Who knew what she would have done really? Probably nothing, if it meant the risk of being shot herself. She was a mother. She needed to be alive. Death strips were not part of her life. Nature strips. Shopping strips. She’d never been tested. She probably never would be tested.
‘Polly! You’ve been talking to him for hours! Dad is probably bored!’ yelled Isabel.
Why must they always be yelling? The girls missed their father desperately when he was away. He was more patient with them than Cecilia, and right from when they were little he’d always been prepared to be involved in their lives in ways Cecilia quite honestly couldn’t be bothered. He played endless tea parties with Polly, holding tiny teacups with his little finger held out. He listened thoughtfully to Isabel talk on and on about the latest drama with her friends. It was always a relief for them all when John-Paul came home. ‘Take the little darlings!’ Cecilia would cry, and he would, driving them off on some adventure, bringing them back hours later, sandy and sticky.
‘Daddy does not think I’m boring!’ screamed Polly.
‘Give the phone to your sister right now!’ yelled Cecilia.
There was a scuffle in the hallway and Polly reappeared in the kitchen. She came and sat down at the table with Cecilia and put her head in her hands.
Cecilia slid John-Paul’s letter in between the pages of Esther’s book and looked at her six-year-old daughter’s beautiful little heart-shaped face. Polly was a genetic anomaly. John-Paul was good-looking (a ‘spunk’ they used to call him) and Cecilia was attractive enough in low lighting, but somehow they’d managed to produce one daughter who was in a different league altogether. Polly looked just like Snow White: black hair, brilliant blue eyes and ruby lips: genuinely ruby lips; people thought she was wearing lipstick. Her two elder sisters with their ash-blonde hair and freckled noses were beautiful to their parents, but it was only Polly who consistently turned heads in shopping centres. ‘Far too pretty for her own good,’ Cecilia’s mother-in-law had observed the other day and Cecilia had been irritated but at the same time she’d understood. What did it do to your personality to have the one thing that every woman craved? Cecilia had noticed that beautiful woman held themselves differently; they swayed like palm trees in the breeze of all that attention. Cecilia wanted her daughters to run and stride and stomp. She didn’t want Polly to bloody sway.
‘Do you want to know the secret I told Daddy?’ Polly looked up at her through her eyelashes.
Polly would sway all right. Cecilia could see it already.
‘That’s okay,’ said Cecilia. ‘You don’t need to tell me.’
‘The secret is that I’ve decided to invite Mr Whitby to my pirate party,’ said Polly.
Polly’s seventh birthday was the week after Easter. Her pirate party had been a popular topic of conversation for the last month.
‘Polly,’ said Cecilia. ‘We’ve talked about this.’
Mr Whitby was the PE teacher at St Angela’s and Polly was in love with him. Cecilia didn’t know what it said about Polly’s future relationships that her first crush was a man who appeared to be about the same age as her father. She was meant to be in love with teenage popstars, not a middle-aged man with a shaved head. It was true that Mr Whitby had something. He was very broad chested and athletic looking and he rode a motorbike and listened with his eyes, but it was the school mums who were meant to feel his sex appeal (which they certainly did; Cecilia herself was not immune), not his six-year-old students.
‘We’re not asking Mr Whitby to your party,’ said Cecilia. ‘It wouldn’t be fair. Otherwise he’d feel like he had to come to everyone’s parties.’
‘He’d want to come to mine.’
‘We’ll talk about it another time,’ said Polly airily, pushing her chair back from the table.
‘We won’t!’ Cecilia called after her, but Polly had sauntered off.
Cecilia sighed. Well. Lots to do. She stood and pulled John-Paul’s letter from Esther’s book. First, she would file this damned thing.
He said he’d written it just after Isabel was born, and that he didn’t remember exactly what it said. That was understandable. Isabel was twelve, and John-Paul was often so vague. He was always relying on Cecilia to be his memory.
It was just that she was pretty sure he’d been lying.
‘Maybe we should break in.’ Liam’s voice pierced the silent night air like the shriek of a whistle. ‘We could smash a window with a rock. Like, for example, that rock right there! See, Mum, look, see, see, can you see –’
‘Shhh,’ said Tess. ‘Keep your voice down!’ She banged the door knocker over and over.
It was eleven o’clock at night and she and Liam were standing at her mother’s front door. The house was completely dark, the blinds drawn. It looked deserted. In fact, the whole street seemed eerily silent. Was no one up watching the late news? The only light came from a streetlight on the corner. The sky was starless, moonless. The only sound was a single plaintive cicada, the last survivor of summer, and the soft sigh of far-off traffic. She could smell the sweet perfume of her mother’s gardenias. Tess’s mobile phone had run out of battery. She couldn’t call anyone, not even a taxi to take them to a hotel. Maybe they would have to break in, but Tess’s mother had become so security conscious over the last few years. Didn’t she have an alarm now? Tess imagined the sudden woop, woop of an alarm shattering the neighbourhood.