It was almost the end of the year, a century, a millennium, and what a decade it had been. The Cold War was over, Nelson Mandela was free at last, and the Internet was changing the way everyone worked and lived their lives. It was also Lisa Grant’s fortieth birthday.
Leading up to this significant milestone, she hadn’t been sleeping well. She’d been having nightmares about many things, but particularly the recurring dream about turning sixty, not forty. She would wake up in a cold sweat, arms flailing around in the air and screaming, ‘there’s been some mistake! My mother’s only fifty-nine!’ She didn’t identify with being forty. She wasn’t ready to be middle-aged. There were so many loose ends from the last thirty-nine years she needed to tie up first.
She’d been in a hurry to get home because her oldest friend, Adele, had arranged a birthday meal just down the road in the picturesque market town of Cirencester. Adele always said she was late for everything, and she was right. As a self-confessed workaholic, Lisa would always be the last one out of the office every evening, but she couldn’t be late, not tonight. Now, standing in front of the wood-warped front door of the charming but dank Cotswold stone cottage she was renting, the bloody thing refused to open. Flummoxed and panting after several abortive attempts, she psyched herself up for one final superhuman effort to get in. Letting loose a stream of expletives, she mustered the strength of a prop forward, launched herself at the door, and shouldered her way inside.
Once in the stark hallway, the all-pervading smell of mould engulfed her. Turning on the light, she bent to pick up a small pile of post that had arrived through the letterbox. The Portuguese postmark on a birthday card from her father reminded her that a bottle of Mont das Uvas Pinot Grigio was chilling in the fridge. She headed to the kitchen, a glass before going out should lift her flagging joire de vivre. As she walked, her boots created an echo as they connected with the ancient limestone flooring that ran throughout the ground floor. The stone flags contributed to the constant chill inside the cottage, as they had been doing for over four hundred years. The Cotswold stone two up, two down, was impossible to heat, and black mould streaked across the walls both upstairs and down, and despite regular scrubbing with bleach, it never went away. Lisa had been putting off telling her lecherous landlord that the smell of damp was getting worse, but she had to call him and say he could come anytime while she was at work, because she didn’t want a repeat of his last visit when he arrived unannounced.
Late home from work, as usual, she’d asked Adele round for a meal, and had just run a bath. She was about to get in when the doorbell rang. Craning her head, she looked out of the bathroom window and, although a cascade of Golden Shower roses obscured her view of the drive, she was certain it was Adele, so opened the window and shouted, ‘Hi, gorgeous, I’m in the bath, grab a glass of wine and come on up.’
Lowering herself into the bath, she heard the front door open and close. She thought it was odd that Adele hadn’t parried with something along the lines of ‘what is it you have never understood about leaving work on time?’ It was only the sound of laboured breathing and heavy clumping coming up the stairs that made her realise that it probably wasn’t the petite Adele.
‘Della?’ She panicked, leaping out of the bath, and wrapping a towel around her, just as Quentin Fernsby, aka lecherous landlord, appeared at the open bathroom door, holding a glass of Pinot Grigio in his hand, his glazed eyes out on stalks.
He seemed to have lost control of his mouth, his bottom lip flopping open. He licked it before slurring the words, ‘I’m here to fix your shower head.’
‘Quentin! What a surprise! I thought you were Adele; she’ll be here any second now.’ Sidling past him, she made it into her bedroom and locked the door just as Adele arrived.
After that unfortunate episode, Lisa asked him to replace the strip light in the bathroom, which he still hadn’t done. He could do it when he inspected the mould and sort out the front door at the same time. On the plus side, she only paid a peppercorn rent, and her financial situation was dire.
She ran the tips of her fingers across the top of the old night storage heater in the kitchen. It had only just come on, so she would keep her coat on a little longer; there was no point in lighting the fire in the living room as she was going out. Opening the fridge, she took out the bottle of wine and poured herself a glass. Taking a sip, she savoured the taste on her tongue for a few seconds before swallowing and exhaling the words, ‘Thank God it’s Friday.’
Sifting through the post, she added anything official looking to the stash behind the biscuit barrel on a shelf of the distressed kitchen dresser. The answerphone on the shelf below was winking at her, so she pressed play… ‘Happy birthday, Li! Just to say my darling husband has volunteered to be our chauffeur tonight, so we’ll be round at 7.45 to pick you up. So, you better get your skates on. Look forward to seeing you later.’ Adele knew her better than anybody. After twenty-nine years and everything life had thrown at them, the pinkie promises they made to each other aged eleven had stood the test of time. She glanced at her watch. It was 7.15 p.m., just enough time to open her cards.
She walked through to the sitting room and slumped into an armchair. Its springs protested loudly beneath its threadbare upholstery. It was just one of the time-worn pieces of furniture that came with the rental. She put her glass down and looked at the birthday cards on her lap. No doubt the wordings would be along the lines of the carefully chosen card from her co-workers, which she had opened while at work. It featured the numbers four and zero together, in large Technicolor font, splattered with glitter and the words, I may be forty, but I feel like a twenty-year-old when I wake up every morning. Unfortunately, there’s never one around. Ouch! What did she expect from her much younger colleagues?
There were six cards, the handwriting giving away who had sent them. Lisa shuffled them into the order she wanted to open them and started with the person with whom she had the weakest emotional tie. The card was so typical of her mother, Elizabeth. A stately home with acres of manicured gardens. She opened the card and gasped when a cheque fell out. Elizabeth’s idea of a birthday present for her only child since she reached puberty had always been seductive lingerie. Encouraging her daughter to dress to please men was all part of Elizabeth’s plan to find Lisa a wealthy husband. A strategy that spectacularly backfired when a seventeen-year-old Lisa, wearing Doc Martens and dungarees, vented her pent-up emotions. ‘Why do you always talk such bloody rubbish, Mother?’
Maybe, now that Lisa was forty, her impossible mother had finally got the message. Had it seeped into her dense grey matter that Lisa was never going to be a mollycoddled kept woman like her? Or, as Elizabeth would more succinctly put it, ‘marriageable material’, but it was a shock, her mother had never given her money before, which might have been something to do with Lisa’s teenage mantra, ‘I could never call myself a strong, independent woman if I can’t fend for myself,’ but, she had never been strapped for cash before. Those halcyon, carefree days might seem like an eternity ago, but it was only three years since she was enjoying the benefits of her high-flying job in London. Was that why her mother had chosen to send her money now? Was she feeling a tinge of guilt? Unlikely, even if it was due to her mother’s negligence, she found herself in this unsatisfactory situation. Remorse or guilt were not words found in Elizabeth’s vocabulary. That aside, Lisa could never forgive her mother for her ultimate betrayal. She also blamed Elizabeth for the loss of the two most important things in her life. Yet, despite her mother’s atrocious behaviour over the years, Lisa had never been able to sever their umbilical tie. She kept her distance, but Elizabeth was always there niggling into her subconscious.
Picking up the cheque, she couldn’t read either the writing or the figures. Elizabeth hated parting with money, so her handwriting shrivelled on cheques. Lisa would need her new prescription glasses to decipher her mother’s tiny scrawl. Through gritted teeth, she had parted with a substantial amount of cash to buy her first pair of glasses for reading and computer work. She had been irritated by the Eyes4You poster girl, Diane Keaton. Thirteen years older than Lisa and rocking the bespectacled look. Youthful, intellectual, and ridiculously sexy. After trying on most of the frames, Lisa gave up trying to find a pair that didn’t make her look like a nerdy Seven Dwarfs Doc. Fumbling around in the depths of her cavernous handbag, she pulled out a Kit-Kat wrapper. Digging deeper, she found a Starburst organically combusting right at the bottom. No glasses, frustrated, she ran her fingers through her hair and found them. She put them on and scanned her mother’s cheque. £400. She was shocked. It was a very generous present, but what was her mother’s rationale? £10 for every year Lisa had been on the planet? She couldn’t help thinking Elizabeth must have an ulterior motive.
Reservoirs of choppy water had flowed under the bridge between them, taking some of the best bits of Lisa’s life with it, along with the flotsam and jetsam. She should ring her mother to thank her for her cheque – given the size of it – but she wasn’t going to be riled, not on her birthday. Especially not on her fortieth birthday. Elizabeth never failed to strike a nerve. Putting the wine glass to her lips, Lisa tipped her head back and drained the rest of the glass. She would ring her mother in the morning.