Talk about déjà vu. January 2012 all over again.
I sit on an uncomfortable plastic chair on one side of a teacher’s desk. On the other side of the desk, in a larger, more padded chair, sits Patsy Traynor: Jack’s ex-preschool teacher and now kindergarten teacher. Behind her is an expansive window, west-facing, and the afternoon sun blasts through the glass, forcing me to squint if I want to read her expression. This is a little intimidation trick of hers that I’ve encountered once before; although in this case forewarned doesn’t mean forearmed.
A hostile silence hovers between us as she opens a manila folder labeled “Jack Patrick” and runs a fingernail down the middle crease — her shell-pink nail varnish is chipped, I note with satisfaction — then picks out a sheet of paper with the heading “Behavioral Report”.
She looks up and smiles. I don’t smile back, because it’s not a friendly smile. It’s a smile of pleasurable anticipation, and the pleasure belongs only to her.
“Mrs. Patrick,” she says. No cosy first-names today, although she knows mine well enough. She looks down at the report in front of her. “Mrs Patrick. I asked you to meet me here today because—”
“I know why you asked me here,” I interrupt her. “Actually, the letter you sent home with Jack was addressed to both me and my husband, so if you don’t mind, we’ll wait until he arrives before we start.”
The smile falters a little, and she looks pointedly at the clock on the classroom wall.
“The appointment was for four p.m., and we are already running five minutes late.”
“Some people work full-time,” I say, and smirk to myself as Patsy swells up with indignation.
If you really want to piss off a teacher, simply insinuate that their workday finishes at three-thirty.
I fold my arms and sit back in my chair, waiting, avoiding catching Patsy’s eye. In the far corner of the room, inside an igloo-shaped tent, Jack is ordering around Beth and George. He’s trying to make them sit still and listen to his newfound skill of reading a Dr. Seuss book about dogs and cars. Beth and George aren’t impressed with his instructions to stay in the tent when there are so many exciting playthings outside it to scatter and destroy; George registers his disapproval with a determined “No!” (his current favourite word) while Beth lets out a high scream. There is the sound of a hard object hitting the floor with some force. After a pause, Jack’s voice cuts clearly across the room:
“If you don’t behave, I’m going to tell M and she will break your favourite toys.”
I feel rather than see Patsy’s smug moue, and I squeeze my eyes shut. It’s a defensive reaction, against both Patsy and the sunshine behind her that dazzles me.
Hurry up, Oliver. I need some backup here.
On cue, to my relief, the classroom door opens and Oliver strides across to the desk. He’s in his best suit, not for Patsy’s benefit but because he’s been meeting new customers today, and is still in professional work mode. He exudes brisk confidence and an air of brooking no nonsense.
I’ve never been so glad to see him in all my life, and that includes the time he was late for our own wedding because his best man was in the throes of an almighty hangover and drove to the wrong church. Oliver must also have had an almighty hangover, because the pair of them waited outside for half an hour before realising that a locked church, a lack of guests, and no vicar might be significant.
Oliver shakes hands with Patsy, introducing himself, then, before sitting down, he moves to Patsy’s side of the desk and twiddles with the venetian blind behind her chair, moving the slats so that the sun shines upwards instead of directly in my eyes.
“Better?” he asks me.
We exchange small, conspiratorial winks, and I bite my lip to stop myself laughing at Patsy’s expression. Her face is red and her eyes very wide, as if she can’t believe that someone has had the gall to do now what she should have done out of courtesy fifteen minutes ago.
She picks up Jack’s Behavioral Report again, although with not as much assurance as before. Oliver seems to have flustered her.
“I asked to speak to you both because of issues Jack is having in the classroom. He appears not to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction, and while we encourage strong, lively imaginations, we do try, at this point in child development, to make it clear to our students that the two viewpoints are separate.”
“So in other words, you’re saying Jack is a liar.” Oliver slices neatly through the spiel of edu-jargon.
Patsy’s face reddens further. “Not at all, but—”
“In that case, you must be saying that he’s telling the truth?”
“Not quite, but—”
“You must be saying one or the other. Which is it that he’s telling you? Fact or fiction?”
“Fact or fiction? Quick!”
Oliver’s not giving Patsy a chance to get a word in. He reminds me of Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction: “Say ‘What’ again! I dare you! I double-dare you!”
“Imaginary friends are one thing!” Patsy bursts out. “But his obsession with this particular friend, whatever her name is—”
“Her name’s M,” Jacks voice says from inside the nylon igloo, and I stifle a giggle with my hand. “M, like the letter M.”
“—This obsession is out of hand. And I would like your permission to refer him to the school district’s educational psychologist for further assessment.”
Oliver stands up. “If that’s all you called us in for,” he says, “you might as well have phoned. Because the answer is No. Jack is not a liar, and he’s not a psycho either. You, on the other hand, I have always had my doubts about, and I’m not about to take child-rearing advice from someone who accepts bribes from parents. Come on Libs. Kids!” he shouts in the direction of the igloo. “Time to go home now. If we have to be in a madhouse, I prefer the homegrown type. No wonder homeschooling is so popular,” he adds to Patsy.
* * *
“And then what?” Maggie asks me the following day, when Jack is at school and I’ve taken the twins to see their adopted granny. Their adopted ex-grandpa, thank goodness, is busy in the back yard, splitting logs for Maggie’s wood-burning stove.
I shrug. “We went home, and Oliver sat down with Jack and lectured him long and hard about differentiating between fact and fiction.”
“So he was only standing up for Jack against Patsy at school. He doesn’t really believe the story that there is the ghost of a little girl in your house. Although you do?”
I think back to the day we found the shattered Dresden shepherdess. It was in the centre of the dining room floor, a long way from the shelf where I’d put it. To get to its final resting place, it would have had to jump seven or eight feet through the air. We don’t own a cat, and to my knowledge, there had been no freak earthquake that morning. And yet, all my life, I have pooh-poohed the idea of ghosts and ghouls.
In other words, I am having a crisis of faith.
“I believe there is something,” I say finally. “I just don’t know what, exactly. The china shepherdess broke in the dining room, which happens to be the room that won’t warm up, no matter what you do to it. And there’s Fergus — he wouldn’t come in the house at all. I’ve heard that dogs are sensitive to… things.” I shiver, despite the warm sunshine that is shining through Maggie’s living room windows. “It could just be circumstantial, of course. Logic tells me that it probably is, and everything can be explained by rational argument. But whenever I start to explain things away with logic, I come up against the biggest obstacle — that I honestly believe Jack thinks he is telling the truth.”
Maggie nods thoughtfully, and rocks back and forth in her rocking chair. Beth, who is sitting on her lap and playing with Maggie’s long string of amber beads, leans back, puts her thumb in her mouth, and closes her eyes.
“I remember Cathy saying that Chuck had an imaginary friend when he was a little boy,” she says at last. “In that very house.”
“So you said, in one of your emails. He grew out of it, though.”
Maggie wiggles her hand in a comme ci comme ça gesture. “He was very old to have a pretend friend. Eleven, twelve. And I don’t know, but… I got the impression that he said he’d grown out of it, to humour her. I remember visiting the house once, and he didn’t know I was there, and he was talking to someone – someone who wasn’t there. He’d have been about fifteen at the time.”
I sit still, turning over possibilities in my mind. George waddles over to me and puts his head on my knee. Any minute now, he will go to sleep, standing up where he is.
“He was very keen that I read the folder of old documents relating to the house. It’s full of papers to do with plumbing and roofs, but there’s also records of people who used to live there, a couple of hundred years ago. Perhaps I should read it more carefully.”
But later, in bright sunshine, when the house is full of real people and real laughter. Right now, I’m not very keen on going back to my silent, empty house with two sleepy toddlers.
“Does Jack’s friend have a name?” Maggie asks.
“He calls her M. Like the character in James Bond. Or Dial M for Murder.”
I shiver again., then notice that Maggie has stopped rocking in her chair and is rubbing her arms.
“Are you cold?” I ask. “I thought it was just me. Shall I turn the heat up?”
Maggie shakes her head, and I see that she has lost some colour from her cheeks.
“Chuck used to love the film The Wizard of Oz. Cathy said he’d named his imaginary friend after one of the characters.”
I laugh. “Like, Dorothy? Toto? Tin Man?”
Maggie is still shaking her head. “No. Cathy always thought it was an odd choice, but assumed it was because Cathy and her husband didn’t have any brothers or sisters. He named her after the aunt.”
I stare at Maggie, and start to rub my own arms which, like Maggie’s, have sprung a rash of goosepimples.
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