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1993,0508.1-2 “Dresser’s Tomtits”: Christopher Dresser for Minton, c.1870

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1978,1002.554 Gold brooch set with turquoises in the form of a forget-me-not wreath, c.1840.

When my children were small people used to ask after them. How’s the brood? they used to say. As if I’d hatched them. Back then it annoyed me, but after my divorce I saw the sweetness of it. My brood, I thought. Something frail and cosy, something I could protect.

The girls lived with their father, and when they descended for the holidays I saw my mistake. They were not a brood at all: they were a flock. Three great gaudy teenagers, twittering and preening all over my house. They had bedrooms in the eaves, and I liked to hear them fluttering and calling back and forth overhead. They ate delicately but incessantly, like sparrows on a grapevine.

The first night, they all came to perch on my bed. The reading light was turned to the wall and we spoke softly and confidingly (although no real confidences were shared, not that night). I did most of the talking. The girls were quiet and still: sometimes their eyes were fixed on my face, and other times they chewed at their nails or smoothed the wrinkles out of a little patch of bedsheet, their fingers working the same spot over and over. They used to do that when I read to them. I couldn’t tell whether they were thinking of it, but surely their bodies remembered it. I talked on and they nestled around me as they always had, dreamy girls in their nightclothes with their bare feet tucked under. Floss was the most reluctant. Once or twice she furrowed her brow, or drew in her breath as if to speak, but when the younger ones turned their mild faces to her she fell silent.

*

In the morning the kitchen sparkled with clean sunshine. We were happy. The girls put their elbows on the table and chirruped for my attention (‘Mum,’ ‘Mum,’ ‘Mum’) while I brought them coffee and strawberries. The sunlight flared in their hair: when they were little we’d made a fairytale of it. The red-headed sister; the brunette; the little blonde. They were only ever a few shades apart really, but that morning they looked magical.

They made a pantomime of snatching toast from one another’s plates. Jessie stealing from Floss, laughing, Floss snatching it back. They were getting shriller: if they’d been younger I wouldn’t have hesitated to intervene. It was Lizzie – whose crust it had been to start with – who lunged across the table and upset the milk jug.

Everybody was still for a moment. The milk spread across the tablecloth and pattered onto the floor. We watched.

Lizzie was dumbstruck for a moment. Then she snapped, like a string of beads. She sobbed and sobbed.

I know that explosive sorrow. I am a mother, after all. If it had been ten years ago I’d have scooped her up without a thought: ‘too much excitement’ I’d have apologised while she wrapped her arms and legs around me, while I enfolded her, my chick.

That day, no. Her sisters flocked around her. ‘Oh Lizzie, they whispered, ‘don’t cry, don’t cry. Don’t ruin it.’

They peeped at me through the knot of their arms. What could I do?

I fetched a cloth. As they clung and swayed together, I mopped up around their bare feet.

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