Ellen stands, coiffed, clothed and coffeed, tight white fingers, tight white face, staring at Lucy the cereal-killer as she stabs her bowl of niacin, thiamine and iron (a third of daily requirements) with a vicious spoon. Thundercloud silence fills the space between them.
“Why can’t I?” Zap, flash! Like lightning, Lucy sparks.
“Because, because, because…” Ellen’s reasons spatter, fat raindrops, just beyond the umbrella of her daughter’s resentment. Lucy remains undampened. “I’m nearly fifteen!”
“You’re fourteen, you’re under my control, and you’re not going.”
“I hate you! I wish I lived with Dad!”
Ellen echoes the wish, but silently. Some things, a mother can’t say. “Just get in the car,” she orders.
Lucy’s fury continues unabated, but Ellen is hardened to rough weather. When the storm has run its course, when the ‘It’s my life’s and the ‘everyone else is allowed to’s have come and gone, she’ll be there, another layer of patience peeled like paint, but otherwise, without damage. At school, Lucy slams the door and roars away.
The day passes in ticks, as Ellen hammers out her frustrations on a helpless keyboard. Colleagues recognise the signs, and leave her alone. At one, the phone rings.
“Ms Alpers? It’s Lois at school. Did Lucy have an appointment this afternoon?”
“Appointment? No, why?”
“She didn’t come back after lunch. She was seen leaving in a car.”
Subvocally, Ellen’s Anglo-Saxon lexicon gets a workout, but all she says is “Thanks for letting me know, I’ll sort it.” She stands, slowly, knowing that any sudden movement will crack her rigid composure, and she’ll start to scream. Her boss is understanding, he has teens of his own.
In and out of the car, driving, stopping, peering into noisy amusement arcades and dark cafés, Ellen combs the town. At three, she returns to the school, but interrogation of Lucy’s friends yields only: “Luce was angry, she needed time out.”
At five, Ellen calls her ex. He has no news, but plenty to say about Ellen’s handling of their child. Goaded and free, with this one person, to say what she will, she tells him to do the job himself, if she’s so incompetent. He slams down the phone. Between five and eight, she calls every number in Lucy’s address book. Nobody admits to having seen her.
At eight, as the sun slides below the mountains, Ellen phones the police. The constable she speaks to is kind, and attuned to the note of parental hysteria that vibrates below the studied calm. He reassures her, saying doubtless Lucy is safe a some friend’s house, but promises to put out an alert. Ellen cooks, but doesn’t eat. She gets back in the car, cellphone beside her, and hits the street again, hunting. She finds nothing, returns home.
Later, perhaps much later – it feels much later – the door creaks open. "Mummy?” The call is quavering and childlike. Ellen dashes to her daughter, grabs her and pulls her into a fierce hug. Lucy clings, and sobs. “He hurt me, Mummy.”
She is still in school uniform, but her jersey is torn at the shoulder. Along her cheekbone a bruise is purpling. Ellen reluctantly asks the question she has to. “Did he…?”
“No! No, he tried to make me, and when I wouldn’t, he hit me. ”
Relief swamps Ellen. She knows she should rage and lecture, but, somehow, the words have drained away. Tonight is for mother and child, tenderness and tucking in. “Come on, darling,” she says, and there is only love in her voice, “let’s get you to bed.” Tomorrow will be soon enough for lessons.