“You know it would be much easier and infinitely less stressful if I mothballed Homildon Preserves and focussed on doing people’s books!” groaned Serena who had been sat staring at her accounts for the last hour. “It’s not as if I don’t know how to do, it just need someone else to sign off on it.”
“I thought you loved it?” queried Eli.
“I do, well… I did when I had a routine... I can always start up again when things are less pandemic-y.”
“Pandemic-y. Is that even a word?” laughed Eli.
“It is now,” smiled Serena. “At least I have the income from the farm and book-keeping. Never thought I’d have to rely on it, though. What about you, Love, have you given anymore thought to what you’d like to do?” asked Serena.
“You mean, apart from leaking everything to the media!” joked Eli before pausing to collect her thoughts. “About that… There’s a secondment opportunity within the NHS for two years, and my interview is next week. There’s two roles, one in Newcastle and the other is in Holby…” said Eli, waiting patiently for that titbit of information to register with her Mum.
“And that would mean?” asked Serena, her mind already thinking about renting out the flat in London.
“It would mean that if I’m successful for the Holby position, I could come back and live here,” shrugged Eli.
“Oh, Darling. Yes. Absolutely. And the flat...?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was worried about. I wouldn’t want you to sell it. Rent it out. Hire a van, re-decorate my room, bring all my stuff here and store it in the factory unit especially if you are mothballing it.”
“How come us Campbell women can take the big decisions in our stride, but get ourselves in such a flap over the small ones, hmm?”
“So, does that mean you would be OK with it?”
“Darling, yes,” said Serena, who stood up and walked over to hug her daughter who was perched on the arm of the sofa.
“Please don’t say anything to anyone just yet, Mum. I know what you are like! And I’m not telling Dad. I don’t think he’s forgiven me for telling where to go at Christmas,” smiled Eli.
“He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, but then I’m slightly embittered and twisted where my ex-husband is concerned,” winked Serena.
“With good reason. He was an absolute swine, wasn’t he? I mean, I have heard the rumours, and found out that by accident that he was incredibly close to being disbarred after the divorce. What happened? Mum?” probed Eli. She wouldn’t deny how curious she was, Mum had always been a closed book regarding her marriage but may be this was an opportunity for her to open up.
Glancing at the clock, “It’s five o’clock somewhere, isn’t it? Go and break out the good stuff, I’ll light the fire. I think we’ll both need it.” Thirty minutes later, they are sitting in their breakfast room, Eli instinctively clutching a cushion across her mid-rift, and Serena resting a half-full glass of red on her knee.
“We met as postgrads. I was finishing off my MSc at SOAS, and your Father was in his pupillage in Chambers, near Holborn Viaduct as I recall. One of his flatmates was on my course, and we were spending time together studying, and occasionally went to the student union bar. She had a mass of red curls and always wore baggy jeans, but her name has completely escaped me!”
“Anyway, one night after the library closed, we walked home together. She invited me in, a Friday thing, group of friends, not much of a party. Pizza, alcohol, some weed, bloody awful wailing indie music playing in the background, and a philosophy student smoking a pipe! I ended up having a one-night stand or so I thought,” blushed Serena. “Turned out, we had a lot more,” said Serena as she caught Eli’s expression. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, I’ve never purported to be anything remotely angelic.”
“I managed to get on the graduate trainee scheme with one the large auditing and accounting firms. It was just after the ‘Big Bang’ in 1986. There was plenty of money and glass ceilings. We’d moved into together in the autumn of 1987. All very modern and very much frowned upon by your Grandma who took it upon herself to remind us about living in sin at every opportunity she got. And was even more horrified when we bought our first house in Islington of all places. I do wonder what it would be worth now,” wistfully said Serena.
“Your Father was charming, devastatingly handsome, and wonderful fun to be around. We got married in August 1988, we’d just bought our first house and I really didn’t care for a big wedding, so Islington Town Hall it was. Your Father had booked a private dining room at Gray’s Inn for our wedding breakfast. It was the only time Daddy was impressed by Edward... If only I knew then what I know now…”
“Our careers were progressing, Edward had been called to the Bar, and I had completed my exams to become a chartered accountant. In hindsight, I’m so glad we kept our finances separate, your Father would have pissed the lot down the drain! By this time, I had had my own team and reporting into the National Director when I found out I was pregnant with you, my Darling. Maternity leave in 1992 wasn’t the same as it is now,” shrugged Serena, pausing to take a sip as she knew what was coming next.
“I was diagnosed with post-natal depression, Edward was useless. I don’t think there was a day when he came home before 11.00 pm from work. He assumed I did nothing except feed you all day. Christ! All his clothes were pressed, the house was spotless, food was always available, the garden was immaculate. Yes, we had a cleaner and a gardener, but I still managed to cook and shop,” Serena paused as Eli waited on her to continue.
“Mum? Where did you drift off to?”
“I don’t think I have even mentioned this to Bernie, but I had developed a rather large crush on the gardener,” Serena laughed weakly.
“Nothing unusual about that, biceps to die for, lovely pert arse, broad shoulders… fantasy of being dragged into the shed for a pruning lesson!” joked Eli. “Oh, shit! Mum, she was a woman, wasn’t she?” said Eli in mock shock.
“Well, let’s just say that I realised there was more to life than the male of the species,” replied Serena, her eyebrow rising in acknowledgement.
“So, not only were you were dealing with a new baby, post-natal depression, a non-existent husband and father, a crush on the devastatingly gorgeous gardener, you were also realising you weren’t as straight as you first thought!” summarised Eli.
“Well, yes, it was a difficult 12 months! There was a fug, a miasma that would come in waves and blindside me for days at a time. I’d stopped enjoying life and had completely lost interest in rest of the world outside my front door. I was hoping that the routine of going back to work and remembering what I used to would help. It did to an extent. Although, I think your Father wanted me at home, barefoot and pregnant. I was certainly never going to be that!”
“We both wanted to have a live-in nanny as it was so practical. The rows that followed that revelation between us and both sets of grandparents made me want to run away to the circus! I’d gained some perks of reporting into the National Director and didn’t have to be in the office all the time. Your Grandma’s would stay from a Tuesday afternoon to a Friday morning, they’d take it in turns when they could. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
“I can’t remember much about Grandma Jean other than her twinsets! Didn’t I find a purple crayon once and decide to colour in the flowers on the wallpaper in the dining room?” Eli said, shaking her head at the memory.
“Oh, God! Yes. Your father was so cross at Grandma Jean she didn’t come back to stay after that. That was the start of the end, I suppose. You had started nursery school, and I was doing longer and longer hours because of all the new processes that had to be operational by the regulatory and conduct authorities.”
“So that’s where I get my love of policy from!”
“Sounds very much like it, Darling,” smile Serena. “I was beginning to make a name for myself, but always promised that I’d stay with the same firm until you started school. Edward thought I was stupid. All he could see was the money, better holidays, nicer cars, new TVs. It was about stability and commitment for me, even then. I had a role that worked, and I could see the changes that were coming because of technology, what better credentials than ensuring the firm was in the best position to deal with those changes and allow myself to be headhunted with a proven track record and command a salary based on evidence and experience not a penis and a member of the old boys’ club…”
“Bloody hell, Mum. Remind me my we’ve never had talked about this before,” interjected Eli.
“Fear, timing, not trusting myself... I knew I always wanted you to find your way and make your own choices. I had strong opinions and I didn’t want you resenting me if they clashed with yours. We are both headstrong people.”
“And this was 1997, right?”
“Yes, Labour had come in power and they had promised us sweeping reforms of financial regulations which the city had been crying out for. I was a Finance Director working with the CFO - Henrik Hanssen. He was an enigmatic and efficient Swede, I was his preferred choice as his successor, sadly the board had other ideas. Put the feelers out and six months later I was with a new firm.”
The clock on the mantlepiece chimed six o’clock, the heat from the logs had died down. Cilla had stirred from her basket and was stretching and looking around. Food, no doubt, thought Serena.
“Why don’t we have dinner?” segued Eli. “Is Raf around or…?”
“Or… Spending the weekend with Mathieu?” implied Serena.
“So, it’s finally official, then?”
“Yes, as of last month. And I get to tease him mercilessly,” said a very gleeful Serena.
Dinner was a muted affair, Eli processing and Serena ruminating. The sound of BBC Radio 4 playing in the background seeped into the silence. The dishwasher stacked and switched on, it’s initial gurgling bringing Serena back to the present. “Coffee or hot chocolate with all the trimmings?” she asked. Eli’s reaction telling her all she needed to know.
“He missed your fifth birthday. That’s when those nagging doubts and suspicions became very much a reality…” stated Serena flatly, the fire cracking and spitting in the background as the logs caught hold. “…It wasn’t just one affair, it was several. It turned out he’d been shagging his way through half the chambers in London. In the end I confronted him. You know what made me feel so small and insignificant, was that he didn’t even attempt to lie, he stood there and stated he ‘can change’. I said yes, you can change your fucking address for a start, now get out! I took a week off work, threw all his belongs in binbags and told him to collect them before the binmen came in the morning.”
“You didn’t cut the crotch out of all his suits!” laughed Eli.
“Bloody wish I had!” snorted Serena.
“I knew Dad liked a drink. Is that the reason you never let me stay overnight at his until I was older?”
“Yes, he’d be over the limit to drive and I couldn’t trust him not to. Even when we were married, I always made sure I had the car on a Saturday morning to go to the supermarket just in case he was ever tempted to drive you to swimming!”
“I thought as much. I can’t remember missing him though. He was hardly ever there from what I can remember. He is definitely a better father now then he was when I child.”
“How did you find out about him nearly being disbarred?” queried Serena after a pause in the conversation to place more logs on the fire.
“I was at Uni and stayed at Dad’s one weekend. He’d gone to the off license to get a bottle of wine. His bureau was open, I may have had a look and saw some very strongly worded letters and an official warning from The Bar Council dated around the time of the divorce.”
“Does Bernie know?”
“Some, but not all. I don’t think even Raf knows all the gory details. And to be honest, I’ve moved on. I have baggage but name me a 56-year-old menopausal woman who doesn’t” sighed Serena.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant it in a bonding, trusting way.”
“Eli, Darling it’s taken me over 20 years to tell you, countless hours of therapy, and topped off with a stint in The Priory, I will get there. Promise.” Serena smiled and reached over to hold Eli’s hand in reassurance.
“Didn’t Dad move on to someone else relatively quickly?”
“Yes, I really liked her, but she soon saw through him. And I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I did eventually move on, took a few years longer than anticipated. Even the concept of dating terrified me, it didn’t matter if it the person was male or female. And yes, I do realise I flirt and charm my way out of situation but that’s only when I know it’s never going anywhere. Some how we kept bumping into each other at networking events. A few dates turned into a few months turned into nearly five years…” shrugged Serena, as Eli was attempting to work out the timeline of events.
“Where was I when this was all going on? I mean, I know I was at boarding school, but still Mum, there was never any indication that you were seeing anyone. Talk about in the closet!” chided Eli. “Sorry, but... You were, weren’t you?
“Those who mattered knew, but professionally yes. Now that’s a conversation I never want to have again with your Grandma! I was always going to tell you after you’d finished your GCSEs, but we’d ended before I could. We’d drifted apart, work was all consuming for both of us, snatching weekends every couple of months, it didn’t feeI like a relationship. I felt like I was feasting on crumbs as that’s all we had left, which is utterly morose when I think about it now. In some respects, it was a blessing as Grandma had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
“What was her name?” probed Eli.
“Veronique, she was originally from Belgium, and worked at one of the Dutch investment banks at the time.”
“What did she look like?”
“Very corporate!” laughed Serena.
“So were you, in case you had forgotten,” batted back Eli as Serena picked up her phone and started typing Veronique Maes, turning her screen to show her daughter her former partner.
“She looks imposing,” commented Eli.
“She was. We both were. We had to be, but it never was the case when it was just us.”
“Was she your first...?” paused Eli, unsure as how to ask without sounding rude.
“We were each other’s. I think that helped.”
“So that would mean you broke up in 2008 if I was doing my GCSEs, and at the same time as the financial crash, and Granny...”
“Yeah, little wonder I took myself off to The Priory for a month whilst I had my sabbatical.”
“I’m much better at recognising the triggers, I have a recurring appointment every two months with a therapist. Raf and now Bernie will intervene if needed, and I’m guessing that I can add you to the list as well,” Serena softly said.
“Naturally. Although, it will mean that if I’m successful, it will be the first time we’ve lived together on a regular basis as adults!”
“Just as well you’re not a moody and stroppy teenager, then! In all seriousness, maybe we should have some ground rules!”
“Yes, no sex is definite. Especially if I’m the only single person between everyone!”
“We can always have a rota! Or better still set up regular appointments in our shared calendar!”
“If you do then I’m telling Bernie about that time we went to Italy and you didn’t put enough sun cream on when you went topless and ended up with sunburnt nipples for a week!” replied Eli, wiping away the tears of laughter at the memory.
“I’d forgotten about that,” laughed Serena.
“I haven’t, obviously. I was mortified that you were going topless at your age, but it was the sight of you attempting to cool the sunburn with two cans of diet coke taped across them that finally made me lose it. It took me a month to look you in the face!”
“I am sorry Darling, for everything,” Serena sniffed.
“Mum, you are being silly. I’m a reasonably well-adjusted adult, with occasional entitled brat thrown in. I have a job I’ve fallen out of love with, but that’s fixable. I have a flat in London. I have an OK to excellent relationship with both my parents. One of whom I hope to be seeing an awful lot more of, except your boobs. Only Bernie can see those!”
“Mmm, she is rather fond of them,” mused Serena out loud, her mind already drifting off to this morning and waking up to a hand on her left breast.
“Mother! I’m going to bed. And you need to call your girlfriend!”
Heaving a sigh, Serena could hear her daughter’s chuckling as she made her way upstairs. Knowing Bernie would be sleeping she tapped out a message 'Had a very honest and slightly revelatory conversation with Eli, rather exhausted, wide awake and content at the same time. Some fond memories to tell you about later. All rather positive and unexpected. Glad we’re in each other’s lives. I’m completely and utterly in love with you, my darling Major Wolfe (Ret’d). Speak to you in the morning – Campbell’.