Fiction: Monkey Bars
Cancer was such a big word to erupt from such small mouths, but on the concrete playground, oversized volcanoes were exploding every other minute. Thomas wasn’t in school today, and that was the reason why.
Invites were sent out to a few of his closer friends, in cream textured envelopes handed out by a solemn faced teacher. Eva did not know what to wear to a funeral, so asked her sister, who was five years older. Her sister said something sensible, so Eva decided to just wear her school uniform. It was summer, but a cold one, so she sat in the church pew with black woollen tights under her blue and white checked dress.
Thomas was at the front with his Father. It saddened her to see him alone at the front, surrounded by miserable adults in miserable black suits. Eva decided right there and then that no one would be allowed to wear black when she died. To her funeral, everyone would have to wear green.
She liked green because it was the colour of grass. It occurred to her that when the casket was put into the earth, it would eventually rot, along with the person in it, and then that would make more grass, because grass needs rotting things to fertilise because rotting things are what worms eat and worm poo is what fertiliser is. She liked that thought.
But she wasn’t allowed to see the casket get put into the ground. Her mother told her later that the casket wasn’t actually put there, that it was burned up in a special oven and that the ashes were spread in a place that was important to the person who had died. Eva asked if this happened to everyone.
“Well, no.” Her mother sighed. “But land is expensive.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” Eva asked. She was sitting in the kitchen while her mother stirred Tesco’s Everyday Value tinned tomato soup.
“Not enough room for all of our coffins, especially on an island. Your great aunt in America is buried, see, they’ve got room, but I’ll be cremated, I think.”
“Can we see her grave?”
“What, your auntie’s?” Her mother laughed, then sighed again. “If you can rustle up the money just to see a stone, then sure.”
Thomas came back to school a few weeks later. He’d had a haircut: he’d never shaved his head before. Eva thought his brain was too big for it to suit him.
At breaktime, he sat alone, on top of the monkey bars. It was funny, because normally every single boy would try to climb to the top of the monkey bars whilst trying to shove off whoever had already gotten there, but all the people in the playground seemed to not want to touch or even Thomas, like he was some kind of leper who’s illness was being sad, so the wood-chipped area of the concrete yard was almost empty.
Eva saw this, and signed Time Out for Stuck in the Mud. She ran up to stand in front of the monkey bars, but did not climb them even though she was born in the Chinese New Year of the Monkey, because she still remembered when she fell off a set in her local park and had to wear a cast on her arm for a while, but not the type people could sign, so there was no point in having the cast, really.
“Hiya, Thom.” Eva had never called him that before, no one had.
He stayed silent, staring blankly to the school building opposite.
“Do you want to play with me?” He stayed silent, but started biting the side of his left pinkie finger. Not his fingernails, because he’d gnawed the all his fingernails as far down as they could go, and the ten pink welts this had caused made Eva’s hands tingle as she imagined how painful they felt.
“My mum said I have to make you feel included. She told me to invite you to our house for tea on Friday, if you want to come.”
There was a long silence. A robin flew over their heads, and settled on the top bar of the swings. Eva gave shifted on her feet for a moment before she began to turn around and walk away, but suddenly became very angry at Thomas. Why was he not speaking to her? She turned around with a scowl on her face and a stomp in her walk.
“I hate your haircut!” she screamed, her face turning red with a potent mix of embarrassment, fury, and a bitter touch of sympathy for the boy. “It makes you look stupid and ugly!”
Thomas remained silent.
“Why won’t you talk to me!?”
Thomas remained silent.
The robin flew away, over the school gates. Thomas’s eyes caught onto it as it swept over his head, following it into the horizon as Eva’s knees sunk further into the wood-chip as she sobbed dramatically.
As the Robin disappeared, Thomas cleared his throat. “Robins in summer are good luck. Ravens are bad luck all the time, but because a Robin is a Christmas bird, it’s really good luck to see one in summer.”
Eva was the silent one now, save a few sniffles. She was listening to him, but avoided glancing up at the monkey bars to let him know that.
“Mum told me that. She must have seen a raven before she went to the doctors, or maybe even run one over by accident and gotten double bad luck.”
Still staring at the floor, Eva spoke, but in a quiet tone. “My mum ran over a squirrel once, but it was a grey one.”
“Squirrels aren’t lucky.”
“Wishbones are though. Mum told me that that was started by the pilgrims in America at Thanksgiving, but because we don’t have thanksgiving, that’s why we have turkey at Christmas time.”
Eva thought of the card Thomas’s mum had given her a few days after Christmas last year. She had started to get sick in January, and the card was really pretty, with glitter and a tree on the front and a robin on the inside.
“I have a dead aunty in America.” She finally looked up at Thomas. The top of his school jumper had turned from royal blue to navy with the tears that soaked it. His knuckles were white against his dark hands as he gripped tightly onto the metal bars on which he sat.
Eva got off her knees and wiped the woodchip off the front of her dress. Some of the orange dust wold not come off. “Do you still want to come to mine on Friday then for tea?”
Thomas loosened his grip on the bars, resuming his empty stare at the school building walls.
Eva returned to the game of Stuck in the Mud.