With just weeks to go before the arrival of the twins, Libby is making the most of her life with only one child by finding him a new nursery school and thereby becoming a Lady Who Lunches. But it’s not all Fun, Fun, Fun, she is finding.
“Libby, do stop worrying. Jack will be just fine.” Charlie shrugged off her jacket and draped it over the back of her chair. “I know you had a bad experience with that other nursery, but Helen Flynn’s place is wonderful. He’ll love it there.”
“But suppose he doesn’t? What if it’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for him?” I said, pulling out a chair from under the restaurant table, and sitting down heavily. The chair wobbled. It had a wooden seat, and wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the padded benches in the booths along the walls, but I could no longer squeeze into those, so Anna Gianni had tactfully seated us at one of the Maxwell Plum’s large centre tables.
Anita opened up the black padded menu. “Think about it logically,” she said. “The owner told Caroline to find Dominic another school because his idea of free play was beating up smaller children with whiffle sticks. She’s not going to stand idly by if someone’s giving your son a hard time, is she?”
I opened my own menu. “You’re probably right. It’s difficult not to worry, though.”
“I hate to tell you this, hon, but it only gets worse. Wait until he’s at elementary school.”
I don’t know why some people think you’ll feel better if they tell you things will be even worse later.
“Well, fortunately, I don’t have to think about that,” I said. “By the time Jack’s ready for elementary school we’ll be safely back in Milton Keynes. He’ll be starting Year One at the local Infants and learning how to spell properly instead of missing the U out of all the words.”
Anita and Charlie exchanged knowing glances.
“You say that now,” Charlie said. “But most people stay much longer than two years. Woodhaven draws you in.”
“I’m not most people, and I’m not being drawn in anywhere,” I snapped, banging the menu down on the table. “I agreed to two years, not a bloody life sentence.”
Here’s the thing. Oliver and I have been here barely nine months, and already the people in HR are talking about extending the contract. The initial two years? Fine. I can cope with that. Three? OK — I think. But where does it stop? At what point do I put my foot down, or, worse, at what point does I discover that it’s harder to go back than it is to stay?
“It’s terribly slow service today,” Charlie said, looking around the restaurant. “At this rate we won’t have time for dessert.”
“They’re short-staffed,” Anita said, studying her menu again. “There’s only the owner’s wife. That other loopy woman who works here is nowhere to be seen. I bet she’s out somewhere with a small animal in a pushchair. Last time I saw her, it was a rabbit. Honestly, she’s so many sandwiches short of a picnic—”
“Carla’s a whole loaf short.” Anna Gianni materialised at our table behind Anita, notebook and pen in hand. “But I’ll take her, both minus the Wonderbread and plus small animals in strollers, any day, rather than be the only server on a busy lunchtime. Now — what can I get you, ladies?”
Anita’s face turned a delicate shade of magenta. Charlie bit her lip, either in embarrassment or in an effort not to laugh, and I threw Anna an apologetic smile. She winked at me as we gave her our orders, then glided away to another table, where a couple of businessmen in suits were having a loud, showy-offy conversation about the price of Apple stock.
“You and your big mouth,” Charlie muttered at Anita.
Anita shrugged. Her face was still a bit pink. “It’s true, though,” she whispered. “She’s as nutty as a fruitcake.”
“Must be something in the water.” Charlie picked up her own glass of water and examined it. “Take Caroline.”
Caroline still wouldn’t say whether her new baby was a boy or a girl, and although she had now given it a name, it was the unisex “Taylor”, so we were none the wiser. Her husband, the boss, was equally silent on the subject.
Anna came back with our drinks and appetisers, and Charlie asked her sympathetically if she would be holding the fort on her own for long.
“Only until Saturday.”
“And then Carla will be back?” I asked.
Anna’s tone softened. “Sadly, Libby, no.”
I saw Anita raise her eyebrows as Anna said my name.
“She’s having a bad spell right now,” Anna continued. “Maybe she’ll be OK enough to come back in a few weeks. We’ve ordered her one of those life-like baby dolls to look like the photo of…well, you know. So that will help her, we hope. And me, come to that. I’m tired of looking after a menagerie.”
She bent down to pick up a napkin from the floor — mine, since I no longer had enough lap to keep a napkin secure — then patted me on the shoulder.
“You and I should get together again,” she said. “As soon as—”
“Miss?” One of the loud businessmen waved at her from across the room. “Miss? How much longer before you bring our order? We have a very important conference call at 1pm.”
Anna smiled in their direction. “I’ll be right with you,” she said loudly. Still smiling, she muttered “Never mind gun control in this country — what we really need is to keep jerks like that separated from their BlackBerries.”
“I’ll call you on Sunday after we get the agency staff settled in,” she said to me. “I promise I’ll call.”
She hurried away.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Anita turned to me. “How do you know her so well?”
I explained about Maggie, and how she seemed to know everyone in Woodhaven.
“Maggie?” Charlie asked. “You don’t mean Maggie Sharpe, do you?”
I was surprised. “You know her?”
“I know of her. Everyone knows of her. Or at least, everyone knows about her daughter…what’s her name?”
“That’s it. Sara. Anyway — according to town legend, she’s the reason Carla Gianni lost her mind. About twenty years ago.”
“Small town talk, but it’s what I’ve heard from quite a few people.”
“And…” I fumbled around for words, did a few calculations based on what Maggie had told me about her daughter. “How did someone barely out of her teens make Carla lose her mind?”
Charlie shrugged. “Like I said, there must be something in the water here.” She picked up our water pitcher and refilled all our glasses. I waited. “But the story I’ve heard is — she killed Carla’s son.”
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