False Start Friday: More Charleigh, 1971
A further extract from what has already been rescued from my personal slush pile, so strictly speaking it's not a false start BUT it has proved popular so one more glimpse before I get back to making this project work.
Mother possessed thin brown hair but her ears didn't stick out. Her belly did. After marriage, after babies, after beer drinking, a belly was the end of the production line. Brown, orange, yellow, swirls and flowers: optional, thank the Bloody Merry Lord, but the life conveyor belt would carry you along. Owning a Strawberry Dress could make you happy but it wouldn't free you from the list that read:
Charleigh wonders when her married sisters will have babies. Damn: more babies, and they'll bring them round here for a bloody bath. They already pop in for cups of tea. Life should span more than a couple of streets. If you were lucky you might go on a honeymoon, you might see the sun set on the sea, but you'd soon be back. It was all measured out in bricks, measured like her father's smacking pace; slow, certain, numbered, inescapable order. Father will be home soon, to sit down, eat his tea, watch TV, get washed and changed before pub time, 9pm prompt. So Charleigh had better get the bath run so baby will be clean and dressed and ready to sit on Daddy's lap.
The baby is actually three years old: a toddler, Peta the sweeter, the littlest blondest sister, halo-ed and white feather winged (almost.) Mummy's last little baby takes a good deal of looking after. Babies need attention, lots of children need lots of delegating. Charleigh runs the bath, straining her arms turning the rusty taps, testing the water temperature. She calls down to her mother that it's ready, and tugs off the hated dress. Maybe tomorrow will be a Strawberry Dress day.
Mother, still in her daywear, deposits Baby in the water next to her sister.
‘Watch her for me now, I'm cooking your father's tea, and I haven't finished polishing yet. And then I've got to get changed for me singing. I'll take you with me tonight so have a good wash.’
Charleigh shrank some more. She wishes she had never opened her mouth to sing along to Jacquie's bloody new record. A double blow from God, that was, the looks of a sparrow and the voice of a big black nightingale. That was the kind of day you stored in the part of your memory concerned with retribution.
‘We can make some money out of you!’ Mother's slanted blue beads had gleamed. She'd made Charleigh learn Oh Danny Boy right there, and Charleigh's face had flared like boiling tomato soup with just her sisters watching. Being exhibited in pubs was horrifying. She was marched up to the bar like a prisoner. After she'd performed her numbers, under pain of worse than death, and taken a hat round for pennies, people would congratulate her mother.
‘She takes after me!’ Mother claimed to each contributing member of the crowd.
Charleigh wanted to die.
She scrubs the hard soap stub over her wash rack ribs and sparrow's legs, blankly watches Peta splash her cherub's hands in the water. Peta stands up and reaches for a shampoo bottle, pretending to drink.
‘Lemonade!’ the baby says, clapping her hands, delighted with her toddler game, her laughter unaffected by Charleigh's indifference.
Charleigh tries to reach the soap around her back.
‘Yes, lemonade,’ she repeats, as brightly as she can. It isn't the stupid baby's fault that the day has turned out so badly.
‘Lemonade!’ the baby choruses.
‘Mmm,’ Charleigh replies, struggling to hold onto the nub of soap. The sound of a cap popping off a plastic bottle registers too late. Peta has already taken a long swig from the bleach, gasped, and dropped the bottle in the bath. The water goes cloudy. Peta's blue eyes bulge like reptile eggs about to hatch. Her face and body twitch, her mouth is blistering. Charleigh opens her mouth and screams. Jacquie's platform soled steps clunk up the stairs. Charleigh can't stop shrieking. Jacquie opens the bathroom door, sees Peta and the bottle floating in the water; she draws breath sharply, screaming in reverse.
‘Oh my god the baby's drunk bleach,’ Jacquie whispers.
She gathers Peta into her arms, looks at her gaping, red stained mouth, her glazing eyes; Peta hangs, dripping wet, like a poisoned waterbaby.
‘OH MY GOD THE BABY'S DRUNK BLEACH,’ Jacquie's holler stops Charleigh's noise: prompts screaming from downstairs.
‘SALT WATER,’ Tonie bellows, ‘down here now!’
Tonie's footstep's thump to the kitchen, Jacquie races down the stairs. Charleigh tries to listen but the water is burning her legs. She climbs out of the bath and pulls herself inside a scratchy towel. Her legs are bright red and rashy. Her legs are shaking. Downstairs issues screams, and shrieks, and sounds of violent vomiting. She hears her little sister cry, and stop crying, which is worse. Charleigh slides down the narrow hallway, her eyes filling with confused tears; the yellow gloss-work blurs into waves, like long flames. Tonie pushes past her by the front door.
‘I'm to phone an ambulance!’
Tonie's eyes are wide and staring, her voice rasps; whatever Peta has done, maybe it is catching. The front door slams shut, blasting Charleigh with cold air. Briefly she scents the spring rain on the pavement outside, then nothing but bleach and sick.
‘You should have been watching her!’ Mother's voice jumps her like an unseen slap. ‘You stupid girl! You're older, you should have been WATCHING HER!’
Charleigh's tears burst down her cheeks.
‘Is she going to be alright?’ she quivers, but her sisters and her Mother and her little sister wrapped in a blanket move around her, not hearing, and she's lost in the maze of panicking bodies. Fear tremors through her, rises up through her burning legs and shivering torso, up into her red flaring face. Brown, yellow and orange blends into a red haze: she charges the wall and slams her head against it. Words dislodge in her head: ‘Dumbo, flappy ears, chinky eyes, stupid girl;’ sneering chants in the head of a stupid girl with a boy's name and ugly clothes and a stupid ugly house. She bangs her head, but nobody will answer her question. Her eyes erupt in tears, her head is a mess of nasty voices, she trembles. Something has to stop all this: she picks up a discarded shoe and runs at the back door, pushing the stiletto heel hard into the glass. It shatters, just as her father arrives. He strides in and smacks her legs, leaving a handprint wider than the span of her body.
‘You stupid child!’ Father picks her up, shakes her until her towel falls off, quickly drops her back down into the broken glass. Charleigh grabs the towel and runs past him before he can get his belt. She hides under the bedcovers, cuddling her candy-striped scrap of comfort blanket, sucking her thumb, waiting for Tonie to return, glass scratches stinging on her bleach burnt legs.
Tonie betrays her arrival with a tired sigh.
‘Tonie?’ Charleigh murmurs, under the covers.
‘The baby will be okay,’ her sister tells her, quietly. ‘We went to the hospital. It's all for the best, isn't it? For their own good. Take them to the hospital. The baby's safe, in safe hands.’
‘With the angels?’ Charleigh sits up, brewing fresh tears.
‘No, no, the nurses, I mean the nurses,’ Tonie smiles, ‘no, this one's coming back, don't worry.’
Charleigh cuddles into her sister's arms.
‘It'll be okay,’ Tonie whispers, ‘everything will be fine.’ She strokes Charleigh's hair until the little sparrow falls asleep.