Alice surveyed the party garden with satisfaction. A pastel-coloured picnic was arranged on a white tablecloth. The grass was green, the sky blue and the borders between the two, softened by the frill of trees, whose names she had yet to learn.
Sitting in the dappled light, were her children. There was Fiona, unusually serene, in a full-skirted white dress, a thick pink ribbon around her waist and a straw sunhat upon her head. And over there, Simon, also in white, which set off his tanned skin and blue of his eyes. Alice appraised the scene, it looked like an impressionist painting. This was her dream of summer transformed into reality. Tears filled her eyes. She really had made it happen.
The move to the country had been her idea, although her husband, David, had not taken much persuading. Life in the city had not suited her, not once they had children. She had been living in a state of constant concern. The overwhelming responsibility of parenthood had forced her to reconsider every aspect of their lives. The relentless round of work, school run, domestic organisation, extra lessons, socialising; it had all become too much. The children, well, they had not been thriving. They were too temperamental for the rigours of school life and everything else that accompanied it. Oh she had tried to help them find their forte: music, dance, tennis, swimming, drama, even fencing; but none of these endeavours had changed the course of their distinct lack success.
Alice had been astounded by the various pronouncements made by the children’s teachers. The picture they created was of two churlish sociopaths. Alice lost faith in the school and knew that it was for her to create the spark, that small inspiration that would set the potential of her offspring alight. Alice had moved the plan from imagination into actuality; things would be better.
David had been somewhat dubious at first. After all, they had established a rather lovely home in a desirable area, they were both successful in their work, they had a wide circle of charming friends; but then there were the children. He had to agree that they did not seem to be happy and of course he and his wife could not be happy if this was so. Wasn’t it this that everyone strived for? Happiness?
So they had sold up and bought a rambling house in the country and a one bedroom apartment in the city, for David. Alice had made the greatest sacrifice; her job. This meant David would have to shoulder the burden of ‘bringing home the bacon’, as he liked to put it.
The arrangement actually suited them both remarkably well. David had fallen into a comfortable routine which allowed him to work for as long as he pleased, without any twinges of guilt for forgotten domestic engagements, something which had troubled him before the change. His apartment was small, too small for Alice and the children to stay. It was his own space and in the evenings he would play on the game console, which his wife did not know he possessed, as this was an object forbidden in the family home. Fiona and Simon were so susceptible to such things and Alice didn’t want to upset their wobbly equilibrium. David relished his simple life and felt that a family in theory worked so much better than in practice. Of course he still had a strong bond with them all. He regularly travelled on the Friday 2.30 to a station not far from their country home. Alice would pick him up in her car and they would spend a lovely, on the whole, weekend together. He would usually travel back on Sunday evening, so as to be fresh for Monday morning. Not this weekend though; no, this weekend he would be attending a team building event; he was rather looking forward to it.
The party had been Alice’s idea. A Midsummer Night’s Eve party. This would be an ideal way to introduce Fiona and Simon to the local children. They were between schools as she had made the decision to teach her children herself, she was, after all, highly educated; and who knew her children better than she? But of course she wanted them to be rounded individuals, able to interact with others. So she thought it time to reintroduce the concept of community.
It was strange that, even though she had longed for the country solitude in which she now found herself, she missed adult companionship. Where there are children there will be adults. Alice hoped that by sending out an open invitation to neighbouring homes she would come to know more people, even make some friends.
Once again her imagination ran way with itself. She pictured herself amongst a group of women of varying ages around a large kitchen table, their activity shifting from quiet quilt-making, the odd wise observation being made, the other women nodding approvingly at her interjections; to a louder scene, empty wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays on the table, eyes running with tears she had laughed so much. She could make that happen too, surely.
The guests would be arriving any moment, she scrutinised the scene; it really did look like a photograph in a Sunday supplement. The thought prompted her and using her smartphone she captured the moment. To perfect the atmosphere she slotted the phone into wireless speakers and clicked onto music. Strains of Mendelssohn filled the air. Alice was seized by the moment.
“Oh Fiona, Simon, doesn’t it make you want to dance? Let’s dance.”
The children turned and considered her coldly.
“I want a sausage roll.”
“Oh not yet, not until the others arrive.”
Simon turned his attention back to the raw potato he was holding and resumed stabbing it repeatedly with a fork; they were to have a barbeque later that evening.
“They’re already here.” His voice and manner were disinterested.
Alice turned and looked towards the house. Two children, a boy of about ten and a girl of about five stood there watching. Alice looked beyond them to see an adult, but they were alone.
“Oh, hello, and welcome to the party. Did anyone bring you?”
The boy explained that his brother had dropped them at the bottom of the drive and that they were to make their own way home later. Alice felt a jolt of disappointment and worried that the children were too young to take themselves home; but, country people, country ways.
More children arrived in dribs and drabs, sometimes with a breathless adult, gushing, ‘How lovely it was of her,’ and ‘Not to worry about the time they should leave, the children did love to play.’ More often they arrived alone, in stealth; children seemed to simply appear.
Alice looked at the children and was unnerved. Was she to manage them all by herself? Perhaps the party was not such a good idea after all. Her home had felt like sanctuary. She had decorated it herself and filled it with things that she loved. Perhaps that’s why the party was to be outside; she wasn’t ready to let strangers in yet. She shook off the thought; of course a solstice party should be outside. Alice cast her eyes around her carefully tended garden, wasn’t this as beautiful as the inside of her home? Home; it really was.
They had even acquired a dog, for protection, David had said. Against what? She had thought. But David had insisted that this was a working dog and would have to live outside. The dog looked as though it could not do anything, other than play and flop and provide general entertainment. But one weekend David had brought home an oil painting of a dog, just like theirs, who stood proud and alert in a foaming stream, a dead bird of some sort held in its mouth. So perhaps he was right. They had called her Lady, although she was anything but, and had a sturdy pen erected for her. There was a covered sleeping area and plenty of room to run around in. The walls were made from thick wire, so that the dog could see out. It had seemed like a prison to Alice at first, but it soon became apparent that the dog was perfectly happy in there.
A fleeting thought crossed Alice’s mind, perhaps she should let the dog out with all of these strange children here; she would feel safer. She brushed the thought aside. Of course it was her job to look after all of these children.
“Can we eat now?” Her daughter stared at her steadily, daring her to say no.
“Not yet, name tags first.” Alice pointed to a crafting area she had set up in the shade.
“This is how you do it.” She ushered the children over and demonstrated. “You take a name tag and choose a name; do you all know the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream? You choose a character, write the name on the name tag and then decorate it. Look, we’ve got feathers and glitter. Fiona, you can be Titania, Simon - Oberon. Oh, you would make a perfect little Puck,” she coaxed the freckled boy who had been the first to arrive, “and your little sister could be Moth.” “She’s not my sister and my name is Bryn.”
“My name is Fiona,” intoned her daughter, and soon they all followed suit:
“My name is Charlie.”
“My name is Ed.”
“My name is Laura.”
“My name is Simon.” So it went on.
Alice relented. “Alright, alright. It would be a better way of getting to know each other anyway. You put your names on the name tags then decorate them with something you really like, that way we can learn something about each other.” Alice spoke brightly but felt the theme of the party slipping away.
The children seemed quite happily occupied. Fiona had drawn a bird on her tag, Bryn a pig and Simon a bonfire. He was probably thinking about the barbeque Alice had reasoned to herself.
Soon all of the children sported a gaudy name tag. Things were picking up, Alice thought.
“What about you?” Bryn eyed Alice, “Where’s your name tag? What should yours say? Lady?”
She felt embarrassed, “Oh no, just call me, call me Alice.” She saw her children exchange a look. But wrote the name with a flourish onto a tag and stuck it onto her blouse. “There. Call me Alice.”
Fiona and Simon snorted, “Lady Alice, Lady Alice.”
Simon’s eyes lit up in realisation, “She’s not Lady, I’ll get Lady,” and he dashed off in the direction of the dog pen.
“Alice, Alice,” chanted the remaining children.
This sparked a fresh bout of name tagging. The children tagged the table, the trees, the cat, the windows. A whiff of hysteria was in the air. A dog was running amongst them, barking with joy.
“Name tag, name tag.” Fiona was fired with a sudden energy. Simon picked up her cue and joined her with the cry, “Name tag, name tag, name tag, name tag.” Soon all of the children were chanting, but it was Bryn who took up the challenge. He snatched Simon’s tag and swapped it with his own.
“I’m Simon, you’re Bryn!”
The children chased each other wildly, swapping tags, falling over each other, delighted with their invention of a new game, Name Tag.
Alice was torn. She was pleased that they were enjoying themselves, but concerned about the potential descent into mayhem. First things first; she would get that dog back into its pen. Alice chased the dog and made gradual progress in herding it towards the pen. The children became aware of what she was doing and seemed to be attempting to help. There was a shift in the air. She had caught Lady by her collar. The dog looked at her with a mocking glint in her eyes.
The children moved towards her, “Lady, Alice, Lady, Alice…”
She felt unnerved as they came closer, their calling becoming louder. It wasn’t respectful; it was beyond a joke. Alice dragged the dog towards the pen and then; she wasn’t really sure how it had happened. The children were around her, shouting excitedly. Her name tag had been stripped from her and pressed onto the dog; who leapt away, in conspiracy with the children. She felt herself being pushed and stumbled to the ground. Her hair fell over her face, there was something stuck in it, Lady’s name tag.
She looked up and found she was in Lady’s pen. Simon pushed the gate of the pen shut, with a clang.
“There now Lady, you calm down. You have a sleep.” She couldn’t move fast enough. As she pushed against the mesh, Simon pulled the bolt across the gate.
“Simon!” She screeched. “Unlock that gate!”
“Now, now, Lady, quieten down,” Simon snapped the padlock shut.
The children regarded Alice with interest, as she ran against the walls of the pen, until, exhausted, she fell to the ground and tried reasoning. But it was as though the sounds she made were incomprehensible to the children. One by one they lost interest and ran out of sight, presumably to the picnic.
How could this have happened? It was ridiculous. Fiona and Simon reappeared. They looked at her with pity.
“Here Lady,“ they spoke to her in coaxing tones.
Fiona had a bottle of lemonade with her and tried to pour the liquid through the mesh and into the dog bowl. “There you are, Lady. Have a nice drink.”
Simon pushed a sausage roll between the wires. It stuck and a fly settled on it.
“There you are, Lady.” The children seemed pleased with themselves. Bryn came over to inspect.
“Hey! Lady!” He teased her. He was holding a cane - he must have pulled down her sweet peas.
The children watched her, until the cry went out: “Bonfire! Bonfire!” and they ran to join the others.
Alice lay on the dusty grass and looked up at the sky through the mesh. It was getting dark. Spots of silver were appearing in the violet expanse. She breathed the cooling air deep into her lungs. There was nothing that she could do. She rolled onto her side and watched as children ran across the lawn, shrieking, a dog bounding with them; they were not interested in her. Scraps of paper, the name tags, littered her disintegrating garden. They would tire soon, surely.
The sound of breaking glass carried on the night air.