In the months that followed new routines were established. Shelly was amazed by how easily Sammy adapted to John not being around. She wondered if she would be so easily forgotten. Maybe all the years of morbid worry about Sammy’s care after her death had been unnecessary. Maybe, he’d just take his little suitcase and walk into a home for people like him, without any problems at all. The thought horrified her. She was equally shocked to note how little she missed John. She’d expected to fall apart and find it impossible to manage without him, when in fact, nothing much changed. The worst thing was that she had to walk the dog with Sammy every night instead of only three or four nights a week. Even financially, although things were tight, she managed. Throughout their marriage they’d been overpaying on their mortgage to get it paid off faster, it only had a couple of years left to run and John said that he should be able to continue with the payments until then. Marion was very understanding, apparently. Well three fucking cheers for Saint Marion the fucking Great. Shelly got a lot of help from various benefits; she was amazed by how much they give her for having a handicapped child. Instead of career dole bludgers churning out fifteen kids just to rake in the child benefit, she mused that they should just have one child with problems. They’d be just as well off. Financially, Shelly had barely been hit and she had the added bonus of not having to wash her husband’s pants.
Social Services offered to give her a woman for two hours, twice a week, to look after Sammy, or, if she preferred, to help around the house. The idea was to allow her some respite. At first Shelly had balked at the idea of a stranger coming into their house and taking control of her child. She told them that she didn’t need any help. She felt as though they were denigrating her and attacking her abilities as a mother. At the same time she was concerned about how Sammy would take to a carer, even for a few hours a week. She politely refused their offer. It was only later, when she was talking to Pauline about it, that her mother in law pointed out the positives. It would be good for Sammy to interact with somebody new.
‘But, what if he doesn’t take to her?’ Shelly had asked almost in tears.
‘Then she goes away. What have you lost? Give it a go, Shelly. You can’t take everything on your shoulders all the time, you know. Our John really should do more. He brought her round to our house the other night, you know?’ Shelly sat up straighter; keeping up with the sudden change of topic. She was dying to know what the other woman was like. Pauline had pursed her lips tightly. Before even asking, Shelly knew that her mother-in-law hadn’t been impressed, but even so, she felt jealous. The interloper had already taken her husband, and now she was trying to get her claws into the rest of her family.
‘No, I didn’t know. How did it go?’
‘She can’t cook. Can you believe that? They eat out three times a week and the rest of the time, our john has to get home after a hard day’s work and start preparing a meal, while lady muck lies on the sofa watching the soaps. I didn’t like her, I didn’t. Skirt was too short, indecent, if you ask me, and her in the family way, too.’
‘She’s got a good figure, then?’
‘Well, if you like that sort of thing. Too skinny I’d say, apart from the baby, of course, it sticks right out as though she’s flaunting it, and him a married man. What them living in sin and that tight top, like I said—indecent.’
Shelly felt tears stinging her eyes. She thought of all the arguments they’d had about her having another baby, and here was this other woman, pregnant and proud, carrying his child. And she was still slim according to Pauline, how the fuck was that fair. Shelly had ballooned like Pavorotti by the third trimester.
‘Is she pretty?’ Shelly was torturing herself but she couldn’t help it.
‘Well she thinks she is that’s for sure. Looks like a barmaid in a business suit, you know what I mean? A very short business suit. I wouldn’t wear stilettos when I was pregnant with our John,’ she blew air through her teeth to display her disapproval,’ Oh no, not good for the baby, you see? No, it was maternity smocks in my day. You couldn’t wait to have enough of a bump to get in one. It was like a right of passage; it was declaring your happy condition to the whole world. And then,’ she chuckled, ‘by the end, you never wanted to see a maternity smock again as long as you lived. I don’t think she’s in a happy condition. Our John says she’s puking fit to burst. That’s what you get for taking another woman’s husband, dear, I said to her.’
Shelly was shocked, ‘Pauline, you didn’t?’
Pauline blushed, ‘Well, no, I didn’t, but that’s what I wanted to say.’
They talked about Marion until Pauline had exhausted every bit of gossip that she had, leaving Shelly feeling frumpy and inadequate. Then they went back to the subject of the carer and talked around the houses until Pauline had persuaded Shelly to at least give it a go.
She arrived for the first time three weeks later and was called Joan. She used her experiences with her own dog to patiently break through the barriers and make a connection with Sammy. After a few weeks of integrating her at the house, Joan would bring her terrier, Toby, with her and she and Sammy would go off with the two dogs for long walks, often well exceeding her two hour time allocation. She’d arranged her rota so that she never had another client immediately after Sammy. To show her gratitude, Shelly would prepare a meal for them coming in. While sitting around the table a friendship had grown between the two women and sometimes they’d look at the clock to discover that it was Sammy’s bedtime and that they’d chatted the hours away. Shelly had always felt isolated, even before John left; it had been difficult to form friendships with people because of the way that Sammy behaved. They had friends, good ones, but Shelly didn’t have anybody close enough to really confide in. Most of their friends were either associates of John’s or neighbours. Joan was ten years older than Shelly but the bond between them grew to the point where Shelly could tell Joan anything and Vice versa. Joan had been through a divorce two years earlier, and was still single. She said that she liked it that way and was in no rush to find another man. Joan was devoted to Sammy and quickly formed a strong bond with him, and for his part, Sammy seemed to like her. It couldn’t have worked out better and was an enormous help. Shelly reasoned that she’d swapped a John for a Joan and the latter was a damned sight handier to have around.
John made his obligatory visits at the weekend, sometimes he still joined them for ramblers but initially that was very awkward. Shelly was sad to see him disconnecting more and more with Sammy. He forgot how to talk to him. His ready smile was too much teeth and no sincerity. Shelly noticed that he’d had them whitened. Sammy wasn’t daft; he knew that his father came out of a sense of duty. John made vague threats about taking Sammy out for a day, to introduce him to Marion and then they could work towards them having him for weekends and school holidays. Shelly doubted that it would happen and decided to cross that bridge when they came to it. There was no point in making unnecessary waves. After all, she’d managed to introduce Joan into their lives without much bother, maybe, for Sammy’s sake; they could do the same with Marion—if and when the need arose. Shelly hoped that it never would.
But it arose sooner than expected. John rang to tell her that he wasn’t fulfilling his duty as a father. His guilt had clearly been tweaking at his conscience. Shelly never once considered the fact that he might actually be missing his son, or that John had suffered, too. He said that he wanted greater access to Sammy, and that Marion was his family now, and more importantly, part of Sammy’s and he was going to have a half brother or sister. He wanted to integrate Sammy before the baby came. Shelly put up the barriers and stubbornly refused. They argued and John talked about solicitors and court cases. She heard a woman’s voice in the background, she sounded placating. Shelly imagined her putting an arm supportively on his shoulder, telling him to calm down and reason with her. Shelly was furious. It was none of Marion’s business, the harlot. Sammy was nothing to do with her. John had played the, do what’s best for our son, and be reasonable, card, and after half an hour on the phone he broke down her defences. But she insisted that she wanted to meet the woman first. It was important, she justified, that she should meet the enemy. She didn’t justify it to John, only to herself, later, in front of her dressing table mirror as she examined her hair for grey and noticed the slight downward slant of her breasts. She was still a good-looking woman, on a good day, on a day when Sammy had had a good day. She could hold her own. But this Marion creature was prettier, Pauline had said as much, slimmer, prettier, richer, better. They’d agreed to meet on neutral territory the following night, in a pub mid-way between the two of them.
‘There won’t be a scene, will there, Shelly? We really don’t want anything unpleasant. Marion’s a little bit nervous about it’
‘No, no scenes, as long as you keep your bitch to heel.’
‘Oh really Shelly, I don’t think there’s any need for—’
She hung up on him.
Joan agreed to come and sit with Sammy and said that Shelly was doing the right thing and that she should act with dignity and decorum. She intended to try. She’d never had a cat-fight in her life. Joan said that she’d help her to chose and outfit and came round two hours early so that Shelly could get ready in peace.
Shelly asked Sammy if he even wanted to go to Alton Towers with his dad. If he didn’t want to go, then she certainly wasn’t going to make him. She explained all about John’s new girlfriend and told him everything that she felt that he needed to know so that he could process it in advance. She interspersed the talk every few sentences with, ‘But you don’t have to go if you don’t want to, it’s entirely up to you.’ Sammy played with Carthenage and didn’t seem to be paying much attention.
‘So what do you think, Sammy, do you want to go, or not?’ The or not was added with just the smallest note of desperation.
‘Okay,’ said Sammy, as though she’d asked him if he wanted a Satsuma. He wandered off with the dog, and Shelly felt betrayed but that was that. Sammy was going to play happy families with his dad and Curella-de-no knickers, and she had to pretend that she was okay with it.