As soon as they turned into the cul-de-sac, Leone felt cold.
‘Pull over, please,’ she said, more sharply than she intended.
‘Sorry?’ Tom turned the radio down.
‘Please!’ she said. ‘Pull over, just for a moment. I want to… can we…’
She couldn’t finish her sentences. Air wheezed in through a tight throat.
‘Hold on, we’re nearly there,’ Tom reassured her, parking outside Number 8. Leone could see her mother peering between the slats of the blinds in the living room, and it was already too late.
‘Okay - what’s the problem?’ Tom asked. Leone's mother disappeared from the window, and a moment later the front door of Number 8 opened.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Leone said.
Then there was no further time for Tom to ask – not that he would, now that she’d told him it didn’t matter – and no further time for Leone to explain.
‘I thought you were going to be here in time for lunch!’ her mother was saying at Tom’s window. ‘Hello, dear,’ she said to Leone, before turning her smile on Tom again.
‘Hallo Mrs Carson!’ Tom said. ‘Thank you so much for agreeing -’
‘Oh, it’s no trouble, no trouble at all!’ Mrs Carson said. ‘Well – are you coming in?’
Lunch was as awful as any meal Leone remembered from her teenage years. The ham was thin as rotten silk, the bread was the cheap white pap they sold in supermarkets and the salad cream tasted a little sour. Her mother watched her with narrowed eyes while she ate.
‘I could cook us something for dinner if you like?’ Leone said.
‘I’m quite capable of cooking, thank you, dear,’ her mother said. ‘Though it doesn’t look as if you think much of my food. You really ought to finish it up, if you can manage it. Not pregnant, are you?’
‘She was quite a little piggy as a child,’ Mrs Carson confided to Tom. ‘No wonder she wanted to be a cook when she grew up!’
‘I’m a sous-chef, Mum, not a cook,’ Leone said, putting down her sandwich.
‘Not a chef at the moment, are you?’ Mrs Carson said. ‘Eat your sandwich. You were the one who wanted to organise fundraising for famine victims in Sudan, and here you are wasting food.’
‘I didn’t organise the fundraising, Mum,’ Leone said. ‘That was Miss James at my primary school, and my whole class got involved.’
‘Sponsored swim,’ Mrs Carson told Tom. ‘Pestered the whole street to sponsor her. Mind you, I expect you did something similar when you were ten years old.’
‘Not really,’ Tom said. ‘My parents split up when I was six – Dad remarried and moved to Canada, and Mum died when I was nine. By the time we were ten, me and my sister were concentrating on what happened to us.’
Leone’s mother made a faint ‘Ah’ of sympathy.
‘It did me a lot of good, though,’ Tom said. ‘My aunt and uncle took us in. That’s why I trained as a sports physio – that’s what she did for a living, and it looked like a great job. Plenty of opportunities, good pay, and she loved it – worked freelance for a local rugby club and had a treatment room at the physiotherapy centre three days a week.’
‘She sounds fascinating,’ said Leone’s mother. ‘It always amazes me, women who work. I never had time for a career – I had Leone to look after. It isn’t nice for a little girl to come home to an empty house.’
‘I wouldn’t have minded,’ Leone said. ‘I kept telling you – I would have been happier if you’d gone out to work like all the other mothers and let me have my own key. I always felt you didn’t trust me to make myself a sandwich and get started on my homework.’
Her mother’s face folded into an expression that might have been fury or misery. Leone cringed. She knew what was coming next.
‘Shall I wash up?’ Tom asked. Mrs Carson didn’t reply immediately. Leone could have told him that her mother would never be distracted from making a full reaction to an insult. As a young child, Leone would always apologize as soon as she knew she’d upset her mother – as a teenager, she’d run from the room and not come back. Neither had worked. The hurt and offense would still be waiting for her when she returned.
‘You are very kind,’ Mrs Carson said eventually, directing her comments so obviously to Tom that Leone growled in frustration. ‘But no, you go and relax, I’ll wash up. Leone can show you to your room. Her room.’
‘It hasn’t been my room since 2009,’ Leone said. ‘I left home, Mum. Remember?’
Mrs Carson stood up slowly and collected their plates in silence, while Leone worked through that last remark. She’d just loaded a gun and handed it over to her enemy.
Mrs Carson broke the silence as she reached the dining room door.
‘It is always your room, Leone,’ she said. ‘Whenever you need to return home, your room will always be ready for you. You and your boyfriend. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but… it was you who phoned me last week asking whether you and your boyfriend could come and live with me until you get your… careers… back on track.’
The door shut quietly behind her.
‘I can’t stand this,’ Leone said.
The silence stretched out. Tom leaned his elbows on the table and sighed quietly.
‘This is a mistake,’ Leone said. ‘We can’t live here, even for a week. There must be somewhere else we can go?’
After a long pause, Tom said; ‘You should apologize.’
It was the shock of a bucketful of icy water, tipped over her head from behind with no warning. Tom had always been gentle and easy-going, deflecting arguments and refusing to rise to tension, but he’d always backed her up when it mattered. Always. Until now.
Leone thought of how she could explain this to Tom. About her attempts to apologize as a young child – always met with that hurt look, the silent smug accusation that an apology meant only that she’d admitted her guilt, and couldn’t be forgiven. An apology wouldn’t change what came next. Her mother would wait for a chance to return the insult at a time when it would hurt Leone the most; always delivered with a jolly laugh that passed off the new insult as a joke, nothing for Leone to get upset over.
‘Your mother’s been very kind, letting us stay at such short notice,’ Tom said. ‘She knows this might go on for months, and yet…’
‘I can’t stand staying here for months!’ Leone yelled. The sounds from the kitchen ceased for a long moment, then they both heard the soft clack of a plate being set into a draining rack. ‘There must be somewhere else we can go?’ Leone said, more quietly.
Tom put both hands lightly on the table. ‘We’ve been through this. There’s no-one. My dad’s in Canada and has his house full with my half-sisters; my aunt and uncle live in sheltered accommodation, and all of our friends are in the same boat as us; laid off, scrambling for what jobs there are out there and not able to keep up the rent on their flats. This is the best we can do, and Leone – really – it’s pretty good. Let’s just be glad you still have your mother. I really wish I still had mine.’
But my mother despises me, Leone wanted to say. Sneers at my career ambitions. Tells me all the details of her friends’ grandchildren, their birthdays, how sweet they are to their grannies. Lets me know when her friends’ daughters admit how lovely it is to give up work and spend their lives looking after their kiddies.
‘Go to your room and rest,’ Tom said, his words echoing her mother’s dismissals all down the years. ‘I’ll give your mother a hand with the washing up and fetch you a mug of tea later. Have a think, see whether you can find any alternative we haven’t considered yet.’
Tom went to the kitchen, and Leone heard only; ‘Oh Tom! You really don’t need to help – but thank you…’ before the kitchen door shut on them both. She went to her old room and found the same wallpaper, her discarded teen paperbacks and the same purple quilt she’d walked out on years before. Only the smell was different – stale and sour. She dropped heavily onto the bed, feeling the elderly springs clank beneath her back, and stared up at the stickers on the ceiling.
She woke in the gloom of the evening, the streetlights outside shining on the bookcase and the bedside table. There was no mug of tea.
For a moment, she thought of repeating that crowning success of her teenage years - opening the window and sliding out, walking to the high street and asking at every counter till she found a café that needed a good cook and was willing to let her sleep in the corner of a store-room until she sorted out somewhere better to live.
Then she accepted the hard reality. Right now, for all her references and qualifications, it was unlikely she'd find anywhere to work, even as a cook in a takeaway outlet. That terrifying freedom she’d won as a teenager was back in that different life when nothing was impossible and she could do anything she wanted if she put the work in. She was back where she started, and no longer young enough to warrant a chance at a new start at the bottom of the jobs ladder.
Leone opened the bedroom door as quietly as possible. The living room door was ajar, and she could hear Tom talking quietly. Then her mother’s voice.
‘I wish Leone could hear this! I’m so glad she has you, Tom. If you can persuade her to agree with you, I’m sure we’ll all get along nicely.’
Whatever Tom said next made her mother chuckle. Unlikely he’d defended her stance, or her decision to work until she made enough of a reputation to win a chef’s place in a famous restaurant. Leone closed her bedroom door silently and sat on the bed, staring out at the deserted street outside and knowing that this time there was no escape.