'Absolutely loved this book' 5* NetGalley Reviewer Is there anything you wouldn't do for your children? Obviously be a parent governor and chair the PTA. But how far are you really willing to go? You think your school run is tough? After her unoriginal husband leaves her for his secretary, Beverley finds her meticulously planned life crumbling around her. Now a single mum forced to send her children to the failing local primary school, her children's carefully crafted futures are disappearing. Desperate to turn things around Beverley sets out to make Harper Hill the best school it can be, but even the best laid plans can go awry. Thankfully Beverley isn't afraid to take matters into her own hands - but how far is she really willing to go to fight for her children's future? If you want something done right, do it yourself.
Release date: September 30, 2019
Publisher: Orion Dash
Print pages: 233
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The Busy Mum's Guide to Getting Away With It
Get in and get out. It was a good idea to treat the school run, especially at Harper Hill Primary, like a commando raid. Get in under the radar, surgical strike, take no prisoners, and get out. Home for coffee. Jeremy Kyle optional – or unthinkable, if you’re Beverley.
Beverley had been up early that morning, so with Felix and Emma both delivered into their classrooms, appropriately slept, fed and encouraged for a day of learning, Beverley was keen to get home to get started on the clear-up. Getting the kids into school early could usually guarantee a clean escape, but Felix’s teacher, Mrs Simmons – with a degree only in PE but still better than his previous one – wanted a word and called after her.
‘Mrs Wright, if you have a minute, well, I wondered if the PTA has had an opportunity to consider our request. About the trip. You know.’
Mrs Simmons smiled, head cocked to one side – the teacher equivalent of rolling over and letting your tummy be tickled. Amazing what respect the power to give cash can get you.
Beverley supposed she’d better smile. ‘Yes, that’s all fine. I’ll give the cheque to the office on Friday.’
‘Oh, lovely. Thank you. It’ll be so good for the children.’
More use than the last trip to Asda to see how they make fresh bread in a supermarket. No doubt a reflection of the imagined career aspirations for the children of Harper Hill. ‘Yes. I read your note. And by the way, 1600s doesn’t have an apostrophe. I know a lot of people think it does, but it doesn’t. You might want to correct that when you send the letters home.’ Beverley smiled. The smile showed that she was being helpful, not critical. Didn’t it? She used to be better at this stuff – giving constructive feedback in the spirit of continuous improvement, hinting at the need to reach for higher standards, giving bad news. Her abilty not to get personally involved had been her strength when she worked in HR – that and her years of practice at controlling how she was perceived. The degree in management studies had been the icing on the cake. Her iron-fist-in-a-kid-glove approach had been much admired by the management of the American corporation she’d worked for. They’d had a tendency to slash and burn, or rather make tough, strategic adjustments to the human resource portfolio to promote efficiency and marketplace resilience. What they’d meant was ‘keep the lifeboats for us’, but Beverley was willing not to point this out and to carry out their bidding if it kept her in one of the lifeboats. Everyone for themselves. Some children learnt to knit at their mother’s knee; Beverley’s mother’s gift, her parting gift, had been a thorough understanding of the need for self-preservation – a lesson that the following years had reinforced.
As Beverley walked away from the playground, a man pushed past her. He yelled at his son to hurry up, using language far from appropriate for the setting. Could he not swear in his head, like she did? No doubt the child would repeat this vocabulary in the playground and it would spread like nits. At least this parent still had some sense of urgency. Behind him, a woman with a scruffy girl in nothing like school uniform meandered slowly towards a classroom. Both had the blank look of kittens just woken from a long sleep – though it was probably too little sleep that was their problem. Post-watershed episode of EastEnders last night, no doubt. Or a late-night session on that car-stealing video game that seems to be treated like work experience in some homes. The child needed rules, so did the father: rules and more caffeine. Someone should suggest it. Not her, not today.
Walking briskly across the school playground towards the gates, Beverley contained a yawn, swallowing it down. There was no need for them to see that she was tired. No one needed to see any weakness. No one needed to know. She remembered going to school the day after her mother left, determined that no one would know. At least she didn’t get those dark circles under her eyes, even at forty. Since it would have been perfectly legal for her to have given birth to most of the other parents at the school, it seemed important not to look all of her years, in public at least. Another year like the last and she might not be able to keep this up. She needed stability, calm and sleep – but there was too much else to think about now. Tomorrow. Remember Scarlett.
Beverley smiled randomly at faces as she passed. Keep smiling. A smile was always the best mask. The potentially critical gaze slid off a smiling face like – what did her stepfather used to say? – like shit off a shovel. And it was good to promote a positive and polite environment. This was part of her campaign at Harper Hill Primary. Every expert opinion said that it was parents who made the difference; and Beverley was determined to be that difference. Things may not have gone as she’d planned, but that would not thwart her determination that despite what had happened, her children would have what she had not had. They were never going to have second best, feel second best, be second best. Never. It might have taken a while and pushed her a little outside her comfort zone, but she felt like she had matters back under control now.
Beverley wished that they wouldn’t call her that. Bev. Er. Lee. Was it really that difficult? She looked at her watch, hoping that the hint would be taken. It wasn’t.
‘Have you heard?’
A mum from Felix’s class was springing forward out of the pack assembled in the shadow of the Key Stage 1 climbing frame. It was a traditional morning meeting place that gave the little ones the chance for a bit of a run before they were taken home to a nice warm television. Beverley smiled and let her gaze slide on over the woman’s face. She had a very impressive tan. Not another term-time holiday … no, Beverley would have noticed. Ahh, orange. From a bottle. Beverley carried on smiling, and walking. Could you get cramp in your face muscles? Smile and walk. Smile and walk. She didn’t want to chat today. She never actively wanted to chat – it took more than she had to give – but she did it for the greater good. Not today though. It was always hard work but today it was too much.
‘Bev. Hang on a minute. Have you heard about …?’
Clearly there was to be no easy escape. This woman was like a terrier. Bright-eyed and pointy-nosed. What was that? Jack Russell maybe. Horrible dogs. Yappy. Beverley slowed but didn’t stop. There was no way she couldn’t have heard, but a total stop would suggest a commitment to conversation that she was unprepared to make. What was the woman’s name? Chloe? Becky? Something with an ee. Yap, yap, yappy.
Beverley stopped walking. ‘Sorry. What did you say?’
‘Mel’s been in an accident. You know, Mitch’s mum.’
‘An accident?’ Beverley’s stomach was doing something odd, trying to migrate into her chest. She had to focus on keeping on breathing. Slow and steady, keep breathing. Breathe, Beverley.
‘Yeah. I know! She’s been taken to hospital. In an ambulance! Sirens and everything.’ The woman was virtually panting in excitement.
This was big news for Harper Hill Primary. Though not as big as the news Beverley had anticipated. Her response was cautious: ‘Do they know what happened?’
‘Jan’s bloke saw it.’
‘Saw the accident?’
‘No. The ambulance. There was police and all sorts. Milkman found her, apparently. They think it was hit and run. Her bike was in the road. All mangled. That’s what Jan said. It’s buggered. The bike.’
‘Mel’s okay though?’
‘Yeah. She’s tough as old. It’ll be the car that’s a write-off.’
Terrier woman laughed. Beverley didn’t. She had been sure that Melanie Hicks was dead.
Breathe. Smile and walk, Beverley. Smile and walk.
‘You’d like to seek a higher offer, Mrs Wright?’ The estate agent’s voice was plump with polite enquiry.
‘No, we’d like to remove the house from the market.’ Beverley’s plan had been to stick simply to the facts and get the conversation over with quickly.
‘I’m sure the buyer could be persuaded to wait … if there’s a problem.’
‘No. We are no longer selling.’ What part of this was so hard to understand?
‘Good.’ He didn’t, of course, see at all.
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line. Beverley hoped for a goodbye, but estate agents were masters of perseverance in the face of rejection.
‘Is it a problem with the property you were buying?’
Four good-sized bedrooms, detached, in a village a few miles from the city centre. The primary school was excellent. There was a prep school in reasonable driving distance. The house was in the catchment area for a very well-thought-of state secondary and close enough to a good private school. They would have been able to keep their options open. The house ticked almost all the right boxes and Beverley had been confident that she could make it perfect. She loved the house. It was her dream house for her dream life, the one she’d worked so hard to achieve. Just like the ones in the John Lewis Christmas adverts. She might even have been willing to get a dog, to complete the picture, despite the mess and the picking up of warm poo in little plastic bags. Their offer had been accepted and they were all set to move, she’d thought.
Beverley didn’t say any of this.
There was an elongated, expectant silence that, finally, cracked Beverley’s resistance. ‘There has been a change in our circumstances.’
‘Oh. I see. Nothing bad. I hope.’
What the hell. ‘Well, actually, my predictable husband, picked for just that quality, has proven to be predictable in a way I had not foreseen and has run off with his secretary. His secretary called Felicity, for God’s sake. So he is moving and I am not.’
So how stupid was she. Not only was her husband screwing his secretary, but he was moving in with his secretary, leaving her a single mother, with two children under five, no independent income, a house in the wrong catchment area and no resources to change that. Excellent. How had she failed to put a contingency plan in place? She’d let her guard slip. She of all people should’ve known how utterly stupid, dangerous, it was to rely on other people. She knew this. How had she forgotten? She hated herself for it. Not just putting herself at risk, but the children. How had she let this happen?
Mike Berwick of Berwick & Franklin was silent. Lost for words. Probably not something that happened very often.
‘So, in conclusion, Mike, everything’s fine, thank you. I’ll call you if plans change again.’
Of course, there were no actual plans and nothing between Beverley and Graeme was likely to change. He was there with the Secretary. Beverley was here with the children.
The call had taken place in late summer when it had become clear that Graeme was moving forward without looking back and Beverley could no longer ignore the increasingly anguished calls from Berwick & Franklin as they watched their prospects of a commission dissolve.
‘You can handle things, Beverley. You always do. It’s what you’re good at.’ That’s what Graeme had said on one of his rare phone calls. ‘Much better than I am.’
Most of their post walkout communication had been via email. Beverley had wondered if Felicity typed them for him. He’d clearly thought everything out, or someone had. That was usually Beverley’s position. She’d let herself become complacent; lost her grip.
Back in June of that year, Beverley had returned home from taking the children on a visit to the Science Museum to find Graeme in his usual chair in the sitting room, not watching television or reading, but just waiting for her. She put the children to bed and joined him. She really hoped there wasn’t a problem with the mortgage on the new house.
‘You don’t need me, Beverley,’ he said.
This was not what she was expecting.
‘Darling? What are you talking about?’
‘I know you’re better on your own. You don’t need me.’
‘Of course …’
‘And there’s someone else who does.’
This addendum had come out in a rush so Beverley couldn’t be sure that she’d heard right. ‘What?’
Somewhere in her head, she heard her mother: ‘Don’t say what, say pardon.’ Was it her mother? She didn’t think she had any memories of her mother, not clear ones. Nothing – and then suddenly one pops up, like a post-adolescent spot. Graeme was still talking.
‘I don’t want this to be a difficult conversation.’
It wasn’t really a conversation. Beverley struggled to keep up. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling for a woman used to being out in front of any eventuality, being in the driving seat.
‘I’ve packed my things into the car.’
Now he was literally taking the car. What was happening?
‘I’ll take the Golf. You keep the Peugeot. It’s better for the children.’
Beverley hadn’t sat down. She was only half taking in what Graeme was saying. She liked the Golf. She’d suggested it and chosen the colour. Black: smart; kept its resale value.
Had something happened? You heard stories like this. About men who couldn’t face up to something and ran away. But he’d said someone. That couldn’t be it.
‘Graeme? Is it work? Let’s talk about this. It can’t be that bad.’ Adrenalin was making her brain spin. This couldn’t be happening. What seemed to be happening couldn’t be. Graeme couldn’t be leaving her. He wasn’t the type. That was the point; had always been the point.
Graeme seemed so calm. Had he always been this hard?
‘It’s too late now for talking. I’ve arranged for a direct debit into the joint account up until the divorce is finalised.’
‘The divorce? What are you talking about?’ This was moving far too fast. How could it be too late? What did he mean divorce? Where had that come from?
‘It’s best to be sensible about these things.’
What things? And she was always sensible. He was the one not being sensible.
‘You and the children will be provided for. I know my responsibilities. I’d like to see the children and I’ll be in touch about that.’
By this point in the conversation Graeme was already on his feet and headed for the door, quickly. Looking out through the window, Beverley could see that the back of the Golf was full of boxes. She saw the Panama hat he’d worn in Devon that May, just a month before, perched on top. They’d been happy then, hadn’t they? They were happy. A normal happy family. Better than normal. The perfect family. What was happening?
Watching Graeme open the door pulled her out of her fug. This – something – was happening. It couldn’t be happening, not to Felix and Emma. She shouted.
‘Graeme, stop it! What will I tell the children in the morning?’
‘I trust you to explain. I know you’ll be fair and reasonable.’ He handed her the house keys, including the key ring Felix had made for him at nursery. ‘You’d better have these. It’s only fair.’
Fair? This wasn’t fair. She hadn’t had a chance to say anything. Clearly he’d lost his mind. She should cry, or say something, do something to stop him from doing whatever it was that he was doing. Why couldn’t she cry? This one time it might be useful. Why couldn’t she think of anything to do? She was paralysed. Fight or flight, her body was screaming, but she couldn’t do either. She stood there and let her husband’s weakness, his betrayal, mow her down.
Graeme had shut the door behind him. Beverley had stood staring at it as she listened to his car start up and drive away. That had been that. Felix had shouted for a drink. She’d taken it to him and then sat staring at Graeme’s chair. She thought of all the things she should have said. She still didn’t cry. She never cried. She’d trained herself out of that as a child.
Graeme had never been the exciting choice. That had been the point. He came from Shepperton and his parents were still married after 40 years. He was a well-paid actuary. What could be more reliable? He used statistics to analyse uncertainties in order to minimise risks, predicting the unpredictable. Could even he have predicted that he would walk away from a comfortable, upwardly mobile life of two Weetabix a day, roast on Sunday, two beautiful children who never spoke with their mouths full, a supportive and – everyone said – perfect wife, to shack up with his secretary? Weighing all probabilities, right up until the day he told Beverley he was leaving her, Graeme had seemed like excellent husband-and-father material. Nothing like her own mislaid father – not that she had any idea what or who he was – or her at-best-inconsistent stepfather, and all the better for that. His secretary, for God’s sake. Beverley had failed to include in her calculations the fact that Graeme, as well as being an actuary from Shepperton, was a man, a man in possession of half a head of hair, an attractive final-salary pension, and an ego.
Everyone said how well Beverley coped. That’s what you did, wasn’t it? Many assumed that it had been an amicable and mutually agreed separation a long time in the coming. Others clearly thought that Beverley was a hard-faced cow who shouldn’t have been surprised if her husband left her for warmer thighs. Beverley offered no alternative scenario. The truth would just make them pity her. She coped because what else could she do? She held it together, functioned, but that was all she did. She did what she had to do. For Felix and Emma.
As well as informing the vendors of the house they had been buying that they were pulling out, and speaking to Berwick & Franklin, she had explained to the children that Daddy loved them but wouldn’t be living with them any more. He didn’t deserve her covering for him, but the children had a right to her protection. Neither of them had said very much at the time. Emma had seen the sweets Beverley had bought to soften the blow of the news.
‘Mummy, sweeties now?’
‘Is there anything you want to ask Mummy?’
‘I want red one.’
‘I promise you’ll see Daddy soon.’ It was against her rules to promise what she couldn’t herself deliver, but what else could she say? If necessary, she’d take them to see their father.
‘Red’s my favourite. Please.’
Beverley handed over the sweets. Felix was silent and went away to play with his Lego, his sister taunting him.
‘I got red. I got red.’
Beverley had informed all the relevant authorities of her changed circumstances, including the local education authority.
‘It can’t have come as that much of a shock can it? Surely you knew how many children were going to need a school place?’
‘I’m sorry Mrs Wright. The local authority does everything they …’
‘Yes, yes. Someone is clearly an idiot and I don’t see why my child should suffer as a consequence.’
‘All local schools are …’
‘Nonsense. We both know that. Would you send your child to Harper Hill Primary?’ She wished there’d been someone who’d cared enough to keep her out of the appalling schools she’d gone to – teachers more bored than the kids, no library, barely any books, no ambition, no hope. It had been sheer grit and the determination to drag herself out of where she was that had enabled her to squeeze a passable education out of those sinkholes.
‘Mrs Wright …’
The patronising cow enjoyed this. She had probably been picked on for her outrageous stupidity and got her revenge by being obstructive and supercilious towards anyone with a brain cell.
Apparently Beverley should have considered herself lucky, so late in the day, to have a place at a school so near to where she lived.
She had sent in a written appeal just to go through the motions. She had no real hope of a reprieve but couldn’t have lived with herself if she hadn’t done absolutely everything possible. Graeme had refused to discuss paying for a private school. His calculations showed clearly that this would be . . .
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