spending time with Rufus. I secretly wondered if it had occurred to her, as she paced her olive grove, smoking her Gauloise and narrowing her eyes into the evening sun, that he might be the only grandson she was going to have and she didn't want to miss him growing up.

“The match isn't until three o'clock, you know,” I told her, putting on the kettle.

“I know, but I thought I'd have a go at your garden. My bank, pay twenty-ones.”

“Oh, Mum, would you?” I swung round gratefully. “It's such a mess and I just haven't had a chance to get out there.”

“Of course you haven't, you're far too busy,” she said loyally.

I glowed. My mother, unlike my sister, was one of the few people who didn't think that because my art was unremunerated, it was a waste of time.

“I sold one last week, you know,” I said, pouring myself a glass of orange juice.

“I know. Alex told me. But I don't think you charged nearly enough.”

“She didn't,” said Alex, coming in and doing up his cufflinks. “And it was one of the big jobbies; should have gone for twice the price.”

“I don't actually charge for the amount of paint used or the size of the canvas,” I countered, although I was rather enjoying being buoyed up and discussed like a budding Picasso with a couple of agents. “It's not like selling tomatoes.”

“Well, make sure you get some decent prices out of that gallery chappie Kate recommended. When are you meeting him?” He went next door to collect his overcoat and briefcase, glancing at his watch. “Shit, I'm late.”

“I have met him,” I said, following him in so Rufus couldn't hear. “Turned out he was only after my body after all.”

He swung around at the front door in astonishment. “You're kidding.”

“Is that so extraordinary?”

“Well, no, of course not, but blimey,” he boggled. “Bloody cheek!” he spluttered. He gazed at me a moment, then shook his head bemused and reached for his briefcase. “No dice on the paintings then?”

“No dice,” I agreed, amused that it hadn't occurred to him to ask if I was still intact. Unraped, as it were. I opened the door for him. “So no injection into the Cameron finances just yet, I'm afraid. You must go darling, while at least one of us has a job. We'll see you this afternoon.” He looked blank as he stepped outside. “At the match.”

“Oh, the match! God, wouldn't miss that for the world.” He popped his head back and yelled down to the kitchen, “What position are you playing, Rufus?”

There was a pause. “I'm playing rugby.”

“Yes, but what position?”

“I dunno.”

“Well, give them hell!”

Another pause. “Who?”

Alex and I exchanged smiles. He kissed me. “See you on the touchline.”

As I shut the door and made to go up and get changed, noting that, as ever, Rufus was already in his uniform ready to go, I reflected on what it had taken to get us to this touchline position. To be proudly sallying forth,
en famille
, to watch our son in a rugby match. Being in a team—any sort of team—had not remotely flickered on Rufus's radar until the day when the lists had gone up in the school hall for the nine and under A and B squads, with Rufus's name on neither. I'd scanned them avidly when I'd collected him, along with a clutch of similarly eagle-eyed mothers. Even Arthur and Torquil had made the B team, it being such a tiny school, but not my son. I'd felt my blood pressure rise, felt fury mounting.

“Never mind, darling,” I'd muttered, hurrying him away from the group of exultant mothers.

“What?” He looked blank.

“Not getting in the team.”

“Oh. That.”

“Don't you mind?”

He shrugged. “Not really.”

I drove home very fast. Too fast. They'd written him off. Written him off at nine—how dare they! And Alex would be so disappointed, I thought with a lurch. We wouldn't tell him, I resolved quickly. But he'd find out, I reasoned even more quickly. Sebastian would tell him Orlando was in the team. My hands felt sweaty on the wheel. I glanced at my apathetic son beside me.

“Rufus, don't you like rugby?” I said crossly.

“It's OK.”

“So, if you were in the team, that would be OK too?”

He shrugged. “I suppose.” He turned. “I'm not very good at it, though, Mum.”

“Well, that's hardly surprising, is it?” I shrieked. “You haven't been given a chance!”

The following morning I strode into school and ran the games master to ground in the long corridor. He was in his tracksuit, pinning up another list, this time for the Colts.

“Mr. O'Callaghan, Rufus seems to be the only boy in his year not in a rugby team—is that fair?” As I said it, I nearly cried. Honestly nearly sobbed. Keep breathing, keep breathing.

Mr. O'Callaghan turned and frowned. “He's not the only one, Mrs. Cameron. There's Magnus Pritchard.”

“Magnus Pritchard has a broken leg!” I yelped. “OK,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “he's the only boy with two legs not in a rugby team!” For one surreal moment I felt Pete and Dud's one-legged Tarzan sketch coming on.

Mr. O'Callaghan fiddled nervously with his whistle. “Well, the list stands for Wednesday's match, I'm afraid, but I'll see what I can do for next week, OK? It obviously has to be entirely on merit, though.”

“Oh, obviously,” I'd purred obsequiously, and I'd scurried away, hugging my precious secret to me. Next week. Next week he'd be in.

The whole of that week I'd prayed to God, to Allah, to anyone who was listening, to give strength to Mr. O'Callaghan's pen; to empower him to write Rufus Cameron, in bold letters on the nine and under B list.

The following Monday Rufus and I hastened into the school together. By now even Rufus had caught my excitement and had admitted last night, albeit with rocketing sugar levels after three Ribenas—the closest I could get to getting him pissed—that he'd actually quite like to be in the team. His disappointment was all the more acute, therefore, when he realised he wasn't.

“I'm not there,” he said, his eyes quicker than mine.

I couldn't speak I was so angry.

“I'm in again!” came a voice from behind, and I turned to see Orlando, his face wreathed in smiles.

“Oh, well done, darling.” Kate's eyes scanned the list. I wanted to hit her. Wanted to hit my best friend hard in the mouth.

“Not you, Rufus?” she frowned. “That can't be right, surely?”

“Of course it's not right!” I said in a shrill, unnatural voice.

Kate looked startled. “Oh, well, maybe next week,” she murmured.

“No,” I said breathing hard through clenched teeth. “No, this week.” And I strode off towards the staff room.

I'm not very proud of what happened next. Kate, to this day, swears I pushed Mr. O'Callaghan into the PE cupboard, locked the door and threatened to take all my clothes off, but of course that's nonsense. What really happened was that I saw Mr. O'Callaghan already in
side
the PE equipment room—cupboard, Kate insists, snorting—followed him in, shut the door, and rationally asked him to reconsider. I do remember seeing the naked fear in his eyes as he backed into a pile of clattering hockey sticks whimpering something like, “Help me!”—I expect I misheard—but I have no idea why the top button of my shirt came undone nor why he was seen running, wild-eyed from the cupboard, grabbing a pen from a passing child and writing “Rufus Cameron” in large, shaky letters at the bottom of the B team list.

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