• Vol. 05
  • Chapter 11
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Gas Mask 1

‘We weren’t hurt,’ my sister says. ‘No one starved us or locked us in basements. To be honest, your unhappy childhood "poor me" thing goes a bit too far.’ I stare at her. There’s only two years between us but it often seems we lived totally different lives on different planets. ‘Nothing was normal,’ I say. ‘Give me an example,’ she replies, biting her nails before spitting out what I guess is a cuticle. ‘And wouldn’t that have been a bit… boring.’

I’m six years old, my sister is eight, and we are crying too hard to eat our breakfast. Not that there’s much to eat. My father has gone out into the garden and picked up windfall apples. I can see a worm in the one I already know will be mine. ‘Mum told me she’d make me an outfit,’ my sister wails. ‘She knew it was fancy dress day at school. She promised.’ I can see Dad looking round the kitchen and then he starts to laugh.

Our teacher says our outfits are very creative and that we deserve a special prize. ‘Smelly medals,’ Louise Foundry whispers loudly enough for everyone to hear. We waddle up to the front of the assembly. My sister is wearing a bin bag with two holes cut out, but I have the whole plastic bin over me. My sister has to guide me otherwise I bang into someone and they scream that I stink. It’s dark inside the bin, and I’m sure it’s full of the worms from the windfalls we threw away. ‘Get your gas masks,’ someone shouts from the back and the nicknames – Gas Mask 1 and Gas Mask 2 – stick for the rest of our schooldays.

‘I would have been happy with boring,’ I tell my sister now, but she isn’t listening. As she always does in times of stress, she’s climbed on top of the plinth her husband built her, and she indicates that I should wind her up. I hate this, but I do it because after that assembly, the one where we got medals for our rubbish costumes, she refused to let me take off my bin. Instead, she spent the rest of the day with me, escorting me safely around.


Gas Mask 1

‘Don’t let them spot weakness,’ she’d hiss. ‘Make them think we’re happy.’ Later at home, she told my father – over a supper of nettles and blackberries – about our medals.‘Your mother will be so pleased,’ he says, smiling for the first time in ages. I look around as if expecting Mum to walk in the door. ‘When she’s back,’ he adds quickly.

As I leave my sister’s house, the sound of a mechanised orchestra drifts out of the open window. I try not to see my sister turning and turning round on the plinth. She’s part of the machine, she’s even wearing a gas mask. ‘Make them think we’re happy,’ I whisper, going back to my boring life.