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The Next Best Thing

Chapter Text

 

They pack her clothes for her but she packs her own books, into the hard shiney holiday suitcase with wheels. They don’t all fit, the rest are stacked in piles in crumpled plastic bags that she sneaks from the kitchen.

 

(Is it her kitchen now that her parents are gone? She knows she can’t stay there by herself- she’s seven, not stupid- but when she is told the house will be sold, she feels an empty hole open in her chest. She’d imagined it would be left, preserved and intact, for her to return to when she’d grown up. Instead, it’s divided up into pieces and seeing the once familiar pieces of furniture out of their usual surroundings makes them different, as if they’re not really the same anymore. Her own bed, the big squashy armchair for reading bedtime stories, when set outside on the curb for the van, become just pieces of furniture. Their familiar safe feeling has leaked out.)

 

They tell her off for packing her books in her good suitcase- apparently the suitcase is meant to be for clothes- but she doesn’t care. When they suggest she just pick out one or two books to take with her and leave the rest since she’s read them all already anyway, she’s suddenly afraid- it’s like they’ve suggested she choose a finger or toe to leave behind and the fact that they’re looking at her as if they’ve what they’ve suggested makes sense is scary. 

 

She offers to leave her clothes behind instead, and they laugh like she’s joking.

 

When she won’t choose, they choose for her and the rest of the books are left with the furniture. Parents, home and now her most special things have been peeled away from her and she feels smaller as she slides resignedly into the car and buckles the seatbelt.

 

She tells herself she won’t cry but she does.

 

*

 

Her godmother has been Catalina for as long as she can remember, never anything else, not in birthday cards or Christmas and Easter cards, and not in person during rare family get-togethers, during which she would peek around corners at the imposing woman with the suitcases and the heavy accent and the stories about somewhere called Castille, waiting for Catalina to notice her, to beckon her forward and ask what she has been reading.

 

(Her godmother would listen seriously to her answer as if it mattered and ask her serious questions about characters and plot and although it was strange, the absence of the faux-bright ‘talking-to-children’ tone that some of her other relatives adopted, she quite liked it.)

 

Her godmother has always been Catalina but they refer to her as ‘Aunty Cathy’ all the way to her house in the bright, florid tones one uses with children and pets.

 

She considers telling them that Catalina is her godmother, not her aunt, but she doesn’t.

She considers telling them that Catalina never goes by Cathy, that she’s seen herself how firmly she corrects the unwitting, foolish few who try to angelecise her name but she doesn’t.

 

She doesn’t say anything at all and she can tell that it makes them uncomfortable, embarrassed, when she stays musical-statue-still at their repeated requests to ‘say hello nicely’ and ‘give your aunty a hug’.

 

Catalina doesn’t seem particularly discomforted though- her smile is sad but as warm as ever, and she brushes off their apologies for her uncooperative ‘niece’.

 

‘It’s quite alright. And actually, she’s not my niece.’

 

It doesn’t make Cathy happy (she can’t imagine that she’ll ever feel happy again, she can’t imagine smiling ever again) but she does look up from her shoes.

 

(They’re her best shoes- birthday-parties-only shoes- but the tired-looking social worker hadn’t known that she was getting ready. Maybe the rule doesn’t exist now anyway since there’s no one to enforce it. It occurs to her that maybe she can wear special clothes all the time now and the thought makes her want to cry.)

 

‘She’s my goddaughter.’

 

Catalin catches her eye and smiles.

 

She nearly responds.

 

***

 

She should be sad about her parents- and she is, she is- but she’s sad about her books too. 

Not having them makes her feel smaller, untethered, like she’s not quite real.

 

Everything makes her feel not quite real. Her things (what’s left of them) have been added to Catalina’s small flat, the spare room bed is now hers. Catalina buys things at the supermarket that she’s sure she never used to buy before- rice krispies and chocolate spread and ribena- and a lower coat peg has been added to the hall cupboard for her coat...but she still feels as if she could disappear and not be noticed.

 

Catalina finds her curled up and crying under her bedspread one afternoon and scoops her out worriedly, asking if she is hurt, if she has pain. Her palm feels cool against her hot, damp cheek, her long fingers brushing away tears.

 

‘Talk to me, querida.’

 

It’s not the first time she has called Cathy this but it’s the first time since the moving-in four days ago. She’s the only one who has ever called Cathy that and so it doesn’t hurt like it does when other adults unthinkingly use names her parents once did- ‘Sweetheart’ ‘Darling’ ‘Honey’.

 

‘Tell me.’

 

She doesn’t want to- she doesn’t want to admit that she’s crying for things, for her old bedroom, for fear that it makes her seem heartless, selfish, unloving.

 

She should be crying about her parents, but that would require thinking about them and that’s something she only lets herself do in short bursts. She isn’t sure why but it makes her think of the time she sprained her wrist last summer (in a badly misjudged attempt at jumping from tree to trampoline during a game of Explorers)- after the initial chaos of noise and screaming (Anne, who had been playing the part of co-explorer at the time) and crying (her mother, who had argued against the trampoline in the first place), the pain had subsided into a dull, threatening throb, and she’d known instinctively that even to lightly brush against it would result in the sort of white-hot agonies that would make injections and scraped knees seem like nothing.

 

She doesn’t think too much about her parents but she is afraid to tell Catalina the truth in case it horrifies her, in case it makes her pull away and not want to have Cathy live with her anymore, because where would she go then?

 

So she whispers ‘Mum and Dad’ instead, and feels Catalina’s arms go around her tightly. 

 

She feels sick with herself for the lie.

Chapter Text

Going to Waterstones is a treat, but when they get there, she can’t make up her mind- there’s too much choice, too much. The thought of so many books, hers for the choosing, makes her feel a bit sick, in the same way that she would if she imagined eating ten icecream sundaes- too much of a good thing.

 

(Or perhaps it’s just that she’s tired. She’s always found it a bit hard to fall asleep but that used to be because she couldn’t stop thinking that she might be missing out on something interesting going on. Now though- she lies awake and thinks of home. She thinks of all the ways in which Catalina’s flat is different. She thinks about what will happen if something were to happen to her godmother- where she’ll go- and then she thinks about all the things that might happen to her, about how scary it is that no one knows what might happen next, how every day could be the last day you are alive and you just wouldn’t know at all. She doesn’t tell Catalina about these thoughts. She tells her she’s slept well.)

 

Choosing is hard- part of her wants to replace the old stories she lost, part of her is tempted by the new titles.

 

Eventually, she picks Matilda- out of all the books that got left behind, she misses that one the most. Thinking about it- about everything from that day, about the sad furniture on the curb, about how cold the house suddenly felt, about the strange hands pawing through her things- makes her eyes sting with sudden shameful tears and she has to stare at a shelf of stories about horses and blink hard until they go away. 

 

Catalina looks surprised when she hands her choice to her at the till.

 

‘Don’t you already have this one, querida?’

 

She isn’t sure whether to nod or shake her head- it occurs to her that of course Catalina recognises it. It was the last birthday present sent before everything changed. She wonders if Catalina will be angry that she let her birthday present be left behind, if she’ll blame her for not taking better care of it.

 

(Will she want to keep her if she thinks that Cathy is careless with her presents?)

 

It’s scanned and paid for before she’s been able to think of an answer and her godmother doesn’t appear to give it another thought, but then the tears- which apparently haven’t gone entirely away- start to leak out while she picks at her muffin the Waterstones cafe and Catalina sees.

 

‘Cathy? What’s the matter?’

 

She shakes her head and sniffles.

 

‘Querida-’ Catalina gets up, crouches by her chair. ‘Are you ill?’

 

She shakes her head again, then wishes she hadn’t, she wishes she’d pretended she was- it would be easier to explain.

 

‘What is it, carino?’

 

She doesn’t protest much as she is scooped out of her chair and into Catalina’s warm lap (even though she’s too big, she’s seven after all and everyone knows that seven is more or less eight and eight is nearly ten and ten is very nearly thirteen and thirteen is a grown up). 

 

Being wrapped up in her godmother’s arms feels nice, it feels safe, even if she knows that she probably will get into trouble in a minute, even if she has to close her eyes when she mumbles that she did used to have a copy of Matilda, that she doesn’t any more.

 

Her face is buried in Catalina’s jumper so her words come out a bit muffly but she seems to get the gist.

 

‘What happened to it? Did you lose it?’

 

She doesn’t sound at all angry but when Cathy explains about the moving-out, about her books being left on the curb, about how they told her that she didn’t need them any more because she’d read them once already, her face goes dark and draws tight.

 

It makes her afraid- that her godmother is cross that she didn’t make more of an effort to save her birthday present- but Catalina feels her squirm anxiously in her lap and her face looks like it tries to go back to normal.

 

‘It’s alright, querida.’ She doesn’t sound normal though.

 

‘....Are you cross?’ Her voice is very small and Catalina shakes her head emphatically and pulls her close again, holding her so tightly it nearly hurts.

 

‘Not at all, not with you. I promise.’ 

 

Her godmother is unusual for an adult, in that she tells the truth always, even when she perhaps shouldn’t (she is the only grown up who told Cathy that injections really did hurt when asked, and it;s thanks to her that Cathy knew there was no such thing as the toothfairy before she was even close to losing a tooth; she can still remember how cross her mother was over it) so she believes her.

 

They stay like that for a bit, Cathy tucked into her arms, without saying anything else. Eventually, Catalina gently wipes her damp cheeks with a blue paper napkin and smoothes her hair back thoughtfully. Then she looks at the muffin, mostly reduced to crumbs by now.

 

‘Are you finished?’

 

(That’s another odd thing- Catalina never seems to mind if she leaves food on her plate.)

 

Cathy nods.

 

‘Then we’ll go.’

 

She expects Catalina to make their way back to the car- instead, she follows her godmother back to the children’s book section, still sore eyed and sniffly.

 

‘Do you remember which others there were? Which others you had to leave?’

 

She nods uncertainly and Catalina gestures to the shelves.

 

‘Ok then.’

 

She stares back; Catalina kneels beside her and takes her hand. ‘We’ll replace them, querida. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if someone told me I had to move house without my- I brought everything from Spain, you know. Every bit of furniture, every book, every notepad.

I’m just so, so sorry that I didn’t think to make sure you could do the same.’

 

It’s not her godmother’s fault, but Catalina looks very, very sad until she forces a smile back onto her face.

 

‘We’ll get them back for you. I can do that at least.’

 

It’s a little much to take in- she’s never been bought more than one book at a time before. After a little more coaxing, she slowly starts to pick out familiar titles from the shelves. Catalina doesn’t let go of her hand as she adds the books Cathy gives her to the basket at her feet and she’s glad.

 

After a while she stops.

 

‘I- can’t remember all of them-’

 

(There were a lot after all.)

 

‘That’s ok.’ Catalina smiles reassuringly and squeezes her hand. ‘We can make a list, once we’re home- and if you remember any, we’ll add them to the list. We can always come back.’

 

It’s not until they’re at the cash point, watching the cashier scan her way through the basket, that Cathy thinks of something.

 

‘Catalina-?’

 

‘What is it, querida?’

 

‘The list….’

 

‘Yes?’

 

‘Well….’ She chews her lip, not sure how to say it. ‘You said I could tell you if I remembered other books and we’d get them…’

 

‘I did.’

 

‘Well….what if I just said books even if I didn’t used to have them? How would you know?’

 

‘Well-’ Catalina seems to consider and then presses a kiss to the top of Cathy’s head.

I suppose then we’d just have to get you another bookcase for your room to fit them all, querida.’ 

 

And she smiles.

 

The spare room isn’t her room but it feels more like her room when the books are unpacked later that day. 

 

And she feels a tiny bit more grounded. More real. But then books have always had a soothing effect- the familiar words are like a lullaby. The fact that Catalina actually comes and sits down beside her bed when she comes to say goodnight this time, and gently asks if there is anything other than her books that got left behind, if there is anything else that she needs, might have something to do with it too, but Cathy isn’t sure.

 

(She also promises never to be cross, and as nice as it sounds, it makes Cathy a bit skeptical. 

 

‘What if I-’ Catalina doesn’t look annoyed at her questioning, like some grown ups do when she points out holes in what they say- she just laughs and wraps an arm around Cathy’s shoulders, pulling her close. 

 

‘Alright...how about I promise never to be cross until I am sure that you are doing something on purpose to make me so?’ 

 

Cathy considers this. ‘Ok...Then I promise to never glue your hat to your head. Or put a bird up the chimney. Even though you don’t have a chimney.’ 

 

Catalina looks very confused for a moment and then she glances at the book on the bedside table and her expression clears. ‘Ah! Yes- good. And for my part, querida, I promise never to put you in a cupboard or swing you around by your pigtails.’ 

 

‘I don’t have pigtails.’ Catalina smiles and puts a hand to Cathy’s tight curls, a mirror of her own. 

 

‘Well, that is lucky. That will make it easier for me to keep my promise.’

 

Cathy smiles into the duvet at this, and Catalina leans in to kiss her forehead. 

 

‘Sweet dreams and god bless. I’m just next door if you need me.’ 

 

She always says this, as if Cathy might forget where her godmothers bedroom is over the course of just one day, but she likes that Catalina still says it anyway.)

 

 She goes to sleep that night with her new copy of Matilda under her pillow and for once, she sleeps soundly.

Chapter Text

She used to like school, back before, but that was back when everything was different, when she had a Mum to collect her like everyone else and when she could write about going to the park and the library and the swimming pool in her newsbook just like everyone else.

 

Catalina has taken her to the park, to the library- but she can’t let herself enjoy it now. She keeps hoping that her parents will bob up from behind a bush or a bookshelf and tell her that everything was just a big misunderstanding- but they don’t. They never do, but she can’t stop herself hoping it, even if doing so feels like prodding a wobbly tooth- just as painful, just as impossible to resist.

 

Even the idea of school feels wrong now- school belongs back then, toher old normal.

 

Now, normal is staying at home with Catalina, trips to bookshops (new ones with cafes and shiney displays, old ones where the books are tired and tattered, with yellowing pages that smell of old paper and dust) which she likes, trips to church (which she wishes she liked) and trips to see a therapist (her therapist) which she has decided that she definitely doesn’t like.

 

 She doesn’t like the stuffy waiting room, she doesn’t like the waiting room toys- the books with pages torn out and scribbles all over the cover, the sad barbies left lying with their legs splayed and half their clothes missing, the jigsaw puzzles where all the pieces are mixed together. 

There are better things in the actual therapy room- paints and a real easel, better craft supplies even than at school- but after the first session, when she’s meant to be fetching her coat, she hears the therapist lady (Doctor Jenny, she is meant to call her) talking to Catalina about her, asking how she’s settling, asking if they’re coping….and she hates the thought of being discussed so much that she decides not to talk there again. Not even for the sake of the easel, and she rips the painting she made in her session into pieces in the backseat of the car on the way home. She wants to throw them out of the window but that would be littering and she has sat through enough school assemblies about littering to know that it is one of the worst, worst things you can do (aside from drawing in library books and pushing people into traffic) so she doesn’t, just holds the balled up painty scraps of paper in her fists until she can drop them into the bin where they belong.

 

School isn’t her new normal- but now apparently Catalina has to go back to work and she has to go back to school whether they want to or not.

 

‘Can’t you keep teaching me here? I did all my workbook-’ She quite likes filling out the booklets that the school had sent ‘in the interests of not falling behind’, although it feels funny to fill them out sitting on the sofa and wearing her weekend clothes.

 

‘I’d like to, querida.’ Catalina looks tired- she’s been frowning and looking at papers, then typing, then frowning again and pressing the back space key very, very hard- but now she swivels her chair around to look at Cathy properly. ‘I really would. But we wouldn’t be allowed.’

 

‘Why not?’

 

‘It’s the law, you have to be in school...and I have to go back to work…before everything just completely falls apart without me….’ She looks at the papers, drops them back into the pile. ‘You’ll be able to see all your friends again- you’d like that, wouldn’t you?’

 

She shrugs. She would like to see Anne- but she hasn’t seen her properly since before then , only talked to her on the phone and Anne had kept talking about Anna, the new girl, about how she’s sitting with Anne til Cathy is back, about how she brought in a big cornet of sweets to share on her first day, about how there was something called Katjes that was really liquorice…. and even thinking about it makes her chest feel tight and scared because what if Anne doesn’t want to be best friends any more? (What if Anna is more fun?)

 

Catalina takes both of her hands in her own and kisses them. ‘It will be ok, querida. I promise.’

 

(Catalina always tells the truth but it’s harder to believe her this time.)

 

She watches from the doorway that evening as Catalina lays out clothes- stiff suits and high, high heels, skirt and blouse and school jumper- and feels sick.

 

She sleeps badly, picks at her toast and doesn’t hug Catalina back when she says goodbye. She’s not even allowed to go into the playground before the bell rings- instead, she has to go into the headmistresses office because there are ‘special circumstances’ (although what these are she isn’t quite sure.)

 

Mrs Jardin says things about grief and loss and settling in. No comment seems to be required from her so she stays quiet until the bell releases her.

 

Anne walks into the classroom with a girl she hasn’t seen before who she thinks must be Anna. This girl- this new girl- gives Cathy a friendly smile, as if she isn’t stealing her best friend while her back is turned…. and she pretends not to see. 

 

(She doesn’t know why she should smile at a friend stealer.)

 

It doesn’t feel right to sit in her old class, as if everything is the same….but then, a new teacher comes in to take the register and she doesn’t like that it’s different either. 

Anne whispers that she’s nice, that she let them make get well soon cards for their usual teacher rather than having to do the usual Friday spelling test, and  she thinks that of course that would make Anne like her.

 

(Unlike her, Anne does not enjoy the spelling test.)

 

There’s dinner money to hand in, then a boring assembly about road safety and looking both ways. There’s literacy hour, like usual; numeracy hour, like usual. No gold stars for anyone (although their old teacher always used to have them- this new teacher just does boring ticks in red pen)- and then a change: they’re going to make cards.

 

For Mothers day.

 

Which is in a week.

Suddenly, she feels very cold. Mothers day. 

 

She doesn’t want to think about last year- daffodils picked from the garden, carrying a tray not-to-spill-carefully into the bedroom, being allowed to boil the kettle and make the toast herself, the picture that kept coming out wrong and the poem she wrote herself in place of it. 

 

She wants Catalina to come- to take her home or even just to BE there… but then she remembers that Catalina has abandoned her, that she’s the one making her have to go to school at all.

(And besides, Catalina is at work now anyway, doing whatever she does at work. She pictures meetings and shouty phone calls and wavy lines in red on graph paper, like when she and Anne play office.) (She wonders what games Anne plays with Anna and decides they’re probably all boring anyway.)

 

The teacher finished explaining- about spelling and sharing the felt pens and taking turns with the glitter, as if they’re babies, as if they’ve never made cards before when everyone knows that even the Nursery school children make cards at Christmas and Easter….and she turns to her blank sheet of construction paper and wishes she could tear it up.

 

‘What are you going to do?’

Anne’s whisper catches her by surprise.

‘What do you mean?’

Anne looks uncomfortable. ‘Because- well-’

 

She understands what Anne means, all at once, and it’s like cold water being poured on her- of course she can’t make a card for mum because mum isn’t there to have it and she knows this, but this realisation still feels new and suddenly she’s thinking of all the other things she won’t ever be able to give mum or dad ever again, birthday presents and Christmas presents and-

 

Anne is almost quivering next to her, her hand waving high in the air, and Cathy just KNOWS what she’s going to ask- what about if you don’t have a Mum to make a card for? 

 

She knows that’s what she’s going to ask, and it makes her so angry (angry that Anne is asking, angry that it’s a question that applies to her now, angry that Anne and everyone else get to still have parents, angry that they have to do this stupid project in the first place when everyone knows that it’s meant to be history workbooks after break) that she’s burning hot all over.

The teacher suddenly stops her monologue on the necessity of Putting Lids on Felt Tips, as if she’s heard the question through the waving of Anne’s hand, and she smiles like she’s swallowed a tin of golden syrup. Her voice is syrupy to match.

 

‘Of course, for anyone who doesn’t have a mother-’ She pauses. ‘What I mean is, if you’d like to make a card for someone else- maybe an auntie….well, that’s fine ’. 

 

She even looks at Cathy as she says it- but she doesn’t want to make a card for Catalina. She isn’t her auntie, she definitely isn’t her mum.

 

‘Because of course, you don’t have to be a mum to do mum-things!’

 

 (Her mum wouldn’t have abandoned her at school, she thinks first….and then she wonders if maybe her mum has abandoned her after all- except worse and more forever. It’s not a nice thought to have.)

 

‘People can be your mum in spirit and that’s fine!’

 

(Does that mean Catalina has to take the place of her mum now?)

 

Part of her still wants Catalina to come and make things ok again (although she’s not sure how she would)- but part of her is angry too.

 

She’s angry with Catalina, for doing all the ‘mum-things’, angry with herself that she’s been letting her. (Can her own mum see her letting Catalina tuck her into bed and run her bath and hear her spellings? Would she be cross if she could?)

 

She feels more mixed up than ever, and it’s all Anne’s fault, it’s all Anne’s fault (for asking the question, for putting the thought into the stupid teacher’s head, for liking Anna better) and when the teacher turns her back (because someone has somehow broken their gluestick like an idiot), the anger bubbles up and she kicks Anne as hard as she can under the desk. 

 

She’s not sure what she’s expecting- Anne to kick her back maybe, or to jump up and tell on her and get her into trouble, but instead Anne just bursts into tears.

 

Part of her wants to say sorry….but part of her thinks it serves Anne right for sitting next to stupid new Anna with her stupid shoes that light up and her stupid purse shaped like a dog. (They’re definitely not cool and she definitely isn’t going to ask for either for her birthday.) 

 

Within seconds, the teacher is bearing down on them both.

 

‘What on earth do you think you’re doing, young lady?’ (She thinks spitefully that the teacher has probably forgotten her name already, something that their usual teacher would NEVER do.)

 

She just scowls back.

 

‘You’re going to say sorry to- your friend’ (Clearly she’s forgotten Anne’s name too) ‘-and then you’re going to sit and get on with your card nicely where I can see you-’

 

‘I don’t want to.’

 

She folds her arms and the teacher huffs.

 

‘This is NOT the sort of behaviour I expect from children in this year group! Imagine what your mother would-’

 

She says it and then freezes, her face going bright red- and it’s this freezing that makes it worse, like a big loud reminder that mum CAN’T see her, that she’ll never see her again, that the teacher has made a big mistake by mentioning it…. And there’s a roaring in her head as she picks up her paper, rips it into pieces and throws them into the woman’s face.

 

When the teacher tries to take her hand and pull her to the front of the room, she pulls away and pushes all her things- her pencils and pens, her rubber that smells like strawberries onto the floor and stamps on them and feels the crack of plastic under her school shoes- until a hand closes around her wrist and she’s dragged away and deposited into the corridor.

 

(She’s never been put out into the corridor before because that’s something that only the really bad children have happen to them, and she’s never been one of them….except she also never used to be the child without parents, she never used to want to make Anne hurt, so maybe now everything is different, it doesn’t matter what she does because nothing will make it better, and there’s nothing to do but scream and scream and scream.)

 

**

 

She’s acting crazy, not like herself at all- and the scary thing is, she can’t seem to stop, though her throat is raw and sore and her head is aching. 

 

It hurts worse than when she had flu, and had to drink cups of lemon and honey and suck on horrible tasting lozenges (that didn’t taste anything like cherry no matter what the label said)...except when she had flu, she knes she’d get better but can you get better from something like this that isn’t an illness?

 

 It frightens her that she can’t stop but then perhaps it doesn’t matter because everything is ruined anyhow, her parents are never coming back (she knows this, she knows this), all her pens are broken, everyone in her class saw her tear things up like a really bad kid and Anne will sit next to Anna forever and Catalina will be so angry with her…...she’ll be in so much trouble and what if Catalina doesn’t want her any more, what if she decides that she’s too much trouble because of this-

 

The thought has her curled up into herself, her face pressed against her drawn-up knees because it’s so scary, scarier than roller coasters and dogs that bark and the dark space under her bed, scarier than the little bit of a horror film that Anne’s sister showed them once when she slept over with the man that had knives for hands, scarier than anything-

 

The click click click of high heels sound down the hall- and it’s a new sound to hear at school because those aren’t the sort of shoes that the teachers or the dinner ladies wear, they’re not even the sort of shoes the big grown-up girls in Year 6 wear, she only knows one person who wears those sort of shoes-

 

‘Querida-’

 

When Catalina crouches down in front of her and puts a hand on her arm, part of her wants to cling onto her and make her promise to not ever leave ever ever- but another part of her tells her that she’s being stupi,d that of course her godmother won;t want her any more, that she’s probably just come into school to tell her that- and so she pushes the hand away roughly and won’t look up.

 

‘What’s the matter?’

 

She says nothing.

 

‘I can’t help if you don’t talk to me, carino.’

 

She doesn’t want to talk.

 

‘I need to make sure you are ok, querida. Can you tell me what made you so upset?’

 

She doesnt sound angry, she sounds like she always does- and it’s all wrong, she shouldn’t even be here, school shouldn’t be calling Catalina . No one else has their godparents called into school….cxcept of course they have to because there’s no one else, there’s no one else at all-

 

‘I hate you.’

 

She even means it. Perhaps if Catalina wasn’t around to fill in and do all the mum things, then mum would still be alive (because how could she have died if there was truly no one else?)

 

‘Why querida?’

 

‘It’s your fault. You should have died instead of mum.’

 

She means that too, but as she says it, she hides her face in her arms so she doesn’t have to see if Catalina looks cross or sad or (and this would somehow be worst of all) like she doesn’t even care.

 

(Not that she cares how Catalina feels. If she hadn’t ruined everything by making her come into school- if she hadn’t ruined everything by existing at all-)

 

She wonders, in the darkness of her arms, what will happen next- shouting (except Catalina doesn’t shout, apart from at traffic lights that change too quickly or spiders that come out of nowhere) or just the click-click-click of her heels leaving...but there’s nothing.

 

Nothing at all.

 

Just quiet.

 

It’s so quiet for so long that she wonders if perhaps Catalina has actually left after all- it would make sense for her to leave- and the thought gives her a little frisson of fear. 

 

Despite everything….she doesn’t want to be all by herself. Not really. 

 

She waits for a long, long time.

 

Eventually, she risks a glance up- steeling herself for the empty corridor. 

 

But Catalina is still there, sitting on the wooden floor with her high shoes sitting next to her and the nail polish on her toes showing through her tights. 

 

She doesn’t look cross, only very sad and tired…. but she makes her face into a smile when she sees she’s being watched and the relief- that she isn’t being shouted at or sent away or hated is enough to make her start to cry all over again.

 

She knows she’s probably ruined everything already by saying those things- and she can’t escape the feeling that she’s doing something wrong by wanting by wanting her godmother in the same way she used to want her mum (like she’s betraying her, like she’s making her sad in heaven)......but she’s so very tired and lonely, and Catalina looks so warm and safe and comforting that she reaches out to her without meaning to, half wondering if she’ll be pushed away.

 

She isn’t pushed away.

 

Warm hands gently draw her close until she’s being held safe in her godmothers arms, one hand stroking her damp tangled hair away from her hot face while she tries to burrow far into Catalina’s smart silk work shirt and stiff black blazer. 

 

She knows she’s making them both wet and disgusting but she doesn’t care and Catalina doesn’t seem to mind either, just gently rocks her back and forth and murmurs things that must be in spanish but it doesn’t matter that she can’t understand, she just wants Catalina to keep holding her and keep talking because if she’s doing that, she can;t be planning on getting rid of her, at least not now, at least not yet-

 

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry-’

 

‘Oh querida. It’s alright. It’s all going to alright.’

 

She should explain herself- that’s what adults always say ‘explain yourself’, but she doesn’t know if she can and when she tries, it comes out wrong and she starts hiccuping in between sobs.

 

‘Shhhh, carino. You don’t have to talk yet.’

 

She whimpers and presses her face back into Catalina’s chest and feels a kiss be pressed into her hairline.

 

‘It’s alright. We’ll sort this all out, I promise.’

 

She’d like to say that some things can’t be fixed- but she’s too tired. She actually doesn’t feel very well at all, and now she’s noticing it- not just the way her throat is sore, not just the being tired, she feels sick too, and her head aches and she’s shaking a bit all over like she has the flu except she doesn’t- but Catalina’s arms are warm and safe and so she makes herself just think about that, about that instead.

 

A long, long time passes before she feels like she can talk again- there’s a heaviness all up her arm and legs and in her head.

 

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.’

 

‘It’s alright, querida. Do you want to tell me what happened? What made you so upset, hm?’

 

She doesn’t want to tell her at all but Catalina won’t be able to fix it if she doesn’t so she does her best- the Mother’s day card and Anne trying to ask her stupid question, Anne sitting with Anna instead of her, the daffodils last year, never being able to make another Mother’s day card again, the way the teacher looked at her, the anger and Anne crying at being kicked and all her own pens being broken.

 

Catalina listens and nods seriously and doesn’t interrupt, even though Cathy knows it’s a bit jumbled and she has to keep stopping every so often to sniffle into the tissues Catalina hands to her from the little packet in her purse.

 

When she finishes, Catalina nods slowly, like she’s working it all out in her head.

 

‘That is….quite a lot, querida.’

 

It actually makes her feel a (tiny) bit better, that Catalina doesn’t laugh or tell her she’s making a fuss about nothing…..but she knows what it also means- it isn’t all going to be fixed right away. Perhaps Catalina can see she’s disappointed because she squeezes her hand.

 

‘Would you like to hear my thoughts so far?’

 

She would.

 

‘I think your parents loved you very, very much. And that if they can see you, they will be thinking how very proud they are that you have been so brave and done so well, even without them there. I think they’d be proud to see how well you’re coping with having to live in a new place and do things differently.’

 

‘You don’t think they’d….mind? Do you think they’d be upset that I- about today?’

 

It hurts to ask but she wants to be sure.

 

Catalina shakes her head.

 

‘I think that you are having to work through a lot of things that are difficult. Very, very difficult. There is no easy way to lose people. And sometimes it will make you sad, and sometimes it will make you angry….like today-’

 

There’s a tiny lightening in her stomach at Catalina says that. She doesn’t feel better exactly...but it helps to know that perhaps she isn’t a really bad person after all. That it’s not badness, just grief. That maybe it’s even a bit normal.

 

‘Does everyone…..feel like this?’

 

Catalina looks down at her. ‘In one way or another….yes.’

 

‘Do you?’

 

‘Sometimes...yes.’

 

The thought makes her eyes go wide. She tries to imagine Catalina throwing pens on the floor of her smart office and it’s almost enough to make her smile again. Almost.

 

‘It doesn’t make you bad, it just part of grieving, carino- the hurting’ She pauses. ‘Not that you don’t need to try and make sure you don’t hurt other people too of course. I think perhaps you owe Anne an apology, hm?’

 

She shrugs and burrows back against the blazer and it feels cold and damp. ‘I don’t think she even wants to be my friend anymore-’

 

‘I can’t believe that, querida.’

 

‘It’s true. She has Anna now.’

 

‘Well’ Catalina changes position, stretching a cramped leg. ‘Why don’t you ask her?’

 

She isn’t sure what she means- and then Catalina gives her a tiny nudge and she looks up to see Anne’s face peering anxiously through the pane of glass in the classroom door. When she sees Cathy looking back at her, she looks enormously relieved- before she stops herself and makes a silly exaggerated cross face instead and mimes hopping up and down in pain.

 

Cathy finds she’s laughing in spite of herself- and Anne laughs too and sticks out her tongue, before a summons from inside drags her reluctantly away from the door.

 

‘Seems like she still wants to be friends to me.’

 

And she thinks perhaps Catalina is right.

Perhaps things aren’t as broken as she thought.

 

(Perhaps she can live with Catalina and let her do the mum-things that her own mum isn’t around for, but also keep thinking of mum-as-mum in her head. Perhaps she doesn’t have to feel guilty for doing normal things- perhaps she can feel proud. Perhaps things will work out mostly alright- not as alright as they’d have been if mum and dad were still alive but….close. Close enough.)

 

(Perhaps she’ll even ask Anna if she wants to play one day.)

 

(Perhaps.)

Chapter Text

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.’

Chapter Text

She has a little moment of worry as she pushes open the door to the spare room her room: it’s a bit smaller than her old room, which means it’s a lot smaller than Anne’s room, and what if they can’t play properly. 

 

(What if Anne regrets coming over?)

 

(Anna probably has a huge bedroom).

 

It turns out though that Inca Princess Burial can be played just as well in Cathy’s new bedroom as her old bedroom- although Anne does look at her strangely for a second when she suggests it.

 

It takes Cathy a moment to understand- because Inca Princess Burial is their BEST game, and since it can’t be played properly in the playground, they don’t even try, which means they haven’t played it for ages.

 

First, she’s scared that Anne just doesn’t want to play- perhaps she’s grown out of it since then, perhaps she’d rather be playing something else (something cool and german and grown-up) with Anna.

 

But then Anne says they don’t have to if she doesn’t want, and then she understands, and immediately wishes she didn’t.

 

Of course. Anne thinks she might not want to play Inca Princess Burial now that she’s played ‘Real Life Burial’ (except it wasn’t playing, it wasn’t a game.)

 

Her new black dress was too tight around her arms and she was glad because it gave her something else to think about, even though the red marks stayed on her skin until bedtime. 

 

She scuffed her shoes drawing a pattern in the dust outside the church and Catalina looked but she didn’t tell her off, didn’t even tell her to stop, and no one else did either, even when she did it harder, on purpose.

 It made her want to cry, the horrible difference in everything, the reminder that she was different now, an orphan, with an orphan’s privilege of no one caring if she messed up her things or not. 

 

Catalina stood very straight, as if she was afraid of falling off balance, and smiled a tight smile at all the people who came to shake their hands and say they were ‘so sorry….such a tragic loss….so very sad’.

 

She watched Catalina’s expression all day, so she could copy- she wasn’t sure how her face was meant to look on a day like this.

 

A woman with sprayed-stiff silvery-blonde hair leant in close and asked if Catalina hadn’t thought about getting Cathy ‘smartened up’ for the funeral, which made no sense because she was already wearing a new dress and new shoes- it made her wonder if she’d spilled something on herself, except she couldn’t have done- she’d pushed away her breakfast that morning and Catalina hadn’t pushed it. She hadn’t understood what the woman meant- but Catalina seemed like she did. 

 

(‘I really hope you’re not saying what I think you’re saying, Margot.’ 

‘Just….you can get some really wonderful hair-straightening treatments nowadays-’

 Catalina squeezed Cathy’s fingers so tightly it hurt. ‘If you think I’m going to damage my goddaughters beautiful natural hair for some ridiculous standards of-’ 

She broke off. ‘Cathy’s hair comes from her mother. The mother she is having to say goodbye to. Do you really think she needs to be made to think that’s something she should be ashamed of?’ 

 

The woman huffed something about ‘only trying to help’, her high heels making cross clicky sounds on the wooden floor as she walked away and Catalina leant down. 

 

‘She’s an idiot, mija. Promise me not to listen to people like her.’ She’s not quite sure what she’s meant to be not-listening to but she nods anyway and Catalina pulls her into a fierce hug.)

 

She hadn’t cried when the wooden boxes disappeared behind the curtain, even though everyone else was. She knew mum and dad were meant to be inside the boxes but somehow, she couldn’t believe it. The boxes were too small.

 

She hadn’t even cried when the third person whisper-asked Catalina if she was ‘really sure about taking it all on’, even though she knew that she was the it. 

 

She didn’t cry and she didn’t even shout or kick out at the people asking, although she wanted to (she wanted to ask them why they were asking Catalina these scary sort of questions now, she wanted to ask what would happen to her if Catalina decided to answer in the negative…. But she didn’t.) 

 

 Catalina just smiled a not-real smile at all of them and cut most of them off before they’d finished talking. 

 

‘Really ready for the burden of-’

‘Of course Cathy is staying with me.’ The questioner- a stooped man with egg mayonnaise from the buffet table staining his tie- winced a bit at her loud tone, as if he’d rather Catalina match his hushed tones.

‘And you’re-’

‘She’s my goddaughter.’ Catalina squeezed Cathy’s hand tight- she hadn’t let go all day and it made Cathy feel a tiny bit less lost, a bit less like she might disappear altogether. 

‘Of course she stays with me.’ 

She nods, like the conversation is finished, and starts tugging Cathy quickly away, although there’s nowhere in particular they need to be. 

 

Outside, the wind whips at their skirts. The sky is cold iron grey but Catalina's hands over hers are warm. 

 

‘It’s going to be ok, mija. It’s going to get easier. I know it doesn’t feel like that now but it will.’

 

She doesn’t answer but Catalina doesn’t seem to mind- not then, and not when she doesn’t answer anyone else either, all the people who tell her that they’re very sorry, that she’s gotten so big now, even the stupid woman with the too-bright lipstick who tells her that she’s a lucky girl to have such a nice new dress. 

 

She gives them all the same blank stare until they get uncomfortable and look away- the stare of someone who can’t be hurt, who doesn’t need anyone or anything, who can’t feel anything at all.

 

Catalina doesn’t seem to mind- and when she can’t keep it up and bursts into stupid tears later that evening (after spilling the cocoa Catalina made her on her favourite pajamas), Catalina doesn’t seem to mind that either, just scoops her into her arms and rocks her back and forth without a word, which is good, becasue she can’t think of any words that would make her feel better.

 

It makes her feel a bit shaky for a moment- she wonders if it’s wrong to want to play a game about burying someone when she’s seen people buried for real…. But then she remembers what catalina told her when she asked if it was still ok to read and watch tv and do other normal things when mum and dad were gone.

 

(‘They want you to be happy, querida. It’s alright to be sad but it’s alright to be happy- to do things that make you happy too. It’s what they would want.’)

 

Catalina’s voice is so strong in her head that it actually drowns out some of the shaky-anxious thoughts- she’s able to smile at Anne.

 

‘Are you sure you want to play that?’

 

‘Yeah. I'm sure.’

 

She does still wonder if they’ll be able to play the same in her new bedroom but it’s ok, it’s just as good- perhaps even better, because when Catalina knocks on the door with chocolate biscuits, she says they can use the sheets from Cathy’s bed AND her bed as embalming bandages, and that means she can entomb Anne really authentically .

 

(They have to promise to put fresh sheets on both the beds when they’re done but, as anyone who has played Ince Princess Burial will know, it’s completely worth it.)

 

She entombs Anne as thoroughly as she can, until Anne starts whining that she can’t breathe- and then they have the excellent idea to include the things Mrs James taught them about Egyptian burial last week.

 

(They decide it doesn’t matter that the Inca’s didn’t use the Egyptian mummification methods. Anne reckons they probably would have done if they’d known about them. Or maybe they wouldn’t, but still, it makes the game even better, which for a game as good as Inca Princess Burial, is quite an achievement.)

 

They don’t have a proper hook, or even anything that can be used as a hook, but it’s still lots of fun doing the brain-through-the-nose bit (even if she keeps telling Anne that the real mummies were dead and wouldn’t have screamed quite so dramatically.)

 

Catalina and Jane come in when they’ve only just started, both holding half drunk cups of coffee and looking a bit panicked, but they calm down once they explain it’s part of the game.

 

Jane murmurs something to Catalina about ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ that makes Catalina give a very un-Catalina-like snort of laughter, and then tells them they can have an ice lolly if they promise to move onto the next part of the game right now.

 

The idea of an ice lolly is tempting BUT they decide in favour of continuing the mummification process to the letter, as much as they can. 

 

Jane laughs when they tell her what they’ve decided and tells Catalina it was ‘worth a try’, and Cathy decides she likes Jane more than Anne’s real mum or dad. 

 

(She doesn’t like the way Anne’s mum will ask a question and then look around like she’s bored when she’s answering, and although she wouldn’t admit it to anyone, she’s still a tiny bit scared of Anne’s dad after he shouted at them for playing snakes and ladders with the ladder the house painters had left propped against the wall. 

 

She hadn’t even been on the ladder- just the snake at the bottom, hissing and trying to catch and devour Anne’s kicking feet- but she’d still wanted to run away and hide when he roared at them and she’d been glad when her parents had come to pick her up soon after.)

 

At least, they try to follow the mummification process to the letter: Cathy really doesn’t want to use up all of her strawberry flavoured lip balm which is what will happen if they use it as embalming ointment. Anne asks if she wants the Inca Princess to just be buried un-embalmed and rot and rain down curses on them all, so she asks Anne if she wants to be left without a pretend-lipstick next time they want to play Business Woman Detective? 

 

Anne says she’ll just borrow some from Mary or from her mum, even though even Cathy knows Mary doesn’t wear lipstick anymore and that Anne isn’t allowed in her mum’s bedroom ever ever and no exceptions...but she doesn’t sound like she really means it, so they just skip the embalming part. (The Inca Princess will probably understand.)

 

(She sometimes wants to ask Anne how the no-going-into-the-bedroom actually works- what does Anne do if she doesn’t feel well? What if she has a bad dream? What if there’s a powercut? What if robbers break in? She can think of a thousand what-if’s but she doesn’t ever ask Anne. Perhaps she doesn’t really want to hear the answer.)

 

(She’s very, very, very glad Catalina doesn’t have the same rule though, especially when it thunders.)

 

They’re half way through gathering up things to use as Offerings and Sacrifices (the coveted sparkly shoes, and Cathy’s favourite stuffed otter, and the specially-nice books Catalina sent her last Christmas with the covers made of cloth and the titles stamped in gold) when Catalina calls them for tea.

 

They’re both starving.

 

(Burials are SUCH hard work.)

Chapter Text

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.)