The Special Years * ** (excerpt)

My heart thuds as I enter the small room at the top of my house. I remove the dustsheet from the bookcase, the familiar smell of musty old paper wafts around me, and I am ten years old again, browsing the same titles in another time and place. I pull a colourful hardback from the top shelf and read the inscription. To Judith, with all my love, from Daddy xxx. The words blur and I reach for another; Five Go to Billycock Hill. I sit on the bed and open it at the first page. To Judith, happy birthday, love from Sally.

***

I can recall every detail of my first encounter with Judith. It had been raining and the sun blazed off the wet road. Judith’s mother was trying to loosen her daughter’s grip without success and Miss Davies looked increasingly nervous as she waited to welcome her new pupil. Judith stamped and screamed, shaking her head so hard that the purple ribbon flew out of her fine, straight hair and into a puddle. Everyone stared and some of the older children sniggered behind their hands. I left my mother and rescued the ribbon, which dripped down my arm as I handed it back.

The teacher’s frown disappeared.

‘Ah Sally, could you show Judith where to put her coat and then bring her to my class, please?’ She smiled briefly into the distance, raising her whistle to her lips as she hurried off.

Judith’s mother nodded and I noticed the glint of tears as she turned away. I stretched up and caught Judith’s flailing hand. In her surprise she stopped yelling and allowed herself to be pulled towards the main doors where children were forming a line. I’d seen her from my bedroom window the previous afternoon when her family moved in a few doors from mine. Now I took the chance to get a proper look.

Even to my six-year-old eyes Judith was different. Everything was outsize, from her moon face to her heavy buckled shoes. Thick lips sat below a smudgy nose and her cheeks were covered in mothy down. Anxiety sharpened her expression as we shuffled forwards. I squeezed her hand and delivered her to Red classroom where the racket instantly ceased as the assembled children turned to gape. My task completed, I slipped out of the room and into the one next door.

Towards mid-morning, a steadily rising wail disturbed our concentration. We looked up from our books and listened. Siren-like it rose and fell, gaining volume, and we glanced at each other in alarm.

‘Get on with your work, children,’ our teacher said. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’

Miss Davies burst in. ‘Can I borrow Sally a minute?’

Without waiting for an answer she grabbed my hand and pulled me into her classroom. My legs wobbled and I had a sudden urge to wee.

‘Can you stop Judith making that noise?’ she whispered. ‘I can’t get through to her.’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’ll try.’

It had already stopped. Judith bulldozed towards me, nearly knocking me over. I backed away, my heart racing, but she crushed me to her until the school bell startled her and she let go.

‘Playtime!’ shouted Miss Davies.

The class scrambled past us and the teacher escaped to the staff room. I held onto a desk for a few moments while my breathing returned to normal. Judith watched me with her head tipped to one side until I was ready to move. I collected two bottles of milk and led Judith outside onto the damp grass. The milk was warm and sour, but she gulped it down and gradually her cheeks faded to soft pink.

‘What’s the matter, Judith?’ I said.

Her eyes filled with tears.

‘There was no blue crayon,’ she sobbed, ‘and I needed one for the sky.’

I sat back on my heels struggling to understand why the consequence had been so dramatic. It was my first experience of the storms that frequently blew up out of nowhere in my friend’s life. I patted her hand, feeling unusually grown up.

‘Don’t worry, Judith.’ I said. ‘I’ll sort it out.’

The magic words had an immediate effect and she finished her milk with noisy enthusiasm.

***

The complete story is available to download as an App for Kindle, iPad and mobile phone from Ether Books.

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