By Emma Kaufmann
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Christine opened her bedroom door to find the child kneeling down, caught in the act of looking through the keyhole and let out a startled cry.
“Jo, you know its wrong to spy on people.”
She wondered if Jo had seen anything, and if so, what. Jo was always under her feet. Even when she was making love to Clive it seemed as if Jo was watching her. Her suspicions having been proved right she felt a flash of anger as she hurried down the stairs.
Clive’s bear like bulk followed, with just a towel wrapped round his waist, his hair dripping wet on his shoulders. Jo stood with her head to one side, watching him intently. Although only six, she had already dressed herself and stood with a military stiffness, as if waiting for a command.
“Peeping Tom.” Clive said jocularly and tousled her downy blonde hair, cut like a boys to her specification. He made a long drawn out yawn and ambled down towards the kitchen.
Like a clockwork doll suddenly brought to life her legs and arms jerked into action. Jo bounded down the stairs, leaping two steps at a time until she came to a crash landing at the end.
Christine waved a colored rucksack at Jo.
“Chop, chop, we’ll have to hurry.” With the other hand she ran a comb through her own wavy blonde hair. Jo took the bag while Christine whispered to Clive, who was dripping all over the hall carpet.
“I’ll see you this evening after Jo’s gone round to her dad’s.”
Jo tugged open the front door. A wave of sultry summer air flooded the hall. All around birds were twittering maniacally, while cars revved into gear for the school run.
“Remember to lock up.” Christine screamed behind her, as she grabbed Jo’s hand and tugged her down the road.
It had been around the time that Ralph had moved out, nearly six months ago that Christine had discovered the grubby old box under Jo’s bed. Dust motes clung to its base as she drew it out. Its upper rim had been cut to resemble a castle and many tiny windows had been drawn on it. Within the box a perfect order reigned. The objects within it were secured with bluetack to stop them falling over. Raised up on a cotton reel sat a plastic frog with a bit of tinsel taped to his forehead. Lined up neatly in front of it were a sloppy old knitted mouse and a grubby felt giraffe with the stuffing emerging from its middle, so dirty now as to obscure its orange markings. Behind them, were six ping pong balls with crudely drawn faces and a few strands of wool hastily glued on for hair. They faced towards the frog, with frozen grimaces.
Christine had hastily shoved the box under the bed as if she had received an electric shock. She straightened the room and the piles of brightly colored toys, so unruffled as to appear untouched, the dolls, cuddly pigs and teddy bears which had been discarded for the macabre secrets in the box.
Over the following months she observed that the child didn’t play with the contents of the box where she knew that Christine could see her. If she leaned close to the door of Jo’s bedroom she could hear several different voices, from a high pitched squeal to a low croaky drone meandering in and out of each other for hours on end.
On her way to bed one evening Christine saw Jo through a crack in the door. The moon shone bright and clear through the window filling the room with a green glaze. Jo crouched over the box, mumbling low over the figures she was moving about in the box. Christine was just about to shout to Jo to get to bed since it was past eleven, but she knew that Jo would react badly if interrupted in her eerie game which she took such pains to hide from her mother.
As she moved towards her own bedroom she caught the words being spoken.
“And after forty days and nights we will arrive at the island. And that place is far, far away, where we will all live and where we will build a kingdom, bigger and better than the one we have now.”
It sent a little chill through Christine as she stumbled around in her room. She had got into the habit of drawing the curtains during the day because the weather had become so sweltering. The air in the room was completely stagnant. Christine removed her clothes and lay down naked on the eiderdown. For the first time since she had asked Ralph to move out she began to sob, quietly. She had tried to tell herself that Jo’s strange secretive ways were just part of a phase she was going through. Though the child disappointed her she couldn’t help thinking she was to blame. If she ’d just tried a little harder, been a little more tolerant of Ralph and his idiosyncrasies then maybe things would have been different.
The differences between Jo and other children were becoming more noticeable. Christine had bought her several beautiful dresses and other fancy items, but Jo insisted on wearing plain jumpers, skirts and tights. Jo had to be practically forced into a party frock. And when invited to some birthday party or other, she was not coy like some of the other girls, eager for the adults to notice her. When Christine came to collect her, she was invariably told by a parent, their voice heavy with mock concern, that the child had disappeared during the organized party games, and had taken a select band with her. The guilty group would usually be discovered at the further recesses of the garden. Christine would look disappointedly down at the crouched children surrounding a careful arrangement of leaves, twigs, feathers and stones which echoed the hierarchy of the inhabitants of the box.
She would have to do something about Jo, Christine thought to herself as she drifted off into a hot restless sleep.
The next day Ralph was beaming in at the door bearing a bucket and spade. Jo would be spending the weekend with him at the seaside.
“You look done in,” he said to Christine.
Crouching down to Jo’s level he put his arms around the stiff little body.
“What are you wearing a sweater for? It’s boiling outside. Run up and put on something else.”
“She won’t do it.” Christine said wearily, remembering the row she and Jo had just had for the last half an hour while Jo insisted on putting on clothes more suited to winter than a day on the beach.
But now, to Christine’s irritation, Jo was scrambling obediently up the stairs to do as she was told.
“I’m worried about her,” said Christine while Ralph leant casually against the wall wearing an open neck shirt and khaki shorts. “She seems, well, disturbed.”
“Disturbed. I’m not bloody surprised she’s disturbed. You haven’t got the time or the energy to look after her. You’re always out with Clive.”
“I’m doing my best under the circumstances,” hissed Christine. “If I stayed in every night I’d have lost my marbles by now. I am a person in my own right you know. Not just Jo’s mother.”
He wandered into the kitchen and picked up a peach which he played with as he spoke. Christine followed behind.
“All I’m saying is she needs attention or she’s going to retreat further and further into her shell.”
“Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful that you take her on weekends but don’t tell me how to do my job.”
Ralph pushed open the door that led into the garden. As it was early the dew still lay on the bits of grass that were in the shade. Pigeons cooed softly and a haze rose up into the sharp blue sky. The garden was an interwoven mass of trailing creepers and vines. Ralph put his face against the honeysuckle and inhaled. He turned to look at the end of the garden which was surrounded by a low fence almost completely obscured by a huge camellia bush. The lustrous white blooms hung heavy on their stems amongst the waxy dark green leaves.
“This needs watering,” he said as he bit into the peach. “And pruning.” He turned towards Christine who stood in a white summer dress with her arms crossed in front of her. Jo was staring down at them from the bathroom window.
He lowered his voice. “I just don’t see why she can’t come and live with me. I’d have the time to…”
Christine pushed her hair away from her high pale forehead marked with patches of sunburn. “Oh God, not that again. I don’t want to discuss it. Annie collects her from school and it works out OK.”
“But it doesn’t make any sense. You’re always off gallivanting with Clive.” His teeth flashed white above his five o’clock shadow. “Why not enjoy it while you’re still young.”
Christine started walking back to the kitchen, waving her arm in front of her for emphasis. “I don’t want to talk about it. Jo’s staying with me and that’s the final word on it. As for my relationship with Clive, that’s something you know absolutely nothing about. I don’t expect you to understand what an adult relationship is all about.”
Ralph crept up behind her and whispered. “Let’s face it Chris, he can’t stand the kid.”
Christine hurried through the kitchen and towards the stairs.
“Jo! Jo! Where the hell are you?” Jo bounded down the stairs in a red sun dress.
When they had left Christine leant against the front door, her heart pounding for a long time.
On the train to Margate Ralph decided to have a snooze. Abruptly his eyes were prised open. “Wake up!” announced a shrill voice. It was Jo with her head characteristically cocked to one side like an inquisitive parrot.
He liked Jo. Over the last few years his affection for the child had sneaked up on him. It came as a surprise that he, who had never really been responsible for much in his life had developed these feelings towards her. Since Christine had chucked him out he had begun to feel that Jo was his property and the feelings of possessiveness were starting to eat away at him. But today he suppressed these feelings and turned his attention to her.
“How are things at home?” he asked gently.
She ignored this question and showed him a piece of paper on which she had been drawing while he was asleep.
He looked at her blankly and with a sigh of impatience she began to explain, as if the drawings were self-evident and any idiot could understand them.
“They live in a castle on an island far, far away. The Frog King is the leader of the Kingdom. He is very kind and wise. He makes sure that everyone has enough to eat. The people eat Smarties, fish fingers and spaghetti. He looks after the Giraffe Prince and the Mouse Princess. He takes them to school and collects them in the afternoon. He likes to take them to the fairground and play on the merry-go-round.”
Ralph looked at her curiously. She seemed to be telling him something. But what?
“Then there are six helpers, like Father Christmas’ elves who look after the island and plant all the flowers and trees and look after the animals. There are pigs and sheep and chickens on the island which sometimes get eaten. The helpers also dress the prince and princess, comb their hair and put their crowns on properly. They read them stories and make sure they always have nice food to eat.”
“And are they happy on the island?” asked Ralph as the coastline became visible through the train window.
“Everyone is very friendly on the island and very happy. Sometimes pirates try to get into the Kingdom. They sail in on boats with big white sails and try and fight with the Frog King. Sometimes they try and kidnap the Prince and Princess. But the Frog King has magic powers and puts a spell on the pirates which makes them disappear in a cloud of smoke.” Jo chuckled a little at that.
“And how do you know about these people?”
“Oh, I visited the island one day and they asked me to stay but I knew I had to go back to mum in time for tea. After that I visited them a lot and maybe one day I’ll be able to live there and swim in the sea around the Kingdom with the dolphins and octopuses.”
Later, amongst the blare of stereos, they picked their way across the pebbles and masses of bodies, dogs and discarded family sized coke bottles to a little patch of empty sand. They both lay down and Ralph showed Jo how to stretch out your arms and legs and move them up and down on the sand so that when you jumped up you left an outline of an angel. Jo squealed with delight.
Jo busied herself for a long time with the bucket and spade while Ralph dozed under the blazing sun. He told himself that he no longer really cared about Christine. In fact he preferred their relationship now. There were certain clear rules to their relationship to each other. They tended to be civil, even occasionally flirtatious when they met each other on the times when he came to collect or return Jo. They no longer expected the other to be a source of joy or support. And yet, he thought, she had become more tense since he had moved on and the strain was beginning to show. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have Jo live with him, after all he seemed to get on with her so much better than Christine. And she had a new life, a new lover. He felt a flash of jealousy at the thought of Clive with his shaggy personality, who invariably lay sprawled like a great alsation across the sofa.
He noticed that Jo was shouting something excitedly. She was hopping from one foot to another, waving the spade jerkily from side to side.
“There it is. I can see it.”
He put his hand up to shade himself from the sun and peered towards the horizon. He could just make out a grayish mass.
“The Kingdom. Its over there!”
“So it is.” He wondered if he should indulge her fantasies as much as he did. But he was helpless to stop himself.
“I’ll show it to you dad, one day soon.”
He sank back down on the towel.
When they returned home the next day Christine looked wearily at Jo. “She looks happy enough but she’s completely hyperactive. How am I going to calm her down?”
“Leave it to me.” He trudged up the stairs after Jo.
Christine started making the tea in the kitchen. It was so exasperating. She’d had a lovely weekend with Clive. But she’d spent most of the time worrying about Jo. She was never one hundred per cent sure that Ralph could be trusted to look after a child. He would probably have spent most of the time dozing or being immersed in a daydream. Christine had had some terrible premonitions of Jo running off and having an accident on some rocks. In many ways the child and he were similar and now she began to have the sense that they had created some mysterious bond between them and that she was the outsider.
When the tea was ready she went up the stairs and pushed open the door to Jo’s bedroom. Ralph was lying sprawled on the floor, one hand supporting his tousled brown hair. With the other he was moving something around. Jo’s back was towards her. They talked in low voices, as if in the grip of some sort of trance. Christine could just make out the grubby toys, which had been removed from the box and had been allowed to roam free.
Suddenly Jo turned round, and seeing her mother a look of pure terror flashed across her eyes. Rapidly she bundled the figures into the box.
“What’s that all about?” said Christine.
“It’s a Kingdom she’s created.” As soon as he’d said it he felt that he had betrayed Jo who was stuffing the box under the bed.
Christine kneeled down and reached out to touch Jo’s hair. “Its OK darling,” she said softly. “ I was only thinking that some of the toys could do with being run through the wash.” Only last week Christine had looked into the box and seen a couple of cockroaches scuttling from one side to the other. It just wasn’t hygienic.
Jo’s arms were clenched stiffly at her sides. Her face was rapidly darkening. “No!” she screamed.
“All right, all right.” She wanted to ward off a tantrum at any costs. “Come and have your tea then.”
“I don’t want any.”
“Please, Jo,” Christine said pleadingly, realizing that she didn’t have the energy to force Jo to come downstairs.
Ralph stood up and stroked Jo’s fine hair away from her forehead, then bent down and whispered in her ear as Christine stood in the doorway tugging at a piece of cotton that hung from her sleeve. Jo stood with her head hanging down, her sundress smeared with dust, while Ralph talked on to her softly, gently. Finally he put his hand around hers and led her towards her mother.
“Well,” he said. I’ll be off.”
“Yes,” sighed Christine. “See you on Friday night.”
He knelt down to place a kiss on the child’s warm forehead.
“Be a good girl for your mother now.”
Jo’s face was puckering up as if she was about to cry.
“Now go and eat your tea.” Jo trailed downstairs and the adults followed her some way behind.
Christine brightened a little as she held open the front door for him.
“Thanks” she said.
Surprised, he turned back towards her.
“That’s alright.” He walked off into the sultry evening and she softly shut the door behind him.
After that day Christine sensed that something had been resolved between Ralph and herself. As the summer wore on she began to relax more and more in his company. Now the occasional breeze swept through the garden, causing the honeysuckle to fall on the grass, the buds lying transparently until they rotted into the damp grass. But a few camellias still bloomed.
It was dusk and a trace of pale purple could just be seen on the horizon as Christine gathered a bunch of camellias. The garden was cool. She was waiting for Clive to pick her up for the evening. The relationship was progressing well, and because he spent so much time at her house she was considering asking him to move in. She walked towards the kitchen with the big bunch of flowers in her arms. The babysitter would be arriving soon and she wanted to bath Jo before she arrived. She hummed to herself as she took the vase of flowers upstairs and placed them in front of the mirror in the landing. One of the blooms was hanging loose and she picked it off.
Switching on the bath taps, she tossed the flower into the water. She could see Jo hopping about in the garden below. She shouted out of the window. “Five minutes and then its time for your bath.”
Then she wandered back to the mirror to fix herself up a little. Little tendrils of blonde hair clung to the beads of perspiration on her temples. Her face was now biscuit colored from her days in the sun. Inside the house was still clammy with trapped heat. The air did not move and she felt her T-shirt sticking to her body.
Jo made her way to the end of the garden and crept through the tangled plants and positioned herself behind the big camellia bush. She picked up the miniature red suitcase she had hidden there earlier. There was a lull as she waited for her father to arrive.
“Hello there. All set?” He lifted her clear of the fence that separated them. They began to walk down the narrow passageway that ran between the houses. At the end of the dark tunnel a car was waiting and they got into it.
“Where are we going?” asked Jo as Ralph revved up the engine.
“As I told you, we’ll try and find that Kingdom of yours.”
Jo held up the suitcase.
“I’ve got them all in here.” she said.
“That’s good,” he said as they sped off.
Upstairs Christine was still staring at herself in the mirror. She rubbed a little spit along her eyebrows with her forefinger to flatten them. Peering out from under her lashes, the last minutes of sun caught the flecks of gray in her blue eyes. She would just have time to change before Clive arrived. She started to rifle through her bedroom wardrobe for an outfit that would be just right.
Buttoning her blouse she went back into the bathroom and craned her neck out the window. There was no sign of Jo. The water still crashed into the bath. A sense of urgency gripped her as she raced into Jo’s bedroom. Some force caused her to look under the bed. She pulled out the dusty box. The toys had gone. Frantically she ran down the stairs into the garden.
The camellia floated in the bath, its deathly pallor broken up only by little beads of moisture that hung on its petals. And still the taps ran, the steam floating upwards. The steady rush of the water was blurring the cries of the stricken mother below, running from one side of the garden to the other, searching for her abducted daughter.
Emma Kaufmann’s webpage: http://www.emmakaufmann.net