Brown Owl’s Guide To Life – Excerpt

The Girl Guides is an organisation for character training which has been started much on the lines of the Boy Scouts movement in principle but differing in detail. Already this training has been found attractive to all classes, but more especially to those by whom it is so vitally needed – the girls of the factories and of the alleys of our great cities who, after they leave school, get no kind of restraining influence and who nevertheless may be the mothers and should be the character trainers of the future men of our nation.
– How Girls can Help to Build up the Empire: The Handbook for Girl Guides, by Miss Baden-Powell and Sir R. Baden-Powell, 1912

Pixies work and pixies play, Pixies never stop all day.
If you want a friend for keeps, Pixies love each other heaps!

– Pixie Motto, written by the Pixies of the 2nd Troughton Brownies: Bethany Kendal (Sixer),
Theresa Rowbotham (Seconder), Lucy Gill, Christine Love, Paula Tucker and Simonetta Castigliano
May 1979

Chapter One

Brownies do their best. One time when you can try to do your best is when things go wrong. Try to swallow the grumble and to put on a smile.

It’s not until they carry my mother’s coffin into the church that it finally sinks in. All those bargains I’ve made since I was little – with myself, with God, with any other force that might be out there – have been in vain. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, crossing my fingers after every bad thought, and carrying out a daily routine of superstitious rituals, from humming hymns when I brush my teeth, to always stirring tea anti-clockwise. But none of it has stopped my recurring nightmare becoming a reality.

I’m an orphan.

The fact that I’m thirty-five with a daughter of my own ought to help, but it doesn’t. I feel abandoned. The organist is thumping out You’ll Never Walk Alone – a surprisingly low-brow choice by my mother, and I suspect she only picked it to annoy the vicar – and I grip the pew like someone shipwrecked, trying to keep my head above water.

‘Mum, don’t cry,’ Sasha whispers. I’m not sure whether it’s an expression of sympathy or a command. I’ve a habit of embarrassing my daughter with excessive displays of emotion.

Right now, she looks like Wednesday from the Addams family. You don’t often see a seven-year-old dressed all in black, but she insisted on full mourning regalia, just as she insisted on coming to the funeral. Sasha’s definitely inherited the stubbornness gene, the one that skipped a generation with me. When I took her shopping for today, she picked a serious raven-coloured velvet dress with a lace collar: she knows what’s appropriate, just like her father and grandmother. It’s only me who doesn’t know how to behave.

Sasha’s expression is grave, her big brown eyes screwed up as she concentrates on looking sombre. She’s a stoical child. She didn’t cry when we buried Norman the Gerbil in a shoebox under the bamboo (there are no proper trees in our zen back garden, and no lawn, just designer white shingle that the local cats use as a litter tray). She was far too curious about how long it’d take the maggots to eat the body. So it was me who worked my way through a whole packet of UltraBalsam tissues in the rodent’s memory.

Mum, don’t cry. I grit my teeth together so hard that I wonder if my fillings will implode. Today of all days I need to be brave, to prove to mum that I can get something right for once in my life.

I’ve always been a cry-baby. Once I start, I can’t stop until I’ve shed some pre-destined quantity of tears, like a vending machine programmed to dispense an exact cupful of coffee. I missed my father’s funeral – I was only five – but at my grandmother Dorothy’s I was inconsolable, howling from the organist’s first chord, till the final sandwich was consumed at the wake in the Old Surgery. Dorothy was eighty-four. Mum was fifty-eight.

Oh God. I can taste salty tears and try to gulp them away. But more are ready to take their place. There are always more tears.

Andrew reaches out to take my hand and I grip it, more firmly than I did when I was giving birth to Sasha. Before we left the house this afternoon, he huffed and puffed because his trousers were creased and he was worried someone would notice. But the moment we arrived at St Peter’s, he became the model of a supportive husband and dignified son-in-law.

It’s the perfect day for a wedding, not a funeral: a honeysuckle-scented breeze wafted our way as we walked through the lych-gate. Now I all I can smell are the cloying freesias on top of the coffin…

‘Uhhh.’ I try to swallow the first sob but fail. Now I know I’m lost, detaching my hand from Andrew’s as the dammed tears pour down my face and with them the make-up I applied so carefully just an hour ago. I told myself that the mascara and lipstick and foundation would give me a reason not to cry. Silly Lucy…

‘There, there,’ says Andrew, reaching out for my hand again. Before I give it to him, I wipe it on my jacket, leaving a slug-trail of snotty liquid on the fabric. When I give it back, he registers only the tiniest wince at its dampness. I try hard to concentrate on something else, the way men think of their bosses or their pensions or their mothers when they want to delay ejaculation…

Andrew, of course, has no trouble with premature ejaculation, or unacceptable behaviour of any kind. He was drilled from infancy in what to do, how to look the part. I focus on him, in the hope that some of his resolve will rub off on me.

Everything about my husband is just right. His black suit emphasises his height and his breadth and his slightly craggy face. Even as the mourners approached us outside the church earlier, with gruff regrets and awkward pats on the shoulder, I saw the women flush in appreciation. Even the vicar’s wife.

It’s not working, it’s not working. Try harder. I look up at Andrew: his periwinkle eyes are crinkled at the edges, and though strangers would see only concern in those crinkles, I wonder if there’s irritation there too: his mother never cried in public when she lost her husband.

My head aches as more tears build behind my eyelids. Don’t start again. Focus on anything but the reason why we’re here, in this chilly church, when Sasha should be on a school trip to an ex-dark satanic mill, and I should be selling shoes, and Andrew should be evaluating transport policy, while his assistants swoon over his grasp of strategic infrastructure. At least, that’s what he honestly thinks they’re swooning over: whatever faults my husband has, I could never accuse him of vanity.

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