Read The Night Rainbow Online

Authors: Claire King

Tags: #General Fiction

The Night Rainbow (3 page)

BOOK: The Night Rainbow
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I’m not sure if that is exactly right, but before I can ask Margot says, No more questions, thank you. And she shuts the book. I have to take the book back to the library before it closes, she says, looking at her watch.

Is it my turn to hide? I ask.

Oh, yes, that’s just what I was thinking, she says, but I think she had forgotten all about hide and seek.

I have thought of a new and very good place to hide, though, so I have been waiting for my turn. Margot puts her hands over her eyes and starts to count. She is counting in French today.
Un, deux, trois
 . . .

I run back up the path, jumping over the spider, and then, instead of following the path back up to the house, I turn left at the crossroads, as if I were going to go up to the village. As I charge around the corner I run smack into a man and both of us cry out.

It is him. He is big like a bear, bigger than a normal grownup, with grey-black hair and hairy legs covered in scratches. He is wearing shoes, rubber ones like Wellington boots, only not boots. His shoes are wet. He has a big nose with hair coming out of it like spiders’ legs. His red dog is nowhere to be seen.

We stand and gape at each other, me looking up, him looking down. Then he takes the little grey cigarette from between his dry lips and squishes it under his foot. White smoke slithers like worms from the corner of his mouth.

You are Pivoine, he says slowly. I know your papa. He shakes his head as though he has sand in his hair. I knew him, he says. Sorry.

I am surprised that he knows any of my names but especially the one that belonged to Papa. Sometimes I am Peony to Maman, which is my real name in English. Papa said it in French, Pivoine, because he was born here. Both names mean the same thing, so I never minded, but it is funny to hear someone I don’t know call me that. I don’t know why I have the same name as a flower anyway, especially one that I have never seen. I am usually Pea. Pea is not a flower. It is a vegetable, actually.

My name is Pea, mostly, I say to the man. Who are you?

He has crouched down in front of me now and is staring right into my face as though he is about to scold me. My name is Claude, he says. Close up, the part of his head without hair is very ugly, and he smells of cigarette smoke, which makes me feel a bit sick.

Then my face is being licked.

Merlin! Stop! says Claude.

The dog has run over to say hello, but its face smells even worse than Claude’s.

Merlin is a funny name for a dog, I say. Is it really magic?

Yes, in a way he is, says Claude, giving Merlin a stroke.

What are you doing down here alone? he asks. He is still staring right at me, and my bone is getting itchy, but his voice seems friendly.

We’re playing hide and seek, I reply.

Are you hiding, or seeking?

I’m hiding.

Who’s seeking? he asks.

I wonder where Margot is, but then she comes running up through the tall grass and is right by my side. So I am found, and the game is over.

I’ve got a good idea, I say to her. Let’s put on a show!

Margot and I put on shows all the time and we are very good at it. Margot is best at dancing and I am best at singing.

Oh yes! Margot says. I will do some flamenco and you have to clap.

And I will sing a song about ladybirds, I tell Claude.

And you will watch us, we say to him.

Do you like our dresses? says Margot.

OK, he says, frowning a little and looking at me as though he expects me to start singing just like that.

Not here! I say. You have to go to the sitting place and we have to go on the stage. It’s over there, come on!

Claude is a strange kind of grownup: he does as he is told. Merlin walks by his feet all the way down to the cherry tree, and when Claude sits down obediently Merlin sits next to him and opens his mouth a little so it looks like he is smiling.

I announce the show and introduce Margot. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Margot, the amazing Spanish flamenco dancer!

She is not really Spanish, but we are pretending. I start to clap my hands like maracas and Claude watches.

Clap! I tell him. He tries, but to be honest he is not very good at it and he keeps looking around.

When Margot has finished she does a big bow and I clap and cheer. Claude claps too. Then Margot introduces me and I stand on the stage, feeling a bit nervous. The ladybird song is quite long and sometimes I get the words wrong so I have to do parts of it again. While I am still singing, Claude takes out a shiny green packet and starts to make a cigarette.

No smoking! shouts Margot, but he carries on anyway. So he doesn’t always do as he is told.

When we have finished we do curtsies and bows and Claude does applause. Then he stands up slowly and says, Come on then, your maman will be wondering where you’ve got to.

She won’t really, says Margot.

I can help you cross the road, he says.

We are very good at crossing the road, I tell him. I’m five and a half.

Well then, would you be so kind as to keep me company? Claude rubs the sweatiness off his head and wipes his hands on his trousers. Merlin licks his hand.

Of course, I say, because that is polite.

It is slow, walking with Claude. While he walks, Margot and I run up ahead, and back again. Sometimes we stop to look at beetles and flowers.

Have you got friends to play with, from the village? Claude asks when he catches us up. While he is waiting for the answer he is staring at me hard.

Margot is my friend, I say.

Yes, he says, but children from the village, from school?

I didn’t go to school very much since Papa died, I say.

Why not? Were you poorly?

No, I wasn’t poorly, I say. I was busy being friends with Maman.

Claude’s red skin makes wrinkles on his forehead like waves on the seashore. I don’t want to get into trouble. In September, I say, I am going to the big school and then I will go every day.

That’s good, says Claude. Then you will have lots of friends. A little girl like you should have lots of friends.

 

The air is starting to cool and there is thunder in our tummies as we run back into the house. I bang the door, too excited to remember that Maman was in a bad temper. The house smells of pastry, making my mouth water, and I spot a quiche sitting on the table under a fly screen. Somehow a fly has got underneath and is buzzing about angrily, trapped inside. I let it out and the salty-sweet smell comes too. My fingers go quickly to the crust and break off a piece before I can stop them.

Margot waggles her own finger at me. That fly has been treading poo on that pie, she says.

I can’t see any poo.

Margot raises her eyebrows. I can’t see it either, she says, but flies have got very small feet.

So it must be very small bits of poo.

Yes, but it is still poo. Maybe different kinds of poo. Dog poo and cow poo. On that pie. You shouldn’t eat it, Pea.

I stare at the crust in my fingers, golden and crumbly. I can’t see any poo. The fly tries to settle on my hand and my fingers quickly push the pastry into my mouth.

Margot watches. Well?

Yum, I say.

Not pooey?

Not at all.

Can I have some too, then?

I break a second piece of the crust off, so that we are even, and we lick our lips. Then we dash into the living room to find Maman.

Maman is sitting sideways at the bureau, surrounded by lots of paper and files. Her feet are up on a stool and her cheeks are pink.

Maman, I say, we have a new friend!

She looks up and her shoulders sigh. Her hair is tied back off her face with a green scarf and her face has small drops of sweat running down the sides. She smells of lemons.

Where have you been? she asks.

Down in the low meadow, I tell her. And there was a great big spider catching crickets, and the apples are nearly ready to eat, and we made a new friend.

That’s nice, Pea, she says, flipping through the pieces of paper on the desk. She sighs again and wipes her arm across her forehead. She starts to look hard at something up on one of the beams in the ceiling. It’s such a mess, she says quietly.

I look around the room. I have left out some toy animals and my card game on the floor.

I’m really sorry, Maman, I say. I’ll tidy them up right now.

Just for a moment her eyes begin to turn up in the corners and she starts to unfold her arms.

Have you eaten something? she says.

I think we are going to have a hug and I open out my arms, stepping closer. Bread, I say, and peaches. But just as I am close enough to touch her, her stomach jumps and she folds herself over it like pastry on a pie.

Chapter 3

The sun is already high in the sky, but Maman is still in bed. Down in the kitchen we talk very quietly, in case she’s sleeping.

It is day three of our challenge, says Margot. Today we are being helpful.

And also, we are not complaining, I say.

That’s right, says Margot.

I spread jam on the bread and pour glasses of milk. When Papa was here, he would get up before we were awake, and the breakfast would already be on the table. In the summer he picked us peaches from the orchard and in the winter when we came downstairs there would be logs crackling in the fireplace and hot chocolate on the stove. Papa liked breakfast time a lot. He drank long slurps of milky coffee out of a big white bowl, and if we had croissants he would dunk them in, pushing the soggy bits into his mouth and fishing with his fingers for the buttery flakes left floating on the surface. But Papa is not here any more because we put him in the ground. He isn’t ever coming back.

I wish Papa wasn’t dead, I say. I don’t think it’s complaining if Maman can’t hear me.

I know, Pea, says Margot. But people have to die to make room for the babies. If no one died then all the houses and beds would get full and there wouldn’t be enough jam at breakfast time.

I think about it, hard.

But then why would the baby have died to make way for another baby? I ask.

Margot is quiet for a while. While she is thinking she sucks her hair. Finally she says, Maybe the new baby is better?

I think of the new baby in Maman’s tummy, making her sad and keeping her awake all night. I doubt that this one will be good enough.

We eat slowly, licking jam off our fingers and trying to dunk the bread in the milk without making a mess. At last I hear the bed creak upstairs, and soon afterwards the toilet flushes.

I have laid out a place for Maman, a plate and a knife, a glass for juice and a napkin. I have put a mug by the kettle, but I haven’t boiled the water. The milk is in the carton because I can’t reach the pottery jug. I have put out bread, butter and two kinds of jam. Margot thinks she will choose cherry, I think apricot. We sit nicely at the table and wait.

Maman comes downstairs; she has put on a big yellow summer dress that gets to her belly and then floats around her legs like a cloud. Her hair is clipped up off her neck with a twinkling butterfly. Her feet are already filthy.

Good morning, I say, smiling my best smile. Margot smiles too, showing her teeth and batting her eyelashes.

Good morning, says Maman, heading straight for the apple juice. She drinks it fast and pours herself seconds. When she has drunk that too she pours a third glass and looks around at the breakfast things.

You’ve laid the table very nicely, she says, thank you. And she smiles at me.

Margot grins at me and parrots, Yes, Pea, you’ve laid the table very nicely!

My face feels hot and I try to stop my small smile from spreading into a big one.

You’re welcome, I say.

Maman starts the kettle boiling and then sits down at the table.

Would you like me to pass the jam? I say.

Yes, please.

Cherry? I mumble. Or some delicious apricot?

Oh, some delicious apricot I think, please, Pea. Maman smiles again.

I pass it over, carefully, frightened of breaking her smile.

Say something nice, whispers Margot under her breath.

You’re looking very beautiful this morning, Maman, I say.

Do you think so? she says. I don’t feel very beautiful.

I’m not sure what the best answer is to this. Your dress is very pretty, I try.

Maman looks down at her dress as if she is surprised to find herself wearing it. Thank you, she says.

The kettle has boiled and she pushes the chair back as far as it will go, the feet scraping on the tiles. She stands slowly, heaving herself up with her arms. As she squeezes herself out of the gap between the chair and the table, her baby-belly knocks into the full glass of apple juice and it starts to topple.

I try to catch it but I am too far away and the apple juice spills all over the table. Maman watches it happen. Then the glass rolls towards her, towards the table edge. She does nothing, and it falls, bouncing once on the wooden chair then smashing on the floor. When I look up, Margot is already standing by the door. She waves her fingers, telling me to come too.

BOOK: The Night Rainbow
8.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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