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The Next Best Thing

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It’s a bit of a squeeze to get all four of them around Catalina’s smallish table but they manage it.

Anne says it’s lucky Kitty isn’t there, or they wouldn’t be able to fit and Catalina says she’s sure they’d find space and she and Jane exchange a grown-up sort of smile that means it’s about more than how many people can fit around a table.

‘Where is Kitty today?’ Catalina finishes putting the leftover pasta in the fridge and joins them at the table.

Jane takes a sip of water. ‘She’s staying with her daddy for a while- it’s good for them to spend some time together.’ 

(Her tone is quite light but there’s a pinched anxious look that Jane can’t quite hide when she says it, like she’s trying to convince herself as well as them that this is a good thing.)

‘I don’t have to share my bedroom anymore!’ Anne pipes up, twirling her fork like a baton. ‘I can sleep with the light off now that Kitty’s gone-’

(Cathy decides not to point out that the likelihood of Anne actually wanting to sleep with the light off is zero.)

‘Sweetheart, you know it’s just for a few weeks. It’s only temporary.’

‘That’s not what Uncle Edmond said- he said he was going to take Kitty back to live with him and Marcia- that’s his girlfriend’ Anne adds, for Catalina’s benefit, and she and Cathy giggle.

 (Cathy has already heard all about Marcia, and her very-long fingernails and how she knows how to make the pictures she takes on her phone look like the people in them are wearing make up even when they’re not and how she and Uncle Edmond came to visit at Anne’s house and stood in the kitchen for ages doing big movie-star kisses right in the walk-in pantry.)

Jane’s pinched look becomes a bit more pronounced. ‘He was angry, he didn’t mean it really- Anne, please stop that before you put someone’s eye out!’

‘Jane and Uncle Edmond had a fight on Saturday’ Anne announces, letting her fork drop to the table with a clatter and picking up her glass of orange juice. ‘He said you were stealing Kitty away-’

‘It wasn’t a fight’ Jane corrects, then turns to Catalina. ‘He knows she’s settled where she is- he just wants to see her a bit more which I fully support.’ She says the last bit almost as if it’s Catalina arguing with her, even though she hasn’t said anything. ‘Which is why Kitty is going to be with him for a while, let them have some time together, just the two of them-’

‘And Marcia. She said she’s going to be Kitty’s new Mummy.’

Jane looks as if she’s having to hold herself together. ‘I’m sure she was just…. Edmond wouldn’t- She’s just being a bit overenthusiastic…..’ She’s blinking a little bit too much and Catalina puts a hand on her arm. 

‘It’s ok- I’m sorry, it’s none of my business, you don’t need to explain it to me, I know families can be complicated.’

She’s apologising although she didn’t ask anything- she’s apologising to smooth things over, Cathy suddenly thinks. (It hasn’t occurred to her before that you could say sorry for a thing that wasn’t your fault.)

‘It’s quite alright-’ Jane forces a smile at Catalina and takes up her fork again. ‘Jocasta- Kitty’s mother- is- was….my closest friend- It’s hard, you know?’

Catalina nods, like she understands, and Cathy supposes that she does. It occurs to her that she and Kitty have that in common, except that Kitty at least still has her dad-

Jane’s phone starts to buzz and she pushes back her chair, frowning when she sees the number. She gets up as if to go- except there really aren’t many places to be in Catalina’s flat, so she just ends up standing a few feet away, her back to them.

Catalina tells Cathy and Anne to finish their pasta and let Jane take her call in peace but even while chewing, they can all hear everything.

‘Edmond, hello-’ Jane sounds worried but like she’s trying to force the worry away, to pretend it’s not there at all. ‘How are things going?’

She listens. ‘What? Sorry- there’s static- is Kitty ok? Has something happened? Where are you?…… No, don’t go there- I’m not even at home right-….. A friend of Anne’s, not that it matters. I do have my own-’ 

She sighs, like she’s giving up ‘Sorry, sorry, I just- look, what’s happened? Has something- I thought she was meant to stay with you until the third?’ 

As she listens, her face changes- anxiety, anger, sadness, all together. ‘That’s hardly-…… I wouldn’t call that-….. Edmond, she’s only four!’ 

Anger is definitely winning now. 

‘She barely knows you, of course she’s not settling yet- you just have to be patient with her, give her some time…. Trouble? Edmond, she’s a child, you have to actually look after her you know- like I told you, check she’s dressed warmly enough, ask her if she needs the bathroom, ask her if she needs a drink, ask her if she’s hungry…. You know she’s shy, she doesn’t like to ask for things-’

There’s another pause.

‘Well, why doesn’t she have a coat?’ Jane demands. She’s pacing a bit now, biting the skin of her thumb.

 ‘I offered to pack her bag so this wouldn’t happen, you know I did- if she doesn’t have everything she needs now, then as her father, couldn’t you……..Oh please no-’ 

Suddenly, it’s like all the fight goes out, it sounds like she’s pleading. 

‘Please no- Edmond, honestly, she was so excited to see you, you have no idea…. She’ll be crushed- What?….. No actually I think she WILL notice if you drop her home two weeks early, she’s not a baby….’

Her voice gets sharper, she sucks in her breath.

‘That’s a horrible thing to say about your own daughter- she’s just scared, she loves you but she doesn’t know you yet, you just have to wait for her to get comfortable around you…’

She’s almost begging. ‘Edmond, please, please, she’s your child. For Jocasta’s sake, couldn’t-…..’ 

And then it’s like a switch is flipped and Jane is nearly shouting down the phone, unexpectedly crossly for such a nice looking woman.

 ‘How dare you, you know I- don’t you dare, Edmond, don’t you dare!’ Cathy’s stopped eating- she notices Anne has too. Catalina has gotten up and is trying to get them both to leave the table, but Anne’s staring at Jane, wide eyed, and won’t leave her chair, and she’s gripping Cathy’s hand so tight that her fingernails are digging into her palm.

‘I swear Edmond, if you tell her I don’t want her I will-’ Jane’s voice breaks and she has to press a hand to her mouth; her voice is muffled. ‘Look- I’m going to get home as fast as I can- don’t you dare leave her unless I’m there…. Promise me! Promise-’

Slowly Jane lowers her phone and stares at it for a moment, her breath coming faster.

‘Jane?’

She looks up- Anne has left her seat and crept around the table, hovering.

Jane blinks at her for a moment as if she doesn’t recognise her- and then Anne sniffs and Jane hurries over to wrap her in a hug.

‘Is Kitty ok? What’s happened?’

‘It’s ok-’ Jane is clutching Anne to her almost fiercely. ‘It’s all ok, sweetheart- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, I just….’ She moves back and takes a deep breath. ‘Kitty is fine, I promise. She’s just coming back a little bit early, ok?’

‘Why?’

‘She….just is. Plans change sometimes, you know?’ 

‘Good.’ Anne leans in Jane again and buries her face in her neck, in a way that Cathy has never seen her do with her own mum. ‘I miss her, I don’t really mind sharing my room-’

‘I know you don’t, darling.’ Jane presses a kiss to the top of her head and then stands up, turning to Catalina. ‘Look….I’m sorry- that you had to hear that and that I have to ask you for a favour so soon-’

‘Not at all’ Catalina waves the hand that Cathy isn’t clinging (Anne isn’t the only one who found the phone call a bit scary) to in a ‘dont-worry’ sort of way. ‘Whatever I can do-’

‘-but could you keep Anne here while I go and get Kitty? I don’t want Anne to have to see-’ She stops herself. ‘I just think it would be better….’

‘Of course.’ Catalina nods confidently and then steps forward and puts her hand on Jane’s arm. ‘I understand completely- just let me know what I can do-’

‘Thank you-’

‘If you need me to take Anne home later-’

‘Thank you, we’ll…..see. I really thought this time-’ Jane bites her lip as if pushing something deep inside. ‘Thank you, for being so accommodating- I really owe you-’

‘It’s nothing-’

They can hear Jane’s hurried footsteps as the door closes behind her and suddenly Cathy feels so very, very grateful that she’s her and not Anne, that it’s not Catalina having to rush off to rescue someone from something….

 (She isn’t sure exactly what is happening with Kitty. But she knows it isn’t good.)