The car park was empty. I was sitting tensely in the front passenger seat of our blue Citroen 2CV, and had been staring at the gear-stick. I didn’t look up all the way to school in case I saw a magpie, because the rhyme about magpies said one for sorrow, and it was too risky to chance two for joy.
‘We’re here, darling,’ said Clare, as we turned in, and I was hopeful because I’d done really well that morning and not looked out of the window once. But then I raised my head and it felt a bit like one of the men with the big cement mixers – the ones putting down a new path outside the gym – had poured all their cement into me instead of the ground. It was never a good sign if the car park was empty.
Clare parked the car and we got out. I never called her Mum, and sometimes my friends asked me why and said it was weird, but there wasn’t a reason really, it had just always been that way. Nanny and Grandad were called Nanny and Grandad though, because that’s what Clare called them, and even what they called each other, but my mum was Clare, my dad was Stan, and my step-dad was Henry. Usually when Henry took me to school the car park was really busy and I saw that other children sat in the back seat of their cars, which seemed strange.
There wasn’t anyone else in the car park today though. I walked towards the school gate with Clare, holding my pink Tom and Jerry lunch box that made everything smell of fermented apple juice because the flask was leaky. As I looked towards the playground I saw that Mr Addy, the headmaster, was standing by the canteen doors. They were a long way away, so he had to shout.
‘What time do you call this? YOU’RE LATE. It’s a disgrace. You are disrupting the class. Again. It is incredibly rude and selfish of you to bring your daughter late every single day.’
By the time he had finished his face was maroon like his jumper.
I stood next to Clare, fiddling with my wobbly, home-trimmed fringe and hating her. I had the same feeling when she ate things on the way around the supermarket and put the empty packet through the checkout, or tested the grapes without buying any. She’d get angry with me (because of her deaf ear) for not talking loudly enough when there was ‘background noise’, but I didn’t like other people hearing what I was saying. Being late was the worst thing, though, and it wasn’t just school, it was the dentist, or anywhere else that had a time – but it was only Mr Addy who shouted.
I didn’t really hate Clare, I just didn’t want everyone to stare at me when I walked into the classroom late or to ask why I hadn’t been to school yesterday. Sometimes she’d decide to bring me home at lunch time, or not take me in at all, and the teachers didn’t like that. I think Mr Addy actually did hate her, so I hated him back because the only thing worse than being late was people being mean to Clare.
Mrs Stewart made me speak to Mr Addy once after forgetting my swimming kit three times in a row, and he didn’t shout then, but it was quite a Clareish thing to do so he probably wasn’t surprised. I hated the pool because it was outdoors and cold and the boys always splashed the girls, so I was quite good at forgetting that Wednesday was Swimming Day. Once Clare remembered for me and brought my swimming costume in at break time, so I had to flap about in the chloriney water with a horrible swimming cap on that was the colour of Mr Addy’s jumper. Henry tried to teach me to swim in the heated pool in Totnes but it took me ages to learn and I always swallowed the water, which made me feel sick. The teachers gave me floats and said I was being silly not to enjoy it, so I wondered why they didn’t get in too rather than standing around with all their clothes on.
My favourite teacher was Miss Powell, but one day we did show and tell and I told how Stan had come down from Cumbria and we’d been shopping to buy me new shoes, and I showed the shoes, and Miss Powell told me it wasn’t very good to take the day off school to go shopping. Actually, to be properly precise, she asked me whether it was very good to take the day off school to go shopping? But it wasn’t a proper question: it was one of those questions that grown-ups ask when they already know the answer, and I was supposed to say ‘no’. That made me feel all confused and squirmy, because it wasn’t my fault that Stan lived so far away, and it didn’t seem all that wrong really – not as wrong as making people get in cold swimming pools or forcing them to eat mushrooms, anyway. There were other times I felt like that too.
When I was two I went to a café with Clare and Henry and the lady with the orange squash said to me, ‘look at the daisies on the tablecloth! Aren’t they pretty?’
And I said to her, ‘they aren’t daisies, they’re mesembryanthemums,’ which made everyone laugh. Except me, because they were mesembryanthemums and no-one ever found it funny when Nanny and Grandad talked about the ones in their back garden.
Then, when I was four, I saw Henry when he’d just got out of bed and his hair was sticking up all over the place.
‘Hen, your hair looks like a donkey sanctuary,’ I told him, and that wasn’t meant to be funny either, but grown-ups are strange sometimes.
And when I was eight my friend Hannah was crying so I asked her what was the matter, and she said, with big sniffs, ‘Sally’s being really h-horrible to me,’ and wailed a bit.
I spoke to Sally, Hannah’s sister, and told her that Hannah was upset but she just shouted, ‘I hate my sister! I wish she was dead!’
I knew what she meant, because I felt that way about Clare sometimes, and I tried to say, ‘but she’s your sister, so you’ll always love her really, and you’d miss her if she died,’ but Sally just looked at me like I was mad and ran away.
When I was ten, Lidi’s dad heard me swear. We were going to go on a bike ride but there was a car blocking the lane so we had to go round the long way, through the allotments.
‘Oh fuck,’ I said, seeing the car, and Lidi’s dad was standing behind us.
‘Don’t you ever use that kind of language again young lady, or you won’t be welcome in this house any more,’ he said sharply, and Lidi was my best friend so that would’ve been bad.
I thought it was unfair because I knew Lidi swore too, but she understood how these things worked, and that you didn’t say ‘fuck’ in front of parents who weren’t Clare.
Then, when I was twelve, I got told off by the vicar for writing silly messages in the visitors’ book at St David’s Church. There weren’t many ‘kids’, as they called us, in the village, so it was obvious who had done it, but although the messages were in four different people’s handwriting, only I got a letter about my ‘unruly behaviour’. Clare said it was because she was a single parent on Income Support (Henry wasn’t my step-dad any more by then) and we didn’t fit the perfect family mould set up by the rest of the village. It was ridiculous because I spent most of my time watching The X-Files in my bedroom whilst the other kids were drinking vodka in the recreation ground, or setting fire to the bus shelter, but their parents were the kind of people with mortgages and credit accounts at the village shop, which seemed to make all the difference.
When I was fourteen I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris and understood that some people are always on the outside, but not exactly why. Things made a bit more sense after that.
But back when I was six, I wrote a story that was nine pages long. I was in Mrs Stewart’s class and she told us to write about our holidays because last week was half term. I had a yellow exercise book that was near the end and I was determined to get a new one by home time. Clare and Henry were still married then, and Henry’s parents were quite rich and they had taken us to Padstow, in Cornwall, for a few days, so I had a good story to tell.
I wrote all about how Henry’s dad was now a woman called Jan, but that she was still very tall and quite boomy, and still married to Elizabeth. I wasn’t sure if that was allowed, because Elizabeth was a woman too, but they were better at behaving themselves than Clare so it must’ve been okay. I wrote about going to Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant and eating basil ice-cream there, and how Jan dared Clare to eat a whelk. It looked really disgusting – all curly and grey with bits of sand stuck to it – and we had to walk back to the B+B very slowly because it had a disagreement with Clare, which I think meant that it made her tummy feel funny.
We had also been to visit Jan and Elizabeth at their house in Wales, which is actually another country. So I wrote about staying for two nights in their dacha, which was a little wooden house in the country, and how we had to beat our way through to it with sticks because it was so overgrown. It smelt of mothballs and we made stew with runner beans and potatoes on the gas stove, and all slept in the same room. I was a bit scared because it was very dark and in the mountains, but it was quite cosy and I imagined myself being in a Brambly Hedge book, trying to be brave like Wilfrid.
I wrote how I told one of Jan’s writery friends to ‘be brave and have a shave’ because he had a big beard, and how I wasn’t supposed to say that because he was an Important Man, but we were lucky because he found it funny. I liked Jan and Elizabeth’s house because it was old, with a spiral staircase and a big room full of books, and lots of cats. I sort of knew that they thought me and Clare probably weren’t good enough to be part of their family properly, but I didn’t write about that because I wasn’t sure how I knew.
I finished my story by describing the journey home and how I made a nest in my bedding and read Famous Five books until it was night.
‘You’ll ruin your eyes, reading in the dark,’ Clare said, ‘and you’ll make yourself sick reading in the back.’
But I wasn’t sick, and I held the book right up to my face until I couldn’t see the words any more. I loved the car journeys more than any other bit of going away because the back seat was always packed with our luggage and I made a cocoon in it like the moths that Mrs Stewart taught us about. It wasn’t made the same way as moths make theirs because people aren’t moths, but it was similar, and I made mine out of my favourite duvet cover. It was really soft, with frilly edges and pastel coloured stripes on a white background. There were flowers on the other side but I liked the stripes best and I wished that we wouldn’t get home so I could stay in my den forever.
I got to the last page of my exercise book and I hadn’t finished my story yet, so I carried on inside the back cover. I was so excited by the idea of my adventure until Mrs Stewart asked to see everyone’s work and I got all nervous because probably nobody else had written so much.
‘Goodness me, nine pages!’ Said Mrs Stewart. ‘You must take it to show the headmaster!’ She said it like it was a treat so I wondered if maybe she hadn’t seen him shout at me every morning until he turned maroon.
I thought if I refused then Mrs Stewart would make me explain why, so I left the classroom for Mr Addy’s office, and I went into the toilets on the way to think for a minute without any teachers seeing me out of lessons. It didn’t seem like the headmaster would be very pleased to read anything by me, and it was close to home time too, so he’d probably be in the middle of packing his briefcase. But to not go would be like disobeying Mrs Stewart, and she was nice, which made me get that squirmy feeling again because I didn’t know what to do. Then I thought of Clare and decided to do what I was told, and then maybe Mr Addy would see that I could write nine-page stories even if I didn’t like swimming very much and had a ‘punctuality problem’ that wasn’t even mine.
The secretary wasn’t at her desk so I had to knock on Mr Addy’s door myself, which made me feel like I wanted to hide under the table like the people in those earthquake safety videos, or become a moth in a cocoon, but I didn’t. His office had a brown door that was really hard and hurt my hand even though I didn’t knock very loudly, and it didn’t open. I listened for a bit but couldn’t hear anything, and then the bell rang and made me jump so I went back to Mrs Stewart’s class feeling sort of relieved and disappointed at the same time. She gave me a new exercise book and I chose a blue one this time because I was bored of yellow by then.
When Clare picked me up the car park was empty again, but I told her about the nine-page story and my new exercise book, and that evening we had globe artichokes for dinner to celebrate.