It’s an accident, really.
It’s just that Chloe is used to doing this with someone, and she’s exhausted, and her daughters demand so much of her, honestly, and she doesn’t know what to do. And Peaches is in China handling an arms shipment personally, and Chelsea is at Uni in the United States, and Chloe only knows one person to ring when you don’t know what to do.
“Polly,” she says, holding Hazel in her arms and cradling the mobile between her cheek and shoulder, “Please.”
Polly is sailing into her house within twenty minutes, never mind the fact that it must be three in the morning, never mind the fact that she lives at least thirty minutes away, never mind the fact that Chloe didn’t give her much information to work on. She takes one look at Chloe, who is holding a persistently coughing Hazel, nods, and holds out her hands.
“Sounds like acute laryngotracheitis,” Polly says, taking Hazel and rubbing her back, humming gently. Chloe stares at her. Polly catches her look and sighs. “Croup.”
Chloe has heard of croup before- she thinks she remembers her own mum mentioning that she had it as a small child- but Hannah never had it, and knowing that it’s probably croup doesn’t magically solve her problem of how to make her baby feel better.
“How do I treat it?” she asks, running a hand through her hair. She suspects she looks atrocious, but at the moment, she doesn’t care. She can’t get Hazel to stop crying, and it’s killing her inside.
Polly shrugs. “The folk remedy is moist air, although the medical journals say that it doesn’t really help.”
“What do the medical journals suggest?”
“And if I don’t have those?”
Polly smiles thinly. “I suggest going with the folk remedy and trying to get her to calm down. Crying this hard won’t help her breathing.”
Polly leads her to the bathroom where she directs Chloe to turn on the shower in order to fill the room with steam. Chloe makes a note to buy a humidifier as soon as possible, wrinkling her nose at the impossibly low rent solution. She strokes Hazel’s hair while waiting, Polly running a hand down Hazel’s back, and soon the air is moist enough that her hair is limp, falling in her eyes. Polly sinks to the ground, seating Hazel in her lap and facing her outwards so she can look at Chloe, and sighs.
“My youngest sister had croup when she was a baby,” Polly says, signing with one hand where Hazel can see. “I used to drag her into the loo at night and just sit with her for hours, trying to get her to stop coughing.”
“Is it always this scary?” Chloe asks, running hand over Hazel’s face. Polly drops an indulgent kiss on the top of Hazel’s head and shrugs a shoulder.
“She was my sister; I think it’s different when you’re a mum.”
They sit in the bathroom for ten minutes, and then Polly instructs them to move out. They walk back and forth for almost two hours before Hazel drifts off into a restless sleep, her cough settling into something a little more tolerable. Chloe hovers over her crib, staring down at her youngest, biting her lip. Then she looks over at Polly, who is standing by the door of the bedroom, collecting her bag.
“Thank you,” she says. “It’s- since James- I’m not used to doing this alone yet.”
Polly glances up at her, raising her eyebrows. “You’re never alone, Chloe,” she says. “Don’t hesitate to call.”
One evening, she returns home to the smell of something delicious filling her house. She smiles as she takes off her coat; clearly, the nanny has been hard at work. When she walks into the kitchen, however, it is not her extremely well paid nanny she sees before the stove. It’s Polly, wearing an apron and smiling down at Hannah as she signs at Hazel with one hand and stirs something with the other.
“Polly?” Chloe asks, confused.
Polly turns and nods cordially at her. “Good evening, Chloe. How was work?”
It’s surreal, really, and Chloe accepts the toddling hug from Hannah mechanically, refusing to take her eyes off Polly. She walks over and kisses Hazel, who is sitting in her high chair and babbling happily at her, and squints at Polly.
“Where’s Isabelle?” she asks, ignoring Polly’s question.
“Up!” Hannah yells. Chloe pulls her up automatically.
Polly stirs whatever is in the pot and smiles kindly at Hannah. She reserves her nicest smiles for the children, Chloe has noticed. “Your nanny had a family emergency. She called Peaches to come get the children, but there was an assassination attempt, so Peaches called me.”
Chloe stares at her, and Polly raises a swift hand. “Peaches is fine, as is her bodyguard. But we agreed that the children really shouldn’t be around such things.”
“What time was this?” Chloe asks, bouncing Hannah on her hip. Hannah squeals in delight.
“Around ten this morning.”
“Weren’t you at the office?” Chloe asks, setting Hannah down in order to get Hazel, who is beginning to sound distressed at the lack of attention. She sometimes wishes she had four arms. Both of her girls love being held, and it’s just too hard to hold them both at the same time.
Polly moves the pot off the stove and then checks the oven. “Yes, but it wasn’t a problem.”
Chloe sighs. “You shouldn’t be leaving work, Polly.”
Polly raises an eyebrow. “You were in a stockholders’ meeting. I was installing antivirus software. I think, between the two of us, I was the one who could leave.”
“They’re my children!” Chloe protests.
“My godchildren,” Polly says flatly, ending the conversation with her tone. “Now sit down. Supper is ready. And the children baked. I hope you like your biscuits with eggshells.”
They trade off with nappy duty, when Polly’s over. It’s only fair, Chloe thinks. She has to deal with Hazel’s nappies all the time. If Polly is going to be there, she might as well help out from time to time, too.
The first time Polly changes a nappy, Chloe nearly dies laughing. She stares at it for a long moment, pursing her lips, and sighs. “I haven’t done this in years.”
“It’s like riding a bike,” Chloe says, watching from a safe distance away. “Or like… I don’t know, algebraic equations, for you.”
Polly shoots her an acidic look before returning to Hazel and the nappy of doom, as Chloe is thinking of it. She doesn’t know how her tiny little girl can fill a nappy so quickly. “No. Riding a bicycle and algebraic equations require absolutely no thought. This is like… this is like me playing hockey.”
Chloe doesn’t understand, at first, because all St. Trinian’s girls played hockey, even if they weren’t on the school team. They had gym, after all. But then Polly dives into changing the nappy, and things just go horribly, awfully wrong. Chloe remembers changing her first nappy, and how messy it had gotten, but this is- well. She suspects invading marauders would leave things cleaner than Polly and Hazel, in this moment. Hazel decides she isn’t done, and Polly doesn’t move fast enough; the used nappy ends up on the floor, along with the baby powder and all of the wipes. Chloe tries valiantly not to laugh, but Polly’s look of intense consternation is just so hilarious that it’s either laugh or break a rib holding it in.
When Polly is done and Hazel is giggling, kicking her (now thankfully clean) legs in the air, Polly glares at Chloe and says, “Oh, I’m so glad you found that funny. I’m never going to get the stench out of my clothes.”
Chloe stares at her. Forget her clothes, she’s never going to get it out of her hair.
“Honey,” Chloe says delicately, “Why don’t you go use my shower? Please. For the sake of… everyone.”
Later, after Polly has showered and is ensconced in one of Chloe’s fluffy robes, they curl up together on the sofa with mugs of hot cocoa. Chloe licks a line of whipped cream off her upper lip and then looks at Polly.
“You fell flat on your face in the mud when we played hockey, didn’t you?”
Polly smiles thinly at her. “Every time.”
Chloe is constantly amazed by her children. She was, for the most part, an unexceptional child, content with simple things. She was not particularly curious, nor interested in exploring new things. She liked routine, and she liked every day things. Hannah and Hazel are entirely different. They push and pull and demand more from her and the world around them. It’s exhilarating, of course, because she loves to see how incredibly brilliant her girls are, but it’s scary, because Chloe simply doesn’t know these things. She doesn’t know about ballet or Spanish or piano or any of it, and she doesn’t know why her girls care to try it.
Polly doesn’t help, of course.
“Here you are,” Polly says to the girls during one of their monthly teas, handing Hannah a box covered in wrapping paper. They get to work ripping it off. They may have monthly teas, but Polly is over three, four times a week, helping with the girls, taking over for the nanny, helping Chloe with supper. It’s a bit ridiculous, really.
“What is it?” Hannah asks when it’s unwrapped, staring at the brightly colored picture on the box.
“It’s a three-dimensional puzzle,” Polly says, smiling.
Chloe stares at Polly, horrified. “Polly,” she says. “She’s twenty-two-months-old.”
Polly doesn’t seem to understand the problem. “Yes?”
Chloe pinches the bridge of her nose and wishes that she were back in her office, reviewing the financial reports for her company. She hates reviewing financial reports. Too many numbers. “Do we need to talk about age appropriate toys?”
“It’s appropriate,” Polly says, sounding miffed.
“The only thing it’s appropriate for,” Chloe groans, “is choking. Jesus, Polly. It says right on the side of the box what ages the puzzle is for!”
“Clearly it’s not accurate. I did one of these when I was four.”
“Yes, and your IQ can’t be accurately measured. Hannah isn’t even two!”
Hannah shakes the box, and then looks at Polly. Hazel is squealing and throwing the wrapping paper around. “What’s three-dimensional?” she asks, butchering the word. Polly cringes. Chloe tries not to look smug, but knows she is failing.
“Wait, are you the reason Hannah keeps asking if we can get a Steinway?” Chloe asks, suddenly suspicious. Polly refuses to meet her eyes. “Dammit, Polly!”
They spend the afternoon playing with the wrapping paper, throwing it around the family room. The girls think it’s the best thing that Polly has ever brought them, and the three-dimensional puzzle (a highly detailed globe) goes in the toy closet on the top shelf, where it will remain until Chloe thinks it’s more appropriate, or until Polly gets bored and puts it together herself.
While Polly is cooking supper, Chloe goes on Amazon and buys her a book on child development. She suspects Polly will find it appropriate.
When she has to go on a business trip for four days, she doesn’t even think about it. She calls Polly and asks her if she can take Hazel and Hannah. Polly agrees immediately, they make their plans, and that’s that.
Afterwards, Chloe wonders why she didn’t call Peaches. Peaches is her best friend, after all. But then, she reflects, Peaches is much like her, with an empire to run. And Peaches’ life invites too much danger, and while Polly has the Sword of Damocles hanging over her head in the form of Kelly, it’s unlikely to fall anytime soon. Even if it did, Chloe trusts her to get the children someplace safe before anything else.
The kids love Polly, anyway. They love Peaches, too, but it’s not the same. Peaches can’t be around as often, because of her work, though she is always by at least once a week. Peaches adores the children and plays with them, but she’s obviously more uncomfortable with them. She doesn’t cook for them, she doesn’t take them to the park, and while Chloe knows, of course, that Peaches has moved mountains for her children, the children certainly don’t. They love Aunt Peaches, but Aunt Polly is their favorite.
She calls Peaches. “Does it bother you,” she asks, curled up in her bed with her eyes shut, “That I called Polly to take the children, and not you?”
There is a long silence on the phone, and Chloe feels dread coil in her stomach. She shouldn’t have told Peaches, she should have left it alone, she should have called Polly and told her she was taking the kids to Peaches instead, she should have-
“No,” Peaches says finally, laughing a little. “Of course not. Polly is wonderful with the children. Chloe, you’re not worrying about that, are you?”
Chloe licks her lips. “Maybe.”
Peaches laughs loudly this time. “I love Hannah and Hazel, Chloe, but I’m not very good with children. I’m the one you send the kids to for an afternoon. Polly is the one you send the kids to for a lifetime.”
Her stomach eases, and she lets out a long sigh, a smile curling at the edges of her mouth. “Yeah,” she says. “Yes.”
“Really?” Polly asks, sounding aggrieved.
“Yes!” yells Hannah, Hazel signing yes just as emphatically. Chloe hides her smile in Hazel’s hair, trailing behind Polly as they walk to Hannah’s room.
“There are other good books,” Polly argues. “There are better books. Let’s try another book tonight.”
“Let’s Count Goats!” Hannah screams. Hazel waves her hands in the air, nearly hitting Chloe in the face.
Polly sighs. “You realize there will be just as many goats tonight as there were last night, right?”
“The goats don’t change. They’re still in the aeroplanes, they’re still playing trumpets, they’re still-”
Chloe pulls the book off the shelf and hands it to Polly, smiling brightly. “Here we see a mountain goat frisking in the sun/And here we see a city goat going for a run,” she quotes dutifully. Polly glares at her.
“We could be reading Goodnight, Moon, or some other classic. Instead, you bought, Let’s Count Goats. I hate you, Chloe.”
Chloe helps Hannah get settled and points to the chair next to the bed. “Stop whinging and start counting.”
“Algorithmic trading,” Polly says clearly, smiling broadly at Hannah. Hannah stares at her for a long moment, and then looks down at her blocks. Polly taps the ground in front of her to get her attention. “Algorithmic trading,” she says again.
“Parrot,” Chloe says, and Hannah looks up.
“Parrot,” she repeats, clearly. Polly gives Chloe an irritated look.
“See, if she can say ‘parrot,’ she should be able to say algorithmic trading.”
Chloe laughs and adds another block to Hannah’s tower.
“I’ll try something simpler,” Polly says decisively. She picks up a red block and tosses it between her hands. “Quantum. Can you say ‘quantum,’ Hannah?”
Chloe thinks that Hannah and Hazel are going to have the strangest vocabulary of any children she knows.
Chloe thinks of herself as a perfectly reasonable woman, in general. She knows she has her moments, but in general she is rational and sane and completely capable of thinking through anything, given enough time.
This is not one of those times.
Hannah has just punched Hazel, and Hazel is bleeding, and she doesn’t know what to do. Her baby is bleeding because her other baby hit her, and she wants to scream and yell and rage, but that won’t do anything at all, she thinks, and what does one do in this situation? She stares at Hannah in horror and fury, and just stares, thinking, God, please tell me Hannah didn’t learn that from James and Fuck, I’m the most incompetent mother ever, why did anyone give me children?
Then Polly steps forward and says, “Hannah Agnes Lewiston,” in the coldest, most frigid tone that Chloe has ever heard, “Go to your room. Your mother will deal with you later.”
Hannah bursts into tears and runs off, presumably to her room, and Polly bends down and scoops Hazel up, depositing her in Chloe’s arms, and this Chloe can do. Taking care of her crying child, she can do. Kissing boo-boos, she can do. She gets Hazel to calm down, cleans up the little bit of blood, puts a plaster on her, and then Hazel is laughing and cheerful again, as if nothing ever happened. Chloe sends her away to go play with her toys, and then looks at Polly.
Polly has her arms folded around herself and is staring at the floor. She’s paler than usual, and sighs when Chloe clears her throat.
“I’m sorry,” Polly says. “I- I shouldn’t have… it wasn’t my place- I didn’t mean to step in where I shouldn’t have.”
Chloe blinks. She doesn’t know if she’s ever heard Polly sound so unsure of herself. She also doesn’t know if she’s ever heard Polly apologize. Polly makes it a point to be right about everything.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Chloe says. “I would have stood there all day, and you took care of it. Thank you.”
Polly looks up finally and smiles tightly, the smile that she gives to adults. “I bought time. You still have to talk to her and think of a punishment.”
Chloe groans and rubs her forehead. “Can’t you do that? You’re more creative than me.”
“She’s your daughter,” Polly says.
Chloe opens her mouth to say… she doesn’t know what. Something wants to come out, but it dies on her tongue, and she ends up just staring at Polly for a moment before saying, stupidly, “Yes.” Polly smiles again at her, and Chloe turns and walks toward Hannah’s room, folding her arms across her chest, scowling at the floor and trying to figure out what, precisely, the swirling feeling in her stomach is.
For the most part, Chloe doesn’t mind being single. She had James, and while that ended… spectacularly badly… she isn’t set against relationships forever. She just doesn’t have any energy or interest in pursuing anything. Her children and her career are more than enough for her, and she never thought she would say that, her, a Posh-Totty! But it’s true, and she doesn’t regret it. Except on rare occasions, like now, when she is so ill that everything hurts, and she just wants to curl up and die. Because if she were married, her husband would bring her soup and stroke her hair away from her forehead and put a washrag against her fevered brow, and coo sweet nothings at her, and keep the kids away from her.
“Mummy, I’m hungry,” Hannah whines, and Chloe stares blearily at her, wondering why the nanny hasn’t arrived yet to take the blighters away. She just wants to be left to die in peace.
“Where’s Isabelle?” she croaks.
“Don’t know. I’m hungry, Mummy,” Hannah tries again, and Chloe groans.
She’s in the middle of frying an egg when Polly- God, it’s like she materializes, and she doesn’t know how she does it. Chloe thinks it must be a Geek thing.
“What are you doing?” Polly asks peevishly. “Get away from the stove before you set the house on fire. Go lie down, I’ve got this.” She makes shooing motions, and Chloe gladly surrenders the stove to Polly. She’s pretty sure she’d destroyed the egg anyway. She doesn’t even know if two-year-olds can eat fried eggs.
Sometime later, Polly appears at her side, brushing her bangs away from her face and setting a cold compress on her forehead. She places a bowl of soup by her bedside and sticks a thermometer in Chloe’s mouth. She clucks her tongue when she sees the reading.
“You should have called me,” Polly says, taking the thermometer away.
“Didn’t want to bother you,” Chloe mumbles, enjoying the feeling of the cold compress against her apparently feverish skin. She closes her eyes and presses her cheek into the pillow.
“Yes, because it’s obviously such a bother,” Polly says waspishly.
“You’re not my wife, Polly,” Chloe says.
“No,” Polly replies. “But you’re my friend, and I help take care of the kids, and if you’re dying, I should know these things. As it is, your nanny called me because she didn’t want to enter a plague infested house.”
“I should fire her,” Chloe mutters.
“Probably,” Polly says. “I have three suggestions for better ones. Now eat your soup.”
“What do you want to do for Hazel’s birthday party?” asks Chloe while they’re sitting in the park, watching the girls play in the sandbox.
“Their cousins will be coming, right?” Polly asks, looking up from her knitting. She’s been teaching herself, and now the girls have far too many ugly, lumpy socks. Chloe is amused to find the one thing the great Polly Hopkins can’t do well. Chloe is much better at it.
Polly hums to herself, and looks up from her needles, frowning. “Hannah, stop throwing sand at your sister,” she yells. Then she shrugs one shoulder, looking at Chloe. “Why not do what we did for Hannah’s? Cake, ice cream, streamers, balloons- she’s turning one, she isn’t going to remember any of this.”
Chloe sighs. “Still.”
“It’s really more for the adults, anyway. We’ll take lots of pictures, Hazel will get covered in cake, the kids will end up crying, the toys will all be broken within a month.”
“You really have a very unromantic view of childhood,” Chloe says dryly.
Polly smiles. “You were the one who gave me the books on child development.”
“It just doesn’t seem special,” Chloe confesses, rolling Polly’s ball of yarn between her hands. “Shouldn’t there be a theme or something? Pretty princess or Batman or something?”
“She’s turning one, Chloe. Save the themes for when she’ll care more about the toys than the wrapping paper,” Polly says, and then curses as she drops a stitch. She looks at the ugly sock she’s holding. “I’m really awful at this, aren’t I?”
“Hello?” Chloe says distractedly, answering her mobile without actually looking to see who is calling. She’s still at her office, trying to decide who she’s going to fire. The numbers just came in, and some people have to go. She’s not happy about it, but with the way the economy is going, that’s the way it has to be.
“Chloe, I need you to get the kids,” Polly says, sounding harassed. Chloe looks up from her paperwork and frowns.
“It’s Wednesday,” she says, putting down her pen.
“I know, but something came up.”
“You always get the kids on Wednesday.”
“I know. Something came up.”
“Polly,” Chloe says gravely, already standing and grabbing her briefcase. If Polly says she needs to get the kids, she’ll get the kids, but she’d still like to know why.
Polly sighs. “My boss asked me to stay late to install firewall on the system network. He literally asked ten minutes ago; I couldn’t get out of it.”
Chloe frowns and locks her office behind her. “You didn’t tell him you had to pick up the kids?”
She hears Polly’s dry laugh over the line. “He knows I don’t have children, Chloe.”
For a moment, it throws Chloe through a loop, because of course Polly has children, what are Hannah and Hazel? And then she’s thrown through a loop again because, no, Hannah and Hazel are hers, just hers, and what in the world is she thinking? Polly is just her friend, a good friend, certainly, but just a friend all the same, with no real connection to the kids. But when she thinks that, a sick feeling rises in her stomach, and she has to force it away, and she can’t figure out what is wrong.
“Are you still there?” Polly asks, sounding uncertain. It always sounds strange when Polly sounds unsure, Chloe thinks, and she hits the down button on the elevator.
“I’ll get the kids,” she says, her voice strained.
“I’m sorry,” Polly says. It’s the second time she’s ever apologized to Chloe, and she still cringes to hear it.
“Don’t,” Chloe says. “It isn’t your fault.” She hangs up before Polly can say anything else, and before she can say something she’ll regret.
The next four days with Polly are awkward. Finally, she can’t take it anymore. She leaves Hazel and Hannah with Polly, listing work excuses, and goes to Peaches’.
“I think Polly is my husband. Or she’s my wife. Or something,” she blurts, her feet tucked under Peaches’ thighs on her opulent sofa. Peaches raises her eyebrows, taking a sip of brandy. Chloe hates brandy, but Peaches adores the stuff. She’s drinking Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. Sometimes, she resembles her daddy far too much.
“You’re… sleeping with her?” Peaches asks.
Chloe scowls. One of the legacies of being a Posh-Totty is an unfortunate tendency to think of sex first. “No, of course not.”
“All right,” Peaches says, smiling. “Do you want to sleep with her?”
Chloe begins to protest, but stops to think about it for a moment. She’s never been attracted to women before, but there’s a first time for everything. “No,” she decides.
“She picks up Hannah and Hazel from the nanny. She helps plan their parties. We take them to the park together. She teaches them things. She wants Hannah to learn the piano, and if not the piano, the violin or the viola. She’s already figuring out which languages they should take. She’s started trust funds for them. She helps me take care of them when they’re sick. She taught Hazel how to walk. She reads them bedtime stories. She’s just… she’s always there for them,” Chloe babbles, waving one hand wildly in the air. Peaches listens politely, nodding every now and then.
“It doesn’t sound like she’s your husband. Or your wife,” she says, before Chloe can interject.
Chloe sighs. “What is she, then? You’re my best friend, Peaches, and don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t do all that.”
Peaches beams at her and squeezes her foot. “It sounds like she’s Hannah and Hazel’s father or their other mother. She’s their parent.”
Chloe slams the bottle of Jack Daniels down on the coffee table. “I’m their parent.” She’s shocked by the vehemence in her voice.
So, apparently, is Peaches. Her nearly perpetual smile is gone, replaced by an unhappy frown that Chloe hates.
“They can have more than one parent, Chloe,” Peaches says.
“They did,” Chloe snaps. “And he tried to kill them, and he’s gone now.”
“Are you worried Polly is going to do the same? You know that’s ridiculous, right?”
Chloe kicks Peaches, gently. “Of course Polly isn’t going to hurt the children. But- but they’re mine.”
Peaches sits upright and looks at her, all traces of amusement fading from her face. She’s confronted, suddenly, with what she imagines Peaches’ employees must see everyday. It’s no wonder Peaches has such an excellent criminal enterprise, really. Chloe feels her back straighten automatically.
“Now you listen to me, Chloe. You asked Polly for help, and she gave it. You asked Polly for her time, and she gave it. She offered gifts and love and whatever else, and you accepted it. You can’t just turn around and reject it when you find you don’t like what that actually means.”
“They’re my children, Peaches,” Chloe says, desperately.
“Is she doing anything with them that you don’t like?” Peaches demands.
“No! She’s great with them,” Chloe admits.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I-” And Chloe has to pause, because what is the problem? Why is she only now having trouble with Polly’s role in her children’s lives, in her life? What started this tailspin? She frowns and wiggles her toes. Peaches watches her patiently. “She couldn’t pick up the kids the other day because her boss kept her late at work,” she says finally. Peaches nods and gestures for her to continue. “And I asked her why she didn’t tell him she had to pick up the kids, and she told me that her boss knows she doesn’t have children.”
She stops there, and Peaches nods slowly. “And?”
“And I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t know about Hannah and Hazel. But of course he wouldn’t, I realized, because they aren’t actually hers, but- just for a moment- I forgot.”
“That bothered you?” Peaches asks.
Chloe shakes her head slowly. “No. I want my children to be mine,” Chloe says softly, rubbing her eyes. “But it’d be nice, I think, if they could be hers, too.”
Peaches whistles softly. “How does Polly feel?”
Chloe shuts her eyes completely and lets her head drop to the arm of the sofa, digging her feet in underneath Peaches. “And that is the real problem. That’s what bothers me. I have no idea.”
Chloe feels like this is a courting ritual.
“Are you courting me?” Polly asks, looking around the restaurant and then back at Chloe suspiciously. “Because I’m flattered, Chloe, but I’m not interested.”
Chloe reminds herself not to listen to Peaches’ suggestions again and pinches the bridge of her nose. “No,” she says. “I’m not courting you.”
“Nor am I interested in a one night stand. At all,” Polly says flatly, picking up her fork and frowning. Chloe bites back her smile.
“Neither am I.”
“Then what is this?” Polly asks, finally looking up and appearing curious. Chloe takes a deep breath.
“What are your feelings about my children?” she asks, trying to control the flutter of panic in her belly. She wants to believe that the affection that Polly doles out on a near daily basis is genuine and permanent, but she needs to know that Polly isn’t going to walk out of their lives at any moment, that she isn’t going to leave when something better comes along.
Polly frowns. “I adore Hannah and Hazel, you know that.”
“You’ve been there for them a lot,” Chloe presses. Polly’s frown deepens.
“I’ve tried to be.”
“Almost as much as I have.”
“When I could be- Chloe, what is this about? Are you ill? Do you have cancer? I know some excellent oncologists, I can call in some favors, we can get through this, let me just-”
Chloe reaches across the table and wraps her hand around Polly’s wrist, stopping her before she can dial whatever number she’s punching into her mobile. “I’m not ill,” she says gently, smiling. “I’m just- I’m confused.”
Polly puts her mobile back on the table and folds her hands. “About what?”
“What are you?” Chloe asks desperately. “How do you think of yourself, in our lives? The other day, when you couldn’t get the kids, I found myself wondering why your boss doesn’t know you have kids, and it took me a moment to realize it was because you don’t, Hannah and Hazel are mine and mine alone, you’re just always here.”
Polly looks like Chloe’s hit her. “I can- I don’t have to- I’ll stop,” she says, and Chloe shakes her head quickly.
“No, that’s not what- no. That’s not what I meant. What I’m asking is, are Hannah and Hazel your kids, too? Or are you just doing this kid thing for a lark, and will you walk away from them when you get bored?”
Polly stares at her for a long time, long enough that their server comes over and pours the wine. Chloe handles ordering for both of them, since Polly seems disinclined to say anything. She hopes she likes clams. After the server disappears, it’s another moment or two before Polly clears her throat.
“If you’ll share them, they’re mine, too. They’re- they’ve been mine, in my head, for a long time.”
Chloe nods. “I’ve been sharing for a long time, so I guess they’re yours, too.”
Nothing changes. Hannah and Hazel still call her Aunt Polly, which Polly tells Chloe that she prefers.
“I may be parenting them,” she explains, “but I’m not a mother. Or a father, for that matter.”
She spends three or four days a week with them, as usual, cooking supper, playing with them, taking them to the park, reading them stories, trying to teach Hannah how to read. She brings home milk, which is new, but when Chloe asks, Polly just shrugs and says that Chloe was running low and the Tesco was on her way.
Awkwardly, Chloe asks if Polly wants to move in. Polly laughs.
“God, no. I’m sorry, no, no. I’m always going to be here for the kids, and for you, but I have my own life, too,” Polly says, her eyes glittering with mirth behind her glasses. Chloe can’t help but feel relieved. The offer was genuine enough, but she likes having her own time with her girls. Polly is helping her raise them, yes, but as Polly said, she needs her own life, too.
A man asks Chloe out to dinner one night. Chloe finds him incredibly attractive and accepts, and then immediately calls Polly.
“Polly, shit,” she opens the phone call.
“Hello, Chloe, how is your day?” Polly says dryly.
“I’m going on a date tonight,” she continues, ignoring her.
“Congratulations,” Polly says. “What’s his name? I’ll stay with the kids.”
“Is that all right?” Chloe asks.
“I just said I’d stay with the kids.”
“No,” Chloe says, toeing her Manolo Blahniks off underneath her desk. “I mean, are you all right with me dating?”
There is a lengthy pause, and Chloe examines her pedicure in detail while she waits. Finally, she hears a huff of a laugh. “Oh God,” Polly says. “Please, date. I love you, Chloe, but as I said before, I am not your wife.”
Her date goes well. Polly is sleeping on the sofa when she gets home. She drapes an afghan over her and leaves her where she is, unwilling to wake her.
For Mother’s Day that year, Hazel and Hannah pick her a bouquet of weeds from the front lawn. Chloe ooo’s and aaaaah’s over them, and then puts them in a vase. She invents Favorite Aunt Day, and they give Polly a worm, also from the front lawn. Polly is thrilled. Chloe is less so, but then, Geeks and Posh-Totties are dichotomously different.
Chloe looks up websites on co-parenting, but most of it focuses on co-parenting between divorced parents. She finds a little bit on lesbian couples co-parenting, but nearly nothing on friends that live separately, have no romantic attachment, but still co-parent. A few things, here and there, but very little. Chloe knows it isn’t actually unique- it takes a village, and all that- but she’s disappointed that there aren’t more people doing it and talking about it.
Polly signs Hannah up for ballet lessons, which Chloe thinks is mostly ridiculous, because she’s two-and-a-half, but Polly thinks it’s never too early to get children started in the arts, and it isn’t as if she’s started en pointe, and she’s getting them a Steinway so that Hannah and Hazel can begin exploring so that they can both begin lessons when they’re five.
“What if they want to play sports?” Chloe asks, thinking that Polly will put her foot down there.
“There are several good footie leagues in the area, and I’ve vetted the current coaches. I’ll do it again, of course, when the time comes for them to play, but if you’d like, we can take them to the games so they can see how it’s played,” Polly says reasonably. “There’s also rugby, cricket, fencing, polo, and hockey, of course.”
Chloe buys them pink dresses in retaliation. Polly hates pink.
And then Kelly and Annabelle come home.
Chloe wants them home, of course. It isn’t… it isn’t that she wants them running away from gun-wielding megalomaniacs forever, or whatever they were doing while they were gone- Kelly goes silent whenever it’s mentioned, and Annabelle just purses her lips, and so no one asks anymore- but Chloe isn’t stupid, no matter what anyone thinks of her. Polly has always belonged to Kelly, just as Kelly has always belonged to Polly, and Annabelle belongs to both of them. They fit together in a way that she doesn’t understand.
So Kelly and Annabelle come home, and Chloe welcomes them, helps get them back, and the entire time, she feels fear wrenching away at her gut. Her children need Polly, and with Annabelle and Kelly back, she knows that Polly will no longer be there for them.
For a while, things are the same; the girls simply gain two more aunts. Kelly, Annabelle, and Polly stay in one of Peaches’ houses, because Polly’s flat is sacrificed, and Kelly and Annabelle don’t have a place to live in London. But one day, after they’ve brought down some more of MI7, and Polly is sitting and drinking imaginary tea with Hazel and Hannah and Chloe, Polly looks at Chloe and says, “We’re buying a cottage in the country.”
Chloe thinks, This is where she leaves our children, says, “Excuse me,” and walks out of the room. She thinks she’s managed to excuse herself gracefully, without betraying anything, but obviously not, because she’s only been sitting in her bathtub for a minute before Polly walks into the loo and sits down across from her on the toilet.
“You upset the children,” Polly says, propping a foot up on the edge of the tub. Chloe raises an eyebrow.
“Imagine how they’ll feel in a few months time,” she says coolly.
Polly, though, does cold so much better than any of them, and frost rolls off her in waves. “Why would they be upset in a few months? Are you planning on doing something ridiculous?”
“You’re leaving them,” Chloe says.
“How does ‘we’re buying a cottage in the country’ translate into ‘I’m leaving our children’?” Polly asks, dropping her foot back to the ground and leaning forward slightly, looking honestly curious. Chloe wishes she was on higher ground, but she’s sitting in the bathtub, so she has to settle for the metaphorical one.
“How does it not?” she snaps. “You’ll be in the country, Polly. Not exactly easy to get them from the nanny, now is it?”
“No,” Polly says simply.
Chloe suddenly doesn’t want to sit down anymore. She jumps up and slams the door to the bathroom shut where Polly left it open, unwilling to let the kids hear her. “I knew this would happen,” she says loudly, not shouting, not yet. “I knew you would get bored with them, that you would walk away the moment you found something- the moment Kelly came back. The moment Kelly and Annabelle returned, I knew you would just walk away from all of this, that we were never enough for you. God, Polly, I asked you. I didn’t want you near my children if you were just going to break their hearts. They’ve lost a parent once already, they don’t need to lose another.”
She’s shouting by the end, standing in front of Polly and yelling down at her. Polly just sits there and stares up at her, hands folded in her lap, infuriatingly patient.
“Are you done?” Polly asks softly.
“For now,” Chloe says.
Polly flicks some errant lint from her wool skirt. “We’re getting a cottage in the country. I’m still intending to be in town four days a week. I would also love if they could spend time with me at the cottage. I’m not your wife, Chloe. Kelly and Annabelle are my… they’re mine. But Hannah and Hazel are my children, and I’m not walking away from them.”
Chloe swallows tightly. “If I told you to walk away from them?”
Polly stands up, instantly furious. She towers above Chloe, always has, and in her fury she makes Chloe feel even smaller. “I would suggest you reconsider that.”
“I’m not telling you to do that,” Chloe says softly. Polly relaxes, and folds her arms over her stomach, glancing away.
“You keep thinking I’m just going to leave,” Polly says quietly. She looks at Chloe, her eyes troubled. “When did I ever give you the impression that I leave the ones I love?”
Chloe swallows tightly, unwilling to say what she’s thinking. Unwilling to say, everyone has always left me, because sometimes she recognizes that it’s ridiculous, that Polly has stayed, that Peaches and Chelsea are always with her. But sometimes she thinks about James, about the cold fury in his eyes as he hit her, and sometimes she thinks about her mother and the silence of the telephone line since Chloe killed her husband out of sheer desperation. And maybe two people leaving shouldn’t erase an entire lifetime of people staying by her side, but it was her mother and her husband, and Chloe may try to be rational in all things, but she thinks with her heart first and her head second.
“The children need you,” Chloe says instead.
“I’m not leaving you,” Polly says, somehow knowing what Chloe needs to hear anyway. “I’m just getting what I need, too.”
They stare at each other for a long moment, and then Chloe nods, licking her lips.
“Ok,” she says. “Ok.”
It isn’t easy. At first, Chloe keeps calling Polly at odd hours throughout the day, expecting her to be able to get the children before remembering that no, she lives an hour away, and that if it’s for something immediate, she needs to call someone else now. Polly will still drop whatever she’s doing to get to London, but the anxiety of not having her there instantaneously causes Chloe so much distress that at one point she ends up screaming at Polly on the phone for twenty minutes before Polly finally just hangs up the phone and refuses to pick up when she calls her back.
Chloe resolves to handle things a little more calmly after that.
“So maybe I won’t scream at you,” Chloe says sheepishly when she gets home and finds Polly there, sitting on the floor playing with the toy cars that Kelly bought the girls. Polly raises her eyebrows.
“No,” she agrees, and hands Chloe a pink convertible. Hazel squeals in delight, and Hannah slams the red lorry into Chloe’s hand. She suspects it’s some form of punishment. She doesn’t want to know what Polly looked like when she managed to get to the nanny’s house.
One afternoon, she gets to the nanny’s house to pick up the girls, and they aren’t there. She calls Polly.
“You have the girls?” she asks, getting back in her car.
“No,” Polly sighs, and, as though anticipating Chloe’s panic, says, “Don’t worry! Anoushka has them.”
This doesn’t actually alleviate any of Chloe’s panic at all. She pulls out into traffic without checking any of her mirrors and flips off the person who lays on their horn. “Anoushka?” she shrieks.
“The nanny called; something came up, she needed someone to take the girls. I couldn’t get them, Kelly couldn’t, and Annabelle is busy teaching. You weren’t picking up your phone. Peaches is doing something with drugs today, I didn’t catch what, and Chelsea is still in the States. You put your foot down about Andrea and Taylor. You think Celia is irresponsible. I didn’t have many options, Chloe,” Polly says, sounding peeved.
“Yes, but Anoushka?” Chloe whines, weaving through traffic, cutting people off.
“She’s a Posh-Totty,” Polly says snippily. “And thus bound by the Posh-Totty code. Or some such.”
Chloe doesn’t point out that there isn’t actually a Posh-Totty code, because Posh-Totties like to keep their Clique somewhat mysterious. “Just please tell me they aren’t at the bar.”
There’s a pause over the line. “I won’t tell you they’re at the bar, then.”
“Polly,” Chloe says calmly, yanking the steering wheel so sharply that she ends up clipping a curb, “I am beginning to regret your influence on our children’s lives.”
“In my defense, it’s technically Anoushka’s influence,” Polly says, and hangs up.
When she arrives at Anoushka’s bar, she’s relieved to find that Anoushka has actually closed her establishment and has cloistered the children in the remarkably wholesome back room, away from anything alcoholic. She’s teaching them how to count in Russian- and Russian Sign Language- and singing them cute little songs, and later, when they’re home and the children are in bed, Chloe reluctantly calls Polly and says that she can add Anoushka to their approved St. Trinian’s babysitter list.
“This is why I make the decisions about St. Trinian’s babysitters,” Polly says smugly, the sound of dishes clinking over the phone. Chloe can imagine her standing in front of her sink, washing away the detritus of that night’s supper, and she feels a pang of nostalgia.
“Taylor and Andrea, Polly,” she says acidly, pushing the feeling away.
“Yes, well. I honestly didn’t think they’d lock the children in the boot of a car in order to teach them how to break out.”
“I’d like to take the kids for a weekend,” Polly says, holding Hannah while she’s climbing on the monkey bars.
Chloe pauses while wiping ice cream from Hazel’s t-shirt. “What?” she says finally, thinking she’s misheard.
“We have plenty of space,” Polly says, “And when we bought the cottage, I made sure the girls would have their own bedroom. It’s pink. Kelly and Annabelle would love to see them. Just for a weekend.”
And once, the thought would have sent her spiraling into a panic. Not even a year ago, Chloe would have refused, simply because she could. Instead, she nods and smiles.
“Of course. This weekend all right?”
Polly blinks and nods.
She helps the girls pack (and really, do they need so many stuffed animals? She makes a note to stop spoiling them) and sends them off two days later, Kelly driving and Polly in the passenger’s seat, looking nervous and glancing at Chloe every four seconds. Chloe waits for the panic, but it doesn’t come. Instead, she waves happily at them, and then calls Peaches, demanding a Girl’s Night Out.
When the children come home on Sunday, they’re bursting with stories about livestock and dirt roads and worms. Their dresses are muddy, their shoes are absolutely ruined, and they’re glowing with happiness. Chloe hugs them tightly, and looks up at Polly, who is shifting nervously, though her face is a study in calm.
“This should be a monthly thing,” she says.
“I’ll buy them denim trousers and trainers,” Polly replies.
“A travesty, I know.”
“At least get them in pink.”
Polly gets them in blue and black, just to spite her.
It works, despite how it shouldn’t. It starts as an accident, a phone call made out of desperation, and they stay together because it fits, and they are the perfect platonic co-parents.
When Hannah is five, her teacher asks her to draw a picture of her family. Chloe ends up framing the result.
There’s Chloe in the center, with MUM written in crayon above her. Hazel and Hannah are next to her. Polly, distinguished by a cloud of bright red scribbles around her face, is labeled with FAVRITE ANT POLY and is holding Hazel’s hand. Kelly and Annabelle are standing behind her, holding hands, labeled as KELY + ANABEL ANTS. Then, standing on the other side of the picture, are Peaches and Chelsea, labeled PECHES + CHELSE ANTS.
Above it all, the word CRIMNALS!!!! is written in bright red. Apparently, Hannah has picked up on Hazel’s tendency to get the word “family” confused with the word “criminal.”
Even though the picture results in a parent (parent-aunt-aunt-aunt-aunt)-teacher conference (“Miss Lewiston, Miss Hopkins, um, everyone else, do you realize Hannah told the class that one of her aunts is a mob boss?”), Chloe is inordinately proud of it.
An identical copy hangs in Polly’s cottage in the country, next to the family photograph of Chloe and Polly holding Hannah and Hazel between them, smiling gently at the camera.
Both of them prefer Hannah’s version.