Authors: Claire King
Tags: #General Fiction
Maman is trapped between the chair and the table, and around her feet bright splinters of glass are twinkling, waiting for her to walk so they can stick themselves into her skin.
I’ll get the dustpan and brush, I say. But Maman sits back down at the table and covers her face with her hands.
Pea, just go and play, she says. And mind the glass.
But I can . . .
Pea, she yells, just go!
We stand by the road, which is quite busy with cars, waiting for it to be safe to cross. Margot is counting the blue ones. There haven’t been any yet.
The breakfast was good, she says.
The glass was bad, I say.
Glass is too breaky, says Margot.
Big bellies full of babies are too clumsy, I say.
We will try again, says Margot.
Maybe we could get the baby to come out, so Maman’s belly isn’t so clumsy?
Or get a new papa to clean up the glass? says Margot.
Or maybe both?
Yes, both would be good, says Margot. We should think about a plan.
How do you get babies out . . . I start to say, but Margot interrupts.
Here’s one! she shouts.
Sylvie’s car is coming towards us with the indicator flashing. It is telling us that when she gets to the signpost for our house she is going to turn up the path. She is bringing our bread. Her car is round and blue like the sky, and the backseats are full of baguettes, crammed together in brown paper sacks. She takes the bread to people who live too far away from the baker’s. We wave, and she stops on the corner.
Hello! I say.
Hello. Are you OK? Sylvie’s mouth is pink like a pig.
Yes, fine thank you.
Where’s your maman?
In the kitchen, I say. She’s sweeping up the glass.
Sylvie nods. What are you doing down here?
We’re going to the low meadow, says Margot.
We are waiting to cross the road, I say.
Does your maman know? Sylvie is frowning as though we have done something wrong. Why do all the grownups ask us silly questions?
We look both ways and we listen and we never run, I say. Well, sometimes we run up to the road, and then we run after we have crossed the road, but not while we are crossing.
We do looking and listening, says Margot.
Right, says Sylvie, well, see you soon.
Yes, I say. Bye!
And Margot says, Sylvie, Papa is dead, so stop giving us so much bread.
Sylvie’s eyebrows are still frowning, but her pink mouth smiles and says, Bye!
Claude and Merlin are already down in the low meadow, as if they had been waiting for us. Claude is sitting with his back against a tree trunk, smoking a cigarette. Stinky. Merlin is lying by his side, having his belly rubbed, two wet legs up in the air. As we skip down the path, Merlin barks and tugs at Claude’s sleeve. I wave, and Merlin comes galloping over. Claude follows more clumsily behind and we meet halfway, in the middle of the apple orchard.
You shouldn’t smoke cigarettes, I tell him, looking at my feet. They make you die.
Hello, Pea, he says. Down here on your own? Want some company?
I remember what Papa said.
I’m not alone, I say, pointing up at Margot, who has climbed up into an apple tree.
Claude looks over and smiles. Oh, hello, Margot, he calls. Then he looks back at me. I used to like climbing trees when I was a boy, he says. Can you do it too?
I’m not very good at it, I say.
Would you like me to teach you?
I’m not sure I would, but at that moment Margot clambers down, jumping the last part and doing a big bow. Your turn! she says.
I get my foot up into the part where all the smaller trunks open out like a hand. I pull myself up, so I am standing in the middle of the tree.
That part’s easy, I say.
Good, says Claude. Now you have to choose a branch. So you need to think ahead. Which one looks the best – nice and strong, good footholds, somewhere to sit when you don’t want to climb any more?
I see what he means. Some of the branches look good, but then they split very quickly and become thin and leafy. I choose a big fat one, and start to scrabble about on it. The leaves and the apples are in my way and I can’t see where to put my foot. I am reaching up with my hands when I feel my foot rest against something firm at just the right height, and I push off against it. But when I try to move my foot on to the next spot it feels stuck. I look down to find that I am standing on Claude’s big hand, his fingers still curled around my shoe.
You can let go now, I say.
From there it is easy and soon I am sitting on the branch, holding on tight and dangling my legs. My face is about the same height as Claude’s, it’s like being a grownup.
Don’t fall! says Margot.
I hadn’t thought about falling, but now I do, and I wobble. Oh!
Don’t worry, says Claude, you’re not going to fall. He peers at me. How is your maman? he asks.
Maman is sad, I say.
Because of your papa, says Claude. It isn’t a question, but it’s not the right answer either.
I think for a minute, twisting my fingers round in the leaves.
Maman is sad because the baby died, I say, because it wasn’t good enough. She didn’t want it to have to make way for the new one. I think she wanted to keep that one. And she is sad because the new one kicks her and keeps her awake and won’t let her walk properly. And she’s sad because there was a fly stuck to her foot and because her belly knocked over the juice and because she couldn’t bend down to clean it up and because Papa isn’t there to help her. And also she wanted to keep Papa, but he died.
It was a disaster, says Margot. Down near my feet, she is being a ballerina, twirling and jumping. Maybe she wants Claude to ask her about Maman, but he is asking me.
Stop interrupting me! I say. We are trying to make Maman happy but we have about a thousand things on our list so it is taking a long time, I tell Claude. But she likes it best when she is at home and we are not.
I’m sure that’s not true, says Claude.
It is, definitely, I say. So we come here, or otherwise we go to Windy Hill. That way we are helping.
And it’s fun, says Margot.
It’s lots of fun, I say.
Do you know where we could get a new papa? asks Margot.
Windy Hill, says Claude, where’s that?
Over the high pasture, I say, where you can see the wing turbines and the sea.
Ah, says Claude. He twists his mouth so it looks half sad and half happy. He has a very ugly face, but his eyes are kind. His hand comes out towards the branch, and I think he is going to touch my shoulder. Not to push me, but a sort of a pat, or a tiny hug. Probably it would be quite nice. But that’s not what he does. He puts his hand on the tree branch and leans in a little bit. I can smell coffee on his lips.
Come on, he says, I’ve got something to show you.
Claude has led us down to the stream. He wants us to cross the stepping stones.
Do you know what is on the other side? I say.
Claude nods. I do, he says.
Do you know who put these stepping stones here?
Yes, says Claude, I do.
Was it witches?
Was it you?
Claude smiles and looks up. Margot has already set off across the stones, holding her hands out like a tightrope walker. Merlin goes next, splashing through the pools of tadpoles.
Come on! says Margot.
I start to cross, wobbling as I go. By the third stone I am far from both sides, but the fourth one is not very flat and I’m not sure where to put my next foot.
I can’t do it! I say.
Here, let me help, says Claude. He walks down into the water and holds out his hand.
You’re getting your feet wet!
That’s OK, says Claude, I have my waterproof shoes on, and anyway the water feels nice!
I put my small hand in his big one and soon my feet are safe on the other bank.
The low pasture is mostly field and not so many trees. The field is wide and tall, a sea of grass up over my head, coloured-in with flower-fish. There are no cows or sheep here now; they have gone on their summer holidays up the mountain. Only their poo is left behind.
Look at all the flowers! I say.
No donkeys, says Margot, no cows, no sheep. That’s why.
We can pick a big bunch on the way home, I say. We can have all of the colours. But first, please can we see the surprise?
Where is it? I ask him.
He points to the corner of the field.
Can you see anything? I ask Margot.
Margot shakes her head.
Come here, says Claude. He puts his hands under my arms and scoops me up above the grass. Look over in that corner, he says.
There is a big clump of trees. I can’t see anything exciting about them. Just that some of the colours are not tree colours.
You should go and have a look, says Claude. Merlin will show you the way.
Let’s go! says Margot, charging off, swish-swash-swish. I run after her, right into the long grass, sweeping it aside with my arms as I go. Merlin leaps along by my side.
The tree has a fat trunk that my arms do not fit around. There is a small wooden ladder leaning against it, fastened to the trunk with blue rope. Up in the leaves there are some smaller branches missing, cut away, and big planks of wood have been nailed there, with sides like a big wooden basket. A green and red blanket is hanging over the edge.
It’s a nest, says Margot, for girls!
Can we climb up? I say.
Well, it’s obvious we are supposed to, says Margot. This must be the surprise! And her fat bottom is in my face as she monkeys up into the tree. I follow close behind.
From the girl-nest, looking out into the low pasture I can see back across the sea of grass and over the stream into the meadow. I can see the top half of Claude, slowly following the rushed snake of crumpled grass that we made to get here. There are other snakes I can see from here too, other paths to our tree. Now I am a bird on a branch, seeing the people-places from up high. Everything looks strange and different and exciting.
I’m going to live here instead, I say.
Well, you could! Margot is flicking tea towels at me.
Yes, says Margot. Look at this!
On the wooden floor, the big checked blanket is spread out and laid for a picnic. Margot has already found a bottle of lemonade and some cake. We peel the other tea towels off bowls and plates and find more treasure. There is a baguette, crisps and cubes of cheese in shiny paper. There is no salad and no sandwiches, just party food. There are a few ants, but the baguette is too big for them to carry. I stuff a whole slice of cake into my mouth.
Hello up there! says Claude.
I look out over the uppy-edge and down at Claude. I chew and swallow quickly. It’s a girl-nest! I shout back down.
Claude puts on the biggest smile I have ever seen him wear. His face goes even more spicy-red.
Do you like it, Pea? he says. The words are soft in his mouth, like goodnights used to be from Maman and Papa. Just before they would say ‘I love you’ and ‘
It’s brilliant! I say. Are we having a party?
Is it your birthday? says Margot.
Yes, it’s Merlin’s birthday, says Claude.
How old is he?
That’s not even grownup.
Well, it’s quite old for a dog.
Happy birthday, Merlin! says Margot.
Who’s coming to the party? I say.
Just you, Margot, Merlin and me.
Merlin flops down under the tree with a grunt.
Ah, says Claude, Merlin thinks he would like to stay down here.
Well of course he does, says Margot, dogs can’t climb trees.
If it’s his birthday he should be able to do what he wants, I say.
I think I’ll stay down here with him, says Claude. Let me just come up and get our plates.
There isn’t really that much room up here anyway; I am not sure Claude would fit. When his face appears at the top of the ladder, Margot says, Hello, Mister Claude, what would you like from our café?
Would you like some wine, Mister Claude? I say.
Yes please, he says, and I pass him a cup. Could I have birthday cake for Merlin and me, also? Oh, and a bowl for Merlin’s water.
There you are, Mister Claude, enjoy your lunch, I say, passing him plastic plates and laughing. Claude really is a funny grownup.
Claude disappears again, and soon after the smell of cigarette smoke comes up from under the tree. I don’t really mind it today. The cake has cherries in and now I am not so hungry I pick them out and eat them first. When my tummy is so full that I can’t eat one more cherry I climb down the ladder and sit next to Merlin in the shade. Merlin is having his belly rubbed and making small happy noises.