|You've had your wedding day without me.
I'm sorry I couldn't have been there, sis, not that I was invited anyway. I haven't known where I've been, but it's been a rough few days, you know? I suppose I've been out of your mind too. It would have been good to at least seen you here, watched you climbing into your puffball dress, all nerves and lace. I would have loved to have seen the look on your face when you saw me. You'd have been shocked at first, maybe a bit disgusted by how much I stink, but it's been a long time. Who knows, you might have wanted to speak to me, had you been here. I knew as soon as I saw the brown bouquet in the sink and the white, laddered stockings in the bin; I've missed you.
I should leave by rights. I've already trodden glass into your carpet and dripped blood on the paintwork. I cut myself pretty badly trying to get in, though, so you owe me a little look round. I want to know a bit more about you, Margaret, now you're all grown-up. I want to know what your life is like without me.
Drip, drip, drip. I leave a trail on the kitchen lino, past the table where three white boxes are stacked. Two dolly figures lie on their backs, staring at the ceiling. Yellow-blonde hair. That was me and you once upon a time, the discarded ones, clinging to each other. Now I suppose it's you and him, lying together in some room, shutters closed against the sun. I feel a bit sick thinking about it. All the good stuff is oozing out of me, I can feel it. I grab a tea-towel and wrap it around my wrist.
Out of the kitchen, into the hallway. Beige carpet. Magnolia walls. Pine woodwork. I can smell the wool in the carpet, the plastic newness of the paint. There's no trace of you anywhere. Where is your perfume? The vanilla scent of your hair? The cakey warmth of your skin? I can imagine him painting you out, masking you with neutral colours. It makes me shake. Oh no, now there's blood on the carpet. Oh well, you're not you without a little bit of me. At least I'll know which way I came.
I spy a pile of presents on the living room floor, gleaming with silver bows and lucky horseshoes. Inside, there could be anything from a toaster to a telly. All boxed, guarantees intact, receipts included just in case. My fingers tingle. It wouldn't hurt to take just one. Only a little nibble. You would hardly miss one gift. After all, I'm a poor, hungry boy and you owe me big time. You owe me because you don't remember. You were too young.
Blue feet poking out from under the sheets. My hand as big as her heel, trying to wake her. The cool dry touch of them. The smell of sour milk. The sound of your baby cries in the background, echoing round the empty flat. That's what I remember.
I must rest a while. I feel so weak and sleepy. The pale, ivory sofa is not a good mix with blood. I expect he chose it. He must not be keen on having kids for a while.
I remember you were mostly a quiet kid. Everyone loved you. That's why you have no bad memories. I wonder if you remember all the little bribes adults gave you to get you to stop trembling and smile. The pats on the head and the fistfuls of sweets. I remember fists, the snake head buckle on the end of a belt. That was our Dad. We didn't live with him very long though. I think it was his girlfriend that sent us packing. She couldn't cope with us, well with me at any rate. I don't really remember the families after that, but I know we got through them pretty quickly. You stuck to me like flypaper though. The new grown-ups would hold their arms out to you, but you would shake your golden curls and bury your face in my shoulder. Eventually they would coax you away from me, but I was determined to win you back. I always managed to move us on. I started playing with matches, starting small fires here and there. I spoke in grunts. I refused to wash. It didn't put you off. They couldn't split us up, even if they'd wanted to.
So many people wanted to separate the good, little girl from her naughty, big brother. It never worked while you were still so tiny. You believed whatever I told you. I said we were the lost children and no one wanted us, but that I would always look after you. You'd fling your arms around me then, and I would close my eyes, press my cheek against the sweet salt of your lashes.
Then there were no more families and they sent us to Park Road. We were getting on a bit, losing our cuteness, but I still didn't want to risk letting anyone take you from me. I wouldn't even let any of the other kids talk to you until I'd passed them. They'd have to buy me fags or nick something first. That was just the way kids were in that place. It was a proper rough-hole. I remember the fun I had when I found out the adults there weren't supposed to hit us. I would do my damnedest to try to wind them up, but they wouldn't bite. I thought I was free. They couldn't control me. I loved it.
Jenny was the tricky one. She wanted to cuddle the good back into everyone. She looked kids in the eye, spoke slowly and clearly. Everything she said sounded like she was reading a story with a happy ending, even when she was telling us off. There was no getting around her. She had this way of watching without letting on. I'd be about to do something, then snap! She'd just appear beside me, and snatch my lighter off me. She wouldn't let up. I think she reckoned that just because you were good, I had it in me to behave too. Perhaps I would have, if she hadn't been the one to pull us apart.
Looking down, I see colours swirling. Raspberries and cream, strawberry jam, black treacle. The legs of my jeans are blackberry-stained. Pain stabs behind me eyes. I watch the cells die a while, exploding into dots of light, curling into tadpoles.
It's bonfire night, our second night at Park Road. They've taken us into the park to see a firework display. Jenny has managed to prise you away from me, and she's holding your mittened hand. Your hair hangs down in plaits from your bobble hat. Your mouth drops open as you watch the rockets. I don't want to watch the sky. I want to be by the fire. I move away from the group, closer to the bonfire. It's the biggest one I've ever seen. It's like a whole house has gone up! There's a fence around it to stop people getting too close, but it's not far enough away. As I get closer, I can see nothing but orange and black. I can feel the down on my cheeks singeing. I move closer still. The heat becomes uncomfortable. There is no one further forward than me. I feel like the bravest kid in the world! I can smell the plastic on my anorak as it steams. I'm almost to the fence. I f I could just touch it, glory will be mine! It isn't to be; a steward grabs me by the hood and drags me back, almost choking me.
'You stupid people!' I hear Jenny shriek. For a second I think I'm being told off, but no, she's talking to the organisers. 'Any fool can see it's too big. Lucky that boy's with me! Who's going to look out for the kids that's by themselves?' She sucks her teeth and turns to us. 'Come on, I'll take you and your sister to show you somewhere just as good, but less trouble.' She bends down to you, pats your hair, straightens your hat. 'Say, Sugar. Have you ever seen a real gingerbread house?' you eyes widen as you shake your head. 'Well guess what? That's where we're going.'
The front of my coat has gone all stiff and crinkled from the heat, but I want more of it. However, the fire in my cheeks begins to die away as we walk to Mrs Thompson's bungalow, the Gingerbread House. When we get there, I am less than impressed. I wish I was back in the park. Your face shines like a star though as you take in all the flashing lights, the plastic reindeer and the working miniature Ferris wheel taking dolls and teddies for a ride. I think it's disgusting. It's nowhere near Christmas yet!
Jenny catches the look on your face and chuckles. 'You think this house is just this way in the winter? It used to be, but look. See how Mrs Thompson has painted those columns in a barley sugar twist all pink and white? And that crinkled pie-crust on the porch all custard yellow? This is a sweetie house all year round.' She squeezes your shoulders, kneading you with her sheepskin gloves.
'Can we go inside?' I hear you say.
'Well, it's getting a bit late, but I know Mrs Thompson very well. She loves meeting the children from Park Road – the good ones that is. Perhaps we can visit her in the daytime this week, before you start your new school.'
I dream that night that you are standing nest to me by the bonfire. Your hair is yellow icing, your eyes are sultanas. I can smell you baking in the heat, it's delicious. I breathe you in. You are sugar and spice and all things nice. I am slugs and snails and farts and lighter fuel. How can I even touch you?
The bonfire grows bigger. Soon it licks over Mrs Thompson's garden, which is right beside the fence in my dream. The plastic animals throb with light. I am aware of my own blood pumping inside me, the energy flowing through wires in the garden, the dust burning on the string of lanterns, the warm smell of dirt rising from my skin. When I wake up, I've been sweating.
The next day, Jenny takes us to see Mrs Thompson. She has white hair and an ugly wart on her nose, which you don't seem to notice. We sit in her crayon-coloured kitchen and drink proper tea with lots of milk from china cups. I slurp and lap mine from the saucer. I don't see why I shouldn't if she lets her cats do it! She has about thirty of them. It's a wonder none of them have run off with the plastic robins we saw on her porch. Jenny does her best to ignore me.
Mrs Thompson is trying to fatten us up with cakes and biscuits. I'm clever and don't eat more than one mouthful of cake, but she can see you're made of sugar and keeps offering you more. 'Go on,' she says. 'You're not funny are you? If you want one, have one!' the thing is, you don't want another one, but it will offend her if you refuse, so you have to eat and eat and eat. 'Feed the birds and they'll come back to your garden,' she says. 'You're a good girl, so you can come again. Next time you can try some of my stout cake. Proper grown-up, that is!'
I notice she doesn't say any of this to me, only to you and Jenny. Jenny holds your hand as we walk back to Park Road. 'I love Mrs Thompson,' she says. 'She's like the Granny I never had. She likes good, little girls going to see her.' It's then I realise that Jenny was once a kid like us. Her eyes are as bright as glace cherries. She waddles when she walks. Mrs Thompson has been feeding her cakes for years and now she has her. I don't want her to get her hands on my sister!
I have to do something. When I wanted to be rid of the foster families, I'd set fire to stuff in my bedroom. Just little fires, barely big enough to warrant the earache I got for them. I am itching to do something with matches or fuel, but I don't want to get found out.
The light before dawn is fuzzy and grey. I sneak out of Park Road. The gingerbread cottage lies in darkness, the plastic animals in suspended animation, covered in frost. The nearest one is a robin on skates. It takes a few goes to get the lighter to catch as the plastic is hard and damp. As the flames take hold, the robin almost seems to come alive, glowing from within. It twists its beak, flops its head to the side. That'll upset the old witch! I don't hang about for long. I'm off back down the road, a grin slapped across my face, icy air freezing my teeth. This has been easy.
The cold hits me now. The shape of things blur through salt and pepper. The outline of bows on boxes. I realise now that you probably won't be back for another week or so. I can't feel anything. What have I done?
I'm fifteen. We have moved on from the church to the crematorium. It's warmer in here, but you are still so pale. I fidget in my seat and look round. Behind me, Jenny presses a finger to her lips and twirls her index finger, indicating that I should turn back round. I do, but not before giving her a sly grin. No one knows I did it. As far as they are aware the old bat just dropped dead. Heart condition, they said. That's what comes from eating too many cakes.
I needed money for smokes and glue. Me and my mate, Gary, could have picked on anyone, but I said Mrs Thompson would probably let me in because she knew me. She would be easy. She had the chain on the door when she opened it, but she took it off to let me through into her back garden to look for the imaginary ball I'd lost. I left it swinging behind me.
She came out the back to help me look. She was asking me all kinds of questions about the damn ball. Was it small? Would it be easy to see? What colour was it? Was it a tennis ball? Really irritating. Then Gary must have broken something upstairs and she heard it, went running back into the house calling after her stupid cats. 'Tigger? Is that you, you naughty scamp?'
She reached the foot of the stairs, and Gary came bounding down like an elephant, knocking her flying. 'Oh, oh!' she cried, staggering back to find me, reaching out with her hands. 'Help me! There's a boy in the house.'
I didn't like her touching me. 'Get off me, you bitch!' I elbowed her away, slamming into her chest. She buckled, folding herself up on the floor, her mouth still gasping 'oh'. I just lifted my legs over her and bolted. I didn't care if I'd hurt her, and I didn't care if she told on me. I'd got what I wanted.
The organ starts up and the coffin rolls back. The blue curtains part, and just for a moment you can see the burners. They're going to put her in an oven. I strain my neck to se more, but the tiny flames are obscured as the coffin rolls in front. The curtains brush over the feet and I have to use my imagination to se the flames burn higher, toasting the lilies at first, then turning them to soot. The witch has had you for so long, buying your soul with jam tarts and Swiss rolls. I'm so pleased to have won you back. I grin and squeeze your hand, but you snatch it away, and I see in your face that I have got away with nothing. Your eyes shrink to currants; I have never seen them so dark, so full of loathing. You haven't said a word to me all morning, and now I know why. In the pews beside us, the kids whisper and nudge. Gary sits with his legs wide, a proud gangster. He hasn't been able to keep it to himself. Me and Tim killed the witch. Just keep it to yourself, all right? And now she's burning, and you know it's my fault.
It wasn't fair of me to think you never suffered. I thought your version of life was the cleaned-up version, the one where only the bad guys like wolves and witches die. The little pigs run for shelter in the next house, and the bears let the little girl run away. Little boys don't get mentioned without their sisters, do they? Without you, I had no chance. I've been eaten up already.
I'm lost in the woods. Behind me, the trail I have left in my blood has disappeared.
|© 2001; Donna Scott