This morning, I overslept and woke up just before eight. Once I’d got up, done a few half-hearted stretches and picked up my clothes from the floor, I said to myself, ‘Isabella, you can do this. The cellulite will go, you’ve still got all your own teeth, you and Suze are friends again and you’ve got this beautiful house in your own name.’ #bestfriendsforever
Suze is my younger sister. I hardly ever see her since she lives in Hong Kong with her family, but this summer we managed to restore our relationship, which has made me happier than I can tell you.
Outerwear is the key look for autumn. On the playground walking my children in, my on-trend tightly belted jacket drew gasps of admiration from the girls in the Year One line. My archenemy, the gossip columnist Lavinia Harcourt, was still peppering her stupid rag with bitchy attacks on me, but in spite of this, samples and gifts were still pouring in. Since this season’s look is luxurious loungewear and cocooning, I should be all right. What better look is there for a secretly pregnant lifestyle blogger? It won’t be long before I consign anything tightly belted to the very back of my wardrobe, but for now, why shouldn’t I show off my enviable figure?
Once Finn, Chloë and Elsie had walked into their classrooms, I hung around in the playground chatting for a while, then wandered back to my delightful Grade II listed residence, the Old Rectory. We’ve been back at school for two and a half weeks now, and I’m starting to get used to the morning routine of breakfast, uniform and walk to school. None of us said it, but we were all looking at the place where our dear friend and fellow parent Claire usually stands. She had collapsed and was rushed to hospital for an emergency C-section, hovering between life and death.
On my way back home, I sometimes make a detour through the graveyard. I know that sounds a bit morbid, but it’s beautiful. The church spire soars up into the blue autumn sky, the old gravestones lean against each other like drunken aunts at a wedding, and the brightly coloured flowers and cards with childish handwriting mark the places where new grief lies.
I walked around, reading the faded inscriptions, as I often do. So much loss and yearning hidden beneath the moss and lichen.
Elizabeth, wife of Wm Harborne Esq, died in the twenty-eighth year of her age.
Here Lieth the body of John, the Son of Robert and Ann Smith, who departed this life on 12th May 1786 aged five years and of their Daughter, Mary Ann, who died in her Infancy. Suffer the little children to come to me.
Gillian Ling, beloved wife, adored mother, precious grandmother and friend to many. Died 1st December 2019. Sorely missed.
There’s a long strip of grass which runs parallel with our garden, separated by a stone wall. All the new graves are there. Against all the odds, it’s a cheerful place, embellished with fresh flowers, little rose bushes and pretty stones. How do vicars feel, I wonder, christening babies one minute, then joining people in matrimony, then trying to find something to say to comfort grieving families? It must be one of the hardest jobs there is.
Birds are crying out to each other and there’s a tang of woodsmoke in the air. I left my phone at home so I can’t take any shots, but that’s OK. Somehow, I don’t feel it would be appropriate.
I’ve got some work to do this morning, then I’m heading over to the vicarage with some delicious meals cooked by Ali, my housekeeper.
We’ve all been helping Tom, Claire’s husband, out as much as we can. He’s really got his work cut out, with three children and a newborn to deal with. I like to feel that I can give something back.
They’ve called the baby Benjamin, Ben for short. He looks just like Claire. #helpinghands #newlife
No one knows I’m expecting. And no one needs to know yet, thank you very much! For now, I look exactly the same, my toned figure giving away no clues to my real state. Underneath my carefully curated outfits, my stomach isn’t playing ball, starting to swell in a most alarming manner, but for now, I can keep it under control. This isn’t the way I planned it, with my husband off living with my ex-au pair, but the children wouldn’t notice if I grew an extra head, and when Ali’s here, I’m usually down at the studio. Eagle-eyed mums on the playground are my main concern, but as winter is drawing near, I’ll be rocking the layered look.
I haven’t decided when to tell Johnnie, but if I know my man (and I do), he’ll come running back the minute he hears that a new little Smugge is on the way.
My sister-in-law Horsey Davina has been texting very nearly non-stop. Dear me, she’s excited. Every last twitch, throb and spasm of her pregnancy is faithfully recorded and sent over to a reluctant Issy Smugge. Her due date is mid-October, and the latest excitement is her Braxton Hicks which are coming hard and fast. I was bracing myself for an invitation to be birth partner, but fortunately her husband, Toby, will be manning the head end while the professionals attend to the egress of the baby at the other.
It’s been a terrible week. The children fight and squabble from the second they wake up in the morning until the blissful moment I finally manage to corral them into their bedrooms, then I crash out on the sofa. It was never like this when she (my former au pair and right-hand woman, Sofija) was here. Everything ran like clockwork. Mornings are hell, a flurry of half-eaten breakfast, missing shoes, last-minute homework and pathetic arguments over nothing. It drives me crazy. I need space and tranquillity if I am to continue being one of the UK’s most respected and revered lifestyle bloggers. The children don’t seem to understand this however many times I shout it at them. #generationgap
Sometimes, I don’t know how I keep all my plates in the air. I’ve got my agent, Mimi Stanhope of Mimi Stanhope Creatives, of course, plus my socials’ guru, Harpreet. He manages anyone who’s anybody, and a few who are presently nobody but might shortly become somebody. I’ve got complete flexibility to post whatever I like across all the platforms, but I can fall back on him for the solid, everyday content. To maintain the meteoric success I’ve achieved over the years, the right support is absolutely vital.
It soon became apparent that as well as stealing my husband, the affection of my children, my chive-green gilet (I can’t prove it, but she was the last person to wear it), my will to live and my belief in human nature, she has dumped a whole load of dull and repetitive tasks upon me. Isabella M Smugge has worked very hard to get to where she is today, and she cannot continue to shine brightly in the blogging firmament if she is constantly weighed down with repetitive paperwork.
From the minute I hired that woman, her job was to work alongside me, smoothing my path and taking mundane tasks away from me. Let me give you an example. Our primary school is renowned throughout the district for its Good Communication Skills. Roughly translated, this means that it sends home enough paperwork to make an origami practitioner weep with joy. She used to go through it all on my behalf, extracting the goodness and recycling the husk. A brightly coloured newsletter detailing all the class activities, recent achievements, upcoming opportunities to part parents from their money and suchlike lands in my inbox each week. However, I never had to worry about it as she dealt with it all. Not any more.
The children were hardly back at school when smiley Mrs Hill, the school secretary, was on the phone. ‘Nothing to worry about, Mrs Smugge, but we would very much appreciate payment for Chloë’s class trip to the power station. And will you be joining us at the Year Six Residential meeting for parents after school next Monday? And if you could encourage the children to draw their self-portraits for the school calendar before the end of the week, we’d be ever so grateful. Bye!’
When I look back on last September, just twelve short months ago, I can barely believe how much has happened. Back then, I could swim before school, had virtually unlimited time to work and enjoyed a delightful relationship with the children. Plus, of course, I had a loving and attentive husband. Everything seemed perfect in Issy Smugge’s world. Mind you, I also had no real friends and was estranged from my sister owing to the painful situation around how Johnnie and I met. Even though she’s forgiven me, occasionally I still wake up in the night and cringe at the memory of stealing my sister’s boyfriend.
I would say swings and roundabouts, but I can’t bear clichés.
Time’s a funny thing. When you’re waiting for something wonderful to happen, counting the days off until a birthday or sitting in a dull briefing meeting, it drags. When you’re living your best life and all is right with the world (not that I can remember what that feels like), it shoots by at breakneck speed. Right now, it’s going as slow as it possibly can. In the same way, once Suze left our house for Hong Kong, after spending a blissful time with us in the summer, time dragged until the blissful day when the children returned to full-time education, leaving me at home with some much-needed peace and quiet.
On the first day of term, I dropped the children off at school and consulted my friend Lauren for guidance as to what was coming up in the academic year. I don’t know how she does it. She seems to have a rolling calendar of events in her head, for three children (hers) and with auxiliary attachments for three further children (mine).
‘OK, babes, so after school today it’s Meet the Teacher. We signed up for it last term, so Sof – she (here she coughed) would have booked you slots for all three of them. We’ll go round to the office and ask Mrs Hill. You can write them down, then I’ll see you here at pick-up and we’ll go in together. You’ve got that new man teacher in Year Six, you know, the tired-looking one with the five o’clock shadow, the Newly Qualified Teacher in Year Three and Mrs Jenkins in Year One (you’ve had her already, haven’t you?). Monday afternoon after school you’ve got the Year Six Residential meeting. Have your three done the calendar pics? Don’t forget we need to do the form for the Year One and Two school trip. We’d better go and sign up right now if we stand any chance of going along as helpers.’
My head was spinning. We waved to the children and trotted round to the front of the school to Mrs Hill’s domain. As we approached the double doors, it became apparent that a demonstration of some kind was in progress. The reception area was full of parents, mostly mothers, some waving pieces of paper and all talking at once. Lauren pushed open the door and we were nearly blown backwards by the noise. I was utterly at a loss as to what could have brought so many women in their twenties and thirties to one cramped meet-and-greet area. Lauren mouthed something at me, stuck her elbows out and powered through the crowd. I was left uncomfortably wedged between a lopsided Perspex rack containing back copies of the school newsletter and a large, framed collage of recent entries to a local art competition. Most of them seemed to be mixed media, with a very strong leaning towards glitter.
Mrs Hill’s voice could be heard above the racket.
‘Ladies. Please! One at a time.’ She might as well have been speaking Xhosa for all the good it did. The door opened and another squad of mothers swarmed in, including Hayley, the miserable woman with the eyebrows whom I had replaced as PTA secretary. For one terrible moment, I was back in my
City Girl days, squeezed on to a hot, smelly tube train and far, far too close to my fellow man. And woman. My face uncomfortably pressed up against the wall, I began to feel claustrophobic. What if I had a panic attack here, at school, in front of all these women who would love nothing better than to gossip about that posh, stuck-up woman from London losing her grip? #panic #whatshappening
At that moment, Mrs Tennant’s door flew open and the headteacher herself appeared. Raising one elegantly manicured hand, she looked ready for anything.
‘What is going on? I can hardly hear myself think!’
Mrs Hill raised herself from her seat to reply. ‘It’s the Year One and Two school trip, Mrs Tennant. Parent helper forms.’
I saw the head’s eyebrows twitch slightly. ‘Ah. I see. Well, can I suggest that anyone who is not here about the Year One and Two school trip concludes their business with Mrs Hill, and everyone else forms an orderly queue. Thank you, Mrs Hill.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Tennant.’ Mrs Hill sank back down on to her chair. I took a deep breath and focused on a poorly drawn depiction of what appeared to be fireworks coming out of a chimney (rather dangerous, I’d have thought).
A sheepish-looking man made his way to Mrs Hill’s hatch and pushed a brightly coloured lunchbox towards her, before turning tail and scuttling out of the reception area to freedom. Several mums handed her crumpled pieces of paper and departed. That left Lauren, myself, Hayley and about fifteen other mothers.
‘Right.’ Mrs Hill folded her hands and appeared to be ready for the fray. ‘Are you all here with your permission slips for the Year One and Two trip, and to offer yourselves as parent helpers?’
There was a general mutter of assent and heads nodded like sunflowers in the breeze.
‘One at a time then, please. After last year’s… unpleasantness, we will be putting all the names in a hat and asking a child from another year to draw them. You will be notified by text. Thank you very much.’
And that was that. Lauren passed her slip over to Mrs Hill and requested another one for me. (I had no idea where the original was. She dealt with all such matters.) I duly filled it in, handed it over and walked outside into the fresh air. Most of the mothers were standing outside, talking animatedly. Hayley’s piercing tones were cutting through the buzz of conversation like a circular saw through plywood.
‘I’m not at all happy about her attitude. My Lysander won’t be able to cope if I’m not there. He’s so sensitive. I’ve told Mrs Hill again and again. He can’t be treated like a normal child. He’s far too intelligent.’
She looked around for support. Several of the women rolled their eyes and there was a general wave of tutting.
The group started to break up and I found myself walking out of the gates with Lauren, Kate, Maddie and a couple of other mums. I’m getting better at identifying people. An entire year spent in the Reception line has improved my grasp of names no end. Lovely Lou, a friendly girl who never speaks ill of anyone, was talking.
‘I know she gets a bit overprotective, but he is a sweet little boy. And her hormones can’t be helping, poor girl. She’s due after Christmas, isn’t she?’
Maddie snorted. ‘She’s a right royal pain in the rear end, and you know it! Thank goodness I’m not pregnant. Imagine having her in two of your kids’ years. On and on like a broken record about the child prodigy. I happen to know he still wets himself when he gets excited.’
Lovely Lou smiled benevolently and pointed out that she still wet herself on a regular basis. The conversation moved on in a frankly scatological fashion, with lurid anecdotes of ill-fated bouncing on trampolines, unexpected sneezing and so on. My pelvic floor is as tight as a drum thanks to my regular Kegel exercises.
‘Oh, speaking of trampolines, I’m party sharing with Kim in December.’ Lauren whipped her phone out. ‘We’re going to Boing! for a trampoline party. Usual deal, drop-off, stick around if you like, hour and a half free play, food, cake, party bags, home. I know it’s a way off, but I’m trying to be efficient. Just texting you all so that you can save the date.’
Kate grimaced. ‘Are you inviting Hayley and the child genius? Better bring some wet wipes.’ We all dissolved into laughter, even Lovely Lou grinned reluctantly. Everyone scattered in different directions, and I was left walking towards the village centre with Lauren.
I questioned her about the anarchic scenes in the reception area.
‘It’s the same every year. They book up a class trip to the fire station in Ipswich and everyone goes crazy. It used to be first come first served, but Mrs Hill got fed up of mums lying in wait for her in the car park at 7.30 in the morning. There was a punch-up last year. That’s why they’ve introduced this new system.’
I was confused. ‘Why does everyone want to go the fire station?’
Lauren gazed at me, open-mouthed. ‘Because of the firemen, babes. The firemen. You know, fit, young, gorgeous-looking. It’s an absolute treat.’
Issy Smugge has always prided herself on her absolute fidelity to one man and her wifely virtue. Suddenly, I was seized with a passionate desire to visit a fire station, to hear the sirens ringing out and watch handsome young men leaping into fire engines and racing off down the mean streets of Ipswich. Perhaps it was the pregnancy hormones.
Hard on the heels of my sudden urge to visit Ipswich, a familiar craving hit. When I was expecting Finn, all those years ago, I couldn’t eat enough tinned sardines (organic, sustainably sourced, of course). Suddenly, I yearned to sink my teeth into the delightfully slippery little fish, feel the oil running down my chin, the bones crunch. I swallowed and felt myself salivating.
‘I’m just going to pop into the shop. I need to pick up a few bits for tea.’ I hoped that Lauren would head off back to her own house, but to my consternation, she followed me in, basket in hand, still talking eagerly about firemen. I was aware that seizing all the tinned sardines in stock would look extremely suspicious. I attempted to throw her off the scent by adding some low-fat Greek yoghurt, a handful of kiwi fruit and some blueberries to my basket.
‘Babes, how can you even eat those?’ Lauren was making gagging noises as she eyeballed my tinned sardines. ‘Just the thought makes me want to be sick.’ She ambled over to the reduced section and started going through packets of slightly damaged biscuits and cartons of juice coming up to their sell-by date. I paid and got everything packed away into my bag double quick before she could ask any awkward questions. I had a nasty feeling that I’d overshared about my pregnancy cravings months before, at a coffee with Claire and some of the other mums.
Claire. I would have given anything to be able to sit down with her and tell her my news. But there was no point in fretting. I waited for Lauren to pay then walked out of the shop, said goodbye and headed home. #missingmyfriend #sadness
At home, I sat down for a minute with a cup of tea, and the next thing I knew, it was lunchtime. I had only two hours to get all my work done before I had to be back at school for Meet the Teacher. I mean, you’ve got to applaud the school for their excellent communication, but really! How is a hard-working, award-winning lifestyle blogger like me supposed to get everything done? #runningoutoftime
Rubbing my eyes, I checked my emails. A whole slew from Mimi giving me chapter and verse on the reaction to my new, kindlier lifestyle feature, Open Brackets (generally good), the outcome of her drinks with Lavinia Harcourt’s editor last night (bad) and what she thought about the increased sales of my newest book, Issy Smugge Says: We’ve Got a Teenager on our Hands (excellent). Harpreet had sent me the weekly report on my socials (very heartening) and there was an email from Johnnie’s solicitor about the flat.
Grinding most of my teeth, I opened it. It seems that my husband and former au pair are finding the flat too small and wish to sell it. Since I own 50 per cent, I must give my permission. I never want to see it again as long as I live, and of course, I’ll receive a healthy chunk of cash from the sale. That said, I don’t see why I should smooth Johnnie’s path any more than necessary. I replied, saying that I was far too busy to consider it now and would reply in due course. Let them sweat. Ha!
Briskly, I went through the rest of my emails, checked all my notifications across the platforms, replied where necessary and scheduled some posts. By the time I’d done all that, it was 2.45. I don’t know where the time goes. I took a moussaka out of the freezer for tea (there’s nothing Ali can’t do with an aubergine), unloaded the dishwasher, went to the loo (the baby isn’t even the size of a prune – how can it be pressing that much against my bladder?) and left for school.
I suppose Meet the Teacher is a good thing. We didn’t do it last year, as we were in such a flurry with the move that all my interactions with the school were online. The girls ran off to play on the field and Finn and his best friend, Jake, wandered over to the back bushes to climb trees and hit each other with sticks. Lauren had Year Two first, so I bade her farewell by a battered-looking trolley full of reading books which had seen better days and positioned myself outside Chloë’s classroom. I peered through the window. There was no sign of the newly qualified teacher, Mr Rycroft. Our appointment was for 3.20. I checked my watch – 3.22. Rude. Punctuality is the politeness of princes, as Nanny always used to say.
My eye detected a slight movement in the corner of the classroom. A teenage boy (smartly dressed, I grant you) was fiddling about with a pile of books. Honestly! What a time to let a work experience student into the school. I rapped smartly on the door and marched in. The boy jumped and turned around.
‘Isabella Smugge. Chloë Smugge’s mother. I’m here for my 3.20 with Mr Rycroft.’ After losing half my day’s work owing to pregnancy-related napping, I was in no mood to waste yet more time. ‘Where is Mr Rycroft? Come along, my next appointment’s in twenty minutes!’
The youth gulped and ran his hand over his chin. (Blotchy, I noted. He’d clearly just started shaving.)
‘I am him.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Him. Mr Rycroft. That’s me.’
‘You can’t be. You look about fourteen.’
‘But I am him. Honestly.’ The young man was starting to look distressed, and his voice shook. ‘I’ll be twenty-three in January.’
‘Oh.’ I heard the click of high heels coming down the corridor and Mrs Tennant appeared, holding a clipboard.
‘Ah, Mrs Smugge, I see you’ve met Mr Rycroft. Don’t let me interrupt you.’ And she was gone.
I found myself in a rather awkward situation. Issy Smugge is not in the first flush of youth, but nowhere near the age where policemen start to look like children. I smiled, I hoped in a charming and conciliatory fashion.
‘My apologies, Mr Rycroft. Shall we?’ I took a seat, folded my hands and tried to look natural. Mr Rycroft (for it was he) sat opposite me and produced a folder.
‘It’s only my first day, but I’ve already formed a very good opinion of your daughter, Mrs Smugge. We talked about poetry and acting and different ways of expressing ourselves as an icebreaker and she impressed me with her natural confidence.’
I was puzzled. ‘Are we talking about the same person? Chloë Smugge? Reddish hair? Bites her nails?’
A faint note of acerbity crept into the teacher’s voice. ‘We certainly are. She lit up when I started talking about performance. I expect you’ve seen it at home. Does she put on little plays? Go to a dance class?’
I frowned. ‘Well, she’s a bit of a drama queen. Rather given to meltdowns and bad dreams, if that’s what you mean.’
Mr Rycroft cleared his throat. ‘Is there anything you’d like to ask me, Mrs Smugge? I’m aware that my 3.30 is waiting.’
The obvious question – ‘How can this be? You’re a child!’– was on the tip of my tongue, but I contented myself with smiling graciously, thanking him for his time and backing out, face aflame. I power-walked down the corridor to meet Mr Cresswell, the Year Six teacher. After my experience with Mr Rycroft, my son’s new teacher could be a knife thrower who travelled to school on a unicycle for all I cared. #embarrassing
The story of Mrs Smugge and Mr Rycroft provided entertainment for my friends for several days. Lauren doubled up with laughter when I told her, and Kate admitted that she thought he looked far too young to be out without a responsible adult. Honestly!
Somehow, the Smugge household limped through the rest of September. I lived day to day, scanning my emails for directives from the school and relying heavily on Lauren. By the end of the month, I was starting to notice that my waistbands were getting tight and the comments about how tired I looked were becoming too frequent for comfort. Soon, I’d have to brace myself and talk to Johnnie. But before that, I wanted to tell Suze.
On Wednesday, everyone came out of school in an annoying mood. Finn was sulky, Chloë was excitable and kept winding him up and Elsie was whiney and irritating. We trudged up the hill to our house, me struggling with wicked acid heartburn and impatience, them complaining bitterly about the various injustices meted out at school. I was so exhausted that the Pappardelle Pomodoro I’d been planning seemed like a bridge too far. I went against my own excellent advice from Issy Smugge Says: Let’s Cook from Scratch, picked up the phone and ordered in vast amounts of pizza and garlic bread. Goodness me, it was delicious. In half an hour, I ate more carbs than I normally would in a week, and I found that I didn’t give a single solitary hoot.
Forgetting myself for a minute, I leaned back and stretched. I was holding on to the last few weeks of warm weather and rocking an on-trend one-shoulder ruched jersey bodysuit underneath my French blue, cable-knit cardigan. It looked great, as long as I kept the cardigan buttoned up and my tummy sucked in. Relaxing at home, I’d forgotten this. Three pairs of eyes bored holes in my abdomen.
‘Mummy, you look all cuddly!’ Elsie leaned forward and poked me in the stomach. Some deeply buried instinct came to the fore and I put my arm protectively across my belly. There was a silence, broken by me laughing shrilly and suggesting we found some homemade ice cream and made banana splits for pudding.
How much longer could I hide this pregnancy, and how would the children react when I broke the news? To my horror, I suddenly felt emotion wash over me, and when I dropped one of my favourite Mosaique tumblers on the floor, smashing it into a million pieces, I burst into loud and extravagant tears.
Often, I think I must be the worst mother in the world. My children have had their father and Sofija snatched away from them and are left with a snappy, overstretched Isabella M Smugge trying to do a job at which she is constantly failing. And yet, in spite of my many shortcomings, I found myself being patted gently on the back by Elsie, steered over to the sofa in the family room by Chloë and comforted by Finn, who got the dustpan and brush out of the utility cupboard and started sweeping up the broken glass. This made me cry even more.
‘Would you like a nice cup of tea, Mummy?’ Elsie enquired. ‘That always makes people feel better.’ I nodded weakly and sank back on the sofa, closing my eyes and sucking my stomach in (not easy, I can tell you). Five minutes later, the girls brought me a cup of tea – weak, milky and with bits floating in it – which was one of the most ambrosial things I have ever had the pleasure to be served. I blew my nose, wiped my eyes and cuddled up to them on the sofa.
‘You’re so sweet. Mummy is very tired and a bit sad. I’m missing Daddy, but I’m so lucky to have you three.’
At this point, Finn joined us.
‘It’s all tidied up, Mum. Don’t worry.’ He smiled at me. ‘Are you OK? You look really tired.’
‘I’m fine, honestly. I probably need an early night.’
Elsie nestled her little head into my shoulder. ‘Mrs Jenkins is super nice. Today, she was telling us about being positive and focusing on happy things. She told us to think of five good things in our lives. I said you, Mummy; and Becky, and our house, and my teddy and our cousin Lily.’
I very nearly burst into tears all over again but managed to restrain myself. ‘That’s a lovely thought, darling. Why don’t we all think of three good things about our lives? Who wants to start?’
Chloë volunteered me, Hannah and Mr Rycroft (a huge hit, it seems, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his extreme youth). Finn, clearly keen to stop me crying again, also name-checked me and added in Jake and football.
‘Mummy, I nearly forgot!’ Elsie was jiggling with excitement. ‘I know it’s your turn, but can I have one more? The best thing ever is that Hannah and Becky’s mummy didn’t die. That’s good, isn’t it?’
It was the best thing ever, as far as I was concerned. Claire was still very poorly and likely to remain in hospital for quite some time, but she was alive and that was the main thing. My prayer, if that’s what you wanted to call it, had been answered. I gave everyone a big hug (even Finn), told them that I loved them (because I do), drank my tea and took them all up to bed. #answeredprayer #lovemyfriend #attitudeofgratitude