He cried that first morning – although that wasn’t what he’d expected would happen. His mother had taken him there promptly at nine-thirty in his new red fleece-lined jacket, and he’d dashed ahead of her through the park, so keen was he to begin his new adventure. At almost four years old he’d talked about this day all summer.
But, as the couple had come in sight of the little hut at the wooded end of the park, and then he’d suddenly found themselves surrounded by noisier, older, more self-confident children, his excited scamperings had stopped and he’d fallen in at his mother’s side, his mittened fingers sliding between hers
The hut was noisy and strange and smelled of the wet scarves and coats which stretched drying around the stove. And at first his mother had stood by him, as if intimidated by the other mothers as he was by their offspring, and together they’d watched the children set about their projects of Playdough and paints.
‘I expect he’s a little shy at first,’ said a large, frizzy-haired lady, whose denims and smock were spattered with mud and rainbow paints. ‘Most of the children feel strange at first. It helps if the mothers can stay to settle them in.’
‘But I can’t stay, Judy,’ he heard his mother say, as she gently extricated herself from his grasp. ‘I have to be back to feed the baby.’
He moved his grip to her raincoat belt.
‘Oh well, I’m sure he’ll be all right,’ the large lady consoled.
He looked up. The expression on his mother’s face was unfamiliar. She was biting her lip, which seemed to be quivering, and her eyes looked wet behind her glasses, although she was trying to smile. She fondled his cheek, and instinctively he pushed his head into her thigh for protection, away from this room full of strangers.
‘Would you like to come and paint a picture for me?’ the large lady enquired, bending low over him and reaching for his hand.
Tom didn’t answer.
His mother was smiling at him. It was a traitor’s smile. ‘You go with Judy … You paint a nice picture,’ she urged. Tom didn’t move. His mother’s eyes strayed anxiously to her watch.
Very gently the fat lady levered the boy’s hand from the lifeline of his mother’s raincoat.
‘Go on. Go with Judy, Tom. You show her how well you can paint.’ His mother’s voice sounded broken, as though something was stuck in her mouth.
‘You have a new baby in your house, don’t you? It’s a little girl, isn’t it? Can you paint your little sister for me?’ Judy’s gentle voice purred.
Again Tom made no response but as some shouts of excitement broke out across the hut, he was distracted enough to allow his gaze to wander towards the other children. A boy with dark curly hair was playing with a plastic snake, pretending to frighten another, who was trying to grab it.
‘Let’s go and see what Jordan’s got, shall we?’ coaxed Judy. ‘Perhaps you can draw me a nice wriggly snake.’
At that moment the door clicked closed behind him. He swung around. His mother had gone. But even as his lungs filled with terror and he tried to follow her, Judy scooped him up into her arms, smothering his screams with her generous breast and a litany of lulling reassurance.
At the other end of the room a little, dark girl watched silently as the ample lady nursed the weeping newcomer. It was her first day at playgroup, too, but she didn’t cry. Instead she would spend the morning clinging to the black ear of her panda, sitting on the outside of the circle during the singsong and story, and shaking her head in mute refusal when milk was offered.
It was Judy who proved to be the matchmaker. Noticing the silent child, and guilty that she was devoting too much time to Tom, she gathered them both in a corner by the play house and invited them to join with her in a nursery rhyme. She was not successful. The little girl spoke not a word of English.
Oh dear, Tom will have to teach you to speak English, won’t he, Maria?’ she said to the non-comprehending child. And, noticing that curiosity had temporarily stemmed Tom’s tears, she crept away to join her other rowdier charges.
To Tom and Maria the absence of a common tongue presented no problems. As together they explored a box of toys, little by little a conversation began to develop through a language of touching and pointing. Had Tom been older he might have realised how pretty Maria was, with her sooty, long Mediterranean eyelashes. He might have seen, too, that her dress was embroidered and that the ribbons that tied back her black hair were crisp and freshly ironed, and noticed that her shoes had elaborate little chains across the tops, her white socks had a rose motif on them and that her knickers were layered with lace. He might have realised that, in fact, she was a little bit over-dressed for playgroup. But all Tom saw was someone like himself, someone with whom he shared the bond of shyness and newness.
The morning did not, as Judy had suggested, pass quickly, and at twelve-thirty when Tom’s mother returned, peeping anxiously, guiltily around the door, his tears were again beginning to leak. But that night as he lay in bed and his mother recounted Tom’s Busy Day to him, he murmured quietly to her: ‘What does ‘si’ mean?’
Although there were tears again the following day, and the day after that, too, the moments of parting for Tom and his mother became progressively less harrowing as the interdependence between the two newcomers at the playgroup strengthened. Soon they were taking part in all the morning activities as their circle of friends spread to include all the children in the little hut.
In everything, though, they acted as a pair. They were inseparable: Tom in his Thomas The Tank Engine wellies, and Maria, always dainty, though soon not quite so fancily attired as her mother got the social measure of the little group.
Too young to understand embarrassment, each morning they hurried to each other through the park, anxious to take up the game reluctantly left the previous lunchtime. And although Maria’s English was slow to improve so far as the other children were concerned, Tom appeared to understand her every word.
It was a mutual infatuation. In the park they would walk together hand in hand as Judy and her three helpers took the crocodile of children on nature trips, while in the hut they would save places for each other in the story corner, or seek out funny clothes in the dressing-up box for each other to wear.
For Tom’s mother, troubled with a fractious new baby, Maria was a godsend – her name forever on the boy’s lips. On some afternoons Maria would come back with Tom for lunch and tea, when Maria would delight him by delicately licking the sugar icing off the buns; and on others Tom would visit her in the basement flat in which she lived.
Their parents had nothing in common -Tom’s being professional city people, who lived in a pastel-coloured terraced cottage, whilst Maria’s mother and father worked together as the domestic staff in one of the neighbourhood’s diplomatic homes, and laboured at night with teach-yourself-English books.
But, for Tom and Maria, it was a glorious autumn, a shared voyage of perpetual wonder. Life was full and ever-exciting, from gazing saucer-eyed at the peacocks in the park to collecting acorns and conkers among the trees. At Halloween they wore masks and witches’ hats and pretended to frighten each other; on Bonfire Night they drew intricate patterns with their sparklers; and at the Christmas Party they were a double act as the ox and the ass in the playgroup Nativity play.
For Christmas, Tom gave Maria a Gruffalo book; while she gave him a manly little belt with a bull and matador on the buckle. He hardly took it off right through Christmas.
Then, without warning, at the beginning of January Tom’s world fell apart. The occasion was the birthday party of Jordan, the boy with the pretend snake. Maria was already there when Tom was deposited by his mother at the house. As might have been expected, the little girl looked dazzling in new shoes and a lace-fronted blue party frock, but for the first time she seemed indifferent to Tom’s presence. Her mother had bought Jordan a clockwork lizard as a present and she was shrieking with delight as he chased her around the room with it.
At first Tom attempted to join in the pursuit, but his attempts at comradeship went unnoticed. To Maria he seemed to have become invisible, and when he attempted to show her the dinosaur book he’d brought his small host, she showed little interest and returned to Jordan’s side.
Tom was confused. He couldn’t understand what was happening. But the more he tried to get close to Maria, the more she moved away. And at tea when she licked all the icing off the fairy cakes, he was the only child present who didn’t find it funny.
Jordan, for his part, behaved like all small children on their birthdays. He went wild with excitement, was rude to his mother, jumped on the furniture and was eventually ignominiously smacked in front of his guests.
Tom’s mother found a very different child when she returned to collect her son. The brightness was gone. He was again the outsider, sitting in a corner, watching Maria and Jordan rolling around on the carpet – the final act in their theatre of flirtation.
Playgroup started again after Christmas, but now Tom didn’t want to go. Then, when his mother insisted, he cried, complained he didn’t feel well, until finally, when he saw there was no physical escape from the place, he retreated mentally into a world of his own, refusing to take part in any activities. But all the time his eyes rarely left Maria and Jordan.
When first his mother and then Judy suggested he ought to find another child to play with, he retorted that he didn’t want to play with anyone else. And, desolate in his loneliness, he began to creep into his parents’ bed in the middle of the night, his pyjama bottoms wet, as he sobbed with unhappiness.
Very soon he came to despise Maria’s prettiness and coquettish ways. While she chased Jordan through the trees and he showed off on the climbing frame, Tom would watch in solitary loathing. Towards Jordan, a happy, unmalicious child who didn’t realise what he’d done, Tom’s hatred was total.
The realigning of the relationships inside the little playgroup hut presented Judy with new problems. She was used to children’s quarrels and sulks; but she was not prepared for the ferocity of Tom’s jealousy, which was forcibly demonstrated one day when Tom suddenly dug his teeth into Jordan’s cheek during a reading of The Lion At School.
Luckily blood wasn’t drawn, and, although Jordan bore the teeth marks of his rival for some days, his mother let the incident pass with no more than a barbed sotto voce suggestion to herself that some children should only be let out on a muzzle.
Although Judy tried to make light of it, Tom’s parents were understandably worried by the incident. Until then, Tom had been the quietist and most co-operative of children, but, having failed to win back Maria’s affection by displaying the best side of his character, he now began to antagonise everyone with his sullen loneliness. Was he now developing dangerous anti-social tendencies?
Before his baby sister had been born the previous summer his parents had been warned about the possibility of little shows of peevishness towards the new arrival, and had been relieved when such displays hadn’t occurred. But now Tom came to resent everything and everyone who deprived him of affection, demanding attention at precisely the moments that his mother was engaged in taking care of the baby.
It was a bleak and difficult January in Tom’s life. Then in the middle of February the children of the playgroup were treated to a blizzard. For Judy the freeze-up presented all kinds of problems as the hut was suddenly very cold, and the stove quite inadequate to dry all the snow-covered anoraks and gloves.
Most of the children, however, were scatty with excitement, and Tom even went so far as to advise Judy of the dangers which lay in wait for those children foolish enough to walk on thin ice – virtually his first unsolicited communication to her since Christmas.
Only one child was uncertain about the snowfall. That was Maria. Of course she’d been as exhilarated as any other to wake up to the muffled city whiteness; but taking her cue from her mother she’d also been nervous of it, and hoped it wouldn’t last too long. What’s more she was cold, colder than she’d ever been, and her pretty face was pinched.
Even at four Maria was a little lady, and, now muffled up in extra sweaters, boots, scarves and a woollen hat, she felt as though a part of her personality was being camouflaged.
So while the other children had snow fights in the park, Maria stood inside by the stove and finger-painted pretty, non-robust winter scenes. She would have preferred to have had the company of Jordan in the hut, but he was too busy, dashing off to build a snowman – a somewhat over-ambitious project for a four year old, as it turned out.
Sensing her position changing at this turn of events, Maria sat next to Tom for the story, but if he noticed the renewed interest in her eyes he didn’t show it.
It froze hard overnight and the next day Maria didn’t go to playgroup. It was, her mother decided, too cold and too slippery. Tom went, however, and so did Jordan, who brought the sledge he’d been given as a Christmas present.
Without the distraction of Maria, Tom now found that Jordan had considerable qualities. He was by far the most adventurous of the children in the playgroup and on this day he needed someone to share his outdoor games. And although most of the children clamoured for a turn on the sledge, it was Tom who found himself honoured with a new and special comradeship.
Jordan was tired of girls. He wanted a friend who wasn’t afraid of the peacocks, who enjoyed a good snow fight, and who would take his turn at pulling the sledge.
Maria returned to playgroup after the thaw. Dolled up in a new coat and pink jeans she was devastatingly pretty. But she was too late. Tom and Jordan were now a team, and barely thanked her as she offered them a toffee each from her pocket, although the sweets were taken and eaten.
Judy smiled as she watched the little girl seek out new playmates across the hut. Maria would always be popular. And for Tom his first love affair was forgotten. His first lasting friendship had begun.