What Now?- Shari Low (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘What Now?’ by Shari Low.

What Now?

Shari Low

Prologue – August 2019

Independent Women – Destiny’s Child

There are so many clichés in the story about how this whole thing started that I’m embarrassed to revisit them. Or ‘pure morto’, as one of my teenagers would say, right before he calls me a ‘beamer’ and asks why I can’t be the kind of mother who has a mature dignity, cooks edible meals, does Pilates and keeps their disasters private. Thankfully, I suffer from chronic oversharing, so my mortification threshold is low enough for me to just blurt it all out and then pretend I said nothing. I’m a big fan of self-denial. Except when it comes to anything involving chocolate, cocktails or Robert Downey Jr.

Cliché number one: there was alcohol involved. Number two: it seemed like a good idea at the time. Number three: we should have known better. And number four: we shouldn’t be allowed to gather without the presence of a responsible adult. The fact that four of the people who were present are approaching middle age with the speed of a bullet train rushing towards Menopause Central, and the fifth one has already passed that station, tells you everything you need to know about the maturity levels of my friends. There isn’t an ounce of responsibility between us.

And yet, should I really be surprised? After all, I have form for being irresponsible and spontaneous in the face of adversity.

I’m Carly Cooper. Mother of teenagers, Mac and Benny. Soon to be ex-wife of Mark Barwick. Turns out that keeping my own name when we married twenty years ago saved me a whole lot of paperwork then and now.

Not that keeping my name was some statement of independence or pessimism. It was just one of those things I never got round to, too caught up in a whirlwind of fast love, great sex, and transforming just about every other thing about my life.

When I married Mark, I gave up a varied career that included everything from managing nightclubs in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Scotland, to selling the toilet rolls that took care of corporate bottoms all over the UK.

Now, I make my living as a writer, thanks to two confessional novels I penned many moons ago: Nipple Alert (please don’t judge me for the awful title – it was the nineties and my publisher wanted something that would stand out, no pun intended) and Sleeping Under A Star.

I wrote Nipple Alert in the months after our wedding. It was based on the true story of how I chucked my job, my flat and my life, and went off to track down six blokes I’d almost married in my twenties. Disastrous doesn’t even begin to cover it. If you haven’t read it, all I’ll say here is that the story, and my life, had a most unexpected ending, when I found myself in the arms of Mark Barwick, high-school sweetheart and all-round male-type superhero… Or so I thought. But I’ll come back to that.

My second book, Sleeping Under A Star, told the story of a regular girl who contemplated leaving her husband for an ex-boyfriend who’d become an A-list movie star. You know, just your average, everyday, common-as-chips-type tale. And Sam Morton, my real-life movie star ex-boyfriend (I swear I’m not making him up) says he believes me when I say it’s not based on him. My face flushed a little when I wrote that last sentence because it’s a blatant lie. Sorry. Full disclosure – a few years after I married Mark, I went to live with Sam in LA for a couple of months to try to land a movie deal for the first book. While I was there, some feelings began to bubble under the platonic surface, and I briefly wondered if I’d picked the wrong man. However, Mark swooped back in and I realised our marriage was worth saving, so I said goodbye to Sam for the second time. Thankfully, he forgave me and he’s been one of my closest friends ever since.

For a while it looked like that trip to LA to flog my novels would lead to a starry screenwriting career and I’d be best friends with Kate Winslet, but that never happened. Both books did okay, but Danielle Steel wasn’t exactly budging up to give me a space on the bestselling author bench.

Like so many other nineties writers whose funny, romantic books were labelled at ‘chick lit’, my pink-covered flames burned brightly at the turn of the millennium, only for my publisher to chuck me as soon as sales dipped and the next literary trend took over. If my memory serves me right, ‘misery lit’ became the next big thing. I could have written about the tragic demise of my career as a novelist, but luckily, my two works of (almost) fiction led to a couple of side gigs that have put money in the bank for the last two decades. First, I landed the dubious honour of penning an unbearably smug, achingly obnoxious weekly parenting column for the lifestyle magazine of a broadsheet newspaper. I hate every word and have to shower after I’ve written it, but I got over the complete vacuum of integrity by reminding myself that it pays the bills. In real life, I supress the shallow cow who writes the column by trapping her under the wheels of a fictional £3000 designer buggy and only bringing her out when she needs to get in 1000 words of chai-drinking, nanny-hiring, personal-trainer shagging, pretentious yummy mummy nonsense. I’m not proud.

More recently, I’ve made a living ghost-writing fiction and non-fiction for people who are cashing in on their fifteen minutes of fame. I’ve done two novels by former contestants on Love Island, one for a dancer on Strictly Come Dancing (and he’s still proclaiming in interviews that he wrote it himself) and a couple of autobiographies for reality TV stars. I’m naturally nosy and happy to exist in the background, so it suits me fine.

Lately, however, my own life has been as turbulent as the ones I write about. You see, it’s fairly safe to say that I’ve hit an all-time, and quite unexpected, low.

A flashback to a day almost two decades ago ricochets into my head.

It was one year into the new millennium. I was with my girlfriends, Sarah, Kate (Smith, not Winslet), Jess and Carol – the four women who have been my pals since primary school and, remarkably, we’d all reached a happy plateau in life. I was twenty-nine, at the end of my epic adventure, and I’d found the man of my dreams, the house of my dreams and I was pretty sure I was in for the life of my dreams.

Actually, let me rewind a second, and take you back to my thoughts in that very moment, twenty years ago. Here’s the scene exactly as it played out:

We’re now coming to the end of the year 2000, and I’ve been Mrs Barwick for six months. Mark always jokes about two things: one is that he’s spent his life saving my ass and the other is that he always had money in the bank until he met me. His wedding present to me was to pay off the credit-card bills I’d run up trekking the world to find my ex-boyfriends, much to the relief of the financial institutions involved. My present to him was to throw away three packets of contraceptive pills, two diaphragms and a family-size box of condoms (you can never be too careful) and start trying for his much-wanted brood. We decided to settle in London and he transferred to his company’s office here, so he’s now the hardest-working lawyer in London. I don’t want to be nauseatingly sentimental, but God, I love him. He’s everything. We fit perfectly and I still can’t believe that the right guy for me was there all along, and I didn’t see it.

Our future kids will have two gorgeous cousins to play with as Carol and my brother, Callum, are expecting twins next month. Carol is delighted about it now, but it took her six months to get over the shock of losing her supermodel figure and her life on the catwalk. She’s covered up every mirror in the house. They can’t decide on names for the babies. We suggested ‘American’ and ‘Express’; at least then she’ll bond with them immediately.

Sarah and Nick also got married this year. Sarah is still studying and hopes to be a qualified teacher by next summer. Nick treats her like a princess. They were made for each other.

Our MENSA-member, Jess, is still working as a researcher in the House of Commons, however, she is now awash with passion for the very journalist who exposed her affair with a married MP to the nation. It brings a whole new meaning to having press contacts.

And Kate? Well, Kate’s been fired from her job in a desperately trendy salon for threatening a diva client with a hot-brush. It’s probably for the best. Since Bruce won the award of ‘UK Architect of the Year’, she’s been frantically busy moving house, hiring nannies and cleaners, shopping and socialising. Now she’s the one having her hair done every week. We live next door to each other now so we see each other every day. Bruce and Mark joke that we should get a bridge built between the two houses to save us from getting wet when it rains. We took their idea literally – the builders are coming to give us a quote tomorrow.

I sometimes wonder if I made a mistake by chasing my rainbow, but I know I didn’t. I’ve found everything I ever wanted. From now on, there’ll be no more ‘what ifs…?’ No more uncertainty. We’ve all got life sussed out.

‘Sometimes I can’t believe we all managed to settle down and sort out our lives,’ Kate says one Sunday morning as we sit around her kitchen table eating brunch. ‘Especially you, Cooper,’ she adds, to the amusement of the others.

‘I know. It’s miraculous,’ I tell her, breaking off a chunk of cinnamon bagel from the pile on the plate in front of me. ‘We’re like fully formed grown-ups.’

‘You know what I was thinking about the other day though?’ Carol asks, then waits for an answer, as if we could genuinely read her thoughts. Eventually she realises that no one is going to take a guess and she carries on. ‘What will we all be like when we’re fifty? Because you know what they say, with age comes maturity… And bunions, but we can get them lasered off.’

There were amused groans all round.

‘I reckon we’ll be drama-free and enjoying quiet, peaceful lives,’ Jess offers.

‘Really?’ asks Sarah, one eyebrow raised in cynicism, and I catch her glancing at me.

‘I agree with Jess,’ I say indignantly. ‘Look, I’ve already had enough dramas and disasters to last a lifetime. There’s no way I’m messing up my life again.’

The others nod in agreement and I sit back, satisfied, happy and positive that from now on I’m in for a smooth ride.

But what if… what if I couldn’t be more wrong?

Dear reader, wrong I certainly was.

Twenty years later, I have two gorgeous teenage sons and although our friendship group has faced tragedy and heartache, the bonds are unbroken and the love has got us through some dark days. And that’s a good thing, because I’m fairly sure that I’ve just plummeted down a well of despair. You see, at this very moment I seem to have found myself unemployed, skint, single, I’ve been publicly shamed, faced national humiliation, my mother has denied knowing me, my kids may never forgive me and…

‘Your lawyer is here.’

Did I mention I’m in a holding cell in a police station and in a whole heap of trouble?

Well, hello, rock bottom. Let me take you back a few months and tell you how I got here.

How it all started…

Chapter 1 London, Sunday 31st March, 2019

One – U2 and Mary J Blige

Mother’s Day. My soon-to-be ex-husband really knew how to pick his moments. Almost eight months after our separation, it was the first time I’d woken on the annual celebration of motherhood without Mark lying next to me – a thought that was blasted out of my head by the sound of my teenagers banging open my bedroom door. There had been a split second of anxiety until I’d ascertained that it wasn’t a SWAT team breaking into the wrong house, and that it was in fact my sons, bearing a mug of tea and a bacon roll. I pushed myself up, ran my fingers through my short blonde hair, transforming it from ‘loo brush’ to the more subtle ‘Charlize Theron Fast & Furious 9’ bowl cut. Sadly, this is the only thing I have in common with the wealthy, slim, drop-dead gorgeous mega star.

‘Happy Mother’s Day, Ma,’ Mac cheered, as he dive-bombed the end of my bed, sending a card flying my way like a frisbee, while Benny put the breakfast treat on my bedside table, making sure the mug was positioned on a coaster. He’s thoughtful that way. In fact, that whole moment summed up their personalities. At sixteen, Mac is an adrenalin junkie, wild, driven and prone to choose whatever is more fun in any given moment, regardless of whether it’s a good decision or not. I know – that apple fell right under my tree. My sweet, smart Benny, on the other hand, is almost fifteen on the outside, but about forty-two on the inside. He’s comfortable in his own skin, couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of him, and fills his low-key life just partaking of the things he loves: reading, movies, sport.

When the boys were babies, my Auntie Val, gin drinker, Glasgow-dweller and wise oracle of all knowledge, gave me the best nugget of mothering advice I’ve ever received – keep them fed and exhausted. Taking that on board, I encouraged (some may say ‘pushed’, but I’m admitting nothing) them both to take up a sport and thankfully they each found their own thing. Mac’s life is basketball and Benny is our swimming champ. Traipsing to their daily and nightly training sessions takes up half my waking hours, but the payoff is that they don’t have time to loiter outside the local off-licence on a Saturday night, asking passing adults to buy them a bottle of Mad Dog and six cans of Dragon Soup. The endless sport and working out (definitely theirs, not mine) means I need a HAZMAT suit and a barge pole to tackle the laundry basket, but it’s a price worth paying.

‘That’s the worst T-shirt I’ve ever seen,’ Mac pointed out with a teasing groan and a woeful shake of his head.

I glanced down at my sparkly grey pyjama top, that announced, ‘ALL’S GOOD IN THE MOTHERHOOD.’ He might have had a point, but it was Mother’s Day so I wasn’t rising to it. Instead, I took the mug of tea and wedged it between my knees and then gingerly balanced the bacon roll on my lap, while Benny flopped down on the available bed space not already consumed by Mac’s six foot three inch frame.

‘How did I get this lucky?’ I was having one of those ‘I love my kids more than life’ moments – the ones that balance out the pants on the floor and the discovery of a week’s worth of manky plates under their bed. My life may have turned out nothing like I’d expected it to, but these boys more than made up for it. ‘Thank you, my lovelies. You two are my very favourite people…’ They looked chuffed until I added, ‘That I’ve ever pushed out of my birth canal.’

Benny closed his eyes and shook his head, clearly unwilling to absorb any form of mental image.

‘I can’t believe you remembered it’s Mother’s Day,’ I gushed, only for Mac to swipe his phone screen and hold up the text I’d sent them both yesterday.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. Just sayin’. Love yoos!

‘Never seen that before in my life,’ I said innocently. The heat from the mug was radiating through the summer duvet, giving me third-degree burns as I opened the card. My eyes went to the heading.

To A Special Mum On A Special Day…

Aw, shucks.

My tired, green peepers moved downwards.

If you could cook and play football, you’d be perfect.

My laughter sent the tea sploshing on the white bed linen, but I didn’t care.

‘Right, you have choices,’ Mac declared, and while he ramped up the tension with a dramatic pause, I was struck with the recurring thought that I’ve no idea how I managed to make these two. Mac’s black hair and almond-shaped blue eyes are his dad’s, and Benny’s ash blonde hair and green eyes are mine, but that’s where similarities end. Both of them spend half their lives in the gym, on court or in the pool, so they’ve both got the kind of athletic frames that I could only acquire if I had them tattooed on my size fourteen body.

But back to the moment. Choices? Had they both cleared their day to spend it with me? Was I being relieved of all taxi duties for a full twenty-four hours? Did they have some wonderful surprises up the short sleeves of their muscle-fit T-shirts?

Mac enlightened me. ‘We can stop and pick you up either a Subway or a McDonald’s on the way back from the gym.’

Those were my choices. Subway. McDonald’s. Oh, and they came with the standard side helping of guilt I felt every time they had the motivation to work out, only to be reminded that I haven’t sweated since I gave birth to Benny.

‘Or…’ I said, trying not to let my disappointment show. Okay, so they hadn’t actually planned to spend time with me today, but that didn’t mean the whole day was a lost cause. ‘Kate is having a Mother’s Day barbecue next door at 1 o’clock and it’s an open invitation. All the usual suspects will be there. Maybe after you come back from the gym we could go?’

‘Are Charlie and Toni going to be there?’ Mac asked, and I immediately realised I had played a winner. Charlotte and Antonia are my eighteen-year-old twin nieces, the darling, gorgeous offspring of my brother Callum and my lifelong pal, Carol.

Carly. Callum. Carol. There are way too many names that begin with Ca in this little trifecta. It would have been much less confusing if Callum had married Kate, Jess or Sarah. Anyway, Charlie and Toni are my sons’ much-loved cousins. They’ve been pretty much brought up together so they’re more like brothers and sisters, but closer because they don’t live in the same house and fight about who’s taking longest in the bathroom in the mornings.

‘I think so,’ I replied, resigned to the fact that the girls would be the deal sealer, not the fact that my sons wanted to spend the afternoon with the woman who still has their stretch marks.

‘We’ll come with you, Mum,’ Benny said, one of his arms going around my shoulders and giving me a hug.

I couldn’t resist teasing them. ‘Because you feel like you don’t spend enough time with your really cool and trendy mother?’

‘That’s exactly it,’ Benny confirmed, in his most certain and definite tone.

‘And you’re absolutely lying about that?’ I said, with a grin.

Benny’s eyes crinkle when he laughs. ‘Completely and utterly.’

Honestly, they could wreck their rooms, stay out all night and eat the last Kit Kat and I’d still adore them because they make me laugh.

‘Look, I’m your mother. It’s my job to be needy and clingy. You can prise me off when you’re forty and I’m ready to let you go.’

Was it my imagination or did a look pass between them that didn’t quite fit with the light-hearted moment? For a split second I thought about ignoring it, but years of motherhood ninja training kicked in and I knew further investigation was required.

‘What is it?’ I asked, eyes narrowing as they went from Benny to Mac and back again. ‘What don’t I know about?’

‘Nothing,’ Mac countered with the same innocent shrug he perfected when he was about five and going through a phase where he only wanted to be the bad guys from action movies. He made us call him Dr Doom and every time our backs were turned, he tried to thump his brother with my best table lamp.

They both shifted, climbing off the bed, then took it in turns to give me a kiss.

Mac didn’t meet my eyes as he said, ‘Right, Mum, we need to go. We’ll be back in time for the barbecue.’

Benny was next, no eye contact there either. ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ he said again. ‘We love you.’

They were almost at the door.

‘Freeze!’ I ordered. I removed the mug from between my scorched knees as I watched their shoulders slump like armed robbers who’d just been apprehended with a bag full of balaclavas. ‘What’s going on?’ My voice dipped a few octaves. It was an interrogation technique I’d picked up from Criminal Minds.

They looked at each other again, and Mac broke first.

‘Nothing, Mum, but… eh… Dad called us earlier and he wants you to phone him back.’

‘Why?’ I had only spoken to Mark a few days before. We kept everything painfully calm, mature and polite for the boys’ sake. He was great at that. Those were three of his main personality traits throughout our whole marriage. Unfortunately, I’m easily excitable, like a giggle, and blurt out everything I think and feel. The writing was on the wall, really.

Benny was too slow to get out the door and had to answer. ‘Em, just ask Dad, Mum. Love you,’ he repeated.

And they were gone. This couldn’t be good. Two ‘love you’s, and the avoidance of full disclosure when it came to a call with their father. My mama senses were tingling. They’re the same as spider senses, but they can also detect dirty plates under their beds and underlying guilt.

I considered delving straight to the root of the issue by calling Mark, but stopped myself. It was Mother’s Day. I wasn’t going to let anything spoil it. I would finish my tea and bacon roll, perhaps while watching a rerun of a highbrow programme on international criminal justice (in other words, Hawaii Five-0), then I’d read a few chapters of the latest Dorothy Koomson, then get up and give myself plenty of time to throw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt for Kate’s barbecue, and then…

The ringing of my mobile phone interrupted my thoughts. I didn’t even look at the screen before picking up because I knew that it would be Kate’s daily morning call.

‘Hello, you’ve reached Carly Cooper’s Sex Chat Line. Press one for some heavy breathing, press two for some filthy language, and press three if it’s been so long since you had sex, you can’t remember how to do it.’

That last one would make her laugh, because she’d know it was me projecting my reality. Since my marriage ended, my dating game had been non-existent.

My amusement was kneecapped by a very male voice saying, ‘How about I press four, for a bloke who probably shouldn’t be discussing his sex life with his ex-wife?’

I choked on my tea. Bollocks.

‘Sorry, Mark, I thought you were Kate,’ I spluttered. And it didn’t escape me that he’d called me his ex-wife, even though the divorce wasn’t technically official yet. We’d started the paperwork, but neither of us were in a rush. It wasn’t as if we were running into the arms of someone else.

‘I guessed that. Sorry to disappoint you,’ he said, and I detected a tiny hint of tension beneath his usual calm, mature, politeness. Mark Barwick. Father to my two sons. My husband for approximately nineteen years and the man that I’d legally separated from approximately 226 days ago and counting. My brain had gone rogue and somehow insisted on keeping a running tally, despite my heart’s express orders to stop it.

‘I’m not disappointed.’ I hoped I’d hidden the sigh from my voice. We’d been some variation of best friends, lovers or partners since I was fourteen years old and now it was like we were in that awkward stage that came after a one-night stand with someone you barely knew. Not that I can remember the last time I was in that situation. I used the bottom of my pyjama top to dry the tea off my blanket as I ploughed on. ‘I was going to call you. The boys said you were looking for me and they were acting like Crimewatch suspects. Is everything okay?’

‘Eh, yeah.’

Oh, sweet Jesus, there was something hesitant in his voice now too. My stomach began to churn. What the hell was going on? Were the boys in trouble? Had one of them done something and was too scared to tell me? Mac was sixteen – oh God, had he knocked someone up? How many packets of condoms had I put in his drawer?

‘I’m too young to be a granny,’ I blurted.

‘What?’

‘Sorry, my imagination is running away with me. Please tell me Mac hasn’t got anyone pregnant.’

His laugh was both a heart-warming relief and a condescending dig. ‘Not like you to be dramatic. No. At least, not as far as I know. I didn’t even know he had a girlfriend.’

‘He doesn’t, I’m just…’ I stopped myself before I came out with something that suggested I was neurotic, anxious, or prone to catastrophising. He knew all that already. ‘It doesn’t matter. Anyway, why were you calling me?’

‘I just wanted to talk to you about summer. We haven’t got around to finalising when we’d have the boys and I just wondered if you had any plans?’

I hadn’t known this man for over half my life without picking up a few things. Other than the fact that he was a workaholic, there was a reason he was a very successful lawyer – he never entered a negotiation without a battle strategy. However, my bacon sandwich was getting cold, so I had no time for playing games.

‘No, no plans yet. I was thinking I might take them over to see Sam at some point, but I hadn’t got any further than that.’

Sam. Benny’s godfather. Who just also happened to be my aforementioned ex-boyfriend and a drop-dead gorgeous human being who went on to be a bona fide Hollywood star and GQ magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year, 2009. It’s a long story and I promise I’ll come back to it later.

There was a pause and I imagined that I could hear Mark’s teeth grinding. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that Sam and I had no romantic interest in each other – that ship sailed long ago – but I think the boys’ general hero-worship of their uber-cool godfather hit him smack bang in the ego.

‘Okay, it’s just that I was thinking I might take them away too.’

‘That would be great,’ I agreed, surprised but enthusiastic. Mark worked such long hours that Mac and Benny only spent alternate weekends and the occasional midweek night with him, so a boys’ week at the beach or city-hopping around Europe would be great for them. A real bonding experience and one that they hadn’t had before now.

‘Yeah, I agree. It’ll be the first summer since… you know…’ He didn’t seem to be able to say ‘since we split up’, but I let it go as he went on, ‘… So I thought we could do something special.’

Ooooh, maybe catch some big sports event? Perhaps an F1 race somewhere? I didn’t get the chance to question him as he cleared his throat and continued.

‘And I spoke to the boys about it and we thought we’d hire an RV and spend a month touring the east coast of the States.’

I had to rewind it at least twice to make sure I’d heard correctly, and even then, I had to check I wasn’t mistaken.

‘A month? You want to take the boys away for a month?’

Was this an April Fool’s joke? No, that was tomorrow. Mark was way too grown up and sensible to pull a prank on the wrong day. Or any day, for that matter.

‘Yes. Is that a problem?’ There was a hint of challenge in there and I had to clench my jaw to stop myself rising to it with full-force sarcasm along the lines of ‘No, of course not. Why should it be a problem? It’s not as if I begged you for years to take more than a week off work. And when you did grudgingly agree to a short break, it’s not as if you’d then spend every day on the phone and trying to get Wi-Fi so you could answer your emails. It’s not as if one of the very real reasons that I called time on our marriage was because I couldn’t bear to carry on living a life in which I always felt the kids and I were below work on your priority list. It’s not as if you promised me a hundred times that you’d show more interest in us, and then immediately reverted back to showing zero interest. And it’s definitely not as if I eventually gave up trying to make it work, we finally separated and you’ve suddenly decided you’ve got positively oodles of free time and you’re father of the bloody year.’

Nope, I didn’t say any of that because I understood now why the boys were being shifty – they knew this would blindside me and they didn’t know how I’d react. Despite Mark’s initial objections to the separation, we’d both agreed to be amicable, to go with the line that we’d just outgrown each other and parted as friends. However, this morning I could sense that they felt stuck in the middle, and that was somewhere I didn’t want them to be.

I forced myself to reply in a non-fricking-furious tone. ‘No, it’s not a problem. I just wish you’d discussed it with me before talking to the boys.’

A sigh at his end. ‘God, I can’t win. Look, I know I haven’t been around as much as I should have, but I’m changing that now. And it just came up in conversation with them…’

‘And I take it they want to go?’ I swear my ovaries clenched. Say no. Please say they don’t want to leave me for a whole month, that they were positively inconsolable at the very thought of it.

‘They do.’ Dammit.

‘Then it’s fine with me,’ I blurted.

‘Are you sure?’ I could make out surprise, relief and a tinge of disbelief.

‘Absolutely,’ I assured him, trying so hard to sound sunny and enthusiastic that I was now using the same voice as the actors in washing powder commercials. ‘I think it’s a smashing idea and I’m all for it.’

 

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