SHE WAS ALLOWED TO SEE HER FATHER AGAIN and he was here, waiting. No, not in the kitchen, but outdoors. Did she remember their trip in Uncle’s car to the town where the Judge in the big wig sat? He said Daddy must stay outside always because of the silly time he came and took away the table and chairs. But he was here, now, stopped off between jobs, so she must be quick, quick, and come get her boots on. No, Mummy will stay inside and do the laundry. Minn will have Daddy to herself.
Come now, there is no need to feel inside each boot, Mummy has done this for her, and they tickled all the spiders from the porch with the ostrich-feather dusting stick yesterday, remember. Now where does she want to sit and talk with Daddy? In his van, if she likes? No, not the Wendy house, it’s too small for him to crawl inside. The van is better, isn’t it, because it’s warm. Go on then.
Minn goes slowly around the edges of her bungalow in the wrong direction, hurting her fingers along the pebbledash. She will go past the papery wasps’ nest, across the paving-slabbed area that hides the cesspit where the adders come to sunbathe, and flatten herself against the garage wall where the nettles grab at her from the hedge. If she passes safely through all of these then there is a chance she is not in trouble for keeping Cufflink.
“Hello Minn. Come give old Daddy a kiss.” Her father is hiding in a corner of the garden where she never goes, but wears the blue overalls she misses, with the pockets she would check for pennies, nuts and bolts, even sweeties sometimes. She wants to come and touch, even though his sharp-nosed pen, her enemy, is still in the top ap. She feels around and under the back of her skirt; finds the lumpy scar from the time Daddy lifted her up from behind — a tickle monster! — and the metal of the pen’s pocket-clip bit into her leg. He is patting his thigh like the boys next door do to make their dog come. “It’s nice here on the bench, and I arrived early to clear off all the webs. Though I bet you’re too big to be scared of spiders anymore.”
The stone of the seat is cold on her leg backs. Minn shivers, and he puts his arm out, bringing her cheek towards the pocket, the pen, its beak. “Look up! An eagle!” She is quick, excited – where? He kisses her and laughs when she stays looking up at empty sky. “Got you. I’ve just been missing your kissing and nothing beats your loving.” It had been their joke with his first cup of tea each evening, words on a mug that got thrown.
His kiss bothers her. It smells of men and their loose tobacco and sits wet and heavy on her flanneled skin. A snail’s trail. Her arm wants to wipe it clean, but she mutters for it to keep still and think of Daddy’s feelings. Grownups are so easily hurt.They cry often, or leave rooms while another one is talking. Granny, Daddy’s mum, stopped taking her out in the pushchair because she, when baby Minn, had a tantrum. Her fist ripped off Granny’s birthstone necklace and threw it over the five-bar gate into the marsh grass. Fifty-five years Granny’d had it, ever since she and dead Granddad began courting. Bigger now, and sorry for what her other self had done, Minn asked often to go feel for it by the stream edge, but it was a stubborn thing and wouldn’t come out.
“This is my new wife, your step-mum.” He opens the pocket where the sweeties used to be and brings out a photo with a funny sort of mist in it. There is a woman with strange white hair sitting up in a field of poppies with her skirt spread out. How Minn looks after doing a roly-poly. Her blouse didn’t fit and was slipped off at the shoulders, which were white like her hair.“Bit different to Mum, isn’t she? Prettier. Everywhere we go people stop to look.” He looks then at Minn as the next-door dog does, hopeful of something. Minn nods yes but feels dizzy, slightly sick. Stays silent, bites her lip.
Did she want to play penalties, here between the fir trees like they used to do? Daddy would be in goal and she could have three misses before it was his turn? No? Minn shakes her head and looks downwards so her eyes will not show how the boys next door climbed over and took the orange ball for their own. Toys then. Go fetch your favourite toys and come tell Daddy about them. But go quick and come back because Daddy’s boss will shout if he’s late.
Minn runs and the welly boots smack her legs as she goes. Bad girl to say the new mum was pretty, even if it’s true. On all fours, she crawls into the Wendy house and feels among the rubble of egg-boxes and other mud-pie-making stuff for her treasure chest. Puts her face inside the shoebox and tastes the air. Ah, yes, it is filled still with the flavour of soap scraps got from the shaving-bowl the day the home broke up. The pink smell of violets. More Daddy than the Daddy who is here and soaked with smoke and engine-oil. She smiles at Badger-hair Shaving Brush who has crept out to tickle her cheek. Dear old thing. And here it is: the house she keeps within her house that is Wendy, not the bungalow. More precious even than Badger Brush and Cufflink. The Weather House, Mummy calls it, got after the wedding when they went to Honeymoon.
THE HOUSE TURNS UPSIDE DOWN IN HER FATHER’S HANDS like one of the engine parts he used to unscrew and put back together in the garage on the weekends. He frowns and rattles it so hard that Minn worries for the little man and lady who live inside. His hands are stained black like the vise left behind on his workbench: he will crush them! A crying sound jumps out of her and Daddy gives the house back, angry.
“A toy, I said. Why bring this for?” Minn’s face aches, a great hot throb; water is inside her eyes, blurring her view of the dear old cabin she peers into so often; one time so long that the sun crept all the way from the washing line to the cherry blossom.
She strokes the tiny wooden tiles to tell it sorry for the shakes and brings it to her lips for whispers.They can come out now, it’s alright, Daddy only wants to say hello. With an expert tip to the left, one of the two little doors opens and the man swings out on his bench, red-cheeked, bearded, smiling, pipe in hand. Well hello, Swiss Miss. Minn smiles and tilts it again, so that the man goes inside and the lady appears from her separate door at the far end. Good morning, Minn, good morning, so much to do, so much to do, I’ve been tidying the cobwebs that cover the moon. Minn looks back up, smiling. Now she has shown him the wonder of them both, Daddy may have it back to try. Her tongue is no longer got by a cat and she begins to tell about how much she loves this little man and wife who are always in when she comes to visit, and how she collects the best petals and tiniest seeds so the lady can make the man a cake. And she, Minn, fetches their rewood and snaps each twig as small as it will go so the man can keep the little stove going.
Minn does not say how long she shook the house in the days after Mummy cleared everything out. She thinks to say it but the cat who lives inside her puts down a paw in warning. Grownups are not clever with what feels. If she comes with a cut or bump they say there there, it is better now, and they don’t understand that saying this hurts worse. She does not tell it was her whole body’s wish – hands, heart, tummy – to make them come out at the same time, and that she lost count of trying and learned they could not and would never. She does not tell about lying stiff and wakeful beside her mother in the double bed at night, wishing herself small enough to go inside the chalet to sleep in a bed of her own, able to wriggle whenever she needed, and safe because the man would be there to get up and check for noises when they come. (When a sheep coughs at night behind the hedge in dead Granddad’s field it sounds like a burglar but it isn’t really).
“It’s not a toy, it’s a barometer.” Daddy has taken out a yellow-handled screwdriver. “It measures changes in the air which is always pressing down on us.The man comes out when it’s going to be hot and dry. Or the woman does.” Minn nods, understanding. Her own hair sticks up when snow is soon, or trouble coming, and she can hear the TV at the far end of the corridor when the red light is left on. That wasn’t possible, Mummy says, but they went to check and it was. Now she says Minn must go herself if it’s a bother, but the hallway is long with no curtains at the window, so she lays in the dark turning the hum into songs.
“It sounds full of stuff. No wonder it’s not working.” Minn stops breathing. This is not the way she wanted to get inside. They will cry at her for tunnelling through their floor, for letting them be tipped upon their heads. It must stop. Stop.
The man has come off in Daddy’s hand and the arm that held the pipe has snapped and fallen. A teardrop. His whole self is broken! Minn’s shut mouth opens wide and air sucks in and back out in a high, rending note. The porch door is torn open and her mother’s feet come running like the thud of Minn’s heart and then stop like Minn’s heart when the chalet is thrown up by the father as rubbish into the fairytale thickness of the blackthorn hedge.
THEY ARE ALONE AGAIN, MOTHER AND CHILD. Minn has come outside, with tearless eyes and lips set firm. Beside her at the unworked edge of their vegetable garden she has piled her small stock of treasures. Badger Brush, Cufflink, the shaving soap, some fishing flies.The telephone her mother stamped on the day everything broke, the one Minn has used to talk to Daddy and God. She draws a line with her stick then up-ends it so to dig. This and more she has learned from her grownups. Holes are made and spaced apart as seeds are. She fetches next water from the outdoor tap, taking care to screw it tight. Each precious, irreplaceable thing is then put gently into bed, watered in and covered over.
She smiles at the idea they might grow and make more of themselves, but knows they will not.
Story and illustration © Tanya Shadrick, June 2016. First published in Unpsychology Magazine: The Childhood Edition (Summer 2016).