‘Why must we go? Why must we? Why won't you let me put my make up on?’
I was too pale without it. My hair may have scorched the skins straight from people’s eyes, but the rest of me was colourless, transparent, boring. I envied Will for resembling a starlet already. His eyelashes framed his eyes almost in ringlets, his cheeks were perpetually red, his hair darker than coal. I was quite the plain child, in both personality and appearance. It hurt to look at him. It hurt to look at Vivienne. It hurt a whole lot more when I didn't. I hated our being apart for six achingly long hours, five out of seven days, days when I could only glimpse Will through dusty windows and Vivienne from a photograph in my purse.
I never rattled, but Will always jangled when he talked, both when he was cackling with laughter and on the long autumn walks home. Vivienne took both of our hands then, we dangled from each arm. Often the ground was scattered by pennies, earned from black market sweet selling. People always gave Will money, he was always after something. He wasn’t the kind of person who would give without payment.
Viv chided him often, but the one night she didn't, she was strangely distracted. December 30th. The crumbling house was still covered head to toe in decorations, red, green and gold. Vivienne was never on time for anything, least of all taking down and boxing away when she saw it as the most unpleasant of tasks.
‘Out tonight, lovelies, so please scrub up well. We have people to impress.’
Will and I were never allowed up past eleven, which was late for other ten year olds, but Vivienne told us we’d be coming back at two in the morning. We had a meeting to attend, at the town hall, about us maybe going away. I didn’t freeze with fear as Will did. I had got in the habit of pretending to be fine all of the time.
‘Going where? Where could we possibly go?’ His voice rang out as imperious as ever. Vivienne’s pencilled eyebrows flew into her fringe. She said nothing, staring at the tinsel above the fireplace instead.
‘We’d better take that down, tonight. Before tomorrow evening, anyway. We don’t want the guests tripping over the tree. It’s finished now, Christmas! No need to look at me like that, dears. The presents have been opened, the children – gifts! - have been paid for.' Her voice faltered and she was suddenly glowering, hands flying to her hips. She wasn't remotely fierce, but Will was. He simply gazed at her.
I didn’t need to see his stony face to understand. She’d lost it. She was a fruit loop. We didn’t know where we were coming or going with her. I have no doubts nowadays that she was mostly mad. She loved us, though. That was a given. Just back then, it didn't mean much.
We washed our faces and whispered hurriedly. Will watched the door with grim determination, his hand shaking as he brushed each row of teeth.
‘That’s it then. We knew she’d give us back someday. Perhaps now she’s trying to sell us.’
‘There might be another war going on.’ I tried to imitate Vivienne’s exasperated tones. ‘We’re probably being extricated, to miles and miles away.’
‘Evacuated, you bloody idiot.’ I winced at the scorn, the sharp, freshly learned words from the class one year above my own. I made to leave, but instead was pulled into a tight embrace.
‘We’re going to be alright, you know. I’ll look after you.’
I couldn’t quite believe him, but rather than cry, I started to laugh. ‘You can’t look after your own shoes! Shall I polish them?’
It was his turn to snicker. I remember how we stood, hands clasped, brushes crushed between palms, trying not to scream from the fear of it all. Of losing each other, of losing her, of barely being able to understand.
Minutes before we were set to leave. Messy tears. The kind that sent Vivienne rushing to me in just her gown and best stockings. Americans called tights pantyhose, she always said. Now as she pressed me to tell her what was wrong, I couldn't bring myself to open up. Seeing Will pocket a lipstick from the window, undoubtedly to sell, I decided to lie.
'I just want to stay at home. This is where - this is where we're growing up! Why must we go? Why must we? Why won't you let me put my make up on?’