“No. For the last time, she can’t come to school with us,” I say to Jack, as I lock the front door behind us and start to hustle the three children into the car. “We’re already late. You want to meet your teacher today, ready for when school starts tomorrow, don’t you?”
Jack pouts. “But she wants to. M says she’ll be lonely if I go without her. She says she’ll break something in the house if we leave her on her own.”
You know, I’ve had just about enough of Jack’s overactive imagination and this pretend friend.
“M” has been an invisible fixture in the house for the last six weeks, and she’s a demanding little sod — worse than my own three, live, already demanding children. I have to lay an extra place for her at every mealtime, and recently I’ve been evicted from my favourite spot on the recliner chair in the living room because Jack says that M is already sitting there.
Now the brat is ready to smash my china if she doesn’t get her own way.
I could just play along with the game and say, “Of course M can come with us”, but that would precipitate the need for an extra car seat because M is not old enough to sit in the front seat, Jack says.
And the name. What sort of name for a girl is “M”, for crying out loud, unless you happen to be Judi Dench in a Bond film?
“She’s very upset,” Jack says, with the air of someone washing his hands of all blame for the consequences. “You’re going to be sorry.”
“I hope you’re not threatening me,” I say, as I make sure his seat belt is fastened properly. “Otherwise it won’t be me who is sorry. I promise you that.”
Jack is unrepentant.
“I was just telling you what she said.”
Thank goodness school starts properly tomorrow, is all I can say, when Jack will (I hope) make new, human friends and forget about the fictitious girl in our house. The same girl who now has the nerve to threaten vandalism if I don’t allow her to come along to kindergarten orientation with us. I mean, it’s obvious she can’t come. She isn’t even enrolled at the sch–
Oh, this is ridiculous.
It’s got to the point where I almost believe in her myself.
* * *
Before I take Jack to meet his new teacher, I drive to Maggie’s house on our old street. Maggie is looking after the twins while Jack and I go to school for the morning.
“So it’s not Jack’s first proper day of school today?” she asks. “It’s just a meet and greet with the teacher, find out where the sand box is, that kind of thing?”
“Breaking them in gently, that’s right.”
“Didn’t happen in my day,” a Southern, male voice chips in from Maggie’s armchair. “My mother stayed in bed and let me walk to school with the neighbour’s kid on my first day.”
Derek. Maggie’s ex who, if I’m not mistaken – and I hope to God I am mistaken — will shortly be her ex-ex.
He arrived in Boston with her on the flight from Miami nearly three weeks ago, and seems in no hurry to return to his home in Virginia, or Maryland, or Delaware, or whichever state he comes from. We met on the second day of his visit, and took an immediate dislike to each other.
“We Northerners must be made of softer stuff than you tough Southerners,” Maggie says in a sugary voice that’s quite unlike the acid tone this comment would elicit from her had it been made by anyone else.
I have no idea what witchcraft Maggie’s ex has spun on my friend, but in the four weeks she was in the Keys, Maggie changed. She’s never been one to show or act her age — “Age is but a number” she is fond of saying — but since she came back, she’s been nearer in mental age and outlook to Jack than to me.
I did wonder if she was starting to become prematurely senile, until I saw Maggie and Derek together one afternoon. Then I realised what had happened.
They’ve teleported themselves back forty years. She is behaving as she did when she was nineteen, and he thinks he’s the dashing young state trooper who stopped a redheaded English woman for speeding in a borrowed Corvette.
And it won’t work. You can’t be teenagers when you’re drawing a pension — at least, you can’t be the same teenagers that you used to be. By all means, have a second youth; but the key word there is “second”.
Reliving their first one will end in a pool of tears, I’m sure of it.
Maggie’s my best friend, and I don’t want to see her hurt. But what can I do?
* * *
At the elementary school, Dr Felix Roth, the Principal, is in his element as he greets all the parents in the foyer.
I tell a lie. He doesn’t greet all the parents. He greets the parents who know him well enough to call him by his first name because they’re on the PTA, and he gives a weak smile down his nose to all the others. I get my own back by pretending not to know who he is, and Jack and I make our way to Room 43, where Jack will be spending the next year with his kindergarten teacher, Mrs Healy. My friend Willow tells me that Mrs Healy is a plump, cosy, grandmotherly type, close to retirement age. A lucky class placement for Jack, says Willow.
Room 43 is heaving with babies, toddlers, and five-year-old children. Jack pushes his way into a group of boys who are playing in a nylon igloo tent, and I look around the room to see if I recognise anyone.
With a sigh and feeling of déjà vu, I see Jodee Addison, mother of Jack’s Valentine crush this year, Crystal. Then, to my absolute dismay, I see Caroline Michaels.
Caroline, the wife of Oliver’s boss, whose son Dominic was the catalyst for Jack’s defection from Patsy Traynor’s nursery school. I’d heard on the grapevine that Caroline was going back to England and divorcing her boss husband after the fiasco at the Christmas party last year, but her presence in the classroom suggests that she prefers the expat-married-to-a-slimeball lifestyle to the divorced-and-living-in-Milton Keynes version.
As the teacher doesn’t seem to have arrived yet, I move closer to Jodee and Caroline, who are venting their opinions on something, and eavesdrop shamelessly.
“It’s too bad,” Jodee is saying loudly. ” You’d think someone in her position of trust would look after her health better instead of eating saturated fat all day. Such a bad example for the children.”
“It’s not just her suffering because of her bad health choices,” Caroline says, her lips pursed self-righteously. “I mean, a heart attack? Really? Only herself to blame. Thoughtless, I call it.”
Jodee nods vigorously.
Wow. Some woman has had a heart attack and this is the sympathy these witches give her. I wonder who they’re talking about. Poor soul.
Caroline says: “There should be mandatory six-monthly physicals for teachers, and they should be made to diet down to an acceptable weight or lose their jobs. Having a heart attack in your late 50s, when it’s entirely preventable, is nothing short of selfish. And now our children have to suffer.”
Wait. Is she talking about Mrs Healy?
I’m about to turn and ask the mother next to me, who is also listening, jaw on the floor, to Caroline and Jodee, when the Principal enters the room.
In his high, squeaky voice, he tells the gathered parents that, as some of us may already know — here, Jodee and Caroline look smugly at each other — Mrs Healy sadly had a heart attack two days ago, and is still in the ICU at St Whatsit’s Hospital. Her condition is stable but critical, and she will not be coming back for the foreseeable future. With school starting tomorrow, parents will appreciate that time was of the essence, he says, and the school is extremely fortunate to have found a longterm substitute teacher with much experience, who comes with glowing recommendations.
“Someone who is probably known to many of you from pre-school,” he adds, with a smile that can only be described as arch. “May I introduce to you — “ he looks behind him, out into the corridor, and beckons to someone with his arm “– Mrs Patsy Traynor, who will be taking over the captain’s wheel of your child’s kindergarten ship until Mrs Healy is able to return to work.”
Patsy looks over the classroom, sees Jodee and Caroline, and beams broadly at them.
Then she sees me.
I wonder how easy it is for Jack to be transferred to another school.
* * *
Two hours later, back home, I unlock the front door and Jack races into the dining room.
“M! I’m back!” he shouts.
And then: “Mummy, I told you she wouldn’t like it if I went out.”
On the dining room floor, in shattered pieces, is the despised Dresden shepherdess that my mother’s aunt gave Oliver and me on our wedding day.
Well, I reflect with a shiver, as I sweep up the bits before Beth and George can toddle over them in their bare feet – everything is clear now.
And I suppose that, if we have to have a poltergeist in the house, at least this one appears to share my taste in internal decor.
Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #85
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