tagNovels and NovellasBy the Book Ch. 02

By the Book Ch. 02


May 1st 2004

Thanks to some foul-tasting medicine, the early birthday present from the kids has been cleared up so I’ve stopped the baboon-like itching of my posterior and I’m looking forward to a rip-roaring birthday. Did I mention it’s my 36th? It is also Pauline’s birthday, Amelia’s and the guy’s next door. A group of girls are going out to help Pauline celebrate, Amelia’s husband is throwing a dinner party for their friends and the guy next door is twenty years older than me and drinks in the British Legion but you can bet your life him and his family will still be on the karaoke at four in the morning. I wasn’t on Amelia’s guest list and I couldn’t find a babysitter for Pauline’s bash so I was left with two choices – sit at home like some sad sack, drinking myself drunk enough to make ill-advised phone calls or have a birthday with a difference. Which is why I’ve spent the morning making sausage rolls and jellies while the kids have been trying out the bouncy castle we hired for the day. They’ll have been sick at least twice by the time the guests arrive.

I know it’s becoming increasingly aware that there is a touch of the Aunt Maud’s in me but I promise you, it wasn’t always like this. I used to go out with a big group of adults for birthdays and we’d all have a laugh and a snog and a fight and vow to do it again next year. For the big three-O, however, I was six months pregnant and laid low with sinusitis so the event passed rather more sedately than I’d ever imagined. And since then, the group has never gathered in quite the same way. Some of them will still be here today, but many are new and will be coming along with an assortment of kids, partners and baggage, which for the most part they carry by themselves but after a few glasses of wine it all gets a bit messy. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Talking of wine, I get more than my fair share as presents. Everyone says, ‘enjoy yourself. Have a glass of wine tonight when the kids are settled.” What’s sadder, actually using a wine stopper, or drinking a whole bottle of wine without uttering a single word? This year, though, I took all the wine given with a smile because in seven days time he will be back from his holidays and back in my inbox.

There were two more unusual presents. I had hoped for a new alarm clock – I’m fed up of being woken up to ‘Hi, I’m Barbie, wake up and let’s have some fun today!” – any video involving Colin Farrell and a youth hostel renewal voucher.

We got our fist taste of youth hostelling when Easyjet started cut-price flights to Paris. In Britain the hostels are either new or fantastically renovated Grade Listed buildings set in some of the most beautiful countryside. The ones in Paris are less so. Away from the tourist hotspots the hostels are based in less than salubrious surroundings but they are cheap, warm and close to the Metro. And they’re the reason my kids and me managed to stay in Paris for eight days – three of those at Euro Disney – during the summer for less than £500.

I know it’s not very British to talk about money but I just love a bargain. And to be honest money talk is always on the agenda, it’s just voiced differently. Some people constantly going on about the third house they’ve just invested in, the extension they’re planning, and the cost of children’s education, money, money, and money. But for all of their wealth, most of them don’t know how to make any real money; they just know the best lender at any one time. Even so, they might as well have been talking a foreign language. I find it hard to raise a fiver sometimes, let alone something with five figures. At dinner parties, therefore I’m like the female equivalent of the Yakult man, only without the smooth line in patter. Although, dinner parties don’t seem to be as popular as they used to be. Whenever I hear of my friends getting together it’s always a last minute thing. I don’t know why they don’t invite me, though? They must know I’ve got a shed load of wine sitting waiting to be uncorked.

Anyway, two of my presents looked promising. Gail brought me what looked like Colin Farrell, gift-wrapped. It wasn’t. It was a self-help book on flirting.

Me: Err, thanks.

Gail: You’ve been single long enough.

Me: It’s not for the want of trying.

Gail: I’ve seen you trying. Trust me, you need this book.

Gail’s older than me. She’s already had the big four-0, owns her own flat, has never lived with anyone and has a cat. But last month she met Aiden. Until Aiden came along single was sexy and anyone who needed a man, needed a life. Now it’s just me. But while she epitomised the Bridget Jones’s, I was always sadly lacking.

And it wasn’t just a book.

Gail: You have thirty-six days to rebuild your life. I’m challenging you to lead a better life from now on.

I smiled. I have a hotmail hot male she knows nothing about. Challenge, what challenge?

My last present was definitely a sign. Thirty pounds worth of Ann Summers gift vouchers, from the team at work. Naughty knickers here I come!

Still May1 2004

By two o’clock the party was in full swing, no one had been sick yet and weather had stayed dry. The sun was even trying to come out. From the kitchen I could hear voices beginning to rise.

Gloria: I just think there are more around, nowadays.

If she had been talking about weeds I’d probably be in agreement with her, having spent the best part of two days ridding the patio of the damn things, but judging by the tone of her voice I think this is a discussion she and Pete have had before.

Pete: I just think you’re obsessed, woman.

My mum May: There’s nothing wrong with a little obsession.

The thing about my mum is that she always wants to see the good in everyone – everyone, that is, except Clem. And Gloria’s one of her favourite’s, ever since she invited my daisy to be flower girl at her wedding to Pete, five years ago.

Pete: With elastic bands?

Oh no! I close my eyes.

Gloria: There’s more and more of them about these days. When I was little there were hardly any, now you find them everywhere.

It was true; Gloria had become obsessed with elastic bands. Every time she took her daughter Polly out for a walk, she’d return with a pocketful of bands until she had enough to make a ball with them. Polly is not quite one year’s old and she’s already on her third ball, starting a new one every time the bands snapped as she tried to stretch them too far. It makes her day when she finds one long enough to go fit the old balls. I have texts to prove it.

Pete: We have a sorting office at the end of the road, May. Dozens of posties walk past our house everyday. The elastic bands are used to keep the letters together. They drop them, end of mystery.

May: It’s good to have a hobby. Though, it’s a pity you’re not finding fivers, Gloria. They’d be really useful. Our Jo could do with something to occupy her.

Or someone, more like it. Mum, God love her, thinks all the things I do – work, work out, be a mum, love being a mum, go to college, and finally follow my passion for writing – are simply diversionary tactics to stop me dwelling too hard on the fact that I am man-less. In fact, she probably put Gail up to daring me; so desperate is she to see me find a nice man and finally doing something with my life.

Luckily, the elastic band debate stopped as abruptly as it began. Clem was here. Wafting in on a sea of darlings, air-kisses and lashings of Chanel, Clem made her usual grand yet all-encompassing entrances, dressing impeccably in vintage 50’s clamdiggers and an off the shoulder top.

Clem: Now, the party can start.

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