The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Category Archives: Libby’s Life

LIBBY’S LIFE #81 – Send the past packing

The best thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

And the worst thing about moving to a house only a mile and a half away is that you can do your own packing and take the boxes there yourself.

Chuck, you see, nice, reasonable man that he is, has given Maggie the keys to his mother’s house and told us to move our stuff in before the official handover date. “Make things easy for yourself,” he said.

Fantastic — or so Oliver and I thought at first. We could take our time and move everything in stages, starting with the least critical items. But after a couple of days of wrapping china in newspaper and getting our hands and clothes covered in printer’s ink, we began to see why most sensible people fork out a big pile of dollar bills and pay someone else to do it.

We used cardboard wine crates from the local liquor store to pack everything in, then, after only four trips over to the house with the car filled with Napa Valley Cabernet Shiraz boxes, Oliver announced he was leaving for a business trip to Vancouver.

“I’ll be back on the eleventh,” he said. “That gives us four days to get everything together. No problem! Piece of cake!”

What, pray, does Oliver know about cake? About as much as he knows about packing, I’d say.

Before he went, we’d barely made a dent in it — packing, not cake — and now, with less than a week to go before we hand the keys back to Melissa, it’s all down to me to pack the rest up and move it across town. Not the big important pieces like bed, chests, tables, or sofas, you understand, but the fiddly, inconsequential things like clothes, toys, non-perishable food, ornaments, books, CDs, Oliver’s extensive collection of rocks and dead beetles that he catalogued when he was twelve and can’t bear to throw away…

Piece of cake. Right.

“I’ll help,” Maggie said to me, after she saw Oliver trundling his carry-on case towards the taxi marked Airport Shuttle Service.

I protested out of politeness, but not enough for her to change her mind.

“No, I insist,” she said. “It will take you twice as long on your own to transport the boxes, because you will have to take the children with you. This way, I can stay with the children while you drive over to the house on your own.”

Well, when she puts it like that… Sometimes a girl has to take whatever kind of me-time she can get.

* * *

Maggie sits on the floor of our living room and wraps up a Dresden china figurine in the sports section of the Boston Globe. I don’t like the ornament, and one part of me is hoping that it will get broken in the move, “accidentally”, of course. My mother’s aunt gave it to us for a wedding present, and while it was very kind of her, Dresden china isn’t our style. Great Aunt Esther might as well have given us a set of antimacassars or an aspidistra.

“Chuck left me a big folder of paperwork relating to the house, to give to you.” Maggie carefully places the Dresden in a cardboard crate and moves onto the next item — a pair of Wedgwood candlesticks from my grandmother. “Old paperwork. Old deeds, plans, that kind of thing.”

“Oh yes?”

I confess, I’m not paying too much attention to Maggie. I’ve just found Oliver’s badminton racquet case with the stuffed tiger in it, and I can’t help but remember the awful chain of events it precipitated last year, shortly after the twins were born.

“Mmm. I haven’t looked at it, because the house will be yours, not mine, but it could be interesting. For example, while the official date of the house is 1830, I remember Cathy saying that she thought there might have been another building there before. Something to do with the basement being only a few feet high and her not being able to stand upright in it. I’m not sure what her reasoning was, but maybe you’ll find the answer in the folder.”

I jam the badminton racquet and all its emotional baggage in a suitcase.

“Your friend Cathy must have been very tall, then,” I say. “The basement’s like any other. Dark, creepy, and full of noisy machinery. I can stand upright in it, no problem.”

“No, not that part. I mean the part behind the furnace.”

Maggie falls silent, and at first I think she’s admiring Granny’s Wedgwood candlesticks, but then I realize she’s been distracted by the packing paper and is reading about the dramatic arrest of a New England Patriots player accused of murder.

I think hard about the basement in the house we’re buying. I remember the furnace, because it was surprisingly new in such an old place. But it was next to a wall. There was no more basement space behind it.

I tell Maggie this, and she tears herself away from the gory details of local sports scandals.

“Oh no, you can’t see it now. Cathy had some work done on the house, back in the late seventies. Had the basement sealed off behind the furnace, because it was neither use nor ornament since you had to bend over double to get in there.” She places the Boston Globe-wrapped candlesticks in the box with the Dresden shepherdess. “Or at least, that’s what she… Goodness me, are these your wedding photos?”

She holds up a cream suede album.

“May I look?” she asks.

I wave my hand graciously. “Be my guest.”

I’ll have to put her in charge of the mugs and glasses. She’s too easily distracted. Still, this has reminded me of something.

“You never showed me the photos of your daughter’s wedding at Christmas,” I say, and wait as she slowly turns the pages of our album. She’s stalling for time, I think. “You promised you would, and then forgot. And we won’t have time next week what with moving, and the week after that you go to the Keys for a month.”

She looks up from the photos. She’s on the page where Oliver and I have our hands on the knife, ready to cut the wedding cake. It was a traditional, heavy fruit cake, and I recall thinking at the time that a circular saw would have been more useful than that dinky, ivory-handled cake knife.

“After we’ve finished packing for the day, how’s that?”

She sounds rather strange, I think. And I’d bet a lot of money, or at least a Dresden shepherdess and a couple of candlesticks, that she’s hoping I’ll have forgotten by the end of the day.

* * *

I make five trips to the house on Main Street, and by the end of the fourth, the sun is bobbing along behind the trees, and the children are getting cranky. To make it easier for Maggie, who is also looking tired and cranky, I decide to take Jack along with me for the last trip. He’s very excited at seeing the new house again, and wants Fergus to come along too, so we have a little family outing — me, Jack, and Fergus — which makes me feel strangely nostalgic, because it’s how we used to be in Milton Keynes, before America and before the twins were even thought of.

At the new house, I dump the boxes with all the others in the living room while Jack and Fergus play in the back garden, then I walk down the hallway to the dining room at the back of the house. The room has French windows that open out into the garden — or at least, they should open out but they’re stuck together with many layers of paint. I knock on one of the small panes at Jack, and beckon him to come back in the house.

After a few seconds I hear his running footsteps on the wooden floor, and he bumps into me as I’m closing the dining room door. He’s alone.

“Where’s Fergus?” I ask. Fergus, now that he no longer lives with us, slavishly and perversely follows Jack around whenever they’re together.

Jack points. “He’s tired.”

Fergus is lying down next to the open front door at the other end of the hallway.

“Fergus! Here, boy!”

He sits up and whines softly, but doesn’t move any nearer.

“Guess that’s a hint that he’s had enough house-moving for today,” I say to Jack. “You know what? I know exactly how he feels.”

* * *

Back at Juniper Street, I deliver Fergus to Maggie, and she murmurs something about turning in for the evening, but I’m not letting her off that easily. I remind her of her promise to show me Sara’s wedding photos and how she’s off to Florida for a month, so she trots over to her house to get them.

When she returns, I have to stop myself from snatching the album out of her hands. I’ve heard so many rumours about Sara Sharpe, this mystery woman of Woodhaven, that I’m dying to see what she looks like. A femme fatale, I imagine… The sultry looks of Nigella Lawson and the seductiveness of Greta Garbo.

I’m disappointed. She’s serious-looking, her hair dark and smooth, as severe as a ballerina’s. On most of the photos, she wears a little frown as if she’s thinking very hard about what she’s doing — and, let’s face it, you shouldn’t have to think hard about a wedding on a beach in the Seychelles. She looks absolutely nothing like Maggie.

“No,” Maggie says. “She’s the image of her father, that’s what she is.” She points at a man in the photo. “Him. Derek. My ex-husband, whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years until that day.”

“That must have been awkward,” I say. I try to imagine meeting Oliver for the first time in thirty years at Jack’s wedding, and fail utterly. “I suppose that’s one advantage of Sara being an only child. You won’t have to meet him again.”

I hand the photos back to Maggie, and I see that her face has turned pink.

“Are you OK?” I ask. “Do you want me to turn the air conditioning up?”

She shakes her head.

“No, I’m fine.” She throws her pashmina around her shoulders and stuffs the photos into her handbag. “It was, as you say, a little awkward meeting Derek again.”

She looks down, fiddling with the clasp on the bag. “He’s widowed now, poor man. I never liked my replacement, but he obviously did. I felt sorry for him.”

“Not your problem any more, though, right?”

Her face goes a bit pinker.

“I might as well tell you, Libby. My vacation in Florida — I’m spending it with Derek. My ex-husband whom I divorced in 1976.”


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #82  – A chilly reception

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #80 – A place of our own

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #80 – A place of our own

Melissa stands in our hallway and jabs at her clipboard with a purple pen. I feel my upper lip curl into a sneer; I don’t trust anyone who uses purple ink.

“So,” she says, prodding the clipboard and tapping her high-heeled foot in a staccato rhythm. All she needs is a washboard and bells and she could be a one man band. “So. The scratches on the floors in the foyer –”

“I keep telling you, they were there when we moved in! Fergus and the kids had nothing to do with those. More likely you caused them with your stupid shoes.”

She smirks. “Prove it.”

I can’t, of course. When we moved in, it didn’t occur to us to take photographs of every floorboard, every rug, or every kitchen cupboard.

“The scratches,” she continues. “The stain on the master bedroom carpet –”

“Caused by the disrepair of the skylight, which was your responsibility.”

She waits patiently for me to finish, then says, “Replacement of locks, permanent marker on kitchen cabinet, scratched hardwoods, and stained carpets. I’ll get a quote for repairs but it won’t be less than $600. Professional cleaning, $400. Landscaping outside because you let it get overgrown…another $400 or so.”

I swear, she makes this stuff up as she goes along. The garden is no more overgrown than it ever was, but again — we don’t have photographs to prove it. And professional cleaning? Really? I’m perfectly capable of coming in myself with a vacuum cleaner and duster, and frankly, if the professional cleaner is the same one who came before Oliver and I moved in, I’ll do a better job. Just give me the fee.

After a quick calculation, I say, “That leaves $200 to come back from our security deposit, correct?”

She frowns. “Oh, and I nearly forgot — the deck needs power-washing because you let it get splashed with grease while you were barbecuing. So that will be…”

Let me guess. $200 to clean the deck.

“…another $200. Looks like you won’t be getting any of your security deposit back, Libby!”

*  *  *

“Where are you moving to?” she asks as she pokes through the closet in the hall; looking for something else to bill us for, I suppose. Her oily voice suggests she knows exactly where we are going to live, but I tell her anyway.

“The apartments near the mall, until we find a house we are able to buy.” I choose my words carefully. Are able to buy doesn’t mean the same as can afford.

“Have you looked at the new houses in Banbury? They’re very nice.”

Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Seeing as she’s the selling realtor and her new boyfriend built them.

“Yes,” I say, unable to keep my temper any longer. “We’ve looked at them, but frankly I’d rather live in a cardboard box in the middle of the road than line your boyfriend’s pockets by buying one of those crammed-on little hen-houses.”

An error of judgment to let my temper show. Melissa emerges from the closet and announces that there’s a cracked floor tile that needs replacing, which will cost another —

OK. That’s it. I’ve had enough of Melissa Harvey Connor and her real estate bullshit.

“Of course,” I interrupt, “we really wanted to buy that old house on Main Street. The antique. But the owner didn’t accept our offer, and we weren’t willing to offer more because it needs such a lot doing to it.”

I watch her. She’s avoiding my eye and has a fixed smile on her face, the one she always has when she’s trying to hide something.

“That’s right,” she says. ” I talked to the owner and gave him your offer, but to be honest, he was insulted. It’s priced very reasonably as it is.”

Actually, it isn’t. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done some investigating, and although the price might have been OK a year ago, if at the top end of the range, house prices in this area have taken a nose dive since then. It’s now way overpriced. All right, so our offer might have been cheekily low, but seeing as no one else had bought it, you’d think the seller would be willing to enter negotiations.

And anyway, how did she talk to the owner? Maggie has been trying to get in touch with him for two weeks with no luck.

“You’d think the seller would have made a counter offer, though,” I say to Melissa, fishing for more clues. “If you were talking to him on the phone, I’m assuming you tried to actually, you know, sell the house for him.”

She opens and shuts her mouth a couple of times, looking like a surprised trout that I’ve caught and am slowly reeling in.

“He was much too insulted,” she says eventually. “He said he’d rather burn the place to the ground than sell it to someone who offers such a stupid price.”

Lies, all lies. I know when Melissa is lying, and I’ve seen “Melissa’s patented excuse” expression before. While she might fancy herself as an actress, she’s not going to give Meryl Streep any sleepless nights.

“Seriously,” Melissa says, trying to look serious but failing, “you should look again at those houses in Banbury. They’re really cute. I don’t know what you’ve got against them, they’re ready to move into, they’re brand new, not like that dusty old barn on Main Street. Who would want to buy that old shack?

“I can think of someone.”

Melissa and I both jump, and we turn towards the voice at the front door. While we’ve been arguing, Maggie has quietly let herself in with the spare key I gave her for emergencies.

“Maybe one person who would like to buy it is the selling realtor,” she says. “The one who has done her best to keep the ‘old shack’ for herself until she can get rid of her tenants and sell the house she’s been renting out. Then she can buy the ‘old shack’ and sell it to her property developer boyfriend for a little more profit. But he still gets a good deal because he’s going to parcel up the 12 wooded acres it’s built on, apply for planning permission, and put a couple of dozen cookie-cutter houses there instead. Of course,” Maggie adds, “it would help if more people would buy his latest batch of cookie-cutters in Banbury because right now he doesn’t have the means to buy the ‘old shack’ himself, which is why Melissa here is trying to get it for a good price by feeding the seller of the house a lot of lies about how no one is interested in it.”

Melissa puts her hands on her hips. She’s put weight on recently. She has a lot more hip than hand.

“I could sue you for that,” she says. “That’s libel.”

“Only libel if it’s in writing, although you’ve given me an idea. My contact at the Woodhaven Observer might be interested in a little investigative journalism. By the way,” Maggie gestures to a tall figure stepping into the hallway, stomping his wet shoes on the doormat, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”

The man finishes wiping his feet and nods at me and Melissa.

“Who is this?” Melissa demands. “Are we having a party here or something that I didn’t know about? I came here for a professional visit, and you just barge in with your boyfriend and your spare key –”

The man turns to Maggie. “Yep. I see what you mean about her.”

“Melissa.” Maggie’s voice is soft. Dangerously so. “If we’re going to talk about professionalism, I’d be careful what I said, if I were you.”

She smiles brightly at me and Melissa. “As I was saying. This is a friend of mine. Or more accurately, the son of a dear, deceased friend of mine. I believe Melissa has corresponded with him on occasion.” She emphasises the last word. “And this,” she says to him, “is my very good friend Libby.”

The man steps forward and holds out his hand to me.

“Chuck Morande,” he says. “A pleasure to meet you, Libby. I hear you’re interested in buying my mother’s house. If I hadn’t had a phone call from Maggie here, I would never have known, so I thought a trip to my hometown was in order to take care of things properly. Woodhaven realtors today aren’t the professionals they were in my day, it seems.”

And however much I regretted not having a camera at the ready to take photos of this house two years ago, it was nothing compared to the regret I felt at being without a camera now to take a picture of Melissa’s face.

*  *  *

“A toast, I think.” Maggie takes a bottle from her fridge and pours out four glasses of sparkling wine for the adults, and three plastic cups of cranberry juice for the children. We decided to come back to Maggie’s house for celebrations; the air in our own was still too thick with the atmosphere of accusations and Melissa’s defeat. “To Chuck — for making the trip from Montana when a telephone call would have sufficed.”

Maggie, Oliver and I raise our glasses. “To Chuck.”

Chuck sips at his wine and looks faintly embarrassed. “It was only an airplane ticket.”

“Ah, but without that ticket, Libby here would have to live fifteen miles away near the mall, and I wouldn’t see her anymore.” Maggie smiles at me. “I’d be quite lonely without Libby in Woodhaven. As it is, she will be living in Cathy’s old house just five minutes away.”

“I wouldn’t have sold my mother’s house to that realtor anyway.” Chuck drains his glass and holds it out to Maggie, who refills it. “My own toast now — to Libby and Oliver. I hope you’ll be as happy in that house as my parents were.”

Oliver and I exchange glances. Chuck had been more than willing to accept our “insulting” low offer, and had even offered another reduction to help us with our closing costs. He was just pleased that his mother’s property was going to a family who loved it for what it was and who wouldn’t turn it into twelve acres of McMansions.

“I’m sure we will,” Oliver says, “thanks to you. In a few weeks, we’ll be in a place of our own again.”

He clinked his glass against mine.

“We’ve missed that, haven’t we, Libs?”

I nod, barely able to speak for the lump in my throat.

A place of our own. Yes.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #81 – Send the past packing

 Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #79 – Gladiator games

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #79 – Gladiator games


Summertime. Crickets, cicadas. Long evenings, hot days.

Or, back on Planet Earth in 2013: June. Thunderstorms. Hailstones, lightning. Flood warnings, incessant rain. Central heating returning for another encore, and cabin fever causing small children to ricochet off walls and demand opportunities to test the effectiveness of recently purchased wellington boots.

Rain or no rain, after several days cooped up inside, we are going for a walk this afternoon.

It’s a slow process, though, I’m discovering. It’s taken nearly five minutes to get Jack, plus the twins in their double pushchair, from the front door to the other side of our street, because the very puddles I need to avoid with the pushchair are those in which Jack wants to jump with his new, camo-patterned rainboots.

As the children and I bicker and squelch past the entrance to Maggie’s long gravel drive, I spot Maggie trotting from her house towards us, holding a black and red golfing umbrella above her head and squinting into the driving rain.

“You do know,” she shouts, “that if someone who is not English sees you out in this downpour, they will call child protection services? Or at the very least, they’ll call the men in white coats?”

We laugh. The Woodhaveners’ attitude to rain is a private joke between me and Maggie. Woodhaveners will happily cope with two feet of snow and an ice storm, but send them a bit of rain and they flap around, panicking about damp basements and aquaplaning cars.

I explain about the cabin fever and Jack’s new wellies. “What’s your excuse for going out in it?” I ask.

“Checking the mail for Montana-postmarked letters,” she says, and I groan softly.

Maggie’s been waiting for a letter from Montana for about a week now. A letter from Chuck, the current owner of the house I want to buy. Chuck is strangely inaccessible by modern communication. After our liquid lunch in the Maxwell Plum, Maggie phoned the emergency number he gave her a few years ago — his neighbours’ number — and left a message.

The message was that Maggie thought he should know that someone (me) was interested in buying his mother’s house, and Maggie had reason to believe he might not know this (because we think Melissa, his real estate agent, hadn’t told him we’d put in an offer) so would he please call Maggie back ASAP.

After two days with no response, she phoned again. Chuck’s neighbours sounded slightly annoyed and told her they’d most certainly passed on the message to Chuck, who had said he would write a letter to Maggie. Yes, they told her, a real letter. On paper, in an envelope, with a stamp, with her address on it. Surely she had heard of such an invention in Massachusetts?

“More to the point, hasn’t he heard of Facebook in Montana?” I asked. “Who writes letters on real paper these days, for goodness’ sake?”

“People who live in the middle of nowhere and communicate mainly with horses, apparently,” Maggie said.

Now, as Maggie opens her mailbox and I see that it contains only this week’s issue of the Woodhaven Observer, I’m starting to think that he’d decided to bypass the postal system and deliver it himself. On horseback.

I voice this theory to Maggie, who looks at me sympathetically.

“At least you’ve got somewhere to live in July now,” she says. “You won’t be homeless.”

This is true. Oliver, via his company’s HR contacts, has managed to get a three-bedroomed apartment near the mall, in the same complex we stayed when we first arrived in America, two years ago. So, no, we won’t be homeless —  but the apartment faces the freeway, it’s noisy with the heavy traffic, and I’m not counting on many undisturbed nights from the twins. It’s most irritating, because they’d both just started sleeping through the night.

We looked at some new houses in Banbury, two towns away. The houses that Melissa’s new boyfriend built. This detail would have been enough to put me off buying one, if the cost hadn’t already done so. The base prices of the houses seemed reasonable enough, but once you started adding in the cost of options, the real prices zoomed vertically, because the “options” weren’t terribly optional. The houses don’t come with decks, for example; not a big problem, you might think, until you realise that the French windows (or French doors, as they call them here) leading out into the back garden have a five foot drop to the ground when you open them.

Both Oliver and I want, more than ever, to stay in Woodhaven, in the magical old house that used to belong to Maggie’s friend, Cathy.  Oliver even calls it “our house” whenever we drive past it.

If only we could speak with Chuck, the actual seller, instead of having to go through real estate agents who have their own unscrupulous agendas. Because Maggie, Oliver, and I are absolutely convinced that Melissa has her own agenda in all this. It’s no coincidence that a house with a lot of acreage and a need for fixing up isn’t selling if she’s a) representing the seller and b) dating a local builder/property tycoon.

But without Chuck’s side of the story, we have no proof.

As we all stand in the rain, a black Escalade tears up the street and drives through the water-filled pothole next to us in the road, sweeping a wave of muddy rainwater onto the sidewalk and all over our little group. Beth and George are safe behind their clear plastic rainshield, but Jack, who was nearest the road, is drenched. He bursts into tears, and sobs that his new rainboots are broken because they’re filled with water.

“No, they’re not broken. They just don’t work when the puddles come from above,” I say, mopping his face as best I can with a tissue that is similarly damp. “We’d better get you home and dried off. Honestly, some drivers, no common courtesy or even common sense…”

“That’s our Melissa, all right,” Maggie murmurs.

I look up. The black Escalade is now parked on the driveway of my house and, sure enough, Melissa Harvey Connor is getting out of it.

“What’s she doing here?” Maggie asks.

“Beats me. Can we disappear up your driveway and hide until she goes away?”

Too late. She’s already seen us and is gesturing furiously.

“I suppose I’d better see what she wants. You wouldn’t like to come with me for moral support, would you?”

“Much as I love a nice bit of gladiatorial entertainment with my afternoon tea,” Maggie says, “I’m expecting a parcel delivery, so I’d better not. Good luck,” she adds, as she starts to wade up her driveway towards her house.

Who is the gladiator and who is the lion?  She doesn’t say.

I look across the street at Melissa, who has seemingly forgotten I changed the locks on her house eighteen months ago and is trying to open the front door with a key that doesn’t work.

When I eventually reach the door, I get my own key out of my purse and Melissa steps aside.

“I’m here to inspect the house for damage,” she says, and my heart sinks. Three children, two adults, and a dog have lived in this house in the last two years. “You know, for things that have to be put right before you move out, that you have to pay for.”

She holds up her useless key.

“New lock system, for example.” She smiles, baring sharp canine teeth. Or perhaps feline.  I’m the gladiator, it turns out; the one facing a big cat. “Cost to you: $300. And that’s before we even get inside the house, Libby.”


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #80 – A place of our own

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #78 – Trust no agent

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #78 – Trust no agent

There is nothing better than spending a sultry, summer afternoon in the cool darkness of the Maxwell Plum. We’re the only customers here, Jack is at nursery, and the twins are napping in their double pushchair beside our table. If I shut my eyes like this, thereby ignoring both the twins and my thirty-something reflection in the window, I can almost believe I am twenty-two again. Of course, I didn’t know any Americans when I was twenty-two, so the three other accents at the table aren’t authentic, but—

Wait — you thought I was with Oliver? Heaven preserve us. I’ve come here to get away from Oliver and his irritating, logical arguments. The three ladies I’m with now — Willow, Anna, Maggie — will give me nothing but sympathy. They are absolutely, completely the best friends I’ve had since my days in University halls, and for that, I’m grateful. Very grateful. Sooo grateful. And I get more grateful with each top-up of Chardonnay.

You see, sometimes, only girl-time will do. Girls will listen, nod, listen some more, fill your glass with more wine, and offer anecdotes of similar experiences to the one you’re bending their ears about.

They will never, repeat never, say, “For God’s sake, Libs, quit moaning. I’m not paying more than $140k for that heap of dry rot, and the owners are not accepting less than $200k, ergo we are not buying it. End of story. If you want a solution, go and look at those nice new houses in Banbury and stop being such a damned hopeless, stupid romantic. There’s nothing romantic about leaking roofs and rotten floorboards.”

“And even though he knows I’ve got my heart set on this house, that’s what he said. That’s what Oliver said,” I say, leaning back in my chair and stifling a small hiccup, my eyes still closed to keep up the illusion of being twenty-two. “I know you guys would never say that and call me a stupid romantic.”

Girls are more supportive than that.

Or at least, they should be, but as I open my eyes, I see my three friends looking at me with one expression.

Concern? Or is it amusement?

“What?” I say. “What’s wrong?”

Maggie’s lips twitch.

“You’re not used to liquid lunches these days, are you, my dear?”

“She drove here, right?” Willow asks Maggie. “Because I can totally drive her and the twins home and pick up Jack and she can get her car later.”

“It’s a nice afternoon! I walked!” I’m not happy at this unsupportive conversation about me that’s taking place as if I weren’t here. “And it’s not my turn to carpool today, so someone else is bringing Jack home.”

“Thank God for that,” Willow says. “Because you’re barely fit to push that stroller home, let alone drive anything with an engine. And there I was,” she says, turning to Anna, “thinking all Brits could hold their drink.”

Anna gets up from the table and heads towards the restaurant’s kitchen.

“Perhaps it’s time we put the wine away and switched to coffee. What do you say, Libs?”

* * *

“Tell us again. You want to buy The Forge, the old house at the bottom of Main Street?” Maggie draws patterns with a spoon in her coffee foam. “The one with acres and acres of land? I know it. The owner, the one who died recently, she was a friend of mine.”

“That dotty old lady? Really?” Willow sniggers. “I heard the rumours about her, how she’d dance naked in the back garden and talk to the trees and flowers and stuff. A real tree hugger.”

“And that,” Maggie says, a stern expression on her face, “is why you should never pay attention to rumours. I used to work for that ‘dotty old lady’ as you call her. She was my employer, before I bought her craft shop and all those teapots. I expect Anna remembers her.”

Anna shakes her head.

“You must do,” Maggie persists. “You remember when I opened Maggie May’s, when you were in high school here, when you and Sara were attached at the hip.”

Sara again. Maggie’s mystery daughter who swans off to the Seychelles to get married but won’t come to see her mother in her hometown.

Anna’s still shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she says. “So much of that time is a blank. I think I’ve blocked it out.”

Maggie places one hand over Anna’s, on the table. “And I don’t blame you one bit,” she says in a gentle tone, which makes me wonder what happened to Anna at high school. “It’s a shame, though. Cathy was a great character.”

“Cathy!” I exclaim, feeling slightly more alert now. I have no idea what Anna puts in her coffee, but it’s good stuff. “The cat-shaped teapots in your kitchen!”

“The same.” Maggie beams at me. “Well, she was in her sixties when I bought the shop from her, and she must have been well into her nineties when she died last year. The poor soul had been suffering from dementia for about ten years. Didn’t recognise her own son four years ago, but knew what people were doing, all right, when they tried to put her into a nursing home. The last six or seven years, she’s been in that house with a team of nurses and carers coming in every day. And when they didn’t keep a close enough eye on her, that’s when she’d strip off and run around the back garden and talk to the trees. She got frostbite once, doing it in the winter. Senility is a very cruel fate for the old.”

She fixes Willow with another stern stare, and Willow looks down, abashed.

“Why won’t her son sell it to you?” Maggie asks me.

I shrug with rather more vigour than I’d intended, and knock over my glass of water which is nearly empty but still contains enough liquid to flood my side of the table and drip onto my lap.

“I don’t know,” I say, as Anna and Willow rush at me with paper napkins. This must be what it’s like to be Jack at every mealtime. “Donna didn’t say. She just said he didn’t accept our offer, and didn’t come back with a counter offer.”

“I wonder why that was.” Maggie rests her chin on her hand and gazes out of the window at a group of high school kids gathering on the village green that splits Main Street lengthways. “It’s not as if he needs the money. Or maybe that’s why. Perhaps he’s hanging in there until he gets a high offer because he can afford to do so.”

“He doesn’t need the money?” Willow voices the surprise of the rest of us. “Who’s got so much money that they flatly turn down $140k?”

“People who win a small fortune on the Powerball lottery and retire to Montana, that’s who. Believe me, that $140,000 is a drop in his ocean of winnings. That’s how Cathy was able to afford her team of 24/7 nursing staff for so long.”

“Wow.” I pat with another napkin at my shorts. They look as if I’ve had an embarrassing accident, and I hope they dry before I have to walk back home. “What does he do in Montana?”

“Chuck’s a hermit. A hermit with 400 acres. He came to see me last time he was here, four years ago — that was after he found out his mother didn’t know she’d even had a son, let alone recognise him. He was very concerned about her and, since he’s such a hermit, was worried he wouldn’t know until it was too late if anything happened to Cathy.”

“Hadn’t he heard of cell phones?” Willow asks.

“There was barely a signal where he lived, he said, and he liked it that way. No interruptions, no telesales. So he gave me his neighbour’s number and told me to call there if there was anything he needed to know urgently. Otherwise, he was quite happy to rely on regular mail for normal communication.”

Anna, Willow, and I all gape at Maggie. None of us can imagine living without a cell phone in reach of our fingertips. And I can’t remember the last time I wrote an envelope that didn’t contain either a greetings card or a cheque.

Through the wine-fuelled haze, the coffee penetrates my brain, and something occurs to me.

“Do you think he has a phone now?”

“I have no idea,” Maggie says. “But he didn’t when Cathy died a year ago.”

“So, I’m wondering,” I say (actually, I’m wondering if I’m still tipsy and have missed a vital point in the argument I’m about to make); “how did Melissa contact him with our offer?”

Silence from the girls. Either I’ve put forward a really good argument, or I’ve said something very silly.

“On the neighbour’s phone?” Anna sounds uncertain.

“Email?” Willow suggests.

“I’m not sure Chuck has ever come in contact with a computer.”

I look from Maggie to Anna to Willow.

“Is this the Chardonnay doing my thinking for me, or is it entirely possible that Cathy’s son doesn’t know he has a potential buyer?”

*  *  *

Evening hangovers are the absolute worst, but I’m feeling less fragile now, and in any case I think today’s was worth it. Maggie walked home from the Maxwell Plum with me and the twins, and on the way she promised to phone Cathy’s son in Montana, or rather, his neighbour, to see if he’d  reconsider our offer on the house.

Meanwhile, I am racking my brains (as best I can, under today’s circumstances) to wonder why Melissa might be telling blatant lies so as not to sell us a house that she’s listed. It means she won’t get the commission, surely?

Oliver comes in from work, two hours late. He’s been at someone’s leaving bash in the Irish pub in Banbury, near the new houses and condos that Donna’s shown us. They’re nice enough, I suppose, but they’re so crammed, with such small lots, that we might as well be living back in Acacia Drive in Milton Keynes.

“Guess who I just saw in the pub?” Oliver says. “Our landlady. She’s got herself a new bloke.”

I wince. Oliver is a bit loud when he’s just been to the pub and has spent two hours shouting to make himself heard.

“Am I supposed to be surprised at that information?” I ask.

“Quite a well-known bloke in these parts, apparently,” Oliver says, ignoring my comment. “Local builder. Rich as Rockefeller, by all accounts. Built those little condos we looked at in Banbury.”

That’s all it takes to make me dislike Melissa’s new boyfriend.

“Yes, he does quite a bit of that kind of thing,” Oliver continues. “Buys falling down houses with lots of land, knocks them down, then puts up a load of smaller new houses. No wonder he’s rolling in it.”

And no wonder, I think, as the bright flash of understanding nearly blinds me and banishes any remains of hangover, that Melissa is dragging her heels about selling us a falling down house built on twelve acres.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #79 – Gladiator games

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #77 – First refusal

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #77 – First refusal

“You have got to be kidding me. What were you thinking, Libs?”

Oliver prods with his toe at an oak panel in the empty, echoing living room. The panel cracks; a large piece of wood falls backwards into the abyss behind, and a suspicious scurrying tells us we have disturbed someone’s living quarters.

“Christ in a bucket,” Oliver mutters, as I try to keep an optimistic smile on my face to balance out his own expression, which is grumpier by the second.

It’s his first visit to see the house I found for us and, so far, things are not going well. Although the house boasts new electric wiring and plumbing, as our realtor Donna proudly pointed out last week, it does not boast a new furnace, a new roof, solid floorboards, or any air conditioning.

Or even wooden wall panels that stay intact when you kick them.

But you know what? I don’t care. I want this house. It’s old, it has character, it is full of quirky little corners and unexpected alcoves. I want it. Don’t ask me why.

I just know I want it.

“But it’s so cheap!” I say to Oliver, who is now looking critically at the door frame between living room and dining room. The builder of that part of the house apparently was not familiar with set squares or right angles two centuries ago, because the door shape is an interesting variation on a trapezoid.

“It would need to be,” he says. “Even if it’s free, it’s too much.”

Donna watches us, her eyes swivelling left, right, and back again. She doesn’t like the way this conversation is going, I think. She can see her commission flying out of the dusty windows.

I have an ally.

“An antique house is an investment,” she squeaks in her Minnie Mouse voice. “People like the knowledge that no one is going to build an identical house on the next lot. They like the original features. They like not living in a cookie cutter. They like owning a piece of history.”

“And they like repaying a very, very large home improvement loan and spending all their Saturdays in Home Depot,” Oliver says. “Because if you didn’t like those two things, you’d need to be bloody barking mad before you bought a crumbling money pit like this.”

He turns to me.

“Nope, I’m sorry, Libs. No can do. We’ll keep on looking until we find something more our style and less work. I’m sure Donna can show us some new construction in another town, can’t you?”

I stare at Donna, silently pleading with her to say “Absolutely not. The state has issued a moratorium on the building of new houses. If you don’t buy this house, you’ll be homeless in two months.”

But she doesn’t, of course. Instead, she takes an exaggerated breath, closes her eyes, and breathes out again. As if she thought of saying something but then thought better of it.

“Of course I can,” she says, “if you really want me to. But — could I just say something?”

Oliver looks up at the ceiling, as if asking a deity to give him strength. A dead spider is dangling from the light fitting just above his head, and he steps to one side.

“Be my guest,” he says.

“Woodhaven is a desirable town. We have an excellent school system, yet disproportionately low taxes. If you go to one of the neighbouring towns, you could end up spending on school fees and property taxes what you save on buying a house. Woodhaven is a little oasis of value-for-money town taxes. You might find what you’re looking for in Banbury, two towns away, but believe me, the twenty thousand you save on a house purchase there will be spent in eighteen months in extra taxes and school fees. I wouldn’t put my own children in Banbury schools,” she adds. “Their standardised test results last year were appalling.”

“Huh.” Oliver is scornful. “Jack’s a bright child. He’ll do fine wherever he goes to school.”

“And believe me, I admire that attitude,” Donna says, leaning towards him and patting his arm.

Actually, I don’t believe her. Nor, I can tell, does Oliver. He doesn’t like being patted by realtors with high-pitched voices, either.

“The problem is,” she continues, “most homebuyers don’t have that attitude, and you’ll find that out when you come to sell. You could be stuck with a new house that’s exactly like every other house for sale, in a school district that’s less than stellar. Whereas this house–” she makes a sweeping gesture around the living room, her arm cutting through a swathe of dust motes “– with a little love and attention from you beforehand, it would be snapped up in an instant. Like that,” she adds, snapping her fingers in case we hadn’t understood.

Her cell phone chirps. She pulls it out of her pocket, looks at the screen, and frowns.

“Excuse me.”

She trots out into the hallway where we can hear her murmuring a few seconds later.

I turn to Oliver and open my eyes very wide.

“Please?” I say. “Pretty please? With sugar on the top?”

“No.” He folds his arms, tapping one foot.

“We won’t have anywhere to live if we don’t buy it.” I stick my lower lip out. “And then we’ll have to live in the apartments near the mall again, next to that crazy man who likes using the azaleas for target practice. Remember him?”

Oliver stops tapping his foot and winces. He remembers our old neighbour, all right. The one with the pickup truck with the NRA sticker on the bumper. Oliver was convinced the man was harmless until we ran into him at a Fourth of July celebration, when he rambled on about how he hated all effing Limey effers, and we had to pretend for the next three weeks that we were Australian. Oliver avoided him as much as possible after that. One day he was late home from work, and it turned out he’d been sitting in the car for over an hour, waiting for the crazy man to finish playing poker on the front porch with his equally crazy friends, before he dared to venture into our own apartment.

Considering how he’d told me off for being silly and paranoid, you’d think he would have been less of a wuss.

Donna returns from the hallway, cell phone in hand.

“Another couple is on the way to see this house, so we should leave very soon,” she says. “The office tells me it’s the second time they’ve viewed it. That tells me they’re keen. If I were in your shoes, I’d be making an offer this afternoon. But if you’re sure you want to look at some new houses in Banbury…”

She shrugs. It’s your funeral.

I look up at Oliver, pouting a little again, and make puppy-whimper noises. “I really don’t want to live next door to that man with the BB gun again.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Oliver snatches the sheet of property details from me. “Offer them a hundred and forty, and not a cent more.”

Donna beams, and I try not to do a happy dance.

“You’ve got a really good chance of getting it at that price after so long on the market,” Donna says. “I don’t want to raise your hopes or anything, but if I were the seller, I’d jump at that offer. Let’s head back to my office and complete the paperwork.”

She walks back into the kitchen to collect her briefcase.

I hug Oliver, and after a split second while he tries to pretend he’s not in the least excited about buying a two-hundred-year-old American house, he hugs me back.

* * *

Four hours later, our mood is very different.

“I don’t understand it,” Donna says. She’s come round to our house to give us the bad news in person. “If it had been me, I’d have accepted that offer. I know the seller doesn’t live round here, but surely they must realise that in this economic climate you sometimes have to take what you’re offered, especially with the house needing so much renovation. I am just so sorry.”

I can’t speak. I am, as they say back home, absolutely gutted.

“They didn’t make a counter offer?” Oliver asks.

Donna shakes her head.

“Is it the other couple who saw it today? Did they make a higher offer?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Who was their realtor?” I ask. “Could you find out?”

“It was the seller’s realtor. Melissa Harvey Connor. If they want to buy it, she will probably pass them onto another realtor so there isn’t a conflict of interest.”

I manage to turn a splutter of disbelief into a cough. Conflicts of interest have never bothered Melissa in the past.

“Do you want to make a higher offer?” Donna asks.

I look at Oliver and we both shake our heads. If we pay anything more, I’ll never hear the last of it from him.

“I’m sure I can find you something nice in another town. It might mean moving away, and Oliver having a longer commute, but don’t worry. We’ll find something.”  Donna gathers up her briefcase and jacket, and leaves.

Oliver and I sit on the sofa in silence.

“The idea of making that house a project was starting to grow on me,” he says. “I’m kind of surprised at how disappointed I am now.”

We sit some more, considering our options.

“So,” Oliver says at last. “We’ve got Melissa Harvey Connor representing the seller and a potential buyer, and she just happens to be our landlady. Is it just me,” he asks, “or can you also smell a rat?”

I’m so glad I’m not the only one with paranoia.

“Oh yes,” I say. “A big rat.”

A great, big, fat rat called Melissa.”

The thing is — how on earth do we prove it?


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #78 – Trust no agent

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #76 – This old house

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #76 – This old house

“Did you do something special with the twins on their birthday?” Willow squirts ketchup on the burger that Oliver’s handed her, then pops open a can of Bud. “On the day itself, I mean?”

Oliver catches my eye, grins, and turns away to flip more burgers while discussing cricket, or the American lack thereof, with his English friends. They, in turn, are trying to explain to Willow’s bewildered partner, Dan — Bronx native and lifelong Yankees fan — a sport where one game can take up an entire working week and which has rest breaks for tea and cucumber sandwiches.

I stick my tongue out at Oliver’s back.

“We went out for ice cream in the evening,” I say, “after I dragged them round the streets of Woodhaven with a realtor. After trailing through eight houses, though, they were ready for bed rather than for ice cream.”

Willow, I reflect, is the type of woman you can say this to. She won’t be shocked that you didn’t do something special for your little snowflakes on their first birthday, or that you are celebrating it nearly two weeks late in the form of a backyard barbecue for grownup friends. She understands that while twelve-month-old babies won’t care if you have a children’s party for them on April 23rd or an adult one on May 4th, the whole family is going to be in the soup if no one has anywhere to sleep on the night of July 15th.

The prospect of homelessness has been playing on my mind more than my children’s numerical milestones have, I admit.

“And did you have any luck finding a house?” Willow asks.

I shake my head.

“Either the work they needed would put them over budget, or they were too expensive to start with.”

Willow doesn’t say, as many people might, “I’m sure something will turn up” or “Everything will be OK”, and for this I’m grateful. There’s a fine line between spouting comforting platitudes and sounding as if you don’t give a damn.

“What are you going to do?” she says instead.

I make my way across the deck to the food table where Beth and George are strapped into their high chairs, tantalisingly out of reach of their birthday cake.

“Donna, the realtor, is taking me round some more places tomorrow. If I don’t like any of them, I suppose we will have to move back into an apartment near the mall, where we lived when we first arrived. The alternative is to look for a house outside Woodhaven.”

“Is that what you want?”

I cut two more pieces of cake and plonk them on paper plates in front of the twins, who look at each other and wave their arms around in choreographed excitement. Beth and George are already covered from forehead to chest in red velvet cake and cream cheese frosting. They look like twin Hannibal Lecters, but appear to be enjoying their belated birthday party.

Eventually, I answer Willow.

“You can’t imagine,” I say, “how much I don’t want that.

* * *

I’m surprised how upset I am at the prospect of moving to another town. I’m sure another town in Massachusetts would be just as nice, but there’s something special about this one. When I first met Maggie eighteen months ago, she summed it up by saying “Woodhaven is the kind of place that gets to you. It’s like Hotel California — you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. I’ve been trying to leave ever since 1976, but haven’t managed it yet.” After less than two years in the place, I already know what she means.

It’s scary to think that, if not for Oliver’s promotion at Christmas and subsequent extension of his contract in Massachusetts, we’d be packing our belongings into cardboard boxes ready to go back to Milton Keynes next month. Though, as Oliver’s mother is still living in our house there, perhaps it’s just as well we’re staying. I really must check up on what she’s doing to the place, but until we’re sorted out with somewhere to live, that’s a distant second place on my list of priorities.

Still. Chin up. Perhaps today is the day that Donna, our geographically-challenged realtor, will find us a house that’s a) big enough, b) cheap enough, and c) empty.

* * *

“What do you think?” Donna asks, when I’ve looked in all the bedrooms and opened all the closets.

This is the thirteenth house she’s shown me round in as many days, and she’s learning. No longer does she froth with enthusiasm over hardwood floors and granite countertops. I need three, if not four, bedrooms; two bathrooms that don’t contain 1970s-coloured suites or swimming pool-sized bathtubs that require an entire water tank to fill them; a bedroom for me and Oliver that’s on the same level as the other bedrooms; and, most of all, a laundry room that isn’t in a dark, cobwebby basement. If none of those conditions apply, the house needs to be cheap enough for us to make the necessary improvements.

“It’s better than the last one,” I say, “but still not there. The blue bathroom suite is an improvement on the chocolate brown one, I’ll give you that, and the kitchen is old enough for me to call it ‘retro’, but I am not prepared to do my laundry in a dungeon that has a mouse carcass next to the washing machine.”

“That’s not a problem,” Donna says. She’s got a squeaky little voice; she doesn’t so much speak as chirrup. “We can ask the sellers to remove the dead mice from the basement.”

“If you can make it a condition of sale that they come and remove every mouse that enters the house after we’ve bought it, I might consider it.”

She frowns.

“No, I don’t think we could ask them to do that. It wouldn’t be their property any more, so it would be your responsibility after you move in, you see.”

I sigh inwardly. Donna’s one of those people who always take you literally. It’s exhausting.

“How many houses left to see today?” I ask.

She shuffles her sheaf of papers around and passes me a sheet of closely typed, small fonted property details.

“Just the one. It’s a long shot, though. I doubt it’s what you’re looking for.”

I squint at the flyer for this last house, our last chance to find something today, and for the first time since we started on this house hunting lark, I feel a spark of optimism.

* * *

When you come to live in America, you realise that, your whole life, you’ve been taking something for granted in England.


There is so much of it back home. (OK, so maybe my home town of Milton Keynes isn’t the best example.) But every day, we stop in pubs and shops that were around when Columbus was getting seasick, take shortcuts through churchyards over graves that are centuries old, drive past ruined castles that were built to stop marauding invaders.

Do we appreciate it? Not really. Not until it isn’t there.

Here in Massachusetts there seems to be an all-or-nothing attitude to history. Old houses and monuments are reverently preserved, while anything younger than fifty years is, sooner or later, demolished to make way for something bigger, brighter, and brand new.

And while I like big, bright, and brand new, sometimes I miss low, beamed ceilings, and signs in pubs saying “Duck or Grouse.”

* * *

“What do you think of this house?” Donna asks for the last time.

Not for the last time today, but for the last time ever. I can feel it. She won’t have to ask me again, or show me round any more houses.

I’m in love. I’m in love like I was the first time I saw Woodhaven, with its shuttered, clapboard houses and village green, its white church spires and maple trees.

This house is Woodhaven encapsulated. It’s nearly as old as the town itself which, according to the signpost at the city limits, was incorporated in 1766.

It needs a lot of attention and TLC, of course, but I like to have a project.

“How come no one has snapped this up before?” I ask Donna. “It’s been on the market for nearly a year.”

She shuffles her feet a bit before answering. “An old lady owned it before she died. It had been in her family for years. Not everyone wants to take on a fixer-upper like this.”

In that case, other people are big wusses with a very different idea than I have of what constitutes a “fixer-upper”. According to the house details, it’s had new plumbing and electrics within the last year — presumably to hasten its sale by the old lady’s beneficiaries — and the outside also has a fresh coat of paint. The bathrooms — OK, they’re 1970s avocado and orange, and the kitchen needs to be gutted and sympathetically replaced — but this house is so cheap, we will have more than enough headroom in our budget. And, most important of all, there is plumbing for a washing machine in the little mud room next to the kitchen, with not a mouse cadaver in sight.

“I need to talk it over with Oliver, and he’ll want to see it, of course. But we need a place pretty soon, and this is a good price.”

Donna nods.

“It’s been for sale so long that we can probably get them down even more on price.”  She glances at the paper of house details. “Actually, I know the realtor it’s listed with. She’s a friend of mine, which might make things easier. I think you said you know her, too.”

I study my own copy, and when I see the name of the seller’s realtor, I shut my eyes.

Can you say “Conflict of interest”?

And now can you say “Melissa Harvey Connor”?


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #77 – First refusal

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #75  – Glass houses

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #75 – Glass houses

We’re house hunting again.

I meant to have a serious talk with Oliver about Sandra’s interior design efforts in our home in Milton Keynes, but before I could find the right moment (you have to pick the right moment to talk to Oliver about his mother) we had a sweet little note from our landlady.

She’s given us three months’ notice.

Now, we always knew the lease would finish this July, and after the scene at last year’s Christmas dinner, we’d been looking forward to leaving. It’s just that we’d have preferred to give notice in writing to Melissa before she got there first.

Following her letter, a call to a local realtor told us we should have started looking earlier for a new house, even if it had meant paying two lots of rent for a month or two to secure a place. The woman we spoke to must have attended the same realtor charm school as Melissa Harvey Connor, because she could hardly keep the laughter out of her voice when I asked what rental properties she had on her books. There was nothing to rent in Woodhaven, she informed me, when I listed our requirements.

“And certainly nothing with three or four bedrooms,” she said with a derisive little laugh, as if instead of requesting a modest family home with grubby, 1980s wallpaper I’d asked her for a Fifth Avenue penthouse with views over the Grand Canyon. “I have a one-bedroomed apartment, six hundred square feet. Would you like to look at that?”

One bedroom? Was she kidding? I know co-sleeping en famille is fashionable at the moment, especially among yummy-mummies who carry their babies everywhere in slings and breastfeed until their children are in high school, but it’s not for me. If forced to co-sleep with four sets of limbs, I know I’d get more quality rest if the limbs belonged to two octopi rather than the four humans I live with.

“I expect something will come on the market between now and July,” was Oliver’s comforting, if unsubstantiated, verdict as he channel surfed to find some English football. Soccer, he calls it now.

“And suppose it doesn’t?” I asked. “What then?”

He found an old game between Man U and Arsenal.

“We could always rent in another town,” he said. “We’re not forced to live in Woodhaven.”


Technically, he was right. We have no real ties to this town. Jack hasn’t started elementary school yet. But after nearly two years here, I was starting to feel as if I belonged. Moving even ten miles away would take me back to square one. If we were going to live here for another three years with Oliver’s new job, I would like to feel at home for all of it — not spend the first year making new friends and finding my way around again.
I picked up the local paper to flick through the property pages again, to see if I’d missed anything the first four times I’d read the paper.

“Or we could buy,” Oliver said, his eyes fixed on Wayne Rooney.

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.

“Buy? Buy a house, you mean?”

“Yeah. I’ve been promoted a few levels, so the company will subsidise a mortgage. I forgot until now.”

“How very male and forgetful of you,” I told him; he didn’t look very pleased with my assessment. “How very Oliver.”

*  *  *

I’ve spent the last few days poring over property websites and coming up with a list of houses in Woodhaven to look at; we’ve lived in the town long enough to know where is a good place to live and where you need to avoid because it’s near a noisy highway or next to a graveyard. Once I’ve got a shortlist together, I look for a suitable realtor to represent us, the buyers, because without one we’re restricted to gazing at the outside walls and gardens of the houses on that list. Only a realtor can get us through the front doors.

The system’s a bit different over here. There are two estate agents in a house sale transaction: one for the buyer and one for the seller. They share the 6% commission they charge the seller, which is why they can all wear designer suits and drive Lexus cars.

The big realty companies have mugshots of their realtors online, and I browse through them. The men have Italian surnames, woffly moustaches, and thick, wavy hair, while the women are dressed in power suits with pearls and bouffant up-dos, and are in the same awkward photographer’s pose with one shoulder hunched up to ear level. It looks most uncomfortable.

I can’t see any particular photo makes me feel confident in the model’s abilities to negotiate property sales, so I run the cursor around the screen while my eyes are shut, and select the photo where the cursor lands: the cyber equivalent of pulling a name out of a hat.

It’s a woman called Donna in a red jacket and big hair and Quasimodo shoulder pose, and she looks familiar — probably because the For Sale signs outside the houses around town have the same realtor photos on them, I think.

When I speak to her on the phone, though, her voice sounds familiar too. It’s only when she’s taken the details of the houses I want to view, and has made appointments for us to view them in a marathon session next Tuesday, that I realise why.

*  *  *

“I know it’s awkward but I think I should phone the office back and ask for a different realtor,” I say to Oliver. “This woman is a real ditz. She was taking Jack’s details at kindergarten registration and couldn’t understand why a British boy born in Britain wouldn’t have an American birth certificate. She probably has difficulty negotiating her way through the supermarket’s self-checkout, never mind legal contracts of for six-figure amounts. She—”

I see Oliver’s face, and stop talking. It’s the Libby-you’re-giving-me-a-headache face. Actually, if I’m honest, I’m giving myself a headache.

“She’s not that bright,” I finish, rather lamely. “But we’re going to see these eight houses on Tuesday afternoon.” I hand him the info sheets I’ve printed off the internet, each with an appointment time written in the top corner. I feel quite pleased with my efficiency.

Oliver gets his BlackBerry out, checks his calendar, and wrinkles his nose.

“What?” I ask. “Can’t you make it? I thought you said you were free on Tuesday.”

“I am,” he says. He waits a bit then asks, “Are you bringing the kids with us?”

“Probably,” I say. “I know it won’t be much fun for them, but it’s a bit much to ask Maggie to have three of them all afternoon. The twins are a handful now they’re both trying to walk. They’re at that age.”

Oliver flicks through the sheaf of house details.

“And what age would that be?” he asks.

He really is unbelievable. His memory’s getting worse.

“Honestly, Oliver. Don’t you know how old your own children are?”

He pauses, then says: “Of course. Do you?”

“Yes, they’re a year old on…”

I clap my hand over my mouth. I’ve just arranged to take Beth and George house hunting for six hours as their First Birthday treat.

“That’s why I said I would be free on Tuesday,” Oliver says. “ Cake, presents, candles. Not ditzy realtors and fusty basements.”

I’m mortified. Oliver grins at me.

“How very female and forgetful of you,” he says. “How very Libby.”


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #76 – This old house

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #74  – Quarterly accounts

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.


STAY TUNED for next week’s fabulous posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #74 – Quarterly accounts

April 1, 2013.
One quarter of the way through the year. Time to check in with those New Year’s Resolutions. In the wee hours of January 1st while being kept awake by the neighbours’ illuminated, inflatable Christmas decorations, I promised myself I would do certain things this year.

In no particular order:

1. Talk to Maggie about her taking permanent custody of Fergus.
Check. Not only did I talk to Maggie, but the mission was successful. Maggie and Fergus are happy, I am happy, and as Jack is no longer snacking on high-calorie, gourmet dog biscuits, the paediatrician is also happy. Jack, however, still suffers from Fergus-withdrawal symptoms. Would a goldfish or two fill the pet void, I wonder? Or is Jack merely suffering from dog-biscuit-withdrawal symptoms? We could give the goldfish a try, I suppose. If it turns out it’s pet food Jack misses, he’ll have a hard time putting on weight if he starts pinching Goldie’s fish food.

Unless Sandra comes to visit and she buys him a piran—

No. Don’t even think about it.

2. Check out the local elementary school and enrol Jack for kindergarten.
Another tick in another box. Jack will start kindergarten after Labor Day, just six months from now. After last week’s school assembly for the parents of prospective kindergarteners, when we were all assured our offspring were Special And Important, we were herded into a series of classrooms where we sat on miniature chairs, banged our knees on miniature desks, and handed over paperwork to assorted admin assistants, to enlist our children in the academia sausage machine enrol our children in the Class of 2026.

The admin assistant to whom I gave my paperwork was, not to put too fine a point on it, not very bright.

She had a clipboard with a sheet of paper that said “Kindergarten Registration Checklist.” Nothing complicated on the list, until we came to the item that requested “US Birth Certificate.”

I handed her Jack’s, which, as he was born in Milton Keynes, was issued in the UK.

She looked at it, turned it over and back again, then asked, “Which state was he born in?”

Assuming she meant “State” in the sovereign sense, I said, “United Kingdom.”

A pause while she held the certificate up to the light.

“Is that like Puerto Rico or Guam?”

“No. It’s like England or Scotland.”

This time, a frown.

“So, it’s, like, not a state in the USA?”

“No, it’s Great Britain.”

“Britain? You mean British?”

I nodded, daring to hope we were getting somewhere. Silly me.

She jabbed at the clipboard with her pen. “I need a US birth certificate.”

“But I can’t give you one.”

“Then I can’t complete the registration form. Can you get a US birth certificate?”

For the love of God. I saw the Principal walking by and called out to him:

“Could you please explain to this lady why I haven’t got an American birth certificate for my son and why I’m unable to get one, and why it doesn’t matter?”

Eventually we got it sorted out.

As I signed the forms that condemned Jack to thirteen years of compulsory schooling with no parole, I asked the woman, “Do you work here?”

The idea that our local taxes paid her to work among impressionable children was quite alarming.

She shook her head. “I’m on the PTA, just volunteering tonight.”

That was a relief.

“So you know Jodee Addison?” I asked.

“Of course! We did our realtor training together.”

Realtor? Aha! It was all becoming clear now.

“What about Melissa Harvey Connor? Do you know her as well?”

A beaming smile. “Everyone knows Melissa! Is she a friend of yours?”

I tucked all Jack’s paperwork carefully in a manilla folder, then stood up to let the next person in the queue have their turn in the torture chair.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

Talking of Melissa: 3. Find another house.
Yes, we really should get round to finding somewhere else. It would mean paying two lots of rent if we found somewhere now, though, because Melissa won’t release us from the lease early.

The cow.

4. Make friends based on their personalities rather than nationalities.

And — check! My new friend from kindergarten registration evening, Willow Reeves, is not English, but as American as they get.

After we’d both finished being tortured by the PTA, Willow said to me “Got time for a coffee?”

Only she didn’t say “coffee.” She said “cawfee.”

“Sure,” I said. Because I can say things like “sure” now and not feel like a Brit trying to be American.

“Maxwell Plum?” she said. “The owners are friends of mine.”

Willow Reeves and Anna Gianni. Yes, that made sense.

5. Go to England and see what sort of a dog’s dinner Sandra has made of our house.
Over Maxwell Plum espressos — not a good idea, in retrospect; those babies pack more caffeine than a Red Bull reduction, and it was already 8 p.m. — Willow and I exchanged life stories. She’s originally from Brooklyn, New York, which is why we were having cawfee together instead of coffee.

“So you’re telling me,” she said, “that your mother-in-law, who gave you food poisoning at Thanksgiving, regifted you a pit bull for your wedding anniversary, and bought a tarantula for your three-year-old, is living in your house in England? And you haven’t checked on that house since she moved in?”

I gazed down into my espresso. “Yep.”

Willow leaned back in her chair. “Looks are so deceptive,” she said. “You don’t seem insane on the outside, but you must be. Aren’t you worried about your home?”

“Of course,” I said. “But what can I do? I’m 3000 miles away, and she’s my husband’s mother, not mine.”

“You need to visit,” Willow insisted. “I had some friends who sublet their apartment in New York while they went travelling for a year, and the subtenants did all kinds of shit to the apartment. Guess who had to pay to put it right? Not the subtenants.”

“What sort of ‘shit’?” I asked.

“The absolute literal kind. These guys kept adopting stray cats. When the ASPCA went in, there were 37 in this one-bedroomed apartment and only two litter trays.”

I shuddered.

“And you say your monster-in-law likes animals?” Willow said. “Well, honey, I just don’t know why you’re sitting here having cawfee. If it was me, I’d be heading over to Logan for the next plane home.”

April 5.
For the last few days, have been thinking over what Willow said. She’s right. It’s time for another trip home.

Oliver and I need a little talk.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #75 – Glass houses

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #73  – Stuck in my craw(fish) 

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #73 – Stuck in my craw(fish)

Beth is in possession of her wooden box again. I, however, am in possession of a new enemy. Ah well. I suppose it’s about time.

Last week I met Crystal’s mom, Jodee Addison. In the nursery school parking lot, we returned our respective offspring’s stolen Valentine gifts as if exchanging ransom and hostage — each of us with a different opinion of which item was hostage, of course. Ms. Addison, whom I was liking less and less each minute, was determined to have the last word.

“Crystal was heartbroken this morning when I told her she had to give the box back,” she said, holding tightly onto said box even as I tried to take it from her. “She wouldn’t get dressed or eat her breakfast, so I ran her a bubble bath to soothe her, but bless her heart, she was so upset about the box she threw all her American Girl dolls and their clothes in the bathtub.”

Jack has had a lucky escape from this girl, if you ask me. I’d just seen her going into school wearing a pink plastic tiara and a T-shirt with the word “Princess” on the front. While I object to calling small girls “princess” on the grounds they need no further encouragement in that department (“Princess” is merely a euphemism for “Spoiled Brat”) it was Crystal’s Coach handbag that bothered me. All the other children at nursery school have Angry Birds or Dora The Explorer backpacks, but no — Crystal has a Coach handbag. It might be a cast-off from her mother, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

And I’m meant to feel sympathetic because she can’t have one of my own daughter’s Christmas gifts?

“Perhaps she needs some help,” I suggested, firmly taking hold of Beth’s wooden box.

Jodee sighed and raked French-manicured nails through her ash-blonde extensions. Carefully, so as not to pull them loose. “She has anger issues.” (Trendy-Mom-speak for “Temper tantrums”.) “I hear there’s a really good paediatric therapist in town. Maybe I should contact her.”

I nodded, with what I hoped was a sincere expression on my face. “On the other hand, I hear Supernanny is doing a new series. Maybe you should contact her instead.”

It took a few seconds for the penny to drop, by which time I was safely locked in my car.

Well. Honestly.

*  *  *

So, that was last week. This week, it’s time to set a new era in motion: tonight, I am going to the local elementary school for Kindergarten Registration Evening.

Kindergarten in American schools is what they used to call Reception Class when I was Jack’s age. It’s ABCs, 123s, fingerpainting, and nap-time. The children start when they’re five-going-on-six, and only do half a day for the first year, so the daily routine won’t be much different from how it is at the moment. Nevertheless, I feel quite emotional at the prospect. My baby is going to Big School.

I get ready with more care than usual, and even remember to put makeup on. When you’ve lived in Woodhaven long enough, you know not to turn up at public events in the first rags that come out of your closet, because all the other parents will be sizing you up and making decisions about whether, based on his mother’s appearance, your child will be a suitable playmate for their child.

It’s very stressful for a slob like me.

I find the school OK; I’ve driven past it numerous times in the last eighteen months on the way to the supermarket. This is the first time I’ve been inside the school gates, however, never mind inside the building itself, and although I’ve arrived in plenty of time before the official start of 6pm, there’s already a Mom-war going on for prime parking spaces. I find a space easily enough at the back of the car park, and stay there, watching the power struggle.

The parking lot is a heaving mass of SUVs. Small Subarus driven by mousy moms are being bullied by outsize Lincoln Navigators — everyone round here has a 4-wheel-drive car because of the Massachusetts winters — which in turn are looked down upon by Porsche Cayennes. “I’m a mother of three so I have to drive a big car, but at least it’s a Porsche” is what those cars say. Lincoln Navigators generally have bumper stickers advertising the local high school lacrosse team, and are driven by only-just-right-side-of-forty blondes with a cellphone permanently attached to one ear. Occasionally, a large pickup truck with plumbing advertising decals comes along, and all other cars stop and let it pass. You don’t argue with pickup trucks. They’re the T-rexes of Car World.

As I sit in my nondescript Ford, a monster black SUV pulls into a slot two rows in front, and, true to stereotype, a woman with blonde hair extensions gets out with a cellphone stapled to the side of her head. I idly gaze at her for a moment before realising who it is; then I swear loudly (eliciting a startled look from the man who is getting out of the car next to me), slink down behind the steering wheel, and hope Jodee Addison doesn’t notice me.

For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that other parents from Jack’s nursery school would be here tonight, but now I think about it, everyone from his current school and also from Patsy Traynor’s, where he went last year, will be registering for kindergarten this evening.

After a few minutes, I peep cautiously over the dashboard. It’s a couple of minutes before six, and the parking lot is magically empty except for a few parents power walking towards the school’s front door. I clamber out of the car and attempt to power walk too, but my high-heeled boots won’t go faster than a teetering hobble.

Inside the school, I follow the other straggling parents to the gymnasium, where all the seats are taken and the noise is intense. Front rows are occupied by the hair-extension types, Jodee Addison included, still yapping on their cellphones; middle rows are full of married couples, the men in their work suits, looking stiff and uncomfortable and trying to loosen their ties, here to show that they are caring fathers who take an interest but really longing to be at home with a Michelob and ESPN; and the back rows are occupied by mothers on their own with two or three small children in tow. The children are either crying, crumbling Goldfish crackers on the floor, or bobbing up and down on their seats to play peek-a-boo with the people behind them. I send up a silent “thank you” that Oliver was able to leave work early today, and I don’t have to join this throng of RMS Titanic third-class inmates.

And then, at the very back, in the “standing room only” section, are people like me who didn’t quite make it on time. We are doomed; classified already as parents who aren’t as serious as we should be about our children’s education.

A bearded man approaches the lectern at the other end of the gym and introduces himself as Dr. Felix Roth. He is the Principal of this establishment, he says, and has been an Educator for forty years now.

The woman standing next to me, a curly redhead about my age with heavy eye makeup and an armful of silver bangles, shuffles impatiently.

“We believe your children are the most precious resource we have,” Dr. Roth is saying. “They are all special. We truly believe that. We nurture that sense of being special, that self-esteem, that feeling of being important to the community, in every single child.”

He introduces the head of the PTA, and I’m not surprised to see that it’s Jodee Addison. She must have older kids here.

“Special and important,” she begins, as she adjusts the lectern’s microphone. “That’s how this school makes our kids feel. It’s how my kids feel.” Yes. I know this already. “Every morning, the teachers at this school do affirmations with our kids to make them believe the world is their oyster.”

The redhead snorts softly, and I glance sideways at her. She smiles apologetically and leans across to whisper.
“Last year, that PTA woman got it wrong. She said ‘lobster’ instead of ‘oyster’. The sad thing is, I think I was the only one who noticed.”

Jodee’s finished her little seafood speech, and plays a Powerpoint presentation of five-year-olds with gappy mouths and inky fingers doing various kindergarten activities. Then she cuts to a short video of them chorusing “We are all Special and Important.”

My neighbour covers her mouth with her hand, but not before a giggle escapes. I meet her eyes, and can’t help giggling too.

“Did you ever hear such a crock?” she says as a round of applause bursts from the more earnest parents. “And they wonder why kids today are such entitled narcissists.”

I like you, I think. Another voice of sanity in Woodhaven.

I hold out my hand. “Libby Patrick,” I say. “I couldn’t agree more with you.”

She takes my hand and shakes it.

“Willow Reeves,” she says, and smiles. “Thank God for a like-minded parent.”

So, although I might have made a new enemy this week, I think I made a new friend as well.

Hey. Win some, lose some.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #74 – Quarterly accounts

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #72  – Puppy Love

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

LIBBY’S LIFE #72 – Puppy love

I really don’t want to make this phone call. But I dial the number anyway.

The phone picks up at the other end, a child answers, and I’m about to launch into a high-pitched, nervous Hello-is-your-mommy-there routine when I realise it’s not a real child but one who’s been recorded in a message.

“Hiiiiiii….. This is the Addisons’ house.” (A breathy sigh and some adult promptings in the background.) “Say your number and — and — who you are and my mommy will call you.” (Another pause and more prompts.) “Or my daddy. But not Sammy, because he’s a cat and he can’t talk.” Beep.

Crystal’s parents probably love this message. However (and look away now if you’re easily shocked) I don’t find other children as cute as their parents do. Not that I’d ever admit it, of course. It would mean social suicide for Jack if his mother didn’t openly consider his little friends to be “precious” or “adorable.”

“This is Libby Patrick,” I say. Ugh. Leaving messages, for me, is almost as bad as listening to those recorded by nauseating five-year-olds. “Your daughter gave a gift to my son at nursery school. You might be missing an item from your model car collection.” I give my cell phone number and hang up.

Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Certainly, it will be a picnic compared to the next stage of the gift-returning process, which is the extraction of a red, collectible, model car from Jack’s sticky grasp.

I find Jack in his bedroom, making soft vroom-vroom noises and scooting the Ferrari around his Lego table.

“Sweetheart,” I say, bending down to his level, Supernanny-style. “Would you like to go to the toy shop? Maggie’s coming over later for tea. We could all go out together and buy a new toy car for you.”

Yes, I know. Total coward.  A stronger woman would explain the situation and firmly tell Jack he must give the Ferrari back to his little girlfriend. No bribes, no tantrums, no more cars to add to his already expansive Hotwheels collection.

Jack looks up from his impromptu racetrack. “Another car?”


“So I get two cars today?” His voice rises an octave in excitement at his good fortune.

I consider my next words carefully. They could mean the difference between peace on earth and Armageddon in New England.

“Well, yes. But not at the same time.”

Jack narrows his eyes at me.

“I mean –” I flounder “– I’ll buy you another car, but we have to give this one back to Crystal.”

Jack picks up the car and hugs it protectively. “No.”

“She shouldn’t have given it to you. It belongs to her daddy, and now we have to give it back, but I know you’re disappointed, and I’ll buy you another car to make up for it.”

A nice one, I think, although not one that goes for 150 bucks on eBay, but Jack is having none of it.

“No! It’s MINE! Go AWAY!”

He hugs the car even tighter and throws himself on the floor in the foetal position. This is what comes, I think, of letting him watch American football all winter.

Come on, Libby. WWSD? What Would Supernanny Do?

Probably not what I do next, which is wrench the car from his hands and put it on the top shelf of his bookcase. He jumps to his feet, ineffectually trying to reach it down again, and calls me something that I can only imagine he’s learned from lip-reading football coaches on TV when the opposing team scores a touchdown.

“You do not speak to Mummy like that,” I say, wagging a finger at him and trying to keep my voice low and authoritative while disguising my shock at his new vocabulary.

“Yes I do!” Jack roars. “You took my car!”

He aims a kick at my shins. A four-year-old shouldn’t be able to inflict much damage, but this one is still wearing his Timberland boots and has accurate aim. I’m sure the Patriots would be interested in having him on the team one day, but right now —

“You little git,” I mutter through gritted teeth. “You want to play football? Let’s do timeout.” I take him by the shoulder and propel him through the bedroom door to the Naughty Spot outside the linen closet. “Sit there. Five minutes, and don’t you dare move.”

I go downstairs to attend to the twins, and Jack sits, cross-legged and seething but subdued, outside the linen closet.

I’ll give it to Supernanny, this Naughty Spot technique really works.

* * *

As I finish filling the twins’ sippy cups, my cellphone rings. It’s Crystal’s mum, who sounds confused when I tell her we have an item that might belong to her but, upon checking the display cabinet in her TV den, gasps and confirms there is a gap that should be filled by a small Ferrari. She would appreciate its return before Crystal’s daddy notices, she says. Her tone indicates that it’s all Jack’s fault and that he’s coerced her daughter into stealing.

“While you’re on the phone,” she says, “may I ask — are the crackers that Jack gave Crystal gluten-free?”

It’s my turn to be confused now. “Crackers?”

“Yes, crackers. They look like animal crackers but darker. She’s allergic to wheat, gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, turkey, and soy, so I need to check what’s in them before she eats them.”

It’s amazing the child eats anything at all. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Jack gave Crystal two pencils. Not animal crackers.”

“Maybe they came from the school party, then,” she says. “But the wooden box was definitely from Jack.”

Box? I rummage through Jack’s backpack before answering. Beth’s wooden box from Maggie, that Jack took in for show-and-tell, is not there.

“Does it have pictures of fairies and toadstools, by any chance?” I ask.

* * *

Crystal’s mum was quite unreasonable. Apparently, it was OK for me to traumatise Jack by taking her husband’s toy Ferrari away from him, but not OK for her to traumatise Crystal by taking Beth’s box from her. “But your little girl is only a baby — how will she know?” she said at one point in the conversation. Finally, grudgingly, she agreed to return the box, but only when I hinted I might put Hubby’s little car on eBay.

I’m still fuming half an hour later when Maggie arrives, bearing a box of homemade cookies.

“I thought we could have these with our tea. Jack loves cookies,” she says, looking round. “Cookies, biscuits, whatever he likes to call them. Where is Jack, anyway? Still at school?”

I slap my forehead.

“Still in timeout.” Supernanny recommends a minute on the Naughty Spot for each year of a child’s age, so according to my timeout calculations, Jack by rights should have started male menopause.

I creep upstairs, thoroughly ashamed. “Jack,” I call. “It’s OK, sweetheart, you can get off the Naughty Spot now. Mummy’s so sorry…Jack?”

Jack has already taken the initiative and vacated the punishment space. I look in his room, expecting to see him playing with Ironman and Captain America, but he’s not there. He’s not in the bathroom, or the twins’ room, or our bedroom.

“I can’t find him,” I say to Maggie, hearing the panic in my own voice. “He’s just — gone.”

“He can’t be. Think. Where did you leave him?” she asks, as if he’s a bag of shopping or my reading glasses.

I point. “On the landing, by the linen closet. But he’s not upstairs–”

Maggie ignores me and tiptoes up the stairs. I follow. She stops by the linen closet, turns and puts a finger to her lips, then quickly opens the closet door.

Squeezed onto one of the shelves, concertinaed into a space far smaller than I’d ever thought possible, is Jack. He has cookie crumbs smeared all round his mouth and down the front of his T-shirt, and looks very happy.

I’m too relieved at seeing him to be cross that he’s eating between meals. On the other hand, all cookies and snacks have been banished to the top shelf of the pantry where he can’t reach them, so—

“What are you eating?” I demand.

Jack, I can see, is trying to hide something under the pile of pillowcases he’s sitting on. I reach into the closet, under the pillowcases, and pull out a box.

A varnished wooden box, painted with trains and cars, the one Maggie gave him for Christmas. I reach under the linens again and pull out another box. George’s. They’re both heavier than I remember, and they rattle.

I open one, and then the other.

They’re full of cookies: the animal cracker-type cookies that Crystal’s mum had described.

“Did you get these cookies at school today?” I ask Jack.

He unfolds himself from the shelf and squirms free. After a pause, he nods.

I’m getting to know that pause-then-nod technique. It means he’s telling fibs.

“Did you take them from the pantry?” I ask. “Did you climb on a chair and take these cookies from the snack shelf?”

Because the thing is, these cookies look familiar.

Jack shakes his head vigorously. He’s not fibbing. He mutters something.

“Excuse me?” I lean down to hear him better.

“I said they’re biscuits not cookies.”

“Don’t push your luck, sunshine. Stop contradicting me.”

Maggie holds up her hand. “Let me see.”

After a quick glance, she says: “Jack’s right. They’re not cookies, they’re biscuits.”

“They look like animal crackers to me,” I say.

Maggie smirks.

“In a manner of speaking, I suppose they are,” she says. “They’re Fergus’s special canine-celiac dog biscuits.”

*  *  *

In the kitchen, I read the empty packet of Fergus’s dog biscuits that Maggie has fetched from her house. The calorific content is terrifying.

“No wonder Jack’s been putting on weight,” I say. “And no wonder he liked being in timeout so much. It was snack time, with his secret stash under the pillowcases.”

“More to the point, no wonder poor Fergus has been starving.” Maggie strokes Fergus’s head. He gazes up at her, his eyes half-closed. “But Jack loves these things. He must really like this little girl to give them away to her.”

I put the packet down, and look for the phone.

“That reminds me, I’d better call Crystal’s mum,” I say. “I should let her know Jack’s present was gluten-free after all.”


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #73 – Stuck in my craw(fish)

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #71 – Bonnie and Clyde go to preschool

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

 STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /

%d bloggers like this: