Short fiction by Tamsin Cottis
Today is a Type 1 day. Flat and sad. Mum’s in bed on the sofa. She says,
‘Babe, if you want dinner, go to the shop. In fact, go now. I could use the peace. A small white sliced and a tin of beans.’
‘I’ll need money,’ I say and she moans, ‘Tell Terry I’ll pay him as soon as…’
There’s no use arguing: it’s a Type 1 day. I squeeze Sebastian hard instead. He’s my best Sylvanian friend and he knows I have to keep my temper in. He knows I don’t want to go to the shop and he’s seen the card up behind Terry’s till that says,
‘PLEASE DON’T ASK FOR CREDIT AS A SMACK IN THE MOUTH OFTEN OFFENDS!!!’
On my way out, I bang the front door hard. The house shakes.
I’ve made a list for Sebastian, to explain things.
‘Mum’s up and down’, I told him, ‘but you can learn the signs.’
I wrote the list in mini-writing and folded the piece of paper over and over until it was small enough to fit in the top drawer of the Sylvanian Victorian Dresser.
The paper says:
Type 1 = Still as a dead woman and voice you can hardly hear
Type 2 = Saddest crying woman that ever lived
Type 3 = Rage woman shouting about any tiny thing
Type 4 = Crazy woman saying, ‘Come- here- Nicole- you- and- me-we- can- do- anything- babe- you- and- me- together- we’re- strong.’
Last Thursday was a Type 4, so Mum wouldn’t stop hugging me and laughing. Then she made 48 cupcakes in six different flavours. It looked like a Bake Off bomb had exploded in our kitchen. I put some cakes in a box to take to school but when I got up next morning they’d all gone in the bin and it was back to Type 2. Mum said the cakes were rubbish and she was rubbish and her whole life was rubbish. When she’s like that, Sebastian and me stay home to keep an eye on things. I never argue with 1 or 2. They’re the scariest, even though Type 4 makes me feel jumpy inside, and a bit sick.
It’s a long way to the shop from our new place so I’ve divided the walk into sections. Section One is from the door of our crappy little house and into the field for a short cut across to the gate on the road. The grass is wet and there’s sheep poo, so I walk at the edges. It can be hard to balance. Twice, I have to grab at the hedge to stop from falling over, and the nettles get me. Nettles are mean. I hate them. Even when the big hurt goes away, you’ve still got the fizzy-itches.
Sebastian is in my hoodie pocket. I rub the short fur on his hard body with my thumbnail, and stroke his white shorts. They came from another toy, I think a Barbie, but they look alright on him. All my Sylvanians are a bit random and most of them I didn’t choose. They came from my sister Scarlett, who thinks she’s a grown-up now.
At the gate, I push Sebastian right into the corner of the pocket so he’s safe. My friend Jade can do a special gate trick where she leans over till her long hair hangs down like a curtain. Then, somehow, she turns around in mid-air before she lands. I tried it once, but got stuck upside down and panicked. Jade had to help me.
‘It’s just your centre of gravity is bigger than mine, Nicole,’ she said, ‘and, not being mean or anything, but maybe you got the fat-gene from your real dad.’
Even going over the normal way I’m scared of falling off the top. I part jump, part slide down the other side and my back scrapes on the wooden bars. My top rucks up, showing my disgusting belly. My feet find the road and I’m at the start of Section Two: The Steepest Hill in The World.
Before we got moved to the cottage, we lived in town and it was seven minutes to the shop – five on my heelies. I never wanted to come up here to the wild. When it’s windy, the trees out my window look like angry giants, and all day, I can hear lambs in the field going mental for their mums. Like I told Jade, ‘I’m just not a countryside person.’
When I ask why we had to move, Mum says, ‘Deal with it, Nicole,’ or, ‘It’s not like the council give you a fucking choice.’
She thinks I don’t know about the fights or the things Danny did. But I’ve got eyes and ears. Though it makes no sense in my brain that a man would cheat on his girlfriend with her own daughter, even if Scarlett is 16 and she came on to him like Danny said. I told the social workers he was always alright with me. In fact, Danny said he’d get me the Sylvanian Grand Hotel for my birthday, but of course that’s never going to happen now. Danny’s gone, Scarlett’s living in Plymouth with Nan and, because of the big fall-out, nobody speaks. I hate Scarlett, but I miss her too. It’s no fun being an only child.
At the top of The Steepest Hill in The World, I find a stone and kick it ahead of me. The game is to get it down to the bottom in as few kicks as possible. My record is six. Today I get a stone for Sebby too.
‘I’ll do your kicks for you,’ I tell him.
Today is not his turn to win.
I do this hill every day to get the bus to school. Even with my eyes shut, my legs know exactly which bit I’m on – where it’s super- steep and where the gateway is, where there’s loose stones and where there’s a long bramble that swoops right down like a prickly witch-arm.
On the way, Section Two is easy and at the bottom is Section Three, the road into the village. After five minutes walking, it goes past the Methodist Church and over the railway line. This bit is more normal. There’s even a narrow pavement, with a kerb. I run it, because I’m in a hurry to get to the shop, and back to the Sylvanian cinema. We’re going to watch Ice Age 4 on DVD. My friend Jade says ten is too old to live in a tragic little world of kiddie films and ‘let’s-play Sylvanians’, but I don’t care.
Terry’s is the first shop you come to. I’m still running when I push the door open with both hands. There’s a buzzerbell, so even if Terry is out the back he knows you’re in. Today he’s by the till, talking on his phone, though I can’t make out his actual words. Apart from food, there’s fags in a sliding-door cupboard behind the counter, and sweets in front. The food is on shelves all the way down. I go to the end, where the bread is. I look hard, but there are definitely no ‘small white sliced’, only brown. All the white loaves are large. I pick up the small brown and then put it down again. I hate brown bread. I take the large white but put that back too. It might cost too much. I can feel my heart banging while I try and work out what mum would want. I take Sebastian out of my pocket.
‘Shall we risk it?’ I ask, and he whispers back, ‘Yes.’
I pick up the large white and go to the counter. I stand Seb next to the bread and pretend it’s him asking in a squeaky voice, ‘Please can my Mum pay you next week?’
Terry sighs and says, ‘Go on then.’
He’s got the phone tucked under his chin and while he puts the bread into a bright blue carrier bag he goes on talking to whoever, not looking at us. I sneak a cola chupa chup from the stand on the counter into my pocket.
As soon as we’re outside I pull the crinkly paper off the lolly and shove it straight in my mouth. I move it around with my tongue so the deliciousness gets everywhere. I won’t bite into it till the very end. I tell Sebastian we have to go quickly because of the film.
I run along Section Three, back over the railway bridge and past the church again. As usual, there’s no one about. This place is dead. The last bit, before the hill, I walk along the kerb-edge and pretend I’m a ballet dancer, which of course I never could be. The handles of the blue bag twist at the end of my stretched-out arm and cut lines in my fingers. The lolly is shrinking fast and I crunch the last bits off the stick. The thought of the hill is like a huge rock in my belly. Every single time I start the climb, I wish I could fly, or that I had a superpower to make roads flat. And I hope for a lift. If I hear a car come up behind me, I whisper to Sebastian,
‘Please, please be someone we know.’
But a car is rare. There are only two small houses in our row, made into flats, plus the farm, and the posh house with horses, further up the road towards the moor. Also, Mum hasn’t been feeling exactly sociable, so we haven’t properly met the neighbours yet.
Up ahead of us, just where the hill starts, there’s a blue van parked. As I get closer I see it’s filthy. I point out my toes, still being a ballerina, but I’m too slow and I lose my balance. I slip off the kerb and Sebastian falls out. I pick him up quickly and decide it’s safer to hold on to him. I put the bare lolly stick in my pocket. I can use it as a flagpole, for when we do get the Sylvanian Grand Hotel.
The lolly hasn’t filled me up. I rip open the bread, pull out the crust and decide to nibble it to make it last the whole way up. That’s when I remember the beans. I get the sick lurches in my belly again, like in the shop when the bread was wrong. You never know what’s going to set Mum off. Though, if it’s a Type 3 rage day, at least I can shout back at her.
If I have to go into the village again, I think my legs might actually, in real life, drop off. Plus, Terry could have noticed the lolly was gone.
‘Why am I so stupid?’ I ask Sebastian. ‘Jade thinks so, and Scarlett. It’s not my fault I can’t remember stuff.’
I feel like I’m a tiny worry doll getting sucked down and down the plughole.
Sebastian strokes my cheek and gives me a kiss.
‘I honestly can’t go back, Sebby. We’ll just have to do without beans.’
The van is still parked so I won’t be able to ballet-walk all the way to the end of the kerb. The engine starts and it moves towards us. Backwards. It stops again. It’s close enough for me to read what kind it is: Berlingo.
Inside, there’s a man and he’s got one arm stretched out along the top of the passenger seat, which is empty. His head is looking over his shoulder so he can see to reverse the car. The van stops right by us. We can’t get past to go around. The man leans across and the door on our side opens with a swoosh-slide-thunk. It makes me jump, like thunder.
‘Can I give you a lift, babe?’ he says.
He’s older than Danny, but younger than grandad. He’s a bit bald, with hair in a pathetic greasy ponytail, and his van smells of smoking. One hand makes a fist around the steering wheel and I can see the white of his knucklebones. He pats the empty passenger seat and says, ‘Go on, darling. Mum’ll be fine with it.’
I look at him. I’ve never seen him before. How does he know what my mum thinks?
‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he says. ‘I was round yours once, for a barbecue.’
He laughs. One of his front teeth is gone.
When Mum’s on a Type 4, she has parties. When they get silly, I go upstairs. Maybe van-man does know her. Inside the pocket, my fingers are feeling the bumps of Sebastian, I find his two ears, his nose, the round of his tummy and his tiny flat feet.
‘Come on,’ the man says. ‘This hill’s a right bitch.’
‘No thanks.’ I start to walk, staring straight ahead.
‘Don’t be daft,’ he says, and he drives alongside me. ‘We’ll have you home in a couple of minutes.’
I start to walk faster but he’s still there. Jade would say I was stupid. Jade would probably say,
‘Fuck off, you paedo-crackhead,’ right to the man’s face, but I’m not Jade and he’s freaking me out.
The pavement’s finished so I quickly cut round the back of the van and run past him up the hill. It’s torture on my legs and all the time he’s going slow behind me until, suddenly, there’s another engine and this one bangs and rumbles. For a mad second, I think its Danny on his motorbike. It comes around the corner, revving up ready for the hill, and when I look I recognise the sports car. It’s old fashioned and cream, with a red soft-top roof. It belongs to the posh horse lady from up our road. She beep-beeps creepy man and he drives on. But a few feet up the hill he pulls over, into a gateway. He waves his arm out his window to say to Mrs Posh to go on past him. I press myself into the hedge and brambles are stabbing me. I look in at her hard,
‘Please know who I am,’ I whisper, but she goes right by me. I start to run again and then she does stop. As I reach her, the window near us slides down and she says,
‘You’re the new girl from the council cottages, aren’t you?’ She sounds like the queen and she’s got a pink lipstick mouth.
‘Can I give you a lift to the end of the lane?’
I nod, and she opens the door. The front seat is smooth red leather. It’s so low to the floor I can hardly see out. As she goes past the Berlingo, I slide down even further.
‘Do you know him?’ she asks me, and I shake my head.
I look behind. The van has set off, driving behind us. It’s only going to be a few minutes and we’ll be at the top end of our lane. It’s not like the field way, the way I walked, where I come out right by our front door. If Mrs Posh drops me off, I’ll have to run like crazy down the lane to get home and he could still follow me. Grab me. Or, if I do make it indoors, and mum sees I haven’t got the beans, it could be like last time I forgot, when she just looked at me and said, in her very worst Type 1 voice, ‘You’ll just have to go back to the shop, Nic.’
I take Sebastian out of my pocket, stroke his head and his belly to stop my fingers from shaking.
‘He’s a sweet little chap,’ Mrs Posh says, ‘My daughter had a few like that. Something Families aren’t they?’
‘Sylvanians,’ I say, looking back over my shoulder. The van is still there.
‘I live at Overbrent House,’ the lady says.
I stay quiet.
She looks at Sebby again. ‘I found some the other day, while I was having a clear out.’
The sports car is juddering up this steepest bit of the hill. I’m frightened we’ll break down and then the man will come to help us.
‘There’s a house as well. A big one. Maybe you’d like it?’
I look right at her. ‘But what about your girl?’
‘She’s all grown up and away at university. No interest in toys at all.’
The road’s gone flat and the engine smooths out.
‘In fact, you can come with me now. They’re all packed up in a box in the hall, ready for the charity shop. Then I can drop you back home, unless you’re in a hurry. Will your mother mind?’
I shake my head.
‘It’ll be a relief actually,’ she says. ‘You’ll be helping me out.’
The van is still right behind us, but as we drive fast, away from the top of the hill, it disappears. Out of the side of my eyes, the evil nettle-hedge smudges into a green stripe.
I stroke Sebastian and think about the big house he’s going to have. Maybe there’ll be furniture. I can draw wallpaper for his bedroom. I put Seb up on the dashboard so he’s got a better view. Mrs Posh gives me a quick smile, and speeds up a bit more.
I’m working out how she’s probably got food in her cupboards and there’s bound to be a tin of beans somewhere. Jade can call me dumb-bunny all she likes but I am genius at sneaking stuff when no-one’s looking. All my making kit – the scissors, the glue and even the glitter – has come from school.
We’re safe past the end of our lane now and I stick my head out the car window. The air is bright fresh on my face and I hold Sebastian up so he can feel it too. Together, we shout out loud into the wind.