free range - A CHILDHOOD MEMOIR
BY DEBBIE BALLIN
We have moved into a new house. Number 7, Station Road, Radyr. It’s massive. It’s got seven bedrooms and a giant front room. We needed a bigger house. There were too many of us to fit in the old house.
First there’s my Mum and Dad, Frances and Malcolm. My Mum really likes babies. She’s got one called Laura at the moment. At my new school when I said how many brothers and sisters I’ve got, some of the other children laughed and said, ‘haven’t you got a telly’. I don’t know what that means. It’s something to do with sex and having babies.
My Dad doesn’t come back from work till late. Not till its nearly time for bed. Sometimes when he comes back from work he’s a bit cross and he shouts at us. Then other times he is really happy and calls us funny nicknames.
Next are my oldest brothers Ben and Pat. They are twins. Identical twins. Sometimes even I can’t tell them apart. They look exactly the same from the back. But they don’t like it if you muddle them up.
They have lots of clubs and games. I’m not allowed to join. Only big boy’s can play. They did have a club called Fun Club. If you wanted to join you had to slide down the slide and they would pee on you when you got to the bottom. I never wanted to be in it, but Miranda did.
Next is Jessie, my big sister. Her real name is Jessica but we all call her Jessie or Jess. She has her own bedroom because she is the oldest. We are not allowed to go in her room or touch her stuff. If you do she gets really cross and shouts at you.
Then it’s Miranda; she is just above me. She’s my best friend. We play together all the time. Our favourite games are Catherine game and Batman and Robin. The only thing is, is she is a little bit bossy. In all the games she is in charge. In Catherine game we have magic powers and can fly. She can fly all the time but I have to ask her permission if I want to fly. If she says yes, then she sews my wings on and I can fly too. When we play Batman I always have to be Robin.
Then it’s me, Debbie. I am number five. I am at a new school now because we have moved house. It is called Holy Family. We go there on a bus. That is because we are Catholics. There aren’t any Catholic schools near our new house.
After me is my stupid little brother Raf. He is six. His birthday is on the sixth of the sixth and he was born in 1966. We say he is the devil child. He is a show off. He always climbs on things and stands on his head. He has cracked his head open six times and had stitches. I’ve never had stitches. Sometimes we have big fights and I make him cry. Other times we play dares and wrestling. I can make him submit by kneeling on his head.
Next it is the little ones. Rachel and Carla and my new baby sister Laura. They all sleep in a big room together except Laura sleeps in Mum and Dad’s bed. I help Mum with changing Laura’s nappy and pushing her around the village in her pram.
Finally it is the animals. Honey is our dog. She is a long legged Corgi. She has a ginger coat and pointy ears. She chases motorbikes and barks at them. We got her because I was scared of dogs when I was a baby so she is kind of my dog really. Then we have a guinea pig, Stella, lots of gerbils and Miranda has some terrapins. Mum says we can get a cat as well.
I have drawn a map of our house to show where all the rooms are. We did maps at school with Mrs O’Reilly. I did a map of where our school is and all the things near it. This is my map of our house.
Before it was our house a man called Alan Wood lived here. He was an artist. The giant front room used to be his artist studio. It was all messy with paint on the floor. Mum and Dad have made it modern now. They have put green carpet on the floor and blinds you can open and close by pulling a string.
There are new settees made of wood. They have bright orange cushions with little pink stripes on them. You can take the cushions off and pile them up on the floor and use them for jumping on and hiding under. There is a new white table. It is square and shiny and has wheels. Miranda and me use it as a stage for putting shows on. Raf pushes me around the room on it as well.
Dad has a new bureau. I don’t know what a bureau is but he had to make it out of lots of different pieces of wood. He got really cross when he was doing it. It has a lock so he can put his private things in it. It looks a bit wonky so you are not allowed to lean on it.
At the end of the room we have Grandma’s piano. Ben and Pat have piano lessons. They can play songs from Oliver and Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream. I can only play a bit of chopsticks.
In the corner at the end is Granny’s cabinet with all her precious things in. Miranda and me love those things. There are lots of tiny things in there like a teeny-weeny tea set. My favourite are the little cups and saucers made of blue and gold china with pictures on them. We are not allowed to take things out of there, by ourselves, or Dad will get very cross. We can look at them and play with them but only if Mum or Dad are with us.
There is something really good in that room. A hatch that goes through to the next room so you can pass food and stuff through it. Raf and I can climb through it. You have to wriggle on your tummy and be careful or you get stuck.
The best rooms upstairs are the attic bedroom and the bathroom. They are all made out of wood. The other rooms are just bedrooms. The orange room is Mum and Dad’s bedroom. We are not allowed in there but sometimes I hide in there to read my book when I can’t find a quiet place anywhere else.
Miranda and I share a room together. It is a little room next to the bathroom and has bunk beds and a sink in it. For my birthday I got an orange furry rug to put on the floor. I am on the top bunk and Miranda is at the bottom (she wets the bed sometimes).
At night I climb down and get into her bed. We play games and talk. Sometimes we play a game called backs. Where we have to take it in turns tickling each other’s backs.
One time when I had to tickle Miranda’s back I got bored of just doing tickling. So I put different things on her back and tickled her with those, like the little bridge out of the terrapin’s tank.
Miranda and me argue sometimes. Mostly it’s because I am messy or I touch her stuff. One time she drew a line with a piece of chalk down the middle of our bedroom. She said one half of the room was hers and the other was mine and I wasn’t allowed in her half.
She said, “If you put one toe over that line. I’ll chop it off with a carving knife.” I was really scared. Her chin went all wobbly. Trouble is, the bed is on her side of the room. When I wanted to go to bed I had to climb across the cupboards and onto the sink to get into bed. Just so I didn’t put my foot on her side of the room.
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We have a power cut. Mum holds a match to the bottom of a candle and drips wax into a saucer. The smell of the match tickles my nose. Once she has made a puddle of wax she pushes the candle into it and like magic it stands up by itself. I love power cuts.
We are in Mum and Dad’s bedroom because it’s warmer in there. We don’t usually play in there because Dad tells you off. He says, “Can’t we even have one room, without flaming kids in it.” Tonight, we are all in there, all nine of us, as well as Honey the dog and our four kittens.
It sounds different in the dark, quieter and creakier. You can hear the wind blowing outside. It’s a little bit spooky. Mum keeps lighting candles, she puts them all around the room and they dance and flicker across the orange and brown sunflower wallpaper. They make our shadows look huge and when we move they jump about on the wall. We use our bodies and our fingers to make funny shapes. Mum makes a fox by putting her hands flat together with the thumbs up for ears and a cockerel by clasping them together. We try it and play at making the fox eat the cockerel.
The doorbell rings. Mum says,
“Oh crikey. She’s here already. Don’t touch the candles,” and runs downstairs.
“Who is it?” we ask each other. Whispering seems to be the right thing to do in candlelight. Mum comes back in the room and has a girl with her, wearing a Brownie uniform.
“This is Rhiannon,” says Mum, “she’s come to stay for a few days. “ Rhiannon looks the same age as me. She has black hair. Mum says,” Rhiannon’s Dad is a miner and he’s on strike at the moment.” Rhiannon is shy. She hides behind Mum a bit. Then in a tiny voice says,
“Hello,” she has a proper Welsh speakers accent like Catrin Jones over the road.
Mum brings up salmon spread sandwiches, crisps and pop and we play charades. It is like a midnight feast and Christmas all at once. I do, Dumbo. I act out being dumb; covering my hands with my mouth but it makes me fall on the floor from laughing. This makes Mum giggle. Then everyone else joins in. Mum laughs so much her face goes red and tears come out of her eyes. I look up to see if Rhiannon is giggling too and she is.
After charades we have a singsong. We do Michael Finnegan and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain. Mum asks,
“Do you know any songs?” Rhiannon says a Welsh song name and Mum claps her hands. Her and Rhiannon sing it together. It’s one Mum sings in the car sometimes about a little goat that is white, white, white and we all know the chorus. For once, Mum doesn’t sing too loud like she does in church.
I move so I can sit next to Rhiannon. When they finish singing, I clap really hard and whisper to Rhiannon,
“I’m in the Brownies too. I have my hostess badge. I made a cup of tea to get it.” She smiles and shows me her arm. She has the hostess badge too.
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Grandma has come to stay at our house because she is poorly. This means we are all swapping bedrooms. Grandma is sleeping in Jessie’s old room and Jessie is moving in to ours. The best bit is that Miranda and me are going up in the attic.
We are having Ben and Pat’s old room. It’s like a den in there. It’s got a sloping ceiling made out of wood and is right at the very top of the house so Mum and Dad can’t hear you talking in bed.
We are helping Mum tidy up the stuff from our old room. She says if we get it nice and clean, we can sleep up in the attic tonight. Miranda keeps sending me down to the kitchen to sneak for food. We are having a midnight feast. So far I’ve got some raspberry jelly cubes, two packets of salt and vinegar crisps and a Welsh cake. I’ve hidden them under the clothes in the back of our bedroom cupboard. I was balancing on the Welsh Dresser to reach the biscuits Mum hides on the top shelf, when Dad came in. He shouted, “get down from there now.” It gave me a fright and I nearly fell off.
Grandma has been at our house for a long time now. I don’t know when she is going back to her old house. When we went to Mass on Sunday, Mum left the pork and cider casserole on the stove cooking, so that it would be ready when we got back. We all came in from Mass starving. You have to fast for a whole hour before Mass if you are having communion, you can’t even have a bag of crisps or an apple.
When we went in the front room, Grandma was asleep on the couch and Honey, our dog, was cuddled up next to her snoring. Mum went in the kitchen. Then we heard her give a big scream. We all went rushing in to see what had happened. The casserole was all gone, nothing left but a few gristly bits sitting in the bottom of the pan. Grandma and Honey had eaten it all. I think she must’ve got hungry when we were out.
Our best friend, Joanna Portsmouth is scared of Grandma. She says she doesn’t want to come to our house to play anymore. So now we have to go to her house instead. One day, Grandma told her off when she came to call for us. She knocked on the front door and Grandma answered it. Grandma thought she was a boy from the butchers come to deliver the meat. Joanna said, “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” Grandma shouted at Joanna and said,
“You are a very insolent young man. We don’t want any deliveries from you ever again.”
We don’t even have a butcher’s boy. Mum just goes over the road to Smiths to get the meat.
Grandma was fatter and cuddlier when she lived in her old house. I liked going there. Sometimes I stayed the night and slept with her in her big bed. On her dressing table is a pot with a lid made of shiny glass diamonds. You can take it off and inside is some crumbly pale pink powder that smells like Parma Violets and a puffy thing. There is a green glass tray with a black and silver hairbrush set that has swirly patterns made out of the inside of shells on it. I used to like sitting on the green silk stool, pretending to be a grown up, brushing my hair and puffing the powder on my face.
Some of the things in Grandma’s old house are a little bit creepy. The wardrobe is dark and giant, it is big enough to hide inside and smells fusty like old people. It has carved wooden feet like lion’s paws with strange things shaped like flowers underneath them, made of green and orange glass. On the shelf above the fireplace in the front room are two green china cats, with long thin bodies and scary faces that wink at you.
At bedtime, when I used to sleep the night at her house, she made me hot milk with a spoon full of sugar in it and we sat in bed drinking it. When the milk cooled, it would get a disgusting skin on top. I liked picking it off dangling it from my fingers, then wiping it onto the saucer. Underneath the skin was the best bit, the sugary milk right at the bottom. In bed, Grandma told me stories about the dogs and cats she had when she was a little girl, and about her brother Clarence who lived in Africa and bought her presents back from there.
Now Grandma lives with us, she doesn’t tell stories. She just shouts all the time. One day Mum wanted to take her to Porthcawl in the car, but she got furious with Mum and banged on the window trying to get out. A man came past and Grandma shouted,
“ Help me. This person is trying to kidnap me. I don’t know who she is.”
Mum tried to calm her down because she was getting so angry and she said, “ Go away. I don ‘t want you. I want Frances.”
Mum said, “I am Frances,” but Grandma didn’t believe her. Mum looked really sad and went all red in the face.
We have a new babysitter now Grandma is staying with us. She looks after Grandma mostly, but she babysits Miranda, Raf, the little ones and me if Mum and Dad go out. Ben, Pat and Jess are too big to need a babysitter. She is called Miss Rosina Merritt, but we call her Miss Merritt. She is old but very kind. She has a soft wrinkly face and wears a cosy brown cardigan that she knitted herself. Miss Merritt is at our house everyday. She is teaching me two new things, like baking and crocheting.
Last week we made jam tarts together. She showed me how to make the pastry. First you put the flour in the bowl, then you cut the butter into little pieces and squish it into the flour with your fingers until it has all disappeared and looks like a bowl of crumbs.
I got all messy and spilled flour all down my front. I even got it in my hair. Next you put in some water and squeeze all the crumbs together into a big lump. Then you roll it out. I couldn’t do the rolling on my own. The pastry kept sticking to the rolling pin and going all holey. Miss Merritt helped me. She let me cut the circles out with the pastry cutters. The cutter has curly edges and when you press it in and lift it up sometimes the pastry sticks inside. You have to poke it out with your finger. Then you press the circles into the holes in the baking tray and put a spoonful of jam in each.
There was lots of pastry left over once I had cut all the holes out. Miss Merritt said I could make whatever I liked with it while the jam tarts were cooking. I made a pastry snowman with currants for eyes. There was still some left after that, so I ate it up when Miss Merritt wasn’t looking.
Miss Merritt is very good at sewing, knitting and crochet. Mum can’t do knitting and she hates sewing. When Mum and Dad went to the PTA dinner and dance, Miss Merritt let us stay up with her. She showed me the first part of crocheting, where you make the stitches into a chain. It’s a bit like tying knots but you have a hooked needle and you have to loop the wool around and hook it under with the needle. She has lots of different coloured wool. I chose a pale yellow one for my crochet. It’s quite hard to do. I kept forgetting which way to loop the wool around.
While we were doing it we watched the TV and it was Miss Merritt’s favourite programme, ‘Come Dancing.’ The ladies wear floaty frocks of pink and green. They have their hair in a bun, with sparkly jewels in it. The men wear fancy suits and frilly shirts. They do dances like the tango and the waltz, spinning each other around and around. Miranda and I wanted to try and copy them but Miss Merritt said we had to sit nicely if we wanted to stay up late.
It’s good Miss Merritt is here to keep an eye on Grandma. When Grandma first came to stay, we got home from school one day, and Miranda went up to our bedroom to feed her terrapins. She has two of them. She got them for her birthday. Terry and Pinny. Miranda keeps them in a tank in our bedroom. When she looked in the tank, only one was in there. She says it was Terry, but I don’t think she knows which one is which. She came running downstairs to tell Mum and ask if she knew where Pinny was. Mum was kneeling on the floor in the sitting room cleaning the carpet. Honey had been sick all over the floor. Grandma was standing next to her and Mum was saying,
“What on earth did you give her to eat this time? It smells like fish.”
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We are going to the beach. I’m lying in the boot of our car, top to tail with my brother Raf. I have my head on my little sister Carla’s lap. She is scraping the wax out of my ear with her fingernail. She holds up the hard yellow bits between her fingers and shows them to me. She likes doing this. There are eight of us squished in the car. My Dad is driving.
I like it in the boot. It’s warm and steamy. When I lie on my back, I can look out of the back window and see fat grey raindrops sliding down. Sometimes telegraph wires rush by like someone has drawn black lines in the sky. Radio 1 is on. When my sister pokes in my ear, it makes the music disappear and go all muffly. It’s like she’s doing it in time to the wires going over my head.
I scramble over the back seat, fighting to be first on the beach. It is cold and rainy. The wind smells salty. The sea is brown; it looks murky and churned up and the waves have foamy white tops. The sky is grey. There are no other families on the beach.
Raf is eight. He is a really good climber. We take off our shoes and socks and run down to the sea where the big rocks are. We paddle in the shallow bits. The water is so cold it makes us squeal. We play dares. We dare each other to go further and further into the water. We scream and run away from the waves.
He makes up a game. We have to climb around the edge of the rocks without getting our feet wet or touching the sand. We cling on like limpets, trying to go around them before the waves break and knock us off. This is a great game. We love it when one or other of us gets soaked with spray. We roar at the sea as loud as we can and collapse on the sand in fits of giggles.
Raf and me find a place where the rocks are smooth and flat. They are filled with rock pools. We lie on our bellies looking into the underwater worlds. I watch two hermit crabs fighting over their houses. Then stick my finger into the anemones to make them curl up and tickle me with their alien fingers.
I like balancing on the big boulders above the rock pools. You can make shapes in the water below. Raf and I cling to each other, sticking our arms and legs out to make strange two-headed creatures. I climb onto his shoulders to see if we can make a human totem pole.
We sit down on the rocks for a rest. Our clothes are soggy. It is getting a bit dark. The only daylight left is a thin streak of silver above the sea. We climb down and start to walk back along the shore. We have come a really long way. I’m worried we will get told off for going so far. I race back up the beach. The wet sand makes it hard to run and my legs ache. My brother gets a stitch and stops to catch his breath. He is lagging far behind me. I scream at him to hurry up. I’m scared we are going to get in trouble. Dad will be waiting for us in the car. He will be getting really cross. The beach is totally empty. We are the last ones. We are definitely going to get done.
I can’t remember where we left our shoes. We spend ages looking for them. I’m getting crosser and crosser with Raf. He is so slow and stupid. Then he spots the shoes perched on a rock. We stuff our sandy damp feet into them. It feels horrible and gritty. I help him tie his laces. Chanting, Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. I grab his hand and drag him off the beach.
The sand is rubbing between our toes as we climb the small rocky path up to the car park. It is steep. By the time we get to the top we are puffed out. My clothes feel damp and cold and I’m tired. I think we will see the headlights of our car in the car park, but I can’t see them. In fact, I can’t see any cars, or any lights. The car park is completely empty. There is not a single car to be seen, not one.
I get a funny, fluttery sick feeling in my tummy. I can hear my heart in my ears as if I have covered them with a seashell. My brother starts to sniffle. I put my arm round him,
“Don’t cry,“ I say trying to comfort him. “They’re probably playing a joke on us and will be back in a minute.” My voice wobbles a bit. “Maybe they forgot about us, but they’ll come back really soon. Honest Raf. They will. Please don’t cry.”
We walk around the car park a few times. Then we sit on a rock. He’s still crying like a big baby. I sing Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting out loud to cheer him up. I show him the moves. I start to feel a bit better and Raf stops crying. We play karate, chopping each other and doing kung fu kicks round the car parks.
It is dark now. The beach looks really scary. The rocks make shapes like crouching creatures. The sea moans and groans. A seagull flies past and screeches like a baby screaming. My Dad hasn’t come back. I have a lump in my throat from trying really hard not to cry.
My brother wipes the snot off his face with the back of his hand. He nudges me, pointing to a little light further down the road. I suddenly remember there is a café, where we sometimes go to get crisps and pop and ice cream wafers. I hug him hard, shouting out loud with relief. We run hand-in-hand towards the light. The thought of ice cream makes me feel starving hungry.
Inside the café it is warm and bright. There is one of those green strip lights that dazzles your eyes. A kind looking lady is standing behind the counter with brown curly hair and glasses. She has a checked, orange overall on like a dinner lady. I go up to the shiny red, plastic counter and say to the lady,
“Excuse me, do you know where I can find a policeman please?” In Mrs O’Reilly’s class at school she told us what to do if you get lost. She said you shouldn’t talk to strangers but you should try and find a policeman and ask the policeman for directions.
The lady is not a policeman but she not looks kind. She is. She is super kind. She makes us sit at a table and calls us poor lambs. She gets a tea towel to dry our hair and tells us to take off our wet shoes. Then she brings us steamy hot cocoa in plastic beakers with rich tea biscuits while she phones for a policeman.
We wait for ages and ages, sipping our cocoa off our teaspoons and dunking our biscuits. We pick out the bits of milk skin and flick them at each other. We wonder if they are missing us at home.
“I bet they are really worried,” I say, “I bet they’ve got a search party out looking for us.” A picture pops into my head, like an old black and white film. Mum is wearing a black veil over her face. She is in church all on her own. She walks up the aisle and kneels in front of the altar. She looks up at Jesus on the cross. Then she starts praying to him. She weeps and wails begging him to return her poor lost children.
“I think they’ve been kidnapped by aliens,” says my brother. “They zoomed down and thwack, disappeared the car in one blast of their super ray gun. We’ll have to go and live in an orphanage now and we’ll get beaten every day and have to live on gruel. I’ve seen it on telly.”
“You’re an idiot. Stop being so stupid.” My tummy starts to feel a bit funny again. “What does a stupid idiot like you know anyway.”
The lady comes back and she has a policeman with her. He is big and quite fat and his face looks stern. He has huge, hairy eyebrows that look like two squashed beetles. When he starts to talk, he has a deep Welsh voice that makes him seem friendlier. He takes off his hat and asks us if we know our address and phone number. We both know the address, but neither of us can remember the phone number. The policeman takes out a notebook and writes down the address. My brother and I find this very funny. We try really hard not to giggle, but the minute we catch each other’s eyes, laughter comes bubbling up. My brother stuffs the tea towel in his mouth to stop himself. I laugh even more. It comes out in a snort like a pig. The policeman doesn’t tell us off; instead he smiles and says,
“Ok you two, when the joke is over I’ll take you home, shall I? Give you a ride in my police car.”
It is dark and stuffy inside the police car. It smells of air freshener and tobacco and grown up things. We sit in the back peeking through the grille to see if we can see handcuffs or truncheons or any sign of robbers in the back. The policeman doesn’t put the sirens on but he does drive very fast. The seat is smooth and slidey and we bump into each other shrieking, as we go round corners.
The policeman pulls up on our street. We point to our house. He bundles us out of the car and we wait behind him, hiding behind his legs, as he knocks at the door. We have never come home with a policeman before. I wonder if we will be in really big trouble. Mum answers the door. She is smiling and happy.
She doesn’t look cross or worried, or as if she has been weeping and wailing. She is really surprised to see the policeman.
“ Evening,” he says, “Do you happen to have lost two small children?” Mum looks confused. The policeman drags us out from behind him. “Do these two belong to you by any chance?” Mum nods and gives a little yelping sound. Then she goes bright pink from her neck all the way up to her forehead. Mum bends down and gives us both a big giant hug. She squeezes us so tight it hurts. Then she ends us inside. She stays on the doorstep whispering to the policeman.
It is warm and busy and safe inside our house. It smells of Sunday dinner. My Dad and my other brothers and sisters crowd round us, trying see what is going on and asking where we have been. Dad looks a bit shifty when we tell him and mutters something under his breath that sounds like the f word.
It is nice to be home. Mum sends us upstairs to dry off. We come back down in our pyjamas for Sunday leftovers and piles of hot buttered toast. As we are eating, our brothers and sisters and Mum and Dad sit round the table and make us tell them the story of what happened. My brother and I start to tell them, but we keep arguing over who did what. Every time we tell it we remember more and more things. Then we make up some new bits to make it more exciting. We tell it over and over again until it is time for bed.
I snuggle up under the blankets on my top bunk, feeling cosy. I lie in bed thinking about everything that has happened. I start to remember the feeling of the dark empty beach and the horrible sound of the screaming gulls. I shiver. I feel really sick and my heart thumps in my ears again. I slip out of my bed and tiptoe into my brothers’ room. He is still awake. I sneak into his bed and hug him really hard. We make a little burrow out of the bedclothes for the two of us and snuggle up tight. I sing Kung Fu Fighting in his ear over and over until we both fall asleep.
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The school bus shudders to a stop. I’m reading ’First Term at Malory Towers’ and have nearly finished it. Kids rush to the front peeling out the door. My sister Miranda, sitting next to me, nudges me. I don’t want to stop reading so I ignore her. She nudges me harder. I groan, put my book away and squish into the aisle, sandwiched between two enormous boys from the secondary school. She squeezes in behind me, pushing me hard against Billy Green’s back. Fibres from Billy’s holey school jumper, brush against my nose and mouth. He smells of Weetabix.
I can’t see where I’m going. I’m being shoved forwards from behind towards the doorway. My foot hovers in space feeling for where the step should be. As Billy bursts through the door, I tumble out behind him, landing hard on the pavement. My knees hurt and my skirt is twisted up behind me showing my knickers. Kids snicker. I scramble up pulling my skirt down and inspect my knees for cuts. There is only a small graze. I scuttle onwards up the hill into school. I have almost reached the entrance when I hear it.
“Take my knickers off.” It is a roar. The loud rumble of kids trundling into the school gates is drowned out by the sound of it.
“Did… you…. hear… me? Take… my…. knickers …off …now!” It is my sister Miranda’s voice and it is me she is roaring at. I stop, stand as still as I can, tucking myself in. Maybe nobody will notice me. I stare hard at the pavement, my eyes fixed on a flattened wad of cloud shaped chewing gum. A hot spikiness climbs from my toes to the top of my head. I can feel her eyes poking holes in my back.
Kids stop their morning march, heads swivelling to see what is going on. I raise my eyes a fraction to look at her. She doesn’t mean it. She wouldn’t. Not here. Not now. Not just before school. She is puffed up like a cockerel, red in the face, eyes fierce.
“Take them off.” This time quiet, but more scary because I know she means it.
“Please don’t make me. I’m really sorry. I’ll never do it again.” My voice is a whisper. Her hands move to her hips fury making her chin wobble.
“Too late. You promised.”
She’s right I did. She made me. Sitting cross-legged on the floor. Our bedroom. Sunday evening. Crossed my heart and hoped to die. Swore on Mum’s life and the Holy Bible. I did all three. Watched her, as she carefully peeled back the plastic packaging, held up each spanking new, dazzlingly white pair. Showed off the different coloured trims around the waistband and leg holes. Marvelled at the little heart shaped design on the front and the letters spelling out the days of the week. Placed them folded neatly into triangles in her drawer.
“They’re for best.” She said. “They’re a present from Mum and you’re,” stabbing me in the chest with her finger. “Not allowed to touch them. Swear on it. Swear now that you won’t.”
This morning. Late waking, Mum shouting. Breakfast cereal piled on the table like a cardboard city. Scoffing sugar puffs down. Can’t find my school clothes. Rushing. Don’t bother brushing my teeth. Washing my face. Mum shouting, “You’ll miss the bus.’’
Checked the dirty clothes pile. Found my favourite skirt, the short checked one, scrunched up and mucky. Put it on. Ran into the bedroom. Looked in my drawer. No knickers. One, odd sock, checked the odd sock pile, found one. Nearly matches, a bit longer and whiter than the other. Checked the dirty clothes pile. One pair of grubby grey pants, the elastic coming away. Mum shouting. “Get down here now!” Opened my sister’s drawer. Meant to borrow an old pair. Saw them gleaming, shiny and new.
“Take my knickers off. Right now.” My lip trembles. I blink back tears and bite down on it hard. A straggle of kids stands round watching not bothered about being late to class. I start to cry.
“Please don’t make me.”
“Right now.” I begin to pull them down. One hand holds my skirt down. The other awkwardly edges them down my cold thighs and over my scraped knees. I get them to my ankles. The kids are clapping and shouting,
“Off. Off. Off,” in unison. The sound booms in and out of my ears bouncing around in my brain. I wipe snot from my nose. She pushes her face right into mine.
“I hate you,’ she says through gritted teeth. Then gives me a hard shove and walks away.
I stand there, knickers still around my ankles. As she disappears into the school gates all the breath comes rushing out of me in a huge whoosh. I can’t believe she didn’t make me take them off. I actually think, for once, I might have won. I pull them up with a small grin of victory and head into school.
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