Doing my Best
Miss Gilbert looks at the child in front of her - old shoes, mended dress, poverty clinging to her fingernails and hair. She’s picking at her strawberry-patterned cardigan, trying to hold back tears. The classroom clock shows 5.30 and there’s still no sign of the mother. Some of these parents want locking up she thinks.
‘I know, Cassie,’ she says. ‘Why don’t we go out to the school gate and watch for her coming. She’ll be here soon, I’m sure.’
Cassie nods and takes the outstretched hand, sniffing her anxiety.
‘Mummy’s never late. What if something’s happened to her?’
‘I’m sure everything’s fine.’
‘Only she promised there’d be no late clients on school days.’
‘So what does Mummy do, then? Is she a hairdresser?’
‘No not a hairdresser. I’m not really sure. Looks after people, I think. She never tells me what it is exactly.’
It was the word client that rang alarm bells. The last training session had warned them to look out for anything unusual. She’d already told the Head about Cassie’s neglected appearance but no action had been taken. But what if…her mind shied away from the thought.
‘Let’s see if we can see mummy coming along the road. What’s her car like?’
‘She doesn’t have a car. Says we can’t afford one so she uses the bike. ‘
It dawns on Miss Gilbert that she’s never actually met Cassie’s mother.
‘Anyway, you’ll know her when you see her. She’s really pretty with blonde hair and red nails. And sometimes she has these kind of lacy stockings on. I want to wear those when I grow up.’
Further up the road a car screeches to a halt and a woman jumps out. Sharp heels click towards them.
‘Mummy.’ The tears fall in earnest now. ‘I thought you’d forgotten me.’
‘Oh my pet. I’m so sorry. I got held up and a kind friend brought me here or I’d be even later.’
The two adults face each other.
‘I’m so sorry,’ says Cassie’s mother. ‘I’ve kept you all this time. I can’t thank you enough for not calling anyone – you know. The authorities.‘ She glances at Cassie. ‘I do my best for her, you know. There’s only the two of us. I do my best.’
Miss Gilbert takes stock of the woman in front of her. Over made up, frizzy blonde hair, shadows under her eyes. Who was she to judge?
‘In case you’re wondering, I never ever leave her alone. I want you to know that.’
‘I had work to do,’ said Miss Gilbert, managing a difficult smile. ‘It was no problem staying on.’
Cassie’s mother nods, then takes the child’s hand. ‘How’d you like pizza tonight for a treat? Me saying sorry for being late.’
‘I’d love that, mummy. Have you got enough money?’
‘Yes, my love. Plenty.’
Some parents do indeed want locking up, thinks Miss Gilbert.
But not this one. After all, she was doing her best.