Colouring in by Suzie Lockhart-Smith


Colouring In

Somewhere beyond the forest, hyenas laugh. The sound yips and gurgles as I hold my breath. My arm begins to ache as I listen, holding my toothbrush suspended in front of my face. I give up on cleaning my teeth and hastily rinse the brush. My mouth in the mirror is white with froth as the low sun floods the window filling the glass in my reflection with blood and citrus streaks. As I snatch a flannel to clean my mouth I look fearfully out at the road, which runs along the edge of the forest and darkens as the sun sinks west of it. I look back and the mirror drains of colour like the face of someone who is going to faint. I turn quickly to switch on the light and the glass of the window turns black. The sun has gone. I climb onto the chest of drawers to close the curtains and shut out the laughter and the darkness.

            My fear makes me rush to the bedroom door but I don’t want my mother, Annie, to know I’m frightened so I slow up, pretending to be calm. The lamp is on and she is sitting at the dressing table brushing her hair. I move towards her, sliding my socked feet along the polished floor like a slow-motion skater.

            ‘Turn round, Mama. I’ll put your lipstick on for you,’ I say picking it up.

            She shunts her chair round to face me and holds her lips ready. I reach up to apply the bright red colour to her mouth as carefully as I can and then I hand her a tissue from the Kleenex box and watch her blot her lips, pressing the tissue between them, making a lovely kiss shape. She transfers the image of her lips often – to my forehead, cheeks, paper tissues, and to her gin and tonic glass. I love the way the lip imprints dance with the lemon slice in her drink. I have tried to draw the dance in my sketchbook and colour it in.

            I pick up the hairbrush, gather Annie’s dark curls, and begin to brush starting from half way down her head, which is as far as I can reach.

            ‘Cora isn’t back yet, Mama.’

            ‘She’ll be home soon. Don’t worry.’

            ‘What if she isn’t though?’

            ‘She will be. She always is.’

            ‘But what if she doesn’t come?’

            ‘She’ll come.’

            Annie retrieves the hairbrush and taps me lightly on the nose with it. ‘She’ll come,’ she says firmly. I reach to stroke her hair where she has a cow’s lick – I have one too unfortunately. If a real cow happened along and slurped its tongue to create that shape in my hair I would be thrilled.

            When Annie goes to untie my mosquito net over my bed, I hurry to help her tuck it in round the mattress, trying not to let her know I’m anxious. The way she sees it, she doesn’t have a choice but to go to work to pay the rent on this doll’s house chalet, which is part of the hotel complex, and which Memsahib lets us live in at a reduced rent. If there’s no choice, Annie says I shouldn’t make a fuss. The way I see it is, why can’t I go with her and bring Cora? We would sleep in the doorway of the Air Control Tower if we weren’t allowed in. Or we could sleep in the car. Or why couldn’t we go back home and live with Daddy, and then she wouldn’t have to go to work? She has left Daddy, so I have too, though I didn’t mean to.

            ‘Hop in,’ she says, holding up a side of the net. I climb in and reach for her embrace. Her lipstick is thick on my face as she kisses me, leaning in under the net. She spits on a handkerchief she extracts from her sleeve and scrubs my face. I hate her spitted hanky but I laugh. Her laughter and mine blot out the sound of the hyenas in the forest as she tucks me in, and folds the net under the mattress. She fetches hairgrips from my bedside table to pin together a big hole in the net.

           ‘Memsahib will check on you soon, and Cora will be back in a while.’ Annie switches the lamp on by my bed, collects her handbag and hesitates as though she doesn’t want to leave me. But she goes leaving the top half of the stable door slightly ajar. I hear her car keys jangling, her footsteps crunch on the gravel and fade, then the sound of the car engine driving away. The night is thick with insect noise.

            I can hear the hyenas. They are silent, they are stalking – I can feel them close, slinking low on their bellies towards the door. Each mouth is drawn back in a red grin, glistening with silvered moonlit saliva. There’s a scrabbling sound as they reach the chalet. The top half of the door is only partially open, and it opens outwards, so the hyenas won’t manage a smooth leap into the room. Maybe I have time to race for the bathroom. But I can’t move. There is a scratching sound as the first one makes an assault. Two paws hook themselves over the bottom half, and a black nose nudges aside the top half, of the door. The paws are gold! My fear turns to relief as a golden retriever struggles to haul herself up and pour herself into the room.

            Cora. She makes straight for my bed, claws the hairgrips away from the hole in the net and climbs in wriggling a greeting and panting into my face. Her breath stinks of rotting carcass. I settle her under the blanket and turn my back on her. Her nose is under my hair and her breath is warm and rhythmical against my neck, which is lovely, but the smell is disgusting. I watch the door, trying to stay awake, hoping to see Memsahib come and check on me, but I’ve never seen her yet after dark.

 

I know it is morning by the under-water blur of pale green that washes under my eyelids before I open them. The sun is beginning to rise and its rays seep under leafy foliage outside, staining the curtains and infusing the room with a luminous lime green glow. The stable door is closed and my bedside light is off. Dead insects litter the bedside cabinet like somebody has used a pepper mill. Annie is sleeping in the bed next to mine. Cora wheezes softly in her sleep.

            I lie beside Cora feeling a slow surge of delight as I lift my head to look over her body and through the dog-sized hole in the net at Annie’s hair coiling loosely into whirlpools like diesel oil lit with a phosphorous glow.

            I need a pee.

            As I turn to pull the toilet chain, I look into the bowl, and see my urine has absorbed the morning light, making it look like Rose’s lime juice. It’s the colour of my waking happiness. I’m reluctant to pull the chain as it’s like flushing away early morning sunlight and gladness. The light changes and sharpens, bright and clear. I climb onto the chest of drawers to open the curtains and the trees of the forest rustle their silvery green leaves. They’re dotted with egrets fluttering like wind blown snow.

            On my way back to bed I fetch my colouring book and crayons. Cora’s tail thumps briefly as I climb back through the net. There is only one page in my book left to colour. It is the last one – a snowman in a winter landscape. I ignore the idea of whiteness and snow and make him as red as ox-blood standing on a sea of hot earth with ochre streaks, under a charcoal sky.

            When Annie wakes up she fetches an ashtray and a pair of tweezers and hands them to me through the hole in my net, which she un-tucks, gathers, and twists into a knot above my head. I take off my pyjama top and turn my back to her shunting Cora out of the way for more space.

            ‘Here’s a fat one,’ Annie says applying the tweezers to the tick she has found on my back. She places the bloated grey body, gorged on my blood, in the ashtray.

‘That’s all I can find,’ she says running her hands over my skin. My bruises aren’t tender anymore so the feeling of her hands is lovely.

            ‘I’ll get the ticks off Cora, Mama.’ I shake my head as she offers me the tweezers, preferring to comb the dog’s fur with my fingers. ‘Here’s one! Look, Mama, it’s even bigger and fatter,’ I say dislodging it and holding it up.

            Annie screws up her face in mock disgust, shakes her head and points towards the ashtray. As she gathers clothes from the wardrobe I hold the tick above my head. ‘I’ll squash it,’ I threaten, but she’s already moving off to the bathroom. I show it to Cora who sniffs it politely waving her tail uncertainly. I throw the two ticks, fat with our blood, out of the door before Annie has time to light a cigarette and burn them.

            We go to the main building of the Banda Hotel for breakfast where Cora spreads herself out under the table. Mwangi, tall and lean and very black, wears a crisp blue kanzu. As he approaches us his smile is as white as polar ice.

            ‘Habari yako Mwangi?’ I say, feeling the enthusiasm of greeting ripple under my skin like a remnant of early morning happiness, of sunshine not yet flushed away.

            ‘Mzuri toto kidigo,’ he says. ‘Na wewe?’

            ‘Mzuri, asante sana,’ I grin. ‘I’m fine.’

            Mwangi is nice to me, but it’s my mother who he is most attentive to, as though he longs to bring her a big fried English breakfast. She is always looking away, pre-occupied. I order toast and Marmite for breakfast and fruit juice. Annie orders coffee. She has cigarettes and coffee for breakfast every morning, which must be disappointing for Mwangi.

            Memsahib comes into the dining room, goes to Annie and plants a kiss on her cheek. Her eyes scan the room. We are the only customers having an early breakfast. She smiles at Mwangi, then more broadly, at me. A smell of lavender and furniture polish clings to her thin frame.

            There is a pine tree in a bucket covered in red crepe paper in the corner of the dining room. It is tall and bare, but beside it is a large cardboard box, which must be full of decorations. Annie and Memsahib are talking about Daddy so I lose interest in the tree while I try to understand what they’re saying. He’s been arrested and sent to London for trial. He’s accused of accepting a bribe to get a black person off murder because he’s a clever lawyer. Memsahib sounds fond of Daddy. ‘He was under a lot of stress,’ she says. Annie’s mouth goes thin as she folds her lips in and holds them between her teeth, while gazing somewhere distant. ‘You should have seen the bruises on the child’s back,’ she says. ‘You should have seen how she was winded. She couldn’t breathe!’ She turns to look into Memsahib’s face.

Memsahib frowns, pours herself a coffee from the jug that Mwangi put on the table. I use tongs to lift two lumps of sugar into her cup and pick up a teaspoon to stir it for her. I enjoy this ritual, especially tapping the spoon twice on the rim of the cup then clattering it into the saucer. I put my arms on the table and rest my chin on them looking up into Memsahib’s face. I wait for her to notice me. She smiles.

            ‘May Mwangi and me decorate the tree?’

            Memsahib and Mwangi exchange a glance. Mwangi looks round the empty dining room, shrugs, and nods. Memsahib says we may.

            I like the red baubles. Mwangi likes the silver tinsel. It glistens against the high sheen of his skin as I drape it round his neck before making a decision about which branch to hang it from. His eyes swim, reflecting the shine of glassy decorations beginning to weigh the branches down.

            My world is coloured in.

Mwangi is tinsel and glitter spangled. Annie and Memsahib drink coffee in a smoky light that is almost the faded gold of Cora’s coat. This Christmas is the red of lipstick and baubles and mirrored sunsets and a hyena’s blood soaked grin. It is the green of sunrise and eucalyptus trees and my early morning pee. White gleams freshly in my toothpaste froth, and Mwangi’s smile. Brilliance flickers off the wings of egrets and glints in the sugar lumps I put in Memsahib’s coffee. I see the black of night glass when I close my eyes, and the darkness of Marmite and dead insects.

            Blue is Mwangi’s kanzu.

            Blue is a battery of yellow-rimmed bruises.

 

 

2,197 words

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014