Authors: Claire King
Tags: #General Fiction
Just like us, today! I say.
What happened? says Margot.
What do you think he did? Claude asks.
We shake our heads and shrug.
Well, first of all, because he was very scared, he went and sheltered from the storm under a great big oak tree. But then, while he was there he remembered what his papa had once taught him. Claude pauses.
What? I ask.
His papa had said, Gaston, if you are ever caught in a storm you must never, ever shelter under a tree. Claude looks up at me. Never, ever, he says, slowly.
Why? Margot and I ask, both at the same time.
Because the lightning is looking for tall things to hit, says Claude.
I wonder why the lightning doesn’t like tall things, but Claude carries on.
So Gaston plucked up all his courage – that means braveness – and he got out from under the tree and he ran all the way home in the thunder and the lightning and the rain. When he got home he was very wet, but he was safe.
That’s a silly story, says Margot.
I kick her feet and scowl at her. Sometimes she says very rude things, even to grownups. She gets up and goes to skulk around the bikes.
I haven’t finished, says Claude. Do you know what that boy found, when he went up to the hill the next day?
No, I say.
He found the big oak tree had been struck by lightning, and there was nothing left of it but a small black stump. It was still smoking.
I make the surprised O with my mouth, although I am not really that surprised. It was the kind of story that grownups tell children to complicate a thing when they could just tell you the thing itself, much faster.
Is that a true story? I ask.
It must be, says Claude. And it should tell you that you have to be clever about looking after yourself. Do you promise me you’ll be careful? He sounds like Papa and I feel the music of his words tugging inside me.
OK, I say. We’ll be careful.
Claude looks at his watch. Well, Pea, the storm has passed; your maman will be worried about you so you and Margot had better get home. He takes his banana knife off the nail and opens the barn door with a creak, letting the warm day find us again.
After you, he says.
Outside is sweet and grassy. The clouds are far in the distance and above us blue skies have made the garden colourful again. In between the barn and the house are rows of tomatoes, peas and yellow courgettes growing on canes. There is a square patch of soil dotted with bright-green lettuce-mops and floppy-leaved pink radishes. I don’t really like radishes much, they sting my tongue, but they are one of the nicest coloured of the vegetables.
Can we see the garden? I ask.
Why not? says Claude. Follow me, and stay on the path.
We walk slowly in amongst the vegetables. My dress is clammy against my legs and my feet sink into the wet soil. As we go, Claude pulls out small weeds with the tips of his fingers and pinches tiny insects off the tomatoes with the hand that is not holding the banana knife. He lets a ladybird crawl on to his finger and passes it to me, the ladybird using his fingernail as a bridge between our hands.
Can I see? says Margot, sidling up close. She starts to count the spots. One, two, three, four, five. Easy, she says.
I turn to her and she watches the ladybird crawl up my arm, the little hairs like a tiny insect-sized forest.
She’s my friend, says Claude. She eats bad bugs.
She’s beautiful, I say.
That’s her name, says Claude.
Belle la coccinelle
. He smiles.
It rhymes! I say.
Put her back when you’ve had enough, says Claude, I need her for my plants.
So I let her walk off my finger on to the tomato vine. We walk further down into the garden. But walking is quite boring and Margot and I start to run off ahead. We are really fast, we are like leopards through the grass. Soon we get to a clump of oleanders growing around a square wall.
Oleanders look nice, says Margot, but in fact they are dangerous and will poison you to death.
I know, I say.
So don’t even touch them!
Can the smell poison you?
Margot shrugs. Probably, if you smell enough of it.
We find a gap in the bushes where we don’t have to touch the leaves or the flowers, and try to investigate. The wall is just too high for us to peer in, even on tiptoes, but I manage to hoick myself up so my legs are dangling down and I am half leaning in, looking over the rim. It doesn’t smell so good. Inside it is full of black-green water, with a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing above. I rock forward and back. Margot is smaller than me and she can’t quite get up to have a look.
Come on, I say, jump yourself up. There is a pool in there. I don’t want to swim in it, though.
What kind of pool? asks Margot, still clambering against the wall and scrabbling with her feet, but not managing to see in. Is it like a drinking bowl for elephants?
Mind your toes, I say.
Then, No! yells Claude and the loudness of his voice makes me let go and wobble scarily. I twist off wall and stand my feet back down on the wet grass and look at him. He is coming fast towards us. One hand is reaching out and the other one has still got his banana knife, glinty-sharp. My bone is itching. I scratch at the skin that covers it, watching the red lines turn white and then dark red again. Not looking at Claude. Merlin’s nose arrives at my feet.
That’s. Dangerous, Claude says to my face. He is crouched down, his spit is getting on me.
I don’t like being shouted at. I scowl at him and stare my eyes hard so that the tears can’t get out.
Are there elephants in your garden? Margot asks.
Claude’s face is an ugly big plum. Stay away from there, he says in his rumble-voice. You could drown.
Sorry, I say quietly. Is it where the elephants drink?
Elephants? says Claude.
The elephants you hunt. With your banana knife.
Ah. Claude breathes a big breath. No, there aren’t any elephants here. No tigers either. But sometimes in summer my garden does look like a jungle, so the knife is still useful. Claude scratches at the cuts on his legs. I’m sorry I shouted at you. Now, he says, before you get into any more trouble today, I think it’s time you got home. If you go back up that path it will take you up to where I found you earlier, and the tree which may or may not still be there now . . .
Margot starts to jump on the spot and I know what she is thinking.
No, Margot, I say, we cannot go and check.
Huh. Margot folds her arms.
If you go this way, Claude says, pointing down through a patchwork of grass, marigolds and roses, you will get to the road, and over to the meadow.
And if you go this way – he points up behind the well to a high hedge – on the other side you will find the irrigation canal, which I think you are big enough to jump across, and on the other side is your papa’s peach orchard. You can get home fastest that way.
It looks quite spiky, I say.
Here. Claude shows us a perfect, girl-sized gap. Go on, he says.
Goodbye, we shout, and jump over the stream of water, laughing as we run back up through the orchard.
The kitchen table is tidy, everything put away, washed and wiped.
I forgot about the challenge, didn’t I? I say. Maman will definitely not be happy. I’m going to be punished for the mess.
Shall we play in our room? says Margot.
I’d rather get told off quickly, I say.
We’d better find her then. Guess where she is? Margot is grinning.
I put up my finger. Me! Me!
In her bedroom! I say.
Not a bad guess, says Margot. Let’s go and see.
We still walk quietly upstairs, in case she is asleep. Maman’s bedroom door is ajar, so I push it a little bit and peep around into the room. It is shady, with just a straight of light coming through a crack in the shutters. Fairies are flying around in the glow.
Maman is in her bed with her dress on. She is lying on her side facing me. She is fast asleep and so beautiful, like a queen. It makes me think of Papa. He used to call her ‘the queen of my heart’ which sounds like a song, and sometimes they called me Princess. Looking at Maman on her bed, I wonder if it is true. This could be our hilltop castle, built of gold and stone, looking out over our kingdom, away from everybody else. Kings and queens and princesses don’t have to speak to normal people, only to fairies and talking cats.
Are you a queen? I whisper.
Is this your tower? says Margot.
Did a witch put a spell on you? I say.
Maman does not answer, just snores a little bit. The fan blows ripples in her yellow dress. The fan is brown, but has three turning blades, just like the white wing turbines. I imagine how wonderful it would be to fall asleep watching it turn, turn, turn.
The telephone rings. Once. Twice. I wonder, should I answer it? Maman will not be pleased. Or should I leave it (it will wake her up and she will not be pleased)?
Answer the phone, says Margot. It’s giving me a headache.
Or you could answer it! I snap. But then I run fast to pick it up.
Hello, says Mami Lafont, is your mother there?
I make my yucky-food face at Margot and she makes one back. I try not to giggle. Mami Lafont is my grandma. She lives on the other side of the village with Tante Brigitte. Before Papa died, if she phoned, she would always want to talk to Papa. Now she calls for Maman but it’s usually me that answers the phone. Mami Lafont is not very friendly and she does not like to chat. Her hands are thin and bony like a witch’s, and usually cold even in the summer. She doesn’t seem to like children much. Whenever we used to go to her house with Papa, there was nothing to play with and she never had any good biscuits. I am not pleased that Papa is dead, but it is good that we never go there any more.
Papa told me that when he was little, he and Tante Brigitte and Mami Lafont and Papi Lafont, who died a long time ago, used to all live up here in our house. Then it was Papi who rode on the tractor and Papa helping him out. But that was a very long time ago, in the olden days. I wonder if Mami Lafont was nicer then, and if Papi called her the queen of his heart. Maybe she had a dead baby too, or maybe all the mamans turn cross one day.
Hello, Mami Lafont, I say. Maman’s asleep at the moment.
And so who is looking after you? Mami Lafont asks.
Margot’s here, I say.
What? Mami Lafont sounds cross.
We’re fine, I say.
Fine? Well could you tell your mother to call me? Tell her it can’t wait. Tell her I won’t go away.
I ponder for a moment because this is confusing. Where would Mami Lafont be going away to, and why has she decided not to? Holidays, perhaps? I will ask Margot later.
Pardon? I say.
Just tell her to call me, please, she says.
I imagine saying this to Maman. I imagine Maman’s face. Yuckier than mine and Margot’s.
I’ll try, I say.
Right, she says. Goodbye. Then she says, in a new voice, sing-song and soft, Oh, have you had lunch?
Mami Lafont, I say, it was market day. We bought olives and cheese and bread and . . .
OK, OK, says Mami Lafont. That’s enough.
I blow her a kiss down the phone, but she has already hung up.
Maman appears at the top of the stairs looking bleary and crumpled.
Who was that? she says.
It was Mami Lafont, I say. She wants you to . . .
Peony, where have you been? Maman sounds like a dog barking. She is scowling at my dress. I look down and realise that although Margot skipped her dress dry, I fell asleep and mine is still wet.
Margot smiles and sticks out her tongue at me.
There was a storm, I say to Maman. It’s OK, we got out of it quickly. And we didn’t go under any trees and get burned up by lightning. I’m sorry about making a mess and not tidying it up. Mami Lafont says can you call her and please can I go and get changed?
After I stop talking there is a long wait. Then Maman sighs. Why don’t you change straight into your pyjamas? she says. It’s nearly bedtime anyway. I’ll make us some supper.
When I come back downstairs, Maman has laid out a picnic, not in the kitchen but the living room, on the coffee table. There is green salad, cold sausages, crisps and soft cheese, and Maman has put a grownups film on to watch. Maman will watch the film until it makes her cry, then some more until her eyelids start to slip. I won’t understand the film and I won’t cry. Instead I will watch Maman out of the side of my eye, counting her freckles. Margot will sit in a corner and pretend to read a book. She knows the stories by heart from when Maman and Papa used to read to us. But she can’t really read. Except for a few words like peony
Maman sits on the sofa, with her feet up on a stool and her plate balanced on top of her belly like a hat. I sit beside her, just the tiniest amount of cool space between our warmnesses. It feels like nothing and everything.