The Daughter – Lucy Dawson

I stop running. Everyone is shouting and my ears don’t like it. I want to go home. Mummy would say, ‘You poor bunny’, and make me a bed on the sofa. My body feels all hurty and hot. ‘Mrs Fey?’ I go and find her. ‘Can I take my jumper off, please?’ She does her nice smile and bends down. ‘It’s too cold out here, sweetheart. You should really have your coat on.’ ‘I feel hot.’ ‘That’s because you’ve already been doing so much rushing around! It’s not long until the end of playtime; why don’t you come and sit down for a minute?’ She reaches out and puts her hand on my head. ‘You do feel warm, actually. Do you?—’ But then she stops because someone calls her. Emily from the other class is crying next to the climbing frame, and she’s got sick all on her dress and on the floor. ‘Oh dear!’ Mrs Fey stands up again.

‘Just a minute, Beth, I’ll be right back.’ It’s gone on Emily’s shoes too. Everyone is looking, and the boys start shouting ‘Urgh! That’s really smelly!’, holding their noses, and falling over. Mrs Mottram gets cross and tells them not to be silly. We watch Mrs Fey and Mrs Mottram move the climbing frame away from the sick, and Cara whispers: ‘I’m going to hang upside down’, which we are not allowed to do. Cara climbs up really fast, then sits on the top bar, swings backwards and TAKES HER HANDS OFF so she’s hanging upside down, but Mrs Fey doesn’t say anything because Emily is still crying. Cara’s hair is all over her face and her dress has gone up. I can see her tights and a bit of her tummy where her vest isn’t. She looks funny and I laugh. ‘You do it!’ she says.

I really want to, and I don’t even feel hot any more now I’m not running. I start to climb up. The bars are colder even than when I go to the shop with Mummy and she gets the frozen peas to put in the trolley but lets me hold them first. It’s wobbly and slippy at the top when I sit next to Cara and I have to hold on hard. She thinks it’s funny to try and tickle me, which I do NOT like, and I ask her to stop it, but she doesn’t. I try to wriggle along the bar on my bottom, away from her, but she chases me. I take my hand off to stop her because she’s going to tickle me again – her hand is out – but then the sky goes the wrong way and the surprise makes me scream. Mummy. PART 1 CHAPTER ONE 22ND NOVEMBER 1999 I didn’t see the woman approaching our car. Nirvana had just started playing on the radio; the DJ crashing the vocal with the helpful observation that he couldn’t believe half a decade had passed since we’d lost the great Kurt Cobain to suicide.

I reached over immediately – Beth was only five – and turned it off, bracing myself for the inevitable ‘What’s suicide?’, but actually all she said was: ‘Can I undo my seatbelt, Mummy?’ ‘Yup. I’ll come and get you, hang on.’ I grabbed the book bag and drink bottle from the passenger seat, got out and walked round to the pavement. Opening her door, I put a hand out to steady her as she wobbled precariously on the edge in readiness to jump down. ‘Careful, sweetheart.’ I tucked the bottle in my coat pocket and the bag under one arm. ‘Let’s just zip you up first, OK? It’s freezing. Where are your gloves?’ She squinted up at me worriedly, the sharp sunshine shining right in her eyes. ‘I think I left them in my tray at school.’ ‘Oh Beth!’ I scolded gently, letting go of her now-fastened coat.

‘We talked about this! Always keep them in your pockets so you’ve got them when you need them. Will you please make sure you put them on at playtime?’ ‘Yes, Mummy.’ She nodded obediently. ‘At least you’ve got your hat.’ I grinned at her to lighten the tone. ‘Come on. Let’s go. We don’t want to be late. I’d better hold onto that paw to keep you warm, I think.’ I offered her my hand but she slipped past me, a little puff of breath visibly clouding as her feet landed squarely on the floor – her head only millimetres from the car door.

‘Beth!’ I exclaimed again before I could stop myself and, ignoring me, she snatched the bag that I was now holding out, ducked past and ran onto the enclosed grass of the square on the other side of the pavement, where she started to twirl, freely. I slammed the door shut, just as the female voice said: ‘Excuse me?’ I turned round with a ready apology, thinking I must be blocking the narrow pavement for someone trying to get by, but in fact the unfamiliar woman was on the road behind our car, astride an old-fashioned pushbike, complete with wicker basket. One lace-up clad foot was down on the road for balance as she panted slightly, having just stopped pedalling. I waited for her to speak again, but rather she hesitated and pushed her half-moon glasses back up her nose. Probably in her early forties, her mousey hair was escaping from a loose ponytail clamped under a helmet, and her soap-scrubbed skin was completely devoid of any make-up. The top of a button-down shirt was just visible under a long, heavy tweed coat and a tightly wound woollen scarf. She looked like an eminently sensible librarian. Still, I waited respectfully. Although – was she going to say anything? Just as the silence we were locked in became actively uncomfortable, and I had opened my mouth to ask, ‘Can I help you?’ she suddenly blurted: ‘I have the strongest feeling I need to tell you how much God loves your little girl.’ I froze, before recovering myself enough to quickly glance round at Beth – bent over, peering at something on the ground, safe and completely oblivious to what was going on.

I turned back to the woman. ‘I don’t know why, but it felt very important that you know.’ She appeared horribly embarrassed – as if she was not in the habit of making outlandish announcements to strangers. ‘That’s all, really.’ There was another pause, before I managed to say: ‘Thank you’. She looked relieved, and smiled, before pushing down with one foot on the pedal, and lifting the other from the ground. Wobbling slightly she steered the bike round the car, calling out behind her: ‘Goodbye, then’. I stared after her in astonishment, not sure if I should be expecting to see a delicate pair of snow-white angel wings poking out of the back of her coat, or if it was actually rather creepy the way it was now streaming out behind her like a dark cape. She cycled off up the street, and headed over the crossroads – onto the cobbled private road that led to the cathedral. Possibly she was a volunteer there.

‘Who was that?’ Beth appeared at my side, and we watched together as the woman took the left fork of the path, across the heavily frosted green, disappearing round the corner and out of sight. ‘I don’t know. Did you recognise her?’ We began to walk up towards the crossroads ourselves. ‘No.’ Beth shook her head. ‘Can we go and light a candle after school?’ ‘Of course.’ Taking Beth to light prayer candles in the cathedral was about the extent of my religious practice. I certainly didn’t consider myself in any way pious, although I very much wanted to believe in God, and there being more beyond this life. We reached the top of the road and I held out my hand to her again. This time, she took it.

‘Wow,’ I remarked. ‘You’ve got toasty little mitts today. Warm hands, warm heart!’ I looked carefully left and right, scanning the road as completely out of nowhere, an image suddenly flashed into my mind of answering the phone and discovering something awful had happened to Beth, having not told her God loved her. I gripped her hand more tightly. Beth didn’t notice; we were about to cross, after all. ‘Can you see anything coming?’ I said, managing to smile, and she shook her head. ‘OK, over we go then!’ It wasn’t the first time this had happened. While there was probably a logical explanation rather than my having a ‘gift’, I’d imagined plenty of events only for them to actually come to pass; little things like picturing a glass shattering seconds before someone dropping a tumbler in front of me in a restaurant… right through to driving on a motorway and ‘seeing’ a car in front of me swerving violently around the carriageway – so I slowed right down, only for minutes later a BMW, several vehicles up, to have a blowout in the fast lane. But these visualisations had never involved Beth. ‘Do you know what, Beth?’ I said quickly, ‘that lady said a nice thing actually.

She told me God loves you very much. And so do I.’ There. I exhaled. It was now impossible that the future could unfold exactly as I’d just imagined it. I’d prevented it from coming true. ‘I love you too,’ she replied. I didn’t feel any better though; was just telling her enough? I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to turn around and take her home. ‘Mattie’s waving!’ Beth tugged on my hand and then pointed at one of the girls in her class a bit further ahead, before looking up at me hopefully, a pink flush in her pale cheeks. ‘Can I go and see her, please?’ ‘Hang on a second.

’ I reached out and touched her skin. It wasn’t just her hands, her face felt warm too, despite the chill in the air, but I was rubbish without using an actual thermometer. I wasn’t ever really sure what a temperature felt like the way the other mums seemed to just know. ‘Sweetheart, are you feeling alright?’ ‘Yes!’ Beth said impatiently. ‘Please can I go and see Mattie now?’ ‘OK,’ I agreed, reluctantly. ‘But don’t run.’ Our hands slipped apart as she set off. All the same, she wasn’t properly hot. Was I just looking for any excuse to take her home because of what that woman had said? Ben would think I’d gone mad if I did that, and probably he would be right. No, he was definitely right! She couldn’t miss a whole day of school just because of something I’d imagined happening.

Plus, it’d look really weird to Mattie’s mum if we did an about-turn now, and then I’d have to phone in sick to work to look after her. I took a deep breath. It was all going to be fine. I’d told Beth God loved her; that was good enough. I made an enormous effort to suppress my anxiety before it inflated out of control and I wasn’t able to hold onto it. This was how full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder began. I didn’t have a gift, I just needed to get a grip. ‘Hi, Jess!’ called out Mattie’s mum, who had kindly stopped to wait for me. ‘Hi.’ I waved shyly, suddenly conscious of my slightly too-short skirt in comparison with her much more sophisticated suit.

‘You look nice.’ She glanced down at herself in surprise. ‘Oh thanks, I’m due in court later. You working today, too?’ ‘Yes, but just on the phones, so…’ I trailed off, not sure where I was going with that. She smiled gently. ‘Beautiful morning, isn’t it? So cold though! It was hideous crawling out from under the duvet this morning – I’m badly in need of caffeine!’ ‘Me too,’ I agreed eagerly, despite hating coffee. ‘Intravenously, preferably.’ ‘God yes,’ she agreed, and I smiled, relieved. I was still learning the shorthand for pick up and drop off chats. Safe subjects included: being exhausted, juggling work and the kids, husbands (doing frustrating/irritating things), and needing either coffee or alcohol (wine/gin, not shots), or both.

We followed the girls through the heavy wooden door set back in the red-brick wall that led into their school playground. Mattie’s mother waved to the two members of staff on duty, clutching steaming cups of tea as children ran about them. The old-fashioned building in front of us, with its worn flagstone floors, small classrooms and corridors, just about coped with the twenty-four pupils in each year group. A bustling state school would have burst at the seams long before, but here it was the limited numbers and the ‘family friendly’ ethos that professional, local parents – and my in-laws – uncomplainingly paid for. Beth disappeared off into the chattering throng of children to hang up her coat, while I made my way to the desk in the reception area outside her classroom, pretending not to notice a couple of other mums staring at me. I tried to pull my skirt down a bit, feeling every inch the incongruous 24-year-old. Thankfully, Beth returned, just in time for the door to her classroom to open, revealing the new head of pre-prep. ‘Good morning, Beth.’ He smiled down at her. Beth said nothing, just twirled shyly on the spot, clutching onto the edge of my coat with one hand.

‘Can you say “Hello, Mr Strallen”?’ I could hear the tension in my too-quick prompt, but he laughed kindly as she stayed silent. ‘Don’t worry. You go on in, Beth.’ He stood to one side to let her pass, and she went straight over to join Cara – his daughter and Beth’s new best friend – on the reading mat. Cara was looking unusually downcast, with slightly puffy red eyes. ‘We’re a little out of sorts this morning,’ Mr Strallen confirmed. ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said quietly. ‘Thank you. Good morning, Olivia! What a nice hat. I like the woolly pom-pom’ – another small girl cut through us, followed by her mother, who smiled demurely at Mr Strallen and completely ignored me.

I glanced at him, but if the head was aware of the effect he’d had on most of the mums since starting at the school in September, he didn’t let it show and cheerily continued: ‘everyone gets a little overtired at this time of year. Short days, lots of bugs whizzing around. We all ought to be hibernating really. I wonder, actually, Mrs Davies, if I might have a moment? Could we step into my office?’ My heart gave an extra thud. ‘Now?’ I said quickly. ‘If you wouldn’t mind. It really won’t take long.’ He gestured to the small flight of stairs leading down to the lower corridor, and I looked worriedly back at Beth, sat alongside Cara – who was just staring at me. ‘I’ve got to get to work, but… OK. If you could just give me a second.

’ ‘Of course.’ I shoved Beth’s water bottle alongside all the others, and her book bag in the box, before hurrying over to the girls. ‘Beth, I need to say goodbye.’ She held up her arms for a hug, but distracted, I blew her a kiss instead. ‘Sorry, sweetheart, I’ve got to rush a bit, but have a lovely day, and I’ll see you later.’ I briefly paused once I was in the doorway and glanced back at Beth, now holding Cara’s hand, both of them chattering busily to each other, before stepping across to where the head was waiting. He held an arm out courteously, gesturing the way. I led with my head down, feeling very self-conscious as he followed behind. I stood to one side as he opened the door to his compact but neatly ordered office. ‘Do please sit down.

’ He offered me one of the rather battered red velvet armchairs on the nearside of his desk, but I stayed standing and waited until he’d carefully closed the door and turned to face me. ‘What the fuck, Simon?’ I said. ‘Shhh!’ He tried to smile, but his hands were held up defensively. ‘Two and a half months you’ve not said a word, but you choose now to do this?’ I exclaimed. ‘The moment’s passed, hasn’t it? I’d actually rather we just carry on with no contact, no compromising situations – no nothing. I have to be just another parent at the school. That’s it. No us on our own. At all. Ever.

In fact, I’m going to go now.’ He took off his glasses, blinking slightly as he did so, and placed them on the desk. ‘Jess, I ask parents into my office all the time; this is totally normal. No one is going to suspect anything out of the ordinary.’ ‘OK – firstly, your wife is up on playground duty right now; I just walked past her, and secondly, if you even knew half of what most of the women here will gossip about, you wouldn’t—’ ‘Jessica, please.’ He stepped forward and put a hand on my arm. In spite of myself, my stupid heart gave another excited thump. ‘I haven’t engineered this to get you alone. Not like that anyway. We need to talk.

’ ‘Well, I wasn’t lying, I really do have to get to work and I’m already having a crap morning – some random on a bike came up to me and said she wanted Beth to know how much God loved her, which really freaked me out. Have there been any reports of strange people hanging around the school?’ He frowned. ‘No? She was probably just a God-botherer on her way to the cathedral. I’ll check into it for you though, if you like.’ He gave my arm a comforting squeeze. ‘Please don’t do that.’ I shook off his hand. ‘OK. I’m sorry. I do need to speak with you though.

’ ‘No, this isn’t fair, Simon! It’s putting me in a situation where you’re forcing me to go behind Ben’s back, and I—’ ‘I think Louise knows.’ A cold shiver ran through me. I stepped back. ‘Why? What’s happened?’ My voice dropped to a whisper. ‘I haven’t told anyone and surely neither have you, so how does your wife know?’ ‘I’ve not told a soul, I give you my word. It was when we were going to bed.’ He shifted uncomfortably. ‘Louise started talking about Beth, saying what a lovely little girl she is, how much Cara adores her, and she’s glad Cara’s made such a sweet friend. I said nothing to that, obviously, then she started to tell me the plot of some TV drama she’d been watching about this seriously ill child who needed a bone marrow transplant and the husband suddenly confessed he had a secret love child who might be able to donate to their daughter—’ He paused for a moment and waited for me to react. I stayed completely still.

‘Only it turns out they’re not a match, and the arrival of this child in their lives tears the family apart. Then Louise asked me what would we do in that situation if Cara was ever seriously ill, given she’s almost certainly an only child…’ He stopped and looked at me expectantly. ‘And?’ I managed. ‘Oh, come on!’ Simon exclaimed. ‘“Almost certainly an only child”?’ ‘Sounds like she just wants another baby to me.’ ‘You don’t feel the least bit concerned about the direction of that conversation?’ Simon continued, incredulously. ‘Louise was in a foul mood this morning too, banging around everywhere and shouting at Cara.’ He paused, then said in a rush: ‘The thing is, Beth is the spitting image of me, Jessica. Any fool can see it. And my wife is no fool.

’ I swallowed. ‘I can see why you might be hyper vigilant when it comes to Louise, but I genuinely think you’re reading into things that just aren’t there. For a start, Beth is 100 per cent Davies. If you were to look back at pictures of Ben’s family, Beth is very similar to his mother at her age.’ ‘She’s fair-haired, like me.’ ‘Ben and I were both blonde as children before we wound up with dark hair as adults.’ ‘You’ve also both got brown eyes. Beth’s are blue, like mine.’ ‘This is crazy, Simon! They told me when she was born blue eyes can stay hidden in a family tree for years; both brown-eyed parents hand over the right combination of genes and – bam! You’ve got a blue-eyed baby.’ ‘But the timing was right… it all fits.

’ He fell silent and just looked at me. I returned his gaze, full on. ‘I would say if I believed Beth was your daughter, but she isn’t.’ ‘I’m not raising this because I want to do something about it.’ Simon took another step towards me. ‘I would never do that to Cara or Beth, but what Louise said last night really frightened me. I’ve had nearly eleven weeks of seeing Beth close at hand now and I know she’s mine. It’s not just looks, it’s mannerisms too, and as I said, given Louise is much, much sharper than me, it’s only a matter of time, Jess.’ He exhaled, sat down on the edge of his desk and pinched the bridge of his nose, scrunching his eyes shut. ‘This is all my fault.

’ ‘It was both of our faults,’ I said immediately. ‘We knew what we were doing.’ This time there was a much longer pause. I looked at the responsible teacher in his mid-thirties sat in front of me, and remembered exactly how it had felt five years ago when – a be-suited stranger with an easy smile and confident chat – he’d kissed me for the first time… hidden away in a corner of the bar I was working at, having dropped out of my third year at university only two months after Mum had died. He’d made me feel like I might somehow survive after all. Maybe even be happy again – if I could experience a kiss like that. ‘I should have told you I was married to Louise when we met.’ ‘Yes, you should. But I ought to have told you about Ben too,’ I added quietly. ‘And I shouldn’t have told you I was 22 when I wasn’t.

’ He snorted gently. ‘That’s the kind of thing 19-year-olds do, Jess – lie about their age, mess around. Teenage relationships aren’t meant to last. You didn’t do anything wrong. But I did. The way I treated you and Louise was unforgivable.’ I opened my mouth to correct him. Ben had been – and was – so much more to me than a teenage relationship. He and his family had kept me going, supported me through everything; but somehow the thought of discussing them with Simon, of all people, while tucked away in his office, only made me feel more disloyal. ‘I don’t think either of us come out of what happened particularly well.

’ ‘I don’t want you to blame yourself, Jess. You were going through a very difficult time.’ I caught my breath. I could only cope by not opening this box completely. I didn’t want to unpack it all again. We were starting to tread on very dangerous ground. ‘We both should have known better – but what’s done is done,’ I tried resolutely to get us back on track, ‘and Beth is not your daughter. Given Louise doesn’t know anything about us, I don’t understand why she would have any reason to suddenly and randomly think Beth looks like you? It’s just… pretty paranoid, to be honest. I think what you really need to try and do is find a way to live alongside the knowledge that you cheated on Louise, because that’s obviously what’s still troubling you, but maybe bear in mind it was a long time ago now; you’re both happy, and you have Cara. We’re both happily married.

’ Simon looked at me in disbelief for a moment, and laughed. ‘So says the worldly-wise 24-year-old.’ ‘Don’t be unkind,’ I said, colouring. ‘It doesn’t suit you.’ His face fell instantly. ‘I’m not trying to be unkind – I promise. I’m sorry.’ He paused, before continuing in a rush: ‘I mean it – I really am sorry, Jessica; for all of it. It actually makes me so sad to hear you talking like this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the many things that make you very unusual, but when most girls your age are completely responsibility-free… I hate it.

I wish I could wave a wand and change everything for you.’ ‘Well, given a choice, of course I’d have rather not had Mum die,’ my voice wobbled, and I cleared my throat hurriedly, ‘but that’s just the way it goes, and in any case, everything has led me to Beth.’ I smiled, although I could feel my eyes were now shining with unshed tears. ‘So don’t pity me.’ ‘You know I felt I was making the right decision at the time, don’t you?’ Simon said. ‘It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with you. I will always want to be with you—’ ‘Oh, please don’t do this,’ I whispered. ‘It isn’t fair.’ ‘It’s true, Jess. You know it is.

’ I took a deep breath. ‘The thing is, Simon, when you say that sort of thing five years after the event, actually, it can’t help but sound anything other than flat, and insincere.’ ‘I take your point, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. Our feelings for each other weren’t ever the bit that was in doubt.’ That really was too much to take. ‘Maybe not for you,’ I tried to keep my voice steady, ‘but then I never blanked you in the street.’ Simon flushed with shame. I knew, like me, he could picture the scene perfectly; Louise’s long, auburn hair bouncing as she walked up the hill from the train station, holding Simon’s hand and chatting excitedly, as he wheeled her suitcase. Her free hand was resting on her tummy in that self-conscious manner first-time pregnant women adopt because they’re desperate for people to notice their completely non-existent bump. I noticed it though – and her wedding ring glinting in the hard March sunshine.

I stopped dead in the middle of the pavement, dumbfounded. She was laughing at something Simon had said, and he’d only looked up at the last minute to realise it was me. Horrified, he carefully steered her past me, and carried on walking. It was the smooth pretence that we were complete strangers, and I hadn’t in fact woken up next to him earlier that same morning, that caused me what felt like actual physical pain. ‘I had pretty serious doubts about your feelings, after that,’ I said. ‘I thought everything you’d said had been a huge lie to get me to sleep with you.’ ‘It wasn’t a lie. I’d planned to tell Louise about us that very night, but that’s when she told me she was pregnant with Cara. It was my responsibilities that changed, not my feelings.’ ‘And that’s why I never heard from you again.

’ I could have slapped myself the second the words were out of my mouth. So much time had passed that his confirmation or denial shouldn’t matter to me any more. I’d just proved it did. He looked up quickly. ‘I thought you’d find it easier to get over everything if you hated me. Even if I had left Louise knowing she was pregnant – which would in itself have made me about the lowest of the low, in my opinion – how could I have also asked you to accept my having a baby with someone else? You were just on the brink of becoming the person you were meant to be. Your mother’s death had already… altered things… and I didn’t want to take anything else away from you. I didn’t want to be responsible for fucking up your life further.’ ‘Only, that’s exactly what you did anyway.’ He winced, but I didn’t apologise.

I wasn’t actually saying it to hurt him, it was just a statement of fact. ‘Is that actually why,’ I continued, now unable to stop myself and having given up on any façade of mature, cool detachment, ‘you moved away from here, because of what happened with you and me?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It seemed like the best thing to do. This is a small city. I knew I’d inevitably bump into you one day.’ I winced. That hurt. ‘And yet you came back again?’ ‘Five years is a long time. I imagined you living it up in London or abroad by now, building a career, having the time of your life. Plus Louise still has family here.

It was getting harder to come up with good reasons why we shouldn’t come back. Jess, in my defence, I had no idea about Beth. If at the time I had known—’ ‘You’d definitely have left your pregnant wife, instead?’ I shrugged helplessly. We just stared at each other in the long silence. I stood up. ‘Well, it would have been pretty annoying for you, back then, if you had confessed to Louise about me, only for me to tell you that, ironically, I was also pregnant with Ben’s child and I was staying with him. So at least you made the right call.’ ‘Annoying?’ Simon said slowly. ‘Jess, the way I felt about you was—’ ‘No! Don’t.’ I held up a hand.

‘I’ve got to go now, Simon. Neither Beth nor I are your responsibility. That’s all that’s important.’ I turned away and reached for the door handle. ‘Jess, how do you think it felt at the start of term to be settling my little girl in – only for you to suddenly appear.’ I closed my eyes. Ben had been so proud to be an old boy, now returning with his daughter for her first day at school – Beth nervously looking around her as we entered the classroom and tightly holding my hand as I shyly smiled at other new parents… the friendly form mistress coming over and welcoming us, explaining practicalities, then saying that she wanted us to meet the newly appointed Head of Prep. He and his teacher wife had just moved back to the area from Yorkshire with their little girl! Would Beth like to meet her? All of us turning around – and my heart stopping as I came face to face with an equally stunned Simon… introductions… watching, horrified, as Simon and Ben shook hands. Shaking hands with a cheerful Louise, chattily introducing herself as Cara’s mum first and foremost, new teaching assistant second. Shaking hands with Simon.

Our skin touching and eyes meeting in desperate silence as the lively classroom chatter buzzed around us. A million panicked thoughts cascading through my mind. I was going to have to pull Beth out and send her to a new school somewhere else, but how to explain that to Ben and my in-laws after one day of attendance when I’d done nothing but happily agree with all of them that Ben’s old school was the perfect fit for Beth? ‘And then,’ Simon continued, ‘for the penny to gradually begin to drop that not only by some hideous coincidence are our daughters in the same class at the school I now teach at, they are also in fact both my daughters.’ I gripped the door handle a little more tightly. ‘Beth is just another pupil to you. That’s all. You and I had a two-week fling – barely a relationship – a long time ago. There’s nothing more to say.’ ‘Someone’s told me about a job at Grove House that’s coming up,’ Simon said quickly. ‘I’d have to do this post for at least six months first, but then I could apply.

Louise knows I’ve always wanted to work there, so she wouldn’t be suspicious. Cara could become a day pupil – no one would be surprised about that because obviously I’d lose my staff discount here. There would probably be a housemistress role for Louise looking after the boarders too. You might have a point about Louise; that I read too much into what she said last night, but I also know you’re right about what school life is like, and that what happened between you and me will come out somehow. The best idea is for us to transfer away from here.’ Us. Hearing him say that one inclusive word, and yet not mean me, hit home. I couldn’t help it. ‘You’re going to leave again?’ I said lightly, glad that he couldn’t see my face. ‘Please understand how much I don’t want to be separated from you and Beth for a second time.

’ I made a huge effort to get myself under control. ‘Beth isn’t your responsibility,’ I repeated. ‘If moving is what you believe would be right for your family, you should do it.’ ‘It’s too close for comfort here, Jess. I’m finding it increasingly difficult seeing you. I—’ ‘Please don’t do this, Simon!’ I begged, spinning round. ‘I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am now, and I was happy.’ To my huge frustration, I felt the tears start to spill down my cheeks. ‘Don’t cry,’ he begged. ‘Please don’t cry.

I never, ever wanted to hurt you. You of all people.’ He stood up and in two steps he was right next to me. The distance between our bodies wasn’t even enough to call a space. I knew exactly what was a beat away from happening – if we let it. I knew how it would feel; my body waking up again as if long, cold years without him hadn’t happened. It had never been about an embarrassing teenage lust – rather an all-consuming force that even at age 19 hadn’t frightened or overwhelmed me. I’d willingly given myself over to it. He lifted his hand as I stared back at him, anticipating his touch… but then I thought of Beth and Cara, and Ben and Louise, and I realised this time it was different. I shook my head instinctively.

‘No. We can’t.’ He hesitated and the next few seconds seemed to last an eternity, before we both jumped as a loud voice called: ‘Hello? Can I come in?’ We leapt apart, like someone had swung two magnets around, and the door juddered open to reveal a ruddy-cheeked Louise. She’d shoved it with her foot as she had a furlined Parka in one hand and a mug in which some unappetising brown liquid was slopping around in the other. ‘Oh! I’m so sorry, do excuse me, Mrs Davies, I didn’t think anyone was in here. I was just illicitly dumping my stuff, but now look,’ she nodded at her husband as she stepped over the threshold, ‘I’ve been caught red-handed.’ She laughed good-naturedly, and plonked her cup down on the desk next to Simon, before tucking a stray piece of her curly bob behind her ear, not a hint of the bad mood Simon had mentioned. She peered at me more closely and said with surprise: ‘You’re crying. Is everything alright?’ ‘It’s fine.’ Simon smartly walked round his wife, and hurriedly closed the door again.

‘Mrs Davies was upset by a stranger in the street coming up to her outside school this morning and announcing that God loves Beth.’ Louise raised an eyebrow. ‘She’s also concerned about some classroom difficulties Beth is having,’ Simon blurted. I tensed immediately. I didn’t want Beth labelled in some way when there was nothing wrong with her at all. That was completely unfair. ‘Oh no! I’m very sorry to hear that,’ Louise said. ‘Yes, Beth’s being bullied.’ Simon continued, immediately falling into the out-ofpractice liar trap of volunteering too much information. ‘Bullied?’ Louise looked astonished. ‘What – here? You’re kidding! By who?’ ‘Oh, someone in her form,’ Simon said evasively, as I looked down at the floor. ‘Well, I have to say, I’m amazed,’ Louise said, after an uncomfortable moment’s pause where she waited for a name, which was then not forthcoming. ‘I would have thought Sandra Fey would have nipped it in the bud.’ She turned to me. ‘You took it to her straight away, of course?’ Her face was set with earnest, professional concern. ‘She’s such an excellent teacher, apart from anything, I’m sure she’d be devastated to think of Beth unhappy. What did she say about it?’ ‘We’re going to monitor the situation carefully.’ Simon cut in, adding quickly, ‘you won’t discuss this with Mrs Fey though, Louise, will you? I don’t want her to feel she’s on the radar too. It’s one of those less said soonest mended situations, I think.’ I silently begged him to stop talking. ‘Of course,’ Louise said, slowly. ‘It’s odd that Cara didn’t mention any of this, though. She’s so fond of Beth that I’m surprised she didn’t – oh no…’ she paused. ‘It isn’t Cara you’re talking about, is it?’ She looked at me, worriedly. ‘Has she been smothering Beth, or trying to stop her from playing with other people and you’ve just been too embarrassed to talk to me about it? She does get quite jealous. Not because she’s a little horror or anything,’ she added quickly, ‘she isn’t. She’s just – like me, I suppose: passionate. When she falls, she falls hard and fast, and she does adore Beth.’ ‘It’s not Cara at all,’ I said. ‘I promise. Beth is very fond of her too.’ ‘You’re absolutely sure?’ Louise said. ‘Sorry, I don’t want to put you on the spot here or anything, Jessica, but – is it OK if I call you that, by the way?’ ‘Of course,’ I said quickly. ‘Thank you. I can see I’m making you uncomfortable – but it’s just probably better we get it all out there if Cara’s gone a bit… off-piste.’ ‘It’s nothing, honestly.’ I smiled. ‘Well, it’s clearly something, or you wouldn’t be crying,’ Louise said reasonably. ‘What I mean is, it’s nothing I’m sure hasn’t been dealt with now.’ I looked at Simon. ‘I won’t be taking it any further.’ ‘Well, I think perhaps I ought to talk to Cara. I appreciate you’re trying to be discreet and avoid any embarrassment, but honestly, I’m not one to—’ ‘For God’s sake, Louise!’ Simon exploded suddenly. ‘Mrs Davies and I are dealing with this situation. You can go now.’ Horrified, I watched Louise stare at her husband in amazement. Then she recovered herself, and said: ‘Well, I apologise unreservedly, Jessica. I’ve evidentially misjudged the situation, and overstepped the mark. Please do excuse me. I hope neither myself nor my husband have caused you any offence.’ ‘None at all,’ I managed. Again, Louise shot an incredulous look at Simon, reached out for the door handle, but then hesitated, turned back and blurted: ‘Sorry, but why do I feel like the child being told to let the grown-ups get on with it, all of a sudden? What am I missing here? When do you ever speak to me like that?’ She addressed her last question directly to Simon, and his eyes widened. He shot me a frightened look, which I saw Louise register immediately. If she didn’t have any suspicions before, she certainly would now. Her gaze slowly alighted on me. I held it as steadfastly as I could, my pulse starting to pound. Just open the door and walk away, Louise. Please. There is nothing for any of us here. We can all just walk away. But I could see something in her expression beginning to change; I was morphing in front of her very eyes: a green, shy and eager-to-please school mum transforming into a woman some ten years younger than her, standing in her attractive husband’s office, weeping… and an uneasy energy in the air that she couldn’t entirely place. She wasn’t the type to hold back. ‘What’s really going on?’ Oh God. My head began to swim. I should never have let this happen. Why did I let Beth continue to come here? How could I have been so stupid? ‘Nothing!’ Simon turned to face me properly. ‘It’s my turn to apologise, Mrs Davies. My wife is not quite herself this morning. I do hope that—’ ‘Is it something between you two?’ Louise cut across, ignoring him. ‘Do you know each other?’ Simon was right. His wife was no fool. There was a pause where Simon should have leapt in immediately and denied everything – if he was going to. We all heard it. I closed my eyes as he said, far too late: ‘No, of course not. I’m not sure what you’re implying, exactly?’ ‘I’d like a moment alone with my husband now, please,’ Louise said, looking straight at Simon. Now I was the out-of-place teenager. I said nothing; just shamefully put my head down – to think that when I’d met him I had been naïve enough to think that falling in love and knowing exactly how I felt meant everything would be simple. Yes, Louise, there has been something between us. There will always be something between us. We do know each other. I didn’t say that, of course. Dismissed, I stumbled out of the office and clattered back up the stone steps, before hurrying out into the freezing playground, my face burning with humiliation. Finally reaching the door in the wall, I properly escaped onto the safety of the main street and – letting it slam shut behind me – exhaled shakily. ‘Shit!’ I surprised myself by violently exclaiming aloud. How on earth had that all just happened? What was he going to tell Louise? If he did crumble and confess, Louise wouldn’t shy away from confrontation – but would she come after me, or go straight to Ben with her news? And most importantly, what about Beth and Cara? What of them? I shoved my icy hands into my pockets, only to discover Beth’s gloves. I let out a little cry as I pulled them out – the lecture I’d given her when I’d had them all along! It somehow felt vital that I go back and give them to Beth; to get at least something right. But at the thought of coming face to face with Louise, I replaced them and carried on walking. My eyes filled again as the guilt suddenly overwhelmed me – the whole bloody mess of the hideous situation. I started to walk faster, cursing repeatedly under my breath. I reached the car, and climbed in. Would Simon call me and at least let me know what had been said? Surely, he would? I was going to have to talk to Ben. That much was clear. But tell him everything? I couldn’t. I just couldn’t do that to him, or Beth. I should have just removed her from school while I had the chance. Of course Ben would have been confused, but I could have made it work somehow. It would have been better than this. My hands shaking wildly, I started the car engine, looking behind me as I reversed, and was immediately reminded of the lady librarian on her bike. In comparison with what had just happened back in Simon’s office, her bizarre intervention didn’t seem so extraordinary now. And why hadn’t I heeded it? Why hadn’t I just turned around and taken Beth home, after all? This whole thing could have been avoided. I wouldn’t have gone into Simon’s office, Louise wouldn’t have caught me crying… but then it wasn’t a message… Not from God – not from anyone. Only at that, I suddenly burst into proper sobs, and had to slam to a stop because I actually couldn’t see. I put my head in my hands as I rested my elbows on the steering wheel and tried to force the image of Mum’s face from my mind, but it was too late… the stupid radio DJ with his bloody suicide pop trivia. There was a honk of a horn behind me, and I snatched up my head to see another car waiting for my space, indicator on. ‘You going?’ the man mouthed, then looked taken aback at the wild expression on my face. I didn’t even bother to nod. Wiping my eyes furiously with the back of my hand, the gears grated as I tried to find first, and eventually managing it, I jerked out of the space and onto the road, clutching the cold steering wheel tightly. I took a few deep, calming breaths and visualised myself closing the lid on a box, turning a key in the lock, placing the key in my pocket, shutting the box away in a cupboard, leaving the room, walking out of the house… feeling marginally better I allowed my thoughts to return to Simon. Please God he wouldn’t tell Louise everything. Please. Let him have the strength to not offload his guilt and fear onto his capable wife. Mercifully, I didn’t have long to wait to find out what had been said. It was ten twentyfive – not even two hours later – when the phone began to ring, and one of the other girls on reception of the advertising company I worked for leant round her pink iMac, her hand over the receiver and said: ‘It’s for you, Jess. Personal apparently.’ ‘Thanks.’ I braced myself, and picked up the phone. ‘Hello?’ It was the school – but it wasn’t Simon. I realised it was actually the headmistress I was speaking to, on what I thought was a badly crackling line, but in fact it was her struggling to speak. I was to please go to the hospital, immediately. There had been an accident. Then she said Beth’s name and she started to cry. My heart began to thump as the delicate white wings of the librarian angel began to beat faster too – unfurling, growing dark and muscular, blocking out the light and turning the air cold. God loves your little girl. No! NO! I’d told Beth! This wasn’t right – this couldn’t be happening. And yet it already had. Beth had died, just twenty minutes earlier, at five minutes past ten in the morning… lying on the icy playground floor, staring up at the bright, blue sky.

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