She ate hula hoops in a birthing pool and listened to whaling sounds alone.
Stomach raw and bursting, hips heavy, nurse’s swarming.
Eight hours and 43 minutes pressed full of pushes passed before it was no longer ‘just’ Penelope.
The babe, so small in her arms that May, could now spell ‘maybe’ and swim the width of a swimming pool.
With the babe on her breast and the water drained from the pool, she had been given too sweet tea in a polystyrene cup and offered a biscuit.
“Maybe in a bit.”
A biscuit would be a good thing now. Fingernails torn down so much the skin was red raw.
The babe has a key. She likes to press it into the palm of her hand and see the imprint it leaves.
The key gets stuck in the door but she knows to kick it with her foot. She’d be home now looking for something. There is bread in the freezer, a thin layer of mould in the jam and a soft rich tea biscuit in the cupboard. There is glitter in the bathtub.
Penelope paints herself in the toilets at the bottom of the NCP carpark. Contorting, to slick silver up the back of her neck to her hair line. Her hands, expanse of palm and sawn nails, looked better painted. Her body, it felt better – painted, she could pretend it wasn’t hers, that she wasn’t there. The city centre didn’t need a statue. Luton already had a war memorial. There was a restlessness the first time, shifting her weight and looking to the sky. The elastic from her wings dug into her shoulders. A statue who wanted to run but her spray painted trainers were a size too small and where would she run too? The restlessness wained when a child who wasn’t her own curtsied and she winked. A fairy now lived outside Poundland. People dropped pounds at her feet, immediately thinking of how they could have spent them elsewhere. Thick thighed toddlers would reach up to her to try and hold her hand. Sometimes when it rained she wouldn’t run inside. The paint didn’t shift off her cheeks.
In the summer holidays the babe sat in burger king. Legs swinging at the table to the left. Penelope could see her from here. The heat doesn’t help. Kids off school mean’t weak willed parents and grandparents with looser pockets. The hat at her feet would fill but her back would swim in sweat, thighs chafe and by 4pm she could smell herself. When those in suits began to drip out of offices, the babe would venture out to her and take her silver hand. The car park was always cool and the babe liked to help. Baby oil on cotton wool helped to shift the silver. On the bus they’d theorise dinner. Banana Split with a bouffant of whipped cream for the babe.
In the bath together, the babe would place her hands on the soft pocket of skin on Penelope’s belly and trace her fingers across the scar from the babe from before. The babe that was somewhere else. The babe that had a name that she hadn’t chosen. He was somewhere near, growing out of school uniform and not liking strawberry yogurt. He didn’t know the perfect ratio of instant mash to milk to margarine, how salt could taste like sugar.
Penelope had worked a birthday party that summer. A woman in a pashmina had followed her and the babe to the car park. £60 for two hours. The babe had laughed but Penelope could see how much the woman’s handbag had cost and the car keys she was clutching. The need for a statue at a four year olds birthday party was unclear. When the babe turned four they had eaten fried chicken and put candles in a Greggs’ chocolate eclair. Three buses to the suburbs, to gates and range rovers. Once at the party it became clear that they had spent more on the cake than they had on Penelope. The presence of a swimming pool and a shetland pony saw that the children took no interest in the fairy near the wisteria. Chlorine and miniature horses held less appeal for the fathers. Three of them, shorts, emerging guts and too much aftershave. Talking at her, cigarette smoke, one had a wife who wanted him to vape.
“I’ll look like a prat.”
“You already do Paul.”
In her head, Penelope agreed. The third man smiled at her.
Penelope could see the babe at the pool edge with cupcake frosting on her nose. £60 for two hours, she couldn’t see the time.
“Did you have to travel far?”
“She won’t talk.”
“Where did you come from?”
“She’s a statue.”
“We’re just supposed to look at her.”
“I’ve been looking at her all afternoon.”
“We’ve only been here an hour.”
One hour left. Penelope was allowed to change in the boot room.
“Money’s in an envelope on the side, don’t mind Pippin.”
Pippin – a Labrador, was asleep in his bed. Pashmina lady left the room, the door had a latch not a lock. Cotton wool and baby oil out from the rucksack, no mirror but five pairs of pristine wellingtons. They were singing happy birthday in the garden. Two male voices undercut the chorus of kids. She still had silver on her chin and her neck when she saw the latch lift. He, the third one stood too close and looked too much. The biggest pair of wellingtons, his. He held her neck, thumb pressed hard on her larynx. She kissed him and bit him so she could kick him. They were still singing in the garden. Her trainers were still too small and too tight, she ran out the house, toes screaming, called to the babe and the babe ran too. Penelope didn’t know that Pippin had followed her out, into the garden, to the cake, to the pool, spooked the pony who then bit the birthday boy, that the third man’s lip was bleeding or that pashmina lady saw the silver on the palm of his hand but didn’t say a word.
There had only been £50 in the envelope, when they had got on the bus and looked. The babe had proudly declared the ham sandwiches she’d smuggled in the pockets of her shorts. They bought bleach, plimsols for babe and peaches. The silver sheen still wouldn’t shift from the bath but the flat smelt thick with solvent and the kitchen looked clean. They ate the peaches over the kitchen sink, juice dribbling down their chins. Penelope waited for her neck to bruise but it never did, the taste of him stuck to the roof of her mouth, the peaches tasted bitter.
The babe wore her hair in a plait for the first day back at school. Her pinafore gave up well before her knees and her blouse flirted with her wrists but didn’t reach them. The plimsols fit perfectly.
It rained from October to December. Snowed in February and in March the babe learnt her 10 times table.
Penelope saw him coming.
His eyes stuck to her cheeks too much. He stood so close that she could see the dusting of dandruff on his collar. A neon pink polo neck that clung to the belt of fat around his hips. He fit better in the suburbs. With one hand he dropped a twenty pence piece at her feet and with the other he poured his Coca-Cola over her head. The cheeks that his eyes had stuck to, now sticky and dripping. It was June, there were wasps, or maybe they were bees. He smiled at her. She didn’t blink.
And now she was here.
The room was cold and she was silver. There was no window. She should really be at home.
Just some questions about the incident.
Paint had flaked off her dress onto the seats in the police car. A film of sugar had dried on her face and she could feel it become taut as she yawned.
They had been bees, not wasps, it turned out. A crucial difference if you were the third man.
His body had ballooned like the stuff of folklore, his face red and the same lips that she had bitten the year before seemed to be at war with his face. The paramedics struggled to get his swollen body onto the stretcher. Penelope had stood still and silver.
The bath the babe had run her was cold when she returned. The babe still in her school uniform asleep, sat by the door. There was no hot water left and so Penelope climbed sticky and silver into bed. The babe woke when her mother lifted her but continued to pretend. On Monday, the third man would make the fourth page of a paper that Penelope wouldn’t buy. The babe would sit at the kitchen table eating bread laced with honey. Her eyes on flies landing on fly paper, wings sticky and quiet.
Chloe Weare is a writer and teacher in Manchester. Her writing for stage has been performed at Vault Festival and the Manchester Fringe. Find her on Twitter @ohchloeellen.