Mel has chosen Union Jacks. She’s hoping they’ll say street-parties and bunting; maybe infuse the atmosphere with some goodwill and warmth. She folds each one and lays it on a saucer.
“You can’t make them like us, you know, Mel,” Rob says, watching her smooth out the tablecloth as he prepares to leave for work.
“I know that,” she says. “I’m not trying to make them like us. I’m just trying to make it harder for them not to like Jack.”
She’s sure that they would rather not be coming to her house today. But it was made very clear to her when they moved to the village that “the Britherham Village School Mothers’ Meetings are held in strict rotation.”
So this month, no-one can deny it’s her turn.
When the doorbell stops ringing, Mel counts just seventeen. Which at least means everyone gets a teacup, and she won’t have to put out mugs.
Every woman milling round her living-diner is the mother of at least one at the village primary. They are all politely pleasant, and one of them gives Mel a noticeably genuine smile. “Hello there, I’m Steph,” she says, giving Mel’s hand an oversized shake. “Thanks for hosting. Here- I’ve brought cake!”
She passes Mel a huge jam sponge with a ribbon tied around it. It prompts a few ripples of “ooh!” in several conversations about how this child and that are doing this term.
No one asks Mel about Jack.
Mel goes to the kitchen to make tea, and stands staring at the small bottle on the high shelf while she waits for the kettle to boil. Her heart always sinks a little deeper when she sees Jack’s name on the label, looking so small next to 5MG TWICE A DAY.
And then she remembers Jack asking her if taking the pills will give him superpowers, and she’s smiling by the time she goes back to the dining room with tea.
There’s a sudden hush as she enters the room. Mandy, a mother from Jack’s class, is sitting with her lips pursed and her eyebrows raised. Mel sees Mandy’s eyes flit briefly to Jack’s school photo on the piano, as if checking that she hasn’t left her words behind on his face.
Mandy sees Mel watching her, and hastily rearranges her gaze onto the piano. “Erm- so who plays?” she says brightly.
“Jack,” says Mel, setting his name firmly in front of everyone along with the teapot. “He plays beautifully. His teacher says he’s very good for his age.”
Mel pours the tea. She tops up the pot. She pours more tea. And teacups are raised to faces, like bone-china masquerade masks.
Eventually Mel stops serving and hides behind her own cup for a while. She spots a chip on the rim, but it doesn’t matter. She knows that behind their masks, no one is looking at her. They’re looking at the little boy who disrupted the Class Assembly last week. Who once bit another child’s arm. Who has to be supervised in the queue for lunch.
Teacups clink on saucers, like awkward coughs in the silence.
“Bloody lovely napkins,” someone says.
Mel looks up. It’s Steph, the one with the genuine smile. She’s standing at the piano with a napkin in her hand.
“The Union Jack,” Steph continues, gazing at it thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t think it would work, really- all those stripes and sharp wedges crammed together, and all that fierce red and cool blue trying to share the same space.” She places her napkin on top of the piano, looking around at no one in particular. “But of course it does work, and it works very well. Just a little bit of space here and there, where it’s needed, and- voila! It’s bloody marvellous, don’t you think?”
Mel’s face begins to burn, and she stares down at her cup. It starts to feel like a small trophy in her hands.
And then someone says, “Well! Maybe it’s time we all had a piece of cake.”
And then someone else says briskly that “you know, we really ought to be gathering our thoughts for the Christmas Bazaar.” And there’s a gradual blooming of chatter, and a setting down of cups, and a searching of handbags for agendas and pens.
Mel smiles gratefully at Steph, and briefly raises her teacup in a small, silent toast. Steph winks, and then turns away to join a discussion about the raffle.
Mel walks over to the sponge cake on the table. She slips off the cheerful yellow ribbon and slices the cake, as generously as she can.
After they’ve gone, Mel doesn’t clear up. Instead she sits for a while just looking at what’s left: at her dining table, strewn with scrunched napkins and used cups.
It looks just like the table at 42 Pine Drive looked last month, and just like the table at 6 The Grove will look next month.
And for a moment, Mel closes her eyes, trying to feel just what it’s like to be them. No medication in her kitchen, no child therapists in her Contacts, and a sunny, clear future stretching before her like a yellow-brick road.
And then Mel’s eyes are wide open again. Because thinking that way doesn’t last long. It never does.
Mel hums as she begins to clear up the mess; stacking teacups, discarding napkins. The yellow ribbon from the cake is lying stretched across the table, climbing and twisting round saucers and spoons. Mel picks it up and carefully winds it around her fingers. She puts it in her pocket. She’s going to give it, she decides, to Jack.
She’s going to give it to him the next time that he’s running in happy circles round the village green.
She’s going to tell him to hold it up high as he runs, and to let it fly behind him, like a small, bright banner in the wind.