From the garden came the sound of children shouting, then it went quiet, only Lydia and Catherine debating if the furniture should be reupholstered. Alice pictured her own three-piece suite, a hand-me-down from the lounge of the small hotel Robert’s parents used to run. Some evenings she could smell the guests on the grey velour. Their disappointments. She had stopped sharing such thoughts with Robert, it was not what he wanted from a wife. Nor could Alice speak about her constant dread.
More noises from outside, raucous laughter. She hoped the children would not wake Felix, it sounded like they were playing on the terrace. They were not allowed near the river. The girl Emily and the boy—what was his name? Jack, she felt certain he was Jack.
Alice had never paid much attention to children, there were no nephews or nieces in her life, no friends with babies. But now that she had her own child, Alice saw them everywhere. Earlier, on arriving at Chapel House, she was obliged to shake hands with Jack and Emily. There were a few twigs in the boy’s hair. The girl had stared at her without blinking. Two ambassadors from a foreign nation, a race of small beings who harboured secrets. And Jack was so solid, so very much there. Everything done with force.
Was boy-ness always so bullish? For a moment, a fleeting presence, she glimpsed the adult Felix, and oh, it took her breath away, he was beautiful. Sandy-coloured hair, smiling, tall, a casual grace. Then he was gone, leaving Alice utterly bereft. She stood up. ‘I have to—’
‘Please, Ali, do sit down.’ Lydia dumped a book of wallpaper samples in Alice’s lap. ‘We’ll go outside in a minute, see what les enfants are up to. I hope it doesn’t involve my autumn bulbs. Thankfully their bible obsession has run its course. If Jack is digging again…’ She rolled her eyes.
Alice longed to be back home, but Robert was not due till six. She laid a hand on the flock wallpaper, felt her mouth go dry.
Urgent footsteps in the hall. The door burst open and the boy stopped on the carpet. Jack frowned at Alice, rubbed his nose with a fist. Then he looked at Lydia. ‘It’s hungry.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Lydia said.
The book thudded to the floor as Alice leapt up. ‘Did you give him anything?’ She ran into the hall, heading for the back door.
Lydia followed, saying, ‘Of course he didn’t. He knows better than that.’
Alice raced toward the pram and yanked Emily away. Had she been smothering Felix?
‘Ouch,’ the girl said. ‘You hurt me. She hurt me.’
Felix was awake, arms and legs waving as if he was learning to swim. Alice picked him up, heart pounding.
‘Sorry,’ she said, glaring at Jack and Emily, ‘but you mustn’t touch babies. They’re not as strong as big kids.’
‘I’m sure the children weren’t doing any harm,’ Lydia said. ‘Emily was just tickling him, weren’t you.’
‘Yes,’ the girl said, nodding.
Felix sucked his fist.
‘Breast or bottle?’ Lydia said.
‘I’m feeding him myself.’
‘How admirably Mother Earth. Bring the baby, we’ve abandoned poor Catherine long enough.’
‘Felix… he’s easily distracted.’
‘We’ll keep the noise down,’ Lydia said.
‘I’d prefer a room to myself if that’s okay.’
‘Why wouldn’t it be? Jack, Emily, run along. There’s lemonade in the fridge. Make sure to wipe up any spills.’
The children disappeared round the corner. Alice grabbed a blanket and followed Lydia, to a room off the hall. Bookshelves on one wall, a desk. Piles of boxes. Lydia left, shutting the door.
Alice wrapped the blanket round Felix and rocked him in her arms. The world was too harsh and her son too precious. But as she gently sang a lullaby, the fear receded, just a little. His warm baby weight, this was happiness. No one warned her it was possible to feel so much love.
Shouting from the garden again, but further away. Were Jack and Emily playing by the river? Alice pictured them knee-deep in water, the fast-flowing current.
Should she say something to Lydia and Catherine? They would laugh. Then tell her again, children are designed to survive.
There is a moment that will stay with Alice. Always. She is standing in the garden, unable to breathe. A circle of faces staring at her. Someone touches her arm. A police officer.
Sorry. Missing. No trace.
The finality of those words. Their heavy echo across the years, killing her each and every time.