Her One Mistake
At exactly ten o’clock on Saturday morning the doorbell rang, and I knew it would be Harriet because she was never a minute late. I emerged from the bathroom, still in my pajamas, as the bell sounded a second time. Flicking back the curtains to be sure it was her, I saw Harriet hovering on the doorstep, her arm tightly gripped around her daughter’s shoulders. Her head was hung low as she spoke to Alice. The little girl beside her nodded as she turned and nestled her head into her mother’s waist.
My own children’s screams erupted from downstairs. The two girls’ voices battled to be heard over one another. Evie was now drowning out Molly with a constant, piercing whine, and as I fled down the stairs, I could just make out Molly crying at her younger sister to shut up.
“Will you both stop shouting!” I yelled as I reached the bottom. My eldest, Jack, sat oblivious in the playroom, earphones on, zoned into a game on the iPad that I wished Tom had never bought him. How I sometimes envied Jack’s ability to shut himself in his own world. I picked Evie off the floor, wiping a hand across her damp face and rubbing at the marmalade smeared upward from both corners of her mouth. “You look like the Joker.”
Evie stared back at me. At three she was still suffering from the terrible twos. She had at least thankfully stopped bawling and was now
kicking one foot against the other. “Come on, let’s play nicely for Alice’s sake,” I said as I opened the door.
“Hi, Harriet, how are you doing?” I crouched down in front of Alice and smiled at the little girl who continued to bury her head in her mum’s skirt. “Are you looking forward to the school fair today, Alice?”
I didn’t expect an answer, but I plowed on regardless. Besides, once Molly took Alice under her wing, she would happily follow my daughter around like a puppy. In turn, my six-year-old would have an air of smug superiority that a younger child was finally looking up to her.
“Thank you again for today,” Harriet said as I straightened.
I leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “You know it’s a pleasure. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve begged you to let me watch Alice.” I grinned.
Harriet’s right hand played with the seam of her skirt—balling it up, then pressing it down flat—and for a moment I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’d expected her to be nervous; I’d even thought she would cancel.
“But with four of them, are you sure—” she started.
“Harriet,” I cut her off. “I’m more than happy to take Alice to the fair. Please don’t worry about it.”
Harriet nodded. “I’ve already put sunscreen on her.”
“Oh. That’s good.” That meant I now had to find sunscreen for my own. Did I have any?
“Well, it’s so hot and I don’t want her burning . . .” Her voice trailed away, and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“You are looking forward to your class today, aren’t you?” I asked. “You don’t look like you are, but you should be. It’s exactly what you need.”
Harriet shrugged and looked at me blankly. “It’s bookkeeping,” she said flatly.
“I know, but it’s what you want to do. It’s great that you’re planning your future.”
I meant it, even though I’d originally turned my nose up when she’d said it was bookkeeping. I’d tried to convince Harriet to do a gardening class instead because she would make a lovely gardener. I could picture her running around town with her own little van and told her I’d even design a website for her. Harriet had looked as if she was mulling the idea over, but eventually said gardening didn’t pay as much.
“You could do my garden for me,” I’d said. “I need someone to come and give me some new ideas. I would—” I stopped abruptly because I’d been about to say I’d pay her more than the going rate, but I knew my good intentions weren’t always taken in the right way when it came to money.
“How about teaching?” I’d said instead. “You know how wonderful you’d be. Just look at the way you were with Jack when I first met you.”
“I’d have to train to be a teacher and that won’t get me a job this September,” she’d replied, and averted her gaze. I knew her well enough to know when to stop.
“Then bookkeeping it is,” I’d said, smiling, “and you’ll be great at that, too.” Even if it wasn’t what I’d do, at least Harriet was thinking past September when Alice started school and she could concentrate on something for herself. I had another two long years until Evie started and I could get back some semblance of a career instead of the two days a week I worked now for the twenty-something who’d once reported to me.
“Oh, I haven’t packed a lunch or anything,” Harriet said suddenly.
“I’m not bothering with lunches.” I brushed a hand through the air. “We can get something there. The PTA invests more in food stalls than anything else,” I joked.
“Right.” Harriet nodded but didn’t smile, after a moment adding, “Let me get you some money.”
“No,” I said firmly, but hopefully not too sharply. “No need.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“I know it isn’t.” I smiled. “But please, let me do this, Harriet. The
girls are excited Alice is joining us and we’re going to have a great day. Please don’t worry about her,” I said again, holding my hand out toward her, but she didn’t take it.
Harriet bent down and pulled her daughter in for a hug, and I watched the little girl melt into her mother’s chest. I took a step back, feeling like I should give them some space. There was such a tight bond between Harriet and her daughter that felt so much more raw than anything I had with my children, but I also knew what a big deal today was for her. Because despite Alice being four, Harriet had never left her daughter with anyone before today.
I’d been thrilled when I’d first left Evie overnight with my friend Audrey, when she’d been barely two months old. I’d had to coax Tom into coming to the pub with me, and even though we were home by nine thirty and I had crashed on the sofa half an hour later, it was worth it for a night of undisturbed sleep.
“I love you,” Harriet whispered into Alice’s hair. “I love you so much. Be a good girl, won’t you? And stay safe.” She lingered in the hug, her arms pressing tighter around her daughter. When she pulled back, she took Alice’s face in her hands and gently pressed her lips to her daughter’s forehead.
I waited awkwardly for Harriet to eventually pull herself up. “Do you want to go play with Molly in her bedroom before we go to the fair?” I asked Alice, then turned to Harriet. “Do you still want me to drop her back at your house at five?”
Harriet nodded. “Yes, thank you,” she said, making no move to leave.
“Please stop thanking me.” I smiled. “I’m your best friend, it’s what I’m here for.” Besides, I wanted to watch Alice, and Harriet had been there for me more than enough times over the last two years. “You know you can trust me,” I added.
But maybe we were a little more on edge than usual since a boy had been taken from the park last October. He was nine—the same age as Jack had been at the time—and it had happened only on the other side
of Dorset. Close enough for us to feel the threat, and still no one had any idea why he’d been taken or what had happened to him.
I reached out and took hold of my friend’s arm. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll take good care of her.” Eventually Harriet stepped off my doorstep and I took Alice’s hand and brought her into the hallway.
“You’ve got my number if you need me,” Harriet said.
“I’ll call if there’s a problem. But there won’t be,” I added.
“Brian’s fishing. He has his phone with him but he rarely answers it.”
“Okay, well, I’ll get hold of you if need be,” I said. I didn’t have Brian’s number anyway. I wanted Harriet to hurry up and go. I was conscious I was still in my pajamas and could see Ray from the house opposite staring as he mowed his front lawn in painfully slow stripes. “Harriet, you’ll be late,” I said, deciding I needed to be firm with her now or I’d find her dithering on my doorstep for the rest of the day.
• • •
WHEN HARRIET EVENTUALLY left, I closed the door and took a deep breath. There was a time when I would have called out to Tom that Ray was watching me and we would laugh about it. It was at the oddest times it struck me that I had no one to share those moments with since we’d separated.
“Ray caught me wearing my pajamas,” I said, grinning at Jack as he emerged from the playroom.
My son stared at me. “Can you get me a juice?”
I sighed. “No, Jack. You’re ten. You can get your own juice, and can you say hello to Alice, please?”
Jack looked at Alice as if he had never seen her before. “Hello, Alice,” he said before disappearing into the kitchen.
“Well, that’s as good as it gets, I’m afraid.” I smiled at Alice, who had already taken Molly’s hand and was being led up the stairs. “Everyone, I’m going to have a shower and then we’ll get ready for the fair,” I called out, but my words were met with silence.
When I reached the bedroom, my cell was ringing and Tom’s number flashed up on the screen. “We agreed seven p.m.,” I said as I answered.
“What?” he called out over the noise of traffic.
I sighed and muttered under my breath for him to put the damn car roof up. “I said seven p.m.” I spoke louder. “I assume you’d forgotten what time you were coming to sit with the kids tonight?” Even though I’d only told him yesterday.
“Actually, I just wanted to check if you definitely still need me?”
I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. “Yes, Tom, I’m still planning to go out.” I didn’t ask him often. I didn’t go out enough to have to. In the two years since we’d separated I had gradually realized I didn’t need to show him I was still having fun, and most of the time I wasn’t anyway. Now I was comfortable enough in my single life to only go out when I wanted to. Though if I were being honest, I didn’t really fancy drinks with the neighbors tonight, but I wasn’t going to give Tom the satisfaction of letting me down at the last minute.
“It’s just something’s come up with work. I don’t have to go, but it would look better if I did.”
I rubbed a hand over my eyes and silently screamed. I knew what my night would be like: awkward conversation over too much wine with neighbors who I had little in common with. Yet I should go. Not only had I promised them, but I’d let them down the last time they’d had a party and probably the time before that.
“You told me you were free,” I said flatly.
“I know, and I’ll still come over if you really need me. It’s just that—”
“Oh, Tom,” I sighed.
“I’m not backing out if you still want me. I was just checking you definitely want to go, that’s all. You never usually want to.”
“Yes, I want to go,” I snapped, hating that he still knew me so well. I wouldn’t get this hassle if I used a babysitter, but I knew the kids loved having him over.
“Okay, okay, I’ll be there,” he said. “Seven o’clock.”
“Thank you. And come on your own,” I said before I could help myself. I knew he would never bring his new girlfriend. He hadn’t even introduced her to the children yet.
“Charlotte,” he said. “You know you don’t have to say that.”
“I’m just making sure,” I said sharply, before putting the phone down and feeling irritatingly guilty because, despite the way he still annoyed me, I couldn’t fault Tom’s parenting. And we muddled through surprisingly well.
As I turned on the shower, I tried not to think about why I was rattled by his latest relationship news. It wasn’t as if I wanted him back. Fifteen years of marriage hadn’t ended on a whim, we had gradually grown too far apart. Maybe I just didn’t like change, I thought, stepping into the shower. Maybe I had gotten too comfortable with the easy flow of my life.
• • •
THE TEN-MINUTE DRIVE to the school took us through our village of Chiddenford toward the outskirts where the small village park and quaint little shops made way for expansive areas of countryside. St. Mary’s school grounds rivaled that of some private schools. Opposite the school sat its impressive field, which backed onto parkland.
It was here that I first met Harriet five years ago when she was working as a teaching assistant. I’d always thought she’d end up sending Alice to the school, but the drive from their house was a nightmare. It was a shame because it would have helped Alice’s confidence having Molly two years above.
It must have been well past noon by the time we finally arrived for the fair, joining the long snake of cars as they approached the corner of the field that had been cordoned off as a makeshift parking lot.
Underneath the brightly colored bunting across the entrance was Gail Turner waving cars through as if she ran the school rather than just the PTA.
When Gail saw me she gestured to wind down my window, her white teeth flashing brightly in the sun. “Hello, lovely. How lucky are we with the weather?” she called through my open window. “I feel like I’ve been personally blessed.”
“Very lucky, Gail,” I said. “Can I park anywhere?” Four-by-fours ahead of me were already squeezing into tight spaces they’d unlikely get out of easily. “Why’s it so busy?”
“My marketing, probably.” She beamed. “I tried to speak to as many parents as possible to make sure they were coming.”
“So where can I park?” I asked, flashing my own patient smile back.
“Hold on, my lovely, let me see if I can find you a VIP space.” She turned away and I rolled my eyes at Jack, who sat beside me. When Gail turned back she pointed to a spot at the far end. “Go over there.” She smiled. “No one will block you in.”
“Thanks, Gail,” I said as I slowly pulled away. Being friends with her did have some advantages.
It was the hottest day on record for May, the DJ on the radio had said that morning. As I climbed out of the car, the pink sundress I’d plucked from the closet was already starting to cut into the skin under my arms and I regretted not wearing flip-flops. Lifting my hair up, I tied it into a ponytail and riffled through my bag for my sunglasses, rubbing at a scratch on one of the lenses before putting them on, promising myself I’d look for the case when I got home. “Two-hundred-pound Oakleys should not be shoved to the bottom of your bag,” Audrey had once sighed, and I agreed with her but still had no idea where the case was.
“Mummy? I need the toilet,” Evie cried as soon as we made it onto the field.
“Oh, Evie, you have to be kidding,” I muttered, grabbing my dress out of her hands. “And please don’t tug on my clothes, darling.” I pulled the top of my dress back up and looked down to see if she’d revealed my bra.
“But I need to go. I can go on my own.”
“No, Evie, you really can’t,” I sighed. “You are only three.”
“I can go with Jack.”
I turned back to Jack, who was dawdling behind me, his head still stuck in his iPad, brow furrowed in deep concentration as he fought dragons. Jack was ten now and had accomplished major skills for flicking and tapping and swiping anything that posed a threat. I knew I should make him spend less time on gadgets—I’d even been told it wasn’t conducive to the much-needed improvement of his social skills—but despite all that, I also knew my son was happiest when he was in his own private world.
He looked so much like Tom with his thick, dark hair and the way his eyes scrunched up when he was concentrating hard. I smiled at him, even though he remained completely oblivious, and when I turned back to Evie I realized I’d lost sight of the other two. “Where are Molly and Alice? They were both right here. Evie?” I questioned impatiently. “Where have Molly and Alice gone?”
Evie pointed a chubby finger toward the cake stall. “Over there.”
I let out a breath as I saw them idly staring at the sugar-topped fairy cakes that had been delivered in hundreds by the mums. My daughter had a hand grasped tightly around Alice’s arm and was talking at her and pointing out cakes as if she were about to reach out and pinch one.
“Girls! Stay with me,” I called. Streams of people wove in and out of the stalls, and Molly and Alice were momentarily lost behind a family—a large father with a T-shirt that read LOS POLLOS CHICKEN, and his equally large wife stuffing a doughnut into her mouth. I edged toward the cake stall, peering between the legs of the kids trawling behind the couple.
“Molly! Come back here, now.” The two girls finally appeared. Meanwhile Evie was now bouncing from one foot to the other and tugging on my dress again.
“When can we get cotton candy?” Molly asked. “I’m starved.”
“And I really, really need the toilet, Mummy!” Evie shouted, stamp
ing a little pink shoe into the grass. “Urrrgh, I’ve got mud all over my feet,” she cried, shaking her foot and kicking me in the leg.
“It’s a bit of soil, Evie, and I did tell you it was going to be muddy, but you still insisted on wearing those shoes,” I said, wiping the dirt from her foot and my shin. “And try and watch what you’re doing. You hurt Mummy.”
“I’m dirty!” Evie screamed, falling into a pile on the ground. “I need the toilet.” I looked around me, praying no one was watching. A couple of mums glanced in my direction but turned away again quickly. I could feel the heat spreading rapidly to my cheeks as I decided whether to walk away and leave her writhing on the ground or pick her up and give in just to save face.
“Oh, Evie,” I sighed. “We’ll go behind the tree.” I waved my hand toward the side of the field.
Evie’s eyes lit up.
“But do it subtly. Try not to draw attention to us,” I said as I pulled her over to the tree. “Then we can go and get cotton candy,” I called behind me. “And we can find the bouncy castles too, would everyone like that?” I asked, but if they answered, I didn’t hear them above the noise of the crowd.
• • •
DESPITE THE START of a niggling headache, I ordered a coffee from the cotton candy stall. It felt inappropriate to get a glass of Pimm’s when I had four children to watch, and coffee was almost the next best thing. I looked around and waved at friends I spotted in the distance. Audrey tottered across the field, wearing ridiculous high-heeled sandals. Her hair was piled high on her head, a shawl draped over her shoulders, and a long satin skirt swished behind her as she walked. Audrey was completely not dressed for either the weather or a school fair, but she didn’t care. She waved back at me, grinning and gesturing at all the children huddled beside me with a look of mock
horror. I shrugged as if I couldn’t care less that I was on my own with so many children to look after.
I saw Karen and smiled to myself as she stood outside the beer tent waving her arms dramatically to get her husband’s attention as he tried to ignore her.
“So the bouncy castles next?” I asked, when each of the kids was happily picking at the sticky pink sugar. We began walking toward the farthest side of the field, where I could make out the tip of an inflatable slide. “Look how big that one is.”
“I want to go on that one instead.” Molly’s eyes widened as she pointed to a huge inflatable that stretched back to the very edge of the field. It was bright green with inflatable palm trees swaying on the top and the words “Jungle Run” running down the side. Molly ran over to look inside its mesh windows, and for once Jack was close at her heels.
“It’s awesome,” she cried. “Come and have a look, Alice.” Alice ambled over obligingly and peered through the window. My heart went out to Alice as it often did, seemingly happy to go along with whatever the others decided, but sometimes I wished she would speak up. I rarely knew if she was happy or simply didn’t have the confidence to say otherwise.
“Can we go on, Mum?” Jack asked.
“Yes, of course you can.” It was the kind of thing I would have loved as a child, and would have reveled in dragging my sister through.
Alice pulled back and looked up at me.
“You don’t have to go on it if you don’t want to,” I said.
“Of course you want to, don’t you, Alice?” Molly piped up.
“Molly, she can make up her own mind.” I pulled out my purse to count out change. “Would you rather stay with me?” I said to Alice.
“I’m not going,” Evie interrupted. “I’m going on the slide.”
“Would you like to go on the slide with Evie?”
“No, I’ll go with Molly,” she said quietly, and I realized those were the first words she’d said to me all day.
“Right, well, stick together all of you. And Jack, watch out for the girls,” I called behind him, though I doubted he’d heard me. He was already halfway down the side of the Jungle Run.
I passed the money to a mum I didn’t recognize and when I looked back, they were already out of sight around the back.
“Come on, Mummy.” Evie tugged at my dress again.
“Five minutes, Evie,” I said. “They’ve got five minutes on this and then we’ll go on the slide.” I needed to sit down in the shade. My head was starting to thump and the coffee wasn’t making it any better. “Let’s go and watch that magic show being set up, and then I promise you can go on it.”
• • •
EVIE WAS ABSORBED in watching the magician, which meant she was momentarily silent. I pulled my phone out of my bag as a matter of habit and checked my messages, reading a text from my neighbor about the party that night, asking everyone to come around the back so we didn’t disturb the baby.
I looked at my email and pressed a link that took me to Facebook, reading some inane quiz and then scrolling through posts, getting caught up in everyone else’s lives.
I glanced over and saw the children tumbling down the slide at the end of the Jungle Run and then running around the back again before I or anyone else had the chance to tell them their time was up. I commented on a picture of a friend’s holiday and updated my status that I was enjoying the hot weather at the school fair.
When I eventually got up and told Evie she could go on the slide, we went back to the Jungle Run, laughing as Jack hurled himself over the edge at the end and fell onto his back at the bottom.
“That was awesome,” he cried, picking himself up and coming to stand next to me.
I threw an arm over his shoulder and pulled him in for a hug, and
for once I didn’t feel him tense. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. Where are the girls?”
“Oh, Jack. I told you to look out for them.”
“They should have kept up with me,” he said smugly.
We watched Molly throw herself over the top and plummet down. “Ha! I beat you by a mile.” Jack laughed.
“That’s because you pushed me at the start. Mummy, Jack hurt my arm.”
“You’ll be fine,” I said, rubbing her elbow. “Where’s Alice?”
“I thought she was behind me.”
“Well she isn’t, Molly, she’s probably stuck somewhere and she might be scared. One of you’ll have to go in again.”
“I’ll go,” Jack said, already sprinting around the side, eager for another turn.
“Me too.” Molly disappeared just as quickly, both of them out of sight again. I waited. I glanced around the field, marveling at the amount of people, noticing Audrey again, but she was too far away to call out to. I needed to ask her if she could take Jack to football for me that Monday, so I’d try and catch up with her at some point.
Jack appeared over the tip of the slide again. “She’s not in there,” he called, landing at my feet.
“What do you mean she’s not in there? Of course she’s in there.”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t see her. I went all the way through, and she wasn’t in there.”
“Molly? Did you see Alice?” I called out to Molly, who had now appeared at the end too. Molly shook her head.
“Well, she has to be. She can’t have just disappeared. You’ll have to go back on again, Jack,” I said, pushing him around the back. “And this time make sure you find her.”