Jeanette and Kenneth had just settled down to a cosy family dinner. They’d originally planned to go to the cinema, but their babysitter, Angie, had gone down with the flu and been forced to cancel. She worshipped the ground their little boy Alec crawled on, and it was hard to tell how much of the blocked up sound to her voice was because of the flu and how much was because she was fighting back her tears. Jeanette assured her she wasn’t to give it a second thought, she was just to rest up and drink lots of fluids until she felt better. They tried to find a last minute stand-in, but without any success. The truth is, they weren’t really that bothered. It was one of those “must-see” movies that frankly sounded a bit tedious, and nowadays would be out on DVD in a couple of months anyway.
Neither of them was a great cook, and they could think of nothing they’d like more than to take a pizza out of the freezer, uncork (well, unscrew!) a bottle of supermarket red, and have a cosy evening in. Alec, bless him, though by no means always the world’s most tranquil of babies, was sleeping peacefully, his baby monitor on to alert them to his needs. They did at least sit down at the kitchen table – a knotty pine table that had been one of the more useful of their wedding presents, from Kenneth’s parents – but fully intended, once they’d had their pizza, to take the wine through to the lounge and enjoy it with some very moreish cheesy snacks in front of one of their favourite TV shows, that appealed far more than the film.
“This is nice,” Kenneth said, with a sigh of contentment. “I know you’re not supposed to use that word, but sometimes, and there’s no denying it, it’s the right one.”
It was. And just at the precise moment when Jeanette and Kenneth were dwelling on how nice it was, and Jeanette was cutting the pizza with the cutter she had recently purchased though she thought a knife did the job just as well, the front doorbell rang. That had been one of the few things they’d had a minor difference of opinion on. Kenneth did like a door bell, nothing fancy, just a good, honest “ding-dong”. Jeanette favoured a door knocker. The compromised and had both, so their callers could use whichever they chose. They had joked that if they ever got lucky on that lottery with the “Knocking at the door, ringing the bell” advertising jingle, they’d been entitled to win twice over. This particular caller evidently favoured the bell. Who could it be? Their immediate family had keys, and they weren’t expecting any of them, as borne out by their regretful apologies for not being able to babysit Alec. There was, for what seemed like the first time in years, no imminent election or referendum, so it wasn’t going to be a political canvasser. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had only been round the previous week, and surely even they weren’t that persistent with what they had made clear was a lost (if polite!) cause.
“I suppose we’ll have to answer it,” Jeanette sighed. They weren’t the kind of people who didn’t answer the door when it was obvious they were in. At least the sound of the doorbell hadn’t raised Alec from his slumbers. She made her way through the lounge and into the hallway, and opened the door. To her surprise it was …. well, who was it? Or more to the point, what was she supposed to call her?
When she had first come to Jeanette’s school in the second year of grammar school, she had been intent on being called Tiffany-Anne. Jeanette had thought that rather childish. A couple of years back (her middle name was Josephine) she’d had a spell of liking to be called Jeanie-Jo, and her parents had humoured her, but she’d grown out of it. Later on she decided she preferred just Tiff, and then developed a taste for Tiffs, despite the words’ unfortunate double meaning. She was the kind of child who seemed to fit into a new school at once, and never be nervous, and yet, at the same time, never quite stop being a new girl. Jeanette did envy her long strawberry blonde hair! When she first came, she had it in braids fastened with pink bobbles, and went through a variety of hairstyles at her time in the school. She had a fringe, she had a layer cut, she had a pageboy bob, and then she grew it long again (her hair grew quicker than anyone’s Jeanette had ever known, and at times she thought she must have a hole in her head you could pull it out of, like a “Tressy” doll). She could get it all done for nothing as her mum used to be a hairdresser, though she only “did” for friends and family now.
They had been friends. Quite good friends. But there was still something about her that Jeanette had found vaguely annoying, and at times more than vaguely annoying, and as much when they were 18 as when they were 12. It was hard to put your finger on it. Nobody could have called her selfish, or mean, and okay, so maybe she was a bit vain, but most girls would have been with that hair. She liked to be the centre of attention. She expected to be the centre of attention, and had a trick of getting her own way by subtle means. To this day, though she knew it was high time she let it go, it rankled with Jeanette that she’d overridden her in the choice of the English presentation they were doing in their fourth year – the two of them were accepted as the leaders when it came to English, which was another way of saying the other girls in their group were happy for them to do more of the work. Jeanette had wanted it to be on The Mill on the Floss and Tiff (as she was at that particular stage) favoured The Turn of the Screw. She persuaded Jeanette by saying that her friend did such fantastic creepy children voices – and ended up doing the creepy children voices herself.
“Hi, Tiffany. Well, what a surprise,” Jeanette said. She rather meanly stopped herself coming out with that other standby “You haven’t changed a bit” because it was truer than she cared to admit, and certainly truer than it was when it came to herself. That glorious hair was just past shoulder length, and in soft waves, and her make-up, though understated, was exquisitely done. She was wearing a beautifully cut dark blue trouser suit with a handbag that Jeanette suspected has cost more than her whole wardrobe, wardrobe included, slung across her shoulders. “Do come in,” she said. “Would you like to join us for dinner?” They didn’t exactly air-kiss, but her lips didn’t stay on her old schoolmate’s cheeks longer than good manners dictated.
“Well – if you’re sure there’s enough – I won’t say no.”
There was enough. True, it meant the slices being a bit smaller, and them all having rather more of the salad than they had intended. It had been conceived as rather a token salad to assuage their consciences for the frozen pizza. Secretly hoping her friend might have decided to be a teetotaller, Jeanette offered her a glass of wine – which she accepted.
“I – thought I might pop in, as I’m in town,” she said. Jeanette’s mind was working overtime. Tiffany couldn’t be staying with her parents. They had moved to Cyprus two years ago to open a bar there. To her relief, she went on, “I’ve booked in at the Travelodge.” Jeanette wasn’t going to be a hypocrite and say, “Oh, you should have let us know – you could have stayed here!”
It had to happen eventually. Alec didn’t take kindly to company, unless it were Angie or one of his grannies. He had started to bawl. “Oh, that must be your little boy!” Tiffany exclaimed. Yes, Jeanette recalled. She had let her know. She had been so proud and happy that she had probably let more people know than she should. She resisted the urge to say something along the lines of, “No, Ken has learnt ventriloquism!” and said, “He needs feeding.” Jeanette wasn’t a showy breast-feeder, but generally had no hang-ups at all about doing it in the company of women she knew. But she didn’t like doing it in front of Tiffany, and she knew that was utterly absurd. She half-wished she’d given him the bottle that she’d left for Angie in case of emergencies. “He’s so sweet,” Tiffany said, and whilst it might not be the most original of compliments, Jeanette was never unhappy about someone complimenting her son. “He has his moments,” she said. “My little Alexander Richard.”
“That was my Dad’s middle name, too – Richard,” she said.
“Oh – I never knew that ….” she had picked up on the past tense, too, and Tiffany nodded. “He passed away last year.”
“I’m sorry,” Jeanette said, and meant it. She hadn’t known Mr Lawton well, but had got on well with him on the occasions she had met him – a big, kind, self-effacing man who was plainly devoted to his more flamboyant wife and daughter.
“It was sudden – a massive stroke.” She smiled rather sadly, “Walking along the beach with his dog Spyros. It’s a cliché, but the consolation is that it’s how he’d have wanted to go. Mum – took it hard. She had a bit of a breakdown – oh, why do we feel compelled to say “a bit of a breakdown”? She’s better now, but still very emotionally fragile. She’s thinking of coming home – that’s one of the reasons I’m here, looking at some properties – but I sometimes wonder if she doesn’t have more friends there, now. But if I say that, does it look as if I don’t want her around?”
“Not in the least,” Jeanette assured her. She had genuine sympathy for her friend, who seemed to have turned into a far more three-dimensional character and who had certainly had troubles of her own, but in a sneaky – or should that be an honest? – corner of her mind, she still wished that Tiffany hadn’t just dropped on them. It was typical of her, though. Even before she was old enough to properly know the meaning of the word, she had placed great emphasis on the importance of being spontaneous. Jeanette was of the opinion that that particular quality was somewhat over-rated. She hoped nobody ever sprung a surprise party on her (and had let Kenneth know that if he were “in” on it, he’d better warn her!) and thought that those very public proposals of marriage were appalling and put the person proposed to in an impossible position. Even before Alec came along, she and Kenneth had never gone in for last minute breaks. She wouldn’t have gone so far as to say her life’s motto was Fail to Plan and Plan to Fail but nor would she have denied that she agreed with the sentiments.
All the same, there was something not entirely unpleasant about sitting at the table with Tiffany – who now seemed quite happy to be called just that, or at least not to make an issue of it. They exchanged a smile as if to say, Kenneth isn’t used to a bit of girl talk at the table, and I bet he wishes Alec were a bit older! A thought was niggling and jiggling at the edge of Jeanette’s mind, like a word on the tip of the tongue. It was maddening. She couldn’t quite work out whether it was a good thought of not, and, as was her way, concentrated on something immediate and practical to either focus her mind or displace the thought entirely. She wasn’t, she told herself, OCD about it, but she did like slices of a thing to be neat and even. Quite apart from the aesthetic of the thing, it was fairer, and she was applying that principle to the pizza. “I’ve got one of those cutters, too,” Tiffany said, “And sometimes I wonder if they’re not more trouble than they’re worth!” It was the most insignificant and trivial of comments, but it so exactly mirrored Jeanette’s own views on the subject that it felt good to hear somebody else say it. “At least this one WILL cut,” she said, “Not like the school version – you needed a chainsaw to get into those at times, and yet we still ordered them because they were probably preferable to anything else on the menu!”
“Oh, I don’t know! The cottage pie was …. interesting, at times!”
“As long as you didn’t ask too many questions about what kind of meat was in it!” They laughed, and Kenneth said, “Well, at least your school HAD hot dinners, we had to take packed lunches!”
“I’m not sure I’d count that as deprivation,” Tiffany said.
Yes, I remember that school pizza, thought Jeanette. And the crust an inch thick and sometimes they used Philadelphia cheese for the topping, but it was okay. Or at least it was until that day when I hadn’t really chewed it properly because I had a loose tooth, and a bit got stuck in my throat and within a second instead of it being a normal school lunch with us talking about books and boys and bras, I couldn’t breathe and I thought I was choking to death, and I’d never been so scared in my life, even when Mum let me watch that horror film at Halloween and I wished she hadn’t. She had a vague memory of a teacher rushing over, but before the teacher even got there, a girl with (at that time) shoulder length strawberry blonde hair sitting next to her had performed what she later learnt was called the Heimlich manoeuvre with unfussy efficiency. A pain in her back, a quick splutter, and breath, glorious, wonderful breath came into her lungs again. But she was the centre of attention, and not in a good way. There was a chorus of different reactions, from “Gross!” to “That’ll teach you to be greedy!” to “It helps to chew it, you know!” The embarrassment that she felt suffusing her face with a scarlet glow was, ridiculous as it seemed, worse than the certainty that she was going to choke to death.
And Tiffany, an arm round Jeanette’s shoulders, rounded on them. “Oh, get over yourselves! This is a grammar school, supposedly, not a kindergarten! I’ve seen some of you make total pigs of yourselves, and it could happen to every single one of you. It’d be more to the point if you all learnt how to make something about it, instead of being such bloody morons!” She wasn’t exactly angry, but Jeanette, even though she had other things on her mind, was glad that she wasn’t the subject of Tiffany’s scorn.
“No strong language, please, Tiffany,” their head of year, Miss Prentice, who had rushed over, said. “But you did very well. And you’re right, it would make sense for everyone to learn some first aid here – us teachers included!” Tiffany went on to admit that she was no trained first aider, but her Mum had once had the fright of her life when someone had started choking in the salon – on a boiled sweet they were sucking under the drier. Luckily, one of the other clients had known what to do, but she had made a point soon after of learning it herself, and of insisting all her family knew, too.
Not surprisingly, Jeanette couldn’t face the rest of her pizza, and was subdued all day, but nobody teased her, and she hadn’t developed some kind of phobia about pizza – it was still one of her favourite guilty pleasures!
She would have been very surprised if Tiffany remembered the incident at all. But she suddenly reached her hand across the table, squeezed her old schoolmate’s hand, and said, meaning every word of it this time, “It’s good to see you again, Tiffany!”