‘I’m double-jointed,’ Sophie’s legs are splayed out on the floor: a pair of open scissors.
When I was three, my mother took me to the orthopaedic surgeon because my feet turned in like a pigeon’s claws. The surgeon had me walk along a narrow red ribbon laid across the middle of a polished wooden floor. ‘Watch for the crocodiles,’ he warned. ‘Stay on the ribbon and you’ll be safe.’
But I could see those crocodiles snapping and I wobbled.
‘If you practice you’ll get better.’ There is pity in Sophie’s eyes.
‘I bet you can’t fart like I can,’ I say, and I do.
Sophie wrinkles her nose. ‘Ugh. That’s gross.’
Ever since I was a baby in a carry-cot, my mother says, we have been visiting this Welsh stone cottage, tucked away in the hills, a hundred miles from home.A high wire fence and a line of dark, sighing firs stands at the end of the yard, and beyond the trees lie fields and hills and deep blue mountains. But I don’t care for the view: I only have eyes for the pictures in the book on my lap, a present from our babysitter, Lydia, who owns a shelf full of ballet annuals and claims she was once a dancer. I don’t believe her. How can I? Lydia is old. She has grey, wispy hair and huge, soft bosoms. The ballerinas in the book are slender, their necks long as swans. They have strange Russian names and almond-shaped eyes and they fly into the air, weightless as feathers.
The wind soughs through the pines and the farmer hammers on a distant fence but I only catch the rustling of skirts, the points of ballet shoes tip-tapping across the wooden stage, the smell of greasepaint and lights. I sigh like my mother does when her cake has singed or the washing has refused to dry on the line. Why can’t I spin across the stage and balance on my toes? Why can’t I wear a white tutu and float?
A cloud passes over the sun and goose bumps prickle my bare arms.
‘Lucy! I’ve been shouting for ages. It’s tea time.’
‘I’m coming.’ My mother is standing on the doorstep in her open-neck shirt and green slacks, her dark hair shining in the sun. She looks like Jackie Kennedy, everybody says so. Jackie Kennedy is famous. Even more famous than my ballerinas.
‘Don’t forget to wash your hands.’
Peeling my thighs from the plastic-covered chair, I stand on my right leg, the left stretched out behind me, a perfect arabesque. But in less time than it takes for my mother to screech my name again the arabesque collapses like a balloon with the air taken out.
A chill, damp air greets me in the cottage. It is as though summer has been left sulking outside. I cross the low-beamed sitting room and step into the gloomy passageway. The cottage has no running water, only a shallow well, filled by a spring. I dip my hands into the chilly water. It’s not like the water at home, chemical tasting, hard. This water smells of damp earth and dried straw, of peat and hills, and when I move my hands back and forth, silvery shadows dance on the mossy walls.
‘Milk or barley water?’ My mother’s voice echoes through the stones. ‘There’s malt loaf. Hurry up else your brother will eat the lot.’
In the black and white photo my shoulder-length blonde hair is scraped back with an Alice band. I’m wearing over-large sunglasses and loud check trousers, and I hold a ballet book in my hands. I look smug. But really I’m not: I’m only dreaming.
My father took that photograph outside Hafod Coch in 1963, the summer after the Cuban Missile Crisis. My mother scratched the date on the reverse.
In those Cold War days, my brother and I watched red squirrels running up and down the trunks of the pine trees. Now you’ll be lucky if you see a red squirrel south of the Scottish borders. We whittled hazel wands with sharp penknives and shot imaginary deer with arrows, and our parents never worried where we were. But we had to put up with moth-eaten blankets and damp army-issue sleeping bags, and my brother wheezed constantly in the dusty air. There were mouse droppings too, lumpy porridge and early nights, and long months when my father was away and my mother grew restless. And once every year, water welled up through the slate flagged floor, soaked through the faded rug and lapped at the fringes of the chairs, and that drove my mother crazy.
‘I’m not standing for this,’ she’d complain. ‘Next summer we’re going somewhere hot.’ But we’d always be back.
The year before that photo, my father had disappeared for six whole months to some icy place at the edge of the world – though that winter we had ice of our own, and plenty of it. But that year I was surprised to find the cottage jammed with tins and packets of food: luncheon meat, peas, oats and dried milk. Even the wardrobes bulged with tins and a First Aid box appeared on the kitchen shelf.
‘Why is all this food here?’ I asked my father, after he returned from the penguins and spouting whales.
‘In case there’s another war. We’ll be safe from the bombs here.’
I knew about the old war. My grandfather and uncle had died in that war. My uncle was a fighter pilot and he was my mother’s brother. He died young but he was brave. My mother never said how my grandfather died.
‘Will there be another war?’
My father smiled and ruffled my hair. ‘It’s not likely.’
War was horrible. My mother and her sister had hidden under their bed, shaking with fear all night long because the Germans were dropping bombs on their city. My uncle stepped in a plane and never came home. That’s what I knew and I was afraid.
‘We can feed a thousand people,’ my brother said, picking up a tin of Spam, ‘A million.’
The sky is pink, like my toy Piglet’s ears. Buckling my leather sandals, I step cautiously into the yard. I have never been out this early alone. The world seems fainter, as if it had faded while I slept. But the birds are singing in the pines and the farmer is whistling to his dogs in the field below.
I stand against the wire mesh fence and watch the dogs run. Megan, the older dog, has two different coloured eyes. Her blue eye is cloudy, like ice cream melting in a bowl but the brown eye is just ordinary – doggy and mournful. Megan always growls when I approach but Marth, her sister, is friendly. Marth lets me to stroke her head and her tail thumps against my legs. The farmer says that Marth means Wonder, in Welsh. I want to ask him why he’s called his dog, Wonder, but I don’t.
I wonder about a lot of things. Why are there stars in the sky? How many steps do you need to reach the moon? This morning I wonder about how dogs learn to round up sheep. They lie low in the long grass, then spring up suddenly and run in circles, barking and working to the whistles, until the sheep are all gathered in the corner. The dogs’ skill amazes me; the way they create patterns on the wet grass.
The farmer’s barn is across the yard. At the end of the summer, after the grass has been cut, my brother and I like to climb up onto the bales. We close our eyes and pretend to fly but then the straw dust makes my brother wheeze and we have to stop.
I walk over to the barn and lean on the gate, held fast with twine. A patch of sunlight pools across the earth floor but the sun hasn’t yet reached into the thick darkness behind, where creatures scuttle: rats and mice, and spiders big as fists.
Something moves, small and white. I step back, my heart hammering in my chest. Then I hear a tiny, sad bleat and there, in the patch of light I see a lamb, unsteady on long, new-born legs. ‘Come here,’ I whisper, putting my hand through the bars of the gate. The lamb sniffs and totters towards me. It comes so close I can feel its warm breath on my fingers. At first it eyes me suspiciously but after a few minutes it sticks its nose into my hand and nuzzles me.
I run back to the cottage. My brother is in the doorway, his brown hair sticking straight up out of his head, his eyes half-closed against the sunlight. I grab his hand and his legs skim across the yard as if he were dancing.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘Isn’t he beautiful?’
‘A lamb!’ He reaches through the bars of the gate. ‘His nose is wet.’
‘I wonder where its mother is.’
‘She died,’ my brother says.
‘No she didn’t!’
My brother looks at me with his brown-boy eyes and sucks his thumb.
‘Why do you have to spoil everything?’ I pinch the soft skin at the top of his arm and he wails and the lamb bleats and my mother calls us in for breakfast.
That night my brother has one of his asthma attacks. My mother sits at his bedside for hours. She massages his chest, brings him warm drinks and a hot water bottle. But his face turns grey like the ash when the fire has gone out and his lips turn the colour of a new bruise.
‘Is he going to die?’
‘Of course not.’ My mother’s voice is sharp.
‘What if he does?’
‘Go to sleep, Lucy. I promise you, he’ll be right as rain in the morning.’
I lie in bed, listening to my brother’s wheezing. I try to think of the lamb but my mind keeps returning to the bombs. I wonder if we are all going to die and what it will feel like. Afterwards there will be nothing: no ballet dancers, no lambs: only an empty planet spinning in space. I want to ask my mother what she thinks but she is singing softly to my brother and her eyes are closed.
In the morning the lamb has gone but my brother is fine, just like my mother said he would be.
One morning my father makes an announcement. ‘The crisis is over.’ He is peering at the newspaper, which he reads every morning – lines and lines of black print.
‘Thank goodness,’ my mother says, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Now we can get on with our lives.’
My father looks at me over his gold rimmed glasses. ‘Don’t worry, Lucy. Neither side will ever dare flick the button.’
‘What button?’ I am thinking of the buttons in the department store lift where my mother sometimes takes me shopping.
‘Russia and America have developed a new type of bomb. It only takes one side to switch the button and WOOMPH.’ My father demonstrates with his hands.
I think of my Russian ballerinas and the lamb without its mother. ‘What will happen if they press it?’
My father looks hopelessly at my mother. ‘They’re big bombs.’
‘Big enough to blow the world up,’ my mother says briskly. She turns and walks back into the kitchen.
‘It’s all right,’ my father says. ‘Perfectly O and K.’
The following morning the lamb is not in the barn. When I meet the farmer, I ask where it has gone.
‘I had to take him to the vet.’
‘Is he OK?’
“He’s a little sick but he’ll be fine in a day or two.”
I bend down and stroke Marth. Tears prickle my eyes. We used to have a black kitten. We called him Space because he was darker than the night sky and his fur sparkled in the light like thousands of stars. But Space only lived a few months. We fed and cuddled him but he still fell sick and died. My brother and I buried him in the garden under the cherry tree and I cried for three days.
‘Will he die?’
The farmer leans on his stick. ‘He’s got a good chance, that little one. He’s a fighter.’
That night I dream about the lamb. He is riding through the sky on the back of a bomb. The bomb is shiny like a Christmas tree bauble and it circles the earth like an orbiting moon. Every now and again it flashes so brilliantly I have to shade my eyes to see it.