Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Time Out’ by Emma Murray.
London, Past and Present
Motherhood is tough
But loneliness is far worse
Friends help us survive
I’m not going to lie – I am nervous. It’s not often you find your whole future determined by an innocent-looking blue and white icon on your computer screen. But Skype is not flashing yet, and so I wait impatiently with sweaty palms and a whirring mind.
I glance at the clock on the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. It is 2.05 p.m. on a hot, clammy Wednesday afternoon in late July. The waiting is unbearable. My agent, Harriet Green, is late. She’s currently at a book event in New York and as usual she has no concept of the time difference. This is particularly annoying when I’m trying to schedule calls during my four-year-old daughter, Anna’s, afternoon nap. I drum my bitten fingernails on my desk. If Anna wakes up soon, any chance of a real conversation will be scuppered.
With a quick swivel of my chair, I turn towards the small window of my tiny home office –i.e. the spare room, hoping for some kind of distraction. My husband, David, Anna and I live on one of those mean, narrow south-west London streets, in an area called Woodvale, which is neither woodsy nor in a valley. It is the sort of place that estate agents call ‘quaint’ or ‘bijou’ – in other words, totally overpriced.
Rows and rows of identical red-brick Victorian terraced houses cling to each other as they line the busy, impractically narrow roads. Despite being in a firmly middle-class postcode, the shrubs and pavements are almost always covered in a mixture of dog and fox shit, a recurring topic raised on ‘Vale Mums’, the secret local Facebook group administrated by fellow ex-antenatal group mum and Nazi sympathiser Tania Henderson. (I have no evidence to suggest she has ever been affiliated with the Nazis, but if her strident approach to parenting is anything to go by, I think I have a strong case to argue.) Personally, I think Vale Mums should come with the tagline, ‘the home of First World problems’.
While I’m waiting for Harriet to figure out what time zone I’m in I swivel back to the screen and log into Facebook to check out Vale Mums for the latest ‘news’. Much as I loathe the futile commentary and no-offence-intended grinning emojis, like reality TV, I find Vale Mums both appalling and fascinating in equal measure. A quick glance at the latest news feed tells me: Amanda has ‘FINALLY’ found the perfect cupcake recipe (I can safely sit back from the edge of my seat now); Karen ‘desperately’ needs to know how to remove limescale from her kitchen kettle (Google it, Karen!); and Bethany is ranting as usual about the amount of dog shit on the street outside her house (I think you’ll find it’s ‘steaming dog shit’ in this heat, Bethany).
So far so boring. As I am scrolling down to see if there have been any juicier entries, I see Rosalind’s name pop up. Like Amanda, Karen and Bethany, I have never met Rosalind, but I’m willing to bet I know more about her than close members of her own family. Rosalind has three boys under the age of six (‘Three boys! THREE!’). She is about to turn forty (‘Any ideas for a fortieth celebration for a very tired mum?’); she currently has no childcare (‘Help! My nanny has just quit – by text message!’); and her husband works in Dubai for three weeks out of every month (‘Anyone else have a husband who works abroad?’ Followed by face-screaming-in-fear emoji).
Rosalind is a frequent visitor to Vale Mums and seems to treat it as a sort of oracle. If one of her children has a high temperature, she goes on Vale Mums for diagnosis; if she wants to buy a gift for her husband, she asks the other mums for advice; and most recently, she posted a photo of a spider in her bathroom in her house and asked the mums to identify its type (answer: a house spider). I have concluded that Rosalind’s posts imply that she is either very lonely or very bored, or perhaps a combination of the two.
Today, Rosalind’s burning question is what to make her ‘very fussy’ two-year-old, Jacob, for breakfast. I suck my breath in through my teeth and shake my head in despair. Oh, Rosalind. Poor, naïve Rosalind. Never post a ‘food’ question on Vale Mums. You’re leaving yourself wide open to all sorts of self-righteous comments from ‘the Organics’, a disturbingly large subset of Vale Mums led by aforementioned Tania Henderson.
To qualify as an Organic, you must feed your children only top-of-the-range organic food (preferably grown in your back garden, the more worms and muck the better) in order for your children to grow up happy, healthy and savvy enough to attract a partner with a trust fund. It goes without saying that being an Organic automatically makes you a better mum.
And so it is, with no small measure of trepidation, that I start to read the comments under Rosalind’s ‘breakfast plea’ post. First to reply is Tania.
Hi, Rosalind! Why not make Jacob some organic porridge mashed with organic strawberries and blueberries? If the crop in your garden isn’t doing well, there is great fruit picking at Johnson’s farm in Surrey at the moment!
I sigh. This is vintage Tania. Like the other eight hundred people on Vale Mums, she knows full well that Rosalind has no childcare, an absent husband, and has barely slept in six years. Does Rosalind sound like the type of person who has the time to be cooking porridge or driving to fucking Surrey to pick fresh fruit, let alone grow fruit in her own garden?
But wait, another comment has just flashed up. It’s Caroline, another member of the Organics crew.
Excellent suggestion, Tania! My LO [little one] also loves porridge with freshly picked fruit, but how about giving him some yoghurt too?
Although I find Caroline’s allegiance to Tania vomit-inducing, I can’t totally fault her response. Yoghurt is a handy stopgap; at least Rosalind can buy Jacob a few cartons of yoghurt from the shops. But I have given her too much credit. Another comment from Caroline flashes up.
Whoops! Just reread my last post and realised that I meant to say home-made yoghurt. Steer clear of the shop-bought variety – obviously. Too much sugar!
She signs off with a smiley emoji.
My fingers itch to respond. I rarely partake in this futile mum-off but I am too fired up to sit back and watch. I quickly write a response and post it before I can change my mind. I keep it simple. It’s only one word.
There will be reprisals.
I am distracted by the sound of an angry car speeding down my road – clearly ignoring the 20 mph signs plastered everywhere – in a race to get to the end of the street for fear it might have to pull in for the ten seconds it takes to allow another car past. My shoulders bunch in irritation. I can’t stand speeding cars, especially when there are so many young children about. For the next couple of minutes, I fantasise about having my own speed gun, but because it is a fantasy, I switch it to an actual gun, a sniper rifle, and start mentally shooting at the car’s tyres. Not for the first time, I wonder how I have become the type of person who fantasises about shooting out someone else’s tyres. Shaking myself out of my reverie, I click back to Skype, but Harriet is still not online.
When I first met Harriet, roughly six and a half years ago, I was desperate. I had ditched my fancy marketing job in a fancy big bank – as well as my long-term lawyer boyfriend – to become a full-time writer, moved into a flat with a twenty-something hipster called Joss, who was far too cool for me, and spent six months and most of my savings writing a novel, before coming to the horrifying conclusion that the book was shit. And I’m not being too hard on myself here: it really was shit. If I was honest with myself, I knew fiction wasn’t really my thing, the trouble being, I didn’t know what was. So I popped six months of hard work in a box under my bed and started to freak out.
After I’d spent a couple of weeks stunned by my shockingly low bank balance, an email advertising the London Book Fair popped into my inbox. Without even thinking about it, I bought a ticket. Maybe I would meet some fellow writers there who were as miserable as I was. But instead of meeting other writers, I met Harriet.
To be honest, first impressions weren’t great. Having spent hours going around smiling benignly at people representing different publishers on different stands, I was ready to give up. With aching feet and a self-critical voice in my head berating me for not having the confidence to strike up a conversation with one single person, I had headed outside for a breather. Lost in my own misery, it took me a moment to notice a woman gesturing to me.
‘The time!’ she said crossly. ‘Do you have the time?’
She had long, shiny brown hair, sallow skin, and was smartly dressed in a beige cashmere coat, impatiently arranged leopard-print scarf, and expensive-looking tan mid-ankle boots. She would have been pretty if her mouth turned up at the corners, which I would soon find out never happened.
Flustered, I told her it was almost four o’clock, but she didn’t move away. Instead, she took out a cigarette, put it in her mouth, and started talking.
‘If I have to negotiate one more book deal with those tight-arse international publishers, I’m going to murder someone,’ she said, in a public-school accent, through a cloud of smoke.
My head shot backwards: she was an agent! A real-life book agent. Exactly the person I needed to talk to.
The only problem was I had no idea what to say to her without sounding needy, so I just stood there, paralysed by my own desperation.
She took a deep drag, cocked her head to one side, and said, ‘What do you do, then?’
And so I took a deep breath and told her. I told her everything about how I had given up my job in a bank to become a full-time writer, only to realise I was shit at fiction, and now I was seriously stuck.
When I had finished, she stared at me for a bit, grounding out her cigarette stub on the pavement. I didn’t feel like this was the right time to point out that she was standing next to a bin.
‘There’s no money in fiction anyway,’ she said, with a grimace. ‘Have you ever considered ghostwriting?’
Immediately a red flag went up. Ghostwriting? Wasn’t that just for lazy celebrities with giant egos and people who wanted to share their horrific stories of child abuse and sex trafficking? I couldn’t handle the egos or the sad stories. Both would make me cry.
I was just about to tell Harriet that ghostwriting wasn’t my thing when she said, ‘I have a couple of professionals on my books looking for some help with their business books. You have experience working with corporate types, so you could be a good fit.’
And that was the start of my ghostwriting career – working with the same type of people that I had just spent almost a decade working with in a bank. It may not have been the writing I thought I was going to be getting into, but at least I was writing.
For the first couple of years, ghostwriting was good – really good. Turned out that these people were willing to pay big money to get out of having to write their books themselves. Sure, part of me had always hoped that one day my own name would grace a front cover, but still, I knew I was lucky to make a good living out of writing, and I decided to take every opportunity that came my way.
But then last year, it all stopped. Harriet told me in her offhand way that nothing was coming in, and I started to panic. I had heard of the plight of the freelance writer – either feast or famine – but I never thought it would happen to me. For the second time in my life, my bank balance was reaching a critical point, but this time there was much more at stake. I had a child due to start school soon, an overly inflated mortgage to pay, and a husband facing the real prospect of redundancy. We desperately needed the extra income.
So you can imagine how excited I was when, after months of zero contact, Harriet emailed me about a ‘promising new book project’. Now I am prepared to do anything to get it.
More minutes go by and still nothing, so to stop myself biting my nails, I click back to Vale Mums to check the extent of the fallout of my ‘Cheerios’ comment. Eleven comments in less than five minutes. At first glance I can’t make out the text for all the smiley emojis, a sure sign I’ve offended most of the people who have bothered to reply. I scroll down, bracing myself for the passive-aggressive onslaught. Someone called Danielle posts:
Saoirse – totally agree that Cheerios are so handy in the morning (smiley emoji) but thinking there are healthier alternatives maybe??? (Three more smiley emojis.) Besides, I’m fed up of stepping on them every time my LO chucks them on the floor! (Horror face plus crying laughing emoji.)
As judgements go, Danielle’s isn’t so bad. It follows a fairly standard format for the more decent members of Vale Mums – I’ll pretend to agree with you, then add what I really think (couched in a plethora of emojis), and to take the sting out of judging you, I’ll try to balance it out with something annoying about my own child.
A few other mums have posted in a similar format, but just when I think I have got off lightly, I reach Tania Henderson’s post. As ever, her judgement is loud and clear.
Cheerios??? Have you READ the back of the packet? The amount of sugar! Soooo bad for our LOs (sad-faced emoji).
I sit on my hands to stop myself from replying in anger. After all, this is my own fault; I shouldn’t have participated in the stupid exchange in the first place.
But then a familiar name pops up and a jolt of relief runs through me. Before I even read the post, I know I have been saved.
Harry had ice cream at 5 a.m. – with chocolate sprinkles on top.
I burst out laughing. It’s from my best mum-friend and fellow secret Vale Mums addict, Bea, who has swooped in with a show-stopping comment to save me from any further judgement from the bloody Organics. Breathless with anticipation, I wait to see if anyone dares to reply. Some will think she is joking, and the ones who think she is serious won’t be brave enough to take the chance. To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure if she’s joking – you never know with Bea. Minutes go by and the feed stays quiet. It’s a small victory, but one to celebrate none the less. I grab my phone to text Bea a ‘thumbs up’ but a loud tuneless sound stops me in my tracks. With a jolt, I realise that the screen is flashing. Harriet is finally calling me over Skype. I nervously push my unstyled and undyed, shoulder-length brown hair (a few bits of grey, but nothing to worry about just yet, according to Frank, my hairdresser) behind my ears, hurriedly making sure the camera is not pointing any lower than my face – so that Harriet can’t tell that I am still in my pyjamas at 2.20 p.m. – and finally answer the call. Deep breath. Shoulders back. Here we go.
‘Hi, Searcy,’ Harriet says, leaning in so close to the camera that all I can make out is part of her chin and blindingly white lower teeth.
Oh, yes, that’s one thing I forgot to mention: Harriet has never bothered to get my name right. My name isn’t Searcy. It is Saoirse – Saoirse Daly, in fact. ‘Saoirse’ is an Irish name which means ‘freedom’, which is ironic given that freedom is exactly the thing I’ve lost since having Anna. As I don’t live in my native Ireland any more, I have spent my whole life correcting people on the pronunciation, sometimes patiently, more often, not. When the talented young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan burst on to our screens with starring roles in the hugely acclaimed movies Atonement, Brooklyn and Lady Bird, I thought all my prayers had been answered. Finally, people would pronounce my name correctly – and certainly more people had. Apart from Harriet, that is, who still insists in calling me Searcy (I can only imagine she’s a big Game of Thrones fan, given one of the lead characters is called ‘Cersei’). Despite subtly pointing out the mistake on several occasions, sending her the phonetical spelling (‘Seer-sha’), plus smiley-faced emojis to soften the blow of shitting all over her pronunciation, Harriet still insists on her own version.
So, our conversation has barely begun, and I am now both nervous and irritated. And desperate. Let’s not forget desperate. I greet Harriet with a tight smile and a forced ‘Hello’, one hand clutching the computer mouse, and the other placed on my stomach in an effort to calm the churning inside.
Harriet leans back so I can see her full profile. In the background I can see the sad, beige curtains so typical of a cheap New York hotel room. She has dark circles under her eyes and the corners of her mouth are so severe they seem to be stapled down. I notice that a few dark hairs have appeared on her upper lip, which tells me she has been too frantic to go for a quick waxing or threading. For the first few minutes, she rants about the ‘fucking shit American publishers’ who don’t understand the meaning of ‘fuck off until you can come back with a better deal’. I drum my fingers on my desk impatiently. I have no time for her rants; frankly, it’s a bloody miracle that Anna has stayed asleep this long. Finally, Harriet stops her tirade, and leans in closer to the camera.
‘So anyway, I might have something for you,’ she says. ‘You have a young daughter, right?’
My mouth drops open. I would have been less shocked if she had asked me my favourite sexual position. My thoughts race. How does Harriet even know I have a child? I have never mentioned Anna, subscribing to that don’t-talk-about-your-kids-to-people-who-don’t-appear-to-have-any rule.
Evidently registering the shock on my face, Harriet shrugs and says, ‘Facebook.’ I nod numbly and stay quiet while she tells me that she has been ‘doing some digging’ and came across my profile photo on Facebook, which features myself and Anna. You know, the standard shot that looks like you’re the happiest mother-daughter combo in the world, even though said daughter has just kicked you in the shins roughly five seconds before the photo was taken. But what does Anna have to do with this new exciting book project?
‘Good, because I need someone to write a book about—’
And then the screen freezes.
‘Nooooooooooooooo!’ I shout at the frozen image of my agent’s neck. Why is this happening? It isn’t even a Sunday, when the whole world is online. It’s a shagging Wednesday. OFF PEAK.
Then something far worse happens: the baby monitor starts to crackle. My ranting and raving has just woken up Anna, who has been napping in the next room.
I pick up the monitor and start to beg. ‘Please go back to sleep, pleeease.’ I wait and listen for the inevitable, ‘MUUUUUMMMEEEEE’ but nothing comes. Miracle of miracles, I have been granted a brief reprieve. I have two more minutes, tops.
Just then, the screen unfreezes, and the sound comes back.
‘It’s about motherhood,’ Harriet says, through a yawn.
‘Oh!’ I say, surprised. This is a bit of a departure from the business books I have been ghosting, but it’s not the worst topic in the world. I’m curious to know who I’ll be working with. Maybe it’s some celeb with shiny blond hair who needs a ghostwriter to help her show off her smug parenting skills, or some child expert, so super-busy he has no time to write his own ground-breaking theories to share with the world. I guess it makes sense for the ghostwriter to be a parent, too.
Then I listen while Harriet gives me the brief. In fairness, she is always good at giving these kinds of summaries – it’s the only time she really comes to life. I listen while she talks about the way motherhood is treated in the media: everything from the cutie ads promoting babies as the best things to happen to you, from celebs who gush about their offspring to anyone who points a camera in their direction, to people like me, who save only the best bits for social media.
‘My point is that people are rarely “real” about motherhood,’ Harriet says. ‘Granted, there are a few celebrities now who have vented a little about the usual sleep deprivation and tantrums, but it’s all done in the name of comedy. Mothers paint this perfect picture on Facebook or Instagram and it’s all bullshit. Parenting has become a competition, a contest to see who is raising their child the best. Mothers tear each other down over social media, and it stops the people who really need support and a shoulder to cry on from reaching out to others for fear of being judged. The publishers want an author who is honest about being a mother, both the positive and the negative. They’ve had enough of all those “My toddler is a sack of shit” and “Why mummy freebases every night before bath time”. They want someone authentic, someone who will put themselves on the line and tell it like it is. Think of it as a warts-and-all account of being a mother, the impact it has, but with real meaning.’
Harriet turns away from the screen, which gives me the opportunity to think about what she has said. It is a refreshing take on motherhood, and it would be very interesting to explore the topic further with someone else. I just hope that I click with whoever it is.
Harriet’s back with a silver e-cigarette dangling from her mouth.
‘I’m definitely interested,’ I say. ‘Who’s the client?’
Harriet exhales deeply and makes a face as though disgusted with what has just happened inside her mouth, before saying something that catches me entirely off-guard.
‘There is no client, Searcy. This isn’t a ghostwriting project. You are going to write it.’
And I am so stunned that I barely have time to register Anna slamming into the room, her blond-streaked chestnut hair splayed all over face, racing over to me as fast as her bare feet can take her. She jumps on my lap with a force that makes me wish I hadn’t had that extra slice of quiche for lunch.
‘What are you doing, Mummy?’ she demands indignantly, which in her language means: ‘How do you have the nerve to do something without my vital participation?’
Resigned to my fate, I reluctantly introduce Harriet to Anna.
‘Hi, Anna,’ Harriet says flatly, pronouncing it the American way with the ‘A’ as an ‘Aw’ sound, like ‘Aw-na’. This is an affectation that seems to have travelled over here from the US, and, to be honest, it’s annoying.
‘It’s Anna,’ my daughter pipes up indignantly, emphasising the flat ‘A’ sound, as in ‘apple’.
Then Harriet does something I’ve never seen before. The corners of her mouth twitch with what I think might be an effort to smile, but that’s about as far as she gets. I hastily give Anna the computer mouse to keep her quiet, which will give me another ninety seconds, tops. Then, under immense time pressure, I quickly ask Harriet, ‘Why me?’
‘We’re looking for someone ordinary; someone without any sort of reputation or history in the public eye… basically an everyday mum who has nothing to lose.’
I can’t help but bristle at this. Ordinary, boring mum who has made zero impact on the world. It’s hardly the most flattering description, is it?
‘Full disclosure: it’s not just you in the running, Searcy,’ she goes on. ‘You’ll be pitching for it against a few other mums.’
Ha! Well, that’s decided it. Why would I compete for a book that I have absolutely no interest having my name on? Besides, there’s bugger-all money in being an author; everybody knows that. I might be desperate but there’s no way I’m working for nothing. I shake my head, and open my mouth to tell her that it’s really not for me, but a loud yelp comes out instead.
Anna, in a move that defies all logic, has just slammed the mouse down on my right hand.
‘I can’t do it, Harriet,’ I say, hurriedly, trying to keep Anna from banging on my keyboard.
She sighs and raises her eyes skyward. ‘You know the way I always tell you that you make more money as a ghostwriter than an author?’
‘Well, in this case, the advance is better than usual.’
Then she proceeds to tell me the figure, and although it’s not as much as I would earn as a ghostwriter, it’s certainly enough to give me pause.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I say weakly.
‘Good. I want the pitch in four weeks,’ she says, pointing her e-cigarette at me.
‘Say goodbye to Harriet,’ I tell my daughter, far-too-brightly, as she bashes the computer keyboard once again.
Anna looks up, stares Harriet straight in the eye, and says, ‘You have a moustache.’
Harriet instantly reddens. I dive for the mouse, and click it violently until the screen goes dark.
Then I burst into tears. After waiting so long for a new project to come through, I can’t believe this is what I have been handed. I mean, my own daughter has just told my agent she has a moustache. I’m not exactly a ringing endorsement for Mother of the Year. What on earth makes Harriet think that I would be a good choice for a book on motherhood? I have barely been able to hang on to my sanity since I had Anna.
Anna shuffles off my knee, and looks at me curiously with her huge brown eyes – it’s rare I let her see me cry in case she turns into an emotional basket case in the future (I read that can happen somewhere on the Huffington Post) – and then wanders off into her room, presumably to locate one of her millions of skinny princess dollies to torment (I’ll be blamed for her inevitable eating disorder in later years).
Not a trace of sympathy or comfort, I think sulkily. After all I do for her, and she doesn’t give a shite if I’m upset.
And then something happens to redeem my faith in difficult children. Anna emerges from her room with a grubby box of tissues – the one that fell down the side of her bed a good three months ago, which I haven’t been bothered to dig out – crawls back on my knee, plucks a dusty tissue from the box, and wipes the tears from my eyes. It is like that Kleenex ad from the 1980s, where the little boy runs off to get his grandmother a box of tissues when he sees her crying while chopping onions. Anna’s unusual act of kindness makes me cry even more.
I stand up and throw my arms around her to give her a big cuddle and she presses her head against my stomach. It is a lovely Facebook moment, and for a moment, I’m tempted to take a selfie. Look, everyone! My daughter and I have such a special bond. But just then, I feel a sharp, very painful pinch, just above my tummy button.
‘Ouch!’ I exclaim, trying to pull her away.
Anna doesn’t move. And the pain intensifies.
‘Agggghhhh,’ I scream.
She looks up in fright and bursts into tears.
Still in pain, I move her away gently, and lift up my top, only to find two perfect tiny teeth-mark on my stomach. For no reason whatsoever, Anna has bitten me – hard.
We both howl.
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