Victoria peers into the oven and then straightens and looks around the kitchen. The dinner, a tray of Delia’s oven-cooked ratatouille and an organic chicken, should be ready right on time, she reckons.
She crosses to the kitchen sink and pulls the squirty bleach out of the cupboard. She particularly likes oven-based meals because once the food’s cooking she can tidy the kitchen entirely and eat without her eyes straying to the pots and pans waiting to be dealt with. There’s something reassuring, she finds, about the cold surfaces of a clean kitchen. She squirts bleach onto the sponge and begins to wipe the worktop.
The strange fluttering in her chest has returned and if she can just distract herself for ten minutes it might pass of its own accord. Sometimes she can avoid taking that second Valium tab.
She rubs at a stain on the worktop and then reaches for the nailbrush and starts rubbing at the joints between the tiles. Whatever possessed her to have a tiled worktop fitted? she wonders. She had thought it would be cleaner and more hygienic than the old wooden one. But she hadn’t counted on these joints between the tiles, these little once-white spaces that just suck everything up like a sponge.
She forces herself to breathe deeply and the chlorine smell of the bleach calms her a little. She scans her body, senses the dryness of her lips (a new thing), the fluttering in her chest (an old one) and the aching knees and the vague headache (today’s specials).
She snorts at the thought that if women ruled the world rather than men then people would be allowed to talk about the menopause, and women like her would be better prepared.
As it is, other than an occasional snide joke about hot flushes (if only that’s all it was!) she was entirely unprepared for the grandeur of the coming change. Not a hot flush in sight, but instead, a buggering-up of almost every bodily process, a sensation that she’s drying out like those fish they sell in the markets in Asia, yes, freeze dried and out-of-order in every way that counts, getting ready, it seems in her more pessimistic moments, for nothing other than death. She certainly wasn’t expecting anything like this at forty-eight.
She crosses to the bookshelf and, glancing at the hallway to check she’s truly alone, she reaches to the rear of the top shelf and pulls the blister pack into view. She breaks out a pill, snaps it in half and returns the remainder to the pack, and the pack to the rear of the shelf.
She crosses to the sink and, thinking thank God for chemistry, thank God for bleach and Diazepam, she downs it with a glass of water.
Victoria’s relationship with Valium predated the first hints of menopause by at least ten years. But it had been under control until last year, hadn’t it? A single doctor had been enough to keep her supplied back then, so at least she hadn’t had to lie or cheat to get supplies.
But the fluttering, the anxiety, has got so much worse this year – another perimenopausal bonus. She sits at the kitchen table and attempts to concentrate on her breath – meditation style – as she waits for the Valium to work its magic. And when finally, ten minutes later, her breathing has returned to normal, she stands, checks the oven once again, and walks through to the lounge.
Marge, her mother, over for a visit, is seated on the new white sofa in front of a too-loud television game-show. Her head has fallen backwards and she’s snoring loudly. She snoozes a lot since her stroke last summer.
Victoria takes the remote from the coffee table and lowers the sound which inexplicably wakes her mother instantly. “I’m watching that,” Marge says through a yawn.
“I’m only turning it down a bit,” Victoria says. “And you were snoring actually.”
“I don’t snore,” Marge tells her. “I’ve never snored in my life. When did you ever hear me snore?”
“OK,” Victoria says with a laugh. “Well, you were asleep at any rate.”
“I just closed my eyes for a second. That’s not a crime, is it?”
“No, Mum. That’s not a crime.”
“Is it dinner time yet?”
“In about half an hour,” Victoria says, glancing at the time on the broadband box. “When Martin gets home.”
“He’s in his room, doing his homework.”
“That’s what he tells you,” Marge says. “I expect he’s on that computer again. He’s always on that computer.”
“Well, he does his homework on that computer,” Victoria says, “so you’re probably right.”
She has changed her mind about sitting in the lounge after all. She hands her mother the remote and turns and walks back to the kitchen. She’s only just starting to float – she’s not ready to be dragged back to earth by her mother.
It’s seven thirty by the time Martin gets home, and by eight, when he has removed his tie and swapped his pin-stripe trousers for jeans, the dinner is, Victoria fears, slightly past its best.
But by then, her Valium bubble, augmented with a hefty glass of Prosecco, is fully formed and gorgeously impregnable. She feels as if she’s wearing some kind of inflatable Michelin Man costume. Nothing can reach her now.
She serves up the ratatouille and watches as Martin massacres the bird with a carving knife. Amazingly, he thinks he can do it better than she can. It’s a man thing.
“Breast or thigh?” he asks.
Victoria sits and stares at him for a few seconds before she realises that he was talking to her. “Oh, yes, sorry,” she says. “Breast if there’s enough.”
“Well, I’m not hungry anymore,” Marge says, a dig at the late mealtime. They’d all eat at six if Marge had her way. “I think I’ve gone past it to be honest, so you can have mine.”
“There’s plenty, Mum,” Victoria says. “And you know what time we eat around here.”
“Yes,” Marge says, her downward-turned mouth momentarily evening-up the post-stroke lopsidedness of her face. “Silly o’clock, that’s when you eat. It’s not good for the digestion.”
“You’ve stained your shirt,” Victoria says, mesmerised by a red dot on Martin’s double cuff as it moves up and down. His cufflinks are blue and pretty, but she can’t remember if she bought them for him or not. Is her failing memory yet another side effect of the menopause, or is it instead the result of all the Valium she’s been popping? She thinks she read something about Valium affecting your memory, though she can’t, for the life of her, remember where.
Martin follows her gaze to his cuff and says, “Oh. Yeah. That’ll come out, won’t it?”
Victoria takes her plate from his outstretched hand and uses the occasion to study the stain close to. “What is that, anyway?” she asks, wondering if she has any Vanish left, and then wondering if one of those Stain Devil things mightn’t work better.
“Dunno,” Martin says. “Food?”
“It’s very red for food,” Victoria says.
“It looks like lipstick,” Marge offers.
“Oh, yeah,” Martin mugs. “That’ll be it. The female clients all insist on doing this kneeling cuff-kissing thing these days. Ever since Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s getting to be a real bore.”
“Really?” Victoria asks. There is humour in Martin’s voice, she can hear that. And there’s a wry smile on his lips too. It’s just that time stretches strangely when dragged through Valium. It takes her longer to react to things, which is, after all, probably the point.
“No, Mum,” Bertie says. “Not really. Dad’s joking.”
“It’s ketchup, dear,” Martin says, finishing serving himself and sitting down. “Bon appétit!”
“It’s a bit dried out, I’m afraid,” Victoria says, poking at her chicken breast with a fork.
“I’m sure it’ll be lovely.”
“So, did you talk to your sister about Christmas?” Marge asks, her slurred voice making her sound slightly drunk. “I called her yesterday morning and she said she needed to speak to you first.”
“I did. We spoke yesterday too. But she hasn’t asked Sander about it yet.”
“About what?” Martin asks.
“Whether we go there or they come here this year.”
“It’s only October,” Martin says, then, “Hum, this aubergine is lovely.”
“You said we could go there,” Bertie says, looking concernedly at his father.
“I said, we’ll see.”
“Oh come on. It’s much better there. There’s nothing to do here.”
“We’ll all be together, wherever it is,” Martin tells his son. “So, I can’t see that it matters much, does it?”
“Except that they, like, live on a beach!” Bertie says. “And they have a proper tree and they’ve got animals, and an X-Box and a Wii, and that drone thing you can fly on the beach.”
“I suppose it is more fun for the youngsters,” Martin concedes.
“Plus, other people always drop in there,” Bertie adds. “Like those Polish people last year, and the mad gypsies the year before.”
“Penny’s waifs and strays,” Marge says. “You know what I think about that. Christmas should be for family.”
“Do you think Will will be there?” Bertie asks.
“I expect Will has his own family to go to at Christmas,” Martin says. “Why?”
Bertie looks down at his plate. “Dunno,” he says, with a shrug. “He’s a laugh. That’s all.”
“Anyway, I’ll talk to her next week when we get back,” Victoria says. “And we’ll try to get a decision made.”
“We could go down before Christmas,” Bertie suggests hopefully. “We could have, like, a meeting to plan it properly and everything.” He knows how his mother likes the idea of planning things properly.
“Actually that could be good,” Victoria says. She hasn’t been seeing as much of Penny as she’d like.
“I don’t have anything against a weekend at the seaside either,” Martin says, picturing himself casting-off from the jetty. He might even buy himself a new fishing rod.
“I just hope she’s cleaned since I was there,” Marge says. “That bathroom was like one big mould factory the last time I was down. Honestly, the ceiling was green.”
Victoria imagines this and shudders. She decides she needs to remember to take her own bleach with her this time. She had been horrified to discover on her last visit that they “didn’t use bleach anymore.” Something to do with it being bad for the environment. Personally, Victoria prefers that her environment smell of bleach rather than feet and mould and guinea-pig poo, but hey… Momentarily she feels the tiniest flush of pride. At least she’s better at something than her sister is. But then Marge says, “Still, I suppose it is harder for her, being a working mother and all,” and the feeling vanishes.
Once she has digested the comment, Victoria says, “It’s actually our turn to have them here.” The mould is still in her mind’s eye. “We went to Penny’s last year, after all.”
“Mum,” Bertie pleads, dropping his fork and putting his hands together in prayer. “Please don’t do this to me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Christmas here,” Victoria says. “But I’ll talk to her. When we get back from Venice, I’ll talk to her and we can decide, OK?”
“And you’ll see if we can go down before?” Bertie asks.
“Yes,” Victoria says with a vague smile. She’s glad that Bertie likes his aunt and she’s glad he enjoys hanging out with his cousins. Their ability to spend time as a big, happy family is one of the rare areas of her life where reality just occasionally meets her expectations. “Yes, I’ll see if that’s possible.”
END OF SAMPLE #5
Let the Light Shine will be published on the 30th September
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