- Pub. Date:
There have been three significant men in her life- her ex-husband Peter, Douglas the style guru turned perfect post-divorce romance, and Dean the younger man as wildly handsome as he is completely inappropriate.
All three are suddenly back in Pamela’s life and, as luck and air travel would have it, about to board the same flight.
Pamela felt she was ready for a new man, but not three, not now… and not on one plane.
‘An ingenious story-line affording ample scope for the sly humour at which Mavis Cheek excels. This is an intelligent, hard-nosed comedy, in which the folly of emotional dependence is pitilessly exposed.’ Observer
‘Cheek is a marvellous writer whose characters are beautifully drawn, whose observations on the absurd behaviour of the middle aged invariably hit the mark and who makes you laugh out loud.’ Daily Mail
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About the Author
Mavis has served on both PEN and The Society of Authors committees and was for three years the judge of the McKitterick Prize for Fiction. She is a Fellow of MacDowell Colony, USA and has been the Royal Literature Fund Fellow at both Chichester University and the University of Reading. She is also the Founder and Patron of the Marlborough Literature Festival which aims to put authorship, rather than celebrity, back at the heart of literature festivals. It has proved a resounding success and proves that good writing will always be admired and cherished.
Since 1989 Mavis has run residential courses for the Arvon Foundation; for the Centre for Literature at Ty Newydd in Wales; at Dartington; at Stratford on Avon, Beverley, Charleston Festivals, among others, and at Marlborough College and various other venues and institutions at home and abroad from palaces to prisons. She lives and works in London.
Mavis Cheek was born and grew up in Wimbledon. She began her working life with the contemporary art publishers, Editions Alecto. London was lively and creative in the ‘sixties and when Editions Alecto opened a gallery in the West End of London, Mavis worked there with artists such as David Hockney, Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield, Gillian Ayres, Bridget Riley – from which she learned about modern and contemporary art. After twelve happy years at Editions Alecto, Mavis left to study at Hillcroft College for Women from where she graduated in Arts with distinction. When her daughter Bella was born shortly after graduating she began her writing career in earnest. Journalism and travel writing at first, then short stories, and eventually, in 1988, her novel Pause Between Acts was published by The Bodley Head and won the She/John Menzies First Novel Prize. She has published fifteen novels and her short stories are in various collections. Mavis has served on both PEN and The Society of Authors committees and was for three years the judge of the McKitterick Prize for Fiction. She is a Fellow of MacDowell Colony, USA and has been the Royal Literature Fund Fellow at both Chichester University and the University of Reading. She is also the Founder and Patron of the Marlborough Literature Festival which aims to put authorship, rather than celebrity, back at the heart of literature festivals. It has proved a resounding success and proves that good writing will always be admired and cherished. Since 1989 Mavis has run residential courses for the Arvon Foundation; for the Centre for Literature at Ty Newydd in Wales; at Dartington; at Stratford on Avon, Beverley, Charleston Festivals, among others, and at Marlborough College and various other venues and institutions at home and abroad from palaces to prisons. She lives and works in London.
Read an Excerpt
'You've got a ladder in your tights,' said The Girlfriend, quite without emotion.
Since conversation with The Girlfriend was as rare as contentment in a bikini, Pamela Pryor did not rise but took it, gratefully, as a conversational gambit. Accordingly she began to burble.
'It's my nails,' she said. 'Always were weak and splitty. Never managed to grow them.' She stared at the ten offenders as if for confirmation, gave The Girlfriend an apologetic smile, and ended in a rush with the highly philosophical confidence that she always forgot to eat a square of jelly a day.
The Girlfriend looked at her blankly.
Pamela shrugged and gave what she hoped was a girl-talk smile. She was twenty-seven years older than this ladder-spotter, so she ought to be able to cope. 'Gelatin,' she added sagely, as if pronouncing a great truth. 'Gelatin.'
Twenty-seven years made no difference after all. The Girlfriend was a superior being and ever would be. Pamela moved her leg surreptitiously to hide the disgrace.
'As a matter of fact,' she said with spirit, 'they are stockings.'
Despite feeling like a trussed turkey in them, stockings and suspenders reminded her that somewhere underneath it all, she could still display a mean and womanly thigh top. Stockings were sexy and functional as opposed to just functional. She nearly added this to the conversational package when she realized that it was not the kind of thing one said in front of one's departing son and his Girlfriend. Apart from anything else, she did not think The Girlfriend needed any help in that department. If her skirt got any shorter and her top got any smaller, she'd be naked.
The train began to whirr.
Pamela jumped and gave a bright smile. She was close to tears. Hard enough to lose a son; harder still to feel this combination of sadness and liberation. It reminded her of the time she had her plaits cut off in the name of growing up. She had cried for a week and felt blissfully happy. Life did not seem to have moved on much since then in terms of clarification.
Margie would say that it was psychological, the turning up at the station with a rip in her hose. Margie would say it was deeply psychological. Margie said everything was psychological, even what you put in the bloody salad. 'Watercress? Ho ho, Pam –' Which she pointedly ignored. Margie also said it was psychological when she decided not to open another bottle of wine at two a.m. and packed her friend off to bed in the spare room. Psychological, Pam, she would say, sinking into the duvet and falling instantly asleep. Until now Pam had thought it was daft, but maybe it was true? She was going to have time to ponder things like that from now on. The thought was supposed to be celebratory.
The train continued to whirr.
'Oh, where is Peter?' she said, not so much enquiring as desperate.
She looked around her at the high echoing roofs and the trolleys of ragged packages, as if hoping that the father of Daniel would suddenly appear from some hideaway and swoop down to rescue them all. That she should think this now, she thought sourly, when he had never done such a thing in his life, showed the measure of her turmoil. Of course he would not. As ever, she reminded herself, where Daniel is concerned, you are on your own. So she sighed, merrily, she hoped, and moved the one leg a little further in front of the other, thinking it probably was very psychological indeed.
'Oh, Mum,' said Daniel.
He said it in the same voice he had used when she once asked him the rules of football. He had been twelve then, twenty-two now. A lot of water had flowed since. She swallowed very hard at the thought. Life, she told Margie, on the telephone last night, is beckoning. Margie agreed. 'Great,' she said.
But since life had only beckoned Margie as far as a little cottage near Newbury and the teaching of drama to juniors, it seemed rather a fulsome response. 'Get out there and give it to them,' she also said, as if Pamela were some kind of trainee boxer.
She watched a draggled pigeon crap benignly. At least it hadn't hit her. Small comfort. She felt like offering it a thank you. Nothing felt right now, standing here. The beckon did not seem quite so encouraging. More like a finger wagging at her and reminding her, All That Glisters ...
Euston Station certainly made the whole experience rather brisk. Pamela Pryor, mother of Daniel, now dared to look at her son and he looked back.
'Oh, Mum,' he repeated softly. But made no move towards her.
Behind him the train to Liverpool whirred again and began to make a few acceleration noises as if it were practising for the off. She could do nothing beyond continue to stand there, at least a foot and a half away from her son. The Girlfriend had her arm tucked so securely through Daniel's that even had Pamela dared to embrace him, she would have got all tangled up and ended by entwining and hugging both and probably kissing the wrong one. The Girlfriend would then have rolled her eyes and added this to her private list of Pamela's madnesses.
Oh, nothing was ever said, of course, but it was just a fact that a twenty-one-year-old beauty who was tall, blonde and skinny enough to have stepped off the catwalk, would naturally think her boyfriend's forty-eight-year-old not-entirely-gazelle-like mother was a well-meaning idiot. A well-meaning and ancient idiot, who knew nothing whatsoever about anything of importance. Neither of fashion nor sounds, neither of love nor sex. Especially, Pamela felt sure, the latter.
Pamela knew this because one evening when they were all watching television together and the programme on Cuba showed clips of Che Guevara, she told them how she used to fantasize about being naked in the jungle with him. Just to shock a little. The Girlfriend had eaten her way through an entire box of chocolates while Pamela had only dared eat two, so Pamela was feeling a bit uppish. The Girlfriend gave a polite smile of total disbelief. 'But he's dishy,' she said simply, as if that closed any likelihood of Pam knowing what she was talking about. Thinking of her only as The Girlfriend was a small but necessary compensation.
The train whirred harder. The last passengers began hurrying along the platform. Pamela shrugged and gave a little smile. And Danny did the same. And then Pamela leaned forward, put her hand on the bony shoulder (would she feed him? would she?) and kissed his cheek.
He bore it. At least he bore it. Even if he did look acutely embarrassed. The Girlfriend just looked bored.
'Dad isn't coming,' he said shortly. 'He rang this morning. Biked me over this.'
He held up a mobile telephone. Stars shone out of his eyes. Pamela nearly grabbed the thing and tossed it under the train. 'How lovely,' she said. 'What a lovely thought.'
Daniel was pressing bits of the little dark creature and making it beep.
'Cool,' he said.
'Let's go,' said The Girlfriend. And with a definite look of kindness, she turned to Pamela. 'Bye,' she said, through her sweetly youthful mouth.
And suddenly they were on the train.
'Only three hours,' said Pam, as they leaned out at her through the open door. 'And you'll be there.'
'Less,' said Daniel. 'We'll be there in two and three quarters.'
Pamela had an urge to shake him. It was exactly what his father would say. What was a ruddy quarter of an hour when he was her son and they had spent twenty-three years together, not counting the nine months in the womb, and it was about to end?
'Even better,' she said brightly. And then she handed him a £20 note and said, 'You must have a proper lunch on the train. It'll be something to do.'
Both Danny and The Girlfriend looked at her as if she were mad then. She had forgotten, of course, that when you are young and in love you have no need of things like cheese and pickle sandwiches to help you pass the time. She supposed they were in love. They never seemed to show it. Or say it. Just for a moment she remembered how it felt to be in love and envied them. You did not need youth to be romantically inured to the pleasures of an Intercity buffet. Love could hit you at any time. No point in telling them. Her stockings and suspender belt bore silent, historical and bravely laddered witness to that. Any time. Douglas, she remembered, for a little whisper of time, but she quickly dismissed the thought. That was the past. Before her was the future. The future seulement. And she would not, really, choose to be young like them, or crazily in love, as she had been at forty, ever again. Just at that moment and having forgotten her breakfast, she would have settled for the cheese and pickle sandwich.
'Thanks,' said Danny. He pushed the note casually into his jacket pocket, where it fluttered precariously, which made Pamela blench, but she did not say, Put it somewhere safe. He also drew out from that same pocket, in wonder, as if he had forgotten its existence, a crumpled cheque. He stared at it for a moment. And then he smiled a smile of such crystalline beauty and lightness that her heart turned over. 'Dad's cheque,' he said, waving it around. 'Be able to get a car now.'
'Put it somewhere safe,' she said, hating herself. But she went on smiling. 'That was kind of him, too, wasn't it?'
Peter, she thought. Father Christmas. It still rankled. Of course Margie, childless but nevertheless self-appointed fount of all knowledge, warned her about it all those years ago when she was first divorced, and the warning had proved true. It never ceased to hurt that Peter could afford to swan in with largesse while she swanned in with refusals of the second Liverpool kit that season, but nevertheless, today, she could begrudge her son nothing in his happiness. If only he was happy. It was always so difficult to tell.
Emotions. Muddled emotions. Suddenly she wished Peter were here. If Peter were here, she would have sobbed into his shoulder, she was sure. He used to be very good at holding her in the old days. Or she would have had a cathartically furious row with him. Something he was not at all good at in the old days. Instead she must bear this alone. Today was the celebration of the first day of her life (thank you, Margie). But twenty-two years, not including the nine months in the womb, and her son could appreciate a sodding mobile phone and a car so much more! He couldn't even put his arms around her in front of The Girlfriend. Let alone say anything of an emotional nature. Dear God, what had she bred? And what, in the name of pigeon shit, was she doing wishing Peter were here? Suddenly, after all these years? It didn't bear thinking about and was clearly some form of maternal dementia.
The train jolted and jerked. It was going to move. Danny stared at his phone dumbly, then at his mother. The world suddenly seemed to stand quite still. Breathing stopped. Now or never, said the air around them. A pigeon flapped. A guard called. Then Daniel leaned out as far as he could, put his arms around her neck and nearly choked her. Or something did. A large grapefruit seemed to have lodged itself among her tonsils. And then he was gone. Waving and waving, even The Girlfriend was waving, as if waving was the release of everything they had so carefully held back. Wave, wave, wave all the way down the line – and then – it was over.
Everything suddenly seemed very small. Except the ladder in her stockings, which grew larger and larger as she stared at it. Of all the crazy memories, she thought again, dropping tears all over the platform – of all the crazy and inappropriate memories – Douglas. Douglas and how he loved to hook his little finger into a ladder and rip the whole nylon to shreds. She was appalled to remember it at a solemn time like this. It was like laughing at a funeral. Peter? And Douglas? And why not little Dean Close, too? Just to be completely absurd.
The past is another country. She sniffed, swallowed and tried to be brave. She felt so alone. She looked back at the empty track, washed and hazy with her tears, and thought in a thoroughly pleasurable rush of pathos that she was alone, entirely and completely alone, and that there was no one, now, to offer his chest for the dampening of, or stick his finger in her hole and pull, or smile at her with complete incomprehension because of the age gap. All she really wished, feeling so small and silly standing there, was that she had taken Jennifer's sensible advice and booked a facial and a massage. It would have been very nice to be touched by someone in that gentle and intimate way. Even if she spent the entire hour sobbing into the couch.
This is not really me, she thought. This is temporary emotion. It will pass. I will be fine. She turned and walked back up the platform. More trapped pigeons flapped in amongst the girders of the roof. She tried not to think about their futilities. Any minute now, she thought, and it will overwhelm me. I shall then be found tearing my hair, beating my breast, and wandering the Marylebone Road.
So she straightened her back, clenched her hands, and decided that she would go home and take Margie's advice instead. Drink to Freedom. But, unlike Margie, it would only be one glass. She had a couple of clients to visit that afternoon. In that respect she was not entirely without understanding of Peter's absence. After all, they had both done the same degree at design college, met there, in fact. She was in the business, too. Though now, of course, while he did the grand projects in the grand manner and lived in almost theatrically cool elegance in Bayswater, she had a small interior design shop in West London where people liked curtains and new lamps to express their change of mood – not the raising, in designer terms, of Lazarus.
Not until the following weekend, on a muggy August morning, did she have time to experience both her loss and her gain. In no hurry for anything, having declined Jennifer's invitation to dinner and Margie's to drive down to Hampshire for drinks and bring the dinner, Pamela, mother of Daniel, patrolled her territory.
She opened the airing cupboard. Where once the neat stack of sheets and pillowcases and towels had filled the shelves, now there was space. She closed the doors, sighed, pursed her lips and went and stood in front of a closed door. I have fitted out their marriage bed, she thought (not that they seemed to be interested in marriage). What more can a mother do? A faded, half-peeled transfer on the door's outside panel said BEWARE and a half-remaining Batman sticker, fist rampant, made the point. She pulled this off determinedly.
Inside the room, if ever she had needed it, was the final proof. Nothing of the techno-world remained – not even the clock radio. Computer, stereo, television, electric keyboard – all gone, leaving only dusty marks on the benches, pits in the Coca-Cola stained carpet, vaguely human smells about the room. Orphaned posters hung limp or flapped from the black and red walls, and the wardrobe, when she swung it open, contained a few bent metal hangers and lifeless, unfashionable garments.
She let the ritual sadness do its work, touched a school blazer, much worn at the collar, a striped tie still in its knot, some threadbare trousers and an old check shirt almost too faded to proclaim Levis across the breast pocket. There, still, were the pristine, non-U jeans she once bought him in Kensington Market. She had been so delighted to find stone-washed.
'Mum. How could you?' And the inevitable rolling eyes.
She let the door swing shut and sat on the end of the narrow bed looking at the red blind he demanded she make him. Which he had then slashed and pinned and festooned with chains. Secretly she was rather admiring of it. She stroked the single black duvet cover and heard him – positive, pompous:
'I ought to have a double bed.'
'No shoulds, no oughts, Danny.'
'I want, then.'
He might never have gone if she had given in to that. Ambiguous thought. She began to wish that she had.
Remembering the cats she had kept over the years helped. Remembering how they carefully nurtured their kittens for the allotted time and then suddenly, one day, wham – they batted them around the earhole and sent them on their way. I have given you as much as I can and now it is up to you. It made it a little easier knowing that this was as right in nature as it was in a Victorian semi in Disraeli Road. That any other route was false and stultifying. That economics did not make it right. That those who could not leave home because they could not afford it were doubly damned.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Three Men on a Plane"
Copyright © 1998 Mavis Cheek.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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