“Can you help? Looking for child’s size 9 in these wellingtons (see photo). Daughter has grown out of her size 7’s and really want to replace them for her”
She was still sitting on the window-ledge. Watching the road. Two hours it had been now. Julia waved up to her from the garden, smiling, but knowing she looked falsely cheerful. Emily wasn’t fooled. She didn’t even lift her hand; just stared back at her; thumb firmly in mouth.
Back inside she checked her phone again – no text, no voicemail.
“You shouldn’t say that. It’s swearing”
There was something about being told off by her 10-year-old that always made her blush.
“I know that. Sorry. I’m cross, but you’re right, I shouldn’t swear”
She hadn’t seen him at the table (and why was he eating cornflakes at 11am anyway?) He’d been in his room on the wretched X-box when she last checked.
“Are you hungry? You had bacon for breakfast, didn’t you?” A cooked breakfast for all of them this morning: a rare treat, thinking they’d need the ‘fuel’ for the long journey down to Rugby.
“Just fancied them. I wanted a glass of milk, but it actually tastes nicer in a dish with something crunchy” and he filled his mouth again, clearly relishing his mini-feast. Matt didn’t look at all upset. He seemed to be able to cope with these disappointments better than Emily. James was notorious for being late and they’d both grown used to that, but he hadn’t even turned up at all for the last three arranged weekends. Of course, there was always a good reason, according to James.
“I’ll text him again”
“No point. Anyway, I’m going round to Sam’s in a minute.”
“Why did you arrange to go to Sam’s when you knew your dad was picking you up?”
“Or not!” he dropped his bowl in the sink. She hadn’t the heart to make a fuss about soggy cereal that would be floating in the dishwater. He was out the door anyway.
He was back a few minutes later. Placing a hand on her shoulder as she composed yet another text to James.
“Em was crying you know. I’m not bothered, but he shouldn’t let her down. She’s only little”
She grabbed his hand. Such wisdom! Underneath his calm façade though, she thought he probably did mind.
“You’re a lovely big brother”
“I didn’t do anything. I helped her find her wellies though”
“Matt! They’re too small!”
“Well she really likes them, Mum. She stopped crying anyway”
“Has she got them on now?”
“Yep” He was gone again before she could say more.
“Be back at 5 please! No later”
Her phone buzzed and she swore again as she read the text. Good thing Matt had rushed off.
Upstairs, in the doorway of Emily’s room, she watched her as she clutched the little orange rucksack they had packed together last night, ready for what should have been a Saturday night sleep-over at Daddy and Claire’s. Seeing that sad, little face now, she’d happily have punched him but, putting that thought aside, she braced herself to relay the message. There was never a good way to share the bad news, but there was a way to not make it any worse than it already was.
“Hey sweetie”, she knew it was lame, starting with that, but surely your child had to know she was still treasured, that mummy still felt the same; that hadn’t changed.
“Daddy just sent me a text” Emily’s face turned to her. Oh God, don’t show me that hope in your eyes, baby!
“He is so, so sorry, but he can’t come and get you today. Claire has been very poorly in the night”. Bogging poorly, my foot! Claire just wasn’t doing pregnancy very well. In fact, Claire was making a humongous fuss about every aspect of this pregnancy and James was being let off his lead even less than he had been since they’d married two years ago.
He hadn’t left her for Claire, or for anyone else, and in fact he’d been single again for well over a year when he met Claire. No, there had not been anyone else involved for either of them; just a growing realization that they’d fallen out of love. She would look at him and wonder who he was. How did we get here? It was mutual and he’d moved out a week after Emily’s first birthday. Sad, but in a way it was all so much easier doing the parent stuff on her own. James could do all the fooling around, the funny voices, running about in a park, teaching them to climb trees with great panache and flair. It was the up-in-the-night business, the not-being-able-to-reason-with-them stuff and the endless round of washing, cleaning, feeding, fetching and carrying that he found wearing. They’d never tied the knot themselves, her knowing always deep down that he really wasn’t the commitment type. The kids had been her idea to be fair and she’d always accepted they wouldn’t tie him to her. Weird that now he was married to a woman ten years older than him, who’d been so desperate for a baby that they’d paid for three rounds of IVF. He’d proudly shown them all the scan pictures the last time he’d collected the children. (Three months ago!) Oh the irony of it!
“Has the baby come?”
“No, no, he’s still in her tummy. It’s just, well, sometimes when you’re having a baby it can make you feel not very well”.
“Well, can’t daddy take her to hospital and then come and get us?”
Julia could see the tears threatening to spill. She scooped Emily up into a hug.
“It doesn’t work like that. Daddy needs to stay with her”. I have to move this conversation on, she was thinking, because I can feel myself getting angry again. “Em, these wellies. They don’t fit any more. Didn’t we talk about this? They’re going to hurt your feet.”
“Daddy’s going to buy me some more. Just like these” She pulled at them fiercely, with the little handles, especially made for little hands to pull up over little feet.
“Yes, he did say that, but he can’t. The people don’t make them anymore. He did try”. Bother! This was not a good diversion subject!
True, he had tried. Well, when she’d told him three months ago that Emily had grown out of them he’d had a think about where he’d got them. That was as good as trying hard really, for James.
“A street market in Leamington Spa. One of these fancy ones. They’re designer, you know”
They were lovely. Deep purple, with a repeating pattern of three stripes of pink, green and a gorgeous sparkly gold. What child wouldn’t be delighted? Not much caused as much joy as splashing in deep puddles with your crazy, beloved daddy in beautiful wellington boots that you could even pull on yourself and that he, prince of all fathers, had bought specially for her. Trouble was, it was a make she had never come across and couldn’t find anywhere in Manchester. After tramping around some of the independent shoe shops she’d turned to social media. Surely someone, somewhere would have a pair in the next size up? Please!! If she could just prolong this wellie-joy for a few more months….
Later, over tea, Emily was smearing chocolate spread over her potato waffles. (There are times when the option of an argument about sweet and savoury mix and healthy eating is not worth having!) While she watched her, feeling a mixture of disgust in herself for allowing this concoction and awe that it could help the healing process, she listened as Matt told them about Sam’s brother falling in the canal that afternoon.
“He didn’t even cry, even though he was full of slime and gunk all over! He just started wiping it all off with some leaves and he was laughing about it”
Julia was horrified. “He’s only six! Where was their dad when he fell in?”
“Honestly mum, he hasn’t got eyes in the back of his head” Now where had she heard that before? “He was on the boat. They fished him out with the pole really quickly”.
Sam and Dominic’s parents were narrow boat enthusiasts and their house had its own mooring. It was a great adventure for the boys learning how to steer the boat, help with the locks and generally get messy.
I shouldn’t make a big deal, she thought. David and Jess know what they’re doing and he would have had a life-jacket on.
“I want to come on the boat please”.
Matt looked at Emily “Your face is covered in chocolate. That is really gross, Em. You can come tomorrow if you like. Seeing as how we’re not going to dad’s now”
“Don’t tell her that, Matt. She won’t be allowed”
“No, it’s okay really. David and Jess said she can.”
And it was okay, Jess reassured her later when they spoke. She’d love to have a girl along for company and Dominic would enjoy having someone nearer to his own age. They intended to sail down to Whaley Bridge and back, probably a three-hour round trip. Emily would be quite safe; she’d have her own life-jacket and she was sure she’d love it.
Four o’clock the next day, Julia thought the text might be from Matt, updating her when they expected David to drop them off. She’d spoken to them both at lunchtime and clearly Emily was having a wonderful time.
“Dom’s so funny, mummy. He really makes me laugh. He can make Rollo do loads of tricks.” Rollo being the family spaniel. No mention of daddy and the missed weekend. Julia was relieved and thanked God for boats, giddy boys and clever dogs.
The text was from James though. Puzzled, she read it. “Need to be in Liverpool in morning. Staying over. Will stop by to see kids about 7” Maybe her reply yesterday had got to him. “Sorry you can’t make it. Matt cool but Em in tears – yet again:( Don’t fret though. Can’t be helped” Okay, so she was actually trowelling on the guilt and she’d promised herself never to do that, but sometimes, well he deserved it. You can’t mess about with the hopes and expectations of a five-year old and not expect some backlash.
Matt and Em arrived back just as James was parking his car.
“Daddy!” Her little legs carried her across the gravel drive at full speed into his arms. She was soon up in the air and laughing. I guess it’s all forgiven now, Julia was thinking. He’s got off with it again,
“Look what I’ve got for you” James proudly held up a bag to show his daughter as he placed her down. She opened it and pulled out a dazzling pair of pink wellingtons; sparkly and bright, with stripes of gold and silver. They even more wondrous than the purple ones. Julia smiled wryly and waited for the inevitable squeals of joy. Except … they didn’t happen.
Emily sighed deeply. Her face was very serious as she spoke. “Daddy, these are lovely, but I have some real wellingtons now.” She lifted her foot to show off the dark green, mud-encrusted pair she was wearing.
James looked confused and not a little disconcerted. His adoring daughter was turning down a gift from him? “Real ones?”
“These were Dominic’s” Ah, Julia thought, the ‘very funny Dom’. Sorry, James, you’ve rather been upstaged, old bean! “And his mummy says you need tough boots on the boat so you don’t slip so easy. Sparkly ones are a bit impractical, she says”
Good job, Jess, you and I could be great friends, Julia thought. James stood and watched as his daughter ran back to their host’s car to say her goodbyes. More giggling was heard as ‘funny Dom’ said something to her and Julia couldn’t help but feel sorry for her ex as Emily’s attention was fixed on her new hero. She skipped up the drive in her muddy wellies and it looked as if she had quite forgotten her dad was there for a moment. Then she stopped, turned and gave him her most dazzling smile.
“Come on, daddy. Come and see my new reading book. Can daddy stay and do my bath, mum?” He meekly follows her inside, embarrassedly still clutching the sparkly wellies, happy to settle for these carelessly thrown crumbs, having learned that even five-year-olds can sometimes get themselves better offers.
(©) Beverley Jepson-Playle 12.09.2016