This story is by Lisa Swain and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The first time I saw him, I didn’t know whether to trust him. He was different from the other grown-ups. I could feel it. He was old but not old old. This man was bald with a beard. The one thing that made him the same as the others was that he brought a banana. Just like they did but it’s not going to work.
I was in that room again. They thought I was stupid or a little girl. I was seven. The room was much bigger than my bedroom. I had the smallest bedroom in the house. There were lots of things that I could play with and do. Even ride a bike with three wheels. I told you, they thought I was stupid. But it didn’t matter because I really liked colouring and there was nobody telling me what to do.
He had a tray and he put it down a table. Not my table – another table. I told you he was different. On the tray there were some butties, or sandwiches as they say, two cups, a jug and the banana. He gave me a butty cut in half on a plate and a drink of orange juice. Not milk. That had never happened before.
“This is for you, if you’re hungry.” he says.
I watched his face as I picked up a butty.
I don’t have to do it. That’s weird.
I have always had someone to talk with in my head. She was me, but nobody knew about her. Some might say it’s my invisible friend, but I never thought that. A constant companion who was very good at listening and sometimes made me see things in a different way. We always signed but she wasn’t deaf.
He wants to be your friend.
No he doesn’t. There’s only one banana. No way is he going share it. I wouldn’t. They know it’s my favourite.
I took another bite and looked up at the windows. There was nobody there but sometimes I saw someone watching me. They thought I didn’t know this.
I studied him. He didn’t pretend to smile or try to talk to me. So far so good. I started my second piece and took a sip of my drink.
I saw it, you know …THE look. He’s going to make me do it.
His eyes. They’re smug.
Eyes don’t smug.
His do. He’s different.
Leaving the crust on the plate, I went back to my table. I saw Aunty Mary in my mind “Eat your crust. It makes your hair curly.” That’s exactly why I didn’t – it was curly enough.
I want the banana.
Just ask him. Why have you coloured it green?
What? No way! Because I can and it’s going to have purple ears. I don’t want it all one colour. I want to be a vet when I grow up.
Well maybe you don’t have to. He hasn’t made you talk, has he?
But what if I sign and he doesn’t give me the banana?
Not everybody is mean. Mum and dad aren’t.
Dad isn’t. Mum is sometimes but that’s not her fault. It’s their fault – they told her I have to speak. I don’t understand why because nobody understands me when I do.
The teachers understand you.
Of course they do. It’s their job! I mean everybody else. Like Aunty Mary, them at the swimming club, and everybody.
They just need time to get used to you.
That doesn’t make sense. If my talking is so good, like everybody says, why don’t they know what I’m saying.
Because you had to learn to talk in a different way from them and your voice sounds different and they need to get used to that.
Shut up, I’m busy.
I wrote my name on the page next to the green elephant with purple ears. I was pleased with my elephant. I left the table and looked around the room for something else to do. I felt my heart start to beat harder and it went inside my head. My head was beating, and my hands were sweating. Paper bag. “Blow in it but don’t rip it.” I remembered dad saying. I closed my eyes and blew gently, watching the bag swell until it was about to rip, before taking another breath. I had to concentrate. I didn’t want to rip the bag open because then I might have to go to hospital. This happened often, and always in this room. I didn’t know what I would do if the bag ripped. Sometimes I had to breathe lots and needed to go outside but not this time.
I wanted to be left alone, so I headed over to the books. Dr Seuss! I chose ‘The Cat in the Hat’, picked up a cushion went back, past the table, as far away from the door as possible. I threw the cushion to the floor and sat down, making sure I could see the door and the man while I was reading. I was happily singing in my head…
“Have no fear!” said the cat.
“I will not let you fall.
I will hold you up high
As I stand on a ball.
With a book on one hand!
And a cup on my hat!
But that is not ALL I can do!’
Said the cat…
I stopped. How did I not see? She is here. I could smell her perfume. She was the only one in the world to wear THAT perfume. Where is she? The smell was getting stronger as it spread – you know, like them ones that linger in the air even after you’ve left, like a bad smell, except it wasn’t. It smelled like honey and flowers. I actually quite liked it, but I didn’t like her.
It doesn’t matter. Carry on reading.
No because she’ll be watching, and I don’t know where she is.
Right so look and see where she is and then carry on reading.
I don’t want her to know that I know she’s here.
Because then she’ll come over and TALK to me. The way she talks to me. She talks slow like I’m stupid. Makes me mad. I throw things when I get mad and then I feel bad because I know it’s wrong to throw things. And when I do speak, she always makes me say it again when it’s OBVIOUS she knows what I’m saying. I can tell by her face.
I needed to know where she was. I looked. She was at his table with her pen and writing book. They were talking, probably about me, and she was making notes. I watched them talk, tried to lipread but couldn’t. I returned to my book, but I didn’t sing.
I saw her leave. I was curious – She didn’t talk to me. She always ‘had a conversation’ every time she came in. I wondered, like I did every time, about her hair. It was really long. So long that she had to lift it before sitting down. AND that’s with half of it up! How long does it take to brush? I wanted to ask her but I never did.
I started reading again from the beginning, this time playing a drum instead of singing.
He tapped my hand, waited until I was looking at his face before asking “Do you want some banana?”
I nodded as he got up and walked away.
I just said yes but he ignored me!
You didn’t SAY anything.
I did. I nodded.
That’s not the same as saying it.
Do I have to?
But.. I sighed.
Look he’s started to eat it. There’ll be none left if you don’t say anything.
What if he doesn’t understand me?
He will. You talk everyday at school. How is this any different?
But why? Signing is easier. I want to sign. Every time I talk – I have to think. Where to put my tongue? Any clicking I need to do in my throat? Breathe so I can talk and breathe at the same time. Keep my voice at the same level, not louder or quieter. And THEN talk. EVERY.TIME. ALL. DAY. EVERY. DAY.
Because then you can make friends outside school and it’ll make mum happy. And you’ll get some banana. Everybody learns to speak.
Not everybody. Some people at school can’t.
But, you can. So why won’t you?
I already knew I had no choice and had decided to get it over with, but I didn’t like it. I took a deep breath. Paper bag. I watched it blow up three times before I put it away.
My head was thumping harder than my heart. I was watching at him. Did he hear me? Did he understand me? I couldn’t find the bag.
I felt a plate pushed into my hands, and I looked down. Yes!