inattentive

by Bebhinn Tankard

Content warning: Child abuse.

I danced in the morning when the world was begun –

 

You are sat cross-legged, arse half numb from the parquet floor, watching Reverend Owen break into a snore. Drool inches down the elderly man’s chin, a cooling, frothing stream watering the dusty pits and valleys of his face. They’ve been giving him retirement assemblies since your mother was a child here, but the message hasn’t quite sunk in, and he still returns each day at eight-forty to mumble about shepherds and sheep and sin. During his sermon you tugged out a hair-ribbon, and now you’ve looped it around your hands in a cat’s-cradle, absently fiddling to stop yourself fidgeting. When it falls from your fingers, a blue butterfly taking flight, you recall your socks.

Your school socks are knee high and white and woollen and cost a bloody arm and a leg. You did not choose them; you are not old enough to choose anything yet. You wonder why your mother paid such a gruesome price when the socks are unbearably itchy. Every minute or so, you remember their presence, the tag in the collar of your chequered summer dress, the scratchy fibres of the cardie Granny knitted in chunky navy with the size six needles. It’s too hot for a cardie, but if you take it off you’ll only lose it. Things seem to cease to exist when you put them down. Yous just scatterbrained, me duck, said Granny, giving your tangled head a pat last time you misplaced your sandwiches and satchel and swim kit in one afternoon. Your mother held you down and smacked the back of your thigh thrice for three lost things, right where it stung enough to forget your uniform itching. Your eyes burned, and you thought about the ducks in the allotment pond, and Danny Nichol falling in arse over tit and sending them spiraling into the air, standing up with a cloudy crown of tadpoles in his hair.

Jesus Christ, there’s no need to hit her like that, Helen – your face still smushed into the arm of the sticky settee – What, you’d have beat the shite out a me at her age! – one eye able to see the playdough you got stuck in the carpet, that nobody’s found yet – She can’t help bein forgetful, that doctor said – a smear of clay-brown in swirly flowery green – Here you go again, tryin to tell me how to raise me own daughter! – 

 

You have not seen Granny in a while, so you must keep the cardie buttoned tight, even as your underarms and back dampen with sweat, the scratching of wool urging you not to forget.

With your thumb and index finger, you roll down your sock into a thick sausage around your ankle, relieved from the pinpricks of irritation at last. You admire the impressive canvas of your bony leg, splotched with smudges of gold and ash and mauve and violet. You are not good at keeping your balance; you are not good at behaving. On your other leg, the sock catches on a graze on your shin, and tears it away with fibrous canines. Red blossoms on white, a summer flower in snow, a miracle. You suck in one breath, another, another, hissing through your teeth at the pain. 

Dance, dance, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance said he-

 

You glance up, and the Headmistress, pink with heat, catches your eye with a look of steel. You mouth the words of the hymn obediently, wondering how you’re going to staunch the rivulet of blood, wondering whether Christ still bled on the dance floor with His hands full of holes. You know it’s irreverent to picture Him at the children’s disco, Sunday afternoon from three till five, when all the teachers’ chairs stack up behind a curtain and this same hall becomes so changed with the lights turned low. Would He follow Danny Nichol like the other boys, hair done up with gel to stiff iced peaks, careening up and down at breakneck speed and skidding into their knees? He suffers the little children to come unto Him, said Reverend Owen, and hanging around Danny Nichol usually causes suffering. You joined in with his group before, until you were firmly taught that good little girls do not get green-grey holes in their tights, good little girls are not colourful, and good little girls do not imagine Jesus doing the YMCA. You splay your hands in the Y, on the cross; the image makes you giggle. The Headmistress glares. Reverend Owen’s snore catches in the back of his throat, and he blinks himself awake in time to lead the closing prayer. You effortlessly forgive those that have trespassed against you, and consider trespassing in the allotments on your way home, gathering strawberries in greedy arms, staining them to match your legs.

Your teacher shrieks when she catches sight of you in the line back to lessons, and pulls you by the arm into the bathroom. Your hands are clammy. You watch a grotesque little creature get scolded in the mirror for its bare-leggedness, blood-smeared skin, its absent-mindedness and hair half-unplaited. It smooths its fingers over the bottom button of its unravelling cardie, over and over, enjoying the rounded certainty of the plastic. You copy it, trying to keep your face impassive, your feet planted firmly to the ground the way the adults like them to be.

Are you listening to me?

 

You have not been. You nod. The button comes away in a sudden, sharp twist, and the thing in the mirror starts to cry. Luckily, you are good at blinking back tears.