Little Rose carefully buttoned up her white school blouse with careful stubborn attention, looking carefully at her reflection in the ancient chest of drawers with attached mirror that she loved when the moment when Granddad first delivered it. It was an intriguing piece of furniture which contrasted with her cheery bright colours of her bedroom which always made her feel happy first thing in the morning. The comforting presence of Mummy and Nikki's movements in adjoining rooms reassured her that everything was normal in her world and, sure enough, Nikki peeped round the corner to smilingly ensure she wasn't being a lazybones. Rose knew she was expected to get ready for school just as Mummy and Nikki were getting ready for work. That was only fair, a much used word in her house.
Together, they ate muesli and milk from bright coloured cereal bowls on the large mahogany table whose interesting patterns and solid strength and rich colours fascinated the child. It wasn't necessarily that easy at school but grownups weren't to know that.
"Stewart Wade? Two names. Fancy you're special?" one of the girls had first sneered at Rose in the school playground at the start of the year last Autumn. A puzzled expression spread across Rose's face. To her, her name was perfectly natural as it came from both her mummies. It might have been a problem to these two girls who didn't know any better but she was above such considerations.
"It's one name. It's just spelt as two," she replied pertly, instantly throwing the other two girls into a state of confusion as they'd been told that two couldn't possibly be flicked away into another part of the playground figuring out these two girls as ones to avoid. That ploy kept her natural enemies off her back for a long time as they didn't know how to deal with this strange little girl.
The two women looked fondly at their daughter's fresh face and Helen improved on her carelessly casual handiwork by running a handy hairbrush through their daughter's tousled dark brown hair. The sharp-eyed girl spotted Nikki's brief smile that was tolerant and affectionate at the same time and knew that this little touch spelled out how much they loved her so she let herself be fussed over. She looked up at Nikki as she checked her watch with her familiar decisive gesture.
"Come on. It's time to roll," Nikki would say in her laconic fashion, casting an eye over the little girl's school was at moments like these that Rose accepted the presence of this quietly reassuring woman, dressed in her usual cool dark suit, softly modulated voice and loving smile which helped her feel secure along with her more conventional Mummy figure. She headed for the door to receive a farewell kiss from the taller woman while the front door was opened for her.
As she stepped out along the front path, a similar sight unfolded as their neighbours, Cassie and Roisin sheparded a tall lanky adolescent son hunched up inside his zipup coat and a smaller fresh faced girl. She pretended not to look as Michael irritably fended off a caring attempt by Roisin to make sure his shirt collar and tie were straight.
"What's wrong with Michael?" Rose asked, her concerned face turned upwards to Helen as their frioends and neighbours hurried on.
"It's complicated Rose," Helen started to say when she was stopped by the little girl's questioning gaze. "Tell you in the car," Helen added under her breath not being sure if their friends were in earshot. Already, she and Nikki were conscious of their daughter's solid presence in their life which kept them on their toes. Belatedly, Cassie called out and waved to them just before they got into their car.
Nikki kissed Helen briefly and then Rose on her cheek and headed for her silver Corsa, her pride and joy. Helen opened the side door for Rose of her own bright red Peugeot and they set off into the slow moving traffic of the school run.
"So why's Michael so grumpy these days? He didn't used to be," Rose persisted as soon as she saw from the body language of Mummy's profile that she was settled behind the wheel. Their journeys to and from school were often an occasion for conversations.
Helen laughed out loud at the little girl's blunt questioning as she sat in the passenger seat next to recalled how things had changed since she'd held her in her arms seven years ago at St Mary's hospital and how she'd wished for the next few years that Rose could speak so she could figure out what she wanted. She ruefully considered that the much vaunted quality of intuition, especially in her circles, was too much like hard bloody work to deploy all the time, especially when she'd been on maternity leave. There was a complete turnaround when Rose learnt to speak, vaulting through the baby talk phase with ridiculous ease and her favourite grown-up word was "why?" She and Nikki ought to have been delighted by their daughter's precocious display of intelligence as an abstract proposition. Instead, this bundle of exploding ideas kept them both on their toes to explain everything and anything and they grasped at the limits of their knowledge to live up to their implicit resolution not to impose ideas on her just because they were older. It was definitely hard work and only in quieter moments, they figured out that they were only encountering themselves as they came out of a revolving door.
"That's a good question," Helen said at last while Rose waited patiently."Michael's always been a good boy till recently. Becoming a teenager isn't easy."
"Why mummy?" Rose instantly interjected, a response Helen had expected as soon as her words had escaped her lips, knowing she'd fluffed her explanation."He used to be like a big brother to me."
True, Helen thought ruefully. She remembered how she and Nikki, Cassie and Roisin and their children had been round each other's houses for so long like one big happy extended family and given each other emotional sustenance. She could picture how clearly how Michael sat on the floor with Rose assembling Lego constructions with childlike concentration. Now he acted standoffish and elected to go up to his bedroom with his loud music rather than socialise like he used to do and this had hurt Rose.
"He still likes you. Anyone would," ventured Helen as the right words formulated themselves more easily than before."He might feel the odd one out amongst his schoolfriends. At his age, you suddenly start worrying too much about what people think of you but not in the best way."
Rose silently digested these thoughts for a while. Glancing sideways while she was negotiating the last few streets before school, Helen wondered if another sharp question was headed her way. Instead, there was a faraway look in the little girl's eyes as her active mind responded to whatever was around her, chiefly her friends next door and the day ahead that awaited her.
Whenever it came time for Niamh to go to school, an increasing feeling of dread set in with every step she took down the front path with Mummy, Cassie and Michael first thing in the morning. It reminded her that they didn't have much of a family anymore, especially when they drove off for school. It concentrated them in a metal casing from which she couldn't escape and it was all Michael's fault. It wasn't Mummy or Cassie's fault as she felt unbearably attuned to their distress as Michael's selfish brattishness swallowed up everything good in their world. Everything was starting to revolve round him , his moods, what he liked or didn't like and her unassuming nature got relegated to the sidelines especially as nothing got properly discussed. The shrugged off parental gesture was just the start of the daily torture which was destined to be repeated all over was aged eleven and he was fourteen, a lifetime's difference away.
"I've got my recorder concert next Tuesday evening at half past seven," Niamh said proudly as she handed Cassie her headed notepaper from the middle school she attended. Michael was in a different league altogether at secondary school with new friends and new horizons she wasn't expected to understand. "You can come too Michael if you like," she added hastily, trying to fend off her brother's automatic sneers which badly concealed his jealousy. These days, her brother's moody hypersensitivity interfered with the closeness they'd once enjoyed and she struggled to pitch her conversation right. Surely, all she needed to do was just say it?
"We'd be delighted to come and support anything you guys are doing," Casie interjected with forceful pleasure to head off her partner's overdeveloped sense of guilt. It distressed her that Michael's teenage hormones were causing Roisin's Catholic guilt to resurface. It had been a fault in her that had marred their early relationship when they'd lived care of Her Majesty's Prison Larkhall when the blond-haired woman's own carelessly irresponsible not to say illegal financial scam had become unstuck, the other half of their early problems.
"Sounds boring to me. Why should we put ourselves out for her?" he sneered at last.
Cassie was on the point of ripping aside her hard won self- disciplined restraint and verbally blasting Michael into the back of beyond and possibly right out of this universe when Roisin suddenly slammed on the brakes, wildly swerved into the the side of the road, accompanied by an aggressive horn blast from the car behind. When the shocked carload finally recovered their senses, Cassie's most abiding visual image was of her partner's rigid intensity, of inexpressible feelings which were bottled up and going nowhere.
First there was Aiden and now there is Michael, a tape loop kept repeating itself in the Irishwoman's frazzled mind as she gripped the steering wheel tightly even when there was now no cause to do so. I married him years ago when I was naive and didn't know better. I remember the remote church in Ireland and all our families sitting in their pews watching proudly. I bore him two children as I was supposed to do but I really wanted to, first Michael and then Niamh and moved with him to England to help his career. Suddenly from out of nowhere, I fell in love with the woman I worked for and sought to recreate a happy family with her as soon as we got out of prison and put my ingrained beliefs behind me or so I thought. Now God is punishing mew throught Michael's reproaches as I must be a bad mother. I must be guilty.
"Roache, please listen to me," Cassie urged in her softest, gentlest manner possible."You shouldn't beat yourself just because Michael is being unreasonable. After all, he's growing up so he should take responsibility for his own actions."
She laid her hand on her partner's shoulder who flinched to begin with and then she buried her face in her hands while the blond-haired woman gently soothed her. Her heart and Niamh's went out to the distressed woman. They tried to block out outside interference from the malignant presence besides them to rob them of their feelings. At the same time, Michael's negativity hurt them as he was part of the family even if he wanted to opt out of it and surround himself with , Niamh rose to the occasion.
"It's not fair of you to stop Mum and Cassie coming to my recorder recital. They'd do the same for you anytime."
"Who's stopping them?"Michael answered sulkily, flushing angrily at his sister's reproach. He hated feeling like a sulky child and inwardly felt guilty but he couldn't admit it.
"You want to. Would it make you feel happy if you did?" retorted the quick-witted Niamh. This made Cassie's spirits soar up inside her as she continued to carress her partner's shoulder - Niamh was starting to sound like her. Finally, Roisin started to peer out of her closed in world that her fingers represented. After all, she was driving their children to school and Cassie was patiently and lovingly waiting on her reaction and she checked her watch.
"We're running late for school," Roisin observed in a determined manner, turning round to look Michael straight in the eye." Cassie and I are definitely coming to your recorder recital Niamh. You're welcome to come with us Michael but if you invent some excuse to duck out, then it's your responsibility, not ours."
Michael lowered her eyes but said nothing at which Roisin suddenly realised that she'd stalled the car when she'd pulled into the side. She started up the engine, checked her rear view mirror and nipped out into a space in the long line of traffic. She'd won a brief victory but wondered how long would it last?
Helen followed the line of close packed traffic and swerved into the only space left in the line of parked cars similarly engaged. They were outside attractive Victorian brick buildings set on a slight rise. Round the school entrance, a cluster of children excitedly chattered away to each other.
"You've got your dinner money for the week?" Helen found herself anxiously asking. Rose rolled her eyes upwards at her mother in her unique manner. briefly fished out a neatly handwritten envelope and accepted an affectionate kiss on the side of her cheek from Mummy. Eyes rapidly darting round her surroundings, she picked out her best friend Emma nearby and ran helter-skelter in her direction, her bright turquoise anorak unzipped and her neat white socks already starting to slip a little. after they spun round in a mad hug, they played their irresistable favourite game of avoiding the cracks in the paving slabs or else the monster would take them. From inside the car, Helen looked on affectionately at her daughter's intense child-like concentration. Only a few minutes ago, she'd quizzed her and Nikki with her formidable imagination and now this sudden transformation. She fondly let the chatter of high-pitched children's voices wash over her before making her gradual transformation to businesswoman on her way to work.
Rose treated morning school assembly as her mental transition to her school existence where she let her thoughts wander while her lips mouthed the hymns as appropriate to avoid being caught out too many times for being inattentive. She loved the sad simple atmospheric songs like 'In the bleak midwinter' which held her imagination but she was more in danger of being told off when the hymns sang of unquestioning belief in a godlike figure so that her boredom let her become too detached from what was going on. She'd become too used to listening to conversations between Mummy and Nikki in their soft, beguiling tones even though her understanding of their content wavered in and out of perception. Of course, there were other times when one of other of them told her off for leaving her bedroom untidy as she had to hurtle out urgently for some urgent reason. That was and Helen always had to suppress their smiles behind stern exteriors to make their point as they saw Rose flounce away with dramatic gestures to finish off her tidying knew very well that Rose's rubber ball nature would bounce her back into being cheerful and smiling.
Once assembly had finished, she meekly followed all the other schoolchildren in filing out of the intimate Victorian era school hall with high arched wood ceiling along the narrow corridors to the form rooms. Rose headed to her desk which was on the extreme left side of the classroom and it housed her exercise books, scraps of notepaper with little doodles and the zip up case that housed pencils, biros and felt tips. This was her private space in this part of her world and she slid into a reverie, not conscious of the knowing nudges of two schoolgirls a couple of desks away. Suddenly, her daydreaming was interrupted as the English teacher greeted the class cheerily after allowing a little time for the class to settle down and for her to gather her own wits While she did so, it struch her that spread out before her, were a collection of citizens of the future, as diverse as any despite the school uniforms. There was the future conservatives who stuck to the stated words alongside the questioning minds that weren't complete with just learning their lessons. Rose Stewart-Wade was a prime instance of an alert mind that sponged up information only to reshape it in an unafraid fashion into her own compositions. She remembers the last parent's day when a motherly looking Helen Stewart and a cool looking Nikki Wade proudly came along to peroudly view their daughter's creations over the past year to sponge up on what she said of their offspring. It struck her then that Rose's unselfconsciousness was mirrored in her parent's manner. She glanced sideways at two girls near Rose who were not disposed towards her as they were jealous. Enough of that, she thought as she took out the pile of exercise books and passed down the class having marked the last set of homework. It was time for her to start the next lesson.