Time passed quickly. There was alot to do. The children helped as best as they could with the cleaning and tidying. We made it into a game. Every morning we put on our explorer hats - mine was a straw sunhat, Liam's was a fireman's helmet, and Mel's was a bright pink wooly bobble-hat - and collected our equipment, and went to unearth treasures. We cleared out the rooms one by one, throwing away and donating dozens of binbags worth of junk, coming down each evening covered in cobwebs, and carrying armfuls of treasures to be stowed away in the spare room. Once the house was set to rights, the children would be able to play with, dress up in, and make a mess with all of the bits and bobs put in the spare room. But not till then. A kind of bribe to help get the house done.
One Saturday, we finished at lunch time, and I gave the children leave to play at will in the few tidy rooms. Liam disappeared into his bedroom to organise his belongings. I sat in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, and watched the rain slick grey patterns on the thick glass of the kitchen windows. The cup was burning my hands, but it was a relief from the cold water I'd been sluicing down the furniture with upstairs. I could hear Mel playing with her dolls at the top of the stairs. "How lovely of you to come, Mr Bear! Would you like some tea? Sit up, Dolly-de. Sit ups! There. I pour the tea, shall I?" I closed my eyes. Weariness laid a heavy hand over my eyelids. Mel's voice chattered on in the background; a backdrop set of chords for the melody of the raindrops. "Your dress looks pretty today, Dolly-de! Is it from Sainsburys? I thought so, I got my dress from there too, see? More tea, Mr Bear?" There was a series of bouncing clinks as a teacup escaped and skipped down the stairs. I heard Mel put the teapot down with a clank. "Oh BOTHER."
Her steps tripped their way down the stairs. "One, two, three!" she sang. "Seveeen... eight! Nine, ten, eleben, twelves. Erm. Firteen. Fourteen!" The teacup chimed as it rolled over the uneven planks at the foot of the stairs. I heard Mel pick up it up and start her way back up the stairs. "Ooone, two, sree, four, fives. Six, seveeen..." There was a pause. Silence from the stairs. I opened my eyes. Silence. I waited. Silence. I put down my cup and pushed out my chair. "Mel?" There was a small sound from the stairs. Mel said, "Oh!" She was stood on the step, her foot raised above the next one, her eyes wide and shocked. "Mel? Mel, are you okay honey?" She turned towards me. Eyes blue and round. "Mummy?"
I ran up the stairs and knelt on the sixth step so that my face was just below hers. "You okay?" She blinked. "I'm... I forgotted the number." I hesitated. "It's number eight, honey." She blinked again. "Eight!" She turned away from me and stomped up the stairs. "Eight, nine, ten, elebens, twelve, firteen, fourteen!" She reached the top of the stairs and plonked herself down next to Mr Bear. "I has your teacup Mr Bear! More tea?"
I made my way back downstairs. I'd told her the wrong number, she must have been on step nine. She must have missed counting one of the bottom steps or something. I shook my head and poured the rest of my coffee down the sink. Tomorrow I would send the children to their Grandmama's for a few days. They needed a break from this house.