Wednesday, 18 September 2013

When she was nine

By Michele Hackshall


Josie was nine and felt brave that day. Her parents were glued to the Wimbledon finals, and the neighbourhood kids were nowhere to be seen. Bored, she took her bike and went for a ride. It was yellow, called ‘Desert Rose’ and had a banana seat. The next year for her birthday she would get her first 10 speed, but Desert Rose always remained her favourite.

She usually turned right at the end of her driveway, up the hill and up several kms to the local store to buy her favourite treats. But curiousity led her to choose left, up past by usual barrier points at the end of the block. She crossed the street past  and started riding where she’d never ridden before. 

It was exhilarating: one of her first moments of realising the meaning of freedom. There was no accountability. She was making choices for herself and letting her wishes decide her fate, consciously. Her decisions were usually made for her: school decided what she studied, friends were decided by who lived in the neighbourhood, parents cooked her food. Josie had never thought about it before. Now she was making a choice for herself and felt ready for the responsibility that came with it.

She felt like she had been riding for ages when the footpath narrowed due to a tall well established lush hedge that grew and obstructed the path. Protruding branches scratched her arm as she passed. It was when she stopped to survey the damage when she noticed she was in front of the cottage. It was hidden behind a deliberate wall of living green, like it was meant to be a secret. 

The sun was hot even though it wasn’t even half way high, making tall dark shadows from the hedge onto the street. The cottage was weatherboard, with dark grey, worn looking wood. The shutters and trims were painted vibrant white. The white gravel of the driveway finished off the impression of the property: it was loved. Nothing was out of place. No weeds could be seen. Even at 9, the impression it left on the girl was remarkable. It looked like the pictures on so many of the postcards sold at the numerous tourist stores scattered across town. 

That’s when she noticed the flowers: delicate lace work patterns that adorned the bottoms of the bushes all along the driveway and footpath. They were so perfect, creating an arrangement of white and green that stretched the path around the front of the house. There were so many of them growing. They seemed to go on forever.

An enormous desire overcame her to pick flowers for her mum. The day before she had taken Josie blueberry picking. Her mother never wanted to do it: it was a long drive and interrupted the mother’s set routine, but consistent begging made her succumb. The result was that Josie’s mother was left to figure out 101 uses for blueberries for the cosy family of three. 

The girl was still young enough to want to appease her mum and the attention that bringing flowers would deliver. Maybe as a reward they would bake a cake.

The bouquet imagined for these flowers was like something out of a movie, carried by a  bride wearing a big white dress and a long veil, like Princess Diana’s. Full and round. carefully, she picked the flowers that followed the footpath along the street. They were so delicate that Josie needed to make sure that it enough stem was picked to hold it without bruising the intricate wisps of petals. 

Engrossed in her  task, she picked about a dozen when a voice behind said,

‘They’re Queen Anne’s Lace.’

Turning around Josie was struck by the starkness the voice’s owner brought to the sunny day. An old woman, her gaunt, long, pale and elderly face blocked the sun, making it hard to see. What unsettled the child was the old lady’s long black hair that didn’t match her face. Tall in height, thin, with crossed arms, she glared. 

“Did you ask for permission to pick my flowers?”

The girl thought she was going to wet myself right there. She felt like she was in one of those nightmares where you try to scream but no sound comes out.

“No,” came as barely a whisper.

The girl was obedient and not used to getting in trouble. The bravery of the day had now turned to despair. Freedom had fleeted. She was back to being  a servant to her age. 

“Where do you live?” she demanded. Her voice was scratchy and filled with emotion. 

“Down the road.”

“Well, show me. You’re parents need to know that you’ve been stealing.”

Her preoccupation with following orders kept her focused, or else she would have cried shamefully in front of the lady. After a long pause, she slowly started peddling home shadowed closely by the woman. She walked behind, not saying anything, arms still crossed. Her gait was long, even and confident.

A big cloud covered the sun and sent the world into shadow.

Panic trained the girl’s thoughts. What would she say to her parents, interrupting their tennis and  Bloody Marys? 

Her bike willed her to go faster, struggling with only the one gear. This caused the girl to quicken pace slightly, promptly slowing down to let her tormentor catch up. After a couple blocks, Josie looked over her shoulder: the lady was a bit further behind now but made no comment about it. Casually the girl moved a bit further ahead. The gait of the woman maintained, her face silent and stoney.

Josie bolted, riding as fast as she could, checking constantly over her shoulder. Expecting protest or quickening of pace from the old woman, but none came. She became smaller and smaller in the distance yet kept walking steadily forward like a monster. 

Rushing into the garage, the girl closed the door behind her frantically. The flowers were still in the basket of Desert Rose. Now they taunted her, their whiteness and perfection.  She squished them into as small a ball as possible. 

She stole a look out the garage window where paranoia took over.

2 comments:

  1. Beautiful imagery, Michele - I want to know what happens after the paranoia takes over..!

    ReplyDelete