The family seemed determined to coexist peacefully and run like clockwork – as far from a normal state of affairs as they could get. Sophie in particular veered between subdued and manically cheerful. She did a semblance of homework without being asked, and spent every spare minute caring for Max. Her one outburst came on a Saturday morning, on a trip to the library. Max had become grizzly in the time it took her to locate the two books she needed for school, objecting to the idea of spending even longer there while she chose some fiction. She bribed him by offering to read him a story if she could have a bit more browsing time afterwards. Max, being a bit set in his ways, chose a favourite story that they already had at home, a reworking of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Fine by Sophie, it was the least boring option. By about halfway through she was getting quite into the story of a naked man being identified as such.
‘That was the little girl who cried, “Mummy, the Emperor should go back inside! I can see his bum, and…” “I can see it too!” said a little boy. “I can even see his doodle-dangle-doo!”’, Sophie read, sensing a shadow hanging over her.
‘Young lady, do you really think that’s an appropriate story for a small child?’ asked the middle-aged blonde who had crept up on them.
‘Max likes it. It isn’t that rude!’ Sophie answered, and continued to read more loudly. ‘The children were yelling “yay, yay, yay, the Emperor is having a naked birthday! Three cheers for his bum! Three cheers for his doodle…”’
‘Enough!’ the woman announced loudly. ‘I expect that muck from places like that, but it isn’t suitable for children here.’
‘What are you going on about? Your racist CRAP isn’t suitable for Max.’ Sophie was shouting now, letting off some steam. ‘You need to get a life instead of giving people shit.’
‘How dare you!’ The woman responded. She was starting to seem vaguely familiar to Sophie, although it could just have been from the prolonged encounter. ‘My husband died so ungrateful brats like you can be free to peddle muck…’
‘Now Clara, that’s no way to win people over.’ A man had appeared behind the woman and placed his hand on her arm. He was tall and think with neat blond hair and pale grey eyes, and Clara looked slightly awestruck as Sophie would if her favourite pop star of the moment had touched her.
‘Yes Marcus, you’re probably right,’ she simpered, all saccharine now she had an appreciative audience. ‘It just makes me so angry…’
‘I know’, he pacified, ‘but I doubt this young lady realises how bad things are. You’d be welcome at our youth club one evening if you want to find out more,’ he suggested to Sophie. She was not in the mood to be grateful. Instead, she shot both adults a look of pure venom and led a bemused-looking Max out of the building.
‘Don’t worry Maxie’, she stated loudly, ‘We’ll finish the story at home.’
 


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