First published in Making Soup in a Storm by A.S.L.S.
April is rearranging her knickers. In the queue at the garden centre cafeteria. Her hand is right down the back of her tracksuit bottoms, tweaking and twitching and pulling the gigantic pants up and up and up.
‘Leave those for now, sweetheart,’ I say.
Around us it’s all understanding smiles and knowing looks, but we’re holding up the line. Behind us, a garden centre worker in green dungarees is itching to get at the bacon rolls.
‘What do we fancy today?’ April is nearly blind and hasn’t spoken a word in her entire life, but I ask anyway.
She remains engrossed in her underwear, lifting up her jumper now and pulling at her grey, fraying bra.
I snap. I grab her hands away and pull down the jumper.
‘Do you want a cup of tea or do you want to go home?’
There’s nothing wrong with her comprehension. We shuffle along the counter, picking up a raspberry slice and a pot of tea for one.
I feel guilty. On a good day I might see the situation from April’s point of view and dredge up some patience. Sometimes her knicker elastic cuts into her like barbed wire and none of her clothes feel right and all she wants to do is take them off and hit her head with her hand until it all makes sense. But this is not a good day. The sky is all grey probability. Possibility is blue.
April pulls on my arm as we wait to pay. A sign of anxiety. She is desperate to complete her money routine. Routines make her feel safe. Every Tuesday morning it’s always the same. I arrive at her unit and she waves her hands in my face, refusing to calm down until a nurse brings us money. I give her a pound to hold, the same pound I am now prising out of her hand as we reach the till.
‘Let go please, April,’ I say.
I add her hot, sticky pound to the rest of our allotted money and hand it all over to the cheery woman behind the till.
Transaction complete. April’s hand shoots out and smacks against me until I hand her some change. I want to scream. Scream until she takes her dirty, persistent hands off me.
I find a table for two, helping April into the seat with no one behind it. That’s important because at the exact moment she swallows her last mouthful of tea and cake, she’ll shove her chair back and stagger away from the table, pulling at me to take her home. We had a near miss with a toddler in a pushchair last month.
At least we’re accepted here. This garden centre welcomes the excluded. Mothers with young children, the disabled, the elderly, all of them have permission to be as noisy and crippled and senile as they like. It can look like the best or the worst of humanity, depending on the mood you’re in.
April’s hands stretch out for the tray, which I pull away from her. I cut the cake into quarters–otherwise she’d down it in one–and pour her a milky tea with two sugars.
I push the tea and cake over to April and guide her hands to the cup and plate. She begins to investigate the raspberry slice, squishing the pink fondue centre between her fingers and nervously dabbing it onto her tongue. Next she will start on the thick chocolate topping and shortbread base.
An elderly lady waves and smiles at us. A Tuesday morning regular. Every week she brings her dribbling husband in his wheelchair and feeds him tea out of a beaker. So much smiling, so little to smile about.
April is still picking. I can’t stand it.
‘Just get on with it please, April.’
A guy in baggy jeans and a grey hooded sweatshirt stands opposite us in the Kids Corner. He’s heating a baby bottle in the microwave. He knows I’m looking at him and treats me to a grin. Is he flirting? He knows how desirable he is–young, good looking and most importantly in possession of a child. A baby can make even the dullest man appealing.
He exaggerates the mime of testing the milk temperature, shaking his head and putting the bottle back in the microwave. He looks over again. Perhaps it’s not fun but pity his eyes are full of. Does he think he could give me the life I don’t have?
April waves her empty teacup in my face. I refill it.
The proud father swaggers away. April’s autopsy of the first piece of cake is complete so she crams the others down her throat as fast as she can, lubricating them with mouthfuls of tea. She coughs with her mouth open. The sight of the tea and crumb sludge makes my stomach heave. I want to reach over the table and force her revolting mouth shut.
‘Take your time, April, take your time.’ I keep my tone kind and patient.
Two middle-aged couples sitting to our left stare approvingly at our odd tableaux. I’m used to that. A young, compassionate girl helping the ‘special’ person. It’s an enticing illusion.
‘How does she do that, bless her?’ they might say.
I pretend. Just like everybody else. And when a stranger looks at me I remember the role I’m playing and how I’m supposed to be feeling and it helps me carry on. Just like the guy at the microwave, pretending he doesn’t lie awake at night, hating his child for the noise coming out of it. Or the old woman, pretending she’s never wanted to take her husband and his wheelchair to the top of a hill and simply let go.