You and your girls and their friend were in London, staying in a sunny room with four twin beds at the top of four long, narrow flights of carpeted stairs that one of you always stumbled on at least once.
You strolled Kensington Garden and had afternoon tea. You admired Princess Di’s dresses, still and quiet on mannequins behind guarded glass. Toured the Tower, anxious the entire time because you could feel the spirits of the unquiet dead ghosting around you.
You rode the double-decker buses, hopping on and hopping off. Ate bangers and mash. Took the tube. Fed fat pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
Now you were sitting in a restaurant open to the sidewalk, the four of you at an oilcloth-covered table. There was too much mayonnaise on your sandwich. This had been happening all over London. Gobs of mayonnaise, white and thick and not Hellmann’s, oozing between bread. You wiped some of it off with your napkin.
“Too much mayonnaise yet again,” you said, and looked up to see three pairs of girl eyes fixed on you, three small girls frozen in fear.
“What is it?” you said, bewildered. “Girls, what’s wrong?”
“Is that man drunk?” one of them whispered, afraid to look at the man shouting and weaving on the sidewalk behind her.
You had barely noticed his drunken, ungainly walk, the repeated slur of his angry plea for a sandwich. Now you focused on him.
“Yes,” you said, “he is. But he won’t hurt you. You don’t need to worry. He’s just drunk.”
You went back to your sandwich and the ongoing mayonnaise issue. But when you glanced up a moment later, you saw that they were not eating. They couldn’t relax. Couldn’t shed their fear. They stared at you worriedly.
A great gulf appeared between you and them: you on one side of the table, three little girls on the other. It came over you that in their whole lives none of them had ever been the target of a drunken rage, ever been approached by a grown man with anything but tenderness.
Your heart twinged open and shut, open and shut, in pity and fear and love for the day that would come for each of them, no mother on the other side of the table to wrap her hands around theirs and tell them they were safe, that they had nothing to fear.