‘Sarah,’ Liza hisses. ‘Quick. Oh my God. Look who it is. My three o’clock.’ She throws her head towards the soft-play, kids hurling themselves off the plastic inflatables like they’re on some kind of kamikaze mission.
‘Georgina Bard?’ replies Sarah. ‘Yes, she’s here all the time. With that perfect, peachy bottom of hers.’
‘No. Not her. No, look again. Behind the blondes. Hurry, she’s going. Bloody hell.’
It’s rare, but Sarah’s not in the mood for a gossip. It’s just one of those days where everything feels wrong, like a too-tight pair of trousers, except she doesn’t have the relief of opening the top button.
She’d googled her symptoms this morning in bed. Mood swings, tiredness, heavy periods. Her diagnosis had said: perimenopause. She shivers remembering what she had read next. Perimenopause can last for ten years during which time fertility declines. Ten years! It seems so unfair. She’s only thirty-nine after all.
She can’t really see who Liza could possibly be talking about anyway. Everyone looks the same here. Block-printed athleisure-wear leggings with Olivia Cunningham’s brand-new Motherhood Mania clothing-line tops. Brightly coloured slogan tees – Mother’s Little Helper! – complete with lozenge-shaped pills underneath. She jolts when she realises she cannot see Casper, his blond, bowl-haircut flying up and down as he leaps from level to level, before she remembers he’s safely ensconced in his Champions Forever tennis lesson.
‘See her now?’ says Liza. ‘It’s a good ’un.’
‘Nope.’ Sarah wonders why Liza is staring at her so intently, waiting for her reaction. A Z-list celebrity, she wonders. Unbearable if it is. But, all she can really think is: why is everyone still smiling? Three days into the autumn half-term and she’s done in. Yet here they are, all the other women (and where are all the bloody men today?) bouncing around. Long, lean legs, feet in pristine trainers, chatting so animatedly. Why aren’t they exhausted? She knows she’s probably just jealous – but what’s wrong with them? She’d never stopped to think that maybe they’re all normal and it’s actually her with the problem. She rubs a mark off her own leggings. Weetabix, she’s guessing, from Casper’s breakfast.
She inspects all the other women as she tries to find the target of Liza’s attention. She’s distracted by Thomasina Hulme, who’d been extremely frosty with her in Zumba the day before last.
‘Come on Allegra.’ Thomasina sounds increasingly shrill. ‘Come on. You can jump by yourself, without Mummy’s help. Go on.’
Sarah wishes Thomasina would shut up and stop thinking that she is instilling confidence into her little one. Allegra jumps onto a red, squishy mat. Thomasina lets out a triumphant ‘Oh!’ and looks around, hoping for some semblance of shared joy at her daughter’s leap into the unknown. To Sarah’s utter satisfaction, no one else seems to be watching.
‘I can’t see anyone new, Liza. Just tell me who it is.’ She tries to disguise the impatience in her voice. Both she and Liza had had a field day when the club had recently opened. After all, The Vale Club is the spanking new place to be for the parents of West London and their little monkeys; so far, she and Liza have pretty much spotted and done a recce on all of the members already (their best one yet being some of the cast of Strictly Come Dancing on rehearsal) and apparently they’ve since shut the waiting list.
She can see why the place is in such high demand. There’s a soft-play, a gym. There’s even a crèche and kids’ classes, boxing, tai-chi and all, so the children can pump their little fists on punch bags instead of Mummy and Daddy.
Just as she’s about to swivel her gaze back to Liza and tell her she can’t see anyone, she spots her. She’s in the corner, behind the soft-play, picking up a large bag with two tennis rackets sticking out. In her right hand is a bottle of half-finished water and, in the other, an iPhone. Sarah can see it has been personalised with a photograph on the back. She gasps. Liza’s right. Bloody hell indeed.
Ella Bradby.
Of all people. Here. Sarah doesn’t know why she hadn’t expected it. She must have just joined.
It’s just like Ella to waft in after everyone else. To check things at the club are tickety-boo. Ella isn’t a leader of the pack in that sense. More that she would always wait. Keep everyone on their toes. Wanting to see if it is actually good enough for her. Sarah’s mind is pulled back to their antenatal class, five years earlier. The way Ella had waited for a text message from someone, before she deigned to follow on to the restaurant that had been chosen for their final NCT lunch. Just let me know what the food looks like, will you? Before I come all that way. And of course that part of the discussion had taken up most of lunch, as everyone had been too scared to put their heads above the parapet – just in case it wasn’t good enough for Ella Bradby.
‘Oh my God, it’s her!’ says Sarah. ‘I thought there was a massive waiting list.’
‘See? I told you it was a good spot. The mysterious Ella. Back again in our lives.’
Sarah doesn’t want to give Liza the satisfaction of reacting in exactly the awe-struck way she is anticipating. ‘Well, she hasn’t changed much, in all these years, has
she? We still don’t know where she went.’
‘Nope. You’ll catch flies in a minute,’ Liza laughs.
‘She’s one of us now. No helping it. Ha. You going to ditch me now?’
‘No, course not,’ she replies, distractedly. ‘Shall we talk to her?’
‘You can. Happy to observe. But I don’t want to go back in time. It’s all history now.’
Sarah doesn’t really know what ‘history’ Liza is refer- ring to but she glosses over it, in favour of thinking about Ella Bradby. She had been fascinated by her for the few weeks they’d been in NCT class together, and afterwards too. She thinks about the second she’d first laid eyes on Ella. How every single man and woman in the room – including her own husband – had been looking at those never-ending legs, that self-contained smile of hers. Sarah had felt that curious pull of wanting to both look and be like her, yet feeling simultaneously threat- ened. The fact that Ella, too, had forgotten Sarah’s name – not once, but twice – only served to make her allure even stronger.
And after that, she’d googled her obsessively and discovered with absolute glee that, back in the day, Ella had spent two dazzling years with West London-based actor, and St Paul’s alumni, Rufus North. Sarah had told Liza she had known with an absolute certainty she’d recognised Ella from somewhere. And there it was! Her relentless poring over the Mail Online’s Sidebar of Shame had paid off. All along, she’d been right on the money.
Afterwards, Sarah had remained intrigued for the eight weeks that Ella had been on the NCT West London Ladies WhatsApp group, before she’d quietly and deftly removed herself.
None of the other members of the NCT had said a word to each other about it. Too proud. Nursing their indignation by swiftly moving on to other matters. Nappy-rash. Tongue-ties, the colour of their newborns’ faeces. (Often accompanied by a photograph. Sorry in advance. TMI, but I’m having a massive freak out! Why is it the colour of mustard?)
But now Ella’s child, Felix, is in the same year at school as Sarah’s son, though of course in a different class. And despite having looked high and low, Sarah’s never once spotted Ella at the school gates.
She remembers eagerly skimming through the Reception enrolment list for The West London Primary Academy School before the start of autumn term. The way her heart had skipped when she had seen the name: Bradby, Felix. And she’d known, right away. She’d texted Liza straight off and had felt a swell of validation that they’d also managed to get Casper into the local primary – even though they are precisely three quarters of a kilometre away from the school. It had still been touch and go for a minute. She had been so thankful that she and Tom hadn’t had to delve into their life savings, just to be able to afford one term’s fees of the private school The Little Falcons. Tom had been relieved when she’d imparted the news and, because Ella Bradby’s child had also been sent to the local primary, Sarah had never again felt that she had to justify her choice to her mother – who constantly asked if Tom’s job was ‘going well’. A lecture would then follow, on how she and Sarah’s father had worked them- selves into the ground to send Sarah to her private school. She had clutched at this newly acquired information about Ella and Felix like it was a toasty hot-water bottle.
And now Ella is here too, at the club. Only a few metres away. She feels the lift of her earlier malaise.
It isn’t that Sarah necessarily still wants to be Ella Bradby like she had when she’d first laid eyes on her at NCT. Not in the same way that, aged sixteen, Little Miss Average Sarah Biddlecombe, at her West London private school, had wanted to step into the glittery, platform trainers of Little Miss Popular Cassie Fox.
No. Not in that way. Or at least so she tells herself. She’s had enough experience now to know women like Ella had enough trouble in life, what with the judgement that comes with their ice-cool looks and trendy jobs. The pressure of it all. No, it is something else entirely. She just wants to be near her, and breathe in the cool, calm essence of her. Her energy that says: I don’t really give a damn if you like me or not, which of course, makes Sarah want Ella to like her even more.

One thought on “The Fallout by Rebecca Thornton – An Extract

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