Food for Thoughts

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
When Melissa comes to stay with Fiona trouble ensues. Melissa is an only child with a mother dedicated to mothering. Fiona's mother has four children, a building-site for a home and a business to run. When Melissa comes to stay she quickly realises that her position in the centre of the world is under threat and she sets out to reinstate her position.

Submitted: April 07, 2010

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Submitted: April 07, 2010

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT
 
Melissa knew what mothers were for. They were for looking after Melissa. She knew this, because her own mother had been doing so to perfection, for thirteen years. As far as Melissa could tell, her mother did little else. There was her father to be looked after, but Melissa was quite happy about this. Her father doted on his only child. He was important to her happiness and well-being. 
If, for any other reason, Joy was forced to pause in her usual round of motherly duties, Melissa's grandmother, Beryl Paynter, a few doors down the street, would take them on. Which was very satisfactory. Will it last? Thirteen years is a long time. Thirteen is an unlucky number. Nothing lasts. 
In May, soon after Melissa was thirteen, Joy Lasham phoned her Mother.  
`Mother? About the bed and breakfast plan. There's a going concern down in Fairmouth. A guest house, more than a B&B. If Nigel gets the job in the area, it would be just right. Best if I went to look at the house right away. Could you possibly?' 
Beryl could. It was promotion of a kind. As grandmother, her usual role, in the important work of caring for Melissa, was supportive. She liked to take over. Nigel could be counted on to be supportive in turn. 
`Is Lissa to come here, or shall I move in?' 
`Move in, would be best. Then you can cater for them both. I'll be away a few days. These things can't be rushed.' 
`Nigel hasn't been offered the job yet, has he? It's asking a lot to become estate manager. Especially at Tregarren. A big step up. There's many a slip!'
`Oh, I'm not counting on it. Still, I think he'll get it. He has a very good track record as assistant manager at Belvoir.' 
`Nearly twenty years. Quite an important estate, too. Isn't there a family connection between the owners?' 
`Nigel says so.'
`Ah.' 
No need to tell Beryl what a word of recommendation behind the scenes might do.
`Nothing like planning ahead. We might be able to start into business down in the West Country, more or less as soon as he hears.'
Joy was Beryl's only child, as Melissa was Joy's - the only child of an only child. The eldest child of an eldest child, if one took into account potential children unborn, though Beryl and Joy had been careful to leave the potential unrealised. But, whereas blonde Joy was a younger version of grey-haired Beryl, Melissa took after her father. Nigel's hair was jet black.  Nigel Lasham never doubted that he was the head of his family. Nor did his family. He was the sole breadwinner. A handsome, capable man, he had a steady job at Belvoir Estate, not far from the pleasant country town of Salterns. At forty-three, he proposed his first career move. 
Joy and Beryl had reasons of their own for wishing him success. Nigel had no objection. Joy and Beryl could find more scope for their domestic skills, and contribute to the family funds. It would not change their family lifestyle. He was not in the least despotic, but as a matter of course, Joy answered to him for the care of their only child, and Beryl's responsibilities were delegated from Joy. There were no doubts about the chain of command, or the desired results. Melissa had been superbly well cared for, during her thirteen years. This care was in Joy's mind, as she made arrangements with Beryl.
`Not a word to Lissa mind. No point in upsetting her for nothing. She might spill it out at school. Time enough if Nigel gets the job.' Beryl was often shown how to suck eggs. It was the flip side of grandmothering. She was indignant. 
`As if I would.' Which, as it happened, she wouldn't. Joy was discreet because she had inherited it from Beryl, not the other way about. 
`No.' Joy conceded. `I don't want Audrey Cameron to get wind of it either. We don't want her looking around for someone else for the car pool. Not yet.' 
`Heaven forbid!' 
Beryl did not drive. Nigel's work lay in the opposite direction to Lissa's school. The school run was the weakest link in Lissa's care. Penshurst School was at Candover, eighteen miles distant - every one of them through built-up areas. Fortunately, there was a train, and the station was only six miles away. Still. You could never be sure with trains. 
`Besides, Audrey may be useful later on. She can have Lissa to stay when we move.' 
`If.' 
`Yes. It might be wise to have Fiona to stay at half-term, don't you think? Lissa needs the company anyway.'
One never knew when it might be handy to have some hospitality owing. Beryl approved Joy's foresight. It was just what she would do herself. 
The Camerons had no idea how much of a blessing they might be to the Lashams, if anything as uncomfortable as a move came about. The Camerons had moved to Salterns only nine months earlier, just in time for their youngest child, Fiona, to start the school year at Penshurst Girls'. They had a very good idea of the discomfort of moves, especially if the house were old, the family large, and the business run from home. All of which applied. They had taken a large and careworn house in the middle of the town. It was in need of a great deal of renovation. Lucky to get it, said the agent. There were not many large family houses in Salterns and Gerald and Audrey needed a large one badly, for their four teens-to-twenties chidren. Also, their mail order business made offices and a storeroom essential.
`We shall have to take it apart. Practically rebuild it,' Audrey had said to Gerald.  `Worth it though. It'll be perfect for us eventually.' 
`Open doors in mid-winter, chaos at Christmas, brick dust in the turkey stuffing, plumbers.' Audrey had much experience of renovations. Plumbers wrestling with the dirty and difficult job of providing old houses with modern amenities, had little time to consider home comforts. 
`Plumbers,' she mourned, `not to mention decorators with ghetto-blasters. How are we to work in all that racket?' 
`It won't last for ever. Give it six months, and we can take our time. The roof is top of the list, and the repointing. So long as we keep the weather out.'
The weather was an enemy that Gerald stared fiercely in the face, not a cosy subject of telly chat with couch potatoes.
`A damp course must be put in, where there isn't one. Some of the window frames, and the window sills have to be replaced. The threshold at the back door is rotten. After that the men will be working inside.'
`Didn't the surveyor say the main chimney should be rebuilt?'
`Yes, it's crumbling away inside. And the old fireplaces must come out. There'll have to be a new boiler and radiators as well.'
`We shall freeze!'
`Not if we get it done in the autumn. If we get off to a good start, we can have the bathrooms gutted, and new plumbing by Christmas. I'm not sure we can get the kitchen fixed up by then, but we'll be well on the way.'
`There's the rewiring to do.'
`Oh that can come along in-between.'
‘It's the in©between that worries me. Keeping the business going, and having the place taken apart at the same time, is going to be very uncomfortable.'
`Fiona's the only one at day school now. We'll be up against it in the holidays, but the term won't be bad.'
`Her school is much too far away. It's a full hour's drive.'
`We don't have to drive her. We only have to get her to the train at Milhaven at 8.15, and if we allow twenty minutes that will give plenty of time. We'll both go, have a walk over there after dropping her off, and be back in the office by 9.30.'
`I'll see if anyone else from here catches that train. Every other day would be better. Maybe we can share.'
The Camerons did not have blessing the Lashams in mind, but good may be done, unbeknownst. Their arrival in Salterns quickly strengthened the weak spot in the care of Melissa.
Lissa met Fiona on the train, in her first week at school. Audrey was glad for Fiona to have a friend, and arranged to share the station run with Joy. Soon, their car pool included Cathy Briggs, who also went to the school, although she was senior to Lissa and Fiona, who were in the same class.
It was fortunate that the mothers were well-organised when the blow fell, just before the start of the January term. Like most bad news from schools, it came blandly in a letter.
`I am sorry to have to inform you, that girls arriving at Candover station at 8.45, have been joining assembly, which starts at 9.00am, at 9.05am. This is not acceptable. The headmistress requests that you arrange for Fiona to catch an earlier train.'
`But there isn't an earlier train!' Audrey said to Gerald.
`There's one at 7.15.'
`That means leaving here before seven!'
Audrey and Joy both rang the headmistress. 
`The girls would have to wait outside the school gates for nearly half an hour. The school wouldn't even be open.'
`We are open at 8.30,' Miss Parker replied stiffly. `That seems really quite early enough.'
`But surely an exception could be made for girls from this area? Perhaps they could be excused assembly?'
How tiresome parents were! A necessary evil. Fortunately not nearly as necessary this term as last. Last term, Miss Parker had been forced to grovel. She had promised whatever had seemed necessary to fill places. With bright girls of course. She had no choice there. A stiff-necked woman, the memory rankled. But there had been rewards, and out of proportion to what she could have hoped.
`I don't approve of girls travelling any distance to school.'
`But nothing was said when Fiona joined the school! In fact, you told us yourself that lots of girls from this area used the 8.15 train.'
Unwise Audrey! Couldn't she guess that last summer there were too few suitable candidates to choose from?  Didn't she know that the new motorway had sucked in many more people into the area? Penshurst now had a waiting list, and Miss Parker had power. Thank God, she need not suffer fools gladly.
`Naturally, I shall quite understand if you wish to change schools.'
It was an ultimatum, to which nobody was able to think of the answer. There was, as Miss Parker well knew, no other school like Penshurst anywhere in the area. The absurdly named “Spring” term was unusually cold, and the winds icy. Trains were irregularly cancelled for the snowfalls, which encouraged regular rail strikes. It's an ill wind. 
No allowance was made by the school, meaning its Head, who was enjoying her work. Ten girls less would have meant consulting parental convenience; ten extra meant revenge for past compliance. Miss Parker was an excellent administrator, to whom pupils were a numbers game. She was also a vengeful woman, with much to avenge. She would take it where she could find it. 
In February, Fiona felt unwell in class. Audrey was summoned, in the middle of the working day, by the school secretary. 
`Fiona must be picked up immediately. We can't keep her here.'
`But what's happened? She was perfectly alright this morning.' 
Broken glass, broken bones, blood? Right third time.
`I imagine she has her period.'
`Thank heaven! You had me worried! I expect she got cold this morning. That would bring on worse pain than usual. Can she lie down with a hot water bottle, until I can come for her? I have appointments right now.'
Not worried enough. A mistake. Audrey should not level with the secretaries of headmistresses. Mothers have duties. School secretaries will tell her what they are.  This one is glad to.
`Penshurst expects the full co-operation of parents. This is not a hospital, and we certainly have no hot water bottles. Nor staff to worry about girls who aren't fit. They have more important work, I can assure you.'
Is this legal? Audrey gropes dimly for what she can remember of school health.  She recalls herself on a freezing pallet, under a chill, Gestapo eye. The hate had compounded the agony.
`Could I have a word with Fiona?'
Really a tiresome parent. The school secretary puts a cross on the Cameron file, to indicate this for future reference. Of course she can't. The school secretary is enjoying working for a Head, who is enjoying her work. She does not know about the numbers game. That is Miss Parker's secret.
`I am sure you will make arrangements to be here right away.'
Audrey will of course. For Fiona's sake. Whose birth had been relatively easy, compared to the pallet. Audrey cancels her appointments. She is a parent. She drives an hour to the school and an hour back.
`I asked for some Anadin,' Fiona explains. `That was all. I wanted to lie down for a bit. There was no need to come.'
Aren't they used to girls, at this girls' school? Four hundred girls, twelve times a year is four thousand eight hundred. But they have no bed, no hot water-bottle, no Anadin, no staff. Audrey is furious, and says so to Joy. Another mistake.  Joy is unsympathetic. She is happy to chauffeur Melissa on request. It's what she's there for. Outside school, Melissa's feet rarely touch the ground. A car takes her wherever, and returns to pick her up whenever. If Melissa were dropped at the end of her road, Joy would bring the car a few hundred yards, so that Melissa might step from one vehicle to the other, with the smallest possible contact with the street. 
In Miss Parker's secretary's shoes, Joy would have been equally intransigent; it would have been too much to hope for Miss Parker's.
`But of course you would wish to bring Fiona home at once, if she were off colour?'
Audrey, who had four children, all of whom were off colour at times, some of them monthly, had long ago given up reacting to anything less than an emergency.
`I think we ought to drive the girls to school anyway. It's not fair to keep them hanging about in the cold for the school to open,' Joy told Audrey. 
Joy is quite right. It is not fair. Whatever that may mean. She likes to drive, but not to help Audrey. She will not do one mile above her share. Audrey should do her motherly duty, like Joy. It is amazing how resistant Audrey is to so many experts in this field. And with four children too! It amazes Joy. She would put a cross on the Audrey's file, if she could. But not yet.
`They can come back by train. When the strikes are over, we can think again.' 
Joy has thought again how useful Audrey could be. But by May, Joy was thinking again for other reasons. Not that Audrey had any idea. Why should she? Beryl could be trusted.
In June, Nigel was offered the job of estate manager at Tregarren, near Fairmouth and Joy arranged to buy the guest house she had seen in May. She and Nigel told no-one of their plans. At half term, she invited Fiona to stay.
Audrey dreaded receiving such invitations and was hesitant on the phone. 
`I'll have to ask Gerald. He may have plans for half-term.'
She can tell that she does not carry conviction, because, as Joy knows, this cannot be so. The builders are well behind schedule, and the house is still like a building site. The business is difficult to run around the discomfort and noise.
`Melissa wants Fiona to stay over half term.'
`Does Fiona want to go?' Gerald asked.
`She would be quite happy to go. You know Fiona. She's always ready to muck in.'
`So what's the problem?'
The problem is numbers. Four children staying with a friend once a year, is four friends for Audrey to invite back. Twice a year is eight. Big families attract big crowds.
`I've got enough to do. Joy will expect me to invite Melissa back, and Melissa is used to having her family's undivided attention.'
`Of course she won't expect anything of the sort. She knows the house is upside down, and she knows you work. She just wants some company for Melissa over this week.'
`So she may, but Fiona doesn't need company. She's got plenty to do, and plenty of people to do it with. Alan will be home this week anyway. She can go sailing with him.'
`Well Fiona might like a change from the hoo-ha here and Alan can find plenty of his friends to sail with. We might as well help Joy out, if we can. It's hard for Melissa being an only child. She makes a good friend for Fiona doesn't she?'
`Oh, I hope they'll be friends for years. It's so handy that Lissa lives just down the street.'
`Well then. You don't have to return hospitality in exactly the same kind. Fiona is doing Lissa a good turn by going. That should be good enough.'
Why did Gerald find life so easy? Audrey thought it should be good enough, and knew it wouldn't be. But she spoke to Fiona, who shrugged, and said she didn't mind. Audrey rang Joy to accept. At least Audrey approves of Melissa. Unreservedly.
For over nine months, the Camerons had been at Salterns and Audrey, back and forth as chauffeur, had heard a good deal of the chat between the three girls, on the back seat of the car. They chose to sit squashed together. Not so much bosom, as bottom, pals. 
What a likeable girl Melissa is! At thirteen, she is well-grown, with measured views on school life, and sensible conversation. What a welcome change for Fiona's mother, from the usual teenage whispers and giggles. Melissa never forgets to offer polite thanks for the lift. Thirteen years of diligent care, is manifest in Melissa. She is easy on the eye. She looks bandbox fresh, on all occasions. Her brown shoes shine like chestnuts, and her black ones like an opera hat. Her jet-black hair is carefully cut and prettily curled, around a heart-shaped face, and her well-manicured nails are shell-pink, and perfect. Her ever-renewed, school outfit owes nothing to the second-hand uniform sales, in which the mothers of her peers rummage, at term's end. It is well-pressed, and she wears a clean white blouse every day. Her fresh white handkerchiefs are laundered to perfection. She is quite unlike Fiona.
The uniform of Penshurst Girls' School was a scourge to Fiona. It was a triumph of conventionality, prudish, unimaginative, and severely dated.
`If you want to go to the school, you have to wear the uniform,' Fiona's father had said at the outset.
`I don't want to go to Penshurst,' Fiona had replied.  `I don't like the atmosphere of the place, and I don't like Miss Parker. She is a female Caesar.' Fiona detests Caesar's conquests, ancient and modern. `Veni, vidi, vici.' Fiona is on the receiving end.
Gerald and Audrey agree with Fiona. Unfortunately, the local school is a by-word for indiscipline and currently suffering from a wave of drugs and bullying. Its academic record is poor. Fiona is bright.
`We have to pay up,' Gerald had said. `Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.' 
A great deal of money had to be rendered and it was hard to find.
`It's not as though one likes the place,' Audrey complained.
`Hobson's choice!' Gerald said briefly. `We'll get settled in, and stick it out for a couple of years, and then Fiona can go to the Sixth Form College. Miss Parker had pointed out the advantages of the uniform to Audrey.
`You will find it suits most colourings, and is hard-wearing, and sensible. It is safer for the girls. This is a large town, and it has plenty of undesirables. We have end of term sales, and many of the items can be bought second-hand.'
All this was true.
`The uniform has a long tradition. We have never felt it necessary to change it.'
This was also true. The uniform was severely dated. Audrey had worn such clothes at her first school, but by the time she had reached senior school, uniform had become more stylish.
Fiona disliked the pudding-bowl hat, surrounded by a striped band, and ornamented with a central school badge, above an upturned gutter brim. It dated from the 30’s. It was of a standard navy blue, as was the blazer, worn over the white blouse, bisected by a tie diagonally striped in royal and pale blue. Summer dresses were of light blue and white gingham.  Fiona protesting to Melissa's mother, that the uniform cramped her soul, had received short shrift from Joy, who was not into souls.
`I think it looks good on you,' Joy said. `Navy suits fair hair. It suits Melissa too, for all she has such different colouring to yours.'
Fiona, who had a good eye, was silenced. If Melissa's colouring had run to sallow in winter and tan in summer or if she had been a brunette, it would not have suited her. As it was, it suited her to perfection.
`Lissa would look good in most colours,' she agreed generously. 
She was the generous sort. She was also jealous of Melissa's uniform. Her own owed much to Audrey's rummaging, and there had been many compromises.
`Absolutely everything I have on is wrong; too loose, too tight, too long, too short,' she complained to Audrey. `I'm uncomfy all over. When I grow up, I shall have my clothes properly fitted!'
Audrey sympathised, but she had already done what she could with her sewing machine. No amount of skill could turn Fiona out as Melissa was turned out. And then again, Fiona was lively, happy-go-lucky, and untidy. Beside Melissa it was no contest.  
The untidy shoes were not Fiona's fault. Audrey had tried everything she knew to meet the school requirements. The uniform suppliers disclaimed any interest in shoes. No shoe shop in the county had the mandatory styles.  Audrey had phoned them all. Fiona arrived at school in brown shoes that had been painted black. The straps were fastened by buttons that remained brown.
`Find out where the other girls get their shoes,' Audrey told Fiona.
But the girls Fiona asked had got the shoes from other girls or did not know where they had come from.
`Where does one buy black, low-heeled, strap or lace-up shoes, when the only shoes in suitable styles are brown?'  Audrey asked Joy, soon after they met.
But Melissa's smart, but suitable, black shoes had come from London. Her father had taken her up to town by train to get them.
 In Melissa, craftsmanship has been applied to a good foundation, not meaning the black shoes. At thirteen, Melissa is good-looking and intelligent. She has white porcelain skin with hair that is uncompromisingly black. The steady black eyes are set in clear whites and look out above cheeks that are faintly pink, like the palest wild rose. 
Melissa's thirteen years have not brought that coarsening of features that often afflicts girls at puberty, and she is neither too fat nor too thin. Her colouring borrows the very best from her fair-skinned mother, and her dark-haired father.
`Lissa is the perfect subject for one of those dramatic, delicate aquatints, of the 1830's,' Audrey exclaimed to Gerald. `How does she come to be so dark with that alabaster skin? Wasn't that black and white colouring popular then?'
`With a difference. The idea then was to look dramatically ill, with black circles under the eyes.'
`She certainly doesn't look ill with that faint, wild rose look. Is it Irish colouring do you think? You don't often see such a complexion. It's tinted from a palette, with every hue of yellow and brown left out. One wouldn't choose gouache, or oils, for her portrait. Too opaque, or too dense. It crys out for watercolour.'
Audrey was keen on watercolours, and would have liked time to paint. She had done well in art at school. A long time ago.  
Aquatint Melissa is carefully protected. She is not subjected to the robustness of bad weather or to strenuous effort, while receiving just as much exercise and outlet as will keep her cheeks pink and her school reports full of praise for her usefulness at games, agility in the gym, and success in class. 
A jealous onlooker might suppose that the outward charms of Melissa would be flawed by inner faults of disposition, spirit, or manners. But this unkind suspicion is not substantiated. The care lavished on Melissa has done nothing but good. There is no sign that she is spoiled, and every evidence that she is pleasant, capable, good-humoured, well-poised, and friendly. There seems no reason why her life should not follow this pleasing blueprint, especially as she is satisfied with it. The centre of the world is located where she stands. The planets revolve around her neat waistband, the Milky Way is well-developed, the stars gleam around her head. Why should the world not continue to revolve around Melissa?  Why indeed? 
Unless Melissa herself were to shift elsewhere. Fairmouth for instance. 
When the summer term had only a few weeks to run, Nigel and Joy and Beryl, agreed that Melissa must be told about the new home and the new school. Melissa was very sensible and pleasant about this prospect once she had established that her care, in Fairmouth, would be maintained to the same standard as at Salterns. At the start of the summer holiday, she went to stay at the new home for a week with her mother, and came back to tell Fiona about it.
`I have a very nice room. It has a lovely pink carpet, and flowered curtains and bedspread. I can look out over Fairmouth Harbour, and see the boats. Dad has put a desk in the window for me to do my homework. My new school is really close by, so I can walk to it, which will be a great improvement.'
Fiona, who had made just such a change to Salterns, less than a year earlier, was interested. The two friends had even more to talk about, as though moving house were a game, that would change very little.
Summer is the silly season. Nothing lasts.
A few weeks after the end of the summer term, Melissa and her mother moved to Fairmouth and Nigel remained to finish up his work on the Belvoir estate. He sold their house in Salterns and stayed with Beryl. Beryl was planning to move to Fairmouth, once the other three were settled in there. Meanwhile, she kept her house in Salterns. Joy was well able to get started in Fairmouth on her own.
Joy was a sensible and efficient woman, who took after Beryl. She was barely of middle height and more full than plump; a blue-eyed blonde, with fair skin. She dressed conventionally, was more tidy than smart, and more determined than bossy. She was a good administrator, and soon had a grip on the guest house. She made the trip from Fairmouth with Melissa at weekends, to keep Nigel company. There was plenty of room at Beryl's for everyone. Presently Nigel went to join Joy and Melissa at Fairmouth and weekend trips to Salterns were not necessary. Nigel's work at Tregarren Estate was arranged to start in September.
`I can give you a hand here until I start at Tregarren. I'll have to go to Salterns for a week though. They want me to show my successor the ropes at Belvoir. I'll stay with Beryl.'
So that was that. Gerald might think. Joy Lasham was not the sort of person to whom hospitality due is not forthcoming. She was quite prepared to drive Melissa from the West Country to get it. Gerald was wrong, and Audrey right. Which was no help to Audrey.
Presently Joy came to see Audrey.
`I'm sure you know about our new venture,' she said. `I have to go down into the country to see about moving some more of our things, and making curtains. I'd be so glad if you could have Melissa to stay next week. Nigel will bring her. He's coming anyway.' No need for Joy to drive, as it happens. Dear God. Audrey and Gerald were tired. The family was home for the summer holidays. The builders had come to stay for ever. Until the business had lost enough money, anyway. Phones jangled, deadlines were missed, concentration slipped. Older children came home late, workmen arrived early. There was an eternal hubbub of workmen. The bricklayers, plumbers and plasterers, had gone; the electricians, kitchen fitters, joiners, and decorators had not. Brick dust reigned every day. Doors stood uncomfortably open, water was regularly turned off, and the noise of radios, shouts, vans, hammering, continued.
It seemed an unlikely place for Melissa. Melissa, honey, ambrosia. Food for the gods. After the summer half term, Audrey had delayed to offer return hospitality. Plenty of time. Fiona's visit to Melissa had gone well. She knew Gerald was wrong, and that Joy would expect an invitation for Melissa. She would offer one, but not yet.Perhaps she would be better sorted out presently. She had not expected the Lashams to leave Salterns. When they did, she let the idea drop. Win some lose some. Melissa had started a new life. It did not occur to her that Fiona had been invited to visit the Lashams, so that her home would be available to Melissa whenever it should be needed. Now she said,
`I'd love to have Melissa, if she wants to visit Salterns, but we must let the builders get finished first. Right now everyone is at home, and the builders are still here. Gerald and I are finding it difficult to get our work done.'
Joy took as little notice of Audrey as Miss Parker had done. Like Miss Parker, she was not interested in Audrey's convenience.
`Melissa could stay with my mother, but Nigel is with her this week, and she can't look after Melissa as well. Nigel has to work, so he can't amuse Melissa. And Beryl doesn't drive. It would be different in term time. But I am always there during Melissa's holidays to take her around.It's a real crisis you see.'
Is it a crisis?  Audrey is sympathetic to house-moving. She recognises obligations. She is a pushover. Also, she cannot say `No.'
`I daresay if Fiona and Melissa are together they can amuse themselves.'
`They can be taken around together. I am sure you will find two as easy as one.'
`The girls would have to amuse themselves,' said Audrey dubiously. `The other three will be here as well, you know, and there's Gerald. The builders have to be organised, and there's my work. I can't take them places. But everything is right here anyway. There are bikes, the sailing club has outings, and the High Street is just around the corner. They can go to the shops or the market. They can help to get the meals, and give me a hand. It should be alright.'
`Oh Melissa won't be any problem to you. She knows Salterns after all, and is very independent. Nigel and Beryl are only just down the road in an emergency. It would be much nicer for Melissa to have Fiona's company than to be with Mother.'
Nicer for whom? Audrey doesn't think of that.
`Well,' says Audrey, `alright then. I daresay I won't even notice another one,' she added hopefully.
She knows she should say `no'. Presently Gerald will tell her so. But how can she explain her household to Joy?  Would Joy understand? No. Joy knows nothing of builders, or feeding large numbers, or business. She has only just started a business. Perhaps Joy would understand Audrey better when the guest house was in full swing? Unlikely. The business is a small concern, already nicely set up. Beryl would help to run it, and Nigel would keep them. Joy would be successful, and wonder the more how Audrey came to be so disorganised. As, indeed, she is. But is she answerable to Joy? Not if she says `no'. That's one good reason.
Then again, does Audrey really think Melissa ever goes unnoticed? The glance of incredulity Joy and Melissa exchange, when she says she won't do this and that, should warn her. That's another reason to say `no'. But perhaps it was an unkind, pessimistic, unnecessarily inhospitable, remark? Fiona always amuses herself, so Fiona and Melissa can amuse themselves. Together.
Audrey fluffs her lines. She says `yes', and Gerald says she should have said `no'. 
A few days later, Melissa's father brought his daughter from Fairmouth, and dropped her at Audrey's door.
`I'll be in Salterns all week,' he told Audrey, `I've got some affairs from the estate to tie up. I won't be far away. I'm staying with Melissa's Gran, and she can ring me up there anytime.'
`Fine. Fiona can take Melissa upstairs to her room, when you've gone. Put her suitcase down in the hall. We'll see about it later. Are you all enjoying Fairmouth?'
`Fairmouth is lovely. The hotel overlooks the harbour and Melissa has a lovely room, with a south-facing view across the anchorage. You like it, don't you darling?'
`I have a very nice room,' Melissa replied judiciously addressing Audrey. `I expect to be very happy there. I have beautiful new furniture, and everything is very smart, with new paint and wallpaper,' she added, looking about her with some distaste.
`Have a good time then sweetheart.' Her father kissed her.
`Oh, I will. Please don't worry. I can certainly arrange to enjoy myself. Have a good week, Dad.'
Melissa, honey child, food of love. Sunday was a sunny August day. The builders were blessedly absent. The older children had plans of their own. So Gerald and Audrey, and Fiona and Melissa went out together after all. They had a long walk, and stopped off at a pub for toasted cheese sandwiches, which they ate in its garden. Melissa walked happily, enjoyed the lunch, and the day went well. 
On Monday, the builders returned at eight am and Gerald and Audrey went into the office to begin the week's work. Fiona and Melissa were left to their own devices. Melissa was quick to size up the situation. 
`Your mother ought to be looking after us,' she told Fiona. `She hasn't made any arrangements for us today!'
`But we don't need looking after! What would you like to do? Let's ride our bikes.'
Melissa pursed her lips. 
`That's not the point,' she said. `Your mother is there to look after us. Why is she doing something else? She hasn't even asked what we want for breakfast, let alone where we want to go today.'
Fiona laughed. 
`We get up when we like in the holidays, and help ourselves to cornflakes and tea. There'll be coffee at half ten for everyone. Mum's busy right now.'
`Cornflakes!' Melissa was outraged. ‘I always have a cooked breakfast. It's your mother's duty to see we get a good start to the day!'
`Well, she's not here. Let's have cornflakes.'
Melissa said no more, and she and Fiona shared cornflakes and later had coffee with everyone else. All six of the Camerons and Melissa sat around the kitchen table. But when lunchtime arrived, it proved to be a quick snack of cheese and salad followed by fruit and Melissa decided to put her foot down. She knew what was due to Melissa.
`I'm afraid I don't like cheese,' she told Fiona's mother politely.
`Sorry? What?'
`I don't eat cheese.'
`Don't you?' Fiona's mother was startled. `You ate it yesterday!'
`That's why I am not eating it today,' Melissa said patiently. `I would like something different.'
Fiona's mother laughed. 
`Fiona can get you an egg then,' she said absently, `won't you Fiona? Lissa, you can always have an egg, you know. There's lots in the fridge. Just help yourself. I've got to go. It's getting late.'  
She vanished in the direction of the office. Melissa's baleful glare was lost among her vertebrae. At the evening meal Fiona's eldest sister, Tessa, had a guest of her own so they sat down eight at the table. Everyone had been out, and had bottomless appetites.
Audrey made use of one of her quick popular meals, pre-panned for days when she had little time but large numbers to feed. She made these meals ahead and froze them. This one was spaghetti bolognaise served with parmesan cheese. There was a side salad. It was a family favourite. Everyone picked up their forks and started in with a will.
Melissa made no move to pick up her fork, but sat with her hands folded in her lap.
`Eat up,' said Tessa. `Have you got salad? Don't wait. It'll only get cold!'
She doesn’know her danger. She is sitting next to Medusa. Under Medusa's gaze the heap on her plate turns chill and shapeless. It solidifies. 
`I don't eat spaghetti bolognaise,' she said. 
There is a stunned hush. The chatter round the table stopped abruptly. Everyone is momentarily turned to stone. Briefly. There are cries of `Bad luck!' and `Good Lord!'.
`Why not?'
Never mind,' said Audrey, quelling this. `Not everyone likes the same food,' she tells them severely. `Lissa you don't have to eat it! There's cheese, or there's eggs.'
Coldly, Melissa vetoed both cheese and eggs. The meal was cleared off late and Gerald was annoyed with Audrey. He was picking up a friend to go to a committee meeting and was forced to apologise for keeping him waiting. 
On the following day, Fiona and Melissa went out with the sailing club and they both enjoyed it greatly. They took their bikes to the club and cycled the half mile there and back. Melissa is displeased.
`Your mother should have taken us in the car,' she tells Fiona.
She refused baked beans at lunch, and would not eat roast lamb at supper. 
`I don't feel like it,' she told Audrey. 
`I don't eat tinned food. And I don't eat frozen food.' 
She has seen the lamb unfreezing earlier in the day. 
`Food should be cooked fresh.'
`The potatoes are fresh and so is the broccoli,' Gerald says. `Eat it!' 
He looks dangerous, so Melissa does. Some of it.
After supper, her father rang.
`She's right here,' Audrey said. `Hasn't it been a lovely day?' She feels guilty. `The girls have been out sailing.' She calls across to Melissa. 
`Better use the phone in the hall. It's your dad.'
`Hullo Dad. Yes, a lovely day. That's right. Fiona and I were out on the water. I'm having a very nice time. It's just that I'm not getting anything to eat. I can't eat what they have here', she added, raising her voice to be sure Audrey hears. `But please don't worry, I'm not very hungry yet.'
On Wednesday, Melissa refused to go sailing. 
`I don't like biking,' she told Audrey. `And I don't like walking,' she forestalled her quickly.
`Then Fiona must go alone,' said Audrey. So Fiona went sailing, and Melissa made a mid-morning trip to the shops in the High Street. She was out a long time.
`Lissa, please tell me when you go out,' Audrey said. `It's a house rule. We need to know what people are doing.'
At lunch, Melissa refused quiche lorraine, and after lunch a harassed Fiona came to the office to consult her mother. 
`Mum, have you a moment?'
`Can't it wait?' asks Audrey.
`It's Lissa. She doesn't eat ANYTHING. I don't know what to give her.'
`Well, what did you eat when you stayed with her? You must have eaten something!'
Fiona tried to remember.
`We had sausages, and cauliflower cheese, and omelettes - oh, all sorts of things. Melissa's mother cooked whatever we wanted. Melissa thinks you don't look after us properly!'
`I DO look after you properly,' Audrey said wearily. You've got everything the heart could desire. Go and make Lissa a sandwich and find something interesting to do.'
`She won't eat sandwiches,' Fiona predicted, `and she won't want to do anything we do,' she added darkly. Both of which predictions proved correct.
On Wednesday night, Melissa declared an all-out hunger strike.
`It won't last,' Gerald told Audrey.
`I shouldn't be so sure. I think Lissa is enjoying herself.'
`Well when she stops, we'll worry.'
`She's not homesick or anything,' said Audrey thoughtfully. `She's perfectly cheerful. But what are her family going to think? It looks as though we have awful food. Or that it's badly cooked! She really ought to eat proper meals.'
`Has she been out?'
`Yes. Yes, she has. She won't bike or go for a walk, but she goes to the High Street. She does tell me when she goes, now I've asked her to. I'd be much happier if she went around with Fiona. But I can't keep Fiona here all day'
`So what makes you think Lissa's doing without meals?  I don't think that young woman goes without anything she wants. She'll have got something to eat from the bakery, or been to the cafe.'
`I'll give it one more day,' Audrey said. `But then I think we should phone her Dad. Lissa can't go scavenging. We're responsible for her food.'
On Thursday, Melissa extended her hunger strike to include drinks. In the morning, she refused coffee and in the afternoon she was about to refuse tea when Fiona, seized the cup from Audrey, and ordered her friend to drink it so fiercely that she did.
`I thought you were going to crown me,' she said later, `so I had to. Otherwise I wouldn't have.'
Fiona went for a bike ride by herself and Audrey met Melissa coming downstairs neatly dressed with a handbag over her shoulder.
`I'm just going to the shops before they shut.'
Audrey much preferred the girls to go out together. She knew Joy never let Melissa go about alone. She was worried. She decided to tackle Melissa.
`Lissa, why not enjoy your stay with us? You like biking, boating, and walking.You and Fiona get on well. Why not do things with Fiona?'
`I can't go out with Fiona, can I?' Melissa was politely reasonable. `I have to go to the shops.'
Audrey ignored this. 
`I think you could give them a miss. There's plenty to eat here. You eat eggs and cheese at home. Why not give me a hand to get the supper?  We've got something special tonight. We can cook it together and surprise everyone.'
Melissa was trapped on the third stair. Audrey leant on the baluster, looking up at her from the bottom. Melissa cannot escape. She must decide.
Melissa hesitated, weighing the rewards. A glint of laughter showed in her black eyes. For a moment, she almost relented. It was a prank, a joke that had gone too far. She would laugh and give in. She would be friendly, would cook supper with this woman, who was ready to like her. Audrey recognised the gleam of domestic fellow-feeling. It can be fun to share a kitchen! Would Melissa laugh? Perhaps, if she had been three years older, or three years younger. Sisterhood is a great temptation. But Melissa was thirteen. Thirteen is an unlucky number. Melissa decided against sisterhood and against Audrey, and against her like. Against everyone else, except Melissa. Why should she level with Audrey? Melissa knows what is due from mothers. Especially to such as herself. Victory was hers for the taking. Why should she forgo it?  She would show mothers their proper place. This one, and others like her. She was the arbiter of the world; its very centre. She need not suffer fools gladly. Her calculations were much the same as those made by Miss Parker.
`How kind of you to worry about me,' she said sweetly, `but you really shouldn't. I'm quite alright. I'm enjoying myself here.' She looked Fiona's mother straight in the eye. `I am enjoying myself IMMENSELY.' 
She flounced down the remaining stairs, brushed past Audrey, and disappeared out of the front door. Audrey had a long experience of the ways of teenagers. She understood Melissa's options very well. She knew exactly what Melissa had decided and why. If only Melissa had laughed! Even a smile might have been enough to save her. Standing in the hall, she saw how it would be for Melissa. Victory was heady stuff and from now on Melissa would choose as she had just chosen. Audrey would have helped her, but now there was no more she could do. Unless, even at the eleventh hour, Nigel could succeed, where she had failed? After all, Melissa loved her father. Audrey called Melissa's father that same evening. 
`I don't think Melissa is enjoying herself here,' she told Nigel. This was a lie.
`Lissa has rung me, and she seems to be very happy with you. She told me she was having a lovely time.'
Audrey sighed. She had hoped to avoid playing the ace of spades. 
`I am worried about Lissa,' she said. `There doesn't seem to be anything here she will eat.'
`But there's nothing she doesn't eat. Joy has always made sure she gets a balanced diet, and plenty of variety.'
`She hasn't eaten anything here, so far as I know, for several days.'
`What's wrong with the food?'
`Nothing's wrong with it. Lissa just doesn't eat it. She mentioned this to you the other day, on the phone.'
`Lissa eats anything that's properly cooked.'
Audrey kept her temper. 
`I'm afraid she isn't drinking anything either. Not even milk or tea. I feel you should know.' Two could play at the food game. `Perhaps she would be better off with her Gran?'
`Beryl is going down to the West Country tomorrow morning.'
Audrey cannot let Nigel evade the issue. 
`I felt I must let you know how things are. But, if you think she is perfectly alright, I am happy to keep Lissa.'
This was true.  Audrey did not dislike Melissa. But Nigel must cope with his daughter.
`Would you like to speak to her?'
Does he know what hangs by this seemingly innocuous question? Nigel too has options. He knows the score. His protests to Audrey lack the ring of conviction. He could remonstrate with Melissa. He could make good his place as head of his family now that it had been put to the test. But he doesn't. Thirteen years of compliance silence him. He cannot bring himself to do it.
`Would you like to speak to her?' Audrey asks again. 
She gives him time. But Nigel wouldn't like to speak to his daughter. He daren't. Melissa is his self-indulgence. He prefers to outface Audrey.
`Tell her to pack,' he orders angrily. `I can't pick Melissa up in the day.  It will have to be tonight. It's really very inconvenient.'
Is he to concede that she knows about children? Or, if she does, about his own honey child? No. Some things are final. Nigel arrived two hours later. A very nice man, very handsome. Also, very angry. 
`I thought it best to come for Lissa tonight. Her Gran is going down to Fairmouth tomorrow to join Joy for the weekend.' 
How could Audrey do this to him? What are mothers for? 
`I'm working tomorrow, you know.'
`So am I.'
Nigel stared. His temper rose. He was a traditionalist.Women who worked for a living should keep quiet about it. They did not know their place in the order of things. Was he not adequate as the sole breadwinner for his own family? What was the matter then, with Gerald? A bad influence on Melissa, the pair of them.
`Melissa can come to the office with me tomorrow. There's no reason why not. She is always well-behaved. I shan't even notice her! She's very good at keeping herself amused.'
`Indeed she is. Very good at it. I'm sure you will have things she likes to eat. She will be able to make up for going without here!'
`She eats anything at all - absolutely anything. She just says what she will eat to Joy or Beryl, and there's never any difficulty. A sandwich will do, if she feels like one.'
`If.'
‘Nigel, Melissa does not need a sandwich, but a soul’, thinks Audrey. ‘She needs a saviour. Isn't that what fathers are for?’ Should she say so? No! The angry, dark eyes, looking into hers demand her silence.  Melissa is his raison d'être. He dotes on her. Should he risk her love, by opposing her slightest whim? Never! He, too, had weighed his options.
Melissa came downstairs to meet her father, with her suitcase in her hand. She looked shiny and well-fed; like a beautiful black and white cat. She was fully in charge of the situation. Very grown-up. 
`Hullo Daddy,' she said to the adoring, black eyes. `How very kind of you to pick me up.' 
She was enjoying his admiration. She met Audrey's quizzical eyes coldly.
`I've folded my sheets,' she said, `and I don't think I've left anything. I've had a lovely time with you. Goodbye and thank you SO much for everything.'
She dealt the sentences out like so many blows, aiming them carefully between Audrey's eyes. So, she will punish all, who resist her wishes!
But when she glances at Audrey, she is nonplussed. Audrey is looking sorry for her. Sorry for her, Melissa, the centre of the world. How dare she look so, when Melissa has won everything? Thirteen is unlucky, Audrey is thinking. Melissa has lost everything. 
Melissa climbed into her father's expensive car, and waved royally to Fiona.
`Goodbye Fiona. I hope you get on better with Miss Parker next term. I'll write and tell you how I like it at Fairmouth.’
A week later, Audrey received a letter from Melissa. `Thank you very much for having me,' she wrote. `I am sorry that I left my wellingtons in your outside cupboard. Please send them. I did so enjoy my stay. Especially all those delicious meals.'
She did not write to Fiona. She does not need Fiona. Nothing lasts. 
A guest house is a demanding place. It absorbs all Joy's efforts. And Beryl's. It is tiring. There are unexpected problems and costs. The electricity supply proves inadequate to the load and requires a new cable. The tank in the roof has to be renewed. The plumbing is a headache. They are very busy. They are finished with nurturing. 
Many women love children. It is more difficult to put up with teenagers. Teenage girls compete with their mothers at home. They transfer their affections to boyfriends, who are a worry.They want more than their share of attention. 
Attention is at a premium in a guest house, and visitors must come first. It turns out that every room has its price and a harbour view is sought after. It is better for family to use the back quarters. 
Breakfast is the most pressured meal and everyone must lend a hand to serve it. The family is lucky to find time for a bowl of cornflakes. Fortunately, supper is only served to order. 
Tregarren Estate proved to be short of capital and at the mercy of its bankers. Nigel was made redundant within three years and agreed to take on the part-time position of bursar at the school in Fairmouth. It was not very well paid but the Lashams managed nicely because Joy and Beryl were able to supplement the family income.  
Life flows in something of a backwater in Fairmouth, out of season. No-one seemed to notice that the centre of the world had arrived there. Indeed, for everyone except Melissa, it remained where it had always been.


© Copyright 2020 Liz Watson. All rights reserved.

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