During my MA in Creative Writing a lot of my fiction tended to tilt toward the weird or the different, dealing with matters or ideas that I had not experienced myself (death, addiction, mental health, incest etc). This is fair enough, I think. Not every writer has lived through what they choose as the subject matter for their stories, but I was encouraged, as an exercise, just to try it. Write a story about something I knew about, something I lived through or had experienced.
This was the result. It is interesting coming back to it now as I have once again ventured to sci-fi and fantasy, genres where the imagination does most of the work. Many of my fellow students felt this story was better and even stronger than my other work. Whether that is taste or not is a whole other discussion, but I certainly found it interesting and I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to try something out in the hopes you might learn.
Hong Kong 1990
The best present is a blackboard as big as me. A box of white chalk, a box of coloured. Laid on its long side, it is the perfect shape for a landscape.
“Mum, the sky’s black.”
“Fill it in with the blue chalk, love. And how about a nice tree?”
A scribble-tree, the sort I have in stock-footage in my head: tall, brown trunk, a bowl of leaves and blobs of pink for apples. In the photo Granny takes my hair will be bleached almost white and my skin brown and shining like nuts. Pink pyjamas and a wide window in the background framing the tops of huge, glossy trees (nothing like the ones in my picture) and sprigs of the stalky tops of bamboo.
“Come on, love.” Mum ushers me towards my room. “Lets get you into your Christmas dress. Dinner will be ready soon.”
“Do I have to eat sprouts?”
“Your brother likes sprouts.”
“I don’t. They smell, I don’t want them.”
“Now, be grateful, young lady,” says Dad, coming out of the kitchen with a bottle and glasses. “It’s Christmas. Best behaviour or Father Christmas will take the presents away again.”
Esme pulls my hair into a French plait. Mum loves it when I have my hair pulled back all tidy, but it pulls and hurts.
“Must look nice for your mummy, child,” Esme lilts. “Look nice for Granny and Grandpa and for the Christmas dinner.”
The dress is itchy and very hot but I keep my mouth shut. There are still more presents to come and I’ll get them if I’m good.
It’s cooler in the living room now. Dad’s opened the doors onto the balcony and the air’s moving through the room, bringing sounds of birds and breeze-ruffled tree tops but I can only smell the turkey and pudding. My stomach rumbles. “I’m hungry, Daddy. Is it nearly ready?”
“Hungry, Daddy,” Will mumbles from the high chair.
“Nearly ready. Be patient, Lucy-Lu.” Dad’s sat at the table with Granny and Granddad and sipping strong, brown stuff from the tiny glasses that I’m not allowed to play with. Mum and Esme are chattering and rattling things in the kitchen.
“This dinner should be good.” Dad pours the smelly stuff and offers one to Granny. “The naffe managed to get some real cranberry sauce in. I haven’t seen the stuff in two years.”
“Oh, dear, you should have said. We could have brought some with us.”
Mum made me try cranberry sauce once, ages and ages ago. Another Christmas, somewhere cold. It was like jam. I like jam, but not on turkey.
I grab my plastic beaker of juice (real Ribena, Mum found some especially for Christmas) and wander back to the Christmas tree with rest of the presents under it, shining, so ready to open. I give one a careful prod but pull away when Dad looks over. I sip my juice and try to find something to do.
The balcony has a wall up to my chin and then bars up from that to the floor of the balcony above. I blink in the sunlight, sip on more of my juice. It sounds like the McDonoughs are having their Christmas dinner on their balcony. There is laughing and the snapping of crackers from above.
I can peer over the wall to see the ground if I’m on my toes. The playground and shallow swimming pool are empty. The metal fence, painted baby-blue, is shining very bright in the sun. The trees rise up behind it, massive, the biggest things in the world. Mostly green, not much trunk. All very shiny, like they have varnished leaves. I can tell when its tree and when its bamboo, now. Dad showed me the difference. Bamboo is grass. Just very, very tall grass. The biggest clump of it stretches up behind the fence near the paddling pool. Beyond a little gate there’s a muddy path through the tall sticks. It looks too hot and parched in the playground, with the yellow, patchy grass and the cracking tarmac. But it looks cool in the jungle. Cool and lush, like its holding in all the water for itself.
“Come and sit down, everyone.” Mum’s voice is happy.
I step back into the cooler shade of the flat just as Mum carries in the steaming turkey. I hurry over before anyone else gets to pull the first cracker.
It starts to rain outside whilst we’re eating. Dad has to get up to shut over the balcony doors and close across the extra windows and the mosquito net panels. There’s some nervous mumbling going around the table but Dad says not to worry, it will clear in an hour or so.
“Now, eat your sprouts, young lady.” Granny saw me push them to the side of the plate. “It must have been so terrible for you, dear,” she says, turning to Mum and I push the sprout back behind a roast potato. “That terrible storm-thing.”
“Typhoon, Mum. They’re called typhoons.”
“Don’t worry, Barbara.” Dad waves his fork, talks round a mouthful. “They’re usually able to give us plenty of warning of something that big.”
“Daddy, can we go out into the trees later?”
“Is it safe to walk out there?” Granddad asks, dark face frowning.
Dad nods, not looking up from his plate. “You have to stick to the path, but we never take the kids too far in. There’s a little stream not far from the fence. We take them there and let them look at the frogs.”
“Can we go, Dad? Please?”
Will mumbles an echo of my words.
“We’ll see. Maybe if the rain stops. Let’s eat dinner and then the rest of the presents first, yes?”
Yes, the presents, the presents. The ones from Granny and Granddad. Will’s is bigger than mine but I have two.
“Do you have to work tomorrow, Pete?” Granny asks. Mum concentrates on her food. I try to put one of my sprouts on Will’s plate and Esme smacks my hand.
“I do, yes. But it was either that or work today. But I worked Christmas Day last year, so they owed me.”
I’m full but I want pudding. I sit quietly, hoping Mum will think I’ve finished the mains. The conversations bubbles back and forth about boring things. I gaze back out of the window. The tops of the jungle and the green hills humped up and beyond are spotted into blurs as fat raindrops drum against the glass. Mum says we’re lucky with the view. She says if we were on the other side of the building we’d only see concrete jungle.
“Quite lucky being up on the sixth floor too, really,” she says to Granny. “There’s not quite as many cockroaches. On the first floor there’s a real problem but we only get the odd one up here.”
“Oh dear.” Granny lays down her fork. “Can’t you put down poison?”
“Not with the children around, Mum.” She shakes her head. (She’s still eating, as is Dad. They love big meals with lots of meat, more than me. Luckily they don’t happen very often. It’s usually spaghetti hoops and toast, which I like very much. Sometimes Coco-Pops for breakfast, when we’ve been very good and Mum can get them.) “Spray-starch, we use. Freezes them. Then they go off the balcony.”
I hurry my pudding and pace back and forth from the table to the tree, waiting for the grown ups to finish sitting and talking. “Mummy, can we open the presents now, please?”
“Come on, they’re going mad. No, Esme, we’ll clear it in a minute. No, really, leave it.”
Will burbles and giggles and pushes his new truck around, dumping loads of matchbox cars and cracker prizes on people’s feet. I shred the paper off the first of mine. It’s red and blue and gleams under the smudged light from outside.
“Oh, Mum, that’s lovely.” Mum comes forward to help me unfold it.
“Well it looks like you might all be needing one in this weather,” Granny says.
“See, Lucy? It’s a mac. A mackintosh. A waterproof coat. Come on, let me help you put it on.” It is very, very shiny, like the leaves at the very tops of the trees. There’s little ladybird sewn onto the chest. It has a hood and everything. “What do we say?”
I thank Granny and Granddad and run to the tall mirror by the door. It crickles and cracks as I move. With the hood up I look like an explorer.
The second present is matching wellies, red with little ladybirds. They’re shiner than beetles, so shiny I’m not sure I want to take them outside but at the same time long to try them in some puddles.
Dad peers out the window and declares the rain light enough to go out for a walk.
“I don’t know, Pete…” Mum’s face is worried. “It doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.”
“Only a short one, not too far in. She wants to try out her mac.”
Will is packed into his baby carrier and hoisted onto Dad’s back. Granny and Granddad are mumbling to each other as they change into walking shoes. Mum says she’ll stay behind to help Esme. I rattle at the front door handle.
The lift takes ages. I bounce up and down in my new wellies. The doors open and I rush through the parked cars to the entrance to the underpass.
“Slow down, Lucy. Stay in sight.”
Down through the tiled underpass snaking under another car park and then out onto the yellow and sagging grass of the play park. The big rain plicks off my hood. The adults catch up eventually, crowding under umbrellas. Will giggles, catching raindrops.
Dad opens the gate in the bright blue fence and I dart through. The wellies squelch through the gathering mud of the path and the puddles split and splash up around my steps. I look up, blinking through the fat, falling drops and watch as the sky disappears behind the leaves.
“Lucy, stay with us.”
Like a distant ghost of a memory of a feeling, I remember a church, long ago, somewhere grey. The walls went up around me and met in an arching roof a million miles up, shadowy and miraculously hanging up there where the sky should be. Walking down the path it was like walking into the church again, but this time the walls and ceiling were hissing and singing and moving, masses of leaves and branches dripping and swaying, so high up I could never really believe it.
I jump, see if I can touch the leaf-roof, don’t get anywhere near. We move on through the mud and the wet, the great church of trees mumbling around us. Dad has to raise his voice for me to hear him.
We clamber, slip, slide. The wet is everywhere; my hands are pink with the chill from the rain and my hair hangs in strings down my face but the mac and the wellies keep the rest of me dry.
We reach the stream and Granny wants a photo. In this picture I will be stood in my shiny, new, red-and-blue mac and my little red wellies in amongst the tangle of water and deep, dark plants. The path a mess of mud underneath me. The stream is a ribbon of glistening on my left and the leaves around me are a hungry, gleaming green. I’m only a corner of the picture, a scrap of plastic colour in the middle of wild, wet, ragged life.
“A bit further, Dad. Please?”
Dad’s face is heavy and the bottoms of his trousers are spattered with mud and dark with wet. I giggle behind my hand and wiggle my dry toes. He stares up at the broad, dripping leaves. The noise is like gravel dropped on glass and they move like cereal stirred in a bowl. It’s all even louder in my hood. The drops are caught in my eyelashes.
Dad opens his mouth to say something but shuts it again and everyone turns around. Mum is calling from somewhere back along the path, her voice whisked about in the rain and the noise. I sneeze. Dad calls back. Will is starting to cry. Dad grabs my hand and starts pulling but I want to go further, up the stream to the bigger puddles.
“No, I want to go further. Daddy, please.”
“Pete, Pete…” Mum’s there. Her hair is plastered to her face and her cardigan is drenched. Granny and Granddad rush to her, pull her under their umbrella. “Pete, quick.” She pulls at Granny, pulling them back down the path. Her face is white and her eyes are scared. “On the radio. Another one, a sudden one; it’s hit the bay and moving up. Quick, we have to get inside.”
“Lucy, come on.”
I start to cry. Everything is too loud and now I’m cold and Will won’t stop screaming and everyone is shouting at me. Dad scoops me up and we’re running. I yell louder. The jungle is yelling with me, heaving and roaring all around.
“Dad, no, stop!” My wellie’s lying in the mud behind us, a shred of colour, wet and tiny, disappearing as Dad moves faster.
Hurry. Everyone’s saying hurry. The bamboo is creaking above us and then the patchy grass of the play park is jerking past below my one booted foot. The wind hurls rain into my face and I cry into it. The red spot is swallowed by the shifting green and the sheeting rain.
I beg and cry but they won’t let me go to the window. Mum won’t even let me go out of her arms. The house still smells of turkey and pudding. Esme’s brought fresh towels and we’re rubbing our heads. Will is quiet now. I’m wiping my nose on my sleeve.
I can hear it heaving its way around the building, but I can’t see anything. We’re sat in the hall on cushions from the sofa, all the doors to the rooms shut tight, the ones with keys locked. The hall light flickers on and off once and I suck on my beaker of Ribena, rubbing my eyes and scowling at the wall.
I knew that even if I got to a window I wouldn’t be able to see it. My ladybird Wellington travelled all the way from England to be mine and now it was lost out there for good.
Granny and Granddad are worried about flights home. Mum’s reassuring them but her eyes are red and she’s sniffing like me. The building will hold, Dad says. It was built for this. Ladybird wellies weren’t, I think.
I wrap myself tighter in my towel and lean back into Mum, getting comfy to wait it out, the rubber Wellington sitting lonely and battered in a corner of my mind.