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The doorbell rings twice. Should I bother? Unwinding myself from these blankets, I slip off the window ledge where I’ve been watching a squirrel eat a white camellia. It’s probably just our neighbour, whose name I never remember. Hardly anyone knows we’re here, these three passed years. I turn my ear to the doorframe, my mother’s voice static, anxious, then the rumble of something male. Could it be? No, not him. Mama once explained, they wouldn’t let him out just like that. Anyway, I’m supposed to be forgetting.
But I’m not imagining things, there’s a man on the threshold. Soft growl of the old language, the odd English word thrown in. Speaking corrupted, like mama said I mustn’t. Turn a corner to the stairs. She’s getting panicked now, I’ll creep down and see. Even my childish weight – the floorboard under the carpet releases a slow roar. They look up, mama and the tall man in brown corduroy. My godfather?
‘Neskatila!’ he calls with more tenderness than I remember. ‘Girlie.’ The rub of old familiarity, what he used to call me. Though he wasn’t that interested in me then, when we were in the old house and aitatxo – daddy – was here. I didn’t like him much either. He’d turn my gentle dad into a stranger. The pair of them backslapping, swearing at the football, knocking over glasses. Sent me startled, right to the top of the house.
In this three-years new place, he is different. Low and honeyed, to mama’s pitiful high. He crouches, wags his finger. ‘Me?’ I look around; of course, there’s nothing else at my level. I descend one step, another step. Close, I notice the creased skin by his dark eyes. From laughing or flying into the sun – a pilot, I remember. Closer still, wetly combed, smelling like a pine forest in spring.
‘Neskatila, wouldn’t you like to go on a daytrip?’ Wouldn’t I? A smile wavers at my gums, spit puddling on my tongue. ‘With me?’ His wink an arrow, he means the two of us. Swallow. Fingerprint, a stray hair, cold metal behind my ear. A chocolate coin spins to the floor. I stoop to gather it. Mama insists he doesn’t have to bother. I plead and kick my heels. Surprising – I’m not a child who asks for things, she is always saying, as happy playing by myself. But not today, not with this enchanter. His hands lightly, my shoulders levitate – away.
The door behind us, her grasp a slipped memory. Cuticles to the grooves of his palm, his fingers are quick, up, out of reach. His car isn’t on our road. He’s parked it down the next, so I can stop my searching. Not that one either. This one: a flashy number to get away in. Dark red coat and beige leather seats, no less.
‘But where will I sit?’ I see no carseat, therefore no seat. They’ve threatened at school, the crush of skull through a windscreen.
He slaps his forehead, as in a cartoon; then opens the boot, pulls out some faded towels, piles them onto the passenger-seat – and I’m to go on top, belt cutting across my arm. Rosary and silvered statuette of St Agatha; hanging view before the journey. He gets in on the other side, crooks up my little chin. ‘Amanda, we’re going to do something very important today. But you mustn’t tell your mama a word of it, understand?’
‘Are we going to do something bad?’ I worry, already complicit.
‘No, no, we’re doing something good, for your highest good. But your mama won’t like it. She doesn’t understand. That’s why it has to stay private.’
‘Oh.’ The car swings into motion, I cling to the sides of my seat, steal a panicked glance.
‘Little princess, don’t be scared.’
‘Little princess,’ I repeat to myself, eyes flying to the side, smiles cracking through the round of my cheeks.
‘That’s better.’ Turning the radio on. He doesn’t say anything the rest of the way. I wouldn’t have known how to speak either – what mix of English and the old language, Basque.
The radio’s tuned to frequency 109 point something like aitatxo used to… Chatter, up-and-down radio-speak, English warping Basque. Speak like that, perhaps? A song begins. I fish one word, then another. He does better, catching a tune between his lips and teeth, dropping it to turn and up again when we’re straight. I think the words are sad, very; he familiar as an old ache. I watch the traffic, red and yellow leaves spiralling, to not listen quite so hard. But now bigger fish, must clench my thighs into the leather, this diagonal swerve, not slide. Blasting of horns through the glass, waving of fists, yelled unrepeatables. He though, is casual, picking up a ballad’s tail end. It takes me longer to unruffle. When I do, I see we’re in the old part of town, where I’ve not been three years since.
Before I’m ready to stop looking, we park. A white-fronted shop; a blonde in a long purple coat and little heels, slightly shivering. She’s pretty. To my sinking despair she’s intended for us, or more acutely, him. Kiss on the lips, necks bridge above me.
‘The neskatila?’ she asks.
‘Yeah, Amanda. Cute isn’t she?’
‘Adorable.’ The woman inclines her head, not too much, because she’s small herself. Somewhere in between my height and his. An older child, his girlfriend? I hope he doesn’t prefer her, though there’s already the suggestion he does.
‘Amanda, don’t you want to say hello to Erlea?’
‘Hello,’ I squeeze out, brushing my godfather’s sleeve.
‘Right, let’s get her kitted out.’ A dress shop, the dresses oozing meringues. Perhaps they’ve brought me here to buy one mama would hate and that is it. But the saleslady, brows plucked into her hairline, lands before us.
‘Berrespena!’ she pronounces – confirmation – eyeing me up. A girl of middling size, too large for a christening, too tiny for nuptials. There’s no other possibility as far as she is concerned. Her long red talons draw me forward.
Behind a grey curtain I’m scratched, stripped to My Little Pony hide. Frock after foaming frock pushed over my head, found lacking and yanked off till my hair is electric, my ears raw and pink.
‘Left it too late,’ she tuts to the persons on the other side.
My godfather shuffles his feet, mutters an apology. I hear the words ‘her mother’ in Basque, clicks of the tongue, shorthand for ‘crazy’. An organza number this time, glistening like a wet, white seal. It comes up high under my arms, but the sales lady insists it’s exact. I’ve never seen my body like this before, tufted at the shoulders, torso ironed to straight and narrow, spouting wide like a fountain from below the navel. The curtain shrinks back – neska ederra!; pretty!
‘How much?’ he asks.
‘You’ll have to take it – it’s the only one that fits her particular little frame.’ He sighs and makes to leave; they remind him of shoes and tights still.
Red rhinestone shoes. Little heels, miniatures of Erlea’s. I point, thinking it may as well be those that mama most forbids. The women laugh and shake their heads. That pair are a trap under hot light and glass. Lucky I have them to safeguard my soul. We’re to do the holy – I begin to understand. Coronation, did they call it? Or something like?
Drive to church – tall grey spire, stained-glass windows, bells. Robed figures, not yet on the scene to make it sombre. Forgetting I am shy, I flip out of the car into the ornamental garden. A tall holly-bush. How the wind throws my skirt to the spiky leaves, clawed through; the squelch of tight fabric under my arms. Caught in the same place, the web of my godfather’s hands, lifted up – and down to the pavement. A volta. I shriek; he, suddenly melancholy, points to where a woman in a stiff maroon coat shushes as though this – concrete and grass plot – is already consecrated.
Erlea drags me from Medusa’s glare, coaxing me backwards to the car, because I am not, yet, ready. She unzips a black pencil case full of brushes and crayons. First, my hair, warm shoulder-length, must be swept off my neck, twisted, stabbed with pins and sprayed for the sticking. Then my face wiped for traces of superfluous yellow and brown, to be daubed pink at the cheeks, blotted red at the lips. A little mascara to open those already-Madonna eyes would hardly be a sin. ‘No more!’ my godfather, after the first gluey bristles, ‘we don’t want her looking like she was trafficked in.’
‘Trafficked in. I was trafficked in,’ I repeat, the phrase absurd, glamorous.
‘Shhhh!’ They pinch my fingers into their fists. In his pocket, a chain shiny and gold to catch my tongue. A mother and child cocooned in the round, riches to my belly.
Through a hall of evergreens. She’s saying to do as I’m told, he to concentrate. Copy the other children if I’m confused and he’ll meet me at the aisle. I nod, realise that this is some kind of pageant. Fingers unlaced, hands drop. I’m left, to make sense of what is. The anteroom; the other children. Girls, white baubles like me; boys miniature sailors stranded out here so far from the sea. Prattle and shove as women the shape and colours of mama, but more perfumed, hover. I listen, English falling into Basque and back again, the occasional husk of Spanish, even.
‘Pity those people, Amanda,’ mama would say, ‘they’re so muddled they speak everything with an accent and nothing fluently.’
Pity, strange to feel, when their fusion phrasing flew, had a laughing cadence of its own. If mama could hear, would she think it so awful if I didn’t choose one and float with it for an entire conversation? Wouldn’t she think it foolish to replace the women who came (off the boat) to teach me Basque every six months (the time, she said, it took for their language to be spoiled)? But mama wasn’t to know, mustn’t know.
A woman with a clipboard stands on a wooden stool, rickety, her yellow stilettos. Called to instruction – where to go, whom to meet, what to repeat. I’m last of all, having no friends here. She asks my name.
‘Amanda…’ A faraway voice, the protector of secrecy, stops me there.
‘I was trafficked in,’ I explain, launching my new phrase.
A slap bounces off my ruffled bottom. ‘Day of her confirmation! Ought to be ashamed of herself, and a wedge of mascara too. God help her.’ The woman’s eye peels the air.
It begins, the organ narcotic, subduing my bones, my heartbeat until I fear it might stop altogether. Rub my arms against my dress’s tickly high seams to warm, convince my body it’s not lost to the unconscious. A shrill hymn, high Latin brings me to. Prayers, bowing, a nauseous strain in my neck which wants to spring up daisy-like, search out my godfather. Other children file off, clickety-clack with their elders. Now him, taking my arm. The only one in corduroy. Tallest and handsomest too. It’s nearly time to do as the other children, mumble subjection to another … this mysterious Lord and his merciful spirit. He pushes the bones at my nape, folding me warm to my knees.
Pronounces my name: ‘Amanda Elixe Maria,’ the third inserted so I have an equal number to the other girls.
I say ‘Amen’ and ‘May the Spirit be with you’ to the man in Pentecostal red. Yes, may it be with you. I wish to stay here, fingers in knit.
Bells. The others cluster in the courtyard, but we sweep past them, my head high as said Spirit, my godfather’s inclined. Erlea meets us at the car. I’m in the back, they talk on as though I’m not. Scratch and shimmy in my tight bodice, fingers escaping one layer, the next below, the quick watery stars my hands make beneath the marbled translucencies, close winds at my flesh. I’m the lowest, the closest, fingers disappeared. Quiet. A woman’s gasp. Erlea’s frown in the mirror.
‘We didn’t confirm your faith so you could touch yourself!’
Touching my dress is touching myself is bad. Is it? Look for him. By some trick of that same glass, his eyes shrink with diversion. The patterns I make in the folds are a talent – like spinning straw into gold. She is jealous, having no such dress, no such power.
Driving on. Cross my fingers and my toes we’re not going home. Not yet. Repent to the gold Mary down my middle, lest the punishment for touching beneath my dress is the day finishing now.
Wait, these aren’t the roads for it anyway. Crawling through that high street from three years ago. Three train stations, many more little shops. Cannot pedal up speed on my four-wheeled bike, even downhill, pulled back as I am by the hood every third doorway.
‘Kaixo neskatila!’ People aitatxo and even mama used to know. Then.
Murmur ‘bazkaria’ – lunch – from the front seat and I wonder whether we’ll stop here, or here, or here. But pull onwards and the street turns into another of glassy shopfronts with no memory. ‘Hungry, neskatila?’ Erlea chimes.
‘I don’t know.’ My voice small, wounded. ‘We passed by all the food.’ Heavy, would have been better not to say. The couple shadowy in the front seat, suddenly distant.
In English now, he to her: ‘We can’t go there. People will talk. It might get back to…’ Intolerable, their chatter above me, the glazed bodice enfevering my inner arms. My fingers through the skirt, striking out their whispers, striking so the material thins.
Heave-ho, the breaks – a Pizza Hut. No-man’s-land. Not somewhere from three years ago; nor somewhere mama would take me now. Red and black carpet, quilted leather booths. The waitress mistakes me for a common Saturday princess and no one, not even me, puts her right. Once we three were clandestine; no need in this noisy indifference. Children criss-cross at the salad booth, so I imagine they might find themselves seated at another family. Din from the speakers, of hairdressers and headphones at bus terminals.
‘How do you like this banqueting hall, Saturday princess?’
‘Mikel, don’t patronise her! Bad enough that—’
‘Yes I know the other little confirmants will be getting gateau and a bouncy castle, but it doesn’t seem to bother her very much. This is a neskatila who doesn’t like Basque children, merely tolerates them. Isn’t that right, Amanda?’
A nasty thing on my tongue’s tip, but I will say because the mischievous darts in his eyes give me licence: ‘Basque children are too loud. They startle me so.’
‘They startle me so,’ he parrots. ‘The way your mother is raising you, it’s surprising you’ve tolerated me this long.’ He lets his mouth droop limp like the corners of a rag. I cannot leave him in doubt.
‘You are wonderful. The most wonderful I’ve ever met!’
Waitress with pizzas swoops in clueless. ‘You can tell who Daddy’s little princess is!’ Aitatxo, she cannot mean, he is put away and I’m not supposed to. Her muddling puts me off my food. A sacred boundary separating one from the other. Erlea is asking why I don’t eat. Divide my pizza from my salad, hot sauce from that.
Whispering again. ‘Poor kid. Don’t suppose it can be easy for her to understand what he did.’
Fraud – I looked it up in the dictionary once. A kind of copying, a bloodless paper reason to be banished, from our talk even.
‘Rub, rub him out, Amanda, rub. The man you called aitatxo doesn’t exist, never existed, probably. The felon he was in his heart has gone where he can’t hurt us.’
Felon. Rhymes with my favourite fruit, but less benign. Blink, look up from the striped pattern I’m making with the salt and pepper. Muttering still. Think I can’t hear the words seeping through the cracks in their fingers.
‘And God knows, that mother of hers goes making it a hundred times worse, moving away like she did. How that woman could up and leave her friends, who saw her every day, without so much as goodbye—’
‘Something not even human about that. Makes me wonder if she cared about them at all to begin with. Whether this wasn’t some perverted quest for independence.’
Never heard the story spun this way. Mama not missing her friends. Were they? ‘Superstitious gossips and housewives,’ is what she said. Better off without them, we. Two of us, a life of our own.
‘Rub, rub, rub him out. Don’t let me hear you talk about him again.’ Eyes beetling so they fall off the bridge of her nose.
‘Maitea!’ They mean me. Little love, the sweetest yet. ‘Good thing we slipped through, rescued her little soul.’ My soul, like they steal by moonlight, in fairy tales. ‘You wanted to be saved, didn’t you, neskatila? I could see it in your eyes.’
‘I wanted to go with you.’
‘Panpoxa!’ – coquette! – ‘For shame!’ Cupping her mouth.
‘Hush, Erlea, our little coquette’s still to learn she has to be less forthcoming in matters of the heart. Neskatila, have an anchovy.’ Pink and tar feather on a string. Rotting fish, I bob.
Shrinking, fancy I see an eye. It wiggles on the tail of my retreating mouth, splashing salt. Edging its whiskery way to the vanishing point. ‘Good to know her mother hasn’t spoiled her for—’ Head back, open mouth, if I don’t it will swim down my dress! Fondue in giggles… Ice cream, arctic, galaxy of sprinkles, I chip away with my spoon, will it never to melt as I see it does.
‘Dainty little eater.’ Erlea wrinkles her rubbery nose, checks her flashing watch, the same silver as my spoon. ‘Better get a move on, if we’re going to catch that show!’ Nuzzling into the folds of his neck. Drop my own, she doesn’t mean me.
‘How’re you doing with that ice cream, neskatila? Do you need a hand.’ His spoon, a cruel giantess ticks against my glass bowl, threatening the minutes into seconds. I’ll shove it to. I am timekeeper here, the tip of my little spoon, the melting globe. ‘Like to have your cake and eat it, don’t you, neskatila?’ I nod, for this seems a sensible proposition. ‘With a mother like that—’
Even slow time thins to clinking empty. He tells me what I already know I must.
‘No thanks, Erlea, I can manage alone.’ To the bathroom, heart between ankles. Scrub the spidery crayon, the gouache leaks on my cheekbones. Anchovies licked the lipstick already. Out the stabbing pins, each release a cranial tremor. Up my arms, narrow as cactus, inch up, inch the sharp glacé material, scraping the last pink and blue off my skin. Half surprised it hasn’t turned to rags, high noon of Cinderella’s curfew. Winter sunset rim, shy evidence I once was in. Cannot look at whichever of them it might be, hand over the glaring ball of white evidence, its weight drops from my fingers fast. And the shoes, they say, my muddy boots at the ready. Hunched over, fastening the buckle, best I can with my sudden wobbly vision. Erlea’s efficient digits strap over and finish the job. Drop a tear.
‘Come here.’ He beckons. So up, swipe at the cheek with my left and I do. Not my dripping eye he’s noticed. My siren pendant flashes; lifts the sculpted icon and drops it through a gap in my polo neck, a wish in a pond. Cold fish bumps my belly button. His eyes on mine, a solemn covenant. That, I’m to keep, for the protection of Our Lady. A child of Mary, me, forget – never. Hidden though, inside my clothes by day, my secretest place by night. Mind jumps, the quickest fib to the skin of my lips. Mama’s worse than you think – done bigger crimes than committing me to her cult of two. Skin and bone layer. Beating till my brains whistle. Not just her vague ideas that no one understands… It’s there, ready as spit. But my larynx, charmed to her, won’t conspire.
‘Sweet thing, sweet thing!’ He senses it, that I want to leave with him, I’m ready to tell anything to. Then slowly up to his height, takes my fingers delicately. A little girl he intends to return.
Camel-ride on my stack of lumpen towels, bumpety-bump in the dark. Ice cream, cooked onions return. Parting’s sting beckons. His voice picks up grit as he turns into mama’s range. Her hairdresser, the corner shop she walks to when we’re out of bread. Houses now, 25, 23, 21, 19. Hedge of 17, there we stop, not quite to 13, ours. I’m to get out, say farewell to Erlea, who swabs at resistant blue on my left cheekbone.
‘If there’s any more, you can tell her you had your face painted.’ Goodbye, by way of. Now him. Arms close round me, two eyes merge – one.
‘My spirit. I gave it when I christened you.’ Espresso seal on my nose. ‘Agur neskatila.’ Releasing arms to vapours, his, the night wind. I stand there, intent to watch them drive away. His fingers puppeteers through the glass, directing my turn, my exit stage right. The motor starts; nothing but hedges to see.
‘He didn’t come back?’ mama asks at the door. Shake to no. ‘Oh.’ I see she’s not dressed to battle – soft black jumper and bell skirt, her waved outline. Now hugs me to, her breath in my crown. ‘You smell like… (oh please not incense) … coffee. Where’d he take you?’
‘Pizza Hut. But first to the zoo.’
‘How nice. London zoo?’ Nod. Twig, she won’t where she looks to, the coffee table, two crystal glasses, a decanter of brandy, a bowl of salted almonds – ‘And your godfather, is he well?’ – all laid out like she used to.
‘Fine, I’m tired. Can I go to bed?’ Nods, she.
Funnelled through my missing, don’t care to see what she is. Keep her out, protect my memory. Lean my little desk chair against the door and listen out for footsteps … which are not, yet. Closing my eyes, I feel the dress, an itch. Dance through its moulded drape, beneath its cabbagey layers. I pluck out my chain, now warm and let it fall outside my jumper. My godfather, a smirk of coffee on my nose.
When the doorbells rings, I run to see and it never is. Mama measures the spirit sink each time. One day, four months later, when again, it’s just our neighbour with an undelivered parcel, she catches my hot dejection, mirrors it in her liquid pupils.
‘Bugger him for coming by on some whim, raising expectations and then buggering off! Bugger him!’ I shrink, head into elbows, curtains to my troubled brow. ‘Don’t think I’ve not seen you’ve been different since that day.’ I stare back with enough pressure to crack a skull. Mama’s eyes wide, suddenly. Helpless. ‘Amanda, he didn’t do anything to—?’ Splices the air with unsaid fear. ‘I’ve half a mind to call the police.’ Creep of terror, the hint of him too, away where he can’t hurt us.
‘No!’ Cross into the telephone’s path. ‘All he did was be nice to me. Nicer than anyone ever has.’ Drop my heel, rub through the carpet. My missing, my missing.