Grace is having dinner with her friend M who has come for a sleepover. This is Grace's first sleepover and she is very excited. Together the girls have unpacked M's overnight bag and between them they've negotiated who gets which bed (with only a little input from me.) I've cooked lasagne after checking it's M's favourite too, and lined up chocolate mousse for pudding.
The two girls sit at the table. Grace eats with gusto, pausing now and again to look up and grin at her friend and remind her: "You're sleeping with me tonight!" M sits opposite, curled on her chair like a mermaid, knees underneath her. She picks daintily at the food and, smilingly polite, tells me how tasty it is. We are going on holiday in a few days and she's curious to find out more. Curling her hair neatly behind one ear she asks Grace: "When you go on holiday, where will you be staying? Is it an apartment? Will you be self-catering?" Grace looks at her blankly and shrugs. "It's a house. Come on, we're watching a film after."
My heart is in my mouth throughout this conversation. Observing Grace navigate the minefields of early friendship and social interaction has me on pins: it's like watching nuclear diplomacy. I have been told by various assessors over the past few years that she has poor communication and comprehension skills, an inability to empathise, delayed development.
But Grace is far, far more complex than the sum of her assessments. She fully understands how people feel -- she feels the same way herself. She worries about getting it wrong. She worries about people not liking her. She frets about being popular. She is desperate to have her own best friend the way most other girls in her class do. She just can't read people's moods or understand why they might behave in a certain way; she cannot comprehend the impact that her actions might have on the way outsiders relate to her. She is not an emotionless android. She is not Rain Man. I've lost count of the number of times she has thrown herself into my arms weeping and shouting "I feel horrible!" when she realises that yet again she has caused hurt or offence.
Now the girls are sitting on the sofa watching their film. We've created a home cinema environment: the curtains are closed, the lights are out, and Grace and M are munching brownies in the dark and watching the characters find themselves in a casino. M turns to Grace and says: "Which would you rather go to? Las Vegas or Los Angeles? Los Angeles has Hollywood but Las Vegas is so pretty with all those lights. Do you know about gambling?"
Grace barely glances at her and for a moment I wonder if she has tuned her out to watch the film. Then she gets up and drifts over to the other side of the room where she starts to dance and sing to herself. M watches for a moment, then turns back to the movie. It's impossible to tell what she's thinking. I want to say to her, Grace isn't being rude -- she just doesn't know the right answer.
Thinking about this, I'm suddenly twelve again and in the bedroom of my schoolfriend Tracy Fleming. I've got butterflies in my stomach and the sure knowledge that if I don't stay on my toes I'll be toast. Tracy is firing questions at me and watching me as closely as a cat. The trick is to get the answers right but not so right that Tracy is wrong, and not so wrong that I look like a loser. Most of the questions are about just how long I've liked Duran Duran, which songs I know the words to, and which member of the band I fancy. The answers (I think) are: not as long as she has, none of the ones she likes, except maybe one, and anyone as long as it's not John Taylor. I fail. (I cannot dissemble about John Taylor.) Tracy's flashing displeasure follows me up the hill as I trail home and I brace myself for her mocking laughter at school the next day.
I digress, but only a little. M is far kinder than Tracy ever was. But making and keeping friends requires a particular alchemy that we all -- bar a few very lucky ones -- struggle to perfect. Don't we?
The next morning M's mum arrives to collect her, bringing along her younger sister. S is a pert child who fizzes with curiosity. She skips into the room where Grace, Betty and M are playing. At that moment Betty squawks at Grace for handling a favourite toy and S laughs and exclaims: "She doesn't like you, does she?" and Grace bursts into tears. My reaction is pure instinct -- I am across the room in seconds, ferocious and firing at S that was a nasty thing to say while cupping Grace under the chin to bring her eyes to mine. "She didn't mean it, it's not true," I tell her. Grace hiccups and looks uncertainly back at me. I can see her wondering. Meanwhile S is round-eyed, frightened and in tears. I apologise to her mum, who is very nice about it. There's some slightly awkward conversation. I'm mortified. How is Grace going to steer through social situations when I am still crashing around like this?
The next day I text M's mum to check in and test the water. She tells me to stop worrying and that M had a great time. Grace is invited to stay the night at their house in a few weeks.
I wonder whether my nerves can stand it. And what kind of music M's mum likes.