When I got back on Saturday afternoon, the children were already home. Mother was sat in the living room with a mug of tea. "We thought we'd be home to welcome you, Catherine," she explained. "And why don't you have a teapot and teacups? I'm drinking out of a mug. It's all wrong."
"I'm not a tea drinker, Mother." I moved to the window. Liam was drawing a goalpost on the shed wall with chalk. "You know that."
"Well, you should still have one for guests. I'll bring you one of my older ones when I next visit."
"It'll only get broken."
Mother tutted as she fingered a chip on the mug's edge. "You really should take more care of your belongings, Catherine. You can't blame all these breakages on the children!"
"I don't." Liam spotted me through the window, and waved excitedly, gesturing with both hands at the chalked shape on the shed, and expressively mouthing "Goal posts! Is that okay?" I nodded my agreement at him, and he grinned and gave me a thumbs up sign, before disappearing into the shed to fetch his football.
"Oh, upstairs or something. She went straight to reunite Mr Bear and Dolly-de, or so I gathered. Or maybe she's on the stairs."
"On the stairs?" I turned to face her. "Mother, I asked you to keep her away from the stairs! Even you said they were dangerous to play on. For goodness sakes!" I started for the living room door. Mother sighed, "Well I'm sorry! It's not like anyone's needing to use the stairs. I thought she'd be fine." I'd stopped listening, marching out into the hall. I stopped when I got to the foot of the stairs. Mel was sat halfway up with Mr Bear and Dolly-de perched on the steps next to her, singing a little song as she played with Dolly-de's hair. It wasn't a song I recognised. "Halfway up the stairs is a staaair where I sit. There isn't any other stair quite like it. It's not the bottom, it's not at the top!" There was a pause as she lifted Dolly-de onto her lap. She hummed the tune, in the broken way I knew meant she'd forgotton some of the words. Her thin voice echoed off the wooden walls of the big hallway. "And all sorts of funneee thoughts run around my head!"
"Mel!" I called softly."Mel, I'm home!" She didn't respond. Just kept playing with Dolly-de's hair and singing. "It isn't really anywhere, it's somewhere else instead!" I stepped up onto the first step. Step: one. "Mel?" She ignored me, her head turned away, her attention diverted. She was tugging at Dolly-de's hair in time to the song. "It's not at the bottom!" Tug. "It's not at the top!" Tug. I went up to her, put a hand on her shoulder. "Mel, honey?" She turned to face me. Green eyes glinted. Cute little mouth open. Head tilted to one side.
She sits on my lap and I tell her stories. My bony hands clutched at her dress, her soft, pudgy arms wrapped around my sharp elbows to keep her from falling off. While Liam watches. Protective. Towards the end of their visit, I show her the little sweet tin from the table next to my armchair, and let her wriggle her way off my lap and onto the floor. "Now you go and count the stairs. Go on! Just to make sure. Go and make sure there's still fourteen steps." And I smile. As if it's a game.