by Penny Frances
Donna’s in such a hurry to get up their broken old path and knock on their tatty brown door that she doesn’t see Annabel pushing Belinda down behind the bush by the wall. I try to tell Donna, something’s up. Don’t knock. But she’s already done it, sun flashing on her hair, head back in her Dare-You look. The door opens straight away and it’s A&B’s dad, orange bell-bottoms flapping about six inches above his ankles, big toe poking out of a hole in his pink socks in his old sandals.
‘Ah, Double Trouble!’ He calls us that, thinks it’s dead funny, as if no-one else ever thought of it. But today it sounds like it’s not funny. ‘You’d better come in,’ he says, before Donna opens her mouth. ‘I want a word.’ And he sort of ushers us in with his big long arms, gently but not like you’d want to resist, not even Donna. Then he shuts the door behind us.
It’s dark in their narrow old hall after being out in the sunshine, just some dusty light coming in through the dirty stained glass at the top of the front door. It smells dingy too, like something rotting and spicy, and the dust tickles your throat. Disgusting, Mum would say. They’re supposed to be so posh and they live like pigs. She calls Annabel and Belinda A&B and says their parents are working their way through the alphabet. Catholics, she says, they’ll be having 24 more. I put my hand to my mouth, thinking of Mum doing the same, covering her smile.
A&B’s dad points to something lying on the floor just by the lounge door. The door’s open so we can see the stuff spilt out of the Woolworth’s bag. Bits of plastic jewellery, a couple of Buntys, magnetic draughts, water pistol, a roll of purple satin. I pull my breath in, squeeze with my arms. Feel Donna do the same. She steps towards me so we’re touching. And I get a faint whiff of Mum’s hairspray that we got done for spraying about ourselves this morning. It’s the only clean smell in the place.
‘I’d like to hear what you know about this little lot, young ladies,’ says the dad.
I stare down at the worn beige carpet; trace the faint squares of coloured light from the stained glass with my foot.
‘Well?’ he says.
It’s so quiet in here, compared to outside, compared to our place where’s there’s always the radio or telly or the neighbours making a noise. I think I hear a creak from the lounge, a rustle of paper. Maybe the mum’s in there. Sitting with the curtains half-drawn for her headache.
He takes a sharp breath that makes you have to look at him. He’s leaning with his arm against the wall, like he’s barring us from going anywhere, as if we’d dare. He’s so tall he has to sort of bend his neck down like a swan or something and I can see his tufty hair sticking out, but I don’t dare look at his face. I’m waiting for Donna.
Donna moves from foot to foot with her hands in tight balls at her side. She’s not looking at him either. She’s looking past his legs at a box on the floor. It’s full of apples. They’ve got boxes of apples all over the house: their gran’s got half a flipping orchard or something. We take some out with us sometimes. Crisp and sharp to make you suck your breath. Not like the soft yellow ones Mum buys.
‘I’m waiting for an answer.’ His posh teacher’s voice. That way they have of letting you know you’re in big trouble without shouting or nothing. Every word said just so you know you’re for it.
Donna shuffles some more, doesn’t take her eyes off that box of apples.
‘Dunno,’ she whispers.
‘What did you say?’
At school she’d eyeball them – toss back her head. Don’t know nothing about it. Daring them to blame her. Daring them just to dare.
‘Look at me when I’m talking to you,’ he says.
I raise my eyes a little without moving my head. His face looks older than I remember. Worn out really. Donna still stares at the apples.
‘Look at me!’ I nudge Donna as she looks up quickly, biting her lip. She’s never going to cry?
‘I’ll tell you then, shall I?’ He pauses, slows his voice down, all controlled and quiet again. ‘It’s quite simple. You make friends with my girls who are new to London and I let you in my house, I give you that neighbourly trust. And how do you repay that trust?’
That’s another teacher thing. Asking questions you haven’t got a clue about and you’re not even supposed to answer. All you know is you’re in trouble. Then they answer for you.
‘I’ll tell you how then, shall I? You repay my trust by stealing from my wife’s purse. Not just the odd sixpence, Donna? Denise?’ He shifts his look back and forth between us: he doesn’t know which is which. ‘No, ten shillings at a time. A pound even, Belinda said.’
I don’t remember how we got from our usual Saturday mornings of popping over the road to A&B’s for a quick game of snap and a lark about before their mum shouted at us to go out and play, we were giving her a headache. How did we get from there to the lounge with the mum’s bag on the armchair, all four of us standing around it? The smell of worn leather and face powder. Belinda pulling out the battered navy purse, the orangey-pink of the ten-shilling note. Hearing the creak on the landing as their mum left the bathroom. Quick snap shut of the purse and the bag. The note stuffed in Belinda’s fist. It was her that first time, I know that much. Little Belinda with her big blond curls and wonky fringe, who cried in the playground their first day at our school and it was me went and got the dinner lady to hold her hand. She’s the one now does the daring, the one that can outrun us all in a game of It, even though she’s only six.
‘And then you simply waste it on this pile of junk to hide in our shed. I ask you, what exactly did you have in mind for this stuff?’
Another teacher question. Donna shuffles her feet some more, and I edge closer so I can feel the warmth of her arm through our new white cardigans – the only bright things in this dim light. The pile on the floor does look like rubbish, but then we didn’t choose it, did we? That purple satin was Annabel’s idea, there’s thread and needles too. Did she think she’d sew herself a ball-gown?
We went up Woolworth’s with the money. That first time Donna steered us to the pop posters. We stood and looked at the Beetles in concert. Paul’s my favourite; Donna likes George, just to be different. Annabel said John was the best, but pointed at Paul. Donna laughed, think she’s so big, can’t even tell the Beetles apart. Annabel said we weren’t buying no posters, moved on to finger the shiny ribbons. Belinda complained she didn’t want soppy stuff, reckons she’s the tomboy. They stood there arguing, waving the ten-shillings between them. Donna said, let’s get it changed, half a crown each, and we could have had the poster then. But the bloke on the till told us to scarper before he called the cops. We ran all the way to the rec, Belinda ahead of course, mucked about on the swings for hours. I hoped we could forget about the money, but they wanted to go back, check if the bloke had gone. We got big bags of pick ‘n’ mix but there was too much to spend it all on sweets. Belinda chose the water pistol, Annabel that little girl jewellery, and they slung in some comics between them. Went marching up to a young looking shop-girl without even asking if we wanted anything. The girl didn’t seem too suspicious, but I still was sure she’d hear my heart boom as we queued at her till.
I never wanted to do it. None of it was for us. All right, we had the sweets, but they kept all the stuff.
‘Are you going to tell me about it now, or shall we get your mother and see what she has to say?’
I feel a sickly chill down my back, a tightness in my chest. Oh God, what will Mum say about this? I can picture her this morning, flowery scarf over her new Dusty Springfield hairdo, her face creasing into frown lines shiny with face cream, shouting as she brushed the sticky lacquer out of our hair, quick slap on the legs with the brush. But then she puts the radio on, swoons to Tom Jones Never Fall in Love Again, and her smile’s back while she’s pinning our hair with our new diamante slides. Peck on the cheek, sixpence pressed into our palms. Off with the pair of you. What’s she going to say about this thing? How ashamed will she be of us now?
Donna hangs her head right down, trying to hide behind her hair, except it’s all neat and pinned away from her face with the slide, just like mine is. It’s the way you can tell you’re looking at your sister and not in the mirror: the slide looks on the opposite side on your sister, but really it’s opposite in the mirror. Mum always dresses us the same, but she dresses us good. Today we’re the bees’ knees in our new navy slacks and white and navy pumps she got us from the catalogue for our ninth birthday. No-one ever knows for sure which one we are, and sometimes we pretend to be each other for a laugh. Except with Mum, of course. To her we’re chalk and cheese, she says, not really alike at all, you see. People should know Denise is the quiet one (sometimes she says sneaky), Donna’s the lippy one. Though when I’m being Donna I do that too. I don’t know who she’s being today but she’s blinking hard, biting her lippy lip, staring at the box of apples. There’s one on the top that’s gone bad. I can see it now. Brown with little white speckles, stinking the house out.
‘I simply want to hear what you’ve got to say about it.’ His voice is a bit softer. Feeling sorry now is he? After he makes my sister cry? I look up at him and his face is all crumpled like it needs an iron. He won’t lift a finger, he wouldn’t dare. Mum would give him such a battering. I can see her now, pulling off her shoe to use as a weapon, waving the pointy heel at him.
‘Leave us alone!’ I hear my voice like a bell cutting through the dust.
He looks down at me, eyebrows twitching with the surprise of it. ‘I beg your pardon?’ He says, every word slow and heavy.
I stare past his legs at the apples again. Focus on that rotten one. Hear Donna sniffle. No-one makes my sister cry.
‘It was Belinda the first time. It was all their idea. They never even gave us none of the stuff.’ I shout at the apple. Then I grab Donna’s arm and head for the front door.
It’s on the latch, he can’t stop us. I push Donna out as she wipes her eyes with her other arm. It’s fresh and golden on the street like the sky’s had a wash and hung out to dry. The sun glints on the windows of our flats over the road. Annabel’s sliding off their front wall in her worn out shorts and greying aertex and I spot Belinda’s curly head ducking to hide. I catch Annabel’s eye as she turns to dodge down with her sister and I flick her a look that’s knife-flash catching the edge of the light.
Penny Frances’ stories have been published in magazines, including Mslexia and The Interpreter’s House and online with Horizon Review and Pygmy Giant. She has a Writing MA from Sheffield Hallam University and is currently seeking publication of her novel. She blogs at pennyfrances.wordpress.com.