This morning, I woke up at 6 am, got up, did my stretches and forty lengths of the pool then said to myself, ‘Isabella, you’re a lucky girl. No cellulite to speak of, all your own teeth, a handsome husband, three beautiful children and a lovely house.’
I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that all this (by which I mean our gorgeous Grade II listed Georgian house, grounds, indoor pool, gym and tennis court) has simply fallen into our laps. Johnnie works very hard for everything we’ve got, as do I. Since we first got together, we’ve gone after all our dreams. That’s where so many people go wrong, in my opinion. Work out what you want and grab it with both hands!
I expect you know my name. My Insta account (issysmugge) has nearly two million followers. I post inspirational content on parenting, self-care, exercise, interior design and relationship enrichment. My book series, Issy Smugge Says, is a runaway success. I don’t know where I find the time! Thank goodness for Sofija, my au pair. She’s such a willing little thing, and the children love her.
One of the first things we did was to build my writing studio. I said to Johnnie, ‘I can leave London, I can live without street lights and proper Laotian food, but I cannot keep improving the reach of my brand without a proper writing space.’
‘No worries, sexy,’ he said, slapping my bum. ‘All tax deductible and when it’s up, we’ll christen it.’ He laughed and winked at me. Even after nearly twenty years, my heart beats a little faster when he walks into the room. Piercing blue eyes, cheekbones you could slice an Iberico ham on and a great physique. He insisted on having the gym and pool installed before we moved in. I keep myself young with Pilates and regular swimming. I know he’d never stray, but it can’t hurt to keep yourself trim. Mummy always told us, ‘A man doesn’t go out looking for burgers when he’s got Wagyu beef at home.’ Not that it worked out for her and Daddy, but that’s another story.
I showered, dressed and ambled over to the house. It was the first day of term and I wanted to be there to make sure Sofija had everything she needed. She’d sewn in all the name tags, put the PE bags together and laid out the uniforms, but there are some things only a mother can do.
One of my favourite rooms is the kitchen. Originally, it was shocking. All pine cabinets, ugly tiled floors and no utility room, would you believe? We ripped the whole lot out and I found a wonderful local company who came in and designed the whole thing. I’ve got a huge central island, top-of-the range oven (ideal for entertaining), wine fridges and a dresser I picked up for a song. We went for hand-painted doors in a soft grey (so ‘now’) and I insisted on quartz engineered stone for the worktops. I flatter myself I’ve got a real eye for a kitchen.
Thank heavens for Brygita, my little Polish girl who comes and cleans for me three times a week. I work full-time, as well as keeping my marriage on track and parenting, and I simply don’t have time for housework. It’s so madly ageing, too – if you’ve got the money, we both think it’s morally wrong not to contract out menial jobs. I mean, how would these girls manage if it wasn’t for people like us?
I promised my followers a big reveal and gave them a teaser yesterday. The little Smugges’ first day at their new school! My followers expect (and deserve) constant updates. I was all set up when the children came down the stairs. Finn is the oldest (nine), followed by Chloë (seven) and my baby, Elsie, who starts Reception today.
I’d already taken some shots of their breakfast (buttermilk pancakes with blueberries, strawberries and crème fraiche). Sofija’s a great cook, but her presentation skills leave much to be desired. I reframed it all, posted some overhead angles, then posed them eating it. It took quite a while as they kept talking and looking the wrong way. Eventually I had what I needed and uploaded it all to my socials.
I’d told Sofija to get them all up half an hour early and have breakfast done by 8.15. Back in London, we drove to school and then on to Elsie’s nursery, but here, everyone walks. I wanted to get some shots of them walking down the lane
hand in hand to tweet later. #firstdayofschool #mybabies #mumofthree
We hit a bit of a snag when Elsie had a meltdown. ‘Want my old school, Sofi!’ she sobbed. ‘Want my friends.’ Say what I will about my au pair, she certainly knows how to cheer a child up. I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t get the shots of family togetherness, which are vital for my brand, but after a couple of minutes, Elsie was walking along holding her brother and sister’s hands just as I’d planned.
Johnnie leaves the children’s education to me. Naturally, I’d thought about going private, which we can easily afford and gives the children such a good start in life, but as it turns out, the local village school is excellent. As my agent said, doing state school makes my brand that much more relatable. In Year Six, the girls will sit the exams for private school. Finn’s been down for a place at Johnnie’s old school since he was born, of course.
We walked on to the playground, which was surrounded by grass and trees. That’s a bonus. I do like the children to get plenty of exercise and stay fit. They swim, of course, and they have tennis coaching every week and most years we ski in February half term and at Easter, but as I always say, you can’t beat a bit of spontaneity! #planningaheadforspontaneity
I took Elsie’s free hand and gave it a squeeze. ‘All right, sweetie? What a lovely adventure you’re going to have today! Lots of new friends!’ She wriggled away from me and stuck her thumb into her mouth (I must talk to Sofija about that).
In London, I didn’t particularly stand out, but here – well! Most of the women hadn’t even bothered to put on make-up. There was a distressing preponderance of drooping leggings and tired leisure wear and everyone seemed to have at least four children. Nothing better to do, I suppose. The bell rang, I hugged Finn and Chloë, wished them good luck and trotted after Elsie and Sofija towards the Reception line.
It’s a big moment when your youngest starts school. I was writing the content for my Facebook post in my head when a young woman with badly done highlights marched up to Sofija and said in a penetrating voice, ‘You must be Mrs Smugge. I’m Miss Moss, the Reception teacher.’
‘It’s Smugge, not Smug,’ I corrected her. ‘As in Bruges. I’m Elsie’s mother.’
Elsie was smiling at last, and consented to hold Miss Moss’ hand as they walked in. I was surprised to see that quite a few of the mothers were crying. Some of the children were too. I remember being sent off to boarding school when I was seven. I admit, I cried at first, but I soon remembered Mummy’s advice to be a brave girl. The worst bit was leaving Suze behind. Even now, I can see her face, contorted with tears as she broke free of Nanny and ran down the drive behind the car, calling my name. Funny, I haven’t thought of that for years.
It was time to commence my social trajectory. I smiled graciously at the other parents in the line. Sofija was already chatting to a couple of women with pushchairs. She never dresses up much and today was no exception. Jeans, one of my old tops, trainers and her hair dragged off her face in a scrunchie. Shame, she’s quite a pretty little thing if she’d only make the effort.
A plumpish woman was the first to break ranks. She had a little boy in a pushchair and was either pregnant or had shockingly lax abdominal muscles. She gave me a big smile.
‘Hello! Are you a new mum? I’m Claire. I’ve got Becky in Reception and Hannah in Year Two. This is my youngest, Joel.’
I introduced myself. She had clearly never heard of me, so I tried to find another conversational topic.
‘My daughter Chloë is in Year Two. My eldest, Finn, is in Year Five.’ Tedious, but it had the desired effect. The woman’s face was wreathed in smiles.
‘Oh, how lovely! You must come over for a playdate. The children love having friends over. Whereabouts are you in the village?’
I explained that we had moved into the Old Rectory. The woman laughed. ‘Well, we live at the new rectory. Not nearly so grand. My husband’s the vicar at St Peter’s and St Paul’s. We’ve been here for five years. It’s a very friendly village, lots going on, and of course the school is super. Hang on, let me get him over to say hello.’
She seemed wildly enthusiastic, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I had factored in fifteen minutes for meet and greet in the playground. As the parents streamed out through the gate, a person dressed in what I believe is called a hoodie ambled over to us. Some kind of caretaker, I assumed. But no.
‘This is my husband, Tom. Darling, this is Isabella who’s just moved into the Old Rectory. Her girls are the same age as Hannah and Becky.’
I thought vicars were in their sixties, wore ill-fitting slacks and dog collars. This one looked as if he was off to the skate park and was quite startlingly good-looking. Not my type, but very nice just the same. Goodness knows how a woman like Claire managed to bag him!
He seemed perfectly friendly and chatted to Sofija and me as if we were old friends. He enquired after our spiritual leanings (subtly) and assured us that we would be welcome on Sunday mornings or any time there was a group, which seemed to be every day. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the whole point of church was that you knew where you were. Carol service at Christmas, Harvest in September and so on. These people seemed gluttons for punishment.
‘We do Messy Church on Wednesdays, Claire runs a mums’ group on Friday mornings, we’ve got an Alpha starting next week…’ I tuned out while smiling graciously. I had better things to do than hang around with a bunch of Bible bashers, although they seemed friendly enough.
At the gate, we divided, Sofija and I heading back up the hill to the house, the vicar, wife and pushchair trundling off towards the village centre. My phone was going crazy with notifications. I’m trending!
I flatter myself I can talk to anyone. Back at home, I used to say hello to the postman, the lollipop lady and even the dustmen. I pride myself on having the common touch. Johnnie thinks I’m a hoot.
‘You’re not exactly everywoman, are you, darling?’ He poured us both another glass of fizz. It was Friday and we were unwinding after a crazy week. ‘When’s the last time you did the shopping, or worried about how you’re going to pay the mortgage?’
It’s true, I’ve never had to lose sleep over money, which has such a deleterious effect on a woman’s looks. We lived with Mummy, Daddy and Nanny in our big house in Kent, handy for Daddy’s work. Mummy used to laugh with that edge in her voice, like cut glass, and call herself the trophy wife. Suze and I didn’t know what that meant, but we did know that all hell would break loose if Mummy had one too many G&Ts and spoke her mind when Daddy came home.
I don’t want to give you the impression that we had a bad childhood. We had lots of toys, a treehouse, lovely parties and our ponies in the paddock. Nanny would whisk us off upstairs if Mummy and Daddy had one of their arguments, but often, when we were supposed to be asleep, Suze and I would creep out of bed and sit at the top of the stairs, listening to the voices shouting and the doors banging.
It hasn’t affected me a bit, although Suze went through a bad time at boarding school which she always said was down to our home life. She’s fine now. Absolutely fine. Not that we talk much.
We’ve all settled into country living. My followers love my posts about the simple life. The children seem to like school. Elsie has nearly kicked her thumb-sucking habit, which is a relief. She lost her first tooth the other day. Sofija sorted out all the fairy nonsense. I can’t be expected to keep up with all the details of domestic life. That’s what I pay her for.
I gave in to Claire’s pleadings and scheduled an afternoon for coffee and chat. The new rectory is an ugly, modern house, softened slightly by a pretty garden at the front. Goodness knows what vicars earn, but it clearly isn’t enough for a decent coffee machine and an ice-maker. I drank something calling itself ‘instant’ and accepted a cheap, sugary biscuit.
Claire chatted away about school, the children and the weather. How do people stay at home raising children and allowing their creativity to be stifled? I love my children as much as the next woman, but the thought of being in their company 24/7 fills me with horror. I need my space.
My hostess was pushing a luridly coloured flyer across the table. It was an invitation to something calling itself ‘Messy Church’ the next week. I had no intention of being sucked into religious activities but, out of politeness, I said I’d talk to the children and see. On the way home, to my amazement, Chloë started badgering me to take her along. She’d made great friends with Hannah, who is a mini version of her mother. Wednesday is our free night and with no Johnnie at home, I couldn’t see any harm in it.
I’d say I believe in some sort of Supreme Being, and good and evil, but when I think about it at all (which isn’t often), I suppose I think that all gods are roughly equal, if you do good things you should be OK and that there may be pie in the sky when you die, but probably not. Johnnie, on the other hand, is a full-on atheist.
‘Look at all the trouble religion causes, Iss. Complete waste of time. They’re all hypocrites.’
Of course, his father was a bishop, so I suppose it was inevitable.
Messy Church lived up to its name. When we walked in, Chloë rushed over to Hannah, Elsie and Becky hugged each other as if they’d been parted for years and various small, grimy children dashed about screaming. It was hell.
Claire and an older woman with grey hair and an unfortunate aversion to personal grooming seemed to be in charge. I was invited to take a seat, drink appalling coffee and eat something calling itself shortbread in the company of a gaggle of weary-looking mothers, some of whom I recognised from the Reception line.
I smiled graciously and tried to think of an opening gambit. It was easy back in London. You simply asked what their husband did and where they lived, and you were off. Here, the rules seemed different and I was surprised to feel like an outsider. It reminded me of my first term at boarding school. But I mustn’t dwell on that.
I looked around for Claire, but she was wiping Joel’s nose and talking to a young, skinny woman with purple streaks in her hair. ‘Come on, Isabella,’ I said to myself sternly. ‘They won’t bite.’
I smiled. ‘Hi. I’m Isabella. We just moved here from London.’
There was a moment’s silence, then they all seemed to come to life. ‘All right?’ ‘Seen you in the playground.’ ‘You Elsie’s mum?’ That started us off and I treated them to my most charming manner, head on one side, lots of eager little nods and smiles. By the time Claire tapped the microphone and informed us all that it was story time, I knew that nearly all of them seemed to be called Lisa and that they had turbulent lives. Several of them left to go and smoke rolled-up cigarettes behind the gravestones with the girl with the purple hair.
Claire treated to us to a story about Noah and the ark. She got some of the children to play the animals. Believe me when I tell you that not much acting was required in some cases! My little Elsie was an elephant and did very well. I clapped and shouted, ‘Go Elsie!’ Some of the mums tittered. Apparently, it wasn’t an immersive production.
After the story, the grey-haired woman seized the mic and led us in a stirring rendition of an action song. The children took to this with gusto, leaping up and down and bellowing the words with great enthusiasm. I took the opportunity to plug in my earphones and catch up on a podcast.
After that, there was another song which involved marching round the room shouting, ‘Thank You, Jesus!’ at top volume. I managed not to laugh, but only just. I never did find out what we were thanking Him for. I don’t suppose it was the coffee. Claire took over and invited us to close our eyes and talk to Jesus. I closed mine and carried on listening to the podcast.
That marked the end of the religious portion of the afternoon. The children scattered to make an incredible mess with glitter, glue and Sellotape. I joined Elsie to help her make a badge. To my consternation, it read, ‘Jesus Loves Me!’ in huge letters. I’ll put it in the recycling later. It wouldn’t do for Johnnie to find it.
Busted! When Johnnie FaceTimed, Elsie spilled the beans.
‘Daddy, we went to Messy Church, Mummy clapped and the other mummies said shhh!’
Johnnie raised his left eyebrow. When you’ve been together as long as we have, you know what every expression means, and the eyebrow is a bad sign. Thinking on my feet, I told him that Finn had been selected for the football team. That brought the smile back to his face and bought me some time.
The girls chattered away to him nineteen to the dozen. Finn played it cool, but I know he adores Johnnie. They chatted about football while I loaded the dishwasher. I felt so connected, pottering about in my beautiful kitchen, wiping surfaces and rearranging the flowers. Let no one accuse Issy Smugge of not being relatable!
After a while, Johnnie said, ‘OK, kids, off you go and play. Mummy and Daddy time.’
‘What’s all this, darling?’ he asked. ‘Surely you’re not playing the little housewife? Although you do look very hot in that apron. Where’s Sofija got to?’
I explained that I’d given her some time off. She was missing her friends in London and the social whirl, and when you find good staff, you need to make sure you treat them right. She was staying with my friend Nicki’s au pair. They were great friends back in London and Nicki very sweetly lets her stay over on her days off. Johnnie shrugged. He leaves all the HR to me.
We talked about work. Part of keeping a relationship alive and vibrant is pretending to be interested when your husband talks about what he does. Johnnie started out on the trading floor at one of the big investment banks, then jumped ship to another one when we were twenty-seven, netting a fantastic pay deal in the process. Three years later, he was off to Credit Suisse. His mother is from Interlaken and he’s fluent in German, so that was a no-brainer. These days, he’s a hedge fund manager, raking it in and highly respected in the industry.
People say we’re lucky, but they forget all those years of hard work, tough decisions and risks. We shed a few friends along the way, but that’s life.
‘You know I don’t want you and the kids getting involved in religion, Iss.’ He was frowning.
I kept it light. That’s always best when Johnnie is in a mood. Turns out Tom the skater-boy vicar went to Cambridge. Johnnie likes to know the right sort of people and his face lightened when I told him.
‘There’s no harm in the kids playing together, and I suppose if you’re hanging out with the wife, I can get to know the rev a bit. What’s his background?’ Johnnie’s always keeping an eye open for potential networking and deals.
I only knew that he came from quite a good family and had given up a career in the law to become a vicar. Johnnie snorted. ‘Idiot! He could have been earning decent money by now if he’d stuck at it. Get them over for drinks one weekend, sweetie, and I’ll play the gracious host.’
Weirdly, although Claire could drop a couple of stone, do something about her hair and really benefit from a course of chemical peels, she seems to be one of the playground kingpins. She talks to everyone, even the clutch of scowling mums with tattoos from the council estate. I have to admit, she’s growing on me. It seems that the key to village life is to know a few of the right people, but I’m finding it relatively tough.
Some of the other parents say hi when they see me, but most of them stare at me as though I were some rare bird of paradise. In my line of work, you have to keep up your appearance. I get my hair done monthly, nails every week, regular massages and of course a good diet and exercise regime. I don’t have to bother going clothes shopping much as my favourite designers send me a selection every season. That’s the joy of being an inspirational lifestyle blogger. Sofija must be the best-dressed au pair in the county, what with all my cast-offs. #aupairupcycling
I had Claire and the children over to ours after school. Part of my success is my ability to stay humble and relatable, but I get quite a thrill when I see visitors’ jaws drop as they walk in.
I fired up the coffee machine which I’d imported from the States. Fiendishly expensive, but worth every penny. I made Claire the best cappuccino she’d ever had, then we went and sat in the family room while Joel pulled himself up on the sofa and plumped himself down again. He seemed easily amused.
‘How are you finding village life, Isabella?’ asked Claire, savouring her coffee, as well she might. ‘It must be a huge change after London.’
I was missing the hustle and bustle, all my friends and, now I came to think about it, Johnnie. Back home, we’d have weekly date nights, take off for little weekend getaways, leaving his mother or Sofija in charge or sneak off to the bolt-hole for a bit of R&R. I was seeing less of him than ever before, but spending much more time around the children. I felt a tiny little ice-cold finger prod speculatively at my gut. I’d taken my eye off the ball.
I wasn’t going to tell Claire any of that. ‘Fine, fine,’ I trilled. ‘I miss my friends and the social life, but it’s a sacrifice worth making. The children seem happy and Sofija loves it, which is the main thing. Happy au pair, happy Issy!’
‘Have you connected with any of the other mums?’ Claire asked, hauling Joel on to her lap and wiping his nose. He is the most remarkably snotty child, although quite sweet if you like toddlers. I never did, much.
‘Not really. I say hello when I see them and they talked to me at your craft afternoon thing, but I don’t seem to be making much headway.’
She put her cup down and leaned forward. I felt a moment coming on.
‘Can I be honest, Isabella?’
I braced myself. Is it my fault that men find me attractive? I’d seen the looks in the playground. Some of the women could have been quite presentable with the right clothes and a makeover, but if you will let yourself go, what can you expect?
‘I think they find you just a little intimidating. They’re afraid that you might look down on them a bit, so they’re not reaching out as they normally would.’ She looked anxious. ‘I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings.’
I’m known for my problem-solving abilities. To me, a problem is simply an opportunity to grow.
‘How about if I have them all over for coffee over half term?’ I suggested. ‘They can bring their children and get to know me.’
‘I think you might be biting off a bit more than you can chew.’ Claire was looking worried. ‘Maybe just have two or three over at a time?’
Sofija would have done all the donkey work, of course, while I did the meet and greet, but I bowed to Claire’s superior wisdom. We walked down to school to pick up the children and I worked the playground, giving out my mobile number to the women indicated by Claire as potential social acquaintances.
I was worn out by the time I got back home, and never have I been so glad to see Sofija. The children all hugged her as if she’d been away for years. Elsie was holding her hand and talking non-stop about being an elephant, Chloë was holding the other hand and chatting away about her sleepover with Hannah while even Finn was smiling and laughing. He’s been such a grump lately. I’ve had to work so hard to get him to pose for my ‘Easy Family Meals’ series.
Sofija had finally taken my advice and got her hair done properly. A closer inspection revealed that she’d had her eyebrows done and, if I wasn’t very much mistaken, had bagged herself a full set of lashes. Now she wasn’t sporting her old Shaggy Peasant look, she really did appear quite presentable.
We chatted as she cooked tea and I checked my notifications. She’d had a great time in town, gone out with her friend and blown her birthday money on the hair, lashes and eyebrows. And why not? Living with one of the UK’s most successful inspirational lifestyle bloggers was clearly rubbing off. I asked if I could feature her in my next ‘From Tramp to Vamp’ series. She looked a bit uncomfortable, but eventually agreed.
Johnnie’s home tomorrow night! I’ve booked a table at the trendy new oyster bar on the coast and got some new underwear that’ll knock his socks off! Really, I am the luckiest girl in the world, although as Mummy always says, ‘You make your own luck, Isabella.’ Maybe you do. #luckygirl #keepingitreal