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13 All kinds of trouble

austin-maxi

She’d been riding her bike up and down the avenue for a long time, actually feeling quite proud of her growing prowess. Her mum had played badminton with her for a while but was spending the rest of the afternoon studying for a Spanish exam. Elisha turned the bike in ever-decreasing circles, amazed at how easy it was to manoeuvre once she’d got the hang of it. It was hard to imagine she’d ever been scared she might fall off a bike. Balancing was a cinch now but she still couldn’t take one hand off the handlebars. Luke used to tease her about it, showing off by cycling down the middle of the road with no hands at all. She experimentally lifted her left hand off but immediately put it back as she began to wobble.

          When her dad’s Austin Maxi turned into the avenue, she cycled up to greet him in the drive, jumping off the bike and resting it against the fence next to the car. Although she bounced over to him, delighted to see him home from work early, his expression was grim and he could barely raise a smile for her when she hugged him hello.

          He reached in and lifted a cardboard box off the backseat, grunting a little as if it were heavy and closing the car door with his foot.

          ‘Dad, do you want to watch me on my bike?’

          ‘Not now, darling.’

          Suddenly there was a crash and a clatter. She hadn’t parked her bike securely and the handlebars had twisted so that it overbalanced and fell against the car. She could never get the hang of parking it by resting a pedal on the kerb.

          Her father exploded. It wasn’t the bad words that shocked her so much as the violently angry tone of his voice and the flash of fire in his grey eyes. ‘You stupid little girl!’ he continued loudly. ‘Put your bike back in the shed before you do any more damage.’ But his voice softened slightly as he saw that Elisha had frozen in shock, her mouth open, without even trying to make an excuse.

          As he took the box and his briefcase into the house, she retrieved the miscreant bike and wheeled it sadly through the back gate to the shed. Why hadn’t she parked it somewhere else? She remembered regretfully how self-satisfied she’d been seconds before and her mum saying, ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ She thought maybe she should make herself scarce for a bit so sat down, cross-legged, on the back lawn, wondering why her father was in such a bad mood, when he was home early, and it was such a beautiful sunny afternoon.

          Absentmindedly, she started to pull clumps of grass up with her fists, liking the crunchy sound it made and the fresh green smell. Then she realised she could potentially get into trouble for this too, so she started to push the handfuls of grass back down into the soil. She smoothed them over with her palms — there, her dad probably wouldn’t even notice when he mowed the lawn.

          The house threw a long shadow across the grass and soon she was sitting in this cool semi-darkness. A chill ran through her, making her shiver and puzzle if it wasn’t time for tea yet.

          Getting up, she moved out of the shadow’s reach into a patch of sunlight at the end of the garden. Here she put her arms out and spun round and round and round until she felt dizzy and toppled over on to her back, keeping her eyes closed for a minute. When she opened them, the sky and clouds and tree branches seemed to swing briefly, almost revolve, before steadying. She felt like her head was far away with the clouds, while her body kept contact with the solid ground.

          ‘Elisha!’ her mum called from the open kitchen window. ‘Come in for tea now.’ She sat up quickly, then came over all giddy, groaned and lay back down. ‘Elisha!’ She sat up again, feeling groggy. ‘And make sure you shut the back gate and bolt it too.’

          Elisha sighed and stumbled to her feet, brushing the grass and stuff off her shorts and the backs of her legs, where it had left an intricate patterned imprint. If only she hadn’t annoyed her father, he might have come and played badminton with her. Plus, he didn’t play as well as her mum so was easier to beat.

          She went through the back gate and out to the car to check on the damage, dividing her hair into two sections at the back as she went. Coming next to the car, she started to plait one side of her hair, rather inexpertly, as she gazed at the damage her pedal had done to the car door. The paint was all scraped off around a very slight dent.

          Oh no. It was worse than she’d thought. She almost wished she hadn’t checked — like it couldn’t be true if she hadn’t seen it. She didn’t want to know this. No wonder her dad was mad. And he hadn’t even seen it yet.

          He hadn’t seen it yet. Her brain began to work. So maybe she could wish it all undone. Maybe she could even go back to before he got home and this time she’d take her bike straight to the shed. But there was something nagging at her brain, like a bit of food that gets caught between your teeth — you can feel it with your tongue but can’t shift it or see it in the mirror. If she hadn’t wished for the bike, it wouldn’t have fallen on the car … What if the well’s wishes were cursed? And if so, what might happen to Luke and her wish for him?

          She heard her father call her name so went back into the passage by the side of the house, shutting and bolting the gate carefully behind her, trailing her hand in the yellow forsythia as she walked. Then she remembered something — her mother had asked her to do this the other evening as well; and she’d forgotten. That was when her bike had been stolen. Maybe if she had bolted the gate, the thieves wouldn’t have got into the back garden and seen the shed. Feeling guilty and ashamed, she entered the kitchen sheepishly, somehow imagining that her parents would be able to see through her and know it had all been her fault. Washing her hands at the incredibly water-stained stainless steel sink, she sighed dramatically, then dried them on a piece of kitchen towel with flower borders that she pulled off a roll on the wall.

          She slunk into the dining room and took her seat as if she hoped they wouldn’t notice her, hands seeking the security of cutlery, the mundane camouflage of teatime activity.

          ‘So you decided to join us then?’ her mum asked, handing the dish of instant mash potatoes with butter across to her.

smash          ‘Sorry.’ She didn’t dare mention the car but concentrated instead on the potato mash, the type advertised by the cute aliens, heaping some onto her plate next to the chicken leg and peas already there. Even focusing on her plate of food, she could sense the tension in the room; and assumed that it must be because of the car. But why didn’t they just shout at her and tell her off? Get it over with, for goodness’ sake.

          Glancing up again, while she chewed on some chicken, she caught her parents exchanging a questioning look, like neither knew what to say or do.

          ‘Ellie.’ Her father’s tone was unexpectedly calm and kind so that she was scared her punishment would be worse than she imagined — like no TV for a week and having to pay for the damage.

          She looked across at him a little nervously and drank some water, feeling her throat go suddenly dry and parched. ‘Yes, Dad.’

          ‘Something’s happened at work.’ He paused to sigh. ‘Well, basically, the company’s folded and we’re all out of a job.’ His wife put her hand over his on the floral vinyl tablecloth.

          ‘Don’t worry, hon. It’s not your fault. Something’ll come up, I’m sure.’

          Elisha was struggling to picture the company folding — she could see the big white sign with its blue italic writing being creased in the middle but that was as far as she got.

          ‘Can’t it get unfolded?’ she asked and was a little miffed when her mum giggled, although pleased and relieved that she’d made them both smile.

          ‘No, it means it’s run out of money, darling,’ her father explained.

          ‘So you don’t have to go back to work?’

          ‘I can’t go back, no.’

          Elisha didn’t really see the problem for the minute. ‘So we can go camping this summer after all?’ She jumped up excitedly but sat down again when they didn’t really react.

          ‘Your dad will be looking for another job.’ Her mum reached out and touched one of her half-made plaits. ‘What’s this meant to be?’

          ‘I was in the middle of doing it.’

          Her father was eating again now, not really as if he was enjoying it but more as though it were another task that had to be done.

          ‘In fact,’ her mum said, ‘I might go back to work, Elisha.  Mrs Fisher said they need dinner ladies at the school. What would you think about that?’

          ‘Beth, it doesn’t really matter what she thinks. Why ask her?’

          Her mother stood up beside her and started plaiting her hair for her. This always gave Elisha a lovely tingly feeling in her scalp.

          ‘I mean, a job’s a job. If I haven’t found anything by then, you’ll have to do it. You might have to even if I have.’

          ‘I know, darling.’ Her mother’s words were slow, deliberate and exasperated, in the way she had when she meant to say more than they did. Elisha had the feeling she was speaking more in the faces she was making over her head and craned her neck up to see. But it was too late: she’d missed her mum’s expression.

          ‘Does it mean we won’t have any money?’

          ‘Well, we won’t have as much for a while.’

          Her father had eaten all he could and pushed his plate away, silently. It seemed as though he didn’t want any more part in the conversation either.

          Her plaits were finished and so was her food. She thought she’d better not ask if there was any butterscotch Angel Delight for afters, let alone mention the car door, even though she wanted to say sorry. It didn’t seem to matter much now.

          For a while, they all retreated into their own thoughts. And Elisha’s weren’t pleasant. Had her wish about her father having more time off made him lose his job? Her face flushed hot with guilt — she felt her cheeks with the palms of her hands — they were burning. Like the time she’d tucked her school tunic into her navy-blue knickers at the back and hadn’t realised until she went past Josie, Veronica and some boys who’d started pointing at her and laughing.

          But then she also felt secretly pleased. It meant she’d see more of her dad; and they might be able to go camping. He always said it was a cheap way to holiday. Her friends weren’t all that impressed with it. Jasmine said she’d rather sell all the camping gear to pay for a few nights at a hotel or a villa. She said she and her mum liked their ‘home comforts’ too much to go roughing it in a field somewhere.

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