Sunday 3 April 2011

Credit Crunch Flowers

A Story for Mothers Day By Charlie Britten


‘Spring planter, then? It’ll get there for Mothers Day, won't it?’

‘Should do. It’s only Friday today, sir.’

It would never do for the gift to arrive late, be too big or too small or the wrong sort of present, daffodils when she had them in the garden, chocolates when she had given them up for Lent.

Steve’s shoulders tightened. Another Mothers Day at the King’s Head. Already, he could feel the rough tweedy, texture of his one and only suit against his neck. He could see his children wearing the ‘posh’ clothes Mother bought them for Christmas, Sophie’s ginger curls tumbling over pink floral print and lace, and the label on Tom’s designer dungarees poking out behind soft baby hair. Tessa would wear her weddings and christenings trouser suit, the one she had found in the charity shop. She looked good in it anyway.

He would find Mother sitting in the pub lounge, in pearls and a silky top, her gathered skirt spread out over the chintz-covered sofa, Dad standing at her side, her coat draped over one arm and her scarf on the other.

‘You’re looking wonderful as usual,’ he could hear himself saying as he kissed her cheek, softened by years of expensive face-cream.

But it was still Friday.

As he replaced his credit card in his wallet, Steve glanced at the clock on the staffroom wall. He was supposed to be in Room C44 one minute ago and, right now, taking Class 4J’s register. The principal, Jan, was becoming paranoid about punctuality and taken to lurking in corridors to check. ‘Because of the Ofsted inspection next term,’ she said.

Grabbing a pile of marked work, Steve charged out the door and leapt up two flights of stairs, several steps at a time. At the bottom of the stairwell, one of his colleagues was calling ‘Don't run’ to a group of excited and excitable Year 7s.

Only as he arrived in the classroom did Steve realise that he had forgotten something. ‘You must develop strategies for being better organised,’ said Jan. ‘You can't do this sort of thing when Ofsted are here.’

‘Gemma, switch off your mobile,’ he said, trying not to think about his nice little worksheet on Pearl Harbour. He could see it now, staring up at him reproachfully from his desk in the staffroom. But the quiz on Hitler which he found on the internet while the teaching assistant collected up the homework was just as good.

Steve returned home that evening with a warm glow. ‘I ordered Mother a spring planter. £34.99,’ he told Tessa.

‘Steve,’ she cried. ‘That’s really expensive.’

‘Everything goes up just before Mothers Day.’

Tessa’s present to her mother stood on the window-ledge, already wrapped up. Several months ago she had bought narcissi bulbs from the local market and, with the children’s help, planted them in pots. Now fresh white buds thrust their way through tall thin leaves.

‘I paid on the credit card.’

‘Perhaps as well. Because we’ve got just £82 until payday the week after next. Don't you ever think about these things?’ She grabbed a battered library book lying on the kitchen table. ‘I'm going to read the bedtime story. Can you make your own cup of tea?’ A few moments later he heard her voice working through ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ by Judith Kerr, as if she had never read it before, and the Sophie and Tom hadn’t demanded the same story every evening for a fortnight.

He was about to switch on the kettle when he realised it was empty; he opened the lid and refilled it from the tap. Pity he couldn't do the same for his and Tessa’s bank account.

‘You must join the family business,’ said Mother, from under her big hat on his graduation day. Steve’s two brothers earned fat salaries and bonuses working at Eastham’s, his father’s motor dealership.

‘No, Mother. We’ve been through this before!’

‘You’ll never earn any money from teaching.’ She might have come round to the idea if Steve had taught at what she called a ‘nice school’, but Robert Bottomley Community School, known locally as ‘Rock Bottom’, was anything but.

When Tessa returned downstairs, she came up behind his chair and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. ‘I'm sorry I got cross.’

He pressed her palm to his face and kissed it. ‘I didn’t realise we had so little in the bank.’

‘Oh, we’ll cope. We always do.’

The following afternoon they took the Sophie and Tom swimming. As they queued at traffic lights on the way home, Steve noticed rubbery, overpriced tulips in tight cellophane packets in the local garage forecourt. Further down the road, the supermarket was selling yellow and blue things in pots, and, as they turned into their own road, Sandy at the convenience store was sticking ‘reduced’ labels on to Mothering Sunday bouquets. But Steve had done his duty. Expensive as the spring planter was, it would keep Mother happy.

Back at home he felt that familiar knot forming in his stomach: Mothers Day lunch. He lingered in the living room watching a film, but, when he crept upstairs after midnight, in his stockinged feet, Sophie called out to him, ‘Daddy! Daddy!

‘Ssh. Go to sleep.’

‘Mummy’s Day tomorrow, Daddy.’

‘Yes, darling.’ He pulled the duvet over her.

‘At school, we made tulips with egg boxes and straws.’

‘Yes, darling.’

‘But I gave mine to Mummy on Friday. What am I going to give her as a proper Mummy’s Day present?’

Steve started. Horror and embarrassment welled up inside him in equal measure, trickling down his face in panic-driven sweat.

For a moment, he thought about jumping into the car and dashing round to the supermarket. Already in his mind he was opening the front door, unlocking his car, driving down the road... round the corner... along the main road, at the roundabout now, the red supermarket sign looming in front of him. Hang on. They shut at ten on Saturdays.

And the convenience store shut at eight.

And the garage would now be selling petrol only, through a payment hatch.

‘Tom’ll have to give Mummy something too.’

He couldn't sleep. How could he, having ordered that over-priced spring planter for Mother, but nothing for his darling Tessa?

Then there was the bank account or lack of it. And his credit card, which was almost maxed out.

He fell asleep in the small hours, an uneasy, guilty sleep, only to awake, after a pitifully short time, with the dawn beating through the curtains and the sound of Sophie awake and playing in her room. Wearily he climbed out of bed and found her standing on a blue plastic chair, staring out the bedroom window. ‘Go to sleep, Sophie.’

‘Daddy, we could pick flowers for Mummy.’

Steve’s tired brain clutched at this straw. ‘Pick them? Where from?’

She pointed through the window, at daffodils and narcissi in neighbours’ gardens.

‘No, Sophie. We can't do that.’

‘Why can’t we, Daddy?’

‘No, Sophie.’

‘It’s Mummy’s Day.’

Why not? They were desperate. It wasn’t yet light and everybody would be in bed. Nobody would see. Or would they? Mrs Barnes was always up early walking that dog of hers, and Sam, on the corner, who worked nights, would be on his way home.

‘Rock Bottom teacher found guilty of stealing daffodils.’ He could see the headline in the local paper now.

And Jan. ‘How could you? When we’ve got the Ofsted inspection next?'

Sophie sat on the floor, legs outstretched, pushing her feet into her favourite trainers, the ones with pink teddy bears on them. ‘We’ll cope.’ Tessa’s favourite phrase.

‘We can't pick flowers from other peoples’ gardens, Sophie.’

‘There are no flowers in ours, Daddy.’

There were not. Their plot was tiny, most of it given over to lawn and swings. Steve was no gardener, unlike his father who spent every available moment outside. ‘He does it to get away from Mother,’ said one of Steve’s car salesman brothers. Dad gardened in all weathers, weeding, pruning and planting... planting bulbs. ‘Sophie, can you get dressed yourself?’

‘Yes, of course I can. I'm five.’


‘Thank you very much for the spring planter, Steven,’ said Mother. Her petticoats rustled as she sat down for lunch at The King’s Head. ‘It must have cost a lot of money. You really shouldn’t have.’ She turned to Tessa. ‘What did you get for Mothers Day, dear?’

‘Daffodils,’ Tessa replied, at the same time prizing a heavy silver fork from Tom’s small fingers.

‘I'm very fond of daffodils. Dad has put in a lot of bulbs over the years.’ Mother adjusted the three strings of pearls around her neck. ‘But the deer must have come into our garden again last night because, when I looked out the kitchen window this morning, most of our daffs seemed to have disappeared.’


Charlie Britten Bio:

Charlie Britten enjoys making readers laugh. Her work has been published in ‘Radgepacket’, ‘Myslexia’ magazine and ‘The Story Behind the Story’ and online at ‘FictionAtWork’ and ‘Linnet’s Wings’. She writes because she loves doing it and, like every other author, she is writing a novel – a serious one, about the Cold War. In real life she lives in eastern England with her husband and cat and lectures in IT at a college of further education.

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