The Only Child – a short story

Julie watched impassively as Lorraine played. She sang quietly to herself, a song from The King and I, or South Pacific, absorbed during an interminable Sunday afternoon’s detached viewing of her parent’s favourite films. Usually the lonely Sunday afternoon would start with roast dinner and afterwards the three of them would retire to the living room to watch the Sunday afternoon film.

Lorraine’s thick blonde hair, smelt of roast chicken flavour crisps, and was always wet from being chewed, swayed as she sang.

Yesterday, Julie had climbed up onto the window frame and watched Lorraine waltzing up the road, swinging round a lamppost, deep in a reverie of her own secret world. Once, Lorraine and Julie and their friends had had their photo taken for the local paper. Lorraine kept the photo in an envelope in the bottom drawer. She wasn’t allowed to stick anything on the walls, as doing so would ruin the wallpaper.

In the evening, sometimes Julie and Lorraine would lie together on the pink Brentford nylons counterpane and watch the shadows cast themselves over the shiny walnut of the wardrobe. Lorraine told Julie that the shady shape was her paternal Grandmother’s ghost. Granddad had made the wardrobe, during his days as a fiery carpentry Union leader. Lorraine confided to Julie that she had never known her grandparents, that they had died before she was born. She imagined their presence protecting her from beyond the grave. At night, as she tried to sleep at 6pm with the curtains barely blocking the light of a late summer evening, she shut her eyes tightly and envisaged a mediaeval castle floating in a dark starry sky, where Jesus and her grandparents benignly looked down upon her.

Julie was happy to be a terrestrial support for Lorraine, as much as she could. One summer’s day by the seaside, Julie had even been able to save Lorraine’s life. She had only been about 3 years old at the time, and wandered off to paddle by the breakwater. Little did she know that the sea on the other side of the breakwater was a lot deeper than on the side where she was paddling?

As she plunged into the translucent green light, her first thought was that surely the sea was blue? The sky and the sea were meant to be blue, and the sun a yellow ball. Pushing upwards with her face against the pressure of the sea, she looked upwards to see a black and white panda floating on the surface. Lorraine’s first instinct, with an already nascent sense of responsibility kicking in, was to save Julie’s life first. Somehow, she propelled herself to the surface, kicking wildly, gasping for air as she surfaced, wrapped her arm around Julie’s neck and swam to the shore, where a nice man was waiting to help her. At some point, her parents must have been alerted to her fate. What had they been doing? Where were they when she needed them?

All the way home, sitting on the wiry back seat of the Carmen Ghia (meant for two passengers only) that scratched at her eczema on the back of her knees, Lorraine stared at a green Clark’s shoe box. Surely the sea was meant to be blue? What else was not real in the world that she had yet to discover?

Today Julie sits behind the white linen Ikea bedroom curtain, on the windowsill, watching the children playing in the garden. Her black and white fur is a little worn now, but her beady button eyes shine as bright as ever. The youngest loves Julie, because she saved her Mummy’s life.

Lorraine still lies on the bed, drinking tea after a hot bath. Even now, she still disappears into the reverie of her own private world. She tries to read but can’t fix her mind on any one point in the story. Sometimes, she will stare as the trees sway outside the window, buffeted by the autumn breeze. An hour will pass, without her noticing. She won’t answer the phone or the door, but listen to soft, lilting music, birdsong, and waves lapping on the shore.

She reflects that overall she has been successful, achieved more than most kids. Overachieved even. At what cost? System overload. Teddies and imaginary friends don’t help you deal with the hustle and bustle; the political and emotional cut and thrust of the Real World.

She learnt on her own, in the uncontrolled environment of the Real World, with no parents to referee. Now it was time to release control to just be. Lorraine turned onto her side and pulled the quilt up around her and reflected as she had done many times before;

“There hasn’t been a day of my life when I haven’t wished for a brother or sister.”

c> Sarah March D’Angelo,  Aug 2009

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