It is nearly eleven o'clock at night and Grace is still awake.
It is the end of the holidays and she has just returned from a week with her father. Since spending Christmas week with me, she has been in Ireland, kicking up her heels and over the traces; all routine gone in exchange for a round of cheers and songs and jokes and music and up all hours and smoky rooms and go on just another one and well now Gracie D, I'd say you've grown, from endless rounds of relatives.
She has come back taller, happy in herself and relaxed. She is also paler and shattered, wearily elegant: wearing dark circles under her eyes and purple varnish on her fingernails.
It's been three weeks of presents, parties and time away from school. This sense of unreality is hard for her to shake off -- not least because an element of it is always present, for her, even on her most grounded and formulaic school-and-home-for-tea days. My first mention of piano practice was met with a shriek -- head tilted back, eyes screwed shut -- and a "NO!" and fists hammering on the chair. Later on a request that homework be finished this weekend was more calmly received but still the eyes rolled and nostrils flared; there was a pretty stamp of her foot. I breathe in and out and say calm things inside my head. It's a careful, slow process, this reeling her in and tethering her back down, and I sympathise with her reluctance.
I'm as tired as she is, and make it an early night. I encounter her in the bathroom, pacing and talking to herself. I send her to bed.
A short while later, I look into her bedroom. Then I climb the ladder up to her bed, where she lies stiffly, faking sleep beneath her eye mask (pilfered from my room, it helps her to calm her senses and close her eyes.) I can see only her nose and her mouth, the set of which tells me she is tense.
"Come on," I say gently. "It's time to get ready to go back to it now."
She winces as if I have struck her.
"But Mummy," she says, "I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back to school and all the arguments and getting people annoyed."
"You don't have to go back to that," I say. "They're getting better at understanding you and I'm going to make sure that they keep getting better."
"But -- " she bites her lip. "What about X?" She names her latest persecutor.
"Don't worry about X," I say. "The teachers know she's playing up and they're watching her. Now, we're going to have a lovely weekend. We'll have lots of cuddles and kisses and rest and relaxing. We'll have good food and good sleep -- and if you sleep you'll be much better at keeping your temper and being patient and able to concentrate."
Grace exhales a long breath, slowly.
"Ok. But will you sing me a song, Mummy? Please?"
So I sing her a song, the same song that I have shushed her to sleep with for years. I lean over and put one arm around her and cradle her, while I murmur the words of the lullaby across her skin: along her forehead and into her hairline; into the pale gleam of her ear, down along her petal-smooth cheek to her jawline and along to her soft mouth, which I kiss as I sing: "Go to sleep, my baby, Close your pretty eyes, Angels are above you, Peeping at you, darling, from the skies." I stroke her hair and trace the length of her nose. "Great big moon is shining, Stars begin to peep, Time for little Gracie to go to sleep, Time for Gracie to go to sleep."
Her mouth curves in a faint smile. Her body has relaxed.
"Goodnight Grace," I say.
"Goodnight Mummy," she answers. "I love you."
The next evening, at around the same time, I check on Grace. She is still awake and asks me if I will sing to her again. She shuffles over to the edge of her bed so that I can put my arms around her again. Before I start to sing, she angles her head up to where she thinks my face is -- she is again wearing her eye mask and the action renders her entirely fragile and vulnerable -- to tell me something.
She says: "I've decided I'm really looking forward to the start of school, Mummy. There will be loads of interesting things to do before we get stuck into the boring old schoolwork and I'm thinking, hey, it will be good!"
The forced enthusiasm and bravery in her voice skewer me. I sing to her and I'm glad that she can't see my face. I sing to her with my voice cracking and my eyes filling up with tears. I think how courageous she is and how endlessly optimistic. I think of the baby she was when I whispered her to sleep with this song. I think of the toddler and the little, little girl she was. I think of Betty in her room across the landing, pink and flushed, cocooned in sleep and smelling of bubble bath, who also now asks me to sing her the same song. I think of the gulf between my two girls and fear for the differences in the lives they will lead and I tilt my head back as I sing so that the tears do not spill.
When I am finished Grace murmurs sleepily: "Just one more time please Mummy."
I swallow hard and start singing again.