Chapter 1 Talk About Gobsmacked

We were having tea – me, my half-brother Orly and Granny Paradise, my step-grandmother. Does that sound complicated? Sorry, but the complicating factor is my mother. She is a walking disaster zone, as you’ll see.

We were waiting for mum to come home. She’d been away for two weeks to stay with her awful friend Sheila in France – two glorious mum-free weeks that had shot by all too fast. Two weeks without amateur dramatics every five seconds over pathetically trivial things, two weeks without running out of milk or teabags or toilet roll or some other basic household item every day, two weeks without having to avoid the latest person mum had managed to mortally offend, two weeks without her bringing home some geeky guy to patronise me and Orly. Instead we’d had two weeks of normal family life at our gran’s with scrummy meals, two weeks of fun and laughter, two weeks of me not having to be mother to Orly, two weeks of being a typical sixteen-year-old. It had been brilliant.

But now it was over. We heard her car crunch its way up the gravel drive to the doorway.

“Mummy, mummy!” yelled Orly, leaping up from the table. His pudding went flying across the room. That sort of thing was perfectly normal with Orly. He’s nine and amazingly clumsy. He has mild learning disabilities. I love him to bits. He’s more my kid than mum’s since I’ve been the constant in his life. Dads have come and gone, and poor Granny Paradise gets banished regularly by mum so she’s not always around. I’ve pretty much brought him up, and I have to say I’ve done a good job. He’s a super kid. His only drawback is that he adores Mum.

“Well, at least someone is glad to see your mother back,” remarked Granny Paradise drily.

I sighed. Granny Paradise shot me a sympathetic look.

“Go on, you’d better go and greet her,” she said, standing up to clear up Orly’s mess.

“OK,” I shrugged reluctantly. Actually, I was overdoing it a bit. Mum drives me demented, but you have to admit that life is certainly not dull when she’s around. It would be kind of nice to see her again. For five minutes anyway. After that, I’d be fed up with her again.

Orly was dancing around Mum when I got to the door of Granny Paradise’s house.

“Where’s my present, where’s my present?” he was chanting.

Mum laughed and ruffled his hair. She looked fabulous. She’d picked up a beautiful suntan while she’d been away. She’d also got some new clothes by the looks of it – a skin tight pair of crop jeans, and a skimpy, lacy top. They were gorgeous. I was green with envy.

Mum tottered towards the house in one of her hallmark pairs of ludicrously high stiletto-heeled sandals. She had a bulky shoulder bag covered with rhinestones. Bars of chocolate and a couple of bottles of perfume stuck out of it.

“Hi Mum!” I managed a smile.

“Hi love.” She planted a kiss on my cheek.

Orly barged past me, following her into the hall.

“But my pressie!” he wailed. “Where is it?”

Mum teetered into the kitchen and plonked herself down on a chair, her bag beside her. Orly jumped on her lap.

“You did get me a present, didn’t you?” He was getting worried now.

“Yes I did,” laughed Mum. “But it was too big to bring home, so I left it in France.”

Well, that was dumb, even for Mum. How was Orly supposed to get it then?

“Don’t worry sweetie. We’ll go and get it very soon,” she told Orly. Orly frowned. He didn’t want to have to wait that long.

I frowned too. I was more concerned about this going to France thing. Term started in ten days’ time. I was really looking forward to sixth-form college, even though I wasn’t even vaguely prepared. We hadn’t got round to going into town yet to buy the textbooks and stationery I needed.

“What’s going on, Mum?” I asked.

Mum dropped her bombshell. “We’re moving to France!”

I stared her at in horror. Granny Paradise dropped the piping-hot dish of beef casserole she’d just got out of the oven.

“What?” we both screeched.

Orly merely grumbled: “But I want my pressie now!”

“I’ve bought a darling little cottage for us,” Mum beamed.

“What?” Granny screeched again.

“What with?” was my hypersonic question. We were permanently broke.

“I had a bit of money put aside,” replied Mum vaguely. “My rainy day fund.”

First I’d heard about that.

“So what is my pressie?” demanded Orly petulantly.

“It’s a new home with a huge garden, which has a stream and pond,” Mum explained to Orly. Then she turned to me. “Sheila and I were going for a drive and we went past the cottage, and I totally fell in love with it at once. So I bought it. I’ve only actually signed the first set of papers. The final sale goes through in about three weeks.”

“But, but …” There were about a million things I needed to ask Mum, but I just couldn’t get the words out. I couldn’t even get up to help Granny Paradise clean our tea up off the floor.

Mum had excelled herself this time. Granny Paradise hurled the casserole and food into the bin and stormed out. If only I could have regained the power of movement, I’d have followed her.

Mum sighed melodramatically and rolled her eyes. “Just the reaction I thought I’d get. But aren’t you excited?” She looked at me expectantly.

“I … I … it’s … er …”

“You’re overwhelmed,” interpreted Mum, looking pleased with herself. ”It’s such an opportunity for you. I know you’ll thank me one day. Now, I must go and tell everyone the news.” She headed for the phone.

I stared after her, so furious I could have exploded. Opportunity? Thank her? No flipping way! But overwhelmed? Darn skippy I was overwhelmed. So frigging overwhelmed, I could do some serious damage to my mother right now. Orly brought me back to earth.

“Brownie, I don’t understand. Has Mummy got me a pressie or not?” he pouted.

“Yes, my big O, of course she has. Here we are.” I rummaged in Mum’s bag and pulled out two bars of chocolat au lait. “Mummy was teasing you.”

Orly was quite happy with that explanation and ripped open the bar. He broke it clumsily into halves and gave one to me. He’s such a generous kid.

“I’ll give Granny the other bar,” he announced, through a mouthful of chocolate.

“That’s my kind boy,” I tried to smile.

“Don’t you want your choccie?” Orly asked, watching me as I just sat looking at it. Normally I am the world’s greatest pig where chocolate is concerned.

“I’ll save it till later,” I told him. “I need to find Granny now. You stay here, honey. I’ll be back in a tick.”

I trotted outside into the garden and soon saw Granny Paradise in the greenhouse, aggressively watering the tomatoes and talking to herself angrily. I slowed down. It was probably best to leave her to cool down, at least emotionally. The greenhouse was only going to make her redder in the face. I did not want to see Mum. I was so furious with her. Yet again she was mucking up our lives. She was so good at that. Oh for the calming influence of a sensible dad.

It’s time to talk about my dads. I’ve had a good few. Dad One was my biological dad, but I never knew him, and the only thing Mum ever told me about him was that his name was Paolo and he was Portuguese, or possibly Spanish, but definitely southern European. I have his colouring and dark brown eyes. He was mum’s boyfriend for just a few weeks, but that was long enough. Apparently he took off at the speed of light when he found out Mum was pregnant with me. Enter Dad Two when I was three. He’s Orly’s dad and he’s brilliant. His name is Winston Jackson and he’s in the U S Navy. He’s from the Bahamas. Granny Paradise is his mum. Dad Two met Mum while he was on shore leave from his ship. He fell in love with her and married her as soon as he could and set up home here in the UK. He was away for a lot of the time with his job. Orly arrived when I was six. Granny P left her sunny home and came to live nearby. Poor Granny Paradise, she hates this country. She’s always cold and never wears fewer than three cardigans, even in summer. Anyway, Dad Two was a really good influence on Mum, for a few years at least. But she got fed up being a sailor’s wife and dumped him. She ran off with Dad Three, a complete and utter loser from day one. He spent what little money we had and then deserted us. Granny Paradise amazingly took us in for a year or so while Mum vaguely pulled herself together and got a job. Then along came Dad Four. He was fun. He was a computer programmer, I think. Mum thought that meant he was rich, but he wasn’t. Just really nice. I have loads of brilliant memories of our time with him. But, usual thing, Mum got bored and divorced again. She left Orly and me with Granny Paradise for about eighteen months this time and travelled round the world, trying to find herself. She found Dad Five instead, in Denmark. So we went out there, but Mum hated all the snow so back to Granny P’s we trailed, without Dad Five.

Since then, thank Heavens, Mum hasn’t had a long-term relationship. She hasn’t had a long-term job either, but she’s worked enough for us to get by. There’s just been a string of very temporary boyfriends. We’ve moved in with a few of them, and some have moved in with us. All in all, it’s been a crazy life so far. I’d hoped that perhaps Mum had finally settled down. We’ve been living in the same tiny rented flat for just over a year now, which I think is a record. But now, evidently, we were off again.

But, France. I liked France. We went there twice on holiday with Dad Four. It was warm and sunny, I remembered, and I loved the food. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad …

No, hang on. What about French? I wasn’t very good at it. Actually, I wasn’t very good at anything, apart from maths. I’d been to that many schools, there were whole chunks of the curriculum I’d never come across, whereas others I’d done half a dozen times at different schools. I’d only just scraped through half my exams this summer. I’d been lucky to get into the sixth form college I really wanted to go to. My mates were going there. It had looked like being a good time, but not any more. What was I going to be doing school-wise? Crikey, that was a scary thought.

Why did Mum have to do these things to us?

Granny Paradise came out of the greenhouse, still muttering but looking a bit calmer. I sidled up. We looked at each other. We didn’t need to say anything. Mum strikes again. I slipped my hand into hers and gave it a squeeze. She squeezed it back.

“Oh child,” she sighed heavily. I knew what she was thinking. She’d left her lovely warm home in the Bahamas to be with her son and then her grandson. She was devoted to Orly, so even after Dad had gone back to the States, she’d stayed in cold old Ireland. She’d helped Orly up and also taken me under her wing, even though I was no relation to her at all, and she’d stuck with us through thick and thin. And now Mum was taking us all away to another country, far from her. Dragging us off into all sorts of mess and muddle, if things went according to usual. Who knew how often Granny P would be able to see us? Mum was so selfish and uncaring.

We were back at the house by now. I kissed Granny P on the cheek and headed off to find Mum. She was making herself a cup of tea, or rather a cup of sugar with a bit of tea mixed in. She had an extremely sweet tooth.

“OK Mum. I want answers,” I declared, folding my arms and glaring at her. “How have you managed to buy a house? And are you completely and utterly mad? Have you given even a thought about what this is all going to do to Orly? You know how he hates changes to his routine. And he’s just starting to do so well at school. Why are you doing this?”

Mum waved her arm around vaguely. “I needed a change. And don’t fuss, Orly will be fine. It’s good for him to be challenged and stimulated.” She ran her eye over my outfit. “Really, that awful top just doesn’t suit you, dear. It makes you look so frumpy.”

I rolled my eyes. The top was fine. Mum was simply being nasty.

“The house, Mum,” I reminded her. “Where did the money come from?”

“From Dominic.”

“Dominic?”

“You know, Dominic. Dad Four you call him, the computer guy.”

“Mum, his name is Donovan,” I informed her. “Why has he given you money? You hate him.”

“He left it to me, dear,” said Mum airily. “He died last year and left me a nice little lump sum. We were very close for a while. I did so much for him.” Yeah right. “It’s taken ages for it to come through. So I thought I’d invest the money in property, for you and Orly of course.”

Oh, for goodness sake! Mum never did anything for anyone else. She was doing this for her. She could just have put the money into the bank for me and O, not buy some undoubtedly crappy dump in a foreign country.  It was hardly a watertight investment.  I was sad to hear about Dad Four. He’d been a good guy. I’d have to grieve for him later though. There was too much to find out now.

“When do we go?” I demanded.

“About ten days’ time, once we’re all packed.”

“But what about our education? I’ve got my place at college and Orly is so happy at his special school. Can’t you just think about us for once?” But I knew that was a rhetorical question.

“I don’t know why you’re so sniffy about education,” snapped Mum. “You’re not exactly top of the class, are you?”

“And whose fault is that? Dragged from one school to another, never helped at home cos you’re never there – I haven’t had much chance to be the next Einstein, have I?” I was right and she knew it.

So she ignored that and made a predication. “You’ll be fluent in French in no time. That’ll be good for your education? You know, I think you should part your hair on the other side. It would look so much nicer. And that blackhead on your nose is ready for squeezing.”

I stomped off. We were going to hell in a handbasket and I couldn’t do anything about it. But in 379 days I would be 18 and I would leave home. Probably at one second past midnight. I had it all planned out. I would get a job, anything would do, find somewhere to rent and then Orly could come and live with me. And if I should happen to get a really well paid job, I’d buy a holiday in the tropics for Granny Paradise to warm her up. And a motorbike for me. You see, all planned out.

So Mum had really messed things up. As she always did.

 

 

 

 

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