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Authors: Sue Watson

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9 - Perfectly Peachy
 

On Monday morning I power-dressed, made packed-lunches, ironed school clothes, put a wash on, fed the fish and Grace, kissed Tom and headed to the office for my triumphant return.

Arriving at the office I walked past all the familiar faces to be greeted with high fives, ‘well done on the show,’ and ‘we’ve missed you,’ and as I turned on my computer I felt warm and fluffy inside. Within seconds an email pinged through from MJ. For a moment I felt the same panic I’d had before, but reminded myself I was in charge now and didn’t have to be scared anymore.

Stella,

Congratulations on the success of ‘Is God in the Garden?’

I always knew it would work, which is why I recommended you for the role of producer. You couldn’t fail with such a great team. I think it would be useful for you and me to have a talk about the future of the show and other projects. Can you come to see me at midday.

MJ.

 

 “I wonder what she wants.” I said to Val. “The gardening show has nothing to do with her.”

“I expect she’s trying to climb on the back of your success, Stel. Maybe she wants you back in her department. After the gardening show, having your name around will no doubt help her out.”

“Mmm. You’re probably right. In her email she even takes the credit for putting me on the programme, like she thought it would be good for me.”

“You know what she’s like” said Val.

“Yeah...”

“...a bitch!” we both said together and laughed.

I refused to let it get to me and remained unperturbed by the prospect of my meeting with MJ throughout the morning. I was now safe from her clutches in the Gardening Department where my career was finally on the up. I’d heard that the second series had already been commissioned and I was delighted to be in the glow zone. I’d been out of it for so long I’d been feeling quite chilly.

I turned up as requested at 12pm to see MJ. I was feeling unusually confident for this meeting, wearing a suit and heels (so unlike the wellingtons and waterproofs that I’d been used to wearing recently). Even the timing seemed much more geared to suit me, with no end-of-day child-collection worries. Maybe this was MJ’s attempt at a peace offering?

I knocked on the door confidently and MJ’s assistant Cynthia came over.

 “Hi Stella, would you like to wait here for a few minutes? MJ has someone with her. They’re running a little late,” she said, gesturing to the chair outside the office.

I didn’t mind at all. While I was waiting I had the chance to think about how I would turn MJ down. I suspected she was going to offer me a role back in Documentaries, so that she could take credit for my work. As much as I would enjoy saying no, I really didn’t want to make an even bigger enemy of her than I already had. I decided I would be polite, say I was flattered and perhaps even offer some ideas and even contacts for their latest doc, but no way could I ever work with her again.

I must have waited and contemplated for about fifteen minutes before MJ’s door finally opened. I was rather surprised to see The Head Gardener shuffle out of the office, sheepishly shutting the door and keeping his head down. He looked a little flustered and though he saw me, he didn’t speak or make eye contact, just nodded in my direction. I began to get nervous, but assured myself it was nothing. Whatever he was up to, I was responsible for the success of the show and not even MJ could deny that.

 I knew there was nothing she could do to me, she wasn’t my boss anymore, so I distracted myself by thinking about what I’d make for pudding that night. I was just covering the sweet mixed berries in Delia’s summer pudding with thick clotted cream when MJ appeared in the doorway. “Come in, Stella,” she held a frozen smile and ushered me to a low, hard seat.

She cleared her throat and sat down, tidying papers and pretending to be transfixed by one every now and then. Still using her old technique she made me feel that I was merely an irritating interruption as she had lots more important stuff to deal with. Yet it was
she
who had invited me to this meeting. My heart started palpitating. As I’m sure she knew it would.

“I have some news for you about a big promotion,” she started. My heart leapt. “Everyone on a very senior level is in agreement with this.”

Woohoo! I wished it wasn’t MJ giving me this news but I had been the one who turned
Is God in a Garden?
around and made it a hit. I had worked so hard after the initial show to ensure we focused on the comedy of the contributors and it had really paid off. Now it seemed that everyone who mattered was finally acknowledging it.

“As a result of this – I have to say, well-deserved – promotion, there will be some staff changes,” she added.

“OK. I’m sure that’s fine.” I said, half-smiling, a little concerned this might lose me the second series, but perhaps my promotion meant something even bigger?

“Yes. There will be lots of changes round here,” she glared straight at me. “Starting with you.”

Oh no. She wanted me back in her department. This was going to be harder than I’d thought. I gathered all my strength and launched into my well-rehearsed speech.

“MJ, I don’t mean to be rude but I have no intention of returning to work with you in Documentaries. I realise that my new-found success means that I would be a good name to put next to a new series and may give the company a bigger chance of a commission, but I’m now committed to Gardening.” I looked straight at her, waiting for a reaction, but she just continued talking like I hadn’t said a word.

“It’s been decided that we need fresh blood in Gardening and a young producer with new ideas has been appointed for
God’s Garden
,” she sat back, licking her lips. “As you know, we’re always looking for something new and different, Stella,” she said, with a twisted smile.

I was confused, but hopeful. “Oh, am I going to be promoted to
executive
producer?” This was beyond my wildest dreams.

She shook her head incredulously and, tilting it to one side in mock-concern, said; “Oh Stella, I’m sorry. Did I give you the impression that
you
’d been promoted?” Fake, theatrical horror filled her face.

A chill ran down my spine. “No, I er...I suppose, I assumed...”

“Well, you know what they say about assumptions, Stella
,
” she licked her lips with unadulterated, unconcealed joy.

“MJ, why are we having this meeting?”

“Well Stella, because I wanted to tell you the wonderful news myself,” her mean lips sipped on Diet Coke to prolong my agony further.

I held onto everything I’d got. I needed to keep calm and above all not allow her to get to me. She wasn’t going to turn me to jelly and make me cry this time, however hard she tried.

 “Exactly what is the news?” I asked, willing myself to stay calm.

“The news is that I’ve just been confirmed as the new Executive Programming Director of Media World. I’ll be reporting directly to Frank Moores – the owner, no less. You know what that means, don’t you Stella?”

I didn’t answer.

“It means I will be in charge of
all
the programmes in the company’s portfolio. Mmm...I can’t wait to get my hands dirty in Gardening!”

“It looks like you already have.” I said in monotone, not even attempting to hide my despair at this news.

“No congratulations, Stella? I’ll be your boss again.”

I stared at her, numb, stunned. For about thirty long seconds I didn’t say a word. I just let it all sink in.

 “And this brings me to the real reason for this meeting. Unfortunately, my first task in my new role is not a happy one. As I’m sure you know, Media World has a strict policy on Health and Safety and all contributors are to be thoroughly checked prior to allowing their involvement in any programme...”

It took me a moment to realise where she was going with this.

“...and as the producer you have to take ultimate responsibility for all decisions regarding the programme.”

Bile rose into my throat and my eyes stung. Surely this couldn’t be happening? MJ was watching me intently, her eyes glittering, as she steamrollered over my career.

“Failure to account for Gerard’s criminal background, however minor it turned out to be, and to complete the relevant safety documentation is a serious mistake, one which can endanger all Media World’s current contracts...”

The room started to swim around me. MJ’s face blurred and twisted.

“There were children on the show, Stella. What if something had happened? All senior management here are in agreement...”

When the words finally came, I barely heard them.

“Stella”, MJ said, her face twisting into an evil smile, “you’re suspended, pending a full investigation.”

I stood up in a daze. Part of me was screaming:
You put fucking Gerard on the programme. You fed him to Al. This is your doing, you evil, miserable old hag!
But I said nothing. There was no point. She had me; I was the producer and the buck stopped with me. I had to hand it to her – she had finally got what she wanted. I was finished at Media World. With my eyes swimming, I turned away from her and made my way to the door.

I stumbled back to my desk and slumped into my chair, feeling tears pricking at my eyelids. It was only just sinking in – my career, all that I had worked so hard for, could be over.

As I was staring blankly at the computer screen in front of me, my eyes wandered to the postcard stuck in the top right-hand corner. It was from Mum, sent from one of her many holidays. This one was from Malaga and I pulled it off the screen and turned it over to read the back.
Blue seas and wall-to-wall-waiters
, it said, in Mum’s usual jokey style.
Just wishing that I’d come here sooner
. I looked at the shiny picture of frothing waves and white sands and thought about how Mum had taken almost 65 years to get to where she wanted to be. In that moment I knew I wasn’t prepared to wait that long and spend my life wishing that ‘I’d come here sooner’; it was time to take control.

Opening up my desk drawer, I took out the folder containing all gardening contacts and information and then I opened a bottle of ‘Perfectly Peachy’ Lighter Lift. The smell of fake peaches filled the air as I poured the orange slime into the cardboard folder. Rubbing it in like a lotion, I massaged and pummelled every bit of paper, every telephone number and every permission document associated with the series. The liquid worked like cleaning fluid (God knows what it had done to my insides) and I swirled it and mashed at the soggy paper, everything washed away on a sea of ‘Perfect Peach’. I dumped all the soaking, peach-scented illegible mush into a wastepaper bucket and headed up the stairs to MJ’s office – for the final time.

I opened her door without knocking.

 “MJ, I believe that as I am suspended, you’ll be needing all the paperwork for
God’s Garden
?” I said.

She looked up and I don’t know what surprised her most – the fact that I was holding a wastepaper bin or that I was smiling warmly at her. “Yes, I will need everything.” She clipped, lips extra-tight.

“Well, here it is, all the vital information I’ve been working on for weeks that will be invaluable for my
excellent
replacement.” I said. With that, I walked up to her desk and, leaning over, slowly turned the bin upside down over her perfectly groomed head.

Orange goo and mashed paper landed with a squelchy thud and the air in her stuffy little office was suddenly permeated with the chemical stench of fake peach. It took her a couple of seconds to realise what was happening, but as the peach slime ran down her white designer blouse and seeped onto her knees she leapt up, screaming in horror. The gloop dripped off her, landing in fluorescent globules on her new office carpet and creating an instant neon stain.

“No need to sack me, MJ,” I continued, “the pleasure’s all mine. I quit. I quit Gardening, I quit Media World, and best of all, I quit you. Goodbye, you miserable cow.”

For the first time in her life, Mary-Jane Robinson was lost for words.

I marched out of the now sickly-smelling office, head high, and suddenly felt delirious, relieved, liberated. I wanted to kiss everyone. MJ’s assistant was staring, open-mouthed and several people on the office floor were stifling their giggles. I hadn’t shut MJ’s door – and I hadn’t spoken quietly, either. I ran back down the steps, waltzing on air. I had finally taken control of my own life.

Back at my desk, I gathered papers and souvenirs from all the years I’d given to the company and put them in several carrier bags, then I skipped all the way to the car park. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a new me, I thought as I drove away from Media World for the last time. I couldn’t wait.

10 - Cake Volcanoes and Marital Eruptions
 

Tom’s reaction to my departure from Media World was not the one I’d hoped for.

“That was a bit hasty, Stella,” he said when he got in late, hanging his coat up and pouring a beer, “are you sure it was the right thing to do?”

I was surprised and hurt. He’d banged on at me so much about giving up work and being the perfect wife and mother, I had expected him to be as pleased as me.

“But Tom, now I can be at home with Grace every day.” I said, incredulous.

“That’s all very well, but what about your salary? I didn’t mean you to quit your job without something else to go to,” he muttered.

Surprise descended quickly into anger. “Tom, you were the one who went on about me not fulfilling my duties as wife and mother and anyway, that suspension was just a smokescreen whilst MJ worked out how to get rid of me for good. My career was over from the moment she was promoted. I’m now just trying to do the right thing, for me and for us!” I yelled.

“You don’t know that your career is over, you’ve just had enough. All you ever think about Stella, is yourself.”

“What? But I thought we’d talked about this?”

“No Stella, YOU talked about it. How can you just throw in your job like that? In this climate?” he ranted.

“How can you say I just threw it in? You aren’t listening Tom – MJ
suspended
me, pending investigation. Even if I was reinstated, I would have had her on my case 24/7 and that would have been unbearable.” I said, amazed.

“Stella, ‘unbearable’ is working down a mine eight hours a day.”

“Oh that’s right, belittle everything...”

“I just don’t want to hear any more of this. I have to sort out my camera batteries for the morning as I’m the only breadwinner now – or had you forgotten?”

With that, he stormed out of the kitchen and I heard slamming upstairs. I sat down in the sudden quiet and laid my head on my arms at the table. What had just happened? I thought he’d be pleased. I thought he’d agree that I could now be a proper mum – and a proper wife. I thought this would be good for our marriage, but right now it felt like another nail in the coffin.

 

 

Tom and I didn’t really speak over the weekend. I was still annoyed and I think he was sulking, but we had a good time with Grace.

On Monday morning the phone rang as I made breakfast.

“Oh Stella, it’s all over Media World!” yelled Lizzie, the second I answered. “I got in early and people are already talking about it. The cleaners are still trying to get peach out of the carpet. And MJ – well, let’s just say she hasn’t appeared yet. I am so proud of you!”

“Thanks Lizzie!” I beamed. “I’ll call you later. Got to go – I’m taking Grace to school.”

I took Princess Grace to the school gate and chatted to the other mums. So immersed was I in this new role that before I knew it I was asking if a few of her little friends would like to come to tea that evening and to my delight, three of the mums seemed very eager to have an evening off. I walked home, contemplating my new goal, which was to reach new heights in mummy-ness. I would achieve this by attending school assemblies, peeling two kinds of organic veg and baking a Victoria sponge all in the same day – every day! On a slightly selfish note, I could see that my emotional and celebrity well-being would also be taken care of because, as I discovered to my deep joy when I got back to the house, I now had precious time to analyse
Heat
and
Hello!
from cover to cover each week without merely flicking and rushing through the juicy bits.

Once I had devoured the magazines and come to the conclusion that celebrities didn’t have cellulite, ‘Demi’s Ageing-Knee Nightmare’ required a double above-knee amputation and that ‘Posh’s Bony Body Hell’ would be cured by the regular consumption of cake, I thought I would have a little experiment in the kitchen. I was in need of something sweet so I pulled out all my ingredients and created a fabulous, honey-scented chocolate cake with a gooey, frosted topping worthy of Delia. I even had the time and patience to make tiny striped sugar bees to decorate it. The sponge was dense and moist, yet – though I say it myself – had a delicious lightness.

Chocolate cake and soap stars aside, money was clearly going to be another matter. My husband seemed to be under the impression that I wasn’t taking our financial position seriously enough. I decided to extend the olive branch but when I called his mobile at lunchtime to let him know how well I was doing in my new career as a Yummy Mummy, I didn’t get the reaction I hoped for.

“Now you’ve left work you need to tighten your belt, Stella,” he said, mouth full of sandwich. “I’ve got to go. We’ll discuss this later.” I hung up, feeling annoyed again.

All afternoon I kept checking the time, leaving home at exactly 3pm so I could be the perfect mummy waiting outside the school gates at 3.15 to pick up Grace and her friends Emma, Lauren and Katie. OK, I was actually there at 3.20, but that was only because some 80-year old man in front of me in his car decided to drive at five miles an hour the whole way down the high street. Grace still seemed happy (and I have to admit a little surprised) to see me arrive only slightly late. She was so used to my life of chaos it would take time for us both to adjust.

I had spent much of the day planning this evening as I wanted everything to be perfect. I planned to make little pink fairy cakes with the girls so had all the ingredients and everything laid out ready to go. When we arrived home, everything was pink and gorgeous and the girls threw themselves into the project with gusto.

“Mmm, your Mummy makes such nice cakes, Grace,” I heard Katie say later as I popped to the kitchen to refill the plates, and my heart swelled with pride. Once they had finished eating (I tried to ignore the food fight that ensued) we started on the ‘craft’ element of the party: I had planned for us all to make lots of pretty things with sequins.

I really should have known I was onto a loser with the pink arts and craft, when at breakfast, Princess Grace announced that she was now a ‘Goth.’ It seemed that whilst I’d been busy working, my little princess had moved on from her baby-pink fixation and turned into a dark, shadowy figure of the night. In denial, I continued to wax lyrical about pink napkins and matching crockery for tea, but my only daughter cruelly rejected my pastel advances.

“Mum, can we have stick-on tattoos instead of those boring old sequins? Pleeeease – they’re so uncool?”

So my dream of a pink and perfect teatime ended with me painstakingly sticking glitter onto polystyrene ‘Fabergé eggs’ while tattooed children rode the neighbour’s cat round the garden and fed the fish ‘magic-sequin’ food.

Whilst Grace and her friends were screaming obscenities at each other outside, I abandoned the eggs and gave Mum a ring.

“Grace has taken to wearing burgundy lipstick and studded wrist-bands at the weekend, which I tell myself is all about healthy self-expression – isn’t it?” I wailed.

“Hmmm. Stella, I think she may be having a ‘mid-childhood crisis’.” Mum replied dramatically. “I read an article about it in this week’s
Womans Own
.”

Within minutes we were both in a frenzy and at the end of the conversation I was convinced Grace was going through an emotional life-stage trauma. I needed a large slice of my bee-covered sponge after that call.

Al, who I called straight after, my mouth full of gooey chocolate, was more optimistic: “My darling, inside every Emo, there’s a cheerleader just itching to get out. Give it time honey, you’ll see.”

I hoped he was right. Just before the first mother arrived to pick up her sequin-covered child I went onto the Internet and bought a set of pink pompoms which I would stash in the back of my wardrobe to wait in the wings for that glorious day.

Anyway, whatever she currently was, I refused to take on any ex-working-mother guilt about Grace’s ‘individuality.’ Yes, of course I’d rather she was more Hannah Montana than Amy Winehouse but a mother couldn’t have everything. And I was now doing my bit, as from that day I resolved that she’d be delivered to school on time (most days) that we wouldn’t ever forget her games kit again (well, rarely) and I would always be a well-groomed, calm and unruffled Yummy Mummy (sort of).

After Grace’s friends left, the two of us collapsed exhausted on the sofa. Grace cuddled up to me.

“Thanks for today, Mummy, it was great having you pick me up. I like it much more than going to After School Club.”

I smiled at her. “I love being at home with you too, sweetie.” I thought I would burst with pleasure. After Tom’s negative reaction about my departure from work I was beginning to wonder if I’d done the right thing; this confirmed it. “I’m so glad you’re happy. You must tell Daddy,” I said, rather sneakily.

Despite my warm mother-daughter glow it wasn’t long before Tom’s financial paranoia crept to the forefront of my mind. This made me worry about Grace’s forthcoming birthday so, as we picked sequins up off the kitchen floor, I broached the matter with her.

“Sweetie, now I’m not working, I don’t think we’re going to be able to buy everything on your pressie list,” I said, waiting for the bomb to go off. Grace looked at me thoughtfully.

“I’m ok with not having EVERYTHING on my list,” she conceded, to my huge relief. “As long as I can still have my big, birthday disco-party.”

She fluttered a handful of sequins into the air and they landed on the floor at about the same time as my heart, which landed with a bump.

“But sweetie,” I started, “I think we might need to have a smaller party now, at home.”

“Mummy, you promised we could have a big room. Don’t you remember? It was last year when you couldn’t do a party ’cos you were at work. You said, you did,” and her bottom lip began to tremble.

 “But Grace, now I’m not working we won’t be able to afford...” I started.

“You said, you said we could wear grass skirts and flowers round our necks and...and that I could have a reeeeally big cake...like a volcano. Don’t you remember? I’ve told all my friends now, Mummy!”

I did recall invites and something vaguely Hawaiian being discussed when Tom and Grace visited Rochdale a few weeks before and Grace clearly remembered it all in detail. I felt so bad.

“I know we talked about it but we don’t have enough money now. I’m so sorry sweetie.” But I could see she had started crying and I wasn’t far from tears either, plus I couldn’t bear to have my ‘Best Mummy’ badge ripped from me so soon. “I’ll talk to Daddy when he gets home and I’m sure he’ll say it’s OK.” This seemed to stem the tears – temporarily at least – and Grace wiped her eyes and stomped upstairs to get ready for bed.

As I carried on picking up sequins one by one, my mind was now filled with strategies and schemes. How could I not grant my daughter her only wish? But this was going to be a tough one; since Monday’s big departure, Tom’s financial sanctions were now in full throttle and there was no way I could get a full-blown ‘big birthday disco’ under his all-seeing radar. Perhaps the only way to approach this was with complete honesty. I knew room hire, a cake and buffet would set us back £400 minimum.

Aware I needed to start this ball rolling immediately, I waited until Tom was home and Grace was safely in bed. I decided to bring up the ‘big birthday disco with price tag’ as Tom wrestled with the remote control and gasped with something akin to sexual excitement at a ball and twenty-two men on the screen.

“Tom, we need to talk,” I said, sounding like some psycho-babbling glamourpuss from an American mini-series. He didn’t look up; apparently they were doing something with penalties and he lunged forward to save one and at the same time blocked me out, waving his hand at me like he was swatting a fly.

“Tom,” I said, louder and more angry now. “It’s Grace’s birthday next weekend and she wants a party.”

He glanced vaguely in my direction and muttered the two words that it would appear were closest to his heart: “How much?”

“About two hundred-ish,” I answered, knowing that the real price would cause heart failure, extreme distress and quite possibly an emergency call to the Air Ambulance to have him choppered out.

“Two
hundred
pounds? You
are
kidding?” he said without taking his eyes off the ball.

“No. I’m not kidding. This is important. I promised her she could have one and...”

“Aaagh,” he shouted, bouncing off the sofa and thumping the floor with his open hand. Apparently the other team had scored.

“She wants a Hawaiian theme and cake volcano and we
owe
it to her,” I said, through gritted teeth. “And Tom, we need to hire a venue, I mean, it just wouldn't be possible to create a Hawaiian haven in the back garden.”

“Stella, we are
not
hiring a room. For God’s sake, it’s only a ninth birthday party! We can’t afford it and that’s final!” he yelled between goals. Then he must have felt bad shouting at me because he looked over and said, more calmly, “Why can’t she have her party in the garden like other kids?”

“Tom, you can’t hold a disco in a garden. What about all the lights and things? And besides, it would probably rain!”

“I’d love Grace to have a big birthday party, but I think it’s more important that we keep the house,” he said sarcastically.

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