Helen blamed herself. She’d always wanted the best for Joana, and that’s what she’d given her: the best toys, the best schools, top designer clothes, a top-of-the-range smartphone. She was, in short, the doting mother. In recent weeks, though, she’d started to look at her daughter afresh, and she didn’t entirely like what she saw.
The misgivings had begun brewing in the run-up to the wedding of her sister. Barbara had chosen three nieces to be her bridesmaids, and Joana was to be one of them. At the fitting of the dresses, Joana threw a childish tantrum because of their colour – actually a subtle lilac that Helen thought very pretty – forcing a change to a colour that Joana approved of: a much-too-bright turquoise. On the surface, Barbara was very diplomatic about it, but Helen could sense her annoyance at being obliged, for the sake of pre-wedding peace and harmony, to alter her carefully laid plans.
On the day itself, Helen noticed how Joana pushed her way to the front of the official photos. Then at the reception, she overheard her daughter boasting to one of the other bridesmaids, her cousin Molly, about how she had all the latest fashions and technology, and how Molly was a “poor thing” because her parents couldn’t afford such luxuries. Helen cringed inwardly and wondered to herself why it was only now that she was able to see these things.
One Friday evening soon after the wedding, Joana came into Helen’s study and sat next to the desk where her mother was working on the computer.
“Watcha doing, Mum?”
“Finishing an article. What about you? Done your homework?”
“Nearly. Er … Mum?”
Helen knew what was coming; she’d heard that “Mum?” many times before. She clicked on ‘save’ and turned to her daughter.
“You know SportShop in town?”
If Joana had been more aware of things beyond her own wants, she might have noticed the slight frown creasing her mother’s forehead. She seemed not to have realised, either, that Helen hadn’t answered her question.
“Well, they’ve got a sale on trainers. There are some brilliant Nikes, ten per cent off. Can I get them?”
“Ten per cent off, eh? So, how much are they now, then?”
“Only £99. Sarah’s got some, and they’re really wicked.”
“So what about the ones you’ve already got?”
“Mum! They’re old!”
“You only got them a couple of months ago!”
“I don’t mean old, I mean old.”
“I don’t think so, darling.”
“You don’t think so!? You … you never think of me. Never. It’s always work, work, work. I hate you!”
“Jo, I don’t–.”
But Joana wasn’t waiting to hear her mother’s reasoning. She flounced out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Helen found her face down on her bed, crying in frustration.
“Leave me alone!”
“Get your coat on. We’re going out.”
Joana sprang off the bed, grinning through the tears.
“Really? Oh, Mum. Thankyouthankyouthankyou!”
The youngster spent the journey into town extolling the beauty of the trainers she wanted. Helen gripped the wheel tight and said nothing.
“And they’ve got these killer laces that … hang on, Mum. This isn’t the way to the centre!”
“Just a little detour.”
Joana peered out of the window and shifted in her seat. Her mother had indeed taken a detour, into an area the young girl was neither familiar nor comfortable with. And she had slowed the car down to a crawl.
Along the pavement shuffled an old couple in ragged clothes, the man dragging a tatty trolley behind him, stacked with grubby plastic bags. Leaning into the bitter wind, they gripped their coats closed at the lapels as they struggled along. In the doorways of a row of boarded-up shops, some younger people were huddled behind makeshift cardboard screens. A girl of about Joana’s age stood at a corner, beating her arms against her body.
Helen slowed to a stop. The girl came trotting over to the car and tapped on the window on Joana’s side. Her face was thin, pale and dirty, her teeth black in places. When she spoke, her voice came through the glass muffled.
“Gissa quid, love. For food. Or 50p … anything.”
Joana turned to her mother.
“Mum, let’s get out of here. I don’t like it.”
Helen stared ahead, then reached back for her handbag, took out her wallet and handed Joana a ten-pound note.
“Are you crazy, Mum? Ten pounds!?”
“Lower your window and give it to her, Jo.”
“Just do it, Jo.”
Helen pressed the window button and it came down on Joana’s side, enough for her to pass the note through the gap. The girl grabbed it and turned away briskly, as if for fear that the people might ask her to return it. But then she came back and beamed a broken smile at Joana.
Helen put the car in gear and slowly left the kerb, passing the old couple, who had made little headway in the blustery wind.
They moved out of the area, but Helen didn’t make for the centre. Instead, she double-backed and headed for home. Joana was staring out of the side window, lost in thought, and didn’t seem to notice the route they were taking. They exchanged not a single word all the way back.
When they got home, Joana made to go upstairs but her mother stopped her in the hall.
“Jo, tomorrow morning we can go in and buy those trainers you wanted.” She made sure she had eye contact with her daughter when she added, “Or not.”
Joana gave her a thin smile, nodded and slowly climbed the stairs to her room.