Gina’s brain feels bruised, as though it’s been shaken until her memories rattled and came to rest in a disorganized heap. She does her best to focus, to reassemble last night’s events in the right order. The effort makes her dizzy. She forces her feet into her slippers and makes her way to the bathroom.
Annie sweeps the plastic cups, saucers and plates onto the floor. She sighs loudly, and her breath makes her fringe rise and fall. She’s tired of boring pretend tea parties, and she’s tired of Bronwyn, who never wants to play anything else. She stands up and puts her hands on her hips. She gives Bronwyn one of her long stares.
“Let’s start again” she says. “I’ll be the dad, you can be the mum, and Megan can be our little girl.” Hearing her name, Megan leaves her drawing and comes over to the Home Corner. She’s not normally included in other people’s games, and she’s not about to let this chance go by. Annie doesn’t even look at her. She says she’s been naughty and will have to go to bed without her tea. She pushes her, quite hard, towards the little bed in the corner. Megan doesn’t mind. She lies down, draws her knees up to her chest and puts her thumb in her mouth. She listens.
With the eye that isn’t closed, Gina stares at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Cautiously, she presses her cheek, knowing that this time the entire contents or her make up bag won’t be enough to hide the damage. Reluctantly, she begins to remember.
Bronwyn picks up the cups and saucers and arranges them neatly on the table. She gets the box of knives and forks and starts to put them out, but she can’t remember which way round they go. Bronwyn doesn’t like to get things wrong. She likes everything to be tidy and in its right place.
The sounds come back to Gina first. Amazing how many different noises a clenched first can make, depending on what it connects with. A table, a wall, a cheekbone, each makes its own sound. The thuds form a medley in her head, punctuated by Annie’s frightened crying from upstairs. The memory returns so clearly that Gina almost sets off towards the stairs.
Bronwyn searches in the cupboard for the fried eggs. Two of them have teeth marks in them, and one has lost its yolk, but she puts them in the pan and shakes them about a bit, the way her mum does. She prods at them with what she knows is called a fish slice, which is silly, because eggs have nothing to do with fish. She hums to herself.
Annie goes out of the Home Corner and comes back in again, slamming the little wooden door so hard that everything shakes. She throws herself down in the comfy chair and picks up a newspaper. She pretends to read the back first, which is where the football is. Something is missing, and after a while she remembers what it is. She goes to the cupboard, although she knows what she needs won’t be there. The pretend tins of baked beans will have to do. There are six of them, all the same. She lines them up on the floor, next to her chair. Then she picks one up, pretends to open it and takes a drink. She leans back in the chair.
Carefully, Bronwyn counts out the chips, whispering the numbers to herself. Exactly the same number for herself and Annie, because they’re grown ups, and just a few, on a smaller plate, for Megan, even though Annie has said she can’t have any tea. Bronwyn’s mum would never let her go without her tea, no matter how bad she’d been.
Annie stares hard at Bronwyn’s back. She knows if she does this long enough Bronwyn will turn round. When she does, Annie twists her face into what she hopes is a scary look. She gets up and moves slowly towards Bronwyn. When she reaches her she takes her chin in one hand, gently at first, then squeezing until her thumbs make two white circles in Bronwyn’s skin and she gasps, her mouth distorted.
Gina wanders into the kitchen. A fragment of plate crunches under her slipper. She goes to the sink and picks up a cloth to wipe the remains of the beef casserole from the wall. As she raises her hand, the memory of Annie’s crying returns. She freezes, puts down the cloth, leaving the wall unwiped, and empties her handbag onto the kitchen table.
Annie pushes Bronwyn back against the cooker. She says something about the muck on her face. Bronwyn’s brow furrows. She washed her face this morning. It must be paint, from the workshop, earlier. She tries to say this to Annie, but her mouth can’t make the words. From the bed, Megan watches, fascinated, as though it’s a TV show.
Annie releases her grip and goes to sit at the table. She picks up her knife and fork and holds them in readiness. Bronwyn hurries to slide the eggs onto the plates. She doesn’t like this new version of her friend, and wishes the old Annie, who has been gone for a while now, would come back.
Gina’s hands shake as she searches through the keys, bits of loose change and scrunched up till receipts until she finds what she’s looking for. Her fingers close around the small white card and she feels herself blush as she remembers the moment Annie’s teacher silently pressed it into her hand. The print blurs as she stares at it, but she picks up the phone before giving herself time to change her mind, and dials the number.
Hoping Annie won’t notice, Bronwyn takes the small plate to Megan, pressing a finger to her lips as she hands it over. Megan grins conspiratorially, thrilled with her new friendship. Bronwyn carries the two bigger plates to the table and sets them down carefully. She has given herself the egg with the missing yolk, leaving the best one for Annie. She sits down, smiling hopefully, and pretends to pour the tea.
Annie stares silently at the plate in front of her. She picks up the fried egg between her finger and thumb, as though she’s picking up a dead mouse by its tail. She holds it under Bronwyn’s nose, asking what it’s supposed to be. Bronwyn thinks maybe she should have given Annie the yolkless egg, which at least doesn’t have teeth marks in it. Before she can answer, Annie flings the egg across the table. It flies right out of the Home Corner and lands by the painting table. Bronwyn rises to retrieve it, before the teacher sees. Annie bangs her fist down on the table. The plastic chips jump into the air. Bronwyn sits down again.
Gina counts off the hours on her fingers. If she hurries, there’s enough time before Annie finishes school. Almost excited, she runs into the bedroom and pulls down the bags from the top of the wardrobe. It takes her only a few minutes to pack her own, knowing, as she does, that there are very few things she can’t live without. Annie’s bag takes longer. Gina stands in her daughter’s bedroom and realises that she has no idea what Annie’s favourite toy is. She chooses the knitted rabbit with the chewed ear lying on the bed, placing him gently on top of Annie’s clothes. Decisively, she zips up the bag.
Megan puts aside her plate and shuffles to the edge of the bed, leaning forward so that she can see better. Annie stares at Bronwyn, who looks down at the table, thinking that Annie isn’t much like a dad. She thinks about her own dad, and the warm, scratchy feel of his jumper against her cheek when he carries her upstairs to bed. She wants her dad. A tear slides down her cheek and lands on the table.
Annie’s fingernails dig into her palms. Anger bubbles up inside her, and she presses her lips together to stop it from escaping. She wonders what colour her face is. She watches Bronwyn wipe the fallen tear away with her finger. For a second she is sorry, but then the anger takes hold of her again. Making a noise she has never heard herself make before she places both hands on the edges of the table and sends the whole thing flying up into the air. Bronwyn jumps up and puts her hands over her ears, even though she knows that nothing will break, because none of it is real.
As the shower of plastic falls to earth the sugar bowl rolls over to where the teacher is standing. She picks it up and comes over. In her cross voice she tells them to tidy everything up. She stands with her arms folded, watching, as they do it. Then she tells them to find somewhere else to play. Frowning, and pausing from time to time to glance up at Annie, she writes something down in her special book. Disappointed with her first excursion into friendship, Megan returns to her drawing.
Gina stands near the classroom window, waiting for the children to be released. Annie’s teacher notices this, because usually Gina stands at the back, with her head down, making eye contact with nobody. Today, despite the huge sunglasses, she stands up straight, and something about her shoulders says that a decision has been made.
Gina holds out her hand, and Annie rushes to take it. Gina bends to whisper into her ear. Annie nods and smiles. Before she turns to leave, Gina mouths something at Annie’s teacher that may or may not be ‘Thank you’. The pair of them pass out of the school gate. Annie is skipping. Gina is trying not to.