It's Sunday night and Grace is going through the anxious weekly process of preparing to go back to school.
Earlier, she bounced back to me full of vigour and pretty excitement following a weekend of parties and outings with her father. Now she is dragging her pyjama top miserably over her head, her movements sluggish and her tone of voice flat.
Silently I watch my daughter pull down the protective barriers and steel herself for whatever the next week might bring. I tell her she may read for half an hour in bed, hoping it gives her some respite from her worries and calms her pangs. But when I go up later to put her light out and say goodnight, her face is pale and stiff.
"Mummy," she begins, and in the inflection of the word I know already the upset that is to follow.
Grace tells me she is worried about having someone to play with on Monday because X, her most recent chum (they're all temporary, rotating in and out of friendship in a way that still baffles her), will be playing with someone else. Y, who used to be her friend, now has alliances elsewhere too and Z, a sweet little soul on whom Grace could always depend for a smile and a game of witches, is these days fast friends with A, after some complicated reworking of the class relationship rota.
As she speaks Grace moves from upset and apprehension to frustration to anger. By the time she has finished she is glaring at me, eyes shining and cheeks hot. It heartens me to see her animated again, but it also alarms me because I know what's coming next.
"They're all just STUPID, with their STUPID games!" she shouts.
Then she adds quietly: "I wish they'd play with me" and starts to cry. "I never have a best friend."
She gestures with the book she's been reading and lets it drop. It lands face down on the floor where I can see the title. It's "Best Friends" by Jacqueline Wilson.
God, I hate that book. I am seized by the impulse to jump up and down on it and shout aloud at its stupidity and wrong-ness.
Where did this myth of best friends come from? When did it become the latest nonsense to feed to our daughters, another pink-laced impossible ideal they must struggle to achieve even before they reach puberty? I hate it. I hate everything it insists on: the cloying sentimentality of the dream of having someone who knows you inside out and will stand by you through thick and thin. I mean really, did anyone have a friend like that? I didn't, and I don't know anyone else who did. My sisters and most of my female friends had to navigate complicated daily bitchiness and often physical push and shove. The idea that we all find soulmates by the age of 10 is arrant nonsense. Some of us, with luck, met a good chum at secondary school. Maybe others found one by university. Some, not at all, not ever. So how did this huge lie come to be accepted as the norm? I look at the shitty trinkets peddled by Claire's Accessories (please, o God of the recession, take this one soon) and I think Best Friends Forever? Come off it. Grace, however, will always finger these nasty bits of tat wistfully: the necklaces that come in a pair with half a heart pendant on each; the fluffy badges and glitter-pink bracelets that declare someone values you above all else and has got your back in return. Like everything else, girls now have to achieve a superlative, ad-man's version of an original idea. Not just friendship, but BFF-ship: the perfectly-toned, white-toothed, glossy-haired version for today's pre-teens. All bollocks, dreamt up by some cynical men in suits, probably in LA or NY or somewhere else with lots of initials and acronyms: OMG, what a great idea!
For Grace, often still struggling with the basic tenets of social interaction, best-friend-dom is the Holy Grail.
I take the book from my daughter and I think for a moment and then I say, carefully: "Not everyone has a best friend at primary school, you know. It may seem like it, but they don't. Some people meet their best friend at secondary school. I met my really good friends at university. People change friends and need different friends at different times. I'm still making friends."
Grace looks at me sadly. I ask her to think about her class and think about who has a best friend. She reflects, then names one or two. The pairings she tells me of are new and I know with certainty that, like in my days at school, they will have been the result of internecine struggle. Modern warfare and diplomacy has nothing on the savagery and alliances of little girls. (Not that little boys have it sorted in the BFF battle either as far as I can tell: but there doesn't seem so much pressure on them in this regard and anyway, their shifting coalitions of football teams and card-swapping squads seem to occur with far less heartache.)
I see that she is a little reassured and I go to hug her. She whispers into my hair: "But Mummy, I so want to have a best friend."
I look at her and I think what a wonderful best friend she would be: affectionate, funny, endlessly inventive, ferociously loyal. And totally without guile: aspies don't do maliciousness or mind games - they are the most straightforward people you can meet.
I whisper back to her: "I know. And I'm sure you will. I'm sure she's out there waiting for you. You just haven't met her yet."
As I switch off the light I hope hard that I'm right.