Thank you to anyone still reading this. I hope I'm doing ok and please let me know if I muck up at any point. Special thanks to Maggie Smith for being such a great help with her feedback.
Moving on, here is the next chapter and I hope you enjoy it.
"What the hell happened to your hands?"
Blinking at Dickie's comment, I glanced down at the monstrosities at the ends of my arms. Three weeks after my first visit to Mrs. Fennicks' home, stings covered the backs of my hands like the red dots on dock leaves. Despite a good run under the tap, bumps as big as hill had risen on my skin and, while they had stopped stinging a while ago, they were barely given chance to heal from the ordeal of the backyard jungle before I'd go back the next day. I was beginning to wonder when they were going to drop off and crawl into a swap to evolve into some hideous new creature.
Maybe I should have been a little less hasty about finishing Mrs. Fennicks' garden.
"They don't look that good, do they?"
"Not so good? Did you get hungry and try and try to cook them?"
"Of course not, Dickie-"
"Rich." He frowned. One of his new friends had said a few days ago that "Dickie" was a daft name. "So what the hell did you do? Feed them to a tiger?" Thinking of the cat, I leaned forward to talk, barely audible over the gossips on the next table.
Once I'd explained, he rolled his eyes.
"That's you all over. Ah well, the crap you listen to, you probably have plenty to talk about," he teased. Biting my lip, I looked at the floor, trying to ignore the embarrassment burning on my cheeks. "I'm kidding! By the way, could you help me with the Shakespeare essay?" Rough translation: "Write my essay".
"Um... I'm probably going to be a bit busy,"
"Oh, come on!"
"No, I'm busy." I said quietly, barely any conviction in my voice. I'd have been a terrible police officer because every time there was a murder, I'd have been on television saying "Will you turn yourself in, Mr. Killer? Please?". Apparently I wasn't the only one who realised this, because he persisted for a good four minutes, his voice as smooth as water eroding a rock.
"I help you out, don't I? What kind of friend are you?" About three minutes later, I caved in and agreed. "All right, then." he smiled, sugar white teeth against showing before he glanced at the clock. "Better go. Told John I'd meet him in five," Before my lips could shape to fit "goodbye", he stood up and strode away, leaving me alone on the table- unless you counted Peggy Clarkson on the next table.
A few feet away, the infamous Peggy Clarkson watched me, tiger-eyes rimmed with dark makeup. Fidgeting, I blinked back. If I'm honest, I wasn't really the most reliable source on Peggy Clarkson. So I should probably tell you about Tom Harp first.
It was Tom Harp that gave me nightmares in year seven. It was Tom Harp who'd been to prison twice. It was Tom Harp put one poor teacher- a bloke in his fifties- on antidepressants, and it was Tom Harp's brother's gang that Dickie was hanging out with(they thought he was "sound", whatever that meant). As for the lone warrior with her leather jacket and short hair, I only knew that she was in the year above and had broken Tom Harp's nose. I left my slop half eaten and carried my tray to the bin before disappearing to the library.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday came and went, by which point the jungle was maybe forty percent sorted. I even discovered a path! Packing a pair of jeans and a shirt in my schoolbag became a habit to save my school uniform from the dirt and thorns, along with a few coppers for an ice lolly on my way home to numb my hands. Every afternoon, the sun whipped at my back, the hot breezer yelling in my ear: Get on with it, you stupid girl! Once or twice when the sun really roared, I would give in and pull myself over to the tree in the corner for a few blissful minutes of shady sanctuary.
Then, finally, at around five on Friday afternoon, Mrs. Fennicks said something that made me want to run over and hug her until my arms ached.
"Stop that and get yourself inside, girl. It's going to rain."
Once ordered into the living room, I wandered over to the fireplace and ran my fingers along the engraved wood, stroking the feathers of the carved sparrows and eagles and mockingbirds before I caught sight of the photo. Two little girls, one sat reclining against the tree trunk, just as I had, shadows from the branches criss-crossing her arms; above her, another girl dangled from the branches like a monkey, a grin on her face. There was an obvious resemblance between the two girls; eyes the size of toffee pennies, rum brown ringlets. As similar as two stars in a summer sky.
"Me and my sister," explained a voice behind me. Snapping around to face her, I nodded and accepted the glass being held out to me.
"Hmm. She fell down the moment after that photo was taken. Our mother told her, Don't climb up there, you'll rip your dress, you'll hurt yourself. She didn't listen. Never did. Was up there like a spider up a spout. Turned our mother grey, she did," Her mouth curled up at the edges like a faded petal, treasuring the memory.
"Hmm... So is that you under the tree?"
"That's me, yes. She used to climb up there and throw apples over the fence. Smashed the neighbor's window once. Mother chased her around with a slipper all afternoon! Never caught her, though. She'd make the eyes and get away with it." Chortling, I clapped a hand over my gob. "The eyes" were Mum's favourite strategy- whether she wanted a diamond collar or a mini-cruise, Dad melted under her gaze every time. Feeling my lips twitch into a smile, I put a hand over my mouth in case I seemed rude for smirking.
"Holy hell, what happened to your hands, girl?" she asked in a voice that was sharp, but not angry- frustrated, I suppose. Annoyed?
"It's nothing. I, um-"
"Sit down at the table," It wasn't a request. Doing as I was told, I watched her walk swiftly out of the room, her shoe tap-tapping against the wooden floor of the kitchen, the clacking shifting to a soft thud when she returned to the carpeted living room with a glass bowl of glistening water.
"Put your hands in that, it'll help the swelling a bit." Smiling, I dropped my hands into the cool water, the ripples glistening like an oasis as I did. "You should have asked for gloves,"
"I didn't want to cause a fuss, Miss,"
"You didn't want a fuss," Her eyeballs swivelled to the heavens in such a way that I could almost hear her thoughts: Lord Jesus, why did you send me this idiot? Feeling my face heat up as though I'd been smacked, I made a little "ahem" like people do when they want to change the subject.
"Have you lived here very long?"
"Since I was a girl. I've always lived here. Well, not always. I moved out for a little while when my sister married, but then I moved back in," she replied, offering no explaination. "It was the family house. My grandfather was an architect."
"Is he the one who put the lions there?"
"Yes. He loved anything wild. Birds, too, he loved birds." Her eyes shone as she spoke, the glossy memories swirling around her like music as she fiddled with the gramophone, which by some miracle still worked.
There are voices that are unlike any other; Elvis Presley, Freddie Mercury, Bob Marley. Voices that, once you hear them, can't be forgotten- voices that even a fourteen year old who knew bugger all about music could tell you was special. The lady on the grammarphone had that sort of voice; clear, powerful, with a passion that Mills and Boon couldn't wish for. Closing my eyes, I let the voice flutter around in my head for a moment. I wondered how the Victorians felt when they first saw the Crystal Palace, or how a butterfly feels when it first breaks out of its cocoon, and I couldn't imagine them feeling much different to me right then. As the song came to an end, the voice soared, loud and free as a seagull swooping across the sky. Whatever the singer was saying, I was sure that she was absolutely right.
Hearing Mrs. Fennicks chuckle, I opened my eyes again.
"Edith Piaf," she told me. "Do you speak French?" I shook my head.
"Do you, Miss?"
"No, but I looked this one up. Lavender knew French. She used to sing this type of thing for a living. She dragged me into playing the piano accompaniment." Shutting her eyes, she smiled- a flash of happiness between sentences- then opened her eyes again. "James spoke it, too." James? Perhaps that was her husband. Without thinking, I glanced at her bare, ringless hand. Mum still wore her engagement ring from time to time(diamonds went with most colours). Her wedding ring was off by the time Dad was in the ground. Was that the case for Mrs. Fennicks? Did she miss her husband? Did she love him? Had he loved her? Then again, it wasn't my business, so I asked her what the song was called instead.
"'Non! Je ne Regrette Rien'" she breathed. "No, I don't regret a thing," Without warning, her eyes dropped to the floor, and her head turned to stare at the flowers on the window sill like she was trying to hide some unknown shame. Apparently she regretted more than Miss Piaf did. "They called her the Sparrow,"
We didn't say anything else for a while- just sat there and listened to that gorgeous French woman, song after song, in a language we didn't know. Daft as it sounds, it was five before either of us said anything, and then it was,"My mum'll want me back. Night, Miss," before I slipped through the front door and back into the real world.
Two things surprised me when I got home. At the safe click of the door shutting behind me, I bent down and placed my dusty school shoes next to an pair of black, men's shoes. Blinking, I squinted at them. Now, shoes generally don't walk into random homes on their own, do they? We- me and my mum- lived alone. We had no lodger. Nobody stayed over.
Dropping my bag in the hallway with a familiar thud, I crept through to the living room, turning my head as I entered the living area to see my mum on the phone.
"... but anyway, you know how it is." Catching sight on me, her hand clenched around the phone, her knickles white and tight over the bone. "Lynn, can I have a minute?" she asked, waiting for me to sit down across the room before she continued her hushed-up conversation. "Yeah, I'll come. Saturday night, I know. Just tell her you're working late or something. Yes. All right. Good night, Tom,"