The mothers congratulated one another on their children’s hats.

‘Ooh, Sandra, creative!’

‘Found it on the internet. Took me ten minutes.’

‘Sure it did.’

‘Seriously, I swear!’

‘Does Miss Parker realise this is an Easter hat parade, not a nightclub?’

‘Do fairy princesses normally show that much cle**age?’

‘And by the way, does a tiara really count as an Easter hat?’

‘I think she’s trying to get Mr Whitby’s attention, poor girl. He’s not even looking.’

Cecilia adored events just like these. An Easter hat parade summed up everything she loved about her life. The sweetness and simplicity of it all. The sense of community. But today the parade seemed pointless, the children snotty-nosed, the mothers bitchy. She stifled a yawn and smelled sesame oil on her fingers. It was the scent of her life now. Another yawn overtook her. She and John-Paul had been up late making the girls’ Easter hats in strained silence.

Polly’s class made their appearance, led by the adorable Mrs Jeffers, who had gone to a tremendous lot of trouble to dress as a gigantic shiny pink foil-wrapped Easter egg.

Polly was right behind her teacher, strutting along like a supermodel, wearing her Easter hat tilted rakishly over one eye. John-Paul had made her a bird’s nest out of sticks from the garden and filled it with Easter eggs. A fluffy yellow toy chick emerged from one of the eggs as if it were hatching.

‘My Lord, Cecilia, you’re an absolute freak.’ Erica Edgecliff, who was sitting in the row in front of Cecilia, turned around. ‘Polly’s hat looks amazing.’

‘John-Paul made it.’ Cecilia waved at Polly.

‘Seriously? That man is a catch,’ said Erica.

‘He’s a catch all right,’ agreed Cecilia, hearing a weird lilt in her voice. She sensed Mahalia turning to look at her.

Erica said, ‘You know me. Forgot all about the Easter hat parade until this morning at breakfast, then I stuck an old egg carton on Emily’s head and said, “That’ll have to do, kid.”’ Erica took pride in her haphazard approach to mothering. ‘There she is! Em! Whoo hoo!’ Erica half-stood, waving frantically, and then subsided. ‘Did you see that death stare she sent me? She knows it’s the worst hat in the parade. Someone give me another one of those chocolate balls before I shoot myself.’

‘Are you feeling okay, Cecilia?’ Mahalia leaned closer, so that Cecilia could smell the familiar musky scent of her perfume.

Cecilia glanced over at Mahalia and looked quickly away.

Oh no, don’t you dare be nice to me, Mahalia, with your smooth skin and the whites of your eyes so pearly white. Cecilia had noticed tiny splotches of red in the whites of her eyes this morning. Wasn’t that what happened when someone tried to strangle you? The capillaries in your eyes burst? How did she know that? She shuddered.

‘You’re shivering!’ said Mahalia. ‘That breeze is icy.’

‘I’m fine,’ said Cecilia. The longing to confide in someone, anyone, felt like a raging thirst. She cleared her throat. ‘Might be coming down with a cold.’

‘Here, put this around you.’ Mahalia pulled the scarf from around her neck and settled it over Cecilia’s shoulders. It was a beautiful scarf, and Mahalia’s beautiful scent drifted all around her.

‘No, no,’ said Cecilia ineffectually.

She knew exactly what Mahalia would say if she told her. It’s very simple, Cecilia, tell your husband he has twenty-four hours to confess or you’re going to the police yourself. Yes, you love your husband and, yes, your children will suffer as a result, but none of that is the point. It’s very simple. Mahalia was very fond of the word ‘simple’.

‘Horseradish and garlic,’ said Mahalia. ‘Simple.’

‘What? Oh yes. For my cold. Absolutely. I’ve got some at home.’

Cecilia caught sight of Tess O’Leary sitting on the other side of the quadrangle, with her mother’s wheelchair parked at the end of the row of chairs. Cecilia reminded herself that she must thank Tess for everything she’d done yesterday, and apologise for not even offering to call a taxi. The poor girl must have walked all the way back up the hill to her mother’s house. Also, she’d promised to make a lasagne for Lucy! Maybe she wasn’t skating as expertly as she’d thought. She was making lots of tiny mistakes that would eventually cause everything to fall apart.

Was it only Tuesday that Cecilia had been driving Polly to ballet and longing for some huge wave of emotion to sweep her off her feet? The Cecilia of two days ago had been a fool. She’d wanted the wave of clean, beautiful emotion you felt when you saw a heart-swelling movie scene with a magnificent soundtrack. She hadn’t wanted anything that would actually hurt.

‘Oops, oops, it’s going to go!’ said Erica. A boy from the other Year 1 class was wearing an actual birdcage on his head. The little boy, Luke Lehaney (Mary Lehaney’s son; Mary often overstepped the mark; she’d once made the mistake of running against Cecilia for the role of P&C president), was walking along like the Leaning Tower of Pisa with his whole body tipped to one side in a desperate attempt to keep the birdcage upright. Suddenly, inevitably, it slipped from his head, crashing to the ground and causing Bonnie Emmerson to trip and lose her own hat. Bonnie’s face crumpled, while Luke stared in bewildered horror at his mangled birdcage.

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