Pantry Prose: The Elf and the Bullies by Sally Shaw

The swings were removed in 1976, after the laughter dissolved, like the rice paper skin of a flying saucer, when sucked, and before Connie and Ruth realise they’d never see each other again. The swing carcass, displays its paint, peeling back like scabs from a child’s knee. Connie remembers the day the council worker unclipped the swing chains and ripped-off the last of the Police tape that coiled down the frame-legs like slithered socks.

Today the scabs have been picked off. Furrows hoed into the tarmac, by Mary-Jane sandals proclaim the narrative. Connie steadies herself as adolescence imagery collide and swirl bashing into her like school bullies. Her olive splattered hands cling to the once friendly frame. She scrunches her eyes shut, listens to the squeak, scrape, squeak, scrape…thud. Pink varnished nails pierce the peach flesh of her palms. She sways like a Weeble. Her childhood mind recuses her. Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, reverberates in her head. She blinks, disentangles her grip and twists around, staggers to a slatted bench that links the grass to the tarmac. She’s unable to leave.

Connie plonks down, grateful the slats haven’t fractured. She sighs with relief, and as the whisper of her breath escapes her head, the squeak, scrape starts again. She gazes toward the swing frame there are two girls each on a swing. They appear as if she is peering through the crinkly orange cellophane, from a Lucozade bottle. It evokes a vision of her child-self and Ruth holding Lucozade cellophane in front of their faces, giggling, trying to make the black and white television into colour. Connie smiles, aches to have Ruth sat next to her now. The girls on the swings scream out with delight as their tummies summer-salt the higher they go. She rubs away teardrops as they prickle her cheek. She sees the girls clearly, there’s a slither of orange cellophane beneath the swing, it pirouettes with each whoosh. A tidal wave of tears water-log her perception, until soaked away by a tissue. It’s not just two girls. She’s observing herself and Ruth.

Connie and Ruth become friends on their first day at infant school. Ruth sits with her legs wrapped around the speckled painted chair limbs. Head resting upon folded arms on the tabletop, the perfume of home consoles her. Her emerald cardigan shrugs with each sob. Connie skips into the classroom, cardigan hanging off her shoulders, one sock up, one sock down, a splodge of Weetabix, like a winner’s medal on her chest. Graham Stott and Snotty Stanley are pulling Jessica Mee’s pigtails. There’s no space at their table, Connie glances to check if there’s any other children from her street. She spies an empty chair next to a girl she’s never seen before not even at the launderette. The girl is scriking, like when Connie’s Mum rattles the back of her legs, the bare bit between socks and dress. It normally happens when her Mum is at the end of her tether. Connie plonks down in the chair next to Ruth who sits up rubbing her nose on her cardigan sleeve. Connie smiles at her whispers she’ll be her friend if she wants. Ruth nods and the teacher shouts “Shush” the only sound a last snurch from Ruth.

At playtime Connie peels off the medal of Weetabix and eats it, which makes Ruth giggle. Ruth is smaller than the other children. Everyone’s small at the start, by first year junior Connie has grown, Ruth remains elf-like. Whenever Connie and Ruth are together, Ruth is safe. Connie’s’ outgoing personality builds a fortress around them.

In class, a pea sized eraser shot at the back of Ruth’s head, a foot tripped over on her way to the front of the class. A group of tittering girls, in the playground as Ruth catches up with Connie. Always just out of earshot or sight of the best friend. Danger lurks around the corner of the alley where Ruth goes left, and Connie turns right.

“On your way to the shoemakers Elfie?” Jessica Mee hollers from above Ruth’s head. Her and Snotty Stanley jump down from Jessica’s backyard wall, landing in front of Ruth. Ruth steps to the right they step to their left. They snigger, as they form a barricade. Stanley leaps behind her. She’s trapped. Jessica prods Ruth and she stumbles backwards. Stanley’s arms lock around her, pin both arms to her sides. Ruth wriggles, as she does, he squeezes her to him and his knuckles ram her tummy button. The force steals her voice and breath. She crumples over the balled grip.

“Hold her still, Snotty.”

Jessica snatches Ruth’s head back by her hair. The sting of her enemy’s palm belts out a scream.

They snigger at Ruth face down on the cobbles, hands pressed against her front were her shirt tucks into her skirt. Back on top of the wall, the racket of their snorts of triumph rebound and chase Ruth as she scurries away.

Jessica and Stanley continue to torment her throughout junior school. Ruth tells no one and never retaliates.

The end of the last year of junior school, and the summer holiday. Ruth and Connie write a fun list. They start with number one and two on the first Saturday of their six weeks together. Meet outside Miss Daisy’s sweet shop. Miss Daisy’s, is the best shop, the girls love the white chocolate mice and flying saucers. Each of these last for at least three minutes when sucked. Ruth is the best at making a flying saucer last the longest.

Miss Daisy is relieved to see Ruth and Connie when the ding of the bell alerts her. They’re not like the other children who open and shut the door repeatedly before stomping in like herds of wild animals.

“What will it be today, girls?”

“Hello Miss Daisy, five-pence worth of white mice and flying saucers please.” Ruth answers and asks how Miss Daisy is today.

“Happy to see you pair. Although I’m not sure chocolate mice are the best for today, it’s going to be a hot one, the weatherman says.”

“Shall we have a bag of crisps each, Ruth?”

Ruth nods and Miss Daisy places the jar of mice back on the shelf, next to the pink shrimps.

As they turn to leave the shop, the bell dings, bobbing above the head of Jessica as she jams her foot between the door edge and frame. The door held open; her mean stance blocks their way out.

“Hi, Connie.”

Connie smiles, Jessica steps to the side and holds the door. Ruth, follows, bites her lower lip in response to the jab between her shoulder blades.

“She’s always trying to be our friend when her little mate is not about. Come on Ruth lets run so she doesn’t see us.”

They dash off challenging one another to race, to the Pelican Crossing opposite the park.

Connie wins the race; she doesn’t notice her friend glancing over her shoulder to check Jessica isn’t in pursuit. There’s a lady pushing a buggy with bags hanging from the handles and a toddler sat chewing on a Rusk. A red Cortina stops when the Pelican chirps telling the girls its safe to cross. As the car drives on Ruth notices two faces peering from the rear window.

The swings are empty when they get to the park. There’s a group of kids from school sat on the bottom of the slide, drinking Tizer and passing a cigarette around. Ruth’s not bothered by them as they don’t take any notice of her. The roundabout turns, a long-haired boy lies with his head hanging down, intermittently pushing against the tarmac with the tips of his fingers. His hair sweeps up litter with each circle turned. They dash over to the swings, each jump like jumping jacks as their thighs catch the heat from the black seats. Skirts pulled down they hitch up back onto the swing. Tip toes push backwards, legs lifted straight, lean forward, the feet push again. Ruth glances over to Connie, they swing in tandem, higher, and higher, a wave of joy rolls in Ruth’s tummy. The joy rollercoasters to concern as she spots the red Cortina parked, and then to fear as she recognises the two that climb from the back of the car.

Ruth slows to a stop. Connie slows to a stop.

“Phew, its hot, look the tarmac is like treacle.”

Ruth raises her foot onto her knee, the soles of her Mary Jane sandals splattered with black, like squashed liquorice Nipits.

“Hi Connie, Are you going to let me, and Stanley have a go?”

“In a minute.”

Jessica grabs the chains beneath Ruth’s hands, leans in close to the side of her cheek. Ruth’s knuckles speckle pink and white with determination to hold on.

“Laugh and smile like you’re enjoying this Elfie.”

Jessica backs up releases the swing, Stanley pushes the seat of the swing from the rear.

Ruth laughs, louder and louder, she thrusts her legs backwards and forwards. Screeches “Wee, wee, wee.” Each time she soars forward, her sandals scape against the body.

Ruth glides higher and higher her screeches morph to screams of delight as she tips the bag of flying saucers. A rainbow cascades. She’s still, arms linked around the chains and tiny hands grip each other. Swing slows. The only sound squeak, scrape, squeak, scrape, until the Policewoman catches hold of Ruth’s fists. The flying saucers polka-dot Jessica’s face.

Connie plucks out a paper bag from her coat pocket. She pauses, untwists the white paper bag and peeks inside like a kid. She places a pink flying saucer onto her tongue and sucks. The rice paper case dissolves, releases the bitterness of naivety and decomposes the image of her and Ruth.

Sally Shaw has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and is currently working on her novel based in 1950s Liverpool. She sometimes writes poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, her own childhood memories, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan, Liz Berry and Emily Dickinson. She has had short stories and poetry published in various online publications, including The Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth and in a ebook anthology ‘Tales from Garden Street’ (Comma Press Short Story Course book 2019). Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam.

You can find more of Sally’s work here on Ink Pantry.

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