(published 2nd July 2018)
All I can hear is their laughter, in the next room, probably giggling with each other about something silly old mummy has done today. Turning up the television, trying to get the news programme to drown out their nattering. Those hiccups of giggles from Sophie make me smile – I haven’t heard her laugh for a long time. Only Frank knows how to make her laugh. I’m the one who dabs away the blood, soothe the tears, dashing between rooms with trays of food, deal with doctors. Simmer the tantrums.
Rising out of the chair, pulling the dressing gown’s tie tighter around my middle. The fluffy fabric matches the beige walls. Their laughter lures me away from the television.
Levers and pulleys dangle from the ceiling with the dining room furniture pushed up against the walls. Sophie’s bed looks out across the garden and Frank’s shed, so she can see her dad work on his latest idea.
Buckles and braces, operations and therapy but Sophie’s legs weren’t meant for walking. Doctors mumbled their diagnosis and were mute about cures. When she was a toddler, refusing to use her legs, she would drag herself round, wiggling out of my arms.
“Mamma, these legs don’t belong to me.”
“They’re attached to your body,” I used to say, stroking Sophie’s curly hair.
“No, mine are having adventures.”
“Oh Soph, you’re a silly sausage.”
She didn’t laugh but stared. Her brown eyes were almost black. She only laughed when Frank called her silly names.
Lingering in the doorway, watching Sophie and Frank, who’s perched on a dining room chair, watching a bird hopping on the patio, stabbing its beak into bread chunks. Her eyes shine when he’s in the room, he can hold her attention.
“Sorry love, didn’t see you there,” Frank says.
Sophie’s smile falls into neutral. Interrupting their secret club but I don’t feel guilty.
“I was just seeing if anyone wants a drink?” I say because saying something else doesn’t seem right.
Frank was the one who came up with the idea of putting their daughter’s bedroom in the dining room so she could watch the birds splashing in the birdbath, see the seasons change, remove her away from the temptations of television. He had all of the good ideas – creating scaffolding around her legs, a supercharged wheelchair robotic walking sticks. Yet, I’m dabbing away the blood, soothing the tears, dashing with trays of food, dealing with doctors and therapists, having to find ways to top up the bank account.
“Dad’s got a fix,” Sophie said, smiling. Her eyes sparkled.
Edging myself into the room, sitting on the edge of the bed, reaching for her hand, ready to soothe her as Frank will let her down, again. Sophie hasn’t spoken to me all week, and sits there in the mornings, gazing out of the window or staring past me. She never calls out in pain, answers with grunts, spending all day waiting for Frank to come back from the shed. She’d only talk about the adventures she’d have when her legs were fixed.
I tried to leave, not once – several times, getting as far as the end of the street before the guilt lassoed me back to the front door. Honestly, I couldn’t take another one of Frank’s ideas. Not today. Not after the phone call from my boss. Years of running late, leaving early, last minute days off. They had found someone else looking for a career not a job. Like me from the old days. My career marching onwards without me. I do love her. I’m always tense, ready to spring into action – no point starting a book or watching a film, waiting for a doctor to call, shouting coming from the shed, medical supply deliveries. It never used to be like this – giggle, reading books together, singing ABBA and knitting scarves.
Frank stands up, brushes off the crumbs from the cake I had baked for a cake sale, and gives a big grin. The type of smile which means I would need to sort out another mess caused by him.
“Soph’s right, the wings are ready.”
Four years of sourcing feathers, building the frame, making the electronics work. At first, I thought it was just another of his ideas. Our late-night chats where I would tell him about the ignorant consultant, the rude social worker, Sophie’s moods but he’d turn it round, tell me he could fix everything. I thought he meant coming to the appointments but then told me the plan – wings big enough to lift Sophie, winch her away from gravity, lift her into the sky. All of the envelopes, containing demands for money, with rough sketches of ways to fix his little girl, left abandoned around the house but this idea stuck.
Days off work, waiting for deliveries of feathers, bags and bags, piled in the living room. Silver and shimmering in the sun, poking through the plastic. Constant sneezing with the windows wide open to get the smell of birds out of the house. Van after van, bring more bags. Huge metal frame, carried by three men had to be squeezed through the house, and into the shed. Sophie clapped from her bed. I was running around scrubbing dirty foot prints off the floor.
“I’ve given up my job so I can concentrate on helping Soph,” Frank said, while they laid in the bed.
“I could ask my boss for more hours.”
“When will you fit that into your time?”
“Wouldn’t you go to the hospital?” I pull myself up, so I’m sitting over Frank.
“I need to fix Sophie, and I’m not dealing with those amateurs,” he said turning over. His back facing me.
The garage sale only left us with small change, the computer was taken in exchange for the unpaid energy bill, the sofa and the family heirloom coffee table were sold to a young couple. The leak in the loft ruined the ceiling in Sophie’s old bedroom. I prepared dinner while he was soldering, and swearing. Cocooned in a bubble of worry but Sophie and Frank were oblivious.
“It’s not going to work,” he would whisper while I stirred the soup on the stove. The condensation from the hob left droplets on his glasses. “You’ll need to tell her.”
I waited as long as I could, hoping he would change his mind but she knew something was wrong. He wasn’t getting out of bed, wasn’t heading to the shed, didn’t come and see her. Being awkward with her breakfast, spilling juice across her duvet, laughing, clicking her fingers at me as if I were her slave.
“When my legs work then I’m going to be able to run away,” she said, not shuffling over so I could pull off the bedsheet.
Pushing her book on the floor. I stepped over the crinkled pages and broken spine.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said I’m going to run away.”
Trying to fluff the pillows, trying to keep the smile frozen on my face.
“And I’ll never come back because I’m sick of these walls, of this bed, of you.”
The remote flew past my head.
“Your legs are never going to work,” I said, and slammed the door behind me, muffling the screaming. I hid upstairs, the guilt nibbling away at me, trying to block out her cries of ‘mum’ every so often.
“I can’t believe you said that,” Frank said, on the other side of the door because he wasn’t allowed in either.
“I did it for you,” but I doubt he heard me whisper.
At least it got him back in the shed.
Unpaid bills, friends slowly stopped coming over, an overgrown garden and neighbours tutting on the streets. I couldn’t leave the house because I knew everyone was speaking about us. Bailiffs on the doorstep, me hiding in the dining with Sophie, telling her not to make a noise, hoping Frank didn’t wander out of the shed and open the front door.
Even at the hospital I would checking over my shoulder as I pushed her wheelchair. I didn’t tell the doctors about Frank’s ideas. Social workers would appear and they would see our bare house, threadbare clothes, empty kitchen cupboards.
There were days where I thought the authorities turning up would be a good idea. Like today.
“We’re going to the park in the morning,” Sophie says, looking at Frank. That’s when I see her yellow dress with the sequins is hanging on the front of the wardrobe.
No invite for me.
Giving her a hug, kissing the top of her head.
I know she’s going to fly too near the sun.
Jessica Patient has recently finished redrafting her novel, and is now trying to make herself sit down and write the next one. She has had several short stories published over the past few years and the links for these can be found on her blog. She lives here on the internet: www.writerslittlehelper.blogspot.com