Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter twenty-three

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chapter twenty-three

Something had recalibrated Claudia’s emotional thermostat. Russell had just finished tidying her study when she burst into the room and assaulted the worktable, scattering the neat piles of papers, photographs and books like a petulant tornado. By the time he had returned from the kitchen it was a mare’s nest.

A truculent Hope, trailing behind her mother holding a soccer ball, was not improving her mood. “You promised,”she whined.

Claudia shouted, “Can’t you see Mummy’s busy?” Then she turned on him. “Russell!,” she called unnecessarily, as he was standing right behind her. “I can never find anything after you’ve tidied my desk.”

He found the folder he knew she’d be looking for and put it on the table in front of her. She sat down and delved into it. She started reading, and laughed. Then frowned and looked up at him. “I didn’t write this.”

Russell permitted himself just a flicker of pride in his voice. “Just a vagrant notion.” Claudia devoured the next few pages as he contrived a degree of nonchalance, all the while observing the reactions passing over her face: amusement, bewilderment, consternation. He kept a wary eye, too, on Hope, who was kicking the soccer ball around the room.

Claudia discovered the cover lines he had written and read them out loud: “‘My date with Mister Wrong.’ ‘100 ways to keep the wolf outside the door.’ ‘Your blind date strategy: eyes wide open and legs crossed’.”

She looked at him, her own eyes wide with the thrill of inspiration: “Why not a whole series on my readers’ blind date experiences? With an emphasis on youth? Heartache and horror story, fantasy meets fact — Brief Encounter with a bit of bodice-ripping.”

This was the Claudia he adored — brimming with childlike enthusiasm. He smiled. “I knew you’d be able to make something of it.”

“But there’s no time,” she wailed. “By the time we advise our readers, collect their experiences . . .”

“There’s your own blind date experience, for starters. And one can imagine what might happen to the others.”

Claudia paged through the papers. “I know my readers. How they think. I can voice their thoughts on important cultural matters.”

Then he was forgotten. She sat down with the papers and took out her thick blue pencil. She was not writing, but editing the material he had written. Russell smiled with pleasure. The soccer ball slammed onto the desk, upsetting the tea tray. Claudia was too engaged to look up. “Russell!” she called. He set about collecting the soccer ball, the tea things, and a fractious Hope. The doorbell rang. He went to the window. Jake was on the doorstep below. Russell turned to Claudia, crouching over the worktable now, a blur of movement with scissors and paste-pot, cutting, pasting and assembling.

“Whoever it is, I’m not here,” she said without looking his way. He was about to open his mouth when she added,”Especially not Jake.”

Hope jumped up and down. “Can I go out and play with him?”

“Of course, darling.”

“You come, too. Please.”

“Mummy’s busy.”

 

When she called herself ‘Mummy’ she was very serious and it was best not to bother her. And then she stooped down and took both of Hope’s hands and looked right in her eyes, which meant she was saying something very important. And what she said was “I’m afraid Mummy’s not going to be able to go out with you and Jake anymore.”

“Not ever?”

“Not ever. You run along and have a good time.” And she kissed her and went back to her papers.

Jake was wearing a different face today. Not the happy face he usually wore. And he didn’t say hello. He didn’t even look at her. He looked at Russell and he was angry and sad at the same time.

“Why won’t she speak to me?” Jake asked.

“She’s very busy,” Russell answered.

Well, that was true and it wasn’t. She wasn’t just busy, she was ‘creating’, which was what she called it when Hope was unhappy about something and making a fuss. She was never too busy to come out to play with Jake and so she was unhappy. And so was Jake. And it was going to be a miserable day.

So she wouldn’t hold his hand and didn’t even walk with him as they went along the path. She trailed behind, carrying the football. He didn’t even notice. He didn’t even know she was there. So she stopped to see if he would notice, and he didn’t. He just went on walking. He wasn’t even looking after her. Anyone could come along and kidnap her and he wouldn’t know. So she got angry and she put the ball down and kicked it after him. And just then he turned and he saw the ball coming. Only it was going off the path and was going to miss him by a mile-and-a-half, but he ran across and stood just in front of where it was going and opened his legs wide and the ball went right through them. And he had his happy face on and he jumped up and pumped his fist up in the air and shouted “Goal!” and everything was all right after that.

Well, not all right like always. They were friends again and they held hands now, like always, but when he wasn’t actually talking to her he had a funny, sad face on. And he didn’t walk lightly the way they always did, almost dancing, but he moped along with heavy steps and it made her tired stomping along like that too. And so she tried one of their funny walks and she didn’t get it right, but he started laughing and they skipped away together and then he jumped up sideways into the air and clicked his heels together twice and she tried it and of course she couldn’t but he caught her so she didn’t fall on the ground and they were both laughing together now. So she knew she could make him feel better if she really tried.

From the top of the hill it was just like ‘Snakes and Ladders’. People walked up the paths and they went down again. Sometimes the children ran down, just like sliding down a snake. Jake had gone up a ladder and was making Mummy happy so she went up a ladder, too. And now Jake had slid all the way back to square one. And Mummy had slid down a snake, too. And so they all pulled her down a snake too and it wasn’t her fault. Stephen had been right at the tippety-top and then he had slid down the biggest snake of all and right out of the game. And Mummy slid down that time, too. Before she and Jake went up a ladder together. Belinda was always sliding down snakes. Only Russell never seemed to mind good luck and bad luck, but he cheated.

All the children were flying kites and she wished she had brought her kite because all she had was the football and Jake was tired of playing with that and he was just standing there staring into space and it was getting boring. So she didn’t know what to do and then she thought of the ball and she just kicked it as hard as she could and it was a good kick and they both watched it and it didn’t stop but just kept on rolling until it went into the long grass at the bottom.

She might as well go down a great, big snake. Hope lay down on the grass on her back. “Can I roll down the hill?”

“Why do you want to do that?

“Because it makes me feel better.”

He nodded and she closed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest just like the ladies who slept in the graves in the churches underneath the brass that you rubbed to make pictures of them.

“I need a push.”

He gave her a good push and she started rolling down the hill and she went faster and faster, just like the ball, and she opened her eyes and the sky was whirling overhead and then the grass and then the sky again and she was getting a little dizzy and maybe sick and she wondered if she would hit a tree except she knew there were no trees there and Jake would never have pushed her if there had been but maybe she would never stop but just keep rolling and rolling out into the road although the ball had only gone as far as the long grass, but it seemed a long, long way. And then she heard Jake shouting her name but it was all right now because she was slowing down and she came to a stop and she was laughing because she wasn’t frightened any longer and it was great fun and she had gone so far. And she looked up and heard him shout again. He was way up the hill behind her and he shouted “Hi-dee-ho” which is what they always shouted on that television program and then he got down and started rolling too and she got up on her feet so he wouldn’t roll over her and here he came, whirling and whirling, face and black hair and face and black hair, and then he was there and they were both laughing and that’s how she had given him his happy face again.

So they were both happy now and they lay on their backs, side by side, watching the kites dancing in the sky. So now was a good time to tell him what was bothering her.

“Mummy says she can’t come out to play with us anymore.”

“You mean never?

“Never, ever. That’s what she said.”

“Did she say why?”

“Russell fibbed. She’s not busy. She’s creating. And sometimes she just sits doing nothing. Just looking out the window. For a long, long time.” And then, because he was asking about Mummy, she thought maybe she knew why Jake was so sad. “Do you love Mummy?”

He didn’t answer right away the way he usually did. And when he did, he didn’t give her a proper answer, but he just said, “That’s a big, big word.”

“It’s only got four letters.”

“Some little words have a great big meaning.”

“Same as my name. H-O-P-E. It means when you want something very, very much.”

“What do you want?”

“I want Mummy to be happy. Sometimes she cries and it makes me feel sad.”

“That’s all you want?”

Yes, that was all she wanted and so she nodded her head and the more she nodded it the more sure she was.

“I bet you want an ice-cream, too,” he said.

“That’s different.”

“Sometimes when you want two things very much, you’ve got to make a choice. I want to be the best actor in the world. Can I love acting and love your Mummy, too?”

She sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a brother and sometimes she wanted one and other times she thought he would be a great nuisance, but she’d always thought about a little brother. A big brother would be different and she would definitely like that if it could be Jake and he could be part of her family.

“Do you love me?” she asked.

“Yes. I love you just the way your Mummy does.”

“I love you, too. But not so much.”

“Why not so much?”

“Because Mummy loves you more.”

“Did she say that?” he asked very quickly. He had turned on his side and was looking straight at her. He wanted her to tell the real truth.

Well, no, she never had said that, so after she thought about it Hope shook head. “I just know,” she said.

“I think I love her, too.”

“Then you can come and live with us.” She thought about the arrangements. She wouldn’t want to have to share her own room, and Mummy used the other bedroom as a study. “You can sleep in Mummy’s room. Like Russell used to.”

Jake suddenly sat up straight. “Russell sleeps with your Mummy?”

“Not anymore. He stays in the basement now.”