“Aw, look at the two of them holding hands,” my friend exclaims, as Tadpole and my friend’s younger daughter – both dressed in gauzy pink fairy costumes – walk ahead of us with her dog, their feet crunching on the gravel. Her elder daughter catches them up, and the three advance together as one, picking up speed. The sun is shining, although it has no real force yet. I feel more relaxed than I have in weeks.
“This weekend’s done me so much good.” I quicken my step as the girls round a bend in the track and move just out of our line of vision. “It’s so nice to get away, and lovely to be in the countryside…”
“Well you can come whene…”
She is cut off mid-sentence by a chorus of wails. We sprint forward, expecting to have to mediate for the twentieth time that day between three squabbling fairies, or, at worst, to tend to a grazed knee. But when I see Tadpole’s face, I am horrified.
The blood gushes. I don’t know, at first, where it is coming from. She has the mouth of a vampire in a gore movie. Blood pours down her chin, soaking her pink dress, turning it a vivid crimson red. The metallic taste makes her gag and spit. Blood drips onto the gravel, soaks into my t-shirt, and huge droplets spatter my jeans and trainers as I hoist Tadpole into my arms and stagger back to my friend’s house, mercifully close.
Parking Tadpole on the kitchen counter by the sink, I hold a cup to her lips and she rinses her mouth. Her teeth all appear to be intact, although there is a nasty cut inside her cheek. But the worst thing, the thing I can barely look at without gagging, is the split in her upper lip, on the right hand side. A deep slice exposing dark, purple flesh, like raw steak.
We arrive at the small injuries unit in a nearby town twenty minutes later and I lead Tadpole, still dressed in her blood-spattered fairy outfit, into the reception area. “The St Albans fairy chainsaw massacre,” says my friend wryly, leading her two little fairies inside. I manage a weak smile, but my hands are shaking and I feel nauseous and light-headed. While my friend does everything in her power to prevent Tadpole from catching sight of her face in the huge mirror next to the children’s toys, I speak to the lady at reception. It is all I can do to form a sentence, and I find myself unable to spell out my daughter’s name – my brain isn’t functioning well enough – so I scrawl it illegibly on a piece of paper. I explain we were supposed to be flying back to Paris in three hours time. That, plus the fact that Tadpole’s appearance is going to give everyone in the waiting area nightmares for weeks to come, bumps us straight to the top of the list.
“How did this happen to you?” says the nurse to Tadpole, shining a light in her eye. I’ve already given my explanation, and open my mouth to repeat my story before I realise with a sickening jolt that she is cross-examining my daughter on purpose, to eliminate the possibility that it was I who caused her injury.
We emerge, ten minutes later. Tadpole shows everyone the “I’ve been brave” sticker the nurse gave her, which she has slapped onto the front of her blood-spattered dress. Her lip wound has been gummed closed with surgical glue, and I pray it will hold. I glance at my watch: we have just enough time to nip back to my friend’s home, change out of our ruined clothes and grab our bags.
On the plane, Tadpole spies drops of blood on her shoe.
“I’m sorry mummy,” she says, stroking my forearm. “I did spit on our clothes and I did make a terrible mess. I didn’t mean to. It’s all my fault.”
“Oh gosh, it’s not your fault my love,” I say, mortified, “It was an accident. And I don’t care about any clothes! Mummy is only sad because you have a bobo she couldn’t fix. I try to keep you safe, and sometimes I don’t manage to. You were my brave little girl today…”
When the seatbelt signs go off, Tadpole raises the armrest and lets her head fall into my lap. A few minutes later she is asleep. I stroke her hair, my hands still shaking, and try not to worry about the fact that drowsiness is one of the concussion symptoms mentioned on the leaflet the nurse pressed into my hand as we left.