Commended at Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2013

A flat blue haze was suspended just above the cooker.

"I'm not going back this afternoon,” Claire mumbled to the carpet as she leant against the magnolia doorway between the hall and the kitchen.

“Pardon Claire, I didn’t hear you?” Said her Mother, wafting the smell of charred toast around the kitchen with a tea towel.

“I’m not going back this afternoon.” Claire announced a little louder, still to the carpet, as she traced a pattern over the conflicting swirls on it with her left foot.

"Yes you are, you always go back after you've had your lunch. Remember, this is what happens when you go to school," soothed her Mother as she scraped the black bits off the toast into the sink. Placing the cream bone handled knife on the draining board, she gave the toast a practiced shake and turned the tap on with her other hand and moved the tap from side to side to flush away the charcoal crumbs. Ducking to avoid the Formica work surface, her Mother had insisted on and her Father had handily placed to prevent any clear passage through the narrow galley kitchen, Claire tried to squeeze past both the stools lodged under it and her Mother’s legs.

"Now where are you going Claire?"

Claire squirmed round and told her Mother’s apron bow.

"To swing on my swing."

"Well do it afterwards, your lunch is ready."

Claire screwed up her face and started to lift her hands as the metal spoon screamed round the saucepan. She looked up to see the globules of beans hit the toast.

"I'm not hungry."

"You like beans."

"Not on toast."

"You like toast. Just try eating a bit."

"I don’t like the beans touching the toast and I'm not going back. I want to swing on my swing."

Turning back Claire could see the outline of her swing, zigzagged through the frosted bars of glass on the back door.

"And my tummy hurts"

"Well just try going back, if it still hurts later on, tell Miss Humphries and I'll come and get you."

Claire couldn't move her feet. Mummy had said her name, releasing the bubble of pain lodged in her stomach. Unable to keep it down it shot out and burst with a sob.

"I can't go back. Miss Humphries said I should know how to tie my laces and that I'm not a baby, that I should know and, and" she gulped for air "and we have to wear our plimsolls this afternoon and I can't go back."

Her mother took a knife and fork from the drawer under the draining board and went into the dining room with the plate.

"I'm sure it will be all right just for this afternoon. Come and sit up at the table." She soothed over her shoulder as she put the plate on the table and wavered slightly before placing the knife on the right and the fork on the left.

Claire’s shoulders heaved as she sniffed and sobbed.

"It won't, she said I have to learn before we go back after lunchtime, you have to show me. Miss Humphries said."

" Well eat your lunch first."

"There won't be time."

"It will go cold!" Her Mother snapped.

“There won't be time, I have to learn." Claire pleaded.

With a shudder her eyes filled and tears spilled down her face.

"All right, all right I'll show you. But stop your crying, you’ll wake your brother up and it took me long enough to get him down. Go and get your plimsolls out of their bag."

Sniffing and gulping Claire went down the narrow hall and collected the red gingham bag. Sitting on the floor she undid her buckles and took off her shoes. She prised open the drawstring with both hands, drawing in a breath of the rubber soles before pulling out the pristine black plimsolls.

"Get your hankie out and wipe your nose." Her Mother ordered.

Claire gave a hefty blow, scrunched the hankie and put it back in her pinafore pocket.

“Now put on that plimsoll and I’ll show you on the other.” Continued her Mother more kindly.

Taking in a deep breath, her Mother picked up the plimsoll, placed it on the floor next to Claire’s right foot and proceeded with the instruction.

"Now make a loop and hold it with this hand, put this lace round the loop and push it

through there and pull."

Claire tried, she looked hard, it looked wrong. It felt wrong. The first loop wouldn't stay and her hand wouldn't go where she wanted.

"I can't do it, show me the other way"

“I can't, just try, it will be fine"

Claire pushed her tongue into her cheek, tried to hold the loop in her left hand willing the lace in her right to form a bow, they didn’t.

“I can’t do it this way it doesn’t work.”

“It doesn’t matter which hand, it makes no difference, just keep trying.”

"I am, see I am. I can't, and Daddy says it does matter and I can't go back", pulling her legs to her chest and her arms round her red tighted legs, she started to sob quietly. With restrained anger and a hint of panic her Mother announced

"Yes Daddy says, Daddy says, well Daddy can sort this out.”

“But he’s at w,w,w work.” Claire crescendoed into a wail as her Mother picked up the cream receiver and began turning the dial round with her right index finger.

“That’s enough! You’ll wake up Brian! I'm calling your father. He started this nonsense and he can sort this out."

Claire was still hunched on the floor in the corner of the hall, her eyes pressed to her damp knees when ‘Daddy’s key’ turned in the front door lock.

"Come on. Come on what’s all this?  Dry your eyes, here you are, wipe your nose."

He gave her a smile and his big hankie with a G on it so he would know it was his. She have given him it for Christmas.  It didn’t have D for Daddy as there were a lot of Daddies at his work and someone else might think it was theirs, and that wouldn’t be right.

"Give your glasses a wipe as well."

Unhooking the wire bits from behind her ears she held the round pink frames in the middle with the hankie, so as not to touch the lenses, and used the clean corner to wipe them carefully like he had taught her.

"I haven't hurred on them because they're not dirty".

"That's all right then" he smiled as she handed him back a crumpled rag.

"Thank you, better now?"

She nodded and let out a small grin.

"Now where are those laces”?

"Here" she pointed to her foot and the one next to it.

"I couldn’t do it like Mummy my hands won’t work like that, Mummy said I had to try but I couldn’t Daddy I did try, honestly I did.”

“I know you did darling it’s all alright now, Mummy must have forgotten. Like I told you when you first started school, if anyone tries to make you use your other hand to write, or anything else for that matter. You push your chair in, get your coat and you come home and tell Mummy to get me. “

“Mummy has not forgotten. This isn’t the 1930’s Gordon it’s the 1960’s! They do not tie children’s hands to their chairs anymore like they did with you.” Her Mother was wiping her hands, a lot, with the tea towel.

“I didn’t say they did, but I am not having her being made to feel she’s odd.” Said her Father.

“As long as they don’t hurt her I don’t see why she just can’t be made to be normal.” Retorted her Mother. It was then her Father shouted and said a bad word. “She is bloody normal, and I am not having you or anyone else making her feel otherwise!”

“She’s barely FIVE! She can not walk out of school at will!” Her Mother hissed the words through her clenched teeth as she twisted a tea towel with both hands before abruptly turning back into the kitchen. A saucepan slammed onto the draining board.

Her father closed his eyes and Claire winced and put her hands over her ears as the metal spoon was ferociously scrapped around the pan followed by several bursts of tap water.

Her Father lowered Claire’s hands. “What did Miss Humphries say about using your other hand?”

“Miss Humphries didn’t tell me to do it the other way she just said I had to tie my laces and I had to know how to do it before I went back, after our lunchtime. She said we were old enough now and we weren’t babies and she was cross! Miss Humphries is never ever cross Daddy.  It wasn’t just me Daddy, Linda and Jackie couldn’t too and some boys, but, but they don’t use their other hand like me and Mummy doesn’t know how to showed me and…and.” Tears started seeping out of her eyes and her lashes, both top and bottom, were now forming pointed clumps.

“Come on stop crying otherwise you’ll never be able to see how to do it. We will just do it our way. I’ll talk to Mummy.” Her Father placed his hands on her shoulders and looked at her flushed face, put her hair behind her left sticking out ear and stroked her head.

“I can’t go back Daddy, she said I have to learn today, we've got games in the field, I have to wear them. Miss Humphries said..."

"Now don't start yourself off again otherwise you'll polish those glasses away, OK?"

"Yes, OK."

Claire took a couple of breaths. “That’s my girl, take a couple more.”

Her Father let go of her shoulders, turned her around and they both examined the forbidding laces. Claire bit her lip and then slowly released it as she pushed her tongue into her right cheek.

He bent down to her left side.

"No that won't do, hang on I'll stand behind you. Crouch down, kneel on one knee, that's it; put this leg up, there now. There that’s better. Now make a loop in your right hand and you hold it here, then with your left hand, hang on, let me have a practice first."

He leaned over her, his short stubby fingers attempted to grapple with the little thin laces.

"It's no good, Daddy’s got sausage fingers."

Claire let out a gasp but before a sob or word or even a smile could spill out, he rubbed her head

"Don't worry, don't worry I'll think of something. Now..."

Her desolate eyes stared at the unfathomable laces and started to fill. Her plimsolls absorbed into the black carpet, the yellow and red flecks of pattern swirling around them.

"I know, I know, right now." Her Father cried.

He untied his large brown shoe and placed it in front of her.

"Take your plimsoll off and put your foot in there."

With a face covered in confusion, Claire did as he told her. His shoe warmed her foot and the smell of slightly damp leather wafted up comforting her slightly as she wiggled her toes. Looking at his sock a little giggle tripped out and she pointed to the hole in his sock.

"Hmmm I didn't notice that this morning. Your mother is slipping. Lucky I don't have to take my shoes off at work and do games in the field. Now, come on. Once you've learnt on these you'll be able to do any old laces."

After tying the laces once he carefully placed her hands in his and repeated the process two or three times. And then he felt it; just at the moment she did and in the second that followed Claire begged. "Let me try, by myself."

"Go on then. That's it, no push it through the underneath bit. That's it!"

"That bit is too long."

"That's all right, keep going, next time make the first loop a bit bigger."

"I did it, I did it!" Claire threw her hands in the air and her head back which her Father thankfully swerved avoiding another lunchtime crisis.

"Woah steady, well done, now pull your plimsoll on and try with them before my toe drops off with frostbite."

Kicking his shoe off she grabbed at the plimsoll with grim determination, willing them to conform into bows, as her Father beamed behind her. Unaccustomed to the liquorice laces the first attempt fell apart. Her face twisted in fear and her tongue left her cheek.

"Slow down, slow down. Look they're smaller so make the loops smaller."  Her Father pointed to the wisps of laces wrapped round her elfin fingers. Beautiful hands, just like your Mother, he mused to himself.

Nodding but not averting her gaze for a moment she attacked them again. Triumphant

Claire stood up.

"See, I did it, I did it. Daddy look I did it."

Pointing to the proud bow she noticed the equally offending right foot laces and before he could voice his approval she bobbed down and accomplished another, slightly lopsided bow with a flourish. Her mother came round the door from the kitchen.

“Mummy, Mummy look I did it, I can do it!”

"Come on now, your lunch is cold, eat it quickly you'll be late."

Claire pointed at the plimsolls

"See, I did it"

"Yes well done, your lunch."

"I'll just have my apple"

"Claire, you must have some of it." Her Mother insisted.

"I'll drop you to school in the car on my way back to work Claire. Come on, Mummy’s right, just two bites."

He ushered her through the school gates with a pat on the bottom. The whistle blew and she ran to stand in line next to her friend Jackie and in a conspiritual whisper, because you mustn’t talk in line, she blurted to her new friend.

“Jackie I can do them, my Daddy came home and showed me.”

She looked up to the chain-linked fence and saw he had gone.

“Did your Granddad showed you?”

“He did!” beamed Jackie and she pointed down to her feet that still had the brand new plimsolls on, “It took ages, they are very, very fiddly but I can do them now. We didn’t have time to take them off so me and Granddad ran like bullets back to school. Granddad said Miss Humphries wouldn’t mind that I still have them on, just this once, as long as I could do them.”

“No talking in the line you girls, yes you two in 1c.” Boomed Mr. Willis.

Both Claire and Jackie blushed and looked down at Jackie’s plimsolls.

Avoiding Mr. Willis’s very beady eyes, they linked hands and triumphantly followed the two in front into the school doors.