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FULL HOUSE


I did make things up. What youngest child in a large family doesn’t? It’s called survival. But I didn’t make it up about the horses, and I didn’t dream it either. But no-one believed me. They laughed. Pony mad they called me. But I did see the horses, and the riders. It was the first time I saw her.


There, under my street light, the one that threw its sickly fluorescence over my eiderdown, stood the two horses. Their sweat stained coats shone purple in the yellow light, and dragon clouds of breath steamed from their cupped nostrils, as their flanks quickly rose and fell. I scratched frantically at the frost swirls patterning the inside of my window, making a hole to peep through. I still couldn’t see the riders so I lifted the window latch and thumped the slippery glass. The thud of the opening window broke the cold stillness below and the riders glanced upwards. She

looked up at the girl in pyjamas hanging out of her bedroom window on a freezing November night. I saw her smiling and watched in awe as she raised her gloved hand to wave. She gazed straight at me and smiled that smile of one who knows her power, even over a little girl, creased with sleep, who had jumped from her bed at the excitement of hearing the unusual metallic clatter of horseshoes on the suburban tarmac.
I had never seen anything or anyone so beautiful. The horses were straight out of the Stubbs’ painting that I had a crumpled picture of, stuck inside my pony scrapbook; all bulging eyes and Thoroughbred light-leggedness. The man rider was swathed in a heavy gabardine hunting mackintosh, and wore a top hat. But it was the lady that took my attention. She was a real lady, a real lady riding side-saddle with her habit swathed over the front, the neatly booted right foot peeping out. She too wore a top hat, hers had a fine veil that fell over her face, accentuating her mystery but not hiding the beauty. I stared.
The lady laughed, a high tinkling sound made of glass; the man was trying to fish a box out of his pocket whilst keeping the dancing horse still. The horse circled and shook its head impatiently. She leant down and tried to catch at its bridle but missed, another laugh spilled over the frosty pavement to fragment into tiny slivers. The man peeled off his bulky woollen gloves and awkwardly pulling out two cigarettes, placed them both in his mouth. He lit them and then held one out to the lady. With one graceful sweep of a gloved hand she brushed aside the veil and taking the cigarette, spun her horse and kicked it forward. The man fumbled with his reins and gloves as she set off at fast trot, laughter and cigarette smoke spilling from her parted lips. I leant out of the window, the cold biting through my skin, wishing she would turn and wave once more. The staccato beat of the horses’ hooves and the jingle of their bridles receded into the dark night. They were gone.
I shut the window and returned to my bed, pushing my feet down to find the lingering warmth of the hot water bottle. I lay and slowly turned over every detail in my mind, like one would caress warm pebbles on a beach, until every cherished second was familiar. The more I went over those few precious moments the better it got; the man had blown me a kiss, and the lady had turned and waved goodbye. After all they were my memories.
I knew that we would meet again. There had been a connection, unspoken, but in that smile. Now I thought I knew of love, infatuation, a crush, whatever you wanted to call it.
I shouldn’t have told the family about my lady and my horses. I should have known that they would ridicule them, and me. It was that note of intensity that gave me away. They knew then how important it was. That was my mistake. Never, ever let anyone see how much you care about something. It’s ammunition. And they will use it.
The next time I saw her it was summer and the season of Sunday School picnics and galas. I was forced by Mum and Dad to go with another family to the annual Dr Barnado’s Children’s Fete at the neighbouring Holy Trinity Church. We arrived late as I had been trying hard not to be ready. I didn’t want to go, and for a very good reason.
The church hall was filling with families, all happy smiling faces and excited gabbling children, swirling round the room in a colourful pattern of summer frocks for the mums, bright shirts for the men and boys, and party dresses for the girls. As their confidence grew so did the noise, loud hellos across the hall, and exclamations of mutual adoration bounced off the walls. Excited toddlers ran around shouting nonsense and wiping their snotty noses on people’s best trousers. I leant against the wall and watched with distaste.
A large lady leant over into my face and gushed;-
“Hello sweetheart and who do you belong to?” The posh accent spoke to me of money and a dislike of children. I stared at her whiskery chin and the powdery pores of her rouged cheeks. The violent red of her lipstick was sneaking into the deep ravines that ran from her lips up towards her nostrils. Draped across her shoulders a dead fox stared belligerently at me through its glassy eyes. She drew herself up stiffly, the tight floral silk dress bulging over her impressive bosom and hips.
“No-one.” I was defiant. She stared back at me, and I was reminded of the fox as her small beady eyes, framed by the brown line of her drawn-on eyebrows and defined by lines of smudged eye pencil, stared back at me. I suddenly felt hot and unwashed, and that she was taking note of the grimy line round my neck that stayed from one bath night to the next. I wished I had cleaned my teeth after lunch; from the curl of her nostrils she was catching the acrid whiff of vinegar from my fish and chips. She smelt of expensive perfume which enveloped me in a warm embrace. It was no relation of Mum’s Boot’s lavender water.
“What a silly goose, you must be with someone.” She laughed a little too heartily. I pointed in the direction of the Todd family, their wholesomeness radiated across the room to where I was clutching my Dr Barnado’s collecting box made in paper Mache in the shape of a little house. It was just the sort of house that I desperately wanted to live in; shutters framing the windows, a glint of pink chintz curtain peeping out, and roses round the door. It was just the sort of house the Todd family would live in.
“Well go over there just now, my dear, and hand your box into Mrs Lancaster. She’s the lady in the turquoise cardigan standing behind the table,” she said. I hesitated but a firm hand in the small of my back propelled me over to the table.
“This little girl would like to hand her box in, Marjorie.” The bosom smiled at the turquoise cardigan who in turn smiled at me. I didn’t smile back. I didn’t want to hand my box over to this woman. She would know by the weight of it sitting in her hand that it wasn’t full and I didn’t want her to know it was my box. My plan had been to sidle up to the table and when no one was watching, push it into the collection of little houses sitting on the table, to be anonymous, like me.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” said the turquoise cardigan. “That’s very good of you to have filled this box.” I winced at the word filled. She was purposely tormenting me now, she must have felt that it wasn’t full. I felt my face colour with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, and staring down at the cracked linoleum, drifted away from the table.
Across the hall I could see the family I had come with, the children looked glossy and healthy, like well-bred thoroughbreds; tall limbed and shiny haired. Their clothes fitted and looked bought for them. Not for them the hand-me-downs and jumble bargains. I looked down at my one and only party dress, its bright blue faded by too many washings. It had been bought for me but that was two years ago and now I had to keep pulling at the waist to keep it from riding up my bony chest. It had been a favourite, a real frock with a skirt that flounced out from the tight waist which was fastened with a bow at the back. Two big deep pockets were stuck on the front and decorated with a puppy on one and a kitten on the other. I had chosen it myself from a proper shop. The shop assistant had said how grown up I had looked in it but as I caught a glance of myself in the hall window, the prim white Mary Jane collar and the too tight waist with the ridiculous billowing pockets, made me feel young and stupid. I tried to disappear into the walls, staring red faced into the paintings done by the Sunday School children, of Jesus being nailed to the cross.
“Come along now! Tea is being served in the kitchen!” Another large lady swept me up and ushered me towards a cavernous cold kitchen filled with trestle tables lines with wooden benches. Tea turned out to be a repetition of Sunday School’s Christmas party tea with pink and squidgy fish paste smeared onto thin white bread, burnt sausage rolls, a bowl of crisps which was quickly commandeered by some big lads at the top of the table, and little wooden sticks upon which were speared greasy yellow chunks of cheese. This was all washed down with weak orange squash splashed out of large kettles that gave the juice a horrible metallic tang. The other children smiled and battled bravely to eat the fodder placed in front of them, but I didn’t bother, as we always had fish and chips on a Saturday lunchtime. It saved time on washing up and Mum could get off early to the shops. The sandwiches were followed by tasteless ice cream and watery jelly, and then it was back into the hall to play games.
Two ladies organised the games while the other two sat at the table surrounded by the little houses and broke the seals on the bottom of the boxes then counted the piles of pennies that fell out. They wore white gloves to do this, presumably to keep their hands clean; money is a filthy thing and one doesn’t know just where it has come from. The large bosomy lady, whom I now knew to be called Mrs Osberton, sailed between the two groups, dishing out encouragement and praise. Apart from Mrs O they all looked the same to me; lambswool twin-sets in pastel colours and pearls in a single rope close to the neckline, above which the wrinkled turkey skin of their necks wobbled furiously as they shouted instructions to the children or bent over the piles of pennies, counting under their breath.
I won the first three games; nice middle class children weren’t much competition for my particular approach to musical chairs, pass the parcel and British Bulldogs. Life with four big brothers had taught me to look after myself and when there was a bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate at stake, no one was going to get in my way. There were tears and fingers of accusation pointed but I didn’t care, I had got the chocolate and eaten it before anything could be said. The ladies in their twin-sets were aghast, nice girls didn’t push and shove and fight like wild boys. Their daughters at my age had worn turquoise and peach chiffon dresses layered with frothy petticoats and tied at the waist with a satin princess bow. Sweet and pretty and demure, those girls were groomed to marry bank managers and solicitors just like their daddies.
The ladies had had enough and conspired against me to prevent further taking of booty. I was furthest away from the cushion when the music was stopped in musical bumps. I was out. I retired gracefully, I didn’t really care. The prize I most wanted to win was the Thorntons of Harrogate special selection box awarded to the person whose house held the most pennies. How I wanted to win that toffee, not because of the toffee but because of the acclaim, the recognition by the adoring public that yes, my family were good kind citizens who wanted to improve the lot of mankind, and could afford to be generous. I wanted to belong to the elite membership of winners. Every year I came to this party and every year the Todd family had won it, the final humiliation, as if they took me just to prove how superior in all ways they were. Yes, not only could their children outshine me in class, and on the hockey and athletics field, and play six different instruments between them, and win the best attendance prizes at Sunday school, but just to show how thoroughly good and Christian they were, they won the Barnardo’s house prize too. They weren’t even allowed to eat the toffee. My Mum and Dad couldn’t give a monkeys; they were my teeth to rot as I pleased.
Every year as the dreaded party got nearer I spent hours scratching around the house, looking under cupboards, down the back of the settee, and then the final desperation of rummaging in Dad’s trouser pockets. God wouldn’t mind, it wasn’t really stealing, it was for the poor orphans. I told myself that but I knew the truth; it was for me. I wanted to win that prize. They would treat me different then, all of them, and I wouldn’t feel so angry with Mum and Dad. Somehow it would make it all OK.
Just then there was a commotion at the door. It sounded as if the Queen had arrived. I could hear lots of cooing and aahing and “Doesn’t she looked gorgeous?” and “Isn’t she beautiful?” Into the room she sailed with Mrs O beaming and gushing in front like a court usher introducing the Queen of Sheba. It was her, my lady of the night, the lady that had brought the exotic into my dreams. And here she was, in the same room as me. I instinctively backed up to the wall, a flush rising to my face as I thrust my sticky hands deep into the voluminous pockets. Her name was Suzanne.
“With a Z!” her mother emphasised to the adoring crowd gathering around. Mrs O was her mother, a fact which shocked me at first, but when I studied her mother I could see that under the puffy excesses there had once been a strong and attractive face. Suzanne wore a cream trouser suit which showed her dark features to perfection, the heavy dark tresses of hair lay smooth and glossy against the pale silk. Her face with its high cheekbones and cupid bow mouth was made up like a film star. My mum’s half hearted dabs with compressed powder had never prepared me for something like this. I stared. She didn’t notice, she was busy charming the little ones, and the twin-set ladies were clucking round her to advise against picking up toddlers whose grubby fists still clung to bits of chocolate crispie cake.
I waited for her to see me. ME! Perhaps she was just getting these other people out of the way so that she could give me her full attention. She surely must have seen me. I smiled at her but she wasn’t looking. Then she did look and I smiled again, a huge knowing smile with open teeth and lips and everything out there for her to see just how I felt. I knew she felt the same too. Her eyes flipped casually over one as if I was no-one, no-one she knew or cared for. My smile baked onto my face with the heat from inside me. I couldn’t stop smiling because if I did I would scream. She was pretending not to know me? She didn’t love me? I couldn’t understand. Was it something that I had done? Something I hadn’t done? Maybe her mother had turned her against me?
Her mother was speaking. I leant on the wall and slid to the floor. I didn’t care anymore.
“Now children, if you would all like to sit on the floor, we will give out the prizes for the Barnado’s House Competition.” Mrs O beamed happily at everyone. She was in her element now, not only was she in control of all these good people, but also her darling daughter had appeared to bless the company with her presence. Mrs O’s house was certainly full.
I placed my hands tightly over my ears, letting my hair swing over my arms to hide them. I didn’t want to hear. There was clapping and cheers and as I looked up I saw Amanda Todd receiving a large blue tin embossed with silver writing. It was my tin of Thornton’s toffee, and handing it over with that smile was Suzanne. I was betrayed. My hands slipped from my ears.
“Finally, I would just like to say,” Mrs O continued in her peacock’s voice, “just how grateful the children at St Eugene’s are for all your efforts and …”
That was all I heard before a great gush of red hot anger pounded into my ears. St Eugene’s? St. Bloody Eugene’s? That was where my money was going to? Not to the starving children of Biafra, or the homeless beggars of Calcutta? I wanted to shout at Mrs O;-
That’s rubbish! I know Billy Braithwaite from St Eugene’s! He’s in my class at school and he’s never said “Thank you” for anything in his life! He’s bloody trouble and my Dad says he’ll end up in Borstal! And what’s more he smells and wets himself in class!
There was silence in the hall. Had I shouted it out aloud? I didn’t think so, but why were they all staring at me?
“Now, children,” Mrs O broke the silence, “if you would all like to make an orderly queue, Mrs Lancaster here will give you back your houses. And don’t worry, they all have a new sticker on the bottom to keep those precious pennies in! I look forward to seeing you all next year.” Mrs O, a smile now pasted firmly to her red lips, pointed to the turquoise cardigan sat in the corner with a stack of newly sealed houses. The good children quietly filtered past and collected their respective boxes.
“Why don’t you wait outside for us, dear?” Mrs Todd motioned to the open door and continued to scoop up her brood. I nodded, and pushing past the other children, held my hand out to the turquoise cardy who thrust my house into it. I walked to the door, my hands sweaty and sticking to the paper mache. By the door was a bin. As I walked past it I dropped the house into it, and wiped my hands on the faded blue of the dress.
“I won’t be needing that.” I said to nobody in particular, and pushed open the door into the sun of the rest of the day.
THE END


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Tag der Veröffentlichung: 28.01.2010

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