That evening, after Finlay had finished the macaroni cheese prepared for his supper, and following his bath, Big Lou tucked him up in his bed and began to read him the nightly story which they never missed and which, for both of them, had become an unmissable feature of the day.
The story that night was about Babar the elephant, and the doings of his children, Pom, Flora, Alexander and Isabelle. It was the first book in the series, and it contained a section that Big Lou had been forewarned to omit – the death of Babar’s mother, at the hands of a cruel hunter. It was this event that had propelled Babar to seek refuge in the city, where he benefitted so obviously from French culture. As she read the saga of the kingdom of the elephants, Big Lou began to notice that Finlay was not paying as much attention as he normally did to the story.
“Have you had enough of Babar?” she asked.
The boy looked up at her. The space rocket counterpane, littered with stars and floating astronauts, was pulled up to his chin. “No,” he said. “I don’t mind Babar.”
He nodded. “I like elephants.”
Big Lou continued to read. But then she saw him fidget. “I think you want another story,” she said, closing the book. “Am I right? Are you too big for Babar now?”
Finlay shook his head. “No. I like Babar.” And then, “What did she say to you?”
“Who?” But Big Lou knew whom he meant.
Big Lou looked up at the ceiling. She did not know how she would answer this. You could not lie to children, but did you always have to tell them everything?
“She talked about your dancing. She said you were very good.”
The answer seemed to please him.
“And?” he said.
“Well, she told me you were the best pupil she had ever had.”
He looked thoughtful. “And did she tell you about this special school? Did she say anything about that?”
Big Lou was not prepared for this. It had not occurred to her that Miss Murray would have said anything about ballet school to Finlay. It was completely inappropriate, in her view, that she should have done so.
“She did say something,” answered Big Lou.
“And can I go?” asked Finlay.
Big Lou hesitated. She felt a surge of anger, directed towards the teacher. Of course, a child would assume far too much. Of course, Finlay would assume that the mention of a possibility was a promise that it would happen; that’s how children viewed the world – possibility, probability, and certainty were all the same to them.
Big Lou reached out and took his hand. “Now listen, Wee Moupie,” she said. “I’m really pleased that you’re enjoying your dancing. Really pleased. But there are lots of other things in your life, you know.”
The disappointment on Finlay’s face was only too apparent.
“But she said …”
Big Lou stopped him. “I’ll talk to Miss Murray,” she said. “I don’t think she promised anything, did she?”
Finlay shook his head. “She said I could go to a special school where you danced all the time. She said that.”
“But that’s not how it is,” said Big Lou. “Yes, there are schools where there’s a lot of dance. But you have to do other things, you know. Ordinary school work. Sums. Spelling. All that.”
He was silent.
Big Lou pressed on. “And you’re happy at Flora Stevenson, aren’t you? You’ve got all your friends. You wouldn’t want to leave them, would you?”
She knew this was a major card; children were bone-deep stick-in-the-muds, especially when it came to friends. They did not like change.
Finlay seemed to consider this. “I like Flora Stevenson,” he began.
“Well, there you are,” said Big Lou quickly. “You wouldn’t want to leave, would you?”
“But I’ll like the other school, too,” he continued. “Especially all the dancing.”
She nodded. “I see. And boarding? These schools are boarding schools. You have to stay away from home.” She paused. “From here.” A further pause, and then she said, “And from me.”
She knew that she should not make that point. It was emotional blackmail – pure and simple. So she immediately retracted.
“Of course, I’d still see you. This would still be home. You’d come back in the holidays.”
He smiled. “I could keep my room, couldn’t I?”
Big Lou said that he could. Her heart, though, was cold within her. “Should we go back to Babar?” she asked.
Finlay nodded. “Poor Babar,” he said. “The bit you didn’t read – the bit where the hunter shoots his mother. I feel really sad for Babar.”
Later, in the kitchen, as she prepared her own dinner, Big Lou rehearsed in her mind what she would say to the ballet teacher She would point out to her that it nothing short of cruelty to raise a child’s hopes over something that she knew might not be possible. And then, quite apart from that, there was the issue of respecting the role of parents – or carers, for that matter. She was only a foster parent, but she had fostered Finlay for some time now and had started adoption proceedings. She, more than anybody else, had the right to decide where he would pursue his education. It was nothing to do with Miss Murray, and she had no right to barge in and interfere in this way.
This imaginary conversation with Miss Murray only succeeded in fanning the flames of her anger. But, after a few minutes, that anger was replaced with a hollow despair. Big Lou had never been successful in her romantic life. Every relationship she had had with a man had come to nothing. There had been the Jacobite plasterer; there had been the Elvis impersonator; there had been the chef who had gone off to Texas; none of these had worked out. And this fostering of Finlay had been the one area in which she had been the driver of an important relationship. He was hers. She loved him. She would do anything for him. And now, it seemed, she would have to choose between allowing him to do what his heart appeared to be set upon, or clipping his wings before he even had had the chance to unfold them.