Sample Chapters: The Continued Times of Isabella M Smugge

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This morning I was awoken at 2.30, 4.08, 5.32 and 6.41. As my alarm went off, I lay there with my eyes closed taking deep, cleansing breaths and forgiving my mother. Then I swung my legs out of bed, noticed that my toenail polish was chipped, dug through the pile of clean washing to find an outfit and said to myself, ‘Isabella, you can do this. Mummy won’t be living with you forever and Milo is just teething.’  

Then I studied myself in the mirror in my gorgeous, five-piece en-suite bathroom, patted in some Extra Hydrating Light Diffusing Under Eye Concealer and tried to put the new network of fine lines around my eyes out of my mind. 

Running down the stairs to start breakfast and commence the lumbering juggernaut of despair which is the daily school run, I mused on the changes rocking my carefully curated world. Disastrously, my mother has had a stroke and is living with me and my four children in my gracious Grade Two listed residence, the Old Rectory. I have help. Of course I do. How else would I be expected to nurse a cantankerous and difficult parent while bringing up four children alone with only a housekeeper, a part-time nursery nurse, a gardener and a manicurist between myself and complete disaster? I don’t suppose there are many women in this world who can stay in touch with millions of devoted followers looking for inspiration and carefully planned spontaneity each and every day. If I am to continue to inhabit the glittering pinnacle of success as one of the UK’s most beloved mumfluencers, I cannot be weighed down with the repetitive and exhausting cares of everyday life. 

It’s hard enough being a single parent. Even though my husband, Johnnie, has been sending repentant WhatsApps on an almost daily basis and showering me with seasonal, fragrant blooms, I am staying strong. Ever since he broke my heart by cheating on me with my right-hand woman and au pair, Sofija, my life has taken a very different direction from the one I dreamed of when we first met, all those years ago.  

My mother had plenty to say when our relationship began. Her acid remarks on my revelation that Johnnie had dumped my sister, Suze, and taken up with me rang uncomfortably in my ears. ‘Handsome is as handsome does, Isabella. I wouldn’t trust that man as far as I could throw him.’ 

I hate to admit that she was right about anything, but as I frothed the hot chocolate and spread organic butter and homemade blackcurrant jam on the artisan toasted bread for the children’s breakfast, I winced. Thank heavens my dear Suze and I are friends again. Without her, I don’t know how I would have survived the last month. #singleparent #platespinning 

For the past two years, my routine has been largely unchanged. Having three children at the same school was a breeze, relatively speaking. Now that my eldest, Finn, has started high school, mornings start an awful lot earlier. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that baby Milo has given up sleeping through the night, as I am generally up and at it by six-thirty most mornings. Finn leaves to catch the bus just before eight. He looks so handsome and grown-up in his uniform. #proudmumalert  

It’s a pity that the first year of high school coincided with the arrival of some hormones I could well do without. Finn consented to the traditional back-to-school photos by the front door on the first day of term but has refused to have his photo taken ever since. I begged, I pleaded, I bribed, but to no avail. My fearsome agent, Mimi, is going to be most put out. 

Pushing Milo in his gorgeous, on-trend Mon Petit Trésor pram with Elsie skipping along beside me and Chloë stalking on ahead (note to self – when do girls start to exhibit signs of hormonal disruption?), I took some deep invigorating breaths and gazed up at the blue September sky. It’s a brisk five-minute walk from my delightful abode to the primary school, such good exercise and a wonderful opportunity for spontaneous shots to add to my grid. I always try to leave at least ten minutes early so that I can capture the everyday moments which my followers love.  

People often ask me, ‘Isabella, how do you do it? How do you manage to bring up children, keep a tidy house and put out engaging, innovative content every day?’  

Back in the old days, I’d smile and say something like, ‘I’m so fortunate to have such good help and support, and of course, I couldn’t do any of it without my rock, my one true love, the gorgeous Johnnie Smugge. He’s the secret of my success.’ 

I meant it, too. I really did. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment when a tiny, ice-cold hand clutched at my vitals and a voice whispered in my ear, ‘Why do you always do what he tells you, Isabella?’ I am starting to wonder if the reason for my meteoric rise to the top might not be more to do with me, my insatiable need for success, my yearning to be loved and my drive. And, of course, my God-given talent with engaging images and trend scouting. #naturalgifts 

Sofija’s abrupt departure fourteen months ago led to me becoming a much more hands-on parent. Just as you get your head around a particular stage, one of the children has a nasty habit of moving on, rocking the whole precarious parenting boat. Over the summer holidays, it was Chloë’s turn. She has developed a taste for sarcasm and backchat and become what you might call spirited. Getting her up in the mornings has become quite a production. My old method (creep quietly into her bedroom, turn her princess lamp off, plant a tender kiss on her cheek and whisper softly, ‘Time to wake up, darling’) has been replaced with a heavy-footed stomp up the stairs and what can only be described as bellowing. I’m sure I was never like that. Although of course I was shipped off to board at St Dymphna’s aged seven and my mother employed Nanny to do all the heavy lifting pretty much from birth.  

My little Elsie is a delight and Milo pretty much stays wherever I put him, although he has been showing a worrying tendency to roll over and try to inch his way across the floor, like a portly designer-clad tank. While tiny babies make a lot of smells and struggle with a regular sleeping routine, the great benefit is that you can pose them as you please for excellent and engaging content. That’s not why I had him, of course (whatever my arch rival, trashy journo Lavinia Harcourt might say), but it can’t be denied that newborns sell. Now he’s really starting to take notice, smiling and adorable, it only takes an organic rusk or two to get him to pose gorgeously for me. Once he’s on the move, it will prove a little harder, but as I always say, faint heart never won Blogger of the Year.  

My complex life has taken on an added dimension with Mummy coming to recuperate at my house. Fortunately, a care agency is based right here in the village, and representatives of said agency have been making their way into the house via the boot room four times a day. As yet, my frenemy, the terrifying Liane Bloomfield, has not been one of their number. I am quaking in my on-trend leather knee-high boots at the thought.  

The first visit is at eight in the morning, just after Finn bangs the front door on his way out, signalling the end of the first row of the day with Chloë. I am always in the kitchen, dressed and made up and looking perfectly polished and put together, even if I don’t feel it. So far, all the carers have been gratifyingly punctual and efficient. They get Mummy up, help her to wash and dress and sort out her medication, so that I don’t have to. 

I wouldn’t want you to think that I don’t care about Mummy. Suze and I have worked very hard to put all the right support in place. Her post is being redirected, the very best physios and therapists retained to help her with her speech and movement and enough quality family time to keep her off my back. I’ve even gone the extra mile and built in a weekly manicure and nail paint for her. Just because she’s recovering from a stroke doesn’t mean she can’t look good. I had a quiet word with my manicurist and encouraged her to move Mummy away from her trademark scarlet and vermilion nail colour (a bit of a Cruella de Ville vibe, tbh) and towards a more neutral, modern shade. So far, she won’t hear of it. Which is absolutely typical. #gooddaughter #givingtillithurts 

Walking down the road towards the school gate, I was joined by my friend Lauren and her three girls.  

‘All right, babes? How many hours did you get last night?’ 

I did a rapid mental calculation.  

‘Five hours and twenty minutes, give or take. I’ve gone back on the caffeine. It’s the only thing between me and insanity.’ 

Lauren patted my arm in a comforting fashion. She’s such a good friend. 

My little Milo is exhibiting all the signs of impending dental issues. If I’m not applying Extra Rich Organic Belle Peau de Bébé cream to his rear end, I’m rocking him on my shoulder while singing inane lullabies which don’t scan properly or letting him chew vigorously on his Super Chilled Flash Gnash teething ring. Isabella M Smugge was once the face of high-end couture, elegant homeware and cruelty-free vegan make-up. If you watch television in the daytime or in the dead of night, you’re sure to have seen me encouraging you to purchase a pack of Flash Gnash. Endorsing teething rings and nappy cream isn’t where I saw myself when I started out in the business. However, needs must, and it won’t be forever. And they do pay jolly well. 

In addition to my actual baby, my mother is behaving like a child. She refuses to use the walking frame I sourced and insists on having her stick by the side of the bed, not to aid mobility, but to attract my attention. I was jerked awake at 5.32 this morning by loud and repeated banging, having only just nodded off from my earlier wake-up call from Milo. Stumbling crossly into her room, I found her scowling at me and requesting more cucumber water. If she wants twenty-four-hour room service, she should check into The Savoy. I may have mentioned this. It didn’t go down well. Using bad language is very wrong and unladylike, but sometimes it must be done.  

Now we’re three weeks into the autumn term, everyone on the playground is pretty much back in the usual routine. I stood with my friends, Lauren, Lovely Lou, Kate, Maddie and Tom as we waved the children off. Thinking about the crazy week ahead of me, I let out a loud and involuntary sigh.  

I’ve been associated with Gorgeous Home magazine for several years now, doing room makeovers and refreshes for them, writing the occasional column and being dubbed Britain’s Most Relatable Mum Designer. Which I am. However, unaccountably, I have never made it onto the cover of their highly coveted double Christmas issue. Isabella M Smugge has featured on Morning, You! with Bill and Mollie, two of the country’s most beloved TV presenters, she has guested on all the podcasts that matter, been a regular contributor to pretty much every TV show of any importance and written any number of Sunday Times Bestseller List books. However, the glittering prize of a ten-page Gorgeous Home spread in full colour with a fawning write-up has never yet fallen into her perfectly manicured hands.  

‘What’s going on with you today, ladies?’ Tom was smiling at us, showing his perfectly white, even teeth as his blue eyes sparkled and his thick blond hair was ruffled slightly by the gentle breeze. He really is quite startlingly good-looking, especially for a vicar. He’s married to one of my closest friends, Claire, who, now I think about it, has missed three school drop-offs in a row. I made a mental note to text her when I got home. 

‘I’m expecting the team from Gorgeous Home to come and dress the house for the Christmas shoot.’ I smiled, modestly. ‘They’re all staying over at a local hotel. We’ve got six trees to get in, the table settings to do and they want to do a family shoot. That’s why I look such a fright.’ 

I was being a little disingenuous, if I’m honest. The last time I looked truly appalling was several days after I had given birth to Milo in April (on the NHS, if you please!) and was clad in milk-stained maternity pyjamas with greasy hair while sporting a pair of vast, engorged bosoms. Today, my skin was dewy and radiant, ready for the make-up girl to apply a full festive face, my hair freshly washed and conditioned and my nails painted with a gorgeous mix of Christmas-ready scarlet and silver glitter. Let no one accuse Issy Smugge of not being bang on trend and ready to guide the nation through their Yuletide preparations! 

Just then, a familiar voice assaulted my delicate eardrums. 

‘Oi! Smug! What are you still doing here? Haven’t you got to go to the opening of an envelope or something?’ 

It was my former nemesis and now frenemy, the outspoken and brutally honest Liane Bloomfield. Clad in her playground uniform of skin-tight jeans, spike-heel boots and black leather jacket and with a freshly rolled cigarette peeping menacingly from between her fingers, she had me caught in her heavily eyelined tractor beam. 

‘Issy’s on the front cover of the Gorgeous Home Christmas edition!’ Lovely Lou was smiling broadly, clearly terribly excited about my news. I don’t suppose there are many Suffolk playgrounds fortunate enough to contain an influencer of my calibre. I smiled graciously at Liane, hoping that she would realise the time and walk round to the nursery with her daughter. 

No such luck (not that I believe in luck). 

‘You all right, Smug? Been overdoing it on the vino? It’s September! Can you hear sleigh bells? I can’t.’  

She cupped her hand behind her ear and assumed an exaggerated expression of anticipation. I explained that the long lead-in was owing to the high production values on Gorgeous Home and the time it would take the editorial and art team to craft exactly the right look to showcase my Christmas designs. 

Liane snorted loudly. 

‘You never disappoint, Smug. The rest of us are worrying about making ends meet and you’re fiddling about with tinsel and blow-up Father Christmases.’ 

I decided not to put her straight. Who still incorporates tinsel into their Yuletide look? And as for those tacky inflatables, I would rather book a two-week package holiday to some frightful all-inclusive resort than be seen dead with one in my garden. No, Isabella M Smugge’s perfect, polished Christmas style will soon be shared with the entire nation, and who knows what effect that will have on my stats. It’s a good thing my socials guru Harpreet is such a gym bunny. He’s going to be getting quite a workout post-Christmas keeping on top of my analytics! 

The sound of the church clock chiming nine saved me from more of Liane’s barbed wit. 

‘See ya, losers! Smug, I’m booked in on the four o’clock visit at yours today. I’ll make sure to bring my Christmas list for Santa.’ Turning on her heel, she marched off in the direction of the nursery with her daughter skipping along beside her. My heart sank.  

Walking back into my well-appointed kitchen, I took a minute to breathe in the fragrance of the mixed Stargazer lily and rose bouquet on the island (bought by me, thank you very much – Johnnie’s flowers either go in the less-used reception rooms or are regifted to friends) and to give myself a moment of peace and quiet. Today was a Sue day, as is tomorrow. Sue is a lovely lady who comes to look after Milo three days a week so that I can get on with the exhausting business of maintaining my brand, creating and posting content and increasing my reach.  

Having Mummy in the house while the shoot was going on was far from ideal. I had already briefed her about staying in her room and, knowing her as I did, I felt that reiterating the message was a good idea. 

Mummy always starts her day with a black coffee and a trawl through the broadsheets. From a distance, she looks just as she always did. Closer up, with the bright September sunlight falling on her face, it was easier to see the lines etched around her eyes and mouth and the slight droop of her cheek.  

‘Good morning, Mummy. Here’s your post.’ I handed her the letters, a cup of coffee and a plate of toast with ginger and orange marmalade. 

She sniffed. 

‘Nice of you to take the time, darling. Haven’t you got your Christmas thing today?’ 

I swallowed a rude retort and tried to smile naturally. 

‘They’re not coming till eleven. Sue’s taking Milo for me and the children are all at friends’ after school. Now, your next carer is here at twelve to do your lunch, then a lady called Liane is here at four and then the last carer will be here at nine to get you ready for bed.’ 

My mother stared at me, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. I’d seen that look a thousand times before and even though I’m a successful, independent woman of the world, it still made my heart beat uncomfortably fast and my palms sweat. 

‘I’m not deaf, Isabella. You don’t have to shout. It’s bad enough that I’m forced to live in your house being treated like a child. I can’t wait until I’m given the all-clear and I can get back to my old life.’ 

I could feel my cheeks growing hot.  

‘That’s not a very nice thing to say, Mummy. You know how busy I am and how much harder it is now that Johnnie and Sofija aren’t here. I’m doing my best. The least you can do is pretend to be grateful.’ 

We stared at each other as the curtains moved gently in the breeze and the sound of birdsong drifted in through the open window. It felt like an important moment. Mummy made an impatient movement with her hand. 

‘Of course I’m grateful. I know you haven’t got the time for any extra burdens.’ 

She crunched loudly on her toast. 

‘We’re more alike than you think, Isabella. How would you feel if you were stuck in a place you didn’t want to be and couldn’t be your own woman?’ 

She had a point. I’d hate it.  

‘You’re not a burden, Mummy. It’s lovely having you here. The children are so enjoying spending quality time with you.’ 

Now, I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly religious, but I do go to church quite often and am learning all about how
you pray correctly and what various acronyms such as ‘PCC’ mean. Tom has just finished a series of talks on the Ten Commandments (not nearly as boring as it sounds), and we did lying a couple of weeks ago. I know it’s wrong and God doesn’t like it, hence its inclusion in His Top Ten List of Things Not to Do. I had just told three lies in quick succession. White ones I used to think were OK, but apparently not. I hoped the good Lord would understand and mentally chalked it up to experience.  

There was a brief pause as Mummy took a sip of coffee and opened a card. 

‘Get well soon. I should jolly well think so. This is from Veronica Madingley, poor woman.’ 

‘Super. Now, I’ve brought you up a stack of magazines, you’ve got your post and your book, here’s your phone and I’ll get Ali to bring you up another coffee and some elevenses. If you must smoke, just for today and tomorrow can you do it out of the window?’ 

She grudgingly agreed and I exited stage left, resolving to be a better person and to stop telling fibs. #hardwork #motherdaughter #conflict 

By ten o’clock, as the fleet of cars and vans crunched up the drive, I had knocked back two strong coffees, texted Claire, briefed Ali, moved some furniture around and lit the fire in the snug. It’s vitally important to choose the right look for Christmas celebrations. My followers hang on to my every word and thousands of households up and down the land will be decorated with dramatic metallics this year, following my lead. I’m going theatrical, with warm shades of copper and bronze illuminated by strings of twinkling fairy lights.  

The Gorgeous Home team are with me for two days, a huge investment of time, but worth every minute. People don’t realise how long it takes to set up a proper shoot. Readers will be given a temporary seat at my Christmas table, afforded a peep into my beautifully decorated reception rooms, lavished with my top tips and taught how to style themselves à la Isabella M Smugge. I do love this part of my job, sharing my expertise and knowing that I’m making my followers’ lives just that bit more elegant and glamorous. I’m anxious about having my frustrated, bored, chain-smoking former interior designer mother in the same building as Poppy van der Schoenlapper, style and interiors editor at Gorgeous Home, but short of locking her in her bedroom (and don’t think I’m not tempted) there’s not much I can do. 

I used to think that one of my greatest strengths as an influencer and inspirational lifestyle blogger was my relatability. Back in London, my social circle all looked like me. You couldn’t throw a toasted organic brioche on the playground at Beech Grove without hitting a merchant banker or TV executive. We all spoke the same language, or at least had a nanny who did. In Suffolk, however, things are very different. I now count a vicar’s wife, who is also a recovering addict and alcoholic, among my dearest friends and spend far more time listening to others than I ever thought possible. And owing to a combination of getting to know the real me and bonding at a drunken toddler mums’ night out at Fluid’s nightclub in the summer, Liane Bloomfield now sort of likes me. 

Things were going swimmingly. We’d nailed all the exterior shots (no sign of Mummy’s elegantly coiffed head poking out of the window, thank heavens), positioned and shot the Christmas trees and done some good work with the interiors. As I was taking five with a skinny cappuccino, the boot room door opened and in walked Liane.  

Seeing the fairy lights, Christmas tree and bowls of pomegranates and tangerines artfully arranged on my island, she did a double take. 

‘Ding, dong, Smug! Look at you, all dolled up. Thank goodness I didn’t wear my Christmas outfit today.’ 

I was clad in a form-fitting monochrome diamond print open-back printed silk dress (so now). My accessories were elegant but understated and my make-up flawless. Thank goodness she wasn’t coming tomorrow, when I was planning to wear an eye-catching ruby-red organic silk maxi dress. I let out a shrill laugh. 

‘No rest for the wicked. The house doesn’t normally look like this, I promise. Shall I take you up to meet my mother?’ 

We walked through to the hall where Liane did another double take.  

‘Is this all for show or do they let you keep it for Christmas? If they’ve got nothing better to do later, they can come over and tart up my house. I’ve just put in a plunge pool and built a new wing.’ 

She snorted with laughter and ran her hand over the evergreens twined around the curving banister of my staircase. As always when in the firing line of her sledgehammer wit, I felt on the back foot. I reminded myself that I was the boss in this situation and briefed her as we walked up the stairs.  

‘My mother is supposed to be giving up smoking. She’s cut down, but she’s not in the best of moods as a result. She can be quite snappy and rude; she doesn’t hold back on saying what she thinks and she can come across as quite spiky and unapproachable.’ 

Liane grinned. 

‘She sounds like my kind of girl! What does she like to be called?’ 

‘Mrs Neville, please. She’s very big on respect.’ 

Liane nodded. ‘You got it, Smug. Or should I say Mrs Smug.’ 

And with that we were walking into my delightful guest suite, with Mummy sitting in her chair, head drooping, surrounded by discarded newspapers and magazines and fast asleep. It was a strange moment, introducing two of the most terrifying women I’ve ever met to each other, especially when one of them was snoring and drooling just a touch. I laid my hand gently on my mother’s arm and she jerked into wakefulness with a rumbling half-snore. 

‘Mummy, this is Liane, one of the carers from Caring Touch. Liane, this is my mother, Mrs Caroline Neville.’ 

And with that, I left them to get to know each other, fear snaking queasily up from my stomach to my throat. What if Mummy was unforgivably rude to Liane who then spread it around the playground? What if Liane was rough and unkind to Mummy? I reminded myself of the reassuring words in Caring Touch’s brochure and of my meeting with its founder, a lovely lady called Linda Murray. 

‘We’re here to make everything easier, Mrs Smugge. We’ve got years of experience in caring for the elderly and vulnerable, my staff are hand-picked and their training regularly updated. You can trust us to give your mother the very best care.’ 

As I walked into the family room to pretend to open the presents piled beneath the tree, I could only hope that this was the case. 

One of the good things about marrying a man with three brothers is that it gives you a large extended family. Mummy is an only child and Daddy has one younger brother who was living in Tasmania last time I looked. Suze and I grew up without cousins, aunties and uncles and we were the poorer for it. I love the fact that my children have a (mostly) warm and loving network of relations around them. My brother- and sister-in-law, Toby and Davina, live in a rather shabby Victorian house in Stoke Poges surrounded by paddocks with post and rail fencing. Over the past year, I’ve become much closer to them and have shared in their joy at finally being able to start a family after years of miscarriages. My newest nephew, the spherical and cheerful Baby Matthew, was born last November and Davina wasted no time in conceiving child number two who is due any day now.  

A largely successful day had been topped off by Mummy managing to make no acid remarks at dinner. I rewarded her with a small gin and tonic.  

I have also managed to bribe my son to join me in the family shoot tomorrow. As one of the UK’s most successful mumfluencers, I need to be seen with my children. It’s a fine line between invading their privacy and increasing my reach. As they get older, I am using fewer photographs of them, but for a wholesome piece entitled, ‘At Home with Isabella M Smugge’, really, I can’t get away with one of the set missing. 

Now that I am no longer breastfeeding, I’m back on caffeine and am allowing myself a glass of wine each evening. Drinking alone is not a good look and can lead to unfortunate consequences, but what with being pulled in all directions by Mummy, two warring children, a sweet but loquacious seven-year-old and a baby, a kicky Petit Chablis or a juicy little Sancerre really hits the spot.  

My phone beeped. Expecting Davina, I was surprised to see it was from Amanda, my ruthlessly efficient sister-in-law who lives in Dubai with Johnnie’s eldest brother, Charlie. 

Hi. How are you? I’m planning a trip to the UK at the end of next month. Could I lay my head at your place for a night or two? x’ 

On Amanda’s trips back here, she invariably heads to the small castle in the Borders which her aristocratic parents call home. Her four children all went to school at Auchenlassie, a many-turreted establishment for the offspring of the landed gentry. They boarded, but as their grandparents lived just over an hour away, came back to stay with them in the holidays. I couldn’t bear to be separated from my children for that long, but Amanda has always put her husband and his career first. I’m a bit in awe of her, to be honest. She’s richer and posher than me and I’ve always felt that she prefers to keep her husband’s side of the family at arm’s length. A request to enjoy my hospitality at the Old Rectory was most unusual.  

I replied at once with a warm invitation to stay as long as she liked. At least I don’t have to worry about her clashing with Mummy. For some reason, the two of them get along extremely well. A combination of the carers and Amanda might be just what I need. #hostesswiththemostest #warmwelcome #familyties 


  • Ruth Leigh

    Ruth Leigh is a freelance writer and novelist, and is married with three children, one husband and assorted livestock.

  • The Continued Times of Isabella M Smugge

    Ruth Leigh

    Now in her third year of living the rural dream, starry Instamum Issy Smugge is up against it. A single parent of four with an award-winning brand, a gin-swigging mother convalescing upstairs and a distraught relative craving a shoulder to cry on...