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An Exclusive Extract From Winning at Life




‘MUM! Ava keeps showing me her vagina.’ For approximately the three thousandth time that long, hot day, it appeared World War Three was threatening to break out. Wearily, Gemma left the dinner she was preparing and headed up the stairs. ‘What’s going on, guys? I told you, you need to get your stuff ready.’

‘And I’m trying to get my stuff ready, but Ava keeps coming into my bedroom with her vagina hanging out, and I don’t want her to,’ Sam retorted grumpily.

‘Ava.’ There was no response. ‘Can you come here, please. Sam, I’m sure she’s not really—’

‘It’s not a vagina, Sam. Vaginas don’t hang out. It’s my VULVA,’ Ava announced loudly. Not for the first time, Gemma really really wished her seven-year-old daughter came with an inbuilt volume control.

To be fair to Sam, he wasn’t entirely wrong, Gemma decided as Ava appeared with rather too much on display beneath the summer dress she had attempted to squeeze herself into.

Gemma ran her hands across her face. ‘Ava, what are you doing? Go and find some proper school uniform that fits. And where are your pants?’

‘This is my proper school uniform.’ Ava looked appraisingly at herself in the hall mirror. ‘I think it might be a bit short.’

‘A BIT? Ava, you told me last week that you definitely had all your uniform ready for going back to school. So what’s happened?’

Ava stared back at her mum mutinously. ‘Nothing’s happened. I have got all my uniform, and here it is. And  I am not wearing any pants, because the only pants left are the ones that Granny bought me, and they’re PINK.’ She looked appalled at the very concept of pink pants.

Gemma buried her head in her hands and let out a groan. It didn’t  matter how hard she tried, it seemed  she was destined to spend the last day of the holidays trapped in her own personal Groundhog Day, as she once again proved herself to be miserably lacking in the key parenting skills of basic preparation and organisation.

She turned her attention to the problem at hand. ‘Okay. Ava, you cannot have actually grown that much over the last six weeks. Let’s go and have a look in your wardrobe. And Sam: congratulations, now that you’re about to start Year 6, it’s officially your responsibility to go through the festering hideousness that is the interior of your book bag. Personally, I suggest you tip the whole lot out and put it straight into the bin. Maybe even burn it. Just check there’s nothing important you need for tomorrow, yes?’

Taking her daughter by the hand, Gemma walked across the landing and attempted to open her bedroom door.

‘Ava, what’s  the  matter  with  your  door?  Why  isn’t it opening?’

‘Um.’ Ava looked vague. ‘Maybe because there is something in the way of it.’

‘Like what? There can’t be much, can there? You were sent up to tidy your room nearly two hours ago.’

With renewed efforts, Gemma pushed harder on the door, which resisted for a moment longer before flying open with a crash, revealing a scene of absolute chaos.

‘AVA! What the hell is all this?’ Gemma didn’t know where to begin; her daughter’s bedroom looked like what you’d be left with if a branch of Hobbycraft exploded inside the Chelsea FC merchandise shop.

‘I was making . . . stuff,’ replied Ava, returning to the spot in the middle of the floor where she’d clearly been sitting. Almost eleven years of parenting had made it abundantly clear to Gemma that, when you asked your child to go and tidy their room, what they would actually do was one of three things:


A – Ignore you.

B – Go and sit vacantly in the middle of the mess.

C – Become distracted by a new toy they had found and end up actually causing more chaos than they’d started with.


In a personal record, it seemed that Ava had elected to combine all three of these options.

‘Okay.’ Tempting though it was to completely lose it, Gemma had learnt the hard way that all losing it generally resulted in was it taking even longer to achieve the desired outcome. Tentatively, she stepped over two footballs and a pile of Match Attax cards before making it to Ava’s wardrobe. ‘Let’s have a look and see what we can find.’

It transpired that Ava had somehow managed to find one of her old Year R dresses and put it on; to her relief Gemma found two perfectly suitable summer dresses in age 7–8, which would both preserve her daughter’s modesty and ensure that she wasn’t going to end up hauled in to see the headmistress on Sam and Ava’s first day back at school. She found at least five pairs of (non-pink) pants, not in Ava’s pants drawer but stuffed down the side of her bedside table. ‘Ava?’ Gemma looked stern. ‘Why are these pants here?

They should be in your drawer. I told you to make sure you put your washing away nicely.’

‘Well,’ Ava put her hands on her hips, ‘you tell me and Sam to do that, but then you leave all of your clothes piled up on that chair in your bedroom. So I don’t think that’s very fair, do you? You are a . . . a . . . you are a hypnotist.’

Attempting to explain to Ava the difference between a hypocrite and a hypnotist, Gemma was caught somewhere between extreme exasperation and laughing so much her pelvic floor was in jeopardy. Finally she cleared a path through the debris covering the carpet so that she could at least get back out of the room without a pair of football studs puncturing the sole of her foot. Anyone who said that football wasn’t a dangerous sport had clearly never stood on a sole-up football boot left in the hallway as they’d returned home after one too many Jägerbombs on a night out.

Ava now sorted, Gemma went back to check on Sam. He was sitting where she’d left him; to her delighted surprise he’d actually followed her instructions and had indeed tipped out the contents of his book bag into his lap. She recoiled slightly; was part of it moving?

‘Great, well done, love. Everything for the bin, yes?

There wasn’t anything that you needed?’

‘Um.’ Her son was clearly trying to avoid meeting her eye. ‘It’s just . . . Mum, if I tell you something, will you promise that you won’t be cross?’

Ah, the million-dollar question. If Gemma had learnt nothing else over the years, it was that a request from her son to promise that she wouldn’t be cross was almost inevitably followed by him telling her something that was going to make her very cross indeed.

‘Go on then.’ She sighed. ‘Hit me with it. What have we not done that we were supposed to have done? Made a scale model of the Eiffel Tower out of vegetables? Taken a trip to Egypt to personally visit Tutankhamun’s tomb? Translated the complete works of William Shakespeare into Sanskrit?’ Sam took a deep breath. ‘No. It’s worse than that. I was meant to write a diary. Every day for the whole of the holidays. I had to write at least a side of A4 about what we got up to each day, and if I haven’t done it then I have to go and help out every morning break time in the Key Stage One playground.’ He looked appalled at the very prospect.

‘Mum, help me. What are we going to do?’

‘Or he might get expelled,’ Ava said brightly, popping her head around the door.

Oh, fuck Gemma’s actual fucking life.


Four hours later, Gemma collapsed on the sofa, exhausted. Having finally managed to get the children into bed – all that could now be heard was the rustle of pages from Sam devouring yet another Tom Gates book, and Ava happily belting out to the neighbourhood she was a ‘SWEET TRANSVESTITE’ (which would teach Gemma to have added the Rocky Horror soundtrack to her Spotify playlist) – she was quite honestly ready for bed herself. Gemma vehemently disapproved of homework, particularly when it required her involvement. She had been all set to send Sam in with a strident note for his teacher, explaining precisely why he hadn’t completed his diary, because he had been spending his holiday having fun, and not even thinking about fronted adverbials, or any of the other Government-sponsored bullshit that would no doubt be looming large in his SATS.

Sam, however, had proved surprisingly resistant, saying that he didn’t want her to embarrass him; that he just wanted to get on and do the diary. If Gemma had known that the way to get her frequently recalcitrant son to ditch the three hours of procrastinating and actually do the work he’d been sent home with was simply to embarrass him . . . she’d have been threatening to run down the street starkers years ago.

The problem was, there were only so many ways you could write ‘Today I sat around in my pants and stared at a computer screen’ and make it sound interesting. Gemma wanted to throw herself face down on the ground and wail at the very thought of the Competitive  Parenting  that would be going on via the Year 6 diaries. She had blocked notifications from the class Facebook page over the summer; it had turned out to be an inspired move. Bar the fact that, had she not, she might at least have found out about the requirement for Sam to complete a daily diary slightly more than twenty-four hours before the end of the school holidays.

A quick glance at the Year 6 parents’ page showed that she wasn’t wrong: Vivienne (Alpha Mummy of Redcoats Primary School) and her coven were falling over themselves to outdo each other with anecdotes of what their various offspring had been up to each day.

‘SUCH fun writing up Tartan’s diary entry tonight. We jumped on the Eurostar and had a Mummy-and-Tartan day in gay Paree! Simply fabulous! Kiss kiss!’

It had been Ava who had come up with the bright idea that they should simply lie about what Sam had been doing. ‘Let’s just pretend, Mummy, that Sam is really interesting and isn’t just a smelly boy who sits in his dressing gown all day and scratches his HAIRY BALLS. I know,  Sam, you  can write in your diary and tell Mr Andrews all about your HAIRY BALLS.’ At which point Gemma had to physically take hold of her daughter by the shoulders and tell her to sit down and be quiet before she laughed so much she made herself throw up.

Uncomfortable though she was with suggesting to her children that any kind of untruth was okay, Gemma was able to get herself comfortable with the plan by explaining to Sam and Ava that they would treat the diary as a piece of creative writing. ‘After all, it’s not like most of the other parents won’t have used a bit of artistic licence,’ Gemma told them. ‘When Tartan tells you he’s been to Iceland, Sam, it’s far more likely that he’s talking about the supermarket than the country.’

‘Yes, and we can think of MUCH more interesting places for you to have gone to, Sam,’ shrieked Ava in delight. There was no love lost between Ava and Vivienne’s off- spring. Last year, Ava had unmasked Satin, Vivienne’s daughter, also in Ava’s class, as having been deeply unpleasant to Rosie, Ava’s friend who lived next door to them. Thrilled at the thought of Sam getting one over on Tartan, she now came up with an increasingly outlandish series of places that Sam could have conceivably visited, from the vaguely plausible Buckingham Palace to the completely preposterous ‘backstage at a Beatles concert on an island in the middle of the SOLAR SYSTEM’. Gemma filtered, Sam wrote, and between them they managed to blitz the entire summer’s diary in just under four hours.

It would, Gemma declared, go down as one of her all-time parenting triumphs.

Dozing in front of the TV, thinking she really should go and fire up her laptop and answer a couple of emails before going back to work the next day, her eyes snapped open at the sound of a knock on the front door. It would be Tom; he had promised to stop in at hers that night to let her know how the pre-term inset day had gone.

Tom and Gemma had met when Tom had started at Redcoats last year, as Ava’s Year 2 teacher. Persistent efforts by Becky – Gemma’s best friend and next-door neighbour – had led to romance blossoming, and the two of them had been pretty much inseparable since Gemma’s fortieth birthday at the start of the summer.

‘Hello, love.’ Tom put down his bag and pulled her into an embrace. ‘How was your day?’

Gemma’s attempt to reply was interrupted by a stern command to ‘STOP HAVING SEX. STOP IT RIGHT

NOW’, from the top of the stairs. In Ava’s mind, the acts of kissing and having sex were somewhat confused, leading to the memorable moment when she’d announced to Gemma’s parents over lunch at theirs that ‘Mummy and Tom were having sex IN THE STREET’ and Gemma’s mum had almost choked on her beef stroganoff.

A belligerent Ava was put back to bed – ‘but you were having sex with Mr Jones, I saw you’ (goodness, Tom was going to have some fun in the school playground tomorrow as Ava regaled everyone she came across with that little anecdote). By the time Gemma returned downstairs Tom had poured them both a glass of wine, and held out his arm for her to curl up next to him on the sofa.

‘If that little interchange was in any way representative of your day, I’m surprised there’s any wine left in this bottle,’ he said with a smile.

Gemma laughed. ‘It hasn’t been that bad. I mean . . . there was the minor matter of having to complete an entire summer’s homework in the space of four hours.’ She looked at him sternly. ‘Surely one of the benefits of dating a teacher from your kids’ school is that you might think to give me the heads-up on this kind of thing!’ Tom had the good grace to look vaguely mortified. ‘Don’t worry; it’s all sorted now. I’ve even managed to find Ava a school dress that doesn’t make her look like a call girl. Frankly, I am absolutely smashing it right now.’

Tom smiled. ‘Good. I’m glad one of us is. Because I have had a total fucker of a day.’

Gemma turned in her seat, twisting so that she could look directly at him. ‘Why? What’s happened?’

Tom took another slug of his wine. ‘I don’t entirely know where to begin. I arrive at school this morning, and Sharon – Mrs Goldman – is going absolutely out of her mind. As you know, Ava’s class were due to be getting a new teacher this year. The Year 3 teacher that the school had employed – a Miss Collins, apparently – hasn’t been responding to Sharon’s calls or emails. Then today, she simply didn’t turn up. I’d say she’s decided not to take the job at all, which means Sharon’s going to have no choice but to step in and teach Year 3 herself. As you can probably imagine, hands-on teaching is not really her forte. She’s beside herself, and I can’t say I blame her. One year of that particular class was quite enough for me.’

He winked, and Gemma could see him remembering the time he’d spent in charge of Ava’s class, who had once been described by their previous teacher, a Miss Thompson, in an unguarded moment after one too many mulled wines at the school Nativity, as ‘feral, like bloody animals’. It was not an unfair assessment.

‘Oh, goodness.’ Gemma imagined a show-down between her daughter and Mrs Goldman: two of the most strong-willed individuals she’d ever met. ‘I guess that must have thrown the day’s plans out a bit.’

Tom laughed, a slightly hysterical laugh, and took another sip of his wine. ‘Oh no, that’s nothing, not in the grand scheme of things. Because you see the other thing that I haven’t mentioned to you . . . is that someone tried to burn down the school.’

‘WHAT?’ Gemma was horrified. ‘What do you mean, someone tried to burn down the  school?  Who  would do that? They didn’t succeed, though, right? It’s still standing?’

Tom shook his head. ‘Not all of it, no. Most of the main building’s okay, but the Year 3 and 4 classrooms are damaged pretty much beyond repair. You should see the state of them. It’s awful. Mr Cook was the first on the scene, as caretaker he called the fire brigade and then did his best with the extinguishers on site, but it would have been like pissing on an inferno. Whoever set out to do it clearly wasn’t messing around.’

‘So what’s going to happen?’ Her hand to her mouth, Gemma could hardly believe what she was hearing. ‘Will the children be able to go back to school?’ Concerned though she was about the future of Redcoats, if she was completely honest, a large percentage of her horror was solely down to the thought she might be stuck with the kids for a few more weeks. Gemma had once had a dream that she had decided to home educate Ava and Sam; she’d woken up sweating and actually screaming out loud for help, and had been too scared to go back to sleep for the rest of the night.

Tom nodded. ‘Sharon’s arranged for two mobile classrooms to be set up, so short term, they’re all sorted. The site has been made safe. Longer term, though, I really don’t know. The LEA will be coming in next week,  they  need to understand how much the repairs are going to cost and then talk to us about funding them.’ He looked worried. ‘It’s not going to be cheap, that’s  for sure. Honestly. What  a start to the school year.’

You could say that again, thought Gemma to herself. You could say that again.