Simon still isn’t returning my calls 24 hours after I stormed Salisbury Plain. And I’m tired of apologising and crying. Granny and Roge have been lovely, but they are beginning to do my head in as only parents can. Honestly, if Granny tells me one more time I’m not eating enough I will scream. I need to get away from all of them, my parents, my children, everyone.
I speak to Roge in his office. “I’m going to disappear for the day. Can you and Granny manage with the kids?” His initial facial expression is one of extreme fear but he grins at me.
Roge: “Go, have a walk, get some air into your lungs, we’ll be fine. (pause) You’ll be fine.”
Me: “Tell Granny I’m doing one of my challenges for Country Matters.”
Roge: “Where are you really going?”
Me: “To see Steph.” I leave before he can protest. I need a big sister fix.
I draw on a Marlboro Red, take it deep into my lungs and exhale. It’s not the fresh air Roge suggested but it seems to be doing the trick. I guzzle my pint of wine and lay back on the plastic sun lounger in Steph’s overgrown garden, surrounded by a broken whirligig washing line, builder’s rubble and the stench of dog poo. I look up, Hoolie (short for Hooligan) the English sheepdog is doing yet another sh*t in the long grass.
Me: “I think that dog’s got problems. He hasn’t stopped pooing since I got here.”
My sister takes an extra long toke on her bifta (a cannabis cigarette, for the uninitiated). “He’s a dog. That’s what they do. They sh*t,” she says smiling goofily exposing her nicotine-stained teeth.
Me: “And babies, they do the same, but I don’t let them do it on the lawn.”
Steph: “That’s because Simon’s made you uptight.” She offers me the joint. I wave it away.
Me: “I’m not uptight”.
She sits up. “Hah! You’re uptighter than a cat’s a-hole. Your channels are blocked; I can feel it from here. You need to free yourself. The mind is its own place, it can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Me: “Milton? Bit Judeo-Christian for you.”
Steph: “I like Milton. Have done since school.”
Me: “The only Milton I know these days is the stuff to clean up sick with.”
I gulp another mouthful of sauv blanc and watch my stoned sister dance around the garden in her tie-dye harem pants trying to comically avoid the dog poo landmines. She has an incredible body – her tummy is toned and brown, unlike my white blancmange overhang. She stands on one leg and brings the other up to her hand. My parents think she is a loser but I think she is astonishing. I wish I’d run away to the circus with her. I always wanted to work with horses and she does every day, standing on their backs, jumping through hoops of fire and travelling the world. Of course, there is a downside to her Gypsy life, namely her dysfunctional relationship with Brian-the-Dog, but my marriage isn’t exactly in the best of shape these days. My husband’s not even talking to me. But I’m not thinking about him today.
Steph snaps me out my reverie with a scream. She’s stood on a landmine.
I bring a soapy bucket of water out of her dilapidated Georgian flat in leafy Cheltenham. “You’re right, I need to get this garden cleaned up.” As she steeps her sh*tty foot, we hug. I draw her in tightly, my big sister, who introduced me to raves and MDMA. “Grown-up life is really hard,” I say, the tears now flowing.
“You’re acing it, Ness. Look at me – I’m standing with a foot in a bucket covered in dog shit.” She cackles like a witch, which is appropriate as she is one.
Steph: “Come on, let’s do a spell to thank the Goddess for our blessings, for Sienna, Vita, for Hooli, for Simon.”
Me: “Not him. Not yet.”
Steph: “Okay, not Simon.”
She runs inside and returns with a candle, an orange, baking parchment, string and Brian-the-Dog, back early after his day job collecting refuse. He is still in his hi-viz jacket and green combat trousers. The waft of rotting vegetables pokes me up the nose.
Brian: “Nessa. Come on give me a hug.”
And he means it too. I jump up from the lounger and start to runway from this hulk of a brown stinky man. I jump onto the rubble. “Careful – landmines!”
Brian: “I don’t bloody care, I’ve had a 2 week old nappy explode in my face.” He grabs me off the rubble and hugs me, I want to be sick because of the smell and he’s tickling me to death.
“B*gger off!” I shout.
He goes in for a shower and returns in a white kaftan. “Did Steph tell you?”
Me: “That you’re a weirdo?”
Brian: “That I’m the High Priest of Cheltenham.”
Steph is smiling nodding and I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about but I am smiling and nodding too. “That’s Great. Well done, Bri.”
Brian looks at me and searches my eyes. “She’s ain’t got a f*cking clue what I’m on about! So posh, so well mannered.”
Steph: “It means he’s head of our coven and the local chapter.”
Brian: “So I can perform special rituals.” They exchange glances and smirks. I decide I don’t want to know the details. He lights up, inhales deeply and cuts the orange in half with a golden dagger and then Steph lights a candle and drips wax on it or something else but I’m so battered I don’t know what’s going on or who I am. I stare into the flame vacantly.
My next memory is being in a Chinese Restaurant. Quite a smart one. Everyone is looking at us, Brian is back wearing his hi-viz jacket and we are sitting in a side room away from the other customers, drinking beer out of bottles, eating dry shredded beef – my favourite – when suddenly I have this idea to throw rice at Brian, and then more rice at my sister but these tiny act of rebellion cause Brian to go ‘proper mental’ and he starts throwing the whole meal at me, beer hits me like a wet slap in the face, a spring roll smacks me on the forehead and seaweed, loads of seaweed rains down like confetti. So I do the only thing I can think of, I throw the sweet and sour prawns at him.
Steph and I race outside leaving Brian to deal with the irate Chinese management. He is laughing saying ‘calm down, calm down, just have a larff.’ He tries to speak Chinese in his broad Gloucester accent, bowing at them, his hands pressed together but the diminutive manager is shouting, ‘Get Out! I do not want you back, ever.’ Brian insists on paying the bill and gives the man a crisp fifty.
Meanwhile, Steph sparks up another fruity rollie and then decides she needs a wee. She hands me the joint while she disappears to crouch down in a side alley, while I am left standing dazed, leaning against the restaurant, listening to the Manager now calmly chatting to Brian, because he ‘knows he’s not a bad man, it’s the bad women he’s with’.
Manager: “Double Trouble.”
Brian: “Both my girlfriends….”
Manager: “No way.”
The joint is burning away as I notice a car pull up to the curb. The window goes down. Oh God, they think I’m a hooker, I think as I look down at my stained orange sundress, flecked with strands of seaweed.
“Is that marijuana?”, comes a familiar voice. I look into the car more carefully.