“No Sonya, the girl sounds dreadful. Just because she’s driven you mad, I don’t see why I should be driven mad too.” She really believed that life would be better if everyone was honest. She thought of saying:
“I do a lot of favours for you, Sonya. This one is going too far.” Or even:
“I’m rather offended that you think I’ve got nothing better to do.”
She pressed the telephone to her ear, and made a stern face at herself in the hall mirror, but her voice came out in a whine.
“But I don’t even speak French. Only schoolgirl. It’ll be dreadfully old fashioned.” Sonya laughed. A great, gurgling laugh that sounded to Fay, as if Sonya was relieved. As if Fay had already agreed to take the girl on.
“You needn’t worry about that, Fay. She never says a word.”
And indeed, Fay was already leafing through her diary. “We could have her Monday, I suppose. But only if Isobel’s free.” She tried to make it clear from the tone of her voice that she was not smiling as she spoke. “ You know what teenagers are like. Isobel may have plans that she hasn’t deigned to tell me, and I don’t think I could manage this on my own.”
So she agreed to spend a day with Sonya’s French student. It was bad enough last year, with Isobel’s French exchange. All the gesturing, the nervous laughter round the bathroom in the morning and her ill disguised distaste for English suppers. There was no scope for honesty with someone foreign in the house.
“I find it difficult that you won’t eat the sprouts,” she had tried at Sunday dinner. “Cooking is hard work.” Mathilde shook her head and blushed.
“The sprout are ‘ard? No, I don’t understand.” She looked to Isobel for help.
“Don’t worry,” Isobel did not look at Fay. “Ca ne fait rien.”
Now there would be more of it with this Raquel. Only Sonya had made it clear that it would be a great deal worse.
“Do I get anything out of this?” Isobel asked. “Can we at least go out to lunch or something, and I choose the place?” Fay marvelled at her brazen self interest. Perhaps she should have taken this line with Sonya.
“Well I thought the donkey sanctuary,” she said. “Do you remember Auntie Betty’s donkey? She had to send him there in the end. I thought we ought to support the place.”
Isobel narrowed her eyes.
“You will SO owe me if we have to go there.” She sighed and pulled a strand of hair across her face, inspecting it for split ends. “I’m gonna find out from her if anyone French,”she said, “well anyone cool and French, actually says discotheque. I don’t reckon they do. I reckon its like totally naff, like saying dance hall.” All the teenage disgust she could muster was poured into those two words. “I mean what would you do, mum, if you were out with your mates, right, and you found out that you’d just said let’s go and hang at the dance hall? I mean, I’d want to die.”
“Well, I suppose I might feel a bit foolish, darling. But I’d probably just smile. There’s never any harm in a smile.”
Isobel lifted her shoulders and shuddered. Fay knew this shudder. It had greeted Fay’s new, beige winter coat with the large pockets and detachable hood. It had greeted the little padded tubes she had bought to stop the seat belts scraping her neck. In fact, anything Fay bought for her own comfort, slippers, handkerchiefs, thermal vests, were clearly a source of excruciating shame for her daughter.
But it was to Isobel’s credit that the shudder did not greet the arrival of Raquel. The poor girl had terrible acne. A blistering rash from her cheek bones to her jaw. She wore the kind of heavy, brown court shoes that are only available in sizes larger than nine. Her short hair fell in lank waves around her face. Fay offered her a strong, wide smile.
“Welcome, Raquel. Come in.” She held out her hand. If Raquel had taken it, Fay would have kissed her. Right cheek, left cheek, right again, acne or no acne. But Raquel looked away, over her shoulder briefly and then down at her hand bag. It was an old dame’s bag, black and stiff with a brass clasp. Fay could only think of one reason why someone Raquel’s age would need a bag like that.
“You want the toilet?” she asked. Raquel looked back with blank incomprehension. Fay turned to Isobel.
“La toilette? C’est la porte ici!” Isobel pointed but Raquel’s gaze did not follow. She looked down at her bag once again.
“Well, some coffee then,” Fay smiled, and nodded towards the kitchen. Raquel did not move.
“Du café? Tu aimes le café?” Isobel tried. “Nous avons des biscuits aussi.” Fay thought that she may have to spend the rest of day with Raquel in the hall. She would smile at her and Raquel would grip the terrible bag. Isobel would have gone long ago, to carouse in a discotheque or some such place. But at last Raquel shrugged. No more than a twitch of her shoulder really.
Fay looked to Isobel for a translation but in fact there was nothing to translate. Just a pout and a puff of air from her lips. A breathy plosive, half sigh, half dismissive disgust.
It was all she said all day. Isobel was valiant at first, asking a range of questions in English and French. She played her some music, presented her new make up box, even took her next door to see the cat and six kittens. Raquel followed her, heavy faced, clutching the bag. And occasionally she puffed.
“I can’t work out what she means,” Isobel whispered, when Raquel finally did go to the toilet. “Sometimes I think she says je pas. Or even chau pas. It doesn’t make sense, unless it’s like some lingo, something really cool. But I don’t reckon it can be.”
It made no difference anyway. Fay thought of saying “It is difficult for us too, Raquel, when you won’t speak.” She had even worked out a rudimentary translation. The point about being honest was to get your feelings into the equation even if they were never taken into account. But really, in this case, there was little point.
“Darling, I think it has to be the donkey sanctuary.”
“I’ll sit in the front.” Isobel said. “I don’t have to speak to her. It’s not like she wants me to, anyway.”
So Raquel sat on the back seat with the handbag still at her shoulder. Isobel bent her head over her phone, her fingers jabbing out texts. Fay tried to guess what she was saying.
“OMG she’s like SO…” but she couldn’t decide how Isobel would describe this poor, motionless girl behind them.
“Darling, what does minging mean?”
“Mum!” Isobel looked up from her phone and blushed.
“I’m forever hearing you say it. It must mean something.”
“Well, sort of gross.”
“I thought that meant fat.”
“Not when we say it, Mum. Anyway, not really gross. Dirty. Like B.O.”
“Ah. We used to say people were flea-bags.”
“Well don’t say that near me or any of my friends, whatever you do.” She returned to her phone. Raquel wasn’t minging then. You could see that her blouse was ironed, her fingernails clipped and clean. The clasp on the dreadful handbag shone. In fact the whole hard, expanse of it looked polished. Fay was almost ashamed of herself for bringing the word to mind. She wondered what the French equivalent might be.
They drove in silence down the lanes. As they turned a corner the sea came into view, iron grey and flecked with tetchy looking ripples.
“La mer,” Fay said, but neither girl responded. And neither girl registered their arrival as they drew into the blustery car park.
“Well, here we are.” Cold air was sucked towards them as Fay opened the door. “Do you have a coat, Raquel? It may rain.” She looked to Isobel but she was still frowning down at her phone. “Un manteau?” Fay tried, certain that this word was as out-moded as discotheque, as clumsy as Raquel’s big shoes. “Il fait fois, je pense.”
Raquel clambered out, and made her strange, habitual movement; looking over her shoulder and then down at her bag. Fay pointed to the picture of a donkey at the entrance kiosk.
“Do you like donkeys? I like donkeys.” She was smiling again, too broadly and the wind was drying out her teeth. She wasn’t convinced she was being honest, either.
She thought of Auntie Betty’s old donkey. He was grey backed, spindly legged, tufts of brown hair sprouting from his tall ears. She couldn’t remember his name. She couldn’t remember liking him either. She had agreed to move him from one field to another and it had been a beautiful day. The grass had rippled in the wind and she remembered the soft hiss of it and the bobbing shadows in the hedge. It would have been lovely to lead a donkey through the lanes. But she tugged at his halter and he would not budge. She called to him, pushed at his flanks and cajoled but he did not respond. There was nothing fierce about his obstinacy. There was no passion; he just seemed to know that with his feet four-square on the ground he could not be moved.
Actually, it was like a sort of deadness. She swore at him after a while and yanked savagely at his leading rein. He dipped his nose a little lower but did not move. It was as if she wasn’t there at all. Or perhaps it was he who had gone. He had disappeared into some donkey under-world and could not be reached. In the end she wept. She sat down in the grass and sobbed with rage at her own impotence. She must have been forty two, a grown woman. But she could not see how she could return to Auntie Betty and admit she had failed. She had offered her help so blithely, with so many smiles, and now tears of humiliation were pouring down her face, like a child.
No, she did not like donkeys.
They went into the sanctuary and she bought two orange bucketfuls of pellets. She held them out to the girls but they shrank away. They trudged down the gravel paths, wind slapping at their clothes. Fay led them, determined not to smile. Next came Isobel with her shoulders high and her hands inside her sleeves. Raquel lagged behind, gripping the bag. They paused at an enclosure where the donkeys stood motionless, ears back, haunches to the wind. Their heads looked too heavy for their stubby bodies. Fay shook the buckets but they were not lured.
“Are they really sad, Mum, or just old?” Isobel asked.
“Sad as in miserable or sad the way you and your friends say it?” The wind swept into her mouth and shrank her voice. Further down, in the next field the donkeys seemed livelier. They clustered at the fence where a man in a duffel coat and shorts patted them and laughed loudly. Fay was certain she could see the goose pimples standing out on his pale, yellowy legs.
“Let’s go down there,” she said. Isobel recoiled but Fay ignored her, went to the fence and gave the buckets a vigorous shake. This time the donkeys came eagerly, tossing their heads, curling their thick lips to reveal broad, unapologetic teeth. Fay looked at a board showing photographs. Penny – 26 years old. Alphonse- 24 years old. Ex beach donkeys. She held out both buckets.
“There you are, one each” But they both wanted the same one. They nudged at it with their muzzles, jostling and stamping. Then, with a sudden pitch of his head, Alphonse swung the bucket out of her hand and the pellets poured onto the grass.
“For god’s sake, Mum!” Isobel rolled her eyes.
“It’s not my fault, darling.” Penny and Alphonse nosed the ground briefly then raised their heads to stare reproachfully at Fay.
“I thought donkeys were supposed to be cute.”
“Oh, they are really. Look at them!” Fay reached over and patted Penny on her flat, almost circular jaw. She had a tufty little fringe and long, curled eyelashes. “How do you say cute in French?”
“Dunno. Mignon maybe? I’ve given up, Mum, I’m knackered.” She dug a fingernail into the fence, picked off a splinter. The end of her nose was reddening in the wind.
“Oh, we mustn’t give up. I mean poor girl! She’s unhappy, Isobel. You do realise that?”
Isobel shrugged again.
“Where is she, anyway?”
Fay had thought she was standing, leaden faced, behind them, but the path was deserted. A spark of delight flickered in Isobel’s eyes.
“We’re free!” She said and grabbed Fay’s hand. “Let’s run away!” She began to caper. Fay felt a smile starting and a bubble of laughter rose in her throat. What if they ran, now, hand in hand back to the car? She’d tell Sonia, quite gaily, that Raquel had simply disappeared. And then she’d take Isobel to buy a new bra or a pretty box for school pencils. She knew she should at least tell Isobel that the thought of it was delightful. But she pulled her hand away instead. She said:
“No, it’s not funny!”
“Yes it is,” Isobel grinned, still jigging on the spot. “It’s such a relief. Come on Mum, be real!”
Fay looked around at the wind swept enclosures. The man in the duffel coat was hurrying back to the kiosk and the donkeys were all huddled together for warmth. Something was banging in the wind, a rope against a flag pole, clanging and battering. There was no Raquel.
What was real, was that Fay was a disappointment to her daughter. She started down the path. The brown puddles ahead of her rippled. She felt the cold prickle of rain drops on her cheek.
“Ooh. Sor-ree!” Isobel called after her. She came to a fork in the path. One led down to more fields where there were more huddled donkeys. The other lead to a stable with a low roof jutting out over the yard. And there was Raquel, handbag at her feet, leaning on the stable door.
Isobel walked towards her, stony faced.
“Look! She’s talking. I can see her lips moving! She’s talking to the donkey!”
They stopped on the path and watched. She was leaning right in, arms outstretched. She was making little kissing movements with her mouth, and a faint, French murmur reached them over the wind.
It wasn’t until they were closer that they saw the signs on the stable door.
“Please do not touch this donkey.” Fay pulled a face and went to read the information board.
“Pompey is new to the sanctuary and was very ill when he arrived. He is being kept in isolation while he is treated. To avoid spreading infection, please do not pat him. We also think he may bite.”
Raquel was wiggling her fingers against the donkey’s nose. It was obvious that he was sick. His coat looked flea bitten and patchy, his eyes dull.
“Oh dear!” Fay said. “She doesn’t understand!”
“I think she does,” Isobel nodded towards two further signs around the stable door; patting hands crossed through in red. The message was unmistakable. “You have to stop her, Mum.”
“You do it. I don’t know the French for bite.”
Isobel shrugged, brought her shoulders to her ears. Fay crept towards Raquel, as if she were a precarious tower of wooden bricks, poised to topple.
“Je suis desolee,” she tried, and patted Raquel’s elbow lightly. “C’est interdit. Regard la… la… papier ici.” She smiled at Raquel and pointed at the sign. Raquel looked at Fay, and then down at the sign.
“Pas.” She turned back to the donkey. She was nothing like a toppling tower of bricks. She was more like Auntie Betty’s donkey.
“Non, non!” Fay shook her head, tried to take hold of Raquel’s arm. “C’est dangereuse.” Raquel continued with her little kissing noises. The donkey nodded and butted her hand. Fay could see that his nostrils were inflamed, the skin on them flaking away. Raquel was murmuring again, too indistinctly to pick out any words. But her face had changed. There was life in her at last, she cocked her head and her eyes ranged over the donkey’s mangy face.
“Do something, Mum,” Isobel called through the wind. She was hunched over, squinting against the thin rain. Her face looked pinched. “What if someone comes? What if he bites her?” Fay didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t smile, not in the cold, not with the dull eyed donkey nuzzling so dolefully at Raquel’s fingers. The only thing that came to mind was “pas”. She tried it, now, feeling the sulk in the pout, the disgust in the puff of air. Perhaps it was the most honest thing she’d said all day.
“Oh for God’s sake, Mum. Give me the car keys, I’m not standing round here.”
Fay handed them over and watched Isobel stalk back to the car.
“Pas,” she tried again. She thought about Auntie Betty’s donkey. How had she returned to Auntie Betty that day, with tear streaks on her face and the donkey still in the field? No doubt she had smiled. She should have said “pas.” It was a useful word. She could have said it to Sonya, to her neighbour when he complained about her clemetis trailing over the fence, to the man who leered at her in the library.
But she knew it wouldn’t really help her. “Pas” was just the opposite of a smile. It kept everything hidden away. Fay turned back to Raquel.
“We have to go home now.” Raquel was stroking the donkey’s nose with the backs of her fingers. His nostrils were quivering. “A la maison,” Fay tried. For a second Raquel looked stricken. The corners of her mouth sharpened, her eyebrows trembled. And then, in an instant, her face was heavy and dull.
She bent down to retrieve her bag and Fay walked ahead of her to the car. She could see Isobel inside, as they approached. She was on the phone, feet up on the dashboard, head back, laughing. With relief probably. That terrible, addictive, breath stealing laughter that teenagers keep going for hours. A cover all. Just like Fay’s smiles. Just like “pas”. She tapped on the car window and they waited shivering, while Isobel finished her conversation, nodding, pushing the hair from her face.
From somewhere behind them came a high, quivering screech. It was like the shrill grinding of rusty cogs, the shriek of train wheels on the track. Fay looked round, puzzled; there was no train line here, no huge, corroded apparatus with stuck pistons and reluctant hinges.
Then came the long blare of the donkey’s haw. A gross and vulgar groan.
It came again; the agonised, drawn out wheeze, and then the obscene hooting of the haw.
Again and again. Hee haw. Hee haw. Hee haw.
About the Author
Harriet Kline won the Hissac Short Story Competition 2012 and the London Magazine Short Story Competition 2013. She lives in Bristol with her partner and two sons and feels very lucky to have time in her life to write.
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