Monday, 20 February 2012

Kiku - a story

So here they were, three sisters, in a strange room without any sofas, looking out from their separate armchairs. They’d never been here before without their parents; they hadn’t even been here very often with them.  

Nobody spoke. 

Rachel played with her socks, rolling them down round her ankles, like fat white sausages, then pulling them back up again. Mum would tell her off if she was here, tell her she’d ruin the elastic. But Mum wasn’t here, and Susan didn’t feel like it, so Rachel carried on; rolling and stretching, rolling and stretching.

Carol was chewing on one of her plaits. She’d screamed the house down earlier that day, when Mum had brushed her hair; she always did, no matter what day it was. Now she sat, curled up in an armchair, staring out of the window. Auntie Joan and Uncle George were the only people they knew who lived in a flat. It was on the top floor of a big old house, so the windows were level with the tops of the trees outside. Today, with the branches all bare, you could see through them to the streets and tall houses that stretched away down the hill, past the park and across the outside edges of Crystal Palace.

It was bad enough that their Nanna had died, worse that they weren’t allowed to go to the funeral. Susan knew that some people hadn’t wanted them going to the big church on the hill, and she could understand that for Carol and Rachel. Neither of them was even ten yet; but she was nearly thirteen, so she couldn't see why they’d all had to be dumped together on Auntie Joan and Uncle George.

Susan looked around her. Even though it was still light outside, the room was dark. The flat was part of a tall old building, one of the scary looking witch-houses they always ran past on their way to the swings. There were three lamps on small round tables, each with a tasselled green shade, but they weren’t doing much to brighten the room. Their weird glowing light reminded Susan of that time they’d gone swimming in the lake; when she’d ducked her head under and squinted up, she’d seen the same sort of dull green brightness.

It felt like they were waiting, but she wasn’t sure what for. She wondered if she ought to cry. Other people had cried when they’d heard that Nanna was dead. She’d tried, really she had; screwing her eyes up tight and thinking bad thoughts. But even though she’d remembered the worst thing, she couldn’t squeeze out a tear.

The last time they’d seen Uncle George had been at their own house. He’d done that trick where he’d put a tuppenny coin on the base of his thumb, then closed his fingers over the end in a fist and somehow clicked the joint, so the coin disappeared. They’d all checked his sleeves to see where it had gone, they’d looked under the cushions and down the sides of the settee, but none of them could spot it, until he’d jumped up suddenly and pulled it out from behind Rachel’s ear.

Susan wished he’d do a trick now, but maybe you couldn’t do magic when someone had just died.

Auntie Joan came in with a tray. It wasn’t like the painted metal one they had at home with the scratched old roses on it; this was a long wooden tray, with high raised sides, and holes cut in each end for handles. On it were three tall glasses of milk. Carol didn’t like milk, she’d never drink it, not even when Mum heated it up in the milk pan and put sugar in it. Susan wondered if she should say something, explain how Mum had written a letter to school, excusing Carol from the morning milk. She watched Carol wriggling in her seat, she noticed how even Rachel had stopped rolling her socks, waiting to see what would happen.

She saw how Auntie Joan placed the tray very carefully on the sideboard, then picked up the first glass and handed it to Rachel, who took it and said a quiet thank you. Susan knew she’d be last because she was the oldest; she knew Carol would be next. So she watched as her aunt picked up the second glass, and with it, a small plate of those biscuits with the nobbly edges, she waited for Carol to shout, or cry, or run out of the room. She could hardly believe it when her sister reached out to take the glass, copied Rachel’s quiet thank you and started to sip.

As she gulped down her own glass of milk, Susan wondered what time it was. There was a big wooden clock on the mantelpiece, she liked its loud ticking, but the numbers were written in Roman, and even though she knew she should still be able to tell the time, just from the position of them, the harder she stared, the more complicated it seemed.

Though she’d never actually been to one, and didn’t have any idea how long it might take, she thought the funeral was probably over by now. But she’d watched Mum earlier on, packing three pairs of pyjamas into the big blue holdall, wrapping their toothbrushes in one of the spare plastic bags from under the sink, so Susan knew their parents wouldn’t be coming back that day; she knew they’d be staying with Auntie Joan and Uncle George for the night.

None of them had ever stayed away before, well, not unless you counted being on holiday; and she couldn’t figure out where they were all going to sleep. If you’d asked her, she'd have said that she didn’t want to share a bed with her sisters, but she did want to go to bed soon; she thought it might be just like at Christmas, the sooner they all went to sleep, the sooner the next day would come. And then they could all go home again.

She heard a door bang shut. It was so loud; it must have been someone in the flat, though she couldn’t imagine Auntie Joan or Uncle George ever actually slamming a door. Then suddenly, there was cousin Vivienne, laughing and saying hello. All in one movement, she seemed to drop the embroidered strap of her bag from one shoulder, unwrap the long striped scarf from round her neck, shake her long hair loose, and scoop up Carol for an eskimo kiss.

Susan watched as they rubbed noses, she saw how Carol giggled and squirmed, how she begged for more as Viv put her back onto the armchair and turned her attention to Rachel, who was sitting across the room, watching silently, chewing on the skin at the side of her thumb.

“Hey Rach, have you ever seen a necklace like this before? It’s made of apple pips. All of it. Would you like to borrow it for a bit?”

Only after Viv had carefully placed the necklace over Rachel’s head and twisted it twice did she turn her attention to Susan. The eldest, always the last, and no lifting up for eskimo noses, just a tight, two-arms hug.

As she buried her face in her cousin’s shoulder, Susan could smell the strange, almost rotten, scent of Vivienne’s coat, with its leathery skin and furry edges. Then coming through over the top of that was another smell, it seemed to be oranges and lemons, sweetness and sunshine.

And then there was no need to screw up her eyes, or think of bad things. Susan breathed in the smell of being grown up, of being away from home; the scents and sense of things she knew and didn’t yet know. And, in the hug of her cousin, she cried for her Nanna.


Anonymous said...

Lovely story that makes you feel like a little girl again in a place where you don't want to be in a situation you don't really understand.

Robbie Grey said...

Amazing tale.

"Susan wished he’d do a trick now, but maybe you couldn’t do magic when someone had just died."

That line carried its own magic. Very nice.

"As We Speak" said...

I love your story. I love the little girls. I was one of the little girls and my sisters Marlene and Yvonne were the other two. Yvonne, so grown up and responsible like Susan and, I, six years younger was Rachel.

Really enjoyed it!


Bea, OT said...

I really liked the way you kept the same tone and feeling in the story till the climax and the end. I was completely engrossed in the story. Lovely!

The Elephant's Child said...

Thank you. It made me think of my brothers (half) who were not allowed to go to their father's funeral. It has always seemed wrong to me, and more so now.

Susan Cooper said...

What a great story. It takes me back to when I was once a child. It reminds me of a time when my closest friend lost her mother and we were sitting on a swing not knowing just what to say to each other. Beautifully written and executed. :-), Susan Cooper

elaine rickett said...

Lovely story - I just wanted to keep on reading - I remember that perfume too - wonder if it is still available.

KristyInTheCorner said...

Made me think of being little with my sister.

ND Mitchell said...

I was reminded of not being taken to my gran's funeral. I've often reflected on it. Your story captures the mood perfectly.

Baglady said...

Fab writing, Sharon. You mould the scene so brilliantly, so throroughly that I think you must have been through it. Is it from your past or just brilliantly imagined?

Nessa Roo said...

Wonderful story, Sharon. I loved all of it, but the last few paragraphs were excellent. I think I lived this moment, but surrounded by six brothers instead of sisters.

Cle Reveries said...

How sweet are the girls!
... and what about the story?: AMAZING

Gail said...

A lovely story. I remember the smell of Kiku very well.

Young at Heart said...

you paint an intoxicating picture quite perfectly!!

Young at Heart said...

you paint an intoxicating picture quite perfectly!!