A Box of Swan Vestas
It’s Sunday. You lie on the settee with your knees hunched up to your chin, a strip of sunlight shines through the gap in the curtains. You watch it inch across the carpet, you sit and place your bare feet neatly together in its path; it drapes over your toes like a pale yellow ribbon, you feel its warmth. A car draws up outside, the door slams, footsteps crunch on the path next door, the letterbox snaps, the dog barks, the engine starts and the car drives away. In the silence afterwards you hear the ticking of the clock. You stand, pull your cardigan tight around you. Jade grins at you from her silver frame frilly in pink net, she clutches a wand, you smile, your lips are tight so you lick them, flakes of skin scrape your tongue.
You visit Jade, you talk to her, you say what did you have for dinner today? You say I’ve brought The Tiger Who Came to Tea, shall we read it? She sucks her thumb and looks at you, her brown eyes stretched wide. Your smile sets and locks, your eyes feel as hard as marbles, you hold out your hand, she says you look like Mog the Witch. Her voice sounds scratchy and you think she’s caught a cold. She’s wearing a blue T-shirt with a picture of Winnie the Pooh which isn’t hers. The social worker, who says call me Tina, takes hold of Jade’s hand and tells her to say goodbye to Mummy, and Jade says bye. They leave you in the room which you visit twice a week. It has a wooden table and three white plastic chairs. There’s a large square mirror on one wall, a white face looks out of it, you realize it’s yours, you know there are other faces behind the mirror watching you. You still hold the book with the picture of the little girl having a cup of tea with the orange and black striped tiger, you put the book on the table, open the door and leave the room.
Jade was an early talker; she spoke ages before Kelly’s daughter, Olivia. You go with Kelly to the Children’s Centre. Kelly is organised, she likes to plan, you saved coupons and you all went away in a caravan for a weekend for twenty-five pounds. It was by a lake with an adventure playground. Jade and Olivia climbed up the steps of the big slide with Kelly guarding them from behind, and they squealed as they shot down to the bottom; you caught them, first one, then the other. Kelly sends you texts and shouts your name through the letterbox. You don’t answer.
Jade talks to herself all the time, she tells herself what she is doing, such as this is a picture of a cat with a funny red eye and I’m going to colour it black because black cats are lucky my old lady said. Jade’s old lady sits at her window down the street waiting for the carers to turn up to cook her dinner. Sometimes they don’t come so she makes herself a cheese sandwich. In the summer she sits on a chair in her doorway, and Jade says hello as you go past on your walk to the abandoned church at the end of the street. Jade picks dandelions and you read the gravestones. Your favourite is the small square stone covered in green lichen, it says – Harriet Foster who joined her beloved Walter 9th December 1912. Together in Paradise. You make up a life for Harriet, you pretend she lived in this house. You think that Harriet Foster was strict but kind to her children. She had six, three of each. She took in washing. Walter was a labourer on the land, he was hard-working and had TB. You like to think about their lives, you like to imagine how they took care of each other.
The old lady once gave Jade an exercise book with lines inside and Jade said thank you, and the old lady said you are a very well-mannered little girl and smiled at her, and then she smiled at you. You like the way the wrinkles on her face tally with her smile, you like her grey plait which hangs long and heavy down her back, you pretend that she is Jade’s Nan because she hasn’t got one, except she has got one but your mother drinks and you can’t trust her with Jade.
You look through the gap in the curtains. Two lads race down the road on their scooters, they crouch down and steer with their hands on the handlebars above their heads. They lean their scooters against their legs, and one lad unwraps a piece of chewing gum and folds it in his mouth;, he gives one to the other lad. The man with the bald head from next door walks down the pavement with his terrier. The dog pulls at his lead and sniffs at the parked cars by the gutter; it stops and does a pee up a car wheel. The boys laugh. The man drags the dog away.
You walk into the hallway, the bannister you painted yellow disappears up the stairs. Sometimes you sleep up there, but mostly you stay on the settee. You picture Jade bumping down each step in her Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas yelling, I’m up now! You open the cupboard in the kitchen, your tablets are in a silver packet next to a plate which is white with a blue ring around the edge. You press out a blue and brown capsule and put it on your tongue, and you press out another which you hold between your finger and thumb. You rinse out a mug and fill it with water and swallow the pill on your tongue, then you put the other one in your mouth and when you have swallowed that one you put the mug on the draining board. There are dirty pots in the sink and a saucepan which is crusted with burnt beans and you ought to wash them up. You decide to make a cup of tea first; you fill the kettle put it on the gas ring and turn on the gas.
The cotton wool feeling starts to creep up your legs and arms, it will soon wrap you in a fog which you want, but don’t want. You stand at the sink and wait for it. A corner of the kitchen blind is caught up and shows a triangle of window. You squint through it at the back garden, Jade’s blue bike is lying on its side in the long grass, a breeze pushes her empty swing forward and back. You tug the blind down hard and knock the matches off the sill. You pick up the box, the swan sails white and serene; it has a long graceful neck and glides on a green lake. You put the matches in your cardigan pocket.
You think of Jade in the supermarket, whinging and whining for sweets, how she grabs crisps and biscuits off the shelves and throws them in the trolley. She’d been doing this for weeks and you told her that she couldn’t always have treats, and you tried to get her to help with the shopping, to choose which cereals, decide which apples, which bananas. But she always kicked off and yelled and screamed until everybody was looking and you had to leave the shopping in the trolley and take her outside.
You can’t remember exactly what Jade wanted that day. You told her no, again and again. You shouted, NO! She had a tantrum. You watched her as if she wasn’t yours. She’d thrown herself on to the floor, legs and arms jerking, her face slippery with tears and snot and she was yelling and yelling and people were looking and you went to pick her up but she went limp and then she went stiff and then she held her breath, she kept it held, she didn’t breathe! She didn’t breathe! And you thought my God she’s going to die, so you shook her again and again and you felt your fist ram into her soft belly and she looked at you, took a breath, and screamed.
The sink feels cold against your back. You fold your arms and sit at the kitchen table. On the wall is Jade’s picture of a green elephant with a purple trunk. You look at it. You’re not sure what to do next, you can’t get used to this uncertainty about what to do next. You don’t like it. It makes you feel as if you are sinking, as if you are being pulled under. You concentrate, you tell yourself you’ve got to keep going to see Jade therefore you have to keep going. You look at the blue cupboards, the fridge, and the wooden bench with a high back that was in the house when you moved in. It’s called a settle. You’re not sure how you know that. You think that Harriet and Walter had a seat like that to settle upon. You picture them by an open fire with a black side oven and a high mantelpiece with a clock. Harriet would be knitting and Walter would be smoking and reading a paper and the children would be safe in bed. You think that when you’ve done the washing up and had something to eat you will find the exercise book the old lady gave Jade and start writing about Harriet and her family. You nod your head, yes, that’s what you’ll do.
You open the fridge and look at a slice of pizza and two eggs. You pick up the brown one. It feels cold in your hand. Jade would crack her egg with her spoon and winkle off the roof then she’d stick toast soldiers into the yolk. You reach in the cupboard for a pan and fill it with water. You put it on the gas ring next to the kettle and turn on the gas.
You go to the cupboard to look for Jade’s egg cup shaped like a hen and see the silver packet. You press out a blue and brown capsule and put it on your tongue, and then you take out another one and hold it between your finger and thumb then you get your mug of water and swallow them.
You say hello to Jade, and Jade says hello, and then you say goodbye and she says goodbye twice a week, and the social worker, who says call me Tina, takes her hand and the door closes. You go on the bus and come back on the bus, you see yourself sitting on the bus as if you’re not there, as if you are watching a film about a woman on a bus. You know you won’t be going on the bus today because today is Sunday and you wonder if Harriet ever punished her children and you decide that being strict she would. You wonder if her children would be taken from her, and whether they had social workers then. You will think about that and write about it in the exercise book.
You take out the box of Swan Vestas from your pocket and wonder if the old lady was having to make herself a cheese sandwich today and you haven’t got any bread so you can’t have toast and you need to get some but you can’t go to that supermarket and you hope Jade hasn’t got a cold and she likes the food they give her at that place and then you stand in front of the oven and strike a match.