by Rachel Belward

It is Christmas Day, and she is ten years old, weeping in front of her presents. Through a glaze of fat tears, she stares at the new books, the soft, fresh pajamas, the cds, the foil-wrapped chocolate coins, the gleaming tangerines. Spread across the white sofa like they’re nestled in a snowdrift. Taking up so much space. She slides off her perch on the edge of a cushion, slumps against the sofa. She turns her back on them and lets the crying take hold.

“Could someone help me peel the potatoes, please?” It sounds like someone is squeezing her mother’s words, somewhere above her, around the doorframe.

She stays very still. She doesn’t want to upset anyone. She balls her fists and ferociously rubs her eyes and cheeks, boxing with her tears, but the movement draws her mother’s eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Now the words are coloured with incredulity. The girl blinks, fixes her eyes on the polka dots on her mother’s apron. Her throat feels thick and tight with tears, but the words spill out all the same.

“I have too many things.”

Her mother is crouching next to her now, perfume and floury mince pie forearms. “It’s Christmas, Phoebe. And you’re not spoiled or anything.” She gestures limply at the sofa next to them. “Father Christmas knows you’ve been good.” 

“But there are so many children who have been good and don’t have any presents. And these are all nice things, but I don’t need them. I don’t think I deserve them more than anyone else.” She can feel the frustration kicking in her chest, somewhere under her collarbones.

A hand on her elbow, but no response. She refuses to meet her mother’s concerned gaze.

The fire breaks the silence, spitting, and her mother rises to check on it.

From the floor, she looks up at the dull grey sky, and wonders if it might snow after all.

* * *

A stubbornly muggy July evening, and beyond the greasy glass the London sky is a similar muted grey.

It’s unusual for him to say much more than a couple of sentences in a row, so she’s trying to soak in every word.

“These voices that are in us were useful once, and maybe the ones that are very loud were once very useful. You’re a bright girl with a conscience and a half. But what this voice is telling you isn’t useful to you any more.”

Phoebe listens, and tries to believe him. She thinks about that little girl, sobbing, feeling so selfish for doing so on such a nice day.

“That voice is for Christmas. Not for life.”

Her arms are crossed over her chest. She smirks.

“Like the opposite of a dog.”

Dr. Francis reflects her smirk back at her. “If you like.”

She pauses, letting the drone of traffic outside wash over her, like distant waves. “I mean… That was, what, nearly 20 years ago. Maybe I can leave that voice with that little girl. Maybe I can anchor it there and it can make as much noise as it needs to, but it can stay put.”

Dr. Francis shifts in his seat. He nods gently. “Our time is up, but I think this is something we should explore further next week.”

* * *

He’s dishing spaghetti up, standing at the hob with his back to her.

“Growth? That’s so vague. What does that mean? You can grow anything. Vegetables. Yourself. Society. Weed. Your hair.”

“The second one.”

“What?” His voice is both soft and slightly irritated, navigating strands of pasta into their plates.

“Yourself. I’m growing me.”

He doesn’t answer right away, reaching for the black pepper. He will sometimes ask what she talks about during her sessions, but she will rarely give him such a clear conversation-starter.

He slides her plate across the table to her. “Ok. And that’s a good thing, right?”

She nods, chewing.

“It’s the whole point, to be honest.”

He nods back at her. Meets her gaze for a moment to see if she’ll offer up anything else. She reaches over to refill her glass of water, her fingers lighting touching his wrist en route. A quiet acknowledgement.

“This weekend, can you sort out the boxes on top of the wardrobe please? I know there’s still lots of stuff you said you might want to get rid of. It’s been up there since you moved in.”

She sighs dramatically through a smile, and squeezes his hand. “Yeah, fine, ok. I’ll do it on Saturday morning.”

“Growth? That’s so vague. What does that mean? You can grow anything. Vegetables. Yourself. Society. Weed. Your hair.”

* * *

Every time he approaches the top of the slide, she nervously watches his four-year-old feet. Aaron sways slightly, and always waits until the very last minute to lower himself and sit down.

She has to remind herself that he is growing, every day. He’s her baby, but he’s not a baby any more. She takes his hand as they leave the sun-soaked play area.

“It’s your birthday soon,” she says, distracting him as they walk past the ice cream van.

“Is it tomorrow?”

She smiles. “No. In a couple of weeks.” She answers him knowing these words don’t mean much to him yet. Two weeks is an inconceivably long time when you’re so little.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Martine approaching – too close to pretend she hasn’t seen her. Her heart sinks a little.

A somehow grotesquely childlike, saccharine wail: “Phoebe! How are you? It’s been so long!”

Something inside her recoils, but she allows herself to be enveloped into a slightly clammy hug.

Martine is carrying a stuffed toy penguin. The fluffy bird looks bizarre in the August heat, jammed under her elbow. Her daughter Bella – Aaron’s classmate – clutches her hand, her little cheeks flushed. Martine is wearing her hair in bunches, just like Bella, with bright yellow hairbands to match. The biggest and smallest matryoshka dolls stood next to each other.

“Fine thanks – we were just heading home, actually. It’s so hot. How are you?” She can feel Aaron’s hand on her elbow, like he’s reassuring her.

Martine sighs dramatically. “Yes, all good. Thank goodness for the park, eh? I’m surprised we didn’t see you in the sandpit. Cheaper than the beach, right?”

Martine smiles, waiting for a laugh. A tight flash of a smile that makes Phoebe’s throat tighten in turn.

“Yeah, true. Not long now til they start school though…”

“Oh I know, it can’t come fast enough! You’re not on the parents WhatsApp group, are you?” Martine’s nails are painted a glittery pink, and they flash as she pulls her phone from her handbag. The case is covered in stickers – a unicorn, a dolphin, a french bulldog.

“Did Bella decorate your phone?”

Martine looks indignant. That sugary voice again. “No, they’re mine. I love stickers.” She peels off a glittery rainbow, hands it to Phoebe ceremoniously.

“Uh, thanks.” She doesn’t know what to do with her face, sticks it on the strap of her handbag.

“There, added you!” Martine trills, wearing a smile that doesn’t match her eyes. Phoebe forces a smile back.

“Thanks. Well, we’d better get going. This little guy definitely needs a bath. Nice to see you.”

“Say goodbye, Bella!” The little girl lowers her big eyes. Aaron waves to her.

“Lovely to see you! I’ll text you and maybe we can arrange a playdate for these two!”

“Sounds good,” Phoebe replies, leading Aaron towards the gates.

She’s wondered many times before what exactly it is about Martine that puts her on edge. She’s half-listening to Aaron’s commentary on his time on the slide when she realises – it’s because she doesn’t understand why the hell Martine can’t grow up.

How does a woman in her thirties dress like that, and put on that little girly voice, and dress to match her child, and unironically cover her phone in stickers?

Maybe I’m just a judgemental bitch, Phoebe thinks. If it makes her happy, who cares I guess? What does it mean to grow up, anyway?

But these thoughts drift away in her fog of irritation. She reaches for her phone and mutes the parents group.

“Ma, can I have an ice cream?”

His voice pulls her out of her head, and she looks down at his little moon face. For a second, she is jolted forward  to a day when she’ll have to look up at it instead. She knows that day will come sooner than she thinks.

She squeezes his little sweaty hand. “Of course you can. Maybe I’ll get one too. With a flake.”

Rachel Belward | @RBel2 
Rachel works for a mental health charity. She lives in London, reads a lot, and documents this on Instagram as @rach_is_reading.

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