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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Three Nov-Dec 2023.
Finger, story by Sarah Day.
She sat with her face close to the glass, aware but unmindful of the striped light and shadow cast by the avenue of ash and elms upon her. She was conscious of the early spring sunshine only in so far as her legs under her frock were bare to their ankle socks and lace-up shoes and that the fabric of cotton was lighter than wool. There was a cool, draughty freedom about her upper thighs and forearms. The car smelt of leather and petrol plus the acrid memory of chicken manure. She blinked repetitively in the flickering light. They drove past a farmhand on his bicycle, a bundle of wood balanced on his handlebars. Then a horse pulling a cart piled high with hay.
Wur’s ‘e takin’ tha’ then? Her father, at the wheel, wondered aloud to himself.
A motorbike could be heard in the distance heading towards them, the grey speck of its rider growing larger, then flashing by in a blur under her nose. To all that passed she was oblivious. A question worried itself at her insides like a rough seam of leather inside her shoe, distracting, abrasive, reddening the smooth white skin beneath her ankle bone until it became sore, then worsening into a nastier wound, bleeding a little and swelling its watery blister beneath the skin.
Why had Anne, her four-year-old sister, remained silent? Why, on the slow three-mile road between Wrightington and Standish, had she not mentioned, signalled, or bawled to anyone else in the car, that her finger was trapped in the heavy door? Not a whisper, even to Mary who was squeezed up to her for the whole journey. A wonder Mary hadn’t seen, she would’ve called out. She would’ve stopped the car. Anne must have hidden her poor hand.
Another cyclist pedalled by. Now the avenue rose out of the dale and into open farmland with its flat faced, greystone houses.
Miriam, still gazing through the window, raised her shoulders and let them fall. Her thoughts would not let go of that finger. Normally small and brown, it had puffed up and turned greyly purple by the time anyone had paid attention to it. It didn’t look like a part of her sister anymore. She could see it now, as her father had opened the door. Before he had seen it:
C’mon Anne, we ’avn’t got all day –
The way it had travelled all the way to Standish, trapped, when the rest of the hand had been inside the car, made her feel sad. And anxious too. She drew her shoulders up and down again. Twisted her face from side to side. Would passers-by have noticed what had happened? The opinions of others had become more important over recent months. Miss Phelps, the new housekeeper, talked a lot about the opinions of others. Not long ago Miriam’s world had been simpler. There was home: mother, father, sisters, the farm labourers. Then school, with friends, teachers, the lovely of feel of French vocabulary and Latin conjugations in her mouth, always new words to bring home and share, like algebra that came from the Arabic al-jabra: ‘the reunion of broken parts’ her teacher had said. Then there were her aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the Rector. Everyone, everything in their place, contained, enclosed. Or so she realised now, looking back, nearly half a year on. It had all been simpler, then.
What did she think about before, walking to school with Frances and Joan? What did she used to talk about?…the black runt in the sheepdog’s litter that died in the night; haymaking; toffee-making for bonfire night? She didn’t know. They sang or they skipped, they chanted cheeky rhymes about the lover of the king:
Who’s that walking down the street?
Mrs Simpson’s sweaty feet.
She’s been married twice before,
Now she’s knocking on Edward’s door.
They’d laugh aloud, leaning across one-another’s path as they sang. Or they’d talk about the French teacher whom they all adored, and imitated in unison with outstretched arms:
Take all ze fleurs from ze walls and put them in ze vases or out in ze garden where zey belong.
They fell about in hilarity as they toiled up Parbold Hill.
Their conversation had been mostly about school. The Art of Speech teacher, palms beneath her large bosom, drilled them each morning to lengthen their Lancashire vowels, entreating them with an expression of disdain, not to speak ‘broad’. The girls imitated her too, on their walks to school, holding in their collective breaths from time to time to enunciate, in back-of-the-throat Queen’s English:
A fine large barge is passing slow,
A barge as large drifts on below.
They hardly ripple as they pass –
she, Miriam, still joined in, going through the motions of mirth as they chorused the long aahs in the final line:
The water smooth and calm as glass.
But inside it wasn’t funny anymore.
Six months ago while she walked alongside a farm worker as they followed the tractor with its dibbler, her thoughts might have meandered between the shape of the seed potato they were planting – sometimes spuds looked like faces, sometimes they looked like rude parts – to keeping up with the fellow beside her, or to her Latin verbs which she must learn for homework…to the black pots in the scullery which needed to be washed before tea.
Six months ago, assisting with the Saturday baking, she might have grated farm butter into the flour for pastry in peaceable silence beside her grandmother who was peeling or coring russet apples for filling; or, buying a ha’penny of aniseed balls at Mrs Scanlon’s little shop on the main street across from school, observe the accuracy with which the shopkeeper predicted the balance on the scales, scooping the aniseed balls with one action only and getting it right, to a single sweet, every time.
Mrs Scanlon’s hands were smooth and pale and small, like a child’s, quite unlike the hands of the women in her own family that were rougher and broader from hard work, more like men’s. The aniseed balls slid like liquid through the mouth of the triangular tin basin on the balance, into the little brown paper bag. Miriam never tired of the sight nor the lovely knocking sound they made together. Nor the sweet fennel smell that made her mouth water.
Things were different now. The present moment – of walking to school with her friends; or working with a farm hand; or buying sweets – had been put aside somehow. Each moment had become secondary to her preoccupation with what was going on in the minds of whoever she was with.
She stood a little apart from Joan and Frances as they walked to school; she thought they might prefer that. She wondered if they thought her odd now, different from what she had been and certainly a lot different from them now. They never said anything, and they never asked questions. That, in itself, made her more suspicious that they were holding back from her. And they were her best friends. What of all the other girls in her form? It was hard to pay attention to what was going on anymore.
As the skipping rope lifted its swift, rhythmical pothook into the air then slapped loosely and briefly beneath her feet, her attention was far from the rope or the girls who turned it. The voices of all the others waiting in line had once thronged and mingled, lifting her up, up, in a delirious trance of cheer. Nothing else had existed but that double-skip up and the downward beat every second syllable.
Charlie Chaplin went to France
To teach the ladies how to dance.
First the heel, then the toe,
Then the splits, and around you go!
Salute to the Captain,
Bow to the Queen,
And turn your back on the Nazi submarine!
Time stood still inside the turning rope and the chanting ring of schoolgirl voices. Now when she skipped, she felt alone. Had the girls in the queue always stood back as if observing her? She thought not. Were the girls at the end of the rope turning the handles more quickly? Her legs didn’t seem to lift as high. Her own voice had no load. When she skipped now, she felt that she was in the queue remarking, like the other girls, on her own strangeness. She no longer felt the static calm inside the turning rope.
Even the farm hands whom she’d always liked, Tom with his schoolboy face and forever teasing, and Dan, whose wrists always looked cold, sticking out too far from his jacket, even Tom and Dan, kind and helpful and friendly now looked at her differently, sizing her up as if they felt sorry for her. That was awful, too horrible to think of. She didn’t want anyone to pity her.
She turned her head away from the window and stole a glance across her other two sisters, at Anne’s left hand in its white bandage. It rested, palm up, inside her right hand. Anne was not tall enough yet to see through the window. She looked quietly down towards her feet. She was wearing new shoes. They had a strap and a button to fasten them. They were brown. She wasn’t used to wearing new shoes, mostly she inherited her sisters’ hand-me-downs. Miriam hoped she was thinking how nice they looked with their little blue buttons. She hoped she wasn’t thinking about what Doctor Kirkby had said, about the possibility of losing her little finger. She had to blink back tears at the thought of Anne’s small hand missing a finger. It was even worse if she thought of the lost finger, all on its own. Forever.
She’d better stop. Anne wasn’t crying, why should she herself? She was eleven, Anne was nearly four. The three sisters sat upright in a row in the back seat of the car. She looked at Mary’s solemn face, smiled at her, then called softly:
Her little sister looked up. She was oddly calm; pale though.
Annie, you can sleep in my bed tonight.
Anne smiled, pleased, then turned back in the direction of her shoes.
It was a miracle that she was so calm, that she could smile. A nip in the scissor hinge or in any of the outdoor machinery could hurt for an age. Even with the aspirin powder she had been given Miriam knew that Anne’s hand would be hurting more than anything she herself had ever felt. Why on earth had she kept quiet? The question gnawed at her. Her stomach ached with it. What would her mother do?
She straightened her shoulders again suddenly and looked at her father as if he might have heard this question. She looked at her sisters. Had they? Now her stomach felt sick as well as sore. The headmistress at school occasionally said that she could see children’s thoughts on their faces. The time last year, when Dora Kiek’s lunch had gone missing, and no-one would confess. It had been terrible, sitting in their wooden forms, instructed to look up into the headmistress’s eyes as she walked slowly round the class. Miriam felt sure that she’d looked guilty though she’d never stolen a thing and never would. What if her father had seen that thought now? If he’d been looking into the rear-vision mirror at just that moment?
The day he came home, after he’d driven their mother away to the hospital, he’d called his daughters to him. He’d spoken in an unfamiliar voice, angry, she’d thought. He’d said that they must never mention her again, not to him, not to each other. That they must forget her. That they’d be better off without her. She’d be all right where she was now, he’d said. She’d be better off too with nurses to look after her.
They’d all be better off, he’d said again. Always lying in bed like she did. Hardly talking. If he heard them mention their mother, it would upset him. He’d have to punish them. They were not to talk about her. They were not to think about her anymore. She had brought shame on them all. The sooner they forgot her, the better. Never ever mention the word ‘Mother’ again, he’d said. On that first night, he’d shed a tear, again, for his own mother who’d died when he was only hours old. They’d heard the story many times, before and since. Tough as he was, he always got a moist eye when he mentioned his mother.
They were nearing home now. The ashes and elms had given way to hawthorn hedges. The farm hands were bringing the cows in to the parlour for milking. The sheepdog, Jock, had run down to the gate to meet them and was barking as he spun in a whirl. She had put the lamb on the range before they left and built up the fire. The rice pudding was in the slow side cooker, she’d save the skin for Anne. The potatoes were peeled. She had only to wash and peel the carrots and cut the cabbage. Tea would be ready in less than half an hour. There’d be time for her Latin homework later if her father didn’t find her another job outside. Latin. Algebra. French. Physics. English. It made her feel better just saying those words.
© Sarah Day
Sarah Day’s books have won the Queensland Premier’s and ACT poetry prizes, and been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s, NSW, and Tasmanian Premier’s awards. Her story “In the Dark” won the Alan Marshall Prize. She has taught creative writing to year 12 students for twenty years, has collaborated with musicians, and judged national poetry, fiction, and nature-writing competitions. Her ninth collection, Slack Tide, was published late last year.