A pair of blue-tits was fighting each other for exclusive access to the peanut holder Heather had just attached to the bird table. A female pheasant's dull brown feathers twitched under a bush as it waited for Heather to return to the cottage kitchen. Then it could peck at the seeds scattered liberally at the foot of the rotting bird table
Heather smiled. She pushed open the door to the kitchen where her daughter, Paula, was stirring a bowl of Coco Pops with a spoon.
"Is the pheasant there?" Paula asked.
"Yes," said Heather, as she poured herself a cup of coffee from the jug. "Not the boy pheasant, though. One of his girlfriends."
"Oh!" said Paula, disappointed. "I like the boy pheasant best. He's pretty!"
Heather sat next to her daughter by the kitchen table. Over the sound of The Fimbles on the television, whose morning adventures occasionally attracted Paula's attention, Heather could hear the reassuring sound of lambs bleating in the field that abutted the cottage garden. She loved her cottage and everything about it. The garden she tended when she had the time. The view over the fields to the distant copse and farmhouse. The birdsong that greeted her every morning as she drew the curtains to her bedroom. It might be an expensive luxury. The mortgage was easily the most expensive thing she had to budget for. But she didn't begrudge it at all.
If there was any consolation resulting from her separation from Roger, it was the agreement that she keep the cottage (even if she was burdened with the mortgage). And, of course, Paula. It wasn't as if Heather could have either Roger's job at the Insurance Company or the girlfriend he'd left her for. Nevertheless, she sometimes wished Roger showed more interest in his daughter other than the child subsistence payments, the rare phone call and the birthday presents.
"What are you doing in school today, Polly?" Heather asked, as she sipped her black coffee. "Are you doing sums?"
"Oh Mummy!" Paula laughed. "We do sums every day. And reading."
"What are you reading at the moment?"
Paula pulled a book out of her school bag with illustrations in bright primary colours of animals with smiling faces. Heather took it from her hand and turned the pages languidly. She was putting it back in her daughter's bag when she noticed the cover of Paula's copy book had words scrawled over it. She pulled it out and read them to herself.
"Who wrote these words?" she asked, keeping her voice as calm as she could.
"Why did she do that?"
"She said that's what you are, Mummy."
Heather tore the cover off the copy book, crumpled it up and threw it in the kitchen fliptop bin.
"Why did you do that, Mummy?"
"Because they were bad words that Debbie wrote. Do you know what they mean?"
"Didn't Debbie tell you?"
"She did, but I didn't understand. I don't think she really knows either. Is it something grownups do?"
Heather bit her lip. "If your teacher, Mrs Ridley, asks why the cover's missing, tell her I tore it off. And if she wants to know more, she can talk to me. Do you understand, Polly?"
"Yes, Mummy," said Paula, who was already losing interest in the exchange and whose attention was wandering back to children's morning television.
Heather smiled indulgently and patted her daughter lovingly on her head.
"I love you, Polly," she said, as she so often did.
"I know, Mummy!" said Paula.
Why did Heather feel the need to tell her daughter that? Wasn't it obvious to everyone? Perhaps she did so because it needed to be said the more urgently when there was no father around to share the burden of childcare. Perhaps she just felt that in some ways she was less the perfect mother than she'd like to be.
When breakfast was finished, Heather took her daughter hand-in-hand out the cottage door, down the path to the village lane and past other cottages to the school bus stop. She regarded with regret the neighbouring cottages she was no longer welcome to visit as she was when Roger was living with her, even though he was more often away than at home. Heather felt a residual bitterness. It wasn't, after all, her fault that Roger took off with another woman, but she was the one being punished for it.
She saw Mrs Butterfield and her two young children, one a boy and the other a girl, dawdling ahead of them as the boy sorted out some toys in his satchel. Mrs Butterfield raised her head and looked at Heather and her daughter with obvious alarm. She then pointedly hurried her children over onto the other side of the road so Heather could overtake them without there being the need to greet each other.
Heather tried to catch Mrs Butterfield's eyes as they passed in the hope that she could make a conciliatory nod. In many ways they were very similar people. They were both young mothers in their late twenties, whose children went to the same village primary school, and they wore similar clothes of sweater, slacks and trainers. But Mrs Butterfield had the benefit of a Mr Butterfield who let her fulfil her role as a modern middle-class housewife without the need to work while her children were still young.
"Do you play with Bobby and Lucy at school, Polly?" she asked her daughter, nodding towards Mrs Butterfield's two children.
"I used to, Mummy," said Paula, squeezing her mother's hand. "But they don't want to play with me any more. And anyway I'm best friends with Amandip and Mustapha. And with Sveta in Painting and Drawing."
Heather nodded. She was pleased that there were still pupils who got on with her daughter, but, as someone whose own childhood had been as ordinary as it could be, it sometimes pained her that her daughter was forced to make friends with children on the ethnic margins of country life.
Heather and Paula lined up near the stone bus shelter with all the other parents and their children, but were notable for their relative isolation. No parents and no children came up to chat with them, to ask how they were, whether Paula had her MMR jab or if Heather might consider helping out on a stall at the next village fund-raiser. In fact, the parents, all mothers up to the age of forty, were intent on avoiding eye-contact at all costs, taking advantage of the need to fuss with their children to ensure that they need never look directly at the mother and daughter standing in the shade of the picturesque cherry tree. The children were equally complicit, although Heather was comforted that none of them were old enough to do so from genuine malice. It was worse with the older children, whose school bus was parked further along the country lane. They sometimes took pride in their rudeness. Especially Judy Evans, whose mother had once been one of Heather's closest friends in the village.
Heather waved at Paula as the bus pulled off to take her and the other village children to the school in Upper Dumbledean. Paula was the only child sitting by herself on a bus that was already more than half full since picking up children from the neighbouring villages of Winstone and Cressington.
It was a fine sunny day, so Heather was rather looking forward to her morning stroll across the fields to the petrol station shop, which was the nearest place she could go to buy groceries and a newspaper. But she couldn't dawdle. She needed to be back at the cottage before the postman arrived. She was expecting a parcel and she didn't want the hassle of having to drive fifteen miles to the nearest sorting office if she missed the delivery.
Heather often considered this brief hour between seeing Paula off to school and returning home as the only part of the day when she could truly be herself. She loved the walk over the fields, past the grazing sheep and cattle, past the copse where she sometimes saw deer, and over the stiles. Even the few words exchanged with the staff at the petrol station, who mostly lived miles away from her village, were a source of inestimable pleasure to her.
"It's a lovely day, isn't it?" remarked Betty, as Heather knew she was called from the label on her blouse.
"Perfect!" Heather replied with a grin as she picked up the blue plastic bag of magazines, milk, biscuits and a newspaper.
She strode out of the petrol station, slightly regretting that her excursion was more than halfway over, but she needed to get back in good time. And she wanted to be ready for when Gerry came round. He said he'd be there this morning, depending on his appointments, of course, and he didn't normally disappoint. Heather's heart jumped slightly as she remembered her morning caller. At least Gerry loved her, as he was so keen on telling her; although Heather knew he was far too sensible to abandon his wife and teenage children for her.
Heather got back to the cottage only just in time. She could see the postman's red van parked outside the village hall, under the notice-board with its announcements of flower shows and jamborees. She widened her step, hoping to be at the cottage before the postman.
"Oh, hi there, Mrs Printon," greeted the postman who was coming towards her. Heather didn't wish to correct him about her marital status, though had she and Roger got married perhaps she'd have got a better deal from their separation. "I popped a card through your door, but seeing as you're here, you might as well have your parcel."
He handed Heather a shapeless package that crinkled with plastic, cloth and paper. She almost snatched it from him. "Where do I sign?"
"Here," said the postman, proffering a form. "Another scarlet parcel. The packaging these days!"
.... There is more of this story ...