“Libby, do stop worrying. Jack will be just fine.” Charlie shrugs off her jacket and drapes it over the back of her chair. “I know you had a bad experience with that other nursery, but Helen Flynn’s place is wonderful. He’ll love it there.”
“But suppose he doesn’t? What if it’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for him?” I say, pulling out a chair from under the restaurant table, and sitting down heavily. The chair wobbles. It has a wooden seat, and isn’t nearly as comfortable as the padded benches in the booths along the walls, but I can no longer squeeze into those, so Anna Gianni has tactfully seated us at one of Maxwell Plum’s large centre tables.
Anita opens up the black padded menu. “Think logically,” she says. “The owner told Caroline to find Dominic another school because his idea of free play was beating up smaller children with whiffle sticks. She’s not going to stand idly by if someone’s giving your son a hard time, is she?”
I open my own menu. “You’re right. It’s difficult not to worry, though.”
“I hate to tell you this, hon, but it only gets worse. Wait until he’s at elementary school.”
I don’t know why some people think you’ll feel better if they tell you things will be even worse later.
“Well, fortunately, I don’t have to think about that,” I say. “By the time Jack’s ready for elementary school we’ll be safely back in Milton Keynes. He’ll be starting Year One at the local Infants and learning how to spell properly instead of missing the U out of all the words.”
Anita and Charlie exchange knowing glances.
“You say that now,” Charlie says. “But most people stay much longer than two years. Woodhaven draws you in.”
“I’m not most people, and I’m not being drawn in anywhere,” I snap, banging the menu down on the table. “I agreed to two years, not a bloody life sentence.”
Here’s the thing. Oliver and I have been here barely nine months, and already the people in HR are talking about extending the contract. The initial two years? Fine. I can cope with that. Three? OK — I think. But where does it stop? At what point do I put my foot down, or, worse, at what point do I discover that it’s harder to go back than it is to stay?
“It’s terribly slow service today,” Charlie says, looking around the restaurant. “At this rate we won’t have time for dessert.”
“They’re short-staffed.” Anita studies her menu again. “There’s only the owner’s wife. That other loopy woman who works here is nowhere to be seen. I bet she’s out somewhere with a pushchair. Last time I saw her, there was a stuffed Peter Rabbit in it. Honestly, she’s so many sandwiches short of a picnic—”
“Carla’s a whole loaf short.” Anna Gianni materialises at our table behind Anita, notebook and pen in hand. “But I’ll take her and her stuffed animals any day, rather than be the only server on a busy lunchtime. Now, what can I get you, ladies?”
Anita’s face turns a delicate shade of magenta. Charlie bites her lip, either in embarrassment or in an effort not to laugh, and I throw Anna an apologetic smile. She winks at me as we give her our orders, then glides away to another table where a couple of businessmen in suits are having a loud, showy-offy conversation about the price of Apple stock.
“You and your big mouth,” Charlie mutters at Anita.
Anita shrugs. Her face is still a bit pink. “It’s true, though,” she whispers. “She’s as nutty as a fruitcake.”
“Must be something in the water.” Charlie picks up her own glass of water and examines it. “Take Caroline.”
Caroline still won’t say whether her new baby is a boy or a girl, and although she has now given it a name, it’s the unisex “Taylor”, so we’re none the wiser. Her husband, the boss, is equally silent on the subject.
Anna comes back with our drinks and appetisers, and Charlie asks her sympathetically if she will be holding the fort on her own for long.
“Only until Saturday.”
“And then Carla will be back?” I ask.
Anna’s tone softens. “Sadly, Libby, no.”
I see Anita raise her eyebrows as Anna says my name.
“She’s having a bad spell right now,” Anna continues. “Maybe she’ll be OK enough to come back in a few weeks. We’ve ordered her another one of those life-like baby dolls to look like the photo of…well, you know. The doll she had before was very worn and spent half its time at the doll hospital being fixed, hence the stuffed toys instead, but it’s beyond repair now. We’re just praying she’ll be happy with the replacement doll. But anyway. That’s why she’s having a bad spell.”
She bends down to pick up a napkin from the floor — mine, since I no longer have enough lap to keep a napkin secure — then pats me on the shoulder.
“You and I should get together again,” she says. “As soon as—”
“Miss?” One of the loud businessmen waves at her from across the room. “Miss? How much longer before you bring our order? We have a very important conference call at 1pm.”
Anna smiles in their direction. “I’ll be right with you,” she says loudly. Still smiling, she mutters, “Never mind gun control in this country—what we really need is to keep jerks like that separated from their BlackBerries.”
“I’ll call you on Sunday after we get the agency staff settled in,” she says to me. “I promise I’ll call.”
She hurries away.
As soon as she’s out of earshot, Anita turns to me. “How do you know her so well?”
I explain about Maggie, and how she seems to know everyone in Woodhaven.
“Maggie?” Charlie asks. “You don’t mean Maggie Sharpe, do you?”
I’m surprised. “You know her?”
“I know of her. Everyone knows of her. Or at least, everyone knows about her daughter…what’s her name?”
“That’s it. Sara. Anyway — according to town legend, she’s the reason Carla Gianni lost her mind. About twenty years ago.”
“Small town talk, but it’s what I’ve heard from quite a few people.”
“And…” I fumble around for words, do a few calculations based on what Maggie had told me about her daughter. “How did someone barely out of her teens make Carla lose her mind?”
Charlie shrugs. “Like I said, there must be something in the water here.” She picks up our water pitcher and refills all our glasses. I wait. “But the story I’ve heard is — she killed Carla’s son.”
© 2012 Kate Allison