Read an Excerpt
“Ada! Get back from that window!” Mam’s voice, shouting. Mam’s arm, grabbing mine, yanking me so I toppled off my chair and fell hard to the floor.
“I was only saying hello to Stephen White.” I knew better than to talk back, but sometimes my mouth was faster than my brain. I’d become a fighter, that summer.
Mam smacked me. Hard. My head snapped back against the chair leg and for a moment I saw stars. “Don’t you be talkin’ to nobody!” Mam said. “I let you look out that window out a’ the kindness of my heart, but I’ll board it over if you go stickin’ your nose out, much less talkin’ to anyone!”
“Jamie’s out there,” I mumbled.
“And why shouldn’t he be?” Mam said. “He ain’t a cripple. Not like you.”
I clamped my lips over what I might have said next, and shook my head to clear it. Then I saw the smear of blood on the floor. Oh, mercy. I hadn’t cleaned it all up from this afternoon. If Mam saw it, she’d put two and two together, fast. Then I’d be in the soup for sure. I slid over until my bottom covered the bloodstain, and I curled my bad foot beneath me.
“You’d better be making my tea,” Mam said. She sat on the edge of the bed and peeled off her stockings, wiggling her two good feet near my face. “I’m off to work in a bit.”
“Yes, Mam.” I pushed my window chair sideways to hide the blood. I crawled across the floor, keeping my scabbed-over bad foot out of Mam’s line of sight. I pulled myself onto our second chair, lit the gas ring, and put the kettle on.
“Cut me some bread and dripping,” Mam said. “Get some for your brother too.” She laughed. “And, if there’s any left, you can throw it out the window. See if Stephen White would like your dinner. How’d you like that?”
I didn’t say anything. I cut two thick slices off the bread and shoved the rest behind the sink. Jamie wouldn’t come home until after Mam left anyhow, and he’d always share whatever food there was with me.
When the tea was ready Mam came to get her mug. “I see that look in your eyes, my girl,” she said. “Don’t start thinking you can cross me. You’re lucky I put up with you as it is. You’ve no idea how much worse things can be.”
I had poured myself a mug of tea too. I took a deep swallow, and felt the hot liquid scald a trail clear down to my gut. Mam wasn’t kidding. But then, neither was I.
There are all kinds of wars.
This story I’m telling starts out four years ago, at the beginning of the summer of 1939. England stood on the edge of another Great War then, the war we’re in the middle of now. Most people were afraid. I was ten years old (though I didn’t know my age at the time), and while I’d heard of Hitler—little bits and pieces and swear words that floated from the lane to my third-floor window—I wasn’t the least concerned about him or any other war fought between nations. You’d think from what I’ve already told you that I was at war with my mother, but my first war, the one I waged that June, was between my brother and me.
Jamie had a mop of dirt-brown hair, the eyes of an angel, and the soul of an imp. Mam said he was six years old, and would have to start school in the fall. Unlike me, he had strong legs, and two sound feet on the ends of them. He used them to run away from me.
I dreaded being alone.
Our flat was one room on the third floor above the pub where Mam worked nights. In the mornings Mam slept late, and it was my job to get Jamie something to eat and keep him quiet until she was ready to wake up. Then Mam usually went out, to shop or talk to women in the lane; sometimes she took Jamie with her, but mostly not. In the evenings Mam went to work, and I fed Jamie tea and sang to him and put him to sleep, and I’d been doing all that for as long as I could remember, from the days when Jamie still wore diapers and was too small to use the pot.
We played games and sang songs and watched the world out the window—the iceman and his cart, the rag-and-bone man and his shaggy pony, the men coming home from the docks in the evenings, and the women hanging out wash and talking on the stoops. The children of the lane skipping rope and playing tag.
I could have gotten down the stairs, even then. I could have crawled, or scooted on my bottom. I wasn’t helpless. But the one time I did venture outdoors, Mam found out, and beat me until my shoulders bled. “You’re nobbut a disgrace!” she screamed. “A monster, with that ugly foot! You think I want the world seeing my shame?” She threatened to board over my window if I went downstairs again. That was always her threat to me.
My right foot was small and twisted, so that the bottom pointed skyward, all the toes in the air, and what should have been the top touched the ground. The ankle didn’t work right, of course, and it hurt whenever I put weight on it, so for most of my life I never did. I was good at crawling. I didn’t protest staying in one room so long as it held both Jamie and me. But as Jamie grew older he wanted to be with the other children, playing in the street. “Why shouldn’t he?” Mam said. “He’s normal enough.” To Jamie she said, “You’re not like Ada. You can go wherever you like.”
“He can’t,” I said. “He has to stay where I can see him.”
At first he did, but then he made friends with a gang of boys and went running out of sight all day. He came home with stories about the docks on the River Thames, where big ships unloaded cargo from around the world. He told me about trains, and warehouses bigger than our whole block of flats. He’d seen St. Mary’s, the church by whose bells I marked time. As the summer days grew longer he stayed out later and later, until he came home hours after Mam left. He was gone all the time, and Mam didn’t care.
My room was a prison. I could hardly bear the heat and the quiet and the emptiness.
I tried everything to make Jamie stay. I barred the door so he couldn’t get out, but he was already stronger than me. I begged and pleaded with Mam. I threatened Jamie, and then one hot day I tied his hands and feet while he was sleeping. I would make him stay with me.
Jamie woke up. He didn’t scream or shout. He thrashed once, and then he lay helpless, looking at me.
Tears slid down his cheeks.
I untied him as quickly as I could. I felt like a monster. He had a red mark on his wrist from where I’d pulled the string too tight.
“I won’t do it again,” I said. “I promise. I’ll never do that again.”
Still his tears flowed. I understood. In all my life I’d never hurt Jamie. I’d never hit him, not once.
Now I’d become like Mam.
“I’ll stay inside,” he whispered.
“No,” I said. “No. You don’t need to. But have some tea before you leave.” I gave him a mug, and a piece of bread and dripping. It was just the two of us that morning, Mam gone I don’t know where. I patted Jamie’s head, and kissed the top of it, and sang him a song, and did all I could to make him smile. “Pretty soon you’ll be going to school anyhow,” I said, astonished that I hadn’t fully realized this before. “You’ll be gone all day then, but I’ll be okay. I’m going to fix things so I’ll be okay.” I coaxed him into going out to play, and I waved to him from the window.
Then I did what I should have done to start with. I taught myself to walk.
If I could walk, maybe Mam wouldn’t be so ashamed of me. Maybe we could disguise my crippled foot. Maybe I could leave the room, and stay with Jamie, or at least go to him if he needed me.
That’s what happened, though not the way I thought it would. In the end it was the combination of the two, the end of my little war against Jamie, and the start of the big war, Hitler’s war, that set me free.
I began that very day. I pulled myself up to the seat of my chair, and I put both feet onto the floor. My good left foot. My bad right one. I straightened my knees, and, grasping the back of the chair, I stood.
I want you to understand what the problem was. I could stand, of course. I could hop, one-footed, if I wished to. But I was far faster on my hands and knees, and our flat was so small that I didn’t bother to stand straight very often. My leg muscles, particularly in my right leg, weren’t used to it. My back felt weak. But all that was secondary. If the only thing I’d had to do was stand upright, I would have been fine.
To walk I had to put my bad foot to the ground. I had to put all my weight on it, and pick my other foot off the ground, and not fall down from my lack of balance or from the searing pain.
I stood by the chair that first day, wobbling. I slowly shifted some of my weight from my left foot to my right. I gasped.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d been walking all along. Maybe the little curled-up bones in my ankle would have been used to it. Maybe the thin skin covering them would have been tougher.
Maybe. But I’d never know, and none of this standing business was getting me any closer to Jamie. I let go of the chair. I swung my bad foot out. I pushed my body forward. Pain stabbed my ankle like a knife. I fell down.
Up. Grab the chair. Steady myself. Step forward. Fall down. Up. Try again. Good foot forward first this time. A quick gasp, a swinging of the bad foot, and then—crash.
The skin on the bottom of my bad foot ripped. Blood smeared across the floor. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. I dropped to my knees, shaking, and I got a rag and wiped up the mess.
That was the first day. The second day was worse. The second day my good foot and leg hurt too. It was hard to straighten my legs. I had bruises on my knees from falling, and the sores on my bad foot hadn’t healed. The second day all I did was stand, holding the chair. I stood while I looked out my window. I practiced moving my weight from one foot to the other. Then I lay down on the bed and sobbed from the hurt and from exhaustion.
I kept it secret, of course. I didn’t want Mam to know until I was good at walking, and I didn’t trust Jamie not to tell her. I suppose I could have shouted the news down to the street, but what good would that have done? I watched people out my window every day, and sometimes I did speak to them, but while they often waved, and even said, “Hello, Ada!” they almost never really tried to speak to me.
Maybe Mam would smile at me. Maybe she’d say, “Aren’t you clever, then?”
In my mind I went further. After a hard day, when I was holding my leg on the bed and shaking from the effort of not crying more, I thought of Mam taking my hand to help me walk down the stairs. I thought of her leading me out on the street, saying to everyone, “This is Ada. This is my daughter. See, she’s not so hopeless as we thought.”
She was my mother, after all.
I imagined helping with the shopping. I imagined going to school.
“Tell me everything,” I said to Jamie, late at night. I held him on my lap near the open window. “What did you see today? What did you learn?”
“I went into a shop like you asked me,” Jamie said. “Fruit shop. Fruit everywhere. Piled up on tables, like.”
“What kind of fruit?”
“Oh—apples. And some like apples, but not quite. And round things that were orange and shiny, and some that were green—”
“You’ve got to learn the names of them,” I told him.
“Can’t,” Jamie said. “When the shop man saw me he chased me out. Said he didn’t need dirty beggars stealin’ his fruit, and he ran me off with a broom.”
“Oh, Jamie. You’re not a dirty beggar.” We had baths sometimes, when Mam got to disliking the way we smelled. “And you wouldn’t steal.”
“’Course I would,” Jamie said. He put his hand inside his shirt and pulled out one of the not-quite-apples, lumpy and yellow and soft. It was a pear, though we didn’t know it then. When we bit into it, juice ran down our chins.
I’d never tasted anything so good.
Jamie swiped a tomato the next day, but the day after that he got caught trying to take a chop from a butcher’s shop. The butcher walloped him, right on the street, and then marched him home to Mam and told her off. Mam snatched Jamie by the neck and walloped him herself. “You idiot! Stealin’ sweets is one thing! What were you wanting with a chop?”
“Ada’s hungry,” Jamie sobbed.
I was hungry. Walking was so much work, I was always hungry now. But it was the wrong thing to say, and Jamie knew it. I saw his eyes widen, afraid.
“Ada! I should have known!” Mam wheeled toward me. “Teaching your brother to steal for you? Worthless runt!” She backhanded me. I had been sitting on my chair. Without thinking, I jumped up to dodge the blow.
I was caught. I couldn’t take a step, not without giving away my secret. But Mam stared at me with a glittering eye. “Getting too big for your britches, ain’t you?” she said. “Get down on your knees and get into that cabinet.”
“No, Mam,” I said, sinking to the floor. “No. Please.”
The cabinet was a cubby under the sink. The pipe dripped sometimes, so the cabinet was always damp and smelly. Worse, roaches lived there. I didn’t mind roaches out in the open so much. I could smash them with a piece of paper and throw their bodies out the window. In the cabinet, in the dark, I couldn’t smash them. They swarmed all over me. Once one crawled into my ear.
“In you go,” Mam said, smiling.
“I’ll go,” Jamie said. “I nicked the chop.”
“Ada goes,” Mam said. She turned her slow smile toward Jamie. “Ada spends the night in the cabinet, any time I catch you stealin’ again.”
“Not the whole night,” I whispered, but of course it was.
When things got really bad I could go away inside my head. I’d always known how to do it. I could be anywhere, on my chair or in the cabinet, and I wouldn’t be able to see anything or hear anything or even feel anything. I would just be gone.
It was a good thing, but it didn’t happen fast enough. The first few minutes in the cabinet were the worst. And then, later on, my body started hurting from being so cramped. I was bigger than I used to be.
In the morning, when Mam let me out, I felt dazed and sick. When I straightened, pain shot through me, cramping pains and pins and needles down my legs and arms. I lay on the floor. Mam looked down at me. “Let that be a lesson to you,” she said. “Don’t be getting above yourself, my girl.”
I knew Mam had guessed at least part of my secret. I was getting stronger. She didn’t like it. As soon as she went out I got to my feet, and I made myself walk all the way across the room.
It was late August already. I knew it wouldn’t be long before Jamie started school. I wasn’t as afraid of Jamie leaving as I had been, but I was dreading being alone so much with Mam. But that day Jamie came home early, looking upset. “Billy White says all the kids is leaving,” he said.
Billy White was Stephen White’s little brother, and Jamie’s best friend.
Mam was getting ready for work. She leaned over to tie her shoes, grunting as she sat back up. “So they say.”
“What do you mean, leaving?” I asked.
“Leaving London,” Mam said, “on account of Hitler, and his bombs.” She looked up, at Jamie, not me. “What they say is that the city’s going to be bombed, so all the kids ought to be sent to the country, out of harm’s way. I hadn’t decided whether to send you. Suppose I might. Cheaper, one less mouth to feed.”
“What bombs?” I asked. “What country?”
Mam ignored me.
Jamie slid onto a chair and swung his feet against the rungs. He looked very small. “Billy says they’re leaving on Friday.” That was two days from now. “His mam’s buying him all new clothes.”
Mam said, “I ain’t got money for new clothes.”
“What about me?” My voice came out smaller than I liked. “Am I going? What about me?”
Mam still didn’t look at me. “’Course not. They’re sending kids to live with nice people. Who’d want you? Nobody, that’s who. Nice people don’t want to look at that foot.”
“I could stay with nasty people,” I said. “Wouldn’t be any different than living here.”
I saw the slap coming, but didn’t duck fast enough. “None of your sass,” she said. Her mouth twisted into the smile that made my insides clench. “You can’t leave. You never will. You’re stuck here, right here in this room, bombs or no.”
Jamie’s face went pale. He opened his mouth to say something, but I shook my head at him, hard, and he closed it again. When Mam left he launched himself into my arms. “Don’t worry,” I said, rocking him. I didn’t feel frightened. I felt grateful, that I’d spent my summer the way I had. “You find out where we have to go and what time we have to be there,” I said. “We’re leaving together, we are.”
In the wee hours of Friday morning, I stole Mam’s shoes.
I had to. They were the only shoes in the flat, other than Jamie’s canvas shoes, which were too small even for my bad foot. Mam’s shoes were too big, but I stuffed the toes with paper. I wrapped a rag around my bad foot. I tied the laces tight. The shoes felt strange, but I thought they would probably stay on.
Jamie looked at me in amazement. “I’ve got to take them,” I whispered. “Otherwise people’ll see my foot.”
He said, “You’re standing. You’re walking.”
My big moment, and now I hardly cared. There was too much ahead of me. “Yes,” I said. “I am.” I glanced at Mam, who lay on the bed, snoring, her back to us. Proud of me? Not bloody likely.
I slid down the stairs on my bottom. At the end of them Jamie helped me up, and we set out together into the silent early-morning streets. One step, I thought. One step at a time.
It was interesting to be at ground level. The light was tinged pink, and a faint blue haze seemed to rise off the buildings, so that everything seemed prettier than it did later in the day. A cat streaked around a corner, chasing something, probably a rat. Other than the cat, the street was empty.
I held Jamie’s hand on my right side, for support. In my left I had a paper bag with food in it, for breakfast. Jamie said we were supposed to be at his school at nine o’clock in the morning, hours ahead, but I’d figured the earlier we got away, the better. I didn’t know how long it would take me to get to the school. I didn’t want people to stare.
The street was bumpy, which I hadn’t realized from my window. Walking was harder than in our flat. The shoe helped, but by the time I’d made it to the end of the lane, my foot hurt so badly I didn’t think I could take a single step further. But I did.
“Turn here,” Jamie whispered. “It’s not far.”
Another step, and my bad foot twisted. I fell, gasping. Jamie knelt beside me. “You could crawl,” he said. “S’nobody watching.”
“How much farther?” I asked him.
“Three blocks,” he said. He added, “Blocks is the buildings in between the streets. We’ve got to cross three more streets.”
I measured the distance with my eyes. Three streets. Might as well have been three miles. Three hundred miles. “Suppose I’ll crawl a bit,” I said.
But crawling on the street was a lot harder than crawling in our flat. My knees were calloused, of course, but the stones hurt, and the trash and mud weren’t pleasant either. After a block I took Jamie’s hand and hauled myself upright.
“How come you don’t walk, when you can?” Jamie asked.
“It’s new,” I said. “I learned it this summer, while you were out.”
He nodded. “I won’t tell,” he said.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. Already the world seemed huge to me. If I looked up at the tops of the buildings I felt dizzy. “We’re going to the country. Nobody minds if I walk there.” Of course that was a lie. I didn’t know anything about where we were going. I didn’t really even know what the word country meant. But Jamie gripped my hand tighter, and smiled.
The school was a brick building with an empty yard surrounded by a metal fence. We made it inside and I collapsed. We ate bread dipped in sugar. It was good.
“Did you take Mam’s sugar?” Jamie asked, wide-eyed.
I nodded. “All of it,” I said, and we laughed out loud.
The air was chilly now that we weren’t moving, and the ground felt damp. The roar of pain in my ankle subsided into a deep throbbing ache. I looked up at all the unfamiliar buildings, the scrolls and fancy brickwork, the shingles, the window frames, the birds. I didn’t notice the woman walking across the yard until Jamie poked me.
She smiled at us. “You’re here early,” she said.
One of the teachers, I supposed. I nodded and gave her a big smile in return. “Our dad dropped us off, before he had to go to work,” I said. “He said you’d take good care of us.”
The woman nodded. “And so I will,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”
When we got up, of course she noticed my limp. Limp, nothing, I was staggering, lucky to have Jamie to catch me. “You poor thing,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“I hurt it,” I said. “Just this morning.” Which was true enough.
“Will you let me look at it?” she asked.
“Oh, no,” I said, forcing myself to keep moving. “It’s getting better already.”
After that it was easy. It was the most impossible thing I’d ever done, but it was also easy. I held on to Jamie, and I kept moving forward. The yard filled with children and teachers, the teachers organized us into lines. I wouldn’t have been able to walk the half mile to the train station—I was mostly done in—but suddenly in front of me was a face I recognized. “That you, Ada?” said Stephen White.
He was the oldest of the White children; there were three girls between Stephen and Billy. The whole bunch of them had pulled up and were staring at me. They’d never seen me other than through my window.
“It’s me,” I said.
Stephen looked surprised. “I didn’t think you’d be coming,” he said. “I mean, of course you’ve got to get out of London, but our mam said they had special places for people like you.”
My mam hadn’t said anything about special places. I said, “What’dya mean, ‘people like me’?”
Stephen looked at the ground. He was taller than me, older, I figured, but not by much. “You know,” he said.
I knew. “Cripples,” I said.
He looked back at my face, startled. “No,” he said. “Simple. Not right in the head. That’s what everybody says.” He said, “I didn’t even know you could talk.”
I thought of all the time I spent at my window. I said, “I talk to you all the time.”
“I know you wave and jibber-jabber, but”—he looked pretty uncomfortable now—“we can’t ever really hear you, down on the street. We can’t make out what you’re saying. I didn’t know you could talk normal. And your mam says as how you’ve got to be kept locked up, for your own good.” For the first time, he looked at my feet. “You’re a cripple?”
“How’d you get here?”
“Walked,” I said. “I couldn’t let Jamie go alone.”
“Was it hard?” he asked.
I said, “Yes.”
An odd expression passed over his face, one I didn’t understand at all. “Everyone feels sorry for your mam,” he said.
There was nothing I could say to that.
Stephen said, “She know you’re gone?”
I would have lied, but Jamie piped up, “No. She said Ada was going to get bombed.”
Stephen nodded. “Don’t worry about walking to the station,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride.”
I didn’t know what he meant, but one of his little sisters smiled up at me. “He gives me rides,” she said.
I smiled back. She reminded me of Jamie. “Okay, then,” I said.
So Stephen White piggy-backed me to the station. The teacher that had given me tea thanked him for helping. We marched in a long line, and the teachers made us sing “There’ll Always Be an England.” Finally we got to the station, which was overflowing with more children than I knew existed in the world.
“Can you get onto the train all right?” Stephen asked, setting me down.
I grabbed Jamie’s shoulder. “’Course I can.”
Stephen nodded. He started to herd Billy and his sisters into a group, but then he turned back to me. “How come she keeps you locked up, if you’re not simple?”
“Because of my foot,” I said.
He shook his head. “That’s crazy,” he said.
“It’s because—because of whatever I did, to make my foot like that—”
He shook his head again. “Crazy.”
I stared at him. Crazy?
The teachers started yelling then, and we all climbed onto the train. Before the noon church bells rang, the train began to move.
We’d escaped. Mam, Hitler’s bombs, my one-room prison. Everything. Crazy or not, I was free.
The train was miserable, of course. Most of the children weren’t glad to be leaving like I was. Some cried, and one got sick in the corner of the car. The teacher assigned to our car fluttered around, trying to clean up the mess and stop boys from fighting and explain for the third or tenth or hundredth time that no, there weren’t any loos on this car, we would just have to hold it, and no, she didn’t know how much longer, no one even knew where the train was going, much less how long it would take.
No loos, nothing to drink, and we’d eaten all our bread. I poured sugar onto Jamie’s hand and he licked at it, like a cat. Meanwhile the world moved outside the windows, faster and faster. If I let my eyes unfocus, the scene blurred and ran past me. If I looked hard at one thing it stood still while I moved my head, and it became clear the train was moving, not the world.
The buildings ended and suddenly there was green. Green everywhere. Bright, vibrant, astonishing green, floating into the air toward the blue, blue sky. I stared, mesmerized. “What’s that?”
“Grass,” Jamie said.
“Grass?” He knew about this green? There wasn’t any grass on our lane, nor nothing like it that I’d ever seen. I knew green from clothing or cabbages, not from fields.
Jamie nodded. “It’s on the ground. Spikey stuff, but soft, not prickly. There’s grass in the churchyard. Round the headstones. And trees, like that over there.” He pointed out the window.
Trees were tall and thin, like stalks of celery, only giant-sized. Bursts of green on top. “When were you in a churchyard?” I asked. What’s a churchyard? I might have asked next. There was no end to the things I didn’t know.
Jamie shrugged. “St. Mary’s. Playing leapfrog on the tombstones. Rector chased us out.”
I watched the green until it started to blur. I’d been up half the night, making sure we didn’t oversleep, and now my eyelids began to settle, lower and lower, until Jamie whispered, “Ada. Ada, look.”
A girl on a pony was racing the train. She was actually on top of the pony, sitting on its back, her legs hanging one off each side. She held bits of string or something in her hands, and the strings were attached to the pony’s head. The girl was laughing, her face wide open with joy, and it was clear even to me that she meant to be on the pony. She was directing the pony, telling it what to do. Riding the pony. And the pony was running hard.
I knew ponies from the lane but had only seen them pull carts. I hadn’t known you could ride them. I hadn’t known they could go so fast.
The girl leaned forward against the pony’s flying mane. Her lips moved as though she was shouting something. Her legs thumped the pony’s sides, and the pony surged forward, faster, brown legs flying, eyes bright. They ran alongside the train as it curved around their field.
I saw a stone wall ahead of them. I gasped. They were going to hit it. They were going to be hurt. Why didn’t she stop the pony?
They jumped it. They jumped the stone wall, and kept running, while the train tracks turned away from their field.
Suddenly I could feel it, the running, the jump. The smoothness, the flying—I recognized it with my whole body, as though it was something I’d done a hundred times before. Something I loved to do. I tapped the window. “I’m going to do that,” I said.
“Why not?” I said to him.
“You walk pretty good,” he said.
I didn’t tell him that my foot hurt so bad I wasn’t sure I’d ever walk again. “Yes,” I said. “I do.”
The day got worse. It was bound to. The train stopped and started and stopped again. Hot sun poured through the windows until the air seemed to curdle. Small children cried. Bigger ones fought.
Finally we stopped at a quay, but a bossy woman standing there wouldn’t let us out. She argued with the head teacher, and then with all the other teachers, and then even with the man running the train. The teachers said we had to be let out, for the love of mercy, but the woman, who had a face like iron and a uniform like a soldier’s, only with a skirt, thumped her clipboard and refused.
“I’m to expect seventy mothers with infant children,” she said. “Not two hundred schoolchildren. It says so, here.”
“I don’t care in the least what’s written on your paper,” the head teacher spat back.
The teacher supervising our car shook her head and opened the door. “Out, all of you,” she said to us. “Loos are in the station. We’ll find you something to drink and eat. Out you go.”
Out we went, in a thundering herd. The other teachers followed, opening the doors to their cars. The iron-faced woman scowled and barked orders everyone ignored.
It was more noise and rush than I’d ever seen. It was better than fireworks.
Jamie helped me off the train. I felt stiff all over, and I had to go something desperate. “Show me how to use the loo,” I told him. Sounds funny, but it was my first real loo. At home our flat shared the one down the hall, but I just used a bucket and Mam or Jamie emptied it.
“I think I gotta use the boys’ one,” Jamie said.
“What do you mean, the boys’ one?”
“See?” He pointed at two doors. Sure enough, all the boys were going through one door, the girls through another. Only now lines snaked out the doors.
“Tell me what to do, then.”
“You pee in it, and then you flush,” he said.
“What’s flush? How do I flush?”
“There’s a handle, like, and you push it down.”
I waited my turn and then I went in and figured it out, even the flushing. There were sinks, and I splashed water onto my hot face. A girl right in front of me—the shabbiest, nastiest-looking girl I’d ever seen—was using a sink in front of my sink, which seemed odd. I frowned at her, and she frowned back.
All of a sudden I realized I was looking in a mirror.
Mam had a mirror. It hung high on the wall and I never bothered with it. I stared into this one, appalled. I’d assumed I looked like all the other girls. But my hair was clumpy, not smooth. My skin was paler than theirs, milky-white, except it also looked rather gray, especially around my neck. The dirty calluses on my knees stood out beneath my faded skirt, which suddenly seemed grubby and too small.
What could I do? I took a deep breath and staggered out. Jamie was waiting. I looked him over with newly critical eyes. He was dirtier than the other boys too. His shirt had faded into an indeterminate color and his fingernails were rimmed in black.
“We should have had baths,” I said.
Jamie shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
But it did.
At home, when I looked out my window onto the lane, across the street, three buildings to the left, on the corner, I could see a fishmonger’s shop. They got fish delivered every morning, and laid it out for sale on a thick cool piece of stone. In the summer heat, fish could go off fast, so women knew to pick through the selection carefully and chose only the freshest and the best.
That’s what we children were: fish on a slab. The teachers herded us down the street into a big building and lined us up against one wall. Men and women from the village filed past, looking to see if we were sweet and pretty and wholesome enough to take home.
That they didn’t think many of us were good value was clear from the expressions on their faces and the things they said.
“Good Lord,” one woman said, reeling away from sniffing a little girl’s hair. “They’re filthy!”
“They’ll wash,” the iron-faced woman said. She directed operations from the center of the room, clipboard still in hand. “We need to be generous. We didn’t expect so many. We’ve got to do our bit.”
“My bit don’t extend to a pack of dirty street rats,” an old man retorted. “This lot looks like they’ll murder us in our beds.”
“They’re children,” the iron-faced woman replied. “It’s not their fault what they look like.”
I looked around. The village girls handing round cups of tea were sort of shiny bright, with ribbons in their hair. They looked like they would smell nice.
“Maybe not,” another woman said. “But they’re not much like our children, are they?”
The iron-faced woman opened her mouth to argue, then shut it without saying a word. Whatever we were, we weren’t like their children, that much was clear.
“Ada,” Jamie whispered, “nobody wants you and me.”
It was true. The crowd was thinning out. Fewer and fewer children remained. The teachers pushed us together and said nice things about us. The iron-faced woman cajoled the remaining villagers.
A blue-haired old woman put her hand on Jamie’s arm. “I won’t take the girl,” she said, “but I suppose I could manage the little boy.”
“You don’t want him,” I said. “He steals. And bites. And without me to manage him he might go back to having fits.”
The woman’s mouth dropped into a soundless O. She scuttled away, and went off with somebody else’s brother.
And then the hall was empty, save the teachers, the iron woman, Jamie, and me. Mam had been right. No one would have us. We were the only ones not chosen.