Haven’t They Grown – Sophie Hannah

Here we are, in the wrong place: Wyddial Lane. It’s a private road, as the sign unsubtly proclaims in letters larger than those spelling out its name, in a village called Hemingford Abbots. I switch off the engine, stretch my back to release the ache from two hours of driving, and wait for Ben to notice that there’s no football ground in sight. He’s buried in his phone. I can’t help thinking of it like that – as if he’s stuck inside the machine in his hand, unable to get out. Quite happy about it, too. Zannah’s the same. Most teenagers are, as far as I can tell: they spend all day and half the night in lock-eyed communion with an addictive device. No amount of my children telling me it’s ‘the way life is these days, so stop being so old and just chill’ will ever persuade me to think it’s okay. It’s not. It’s frightening and depressing. Sometimes it’s also useful, to a parent who doesn’t want to be scrutinised. It’s likely to be a while before Ben notices the intense quiet – almost total silence, apart from the occasional bird-chirp or gust of wind rustling the branches of the trees that line Wyddial Lane on both sides – and realises that there are no teenage boys in football strips traipsing past our car or anywhere nearby. He’s completely immersed: head down, lips moving as he types with his thumbs. I’ve probably got two minutes at least.

Plenty of time. You can take in a lot in a hundred and twenty seconds, and that’s all I came here to do: have a good look. Many times over the past twelve years, I’ve wondered about Flora’s new house. Technically it ceased to be ‘new’ at least a decade ago, though that’s still how I think of it. I checked last year to see if the ‘Street View not available in this location’ message still came up, and it did. Maybe that’s got something to do with it being a private road. I can’t think what else it would be. Until today, I assumed that Wyddial Lane was very remote, but it isn’t. Despite the peaceful rural vibe, it’s only two minutes from a main road. I’ve no idea what kind of house I’d buy if, suddenly, money were no object, and I’ve always been curious to see what Flora and Lewis chose – certainly not curious enough to devote half a day to the four-hour round trip, especially when I might be spotted on my spying mission and I’d have no way to explain my presence, but interested enough to recognise a perfect opportunity when one presented itself.

As soon as the list of impending football fixtures arrived and I saw ‘St Ives, Cambridgeshire’, I knew what I was going to do. It felt like a reward for all those Saturdays spent driving Ben around, all the hours I’ve stood shivering by the sides of muddy fields far from home while he played. Finally a perk had been handed to me and I resolved on the spot to take full advantage of it. Today, if by any chance Flora or Lewis catches sight of me here, my excuse will be so close to the truth that it might as well be the truth: I’m driving my son to his Regional League match nearby and I took a wrong turn. Ben, sitting beside me in his red and white football gear, would be all the proof I’d need. Only the ‘wrong turn’ part of the story would be false. For a better view, I’ve parked across the road from number 16, not directly outside it. To the left of the thick wooden gates, there’s a square sign, grey stone, attached to the high brick wall that protects all but the very top of the house from prying eyes like mine. The sign says, ‘Newnham House’. I shake my head.

Unbelievable, that they chose to call it that. And those gates, a foot higher at their uppermost point than the top of the wall … Most of the houses here have high walls surrounding them. Being on a private road doesn’t offer these people enough privacy, apparently. Of course the home of The New Flora and Lewis Braid looks like this. I should have been able to predict it all: the ugly, sprawling modern mansion, the private road, the gates kidding themselves that they don’t appear superior and unfriendly because they’ve got curly flourishes at the top that look marginally more welcoming than the seven feet of dense wood immediately beneath them. There’s a silver box with buttons below the ‘Newnham House’ sign – an intercom. I’d need to press those buttons if I wanted to gain access, which I definitely don’t. Is this what too much money does to people? Or is it only what too much money does to Lewis Braid? There’s no way this house is Flora’s choice – not the Flora I knew. And Lewis had a knack for getting his way whenever they disagreed. ‘Where are we? This isn’t the ground.

’ My son has finally noticed his surroundings. ‘I know.’ ‘Then why’ve we stopped? I thought you knew where we’re going?’ ‘I do.’ ‘The warm-up starts in, like, fifteen minutes.’ ‘And it’ll only take us ten to drive there. Lucky, eh?’ I smile brightly, switching on the engine. Ben turns back to his phone with a sigh. He is considerate enough not to say, ‘I wish Dad was driving me.’ According to our family folklore, Dominic is a good driver who plans well and allows enough time, and I am the opposite. This week was Dom’s turn to do football duty.

He couldn’t believe his luck when I said I fancied an outing and offered to go instead. I doubt he remembers that Flora and Lewis moved to very near St Ives soon after we last saw them. Even if he does, he wouldn’t suspect I had a secret agenda. Dominic would never take a ten-minute detour in order to see the current home of someone he hadn’t seen for twelve years – therefore, in his mind, neither would I. ‘Fuck off!’ Ben says to his phone. ‘Ben. What have we—’ ‘Sorry.’ He makes that sound like a swear word too. ‘Do you have a list of everything Dad’s ever done wrong?’ ‘What? No, of course not.’ ‘So it’s not normal, then? Most people in relationships don’t do it?’ ‘A written list? Definitely not.

’ ‘Lauren’s got a list on her phone of everything I’ve done wrong since we’ve been a thing.’ Lauren, a model-level-beautiful girl who is excessively polite to me and eats nothing apart from noodles according to both my children, describes herself as Ben’s girlfriend. He objects to this terminology and insists that they are merely ‘a thing’. ‘But you’ve never done anything wrong to Lauren, have you? Or have you?’ They’ve only been together – if that’s the right way to put it – for three weeks. ‘I put two “x”s in my last message instead of three. That’s the latest thing.’ ‘Did you do it deliberately?’ ‘No. I didn’t even know I’d done it. Didn’t think about it.’ I indicate to turn onto the main road, wishing I had a choice and could stay a bit longer on Wyddial Lane.

Why? I did what I wanted to do, saw what there was to see from the outside. That ought to feel like enough. ‘Who the fu— Who counts kisses in a message?’ Ben says. ‘Girls do. Some girls, anyway. Lauren’s obviously one of them.’ ‘First the problem was me not doing it – she’d always put a line of “x”s at the bottom of her messages and I never would, and she thought that meant I don’t care about her – so I started putting them in, and now she’s counting how many, and thinking it means something if I do one less than in the last message. That’s crazy, right?’ ‘Ask Zannah if she counts how many kisses Murad puts in each message.’ Murad, to my knowledge, has only once done something wrong in the year and a half that he and Zannah have been whatever-they-call-it, and he turned up looking tearful the following morning, clutching a dozen red roses. Zannah was delighted, both by the roses and by the news of the sleepless night he’d suffered after ‘criticising me when I’d done fuck all wrong.

Mum, I literally don’t care what you think about me swearing right now. Sometimes I need to swear, or I’d throw myself off a bridge.’ I would be very surprised if my daughter did not keep on top of the kisses-per-message statistics. Ben groans. ‘And now, because I didn’t instantly reply and say “Oh, sorry, sorry”, and send a long line of “x”s, she’s going to accuse me of blanking her.’ ‘So why not reply and send more kisses?’ ‘No! Why should I?’ ‘You’re right. You shouldn’t.’ Poor boy. He’s fourteen, for God’s sake – too young to be engaged in fraught relationship negotiations. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.

Ask Zannah, Mum. Lauren’s a high-maintenance, needy—’ ‘Ben!’ ‘Person. I was going to say “person”.’ ‘Yeah. Course you were.’ I’m glad his instinct is to stand up for himself, and that he’s not planning to cry all night and take roses round to Lauren’s house tomorrow morning. Ten minutes later we’re parked in the right place. Ben climbs out of the car. ‘You coming to watch?’ he asks, tossing his phone onto the passenger seat. I usually do.

I’m not remotely interested in football, but I love to see Ben doing something healthy and worthwhile, something other than being the slave of an electronic device. ‘In a bit,’ I say. ‘First I want to find a supermarket and get something for dinner tonight.’ I watch him run off. Soon he and other red-and-white-clad boys are pushing each other around happily – trying to trip each other up, grabbing each other’s rucksacks. On the passenger seat, Ben’s phone starts to ring. ‘Zannah’ flashes up on the screen. I pick it up. ‘Hi, darling. Everything okay?’ Zannah isn’t normally awake before noon on a Saturday.

‘Where’s Ben?’ The clipped precision of her words doesn’t bode well. ‘Football.’ ‘Really? According to Snap Maps, he was on a street called Widdle Lane or something ten minutes ago. What the hell was he doing there?’ ‘Wyddial Lane. Yeah, that’s nearby. Now we’re at football.’ ‘Right. When you next see him, can you please ask him to deal with his high-maintenance nightmare of a girlfriend? Thanks. She’s just called me and woken me up to tell me that Ben blanked her in the middle of an important conversation, and can I ask him to message her? Their pathetic relationship is not my problem, Mum, and I’m not getting dragged into it.’ ‘I—’ ‘Thanks, Mum.

See you later. I’m going back to sleep. Ugh, it’s nine thirty – grim.’ She’s gone. ‘Girlfriend’, she said. So using that word in a teenage context is not entirely disallowed. I add this important clue to my ongoing study of teenage behaviour, glad that my investigative interest in every aspect of my children’s lives is not reciprocated. Zannah and Ben aren’t remotely concerned about the details of my day-to-day life. Neither of them asked me why I drove to Wyddial Lane before going to the St Ives football ground; neither of them ever will. There’s something comforting about living with two people who never think about or question your behaviour.

I tried to explain this to Dominic once, when he complained that the kids never ask how our days have been. ‘They’re teenagers,’ I said. ‘Anything happening outside of the teenage arena, they couldn’t care less. Be thankful – remember the time Ben found cigarettes and a lighter in your jacket pocket, and you told him you gave up ages ago, and they must have been there for at least ten years? You didn’t mind then that he didn’t pounce on that and say, “But wait, you only bought that jacket last month.”’ I don’t have any bad habits that I’m concealing from the children. I’ve only ever had one near-miss on a par with Dominic’s cigarettes-and-lighter scare, and that was when Zannah was four and still interested enough in people outside her immediate peer group to notice strange things her mother did. She walked into the kitchen and found me with a pair of scissors in one hand and a photograph in the other. I must have looked upset and guilty, because she asked me if I was okay. ‘Of course, darling,’ I said in a bright voice. How could I have explained to a four-year-old what I was doing – or to anyone? Dominic was working in the lounge, which was next to the kitchen in our old house.

He’d have been horrified. I remember holding my breath, praying that my unnaturally high-pitched ‘Of course’ hadn’t aroused his suspicions. Four-year-old Zannah looked doubtful, but she didn’t ask any more questions. The photograph she’d caught me holding was of the Braid family: Lewis and Flora and their three children – Thomas, Emily and Georgina. A happy family portrait, taken in the back garden. Flora had included it with their Christmas card. She always sent a photo, just as she always signed the card ‘Lewis, Flora …’ His name had to come first because it was traditional, and the Braids cared about things like that. Dominic and I discussed it once. He said, ‘There’s no way Lewis has ever said to Flora, “Make sure to put my name first”. He’d totally leave the Christmas card sending to her, wouldn’t he? I can’t see him giving it a single second’s thought.

’ ‘True,’ I said. ‘But he also would never have ended up married to the kind of woman who wouldn’t automatically put his name first on all correspondence.’ So often over the past twelve years, I’ve wanted to tell Dominic what I did to that photograph and ask him which he thinks is worse: that, or what Flora did to me. If I did, he’d probably laugh and say, ‘You’re mad, Beth,’ in an affectionate way. He’d say the same – that I must be insane – about what I’m going to do next, which isn’t what I’ve just told Ben. I’m not going to the supermarket to buy tonight’s dinner. I’m going back to Wyddial Lane. I’m amazed by how much more I notice now that I’m alone and there’s no pressure from an imminent football match to distract me: the black metal postbox attached to a gatepost, with ‘16’ on it in white, the burglar alarm, the row of what might be tiny security cameras or some kind of motion sensors lining the top of the house just under the guttering, like a string of paranoid fairy lights. As I drove back here, the grey sky gave way to a hazy blue and the sun appeared. Now it’s properly warm for the first time this year.

Even with the window down, it’s already too hot in the car. I don’t want to put on the air conditioning – that would involve starting up the engine, and the last thing I need is for Flora to look out and wonder about the stationary car with its engine running. That’s funny: I’m assuming that, if anyone’s home, it’s going to be Flora. Twelve years ago, when I still knew the Braids, Lewis’s job on Saturdays was to ferry Thomas and Emily around by car to their various hobby-duties: swimming lessons, drama club, tennis coaching. Five-year-old Thomas and three-year-old Emily had an absurd number of unmissable appointments. Lewis drove them to and fro while Flora caught up on the housework. He often used to say, ‘When I sell my company for a trillion dollars, we’ll have a fleet of chauffeurs and I’ll be able to spend weekends watching telly with my feet up.’ In those days, he was always making jokes about how he would one day be rich. If we went to a crowded bar or café where we had to raise our voices to be heard, Lewis would announce, ‘When I’m rich I’ll have four chefs living in the annexe of my mansion – Indian, Italian, French and English – so that I don’t have to put up with other people’s noise in order to get great food.’ Flora would tut at his imaginary extravagance and say, ‘Lew-is,’ in the same voice she used to subdue her small children when they were making a spectacle of themselves in public.

As it turned out, Lewis didn’t need to worry about selling his company in order to get rich. His hoarder-miser grandfather died and left him several million pounds that nobody in the Braid family had known the old man had. Lewis and Flora moved from a three-bedroom basement flat to 16 Wyddial Lane, which looks as if it must have at least eight bedrooms, and now perhaps Lewis has all those chefs and chauffeurs he used to joke about acquiring. Maybe he and Flora and their kids are all inside the house now, staring at their iPhones. What age would Georgina be? Twelve, so not quite a teenager. We didn’t let Zannah have a phone until she was thirteen, but her teenager behaviour had definitely started by then. She was eleven the first time she raised her eyebrows and asked me why I imagined in my wildest dreams that she might want to go into town with someone wearing a carpet. (I was dressed in a beautiful woollen poncho at the time.) I feel ashamed when I think about Georgina Braid, so I concentrate on the house instead. I got it wrong before – I glanced at it and decided it was modern, but, on closer inspection, it looks as if only the sides of it are newly built.

The middle third of the building sticks out in front of the grand wings to the left and right, which are flat-fronted and have been added much more recently in what Zannah would call a ‘glow-up’. The dark-red pantiled roof of the newest sections starts higher up than the roof of the middle part, which has two dormer windows set into it. Presumably this was once an average-sized cottage. Only just visible above the closed wooden gates is a lychgate-style roofed porch, with the same red tiles. Apart from the two roofs – house and porch – the entire frontage is gleaming white. It looks as if it might have been painted yesterday. The overall effect is of a sleek, contemporary white-cube-style house that has swallowed a lumpy old cottage and been unable to digest it. There’s a second building, long and low, standing between the house and the high wall, separating the two. Most likely it’s a double or triple garage. If there’s this much space at the front, there must be three times as much at the back, at least.

I picture a long, striped lawn, alternating shades of lush green, and a smooth stone patio area, complete with top-of-the-range outdoor chairs and sofas: dark brown with plump cream cushions. I wipe beads of sweat from my forehead. One open window isn’t enough. How has it got so hot, suddenly? I open my door slightly, to let more air in. Could I … No. Absolutely not. I can’t ring the bell and smile and say, ‘Hi, Flora. I was passing, and I thought I’d pop round on the off-chance.’ Not after twelve years. Is that why I came here, really? Not only to see the house but because I’m secretly hoping to rewrite the story? The Braids and the Leesons were best friends.

Twelve years ago, they did not have any sort of argument, nor did they exchange harsh words. The last time they saw each other, everybody smiled and laughed and kissed and hugged goodbye. They talked about getting together again very soon – maybe next week, maybe taking the kids to the summer fair on Parker’s Piece. As they enthusiastically agreed to ring each other to arrange this outing, Flora Braid and Beth Leeson both knew that there would be no phone call in either direction, and no trip to the fair. Dominic Leeson and Lewis Braid did not know this, because no one had told them that the two families would never meet or speak again. On the face of it, it makes no sense. Only Flora and I understand what happened – and I’ll never know whether our understandings of it are the same. I’ve tried to explain to Dominic what happened from my point of view, and I suppose Flora must have told Lewis something, though perhaps not the truth … This is ridiculous. I should be watching Ben play football, or finding a supermarket. I really do need to get something for dinner.

Who cares where the Braids live now? I’ve seen everything there is to see – cream curtains at the upstairs windows, fat, square red-brick gateposts topped with large balls of grey stone, perfectly smooth and round, clashing horribly with the red brick. I should go. I’m about to start the car when I notice one coming up behind me: a Range Rover driving extra slowly. Wyddial Lane is a twenty-mile-an-hour zone, and this car’s going at no more than ten. I’m watching it, willing it to speed up, when I notice a movement from another direction. It’s Flora’s gates – they’re opening. The silver-grey Range Rover slows still further as it approaches the Braids’ house. It inches forward, now almost level with my car. That’s where it’s heading: through the wooden gates, into the grounds of number 16. Of course: there’s no way Lewis and Flora would have gates that you have to get out and open; they’d have some kind of remote-control set-up.

I see glossy dark brown hair through the Range Rover’s half-open window. It could well be Flora. It’s bound to be. Shit. Why did I think I could get away with this? She’s going to see me. No, she won’t. No one looks at a random parked car. She’ll drive in through the gates and then they’ll close again, and she won’t think about what’s beyond her property. I turn my face away, making sure to lean close to my open window in case there’s anything to hear. There’s nothing for a few seconds.

Then a crunch of tyres on gravel, and the sound of the Range Rover’s engine cutting out. A car door opens. Feet land on gravel and a woman’s voice, halfway through a sentence as it emerges into the open air, drifts across to me: ‘… said I’m ready now. You can start. Yes. Start.’ It’s Flora. Unmistakeably. She doesn’t sound happy. She sounds … I don’t know how to describe it.

Afraid, resentful, prepared for the worst. Is something horrible about to happen? Don’t be ridiculous. You heard, what, six words? I listen for a response but I hear nothing. Flora’s probably on the phone. I’ve never heard her sound like that before. I can’t not look. I have to risk it. If the worst happens and she spots me and I decide I can’t face talking to her, I can just drive away, fast. That’d give her twenty-mile-an-hour-zone neighbours something to talk about. They could lobby to have Wyddial Lane sealed at both ends so that no one who doesn’t live here can enter in future.

The gates of Newnham House are still wide open. And there’s Flora: twelve years older, but it’s definitely her. Her hair hasn’t changed a bit: same dark brown with no hint of grey, same style. She’s wearing white lace-up pumps, a pale grey hoody and jeans. ‘Home,’ she says, holding her phone half an inch away from her ear. ‘I’m at home.’ I tried to push it away but it’s back again: the strong sense that what I’m seeing isn’t an ordinary conversation. There’s something wrong. A short silence follows. Then she says, ‘Hey, Chimp.

’ She stops, raises her voice slightly and says, ‘Hey, Chimpyyy!’ Strange. The words don’t match the expression on her face at all. She looks upset and worried, not in relaxed greeting mode. Is she talking to a new person now? Did the person she told she was ready put a child on the phone? It must be a child, surely. Who else would allow themselves to be called Chimpy? Her change of tone, too, from normal to deliberate, slower, louder … Suddenly, she turns away and stretches out her arm, holding her phone as far away from herself as possible. Then, a few seconds later, she brings it back to her ear and wipes her eyes with her other hand. She started to cry and didn’t want Chimpy to hear. ‘Peterborough,’ she says in a more normal tone of voice. ‘Lucky. I’m very lucky.

’ Tears have filled my eyes. I can’t blink. They’d spill over and then I’d be officially crying, which would be insane. This woman has been no part of my life for twelve years. Why should I care that something about this phone conversation has upset her? ‘Yes. Tomorrow,’ she says. ‘I’ll speak to you tomorrow.’ I watch as she puts her phone back in her bag. For a few seconds she stands still, looking tired and defeated, relieved that the conversation is over. She opens the back door of the Range Rover, sticks her head in and says, ‘We’re he-ere!’ The deliberate jolly tone is unconvincing.

Then she stands back. Nothing happens. No surprises there. When the destination they’ve arrived at is their own home, teenagers don’t get out of the car unless nagged extensively. If you’re dropping them at a friend’s house, it’s a different story. I hear Flora sigh. ‘Thomas! Emily!’ she says in a sing-song voice. ‘Come on, out you get!’ ‘Why are you speaking to them like they’re still toddlers?’ I mutter. ‘No wonder they’re ignoring you.’ Even when her kids were little, Flora’s speaking-to-babies-and-children tone annoyed me.

Thanks to her, I made sure I always addressed Zannah and Ben as if they were proper people. Flora stands back as if someone’s about to get out of the car. ‘That’s it!’ she says encouragingly. Quit it, woman, unless you want them to run of and join a cult. They ought to be able to get out of a car without a pep talk from their mother. A small, bright blue rucksack tumbles from the car to the ground. I see a leg emerge, then a boy. A very young boy. What the hell? ‘Come on, Emily,’ says Flora. ‘Thomas, pick up your bag.

’ A little girl rolls out of the car. She picks up the blue bag and hands it to the boy. ‘Oh, well done, Emily,’ says Flora. ‘That’s kind. Say thank you, Thomas.’ This cannot be happening. I touch the skin of my face with my right hand. Both feel equally cold. All of me feels frozen apart from my heart, which beats in my ears like something trapped in a tunnel. I lean back in my seat, close my eyes for a few seconds, then open them and look again.

Nothing has changed. The little girl turns and, for a second, looks straight at me. It’s her. That T-shirt with the fluffy sheep on it … Le petit mouton. The girl I’m looking at is Emily Braid, except she’s not fifteen, as she should be – as she must be and is, unless the world has stopped making sense altogether. This is the Emily Braid I knew twelve years ago, when she was three years old. And Thomas … I can’t see all of his face, but I can see enough to know that he’s still five years old, as he was when I last saw him in 2007. I have to get out of here. I can’t look any more. Everything is wrong.

My fingers fumble for the car keys. I press them hard, then realise I’m pressing the wrong thing. It’s the button on the dashboard, not the keys. I’m waiting for the engine to start and it won’t because I’m not doing it right, because all I can think about is Thomas and Emily Braid. Why are they – how can they be – still three and five? Why are they no older than they were twelve years ago? Why haven’t they grown?

.

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