Someone from up the street had recommended her. Noelle Donnelly was her name. Ellie stood up at the chime of the doorbell and peered down the hallway as her mum opened the door. She was quite old, forty maybe, something like that, and she had an accent, Irish or Scottish.
“Ellie!” her mum called. “Ellie, come and meet Noelle.”
She had pale red hair, twisted up at the back and clipped into place. She smiled down at Ellie and said, “Good afternoon, Ellie. I hope you’ve got your brain switched on?”
Ellie couldn’t tell if she was being funny or not, so she didn’t smile back, just nodded.
“Good,” said Noelle.
They’d set up a corner of the dining room for Ellie’s first lesson, brought an extra lamp down from her room, cleared the clutter, laid out two glasses, a water jug, and Ellie’s pencil case with the black and red polka dots.
Laurel disappeared to the kitchen to make Noelle a cup of tea. Noelle stopped at the sight of the family cat, sitting on the piano stool.
“Well,” she said, “he’s a big lad. What’s he called?” “Teddy,” she said. “Teddy Bear. But Teddy for short.” Her first words to Noelle. She would never forget.
“Well, I can see why you call him that. He does look like a big hairy bear!”
Had she liked her then? She couldn’t remember. She just smiled at her, put her hand upon her cat, and squeezed his woolly fur inside her fist. She loved her cat and was glad that he was there, a buffer between her and this stranger.
Noelle Donnelly smelled of cooking oil and unwashed hair. She wore jeans and a bobbly camel-colored jumper, a Timex watch on a freckled wrist, scuffed
brown boots and reading glasses on a green cord around her neck. Her shoulders were particularly wide and her neck slightly stooped with a kind of hump at the back and her legs were very long and thin. She looked as though she’d spent her life in a room with a very low ceiling.
“Well now,” she said, putting on the reading glasses and feeling inside a brown-leather briefcase. “I’ve brought along some old GCSE papers. We’ll start you on one of these in a moment, get to the bottom of your strengths and weaknesses. But first of all, maybe you could tell me, in your own words, what your concerns are. In particular.”
Mum walked in then with a mug of tea and some chocolate chip cookies on a saucer that she slid onto the table silently and speedily. She was acting as though Ellie and Noelle Donnelly were on a date or having a top secret meeting. Ellie wanted to say, Stay, Mum. Stay with me. I’m not ready to be alone with this stranger.
She bored her eyes into the back of her mother’s head as Laurel stealthily left the room, closing the door very quietly behind her: the soft, apologetic click of it. Noelle Donnelly turned to Ellie and smiled. She had very small teeth. “Well, now,” she said, sliding the glasses back up to her narrow-bridged nose, “where