One October morning, I sipped my coffee at the kitchen table, vainly hoping I might finish yesterday’s Killer Sudoku. But as I tried to focus, Beatrice’s raucous voice sounded from the hallway.
“Jenna, you can’t wear that jumper to school! It’s creased! Arthur, didn’t you iron her clothes yesterday?”
“You saw me do it, didn’t you?” I replied.
It meant I had to miss the office quiz night, but who cares?
Beatrice snorted like a restless horse, as she thundered past me clutching Jenna’s jumper and started setting up the iron.
“Dad,” Georgette yelled from the landing, “Do you have my permission slip and money for the Hampton Court trip?”
“Just a sec,” I replied.
I retrieved the requested items from the kitchen notice board and brought them up to Georgette. Her uniform, thankfully, was free of dirt and creases.
“Mummy,” Jenna protested, “I’m ready to go!”
“Just put your shoes on, sweetheart,” I told her. “For goodness sake, Beatrice, there isn’t time to iron it. At least it’s clean.”
“Well excuse me if I take pride in how my children look,” Beatrice snapped, “And don’t do a better job on some people’s clothes than others!”
Now that was just unfair.
Later, I walked Georgette to primary school while Beatrice took Jenna to infants’ in the BMW. Then I made my way Holland Park station. As I crossed the Avenue, a National Express coach rumbled past as they often do, heading west for Oxford, Portsmouth, Penzance or wherever.
Oh, to simply jump on one and be free of all this.
These days, it seemed no-one respected me. Beatrice never praised me, while Georgette and Jenna were growing ever more demanding. The other day at the bank Donald MacGregor, my bosom pal for seven years, had got the head office promotion I had been after without informing me he even wanted it.
Is everyone secretly against me, perhaps?
As the Tube ran me eastwards, I had an idea.
Why don’t I find out?
The Dictaphone was a neat little thing, about the size of two cigarette packets, yet with “650 hours recording time” according to the label. I bought it from Ryman’s at lunchtime and got to know the controls on the Tube home. At home, I subtly let my eyes rove the various rooms of the house for places I might conceal it. I did the same the next day, in the staff room and around Donald’s desk. I chuckled inwardly at my cleverness.
Very soon, walls will have ears.
That Friday, Georgette held a slumber party for her friends. On Saturday, Beatrice hosted a coffee morning while I was out playing squash. The following Wednesday, Jenna’s friend Wendy came over for tea. One lunchtime, I ate my sandwiches outdoors while Donald and the others chatted in the staff room.
Each time, I set the Dictaphone to record, carefully hid it near the speakers and retrieved the device later. After a fortnight, I had several hours of recording time, which I resolved to listen to that coming Sunday.
First, however, I had to endure The Heartstone.
“Thank you for taking me to see this, Daddy!” Jenna squealed, as we entered screen 3 of Bayswater Odeon.
I didn’t share her enthusiasm. The Heartstone was the latest must-see animated kids’ epic promising the usual stilted characters, trite post-modern humour, a brainless sentimental plot and worst of all, endless tie-in merchandise.
Jenna had to have a birthday in November didn’t she? She’ll me shelling out for toys and other dross twice before New Year.
Georgette was there too, but wasn’t as peppy. She’s reaching the “tweenage” years, so her shopping habits are subtly moving away from Hamley’s towards Claire’s Accessories and iTunes.
Goodbye Little Princess, hello Queen Hormones.
The movie had a standard children’s fantasy plot. The peaceful land of Agruma was ruled over by a graceful white winged centaur named Queen Demetria; a near-immortal being whose magic power decreed the timing of the seasons and the balance of nature. Then one midsummer eve, the malevolent sorceress called Naga (a black centaur with spiteful steel wings) returned from a 500-year exile to capture Queen Demetria and bring eternal winter down on Agruma.
So far, so C.S. Lewis.
“Centuries ago you shied away from the crystal-white wonders of the season I brought forth,” Naga crowed to the people, “Now your precious summer will come no more!”
And cue horrible laugh.
Fortunately for Agruma’s citizens, an apprentice sorceress named Cordill and her companions set out to find the five pieces of the Heartstone; a fabled magic jewel with the power to defeat Naga. After a bitter struggle, they brought all five shards together and Naga screamed helplessly as the Heartstone’s power blasted her down.
So, she’s dead, then. Mission accomplished.
But I was wrong. On screen, kindly Queen Demetria glided onto the scene and found another winged centaur where Naga had fallen. This one was also black, but frail and graceful, with silvery wings and a gentle face lined with pain and remorse.
“Princess Hermella, my poor sister,” the queen said gently, “For five centuries I have ruled Agruma without you, regretting that I never healed the bitterness that finally consumed and corrupted you. Now that the Heartstone has redeemed you, will you return to Agruma to bring forth and watch over the winter, as you were always meant to?”
The transformed villainess looked up into her sister’s face, fearing to see revulsion. All she saw was love. With a pitiful cry, Princess Hermella leapt to her hooves and embraced Queen Demetria, as both sisters wept joyous tears.
“Oh Demetria,” wailed Hermella, “Can you ever forgive such a selfish fool?”
“Hermella,” sniffed Demetria, “I already have.”
And so, once again, the two sisters brought forth and watched over Agruma’s seasons together, as they had half a millennium ago. Cordill helped the people to organise great frost fairs each winter, ensuring that Princess Hermella’s season was spurned no more.
The credits started to roll and Jenna said, “Thankyou, Daddy. I loved it. Did you, Georgette?”
“Yeah, I did,” replied Georgette. “Say Dad, did you… Dad have you been crying?”
Yes, sweetheart. I have.
The next day, I sat on a bench beside the neatly sculpted hedgerows of the Formal Gardens in Holland Park, headphones in my ears, listening to my recordings. I chose the spot because of its tranquillity. Hardly any of the city’s sounds penetrate the solitude, especially once the summer crowds have dispersed. One would never imagine you were a mere mile from Central London.
First, I listened to Georgette talking to a friend at her slumber party.
“Millie, if you find maths tough, talk to my Dad. He’s brilliant at it. I’d never have understood it half as well if not for him.”
Then there was Beatrice and her friends at their coffee morning.
“Poor Arthur. His mother chose to end her life this year, even after he referred her to Harley Street’s best urologist. Now I all seem to do is nag him. What must he think of me?”
Jenna spoke about me when Wendy came for tea.
“My Daddy’ll get me heaps of Heartstone toys for my birthday. Just wait. He’s brilliant. He’ll do anything for me.”
Then Donald MacGregor talked about me at lunchtime.
“I feel dreadful for Arthur not getting the head office post. I was so focussed on preparing an application I even forgot to tell him I was going to go for it. Some friend he must think I am.”
I went back and forth through the recordings, listening for evidence of chicanery and backstabbing, on anyone’s part. There was nothing.
I switched the Dictaphone off, feeling the crispness of the autumn air and taking in the golden hues of the season all around me. With a stab of regret, I realised why I had cried in the cinema yesterday, as the penitent Princess Hermella fell into her sister’s arms.
She’s like me. I am Princess Hermella, and I’m becoming Naga. I’m turning on everyone who loves me because I’m resenting what I don’t have, instead of being thankful for what I do have.
I walked down to Holland Park Avenue and waited until a National Express coach came by, en route to Plymouth.
I tossed the Dictaphone into the road in front of its wheels, smashing it to fragments.
As I walked back home, I made a mental list. Put some flowers by Mother’s grave. Invite Donald out for a congratulatory drink at Le Vignoble Royale. Ask Georgette if there was any help she needed with her homework. Ask Jenna what Heartstone toys she would most like for her birthday. Arrange dinner out for Beatrice and myself next weekend.
Finally, I resolved to visit my brother Cedric and discuss Mother’s death. I hadn’t seen him in the six months since the funeral and we had a lot to catch up on.
Time for Arthur Upjohn to start being thankful for what he has.