September 2018 Contest Winner
Hallie-May by Adele Taylor
The rain patters down on the plastic conservatory roof, making the bluebirds fly to their nest, chirping as they go. Maisie sits on the tiled floor, tickling the cat's tail, which he twitches furiously while glaring at her. That only makes her do it more.
I scrunch up my eyes as the sun beams through the rain glazed windows. Finally, I’ve finished it. A drawing of my forest-like garden with its peachy pink roses, towering oak trees and wooden swing with stepping stones placed gracefully around it. I used my finest felt pens to colour in every detail. As I turn to tidy up my pens, I notice the black one is missing. I search all around the cat tree and under each chair to find it dangling out of Maisie’s mouth. A little black hand print smothers my oak trees and the drawing is ruined.
I pick Maisie up as she claps her inky black hands together with glee.
‘Maisie! That was naughty! I spent ages on that and you’ve covered it in ink. What am I meant to hand in for my art project now?’ I sigh. Her lip starts to quiver and I can’t keep a stern face any longer, she is only two after all.
As I wipe Maisie down with a soapy, wet flannel, the front door slams shut and the sickly aroma of fish and chips fills the air. That’s the fourth time this week. I just wish he’d let me cook, but apparently an eleven-year-old shouldn’t use the oven. He seems to have forgotten that time when he was ill for a week and I cooked every night after school. If we had a mum replacement, then I wouldn’t have had to cook and I could go out with friends like a normal child.
Mum left just after Maisie was born, she said she couldn’t cope and ran off to Greece. Of course, she didn’t know Dad’s arthritis was going to get worse. I’d like to think that if she knew, then she wouldn’t have left.
Dad drops his rucksack on the floor and kicks off his muddy boots, leaving clumps of dirt in the hallway. He trades me a bag of fish and chips for a wet, inky Maisie and I start to plate up the nauseating takeaway.
‘How was work?’
‘Not too great, kiddo. I only managed to do two gardens today. Had to cancel the other three jobs. The pain was much worse today. But it’s alright, we’ll manage.’ Dad winces as he picks Maisie up and blows raspberries on her cheek.
‘Oh. Right,’ I whisper while I stare at the chips, disappointedly.
Last time Dad said we’ll manage, we ended up in debt and I had to give up private school, weekly horse-riding lessons and our beautiful house on the posh side of town. I used to live next door to Claire, my best friend, but now, we live on a council estate. We were lucky to get a conservatory apparently. Dad had to get a second job at the local supermarket to pay for my horse-riding lessons once a fortnight, even though he’s not well enough to work at all. I suppose I should give up my horse-riding, but it’s the only time I get to see Claire so, no chance.
Since mum left, my life has kind of fallen apart. Private school with burgundy blazers turned to normal school with black hoodies. No more big house with my own room, no more nursery for Maisie, no more friends.
But we’re quite lucky that our new next door neighbour, Mrs. Miller, agrees to look after Maisie for free while I’m at school and Maisie doesn’t mind because she always comes home covered in biscuit crumbs.
I always day dream about my old life. My own bedroom with my king-sized bed, purple walls and a 6-foot white wardrobe. Twinkling fairy lights draped across my Northern lights canvas and my own TV alongside a bookshelf filled with DVDs.
A soggy, warm chip flies into my face and slaps me out of my day-dream while Maisie finds her good aim hilarious.
The thunder claps and rain pours down, sneaking through the hole in my umbrella. I lean against the somehow sticky but warm radiator, while wringing my mousy brown pony tail onto the wooden floor. Ugh. History. Mr. Owen asks me what a castle barbican is and as every head turns towards me, my face turns crimson and I must breathe slowly so my heart doesn’t burst.
‘Anytime today, Hallie,’ he mocks.
I murmur, ‘I don’t know, sir’; the room fills with sniggers.
If I could choose between babysitting and being made to feel like an idiot, I wouldn’t hesitate to exchange my uniform for my dressing gown. Instead, I slide my earphones through my hair and stare blankly at the board, letting Ed Sheeran drown out Mr. Owen’s bland voice.
A wave of relief washes over me as the bell rings for lunch. The crowded hall buzzes with excitement for the pizza that they only serve on Tuesdays, but as I lifelessly repeat ‘thank you’ to each dinner lady, a kind woman’s voice chimes the words, ‘It’s alright, chick.’
She offers a weary smile, her eyes restless and her long hazel hair effortlessly tied up and covered with a curry stained hairnet.
The surge of people pushes me out of the queue and I cower towards the nearest empty table.
2pm, time for art. The first ten minutes of class are spent rummaging through my damp bag for the drawing that still features Maisie’s ink print.
Ms. Popham scrunches her nose up, 'Hallie, you really should keep homework and home life separate, your little sister can’t keep ruining your work.’
You try looking after a two year old and leaving her alone while you do homework. See how distracted you get by the screaming.
For the whole lesson, I glumly try to re-create my masterpiece until the bell sends me to the bus, alone, cold and exhausted.
Of course, I can’t just go home and watch TV, as much as I’d like to. I ring the doorbell for Mrs. Miller’s house and wait to be handed a crumb-covered toddler.
Mrs. Miller opens the door, wrapped in a spaghetti splattered apron.
‘Oh, thank heavens! I could not get little missy to eat anything nutritious, we tried spaghetti...’ I can see that ‘...and toast and then pasta. In the end, I let her have a couple of biscuits. She’s been a pleasure as always but I’m afraid she will still need to be fed.’ She picked up Maisie and passed her over to me. I swear she’s getting heavier with all of these biscuits.
‘Thank you, Mrs. Miller. I’ll bring her over the same time tomorrow.’
The door closed. I suppose we should be paying her really, but Dad couldn’t afford that as well as horse-riding so I won’t bring it up again.
Maisie and I sit on the cold tiles of the kitchen floor as I empty the cupboard, showing her every tin that we own and waiting for her to inevitably shake her head. Seeing as Queen Maisie refuses to eat anything else, I put some chicken nuggets in the oven and sweetcorn in the microwave.
By 7pm, she is starting to get hungry and tired as I multitask between sorting Dad’s evening medication out, keeping Maisie distracted by YouTube videos on my phone and not burning the chicken nuggets. Maisie starts to break as the sugar rush wears off and the battery on my phone dies.
‘Maisie, don’t cry, Dad will be home soon. Please, don’t cry.’
I whimper as her cry becomes a scream and I pull the slightly black chicken nuggets out, forgetting to put the oven gloves on. The tray clatters to the floor, scaring a hysterical Maisie and burning my entire hand. I fall to the floor in agony. Please come home now, dad.
By the morning, my hand hasn’t stopped stinging but I make my way to school as usual, with a bit more of a spring in my step because it’s horse-riding tonight.
Science and English fly by and the bell rings for lunch. It’s chicken salad and sweetcorn. The sight of sweetcorn makes me feel sick until the same light voice startles me.
‘What happened to your hand, pet? It looks sore.’
I peer up at the dinner lady while she discreetly piles more chicken onto my plate and I answer sheepishly, ‘Oh, that? It’s stupid really, I burnt myself in the bath, forgot to turn the cold tap on first.’
She inspects it, sympathetically, giving no response to my obvious lie.
The last two hours of school feels more like five.
Beep. Beep. Finally. The sound of Claire’s’ mum's Mercedes. I run to the door, falling over my half put-on boots and stuff my coat into my rucksack.
‘Hiya, love. All ready for horse-riding?’ Claire’s mum calls as I fumble into the car and she adjusts her vibrant ginger curls using the rear-view mirror.
I start telling Claire all about Dad, Maisie, school, the burn, everything. It feels so good to offload.
As the stables get closer, we pull into a mud filled lay-by and Claire’s mum opens my door and squats down next to me, her pink heels squelching in what is either mud or manure. She pulls out the little black first aid box from under my seat.
“Hallie, do you wish you’d never moved?” Claire asks, peering over, while her mum smothers my hand in Germolene and wraps it in a bandage.
‘Of course, I do, I only get to see you once a fortnight and nobody at school talks to me. I really want to--’
‘Come on now, don’t get upset, not on your favourite day.’ Claire’s mum strokes my sore hand soothingly.
‘Can we go now? They are already choosing the horses, mum.’ Claire gets out eagerly and slams the door shut before either of us can reply.
Everyone has already started picking their horses, frantically trying to get to the fastest ones first. I stroll down the stables to the last stall. Sadie. I tie the leather reins to her bridle. Nobody else ever picks Sadie because she was a rescue horse and she has a pale scar across her face. It travels down past her chestnut coloured eyes and cuts through her caramel coloured hair that turns golden in the sunshine. I think she’s beautiful.
Sadie slows down every time she hears me wince when the reins rub against my burn as we gallop through the mud. Every now and then, the teacher shouts at Claire because she races ahead of the group on Zara, the fastest horse in the stables. She rolls her eyes and pulls the reins harshly, writhing with impatience.
At 7 o’clock, Claire’s mum drops me off at home, tooting the horn as she goes.
As my key slides through the door, it opens to chaos.
The fire alarm is blaring because of burnt toast, Maisie is screaming because of her soggy nappy and there’s bolognese on the living room carpet with shards of smashed china running through it. Dad is standing on a chair, struggling to balance as he tries to fish the batteries out of the fire alarm.
‘Dad! What happened? I was only gone for a couple of hours.’ I shout over the screeching.
‘It’s okay, Maisie was being a nightmare but it’s just a stained carpet. It could be worse,’ Dad yells.
I shove Maisie’s dummy in her mouth and confront the almighty mess in front of me.
Okay. Anti-bac and stain remover before it sinks into the carpet, change and bath Maisie, put her to bed and attempt to finish my maths homework.
I begin to scoop up the cold clusters of spaghetti. Maybe I’ll have to move the rug to disguise this, no big deal.
The fire alarm stops just in time to reveal my whimper as the chemicals seep through my bandage and into my burn.
Dad kneels next to me and takes the spray out of my hand. ‘Hallie, what’s wrong with your hand? Did someone do this to you? In school... not those same bullies again? The school should have phoned me!’
‘Dad stop it. It’s a graze from netball.’
‘Okay’ His face eases. ‘I can do all this, I’m fine to do it.’
Liar. I can see his limp and I heard him wince when he got off the chair. Maybe I lied too but that’s different.
‘I can clean up but could you bath Maisie please? I have homework due in tomorrow and I haven’t started it yet,’ I plead and he strokes my cheek, smiles and guides Maisie into the bathroom.
Well, the carpet's ruined. This is what happens when I leave Dad to look after Maisie. He’s not well enough for it all and Mrs. Miller is busy on Wednesdays. Maybe I shouldn’t go to horse-riding anymore. My face turns to fire as I scrub the floor and hot tears flood my cheeks.
I wish I had Claire’s life. And her mum.
I slump in my isolated chair in maths, my face is painted with exhaustion.
The teacher is pacing from student to student to collect the maths homework, which I haven’t done. I’m considering escaping by crawling under the desks.
‘Hallie-May, homework please?’
‘What homework?’ May as well try my luck.
She puts her hand out, ‘Hallie. Give me your past paper, now.’
I dig the crumpled paper out of my bag and place the ball onto her palm.
‘Is this a joke, Hallie? Why haven’t you done it and why have you wrecked it?’ her tone becomes agitated.
‘Okay so, my Dad is ill, as you know, and he couldn’t handle looking after my sister so I ended up cleaning the house until midnight last night and then this sister, who I share a bed with, had made herself sick from crying so I had to look after her and do more cleaning. Do you believe me?’
I smirk at her expression.
‘Hallie, I want the truth, not some sob story you’ve concocted. Stop lying or you’ll get detention.’
‘Okay, my dog ate it.’
She hands me a detention slip and smiles spitefully as I leave the classroom. Although I do get a few cheers from classmates for my performance.
Two hours later and I’m still stuck in a small detention cubicle with an elderly science teacher who is half asleep. Wonderful. I’ve missed art.
The bell rings for lunch and the teacher nods for me to leave but by the time I make it to the canteen from the detention block, the queue is massive. My phone chimes while the line grows and I get pushed aside as I look at it. It’s a text from Dad. Taken the day off work, Maisie has started with chicken pox, you need to come home in case you’re contagious with it too. Already phoned head teacher. Xxx
So, Nurse Hallie is needed yet again, even if Nurse Hallie has it too. I’m eleven! Where’s my nurse?
As I sit on the metal bench in the cold hallway waiting to be signed out, a familiar voice stuns me.
‘You alright, love? You look a bit peaky.’
It’s the dinner lady with her kind green eyes and comforting voice. Something about being asked how I am makes me want to cry.
‘Yeah, I’m fine. My sister has chicken pox so I should go home in case I do too. I’d rather stay here though.’
She sits down next to me, timidly.
‘Why? Do you not like being at home?’
‘Yes and no. I don’t know. At least in school I can be a child. No cooking, cleaning, medication organisers or being a mum to my sister.’ My voice breaks.
The dinner lady stares at the floor, sighs and strokes my wet cheek.
‘Hallie, I had no idea.’
I push her hand off. ‘How do you know my name? There are hundreds of kids here.’
Her uncertain smile is accompanied by a light chuckle, ‘It’s only long hair with dye and a uniform. I only work here so I can see you. You really don’t recognise me?’
I scrunch my face up and start moving away from this woman subtly.
She follows me, ‘How’s Maisie? You said she has chicken pox? You won’t have it though, you’ve already had it.’ Her eyes search mine eagerly for a response.
My heart starts racing and my face feels hot, fiery. Angry.
She drapes herself over the back of the living room couch, nose pressed against Liza’s aquarium. She drums her fingers, long nails on clear glass, tap-tap-tap, a monotone, grating sound. The amethyst-colored jellyfish inside—the only two miraculous survivors—seem unperturbed, floating around as languid and disinterested as ever. I want to be those jellyfish. I want the world to seem as distant as a bad dream that can’t reach me through the amniotic-like water...
I find that writing for competitions motivates me, so ‘It’ was written in response to a prompt where the story had to include ‘without it, it all falls apart’. I didn’t actually enter that competition, but when I was happy with it I sent it here. I do as much writing in my head as I do on the page and was hanging out the washing when this came to me. I do have experience of a close family member who has dementia so that inspired me too.