Natasha Blakeman sat at the table in her well appointed kitchen and wept. In the next room the twins were fighting over a toy train or a book or a jigsaw puzzle. She had no idea exactly what. She no longer cared. In a bouncy chair by the table leg Lily was crying. Her little fists were bunched in anger and her screwed up face was squeezing out real tears. Natasha put her fingers in her ears and tried to block out the sound but the piercing cry continued to sear straight through her brain. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks.
            ‘Will you all just shut up!’ she screamed. For a moment, the sudden and unexpected sound made Lily stop crying and she looked with curiosity at her mother but then she redoubled her efforts as the shock of the sound hit her. Natasha, horrified both by her outburst and the effect that it had had on her daughter, knelt down beside the bouncy chair. She struggled with the buckle as she tried to release the screaming child from the straps that held her safe and the unforgiving plastic clip nipped her finger. Ignoring the pain she freed the baby and held her close to her chest, rocking her back and forth instinctively.
            ‘I’m sorry, Princess. I’m sorry,’ she repeated over and over through her tears. Noah and Jacob stormed in to the room, both desperate to put their side of the story before their sibling.
            ‘Mummy! Jacob said I was stupid!’
            ‘ Noah took the tractor and I had it and its mine.’
            ‘No it’s not. It’s mine. Uncle James bought it for me for my birthday didn’t he Mummy? Didn’t he? And you can’t have it. I want it back. Give it to me now.’
With that, Noah hit Jacob on the arm with the length of train track that he had in his hand.
            ‘Boys! Stop it! Can’t you just play nicely? Please.’ Natasha knew that begging her four year old sons to behave would not have the desired effect but she no longer had the energy to apply the strategies that she had read about in her many parenting manuals.
            Jacob, generally the more sensitive of the two realised that his mother was crying and immediately abandoned the fight with his brother to hug her. His small arms were too short to wrap around both his mother and sister and so he focused on Natasha’s shoulder instead.
            ‘Mummy, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?’
            Noah, realising that his brother was about to steal a march on him by showing compassion, came to hug her other shoulder but Natasha could see that he was still pulling faces at Jacob as he did so. Balancing Lily precariously against her chest, she put an arm around each of the boys and pulled them towards her in an awkward embrace. Stalwartly, she tried to regain her composure, hating that she was showing this alien, vulnerable side of herself to her children but there was no stemming the flood of tears now that they had started. Her shoulders heaved and she sobbed, snatching her breath in uneven gasps. Her long brown hair stuck to her damp face but she had no hand free to wipe it away and so she left it there, not caring how she looked.
             Lily had stopped crying, placated by the contact with her mother and the twins, tired of competing for her attention, were struggling to get away. She released them and they scattered, all concern for their mother forgotten in their desire to move on to the next thing.
            A blood blister had formed where her finger had caught in the buckle and it glistened on her skin like a ruby. She knew she would have burst it before too long, not having the self control to allow nature to take its course but for now she would let it be. How had her life got to this? Crying in a heap on the kitchen floor? She was a controlled and competent woman, laid waste by the marauding monsters that were her children. That was not fair. The children were not bad; they were just children. She would cope. All she needed was some sleep and everything would slip back into place just as it had been before. She was pretty sure that every mother had moments like this, when the enormity of the task they had been given overwhelmed them. Of course, you would never tell from the outside. By the time the little family was seen in public at the twins’ preschool tomorrow, all would be calm and a picture of order. The twins, in their matching blazers and shorts, Lily in some adorable but not entirely practical dress and she with freshly laundered outfit and blow-dried hair. It was all a façade really, a conspiracy that all mothers were party to but that no one would discuss.
            The phone rang. James maybe, although unlikely. More probably her mother, or James’s. She let it ring, waiting for the answer phone to reveal the identity of the caller. She heard her own voice, unnaturally bright and cheerful, inform the caller that the Blakemans could not come to the phone right now. The irritating beep filled the kitchen followed by the strident tones of Rosemary Blakeman.
            ‘Hello dear. How are you? You must be out. Bother. I just wanted to firm up the plans for the weekend. We are so looking forward to seeing you all. I’m arranging for Matthew and Kate to come over for lunch on Sunday so that will be nice…’
            As her mother in law got into her stride, Natasha thought briefly about picking up the phone and speaking to her. That would save her having to call back later. In all honesty though, she really could not face the pretence that a conversation with Rosemary at this moment would involve. She left the phone on its cradle and, feeling a little guilty at the deception, listened to the remainder of the message without getting up.
            ‘….so if you could give me a ring and let me know what sort of time to expect you that would be lovely. I’ll put the travel cot in with you and James. I hope that’s OK. We can always have a swap around if you’d prefer somewhere else. Anyway, I must go. Hope you’re all well. Love to James. Bye.’
            A click signalled the end of the call and Natasha shuffled herself and her daughter across the floor so that her back rested against a cupboard door. Lily had fallen asleep. Natasha knew that she should put her down and go and spend some time with the twins but instead she stayed where she was and closed her eyes. The smell of Lily’s feather-soft hair was divine and she breathed it in as deeply as she could, breathing out again reluctantly. It was nearly four ‘o clock. She would have to do something about tea for the boys soon. Perhaps she would just do a carpet picnic and then aim for an early bath. James was unlikely to be back in time to help her so she might as well get the whole bedtime process over and done with as soon as was realistic.
            A weekend in Bath. She could do without it but at least Rosemary would cook and there would be plenty of people about to keep the twins entertained. It would be nice to see Matthew and Kate too. They were such an earnest couple, Natasha thought. Matthew a replica of his father in so many ways and Kate, so serious and focussed. The Blakemans had always had Natasha pegged as the driven career woman of the family but it was obvious to her that Kate was just as determined. You only had to look at the way she was keeping them all waiting for a grandchild to see who wore the trousers there. Rosemary seemed to think that it was a biological issue but to Natasha it was obvious that Kate’s childless state was by design. At this moment she was almost envious.
            Well, she could not sit here all day. Buoyed up by the early to bed strategy, Natasha carefully stood up with the sleeping Lily still in her arms. The baby did not stir and delicately Natasha returned her to the bouncy chair leaving the vicious buckle unfastened. Gently she sidled to the kitchen door and, closing it behind her, went off to find out what the boys were up to.