Flora looks up at her, eyes determined, jaw set. She nods.
It’s the same jut of the jaw, the same proud chin that Jamie sees every morning when she looks in the mirror, just above the plastic green cup containing two toothbrushes: Flora’s small, pink, hers blue, bristles perpetually worn from a habit of brushing too hard for too long.
“Ready,” Flora echoes.
It’s a cheese sandwich, but with some of that cheese Owen had given them, from France, that Flora likes so much. Carrots. Applesauce. Flora’s second favorite water bottle, the one with the cats. A paper napkin, “love you, munchkin” hastily scribbled on it in ink, alongside the quick sketch of a flower.
“Ti–” This one catches her. Flora says it, glancing down before she even realizes, brow furrowing when she sees the buckles on her shoes, but then she’s looking back up at Jamie and laughing, and it’s full and warm and the best thing Jamie’s ever heard.
“Gotcha then,” Jamie kneels, reaching out to tuck a strand of Flora’s hair behind her ear. “You sure you’re ready for this?”
Flora sighs, the puff of breath flipping another stray piece of hair up and into her eyes. “I’m ready,” she insists, reassuring. “I promise.”
Jamie sighs too, a smile forcing its way across her face through her apprehension, reaching up to brush Flora’s hair off of her forehead. “I know.”
It’s always been her and Flora.
For all of her life––all of her life that’s mattered, anyway, Jamie thinks––it’s been the two of them. It doesn’t matter, how Flora came into the world. Doesn’t matter that Jamie hadn’t had her shit together, hadn’t had a support system, had only had one self-destructive spiral after another. Doesn’t matter that Jamie knew what she was, what she wanted, that she was just so tired of hearing that word hurled her way, over and over, waves ceaseless and buffeting along an eroding shoreline. Doesn’t matter that all Jamie had wanted to do was prove them wrong, to say “fuck you, you don’t know me.” Doesn’t matter that all the universe had done in response was stake her bet, careless and nonchalant, and offer a “fuck you” right back.
It doesn’t matter that all of the times Jamie had imagined her life growing up, imagined where she could go despite her circumstances, where she would go in spite of them, this was the last place she ever went. Doesn’t matter that it’s the one place she told herself she couldn’t go, that she wouldn’t. Doesn’t matter that she was Jamie, she had insisted to herself, not Louise, her name a mantra: Jamie. She was Jamie.
None of that matters, because now it’s her and Flora.
Now she gets to make breakfast for two every morning, fried eggs and orange juice and only sometimes burnt toast; never porridge, their disdain vehement and mutual, explicable only by the curious grace of shared lineage.
Now she gets to hunch over their coffee table, dishes from dinner––that night’s and those of the night before––still waiting in the sink, tugging an eraser between her teeth as Flora looks on expectantly, Jamie trying to tease out how to do fractions she’d never properly learned herself.
Now she gets to oversee two baths each night, threading her fingers through Flora’s hair, cautiously teasing out any tangles, scrubbing at the tips of Flora’s fingers with a nail brush and determination she doesn’t even allow her own, underscored with dirt as they are.
Now she gets to duck her head, every night, to press a soft kiss to Flora’s forehead, to pull pink sheets up around her tiny frame, to tuck her in. She gets to linger in the doorway, pausing for moments she never seems to have, watching as Flora’s breaths even out, her face softening, head sinking deeper into her pillow.
Jamie blinks, Flora’s voice bringing her back to the present. Jamie clears her throat and swallows, voice rough. “Right. What’s your teacher’s name again?”
“Miss Clayton.” Flora’s listening, but Jamie catches her eyes flitting to either side, to the other children trekking up the stairs and into the school, dragging their feet, shoulders laden with bookbags. “She’s new, I think,” Flora looks back at Jamie. “I’ve never heard of her, anyway. And I’ve heard of everyone.”
Flora’s proud, a little smug, and Jamie recognizes that, too.
“Well,” Jamie leans in, dropping a swift kiss to Flora’s forehead before standing back up, “don’t scare her off, yeah? Be good. Wash your hands. Please eat your applesauce this time instead of––”
But Flora’s already off, darting up the stairs, Jamie left, alone, behind her.
Jamie doesn’t hear the end of it for days.
If it’s not about how friendly Miss Clayton is––how warm she is, how she’d wrapped Flora in the most wonderful hug on the first day, how big she smiles when Flora or her classmates answer a question right, make her laugh, or really seem to do anything at all––it’s about cool she is, how American, and that? That is something Jamie simply cannot abide.
“I remember when you used to call me cool,” Jamie sighs wistfully, sliding a bowl of ramen in front of Flora before sinking into her seat across from her. “Not some…” She waves a hand, vaguely, crinkling her nose, “American.”
Flora shrugs, shoveling noodles into her mouth, oblivious to the egg slipping out of her spoon. “It’s not just that she’s American. She’s also kind, and funny, and she has the most wonderful laugh,” Flora leans in, eyes wide. “Did I tell you what she said about pants yesterday?”
“Pants, eh?” Jamie takes a slurp of her broth, corners of her eyes crinkling as she watches Flora chatter on happily, divulging in elaborate detail a story about how Miss Clayton, catching Flora kneeling in some dewy grass alongside the playground, had said she’d wet her pants. “Like a baby,” Flora stretches the word out, voice lilting, for emphasis, eyes shining as she laughs, Jamie laughing with her.
Flora takes to people like bees to honey––she’d run around parroting last year’s teacher, Miss Jessel, all summer; had befriended their neighbor, a boy two years her senior, Miles, and his uncle, Henry, after less two days in their new flat––but Flora’s affinity for Miss Clayton is different, Jamie thinks. It’s light-hearted, aspirational. Not the fixated imitation that Flora put on for Miss Jessel, or the stubborn camaraderie she shares with Miles. There’s a curiosity there, an eagerness to share… What, Jamie doesn’t know.
“I really do, though,” Flora’s saying now, fishing in her bowl for a lone noodle, tongue sticking out as she concentrates.
“Really do what?” Jamie watches, raising her eyebrows pointedly at Flora as Flora drops her spoon, reaches into the broth with her fingers, and plucks out the offending noodle.
Flora only grins up at her. “Think you’d like her, of course!” She pops the noodle into her mouth, slurping.
“I dunno, Flora,” Jamie looks back down at her bowl, eyes twinkling. “If she doesn’t even know what pants are…”
It’s all Jamie can do not to laugh at Flora’s exasperated “she wears them, she just doesn’t know that pants aren’t trousers, I’m telling you––”
“Telling me what?”
But Flora’s distracted, hopping off her seat and running to her backpack, rifling around inside for a moment before coming back up with a purple folder and running back to the table. “Here,” she pulls a piece of paper out, sliding it over to Jamie, minding the broth splattered on the table, “from Miss Clayton.”
Jamie takes the paper carefully, immediately smudging the corner. “What’s this, then?”
“She’s giving a talk at school, Wednesday night. For the parents.” Flora’s eyes are pleading. “Please say you’ll go?”
Jamie looks at Flora before glancing back down at the paper again, lips pursed.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to be more involved at Flora’s school. If Jamie’s being honest with herself, there’s nothing she’d like more: a chance, not only to be involved in her daughter’s education beyond homework help of an efficacy questionable at best, but also to recover the space for herself. Jamie doesn’t want to drop her daughter off to reminders of a system that failed her, of an inconstant and lacking education, of the jeers and taunts slung her way. Jamie wants to feel… Well. Lighted-hearted, aspirational. Curious.
“Yeah,” Jamie says, slowly, thoughtfully, to herself at first. “Yeah, I think I could make this.”
Flora beams, then pulls their tin of cookies, permanently reposed mid-table, towards her, dragging the lid upwards. “You’ll see,” she chirps, promptly shoving a cookie into her mouth.
“Mm,” Jamie reaches across the table, eyes still scanning the paper, fingers fumbling for a cookie of her own. “I’m sure I will.”
If Dani Clayton is anything, it’s prepared.
It’s a trait she’s prided herself on as long as she can remember, from tucking a first aid kit into her bag at Girl Scout camp, pulling it out hastily, earnestly, to smooth a bandage against Wendy Davidson’s tanned knee, fingers shaking (Wendy had been the one bleeding, but it was Dani’s stomach in knots) to leaving for England, recommendations and detailed notes on certification requirements neatly paperclipped together, snug in her bag somewhere between diplomas and sample lesson plans.
She’s prepared as she begins her job search, scouring newspapers, meticulously circling age levels and specialties that might reasonably fit her experience. She’s prepared for her interviews, blouse spotless, smooth. She’s even prepared for getting the job, for finding a flat, for making friends at work (Hannah, in the front office, and Rebecca, who teaches Year Three and insists she’s “only here to wrangle an apprenticeship from one of these stodgy parents” for what Hannah tells Dani is the third year now).
Her mother would tell her it’s anxiety, not preparedness, that drives her. That it’s Dani’s own apprehension, her own personal dread, angry, empty, lonely, lurking at the back of her mind. That it’s a fear of what’s to come, a motley assessment of every “what if” ahead of her, a vain attempt at thwarting the beast of tomorrow by stocking a full arsenal today.
“Which is it, then, mom?” Dani had asked her, voice high and tight, knuckles white around the phone. “Am I scared of tomorrow, or am I here to run away from yesterday?"
She’s just being realistic, Dani tells herself. And so she prepares.
She had been prepared for the blank stares she got from Rebecca and Hannah when she’d brought up back-to-school night, been prepared to pitch the evening talk for parents focusing on the year ahead for their children. She had been prepared for the day of the presentation itself, had packed an extra piece of lasagna for dinner, tucked into the fridge in the teacher’s lounge, had wheeled the school’s garment steamer into her classroom’s coat closet, smoothing hours of dramatic play and the monotony of grading out of her blouse. She’s even prepared for the event itself, chairs lined up in neat rows by a quarter to seven, note cards arranged just so on the podium she’s dragged in from the auditorium.
She hasn’t, however, prepared for this.
She’s 15 minutes into her presentation, biting back a smile as she glances at the clock, pivoting to social emotional development right on schedule, when the door opens, and Dani stops mid-sentence.
The woman slips in with her head down, pulling the door closed softly behind her, only glancing up at Dani briefly, out of the corner of her eye, as she makes her way to an empty seat in the back of the room. Her well-worn work boots are heavy on the floor, and she’s pulled her oversized coat tight around her thin frame, as if to keep herself in it as much as the cold out. It spills open when she lets herself fall into a chair, legs splayed in front of her, and Dani’s blinking away from her chest, away from the fine line of her collarbone, away from the gold chain that rests there, catching the light.
Dani’s stuttering, stumbling for words, all things social emotional forgotten, and she’s tearing her eyes away from the woman to glance down at her notecards, only to be met with the arch of the woman’s eyebrows when she looks back up. There’s a flush to her cheeks, still adjusting to the temperature inside the classroom, a small smudge––dirt?––along a cheekbone, and her hair is pinned back and out of her face, a single, spiraled curl escaping, and before she can stop herself, Dani’s thinking about how it would feel to tuck it back, to brush her fingers against the woman’s cheek.
The woman clears her throat, inclining her head slightly, and it jerks Dani back to reality, frantically looking around the classroom, at all the parents and guardians looking up at her expectantly.
“I––” Dani’s fingers tap the podium nervously, skirting around its edges, settling along the bottom, drumming softly, then moving again. “I, uh… I was… Excuse me…”
She looks up again, casts out over the orderly rows of parents in front of her, eyes pulled back to the woman before she even realizes it’s happening, their own private gravity rapidly realizing between them. Her eyes are sparkling, Dani thinks, mischievous, and she knows those eyes, knows that look–– “Flora!” she knocks on the podium excitedly, notecards scattering. “You’re Flora’s mom, aren’t you?”
The woman blinks, and her voice is neutral when she speaks, aloof. “That’s me,” she says, pushing her fists further into her pockets.
Dani stares at her a moment longer, head cocked, thoughtful, and then she’s glancing down at her scattered notecards with a murmured “huh,” fingers tapping aimlessly at the side of the podium again before looking back up, shivering involuntarily, shaking it off. “So,” and wherever she’d gone, she’s back now, “let’s talk about individuation.”
“What do you two know about Flora Taylor?”
They’re in the teacher’s lounge the next day, Dani leaning, scrupulous, over a styrofoam cup, watching a tea bag sink to the bottom, fingers running nervously back and forth over a handful of sugar packets.
“I had her last year,” Rebecca glances back at Dani from the sink, pausing, distracted, at the number of sugar packets in her hand. “Hannah…?”
“Hmm? Oh,” Hannah looks up from the papers spread out in front of her, reaching over to still Dani’s hand. “Just one, dear.”
Dani scowls, but acquiesces, dropping all but one packet. Hannah still doesn’t remove her hand.
“Not yet,” she says, calm, patient. “Give it another two minutes.”
There’s a chuckle from the sink as Rebecca shuts off the water. “She’s perfectly charming,” she crosses to their table, pulling out a chair next to Hannah. “Cleverer than her own good, most likely. Imaginative,” she narrows her eyes thoughtfully, “gets lost in it from time to time. Really draws you in, and I mean really.”
Dani nods, her eyes drifting from Rebecca to the unopened sugar packet in her own hands. Hannah reaches over to tap the back of Dani’s hand, reprimanding.
“It’s some kind of attachment thing,” Rebecca continues. “She fixates on people, properly fixates––”
“She was as good as Rebecca’s shadow last year,” Hannah chimes in, glancing at her watch, shaking her head at Dani.
“––but I’m not sure where it comes from. It’s not her mum’s fault, even if she is alone. Jamie works so hard for Flora, always shows up when it counts––”
“Even if it’s only for parent-teacher conferences,” Hannah interjects blandly.
“Like I said,” Rebecca shoots Hannah a sideways look, “when it counts––”
Dani’s ripping open her sugar, dumping it into her cup while Hannah’s distracted.
“Anyway,” Rebecca’s turning back to Dani, Dani smiling up at Rebecca from where she’s still watching her tea bag carefully. “I doubt you’ll have any trouble with Flora, she’s––”
“Her mother,” Dani cuts in, Rebecca’s jaw tightening at being interrupted again, “Jamie, you said her name was. What about her?”
Rebecca blinks. “What about her?”
Dani can feel the tips of her ears getting warm, and hopes the two of them don’t notice.
“Just… What–– What do you know about her?”
Rebecca and Hannah exchange a look.
“Okay, look, she came to back-to-school night last night”––Hannah stifles a laugh at the phrase, still––“and she… I…” Dani shrugs, sitting up straighter, pressing her lips together, obstinate. “I just… Wanted to know more is all,” she finishes carefully, folding her hands together in front of her.
“Oh, Dani,” Hannah clicks her tongue, knowing smile flickering across her face.
Rebecca looks between the two of them, scrutinizing, a grin spreading slowly across her face.
“What?” It’s sharper than Dani means, honed by the blush she can feel spreading up her neck now.
Rebecca, unfazed by the point to Dani’s question, looks at Hannah. “You think Jamie Taylor should be more involved in her daughter’s education.”
It’s not a question, and Hannah only looks evenly back at her, making a noncommittal noise in her throat.
“And you,” Rebecca turns a shrewd eye on Dani now, “you want to…”
Dani can see her searching for the right words, for a delicate way to phrase the flush blazing its way across Dani’s face. “Get to know her,” Dani supplements.
“Get to know her,” Rebecca repeats. “I have to say, I see a pretty clear way forward here.”
Dani and Hannah glance at each other, then back at Rebecca, waiting.
“Career Day,” Rebecca leans forward, conspiratorial. “Hannah, you’re always looking for someone to take it on for you, and Dani, it’s always the same parents volunteering––look, I’ll even take over that part––so all you’d have to do is outreach to Jamie Taylor. It’s a win-win.” She leans back in her chair, proud, crossing her arms.
It’s a win for Rebecca too, Dani knows, still seeking her pupilage, an opportunity for her to connect with all the parents and guardians who are barristers, or spouses of barristers, tucking herself in close, allying herself with those spouses, their children, leaping over grabbing hands, landing, on her feet, with someone of worth to mentor her.
Hannah narrows her eyes at Rebecca, who shrugs back at her.
Dani thinks about it, biting her lip, staring down at her tea, then back up at the two of them. “Okay,” she finally says. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Rebecca grins at her from across the table.
Dani grins back, then leans over to nudge her shoulder against Hannah’s. “C’mon Hannah,” she prods. “What do you say?”
Hannah sighs. “I suppose I wouldn’t say no to a little less work. You can add that sugar now, by the way.”
Dani grins even wider, reaching out for another sugar packet, smug as she empties its contents into her cup.
“You don’t have to look that pleased with yourself,” Hannah goes back to her papers. “It’s just a phone call, after all.”
Jamie’s scrubbing up in the sink when the phone rings, Flora bolting to pick it up. Her “Flora residence!” is cheerful, and Jamie smiles, watching her, but then Flora’s gasping, eyes wide and bright. Jamie cocks her head, scouring between her fingers.
“Miss Clayton,” Flora breathes into the phone, and Jamie scoffs, looking back down at her hands, but then Flora’s stretching the cord across the kitchen, resting the phone against her small shoulder carefully as she brings it over to Jamie. “It’s for you,” she whispers, almost reverential.
Jamie raises an eyebrow, looking down at Flora expectantly as she shakes her hands dry over the sink.
Flora lifts the phone back to her ear. “One moment please,” she says excitedly, “she’s just drying her hands.”
Jamie squats down as she reaches for a towel, Flora wordlessly slipping the phone between her shoulder and her ear. She rises again, cradling it there as she towels off her hands. “What’s this, then?” Jamie says into the phone, offering Flora a quick wink, Flora biting her lip, hands wringing in apprehension. “I’m not in trouble, am I, Miss Clayton?”
“I–– What? N– No,” and Jamie would know that voice anywhere, even after the short night they’d spent together with the families of twenty-two other children. It’s the Americanness, she tells herself. It’s unequivocal in its audacity.
Flora’s watching her carefully.
“It’s Dani, by the way. You–– You can call me Dani.”
“Dani,” Jamie echoes. “I’m not in trouble, am I… Dani?”
There’s a strangled noise at the other end of the call, followed by a nervous laugh. “What do you do, Jamie?”
“To get myself in trouble?” Jamie doesn’t bother asking how Dani knows her name, doesn’t mind that she’s skipped the formality of calling her “Miss Taylor,” or, God forbid, “Mrs.” It saves her the trouble, too, spares them both the bumbling vulnerability of forced introductions, the relitigation of trauma required by the rejection of a prefix, lets them play out intimacy as if they’ve both always been there, as if they’d both already met, long before their brief encounter the previous night.
“I–– No.” There’s that nervous laugh again, Jamie thinks. “I mean–– What… What do you do? Day to day.”
“Well Dani Clayton,” Jamie leans back against the sink, switching the receiver to her other ear, into her other hand, and she imagines Dani on the other end, her fingers tangling themselves nervously into the spiral cord, “I’m a single mum. I do a lot day to day. I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific.”
There’s a sharp intake of breath on the other end. “I mean… For a job?”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Jamie glances down at Flora, still watching her, hanging on her every word.
“I am,” Dani huffs, “now. Look, I–– I’m in charge of organizing this… This Career Day, at school, and…” Jamie makes a face at Flora as she listens, Flora laughing, making one back in response. “I was hoping… I was hoping you’d…” Dani trails off.
“I’m a gardener,” Jamie supplies, voice serious now, pulling her eyes away from Flora and running a hand through her hair. “I… Plant things. Not sure that makes the cut.”
There’s quiet on the other end for a moment, then: “no, no, I think that’s great. I would–– We, we would love to hear from you. That’s… That's what they need, you know? They don’t want to hear about,” she affects her voice, drawling, “stocks and legal challenges”––she should cringe, Jamie knows, she wants to cringe, but instead all she can do is stifle a laugh––“They’re kids. They want to hear about playing in the dirt. I mean, gosh, I,” Dani’s voice is softer now, almost a whisper when she tacks it on, “I want to hear about it.”
Jamie bites the inside of her cheek, looking up at the ceiling, considering. She’s just starting a major landscaping project, the seasons are about to transition, but… Her eyes fall back to Flora, watching Jamie expectantly, eagerly, breath coming in short, excited bursts through her nose.
“Yeah, alright,” and Flora’s eyes are lighting up at the same time as Dani’s sighing, relieved, on the other end. “Just, uh, let me get down the information?”
Flora’s running for a pen and a notepad before Jamie can even ask.
Back in her flat, on the other end of the call, Dani’s grinning, phone cord twined around her fingers. “I’m excited to see more of you, Jamie Taylor,” she says, confident, nodding to herself, then pauses. “In the classroom, I mean,” she adds, definitively less confidently. “I’m excited to see more of you in the classroom.” It’s a saving grace, she thinks, that Jamie can’t see her blush over the phone.
Jamie only laughs. “Can I pass you off to Flora to say goodbye? I don’t think she’d forgive me if I didn’t.”
“Oh,” Dani pauses. “Of course.” There’s the garble of the phone switching hands, Flora accepting it greedily, pressing it hard against her ear, and Dani’s voice brightens. “Flora!”
Dani can hear Jamie’s footsteps in the background, hears the creak of a cupboard, the metal clang of a pan. She hears Flora take a deep breath, prepared to launch into an elaborate story about the rest of her day, but then––
“Hey, Flora?” It’s muffled, but Jamie’s voice is unmistakable. “Can you tell Miss Clayton I’m excited to see more of her, too?”
Flora parrots the message back, and Dani grins widely, smiling the rest of the night.