concentration span. My neural pathways have been rerouted by short-term stimuli. It’s a generational thing.” He went and sat down in the living room and continued to play.
“They teach you too much at that school,” said Matt, but he winked at Tara to soften the admonishment. Will craned to see Jake bent over his phone on the sitting-room sofa. For a moment Sophie thought he was going to march in and confiscate the thing; Will was used to giving Jake the kind of telling-off that only came from
love, the kind that makes you cruel to be kind. She looked at her husband and saw not anger but hurt and knew it was because Matt had usurped Will as Jake’s father figure. Sophie could not help but love Will for loving Jake. She watched his shoulders drop as he let it go, and she loved him for doing that, too.
Kerry—who still had yet to say a word—sidled into Jake’s space, directly opposite Sophie. She took the baby spoon and used its soft plastic edge to scrape the puree from Edie’s cheeks, leaving a little orange goatee that made Charlie laugh, before wiping Edie clean with a muslin cloth. Edie spat out the proffered mouthful and batted Kerry’s hand away. This was the point at which most people gave up, turned to Sophie, and said “I think she wants her mum,” but Kerry bent to Edie’s level and whispered something in baby talk that made Edie burst into delighted life. Kerry didn’t break eye contact as she continued to feed the baby and was rewarded with a particular giggle that Sophie had thought was reserved for her. Sophie had seen these women before, innate mothers, nurturing since they were given their first doll and with no ambition other than reproduction. She had never quite understood them, and they made her uneasy. At least she had tasted professional success, at least she had tried.
“She’s a good feeder, isn’t she?” said Kerry. “And she’s got such a lovely laugh.” The shock of Kerry’s voice temporarily robbed Sophie of her own. It was feminine in pitch but scraped and gruff like that of a heavy smoker. Sophie had expected an accent, but there were only the neutral vowels of somebody reasonably—if not privately—educated. She spoke slowly, as if each word had been selected and examined carefully before it was uttered.
“She’s a good girl all round,” said Sophie.
“You’ve got a babysitter for life, there, I reckon,” said Felix. He buttered Kerry a slice of toast. She nibbled at the crust as the rest of them began to clear their plates and shift in their seats. Before they all dispersed for the morning, someone had to bring up the subject of Lydia’s ashes. Sophie felt that the responsibility rested with her, even though it made her feel intensely uncomfortable, as though she were officially assuming the role of the new matriarch.
“I thought today we could . . .” She caught her father’s eye and lost her nerve. “Who’s up for building a bonfire? If we get started after breakfast we can get a really good blaze going by the time it gets dark.”
“Good plan,” said Felix. “I’m all for a bit of child labor. What about you, Edie? Are you going to muck in and earn your keep, or just lounge around in your nappy all day?”
Edie smiled through a new beard of butter and crumbs. She scanned the empty plates for leftovers and with admirable subtlety for a child of nine months, crawled her fingers toward Kerry’s toast. Smiling, Kerry tore the slice into little pieces and gave them to the baby, leaning in close to feed her. Edie put up her hand to Kerry’s face, grabbed a dangling lock of hair and tugged. I should have warned her about that, thought Sophie, who was used to seeing bunches of her own hair suddenly appear in her daughter’s hands, but she smiled to see that Edie was actually trying to tuck Kerry’s hair behind her ears, the way Sophie wore hers.
For the briefest of seconds Kerry’s neck and ears were exposed. Both her earlobes were
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