"Girly" by Janice Orchard
Her hand reached up to grab a higher branch. Pulling with skinny arms and pushing from below with bare feet gripping the rough bark she moved higher, closer to the sky.
It was her safe place.
Had been since she was five, now she was eight.
Some could say it wasn’t her tree, growing as it was with its roots firmly fixed in the neighbor’s yard, but the branches extended over the tall fence and reached down to her. When she was smaller access was not so easy, her little arms didn’t reach that far, so she carefully climbed on the beer bottles stacked against the fence. Her brother’s collection provided him with pocket money and an occasionally ice cream for herself if she helped him pull his wagon around the streets to pick up the empty bottles on his regular Sunday night round. He was twelve and now at big school.
The bottle-o money was his income.
No “spare money” in their family.
You got what you earned, nothing is free.
At the top of the tree there was a fork strong enough to hold her but flexing and swaying with the slightest breeze. She shared this space with the resident birds who eyed her warily, accepting her presence as if they knew she would do them no harm. Each spring they built their nests among the branches, safely hidden by the bright green leaves that came with the warmer weather. Lined with twigs and feathers and any scraps of fabric they could scavenge, the nests awaited the laying of the eggs that meant new life. New beginnings.
The banging of the screen door, her mother’s voice. Loud, insistent. Time to climb down from the sky and take her place in that other world of school books and time tables.
“Look at you, girlie. You’ve skint your knee and your hair is like a bird’s nest”.
Mother, brandishing a hairbrush like a weapon, pulling and tugging, clumps of hair painfully extracted along with twigs and feathers, held her close to block her escape. A morning routine on school days and before church on Sunday. A ritual. A mother/daughter battle that neither one enjoyed.
Her mother’s dressing gown, pink chenille, old, worn, smells of cigarette smoke, body odor and last night’s sherry. One pocket bulges with the shape of a cigarette packet, never out of reach. The other holds a handkerchief ready to wipe Milo from the child’s face and tears from her eyes.
With each tug of the brush come recriminations, muttered under her breath, not meant for her. Dad is in the dog house. Again.
Her hair untangled, pulled back and tied in a pony tail with a rubber band, Mother holds her at arms’ length and surveys her work. Then she pulls a ribbon from the drawer. A blue ribbon. She would have preferred pink, her favorite color, but Mother says pink is for blondes. Only blue or white for dark haired girls. Hair complete, she is tamed.
The walk to school is long. Two miles.
There are hazards along the way, the first just minutes from her house. He stands on the corner because he knows she has to pass that way. The man is tall, lanky. His fly is open. She doesn’t understand the odd look on his face but knows there is a threat. She crosses to the middle of the road and runs. So many times she has told Mother about the man, heard the other mothers talk about him in whispers, and yet here he is again. He doesn’t follow, never does.
Along the road and up the hill and round the corner. Have to be quiet here. Any noise will alert the dog that she is there. She forgot one morning and was singing as she walked. Choir practice. She doesn’t remember the hymn but she will never forget the sound of the low, rumbling growl as the dog jumped the fence and came at her. Not a big dog but stocky and strong, his dirty white coat and red eyes making him look fierce. Again she ran. He didn’t follow, never does.
The sound of children playing is normally a happy one. But not these children. Not for her. This is not her school. As she passes the play ground they spot her and the chant begins, “Catholic dog sitting on a log eating maggots out of frogs”. They are State School, she is not. The chant gets louder as other children race to the fence to join in the taunting. Her hackles rise, she counters with her own “State, State sitting on a gate eating maggots out of snakes”. And then she runs.
Three hazards encountered. Three survived.
The school day is long. Reading, writing, arithmetic. Why are they called the three Rs? She does know how to spell. Spelling is something she is good at. And drawing. In the school ground during lunch break she picks up a stick and draws in the dirt. A butterfly. Wings spread wide, head held high. She joins in games with her friends, hop scotch, what’s the time Mr Wolf, hangs upside down from the monkey bars, hair dragging on the ground. Unnoticed, her blue ribbon falls out. How different the world looks upside down. Funny.
Rain on the tin roof of her classroom makes her sigh. It won’t just be a long walk home; it will be a wet one. Shoulders hunched she escapes the class room and heads out to the street.
Standing in the rain, the collar of his coat pulled tight to stop it dripping down his neck, cigarette smoke curled from his lip. His wide grin was a give away...he had been at the pub. Mum won’t be happy.
The coat he wore was long and brown and soft with age and he opened it wide to let her in to the warm space under his arm. He walked with a long gait that bounced with each step and felt like he was dancing. He probably was in his mind. She had to run to keep up with him. Tucked into his coat like a bird under his wing there was no chance of conversation. But that was ok, the nearness of him always made her feel safe. She would tell him about her day when they got home.
The coat had its own smells of welding, tobacco and beer. It had deep pockets too and today was pay day. That meant that one pocket held a fortnights worth of tobacco while the other bulged with a bag of mixed lollies that would that evening be divided fairly between her and her brother. She hoped gob stoppers, caramel squares, licorice bullets and her favorite sherbet bombs would be among the mix. Each would gratefully take their share knowing this was the only treat they would get and it had to last till next pay day.
Walking with Dad was magic. The State School was passed without torment, the dog forgot to growl and there was no sign of the man on the corner.
Mum waited at the front door, her hand outstretched for the pay packet that would save Dad from a tongue lashing. She turned to the child and said “Look at you girlie, your hair looks like a birds nest and you’ve lost your ribbon, again!”
As her mother turned her attention to the pot boiling on the stove she made her escape, careful not to let the screen door bang behind her. The tree was waiting and she soon settled into her perch in the swaying branches, a little damp from the recent rain. Her sudden appearance startled a bird from its nest and as it flew off something caught her eye. There among the twigs and feathers she saw a blue ribbon.