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Sarah smiled to herself as two more bottles of wine were ordered. Some of the school mothers were getting very loose-tongued and it was extremely entertaining.

‘Wait until you hear this.’ Molly’s mum leaned forward and the others huddled and strained to hear her. She milked the attention, pausing for dramatic effect as she took a sip of her wine. Then, in a very loud attempt at a whisper, she said, ‘Did you know that Ethan Kennedy’s mother –’

‘Who’s Ethan Kennedy?’ Frank’s mum interrupted.

Molly’s mum frowned. She was not used to being cut across. Sarah suppressed a grin. Frank’s mum was new to the class and clearly still hadn’t figured out that Molly’s mum was queen bee. She’d want to cotton on quickly, Sarah thought, because Molly’s mum had a tongue like a sword.

‘He’s in the other second class. Small, weedy, with glasses,’ Molly’s mum said impatiently. ‘Anyway, his mum came home early from work last week to find her husband being serviced by the Brazilian au pair.’

Gasps, and some giggles, around the table.

‘What do you mean exactly?’ Frank’s mum was not playing the game.

Sarah sat back in her chair, enjoying the show.

‘What do you think I mean? He was getting a blow-job up against that marble-topped island she’s always boasting about.’

‘Oh, my God!’ Frank’s mum was shocked into silence.

‘That’s awful,’ a sympathetic voice said.

‘Mind you,’ Sally’s mum said, narrowing her eyes, ‘I wouldn’t mind if someone else serviced my husband. It’d save me the trouble.’

All of the women cracked up laughing, and Sarah couldn’t help laughing too, although she definitely didn’t want this to  descend into drunken confessions about their sex lives. Shewas way too sober to deal with that.

‘In fact,’ Sally’s mum went on, ‘maybe we should put it in the contract. Au pair must be adept at looking after kids and servicing husband.’

‘Oh, come on, ladies, sex can still be mind-blowing,’ Sadie’s mum slurred. She was sitting opposite Sarah and had been drinking the wine as if it was water.

‘Wow, your husband must be a total stud.’ Bobby’s mum failed to hide the envy in her voice.

Sarah had seen Sadie’s dad at the school gate once and he certainly didn’t look like a stud, more like a dorky accountant.

Sadie’s mum snorted dismissively. ‘God, not him. I’m talking about my personal trainer. He’s Australian. I tell you, ladies, the sex is off the charts,’ she declared.

The other women’s eyes widened, and they oohed.

‘What’s his name and does he do house calls?’ a mother at the end of the table shouted, making them all laugh.

Sarah laughed along with them but, truth be told, she was uncomfortable with this level of private information being shared. If she ever saw Sadie’s dad again, she’d feel awful knowing about his wife’s extra-marital carry‑​on. This was exactly what she’d been dreading about tonight. Being pregnant and not drinking, she’d known it would be a bit of an effort. On nights like these you needed a glass of wine to relax you. After all, none of these women were her friends. They were a bunch of mothers thrown together by one solitary common denominator: their children were in the same class.

Sarah was always careful to be friendly, but not too friendly. She didn’t want to get sucked into any of the little cliques and listen to gossip about other children or parents. She’d been stung badly as a teenager. She knew what it was like to be part of a group and think they were your true friends, only to be dumped when one of their ex‑​boyfriends fancied you. It wasn’t Sarah’s fault Brian Morrissey had taken a shine to her, but Georgia had taken it very badly. Suddenly, Sarah had found herself on the receiving end of bitchy comments, lies about being a flirt, a slut and a bad friend. Georgia and the others had dumped her unceremoniously. Sarah had spent the last year of school enduring the days, waiting to get the hell out of there. She’d been wary of groups of women ever since. Once bitten, twice shy.

She’d seen school mums becoming best friends, only to fall out a few months later when they realized they didn’t have much in common. Sarah had no interest in that type of drama. She’d had enough of it as a teenager. She had friends, but she’d never allowed herself to get really close to any women since her schooldays. She didn’t need that tight female bond because she had Mia. Having a sister she was so close to meant that she always had someone to talk to or confide in. She had grown up with a ready-made best friend, so she wasn’t as needy as some of the other women she met who had no sisters or didn’t get on with the ones they had. Women needed a best friend, and Sarah knew she was lucky that hers happened to be her sister. It was Mia she had gone to when Georgia and her gang were horrible to her. It was Mia who had told her to hold her head high and ‘ignore those bitches’.

Molly’s mum suddenly turned her laser focus on Sarah. ‘You must have insider school gossip. Your sister’s a teacher and the deputy head. Come on, Sarah, spill the beans. Are any of the teachers shagging each other? That Mr Grogan’s fit. I’d shag him myself,’ she said, laughing too loudly.

Sarah smiled patiently. ‘As you know, Mia is the most discreet and professional person you could ever meet. I know nothing.’

‘I don’t believe you. Come on, we won’t tell anyone, will we, girls?’ She poked Sarah in the chest.

Sarah swallowed the urge to bend the finger backwards and kept smiling. ‘I’ve got nothing to tell you. Honestly.’

‘You’re no fun.’

‘Give her a break. She’s driving and we’re all drunk,’ Tim’s mum said, waving her glass in Sarah’s direction.

‘Eshcuse me, I am not drunk,’ Sadie’s mum slurred.

‘Paralytic more like,’ Mary muttered.

‘Embarrassing,’ Rebecca’s mum agreed. ‘She’s so tacky.’

Sarah would take Sadie’s mum’s drunkenness over these two witches judging everyone and everything. She got up to go to the toilet. It was time to leave before people got more confessional and judgemental. She didn’t want to know about their private lives and she had no intention of discussing hers. Nor did she want to see someone who’d drunk too much being judged by pious, disapproving women.

She wove her way through the overheated restaurant towards the sanctuary of the Ladies. It was empty and the window in the corner was open, which gave her some much-needed air. She splashed some water on her red cheeks, then went into a cubicle and locked the door. Even though she was only eleven weeks pregnant, her bladder was already causing havoc. She was just buttoning her trousers when she heard the door open and voices.

‘Oh, my God, she’s so drunk, it’s mortifying. She’s going to wake up tomorrow and die. Does she actually think we’re impressed by her shagging some Australian half her age?’

‘He’s bound to give her an STD.’

Sarah winced, feeling sorry for Sadie’s mum. That was why she never gave away any private information: it only gave people a reason to gossip about you.

‘How’s Rebecca getting on?’

‘To be honest, I’m not a bit happy about the class.’

Sarah recognized their voices. Mya’s and Rebecca’s mums. They were Tiger Mothers, über-ambitious for their kids. They had the girls so over-scheduled, they constantly looked exhausted.

‘Why?’

‘Because that girl Izzy is holding the class back.’

Sarah froze.

‘Do you think?’

‘Totally. She’s the youngest and the stupidest. She should be put into the class below. Rebecca said she’s always getting stuck on maths and holding up the lesson. It’s ridiculous.’

‘Now that you mention it, Mya did say that Izzy is reading the Secret Seven books. Can you believe it? Mya read those two years ago. She’s clearly not very bright.’

Every hair on Sarah’s body was standing on end. Her breathing quickened and she felt nauseous.

‘She’s sucking up Miss Dixon’s time because she’s so slow to catch on. Rebecca said she’s quite babyish, too. She’s clearly immature. I wanted to speak to the headmistress, but then I realized that the deputy head is Izzy’s aunt, which means we have no hope of getting her moved down.’

‘Well, unless we get a few of the other mums to ask. If five or six of us complain, it might work. They’d have to listen to us then. We can’t have our kids being slowed down by a girl with a low IQ. I don’t care who she’s related to.’

‘You’re right. How about I set up a WhatsApp group and invite some of the other mums to join and see how they feel? I’ll have a word with –’

Sarah flung open the cubicle door, which banged against the wall. The two women spun around and stared at her, open-mouthed.

‘You should always make sure there is no one in the cubicle before you set about slating an innocent child,’ Sarah snapped at them. She was so angry, and their daft shocked faces made her even angrier. ‘How dare you speak about Izzy like that? She’s keeping up just fine, thank you very much. She’s a very happy, well-balanced child, which is more than I can say for your overworked, miserable kids. Then again, no wonder they look so unhappy. They’re being raised by malicious, spiteful bitches.’

Sarah pushed past them and walked back to the others, legs shaking. Trying to look composed, she told them she was heading off, left money on the table and made a swift, if slightly wobbly exit.

When she got to her car, she fell sideways into the seat. Her whole body was trembling. She tucked her legs in and closed the door. She’d never spoken to anyone like that in her life. She felt elated and proud of herself, sticking up for Izzy, but she was also worried about the repercussions. No doubt those two witches were panning her to the other mums. She could see them now, loving the drama, telling the others that Sarah had verbally abused them and playing down what they’d said about Izzy. Lovely, innocent Izzy. Sarah felt tears prick her eyes. She’d never let anyone hurt Izzy. She’d never, ever let Izzy be bullied or made to feel left out. Never.

She needed to talk to someone, to process what had just happened. She picked up her phone.

‘Hi.’ Her sister answered on the first ring.

‘You’re not going to believe what just happened.’

‘Aren’t you on a class mums night out?’

‘Yes. Things got a bit messy. I need to discuss it with you. Can I call in?’

‘Of course. I’m intrigued.’

Sarah drove to Mia’s house, threw the car up on the pavement outside, rushed up to the front door and rang the bell.

After a minute, Riley opened the door. She was wearing tartan pyjama bottoms and a black hoodie. Black eyeliner was smudged around her eyes. ‘Hi, Sarah.’

‘Hi, love.’ Sarah kissed her teenage niece’s cheek. ‘Not out tonight?’

Riley rolled her eyes. ‘As if. The Wicked Witch of the West has grounded me for two weeks because I got home an hour late last night.’

Sarah smiled. ‘Well, curfews are there for a reason.’

‘Come on! I’m nearly sixteen. Having to be home at eleven is ridiculous. She’s a tyrant.’

Sarah laughed and put her arm around her niece’s shoulders. ‘No, she isn’t, she’s just protective of you. I would be, too. I love you too much to have anything bad happen to you, which is exactly what your mother’s thinking.’

Riley rested her head against Sarah’s shoulder. ‘Will you talk to her? I really want to go to a party next Friday.’

Sarah kissed the top of her head. ‘I’ll put in a good word for you, but you have to be back at whatever time she says, OK?’

Riley hugged her tightly. ‘I will, I promise. If you get her to agree, I’ll love you even more than I already do.’

Mia opened the kitchen door. ‘I thought I heard voices. Come in, I’m dying to hear what happened.’

‘Sounds interesting, what’s the gossip?’ Johnny asked, from the kitchen table, where he was nursing a beer.

Sarah smiled at her brother‑​in‑​law.

‘Stupid school mums’ dinner that went a bit awry.’

‘A cat fight?’ Johnny’s eyes twinkled.

‘Not quite, but not far off. I behaved quite badly.’

‘You?’ Johnny looked surprised. ‘I don’t believe that for a minute. You didn’t even snap when a barman poured an entire pint of Guinness over a brand new dress, remember?’

‘Must be the pregnancy hormones. I lost it tonight,’ Sarah said, taking off her coat and hanging it on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. ‘Brace yourselves.’ She sat down and filled them in on her lively evening.

What?’ Mia threw back her head and laughed. ‘God, I wish I’d been there. Good for you! You couldn’t let those two cows get away with it. I’d say they nearly died. Everyone thinks you’re this calm, laidback person, but I know inside you’re a lioness who’ll defend her cub to the death. My God, I’d say they were in complete shock.’

Sarah giggled. ‘They did look pretty taken aback.’

‘Go, Sarah!’ Johnny grinned. ‘They deserved a tongue-lashing. Anyone who would say that about Izzy is a certified idiot.’

‘Yeah,’ Riley said. ‘How dare those bitches knock Izzy? She’s the best.’

‘Language,’ Mia said.

‘But they are bitches,’ Riley protested.

‘To be fair, they sound like it.’ Johnny backed up his daughter.

‘They are,’ Sarah agreed. ‘But, still, I’m not sure I was much better in the end. I may have slightly overreacted, but then again, I won’t let Izzy be picked on, no way. I’ve been there and it’s awful.’

‘Exactly,’ Mia said. ‘You were absolutely right to put them in their place. That’s just a horrible way to behave.’

‘Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Izzy and school,’ Sarah said.

Johnny stood up. ‘Right, Riley, let’s leave them to it. Come on, I recorded the new episode of The Young Offenders.’

‘Cool.’

‘Seriously, Johnny? It’s utter rubbish,’ Mia complained.

‘It’s good fun,’ he said, walking out of the room with his daughter in tow.

Sarah waited for the door to close, then asked her sister, ‘Mia, I need you to be honest with me. Is Izzy falling behind? Is she holding up the class?’

Mia shook her head firmly. ‘Absolutely not. As you know, I was a bit worried about her because she’s the youngest, but Izzy is well able to keep up, Sarah. She’s got more common sense than half of the kids in her class.’

‘Yes, but is she able to keep up academically?’ Sarah persisted.

‘The teacher said I need to encourage her to read more and help her learn her tables, but she never said there was a problem. Is there?’

‘She didn’t say there was because there isn’t. Look, you know I’d tell you if there was, for Izzy’s sake as much as yours. I speak to Vanessa Dixon all the time and Izzy is doing fine. Don’t let those women get into your head.’

Sarah exhaled, relief flooding her. Izzy was OK. She knew Mia would be honest. Mia was always honest, plus she had Izzy’s best interests at heart because she adored her.

‘I’m worried they might complain to the headmistress about Izzy, like they said, or after tonight they’ll probably complain about me.’

Mia snorted. ‘They wouldn’t dare, and if by some tiny chance they do, she’ll dismiss them. We see this type of parent every year, the ones who think their kids are geniuses and need to be challenged more. They want the teacher to give them more difficult maths problems and higher-level reading material. The head knows as well as I do that they’re delusional. Sure, their kids might be slightly ahead of the game at seven and eight, but in a year or two the others will all catch up. Honestly, Sarah, don’t worry. Keep calm ‒ think of the baby.’

Sarah placed her hand protectively on her stomach.

‘Thanks, Mia, you’re a star.’

‘The only thing you need to worry about is looking after yourself and that little miracle inside you.’

Sarah smiled. The little thing inside her did feel like a miracle. It had been a long, bumpy road, but so worth it. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you, Mia.’

‘Thank God you were sober tonight. Imagine if you’d been drunk when you heard them.’ Mia giggled. ‘You’d probably have punched their lights out.’

Sarah laughed. ‘Well, that’s the last mums’ night out I’ll be going to, I can tell you. I don’t need that drama in my life.’

‘At least it’ll be something different to write in your diary.’

‘It’ll certainly make a change from my fairly boring entries recently.’ Sarah stifled a yawn. ‘Now that the adrenalin has died down, I feel exhausted.’

Mia nodded. ‘Go home and get some rest. For the moment, it’s probably best to stick to nights in with herbal tea and Netflix.’

Sarah groaned as she pulled on her coat. ‘I’ll have to go to the school gate in a wig and dark glasses.’

‘Hold your head high,’ Mia said, as she walked her sister to the front door. ‘You aren’t the one in the wrong.’

Sarah kissed her. ‘Night, Mia, and thanks.’

‘Sleep well.’

As Sarah drove home, she thought about Izzy, vowing to keep a close eye on her schoolwork and encourage her. She’d had her reservations about starting her in school when she was only four, and she often found herself wishing she’d stuck to her guns. But Adam had been so certain that an early start was right for Izzy. Her birthday was in June, which meant she started in junior infants when she was only four years and two months. Some of the other kids had turned five that summer, which gave them a big advantage, Sarah reckoned. Adam had argued and argued, insisting that Izzy was clever enough, ‘the next Sheryl Sandberg’ apparently, and that leaving school at almost nineteen was ridiculous. Sarah had argued, too, but he was so sure that she’d ended up giving in and enrolling Izzy. It was her fault, really, if it affected Izzy in the long run, and she hated herself for that. She tried to push away the dark thoughts and focus on what Mia had said. She was right: she shouldn’t let those nasty women get into her head. She took a few deep breaths, reminding herself that Izzy was happy to go to school and ran out smiling each day. There was no evidence of her being under pressure. Thank God for Mia, who had always been her go‑​to person. Five years older, Mia had always seemed to know what to do and say. While Mia had been really close to their mum, it was to Mia that Sarah had always gone for advice or help. She was her rock. A rock that drove her nuts at times, but her rock, nonetheless.



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