Penny Drop

Short Story: Coping with loss through the eyes of a ten-year-old

Love Birds 521 (photo credit: Vered Aharonovitch)
Love Birds 521
(photo credit: Vered Aharonovitch)
Mummy was forty when she started crying and never stopped. I remember, because on her birthday she said forty sounded like fortitude, and she would be getting lots of it now. Or needing lots of it now, I can’t recall which. She explained that fortitude was for real people like spinach was for Popeye. Mummy liked words – they made her happy, she said.
Though I’ll bet the tear-stained pages of her notebook thought otherwise.
Today was my birthday. It always fell exactly three months after Mummy’s. I was born on the longest day. Mummy said June 21 was the grandest day of the year to be born and must be celebrated as such. But she never bought me presents like the other mothers of girls in “Our Lady’s Convent Primary School.”
When I was seven she hired a man to stand underneath my window on the pavement wearing one of those “end-isnigh” signs. On it was a poem Mummy had written that said that seven was an emeraldgreen age to be. I can’t remember what else was in the poem; the man wearing it rather distracted me with the bored look on his face.
I did not know what a d v e n t u r e s awaited me today but no doubt Mummy had something extra special planned. After all, I was moving into a whole new phase of life. The double digits phase, like nearly everyone else in the world. 10. Ten. Such a short word but it carried so much weight, like a gnome lifting dumbbells.
“Cuckoo,” The clock sounded at 7:30am – a whole hour after I had awakened.
I had inherited the cuckoo clock from Daddy before he left, and despite Mummy’s protests that all alarm clocks should be eliminated along with racism and Ezra Pound’s poems, she let me keep it. I had spent the last hour inspecting some red welts on my tummy and waiting for Mummy to come and tell me what to wear. Maybe she expected me to choose my own outfit this year. Two years ago, on my eighth birthday, Mummy woke me up when it was still dark outside and made me don my best Sunday smock – the one with the purple seagulls. I never went to school on my birthday, Mummy thought it a criminal waste of time. We rode the tube to Charing Cross Station because Mummy had decided that she wanted me to be the first person to see the Vermeer in the National Gallery that day. She told me that from time to time, it was essential to be the first of the day to see a beautiful painting. After curtsying for the young woman standing at the virginal, Mummy took me outside to Trafalgar Square. We bought some birdfeed and Mummy took off her shoes and socks and ran into the pool underneath the fountain. She stood there, water shooting over her ginger head, her arms spread out as dozens of pigeons settled on her and pecked at birdfeed in her hair and open palms. The huge black lions that guarded Trafalgar Square frowned. If she wasn’t so beautiful you could’ve mistaken her for one of those market characters from that film that came out a few years ago, My Fair Lady. Lord Nelson, from the top of his pillar, goaded me to join her. I did, but fell flat in the pool on my bottom.
Mummy laughed and took me by the hand back to the National Gallery and into the toilets where she wrung out my drawers and maroon flares.
I wondered if perhaps this time I should bring a swimming costume, but decided against it. Mummy never did things twice anyway.
I padded into her room next door in my knickers and vest. She was not in her bed. An empty bottle of Black Bull was resting on the mahogany night table.
A pillow had been stabbed open with a large kitchen knife that lay on the floor next to the bed.
There were feathers and tiny shreds of paper strewn all over the bedspread. I picked up one of the shreds. The words “flying away” were the only complete words I could make out. I tucked it into the waistband of my knickers, retrieved the kitchen knife from the floor and went downstairs.
A fat lady stood by the sink with her back to me, washing dishes very loudly.
I said, “Aunty Sheila?” Aunty Sheila turned around, saw me in the doorway in my underwear, and dropped a plate. It bounced twice but didn’t break. “Mary Mother of God! Child, why in heaven’s name are you brandishing a knife?” “It’s Mummy’s.”
“Give it here.” She grabbed the knife and put it on a high shelf over the brown and green countertop. “Eat something and then get dressed. You’ve not much time, your school bus will be along shortly.”
She poured cornflakes into a bowl.
The red and green cockerel on the carton looked at me quizzically. I never ate cornflakes.
Within a minute it was on the floor, upside down, next to the unbroken plate. Aunt Sheila clucked and shooed me up the stairs, chop, chop all the way.
I buttoned up my blouse and slipped the grey pinafore over my head. I tied the cape over my shoulders so that the crown on the school’s emblem rested over my heart. My hair was unplaited and tumbled like strawberry blonde snakes down past my shoulders.
“Bus is here,” Aunt Sheila’s voice rang shrilly, like a mockingbird’s. I trudged downstairs, satchel swinging by my side.
I said, “Where’s Mummy?” “She’ll be back.”
“When?” “Later.”
“Later when?” “You impertinent child – you ask too many questions! If it wasn’t for your father’s graciousness, I don’t know where you’d be. You should be grateful.” All the seats on the bus were full, either with children or schoolbags. Alan, the bus driver, made Alice Johnson move her bag again to let me sit down. Six red phone boxes, three Morris Minors (navy, olive and yellow) and twelve sparrows later I arrived at school. It seemed wrong entering the gates on a birthday – sort of like going to school on a Sunday. I ran up the nine stone steps and into the Main Hall. A sign on the door said “Our Lady’s Convent Primary School Welcomes All Prospective Parents.” The low-hanging chandelier was lit for a change. Maggie – Mummy’s best friend who moved to the countryside – had said a few years ago that Mummy was the chandelier of Muswell Hill. She sparkled and glittered and lit up any room she walked into.
Iwas six when it was my first communion. I was a year younger than everyone else because Mummy wanted me to be first in my class to eat the body of Christ. In those days I had many friends and almost all the girls in my class came to watch me in holy envy. Mummy bought me the most expensive dress in the special occasions shop on Dreary Lane. It was made of white satin and embedded with tiny pearls and came with a veil, headdress and gloves to match. But it wasn’t me that people were staring at when we walked into the church. All eyes were on Mummy, in a red jumpsuit that had no back and little front. All eyes, that is, except for the priest’s who was staring intently at the figure of Christ on the cross as if he’d never seen it before. The Son of God himself looked more than a little dismayed that he was about to share his flesh and blood with me. When the ceremony was over and I’d eaten and drunk my fill, Mummy cheered and clapped as if George Best had just scored the winning goal at a football match. The guests all filed out of the church to make their way to our house where there was to be a big celebration in my honour.
Daddy began walking out but Mummy grabbed his arm.
“Wait a mo, darling,” she said, fluffing her hair. “Now that I’m here, I absolutely must confess my sinful ways.” Without waiting for permission she walked up to the confessional, her red high-heels clack clacking upon the flagstones. Daddy sighed and led me to a nearby pew.
He gave me a hard look and said, “Your mother.” I didn’t know what that meant but nodded anyway.
We heard laughter emanating from the confessional. A few minutes later Mummy came out and said in a loud voice to the closed door next to it, “Thank you, Father. I feel ever so much better now,” and to me she said, “Shall we, darling? Your guests are waiting for you.” She said nothing at all to Daddy who followed her outside as if he were tied to an invisible leash.
When we got home, Mary, my au pair at the time, had already let all the guests in.
The adults were eating canapés and vol-auvents and the children were crunching on sweets of every shape and colour. Daddy went straight upstairs and called Mummy to follow him. She handed me her champagne flute – “Don’t you think it’s high time for your first champagne?” – and went upstairs. After a few minutes we could all hear Daddy and Mummy arguing. We couldn’t hear what Daddy said but Mummy spat out words like “trapped” and “cage” as if they were pieces of phlegm. By the time she came downstairs she was smiling again and insisting that people have another cava, “1954 – a very good year.” Daddy didn’t come downstairs the whole evening. In fact, after my communion, I hardly saw him at all and after that I stopped seeing him altogether.
Sister Mary Eunice took the register in English class. She called my name three times before I heard her and mumbled “Present, miss.” A hummingbird was hovering outside the window, its wings flapping faster and faster and faster. I flapped my cape and tried to catch the hummingbird’s attention but I only caught Sister Mary Eunice’s who shouted and sighed and then sighed some more. The hummingbird tried to fly in through the window but it was shut. He panicked and started shooting up and down and all around. I screamed. Very loudly and didn’t stop.
Alice started laughing and most of the girls covered their ears. Sister Mary Eunice marched over to me, her wimple askew. Her mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear what she was saying over the screams.
I sat outside in the waiting room of Sister Benedict’s office. Dark oak panels lined the walls with pictures of Jesus and old headmistresses hung on them. A girl I did not recognise sat opposite me.
She was weeping. Sobbing actually. Like the way Mummy did these days. It occurred to me that Mummy must be arranging something extraordinary for after school if she sent Aunty Sheila to look after me.
A minute passed before Sister Benedict came out of her office. “Stop it, Barbara, there’s nothing to cry about.” Sister Benedict beckoned the crying girl into her office. The girl sniveled and followed the headmistress inside with her head down. Maybe she had tried to stab a teacher with a pencil.
A week earlier I had come home from school to find Mummy scrubbing a stain off an old costume from the fancy dress box. She didn’t hear me walk in and continued hacking away at the material with a green brush.
She whispered, “Out, damned spot.”
I said, “Hello, Mummy.”
She looked up, startled. “Oh darling, you’ll be the death of me, frightening me like that. How was school? Have you learned anything yet? Why aren’t you wearing a coat? You’ll catch your death.”
“I’ve learned plenty,” I answered. “It’s June, Mummy. I don’t need a coat.”
“Hmm,” she said and returned to the scrubbing.
A minute later she threw the brush across the room and started crying again. She poured herself a drink with no ice and sat down at the kitchen table. I poured myself a glass of milk and sat down opposite her, waiting for her to speak.
“It’s useless,” she said eventually. I waited some more.
She said, “Do they think me crazy, your friends? You should tell them some of the best people are crazy.”
“No, they don’t think.”
She sobbed again, more quietly now, her shoulders heaving slightly and locks of red hair with spatterings of white glued to her face with tears.
She said, “Darling, it isn’t your fault – you know that, don’t you?” I nodded. It had never occurred to me otherwise.
The sniveling girl came out of the headmistress offic Her eyes were red and splotchy like welts. Apparently English class was over because at that moment, Sister Mary Eunice walked into the headmistress’s office. After about ten minutes she came out and threw daggers at my eyes. Sister Benedict came out a minute later and motioned for me to follow her.
“ Yo u ’ v e been screaming again, young lady.” It wasn’t a question so I didn’t reply.
She looked at me from over her halfmoon glasses. “Well? What have you got to say for yourself, Penny?” Why did she call me Penny? She sighed and leaned forward, clasping her hands. “Did you notice the lady sitting at the back of Sister Mary Eunice’s class?” I hadn’t.
“Well, she is a mother who is considering “Our Lady’s” for her daughter next year. Or rather, was considering.
However, after your performance this morning she was most distressed and said she couldn’t have her daughter attend a school with girls who would rather be banshees than good Christians.”
There was a framed copy of a painting above Sister Benedict’s head. I recognized it as Masaccio’s Holy Trinity.
Masaccio was only twenty-seven when he died. Mozart was thirty-five. And Keats was twenty-five. Imagine that! With all they’d accomplished. Mummy was much older and despite being the best poet the world had ever seen, had only published one book of poetry which she paid for herself. I overheard Aunty Sheila once say that Daddy had left Mummy because she was having a love affair with a Mr. Keats. I never found out if it was the poet though.
“Are you listening to me, child?” I nodded.
“Do I need to summon your mother here again?” I shook my head.
“Do you attend Church regularly, Penny?” I shook my head again. Church was too formlessly formal, Mummy said.
“Well then, how do you expect our Lord to forgive you for your sins?” I didn’t know. Sister Benedict told me I must start going to Church at least once a week and begin reflecting on my behaviour. Should she see no improvement she would be forced to take more drastic measures, though she hated the thought of having it come to that.
My next class was Physical Education.
I hated PE because the teacher made us run around in circles in nothing but our underwear in the cold gymnasium.
I stripped and stood in line next to Imogene Roberts, the girl with breasts. Sister Catherine came round to inspect that our nails were clean. Alice Johnson received a scolding for residue bubblegum- pink nail varnish.
When she reached me, Sister Catherine didn’t even comment on the black underneath my nails. Instead she wanted to know about the big purple bruise on my upper arm – the one in the shape of Africa.
Had I been in a fight? I said I hadn’t. Where was it from then? I was attacked by an eagle, I told her (that made Alice and her friends giggle).
Lying is for sinners, she said. I said I wasn’t lying. Did my Daddy do it? I replied that Daddy had moved to America nearly four years ago and had a new family. She harrumphed and continued onto Imogene whose nails were sparklingly clean and almost completely bitten down.
She selected two girls, Georgiana and Ellen, to be captains. They in turn selected who they wanted on their teams. I wasn’t picked last today, both Imogene and Sarah – the girl with a boy’s haircut – were left after Ellen chose me. The game we had to play seemed pretty pointless. We were instructed to climb up the monkey bars that lined the walls of the gym and retrieve a red sash which we would bring down and hand to the next girl, who had to climb up again and tie it to the top bar so the next girl could go up and get it. And so on. The team that lost had to run twenty laps around the gym while the winning team sat in the middle. Four girls stood before me to climb up the bars. That meant that I would have to retrieve the sash. I hated competing.
Except with Mummy, who always let me win, even when it wasn’t my birthday.
But I was good at climbing. I climbed up my house twice in the past when Mummy had forgotten her keys inside.
She was too big to fit in my room window, so she shouted directions from below, telling me where there were makeshift footholds on the awning and how to shimmy up the pipe.
When it got to my turn, I climbed up the bars fast and I knew that all the girls were impressed. Maybe if we won they would start to like me again. At the top I grabbed the sash and turned to look down at the girls. I was so big and they were so little. I started to climb down but on the sixth rung from the bottom I missed my step and freefell to the next one. A collective gasp. I looked down. My feet were shaking but I wasn’t scared. The little slip of paper in the waistband of my knickers slipped out. I let go of the rung above my head, reached out and caught it, but my other hand supporting all of my weight slipped off the rung. The words “flying away” were firmly in my grasp as I sailed towards the floor, hitting it with a loud thunk. Another gasp as all the girls crowded around me. Sister Catherine ordered everyone to stand back and came to check me. I was all right – only my bottom got hit really hard. She shook her head and said that at least now she knew how I always got so bruised. I looked past Sister Catherine and noticed a family of mice migrating from one mouse hole to another on the opposite wall of the gym. The father mouse kept throwing furtive glances in our direction, making sure that everyone was too preoccupied with my fall to notice them. On my ninth b i r t h d a y M u m m y brought round an acting troupe from the local theatre to give us a private showing of Of Mice and Men. There were no mice in it. Plenty of swearwords though. Whatever was she up to this year? That was the thing about Mummy, you could never really know, everything was so unexpected. When she began her crying phase it was also unexpected. She was laughing hard, telling me a story of how she and Maggie sent anonymous love poems to their university professors, when, without warning, she erupted into tears like a watery volcano.
I visited the nurse for my bottom and missed Art class as a result (I didn’t mind because I had solemnly promised Mummy that I wouldn’t become an artist – do something normal, darling, do it for Mummy.
It’s always better to be an art appreciator than an artist.
Ooh – I know! You could work in the Science Museum as an Explainer) and then wandered the hallways for the rest of the period, dancing my fingers along the oak panels. I went into this room and that, peering around first to see if there was anybody inside. I stood at the front of an empty classroom and pretended to be a teacher (“You, young lady! How will you ever redeem your soul?”) and stopped when I remembered Mummy’s warnings about acting. I spun a globe on its axis, round and round, and thought about all the places I should travel to when I got old enough. I knew I wanted to go to Vatican City, not because of the Sistine Chapel mind, (though the Creation of Adam was definitely worth a peek) but more so that I could say I had been to the smallest country in the world. I wondered how hard it was to govern the smallest country in the world and if I should like to attempt it. Mummy never said anything to discourage me from politics, except for hating Mr. Nixon who ran America which she didn’t care about anyway and as far as she was concerned, Asia could bomb them right back along with Daddy and his Yank family in their fancy American house with the double garage.
A tall lady wearing a large sunhat and silk flared slacks walked into the classroom. She had a longbeaked nose and looked like a parrot.
She said, “Hello.” I continued to spin the globe.
“How do you do?” She asked.
“Very well, thank-you, and you?” “Splendid. I’m just here taking a look at your school again for my Arabelle next year.”
I said, “Oh.”
“Isn’t it break time? Shouldn’t you be outside running around with the other girls?” “I was sent to the nurse’s room.”
“Dear me. What happened?” “A griffon vulture flew into the gym and picked me up by his claws but I was too heavy so he dropped me.”
There was a silence.
She said, “Do griffon vultures often fly into the school?” “Quite often. Though not as often as falcons.”
“I wonder why my daughter has never mentioned that. She’s also in this school, you know.”
“Her name is Alice.”
“Do you know her?” “Yes. She stole my gloves.” I don’t know why I said that, it happened almost four months ago.
Her face contorted in sorrow. “Dear me. How did that make you feel?” I blinked once. “Cold,” I answered.
Her eyes were far away, probably in Vatican City.
“Yes, well.”
On the way home Alice let me sit next to her near the window without being asked. Her eyes were on fire. I didn’t want to get burnt so I looked out the window. The sun was still high in the sky but the birds were silent as we passed through rows and rows of terraced houses that all looked the same. The bus reached the townhouse Daddy had left us as a consolation prize and I said goodbye to Alice, who had turned into a smouldering pile of ashes.
From the moment I walked in the door I knew something was different. My heart raced as I imagined my house as a circus. The clown would come out of the living room and lift me high on his shoulders singing Happy Birthday as a bear balancing on a ball rolled back and forth in between the clown’s stilts. Mummy would be dressed as a trapeze artist – no, she would be the lion tamer, sticking her red head in and out of the lion’s mouth. There was no clown though. Only Aunty Sheila and another lady I didn’t recognise sitting in the kitchen with cups of tea in their hands.
“Ah, you’re back,” Aunty Sheila said when she saw me.
Why did adults always insist on announcing the obvious? “Yes. Where’s Mummy?” Aunty Sheila exchanged glances with the lady, who was in a green velvet dress and flowery hat. She looked like a luxuriant garden.
“Sweetheart, would you like a cup of tea?” the Garden asked.
“Where is Mummy?” The Garden suddenly looked very sad, sadder even than the marble Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta. I don’t remember much of the conversation after that. Something about Mummy being very ill and it not being my fault. “It,” I gathered from what the Garden was saying, was that Mummy had sprouted wings and flown off Blackfriars Bridge. I looked at Aunty Sheila’s face, kinder than I had ever remembered, and knew it all to be a lie.
It was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by Mummy.
None of it was real. Soon she would burst out from the larder dressed as a birthday cake with real candles nestling in her hair.
However, Mummy stayed in the larder as I was bundled into the Garden’s car, a taupe Austin Maxi, to be driven to “a wonderful place in the country where there would be lots of other girls my age.” I would get my stuff in the morning.
Aunty Sheila would be there one more day before returning to her own house on the south side of the river. I sat in the backseat and clutched Daddy’s cuckoo clock, which I had insisted on taking with me. During the drive, the Garden did not speak to me at all except once to ask me if I needed the toilet. For a hundred hours the Austin winded its way around curvy streets and endless roundabouts. Mummy always said that trying to get out of London was like trying to climb your way out of an Escher lithograph.
Eventually the scenery changed and the redbricked buildings were replaced with rolling green dales and overweight cows. I wondered if we were anywhere near Maggie, Mummy’s best friend. After some time we turned onto a tiny country lane which led to a big manor with steel gates. The words “Bedham Children’s Home” arched over the top of the gates. Inside the courtyard was a wooden signpost with directions to various different places.
The games room, the dormitories, the tennis courts, the aviary. The Garden parked the car and led me inside. She left me sitting on a couch in an anteroom filled with drawings on the walls while she went off. After twenty minutes she returned with a stocky, matronly woman who resembled an armchair.
“You poor dear,” said the Armchair, sitting down beside me. She said it would take time for me to get over the horror of Mummy turning into a bird but that under the circumstances, I was rather fortunate to have a kind Daddy who agreed to pay for my sojourn at Bedham, voted the best children’s home in the South East for four years in a row. The Garden nodded all the while, her flowery hat bobbing up and down.
The Armchair rose from the couch. “I’ll get you a clean nightie and show you to your room. You’ll find your roommates delightful, I’m sure.”
She left the room.
The Garden spoke. “Well I’ll be off now, Penny.” Why was everyone calling me that? I was worth far more than a penny, Mummy said, so everyone must call me Penelope.
“Your kind Aunty will be along in the morning with your things.”
Her eyes wandered to the small graze I had above my brow. She sighed. “You won’t be hurt anymore here, Penny.”
Why? Were there no birds of prey in the aviary at Bedham? “I have something for you,” she extracted a letter from her handbag. “I think it’s from your mother. It arrived today. She must have posted it, you know, before she…” her voiced trailed off.
She handed me the letter.
In the dormitory my delightful roommates were already asleep. I opened the letter slowly, relishing the sound of ripping paper.
Dearest daughter of the future, Today is my tenth birthday as it is yours.

I decided that it would be an extraordinary idea of the supremest nature to write you a note that I would give to you on the occasion of your tenth birthday. Perhaps we could see how alike we are. Or how unalike as the case may be. I do hope that over time I shall not misplace this letter. Hmm, now I am stuck for what to write. So far, I rather like being ten. Do you? I have made myself a promise to try to be deliciously decadent this year in honour of becoming a decade old (doesn’t that sound ancient?) In case you didn’t already know, a Decadent person is one who has barrels of fun and drinks ginger ale all day.

Anyway, I must go now because Mummy is crying and I need to go and see what all the fuss is about. Maybe Daddy has hit her.

He only hits when he’s being especially disobeyed though. Perhaps I shall continue this letter later after Daddy has fallen asleep. In the meantime I do hope you are having the most fabulous birthday of your life.

My fondest wishes for your future, Your ever-loving Mother (it is rather funny to sign off like that at my age, don’t you agree?) P.S. What’s it like in the future? Are there lots of cars? Have people learned to fly yet? I’m dying to know!
That was all there was. Maybe Mummy’s Daddy hadn’t fallen asleep after all. I looked at the grandfather clock that stood in between two oak wardrobes. It was ten o’clock. And I was still ten. There were two more hours left for Mummy to fly in and put me on her wings to celebrate my birthday. Despite the late hour it wasn’t dark outside yet. Red and yellow stripes ribboned through the sky. The sun was finally setting on the longest day of the year and the longest day of my life. I leaned my head back on the pillow which, curiously, was wet. Sleep escaped me like a butterfly so I read the letter again. And again and again until I had read it thirty times – or three decades. The shadows in the room grew long. The man in the moon looked at me with a troubled expression like he was trying to tell me something but didn’t know how to say it right. But somehow I understood him.
And I was sad. Sad for me, and sad for Mummy but saddest most for ten-yearold Mummy in the letter. The man in the moon was telling me that Mummy didn’t learn how to fly after all. The grandfather clock struck midnight. I tiptoed out of my bed and down the stairs and outside. When I reached the aviary, I opened all the cages and watched as hundreds of birds flew off towards the moon. I was sure it was what Mummy would have wanted me to do. ■
The writer has a master’s from the Shaindy Rudolph Creative Writing Program in Bar-Ilan University, She can be contacted at