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The Ruler in My Head

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“Well then, you’ll have to take them with you.”

I stare hard at my book, but I stumble over the words as if I’m back in reception class.

“It’s not fair,” says Leanne.  “Why do I always have to drag them around?”

“Because I can’t get anything done with the pair of them under my feet all day,” says Mummy.

There ought to be a way of measuring how big an argument is getting.  Like Fahrenheit and Centigrade for temperature.  Or the Richter scale for earthquakes.

Until someone invents something similar for quarrelling, I use the imaginary ruler inside my head.  Mummy’s response gets a rating of twelve centimetres out of thirty.  The marks on the page form themselves into parts of a story again: ‘Never mind; little girls shouldn’t ask questions,’ returned Jo, sharply.

 

“That’s not my problem,” says Leanne.  “I’m not your unpaid childminder.  Why did you have kids if you can’t be bothered to look after them?”

Mummy’s face goes blotchy like a bruised knee.  The number doubles up to twenty-four.  Anything above twenty and I might start laughing, which gets Mummy really mad. You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face by the time I’m finished with you. I frown so hard my eyes are mere slits and I wouldn’t be able to read if the rating slid right down to zero.

“Don’t be so bloody cheeky,” says Mummy.  “You’re not too big to put across my knee.”

I wipe the sweat from the palms of my hands onto my jeans.  If Leanne carries on like this she’ll give Mummy one of her migraines.

“Okay,” says Leanne, “don’t get your knickers in a twist.  I’ll take Angelica with me.”

Angelica sits cross-legged on the floor, a Barbie in each hand, staring at the television.  Five centimetres: the solution all lined up for Mummy’s rubberstamp.  Leanne can still hang out with the boys: a dimpled five-year-old is good for her image and Angelica loves them fussing.  Mummy can have a lie down, knowing I won’t bother her while I’ve got my library book.  And I’ll be able to lose myself in the story of the March sisters in faraway and long ago America.

But Mummy hasn’t got it.  “You’ll take both of them and that’s final!  Shannon,” her voice whips out to me, “get your nose out of that bloody book and go and get ready.  And Angelica,” like she’s stroking a pet with her tongue, “fetch your brush and I’ll do your hair.  Leanne’s taking you to the park.”

 

Leanne and I slouch down the street.  Angelica skips along ahead.  She’s wearing her second-best dress: pink, and horribly girly with a bow at the neck and a lace frill round the skirt.

Little Women,” says Leanne.  “Why can’t you read Harry Potter like normal people?”

Fisting my hands in the pockets of my jeans, I concentrate on avoiding the cracks in the pavement.

Leanne softens as we turn into Bethany’s cul-de-sac: “Wait till you see Benji.  He’s the cutest thing.”

I almost step on a crack.  “Benji?”  This isn’t one of my sister’s boyfriends.

“Bethany’s got a dog.  Don’t pretend you don’t remember me telling you.”

Angelica is waiting at the edge of Bethany’s front lawn.  Smiling.  I look at my big sister’s face, but she hasn’t turned into the wicked witch from Hansel and Gretel.  Perhaps she just hasn’t thought it through, like Mummy didn’t think about letting me stay at home.

“But Angelica doesn’t like dogs.”  Surely Leanne remembers about Uncle Mike’s Great Dane slobbering all over her face when she was in her buggy.

“Chill out, Shannon.  Why do you always want to spoil everything?  She’ll be all right with Benji.  He’s only a little Scottie dog.”

 

Angelica and I both squeal when Bethany opens the backdoor and the dog comes yapping around our legs: me with joy; she with terror.  She clings to Leanne until Leanne picks her up and carries her indoors.  I get to stay outside while Bethany introduces me to Benji.  Leanne was right: he really is the cutest thing, with a long rectangular face and almond eyes that make him look both happy and sad at the same time.  His fur coat is the colour of Rice Krispies.

Benji wags his skinny tail as if we’re friends already.  Bethany gets him to stand up on his stubby back legs so that I can hold his front paws and we dance around on the paving stones next to the wheelie bin.  His claws are made of fingernail material stretched out and curled under at the sides.

I could play out here with him all day but Bethany wants to catch up with Leanne.  We go inside and she pours us all a glass of Coke and puts on the Mary Poppins DVD for Angelica and me, while she and Leanne go upstairs.  Benji’s shut up in the kitchen but he keeps scraping at the door.  With every scratch, Angelica sniffs but she stares hard at the screen as Jane and Michael Banks compose a shopping list for the perfect nanny.

“Poor Benji,” I say.  “He’s so lonely in the kitchen on his own.”

Angelica squeezes my arm.  “Don’t open the door.  Please don’t open the door, Shannon.”

I sip my Coke through a bendy straw, all sophisticated.  “What’s it worth?”

“You can have my money out of my piggy bank.”

I glance back at the door, knitting my brows to show I’m serious.  “I’ll give it some consideration.”

“Next time Mummy buys us sweets, I’ll give you mine.”

Although I could easily eat Angelica’s sweets on top of my own, my stomach feels as if I’ve had too many spoonfuls of sugar and not enough medicine.  Mary Poppins would not approve.  But I’m only teasing.  I’d never let the dog in.  Angelica would start bawling and Leanne would come and wallop me one.  But can’t let go of this morsel of power, even if it makes me sick.

We’re both relieved when Leanne and Bethany come back, their faces painted and clothes reeking of cigarettes.  When Angelica tells them they look like models, I keep quiet, thinking of the naked women in those magazines that the bad boys who hang around the bus shelter once showed me.

Leanne freezes the DVD.  “Let’s get going.”

 

Angelica walks in front, holding Bethany’s hand, chattering about going up to Mrs Matthews’ class after the summer holidays.  Leanne and I follow, joined in stony silence, but I don’t care because I’m holding Benji’s lead.

Watching him trotting along, his sticky-up ears pointing the way, I forget about the sickly feeling I got from Mary Poppins.  I don’t even mind stepping on the cracks.  Keen to reach the park, Benji tugs at the lead.  I yank him back, careful not to hurt his neck.  He pokes his nose under the frilly hem of Angelica’s dress, but she doesn’t seem to notice.  Maybe he’s already cured her of her fear.

In stories, dogs often help people overcome their problems.  When the teachers have given up in frustration, it’s the dog that shows the little orphan girl how to be happy again.  The dog that knows that the friendly man is really a kidnapper; the dog that leads the search party to the toddler who’s fallen down the well.

Bethany calls back to Leanne: “Fancy a game of crazy golf?”

“Cool,” says Leanne.

Fancy the boys more like, giggling as if she’s Angelica’s age and fluttering her eyelashes like Bambi.  Meanwhile, I’ll be struggling to get my ball through the first archway.  Angelica can’t hit it right either, but everyone thinks that’s cute.  The boys put their hands on top of hers and swing the club-thing so her ball sails through the obstacles and into the hole.

Then I realise I won’t need to come last at crazy golf this time, because someone will have to opt out to look after Benji. We couldn’t abandon him with his lead hooked over the railings.  I picture myself throwing sticks for him while the others shoot the balls past miniature windmills.  I imagine old ladies assuming he must be my dog.

 

I was keeping a firm grip on the lead, even if I was daydreaming.  But suddenly Angelica is screaming and Leanne is screaming and Bethany is telling her to stop screaming and it wasn’t Benji’s fault.  There are red blotches on the beardy bit around Benji’s mouth and blood running down Angelica’s leg.

A man stops his car and offers to drive us to the hospital, but Leanne calls him a paedo and he drives off.  Crimson-faced and weeping, she starts shouting into her mobile.  The ruler inside my head isn’t long enough for this.

A lady dashes from her house with an armful of towels. Watching her press them against Angelica’s leg makes me think of Granma slapping me for spilling tomato ketchup on her best tablecloth.

When the ambulance arrives, I pretend we’re in an episode of Casualty.  The paramedics in their thick green shirts and stompy boots take over from the lady with the towels.  I keep on hoping I’ll get to take Benji to the park, right up to the moment Bethany snatches his lead from my hand.

 

It isn’t so bad waiting at the hospital.  Mummy sends Leanne to buy comics and sweets, and I don’t hold Angelica to her promise to give me hers.  With one arm around Angelica and the other around me, Mummy doesn’t mention her aching head and arms.

“That was a very naughty dog,” says Angelica.

Mummy kisses her forehead.  “Yes, but I’ll make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone again.”

When Angelica and Mummy are called in to see the doctor, Leanne and I sit on the orange plastic chairs reading our comics a second time.  I’d have preferred to have my book, but I don’t mind too much.  Leanne ignores me, but not in a nasty way.

Angelica’s bandage is the colour of Benji’s coat.  We go home in a taxi and, after tea, Angelica goes to sleep in Mummy’s big bed.  Much later, when I’m alone on the top bunk in our room, I hear Bethany’s daddy at our backdoor.  Mummy doesn’t let him in.

He says he’s sorry about what happened and Mummy says, “Sorry’s not good enough.  You can be prosecuted for keeping a dangerous dog.”

Bethany’s daddy says Benji’s not dangerous, he’s just a bit frisky.

Mummy snaps: “Frisky, my arse!  You want to see what he’s done to my little girl.”

Bethany’s daddy says he was probably jealous of Angelica holding Bethany’s hand.

Mummy lets out a sour laugh, the type that forecasts a migraine.  “Animals don’t get jealous.”  There’s a pause, eighteen centimetres at least, and then she says, “You should keep that creature under control.”

Bethany’s daddy says, “Your daughter was holding the lead!”

“Don’t you dare shift the blame onto my Shannon!”

My stomach goes queasy, like it did watching Mary Poppins what feels like months ago.  All the times I’ve crossed my fingers and wished Mummy would stick up for me, I imagined it like in a book.  Reality’s more tangled.

Mummy notches up the argument another ten centimetres.  “That monster should be put down.”

Bethany’s daddy tells her not to get hysterical, because that was what he came to say.  They’ve already taken Benji to the Vet’s.

The backdoor slams.  I pretend put down would be just like settling a baby doll in its cradle, but the damp patch on my pillow tells a different story.

 

 

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, from flash to novels, and a blog that hovers somewhat closer to reality. She loves fiction for the freedom to contradict and continually reinvent herself.  The portal to her writing world is through her website http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/. She also tweets at @Annecdotist.

 

 

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