Michaela leans across the table toward me. She wants to talk about nurseries. Am I happy with Little Acorns, where Sylvie goes? She's heard that Mrs. Pace-Barden, who runs it, is really very dynamic. She has her doubts about nannies. Well, you never get to see what they're actually up to, do you? She heard about this nanny who fed the kids on a different flavor of Jell-O every lunchtime because the mother said to be sure to give them plenty of fruit. I turn with relief from Fiona. In the living room, the magician is setting up a game of apple bobbing. The girls make an orderly queue, though Josh and some of the other boys are racing around at the edges of the room.
The wine eases into my veins. I have my back to the living room now. I let my vigilance relax, enjoying this conversation. I love to talk about Sylvie's nursery school—it's my one big luxury. I was thrilled when they gave her a place. The candles glimmer and tremble on the windowsill, and behind them, in Karen's garden, darkness clots and thickens in the hollows under the hedge.
Out of nowhere, some instinct makes me turn. It's Sylvie's go at apple bobbing, she's kneeling by the bowl. I don't see exactly what happens. A commotion, a scrabble of boys near the bowl, and then water everywhere, all over the stripped pine floor, and on Sylvie's hair and her clothes. I see her face, but I can't get there in time, can't undo it. I'm too late, I'm always too late. She's kneeling there, taut as a wire, the other children already backing away from her: tense, white, the held breath, then the scream.
The children part to let me through. I kneel beside her and hold her. Her body is rigid, she's fighting against me. Her screams are thin, high, edged with fear. When I put my arms around her, she pushes against my chest with her fists, as though I am her enemy. Everyone's eyes are on us: the other children, fascinated, a little superior; the women, at once sympathetic and disapproving. I glimpse the magician's look of startled concern as he gathers the other children together for the next game. I try to sweep her up in my arms, but she's fighting me, I can't do it. I half carry, half drag her into the hall. Karen comes after us, closes the living-room door.
"Grace, I'm so sorry," she mouths at me through Sylvie's screams. "I forgot Sylvie's thing about water. It's my fault, Grace, I should have told him ...Look, don't forget her party bag, there are pumpkin biscuits—" She thrusts a colored plastic bag in my direction, but I can't take it, my hands are full with Sylvie. "Don't worry, I'll keep it for her. Hell, Grace..."
I kneel there clasping Sylvie on the pale, expensive carpet in Karen's immaculate hall. Sometimes when Sylvie works herself up like this, she's sick. I know I have to get her out.