Helen had woken one Saturday during the Easter holidays, not long before her eleventh birthday, to find that the April showers that had been keeping her inside all week had fled before the rising of a gloriously shining sun. Steph announced that it was a day for an outing, and they sprang into action, gathering beach mats, buckets and spades, and various picnic items from the corners of the flat into which they had been pushed over the winter. An hour later, they were on the train, settling down for the journey to the Thames Estuary at Southend. As always on our days out, Helen was feeling indescribably happy. A whole day with her mum at her most relaxed and fun stretched out before her.
“Mum, mum,” she tugged at her mum’s jacket to draw her attention away from the sights out of the window and back to her, “are we going to paddle in the sea?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind getting cold feet”, replied her mum.
“I don’t mind. Are we going to buy rock?”
“Yep, if you don’t mind losing your teeth before you’re thirty”.
“I don’t mind,” grinned Helen, “are we going to build a sandcastle? Are we going to play the penny machines in the arcades? Can I try and win a toy?”
“Yes, yes and yes. And yes to whatever else you are about to ask me. We can do as much as you can fit into one day.”
Helen was quiet for a moment as she tried to work out what she could fit into one day. Her mum took the opportunity to settle back down to looking out of the window, but Helen soon had another question as an idea struck her.
“Mum, mum, can we come back tomorrow? Then I don’t have to fit everything into one day. Anything we don’t have time for today we can just do tomorrow.”
Her mum laughed and tugged Helen’s curly ponytail gently. “You’re too clever for your own good, young lady. No, we can’t come back tomorrow. I swear that you think I’m made of money”.
“I don’t think you’re made of money. I just think it grows on trees,” giggled Helen.
“You’re a cheeky thing,” retorted her mum. “Didn’t you bring a book or something? Its hard work talking to you when you’re this excited.”
Helen laughed and pointed out that if her mum didn’t bring her on trips like this she wouldn’t get so excited. “See, mum, it’s all your fault,” she teased. Her mum responded by pulling her own book out of her bag and ignoring Helen completely. Helen didn’t mind. She still had all day to spend with her mum, and she was planning on them having lots of fun together. She dug out the book that she had thrown into her bag at her mum’s insistence, and tried to read. However she soon found her mind drifting as she dreamed about what a wonderful day they were going to have together.
Several hours later, she had been desperate for it to end. In all her daydreaming Helen had never imagined that her life would be turned upside down as it was that day. As they strolled together along Southend’s Golden Mile, which was renowned for its tackiness but still packed with tourists, Helen ran off for a moment to spend some of her pocket money on the long anticipated stripy seaside rock. She was unwrapping it as she ran back to her mum, only to find her talking to a man that Helen had never seen before. As Helen approached them, her mum threw back her head and laughed, while the strange man looked immeasurably proud of himself for having been the one to cause this jubilation in her. Helen stood a few feet away, unsure of whether she should interrupt or not. There was something odd about the way her mum was standing talking to him, leaning towards him as if she was losing her balance slightly and looking up at him with a look that Helen had never seen before.
After a few moments, her mum turned her head in a way that caused her shoulder length hair to swing round her face and back again, and as she did so she noticed Helen standing nearby.
“Oh, Helen, there you are. You bought rock, that’s nice”, she said.
Helen stepped closer to her and looked from her mum to the man and back to her mum again. Her mum pulled her forward and said, slightly defiantly, as if challenging this man in some way,
“This is my daughter, Helen”.
The man smiled at Helen, who looked to her mum for further explanation. She held Helen’s gaze and said,
“Helen, this is Paul. I just dropped my bag and he helped me to pick it up again. He lives here, right next to the beach, just like you always say you want to”.
Helen shook the hand that Paul offered her and smiled politely as he said that it was nice to meet her. He was tall with blond hair and bright blue eyes, a bit like the men on the adverts for razors and aftershave, who her mum always said she liked.
He turned back to her mum, and to Helen’s dismay said,
“Do you have plans, or can I take you both out for lunch? I know a wonderful place further along the coast – they do the most supreme seafood, fresh from these waters.”
“We came with a picnic”, Helen piped up, the first words that she had spoken to him, “and we only have enough food for two of us.”
But her mum laughed, and rubbed Helen’s head in a most uncharacteristic way.
“Don’t be silly,” she said lightly, “we’d love to have lunch with you, and we love seafood, don’t we, Helen?” The way she spoke made it clear that Helen was to agree, or face the consequences later. After a moment’s hesitation, Helen chose to face them.
“But mum”, she whined, “We were going to play in the arcades and then go paddling and eat on the beach. I want to do that, not go to a restaurant.” Helen’s mum chose to ignore her, focusing instead on Paul, asking him where this place was, how they would get there, while smiling at him in a way that Helen had never seen before, winding her hair around her finger in her usual way.
Paul told them that his car was parked just nearby, and so Helen found herself in the back of his snazzy convertible sports car, driving along the coast and listening to her mum telling him about her job, their flat, their cat, how well Helen was doing at school, all the details of their life. Paul kept up a steady stream of “uh-huh’s”, “wow’s” and “oh how interesting’s”. Helen wasn’t sure what was making her feel more sick; the motion of the car or their conversation.
During the meal, Paul told them about himself. He was some kind of businessman, although Helen didn’t understand the details that he told them about his job. He had been married before, and was divorced, and he had two children, both younger than Helen. As he talked about his children, that they lived with ex-wife and that he didn’t see them very often, Helen could see the sadness in his eyes. Her mum looked as if she was about to cry, and kept murmuring sympathetically about how hard that must be, how she couldn’t imagine not seeing Helen every day. The way that they were looking at each other made Helen very nervous. She had seen people looking at each other that way on the girly movies that she sometimes watched with her mum, and it always meant that they were going to fall in love and get together. On the films, it was always funny to see, and they would laugh at the characters, at how soppy they looked and how predictable they were. But there was nothing funny about seeing it happen to her mum right in front of her eyes. So Helen sat and watched her mum fall in love, powerless to stop it no matter how much she would have liked to.
Four months later, they had been married. Helen was furious. All her mum’s promises that she would never marry a man that Helen didn’t like had come to nothing. She was so deeply in love that she was blind to Helen’s unhappiness. She had spent long hours telling Helen about the dates they had been on, the stories Paul had told her, how wonderful and kind he was, while Helen sat and simmered with resentment. She spent more and more time with Mrs Howard, who also thought that it was wonderful that her mum had finally ‘found someone’. Helen wanted to shout at her when she said that, to tell her that her mum hadn’t needed to find someone, that she had had Helen all along and didn’t need anyone else. But she couldn’t bring herself to shout at kind old Mrs Howard. She couldn’t tell her mum how she felt either. On the few occasions that she had tried, her mum had brushed away her comments with brick cheerfulness, saying,
“Oh Helen, don’t be silly. You just need to get to know Paul a bit better, that’s all. Let’s all go out together this weekend.”
And she would run off to organise a trip for the three of them, lost in excitement at the opportunity to spend more time with Paul. So Helen had swallowed her feelings, which sat deep inside her, poisoning everything that she did, preventing her from getting any enjoyment out of life. Her resentment and anger grew and grew, and Helen became quieter, more reserved and sulky, as she bottled the strong emotions up in her heart.
She had been her mum’s only bridesmaid, and was able to lose herself somewhat in the preparations for the sudden wedding. She enjoyed helping her mum choose a wedding dress, feeling very grown up as she commented on each dress that her mum tried on. Helen was thrilled when they went to get her own dress and she saw herself in the beautiful blue creation that managed to accentuate her height and slimness without making her look gangly and awkward. Her and Steph spent long hours together, writing invitations and preparing the seating plan, picking out flowers, choosing food for the reception and practicing walking down the aisle to the beautiful piece of classical music that her mum had chosen. The day of the wedding, Helen had moved about in a daze, unable to believe that what she had so long dreaded was finally happening. Up until the day, part of her had hoped that her mum would come to her senses, see Helen’s unhappiness and call off the wedding.
After the wedding they had moved from their flat to Paul’s big, luxurious house by the sea, and her mum had set about changing it from a bachelor pad to a family home. Helen reeled at the speed with which her life had been picked up and put down in a new configuration. She missed their old flat, the comfort and cosiness of it, the soft couches. Paul’s sofa and armchairs were made of leather; she hated the way that they stuck to any bare skin on her body and creaked under her when she moved. She missed the hustle and bustle of their London suburb, the way the cockney lads had shouted around the streets at night. She missed the girls from her school, who were all going to the local secondary school together. Helen started at secondary school that September with a class full of children who had all known each other since they were four. Even though a few of them made efforts to be friendly, Helen’s unhappiness and bitterness caused to her snap back at them, and she soon had a reputation as a ill-tempered unfriendly girl, forcing her to be the class loner.
At that time, Paul had worked in a big office in the town centre, which Helen had been to visit with her mum once. Helen didn’t know much about what he actually did, she knew he ran some kind of business but that was it, but she knew that it paid well; his house and car showed that clearly. For Steph, who had constantly struggled to make ends meet in her previous life, this was a dream come true. She had decided not to get another job, and over the summer holidays spent each day that Paul was at work with Helen. During those days, Helen could almost forget that he was in their lives, but as soon as he returned from work, her mum would go back to playing the role of the dutiful wife, making him drinks, asking him how his day was and fussing over him in a way that made Helen feel ill. Paul smoked expensive cigarettes, which he said were healthier in some way than the cheaper ones, with less of the bad stuff in them. Steph encouraged him to think about quitting, but he said that he needed them because of the stress of his job. Helen became used to the acrid smell of tobacco smoke wafting around the house.
On the weekends, the three of them would spend the day together, sometimes going out and eating in fancy restaurants, sometimes staying in and watching movies or playing games. What Paul had lacked in experience with children he made up for in enthusiasm, so that Helen would find that she was laughing despite herself as he launched into some game or entertainment which she would once have enjoyed but had long since outgrown. Gradually he became better at judging what Helen would enjoy, and they began to have some good times together. They shared a love of swimming and water sports, and began to go sailing together out on the estuary, leaving Helen’s mum safely on solid ground where she had always preferred to be. As they sailed out towards the open sea, Paul would explain different sailing words to her and teach her what to do to keep the yacht moving in the right direction. Sometimes he let her take the rudder, and she would stand holding on to it proudly, feeling the pull of the current against the boat, the gently spray stinging her cheeks, the taste of the sea on her lips. During these times, Helen would begin to feel almost happy again, until some small reminder of the way their life was before Paul would hit her, and she would feel the waves of anger and pain sweeping back over again, crashing into her heart, as the waves of the sea swept up and slapped against the side of the boat. She became good at hiding her feelings, especially from her mum, a task helped by the fact that her mum’s attention was so easily distracted from Helen to Paul.
Once Helen had gone back to school in the autumn, her mum had decided that she didn’t have enough to do to fill her days, and that she would start looking for another job. Paul suggested that she take a course or join a club, something with less pressure than a job. That way, she would be able to make sure that she was at home while Helen was, while doing something that she really enjoyed. Helen’s mum agreed, and set about looking for something to do with her days. She said that she wanted to do something rewarding, something to help other people, and started looking for volunteer work. She eventually started working in a centre for people with learning disabilities. As a volunteer, she could choose the hours that she worked, and she spent her time mainly doing activities with the clients, taking them out on trips or helping them with their games or artwork. She enjoyed the work, and began making friends among the staff and other volunteers.
Around five-thirty one Wednesday in November, just three months after the wedding, the phone in their new house had started ringing. Helen, who was sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework, reached for the handset on the wall behind her.
“Hello,” she answered, her mind still focusing on the maths problem that she was trying to solve. She heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice on the other end of the line.
“Good afternoon. I’m looking for Paul. Is he there?”
Helen remembered that Paul had asked her to her always find out who wanted him when she answered the phone. He said that he liked to be prepared, that he had different voices depending on who it was.
“Who shall I say is calling?” she said, using the phrase that her mum used in the same situation and putting on her politest telephone voice.
“You can say his mother-in-law wants him”, the voice replied coldly.
“His what? Who?” said Helen, forgetting her manners in her confusion. “But he’s married to my mum, and he doesn’t know her mum. I don’t know her either. I don’t think she likes us. She was cross when my mum had me because she wasn’t...”
“Stop rambling child,” said the voice. “I’m his ex-wife’s mother. And I have some rather important business to discuss with him so I would appreciate it if you would go and find him quickly instead of telling me all of your family’s problems”.
“Umm, ok, sorry. I’ll go and get him,” stammered Helen. She ran into the living room where Paul was sitting talking with her mum. “It’s your ex-wife’s mother,” she whispered with her hand over the speaker, “and I don’t think she’s in a very good mood.” A thought struck her and she added, still whispering, “or maybe she’s just not a very nice person.” Paul grinned and took the phone from her, leaving the room with it as he said “Hello Margaret, so nice to hear from you”, in a tone of voice that disagreed entirely with the words spoken.
“Helen, you shouldn’t say that about people,” said her mum. “Ok, sorry,” relied Helen, then she grinned. “But I think that Paul agreed with me, don’t you?”
“That’s not the point,” replied her mum, obviously trying not to smile, “we don’t know her so we have no right to say anything about her. Anyway, shouldn’t you be doing that homework?”
Helen wandered back into the kitchen to carry on with the maths problem that she had left unfinished, trying on the way to see if she could hear Paul on the phone, but he had taken it to the other side of the house.
“That’s one of the problems with big houses like this one,” she thought to herself, “I could always hear mum on the phone in the old flat”. She badly wanted to know what the lady wanted, what the important business that she had to discuss with Paul was.
Later that evening, she had found out. After they had eaten tea together, Paul cleared his throat as if about to make a speech. Helen and her mum looked at him with interest as he began to speak.
“You both know that my ex-wife’s mother called earlier. She was ringing to tell me that there is a problem.” His face was grave, and he swallowed hard as if struggling to speak.
“What kind of problem?” prompted Helen’s mum.
“It seems that Julie, my ex-wife, has disappeared. She asked Margaret, that’s her mother, to babysit yesterday and then ran away. Margaret went to her flat yesterday and found that she had taken most of her things and gone. The kids said that she had been funny for a while, but they’re just small, they can’t really explain what they mean by that.”
“So, where has she gone? Who is looking for her?” asked Helen’s mum anxiously. “I mean, what are they going to do? She can’t just disappear. She has children to look after.”
“Are the children staying with this Margaret lady?” piped up Helen, “I wouldn’t want to be them, living with that grumpy old woman!” She giggled, and her mum shot her a warning look. Helen smothered her giggles and managed a faintly apologetic smile.
“Well, actually”, said Paul, “they can’t really stay with her. She’s not well and struggles to look after them. Especially James, he’s, well, he’s difficult to manage sometimes.”
“So where are they going to go?” asked Helen’s mum. “Someone has to look after them”.
“Yes, someone does have to look after them,” said Paul. He took a deep breath. “That’s why Margaret called me. She’s bringing them here tomorrow.”
There was silence as Helen and her mum both stared at Paul. Eventually her mum spoke up.
“Right, yes, of course they have to come here. You’re their dad. Where else would they go? They’ll stay here for a few days, that’s fine. It’ll be fun, like a holiday for them. And then when someone finds their mum they’ll go back to her. Fine. Great. Yes, fine. And she’s bringing them tomorrow? I guess I’d better get to work, get their beds ready and things.” She trailed off, making no move to get to work, and looking slightly shell-shocked.
“Steph, calm down”, said Paul, reaching out to take her hand, “it will be ok. I’ll take a few days off work to be with them. And then, yes, when they find Julie, she will take them back.” But he looked doubtful as he said these last words, and Helen’s mum noticed.
“What if they don’t find her?” she said, pulling her hand away from Paul’s. “What happens then? Are they going to stay with us forever?”
“I’m their father, Steph. I can’t send them to live with strangers, can I? Could you do that to Helen?” He looked at his wife, his eyes beseeching her, pleading with her to understand. “She might come back. But she’s never been very stable, and she struggles to manage them. We have to be prepared for the fact that she might be gone for good.”
Helen had sat silently through this discussion, looking from her mum to her step-father and back again as they talked, trying to take in everything that they were saying. Now she jumped up, her face red, and shouted at them both.
“I don’t want them here. Isn’t it enough that I have to put up with him”, she pointed at Paul and continued, “in our lives, without having to have his stupid kids here as well. They will think that I’m they’re sister, and I don’t want a brother and sister. I’ll run away like Julie did. I will, and then you’ll be sorry.”
“Helen, sweetheart,” her mum began to speak, but Paul interrupted her.
“It would do you good to have a brother and sister”, he said crossly, “it would teach you that you’re not the most important person in the world, and maybe you would learn to be less selfish. Can’t you see that this difficult for me and your mum? Why do you want to make it worse for us with stupid threats like that?”
Helen stared at him, amazed. No one had ever spoken to her like that before. She looked to her mum for support, but she remained silent, even looking like she agreed with her husband. Paul continued.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, and your mum and I will have to talk about this some more when we know whether Julie is coming back or not. But for now, my kids are coming tomorrow, and I hope you’ll be nice to them. How would you feel if you’re mum had just disappeared? Wouldn’t you want people to be kind to you, to make you feel loved? So stop behaving like a spoilt baby and think of someone else for a change.”
Helen was seething with anger, but could think of no words in response. She walked out of the room and into the living room, putting on the television and turning the volume up loud to drown out the sound of Paul and her mum continuing their discussion in the kitchen. She was beside herself with fury; both at the words that Paul had spoken to her and at the children who were coming to further disrupt her life. But it seemed that there was nothing that she could do about either thing. The children were coming the next day whether she liked it or not, and it looked like her mum was on Paul’s side, leaving Helen defenceless against him. She determined that she would not like Paul’s children, and that she would not be kind to them no matter what they were going through.