Marsha sat at the computer, the black type dancing in strange shapes before her tired eyes. She shook her head and forced herself to concentrate.
“Mummy, I don’t like the toy Daddy got me.”
Marsha looked up from her work. A small figure stood in the doorway, a teddy bear dangling at her side.
“Nancy, Mummy’s working.” Marsha pointed to the computer. She glanced at the clock – forty minutes of peace, and she was sure to meet the deadline.
“But Mummy –”
“It was very nice of Daddy to get you that puppet.”
Marsha thought of the puppet her husband brought back from Germany. The black-clad figure looked more like a praying mantis than the jester it was supposed to be, all spindly legs and tiny head. Its black pointed cap was surprisingly sharp. Marsha shivered the first time she saw its painted grin, an expression that brought Jack Nicholson to mind. She’d been unsure about giving it to their five year old, but Hal insisted.
Maybe I’ll speak to him about it when he gets home, she thought.
“I don’t like it. Can I sit in here with you?”
“No, Nancy. I have work to do. Why can’t you play in the sitting room?”
“It’s in there.”
Marsha peered over the top of her spectacles at her daughter. Nancy stared back, her blue eyes wide, her pudgy hand clutching the paw of Mr Patches.
“Look what it did to Mr Patches.”
Nancy held up her teddy for inspection. Stuffing poked through the burst seam down his left side, and one of his blue patches flapped free from his belly, held on by just two stitches.
“What happened?” Marsha remembered her niece, Kayla. She’d started destroying her things to get attention. Am I working too much? Am I neglecting my own daughter?
“I was playing with Mr Patches and the bad toy said he’d hurt me if I didn’t play with him instead. I hid behind Mr Patches and the bad toy hurt him.” Tears welled up in Nancy’s eyes. Marsha stared down at the teddy – she’d have to ask her sister to do a repair job.
The phone rang, its electronic chirp breaking the silence. Marsha jumped. She snatched up the receiver.
“Marsha, it’s Peter. The meeting’s been brought forward by twenty minutes. Can you get me the report in the next ten?” Her boss’ harassed tone mirrored her own frustration.
“I, er, yes, of course I can.”
Marsha waved Nancy out of the room before scribbling down Peter’s last minute changes to the report. With one eye on the clock, she fell to her task.
Ten minutes later, she pressed ‘Send’ on the email and sat back in her chair. She let her gaze dance around the room, ignoring the clock now that the deadline was met.
A squeal from the next room disturbed her relaxation. Remembering Nancy’s earlier behaviour, she jumped up from the chair and hurried into the sitting room. Mr Patches lay discarded on his back, more stuffing poking out from the burst seam. A single shoe, spattered with child-friendly paint, lay on the floor beside him.
“Nancy? Are you alright?”
Silence. Marsha picked up the teddy and stroked his threadbare fur. She looked around the room, even pulling out the sofa to check Nancy’s old hiding place. She snatched up a pile of blankets in the corner, but Nancy wasn’t hiding under them. Other than the bear, the room was empty.
Empty, except for a spindly black shadow dancing along the wall.