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The Next Best Thing

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There’s a long talk between Catalina and the headmistress in the office, while she chews her nails on a hard plastic chair outside- sometimes, she overhears the odd word or two (‘Grief process’ and ‘understanding’ and ‘bereavement leave policy’) but mostly it’s just a hum.

 

She wonders if Catalina is being told she’s being expelled, she wonders what happens when you’re expelled, if you go to school at all or if you stay at home or if they send you to a special scary school for expelled children- but when Catalina comes out, she just takes her by the hand and tells her that they’re going to go home and it’s all been agreed that she can start fresh tomorrow, as long as she promises that next time she feels this bad, she tells someone. They’ve made a deal, that Catalina is going to work out with her horrible-boss-James, that she can leave class to call Catalina on the telephone or just to take a moment to cool down, if she feels like she really needs to, on the headmistresses condition that she ‘not abuse the privilege’ (whatever that means- she isn’t sure.)

 

It’s a relief to be home (and it’s funny, she thinks, that she thinks ‘home’ and not ‘Catalina’s flat’ for once). She shakes her head hard when Catalina asks if she would like to take a nap.

 

‘You look exhausted, querida.’

‘I’m not. I’m fine.’

 

Catalina doesn’t look like she really believes her but she doesn’t insist. She does ask if Cathy would like her to read to her for a bit instead and that actually sounds quite nice because Catalina does Voices (and she’s really good at it). It turns out though, that lying on the sofa with her head in Catalina’s lap, listening to her read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, actually does make her fall asleep after all, and when she wakes up (from a dream of snow and talking lions and turkish delight), there’s a blanket over her.

 

Catalina raises an eyebrow from her armchair.

‘I thought you weren’t tired?’

 

(Her godmother can be really MEAN sometimes.)

 

Later, she absolutely refuses her Catalina’s suggestion that she make Anne an apology card- she’s had enough of cards- but she weakens when Catalina suggests an apology letter instead, and a chance to write it with her special heavy fountain pen. (Especially when she promises a real envelope to put it in, one that she can seal up properly rather than having to save it to reuse because Stationary Costs Money, which is what Catalina usually says when she asks for stamps or envelopes or rubber bands to play with.)

 

(‘But you brought the envelopes home from work-’ Catalina makes a noise like she’s trying to cough and doesn’t answer, and she has to tug on her hand a bit. ‘You said they had lots and lots and that stupid James would never notice and anyway, he owes you for-’ ‘Well’ Catalina is looking very uncomfortable for some reason. ‘They still cost money so-’ ‘But it wasn’t YOUR money, you didn’t pay for them because stupid James did-’ ‘Shall we get some icecream before we go home?’ She isn’t sure why Catalina is avoiding the looks of everyone else in the supermarket queue or why she’s changing the subject but icecream is icecream. And grown ups are strange. Still, it feels a bit unfair too, the way that grownups are allowed to so easily avoid questions they don’t want to answer. Why isn’t SHE allowed to suggest they get some icecream to avoid having to answer questions about brushing her teeth and making her bed and whether or not she has plans to pick up her barbies from the living room floor?)

 

‘Can I have a stamp too?’

 

‘Don’t you want to give it to her at school? See her reaction?’

 

She isn’t sure. She does...but the idea of a stamp is tempting too... Eventually though, Catalina agrees to let her have a stamp anyway (even though she’ll just hand it over to Anne at school because she isn’t really sure of Anne’s full address) and she writes her letter at the kitchen table, while Catalina keeps an eye on the soup and washes up.

 

‘How do you spell ‘emotional’?’

 

Catalina obliges. ‘What are you putting, querida?’

 

‘I’m telling Anne that I’m sorry I kicked her and that I was having emotional stress-’

 

Catalina turns hurriedly back to the soup pot and presses a hand to her mouth- when she turns back, she’s fighting to keep her face straight. Cathy isn’t at all sure what’s so funny though.

 

‘-and that I promise to never do it again, unless she does it to me first and then it will be self defence. And that she can wear the purple shoes next time we play dressing up even if I get them first and they’re my favourites because I’m showing her that I’m properly sorry.’

 

‘That sounds like an excellent letter, querida.’ Catalina stirs the soup thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps you could cement the make up properly, hm? Maybe you could ask Anne over to play one day?’

 

It’s a very, very good suggestion. She finishes the letter and Catalina shows her how to do the first letter of every line in fancy curly writing, like in the big bible Catalina keeps on a special stand in her bedroom that is Not To Be Touched, and promises that if Anne’s parents agree, she can have Anne over to play next Friday.

 

(And of course they will say yes. Although they won’t exactly, because Cathy knows it will be Anne’s big sister Mary who Catalina will end up having to ask, and she will say yes because she always does, in her quick, relieved, as if she’s saying yes before the person making the offer can take it back. 

Cathy knows this, and Anne knows this- but Catalina is a grown up, and so she knows that Catalina will do the thing that all the other class parents do every time there is a party or a trip, of trying and trying to call the house phone, and getting more and more cross when there’s never any answer, before they give up and call the mobile number for Anne’s sister that they were told to call in the first place.)

 

She gives Anne the letter in the playground the next morning and Anne is bouncing up and down with excitement at the thought of seeing her new room (and a little bit at the thought of getting first dibs on the purple shoes too). Anna hovers next to them and reaches out to touch the paper of the letter.

 

Anne lets her take it, already talking about what they’ll do on Friday- but Cathy is only half listening because Anna looks sad- a strange sort of sad where she’s smiling to not let people see.

 

‘It’s really good-’ She strokes the curly letters with a gentle finger- her voice is different to any voice Cathy has heard before and that’s apparently because Anna is from Germany and that’s how they sound in Germany, just like Catalina sounds different because she’s from Spain. ‘Did you do it by yourself?’

 

It occurs to Cathy that for all she’s been thinking about Anna, this is the first time they’ve actually talked to each other.

 

‘Catalina showed me how.’

 

‘Is Catalina your sister?’

 

‘Her godmother.’ Anne is still bouncing. ‘She’s from Spain. She’s really nice. Cathy’s lucky.’

 

She wonders for a second if Anne is going to say anything else, scared it’s going to be yesterday all over again- but she doesn’t- and surprisingly, she doesn’t feel anything other than pleased. Catalina is nice, after all. She is lucky.

 

‘Can you teach me- us?’ Anna’s looking at Cathy like she knows how to do something really amazing and she’s not sure what to say, yes or no, and then Anne interrupts and says that Cathy should teach her on Friday so that they can maybe use Catalina’s special pen too.

 

She’s about to agree- and then she thinks about how that means Anna won’t be there. About how she invited only Anne to come over, not Anna, and how if she shows Anne away from Anna, how Anna probably won’t get to see it at all. And she thinks about how sad it made her feel, when she was imagining Anna and Anne off having fun without her, and how Anna doesn’t even really seem to have any friends yet because she’s new-

 

A little part of her wants to enjoy this- to say yes, to show Anna that SHE is Anne’s best friend and that Anne isn;t in the market for a new one...but it’s only a little, little part.

 

Instead, she tells Anne that she’ll show them both at lunchtime- and Anna smiles a very small smile at her. and she smiles back, and it actually feels better than leaving Anna out would. 

(Probably, anyway.)

**

‘But you promised!’

 

‘I’m sorry querida- I just forgot-’ 

 

Catalina looks tired in her wrinkled work suit, among all the other mums in comfy cardigans and tshirts, and usually Cathy feels sorry for her when she looks like that, like she’s been carrying something very very heavy for a very very long time….but she’s too angry to feel anything other than cross because she promised, it was all planned-

 

‘It was all arranged!’

 

‘I’m so sorry-’ Catalina really does look sorry, but she doesn’t care. 

 

‘Even if you forgot, you remembered now-’ She keeps talking even though Catalina is already shaking her head. ‘So why can’t Anne still come?’

 

‘Because-’ Catalina rubs her forehead with her fingers. ‘I’ve had a very, very long day querida. I’m very tired. And we can make plans for another day but tonight-’

 

‘I don’t WANT plans for another day!’ Her eyes feel hot, she stamps her foot hard and she wishes she was big enough that it sounded scary and loud and not stupid and silly.

 

‘You are not being reasonable Cathy.’

 

It should worry her perhaps that Catalina is calling her by her name when she never calls her anything but querida or carino...but she doesn’t even care about that because Catalina is still saying no and she promised, she promised-

 

‘I don’t care!’ She doesn’t quite shout it but it’s as loud as talking can be before it tips over, and Catalina looks like she’s having to fight to make herself not shout too, even though she never shouts.

 

‘Cathy, you need to stop this NOW.’

 

‘You’re being so UNFAIR!’ And now she is shouting, and Catalina is glaring at her.

 

‘I swear, if you don’t-’

 

‘Excuse me?’

 

And then as if by magic, a woman appears between them, and it breaks them both off from their little battle.

 

‘Hello-’ Catalina looks a little bit confused because she doesn’t know this lady, Cathy realises, but she does- her name is Jane and sometimes she brings Anne and her little cousin Kitty (who’s in the Reception class and who hardly ever talks she’s so shy) to school and takes them home and gives them their tea after if Mary doesn’t do it or forgets. 

 

(Mary forgets a lot, but then again, she’s quite busy because she has a baby of her own to look after which is nice except that it makes Mary look tired all the time and sometimes she doesn’t have the energy to take care of Baby Catherine and to take Anne and sometimes Kitty to school and to go to her own classes too.)

 

 Jane’s not an auntie or even a godmother, Cathy knows, just a neighbour- but she came to the end of term Nativity last year even though she doesn’t have any other children who go to the school and clapped especially hard when Anne (and Cathy and the other girls playing angels) came to the front in their halos made from gold tinsel, and she puts the pictures Anne makes in art on her fridge (says Anne) even when they’re not very good.

 

(Cathy doesn’t know if there’s a word for the person who does that. Because neighbour doesn’t seem to really fit for Jane.)

 

‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing-’ Jane is smiling a bit awkwardly. ‘I thought I was picking Anne up today- I didn’t realise she was meant to go to you-’

 

‘It’s fine-’ Catalina shakes her head. ‘It was planned but I forgot- I don’t think I can manage it tonight and if you’re here already-’

 

‘No!’ She howls it- why is Catalina ruining things even more?- and Catalina shoots her a cross be-quiet-now look.

 

‘It’s no trouble, I can go if-’

 

‘Yes! Yes please!’

 

‘No!’ Catalina says it so sharply and loudly that Cathy is stopped in her tracks- but before anything else can be said, Jane is putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. ‘Cathy- it’s Cathy, isn’t it?’

 

She nods mutely eyes starting to sting.

 

‘Why don’t you run along and play with Anne for a few minutes while-’

 

‘Catalina’ Catalina has the sort of tight, forced smile that she wears when she’s having to make herself be polite.

 

‘While Catalina and I talk? Alright?’

 

She wants to say that it isn’t alright- but she’s also a bit scared about making Catalina cross so she nods again and turns to go.

 

‘Querida, wait-’

 

Before she can move, Catalina puts out a hand and stops her- she wonders if she’s in proper proper trouble- but Catalina just sighs and pulls her into a hug and cuddles her close.

 

‘I’m sorry I snapped at you.’

 

‘It’s ok-’ She sort of wants to ask about Anne coming over again but she doesn’t quite dare. It’s enough at least that Catalina looks normal again and has lost her shouty-cross face, and she presses herself close to her warmth and familiar safe smell before Catalina lets go and turns back to Jane.

 

She doesn’t go to play though. Instead, she takes her reading book from her school bag and sits cross legged on the hall floor a little way away, so that she can still hear.

 

‘I’m sorry to interrupt- it just seemed like things were getting a bit heated and… I know it’s not my place to-’

 

‘No, it’s fine- It’s difficult-’ Catalina sighs. ‘I did promise her, I feel awful really- It just completely slipped my mind!’

 

‘It’s quite alright- we’ve all been there!’ Jane gives a little laugh. ‘I’d offer to take both the girls to play at Anne’s but you don’t know me from Eve of course- I’m Jane, by the way.’

 

‘Catalina. I’m Cathy’s godmother.’

 

‘Yes, I- heard.’ Jane says it a bit uncomfortably, as if she’s admitting to something bad, and Cathy wonders what could be wrong with hearing things.

 

‘I can imagine everyone’s been talking…’

 

‘I think they’re just concerned for you both, really.’

 

‘I’m sure.’ Catalina says it in her sarcastic voice. ‘Funny that not a single one of them have actually come to ask how things are going….how Cathy’s coping, anything like that…. I mean, I don’t expect anything, they’re not MY friends after all….but I would have thought for Maria’s sake, at least….they were her friends once, after all.’

 

(It’s true, she realises, when Catalina says it. All the other mums used to talk to her mum at school- but they don’t talk to Catalina. They look past her like she’s not there, and then do little glances back at her. She wonders if it makes her godmother feel lonely.)

 

‘I suppose it’s difficult.’

 

‘It is. It is difficult. It’s difficult for Cathy, having to lose her parents and get used to me and deal with all the chance. And it’s difficult for me too- all I want to do is just….scream and throw things at how unfair it all is, but I have to keep things together because of course I don’t want Cathy to be worried and- Well, it doesn’t help to know half the school is whispering. Not that I care what they say about me but- you should have heard what some of them were saying when I arrived! Just because Cathy had a bit of meltdown yesterday- she’s seven, can’t they show some compassion?’

 

(Catalina sounds so angry- but it’s funny because it doesn’t sound like it’s HER Catalina is angry at. Even though she was the one to cause all the trouble.) 

‘-I’m sorry-’

 

‘No, not at all-’

 

‘I didn’t meant to unload on you like that…’

 

‘No honestly-’ Jane puts a hand on her arm. ‘It sounds like you needed to a bit. I can’t imagine how hard things must be for you both right now. I’m sorry you’re getting even more to deal with on top of everything-’

 

‘It’s just all so-’ Catalina lowers her voice but Cathy can still just about hear. ‘I’m new to all of this- as you can probably tell…. What you must think of me, shouting like that-’

 

‘You just forgot, it’s not the end of the world- especially if you’ve been working all day-’

 

‘It’s not just that… I barely trust that I’m doing the right thing with Cathy half the time’ Catalina closes her eyes. ‘I’m scared to death every moment that I’m going to do something wrong and…. just scar her for life by accident because of something I say or do wrong. The thought of two children to be responsible for- I don’t know if I could manage someone else’s child as well. What if something went wrong, what if-’

 

‘I think you’re being very hard on yourself’ Jane’s voice is very gentle. ‘Honestly...from what I  can see, you’re doing a fantastic job. Truly.’

 

‘Really?’ Catalina laughs bitterly. ‘I forget a promise I made and then I get cross with her over it like a-’

 

‘Like any parent who has had a long day.’ Jane soothes. ‘You should be happy she feels comfortable enough around you to act out a bit- I can’t tell you how worrying it is to have a child who’s too scared of displeasing you to say a word…I used to foster.’ She adds quickly as explanation. ‘The early days when they’re just...unnaturally quiet and good because they think they have to be….’

 

‘Yes I think I can safely say we’ve gotten over that…’ Catalina smiles ruefully. ‘Although you’re right...I think she’s finally starting to trust I’m not planning on getting rid of her if she does something wrong. I just- it’s such a big responsibility. To look after a child, I mean. I love her so much but I never planned to….have my own, and honestly? I’m scared to death of it. God knows what got me to even suggest it in the first place, I just wanted to cheer her up after she had such a horrible day- and she looked so happy when I suggested it and now-’

(Hearing Catalina talk is making her stomach squeeze- not from being scared but from feeling sorry for her godmother. It’s strange to think of Catalina being worried, it’s strange to hear her talk about being scared. She didn’t think Catalina was scared of anything. It’s a surprise to hear that she is, and it’s even more of a surprise to hear that Catalina is scared of HER. Or at least, scared of doing things wrong for her. She thought it was only ever children who were scared of doing things wrong for grown ups.) 

 

Jane considers. ‘I mean…. Look, please feel free to say no, there’s absolutely no obligation at all but ...would it perhaps make you feel… a bit more comfortable if you had Anne over with me to sort of chaperone? You wouldn’t have to worry about taking charge of Anne- she’s used to me, you’d have another adult to keep an eye on things and some company- although I’m happy also to just read my book if you don’t feel up for chatting...? But there’s no pressure at all,’ she adds hurriedly ‘I completely understand if you want to just  put your feet up and relax, you must be exhausted after working all day-’

 

Cathy holds her breath and wills Catalina to agree.

 

Sayyessayessayyessayyessayyes-

 

Catalina considers for a long moment- and she’s sure that she’s going to say no after all...and then she nods.

 

‘Yes. Yes please. I’d like that- it’d be nice to get to know one of the other mums here-’

 

‘Oh I’m not-’

 

Catalina nods quickly, embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry-’

 

‘Not at all-’

 

‘But yes.’ She smiles, looking a little embarrassed. ‘It’s...actually a little bit odd not knowing anyone at all- Maria did all the school mum stuff when she was here, of course but it’s not like she ever filled me in on it and it’s not like I would have listened if she tried-’ She shrugs ‘Of course we never thought she’d need it…’ She brushes roughly at her eyes and laughs a little. ‘Goodness look at me- you must think I’m an absolute mess-’

 

‘Actually, I think you’re doing a wonderful job. Really. Cathy looks so well and happy- you should be proud. She’s a lucky girl. To have you, I mean.’

 

(It’s the second time someone has called her lucky to have Catalina. And she is. She really is. She decides she’ll tell her one day herself.)

 

‘God I hope she thinks so, one day.’ Catalina tries to make it sound jokey but it doesn’t really work. 

 

‘I’m sure she will.’

 

There’s a moment, as Catalina fumbles with a tissue (she must have a cold, even though she hasn’t been sneezingJ and jane waits and pretends to rummage in her purse for nothing. Then she straightens up and smiles at Catalina.

 

‘Shall we go and tell the girls it’s all on after all?’

 

Catalina smiles back.

 

‘Let’s go.’