All Hail Garden Centres: 2013 365 Challenge #118

Wheels on the Bus ride at the Garden Centre

Wheels on the Bus ride at the Garden Centre

Today was saved by the humble garden centre, one of my favourite places to visit at the weekend. Strange, you might think, considering I hate gardening. But they really are fab places to take bored kids, particularly when you’re exhausted. And this morning we all were.

My decision to start limiting my son’s dummy usage (especially talking with the darn thing in his mouth) was not timed well. Sleep came in two-hour chunks last night and this morning Cranky Mummy was an understatement.

I took dummy away, as threatened, after the little darling spoke to me with it in his mouth only moments after the warning. I suffered more than he did as I had to endure an hour-long tantrum that threatened to end in vomit (as Aaron’s tantrums often do).

Amazing what you find in a Garden Centre

Amazing what you find in a Garden Centre

Vomit averted, I managed to get him dressed and into the car – one of the two places he is now allowed his dummy (as long as my willpower lasts, which may not be long.) By then any energy I had when I woke had long since vanished. So we decided to visit a new Garden Centre I had a money-off voucher for.

This was a great one, although it was further away than I realised. The entire place was under high ceilings that let in the sunshine and protected us from today’s hail showers.

There were the usual distractions – a shop selling fish (who needs to visit an aquarium?), a pet shop complete with guinea pigs, pretty flowers, ride on toys and cake – plus the rather less usual – a giant gorilla that the children sat on to have their picture taken.

There was even a TV and reading room for kids, a library for grown-ups and a park. The food was a bit pricey but it’s definitely somewhere I would take the children again. Who needs indoor play centres or trips to the cinema when you can find Nemo and Dory in a fish shop, King Kong in the flower hall, and Ice Age I on the television?

Marvellous.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: [WARNING: Today’s post contains strong language]

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Claire smothered a yawn and rubbed her hand across her eyes. She stared around blankly, trying to occupy her mind while Sky knelt to feed the goats. Twenty paces away, a man stood watching her. She felt a quiver of recognition, although she couldn’t imagine how anyone she knew would turn up at a rare breeds centre in Norfolk. Probably an old colleague; they do seem to appear in the most random places.

Her eyes felt heavy and her caffeine content was well below safe levels. Crouching down next to her niece, she tried to frame words in her head that might entice her back to the car without a tantrum.

“Would you like to buy an ice cream before we go to the hostel?” She waited, lungs full of in-held breath, while her words seeped into Sky’s consciousness. Never mind marketing, I think a career in diplomacy will be a possibility when this fortnight is over.

After what felt like an hour, Sky smiled and stood up. “Can I have one with a flake, Auntie Claire?”

Exhaling loudly, Claire pulled herself to her feet and reached for Sky’s hand. “Of course, darling, if they have any.”

She turned to lead them to the exit, but Sky remained as if stuck in quicksand. Looking down Claire saw that her niece’s gaze was fixed on a point in the distance. She followed the direction and saw the same man still staring. A shiver trickled down her skin like icy water. With the awful inevitability of a car crash, Claire could see disaster playing out before her. She tugged on the tiny hand enclosed in hers. “Come on Sky, I’ll race you to the coffee shop.”

The girl didn’t move, although the blood drained from her face until it was as pale as her hair.

Bollocks. Claire didn’t want her suspicions confirmed, but her eyes dragged back to the staring man without her volition. Of all the shitty luck. What now?

She felt Sky drop her hand and take a step forward. A breath of a voice whispered, “Daddy?” Then something seemed to break inside her, and she began to run. “Daddy!”

Watching the little girl racing across the grass, hair and dress flying out behind her, Claire felt tears building in the back of her throat. It was her turn to be frozen. She knew she should go after Sky – shield her from what might happen next – but she felt unable to move.

Sky reached the man and held up her arms, demanding an embrace. Even across the distance Claire felt the hesitation and her chest ached in pain. It seemed to free her from immobility and she ran for Sky as if the girl was teetering at a cliff edge. She reached them just as the man dropped down and gave his daughter a quick hug. He looked up at Claire’s flustered arrival and some of the tension left his face.

“It’s you. Couldn’t tell from a distance. Thought it couldn’t be Ruth. She wouldn’t be this far from home.”

Claire looked round, expecting to see the ballet teacher lurking nearby. It seemed unlikely that a man would come by himself to such a place. Wherever she is, let her stay there. Another thought lurched unwelcome in Claire’s mind. Oh god, I offered Sky ballet lessons and talked all about ballet when we were in Cambridge. Stupid, inconsiderate, idiot. No wonder Ruth doesn’t want her to have ballet lessons, when her father ran off with her ballet teacher.

Shaking away the thought as something she couldn’t fix now, Claire reached for Sky. Her father dropped his arms and stood up, his face showing relief.

“How come you’ve got the girl then?”

Claire tried to read the man’s expression. “Sky is staying with me for the Easter holidays.” She stopped, holding back the words Because her mother has a brain tumour and is having chemotherapy.

An awkward silence spread between them like mist. Sky stood gazing in adoration at her father, and Claire wondered when she had last heard from or seen him. As if in answer, Sky spoke in a trembling voice. “I miss you, Daddy. Why don’t you ever call?”

The man – Claire couldn’t even think his name without fury – looked down at his shoes and didn’t answer. Claire could see two red spots burning in his cheeks. He glanced around and behind him, as if searching for someone. His face softened, becoming younger, more gentle. Reaching down, he patted Sky gently on the head.

“I have to go, poppet. Sorry.” He said nothing more, and strode away without looking back.

Claire felt an icy pain spreading through her chest as she watched him leave. Chris. That’s his name. Stupid, fucking wanker, more like. It felt hard to breathe. Watching the departing figure reminded Claire of being dropped at school after the holidays, standing silent while her parents returned to their car. They had never looked back either.

A loud sob brought Claire back to the present. Realising she had forgotten her niece in her own reaction; Claire dropped to her knees in the mud and gathered Sky into her lap. Like a dam breaking, the little girl crumbled and dissolved into a wave of tears. These weren’t the childish screams and dry sobs of a tantrum. With shaking shoulders and loud gasping gulps, Sky cried as if the world had ended.

For her, I guess it has. Claire turned to stare in the direction Sky’s father had gone and saw him lean in to kiss a woman pushing a pram. He linked his arm through hers and bent to say something to the child deep in the buggy. Despite the busy farm bustling around them, the connection was close and private. Claire felt like an intruder.

Oh Sky, I’m glad you didn’t see that. What could make a man leave his child? I guess too many men run off and leave the woman literally holding the baby. But to start a new family, and not stay in touch with your own daughter: What kind of monster does that? Claire’s brain searched for the worst word she could think of, so bad she couldn’t even say it in her mind. That’s what he is and Sky’s better off without him.

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