THE HESSIAN patches on the stairs carpet of the Cheap Sleep Hostel reminded Nancy of Aunt Millie’s bungalow in Leighton Buzzard. Aunt Millie still had one of those kettles that whistled – not a retro, the original thing. Flat-pack furniture, futons and an avocado bathroom formed her comforts. Her modest abode had a made-to-measure nook for everything, her wheelie-bin, her hedge-trimmer, even her car-cover. Her husband, Ken worked as a bookbinder in Milton Keynes and often spent time away in Brittany learning antique aspects of the trade.
Sheila had sent Nancy to Millie’s at the age of twelve because Sheila had arranged a trip to Magaluf with Alexis, her sister and Cora’s mum. Nancy’s recent spate of shoplifting meant the police could uncover Nancy’s time home alone.
Nancy had never seen the two sisters together. She had never even known Sheila telephone her. The arrangement just happened. People thought Sheila was the pretty one, the fashionable one, the livelier of the two. Nancy was lucky to have such a funny and cool mum who wasn’t a stick-in-the-mud like Millie. Close call.
Millie was six years older than Sheila. Her daughter, Bernadette, much older than Nancy, had a BSc in Pure Maths and worked as a statistical analyst in Dunstable. Thirty-five years of Millie’s life had been devoted to the nearby crown court. Not as a judge, or a prosecutor or even as a court usher, but admin.
Of the few times Sheila had mentioned her sister, she had called her boring. Boring Aunt Millie. As a result, Nancy forgot she had an aunt. That’s why Nancy didn’t want to go to Millie’s when she was twelve.
Sheila stuck Nancy on a National Express coach bound for Milton Keynes. Nancy didn’t put up a fight. She just sulked. Sheila was good at pretending there wasn’t an atmosphere when it suited her. The glowering sky reflected how she felt. Nancy would much rather hang outside the Quick Shop with Bex, Danielle and Steph – or rather, the idea appealed. In reality, she often got bored and cold. Nancy didn’t know what she wanted, but when she spotted Aunt Millie at the bus station, Nancy wished she could have swapped her life for the pigeon dissecting a ham sandwich on the floor or that cat curled upon the shop steps.
Millie wore a tent-like coat and brown sandals. She had a lofty form, at five-foot-ten with wide hips. Like her limbs, her features were widely spaced, making her look plain. By contrast, Sheila’s huddled together. With a full fringe and wide eyes, Sheila couldn’t fail to look pretty. Millie’s plainness matched her humour. She wasn’t stern or solemn; she just didn’t get it. This made Millie a hopeless joke-teller or repartee contender. Nancy rolled her eyes when Millie asked, ‘have you got everything, Nancy? Are you sure, now?’
Nancy rolled her eyes again when she spotted Millie’s green Smart Car. Nancy didn’t want to speak to her and limited her replies to, sure, yeah or huh.
During the journey, Millie had tuned her radio onto Recline FM, which was exactly how it sounded. A DJ equivalent to Alan Partridge had a playlist of the Beatles, Cliff and the Doobie Brothers, which on Millie was just plan archaic. How could it be that Nancy was sitting on one of Millie’s futons staring at a photo of Bernadette, cap-and-gowned and buck-toothed? And how come she had such a nerd for a cousin?
Nancy’s debut refreshments consisted of a pot of tea and a packet of hobnobs. Nancy would have preferred coke and crisps. Millie’s ensuing effort at chitchat was toe-curling.
‘Do you have any hobbies, Nancy?’
Nancy shrugged, avoiding her aunt’s dark, fish-shaped eyes.
‘Do you like puzzles?’
Oh, dear God!
‘Since you will be staying a couple of weeks here, we can find some interesting things to do to keep you occupied. What do you say?’
Nancy shrugged again.
Millie poured herself a cup of tea and took a sip. Nancy didn’t know what she was supposed to do; sip along with auntie? At that moment, Nancy’s resentment of Sheila hit a new high.
Nancy went out back to unpack her things. Bernadette’s old bedroom implied that Bernadette had never matured beyond the age of twelve. The duvet cover busied the eye with a Smarties pattern. Jigsaws piled the cupboard tops and a central rug bore a cupcake motif. Nancy tried to call Bex but her phone was off so she texted, ‘bored.’
Millie made a rule of no TV during dinner. She pledged Nancy a square meal per day beginning with sausages, mash and peas. They ate in silence except for Millie’s remark ‘I don’t know why a square meal is called square, as the shape has four edges. Meat and two veg equals three.’Nancy hoped her remark wasn’t an attempt at humour; she made a small conceding sound in her throat, wanting the moment to go away. Millie put Countdown on. Points seemed to depend upon the contestants’ ability to make words from a series of letters and to find an anagram. Millie had displayed her most annoying self on getting the anagrams ahead of the contestants and finding the longest words. On putting a recording of Pointless on, Nancy excused herself to go to the toilet.