Read The Night Rainbow Online

Authors: Claire King

Tags: #General Fiction

The Night Rainbow (5 page)

BOOK: The Night Rainbow
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Claude, I say, you made the girl-nest, didn’t you?

I did, he says.

And the stepping stones to get here?

Those too.

For us?

For you. Claude looks up at me. His fingers go too far across Merlin’s belly and touch my knee and it tickles.

Why did you make us a girl-nest? I say.

Claude shrugs and keeps stroking Merlin. The scratchy tips of his fingers brush my skin, back and forth. Every little girl needs a secret, he says.

Chapter 4

Today is Wednesday, and on Wednesdays we go to the market. Well, in fact the market comes to us.

We walk together down to the village road, on the lane, not through the peaches. Maman walks ahead, leaning back as she goes down the hill, walking so fast that her hair can’t keep up. The air is warm and wet and the hurrying makes me sweaty. Maman looks up at the white sky and rushes on. When we reach the road she pauses to catch her breath, which is coming in short huffs.

I used to love market day. We would spend all morning winding around the stalls, touching the carved wooden toys, hiding in the racks of bright patchwork trousers. We would dilly and dally by the stalls that let you taste things: honey, fruit juice, olives and jam. We would even sometimes have our lunch there, sitting outside in the sun. Every Wednesday morning in the village was like a party. But now we just do our shopping, we don’t speak to anyone, and we go home.

I wonder, whispers Margot, if we just crossed over here, would she notice we’d gone?

I wonder too. The gate we climb to get into the low meadow is just across the road. The donkeys are hanging their heads over it and grinning at us. The brown one pushes his nose forward and does a noisy
hee-haw
! They are pleased to see us.

Come on, let’s go, says Margot. She takes my hand and we look and listen, ready to cross the road.

But Maman has got her breath back. She grabs my other hand and sets off again, turning right, towards the village. Margot and I are pulled along behind her like ducklings in a row. On the crumbly tarmac we have to stick close to the side because it is narrow and cars come too fast.

There is only one house between our lane and where the village begins, and it is far back from the road. You can just see the red roof tiles peeking through between gaps in the trees. As we pass along the garden wall we peer in, wondering who lives there. Every now and then I can taste the sweetness of jasmine, but the flowers are hidden. We run our fingers along the rough stones. Skinny brown lizards bake themselves in the cracks. When they see our hands creeping closer they blink their shiny black eyes and skitter away.

You can hear and smell the market a long time before you get there. Chattering grownups and laughing children, dogs barking and paella cooking – the smells and sounds all pour up the street to meet us. By the time we get there the village square is dancing with colours. Lots of people are going from stand to stand, the ones who carry baskets are shopping, and there are others just having a look. Some people are sitting outside the café under the plane trees, drinking teeny cups of coffee or glasses of beer. They don’t seem very worried by the clouds. I recognise some faces that are here every week, but others are new.

In summertime the market is bigger and full of people who are here on their holidays. It’s easy to tell who is who. The people that were born here move slowly, when they move at all. They are brown-skinned, and smile at each other and say hello. They stop and chat in the middle of crowds, while the holiday people hurry around, turning red in the sun and snapping at each other. Sometimes it seems that there are two markets, both happening at the same time, one for normal people doing their shopping, and one for the others, having a holiday. We all mix up together in the market but we are as separate as apples and oranges in a bowl.

Maman came here on holiday too, once upon a time. She said she was looking for peace and quiet. But instead she found Papa and stayed for ever. Whenever Maman told me about meeting Papa – and I made her tell me about it a lot – she would turn pink and smile so hard that tears squeezed out. Even before he died. Papa was her handsome prince, she said.

Maman is pushing through the crowds belly first. She has her hands on it, so no one bumps the baby, but it looks as though someone has tied a string to her belly button and is pulling her along. As she marches through them, people step away from her, making a bubble of air around us like a cage.

There are some children from my old nursery school. I wave at them as I am tugged past and shout,
Coucou!
But they don’t wave back. They start to laugh.

Papa was an orange but we are apples, I say.

You know why you are super-clever? says Margot.

I’m not.

You are.

Why?

Because you can speak all the languages and they can only speak one.

I can’t speak all the languages, I say. What about Spanish?

Well then most of the languages.

We have come to a corner where a man is roasting chickens on spits. The air is full of roasting flavours and the corner is blocked by people huddling by the stand just to taste the chicken smell, even if they aren’t going to buy one. We have never bought one of these chickens but I am sure I know how delicious it would be. I slow down, letting the saltiness fill my mouth and my ears eat up the sizzling sound. Maman grabs me by the hand and pulls me away.

As we turn the corner, there is Claude. He is standing with Merlin at the butcher’s van. The butcher is wrapping up meat in white paper parcels. Merlin is staring at it, then he sniffs the air and turns his head my way. When he sees us he barks a loud hello and wags his flappy tail.

Claude turns too and looks over in our direction then says something to Merlin. He looks at Maman, then at me and Margot, then back at Maman. He smiles half a smile. He looks like he wants to be friendly but thinks Maman might bite him. With the head she has on her today I am afraid she might.

He needn’t worry, because Maman doesn’t see him at all; she is following her list. As we pass by him I look up. He is turning back to the butcher to pay for his sausages, but not before winking at Margot and me.

At the market we have a routine. It means we do the same things every week. We get our meat first and it goes in the bottom of the basket. Then we go to the vegetable stall and we buy something green, depending on the weather. In the summer that means courgettes and artichokes, green beans and peas in pods. After that we go to Marcel the fruit man under his stripy yellow awning. He is quite fat with white hair and a red face and an apron covered in seeds and juice. And he has one gold tooth. His wife is there too. She is thin and happy-looking and doesn’t say much. As Marcel juggles plums into brown paper bags, for weighing, she is arranging the fruit and bringing out new trays of things from the back of a white van.

While Maman is choosing between different kinds of plums and apricots, round tomatoes on vines or the ones that look like small red pumpkins, we stand in the queue – there is always a queue. Margot decides on one kind of fruit and does counting; she can count all the numbers, which is clever but quickly becomes boring. What’s worse, if someone buys some of whatever she is counting she has to start again. I just like to press my nose close to the fruit displays to breathe in the warm, ripe smells. Marcel always notices me and comes to tell me how beautiful I am.

Today there is a cantaloupe cut open on top of the others, green on the outside but orange on the inside. I can smell the honey-sweetness from far away. I put my face so close to it I could reach out and catch the juice on my tongue. My nose is tweaked.

Hello, green-eyes, Marcel says, how are your curls today? Hey, Dolly (he calls me that, but it’s not a good nickname: I am not a dolly at all, I am a five-years-old girl). Hey, Dolly, what would you like from Marcel today? Usually he gives me apricots or slices of peach and a pinch on the cheek. Today Marcel hands me a nectarine, which I share with Margot. Marcel laughs and says, You’d better get home, Dolly, there’s going to be a storm.

When Maman has chosen, he changes his voice to a more special one and says to her, Hello,
Madame
, how are you today? Then he nods at her belly and says, Can’t be long now!

Maman, as usual these days, does a smile that is not a smile and says, Hello. She looks up at the sky, which is getting dark.

After fruit we buy green olives, scooped into a clean jar that Maman pulls out from her basket. Then we go for cheese, usually goat’s cheese because that was what Papa always asked for, and then to the baker’s for tomorrow’s croissants. When Maman was cheerful she would buy us a treat to share, a pain au chocolat or a brioche, but today we just get the croissants and hurry away.

Come on, says Maman, let’s get a drink before we go home.

Ooh yes, says Margot, I would like a glass of lemonade, please, with an ice cube and a pink straw.

But that’s not what Maman means. In the middle of the village square is a fountain where pigeons take their baths in the pools at the base. All around its sides, dark metal fish spurt water out of their mouths and we catch it in ours, Maman too. The holiday people look at us strangely, as though we are savages to drink the water, but you can tell that they would like to join in. Maman splashes it on to her face and neck and I copy her. The cool water feels perfect against my summer skin.

 

As we go back up the lane to the house, Maman is huffing and puffing. She has one hand on her basket and the other on her back. Every few steps she is swapping hands. Now it is Margot and I who are leading the way and Maman who is trailing behind. Even without the sun, the day is turning very hot and we are all sweating. About halfway up, Maman stops and just sits down on the path. She takes off her shoes and rubs her feet which are big and very pink. She breathes like this: her-hoo, her-hoo, her-hoo.

It takes us a long time to get her home, and when we walk into the kitchen, Maman puts down the basket and drops into a chair. I get her a cold drink from the fridge and then lay out everything on the table for our market-day lunch: bread and butter with salt on, slices of tomatoes, cheese and olives. Maman drinks her drink and watches me without smiling. She is holding her head up with one hand, her elbow on the table.

I’m sorry, Pea, she says at last. I think I’m going to go and have a lie-down. I watch her drag herself upstairs without eating a bite.

Shall we eat, or go and play? says Margot.

Both, I say grumpily. First, lunch. I’ve been hungry ever since the chickens.

I make two plates of food, with all our favourite things. I put more salt on the bread than I should and leave off the cheese. I find a bottle of fizzy drink in the pantry and manage to get it open. I eat my tomato like an apple, getting the juice all over my dress, and I use my fingers for the olives, licking off the oil and going back into the jar for more without washing my hands. When we have finished eating I leave the food uncovered and we go out to play without clearing the plates.

 

Children from the village used to come here all the time, to play in the fields. They made dens, and tree houses, and the big ones sometimes left bottles and litter. Our barn has its back turned to the fields, with one round eye looking out to the high pasture and the wing turbines. Around the edges of our courtyard we have a lot of fruit trees: a small bundle of apple trees that maybe once were an orchard, two pomegranate trees, a fig tree and a quince tree next to each other, an olive tree on its own and a great big cherry tree.

The fruit game started with the quince tree. The quinces are no good at all to eat, and anyway the tree is sick and all the fruit goes brown and bobbled. The summer when I was three years old some boys from the village picked all the quinces from the tree and threw them at the back of the barn, trying to score goals through the ox-eye. Most of the fruits rotted around the bottom of the barn, only a few got in. Papa found them near his tractor and laughed. Funny game, he said.

In autumn they started on the pomegranates. We don’t pick many to eat or sell; they usually just burst open on the tree. Then the magpies peck at the jewels inside until the fruits fall off and smash. The boys had got better at the fruit game and a lot of the pomegranates went through the hole. The ones that didn’t exploded on the wall, the seeds making a glittery red carpet by the barn. Papa grumbled as he swept up the mess.

The next spring the boys took cherries off the tree, all the ones they could reach. The fruit was too good to waste so they ate the cherries then tried with the stones, either throwing them or spitting. But the stones were no good for that so they started using the unripe apples. It was just after Maman came home from the hospital, which was bad luck for the boys because Papa exploded.

Enough is enough! he shouted at them. I had never heard him shout before, not once.

We eat those apples, he said. They are not toys, and neither is my barn. Go and find something useful to do with your weekends, and if I ever catch you taking my peaches I will really give you something to be sorry for.

The boys never came back, so last year’s pomegranates fell off the trees as usual and there were plenty of cherries on the tree that I could knock off with the mop. But it had been nice to have other children up here even if they weren’t my friends. Sometimes now the fruit looks lonely.

BOOK: The Night Rainbow
13.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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