She watches the children in the Centre flock around him, all of them desperate to be singled out, to be included in the excitement these rare visits always bring. She sees him tickle Sarah Morgan and drag out the first smile she’s seen on the girl in weeks. She fights back a surge of irritation.
It isn’t that they prefer him. She finds she can’t resent that, not really. After all, she knows it’s easier to love a personality that blows in with treats and stories over the person who tells you off for standing on the new chairs in your dirty trainers every week.
And she knows she should be glad of the break when he does decide to show up. God knows she gets few enough of those, with things as they are.
But still her heart sinks whenever he shows up out of nowhere, armed with comradely winks for the older kids and chocolate miniature heroes for the younger, stealing hearts.
Forgotten, she packs away the abandoned stickle bricks and Legos and jigsaws and retreats until it’s time to pick up the other pieces, the pieces that aren’t so easy to put back together.
It’s not even that he gets to be the fun guy, the yes man, the one they all talk about when new kids come to the Centre: ‘wait till you meet Geoff, he’s the best.’
It’s the lack of Geoff that’s the problem, how things are when he’s not there. Sure Sarah’s smiling now, but where was he last week when Sarah’s newly divorced mum and dad forgot to fetch her because each thought the other was coming? And who’s the one stuck at the Centre calling and calling and waiting and consoling?
Muggins, that’s who.
She moves around, switching off lights and turning her thoughts over. She hates the idea that there is a part of her that would secretly love to be the one they are all excited to see instead of the nagging, dull character she has had to become.
Outside the rain is coming down fast. She’s looking forward to an hour’s telly on the sofa before bed, but, turning off the office light, she notices Sarah’s pink bobble hat, her favourite one with the zebra on, hovering below the windowsill. She hurries out.
“Do you want to come back inside and wait?”
Sarah nods. She is soaked through.
“Did mummy think daddy was coming again?”
Sarah shrugs. It is gone 9pm. Again.
“Let's go inside.”
She makes them both a hot chocolate from the instant powder in the tuck shop. Sarah holds out fifty pence to pay for hers and she waves it away, heart silently breaking. Where’s Geoff now, eh?
But as she sits beside the small damp child and reaches for the phone, she feels a pair of arms clamp themselves firmly around her middle and a face bury itself in her stomach and her heart instantly melts.
After all, it’s not Geoff who gets the hugs, is it? He gets the laughs, the excitement, but who’s the one they come to when they’re crying, or hurt, or lonely? Who’s the one that matters?
Muggins. That’s who.