Little Miss Wonder
LOOK BACK IN ANGER
When I answered the door that morning I knew it was Justin, even though I hadn't seen him since I'd been a child and he'd gone away. Wrinkles gently pinched soft creases round ashy blue eyes and where once there had been plump, curved cheeks now bones were draped with baggier skin. His hair was exactly as I remembered. Rough, mousey blonde tufts defying all laws of gravity. I automatically opened my arms in wide acceptance.
"Come in, come in!" A reflection of a smile crossed his face as he stepped over the mud encrusted boots which lay abandoned on the hallway floor.
"Twenty years since we last saw each other and this place is just as messy as it was then. It hasn't changed one bit".
He was right. Apart from a new front door the cottage hadn't been touched in years. Set back from the main road a rough dirt track marked its isolated position and like the lonely child in a playground it stood forlorn. I had tried the best I could to brighten the interior with vases of cheerful flowers. My efforts were wasted. Nothing could detract from the atmosphere which loitered in every room like an unseen fog of depression.
Justin followed me through into the kitchen. Black and white lino covered the floor like a well used chess board. On one side of the sparse room a large Welsh dresser housed a crowded assortment of hand painted plates our Mother had lovingly collected before she died. Justin sat as if waiting for an appointment on one of the shabby chairs which congregated round an oak table. I busied myself making the tea, nerves rather than thirst dictating my actions. The ease of our words had surprised me. It wasn't how I had imagined this meeting would be after all that had gone before.
The peeling kitchen window frame outlined a smeared picture of the outside world. The front garden lay like a green tablecloth splashed with a vivid colour palate of welcome spring blooms. A blackbird hopped across the lawn. He cocked his head to one side with an inquisitive jerk before darting out of my view. Dominating the garden a pendulous cherry tree sprouted fresh green buds.
Justin sensed my thoughts. "Remember when I planted that tree?"
"Yes" I replied. I didn't have to say anything more. That memory was firmly rooted in both our minds.
We cycled past the village shop, out into flat landscape and blissful freedom. The road stretched before us, cutting a trail through vast squares of ripened, rippling corn. Brambles entwined themselves through full hedgerows and the air offered the sweet scent of wild honeysuckle. High above, the sun blazed without mercy, its rays prickling the skin of my face as countryside raced by in a golden blur. Legs heavy from frantic pedalling and cheeks flushed red apple rosy we came to a halt at our favourite haunt. Trickling through flanks of brown, parched reeds the river glinted with its promise of relief from the relentless heat. Excited and eager, Justin tore his sandals from over warm, sweaty feet and leapt into the flowing water. I knelt on the bank fiddling with my buckle as he splashed about, jumping from one foot to another in an attempt to avoid the jagged stones which lurked beneath.
"Come on Em! Don't be such a girl! Jump in!" He grabbed my arm, and with a sandal still hanging from my left foot I slipped from the bank and into the river generating a huge spray of diamond droplets. I let out a half scared, half liberated scream as ice cool liquid clasped my body. Justin's face glistened with exhilaration as he held me steady with the firm grip of a protective brother.
We explored the river for a while. Following the current downstream for half a mile or so we came to a crumbling, stone bridge which curved across our watery playground. Scrambling part way up the bank, we lay under cover of arch cast shade, clothes damp and clingy against skin as our toes dangled in calm water. The only noise came from the subdued hum of bees dozy from the barmy air as they dipped above us and an occasional plink from pebbles Justin threw into still, liquid glass. We watched them crack the surface causing circles to radiate outwards.
"We better get back Em. He'll be home by now". The words echoed all around like a hammer blow.
Elongated shadows crawled across the road as the afternoon slid into evening. We cycled home in silence.
Dad was waiting at the garden gate. A wall of a man. He stood at well over six foot and although he used to hate any sign of bristles his chin now sprouted a rag of a beard. A pathetic figure if it wasn't for the anger which scorched his features.
"Been on one of your jaunts again?" The words tumbled from his mouth drenched with sarcasm along with the usual whiskey-tinged slur. He swung round to face me, eyes bulging like a fish on a hook. "Inside and get ready for bed young lady. I'll deal with you later!" Justin gave me a reassuring nod as I carefully propped my bike against the fence and scuttled inside.
"As for you boy, I have a job for you!"
From the sanctuary of my bedroom I watched through the window as Justin scurried into the ramshackle shed which housed dad's collection of tools. He reappeared carrying a rusty spade its handle wrapped with blue insulation tape. Dad stood in the middle of the garden pointing to a patch of dry, fractured earth. Justin began to dig as Dad loomed over him like a Sergeant Major, swaying every so often as if he were being pushed by an invisible hand.
"Deeper!" Dad's voice boomed through the heavy summer air as a large pile of soil built up beside the hole. Justin kept his head low, eyes fixed on the blade of the shovel as it cut through hard earth.
"Put yer back into it!
As hours of darkness descended upon the garden a hole had been dug and a young cherry tree planted. That night I bolted the bathroom door and tended to Justin's hands, the skin broken and bleeding. We watched with sad eyes as delicate wisps of scarlet dribbled down white enamel and faded away down the plug hole.
The blackbird was back. His dark, glossy feathers looked even darker set against a backdrop of cloudless sky as he perched on a drooping bow of the cherry tree.
"I'm sorry Em". Justin's voice crept through the stillness.
"Sorry for what? " His face wore a mask of regrets.
"Sorry for leaving you alone. Sorry for not protecting you from Dad. Sorry for not coming back sooner."
I placed my hand gently in his. "You have nothing to be sorry for. I don't blame you for getting out of it".
I didn't want him to know. I didn't want him to think of me crying alone in the dark after they took him away. A seven year old girl curled up in a tight ball wishing the fist of pain which punched her insides would melt to nothingness. I didn't want him to carry another bad memory inside his head.
"I had to come back home Em. I have to deal with the demons this place holds for me." His eyes swept over every inch of the kitchen.
"It's time for us both to deal with him".
Spring sunlight streamed through the window as we walked back into the hall magnifying it's worn out fašade. I wasn't frightened. For the first time in my life I felt strong. I knew Dad would be awake. A dying bundle of bones dressed in crumpled pyjamas waiting for me to take up his lunch and medication. The same routine I had felt obliged to perform without question every day for three years. I understood what we had to do. A reassuring smile tiptoed across Justin's face as we started to climb the imposing staircase and outside in the garden the blackbird flew from the cherry tree towards the freedom of open sky.
Little Miss Wonder.
24 April 2004.