Nina was standing by the school gate, waiting for her daughter to come out to meet her for the drive home. As she waited, she noticed another young mother standing nearby—rather shy and reticent, Nina remembered.
The young woman was clutching the hand of a small, tearful boy. The woman looked shyly at Nina and asked, ‘Are you waiting for your child, too?’
Nina had thought the question sounded unnatural—almost rehearsed. She smiled at the woman, thinking that she looked like a timid rabbit ready to bolt if Nina actually answered her question. She took a risk and replied. ‘Yes, I’m waiting for my daughter.’
The woman smiled weakly in return. She shuffled her feet and gripped the small boy’s hand tightly, ruffling his brown hair in an awkward manner. He looked shyly up at Nina from sad brown eyes.
‘We’re waiting for my husband. This is my son, Linus. It’s his first week too, but he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it much. He says he misses me during the day, but he doesn’t much like coming home either.’
She suddenly stopped speaking and looked away. She strained her eyes towards the cars pulling in at the pick-up bay. Nina thought that the woman might have said more than she intended.
At that moment Alethea appeared, with a flushed and happy face. Unlike Linus, she loved school, but still looked forward to going home.
‘Can I play on the swings before we go, please, Mum?’ she begged.
‘Of course,’ Nina answered.
Alethea then glanced at the boy holding tightly to his mother’s hand as they stood alongside Nina at the gate. She saw his tear-stained face and, without hesitating, reached out and grabbed his free hand.
‘What's your name?’ she asked him excitedly. ‘Do you want to come and play with me?’
The boy looked up enquiringly at his mother, who bent down to Alethea.
‘His name is Linus, and I think he would love to play with you—but just until his daddy comes,’ she added, looking nervously over her shoulder.
Alethea grabbed the boy’s hand, and dragged him along behind her to the swings a short distance away.
Nina smiled again at the woman, who smiled shyly in return, but didn’t engage in any further conversation. For that very brief moment as the woman had bent to speak to Alethea, she had appeared natural and relaxed, but only until she mentioned the boy’s father.
When the man arrived to pick up his wife and son, he didn’t come out of the car to meet them. At the first sight of her husband’s car, the woman nervously hurried over to the swings to fetch Linus. She looked briefly at Nina as she passed and, with a strained smile, whispered a hurried goodbye.