When my London diva visited with her family, my house was perfect, pretty much, give or take the odd builder or odd box. Houses are one thing, lives are more difficult to primp.
We went to look around the castle and smell its ancient stones. The baby decided she did not want to walk around a castle; she lifted up her arms: "Carry, carry Mama." I picked her up, carried her awhile then put her down. "Carry, carry Mama!" This time mildly outraged I would think that she might walk. I hefted her anew. The six-year-old clung to my side: "I don't want to be here. What about the ghosts?" Suicidal soldiers and a small and long dead little girl, he had heard tell of. "Can we go now?" he pleaded. I put the baby down to rest my back. "No darling," I said, "we've only just arrived." "I feel sick," my four-year-old informed me as the baby began to weep again. I reached across his brother's head to stroke and pat his cheek, said: "Do you darling, never mind," and stooped to pick the baby up. I calculated the distance from the entrance where we stood to the exit. Far too far away. We staggered on past china plates, armour and still and waxy dungeoned gore. "Look children, history, no, don't look there." I put the baby down; she wailed again. She did not like my habit. Maybe it is here, that ghostly stories start: a weeping child, a desperate screaming mother around a corner and out of sight? Climbing down some steps, my six-year-old barked his shin; his face crumpled. I put the baby down to kiss him better. He cried. She cried. The four year old said: "Don't you care that I feel sick?" My London diva, walking ahead with her husband, her pair of beautiful teenage and near teenage girls, turned back. She paused a moment to admire the family snap we made and said: "Is this your life?"
On Sunday, we went for lunch and a tractor trailer ride on haybales down to the beach. I have occasionally seen such groups sprawled across the sands. They picnic and play cricket, the children like ants, the men in long, flapping shorts bowling out their sons, attractive wives and mothers lounging on blankets with tumblers of wine. I have thought: "I wonder are they dear, good friends or one great, happy family who holiday and play charades together in the evening when their sunny day is done?" The reality is this. The wind is cold and the sky grey when we get down to the beach. We do not blink. We think: "This is the beach and summer. We will be fine." The braver types strip off and plunge on into the sea including my own children. I think: "They must be mad." I wear my wellies though and do a little dragging of boys on boards through salty waves; try not to mind too much when I am drenched by childish play. The men break out their wickets. I break out into a cold sweat. Ball sports can do that to me. As I watch them bowl and field, I think how very bad I was at rounders. How I would stand among the last and most despised in school to be chosen by the girls who could use a bat to hit a ball not just spin round with it like me. I would watch them while they whispered in each other's ear and hope it was my name that they were whispering behind their hand. I was never last. Never quite last. I was never fat enough for that. But I was never all that far away I was so very, very bad at catching.
Instead then of playing "Nice shots Sir" with the boys, I sat around with the babies and the girls in an all together different kind of game. I moved my seat closer to a pair of chums; lobbed in "God" as a topic. (In my defence, it was a Sunday picnic.) Then, tried to break into their chat. It dropped out of the sky and died. I picked it up, threw and tried again. Still dead. No resurrection here. I put on sunglasses; the baby and I filled a bucket with sand while someone filled my plastic cup with wine I would not drink. Does everybody drink as I think they do in the country or do they just pretend? Conversation changed to eyecream, wrinkles, things well within my ken. I tried again, said: "You have lovely skin". As the talk moved on, asked: "Why? How old are you?" No compliment flew back. No question in return. Still zap. The two women sat closer on the rug. I dug another hole and poured the wine into it. From a distance, I think we would have looked a happy band of chums with wine and bikes and blankets spread out upon the sand. You would have said with envy: "Is this your life then? Can it be mine?"