Juggling life through a bi-polar lens. Sometimes up, sometimes down. Mostly trying to tread water in the middle. Creating a likeness to a normal life. Whatever "normal" is...

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Finding My Way

I wasn't going to put up any long posts on here, but here's an exception. Skip it if you want.
This is a version of my latest assignment for my Writing Course. It had to be around 1500 words, and autobiographical. The theme had to be about a book, a baby or a wrong turning. I took the latter. Let's hope he likes the one I sent him more than he liked my poetry, huh? ;^)


me, Easter 1974, age 6

I jog to keep up with mum, head down, staring at the pavement as it rolls past underneath me, my scuffed blue shoes dashing along, my white summer socks, grey from the rain. Her scarf flinging flag-like from the February wind, she looks forward, her taut features stubbornly fixed towards home.

I hadn't meant to get lost.

All the Catholic seven year olds at St Thomas More's primary were to take their First Holy Communion in the coming June. Today, after school, we were to have our second class on the Catechism. I knew this. Or at least, I must have known. She must have reminded me at breakfast, because that's what she told me she did. When she found me. When we found each other. And I had forgotten about it because I never paid attention to anyone but my Dad. And he wasn't here. He was Away At Sea. And that was where my brain was.

I couldn't make out why she wasn't at the school gates to meet me. I waited with Joanna's mum. I liked Joanna. She had neat hair in a "page boy" cut, and she wore shoes with three buckles on each foot. She had a cat called Thomas O' Malley and a toy submarine for the bath that doubled up as a flute when it was dry. I wanted to be just like Joanna. Standing with her and her mum at the gate, I was part of her family. They didn't argue and their house was neat with fitted carpets all one colour. But as the sky grew darker and the crowd thinned away, Joanna's mum bit her bottom lip and shook her daughter to one side.

"I'm sorry, Helen, I'm sure she'll be here soon. Perhaps she's gone up the shops! We have to go. I have to get tea, for Jo's dad."

And so they left me. Joanna turned back to say something but her mum pulled her arm along so strongly that my friend was lifted off the curb in a twirl that made the skirt of her Proper School Uniform Coat spin out like a wintry ballerina.

I smiled at their backs till they turned the corner, then dug deep into my pockets for my gloves. Not there. Maybe I should go back in. I turned and looked at the school. The windows were all black and Mr Stokes, the caretaker, was pulling the silver gates together and threading a chain through them. I turned to the church on the other side of the drive. Lights were on, and flickers of red and yellow were tickling the windows. What was going on in there? Better not go over. Sr. Callista is probably in there, whatever it is. A scary headmistress; an even scarier nun. Pale bumpy skin and a black veil. Like the bad Queen in Snow White.

I scooped the front of my coat up with my chin. If I stuck my neck out, I could get it to stay there and double as a scarf. But the mohair on my numbed skin became itchy, so I dropped it and stared up towards the main road. Should I walk home on my own?

Mrs Morrison, the Lollypop Lady, should be gone by now. If she’d seen me, she’d make me go home with her and then how would Mum find me? She’d put me indoors and then go and look for Mum. That is what grown-ups mean by “trouble“. I mustn’t trouble her, or cause trouble.

I go to the corner and check that she’s gone. Then walk on towards Silverweed Road.
After all, Mum will be worried about being late. If I walk on, and meet her half way, she will be relieved. Her eyes will open wide and she’ll smile with all her face so that her top lip folds up. She’ll be happy and laugh, and tell me that I’m clever. We’ll stop at the cake shop on the way, where Toni’s mum works, and we’ll get cream meringues for tea, the ones shaped like butterflies. Then, when we get home, I’ll tell my two elder brothers why we’ve got cakes, and they’ll be nice all evening. It’ll be great.

With my head bowed against the drizzling rain, and my thoughts far from the details of my journey, I have gone on far past the spot where Mrs Morrison usually helps us cross the road. Out of the corner of my eye I see the trunk of a tree foreign to my usual walk home. I stop and look up. One, two, three trees. Where am I?

Big black branches pour down towards me like treacle as the wind pulls up another heavy gust. I stare up at their clawed limbs sprawling out against the charcoal sky as the rain finds the gap around my neck and collar. I start to cry, and run.

Puddles lie in ranks along the path, mirroring street lights now fully lit. I splash through their yolks in my panicked sprint till I am too dizzy from the wind to go on, folding up to squat on the curb, shivering, with my arms wrapped round my knees. I sniff cold mucus into my throat, coughing and crying.

Suddenly I am blinded by a beam of white light making a stream of raindrops glow towards me. A new panic, as I realise a car is stopping by me. I don’t know anyone with a car. Least, I might know someone who has one, like Joanna, but I’ve never seen them in one.

The door swings open and a wrinkled black shoe splashes into a puddle.

“Helen? Is that you? What on earth...?”

Oh boy. Sr Callista.

Just pleased to feel warmth again, and to be near a person bigger than me out here, I gladly climb onto the back seat.

“Weren’t you coming to Church, then? No? Well where’s your mother, then?” She drives off in mid thought in the direction of the shops. All the mothers from our estate walk down to the school along past the shops. It’s when bread for breakfast is bought. And cakes, for tea, if your Mum’s in a good mood.

But I’m not listening. I’m investigating a beige cardboard box on the seat next to me. Little disks of plastic made to look like silver, with faces of old people on. Most of them have haloes and “Pray for us” written in the circle. Then there are small crosses with Jesus on and “JHS” underneath his feet. I wonder what this could stand for and decide on “Jesus Has Suppered”. We did about The Last Supper last week. I feel pleased to have remembered.

“Ah! Isn’t that your mother?” She pulls up not far from the shops, alongside a small figure hunched forward with one hand on her headscarf, holding it against the tugging wind.

Is it her?

The voice is familiar, but it isn’t Mum’s. It’s higher pitched and says different words.

“Oh really? Oh dear! Helen? Are you all right darling?” She puts her head into the car. It IS her. She opens the door for me.

“No, no, Sister. That’s fine. No, of course you have to go. No, we’re not far from here, anyway. Thank you. Thank you!” She waves energetically and smiles as Sister drives away.

I feel soft and warm inside my chest. I can feel my smile cracking my lips but it doesn't matter, and I relax into her presence. It’s all going to be all right now.

“Can we go and get some cakes?”

“CAKES?” She grabs my arm an turns me around towards home. The raised voice has cut through me more sharply than all the rain and wind. I trot along trying to keep up, head down. We march past the cake shop with its welcoming lights glowing over the last of the buns. I see Toni’s mum laughing with a customer as she reaches for one of the big Bun Rings, the ones with white icing and a cherry in the middle. We had one of those for Dad’s birthday. The customer leaves, still laughing, letting a whiff of warm, sweet air escape and tease its fingers under my sore, red nose.

“I just can’t believe you sometimes, my girl. I just can’t believe you.”

And so it starts.

My eyes on my shoes, I think of Joanna’s, with the triple buckles. I imagine them stuffed with newspaper by the fire as she and her dad have their tea. I think of her purring, ginger cat, and decide that I will draw it when I’m sent to my room.


Chewy said...


I didn't skip it. I enjoyed this story and your teacher better like it. It's written in a child's mindset, detailed with imagery, and has an emotional twist.

If you don't mind me saying; reminds me of Carol's writing style. Which I love.

Helena said...

Chewy! Thanks!

I'd have preferred it if I'd written it in the third person, in past tense. To do so I find I have to write something, then re-write it, like a translation. It falls onto the page just as you read it here. But I'd prefer it in the third person.

Funny, I can't read a book at all if it's in the first person. After seeing The English Patient, I picked up the book in a charity shop. I opened the first page to see the opening lines written by "I" and shut it again.

Isn't that strange?

Don't mind the comparison at all, by the way. Not sure what Carol would think, though. She is a great writer! I can't do as much dialogue as her though. I guess I'm not around people enough to have an ear for it.

Helena said...

Oh! I just saw that I don't have your link on my arty sites list. Humble apologies!! I thought it was there!!! I'll add it right away.....

Chewy said...

Thanks for the link.

david mcmahon said...

Dear Helena and Chewy,

Chewy, thanks for telling me about this post. It made my morning.

Helena, you chose well to write it in first person. Immediately we see it through the eyes of a child.

As a writer, there ca be no better way to draw a reader in.

If that doesn't get an A++, Chewy and I'll come over and have a word with the teacher.

Did you see my (serious) suggestion about spending some months each year (your winter, our summer) in Oz if the UK weather and short days affect you?

I'm really concerned about this - as you know.

God bless


Deborah Gamble said...

Great post. Just terrific!

Helena said...

thanks as always for your kind thoughts! No, I didn't see where you'd written that!

My sister suggests it all the time. Mind you, she is moving from Tamworth to the North soon. Not sure I fancy that.... I couldn't move away from my partner, anyway! And I'm not sure I could move that far from my mum, either, nowadays. I would worry about her too much!


Helena said...

And Thanks!!

Helen said...

helena, my god, you're like my doppelganger, only funnier, and with more vivid childhood memories... What a gorgeous story, so descriptive. I remembered that concern of waiting, that worry of "doing the 'wrong thing'"

Papoosue said...

Hi Helena,

Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving a comment, nice to see you. Your writing is great, I will be back to have a good look later! Mind if I add you to my blog list?

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

First person is searing, isn't it? Helena, you have a gift - no matter how much it scalds to write it. I love that little girl, we all do. Your mum is still there with you. I could only free myself up to write in the first person after my own had gone. You are special, bonny lass, and always will be. Believe in your talent - if that arsehole of a tutor can't recognise this for what it is, he's not worth minding. (Smile)

ps. You are nothing like me - you're style is ALL your own, and wonderful!!!

Helena said...

You've all really impressed me, ploughing through such a long post! LOL! Thank you for the staying power! -and for your encouraging comments.

Can't say what a difference it makes to get such strong feedback from such talented people that I respect and admire!