Pat O’Boyle and his wife, Margaret, had been friends of the family for most of Annie Baker’s life. The two families had met on holiday and had kept in touch, arranging their holidays at the same time each year. The O’Boyles had never had children of their own. Margaret was over ten years older than Pat and by the time they had realised it wasn’t going to happen she was too old to adopt — the only option available to childless couples back then. Although there was always a hint of melancholy about her, Margaret accepted her lot, put on a brave face and focused her energies on doting on any children she came into contact with, especially Ann and David. Ann was more than happy to return the affection of this kind and gentle woman.
Pat was a different matter. Annie had never really been able to take to him. He was friendly enough, and generous, and her parents seemed to like him. He was always telling jokes and entertaining them with stories of his own childhood. Despite that, there was something Annie didn’t like. It was not the way he looked or anything in particular that he said or did. He was a small-framed man, barely taller than Annie’s mother and he spoke in the smooth and charming tones of Dublin. He kept his near-black hair cut neat and short and his blue eyes were always smiling — the picture of amiability. There was just something about him that made Ann feel uncomfortable.
It was on a the last day of their holiday when Annie was ten years old that she discovered that her instincts could be trusted. She woke late, for a ten year old anyway, and her father had already left. He had returned to work on the train, leaving her mother to pack up and drive the children home.
It was a beautiful day, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the heat was tempered by a gentle breeze. Annie stumbled through the living area, rubbing her eyes, and headed straight for the small table by the patio doors at the edge of the kitchen area. Sitting opposite David, she waited, watching him shovelling cereal into his mouth like he was afraid it was going to disappear.
After a few moments, her mother entered the room from one of the bedrooms that adjoined the main living area. Helen Baker was a good looking woman and, like many women, she worked at making the most of it. By now her dark brown hair was brushed and backcombed into place and her make-up was done for the day. Her figure showed the signs of child-bearing but she managed to limit it’s effects by keeping check on her weight.
“If you want breakfast you’ll have to get it yourself,” she said, plainly irritated by Annie’s late arrival. “I’ve got too much to do,” she called over her shoulder as she exited through another door.
With a stifled sigh, Annie got down from her chair, grabbed the cereal packet from the cupboard and the milk from the fridge and took them back to the table. She poured out far too much cereal and then managed to slop more milk onto the table than she got in the bowl.
“Mum, Annie’s making a mess,” David called, shooting a spiteful grin at his sister.
“Oh for goodness sake you two, don’t start already. I really can’t be bothered with it today.”
Annie opened her mouth to protest that she hadn’t started anything but then decided that it wasn’t a good idea. She knew her mother well enough to know when she was stressed and she also knew her well enough to know that doing anything to add to that stress would only get her swift smack on the behind.
“You two need to entertain yourselves today,” Helen called from the open door of the bathroom.
“I’m going out anyway,” David replied. Being three years older than Annie, he had made his own friends on holiday that year and had spent most of his time with them.
“I’m sorry?” His mother raised her eyebrows.
“I mean, can I go out today?”
“That depends where you’re going and who with.”
“Paul and Rick. We’re going to play football over the field.”
“Just make sure you’re back by 2 o’clock. We have to hand the keys in by then.”
“Can I go with him?” Annie asked.
“No.” David shot back before his mother could reply.
His mother glared at him before turning back to Annie. “No love, it’s too much responsibility. Anyway, you’d only argue.”
“No we won’t,” Annie protested.
“No. It’s not a good idea.”
Annie adopted her best dejected posture, shoulders slumped, head down, bottom lip protruding. “Can I go over to the playground then?”
“On my own.”
“No. That really isn’t a good idea.” She shook her head to emphasise the point.
“Because it’s not safe.”
“I’ll be really careful crossing the road. They taught us how to do it at school.”
“It’s not just the roads that are dangerous.”
Her mother just shook her head. “You’re too young to understand.”
“No and that’s the end of it.”
Annie gave up. She knew that tone.
Half an hour later, David had left and Annie found herself alone in the chalet with her mother. She sat at the table staring out the open patio door as her mother cleared away the breakfast dishes and wiped down the table. She was bored. Her mother watched her from the sink and smiled sympathetically. She wiped her hands on the tea towel and disappeared into the bedroom. A few minutes later she returned to the table with a palette of watercolour paints and a pad of plain paper. She filled a plastic picnic beaker with water from the tap and put it on the table in front of Annie. Annie brightened, picked up the paintbrush and set to work, merrily creating her masterpiece.
She noticed the shadow cast across her painting but it took several seconds before Annie thought to look up to see what had caused it. She didn’t smile when she saw Pat O’Boyle standing at the patio door.