Betty is hiding under the covers.
Beneath the purple velvet throw, a shape on my bed squirms and stifles giggles. Grace and I, advancing on tiptoe on either side, glance at each other and nod conspiratorially, smiling. With a whoop, we dash to reveal her but at just that moment my two year-old daughter flings back the covers and sits bolt upright, hair a perfect dandelion of static, shouting and pointing at us: "Found oo!"
We collapse on our knees, protesting that that's not how the game goes. Beaming and magnanimous, Betty beckons us in. "C'mon: hiding," she says to Grace and me. We get into bed on either side of her and she flings the coverlet over our heads.
In the dark, everyone's giggles subside. In the silence I can hear the slow breathing of my big girl and the rhythmic wet tug of Betty sucking her fingers. I can smell the top of Betty's head and the sweetness of her breath. Grace's hand curls around to find mine and I kiss her slender fingers, stroking a rough patch over one knuckle.
Cocooned and peaceful I reflect on my day, which has been thoroughly rotten but also revelatory.
It started this morning as I travelled to work pre-dawn, surrounded by grey commuters, watching warped reflections in the curved train window and fretting about the state of my bank account. As I sat, stiffly working through the same sums in my head and failing repeatedly to find a bigger total, my co-travellers shook out newspapers and gravely consumed articles about economic crisis, spiralling debt, political unrest. I thought about my below-inflation pay rise (make that sub-zero, below-inflation pay rise) and the contrasting mountainous peaks of our household outgoings. Beside me a young man read a book called "Think and Grow Rich", underlining in blue pen passages about using the subconscious to bring lucrative ideas to fruition. His fingernails were bitten to the quick. The time was six thirty in the morning. The carriage smelled of recession.
Work was better, enlivened by lovely colleagues and appreciation of what I do and the kind of black-humoured desk banter that supports and salves and acknowledges the really gloomy stuff only by poking fun at it.
But then there were the phone calls, the same tedious, depressing phone calls. The latest meeting, the latest conversation about the latest report, the latest tiny, tiny, suggestion of a baby-step towards progress. Redoing the numbers in my head again and wondering about paying for extra help if it might help Grace faster. Redoing my work shifts in my head again and wondering how to ask for the next bit of time off for the next appointment, or presentation for parents, or training that I dare not miss as I attempt to garner information and points. Debating carrying my tombstone-heavy laptop all the way home again in case Grace has had another bad day at school and I have to work at the kitchen table tomorrow in between visits to the school office.
And then someone told me to belt up.
Have you ever asked for help, wailed about being stressed, gone on and on and on about the injustice and the fatigue of it, got angrier and angrier and then been told: "Oh, belt up"?
Neither had I.
Boy, was it liberating.
Because actually, it's what everyone else has been saying all along. Translated, the government has long been telling me to belt up, to tighten my belt, to cut back, to manage. The local authority has long been telling me to belt up, to go away, to take my complaints and my needy daughter and just put a sock in it. The school has said to me belt up, we know, we're working on it, we can't perform miracles. In the business world in which I work the current mantra is: look, it's rough out there, we like you, it's time for everyone to make sacrifices: now take this and belt up.
It's just that so far everyone has been a bit more polite about it than that and I, sap that I am, have responded to their bland words by wrinkling my nose and making vague noises of displeasure and shuffling away to groan quietly to myself. Faced now with a direct insult I pass quickly through shock, then outrage, then anger so pure I think I might have a heart attack.
But now I can see the world for what it really is and the true nature of the abuse that's been coming my way for a while now. It's not personal. It just is. I can laugh and shake my head and counter with the knowledge that I have a secret weapon that will see me through. Later this evening, when the girls are asleep and my husband is back from work, I will go running. Quickly, before I can change my mind, I will change into my thermal long-sleeved top, my running tights, my shorts; I will don jumper and hat and socks. Outside it will be black and cold and squally with rain. I will wince and angle my head to avoid the worst of it and I will run and run and run and sometimes when the traffic is loud I will shout rude words and roar like a madwoman and no-one will hear me.
But I will not be silenced and I will finish this marathon.