When Jill arrived, the paddling pool was already inflated and filled, laid out on the lawn like a huge yellow pet feeding-bowl – if your pet was a diplodocus. She’d always thought there was something prehistoric about her mum’s garden. The trees from the edge of the cemetery craned over the old wooden fence at the back like a crowd of spectators locked out of a football match, and there was an overgrown tangle of shrubs and ferns squatting in front of the bamboo screens which cordoned off the neighbours’ gardens at either side. You could almost imagine some dumb-eyed dinosaur plodding out of the undergrowth and lumbering across the uneven lawn – though perhaps they didn’t have flowers back then, or grass? She’d look it up later.
‘You should’ve waited till I got here,’ she said, irritated by her mother’s martyrdom but also secretly relieved. She didn’t want to stay longer than she had to. Ed, on the other hand, was already twisting off his trainers.
‘He likes to get straight in,’ said Penny, smiling indulgently at her grandson. ‘We always get the paddling pool out when it’s sunny, don’t we, sweetie?’ Ed ignored her, with a three-year-old’s focus on immediate gratification, dragging his Spiderman t-shirt over his head as he ran to the open patio doors. The women followed, watching him fling his red shorts and Minions underpants across the lawn like discarded litter.
‘Come and put your swim-shorts on, babe,’ said Jill, noticing her mother’s frown.
‘I wish you wouldn’t call him ‘babe’, Jillian,’ she said, predictable as clockwork. Before Jill could respond, she added: ‘And, anyway, he doesn’t need his swim-shorts. It’s only us.’
‘He needs sun cream though,’ Jill said, fumbling in her bag.
Ed was already in the water, laughing at the splash made by a dropped toy car, then leaping up and down in the circle of sparkle and glitter, screaming with pleasure. Just like a baby chimp, thought Jill, as she watched him crouch down and tap the surface of the water with the palms of his hands, hooting with delight.
‘He’ll be fine,’ said Penny, looking upwards as if amazed by her daughter’s excessive concern. ‘I’ll spray him in a minute with that new stuff Geraldine brought round. Let him enjoy himself for a bit.’
‘Mum, he’ll burn. It’s midday!’
‘Oh, for goodness sake, Jillian! I was outside all the time when I was a child – we all were. No one ever lathered me up with Factor Fifty. Our Tilly used to rub baby oil on her arms in the summer. It never did us any harm.’
‘It can cause skin cancer in later life,’ countered Jill, but her heart wasn’t in the fight. She was distracted by the mental image of her elderly Auntie Tilly, loose leathery skin speckled with liver spots, oiled up like a chipolata waiting for the barbecue.
Her mother wasn’t listening anyway. ‘That’s something else that’s changed,’ she went on, casually moving some seedlings round in a tray in the cold frame by the outhouse as she habitually did each time she passed it. ‘In my day, we got olive oil in little bottles to put down our ears. No one fried stuff in it or – for goodness sake! – poured it on salads.’
‘Italian people would’ve…’ muttered Jill, but Penny ignored her.
‘You know me, I’ve always liked a salad, but I can’t be doing with oil all over it. Your dad was the same. He liked a bit of vinegar on his cucumber and some salt on his eggs. But people these days want everything complicated. Did I tell you about my cousin Florry’s daughter’s wedding?’
‘Many times,’ said Jill, trying to head her off. She was unsuccessful.
‘They had one of those buffets where you have to help yourself. All salad-y stuff. And your dad said “What’s that horrible smell, Penny?” – and he was right, there was the most awful smell. It turned out to be that thing, you know, like a custard tart but savoury…’
‘Yes, quiche. Broccoli and blue cheese! We were horrified, your dad and me. I mean, putting broccoli in a tart? Your dad never could stand blue cheese. They told us it was Godzilla or something…’
‘Gorgonzola,’ said Jill, wearily.
‘Yes, that’s the one. French or something. Horrible…’ Penny paused for a long, thoughtful moment, while Jill waited, wondering whether her mother’s story had ground to a halt or whether there was more to come. She was trying to imagine her late father at a wedding reception. Had he worn a suit? Did he own a suit? He’d died before her own wedding. Suddenly, as if she’d been rewound, her mother seemed to revive: ‘…In fact, I think I’ll have a bit of salad for my tea.’
Jill made a vaguely assenting noise. It was easier not to engage; it just made things worse. Conversations with her mother were like jigsaw puzzles – Jill often found herself trying to find a slot for a piece of sky only to discover that actually it was grass which had miraculously changed colour when she wasn’t looking.
To change the subject, she asked: ‘Mum, did Ed leave Peppa Pig here when he came round yesterday?’
‘What’s Peppa Pig?’
‘His blow-up toy. You know, that inflatable pig he’s obsessed with? In fact, you bought it, didn’t you?’ Jill recalled her irritation when Ed opened the present at Christmas – he’d actually wanted Peppa’s brother, George, but Penny had got the wrong one. It hadn’t mattered, though, as he’d taken a shine to Peppa after all.
‘Peppa’s a funny name for a pig,’ said Penny.
‘It’s after the TV show. She’s really popular.’
‘I’d’ve thought he’d call his pig Pinky, if it’s pink. Like Pinky and Perky.’
‘I don’t think kids know Pinky and Perky these days, Mum. He’s had it with him every time he’s come here for the past month!’
‘I’ve not seen it,’ said Penny, in an aggrieved tone that suggested Jill was interrogating her unnecessarily. ‘He must’ve lost it at home. Anyway, would you like a coffee? I know you won’t drink tea.’ Jill was aware of the criticism embedded in this sentence, but it was difficult to pin down. Was her mother suggesting that her dislike of tea made her freakish, an outsider in this Yorkshire village where she’d been brought up? Or was it a complaint about her always being the problem-child who refused to drink tea due to sheer ‘contrariness’?
Her instinct was to refuse, make up some excuse, but she also felt a twisting spiral of guilt. Her mother would be looking after Ed all afternoon while Jill worked on her dissertation, until Gareth picked him up on his way home from work. Seven hours of free childcare. She didn’t have to leave straight away; she could stay and have a chat, like her sister Geri did. However, escape was always her default position.
Before she could answer, her mother threw a plastic bottle at her. It was probably meant to be thrown to her, but the action was so sudden and unexpected, and so badly aimed, that it bounced off the arm of the chair and Jill had to scrabble around on the patio flags to retrieve it.
‘For God’s sake, Mum!’
Suntan cream, factor fifty. She must have had it on her all the time – in her pocket or stashed somewhere nearby.
‘Please don’t take the lord’s name in vain, Jillian.’ Penny turned towards the house, waving vaguely in the direction of the bottle of suntan cream. ‘You spray it on him and I’ll put the kettle on.’
‘Could I just have a glass of water? Please?’ Jill called after her. ‘Or juice or something?’
Sparks of water flashed across the paving slabs, landing in wobbly grey lines on the sunbaked granite. It was oven-hot out here. Ed refused to come out of the pool, pulling a face as if he was being mistreated, so in a fit of irritation she sprayed the cream onto his wet skin and hooked a Spiderman sunhat over his head. He looked strange to her, naked except for the baseball cap, but he was completely happy. His toddler’s pot belly stuck out comically, though his limbs were skinny. His small body looked so vulnerable, she suddenly wanted to stroke his curly hair, rest her hand on the arch of his back for a moment, but she knew he’d shrug her off. She could visualize the twisting movement, the scowl, the squeal of outrage, so she resisted the urge and instead sat back in the garden chair.
Crimson geraniums blazed in the raised flower-bed. A blackbird hopped across the grass. A child’s beaker lay on its side on the doorstep, an ant exploring its syrupy spillage. The heat stroked her neck like a massage. It would be too hot in a moment. She felt the sweat stick her fringe to her brow, slide her glasses down her nose. She would have to leave soon. Back to the air-conditioned car, the laptop in the living-room with the thick curtains closed and the fan on full, leaving Ed to wade knee-deep in that delicious water.
Not even noticing she’d gone.
Her mother came out carrying a rectangular wooden tray that looked far too heavy. Jill rose, leaning over to take it from her, but her mother turned away, placing it down carefully herself with a small sigh. She’d brought a large teapot, sugar bowl, milk jug, two china cups and saucers, a plate of Mr Kipling French Fancies and chocolate digestives which would surely melt in the sun, and a plastic tumbler half-filled with tap water. Jill noticed that her mother’s hair was paler and thinner than it had been. She usually dyed it, but she must have grown it out. It looked like the shade had been slowly diluted, like when you dab at a Merlot stain on a carpet with a wet cloth: it was now the colour of cat litter. When did that happen? She was surprised she hadn’t noticed it before.
Stretching her back and rolling her shoulders, Penny wound down the sun canopy so Jill could sit in the shade. This was another of the things Jill felt her mother disapproved of: her younger daughter’s dislike of the sun. Jill’s fair, freckled skin burned easily and she’d always hated being hot and sweaty. Sunbathing was so dull. Her mother, who’d been a golden-skinned brunette in her youth like Jill’s older sister, was, even now, in her element on these July afternoons.
The canopy protected Jill, but bars of light still tilted against her son’s newly-minted skin, making her anxious. She gazed at him, as he squealed and splashed in the yellow pool, attempting to fill his sandcastle bucket using a small plastic spade. What a release to be so little conscious of yourself, she thought, watching him – to feel the slip and slide of liquid against your calves, the bumpy creased plastic under the soles of your bare feet – to stand naked, wearing just a sunhat, and pour cool water from a jug through your unfurled fingers.
As her mother poured tea into one of the china cups, Jill heard the gate squeak and footsteps on the gravel drive. There was no sign Penny had heard anything; her hearing must be getting worse. She looked up, however, when the back door opened, triggering the electronic bleep of the house’s security system. A moment later, Geraldine appeared in the kitchen window, waving to them. Ed waved back excitedly.
‘Auntie Jelly!’ he squealed, jumping out of the pool and running over. His wet feet made tiny dark footprints on the grey slate paving stones, and something about these tiny blurred marks made Jill’s stomach tighten with emotion.
Geri stepped out onto the patio, tall and slender as a supermodel, in denim shorts, a white vest and a loose unbuttoned shirt, her curly hair bouncing round her shoulders. She was carrying a bunch of pink roses wrapped in green, scalloped tissue paper. Jill felt the knot in her abdomen again. She hadn’t realized Geri was expected. That explained the extra tea cup.
‘Hiya, babykins!’ Ed flung his greasy wet arms round his auntie’s knees. ‘Whoa there! I can’t pick you up, dumpling – I’ve got these flowers for Nanny in my hand.’
‘Oh, Geraldine, they’re lovely,’ cooed Penny, taking them from her. ‘You shouldn’t have bothered!’
‘Well, I know you like pink roses and these came into the shop this morning so I just thought…why not?’ Geri kissed her mother on the cheek. Jill wondered when Geri had started doing that. They’d never been a kissy-huggy sort of family. When had she last kissed her mother? Had she ever kissed her – spontaneously, as opposed to when bending to the expectations of others?
‘You can’t afford to buy me flowers all the time,’ said Penny. Jill imagined a hint of criticism aimed at her in that sentence. It never occurred to her to bring her mum flowers.
‘Staff reduction, remember. They were a bargain. How are you?’ Her voice dropped slightly in volume as she said these last three words, which seemed to put more emphasis on the words than necessary. Jill gritted her teeth.
‘Me? Oh, I’m all right! I’m fine, fine,’ said her mum. She turned to her grandson. ‘Do you want to come with me to put these in a vase, Edward?’
Ed, however, had picked up the discarded beaker on the floor, and was chuckling as an ant ran across his foot.
‘Leave that, babe. It’s dirty!’ said Jill.
‘Oh, yes, don’t touch that, sweetie,’ said her mum, taking it from her grandson’s hands. ‘Remember, you dropped it yesterday? Silly Nanny forgot to clear it up.’
Geri laughed as the child’s face fell into a sulky expression.
‘Shall I get you a fresh drink, dumpling?’ she asked Ed, but Penny pressed her forearm, indicating that she should sit beside Jill.
‘I’ll get it. Come on, sweetie, let’s get you some juice and a biscuit.’
‘He doesn’t need a biscuit, Mum,’ said Jill, her tone sourly resigned. ‘Haven’t you got an apple or a banana? He really likes bananas these days.’
‘You shouldn’t eat bananas before you go swimming,’ said her mother, giving Jill one of her disapproving looks.
‘He’s paddling in a child’s pool!’
‘Never eat a banana before swimming or sleeping. Remember old Mr Ross?’
‘To be fair, Mum, he did have heart disease,’ said Geri, raising an amused eyebrow at her sister. Penny held up her hands as if in surrender.
‘All I know is he ate a banana then went to bed straight afterwards,’ she said, in a tone that suggested she was about to deliver the coup de grace. ‘Woke up dead next day.’
There was a moment of silence as the sisters wondered how to respond.
It was Jill who broke it. ‘Biscuits and crisps and chocolate are more likely to kill Ed than a bloody banana,’ she muttered, instantly regretting it as her mother and sister both looked at her reproachfully. ‘I’m sorry, but it’s true. I don’t want Ed eating too much sugar.’
‘Oh, it’s just the latest fad!’ said Penny. ‘There’s nothing wrong with a bit of what you fancy, is there, Edward?’ She shook her head exaggeratedly at him, smiling broadly. ‘My dad always used to say they gave soldiers chocolate in the war to keep them going. It’s good for you.’
‘Soldiers were using up loads of calories…’ began Jill, then, seeing Geri’s warning glance, her voice faltered but, unable to stop herself, she went on: ‘All they had was bully beef and mess hall stew. And they were marching all the time…’ For a second, she thought of Wilfred Owen, dead on a pontoon bridge just before the Armistice was announced. The stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle… She’d studied the soldier-poets for her third-year undergraduate dissertation. Then another First World War poem popped into her head, about a mother bathing her little boy and wondering whether he’d ever have to go to war, but she couldn’t remember who it was by or what it was called. Something else to look up later.
‘Armies march on their stomachs,’ said Penny, looking triumphant.
‘Ed isn’t in the army, is he? I’d just rather he had fruit, that’s all.’
As she led him into the house, her mother addressed her dripping grandson in the sickly-sweet ‘baby talk voice’ Jill always felt was precisely calculated to annoy her. ‘We like biccies and crispies and choccy, though, don’t we, darling?’
‘He likes playing with matches and running with scissors…’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jillian.’ Her mother’s voice receded into the depths of the house, and Jill and Geri were left alone on the patio, under the canopy.
Geri folded her long legs into one of the garden chairs and cradled the stout conker-coloured teapot with her elegant hands to see whether it was still hot. Jill watched her pour a dark brown fountain of tea into the extra cup on the tray and tip in a splash of milk.
‘How can you drink that, when it’s so hot?’
‘You should try it. I’ve been dying for a cuppa all morning.’
Jill thought about her sister’s job in the florists’. Geri’s life was a patchwork of part-time, temporary contracts: now and then, she’d earn money by decorating a special-occasion cake or deejaying at a club. She wrote a popular cake-making blog which earned her a bit of cash from advertising. Last year, she’d worked in Nando’s as a waitress for six months, until she fell out with her boss. She shared a flat with two equally unsettled friends she’d met at Manchester Met (before she dropped out).
When Jill compared her own life to Geri’s, her sister’s existence seemed chaotic, woven of gauzy daydreams that might tear into ribbons at the slightest touch. Jill couldn’t live like that. She was thankful she had Gareth’s steady income to help her complete her doctorate and hopefully get a steady teaching job in a university. She didn’t know how Geri could stand not knowing how she would pay her rent next year or when the next job would turn up.
‘You know, they say that fruit has as much sugar as cake,’ said Geri, biting into a yellow fondant fancy. She spoke in a quiet voice designed to be unheard by their mother.
‘It also has vitamins and roughage. It’s not empty calories.’
‘I’m sure you’re right. I’m just saying, things that seem ok aren’t always as healthy as we think they are. They used to advise people to eat apples to keep their teeth clean – An apple a day keeps the dentist away! – Remember? But now they say apples damage your tooth enamel. The acid, see?’
‘I know that a banana is better for Ed than a bloody biscuit!’
‘Of course, you’re right. I’m just saying.’
They sipped their drinks.
‘Anyway, it was doctor not dentist,’ said Jill.
‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’
‘Really? I always thought it was dentist.’
‘No, definitely doctor.’ Jill glared at her sister who sipped her tea, swallowed the remains of the fondant fancy, and looked out over the garden, apparently happy to be corrected. ‘You know as well as I do that it’s the principle that matters. If I say he should have a banana, then that’s what he should have. I’m his bloody mother, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Yes, of course, you’re right.’ Geri thoughtfully licked the soft chocolate from the top of a digestive, while Jill pulled a face. ‘But she’s your bloody mother too, you know.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Nothing. Just that…no, nothing. Really, nothing.’
There was silence for a few moments. They could hear Ed giggling inside the house, and their mother’s voice warbling ‘Ma, he’s kissing me!’. Her voice was thinning like her hair.
‘That was a bit weird, wasn’t it?’ said Jill at last. ‘When she said she’d forgotten to clear up that beaker?’
‘Anyone can forget stuff. I bet even you forget to clear things up sometimes.’
‘But Mum’s always so house-proud. She’d never have left a dirty beaker on the patio when we were kids.’
‘So, she forgot a beaker. Does it matter?’
‘Well, no, of course not. I was just saying…’
‘Has she told you the results?’
‘Results? Of what?’ To Jill, ‘results’ were things you got after you sat exams.
‘Of the scan.’
‘What scan?’ Jill suddenly felt a jolt of anger. Her mother had had a scan of some sort but hadn’t told her?
Geri stared at her. ‘The brain scan! She went to see Dr Westcott a few weeks ago and he sent her for a CT scan. She must have told you.’
‘She hasn’t told me anything,’ said Jill. ‘A brain scan? What’s wrong with her brain?’
‘That’s what they were trying to find out. Apparently, she’s got a tumour…’
‘What? My mother’s got cancer and no one thought to mention it to me?’ Jill found herself struggling to get out of the garden chair, catching the table with her knee and rattling the teacups.
Geri leaned forward and pressed her fingers against her sister’s forearm, the same gesture Jill had seen her mother use earlier on Geri herself.
‘Keep your voice down! It isn’t cancer. But it might still be dangerous. They’ll need to operate, if they can. They need to do more scans.’
‘But why did no one tell me?’
‘You know what she’s like. She didn’t want you to worry.’
‘But she told you?’
‘Maybe she thought I’d take it better than you. That I wouldn’t over-react.’
‘Over-fucking-react?’ Jill whispered the swearword, aware of the proximity of her son and her mother, who disapproved of swearing even more than she disapproved of daughters who didn’t drink tea. ‘How am I supposed to react to the news that my mother has a fucking brain tumour?’
They were both leaning forward now, huddled over the table, as if plotting a conspiracy.
‘You know Mum. She doesn’t like us to worry. She probably thinks you’ve got enough on your plate, what with Ed and the PhD…’
‘I can’t believe no one told me!’
Geri’s voice softened. ‘Maybe she didn’t want to have to deal with your anxiety. I think she only told me because I happened to be here when the GP rang her.’
‘Then why didn’t you tell me?’
Geri paused for a moment, looking uncomfortable. ‘She asked me not to mention it to you. She said she was going to tell you herself.’
‘I need to find out what’s going on.’
‘Please, Jill – let her tell you when she’s ready…’
Before Jill could respond, their mother returned with Ed. He was carrying a small inflatable pig in one hand, the thumb of the same hand stuck in his mouth so that the pig was resting its snout in his curls. His free arm was round his grandmother’s leg. She was carrying a kettle in one hand, steam still drifting out of its spout.
‘Watch Ed with that, Mum!’ said Jill, putting out her hand to pull the child away from his grandmother’s legs. He immediately yanked himself out of her grip, bouncing off his grandmother’s leg, making her wobble and hold the hot kettle further away from him. Jill felt her temper rising, fuelled by anxiety, but Geri headed off Ed’s tantrum by grabbing him and tipping him upside down over the grass. His incipient scream became a squeal of pleasure.
‘For goodness sake, Jillian, I’m not incompetent!’
‘No, sorry. I just thought…It looked unsafe…’ Jill’s eyes watched the kettle as Penny swung it round. She seemed barely aware that she was holding it.
‘Stop fussing, Jillian. You’re always making a fuss!’
‘I see Ed found Peppa.’ Jill spoke in a conciliatory tone, but she could feel the edge of her temper still pressing against her words.
‘His pig, Mum. The inflatable pig. We talked about it earlier, remember?’
‘I don’t know where he got that pig from,’ said Penny. Jill glanced at Geri, but she was busy tickling Ed.
‘What’s the water for, Mum?’ asked Jill.
‘To warm up the pool, of course. We don’t want Ed catching cold, do we?’
‘Let me do it,’ said Jill, holding out her hand towards the kettle.
Penny looked for a moment like she was going to argue, but then she sighed and gave in. As Jill stepped across the lawn, holding the hot kettle gingerly at arm’s length and carefully tipping it into the pool, she heard Ed begin to scream behind her, and Geri’s voice said: ‘Ok, ok, no one’s taking your pig away from you! You just dropped it, that’s all!’. The next moment Ed was behind his mother, shouldering past her legs, clutching his inflatable pig and trying to get in the pool.
‘Wait!’ shouted Jill, more loudly than she’d intended, holding out her arm to stop his forward movement. ‘It might be too hot!’ Geri, who had followed Ed across the lawn, now took hold of him from behind, while Jill felt the water in the pool, swishing it round with her hand and remembering how her mother used to test the bathwater with her elbow. The temperature was fine, still on the cool side even. She felt her mother take the empty kettle from her. Ed squirmed and wriggled in Geri’s grip, kicking out with his tiny feet and flailing his arms, all the time keeping up a loud caterwauling, and Jill felt secretly glad that her sister was experiencing ‘The Full Ed’, as Gareth called his son’s tantrums. ‘Auntie Jelly’ so often seemed to get the hugs and kisses, the giggles and laughter.
‘Oof! Oi, you little chuff!’ Ed’s foot had caught Geri in the stomach, and she suddenly let him go. He landed on his feet, the tantrum subsiding instantaneously as he regained his freedom. Running wildly to the pool, he misjudged the distance and bounced off its bulbous inflated side, ending up seated on the grass, still clutching Peppa Pig, his eyes wide with astonishment.
‘I’ve told you before,’ chided Jill. ‘You have to listen to what Mummy says or you’ll get hurt.’
‘Ed, you need to listen to your mummy,’ echoed Penny, but her voice sounded weak, disengaged, as if she was reciting a mantra. Jill glanced at her mother, who was setting the hot kettle down on the lawn some distance from the pool. As she straightened up, she suddenly seemed to stumble, reaching out with one hand for something to support herself with, but there was nothing there. Jill was beside her in a moment, holding her arm, Geri at her other side.
‘Are you ok, Mum?’
‘I’m fine,’ said Penny, impatiently. ‘Just a bit of a dizzy turn, that’s all. Nothing to make a fuss about.’
Geri placed a patio chair behind their mother and, each holding one arm, they gently lowered her into the seat in the way they’d done once before, years ago, when she’d slipped a disc. Penny complained that it was all a lot of fuss over nothing, but she allowed herself to sit down.
Ed waddled over, trailing his toy pig along the grass behind him, and attempted to climb onto his grandmother’s lap.
‘No, babe, leave Nanny alone for a moment,’ said Jill. She expected her mother to say she was fine, but in fact Penny was staring rather vacantly at the pool now, as if she hadn’t heard. Her skin was pale and chalky, and up close she looked older than usual.
Attempting to distract Ed, Jill asked: ‘Where did you find Peppa, babe?’
‘Un’er table,’ said Ed.
‘Well, why don’t you take her for a swim?’
‘Show me how she swims,’ said Geri, ushering him towards the pool.
‘Pigs can’t swim,’ said Penny suddenly.
‘Pigs,’ repeated Penny. ‘They can’t swim.’
Jill and Geri exchanged looks.
‘My father kept pigs and they were always escaping,’ explained Penny. ‘He’d send us after them in case they fell in the river, because they can’t swim. It’s their trotters. They wave their legs about – you know, panicking and carrying on – and their trotters cut their own throats.’
‘Mum, that’s not true,’ said Geri.
‘No, no, my dad told us, when we were kids: pigs can’t swim.’
‘I don’t see how they could twist their legs in such a way that their trotters would cut their own throats,’ said Jill, thoughtfully. ‘I mean, their knees are the wrong way round.’
‘Trust you to start thinking seriously about it,’ said Geri, pulling a face at her. ‘The point is that it’s just nonsense!’
‘Well, I don’t know how they do it.’ Penny was ignoring Geri and addressing Jill. ‘But that’s what my dad told me. You ask our Tilly. Pigs can’t swim. Have you ever seen a pig swimming?’
‘On the internet, Mum,’ said Geri. ‘I can show you videos of pigs swimming.’
‘Oh, the internet! They make stuff up on there. Mrs Jacob at the newsagent’s told me they make actresses look half their age! They could easily make it look like a pig was swimming. It was probably an otter or something, and they just put a pig’s head on it.’
‘Mum, don’t be ridicu—’ began Geri but she was interrupted by Jill’s sudden loud gulp of laughter. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
‘I’m being serious,’ said Penny. ‘That’s what they do!’
Letting out a series of strangulated wheezes, Jill walked over to the paddling pool where her son was now happily pushing Peppa underwater and holding her down. Ed stared up at his mother slightly nervously, clearly unused to seeing her in this state. ‘Proof!’ she said, between hysterical snorts. ‘Pigs can swim! Show Nanny how Peppa swims, Ed!’ Ed let go of the inflatable pink pig and it bobbed to the surface of the water like a cheerful buoy. ‘There! That’s no pig-headed otter!’ Jill knelt down and took hold of the toy, using it as a makeshift paddle to splash water at her son, who let out a joyful shriek and began splashing her back.
By this time, Geri was laughing wildly too, and – caught up in the excitement –
even Penny had a smile on her face.
‘That’s right, Eddie – splash Mummy!’ urged Geri, moving over to them and kneeling down beside Jill so she could join in the fun.
As her sister leant into the circle of water to grab Peppa, who was floating away, Jill felt a sudden urge – not knowing quite why – to push her off-balance. With a loud splash, Geri landed face-down in the pool. Squawking with outrage, she struggled to turn herself round. Her leg, pressing down one of the pool’s edges, tipped water onto the lawn and over Jill’s knees. Ed screamed briefly as a fountain of water hit him in the face; he began running on the spot and shaking his arms in excitement.
‘You bugger!’ cried Geri, twisting to face her sister. Jill thought for a moment that she was angry, but in fact she was smiling as she held out her hand so that her sister could hoist her to her feet. Jill was half-expecting what came next: with a quick jerk of her arm, Geri pulled Jill into the pool too. She felt the cool water penetrate her jeans and splash up her T-shirt, and with it came a sudden memory, a folding back of the years to when she was Ed’s age. She was splashing in a paddling pool with Geri, and pulling their young mother into the water with them.
‘Be careful, girls!’ Penny had cried, her voice anxious but pleased too – pleased to be included perhaps.
Laughter exploded from Jill’s throat in a series of splutters, as if it had been trapped for months and was finally being released. Giddy with pleasure, her son immediately poured a bucketful of water over her head, giving a high-pitched baby chuckle. Then, overjoyed by this turn of events, he leapt onto his mother’s stomach, wanting to play-fight. As he wriggled in her arms, she took the opportunity to kiss him on his naked belly and his left shoulder, before Geri flung more water on them both, precipitating a loud and messy water-fight.
‘Be careful, girls!’ cried Penny, from her chair a few feet away.
Peppa Pig lay on the soggy grass, forgotten, while Jill’s mother watched them splash, haloed in a cascade of water droplets, and – for an enchanted moment – the afternoon sun stood still in the sky.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.