extract from a story by Noëlle Mackay (reblogged from Tumblr)
“She’s mad. And she hates me. I’m sure she wants to kill me.” Imogen, unusually agitated, trying too hard to keep her tone flippant, was standing in her kitchen, clutching a glass of wine far too early in the afternoon, knowing she was about to give away too much to her avid audience of one. “And she’s living in my house, looking after my children, sleeping with my husband.”
“Darling, you are so lucky and so beautiful – your life is a Victorian melodrama. Oliver is so sexy, we all want to sleep with him.”
Mark, for all the campery, had hit the nail on the head. Oliver was less of a person than an object, everyone’s object, the golden goose, there for the laying, if only you could get to the front of the queue. She had known that when she married him; she could hardly accuse him of betrayal.
Mark was so wise for such a young man, young enough to be her son, though she would never say it. He was exquisite, slender and fair, with an angelic face and solemn judge’s eyes.
Flirting with him was a courtly pleasure that relaxed her. The mind sex invented by women when they were chattels of men in tights was still liberating. She wondered if Oliver thought atavistically of her as a chattel. It would explain a lot. “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving” she remembered, but couldn’t remember the last time she had felt loving towards her husband.
Annoyingly, Mark didn’t drink alcohol. She put down her glass of wine. “It would be better if I started smoking. All we need is something to keep fingers and mouth occupied. I’m sure that’s why my mother smoked so much. She did everything else in moderation. I wish I was like her. How is your mother?”
“She is well; she is beautiful like you; she knows how to organize her life, though it is harder now my father is home so much.”
“But they love each other, don’t they? They’ve made it work.”
“They got used to being apart. It was a pact: he earned the money abroad; my mother brought us up and worked when she could.”
“And I can’t manage without a frigging nanny.” Heroically, Imogen did not pour another glass.
She looked distractedly around the gleaming work surfaces and artfully distressed furniture of the room, where every utensil and flower was coordinated for a lovely whole.
Imogen had created this order herself. She was a priestess of shabby chic, manifested in her clothes, her expensive hair-cut and make-up that did not look like make-up. She wanted everything to look natural and spontaneous, which cost her great effort.
She continued: “Is that what you’re thinking? My poor, privileged children. I hate having a nanny. I don’t know how I let it happen. Any of it. Do you feel hard done by, have regrets, about your father’s absence I mean?”
“No. He made money to make us free. My sisters and I wouldn’t have got our flats without his help. We’d never have afforded tuition fees. They thought it through.”
“And are you free? Do you feel free? I don’t. Now I think I have to welcome refugees to my spare room – the one She’s got now. And I don’t really want them. Well, I want nice ones, of course. But I can’t choose people as if they were rescue dogs or cats. I can’t face more clutter, more emotion. Isn’t that bad? To reject my White Woman’s Burden? To think that I could use refugees as an excuse to evict the nanny? Thank God I never tell the truth on Facebook.”
“Who does? Everyone spins along with the rest of the world without feeling it – except you, Imogen, my innocent, trying to stand still and tell the truth.” (But I don’t, thought Imogen, aghast at the familiarity of deceit. I’m keeping a secret from you, all the time.)
“I won’t tell on you. I’ll look after your adorable children.” said Mark, who worked with children, and understood them, better than she did.
What kind of mother does not understand her own children, she asked herself, another off-loaded thought, up for adoption, giving an opportunity to somebody else to be better. Imogen shuddered with the weight of her burden.
“I delayed having them until I was grown up enough to deserve them, and I expected money, Oliver’s money, would protect them, control events, I suppose, and now I’m not so sure –“ she broke off as shouts and squeals from the garden amplified. “Here they come, my darlings –“
Two small, untidy human beings hurled themselves through the open door and clamoured for Mark and their mother to hear their afternoon’s dramas of discovery and dispute.
They were happy to play with Mark, they engaged with him, more or less politely, they were more or less bright and healthy, but Imogen felt yet again the sickly fall inside, followed by the guilty thought that they weren’t quite as they should be. She had done something wrong. She had let them down. They didn’t have the carapace for survival. Some people care too much; sometimes she wished she’d never had them.
When she showed Mark to the door, they kissed twice on the cheek and she murmured “What would I do if you refused to play Gay Best Friend? I’d be in such a mess.”
She was careful to look perfectly in control when she said it.
“Did you have fun with Matty, earlier on? You like her, don’t you?” Imogen pumped her son and daughter for information, guiltily, after giving them supper. She had a limited repertoire of healthy recipes, and was dismayed by all the fat children she saw in the street, at the gates of the primary school, in the news.
It was a modern epidemic: she noticed that Dickon and Merry had got pudgier, recently, more stolid and bulging than the elfin brood she had expected.
They were tucked up on the sofa, either side of her, a cartoon that seemed incomprehensibly silly to Imogen, ineffably comforting to the kids, playing on the TV monitor.
“Ya. Matty’s cool. She’s funny. She tells good stories.”
“She takes us to fairy-land, Mummy.”
“Ah,” gasped Imogen, on edge. “Fairy land.” Where I am supposed to take them. “What fun.”
“And she gives us great food.”
“What?” The mother tigress was alert now. She turned down the volume of the raucously self-important pink and yellow blobs on screen. “What food?”
“ Nice stuff. You know. Whenever we go out, and when you’re not here –“ said her candid son.
“ Dickon!” his younger sister warned him. “Matty said we were not to tell Mummy.”
“ Not tell Mummy what, darlings? There are no secrets between us. Mummy needs to know. I’m not cross. Not with you. Don’t leave me out. What yummy things does Matty give you to eat?”
“ Sweets and chocolate bars. Crisps. We like crisps, Mummy. A lot. And she gives us as much ice-cream and cake as we want”.
“And does she give you lots of burgers and chips?”
“Oh yes! Matty says we should have whatever we want! And that it’s OK to eat in the street. She said you wouldn’t like it, Mummy. Why?” asked Dickon.
Imogen, pulse racing, voice gentle, took a leap. “Remember the witch in Hansel and Gretchel?”
The sight of their round little pansy faces looking up at her twisted her inside. “And what happens?”
“They put her in the oven!” the children said, relieved that Mummy was repeating a story, not telling them off.
Hugging them close, she gulped down more of her own mother-evil and continued, at a whisper.
“And before that, the witch feeds Hansel to make him fat so she can eat him.”
The inexperienced little ones looked at each other, mouths open, eyes wide, clutched hands and stared at their mother.
“Is Matty a witch, Mummy?”
“I don’t know, my darlings. I shouldn’t think so. Of course not. If she is, I’m sure she’s a good one.”
“Like Maleficent?” asked her sombre, misnamed, daughter, seeing a light.
“No! Well, yes, how clever of you to think of that. They both have long hair, though Matty is blonde, of course.” Out of a bottle. Imogen was losing the thread to bind her own children. I should be their Maleficent. “If she’s a good witch, she’ll be like Maleficent. But no witch is quite the same as another. We’ll ask her, shall we?” Malevolent bitch, are you feeding my children to kill me?
“But you must be careful. Nothing to be afraid of. Everything will be all right, now that Mummy knows. Always tell Mummy everything. Nobody loves you as much as Mummy. And Daddy.”
Her voice was gentle, soothing, she hoped, even as invoking Daddy conjured an image in her mind of him conjugating with the Witch, their well-toned, pale-fleshed bodies pulsating in athletic ecstasy, so unlike her own supine indifference, while yellow hair poured over them like liquid gold – out of a bottle. She caught herself before she said the words aloud, and realized her hands were gripping her children too tight as her jaw clenched.
She looked over towards her London galley kitchen and thought: I must get a bigger oven.
[With many thanks to the author, Noëlle Mackay © 2015]
“Imogen felt yet again the sickly fall inside, followed by the guilty thought that they weren’t quite as they should be. She had done something wrong. She had let them down. ” I have felt that way more often than I care to say.
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Lovely writing, like a conversation overheard in a Hampstead ‘family room.’
I could see the faces of those I could never have met.
Dickon and Merry. (Misnamed, perfect.) So right.
Best wishes, Pete. x
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