Chapter Nine


Sports Day

I’m lying in my bed. It’s dusk, and somewhere in the colony I can hear dull thumps and indistinct voices above the all-pervading hum of air-conditioning and whatever other life-supporting machines are in operation.

I’m not alone. My head is resting on Craig’s shoulder, and his arms are around me as he lies on his back in my single bed. For a change he has the time to stay with me for a little while before going back to his wife. If that is where he is going.

“I’m wondering what made you decide to come to Mars,” I am saying. I know he and Mrs Winterton came with the most recent ship.

“Same as anybody else, I guess,” he replies. “Opportunity to do something new.”

“But you must have been settled in what you were doing. Both of you.”

“Sure we were.”

“So wasn’t it a wrench to give it all up? Start a new life, at your – I mean –.” I blush.

“At my age?”

“I don’t want to make it sound as though I think you’re really old,” I say.

“Although you do.”

I look at his face and am glad to see that he looks amused rather than offended.

“Well – you know what I mean. You had more to give up.”

“I guess.”

“Of course you had. I was going to have to leave Berkeley anyway as soon as I finished my PhD.” I am propped up on my elbow now to talk to him properly. “But you: you were settled at your college. You had tenure. Respect, reputation, security.”

“Sure,” he says.

“And yet here you are. How did that happen?” I am honestly puzzled.

“I never even had to think about it,” says Craig. “Every boy dreams of being an astronaut. Every boy wants to travel through space and go to alien worlds.”

“You’re living the dream?” I digest this.

He smiles. “I guess a boy doesn’t appreciate the amount of routine and bureaucracy that’s involved.”

“Probably not,” I agree. “And what about your wife? Did she want to be an astronaut too?”

“I don’t think she did, no. But she came along.”

“What does she do, in fact? I don’t even know what she does.”

“She’s an administrator.”

I’m not much the wiser from that response, but I don’t press it.

“So if you had always wanted to travel to Mars,” I continue, “what took you so long? Why did you come on the third ship, and not before?”

“That was because of John,” he replies. I look enquiringly. “Our son.”

“You have a son?”

“We do.”

“But he hasn’t come with you.”

“No. He’s at college and wants to be an engineer.”

“I see; so you had to wait until he was old enough to go to university.”

“That’s right.”

“And you haven’t seen him all this time. Obviously.”

“Not in the flesh, no. We record video messages.”

“That’s nice.”

“And he’ll be coming here.”

“Really?” Suddenly I am very interested.

“Yeah. On the next ship. Not the one that’s arriving soon: the one after that.”

“Wow.” I think about this. “Is that all settled? Has he got a job here?”

“Yes. The Agency is part funding his studies and helping to design his programme, and there’s an engineering role lined up for him here when he’s done.”

Like Mike, I remember.

“You must be really looking forward to that,” I say, and I imagine waiting so long to see Chiara.

“Sure; but don’t forget, he’s grown up now. It’s not the same.”

“No, I suppose it isn’t.” I consider this. “I think I’ve forgotten what families with older children are like,” I say.

“Because there aren’t any here.”

“That’s right.” I lay my head on his shoulder again because my elbow is getting stiff. “And John is your only child, obviously. Unless there’s an older one,” I suddenly think.

“No, John is the only one.” There is something in his tone, and I look up at his face. “Julia is a carrier for cystic fibrosis,” he explains. “She doesn’t have the condition, but she has the gene. John doesn’t have the gene.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Craig. Can’t they eliminate that nowadays?”

“With genetic modification? You’re right, many of the scourges of humanity have been eliminated like that, or they’re being eliminated. Sadly cystic fibrosis isn’t one of them. Not yet.”

“That’s really sad,” I say.

“That’s another reason why we couldn’t have come to Mars much earlier. We wouldn’t have been allowed if there had been any chance of Julia having another child.”

You could have had a vasectomy, Craig. Why didn’t you do that?

“And here you are now,” I conclude, and I ponder the arc that these individuals’ life history is taking. “Are you glad you came?”

“Yes.”

I look up at him and catch his eye, and we both laugh.

“Well, thank you for that detailed and informative response,” I say. “It’s all clear to me now.” Actually it is, I think. He has fulfilled his boyhood dream, and still has a secure, reasonably well-paid job, and his family will all be together again once John has finished his studies. I can see how he would be content.

“And your wife – Julia – is she glad?”

“I guess so. I don’t hear her complaining.”

Hmm.

“Selena, I should get going.”

“Oh, yes, okay.” I lift myself up and let him sit. I get off the bed so that he can swing his legs round and stand up.

“Do you like my nails, Craig?”

“Huh? Uh, sure.”

I smile a little. “What colour are they?” I have my hands behind my back.

He stops and looks at me.

“What’s going on?” he asks.

“Nothing. Just asking.” I look at him with an innocent expression.

He is obviously trying hard to remember.

“Red?” he guesses.

“Well spotted,” I say, and I bring my hands out again, displaying the nails. “Don’t you think it’s a gorgeous colour?”

“Very nice,” he agrees. He finishes dressing and leans down to give me a kiss. I have been throwing some clothes on too, and we go through our invariable ritual: I check that the coast is clear, first in front of my door, then on the main passageway, and he follows me when I give him the signal.

This furtiveness jars a little. But I absolutely don’t want this affair to become public knowledge.

Finally I am back in the apartment and I can relax if I want. No one that I have to talk to or care for or hurry along. Just me, in a nightdress now, alone in these silent rooms.

This is beginning to feel almost like routine, these times after Craig has departed, when my body grows used to being alone again, its arousal ebbing. A mother again.

I think it’s becoming routine for Chiara too. She’s becoming used to sleeping away from home from time to time, in Brandy’s house or with Mike. Becoming more independent.

We seem to have developed a system that one could imagine continuing.

I do wonder where this is going to go.

And I wonder when I am going to hear from those lawyers. I have given up waiting to hear from Marketa.

*

It’s sports day at the nursery. Not in the nursery: the whole thing has moved out to the playground for the occasion.

Parents and friends mill about at the margins; children, in a grand state of excitement, run around between the pieces of equipment and to their families and back again. Mrs Dalgleish and the nursery staff are doing their best to maintain control, but it is not an easy task.

I’m standing at the edge of the playground area, beneath a spreading tree, and Beate is with me. I mentioned the sports day during our last session, and we agreed to meet here. I was rather touched that she was interested.

“Goodness me,” she said when she saw me. “They are very striking!”

I smiled, pleased, and spread the fingers of both hands, looking down on them.

I’m not sure that Beate entirely approves, in fact. I suspect she finds them a little too ostentatious; but she sees that I really like them, and keeps her opinion to herself.

Chiara rushes up to me and stands in front of me, panting.

“Mummy, I’m thirsty.”

I have packed a bag, and I reach into it and take out a drinking bottle filled with water. As she gulps it down I see that Irina is assembling the children of her group.

“Hurry up, Chiara,” I tell her. “You’re supposed to be over there by the roundabout.”

She finishes drinking, gives a kind of gasp and hands the bottle back to me. Beate and I watch as she runs over to her group.

“So much energy!” Beate says, and I smile.

Irina is corralling the children into two lines, and in spite of their excitement and restlessness two recognisable, if ragged lines are emerging. They seem to have been selected to be evenly matched: both sexes are in either line, all sizes and shapes, all ages.

The other helpers are clearing the area for this next event, sending any children who are not involved in it to their parents, or up on to the rope climbing frame or behind it. A boy breaks loose and runs straight across the cleared area, and Markus makes as if to catch him, but he has crossed in an instant and then stays where he is, with what seems to be his father.

“Right!” shouts Irina. “You remember this game. Two at a time from each team, you run to the basket with the balloons –“

Across on the other side I catch a glimpse of Mike, who has evidently managed to get here almost in time. He’s standing with a couple of other dads and they are joking and laughing. He really ought to be watching.

Irina finishes her explanation and stands back with a whistle in her mouth and her hand in the air. The pairs of children at the front of each line are tensed and raring to go, with their eyes fixed on the first stage.

The whistle goes and we all watch as four children race to a large wire basket that is filled with balloons of different colours. Hilarity ensues as they all try to grab a balloon, though they only need one for each pair, and all the balloons float gently and slowly in our low gravity as the children rummage, with one balloon escaping unnoticed and tumbling sedately away from the basket. A parent retrieves it.

Once a pair has its balloon, the two children have to walk sideways, face to face, with the balloon squashed between their chests. No hands are allowed unless the balloon escapes and they have to replace it. Inevitably the balloons do escape again and again, and there is more hilarity as the children try to coordinate chasing their balloon, catching it and re-inserting it.

This goes on until they have reached the other basket, the same size as the first one but empty at the start of the game; they drop their balloons into that basket and run to the back of their line, and the next pair can start.

Some of the parents are taking this very seriously and are cheering and exhorting their child’s team; but most of us are enjoying watching the children having a fine old time, and couldn’t care less which team wins. I glance across to Beate, who is standing next to me, her mouth amused and her eyes crinkled with laughter. She catches my eye and smiles at me.

Brandy comes up to me as the event is progressing. Pamela has already completed her run, and I am keeping my eyes fixed on the race to ensure that I don’t miss Chiara.

“Hi, Selena. Hi, Beate.”

She stands on the other side of me from Beate and draws me a little aside.

“What about those lawyers?” she asks as the noise of the crowd surrounds us. Chiara is just setting off with her partner. “Have they written back yet?”

“Yes, they have,” I reply, my eyes fixed ahead of me. “I was going to tell you. I got a response during the night.”

“Well?”

“Well – it was quite encouraging, actually. They want to take on my case, and they’re going to be moderate with their fees, because they see that I can’t afford much, and I think the case interests them.”

“I bet it does. They’ll be the first firm with an interplanetary case like this.”

“Yes, I imagine they will. Not much good to them if they lose, though.”

“All the more reason for them to make sure they win.”

“True.”

“And what else did they say?”

“Not much. They want to see my employment contract.”

“Well, that makes sense.”

“But I haven’t got it.”

“So get it.”

“Well, it’s all very well to say that. I don’t know where it is.”

She looks at me with her eyebrows raised.

“I mean, it’s probably in the apartment somewhere, the old one, but I’ve no idea where.”

“So send them an electronic version.”

“I haven’t got one.”

“Oh, Selena.” She looks at me, exasperated. “Ask HR!”

“I did think about that,” I say in my defence. “But won’t I be making it obvious that something’s afoot?”

“Not necessarily,” she says. “There can be all sorts of reasons why you want a copy of your contract. Just to keep your records in order, is a perfectly good reason. For instance.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“And even if you’re right, so what? If something’s afoot, it’s afoot. They’re going to have to know about it sooner or later. Why not now?”

I’m not so sure about that, but she’s right: I’ll have to speak to HR. It’s the only way.

I glance across at Beate, whom I have been neglecting since Brandy arrived. She is standing, apparently perfectly content, watching the children as their game progresses. She catches my eye, and I take a little step back to be more inclusive, so that the three of us form a flat triangle rather than a line.

“Why do the balloons behave like that, in fact?” Beate asks. “I realise gravity makes them fall more slowly, like everything else here; but why do they move around so much?”

“It’s the air that settles more slowly,” I explain. “It swirls around and takes time to settle, and the balloons are just swept along with it.”

“Ah, yes, of course. Thank you.”

Brandy smiles at me and moves off again to where she had been standing. This event is drawing to a close: the last pair is shuffling along from one basket to the other, and everybody else is crowding round to cheer them along. Their hearts aren’t really in it, because the other team has long finished, but Irina is encouraging them and praising them effusively, while at the same time making sure the other children remain together.

They finish at last, and the children scatter in all directions to applause from the crowd and a loud “Well done, everybody!” from Irina.

Chiara comes running up again and stands in front of me, with a glance at Beate.

“That was fun, wasn’t it, darling?” I say. “Are you thirsty?”

She shakes her head.

I’m squatting on my heels and want to give her a hug, but she twists away. She turns to face the centre of the playground and watches avidly, caught up in the excitement. I stand up and the three of us watch together as the teams are gathered for the next event and the non-competitors gently but firmly sent elsewhere. Chiara is a non-competitor this time and is staying where she is.

This event is for older children only. Again, pairs compete against each other. The pair nearest to us is Paula Meissner and an Indian girl whose name I don’t know, and each of them is standing on a kind of little dais of her own. Paula has a bucket with three coloured balls in it; she has to throw these balls one by one to her partner, who catches them and juggles with them for a set period of time, then throws them back to Paula, who juggles with them for the same length of time and then puts them back into the bucket for the next pair.

Most people on Mars can juggle, at least at a rudimentary level, because it’s very easy: the balls fall so slowly that there is plenty of time to keep track of where they all are. In fact there was a spate of people learning to juggle a few years ago, one of those fashions that appear inexplicably and then vanish again. That is over now, but it has left a legacy, in that all the nursery staff can do it and are teaching it to the children as they reach the appropriate age.

I survey the crowd on either side of me and all the way round the playground area. Everyone on Mars who has children is here. All those wives who don’t invite me to their parties any more. All their husbands that they are trying to keep away from me, too worried to let me loose on them.

I feel a kind of malicious satisfaction, secretly, and am quite shocked that I am feeling this way.

Little do you know, all you wives of Mars, that the very thing you were afraid of has actually happened, and all your precautions were useless. And it wasn’t even me who did it.

Nobody knows that I am actually sleeping with one of your husbands. He is my lover. He sneaks off to see me, and keeps coming, because with me he gets what he doesn’t get from you. He loves having sex with me. I can satisfy him and make him keep coming back for more.

You’re right to be afraid of me, and I’m glad.

My eyes are not seeing the sports day any more; I’m not seeing anything; I’m basking in this unfamiliar feeling that is rising within me like a flood: satisfaction and malice, warm and sweet and wicked.

I really am shocked that I can feel like this.

I think I’m not a very nice person.

Gradually I am conscious of the people around me again, and I glance out of the corner of my eye at Beate. She is still looking in front of her, watching the jugglers with a little smile on her face. I don’t know whether she has noticed anything.

It occurs to me to wonder about her. What made her decide to come to Mars, on her own: single, and with little prospect of meeting anyone?

What is it like for her now, counselling people about their relationships and not having one herself?

I don’t really feel that I know her well enough to ask her about it.

Not that she counsels about relationships all the time, or even most of the time.

I suppose she has experience of relationships; and maybe it’s better for a counsellor not to be involved in a relationship herself. Maybe it helps her to have an impartial view, to imagine herself in another person’s situation, unbiased by her own expectations of her own relationship.

Chiara is jumping up and down with excitement because it’s Libby Baxter’s turn to juggle, another of her older friends. Unfortunately Libby is not very good at it yet, and twice she drops a ball and has to wait for Oliver to pick it up for her, the nursery helper who is supervising this game. I’m not sure whether they stop the clock while he is retrieving the ball, or whether it’s reset to zero and she has to juggle the full minute again, or however long it is, but she seems to be up there on that dais for some considerable time.

People keep passing in front of us and obscuring our view; Chiara ducks to the left and to the right to see past them, but is starting to get a little annoyed. I pick her up and put her on my arm so that she can see better, and I take the opportunity to snuggle furtively: she is becoming very independent recently.

The event draws to a close and its participants are released. As the crowd mingles again and two of the helpers go around collecting the children for the next event, Chiara suddenly catches sight of something off to our right and her body tenses with excitement. I look over there and realise that she has seen her father making his way towards us through the crowd.

Chiara wriggles to be let down, and I let her slip off my arm to the ground. I make an effort to smile and I watch as she scampers towards him. Beate is looking at me.

Chiara flings her arms around her father’s leg, and he picks her up and sets her on his shoulders, where she towers over everybody else.

He continues on towards me, and I see that he has two of his friends with him: Wade, who was a geologist with Mike at Berkeley all those years ago, and Rajiv from India, who did a PhD at Manchester a little after Mike had moved on.

They reach me, Mike beaming across his face and the other two bantering together.

“Hi, Selena,” Mike says. “Hello, Beate. How are you?”

I look up at Mike and at my daughter up there astride his neck like a mahout aloft on an elephant. I notice that nobody is reminding him about the hairs in his nostrils.

Rajiv shakes Beate by the hand and they exchange pleasantries. I didn’t realise they knew each other.

The crowd is settling down again because the next event is about to commence. This event is for the smallest children, who are too young to have any particular skills to exhibit. It’s nice that they are included.

It involves jumping on to a box, jumping or climbing down on the other side, running across the sand pit, then crawling through a collapsible tunnel made of light, transparent, bendy material, and finally running back to the start. Many of them forget what they are supposed to do when they get to the next stage, or they lose interest and are distracted by something else; Irina and the others good-humouredly encourage them to complete the next task, and gradually, rather chaotically, the event takes its course.

Mike and Wade are talking about some project that they are working on. Beate and Rajiv are discussing a committee on which they both appear to be serving; from what I am catching of their conversation I’m not able to work out what it’s for. Chiara is still delighted to be enthroned on high, so high above everybody else’s heads, and while she’s not interested in the race, she is looking all around and drinking in all that she can see from up there.

Wade and Mike laugh, and that makes me jump slightly, and Chiara too. Beate and Rajiv suspend their conversation and attend to what the other two are saying.

I think they were drawing some kind of comparison between their work and the playground, specifically between the sandpit and some site that they are working on, out on the surface. I can’t be sure; I wasn‘t really listening.

“How about one of those slides to get down into the crater,” suggests Wade.

“Good idea,” says Mike. “Need to reduce friction on the space suit.”

“Shiny-assed space suit.”

“Yes, we need those shiny-arsed space suits.”

“With jet packs to get back up again.”

“Traffic lights at the top and the bottom.”

“With a net at the top to catch you.”

“Sand pit again.”

“Don’t want to overshoot.”

Chiara is listening and is glowing with enthusiasm.

“Are you going to have a slide, Daddy?”

He smiles, and so does everybody else.

“That’d be fun, right?” he says. Then, seriously: “No, we’re not going to have a slide. We were just kidding.”

He is fair. He doesn’t let her believe things that she has misunderstood.

“We could have a swing to get the samples up,” Rajiv suggests.

The others consider this, struck with the idea.

“You put the swing up in the centre of the crater,” Wade says. “A couple of masts, with a board suspended on cables between them -”

“Then you put your samples on the board -”

“– step back -”

“– and give it a push!”

“You wouldn’t be able to reach to push, after a while,” Mike objects.

“You’d have to step in as it passed on its way down, and push it on its way,” Wade says.

Mike smiles and nods.

“That would work,” he agrees.

“You might as well take this swing and extend it,” says Rajiv. “I don’t know why we even have a swing here. Nobody uses it!”

Chiara is listening but not saying anything, trying to work out whether they are serious this time.

“You can’t have a playground without a swing,” says Wade.

“It don’t mean a thing without one,” Mike adds.

“No. So it stays where it is. We’ll use a couple of masts -”

“Look, the next event is starting,” I point out. “Chiara, you need to be over there.”

Indeed, the tots have dispersed and Markus and one of the other helpers are laying out the equipment for the next event. Mike sets Chiara down on the ground and she runs to Irina, where most of the older girls are gathering. Pamela is there too.

“What they need to introduce here,” says Mike, “is cricket.”

“You know my views on that subject,” says Wade.

“Yes I do,” Mike replies, “and they are ridiculous, preposterous and repugnant to common sense. Baseball, indeed. What an idea.”

“I’m with you on this one,” says Rajiv.

“Do you follow cricket, Rajiv?” Beate asks.

“I’m Indian!” he says. “Of course I follow cricket!”

“And you too, Mike, isn’t that right?” she asks. “Didn’t I see you recently, talking cricket with Mr Chaterjee and Mr Sharma?”

The others smile.

“Well, they’re very knowledgeable,” Mike says.

“The world championship in one-day cricket is on at the moment,” Rajiv explains. “England is doing very well.”

And Mike explains Rajiv’s explanation:

“Rajiv is sounding kind, but his praise is barbed. He means, England are doing better than the limited expectations one would have had.”

“Well, that’s something, isn’t it?” asks Beate.

Mike smiles, but doesn’t respond to that.

“Anyway, in England we concentrate more on the long form of the game, as Rajiv is well aware.”

“Yes, I can testify to that,” Rajiv says. “I have seen county cricket, and test matches, when I was at Manchester, and at York.”

“You were at York?” she asks.

“Yes, I was.”

“Did you think, if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere?” Mike asks, and that raises a laugh, though I don’t know why. I often don’t understand their jokes.

Beate seems to get it, though.

“No, I ask,” she says when the laughter has subsided, “because I was at York too. I spent a year there when I was a student, a long time ago now.”

“I was a student too,” says Rajiv, “for a little while before I could go to Manchester.”

“Which is where everyone really wants to be in science,” Mike states.

“Well – there is a lot of truth in that,” says Rajiv.

He and Beate start to swap experiences of York: places they have both seen, things that had changed between their two visits, things that hadn’t. I have never been to York and find myself losing interest.

Paula Meissner is stepping out on a long beam that is laid out on the ground. She spreads her arms out with a flourish and stands there for a moment with her feet splayed and her head turned to the left so that she faces along the length of the beam. Then she takes two steps in that direction, her head and body erect and her arms outstretched, bends forward, concentrating to maintain her balance, and touches the beam in front of her with her hand.

This is gymnastics, at a very elementary level. As the children grow older and more able and confident there will be more startling feats on the beam: there will be handstands and cartwheels and ambitious and challenging postures; but there is none of that yet.

There will be somersaults later, on the mat; I know very well what to expect in this event, because Chiara and Pamela have been practising for some time.

I used to do this too when I was a child.

Mike and his friends are not even watching any more as they chat. I know it’s not spectacular or comical as other events have been, and I can see why it doesn’t capture their attention. I can appreciate it because I have seen the girls practising and I know what they have difficulties with.

“Here comes Chiara,” I say, and Mike does fall silent now and he watches his daughter, who does exactly the same as Paula and every other girl has done.

If this were a real competition, there would be judges awarding marks on subtle and scarcely discernible differences in how the girls do this; but this is the nursery, and it is putting on a show for the parents, and there are no winners or losers. All the children are doing very well.

As each child finishes her display she joins the group of those who have gone before, standing in a little area off to the side and watching those who follow with a critical and experienced eye. They really do have the air of professional contestants, and it is rather sweet and a little comical.

The last child completes her routine, and there is an interlude in which nothing really happens, but the children are not released to go back to their parents, because this was the last event and now the whole afternoon is to be wrapped up. After a while Mrs Dalgleish steps forward with a microphone and embarks on a speech, thanking the parents for coming and the children for taking part, and running through the individual events and drawing out the highlights. I think all of us are listening for whether our child warrants a mention, but she doesn’t name any names.

Mrs Dalgleish ends her speech with an invitation to us all to applaud all those who have taken part and those who have helped, and she gives us a good example by clapping and surveying all those gathered before her and beaming at them. We clap too, and now the children begin to disperse to their parents and the crowd intermingles again.

Chiara comes running up to us, jumps up and down a couple of times and waits. She is thirsty again.

“Well done, Chiara,” Beate says to her. “You were very good.”

Chiara looks at her, slightly disconcerted, it seems, and doesn’t say anything.

“Yes, you were very good,” I agree as I hand her the drinking bottle. She takes it and places it for a long moment to her mouth.

Mike takes a little step forward.

“Selena, we’re going to get going,” he says. “It was fun.”

“Oh: okay.”

“It’s nice to see how much they’ve learned.”

“Yes. I’m glad you came to watch.”

“So am I.”

We stand there looking at each other.

“I like your nails, by the way,” he says. “It really suits you.”

“Oh!” I am touched. “Thank you.”

“Really good look. It’s nice to see.”

He glances at Beate, and then he crouches to speak to Chiara.

“Bye, little one,” he says. “I’ll see you next time.”

Her face falls and her lip begins to quiver. He chucks her under the chin and she makes an effort to smile at him, and then she flings her arms around his neck, nearly knocking him backwards, but he manages to keep his balance. There they stay for a prolonged moment while the rest of us wait.

Mike disengages her and stands her in front of him, one hand on each of her upper arms. He gives her a cheerful smile, straightens and stands up.

He wants to walk away, but Chiara is clinging on to his leg.

“Now, you stay here with Mummy and be good,” he tells her. “I’ll see you soon, and there might be a treat for you, if you’re good.”

“A treat?” she repeats.

“Yes. But you have to be good!”

“What treat?”

“Ah!” he says and puts his finger to his nose. “That’s a surprise!”

“Tell me, Daddy!”

“It won’t be a surprise if I tell you, will it? No, you stay here and be good for Mummy, and do whatever she tells you, and if you’ve been good, well then, next time there’ll be a surprise.”

I think he is improvising, and I hope for his sake, and for hers, that he can come up with a satisfactory surprise by next time.

She lets go of his leg, and he tousles her hair one last time.

“Bye, sweetheart. Bye, Selena. Bye, Beate.”

The other two take their leave as well, and they all move off, leaving the three of us standing there as the crowd around us continues to disperse.

“Selena,” Beate says, “we’ve been standing so long, and we both need some refreshment! Shall we pop up to the terrace for a quick coffee?”

“Oh, Beate, that’s a lovely idea,” I reply, “but I should really get Chiara home.” She is in no mood to sit quietly being good while Beate and I converse genteelly over coffee.

She is disappointed, but masks it well.

“That’s fine,” she says. “I understand. I’ll walk you as far as your turn-off.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Chiara is still following her father with her eyes. I swing my bag over my shoulder, I take her by the hand, and she doesn’t resist as I lead her away from the playground and towards our passageway. Knots of people, mainly adults, are still standing around and talking, but their numbers are dwindling and there is a definite feeling of evening here in the central area. Bathtime beckons.