Monday, 26 April 2010

The first chapter (sort of)...

Her most vivid childhood memory was of being alone.
‘You’ll be all right,’ their mum had said as she piled more cheap clothes into her cheap weekend bag, already bulging at the seams. ‘You take care of each other, okay?’
Samantha looked at Liam, her big brother, and wondered what taking care of him meant.
Their mum had all her make-up on. A face which took so long that if Samantha watched her, lying on the big double bed while Mum sat in front of the mirror, she would fall asleep before the end, hypnotized by the endless brush strokes and swirling fingertips that went towards Mum’s going-out face, drugged by the tang of perfume and hairspray and nail polish. She would wake up and her mother would have disappeared, only the smell of her remaining to soothe Samantha to sleep. If she slept where she lay, in the big double bed, it would be hours later that she was lifted, with a murmur of protest, back to her own room, awake just long enough to sense the shifting figure of a stranger, always a new man, waiting to take her place.
‘There’s beans,’ said their mum, opening one of the top cupboards and then realizing her mistake and moving sixteen cans of baked beans down to a cupboard they could reach.
‘There’s beans,’ she repeated, ‘and bread and apples, and plenty of milk and juice in the fridge. And there’s chocolate.’
‘Chocolate?’ said Samantha hopefully.
‘Only if you’re a good girl,’ said her mum, unearthing a foil-wrapped bar of chocolate and waving it just out of reach. ‘Will you be a good girl for Mummy?
Samantha nodded.
Scared already, but not sure why.
‘It’s a secret. You understand?’ Mum put both hands on Samantha’s shoulders and dropped to her knees so that they were level. ‘You know what a secret is?’
‘Something you don’t tell,’ said Samantha.
‘Good girl.’
The brisk hug was almost an afterthought, but Samantha didn’t care – she cherished the feeling of arms around her more than anything, even more than chocolate.
She looked across at Liam. A whole head taller than her and always so serious. He made her feel silly sometimes. Like now. Silly for being scared. So she put on her best brave smile and told her mum to have a nice time.
‘Okay then.’ A final smile, her hand already on the front door handle, her heart and mind already in Ibiza and a week without her kids. ‘I’ll be back Tuesday morning. What do you do in an emergency?’
‘Dial 999,’ said Liam.
‘Good boy.’
And she was gone.

They both stood there and watched the door, in case it was just a joke. Then a little while later, when it became clear that she wasn’t coming back, Liam reached out his hand until it touched his sister’s. Then he held it and told her that everything would be okay.
‘It’ll be an adventure,’ he said. ‘We’re like castaways.’
‘Is that like pirates?’
‘A bit,’ he said.
That didn’t sound too bad. ‘Can I have some chocolate?’ she asked.
Liam picked up the bar of chocolate and solemnly snapped off two squares each. ‘We should make it last,’ he said.
Liam was nine years old and Samantha five. They were on their own.
‘What’ll we do now?’ she asked.
Liam looked up at the clock, his lips moving silently as he worked out the time. ‘I think we go to bed,’ he said.
‘But I haven’t had my bath.’ She chewed her lip doubtfully.
‘Some nights we don’t though, do we? When I’m in charge. So this is one of those nights. It’s not that different.’
But it was. To five-year-old Samantha this night felt very different indeed. Like the first time she’d slept without the light on, or the first day Liam went to school. Everything had changed and her world had gone sort of wobbly. She didn’t like it.
He found her favourite pyjamas. The pink ones with pictures of orange cats. They stood together on the step-up to the sink so that they could brush their teeth.
‘Do you need to do a wee?’ he said.
‘I don’t think so.’ Her face flushed warm as her eyes filled with tears.
‘What’s wrong?’
She fought off the scratchy tight feeling in her throat. Mummy didn’t like it when she got upset and that meant bed in the dark without any dinner or, if there wasn’t really any dinner, or she’d been really naughty, then locked in the bathroom so that she couldn’t run crying to her brother the way she always did.
But Mummy wasn’t here so she could tell the truth.
‘I’m frightened.’
‘Pah! What’s there to be frightened of, Sammy?’ He put his wiry little arm round her and led her across the landing.
‘This is still your house, isn’t it?’
She nodded.
‘And this is your bedroom? And this is your bed?’
He folded back her duvet and patted the bed. She climbed in.
‘And that’s your pillow? And this is your teddy?’
She held fast to his hand even as she curled herself into the tight knot she made to sleep.
‘See? Nothing to be frightened of.’
‘Tell me a story,’ she said.
‘I don’t know any stories.’
‘Sing me a song.’
So Liam sang the first song he could remember, about a place over the rainbow where happy bluebirds fly, and he stayed by her side until her scrappy breaths became long and smooth. Slowly and carefully he opened out her hand, finger by clinging finger, to free himself from his sister’s grip, then he crossed the room to his own bed and slept until morning.

They were discovered of course. A schoolteacher noticed that Samantha was wearing the same clothes three days running and watched to see who collected her from school. Seeing her leave hand in hand with her young brother, she chased after them.
‘Does Mummy know you’re walking home on your own?’ she asked.
‘Mummy’s in Beefa,’ said Samantha. She squealed in pain as Liam pinched the soft flesh on her inner arm. ‘But it’s a secret. I forgot. So don’t tell anyone.’

That night, instead of playing pirates with Liam, which meant an eye-patch and cold baked beans out of a can –pirate food, Captain – the children were placed in emergency foster care.
They had been unable to place them together on a few hours’ notice.
‘Say goodbye to your brother,’ said the social worker, and, her head addled from the events of the day, Samantha thought she meant forever.
No! Not Liam, they couldn’t take Liam. She looked wildly around for somebody to help her, but all she saw were two grown-ups that she didn’t know, both smiling, which made it worse. In the stories the baddies were always smiling. Where were they taking him? Why wasn’t she going? Had she been really naughty? So naughty that even the damp, dark bathroom wasn’t bad enough and Liam was going somewhere nice while she went . . . where? Her breath quickened as she conjured up nasty unformed thoughts one after another. Soon she was gasping for air.
She started to scream. She lashed out at well-meaning hands that tried to calm her. In the end one of the smiling strangers picked her up and hauled her away so that she didn’t get to say goodbye at all.
She screamed so hard that she fell into an exhausted sleep and when she woke up she was in a big house that smelt funny, on a sofa she had never seen before, and a fat woman who was not her mummy was pretending that she was, making sure that she washed her face and cleaned her teeth.
Robotically she brushed up and down with the brand new toothbrush and toothpaste that tasted of strawberry not mint.
Somehow her cat pyjamas had found their way to a pillow on a bed in a small room upstairs. But it was not her bed.
Even though she asked again and again, this fat notmummy couldn’t tell her if Liam would be here to sing her to her dreams. And so she cried herself to a fitful sleep, horribly confused and clutching her duvet around her to keep out the scary night.

She was five. She loved her errant mummy desperately. She didn’t know what a mother was supposed to do. She didn’t know she had a bad one. So when the police arrested her mother at the airport and allowed her only a brief visit with her children, Samantha kicked the social worker with her tiny feet and told her mum that they should try to escape.
‘We can run away! Let’s go, come on, while no one’s looking.’
‘Not this time, Sammy.’
‘I’m sorry I told the teacher about Beefa.’
‘Me too,’ said her mum.
Liam understood a little more. He refused to kiss his mother, told her that he hated her and so she lavished attention on him, ignoring the smiling Samantha who had more kisses inside her than she knew what to do with.
Then very soon it was time to say goodbye and go back to the foster family.
‘What about the chocolate?’ she asked, concerned about the six squares left at home that they had diligently denied themselves.
‘You should have thought about that before you told on me and spoilt it all,’ said her mum. ‘This is all your fault. You know that, don’t you? Your teachers tell me you’re so bloody clever but you’re stupid. Stupid.’
‘Leave her alone,’ said Liam.
‘Oh, Liam, I’m sorry. It’s such a mess.’
Liam wrapped his arm round his sister.
‘We’ll take care of each other,’ he said. ‘We don’t need you.’

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