Extract from Trouble..

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

On the morning Richard was despairing over his dying ewe, Ben and Julie were probably experiencing very similar feelings about their Camden home. When you make a brief trip abroad (to Venice, for the weekend, for example), you do expect your house to more or less stay put and wait quietly for your return. But Ben and Julie discovered that their house seemed to have been on an 18-30 break in Ayia Nappa or San Antonio. And quite frankly, it was still looking a bit hung-over.

     As soon as they'd stepped from the cab, they spotted some of the tell-tale signs of a house which has been on a bender. There was dried vomit, which they had to step around, as they advanced up the front path and steps. There were empty bottles and cans in the neat little front garden. One of the planters flanking the porch was cracked and the bay tree in it had been snapped off. A front window pane was broken – beyond it, the curtains were hanging askew. Ben and Julie let themselves in; which didn't even require a hunt for keys, because the lock was broken, too. Then they put their bags down in the hall, and advanced, with trepidation, into their once-beautiful home.

     Richard imagines it would have been hard to decide whose cries of pain and distress were sharpest, as they entered the lounge. Was it Ben, on noticing that his CD collection had apparently provided coasters for the departed guests at some ad hoc rave? Or Julie, who yelped with anguish at the red wine stains – at least, she hoped it was only red wine, and not blood – which had appeared on her sofas and cushions? (Just wait until she discovers the used condoms in their bedroom). In response to the noises they were making, a small figure had appeared in the doorway to the lounge.

     “Hello, Mummy. Did you have a nice time?”

     “Right up until the minute we got back,” Julie answered, struggling to choke back tears. “And are you all right, Sweetie?”

     “Oh yes. But Jade had... a bit of a party, while you were away,” Ruby said.

     “We can see that much!” Ben scoffed. “And where is she – she was supposed to be looking after you.”

     Julie didn’t like to call Ruby, the youngest, her ‘good girl’ (though she thought of her that way), because this would imply that Jade was the opposite; and Julie was just old enough to remember all that debate about family scape-goating. Instead, she described Ruby – in the hushed, confidential tones she still adopted for girls’ talk between mums – as “the conventional one”. And this was accurate. Ruby’s room was neat, her person impeccable, her attitude studious, her behaviour decorous. In fact, Ruby had always given the impression that she’d been brought up elsewhere – somewhere, frankly, a bit more select and, for want of a better word, classy – and then fostered with them as a bizarre social experiment (perhaps for an extreme reality TV show). And her manner, though fond enough, always seemed to suggest that she wouldn’t really want to get too attached to these people, in case her true parents changed their minds and turned up to collect her. (Only recently, for example, Ruby had caught Julie rolling a joint on the sofa one night – a rare enough occurrence, as it happens. “Oh Mummy!” she’d admonished; managing to sound exactly like an adult, disappointed by the behaviour of a child. “How could you? You’re supposed to be setting a good example!” It was the last time Julie had smoked.) Calling her “the conventional one” was not only appropriate. It also made Jade seem bohemian and interesting – even a little daring, perhaps – rather than merely spoilt, or badly behaved; or, heaven forbid, messed up. While ‘conventional’ sounded dull, there was nothing wrong with being ‘unconventional’ among Julie’s friends and colleagues.

     That morning, Ruby was looking very much the conventional housewife, albeit a rather small one, aged twelve. She had her hair held back with an alice band, and her sleeves rolled up. She was wearing big yellow rubber gloves and carried a bucket and mop, which she’d set down in the hall, to greet her parents.

     “I was just cleaning the bathroom when you arrived,” she said. “I think someone was a bit... ill in there. Why are you crying, Mummy?”

      “Where’s your sister?!”

     “She’s gone to her boyfriend’s. She wasn’t well enough to be much use this morning – so I thought I’d just get on with it...”

Julie was already trying her eldest daughter’s number. But it was unanswered and eventually went to voicemail.

     “No answer from her,” she told Ben.

     “She only meant to have a few friends round, honestly she did,” Ruby told them. “But there seemed to be an awful lot of people – I think perhaps it was tweeted…”

      Julie sat down in the wreckage of her home and sighed.

     “I think you’d better go and get your things ready for school tomorrow, Sweetie,” Julie told her daughter. “It was very good of you to start clearing up, but Daddy and I will carry on now.”

     Ruby took off the rubber gloves.

     “Oh and Granny rang while you were away,” she told them from the foot of the stairs.

     “Mmmm?”

     “She said she didn’t want to worry you, but she said to tell you Granddad’s had to go into hospital for some tests…”

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