I was sat in the conservatory with James, feet up on the coffee table. It was nearly midnight. Mabel’s snoring filtered through from under my legs. Freya was in her room but her light was still on. I could see it through the conservatory roof. I considered going up there, but then thought about how she was growing up and didn’t want me breathing down her neck. If she was tired the next day, it would prove my point anyway. I decided to stay put and give it another hour.
There were only a few sips of wine left in my glass and the bottle was empty. Too bad the shops here close at eight, I thought. Empty takeaway cartons were still stacked up on the dining room table. I was meaning to take them to the bin at the end of the driveway, but it was a cold night and I was feeling lazy. As if it had just read my mind, the space heater clicked on.
“Do you think Freya likes it here?” I asked suddenly.
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. She says school is fine but I don’t think she’s made many friends yet. At least, I don’t see them at the weekend. But I don’t want to pry, so I haven’t asked. She wouldn’t tell me the truth anyway.” I let a wave of ennui wash over me. Ever since she had become a teenager, I had felt more and more unsure about how to approach her. I felt awkward treating her like a child, but I couldn’t yet bring myself to speak to her like any other adult.
“I’m sure you’re overthinking it. We’ve only been here a couple of months. Give her time.” his brown curls tickled my cheek as he kissed me on the forehead.
“Well it’s alright for you,” I pouted, “your parents live ten minutes down the road. Freya and I grew up in the city. It’s all we’ve ever known” I wrinkled my nose petulantly. I was being childish and I didn’t care.
James raised an eyebrow. “We got a great deal on this house. We can afford so much more space here. And I thought we both agreed it would be better for you to get out of the city” he said knowingly. As if this were ever about my wellbeing. James just wanted a reason to feel good about moving back to his hometown and taking us with him.
I narrowed my eyes at him but dropped it. I didn’t want to destroy the cosy atmosphere. It wasn’t so bad here, there was just a distinct lack of early middle-aged translators to connect with. There’s probably an app for that, I thought. There’s an app for everything these days.
“It’ll get better”, I acquiesced, “but I wanted to go back to London next weekend anyway. Lucille’s invited me. There’s an exhibition at the Barbican we have to see.”
“Oh you have to see it, or else you’ll wither away into a veritable husk of your former self?” he gasped with mock anguish, clearly enjoying hamming it up a little.
“Oh shut up,” I said a little too quickly. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” he grinned, and this time his voice was sincere. He had always made jokes about what he called my ‘two-week itch’. If I didn’t go somewhere new or see something interesting every few weeks, I got cranky. He had long since learned to accommodate my excursions, especially since moving to the Shire. I liked to think we were a modern couple. I had my friend, he had his. I had my interests, he had bonsais.
“Besides, Freya is fourteen now. You don’t need to worry about being home from work early for her sake.” I knew I was labouring my point to assuage my guilty conscience, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Yes, I know. She’s very independent,” he glanced at me, then added “I know where she got that from.”
Within the hour, we had gone to bed. I had to stick my head in the door and remind Freya that she wasn’t allowed to stay up later than her parents, it was embarrassing for us and made us feel old.
The house seemed to be sleeping, too. Its old timber frame expanding, contracting, creaking. Just before I fell asleep, I realised I had forgotten to tell James about the antiques in the understairs cupboard. He hadn’t noticed any of the new additions to the decor, either. Typical, I thought.
On Sunday morning, I woke up when I could already hear rummaging in the kitchen downstairs. Cupboard doors were opening and, as I lay there silently, I even thought I could hear the dog’s tiny nails tap-tap-tapping on the floor tiles. I looked at the time. 8:16. I never had to set an alarm, but I rarely slept past eight thirty anyway. Just one more perk of getting older, I thought.
I slid my feet into my well-worn slippers and shuffled out of the bedroom and down the stairs. As I descended, the mirror came into view. It certainly commanded attention. It was ornate, looked old, and had a deep-set frame bordered by twisting vines. It was an oval shape and although I had thought it baroque and charming at first sight, there was also something distinctly overelaborate and unappealing about it. I debated whether I should have stuffed it into the SELL box along with almost everything else, but then decided to give it a week. Maybe I would get used to it. I had hung it in the hallway close to the front door, with the intention of checking my face for smudges of chocolate or ketchup before walking to the shops. I hadn’t worn makeup in decades. My mum had been a flower child of the sixties and imbued me with the same distaste for fakery. Now I realised I would have to walk past it first thing every morning on the way to the kitchen, and hope I didn’t snag something on one of the leaves.
Naturally, I caught my own eye at the bottom of the stairs. Middle age was rapidly catching up with me, I thought, examining the grey streaks at my roots and crow’s feet. I quickly added henna to my mental shopping list, knowing I’d forget it anyway. I took comfort in the fact that at least my eyes were still recognisable. They were a pale grey colour, which James called ‘mysterious’, and I had always taken to be my best feature. They were rare, and I liked that.
Delicious smells were wafting from the kitchen, coffee mixed with a heavy, toasted sweetness, and I grinned despite my waves of self-pitying nostalgia as I stepped into the kitchen. Mabel dutifully greeted me with a lick, this time on my hand as my toes weren’t visible. Freya was curled up in the antique rocking chair in the corner of the dining room with her brand new iPad. The school she went to was one of those newfangled academies which decided that giving every student an iPad would not only make them look progressive but also push them up the league tables. I still wasn’t convinced she did any homework on it, but at any rate I was pleased she wasn’t crazing me for one.
“Good morning, sunshine”, James was grinning like the Cheshire cat as he ladled blueberry pancake batter into a frying pan. I suspected there was something performative about his breezy demeanour that morning. But I pushed this thought aside and decided to enjoy the moment. James was a damn good cook when he felt like it.
“Thick and fluffy please, you know the rules”, I announced with mock severity. I poured a cup of coffee from the cafetiere, sidled up behind him and said “I miss the days when you would do that in just an apron” in a stage whisper.
Immediately, Freya piped up with an “I can hear you” from the dining room.
“Oh, so you aren’t as absorbed in that device as I thought”, I giggled, “and anyway, you’re up early. What’s wrong?”
“Very funny”, she pouted, but it was hiding a smile. “I don’t know, I just couldn’t sleep very well. And then I heard Dad banging around in the kitchen and gave up.”
The breakfast was served and we must have looked like a picture of domestic harmony. Eventually, James put his fork down and suggested we go to see his parents for Sunday dinner. I was wondering when he’d get to the point.
“So now I know why you put so much effort into breakfast”, I sniffed.
“Oh, don’t be like that.”
“I’m kidding. Don’t take everything so personally. They aren’t so bad. And we can bring Mabel. They can finally get some use out of their enormous garden.”
James gave me a long-suffering look. He was well aware of the long-standing chip on my shoulder about being the commoner in the marriage, and being subtly reminded of that every time we went to see his parents. James had studied at Durham, worked in the City for a few years, where we met, and then decided overnight to give it all up and retrain as a landscape gardener. It came as just as much of a shock to me as it did for them, but they blamed me for it anyway. I had always been suspect, a comprehensive school nobody from Newham who had somehow gotten into King’s College to fill some quota, no doubt. As both of my parents were already dead, we saw far too much of them for my liking, but I gritted my teeth for Freya’s sake. They adored their only grandchild, that much I could give them.