The Bad Child…
The ‘good child’ may be frightened and insecure, wanting only to please his parents by submitting to their will. The ‘bad child’ may have a will of his own and genuine interests but ones which don’t please the parents. Erich Fromm: Man by Himself
Chapter One. LONDON N16
First of all you need to know that my name is Demelza, but you can call me Dee. Names are funny in my house. We call our parents Mia and Max. Actually, it was not that unusual in one school I went to. Four kids in my class called their mum and dad by their first name. Trendy I suppose.
Do you know I’ve seen my father’s cousin Toni naked? Soft rolls of white flesh. She has thin webs of skin between her toes. And her feet have white bands where the strap of her sandals arch across them. When Toni’s wet she smells of pond-weed and wood shavings.
You’ll see that I notice things. I notice things. I see things that are there. I see things that are not there. I’m always keen to notice things. This is useful, especially since the time I kind of stopped speaking.
My parents were very busy at that time. Mia was away. Max was having the outside of the house painted. One day I came back from a walk around Clissold Park where I go to see the dogs. Lots of people walk their dogs in Clissold Park. Anyway, that day I looked up at my house which now had iron bars and walkways spreading their tentacles right across from one side to the other.
Mia beamed when she got back from her conference in Brussels, thrilled to see this weird set-up. ‘The house will look great, Max,’ she said, ‘once we get this scaffolding down.’
It was the next day when I knew some dirt had hit some fan – they usually say shit but I’m not using that word just now; it’s so ugly, like snog and fuck. I was bewildered because, for some reason, the whole house was in turmoil. Mia slapped me twice, growling like a bear, for kicking the policeman who had bustled into my bedroom the night before. She called whatever I had done ‘Dumb insolence’. And when the policemen were finished with turning everything over, she locked me back in my bedroom.
I protested loudly, shouting through the door, but she was busy with the police by then. That was when I decided not to speak if I could help it. What use was speaking?
But even if I don’t say anything I definitely do notice things. I notice the tender touches between my parents. Mia always touches Max first. Then he touches her, like she’s given him leave to do it. I also notice Max ruffling my brother, Bek’s, hair. I also notice my mother absently stroking the soft, round arm of my sister, Serena, who’s only eighteen months younger than me, even though she always acts like a baby. She still sleeps with her two middle fingers in her mouth. You can see the tooth-marks, the dents in her fingers.
And I also notice my mother and father exchanging glances when I break things or lick the copper kettle on the landing. And they growl like bears when I bang my head against the wall. And they roll their eyes when I suck the arrow points on the garden gate—I’ve become used to the metallic taste in my mouth and like it.
They watch me closely, looking out for things I might do wrong. For instance, there was this day when they were all carried away by this idea of a trip to the zoo. A zoo! Animals in cages. No way was I going to look at animals in cages. So I raced upstairs, stripped off all my clothes and sat in my wardrobe. So they left me behind.
Of course, that was an excuse for them to take me to see yet another doctor. I’ve seen lots of doctors. Eventually, having noticed that I was not speaking, their reaction became as brittle as an old plastic mac. That day in the doctor’s office they went on like I was deaf, calling my stripping off a fetish.
Fetish. I like that word. I may not speak but, believe me, I’m brilliant at reading. I mostly read books and word-pieces that I’ve downloaded onto my tablet. As well as that, I can recall everything I’ve ever read. I can call it all up in my mind, pictures and all, like it’s on a screen. So I don’t need to keep it in my browsing history. This way they can’t check me out. See inside me.
Like I say, they watch me quite a lot now.
You’ll be discovering here that I’m not thick. I could read books when I was five years old but I realise that now I’m twelve Mia and Max would do their exchanging-glances-thing if they actually knew how much I read, how much I know, or how much I have on my mind-screen. If those stories and word-pieces I have read existed on paper, I’m sure they’d be rifling through them, trying—as usual—to get into my head.
I am very protective over my tablet. I hide it in a different place every night. And, if something goes wrong with it, I take it to the library with a note for the man who fixes it there and then. He doesn’t worry about me not speaking. He thinks the description of the problem on the sheet of paper is written by my mother. I type it on her computer and sign with her name: Mia Belasis (Ms). I take money out of Max’s wallet to pay. I think he knows this but he doesn’t say anything.
And I’m careful to leave nothing of myself even on my tablet. No Snapchat. No emails. Sometimes, if I get into a panic about Mia and Max being too nosy, I resort to deleting all my browsing history. There are no words about me out there. I don’t speak in cyberspace. My way of protecting myself is special. It’s like dipping my hand in water and then taking it out. I leave no trace.
Max and Mia—so very clever themselves with certificates and medals displayed in the lavatory—don’t know how brilliant I am. I am a blank sheet to them. They know nothing of my way of thinking.
In the early days they would try to trick me into betraying this clever part of me. That last test paper before I went to the big school was the clincher. I just made marks on the papers and drew cartoons of the teachers, adding pimples and large glasses. The teachers were angry and, when they showed my papers to Mia, she was angry too. That day she thrust me into the car and threw my backpack on top of me. Then, crashing the car into gear, she shouted, ‘How could you? How could you, Dee?’
That day, Serena—already in the car—popped a jelly baby into her mouth and pulled herself as far away from me as she could. I can still smell her jelly baby scent. Mia crashed the gears again and glared at me through the rear-view mirror. I looked out of the window on my side at the trees that lined the school drive, that fluttered their high spring green over us.
The even more total clincher was later that same week in the school corridor when these two girls discovered my real name was Demelza and called me Dammy and Dummy, making moaning noises through their twisted mouths. I pushed one of them into the other, and that one crashed up against a window, shattering it. The window was hurt, but not the girl. After that incident the school barred me altogether and sent a Special Needs Advisor with a clipboard to our house. My mother told the woman she would be home-schooling me and showed her the door. The woman gave her some forms to fill in and that was that.
So, after the shattered window, there was no more school for me. Bek returned to his school, neat in his uniform and was—as Mia said—good as gold. Serena started at my own big school and was as good as gold there. As she grew taller she wore my old uniform. Seeing her in it, I remembered once hearing a teacher say, ‘Serena Belasis is as good as gold. So unlike her sister.’
So far, so good. I was much more content now, settling in to work at home on Mia’s second laptop, filling in spaces on some daft American home-tutoring website that focused on the eight-plus age group even though I was twelve. Actually, I made sure I got some of the answers wrong to stop Mia from sussing me out. She would pop up on my computer screen, skyping home from wherever she was in the world, marking the exercises and commenting on my wrong-headed approach to simple problems. Being thick can give you a kind of armour.
I have to say Max was never so strict as Mia. He would leave me to my home-learning, getting on with his translations in his study up there on the second floor. When she was actually at home, Mia worked up there at the second desk, although she went further up to their bedroom for more private phone conversations. She had many more friends than Max.
Rita, who’s from Latvia, was in and out of the house a lot. She made this crashing noise with the Hoover that rattled my head. She would come every day to clean and lay out our lunches and teas. She would leave at five-thirty, having banked up food in the freezer for my parents so they could have an exotic dinner at eight o’clock, with wine from Max’s cellar which used to be a coal hole in the olden days.
Rita never looked at me directly. If she caught me looking at her, she would cross herself. But to her I was mostly invisible.
Mia would fly in and out of the country like one of those migratory birds you can see on YouTube. She liked to combine special adventures with her work trips abroad: she loved trying out new things: like how to climb without oxygen or how to fly. And she loved to ski across country: skimming down slopes, through trees, jumping across ravines.
She would tell tales of these adventures at their dinner parties, where she was like a queen: the cleverest and most beautiful woman in the room. She’s very popular. I would sit on the stairs and listen to her talk. She has this nice voice when she’s not cross: quite deep and soft, like chocolate. I was always proud of her, there amongst her many friends.
My father sometimes joined Mia on one of her adventures but usually he just drove her to the airport, came back and raced up the stairs, looking very glum. He wouldn’t speak, even to Bek, who is his favourite…