Alex wiped Jenny’s mouth with a clean dishcloth, exaggeratedly sniffed the minty smell of toothpaste, and rubbed at the brown spot of Bovril on the cream collar of Jenny’s school uniform. It spread. “Hold on, Angel.” Alex moistened the sink sponge and vigorously rubbed the spot, breathing a sigh of relief as it faded satisfactorily.
“Now my collar’s wet, Mom!” Jenny twisted herself out of her mother’s firm grasp. Blinking back tears she held out her water bottle to be filled. Alex wiped the bottle and grinned down at her daughter. That was the first sentence Jenny had strung together since being woken an hour earlier.
“Have you got everything, love?” She cast her eyes about the untidy kitchen, mentally ticking off the need to wash the dishes, clean the surfaces and to load the washing machine as soon as she got back.
“Ask me a checklist.” A tentative smile played across Jenny’s hitherto serious face.
“Hair done?” An enthusiastic nod.
“Snack box packed?” Another nod.
“Juice not leaking?” Another nod, this time accompanied by the faintest glimmer of a smile. As she went through the unnecessarily detailed list, Alex wondered why, and how, this double-checking had become a ritual. “Did you remember to plug your brain in?”
“Silly Mommy. You know my brain is fixed inside me!” Jenny’s laughter eased a band of tension within Alex. Conscious that her own teeth were still unbrushed, she bent down to kiss her six-year old daughter.
“I am a silly goose, aren’t I? Come along now. I’ll carry your sports bag. Off to school we go!” She tried to sound jolly as they walked to the car she had taken out of the garage earlier.
“My back is sore,” Jenny complained quietly as she buckled her seat belt. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to last the morning sitting at my desk.”
Alex caught her eye in the rear-view mirror as she reversed into the road. “No more monkeys jumping on the bed! You shouldn’t have been doing tumble-turns on the bed last night.” The previous week Jenny had complained of a sore stomach. The week before she had held her ears as if they were going to fall off in pain. One more week … Alex was not going to cave in. “I’ll walk you to your classroom, Jen. Would you like that?”
Jenny gripped her mother’s hand firmly as they made their way painfully slowly down the path leading to the classroom block. “When’s Daddy coming home?”
“One week from today. On this day next week I will collect you early from school so that we can meet Daddy at the airport.” Alex knew there was a catch in her voice and could feel the tears prick behind her eyelids. If she was missing Charles this much then how much more was Jenny: Charles was her hero; her world. She reached for a tissue in her jeans pocket and blew her nose vigorously. “Oh dear,” she smiled. “I hope I’m not in for a cold!”
As she strode towards her car, Alex went through her own mental checklist: purchase groceries, clean the kitchen, do the laundry, clean the pool, finish writing that article about lemons, prune the creepers threatening to engulf the aloes, find time to have her hair cut, get the ironing done, bake cupcakes for Jenny’s cookie day …
Her cell phone chimed as Alex pulled up outside the supermarket. The message was from Charles: New Zealand cold and wet. Missing my favourite girls hugely. Alex smiled at the phone. No news about either his conference paper or the series of lectures he had travelled so far to give. Only that he missed them!
Grocery list in hand, Alex pushed a trolley through the supermarket feeling absurdly grateful that Jenny would be busy at school until four o’ clock. She needed time. Alex stopped in the baking aisle to peruse the cake decorations on offer. An elderly man eased past her, looked at her intently and moved closer.
“What now?” Alex racked her tired brain for an image that fitted. No, her brain told her within a second, she didn’t know this man from Adam.
“You’re smiling,” the stranger said matter-of-factly. “So few people smile these days – and never while shopping for groceries!”
Alex looked at the smile lighting up his face and felt her own broadening in response. She had been thinking about Charles. “Thank you.”
“You’ve made my day,” the man said softly as he turned to leave. “I hope yours will be a good one too.”
Alex watched him disappear at the end of the aisle. She felt suffused with happiness. Yes, one more week; one smile at a time.