Monday, 10 February 2014

Guests by Alison Wassell

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
2nd PRIZE WINNER (2500 word category)

‘Your guests are here,’ announces my mother, as she stands in my bedroom doorway with her hands on the shoulders of two strangers.  One is shorter than the other, but otherwise they look the same.  The welcoming speech I have rehearsed all afternoon drains from my mind and is replaced by my usual awkwardness in the presence of other children.  My mother is smiling, but her eyes are giving me a ‘Please act normally for once,’ look. 
She is wearing make-up, which she hardly ever does.  Her mouth has been inexpertly expanded to twice its normal size with too-red lipstick.  She no more knows how to be an adult than I know how to be nine years old.
 ‘Ann has been looking forward to meeting you,’ she tells the strangers.  The smaller one sucks the end of her pigtail.  The other one greedily surveys my room, taking stock of my books, toys and games.  I know that something is expected of me, but I stare mutely as my face grows hot.  There are heavy footsteps on the stairs and a man appears behind my mother.
 ‘This must be the lovely Ann,’ he says.  I have never been called lovely before.  The man pushes his way into my room and holds out his hand.  I wipe my damp palm on my dress and offer the wrong hand.  He takes it anyway, laughing.  My mother laughs too.  Apologetically, she explains that I am ‘a bit on the shy side’.  Apologising for my shortcomings is something that she does a lot.  The man bows and offers her his hand.
‘Your carriage awaits, Madame,’ he says.  She giggles like a girl and issues me with instructions about letting the babysitter know if we need anything.  Then they are gone and I am left with my guests.  We stand in silence as car doors slam.
I have been planning this evening all week.  I have even composed, in my head, the entry I will make in my news journal at school on Monday.
‘My two best friends came to play at my house,’ I will proudly begin.  I have never had one best friend, let alone two.
On my desk there is a handwritten programme detailing our itinerary.  At this moment we should be settling down to a sedate board game.  I had intended to let my guests choose from a selection I have taken from my shelves.  Most of them, requiring more than one player, have had their shrink wrapping removed only to allow me to study the instructions.  A refreshment break is scheduled for 7.30.   Downstairs, the cakes I have made and clumsily decorated with our initials sit in a tin, alongside an unopened bottle of squash.  I blush now, as I think of them.  The evening was set to conclude with me reading aloud a story I have written.  My new friends were supposed to sit cross legged on the carpet, wide-eyed with admiration, and to beg for more when I finished.  None of this, I understand, is going to happen.  It seems entirely possible that we will stand like this, staring at one another, until the adults return.

The taller stranger, whose name is Christine, is the first to make a move.  She wanders slowly around my room, touching things with hands that are not entirely clean.  I want to shield my possessions with my body, but am too afraid to move.  I smile tentatively at the shorter stranger, who is called Marie.  She sticks out her tongue, then plugs her mouth with her thumb and crosses her legs, as though in urgent need of the toilet.  I fear for my carpet.

Christine takes books from my shelves, glances cursorily at them, and tosses them onto the bed.  When she comes across one with pictures she opens it so roughly that its spine cracks.  Each time this happens I flinch.  She looks at me.

‘Does your mum make you do reading at night?’ she asks, as though she feels sorry for me.  I shake my head.

‘Why have you got all these books then?’ she persists.  I shrug.  She comes closer and I smell cheese and onion crisps.

‘Can you talk?’ she asks.  She tries to peer into my mouth, in search of my voice.  I nod.

‘Go on, then.’ She waits, arms folded.  I remember my last school report, where my teacher wrote that I had an excellent vocabulary for my age.  But words only come easily when I can write them down.  I swallow several times as my brain searches in vain for the simplest utterance.  I have begun to sweat.

Marie saves me.  She removes her thumb from her mouth and clutches urgently at herself.

‘Need a wee,’ she informs Christine, who acts swiftly.  Not bothering to ask for directions, she pushes Marie in front of her, onto the landing.  She tries several doors before, just in time, she locates the bathroom.  She follows Marie inside and waits while she wees, leaving the door open.  When her sister has finished, she goes herself, swinging her legs and whistling as she sits on the toilet.  Their knickers are grey, although they must once have been white.
‘What you looking at?’ she snarls, when she catches me staring.  I become suddenly engrossed in examining my fingernails.  Christine doesn’t flush the toilet.  They fail to wash their hands.

Christine stands on her tiptoes and opens the cabinet above the sink.  This is where my mother keeps her ‘ladies things’.  I am not allowed to touch them.  Christine takes down an opened package and peers inside.  She tilts it to show me the contents.

‘Do you know what these are for?’ she asks.  Truthfully, I shake my head.  She laughs, then, to my relief, returns the packet to the cupboard and closes the door. She comes close to me again, and her cheese and onion breath wafts over me as she whispers into my ear. 

‘When you get bigger, you bleed in your knickers.’  My face must register disbelief.

‘Everyone does.  Even your mum.’  This is too awful to contemplate.  I attempt to lead the way back to my bedroom, but Christine has other ideas.  She goes into my mother’s room and flings herself on the bed without removing her shoes.  Marie does the same.  For a second, they lie on their backs, then they scramble to their feet and begin to bounce.  They hold hands.  I think that this must be how normal children enjoy themselves.  It does not occur to me to join in.  The bed creaks alarmingly.

Eventually my guests collapse in a breathless, giggling heap, their legs tangled.  Christine eases herself up and supports herself on her elbows as she looks at me.  She pats the bed.

‘This is where your mum will do it with my dad,’ she says.  I have no idea what she is talking about.  She rolls her eyes up to the ceiling before turning to Marie.

‘She doesn’t even know what ‘it’ is,’ she tells her.  Marie titters behind her hand.  Christine slides off the bed, showing her knickers as her dress rides up.  She comes close and jabs her finger hand into my chest.  I gasp and step backwards.  This is the first sound she has heard me make.

‘You stupid or something?’ she barks.  I shake my head unconvincingly.  She shoves me out of the way and strides back into my room.  I watch helplessly as she opens drawers and cupboards, pulling things out and discarding them on the floor.  At last, she finds what she is looking for.  She pulls the clothes off Barbie and Ken and holds them up to show me.  She presses them together and makes them do something that could be fighting or dancing.  She makes groaning noises.  Marie joins in.  I look at the carpet, trying not to cry.

Christine gets bored, and naked Barbie and Ken are tossed aside.  She sweeps things off my desk to clear a place to sit.  Our programme for the evening flutters to the floor.  I am thankful that she has not seen it.  I feel her staring and reluctantly look up.  She smiles in an unfriendly way.

‘When your mum marries our dad, this will be our room,’ she says.  There is a silence where my words are supposed to go.  She continues.

‘Because it’s the biggest, and there are two of us.  You’ll have to sleep in that little room.’  She gestures towards the room where the Christmas tree lives when it isn’t Christmas.  There is barely enough room for a bed.

‘Your mum will be our mum too,’ she says.  She pauses, licking her lips and glances across at Marie, who is sucking her ponytail again.  They grin conspiratorially.

‘Your mum will like us best,’ she says.  I can think of no reason not to believe her.

We do the staring thing again.  Christine is the first to tire of it.  She heads off downstairs, followed by Marie.  I stay in my room.  I retrieve Barbie and Ken and dress them, apologising to them in my head for their loss of dignity.  Barbie gives me a cold, hard stare.  I wonder if she would prefer a new life with Christine, who seems to be more her kind of girl.  I tidy up as best I can, put my books back in their places on my shelves and return my dolls and games to their rightful boxes and cupboards.  Someone has trodden on my plastic ruler and broken it.  I put the pieces in the bin.  I tear the programme into tiny bits and dispose of those there too.  I stay sitting on the carpet, with my head on my knees.  It gets dark.  Nobody comes to look for me.

I creep downstairs and stand in the hall, peering into the living room.  Christine and Marie are on the sofa, on either side of the babysitter.  They are all watching television with their feet on the coffee table.  The cake tin is on the floor with its lid off, and empty cake cases are scattered around.  Only Marie notices me.  She sticks out her tongue again.  When the adverts come on the babysitter turns to Christine.

‘What did you make of Ann?’ she asks.  Christine twirls her finger at the side of her head.

‘Weirdo,’ she says.  The babysitter laughs.  I go back upstairs.

Back in my room, I do what I always do when life gets too confusing for me.  I climb into bed, pull the covers over my head, and go to sleep.

The sound of a car pulling up outside wakes me.  A door slams, but the engine keeps running.  There are footsteps on the drive, then the sound of a key in the front door.  There is some sleepy mumbling before the door closes.  The car drives away.  My mother climbs the stairs.

I pretend to be asleep as she slumps on my bed.  She is not fooled.

‘Well, that was a bit of a disaster,’ she says.  She laughs angrily.  I abandon my pretence and sit up.  I click on my bedside light.  She has wiped away the lipstick.  Her eyes are red, as though she has been crying.  She takes off her shoes and settles herself next to me.  I rest my head on her shoulder.

‘I hated my guests,’ I tell her.  She laughs the ‘nothing is funny’ laugh again.

‘I hated their dad,’ she says.  She hugs me tightly, and I hug her back, pressing my face into her until I struggle to breathe.  But I am thinking about the secret bleeding, and the Barbie and Ken dance that seemed more like a fight, and all the other things that I don’t know.  And the world is a less safe place.


  1. Wow, well written. As an awkward kid this really took me back. Very atmospheric and vivid.

    1. Children can be so cruel. Though I think that Ann's mum has failed to inform her child of some of the necessary facts of life.
      The writer has managed to view through the eyes of a child all the scary things that could affect a shy and immature nine year old. Thought provoking.

  2. What a gobsmackingly grotesque scenario painted here. With cringe worthily opaque imagery, the jagged, gooey landscape drips with the oily scrawls of a misguided innocent. This storyteller effortlessly draws the reader into her world without a fight. Alison Wassell's future is secured if she can keep pulling off stories like this. Would love to see a novel by this writer.

  3. Loved this story, beautifully written. For me it was the winning entry.