The Girlfriend

Michelle Frances | 7 mins


Nine months earlier – Saturday 7 June

Laura had a good feeling about today. A delicious start-of-the-holidays sensation had embraced her the minute she opened her eyes. She was up and dressed before it was even seven thirty on an already hot Saturday in June. Walking along the landing to Daniel’s bedroom, she listened out for sounds of him stirring, but the room that they kept clean and welcoming while he was at medical school was silent. He was still asleep. Hardly surprising seeing as he’d come home long after she’d gone to bed the last couple of nights. Daniel had been home from university for two whole days now, but she’d not yet seen him. Work was at a pressure point and she left early in the mornings, and he was out when she came home. Catching up with old friends, no doubt. She was envious of those conversations, hungry for information. She wanted to hear everything, soak it all up, enjoy the excitement she felt for him just starting out in his professional life and relish the summer with him before he went off to do his Foundation Programme. Today was their day – no last-minute urgent changes to the drama series she was producing for ITV that kept her in an edit suite until nine o’clock at night, no meetings, just a day together, mother and son.

She opened the door a crack, the smile ready on her face. The room was flooded with sunlight, the curtains wide and the bed made. She stopped there for a moment, confused, then realized he must have gone down to make breakfast. Glad that he was already up and about like her, she hurried excitedly down the stairs of her Kensington house and burst into the kitchen. It was empty. She looked around, a little lost, a pang of anxiety fluttering through her. Then she saw a piece of notepaper on the counter. Scrawled on it was a message: ‘In the basement. Will be HUNGRY!’ She smiled. He knew she hated it to be called the ‘basement’: the word rang with false modesty. It was a ruddy great extension that went vertical instead of horizontal and had cost her husband a fortune. Still, it was no worse than what he called it. Howard had wanted a ‘den’, he’d said, and she’d almost laughed at the absurd understatement, except that she knew he wanted his den to get away from her. He’d suggested it quite casually one night and said it would be useful, somewhere for ‘either of us to get a little space’, and she’d struggled to hold back the astonishment and hurt; they hardly saw each other anyway: he was always at the office or golf or tucked away in his study. He’d then employed some very skilled and expensive builders, who had dug out the earth beneath their house and filled it with a games room, a wine cellar, a garage and a swimming pool. The neighbours had been upset by all the noise, the conveyor belt of rubble spewing out of the ground and the general disruptive blot on the landscape, and she’d been left to apologize, but at least it had been temporary, and nothing like the steel magnate’s four-storey subterranean bunker down the road, which had caused his neighbours’ front pillars to crack.

Taking the lift down to the pool, she waited for the hum of the motors to stop and then stepped into a twilight of lapis lazuli blue. Cutting a frothy swathe through the sub-lit water was Daniel and as usual the sight of him made her heart soar. She walked to the top of the deep end just as he was finishing his length and knelt down to the water’s edge.

He caught sight of her and stopped, water pouring off his strong shoulders as he hoisted himself effortlessly out of the water and threw his arms around her, grinning and holding her tight. She squealed in admonishment, as he knew she would do, and then unable to resist, she hugged him back.

Feeling the wet seep through, she pushed him away and brushed at the dark patches on her yellow shift dress.

‘That was not funny,’ she said, smiling.

‘Just giving my old mum a hug.’

‘Less of the old.’ In Laura’s head, she was still twenty-five and she often looked at other women in fascination at their encroaching middle-age before realizing she was the same generation. It amused her she was stuck in some sort of age amnesia; amused her still further when a look in the mirror confirmed that although she looked good for her age, she most definitely was not twenty-five.

‘Come on, all the boys fancy you and you know it.’

She smiled. It was true she enjoyed the flirtatious company of Daniel’s friends, the way they came round and leaned lazily on her breakfast bar, addressing her as ‘Mrs C’ and telling her how good her French toast was. It had been a while since she’d seen them.

‘How are Will and Jonny?’

‘Don’t know.’ Daniel started to dry himself with one of the plush towels that Mrs Moore changed three times a week regardless of whether or not anyone had used them.

‘But didn’t you see them yesterday?’

‘They work,’ he said flippantly, disappearing round the side of a carved wooden screen. ‘Already out there changing the world.’

‘In insurance? And I’m aware they work. I was talking about the evenings. Where have you been then, the last couple of nights, if not with the boys?’

There was a silence from behind the screen, and Laura didn’t see that Daniel was smiling, a secret smile of reflection. He’d meant to keep it to himself for a bit longer, but suddenly felt the urge to tell someone. Little by little he would let out some, not all, of the details, enjoying reliving them as he did so.

‘Hey!’ he said, as Laura poked her head round.

She stood, arms crossed, waiting for him to answer her question. ‘You’re perfectly decent.’ She watched fondly as he pulled on shorts and a T-shirt, proud that her genes had produced such a good-looking young man. Of course, Howard had had a part in it, but their son took after his mother in looks. Same height, same thick wavy blond hair and strong bone structure. Instead of giving her the answer he knew she wanted, he smiled cheekily as he made his way to the lift.

She took a sharp intake of breath. ‘Don’t you push that button.’

‘Are you coming?’

Laura followed him into the lift and pretend-pinched his earlobe. ‘I’m going to get it out of you.’

The lift started to rise. ‘Ow! Can I take you for brunch?’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘It requires an announcement?’

The doors opened and he took her hand and led her out and through the hall into the expansive oak and granite kitchen diner. ‘Just want to treat my mum.’

‘You old charmer. But before we go, give me a clue. I can’t stand the anticipation.’ She stood firm.

He poured himself a voluminous glass of juice from the larder fridge. ‘I’ve been looking for an apartment. You know, for when I start the Foundation Programme.’

She sighed. ‘You’re sure I can’t persuade you to move back home?’

‘Ah, Mum . . . Apart from the holidays, and not all of those, I haven’t lived at home for five years.’ It wasn’t that Daniel led a louche social life; he just enjoyed his privacy as any twenty-three-year-old male would and didn’t want to spend the next two years living under his childhood roof, basement pool or not.

‘OK, OK. So, apartment-hunting. At night?’

He grinned. ‘Just keeping the agent on side.’

It took a moment and then it clicked. ‘A girl?’

‘She’s very thorough. Knows exactly what I like.’

‘A girl!’

‘You say it like I’ve never dated before.’

‘But this one’s special,’ she said decisively.

‘How do you know?’

‘Well, you’ve seen her the last two nights, haven’t you?’

‘Yes . . .’

‘And only just met! Come on, spill. What’s her name?’

He was amused by her enthusiasm. ‘Cherry.’

‘A fruit! Short season, select.’



‘She’s got dark hair . . .’ He held up a palm, shook his head. ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this.’

Laura clutched his hand. ‘No, don’t stop, really. I want to hear all about her. Where’s she from?’


‘She is exotic! Sorry! I was joking. I’ll be serious now.’ Laura kissed his hand contritely. ‘How old is she?’


‘And she’s an estate agent?’

‘Yes. Well, she’s training at the moment. She’s only recently started.’

‘And she works here in Kensington?’

‘She wanted to sell nice houses.’ He heaved himself up onto the work surface. ‘She learned about the area by pretending to be moving here. Went to see twenty-seven flats with other agencies before going for the job. Found she could talk about the properties and the likely clientele with aplomb.’ He laughed. ‘That’s what I call enterprise. And then . . . quite audaciously, made up a CV. Or at least embellished it. Made herself sound like the “right kind of girl”.’

Laura smiled, although she was a little taken aback by Cherry’s behaviour. Which was silly, as she had nothing to do with her work and wasn’t her employer. She tapped Daniel’s knee with the back of her hand. ‘Come on, I thought you were taking me out.’

He jumped down and held out a crooked elbow. ‘It will be my pleasure.’ He wanted to treat his mum, look after her, be the son that he knew she, somewhat embarrassingly, liked to show off. They’d sit in the brasserie and she’d bask in their mutual good humour, and he knew he’d enjoy himself too. He always made time for them to be together, especially as ever since he could remember, he’d been aware that the relationship between his parents had little warmth. There wasn’t even much in the way of companionship: his father was rarely around, as his job, as partner at a large accountancy firm, kept him fully occupied, and Daniel wanted to make up for some of the loneliness that he knew his mum felt. It had been a while since he’d seen her, which added to the guilt, the prickly discomfort of another secret. He hadn’t yet told her he was cutting their day short. He was seeing Cherry again tonight.