‘Gardening!’ said the girl, and tilted back in her chair the way she knew would get a reaction. ‘It’s like knitting, isn’t it?’
‘Stop that, Lara,’ said her mother. ‘You’ll break the chair.’
‘A sign of middle age,’ continued Lara. ‘Old age. It’s what old people do when there’s nothing left in their lives.’
‘I thought you were supposed to be learning Henry VIII,’ said her mother, Susan, glaring at her over a recently acquired pair of Ready Readers.
‘Look at him, snipping away,’ said Lara, and pointed to her father up the garden with his secateurs. ‘You’re just control freaks, you two. You should let it run wild!’
‘Right,’ grunted Susan, returning to her list.
‘You could have a meadow out there,’ persisted Lara. ‘Go green. A jungle!’
‘It might just as well be,’ said Susan. ‘Great fat lumps of squirrels crashing round the trees like monkeys. Come on, Lara, what about some revision?’
‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ shrieked Lara.
‘Perish the thought,’ said Susan. ‘But if you’re going to take over the kitchen table like this when you’ve got a perfectly good desk in your bedroom…’
‘Listen to me,’ hissed Lara. ‘What I’m putting myself through here is entirely voluntary. It’s not necessary, it’s my choice. All the clever people are setting up Internet businesses; they’re not wasting their time on this; they wouldn’t dream of doing this. They’re going to be millionaires in five years’ time. And I’ll be in debt, twenty thousand, thirty thousand…’
Her mobile ringtone cut in – a jaunty, jerky samba – and instantly she was transported from cold-eyed fury to smiles and coos of delight. ‘Really … really … No, she’s so not like that … Oh, that’s so funny…’ One artless pealof laughter after another unloosed itself into the air.
Susan stared out of the window into the green and white of May. I’m the family whipping boy, she thought. How moody it was, the weather – hormonal, melodramatic, lurching from thunder to glaring sun and back again in the space of an hour. She had been out there earlier, before breakfast, the whispering air blowing through the hairs on her skin. This sudden lush frondescence was springing up at the rate of an inch a day at least; you could stop and watch it grow like an erection. Efficient, speedy, impersonal sex: just what she hadn’t wanted at Lara’s age. She must stop seeing him. On the other hand, she didn’t want to. The office was another world. It was nothing to do with them.
‘That was Ruby,’ said Lara as she finished her call.
‘How is Ruby these days? Now she’s split up with – Sean, was it?’
‘Oh, she hasn’t split up with him. She doesn’t trust him, but that doesn’t mean she’s split up with him. No, she’s made him give her the password to his hotmail so she can check it any time she likes.’
‘Wow,’ said Susan.
‘Careful, Dad!’ said Lara, as Barry came in from the garden and sat down beside her. ‘Mind my notes.’
He doesn’t know my password, Susan reminded herself, glancing at her husband.
‘I’ve caught one of the little buggers,’ he said, patting Lara’s arm in triumph. ‘I’ve trapped it under a dustbin lid and I’ve put bricks on top.’
‘What little buggers?’ said Lara.
At least they were united in their detestation of squirrels, thought Susan. Earlier this year they had stamped across the grass and wrung their hands together over the scores of nibbled white camellia buds which had been scattered over the lawn like popcorn. Barry had started to talk longingly about rat traps. ‘Clean, quick, humane,’ he had mused. ‘A metal jaw comes down on the neck and all but decapitates them.’ He had an explosive temper just as Lara did. The two of them were tinderbox touchy, gigantically flinty. She was sick of acting as the lightning-rod for all their casual rage.
‘Of all the things in the world to get upset about, you choose squirrels,’ said Lara. ‘What about climate change? Why don’t you get upset about that instead? My children will fry thanks to your mini-breaks.’
‘I should cut its head off and stick it on a spike,’ said Barry, ruffling his daughter’s hair. ‘Like Henry VIII did with traitors.’
He doesn’t know, thought Susan. He doesn’t know.
‘That’s so cruel!’ said Lara, looking up at him from under her eyelashes. ‘You’re not really going to kill it, are you?’
‘I don’t know what to do,’ he shrugged. ‘Nothing else seems to stop them.’
‘The law says you have to drive any squirrel you catch far out into woodland,’ said Susan.
‘And kill it then?’ said Lara. ‘Like Snow White?’
‘No,’ said Susan. ‘Then you set it free.’
‘Well, I’m buggered if I’m going to spend my Saturday taking a squirrel on its holidays,’ said Barry. ‘By the way, Susan, I thought you were going to organise some more potting compost. We’ve almost run out.’
Susan looked at the two of them, side by side at the table. Barry was fair but with a high Saxon colour and narrow hot blue eyes that gave him an intermittently dangerous look. Lara was fair too, but fairer than her father by far, with white-blonde hair and such fine white skin that her features showed in her face like fruit, a mouth that brought cherries to mind, or, when she yawned, strawberries. Not for the first time Susan marvelled at how her own supposedly dominant genes – brown eyes, dark hair, and the rest of it – hadn’t stood a chance against his. Her side of the family, a pack of devious trouble-making short-arses as Barry had described them one Boxing Day on the long drive home from Lostwithiel, still muttered seventeen years on about the unlikelihood of her marriage to this outspoken Mancunian with his tendency to put on weight and throw it around.
‘Henry VIII was a bully,’ said Susan. ‘He had piggy little eyes and a nasty
temper. It’s all coming back to me.’ ‘Absolute power corrupts…’ started Barry loftily. ‘Absolutely,’ Lara cut in.
‘The thing about tyrants is they’re vain and they like to show off,’ said Susan. ‘Didn’t he have a wrestling match with Francis I? And they’re short. Hitler. Napoleon. Stalin wore platform shoes.’
‘Henry VIII wasn’t short,’ said Barry. ‘He was a fine figure of a man.’ He puffed out his chest and placed the backs of his hands against his bulky
waist, so that his arms were akimbo.
‘You are like so irritating,’ snapped Lara. ‘All the people your age, the old people, they think history’s like it was in their day. But it’s much harder now.’
‘Divorced, beheaded, died,’ chanted Barry, ‘divorced, beheaded, survived. He divorced the old one from Spain, didn’t he, and the ugly one, the Flanders mare. And he cut the heads off the ones who betrayed him.’
Even if he has sensed something might be going on, thought Susan, he won’t want to know.
‘It’s not like that anymore,’ insisted Lara, furious. ‘That wifey stuff’s for kids. It’s all lithurgy and transubstantiation now.’
‘Anne Boleyn kept him waiting seven years,’ said Susan. ‘He wrote Greensleeves for her. Then she had a baby girl, not a son and heir, so he said, Off with her head. But he still loved her a bit, which is why he paid for the finest swordsman in France to come over and do the job.’
‘It wasn’t because she had a girl,’ said Barry with a sideways look. ‘It was because she was an adulteress.’
Susan faltered for a second. ‘Lollards,’ she said.
‘What about them?’ said Barry.
We’ve not used mobiles at all, she thought, her mind scampering around wildly. We’ve only ever used email and he doesn’t know my password. My computer’s at the office, he has no access to my emails, and even if he were to pick up my BlackBerry he doesn’t know how to use it.
‘Weren’t they something to do with transubstantiation?’ she said. ‘No,’ he said. He fixed her with his beady blue eye. He’s bluffing, she told herself.
‘In 1538 John Lambert was burnt at the stake,’ chanted Lara, holding her hand in the air to silence them, ‘because he held that the body of Christ wasn’t substantially present during the Eucharist. Transubstantiation.’
‘Catholics still believe that,’ said Barry. ‘That the bread turns into Christ’s body. Literally.’
‘But they’re not allowed to believe in condoms,’ said Lara.
‘What?’ said Barry, and suddenly he was blushing like a maiden. ‘Lara, would you make me a cup of tea, please, while I try and decide what to do with the prisoner.’
‘Prisoner?’ said Susan. ‘The squirrel,’ he reminded her. Me, thought Susan.
‘What did your last slave die of,’ said Lara, getting up from her notes. As she filled the kettle she started to sing. ‘Alas, my love, you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously…’
It seemed to Susan that Barry was staring at her.
‘And I have loved you so long, delighting in your company,’ sang Lara. ‘That’s your only song, Mum. You used to sing it to me to get me to sleep. Every night, Greensleeves.’
‘Yes,’ said Susan. This was rubbing it in. If she was going to feel guilty, this would make her
feel it, hearing her seventeen-year-old daughter carolling her password. Stupid choice, really: too obvious. Perhaps Barry had been tapping in all along. But she didn’t feel guilty at all. It was none of his business. She only didn’t want to get caught.
‘I could nail it to the trellis,’ said Barry meditatively. ‘Once I’ve killed it, of course.’
‘Why would you do that?’ asked Susan. ‘Nail it to the trellis?’ ‘As a warning to the other little buggers,’ said Barry.
‘It doesn’t work,’ said Susan. ‘Capital punishment as a deterrent. They’ve proved it. It doesn’t put anybody off.’
‘Hung, drawn and quartered,’ said Lara, back at the table. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Isn’t that when they tie your legs and arms to four horses?’ said Barry, taking a sip. ‘Then send them off in different directions?’
‘Ugh!’ said Lara, transfixed. ‘No,’ said Susan. ‘That was another thing they did.’
‘Hanging was for commoners,’ said Barry. ‘Beheading was for the aristocracy. They still have beheadings in Saudi.’
‘Really,’ said Susan.
‘When they hold the head up afterwards, there are a few seconds when it, you know, the head, can actually see the crowd,’ said Barry. ‘There’s enough oxygen left in the brain for it to carry on for another ten seconds.’
‘Right,’ said Susan. ‘Come on, Lara, back to the grindstone. You’ve done hardly any work this morning.’
‘You are so annoying!’ cried Lara. ‘Why can’t you just leave me ALONE? Why do you always have to spoil everything?’
‘You won’t pass if you don’t get down to it. I could test you if you’d like.’
‘Bug off!’ yelled Lara. ‘You think you can say anything you want to me, you don’t leave me any privacy.’
Privacy, thought Susan, I’ll have some of that. Privacy. Whatever you like to call it.
‘Look, Lara, we’ll leave you alone in here if you’re really going to do some work,’ said Barry. ‘Won’t we, Susan. Come on, I want you to come and help me decide what to do with the culprit.’
‘Oh,’ said Susan. ‘All right.’
The kitchen door opened onto a small square paved area planted with pots of daisies and sage and rosemary. Against the side wall was a self- assembly cold-frame where they were hardening off adolescent geranium cuttings for planting out towards the end of the month. Nearby stood a bush of peonies with big pink faces, amorous and Elizabethan in their high-coloured finery. Barry took her hand and held it to his lips, kissed her fingertips, then took them in his mouth and tightened his teeth on them until she said ouch and pulled away.
‘It’s behind the shed, is it?’ she said. ‘Weighed down by bricks.’ ‘Have you decided what to do?’ ‘Well, I was hoping you’d come up with an idea.’
‘Ah,’ she said carefully. There was a pause. Susan examined the toe of her shoe. ‘That depends on whether you want to kill it,’ she continued. ‘And if you do, you’ll upset Lara, I ought to warn you now, she’ll call you cruel and murderer and all the names under the sun.’
‘What are your favourite flowers?’ he asked. ‘I’d like to grow them for you.’
‘You should know,’ she said. ‘You should know what my favourite flowers are by now.’
‘I know I should, but I don’t.’
They walked hand in hand to the garden shed, and there behind it was a galvanised steel dustbin lid under a dozen or so bricks.
‘Well?’ he said.
‘Roses,’ she replied. ‘But not just any old roses.’
‘No, of course not,’ he snorted.
Well, don’t think I’m going to tell you after that, she thought; but it’s those small soft damask roses I like best, with their strong sweet scent and crumpled faces in old-fashioned shades of crimson. But that’ll have to stay my secret now too, won’t it.
‘The moment of truth,’ said Barry, holding down the fluted dustbin lid by its handle while he nudged the piled bricks off with his foot.
He lifted one side of the lid a couple of inches. There was no sign of movement. He lifted it another couple of inches and bent down to peer underneath. Then, like a waiter removing the domed silver cloche from a plate of roast beef, he whipped the lid into the air with a flourish. His mouth dropped open.
‘It’s gone!’ he said. ‘It’s gone!’
‘So,’ said Susan, breathing again, deep into her stomach.
‘No, really, Susan, I caught it. It was there. It was very small, it was a young one, but it was there. It must have scrabbled its way out somehow.’
‘A figment of your imagination,’ insisted Susan with cruel increasing confidence.
‘How could I imagine a squirrel?’
‘Lara’s right,’ she said. ‘You’re obsessed.’
‘You don’t believe me, do you,’ he said helplessly.
She lifted his hand and dropped a kiss on it. Then she turned and wandered back down the garden, singing under her breath.
Taken from Helen Simpson’s latest short story collection, In-Flight Entertainment. Paperback released May 2011 by Vintage.