‘Distraction is all well and good, but you need redirection as well. I’ll give you some exercises to do, all right? If you’ll do them – really do them, and try hard – then we’ll get you in school next week. Deal?’ She holds out her hand.
I stare back at her. It is Thursday, today; Monday is only four days away.
‘All right. Deal,’ I say, and grasp hers.
Amy peeks in at the back of the hall, probably sent to find out why I haven’t come out yet.
Penny spots her. ‘Amy? Come in. You can help.’
Soon they have me visualising a Happy Place. I choose my dreaming green place of trees and flowers, lying back and looking up at clouds in the sky. Whenever I am upset or scared, I am to go there in my mind. Until it becomes automatic.
* * *
‘Are you sure you’re all right watching both of them?’ Mum says, turning at the door.
‘Yes, I told you,’ Amy says. ‘Go on.’
Me, I’m not convinced about this. The noise is getting into my head. How can someone so small make so much noise? Screaming Mummy over and over.
The door shuts, and out the window I see Mum and Dad walking off down the road to the pub, with Dad’s younger sister, our Aunt Stacey, who seems immune to the wailing of her small son.
He draws in a shuddering breath to fill his lungs for another onslaught.
Amy bends down. ‘Robert, want a biscuit?’
His mouth wobbles. She holds out her hands, and he looks up at her, indecision playing across his tear stained face. She scoops him up and into the kitchen. In seconds he is giggling and chomping biscuits on the floor.
‘How does he go from screaming to laughing in a minute?’
‘He’s just a baby; easy to distract.’
Sebastian wanders in, takes one look at Robert and jumps out of reach up on the worktop.
‘Kitty?’ Robert points. ‘Kitty!’
He drops his biscuit and pulls himself up holding the legs of a chair, pointing at Sebastian. He takes a few steps then falls on his backside, looks startled. His face screws up.
‘You’re okay, Robert!’ Amy scoops him up and holds him so he can reach one hand to Sebastian, who looks resigned.
‘Pet kitty nicely, like this,’ she says. And shows him much like she did with me on my first day.
But he doesn’t get it, more thumps him than strokes, then runs his hand the wrong way so his fur stands up. Sebastian jumps down and disappears out the cat flap.
Amy sits and starts tickling Robert on her knee before he can get upset, and he giggles.
An hour or so of playing with cupboard doors and banging pots with wooden spoons follows. Robert starts rubbing his eyes, and falls asleep in Amy’s arms.
‘Tea?’ she says, and I get up to fill the kettle, put it on the stove.
Amy turns in her seat, and I see her watching. Like Mum said. She is watching both of us. Like I might burn my hand on the stove, or wobble and fall over on my arse like Robert.
Nurse Penny said to Mum I am like a small child. But look at him: he can’t learn things as fast as I can. He couldn’t even pet the cat right. Amy says he’s been taking his first steps for weeks, yet he still falls over; he is a year old, but can barely talk.
When I was Slated I could walk in weeks, no wobbles. Talking in complete sentences days after my first words. I was faster than many, true, but even the slowest ones can hold basic conversation in a month or two.
My memories are gone, but parts of me remember. My body, my muscles. Like my left hand with a pencil. It knew what to do with it once I put it there. So it isn’t the same thing as starting over, at all. It is more that given the right trigger, you can do things you forgot. Who knows what else I am capable of?
I put cups of tea on the table, and sit down.
‘Ow, my arm is falling asleep. Can you just hold his head?’ Amy motions and I slip my hands under Robert as she shifts in her seat. He doesn’t wake.
‘Thanks. Isn’t he adorable?’ she says.
I shrug, unconvinced. ‘Too noisy, when he’s awake. I like him better this way.’
‘True. How he howled for his mother.’
‘She didn’t seem bothered to leave him; she and Mum practically flew out of here.’
‘Yeah. Mum finds him hard to be around.’
I’d noticed this, too, and somehow it wasn’t just the obvious things, like the fact that the baby screamed, and needed a clean nappy before they left. Mum seemed to want to have space between them as fast as possible; she was the one who suggested they go off to the pub, leaving us three behind.
‘I’m not sure I should say.’
‘What? Tell me.’
Amy stares back, eventually nods. ‘Okay, but this is family secrets. You can’t tell anyone you know.’
I nod. ‘All right.’
‘Aunt Stacey told me last spring when I was babysitting; Mum doesn’t know I know everything. But before Mum and Dad got together, Mum was with somebody else, and they had a baby, named Robert. They split up when he was little. Stacey was friends with Mum back then; that is how she met Dad. After they got married, Robert died. And Stacey named her baby Robert after him. She meant well, but I think whenever Mum sees him, she thinks about her son who died.’
‘How awful!’ My throat constricts. First her parents when she was fifteen; then, years later, her son died, too. No wonder she is such a Dragon.
‘I know Mum can be difficult, but there are reasons,’ Amy says.
‘She never talks about her Robert?’
‘Never. Not to me, anyhow.’
I stare back at Amy, confused. Mum is a contradiction. Everything about her is on the surface, yet she hides all this, inside.
‘I don’t understand her,’ I say, finally.
‘Look at it this way: you’ll get on with her better if you speak your mind like she does. It is how she gets by.’
Soon we hear voices and footsteps out front.
Amy holds a finger to her lips, and I nod.
The front door opens, and moments later Mum and Aunt Stacey walk into the kitchen.
‘There’s my boy,’ Aunt Stacey says, and she does look like she missed him. She eases him out of Amy’s arms and soon says her goodbyes.
‘Where’s Dad?’ Amy asks.
Mum rolls her eyes. ‘He got a call: some emergency at work. He took off half-way through lunch.’
Mum starts sweeping Robert’s cookie crumbs off the floor; Sebastian reappears through the cat flap and rubs around her ankles. ‘Dinner time for Sebastian?’ she says, and reaches for a tin in the cupboard. That is when she focuses on the remains of our lunch and tea things on the worktop.
‘Really. It wouldn’t have killed you to wash up, would it?’ Mum snaps.
I flinch and just stop myself from jumping up, starting them straight away. She’ll stand and watch and tell me what I’m doing wrong. But then some voice inside me says tell her what you think.
‘We’ve been too busy looking after Robert to do the dishes,’ I say.
Mum turns to me, eyes surprised. Then nods.
‘Fair enough, what a handful. Glad you didn’t come in nappies,’ she says, and laughs. And I laugh with her. Amy winks her approval when Mum isn’t looking. We all make dinner, together, and for the first time I almost feel relaxed in her presence.
Later Amy and I have said goodnight and are heading for the stairs, when Amy turns back.
‘I almost forgot to ask. Mum, can we go to the Thame Show tomorrow?’
The show: isn’t that what Ben suggested? That I go to with him and Tori. I spin around.
Mum puts down her book. ‘Who with?’
‘Everyone is going, Mum. You know: Debs, Chloe, Jazz; everyone.’
Her eyes narrow. ‘Well, so long as it is everyone. I can’t see why not. But I’ll take you.’
‘Thanks,’ Amy says, but her face says something else.
She shuts the door when we get upstairs. Rolls her eyes. ‘I can’t believe she still insists on taking us. Like we’re twelve.’
‘She looked suspicious.’
‘What of?’ Amy says, and laughs. ‘If you mean me and Jazz, that is only half of it.’
‘What do you mean?’
She throws a pillow at my head. ‘Why Ben, of course.’
‘He asked me in school yesterday. If you could get out tomorrow, to go to the show. I rather think you’ve made an impression there.’
‘Just, oh? He is rather cute, isn’t he?’
‘I guess.’ And of course he is: beyond merely cute, to some other category. And there is something else about him, some feeling I can’t put my finger on, that I want to know more about. But there is no point kidding myself with Tori in the picture.
‘Even some of the sixth form girls chase him about. Not that I’ve noticed anyone catching him.’
I shrug. ‘I think he is busy with Tori.’
‘I doubt it. She’s not his type.’
‘Why not? She’s gorgeous.’ And she was, especially when she smiled. She had that perfect bone structure and proportions, and long flowing dark hair: she could be a model, if that wasn’t one of the things you weren’t allowed to do when you are Slated.
‘I just know. She’s bitter and twisted; he’s nice. It is obvious.’
‘Well, if that is so, she doesn’t know it.’
Amy laughs. ‘Then she’s an idiot. But even she will work it out eventually.’
Amy switches off the light, and is soon asleep. Later I hear scratching at the door, and open it: Sebastian meows and jumps on my bed. Apart from him, the house is dark and silent.
Sleep is keeping away. There are too many things to process. Everything is so complicated; nothing is what appears on the surface. Amy seems to understand Mum in ways I do not, yet I am sure she is wrong about Ben and Tori. As much as I might wish her right.
* * *
It turns out the Thame Show is a very big deal.
When Mum, Amy and I finally get there after inching along in traffic queues on rambling country lanes through fields and farm buildings, there is a long line of people waiting to go in. Everyone is in high spirits, chatting and jostling as they move slowly closer to the front. When we pass into the tent that covers the entrance, though, all fall silent.
There is a security gate that must be passed. Mum seems surprised. ‘They’ve upped this since last year,’ she says in a low voice.
But it doesn’t seem to be this that has silenced the crowd. Overseeing it all are several men in grey suits, standing behind the security grill, unsmiling. Scanning the crowd. No one meets their eyes or looks at them directly, yet when everyone carefully looks everywhere but one place, it becomes obvious that is the place to watch.
Mum had explained on the way that the Thame Show began centuries ago, but had started to die down with the decline of the farming industry early in the 21st century, until it stopped altogether. With the big agricultural push for self-sufficiency by the Central Coalition decades later, it and other country shows were reinstated, and this is now one of the biggest. Bigger than it ever was.
When we get to the front we have to walk one at a time through the gate. Amy and I both set it off, of course, with our Levos. We are taken to one side, closer to the grey-suited men, and scanned head to toe.
With no reason for fear that I can identify, my hands start to shake. When they are done and wave us in, Amy takes mine in hers and almost has to half drag me on wobbly legs towards Mum, who waits.
‘What’s with you?’ Amy says. ‘You’ve gone all white.’
I shrug, and look down at my Levo: a little low at 4.6, but holding steady, now that I’ve remembered to start visualising green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
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