“I want to tell you about what happened in the schoolyard today. I was standing apart from the other mums, as usual. I’ll never be part of their little club and I’ve no desire to be. I’m pretty sure they all either despise me or pity me and, to be honest, I feel pretty much the same about them. The ringleaders – the overdressed, overconfident Queen Bitches, as I call them – make me want to scream. They’re so damn snooty. And I feel sorry for the more timid, frumpy underlings for being at the Queen Bs’ beck and call.
I missed my chance to join ‘the gang’ when Ruby started in reception and I was too busy working to do the school run. That already marked me out as a bad mum in their eyes. They’ll always think so now, even though the new me is in the playground five days a week. It’ll never make a difference. I’ll forever be an outsider: someone talked about in hushed voices behind her back. That’s small town life for you, I suppose. We made the decision to buy this house – in a semirural spot within commuting distance of the city – and with that comes a specific type of people, people who have, shall we say, certain attitudes. I imagine it would be much the same anywhere in the country as it is here in the north of England. City folk are less judgmental in my experience, or at least better at minding their own business.
In the early days I made the mistake of trying to talk to a couple of them: a pair I later christened Horsey and WAG, not knowing their real names. I walked up to them and said something innocuous. ‘Lovely weather today,’ I think it was. Their response was simply to look down their noses at me for a horrified moment and then to continue chatting with each other as if I didn’t exist. I shuffled away, turned back to watch them giggle. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was back at school myself, but at least I knew to steer clear of them in future.
Not everyone is that way. There are people I could speak to if I so desired. I could always make small talk with the other outsiders: the grandmas and grandpas; the working parents on a rare day off; even the girls in the hi-vis vests from the nearby after-school club. I do occasionally, if I’m feeling chatty, but mostly I keep myself to myself. It’s easier that way.
So there I was, standing alone in my usual spot near the dustbin, avoiding eye contact with everyone around me, and willing Ruby to be the first out. Then someone spoke to me.
‘What’s your secret?’ a deep male voice asked.
There was no doubt he was talking to me, since his mouth was so close to my ear that he could have whispered the question. And as if that wasn’t enough, he touched my shoulder at the same time. I almost jumped out of my skin. orry?’ I said, fighting not to look too shocked as I turned around to see a gorgeous man – six foot, athletic, with dreamy chestnut eyes – beaming a perfect grin at me. Then came this deep, infectious laugh.
‘Don’t look so startled,’ he said. ‘You were behind me on the road. Black Golf, right? I was wondering how you were able to park so quickly. One minute you were there; the next you weren’t. It took me ages to find a space. Do you have a secret spot?’
It feels strange talking to you about a man this way, considering … well, you know. Honesty’s essential, though. I wouldn’t be confiding in you if I held that kind of thing back.
Once I realised what this guy was talking about, I relaxed. To be honest, I could hardly believe that such a handsome stranger had noticed me, never mind started a conversation. He looked in his late thirties, well dressed in a light-grey suit and tie; clean-shaven with cropped hair. I decided to enjoy it, not least because I could see the Queen Bs staring at us, wondering why he was talking to me and not them.
‘Um, there is a spot a few streets away that I tend to use.’
‘I knew it,’ he replied. ‘And let me guess, you’re not going to tell me in case I nick it in future.’
I smiled. ‘It’s not that secret. There’s room for more than one car. Did you see me turn left on to Meadow Street?’
I gave him the directions and, next thing I knew, we were shaking hands.
‘I’m Rick,’ he said.
‘Nice to meet you. I’m Maria.’
I wondered how he’d been able to recognise me just from seeing my car behind his. When I asked him this, he laughed.
‘You stopped for petrol on the way, right? Don’t worry, Maria. I’m not stalking you or anything. I just happened to be doing the same thing. I noticed you at the pump and then you followed me out afterwards.’
Rick explained that he and his daughter, Anna, had recently moved to the area because his job had been relocated. He’s a finance manager for a large retail firm, apparently. I didn’t ask, but there was no mention of any wife or girlfriend. Today was Anna’s first day at her new school, he explained, adding that she was eight, the same age as Ruby. The weird thing was when the school doors opened and Ruby ran out into the playground with Anna in tow, begging me for her new friend to come to play at the house. Coincidence or what?
Before I go on, I must say how much Ruby misses you. Please don’t think for a second that she’s forgotten you and moved on. I could list countless examples of how that’s not the case; they’d break your heart. But again, that’s not why I’m writing to you.
Where was I? Oh yes, Ruby and Anna coming out of school together, all smiles. They were both buzzing about having a new playmate, as kids do. It was lovely to see.
‘Pleeease can she come, Mummy?’ Ruby asked, arms squeezed tight around my legs and puppy-dog eyes peering through her long blonde curls.
I looked over at Rick. He was being accosted in a similar way by his own daughter, who was a little taller than Ruby, with shoulder-length dark hair in neat plaits. ‘What do you think? I’m fine with it if you are.’
‘Sure,’ he replied, flashing his pearly whites at me. ‘When were you thinking?’
‘How about tomorrow?’
I could have invited them there and then, to be honest, but I knew the house was a mess and I didn’t want that to be his or Anna’s first impression of where we lived.
‘Fine with me. Am I invited too?’
‘Of course.’ I smiled. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to entrust your daughter to someone you’d just met.’
He beamed back at me in a way that felt like we might be flirting with each other. ‘I don’t know. You look like a pretty safe bet. And you did share your parking secret with me. We’ll look forward to it, won’t we, Anna?’
She replied with an excited nod.
‘Great. See you here tomorrow, then?’
And that was it: play date arranged. I’ve been cleaning the house ever since. Tidying up is my way of dealing with the nerves.
I could have imagined the flirting thing; it’s been so long, I’m not sure I even know how to do it any more. Luckily I stopped short of saying: ‘It’s a date.’
I’ll tell you what: I can’t wait to see the look on the Queen Bs’ faces when we leave together. It’ll be priceless.
Time to go now. It’s late and my empty bed awaits. I’ll write again soon.
Love as always,