As Cat opened the front door to her bijou terraced house later that evening, she felt uncharacteristically flustered. She had been in charge of her nephew and niece for approximately four hours and could honestly say that it had been the most stressful experience of her life.
When Andrew arrived, alarm bells started to ring. Charlie was trailing reluctantly behind whilst Ellie was pulling her father by the hand like an overexcited puppy. Andrew smiled sheepishly as he entered her office and looked apologetic as he tried to coax Charlie to speak. The boy wouldn’t even look at his aunt whilst Ellie flung her Frozen rucksack to one side and began to take in her surroundings with enthusiastic hunger. She bounced her way along Cat’s sofa as the verbal tidal wave began.
‘Ooh this is bouncy, I like it, who is that?’ she asked pointing at the picture of Grace Kelly. Cat opened her mouth to speak, failing to understand that six-year-olds don’t really have time for answers. ‘Is that your desk? It’s big isn’t it? Is that your computer? Can I touch it? Is this where you do your work?’ She had bounced her way to the end of the sofa and was now making herself comfortable on Cat’s swivel chair. ‘Whee!’ she cried whizzing round before pausing to pick up Cat’s office phone. ‘Hello? Can I have a milkshake, please?’ She giggled with delight. ‘This is fun.’
Cat felt her shoulders bristle with tension. ‘Is she always like this?’ Cat whispered to her brother. She noticed that Charlie had slumped down on the sofa, hood up, arms folded.
Andrew screwed up his face. ‘Pretty much but she’s a bit hyped-up today because of coming to see Auntie Cat, aren’t you, Ellie?’
‘Wheeee!’ cried Ellie in reply, whizzing round again on the chair.
‘Thank you so much for this,’ said Andrew. ‘Are you sure you’ll be okay?’
Cat gave her best PR smile. ‘We’ll be fine, won’t we, kids?’ Neither answered.
Andrew kissed his sister on the cheek. ‘I owe you big time. Right, kids, come and give your dad a hug.’ Ellie flew to her father whilst Charlie remained rigid with arms folded. Andrew gave him a nudge. ‘Now listen, you two, you be good for Auntie Cat and I’ll be back tomorrow, okay?’
‘Okay, Daddy,’ said Ellie with an angelic smile.
Charlie buried his head in his father’s chest. Andrew sat down on the sofa and put an arm around him. ‘Hey, fella, it’s going to be okay. Auntie Cat will take care of you, like she used to take care of me, okay?’ Charlie nodded his head but didn’t look up. Andrew glanced at his watch. ‘Right, Daddy’s got to go and get his flight. I’ll see you all tomorrow, all right?’ said Andrew taking his leave.
‘All right, Daddy. I love you,’ said Ellie giving him a gap-toothed grin.
‘Love you too, princess.’
He ruffled Charlie’s hair and gave a final wave before disappearing out of sight. Cat, Ellie and Charlie stared at one another for a moment as the stunned realisation finally hit Cat that she was in charge. ‘So,’ she said trying not to betray the panic in her voice, ‘why don’t you play with whatever toys you’ve brought while I do some work?’
Ellie looked disappointed but sat down and started rummaging in her bag anyway. Charlie seemed happy with this instruction, his face furrowed with concentration as he settled into a game on his iPad. Cat breathed a sigh of relief and took a seat at her desk ready to work. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as bad as she feared.
Of course, having never really dealt with a six-year-old, Cat had little or no experience of the concept of boredom thresholds. Seven minutes later, Ellie tossed her sticker book to one side and sidled up to her brother. ‘What you doing?’ she asked.
‘Can I watch?’
‘No.’ Charlie was used to his sister and knew how to deal with her intrusions. Ellie harrumphed and folded her arms. Charlie ignored her so Ellie had to look elsewhere for entertainment. She peered over at Cat who was ensconced in the task at hand. Ellie looked around the room and began to make a dripping tap noise with her mouth.
‘Stop it, Ellie, you’re being annoying,’ snapped Charlie.
Cat glanced over at her. Ellie took this as an immediate invitation. She wandered up to Cat’s desk. ‘What you doing?’
‘I’m working,’ said Cat not looking up, hoping that Ellie would take the hint. She didn’t.
‘Can I help?’ asked Ellie moving closer, making it impossible for Cat to move her mouse or type.
Cat did her best to keep her voice level. ‘Not really. Why don’t you go back and play, like Charlie?’
‘I don’t want to,’ said Ellie plainly.
Cat was stumped. She had no frame of reference for this. ‘Well what do you want to do?’
‘Play with you,’ said Ellie.
Cat felt desperate. ‘I’m sorry but I’ve got to work.’
‘Can I have a biscuit?’
‘Erm, I’m not sure if I’ve got any.’
‘You don’t have any biscuits?’
‘I’ve got an apple.’
Ellie scowled. ‘Can’t eat apples ’cos of my wobbly teeth,’ she said, opening her mouth and probing at a particularly unstable-looking front tooth with her tongue.
Cat winced. She was a practised problem solver but she had no idea how to make this small person stop demanding her attention or sharing her dental freakiness. ‘I could try and find you a biscuit,’ she offered desperately.
‘Ooh yay biscuits!’ cried Ellie, skipping around the room. Cat sighed and got up. ‘Can I come with you?’ asked her niece, leaping up and down.
‘All right. Would you like a biscuit, Charlie?’ The boy shook his head without looking up. ‘Right. Good. Biscuits,’ said Cat, making her way towards the kitchen. Ellie smiled and gave everyone they met a cheery hello. Jesse was making himself a coffee in the kitchen as they entered.
‘Hey, Kit Kat, how are you doing?’ He glanced at Ellie. ‘Wow, the interns are getting younger and younger.’
Cat smiled. ‘This is my brother’s daughter, Ellie. He had a crisis and you know how I love a crisis.’
Jesse laughed. ‘Rather you than me. Hello, little lady.’
Ellie frowned at him. ‘Hello, big man.’
He smiled and turned back to Cat. ‘So what about tonight’s dinner?’
‘Dan’s going. I’ve briefed him fully and he’s going to call me if there are any problems.’
‘Are you sure he can handle it? I would go but it’s Alex’s birthday and we’ve got reservations at Nobu.’
‘Who’s Alex? Is she your daughter?’ asked Ellie nosily. ‘What kind of cake is she having? I had a Frozen one for my last birthday. I love Frozen.’
Cat ignored her niece. ‘It will be fine. Dan is our resident football expert and he speaks Spanish so he’s just the man to look after Alvarro.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Trust me, the dinner is due to finish at ten and Alvarro will be tucked up in his hotel by eleven so that he’s all fresh and ready for the launch tomorrow.’ Unimpressed by being ignored, Ellie had decided to make her own fun and was currently experimenting with the water cooler. ‘Ellie, what are you doing?’ cried Cat as water seeped slowly across the kitchen floor.
Ellie took a step to one side and put down the cup. ‘Somebody spilt that,’ she said innocently.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said Jesse.
Cat grabbed handfuls of paper towels in a bid to soak up the mess. Ellie watched her with interest. ‘Can I have that biscuit now, please?’
Exasperated, Cat found the biscuit tin. ‘Just take it!’ she said.
Ellie eyed her suspiciously. ‘There’s no need to be so cross,’ she said, taking the tin and leaving the kitchen. ‘It was just an accident.’
Cat took a deep breath and did her best to clear up the mess. She made a strong pot of coffee and carried it back to her office. Charlie was exactly where she had left him, shoulders hunched, eyes glazed as he played his game. Ellie, on the other hand, had made herself comfortable at Cat’s desk and was talking to someone on the phone.
‘Ellie, give me the phone now!’ cried Cat in a panic.
Ellie looked up in surprise and passed the phone without a word. She skulked back to her seat and began unhappily shovelling biscuits into her mouth.
‘Hello?’ said Cat into the phone.
‘Cat? It’s Will. What the hell is going on? Was that a child answering your phone?’
Cat’s stomach sank. ‘Sorry, Will, it was just my niece and – ’
‘I don’t want to hear it, Cat. I was phoning to check we’re okay for tonight and tomorrow.’
‘Are you sure? Because I’m starting to get concerned.’
‘You don’t need to worry. Everything is under control.’
‘All right. See you tomorrow.’
Cat hung up before turning to Ellie. ‘Don’t ever touch my phone again,’ she snapped. Ellie’s lip began to wobble. Cat panicked. ‘Now don’t cry, Ellie. You don’t need to cry.’
But it was too late. Ellie’s body trembled and tears coursed down her face. Cat watched helplessly as Charlie put down his game and went over to comfort his sister. He glared at his aunt. ‘You don’t have to be such a mean cow. She’s just a little girl. She’s a bit naughty sometimes but only because she wants attention.’
Cat was stung by his words. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I have to work, you see?’ she said pathetically.
Charlie shrugged. ‘Whatever. Come on, Ellie, I’ll play a game with you,’ he said.
Cat felt wretched as she returned to her desk. The children were occupied now with a drawing game. She noticed that Charlie occasionally whispered comments to Ellie and they would glance up at Cat and giggle. It made her feel uncomfortable and even though they were quiet she found it increasingly difficult to concentrate.
‘How do you ever get anything done?’ she wailed to her brother when he phoned later that evening.
Andrew gave a wry chuckle. ‘Welcome to my world, dearest sister. Did you remember to feed them? They’re evil when they’re hungry.’
‘I ordered takeaway pizza,’ admitted Cat.
‘I bet that won you some brownie points.’
‘Hmmm.’ In fact, the children had been quiet and sullen. They seemed to retreat into their own little world after the incident at the office and it was clear that Cat wasn’t welcome.
‘Well obviously bedtime wasn’t a problem. Clearly you’re a natural,’ offered Andrew with cheerful encouragement.
Cat gave a hollow laugh. In fact Charlie had overseen the bedtime routine, making sure his sister cleaned her teeth properly and tucking her in after she insisted that he do it. He had played on his iPad for a short while before taking himself off to bed.
‘Night then,’ Cat had ventured, receiving a barely audible grunt in reply. She had poured herself a large glass of wine as a reward and carried it into the living room. Noticing the contents of Ellie’s rucksack strewn across her normally pristine lounge floor, she had reached down to repack them. She picked up one of Ellie’s drawings of a very tall lady with ears like a cat and the label ‘Cross Aunty Cat’, to which Charlie had added the words ‘smells of poo’. Her immediate reaction had been one of hurt and then she felt ridiculous. Her thoughts had been interrupted by Andrew’s phone call.
‘“Natural” isn’t exactly the word I would use,’ said Cat. ‘Just make sure you don’t have any more last-minute business trips while Melissa’s away.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ laughed Andrew.
‘Right well I need to go and do the work I couldn’t finish because of your children,’ she joked.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ replied Andrew. ‘And thanks again – you saved my life.’
Cat hung up and flicked her phone to her social media channels, noting several texts from Dan reporting that all was well at the dinner. As Cat spent the next hour catching up on everything that had happened in the last few hours, she became aware of a new and unusual sensation. It all felt like a bit of an effort and she realised that she was tired and distracted by the presence of the children. She felt disconcerted by her inability to focus on her job while they were around, as if her brain were in two places at the same time. She shook it off as something temporary and carried on working, knowing that she would be dissatisfied if she didn’t. In Cat’s mind, today’s episode only served to vindicate her decision to remain single and child-free. Her life was ordered and organised and even though she was happy to help her brother, she couldn’t wait for the moment when they’d be gone and she could return to normal.
Tiredness got the better of her and she fell asleep. She was woken at midnight by the sound of her phone ringing. It was Jesse. She immediately knew that something was wrong.
‘Cat, we’ve got a serious problem.’
‘Alvarro’s gone AWOL. The pictures are all over the internet. I’ve just had the CEO of Daily Grind on the phone. They’re cancelling the launch.’
‘Shit. What’s he done?’
‘Apart from being photographed snorting cocaine with a prostitute and getting into a fight?’
‘Oh God. Where was Dan when this was going on?’
‘Oh he’s in the pictures too. So much for trusting him to take care of things. We’re finished, Cat. Completely finished.’
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