I wish she wouldn’t do this.
I wish my mother-in-law would be uniformly odd and infuriating all the time, so I can feel justified in complaining about her and accusing her of doing terrible things to my Sophie Conran wallpaper.
Instead, I bear the guilt of having to look at our beautiful, newly decorated living room — an elegant duck-egg blue I would have chosen myself – in our old house in Milton Keynes. If I’m honest, the place looks nicer inside after two years under Sandra’s care than it ever did under ours, especially after Jack added his own interior designs with crayons and dirty Tonka tyres. Maybe the house exterior needs a bit of TLC, but I suppose an outside paint job is our responsibility.
Oliver stands next to me, oozing smugness from every pore, and I want to slap him. He glances sideways at me, smirking with triumph.
“The house looks wonderful, Mum,” he says. “You’ve really looked after it for us. And the living room – it must have been done very recently, because I can still smell the paint.”
“They only finished two days ago.” Sandra crosses the room and adjusts the new, silver-grey, slub curtains so they hang evenly on either side of the patio doors. Surely they aren’t real silk? They look as if they could be. Even if they’re not, they’re a major improvement on the unlined drapes we’d left behind. “I’d decided to get the house spruced up, one room at a time. It seemed like it was the least I could do with me living here rent free. The decorators had just arrived, and then you phoned to ask if you could all come and stay. That’s why I was a bit off with you and had to let you know later if it would be all right. Didn’t want the kiddies sleeping in a house where there’s lots of paint fumes.”
Another puffed-out chest from Oliver, another I-told-you-so look in my direction, another pulled punch from me.
Except — and God forgive me if I’m wrong — this is Sandra talking. Sandra who, when Jack was a newborn, thought it was perfectly OK to feed him a bottle held in one hand and puff on a Benson & Hedges held in the other. Sandra, who thinks Red Bull is an acceptable beverage for a three-year-old. Yet suddenly she’s worried about her grandchildren inhaling paint fumes?
Either she’s taken a crash course in child care, or she’s up to something. Oh, come on. You know what I mean. What are the odds of us phoning her just as the decorators arrive?
There’s no point voicing my suspicions to Oliver, though. He’ll just say I’m being paranoid and nasty, and that nothing his mother does is ever good enough for me.
Without any concrete proof, he’d be right, too. But those nagging hunches persist.
Oliver runs outside through the rain to get the luggage from the car, while I show the children round the house. Jack, of course, spent the first three years of his life here, and he remembers parts of it, like the cupboard under the stairs where he once managed to lock himself while playing an overenthusiastic game of hide and seek with Fergus. I can tell he’s enjoying feeling superior to his brother and sister, whose first time it is here. But all the furniture Jack remembers is in Woodhaven, and this house in Acacia Drive looks very different with Sandra’s eclectic taste.
I say “eclectic”. “Eccentric” or “hippie” would be another way of putting it. A bead curtain in the kitchen, a hammock in the home office, a poster of Jimi Hendrix gracing the dining room. The important thing, though, is she hasn’t changed the infrastructure of the house, and any redecorating she’s done – only the living room, as far as I can tell – has been in keeping with our taste.
Jack and I are showing the twins Jack’s old bedroom (it’s still got his Lightning McQueen lampshade hanging from the ceiling, and Jack is very excited to see this old friend) when I hear Oliver trundling the suitcases into the hall and stomping his feet on the doormat. You forget how much it rains in England when you don’t live there for a while, and it occurs to me, too late, that rain gear didn’t feature highly on our packing list.
“I’ve put you and Libby in your old room.” Sandra’s voice wafts up the stairs. “The children are all in Jack’s old room, and I’m having the spare room while you’re here.”
That’s all fine and dandy, but bedtime will be a nightmare if all the kids are in one room. They’ll never get to sleep.
“Could I put Jack in the little bedroom?” I call to her. “Move his mattress in there?”
Sandra’s face appears over the banisters, looking up at me. “It’s full,” she says. “I use it as a storeroom. I’ve been collecting, um, china, and there are lots of breakable things in there. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve kept that room locked. I’d hate the kiddies to hurt themselves.”
“You see?” Oliver mutters at me as he heaves the two suitcases on the double bed. Goodness, but it feels weird to be sleeping in someone else’s bed, in what used to be our bedroom. “You see? She’s looked after the place beautifully. She hasn’t even got any weird animals – not a tarantula in sight! You were worried about nothing.”
I don’t answer him.
My experience with Sandra is that, sooner or later, something will turn up to fill the worry void.
* * *
Oliver stays with us for a couple of nights before he heads off to his series of meetings in Rotterdam, and promises to be back the following weekend “if he can.” I’m not fooled by this. “Can” will soon turn into “I’ve got work to do and I’ll be more productive doing it in the hotel” which loosely translates as “I’ll be able to have a weekend lie in at the Marriott.”
The past two nights were sleepless for us both, due to all three kids operating on Eastern Standard Time and refusing to adapt to GMT. At least, as far as bedtimes go. They still haven’t got off to sleep before 1 in the morning, but are nevertheless happily bouncing around at 6:30am. Jack, in his leading role of big-brother-who-has-lived-here-before, has taken it upon himself to heave each twin out of its travel cot in the morning, and if I don’t get up to keep an eye on them all, that lovely duck-egg blue living room will need its paint touching up sooner than Sandra anticipated.
Sandra herself we don’t see much of, which has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s peaceful without her, of course. She’s got herself a little job now, working as a cashier in a pet superstore a few miles away, which I suppose explains why she hasn’t got a menagerie of her own anymore. She’s not there during the day to look after any dogs or tarantulas that her weirdo friends have foisted on her.
A curse, though, because it leaves the kids and me with a mobility problem – we can’t go anywhere. Sandra takes her car to work, and Oliver returned our hire car to Heathrow.
“You won’t need it, will you, Libs?” he said before he left.
“Not at all!” I said, throwing myself back into English living. “I’ll show the children what it’s like to get on a bus at the end of the road instead of driving everywhere! I’ll take them on a double-decker. They’ll love it.”
“Taking the bus?” Sandra said with a smoker’s cackle, when I announced our plans for the first day on our own. “What bus? That bus route closed about two months after you moved to America. If you want to get a bus into town now, it’s a mile and a half to the nearest stop. That’s a long way in this weather.”
“Never mind.” I waved my hand around airily. “The rain will stop.”
Except it didn’t. Since Oliver left, we’ve been prisoners in our own house because my packing list didn’t allow for days of torrential rain. The children have only sneakers in the suitcase, and it hardly seems worth buying three pairs of wellingtons just to use here. We’ll never use them back home. In Woodhaven, you either need sneakers, flip-flops, or snow boots. Never wellingtons. Besides, we need wellingtons to get to the shops to buy wellingtons. It’s a vicious circle.
As an aside, when I had to explain what wellingtons were to a blank-faced Jack, I knew he’d crossed an invisible nationality line.
Coming home, it seems, can be even more of a wrench than living away.
* * *
In the middle of Day Four, as I look out of the window at more rain and black clouds and listen to the sound of three children with raging cabin fever, I remember about The Box.
The Box, or rather, a series of Boxes, is stowed in the attic in this house. It contains things like outgrown clothes of Jack’s, Christmas decorations, small electrical appliances that we couldn’t take to the USA but didn’t want Sandra to use, and — if I remember rightly — old clothes that Oliver and I used for gardening and decorating. Clothes like, for example, rubber boots. And I’m pretty sure that I never got around to throwing out Jack’s old, sturdy shoes. I bet I can find things up there to fit all four of us.
The hatch to the attic is in the spare bedroom. After making sure none of my offspring is strangling the other two, I walk upstairs and open the door.
At least, I try to, before remembering with a sigh that Sandra has locked this room safely away from prying little fingers.
I hunt around in kitchen drawers and bedside tables for a key — in the process discovering that the house’s tidiness is indeed only skin deep — but have no luck.
“Sorry, kids,” I say. “It’s another day in paradise. Yet another day of CBeebies.”
Jack’s memory comes to our rescue, however.
“It’s like when I locked myself in the cupboard under the stairs when Fergus and me were playing hide and seek,” he says. I’d told him the story only yesterday.
“It is indeed–” I begin, and then stop.
Because, if I remember rightly, I used the key from the spare bedroom to get him out. I remember talking calmly to him, telling him to wiggle the key on the inside of the cupboard door and pull it out, darling, so that I could put the key in the outside and turn it myself and let him out… I’d tried all the spare keys in the house, hoping that one would fit and that I wouldn’t have to call the fire brigade.
So if the key to the spare bedroom works in the understairs cupboard lock, that means it should work vice versa. Right?
The key to the understairs cupboard is still in the lock. I take it out, fit it in the spare bedroom’s keyhole, and — Yes! The key, with a bit of persuasion, turns. One step nearer to raingear and freedom.
And then, as I push the door open and step into the room, I understand exactly why Sandra wants to distract us with freshly painted living rooms, and why she keeps the spare bedroom locked, and why she isn’t keen on her grandchildren — or her daughter-in-law, for that matter — having access to it.
Given the choice between our resident poltergeist and what Sandra has in here?
Come back, M.
All is forgiven.
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Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.
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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigialPhotos.net; “Suitcase” © Tiff20 at Dreamstime.com – used under license; portrait from MorgueFile