by Jude Alderman
Chloe was upstairs in her play tent. She was in a Really Big Sulk.
Huddled up with her knees under her chin, her pink kangaroo and fluffy dog wedged tightly up against her, she was certain she was never ever going to come out of there again. Waves of shame and rage rose up in her, a big cloud of confusion and resentment. It wasn't her fault. There was no way she was going to apologise to Charlie. So what if Daddy was cross with her? She hated him and she hated Charlie and she hated having to be there at all, and one day she would be eighteen and then she could run away as fast as she could and look for her real family. She didn't care how rough things got because she didn't have to live there forever, just put up with it, and all she had to do was just try harder not to care and not to hurt inside. Not hurt, not feel, not anything.
The day had got off to a bad start. Jen had chosen Chloe''s school clothes for her and laid them out neatly on the bed. Chloe had looked at them, thought for a very short, but intense moment, then said, "Why can't I wear my new skirt?"
"This one isn't dirty, so it doesn't need to go in the wash yet," replied Jen. This was met with a kind of snort as Chloe folded her arms and sat down hard on the bed.
"I don't expect you'll ever let me wear that skirt," she shouted, "it's a waste of a skirt, that's what it is!"
Jen felt weary. Jen felt annoyed about how important this seemed to be to Chloe. And most of all, Jen felt - yet again - that she could get nothing right in Chloe's eyes.
"Well I won't wear this skirt and I won't get dressed and I won't go to school!" yelled a furious Chloe, turning pink. "If I have to wear this skirt I'll make sure I rip it.," yelled a little boiled face with tears stinging its eyes…
"Yes, she's like a lobster", thought Jen, "covered in spiny, spiky bits and very red when heated.."
"Okay," she replied, "you'd better just stay there then, I can't make you get dressed. But I'm not giving you the new skirt, because this is the one I want you to wear today."
Chloe picked up the skirt and threw it at Jen's back as she was leaving the room.
It had taken an hour and a half to walk home from school that afternoon. Chloe had been the last one out, long after all the other parents and children had drifted away. Jen had waited in the emptying playground, trying hard to be patient. A row of trees stood opposite her, bare and proud as they faced the winter winds. "That's how I feel," thought Jen, "stripped bare by this child…"
Chloe dawdled out of the door trailing her chaos of bag, books, coat and cardigan.
"Let's sort all this out first," said Jen. "Put your cardigan on, you can't walk home dressed like that.."
Chloe let go of everything, let it all drop to the playground floor as if it was a great relief to do so. Then she folded her arms, stamped her foot and said defiantly: "I don't want to wear my cardigan, it's not cold."
"Yes it is, Chloe, it's very cold, it's the middle of December," said Jen, as kindly as she could.
"Well I'm not cold," retorted Chloe.
"You will be soon, poppet, put this on now."
Chloe did, but she was cross about it and scowled and sulked and frowned. She wouldn't help Jen put the books away in the back-pack. She wouldn't carry the back-pack. When they set off across the fields Chloe dawdled as much as she could so as not to have to walk alongside Jen. Then Jen made a Really Big Mistake. She said , "Come on, Chloe, hurry up!"
Chloe's response to this was to stop dead in her tracks. She sidled up to a tree alongside the path and began picking bark off its trunk.
Jen was losing patience. She walked the twenty or so yards back to where Chloe was and grabbed her by the hand. "Come on, I want to get home so I can cook supper for you and Charlie."
Chloe pulled her hand back, pulled her arm back, pulled her whole body back.
She didn't move.
She stared ahead of her, a tight nasty look on her face.
She wouldn't look at Jen.
And she certainly wasn't going home.
As far as Chloe was concerned, Charlie had started it. He always did. He was a bully and he was selfish and he told lies. He always had to knock against her as he passed by; she always responded with a loud screech of "Charleeeeee!" Whenever he looked at her, she thought - no, she really believed - he was making a horrid face.
When Charlie arrived home from school that day, he took up all the space in the kitchen. He talked excitedly about how two of his friends had been caught smoking in the locker room that lunch-time. This developed into a self-righteous monologue about how he hated smoking and was never going to smoke cigarettes. Jen felt caged as Charlie fired bullet after bullet of chat at her, demanding engagement with him. Chloe tried desperately to get some attention for herself, while she made everyone an extremely milky cup of tea and burnt her fingers taking toast out of the electric toaster. She wanted to be noticed and to be heard and to be told she had done something good that day (she'd been given a sticker by her teacher for neat handwriting ) but Charlie wasn't leaving any gaps.
Under these circumstances, Chloe felt justified in trying to sabotage Charlie. She said, "I smelt smoke on your clothes when you came in."
This brought a furious denial from Charlie, who then launched an attack on their birth mother. Sharon had apparently smoked 'hundreds' of cigarettes every day and her clothes really did - so Charlie said - stink.
"That's not true Charleeeee! Mummy-Sharon never smoked!"
"Yes she did," Charlie hurled back, "you don't know, you were too little."
"I don’t like you saying things like that about Mummy," said Chloe, and she stuck her fingers in her ears and began a sing-song "Blah-blah-blah. Blah-blah blah I can't hear you!" she yelled over the top of everyone. "Blah-blah-BLAH!"
Jen didn't see what happened next. Later on, Chloe said that Charlie had pinched her. Whatever he'd done, he didn't deserve to get a cup of lukewarm tea poured over his head, and he certainly didn't expect it. While he sat there stunned, pale brown liquid dripping down his nose and onto his homework diary, Chloe ran screaming from the kitchen and thundered upstairs, a loud slam following her as she hurtled into her bedroom and the security of her playtent.
Chloe could hear the muffled sounds of the house as she nestled into a soft womb of teddy bears. Charlie had gone into his room and had his radio on at full volume - his version of having his fingers in his ears. Chloe could hear her parents' voices, but they were talking too quietly for her to make out their words. Mummy-Jen and Daddy were talking in Daddy's workshop - which they always did when they didn't want her or Charlie to hear what they said. This was usually a bad sign and could only mean one thing: they were talking about her. Chloe felt sure that they didn't love her, and she knew that she didn't love them. It was horrible in this house. And… all the feelings of the day rushed in on her, a stampede of black bitterness, and she knew what to do. She would run away - that would show them.
Chloe poked her head out from the tortoiseshell of her tent. Everyone seemed busy elsewhere - they weren't going to notice her. She slipped down the stairs, along the dark hallway and stood by the front door. Jen came out of Dad's workshop, into the hallway, on her way back to the kitchen.
"Are you alright, sweetie?" she asked gently.
Chloe turned away and put her face to the wall - the door frame appeared to be terribly interesting. She didn't answer.
"Supper soon," said Jen, and went on by.
After Jen had gone, Chloe very, very quietly opened the front door a chink. She slithered through and stood outside in the porch.
Jen came back into the hall. She saw Chloe through the glass of the door. Chloe saw her and instantly pulled back out of view.
Best give her time, thought Jen, she'll come back in when she's calmed down.
Chloe didn't come back in. She stayed there, not quite in the house, not quite in the street. She didn't know what to do next.
Jen went back into the kitchen to start cooking supper. She didn't know what to do next either.
What an amazing tirade came out of Chloe when Jen took her forcibly by the arm and dragged her back inside, after half an hour of failed attempts at persuading her to come and eat her supper.
"I hate sausages and I hate chocolate and I hate ice-cream and I’m never going to eat them again. You all hate me and I don't want to be in this family and I’m going to run away," she screamed. There were tears of fury in the corners of her eyes.
For a moment there was silence, Jen and Chloe standing face to face in the gloom of the long hallway. Jen knew that any attempts at reassurance would be pushed away.
"Okay," she said, "I can't stop you.. " She wanted to stall for time. "There's one thing though. I'm worried about you. I'm worried about where you will sleep tonight when it gets dark. Have you got a plan for where you will sleep?"
No, Chloe hadn't thought about this; she shook her head.
"Well, have you got any ideas?" asked Jen.
"I know, I could phone Lucy's Mum and see if I could sleep at her house!" Chloe suggested.
"Okay, give her a ring then," replied Jen.
Chloe ran and grabbed the telephone. She didn't know the number so Jen helped her to find it on the list on the kitchen wall, and Chloe pushed the buttons. There was nobody at home.
"Why don't you try again in a little while?" said Jen, and she wrote Lucy's telephone number and address down on a piece of paper, then tucked them into Chloe's pocket, "as a back-up," she said.
"I'm worried about you, Chloe," said Jen. I'm worried that you'll be cold out there. Have you got something else you can put on to wear?"
Chloe ran back into the hallway. She grabbed her big winter coat, her scarf and her pink woolly hat, the one with 'Angel' embroidered on it in silver thread. Now she was ready to go. Jen didn't think so.
"That's good," she said, "now you'll be nice and warm. But I'm worried about you. You'll need something to eat - shall I make you a sandwich?"
No, Chloe definitely did not want a sandwich.
"But you'll be so hungry," said Jen. "I know what, I'll give you some money for chips."
"Chips?" queried a surprised Chloe. "CHIPS??" Excitement began to burrow its way to the surface through all her fog of distress.
"Yes, you'd better get yourself some chips from the chip shop, " said Jen, purse in hand. And to Chloe's astonishment, Jen pressed into her hand a hard, round, one pound coin.
"I can get some chips?" Chloe asked again. "By myself?"
"Yes," replied Jen, "but there's still something I'm worried about because I want you to be safe. How will you cross that busy road to get to the chip shop?"
Chloe was quick to figure this out. She was visibly quivering with delight at the idea of going to the chip shop by herself.
"I'll go to the zebra crossing!" she asserted.
" Are you sure you'll be safe?" asked Jen. "Would you like me to walk down the road to the crossing and see you get across safely?"
Chloe nodded an energetic 'yes' and added, "But I can go to the shop by myself? I can go and get chips by myself?"
Jen said yes, absolutely, she just wanted to make sure Chloe was safe. She took her coat from the hook and the two of them slipped out of the front door. Jen was careful as they walked down to the main road, she was very careful - keeping just enough distance between them, as she had when trying to befriend a feral cat. Chloe became more and more excited about the chips, and her anger and moodiness began to evaporate into the December dusk.
When they reached the crossing, Chloe said, "Will you wait for me?"
'Of course, said Jen, "shall I wait opposite the chip shop so that you can see me?"
Chloe nodded, and when Jen said 'okay' she ran across the zebra crossing. She skipped back along the pavement opposite to where the chip shop was, then disappeared inside.
Jen stood on her side of the road, in the soft rain and gloom. After a few minutes a little girl of seven years old waved to her from the chip shop window; a little girl with blond hair in lopsided bunches that she had tied herself, and a pink woolly hat that didn't quite sit comfortably over them. Jen just stood there in the streetlight, in the cold, watching her adopted child - no, her daughter - 'running away from home'.
And then Chloe was running back to the zebra crossing with a great big grin on her face
and they weren't just Chloe's chips anymore; they were everybody's chips.
"I know what," she chattered, "I can take the chips home and share them with Charlie. He really likes chips! I can share them with Charlie and with you and with Daddy, we can have them for our supper. Can we have them with our sausages?"
"Of course we can," said Jen, relieved and smiling inside.
"Can I eat one now?"
And with a large brown paper bag in one hand, and a hot potato chip in the other, Chloe ran on ahead to the house where they lived, and disappeared inside.