Strictly Friends: 2013 365 Challenge #321

Our Strictly Friends

Our Strictly Friends

It’s been a laissez faire parenting Saturday today. The littlest Martin didn’t even make it out of his pyjamas. We had plans to go to the zoo, but the children were playing together beautifully. All it needed was for Mummy and Daddy to turn a blind eye to the trashing of the playroom, the teddies on the trampoline and the craft scattered all over the floor, and happiness was complete.

My brain was still fuzzy today, after a week of raging against my status as housewife, so I stumbled through making sure everyone was fed and the dog got a walk.

We had some stuff finishing on ebay, so the day was also about waiting for people to come and collect pieces of furniture (and me feeling gutted at the bargains they got!). A day of waiting is always restless and I was glad to get to bedtime.

Fab Paso Doble this evening (including Bon Jovi!)

Fab Paso Doble this evening (including Bon Jovi!)

And now the takeaway pizza is on its way (okay, I ran out of housewifeliness around 7.30pm) and Strictly is on the TV. It’s like a night in with friends.

Hubbie and I are big Strictly Come Dancing fans. Although I usually fall asleep during the Saturday show (hence why I’m writing this – to keep me awake, as they’re in Blackpool tonight) I still look forward to it all week. We also watch It Takes Two every evening during the week, when they catch up on the backstage gossip and training progress, and chat to famous Strictly fans.

Sometimes I read my book while the programme is on, happy to just have it on in the background. It’s like sitting quietly and listening to the family chatter (with the knowledge that the TV can be muted, unlike the children!) We have our favourites, hubbie and I, and we become armchair judges, despite both having two left feet.

Brilliant American Smooth

Brilliant American Smooth

The thing we love the most is watching the characters and couples grow on their dancing journey. The people we think we’ll love we come to hate, and the ones who don’t have the Strictly bug in the beginning start to blossom. And of course the judges and professional dancers are part of the family, as is Zoe Ball on It Takes Two, and the other presenters.

it probably says a lot about hubbie and I and our lack of a social life that a bunch of strangers on the TV feel like close friends.

It doesn’t matter. It’s the same as the books I read time and again because the characters have become part of my extended network of people that make me smile and feel happy. If friends are the family we choose for ourselves, then fictional (or TV) characters are the friends who can’t hurt us or let us down. It was all summed up nicely in a tweet I read this evening about one of mine and hubbie’s favourite television programmes, by decaffeiNATed nubbin: “SG1 has given me more than a tv show with amazing role models. It’s given me a family.”

Well said.

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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:

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Claire clicked on the last slide and turned to face Conor, trying to gauge his reaction. He’d remained silent during her impromptu presentation, his attention on the screen rather than her. Her early confidence evaporated and she could feel the hot flush rising up her neck as it did when she felt out of her depth.

“Very good,” he said at last. “I like the angle. The Board won’t take it well, you understand. I can see you’ve tried to be diplomatic, but the pictures tell their own story. I guess just having a great place to visit isn’t enough anymore; it’s all in the window dressing.” He took a long gulp of his water and turned his head to stare out the window.

“People live their lives online these days. If there isn’t a website, or an app, or a gallery of pictures, it doesn’t really exist.” Claire closed the laptop with a gentle click and slid it back into her bag. The empty space on the table stretched between them.

Conor sighed. “You’re right, for sure. We don’t really do social media, as you call it. I’m not sure we have the budget for it. The same goes for glossy photographs and the like.”

“That’s where I come in,” Claire said brightly, glad to have something positive to offer. “I have contacts, and I’ve learned a significant amount myself, through doing the blog. As you say, it’s all window dressing, so it isn’t hard to change. It will take time. I can start straight away, if you like, rather than waiting to the end of the three months. I’m sure there are some quick wins. You could run a photography competition, for a start: people love showing off.”

There was gratitude in Conor’s eyes when he turned to face her, and it struck Claire anew how personally he took it. She couldn’t imagine loving a place that much.

Conor opened his mouth as if to add something more, then shut it abruptly as the waiter arrived with their food.

*

Scraping the last drop of sauce off her plate with a chunk of bread, Claire gave a contented sigh and smiled at Conor. “You were right, it was delicious. I think if I was based near here I’d be fat or broke within a fortnight.”

He laughed. Placing his own knife and fork neatly on the plate, he leant back in the chair and looked out the window. “There are definitely worst places to be. It reminds me of Dorset, although there are definite differences.”

He let the sun rest on his face, briefly closing his eyes against the light. When he opened them again, the change in their expression caused Claire to catch her breath. He sat forward, pushing his plate aside so he could rest his arms on the table.

“Claire, I–” he began, but his words were interrupted as Claire’s phone vibrated across the scrubbed pine surface.

With her heart in her mouth, Claire glared down at the black rectangle and silently cursed the terrible timing of the call. The flashing screen informed her it was Robert, and she stared unblinking at it, trying to work out what to do.

“Answer it,” Conor said with a shrug, sitting back in his chair again. When Claire looked up, she got the impression he was glad for the intervention.

“Yes?” Her voice cut like a whip as she connected the call.

“Claire, it’s Robert. I’m at the hostel. Bloody hell it’s in the middle of nowhere. I’m not staying the night; I need you to get here so I can catch my flight home. I can’t just leave the boys.”

Claire inhaled through her nose, controlling her temper with effort. “Robert, I thought you weren’t going to arrive for another hour. And what harm would it be to stay one night, get the boys settled in? I barely know them.” She glared out the window, watching a couple wandering arm in arm down the beach.

“I, er, well, I have to be back in Geneva. Sorry.”

The hesitation in his voice set Claire’s teeth on edge. “You’ve got a date, haven’t you? Admit it. You bastard.” Claire realised her voice was rising, and she turned her shoulder away from the staring customers.

“Is that why Francesca left?” she hissed. “Were you cheating on her? No, don’t tell me. We can talk when I get there. I’ll leave now.” She disconnected the call and turned to face Conor, her lip caught between her teeth. She tried to think of sufficient words of apology but none came.

“It’s okay, you have to go. Don’t sweat it.” His face had closed down again, and Claire felt tears of frustration building behind her eyes.

She gathered her things together, unsure whether the trembling in her knees was a result of anger at her brother or something else. As she hoisted her bag on her shoulder, Conor stood up and came round the table. He stood for a moment, arms hanging loosely at his sides. Emotions flickered across his face as if he was running through different things he might say.

“Don’t let your nephews run you ragged,” he said at last. “Remember you’re in charge.” He raised his mouth in a half smile, and his green eyes regained some of their sparkle.

She gave a nod and turned to go.

“And Claire?” he added, the words stopping her heart. She turned back, an eyebrow raised in question, trying to remain cool despite the staccato beat in her chest. The sun lit blonde highlights in his hair, and he had buried his hands in his pockets.

“I am sorry. About last weekend. I misread the signals and I was drunk, not that it’s any excuse.” He smiled a cheeky boy smile and extended his hand for Claire to shake.

“Friends?”

She nodded and took his hand. His grip was firm and his skin felt warm and smooth. Tears pooled in the back of her throat. With a wave goodbye she ran from the room.

***

Friends are the Best Medicine: 2013 365 Challenge #263

Friends

Friends

It’s going to be a short post today, for various reasons, some good, some bad.

The bad is I have a stinking cold. I spent the afternoon trying to rest because I had dinner plans for my bi-annual catch up with my old work friends. The good is that I made it to dinner and spent a lovely two hours with good food and good company, catching up on the work gossip and not talking about the children (much).

It’s hard not talking about the kids but it is sort of an unspoken rule that we don’t, even though five out of six of us have children and the sixth has a puppy that is just as troublesome and gorgeous.

Even my friend who had her first baby seven weeks ago started the evening by saying “I don’t want to talk about babies.”

It’s actually rather lovely to forget you’re a parent for the night. I think parenting can be a divisive rather than inclusive subject for discussion. Everyone has different techniques and priorities, and there’s such a difference between age stages, from a baby to a pre-teen, as the age range is across our group. Plus the passing of the years are more noticeable when we talk about such and such starting school or big school. Without the kids to mark time, it only feels like yesterday that I left work rather than six years ago.

Work is always a safe topic. Even though two of us haven’t worked for the company in years, it’s still possible to follow along. Like an old school friend you haven’t seen in a decade, you can still talk about that shared experience. Incidentally the picture is one I drew of me and my two best friends at high school (a scary 20 years ago). The friend I gave it to emailed me a copy this evening, after finding it in a drawer. Happy days.

So, it’s off to bed for me, with the intention of writing my Claire instalment in the morning, after I’ve painted a shark. It’s been a lovely evening and I want to round it off curled up in bed with a lemsip, finishing Reckless Rebellion by Rinelle Grey (published on Amazon today!) Night night.

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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: 

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Claire looked out the window at the changing scenery and wondered if she’d make a mistake. It felt lonely knowing that Bethan wasn’t on the bus.

I would have had to say goodbye in a few days anyway. Travelling is all about meeting people and then saying goodbye to them, carrying them with us in our hearts.

She smiled at how corny that sounded, although no less true for all that. Bethan had begged her to stay in Queenstown for the extra day, but Claire felt no pull to stay in the famous town. Despite the lure of luging and drinking and other activities, she wanted to get on and get home.

I guess I could have missed out the bottom bus completely, but I really want to see the sea lions.

The brochure said she could do a wildlife tour in Dunedin and that had been enough to persuade her. Bethan hadn’t understood that she’d rather do that than drink shots out of tea pots.

I’m surprised too. I must be getting old.

She turned her attention back to the view, as the bus pulled into a town. She guessed it must be Dunedin, although it was nothing like she had expected. Apart from Wellington, it was the first really hilly town she’d seen, and the buildings seemed to be made of stone rather than wood.

As they drove through the streets, Claire peered out the window and felt a quickening in her tummy. It seemed familiar, as if she’d visited before in a past life. She soaked in the grey stone, the university buildings, the formal gardens and smiled.

I could be in any northern British town.

It felt like home

The bus pulled up at the bottom of what looked like a residential street. Claire wondered if they had arrived at the hostel, although it didn’t look like the centre of town, where she thought the hostel was located.

“Right, peeps. We’re at Baldwin Street. World’s steepest street. Climb to the top and back and you get a certificate.”

The driver finished his terse announcement, got out of the bus and lit a roll-up. Claire followed all the other passengers, glad to stretch her legs.

Outside it was raining, a light mizzling rain that hadn’t been noticeable as they drove through town, although it probably explained the greyness of the buildings. Claire looked up the street and wondered if she had the energy to climb it. It didn’t look too bad from the bottom, but she knew looks could be deceptive.

Some eager passengers started up the hill at a run, but soon dropped to a jog and then a walk. As she climbed, Claire marvelled at the buildings, where the road started at the lower floor window and passed somewhere near the upper floor. She took some pictures and kept on climbing, ignoring the burn in her thighs and the lack of oxygen in her lungs.

At last she reached the top and turned to survey the view. It was worth the climb. The road dropped like a child’s slide beneath her, a straight ribbon of tarmac. In the distance, tree covered hills hugged the little bit of town she could see. The sun had broken through the clouds on the other side of the valley, and its rays lit the fields like a spotlight. More than any place she had visited in New Zealand, the place felt welcoming; as if she belonged there.

With a sigh, Claire put her camera away and headed back down to the bus.

***

Why Facebook is Mostly for Me: 2013 365 Challenge #216

My WriterMummy Page

My WriterMummy Page

Kristen Lamb recently posted an article about how Writers Building a Platform Have NO Private Life On-Line.

It was a difficult post for me to read, because I am naturally a very private person (I would guess most writers are) and it’s tough to learn how much we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. It was also tough for me, because she wrote specifically about Facebook and how writers shouldn’t have a Facebook fan page separate to their regular profile page.

Kristen says writers make the mistake of thinking that their regular page is for acting human and a fan page is “for the professional face and self-promotion.” She explains that, in reality:

The regular page is essential for connecting with people and creating the emotional bonds that will eventually translate into a vibrant, passionate author platform filled with readers. We connect talking about kids, laundry, missing socks, vacations, hard days at work and griping about the weather. All these everyday events are how we forge friendships.

She also says that you shouldn’t assume your friends aren’t interested in your writing. Friends read books and know people who read books, and so social media should be across all channels if you hope to sell books.

Practising skateboard at friends' BBQ

Practising skateboard at friends’ BBQ

Normally I fully embrace everything on Kristen Lamb’s blog, even if I don’t think I can implement it myself. And I have no doubt she’s right about this too. However it’s not right for me. Facebook is my sacred place. I am particular about who I accept as a friend on my profile page. Basically it has to be someone I’d happily show half-naked pictures of my kids in the paddling pool to.

Tonight I realised why Kristen and I are both right.

Family Martin went to a friend’s annual birthday barbecue, after a manic day which included Kara’s first Dog Show (more on that tomorrow) and a children’s party. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve made it to the summer barbecue and in many instances it’s the first time we’ve seen our friends in that time. But we didn’t need to catch up, because we follow each other’s lives on Facebook.

Our friends didn’t say “Look how much the kids have grown!” because they saw pictures of the kids in the paddling pool last week. They didn’t ask, “Why are you late?” but rather, “How was the kids’ party?” because we’d posted on Facebook that we were double booked and would be late.

Many evenings I trawl Facebook looking for something interesting, thinking I’m wasting precious writing time. In fact I’m really kind of down the pub with my mates, catching up on gossip and laughing at friends’ jokes. I share silly things the children have done and in turn commiserate with friends who are struggling with teething babies or boring jobs.

If I was constantly talking about writing, or if I knew I had an external audience, I would be more on my guard. I would protect the children more (I already feel I post too much about the kids on my blog). Similarly, if I had more friends that were people I didn’t know, my timeline would be even more cluttered than it already is and I’d miss more of the important stuff.

Not wanting to be outdone by her brother!

Not wanting to be outdone by her brother!

I know you can control that with lists – same as you can on Twitter. But I struggle with HooteSuite trying to see Tweets I want to see under all the promotional stuff. If that happened on Facebook too, I would lose my sanity. I would also lose my downtime at the pub. Actually, Facebook is more like a big private party than a pub. One where I know everyone by name and I know they all ‘get’ me. It’s a safe place.

But Kristen is right too (of course!) I do need to write a bit more about my books on my private site. I post some stuff but Facebook is selective about what it shows people.

Last night, a good friend who I last saw at my art exhibition two years ago asked, “How’s the art?” I had to explain that I’ve written and published two novels and seven volumes of a serial novel since then. Her response was, “How is it I haven’t heard about your writing?”

Hmmm social media fail!

The best moment of the night for me was finally meeting an old friend of my husband’s for the first time. For various reasons I haven’t met him in person in the 9 years I’ve known my hubbie. But he smiled as we walked in and gave me a huge hug as if I’d known him all my life. Why? Apart from being the most amazing person, he’s been my friend on Facebook for a year or two. He comments on my posts and photos of the kids and we share views on other things he posts. I felt like we’d always been friends and not at all like I was meeting him for the first time.

So, I apologise if my Facebook WriterMummy page is only updated once a day and mostly with stuff about writing, rather than silly pictures of the kids. I apologise if I’m alienating people by keeping my Facebook profile page closed. Maybe I’m not ready to be an author in the twenty-first century. That said, I am myself on my WriterMummy page, on Twitter and definitely here on the blog. Just maybe the me I’d be at a coffee shop, knowing strangers are listening, rather than the me I am after a glass of cider at a friend’s birthday bash.

And if that loses me sales, I’ll have to live with that. Some things are more important than money.

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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: 

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Claire shifted on the bed, wondering why her pillow felt lumpy. She swallowed and panicked as her airway felt closed with grit. Sitting up, she grabbed at the wall as her vision whirled and hot shards stabbed at her head.

Peering round the semi-dark room, memories flickered through her mind, as if she had looked upon the space several times, but each time it was slightly altered, like a spot the difference. In her mind the memories were sometimes of a dark room, sometimes of a sunlit space. Different bags by the beds. Voices, conversations, laughter, all blurred together like a dream-sequence in a movie.

The room was empty now, although rumpled duvets and scattered belongings suggested it was still fully occupied. Reaching behind her, Claire realised her lumpy pillow was actually her handbag. A quick check revealed nothing was missing. Her rucksack still slumped against the bed where she had dropped it, who knew how many hours before.

How long have I been asleep?

As the dark receded and the memories clarified, like a photograph coming into focus, Claire guessed she had been asleep on and off for a day or more. Looking down, she saw she was still wearing the clothes she’d put on Saturday morning, when she left her sister’s house. She tried to work out what day it was, but her mental calculations made the hot needles bury further in her brain.

Fumbling through her bag for her phone, Claire switched it on and searched for something to tell her what time and day it was, both in New Zealand and back home.

Well, it’s 5am back home. No wonder I’m tired. Checking the calendar, Claire stared at the neon words until they went fuzzy. Tuesday?! It’s Tuesday? What the hell? She sniffed, No wonder I stink. I’ve been wearing these clothes for three days.

Her phone beeped, as it picked up a local signal, and a text message trilled its arrival. Then another, and another. Claire’s hands shook as she realised the enormity of her actions.

I’m in New Zealand. I’m on the other side of the world! No one knows I’m here. I’ve been out of touch for days. Anything could have happened.

Her stomach squirmed with hunger and nerves as she flicked through the messages. Two were service messages, welcoming her to New Zealand. One was from Ruth, relaying her mother’s anger at the abandoned Skoda. One informed her of a voice message and one was from Kim. Heart pounding, Claire opened it.

Hi Claire, it’s Jeff. I’ve borrowed Kim’s phone. Just wanted to say, it’s not your fault. Kim needs you. Don’t give up on her, please.

Claire tried to swallow, and realised how parched she was. She stared at the message for several moments, then closed it. Time enough to work out how to respond later. If Jeff was using Kim’s phone she couldn’t reply directly to him anyway.

Hoping her work account was still active, Claire rang her voicemail to retrieve the message. I’d better add a new phone and contract to my to-do list, before Carl thinks to shut me down.

The message was from Conor, asking her if she’d had time to reconsider the job offer. Claire flushed guiltily as she remembered her promise to let him know on Monday. Vowing to send him an email, and remembering that she also needed to email Roger, she made a quick note before chucking her phone back in her bag.

Pulling out her wash-bag and some clean clothes, Claire stuffed her handbag back under the pillow and went in search of the bathroom.

Out of sight, out of mind, right?

***

Friends: 2013 365 Challenge #177

Tranquility

Tranquility

I caught up with two good friends today and nattered for five hours in total, not including my normal interaction with the children. Needless to say, I’m a bit low on words. (Like yesterday’s Claire installment. That rubbish 400 words took me all evening to write!)

I think my brain is in full-on edit mode, too, which makes it hard for the ideas to come. Unfortunately I have a double deadline of Sunday to finish my first pass on Baby Blues and write my Two Hundred Steps Home month-end cliff hanger (and work out what it’s going to be, as I haven’t decided yet, although I have done the front cover!)

I realised, though, that it’s nice to be out of words, instead of having them crowd my head. It was nice, too, to be with friends that require no masks. I don’t have to wonder if I’ve said the right thing, or wonder what they’re really thinking, because they wear no mask with me. It’s like getting out of a stuffy car and feeling the cool breeze, smelling the cut grass and wrapping your hand around a hot cup of tea. In other words, like coming home. Glorious

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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:

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Claire gazed around Ludlow Castle with jaded eyes. She’d visited three castles in Wales, and now this one over the border. They were all starting to merge in her mind. Any novelty, if there had been any two months before, had long since worn thin. With Sky as a companion it had been just about bearable, but coming along, merely to say she’d been and take a picture, felt utterly futile. She could learn as much on the internet without leaving a hostel.

For that matter, I could talk about the hostels without visiting them. A few web pictures, a few visitor reviews, and I could write a convincing story in my sleep. The hostels were all pretty much the same, anyway. All that varied was the colour of the decor, and the quality of the food. And they don’t change much. I guess it’s like any convenience product, chain store or restaurant- the predictability is the selling point. Makes for a boring trip, though, if that’s the sole purpose.

She thought about the rest of her assignment. Of course, there’s that. Even that had become a bit predictable. Once you’ve climbed up a few things, jumped off a load more, what was so exciting about it? I’d rather read a book, at least the character’s names change, even if the plot doesn’t.

With a gusty sigh, Claire pushed away the heaviness and trudged further into the castle complex. Her target was the tower, where she hoped it might be possible to climb up for an aerial photograph without scaring herself stupid.

When she reached the tower, she noticed a buggy at the bottom, by itself. Her heart picked up tempo as she approached it, searching all about for the parents.

Oh, God, someone’s abandoned their baby. Crap.

She didn’t know what to do. A closer inspection revealed a sleeping infant about the age of Sky’s half-sister. The gnawing sensation in Claire’s tummy grew stronger, until it dragged bile to the back of her throat. Her hands itched to hold the child and offer comfort, but it was sleeping.

Claire searched around again, expecting to see, what? She wasn’t sure. Maybe a young mother, watching to be certain her baby would be cared for. Claire reached forward, about to grab the handle, when a sound intruded at the edge of hearing. Giggling. The sound got louder, nearer. And then she was no longer alone.

A couple, she guessed in their thirties, skipped out of the tower towards her. They looked surprised to see her. The man smiled in greeting, but the woman’s forehead wrinkled in a suspicious frown. It took a moment for Claire to realise what it must look like. Not that she was rescuing an abandoned child, but that she was about to abduct their daughter.

Claire took a swift step back and raised her hands, as if to reassure them of her good intentions. For a moment she had an urge to berate them for leaving their infant unattended in a public place. The words hung hot in her mouth, but she swallowed them. It was none of her business. Instead she smiled as sincerely as she could.

“She’s adorable. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

She took another step back, relieved to see the frown ease on the woman’s face. The couple closed in on either side of the buggy, both focussed on the child inside. Claire felt their bubble of exclusion as her presence was forgotten.

***

Talked to Exhaustion: 2013 365 Challenge #101

Playing in the Sand

Playing in the Sand

Today has been a great, if exhausting day. As it’s the school holidays we met up with friends to combine childcare and have a good old natter.

My kids were so excited they were dressed and standing at the front door by 9am. This is unheard of behaviour: normally I have to cajole them for at least an hour to get ready to go out. Shame we didn’t need to leave until 10am!

I had to spend the next hour pleading with them to play quietly by themselves while I cleaned the kitchen, knowing we wouldn’t be home until bedtime.

Our kids play so well together even though they’re 1, 2.5, 4 and nearly 5. My friend and I were able to natter for most of the day, interspersed with the kids’ chatter and fairly non-stop feeding of the troops.

Look at my car, Mummy

Look at my car, Mummy

A slightly nerve-wracking trip to the park chasing my two on their scooters had me aching for bedtime at 2pm (my son apparently has a dare-devil streak and likes to free-wheel down the hill on a scooter he can barely control). We were revived with ice-cream.

Funny how talking all day can be exhausting though, especially when you don’t do it very often. Two days in a row? I’m practically comatose. I fed hubbie frozen chicken and Smash for dinner because I could barely lift my arms or eyes to do anything else. Even typing is using muscles that ache and plea for bed. I certainly don’t have many words left. Thankfully I’ve sketched out my Claire post for today so I can crawl under my duvet in an hour or so and recharge.

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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:

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“Auntie Claire, why hasn’t the Easter Bunny been? Couldn’t he find me?”

Claire opened her eyes and blinked them into focus. Inches from her face a little pouting mouth quivered beneath eyes full of tears. Bugger. It’s Easter Sunday. Why didn’t Ruth tell me Sky believes in the bloody Easter Bunny? I mean, who believes in the Easter Bunny? Isn’t that an American thing? The shops aren’t even going to be open today.

Trying to locate some clear thoughts in her cotton-wool brain, Claire felt an urge to pull the duvet back over her head and pretend her niece was a bad dream. The quivering turned into a wobble and Claire sensed an imminent meltdown. Conscious of the four other women asleep in the dorm, she let out a quiet groan and forced a smile.

“I’m sure he forgot you were travelling, Sky, and left your eggs with your Mummy. You can look forward to getting them when I take you home.” The wobbling showed no sign of abating, and the tears were tumbling now, running rivulets down little red cheeks. Don’t cry, please. It’s too early.

“I’ll tell you what. We’ll go to a coffee shop today and you can get a babycino and a large piece of cake.”

A calculating look crept into the tear-drenched eyes and Claire felt able to breathe. “Chocolate cake?”

“Yes, if that’s what you want. With cream and ice cream.”

The face disappeared as Sky climbed back down the ladder. Claire’s duvet clung onto her like a lover, but she knew that her niece wouldn’t sit quietly on her bed for long. Sure enough, a minute later a voice called out, much too loud. “Auntie Claire, can we go to the coffee shop now? Please?”

Claire groaned and wrenched herself free from the warm cocoon of sleep. Leaning over the bunk she hissed in as quiet a voice as would carry, “Soon, Sky, but shush please, other people are sleeping. Get dressed and we’ll go down for breakfast.”

Zoning out the muted grumbling from below, Claire sunk her head back into the pillow and closed her eyes. Moments into a beautiful dream, of lying on a warm beach towel being baked by the hot sun, Claire felt a tug at the duvet followed by arctic air ripping the warmth from her body.

“Sky, did you just pull my covers off? You selfish little brat.” The words were out before she could stop them. Claire felt the blood rush to her face as she realised how awful they sounded in the still of the room. Please god let everyone else still be asleep. Lulled by the ensuing silence, Claire figured Sky must have not heard her harsh words. Then she caught the intake of breath that signalled a brewing storm, and she tumbled down out of the bunk-bed as fast as a Marine called to attention.

Wrapping the quivering shoulders in a smothering hug, Claire stroked her niece’s hair and shushed her. “I’m sorry darling: that was unforgiveable. It’s not nice to pull someone’s duvet off when they’re hardly awake, but it was wrong of me to call you names.”

The sobs still came. Loud wracking cries echoed out through the cuddle, leaving Claire’s skin prickling in mortification.

Thank god we have a private room booked at the next hostel. The sooner we get out of here the better. Claire comforted the child as best she could, then helped her get dressed for the day.

I’m not sure I’m going to survive two weeks of this. Ruth, my dear, I take it all back. You’re a saint. I was right, too. Parenting is most definitely not for me.

***