And she's right: for the moment Sylvie seems quite poised and controlled, clasping her hands together neatly in her lap. Her lips are pursed with concentration. The expression is precisely Dominic's.

The magician kneels beside her. "No worries, okay, sweetheart? I promise not to turn you into a tadpole or anything."

She gives him a slight smile that says this is naive of him, that of course she knows how the world works.

He scribbles in the air with his wand, mutters something in Latin. A flourish of his cloak entirely covers her for an instant. When he flings back the silk with a slight air of triumph, a real live rabbit is sitting in Sylvie's lap. The children applaud. Sylvie hugs the rabbit.

Fiona turns toward me. "That's your little girl, isn't it?" she says. "That's Sylvie?"

"Yes," I tell her.

Sylvie is stroking the rabbit with cautious, gentle gestures. She seems oblivious of the other children. She looks entirely happy.

"I'm not surprised he chose her," she says. "That white-blond hair, and those eyes."

"She was sitting right at the front, I guess," I say.

"She's just so cute," says Fiona. "And I'm always fascinated by the way she calls you by your Christian name ...Of course, in our family we're rather more traditional."

"That didn't come from me," I say.

But she isn't really listening.

"Was it something you felt very strongly about?" she says.

Her crystal earrings send out spiky shards of light.

"Not at all," I say. "It was Sylvie's choice. It came from her. She never called me Mum."

The woman's eyes are on me, taking in my short denim skirt, my jacket patterned with sequins, my strappy scarlet shoes. She's older than me, and so much more solid and certain. Her expression is opaque.

"Just never said Mama? What, even when she was just beginning to talk?"

"No. Never." I feel accused. I swallow the urge to apologize.

"Goodness." She has a troubled look. "So what about her dad? What does she call him?"

"She doesn't see him," I tell her. "I'm a single parent. It's just us— just me and Sylvie."

"Oh I'm so sorry," she says. As though embarrassed that she has called out this admission from me. "That must be quite a struggle for you," she goes on. "I honestly just don't know how I'd cope without Dan."

There's a surge of noise from the living room, where the children are tidying up under the watchful eye of the magician. The rabbit is in a basket now.

"He's doing the games as well," says Karen. "Isn't that fabulous?"

Leo comes to refill his glass. He's wearing a polo shirt that doesn't really suit him; he's one of those substantial men who look best in formal clothes. He greets us with the exaggerated bonhomie that men always seem to adopt on joining a group of mothers. He comes from Scotland and has a mellifluous Gaelic accent. He puts his arm round Karen, caressing her shoulder through the chiffony fabric of her frock. I can tell he likes the witch outfit. Much later, perhaps, when the party is over and the clearing up is all done, he will ask her to put it on again.


Next Story