Ethel was bringing someone home with her.
“I wonder what he’s really like,” Olive whispered to herself. “Raymond Calzone!”
“I wonder if he’s like a real Romeo?” Frederick wondered out loud. “As for Ethel, she could certainly be Juliet. A match made in Heaven, don’t you think, Olive?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Olive muttered. She was too busy trying to remember the first time she had heard that her daughter liked this boy Raymond more than any of her previous admirers. She was fairly certain that it was two years ago, on one seemingly uneventful October evening:
Olive, Frederick and Mary were sitting in the living room – Mary was round at the Whingings’ because she was watching the lottery numbers coming in. Recently, the two women had taken to purchasing lottery tickets together, with the understanding that they would split their millions of pounds between them if ever they won (though Olive often tried to use a number of complex arguments for why she should have more than half). However, they hadn’t been very lucky so far. Every week when they watched the lottery, they always ended up getting into a violent argument about whose fault it was whilst Frederick sat by, deaf to their shouting as he examined his notebook of various measurements. Mary usually used the argument that it was no one’s fault. Olive, on the other hand, was convinced that Mary was bringing her bad luck. But anyway, Olive could remember that James had come into the room just before the interesting stuff began, and as usual Olive was sternly explaining why she was too busy to speak to him.
“James, I am not wasting my valuable time doing some useless interview thing with you,” Olive snapped. “If you really want to succeed in life, get your head down and start researching where the cheapest country to have plastic surgery is. I don’t know who’d want to go and talk to some boring old codger from Catbridge…”
“Cambridge,” James corrected tiredly. “But Mama, I won’t have such a good chance of getting in if I don’t practise for my interview.”
Olive didn’t even answer James, because at that moment she noticed Ethel sneaking into the hallway. Unusually, Olive’s daughter had a smile on her face.
“What time do you call this?” Olive yelled into the hall, glaring over the back of the armchair.
Ethel appeared in the doorway. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, God, Mum,” she groaned, her smile having vanished at the sound of her mother’s voice. “For Heaven’s sake, I’m twenty years old! I’m not five anymore! I’ll come in when I want to.”
Olive wasn’t sure how to answer this. She couldn’t seem to come up with an answer that wouldn’t seem incredibly hypocritical. “What have you been doing?” she asked eventually.
Ethel muttered something vague as she sloped back into the hallway. It was very quiet, but Olive just about made out one word in particular.
“What?” Olive yelped. “What did you say, Ethel?”
Olive heard a loud, impatient groan before she got an answer: “I said I was out with Raymond, Mum,” she sighed. “But anyway, that’s my business.”
“Raymond? Raymond Calzone?”
“Yes. So what?”
“I thought you were dating Brendan Cucumber?”
“Oh, I was. Not anymore, though; I dumped him.”
Now it was Frederick’s turn to speak up. “What?” he cried just as Olive opened her mouth to say something. “But I thought you said you loved Brendan, Ethel? You said he was the handsomest and most mature boy in the world! I agreed with you, actually. How could you dump him?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Ethel carelessly. “He’s just so boring nowadays. Plus, I’m fairly sure he’s been eyeing that Bridget Flagging. And Raymond is just so much nicer.”
Frederick looked intrigued. “Raymond Calzone played Romeo in your school play,” he said, more to himself than to Ethel. “He was rather good.”
“Yeah, but I was better,” Ethel reminded him.
“Yes, yes…” Frederick muttered. “Still, he was rather good. Hmm.”
“But I’m not talking about it to you,” Ethel said disgustedly. “It’s my business. I’m not having you lot poking your noses into it.”
“Oh, all right, Sweetheart,” Frederick said brightly, turning back to his measurement book.
As soon as they heard Ethel stomping up the stairs to her bedroom, Olive suddenly leant forwards to speak a little more confidentially to Frederick. “Fred!” she hissed. “Raymond Calzone!”
“I know!” Frederick squealed back, as though he knew why she was so excited. “He’s a brilliant actor; she’s a brilliant actress! I always said she was destined for stardom! Oh, and can you imagine their children! They’ll be absolute geniuses…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Olive said impatiently. “But Raymond Calzone! What do you think he sees in her?”
“I don’t know,” said Frederick. “She’s awfully popular, isn’t she? Lots of the good-looking boys like her.”
“Well, she’s not exactly beautiful,” Olive huffed. “And she’s got a dreadful arrogant personality. I can’t imagine anyone genuinely wanting to spend time with her.”
“Oh, that’s mean,” said Frederick. He said it as though he was merely pointing out a fact rather than remonstrating with her; he had learnt that he was unable to do this a long time ago.
But Olive wasn’t listening. She had entered one of her periods of deep thought. Everyone recognised the glazed expression and left her to it.
A few months later, they heard about Raymond Calzone again. As with many things, the scene started when James shuffled into the living room looking very sad for some reason.
“Hey, Jamesy, what’s wrong?” Frederick asked.
“I didn’t get into Cambridge,” James whispered quietly.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Frederick said, as though James had told him that he’d lost his toothbrush. “That is a shame.”
“Bloody universities,” Olive muttered helpfully, not looking up from the television.
“Do you know why you didn’t get in?” Frederick asked curiously.
“Well, apparently it was because I clearly hadn’t bothered to get any practice with my interview, and that it was my responsibility to ask somebody,” James mumbled sadly. “They said I have a lot of promise, but this showed them that I didn’t have the right amount of dedication.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Olive said absent-mindedly. “Fred, where’s Ethel?”
“She said she was going to be at Pug’s nightclub. She should be back soon.”
Almost as if on cue, they heard the howling wind and the sound of the front door slamming. The familiar clacking sound of stiletto heels on lino told them that Ethel had arrived.
“Ethel?” Frederick called. “Are you okay, Sweetheart? Did you have a nice time at Pug’s?”
“Yeah,” muttered Ethel, who was already halfway up the stairs. “Raymond and I had a great time.”
Olive jumped in surprise. “Ethel’s still with Raymond?” she hissed at Frederick as soon as they heard Ethel going upstairs.
“Oh, yes,” said Frederick. “It’s been a few months now.”
Olive was stunned. As a general rule, Ethel was never in a relationship with someone for more than a few weeks. A few weeks was usually the time it took for Ethel to spot a boy’s imperfections and human weaknesses, and carelessly toss him aside. The idea that Ethel had managed to stay with someone – or, for that matter, that someone had managed to stay with Ethel – for as long as a few months was amazing.
And now, two years on, they were finally going to meet Raymond at last.
When the doorbell rang, Olive made sure that she was the one to answer the door. Frederick actually stood up and started jogging up the hallway in front of her, but Olive did her best to roughly elbow him out the way. Through the frosted window of the door, she could spot the two wobbly silhouettes. Olive almost tripped over and fell flat on her face in her hurry, but in less than a second she had grabbed hold of the door and had thrown it open.
“Welcome to our home!” she cried, her face red with excitement.
The faces of Augustus and Adolphus, who were standing on the porch together, burst into broad, amazed grins. “Well, thanks, Olive!” Augustus cried, suddenly taking her hand and shaking it boisterously up and down. “Wow; I didn’t know you were this excited about our little dinner party!”
“I know! Usually you just push us through the door!” Adolphus said.
Olive made a growling noise in her throat, and, grabbing hold of Augustus and Adolphus by their matching stripy ties, pulled them into the hallway and slammed the front door shut. “Fred!” she shouted at her husband, who was rubbing his head after Olive had elbowed him into the wall in her haste to open the door. “Why are Augustus and Adolphus here?”
“I invited them round,” Frederick said as if it was obvious, rolling up the sleeve of his jumper to inspect his arm for bruises. “We’re going to finish off the last of the fish fingers and look over Augustus’s research about the difference brands of indigestion tablets.”
“What?” Olive shrieked. Augustus and Adolphus peered at one another wearily, used to this routine, and they mutely slunk towards the kitchen.
“I said that I invited them round,” Frederick said, speaking slightly louder than before. “We’re going to finish off…”
“But you knew that this was the night that Raymond was coming round!” Olive interrupted.
“I know, I know,” said Frederick. “Maybe he could have a look as well. Maybe have a couple of fish fingers himself.”
Olive was speechless. “Fred, this is Raymond!” she shouted. “Raymond Calzone! He’s not going to want to sit around with you load of twits talking about indigestion tablets…”
“Twits?” yelped Frederick, looking immensely offended. “Oh, Olive, don’t say that! You wouldn’t be saying any of this if you weren’t so worked up! Words hurt, you know…”
“Oh, whatever!” Olive cried. She wasn’t in the mood for one of Frederick’s talks on self-esteem and feelings. “If they have to be around, just keep them in the kitchen, or, even better, in the pantry. Don’t let Raymond see them, or you, for that matter. And just remember: Raymond is not having anything to do with fish fingers or indigestion tablets or any of that kind of rubbish, all right?”
“What if he gets indigestion?” Adolphus asked wisely.
“Shut up, Adolphus!” Olive cried. “Just get in the kitchen and stay there!”
With that, Olive shoved all three brothers through the doorway to the kitchen and slammed the door shut behind them. She was in the process of hissing last-minute instructions at them through the keyhole when the doorbell rang again.
“James, go and let Mary in!” Olive called. “The last thing we need is for Raymond to catch sight of her.”
Without a word, James crept into the hall and walked towards the front door as Olive continued to mutter through the keyhole.
“Be as quiet as a mouse!” she growled.
“Be as quiet as a mouse?” came the confused reply. “A mouse? Don’t you mean that we should be as quiet as three mice?Unless you want only one of us to be quiet.”
“Ah, good evening,” said James’s nervous voice from down the hall. Olive didn’t even turn round as she heard the rush of the wind pass through the open front door.
“Don’t play games with me, Adolphus,” she hissed.
“That was Augustus,” said another voice.
“Well, don’t play games with me, Augustus! Be as quiet as three mice!”
“Do come in, do come in,” said James’s voice again.
“Three mice…like the three blind mice?” Frederick asked through the keyhole.
“We’re not blind,” Augustus pointed out. “I think we’re rather perceptive, actually.”
“Allow me to take your jacket, Mr. Calzone,” said James.
Olive whipped around and her mouth dropped open. Whilst she had been crouching down and muttering through the keyhole like a complete idiot, James had opened the door to Raymond and Ethel, who were now both standing in the hallway, staring at her with raised eyebrows. Raymond had just tossed his jacket onto James’s head, whilst Ethel had dropped hers on the floor.
Olive was at a loss of what to say for two main reasons. The first was that she was utterly humiliated. But the second was that she was looking directly at Raymond Calzone. And she knew instantly that he was the one.
All memories of those days gone by when she had flirted with Frederick as a teenager vanished. All memories of the attractive young men of the neighbourhood vanished. All memories of Brendan Cucumber and the other boys at Ethel’s ultimately disastrous party vanished. Because, as Raymond Calzone stared at Olive with a scornful, semi-patronising look on his perfect face, nothing else in the world mattered to her. And surely, when Raymond got to know her better, he’d realise that nothing in the world mattered more to him than her.
The only barrier between Olive and unconditional happiness was the pouting, spoilt figure of Ethel.
“Hey, Mum, this is Raymond,” Ethel drawled carelessly, flinging one of her arms around Raymond’s shoulders. Olive could tell that she had been to the Loopy Swan.
“You’re drunk, Ethel,” Olive whispered. She was afraid that her voice would sound hoarse or desperate if she spoke any louder.
“I am,” Ethel agreed unsteadily. “I am indeed…Mother, do stop staring at Raymond, will you…you’re starting to drool…”
Olive squeaked and straightened herself up. Ethel and Raymond simply giggled like children and started to walk in a rickety sort of way towards the staircase without saying another word. Olive opened her mouth as though to say something that would stop them, but she couldn’t seem to find the words. Ethel and her boyfriend slowly tripped up the staircase until Olive heard the door to Ethel’s room slam. She’d missed her chance.
On the day of Raymond and Ethel Calzone’s wedding, Olive was the only member of the family at home. Frederick was taking part in the ceremony as the father of the bride. Augustus, Adolphus, Mary and the rest of Olive’s ‘friends’ had gone as guests, much to the chagrin of Ethel.
The Whinging family had known practically nothing about the wedding in advance. Ethel had apparently not seen any point in letting her parents, brother or uncles know that she would be getting married, and it was only when Augustus spotted Ethel’s designs for the invitations that the family came to realise.
This itself had happened just four days before the wedding was due to take place, and Olive had been disgusted to see that no matter how much depression she showed, there seemed to be no room for any sympathy in the midst of a frantic four days of purchasing dinner jackets, and, in the case of her friends, posh but not altogether fashionable dresses, planning of canapés and arranging the order of the tables at the reception. The Whinging brothers’ newest obsession had taken the form of studying wedding rings and the different fingers they were placed on across the world and throughout history, but Ethel had made it clear that none of this would be demonstrated at her wedding. Mary, whose hair had long since faded back to its usual greying dark-brown since Ethel’s thirteenth, had bought five packets of pink hair dye in case four went wrong and had purchased a flouncy pink frock she had seen several weeks ago in the charity shop. When Mary first tried it on in her room (her much larger room, seeing as she had recently moved into a house of her own on Greenwood Drive), it was obvious that it was very large on her, and looked this way even after some significant and not completely professional-looking alterations, but Mary was still insisting that she loved it.
At around the time that the reception would have been beginning to come to an end, Olive was lying face-down on her bed, sobbing into her pillow. Her life was over. Her very meaning was over. How could this be what was intended for her? How could she be missing out in this way whilst her horrible spoilt daughter seemed to get everything? How was it fair? Why could no one see how decent Olive was? Why couldn’t she be seen as the character she really was? Sometimes Olive felt as though she was living out her life on a stage, with an audience judging her for no good reason. Mostly they were laughing and laughing at her for failing so often, even though she tried so hard and wanted something so badly. A cruel audience.
“That wedding was so fantastic!” said Mary, excitedly bouncing into Olive’s room at about half past eleven in the evening. “They had such amazing food! Toffee apples and sherbet lemons and everything! I had to snatch up a whole load before Fred ate it all! And then we all got really hyper on sugar, so we were just raving on the dance floor for a couple of hours, and then Raymond brought out the champagne, and I can’t remember much after that, but we had SUCH a great time, Olive!”
Olive just glared back at Mary. Mary’s wide grin slipped a notch as she peered at Olive’s angry face. “Hey, what are you so moody about?” she asked curiously.
Olive just looked at her. “Take a wild guess,” she said angrily.
Mary had to think for several moments. Now, what could Olive be unhappy about? Did she have indigestion? Was she upset that that picture frame was still hanging crookedly? Had she tripped over one of her cats again? But then Mary realized, staring down at the contents of her bag; a pink, flowery invitation to Ethel and Raymond’s wedding, among the masses of sweet wrappers and flakes of hard toffee in Mary’s handbag. Of course, how could she forget?
“Oh, I know why you’re upset,” Mary said quietly. “I forget to save you a toffee apple from the wedding. I’m really sorry, Olive, that was wrong of me. I know how much you love them, and everything, but I was just so hungry, I’d hardly eaten at all for about six hours, and…”
“I don’t care about the stupid toffee apples!” Olive screamed suddenly, making Mary jump. “I’m upset because the love of my life just married my daughter! I’m completely and utterly destroyed for life! I’m in emotional agony! Can’t you see that? What sort of friend are you?”
A short silence. “Oh,” was all Mary managed to say. “You really felt that strongly about him?”
Olive stared up at her friend with a tear-stained face. She’d never told anyone just how she felt about Raymond. She imagined that they would laugh at her for being in love with a man so many years younger than her, despite Olive’s insistence to herself that this type of thing was perfectly acceptable. True, Raymond had never shown much affection towards her. But as she had told herself before, he simply hadn’t see the real her. Or at least, he hadn’t seen the real her yet. And this was the realisation that gave her a brilliant and revolutionary idea.
By the time Frederick Whinging came into the room, Olive and Mary were deep in intense conversation. Mary was jotting things down on a piece of paper. They were so absorbed in whatever it was that they were discussing that they barely heard Frederick as he accused them of ripping the page out of his measurements book, or even when he waved his hand in front of each of their faces. Olive was looking more hopeful than she had in a long, long time.