With two 'Misfit' books behind me, I thought I should move on. If you've read both and enjoyed them, now is the time to see what else I'm capable of.
So I'm posting the first chapter of 'Completing the Puzzle' [minor changes since made in final version] - a story of middle age, mid-life crisis and new beginnings.
I hope this gives you a taster of what's to come, hopefully in June. Please let me know your thoughts here, on Twitter or on Facebook.
‘Mum, Gramps has been at the cooking sherry again! He’s asleep on the bathroom floor and I really need a dump.’
And so my Monday morning began. As if the 6.30 alarm hadn’t been a rude enough awakening, I had yet another Crawford family drama to deal with.
Of course darling hubbie Hugh was safely ensconced in the en-suite, shaving and whistling along to ‘La Traviata’ - oblivious as usual. But even if he’d been aware of the situation, he wouldn’t have got involved. He’d made that more than clear when I’d moved my old dad in six months ago.
‘On your head be it, Fee,’ he’d mumbled at me as he rooted around his mouth with a toothpick - an obsessive habit, but it came with the territory of being a dentist’s wife. ‘Your life will never be your own and don’t look to me to help out - I’m having none of it.’
Not big on teamwork or loving support, my Hugh. And as for my boys! Will and Toby, at nineteen, saw Gramps as a constant source of drunken entertainment and good for a few free rounds down at our local. I’d told them time and again not to encourage him, but they just thought he was ‘cool’.
Which of course, he was. He was my dad and I thought the world of him. And he wasn’t really a drunk, he just occasionally forgot he was in his eighties and couldn’t knock them back quite the way he used to. And I knew he missed Mum so badly, the odd drink just took the edge off his misery.
As I threw my silk dressing gown on and headed to the bathroom, I silently cursed my mother. ‘Why did you have to go and leave us, Mum? See what my life’s turned into?’ Selfish I know, but sometimes I liked to have a little internal rant. No point voicing it though because nobody ever really listened to me. Actually that wasn’t strictly true as Toby, my sensitive twin, would regularly sit me down, pour me a glass of wine and say, ‘Come on Ma, chill and spill!’ I loved my chats with Tobes and it never ceased to amaze me that twin boys could have such different personalities. I’d often find I was just getting to the heart of what was actually bothering me and Tobes would be looking at me sympathetically, when his brother would appear, pulling a creased T-shirt over his head, scratching, sniffing and demanding the keys to their shared car with, ‘C’mon Tobes. Got a fitty to meet and I don’t want to keep her waiting. Alright Mum?’ That would usually be accompanied by a clumsy hair ruffle and a stolen slurp of my wine. He loved me in his own unique way.
The sight that greeted me on arrival at the downstairs bathroom could have broken a lesser woman, but my nursing training kicked in and I put my sensible hat on. Dad was curled up on my towelling robe, sleeping like a baby and Will was hopping around on one foot in desperate need of ablution.
‘Come on Mum! That kebab and the five pints I had last night really need to make an exit soon! Do something. Wake him up!’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Will. You could have made some sort of attempt at waking him up yourself. Are you totally bloody useless?’
‘Hey, Dude! When the bowels are calling, I can’t think straight.’ He continued jumping up and down in his boxers.
‘Do NOT call me ‘Dude’. I’m your mother, not some ‘half-mast-trouser-wearer’ you hang out with. Now give me a hand to lift Gramps through to his room. Come on Dad, wakey-wakey.’
At this point, Hugh passed the scene of the debacle that had become my life.
‘Morning, ma famille! Coffee on is it, Fee?’
Before I had the chance to come back with a barbed response, Will piped up with ‘If we don’t move him soon Mum, I swear I’m going to crap myself.’
Ah, Mondays! Don’t you just love them?
Work wasn’t much better. Everyone thought being a part-time nurse in a private secondary school must be a doddle but trust me, it wasn’t. My day could range from broken limbs acquired in over-exuberant rugby games to splinters in bums or young girls confiding they’d either begun or, worse still, missed a period.
Never a dull moment.
That particular Monday was an unusually tough one as our ‘Ofsted’ check was approaching and the owner of the school, secretly nicknamed ‘Sir Fuckwit’, had got his tits in a tangle as a quarter of the school seemed to be suffering from a stomach bug. That meant that the sick bay, and obviously the kitchens, would come under close scrutiny.
Spending a morning with Sir Fuckwit rated about as highly as a Brazilian in my book. I thought he was just about the most pompous letch you could ever wish to meet and my office was quite small - there was nowhere for me to hide. But he was the affluent perv who paid my wages and, just occasionally, I was flattered by the fact that he found me attractive. After all, my husband was beginning to make it more than clear that he no longer did.
By lunchtime, I was just about dead on my feet. I’d spent the whole morning keeping my cleavage to myself, my buttocks out of Sir F’s range and ringing affluent Yummy Mummies to come and collect their sick children. More often than not, this was met with a, ‘Oh no, Fiona, no can do at the mo! Just stick her in the sick bay somewhere and tell her I’ll see her at pick-up. Thanks!’
So I had twelve puking, pooping kids aged between eleven and eighteen strewn across the school as the sick bay wasn’t big enough to accommodate such an outbreak.
After I’d thoroughly scrubbed my hands and settled down to a speedy lunch I really didn’t relish the idea of a phone call, even from best friend Cordelia.
But then it was one of those days.
‘Fee, darling! How’s things? Still playing Nurse Nightingale, are you? I’ve got some frightfully exciting news … shall I tell you?’
I knew there was no point in replying. Cordelia only needed an audience and no participation was usually required, so I carried on munching on my carrot sticks and humus.
‘I’ve got an audition! Yes, a biggie. It’s Blythe Spirit and you know how I’ve always longed to play Elvira?’
At forty-nine, I’d have thought Cordelia would have been more suited to Madam Arcati but we’d been friends for too long and I knew that my thoughts on the matter would not be appreciated. I loved her dearly but ‘high maintenance’ didn’t even come close where Cordelia was concerned.
Of course, she’d always been like it. It’s not like she’d just suddenly turned into a 'luvvy'. From the first time I set eyes on her in our shared dorm at Grantley Manor boarding school she screamed ‘Diva’ with flashing lights and accompanying jazz-hands.
She’d already purloined the top bunk and was sitting swinging her endlessly longs legs and twirling her immaculately coiffed hair.
‘Hi! You must be Fiona. But I’m going to call you Fee. I’m Cordelia Norton-Hughes and we’re going to be the best of buddies. I’ve got tons of Miss Selfridge make-up and as long as you don’t have conjunctivitis, you can share.’
Fourteen she was, and packed with enough confidence for both of us. She was solely responsible for all the trouble we later got in to - from bunking off and going into town to getting hammered on Merrydown cider.
And she knew even then, beyond a doubt, that the theatre was for her. Coming from a theatrical family, she had ‘Thespian’ stamped through her like a stick of Brighton rock. I spent many a mad weekend with the Norton-Hughes family when my parents were out of the country on business and I even had my first pathetic attempt at a French kiss with Cordelia’s brother, Sebastian. We often joked about that later - he became a consummate gay and swore it was me who turned him!
So, from that first day, we were inseparable. Where Cordelia led, I meekly followed. She auditioned for all the lead roles in school productions and I organised back-stage, having no desire to be in the spotlight. When I told her I wanted to become a nurse she looked horrified, gagged and then said, ‘Oh, but there’ll be lots of dishy student doctors for us to bed, I suppose. Yes darling, you become a nursie - the uniform will look fab with your figure.’
On leaving Grantley Manor with our A levels, mine straight A’s and Cordelia’s straight C’s, we headed off to our first flat share in Earls Court - the ideal base for me to study nursing and Cordelia to go to RADA. And we lived our lives to the full, working hard all day and then partying at night. We changed boyfriends as often as our knickers, we cried tears of the broken-hearted and caused a few blokes to cry their own. I was there when Cordelia peed on the stick that determined she was pregnant with a baby she didn’t want - and I was also there when she sobbed dramatically into her silk pillow after the termination.
Equally, she was there when I met Hugh - although she’d instantly told me he was a stuffy old man at the tender age of twenty-five and that I’d never be happy with him. She stole the show at my wedding, looking stunning in her shimmering gold bridesmaid’s dress and was utterly useless when I went into labour with the twins. Although she did perk up a bit when the dishy paramedics arrived.
In hindsight, she was a crap choice of Godmother for the boys - although they’d totally disagree - but she’d never have forgiven me if I hadn’t chosen her. Her presents to them ranged from nothing (“Away on tour and it just slipped my mind!”) to a year’s subscription to ‘Loaded’ and a trip to Spearmint Rhino. My boys’ spiritual welfare was completely over-looked but they thought she was the best thing since the invention of the PS3. And I’d overheard some of the comments their friends made when she was floating around my kitchen in her silk PJ’s - there always seemed to be a houseful when she stayed over.
Not that I was jealous or anything. I just wished she didn’t have to be quite so gorgeous all of the time. Of course, our lives had taken completely different directions. I settled with a husband and children - she drifted through life with a string of admirers, dashing off to far-flung climes and attending ‘luvvy’ parties. But she’d always arrive on my doorstep when things went wrong, clutching her suitcase and a couple of bottles of wine. She’d then take root in the kitchen, puffing away on endless Sobraine cocktail cigarettes and painting her nails as she sobbed at the unfairness of it all. And then the minute the boys turned up with their hormonally-charged buddies, the hair would be fluffed, the pout would reappear and she’d be slipping on the heels to get down the pub before you could say ‘Lights, camera, action!’
But that was Cordelia and I wouldn’t have changed her for the world. News of her upcoming audition certainly seemed to have got her buzzing and I wished her well as I hung up. It seemed to be quite a big budget TV production and it was just what she needed to raise her profile.
How different our lives were, I thought as another teen entered the sick bay and deposited the contents of their stomach on my office floor.
I was longing for a quiet glass of wine and a soak in the bath with a good book. So I wasn’t best pleased to return home and find Dad and the boys at the kitchen table, playing poker and drinking whisky. The kitchen tops were littered with the debris of hastily made toast and nobody had even considered loading the dishwasher.
I pointedly banged and bashed my way around the kitchen, sweeping crumbs and chucking rubbish.
‘Hey, Mum. Take a chill pill’ Will foolishly piped up. This wasn’t the ideal welcome home statement to a peri-menopausal mother who’d spent all day dealing with human waste.
He was rewarded with a swift flick of cold water from the tap and then made to remove his trainer-clad feet from our pine kitchen table.
‘Will, in case it’s escaped your attention, I’ve been working all day. W..O..R..K..I..N..G. Is that a word they taught you at the very expensive private school your father and I chose to send you to? And while I’ve been working, you’ve done sod all. Have you job-searched today? Have you put any washing on? Have you even bothered to clean a knife or wipe a kitchen surface? NO! So don’t start telling me to take a chill pill. And Dad, what have I told you about encouraging the boys to drink spirits? If you didn’t buy it, they couldn’t drink it.’
‘Oooer, Mum! Tough day with Sir Fuckwit was it? Too much chasing you round the office?’
I flinched as I heard Will use my boss’s nickname. ‘Don’t use such foul language Will, and tidy this bloody table up, you lot. I need to get sorted for supper.’
‘Leave it to us, Mum.’ Toby got up and poured me a large glass of wine. ‘Dad just called to say he won’t be home until about ten, so there’s no rush. I’ll cook my speciality, if you like.’
I hadn’t the heart to say that pasta with cheese and Marmite wasn’t my ideal choice of meal but had to admit that the thought of not having to cook was rather appealing.
‘Thanks, Tobes. There’s some Parma ham in the fridge you can chop up and put in and a couple of loaves of garlic bread in the freezer. I’m gonna nip up and have a bath - feel a bit germy after the day I’ve had.’
As I dragged my weary body up the stairs, I’m sure Will hadn’t intended for me to hear him saying, ‘So Gramps, d’you reckon it is the menopause or just that she’s got a shit relationship with Dad?’
It was heavenly to soak in the bath with my guilty secret, Michael Bublé, quietly serenading me. Of course I was never allowed to play him if Hugh was in the house. He was offended by middle of the road music and would only entertain classical and opera.
As I sunk into the Bublé and bubbles I realised, not for the first time, that Cordelia was right. Hugh was stuffy and, if I really thought about it, had always been ‘borderline’. I hadn’t seen it when we’d met at twenty-five. I’d been too smitten by the student dentist with the MG sports car who took me to flashy restaurants and sent me modest bouquets of flowers.
The modesty of those flowers should have rung some warning bells. Whilst Cordelia’s admirers sent half of Kew Gardens, mine failed to fill a milk bottle.
I guess we met at the wrong time. I was on the rebound with a broken ego from a relationship I’d been having with a stunningly attractive philanderer. Hugh was everything that Simon hadn’t been - solid, dependable, reliable and … just a tad boring.
I shook my head in my warm frothy haven. Did I really think that of my husband? After twenty years of marriage, was that what I thought?
We’d been happy enough when we’d first married, I’m sure we had. I struggled to think that far back, to our first flat in Pimlico and then our move to Brook Green when the boys were born. I guess that’s when our lives changed - but doesn’t everyone’s when they have kids? Isn’t that a given? Looking back it was probably the mortgage that had been the killer. Hugh had his heart set on a huge house and garden and so he’d had to put in the hours to cover the payments. Dentists never struggle but he’d worked long, irregular hours for many years, only cutting down when he felt he was close to clearing the mortgage.
And he seemed to have taken to irregular hours again. Just when he should be slowing down, he was working every hour God sent. And instead of feeling neglected or unloved, I felt quiet relief. I didn’t want to sit about and be forced to listen to Verdi and I was sick of preparing dinner parties for dentists and their boring bloody wives.
All those thoughts were running through my tired brain as I heard Toby call up that supper would be half an hour. As I dried myself and applied my moisturiser, it occurred to me that not once had I considered that Hugh might be having an affair.
And I wasn’t prepared to waste any time thinking about it either.
I guess that should have told me an awful lot.
As it turned out, we had a great evening - me, my boys and my lovely dad in the kitchen sharing pasta, salad and garlic bread with Pink Floyd playing in the background. Music which spanned three generations, as long as Hugh wasn’t around.
I even allowed Will to have an illicit roll-up at the kitchen table. I didn’t approve, but I felt a bit of a hypocrite when I let Cordelia happily light up whenever she stayed with us.
I was sitting in my cosy kitchen surrounded by my favourite men, sated by a meal I hadn’t had to cook and almost starting to count my blessings, when Will came and sat next to me, putting his hand on my pyjama-clad knee.
And I knew instantly that the night was about to take a turn for the worse. It was just the tone, the overly affectionate body contact. It gave him away every time. You see, it pains me to say it, but Will was a lazy little bastard. Toby was trying to set up his own web design company and earning himself a fairly decent wage for a young guy - he’d offered to get his brother on board but my lazy twin, the one who had to be sucked from my loins because he was too sleepy to do it for himself, thought the world owed him a living. Or Mummy and Daddy owed him a blank cheque.
I could tell that Toby felt uncomfortable, obviously knowing what was coming, as he got up and started busying himself making coffee. My boys didn’t do coffee if there was still alcohol on the go!
‘Yes Will.’ I took his hand and looked him straight in the eye, knowing he hated that.
‘I’m just a tad short this month and I was just wondering if you and Dad could … you know?’
Toby cluttered around noisily, filling the cafetière and also the growing silence while Dad picked at invisible bits of fluff on his trousers and hummed along to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.
I don’t know if it was because I’d had a tough day or if I was pissed off with Hugh’s constant excuses for working late, but I found my voice and spoke the words I should have said months ago. ‘No Will. Dad and I can’t. You’ve had a fortune spent on your education and you’ve chosen to do nothing with it. You’re bloody lucky we still give you a monthly allowance and it’s time you got off your backside and earned a living. If you’re finding yourself ‘a tad short’ sodding well do something about it.’ I removed my hand from his grasp and swigged at my wine while Dad and Toby coughed in embarrassed harmony.
‘But Mum,’ Will continued on regardless. ‘I’m meant to be taking Ems out tomorrow night and I can’t do that with no dosh, can I?’
‘No, my darling, you can’t. But you should have budgeted better or found yourself even a part-time job. Sorry, it’s time for tough love.’
Of course this resulted in the emergence of ‘Temper Tantrum Twin’ as he grabbed his tobacco and glass of wine, kicked back his chair and headed for the garden. And that was just at the moment Hugh appeared in the kitchen doorway, visibly swaying, and telling us he’d left the car at the surgery as they’d all decided to have a few ‘drinky-poos’ after work.’
And with that he slid down the doorframe and sat in the kitchen in a giggling heap.
Oh yes, that was the end to my perfect bloody Monday - it had started with my father slumped on the floor and ended with my husband in much the same position.
As I looked into the garden to my sulking son and then back to his brother and my dad, I began to feel everything crashing in on me. But in that moment I had the presence of mind to pick up my glass and a bottle of screw top wine from the fridge, step over my husband in the doorway and head for the spare room.
It was time to be alone.