When Simon Caudwell arrived home from the City each day, he wore an expression that suggested life had snuck up from behind and bitten him on the bottom. His evenings were supposed to consist of a Dirty Martini taken in the drawing room with his fragrant, bejewelled wife, a tantalising suggestion of boeuf bourguignon drifting in from the dining room. Then, apple-cheeked children – having been whisked in starched silence from nursery kitchen to east wing, where they would be bathed by Nanny – would appear in striped pyjamas and moccasin slippers to give their parents a picture-perfect goodnight kiss. Instead, as he tentatively pushed open the front door to his slightly too bijou London townhouse, Simon was greeted by unholy shrieking and the whiff of nit shampoo.
“Hi, darling, we’re doing bathtime,” his wife Lucy called out, as she coaxed their bare-bottomed daughter Clementine into a half-nelson for all the street to see. “Did you manage to stop at Waitrose on your way home? There’s nothing for supper.”
“Oh… I got the milk you wanted but nothing resembling supper.” An epic fail, as his son Harry would say.
The disapproving silence was broken by an unidentifiable missile launched from the landing, which glanced off the canvas of Simon’s favourite Scottish colourist before colliding with his forehead with laser precision.
“How sick was that shot, Dad?” Harry yelled in his outdoor voice, as he charged downstairs wearing a polar-bear onesie. Whatever happened to winceyette, Simon wondered wistfully, as he patted his son’s faux-fur head. “It was violently sick, Harry.”
Sometimes Simon questioned the wisdom of sending Clementine and Harry to state school. Not only did his children’s vocabulary include the words “toilet” and “pardon”, but he also lamented that the badger watching and beagling of his own beloved schooldays were not a prerequisite part of the curriculum. It wasn’t that his wife, who had a double first from Cambridge, didn’t value education – the local school had a higher Ofsted rating than the straw-boater-ed private ones, without the whopping fees and avenues of SUVs (with drivers) in waiting. And Simon could hardly protest, not having garnered anything as bourgeois as an A-level during his time at Eton.
As he poured a consolation glass of Sancerre and helped himself to leftover pesto pasta from the fridge, he was interrupted by Clementine. “Daddy, come and see our Subbuteo game.” He traipsed upstairs to find that his bedroom had been requisitioned as a miniature football pitch.
“Is there a reason the big match has to be on my floor and not yours?” Simon asked gruffly as he settled onto a dog-eared chaise longue to watch Chelsea thrash Manchester United. “When I was Harry’s age, I…”
“…was never allowed in my parents’ room and had to sleep on scratchy blankets with no mummy to kiss me goodnight,” his wife and children chimed with well-rehearsed ennui.
Simon had lost the boarding school battle a long time ago. And whenever he mentioned that being sent away at the age of eight with only a mangy stuffed rabbit for company hadn’t done him any harm, Lucy would roll her eyes and mutter words like “barbaric” and “emotionally stunted”.
“This will cheer you up, darling,” said Lucy. “Harry, tell Daddy about your school trip this summer.”
“I’m going to an adventure camp in Snowdonia for two weeks,” Harry said gleefully. “We get to go on the longest zip wire in the world.”
“Adventure camp?” Simon palled and drew his wife aside. “You haven’t said yes to this, have you?”
“Of course! I thought it would be good, character-building stuff,” she replied, eyes twinkling.
“A fortnight away from home? Are you mad?” Simon stormed from the room in search of a stiffer drink. “The boy’s only eight years old, for God’s sake.”