The Girl in the Red Coat (9 page)

18

The sound makes me stop still by the gate and my hair does a strange thing which is lifting off my head and going straight up.

Ting, ting, ting.

What is it? Not Grandad and Dorothy because their car is gone. I’ve been looking for them for
ages
and thinking, getting scared, about what would happen if they get squashed on the road like Mum. Thinking I’ll have to eat grass until I die. That I’ll be a ghost and trapped here forever.

Being on your own is terrible, especially when there’s noises and you don’t know what they are – though maybe it’s just a bird or an animal. Quiet as anything I creep round the back where it’s coming from and crawl behind some bushes on the corner and peep through the green stalks.

Then my hair floats down to where it normally is because it’s just Grandad there. He’s got his shirt sleeves rolled right up and he’s nailing a metal lock to a door and that’s what’s making the sound. He grunts as he works – the way old men do – and mutters something under his breath. I’m
so
pleased to see him I nearly jump up and say hello to surprise him. But then I remember what I’ve told myself – that I want to keep an eye on him and the best way to do that is when he doesn’t know he’s being watched, and then he can’t pretend anything.

I crouch, spying on him, until my feet start feeling pins
and needlely. And I’m glad I do this because he starts singing a very weird song that could tell me a lot about him. It goes:

Are you washed in the blood,

In the cleansing blood of the lamb?

Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?

Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?

Ting, ting,
goes his hammer as he sings. He’s got a lovely voice, he really has, but the words make me think of people washing in lamb’s blood and getting it in their eyes and up their noses and how it would smell and stick to you all over.

I must have moved because Grandad stops working and his arm – the one with the hammer – gets stuck in mid-air above his head.

‘Carmel?’ His head turns and his eyes are staring right into the bushes through his round glasses. ‘Is that you?’ His arm’s still up.

I stay put.

‘Carmel, I know it’s you. I can see the red of your coat.’

And I remember what I was going to do earlier so I jump up and throw out my arms. ‘Ta-da. Surprise,’ I say, to make him think I’m just playing a silly trick.

He frowns. ‘Child, it’s very naughty to spy on people. It’s a sign of a
very
untrustworthy character.’

I feel guilty then because I know he’s right – and I don’t like the sound of being an ‘untrustworthy character’. So I go and sit on the step and say, ‘Sorry. I really am.’ Then to change the subject I ask him what he’s doing.

He looks at the hammer in his hand as if he’s forgotten about it.

‘I’m securing this door. Thieves and intruders are everywhere in this world, child, and we have to keep them out.’

He carries on hammering with his face tight and turned away. I think he’s showing me he’s still cross.

‘I thought you’d gone out and left me alone.’ I feel like crying when I say that.

‘Of course not, we wouldn’t do that.’ He does one last bash with his hammer. ‘I phoned the hospital again this morning.’

This makes me jump and go ‘Oh’ because I didn’t know he was going to phone and now I feel I should’ve asked him about Mum.

‘Too busy spying to think about that, eh?’ Which is quite a nasty thing to say but the guilty feeling gets worse anyway. It also makes me think that Grandad was a lot crosser about the spying than he’d let on.

‘What did they say?’ My breath comes quick.

‘Well, do you remember that place I told you about? The place called intensive care?’

He’s talking to me like I’m a baby but I just nod.

‘Well, your mother is still there, so I’m afraid we can’t see her yet. But she is much better. Stable, in fact, that’s what the doctors said.’

‘Stable.’ I like the sound of that.

He puts down his hammer and comes and sits next to me. ‘Yes. We’ll be able to see her soon, dear. Very soon.’

This relaxes my body all over. It feels quite nice then, the two of us sitting there together even if we had a sort of argument over the spying and I think how I actually sometimes
miss having a nan and grandad, even if Dorothy’s not my real one. I notice his eyes are nearly the same blue as my mum’s.

‘Where do you come from? Are you Irish?’ I ask, because I want to carry on having a talk.

‘Me and Dorothy? We’ve lived in America, dear, that’s why you might think I speak so strange. I’m not particularly from anywhere. Did you think we were Irish? That’s funny.’ And he laughs. It’s the sort of laugh you see in a cartoon with an ‘oh, ho ho’ sound coming out of his mouth. ‘But
my
grandfather, he came here to this workhouse when he was a boy, he used to tell us stories about it. So I looked it up when I was down this way and imagine my good fortune when I saw that part of it was to rent. I thought – perfect. That’s just perfect.’ And he laughs again.

I don’t think any of this is funny and he stops laughing after a while.

I pluck up the courage to say this for a long time: ‘Where’s Dorothy,
Grandad
?’ Saying that word makes me feel shy but he seems to like it and maybe he’s thinking it’s nice to have a granddaughter because he looks at me and grins.

‘Dorothy’s gone to town to buy you some surprises.’

‘Oh. What sort of surprises?’

‘Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? And then they wouldn’t be surprises any more.’

We sit there for a bit in the sun.

‘Carmel, it’s going to be simply wonderful getting to know you again. It’s a crying shame your mother argued with us,’ he says out of the blue.

I think: I’m not sure what my mother will have to say about
that,
but of course I don’t say it because I don’t want to upset him. I suddenly feel very tired about all the
arguments and falling out and shouting and clothes coming out of windows that adults do right over your head, as if you’re just the mouse on the floor and don’t understand. ‘Just a little tiff me and your mum are having,’ they say, even when their voices didn’t sound like they were having a little tiff, they sounded like they were going to kill each other with knives. Or ‘nothing to worry about’ or ‘everything’s A-OK’. Even when it’s not A-OK: very far from it. So I do a big sigh and Grandad smiles at me again.

‘C’mon. Let’s go inside and see if there’s any cookies in the cookie jar.’

And I take his big hand and we go together back inside the house, with him whistling and swinging his hammer in his other hand that’s not holding mine. On the way back I see something I haven’t noticed before.

‘Look, Grandad.’ It’s a row of tiny houses, small enough for hobbits or elves, built into the side of the castle wall. Every single door has round holes cut into it. He just grunts like he’s thinking about something else and I want to stop and look but he’s got my hand so I have to follow.

Grandad leaves me in the kitchen with some crayons so he can get on with his jobs, and being on my own makes Mum come back to me. I see her lying on the hospital bed like a broken spider. I see her cut up by doctors so she looks like bacon. I’m scared if I draw anything it’ll be her with metal stalks and tubes coming out.

I look up at the high ceiling and I have the idea I could float up to it like a balloon and that Grandad might reach up and try and grab my string but I’d be way, way too high. The only time I’d float down again is when they said Mum’s better and I can go home. I do some crying again, with my
head on the crayons, so the snow globe’s not working. Its stuff is leaking out.

*

The first I know that Dorothy’s come back is when I hear her calling, ‘Carmel, Carmel. Where is she?’

‘In here, in here.’

She comes into the apartment with masses of carrier bags. She’s got red lipstick on and a yellow blouse with bright pink roses. ‘Provisions,’ she says and soon the table’s covered with tins and lemons and boxes of cereal.

‘Tonight is feast night.’ She laughs and flings her hair back like a horse does with its mane. Her eyes look shiny and excited as if going out made her quicker and more awake.

‘Dorothy,’ I say carefully, because you never know what’s going to make grown-ups act in funny ways or make them say no – no way, José. ‘Next time you go out, can I come with you?’

She laughs and says, ‘Maybe.’ I pick up a tin of beans and it’s silly, it makes me feel a bit wobbly and teary because it’s such a relief seeing something so familiar: the same blue colour and the
57 varieties.

‘Now then, Carmel, something just for you.’ She picks up the bag that says
British Heart Foundation
on it in red writing and starts taking out piles of lace dresses – six of them, like dolls or bridesmaids wear. They make a frilly mountain of lace in between the shopping, all ice-cream colours: yellow, peach, pink and white – made of nylon, that Mum never buys. Then she shows me another bag that’s got new tights, knickers, a nightie and shiny patent shoes.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Um – thank you Dorothy.’

‘Don’t you like them, Carmel?’ Her face looks disappointed. ‘This is how girls dress where I come from. When they go to church on Sunday morning they look like dozens of little flowers dancing down the street.’

‘Usually,’ I say, ‘I wear things like jeans and T-shirts with pictures on them. And trainers.’

‘Oh. But those things you’re wearing are so dirty.’

I look down: it’s true. The leggings have gone baggy at the knees and my cuffs are crispy with dirt from outside. Even my socks have started itching.

‘Maybe just for now,’ she says.

‘Alright,’ I say, trying to keep polite, even though the clothes look exactly like how Alice dressed at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. ‘I will till I can go home.’

Grandad comes in rubbing his hands together.

‘She’s back,’ he says and he puts his arms round Dorothy’s waist and they do a funny little dance together round and round that’s extra funny because of his limp. He settles back in the biggest chair at the head of the table, smiling his head off, like a king expecting presents. ‘And what is there for me?’

‘There, your favourite.’

He twists open the top of the bag and takes out a peanut in its shell.

‘We give those to the birds sometimes,’ I say.

He frowns, as if I’m spoiling his lovely snack. ‘Now that would be a crying waste of good food.’ He makes a sound like bones cracking as he splits open a peanut between his fingers and thumb.

Dorothy says, ‘Come, child. It’s about time you took a shower and washed that grub and dirt away.’

She leads me up the stairs towards their bathroom and behind me I can hear the crack, crack, crack that Grandad makes, splitting open peanut shells.

*

When I come back down Grandad folds up the newspaper he’s been reading and tucks it under his bottom so he’s sitting on it. ‘There she is,’ he says. ‘As pretty as a picture. As cute as a bunny rabbit.’

My old dirty clothes are in a ball in my hands with trainers on top. Dorothy dumps them into the little room with the washing machine and I feel a pang when she shuts them in there.

‘You chose the yellow.’ Dorothy clasps her hands together. ‘How perfect.’ She likes the dresses way more than I do; if there was one big enough she’d probably want to wear it. If Mum saw me now she’d laugh and say I look like a right nutter. But when I put it on I decided – whatever happens – I’ll have to stay being Carmel on the inside, with my name printed like a stick of rock, which is something I’ve heard Mum say.

Dorothy’s feast is in steaming bowls on the table and my mouth starts watering as I sit down. There’s beer for Grandad too.

‘And now, let’s take a moment to say grace,’ says Grandad. I copy what they do and bend my head and put my hands together.

‘God, you have given us this wonderful food …’ and he goes on and on about how lucky we are to be eating ‘the grains from the land’ and ‘the flesh given up to us’.

I take a peep from under one of my eyelids. Grandad is frowning with his eyes screwed shut and I realise – with
this praying and the song from the morning – he must be what Dad calls ‘a God botherer’ – the most dangerous sort, he says. Though Grandad doesn’t look dangerous, just sweaty and upset. And he does end up praying for Mum too: ‘… and for our daughter, Beth. We pray that she continues on her path of recovery and that we will be reunited in love in the happy future.’

He finishes at last. ‘Be careful,’ Dorothy says and winks at me, ‘we like our food to have fire in it in Mexico.’

She helps me put things on my plate and I say, ‘I thought you were from India.’

‘No. Mexico is the country where I come from, Carmel, where the beautiful earth is red and the sunshine on flowers makes them glow like they have lights inside …’ she gives herself a shake, ‘but I met your grandfather so everything is for the best. I needed a strong man, a hard-working man, a protector. I saw your grandfather preaching in America and thought how fine he was. So I never went back to Mexico but I can still have food with fire in it.’

I touch my tongue carefully on the chicken stew and it feels like it’s going to go up in flames so I stick it out to cool. Both of them laugh at that.

‘See, I warned you,’ says Dorothy and wags her finger at me, her red lipstick smiling across her face.

I don’t really mind them laughing. It’s like we’re our own family, the three of us, and if I’m a balloon I’m tied to the chair now which is better, I suppose, than flying off free to get lost. I eat three huge pieces of corn with butter dripping over my chin I’m so hungry.

But as it’s getting later there’s something worrying me and with us all talking and laughing I pluck up the courage
to ask about it.

‘Dorothy, do I have to sleep in that room tonight? I mean, is there a little bed that can go at the bottom of
your
bed perhaps?’

I can’t remember exactly how many nights I’ve had in that room. But I can’t stand the thought of another one because there’s noises shuffling round my bed. In the day I mostly forget but now it’s nighttime just the thought of it is making my hair stand on end.

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