Ok, so here he is again. She told him not to come at night. Mum says he’s not allowed to come at night, but he says he has to.
“You’re not allowed.”
See. That’s what he’s like. Sometimes she’s not even sure why he’s her friend. Or if he is her friend. Mum says she should play with the girls at school – that they should be her friends,becouse they can write my essay and homework together. She doesn’t think Mum likes him.
“I can’t. I am in my nightie. It’s too late. I’m not allowed.”
He looks at her with those eyes.
“Ok. ok.” She knows he won’t shut up. And if she’s going to get any sleep at all she’d better go with him.
She grabs her dressing gown and slips on her slippers. (They are made out of her name: a big pink J for Jennifer.) Takes his hand – not really.
Then steps through the window.
“Was that actually open?” she asks, as they walk across the moonlit lawn two stories below.
He smiles and walks ahead.
She sticks her tongue out at his back, but follows him as they cross the new tarmac of Crescent avenue and head towards the woods that back onto the old railway track. Mr Mcdonnell’s cat is coming down the middle of the road like she owns the place; her name is Betty.
“Hello Betty.” She bends down to greet the cat, but it shies away with a rude hiss. Jenny hisses back; then shuffles quickly on to catch up. She should have worn her trainers; would have, if he’d told her they were going to the woods. Thinks he’s all big and that, being all mysterious n that. He’s not that much bigger than her. She could probably beat him up… if she wanted to. She pulled Jilly Morrisson’s hair at school the other day and made her cry. She catches up and punches where his arm is.
“Slow down, Cheese and onion head.”
He frowns, stops for a moment, rubs at his arm as though it hurts. Then smiles at her, reminding her how much she loves him, and says – you guessed it:
“Poo poo head,” she laughs, punching at his arm again as she skips along beside him.
“Bread and butter and bogey head.”
“Wee wee and willy head..”
She has to bend down under a branch as they head into the woods. He never has to bend down; he is already five yards ahead, his feet making no sound like a Red Indian – her’s crunching the dry twigs and ferns and stuff on the ground. It’s been really hot and hasn’t rained for ages. Dad says they should water the lawn more often. And that he spent a lot of time making that lawn nice and the least mum could do is water the bloody grass every now and then. And that if he stilled lived there, he’d bloody do it. But she tells him he shouldn’t swear in front of her – she’s only a little girl. And he say’s yes he knows that and that she’s his little angel and that she knows he would never let anyone do anything bad to her, doesn’t she?…
The boy has stopped. They are somewhere that they haven’t been before: the ground is a bit silvery and the trees seem to have been pushed out of the way to make a proper circle.
He turns to her as though proud of something.
Ok,” she says, and smiles at him:
“For the last time Jennifer. Come down and have some breakfast. You’ll be late… again.”
Mum is puffing as she slopes up the stairs in her slippers. She hates being this fat. Her legs ach; there are ugly new veins running down them, and her bum is like a half inflated beach ball. She probably needs the loo… surprise, surprise.
She gains the top of the stairs, huffs a couple of times, and then clumps across the landing to bang open the bedroom door: “JENNY’S ROOM” it says, in pink of course, to match her daughter’s pale skin and fiery hair. Jenny has underlined the words in felt tip pen and put a wobbly exclamation mark at the end. Fat chance that defense is going to work.
“For the last time…”
And then she can’t be angry at all. Her little girl: a bewildered lump in her mess of bedclothes, sitting up and rubbing her eyes, amazed at yet another sunny morning. Light streaming in through the half open curtains – that Mrs Shilling knows she closed last night. Like a precious ambassador from another world, every day a new arrival.
Where have you been? thinks the mother. Where did you come from? How long do I get to keep you?
She shakes such thoughts from her head. She gets so weepy and dreamy when she is pregnant. She really needs to pee.
She smiles at the beautiful child. Really bad parenting, can’t even pretend to be angry; she’ll be a nightmare princess brat. No she won’t.
There you go again; little alien. Not good morning, but hello. Not goodnight, but good by-
No! Stop that; stupid head.
“Morning, Sweet pea. I’ve been shouting. Didn’t your alarm go off?”
“Don’t know… Maybe. Am I late again?”
“Not far off. Are you going to be good for your old mum, and get up and washed and ready really fast so the school won’t send another one of those letters?”
Jenny starts to untangle herself from the duvet, nodding all the time, as though to shrug off the jetlag.
“Yes, Mum. I will. I’m up…”
She ruffles her daughter’s hair, and then hurries away to deal with her ridiculous bladder. The little girl pulls off her nightie as the door closes, and there are scratch marks on her arms again and across her belly. Oops.
Sumo-ing onto the seat to wait. For the pathetic trickle that implies a waterfall. Sighing in relief. A moment of peace, but something is still itching in her dreamy head: Her daughter’s hair. Did a leaf fall out?
“Do you eat anything?”
They are walking down the old railway track. It’s a sunny day, but he would be wearing his red T-shirt and slacker shorts whatever weather it was. He smiles at her and she frowns back.
“Answer the bloody question, sausage head. Do you eat anything?”
He speeds up a bit as though in a hurry to get to the next station before the train comes along.
“There aren’t any trains, dim dum. It’s all grown over and weedy. How can there be any trains?”
He shrugs: There’s trains.
He’s so silly. Now he leaps to the side of the track and lands on his bum – where the ground is. She laughs and he smiles too as he gets to his feet – brushing at his clothes where the leaves and dirt aren’t – and gets back in front of her, moving forward into the sun-haze.
She pulls her half eaten peanut butter and cucumber sandwich from her pocket and runs after him, holding it in front of her with a jutting arm.
“Eat it!” she laughs. “Eat it!”
He picks up his pace, looking back in comical alarm as they pass the old station at speed. The platform is broken and rounded off at the edges – all mossy and planty. And there’s a new sign by the remains of the fire-blackened ticket hall, saying this is the property of So and So and is proposed for development of Something or other. She doesn’t read it.
He wants to get off the track. She knows he does. He doesn’t like it, makes him nervous. Tough luck; they always do what he wants. This is her day out.
“Oh alright, Sausage head. Scaredy baby head. We can get off. It runs out at the farm anyway.”
He looks confused.
“Yes it does!” Honestly, why does he have to argue with her about everything?
They head into the trees and walk for a while. She nibbles her sandwich as they trudge along in the easy quiet of old friends. Then she climbs the stile and joins him in the thick grass as he sits down.
He reaches for her sandwich. She pulls it quickly back and laughs; there isn’t much left. Anyway he had his chance. Anyway he wouldn’t bloody eat it – he’s only messing around. She holds it out again. And he shrugs and laughs and sticks his tongue out, keeping his arms by his side. See.
“What’s your name?” she asks, laughing too.
“Where do you live?”
“What’s your mummy called?”
“Whose your best friend?”
She always asks that question last, because that’s the one he answers. Resting his head where her lap is. Her fingers twirling between the locks of his curly brown hair – making no more sense of the mess than was already attempted. Looking down onto the few freckles across his nose and his sea green eyes – or are they blue: Do you eat anything?