2am and Caroline is not only awake, but in the kitchen; in the throws of baking 100 cupcakes for the class field trip. And it’s all thanks to Kelly’s now silly sounding advise about the rules of the field trip.
‘You mean a field trip for children has rules too?’ She blurted out when she took Kelly’s call in the middle of her hectic day, the ongoing struggle to score the Alpine fund just got even more intense and down to the wire; they came back to both herself and Dennison with suggestions on fine tuning their proposals before final decisions are made. Think X-factor of the investment world and turn it up ten times on the cruel-o-meter and you’ll just about get the picture.
‘Yes it does and if you don’t want to be hanged for treasonous offences of coming empty handed to the single most important event in your children’s lives, you will make something. Anything.’
‘Oh bloody hell.’ Caroline surveyed her desk, there was a mountain of work to get through before the end of the day but she’d signed up to be chaperone on this trip and she can just picture the smug look on Bernadette’s face if she turned up empty handed. Knowing Bernadette, she’ll probably have a seven course meal for her children and would gleefully let Olive and Xander starve to death too.
After work she rushed to a nearby Waitrose to get all the necessary ingredients, a quick mad dash around Harvey Nicks for the Oreo mix, 7:55 the store closes at 8pm the cashier must have thought her crazy. She thought herself crazy. But she got the mix and a ticket when she returned to her car to see the bastard ticket officer with his look of utmost superiority that said he expected her to beg. Caroline almost ran him over with her SUV.
Home was no picnic either, she had to deal with Amelia who was failing maths and Olive who suddenly decided she wanted to play with Xander’s favourite car. Thank goodness Xavier got home in time to intercept the world war about to erupt between the twins whilst she tackled Amelia. She would have handled the twins but Sod’s Law.
‘Why are you failing at Math?’ Caroline asked as she set out her ingredients for the big bake.
‘I don’t like it. Its boring.’ She sulked.
Teenagers Caroline thought to herself. She wondered if she was that bad when she was one. ‘Well you don’t have a choice you have to pass it to get into University-‘
‘You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not my mother.’ She snapped.
‘What the hell?’ Xavier appeared in the kitchen just in time to hear that comeback. ‘Is that how you speak to her?’ He asks but Amelia looks down at her feet. ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ His eyes flashed angrily. ‘Do you hear me?’
Amelia nods her head, mortified at being caught, she loves her father senseless and being in his bad books is not somewhere she ever wants to be, being daddy’s little girl and all.
‘Now apologise.’ He ordered.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said through gritted teeth.
Caroline did not fall for that half hearted apology. ‘I may not be your mother, but I am your step-mother and whilst you may not like that, there’s nothing you can do about it. And when you are in this house, I am responsible for you. Now I say, you sit down and do your math homework. I can look it over once you’re done and we can go through what doesn’t make sense to you.’
Amelia makes a rude sound and Xavier is about to say something but Caroline shakes her head at him. This time she’ll handle her.
Between putting the twins to bed, tutoring a very reluctant Amelia and getting ready for the field trip, even with Xavier doing his share, Caroline’s baking expedition did not start until well after midnight. Hence the 2am in the kitchen, barefoot and knackered.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Oh shit!’ Caroline jumps at the sound of Xavier’s voice behind her. ‘Why are you sneaking up on me like that?’
‘Sorry. I woke up and you weren’t in bed.’ He shuffles tiredly to the fridge for a bottle of water. ‘Want something to drink?’
‘No I’m good thanks.’
‘What are you doing?’ He asks again, leaning against the fridge.
‘Baking cupcakes for the field trip tomorrow.’ She answers filling the last cup with batter before placing the tray in the oven.
‘Why couldn’t we just buy cupcakes?’
‘Because.’ Caroline shrugs.
‘I’m sorry.’ Xavier says to his tired but determined wife. He’s been such a dick to her lately, too many outside interference in their life as man and wife and that never used to happen. His mother and his ex-girlfriends. He knows work is hectic for her too, like it is for him so she doesn’t need to fight other battles.
‘For being an idiot lately. Forgive me?’
‘Already forgiven.’ Caroline says, she could never stay mad at Xavier for long. She’s in love with him and he with her, that is something she’ll never doubt regardless of how much people meddle in their lives. She gives him a kiss on the lips.
‘I’ll do the frosting. You set up the dishwasher.’ Xavier steals the bowl from her.
‘Aren’t you tired?’
‘So are you babe. Come on, we’ll be quicker this way.’
They are done by 4am. Caroline sinks to bed gratefully, she didn’t even have the energy to change but Xavier does it for her.
“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round, the wheels on the bus go round and round, all day long…”
‘Make it stop.’ Caroline whispers to Kelly, they are sitting together on the bus on the way to the Natural History Museum where they’ll spend two fascinating hours. There are six parents in total and Caroline is sure they are all thinking the same thing; a field trip with twenty children ages 5-6 is not how they’d choose to spend a Saturday morning, given the choice. But the big smiles on Olive and Xander’s faces, because mommy and daddy are on the big bus with them, make it less painful.
‘I’ll need a bourbon after this, a whole bottle.’ Kelly sets them giggling conspiratorially.
At the museum, the children are kept entertained and educated with more songs, rhymes and activities. Their guides, two bubbly young men, do a good job of holding their attention and they lap it up. The parents are kept involved too, well most of them, Bernadette and her husband are in the far corner engaged in a terse conversation.
Halfway through a lecture on dinosaurs, under the guise of needing the bathroom, Caroline excuses herself. If she has to hear one more rhyme about the dinosaur she will lose it. She is about to walk into the bathroom when she hears voices coming from the adjacent corridor. She’d know Bernadette’s pitchy tone anywhere. It’s that clichéd scene from a movie and Caroline can’t help but eavesdrop. In a public place it couldn’t be classed as eavesdropping could it?
‘Of course you know Xavier married her because she was pregnant. She’s so tacky.’ Bernadette says. ‘I bet she doesn’t know we were secretly engaged before he went off to University.’
‘You were?’ Letty Saffron, Bernadette’s number two, asks with raised brows.
‘Yes we were. Before I met Arthur and then I broke it off.’
‘I thought he broke up with you. And how come you never mentioned anything about a secret engagement.’
‘Because I don’t tell you everything about my life Letty.’
Their footsteps are getting closer so Caroline hurries into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. Xavier never mentioned anything about a secret engagement. Not once. When she rejoins the tour, she is not pleased to see her husband and Bernadette talking and laughing at goodness knows what, its a little intimate. Or is she just being ridiculous?
‘You must be Caroline.’
She turns to see Arthur George standing behind her. ‘Hello.’ She flashes a genuine smile. ‘What gave it away?’
‘My wife freezing you out.’ He answers with a twinkle in his eyes. They exchange kisses and a hand shake. ‘I’ve heard so much about you.’
‘Don’t believe everything.’
‘Ah well, fortunately for you I know my wife too well.’ Arthur looks over at Bernadette who is looking daggers at them. ‘She blames me for her misfortune.’
‘Do you blame her for blaming you?’ Caroline inexplicably feels sorry for Bernadette in that moment. ‘It can’t be easy dealing with the tabloids and everything else.’ She looks at Arthur.
He smiles ruefully. ‘If you make a deal with the devil, you get the good and the bad.’
‘That’s an odd thing to say.’ Something about this conversation suddenly feels inappropriate.
‘You don’t know the half of it.’ Arthur says looking back briefly at his wife. ‘It was lovely meeting you.’
Caroline shakes his hands, she couldn’t say the same about him.
The upside to the trip; her cupcakes were a smash success.
All through the ride home in the taxi, Caroline is quiet, thinking and rethinking the conversation she overheard. Why didn’t Xavier mention it to her? And he cannot say it slipped his mind because an engagement is not something one just forgets.
‘What’s the matter?’ Xavier asks, as they make their way into the house with the sleeping twins.
‘Nothing.’ Caroline replies frostily.
‘Xavier I don’t want to-‘ Caroline can’t finish her sentence because two police officers are waiting in their living room when they walk in.
‘Good evening Mr and Mrs Darling.’ One of them says. Both men stand up robotically.
‘Good evening officers.’ Xavier steps in front of Caroline and Olive protectively. ‘What seems to be the problem?’
‘We’ve had a distressing call from one of the mothers of your daughter’s friends-‘
‘Amelia?’ Caroline’s heart sinks.
‘Yes ma’am it appears they have gone off somewhere, together.’
‘What do you mean gone off somewhere?’ Xavier asks as if the officer spoke a foreign language.
‘They haven’t been seen since 10am this morning.’ The officer elaborates. ‘According to Mrs Jameson, one of the parents, the three girls, your daughter included, took off this morning and should have been back by now-‘
‘Took off to where, Alicia is grounded she knows better.’
‘Mr Darling they haven’t been seen since they boarded a train to Brighton.’
‘Yes Mr Darling. We have informed the local police and they are treating this with utmost priority. We’ll try our best to keep you informed once we have some more information.’
After hastily putting the children to bed, Caroline and Xavier call everyone they know in Amelia’s circle. Penelope can’t be reached, which is a good thing for the time being.
‘Fuck.’ Xavier slams the phone when his last call yields nothing. ‘I have to go and look for her.’ He grabs his car keys from the nook where it hangs, hurrying out the door.
‘Xavier, where will you start? We don’t know anyone in Brighton.’
‘I can’t sit here and wait Caroline, she’s my daughter.’ He snipes.
‘I didn’t- okay.’ Caroline takes a step back from him, taken aback by his retort.
Xavier stops, just before he walks out, his tone was uncalled for. ‘I’m sorry.’ He says, looking back at his wife.
‘I understand. Please call me.’ All anger from her earlier discovery long forgotten. Caroline hopes to God they find Alicia safe and well.
‘Where are you Amelia?’ Caroline asks herself, watching her husband drive out the gates…