Summers are always perfect when you look back at them. Heat shimmers over the rose-scented garden every day. Daughters eat ice-cream that never spills on their sun-dresses.
But last summer was truly a golden time for our family. Not a day when my two daughters, two sons and I didn't bask in the August haze, breathing the scent of cut grass to a chorus of birdsong.
Alice at sweet sixteen was still sweet enough to play for hours on a picnic rug with Daisy, reading her endless stories at bedtime. At three years old, Daisy lapped up attention like a kitten with a saucer of cream. She hadn't tasted family-life until she came to us. It's a long way from China to Cheltenham. A far cry from an orphanage to an ordinary home. But Alice helped make the transition seamless for Daisy.
I gritted my teeth, desperate to incorporate Daisy without changing family life too much. I made lists, masterminded routines. Anything to show Daisy how much we welcomed her. And show my other children they still came top of the list.
But my Alice, a gentle companion with her come-day-go-day approach, was a natural.
“She's fine, Mum,” Alice would say while I fussed about Daisy's erratic sleeping and eating patterns. “Give her time, Mum,” she said, when Daisy's speech failed to develop at first.
Alice was getting to know her new sister by instinct. I followed her wise example, discarding my schedules to join them on the rug. All the family joined in the chores, although most of the time we let the housework go to pot. If I allowed cobwebs to spin in corners or put Daisy to bed an hour late because she was on Alice's lap at the piano learning the Middle-C March, then so much the better.
Daisy learnt to trust us. We achieved it through patient games, warm hugs and eye-contact, gentle hand-clapping for all her tiny achievements. And, mostly, through simple love.
Even when the gilded days began to shorten, Daisy glowed with joy.
In the autumn, the boys returned to university. Alice started college in the next town. The house felt colder as autumn elbowed summer aside. Falling apples and irritable wasps startled Daisy and we moved inside, her and I, to curl up by the fire while rough winds cowed the last of the flowers.
“Alice'll be home later,” I kept telling her. The words lit up her solemn eyes.
And at first, Alice did come home in the late afternoon. She sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor to play with Daisy while I caught up with the cooking and ironing.
“Daisy wants you to help her with that pony jigsaw, Alice,” I said one rain-soaked evening.
“Maybe later, Daisy, yeah?” Alice said, her tone kind, but her mind elsewhere.
Daisy's smile slipped.
The staircase vibrated as Alice escaped with her phone to her room.
Distracting Daisy with a drink, I felt sure Alice would emerge later and join us for a favourite Disney film I'd promised.
She did reappear, but she was distracted by texts, grinning at her phone.
“Not hungry, Alice?” I said at tea-time, watching her gaze at the rain beetling down the window, her pasta untouched.
“Had chips waiting for the bus,” she said.
The conversation, if it can be called that, ended there. For the first time, Daisy spoke and ate more than her sister.
As the apples lost their summer sweetness and decayed on the wet grass, Alice continued to change.
She turned seventeen, but politely turned down the offer of a party at home. She shared a Mexican meal with twenty friends in town instead. She showed me her rowdy crowd in a photo, two of the girls revealing their pierced tongues.
On closer inspection I realised one of them was Alice.
“Whatever's got into you, Alice?” I gasped. “Why didn't you ask me first?”
“You'd have said no,” came the blunt reply.
More piercings appeared. Some she allowed to close up again, but the metallic specks, like forgotten glitter from an old party, still glinted by her nose and eyebrow.
Rainbow-stained towels littered the bathroom. Her hair turned midnight-blue, neon-pink, amber. When she tired of the dye, she cut it until it no longer floated around her shoulders, sawing it off above her bejewelled ears.
New smells wafted from her room, a mixture of heady incense and forgotten socks that no longer made it to the laundry basket. She left everything where she dropped it - on the floor. So much mess built up, I could have stirred the room with a stick.
I pointed out the squalor.
“I just don't see it, Mum.”
“That's the trouble, Alice.”
Every word I spoke was shaded with a frown, poisoned with disapproval. And the contrast with the special way I spoke to Daisy soured the relationship further between Alice and me.
Having ceased caring about her appearance or room, she now cared only about her friends.
“I love college. I wish I could be there at weekends as well,” she told me one day.
The words stung. I had a wish too. I wished I could celebrate her happiness with her. But she had changed too much. And you can't celebrate something you don't understand.
Her friends only knew the new Alice. No wonder she found it easier to be with them instead of me. I was comparing the autumn model unfavourably with the summer one.
I guess I was getting too old to accommodate the change. But Daisy still thrived in the way small children do. She had already adapted to a new life in a strange country, learnt to feel sun on her face instead of the stale air of a unloving institution. So she was well-equipped to accept that Alice was no longer a constant playmate.
Her eyes still responded with delight when Alice found time to squat down on the floor with her. She loved touching the bangles looped over Alice's arms, sliding them up and letting them clatter back down. Alice let her do that over and over again. Daisy touched all the new oddments of jewellery and the altered hair without comment and with gentle fingers, reassuring herself that this was still Alice. And, satisfied it was, she accepted each new image.
The day I was trying to make sense of the discarded clothes on Alice's bedroom floor, Daisy pottered in to help. When I turned round from sorting the pile of laundry, she was pulling on a discarded summer dress from months ago.
Alice must have put it on one morning and then thought better of it, tossing it into the heap that formed her past. It was sky-blue cotton, striped with daisies, fitted at the waist, the skirt flouncy. And she wasn't that girl any more.
Daisy patted the daisy-chain belt and thrust her little hands into the puffy pockets, in which she was thrilled to find a pink hair-slide.
The dress swamped her, draping over her feet, but she loved it all the more for that. She found the pearly stilettos Alice had worn to the school prom a million years ago and staggered about the carpet like a novice princess, pausing to gaze in the mirror. She pushed the slide into her jet-black hair, beaming at her reflection.
I thought of the child we'd first met in China, sitting on a hard chair by a shuttered window. She stared at nothing. Her empty eyes were like two wells of black ink.
The sun flickered through the wooden blind, rippled streamers of brightness across her. But she didn't respond. I barely noticed a blink. The teddy we gave her lay on her lap.
As soon as the boys made plans for their future, with Alice catching them up fast, I'd felt the need to help a little soul like this.
Maybe I feared the house would sigh at the sound of silence. Or the rooms would seem to swell, mocking me for all the times I'd longed for more space and less clutter.
I wanted our large, rambling house and garden to still have a purpose, to include a child who needed it more than my own would ever need it again.
The family welcomed Daisy, drew her into its heart, just as I'd hoped they would. Especially Alice. Now I feared I was gaining one daughter and losing another.
“It's these new friends of yours, Alice, isn't it?” I said one morning, shocked by how confrontational I sounded.
She'd ruffled Daisy's hair at the breakfast table. It was a friendly gesture, but Daisy had become pernickety about her hair, wanting it smooth with the pink slide on the left.
She squealed in frustration. Alice looked shocked, then sullen when I fetched the comb. She dropped the toast from her ink-stained fingers.
“You should know she doesn't like her hair messed up at the moment,” I added, my resentment like a burst dam. “If your new friends hadn't changed you so much, the old Alice would still be here.”
She marched into the hall and wrenched open the front door.
“Alice, come back,” I begged. “I'm sure if we talked, I could help you to be happy again.”
She shook her head with exaggerated slowness and rolled her eyes. I could have screamed, but I didn't want to upset Daisy. And, even more important, Alice's eyes looked as if all the vivid blue were spilling out of them. I had pushed her to tears.
“Talk to me, Alice,” I said, ashamed. “Please. Let the bus go. I'll drive you in later.”
She was torn. Like a cat on a window-sill, looking out at the rain, tail swinging like a pendulum. Stay warm? Or go out for a wet adventure?
She stayed. I said I'd make cinnamon toast and a fresh pot of tea and I think that helped. She read to Daisy while I made the second breakfast.
“Oh, Alice, this is the real you, sitting with your sister, being kind and patient, loving your home and family.”
She sighed at me. I was wrong, it seemed.
“Mum, I've been changing all summer. Growing up. You've just noticed the bits you like. Now I'm at college, I've really found out who I am. I feel happy with myself. I can't help it if you don't like that. It's not my friends who've changed me. This is who I am. They accept me. Why can't you?”
Daisy climbed onto Alice's lap and poked one of her many long jangling ear-rings. She chuckled as it swung, catching the light. She held Alice's face between her little hands to look into her eyes. Alice couldn't help smiling back at her.
“We haven't seen that smile for ages,” I said, tears in my eyes.
Alice slid off a bracelet for Daisy to play with.
“Me and Daisy have still played together, Mum, even though I'm not home as much. I've been reading to her while you're busy. And she slips into my room for a cuddle after you've put her to bed. You just haven't noticed. You can't see past my clothes or my hair or my messy room. But Daisy doesn't mind. Look at her. She hasn't judged me at all. Like I didn't judge her when she first came here and couldn't even make eye-contact.”
The conversation replayed all day in my head while Alice was at college. She was right. But it was so hard to admit it. I thought I knew all the answers. I didn't know I could still get it wrong. I was wrapped in a cocoon of love for my children, but perhaps it was a little too cosy in there. I couldn't always see beyond it.
I needed to follow Alice's wise example again.
“Our lives changed when you wanted Daisy,” Alice had said in the car when I drove her into college. “But we were all happy to support you. We could see how much it mattered to you. We've made room for Daisy, loved her. Even though it's been a challenge. Remember the first day? When she threw my new phone down the toilet?”
We let out a simultaneous snort of laughter. But it hadn't seemed funny at the time. 'What on earth have I done?' I'd thought as the phone submerged.
And how did Alice react?
She fished out the phone and sat it in a bed of rice to dry off. When it still refused to work, she waited with infinite patience while we filed an insurance claim for a replacement. She didn't glare at her new sister or complain to me about the disruption to our lives. Not once.
That was my Alice.
“College was scary to start with,” she admitted. “I know I was a bit moody and I don't blame you for being fed-up. Daisy must have felt the same when she first came here. Like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights. But I just needed time.”
Time kept shifting the foundations of our lives. Like seasons rolling along, the new one unfurling after the old begins to vanish.
“Just accept me as I am, Mum. Please. I'd spend more time at home if you'd chill with me a bit, you know. Hey, I could bring some friends home with me tonight. Maybe they won't scare you any more once you've met them. And they really want to meet Daisy.”
When I parked, Alice turned to Daisy in the back seat and waved goodbye. This time, I noticed her deep-brown eyes instead of the rings of smudgy Kohl drawn round them. And the warm wide smile instead of the gold stud on her tongue.
Some things do stay the same.
“Yes, bring them home with you,” I said as Alice climbed out. “I'll bake a cake.”
“They'd love that, Mum.”
I drove off, Daisy singing and waving behind me.
'Me? Scared?' I thought, wheels spinning a bit as I set off, all haughty at the cheek of that suggestion. 'Of course I'm not scared!'
That evening, I wondered whether I should let the teenagers have the run of the house. Take Daisy out for tea. Leave them a pizza and the cake. It would be so overwhelming for a tiny child.
I imagined massive boots and tattoos. Leopard-print hair. Loud voices. Raucous laughter. The house trembling at their boisterous behaviour.
Terrifying for a child of Daisy's age.
But I'd complained that Alice wasn't home enough. How could I justify slinking out?
Shortly after four, the doorbell rang. Her key was lost somewhere in her room, along with half our collection of mugs, two pairs of scissors and the spare toaster.
They poured in, an assortment of young people. Different heights, different styles, different fragrances.
Daisy and I felt shy, swamped by the new faces.
And I could see that Alice's new friends felt exactly the same.
The silence was deafening at first. But Alice pulled out the chairs, seized the cake-slice and asked Daisy to find the pretty tea-plates. Then the chattering began.
Gentle at first, like the first warbling of the dawn chorus. Tentative and hopeful.
Soon the kitchen rang with different voices, different kinds of laughter. Some soft, some loud. But the harmony was pleasant. And not at all scary.
The cake disappeared.
I found her eventually. She reappeared many times on many different laps during the course of the evening. All her books lay scattered across the floor. Each had been read to her at least twice through. Her toy farm was set up in a patch of late sunshine on the lounge carpet.
Someone was portioning out the pizza in far neater triangles than I ever manage to cut. Someone else was washing up the tea-plates in the sink and telling me how good china was ruined by dishwashers.
“Did you change Daisy's name, Alice's Mum?” asked a boy in a lime-green blazer. “I mean, it's not, like, very Chinese, is it?”
“Yes. We wanted her to have an English identity. Easier for her to fit in.”
“Won't she want to know she, like, came from China one day, though? So she can understand how you transformed her life?” He stuffed a whole wedge of cake into his mouth, his eyes fixed upon, full of interest.
“Well, we've kept Lian, her real name, as her middle name. It means link or connection.”
The boy in the blazer rearranged the chains hanging from his belt while he pondered this.
“That's actually very cool, Alice's Mum. Keeping the connection. Awesome.”
I supposed it was. Less awesome was my broken connection with Alice. But with her new life spread out for me to share, we glanced at each other and winked our approval.
It was both a glimpse of hope and also a moment of the golden summer reflecting back at us. My Alice was the same girl. Just going through a major change. Just as our Daisy had. We'd celebrated Daisy's adjustment. Now it was time to do the same for Alice.
“Daisy's gorgeous, isn't she?” a girl with lovely green eyes told me. “You're so amazing to bring her into your family. She's really lucky.”
I watched them all cram onto the sofa, Daisy nestled in the middle, to watch one of her Princess films.
“I think perhaps it's me who's the lucky one,” I replied.
Alice jumped up and gave me a hug. And despite her vintage fun-fur winter jacket that smelt of old nylon and looked like a damp sheep, the hug felt just as heart-warming as it always had.