by A. J. Ashworth
YOU HAVE ALREADY blown out the candles, already opened your cards and presents, already heard ‘Happy Birthday’ more times than you are able to remember. You are ten. You are a big girl, bigger than you’ve ever been now that you’ve reached double digits. You have officially been ten since half past nine this morning—the time your mother gave birth to you ten years ago. In a hospital that is now boarded up, with paint peeling from its walls and radiators, and with “Keep out” signs stuck to the barriers outside of it. You know about this because you’ve driven past with your family many times before and, so far, each time you have, your mother has said, ‘Worst night of my life in there. But you were worth it. In the end.’
You are sitting at the dining room table, which is spread with colouring books, yellow bricks of Lego, with felt tips that have lost their tops. You can see the dots and lines left by the felt tips all over its surface—the yellows, blues and pinks which are starting to fade now that you don’t use them so much, now that your mother has scrubbed the life from them to try and get rid. But you can still see them, like scars. Like the table is holding on to the memory of you and your brother. As if it doesn’t quite want to let your child selves go yet. As if it’s not quite ready to just be a place for the eating of sensible meals.
You are at the dining table but you are not eating at home today. You are waiting for your parents and your brother to come back downstairs so you can all go to Pizza Hut for lunch, then ten pin bowling. It was your brother’s choice to do this. You wanted Burger King and the cinema but your parents talked you out of it because your brother can’t sit still for ten minutes and you’ve already had burgers this week. You said something about it being your birthday not his and your mother tutted. You heard the sound of that tut like a gun going off. Like a bullet fired in the room and you the only person who could hear it. A bullet that was nothing like all those you’ve heard fired in films before because this sound was louder—so loud and hard that it was as if no other sounds existed, or had ever existed. Like it was the first real sound you’d heard. It was as if it had the power of making the whole world quiet, quieter than it has ever been before. And now you can’t stop hearing it. Or feeling the emptying that came with it. A feeling like all the colours you’ve been drawn in are draining away from inside you and you’re not sure how to stop them leaving.
You know now what it means when someone asks you on your birthday morning—as your father did today—if you feel any different, any older. You know now that you shouldn’t have been so quick to answer him with your bright and perky ‘No’ and that you should have waited until later. Until the time when your mother tutted. Until the time when you felt your colours start to go. If he asked you now you would probably get hot in your face and feel the water come to your eyes, and he would ask you why you were crying on your special day. He would rub you on the top of your head and say, ‘Come on, what’s wrong? You’re a big girl now. Don’t be getting upset.’ And you would move your fists over your eyes and not be able to speak because that’s what happens when you cry. A drawbridge goes up in your throat and there’s nothing you can do to make it open again.
But you are not crying. You are sitting at the dining table staring at a red felt-tip scar in your new birthday clothes with your new birthday bra beneath them. Small ponies riding over the cups, small girls sitting tall on minute saddles laid over the ponies’ brown backs. You won’t need bras for another year or so but you’ve started to wear them now because you have two small lumps growing there. Hard as knuckles. Two hard lumps that will one day stretch and fatten until they start to look like your mother’s. Soft and full and shaped like teardrops. But that won’t happen for a while yet. For now you just have these rope-knots of flesh that your brother has taken to punching you in when you fight. Distracting you by aiming at your head with his fists and then lowering them at the last minute so he can hit them full on, right on the pink of their soft, puckered tips. The pain going through you in a liquid bruise. A squirt of flame that makes your vision pop with stars and your knees crumple like a house of cards. You have to give in to the crumpling and sit down when he does this. You have to sit down, lean forward and hold a hand over each small mound until the stars and heat begin to fade. And when they do, you get up and chase him all over the house until you catch him and kick him down there, hard as you dare. And when he howls, which he always does whenever you touch him, you know you’re going to get it. You know you’re going to feel that sting on your legs or backside while he just gets a good talking to. All because you’re the big girl and you should know better, especially now that you’re ten, especially now that you wear bras and have been able to colour inside the lines for a long time now, unlike your brother.
But you know he won’t do any of this today, because of Pizza Hut and bowling. He won’t hit you until you’ve at least got home again when your birthday day is drawing to a close. When it is becoming less than it was. When the day is narrowing and closing like an eye ready for sleep.
But the eye of your birthday day is still wide open. There are many hours to go before it is time for your brother to go to bed and an hour later, you. Before then you are going to drive by the hospital on your way to the restaurant. Your mother is going to turn in the car and say, ‘Worst night of my life…’ And you will want to ask her why, when she says this, you feel like you’re the one to blame for all of what happened there. For the rips and the stitches. The blood loss. For the hot, sore weeks which almost made her not want to try again, try for her boy, the boy she had always known she wanted since she herself was ten.
But you won’t ask that. Not when they’ve bought you games and books and clothes and earrings. Not when they came in singing with a cake in the shape of a horse’s head, ten candles down its mane. Not when it said your name in a smiling curve on the cake board in front of it—a small star cut out in the ‘a’ so that it could become the dot of the ‘i’. The icing ragged where the cut wasn’t clean.
Instead you will hear those words again and say nothing. Your father will carry on driving, your mother will put her head back against the seat and your brother will play a game on your mother’s mobile phone. You will stare at the “Keep out” signs, at the one which is half-fallen from the mesh. You will breathe on the window, write “No admittance” in the mist, spell it right. And you will feel again that same feeling from earlier, from when your mother tutted. Your reds and yellows slipping out through the horse-hair gap under the car door and out onto the road. Settling in rainbows in the puddles next to the kerb. Rainbows that bring their own kind of rain. The kind of rain that will never stop.
A. J. Ashworth is the author of the short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here, which won Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and was shortlisted in the Edge Hill Prize. She has won numerous awards including a K. Blundell Trust Award and has just completed a PhD in creative writing. She is working on a new collection of short stories, one of which was selected for Best British Short Stories 2021. Her website is: www.ajashworth.com.