Read Small Change Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Small Change (8 page)

Joyce is holding one of her drawings, she says she can’t carry her coat as well.

“Put the drawing in the stroller then.” And I reach for it.

Joyce steps back. Refuses.

“You have to carry your coat, Joyce. Each of us is responsible for her own coat. I’m not going to carry it.”

I know the coat could be shoved easily into a corner of the stroller, or draped over the back. But I am irritated because my ploy hasn’t worked and because I am using a ploy. Now that the train of events has been set in motion, it will play itself out in full.

I insist. Joyce refuses. I take the coat, which has a hood, and drop the hood over Joyce’s head. We set off. I have to buy vegetables. Half way down the block Joyce is crying, darkly furious and on the verge of a tantrum, that the coat is slipping off her, that she has to hold her picture. Outside the vegetable store, she lets the jacket fall to the sidewalk. A passerby picks it up and hands it to me, and I drop the hood over her head. By this time she is storming – loud piercing cries, choked sobs – that her mother never makes her do this – her mother always puts her coat on the stroller – my mother – sob – my mother …

I bend down, by now trembling, and tell her that I don’t care what her mother does, nor does her mother do that; if she doesn’t carry her coat – I hear myself say – there won’t be any hot chocolate.

“I don’t want hot chocolate,” she screams.

“I don’t care what you want, I am not carrying your coat.”

I push the stroller on, and with trembling fingers choose from the outdoor display four tomatoes, three green peppers, a bunch of parsley. Joyce stands in full tantrum in the middle of the sidewalk, the jacket on the ground except for one sleeve which she holds in her hand. I push the
stroller inside the store, my daughter follows, so does Joyce.

“What’s the matter?” someone asks.

“Nothing’s the matter,” I answer. “She doesn’t like her coat.”

The cashier smiles sympathetically, but I don’t care if the cashier is sympathetic. I pay. The children and the coat follow me back outside. Joyce drags it, but she doesn’t leave it behind.

Sickness and holidays intervene, and two weeks pass before I pick up Joyce again. I climb the stairs to her school, pick up her lunchbox and coat, and we go downstairs together. At the door I hand Joyce her coat, then bend down to see to my son in the stroller. I say, “Joyce, you can wear your coat zipped up or unzipped. Which is it going to be?”

Joyce stands by the door, coat in hand, looking down. I feel the ground give way as I face this dark child.

“Zipped or unzipped?”

“Unzipped,” she says, and puts it on.

It is bitterly cold. The coat slides off her shoulders and blows wide in the wind.

“Are you cold?” I ask. She shakes her head. “I can zip it up for you.” Shake of the head.

We pick up Annie from her school and walk several blocks. Joyce is shivering and nothing is said. Annie starts to talk about her approaching birthday. She will be five. Joyce has already had her birthday, three weeks back.

Then Joyce speaks. She says to Annie, “I’m not coming to your birthday and I’m not giving you a present.”

Annie looks at me – slow motion towards tears – and I bend down and speak to Joyce. You have had your birthday and now Annie is going to have hers; you can’t say mean things about it; apologize. Joyce is also close to tears. She says she is sorry. Then as I stand up she says something else, softly. The look on Annie’s face makes my question sharp. “What did you say, Joyce?”

“My mother says I don’t have to come.”

I try to remember what it was like to be lost in such obstinacy. Some days I can remember and some days I can’t.

My friendship with Joyce’s mother has changed. I lie awake at night talking to her, but in person I say nothing. At night I tell her that I can’t stand it any more. I ask her what we should do. Old scenes between Joyce and Annie play out in my mind. But I know Norma has plenty of problems and doesn’t need more. And I’m afraid that once I start to recount what Joyce has done to Annie, our friendship will never be the same. But it isn’t the same now. We talk to each other, ignoring our daughters, pretending these things aren’t happening, and each of us is glad when the other leaves.

Joyce makes our friendship unsustainable, and yet it continues. I continue to pick up Joyce out of loyalty to Norma, and out of my inability to find phrases for what I feel.

Other children live on the block. Linnea lives across the street. She and Joyce have been going to the same school
since they were two. Later Linnea’s role in the story will become clear to me. It is always clear to Annie.

Annie continues to say, “Joyce is my
best
friend, right? Joyce is my
best
friend.”

At her insistence, I take her by the hand up the flight of stairs to Joyce’s apartment. Norma answers the door, I ask her if Joyce would like to play.

Norma turns to her daughter. “Would you like to go down?”

“No.” The answer is no.

I smile. “Another time.”

I hurry Annie away, not up another flight to find another playmate and teach her about the possibility of other friends, the importance of going on, but downstairs and inside. To be especially kind? No, especially irritated. Angry. At being reminded of my own childhood and forced to realize it will happen again.

I begin to invent excuses: they’re not home; it’s supper-time; they’re out of town.

I pretend to phone, dialling with one finger and holding the receiver down with the other. “They’re not home,” I say.

After a few days, enough time so that Annie won’t seem to be begging for friendship, I give in and we go upstairs.

The staircase is carpeted and wide. Annie’s right hand holds the wooden railing – cool and hard and smooth – and we walk up into the smell of cooking from the floors above, and down the hall to Joyce’s door.

“Ring the bell,” says Annie.

I reach up and ring it, and I hear Joyce’s voice. “Linnea, Mom! It’s Linnea!”

Joyce swings the door open and Norma appears at her side. Behind them is Joyce’s special tea set, pink and new and never brought out for Annie to play with. Quickly, “Would Joyce like to come down to play, or do you have other plans?”

Norma hesitates. Then, “Annie can stay and play, I don’t mind.”

Annie, already inside, stays.

It wasn’t possible – why wasn’t it possible? – for Norma to say that she had invited Linnea to play. It wasn’t possible for me to say what I knew, and that we would come back another time.

An hour later I returned for Annie. Linnea was there, and Linnea’s mother.

Joyce said to Annie, “You can go now.”

Norma reproached her. “Now, Joyce.”

This had been going on the whole time.

“There are different things you can do,” I say to Annie. “You can tell her to stop being mean. You can tell her you don’t like it. You can walk away and climb into a chair and read a book.”

She has come down from upstairs. She has stopped crying. She is on the sofa leaning her head against my shoulder.

A few hours later I tuck her into bed and she says, “Talk to me more about Joyce.”

“About what you can do?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you can just walk away from her and play on your own.”

She doesn’t say anything. She is holding my hand. Then, “I don’t want you to pick up Joyce anymore.”

I look out the window. A yellow taxi is parked across the street and I think of some tragedy, nothing specific, just the general idea of something unbearable and how I might react. The disbelief, finding myself in a situation recognizable from literature, saying to myself – this is Shakespearean. A misunderstanding of such proportions, an incident so earthshattering, as to make one’s life like a book worth reading. The thought injects a certain distance, and the distance a certain relief.

But five-year-olds aren’t Shakespearean. They can’t even read.

2

On the last day of January I come home, insert my key in the first door to the apartment – the apartment has two doors at either end of a long hallway – and see the farther door swing shut. I go still. Ted is at work, no one is home.

I open the door, look the length of the apartment, and see no one. I find a neighbour on the third floor and together we look through the apartment. I go outside. I see another neighbour and tell her, and once more we comb the apartment. But there is no one. No explanation.

Later I mention it to a friend.

“You saw the future,” he says.

What I saw was a triangle of pink: the triangle formed by the doorway and the closing door, and the colour mysterious because the door was brown and the paint in the kitchen was white.

In the afternoon I heard a child’s voice in the hallway and felt dismay. Listened – no. Listened – yes. Linnea. Linnea was going upstairs to play with Joyce. I felt such pity, such mortified sadness for my daughter who hadn’t been invited. I was transfixed by the pattern repeating itself from childhood. In having a daughter I had rubbed my own childhood into view, and was still rubbing, bent over that worn engraving and rubbing it into view – a picture that emerged through touch rather than sight, and in that way of childhood: knees on the floor, busy fingers, paper and pencil.

I wrote to my mother. In passing I mentioned Joyce. You remember, the aloof and solitary child with a mean streak. I said I had almost come to hate her. That’s all.

But as I wrote, my own relationship with my mother – that awkward unhappy thing – came back to mind. My own refusal to please. How else could it be described? I used to sit on the verandah steps and deliberately withdraw. I knew that I had a choice. I could laugh when I was teased and win my parents’ approval and my mother’s gratitude, or I could sulk and fume. I chose to sulk, though that isn’t the best word to describe the combination of fury and helplessness and pleasure which I chose to inhabit because it satisfied me more than cheerfulness, especially cheerfulness as practised by my mother – an unfailing attitude, a permanent posture. With my mother, pleasing and pleasure were the same.

My mother wrote back. I’m sorry, she said. I caught her tone, the shake of the head, the unspoken “It’s a shame.” An end-of-the-world tone, useless, completely useless to me.

Where does it come from, this end-of-the-world thinking? The belief that one bad thing cancels out everything else? It must be the panic of childhood retained. So that in the face of one criticism everything else, everything positive, the continuous ground we stand upon, falls away. A slight by Joyce of Annie, a criticism of my husband by a colleague, and the world drops away.

Why do some people retain the sense of a continuous world around them, and others not?

I ask Joyce to wait in her cubby, and I go into the teacher’s office which is off to one side. I say, “I need some advice.”

The teacher asks me if I have talked with Norma. I shake my head. “She’s a dear friend, I’m picking up Joyce to help her out.” I shake my head again.

“You may have to,” says the teacher, “but there are two other things you can do. You can say to them, ‘You don’t have to like each other all the time, you don’t have to play with each other all the time, but you do have to be nice to each other.’ And you can separate them. Put one of them to play by herself in one room, and the other in another room.”

The teacher’s voice is very loud. I move to close the door tightly, and the teacher continues to talk just as loudly. Doesn’t she care if Joyce hears? Does she want her to know she is being talked about? Does she think that will help? She says that little girls, especially, are like this.

We finish talking and I leave her office. Joyce is still sitting in her cubby, her face sombre and unreadable. We go down the stairs and across the street to Annie’s school. Every few feet of our progress, I congratulate myself that things are going smoothly, that I am calm, that I haven’t given Joyce any rope to hang me with.

The teacher said, “Your daughter needs your protection. You must interfere.”

I say to both children, “We have a new rule. You don’t have to play together, but you have to be nice to each other.” And I set up two spots, the rocking chair where Joyce can sit by herself, the sofa for Annie.

When they quarrel I try something I read in a book. I ask each of them to tell me what’s the matter. Annie tells me. Joyce won’t. I guess what’s the matter with Joyce and she nods. Then I tell them to go and sit on my bed. “Close the door, talk it out for five minutes, come back with a solution.”

I am amazed when they come back smiling and tell me what they have decided.

I watch them sometimes through the glass door, conferring on the bed. They sit side by side, as though on a park bench, and sometimes they come back after a few minutes and sometimes they remain. But the problem, the quarrel, goes away.

In a few weeks they are closer friends than they have ever been.

They play house, castle, boat, pirate ship, camping. They pull around the furniture in the living room, drape it with
old pieces of material, add the little table and chairs from Annie’s bedroom; they erect walls with square pieces of old foam, and fashion a rooftop from a long flat cushion. The little areas they make are small and beautiful, and often so carefully arranged with pieces of old black lace and rose-covered fabric that they look Japanese. The two of them in combination, not alone, make these places and play quietly for hours.

These little tents of friendship – creative and flimsy, improvised from big and little, different each time – have enough space for just the two of them; they sit under the shelter of an old shawl roof and pour themselves pretend tea.

I watch them become friends again, unable to put my finger on how it happens and aware that everything might crumble again.

It does. Once again Joyce turns against Annie.

It happens one afternoon after two hours of happy playing. Joyce fights with one of her sisters and is sent to her room. But it is Annie she insults. From her bed she yells, “Annie Pinhead.” And again. “Annie Pinhead!”

Annie hears her. She smiles and walks towards me. A tentative half-smile that doesn’t last.

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