Perfect Little Children Page 2

Ten minutes later we’re parked in the right place. Ben climbs out of the car. “You coming to watch?” he asks, tossing his phone onto the passenger seat. I usually do. I’m not remotely interested in football, but I love to see Ben doing something healthy and worthwhile, something other than being the slave of an electronic device.

“In a bit,” I say. “First I want to find a supermarket and get something for dinner tonight.”

I watch him run off. Soon he and other red-and-white-clad boys are pushing each other around happily—trying to trip each other up, grabbing each other’s backpacks.

On the passenger seat, Ben’s phone starts to ring. “Zannah” flashes up on the screen. I pick it up. “Hi, darling. Everything okay?” Zannah isn’t normally awake before noon on a Saturday.

“Where’s Ben?” The clipped precision of her words doesn’t bode well.


“Really? According to Snap Maps, he was on a street called Widdle Lane or something ten minutes ago. What the hell was he doing there?”

“Wyddial Lane. Yeah, that’s nearby. Now we’re at football.”

“Right. When you next see him, can you please ask him to deal with his high-maintenance nightmare of a girlfriend? Thanks. She’s just called me and woken me up to tell me that Ben blanked her in the middle of an important conversation, and can I ask him to message her? Their pathetic relationship is not my problem, Mum, and I’m not getting dragged into it.”


“Thanks, Mum. See you later. I’m going back to sleep. Ugh, it’s nine thirty—grim.”

She’s gone. “Girlfriend,” she said. So using that word in a teenage context is not entirely disallowed. I add this important clue to my ongoing study of teenage behavior, glad that my investigative interest in every aspect of my children’s lives is not reciprocated. Zannah and Ben aren’t remotely concerned about the details of my day-to-day life. Neither of them asked me why I drove to Wyddial Lane before going to the St. Ives football ground; neither of them ever will.

There’s something comforting about living with two people who never think about or question your behavior. I tried to explain this to Dominic once, when he complained that the kids never ask how our days have been. “They’re teenagers,” I said. “Anything happening outside of the teenage arena, they couldn’t care less. Be thankful—remember the time Ben found cigarettes and a lighter in your jacket pocket, and you told him you gave up ages ago, and they must have been there for at least ten years? You didn’t mind then that he didn’t pounce on that and say, ‘But wait, you only bought that jacket last month.’”

I don’t have any bad habits that I’m concealing from the children. I’ve only ever had one near miss on a par with Dominic’s cigarettes-and-lighter scare, and that was when Zannah was four and still interested enough in people outside her immediate peer group to notice strange things her mother did. She walked into the kitchen and found me with a pair of scissors in one hand and a photograph in the other. I must have looked upset and guilty, because she asked me if I was okay. “Of course, darling,” I said in a bright voice.

How could I have explained to a four-year-old what I was doing—or to anyone? Dominic was working in the living room, which was next to the kitchen in our old house. He’d have been horrified. I remember holding my breath, praying that my unnaturally high-pitched “Of course” hadn’t aroused his suspicions. Four-year-old Zannah looked doubtful, but she didn’t ask any more questions.

The photograph she’d caught me holding was of the Braid family: Lewis and Flora and their three children—Thomas, Emily and Georgina. A happy family portrait, taken in the back garden. Flora had included it with their Christmas card. She always sent a photo, just as she always signed the card “Lewis, Flora . . .” His name had to come first because it was traditional, and the Braids cared about things like that. Dominic and I discussed it once. He said, “There’s no way Lewis has ever said to Flora, ‘Make sure to put my name first.’ He’d totally leave the Christmas card sending to her, wouldn’t he? I can’t see him giving it a single second’s thought.”

“True,” I said. “But he also would never have ended up married to the kind of woman who wouldn’t automatically put his name first on all correspondence.”

So often over the past twelve years, I’ve wanted to tell Dominic what I did to that photograph and ask him which he thinks is worse: that, or what Flora did to me.

If I did, he’d probably laugh and say, “You’re mad, Beth,” in an affectionate way. He’d say the same—that I must be insane—about what I’m going to do next, which isn’t what I’ve just told Ben.

I’m not going to the supermarket to buy tonight’s dinner.

I’m going back to Wyddial Lane.


I’m amazed by how much more I notice now that I’m alone and there’s no pressure from an imminent football match to distract me: the black metal mailbox attached to a gatepost, with “16” on it in white, the burglar alarm, the row of what might be tiny security cameras or some kind of motion sensors lining the top of the house just under the gutters, like a string of paranoid fairy lights.

As I drove back here, the gray sky gave way to a hazy blue and the sun appeared. Now it’s properly warm for the first time this year. Even with the window down, it’s already too hot in the car. I don’t want to put on the air conditioning—that would involve starting up the engine, and the last thing I need is for Flora to look out and wonder about the stationary car with its engine running.

That’s funny: I’m assuming that, if anyone’s home, it’s going to be Flora. Twelve years ago, when I still knew the Braids, Lewis’s job on Saturdays was to ferry Thomas and Emily around by car to their various hobby duties: swimming lessons, drama club, tennis coaching. Five-year-old Thomas and three-year-old Emily had an absurd number of unmissable appointments. Lewis drove them to and fro while Flora caught up on the housework. He often used to say, “When I sell my company for a trillion dollars, we’ll have a fleet of chauffeurs and I’ll be able to spend weekends watching telly with my feet up.” In those days, he was always making jokes about how he would one day be rich. If we went to a crowded bar or café where we had to raise our voices to be heard, Lewis would announce, “When I’m rich I’ll have four chefs living in the annex of my mansion—Indian, Italian, French and English—so that I don’t have to put up with other people’s noise in order to get great food.” Flora would tut at his imaginary extravagance and say, “Lew-is,” in the same voice she used to subdue her small children when they were making a spectacle of themselves in public.

As it turned out, Lewis didn’t need to worry about selling his company in order to get rich. His hoarder-miser grandfather died and left him several million pounds that nobody in the Braid family had known the old man had. Lewis and Flora moved from a three-bedroom basement flat to 16 Wyddial Lane, which looks as if it must have at least eight bedrooms, and now perhaps Lewis has all those chefs and chauffeurs he used to joke about acquiring. Maybe he and Flora and their kids are all inside the house now, staring at their iPhones.

What age would Georgina be? Twelve, so not quite a teenager. We didn’t let Zannah have a phone until she was thirteen, but her teenager behavior had definitely started by then. She was eleven the first time she raised her eyebrows and asked me why I imagined in my wildest dreams that she might want to go into town with someone wearing a carpet. (I was dressed in a beautiful woolen poncho at the time.)

I feel ashamed when I think about Georgina Braid, so I concentrate on the house instead. I got it wrong before—I glanced at it and decided it was modern, but, on closer inspection, it looks as if only the sides of it are newly built. The middle third of the building sticks out in front of the grand wings to the left and right, which are flat-fronted and have been added much more recently in what Zannah would call a “glow-up.” The dark-red pantiled roof of the newest sections starts higher up than the roof of the middle part, which has two dormer windows set into it. Presumably this was once an average-sized cottage. Only just visible above the closed wooden gates is a lychgate-style roofed porch, with the same red tiles. Apart from the two roofs—house and porch—the entire frontage is gleaming white. It looks as if it might have been painted yesterday. The overall effect is of a sleek, contemporary white-cube-style house that has swallowed a lumpy old cottage and been unable to digest it.

There’s a second building, long and low, standing between the house and the high wall, separating the two. Most likely it’s a double or triple garage. If there’s this much space at the front, there must be three times as much at the back, at least. I picture a long, striped lawn, alternating shades of lush green, and a smooth stone patio area, complete with top-of-the-range outdoor chairs and sofas: dark brown with plump cream cushions.

I wipe beads of sweat from my forehead. One open window isn’t enough. How has it become so hot, suddenly? I open my door slightly, to let more air in.

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