“The swans on the river where we used to live have laid some eggs on a nest they made at the weir,” said Olive, who was waiting at the nursery door to collect her children, Nia and Mikey. The other mothers turned to look at Olive, but not in a good way. “I was just texting my friends to find out if they’d survived the high tide,” she continued, “and if any had hatched.”
Olive had hoped that by saying something interesting she could engage them in conversation. And that she would have signalled that she was new, open the way to talk about moving. They might sympathise about missing friends and so on.
“It’s a precarious place to build a nest,” she said, her voice tailing off.
The only response from them was to move their sunglasses, as one, from the tops of their heads to cover their eyes, which was equivalent, Olive thought, to slamming a door shut.
They knew she was new anyway.
Trying to talk to them only served to precipitate the formation of the huddle that they formed every morning. Olive felt like a robot penguin that had been embedded in the huddle by the team from Frozen Planet to record their goings on. Only they’d worked out quite quickly that she may look like a penguin, but she didn’t smell like one. This was now the second week she had listened to their daily gakker about who was free for tea. By tea, they meant tea dates for the children. If the children were not available, the reasons were mostly sporty. Cricket, tennis, rowing.
Olive had chosen this school because she had liked the small classrooms set in the rooms of the old house that had been converted into a prep school. She thought the small class size of only twenty children would benefit Nia, who was a bit shy, when she started school in September. The lawns were used for games, the girls skipped across them in their straw boaters and striped summer dresses, white socks falling down around ballerina ankles. The boys kicked footballs in the timeless grey shorts of the English private school, their green woollen caps askew on their sweaty heads, all stuffed full of learning.
Nia and Mikey had joined the nursery only a few weeks before the end of the summer term, so the timing was bad for finding some families to hang out with over the holidays. As each friendless day went by, Olive began to feel more desperate. There were two months of holidays to fill and she was going to have to spend them alone with the kids. What with all the renovations on the house, there was no money for holidays. Though no doubt Alex would manage to get abroad, Trieste or Budapest – conference season was in full swing.
Back at home she created a word document with her name and address on it, email and mobile number, plus the names of the children, imported a pretty flower motif, copied and pasted several times. She printed out the sheets and then cut them into little homemade calling cards. She made the children their tea then started baking.
When she dropped off the children the next morning, she handed the cards out to each mother as she arrived.
“I’ll be at home today,” Olive said. “Pop round, I’ve baked a cake.”
A thin, angular woman with white-blonde hair pulled back in a severely aggressive bun, reached out her hand to Olive taking the homespun visiting card. While she assessed it, Olive looked down at the woman’s shoes – shiny black with a jewel-encrusted strap across them, with heels of only a millimetre in diameter.
“I am Liudmila. I cannot,” the woman said, in an eastern European, or possibly Russian accent. “I am cardiologist. That is,” she continued emphatically “- the heart.”
She went to return the “card” to Olive, but Olive stopped her and said, “Oh maybe you can give me a call in the summer? – your son, I don’t know his name, might want to come and play with Mikey?”
Liudmila handed the card back, saying “Leonid has water sports and Russian language camp on Lake Baikal – that is Siberia. Do you know?”
“Only from Dostoevsky,” Olive replied.
The look Liudmila threw her made Olive hope the spiked heels were not in fact darts.
She handed out more cards then waved bye-bye through the window to Nia and Mikey who had already donned painting aprons.
Crossing the playground, she was passed by Clover running towards the nursery, dragging her daughter behind her. Clover’s long hair hung wavy and unkempt, her coat open.
“Hi,” said Olive. “Want to come by my place this morning? Coffee. You know.”
“Sorry, in a rush…”
Olive waited in the street for Clover, watching the prep school mums mount their Range Rovers and drive their Sweaty Betty asses off to their yoga classes.
When Clover exited the school gate, she took the “card” from Olive with an unsteady hand.
“Who’s going?” she asked.
“It’s a sort of open morning, I’ve invited everyone,” Olive replied in as upbeat a voice as she could manage. “But I don’t know who’ll turn up.”
Clover reached into her pocket and took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one.
“That bunch of bitches? Fuck me no!”
Then seeing Olive’s reaction and with a disdainful wave of her hand, she declared that they were all so “nouvy.”
She puffed out a long exhalation of smoke.
“I’ve got a massive hangover. I need to find some aspirin.”
She dragged on the cigarette again. Then she stubbed the fag out in the eye of one of a pair of plaster cherubs that decorated the entrance gate of the Victorian building. Once extinguished, she used her middle finger to flick the butt over the wall into the playground.
“I’m off to see my solicitor.”
Back at home Olive filled the kettle and set some cups and some plates out on the long farmhouse-style table. And waited.
Half an hour later there was a knock on the door and when she opened it, Kendra was standing there, and, coming up the path behind her, Nadine. Olive had seen them in the huddle and knew their names, but apart from that she had no idea what to expect of them.
Kendra strode inside while Olive waited for Nadine. She showed her into the kitchen where Kendra was already having a good look around.
“Nice space,” said Kendra. “You going for the ‘urban vibe’?” Her steely grey eyes coolly assessed the bare floorboards and the walls which had been stripped back to brick and not yet replastered.
“Oh no,” Olive replied. “It’s just that we’ve run out of money for a new kitchen. Replacing the roof cost a fortune.”
“Ohhhhh!” said Kendra, her eyes widening.
“The cooker’s new, obviously, and the fridge.”
Olive stood at one end of the table, at which, in their previous home, she, Alex and the kids had had many a felicitous gathering. Kendra and Nadine sat at the other end. They seemed a world away. And when Olive asked what they’d like to drink, their voices rang out, clipped and glacial, in the empty space.
“A decaf soya latte,” said Kendra.
“Peppermint tea,” said Nadine.
“Jesus Christ!” Olive joked “where do you think you are? Starbucks?”
Instead of the expected laugh, Nadine snapped that she was dairy intolerant. She was dressed for exercise in leggings and a black hoodie. Her dyed black hair was pulled tightly back which made her face stern, prissy, even. If her aim had been Sporty Barbie, the result was more Penitential Barbie.
“Would you make fun of a child who had allergies and intolerances?”
“Errr… no… not at all,” said Olive. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
Olive took the cakes out of the cake tins anticipating gasps of appreciation but neither of them noticed and they kept talking to each other.
“I’m off to Sasha’s shortly,” Kendra said. “Need to keep an eye on the time. She wanted to show me some fabric samples for the blinds in the orangerie.”
“Oh Sasha’s!” said Nadine, looking at Kendra as if to say, but she was my friend first. “I invited her to mine but we haven’t managed to set it up yet.”
“She told me she was overwhelmed with people inviting her places, since they moved into the Hall.”
Olive awaited her moment, an orange and cardamom cake in one hand and a pineapple tarte tatin in the other. The tarte tatin had been tricky to produce. She’d had to throw the first attempt away and start again.
“I’ve been told my cakes taste pretty good,” she said.
They looked up at her as if they had suddenly realised they were in a theatre and the play had begun.
“I’m thinking of setting up a cake making business.”
“Tippi’s cakes are amazing,” said Nadine.
No, they were not watching a play. They were watching the ads during an intermission for a product they were not interested in buying.
“She did one for Sam’s birthday with cricket stumps, two teams with different coloured kits, and a scoreboard that actually lit up!” said Kendra.
“Really it’s more about how they look,” said Nadine, “than about how they taste.”
“Yeah, you’d have major competition. Major.”
Olive took out a knife and the cake slice.
“Which would you like?”
“I’m trying to lose a few pounds,” said Kendra.
“I’m gluten intolerant,” said Nadine.
“Anyway, I’m not that into cake.”
Olive cut herself a piece of cake. With all the waiting for things to cool and the tidying up, it had been 1.30 am before she’d got to bed, so she wanted at least to try one. But knowing that she would be the only one to indulge lessened the pleasure she would have in eating it.
Kendra stood up and went over to the large draughty windows.
“What are you doing about window treatments?” she asked, looking out to the garden that was full of rubble.
“All the frames seem in good nick. The surveyor didn’t highlight any issues.”
“I don’t mean the woodwork. I mean the dressings.”
“Have you got a designer?”
“Oh, I see what you mean. Alex has put up roller blinds til we get sorted.”
Kendra sat down beside Nadine and sighed.
“My mother-in-law has refused to pay for my new curtains.”
“That’s terrible!” Nadine’s words sympathised. But she seemed to hold her breath, her look watchful.
“Said it was the curtains or the school fees. I’d’ve happily taken the buggers out of school but Arty said it wouldn’t do for Whittier boys to be seen at a state school.”
“You think it’s funny but no one else is having to make these choices.”
Olive reined in her laughter. They all seemed to take themselves so seriously. She was going to have to adjust her sensitivity monitor because she seemed to keep misjudging them.
Kendra took her phone from her hip pocket, swishing through it. “I’m just checking the bidding,” she said. “It’s almost the hour.”
“What are you having to sell this time?” Nadine asked.
“The Limoges? No!” Nadine seemed horrified. But there it was again – was that an element of schadenfreude in her tone that went unnoticed by Kendra?
“Am I missing something?” Olive asked.
“Dinner service wedding present from the mother-in-law,” explained Kendra. “When am I ever going to use that? I’m no cook. It’ll pay for the curtains. It’s a Zoffany fabric, two hundred quid a metre and there’s a lot of windows.”
“I would be surprised if the Limoges covered it,” said Nadine.
“You would be surprised,” said Kendra, rising up on the heels of her thigh length boots that she wore even though it was summer. “People pay a fortune for that old shit!”
“She didn’t buy it new. The dinner service was passed to her and then it was passed to me.”
“I never thought of pet food money being old money,” said Nadine.
“Pet food!” said Olive. “Is that your husband’s job?”
“He doesn’t have a job exactly,” Kendra explained, giving a deep throaty laugh. “He just lives off it!”
“Where did you meet?” asked Olive.
“I worked for the business. In accountancy. Til I had the kids.”
“Somebody’s got to bring up the heirs,” said Nadine.
“Two boys. Nightmare.”
Without knowing Sasha, Olive could see why she would choose Kendra over the more spartan Nadine for a curtain friend. Her clothes declared that she was not only not afraid to spend money, she wanted everyone to know it too. Over her top, she wore a fur gilet, fake or real, Olive was not qualified to appraise it.
“The thing is,” Kendra continued, “she gave us the money for a big house but then withholds the money to furnish it.”
“It doesn’t seem right!” Nadine sympathised.
“But what I say is we either get the money now or when she dies. Why wait?”
She held her hands up in a gesture of despair, and the charms from a bangle jangled and sparkled.
“When I submitted the proposal for the curtains…”
“Hang on a minute,” Olive said, “what do you mean submitted the proposal?”
“I mean I have to ask in writing for money for every aspect of the project.”
“Oh, are you doing up a house?”
“It’s the one she lives in,” Nadine explained.
“That’s right. I have to submit a proposal to the mother-in-law every time I want to buy something for the house I live in with her son and her grandsons.”
“It’s like asking for alms,” said Nadine.
“And I’m no Catholic.”
“It’s a pity you didn’t find out about the tight grip of her hands on the purse strings before you married him.”
“That is a major regret. Major! But like I say, she can’t live forever. Anyway, in the proposal, I’d factored in an extra ten grand to clear off the credit card.”
“Can’t Arty pay it off?”
“Ask me no questions, I’ll tell him no lies.”
Now it was Olive who was watching a play from beside the kitchen counter where she was surreptitiously helping herself to another slice of cake. Kendra strode about Olive’s kitchen, her heels rapping forcefully on the wooden floor as if she was on an empty stage that she was totally owning. There was a kind of magnificence to her awfulness and her expectation that the audience would totally get her and her terrible predicament.
“Thing is, it’s not like any of it’s for me. It’s only things for the house. But I had a few transactions go wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“I bought more on eBay than I managed to sell. I usually make a small profit or even if it’s a loss it’s usually small enough to be “disappeared.” I’m hoping the Limoges will do it this time.”
“It’s incredible you have to live like that,” Nadine commiserated. “Selling expensive old stuff to buy second-hand new stuff.”
“I’m maxed out on my cards. I’ve had to ask my dad to pay them off for me.”
Kendra took her car keys from her bag.
“It was nice to see….” she looked around. “… where you live.”
Olive saw her to the door and when she returned to the kitchen, Nadine wasted no time in setting upon her.
“What’s she like? Asking her mother-in-law to pay for the curtains.”
“I thought you were friends.”
Nadine hesitated. “There’s no such thing as friendship here. Only …. manoeuvres.”
Olive wondered if Nadine’s presence at her kitchen table was an example of the said manoeuvres – Kendra went somewhere, Nadine followed.
“Is her dad loaded, too?”
“He’s a retired miner…”
“… or redundant, however you put it.”
Money may make the world go round, but it seemed it was miners’ money that was doing the spinning.
“But I thought Kendra….”
“Yeah, County Durham. She dropped the accent. She only worked in the business til she thought it would be more profitable to marry into the family. Social climber. In the first week of nursery, she managed to wangle the addresses of everyone from the school office, then drove around each house to see who had the biggest one! That was Sasha’s. So Kendra set about bagging her, like she had done her husband. No one else could get a look in.”
“Are they all equally awful?”
The length of time Nadine took to say “no” was not reassuring. “The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want to be socially dead?”
Olive considered this proposition and was filled with a lacerating homesickness. She had imagined an ingenuous coffee morning from a time before: the mothers would moan about their husbands and express equal amounts of pride and exasperation in their children.
There was a knock at the door.
“That might be Clover…”
It turned out to be the delivery guy with another box of paint samples.
“I didn’t think it would be Clover. She doesn’t socialise much.”
“Oh that’s a shame. She seems…. interesting.”
“She can be a bit … flaky.”
“You didn’t hear this from me….” Nadine looked around Olive’s kitchen, though there were still just the two of them in it. “You won’t know since you’ve just arrived… She’s just come out of a clinic.”
“Oh! What sort of clinic?”
“Just come out or about to go in?” Olive asked, thinking about the playground at drop off.
“Just got out. The husband’s affair sent her over the top.”
“Is Clover ok?”
“I think they’ve decided to make a go of it,” said Nadine picking up her bag and getting ready to go.
Olive accompanied her to the door and with quite some relief closed the door on the second of the Mothers Grim.
When Alex got back from work he asked how her morning had been. She thought about explaining, in the manner of an anthropology lecture, that in this culture it seemed to be acceptable to stalk potential friends til you worked out how much they were worth.
“Kendra is married to the Paws and Jaws family so they’re living on dog food, as it were.”
Alex was already sitting at the table with his laptop open. Olive glanced over his shoulder.
“Sorry, darling, what did you say?” He was looking at the average daytime temperature in July in Ankara.
Soon it was the last day of school before the summer. Olive waited outside for the children to gather up their belongings while everyone in the frenzied huddle asked everyone else where they were going on holiday. Even though they all seemed to already know. Dubai.
“Are you all going together?” Olive asked.
“Ha ha! No!” Kendra laughed, then asked “Have you ever been to Dubai?”
“I prefer not to visit places that haven’t abolished slavery,” Olive replied realising as she spoke that she was heading for social death.
She stared at the mothers as they reformed the huddle. Surely there must be someone worth getting to know? Who was she kidding? They were as grotesque as circus acts. Where was Clover? She might have proven an ally, but she had seemingly disappeared from the playground a few days after the cakeless coffeeless morning.
The children came filing out of the nursery, clutching in their guileless fingers the term’s output of crafting. Mikey handed a pile of paintings to Olive. She set them in the pram and followed him and Nia across the playground, glancing down at Mikey’s piece of art nouveau. White feathers glued onto some glinting, coloured paper. It made her think of the swans on the river where they used to live. “What is it you’ve made?” she asked, hoping for spiritual guidance from her small son. “What does it mean? Is it swans? Are they swimming away? Or are they returning to the riverbank where they were born?” But Mikey’s interest lay elsewhere now and he ran to the school gate beyond which beckoned the carefree days of summer.
Nadine called from the huddle that she’d be in touch. It was pathetic, Olive felt, to hang on to this potential offer, like receiving a job offer to work for someone she didn’t like. What would she have to do or become to breach Fortress Huddle? Why did she want anything to do with them? It was this: they had what Olive, Nia and Mikey needed – children. Maybe the white feathers in Mikey’s collage were not swans but her soul which might be swept away by dark waters, if she stayed here, and entered into a Faustian pact with the huddle.
During the holidays, Olive divided the local park into what she termed Zones of Enjoyment, the playpark, the paddling pool, the pinewoods. All summer, the three of them alone. In the last week, she received a postcard from Nadine with a picture of the Burj Al Arab hotel. On the back was a scribbled note saying sorry they’d been too busy to get in touch but would “catch up” soon. The card had been posted in England. It reminded Olive that they’d be returning to the elite sports academy she had unwittingly signed up for. So she booked a tennis court for an hour and tried to give her four year old and two year old some tennis coaching. It didn’t go well.
In the next court sitting on a bench was one of the mothers she recognised from school. She was reading a book while her twin boys were coached on the courts.
“What you reading?” Olive asked.
The woman didn’t speak but, by way of an answer, she turned the book to Olive.
Olive took in the title, “How to Raise a Champion” while Nia stood by, observing. Beside them, Mikey scuffed the tennis racket along the surface of the court.
“Not my cup of tea,” said Olive, chivvying Nia and Mikey to pack up their belongings.
“No wonder nobody likes us,” Nia commented as they set off home. “You should’ve just said you liked that book. That’s what we do at nursery when you don’t like someone’s drawing. If you don’t, they won’t be friends with you.”
“So you lie to make friends?”
Nia folded her arms across her chest like the village wise woman and, head down and determined, set off up the stony path that led to the road home. Olive followed behind pushing Mikey in the pram. The little Joan Miró was making abstract drawings in a notebook, holding three different pencils in his left hand, a frozen lolly in his right. Nia stopped at the locked gate of every house they passed and pointed in, saying “Do they have children in that house? Do you think any children live in there?”
And at home, hearing children’s voices from the garden next door, Mikey crouched down on his hunkers and called through the gap in the hedge. “Children! Children! Come and play! Look! See! I’ve got pencils.” And he set the very pencils down on the hardened earth below the hedge like an offering to the Gods of Friendship.
It was as if the children knew a tangible relationship such as friendship was the only way to prove that they existed. But no reply came from behind the locked gates, nor through the glossy leaves of the suburban privet. They might have been the otherworldly family, Olive, Nia and Mikey, from a ghost film, going about their lives on one side of a wall, unseen and unknown, on the other side of which lived The Others.