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Come on woman – enough of this teasing. Will you or won’t you? Should you or shouldn’t you? This time she’s on the run.

‘You haven’t forgotten, have you?’

My husband looks blank.

My daughter has no idea what I’m on about.

Book group tonight!’ I explain, setting plates in front of them.

Gemma and AWH both sigh. And, though I don’t say it, I’m not feeling too happy about the meeting either.

Part of me will be glad to see Ian again. We haven’t exchanged messages for several days. But another part doesn’t want him to come here.

It’s a problem of chemistry. At the moment everything is just about stable. But if two bodies – those of AWH and Ian – were to collide, there could be a raising of temperature. Things might start to fizz and burn. There will be smoke. Flashing lights. An explosion.

Unaware of these possibilities, Gemma devours a triangle of Cheese Feast pizza.

Awful Wedded Husband only likes pizza if the dough has been hand-made, and then topped by a Jamie Oliver sauce. He picks at his slice with an air of distaste.

This meal is not what I planned. But recent mishaps meant I had to raid the freezer.

For the last few days I have been chicken-sitting. Salome and Eve live in a pen at the bottom of next door’s garden.

At four o'clock I was clearing the debris from our sitting room. Glancing up from the Hoover, I saw Eve regarding me curiously through the French windows.

So I went in the garden to catch her. Eve had enjoyed roaming round our garden looking for titbits. Pretending not to notice my advance, she strutted off with as much dignity as she could muster.

It is surprisingly hard to pick up a chicken. The trick is to grasp it firmly, pinning down the wings. (Rather like trying to hug Gemma when she wants to squirm away.)

Capturing a bird is not the kindest thing to do. I was sympathetic to the creature’s desire for more freedom, added stimulation. But your average chicken isn’t streetwise. Eve is not aware of stranger danger. And my neighbours would be beside themselves if she came to any harm. Matt and Michelle have left me three different contact numbers to use in the event of a poultry emergency. So I put the indignant Eve back in her coop.

A quarter of an hour later she was back, pecking round our patio. Once again I returned her. Next time it took her just five minutes to re-appear.

So I spent the rest of the afternoon checking the netting round the hen coop and our fence, then doing emergency repairs.

‘Oh, I should have said…’

AWH and Gemma break off. They were in the middle of a debate. Gemma was maintaining that because pizza topping contains tomato, it counts as a portion of vegetables. So she doesn’t need any salad.

‘Something odd happened,’ I announce.

‘What?’ asks my husband.

Any distraction from junk food and his youngest child should be welcomed.

‘Someone rang saying, “Can I speak to Dougal?” When I went, “But Dougal’s at university,” they laughed and rang off. Without leaving a name.’

‘Man or woman?’ Gemma enquires.

‘Woman. More of a girl.’

My daughter nods sagely.

‘It’ll have been Cait.’

‘Who’s Kate?’

‘Caitlin. Dougal invited her to the party. They started going out. Dalilah said.’
I thank my daughter and add that nobody tells me anything.

Awful Wedded Husband has cut the crust off his pizza and pushed it to one side. If it was Gemma I would say not to waste good food.

‘How long ago was this?’ he asks.

‘Yesterday. Perhaps the day before.’

‘See.’ he tells me, in a tone of satisfaction. ‘You forget stuff too’.

‘That’s different,’ I say.

‘How is it different?’

‘Oh God!’ I cry, dropping my fork with a clatter. ‘Can’t we ever have an ordinary family supper?’

‘What did I do?’ asks Gemma. ‘Why is it always my fault?’

I say, ‘I didn’t mean you.’

It’s about AWH, of course. He’d utterly failed to let me know about the company’s annual shindig. My intention had been for us to have a civilised chat about this in private. Only the last time we’d eaten together, he had told Gemma off for leaving an important notice at the bottom of her school bag.

I blurted out, ‘So how many months have you known about the Winter Dinner?

Which is this Saturday. And I only hear because I happen to be talking to your PA…’

My husband is not the easiest man to wrong foot.

His first strategy was denial. He’d definitely told me. No, he can’t remember when.

But he knows he did.

And I was convinced he didn’t. Also, even if that was the case, he had not written it on the calendar.

AWH switched to an alternative defence. Hadn’t I said I no longer wanted to attend the Dinner?

Well, if I hadn’t said it in so many words, last year I had certainly nagged him to leave early.

I pointed out that early is not just before midnight. Although this may not have dawned on him, some staff find it a lot easier to let their hair down without their boss looking on. And it had been blindingly obvious that Mark from Customer

Support fancied his chances with Neesha in Accounts.

My husband said he didn’t notice.

Gemma demanded to know how I knew Mark and Neesha had a thing for each other.

‘You can just tell,’ I said.

‘What were they doing?’

I reminded myself a good mother doesn’t just make sure children are clued up on the mechanics of sex. It is also her duty to educate them about relationships, feelings….

‘People don’t have to do a lot.’ I told my daughter. ‘It’s all in the tiny details. The way people look at one another. Even the way they stand.’

Gemma wanted greater clarity. She suggested her father and I push our chairs back, then pretended to be Neesha and Mark.

We refused.

AWH went on defending himself.

‘You always say my colleagues are deadly. That you aren’t interested.’

‘But I am interested.…’

My voice tailed off. It would not be wise to admit I wanted to see Stevie.

So I muttered it was always ‘interesting to see what happens when people get together.’

Now my husband and daughter are acting hurt. At least this means we finish eating with just one more skirmish. It occurs when I offer Gemma a chocolate pudding that is one day past its sell-by date. When she protests she’ll be poisoned, I substitute a rhubarb yogurt, and begin the chocolate myself. I have managed a single delicious spoonful when Gemma changes her mind and swipes the pudding back off me.

Almost, I can relax.

For the last hour and half, the book group has proceeded in a fairly normal way.

Better than I dared hope.

Everybody arrived at the same time. Only Ian played no part in the general cheek kissing, and excited greeting. Instead of taking one of the sofas, he opted for a chair by the window. Although our living room isn’t large he seems a long way away.

Several times Iz has glanced at him, then at me. But there hasn’t been – I am almost sure – anything to see. I was unprepared for this coolness. Is it so risky to be friendly and polite?

There had been just one unfortunate event at the outset. It involved Chantelle’s pashmina (a gift from Rackham’s) and some chewing gum which Gemma had not disposed of properly.

But I sat down next to Chantelle and made it my business to keep topping up her glass with Frascati. Before long she was smiling sweetly again.

We’d got off to a prompt start. And already Louise has consulted her watch. If she – and the others – leave reasonably soon. Ian and I might be able to grab a few minutes together.

Like me, he’s steered clear of the wine, drinking only coffee. So far Ian has contributed little to our discussion of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Fortunately Louise more than made up for this, contributing a long anecdote about her cleaning lady’s autistic son.

Poll asserted the novel was extremely funny. Chantelle agreed. Iz was not convinced.

‘But surely…. The bit where Christopher discovers the letters. I found that incredibly sad.’

‘You are so right,’ said Chantelle.

I have just pointed out this is a story with a narrator who doesn’t recognise emotions. He needs to learn about people being happy or sad, from faces that his teacher draws. Of course, in reality it’s still more complicated.

‘For example,’ I say. ‘At the moment I keep finding myself in situations where I don’t know whether to laugh or cry….’

There’s a pause, broken by the sound of Chantelle munching a crisp.

Poll clears her throat.

Then she comments, ‘You believe every word while you’re reading. Though in fact, no proper Dad would lie to a child about their Mum taking off.’

I lean forward.

‘But adults hide stuff all the time.’ I say. ‘It’s about privacy. And protecting your kids.’

Ian sets his cup down.

‘That is totally wrong…’

‘We swivel towards him.

Someone – perhaps Louise – says, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Not the book. I mean you.’

Ian’s looking at me at last . Except now I’d rather he didn’t.

‘A person shouldn’t lie about the breakdown of a marriage. When a relationship is coming to an end, you’re meant to be truthful. You face up to it. With your family. With everyone.’

A voice, coming from my mouth says. ‘Oh really? I suppose you gave Jacob daily bulletins about how and why you and Amanda split.’
Ian colours. He looks away, then back. I hold his stare and go on.

‘Also if being honest is so important to you, I imagine you have no objection to sharing that information with the rest of us…’

Poll grins wryly.

Louise’s jaw has dropped.

Iz’s face is expressionless.

Chantelle continues to beam at us all.

A person steps into the room. My husband.

‘Sorry to intrude,’ he says. Then he turns to me. ‘Gemma asked if you’d come and kiss her good night.’

‘I will,’ I say. ‘Only not till we’re finished.’

But in no time at all everyone, Ian included, has scrambled to their feet. Really, they must be on their way.

AWH distributes coats. Noises are made about it having been an enjoyable – a fascinating – evening.

There are two of us in the narrow passage.

‘So… Did you have a good discussion?’ asks AWH.

I see that he’s changed into his favourite jumper which is gone at the elbows. He has only promised me a hundred times it will go in the bin.

I nod.

‘Great. Are you coming up?’

Outside a car engine splutters into life. The roar softens, fades. Poll and Iz, Chantelle and Louise will have driven. Ian probably walked.

‘What for?’

‘To see Gemma.’

My husband has a bunch of keys in his palm. He’s jingling them. Any minute now he’ll lock up the house..

I am shivering. The thermostat must have gone off.

‘I can’t.’

Awful Wedded Husband takes a step closer. He’s stood between me and the front door. A puzzled line spreads over his forehead.

‘You can’t what?’

‘See her. There’s… something I need to do. ’

I have pushed past him. I’m yanking at the latch.

‘It’s important. Shan’t be long.’

Then I am out in the night.


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