- Vol. 03
- Chapter 11
Tom-bowlerShe was like a flighty foal with long limbs hinged at knotted knees, awkward. Something fierce, though, propelled a targeted rage. I saw it.
She made me think of the warning before my only fairground pony-ride, when I offered a flat palm of apple to the hulking velvety creature I was about to scale.
Now my simple task was to engage the little girl.
'Draw her out,' they said.
I padded into the disused classroom where she sat by the wall on a child-sized chair. A useful size but the kind of chair so utilitarian its flat laminate and metal frame offered only unfriendly iciness where enveloping comfort was needed. Her legs, covered by a black crushed-velvet dress were folded underneath her, throwing out her posture so she listed over the table.
Picture books lay in front of her. Their corners were burred, covers cracked and I knew how they felt without touching them: tacky, coated over the years with whatever children have on their fingers. She closed one as I approached and flickered a glance my way. I lowered myself onto the chair opposite and turned some pages.
'Farm animals?' Too bright. 'What's your favourite?'
She moved her head from one side to the other. 'Horse.'
Tangled black bangs touched the bridge of her nose. I could see an eye like the huge tom-bowler marble I'd kept years after I'd stopped playing marbles. A fathomless brown-black watery orb. I would hold the tom-bowler up to the sun to differentiate the swirls frozen inside. Peat turf and charcoal and caramel and gold. I saw these elements in her eye. Creases fanned out under her lower lid and magnified her gaze. She looked into her lap and gathered two handfuls of velvet into whorls like plush veins over her thighs.
Who dresses a child like that?
'I like your dress. Did you choose it?' Aah, now she saw me. A foe.
She tilted to look up into my face and I made out veins suddenly charged; runnels signalling a shift. Behind the dark orbs the elements were reacting with each other, except I could only guess because I wasn't holding her up to the light. I could see the whites, though, showing the emotions buzzing and fizzing and liable to overflow.
'Watch the teeth,' the pony-ride leader had warned.
'I didn't choose it.'
Her knuckles strained and I imagined her fingernails cutting tiny crescents into her palms.
'My mother used to make me wear things, too.'
She glowered. 'That's not why we're here, is it?'
She unfolded her pale thin legs. Sinewy, scratched and bruised from climbing and skittering.
'Don't muss your dress.' I reached to smooth it. She uncoiled and her jaw locked onto my forearm. There was no pain then but I screamed. A high pitch stayed in the room marking my vulnerability. Blood and saliva pooled where the indentations looked like a dentist's chart.