Immaculate Misconceptions (Simon & Schuster £6.99)
When Ellie was fourteen, she wrote a pamphlet for her friends called, 'Having Sex: an instruction manual'. Next to the diagram of a matchstick man and woman lying face to face was the caption: Insert and repeat as necessry.
Now that she's 38, and married with two children, sex is no laughing matter and as she lies in hospital recovering from an operation she reflects that faking orgasms is just one more chore on a par with ironing and PTA meetings. She longs for escape from it all, and the eighteen year old son of the woman in the next bed could be just what she's looking for...
Premature Infatuation (Simon & Schuster £6.99)
'Corinne is fond of saying that starting a new job is like making love with someone new: exciting, stimulating, and you dont know what it might lead to. Personally I can't see the similarity. At work you have to suck up to the boss, keep your head down and just get on with the job in hand. But when you make love... oh well, she may have a point.'
When Gemma takes a job as a temp, she finds that while the job may be temporary, the repercussions of the relationships she makes there are anything but.
In the 1950’s almost a million British people rushed to swap miserable post war Britain for a life of warmth and opportunities in Australia. For Rose it's a chance to escape painful memories. But for her young daughter Mattie, the pain is only just beginning.
He came to see me today. You could have knocked me down with a double decker bus, if one hadn’t done it already. He said, 'Mum, are you all right?’ and I said, ‘I’m seventy five in intensive care with a tube in every orifice, what do you think?’ Well you've got to laugh, haven't you?
Do you know, he didn't look a day older. Not like me, even my crows' feet have got crows' feet. He was settling down for a nice chat when my sister piped up, 'I think her mouth is moving. is she trying to say something?'
What did she have to butt in for? Of course, he went off then but he'll be back. They said he wouldn't come but I knew he would. He loves his old mum.
I was having a quiet doze, there’s just an hour after lunch when they send the visitors out and you can get a bit of rest without them whittling on, then I opened my eyes, and she was staring right down into my face. Gave me such a fright.
‘Rosie,’ she said, ‘are you awake?’ I thought, well I am now, breathing all that garlic in my face. I could see right up her nose.
‘I’m Lesley,’ she said. ‘The O.T. That’s occupational therapist. Have you seen one before?’ She had a blouse on with a waistcoat over, and a long wraparound skirt, very arty crafty. Bare legs. We never had bare legs, not pasty white anyway, and not from choice. In the war some girls used to paint a line up the back but you could see it wasn’t a proper seam. This woman wouldn’t have had to bother, she had blue veins doing the job for her.
‘Occupational therapist?’ I said. ‘I’m too old for an occupation, I’m on pension.’ I was just kidding. Occupational therapist, indeed. I might be old but I’m not stupid.
She laughed. Mouthful of grey fillings and a gold bridge at the back. ‘No, no one’s trying to send you back to work. I bet you’ve worked hard all your life, you’re entitled to a bit of a rest.’
She was looking at my hands. I used to have beautiful nails. When I first went to work, I used to put polish on them, dark red. I never wore make up, didn’t need it really, and the men didn’t seem to miss it, I always had plenty of attention at the engraving factory. I went in and out in all the right places and in those navy dungarees with my red shirt and my dark hair… It was a smashing job, I can’t think why I ever left it. At the time we all thought we worked hard, but we didn’t know the half of it. They always say hard work never hurt anyone, and the ones who say it generally never did any.
The girl who brings the tea round has got good hands, but her nails, they’re those long stick-on ones. Purple with little pictures painted on them. I said you want to be careful when you’re picking your nose, you could end up doing your own brain surgery.
‘Are you listening, Rosie?’ asks the O.T., like she’s known me all her life. Forty years ago you didn’t have all this Christian name malarkey. ‘I just want to ask you a few questions. Is that all right?’ She had her voice raised, enunciating very slow and clear like she was talking to a foreigner. But I haven’t even got an accent now. By the time I’d unpacked my luggage it was like I’d never been gone. ‘Just a few questions. Is that all right?’
‘I can’t hear you,’ I say, playing along. 'You’ll have to speak up.’ So she says it again, even louder and slower which makes Mary in the bed opposite laugh, only then I’m sorry I’ve drawn attention because she comes out with the questions we’ve heard them ask the Time Travellers – that’s what we call the ones who arrive not knowing where they are or what day it is.
‘Do you know what the date is, Rosie?’ she says. As if it makes any difference when you're my age. I know that Monday is pension day, and which days Corrie is on, and that Friday is when Joanie calls in on her way to the charity shop, and that's enough for me. But as it happens there’s a TV listings paper open on the bedside table, I like to know what’s on even if I’m not watching it, so I tell her the date and she looks very happy with that. Then she says who is the prime minister and I get that right too, and then we do mental arithmetic which is add two to five, then take six from eight. Me, who did the accounts for the farm for thirty years! But she’s impressed now, I’ve gone up in her estimation. She shows me a picture of a cup and a house and a car, and I have to name them. I pretend to struggle, just to make a game of it, but I see her looking concerned so I answer up quick. Don’t want her sending me off to a funny farm just because she’s got no sense of humour. Then I have to demonstrate that I can get from the bed to the chair unaided, and I’m getting irritated now, because it was only a fall I had, anyone could trip off a bus platform. Even her with that long skirt if she’s not careful.
So then I’m in the chair and she says can I remember the objects she held up for me before. But she didn't hold up any objects. A cube, she says. Red. And a green ball. I look down at her bag and they’re there on the top. But she’s made a mistake, she didn’t do that test with me. I look across at Mary but she suddenly gets interested in her magazine and pretends she wasn’t listening.
It’s the young Japanese one changing my dressings today, Susie or Suki she’s called. She’s much gentler than the sister, a big Irish woman with a sadistic streak. You know when she’s planning to make you suffer because she says, ‘This won’t hurt,’ then she rips the plaster off like she’s stripping wallpaper. But Suki lifts the edge of the dressing gentle as gentle, and the sad look on her face as she whispers, ‘I’m so sorry,’ - you’d think it was her own leg she was yanking the skin off. Apparently I’ve got some ulcers or something from where I tripped up. They’d be fine if they’d just leave them alone and let the air get to them but you know what medical people are like, always think they know best.
Suki says, ‘Is your daughter coming today?’
I say, I hope not. She’s another one always fussing around thinking she knows best. I said to her, what do you want to come all this way for, spending all that money? Buy yourself some clothes, you could do with them from the looks of you. She said she only dresses this way for travelling, and I said that’s even worse – think of all the people across the world who have seen you turned out like that.
‘And do you have other children?’ says Suki.’
I tell her about Bobby’s son Darren, and about Tamsin who has a baby already. She isn’t married but – the way times change - no one bothers about that any more. His other daughter, Sandy is a career woman, and I don’t think she’s bothering at all. I don’t mention Richie.
‘And your daughter,’ she asks, ‘has she got children?’ That’s the only problem with Suki, she’s always asking questions. Say one thing for the Sister, she doesn’t go in for a lot of chit chat.
‘No, my daughter hasn’t got any children.’
‘You must be very proud of your son,’ she says.
I say I am, just to be agreeable, and Bobby’s a good boy. But as for his having children, well, it’s not like there’s any skill in it. You have children, they have children. They have some more children. If you could stop it, now that might be something to be proud of. When I worked at the engraving factory, that was something to be proud of too. Earning more than every man there, having them threaten to go out on strike because I worked too fast and it made them look bad. But kids - you might as well be proud of being able to walk.
Though come to mention it, walking’s something I would be proud of. You should see me shuffling down the ward on this zimmer frame – clop doink, clop doink.
‘Are your grandchildren coming to see you?’ asks Suki. She pauses with the dressing in her hand, gazing at me with her pale clear skin and eyes like slivered almonds. The new dressing is so white it could have been washed in Daz. ‘Or do they live far?’ she asks.
I tell her they live far, very far, even further than where she comes from, though it turns out she’s only from Basingstoke.
Later on, Enid comes waddling in from Surgical which is higher up the social scale than Care for the Elderly. They have little televisions with headphones attached to your bed and you can make a phone call and everything. Enid is in for her piles and they must have left a wad of dressings in judging from the way she walks. Still, at least when she sits down she won’t need a cushion.
‘They’ll be planning a home visit,’ she says when she hears about the O.T. Enid always knows everything.
‘I’m not going on a visit,’ I say, ‘when I go home I’m staying home. Anyway what’s a home visit?’
Turns out, they take you home, see if you can walk up your own stairs and make a cup of tea. And if you can they still bring you back, even though there’s a bed shortage and a staff shortage and an ambulance shortage. I say it sounds like there’s also a common sense shortage.
‘It’s protocol,’ she says. ‘If they don’t bring you back it messes up the paperwork. That’s important these days.’
I’m about to argue with her but just because she knows everything it doesn’t mean she can’t be right sometimes.
‘I’m walking a lot better now, aren’t I?’ says Enid. She knows she walks like she’s got an industrial strength sanitary towel in her knickers, but I tell her that’s an improvement seeing as she used to look like she was wearing the factory that made them. Enid laughs and rolls her eyes to the ceiling. She’s like me. Old enough to know you that if you don’t look for the funny side you’re going to be pretty miserable. Unlike Mrs Morris in the next bed. She’s got a permanent ‘poor me’ expression on her face, and I don’t think she’d see the funny side if you put it in her hand and gave her a magnifying glass.
‘If you get the chance of a home visit, you go,’ Enid says, heaving herself up. ‘It’s an outing if nothing else. What have you got to lose?’
She shuffles back and I lay there remembering. Len, elbows on the table, sleeves rolled up, eager look on his face. He was a good looking man, with those narrow eyes that I thought were like Clark Gable’s. And so young. Was I ever that young?
All this looking on the bright side is exhausting. I lay back on the pillows and pretend I’m asleep. ‘Rosie, what have we got to lose?’ Len is saying. ‘What can possibly go wrong?’