From the Outside In

Autumn Leaves

We had played for hours in the fading autumn warmth. The park had been empty but for a few boys playing footy, a mum with an agitated toddler, and me and my mate Nicky. October half term and I, for one, was missing school. There was no one in the local playground and though at 10 we considered ourselves too old, having it to ourselves appealed. I loved the roundabout, getting up speed and losing the sense of direction as the world span around me daringly fast. A queasy stomach forced me off and I slowed my spinning head on the slide. A north wind blew cold through the nearby copse of trees, shaking dry brown leaves to earth. Nicky and I swung in unison, chatting about stuff and nonsense. Swinging high, I watched clouds scud across the blue sky. They loomed large, threatening precipitation. I was giddy with friendship and laughter as we tore about the playthings at our disposal. I looked up the facing hill to the public loo, thinking I may need to visit. But a man was sitting on the bench nearby and I knew better than that.

Hunger forced us out of the park. Piles of leaves banked the pavements, pushed up against garden walls. The week had been rain-free and we were delighted by the crunch as we swished and swayed our way homeward. We sang the lyrics of “Summer Night”, off-key, many of the words made up in an attempt to keep it going to the fun bit. Stopping on a particularly wide corner, we thumbed our way through the chorus re-enacting the scene from ‘Grease’, Nicky as Sandy, me Danny. This led to a discussion as to which character we liked best in the film. I said Sandy, as most girls did, but secretly I preferred the hidden vulnerability of Rizzo. Side-tracked by the enticing building site opposite Nicky’s place, we played the “stay off the ground” game. Gloriously distracted, we did not see the builders returning from their lunch break. Their language was inappropriate for our 10-year-old ears but we responded with rude hand gestures and then ran giggling across the road to the safety of the grocery shop where Nicky’s Mum worked. She was helping a customer and nodded that our lunches were awaiting us upstairs.

Squash sat on the table, besides plates of cheese and onion sarnies, made with thick white bread and proper butter. I drank my squash fast, almost choking, and then snorted some out of my nose. That had us in fits yet again and my stomach hurt from laughing as we tucked into our lunch. Rain lashed down all afternoon. We stayed in, listening to records and dancing to the latest hits, trying to replicate the dance moves from Thursday’s Top of The Pops.

Too soon the light started to fade and I knew my time was up. I looked at Nicky and in a moment of sudden clarity said, “I’m not going home, I’m running away.”

As the words landed, I regretted them. But delivered they hung between us. Nicky looked confused. I smiled at her and said, “See ya, gotta go.” I ran down the stairs, and out the back of the shop.

Now I sit shaking in the alley, mind blank as I contemplate my situation. When the words had flown out my mouth, I had meant every word. But what now? Where does a ten-year-old run too? Tears sting my eyes and fall uselessly. I had asked Mum to help me understand why Dad didn’t like me. She just said be good. Not helpful! No matter how much I tried to be good, he “teased” me incessantly, at least that’s what Mum called it. I was less certain about what to call it.

I can hear life continue in the parade of shops out on the street. The streetlight pools yellow to my right, contrasting the blackness to my left. The faint smell of the chippie on the other end of the parade assails my nose, making my stomach groan in response. I should have been home by now. I hear a gaggle of youth approach the alley entrance and I retreat further into myself, hoping they don’t come down. I hear snatches of their conversation, a mixed group, looking for an adult to buy them a bottle of cider. They raid their pockets, pool their change, find a target, and start hassling until they break one down.

“Cheers, mate,” I hear as they hide their booty and disappear from their limelight.

Caught up in their drama, I have lost track of how long I have been crouched. A car slows under the streetlight and I recognise it with a jolt. The driver is my mum, but my older brother exits the vehicle with Starr, the dog, in tow. Starr sniffs the air and immediately pulls Anthony into the alley, excitedly revealing my hiding place.

“Huh, didn’t get far did you?” My brother looms over me, reaches down, and roughly grabs my arm. He pulls me out into the lighted street, and I squint in response, my limbs shaky from being crouched for so long.

My mother barely glances as I scramble into the back of the car but her pinched face oozes anger. Perversely I imagine her bursting into flame. At that moment I can only dream. I stay silent, waiting for the explosion, but instead, her fuse extends and I am left to wait. The air is extinct of hope. I am in for it, good and proper.

“Hiding with the bin bags, dirty little Arab,” gloats Anthony, feeding off the energy. He is a lover of drama and I never fail to deliver. Anthony turns in his front seat and grins at me. “Out with the rubbish,” he sniggers.

I want to poke my tongue out but I know better than to fuel his fun. My mother remains silent as she manoeuvres the traffic and takes us slowly, painfully home. Starr seems happy to see me, pawing at me for a fuss. Mindlessly I appease him. We reach our bungalow’s drive and my stomach churns acidly. As we go through the door, I shakily say, “Sorry Mum”.

“Sorry!” she spits, heading towards the living room. “You don’t know the meaning of the word. Stay out of my sight!”

I retreat into my room and sit on the bed. It is properly dark now and I allow the tears to silently fall. I sit in anticipation on the edge of my bed. The night is young and my stomach is clenched tight. My room had once been the bungalow’s kitchen and so has a door and windows leading into the garage with its glass skylights. Through them, I can see the night sky and a clearing in the clouds reveals a sprinkle of stars. I silently send up a prayer for leniency. I do not want to have to pack my suitcase again. The threat of being sent back into care hung over me for months last time.

Shortly, I hear dinner has been served. Gingerly leaving the safety of my room, I enter the living room. My family is sat at the table but only four places are set. This is familiar territory. I continue through to the kitchen. My father looks at me and appears to wince. I avoid his gaze. A lonely plate of food sits on the kitchen surface. I have been sent to Coventry, again. I stand at the counter and eat out of necessity rather than enjoyment. The kitchen door opens and my brother, Peter, saunters through, grinning widely at me.

“What’s up, Sis, not getting enough attention?” He fills a glass with water at the tap.

“Get lost,” I reply glumly.

He flicks water at me from the tap. I shove him as he goes by, forgetting about his broken arm in its cast. He grabs and twists my own arm but it doesn’t hurt. “Oi”, he whispers, “watch my bleedin arm!”

I feel a pang of guilt and then fear that he will welch on me. But he doesn’t and for that, I am always grateful. Peter treats me like family at school, we have each other’s backs there. He has cerebral palsy, hence his broken arm, a case of wobbly balance gone wrong! I guess it was helped along by one of the bigger boys at school. Peter never tells but I have got into plenty of scrapes trying to keep the big boys at bay. My scrapping gets me into trouble and that means Dad must punish me. I constantly hear him question who my parents must have been. Jailbirds probably gave me up for adoption and now he is lumbered with me.

Dejected, I eat then I wash up my plate and utensils.

I go back through to the living room.

“Shall I wash up Mum?”

A wall of silence. I guess my services are not wanted. I retreat to my sanctuary.

After half hour, I hear the doorbell ring. My mother answers and I hear Nicky’s mum at our door. I start to shake. The conversation is muffled, my ear is at my door.

I hear incomplete sentences, mainly from my mother. “You have no idea what she is like …….. coping with a sick husband …………… causing trouble …….. on top of everything ………….. Peter’s broken arm.”

Oh God, this is horrible. Why can’t they just go away?

“Marie, come here!”

A jolt of shock ricochets in my body. No no no, this can’t be happening? I creep out of my room towards the front door and stand shakily next to my mother.

“Hi, Marie,” smiles Nicky’s mum. “Your mum has been explaining that there has been a lot of stress in your house lately. No wonder you have been a bit upset.”

My mother utters a disdainful, “Huh.”

I see Nicky’s Mum look down the hallway. I turn slightly and see that the living room door is ajar. Dad is lying prone on the floor to ease his pain. I feel a stab of guilt. Sometimes I think he plays on his osteoarthritic neck. He can spend days lying in bed, waited on hand and foot. I dislike being sent into his dark and smelly sick room with tea. I have witnessed real tears though, and I am sorry for him in those instances. I look back and see something pass between Nicky and her mum.

Looking back to me, Nicky’s mum continues. “I was saying to your mum, that you could come and stay with us for a couple of days, give your mum a break. What do you think?” Surprised, I peek at my mother who is puce. I know what my answer is.

“I’m sorry…….” Words die within my mind but my mother suddenly finds her voice.

“If she goes, you get her for good. Then you will find out what she is really like!” She steps back as if to permit me.

Nicky’s mum looks taken aback. “I just meant to ease the pressure for a day or two.”

“She is nothing but trouble. She goes with you, you get her for good. I wipe my hands of her, good riddance.” My mother’s foot is tapping and I fear that she is about to throw me out!

“No, it’s fine. I am staying here. I’m sorry, Mum, really sorry.”

I take a step or two back into the house.

“There, you have your answer!” is my mother’s response and with that, she slams the door shut!

“Get out of my sight!” she hisses as she brushes roughly past me.

I retreat to my room and hear her explode in the living room all over my prone father and my broken brother.

“How dare she ………. I am exhausted and weary from all of this ………… As if I am not a fit mother ………. What the hell do they know about us ………”

I slip into my nightdress and curl up in my bed. Tears come again and self-pity pours out of me. Noone in this world loves me! A mountain of taunts come back to me.

“Your own mother didn’t want you.”

“She didn’t love you enough to keep you.”

“Took one look at your ugly face and put you up for adoption.”

On and on the taunts play their hurtful tune through my head.

Later still, my room is pitch black. I feel empty, wrung out. A light goes on in the hallway, filtering under my bedroom door. I hear movement in the corridor outside. Starr’s tail thumps excitedly against my door. My mother is preparing to do the evening dog walk. I hear that she has the company of both my brothers tonight. I move my head to listen to their preparation. A fear flutters in my chest. Opposite my bed, the dressing table with drawers is highlighted by the hall light. The bedroom door is between the dresser and my bed. As the door closes behind the dog walking party, I tiptoe out of bed, pull a drawer of the dresser open to block entry to my room. I return to my bed, pull my blankets tight around me and close my eyes.

This story was a runner up in a short story competition in 2019.

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A Reiki master, passionate about crystal and energy healing and teaching others to harness the power.

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Maria Barry

Maria Barry

A Reiki master, passionate about crystal and energy healing and teaching others to harness the power.

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