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Excerpt

Excerpt

How Hard Can It Be?

Chapter 1

Bats in the Belfie

SEPTEMBER

Monday, 1:37 A.M. Such a weird dream. Emily is crying, she’s really upset. Something about a belfry. A boy wants to come round to our house because of her belfry. She keeps saying she’s sorry, it was a mistake, she didn’t mean to do it. Strange. Most of my nightmares lately feature me on my unmentionable birthday having become totally invisible and talking to people who can’t hear me or see me.

“But we haven’t got a belfry,” I say, and the moment I speak the words aloud I know that I’m awake.

Emily is by my side of the bed, bent over as if in prayer or protecting a wound. “Please don’t tell Daddy,” she pleads. “You can’t tell him, Mummy.”

“What? Tell him what?”

I fumble blindly on the bedside table and my baffled hand finds reading glasses, distance glasses, a pot of moisturizer and three foil sheets of pills before I locate my phone. Its small window of milky, metallic light reveals that my daughter is dressed in the Victoria’s Secret candy-pink shorty shorts and camisole I foolishly agreed to buy her after one of our horrible rows.

“What is it, Em? Don’t tell Daddy what?”

No need to look over to check that Richard’s still asleep. I can hear that he’s asleep. With every year of our marriage, my husband’s snoring has got louder. What began as piglet snufflings twenty years ago is now a nightly Hog Symphony, complete with wind section. Sometimes, at the snore’s crescendo, it gets so loud that Rich wakes himself up with a start, rolls over and starts the symphony’s first movement again. Otherwise, he is harder to wake than a saint on a tomb.

Richard had the same talent for Selective Nocturnal Deafness when Emily was a baby, so it was me who got up two or three times in the night to respond to her cries, locate her blankie, change her nappy, soothe and settle her, only for that penitential playlet to begin all over again. Maternal sonar doesn’t come with an off switch, worse luck.

“Mum,” Emily pleads, clutching my wrist.

I feel drugged. I am drugged. I took an antihistamine before bed because I’ve been waking up most nights between two and three, bathed in sweat, and it helps me sleep through. The pill did its work all too well, and now a thought, any thought at all, struggles to break the surface of dense, clotted sleep. No part of me wants to move. I feel like my limbs are being pressed down on the bed by weights.

“Muuuu-uuuumm, please.”

God, I am too old for this.

“Sorry, give me a minute, love. Just coming.”

I get out of bed onto stiff, protesting feet and put one hand around my daughter’s slender frame. With the other, I check her forehead. No temperature, but her face is damp with tears. So many tears that they have dripped onto her camisole. I feel its humid wetness—a mix of warm skin and sadness—through my cotton nightie and I flinch. In the darkness, I plant a kiss on Em’s forehead and get her nose instead. Emily is taller than me now. Each time I see her it takes a few seconds to adjust to this incredible fact. I want her to be taller than me, because in the world of women, tall is good, leggy is good, but I also want her to be four years old and really small so I can pick her up and make a safe world for her in my arms.

“Is it your period, darling?”

She shakes her head and I smell my conditioner on her hair, the expensive one I specifically told her not to use.

“No, I did something really ba-aa-aa-aad. He says he’s coming here.” Emily starts crying again.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s OK,” I say, maneuvering us both awkwardly toward the door, guided by the chink of light from the landing. “Whatever it is, we can fix it, I promise. It’ll be fine.”

And, you know, I really thought it would be fine, because what could be so bad in the life of a teenage girl that her mother couldn’t make it better?

* * *

2:11 A.M. “You sent. A picture. Of your naked bottom. To a boy. Or boys. You’ve never met?”

Emily nods miserably. She sits in her place at the kitchen table, clutching her phone in one hand and a Simpsons D’OH mug of hot milk in the other, while I inhale green tea and wish it were Scotch. Or cyanide. Think, Kate, THINK.

The problem is I don’t even understand what it is I don’t understand. Emily may as well be talking in a foreign language. I mean, I’m on Facebook, I’m in a family group on WhatsApp that the kids set up for us and I’ve tweeted all of eight times (once, embarrassingly, about Pasha on Strictly Come Dancing after a couple of glasses of wine), but the rest of social media has passed me by. Until now, my ignorance has been funny—a family joke, something the kids could tease me about. “Are you from the past?” That was the punch line Emily and Ben would chorus in a singsong Irish lilt; they had learned it from a favorite sitcom. “Are you from the past, Mum?”

They simply could not believe it when, for years, I remained stubbornly loyal to my first mobile: a small, grayish-green object that shuddered in my pocket like a baby gerbil. It could barely send a text message—not that I ever imagined I would be sending those on an hourly basis—and you had to hold down a number to get a letter to appear. Three letters allocated to each number. It took twenty minutes to type “Hello.” The screen was the size of a thumbnail and you only needed to charge it once a week. Mum’s Flintstone Phone, that’s what the kids called it. I was happy to collude with their mockery; it made me feel momentarily lighthearted, like the relaxed, laid-back parent I knew I never really could be. I suppose I was proud that these beings I had given life to, recently so small and helpless, had become so enviably proficient, such experts in this new tongue that was Mandarin to me. I probably thought it was a harmless way for Emily and Ben to feel superior to their control-freak(ish) mother, who was still boss when it came to all the important things like safety and decency, right?

Wrong. Boy, did I get that wrong. In the half hour we have been sitting at the kitchen table, Emily, through hiccups of shock, has managed to tell me that she sent a picture of her bare backside to her friend Lizzy Knowles on Snapchat because Lizzy told Em that the girls in their group were all going to compare tan lines after the summer holidays.

“What’s a Snapchat?”

“Mum, it’s like a photo that disappears after like ten seconds.”

“Great, it’s gone. So what’s the problem?”

“Lizzy took a screenshot of the Snapchat and she said she meant to put it in our Facebook group chat, but she put it on her wall by mistake so now it’s there like forever.” She pronounces the word “forever” so it rhymes with her favorite, “whatevah”—lately further abbreviated to the intolerable “whatevs.”

“Fu’evah,” Emily says again. At the thought of this unwanted immortality, her mouth collapses into an anguished O—a popped balloon of grief.

It takes a few moments for me to translate what she has said into English. I may be wrong (and I’m hoping I am), but I think it means that my beloved daughter has taken a photo of her own bare bum. Through the magic of social media and the wickedness of another girl, this image has now been disseminated—if that’s the word I want, which I’m very much afraid it is—to everyone in the school, the street, the universe. Everyone, in fact, but her own father, who is upstairs snoring for England.

“People think it’s like really funny,” Emily says, “because my back is still a bit burned from Greece so it’s like really red and my bum’s like really white so I look like a flag. Lizzy says she tried to delete it, but loads of people have shared it already.”

“Slow down, slow down, sweetheart. When did this happen?”

“It was like seven thirty but I didn’t notice for ages. You told me to put my phone away when we were having dinner, remember? My name was at the top of the screenshot so everyone knows it’s me. Lizzy says she’s tried to take it down but it’s gone viral. And Lizzy’s like, ‘Em, I thought it was funny. I’m so sorry.’ And I don’t want to seem like I’m upset about it because everyone thinks it’s really hilarious. But now all these people have got my like Facebook and I’m getting these creepy messages.” All of that comes out in one big sobbing blurt.

I get up and go to the counter to fetch some kitchen roll for Em to blow her nose because I have stopped buying tissues as part of recent family budget cuts. The chill wind of austerity blowing across the country, and specifically through our household, means that fancy pastel boxes of paper softened with aloe vera are off the shopping list. I silently curse Richard’s decision to use being made redundant by his architecture firm as “an opportunity to retrain in something more meaningful”—or “something more unpaid and self-indulgent” if you were being harsh, which, sorry, but I am at this precise moment because I don’t have any Kleenex to soak up our daughter’s tears. Only when I make a mess of ripping the kitchen paper along its serrated edge do I notice that my hand is shaking, quite badly actually. I place the trembling right hand in my left hand and interlink the fingers in a way I haven’t done for years. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Look inside and see all the people.” Em used to make me do that little rhyme over and over because she loved to see the fingers waggling in the church.

“’Gain, Mummy. Do it ’gain.”

What was she then? Three? Four? It seems so near yet, at the same time, impossibly far. My baby. I’m still trying to get my bearings in this strange new country my child has taken me to, but the feelings won’t stay still. Disbelief, disgust, a tincture of fear.

“Sharing a picture of your bottom on a phone? Oh, Emily, how could you be so bloody stupid?” (That’s the fear flaring into anger right there.)

She trumpets her nose on the kitchen roll, screws up the paper and hands it back to me.

“It’s a belfie, Mum.”

“What’s a belfie, for heaven’s sake?”

“It’s a selfie of your bum,” Emily says. She talks as though this were a normal part of life, like a loaf of bread or a bar of soap.

“You know, a BELFIE.” She says it louder this time, like an Englishman abroad raising his voice so the dumb foreigner will understand.

Ah, a belfie, not a belfry. In my dream, I thought she said belfry. A selfie I know about. Once, when my phone flipped to selfie mode and I found myself looking at my own face, I recoiled. It was unnatural. I sympathized with that tribe which refused to be photographed for fear the camera would steal their souls. I know girls like Em constantly take selfies. But a belfie?

“Rihanna does it. Kim Kardashian. Everyone does it,” Emily says flatly, a familiar note of sullenness creeping into her voice.

This is my daughter’s stock response lately. Getting into a nightclub with fake ID? “Don’t be shocked, Mum, everyone does it.” Sleeping over at the house of a “best friend” I’ve never met, whose parents seem weirdly unconcerned about their child’s nocturnal movements? Perfectly normal behavior, apparently. Whatever it is I am so preposterously objecting to, I need to chill out, basically, because Everyone Does It. Am I so out of touch that distributing pictures of one’s naked arse has become socially acceptable?

“Emily, stop texting, will you? Give me that phone. You’re in enough trouble as it is.” I snatch the wretched thing out of her hands and she lunges across the table to grab it back, but not before I see a message from someone called Tyler: “Ur ass is well fit make me big lol!!! ”

Christ, the village idiot is talking dirty to my baby. And “Ur” instead of “Your”? The boy is not just lewd but illiterate. My Inner Grammarian clutches her pearls and shudders. Come off it, Kate. What kind of warped avoidance strategy is this? Some drooling lout is sending your sixteen-year-old daughter pornographic texts and you’re worried about his spelling?

“Look, darling, I think I’d better call Lizzy’s mum to talk about wha—”

“Nooooooo.” Emily’s howl is so piercing that Lenny springs from his basket and starts barking to see off whoever has hurt her.

“You can’t,” she wails. “Lizzy’s my best friend. You can’t get her in trouble.”

I look at her swollen face, the bottom lip raw and bloody from chewing. Does she really think Lizzy is her best friend? Manipulative little witch, more like. I haven’t trusted Lizzy Knowles since the time she announced to Emily that she was allowed to take two friends to see Justin Bieber at the O2 for her birthday. Emily was so excited; then Lizzy broke the news that she was first reserve. I bought Em a ticket for the concert myself, at catastrophic expense, to protect her from that slow hemorrhage of exclusion, that internal bleed of self-confidence which only girls can do to girls. Boys are such amateurs when it comes to spite.

All of this I think, but do not say. For my daughter cannot be expected to deal with public humiliation and private treachery in the same night.

“Lenny, back in your basket, there’s a good boy. It’s not getting-up time yet. Lie down. There, good boy. Good boy.”

I settle and reassure the dog—this feels more manageable than settling and reassuring the girl—and Emily comes across and lies next to him, burying her head in his neck. With a complete lack of self-consciousness, she sticks her bottom in the air. The pink Victoria’s Secret shorts offer no more cover than a thong and I get the double full-moon effect of both bum cheeks—that same pert little posterior which, God help us, is now preserved for posterity in a billion pixels. Emily’s body may be that of a young woman, but she has the total trustingness of the child she was not long ago. Still is in so many ways. Here we are, Em and me, safe in our kitchen, warmed by a cranky old Aga, cuddled up to our beloved dog, yet outside these walls forces have been unleashed that are beyond our control. How am I supposed to protect her from things I can’t see or hear? Tell me that. Lenny is just delighted that the two girls in his life are up at this late hour; he turns his head and starts to lick Em’s ear with his long, startlingly pink tongue.

The puppy, purchase of which was strictly forbidden by Richard, is my proxy third child, also strictly forbidden by Richard. (The two, I admit, are not unrelated.) I brought this jumble of soft limbs and big brown eyes home just after we moved into this ancient, crumbling-down house. A little light incontinence could hardly hurt the place, I reasoned. The carpets we inherited from the previous owners were filthy and sent up smoke signals of dust as you walked across a room. They would have to be replaced, though only after the kitchen and the bathroom and all the other things that needed replacing first. I knew Rich would be pissed off for the reasons above, but I didn’t care. The house move had been unsettling for all of us and Ben had been begging for a puppy for so long—he’d sent me birthday cards every single year featuring a sequence of adorable, beseeching hounds. And now that he was old enough not to want his mother to hug him, I figured out that Ben would cuddle the puppy and I would cuddle the puppy, and, somehow, somewhere in the middle, I would get to touch my son.

The strategy was a bit fluffy and not fully formed, rather like the new arrival, but it worked beautifully. Whatever the opposite of a punch bag is, that’s Lenny’s role in our family. He soaks up all the children’s cares. To a teenager, whose daily lot is to discover how unlovable and misshapen they are, the dog’s gift is complete and uncomplicated adoration. And I love Lenny too, really love him with such a tender devotion I am embarrassed to admit it. He probably fills some gap in my life I don’t even want to think about.

“Lizzy said it was an accident,” says Em, stretching out a hand for me to pull her up. “The belfie was only supposed to be for the girls in our group, but she like posted it where all of her other friends could see it by mistake. She took it down as soon as she realized, but it was too late ’cos loads of people had already saved it and reposted it.”

“What about that boy you said was coming round? Um, Tyler?” I close and open my eyes quickly to wipe the boy’s lewd text.

“He saw it on Facebook. Lizzy tagged my bum #FlagBum and now everyone on Facebook can see it and knows it’s like mine, so now everyone thinks I’m like just one of those girls who takes her clothes off for nothing.”

“No they don’t, love.” I pull Em into my arms. She lays her head on my shoulder and we stand in the middle of the kitchen, half hugging, half slow-dancing. “People will talk about it for a day or two then it’ll blow over, you’ll see.”

I want to believe that, I really do. But it’s like an infectious disease, isn’t it? Immunologists would have a field day researching the viral spread of compromising photographs on social media. I’d venture that the Spanish flu and Ebola combined couldn’t touch the speed of photographic mortification spreading through cyberspace.

Through the virus that is Internet porn, and in the blink of an eye, my little girl’s bare backside had found its way from our commuter village forty-seven miles outside London all the way to Elephant and Castle, where Tyler, who is what police call “a known associate” of Lizzy’s cousin’s mate’s brother, was able to see it. All because, according to Em, dear Lizzy had her settings fixed to allow “friends of friends” to see whatever she posted. Great, why not just send it directly to the pedophile wing of Wormwood Scrubs?

* * *

4:19 A.M. Emily is asleep at last. Outside, it’s black and cold, the first chill of early autumn. I’m still getting used to night in a village—so different from night in a town, where it’s never truly dark. Not like this furry black pelt thrown over everything. Quite close by, somewhere down the bottom of the garden, there is the shriek of something killing or being killed. When we first moved here, I mistook these noises for a human in pain and I wanted to call the police. Now I just assume it’s the fox again.

I promised Em I would stay by her bed in case Tyler or any other belfie hounds try to drop in. That’s why I’m sitting here in her little chair with the teddy bear upholstery, my own mottled, fortysomething backside struggling to squidge between its narrow, scratched wooden arms. I think of all the times I’ve kept vigil on this chair. Praying she would go to sleep (pretty much every single night, 1998–2000). Praying she would wake up (suspected concussion after falling off bouncy castle, 2004). And now here I am thinking of her bottom, the one that I trapped expertly in Pampers and which is now bouncing around the World Wide Web all by itself, no doubt inflaming the loins of hordes of deviant Tylers. Uch.

I feel ashamed that my daughter has no sense of modesty, because whose fault is that? Her mother’s, obviously. Mine—Emily’s grandma Jean—instilled in me an almost Victorian dread of nakedness that came from her own strict Baptist upbringing. Ours was the only family on the beach that got changed into swimwear inside a kind of toweling burqa, with a drawstring neck my mum had fashioned from curtain flex. To this day, I hardly glance at my own backside, let alone offer it up to public view. How in the name of God did our family go, in just two generations, from prudery to porn?

I desperately need to talk to someone, but who? I can’t tell Richard, because the thought of his princess being defiled would kill him. I flick through my mental Rolodex of friends, pausing at certain names, trying to weigh up who would judge harshly, who would sympathize effusively then spread the gossip anyway—in a spirit of deep concern, naturally. (“Poor Kate, you won’t believe what her daughter did.”) It’s not like laughing with other mums about something embarrassing Emily did when she was little, like that Nativity play when she broke Arabella’s halo because she was so cross about getting the part of the innkeeper’s wife. (A dowdy, nonspeaking role with no tinsel; I saw her point.) I can’t expose Em to the sanctimony of the Muffia, that organized gang of mothers superior. So, who on earth can I trust with this thing so distressing and surreal that I actually feel sick? I go to my inbox, find a name that spells “unshockability” and begin to type.

To: Candy Stratton

From: Kate Reddy

Subject: Help!

Hi hon, you still up? Can’t remember the time difference. It’s been quite a night here. Emily was lured by a “friend” into posting a photo of her naked derrière on Snapchat which has now been circulated to the entire Internet. This is called a “belfie,” which I’m old enough to think might be short for Harry Belafonte. Worried that heavy-breathing stalkers are about to form a queue outside our house. Seriously, I feel Jurassic when she talks to me. I don’t understand any of the tech stuff, but I do know it’s really bad. I want to murder the little idiot and I want to protect her so badly.

I thought this parenting lark was supposed to get easier. What do I do? Ban her from social media? Get her to a nunnery?

Yours in a sobbing heap,

Kx

A Technicolor image pings into my head of Candy at Edwin Morgan Forster, the international investment company where we both worked. She was wearing a red dress so tight you could watch the sashimi she ate for lunch progressing down her esophagus. “Whad you lookin’ at, kid?” she would jeer at any male colleague foolish enough to comment on her Jessica Rabbit silhouette. Candace Marlene Stratton: proud, foulmouthed export of New Jersey, Internet whiz, and my bosom buddy in an office where sexism was the air that we breathed. I read about a discrimination case in the paper the other day, some junior accountant complaining that her boss hadn’t been respectful enough in his use of language. I thought: Seriously? You don’t know you’re born, sweetie. At EMF, if a woman so much as raised her voice, the traders would yell across the floor, “On the rag are you, darling?” Nothing was off limits, not even menstruation. They loved to tease female staff about their time of the month. Complaining would only have confirmed the sniggerers’ view that we couldn’t hack it, so we never bothered. Candy, who subsisted on coke back then—the kind you gulped from a can and the kind you snorted up your nose—sat about fifteen feet away from me for three years, yet we hardly spoke. Two women talking in the office was “gossiping;” two men doing exactly the same was “a briefing.” We knew the rules. But Candy and I emailed the whole time, in and out of each other’s minds, venting and joking: members of the Resistance in a country of men.

I never thought I would look back on that time with affection, let alone longing, only suddenly I think how exciting it was. It tested me in a way that nagging kids to do their homework, cooking nine meals a week and getting a man in to do the gutters—the wearisome warp and weft of life—never does. Can you be a success as a mother? People only notice when you’re not doing it right.

Back then, I had targets I could hit and I knew that I was good, really good at my work. Camaraderie under pressure; you don’t realize what a deep pleasure that is until it’s gone. And Candy, she always had my back. Not long after she gave birth to Seymour, she headed home to the States to be near her mom, who longed to babysit her first grandchild. It allowed Candy to start an upmarket sex-toy business. Orgazma: for the woman who’s too busy going to come (or maybe the other way around). I’ve only seen Candy once in the years since we both left EMF, although, forged in the heat of adversity, ours are the ties that bind. I really wish she were here now. I’m not sure I can do this by myself.

To: Kate Reddy

From: Candy Stratton

Subject: Help!

Hey Sobbing Heap, this is the Westchester County 24-Hour Counseling Service. Calm down, OK. What Emily did is perfectly normal teen behavior. Think of it as the 21st century equivalent of love letters tied with a red ribbon in a scented drawer … only now it’s her drawers.

Count yourself lucky it’s just a picture of her ass. A girl in Seymour’s class shared a picture of her lady garden because the captain of the football team asked to see it. These kids have NO sense of privacy. They think because they’re on the phone or computer in their own home it’s safe.

Emily doesn’t realize she’s walking butt-naked down the information superhighway looking like she’s got her thumb out and she’s trying to hitch a ride. Your job is to point that out to her. With force if necessary. I suggest hiring some friendly nerd to see how much he can track down online and destroy. You can ask Facebook to take obscene stuff down I’m pretty sure. And restrict her privileges—no Internet access until she’s learned her lesson.

You should get some sleep, hon, must be crazy late there?

Am here for you always,

XXO C

How Hard Can It Be?
by by Allison Pearson

  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250086086
  • ISBN-13: 9781250086082