It was a fiercely cold, snowy day in New York with a bitter wind that cut to you skin like a knife. Six-year-old Charlotte Collins clambered out of the back seat of Mrs Parker's old grey Ford hatchback car, she was not suitably attired for such weather in her thin woollen tights, pink corduroy pinafore and t-bar shoes. She didn't own a jacket, Mrs Parker had fretted when she had realised this and had worried about her going out without one.
She waited patiently on the snowy sidewalk as Mrs Parker fetched her bag from the trunk, and as she did so Charlotte picked at a patch of silver masking tape that was currently being used to hold one of the back lights in place. It was obvious that the car had been through a lot in its life and the masking tape was just the tip of the iceberg, there was numerous bashes, dents and scrapes that peppered its exterior and yet Mrs Parker was reluctant to trade it in, she loved her car. Despite its appearance it had always managed to rev it engine with a powerful determination, sometimes it would struggle to get going but somehow it always managed. The interior was comfortable, the seats soft and squashy from too many bottoms, the heating and air-con still worked, the radio still played, and it always smelt of cinnamon and apples created by the same air freshener that dangled from the windscreen mirror. Yes, Mrs Parker loved that car, it reminded her of the countless children she had encountered in her 40 years working for the NYC Social Work Department. Bashed and broken and yet with a determined streak to survive. She looked down at Charlotte and held out her hand, smiling kindly at the young frightened child, she tugged gently on her hand and they made their way past the white picket fence and up the garden path, which meandered its way through the centre of the front lawn, and up to the white front door with its big brass knocker.
Mrs Parker used the knocker and knocked three times on the big wooden door, Charlotte pushed herself in close to Mrs Parkers leg as they waited and she looked down at her young charge, she could see that she was nervous and she squeezed her hand reassuringly. Only seconds had passed before the door opened and a smiling blond woman, who appeared to be in her late 50's, greeted them warmly.
"Melanie," she greeted Mrs Parker, "come on in, it's freezing out there".
Once they were safely inside and the door was shut soundly behind them the woman begin to address Charlotte, she squatted down in front of the child and smiled broadly. Charlotte liked her smile; it made the woman's eyes twinkle bright blue and lifted her whole face, exposing a deep dimple as it did so. Charlotte thought the woman was beautiful, her hair was pulled back into a loose bun and she worn jeans and a soft cream angora sweater dress. Charlotte thought she looked just like a movie star.
"Hi, my name is Ruth and you must be Charlotte, I've really been looking forward to meeting you".
Charlotte nodded shyly and toed the dark wooden floor of the hallway with her foot. Ruth rose to her feet again.
"Don? Honey, Melanie and Charlotte are here," she called out along the hall. The next thing a very tall man appeared from one of the rooms striding towards them with a cheerful grin on his face.
"Melanie, I do apologise, I didn't hear the door," he said as he greeted Mrs Parker.
"That's your age dear," Ruth quipped back with a smile, to which Don responded by sticking out his tongue at his wife. Ruth giggled.
"And this gorgeous young lady must be Charlotte," he said as he knelt down on the floor. Charlotte looked up at him, even kneeling on the ground he was still taller than she was, he looked nice as well. He had big bright blue eyes just like Ruth, a handsome face and grey hair.
Ruth and Don invited them into the kitchen for a cup of tea, milk for Charlotte, and cookies before Mrs Parker had to leave. The adults chatted the whole time but included Charlotte by gently trying to coax her to answer questions and join in. Soon the tea was drunk and it was time for Mrs Parker to leave, Charlotte began to get upset, she didn't want to be left with strangers again, even if they were nice.
"Please, why can't I stay with you?" She sobbed.
"Because you're going to stay with Ruth and Don," Mrs Parker told her firmly. "Now, be a good girl and no more tears".
She bid them farewell and told them she would be back tomorrow and left through the front door. Charlotte watched through the big bay window in the lounge as she drove away in her beat up Ford with the silver masking tape, her small hands pushing against the glass, her breath clouding the window and fat tears rolling down her cheeks as she sobbed noisily. Ruth was on her knees beside her, desperately trying to comfort her.