Just You and Me
The bell rang and class 4G scrambled from their seats. “Excuse me, class! Excuse me!” shouted Miss Rodney. Lara caught her eye and hovered over her seat, but half the class were at the door already. She grabbed her bag. On the clock it read three thirty. Home time.
In the playground shouts and laughter filled the air as the junior school piled from the building. Lara slipped from her classmates to find the toilet. If Miss Rodney saw her, she wouldn’t be allowed. She’d been afraid to ask so near to the end of the day, now she was desperate. The outbuilding was empty, echoey. Through the cement walls the playground sounds were muted, and Lara had the strange sense that it would be dark when she went back out. She rushed to wash her hands in the icy water and go out to join the others.
Her class were gathered round Miss Rodney by the gate. Ethan was walking off with his mum. He waved a pack of crisps, wiggling from foot to foot. When he reached the gate he leapt up to touch the top of the fence and landed facing Lara, stumbling backwards. She waved and he stuck his tongue out at her. Then she found a space to wait out of the way of the families and nannies and pushchairs and in sight of the gate. She couldn’t go back to her class. The teacher would want to know where she’d been.
The playground grew emptier. The remaining children were huddled around parents and childminders, siblings and sports coaches, grappling to receive crisps or sandwiches in their greasy, inky hands. A girl in Lara’s class, Rina, spotted Lara standing alone by the water fountain and skipped over. “Do you want some?” she asked, holding out a bag of Cheesy Whatsits.
Lara stuck her hand into the crinkly bag.
“Where’s your mum?” said Rina.
Lara placed the bright orange Whatsit on her tongue. “My dad’s picking me up,” she said.
Rina screwed up her face. “Your dad?” she said.
Over by the climbing frame, a man with white hair waved a thin arm and Rina bolted off towards him. “In a while crocodile,” she said.
By now, the teachers had gone inside, though the playground was still busy with adults chatting and children eating snacks and chasing each other. Lara trailed over to the largest group. Maybe her dad was talking to the other parents. He didn’t know them. He hadn’t met any before. Maybe he’d want to say hello. But then her mum always said he didn’t like Small Talk.
“Hello Lara,” said Joe’s mum, a spherical woman with so many scarves Lara thought her head might roll off.
Lara blinked at her, then at the floor, shoving her hands into the pockets of her bomber jacket.
“Who’s picking you up today then? Rumpelstiltskin?”
The woman peered down at Lara, rolling her eyes at another mum beside them. Lara glared back. She knew there was a joke but she couldn’t find it. Rumpelstiltskin was a liar — small and wrinkled, a hunchback. Her dad didn’t look like that. She kicked the asphalt. “No.”
The mum Lara didn’t recognise frowned and bent down towards her. “Shall we wait with you?” she said.
Lara swung her rucksack around and started to look through it. “I think I forgot something,” she called over her shoulder as she ran back towards the building.
Lara stopped around the corner when she couldn’t see them anymore. She pressed her back against the wall and listened for the sound of the gate. She waited there, tracing the edges of the bricks with her fingers, until the playground was quiet. She tried to think what her dad would be wearing. He’d have on blue jeans, maybe, and a hat. Last time he was wearing a hat.
Lara smoothed her hair and peaked around the edge of the wall. The playground was empty. The only child in sight was trailing her lunchbox behind her mum beyond the fence. Lara walked back towards the gate. He must’ve forgot the time. Her brother sometimes did that.
Maybe he came early and left. Maybe when she was in the toilet.
She bit the nail of her right forefinger. That seemed right. She’d spent too long in there, trying not to let anyone hear her, wasting time testing the soap. He must have come and gone away again. Maybe he went to get her some chocolate.
She hooked her fingers through the wire fence and leant back, heavy on her arms, and tried to walk her feet up the wire. But the flat soles of her trainers slipped on the damp wire and she fell backwards, landed on her hip and cried out.
Scrambling up, she looked around but it was okay — there was no one. She decided to go and wait on the bench.
Carved into the back was the message In Memory of Joan Rogers 1924-1990. She hadn’t noticed that before. It must’ve been there, but she hadn’t noticed, so how could she be sure? The world moved around, rearranging itself when she wasn’t looking. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did. She realised her legs were cold and then that water had soaked through her tracksuit bottoms.She couldn’t see the gate from here either. He’d miss her. She decided to go back.
Two buses passed. A man in a wheelchair skidded on the pavement. Lara stared through the wire. A broad man with a leather jacket walked passed, but he didn’t look this way. Then another man passed, surely him, with wavy dark hair tucked into a wide-brimmed hat. He smiled at Lara. Lara smiled back, began to wave, but the man kept walking. She pushed her waving hand into her mouth and bit down on her first finger.
Then the foamy drizzle turned to a pummelling of fat raindrops and it was hard to hear anything over the noise of it. The rain was cold and went straight to her skin. She put her hood up. That was better. Then she cursed herself and tugged it off again. He might not recognise her with it up.
By four fifteen the ground was streaming with runoff. Lara’s face was slippy. She had to keep scooping the water from her eyes. She kept thinking she should go inside and then thinking he would turn up right then and staying another minute, in case he thought she’d left without him. She would’ve got a teacher to ring him but she couldn’t remember if he had a phone or what his number was. Her mum always said if you get lost, stay where you are, but she wasn’t lost, but still she didn’t know what else to do. She was afraid that if she moved nobody would ever find her. And anyway, her knees ached. Her feet squelched in her trainers.
Lara jumped, turning around to see where the noise was coming from. It was a man — a man in a hat! A black hat with a narrow peak. Lara ran over and then froze. She did recognise him — he took some children for work in the Blue Room. He was called… something. “What are you doing?” he said. “Bit late isn’t it?”
Lara shook her head. Her face hurt.
“What?” the something shouted. “Speak up.”
Lara dug her hands into her pockets, making tight fists and kneading them into her stomach.
“Why are you still here? Who’s picking you up? What class are you in?”
He had so many questions. They were heavier than rain. Lara tried to unravel them in her head.
“Andy Brecknock,” she said, “my dad.”
“And is he coming now?” said the something man. “Is he late?”
Lara watched her shoes. They were grey with rain. She shrugged.
“Fine. Well wait under the shelter or something. Don’t get too wet.”
Lara shrugged again and continued to watch her feet. Water was climbing her laces. Like they’re drinking, she thought, splashing her toes in a puddle. She heard the gate and let herself breathe.
She didn’t know the punishment for being here so late, but she imagined it must be severe.
At quarter to five Lara realised she couldn’t feel her toes. She rocked back and forth, thinking about her mum. She was working, a new job, something with old people. She’d explained it, but Lara didn’t get it. It annoyed her when Lara asked the same question again. It would annoy her if she got home and Lara wasn’t there. She’d be tired from work. She’d be angry. With Dad, probably, but with Lara too. Then she’d ring him. Then they’d argue. Then he wouldn’t bother ringing again for months. He hated arguments. Lara could understand that. Maybe she should try to get home by herself. She knew which bus to take.
But the bus driver would ask for money and she didn’t have any.
Hot tears poured down her cheeks then, rolling into her mouth. They were warm on her face and she caught them on her tongue, the sweet saltiness a relief from the metallic rain.
He wasn’t coming. She knew that.
Maybe he never had been.
Maybe nobody had.
Then a worse thought, harder, sharp beneath the lungs: maybe nobody ever would.
Lara pictured her mum arriving home. It was late now, getting dark. She would have dinner and sit on the orange sofa, flick the TV on. She would watch the news or that series with the good but angry man, one episode after another, until her eyes hurt. Then she’d start her nightly staring from the window. She’d never tell what she was staring at. She’d stare and stare and think all her secret thoughts and then it would be late and she’d be tired and she’d go to bed and put on her green nighty, glad of all the space and quiet in the room.
And in the morning she would’ve forgotten Lara completely.
Lara grabbed the fence, clinging to it, tugging it and pushing it, rattling it, biting her cheek until the blood came, mixing with the tears and the hotness inside her and she didn’t care anymore, she didn’t care, she’d lie down here and have the puddles for a blanket. In the morning people would come back. Miss Rodney, or Rina. They’d see her, they’d find her. They wouldn’t be happy, but they’d come.
Lara sat down on the asphalt, not caring anymore when the water soaked through her clothes, hugging her knees to her chest. They lost Blake, her brother, once, and now they’d lost Lara too. She banged her head against her knees. Her teeth ached.
“Eh! Who’s that? What are you doing out here?”
A deep voice cut through the rain. Lara looked around and froze. Someone was coming. It was too late to hide. She tucked her head into her knees and held her breath.
Footsteps spattered towards her. A shadow enveloped her. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Hey, kiddo, what are you doing out here?”
She shrugged, not looking up.
“You’re soaked. Come on up here. What’s your name?”
A hand grasped her elbow. She whimpered. She was tugged up. The grip was firm. She yanked her arm away but the hand held on.
“All right, girl. You’re freezing.”
Lara looked up and saw his face. It was square, pock-marked, thick hair covered by a round grey cap. He looked mean. She glared at him.
The man laughed. “I need to lock up,” he said. “You’ll have to come with me.”
She shook her head and he smiled.
“Let’s go inside. Get you dry at least, eh?”
Lara shook her head again but allowed the man to lead her by the wrist across the playground. Her ears were ringing, making it hard to hear or think. But when she saw which entrance they were headed to she stopped, turning her legs to bolts in the ground. She shook her head.
She’d been through that door before. Too many times. When she got into fights or shouted out in class or the time Nicky Dobson made her so angry that she called him a p-r-i-k. “I’m fine,” she said.
He crouched beside her. “We need to get you picked up,” he said.
Lara’s face burned. The man took her hand and she gripped it, though it was hard to feel anything in her hands.
“Geoff,” he said, pointing at himself. “I’m sure we’ve met before.”
Geoff pushed open the door and ushered Lara inside. The hallway was dark. He flicked a switch and the light buzzed on. Lara followed him down the empty hall, the sugar-paper displays eery in the quiet. Lara trailed her fingers across the paper, soothed by the familiar texture. They stopped at the head teacher’s office and Geoff knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Mrs. Sampson’s thin voice called from within.
Geoff opened the door and pushed Lara through. Mrs. Sampson’s beige hair was knotted above her left shoulder. Her cardigan was buttoned all the way up.
“I found this one outside,” said Geoff. “Nobody’s come for her.”
Mrs. Sampson nodded, gazing down at Lara. “Your name?” she said. “Miss Rodney’s class, isn’t it?”
Lara looked up at Mrs. Sampson and her ears buzzed. She wiped her dripping nose, then clenched her hands into tight fists at her sides. She could not feel her toes. She opened her mouth to speak but her tongue just hung there, lolling. She tried to think, tried to find it in her head. She moaned, as if the right sounds would come out of their own accord. She coughed. But it was no use — she’d forgotten who she was.
“Ahmm,” she said.
“Pardon?” said Mrs. Sampson. “Speak up, please.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, struggling into the dull space inside her.
At last she said, “I don’t know,” and her breath caught, and it seemed to her that she never had done.
Geoff rocked her by the shoulder and she screwed her face up, trying not to cry.
“Right,” said Mrs. Sampson, pursing her lips so her chin puckered. “Let’s have a look, shall we? Can I have your bag?”
Stiffly, Lara unhooked herself from her SpongeBob rucksack and passed it over the table. Mrs. Sampson took it, grimacing as it dripped on her papers. She held it over the bin. Lara watched Mrs. Sampson’s flickering eyes and felt the blood rush to her head. She leant against Geoff’s side. The room was blurring. Lara gulped.
“Lara Winter,” announced Mrs. Sampson. “Oh, of course. I didn’t recognise you with your hair all hung in rat’s tails. You’re a sight.” Mrs. Sampson sighed. “Well what were you doing out there, all on your own? Why didn’t you come and find someone? Why didn’t you tell Miss Rodney? You’ve got yourself into a state. It’s the middle of winter. Really. What a sight.”
Mrs. Sampson laughed, flashing grey teeth and Lara pushed herself away from the desk, staggering backwards. She shook her head. There were so many questions. So many questions, and she didn’t know any of them. The air turned yellow and she thought she would hiccup. She tried to open her mouth but her jaw was clamped shut. There was nothing in her head now but her name. The strange sound of it echoed around the office. Lara Winter, Lara Winter, Lara Winter.
Then everything went black.
Lara opened her eyes to see Geoff sitting opposite her. She moved and something crunched beneath her. A beanbag. They were in the reception classroom. Lara had a blanket wrapped around her, a towel under her head. She sat up, her lip quivering, frowning at Geoff.
“All right, miss,” he said. “I’ve got something for you.”
He held out a purple block and Lara took it. She brought it up to her face to see what it was. Dairy Milk. She blinked at the nodding man. With his hat off, he looked very old. He was sitting on the teacher’s chair, leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees. “Go on,” he said, “open it.”
Lara nodded, put the corner between her teeth and pulled, tearing the wrapper. The smooth brown chocolate poked out, its curly writing the same as it always was. She put it in her mouth and bit into the solid sweetness.
“I knew it,” said Geoff. “My kids love that.”
Lara sucked the chocolate. She sat up straighter and pushed her hair out of her mouth. “Everyone likes chocolate,” she said. She tugged at her laces. They were still soaked and stung her fingers. “Do they go to this school?” she said.
Geoff laughed. “I knew you were a chatty one,” he said. “No, they don’t. Not anymore.”
Geoff sighed. “They live with their mum.”
Lara took another bite of chocolate.
The door burst open and a blonde woman in a dripping green raincoat stepped into the room.
“Oh God, Lara” she said, “Oh dear. Mummy’s here now, come on, it’s all right. You poor little thing.”
Lara wriggled from the blanket and ran over to her, wrapping her arms around her mum’s hips. She slipped beneath the raincoat and pressed her face into the silky material, gulping the familiar scent.
Ms. Winter turned to Geoff, who had risen from his seat. “Thanks for waiting with her,” she said.
Geoff knelt to retrieve the chocolate Lara had dropped and handed it to the woman. “Take this,” he said. “It’s good for shock.”
Lara reached a hand out to take it but her mum batted it away. “She’s fine, thank you,” she said, pulling Lara to the door.
Outside the rain was still falling and Ms. Winter tugged Lara’s hood up. “Your father,” she said. “Christ. He could’ve called. I had to leave work. I can’t just leave work like that. I’ll be fired. It’s not professional. Christ, he could’ve called earlier. Let the school know at least. He could’ve — it’s nearly seven o’clock.”
Lara shrugged and the rain from inside her hood ran down her neck.
“Not even a call! Just buggers off. As though he doesn’t give a damn about his own daughter. I don’t know. Why didn’t you go and find someone, Lara? What’s wrong with you? Waiting outside for two hours — two hours! In this rain? It’s freezing. You’ll catch your death. What were you thinking? Eh?”
Lara tried to pull her hand from her mum’s but it was gripped tight.
“What will they think of me? I mean, what kind of mother? Standing in the rain like that. Christ.”
Ms. Winter’s spiky monologue went on and Lara pushed her hood down, dropping her head back to taste the rain again. She turned around and saw a man leaving the building — Geoff. She waved at him and he waved back.
Ms. Winter tugged Lara’s arm. “Come on, Lara, please.”
Lara tripped and Ms. Winter swore and tugged her up. Lara yelped. Her arm had been twisted. She started to shudder with tiny, jerking sobs. Finally, just before the gate, Ms. Winter stopped. She crouched down so their faces were level, almost touching.
“Lara,” she said, “oh baby. I’m sorry.”
Her voice cracked and her words choked. She stood up and held Lara close against her side, stroking her daughter’s matted hair.
“It’s okay now, baby. Mama’s here. Let’s go home now. We’ll have a hot chocolate and a cuddle, won’t we? Just you and me.”
Xanthi Barker is a writer and primary school mentor in London. Her stories have appeared in Bare Fiction, Mslexia and Litro. She was recently highly commended in Spread the Word’s Life Writing Prize 2018. Her ‘novellette’ One Thing will be published next year by Open Pen. Find her on Twitter @xanthibarker.
Image: Flickr / Brian Crawford