It’s the shouting that frightens me.
“Bloody wogs! Get out of our country!”
I don’t know what all the words mean, but Mummy pulls away from the man, and I fall over. She tugs on my harness and lifts me into the air. I finish crying in the warm cuddle of her lap. Mummy turns around to face the shouting man. She stares at him before walking away. Her face is red, but she says nothing. The man keeps on shouting.
“Yeah. I can smell you from here, you fuckin’ blackie.” A big girl with a ponytail laughs. Her laughing sounds like glass breaking. The shouting man laughs too. But Mummy isn’t laughing. She’s got me in her arms, and she’s walking away. I know that spitting is bad, but the shouting man doesn’t, because a huge white bubble flies out of his mouth and lands on the pavement near Mummy’s white shoe.
Thoo-too. They’re not laughing now. Just spitting. The man and the ponytail girl spit into the air. It lands on the ground. Thwack. My chin jiggles on Mummy’s shoulder, up and down, in time with the tok-tok-tok-tok of her white shoes. She’s walking fast.
There’s a roar, and a black car crawls around the corner. The man and girl run away. He laughs, and his ha-ha-ha-ha washes away into the gutter like muddy rain. Mummy puts me down. I want to run in my new red shoes, but the harness stops me. We’re going to the bubble-machine house. I want to be there right now, but I won’t step on the cracks. If you step on pavement cracks too many times, they’ll open up and suck you under the world, and that’s the end of you.
Mummy stops walking. She takes a handkerchief from her red handbag and wipes my nose. I wipe it again on my sleeve when she’s finished. I make a silver line on the blue of my coat. Mummy’s bag has a clasp that snaps when it opens or closes. I bunch a ball of her sari in my hand because I like its softness, and then we walk some more.
Pigeons, big and round, scatter like tambourines whenever we approach. I want to hold them. I want to know how they smell. I wish I had some bread left, and then they might stand still. But we fed all our bread to the ducks. We must be near the bubble-machine house now. Mummy points to a big building.
“Look.” She lifts me onto a wall. “That’s school. When you’re a big girl, you’ll go to school.”
“I am big,” I say.
“When you’re even bigger, after your birthday.”
Mummy puts me down and pulls the reins of my harness.
“My birthday. My birthday. My birthday.” I sing, fitting the words to my special tune, like a scarf around a doll’s neck.
We’re not far from school when Mummy’s naughty-girl voice stops me.
“Oh dear me,” she says, and the harness tugs me to the side of the pavement.
“Didn’t you see that?” Mummy has a cross face. “What a dirty dog! Just look at your new shoes.” I look. There is a brown mess under my foot, and it stinks.
Can smell you from here, you filthy blackie.
Mummy sits me down on the step outside the bubble-machine house. The bubble-machine lady opens the door and smiles at me. The skirt of her dress swirls round, and I see the crispness of her petticoat. The lady talks to Mummy, and then disappears.
“Don’t want shoes off,” l tell Mummy, when she pulls the strap through the buckle.
“They’re dirty and covered in germs,” Mummy says. The lady comes down the steps with some newspaper and a bag. She bends low and takes my other shoe off. I pull a grey curl on the lady’s head. Mummy takes her shoes off too, and there’s pretty nail polish on her toes. I wish my toes were red too. The carpet in the hall tickles my feet.
The bubble-machine house is like flowers and custard. It’s like old pictures and radio-music. It’s like all these things, but there’s still a poohey smell around. It’s coming from the bag that has my shoes in it. My stinky shoes.
I follow the lady into a room that has knobbly chairs around a table. The lady makes a weeee sound and lifts me onto a chair. I look on the high shelves for the bubble machine. A big glass of orange juice sits on the table, and I know it must be for me. I know that, because there’s a straw in it. The lady pulls it toward me. She smiles. I tuck the straw into my mouth and blow some bubbles.
I trace my finger through the splash on the table and make a spider shape on the shininess. And then I rub it all into the wood like polish. The orangey smell is yummy, but I can’t drink it. The paper straw has gone soft, and I’ve bitten a hole in it. Mummy has a long glass in her hand. She opens her red handbag and out comes my teddy. She puts it on the table next to my drink. Mummy takes the straw out and holds the glass to my lips, so I can take a big sip. Ahhhhh.
“So how’ve you been, dear?” the bubble-machine lady asks.
“It happened again.” Mummy looks at me and says, “Use both hands and don’t spill.” Her face is long and sad.
I want to play with the bubble machine.
“Oh no. What was it this time? Calling out names again?”
“Just now – a teddy-boy.” Mummy sniffs. “And a girl. So rude. Just outside Abbeyfield House.”
“Did you know them?”
“No. Just some teenagers. It happens so much. I don’t know – I...”
“Never mind dear – they’re just – oopsie daisy! Let me get a cloth. No it’s all right, don’t cry. You can have another orange drink. Oh look, you’re all wet.”
The bubble-machine lady whisks me away from the orangey-black line pouring off the table. It makes a dark circle on the carpet.
“Oh dearie me. Say ‘sorry’, and just look at your dress.” Mummy’s eyes search me out from the corner of the room. “Come here now.”
I think I might get a smack, so I stay where I am. Mummy takes some dark trousers out of her bag. They’re horrible trousers, and I don’t want them. They’re not for big girls. But in a flash, the dress with the daisy on it is peeled off. It slumps on the floor like a wet pancake. I can see my tummy.
The bubble-machine lady comes back with a cloth.
“What did they say? Did they threaten you?” The black trousers go on. Kick. A new cardigan scratches my skin. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Kick.
“Stop it!” Mummy shouts. So I stop. The lady lifts me onto the knobbly chair again. The table is sticky and wet. I don’t want to touch teddy anymore, because he’s sticky and wet too.
“I can’t tell you, Mrs. Atkinson. It’s too – nasty.” Mummy’s voice is soft. “They swore.” Mummy’s voice goes even softer, like she’s doing a fairy from one of my stories, but it doesn’t sound like a real fairy. “They swore in front of the child.” She’s talking about me.
“I think they’re just silly children who don’t know any better. They won’t do you any harm.” The bubble-machine lady folds her arms.
“Sometimes older people do it too. Today it was youngsters, but not always,” Mummy says.
“They tried to spit on us.”
I want the bubble machine.
“Does it happen when you’re with your husband?”
“It has happened, but not so much. He works so hard. He’s not home much.”
I can see the bubble machine. It’s tucked behind a tin soldier on the very top shelf. There are some flowers in a vase on the table. I stretch as far as I can and almost, almost reach.
“No. No touching. Play with teddy,” Mummy says.
I want the bubble machine.
“Did you get shouted at on the streets where you lived before? Or has it only happened here? Is it small town behaviour, do you think?”
“It happened there too.”
“You know, I read in the paper, the Americans, they’re having these campaigns.” The lady’s eyes are round. “In Alabama, I think it is. ‘Non-violent direct action’ they call it. Isn’t that what your Gandhi did, back in India?”
“Bubbles.” Oh no, the word pops out. The corners of Mummy’s lips go right down, as if she’s got a frog inside her mouth.
“Oh – would you like the bubbles? Now let me see, we may need to put some soap into it,” the lady says.
The bubble machine! She goes out of the room to get soap, but her face is not happy. I tap my foot on the wooden crosspiece of the knobbly chair. Mummy shakes her head.
The lady comes back and builds a smile on her face. She reaches up to the very top shelf and brings the bubble machine to the table. I climb onto the seat of my chair, so I can watch the soap go into the chamber.
The bubble machine is shaped like a doll. It has a pink dress. The lady opens the dress and pours some liquid inside. Then she winds up the machine with a key. Music starts, bubble-machine music, and then there are bubbles everywhere.
I slide down from the chair without any help. Now I can do the dance, the bubble-machine dance. I jump up and burst as many of the bubbles as I can reach. Mummy and the lady speak in dark voices. I laugh and laugh and laugh.
The bubble machine stops.
“Again! Again!” I shout. The lady turns the key again and music tinkles, just like before. More bubbles float into the air. They almost fill the whole room, to the corners. I dance all over floor.
The lady’s face becomes very long. Her eyes are like holes. Her voice is very soft, but I can hear her.
“Archie’s been getting worse.”
“Oh – your brother?”
“I saw Sarah from Abbeyfield yesterday.” The bubbles start to slow down. One lands on my nose and pops. I laugh. “Told me he can’t stop scratching. He’s scratching nothing. He can feel his missing leg, even though it’s been gone twenty years – twenty years.” Mrs. Atkinson puts a handkerchief up to her face. It is white with violet flowers. Plop. Another bubble comes out.
“Why does the whole world have to fight so? These poor men, all the bombs – oh dear me. Didn’t I say? No touching.” The bubbles have stopped so I’ve pulled some papers from a bureau. Mummy lifts me onto the knobbly chair. Mrs. Atkinson winds the bubble machine up again.
“You’ll have just been a girl when the war started. And of course, things were different in India.”
“Yes, we had our own problems.” Mummy sweeps a bubble away from her face. She looks very sad. “Things were very difficult in Bengal.”
“Yes. I gather.” She folds her arms. “I worked on a farm in the war. I was a ‘Land Girl’. We all did our bit.”
“Yes.” Mummy looks at her fingers. There is a bubble on the sleeve of her jacket. I look at the machine, the little hole where the bubbles come through. I want to hold it, to know what it feels like.
“These teddy boys, mods and what-have-you, youngsters today, like the ones who were rude to you, my dear, they have no idea.” Mrs. Atkinson pulls herself straight in her chair. A halo of bubbles drifts around her. “They don’t understand the sacrifices Archie and his companions made. Those soldiers fought for our country, so there would never – oh...”
“Oh no, no, no.” Mrs. Atkinson’s hand is on her mouth.
The bubble machine is on the floor. Bubbles pour out of it. Sideways. The music sounds scratchy. Soap drains out of its tummy onto the carpet. It makes another dark circle next to the orange squash one.
Mrs. Atkinson picks up the machine and puts it back on the very top shelf. The silvery music has stopped. There are no more bubbles.
“Do you know that’s very precious, my dear?” Mrs. Atkinson looks cross. “It’s very old. It was made even before I was born. It was made when my mummy was a little girl like you.” Mrs. Atkinson looks sad now. I try to make a sad face too, but some laughing happens instead.
“It’s time to go now.” Mummy’s voice is hard, like a smack.
The red shoes go back on, with their smell. Mummy goes down the steps again, and I follow her like a good girl.
Mrs. Atkinson is waving, but I’m not sure if the lady is our friend anymore. Her face is cross. It looks like a stone.
The big girls and boys are coming out of school, as I walk with Mummy. One day I’m going to be like them. Just like them.
A big girl with a long plait sticks her tongue out at us.
“Blackie, blackie, dirty smelly blackie.” Her voice is like a nursery rhyme. I look at my red shoes. My smelly shoes.
The tok-tok-tok-tok of Mummy’s shoes on the pavement tells me she’s walking as fast as she can. The reins tug on my chest. I pull against them as hard as I can.
I want to run away right now, but I won’t step on the cracks. If you step on pavement cracks too many times, they’ll open up and suck you under the world, and that’s the end of you.