Thursday 8 September 2011

Back to school

Wednesday, 7th September


Lily and I are on the way home from our mini-break seeing friends and aged family. Both Uncle Maurice and James and Kitty think we should move to Oxford. 

Uncle Maurice asks me how it is, living in the depths of the country.

'I love the walks and the wildlife,' I say. 'But it is a little bit quiet and backwatery.'

'Well then, you're going to die,' he says. 

Oh God!  

He and James and Kitty enthuse about the stimulating people and interesting jobs in Oxford, and the proximity to London and the National Theatre, where Uncle Maurice is going to see a twelve-part reading of the entire King James Bible over four days this autumn.

Oh God! I am practically half his age. He is alive and I am ready to shuffle.

Which is why Lily and I are now looking in estate agent windows in Summertown. Oh my Lord! City of pipe dreams! The prices are way higher than in London, even. A gust of chill wind whips down the street. Autumn. We divert to a patisserie.

I choose a pain au chocolat, Lily a chocolate chip swirl.

'Let's share them both,' I suggest. I break Lily's swirl in half and offer her the choice. She takes the bigger half.

'I knew it!' I say.

'Well it is mine!' she retorts.

We resume our search. I spot a job ad. 'Flexible Viewing Assistant: evenings and weekends. Organised, well presented, enthusiastic and friendly.' Yes!  I go in and, wiping the last flakes of Lily's chocolate swirl from my lips and powder-blue cardy, present myself enthusiastically.

'Seven hours,' states Lily, seeing the office clock. This is the time she has left until school.

The girl looks me up and down. I am aware that I have no make-up and she has lots. Nor have I yet home-highlighted my mousy hair, as prescribed by Meredith. 'You need to speak to Carole, our HR manager, but she isn't here at the moment,' says the girl. 'Can you email her your CV?'

'Yes, yes,' I say brightly. Argh. Still haven't done a CV. 'Could you tell me how much the ...' Oh God! What do you call it? Salary? Wages? Pay? 'Er, how much does it pay?'

'I believe it's £10 a viewing. And if it's two viewings, one after the other, £15. Plus mileage.'

'OK, great,' I say, with my enthusiastic, friendly smile. 'Bye, then!' I add as we head out of the door.

'Nearly as bad as looking after dogs,' I say to Lily, delving into the paper bag and breaking the pain au chocolat in half.

'You choose,' says Lily.

I take the bigger half.

'I knew it!' says Lily.

'Well it is mine!'

'Cor blimey!' she says. 'Hypocrite!'

We laugh and walk on, arm in arm.

By Jericho, she has lost interest in gazing at estate agents' windows and refuses to get out of the car.
'Come on you punk... wallah,' I say, swerving at the last minute from the insult that had first come to mind, 'punk-face'. Not one I have ever thought of or used before, I may add. 

'Thanks!' She glares at me.

'Do you know what a punkah wallah is?' I enquire conversationally. 'It's the man who pulls the big ceiling fans in India.' I fan her face with my hands.

Grinning, she gets out of the car and as we fall in step, grabs my arm, throws it in the air and jumps under it. This is Lily and me. Insults and bickering one minute. Harmony the next. Nine weeks in each other's pockets, almost over.

Having exhausted the estate agents' offerings, we buy a take-away pizza for the car.

'Vegetariana?' I suggest.

'No.' says Lily emphatically. 'American.'

'One American,' I order, not quite bothered enough to run with the idea of asking for a vegetariana with extra pepperoni. We hurry back to the car to miss another flurry of rain.

'Oh,' I say, disappointed, when we open up the box. 'It doesn't look very nice.' Just undercooked onion and pepperoni. I pull off a slice and take a bite. 'I don't like it.'

'I do,' enthuses Lily, her mouth full. 'Now you're thinking, why do I always give in to Lily!'

'Exactly!' I agree. 'Why do I?'

'Because I'm so persuasive and sweet,' she suggests sweetly.

I raise my eyebrows sarcastically.

'Hypocrite!' she throws in for good measure.

Soon we're down to the last slice. 'Somehow we're going to have to divide the last one,' says Lily.

'I'm a third bigger than you,' I say, 'so I should have it.'

'I'm growing, so I should have it,' responds Lily.

'You can have this.' I give her an abandoned crust and take the slice.

'Oh you're lovely!' she laughs, grabbing the slice off me. 'Divide it in two, or I'm having it,' she threatens.

I take the slice and fold it longways. I then hold it sideways and chew along the pizza, up to the centre line. She bursts out laughing. I hand her the scalloped slither.

'Who are we going to spend Christmas with this year, Mumma?' she asks through a mouthful of mozzarella, reverting to her pre-pre-adolescent name for me.

'I don't know, darling.'

She leans over and looks at the clock on the dashboard. 'Six hours! Let's go home!'


Lily has been put in a cramped dorm with seven other girls. I scan the faces. Esme Etherington. Mattie Butler. Saskia Foley. Yes! She's in with the in crowd! While I tramp back and forth with binbags stuffed with her hockey stick and tennis racket and rollerblades and trainers, she and her pals eat illicit chocolates and thwack each other with a bendy ruler.  

'So where are you, darling?' I ask Lily, when I've finished piling up her bags.

'Here!' Lily points to the top bunk bed in the corner. 'First of all I was here,' she laughs, pointing to the bed by the door. 'Then Mattie swapped and I was here,' she points to the lower bunk. 'And then Sassie swapped and now I'm here!' I feel a flush of indignation. Nobody wants the top bunk. I'm not sure why, since it was a prized position in my day, but no, not at the Manor. 

She sees my frown and breaks in. 'I don't mind! It's fine!' And she's off, laughing and ragging with her dorm mates, leaving me and Dusty to drive home alone. 

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