She was not maternal, and the metamorphosis from girl about town to stepmother of three was neither natural nor comfortable. She was an only child with no back story of babysitting. This in itself was unfortunate; but not because she liked children. She had hated her dolls and coveted a second hand Scalextric. But her best friend at school had cornered the babysitting market; boosting pocket money and sexual technique from jousting with her boyfriends on the best sofas in the village.
It would have been excellent preparation for Dorlich……
Not that sex was a problem. The County cricketer had done the groundwork and she was a quick learner. Paul was easily satisfied once she had embraced Fiona Richmond as a role model and overlooked his penchant for the Readers’ Wives section of Forum. It was a tacky production and the wives bore a striking resemblance to Philippa Truscott…….
But there were two children and a baby; round the corner and living with Nicola. She was unable to avoid them, and wanted them to like her. because this would make Paul stay.
The sharp-faced child that was Ursula at six still stared from the eyes of the woman who blanked her at the funeral and had married without telling her, five years beforehand. Verity, the middle child, suffered from projectile vomiting as a baby and at two years old had a history of food intolerance, exacerbated by chronic asthma . Jack was – a baby.
At first, Paul saw them alone. He arrived late and returned early. Once he had turned up to be confronted by Ursula as mini virago: And you’re not helping, Daddy, because you’re MAKING IT ALL WORSE.
They began to see the children together.
At first, she waited round the corner until Paul emerged from Nicola’s flat, holding Ursula’s hand and pushing a double buggy. In combat jacket and jeans, he looked too young, at 29, to be a father of three – but perhaps that was the point……. After a couple of months, she joined him on the doorstep to meet a Nicola who was polite; ironic; controlled.
Being inspected by the headmistress……………
Visits assumed a routine: Ursula and Paul at the front; herself dawdling with the buggy. Verity and Jack were in nappies so Nicola provided disposables; wet wipes and nappy cream in gigantic polythene bags suspended from the handles of the striped Maclaren Stroller. She had never changed a nappy, but learned in the toilets of museums; ice cream parlours and zoos, while Paul and Ursula ran, and jumped and bounced and squealed. She watched; awkward.
It was a mismatched unit – a Sunday family, despite her efforts to bind them together with shared experiences: And we saw the coati mundis at the zoo – and the okapi ate Verity’s lolly.
None of it worked; at best some bits were better than others.
She started to buy toys so the children could visit the flat and tried her hand at making children’s tea. They ate the animal spaghetti and chocolate fingers and she chalked up a victory – until the next visit was accompanied by a note from Nicola about Verity’s food allergies: No ‘e’ additives; no sugar. She’s like a Hoover – shovels up EVERYTHING - but then it appears again at intervals throughout the night….
Of course, you weren’t to know…….. She felt like a poisoner. Eventually, tensions eased with the younger two – largely because they were ignored by Paul, who spent the time playing games with Ursula: Kings and Queens; Robbers and Barons; One to Five; The Pedlar. They all merged into one – leaping and bounding and squealing and jumping and crawling and throwing.
Ursula answered her questions but her smiles were for Paul. Occasionally, there were outbursts – like the time in the toyshop. Ursula wanted a Tiny Tears doll for her birthday and insisted that the doll did poos as well as wees: Yes she DOES, you horrible, horrible girl. She DOES, she DOES do poos too! I HATE YOU. She and the child were both red faced and crying.
None of it worked; not really.
And neither did calls to Lynne – who listened politely but without interest.
She had moved on – to holidays in Madagascar; dinner at Langans; The Romans in Britain at The National. If you don’t get on with his kids, then don’t see them. Stop beating yourself up.
It wasn’t that simple. She didn’t dislike Paul’shildren – or even Nicola for that matter. She disliked the way Paul treated her when they were there. This was a subtle mix of undermining her in front of them; selecting all the bouncing, squealing games that made her feel awkward and almost encouraging them to goad her. On one occasion, he sat and watched while Ursula cut up her teaching notes to make paper chains.
She had been upset and Paul was scathing: I don’t know why you find it so hard to get on with them. I suppose it’s because of your obsessional jealousy of Nicola. I’m with you, aren’t I?
Her own parents tried their best; hiring a cottage in the Lake District and joining them for a holiday. She had marvelled at the determination and patience of her mother; reading to Verity; baking with Ursula. But Paul put on a gala performance as Super Daddy – even winning praise from her own sceptical father: Well, I’ll give him one thing. He adores those kids and no mistake.
There was nobody to talk to.
Nicola arranged a fortnight in St Helier with Pauls’ friend Jim. He had come to the rescue in France when Paul had abandoned his family - and the two had become close. Now the children would stay with their father.
Ursula, Verity and Jack arrived with their luggage and Verity’s medical notes. She had dreaded their stay – but it went well, helped by the fact that they were accompanied by Perdita the cat; forced to fall back upon her second choice of home. She was thrilled when Jack slept through the night,even though Nicola had forgotten to pack his comfort blanket – and Verity’s sunny nature was a joy. She read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett to Ursula; Paul came and went, and she was happy.
And then Verity had an attack of croup; coughing; wheezing; vomiting; gasping for breath. She rang the doctor at 6am. Paul went to the kitchen to make coffee, grinding the beans in the Spong machine. Verity tottered after him, clambering onto the stool, and grabbed his hand with the kettle of boiling water. It splashed down her neck and her front and her feet.
The doorbell rang. The doctor. Fortuitously. Croup was forgotten as he rushed to the sink and drenched the child with basin after basin of cold water. An ambulance was summoned and arrived. She stayed in the flat with Ursula and Jack whilst Paul accompanied his daughter to the hospital. The hours went by.
He returned, eight hours later. Verity’s clothes had been cut from her body; apart from her sock. She would have to stay in hospital for some time; might need skin grafts and would have permanent scars. Nicola was on her way.
Verity was hospitalised for a month and did not need skin grafts – but the mythology surrounding the accident was devastating. It was assumed that she, not Paul had been making the coffee and that the child had been scalded because of her negligence Somehow the correct version of events had not got through…..
Of course, you’re not used to small children; Gillian had said, when the news reached Picks Norton. Now don’t tell Paul I know! He did so want to protect you.
This was an interesting concept.