The party did not go as planned. There weren't supposed to be kids. The invite clearly stated that kids were to be left at home or with a sitter. As far as Emma was concerned, a party with children wasn't a party at all. They were always underfoot and overfed, running, shrieking, and getting dirty fingerprints on everything. Her friends always found her joking about children to be just that: joking. Only Emma was serious. All of her friends were becoming proper adults and filling their beautiful flats with bassinets and shrieking, red, wrinkly things that made their parents look so much older in mere weeks.
A petite woman, three digits soaking wet, Emma had nightmares of babies, a shower of babies from the sky like rain that fell about her in a smother. She would wake with her pillow over her face and stomach pain from needing to pee.
She had hoped for her party to be like a return to old times, when they had been at university, hanging out all the time, talking of classes and romantic flings, things that ought to be talked about. Her friends didn't even complain about their kids, not really. It was a half-hearted, loving kind of complaint which didn't do at all. It didn't scratch the itch from deep underneath her scarred cuticles that Emma dug into with vengeance when she was most stressed.
This was one of those times. She drew blood when Tim's daughter began to shriek-spilling her glass of red wine all the while, so blood and alcohol mingled harmlessly, red into red.
"I wanna go home I wanna go home I wanna go home!"
"Soon, honey. Soon. Why don't you go outside? Doesn't Aunt Emma have such a lovely courtyard all to herself?"
"Well, not all. There's-"
But Emma saw Tim's look and realized her mistake.
"Plenty of room to run around," she added resignedly.
"Why don't you go get your sister and the two of you can play in the courtyard for a while?" Tim said.
The small child nodded, temporarily placated, and sprinted away to find her sister.
"Great kid," Emma said.
"Oh shut up, Emma," Tim's wife Adrian said. "We all know how you feel about kids. Our forever single sister."
"You'll clean up as the only single person at our wedding when Britt and I get hitched," Tom Barrel added.
Her friends laughed and smiled, but they didn't understand. No one understood.
Anabel and her older sister walked about the boring courtyard. The latter was lead by the hand. In spite of being nine, and nearly two years older than her sister, she had bouts of extreme childishness in which she insisted on being lead along by her younger sibling.
"Shut up, Susan. Or I'll stop leading you around and you'll just fall down."
"Shut up, I mean it."
"That's it!" Anabel shrieked, not only letting go of her sister's hand, but pushing her hard in the chest.
Susan tumbled backwards, falling into a statue of a cat licking its paw, only the paw had been knocked off. When Susan, the older and bigger of the two sisters came tumbling into the pawless statue, it came tumbling with her, falling from its pedestal and through the weak branches of an annual, before smashing through a first-floor window.
The girls froze. Susan, dirtied but unhurt sat up and stared at the window, brushing some glass from her frock. Anabel gaped, her Keds rooted to the red brick of the courtyard. They both waited for sounds of Aunt Emma or mommy and daddy, but it appeared that their old-time laughter had covered up the grievous wrong.
Just then, a head popped out from the ruined window, breaking into the girls' physical and emotional space.
"Spot of trouble with the window?"
It was an old man of undetermined age. Anabel and Susan were (as children often are) incapable of accurately guessing the age of anyone over the age of ten. Susan reckoned him at 50, Anabel 88. Neither was right, or particularly close, though that is neither here nor there.
"Didn't mean to," Anabel sputtered.
"I've broken a few windows in my time," the man said. "Though never with a cat. I commend you."
"What's commend?" Susan said, finding her voice.
"Congratulate, praise, recognize, etcetera etcetera. You've done something quite original, though I imagine Tom Stearns Eliot did not take kindly to it."
"Pardon?" the girls echoed.
"Tom Stearns Eliot," he said in way of explanation as a tuxedo cat came into view on the sill, licking his paw.
Only he wasn't. There ought to have been a paw there, but the cat only had three paws. He was licking only air.
"Strange, isn't it?" the old man said. "Can't break him of the habit. He seems to know it's not there when he's walking and jumping around, but not when he's grooming. He has to clean every bit of himself, even the bits that are gone now."
"Our parents will pay for your window," Anabel said. "And we're sorry, of course."
"Nonsense. Unless you did it on purpose. Did you do it on purpose? In that case, I'll take cash."
"It was an accident," Susan said.
"In that case, we'll call it even. How's that sound?"
Realizing that they were not in fact going to get in trouble, Susan got up from beneath the window. Standing, she was eye to eye with the man whose head stuck from his broken window. She confidently offered her hand.
"Susan Bates, and that's Anabel."
"James Steinbeck Miller Baldwin."
He took her hand and shook it firmly, like one adult to another. Susan noticed that it was very rough, like a sailor's hand. Or so she thought. She'd never actually shook a sailor's hand before. Anabel crossed the short distance, ducked under a wispy branch and shook his hand as well.
"That's a long name."
"My mother loved to read. She told my pa that she'd name me after her favorite author. Only she couldn't decide. Pa had to talk her down to four. It was going to be ten."
"That would have been dreadfully difficult to remember."
"Undoubtedly, Anabel. Undoubtedly. Now, would the two of you like a cup of tea?"
They shuffled their feet and glanced at each other, drawing patterns in the dirt with their shoes.
"We're not supposed to go anywhere with strangers, and we can't go into your flat. Mommy and daddy would be angry."
"Easy enough," James Steinbeck Miller Baldwin said. We'll have window tea."
"Bring a few chairs from over there, those wicker ones, and set them here underneath the sill."
The girls followed his directions, and when they sat upon the chairs, they found it was a cosy spot behind the wispy annual, beneath the sill. In a few short moments, the old man returned, pulling up his own chair to his side of the window, and laid a tray of tea and biscuits on the sill.
"Help yourself," he said, popping a biscuit into his mouth and relishing it.
Susan poured herself and her sister cups of tea, preferring in moments of perceived civility to retake her role as older sister. Only...she spilled both cups, knocking them to the ground out of shock as a large bird flew by Mr. Baldwin's head and out the window.
"Not to worry," he said, I've lots of cups. Those can be dusted off well enough."
"Mr. Baldwin?" Susan ventured. "Don't you want to go get your bird?"
"My bird? Oh that gull that gave you such a fright? That wasn't my bird anymore than any other living creature belongs to me, or anyone really. I imagine it was just passing through. Here, let me pour these for you. There you are."
But tea was not meant to be. Before Anabel or Susan could get a cup to their lips, their father's voice was heard calling to them.
"Susan, Anabel, time to go!"
"I suppose we better," Anabel said, looking at her sister.
"Thank you, Mr. Baldwin. For being so kind. We are sorry about the window."
The old man's head popped back inside the flat without another word. The girls stood up, leaving the wicker chairs there beneath the sill and came out from behind the bushes to find their father standing in the courtyard.
"There you are," he said. "Finding a way to get dirty I see. What's that in your hair, Annie?"
Anabel ran her hand through her curly, red locks and came out with a large, white feather. It must have fallen when the gull burst from the window.
"A feather," she said quietly.
"Pretty," he said, scooping them both up under his strong arms. "Must have been lost in a tussle with that cat Emma's always complaining about. Did you see a cat?"
Across their father's chest, the girls locked eyes and spoke in chorus.
Anabel put the feather in the front pocket of her frock, over her heart for safekeeping.