Even as he closed the front door, Helen was onto him. There’s no let up, thought Terry. He responded, on autopilot, “Hi, hon, I’m home.”
Lately, though, he’d had to admit that the place they’d bought together just a year ago felt far from home. The question foremost in Terry’s mind now, every waking moment, had they done the right thing by moving in together?
As claustrophobic as he felt, Helen suspected nothing. But fortunately, Terry would get some space tonight. For this evening he could not only have a break from Helen, but was about to indulge in his favourite pastime, with his old high school buddies.
“You remembered I’m out tonight, didn’t you, sweetness?”, he called, in the direction of her voice.
Helen, short and blonde, clad only in a skimpy aquamarine dressing gown, emerged from the bathroom into the long hallway.
“Out? But, hon, you never said. I was hoping we could talk some more about the wedding tonight. I’ve been thinking about some places for the reception, wanted to run them by you.”
“Helen, I told you three weeks ago…”, he started, with a sigh. “I’m out with the boys tonight. I reminded you only last week, remember?”
But before he could continue, she was on him, lifting her arms around his neck, pulling him down toward her, kissing his dark beard. Instinctively, Terry pulled away, ostentatiously raising his wrist to check his watch.
“You remember, lovely? I told you last week. And what’s more,” he added for good measure, “I need to be out of here in like, thirty minutes, so I’m on a schedule.”
Helen backed off.
“I remember, honey bunny… I just forgot it was tonight, that’s all.”
Terry vanished into the kitchen, and Helen heard the freezer door, then the dull rumble as the microwave fired into action. Quickly reappearing, he skipped straight past.
“Is it okay if I use the shower? I’ll only be two minutes.”
“Course, hon. Don’t let me hold you up.” Her remaining nails could wait.
True to his word, Terry was out again shortly, disappearing into the bedroom to dress. “I’m just gonna fix me a ready meal, then I’ll be gone”, he called, over his shoulder, as Helen returned to the bathroom to resume.
A short while later, Terry was tucking into a microwaved vegetable lasagne, straight from the tray, when Helen entered the kitchen, wafting her hands to dry the fresh polish. Seeing Terry gulping the food, she chided, “I don’t know, you think more of that band than you do of me.”
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write, but you can imagine how much effort it has taken to get this place into shape. I finally seem to have found the time to relax now, although it will not be for long, as I shall explain…
The journey here was rather eventful. I spent almost the first half of the voyage seasick – I am afraid I do not make a good traveller. Then, just as I found my sea legs, the ship sailed into a full-on typhoon as we navigated the Bay of Bengal. I feared for my life and your niece might well have ended up with the fishes.
But, either by luck or good judgement, we arrived in Burma. I have never been so relieved to set foot on dry land.
The embassy has been immensely helpful. They found us this colonial house, only ten minutes from the town centre, which allowed Charles to take up his post straight away.
It has taken incredible effort, however, to turn this place into a home, and Charles has been so busy… he is already complaining how short-handed the embassy are… that I have mostly had to fix our accommodation on my own.
Rangoon is a strange place. It is hot here, of course. We knew it would be. We have been warned about the rainy season, but we have not seen any rain yet.
The place is unmistakeably oriental, though, and frankly I miss London, although I will not allow myself to become one of those hysterical women who yearns for home. Fortunately, the embassy staff tend to stick together, and some of the women whose husbands have been here a while have been helpful. We play bridge sometimes when our men are at work, and somebody even lent me a Fortnum & Mason catalogue, so hopefully I can have a few luxuries shipped from home.
One of my first tasks was to hire some assistance. People here are happy to work for the English and, compared to home, they will work for nothing. She has a frightful Burmese name that I can’t pronounce, and so we agreed that I would just call her Anna.
In fact, Anna is due any minute so I will close in a moment.
I just wanted to tell you that the reason life might become hectic is because Charles and I are expecting. Mama knows, of course, but has been sworn to secrecy. But I am far enough along that I don’t mind close family knowing. And I consider you to be close, my dearest aunt. Charles is as proud as punch and I’m just hoping that I can present him with a son and heir. The baby will be born out here and is due in August. We have already made enquiries, and the hospital here, while nothing like home, comes highly recommended.
Anyway, with that news, I shall close. And not a moment too soon – I think I can hear Anna in the courtyard.
I can’t wait to hear how you are, my dearest aunt. Let me know soon.
Yours, as always,
I’ve tried to write this “of the time”. Until 1948, Myanmar was a British colony known as Burma. It’s capital was Rangoon (now called Yangon). Yangon is still the largest city, although the capital has moved to Naypyidaw.
It was 10th September, Mary Fisher’s first week at Hogwarts. Everybody told her how incredibly lucky she was, to be offered a place at such a prestigious establishment, but the apprehensive Mary felt flustered as she subconsciously placed her long, dark ponytail into her mouth.
She had only found out a fortnight ago, and tried her best to prepare by visiting Diagon Alley, but… all these cumbersome books! Ill-equipped, Mary had at least secured the very last broomstick in the shop, but so far, she could only make the thing fly backwards.
“Welcome, welcome, Miss Fisher”, beckoned Professor Dumbledor enthusiastically, before explaining: “you’re incredibly lucky, you know, that one of our pupils had to drop out.” Dumbledor’s eyes became vacant for a second as he seemed to be pondering something. “Yes, most unfortunate…”, he tutted, before regaining his composure.
“We did want to offer you a place last year, but there was so little competition, and so many spaces… We have plans to increase the intake”, he continued, “but for now”, he sighed, “we just have to make do,” Allowing his voice to trail away, Dumbledor thought it inappropriate to share the latest round of the Ministry’s budget cuts with the new starter: she’d find out soon enough how this once-great school had been forced to… economise… here and there.
“Thank you, sir”, responded Mary, meekly, with a tiny curtsy. She was simply grateful, as first reserve, to have secured the place. Joining the school in the Second Year was better than missing out altogether.
During the first week, Mary learned about the now-infamous original student, Marmaduke McMuddle, apparently a promising talent who had been experimenting with magic over the summer, had not memorised a spell correctly, and had ended up turning himself inside out. It had been touch-and-go, the poor boy required a six-hour operation to remove the wand, and would miss the entire year, still assigned exclusively to bed rest, while his insides were allowed to settle back to their rightful locations.
But the vast outpouring of sympathy for McMuddle did not help Mary. Missing her home, missing her parents, she felt completely disoriented, had struggled to find her bearings and had been rushed off her broom all week. While her contemporaries had already attended the school for a year, she had struggled. More often than not, she had arrived late for her lessons in this magnificent rabbit-warren of a building. And the school’s lofty standards were drummed it at every opportunity, reminding her that she was now among the “best of the best” young wizards, and how the staff expected her to hit the ground – or rather not hit the ground – flying.
This lesson is a prime example. Second lesson, Friday. Spelling.
“Go and get yourself cleaned up, Hector”, chides the gown-clad teacher. Professor Twitch, as the students had christened her. A bad-tempered, balding old woman who made up for her follicle deficiency by seemingly growing facial hair instead.
As her name suggests, she has a nervous tick, which as Mary has already learned, means that much of her sorcery meets with only approximate success. Reaching for another tin of tomato soup, Twitch adds: “And if you hurry about it, you’ll be back in time for your next lesson.”
Hard Luck Hector opens the classroom door to make for his dormitory, and as he steps into the corridor, the class hear the voice of a startled Miss Fortune, who exclaims: “Good heavens boy, you’re covered in blood! Are you all right?” The last words that the children hear are from Hector, who mutters, “It’s only soup, miss”, as he retreats as quickly as possible to his dorm to change.
In the classroom, Professor Twitch has finished pouring the new tin into the saucepan.
“And let that be a lesson to you”, she bellows, “do not disturb my train of thought while I’m concentrating”. The class simply look at each other.
And with magic words and a flick of her golden wand, the warmed soup rises from the pan, at Twitch’s command. The pupils silently part as the consommé, as graceful as the Hindenburg, passes slowly, silently overhead. They hold a collective breath; none wishing to share the hapless Hector’s fate. In symmetry, they collectively exhale, as the strawberry-coloured mass drops cleanly into the bowl which lies in wait on the far side of the classroom.
“Now”, commands the professor, “which of you will transport it back into the pan for me? And remember – magic only. No cheating!”
With no volunteers, Twitch continues. “New girl! What’s your name? Mary! Yes, Mary Fisher! Come up here and show us what you’re made of.”
Mary shrinks. Out of her depth, the last thing she wants is for her classmates to learn how ill-prepared she is. But there is no escape. Called to the front, the child adjusts her glasses. The words, a wave of a simple wand which resembles a second-hand chopstick, and…
Nothing. Five times she tries, but the soup is simply becoming cooler by the minute.
“Dear, dear”, interrupts Professor Twitch, “this will never do. This charm is elementary. I can see you have some catching-up to do, child.”
As if a public scolding were not enough, Twitch adds, “a month’s detention. That should give you a chance to learn the spell. Report to this classroom, every night after lessons. Now, back to your place.”
Dismissed. And with that, Mary’s chastisement is over. But not her embarrassment.
At lunchtime, the still-friendless Mary sits alone in Hogwarts’ library. I’m gonna learn how to turn that ugly old crone into a frog if it’s the last thing I do.
It had been the vacation from hell. Surely, children weren’t supposed to be this difficult?
Even two weeks ago, there had been guarded optimism, as the family had boarded the ferry for their annual trip. But toddler Lissie’s… awkwardness… had become more apparent over the past few months, and Cara felt that she needed the break. Had going back to work so soon been the best decision? Cara looked at the girl, playing away happily. The worst of it was that people saw Lissie’s shoulder-length, golden locks, and nobody believed her. Nobody believed that such a cute daughter could be such a demon.
And, husband Mick’s busy days at work had not helped. It was great that he was earning well, but the flip side was that she had raised Lissie almost single-handedly recently, it had taken its toll on her health, and she had noticed strands of grey appearing now when she washed her short chestnut bob.
So yes, overall, Cara felt she needed the vacation; just the three of them, an opportunity which she hoped would allow them to gel as a unit.
A week in the Dordogne. And in fairness, the week didn’t start badly.
As Mick shunted their brand-new Mercedes from the ferry – Mick’s reward to himself for all his efforts – the weather steadily improved as they journeyed south. Though Cara remained on edge, there were no disasters and they drove through delightful scenery, as they crossed the Loire and entered the Vendee. And, only in France could they eat so well… that restaurant in Tours, in particular, had been incredible! Cara appreciated that in general, dining out and toddlers did not mix, but as they were travelling, what choice did they have? And she had learned to adapt; for a start, they ate so early that the family tended to have the restaurant to themselves, and staff were often happy to entertain Lissie while she and Mick ate.
They were fine, until they reached Bordeaux, ironically their final jaunt before their gite.
Lissie was being no more than Lissie, her regular, mischievous self. But she fell, cut her head… and the three spent the rest of the day in the Emergency Room. The nightmare of a foreign hospital, an environment which taxed their limited French. Also, a foreign healthcare system, one which they didn’t understand.
The person most unperturbed by the occasion appeared to be Lissie herself, who toyed sweetly with her favourite dolly. Butter would not melt… But this unplanned excursion ensured that they did not arrive at their cottage until late in the evening.
The week passed without any further meltdowns. The weather was okay; not brilliant but it hadn’t prevented them from doing anything. They watched as Lissie recovered from her ordeal, but the girl appeared to be unaffected. Cara was even pleased to explore some of the wine areas and took the opportunity to stock up.
However, as she saw the place gradually becoming untidier – toddlers are not the cleanest of people – it was necessary to stamp her authority with Mick.
“I don’t want to spend the week clearing up after you two”, she had complained, “this is my break too”.
And they had agreed that the penultimate day, they would stay home and that the goal would be simply to pack and to restore the cottage to spotlessness.
Lissie had other ideas.
Bored and starting to act up, Cara had the bright idea, after lunch, of allowing Lissie playtime in the bath while mum and dad straightened up. She left her to play in the shallow, tepid water, as she quickly ran the vacuum around, returning a mere five minutes later… to find Lissie picking at the now-peeled wallpaper!
Jesus! What has she done?
Removing Lissie, Cara discovered a long, eighteen-inch strip, gouged out of its surroundings. And Cara’s plans for the afternoon had swiftly been ruined. They would need to visit the local town, find a hardware store. God, she hoped that it was the same here as home.
And, with both the packing and the tidying still to complete.
So, the week ended with yet another unplanned trip, now for wallpaper paste, to effect running repairs before they returned home.
The nearest town was tiny. It had a small parade of shops, but… nothing that might stock decorating supplies. They asked – no, there was nothing here, but the next town had a better choice.
Driving on, they despaired until they saw a carpet warehouse, nestled off the highway. Figuring, by now, that any adhesive would do, they eventually found their goal… almost. As far as they could tell, the tube was intended to stick carpet tiles to the floor. But close enough, right?
It was late afternoon before they returned, and supper before the repairs had been affected. It was more like using superglue – the owner would have a great job when he came to redecorate – but the glue served its purpose and, in any case, by then they’d be gone.
But the detour had left them in such a state… Mick had tried to restore normality by taking care of Lissie’s final bedtime, suggesting that Cara started to pack. When they finished, tired, it was late and Cara, too, was ready to drop. Giving in, she resolved to finish tidying the lounge in the morning.
The next morning… another whirlwind. Cara’s appeals to Lissie seemed to fall on deaf ears, but finally, the place was tidy, the car packed, and her daughter was safely strapped in.
“I’ll just wait here, to sort things out with the owner”, she had volunteered, leaving Mick to start the car.
Taking one last glance around the now-immaculate house, Cara sat on the sofa and took one final scan of the pristine lounge. She breathed a deep breath, and for the first time, she realised how tired she felt. A small tear formed in the corner of her eye.
Lucy hated this time of year. The extra tips made her job bearable, but at the expense, night-after-night, of having to endure these yobs. Often drunk, often rude, and for whom a waitress was fair game…
Already exasperated, Peta flew into the bedroom. Her long, fiery red hair, only served to complement her fierce temper.
“Where is it?” she thought, tearing to the pink-painted portmanteau at the foot of her bed. She’d brought this from her bedroom at her parents’ house, she’d had it forever and could never have parted with it. Opening it wide, although full of old clothes, she quickly assured herself that her quest was not there.
“Got to be methodical,” she thought. And she set herself an anti-clockwise trajectory. “Where the hell can it be? It’s not as if this is a huge space, it’s only a double bedroom!”
She reached the wardrobe, in such a hurry that she did not notice how well its polished pine blended in with the beige decor of the room. No time for that, as she flung the mirrored door open. Opening the other, she quickly rifled through the hanging clothes, paying no attention to the gorgeous designer items she had collected over the years. But no, nothing.
The next item, her chest of drawers. Her first purchase after moving in, this didn’t match anything. A white, chipboard flatpack, it had served a purpose in an apartment with too little storage space. Though she’d been thinking of replacing it, it still served that same purpose as, one by one, she searched every drawer, from the chunky woolly jumpers on the bottom, past her neatly folded casual blouses, to her “special” underwear at the top. In contrast to her boyfriends, who usually liked to spend time looking at her underwear – preferably with her in it! – she sped past, satisfying herself merely that her quarry was not in the drawer.
“Where are you, you bastard?”
Running out of options, she finally approached her dressing table. Pine again, it was from the same range as the wardrobe, a conscious purchase once she had decided on the “look” she wished the room to have. It had a large mirror. Had she been interested; she might have noticed those piercing eyes staring back at her – everybody did! The furniture had but a single drawer, in its centre under the mirror. Peta sprang the drawer open, and there it was. But it was too quick, and dived straight past the tardy woman, scurrying under her bed.
Peta immediately gave chase, but as she positioned herself by the side of the bed, her prize scuttled out the other side. Like a hare, Peta jumped on the bed, spoiling the bedclothes. That was the least of her worries as she managed to put a hand on her victim.
But again, it slipped her grasp, taking advantage of her being off-balance, her prey almost slipped past.
But this time, Peta’s free hand caught its calf, and down it tumbled. Quick-witted, Peta jumped onto it, and in a trice, secured it in her grip.
Her object struggled furiously, but now that she had it, there was no way she would loosen her grasp. Peta had finally caught her shadow.