Rob looked at her bemused, as she cried, long and loud, tears coursing down her cheeks. Helplessly, his arm went around her shoulders, and he patted and stroked her. "Stop, Ellen, pleaseā€¦" he didn't know what to say, "don't cry. It's alright, everything is alright."

"I know that," she replied, still sobbing, and hiccoughing.

"Then why are you crying?"

"Reaction, you idiot!" But the insult was delivered softly. "Just hold me tight, and let me cry it out, please."

It had been a long night. First came the row. Melanie's report had arrived from school, and it was bad. Not just worse than usual, but really, truly, bad. "Disruptive, rebellious, rude" negative comments littered throughout the thing, the only positive report coming from the sports teacher .

Things had been getting worse over a long period as the happy, open, helpful child had metamorphosed into a sullen teenager who had to be nagged constantly to do anything other than sit in front of the TV, jabber on the phone to her friends and hang around the mall. It all seemed to have crystallised once she turned fourteen and got to high-school, and now the behaviours were spilling into the classroom and affecting her education.

Ellen had been angry and disappointed, (well, they both had) mostly at the waste of Mel's potential, and had told her that she was grounded for the holidays, that she couldn't go to the end of term get-together tonight. Rob had let Ellen handle it, because she could keep a rein on her temper, and he hadn't been able to have a serious conversation with Mel in six months without it degenerating into a slanging-match.

Inevitably, the conversation had been followed by slamming doors, and "I hate you, I wish I was dead," screamed at the top of adolescent lungs.

Then, when he had gone to call Melanie for dinner, she was gone, the window pushed up, school uniform scattered on the floor, and the stereo turned up full blast, playing its driving music to an empty room.

They had started by calling friends, but they were all out partying, and the parents seemed hazy as to where they were. It seemed they were all meeting at the Friday-night skate group, then going on. The various mothers were meeting their various children at various locations.

Then had come the driving round and round town - the skate centre had been full, but only with younger kids. There were, as usual, groups of teenagers hanging around The Square, drinking, swearing, smoking and racing cars, but they couldn't see Mel amongst them. More phone calls, running up the mobile bill, and still nothing.

Finally, they went home, and Rob left Ellen by the phone, while he kept looking.

At midnight, there was a slamming of a car door, and a screech of tyres. Ellen had gone outside, to find Mel in a boneless heap at the top of the drive, reeking of alcohol, unable to stand without support - but home, and apparently unharmed.

She had carried her inside, no easy task given the size the Mel had grown to, and Ellen's bad back, and sat her in the chair while she called him. "Bring home some salt," she said, "we're going to have to make her throw up. I don't know how much she's had, and I don't want to risk alcohol poisoning."

He'd arrived to find that Ellen had stripped the child's clothes off, and manhandled her into the shower, turning the cold water on. Calm, competent, she had instructed him to mix salt into some water, while she wrapped Mel, who was now able to stand, (if barely) in a towel, and made her drink the vile concoction. And still calm and competent, she had put Mel to bed, finally sober, her stomach now emptied and her face contrite. She probably wouldn't even have a hangover in the morning, though she certainly deserved one.

Then Ellen had gone to the kitchen, made coffee, and sat down.

And then she had started to cry. Shaking from head to toe, spilling coffee all over the damask cloth, and leaving him with nothing to do but hug.

At last, the storm subsided.

"Let's go to bed," she said, quietly.

He smiled, and nodded. Somehow, he thought, as he threw the coffee-stained cloth into the washing machine and turned out the kitchen light, her tears had helped him too - it reminded him that even when she seemed at her most infallible, she could still fall apart - and when she did, she needed him, to hold her, and keep her together.

It was a pleasant feeling, to redeem a hideous night.