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An extract from The Sleepover by Samantha King

Exclusive Extract of The Sleepover by Samantha King

PROLOGUE

 

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. The old nursery rhyme was wrenched from the depths of memory the second I took the anonymous call. I let it loop repetitively in my brain, filling my head with noise to drown out unthinkable questions, unbearable images; I force my feet to pound the icy pavement in time with the lilting verse, focusing on the rhythm to block out pain as each hammering footfall jars my gritted teeth.

Fear gives me speed. A hundred feet to go. Fifty. Ten . . . The school gates stand wide; a whispering crowd spills out of them. I charge into it, my terror transmitting a shockwave that instantly parts a sea of blue blazers. Where is he? My legs buckle as I spot what looks like a pile of abandoned jumble. I rush towards it, hopscotching through a treasure hunt of scattered pens, badges and coins to see grey trouser legs bent at an awkward angle, a bone-white face tattooed with blood.

Stepping closer, I’m still clinging to denial. But in the tip-tilt of his nose, the soft jaw sloping to a chestnut-cleft chin, I see the lingering traces of my baby boy beneath the crumpled contours of a skinny eleven-year-old. Closer still. My lungs fill up with pain and panic, choking me as I drop to the frozen ground and reach for his hand; it lies stiff and cold in mine. I stroke back his hair and my probing fingertips sink into a thick, sticky mess.

Rage burns away distress as I stare up at the circle of faces crowding me with ghoulish curiosity . . . heartless voyeurism, I think bitterly. Where were they when my little boy was crying for the bullies to stop? Then I hear a snigger, see a finger point, and suddenly I notice the electronic glow of mobile phones trained like snipers on my son.

‘Stop filming him!’ I coil myself around Nick, desperate to shield him from the spiteful violation of his pain being videoed for kicks. Pressing our palms together, I weave my fingers through his to warm them. ‘Everything’s oK, darling. Mummy’s here.’

Too late, my conscience screams. I should have been with him.

I should never have let him go . . .

 

 

ONE

 

‘Phone me as soon as you’re out, love.’ I pull Nick against me in a hug, gripping a little harder than I used to, lingering a moment longer than he likes – trying to disguise my reluctance to let go by pretending to bundle him out of the path of jostling teenagers.

‘Can’t I just meet you at home? or better still, you could get me

a key cut. Everyone else in my class has one.’ He takes a step back, rolling his eyes and flicking his fringe.

He’s been growing it out lately, ready to dance the lead in his theatre group’s production of Romeo and Juliet in a couple of weeks’ time. His first public performance for a year. The date is ringed in scarlet on our kitchen-wall calendar: a beacon of excitement for him; a red flag of worry for me. After his last starring role, Nick was interviewed by a local paper and dubbed ‘the boy with flying feet’; the following Monday, a clipping of the photo was stuck to his classroom door, the word ‘sissee’ scrawled over it in pink crayon.

The bullies may not have been able to spell, but they knew exactly how to hurt. A week later, they rammed their point home with flying fists – just in case Nick hadn’t got the message. He had, loud and clear, and so had I: that was the last time I let him leave the house alone, and Nick didn’t dance again for six months.

I grit my teeth at the memory, fighting the urge to sweep back a wayward strand of his white-blond hair. Nick hates any public display of affection these days. He only shows his softer side at home now, although lately I’ve seen little evidence even of that. The cloak of reserve he’s learned to wrap around himself at school seems to have become a permanent fixture; sometimes I feel like he wants to disappear inside it completely . . .

It’s only on stage that Nick is truly himself, and that is the cruel paradox of life for my shy, whimsical son: dance is his one escape from the harassment that plagued him throughout primary school, yet it’s also the bullies’ favourite stick to beat him with. ‘Secondary school will be easier,’ his new head teacher promised: mixing with older kids who had more consciousness of their own foibles and therefore less inclination to tease others about theirs. I wonder if it’s true; I wonder if Nick would tell me if it isn’t.

‘You know the answer to that, sweetheart,’ I tell him now, my heart sinking as I see his head drop. ‘I don’t want you walking home by yourself. It’s too cold today, anyway,’ I add coaxingly. ‘I’ll bring the car and wait in the usual snicket, oK?’

‘Fine.’ His new favourite word.

‘Just phone me when you’re out, yes? Rehearsals have been cancelled this

evening. The weekend starts here.’ I try to engage him in a smile. ‘We can watch a movie, if you like. Your choice. Maybe a takeaway as well.’ He continues to stare at his feet, and I kick myself for the careless reminder of happier times: Craig always used to bring home Nick’s favourite pizza on Friday evenings.

‘It’s the sleepover tonight. At Adrian’s.’ He looks up now, chin jutting and eyes

widening with a faltering blend of hope and un- usual defiance.

‘oh yes?’ I keep my tone mild as I see him bracing himself for yet another tussle on the subject that has dominated every conversation for the last two weeks.

‘Don’t pretend you’ve forgotten.’

‘I’m not, love. I know it’s tonight. And you know my answer to that, too.’ I reach out to squeeze his arm, wondering if I dare risk another hug, glancing around to check if there are any groups of smirking Year Sevens loitering nearby. ‘No sleepovers. Maybe soon,’ I compromise, feeling guilty as I see his head dip once more. ‘But not yet.’

‘Soon.’ He huffs. ‘You said that on Fireworks Night. And that was weeks ago.’

‘But that was at Jason’s house.’ I try not to let my wariness of the older boy show. Nick might be a gentle soul, but he’s twelve, almost a teenager, and I remember all too well from my own turbulent teens that nothing cements a friendship like being told it’s forbidden.

‘So?’

‘So, um . . . He was going to set rockets off in their back garden, remember?’ I tut. ‘He obviously takes after his dad.’ I know I sound a little churlish, but I can’t resist the jibe. I might once have been best friends with Jason’s mum, but even then there was no love lost between me and her husband. The only good thing about not seeing Katie any more is that I no longer have to be around Colonel Nathan Baxter.

‘He was just messing about, Mum. It’s called having fun.’ Bright blue eyes roll in exasperation again. ‘Jase is oK. He just acts tough. He’s nothing like . . . the others. Anyway, he’s not invited. But Samir’s coming. You’d like him.’ one soft eyebrow quirks. ‘He’s an ace at computing. And he’s the school chess champion.’

‘Is he, indeed? Well, that’s good to know. Still—’

‘And just because you’ve fallen out with Jason’s mum . . . ’

Noticing a few glances being directed our way, Nick lowers his voice. ‘It’s not fair to stop me hanging out with him.’

‘Darling, that’s not what I’m doing. I don’t want to stop you being friends with Jason,’ I lie, avoiding his eyes. ‘Look, I’m sorry about the sleepover.’

‘No you’re not.’

‘I am. Really,’ I tell him, and this time I’m speaking the truth. I’d love nothing more than for Nick to find a nice group of trust- worthy friends; I want more than anything for him to enjoy the fun and freedom he should be having at his age.

It goes completely against the grain for me to be this clingy. I’ve always encouraged Nick to be his own person, right from when he was a little boy, with his golden hair and tiny feet dancing almost before he could walk. I used to call him ‘my little sunbeam’; I had no fear when he started school. It never occurred to me that my child was different from anyone else’s, or that those differences mattered. His slight other-worldliness was charming; the fact that he hated ball games but loved dance and imaginary play was endearing. He would make friends, and school would be a place of happy adventures . . .

only it wasn’t, and ever since that terrible morning a year ago I’ve pulled down the shutters – and I know I’ve forced Nick to do the same. It scares me that he’s showing signs of wanting to open them again. I’m not ready to let the world back in.

‘So let me go,’ he persists.

‘Maybe another time, oK? Please try to understand.’ I justify the crack in my voice with a cough, then blow my nose for good measure, pretending it’s just the wind making my eyes water. The playground is glazed with a hard frost, and the snow-heavy sky hangs low. I hate this weather; each breath reminds me of that desperate flight through the streets, my lungs burning as they dragged in icy air and blew out raw, exhausted sobs.

‘Everyone else has sleepovers all the time.’ Nick puffs out a sigh. ‘It’s no big deal.’

‘You’ll have one too, love. I promise. one day. But right now I’d rather keep you at home where I know you’re—’

‘Fine,’ he cuts in. ‘I get it.’

‘See you at three thirty!’ I call after him as he strides off, shoulders hunched. ‘Don’t forget to phone me!’ He doesn’t turn around. ‘I love you,’ I add quietly.

Despite his resistance, I will never, ever wave goodbye to Nick again without saying those words. once he’s safely in his class- room, and I’m sitting at my desk at work, I know I’ll be fine. Parting is the hard bit, triggering memories of the one day he left home before I had a chance to tell him I loved him the morning he ran out of the house before I could change my mind about him walking to school alone for the first time.

I was arguing with Craig about it when I heard the front door slam shut, and I still have bad dreams most nights, waking up sweating and convinced I’ve heard that same bang. Lately, Nick’s shadowed eyes at breakfast have made me wonder if he’s having nightmares again about that day too, or if there has been trouble at his new school. But he’s gone quiet on me, and even though I suspect the silent treatment is emotional blackmail to pressure me into allowing him to go to the sleepover, part of me dreads a more serious reason.

Is it all happening again? He says not, and his form teacher, Mr Newton, assured me he’s making friends and settling in well. But I can feel Nick changing – growing away from me. He used to tell me everything; now I suspect he only tells me what he knows I want to hear. Like Samir being the school chess champion. Next he’ll be telling me they’re only planning to play Scrabble and be in bed by eight o’clock.

‘Have a good day!’ I call out croakily, needing to say it even though I know he’d rather I didn’t. He’d rather I didn’t come to the school at all: it draws attention to him, he complains, and he’s had enough of that to last a lifetime.

Finally, Nick turns and lifts his arm in a half-wave. I smile and then sigh, shrugging as I catch the eye of another mum on the receiving end of an equally standoffish goodbye from her daughter. She smiles back, but I can see the inquisitiveness in her eyes. This school was supposed to be a fresh start, but gossip is like flood water: it always finds its way. And rumours are like bullies: once they’ve latched on to you, they are impossible to shake off.

 

TWO

 

Two things greet me as I open the front door. The first is an official- looking envelope on the doormat; the second is a broken boiler. I realise the ancient appliance has finally died the second I step into the hall through a cloud of my own breath. The house is so cold that I almost turn around and go straight back to work. But it’s my afternoon off; I’m determined to fill it with something entertaining before I go to collect Nick.

‘You never know. Maybe this is a party invitation,’ I joke to Marzipan, Nick’s tortoiseshell cat, who blinks disdainfully at me from her usual perch on the bottom stair. ‘My thoughts exactly,’ I say, bending to pick up the envelope, knowing full well it’s more likely to be a letter from Craig’s solicitor.

It’s the only way we communicate these days. Even our awkward doorstep chats have ended since Nick asked to put Craig’s visits on hold while he adjusted to secondary school. Whenever I mention it, he says he’s too busy, and while it’s true that dance rehearsals dominate every spare moment, I’m surprised at his reluctance to see his stepdad. They used to be close and, despite my differences with Craig, I’d never stop Nick seeing him.

But I don’t want to think about my ex-husband now. I’ve got a whole two hours to myself; I want to enjoy them. Tucking the letter into my coat pocket, I pull out my mobile instead, trying to decide who I might call on for coffee and a chat. I’m scrolling through my contacts lists when the home phone rings. ‘Don’t run off. That’s probably for you,’ I tease Marzipan, as she disappears haughtily into the kitchen.

Hurrying through to the living room, I wince at the torn strips of wallpaper. We were in the middle of redecorating when Craig moved out, and I didn’t have the heart – or the money – to continue. We bought this house together, as a project. It’s full of Edwardian character but hadn’t been touched in decades. our plan was to transform it into the perfect family home, only we’re not a family any more. Every bare, creaking floorboard is a stark reminder of that.

I bat away the depressing thought and reach for the phone. ‘Hello? Hello?’ A faint click is followed by the buzz of the dialing tone and my fingers tremble a little as I dial the number for voice- mail. Nick still gets nasty messages every now and then; usually I manage to delete them without him knowing. Steeling myself to hear more childish name-calling, it takes me a moment to recognise the bubbly voice in the recording.

Hi, Izzy. Sorry, I’ve just realised you’re probably at work. I meant to catch you at drop-off. Just to say Samir’s still coming for a sleepover tonight. Nick’s more than welcome, too. Adrian would love him to be there. Just get him to drop a text if he’s up for it. Nick, I mean. Oh, it’s Beth, by the way. Sorry, I hate talking to machines. Anyway, bye!

I smile at Beth’s rambling message. She seems nice; her son Adrian does too, I ponder, feeling even guiltier about the sleepover. Slinging my parka over the arm of the sofa, I head into the kitchen, deciding to steal some of Nick’s favourite hot chocolate in lieu of working radiators. Maybe I’ll just stay at home with Marzipan, a binge-fest of sugar and Netflix for company . . .

I’m spooning the rich powder into a mug when the phone rings again, the shrill noise startling me so much that cocoa flies up, dusting my cream jumper. I brush irritably at it as I dash once more into the living room, wondering if it’s Beth calling back, mentally debating whether I should change my mind and agree to the sleepover after all. ‘Surely lightning can’t strike twice, hey?’ I appeal to Marzipan, who follows at my heels, mewing imperiously for food. ‘Like Nick said, everyone has sleepovers. It’s really no big deal. I should be more worried that I’m talking to a cat.’ I dive for the phone before it can click to voicemail again, frowning now as I picture Nick’s downcast face this morning. I miss his smile; I wish I knew what had made it disappear.

‘Hello? Beth?’ I say breathlessly. ‘Sorry I missed—’ ‘Isobel. It’s me.’

‘oh.  Hi.’  A  confusing  mixture  of  resentment  and  loneliness rolls through me at the familiar voice. Craig hasn’t been gone long enough to feel like a stranger; every time we speak I have to mentally readjust once again to our separation.

‘Everything oK?’

‘of course. Why wouldn’t it be?’

‘No reason. Just checking. Nick all right?’

‘Yes. Look, Craig, I don’t mean to be rude, but did you want something? I, um . . . I’m on my way out.’

‘Who with? Sorry, I shouldn’t ask. None of my business. You’re a free woman now,’ he quips, attempting a chuckle.

‘I always was,’ I snip. ‘Anyway, I’m going to—’

‘Honestly, it’s fine. I really don’t want to pry,’ he cuts in. ‘I was only phoning to check you got the letter.’

‘Letter?’ I glance at my coat on the sofa.

‘It should have arrived today. I was wondering what you thought about it. What Nick thinks. Have you had a chance to talk him through my proposal?’

Proposal? Even as my curiosity is piqued, I can feel myself bristling. I suspect Craig isn’t really asking if I’ve talked to Nick; he’s telling me I should have.

‘Sorry, no idea what you’re talking about. The, er, postman hasn’t been yet.’ Even though he can’t see me, I feel myself blush at my second lie of the day. But whatever is inside that envelope, I’ll open it when I decide, not my ex-husband.

‘Right. The snow must be holding things up. It’s probably stuck at the sorting office. Maybe you could get Nick to call me later, then, once you’ve had a chance to chat. I should be home around eight. If you could ask him to—’

‘No.’ It’s my turn to cut him off, but my voice quivers a little: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve contradicted Craig. It’s a bitter irony that on the one occasion I put my foot down, Nick was the one to pay the price. Maybe if I’d asserted myself sooner, stopped allowing Craig to have the final say in parenting decisions . . . maybe if I’d given Nick more chances to tap into his inner strength, taste independence, figure out how to avoid the bullies – or stand up to them. Maybe then he wouldn’t have ended up in hospital, and Craig wouldn’t have blamed me – left me.

I can see now that I was too eager to keep the peace; I so wanted my new husband to feel he had a role in our family that I got into a bad habit of deferring to him. If only I hadn’t chosen that day to finally make a stand. It broke my heart seeing my little boy sprawled on the pavement in a pool of blood and humiliation; I was crushed when Craig said I was to blame. And when Katie agreed with him, it wasn’t just my marriage that ended; it was also my closest friendship.

‘Sorry?’ His deep voice leaps up an octave; I can tell I’ve surprised him.

‘That’s not really your role any more,’ I say, surprising myself more.

‘I’m still Nick’s stepdad, aren’t I? That commitment didn’t end with our marriage. At least, as far as I’m concerned. Please, Isobel. Don’t punish our son for petty differences between us.’

My son, and hardly petty.’ I remember Craig calling me an unfit mother as he slammed out of the house. ‘And I’m not stopping Nick seeing you,’ I tell him honestly. ‘He just wants to concentrate on settling in to his new school, that’s all. His words, not mine.’

‘You’ve turned him against me, you mean. You don’t want me in his life any more. That’s why he isn’t returning my calls, isn’t it? Why he’s ignoring my texts.’

‘No, honestly, it’s not. I don’t know anything about any texts.’ I feel a jolt of surprise. I don’t check Nick’s phone; I wouldn’t dream of reading his messages. I set up every parental control I could when I bought him a laptop for his twelfth birthday, but Nick seems to spend most of his time either doing homework or watching gaming vloggers on YouTube.

‘Maybe he’s scared to tell you. He probably knows you don’t want him to talk to me.’

‘I’ve never said that to him. He’s just busy. And I—’

‘Be careful, sweetheart. Breathe too hard down kids’ necks and you push them into keeping secrets. You know that as well as I do.’ ‘Nick tells me everything.’ Immediately I want to bite back my words, cross with myself for feeling the need to defend my relationship with my son. I can hear the hurt in Craig’s voice, and I know that’s why he’s chipping at me. I also get that he’s frustrated at losing contact with Nick. But it was his decision to end our marriage, not mine.

‘Are you sure about that? Boys of his age don’t often confide in their mums.’

‘And what would you know about that?’ The taunt flies out of my mouth before I can stop it; he’s caught my Achilles heel now and it hurts.

‘oK, look, I didn’t phone you to fight,’ he backtracks swiftly. ‘Then don’t.’ I’m not going to let him off the hook that easily, but in all honesty, I don’t want to fight, either. This situation is hard enough for both of us: separated yet with a child we each love to distraction – a boy who is my son and his stepson. Craig and I might have gone our different ways, but I don’t hate him; I miss him at some point almost every day and I genuinely don’t want Nick to lose touch with the only father figure he’s ever known. But if Craig wants to stay in Nick’s life – in my life – it has to be on my terms now.

‘Fine. I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’ll phone you tomorrow, yes? I guess I can always chat things through with Nick myself later.’

‘I told you, no.’ Sensing he’s about to put the phone down, I refuse to let the conversation end with Craig thinking he still has a casting vote in what I do. ‘He’s, uh, going for a sleepover tonight,’ I tell him, suddenly making up my mind.

‘He . . . what? Seriously? Are you sure that’s a good idea? You—’ ‘Craig, stop.’ The plea emerges more plaintively than I intended. ‘This isn’t your decision. And Nick’s twelve. old enough to stay overnight with a friend.’

‘Like he was old enough to walk to school by himself.’ The sudden smallness of his voice somehow intensifies his anger. ‘And look how well that turned out.’

This time he hangs up before I can respond, and I take my irritation out on his letter, ripping it open in full expectation of finding a request to discuss divorce proceedings. But it’s a proposal for a joint custody arrangement . . . I married Craig because I thought he’d be the perfect stepdad. obviously, I picked too well: he not only still loves my son; he wants to take him from me

 

 

THREE

 

‘Hi, darling. How was your day?’ I’ve left the heater running in the car and the windows have steamed up. over the last ten minutes I’ve used a whole packet of wipes, constantly clearing the wind- screen so I wouldn’t miss Nick when he appeared at the school gate. ‘Fine.’ He dumps his bag in the back seat before climbing in the front next to me.

‘Forgiven me yet?’ I smile and lean over to give him a kiss. ‘What for?’

‘oh, you know. Everything.’ It hits me how many things I feel guilty about: not just for saying no to the sleepover, but also for not managing to give Nick the life I wanted for him; for his real father no longer being around; for the failure of my marriage . . . ‘Yeah. Sure.’ He sighs, then rests one hand tentatively on top  of mine. ‘I’m sorry too, Mum. About earlier. Can we still have a takeaway tonight?’

The simple apology, accompanied by the rare crooked smile and gentle touch I’ve so missed, almost stops my heart. ‘Well, the house is so cold a family of polar bears wants to move in to the spare room,’ I joke. ‘Stupid boiler’s chosen the coldest day of the year to die. The curse of Friday the thirteenth strikes again.’

‘Yeah. And I thought it was my lucky day.’

Nick turns to stare out of the window, and I groan silently as it dawns on me that it’s exactly a year to the day since he was beaten up. I wonder if he’s remembering that too. He never talks about it now; he’s stopped telling me about anything. Craig’s little digs earlier were closer to the truth even than he realised, and I hate that. Maybe the only way to win Nick back is to let him go – just a little. Just for one night.

‘I think we make our own luck. All that Friday the thirteenth stuff . . . Silly superstition. Although I’m prepared to admit our boiler may be inhabited by an evil spirit put on this earth to torment me,’ I add, desperate to see Nick smile again.

‘Maybe we should go out,’ he mumbles. ‘The café by the park does cheap pizza.’

He slants me a dubious look and I sigh at his consciousness of the frugality I try to hide from him. While Craig’s salary as a director at a City underwriters used to pay the mortgage, my part-time job at a local travel agency mostly subsidised little extras. These days it has to cover everything. The one thing I won’t com- promise on is Nick’s dance tuition; it takes every spare penny, and then some. But even though I can’t treat us to a posh restaurant, I know Nick would rather hang out with his new friends anyway. And that’s one thing I can give him.

‘Actually, I was thinking about what you said earlier. Tell me, is your new friend Samir really the best chess player at school?’

‘Yeah. Wait . . . what?’ His mouth forms a wobbly ‘o’ as he turns to look at me.

I lean over again to press my cheek against his. It’s cool and smooth, but the roundness is beginning to disappear, and a hint of roughness at his jawline is yet another reminder that he’s growing up. I want to keep Nick safe; I don’t want to smother him. He needs to get out more, and so do I.

‘Do you reckon he’d be up for a Friday-night chess tournament?’ I smile, waiting for a sign that my meaning has sunk in.

‘I can go? Really?’ His eyes couldn’t get any wider.

‘Just don’t go setting off any rockets in the back garden.’ I feel my stomach flip as his face breaks into a grin; he looks happier than I’ve seen him in weeks.

‘Thanks, Mum. You’re the best.’

‘Have fun and be good! I’ll phone you at ten, oK?’ I call out an hour later as Nick disappears inside the neat red-brick terraced house with pretty white window boxes. ‘Bye, darling. I love you,’ I add under my breath.

‘Thanks for bringing him over, Izzy.’ Beth saunters to the doorstep with a smile, her two-year-old daughter Molly propped on her hip. ‘Adrian was buzzing when he got Nick’s text. Samir’s already upstairs. The Xbox is fully loaded. And no doubt that’s the last I’ll see of the three of them until they’re hungry.’ She laughs, jiggling Molly.

‘That’ll be in about five minutes, then. I’m sure Nick must be having a growth spurt. He seems to have his head permanently stuck in the fridge.’

‘Adrian too. I don’t know where they put it. They’re both string beans.’

I force a smile, but my feet are suddenly rooted to the spot. I stare past Beth, hoping for a last glimpse of Nick. For all the excitement while we packed his overnight things, now that I’m here a hundred worries flood my mind. But I don’t want to appear rude: Beth has two children; she doesn’t need safety instructions. ‘I’ve put Nick’s inhaler in his backpack,’ I limit myself to saying. ‘He knows what to do, but if there are any problems—’

‘I’ll call you.’ Beth rests a gentle hand on my arm. ‘Go! Make the most of the peace. Have a bottle of wine. Watch a movie. I wish I could, but Mike’s not here and this little madam is teething.’ She kisses Molly, who offers a gap-toothed wail on cue. ‘Anyway, don’t let me keep you. It’s freezing.’ She hugs Molly tighter. ‘See you tomorrow. Eleven-ish?’

‘Perfect. Thanks, Beth.’ I feel myself blush, noticing her puz- zled frown as I still don’t turn away. From what Nick says, most of his class have sleepovers nearly every weekend. Drop and go is obviously the usual form, and I can tell Beth is surprised by my hesitation. ‘I know Adrian and Samir are used to sleepovers. But Nick . . . ’

‘Honestly, you don’t have to explain. I gather Nick had a rough time at his last school. He’s buddied up nicely with Adrian and Samir, though. They’re all in Mr Newton’s book group. Books for Boys, he calls it. It’s like bloody Dead Poets Society revisited!’ Beth chuckles. ‘At least it makes a change from Adrian staring at his blasted phone.’

‘Nick’s the same.’ My smile comes easier this time. ‘Well, more with his laptop than his phone. He’s glued to it. Spends hours in his bedroom doing goodness knows what.’

‘I reckon I see more of Adrian on Instagram than I do in the flesh. He’s a total gadget geek. At least football lures him outside occasionally.’

‘Nick hates sports,’ I say quietly. Prissy dancing boy, I hear echo- ing in the back of my head. ‘And he doesn’t have a smartphone. I just got him a basic one. For emergencies, really. He, um, doesn’t walk to school by himself.’

‘Sure. I get that.’ Beth cocks her head, shifting Molly to the other hip. The glow of the streetlight opposite catches her eyes; they glint with kindness laced with a hint of curiosity. ‘Well, I suppose I’d better call those pizza delivery guys. They need to get cracking cooking our boys’ dinner.’ Dark curls tumble around her pretty face as she laughs.

‘oh,  of  course.’  I  reach  into  my  handbag,  fumbling  for  my purse. ‘How much should I leave you for—’

‘Don’t  be  daft.’ She waves away my offer. ‘Right, I’d best get on. See if I can shovel some food down her ladyship before bath time.’ ‘Sorry, yes.’ I glance upwards, hoping it won’t start snowing before I get home. Although it’s still early, not quite six, the sky is already black: a faint scattering of stars peeps blindly through inky drifts of cloud. I shuffle awkwardly, knowing Beth is waiting for me to leave. ‘Could you just . . . tell Nick I said goodbye?’

Laters, I think you mean.’ She smiles. ‘Isn’t that what the cool kids say?’

 The cool kids. Nick has never been one of those, I reflect, as Beth finally closes the door with another chuckle. Backing slowly down the short path, I look up at the front bedroom window. For a second, I think I see Nick’s face behind the glass; then a light goes out, the shadows shift and the fleeting apparition disappears. Stop imagining things, I tell myself, heading more purposefully along the pavement, forcing myself not to look back. Nick will be fine. Adrian seems a sweet boy, and Beth is lovely. I’ve only recently got to know her, having discovered that parents don’t loiter at the secondary school gate in the same way as they did at primary school. I was thrilled when Beth approached me – doubly so when she introduced herself by saying that her son was my son’s new best friend. Nick has never had a best friend. And I lost mine a year ago . . .

Even chatting to Beth on the doorstep brings home to me how isolated I’ve let myself become. Work keeps me busy, and ferrying Nick to and from dance classes fills most evenings. But I still haven’t got around to picking up the gym classes and book group I gave up when I got married, after Craig insisted we had the best fun as a family, just the three of us. An only child himself, he loved the tightness of our little gang, and the peace and quiet of our new home, where we would make our own memories: us against the world.

For  three  years, I was thrilled to be able to immerse myself in the joys of family life, in the novelty of being a wife. After Craig left, I retreated behind my own four walls; it’s time to break out, start doing my own thing again, and encourage Nick to do the same. Hopefully the sleepover will be the start of new friendships – and the dark days will soon give way to light. But as I drive home, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve left something important behind.