Summer Selections: Heal
by Jodie Reed
I slammed the bathroom door behind me and thrust my shaking right hand into the sink while my left struggled with the cold tap. I bit down on my lip. Breathe, I told myself as the cool water began rushing over the sore flesh. Don’t cry, just breathe… I closed my eyes and turned my face away, biting down harder on my lip. The bright lights in the ceiling made the backs of my eyelids glow a strange, alien pink.
I’d always hated the fuss people made when they hurt themselves, couldn’t stand it. Even from a young age I can remember handling things myself. Fall down? Get up, brush yourself off, move on. It was something Mum had always preached, something I now did without a second thought.
I took a breath and opened my eyes. Now on the back of my right hand, beneath my thumb and forefinger, were two bright red lines. I’d branded myself like a cow.
‘Shit,’ I muttered, peering closer, ‘please don’t scar…’
I blew on my hand and flapped it about in the air, trying to remember any other advice they tell you, before just shoving it back in the sink. I felt stupid. Four months shy of my fifteenth birthday and I still wasn’t able to deal with this without freaking out.
I knew I wasn’t special; burns hurt for everyone, duh. Except for me there was an extra edge to them. The pain but also this burst of fear and dread in my stomach, like I was going to be told off… No. I shook my head and focussed. Mind over matter, that’s what Mum said. I looked at the lines again; the loud, stinging feeling had finally begun to cool to a dull roar. I took another breath and told myself that it looked worse than it was. Then I wiggled my fingers to prove it.
The oven glove had disappeared, that was the problem. I hadn’t thought anything of it, just grabbed a tea towel to take the tray of fish fingers from the oven. It should’ve been fine except, out of nowhere, Hugh pipes up and drops a bombshell:
‘Mum and Dad are getting a divorce.’
Seriously, where had that come from? And what was I supposed to say? I had no idea he even knew that word, let alone knew that his parents’ marriage was on the rocks. I’d been baby-sitting him for over a year and yet we’d never had conversations like that. He’d said it as if he were telling me he might be getting a haircut on the weekend; matter-of-fact and without emotion, but as though he wanted my opinion too. It had caught me totally off guard and I’d jumped, only slightly, yet slightly was enough for the top of my hand to touch the upper shelf in the oven.
I’d yelped and dropped the tray back onto the lower shelf in surprise, hopping backwards with a gasp. Hugh had jumped too, up out of his seat, but then he froze, making a strange squeaking sound as though he wanted to help, apologise, and run off, all at the same time. I’d turned away from him, closed then flicked the oven off, and just hurried out the room.
I sighed now. I could hear him, shuffling to and fro in the corridor outside the bathroom. I must have freaked him out, I thought to myself. I turned the tap off and began to carefully dab my hand on the towel to dry it. I looked at my face in the mirror. My cheeks and ears were still flushed but there was nothing I could do about it. I tucked a stray lock of auburn hair back behind my ear.
‘Lowry?’ came a tiny, muffled voice.
I smiled and looked away from the glass. ‘It’s okay, Hugh. I’m fine,’ I said, straightening my school skirt as if to confirm this. ‘And take your sleeve out your mouth – you know what your Mum said.’
‘S’not in my mouth!’ protested a clearer voice.
‘Oh, really?’ I teased, spinning round and opening the door, but there was no one there. Just the sound of footsteps running towards the living room.
An hour and a half later and Hugh and I were sitting crossed-legged on the floor of his playroom. While I’d plated up the food, Hugh had found an ingenious way to cover his chewed sleeves; wearing his raincoat indoors. Subtle. I should’ve told him to take it off and sit down properly for his tea but, how could I? I knew the reason he was chewing all the sleeves and collars of his clothes (and driving his Mum nuts in the process) was because his parents had been arguing – still, after months and months. And he was right. While neither his Mum nor his Dad had told me explicitly yet, it was clear that they were separating, and soon. Hugh was stressed but, at six years old, there was nothing he could do to change things. Me burning my hand had just stressed him out more. I could hardly have had a go at him.
So, instead, I’d done the only thing I could do; I’d gone and put my own raincoat on. From there, the whole thing had spiralled off into a game of ‘it’s raining inside’. When I’d finished washing up after tea, the make-believe rainwater had filled up the downstairs to such a degree we had to retreat to the safety of playroom upstairs. There we’d built a make-shift fortress for Hugh’s toys.
Hugh had taken charge of the game and had been chattering away happily all evening but now, as the sky outside got darker and the time got closer to his Mum’s return home, he’d gotten quiet again.
‘Hey,’ I said, nudging his leg with a Lego boat we’d constructed, ‘where to now, c’ptain?’
‘Lowry?’ he said, not looking up. ‘I’m sorry about your hand.’
‘It’s alright, Hugh,’ I said, switching hands so I could hold the boat with my left and hide my right, ‘it doesn’t hurt now. I was just clumsy, okay?’
He nodded but the tension didn’t lift. I could feel it coming. I’d thought I’d distracted him from his earlier subject, but he was smarter than I thought.
He looked up at me, checking my face for something, before looking away once more. ‘They’re getting a divorce,’ he told me again.
I swallowed, wincing slightly. The word sounded wrong in his little voice. Foreign, too big. He said it like it was a thing, a new car or a pet.
‘Hugh, do you know what that word means?’
He nodded slowly, drawing lines with his finger in the carpet between us, then rubbing them out and redoing them.
‘And who told you that?’
I sighed through my nose, ‘Really. And did ‘No One’ say anything else?’
But, before he could answer, the sound of a key in the front door cut through the quiet. His head whipped up and his eyes met mine. Don’t tell her, they said, please. I should’ve though, I knew I should, but instead I smiled and touched his shoulder as I stood.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said.
Ms Davies slid her feet out of her work boots, looking up at me as I made my way down the stairs. She frowned, ‘You haven’t been out, have you?’
‘Oh, no,’ I said, careful to hide my right hand in a pocket. ‘No, the coat was just a game we were playing.
‘Ah,’ she nodded, stretching, ‘And how’s he been? He spoken to you?’
‘He’s been fine and, no – quiet again. Sorry.’
The silence thing was new. As of a few weeks back, Hugh had stopped speaking. To anyone, that is, except me. When I’d asked him about it he’d just started ignoring me too until I’d apologised and let him have ice-cream for pudding. I figured it was a phase, like everyone said, and it was best to let him get on with it. Besides, it had to be better that he spoke to me than no one at all; especially seeing as ‘No One’ had so much to say recently.
Ms Davies hung her bag on its peg and then looked at me expectantly. I realised there was no sound of movement from upstairs.
‘Oh, right. I’ll just get him for you,’ I said, embarrassed, and she smiled at me sadly.
Back in the playroom, Hugh was sitting in the exact spot I left him.
‘Hey, c’mon,’ I said, kneeling beside him, ‘she wants to say ‘hi’. She hasn’t seen you all day.’
‘What’s going to happen?’ he whispered, as he picked up his favourite Hot Wheels car, ‘Will I get to keep my toys?’
‘What? Hugh, of course,’ I said, nodding in earnest, ‘of course you will.’ But his face stayed screwed up and hurt. ‘Where is this coming from, huh?’
‘But how do you know? Lara, from my school, she had to move away.’
‘I’m sure it’ll be fin–’
‘But how do you know?’ he insisted. And then I watched as an idea crossed his face. ‘Have your parents gotten a divorce?’
‘My parents…’ It was weird. All my life and I was sure that was the first time I’d said that. My parents…always separate, always apart. Opposites; present, absent, one here, one not.
‘Hugh? Hugh, sweetie?’ his Mum called from downstairs.
His big brown eyes looked at me expectantly and the burn on my hand had started to sting again. A strange rushing sound started in my ears and I could feel myself beginning to blush. ‘I…’ A lie swam round in my mouth, but it was like Hugh could see it, see right into my head. I pushed it away and the truth came out in whisper: ‘I’m not sure. I don’t know, Hugh.’
His eyebrows rose, clearly impressed and intrigued. His mouth opened, ready for more questions, but then his name rang out again, followed by the tell-tale creak of the bottom step. He jumped up and nodded at me, with an expression I couldn’t read, and disappeared out the door.
‘There you are! How was your day, darling? You alright?’ floated in from the hall.
I stood and looked at the faces of all the toys in the room. ‘I don’t know,’ I said again.
Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.