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By the time Nina was ready to face her daughter, Scarlett had turned her back on them and was inspecting the contents of the fridge. Gone were the days when her daughter looked cute in her new uniform. Her plaid skirt had been rolled up at the waist so that it was a couple of inches higher than the regulatory knee-length, although thankfully still longer than most of the outfits she was inclined to wear these days.
When Scarlett picked up a half-eaten bar of chocolate, Nina said, ‘Why don’t you try a flapjack?’
‘Chocolate’s good for you,’ Scarlett said, snapping a piece from the bar.
Nina tutted. ‘You do know that’s just a myth? There’s no scientific evidence behind it.’
Scarlett popped the chocolate in her mouth and beamed a smile. ‘I’ll take my chances.’
‘The flapjacks will keep, I’ll put them in a container,’ Bryn said. ‘They’re only a hundred calories each, and they have slow-releasing energy.’
Under her mother’s withering glare, Scarlett’s conscience was pricked. ‘I suppose I could take some out tonight for my mates.’
‘Out? Tonight?’ Nina repeated. ‘I don’t think so. Summer holidays are over and you have your GCSEs this year. No socializing during the week and only once at the weekend.’
Scarlett’s jaw dropped. ‘You can’t do that!’
‘It’s not open for discussion, Scarlett. That’s how it is. And by the way,’ Nina added, dropping her gaze to Scarlett’s hands, ‘when I told you last night to take off your nail varnish, I meant take it off. You know the school rules, and by my reckoning you’re breaking at least half a dozen.’
‘But, Mum, nobody cares. Everyone wears makeup and nail varnish, and the teachers don’t say a thing. If you’re that bothered, I’ll put nail-varnish remover in my bag and, if any of the teachers freak out, I’ll take it off.’
‘No, do it now.’
Scarlett shoved another piece of chocolate in her mouth before returning the remainder to the fridge. ‘If I do, can I still go out tonight? It’s not as if school’s started properly.’ In the midst of their negotiations, Liam had appeared like a spectre only vaguely aware of the world around him. Without uttering a word, he grabbed something from the fridge and wedged it between two slices of bread before disappearing.
‘I give up, honestly I do.’
Scarlett’s face lit up and she ran over to give her mum a dramatic hug. ‘Thank you, Mum,’ she said, scurrying outof the kitchen before Nina realized her daughter thought she had been talking to her. Nina was going to have to up her game if she were to avoid being outmanoeuvred by her children in the coming year.
Nina stood on the landing staring at two firmly closed bedroom doors, and as she listened to Bryn preparing dinner downstairs she could feel her frustration get the better of her. She accepted that they were all in a period of adjust- ment, but was it too much to expect Liam and Scarlett to at least acknowledge the efforts their stepfather was making, even if they chose not to reciprocate? Her marriage could be a great opportunity for them to have a male role model in their lives at long last, if only they would recognize it.
Liam and Scarlett’s dad worked on the North Sea oil rigs and lived a single life in Aberdeen as far as Nina was aware. His children rarely had contact with him and it had been a year or two since either of them had made noises about going to stay with him. Nina had been a lone parent in every sense of the word and, despite heroic efforts, there had been limits to the advice and support she could offer her children, not to mention time. Bryn could bridge the gap. He was bridging the gap, and while Nina wasn’t quite ready to drive the point home forcefully, she wasn’t averse to helping things along.
She tapped on Liam’s door and, after receiving no reply, pushed against the doorstop her son used to deter unwel- come visitors. The door opened only a fraction, revealing a darkened room thick with stale air. A flicker of blue light suggested Liam was using some form of electronic device to communicate with his virtual world.
When she received a grunt in response, she asked, ‘How was your first day back?’
‘Dinner won’t be long. Bryn’s trying out a new recipe.’
Nina hadn’t posed a question so received no answer or acknowledgement.
‘Have you made plans for the weekend?’ she continued, and although it was a question this time, an answer wasn’t necessary. If Liam had friends outside school, they rarely met, not in the real world at least. ‘Sarah’s suggested we all go out for Sunday lunch. I’d like us all to go.’
There was a hiss of annoyance, but not an outright refusal.
‘OK?’ she asked.
‘OK, Mum. Is that all?’
‘Great, lovely. I’m so looking forward to having quality time with my family,’ she muttered under her breath as she closed the door and turned her attention towards Scarlett’s room.