Authors: Claire King
Tags: #General Fiction
A story for when you’re older, in case time makes you forget. To remind you that you have always had the wisdom to know what’s important, and the hope that brings dreams to life.
For Amélie and Beatrix, with all my love.
Maman’s belly is at the stove, her bottom squeezed up against the table where we are colouring. Her arm is stretched forwards, stirring tomato smells out of the pan and into our socks. She isn’t singing.
It is mostly cool in the kitchen, but half of me is sunny and hot because I’m sitting in a ribbon of outside. The rest of me is in the stripy shade of the socks and knickers that dangle from the wooden airer above our heads. They have been there for five sleeps already, since that rainy afternoon when we couldn’t stop getting under Maman’s feet even when we were in a different room altogether.
A fly lands on the edge of the butter dish, and another on my empty plate. Then one jumps on to my arm, making the hairs stand up. Margot watches them. Her eyes roll around so they are mostly white and her eyebrows waggle. Two more flies skid to a stop on the oilcloth.
The flies think our house is an airport, Pea, she says.
Margot is like me and she is not like me. I am five and a half, Margot is only four, but she’s tall for her age. We both like cuddles and insects and cuddling insects and we both have freckles and green eyes, like Maman, with sparkles of blue and brown. In the sunlight Maman’s eyes are kaleidoscopes.
Margot and I are not the same, you can tell by our dreams. I am always dreaming about witches chasing me, or picnic-days at the beach before all the dying happened – those are the best ones. Margot dreams about tiny people that live in the cupboards and have parties on Thursdays, and about jigsaws that make themselves.
Ladies are like cars and men are like motorbikes, Margot says.
You have to listen to Margot because she explains things.
Motorbikes don’t have doors, but cars do, to put the people in, she tells me. You can put people inside ladies too. And they have doors for the going in and out.
I stare at Maman’s big fat belly, imagining the door. I have never seen it, which is strange. I have seen the doorknob, though, sticking out through her clothes where her belly button used to be.
Go and knock on it, Pea, the baby might answer, says Margot.
In my head I can see the baby opening up Maman’s tummy to say hello, or to sign for a parcel. Before I can stop it my laugh bubbles out of my lips like a raspberry. Maman’s head turns to look at me.
Peony, she says (because that is one of my names), and her face is grey clouds. Then she turns away again and stirs faster.
Maman, I say.
She turns back. But I have forgotten to think of something important to say, so I quickly say the first thing I can think of.
There is a fly stuck to your foot.
Well, there is. Maman has bare feet and under one of her heels I can see a little fly leg sticking out. And a little fly bum.
Maman stares at me for a moment with eyes that say ‘this is all your fault’, and then leans on the table so she can inspect her feet. She lifts one off the tiles and cricks backwards to look at it over her shoulder, her hair falling down her back like a red curtain. The bottom of her foot is black. Maman’s feet get dirtier than mine even though we both walk barefoot on the same floors.
The other one, I whisper.
She swaps feet. There it is: the squashed fly. She peels it off with the tips of her fingers and puts her foot back down slowly. Her mouth wobbles as though it can’t decide what shape to make. She looks at the floor, her eyes moving over the crumbs, the small bits of onion and garlic skins, the cat hair and the outside dirt. The table is not very clean either. We do try not to make too much mess, but if we do I can’t reach the sink to wipe it up.
I am quiet now, waiting for what happens next. Maman puts the fly into the dustbin and then holds on to the table with two hands, rocking as though there is sad music in the kitchen that only she can hear. The tomato sauce is spluttering in the pan behind her. Without saying anything else, she straightens up and takes her tears upstairs.
The darkness is in my stomach. This is what scares me most.
Telling Maman about the fly was a disaster, I say.
Yes, says Margot, you should have told her she was looking beautiful today.
That would have been better, I say.
Never mind, says Margot. I don’t really like tomato sauce. Shall we have a picnic?
I hear the splash of the shower coming on upstairs. On the stove, spits of tomato sauce are dancing over the saucepan and on to the floor. Some of them are flying so high they are splattering the clothes on the airer. Our clothes, saucepans and frying pans, strings of garlic and chillies and onions, dried sausages, all hanging together out of reach on S-shaped hooks with pointed ends. All getting very spotty with tomato. I get up from the table and turn off the gas.
Come on, Pea, says Margot. I’m hungry.
Outside the bright sunshine makes us squint. I have forgotten my hat and can already feel my hair heating up. Sometimes I wish it didn’t get so hot here, but Maman said that French summers are much nicer than those in England, where she came from. She said that here at least you can always rely on the sun.
We stand in the courtyard and wonder where we will go today, although the answer has been the same for two summers, one winter and a birthday. Our choosing began when Maman came back from hospital last year. She had changed from fat to thin, but she didn’t bring back a baby like she promised. She left it at the hospital, along with her happiness.
When Papa was at home things were still OK. He hugged Maman all the time and there were girl-shaped spaces in between their elbows and tummies that I could squeeze into and join in the cuddle. But when he was out working, Maman would tell us to just get out of the house and go play, and so we did. We play mostly in the low meadow, and sometimes on Windy Hill, the places that Maman used to take us on walks before the dead baby happened. Some days I still ask her to come along, but she prefers it indoors. Even though she started growing a new baby right away, it didn’t put the happiness back.
Then Papa died. One day in spring, he was driving his tractor on a hill and he fell off it and was squashed. That was tragic, the priest at the church said so, but afterwards it was a catastrophe. Without Papa here there is never a very good time to be in the house, so every day we have to decide where to go.
Sunny side or shady side? says Margot, which is another way of asking the same question.
If we go around the sunny side of the house we can take the path down through the peach orchards and across the village road into the low meadow. If we go to the shady side, and around the back of the barn, we can cross the high pasture and go sit on Windy Hill.
Shady side, I say. I want to go and see the wing turbines.
The turbines are taller than houses. They stand over on another hill in two rows, like three-wing angels with their backs to the sea, watching over the villages and the meadows. They make the electricity that goes to our light switches, so at night when I’m in bed, even when everything else is dark, I know there is a little bit of light behind my door. That stops me being afraid. The darkness is lonely, the turbines stir it away. When I watch them turning, see that they are still there, everything slows down to the steady round and round and I forget about being upset.
Pea, scolds Margot, for goodness sake, it’s midday. There is no shade on Windy Hill, we will burn up like toast and get sunstroke and melt.
I start to argue, but Margot interrupts me, which she does a lot.
Today I am the maman, she says, so you will do as you’re told.
But we haven’t been to Windy Hill for ages, I say.
Pea, look at you, you haven’t even got a hat on. We’re going to the low meadow and that’s the end of it. Margot folds her arms. Besides, we can paddle, she adds, looking down at my yellow sandals.
The stream will be cold and my feet are hot. The stream will feel good. Margot knows this. Margot knows a lot of things before I even think of them.
Why are Maman’s feet so dirty and not mine? I ask her.
Because she spends too much time indoors where the dirt is, says Margot.
There didn’t used to be so much dirt.
There didn’t used to be so much indoors either.
Papa wouldn’t have liked it.
I don’t like it, I say.
Can you remember if Maman ever came paddling with us? Margot asks.
I can, I say. She definitely did. Her feet looked like big white fish under the ripples. Her toenails were painted pink and she waggled them in the water.
Yes, says Margot. Her feet are dirty now because she doesn’t paddle enough. And also, my tummy is rumbling, we have to stop dawdling.
I’m thirsty, I say.
Come on then, says Margot.
To get a drink of water from the courtyard tap you have to kneel underneath it and the water runs down your neck and wets your clothes, but they dry fast in the sunshine.
We’re going to need some bread, says Margot.
Sylvie, the breadlady, has left our baguettes on top of the letterbox as usual. There are two of them, hot as though they had just been baked and each with a little paper coat around its middle. Since Papa died we only eat one of the baguettes each day, but Sylvie still brings two. I put the hard ones in a box outside the front door and the peachman takes them for his pigs.
I break off the knob-ends of the bread, one for each of us, and we dig inside them for crumbs as we walk. On the way down through the orchard we look under the trees for peaches that have fallen off. There are plenty, more than we can hold. We both eat one, ripe and sweet, then I make an apron out of my still-damp dress to carry the rest.
Down in the low meadow, the ground is softer and there is plenty of shade. On the path down from the road, we skip around the brambles, checking for ripe blackberries, but they are all still green and red. Josette’s donkeys meet us at the bottom of the path and we give them the crusty leftovers of our bread. Then we sit in a patch of dandelions under the alders and oaks close to the stream. Somewhere up in the trees a bird is drilling holes.