The other kids sniggered as I entered the playground, whispering to each other and some turning their backs to me. Their mothers, chatting idly by the gate, fell silent as I passed, and I felt once again that veneer of disapproval which had seemed to surround me in my ten short years on this earth.
Mum was nowhere to be seen, of course. Not because of what Dad had done, or at least I didn’t think so. I reasoned that she just felt I was old enough to negotiate the traffic, and big enough to repel any advances from strangers offering sweets. And for some reason, she’d never been one to mix with the other mothers.
I waited alone for the doors to open, eyes fixed on my feet and praying that the teacher wouldn’t be late. At last a bell sounded, the mothers moved off, waving encouragingly at their offspring, and I filed into the classroom behind the others.
The teacher called the names from the register and when I answered ‘yes’ she paused.
“Still with us then, Linda?” she said, smiling. It was a gentle joke, I knew, but my face burned with embarrassment. The other kids laughed, and I burrowed in my desk for a pencil, hiding behind the raised lid.
It was a long day, the taunts came thick and fast through playtime and the lunchbreak. It had been the same yesterday.
I loved my Dad, but I wondered why he would put me through this. I remembered our discussion the day before yesterday. How he had hugged me, told me he loved me, and he had reassured me that everything was going to be alright. I remembered seeing my mother over his shoulder, her lips pursed tight, her face and neck blotched with suppressed anger.
When school was out, I made my way across the playground, enduring more taunts, jostling and pinching as I passed my classmates. Someone tripped me and I fell to the ground, skinning my knees and the palms of my hands. A great roar of laughter went up, and then was suddenly stifled.
Through my stinging tears I saw a familiar pair of shabby red shoes before me, just like the pair my mother wore on the rare occasions when she was going somewhere special. Raising my eyes, I saw an outstretched hand and taking it, I levered myself to my feet to meet my mother’s eyes. She turned to glare at the crowd around us, and they melted hurriedly away.
She had a large battered suitcase at her feet and a carrier bag stuffed with my toys, such as they were. A taxi had just drawn up by the playground entrance.
“Come on,” she said, “the train’s at four thirty. We’ll get a cup of tea on the platform.”
By seven o’clock we were at my auntie’s house in Manchester. I’d been fed, bathed and Mum had come to say goodnight, in the unfamiliar room that we were to share for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve had enough, Linda. He’s put us through enough with his crackpot ideas, making us the laughing stock of the town. He can just get on with it from now on. We’ll get you into another school. Somewhere nobody’s heard of him, where you can be just like any other child. We’ll make it on our own, you’ll see.”
When she’d turned out the light, I lay there in the strange, cold bed that smelt musty and seemed less yielding than mine. I felt the trickle of tears sliding down my cheeks.
Despite everything, I still wanted my Dad. I wanted to feel his arms around me, and rub my cheek against his scratchy chin.
And as I began to drift off to sleep, I realised that in a way, he’d been right after all.
All those television interviews, all those reporters he’d talked to, all that parading around with a big notice on a stick.
Today really was the end of the world. His world, anyway.