The wool tangled into spidery clumps and spilled out of the knitting bag. I tried to undo the knots by threading a ball of it through one loop and then another. Everything fell onto the carpet. Red and brown loops rolled around like they were alive, twisting through chair legs, swallowing pieces of Lego and two of my plastic monkeys.
Granny would go mad. I was going to be in so much trouble.
The more I fiddled with it, the more the wool sucked and swallowed my fingers. Evans purred in the corner and licked his bottom, as if he hadn’t done anything wrong, and the voice from the television carried on as if nothing had happened. I looked up at the screen. A man held a frog in his hand. He wasn’t even scared.
“Cory?” Mum’s faraway voice echoed.
I tugged at a ball of wool again.
“Cory, are you in there?”
She was right outside the door. A needle slipped out of the jumble, made a sheesh sound and bounced onto the floor. A row of stitches had come off into my hand. My eyes stung like they had nettles in them, and when I rubbed the back of my hand across my face the fingers came away wet. I tried to hide the knotted mess under the sofa, but Mum was already in the room.
I wasn’t in really big trouble. Mum believed me when I told her I’d seen Evans shoot out of Granny’s bag. I’d only been in the lounge because my Dalek was in there, hiding under the sofa. The mess happened because I was trying to tidy what the cat had done.
It wasn’t a good idea to say anything about not liking the red and brown jersey Granny was making, so I didn’t.
“Well, perhaps Granny shouldn’t have left her knitting on the floor,” Mum lifted me onto her lap and put her hand on top of my head. Mum’s tummy was huge. It was getting quite hard to sit on her knee. I wanted to get down, because I was too big for that sort of thing. But at the same time, I wanted to stay exactly where I was.
“Don’t get upset, poppet, it’s not your fault,” Mum said. “I’m sure Granny can sort it out.” Her voice changed. “She sorts everything else out.” It sounded like Mum was talking to somebody else. “Where would we be if not for Granny, eh?” But there wasn’t anyone else in the room, only us. Even the cat had disappeared.
“Will Evans get into trouble?” I asked.
“He didn’t know what he was doing.” She laughed. I wondered if it was my fault then. Evans poked his head through the door.
“Thewpid cat.” I pointed my finger at him.
The cat turned around and slid through the half open door, his tail slinking through like a snake.
“How’s that tooth going?” Mum asked. “Can I have a look?”
“No.” I pulled my lips together.
“Is it wobblier?”
“How much wobblier?”
“Maybe tonight’s the night.” Mum cupped my knee in her hand. “When I was little, if I had a wobbly tooth, I’d wiggle it all the time until it came out.”
“Even when you were asleep?” I pulled my lips tight over my teeth again.
“No, silly. Not when I was asleep!” She was laughing, so I don’t think Mum was really cross.
“Why did you wobble it?”
“To help it to come out faster.” Mum shuffled in the seat.
“Wouldn’t it have come out by itself?”
“Yes, but I was excited, and I always hoped the tooth fairy might ? “
“Granny said the tooth fairy isn’t real.”
“Did she now?”
I nodded. Mum’s fingers had edged near my mouth, so I snapped my lips shut. I didn’t want her pulling my tooth out. Yuck.
“Different people believe different things.”
“You have to believe in the fairy, or she might not come.”
“Well, just try to imagine her being here and see what happens.” Mum squeezed my shoulder. “It’s time for your bath, then bed. I’ll read you a story.”
I slid off Mum’s knee. The messed-up knitting was still on the floor. I didn’t want to look but couldn’t help myself. Brown and red, it reminded me of a squashed possum on the road. I kicked the cat’s bowl on my way to the bathroom.
Turning the taps on, I poured bubble bath into the steamy water, and the plug disappeared under a head of froth. I squeezed paste onto my toothbrush and swirled it around my mouth making sure not to knock the wobbly tooth. Blue shorts, orange t-shirt, Sponge-Bob underpants, all landed in a heap on the floor. I was about to climb onto the step stool to get in, when I heard Mum shout from the corridor.
“Don’t get in until I’m there.”
“Do you have to question me all the time?” Her voice was muffled.
“I don’t do it all the time,” I whispered, though there was no one to hear me.
When Mum came in, steam fogged up her glasses, so she wiped them with a flannel and sighed. She lifted me into the bath, like I was a baby. I knew I ought to mind but being carried wasn’t so terrible. I liked the smell under Mum’s chin. It was like hot summer and ice cream. I slid into the water and played with the foam. A cold stream of shampoo landed on the top of my head.
“Close your eyes.”
“Just a minute. Won’t take long.” Water streamed past my nose. I squashed my squeezy fish in my palms, and a jet of cold rushed against my legs. Mum passed me a bar of green soap that smelled like granddad used to before he died.
“Here. You soap all the dirt away.” She shook my clothes out and held each piece to her face.
“Is Cory my Christian name?”
“Did you give it to me when I was christened?”
“You weren’t christened.”
Mum dragged the back of her hand across her forehead. “Because,” she laid out the dinosaur pajamas on the towel rack, “I wanted you to choose for yourself when you grew up.”
“But you chose my name already.”
“No, I mean about God and all that. We talked about it, remember?” She sat down on the toilet lid, “that day after Granny ? ” Mum wiped her forehead. “Anyway, you can have a baptism when you’re older, if you decide you believe in God.”
“Can you decide to believe in things, or does believing just happen?”
“I ? I’m not sure, love.” Mum took my wet hand in hers. “Oh look, just put your hand there ? the baby’s moving ? feel that?”
“Will the baby have a christening?”
“No. It’ll be the same for your brother or sister as it was for you.”
“He’s a brother.”
“We don’t know yet. Might be a girl. I’m sure you’ll love a baby sister as much as a little brother.”
“He’s a boy. That’s what I believe. I can’t make myself believe he’s a sister.”
“Sometimes you have to wait and see what happens.”
“Can I practice my swimming?”
“All right, five minutes of play time.” Mum put her hand on the small of her back and rubbed.
I pushed against the bottom of the bath and let the water lift my body. A little wave of bathwater sloshed onto the floor.
“Don’t make a mess,” Mum said.
I peered over the side and watched her throw a towel on the spreading pool of water.
The phone started ringing.
Mum sighed again and waddled out of the bathroom.
I tried not to splash too much, so I could hear what she said.
bloody knitting … filling his head full of nonsense … so tired
The green soap was making the suds go away. Even though the water was murky, I could see the plug. It looked like a black animal with two eyes looking up at me. I yanked the chain as quick as I could.
stop interfering … wish she’d … such a handful
The water rushed out of the bath with a deep sucking noise, like a croak. I pushed the plug back in, and slammed it in place with my fist. It was scary being in the water when the burbling noise was happening. The plug looked like the frog I’d seen on TV. I dropped a flannel over it, so I couldn’t see it. The water wasn’t as warm as it had been, and Mum was still talking, talking, talking on the phone.
no help … criticising … and no sign of him either
She sounded cross.
I pushed my plastic boat under the surface and pulled it out. A tube of water poured from a hole. I wondered why it wasn’t grey like in the rest of the bathwater.
telling him … bullshit
Bullshit. That was a sort of animal, wasn’t it? I wondered if bullshits could fly, but thought they probably lived in fields. I pushed my tongue through the new gap in my mouth. The wobbly tooth was hanging by a thread now. I put my fingers inside and gave it a little pinch ? and there it was. I spat the small pearl into my hand. I’d expected blood and pain, but there was nothing. I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. Mum was still speaking on the phone.
no privacy … nosy … treats me like a child
I couldn’t hear the other person talking, only Mum’s voice, sad and complaining.
witch … interfering … can’t take it
I wondered if Mum was cross with me.
The tooth slipped through my fingers into the water. I ran my hand along the bottom of the tub, searching. The sharp blob had landed against the flannel. I picked it out, and pulled my hand away, in case the bath-frog tried to nip my finger. After hiding my tooth in the soap dish, I pulled the flannel aside.
since he left … managed alone … never asked her
Time to be brave. I yanked the plug out by its chain. Another croak. The black disc plopped back onto the hole, half on, half off, and a throaty sound filled the air. Standing up so quickly, I scuttled towards the back of the bath, but my foot slipped on the green soap. It slid forwards like a roller skate, and I grabbed the edge of the tub. The black frog moved up and down in the swirling water. This time it groaned, like someone was strangling it. Mum was still talking, and I wondered how long she would be.
home delivery … secular … swollen-ankles
I wanted to get out, so I balled the tooth inside my fist. My foot slipped again, and there was a splash. My head would have gone under what was left of the water, if I hadn’t grabbed the side of the bath to stop myself. The tooth jumped out of my hand, but the flannel found its way back over the plughole and stopped my treasure from disappearing forever. Goose bumps pricked up on my arms, and I wondered if it would be bad luck to be in the bath when all the last of the water drained away.
Evans padded into the bathroom and pulled his paws up against the side of the tub.
“Mum,” I yelled again, and then popped the tooth under my tongue.
“In a minute, love, I’m just on the phone, I’ll get you out in a sec.”
The front door clicked open. Granny was back. The door slammed again.
“Yoo hoo!” Granny’s voice was small and high, like wind whistling through rooftops. “Rosemary!” she called out. The rat-tat-tat of her shoes came towards the bathroom. The water was almost all gone. A white powdery layer had formed over the flannel, the flannel that was hiding the frog.
“Hello munchkin!” Granny click-clicked into the bathroom, pulled the fluffy yellow towel off the rail, and scooped me out. “What on earth is she doing, leaving you on your own? You could have drowned!” Granny wrapped me up like a present and handed me my pajamas. She slipped out of the room, and shouted again.
“Rosemary!” Granny yelled.
I kept my mouth shut, the tooth pushed against my cheek. Then I pulled my dinosaur pajamas on and padded to my room.
The shouty voices seeped in through the closed door.
I wanted the arguing to stop.
I spat the tooth onto my hand and looked at the tooth-fairy glass Mum had left by my bed. If the tooth fairy were real, she’d find my tooth wherever it was. I went to the corner of my room where the carpet had come away from the edge and pulled the wooly layer up. There was a loose little square of floorboard over my secret spot. Dust puffed into the air and tickled my nose when I lifted it.
All my treasure was under the board. A blackbird feather, an amber pebble that had gleamed like the moon when I’d found it, and the p?ua shell I’d stolen from Luke Thomas at school. I put the tooth in the hollow of the shell and clicked the floorboard back into place. I was patting the carpet back when the door flew open, and Granny stormed in. She had the knitting bag in her hand. Strands of red wool were poking out of its mouth. She looked cross. Very cross. I thought she was going to shout at me about the ruined jersey. But she put the knitting bag down next to her handbag, lifted me without a word and tucked me into bed. I kept my mouth clamped closed. My tongue poked in and out of the soft gap where my tooth used to be. Granny’s mouth was pursed closed like mine. Her face looked like a dried apricot. The quilt was pulled tight across my body, like I was a little kid, not six, nearly seven. Mum popped her head around the door.
“I’ll be in to read your story in a minute poppet.” She had one hand on her back and was rubbing in slow round movements. Her eyes looked red.
“No, Rosemary, I’ve got it under control. We’re fine.”
“Don’t go filling his head with ? “
“I said we’re fine. You go back to talking on the phone. That’s obviously more important to you.”
Mum’s face went red. “We manage perfectly well without ? “
“He’s still only six, not much more than a baby. Children can drown in an inch of water.”
I wondered if an inch was bigger than my hand. Granny sometimes talked about me as if I wasn’t there, or like I couldn’t hear some of the words because they were meant for grown-ups. But I could hear them. I could hear them all, and I wished I couldn’t.
The door slammed.
Granny looked through my bookshelf tut-tutting loudly. If only the tooth were still in my cheek, still part of me, instead of lying under the floorboards like something dead. Like a ghost.
“Just a minute,” Granny came away from my bookshelf. She poked about in her gigantic handbag. Out came a book with a blue and yellow cover. I knew what it was. The book was our secret, and I wasn’t supposed to let Mum know about it. Granny had never said so, but I just knew.
Bible Stories for Children.
I wanted the Noah’s Arc story, but I didn’t say so, in case Granny saw the gap where the tooth had been, because that was something secret too.
Granny leafed through the pages, and started a story about the world’s first people. “God told them not to eat the fruit ? “
I was really tired and hoped my mouth wouldn’t fall open when I went to sleep.
I woke up with a furry tail brushing my lips. Evans jumped off the bed and slid out of the door. Mum would come soon to get me ready for school. The sun streamed through a gap in the curtains. The holidays would begin in a few days.
Mum had been telling me about Father Christmas. There were seven presents under the tree. Two were for the new baby. I’d helped decorate the tree. I’d put the fairy on top. Granny had been cross when I’d called it a fairy.
“It’s an Angel, Cory, not a fairy,” she’d said with a stern face. “I’ve told you about the Archangel Gabriel.”
Mum and Granny had shouted at each other that day.
I slid out from under the quilt and knocked the cat off the bed. The clock ticked on the wall, but I wasn’t sure if the numbers meant it was too early to get up or not.
Evans pushed through the door again and made it creak. The sound made me think of the frog in the bathroom, which made me think about my tooth.
I shot out of bed, ran to the mirror, pulled my lower lip down and looked at the space. When I poked the gap in the mouth-skin, it felt soft and squelchy. My heart thumped inside my chest. I tore the carpet away from my secret corner, and lifted the loose floorboard. The dust made me sneeze, one, two, three times.
There was the blackbird feather. The smooth amber pebble was sitting in Luke’s p?ua shell.
The tooth was gone.
In its place was a shiny two-dollar coin.
# # #
Nod Ghosh’s work features in anthologies: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Horizons 2 (Top of the South NZSA), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), and various other publications. Nod is associate editor for Flash Frontier, an Adventure in Short Fiction. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/