Mark’s room was on the first floor, opposite my parents’ bedroom. When I opened the door it was clear he hadn’t been home in awhile; the bed was made and the shelves were dust-free, clear signs that Mum had been in recently. When Mark was home Mum stayed out of his room for a legitimate fear of getting lost in the junk he tended to accumulate.
I stepped aside as Alex came in. “I’ll check that the sheets are clean, but knowing Mum, she probably washed them as soon as Mark was out the door. Sorry about the onslaught.”
“Sorry I didn’t protect you from said onslaught,” Alex said, dropping his bag on the bed and sitting down next to it. “I don’t remember your mother being quite that…er…keen.”
I sighed and flopped down on the bed, dropping my head on Alex’s leg. “You mean intense,” I corrected, staring up at the ceiling, which were still plastered with plastic glow-in-the-dark stars from when Mark was ten. “It’s only really when she thinks about the possibility that she could get grandbabies. Or, in the present case, that I might never get married and have kids for her to coddle. yeah.”
Alex brushed a strand of hair off my forehead. “Why’s she so gung-ho about it? I’d’ve thought that she wouldn’t really care. She’s an academic — surely she of all people would understand the interest in another female academic wanting to pursue a career before starting a family?”
“Hah,” I said, glancing up at him and then looking away. “There’s a couple of problems with that. First of all, Mum’s family is massive. I mean, she’s the second youngest of seven. She grew up surrounded by kids and has spent, I don’t know, the last decade watching her nieces and nephews start to have kids. I think it annoys her, if that’s the right word, that Mark and I have yet to give her small children to spoil.” I folded my hands over my stomach and closed my eyes. “The other problem is that is that she’s always been both an academic and a mother. She married Dad while she was still working on her PhD, and she was still in the middle of it when I was born. And then she got successive research fellowships after she finished her PhD, through the time Mark was born. And then she got the first post at Oxford when I was seven and Mark was only two. So I’m not sure she quite understands the whole ‘career first, kids second’ concept. After all, she did both at once and was wildly successful, so why shouldn’t her academic wannabe child be able to follow the same path?”
Alex opened his mouth to reply but was interrupted by Mum shouting up the stairs, “What are you doing up there, Emily? Introducing the poor boy to Mark’s rock collection?”
I giggled and whispered, “Remind me to show you. They all have names.”
“Let Alex out of Mark’s room and come help with dinner already!”
“Please, God,” Dad added, “before your mother makes us all deaf with her shouting!”
As the sound of muted bickering drifted up the stairs, I rolled my eyes towards the ceiling and pulled myself into a sitting position. “Time to face the dragon,” I said, and then shouted, “We’re coming!”
Mum handed me a flowery apron and a peeler when I walked into the kitchen and pointed at a small mountain of carrots and potatoes sitting on the counter.
“Peel and slice, please,” she said. She thrust another apron and peeler at Alex. “You too.”
“Mum,” I protested, “he’s company.”
“Well, he may as well be useful,” she replied, turning her attention back to the naked bird sprawled in the sink.
Sorry, I mouthed as Alex joined me at the counter.
“I don’t mind,” he said, tying on the flower apron before picking up a carrot and attacking it with gusto.
“I see we’re having chicken,” I said. “Dad thought it was lamb.”
“There’s lamb in the freezer but it wouldn’t thaw so we’re having a chicken roast instead,” Mum said absently, wrestling with it. Ew. “Now, Emily,” she said, and I cringed, narrowly missing catching my thumb in the peeler. I recognised that tone. It was the ‘Young lady, I’ve just received a call from your headmaster/the neighbour/Aunt Elizabeth and you are in serious trouble’ tone that had invariable resulted in me getting grounded when I was younger.
“Yes?” I said meekly, setting aside one potato and picking up another.
“Your father has endeavoured to convince me that your relationship with Nate is finished,” she said, adopting the no-nonsense voice she usually used for lecturing first years, “but I assured him he must have misunderstood. One does not simply — ”
“Walk into Mordor?” Alex supplied helpfully. I choked and stared at the pile of peelings building up between us.
“ — walk away from a relationship of five years without a fight,” Mum continued, ignoring Alex’s interjection as though it hadn’t happened. To be fair, she probably had no idea what it meant. The chicken squelched in the sink, and I imagined it was silently screaming its protest as Mum vigorously rubbed butter into its skin.
“Mum, there was no point,” I said. “It’s kind of hard to fight for a relationship when one half of the relationship is buggering off across the world. Nate got a permanent job in America. In California.”
I put down the peeler and turned to face her. “Mother. I am not going halfway across the world for a man. And assuming we wanted to try to do long distance, which seems a bit pointless because I have no interest in ever moving to America and now that Nate’s got the permanent job he’s not likely to be back here for awhile — that’s, like, a ten hour flight from Heathrow. And an eight hour time difference. Like I said: what’s the point?”
“Emily, I love you dearly,” Mum said, lifting the chicken up and plunking it into a roasting tin, “but even you must admit your life the last few years has been a bit lackadaisical.”
“You’ve drifted from one temporary or part-time job to another without even a research fellowship in sight. It’s such a shame, Emily — you’re such a bright girl, you know, but you’ve hardly displayed any real drive or passion for your subject. That’s something that certainly cannot be said about your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend anymore,” I said through gritted teeth. “And I have not drifted. At least I’ve kept continually employed. It’s not exactly easy finding a job at the moment, Mum, much less a permanent job, much less research fellowships. Also,” I said as the thought occurred to me, “Nate is two years older than me. Two years ago he was doing the exact same thing, but I didn’t hear you complaining then that he showed a lack of drive or passion for his subject!”
“He has one now, doesn’t he? And in any case, I’m certain that if I managed in the eighties, when it was an uphill battle for women in academia,” Mum said briskly, “that you should certainly be able to manage now.”
I stifled a groan. Mum always dragged out the ‘I managed in the eighties’ argument whenever she thought I was slacking. Which was often. That and the ‘I had two jobs — full-time academic and full-time mother, and I didn’t compromise on either’ argument. It was only a matter of time before that one got pulled out. Which wasn’t fair. For one thing, she refused to acknowledge that there just weren’t any jobs at the moment. And for another…well, let’s just say that she refused to accept that not everyone was quite as Superwoman as she was. I mean, I was really proud of my mum. That would never change, but it did get wearing being told that I just generally failed by comparison…
Mum continued, “Nate has clearly worked very hard to receive this position, and the least you could do is support him.”
“What, and give up my own options? Why do you have to side with Nate over your own daughter?”
She laughed. “Don’t be silly, dear. I’m just looking out for you. A move to a new place might be exactly what you need to jumpstart your ambition. And a wedding is always such a positive thing.”
“Who said anything about a wedding?” I asked grumpily. I looked sideways at Alex; he was watching the verbal tennis with interest and smiled sympathetically at me, but he was wisely keeping silent for the moment.
Looking surprised, Mum said, “Well, darling, I would assume that it would be an ideal time to celebrate a union, with Nate about to embark on a new position. What could be more promising? And I imagine it would permit you to go with Nate to America when he leaves.”
“Oh, my god,” I said under my breath. “Mother. You are missing the point.” My voice rose as I spoke. “I do not want to go to America. I do not want to marry Nate, especially to follow him to America. Also, since I imagine it’s your next comment, I also do not want children, at least not anytime in the near future!”
She looked hurt. “Why, darling, I haven’t said a thing about children.”
“Eleanor, stop badgering the girl or she’ll never come home again,” Dad said. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a beer, offering one to Alex.
“I am not badgering Emily,” Mum said. “If she doesn’t want to be with Nate and she doesn’t want to go to America, then that’s her decision and she simply needs to say so.”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” I said, throwing up my hands and accidentally sending a piece of potato peel sailing across the kitchen to land on Alex’s arm. He picked it off and neatly dropped it in the pile. “Sorry.”
“And I haven’t said a thing about children,” Mum continued. “Although — ”
“Eleanor, you bring up Emily’s prospective children every time the poor girl comes to visit,” Dad said. “If she doesn’t want them, she doesn’t want them. Let it alone.”
Frustrated, Mum snapped, “Fine. I just don’t understand why she’s being so difficult. After all, I was a full-time academic and a mother, and — ”
“Yes, Ellie, we all know how wonderful you are,” Dad said, with just enough levity injected into his voice that it was clear he was teasing. “I married you, after all.” He kissed her forehead, avoiding her chicken-y fingers. “But not everyone can be extraordinary as you, and quite frankly I think our daughter is pretty special without following in your footsteps. And I think she’s old enough to make her own decisions regardless of the consequences.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, wishing the praise made me feel better.