By Jude Bridge
I became Ben Patterson’s Stand-In when he was ten years old and I was fifteen. Like Ben, I was small, dark-haired and wiry. Unlike Ben, I was female and didn’t come from a bells and whistles background. The job was part-time. Ben paid me with his pocket money. I learned to play football and he stayed home to become Master Death Destroyer Level Seven from the comfort of his laptop. Football was fun, as I played exclusively with Stand-Ins my own age or older. None of the boys who employed us participated in the football matches. They did, however, attend the awards ceremonies and accept their prizes. I won a ‘most improved’ and ‘best and fairest’ trophy for Ben. His parents – slick blonde Samantha and smooth Bradley – were thrilled with Ben’s football prowess and expressed their interest in using me further. Good Stand-Ins were hard to come by that year. An alarmingly large percentage had been arrested on charges of doing their own thing. If there’s one thing a Stand-In should never, ever do, it’s their own thing.
Samantha offered me full-time work, which I accepted. My mum was keen for me to get out of their house and, most importantly, out of my room. She wanted to hire a live-in Stand-In of her own, now that Dad’s health was deteriorating and she was becoming increasingly involved with the bridge club and the bridge club president. So I went to live with the Pattersons. Every day, I was given a list of duties. Less regular tasks were written on my wall calendar, which hung next to the dog’s personal planner in the kitchen. Gigantor went to doggy day care most days and had an active social calendar on weekends. I protected the house for her, barking and checking the front yard for intruders. Another of my tasks was to fetch the newspaper for Grandma and curl up on the rug while she read it. Grandma would rub me behind the ears or tickle me under the chin. If I was really lucky, she’d scratch my tummy with her foot.
Gigantor was the easiest member of the family to Stand-In for. She was a happy, friendly dog, with no emotional problems.
Not so, Samantha. She was hard work. When I stood in for her in the evenings, I had to switch from interested to suspicious to despairing to coldly calculating to hysterical to charming-wife-and-mother to bitch-from-hell, sometimes within half-an-hour. She was a woman with more sides than a fancy restaurant.
Samantha held a high-powered position in Foreign Affairs, of which she had plenty. Her French was as fluent as her Greek. Bradley preferred domestic affairs, with large local lasses. So Bradley and Samantha/me fought over the lies, infidelity and general worthlessness of the other party. Bradley had to be there in person during the arguments, which he wasn’t happy about.
Unfortunately for him, Samantha held the purse strings and wasn’t prepared to shell out for another Stand-In to take his place. Two, or even multiple, Stand-Ins were often hired by wealthy families. One such family in our neighbourhood found that their Stand-Ins were doing such a good job of being them that they relocated to Florida and let the Stand-Ins get on with it. But not so the Pattersons. Standing-in for Samantha was my top priority and as creator of the hierarchy, she didn’t let me forget it. Next in line was Ben, then Grandma, then Gigantor, then Bradley. The cocaine-snorting, bourbon-drinking poor-excuse-for-a husband did most of his own dirty work. I appreciated this because I’d stood-in for him a few times to break up with a large local lass and still bore the scars.
Despite Bradley’s personality, Samantha insisted that they have another child because she was forty-two and forty-two was the new black for giving birth. They did all the sex themselves, which was a relief, as I hadn’t had any sexual training and wasn’t sure what was what.
I heard the sounds of love (yelling, screaming and swearing) coming from their bedroom while I was wrestling with Ben’s algebra homework and was curious, as well as confused. Sex was much quieter on television, and less angry.
Instead of the sex, I did morning sickness, weight gain, haemorrhoids, anaemia and the birth. Samantha did the yoga, massages and supplements. Occasionally I had a break from intense back pain when Samantha paraded her baby bump to the media and her friends. But as soon as she had the merest flicker of discomfort, the ball was passed back to me.
Samantha didn’t make it to the birth as she was attending a peace conference in Geneva at the time. She did, however, see the birth on YouTube, so that was almost as good and much less bloody. After the harrowing labour and an emergency caesarean, Baby Diana was placed on my chest. She was pink and soft and plump, with a fine fuzz of light hair and perfect little fingers and fingernails. Baby Diana was so well crafted you knew that if there were a God, he/she had spent quite some time sculpting this baby.
Ten seconds later, they snatched Baby Diana away from me and gave her to Bradley, who was higher than a Boeing 747.
Baby Diana was added to my daily task list. She’d be out in her pram with Samantha, smiling and looking cute. I’d be home crapping myself and resisting changing my diapers, crying, burping and refusing to go to sleep.
It all became too much for me. There were too many of them. Physically, I was a wreck. My eyes were bloodshot and stinging as I was unable to wear my glasses when I did Ben’s homework (his parents didn’t want his eyesight to deteriorate). There was only a thin film of enamel left on my teeth as I brushed for everyone at night.
My digestive system was a mess. To prevent Bradley getting a hangover, I’d down homemade liquid hangover remedies in the morning along with big plates of greasy bacon and eggs. Ben needed several serves of vegetables a day to keep pimples away away, so that was my lunch. Samantha gorged on chocolate, cakes and desserts at night, so I ate dry crackers for dinner to maintain her svelte figure.
The problems weren’t just physical. Some days I forgot who I was supposed to be. I’d bottle-feed Ben and be polite to Bradley. Samantha noticed I was losing track of family members when she came home to find Baby Diana gnawing on a bone in the garden and Gigantor playing Soldiers of Dog on Ben’s laptop. When she answered the phone, it was Ben’s school. The principal asked if someone could come and pick up Grandma as she was disrupting the class.
Samantha decided I needed a break and organised a cruise. When I told her I had no idea what to do on holiday, she said I wasn’t supposed to do anything, that was the whole point. Just relax, she said. Swim, sleep, drink cocktails, have sex. I asked if these things were fun. Bradley didn’t seem to be having much fun when he was drunk. He became quite nasty. And as for the sex, from what I’d heard during their baby making, it sounded painful. Samantha assured me that drinking and sex were fun, if you didn’t overdo it, and you were with the right person.
My first day on the ship, I copied the other passengers. Sitting on a lounger in my bikini, by the pool, with a cocktail, I drifted into a doze behind my sunglasses. Next thing I knew, a handsome young man was talking to me. I gave him Bradley’s best ‘come hither’ look, fluttered my eyelashes à la Baby Diana and raised my top lip in Gigantor’s friendliest smile. The man miaowed hesitantly and introduced himself as Tom. I said that I was Samantha and patted the lounger next to me, as Grandma always did when she wanted furry company. Tom jumped up onto the seat and started a lovely deep purring, which intensified when I stroked his head.
We were a match made in heaven. Tom was a Stand-In for a devout Christian family, the Smiths. He did all the drinking, smoking, sex and general debauchery for them while they did good works, prayed and lived simply. Tom had developed so many addictions that the Smiths had sent him first to rehab, then on a cruise to get some rest.
Tom introduced me to sex, at which I discovered I was quite talented. We spent all our time together. Sometimes we stayed up all night, something we had both previously experienced in very different ways, me as as Baby Diana and Tom as as a crack whore.
When the cruise ended, Tom and I decided we wanted to be together, leave our jobs and develop our own personalities. Samantha begged me to keep working for her family. Everyone was falling apart, she said. Ben was failing his exams and Gigantor had eaten his laptop. Bradley couldn’t handle his hangovers so was now permanently drunk. But worst of all, Samantha said breathlessly, Baby Diana had taken matters into her own hands and was doing things for herself. I said I was sorry to hear about the family but I wanted to have my own life now. Samantha swore at me and said I’d never amount to anything.
Fifteen years later, when I had amounted to something, I saw Baby Diana when I was grocery shopping with my daughter. I recognised her immediately as she was the spitting image of her mother. Baby Diana was pushing a shopping trolley full of cakes, chocolate, bread, carrots, bacon and eggs. I introduced myself but she barked at me and ran away.