Authors: Claire King
Tags: #General Fiction
When we have fed the chickens and given them some water, making them very happy, we run out across the high pasture. Our feet make a flattened trail through the tall grass, up and over to Windy Hill.
I’m sure, says Margot, not at all out of breath, that the lightning will have burned away the big fir tree.
I don’t think so, I say.
But as we get closer I am still disappointed to see the tree standing there. It would have been exciting to think that Claude had saved our lives and that the tree had been sizzled away by the lightning.
Maybe it is just a little bit burned, says Margot. We’ll have to inspect it.
We walk around the trunk, peering at the bark. It is not even slightly burned, I say.
That is true, says Margot. This tree had a lucky escape. Look at this, though!
Margot is pointing to the bark of the tree. I didn’t notice it very much in the storm, but the bark is unusual – it is peeling off in handprint-sized scabs. Each flake looks like a tortoise shell: shiny, with lots of rings inside each other and under the cracks scuttle hundreds of little red and black
It’s the police, says Margot. They have come to do an investigation too!
It takes a lot of them, I say. But I suppose they are only small. I watch them hurrying about. It’s funny how the police got called after insects, I say.
And also, why do the people-kind not wear the right-colour uniforms?
I don’t know, I say. Red is much nicer than blue.
Yes, says Margot. You would think the grownups would notice things like that.
Grownups don’t notice as much as we do, I say.
I expect there’s a bank robbery, says Margot.
At the insect bank, I say, but I’m not laughing. The
are interesting, but I’ve had enough of this tree. I want to watch the wing turbines.
The wing turbines are turning slowly. The wings don’t go round together, they aren’t in tune at all. It looks as though they are all being blown by different winds. I count across to my favourite. My favourite is number five, because that is my number, the same as my age. Margot has number four just next to mine. I pick one of the wings and watch it turn. When it points straight up I breathe in, then once it has done a full turn I breathe out again. I wait until it is pointing up to breathe in again and I carry on like this. It feels very sleepy, standing up, looking at the wing turbine, thinking about breathing, listening to the sound of it coming in and out of my nose.
Then I wonder, what would happen if I stopped breathing now? Would the turbine stop turning? So when the blade points up to twelve o’clock again I don’t breathe out, I just hold it. To start with nothing happens, but then there is a burning in my throat, a pushing forward into my mouth like there is darkness trapped inside me trying to get out. I don’t like it at all and I let the breath escape in a rush. After a while breathing with the turbine again I decide to try the other way, so I breathe out, and then don’t let myself breathe in. There is a boiling inside of me, almost straight away, and my head starts to thump, my face tingling.
Hey, says Margot.
But I shake my head.
Pea! she says. You have forgotten to breathe!
I shake my head harder and she nods hers very hard back. I shake and she nods and I shake and she nods until my mouth opens itself all on its own and the air is sucked in. I think it is very strange that we breathe without even thinking about it, and that we can’t stop it and start it like we can with other things. I wonder, since it’s so hard to stop breathing, how people manage to do it until they die.
In between me and the turbines, Margot has started cartwheeling.
Come on! she says. This is very good exercise and it’s also very impressive.
It is impressive, I say. And I join in. The ground makes dents in my palms, but the turning over part makes up for it. We are angels’ wings, turning over and over, on the top of our own hill. When we stop we are smiling and puffed out. I sit and look out towards the
. The sunshine is painting white splashes on the blue water.
Do you think she is going to be hiding for ever? I ask Margot.
Maybe, maybe not, Margot says. She cocks her head to the side which usually means she is going to say something interesting.
I think, she says, that it will depend on the baby.
I take a stick and start to write my name in the dirt. I make a big ‘P’ and then stop.
P is for peacock, says Margot.
No, I say. P is for me, I’m just not sure which one.
E, says Margot. I draw the E, scraping the stony ground to get the corners straight. After that the A is the right thing to do. Then I write Margot, then I draw a spider with zigzag teeth. The baby will be quite small, I say. I’m not sure it will be able to help us much.
No. But maybe the baby has got Maman’s happiness, says Margot. Maybe the happiness wasn’t left at the hospital but it stayed in her tummy?
Or maybe when the baby is born it will be my turn with Maman again?
Could be, says Margot. Or could be not.
You know what we really need? I say.
A papa, she replies.
I still don’t know where to get one from. This is a chewy thought, so I look at the angels some more and ask them in my head if they have any ideas.
Margot appears in front of my face. Would you like a
? she says.
Oh, yes please, I say.
Margot gives me a handful of purple seeds. I chew them. They are a bit gristly but the flavour is very nice. As I chew I scratch at the ground some more with my stick. The soil here is sandy-coloured on top, but underneath it’s the same red-brown as Merlin. It is warm like Merlin too, but not as flappy. I would like to see him now. And Claude.
Margot, I say, shall we go to Claude’s house and see if he wants to come and play?
He’s a grownup, Pea, she says.
Papa was a grownup, I say, and he used to play with us.
Yes, but Papa was a papa. It’s not the same when you’re not a papa. You aren’t so interested in children and you like to talk to grownups and to meet ladies. Not girls, she says. Not normally.
I’m bored of normally, I say. And anyway, Claude is interested.
Well we can’t go to his house, says Margot. It’s in the rules.
What rules? I say.
The Rules! Margot replies.
Can you remind me? I say.
Margot stands up straight. Here are The Rules, she says.
1. Don’t go down to the low meadow on your own.
2. Don’t lick your fingers then put them back in the olive jar.
3. Boys have to wear brown, grey and blue and girls have to wear the beautiful colours.
4. You don’t ask grownups to come out to play.
5. Only do the things that make Maman happy.
I wonder if she’s out of bed yet, I say. And then I spit out the lavender because it tastes scratchy in my mouth, and stare back up at my turbine.
I bet Sylvie’s brought the bread, says Margot.
I don’t say anything.
I bet it’s warm and crunchy on the outside, and soft and crumby on the inside.
I smile a little bit. It’s time for our second breakfast.
We are sitting by the letterbox – still two baguettes – with tummies full of bread, listening to the quiet of the house. A tiny aeroplane leaves a long cottonwool trail across the sky. I try to imagine the people on the plane, with their suitcases and sunglasses. Maybe they are the coming ones, and we will see them next week at the market. Or maybe they are the going ones, with red noses and homesickness.
Come on, says Margot, I’m going to teach you a game.
No, in the orchard. Come on! she says. It’s our running day, so run!
We race round the sunny side of the house and off into the orchards. Margot is very fast and I can’t keep up.
Boo! She jumps out at me from behind a tree.
Boo! I say back, just because.
OK, says Margot, now this game is complicated so you have to listen carefully.
I’m too busy for complicated games, I say. We’ll do it later.
Don’t be silly, says Margot. Listen. First, she says, you have to put everything upside down, like this. And then she folds in half, putting her hands on the ground, and looks backwards and upwards between her knees. Then, she says, we have to race, like crabs.
You try it, she says.
I bend down and put my eyes between my knees. Up in the sky are the red balls of peaches in amongst the green teardrop leaves. The peaches look wrong and it’s not just the upside-downness of them. There are shadows and black dots. I unfold myself to have a look.
The peaches are covered in holes as though someone had been shooting at them. Thick lines of ants are marching up and down the trees and into the peaches. They are stealing our fruit, one ant-bite at a time.
Pea, you have to concentrate, says Margot. Race! So I do the crab thing again and we scuttle about between the trees, making ourselves dizzy and sometimes squashing some of the ants.
Scrunch-unch-unch up the path, a bumping of tyres is coming our way. A white truck stops by the side of the track and the man who buys the peaches steps out. He isn’t wearing a shirt or a hat. His skin is brown and he has hairy nipples. He has a belt on his trousers.
This is the peachman. Every few days he comes to pick our peaches. Last year he collected them together with Papa, on hot afternoons without their shirts on. Afterwards they would sit in the shade and drink pastis, which is not for little girls, and Maman would take them olives. These days the peachman just comes to the door and gives us some money, then takes the peaches away to sell. Maman makes me answer the door; she doesn’t want to be disturbed.
The peachman has left the car running, with the door open and the radio on, but it is nothing we can dance to, just people talking about boring things. He unties a stepladder from the roof and walks into the orchard.
We crab over to where he is, and look at him upside down from between our legs, his head floating like a grey cloud in the blue sky.
Hello, I say.
How are you? says Margot.
The peachman does not answer straight away, but pulls off a few more of the fruits. Normally he picks out the ripe peaches and sets them in careful rows in wooden crates. Today he is just picking off all the ones with holes, which is most of them, and throwing them on to the crates in a heap. It’s ruined, he says.
What happened to the peaches? I say.
The hailstones happened, he says.
Are they all broken? I ask.
Margot stares at him upside down and opens her eyes wide and white. I giggle.
Where’s your maman? the peachman says.
I don’t know, I tell him. Can we come and see your pigs?
With your maman?
No, just me and Margot.
No, he says. Get your maman to bring you some time. Tell her she’s welcome. Amaury would have wanted an eye kept on her.
His smile is confusing. I don’t like him any more, says Margot.
I don’t either.
Come on, Margot says, and we stand up and run away without saying goodbye.
Why would the peachman want to keep an eye on Maman? I say.
Maman is a grownup, says Margot. He’s being silly.
Do you think Maman would take me to see his pigs? I ask.
Pea, says Margot, don’t ask silly questions. We have more interesting things to think about.
As we get to the path, the talking people on the radio remind me that the car door is open.
Should we take his car for a drive? says Margot.
I think about it. There are good reasons to do it, like it would be fun. But also there are good reasons not to do it, like I don’t know the way to the beach, and also Maman would be furious. But I am also cross that Maman wouldn’t take us to see the pigs, and cross with the peachman too.
Just to pretend then? says Margot, smiling.
We climb in. The metal burns my fingers and the leather seat scalds my legs. Even the keys, jangly under the steering wheel, are burny.
Ow! Ow! I say.
I try to put my seatbelt on but it is hot too. I have the wheel and the two sticks, Margot is the passenger. My legs don’t quite reach the pedals, but almost.
I’d like to go to a restaurant, Margot says.
, I say. Which one?
One that makes lamb chops and chips and ice-cream, she says. And lemonade.
And so that is what we do, until the restaurant gets too hot and we are all sweaty and we need to find some cool.
We go around the back of the house. Our plan is to pick up the rest of the baguettes on the way to the kitchen door and take them inside. We get the bread, but before we make it into the courtyard I hear the screams.