by Daisy Pearce
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
They were old now, but I would have known them anywhere. Those faces, dented with age. Wrinkled apples beneath straw boaters tied with colourful ribbons. Clusters of pearls decorating their ears, dripping down their necks to the sagging skin of their jaws. Canary yellow dresses, carefully stitched with pink flowers. Little white ankle socks over shiny, liver spotted skin. They were sitting as they always did, beneath the willow tree, in the place where the sunlight turns golden and buttery. They were smoking, I could smell it from where I stood, downwind of them. Sobranies, pastel coloured cigarettes with gold tips. There was a large old fashioned lighter on the table of green marble, and a china ashtray beside their afternoon drinks. Gin and tonic for Madja, iced tea for Linka, served in tall glasses.
No-one could tell them apart except me. I knew the secret. I knew that Madja had a tiny birthmark on her temple, plum coloured. She covered it with the careful rolls of her hair but you could see it if you knew to look for it.
I approach them carefully for arthritis stiffens my knees, my elbows, all the places I bend. I have learned I am not immutable, that I too am moulded unfashionable by time, but in that moment I am right back there outside the old grammar school, my hair tied into two strict plaits, not yet coming undone. My shadow stretches over the hot macadam like spilt ink. I see them coming together as they always are, pale and milky faced, the Von Teagle twins.
“You should be in class,” one of them tells me, and because I do not yet know about the little birthmark I do not know if this is Madja or Linka. I tell them that I am ill, that I am waiting for my mother to pick me up. I know when she gets here she will be cross, that her hair will be dusted white with the flour from the bakery, that she will have clots of icing on the collar of her summer dress. She will be annoyed that she had to leave work to come and get me; the loss of wages making her shrewish, thin lipped. But for now she is not yet here, and I am alone with the Von Teagle twins and my stomach knots itself into a fist.
One of them, maybe Linka, pokes me in the arm with a stubby finger. Her breath is hot and sour with aniseed.
“What’s your name, kid?”
She says ‘kid’ likes she spitting gum. I tell them it’s Lucy. I tell them I’m just standing here, just waiting for my mother because I’m sick. I tell them she is going to show up any minute so they’d better keep walking.
“Lucy? More like ‘pukey,’” Madja laughs nastily and then, “what’s in the bag, Pukey?”
She pulls the school bag from my shoulder and tips it out onto the ground with a shower of coins and books and pencils chewed to stubs. I cry out.
“Don’t cry baby.” Linka says as tears prickle my eyes, “Don’t be a germ.”
“You hungry, baby?” Madja asks as Linka grips my arm. Later I would find thick purple lines that her fingers left there as though scorched into the skin. Later, when I’m getting changed for bed I will start to cry, great undulating sobs and I will clean my teeth over and over again. But that is later.
“You hungry? You want something to eat?”
I turn my head to look for help - a teacher, a student, the caretaker patrolling the grounds, but there is no-one. My stomach hurts and I need to pee. I try to say something but Linka uses her free hand to hold my chin, smooshing my cheeks together with her fingers. My mouth pops open in a surprised ‘o’.
“You’re a worm. What are you?” Madja said as she came closer. She had something in her hand but I couldn’t move my head to see what it was. My heart was pounding against my ribs with horrible metronomy.
“A worm.” I managed, except my voice came out all mushed. A Murm.
“That’s right. And what do worms eat?”
I wriggled, trying to turn my head away and now the tears came, fat and thick and syrupy. Linka laughed. Madja had lifted her hand and I could see what was in it now, what she had been holding and then she was pressing it to my mouth and it was filled with grit and earth and the taste of rot. I was choking on it.
“Eat the dirt, worm! Eat the dirt!” Madja squealed, rubbing her hand over my mouth, my chin. Later I would find clumps of earth between my teeth.
I spit but I can’t yell and it feels as though I am choking. I double over and my vision blurs. I spit a scatter of dirt and stones onto the ground, it hits it like buckshot. Linka is laughing in my ear, gutsy great whoops of genuine pleasure and for the next forty years I will dream of hitting her. The sunlight was as bright as enamel, simmering and my mouth was full of the taste of the ground, of rot and leaves.
Now they are wearing their glasses, the Von Teagle twins. Oversized bifocals tinted a milky coffee colour. They sit the same way, wintry knuckled hands on top of their silver topped walking canes. Sagging into the fold up chairs, facing the river. They are silent and do not look up as I approach. I don’t think they will recognise me, it was such a long time ago and we have all grown older. I have threads of silver in my hair, long lines bracketing my mouth. My chin has started to recede, just a little, and I don’t hear so well anymore. As I near them I can still taste that mouthful of dirt; they had called it ‘worm food’ and it had filled my throat with its strange metallic flavour. One of them looks up at me, Linka I think, and I can see even through the thick lenses of the glasses the silvery cataracts which cloud her eyes. Madja does not look up. Her mouth is open and her lips are slick with drool. I wonder what I am doing here. I wonder if they remember me.
My stiff hands roll into fists. Earth and mud bleed from between my fingers.
I wonder what I will do next.
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