Mumzilla: A Mum crossed with Bridezilla and a Momager like the Kardashian clan's mother who is micro-managing every second of their child's day and who thinks a four year old should be speaking at least two languages by then and able to play the piano and fence.
≠ Swimming with sharks ≠
Antonia Lithgow was something of a matriarch in Sydney. Not only could she trace her linage back to some of the biggest names in the country's history- including a great-grandfather who'd established a major railroad company and a father who had been one of New South Wales' most popular premiers (along with a not so brag worthy Great-Aunt who had spent the vast majority of her life in jail after falling in love with, and ultimately helping, a Victorian bushranger)- but her husband had made a fortune in insurance before diversifying into private equity, making them independently wealthy. He was also distantly related to an icon of Australian rock in the late seventies and early eighties, something that Antonia never tired of telling people. I think she thought all this made her royalty and perhaps it did.
She was the best known of all the Sydney society mums in a group that included the wives of media moguls, former models and award-winning actresses and that's no mean feat. They would ask for her expert opinion on everything child related; from whether they should teach their child to read lips or whether sign language was more flattering, to how many different extracurricular language lessons they should enroll their children in. They would covet her opinion on fashion and beauty; whether "Botox" was in or out and whether "Gucci" outfits were better than "Prada". In short whatever Antonia thought was pretty much guaranteed to be what the other mums were also thinking.
Antonia and Mark Lithgow lived in a recently renovated Georgian abode just around the corner from the Double Bay mansion I shared with my husband and our three children. Somehow they had managed to get around the city's strict heritage trust rules and had kept nothing of the old home bar the outside shell in a move that had proven quite unpopular with residents in the well-healed area and historians. As well as being a permanent fixture on the socialite scene Antonia was the proud mother of four children and she was the first of Sydney's "yummy mumzillas" to befriend me. While I didn't know it at the time, when she "popped in" to invite myself and Edgar over for dinner a couple of weeks after our arrival from England, she would prove to be one of the most influential people I met in my new adopted country. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing I'm going to leave for you to decide.
We were still in the process of unpacking and settling into a routine so I was a little nervous about leaving the children with our kindly next door neighbour, Mrs. Johnstone, a New Zealand grandmother who had visited us two days after we moved in with homemade biscuits and promises of help for anything we might need. "Especially," she'd added, seeing the two eldest children peeping around my thighs at the front door with interest, "baby-sitting. My son and his wife have two little ones but they've just moved back to Auckland so I miss the company of children."
When I tried to use the fact that the children had barely been in Australia for two weeks as an excuse to cancel the dinner with Antonia and her husband Edgar put his foot down. "Sophie the Lithgows could really help me make the right contacts business wise. Besides which don't you want to make friends here?" He asked reasonably. He knew I was feeling the difference between a healthy social life back in London and the enforced isolation I was currently enduring, as well as the fact that I'd already made a couple of homesick trans-ocean phone calls to Mum, my sisters, and my best friends in a few short weeks.
"I suppose it couldn't hurt…and we won't be out for that long really, will we?" I gave in without a fight. Because I actually did want to meet some new people. While I was beginning to be on a first-name basis with neighbours and regulars at the local park where I took my rugged up children daily to play I hadn't exactly made friends yet. Edgar, on the other hand, had begun to make friends in his new job and had even spent the previous Sunday on a golf course somewhere on the city's northern beaches.
So far the only conversations I'd had with adults were with real estate agents, removalists, handymen, school principals and childcare centre operators. It wasn't exactly stimulating stuff. Although all of it was necessary. Being the middle of winter with the second term of school already halfway through I knew I needed to work fast in order to secure places in school and kindergarten for my two eldest children.
"That's a girl." Edgar said, ruffling my hair in an affectionate manner, something he knew I disliked but continued to do.
I went into the large closet that connected the master bedroom with the ensuite and rifled through racks of clothing until I found a light pink Ralph Lauren dress that was probably too thin for the cold of Sydney's winter- even for an Englishwoman who is used to the cold- which I slipped on along with a pair of strappy heels. I put my hair up in a bun and dabbed the bare minimum of makeup on. Despite the fact that I'm married to a man who will one day be a titled member of English society I am more at home in jeans and tees or tracksuit pants and hoodies than haute couture. To keep Edgar pleased I went to Paris for Fashion Week every year and spent what I could only consider obscene amounts of money on designer outfits. But as a mother of three children all under six Dior or Gucci is not exactly suitable attire.
Edgar picked a grey Saville Road suit, got a bottle of wine from the wine celler, and then, dropping the three kids next door with Mrs. Johnstone, we walked the two blocks to the Lithgow home.
The doorbell was answered immediately, almost as if the maid had been hovering around by it waiting for us to announce our presence. She looked surprised when she saw that neither of us had a coat to hand to her but recovered well enough. The foyer was around the same size as ours but that was where the comparisons ended- we had muted marble tiles that matched the staircase, an antique hallstand and hatstand carted over from England (along with many antiques Edgar and I had been given by his parents after our marriage), the Lithgows had dark black tiles, something I could only assume was a modern art sculpture and a large oil portrait of Antonia's father, the ex-premier. We were led into the sitting room where Antonia and Mark were waiting for us, and again, I noticed the differences. I understood what the historians had called a "complete disregard for the heritage of the home during renovations" immediately. There were no antique furnishings, no solid wooden coffee tables or cabinets, no regal looking wood and material couches or armchairs. Instead the room was starkly contemporary- clean lines, highly polished silver furnishings and an abundance of space. It wasn't to my personal taste, although nor really was the furniture Edgar had refused to leave London without, but it still worked.
Antonia and Mark both stood up automatically. Mark was a distinguished looking man clad in a pinstriped work suit. His hair was graying at the temples and a red nose suggested he probably drank a fair bit of alcohol. Antonia was a beautiful woman, there was no denying that, but when she stood up to kiss me on both cheeks, perfectly made up with her long dark blonde hair cascading in sexy tousled waves down her back and clad in a daringly low-cut black sheath- which she was quick to tell me had been made just for her by one of Australia's favourite designers Wayne Cooper- I had the feeling I was out of my depth and hopelessly underdressed. The good impression I'd longed to make, the impression I knew was paramount after Mrs. Johnson had told me that Antonia was the Queen Bee of Double Bay, was looking shaky. Ironically it was Edgar who saved everything by the simple thing of his name: Edgar Peter William Hampton-Novelle IV, future Earl of Dorchester.
Mark held out a hand to Edgar. "Welcome to our humble abode, Earl of Dorchester- or, how does one address a member of the gentry?" He asked. It was quite obvious he was somewhat in awe of who Edgar was. That was not uncommon though.
"You can call me Edgar." Edgar replied. He took Mark's hand and shook it, and then Mark introduced Antonia to Edgar and Antonia introduced me to her husband.
Introductions done Mark offered Edgar a scotch or whiskey and Antonia poured me a large glass of white wine. "Come and I'll give you a tour of our home. I'm sure the boys would love to discuss business alone before dinner." She said to me. She led me gracefully from the room and I wondered how she was able to walk so comfortably in heels that were easily twelve inches tall.
"I like your shoes." I blurted. Then I mentally slapped myself over the forehead- did I actually not want this woman to like me, to become my first friend in the city or not?
Antonia glanced over her shoulder and gave me a small smile. "Thank you. They're Jimmy Choos. I know Manahlos are all the rage these days- thanks to "Sex and the City" no doubt- but I prefer to stay with the classics myself. There are some things that just won't go out of fashion. Like a pair of Jimmy Choo sling-backs, don't you think?"
"Oh… definitely." I agreed. I guessed Antonia probably had a large shoe closet in her bedroom than I did for clothes.
As we toured the showpiece home, and I admired pieces here and there, I thought about what I knew about the Lithgows. After the dinner invitation had arrived I had hopped on the internet and done a bit of research where I'd found many photos of Antonia and Mark attending charity events all over the city as well as an article in "The Financial Review" that, modestly, labeled Mark an "economic genius" who had managed to make "insurance, finance and equity fashionable again." I'd, briefly, wondered when that kind of thing had ever been fashionable but after pointing it out to Edgar, who had been a Fleet Street whiz kid after his time at Oxford, I knew that Mark Lithgow was someone Edgar would want to know. Perhaps he'd find a kindred spirit in him. I only hoped that I'd find the same in Antonia.
"So tell me Sophie, what made you and Edgar leave England and come over to Sydney?" Antonia asked, as we gave the kitchen a cursory look and Antonia reminded the cook to double-check the meat to make sure that there was not any trace of fat anywhere on the cut.
"Mostly it was because we needed a change." I began. I didn't want to tell Antonia that the desire to put a whole ocean between myself and Edgar's mum, Mrs. Hampton-Novelle, had been a big influence in my decision. I also didn't want to tell her that I felt like the marriage had been in something of a rut for the past year or so and that any change was as good as a holiday. "And then Edgar was offered a job he didn't think he could refuse so everything kind of fell into place."
"Edgar's a mummy's boy isn't he?" Antonia asked, nodding sagely like she'd already guessed as much.
We walked into another large, again open planned, area which Antonia told me was the "living room" but I didn't think it looked like it had much living done in it. I knew Antonia and Mark had four children from my research on the internet as well as talking with Mrs. Johnstone next door but there were no signs of children ever having been in the room at any time, unlike the living room at my place where children's toys ran riot. I guessed the children might have been made to leave their things in their bedrooms, or possibly a nursery, to keep the house the showpiece Antonia and Mark wanted it to be. Even so there hadn't even been any photographs of the children or artworks or anything I'd seen as we continued the tour.
"He's the only son of three children so he'll inherit the vast bulk of the estate as well as his Dad's title." I told her, carefully evading her question which I guessed was rhetoric anyway. Edgar could be described as a "mummy's boy" without much stretching of the imagination. When Edgar and I had met, just over ten and a half years ago now, I was fresh out of uni having read English Literature at Cambridge, and Edgar was already a well-established name in the banking industry. Ironically we couldn't have been living two more different lives at the time if we'd tried. And our meeting was purely one of chance, what my best friend Katie called "kismet" or "serendipity", since we didn't move in the same circles and would probably never have met at any other stage.
A uni friend of mine had managed to get some sculptures into a pretty prestigious art show and I went along on opening night to show my support. I had intended only to have a couple of glasses of wine before retiring to what was then home- a place best described as a "student home" where I, and two other recent uni graduates lived- and getting up in the morning to scour the papers for jobs. Unfortunately despite having attended at a fairly prestigious university where I'd scored top marks English Lit wasn't the sort of major guaranteed to find one a job the moment they were handed their testamur and told to go out into the real world. And so, as the job search continued increasingly frustratingly, I'd begun to think about my options and had set myself a deadline. If I was still unemployed at the end of the month I was going to start ringing around some of the London uni's to see whether I could get a spot in a post-graduate teaching degree. I felt sure that with the passion I felt for literature I could try and inspire that same passion in children. I was on my second glass of wine and staring intently at an abstract painting when someone came up behind me. "It's amazing isn't it?" He'd asked.
"Erm…I guess so…yes…" I'd said. In truth I didn't quite get the painting- it just looked like a big mass of colours. Which I suppose it was being an abstract and all.
"I love his use of colours here and here, and the quirky brushstrokes throughout. I think I might put a bid in to buy it." The man had decided.
It was then I had turned to look at him, wanting to see the face of the man who sounded serious about buying the artwork. I was about to tell him that I'd heard sculptures were far more the rage these days than oil paintings and, if he wanted my opinion, there were a couple in particular in the show worth pursuing. But I didn't tell him any of that. The man standing beside me was in a dark suit but it was broken up by a hideously bright tie. He had something of Hugh Grant in him- and I'm talking Hugh Grant of ten years ago when he wasn't too busy partying with women old enough to be his daughter and aging completely and utterly ungracefully, Hugh Grant before he did the dirty with Devine Brown even- and I was intrigued. He had dark brown eyes, a sheepish smile, and hair that he was forever flopping back over his forehead. There was something I saw in him that I instantly liked. And there must have been something he saw in me that he instantly liked since he asked for my phone number and the week afterwards we went out for our first date to a small, unpretentious and very friendly, pub on the Thames.
We stayed there for hours; it was only the continual baleful looks, dramatic sighs, and the over-exaggerated noise of cleaning from the staff, that convinced us it was time to move on. We walked along the Thames for a bit before Edgar hailed me a taxi to take me home. He kissed me on the cheek and told me he'd call me. I know many women wouldn't have been confident of that considering how often a man says he'll call and doesn't but, for some reason, I didn't doubt Edgar would ring. He didn't seem like the sort of man to play games and I knew he'd enjoyed the night as much as I did. Two days later he did call and that, as they say in the movies, was that. For the record he bought one of the sculptures from Anne and now she's a very successful artist back home in England as well as throughout Europe.
To most people Edgar and I were chalk and cheese. But we got along so well and even from the early days of the relationship I knew that this was the man I was going to marry. Despite his customary muted suits, awkward interaction and penchant for terrible, terrible jokes, Edgar made me laugh and I felt safe with him. I also knew that there were women around who envied me in snagging someone who regularly starred in the tabaloids "eligible gentry section" but I didn't care about Edgar's name, I cared about Edgar the person. Not surprisingly we didn't take long to decide that, with me being a post-graduate uni student studying teaching and earning a pittance doing research for the English Literature Department at London's King College and Edgar well set up through both his job and the position he occupied as a future Earl, moving in together made sense. Edgar's home was definitely a bachelor pad- despite him being the most unlikely bachelor one could imagine- but he let me put my own personal touches on it, brighten it up with cushions and prints, make the walls brighter, and make it look more homely.
We'd been dating for three months when I took him down to Cornwall to meet my family over a lazy Sunday roast lunch. My family is relatively large, very boisterous, and not backwards in coming forwards and while as a teenager in a family of five kids I regularly longed to have just some semblance of a normal childhood, I wouldn't swap them for anything in the world. And, after meeting Edgar's Mum (more on that in a minute) I value them even more. We had gotten out of Edgar's Jaguar convertible and went inside where we were immediately besieged by my parents, four of my siblings and three of their respective partners, six loud children, and my frail and ill Gramps. Edgar was taken aback and not quite sure how to respond to this scene of domestic craziness. But, with the impeccable manners that had been bred into him, he greeted everyone warmly, handed my Mum a bouquet of flowers and my Dad an aged bottle of Scotch. As lunch progressed I had seen Edgar visibly relax as the family accepted him as one of their own; he'd passed the Castle family test, one which I might add, lesser human beings had attempted and failed, sometimes rather spectacularly. After eating my brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces were mucking around in the backyard, working off their meal, and Dad, Gramps and Edgar were sitting comfortable in the lounge room in front of the television watching the soccer and good-naturedly arguing over whether Arsenal (Edgar's club) or Liverpool (Dad and Gramps' club) had any chance of winning the premier league that year. I'd stayed inside in the kitchen to help Mum with the washing up. In the privacy of the kitchen Mum expressed to me the only one doubt she has done in the decade of the relationship between Edgar and me. "Love, isn't he a bit…safe? A bit boring for someone like you?" She had asked, up to her elbows in soapy water.
"I love him." I'd said, scrubbing a plate. "Love doesn't have to be exciting does it? I mean a relationship can survive without excitement right? Like you and Dad?"
Mum had mused over her answer for a couple of minutes. "Your father and I might look like boring old farts now but in the early days, before we had all you kids, we had fun. We did crazy things on a whim. Once we just quit work, gave up our lease on the flat we were living in in Leeds, and hopped on the ferry over to France just to go and sample wine and champagne at its birthplace." She'd said.
"You did?" I'd asked, surprised to hear that my parents had been completely different people before I'd been born.
"We did." Mum had confirmed. Then she'd turned to me, a small smile on her face. "But you're right Sophie; love doesn't have to be exciting. As long as it's romantic, as long as you know you're with the right person for you, as long as everything feels right then it usually is. You know I only want to see you happy don't you?"
"Of course I know that. And I am happy Mum. Edgar makes me happy." I'd assured her.
"Then that makes me, and your father, happy too." Mum had said, effectively ending the conversation.
The meeting between myself and Edgar's parents had been a completely different proposition all together. We'd driven to their place in the country for the weekend and the whole way I worried about what I was going to say to two people who had lived lives so far removed from my own that I couldn't even really picture them. Edgar had noticed my fretting but told me to relax, that they'd love me. He'd even said if they could get along with his baby sister's husband they could get along with anyone. Not surprisingly that didn't make me feel much better. When we started up the long, winding driveway through the estate I'd wiped my damp palms on the cream slacks I'd worn with a red woolen jumper in an attempt to fit into the country environment. And when we'd turned the corner and the house came into view I began to get a very serious case of cold feet. "House" did not do the place justice, hell "mansion" still fell short of the mark, it was more like a castle than anything. Edgar parked the car, came round and opened my door, and then led me inside. A butler had greeted us and told Edgar that his parents were waiting for him in the conservatory. Edgar led me through to the back of the house quickly so I had little time to take in the luxurious surrounds, and then I'd stood before the Hampton-Novelle's, and felt myself being scrutinized. While they gazed at me with poorly disguised interest I had simply set my face in the best approximation of a "I'm very happy to finally meet you, I hope we can be friends, please, please don't dislike me" smile and waited. In the few minutes before anyone spoke I felt like I imagined women had in medieval times when the Inquisition had decided whether they were or weren't a witch and their subsequent fate.
Edgar Hampton-Novelle III was a large man and he had been sitting in a seat with the racing form guide spread out on the table in front of him, nursing a whiskey. He sized me up in a couple of moments before standing up and coming over to shake my hand. "It's nice to meet you," He said, sounding like he actually meant it, "nice to finally put a face to the name young Edgar mentions so often. Would you like a drink? A wine, vodka-"
"For heavens sake Edgar. It's not even twelve thirty in the afternoon. I'm sure the girl doesn't want any alcohol at this time of day." Victoria Hampton-Novelle had interrupted, giving her husband an annoyed look.
Victoria had also been sitting but she had a copy of a magazine on her lap and a cup of tea at her elbow. Unlike her husband she didn't get up to greet me and, even as her husband offered me a drink, I felt her eyes on me. The only description I could come up for Victoria Hampton-Novelle was a "handsome" woman. She was dressed in a mid-thigh length dress that seemed overly dressy for the occasion and gold and pearl jewelry seemed to glint off every available surface on her. Her hair was tied back in a severe bun which had the misfortune of also pulling at her face muscles and making her look older than she really was.
Realising that Edgar's father was still waiting for my answer I'd hastily shook my head. "No, thank you very much, but I'm fine for the moment." I had told him. Naturally I wasn't about to point out the fact that there had been many occasions upon which I'd started drinking before lunchtime, and other still where I hadn't stopped drinking from the night before, until well after lunch. That wasn't likely to impress the Hampton-Novelle's and I knew, despite Edgar's pretence at casualness, he was desperate for his parents to approve of me. I decided the more prudent course of action was to agree with Victoria- after all I was pretty sure she was the one I had to impress here, not her husband.
"Edgar?" Edgar Senior addressed his son.
"No thank you Father." Edgar had said formally. I was to learn he'd always address his parents as Father and Mother and that his mother's opinions on pretty much everything would also become his. So when Antonia suggested, in that knowing tone, that Edgar was a "mummy's boy" I couldn't disagree. Over the course of the weekend I was to see the way she treated him like he was still a child, the way he over-indulged and doted on her, and the feelings she made blatantly clear about me- I was not good enough for her only son. While she was never rude, that kind of thing had not been instilled in her growing up, she remained cool and distant with me for the first meeting and for any subsequent meetings.
One thing I did marvel about as I got to know Edgar's parents was the ironic fact that his parents were as different as Edgar and I were- something the magazines would later do for Edgar and myself six months later when he proposed. Edgar Hampton-Novelle III was a large, jolly man who was always laughing and didn't seem to take anything- with the exception of money- seriously. Especially, in the beginning, the relationship between his only son and the woman who had somehow managed to snag one of Britain's most eligible bachelors (and, just for the record, that was based solely on his wealth and future title, not because he was especially handsome). And Victoria Hampton-Novelle was a very stern woman who was used to getting her way. And her way was for Edgar not to take a gigantic leap back down the class ladder and get serious about someone who was just training to become a teacher. As I observed husband and wife together I felt sure the attraction for Edgar had been something like her intelligence, her own independent wealth or her good breathing, but never her looks. Don't get me wrong- she was not ugly, in fact she managed to carry herself with an almost regal bearing, but she was not classically beautiful.
Back in the present I realised Antonia was talking to me. "What will that make you? I know if Edgar was a Duke you'd be a Duchess, if he was a Lord you'd be a Lady but what's the female equivalent of Earl?" Antonia asked as she opened the door into another room. She didn't step over the threshold, just pointed out that it was Mark's home office and that she rarely went in there and the children were forbidden- their computers were in their own spaces.
"I'd be a countess." I answered with a small shrug to show her that I wasn't particularly concerned about titles. Truth be known Edgar wasn't really either, although he was quick to let people know who he was if he thought it could get him what he wanted faster. But that was just the world he'd grown up in, schooled at the top private schools like Eton before his time at Oxford, where having a title, being part of the gentry, was something important. And I knew, that when the time come no matter where we were, we'd return to England for him to take up his role. After all it was, simply enough, his duty. I knew that Victoria was not happy about the fact that when that time did come it would be me taking over her role. Like I said whilst she had never been directly rude to me she didn't bother hiding the fact that she was dead-set against the marriage. In fact she'd almost succeeded in breaking up the relationship when she tried to push Edgar at a Duchess she knew and who would make perfect wife material for a future Earl. To his credit Edgar had withstood all she'd had to throw at us and, in my own personal opinion, it only made our union stronger.
While these days romance is something I don't get much of- not the least of the reasons being the fact that with three kids under six years old time alone is precious- Edgar proved to be romantic with a proposal that could have come straight from the pages of a chick lit novel. We went to the Greek Islands and, on a private beach, in a private yaught, over a four-course, five star meal prepared by a well-known chef back home who, at that stage in time had five Michelin stars to his name and who had known Edgar from a charity function, Edgar had brought out a large, princess cut diamond solitaire ring in white gold and asked me to be his wife. Of course I said yes.
If his Mum was against our relationship in the first place you can only imagine her reactions to the upcoming nuptials. But, to her credit, she tried to help me out. Firstly she insisted I wear her wedding gown- which, she had added with a little bit of malice would need to be taken out since I was a good pounds more than she'd been when she had married-, then she insisted that the wedding take place on the country estate and Edgar's sisters be the Bridesmaids along with a couple of other women Edgar had known since childhood and who just happened to be of the same class. I capitulated to many of her whims; the bridesmaids, the wedding reception venue, the catering menu, the large guest list (despite the fact that I felt it was pretty one-sided when there were people on the list Victoria insisted she just couldn't not invite as they'd see it as a snub and yet there wasn't really much room for me to invite many work colleagues) but I drew the line at the wedding gown. Maybe it was just me but I felt that every woman should have their dream dress on their dream day. And Victoria's creation was not my dream dress. And so we had gotten married in a wedding extravaganza- there was, quite simply, no other real way to describe the event- which made the London papers and was written up extensively in magazines like "Tattler." Not surprisingly by the time the wedding day arrived I'd lost the pounds Victoria had lamented and I was so nervous that I forgot little things like making sure that the right flowers were delivered to the church and the house for the reception to follow. It was also unsurprising that I was downing Champagne and OJ when I was having my hair and makeup done in the morning, and, by the end of the evening, poor Edgar practically had to carry me out of the reception. Our first night as man and wife was spent with me riding the porcelain bus and Edgar holding my hair back.
"Isn't a Countess related to a Count?" Antonia asked, her brow furrowing slightly with her confusion. I expected that was about as much emotion as her botox allowed her to show.
"It's all rather complicated and I'm afraid it must sound dull and dry to you." I said, hoping to get off the topic.
"Dull and dry? Why no, we're absolutely fascinated by that kind of thing- even over here where nobody has a title unless they've received a Knighthood, or an OAM, or any other ceremonic title. Speaking of that Mark's probably going to get an OAM in the next Australia Day honours. Hopefully he'll end up with a Knighthood at some stage too- I'd like being married to Sir Mark Lithgow." Antonia said, closing the study door behind us. "On the scale of things how far does an Earl sit from say a Prince?"
It was my turn to frown in concentration. "About middle of the road I think. I know Dukes and Marquises are above Earls, and Viscounts and Barons are below." I replied. "Anyway like I said until Edgar's father dies he's not an Earl, he's just Edgar."
"Just Edgar." Antonia laughed, her laugh an alarming mix of half hyena and half kookaburra. "No he's Edgar Hampton-Novelle the fourth- and make sure you let people know that makes you Mrs. Hampton-Novelle. That name alone should let you circumvent waiting lists pretty much any place you want to go in the whole city."
I chose not to say anything: I guessed that a woman like Antonia, a queen on the Sydney social scene, wouldn't understand how I so intensely disliked using my position as the wife of an incredibly wealthy family who were still viewed as gentry to get whatever I wanted or needed. If Edgar didn't really understand it how could she?
We went through the dining room- where I saw the only furniture thus far that wasn't modern in an old, dark red wood, large dining table- and I noticed, on the sideboard which did not exactly work well with the dining table, there were a couple of photos of different times in the lives of the Lithgows. A school or university graduation photo of Mark, a wedding photo for Mark and Antonia, the two of them standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, and a photo each of two of their four children dressed in school uniforms which I was willing to bet were taken on their first day at primary school. We had a similar one at home for Emmaline.
The last room downstairs that Antonia thought fitted her tour guide was a little smaller than the sitting room and living room. The colour scheme in the room was pure white- white carpet, white sofas and chairs, white venation blinds and white wallpaper. In the middle of the wall sat a fireplace and, mounted above it, was a painted portrait of the Lithgows and their four children.
"So you've got a couple of children?" Antonia asked me.
"Oh yes, we've got three. Emmaline's six, Hugh is four and a half, and Oscar is two and a quarter. Quite a handful but they're good kids and they're at ages where they're such fun to play with." I answered enthusiastically. "How about yourself?"
"We've got four. Two boys and two girls. Their names are Nikita Renate, Pelham Marcus, Sanford Kye and Allesandra Gwendolyn. Nikita is the eldest at ten and Allesandra the youngest at four. Exactly two years between them. Mark and I were most definite on how many children we had and when we had them. Very well planned out isn't it?" Antonia asked me proudly.
"Very well." I said slowly. My first thought was that I felt sorry for the children growing up with names like that- although I was prepared to admit my own three had very "English" names, two of which came from the Hampton-Novelle family line and one, Oscar, named after my beloved Grandfather who had lived with the family throughout my entire childhood and whose death four years ago had completely shattered me- and I was sure that they would probably be teased at some stage in their childhoods. My second thought was that I didn't quite approve of the way Antonia had strongly insinuated that the conceptions and birth times of all four of her children had been meticulously planned to leave a precise gap of two years in ages. Maybe it was an outdated, girly and romantic notion but I had always thought that when you were meant to have a child you'd have that child.
I can't remember a time I didn't want to be a mum. Every young girl plays with her dolls, plays at house, at being a mother and, as they get older and have their first crushes and their first loves, they think about the wedding and the "happily ever after" dream of marriage, a mortgage and kids. Because there was an eight year age difference between Edgar and I for the first year or two after we married I didn't want to actively try for children. I just wanted to enjoy being a newlywed and spending time with my husband. We traveled a bit, which I recognised was something not easily done once children were involved in the equation, and everything seemed to be on track. And then the pressure began. It came from different quarters and in differing amounts. Edgar was never overtly pressuring me but he'd make little comments about how he was not getting any younger and how he'd hate to have children grow up with a father who was too old to take them out the back and teach them to kick a soccer ball and to take them to "The Ashes" at Lords. My own family weren't immune either; my sisters would tell of the amazing feeling of having a baby growing inside you and giving birth to a miniature version of yourself and Mum would reminisce about how much she'd enjoyed being a mother and forever get out the many old photo albums showing the five of us in varying stages of development. But, and I don't think you'd find this surprising, Victoria was the worst. We had barely returned from our honeymoon before she was asking when we'd be making her a Grandmother. It got to the stage where I was uncomfortable being in the same room as her, watching her eyes scan my clothing for any discernible baby bump. And when I did fall pregnant with Emmaline she drove me insane with new diets, pre-natal yoga, mummy and me classes, and everything in between. When I complained to Edgar he'd say she's just excited about being a grandmother Soph, give her a chance.
After a couple of years of marriage I'd decided the time was right to start trying for a baby but, as the months continued to go by and my period arrived reliably, maddeningly on time, I began to worry. What if there was a medical reason for our being unable to conceive I'd ask myself. Three years after we said "I do" I decided to bite the bullet. I got the name of a top specialist at a private hospital in Kensington from a lawyer I'd met at uni and made appointments for both Edgar and myself to see her and get tests. Like many men my husband had not been happy about having a sperm count; perhaps it was simply that I was questioning his virility, perhaps it was for an entirely different reason, but, to keep my happy- and I suspect his mother- Edgar agreed to the tests. His results came back with Dr. Jacobs telling him that he was perfectly able to father a child and even now I remember all too clearly the smile on his face when we'd left the clinic. He'd even made the insensitive comment "Well Sophie, I guess it's not me" as we got in the car. I'd been shocked and furious and it wasn't until he saw the way the blood drained from my face that he realised he'd wedged his foot so far into his mouth. My test results took a little longer but I was told that there was no reason why the two of us should not be able to conceive naturally. We decided to give it another year and, if at the end of the year we were still not blessed with a bundle of joy, we'd go down the IVF route. Luckily it never got that far: Emmaline was born just over four years to the day of our marriage and Hugh and Oscar followed in relatively short succession.
"You don't work do you? I suppose you don't need to since no doubt Edgar makes decent money?" Antonia asked me.
In some cultures it's considered rude to ask about how much money people earn, or how much money things cost, and personally I consider it a little vulgar to discuss money matters- especially when the person asking the question is someone you don't really know. So I ignored that part of the question and instead addressed the other part. "No. I've got a teachers qualification so I suppose I could always go back to work when I want to. But honestly I enjoy spending my time with the kids." I answered.
I was aware that for some mothers not working was not an option but, given Edgar's position, I had the luxury of being a stay-at-home Mum and I don't think I'd give that up for the world, even if sometimes I do long for conversation that doesn't rhyme like Dr. Seuss. The fact that Victoria would have been horrified had I decided to go back to work might almost have been enough to send me back to work if I hadn't delighted in every single moment spent watching as Emmaline grew, smiled, crawled, laughed, walked and talked.
Antonia looked surprised. "You don't have a nanny?" She asked, her tone of voice suggesting that not having a nanny was something to be concerned about.
"Erm…no…Like I said I'm not working so I don't really need to have someone to look after the kids." I admitted, conscious that perhaps I'd already committed a faux paus.
"But then you've only been here a couple of weeks. You probably haven't had the time to look for a nanny yet." Antonia said thoughtfully. She gave a small nod. "And you should most definitely look at getting your children into some classes. Private schools here can be pretty competitive you know and if your child is fluent in another language, or some kind of musical genius or artistic prodigy then that's a good leg up. Do you have the children in any classes?"
"Emma does ballet. She's really quite good." I said proudly.
"Ballet." Antonia raised an eyebrow. "But she can speak French right?"
I hesitated and then decided there was no point in lying. "No. But there's plenty of time. She's only 6 so we're not going to be looking around at high schools for her for a couple of years yet-"
"High schools? No, I'm talking about primary schools. You've got to get in the right primary school to get into the right high school to get into the right uni. You really should have started the kids much earlier. It might be a bit late for Emmaline now but Hugh could possibly be saved and Oscar's the perfect age to start learning another language. Kids of two are virtually sponges you know, they pick up things much faster than a kid a couple of years older." Antonia told me knowledgably.
I was more than a little disconcerted about being told that my six year old daughter was beyond saving but I held it back.
"I'll have to give you the number of Jessamyn Rutters. Don't let me forget because she's an absolute Godsend. I don't know what we'd do without her. She's very popular but I'm sure if you mention my name she'd fit you in." Antonia said.
"Right…good, thanks…but, who is Jessamyn?" I questioned.
Antonia looked confused and then smiled. "I keep forgetting you're new to Sydney. Jessamyn is a schools and careers advisor. Not only does she have an in at the most exclusive schools but she's also very smart at working out what kind of things a child needs to know to get into the right schools. She's been working with all our children for a couple of years now and they've come on in leaps and bounds. Nikita has been speaking French for the past six years and she's just started learning Japanese. Mark goes to Japan for business frequently and she's already putting him to shame. And Pelham is already a level three at the piano. He got a part in the city's Christmas pageant last year and played "Jingle Bell Rock" absolutely flawlessly. And then there's Allesandra. You should hear her singing voice- she'd put Dame Nellie Melba to shame!" Antonia bragged.
I was a little lost for words and was suddenly feeling like a bad mother for having a six year old, four year old and two year old who hadn't learnt another language, or weren't musical prodigies. I decided I'd have to make sure to ring this Jessamyn Rutters during the week so I could find out where the best schools were and how to get the children in. "Which school do your children attend?" I asked Antonia.
"Nikita is at Kambala and Pelham and Sanford are at Cranbrook. It might be a bit late in the year for you to get your children in there but if anyone can do it than that person is Jessamyn." Antonia answered.
I noticed that above the fireplace there was a large painting of Antonia, Mark and four young children. The children were all blonde, blue eyed, and dressed in matching outfits. They looked a little like cherubs. Noticing me looking at it Antonia looked pleased. "Do you like it?"
"It's lovely." I said.
"We had it painted last year. The painter did the Prime Minister's family portrait a couple of years ago and I told Mark if it's good enough for John and Jannette then it's good enough for us." Antonia said, with a little laugh.
"Your children are darling." I complimented her.
Antonia looked even more pleased, if that were humanely possible. "Well I have to take all the credit on that one. They certainly don't take after Mark's side of the family. You might have noticed he's a little on the…"heavyset" side." She confided to me, finishing off the end of her glass of wine and looking at it disappointed that it hadn't somehow regenerated into another full glass.
"Erm…he is?" I said.
"Oh listen to you, you're just being polite. You can tell you're married to an Earl- sorry, a future Earl- with those impeccable good manners the English are known for. I can always pick a fellow lady." Antonia had said.
I decided not to ruin her illusion by telling her that my family had actually been the opposite of what she was imagining- that Mum had had to scrimp and save to make ends meet between Dad's paychecks and, after having my younger sister, had gone back to work full time, something she'd always felt bad about having to do. Our home had been small, cluttered, loud- as well it would with five children- but it had been one full of love. The first time I'd gone to Edgar's parent's home I'd been struck by the strange idea that his parents lived in a house, not a home, and that it looked like it wasn't even lived in. I thought that perhaps if Antonia knew my upbringing had been as it had that she might not want to be such close friends with me and, in a new city, I needed friends.
Antonia and I rejoined Mark and Edgar in the sitting room where they were involved in a lively discussion about the sub-prime lending crisis in America and the economic results for Australia. Antonia made a face. "Do you ever talk about anything not related to business darling?" She asked her husband.
Mark gave her an indulgent smile. "I promised no business talk at dinner didn't I? I wouldn't want to bore you two pretty ladies with that sort of thing." He said to her.
I hoped my face didn't reflect my thoughts. If Edgar had spoken to me like that he'd probably be wearing his drink right about then.
Antonia refilled her glass and then refilled mine. "So what do you think of our little place here?" She asked me, sitting down on one of the sofas.
"It's lovely." I said automatically.
"Isn't it? I did most of it myself. Mark was absolutely no help- like most men when it comes to decorating. He just gave me the money and free reign and I created a masterpiece." She said. Then she frowned slightly. "Actually I'm a little annoyed because one of my eldest friends- you'll have to meet her and the rest of the girls for lunch next week- saw what I did with this place and went and totally redecorated her own home. Now I know they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but one wants to be a little individualistic doesn't one?"
"Oh of course." I agreed.
One week later I stepped out of my parked car, ran around to the footpath, and hurried to take cover from the driving rain under the nearest shop awning. I should have grabbed an umbrella but when I'd left home the sky had looked only slightly dark and threatening and I didn't expect the weather to turn quite so suddenly. I was meeting Antonia and her "bestest friends" for lunch. The invitation had come a couple of days after Edgar and I had had dinner at the Lithgow home and I guessed it meant we'd passed the dinner test. By then Edgar was working full time hours- plus some- and I'd managed to get the children into a routine I thought was beginning to stick. I'd left all three with Mrs. Johnston again, feeling a little bad about abusing her easy-going nature but telling myself it would be different when Emmaline started school and Hugh began kindergarten the next week.
"Excuse me." A man said impatiently.
"What? Oh…sorry…" I stood aside, realizing I was partially blocking the door of the store. The middle aged man, looking harried in a business suit, went to step around me but I stopped him. "Sorry, but do you know where number 35 is? I can't quite seem to find it." I gave him my most helpless smile.
"35? What's at 35?" He asked.
"Erm somewhere called "Cashmeres" I believe. A restaurant." I answered.
The man laughed. "Well I'm not quite sure where that is but I can assure you this place isn't "Cashmeres". You could always ask inside." He suggested. He pulled the door open and stepped inside, and then held it for me.
I followed him inside and then stopped dead. The man was right- this most certainly was not "Cashmeres". It wasn't even a restaurant. It looked like it was…well…a sex shop. Against my will I felt my eyes wander around, past a whole cabinet of different kinds of vibrators, the sign at the back of the shop leading to the "Adult Videos Section", whips, leather concoctions of which I couldn't even begin to conceive of a use for, and a whole section for outfits- everything from the classic "naughty nurse" to cartoon charters. While I'm not Miss Innocent I'd never set foot in a sex shop before and I was torn between being intrigued at the lengths of depravity some people would go to and curious as to whether crotchless undies would be as uncomfortable as G-strings were. I even wondered whether an outfit would spice up my love life but somehow I didn't see Edgar Peter William Hampton-Novelle the fourth being told he was a "naughty boy" who needed spanking with a whip. Even my Hens Night had been pretty tame compared to some I'd attended for other friends. Of course that was primarily because Victoria insisted on attending and I'd made Anne promise to keep things on the sort of level a future Mrs. Hampton-Novelle would use.
"Lookin' for anything in particular?"
"Oh." I jumped, startled. "Sorry, not exactly, no…"
"Well are you looking for adult entertainment to watch with your fella or are you thinking more along the lines of some solo exploration?" The voice asked me.
I turned around. "Well, actually, I'm kind of...quite lost. I wonder if you can help me Miss…"
The woman laughed loudly. "Aren't you sweet? Pretendin' I look like a woman."
I almost blurted out "aren't you a woman?" when I realised that, clearly, this was not a woman. He was dressed in clothing that wouldn't have looked out of place in the movie "Priscilla Queen of the Desert", including platform shoes that made him tower over me, and his long red hair was obviously a wig. At least his makeup was flawless.
"I'm Sam. Now where are you meant to be?" Sam asked me.
I told him and he nodded, thoughtfully. "You have to go up to the end of the block. "Cashmeres" looks out over the wharf. It's a nice place. Classy. Good food. Or so I've heard." He looked bitter.
"You've never been?" I asked.
"No. They wouldn't let someone like me in there. Maybe you could tell me if the foods as good as the "2008 Good Food Guide" says it is?" He asked hopefully.
"Oh, of course I can." I promised him.
"Hey Sam, where's the "Busty Asian Blondes" section gone?" The man who had proceeded me into the store yelled from the other section.
"It's after the "Manga" section and before the "Large Slutty Slovakians" section." Sam called back.
"Whats wrong with the alphabet that's what I want to know? If it's been good enough to last and work since 700 B.C why's this place suddenly too good for the ABC?" The man's grumbled complaint reached us.
Sam rolled his heavily mascarared eyelashes. "Gotta' go love. Enjoy your meal." He told me.
I assured him I would and walked back outside. Stepping onto the footpath, pulling the door closed behind me, I was given a dirty look by an elderly woman who was walking a poodle. "I'm just…lost…" I said feebly.
"Weak, very weak." She said, her nose high in the hair.
I sighed and then followed Sam's directions down the block to the restaurant. I stepped inside the foyer and shook my hair. I'd spent an hour with the hair straightener that morning- one of the curses of my thick brown hair is that it takes a long time to style- but just from a few moments of rain I was sure it had already begun to frizz. Luckily the shirt dress I was wearing was dark and my knee-high boots had stopped muddy water from being sprayed up my legs. I stepped up to the front counter. "Hi, how are you? I'm meeting friends here." I said to the girl standing behind it.
She held a finger up for a moment and continued writing whatever it was she was writing. Then she closed the book and looked at me. "Name?" She asked.
"I'm Sophie. Sophie Hampton-Novelle." I answered.
The girl gave me the sort of look people give slow children. "Not your name, the party's name?"
"Um…I guess Lithgow? Antonia Lithgow?" I responded.
"Mrs. Lithgow is already here. I'll show you to her table. No coat or umbrella to check?" The girl asked me.
"No." I said.
I was led through the restaurant- which was about half-full- to a table beside the window. The competing smells of various meals wafted into my nostrils and I felt my stomach grumble a reminder that I hadn't had anything more substantial than a cup of lukewarm tea and half a piece of toast with raspberry jam to eat.
Antonia was busily texting on her mobile but when I arrived she sent the message and tucked the phone back into her small clutch handbag. "Hello Sophie. I was beginning to think you got lost. Did you find the place okay?" She asked me.
"Yes fine." I said, not needing to tell her about the little detour into the sex shop.
The girl who had shown me across the room turned and walked away again and I pulled a chair out and sat down. I put my bag down on the floor and smiled brightly at my new friend. "The others aren't here yet?"
Antonia frowned. "No. Betsy's always late though. Last year I spent a small fortune on a lovely DKNY watch for her thinking that perhaps it would help her make her appointments on time and while she never takes the thing off she still refuses to be on time." She told me. "Jessamyn tells me she had an appointment with you and Edgar."
"News travels fast." I said surprised.
"It does indeed. The grapevine has nothing on Sydney." Antonia responded. "So what was the outcome?"
"We managed to get Emmaline into Saint Augustine's and Hugh into the kindergarten attached to the school. And we're waitlisted for Cranbrook and The Kings School for Hugh and PLC, Kambala and Danebank for Emmaline." I told her.
Antonia looked impressed despite herself. "They're all pretty good schools. I'm surprised there were spots at Augustine's. You must just have good timing." She said.
I smiled politely. The truth of the matter was that while Jessamyn had got Edgar and I appointments with the respective principals it had been his name and title and a rather generous donation that had gotten the children into the school. And helped them possibly jump the list a bit for the next school year at the top Sydney private schools.
"So," Antonia said, her voice conspiratorial, "before the girls get here let me give you the goss. But as every woman worth her salt knows a good gossip session is naught without a drink." She summoned a passing waiter. "Could we have some wine while we're waiting on our dining companions?"
"Of course Madam. Would you like me to recommend a wine or do you have a particular one in mind?" The waiter asked deferentially.
"A Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley would go down nicely." Antonia decided for the both of us.
The waiter nodded and hurried off.
"I probably shouldn't have a drink. I've got to pick the kids up-"
Antonia waved my concerns aside. "If no good gossip session is complete without wine then heaven knows no good lunch is either." She said.
The waiter returned in quick time with the wine and poured us both a glass. "If you need me don't hesitate to call." He said.
Antonia rolled her eyes at his back. "You would think that a place like this, with such a famous chef, would have staff a few rungs higher up the evolutionary ladder wouldn't you? Did you see that imbecilic girl at the front desk? And of course I won't hesitate to ask the wait staff if I require to be waited on…" She sighed loudly.
Personally I didn't see the problem but rather than argue it with Antonia I took a small sip of my wine.
"First of the girls is Margaret- Maggie- Chalmers. I've known her since I was seventeen, we did our Deb Ball at the same time, and she's a lovely woman but she's a little vague sometimes. She's the one I told you about who is now renovating her home. I think she's thinking of starting some kind of interior design business because someone made the mistake of telling her she had the flair for that kind of thing. She spent a tonne of money on a loft in Surry Hills which she calls her "studio" and she spends most of her time there "creating art" whatever that means. She gave me a painting last year for Christmas and honestly it was hideous. Of course I had to pretend to love it and ever since she's always giving me little pieces as tokens of her friendship. Her husband Kenneth is a top QC, in line for a job on the New South Wales Supreme Court bench any time now. They've just bought a weekender up in Port Douglas and Kenneth flies them up there in his Cessna regularly. I've been trying to convince Mark to learn to fly and buy a small plane himself but he's really quite a nervous flyer. I hate that Maggie seems to think just because Kenneth can fly them wherever they want to go that they're better than us. Maggie and Kenneth have two children, twin boys, who are absolute monsters. With Maggie living in dream world most of the time and Kenneth being so busy with work that he looks to compensate by doting on them most outrageously they get away with anything and everything. I can't abide women who have children and are then too afraid to discipline them, too afraid to say no, can you?" Antonia shook her head and paused to take a decent sip of her wine.
"Well I suppose children do need to know their limits." I offered.
"Exactly!" Antonia looked pleased that I got it. "Then there's Betsy Conners-Halifax. She's a little older than us but she used to be married to Mark's university roommate. She's on her third marriage and this one's already in his late sixties. With each successive marriage she's bagged a richer man. Collin's Professor of Trauma at the Royal Alfred Hospital and due for retirement at the end of the year. They've been planning on going on a round-the-world holiday only somehow the silly woman managed to get herself pregnant again. Just when her two children were almost in high school and she's going to have to go through the weight gain, the horrible cravings, the dieting and the sleepless nights all over again. Needless to say Collin's children from his first marriage are not happy. They're imagining their inheritances getting smaller by the second. Spoilt brats that they are. Betsy's tried to be a friend to them- she even drove Kristin to rehab after she got hooked on cocaine and acted as her "sober sister" for the program- but I don't know why she bothers."
Antonia took another sip of her wine and I saw she'd almost finished while I had hardly touched mine. I felt like that was a little impolite so I drank another mouthful.
"Last, but definitely not least, is Stephanie Moore. She used to be a tennis player; she was actually pretty good, made the finals at Wimbledon twice and the Australian Open once. Unfortunately she hurt her knee and had to retire early so she never got a major title to her name. She's the baby of the bunch- or so she'll tell you but she's only a year or two younger than I am- and she's also our ugly duckling. The silly thing didn't realise that you can't eat the same way after you retire from sport as you do while you're playing so she stacked on the kilos. She's always on a diet. Usually a liquid diet if you know what I mean."
"Oh like a soup diet?" I asked, nodding.
"What? No. I'm talking about alcohol. She's pretty fond of the drink." Antonia corrected me, a small frown on her face at my dimness.
I seized on that excuse. "Well then shouldn't we not be drinking wine? It might be too tempting and a little too cruel." I said.
"Nonsense." Antonia said shaking her head emphatically. "I think that, as her friends, it's actually our duty to drink in front of her."
"Erm…it is?" I was confused.
"Think about it. If you can't rely on your friends to support you during your hard times then you can't rely on anyone can you? Besides the way she and her politician hubby flit about the social scene here she's always surrounded by alcohol so she needs to learn to be strong. I'm just doing my bit to help her with that inner strength." Antonia told me. She actually sounded proud of her logic and involvement.
"Oh. Okay." I said, suitably chastened.
"Stephanie and Harold have a weekender down at Nowra." Antonia said. She made it sound like "Nowra" was a dirty word.
"I'm afraid I don't quite know where Nowra is…" I had to admit.
Antonia laughed. "Well isn't that just the point? Actually it's really quite picturesque but it's hardly worthy of bragging. Anyway Stephanie and Harold have got five children. Five! Can you imagine that? No wonder she's always eating the wrong kinds of food and has vodka stashed in every room in the house." Antonia told me.
"Five would certainly be a handful." I agreed.
"Thank heavens for the nanny. That's all I can say. Which reminds me have you looked into nannies yet? It can be incredibly bothersome finding someone you trust enough to look after your precious children. Oh the nanny horror stories I could tell you! A woman I play squash with hired an Eastern European nanny who could have been a swimsuit model. Not surprisingly her husband ended up running off with the nanny leaving her alone with the children and no help. Dreadful. That's why I always say you should never, ever hire an attractive nanny. Besides the fact that it reduces the temptation for your husband I think ugly women make better nannies than pretty women do, it's virtually a proven fact. Maybe it's because they know they'll never have children themselves so they care more for your children than pretty women do…" Antonia mused.
I stared at her. Was she serious?
"And another friend of mine hired this young woman who had a degree in primary teaching and a Masters in early childhood development so, on paper, she was perfectly qualified. But it turned out the minute she was alone with the kids she turned on the television for them, stuffed them full of junk food, and spent her time pretending to actually be my friend. She even wore her underwear! Poor Caitlyn was devastated when she found out and when she fired her the woman had the nerve to take her to some unfair dismissals tribunal. The case is still pending. And the nanny stole some pretty expensive jewelry too." Antonia looked like she was quite warming up to her subject.
"After that book came out, "The Nanny Diaries" everyone started acting like nannies were the most terribly paid, overworked, poor group of people ever. Someone should write a book about us instead, about how hard it is to be a good mother these days when you've got children on different schedules to account for virtually every second of their time." Antonia continued.
That made me think, for the second time since meeting Antonia Lithgow, about whether I was a good parent. My children didn't have schedules for various lessons and classes. They'd come home from school and I'd be there, not a nanny, and we'd decide whether to go outside and play sports or to try some art, depending on what they wanted to do. And, while I had been brought up in front of the television like many English women of my generation who would eat tea in front of the telle every night, I didn't see a problem with children being allowed to watch the television provided it wasn't used as a babysitter. Actually I was quite fond of "Sesame Street", "The Teletubbies" and my children's new Australian favourites "The Wiggles" and "Hi 5."
"Antonia darling! So sorry we're late." A woman with bleached blonde hair and a stern-looking power suit arrived at the table. She was obviously somewhere in her middle trimester but apart from her baby bump she didn't have any weight on her anywhere. I felt a little jealous considering when I had been carrying each of my children I'd put on weight everywhere- around the stomach, hips, breasts, the neck and ankles.
Just behind her, slightly out of breath, was a rotund woman with thick curly hair who was carrying a couple of shopping bags. She kept tugging uncomfortably at the blouse she was wearing over black trousers.
"You're late?" Antonia made a show of looking at her watch. "We hadn't noticed."
The first woman leant down and kissed Antonia's cheek and the second woman followed suit. "Liar. Of course you noticed. Bad news about Maggie. She can't make it. But she sends her apologies and she says she can't wait to meet your new English friend." She said. Then she turned to me. "Hello. I'm Betsy Conners-Halifax."
"Sophie." I said, extending my hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Betsy shook my hand. "I just love your accent. English accents are so in."
"Oh. Thanks…" I said, not quite sure how to take the knowledge that my accent was "in".
Betsy sat down and Stephanie greeted me before sitting beside me. She sighed loudly as she got comfortable. "God I'm ravenous. I had to go to only about a million stores before I found an outfit for Julie's wedding. I could do with a drink." She said, looking at Antonia and my glasses.
"Now we're not going to be your enablers Stephie. We've talked about this." Betsy said sternly.
"I fail to see how one tiny little drink can do any damage." Stephanie said.
"But it won't be just one will it? That's just like Kristin telling me that she only did coke to keep her weight down like all the models do. If it's good enough for Kate Moss than it's good enough for Kristin Halifax." Betsy said.
The waiter arrived at our table and Antonia and Betsy both asked for some more wine. Stephanie asked for a diet coke and I asked for a lemon squash. "Oh and can we please have the non-carbs menu?" Antonia asked.
"Of course." The waiter said as he left.
Antonia looked at me. "You don't eat carbs, do you?" She asked. The look on her face was akin to the expression one might have whilst asking, "You don't eat kittens or puppies do you?"
"Erm…no." I guessed. I was still anxious to make a good impression.
"Good call. We don't spend hours at the gym just to ruin all the hard work with bread or rice or pasta or potatoes do we? And that reminds me Sophie I'm going to get you into our gym. It's the best in the entire city. Everyone who's anyone goes there." Antonia told me.
"Thanks." I said. I had never been one of those people who list "going to the gym" as one of their hobbies or one of their favourite things to do. I didn't see the appeal in getting sweaty and comparing yourself to some of the women who could run on the treadmill for over an hour without getting a single hair out of place. I also always felt uncomfortable when I saw women at the gym who wore trendy designer clothing and had a full face of makeup for their workout. The only concession I made was to get involved in Pilates not long after Hugh had been born. Otherwise I counted my exercise as chasing three active children around and going for a walk or to the local park to play when the weather permitted.
The waiter returned with the no-carbs menu and we perused it.
"Before you arrived we were talking about nannies. Sophie here hasn't got one yet so I thought I'd recommend "Little Darlings Agency". We've had a nanny from there for nearly four months now and Mark and I couldn't be happier with him." Antonia said.
"You've got a male nanny?" Betsy looked intrigued.
"Yes." Antonia looked annoyed. "Betsy you've met him. You know him."
Betsy laughed. "God my brain's so totally fried with pregnancy. And with Collin's children's dramas. Sorry." She said. "A male nanny, now that's a unique idea."
"Oh no," Antonia assured us, "it's totally all the rage in Hollywood to hire a many. They're the must-have accessory now. I loved Joanie, I did, but she just didn't know how to handle Nikita at all."
"Call me old fashioned but I just think a nanny has to be a woman." Stephanie said staunchly. "Preferably a fat one so your husband doesn't end up screwing around with her."
The waiter brought back the drinks and we all ordered our meals: an entrée size Caesar Salad for Antonia, Pumpkin Soup for Stephanie, Atlantic Salmon for Betsy and a Garden Salad for myself.
After the waiter had left Antonia continued on her topic. She pursed her lips and looked a bit pissed off that Stephanie had dared to contradict her, the Queen Bee. "Well if a many is good enough for Brittany Spears than its good enough for me…" She said, huffily.
I didn't dare point out the fact that Brittany Spears was hardly the best advertisement for mum-of-the-year material. More like a giant walking billboard for rehab.
I received the royal seal of approval from the Queen Bee of the Sydney society Mum's and, by extension, her best friends, all equally powerful women in this brave new world I had stepped into. Over the next few months I was given a crash course in where to go, where not to go, where to shop, who to talk to, who not to talk to, in short, I was taught how to be a "yummy mumzilla" as Antonia and her friends took me under their wings. Although I still regularly felt like I was living in a completely alternative universe- one where "doing lunch" was more important than picking your child up from school. One where not eating and spending long stretches of time at the gym was de rigor. One where new beauty and health treatments were all fads more worthy of the time of a "yummy mumzilla" then spending quality time with your children. I sometimes felt like a backwards child, always struggling to catch up on things, but without Antonia, Maggie, Betsy and Stephanie I would have been adrift in this strange new world. And, considering what the coming months had in store for me, I'd be expecting their help more than I expected I ever would.