Today’s story closes out our second Fiction Week. We hope you enjoyed the writers and their work.
by DJ Tyrer
It was a gloriously sunny day and the waste ground seemed almost as pleasant as the park, only without the unsmiling wardens ready to intervene at the first hint of fun. Abbie and Bertha ran about, their laughter and shrieks echoing off the tumbledown walls of the building that once occupied the site. When they began to tire, they would slump on the ground and twist daisies together to form chains as garlands for each other.
“I love it here,” Abbie sighed. “I wish I could stay forever.”
Bertha nodded vigorously. “Me, too. I love playing with you.”
Abbie had moved five times in the past year. This was the longest time she’d been in one place since she’d left the house she’d always thought of as ‘home.’ Bertha had been delighted to discover a girl her own age in a district that seemed home only to older boys and young women.
Suddenly, Bertha jerked out her arm and pointed: Something red had appeared from amongst the flowers and was floating away from them like a silk hankie on the breeze.
“Look! A butterfly!”
Both girls jumped to their feet and began to chase after it, laughing. “It’s beautiful,” shouted Abbie as it seemed to dance out of her reach. Then, it was gone as suddenly as it appeared. Bertha pouted, annoyed.
Abbie glanced at her wristwatch, which had a portrait of Mickey Mouse on it. “Oh… it’s getting late, I’d better get going.”
“Do you have to go?” Bertha pouted again.
Abbie nodded. “Mummy says I must be home by four sharp. Your Mummy will be expecting you soon.”
Bertha sighed, but nodded and followed her friend towards the hummock that served as their home-base on the waste ground, collecting the little leather satchels that had held their lunches and carried dolls and sketch pads.
They were almost at the edge of the waste ground when Abbie gave a gasp and halted.
“My jacket! I’ve lost it – where is it?”
Bertha shrugged. “I dunno. Who cares? It’s too warm to wear a jacket, anyway.”
“Mummy says I have to wear it. Mummy says I must wear it…” She paused to get the words right. “…for the good of my health.”
Bertha rolled her eyes as if being asked to perform an onerous task, but joined her friend in searching for it. A few minutes later, Abbie gave a cry of delight and held her jacket aloft.
She checked her watch again and said, “I’ve got to get home, come on.”
They charged hand-in-hand across the daisy-strewn grass and out onto the street, nearly colliding with an old woman who tutted at them as they ran past.
“See you tomorrow,” said Bertha as they separated at the corner of Abbie’s road. Bertha lived in one of the small houses that backed onto the railway, while Abbie’s current home was a single room in the garret of an old townhouse that had been turned into flats, which she shared with her parents and two elder brothers.
“’Bye, see you tomorrow.”
They waved and went their separate ways.
“I don’t want you going to the waste ground anymore,” Abbie’s mother said as they all sat down to eat a meal of bread and cheese.
“It isn’t safe.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Don’t answer back. And, it isn’t.” Abbie didn’t notice the look her parents shared as her mother sought words to elaborate upon her statement. “You could trip on a… a brick and fall.”
“So, don’t you go there,” said her father.
“You can play in the yard behind the building with your brothers, alright? And, make sure you wear your jacket.”
Abbie hung her head at the thought of not seeing Bertha. “Yes, Mummy.” She picked at her bread, no longer feeling quite so hungry.
Abbie was there at the waste ground next morning, waiting for her friend. She’d dutifully trooped outside with her brothers but as soon as they and their friends were engrossed in some game, had slipped away and headed for the waste ground, telling herself she wasn’t being disobedient, not really, as she wouldn’t actually play there, only tell Bertha about the ban and invite her to come and play in the yard with her; she didn’t want her friend thinking she no longer liked her. Of course, the yard would be nowhere as much fun as the waste ground. She wondered: would a half hour there really be so wrong?
Bertha was late. It wasn’t unusual for Abbie to arrive first, but both girls always rushed over, keen to see one another and Abbie had assumed her friend would be impatiently waiting for her.
It was another ten minutes before Bertha arrived and there was a furtive, guilty air about her that she didn’t try to hide.
“You’re late,” said Abbie. “I thought you’d be here before me.” She sighed. “Mummy says I’m not to come and play here. She says it’s dangerous.” She rolled her eyes at the adult absurdity. “So, I thought, maybe, you’d like to come and play in the yard behind our place.”
Bertha gave a shake of her head, then began to cry.
“Why, whatever’s wrong?” exclaimed Abbie.
“Oh, it’s terrible!”
“My mother says I mustn’t play with you, anymore.”
“Oh. Does she say it’s too dangerous here?”
Bertha shook her head. “No, it’s you…”
“Uh-huh. Mother says you are… um, a bad influence, not our sort, and… oh! All sorts of horrid things.”
“But, I’m not – am I?”
Bertha gave her a hug, then pulled away as if her mother might be watching them. “Oh, no, no, no.”
Abbie sighed and blinked back tears. “Um, well, you can keep coming here; I shan’t be coming back. ’Bye.”
She did come back, however, a fortnight later. Abbie hadn’t been certain her friend would be there, but she had to see Bertha one last time, to tell her. She was wandering alone through the waste ground when Abbie arrived. Turning when Abbie called her name, Bertha gave a shriek of delight and ran to her, hugging her as tightly as if her mother’s injunction had never been put in place.
“Oh, Abbie, I’ve missed you!”
“And, I’ve missed you!” Then, Abbie pulled away from her and turned her head.
“What is it?” Bertha asked, grabbing her arms.
“We’re moving again….Mummy says we’ll be catching the train tomorrow to go to our new home. Six o’clock, early. I… I just wanted to say goodbye and to thank you for being such a good friend.”
“I’ll miss you… I have missed you…” Bertha gave a weak smile. “The station’s just up the road from me; I’ll come wave you off.”
“I’d like that.”
Abbie was surprised: when they’d had to move before, it was just them, but today, all the inhabitants of the building were leaving en masse.
“The structure has been condemned,” said her father, when she asked.
“What does that mean?”
Her brother, Sam, gave her a superior look. “It means it isn’t safe to live in. There’s a rot in the walls, isn’t there, Dad?”
Abbie looked at her father, who nodded absently.
But, that didn’t explain why people from the neighbouring buildings joined their throng, nor those who came from other streets. Were there a lot of condemned buildings in town? There were certainly a lot of officials in crisply pressed uniforms overseeing their relocation: Abbie found their presence reassuring as, doubtless, it meant the town authorities had organised their new home, unlike the uncertainty of their previous flits. She wondered what their new home would be like and hoped it would be more spacious.
“I can’t wait till we get there, see what it’s like,” she said.
Her eldest brother, Haim, grimaced at her as if she’d said something stupid. Abbie stuck her tongue out at him, thinking him a pompous ass.
Although it was still early, it looked as if it was going to be another gloriously sunny day, just perfect for a train ride. Abbie could imagine just how beautiful the countryside would look from the carriage window.
“Nearly there.” Her mother’s voice had the sort of strained jollity to it that was usually reserved for visits to the doctor or dentist. Abbie couldn’t understand why so few of the people about her were as excited as she was. A few of the women were quietly sobbing, now, as they neared the station. It was all very odd.
They passed the end of Bertha’s road and Abbie craned her neck to look around her fellow travellers to see if her friend was there, waving. She couldn’t, and was surprised to see the whole street appeared to have turned out; however, unlike at other junctions, they didn’t join the procession. A couple of yawning policemen stood between them and the people headed for the station, and the crowd jeered and pointed as they went past.
Abbie was glad when they reached the precisely decorated train station: Everyone seemed to be acting very odd today. She just wished she’d seen her friend one last time to wave goodbye. Still, it wasn’t like she couldn’t come back to visit one day when she was older and see Bertha again. If she was very good and obedient and did well at school, she was certain Bertha’s mother would let them play together once more.
They were herded onto the platform and stood in silence, save for the few sobbing women clutching meagre bundles in their arms.
“We must be early,” Abbie said, there being no sign of the passenger train, just a locomotive to which was attached a string of grim cattle trucks. Abbie had always felt sorry for the animals herded into them.
Beside her, her mother took out her hankie and blew her nose loudly, as if she were coming down with a heavy cold. Bored, Abbie began to pick at the stitching of the yellow star sewn onto the breast of her jacket and wondered just how long they would have to wait before they could board the train and say goodbye to the town.
About the photographer: Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. She is the author of two fiction chapbooks and a former news writer and assistant English professor. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @gwjomi. Her photograph above is “Untitled #41.”