Only Twelve Days
Sally drummed her fingers on the desk and glanced at the clock for the umpteenth time. It was well past six o'clock; where on earth was Joey's father? Couldn't he have telephoned when he realised he was going to be so late? All the other children had gone home an hour ago.
Jane Miller, who ran the small nursery, had warned her Mr Roberts had a demanding job, which sometimes kept him a little late. Fine! She didn't mind hanging around for ten minutes or so, but this was ridiculous. If only she'd had asked exactly how late he might be, before Jane's hasty departure.
But there had been so little time. Responding to Jane's telephone call to take over the nursery due to her suddenly feeling unwell, Sally hadn't been given the chance to say very much at all. Once she had arrived, Jane simply hurried off, saying she would ring later in the morning.
Sally recalled how nervous she felt being thrust among twelve young children. However, before hurrying out the door, Jane briskly reminded her that she was attending the local college to train as a nursery nurse and this would be good practical experience.
On the whole, the day had gone quite well. The only real problem had arisen when she had asked the children to write a letter to Santa, telling him what they would like for Christmas. Knowing Jane, a retired schoolteacher, had taught the children to read and write, it had seemed a good idea, especially with Christmas being only a few days away.
However, after reading Joey's letter, she wasn't so sure. Instead of the usual gifts, such as toys and sweets, he had asked Santa for a mummy, as he didn't have one. Quite upset, Sally set aside her original intention of inviting the children to read out their letters. Instead, she had told them she would post them to Santa that evening.
When Jane rang later in the morning enquiring if everything was all right, Sally took the opportunity to ask about the children. “Is there anything important I should know? I don't want to do the wrong thing.”
Jane told her they were all healthy children and played happily together. “Though, perhaps I should mention Joey sometimes needs a little extra attention. His mother died when he was one year old and because he can't remember her, he believes he never had one.”
Joey's voice jolted Sally back to the present. She looked down at the anxious expression on the little boy's face.
“You won't leave me here by myself, will you? Mrs Miller always stays with me when my daddy's late. He can't help it.”
“No, of course I won't leave you. We'll wait here together until your daddy comes to collect you.”
Another half an hour crept by. Sally was really angry now. Just what was the man playing at keeping his child waiting all this time? She glanced out of the window just in time to see three men hurrying towards the front door of the building that Mrs Miller shared with two small companies.
“What does your father look like, Joey?” she asked.
“He's big,” he answered, his arms outstretched.
“Well I think he's here now.” She could see that one of the men was quite portly. “Come along I'll help you with your coat, then you'll be all ready for him when he comes in.”
She was fastening Joey's coat when she heard footsteps rushing down the hall.
“I'm so sorry I'm late, Mrs Miller. Please forgive…” the man's voice trailed off.
Sally, still attending Joey, didn't look up. “You must be Joey's father. Mrs Miller was unwell and had to leave.” Her tone was brisk. “I'm Miss Hughes and I would like to speak to you about…”
The anger in her voice resided when she looked across at the man standing in the doorway. He was tall, rather handsome underneath that worried frown and… slim. This was definitely not the man she had thought to be Joey's father. By big, Joey must have meant tall.
“Yes, and I can only apologise for being so late,” he said, feeling more than a little embarrassed. Obviously she had been going to complain about his lateness.
“My name is Bill Roberts and I'm really sorry, Miss Hughes. I… I had no idea Mrs Miller wouldn't be here. I usually telephone if I'm going to be so late, but today I got caught up in a couple of meetings and couldn't get away. I hope you'll forgive me.”
“It's quite all right,” she replied, hoping he wouldn't hear the tremble in her voice. “I wasn't doing anything else. I err… I didn't really mind at all.” She could feel her cheeks burning. She wasn't making a very good job of this.
“Come along then Joey, we mustn't keep Miss Hughes any longer. I'm already in her bad books.” He took Joey by the hand and he began to walk towards the door, but a sudden thought made him turn back. “Perhaps I could give you a lift home?”
“There's really no need, I don't… I haven't got far… What I'm trying to say is, I only live a short distance from here.” What must she sound like? He will think Jane has left his son in the care of an idiot.
“Please, I insist. It's my fault you're so late. It's the least I can do.”
“Well then, thank you. I'll get my coat.” She rushed across to the cloakroom, pulling her lipstick and hairbrush from her handbag. Why hadn't she worn something better this morning?
When Jane telephoned she had simply dropped everything in her haste to get to the nursery, totally forgetting she was wearing a sloppy sweater and an old pair of jeans. Her plan had been to do some revision that morning. Why didn't Jane say Mr Roberts was so handsome? But then why would she? All Jane ever thought about were the children. If Mr Roberts had pointed ears, Jane wouldn't have turned a hair, so long as he was a good father to his son. “Better, but not good,” she murmured, tugging the brush through her long, auburn hair. “But it'll have to do.” She pulled on her coat and hurried outside.
As Joey was skipping up and down the pavement, she took the opportunity to give his father the letter he had written to Santa. She had already handed the others to the parents earlier in the evening.
“The children were writing letters to Santa Claus this morning. This one is Joey's.” She hesitated, wondering whether she should tell him of the contents or leave him to find out for himself. In the end she simply said, “He's only asked for one thing.”
“I can guess what it is,” Bill didn't get the chance to say anything further before Joey bounded across towards them.