White Lies

[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘White Lies‘ in exactly 2500 words.]

I knew something wasn’t right when my mother stopped abruptly by the kiosk, clapped her hands lightly, and said, “Let’s have an ice cream!”

I looked up at her, squinting in the summer holiday sun.

“Ice cream!” shrieked Peggy in delight, and tried to spin around, but stumbled.

I caught my sister’s arm, and said, “We’ve only just had breakfast!” but my mother was already clinking coins over, distracted. Somewhere above us, a seagull began its harsh, halting cry. With a cone of whirled white in her hand, my mother glanced up.

“Be careful,” she said, eyeing the gull, “Or he’ll take it. – Wait!” she added, as I reached out, “Ladies first.”

Peggy took her ice cream, and bit into it with relish. Her eyes slid closed, and she swayed a little, humming.

“Patience is a virtue,” murmured my mother, in a far-off voice, handing me the second cone. I watched it coming with indifference. My tongue stung of metal snow.

My mother didn’t seem like my mother today. At breakfast she had sat in silence, tearing her napkin into tiny shreds. I’d taken another slice of toast while she wasn’t looking.

We stood still on the morning cool of the pavement, the three of us. A light breeze obliged my mother to hold onto her hat with one hand, as she stood looking back the way we had come. I caught the lightest trace of flowers on the air, although my mother never wore perfume.

She turned now and said to me, “Be a good boy, and take Peggy to the beach.”

“The beach!” cried Peggy, jigging up and down so that ice cream spilled halfway down her dress. I glanced at my mother, who didn’t seem to have noticed. She was craning her neck back towards the corner of the street, by the pillar box.

“The beach!” said Peggy, “When can we go to the beach?”

“Aren’t you going to come with us?” I asked my mother, shading my eyes.

She didn’t answer.

“Mother!” I said again, tugging at the pink of her dress. “Aren’t you – ”

She turned and looked down at me, blankly, and then smiled, but it was the kind of smile she gave Mrs Fawcett in the chemist’s, before she’d mutter, under her breath on the way home, “That woman should keep her nose out.” I didn’t like Mrs Fawcett either, although her nose looked as if it was far out enough already. Once, she had stopped me on the street and asked, “Wherever does your sister get her red hair from?” I had walked away from her, not knowing what to say.

“Not this time, darling,” said my mother to us, now. “Why don’t you go by yourselves? Won’t that be an adventure!”

My ice cream dripped, a blotch of burning cold, onto my hand.

“Although,” she added quickly, “Don’t go in the sea.” She lowered her voice, and looked at me. “You know your sister can’t…“

She mouthed the word, raising her eyebrows, and then twisted her slender body to check behind again. I licked the sticky ice cream off my hand, reluctantly. When my mother turned back to us, she seemed surprised we were still there.

“Run along now,” she said, fluttering white fingers. “Follow the signs. It’s not far.”

Peggy began to pirouette away with all the grace of a bear cub. “Look at me! Look at meee!”

I didn’t move.

“Well?” asked my mother. “What’s the matter? – Oh!” She fiddled with the straps of her handbag, and dropped to her knees. “Here you are,” she said, pressing a coin into my empty hand and folding my fingers over. I looked down. There were cracks splintering the pavement.

“I want you to come with us,” I said.

My mother drew a sharp breath, and stood up.

“And I want you to go by yourselves!” she said. “You’re old enough.”

I felt my cheeks flame, and then suddenly the words were out: “I wish Daddy was here!”

There was a second where nothing happened. Even Peggy held her breath.

“I see,” said my mother, after a pause. “We’ll have to wait till Sunday, won’t we?”

“Oh yes!” said Peggy, with a hop. “Sunday! Sunday! We’re going home on Sunday!”

“Off you go, then,” said my mother, absently, and I turned sharply and began to walk away, Peggy skipping along behind.

“Johnny!” called my sister after me.

The pavement was a white blur.

“Johnny – ”

“What?” I snapped, swinging round. Over her shoulder, in the far distance, I caught a swirl of pink as my mother turned the corner past the pillar box. There was someone with her.

Peggy looked at me, then followed my gaze. “Who’s that?”

I wiped my nose on my sleeve.

“That’s Mummy’s friend,” I guessed.

“Mummy has a lot of friends!” said Peggy. She threw out her arms, said “I’m a dancer!” and spun around, with a wobble. “Am I good at dancing?”

I looked at Peggy – the clumsy gait, the splayed feet. She looked back at me, eyebrows raised in hope.

“Johnny,” she said again, patiently, “Am I good at it?”

“Yes,” I said. “You’re good at dancing, Peg.”

Her face melted into a grin: “I’m good at dancing!”

The truth was that my sister wasn’t really good at anything. I’d heard my parents’ muttered voices under the whistling kettle in the kitchen after we’d gone to bed. “At least she’s an honest child,” my mother had cut in, “Not like -”

The kettle had screamed over the rest.

I dropped my ice cream suddenly, its creamy guts pooling on the pavement. Then I was off, arms pumping, Peggy clumping along behind me with “Where are we going?”

“The beach,” I said, and she squealed, remembering, before adding, “But how do we get there?”

“Follow me,” I said, stopping at the edge of the main road and reaching out. Her hot little hand joined mine as a car rumbled past us, sheeny with elegance. I gazed after it, feeling the draught cool on my cheek, and wished I could drive, with one hand on the wheel and one hand holding a cigar, like Daddy. I wished I could drive away.

“Now,” I said, and pulled my sister across.

“Ow!” she said.

On the other side, a breeze was rustling the palm trees that lined the long road down to what looked like the shore. Peggy was rubbing her hand.

“Ow,” she said again, “That hurt!”

“This way,” I said, determined. My mother was right. I was old enough to take my sister to the beach. I was old enough to do plenty.

At the bottom of the hill, we turned, and I stopped short, dazzled. The promenade unrolled before us in golden glory. A tumble of rocks led down onto a rich slice of yellow sand, and stretching to the horizon was a carpet of blue black.

”The beach!” shrieked Peggy, as if she’d never seen it before. “We’ve found the beach!”

She broke away from me and began to run in sheer joy. I followed her, and we clambered over the rocks and down onto the sand, which shifted under our feet. I tore off my shoes and socks and wriggled my toes deep into the soft cool.

“I think we should build something,” I said, as Peggy flung her arms out in the sunshine and spun around. The beach was empty, except for a family some distance away with a child, younger than we were. I watched them for a second: the mother, a streak of gold, was stretched out reading, and the father held a newspaper straight in the slight breeze. The little boy was pottering about with buckets.

I turned my back on them.

“Let’s make a castle,” I told Peggy, sliding a shell from the sand, and carving out a square, “Bigger than theirs.” The sand gave under my fingers in a satisfying way. “I’ll build it, you decorate it.”

“Can I build it too?” asked Peggy.

“Girls can’t build castles,” I said. There was no answer, and when I looked up, her lips were puckered.

“Don’t cry,” I said, quickly, “How about I build the foundations, and you draw all the people inside?”

A while later, as I was busy hollowing out the moat, I looked over. Peggy was squatting side on to me, scratching something, her tongue out.

“What’s that?” I asked.

She had etched out a series of squiggles.

“It’s a family,” said Peggy, petulantly.

“Where?” I asked her.

“Look,” she said. “There’s Daddy. And,” a slightly smaller streak, “Mummy. And” – a couple of smudges – “the boy. And the girl.” She grinned up at me, and then faltered. “Am I good at drawing?”

“You’re very good at drawing,” I said absently, looking at the scrawl again. There were other lines beside Mummy.

“Who are they?” I asked, and she said, “They’re Mummy’s friends.”

I stood up straight and looked out across the bay, the sun tingling my back. The sea was lit up in a fiery blaze. The tide was going out.

“I’m going for a swim,” I said, suddenly. Peggy opened her eyes wide.

“In the sea?” she squealed, as I began to tear off my shorts.

“Where else?” I said, “Race you!” and took off, feet slapping on sand all the way down to the shoreline, hopping over the trails of slimy seaweed to where the waves were frothing white. I waded in fast, shouting aloud at the cold – the sea slicing my shins – then jumped in whole, sinking into liquid ice, and stuck my head up above the water, paddling fast as the swell lifted and dropped me. I yelled.

“Come on, Peggy!”

She had followed me down to the edge of the shore, where she stood, fully dressed, looking doubtful. I weighed the words in my mind, for later. She could just have a paddle. Even the smallest of girls could have a paddle in the sea.

“Is it cold?” she called.

“Nah,” I shouted back.

Peggy wriggled out of her dress and took a hesitant step into the water. She flinched, and called something I didn’t hear as another wave broke.

“What?” I yelled.

“Am I good at swimming?” she shouted.

“Yes,” I yelled, “You’re good at swimming, Peggy. Come on!”

She walked forward into the waves, eyes wide, let out a loud cry, and disappeared. After a second, she came up, spitting seawater.

“Uggh! It’s all salty!”

I paddled over to her. Her hair was plastered down, her eyes wild.

“Watch me,” I said, “Do this.”

I lifted my arms and plunged forward, but it felt like falling down the stairs – the swell pulled me along and when the wave next raised me, my arms felt useless. Then I crashed down again. I crested a couple more waves, and then turned to Peggy, with: “See?”

She was flailing in the water.

“I can’t do it!” she shrieked.

“Yes, you can!” I shouted.

“I’m not good at it!” she said, her voice rising.

“You are!” I shouted, as she dropped again, out of sight.

There was no reply. I scanned around, head jerking, but couldn’t see her. She had vanished.

“Peggy!” I shouted, but felt myself sliding backwards. I shouted again, thrashing in panic. My feet stretched down fast, hit the rocks, and I yelped. A wave knocked me sideways and I fell face down, taking in a gulp of seawater. I heaved myself upright, feet scrabbling on sharp stones, and dragged myself against the pull, splashing heavy, clumsy steps to the shore.

“Peggy!” I shouted, into the sea, hoarse. “Peggy! Where are you?”

“Where was she?”

I spun round. There was a streak of gold – the woman who’d been reading.

I pointed with a croak, and she walked straight into the water, mouth set. I watched, teeth chattering, as the father appeared, spattering sand, a few feet away, the child swept up in his arms.

The woman dived down under the waves. The child began to cry.

“Peggy!” I said, but it came out like a crack.

I held my breath. My heart was hammering.

Then a figure rose up, holding something heavy, and “Peggy!” I croaked, as my sister hung unmoving in her rescuer’s arms. The woman laid her down, a rag doll with red hair, and pounded the small chest fiercely, face dark, blowing into my sister’s mouth. I ran and stood over them, my arm tearing with heat as the man tried to pull me away. Peggy lay awkwardly, eyes closed, her hair streaks of scarlet on the sand.

“Come on!” growled the woman, through her teeth, “Come on!” – and then Peggy sputtered alive, threw up, and burst into tears. I stood back with my hand over my mouth.

“It’s alright,” said the woman, stroking my sister’s hair. “It’s alright.” The man had a hip flask of something stinging, and lots of questions I couldn’t follow. Someone else was crying, too, I remember. It might have been me.

They drove us to the hospital in a rattly car. I sat under bright lights, swinging my legs, while they took Peggy away. A nurse gave me a chocolate biscuit, and halfway through its sugared sweetness I saw a familiar swirl of pink, and felt my mother’s flowered arms around me. I sat still, savouring the moment.

They took us to her, stretched out in a white bed. My little sister blinked, and tried to speak.

“Hush,” said my mother, stroking her forehead.

“I’m not good at swimming,” managed Peggy.

My mother kissed her, and said, “We won’t tell Daddy, then.” She looked at me. “We won’t tell.”

I dropped my eyes.

We didn’t see much of my mother’s friends after that.

***

One night last week, I shattered awake, prickled with sweat, and listened in the darkness until I heard it: a low and gentle sob.

I creaked over to her room, where our parents used to sleep. My sister lay motionless, a lump in shadow, until she saw me framed in the doorway, and then bounced up like a toddler. Her hair was sticking out, and there were messy tear tracks down her cheeks.

“Johnny!” she said, “I couldn’t breathe!”

“I know,” I said, padding over. “But you’re safe now.” I squeezed her on the shoulder, as I usually did, and she slid down under the covers like a wrinkled child.

“I’m not good at it,” she said suddenly, her voice rising to a shriek. “I’m not!”

“You’re alright,” I soothed. She lay still, looking up at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. My mouth tasted of seawater.

She blinked.

“Why are you sorry, Johnny?” she said, but I couldn’t find the words.

Peggy shifted her head.

“You look tired,” she said. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” I said after a while. There was no point starting to tell the truth now. “You didn’t wake me, Peg.”

© Joanna Rubery 2017

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