It's a weekday morning, still black outside. The radiators are just starting to send a shimmer through the cool air that has gathered in my bedroom overnight. The door creaks open and my daughter tiptoes in.
This is Grace, who never gets out of bed before me, who has to be three times awoken every morning, who snarls and groans when the curtains are opened. This is Grace, who pads around to my side and slips into bed beside me and says, I don't want to go to school today Mummy.
We slip together like spoons, huddled under the duvet in the grainy dark, and I put my arm around her and ask what's wrong. She says she has a sore throat, and fakes a cough. I tell her I think she'll be ok. She says she thinks not, that she really doesn't want to go to school. We talk a bit more. I listen and negotiate. I manage to get her out of bed and back into her room to put on her uniform.
Then I go to dress Betty, who pulls her pyjama top off her head with a soft plop and emerges laughing and looking windblown. Standing with her legs planted wide apart she presents me with her velvety round Cupid's belly, and commands me, twinkling, to kiss it. I oblige, inhaling her smell of camomile and milk and peaches. Then I button her into her jeans and pull soft blue socks over her perfect feet, the tiny pearly crescents of her toenails, which she wiggles in pleasure at the cottony yarn.
Then I go into Grace's room. My big girl is standing, undressed and frozen, in the middle of her room. Her eyes are huge and I notice the dark circles underneath them. Slowly, I approach her and dress her with the same tender care as my toddler. I button her shirt, knot her tie, help her with the uncomfortable business of school tights. I comb her hair back and secure it in a neat ponytail. I wipe her face with a flannel. Then, just under her cuffs, I spray a secret squirt of my perfume, a hidden comfort and physical reminder to her that I love her and will see her at the end of her day.
It's not enough, this time. She grabs my waist and starts to cry. Mummy, she sobs, I feel sick, I can't bear the thought of it, I don't want to go. Don't make me go. I make soothing shushing sounds and guide her downstairs, along the hall, to the kitchen table, from where Betty waves merrily at us. I get Grace a bowl and a cup and I pour her breakfast out. She needs to leave for school in ten minutes, if I am to have time to get ready and get to work myself. I keep my voice soft, and tell her she will be ok. Surreptitiously I check my blackberry and watch the clock. I tell her, just go for the morning and if it's still not ok, tell the teacher and I'll come and get you. I think about the work I have to do that day.
Grace eats a little and then stops. It's time to go. She puts on her coat and shoes while I fasten Betty's trainers and zip up her anorak. My husband opens the door and takes my little girl out to the car. In front of the open door Grace turns back to me in panic. She starts to shout and cry, louder and louder. Then she is shrieking and pulling at me. My husband, from the car, raises an eyebrow. I shake my head, and close the door, and hold Grace to me.
Then we go and sit down. Grace has got so big that she barely fits on my knee. She's all elbows and legs. I fold her up and tuck her into me and stroke her back. Then she starts to talk and I listen as she purges herself.
I'm really worried that I've got no friends, Grace says. I don't want to be the bad guy any more, but it's been so long and people are so nasty. The words they use, they make me feel spiky and slimy and I can't help myself and I can't stop the things that come out of my throat. I was so afraid to tell you. Her voice cracks with shame.
She talks on, about the boastful girl she put down, about the friend she doesn't want to have to play with because her games are so boring, about the classmate who whispered something to someone else that might have been about her and made her shout in her face in return, about the boy who she kicked when he baited her. She is mortified. They all hate me, she says. I was too ashamed to go in today.
A little while later I call work and explain that my daughter is ill and that I won't be in today. Then I call the school and make an appointment to take Grace in. We meet, her teacher, the special educational needs co-ordinator and Grace and me, in a little office overlooking the playground. Grace tells us that she thinks everyone hates her. She talks a lot about the last three years of school. Gently, we point out that it's a new year, that she's had seven weeks of term of which at least five have been good. We tell her that one or two bad weeks doesn't mean that everyone hates her. We use words like 'disagreement' and 'argument' instead of 'bullying' and 'teasing.' We suggest that if someone feels differently about things it doesn't mean that they're doing it to express a personal dislike of her. We suggest that Grace try to let go of previous hurts and allow herself to be optimistic. The SENCo is excellent: calm, affectionate and sensible. The headteacher stops by to give Grace a hug and tell her that everything will be ok. By the end of the session Grace ventures a cautious smile.
We drive home, and a song comes on the radio. It's cheesy R&B, the kind of thing I'd normally snap off immediately. But Grace turns it up and starts singing it to me. I listen to the words and smile and I sing it back to her. The words say: "Girl let me love you/And I will love you/Until you learn to love yourself." The windscreen blurs, and I switch on the wipers absently as I sing, until I realise it's my eyes that are blurring.
Grace says she's ready to go to school tomorrow. Tomorrow, we'll all try again.
Grace Under Pressure is published by Piatkus and is available here: