I didn’t go and visit Nikki. I did get my Mother to agree to look after Henry for Saturday night. I didn’t have a hot date. I had decided to spend the morning of the Saturday with Henry down at ‘Cheeky Monkees’ a local indoor play area. Henry was tottering about, interested in the world around him, but still spent more time on his face than he did on his feet. His chubby awkward frame wriggled and wobbled and fell even on a flat surface, so I took him to the play area where he could fall over to his heart’s content on the soft matted floors of the toddlers section.
They don’t make places like this anymore. A two floored bouncy and soft paradise for children to crash and blast their weekends away in. Tables situated outside the large play areas for parents to drink coffee, and kids to bloat themselves on pop. It was a quarter past ten on the fourth of a very wintry February, as always at this early time, very few customers had arrived at Cheeky Monkees. Good. I would get one of the comfortable black leather couches to sit and blast caffeine into my battered system. Henry was teething and I had been up all night, rubbing gels, patting backs and rocking gorgeous baby boys. You would think there would be nobody in life you could love enough to wake up for every ninety minutes without fail without throttling them. But here I was, full of pride and love for my irritable screaming year old boy. I sat heavily on the black leather parking the buggy containing my sleeping little angel. Being a parent is full of irony, when you need sleep the child screams; when you want them to run around have fun, the child sleeps.
Another dark haired couple sat on tables as close to the large play area as possible, keeping a watchful eye upon their cherubs no doubt. The male of the duo reached across the table and took his partners hand, interlocking his fingers with hers and smiled across the table at her. She smiled back; flashing brilliant white teeth through her pulled back scarlet lips. I smiled to myself; sometimes it is nice to know that tenderness still exists in the world we live in. Not everything centres on louts and football hooligans. The world doesn’t always pivot upon newspapers and their phone hacking scandals, or nude pictures of one celebrity or another, nor does the axis of the earth spin upon tales of divorce, affairs, drugs, wars, looters, paedophiles, rapists or dead musicians. These two strangers had something I had lost, and ultimately craved. A relationship, each other, another half. Love. Actually right at that moment I craved sleep. Coffee. Sleep. Coffee. Sleep. Love.
Two red haired children ran past the table I was sat at, straight to two of those character-vehicle-machine things, you know the sort of contraption that you put a fifty pence piece into, and it sways back and forth fooling naïve children into believing they’re actually riding on ‘Bob the Builder’s’ tractor. This machine was a train belonging to Barney, some random sort of dinosaur coloured purple, with big eyes and a huckleberry chuckling voice. The boy (the older of the two children) put the coin in the slot and both children clambered on board, beginning the rocking blooping and singing machine.
It occurred to me that one day Henry would be that boy’s age. It would be nice for him to have a younger sibling to play with and teach. I wondered briefly how much of teaching a child is the responsibility of an older sibling. Essentially it should be the parents, but the willingness of this boy to help his little sister illustrated that children like to help, teach and share too. How much of this young girl’s knowledge was gleaned from the willing touch of her older brother? His mother and father must be very proud of him. I looked briefly into the buggy to see my son still sleeping, fitfully, but catching up on some much needed z’s.
A red haired woman walked past my table waving at them as they threw their arms around in a childish Mexican wave from the vehicle. The woman’s back was to me as she put her bags down and made a raspberry noise at the children using her tongue. Taking her black overcoat from her shoulders and folding it over her arm before placing it on the black sofa in front of me, the flame haired lady turned slightly, a green eye catching mine. Nikki.
She raised a tentative hand and smiled cautiously, yet with affable apperception. I waved back and motioned to the sofa the opposite of my table, a friendly offer for her to sit and break the monotony of my violently empty little world. Nikki shrugged and picked her bags and coats up and placed them on the sofa and spun to make sure her children knew where she was.
“Cammy, Gracie, I’m just here.” Nikki had a sing song voice; I had never noticed it before.
“OK Auntie Nikki.” The young boy chirruped happily. Auntie Nikki? These were Simon’s children. I looked into the face of the boy, and I saw it immediately. The cheeky grin, the green eyes, and the fair eyebrows. He had his father’s dimples, his father’s slight build and meager height, and his father’s small ears.
“Yes Toni they are Simon’s kids. His ex-partner allows me to have them for five hours every other Saturday morning, so she can roll and rumble with her new junky boyfriend.” Nikki looked at me quite seriously noticing my dumb gawk. I looked at Nikki and for the first time I saw the resemblance with her brother, green eyes, and slender (despite her ample bosom) figure. Her eyes were closer together than Simon’s, and her mouth a lot narrower. Nikki wasn’t a traditional beauty, but not altogether unattractive. She shared her brother’s fondness for tattoo’s, having a Celtic-design emblem stretching around her throat from each side of her collar bone. The words ‘Cameron’ and ‘Grace’ encircled her porcelain left wrist, and ‘Thank you for just one more day’ spiraling around her right wrist.
“Have you text my brother?” Nikki asked not unkindly.
“No I haven’t, I don’t know what to say to him. I can’t deal with someone so emotionally closed that they can’t tell me how they feel. I know its petty Nikki, but all I needed was assurance that my feelings could be reciprocated. He couldn’t give me that, and said that it was best for me if he said he didn’t feel anything for me.” I looked from her to Simon’s children and watched them banter and play with each other.
“Well, he said it’s not simple, and he is right it isn’t.” She left a moment for a pause and looked into my buggy. “Aw is this your little man?” Nikki pursed her lips as if she was going to kiss Henry on the face.
“Aye. That’s my baby. His name is Henry, and he’s a noisy little shit.” I smiled jokingly at Nikki. Another thing that amuses me about human beings is their ability to insult and chide their children knowing that it is said with love.
“Noisy little shit. Nice. Simon refers to those two as his ‘Ginger Terrorists’ frequently. You parents have such lovely ways with words. You fancy a coffee, those bags under your eyes look like they could do with a percolated remedy?” Nikki stood up as I nodded and thanked her; she shrugged ‘no problem’ and walked to the counter.
My attention was drawn to the two children as they had moved over to the main play area, filled with colourful and soft delights. Pushing each other down twisting slides, crawling through nets suspended twelve feet from the floor, jumping up and down in psychedelic pools of sponge and plastic balls seemed to be all they had to worry about. I wondered when the last time I was that irrationally happy happened to be. Thursday night I was as close to euphorically and baselessly jubilant as a single mother could ever have hoped to be. Maybe the café should have a pool filled with balls for us all to jump up and down in. There were a few more families in the building now, undressing their children, screeching warnings, passing drinks, and exchanging proud and meaningful glances. Cheeky Monkee’s was safe not just for the kids to avoid bumps and bruises, but for parents to let their children run recklessly out of sight temporarily secure in the knowledge that the world is a happy and jovial place.
Nikki sat back at the table and placed a brimming cup of coffee, emitting it’s glorious enlivening scent, in front of me next to her coffee and three bottles of fruit juice. Pushing one of these drinks towards me she smiled. “For when your ‘noisy little shit’ wakes up.” She passed me four sachets of brown sugar over and sat back to sugar her own beverage.
“Thank you Nikki. How did you know I would have brown sugar and not white?” I think I spend a lot of time asking dumb questions to these siblings. She laughed into her coffee and shrugged.
“Look Nikki I am sorry for biting your head off on Thursday night.”
“Toni, don’t worry about it. I know you have not long split from the father of your boy, and you are looking for something to have meaning to it. Simon didn’t tick those boxes, and I was just stupid enough to have stuck my oar in.” Nikki sipped from her coffee and looked at me over the cup as if examining me. “You know Simon has been looking for something meaningful too. The problem is Toni, you scare him.” I looked at her flabbergasted.
“I scare him. Are you mental?”
“No I am not. The mother of those two Ginger Terrorists has been the cause of much damage to my brother. He loved her, for four years they were together, had those two children, and had a house, a car, and a cat. They were a good couple, very well liked within their small community, but she was far too well liked. Simon came home early one night from a night shift job that she had made him take, to find a couple of members of the small community showing her how well liked she really was. Think the term was ‘smashing her backdoors in.” Nikki sipped again on her coffee eyeing me carefully.
“Oh.” Not really an adequate response, but the only thing I could really think of to say.
“It didn’t stop there; he walked away from the house and moved into my spare room. The heinous bitch stopped him seeing the kids one day because her new boyfriend tried to bottle Simon in a pub. Simon came out with a split forehead. Her boyfriend sports a broken nose, had his jaw wired a broken wrist and dislocated shoulder. Our mother, afraid of Simon’s adorable ex-partner, has backed up her decision to stop him seeing the kids every step of the way so that she can continue seeing them. I had to fight hard with her to get this time with the kids. I don’t speak to my mother after all of this, so I have my own time with them. For the last six months Simon has been pushing with the Solicitors to get access. He has been granted 2 hours a month in a contact centre in Wellingborough. Supervised.” Nikki stopped talking as Grace approached the table and made her way to the buggy and peered in at Henry.
“Grace this is Toni, that’s her little boy sleeping in the buggy.” Nikki had got up from the seat and knelt next to the angelic little girl grasping her hands gently so that she didn’t reach in and wake up Henry.
“That is Henry, what is your name?” I looked at the little girl. For a moment I thought this beautiful young girl would shrivel into her shell and seek comfort from Nikki. A lot of children do that, allow the adults to speak for them as they eye up the stranger from the boundaries of their own comfort zone. But Grace jumped towards me and climbed onto the seat next to me. Nikki gasped involuntarily with surprise as Grace put her small pale and freckled hand onto my leg.
“I’m Grace Helen Wood. You are very pretty. Henry is very cute.” I saw Nikki in her straight away; the beaming smile was the same as was the dotted speckles around her nose. There was no doubting this girl would grow to be just like her aunt.
“Thank you Grace. My name is Toni Jennifer Hammer, and you are prettier. Do you want some of your drink?” Grace looked from me to Nikki to confirm that it was OK that I passed her the drink before nodding and smiling broadly. Grace sucked her drink deeply before jumping from the sofa to the ground and running off to find her big brother, turning to wave and blow kisses and me and Nikki before diving into the ball pool.
“Oh my god how cute is she?” I asked Nikki.
“Wow, she has father’s taste. Grace normally would have run back to Cameron without saying anything. She wouldn’t even come to me until she was eight months old. The girl ordinarily is as close to pathologically shy as you could get.” Nikki watched Grace dart between the bouncing and bumping boys and girls that had gradually begun to fill up the place. Her eyes just like Simons were capable of such swirling depth, for a moment as she watched Grace tumble for her place on the cushion stairs a whisper of an unknown emotion rippled.
“I get it you know. I see why you’re protective of Simon. You know I wouldn’t have bitten on Thursday. Well not unless he asked me to.” Nikki laughed almost impulsively.
“You do have a sense of humour then?”
“You and Simon are too alike. He said that to me on Thursday.”
“He speaks really highly of you Toni. Yes I am protective of him; older sisters generally are protective of their younger siblings.” Nikki drained her coffee and spread her arms over the back of the sofa.
“Older? By how much?”
“Technically, although he was born at 12:14 on the seventeenth of April, and I was born at 11:56 on the sixteenth. Our family never ever did things the normal way.” Nikki giggled a soft attractive sound.
“There is definitely nothing normal about you two.” I drained my coffee and offered Nikki a refill. She accepted with a nod and a smile. The rest of the morning was spent chatting about girly things, shopping, shoes, make-up and past ex-boyfriends. Nikki, like her brother, was so natural, so likeable and extraordinarily good with kids. She had Henry chuckling and gurgling contentedly. Cameron and Grace were exceptionally good with Henry too. I watched the three of them banging the tables together, slightly choked that Simon couldn’t see this. I thought about texting him again, but left it. With any luck I will see him tonight.