As a child, I sat in the organ loft next to my father as he accompanied the hymns in church. As an adult, I sit by my son, Andrew, who's 8, as he tinkles his way to Grade One. Yet, until recently, the piano was most definitely not my forte – I couldn't read or play a single note.
Why had I never learnt? Possibly because Dad, a gifted keyboard player, only played because his mother forced him. and he chose not to impose the same misery on me. Ironically, this only deferred it a generation. Then I inflicted it on my own child.
Just shy of my 46th birthday, I finally unleashed my inner Mozart. It couldn't, I reasoned, be less effort than forcing rebellious children through their practice.
One advantage of my son's serial progression through four piano tutors in two years is that I knew where to go. Sally Royds, who lives near me in Derbyshire, has been teaching Andrew for a year and he's making wonderful progress. So, I signed up with her too.
But approaching her house for my first lesson, my nerves had reached a crescendo. What if I didn't make the grade? But Sally insists that she's never met anyone who couldn't play. "Each person has a unique piano journey," she said encouragingly, adding that everyone has potential that simply needs unlocking. Learning to 'let go' as you play is central to her unique method, which she calls Piano Freeway. Letting your arms drop, your wrists relax and your fingers fall on the keys are the first stages; more difficult than you'd imagine, especially when you're trying to follow the music as well. "It's all about releasing tension in the body in order to play," Sally explains. "And once you're immersed you don't think of anything else."
What better for a harassed middle-aged mum like myself? And it's true. You really can't think of anything else. Work niggles, lost and unsigned school forms, missing swimming goggles and cubs' subs float away as I let my hands drop on notes from the wrist or run up and down octaves with two thumbs. It's absorbing because there's so much to consider. Sally advises clapping out the rhythm of a piece before playing it, which might sound easy enough. But combining instructions like forte (loud) or piano (soft) with a changing pattern of beats per bar is a real challenge. The good news, though, is that you can practise anywhere – and I do, annoyingly – on tables, desks, work surfaces, anything where I can tap out a tune.
I thought that playing with two hands would be impossible, but as the weeks have progressed I've found I can almost manage it. Perhaps it's all those years at the computer keyboard. What's hard is fingering – having the right digits on the correct keys. The thumb plays Middle C, the forefinger D on the right hand and B on the left hand etc. Mine are never where they should be. Still, I'm working on it, much to the amusement of my eight-year-old son. "Mummy, you're so sad. I've done what you're doing years ago," he boasts.
But so what? I'm doing it now, and simultaneously demonstrating that you're never too old to learn. Taking up an instrument, I discovered, is instant membership to the club. Thrilling talk about time signatures, semibreves, crotchets and bar signs starts straight away. It's so exciting discovering that a dot next to a minim means three beats. for someone who's used words professionally throughout my career, this is a whole new and wonderful language.
And that nagging voice urging me to learn is now silent. It's been replaced by another reminding me to practise – if only to keep up with my son who's streets ahead of me and very pleased about it. Sally claims it's never too late to learn and as I can finally say, I did it Steinway!
Wendy's latest novel, "Marrying up" ( Headline Review, £12.99) is on sale now.
I was brought up never to make a fuss. And so, in 1929, when we had to leave the country and move to London, I didn't. It was a wrench, particularly for Mummy, to sell the home in which her family had been living for three centuries. But for me, for whom the average country day could seem like three centuries in itself, there was a definite bright side to Father's being caught up in the American stock disaster.
Life in the country was fine if you enjoyed wearing stout tweeds, spending your days galloping in the freezing cold after foxes and your nights stumbling over the misplaced feet of chinless wonders at dances in unheated statelies. It was fine if you dreamed of being presented at court as a debutante. But for me, who dreamed of doing something interesting with my life, it was slow suffocation. I was – secretly of course – thrilled to be leaving.
Someone else was thrilled, too. Cynthia Granville, the local belle, was triumphant. We had, between us, conducted a discreet war for the affections of Edward Delamere, whose father, a marquess, owned the largest (and warmest) stately home in the area. But Edward had gone off to Oxford to study medicine. We had been close at one point, and an unspoken agreement had – or so I thought – arisen between us. But he had never written since leaving for university, nor had he come back; that he had met some beautiful bluestocking seemed more than likely. And with that disappeared hope went the final reason for wanting to stay in the country.
'Poor Edith, how embarrassing to be poor," Cynthia hissed in a stage whisper at one of the last balls I went to. "Apparently she's going to be a shopgirl!"
Everyone looked at me in shock over the rims of their champagne glasses. "It's true," I told the suddenly-silent supper-room. "My parents' circumstances mean I can't continue leading a life of, ahem.." I glanced round at the collected tailcoats and ballgowns, "leisure. So, yes, I've got a job in a shop. And as a matter of fact," I added, rather enjoying the effect I was having, "I'm quite looking forward to it."
I wasn't dissembling. I loved clothes and really was looking forward to my new position in Harrods' dress department, spending my days among the best and latest of ladies' fashions.
Harrods, it was said, could supply everything the debutante wanted; the dress, the gloves, the shoes, even the limousine in which she went to the Palace. Everything but the man, in other words.
And while I was no longer going to be a debutante myself – a fact I couldn't have mourned less – I was looking forward to helping those that were. I had the background, after all, a fact that Mrs Bracegirdle the Head of Ladieswear had obviously noted when offering me the position of her assistant.
Mrs Bracegirdle was slender, dark-haired and fearsomely elegant. She could stand as erect on high heels for upwards of eight hours a day, which perhaps accounted for her abrupt and no-nonsense manner.
But once I got used to her I developed a huge respect for her knowledge and her eye for fashion, not to mention her amazing tact; the kind yet firm way she prevented customers making the wrong choice. She, in turn, seemed to regard me as quick on the uptake and hinted that I could expect promotion. I was busy, I was happy and I felt, for the first time in my life, fulfilled. I had found my metier. Romantically, my life was a blank – no-one could ever measure up to Edward - but at least I had my work.
One day, as I unpacked a box of new white elbow gloves, I heard a familiar voice. "Darling," it shrilled. "Won't this be perfect for my presentation at Court?"
I looked up just in time to see Cynthia Granville pulling hard at one of the new white satin bias-cut dresses that had just come in from Dior. Mrs Bracegirdle, who hated her beautiful stock being manhandled, shot over immediately. But my eyes were no longer on Cynthia, but on her companion.
My view was from the back, but there was no mistaking that tall, slim build, those broad shoulders, that shining black hair. He was tapping one foot restlessly; obviously wishing to be anywhere other than here.
Perhaps he felt my eyes boring into his back; he turned round. The foot stopped tapping and his handsome face, blank with boredom, leapt to startled life. Within a second he was opposite me. "Edith!"
"Hello Edward," I said as steadily as I could, although the hands smoothing out the gloves were shaking.
"Where did you go?" His dark eyes burned into mine. "I came back from Oxford and you'd left. No-one knew where. And ever since I've had Cynthia all over me like…" He stopped, cleared his throat, aware that what he was saying was ungallant. "She wanted to come and buy her deb dress here," he explained. "Think she's getting the limo here as well." He raised his eyebrows.
"I went to London," I said, rather stating the obvious. My head was bent over the counter glass so he should not see my furiously red face. "Harrods," I muttered over a heart beating so loud it seemed it might drown out my words, "is where I work."
"Until what time?" Edward hissed, as Cynthia, with a shriek of 'Darling!" was suddenly upon us. She grabbed Edward's arm; the look she gave me – although she did not greet me – was pure poison.
"Six o'clock," I said calmly to Edward, as Cynthia stormed out.
He grinned at me. "I'll be waiting outside."
I unpacked the rest of the glove box, aware of Mrs Bracegirdle's benign surveillance and of the fact that, while Cynthia had got the dress and the car at Harrods, there was a fair chance I'd got the man.
A story recently published in Woman's Weekly - a bit of seasonal fun for those of you feeling fed up with the cold!
So there we were, in the queue at St Pancras International at six o'clock in the morning. It was just after Christmas and my husband Gideon, children Galahad and Arabel and myself were heading to Switzerland to blow some seasonal cobwebs out on the dazzling slopes of Villars.
We were exhilarated at the prospect of escape after a Christmas pent-up with my husband's family. Gideon's ghastly mother had been even ghastlier than usual and his parents' house crammed with various of his irritating relations, all of whom were deaf, insane or otherwise needing to be pandered to.
We were ready for some fresh air and exercise, not least because, thanks to Gideon's mother's insistence on cooking everything in goose fat (including the Christmas pudding; at least, that was what it tasted like), I'd put on at least half a stone. Ski-ing, I had found over the years, was the best way of removing the post-festive pounds. Especially the money ones. Going to Villars via Paris by train cost the earth, but, as my husband pointed out, as it wasn't the plane it was at least saving the earth too.
The crowds at St Pancras amazed us; hundreds of people seemed to be pressing beneath the station's vaulted Victorian roof. We had picked an early morning train imagining it would be relatively free of fellow travellers. It was for this reason and this reason alone that I was wearing my bottle-bottom glasses and no make-up, along with hair bundled back into a scrunchie and clothes which ticked the casual and sporty box, if not the downright slobby.
For me, this was unusual. As a features editor on a glossy fashion magazine I generally tended to dress at all times in the season's smartest and most unforgiving shapes. But it was six am and, for reasons I've already outlined, I was at least a fortnight away from squeezing into my usual Alaia and Chanel.
We pushed our trolley forward; and then I froze. A man was passing to my left; a tall man in a long, blue cashmere coat with close-cropped hair and the sort of thin, lozenge-shaped spectacles worn by successful media people (I hasten to add that my early-morning ocular shove-ons were not of this nature). I recognised Alasdhair, whose wife, Georgina, was the fashion editor on the magazine I worked on.
My heart sank. Georgina was probably my least favourite person on the magazine; vain, shallow and talentless. And yet, knowing that I got on particularly well with the editor, she was always all over me like one of the cheap suits she most certainly would never consider wearing. The thought of a mwah-mwah encounter at six in the morning, in the middle of a chaotic melee of holidaygoing families, in my thick glasses to boot, was the most hideous of prospects.
I froze again as Georgina now appeared beside me, a mere three people or so away. She looked every bit as groomed as if she were setting off on one of her trips to see 'dear Karl' (Lagerfeld, obviously). But as her children were with her – I struggled to recall their names; Oliver and Manon? Gulliver and Andromeda? Something ridiculous anyway – this was obviously not the case. Ganymede and Persephone (was that it?) were, I noticed, Mini-Bodened to within an inch of their lives, all artfully mismatched prints and hand-knits. And in her black leggings and fake fur gilet with pom-poms, Georgina epitomised elegant maternal chic, her face subtley made up, her glossy dark hair caught casually up with a clip.
I stood, eyes fixed to the floor, awaiting the unwelcome exclamation of delight at seeing me. It never came. She, too, failed to spot us. Perhaps she didn't recognise me; whatever the reason, the wave of relief as Georgina now pushed onwards was enormous.
As Gideon and I reached the platform with Galahad and Arabel, I kept a sharp eye out. The fake fur gilet and cashmere coat were a couple of carriages away, stowing in their smart-looking luggage and even smarter-looking children. They did not seem to see us and, as eye contact would have been fatal, I kept mine demurely lowered to the ground. We found our seats and settled in but it was not until the ones across the aisle were taken by a young couple with loud personal stereos that I truly relaxed. The thought of Georgina and her family occupying it, trilling brightly at me all the way to Paris, was just too ghastly to contemplate.
At Paris, of course, the danger would lift. We were due to change there for the train through to Switzerland. As trains from Paris went in a million different directions it was surely impossible that Georgina would be on ours. I considered, then abandoned the possibility of putting on a full face of make-up and inserting my contact lenses. The chances of her catching the same one as us was ridiculously small.
All the same, there was a delay of an hour or so between arriving and our Swiss train departing. Fearful of running into Georgina and her family we shot into the back of a chill, unfriendly platform café and stayed there until it was time to leave. This didn't go down well with the rest of the family, who wanted to explore the station and look at the trains. But I refused to let them in case we were spotted and recognised. There was a nasty moment when Arabel needed the loo and I had to go out in search of it, but fortunately Georgina and her family seemed to have disappeared. Hopefully they were miles away by now, on a train to the South of France or somewhere.
But no. We arrived at the platform for the Switzerland train and spotted, to our horror, among the North Face skiwear and rucksacks milling about outside the train, a familiar blue cashmere coat and fake fur gilet. Not to mention floral flashes of Mini Boden,. Gideon was by now fed up of the whole subterfuge. As I stared determinedly at the flattened circles of chewing gum on the station floor, he whispered, 'Don't you think you can say hello now?" I shuddered at the thought. Six hours of bright conversation all the way to Switzerland was a grim prospect. And I still had my glasses on.
Fortunately, Georgina had still not noticed us and the journey passed without incident, although there was a nasty moment in the buffet when I found myself queuing next to Alastair. Fortunately, he didn't see me; we knew each other only slightly anyway. All the same, I shot out sharpish and for the rest of the journey we went foodless and without drinks. I wasn't going to risk Georgina ruining the journey for the sake of a couple of Oranginas and a packet of crisps.
Obviously, there were many places in Switzerland that Georgina could be going. But I was now certain that she, too, was going to Villars to ski. This proved correct when we disembarked at our final destination – me holding back to allow as many people off the train as possible first – and a blue cashmere coat and fur gilet could be seen at the lifts at the other end of the platform.
I was miserable. I loved ski-ing, despite not being very good at it, and had been looking forward immensely to the freedom and release of the head-spinning heights and brilliant snow of Switzerland. And now here was my least favourite person from work to observe my incompetence, crowd up my scene and cast her skinny, perfectly-groomed shadow over everything. There was also the horrific possibility that, if she spotted us, Georgina would want to meet up for drinks or dinner every night and completely ruin our holiday.
I need not have worried, however. We left the station without any encounter and the apartment we were renting – in a block much used by holidaying families – seemed free of any signs of fake fur or cashmere. With a stab of jealousy I imagined Georgina was probably staying in one of the grand hotels, or possibly in the private and sumptuously appointed villa of a fashion friend.
"So what if she is?" Gideon demanded. "Just stop worrying about it, Annie," he instructed me sternly. "Stop thinking about Georgina and think about the rest of us. Enjoy yourself." I tried to do just that, but thoughts of Georgina and her family in glamorous comfort while we shuffled about in our hamster box of an apartment were difficult to keep at bay. As Gideon and I stayed in at night because of the children, staring at Swiss telly and the four concrete walls, I imagined Georgina and Alasdhair out in the glamorous bars, laughing over champagne, while a nanny or other servant watched the children in the villa.
During the week in Villars, I continued my efforts not to run into her. I insisted that we skied at different times from most people, which meant the children missed quite a lot of the classes and Gid and I the best skiing. But it was worth it, not to have Georgina ruin our holiday. Even so I thought I spotted her, in head to toe Chanel skiwear, on one of the black runs one day. I also insisted that we ate in the worst and most unpopular restaurants; Georgina would be sure to be in the best ones.
There were heartstopping moments all the same. Once, in the town, Gideon, who was sick of the whole business by then, suddenly grabbed the wrists of Arabel and Galahad and steered us all into a restaurant doorway. "It was your friend," he explained wearily as I stared at him in amazement. "She was with a couple of other people. She was looking in a shop window but the other people were looking straight at us." He had been drawn, reluctantly, into the conspiracy too, I realised. No matter, the main thing was that Georgina was not allowed to ruin our holiday.
My hope was that, having successfully avoided my colleague for the whole week of our holiday, we would be getting a separate train home and the pressure would be off. Surely, after all that had happened, and all the trains that ran, they couldn't be getting the same one as us?
However, when we finally struggled into the station it was to see the by-now-familiar fur gilet and cashmere coat lined up on the platform. Even though I had taken the precaution of wearing full make-up and contact lenses this time, my heart sank. To get to the part of the platform where our carriage was supposed to be, we would have to walk straight past Georgina and her family. Now, it seemed, all my careful subterfuge was in vain. We would surely be spotted – and have to talk to them all the way back to London. Our holiday would be ruined after all.
But luck was with us. Incredibly, as we walked past mere inches from Georgina and Alasdhair, eyes screwed to the floor as always, I could not resist a swift sideways dart of the eyeballs to see that Georgina was looking in a different direction altogether. We were safe – just as long as they weren't in the same carriage.
They weren't. And we successfully managed to avoid them at Paris by hiding for hours in the same ghastly, smelly café. Once again I turned deaf ears to Galahad's pleas to be allowed to see the trains. We were so near home; I wasn't having everything ruined at this late stage.
We arrived back in London without incident either, and it was as we were unloading everything from the train at St Pancras that I decided finally to let my guard drop. It had occurred to me that it might be slightly embarrassing in the office if the subject of holidays came up and we found we had been on the same trains, to the same place (Georgina was a forensic questioner, and would be certain to establish this within seconds). Seeing Georgina and Alasdhair a few carriages away down the platform, I headed towards them. A friendly greeting, surprised exclamations; I felt I could manage that now.
Georgina was talking to Alasdhair as I approached. "Thank God," she was laughing. "I never thought we'd get all the way there and back without talking to Annie. That woman's such a loser. Always all over me like a cheap suit, just because she knows I get on well with the editor."
Alasdhair shrugged his broad, cashmered shoulders. "You did well, darling," he said lightly as he slung some of their Louis Vuitton in the trolley. "You said you weren't going to let her ruin our holiday. And you didn't."
Georgina beamed back at him. "Yeah, it was lucky. They weren't in any of the places we were. We had a great time, didn't we? The perfect holiday."
Stunned, I slunk back to Gideon. She may have waited until the last minute, but Georgina had managed to ruin everything after all.
Invitation to Love originally appeared in S: Sunday Express Magazine
I had no idea who; one of his students was all he said and I didn't want to know any more. Alastair taught English Literature at a local further education college. I'd actually noticed that the most recent syllabus included the Romantic poets and Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps I should have seen it coming.
The New Year was a period of unprecendented misery, Alastair did not, as I had half-expected he might, return pleading to be taken back, claiming it had all been end-of-year madness. My social life completely stopped; I wasn't exactly in the mood for going out and even if I had been, most of our friends were so terminally embarrassed about what had happened I spent more time reassuring them than they me. If Alastair had, as looked likely, left me for good, I could forget all about meeting anyone else. Ever. Who would be interested in an abandoned single parent anyway?
Harry's social life, on the other hand, was flourishing. He was – thank goodness, given the circumstances - a popular member of his large primary school class and with the start of the new school term, the birthday party invitations starting positively flooding in. Harry was thrilled; he adored parties. "I can go to them, Mum, can't I?" he asked me, anxiously, pulling coloured pieces of paper – invitations - out of his bookbag like some infant magician.
My heart sank. Children's parties had never been my idea of fun, even though it had always been me that went to them. Alastair had always refused to give up the best part of Saturday in order to go, as he put it, to stand in some noisy soft-play hell-hole watching Harry leaping into pits of snot-covered plastic balls and stuffing down Turkey Twizzlers.
"Of course we can go, darling," I assured Harry as I examined the invitations and tried to appear as excited as he was at the prospect of, among others, Ryan's birthday party at Little Devils (while some play centres were better than others, Little Devils was not one of them) and Alfie's swimming party (oh God! Getting into a swimming costume and revealing all the comfort eating I had recently been doing!). River's party, at his house, and Chloe's party, featuring a children's small animal circus, sounded less of a challenge, but I doubted I would enjoy myself at any of them.
Chloe's party was first up and I was in for a shock. The animal circus, far from being the anticipated fluffy bunnies and hamsters, turned out to be a collection of scaly reptiles, including snakes, a species which in my personal pantheon of horror ranked just below tarantulas (there were some of them there too).
My nerves were already shattered by the strain of recent weeks and it took all my self-possession not to scream hysterically at the sight of one of the circus people draping a vast, white-bellied, malevolent-looking snake round my son's small and vulnerable neck. Harry, needless to say, adored every second. I managed to contain myself until the moment Harry went to examine the scorpion which, fortunately, was not allowed out of its box. "Is it real, Mum?" he asked nervously, peering at the malevolent shape behind the plastic. I hesitated, sensing his fear but wondering, all the same, whether honesty wasn't the best policy. I had lied so much to Harry recently; perhaps I should, for once, tell the truth.
"Of course it's not real," said a low voice behind me before I could. I turned to find, to my surprise, a dark-haired man. Surprise because, in my experience, men hardly ever came to children's parties. Even their own. There were some of Harry's classmates whose parties I had attended more often than their own fathers.
An additional surprise was that this man had seemed to grasp the situation and seemed to know better than I what to do about it. "It's not real," he repeated to Harry, reassuringly, and I felt my son's gripping hand relax. It was the answer he had been hoping for – how could I possibly have imagined he wanted to now the truth? Satisfied, he scampered off.
"I'm Sophie's father," the man told me. I nodded; Sophie was a new arrival at the school who Harry had taken quite a shine to. I had not met her parents before, but my work patterns meant I dropped Harry off earlier than most and he went to an after-school club afterwards.
The following week was River's birthday party - at his home, which was unusual. Most people understandably avoided having toddlers rampaging through their house. River's address, 'Manor Farm' conjured up delightful images of mullions, mellow brick and an interior straight out of Country Living; the reality - a bleak, pebbledashed building on a high moor - was more Hammer Horror. Due to my hopeless navigating – this had always been Alastair's speciality – we were slightly late and the party was in full swing. "We'll miss the food," Harry had been worrying all the way there, but as soon as I opened the kitchen door I could see his fears had been misplaced.
My eye was met by great bowls of hummus and mountains of beansprouts and carrot sticks, which between them probably represented Harry's least favourite food in the world. A strange howling sound revealed itself to be River's parents, both wearing woolly hats in multicolour stripes with earflaps, singing to the accompaniment of tom toms to provide the music for Musical Mats. The house did not appear to possess any chairs. Then came a round of Pass the Recyclable Parcel. "Quite a party circuit, we're on," a low, warm voice muttered as the tom toms and howling changed to a barely-recognisable 'Happy Birthday' and River's hypoallergenic vegan cake, in the shape of a yin and yang symbol, was cut.
It was Sophie's father again. His name, he told me, was Mark. He was easy to talk to. Not particularly good-looking – far less so than Alastair, who was proud of his boyish blondness – but kind and unpretentious, neither of which could be said of Harry's father. I thought again that Sophie's mum was a lucky woman, and told Mark how much I envied her at home while he, heroically in my view, came to the parties.
Instead of looking complimented, however, his face darkened. "It's not heroic, I have no choice," he said baldly, over the mung bean casserole that River's mother was handing out in huge and unavoidable stoneware bowls. "My wife walked out on us both just before Christmas. Talk about timing."
"I can talk about it," I said with feeling. "The same thing happened to me."
He stared at me in amazement. But then River's father rushed up to press us into a game of Visually Challenged Man's Buff, so it wasn't until later, out at the cars, buckling in our children, each clutching a carved parsnip by way of a party bag, that we saw each other again. "I'd love to suggest that we have a drink or something," Mark said, "but the only social life I have at the moment is my daughter's. I don't know if you're scheduled to spend next Saturday morning feeling vulnerable in a swimming costume and shivering in the knee-deep toddler pool, but if you are, I'll be there too."
I grinned at him. "You mean the swimming party."
He did. And all through the week preceding it I found myself, for the first time in living memory, actually looking forward to one of Harry's friends' parties. I would have anticipated it more eagerly had I not been forced to dress in my baggy old swimming costume accessorised with rats-tail, chlorine-soaked hair. But Mark didn't seem to notice any of this; during the little conversation we could snatch while supervising our respective children in the pool, he kept his eyes on my face; I, meanwhile, could not help noticing he had a compact, muscular body. Alastair had always been rather white, tall and weedy.
I was cautiously delighted when, after the party tea – aka a crisps and cakefest in the pool cafeteria – Mark suggested we go and get some proper food at the café in the nearby park. "It's run by some Italians," he told me. "They do great coffee and pasta. And of course, ice-cream." I was hungry after the swim and Harry, who loved ice-cream, did not need asking twice. As Sophie and he appeared to get on like a house on fire in any case, the arrangement suited us all.
The café was actually more of a restaurant; light, neat and clean. Over lasagne every bit as excellent as Mark had promised, we watched our children playing together on the climbing frame outside and chatted as if we had known each other for ages. We were both, however, careful to steer clear of the painful subject of our derailed relationships. I don't think either of us wanted the other to think we were in some way expecting them to fill the gap.
"Well, I'll see you next week, I expect," Mark said as we got into our respective cars afterwards.
My heart sank slightly. Next week was Ryan's party at Little Devils playcentre, a particularly hideous establishment attached to a pub. I recalled the last visit I had made there, when the party child's grandfather had got drunk on lager and eaten all the fish fingers. Still, the fact that Mark would be present would help matters considerably.
"And the week after?" Mark asked.
"Pirate party, bring your own eyepatch?" I grinned.
"That's the one. And while we're on the subject, are you on for a roaring good time at Tyrone's dinosaur rumpus the week after that?"
I giggled, recognising the wording on the invitation. "You bet. And Ellie's Fairy Princess one. Everyone wear pink."
Mark rolled his eyes. "Can't wait for that one."
As it happened, the week of the Princess party was a dramatic one. Without any warning at all, Alastair suddenly appeared one night and pleaded to come back. It had, he explained, all been end-of-year madness. I was thrown into confusion. Had Alastair appeared a mere month before, I would have accepted him back without question. But in the preceding weeks I had had to cope alone. It had been hard, but I had survived, as had Harry. I told Alastair I would have to think about it.
That Saturday, amid the sea of zinging pink tutus, wands and rosy glitter, Mark, too, looked preoccupied. "She wants to come back," he told me under the camouflage of Happy Birthday as the Angelina Ballerina cake was cut. "Seems she's got fed up of her romantic professor."
"Professor?" I asked, feeling suddenly numb and cold.
"Yes," Mark called above the fusillade of pink and silver party poppers. "It was her tutor at her further education literature class."
I stared at him, wondering whether to tell him. "Is she coming back?" I managed eventually, my heart beating hard for some reason.
He was about to tell me when we were interrupted by a squealing Harry and Sophie who appeared and stuck a silver paper crown studded with pink plastic jewels on my head. "You look lovely in that Mummy," Harry declared, appreciatively.
I looked shyly at Mark, who was smiling. "It suits you," he confirmed as the children dashed away.
"About your wife," I prompted, feeling suddenly, urgently, and especially as I was involved, that I had to know. The princess party was the last one for a while; I had no idea when I would see Mark again.
He looked at me. "Yes. She wants to come back. But I'm not so sure. You see, there's this party I want to go to.."
"Party?" I frowned. Had Sophie been asked to yet another? How many more parties could one parent stand?
He grinned. "It's a very special party, for two people. On Valentine's night, at the Italian restaurant in the park. I wonder.." his eyes met mine, "whether you might like to come?".
This story first appeared in Woman & Home magazine
I laid my silver fork down in the dark and glossy wine sauce, raised my cut-glass goblet of Domaine de Vieux Telegraph and looked defeatedly at my husband. He hadn't even commented on the coq au vin I had made, using a new recipe which had taken rather longer than I imagined. This had involved simmering for hours on top of the stove first before baking the dish in the oven for a final richening of the flavours. It never ceased to amaze me, the work these traditional peasant dishes took. Traditional peasants, I always thought, must have had a lot of time on their hands.
John swigged his wine impatiently and levered some of the casserole into his mouth. His expression didn't even change; he was obviously not tasting it. The suspicion that tinned stewing steak would have done just as well closed depressingly in.
"I mean, we've sent our daughter to the best schools money can buy," my husband pointed out heatedly. "And now she's coming up to her A levels, she's slacking. She can't afford to take her foot off the accelerator now. Not if she wants to go to Oxbridge."
I nodded. I usually did when John got steamed up. He was usually right anyway and when he wasn't it was rarely worth saying so.
"Listen to her," John thundered, stabbing an angry finger up towards the dining-room ceiling. "She said she didn't want to eat with us because she was revising. But she's not. She's just lolling about, listening to music. As per bloody usual." He pierced a carrot in disgust.
"Calm down," I said soothingly. It was, of course, hardly surprising that John was het up. He was a successful financier with an office in London, which meant not only long and arduous days at the office but long and arduous commutes home at night. We lived in a pretty red-brick Victorian former rectory in the Vale of Beauvoir, which was lovely for me and handy for Jasmine's nearby private school, but anything but relaxing for John. On top of this, he had now to bear the sight of his daughter, as he saw it, poised to throw away all the educational advantages he had purchased for her with the sweat of his brow over so many years. It was easy to see why he was angry.
"I'll clear up," I added comfortingly. "You go and sit down with the paper and I'll bring you some coffee and some of the lovely fudge I made today."
"I've read the paper," John snapped. "I've read it on the train. Every bit, even the Court Circular."
John shuffled off, grumbling. I, meanwhile, cleared the table musing on Oxbridge and the plan that Jasmine should go there. I'd gone there myself, studied English and left with all sorts of ideas of taking the world of journalism by storm.
But then, in my first year as a magazine assistant, I had gone to a dinner party and met my knight in shining armour, John, who also happened to be a red-hot financial superbrain. Before I knew it my urge to work had melted away and I was ensconced in a life of monied leisure. From which I'd never emerged. OK, so I did the school run (in the brand-new shiny four wheel drive we kept besides a family car, a sports car and a little shopping runabout for me). I also did most of the cooking – I had taken several Cordon Bleu courses (although we got caterers in for anything big). But otherwise I rarely had to lift a finger. We had cleaners, car valets, windowcleaners and gardeners. Even though I'd taken garden-design courses too. And when Jasmine was younger, we'd had a nanny as well.
As John started to doze in front of Gordon's Kitchen Nightmares, I slipped quietly upstairs and knocked on the door of my daughter's bedroom. Bedroom suite, I should say; besides a large room to sleep in, Jasmine's part of the house had its own bathroom and a large study complete with state-of-the-art computer, plasma screen TV, sound system and every other gadget known to woman.
"Come in," someone shouted sulkily over the noise and I entered to see, just as John had predicted, Jasmine sprawled on the bed. She was reading the Society section of the Guardian, her long feet in black tights banging the wall in time to the music. "Can you turn that racket down?" I mouthed, pointing at the sound system.
Jasmine turned it down a fraction and regarded me stonily from between long black hanks of hair.
I sat down on the very edge of the bed. "Come on darling. Daddy's worried you aren't revising. You know how much he wants you to go to Cambridge."
Between the strands of black hair, the green eyes flashed. "Oh, come off it, Mother," Jasmine snapped. "What's the point of me going to Cambridge? You went, and look at you. You're a housewife. You don't even work."
"Darling, I don't have time to work," I smiled at her. Not without reason; my schedule was intense, frankly. What, with regular pedicures, manicures, waxings, bleachings and facials, plus trips to see my gym instructor as well as organising everyone who did the actual work in the house, I barely had a moment to myself.
Jasmine stared at me stonily. "Whatever. I'm not interested in bloody Oxbridge, OK?"
"Well, what are you interested in?" I challenged. It was increasingly hard to tell.
To my surprise, she waved the Guardian at me. "Kids. I'm thinking of working with kids. Training to be a social worker."
I tried to stop my eyes from bulging. Her father would hit the roof if he heard this. John had not paid out hundreds of thousands in private school fees for our daughter to go and work for the local council. It was nowhere near aspirational enough.
"Darling, you're overwrought," I said hastily. "All that, erm, revising. I'll bring you a cup of tea and some nice biscuits. I baked them today. They're.."
"I don't want any bloody biscuits," Jasmine hurled at me, her dark hair whirling furiously around her head.
"I've been thinking" John announced the next evening, as he took off his Burberry mac in the hall and dumped his briefcase on the polished wooden oak floor. "About Jasmine."
"Oh?" I said carefully, lowering the bone-china tureen of Billy-Bi mussel soup – John's favourite, which I'd made as a special treat from the Cordon Bleu recipe – on to the silver mat on the antique dining table.
"How to motivate her," John announced, striding in to the dining room. "Let's take her down to Cambridge for a weekend. Show her your old college and all that. Everything she'll be missing if she fails to get in."
I pulled out my hand-carved and polished oak chair and sat down, carefully not raising my eyes to his. I felt immediate gut resistance to the idea, not only because of the pressure it was putting on Jasmine, but because of what it meant to me, too. It was over two decades since I last walked through the gateway of King's College, and I knew, without actually having admitted it before, that I'd stayed away for a reason.
As the years had gone by, I'd seen many of my university peers go on to achieve; some great, others at least interesting things. I'd followed some of their progress in the newspapers and always felt guilty about what had happened to me. Or, rather, not happened to me. I hadn't needed Jasmine's outburst to be guiltily aware that I had given up an entire education just to be a housewife, albeit a very upmarket one with antique furniture, membership of two top spas and the services of a personal shopper.
But I could tell by the way John threw himself down, shook out his pressed linen napkin and whirled it on over his pinstriped trousers that the decision had already been made. We were going to Cambridge and that was that.
A couple of weekends later the three of us mooched around the market square in Cambridge, where Jasmine displayed the day's first flicker of interest as she examined a stall with bags on and I absorbed with some surprise that the racks of second-hand clothes stalls I remembered, selling enormous worn overcoats, West German army surplus, ancient tailcoats and white linen jackets to impecunious students, were now all gone. Presumably they had all been bought up, at last.
I recalled some of the sequined Sixties minidresses I had bought for a song – literally as well as metaphorically. I had sung backing vocals in a student band; something about which I had almost forgotten. I stood in the market square and remembered what fun it had been and how I could never imagine having that sort of confidence now. I looked down at my sensible, expensive, camel tie-belted coat and pricey, low-heeled boots. Had that carefree singer really been me?
"Here's King's College," John said with reverence as we approached the world-famous entrance. John was a red-brick university man himself and I suspected his determination that Jasmine enter these hallowed halls was at least partly to do with the fact he never had. But just as we three were about to enter them now, the small wooden door within the big wooden gate opened to let out two bespectacled youths talking loudly in pompous upmarket voices. I watched a wave of disgust cross Jasmine's face.
Inside the college court, I felt old memories overwhelm me. There was the entrance to the bar, where I'd sat so often with friends I now hadn't seen for years. There was the stunning Chapel, where I'd first heard real choral music. We walked through the archway and down to the river. Here were the punts - the flat-bottomed boats propelled along by a pole - where I'd spent many a summer afternoon with various boyfriends, some more serious than others, none of whom had been remotely like John. Those college boys had treated me as an equal in brains and ambition, not as a glorified servant who occasionally and increasingly unwillingly provided sexual favours. As I looked down at the dancing waters I felt resentment ball in my throat and push upwards. Resentment at myself as much as John; I'd allowed him to do this to me, after all.
"God, what prats," Jasmine observed, of a puntfull of students popping champagne corks and shouting.
"I was a prat like that once," I smilingly reminded her. I did not add that I had never felt the prat then that I felt I was now, trapped in a life of unchallenging and utterly unrewarding leisure and married to a domestic despot. John's home was his castle and I was a prisoner in it. How had it happened? I was going to have a career, earn my own money, have a life, be a writer, a journalist, an editor, well, something. What had happened to all that? Most of the people I had sat and planned it with had done it – I saw their names in the newspapers all the time. So why hadn't I?
Finally, we passed the white neoclassical façade of the Senate House, where I had sat all my university exams. Immediately the tense atmosphere of that ornate interior, the narrow desks in rows on the black and white marble floor, flooded back to me. As did the brilliant sunshine of the day I had got my results, a first class degree. I remembered jumping around on the bright green grass, delirious with happiness, champagne foaming everywhere. It had seemed the beginning of the rest of my life, not the end of it, as it had subsequently proved to be.
I stared glumly at the Senate House's carved façade. Something was stirring within me, and it wasn't, for once, the urge to buy a PowerPlate machine, try a new spa or see my personal shopper to decide on this season's capsule look. It was something long-buried, that could no longer be kept down.
"Look," Jasmine said from the back of the car on the way home. Her tone was defiant but conciliatory. "Thanks for taking me. It was nice to see Cambridge – don't get me wrong, Mum, it's a lovely place. But I don't want to go there. I can't say it's my idea of fun."
A heavy silence fell in which all that could be heard was the smooth, expensive motor of our smooth, expensive car eating up the miles of motorway beneath us. I could feel John beside me, straining with the effort not to erupt in screams of frustration. "And what, may I ask," he managed at length in muffled, yet still acid tones, "is your idea of fun?"
I closed my eyes and waited.
"I want to work with kids," Jasmine answered immediately. "I want to be a social worker." While I could guess at the pain this could cause my husband, the fearlessness with which she answered made me admire my daughter. If only I'd had the courage of my convictions.
"I see," said John. He cleared his throat. "And what does Mummy think of that?" He slid me a sidelong, expectant glance from the wheel.
Jasmine waited. She was radiating insouciance from the back seat, but I sensed her nerves. "I think that's fine," I said slowly. "I think, in fact, that it's absolutely admirable."
There was a gasp of joy from behind me. There was a rattle of silver bracelets and a pair of slender arms flung themselves round my neck. "Mum!" gasped Jasmine. "Dad!" she shrieked a second later as John narrowly avoided crashing into the back of a pantechnicon.
His eyes were on the road, but they were furious. "So much for her expensive education," he spat.
I shrugged. "Calm down. On the contrary, the better-educated she is the better off we all are. The social services need good people, and I'm sure Jasmine will be brilliant."
He could not resist looking at me then. "What's happened to you?" he demanded, outraged. "You were as keen on her going to Cambridge as I was. She's missing a great opportunity."
I smoothed my expensive highlights. "But even the best opportunity's only as good as you make it," I answered, tapping the newspaper on my lap containing the names of two of my college contemporaries. One was an editor on the paper, another a senior publisher who had been mentioned in the media section. I was planning to get in touch with both of them with a view to unearthing some long-buried projects. "However late you leave it," I added, smiling.
A Case of Writer's Revenge originally appeared in My Weekly
A plump, short woman with a shiny face was staring eagerly at me. I swept a glance over her outfit and saw it was the usual literary festival punter's clobber. While music festivals are a byword for wellies and miniskirts, the litfest cliche is a lacy black cardigan, long tweedy skirts and lashings of vaguely Aztec silver jewellery. Unthreatening arty, cosy creative is the effect sought, although they all look what they are to me; women with broadening hips and thinning hair trying desperately to inject some excitement into their thinning lives.
"I've read all her books," the woman gasped excitedly. "But I loved Mr Right the most. Although I had a soft spot for Blynde Date. That bit when the heroine, Kate, discovers that Lord Blynde is in love with her after all…" She closed her eyes in ecstasy. I felt about to throw up.
"I haven't read any of the ones you mention, I'm afraid," I replied stiffly. "I'm not a big fan of, um," I allowed myself a slight twist of the lips, "chick lit."
She looked at me in surprise. "You're not? Then what on earth are you doing here? Desdemona Watkins is the biggest name in women's contemporary fiction."
As if I needed reminding. I looked at the woman with a violent dislike I only just managed to disguise with a violent smile. But as it happened, she had nailed it just as exactly as Desdemona apparently did the condition of the single hopeless female. I was there precisely because Desdemona Watkins was the biggest name in women's contemporary fiction.
"How do I write such funny books?" Desdemona was trilling from the stage. I watched as she flicked back her long blonde hair and leant forward into the lights. "You know," she answered in her breathy, confiding whisper, "I never let a joke into my books unless it's made me shake with laughter. Yes! I sit there laughing at my own work! Can you imagine!"
As the hall erupted with sycophantic merriment, I sourly reflected that, actually, I could. There was nothing so bad that I could not think it of Desdemona Watkins.
But to explain exactly why I have to go back some twelve months, to when my last novel, Arguments in Stone, conclusively failed to get into the top one hundred book chart, let alone the top twenty or top ten, where, on one glittering occasion many years ago, my first novel, Questions In Concrete, charted at Number 9. Since then, my writing career had been a steady downward slide; or rather my selling career had. The books, I knew, were as good as ever. But the sales had got small.
"Look, I won't beat about the bush," my editor Roger Pryap told me over a lavish lunch that turned out to be the last before my publishers conclusively dumped me. "Your type of thing has had its day I'm afraid."
I was so shocked I dropped my chopsticks (we were eating Japanese). "But how can properly-written, properly-paced, good old fashioned storytelling ever have its day?" I cried.
Roger poked his California roll uncomfortably. "Well you know the sort of things people are buying now," he muttered.
I narrowed my eyes. "You mean chick lit," I spat.
"Commercial fiction aimed at young women," Roger corrected. He picked some rice out of his beard and eyed me consideringly. "Tell you what, why don't you have a go at it yourself?"
I drew myself up as best I could while sitting down. "Never," I said in scorn. "I write proper fiction. Jane Adams books are proper books about proper things."
"Yes, but they don't really hit proper sales figures, do they? Roger said nastily, screwing his napkin up on the table in a final sort of way and looking at his watch. "Whereas Desdemona Watkins has just shot through the three hundred thousand mark with The Perfect Man."
Not to mention being long-blonde-haired, curvy, short-skirted, abundantly lipsticked and giggly to boot – and high heeled boots at that, I thought sourly. Roger's reputation as a literary Lothario was well known, even though his wife, who worked in the business too, kept up a good front at not seeming to have any idea.
So the blue touchpaper of my jealousy had been well and truly lit by the time I received, through the post, the information pack about the Waremouth Literary Festival, along with a slightly surprising invitation to attend. But it was a young festival with, no doubt, a clueless organizing team (more clueless than usual that is) who didn't realise what a failure I had become, or perhaps had confused me with someone else (Jane Austen, perhaps). They were, at any rate, clearly aware of Desdemona (who wasn't?), several pouting photographs of whom were sprinkled throughout the brochure.
She was making at least three appearances and was obviously the star of the show, along with the famous crime writer Shirley Slasher. Shirley, however, was no oil painting, unless you were talking Francis Bacon, which meant that it was Desdemona's pictures which were plastered all over the theatre when I arrived. Fury tore through me like a forest fire. It was just the incentive I needed, the spur to drive me on to do what I had come to do.
"It's been lovely talking to you," the woman with the thinning hair and the Aztec jewellery said to me now as Desdemona tittered – in every sense – to a close. "But I really must go and catch the Shirley Slasher talk. I love her as well. She's incredibly successful too, isn't she?"
"She is," I confirmed. Possibly even more so than Desdemona Watkins, if the truth were told. Shirley's sales were worldwide and enormous, whereas Desdemona's were more of a domestic phenomenon. But funnily enough I minded Shirley less; she was hideously fat, for a start, which helped, and married to a policeman, which figured. Both of which meant she wasn't having any fun with the sort of glamorous men Desdemona's name was occasionally linked with.
Also, Shirley wrote horribly gory murder stories involving all manner of disgusting perversions, which she could keep as far as I was concerned. Being both physically and morally squeamish, I could no sooner write such stuff than fly. Whereas I knew in my heart of hearts that one of the reasons I hated Desdemona so was that I had a secret yearning to write frothy, sexy women's fiction too, but was too much of a snob and too lacking in confidence to try.
"Goodbye then," the woman said as she shuffled off in her ankle-length tweed. "I might see you at the Bubbly Drinks, Sparkling Talk Desdemona Watkins champagne breakfast event tomorrow."
I shook my head, aiming to give the impression that I'd be elsewhere, possibly at the Porridge with Paxman or maybe even Toast With Titchmarsh fixtures scheduled for the same time. But the truth was that actually, I wouldn't be there because there wasn't going to be a Desdemona Watkins champagne breakfast. Come tomorrow morning, Desdemona Watkins would be dead. And I would have killed her.
I know it sounds extreme. And it was. But I really couldn't bear it any more. The crushing humiliation. The constant reminders of what a failure I was, of how terribly sour and wrong my dream of being a writer had gone. Going into bookshops and seeing my own work in remainder bins – when it was there at all – while the puerile trash that issued forth from Desdemona's manicured hand took up several pride-of-place shelves had made the iron enter my soul. And now I wanted the iron to enter Desdemona.
Although I had no plans to stab her – as I say, I was squeamish. No, it was to be much more subtle.
I had established where she was staying - at the smartest hotel in town, naturally (not that that was saying much in Waremouth) – and established also that security was hopeless. It would, I had worked out, be a simple matter to hide myself in Desdemona's room, wait for her to go to sleep and then smother her with a pillow. Just like her Shakespearean namesake, in fact. All rather poetic, really. And no fuss, no mess, no fingerprints, no nothing. It was the sort of plotline Shirley Slasher might have dreamt up – she was staying in the same hotel, incidentally – but was probably not bloody, pervy or violent enough.
Later that night, all having gone to plan, I was duly concealed in Desdemona's wardrobe awaiting her return from the sumptuous Festival Dinner that had been advertised in the programme – punters were paying five hundred quid a throw to meet favourite authors. Unfortunately, as the organiser had done her best to explain kindly, no-one had wanted to meet me "for this event, at any rate, although I'm sure your book signing will be very popular. We always do so well with book signings here. (Well, it wasn't and they didn't.) However, I had found out on the grapevine that Desdemona had filled two tables of twenty and Shirley Slasher had filled no less than four. They'd had to put extra tables in the corridor. You can imagine how that fed my resolve. Crouched in the wardrobe beneath a diaphanous selection of Desdemona's deliciously scented designerwear, I felt my blood hit boiling point.
Nonetheless, despite my angry sense of purpose, the tension of waiting had a wearing effect and I felt the chill of pure terror as, eventually, the room door opened and Desdemona's voice could be heard trilling a gay good night at someone who might just have been – although I could not be sure – Alan Titchmarsh. I froze in the closet, sure my beating heart, amplified with fear, could be heard by my intended victim.
It did not seem so, however. From where I sat in the dark I could hear Desdemona moving busily about her room. She was not, however, doing any of the things I had anticipated. I had expected a running shower, the sound of a late film, perhaps the tinkle of ice in a glass as she hit the minibar one last time. Maybe even a breathy phone call to a lover (I was particularly dreading that). But all I could hear was rustling and swift, purposeful movements. Curious, I pushed open the door of the wardrobe a crack.
I got the shock of my life and almost screamed aloud. There, facing me directly but obviously not seeing me, was Desdemona. Her face was inches from mine, staring, I worked out once I had gathered my petrified wits, into the mirror mounted on the wardrobe door.
What on earth was she doing? I realised after some seconds that she was not dressed in the very tight, very silver and very revealing gown she had been sporting earlier in the bar during the champagne reception before the dinner (I had been allowed to that, but out of pity, I suspected). Desdemona now was dressed in the black dress and white apron of one of the hotel's chambermaids. She had just finished tucking her hair into her white cap and, as I watched, strode purposefully towards the room door. She paused as she passed the dressing table, pulled open the top drawer and pulled out, as I watched in astonishment, a large, gleaming carving knife. She twirled it around in the light from the bedside lamp. It gleamed evilly; as did, I saw, Desdemona's own eyes. She gave a smile of terrible satisfaction and left the room.
"Dreadful business, about Desdemona," I said sympathetically to Roger Pryap when I bumped into him at a book trade party some weeks later. "You must have been shattered."
He clearly had been. His beard was the least bushy and confident I had ever seen it. Raising his tumbler in a shaking hand, he knocked back the rest of his whisky. "Unbelievable," he said. "I had no idea Desdemona felt like that about Shirley. That she hated her so much. That she was so obsessed by her success. That she was so jealous. Incredible, as well, that she'd apparently planned every detail of the murder."
I shook my head. "Fancy," I said. "You couldn't make it up, could you?"
I love writing short stories. They're such a challenge and such a change from novel writing; you have to think of an ingenious twist, and that's not always easy. I find inspiration everywhere for short stories, often from the most unexpected places. Short stories are also great places to road-test characters you are thinking of letting loose in a book!
I love living in the country but it's as good for people watching, of not better, than the city, and here are a few of the village types I've spotted.