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Baghdad (Unpublished Extract)

The war changed her. Until the bombs started dropping she’d been on ordinary stroppy teenager, completely wound up in herself: her own petty little worries, bitching, boyfriends, all that stuff. To be honest, it surprised me she ever got to university. Standards must’ve dropped since my day, I told her that first Christmas. Told her with a smile on my face. But I meant it. She’d always been a bit of a lazybones. Just didn’t want to put in the hours. Didn’t seem to think it worth her while to work hard at anything. But you didn’t make it to uni, Mum, she said, oh so pleased with herself, that look on her face. Exactly my point, I said, Standards must’ve dropped.

Her dad was over the moon, of course. Well done, sweetheart! he said, I’ll put a bit of money away for you. Do it right now! So it’ll earn some interest. Told her there and then, without a word to me beforehand.

We should’ve discussed it before you go making such promises, I told him later that day. Jesus Christ! You and I haven’t had a holiday together for years. But she deserves it, he said. She’s made it! And not any old university. Quite a good one. I let out a despairing sigh, thought, it’s thanks to your fuss-potting she’s the way she is, and said nothing.

She’d gone on a few of the Stop the War marches. But mainly because of this particular boy she fancied. He’d been involved in making some of the banners. She was tagging along to be with him. Well, that’s how it looked to me.

Back then, she’d take no notice of the television news. Never bothered reading any of the many newspapers that dropped through our letterbox day after day. Most of the limited information she did get was stuff she found on a few dodgy websites purporting to tell the ‘true’ story of almost everything – although I wouldn’t have said she was much interested in them either.

When I think of it – and I think of it often – I think, had it not been for Bush and Blair getting chummy over a tube of toothpaste, had it not been for that bloody war, my husband might be sitting opposite me now, his nose in a newspaper, saying bugger all.

You see, until the ‘coalition of the willing’ began blitzing the Iraqi people – stuck as they were between a rock and a very hard place – my husband and I and our lazy daughter were an ordinary dull little family; too little a family, if truth be told. And that summer of 2004 we were an ordinary dull little family on holiday with our spectacularly stroppy only child. A ‘child’ who was two years too old to have excuses for behaving like a teenager. Even if the prime excuse for her stroppiness was, I don’t want to fucking be here! A mantra she’d repeated that morning. Though where she did want to be I couldn’t say.

She’d dropped out of university, you see. Turned up, like a bad penny, one afternoon, without warning.

Home sweet home!

There on the doorstep, all smiles. No shame. Not a hint of it.

Hello Mummy. Hello Daddy, said in that strange, pretend, little girl voice.

Might she be be on something, do you think? I suggested to my husband in bed that night.

Not that he would know any more than I about that sort of thing. Since, to my knowledge, aside from several daily slugs of strong coffee and a weakness for weak Assam tea, he’d never touched anything that could be seriously called ‘a drug’. Not even Love, perhaps, back in the days when it was the drug. How does that song go . . .?

I’ve got us a small villa in Portugal! he announced one bright, sunny morning, all smiles. Look! showing me the picture, he’d just printed out.

But why? I said. You don’t like the heat. We like walking.

We had booked ourselves a walking holiday in the Brecon Beacons.

Managed to get a full refund! he declared, like it was something I should be pleased about. For the three of us! he declared. It’ll do her good, after what she’s been through.

Been through? I questioned. Since, aside from falling out with some new boyfriend – who may or may not have known he was her boyfriend – it seemed to me our daughter had been through very little.

For heaven’s sake! I said, She’s finding it tougher than she thought, that’s all. She’s chickened out. She either needs to get straight back in the saddle and work a damn sight harder than she has done, or begin to realise her limitations.

You’re way too hard on her, he said, turning away from me.

In fact, until that penultimate day of our ‘jolly family holiday’, had it not been for our complaining daughter, I suspect my husband and I might have quite enjoyed ourselves in that stuffy little villa in Portugal. Mind you, we might have enjoyed ourselves a damn site more had we been communing with nature, and each other (God knows we needed to), in the Brecon Beacons.

Still, Portugal wasn’t quite as hot as I’d expected. The villa was small, but not quite as small as I’d expected. The food at the local market was cheap. The stallholders were cheerful. As were he and I under the circumstances. It was only our daughter who was not.

Of course, if my husband hadn’t insisted on buying the British newspapers every damn day, things might have been different? But he could never let go of that daily habit.

I need to keep in touch, he’d say. But you’re on holiday! I’d say, wondering if he cared more about keeping in touch with the news than he did keeping in touch with his own wife – touching his own wife, come to that. Can’t you give it a rest for a while? How are you going to put the world to rights lounging on a beach? I like to keep abreast of things, he said, slouching down in his sun lounger, adjusting his parasol and reaching for his reading sunspecs, as I tried to recall the last time the hands holding those pages of newsprint had touched my breasts.

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