Military Brats

Military Brat 3

My seventh school

The sea of strangers surrounds me

I introduce myself to a girl in the lunch queue

“Why did you join in the middle of the year?”

I tell her my parents are in the navy.

“Oh.”

She says, her face calculating.

“You’re one of those.”

 

Mother’s eyes are stone.

“Later, I’ll inspect your room.”

Look down, nod. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

Every night, we watch the news.

The war footage is hellish and with every death they announce a fresh terror seizes me.

I keep checking the photos, but it’s never my Father.

Relief fills me… but then I feel guilty;

Somewhere in the world a family is mourning.

What right do I have to feel relieved?

The news theme tune is the soundtrack to my nightmares.

The cycle never ends.

Merry Christmas

Christmas Presents

Christmas Day.

At lunch, the little boy squirms, impatient to escape from the dinner table. He pesters and pleads with his father until at last, worn down by the endless complaining, his father sets him free.

His gleaming new toys beckon him from underneath the Christmas tree, and the TV guide lies open, slyly showing all the marvellous movies that are currently on. The boy ignores them both.

He sprints upstairs, switches on the clunky computer and goes on Skype.

As promised, she is online, waiting for him. He double clicks on her name and her face fills the screen, smiling at him from the other side of the world. He hasn’t seen her for seven months.

Her khaki uniform is covered in dust. She smiles like a star in a distant galaxy, distant but warm.

“Merry Christmas, Mommy!”

Hungry

The meal had been cooked to perfection.

For hours now I’ve been slaving away in the kitchen, washing, chopping, steaming, cooking and roasting. Now, at last, it’s ready. The table is laid and the drinks poured. The joint of beef sits proudly in the center of the table, glistening with herbs. The smell is delicious. I scan the table for anything I’ve missed, then call up the stairs;

“It’s lunchtime!”

By the time I’ve walked round the table and taken my seat, I can hear the thunderous footsteps of the twins racing down the stairs. Charlie bursts in first, with Dan hot on his heels. They laugh breathlessly and throw themselves into their seats, talking and joking raucously.

Those boys, I think, partly in amusement and partly in bewilderment. Where do they find all their energy?

The heavy tred of my husband comes down the hallway from his study. As he enters, he sniffs appreciatingly and smiles.

“This looks wonderful, Mary.”

A smile springs to my lips. “Thanks.”

He takes his place, pulls the joint towards him and carefully begins carving the meat. The twins begin to bicker about who was going to get the biggest piece.

The last seat at the table remains empty.

“Where’s Andria?” I ask over the twins argument.

My husband raises his head from his carving, and pulls a ‘I don’t know,’ face. The twins shrug. “In her room?” Dan suggests.

“I’ll go get her!” Charlie exclaims.

“No, I will!”

“I said first!”

I interject before it turns into another argument.

“Charlie, you go.”

He jumps up triumphantly and rushes from the room and up the stairs.

Dan turns his puppy eyes on me. “Awww, Mum!”

I smile inwardly and give him the plate with the largest slice of meat to shut him up. It works.

Moments later, Charlie charges down the stairs and sits back down. Andria follows more sedately, sitting down noiselessly. I notice she’s wearing a large knitted jumper despite the temperature. I pass over her plate and fill my own with potatoes, carrots and peas.

Soon everyone is piling their plates, passing round the gravy dish and digging in. Charlie begins talking about some football game he and Dan are in next weekend, with my husband occasionally interjecting with questions.

I turn to Andria and watch as she cuts her meat into smaller and smaller pieces.

“Hey, aren’t you hungry?”

She glances up, then continues to stare at her place. “Not really.”

“But Sunday roast is your favourite!”

Her voice has an edge to it I don’t understand. She sounds… defensive. Almost angry. “Yeah, well, not today.”

I watch her in silence, my brow creased. What’s wrong? Why is she upset?

“Are feeling okay?” I ask quietly.

“Yes,  Mum, I’m fine!” She says, and now the anger in her voice is unmistakable.

I raise my eyebrows. “Don’t bite my head off, I was just wondering why you aren’t eating your favourite meal-”

“For goodness sake!” She says loudly, standing up.  “I’m just not hungry! Why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything?”

The conversation grounds to a halt and four pairs of eyes stare at Andria. I look closer at her, and my thoughts start travelling on a path I don’t like.

Baggy jumpers. Cutting up her food. “I’m not hungry.” And other things as well… changing from packed lunch to school dinners. Going to other friends houses for tea. Going out running every night, on top of Gymnastic training. Weighing herself. Looking in the mirror all the time. And how quiet she’s become…

How can I have missed this? How can I have been so blind?

I stand up slowly and look her in the eye. I feel like I’m seeing her for the first time. Her cheeks are concave,  slightly hollow, making her look gaunt and a little skull-like. Her hands, in fists by her sides, are so bony I can count her tendons and her wrists are worryingly thin. The silence in the room is ringing in my ears. I hold onto my chair to keep upright.

“Honey… Are you eating normally?”

For a moment I think I’m wrong and my heart flutters with relief.

Then I see the anxiety flood into her eyes. Her face creases like a paper bag left in the rain and she begins to cry. I go to her and hold her in my arms, sorrow like an undigested meal lying heavy in my stomach. I stroke her hair as she sobs, wishing that now we had found out it would all be over… but knowing that this was only the beginning.

The Ancient Heart

She was bent over, shuffling slowly

Around her dusty and gloomy house

Scowling deeply, each step causing her pain

Her back bent like a question mark

Broken by life, and time, and terrible sights

That had seared themselves into her memories

As effectively as a branding iron.

Her face was a map of wrinkles

Sunk deep, like scars, into dark,

Weather-beaten skin

She possessed mighty wisdom;

Deep, deep knowledge that seemed to come

Directly from the gods of old

As though they whispered

Their dangerous secrets into her ears.

Her eyes had watched time unfold

When she was young,

They were a shocking cornflower-blue

That made the boys stop and stare… But now,

They are obscured by a film of milky fog,

And the blue is watery and weak

Like the cold, misty winter sky. Although,

Despite everything,

Her old eyes still shine when she speaks

Of her children, and her children’s children

Her skin is sandpaper, her back broken by life

But her heart remains undamaged by

The passing of time.

She is the source of many things

Her huge family stretch from her,

Like the thousands of branches

That stem from the gnarled trunk of a tree:

The ancient heart of everything.

Play-Fighting

The clash of metal on metal rings through the courtyard. Pigeons soar, startled, from the heavily laden apple trees. Maysie, our tortoiseshell cat, looks up sleepily from her perch on the garden wall, then turns her head away. If Ma was in earshot, she would probably start shrieking at me and my brother to quieten down. But I know that she is the other side of the house; far enough away that we can work in peace.

My brother, Adrian, distracts me from my thoughts. “Hey, Miriam, are you here to fight or aren’t you?” I look over at him. Neither of us are wearing any more armour that a breastplate. He prefers to fight with a shield: I don’t. His face is flushed from fighting, but he’s smiling. “Sorry!” I say, before raising my sword and preparing myself. My brother pushes his brown hair from his eyes, his expression one of utmost concentration.

As always, he attacks first. He sprints the three steps towards me and aims a forceful blow at my chest. I neatly step to the left and block his attack, then swiftly cut my own blade down towards his shoulder. He blocks, and we are thrown back into our rapid dance with swords. Even though he is two years older, he and I are very evenly matched at fighting. Apart from him, nobody knows I can fight. A girl with a sword is a shameful sight. So it is our secret.

I know his style, and my mind is flitting through possible attacks, blocks and counterattacks faster than I can deliver them. He is a blur, his expression fierce and serious. We are so close to one another, weaving in and out of the way, and yet we never touch. Only our blades clash together, sending ringing noises echoing off the walls of the courtyard.

After a while – ten minutes, maybe more – the familiar burn of exertion starts to wind it’s way around my sword arm. For a while, I ignore it. But finally I admit that I’m worn out. Almost like my confession was the key to a floodgate, my body seems to begin screaming at me, clamouring to tell my brain about all my various pains. But I’m not going to stop. Not now!

I know that Adrian is getting tired too, because his blocks are slower and are barely stopping my sword before it touches him. His face isn’t flushed any more; it’s bright, tomato red. I’m not in a much better state. I feel like I’m burning up inside and I am uncomfortably aware that the hair on my forehead is slick with sweat.

I can feel him weakening: his attacks are getting feebler and feebler. I grin, taking advantage and showering him with blows. Ignoring my exhaustion, I feint an attack towards his right thigh, then at the last second pull out and swing at his chest. He wasn’t expecting that and my blow catches him full-on in the chest. He staggers back from the blow, his bright red face so surprised that I burst out laughing.

I can’t help it; he looked so funny with his eyes wide, his mouth a round ‘O’ of shock. Laughter spills out of me like water from a tap and I lower my sword. Suddenly Adrian comes shooting into my vision, sword held high, and I only just manage to block him. Caught off guard by his sudden attack, he soon has me pinned against the courtyard wall with his blade at my neck.

We’re both panting. He’s gone – if this is possible – even more tomato-coloured. He backs off, lowering his sword, still gasping for air. I slide down the wall until I’m sitting, with my back against it. He falls down, a marionette with severed strings. My heart is pounding and my hand so cramped I can’t prise my fingers away from the sword handle. After a couple of minutes catching our breath back, he says,

“If you hadn’t begun laughing, you would’ve won that.”

I laugh again, the memory of his face flashing through my mind. “You just looked so funny,” I say with a smile. He returns my smile ruefully, running a hand through his chestnut hair. Now he’s won, our score is… let me see… 7 : 8. But in his favour. Drat! Now I’ve got to beat him tomorrow. We sit in companionable silence for a while before he stands up, offering me his hand so that I can too. I groan as I stand, rubbing my sore muscles. “You shouldn’t have let me sit down, I’ve gone all stiff!”

He grins. “Come on, let’s go and get this stuff off before Ma comes looking for us.” Walking out of the courtyard, I whistle to Maysie, who is still soaking up the sunshine on the wall. With her slinking at our heels we troop through the orchard towards the house.

With my sword bouncing at my hip, and the calming, childhood sounds of the wind in apple trees, the purring of Maysie and the cooing of pigeons, I feel perfectly at ease. My limbs still burn slightly, but it’s a good burn now, a healthy I’ve-just-done-exercise burn. I relax. Linking my arm through Adrian’s, we make our way through the heavily laden apple trees, laughing in the summer sunshine.

The Least Favourite Daughter

The tip of the pen hovered nervously over the dotted line.

For months I had been planning this. Tonight was the night I’d finally be free of my family. A new life, with the man I loved, miles away from anyone who could try to boss me around. For months I’ve managed to put up with Mother’s sneering, scathing lectures and all my sisters’ little comments, a happy fire burning in my chest, a secret belonging to me, and only to me. An escape. Freedom.

So why was I hesitating?

The pen wobbled. Just sign it, Jane!  A voice in my head cried. To be free, all you need to do is write your name. It’s not that hard!

But Mother’s face swam into my mind. Her forceful words reverberated through my head. “I will not have my youngest daughter wasting her life on some… some good-for-nothing tramp! You, unlike him, have a future… education… wealth!”

Am I doing the right thing? Is this all a huge mistake?!

Somehow, the slow burning hatred I felt for my mother has faded. Why can’t I hate her? All the rules, the restrictions, the ‘little-girl-on-the-leash’… If I could remember that deep, furious hate, I would be able to do this!

But I can’t. I can’t do this.

A sly voice spoke up in my mind.

So, what are you going to do? Go back home, with four other sisters, all so much older and prettier and smarter than you? With a mother who will always find fault with you, with your appearance, with your personality, always trying to get you to change? Go back home, to the house where praise means being told that; ‘You did that almost as well as Rebecca did. Perhaps if you keep trying, you might be as good as her… eventually…’ You were always her least favourite daughter. She won’t even notice you’re gone. Sign it. Sign that bit of paper, and you’ll be free of her at last.

The pen stopped wobbling. I took a deep breath. With a perfectly steady hand, I signed my name, ending it with a flourish. I handed the register to the man sitting next to me, sitting so close, touching. He carefully wrote his name next to mine.

And next to me… forever. I smiled at him, feeling my old life slip away. Gone is ‘Ms Jane Felicity Hollan-Rushton’.

He turned, his grey eyes shining with love. “Are you ready, Mrs Jane Peterson?”

I grinned. New name, new life. No more rules. No more restrictions. Let it rip.

“I’m ready!”

Written for Ermilia’s Picture It & Write

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