THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR
You won’t know what someone is dealing with unless you ask…
The Dalton family moved in three weeks ago. At first glance, from the back view, it was hard to tell who was who. The man and woman were both wearing jeans and blue open necked shirts, and their hair was a similar colour and length. They rolled up in a grey van, opened the back, and all their belongings and three small children tumbled out on to the grass verge. We watched from the bedroom window as this new family prepared to move in.
Although it was hard to tell at the time, the three little ones rolling around on the grass were girls. Two were dressed in blue shorts and bright yellow T-shirts. The third, a baby, wore just a nappy and a dirty smiling face. We found out later that Leonora was eight and Charlotte ten. The baby, all big brown eyes and wispy hair, was Georgina. For some reason, these beautiful girls were referred to as Lennie, Charlie and Georgie.
“Why give them such posh names in the first place?” my eldest daughter wanted to know. She’s twelve, opinionated like all girls of her age, and called Keira. Of course she hates her name, because at the moment she hates anything she hasn’t actually decided for herself. My younger daughter, also eight, is called Bethany. She hasn’t got to the stage of hating her name yet, but I expect she will.
“They haven’t got much,” Keira noticed as they emptied the van. “And just look at the state of their chairs.”
“Don’t be unkind,” I told her, aware that I was staring at them too.
“I hope they’re nice,” Bethany said. “I’m sure they are.”
I coaxed them away from the window then. I didn’t want them to think we were nosy neighbours.
As three weeks have now passed, I decide to ask the woman if her daughter Leonora would like to come and play with my daughter Bethany.
“Fancy that Len?” she says, smiling at her little girl. Leonora shrugs and her mother adds, “Can she come round later? She’s in the middle of painting her bedroom wall. It’s a fab green. Lovely isn’t it, Len?” She gives a little laugh. “Good job there’s no carpet down yet!”
All afternoon Bethany pesters me about whether or not the girl next door is coming to play, and I have to tell her she’s painting her bedroom wall, but will be round later.
“Who does that? Weird!” Keira insists. Everything is weird at the moment to Keira – unless it’s something she’s said or done, of course. But in this case, I sort of have to agree with her.
Eventually Leonora comes round to play with Bethany.
“Right, who wants a drink and some of my homemade cake before you go and play?” I announce. For some reason I want her to feel our house is fun too. Bethany and Keira immediately gather round for cake.
“No thank you.” That’s Leonora. “Don’t blame you. Her cakes are rubbish.” Keira grins.
“Don’t you like cake, Leonora?”
“We don’t eat poisonous white sugar and flour. And I like to be called
Lennie,” she tells me.
She ends up having an apple, and
I feel the worst mother in the world as I watch my two stuff slices of Victoria sponge into their mouths. Leonora stays only as long as it takes to eat her apple, and then says she has to go home. “I expect she feels a bit shy,” I explain to my miffed youngest daughter. “She doesn’t really know us yet.”
“Weird,” Keira says.
I’m ashamed to admit that I accept the offer of a cuppa out of curiosity
Jo and Wayne Dalton soon become familiar faces around the neighbourhood. Jo walks Leonora and Charlotte to school every morning, pushing little Georgina in an old buggy. Mostly she wears faded blue jeans, but occasionally she astounds the mums at the school gate by arriving in bright red pyjamas – or that’s what they look like.
“Didn’t she have time to get dressed this morning?” someone mutters, and those around her snigger.
Sometimes Wayne does the school run, and gossip about what he does for a living becomes the hot topic of conversation. Of course he isn’t the only
dad who takes and collects his children from school, but he is the only one in orange shorts and no top.
“It’s disgusting – and totally weird at his age,” my eldest decides. “You have to be young and have a good body to go around like that. It must be so embarrassing for his kids.”
Wayne must be all of forty, and I actually think he has quite a nice body. But obviously I don’t say that.
Jo and Wayne have a free and easy approach to parenting. I soon lose count of the times little Georgina finds her way into my back garden, and sometimes my kitchen. She’s a happy little soul, and content to sit in her soiled nappy on my floor for hours, if I don’t take her home.
“Oh, I wondered where she’d got to. Hi Georgie! Have you been exploring?”
“It’s quite a busy road.” I say as tactfully as I can. “I hope she won’t explore too far.”
Jo laughs away my concerns with a shrug, then says. “Fancy a cuppa?”
I’m ashamed to admit I accept mainly because I’m curious. What exactly does the house of these hippy people look like? I don’t know what I expect – probably dirty floors and unwashed dishes, toys strewn everywhere, walls covered in crayon where the children have been left to “express themselves”, shelves filled with additive-free foods, brown rice and goodness knows what. Whatever it may be, I’m not going to turn this invitation down!
“Great – thanks,” I say.
“Be back in a mo.”
Jo disappears into her house, reappearing five minutes later with two steaming mugs and a picnic blanket. She throws the blanket on the front garden and sits down. I sit down beside her, hoping no one I know will pass by and see us together.
“I only have goat’s milk, and no sugar I’m afraid. I hope you don’t take sugar.” “That’s fine.”
“It’s such a lovely day. I get out in the garden whenever I can.” She sits Georgie down and passes her a beaker of juice. “We didn’t have a garden at all in London.”
“Yes, I like the garden too. We tend to sit in the back garden though.”
“Oh no, why would you do that? You can’t see anyone or anything from the back. I like to watch people pass by, and there’s a beautiful tree across the road just coming into blossom.”
Was there? I can’t say I’d noticed. “And you can hear the children in the playground. It carries on the wind, I suppose. I love listening to them play, don’t you?”
“I’m sure I hear Charlie sometimes. I’d know that yell anywhere.”
She laughs then and I notice how white and even her teeth are. She’s actually an attractive woman. If only she’d brush her hair and maybe put a flick of mascara on, she would probably be quite stunning. She’s wearing the same jeans again, and a white cropped T-shirt. There’s the faintest stain of Georgina’s dribble on the front.
“So you like living here?”
“Love it. But it’s nice living anywhere really, isn’t it?”
I have no idea what to say to that. I can almost hear Keira muttering “weird” when I tell her later.
“Yes, it is,” I say in the end, feeling just a bit stupid.
John over the road has come out
now, cutting his front lawn. He looks across, probably wondering what on earth we’re doing sitting on a picnic rug in the front garden. I feel my face flush slightly. Jo waves and smiles, and he puts up one hand in greeting. “Nice man, that John,” she says. “He can be a bit nosy,” I tell her. She shrugs. “We’re all different, aren’t we?” Then she jumps up. “Come and see my bush – look at the purple flowers coming out, aren’t they beautiful? The bees love it.”
I agree it’s lovely, though I’m sure I have an identical one in the back garden. She offers me a cutting, saying Wayne will bring it over later. Then she adds, “Oh, can you do me a favour tomorrow? Can you pick Lennie up for me? Just Lennie – Charlie has a playdate. It’s just that neither of us can there tomorrow – would you mind?”
I agree to pick Leonora up and bring her back to my house to play.
“Thanks so much. We won’t be long.” I wonder where she’s going, but don’t like to ask. Especially as I’ve already called John nosy!
“It’s not usually a problem, but we’re both going this time.”
“She can stay for tea if you like,” I offer, really curious now about where they’re both going, “But you’d better tell me what she likes to eat.”
“I don’t give them food poisoned with additives and colourings, but I’m sure you don’t either. Why would you?”
I smile and nod, at the same time trying to think if fish fingers would be deemed “poisonous”.
Georgina has fallen asleep on the rug and Jo scoops her up to take her indoors.
After lunch the next day I watch Jo and Wayne climb in their old van and drive off. For some reason I note they’re both wearing their blue jeans again, but Jo has a bright red top on and Wayne a short sleeved shirt. For one inexplicable moment I find myself envying them. They seem to see the best in everything, and suddenly I’m very aware that I don’t.
“Where are they going anyway?” Keira asks when I tell her Leonora is staying for tea.
“I don’t know. She didn’t say.”
“Well, that’s weird.”
“It’s none of our business, is it?”
“It is if you’re feeding her child,” my daughter said, sounding ridiculously old and judgmental.
“Lennie is very welcome to stay for tea,” I say, trying to sound like Jo for some reason.
“Since when do you call her Lennie?” I walk off in a huff then, all efforts to be positive gone.
Wayne calls for her at six o’clock. “Thanks a lot. Come on, Len. Mum can’t wait to see you and hear what you’ve been doing all day.”
I feel that twinge of envy again. Why aren’t I that sort of mother?
“I had fish fingers for tea,” she says. “Lucky you.” Her dad smiles.
The following afternoon I ask Jo and little Georgina in for a cup of tea. We’ve got a new patio table and four comfortable chairs, and the back garden is looking good at the moment.
She brings a bag of homemade fudge with her – all natural ingredients, no doubt – and it smells lovely.
As I open the conservatory doors, she stares out at our new summer house.
“Oh, it’s breathtaking,” she says walking towards it.
“We had it put in this year. We’re really pleased with it.”
“So many colours – red, yellow… and there’s a beautiful pink one. And the scent is divine!”
I realise then that she’s looking at the bed of roses flowering beside it.
“I’m going to plant roses next year. I’m determined to have beautiful roses in my garden.”
I can’t help laughing softly at her enthusiasm. “Well, there’s no reason why you can’t, Jo.”
“Yes, you’re right. There’s no reason at all.” She reaches out and touches the petal of a deep red rose, stroking it gently. “There was a time I thought I might not be able to say that,” she adds. “Is everything OK, Jo?”
“Yes, completely OK, thank goodness. That’s why I wanted Wayne with me, you see. Test results are always a bit frightening.” Seeing my unsure expression she hugs Georgina closely to her and I notice how bright her eyes are. “But my cancer’s gone.
The consultant said it’s gone.”
“Cancer? Oh, Jo! I’m so sorry, I didn’t know…”
She shakes her head. “Don’t be sorry. You know, when you’re faced with the possibly of less time, you start to see how brilliantly fantastic everything is. Life is so precious.” I can actually see a tear in her eye now. “And I’m so grateful to be sharing it with Wayne and the kids.” She swallows, then laughs out loud.
“And thank goodness I can chuck out my awful red pyjamas now! They were a godsend during chemo – so comfy – but they’re heading for the bin now. I might even treat us all to a cream cake!”
“Is that a cream cake made with white flour and sugar?”
“I’m sure just one won’t hurt!” Instinctively I step forward to give her a hug, almost squashing Georgina in the process. We both laugh then, which soon turns into tears and more hugs. Afterward, we share tea, homemade fudge, and sit in the garden discussing roses and the important things in life.
Keira would probably call it weird, but as Jo says, who has time to brush their hair when there’s a glorious sunset to gaze at?
I walk off in a huff, all my efforts to sound like Jo and be positive gone