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Short Story: "Julia" by Sheila Kinsella

Mother never waved me off on the school bus. Julia's Mum ran alongside the bus, blowing kisses as it rolled away. Mesmerised, I watched Julia turn her back to the window; how I longed to be on the receiving end of such love. I raised my hand and fluttered it at the window. When the teacher called our name, we had to stand up. Julia was petite, and upon hearing her name, got to her feet. 'Stand up, girl,' the teacher said. 'But I am standing, Miss,' Julia replied. A titter of nervous laughter rippled through the classroom. It was rare to experience small negatively; I was big and clumsy and craved to be tiny like Julia. Later, in the mayhem of being herded like sheep into pens to queue for buses, I lost her. Buses groaned their arrival, diesel engines spat fumes at us. The crowd surged; I was carried along in the crush. As if by a miracle, I reached for the pole inside the bus and hauled myself in; Julia sat on the lower deck, her satchel saved me a seat. As we got off the bus, Julia's Mum tooted the car horn. Julia cringed and ducked inside the bus shelter. ‘She’s just kind,’ I said.

Julia frowned and dragged her school bag behind her. 'Thank you, Mrs Blake,’ I said as I got out of the car. ‘Call me Rosemary,’ she replied. As I strolled down their drive towards my house over the road, the sweet fragrance of Jasmine reminded me of Granny. Tumbling white hydrangeas filled the flower beds, and fronds of Weeping Willow tickled the paving stones. When I lived with Granny, she taught me all the plant names, but she was gone. Over the street at my place, Dandelions sprouted through the cracks in the tiles, gravel scattered everywhere—an oil spill stained the drive, a memento of a car. I let myself in, flicked the tv on and changed out of my school uniform. I sprinkled cornflakes into a bowl but poured them back into the packet once I smelled the sour milk. A couple of stale biscuits rattled around the bottom of a tin; they’d have to do. The school timetable looked complicated, and I wondered how to get the supplies on the list. The quizmaster on the TV prattled on in the background, a reassuring presence. Later, the purr of the car engine and the yanking on of the handbrake woke me. ‘Still up?’ Mother said. An odour of stale alcohol and cigarettes wafted in off her clothes. ‘Tony, this is Charlotte,’ Mother waved her hand in my direction. ‘Er... Hi,’ Tony muttered. ‘Hello,’ I collected my things, went upstairs, and slid the bolt on my door across.

The next day, Julia invited me to tea, 'Mum will have someone else to fuss over,' she laughed. In Julia’s kitchen, I smelt the tantalising aroma of freshly baked cake. Pink roses decorated the table. A white long-haired creature glided through the cat flap. ‘Meet Casper,’ Julia’s Mum wiped her hands on a tea towel. ‘Can I get you a drink, Charlotte?’ Before I had time to reply, she said, 'We've orange, lemonade or cola. ‘I...’ ‘Or grapefruit juice and sparkling water.’ ‘Er... water’s fine, thank you,’ I stayed by the door. ‘Sparkling or still?’ 'Mum, stop fussing,' Julia said. 'Come on, Char, let's go to my room.' ‘I baked your favourite cay-yake,’ Rosemary sang the last word. I caught her gaze, 'I'd like a piece of cake.' Julia rolled her eyes and pouted. I shrugged my shoulders and followed her. Rosemary mouthed, ‘I’ll save it for you.’ I noticed her blue eyes set in pale skin and that raw yearning to be needed. 'Put your shoes on the step, Julia, I'll polish them,' Rosemary said. The following day Julia gave me a freezer bag stuffed with pens, pencils and a geometry set. She said her Mum said to give them to me because she’d bought too many.

Over time, tea at Julia’s became routine. My own Mother’s preoccupation with a stream of miscellaneous uncles meant that my lack of presence did not alarm her. Rosemary prepared meals from scratch and baked cakes and biscuits. Julia turned her nose up at such delicacies. My clothes started to feel tight, and my skin glowed from eating healthy, nutritious food. One day I called for Julia; she came out wearing her school skirt much shorter than allowed; she'd hiked the waistband over and over. She wore make-up and golden hoop earrings. 'You can’t go to school like that,' Rosemary pleaded, but Julia snapped the door shut. On the bus home, Julia sat with Greg, a popular, good-looking boy. The older girls, lined up on the back seat like Russian nesting dolls, glowered and threw screwed-up balls of sweet wrappers at her. ‘Greg seems nice,’ I said as we trudged home. ‘He’s cool,’ Julia’s eyes lit up, ‘we’re into the same music.’ ‘Awesome,’ I replied. Julia pulled a cigarette out of her pocket and cupped her hand to light it. ‘What are you doing?’ 'Calm down,' she exhaled a stream of smoke. ‘Someone will tell your Mum,’ I said, ‘put it out.’ ‘I don’t care,’ Julia laughed. 'Seriously? What's wrong with you?' I stopped and looked at her. 'You've got everything!'

‘What? Everything you haven’t?’ Julia stomped off. I turned to cross the road at Julia's house, but Rosemary called and invited me in. Julia leant against the kitchen wall and glared, her arms and legs crossed. ‘All good, girls?’ Rosemary’s cheerful voice made Julia grunt. ‘Fine,’ I lied. ‘I’ve made Chilli con Carne tonight,’ Rosemary said. ‘Mmmm... smells delicious,’ I replied. ‘Haven’t you got a home to go to?’ Julia snarled. ‘Julia! Don’t be rude!’ Rosemary set the table. Julia went through to the lounge; the glass door rattled in its frame. ‘Hormones,’ Rosemary sighed. 'I’d better go,’ I pushed the chair back. 'No, here,' Rosemary gave me a cheese grater, a block of cheddar and a bowl, ‘help make dinner.’ Later at home, I found a note on the table with ten quid: ‘Off to Brighton. Back Friday, Mum.’ The following day Julia was in better spirits. I told her I was home alone; she said not to worry because she was just across the street. She even held my bag while I popped into the shop.

After school, she shouted bye to Greg and caught me up. ‘I forgot to return a book. Tell Mum I'm at the library, I'll be late,' she said. ‘Ok, see you,’ I said. At Julia’s house, I told Rosemary. She opened the door wide, ‘come in.’ Casper sat on my knee at the kitchen table; I tickled his chin, and he rolled onto his back for tummy rubs. ‘Casper loves you,’ Rosemary put a glass of water in front of me. ‘How’s school?’ Rosemary stirred the sauce. ‘Maths is so hard,’ I sipped my drink. ‘I’m good at maths,’ Rosemary turned the heat down, wiped her hands and sat next to me. I showed her the textbook. 'Equations and formulae,' Rosemary read, 'ok, get a pen and paper, and we'll run through it together.' Rosemary made me feel safe. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions like I was in class. The time slipped away unnoticed while she explained the exercises. Suddenly she looked up, ‘Goodness, it’s almost dark. I’ll phone Julia and ask her how much longer she’ll be.’ The call went straight to voice mail.

‘She probably doesn’t want to disturb people in the library,’ Rosemary said, ‘she’s considerate like that.’ It was not an adjective that I would have used to describe my friend, but Mothers forgive by nature. Rosemary fretted and looked out of the window every five minutes. She took the pan off the heat. ‘I’d better go,’ my tummy rumbled. Casper let himself down, landing with a soft thud on the floor. 'Stay for dinner. There's plenty.' I felt in my rucksack for the house key; my hand came away empty. ‘I can’t find my key.’ ‘Empty your bag out,’ Rosemary moved the cutlery aside. I rummaged among the books, ‘it’s got to be here!’ ‘Let’s see if there’s an open window or a key under a plant pot?’ I stood next to Rosemary and stared out of the window. An orange, red sunset bled out into the pale sky on the horizon. 'It's beautiful, isn't it?' She didn't reply; her eyes squinted in concentration. She undid her pinny and smoothed her hair, ‘are your curtains always drawn?’ ‘Sorry?’ ‘Is your Mum home?' Rosemary placed her hands on my shoulders and stared directly into my eyes.

‘No to both,’ a wave of goose pimples crawled over my skin. ‘I’ll come with you,’ Rosemary took a hockey stick from the garage. ‘Should we call the police?’ I said, but she didn’t reply. Outside, the air smelled forest-like after rain. A bat darted back and forth in the tangerine light of the streetlamp. Rosemary's knuckles shone white from gripping the stick. Damp ferns combed our legs as we crept on the grass to avoid crunching gravel. Light from the crack in the curtains filtered over the lawn like a long streak of milk. Rosemary gestured to go around the rear. As soon as the garden shed loomed into view, I remembered the hidden key. I grappled around the dirt, my hand trailing in cobwebs until I found it. ‘Shhh...' Rosemary put her finger to her lips. 'Open the door, and I'll go in,' she murmured. The key was rusty but shifted the lock with a loud click. I pushed it ajar, and Rosemary charged in, armed with the hockey stick. ‘Who’s there?’ She growled. The kitchen was empty; a scream came from the living room. Julia leapt up from the sofa; her skirt dropped to the floor. Her bra straps hung like a horse's bridle down her arms; the triangular cups fell to reveal soft young breasts with blush nipples. She folded her arms to cover them. ‘Julia!’ Rosemary shrieked. ‘Mum!’

‘Shit!’ A bare-chested Greg shouted as he grappled with his fly, grabbed his shirt, and made for the door. 'Oh no, young man, you're not going anywhere!' Rosemary hooked his ankle with the end of the hockey stick; he tumbled to the floor with a thump. I began to laugh. ‘Char! What’s so funny?’ Julia pulled her top over her head. ‘I just realised that you want something I have,’ I smiled. ‘What’s that?’ Rosemary’s eyes bulged, her face red. ‘An empty house,’ I smirked. Julia snorted and pressed her lips into a thin line.

Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery.

Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.

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