Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Second prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition 2013

Colours Fade to Black and White by Jo Derrick

My life seems to be made up of spinning yo-yos. There they go in a kaleidoscope of colours like the stained glass in next door’s window. Pinks, purples, yellow, reds and greens. This is my world.    
         We have steamed vegetables for tea. They arrived earlier today in a bio-degradable easily-to-fold-down box. All organic, of course and so fresh they hardly take any cooking. Mum doesn’t buy supermarket vegetables. She says it’s like eating plastic and goodness only knows how long they’ve been in transit.
            We don’t eat meat in this house. As far as Mum is concerned, I’ve never eaten meat, but I couldn’t resist trying a bacon roll at Casey’s house once and another time a tuna mayo sandwich. It was what everyone else was having and I didn’t want to make a fuss or to be different from the others.
            As I sit eating my corn-on-the-cob, melted butter dripping down my chin, I think about Delith Jones. She hadn’t long joined our school before she was abducted. I liked her dark curly hair and goofy teeth. She was kind to me.
            Now I can’t step outside the front door without Mum or Dad asking where I’m going and who with. They have a five step policy in place; things I have to do if I’m suspicious of anyone. The one I won’t be able to do is to kick him in the wotsits. I mean, he’d just grab my leg, wouldn’t he and then he’d see my knickers and he’d have won.

They still haven’t found Delith, nor her body. At school we imagine what could have become of her. Anita says she thinks she’s been strangled and dumped in the river. Casey says she’s still alive and being kept in a locked-up shed at the bottom of someone’s garden, and Paul Mallander says she’s been battered to death with a brick.
            I think a man and a lady who can’t have babies and IVF hasn’t worked for them have taken her to be their special little girl. Delith’s probably wearing Mini Boden clothes and attending tap and ballet lessons in Primrose Hill like my cousin. A better life than this boring old town.
            Mum says never to talk to strangers, but if I listened to her, then I’d never have made friends with Mr Timms at Number 53, nor his Polish lodgers who have very red faces and deep voices.

I’m sitting on the front garden wall waiting for Dad to come home and I’m playing with next door’s tabby cat. Shilough, he’s called. He spends more time at our house than next door. Mum says it’s because they’re rubbish pet owners and leave him locked outside most of the day. I pick long stalks of grass and flick them around to tease him. He seems to like that and plays for ages. When Mum’s not looking I pour some full fat organic milk into an old bowl and give it to Shilough. She’s told me hundreds of times not to encourage him, but he’s so sweet, I can’t resist and I’m sure next door don’t feed him properly. Not Mr Timms at Number 53. The other side. The Whites.
            Mr White is always in the corner shop buying firelighters. I had to ask Mum what they were. She said they were white blocks you put on an open fire to keep it from going out. I like the black box they come in. It has pretty orange flames on it. Mr White has whitish-grey hair and bright twinkly blue eyes. He never says hello and he shuffles. I’ve never seen him wearing shoes, only slippers; tartan ones with cream edging.
            Mum says the Whites have a hoarding problem. I’m not really sure what that is, but their windows are dirty and they always have the curtains closed so you can’t see inside. Mum says all sorts could be going on in there and no one would ever know.
            For a moment I wonder whether Delith Jones is in there.
            Mum says the Whites’ property would be worth a fortune, if they did it up. They have a four-bedroom Victorian house like ours on the outskirts of town with all its original features. She says if it was renovated like ours, then it would be worth at least £600,000. I can’t imagine that much money. Lots of weekly shops, and super deluxe veg boxes from Wild and Free Organics, anyway.
            “Don’t go wandering off!” Mum shouts from the front door. “Bath time in ten minutes!”
            That means at least twenty. She’ll either be texting Auntie Carole or having a sneaky glass of wine before Dad gets home. Or both.
            Shilough lies down so that I can tickle his belly. I do it with a stalk of grass, because my hands go all blotchy and red if I touch his fur. I get that from Dad. It’s why we can’t have a cat of our own, he says.
            I hear the Whites’ front door slam and look up.
            Mrs White levers herself down the front steps. Mum says she’s a martyr to her arthritis. She has a brown and red checked shopping bag over her arm. She never speaks and always looks at the floor. Her hair is dyed a weird orangey colour, as if she’s left the dye on too long or something. She ignores Shilough, and he doesn’t seem bothered.
            When she turns the corner, I dare myself to run to their front door and lift the letterbox. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for ages. I just want to peer into their hallway to see the newspapers and old milk cartons; to see if what Mum says is true. It’s so dark in there, though, I can’t see a thing. I fiddle around in my pocket till I find what I need.
            My heart is thrumming like the old traction engines Dad took me to see at the steam fair last week. I look left and right, then just as I’m lifting the letterbox, I see a shadow pass by the window and I shiver. Someone is watching me. My mouth goes dry and it tastes like I’ve been munching on metal. For a moment I’m frozen; as if my feet are cemented into the floor. I feel as if I’m going to wet myself, then I hear Shilough’s miaow, which makes everything seem normal and safe. I turn from the door and run back to our garden. I should go inside now, but I want to see what happens.
            Dad will be home from work any minute now. I start looking for his bike. He always cycles to work. The only time we use the car is for holidays and weekend trips to visit family. Anita’s mum calls us ‘eco-warriors’ whatever they are. Dad says we’re Green.
            It’s then I hear a tap-tapping on the window. I turn around expecting to see Mum calling me in. Tap tap-tap. I can’t see Mum’s face at the window. Then I look next door.
            The Whites’ curtain is twitching and I see a fist at the window. Tap tap-tap.
            I stay on our side of the path and walk a little closer to the window. I can see a smudgy shape through the thin curtain. It’s probably creepy Mr White. I remember Mum and Dad’s five step policy regarding strangers. The first step is to run into our house as fast I can, if I’m near home, that is.
             My legs won’t move.
            The fist isn’t big enough for Mr White’s. It’s a child’s fist knocking the window, I’m sure.
            “Molly! Inside now!” Mum shouts.
            I should do as I’m told, but I need to know if it really is Delith Jones knocking at the window. Perhaps the Whites have half-buried her beneath piles of old newspapers and plastic milk cartons?
            I creep closer; as close as I dare. I can see an orangey glow through the curtains, then smoke. Someone is coughing; choking even.
            Mr White and his firelighters. A box every day. Why does he need so many? What if he’s bought them to help set his house on fire and burn the evidence?
            I hear a bicycle bell behind me and Dad’s waving and grinning like a loony. Suddenly everything seems less scary.
            “What are you doing spying on the Whites, Molly, love?”
            I put my fingers to my lips and call him over. I can smell the smoke now and the orange glow is brighter. I feel excited and wonder whether I’ll see that kaleidoscope of colours I see when Dad has a bonfire in the back garden. I’m just about to ask him, but he’s busy talking into his Iphone.

I never did get to have a bath that night. Mum said it was far too late by the time the fire brigade had gone.
            Delith’s parents bought me a big cuddly cat and a box of chocolates. I can’t understand why, because I didn’t do anything.
            Mr and Mrs White don’t live next door anymore.
            Mum says they’re in custody, whatever that means. Perhaps they live in a world that’s yellow and thick.
            The RSPCA man was nice, but he said I couldn’t keep Shilough. Maybe Dad told him about my rash.
            I accidentally told Casey’s mum and dad about the matches when they were feeding me more bacon sandwiches one Saturday morning. I only fed two through the letter box so that I could see inside a bit better.
            They promised not to tell.
            There isn’t a kaleidoscope of colours next door now. The door is charred black against the white walls and now the Whites have gone, so have my spinning yo-yos and my world is a dull shade of grey.

Jo Derrick has numerous short stories and articles published in a wide range of publications, including Mslexia, Writers’ Forum, Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special, Take A Break’s Fiction Feast, Upstart!, Peninsular, Buzzwords, The Whittaker Prize Anthology. She is currently planning an e-book of her prize-winning short stories. Jo is the editor/publisher of The Yellow Room Magazine, a print journal for women writers and former publisher of QWF Magazine. She is working on a psychological crime novel.