“I’ve got a 45 minute window of opportunity this weekend,” I write, “so I’ll be at the café on the corner of the Square Bolivar from 3:30, and if I see you there, great, if I don’t, no worries.”
It is my weekend with Tadpole, so, as a rule, I only see friends with children Tadpole’s age, or occasionally a girlfriend, for lunch or a stroll in the park. The only respite comes during her scheduled Music Appreciation Class, which takes place on Saturday afternoons at a nearby Centre de Loisirs. Even that might not actually happen, as there is something not quite right with Tadpole at the moment: a temperature which flares up every few days without any other discernible symptoms, troubled sleep, frequent nightmares and odd mood swings. But when the time comes, Little Miss Stubborn insists she wants to go. I am rather relieved.
By 4 p.m. I’ve given up on seeing him, engrossed in my book, an empty coffee cup by my side. A man at a neighbouring table hurls unwanted ice cubes from his empty glass towards the gutter and misses, hitting a parked car with a clatter, much to my amusement. The culprit catches my eye; I see panic flicker across his face, momentarily.
“Ce n’est pas votre voiture, j’espère?” he says, gesturing towards the car with his bottle of juice.
“Non, non. Vous en faites pas…” I reply with a grin.
As I return nose to book, I’m vaguely conscious of a stocky figure crossing my line of vision and glance sideways in surprise, wondering what would possess a stranger to choose the seat directly next to mine when there are so few customers this afternoon. But it is my friend, trying to make me jump out of my skin, and I set my book down with a smile.
The page was turned long ago, but I still feel a rush of affection. I’m drawn to his wit, his mannerisms; it’s hard to resist the temptation to touch his glossy dark hair. Often, when I see someone I once cared about, I can no longer see that magic thing which made them, fleetingly, so attractive, causing me to seriously question the wisdom of my judgements. But in this case I still feel an irresistible pull, a fact I find reassuring. Setting my foot on my chair, I clasp my arms around my bent knee in a pose which is meant to be nonchalant, casual, but is probably textbook defensive body language.
Tadpole’s music class is already drawing to a close, so I decide to fetch my daughter and bring her back to the café for a few minutes, praying she will behave. Approaching, my hand in hers, I suddenly feel confused about how to act. Being with someone who is unaccustomed to seeing me as a mother has thrown me. I’m used to keeping the two spheres of my life completely separate; leading a compartmentalised life. When the two overlap, I suddenly find I no longer know how to behave. I regain my seat, self-consciously; Tadpole positions herself opposite, doodling in my diary with a pencil.
It soon becomes clear that any semblance of adult conversation is now futile: Tadpole’s charm offensive has begun. Mis-hearing my friend’s name, and oblivious to our corrections, she calls him “Angel”. And she will not leave poor Angel alone. First come the questions. A barrage of. Next, she jumps down from her seat and sidles up to him, purposefully, flashing her brightest smile. Not one to beat around the bush, moments later she begs him for a hug (duly administered, albeit a little stiffly), a kiss (less successful) and on the walk home she insists on holding his hand. The icing on the cake, when he pops in to inspect my new flat, is my daughter using him as a climbing frame (foot almost, but not quite, connecting with family jewels), and counters our protests by crying “but my daddy lets me do that?!”
I feel painfully awkward on “Angel’s” behalf, wondering what he is thinking. Either he is wondering how to extricate himself from the situation, but too polite to make his excuses and slip away, or he is genuinely enjoying Tadpole’s attentions. I have no idea which.
As for the “daddy” comment, is it inevitable that every man Tadpole meets in my company will be seen by her as a surrogate father? The thought saddens, but also terrifies me.
When he leaves, a departure I have engineered on the pretext of a errand we need to run before dinner time,Tadpole howls her disappointment, but I feel only relief.
Finally I can shrug off the self-consciousness and get back to the business of just being a mother.