MUM, can I bring Megan home for tea one day?” Rosie asked. I glanced across to the kitchen table where my daughter sat, her head bent over school books and her phone.
She looked up at me, waiting for my answer, already knowing that her request was unlikely to be denied.
I’d heard a lot about Megan since Rosie started secondary school, and clearly the two of them were becoming firm friends.
“Of course you can,” I replied. “How about this Friday?”
“That would be great. I’ll ask her tomorrow,” Rosie said, picking up her book again.
“I should ring her mum, too,” I added. “To ask her what time we need to get her home.”
“OK,” Rosie replied. “I’ll text her now for her mum’s number.”
A few moments later I found myself on the phone to Megan’s mum, Mrs Carlisle. She came across as friendly and warm, and was as delighted as I was that our daughters had become such close friends.
There was something almost familiar in Megan’s mum’s voice, but I couldn’t quite say what it was, not then.
After making arrangements for Friday, I hung up the phone.
“That’s sorted then,” I told Rosie. “Her mum sounds nice.”
“She is nice.” Rosie smiled.
“Is she very old?” I asked inquisitively.
“About the same age as you, I think,” Rosie said, then started to giggle. “So yeah, she’s old.”
“Is she from round here?” I enquired. Rosie nodded.
“She works in town.” “Is there anything else I need to know about her?” I laughed.
“You’re so nosy!” Rosie chided. “She went to Burnhill school, I think.”
“Burnhill? But that’s the school I used to go to! Rosie, what’s her name?” Rosie shrugged. “Mrs Carlisle.”
“You don’t know her first name?” I asked. “Or the surname she had before she was married?”
Rosie shook her head and turned to concentrate on her book.
On Friday afternoon I was working in my study upstairs when I heard the front door open and slam shut again.
“We’re home!” Rosie yelled up the stairs.
I walked to the landing and looked down to see my daughter kicking off her shoes.
Beside her stood a blonde girl, her hair tied in plaits.
“Hi, Rosie!” I said as I walked down the stairs. “And you must be Megan,” I said, addressing the back of the blondehaired girl. “It’s lovely to meet you.”
Megan swung round and extended her hand to me. It was an old-fashioned gesture from a very polite teenager and it took me by surprise.
“Hello, Rosie’s mum,” Megan said as she shook my hand.
“Please, call me Sally,” I told her.
I took a good look at Megan. There was something about her that unsettled me, but I couldn’t say what it was at first.
Megan had beautiful blonde hair, she was dressed well and her shoes weren’t as scuffed as the ones Rosie wore for school.
She was polite, but there was something about her face, the way a dimple in her cheek appeared when she smiled.
It was like looking back in time, meeting a ghost from my past that I thought I’d rid myself of a long time ago. The anxiety building within me threatened to spiral and I tried my best to shrug off the unease.
“We’re going up to my room until tea’s ready,” Rosie said, scampering up the stairs with Megan behind her.
I laid one hand across my stomach to steady myself as I breathed slowly, trying to calm the troubled feeling inside.
“Megan?” I asked quietly before the girls reached the top of the stairs.
I had mostly enjoyed my years at the local comp – but there was a time I preferred to forget . . .
She turned and smiled.
“Is your mum’s first name Anne?” Megan nodded. “And was her maiden name Ferry?”
The girl nodded again, then turned to follow Rosie to her room.
“My mum’s so nosy,” Rosie said, then I heard the two girls laughing before the bedroom door closed shut.
I sat on the bottom stair in shock.
Anne Ferry. They had been the two most feared words in the English language during my first year at Burnhill comprehensive.
I was one of the first years, trying to fit in, when Anne Ferry joined our class. She joined our school several weeks later than the rest of us, but we never found out the reason why.
I’m not sure why she made a beeline for me and tried to befriend me back then. At first I let her sit next to me in class, and she would borrow my pencils but never gave them back.
It was when she started kicking me under the school desks that I moved to a different desk, as far from her as the classroom would allow. But she followed, and if she couldn’t hit me or call me names, she’d steal from my bag.
I started to avoid her as best as I could. I altered the route I walked to and from school, and kept my friends close as protection.
After weeks of bullying from Anne, I came home in tears one day and my parents had a meeting at school with my teacher.
I begged my mum not to say anything about Anne at school, knowing it would only make things worse, but the meeting went ahead anyway.
Things did get worse. Anne Ferry started to use me as her punch bag every chance she had. I tried to fight back but I always came off worse.
In the end I learned to run – fast.
When I saw her waiting for me to come out of school, I ran in the other direction, hiding in the local shops until I saw her walk past.
The bullying continued for months. But just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, Anne Ferry left the school. One day she didn’t turn up, it was simple as that.
I never saw her again, and her absence was never explained. In the years that followed I never thought about her once. Until now.
“You’ll like Megan’s mum,” Rosie said when I told her I’d arranged to meet Anne in town. “She’s sweet. Although I think you’re only meeting her because you’re being nosy.”
“Well, something like that,” I replied.
Rosie slammed the front door behind her on her way out to school and I glanced at my watch. I had just over an hour to drive into town and find the café where I’d arranged to meet Anne.
Before I left the house I took a long look at myself in the hallway mirror.
I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and headed out to the car.
I ordered myself a frothy coffee while I waited for Anne to arrive. Because Rosie was intent on being such good friends with Megan, the air had to be cleared between Anne and me.
Every time the coffee shop door opened, I glanced over, my heart in my mouth, butterflies in my stomach, ready to meet my nemesis again.
My coffee cup was almost empty by the time I saw a woman shuffle into the café. She was huddled up like a hedgehog in a brown hooded coat and she walked directly to me.
“Hello? Are you Rosie’s mum?” she asked, pushing her hood down. She reached her small hand towards me.
“Anne?” I asked, stunned at the sight of her. She had aged badly since I had last seen her.
She sat down heavily in the seat opposite me and slowly took off her coat.
“It’s nice of you to offer to meet,” she said finally. “Megan really enjoys spending time with Rosie. The two of them are as thick as thieves. Rosie’s brought a lot of sunshine into Megan’s life.”
I took a good look at Anne. She’d once had beautiful long blonde hair that she wore in plaits for school.
Her hair had been the only thing I’d admired about her back then, and she now wore it cropped.
Underneath the brown coat, I saw she was dressed well, neat as a pin. But there it was – in her eyes and in the way a dimple in her cheek appeared when she smiled.
The ghost from my past had not only returned, but was now sitting opposite me in a coffee shop.
“Megan’s told me we used to go to the same school together,” Anne said, smiling at me. “Old Burnhill, eh? Mind you, I wasn’t there for very long.”
“I know,” I said coldly. “I remember.”
“I can’t say I remember you from Burnhill, though,” Anne continued. “But it was a difficult time for me back then. I was in and out of care homes until I was sixteen and . . .”
Anne glanced across the table at me.
“Sorry. You don’t want to hear me going on about all of that, do you?”
“Actually, Anne,” I started to say. “You could tell me about it. I mean, if you’d like to. I don’t mean to pry, but it might help explain a few things that happened back then.”
“What sort of things?” she asked, puzzled.
“You really don’t remember me from school?” I asked her. Anne shook her head. “I don’t like to remember too much,” she admitted, glancing down at her hands. “All I know is that after Mum left us, I went off the rails as a teenager. Dad was always drunk.
“I got hauled into the head’s office more times than I care to mention at every school I was at, but I don’t remember anyone from Burnhill.
“There’s a lot I’ve had to blank from my mind from back then in order to keep myself sane.” Anne lowered her voice as she continued. “A lot of the counsellors I have been referred to over the years have tried to get me to open up, but . . .”
I watched as Anne wriggled in her chair and tried to sit up as straight as she could.
“Anyway,” she said brightly, “we’re not here to talk about my life. All the things I never had, I now make sure Megan gets them now, especially hugs and love and a stable home.
“I give her all that I can and I do my best for her. That’s why I’m over the moon she’s made such good friends with Rosie. The two of them are great together, aren’t they?” “They are,” I agreed. “Perhaps we might become good friends, too.” She smiled hopefully, then glanced at my empty cup.
“Here, let me buy you another coffee,” she said, slowly rising from her chair.
Just then my phone buzzed into life with a text message. It was from Rosie, asking if she could bring Megan for a sleepover at the weekend.
“All right.” I smiled to Anne. “Coffee would be a good start.”
Anne had aged badly since I’d last seen her