Sometimes they were quiet in the car and sometimes they talked.
‘Can I swear one time in the day? If I don’t swear in the others?’
‘In the morning. When you come and wake me. Can I say, Bollocks?’
He’s the only person in the world who listens to me and does what I tell him (thought Zoe). That morning when she had gone to wake him he had groaned, unconscious, spontaneous—’Already?’ Then he had reached up from his pillow to put strong sleepy arms round her neck.
For these years of her life she was spending more time alone with her boy, side by side in the car, than with anybody else, certainly far more than with her husband, thirty times more, unless you counted the hours asleep. There was the daily business of showing herself to him and to no one else; thinking aloud, urging each other on in the hunt for swimming things, car keys, maths books; yawning like cats, as they had to leave soon after seven if they were going to get to school on time. Then they might tell each other the remains of a dream during the first twenty-five minutes on the way to Freda’s house, or they might sit in comfortable silence, or sometimes they would talk.
This morning when she had pointed out the sun rising in the east to hit the windscreen and blind them with its flood of flashy light, her nine-year-old boy had scoffed at her and said the earth twizzled on its axis and went round the sun, and how she, his mother, was as bad as the ancient Egyptians, how they sacrificed someone to Ra if the sun went in and finished off everybody when there was an eclipse. It’s running out, this hidden time (thought Zoe). You’re on your own at eleven, goes the current unwritten transport protocol, but until then you need a minder. Less than two years to go.
‘I remember when I was at school,’ she’d said that morning while they waited for the Caedmon Hill lights. ‘It seemed to go on forever. Time goes by slowly at school. Slowly. Slowly. Then, after you’re about thirty, it goes faster and faster.’
‘Why?’ asked George.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Maybe it’s because after that you somehow know there’ll be a moment for you when there isn’t any more.’
‘Ooh-ah!’ Then he looked at a passing cyclist and commented, ‘Big arse.’
‘George!’ she said, shocked.
‘It just slipped out,’ he said, apologetic, adult. ‘You know, like when that man in the white van wouldn’t let you in and you said, Bastard.’
Sometimes this daily struggle and inching along through filthy air thick with the thwarted rage of 10,000 drivers gave her, Zoe, pause. It took forty-five minutes to travel the two and three-quarter miles to George’s school (Sacred Heart thanks to his father’s faith springing anew, rather than Hereward the Wake half a mile along), and forty-five minutes for her to come back alone in the empty car. In the afternoons it was the same, but the other way round of course, setting off a little after two-thirty and arriving back well after four. There was no train. To do the journey by bus, they would have had to catch a 63A then change and wait for a 119 at Sollers Junction. They had tried this, and it had doubled the journey time. Why couldn’t there be school buses for everyone as there were in America, the mothers asked each other. Nobody knew why not, but apparently there couldn’t. They were just about able to walk it in the same time as it took in the car, and they had tried this too, carrying rucksacks of homework and packed lunch and sports equipment through the soup of fumes pumped out by crawling cars. Add wind and rain, and the whole idea of pavement travel looked positively quixotic.
‘I’ll get it, Mum,’ said George, as her mobile beeped its receipt of a text.
It was from her friend Stella, whose husband had recently left her for one of his students.
—If I say anything, he gets very angry (Stella had told her on their last phone call); he doesn’t allow me to be angry.
—But he was the one to leave you.
—Yes. But now he’s furious with me, he hates me.
—Do you still love him?
—I don’t recognize him. I can’t believe this man I ate with and slept beside for fifteen years is capable of being so cold and so, yes, cruel.
Is it true, then, that women can take grief as grief (thought Zoe), but men refuse to do that, they have to convert it into diesel in order to deal with it, all the loss and pain converted into rage?
Her husband had looked around and said, ‘Why don’t you do like Sally and Chitra and Mo, organize an au pair, pay for a few driving lessons if necessary, hand it over to someone who’ll be glad of the job.’ She, Zoe, had thought about this, but she’d already been through it all once before, with Joe and Theresa, who were both now at secondary school. She’d done the sums, gone through the interviews in imagination, considered the no-claims bonus; she’d counted the years for which her work time would be cut in half, she’d set off the loss of potential income against the cost of childcare, and she’d bitten the bullet. ‘It’s your choice,’ said Patrick. And it was.
‘You’re a loser, Mum,’ her daughter Theresa had told her on her return from a recent careers convention. But she wasn’t. She’d done it all now—she’d been through the whole process of hanging on to her old self, carving out patches of time, not relinquishing her work, then partly letting go in order to be more with the children, his work taking precedence over hers as generally seemed to be the case when the parents were still together. Unless the woman earned more, which opened up a whole new can of modern worms. Those long-forgotten hours and days were now like nourishing leaf mould round their roots. Let the past go (sang Zoe beneath her breath), time to move on; her own built-in obsolescence could make her feel lively rather than sad. And perhaps the shape of life would be like an hourglass, clear and wide to begin with, narrowing down to the tunnel of the middle years, then flaring wide again before the sands ran out.
‘Mum, can you test me on my words?’ asked George. He was doing a French taster term, taking it seriously because he wanted to outstrip his friend Mick who was better than him at maths.
‘Well I’m not supposed to,’ said Zoe. ‘But we’re not moving. Here, put it on my lap and keep your eye open for when the car in front starts to move.’
When I was starting out, leaving babies till after thirty was seen as leaving it late (thought Zoe). Over thirty was the time of fade for women, loss of bloom and all that. Now you’re expected to be still a girl at forty-two—slim, active, up for it. But if I hadn’t done it, had Joe at twenty-six and Theresa at twenty-eight, hammered away at work and sweated blood in pursuit of good childminders, nurseries, au pairs, you name it, and finally, five years later when George came along, slowed down for a while at least; then I wouldn’t know why so many women are the way they are. Stymied at some point; silenced somewhere. Stalled. Or, merely delayed?
‘It’s who, when, where, how and all that sort of thing,’ said George. ‘I’ll tell you how I remember quand. I think of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice because you know he had a WAND, rhymes with quand, and then he goes away with all those buckets of water and then WHEN he comes back… Get it? WHEN he comes back! That’s how it stays in my mind. And qui is the KEY in a door and you answer it and who is there? WHO! I thought of all that myself, yeah. Course. And ou is monkeys in the rainforest. Oo oo oo. Hey look, it’s moving.’
They crawled forward, even getting into second gear for a few seconds, then settled again into stasis.
‘Why the rainforest?’ asked Zoe. ‘Monkeys in the rainforest?’
‘Because, where are they?’ he asked. ‘Where are they, the trees in the rainforest. That’s what the monkeys want to know, oo oo oo. ‘Cos they aren’t there any more, the trees in the rainforest.’
‘You remember everything they teach you at school, don’t you,’ said Zoe admiringly.
‘Just about,’ said George with a pleased smile. ‘Mum, I don’t want you to die until I’m grown up.’
There was a pause.
‘But I don’t want to die before you,’ he added.
‘No, I don’t want that either,’ said Zoe.
This boy remembers every detail of every unremarkable day (thought Zoe), he’s not been alive that long and he’s got acres of lovely empty space in his memory bank. Whereas I’ve been alive for ages and it’s got to the point where my mind is saying it already has enough on its shelves, it just can’t be bothered to store something new unless it’s really worth remembering.
I climb the stairs and forget what I’m looking for. I forgot to pick up Natasha last week when I’d promised her mother, and I had to do a three-point turn in the middle of Ivanhoe Avenue and go back for her and just hope that none of the children already in the car would snitch on me. But that’s nothing new. I can’t remember a thing about the last decade or so, she told other mothers, and they agreed, it was a blur, a blank, they had photographs to prove it had happened but they couldn’t remember it themselves. She, Zoe, saw her memory banks as having shrivelled for lack of sleep’s welcome rain; she brooded over the return of those refreshing showers and the rehydration of her pot-noodle bundles of memories, and how (one day) the past would plump into action, swelling with import, newly alive. When she was old and free and in her second adolescence, she would sleep in royally, till midday or one. Yet old people cannot revisit that country, they report; they wake and listen to the dawn chorus after four or five threadbare hours, and long for the old three-ply youth-giving slumber.
They had reached Freda’s house, and Zoe stopped the car to let George out. He went off to ring the bell and wait while Freda and also Harry, who was in on this lift, gathered their bags and shoes and coats. It was too narrow a road to hover in, or rather Zoe did not have the nerve to make other people queue behind her while she waited for her passengers to arrive. This morning she shoehorned the car into a minute space 300 yards away, proudly parking on a sixpence.
What’s truly radical now though (thought Zoe, rereading the text from Stella as she waited) is to imagine a man and woman having children and living happily together, justice and love prevailing, self-respect on both sides, each making sure the other flourishes as well as the children. The windscreen blurred as it started to rain. If not constantly, she modified, then taking turns. Where are they?
But this wave of divorces (she thought), the couples who’d had ten or fifteen years or more of being together, her feeling was that often it wasn’t as corny as it seemed to be in Stella’s case—being left for youth. When she, Zoe, looked closely, it was more to do with the mercurial resentment quotient present in every marriage having risen to the top of the thermometer. It was more to do with how the marriage had turned out, now it was this far down the line. Was one of the couple thriving and satisfied, with the other restless or foundering? Or perhaps the years had spawned a marital Black Dog, where one of them dragged the other down with endless gloom or bad temper or censoriousness and refused to be comforted, ever, and also held the other responsible for their misery.
There had been a scattering of bust-ups during the first two or three years of having babies, and then things seemed to settle down. This was the second wave, a decade or so on, a wild tsunami of divorce as children reached adolescence and parents left youth behind. The third big wave was set to come when the children left home. She, Zoe, had grown familiar with the process simply by listening. First came the shock, the vulnerability and hurt; then the nastiness (particularly about money) with accompanying baffled incredulity; down on to indignation at the exposure of unsuspected talents for treachery, secretiveness, two-faced liardom; falling last of all into scalding grief or adamantine hatred. Only last week her next-door neighbour, forced to put the house on the market, had hissed at her over the fence, ‘I hope he gets cancer and dies.’ Though when it came to showing round prospective purchasers, the estate agents always murmured the word amicable as reassurance; purchasers wanted to hear it was amicable rather than that other divorce word, acrimonious.
She peered into the driver’s mirror and saw them trudging towards the car with their usual heaps of school luggage. It was still well before eight and, judging herself more bleached and craggy than usual, she added some colour just as they got to the car.
‘Lipstick, hey,’ said George, taking the front seat. The other two shuffled themselves and their bags into the back.
‘I used to wear make-up,’ said Zoe. ‘Well, a bit. When I was younger. I really enjoyed it.’
‘Why don’t you now?’ asked Freda. Freda’s mother did, of course. Her mother was thirty-eight rather than forty-two. It made a difference, this slide over to the other side, reflected Zoe, and also one was tireder.
‘Well, I still do if I feel like it,’ she said, starting the car and indicating. She waited for a removal van to lumber along and shave past. ‘But I don’t do it every day like brushing my teeth. It’s just another thing.’ Also, nobody but you lot is going to see me so why would I, she added silently, churlishly.
She was aware of the children thinking, What? Why not? Women should wear make-up. Freda in particular would be on the side of glamour and looking one’s best at all times.
‘We had a Mexican student staying with us once,’ she told them, edging on to the main road. ‘And at first she would spend ages looking after her long glossy hair, and more ages brushing make-up on to her eyelids and applying that gorgeous glassy lipgloss. But after a while she stopped, and she looked just like the rest of us—she said to me, it was a lovely holiday after Mexico City, where she really couldn’t go outside without the full works or everybody would stare at her. So she kept it for parties or times when she felt like putting it on, after that.’
‘Women look better with make-up,’ commented Harry from the back. Harry’s au pair dropped him off at Freda’s on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and in the spirit of hawk-eyed reciprocity on which the whole fragile school-run ecosystem was founded, Zoe collected George from Harry’s house on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, which cut that journey in half.
‘Well I’m always going to wear make-up when I’m older,’ said Freda.
‘Women used to set their alarm clocks an hour early so they could put on their false eyelashes and lid liner and all that,’ said Zoe. ‘Imagine being frightened of your husband seeing your bare face!’
There was silence as they considered this; grudging assent, even. But the old advice was still doing the rounds, Zoe had noticed, for women to listen admiringly to men and not to laugh at them if they wanted to snare one of their very own. Give a man respect for being higher caste than you, freer, more powerful. And men, what was it men wanted? Was it true they only wanted a cipher? That a woman should not expect admiration from a man for any other qualities than physical beauty or selflessness? Surely not. If this were the case, why live with such a poor sap if you could scrape your own living?
‘Do you like Alex?’ asked Harry. ‘I don’t. I hate Alex, he whines and he’s mean and he cries and he whinges all the time. But I pretend I like him, because I want him to like me.’
There was no comment from the other three. They were sunk in early morning torpor, staring at the static traffic around them.
‘I despite him,’ said Harry.
‘You can’t say that,’ said Freda. ‘It’s despise.’
‘That’s what I said,’ said Harry.
It was nothing short of dangerous and misguided (thought Zoe) not to keep earning, even if it wasn’t very much and you were doing all the domestic and emotional work as well, for the sake of keeping the marital Black Dog at bay. Otherwise if you spoke up it would be like biting the hand that fed you. Yes you wanted to be around (thought Zoe), to be an armoire, to make them safe as houses. But surrendering your autonomy for too long, subsumption without promise of future release, those weren’t good for the health.
‘I hate that feeling in the playground when I’ve bullied someone and then they start crying,’ said Harry with candour.
‘I don’t like it if someone cries because of something I’ve said,’ said Freda.
‘I don’t like it when there’s a group of people and they’re making someone cry,’ said George over his shoulder. ‘That makes me feel bad.’
‘Oh I don’t mind that,’ said Harry. ‘If it wasn’t me that made them cry. If it was other people, that’s nothing to do with me.’
‘No, but don’t you feel bad when you see one person like that,’ replied George, ‘And everyone picking on them, if you don’t, like, say something?’
‘No,’ said Harry. ‘I don’t care. As long as I’m not being nasty to them I don’t feel bad at what’s happening.’
‘Oh,’ said George, considering. ‘I do.’
‘Look at that car’s number plate,’ said Freda. ‘The letters say XAN. XAN! XAN!’
‘FWMMM!’ joined in Harry. ‘FWMMFWMM! FWMM FWMMFWMM!’
‘BGA,’ growled George. ‘BGA. Can you touch your nose with your tongue?’
Zoe stared out from the static car at the line of people waiting in the rain at a bus stop, and studied their faces. Time sinks into flesh (she mused), gradually sinks it. A look of distant bruising arrives, and also for some reason asymmetry. One eye sits higher than the other and the mouth looks crooked. We start to look like cartoons or caricatures of ourselves. On cold days like today the effect can be quite trollish.
‘Who would you choose to push off a cliff or send to prison or give a big hug?’ George threw over his shoulder. ‘Out of three—Peter Vallings—’
‘Ugh, not Peter Vallings!’ shrieked Freda in an ecstasy of disgust.
‘Mrs Campbell. And—Mr Starling!’
‘Mr Starling! Oh my God, Mr Starling,’ said Harry, caught between spasms of distaste and delight. ‘Yesterday he was wearing this top, yeah, he lets you see how many ripples he’s got.’
Your skin won’t stay with your flesh as it used to (thought Zoe), it won’t move and follow muscle the way it did before. You turn, and there is a fan of creases however trim you are; yet once you were one of these young things at the bus stop, these over-eleven secondary school pupils. Why do we smile at adolescent boys, so unfinished, so lumpy (she wondered) but feel disturbed by this early beauty of the girls, who gleam with benefit, their hair smooth as glass or in rich ringlets, smiling big smiles and speaking up and nobody these days saying, ‘Who do you think you are?’ or ‘You look like a prostitute.’ It’s not as if the boys won’t catch up with a vengeance.
‘I love my dog,’ said Harry fiercely.
‘Yes, he’s a nice dog,’ agreed Freda.
‘I love my dog so much,’ continued Harry, ‘I would rather die than see my dog die.’
‘You would rather die than your dog?’ said George in disbelief.
‘Yes! I love my dog! Don’t you love your dog?’
‘You don’t really love your dog. If you wouldn’t die instead of him.’
Zoe bit her tongue. Her rule was, never join in. That way they could pretend she wasn’t there. The sort of internal monologue she enjoyed these days came from being around older children, at their disposal but silent. She was able to dip in and out of her thoughts now with the freedom of a bird. Whereas it was true enough that no thought could take wing around the under-fives; what they needed was too constant and minute and demanding, you had to be out of the room in order to think and they needed you in the room.
When George walked beside her he liked to hold on to what he called her elbow flab. He pinched it till it held a separate shape. He was going to be tall. As high as my heart, she used to say last year, but he had grown since then; he came up to her shoulder now, this nine-year-old.
‘Teenagers!’ he’d said to her not long ago. ‘When I turn thirteen I’ll be horrible in one night. Covered in spots and rude to you and not talking. Jus’ grunting.’
Where did he get all that from? The most difficult age for girls was fourteen, they now claimed, the parenting experts; while for boys it was nineteen. Ten more years then. Good.
‘Would you like to be tall?’ she’d asked him that time.
‘Not very,’ he’d said decisively. ‘But I wouldn’t like just to be five eight or something. I’d want to be taller than my wife.’
His wife! Some way down the corridor of the years, she saw his wife against the fading sun, her face in shade. Would his wife mind if she, Zoe, hugged him when they met? She might, she might well. More than the father giving away his daughter, the mother must hand over her son. Perhaps his wife would only allow them to shake hands. When he was little his hands had been like velvet, without knuckles or veins; he used to put his small warm hands up her cardigan sleeves when he was wheedling for something.
They were inching their way down Mordred Hill, some sort of delay having been caused by a juggernaut trying to back into an eighteenth-century alley centimetres too narrow for it. Zoe sighed with disbelief, then practised her deep breathing. Nothing you could do about it, no point in road rage, the country was stuffed to the gills with cars and that was all there was to it. She had taken the Civil Service exams after college and one of the questions had been, How would you arrange the transport system of this country? At the time, being utterly wrapped up in cliometrics and dendrochronology, she had been quite unable to answer; but now, a couple of decades down the line, she felt fully qualified to write several thousand impassioned words, if not a thesis, on the subject.
But then if you believe in wives and steadfastness and heroic monogamy (thought Zoe, as the lorry cleared the space and the traffic began to flow again), how can you admit change? Her sister Valerie had described how she was making her husband read aloud each night in bed from How to Rescue a Relationship. When he protested, she pointed out that it was instead of going to a marriage guidance counsellor. Whoever wants to live must forget, Valerie had told her drily; that was the gist of it. She, Zoe, wasn’t sure that she would be able to take marriage guidance counselling seriously either, as she suspected it was probably done mainly by women who were no longer needed on the school run. It all seemed to be about women needed and wanted, then not needed and not wanted. She moved off in second gear.
No wonder there were gaggles of mothers sitting over milky lattes all over the place from 8.40 a.m. They were recovering from driving exclusively in the first two gears for the last hour; they had met the school deadline and now wanted some pleasure on the return run. Zoe preferred her own company at this time of the morning, and also did not relish the conversation of such groups, which tended to be fault-finding sessions on how Miss Scantlebury taught long division or post-mortems on reported classroom injustices, bubblings-up of indignation and the urge to interfere, still to be the main moving force in their child’s day. She needed a coffee though—a double macchiato, to be precise—and she liked the cafe sensation of being alone but in company, surrounded by tables of huddled intimacies each hived off from the other, scraps of conversation drifting in the air. Yesterday, she remembered, there had been those two women in baggy velour tracksuits at the table nearest to her, very solemn.
‘I feel rather protective towards him. The girls are very provocative the way they dress now. He’s thirteen.’
‘Especially when you’re surrounded by all these images. Everywhere you go.’
‘It’s not a very nice culture.’
‘No, it’s not.’
And all around there had been that steady self-justificatory hum of women telling each other the latest version of themselves, their lives, punctuated with the occasional righteous cry as yet another patch of moral high ground was claimed. That’s a real weakness (she thought, shaking her head), and an enemy of, of—whatever it is we’re after. Amity, would you call it?
‘Last year when we were in Cornwall we went out in a boat and we saw sharks,’ said Harry.
‘Sharks!’ scoffed George. ‘Ho yes. In Cornwall.’
‘No, really,’ insisted Harry.
‘It’s eels as well,’ said Freda. ‘I don’t like them either.’
‘Ooh no,’ Harry agreed, shuddering.
‘What about sea snakes,’ said George. ‘They can swim into any hole in your body.’
The car fell silent as they absorbed this information.
‘Where did you hear this?’ asked Zoe suspiciously; she had her own reservations about Mr Starling.
‘Mr Starling told us,’ smirked George. ‘If it goes in at your ear, you’re dead because it sneaks into your brain. But if it goes up your…’
‘What happens if it gets in up there?’ asked Harry.
‘If it gets in there, up inside you,’ said George, ‘You don’t die but they have to take you to hospital and cut you open and pull it out.’
The talk progressed naturally from here to tapeworms.
‘They hang on to you by hooks all the way down,’ said Harry. ‘You have to poison them, by giving the person enough to kill the worm but not them. Then the worm dies and the hooks get loose and the worm comes out. Either out of your bottom or somehow they pull it through your mouth.’
‘That’s enough of that,’ said Zoe at last. ‘It’s too early in the morning.’
They reached the road where the school was with five minutes to spare, and Zoe drew in to the kerb some way off while they decanted their bags and shoes and morning selves. Would George kiss her? She only got a kiss when they arrived if none of the boys in his class was around. He knew she wanted a kiss, and gave her a warning look. No, there was Sean McIlroy; no chance today.
They were gone. The car was suddenly empty, she sat unkissed, redundant, cast off like an old boot. ‘Boohoo,’ she murmured, her eyes blurring for a moment, and carefully adjusted her wing mirror for something to do.
Then George reappeared, tapping at the window, looking stern and furtive.
‘I said I’d forgotten my maths book,’ he muttered when she opened the car door, and, leaning across as though to pick up something from the seat beside her, smudged her cheek with a hurried—but (thought Zoe) unsurpassable—kiss.
Photograph by Jochen Spieker