Chapter 22

Clare telephoned me later.

I was sitting alone in the house again and I was glad of the interruption. I had been dragging myself down again, thinking dark, pointless thoughts when the call had come. I was sitting next to the telephone contemplating calling Siobhan. Clare provided me with the perfect excuse not to.

'You okay?' I asked.

'I'm okay,' she replied softly. She didn't sound too good, but at least she, unlike just about everyone else I knew, wasn't yelling groundless accusations at me. Yet.

'Penny enjoy her burger yesterday?'

'Yes,' she said quickly. 'Yes, she really did. Didn't stop talking about it all night...'

'But...?' I pushed, sensing that there was more she wasn't telling me.

'But what?'

'I don't know, you tell me. You sound distant. Is everything all right? Has Penny's dad done something else that's...' 'No, I haven't heard from him.'

'Then what is it?'

Clare was silent. The longer the silence lasted, the more uneasy and worried I began to feel.

'Are you still there?' I asked cautiously.

'I'm here.'

'So what's up? Is it something I've done?' I asked anxiously. It was beginning to feel like I was gradually turning everyone else against me. It was logical to assume that Clare might also have turned too.

'Christ, no,' she replied, her voice suddenly a little louder and more confident. 'You haven't done anything.'

'What is it then?'

I hated playing games and being messed around. In my current state of mind I considered telling her as much.

'Bloody hell, you're going to think I'm off my head,' she eventually said.

'Try me.'

I heard her take a deep breath.

'It's Penny,' she quietly admitted.

'What about her?'

'She fucking hates me.'


Another awkward silence.

'I don't know how else to put it, Tom. She hate's me. She's...'

'She's what?'

'Oh, Jesus, I don't know what's going on anymore. I think she must be ill. She was fine when we got home yesterday and she seemed all right this morning when I took her to nursery. It's only since I picked her up that I've noticed it.'

'Noticed what?' I asked, concerned. 'What's the matter with her?'

'I can't explain,' she sighed, her voice rapidly filling with emotion. 'I'm probably just being paranoid but I'm really worried. I've never seen her like this before. It's like I've bought someone else's child home with me by mistake.'

'So what's she doing?'

Yet another pause. 'It must be me you know, Tom. I must have changed. I must have said something because it's almost as if she can't stand to be in the same room as me anymore. She came downstairs for a few minutes for her tea but she didn't say a frigging word. She's been up in her bedroom ever since.'

'Has it got anything to do with her dad? Do you think he saw her at nursery today?'

'I don't know. I think he's working away...'

'Do you think she could be reacting because she didn't see him yesterday. She might not have said anything but kids do pick up on things...'

'I don't know,' she snapped again.

'It's got to be that, or something else that happened at nursery perhaps? Maybe another one of the other children said something to her and...'

'So why doesn't she tell me?' Clare interrupted. 'Why is she taking it out on me like this?'

'Because you're her mum? Because you're the only one there. Because you're the one she sees the most and you're the only one she's got to blame?'

I didn't like being so blunt with Clare, but she needed to be told. I didn't think for a second that Penny really did hate her. Yesterday the two of them had been inseparable. I felt sure that the little girl was suffering greatly as a result of the break-up of her parent's marriage. She was too young and innocent to be able to put her feelings and concerns into words. Maybe this was her way of dealing with what had happened?

'I'm frightened,' Clare said, her voice little more than a fragile whisper.

'Why? What is there to be frightened of? This is just a phase she's going through.'

'I'm not sure...'

'Look, she'll snap out of this as quickly as she managed to snap into it,' I interrupted. 'I'm sure she will.'

I didn't have much confidence in what I was saying. I thought it was what Clare needed to hear.

'I don't know,' she mumbled. At that moment I began to sense that there really could be something wrong with the little girl  -  her mother's intuition was rarely wrong. 'I've seen her have bad moods and off-days before, but never anything like this. She's never been like this before...'

'Why do you say that? What's different about today?'

'I've heard her throwing things around her room. And when I try to go up and see her she slams the door and sits with her back against it so I can't get in. She tried to shove her bed across to block it but it was too heavy for her.'

'What?' I said, trying to make sense of what I was being told.

'I swear, Tom, she's not my Penny tonight. I sat outside her room for over an hour before I phoned you. I could hear her crying and talking to herself and...'

'And what?' 'And I've just never seen her like this before. And I'm frightened.'

'People have bad days,' I said pathetically, trying unsuccessfully to reassure her. 'Take Joe Porter for example. I was helping out on the farm today. I'd been there for a couple of hours and the cantankerous old bastard just turned on me.'


'Don't know. Practically ordered me off his land.'

'So what had you done?'


'You must have done something.'

'Not that I know of.'

'So what are you saying? That there's something in the bloody water?'

'No,' I snapped, annoyed that she was mocking me, 'I'm just trying to say that...'

I shut up quickly when I realised that I didn't know what I was trying to say at all.

'Can you hear that?' Clare asked.

'I can't hear anything.'


I held my breath and listened carefully with the phone pressed hard against my ear. I could hear something, but I didn't know what it was. I concentrated as hard as I could but it was difficult to hear anything more than a few muffled bangs and dull and distant crashes.

'What is it?' I wondered.

'That's Penny.'

'What's she doing?'

'Tearing her room apart. Throwing things at the door. I told you, she's been like this since we got home. I've yelled at her and I've begged her to stop but...'

'Why's she doing it?'

I knew that was a bloody stupid question to ask.

'Don't know. You tell me. I wish someone would.'

Clare was crying.

'Do you want me to come over?' I asked pointlessly.

'Why? What are you going to be able to do?'

'You need someone with you. What about your mum?' 'She's not here. She's staying with my aunt in London .'

'Is there anyone else who could...'

'Who could what? What's anyone else going to be able to do?'

'Have you thought about calling the doctor out? He might be able to give her something to...'

'She doesn't need drugs,' she said abruptly.

'Look, just do me a favour and think about it will you?' I pleaded. 'It might help her to...'


'Maybe she just needs sleep then. Let her get this out of her system and I bet she'll be fine in the morning.'

'Do you really think so?'

If I was completely honest I didn't, but that wasn't what I told Clare.

'Of course I do,' I lied through gritted teeth.

I heard another loud crash from the other end of the phone line. Clare sniffed back more tears.

'I've got to go,' she sobbed.

'Do you want me to come over?' I asked again.

'No, it's okay. If I need you I'll call.'

Another crash. I heard Clare call out to Penny before she put the phone down.


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