THE FAM­ILY NEXT DOOR

You won’t know what some­one is deal­ing with un­less you ask…

My Weekly Special - - Fiction First Class - By Lynda Franklin

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?”

“Well…”

“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

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