The child hops into the car with her linty teddy and a smile. It’s an outing after all, and a night-time one at that. She has no idea where they are heading. The grandmother never says much to the child but is able to smoke and converse simultaneously, when required. Children are little people. This means they should be seen, but not heard.
The entire backseat is hers and the child scooches across the vinyl for a better view of the Nasty Habit. Little fingers move back and forth to five-year old lips, pausing only to allow invisible rings to waft up to the roofline. Her grandmother’s hand is clawed over the plastic knob that is attached to the steering wheel. It is a special gadget.
The lights ahead turn amber and the grandmother slows the car. She takes the opportunity to dust powder over her face, artfully dodging the cigarette wedged between her lips. She blinks into the rear view mirror, oblivious to the smears of lipstick remnant on the cigarette butt and the cerise stains webbed through the fissures in her lips.
The child climbs up onto the ledge behind the back seat and looks out the rear window. The street lights flick on behind them and she laughs at the Hansel and Gretel trail of gleaming orbs left in the wake of the little green car. The grandmother slides a cassette into the slot and they are serenaded by Kamahl.
The length of ash grows as the miles stack up behind them, the white paper ceding with each suck. The ash is set to fall and smoulder a hole through her grandmother’s skirt. The child likes the way wool sizzles before it shrinks, but not the smell.
The cigarette stays glued to her grandmother’s lips and how the ash clings on is anyone’s bet. It hurts the child to watch in the same way that it pains her to watch Fred Flintstone. With each intake there is a flare of red that grows more striking as the light outside fades; silver turning to black.
Her grandmother’s hand scuds to life. Practiced fingers tap just above the ashtray and whisk the cigarette back.
They arrive outside a house that is tall like her grandmother. The child follows her into the house but is soon left to her own devices. Whoever owns the house has forgotten to turn the lights on and the child struggles to find the courage to walk through the darkened rooms. One lamp is all that illuminates the lounge. It is encased in a heavy, lime fabric which cloisters the light inside. On the wall a sunburst clock hangs, heaving its hand round with an embittered whirr.
A tray with silver handles sits at an angle on the coffee table, bearing plates of cheese and pineapple cubes, skewered by toothpicks. The child takes one but doesn’t like the cheese and ends up rolling it between her thumb and fingers before sticking the wad in her pocket. To the side of the plate lies a selection of special cutlery with blades that curl and terminate in two prongs. The grandmother has some at home; they are called knorks.
An old man leans down to the child and the star-shaped medal pinned to his jacket swings out to hang plumb with her bluntly cut fringe. She likes that his ribbon has two different shades of blue and a stripe of red, but doesn’t like the milky clouds in his eyes.
”What’s your name?” he asks. He has a missing tooth and a rigid tongue.
“Olivia,” she lies. She doesn’t want him to have her name. He smells sour and his sleeve is empty, like her grandmother’s. She hopes it doesn’t come out, that she is a liar.
The child moves on and soon learns the game; find the missing piece. Everyone has one, except for you. Each way she turns she comes across a kind face on a body that is not whole. Sticks and crutches, hooks and stones. Hands reach out to her but she can’t bring herself to touch them, even though a part of her knows it’s the right thing to do. Sad stories sit unsaid and mope in the shadows, hang heavy in the hall.
It was an innocent inquiry, earlier that week: What happened to the other one, Nana, the one that got chopped off at the hospital? Her grandmother said it was tucked up with the towels on the shelf in the spare room wardrobe. The child sleeps now in the twin bed in her grandmother’s room, her face turned to the wall. She doesn’t go into the spare room anymore. She has visions of the doors flying open and the arm tumbling out, grabbing at her on the way down. She can’t wait for the week to be over. To go home.
A man holds out a drink for her. He has two hands so the child darts her eyes down, searching until she finds the shine of wood where his trouser leg ends. A plain navy sock bunches into his shoe. Strange really, because the other leg has a stripy one.
She backs away, yearning for a place to hide. In the bathroom she finds it, and a doll that lives on the window shelf. Its wide skirt hides a spare toilet roll. The child pulls the doll out and the roll drops to the floor, unravelling a stream of paper behind it as it tumbles towards the door. She smiles at the mess and laughs, happy that the doll has two legs.
The child gets tired as the night stretches on but doesn’t want to go back into the lounge where the Amputee Society meeting is reaching its climax: the election of the new committee chair. The child sits in a wooden window seat and looks out over the street. Raining now, the road is shiny and dark and laid out like liquorice straps. Her eyes want to sleep but when she closes them she sees something she doesn’t like. A cage full of arms, and legs.
She worries then that her grandmother may forget she is here and leave without her. The child goes back into the lounge and does not ask what has happened to their missing parts, not wanting to hear how they were put in the mincer or left in the shed.
Uncle Stu isn’t really an uncle. He lives at home with his dad, Tom. Tom keeps himself busy – now that his wife is dead – by sweeping out the toilet. Tom tells the child that by the time he has done that each morning, the day is nearly gone. They live in the next street over and the child passes their house every day on the way to and from school.
Stu only ever wears green flannel shirts over tight shorts and brown hunting boots. He keeps a picture of himself in his room of a smiling Stu, gun under his arm, a deer’s head held up by his blood-stained hand. It’s difficult to tell if it’s the same deer whose head is above the mantelpiece. It looks as though it would have been nice.
Stu’s mother, before she died, collected dolls from all over the world. They reside in a wooden cabinet with glass doors in a small town where the only monument is to fallen soldiers. The child is not allowed to take the dolls out, but she looks at them every time they go round to Stu’s, her breath fogging up the leadlight panes. The dolls stare back with hard eyes and do not want to make friends with her. Each is dressed in a different National Costume and all are girls except one, who is a beef-eater. He fits in because he wears a dress. His gown is bright red, with an oversupply of gold striping.
Today they are visiting Stu without the child’s mother because the child’s mother wants Peace and Quiet. The child goes out to play with Stu’s black dog who is called Tiny, even though he is not. He stands as tall as his kennel, his tongue lagging out.
The child leans in to kiss Tiny’s rust-coloured eyebrows which caterpillar above his sad, brown eyes. Tiny barks and lunges with his teeth on show. His teeth hook into the child’s eyebrow and he takes a long time to let go. Tiny runs off and leaves her with a waterfall of blood that sheets over her left eye. She cries and cries until her father comes out.
Her father says that she shouldn’t have stuck her face so close to Tiny’s, that she had scared the dog and now he would have to be put down. Stu would have to do it.
Tiny left a zig-zagging scar above her left eyebrow, making it hard for her to forget that it’s her fault that he’s dead. His kennel is empty now when she scoots past on her way to school. Her friend, Sarah, knows all about dogs and says that getting so close to Tiny will have given her a tapeworm. When the worm gets big they will be able to hold a piece of cheese up to her mouth and the worm will come up and grab it. Sarah eats the child’s lunch because the child no longer feels like it.
When she gets home her aunty is there and passes a comment that the child overhears; that the child is morose and peculiar and that she needs a brother or sister. Only children are odd.