Girl by Alice Clark-Platts

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When I come, I will be the favourite. She will love me best because I come after the dead. I will have black eyes and dark hair; wide-spaced features that will sit prettily in photographs. I will be different from the older one, the one who came first with rosebud cheeks and blonde curls.I will do as I’m told. I will toe the line. At school, I will try my best to fix the notions of the world into my head. But I will be pretty and people won’t expect me to fix them forever. Just long enough to set them out on paper in a hall with rows of desks and rubber-soled shoes that squeak in the silence of thought. The night before I am tested – if I am scared – I will put my exercise books underneath my pillow where the words and images will seep into my head, ready for testing the following day.

I will not be sour when the younger one arrives. Although she will be a girl, and dark-haired, like me. I will remember a word I learned that day – magnanimous – and I will sit on the window sill in the heat of the day and brush my doll’s hair calmly and quietly. No one will know that I want my mother. That I wish that her arms were around me instead of the baby.

I will walk on hot, dusty roads to school, alone under the shade of the Jacaranda trees. The older one will leave to be married. I will see her dressed in a long, white gown; her veil will fall gently about her shoulders like the waves in her hair. I will be a bridesmaid and I will never forget the exquisite joy of pulling starched, crisp material over tan-brown legs and sliding my feet into brand new shoes. I will see how the older one is respected and feted, like my mother. How marriage is right. How it is safe. To always have arms around you.

I will not cry when my mother and father tell me that we have to leave our home in Africa. I will turn to face my new life with a stout chin. And on the huge white ship that sails us away, I will fall in love for the first time. I will run away from my young sister on the sharp, polished deck; my heels tapping on the wood as I run into his arms. He will hold me close and whisper into my ear. He will wear a uniform and by being his, I will become feted myself. I will become envied.

In England, I will do as I am expected. I will go to school, but I will also learn how to make things. I will learn how to fashion a hazelnut meringue. I will learn how to roast a joint of beef, how to whip up Yorkshire puddings. I will dance well. I will maintain my waistline and curl my hair in newspaper ribbons skewing my head through the night.

I will fall in love for a second time. And this time I will marry. I will not complain that there is no money for a fabulous reception or honeymoon. I will smile and wave in my own white dress and I will sink into those arms that have chosen me above all others. When I am married, I will not mind that my husband stays up late to talk to my youngest sister. I will not be expected to know about politics or literature. I will clear the glasses and the ashtrays and I will gently sleep in my armchair as they talk long into the night.

I will not mind uprooting myself from my home, where I am safe, to a place far north of where I know. I will remember that my husband’s work is paramount and that although we may be trying for a baby, it is not the move which means this fails. I will buy a black and white dog and move into a cottage with a green ford outside the door which splashes against my wellington boots as I stumble through it in biting wind and rain.

I will decide with my husband to adopt a child.

I will welcome this child into my home. The child will have a broken leg and curly black hair. He will look unaccountably like my husband and I, as he trips across the sitting room rug. He will play with the ornaments in the fireplace. He will love racing cars. When he arrives though, for a reason to which I will never know the answer, I will fall pregnant. And my youngest will come with a bonny smile and blonde, fat curls. My husband will continue to do well and we will move to a bigger house. The house will have room for many people. I will look around it as the boys play and be at once content and terrified.

I will be a perfect hostess. I will arrange olives and cocktail sticks with tiny pickled onions on in neat rows. I will cook wonderful meals and, when they are eaten, I will be toasted. I will do a dance around the sitting room the day I am given an electric dishwasher.

My husband will start to belittle me. I will try not to, but I will remember those nights with my youngest sister and how quiet I was. I will hate myself for not speaking then, for being so mute.

My oldest sister will die. I will have to be very busy when this happens so that I can carry on with things. I will take in her children. I will show them that life must go on. At some point here, my husband will stop putting his arms around me but I will not talk about it. I will go on as normal.

My mother will become ill and I will take her in to my large house, along with my sister’s children. The large house will become noisy and boisterous. It will pinch at me until I yell. I will try not to yell. I will keep quiet. I will fashion a look which will tell people that I am displeased. My youngest sister will come with her own child. She will ignore my routines and my rules. She will make fun of my desserts. She will try and turn my mother against me. She will be more fun. But I will be the one who empties the commode for my mother.

I will have an affair. I will, by then, have got involved with the parent committee at my children’s school. This (the committee) will consume me for many years. The affair will bring my husband back to me, his arms once again around me. The committee will give me a sense of belonging. I will be part of the ship’s crew again; not the captain of my large house.

Sometimes, I will hate my large house.

My mother will die. I will stand at her grave with my youngest sister. We will be arm in arm, watching a thousand flowers wilt in the Yorkshire rain.

My husband will push on with his career and I will move with him down to London where our boys will diverge. The oldest will instinctively know how much I love his brother above all others. He will not understand that this is not my fault. Looking at his brother is like staring at the dazzle from the sun. You just can’t help yourself.

The boys will marry, eventually. And I will go to their weddings in beautiful outfits and smile and smile and smile. I will try to like their wives. I will try so hard for my youngest boy that my back will freeze in agony leaving me unable to stand at his wedding. It will take me a long time to recover from the loss of him. I will do many things to distract myself. I will take an interest in cruises with my husband. I will collect friends like stamps.

I will start to forget things. Small things: the telling of a story too many times; the end of the shopping list; the date for the car’s MOT. I will feel a mysterious rage towards people. I will feel angry at how I am perceived. My hair will begin to thin and my waistline expand. I will look in the mirror one day and see that I am, at last, old.

My boys will grow distant from me as their families grow. Their wives will turn the boys around, their backs in place of where their childish grins once were. I will start to enjoy drinking wine. I will like it every night from sun down.

My husband will still belittle me. Only once, will he defend me. But the attack this is manifested in will estrange my youngest sister from me forever. I will be so relieved at the demonstration of his love though, that I will take on his attack as if it were my own. Then I will forget why it started in the first place. This will make me sad.

But I will keep on forgetting. I will forget the brilliance of African sunlight; the muddy paws of the black and white dog; the smell of the roast as it’s brought to the table; the jokes I have made and the pride in hearing the laughter. I will forget the soft blonde curls of my boy, his gaze up to me before he learned to leave me; I will forget the feel of a new dress and new shoes, my armour against the world; the arms of my husband around me; the love I gave to my mother and sisters.

I will forget.

***

Alice Clark-PlattsAlice Clark-Platts is a former human rights lawyer who has worked on cases involving Winnie Mandela and the rapper Snoop Dogg. Her first DI Erica Martin novel, BITTER FRUITS, was published by Penguin Random House in 2015 and the next novel in the series will be published this year. Alice has won prizes for her fiction and has had short stories published in various anthologies. She is the founder of The Singapore Writers’ Group and lives in Singapore with her husband and two young daughters.

  • “Girl” image from www.pixabay.com