Sue curled up on the chaise longues an pulled the pumpkin coloured fleece up to her chest. She picked up the earthenware mug from the coffee table and took a sip of her mint tea. The fire in the grate crackled as a piece of firewood snapped in half.
Through the windows she could see the rime on the fallen leaves outside. Kent would be in the stables, making sure that the animals were warm enough. That always made her smile. They literally ran around with fur coats on, but he worried about their thermal comfort constantly in cold weather.
There was a loud chirp. It had an inquisitive tone, somehow. This was clearly a simple fact. Sue was absolutely not given to anthropomorphising animals, so she was confident that this was not simply her reading more into the situation than already existed.
She opened the door a crack. ‘In here.’
There was a soft thump and then the tap-tap of claws on the hardwood floors. Kienni wandered into the room, looked around, and yawned.
‘Come here,’ Sue said, patting the couch. Kienni was quite promiscuous in her affections. She even allowed Simone to fuss her, despite the little girl tending towards overexuberance. Sue had to bite her tongue when that happened. Kent had made it clear that she did not understand how to ask someone to recentre their view of boundaries without hurting their feelings.
Sue opened her novel as the cat curled up by her knees. She had not grown up with pets and for some time had found some people’s devotion to them to be at best immature and at worst creepy. When they dated originally, she had been disturbed by Kent’s commitment to his cats. He had even cancelled a date because one of them was ill and Kent felt compelled to rush her to the vet.
The door was pushed open and Kent popped his head around.
‘You look pensive.’
‘I was thinking that I have grown and developed as a person,’ she said.
He raised his eyebrows. ‘I thought that you were perfect.’
‘Will you bring me some chocolate on the way back from the market?’ she asked.
There was a clatter down the stairs that quite belayed Simone’s tiny stature. Kent moved away from the door, but Sue heard him talking to her. To their daughter. She had never planned to have children. Had never meant to have them. She had no idea how difficult it would be, how intense her postnatal depression would be, or how hard Kent would fight to keep them on an even keel while she recovered.
He reappeared in the doorway.
‘Go away, Kent,’ she said. ‘If you don’t have goodies or medicines then you have no business being here.’
‘Apologies,’ he said. ‘But Simone doesn’t want to come to the market with me. She’s insisting on staying here with you. I thought I best check with you before I force the issue.’
Simone, on hands and knees crawled around him, and rolled away giggling when he tried to grab her.
‘Mommy isn’t feeling well,’ Kent said severely. ‘We have to be quiet and gentle.’
Simone sat up, knees to her chest, and tiny feet on the floor. ‘Sorry, Mommy. Can I stay with you?’ she whispered.
‘I can grab her,’ Kent offered.
‘You can stay if you behave,’ Sue said firmly. ‘If you don’t behave than when daddy comes home, he’ll make you sleep in the alpaca stable.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ Kent muttered. ‘I love being the bad guy.’
‘Can I be good and sleep in the alpaca stable?’ Simone asked.
Kent rolled his eyes. ‘An alpaca will sleep in your room and eat all your toys.’
He scooped her up and kissed her. ‘Be good for mommy. I’ll see you both later.’
Sue made room on the couch. She knew that sooner or later Simone would curl up next to her and nap for a little while. Small children were very much like cats in that respect. They understood and enjoyed the comfort of simple physical connection in a way that adults seemed to find continually surprising. Simone still tried sometimes to sneak into their bed with them. It was her place of comfort when she was ill and her refuge when she had a bad dream.
Sue couldn’t remember ever doing that as a child. Her parents’ bedroom had been a dark and forbidding place. Somewhere that she and her sisters had dared each other to go on pain of slapped legs, or worse, if they were discovered there. Kent had been horrified when she mentioned it. As confused and taken aback at this division of children and parents as Sue had been at his lack of it.
‘Mommy, I’m hungry,’ Simone announced.
‘If you’d gone with your father then he would have bought you a treat at the market,’ Sue said.
Simone affected innocence but was unconvincing. Kent’s idea of “treats” tended to be fruit or vegetables, which was why Sue had never bothered to challenge him on giving them to Simone when they thought she wasn’t looking. One day, probably quite soon, Simone was going to discover candy and then all hell would break loose.
But that would be Kent’s problem.
Sue got up. It was that or listen to a slowly escalating litany of comments about hunger. Simone clearly inherited that from her father. Sue never complained. She was far too self-controlled to ever do that.
Verdi was sunbathing in a patch of sunlight on the hallway floor. It cast a rhombus of his fur in shades of reddish-brown instead of their usual black. He lazily raised his head and gave a quiet chirp of greeting to Sue. She grunted in discomfort as she ducked down to pat his flank, feeling the warmth.
‘He doesn’t like me,’ Simone said, shaking her head.
‘He’s nervous of you. Animals can become aggressive when they’re afraid. People too. It causes problems.’
‘But he knows me,’ Simone protested. ‘Daddy said we’re afraid of things we don’t know.’
Sue let Simone take her hand. The tiny fingers were too small to encircle Sue’s palm. Once they had been too small to wrap around Sue’s thumb, yet still so perfect.
‘He doesn’t know if you’re going to jump or shout,’ Sue said. ‘You do those sometimes.’
The kitchen was the warmest room in the house. It caught the sun in the mornings and was warmed by the stove in the evenings. There was enough room to have the dining table somewhere else, but Kent had placed it in the kitchen. It was not highly polished or very decorative but instead heavy, solid pine. A thing that spoke of work not relaxation. The chairs were simple wood decorated only by the cushions that Sue had bought. Sue suspected that an entire troop of ranch hands could dance across the table. Two people could certainly avail themselves of it, if caught in a moment of high passion. Two people could and two people had, on several occasions.
Sue made Simone a sandwich but took a Tupperware container of soup out of the refrigerator. Kent had made pea and ham. Made it, by hand, like some kind of Victorian housewife. Sue cooked no more than was strictly necessary. She liked food well enough but not enough to think cooking it was a worthwhile use of her time. She looked at Simone as the little girl huffed and puffed climbing up onto a chair. They had a chair for her. She refused to use it. She refused to sit at her own little table. She refused to accept help getting up or down. Kent found it wildly frustrating.
Sue didn’t. Every refusal, every insistence on doing something herself, resonated. Simone was going to stand on her own two feet just as Sue had always done.
The soup was thick and hearty. That was comforting on a cold day when the winter was sniffing at the door. It tasted faintly of mint. That was a relief when indigestion and worse left her wanting only to curl up and block out the world.
Simone looked at Sue with bright, mischievous eyes, and stuck out her tongue.
‘Put that away before I pinch it off and put it in my purse.’
‘You can’t do that!’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you sure?’
Simone shut her mouth with a snap. She returned her attention to her sandwich, but continued to glance at Sue every few seconds, as if waiting for another opportunity.
When she had been born people had tried to say that she looked like Kent. He had laughed and told Sue that it was an evolutionary hangover to encourage men to protect women and babies, even if they were not in fact the father. Sue had seen almost nothing of Kent in Simone’s wide, dark eyes or pouting lips. She had felt, for a little while, almost as if Simone belonged entirely to her. No matter what people said, no matter what logic told her, it seemed as if they were in a little bubble all of their own.
Simone had Kent’s feet. Sue still shook her head about that. A child should not be able to inherit their parent’s feet. She had his dimples. When he grinned, truly grinned, they appeared briefly like the sun escaping from behind clouds. The first time that Simone had really grinned, the same dimples beamed out of her face.
‘Mommy, why are you staring at me?’
Sue sipped her soup. ‘I’m thinking about the ways you look like your father and the ways that you look like me.’
Simone grinned at her. She loved to hear about herself and about her connection to other people. Sue had not quite appreciated the essential self-obsession natural to small children until she had spent time around them. They were all the centre of their own universe and every new discovery had to be plotted back to themselves. All new person’s linkages and connections had to be mapped, discussed and reiterated.
‘Tell me?’ Simone asked.
‘You have my hair,’ Sue said. ‘But you have your father’s nose. You have your father’s laugh, but you have my singing voice.’
Simone’s nose wrinkled up. ‘Daddy’s not a good singer.’
Sue tried not to smile. ‘He’s not a very enthusiastic singer.’
Simone rested her pudgy little elbow on the table and put her chin in her hand. ‘Daddy plays the drums.’
‘He does,’ Sue said with an inward sigh. She had suspected that there were several conversations eventually to come about things that daddy did that Sue absolutely did not want Simone to do.
‘Can I play them?’
‘Possibly, if you do a lot of practice and training,’ Sue said. ‘It can take years to learn to play a musical instrument well.’
Simone finished her sandwich. ‘Dougie said that girls can’t play drums.’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘Dougie is completely wrong.’
‘Dougie said girls have to play the clarinet.’
Sue folded her arms. ‘Simone, look at me. This is important.’
The little girl straightened up.
‘Girls can play any instrument that they want. Boys can play any instrument that they want. If anyone tells you any different than they are wrong. Do you understand?’
Simone nodded. ‘Can I have drums for my birthday?’
They were dozing when Kent finally returned home. Sue opened her eyes as she felt him pick up Simone. He nestled the sleeping girl against his shoulder.
‘She’s going to be up all night,’ he said lightly.
‘Then you should have taken her with you,’ Sue grumbled.
‘I would have if you wanted.’
Sue sat up as he carried Simone into the living room and woke her up gently. Then he came back and handed Sue a gift bag. She smiled at him.
‘We’re going to have to tell her something soon,’ he said, sitting beside Sue. ‘She’s noticed that something is going on.’
Sue rubbed her stomach. ‘I don’t think she’s ready to hear it yet.’
Kent kissed her. ‘Better make it soon or we’re going to be telling her as your water breaks.’