This story was shortlisted for the 2011 Doris Gooderson Award
I’ve been coming here for a few days. Watching the children play. Brightly coloured like so many butterflies. Only noisier. Each one making their delight or disdain known with volume. I know I shouldn’t be here. Punishing myself, spying on the angels at play. I have found my feet leading me here, almost against my wishes, over the past few weeks. I teach English to foreign students at the local language school. It’s mostly evening work which leaves my days free. Long and empty. I like to come here. Despite the sadness I feel my heart is momentary lifted as I drink the laughter of the children. How spontaneous they are, no hidden agendas here.
There is one particular girl who catches my eye. A little slower than the rest, she doesn’t quite keep up with the others’ games. Her dark hair falls in two plaits, tied with red ribbons. She’s in her own world and appears quite happy there. Chattering to herself and skipping, Her mother is on the edge of the playground, distracted, chatting to a group of other mothers. Smug with the acceptance of fertility, as if it is their birthright. They are all dressed in the uniform of tracksuits and sporting attire. All that is missing are the whistles around their necks.
The child had arrived late, her face flustered, her mother agitated. She had stayed close to her mother until the woman finally lost her temper, yelled at her young cherub in exasperation.
“Will you just go and play! I can’t bear you to be under my feet constantly.”
The girl fled to the play equipment, bottom lip wobbling. Comforting arms around the vexed mother, understanding words uttered from her comrades. I was shocked at the little outburst. I would never have spoken to my child like that. I wonder how that mother would feel if her child was spirited away, never to be seen again. Would she feel relief that the girl was no longer under her feet?
My motives are coiled up like a snake inside me, lying deep and desperate, A beast that mostly sleeps, with wakefulness and attack lurking beneath it’s passiveness.
I wasn’t always a bitter shell. I started out with hopes and dreams, much like anyone else. Hopes that were slowly destroyed over time, worn away almost unnoticed until one day I realised they’d all gone, dissolved in a soup of disappointment, putting up with men who were damaged as if I could make them whole. Concentrating on their problems was so much easier than facing my own. Month after month, each period turned up, the only reliable thing in my life. Months soon turned to years which sped along of their own accord. My own child would have been wonderful. It’s too late for me now. I am dried up, useless. But that little girl, it’s not too late for her. In her eyes are dreams and fairytales, magic and wonder. If only she would come nearer.
The mother isn’t watching. She wouldn’t notice if I took her child’s hand. Would the girl cry out? I’m sure I could think of something that would stop her. Little girls can be very curious and love a secret.
My mother never watched me, not properly and not out of concern, only to catch me out, to confirm her suspicions of my uselessness. I have a clear memory of her dressed up in midnight blue taffeta applying the reddest lipstick I have ever seen. Lost in her world, mesmerised by her own beauty, heady with the knowledge of her power over men. I watched from the doorway. Suddenly she caught sight of my face, spying on her. Guilt flashed over her perfect features.
“Go away! Don’t spy on me, you freak!”
Sobbing I ran back to my bed where the rental grey of my bedroom walls enveloped me. Surrounded by secondhand furnishings and things no one wanted, neatly placed about the room, as if they were beautiful, special.
I have already prepared a room for my would-be child. Painted in shades of magenta and violet, I have painted fairies and flower on the walls. I even moved in my childhood bed where she would lay her beautiful head. I would call her Eve. I would bake her cupcakes and we would decorate them with butter icing in pastel colours. Eve would be more special than other children. Didn’t I choose her myself; hand picked her from among the other butterflies in the playground.
“Eve always slept through the night”
“Oh yes, I had such trouble when Eve was teething.”
I can hear myself telling the mothers at the school gates. Creating a history for Eve and me. I can see us gathering wild flowers in the spring, splashing through puddles in our gum boots in the rain, kicking up the golden leaves in the park in the Autumn. We could create our own fairyland which would be infinitely better than this world. Where one only had to think of something they desired and it would appear. Where everyone smiled and was nice to each other. Where dreams came true and hopes were realised. Even the light would be softer, pinker and it would never be too cold or too hot.
“You’re crying. Why are you sad?”
Startled I look up to see Eve with her plaits swinging as she hops from foot to foot. My hand touches my face which is wet with tears. Eve looks at me, her big eyes widening in concern. This is it. This is my chance. I have her attention now I just have to create something to hold it, to take her away from her complacent mother and into the world I can conjure up for us. Her face is so innocent and without malice. She would trust me I’m sure. Suddenly my mind is made up. I know what I must do, a delicious moment passes.
“Sweetheart, your mother is calling you.” I breathe to my would-be child.
Eve frowns. “I can’t hear her.”
She looks over to the group of huddled mothers, cold air steam coming from their mouths as if they were a group of dragons. I point towards them.
“I heard her call. It’s time for you to go.”
She chooses to believe me. Runs off, little legs hitting the ground daintily and then she turns and waves to me. My heart is heavy and hurting but I know I have done the right thing. I see Eve take her mother’s hand and her mother’s face split into a huge smile, the love for her child evident. No nonchalance there. Only love. Love only a moment ago I hadn’t been able to see.