Richard Lea

Suburban Pastoral

—Don’t hit her with it Jasper, give it to her.

The toddler looks round, distracted by a leaf. The purple doggie slips from his hand and tumbles down onto the lawn within his sister’s grasp. Louisa reaches towards it, leaning beyond the brightly-coloured playmat onto the grass, eyes wide, mouth open. She grabs it with a fist, brings it up to her mouth and gives a grunt, then begins gumming at it with fierce determination.

—That’s a good boy. Well done.

Kate turns back towards the others with a half smile, basking in the re-established calm of the sun-dappled garden. It is not yet hot.

—More coffee?

The baby gives a bark of protest as Jasper grabs the doggie from her mouth once more, nearly tipping her over. Arms flail as her stomach muscles fight to push her back towards the vertical, beating the air like a mad conductor, crashing into the stack of plastic cups beside her. Red, orange, blue, red, orange fall across her onto the lawn. Blue falls into her lap. Louisa picks it up and starts to chew. Clutching the doggie firmly in one hand, Jasper tears off towards the trees at the back of the garden in a jumble of arms and legs. He comes to a halt beside a bright yellow ball and drops the dog. He furrows his brow and flings a leg at the ball, which bobbles forwards for a foot or two and comes to rest. Jasper bustles up to it and kicks again.

—You know what it’s like, Annabel. You just have to get back into the habit, and then you’ll find yourself going once a month or so.

—But it’s such a pain, with all the queues and the delays and the trek to the airport and everything.

—I know, it’s awful really, but surely it’s worth it when you get there. That’s what Peter and I always say. There’s nothing like having your own space when you’re on holiday.

She rests one hand delicately on top of the pot as she pours, bracelets jangling as the coffee flows into the cup.

—A little more milk?

—Thanks, that’s enough. No dear, those are for mummy, they’re not cooked through. You’ll get a sore tummy if you eat one.

The little girl pulls her hand back from the plate of brownies, her face a crude sketch of disappointment. She glances at her mother and gives a music-hall sigh.

—Poor little thing. They are divine. Where did you get them from?

—They’re nothing special, I just picked them up from Giorgio’s.

Sophie turns back to Natasha and claps a hand to her mouth in sudden excitement.

—I know, maybe you could have another biscuit.

The curtain of gloom is flung back in an instant as delight fills the girl’s face. She gives a little jump. Her mother taps her knees and throws her arms wide.

—Come here, you.

Natasha leaps up onto Sophie’s lap with a grin and reaches for the plate of Malted Milks. Her mother holds it for her while she picks one out, examining each biscuit carefully before making her selection, then nibbling two-fistedly at it while she wriggles closer in. Behind her, Jasper bundles his ball into the herb garden, kicking up wafts of lavender and thyme until he is brought up short by a last-ditch tackle from the rosemary bush. He awards himself a sort of throw-in and sets off towards the sun-lounger.

—And besides, Natasha loves going back to Les Marronniers, don’t you dear. With the swimming pool and the little boat and all those lovely patisseries.

Natasha works steadfastly at her biscuit. A blackbird trills from next door.

—She does enjoy a biscuit, doesn’t she. I always say that if it wasn’t for Jasper we wouldn’t bother half so much with the villa.

—But doesn’t it take away the spontaneity a bit, you know, Where shall we go this year?

—You just have to make sure you fit in enough mini-breaks. I always think you can get the best out of a place in a weekend.

The baby squirms on Annabel’s lap, one arm reaching for the teaspoon by his mother’s coffee cup. She picks up a set of plastic shapes and tries to put them in his hand. He drops them back onto the ironwork table with a clatter and reaches for the teaspoon again.

—No Henry, that’s mummy’s spoon. These are for you.

—Let the poor mite have it Annabel, he can’t do himself any mischief with a spoon.

She gives the spoon to Henry, who shoves it in his mouth and starts to chew, working it from one side of his gums to the other.

—There’s a good boy. Besides, one hotel’s much like another, wouldn’t you say? There’s only so much room service one can take.

—Well, maybe you’re right. Perhaps we’ll keep it on for a little bit and see how it goes.

With the baby concentrating fixedly on the spoon, Annabel brings her coffee cup back within his reach and takes a sip. A squirrel darts up into an apple tree and perches on a low branch. An aeroplane writes its passage across the bright, clear sky, sun glinting from its tiny fuselage.

—He really is enjoying that spoon, isn’t he.

—Makes me wonder what we fill our houses with all this dreadful plastic for. I always tried to keep it down to the minimum with Jasper, but you just can’t help it. Every time his grandfather comes to visit it’s another bit of tat, which he uses once and then throws on the floor. I don’t know how Eva puts up with it. We’ve got cupboards full of the stuff.

She waves a hand in the direction of the house with a shrug.

—And with Louisa now, it’s really just too much. You get to the stage where you’re begging people to take it away with them. There isn’t anything I can persuade you to take for Henry, is there?

—Not unless you want to lose one of your teaspoons.

A yellow streak thuds into Kate’s shoulder and ricochets across the table, upending Annabel’s cup in a rattle of porcelain. The coffee gushes over the wrought iron, cascading down through the holes onto Annabel’s lap. She jerks the baby away from the hot, brown liquid and jumps up. The baby starts to cry.

—Jasper!

He stands there for a moment, stock still, eyes fixed on the ball under the table.

Suddenly his mouth opens, his eyes shut and he starts to howl.

—Jasper! How many times have I told you to be careful when you’re playing with your ball. You mustn’t frighten poor Henry like that.

His face is bright red, his hands clenched by his sides.

—And look at poor Annabel’s trousers. They’re completely soaked.

The garden echoes with his outrage and despair, waves of anguish beating against the panes of the conservatory, buffeting the nets around the trampoline, flooding across the fence into the gardens on either side.

—Don’t worry about the trousers Kate, I’m fine, there’s only a spot. And Henry’s fine too, aren’t you. Just a bit of a surprise wasn’t it, that’s all.

The baby’s wail has subsided into squawks of indignation, his hand reaching out for the teaspoon, abandoned on the table, as his mother jiggles him up and down. Jasper gasps in another lungful of air, still rooted to the spot, and carries on bawling.

—Now that’s not the way we behave when we have guests, is it. Go and say sorry to Henry and Annabel for making such an awful mess.

—I’m sure he didn’t mean to, did you. It was just a terrific kick, wasn’t it Jasper.

Kate half-rises from her chair, holds out her hands to the yowling toddler.

—Oh stop now, that’s enough little one. Come here you silly fellow. He is still just learning, isn’t he.

Jasper gulps, sobs and takes two steps forwards, folding neatly at the middle as he collapses onto his mother’s lap, where he lies, shoulders heaving.

—Poor thing. Does he want a biscuit?

—I think he’ll be quite all right without.

He looks up, reaches out towards the plate.

—Mummy, wan’ biscuit.

—All right then, there you are. Would Natasha like one as well?

Natasha shakes her head.

—And what about your trousers, Annabel. Do you want to borrow a pair of mine?

—No thanks, Kate, we’re just heading home anyhow.

—You mustn’t leave because of silly old Jasper.

—No, no, it’s not that at all. I’ve got a ton of things to do, and Henry and I need to go to the Post Office later on, don’t we.

She smiles down at the baby in her arms, wrinkling her nose and waggling her head from side to side as he carries on squawking.

—I’ll give you a lift if you like. There’s plenty of room in the Volvo and you’re just round the corner from ours.

—No, no, you stay, don’t worry.

—No, it’s fine, really. I’ve got a spare seat for him in the back.

—Really, we’re fine. It’s only five minutes in the pram.

Sophie lifts Natasha off her lap, stands up and puts a hand on Annabel’s shoulder.

—No I insist. It’s no trouble at all. We really should be heading off anyway.

—Well if you’re sure …

—Jasper and I will be quite deserted with only your sister here, won’t we.

She pulls him closer on her knee, squeezing him around the tummy. He bats at her arm with his free hand, his mouth crammed with biscuit. Annabel gathers her things into a large shoulder bag: a pot of half-eaten organic pear purée, a chewed board book about polar bears and the set of plastic shapes, which starts to chime Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in a thin, electronic soprano as it clatters in. Sophie picks up her car keys from the table.

—Come on Tash, we’re going.

Natasha stands her ground by the plate of biscuits.

—Oh, I meant to ask if you’d heard from Rachel.

—Not for ages. You know she’s living in a yurt.

—A yurt?

—Yes, she’s pitched it outside some power station in the Midlands.

—Whatever for?

A jingle of keys as Sophie takes Natasha’s hand.

—Rachel’s got awfully hot under the collar about global warming and all that.

—But she’s still writing her stories isn’t she?

Kate leans forwards to take a sip of coffee.

—No, she said she’d rather given up.

—Oh what a shame. She was doing awfully well with those little stories, wasn’t she? And it’s not as if you can’t use a pen and paper in a tent. Why’s she stopped?

—Said she couldn’t see the point.

 

 

 

 

 

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