Glasgow University and Faber Academy graduate, Colette Coen just published her first novel All the Places I’ve Ever Been, and two collections of her short stories are available as ebooks – The Chocolate Refuge and Five a Day. She won the Waterstones Crime in the City competition in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. She has been a librarian and literacy lecturer, but now works in a supermarket to allow time and head-space for writing. She loves Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood and INXS. She lives in Glasgow with her husband and three kids. Follow her blog for regular posts of new fiction, including those inspired by Creative Writing Ink prompts.
La Belle Maison
In five minutes her visitor will arrive, and Sandra will leave this place for good, but for the moment she soaks up memories for her long journey.
‘Hello, and welcome to my beautiful home.’ It was more than seven years since Sandra had stood at her front door welcoming her guests.
‘So that’s beautiful, as in…needs demolished and …?’ Craig said as he and Julie took in the view. Sandra wondered if they sensed as they drove through the labyrinth of quiet streets that this one was different. Not another money-spinning project, but a desirable property in a quiet residential area. Still, she had prepared for their gentle mockery.
‘God, Sandra. I’ve not seen Artex this thick since 1975.’
‘That’s brutal, Craig’, Julie said as she gave her husband a hard shove. ‘I’m sure you’ll work your magic on it in no time, and it’ll be, well, habitable.’
‘I just never thought I’d see you guys way out here. I don’t think I could survive so far from civilisation. All you need now is to name it – La Belle Maison,’ he said with a flourish.
‘Charming,’ Julie said, rolling her eyes. ‘There’s a lot to be said for gardens and good schools. Now shut up and let Sandra show off the rest of her palace.’
‘This is the lounge,’ Sandra said proudly gesturing around the cool, north-facing front room.
What her friends couldn’t see, as they raised their eyebrows at the mustard coloured wood-chip and the two-bar fire, and what she always could see, was the potential. They saw bricks and mortar, and tasteless decoration; she saw a new life stretching before them.
‘In five years this place will be perfect, it just need a bit of TLC.’
‘And a sledge hammer.’
‘Well, yes, and a sledge hammer.’ She joined in their laughter, but she was genuinely happy with thoughts of joiners and plasterers about the place, all taking Martin’s plans and making them real. Then she’d have free rein on the décor, and soon they would have the house they’d been working up to for years. The last house: their home.
While Lucy napped, she had painted with bravado; no more pandering to the resale market. In a bold statement of her intent to stay, she even forked out for hand-printed wallpaper for the lounge.
She could see the feature wall now, from her vantage point in the hall: the large retro print holding its own against the 40’ plasma.
‘The lounge, where I lounge,’ she thought. ‘Ha, bloody ha.’ She had imagined a peaceful room when she had chosen Inky Pool and Gentle Gold. It would be the perfect place to read in the afternoon, letting Classic FM gently infuse her soul. But it had quickly turned into a mini office for all the administration that went with children – the school consent forms to be returned promptly; the six month check-ups for teeth; the annual ones for eyes. Drop-offs, pick-ups, play dates with raucous children filled the time between washing loads. Her days slipped away. The only time she got to lounge was late at night when everyone was in bed. She would lie there for hours, watching celebrity gossip programmes, imagining a life like theirs, until the final drops of energy had seeped into the Ikea couch, and she could drift off to sleep.
Her vision blurs as she stares at the carefully arranged vases on the mantle, and a tear rolls down her cheek as she remembers how they shook with the banging door.
‘All I want is half an hour. Is that so much to ask for? Half a bloody hour!’
Jack was already half way up the stairs before her tirade stopped. She punched herself hard on the leg. ‘Shit’. She was stupid to even try. She knew, knows, that there would never any chance of peace until the kids were dealt with, but dealing with the kids was a task with no end. She took a deep breath and went to the foot of the stairs. ‘I’m sorry, Jack. Come down love. What is it?’ She felt his sulk travel through his door, down the stairs and into her guilty heart. Before she could pull herself back, she trudged up, and tapped gently on his door. ‘Can I come in?’
‘No, Mum, I just want half an hour then you can come in.’
She closed her eyes; tried not to explode. He had a point, the wee shit. ‘Please, Jack, I’m sorry. Let me come in.’
‘Don’t be so stupid, woman, it’s your house,’ a voice shouted, ‘of course you can go into his bedroom. And Jack,’ Martin said as he flung open the door, ‘do your own homework.’
‘Now will you all shut up – I’m trying to finish a proposal here.’
Sandra stood looking between her son and the slammed office door. ‘Do you need help?’ she asked quietly.
‘No, it’s ok Mum. I’m sorry.’ They exchanged a look that meant everything and nothing. The door next to Jack’s opened and Lucy thrust a My Little Pony into her hand.
‘Pleat her hair Mummy.’
Sandra popped Lucy in the bath, and after her hair was washed, she retreated from the humidity, to sit on the toilet lid and pleat the Pony’s hair.
‘What does it say, Mummy?’ Lucy demanded, pointing at her cipher written in sponge letters.
‘No Mummy, it says Lucy.’
‘No Lucy, it doesn’t. That last letter there, no the other last letter, that’s an ‘l’, it starts your name, Lucy.’ Neither of them cared much. Lucy preferred the patterns she made to anything her mother told her was a real word. Sandra momentarily thought about googling ‘dyslexia’, but her mind was pulled to her kitchen bin, where it couldn’t quite focus on the test stick hidden at the bottom.
‘Wrap me up like a baby, Mummy.’
‘I want my Dora the Explorer nightie, Mummy.’
‘I want you to pleat my hair now.’
Sandra watches herself walk back down the stairs, and wonders whether even with all her resolve, she still has the strength to leave them.
She rotates slowly and looks into the dining room. The table is bare, the sideboard thick with dust. There was a time when it would be laid according to the latest trend with runners or chargers, ready at a moment’s notice to host the next dinner party, but her appetite has long gone.
Despite the place cards, Martin had ended up sitting opposite Amelia. Throughout the meal Sandra watched as his gaze flicked between her eyes and her erect nipples obviously worried that either should suddenly give their attention to someone else. ‘That fancy woman’, Sandra’s mother would have called her, and it was how Sandra thought of her. Always ‘that fancy woman’, never ‘his fancy woman’, in case thinking it would make it more real. And fancy she was, certainly fancier than Sandra could be bothered to be: what with monthly haircuts, weekly manicures and the best colourist in town. Amelia peppered her conversation with comments on grooming, as if they were essential, like the weekly shop. But no matter how casual the remarks sounded, there was always a nod to the gallery – maybe if Sandra cared more, then Martin wouldn’t have been so easy to steal.
‘Where do you get your botox done?’ Sandra had asked at the last ever dinner party, as she placed Jamie’s Linguine with pancetta, olive oil, chilli, clams and white wine before Amelia.
‘Darling,’ said Martin, trying to keep his voice in check, ‘that’s hardly polite conversation, is it?’
‘You don’t understand, Martin,’ she said mirroring his condescension, ‘botox is as normal as hair colour or make-up these days, isn’t it Amelia? Nothing to be ashamed about.’
Amelia spluttered, and finally had the good grace to look embarrassed at eating her food; drinking her wine; fucking her husband.
‘Maybe you should try some of it then, Sandra, if it’s so normal,’ Martin muttered.
‘Now, now Martin, Sandra’s looking beautiful tonight,’ Julie said as she kicked Sandra under the table and gave her a behave! look. Sandra wasn’t sure that she had the right to do that after she had reneged on their tacit agreement to move out here and finally start their business together. They had had plans, Sandra thought, plans she was relying on, but Julie now seemed content with her promotion and private schools for her son.
‘How are the drawings for the conservatory coming on, Martin?’ Julie asked. It had always been her duty to distract Martin when he got tetchy and she still knew the tricks. She listened with a fixed smile, nodding and gasping at appropriate times as he enthused about Pilkington K and Argon filled units. She knew that Sandra didn’t share his enthusiasm and would hate her for bringing it up, but it was difficult enough to engage Martin without avoiding all the taboos.
‘Can you imagine anything more twee than a conservatory?’ Sandra said, draining her glass. ‘It’s bad enough that he’s got me in a semi in the sticks, without another bloody room to keep tidy. What do you think Craig: could my life be any more of a stereotype?’
A couple of years ago Craig would have gone into a whole routine about the signs and symptoms of suburbanitis, but maybe he gauged that it would no longer raise a laugh. He played safe instead with outrageous tales from A & E, and gradually everyone relaxed.
‘It’s all in your head, you stupid woman.’ Martin had raged later when the guests were gone, ‘I’m not having an affair. When on earth would I have the time for an affair?’
‘So it’s just the time you’re lacking, not the inclination,’ she barked back. He did have the time; of course he had the time, thought Sandra, While I’m hanging about waiting for my life to happen, he’s got the time.
He was missing again last night. She was in her Magnet kitchen, shutting out the constant dialogue in her head with the noise of the running tap and the chopping knife. ‘Will you sit still and eat your dinner?’ It was the fourth time that night Sandra has said it, and maybe the hundredth time that month.
‘I don’t like carrots, mummy.’ Lucy whined.
‘You liked them last week.’
‘Yes, but round last week they were, and now they’re little sticks, and they’re hurting my mouth.’
‘Oh for God’s sake, just eat the damn things, and Jack if you don’t put that DS down, it’s going in the bin.’
I tried, I really tried, she thinks, as she waits for her friend to arrive, No one can say I didn’t try.
She had taken her own plate to the bin, emptying the remnants that had hardly registered on her taste buds. She hated Martin as the knife scraped across the plate. Hated him for not being there to support her on this battlefield; but also hated the fact that if he was here, he would only criticise.
‘Why can’t you get those kids to eat? It’s fairly fundamental, isn’t it? Mother feeds children. My God, Sandra, can you not even do that?’
‘I need you here at teatime. I spend so long cooking and when they won’t eat, it really gets to me. Please Martin, help.’
‘Just give them fish fingers and beans then. It never did me any harm.’
‘Jack won’t eat beans.’
‘Then he goes to bed hungry.’
They’ll be fine, she thinks as she begins to lose consciousness, better off even. There’s a timetable and a To Do list on the American style fridge to keep them right and a freezer full of food. At last Sandra feels that she has accomplished something.
The bell rings, and although Sandra is in no position to answer it, the door swings open. Her visitor is tall, handsome, swathed in black, and with his scythe, he cuts her down.