Actress turned author Celia Imrie has written a comic novel set amongst a group of adventurous expats in a village in the South of France.

Not Quite Now by Celia Imrie

Not Quite Now – Celia Imrie

Buy Now £8.99 

Teresa is in a quandary. She’s been forced into early retirement and is fed up of her bossy daughter and her obnoxious grandchildren. She sells her home and relocates to the beautiful village of Bellevue-sur-Mer, in the Côte d’Azur. She soon finds herself in a community of interesting English and American expats. As the group form friendships secrets and cracks start to emerge. Teresa is left wondering if life in the French Riviera is not that nice after all…

 

Sample an extract from the opening chapter below:

The whole business of her transplant from Highgate to Bellevue-Sur-Mer started one night in July – a night of babysitting her three granddaughters. She always babysat, twice a week. But this one nasty night came after a horrible day, during which, quite against her will, she was forced into retirement.

Until that day, Theresa had hoped to go on working as long as she could and planned to carry on in the house in which she had been living for the last thirty- five years. Although she was coming up to her sixtieth birthday, Theresa was not expecting her boss Mr. Jacobs to give her the heave-ho but, as she put on her coat ready to leave for her daughter’s Wimbledon home, he had taken her aside and apologised, saying that in a few months he would be ‘letting her go’. Theresa protested that she enjoyed working and didn’t want to give up, but Mr Jacobs confessed that it was a costcutting effort. Like everyone else, Jacobs and Partners was going under financially and unless he did this to a couple of people now, in a few months they’d all be out of work, including him. He was very sorry, whether she liked it or not, Theresa had to go.

With a heavy heart she made her way to Wimbledon, for the usual dose of childcare. She rode at the back of the crowded bus, the warmth from the engine turning the back of her seat into a heat pad, leaving her sweltering in the already sweaty crush of the London rush hour.

She resisted the feeling that she was on a tumbrel, heading for the guillotine. Theresa knew that wasn’t really right. She was only going for an evening’s babysitting. That was all.

Two hours later she looked at her watch, horrified to see she still had three long hours ahead of her before she could go home. She was under siege on her daughter’s taupe leather sofa, while the little bastards, her grandchildren, Chloe, Lola and Cressida, crawled around, ducking behind the sofa, whispering obscenities and insults: ‘Granny smells! Granny pongs! Granny stinks! Granny wears make-up like a clown! Granny’s fat! Granny’s a mad cow! Granny’s a witch! Granny’s a bitch!’

She knew you were supposed to love your children. You were also supposed to love your grandchildren. In fact you were supposed to offer them all ‘unconditional’ love, a fashionable term which was merely a trite way of saying it didn’t matter how badly your family behaved towards you, you had to love them anyway.

But Theresa had come to the end of her tether. Yes, it was easy to love the thought of them all, to love some idealised notion of what they ought to be: beaming daughter and giggling grandchildren running to darling granny, doling out love and hugs all round, while granny proffered foul-tasting bits of butterscotch, which were supposed to make them all have fond memories of granny, even long into the future, when granny was under the sod and they themselves were grandparents.

But reality was nothing like the TV ads. She thought about Mr Jacobs, and how he had smiled at her so pityingly as he reminded her that she was nearing retirement age anyhow. It would be less hard on her, he had said, than it would be on the youngsters.

She pointed out to him that, at her age, the prospects of her getting another job were nil.

‘So spoil yourself, Theresa, my dear,’ he said, ‘spend more time with your family, enjoy a dignified retirement.’

‘Granny smells! Granny’s got a fat arse! Granny’s a mad cow! Granny’s a witch! Granny’s a stinkypoo!’ A dignified retirement indeed.

This night was not a one-off. It was like this every time. In fact, though Theresa first started babysitting a few years ago, the three children had recognized the opportunity for larks right from the start. Theresa had tried to win them round. She’d attempted bribery, with sweets and comics, brought round DVDs for them to watch, and board games for them to play (in some wildly imaginary world that would have been – an evening of Monopoly!), but within seconds the three girls had got bored with her baubles and resumed their ritual chanting, with Theresa as their totem pole.

Nowadays, for the duration of her twice-weekly stint, Theresa tried to ignore it. Nothing she did made any difference. She had learned to close her ears, but not well enough. It was impossible to use the TV to drown out the little bastards, they could always get even louder. It was also impossible to ignore them. She’d long ago given up on trying to read books. Even newspapers were useless, as all three of them had caught the idea of banging the back, cracking the paper, making her jump while they recoiled in spasms of laughter.

Today Theresa sat in the armchair with a cookery book. It was a new idea. Recipes could certainly be taken in small doses, there was no story to follow, very few complex sentences, and a few phrases on the page conjured a delightful world where she could imagine being at home in the calm of her own kitchen, stirring and chopping, pricking pastry and painting it with milk or egg yolk, buttering baking trays and popping things into the oven. In her mind she could even get as far as taking the completed dishes of her imagination out of the oven, placing them on the table and sitting down to eat.

‘Granny’s an old bitch! Granny stinks! Granny wears make-up like a clown! Granny’s fat! Granny’s a mad cow! Granny’s a witch!’

Blah blah blah! She thought. Soon this purgatory would come to an end, she’d be released from her duties and she would go home, uncork a bottle and cook up a storm. A lovely cheese omelette – Gruyère of course – with champignons à la Provençale and a salad of sweet peppers. (No prizes for guessing she was deep into Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cookery and thereby not only thinking of lovely food but lovely places too, with a sparkling azure sea and indigo skies.)

Theresa had worked in that office, a small solicitors’ in Islington, for years. She’d been there ever since her husband Peter had buggered o\ with Annunziata the nanny, a nubile Italian girl with cow-like eyes and huge knockers. And now what were her prospects? Years of babysitting, no income – even her state pension wouldn’t come through for another five years – and nothing else to do. + e thought of this blank wall ahead of her, lasting for the rest of her life, couldn’t be more appalling. Theresa was a get-up-and-go kind of person.

She dreaded days when she might wake up and have no reason to get out of bed. The income thing was a problem too. Just because no money was coming in didn’t mean none would be going out. She had the last throes of the mortgage to get rid of, and there were all the usual bills. She had spent most of her savings buying things for the family – a car, school uniforms, expensive presents like computers, trainers and music gadgets, iPods and iPads – which her daughter Imogen told her they needed.

If money was going to be a problem the answer was simple: she’d sell the house. Sell the house, pay off the mortgage, buy something smaller and cheaper and leave herself a decent lump sum. She didn’t need a huge place. A one-bed Z at would be fine. Maybe she would give private tuition, a little reading and writing, helping kids swat up for exams, teach cookery even. She had always enjoyed cooking.

‘Granny’s reading a boring book, a boring book, a boring book . . .’ This to the tune of ‘Nuts in May’.

‘Granny’s reading a boring book and . . .’

Before they could finish, Theresa slammed the book shut and stood up. Momentarily she saw the girls flinch, expecting her to lash out at them. Instead she walked to the ‘kitchen area’ – as they called it these days. No one had a kitchen any more, just a huge carpet-free space which merged into one echoing kitchen-dining-living room which took up the whole ground floor of the Victorian house.

‘Granny’s going to teach you to cook some sweets,’ said Teresa, tying on a flowery pastel-coloured apron which dangled from a hook but which had clearly never before been used. ‘And when Granny’s finished, if you don’t want to join her, she’s going to sit down on her own and eat them and make her arse even fatter. OK, girls?’

She shook her bangles further up her arm, and raised her chubby hands like a surgeon about to operate. Like mice, the three sisters stood where they were, quivering slightly, eyeing Theresa keenly as she pulled open drawers and plonked pans on to the vast gas range.

‘Come on, you lot, if you want to share the feast, you have to help make it.’

The girls edged a half-step forward, unsure.

‘Granny’s got a great big . . .’ piped up Cressida, the baby at six years old.

She was neatly silenced by a jab in the ribs from her oldest sister, Chloe, nine. Teresa dropped a slab of butter into a pan, ladled in some sugar, syrup and cocoa, and slowly stirred while the warm aroma wrapped around the three siblings. Silent now, they crept imperceptibly nearer to her till they hovered a few inches from her elbow.

Theresa peered up at the row of cereals lined up on top of the fridge. ‘Rice pops, cornflakes, biscuits or muesli?’ she asked. She didn’t mention the bran and other worthy-looking packets beside them.

‘It smells of chocolate,’ said Cressida quietly.

‘It’ll taste of chocolate too,’ said Theresa, wiping some of the brown liquid from the edge of the wooden spoon and tasting it.

‘Mmm. If we used biscuits we’d call it Tiffin. But Mummy doesn’t allow biscuits, does she?’

Theresa licked her little ‘cook’s’ finger. ‘Delicious. Here!’

She held the spoon out. Tentatively each child wiped away a small blob of the chocolate fudge and tasted it.

‘Let’s go mad, shall we?’ said Theresa, tipping cereal into the mix. ‘We’ll have a bit of all three.’

‘Please, Granny, can we have some more?’ asked Lola, the middle one, holding out a finger.

‘Wait a min, my little darlings, who wants to butter the dish?’ Theresa pulled out a tin tray.

In unison they put up their arms, as though they were in a classroom, trying to get teacher’s attention.

‘Wipe this all round the tray,’ Theresa handed Lola a piece of greaseproof paper dabbed with butter.

‘Then in a few minutes you’ll have something even nicer.’

The three girls started fighting over the paper, tearing it so that they could join in with the job.

‘OK, OK,’ said Theresa, as she ladled out the warm mixture into the roughly buttered tray. She handed Chloe the spatula.

‘Smooth it over, then we’ll all take a slice.’

Theresa marked out the dish into neat squares and cut deep, handing each child a flaky chocolate- flavoured slab. The children ate. Silence reigned.

Theresa turned back and wiped the tops of the counters, stacking the dirty pans into the dishwasher.

‘How’s school going then?’ Theresa asked. ‘Have you decided what you’re all going to be when you grow up?’

The children opened up, gabbling with delight about teachers and ballet and art class. As they sat round the kitchen table, digging into the home-made confectionery, Theresa realised that she had finally found a way to connect with them. After all these years she had found a way to get through.

After about fifteen minutes of congenial chat, the children’s focus changed with a united tilt of their heads. They jumped up from their seats and stood erect, listening. Theresa thought they looked like meerkats.

From the street, Theresa heard the slam of a car door, and feet clipping up the path. In unison the girls’ heads turned. They took a few steps towards the front door.

‘Granny smells,’ said Cressida, sotto voce.

A key went into the lock. Knowing what would come next, Theresa braced herself, and moved briskly back to the sofa, slipped her book into her open handbag, before standing, arms folded, ready for the onslaught.

The key turned and as one, the three girls flung themselves to the floor, beating it with their fists, screaming, real tears oozing from popping eyeballs.

 ‘Mama,’ sobbed Cressida.

‘We missed you so much,’ wailed Lola.

‘Why do you leave us with her?’ Chloe cried, then quickly sucked the last drop of fudge from her finger. Imogen dropped her bags in the hall and came into the living room. She shook her head and tutted.

‘I do wish, Mother, that you would learn how to control them while I’m out. It’s not much to ask.’ Imogen bent low to hug her sobbing children and spoke in a strange cooing voice, as though addressing three little poodles. ‘Did you miss me, my darlings? I know, I know. You poor babies. It’s all right. I’m back now. Mummy’s back with you.’

Theresa wondered why Imogen felt she had to collude with them in this way, why she treated them like helpless babies when they were in fact quite feisty children.

Suddenly, in a change to the usual pattern, Imogen took her arms away from her children. She stood up, held out her face and sniffed the air. ‘What’s that smell?’

‘I showed them how to cook chocolate crunchies.’

Theresa held out a piece for her daughter.

Ignoring the sweet, Imogen swept past the wailing children and hissed into Theresa’s ear. ‘I will not have my children eating this rubbish.’ She grabbed Theresa by the elbow and dragged her into the kitchen space.

‘They have allergies. You can’t shovel this muck down their throats. Sugar, butter, biscuits? If this is what you live on, it certainly explains why you’re so overweight yourself, Mummy.’

Theresa tried to defend herself but her daughter didn’t draw breath. ‘Never, ever, will you throw a stunt like this again. Do you understand?’

As she watched her daughter, advancing on her like a furious schoolteacher, Teresa wondered for a moment who was the parent and who the child.

 

Not Quite Nice is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99). Click here to buy a copy for £8.99

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