Amanda carries Rachel’s froggy backpack. Not on her back, of course, it won’t fit like that, she’s much too big. She carries it in one hand, swinging it. It’s fun to swing.
Don’t let go, of course. Be careful. Rachel is right about that. Amanda’s phone and purse are in the backpack. She doesn’t want to lose her stuff.
She holds hands with Scott. Because that’s the rule. Everyone has to hold hands when they’re walking along the street. So no one gets lost.
“Maybe if Carly had been holding hands,” Rachel says, “She wouldn’t have gotten lost.”
The idea is absurd. But Amanda looks down at Rachel and nods. “Yeah,” she says. Because why poke holes in that idea, why be a spoilsport. Amanda doesn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, she’s far too happy to act like a grouch.
Of course she’s happy! She’s Manda Panda. Whenever Rachel calls her by that old nickname, Amanda loses her train of thought, her choo-choo train of cleverness, and her mind gets sticky and gloopy, like glue, like the glossy tackiness on her lips. Her lips are sealed, almost, by the special lippy.
Not quite. Amanda can still open her mouth. She proves it by singing when Rachel asks her to, by singing the whole of Baa Baa Black Sheep as they walk.
Walk where? For a moment Amanda can’t remember, her sticky brain makes her call out, louder than she needs to, like a drunk girl who has lost her volume control, “Where we goin’?”
Rachel laughs, walking confidently, almost jogging on her little legs. “What a forgetful panda you are!” she says brightly, and doesn’t she sound different from the cafe, doesn’t she sound older somehow, even though she’s still just a little girl in her sweet blue dress. I’ll sleep when I’m 5.
Amanda giggles at her own foolishness. She’s a forgetful panda! She shakes her head. What a silly girl. “I just forgot…” She frowns, and then asks again, “Where we goin’?”
“Scott?” Rachel says.
“Nursery,” says Scott.
Amanda nods. That’s right.
She frowns. “Why?”
Scott’s expression mirrors her own. “Because…” He rubs at his face and looks down at his sister. “Why’d you kiss me?”
Rachel giggles. “Because I love my big brother,” she says is the sweetest, almost sickly voice. They stop at a street corner, Rachel digging in her heels at the edge of the pavement. “Look right, look left, look right again!” she calls out. Amanda and Scott do as they’re told.
A red car drives past, followed by a lemon-coloured van.
Amanda bites her lip. Red lorry, yellow lorry. She almost says the tongue-twister out loud and then blushes, glad she didn’t do something so childish, and then blushes even harder when she realises that’s exactly what she just did.
“Thank you, Amanda,” Rachel says, and she sounds like a teacher, an indulgent, midget teacher. “Okay, hold hands, let’s cross.”
If someone looks closely, they can see that the 4 year old is leading the way.
They cross the street, Amanda blinking at the sunlight. Everything is brighter since the cafe, since the kiss. She considers the day filtered, one of the Instagram ones that brings out the greens and blues – lark or perpetua – and her new vision doesn’t alarm her one bit.
They hold hands. So they don’t get lost. Rachel’s hand feels small and cool, Scott’s is much bigger and warmer.
He looks confused. And that confuses Amanda a little (a lot?) because didn’t Rachel tell him to relax, to just let it happen? Amanda gives a little nod; that’s exactly what Rachel said. It certainly worked for Amanda; she let it go as soon as Rachel gave her that sticky kiss, pretty much, and the lights in the cafe got bright and the chair started to float…no, bounce beneath her, and Amanda felt a smile stretch her lips so wide that she worried it might hurt, until she understood she had nothing to worry about.
Yes, it’s easy not to worry. Besides, it makes sense to go to the nursery school. That’s where Scott had needed to go all along.
Not for himself, of course. Amanda produces a high-pitched giggles at that idea – big boys don’t go to nursery! But he needs to take Rachel because nursery is exactly where little girls go.
If that’s crystal clear to Rachel and Amanda, why is Scott so confused?
“Here we are,” Rachel announces, and they stop at a black gate.
“Open sesame,” says Rachel, pulling on Scott’s hand and he lifts the latch to open the gate.
“Why’d you kiss me?” he asks again after they walk up the path and reach the front door.
“Because I wuv-oo,” replies Rachel, fluttering her eyelashes and blowing him another kiss. She giggles and then says, “I mean, I really do love you, but I also need a buddy for her. You know how much easier it is in pairs.” She looks up and says, “Pity you didn’t bring a friend, but I get the feeling all your friends are online, aren’t they Manda-Panda.”
Amanda blinks in muddled recognition of her nick-name. It’s normally just Granny and Grandad who call her that, and not for ages. The only other people who know that name are on her phone.
“I feel weird,” says Scott in a sulky tone. He rings the doorbell. “I’m supposed to be in charge today, you said I could, and you’re…” and then his voice lowers to a whisper and he bends down and says something straight to Rachel’s ear that Amanda can’t pick up on.
Rachel shakes her head. “I was, but this…” She jerks a thumb at Amanda. “This changes things. I was in the lead on that before -”
The door opens and woman smiles at them. “Scott, Rachel. And you brought a friend.”
“Good morning, Miss Brown,” Rachel says in a sing-song voice, and Amanda is reminded of her primary school days in a heartbeat.
“Sorry we’re late,” says Scott. He rubs the his neck and gives her a rather helpless look.
“That’s all right,” Miss Brown says. “I appreciate you calling ahead.”
Amanda stares at Scott. Is this the girlfriend?
“What a sweet little bag,” Miss Brown says, and Amanda realises the woman is talking about the froggy backpack.
Amanda giggles at the mistake. “It’s not mine,” she says. “I’m just holding it.”
“Lovely,” Miss Brown replies. “Well Rachel, the others are expecting you in the play room. It’s almost story time!”
“Goodie,” says Rachel sweetly. She reaches for the backpack and Amanda hands it over.
“And would you like a story, dear?” Miss Brown asks.
Amanda blinks and giggles. She shakes her head. “No, I’m not…I’m just…” She looks at Scott but he looks just as confused.
For a moment the lipstick isn’t enough to make Amanda feel nice, the bounce beneath her feet reduces, and she just feels a blankness in her mind, a loss as to why she’s standing there on the doorstep of a nursery school. Can’t the woman see that Amanda’s a grown-up?
“Maybe you need a snack, sweetie,” Miss Brown says. “Do you want so juice and a biscuit?”
The woman is mad. She must be.
It’s funny, it’s hilarious, but it’s also more than a little insulting.
Amanda doesn’t feel angry, that emotion can’t quite make it past her sticky lips, but she does feel the need to correct the silly woman.
She holds up her hands and then gestures at herself. “I’m not a child,” she says finally. And somehow she’s the embarrassed one, for having to say it out loud.
Rachel looks at Amanda and laughs through her fingers. And how will this go, what’s the real joke? It’s still not anger, but a tingling sense of fear makes it through Amanda’s emotional firewall, and she’s ready to turn on her heels, to end this conversation however rudely.
She watches as Rachel girl gazes up at Miss Brown and says, “Amanda’s here to see her friend!” She puts her hands on her hips and smiles. “She’s a friend of Carly’s.”
Amanda’s eyes light up, it’s a revelation. Of course that’s why they’re here. She grins at Scott who looks relieved as well. They’re both so forgetful. It’s a good thing Rachel remembered. Amanda looks fondly at her; what a clever little girl. Amanda had almost forgotten all about Carly.
To be honest, the only person who doesn’t look delighted is Miss Brown.
There’s a funny poster on the wall, but this isn’t the play room. It’s Miss Brown’s office, where they’ve been sent to wait for Carly.
Carly must work here, like Miss Brown, she must be a helper.
Nursery assistant. It’s a very different job to the one Carly had in Dunstable. Didn’t she work at the meat processing plant?
Amanda sits cross-legged in front of the poster so she can look at it, so she can really stare at it. A funny design, that makes her feel silly and safe at the same time. It’s like the badge the nursery assistant called Jessie had on her sweatshirt, when she raced into the office without knocking, her face all flushed, and took the froggy backpack that has Amanda’s phone.
Amanda would wonder how all her Instagram cats were getting on, if she wasn’t so focused on the poster. The swirling, happy poster. She would invite Scott to look at it, she’s sure he’d like it as well, but there’s no time to glance at him, and no sense at all in saying the words to bring him over. She should just sit on her bottom and gaze at the swirly colours.
But she can hear him, talking with Rachel in a funny whisper, all quick and hushed. Do they have secrets? Are they talking about her?
Again, it doesn’t matter. Not now she’s got the poster.
The door opens behind her, and now there’s Jessie’s voice again, just as hushed as the others, and then she’s gone.
“Hey,” Scott says
His voice is back to normal, no more secret-whispering, but Rachel doesn’t turn her head. She’s got her gazing to do. She reaches out, ready to trace the colours with emphatic fingers.
“Manda-panda,” Scott says.
It’s enough to get Amanda’s attention.
She turns her head. Scott had better be quick, Amanda won’t turn away from the poster for more than a second, so unless Scott is planning to set off fireworks, she’d-
Amanda gasps like a child opening a perfect birthday present. Her eyes wide, her face filled with astonished delight. How did Scott know, how did he pick out the perfect, just the perfect thing? And look at the smile on his face! He gets it, he knows just how lovely the ball is, no wonder he’s holding it. But he’ll have to share.
“You want it?” Rachel says, standing by the desk, her voice neutral. She doesn’t have to entice, to lure, because the object between his hands will do all the work.
Amanda giggles and gets to her feet, takes three racing steps and grabs the ball, making Scott laugh with delight.
“Yeah,” Rachel says, “I could tell by the poster that we’re not going to have any trouble with you, sweetie.”
Amanda doesn’t answer. She just clutches the ball to herself, and it’s better than anything, any doll or puppy or even a person, it’s utterly perfect.
A magic ball, a ball just like the poster but even better, because this one can be clutched and pressed to her chest, and it won’t burst, it won’t have any nasty surprises.
“You have to look at it,” Scott says, his voice slurring a little, and Amanda nods. Of course she’ll look at it and she gazes as she did at the poster, pressing the ball against her body, pressing hard and giggling, and all she can feel is the plastic and all she can see is the swirling colours.
Magic, a magic ball.
“Passit back,” says Scott in his drunk voice and Amanda smiles at him. They’re friends, good friends, playing with their ball.
‘You have to share,” Rachel reminds her, and her voice sounds faraway but she’s right there, by the desk, watching them play.
“I know,” Amanda replies. And her voice sounds funny as well. I-doh.
She throws the ball two-handed, clumsy but it makes its way back to Scott, bouncing on the floor before it’s back in his hands.
Hands. Fingers. Amanda gazes at her own. It’s like they remember the ball and she rubs her fingers together. They’re tacky, something on them, and Amanda wonders for a moment before understanding. It’s like the lipstick. And if she still had the coordination, she’d click her fingers in recognition.
Rachel’s lippy, the poster, the ball, they’re all the same.
Except, not quite the same.
Her toes wriggle inside her shoes. She looks down and knows, yes, from Scott, from his own progress, that she can kick off those silly shoes, those shoes that don’t come close to fitting. And Amanda would take the time to wonder about that, to consider how it was possible she could’ve worn them comfortably for so long, only to find they were comically large now.
She’d think carefully about that, if her head wasn’t filled with sticky pink lipstick and if the ball didn’t come bouncing back to her.
All she can do now is grab at it, welcome it back, clutch it to her shirt, the too-big shirt, and she smiles at it lovingly like favourite doll, she cradles and clutches, her magic ball, and she watches with vision that seems fuzzy at the edges, blinking doesn’t clear it, she watches as Rachel walks in front of Scott and says something.
Scott reaches for the back of Rachel’s dress, and he must be fumbling, it takes forever, and Rachel sighs impatiently. “How about right now, Scott? Right now would be perfect.”
That’s when Amanda notices that Rachel isn’t wearing shoes either. Are Rachel’s shoes too big as well? Amanda thinks of the possibilities, science fiction hysteria like virus, epidemic, before those words seem to flicker from her mind and she’s left noting without any explanation that Rachel has taken off her shoes and socks and is now pulling at her hair ties as she continues to complain to Scott.
There’s a zipping sound. “Got it!” Scott exclaims. Goddit! He claps his hands and steps away.
Amanda watches, clutching her ball as Rachel pulls the dress down and steps out of it, just as she seems to grow, and yes, it’s best that she’s not wearing anything, best that she’s naked, because otherwise she’d tear that pretty dress, a pink-skinned Hulk, as she gets taller, fuller, and when she shakes her head, her hair grows like magic, like a shampoo advert that’s delightful and scary at the same time.
What about Scott? He looks at his sister with wide eyes and then he looks at himself, he’s going the other way, shrinking, looking increasingly childish, and then his legs fold and he’s sitting down, sitting on his bottom, and Amanda agrees, that’s the best course of action and so she sits opposite her friend.
Look at Rachel. What a big girl she is, and how pleased she looks, how relieved, as if she’d been in the most cramped of positions, the longest of car rides. She stretches now, she’s all arms and legs, turning her head from side to side, and she looks down at herself, her breasts and stomach, and yes, how pleased she looks, how proud.
Amanda watches, her ball not forgotten, still squeezed against her body, but the ball is bigger now, she holds it with her arms, reaching around it, and then her hands aren’t touching, the ball’s too big, and she’s anxious for a moment she thinks of a phrase her mother used to use, Too much of a good thing, then, and she rolls the ball away, pushes it back towards Scott.
The boy, the little boy, his football shirt looks more like a blue dress, he looks ripe for nursery school, he’ll fit right in here, he grins as the ball heads his way, he reaches it with clumsy hands, and welcomes the ball with his arms and legs, wrapping himself around it, rolling onto his back and giggling.
And what’s so wrong with that? Amanda looks down at herself, and what might be daunting, what could terrify her, is just a swamp of clothing and her chubby hands. She touches her face with her sticky, tacky fingers, her round face and the smoothest, softest skin, and she giggles too, and the office is filled with children’s laughter.
“Well,” Rachel announces, her voice a world away from her chipmunk tone of a few seconds before. “That’s much better.”
“I played with the ball,” Scott tells her proudly. I pwayed wiv da bah.
“You certainly did,” Rachel says, and she pats him fondly on the head. “Always better with two.”
She reaches for the bag Jessie had brought in and pulls out a neatly folded set of clothes. “Ah,” she says, “School uniform on a Bank Holiday, what a nuisance.” But she looks pleased enough, as far as Amanda can see, as she pulls on her knickers and knee socks, and then she stands up and puts on her bra. She hums as she gets dressed, a melody that Amanda can’t name and then she smiles as she places it; a nursery rhyme, just like back at the cafe, a lifetime ago.
Rachel stands over the giggling children. She could be a giant, will she squash them under her feet? Not a chance, she smiles benevolently down at them.
“Perfect job, both of you,” she says brightly as she buttons her shirt and pulls on her skirt. The last items are her school blazer and shoes, and then she brushes her hair, and it seems luxurious, as if she’s not had the liberty to do any of this for a long time. She finds a couple of hair ties, and then squeezes them in her first. “You know what?” she tells the children. “Think I’ll give pigtails a rest for a while.”
She looks at Amanda. “But I think you’ll look darling in them,” she says, and after poking the ball away with the toe of her shoe, she crouches down and brushes the little girl’s hair and arranges it into two tidy bunches.
“What a cutie-pie, now everyone can see your pretty face,” she says sweetly, earning a muddled but happy enough smile in return. “Better get you dressed, honey. I don’t think you’re fit for public viewing yet.”
Amanda replies immediately, “Whass pubbick voo-win’?”
Rachel gives her an indulgent pat. “Means you’re all naked,” she says smoothly, lifting Amanda out of her clothes.
The girl squeals delightedly at the new game, kicking her legs. The cool air feels perfect on her skin, and there’s no sense of embarrassment in her mind as Scott points and laughs. “Naked!” he crows.
Rachel looks back at him. “You’re no better,” and she nods when Scott waves the sleeves of his shirt-turned dress for effect. “Just a pair of cheeky monkeys, you’d probably run bare-bottomed into the play room if I let you.”
The idea is hilarious to the two children and the shriek in agreement. That’s exactly what they’d do.
Amanda is wearing the dress from before. It doesn’t belong to her. It’s something borrowed, something blue. Didn’t Rachel wear this dress?
She runs her fingers along the lettering on the front. She needs helping reading words. She needs a grown-up. She looks pretty, pretty as a picture in her dress and socks and shoes, and she’s got briefs decorated with coloured stars, something she confirms by lifting her skirt for a moment, reassured that at least this memory can be trusted. She touches the pattern on her knickers for a moment; pretty stars. Such a pretty girl. She knows that’s true, Rachel said so.
Of course, Rachel is a liar. Or at least, there’s something very wrong with her. Because there are two Rachels, little and big, both seem real but one of them must be fake. Perhaps both.
Scott is wearing a striped T-shirt and denim shorts. Rachel had brushed his hair too, no pigtails of course (Amanda snorts a brief laugh at that idea) and wiped his mouth and nose with a Kleenex. She’d dabbed at them both like a proud mother, before taking them to the play room.
Because they were here for a reason, right? To see Carly.
That was the whole point of today, but now that Amanda’s done it, she’d doesn’t feel anything close to the sense of closure she was anticipating when she got on the train at Luton.
Because Carly is like Rachel used to be, Carly is little. She looks around 3 years old, one child in a gaggle singing about a black sheep.
Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full
At least Jessie gets the words right. Who was it that came up with black sleep? Amanda shakes her head, the memory is as sticky as the ball she’d been playing with and for a moment she wants the ball back, she wants to clutch and grab and squeeze, because she’d felt so much better in the office.
One for the master, one for the dame
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane
Nursery rhymes at nursery school – why should that seem wrong to Amanda? But it is, it’s all wrong, which reminds Amanda that she’s all wrong too. Just as wrong as Scott reduced to his new size, although he doesn’t look worried. He squirms in Rachel’s hold but only because he wants to join the others, he wants to sing.
Amanda steps from one foot to another.
“Do you need the toilet, Manda?”
None of this is right.
Except for her dress (she looks darling).
Amanda picks at her lips. Pick-pick-pick.
“Don’t do that,” Rachel says. “Silly panda.”
A smile tugs at Amanda’s mouth and then she frowns. “Not a panda.” She points at the playing children. “Not Carly.”
Rachel crouches and puts her arm around Amanda’s shoulders. “It definitely is.” She rubs Amanda’s back while she keeps hold of Scott’s hand. “Let’s go say hello.”
Amanda shrinks away but there’s no backwards room, Rachel – big Rachel, teenage Rachel – is right there, so Amanda goes down instead, down to sitting on her bottom. There, she’ll stay right here, sitting on the floor, and Amanda wonders if maybe kicking her feet might be helpful as well. How about screaming the place down? Yes, if she made enough noise, the walls would crumble, the ceiling could collapse, until they were left with nothing but rubble, matching Amanda’s mind.
Because how can she be so small? And how can Carly?
That’s not her friend, that’s not the girl who stayed in her flat. The one who got sick, who cried out, whose friend shouted her real name, his voice laced with anxiety, before shadows arrived and took her away, leaving nothing but gloves and a calendar.
Between songs, the assistant, Jessie, waves at them.
“Hello you two!” she calls, as if they’re old friends, which they’re definitely not. Probably.
Rachel pulls Amanda’s hand from her lips.
Amanda glances at the little girl, the girl Rachel insists is Carly, wearing a T-shirt with Tinkerbell on it.
She thinks back to before the bouncy ball (amazing, that there was a time before that), all the way back to Miss Brown’s pinched expression when Rachel mentioned Carly’s name.
Amanda is a friend of Carly’s. They knew each other, but like this?
Carly looks perfectly happy, she looks not-confused. Maybe if Amanda spends some quality time with Jessie, she’ll end up not-confused as well.
“Slight change of plan,” Jessie says, Jessie who’s may or may not be old friends but at least has always been big, not like Rachel, who was little but is now really big.
Rachel says, “It’s under control.”
Jessie pulls a mobile phone from her pocket. “Ran a background check on this one, and she’s fine.”
“Thing is, she has a crazy amount of followers on social media.”
Rachel says, “Hold onto squirmy pants for a second.”
Jessie grins and picks up Scott, cuddling him and kissing his face. “Are you a wriggly worm?”
Scott grins back and says, “I wanna song!”
“We’re all done with our songs,” says Jessie. “Would you like to draw with the crayons or paint with the brushes?”
Scott hesitates, torn between the two options.
“So what’s a crazy amount?” Rachel checks the phone and murmurs, “Wowzers.”
Amanda pouts and reaches up for her phone. Rachel holds it out of reach. “You want it? Need to phone a friend?”
“Kitties,” Amanda says. She likes to look at the pictures. It’s her phone, she should be the one to play with it.
Rachel taps from Amanda’s profile back to the feed and hands the phone to Amanda so the girl can tap at the screen with her chubby fingers.
Tap-tap, make the heart go red.
Rachel asks Jessie, “So what are you saying?”
“She can’t just disappear and if they want to find her, they know just where to look. Should I get Miss Brown?” It sounds like that’s exactly what she’s about to do.
“No!” says Rachel sharply and Amanda looks up from her phone as Scott looks at them in alarm.
Rachel smiles at him. “It’s okay, I know just what to do,” she says sweetly. And then to Jessie, “Fine, she’s not staying, but we can’t just let her go.” She strokes the back of Amanda’s head. I’m going to do a little cleaning.”
Amanda looks up from her kitties, and the question sits on her tongue, ready to emerge, Whatha hath tag?
And then she remembers.
There’s no bouncy ball in her head this time, just a solid rock in the pit of her stomach. Because she remembers enough to understand that she’s in #BigTrouble.
“Do you need Scott for this?”
Rachel smiles at her brother. “Probably not,” she says softly. “But it’s fun to baby him now and again.”
Jessie puts the boy back down and Rachel plucks the phone from Amanda’s hands and returns it to Jessie.
Amanda’s hands tighten into fists. “Mine,” she squeaks, suddenly furious, all-at-once ready to assert herself.
But it’s as if Rachel doesn’t even notice. “”Lucky girl,” says Rachel cheerfully. She taps Amanda on the nose. “Saved by a hashtag.”
Amanda and Scott sit on the kitchen counter. They can swing their legs, heels hitting the lower cupboard. But that would probably be naughty.
Rachel holds up two cups. “Cinderella or Elsa?”
Amanda puts a finger to her mouth and then decides, pointing straight-armed at the blue and purple cup, as if it matters (and Amanda knows that it does, just a little bit. Choice is empowering, it makes her feel as if she’s in control).
“Elsa it is.”
Amanda smiles with satisfaction, and as Rachel fills the cup with water, she says, “I wanna store.”
Rachel turns and rolls her eyes. “Seriously?”
Amanda looks at her with her big blue eyes. “Peez.”
“Fine.” Rachel reaches into the cupboard above the sink to secure a plastic straw.
Better, Amanda thinks. Just need some time. She reaches for her lips before she stops herself. Don’t pick, you’re not a stupid toddler, not really.
She glances at Scott. He seems quite content with what his sister has done to them both, maybe this is every day, but Amanda wants her phone back, she wants her life.
So when she gets the cup, she sips, as if it were expensive wine, delicate, drawing it out, and when Rachel sees her taking her time, perhaps she’ll get angry, but instead she just turns away as if there’s something much more interesting on the other side of the kitchen.
And then she turns around and she has something in her hand.
“I know you’re feeling a bit confused,” Rachel says smoothly. “But what happened with the ball, that’s still there, in your head. We just needed one more little tap and you’d be a little girl again.” She smiles, showing perfect white teeth. “You were so good after I kissed you, and so easy with the ball, you’re a natural.”
She takes the lipstick from its tube and starts to apply it to her lips. She doesn’t need help from Amanda this time, she’s a big girl, and Amanda watches the teenager apply the lippy in a funny way. Something…what’s the word?
Sultry, Amanda thinks, sipping her water. She’s being a tease.
Rachel puts the tube back in her pocket and says, “Give us a kiss, sweetie.”
Amanda watches with frozen horror as Rachel leans in, and she thinks fleetingly of the most childish solution.
Drown the witch. Amanda throws the water.
Rachel flinches. She gasps. But her face is dry.
It might have worked if Amanda had kept hold of her Elsa cup, but instead it’s the whole thing that flies, bouncing off Rachel’s chest, and the water is mostly left to the floor.
Rachel gives the girl a hurt expression, and Amanda knows that it is staged, it is pure mockery.
“Don’t you want my kisses, Manda-Panda?” she asks, pouting with her sticky pink lips.
Amanda shakes her head, her vocabulary and logical thoughts falling like skittles at the mention of her nick-name, and watches as Rachel shrugs and kisses Scott instead, and the little boy, the ex-teenager, laughs and says “Yuck!” but within moments there’s delight in his eyes,
She shouldn’t have looked. She shouldn’t have taken her eye off the ball (the sticky ball), Rachel leans puts her hands on either side of Amanda’s face and kisses her on the lips.
Amanda doesn’t giggle. “Don’t want it!” she cries.
Rachel stands back, hands on her hips, and she’s ready to defend herself, ready to explain her actions.
But then she looks confused herself, her confidence sagging and, Amanda has time to wonder if the lipstick works in reverse before Rachel puts a finger to her lips and says, hesitantly, “Baa baa black…sleep?”
Scott laughs in appreciation. “Sheeps!” he shouts.
“Oh,” Rachel says, her mouth a perfect circle. She looks at Amanda. “Is that right, Manda-Panda?”
Amanda is ready to tell her that it doesn’t matter, that it’s just a stupid song, when she feels a squeeze and looks down to find that Scott is holding her hand, and it feels like the daily walk to primary school assembly, boy-girl, boy-girl, a nice straight line, no dawdling.
Amanda she smacks her lips together and she closes her eyes, just long enough to remember the poster in the office, and to remember the ball she held so tightly against her chest and when she opens her eyes again, the lights in the kitchen seem brighter.
“Is it black sheep?” Rachel asks.
Amanda feels a docile smile tug at her lips, her sticky lips, and isn’t Rachel pretty, like a princess, such shiny hair and clear skin.
Amanda nods her agreement with a head that feels as though it’s a helium balloon attached to her neck with a string.
Rachel smiles at both of them. “And what about…” She pauses, and it’s obvious she has their rapt attention, and she says in that same, hesitant way, “Twinkle twinkle little star…uppa-cuppa star so high?”
Both children squeal with laughter. Silly Rachel, she’s got it wrong again. Scott and Amanda look at each other and their words jumble in the race to correct Rachel’s mistake.
And Amanda watches as Scott’s expression softens, his eyes become glassy and he’s left gazing at Rachel, pretty Rachel, and there’s a little boy sitting on the counter who looks as if he’s playing with his big sister’s make-up.
“Row row row your boat, gently down the…street?” Rachel tilts her head comically and Amanda pats her legs with her palms in appreciation.
Stream! her mind says. Not-street. And she knows something else, she knows very well that whatever happens to Scott will happen to her, and she frowns with irritation, she doesn’t want to look so silly, even if Scott does look happy, even if he…
“Happy time,” Rachel says softly, and Amanda looks at the teenager’s smiling face a moment before her vision blurs and the ecstasy arrives, before she feels the tickling, warm wetness soak her knickers and she puts a puzzled hand on her skirt before she doesn’t worry about it anymore, she doesn’t worry about anything, she just lazily smacks her lips together and she lets Rachel take her and put her on the floor, but of the silly children sitting next to each other, leaning on each other, sharing a puddle, both with the same vapid, blissful expressions as their minds fill with rainbows and they make the most infantile of messes and gurgling noises.
“That’s right,” Rachel says. “Gonna get you all nice and clean.”
What word did Rachel use before? Cleaning. Yes, that’s right, that’s perfect, as Amanda’s mind sits pristine and sparkling, her eyes sleepy and her ears open, ready for information, prepared to soak in the truth of her day and her future.
“Now,” Rachel says right on cue, gently, brightly, like a mother preparing to tell her children a story, like the best of big sisters. “Once there was a pretty little girl called Amanda, but her friends called her Manda-Panda.”
Amanda’s mouth is open too, just a little, just enough, slack-jawed, she looks dazed but she’s the opposite of confused. Rachel’s words are perfectly clear and they are accepted without doubt or question in Amanda’s mind, and it’s as if her brain is sticky, as tacky as the bouncy ball and her own lips, because Rachel’s words are caught, held tightly, and Amanda will surely never forget them.
Parkdale train station
Everyone is waving. Such sweet children!
Rachel’s practically a grown-up of course, but not quite. Not like Amanda, who sometimes feels every minute of her thirty two years.
But not today; her trip felt like a holiday from all that, playing with little Scott and his big sister.
And maybe not when she gets home, either. Doesn’t her new outfit make her feel younger, sweeter? The blue dungarees with the panda on the front. She touches her pigtails with unselfconscious fingers.
Her new hairstyle takes years off her, Rachel’s right about that. And she’s right not to worry about Carly anymore, either.
She’s solved the mystery of what happened to Carly. The child is back home where she belongs, everything is fine. In fact, she can forget her. Amanda’s too old to be friends with such a little girl. She can forget all about Carly, who’s just fine, who’s happy as a lark.
Of course, she probably won’t forget about Scott and Rachel in a hurry.
Amanda smiles at the memory of Scott in the cafe, his face and hands sticky from his Belgian bun.
And Rachel being such a good big sister.
Amanda waves from her seat, watches Scott and Rachel get smaller as the train pulls away.
She watches Rachel hold her brother in her arms and Amanda grins as Rachel kisses Scott’s cheek. Te little boy wipes at his face but he’s laughing.
What did Rachel say on the way to the train station? Oh yes, she called Scott her best little helper.
“What a good team we are,” Rachel had said, pushing her brother in his buggy. “I think you deserve a treat!”
Ice-cream, Amanda had thought, walking alongside them. Or a trip to the toy shop for a fun new game. She has her own plan, once her train has returned to Luton. She can stop off at Marks and Spencer, pick up those Hello Kitty pyjamas she’d seen a few weeks ago. She had thought about buying them for her niece, but really, why can’t she have them herself?
“Sings!” Scott had yelled in his high-pitched voice.
Amanda had glanced at him and his sister. A song for a treat? A Baa baa black sheep?
Rachel had nodded. “Swings and slides, it’s a deal. Once we drop Manda off at the train station, we’ll go to the park.”
Scott had kicked his legs in enthusiastic agreement. “Sings ‘n’ sides atta park!”
Amanda smiles at the memory, pulls the phone from her froggy backpack, a gift from Rachel.
She taps the Instagram icon and checks the latest action. There’s ProfessorPouncey, as wild as ever. There’s Melon, looking so much better after her operation.
Amanda loves cats. She loves kitties. Kitties and panda bears. She puts her phone down long enough to watch the passing houses and then trees and fields. It doesn’t take long for the town to be replaced by countryside.
The train stops and starts in Leagrave.
She shows her return ticket to the Thameslink inspector.
She smiles her blue-eyed smile at him, the one that tells people she’s harmless, she’s innocent, without a single solitary secret, and then looks out the window. Fields and trees, fields and trees.
Hello cows, hello sheeps.
A slight pressure on her bladder. She looks around to see if the toilet is occupied. The light is lit for engaged, meaning most people would have to sit and wait.
Amanda grins, and because she’s just a little naughty but also because she’s a little adorable, even at 32, she takes advantage of the thick training pants Rachel dressed her in. She smiles sweetly at the wet warmth, before it is wicked away by the thickness, and in a few seconds it’s barely noticeable.
Amanda stifles a giggle. What a silly, adorable girl. Rachel was right about that. And it’s just their secret; she’ll share about her pigtails, but she won’t share about her special underwear.
Besides, most of her day was just a dream, anyway, a sleepy dream only to find herself being woken up gently by Rachel in her new clothes.
She squeezes her thighs together and gives a demure smile at the couple sitting opposite. They have no idea that Amanda can be big and little at the same time.
She’ll start to look seriously for a new home tomorrow. Put her Dunstable properties up for sale.
Tomorrow she’ll clean up the downstairs flat. There’s not much to do; just a mop, sweep, polish. The calendar can go in the recycling bin, she’ll chuck the rubber gloves.
Time to make a move.
Heck, maybe she’ll move to Parkdale.
She shakes her head. What did Rachel say, the last thing to stick in her head like glue? Parkdale’s not for every day, it’s for holidays, like Disneyland. That’s how you keep it sweet.
And she doesn’t need Carly, remember. She can forget all about little Carly, happy as a lark.
Besides, Amanda already has plenty of friends.
She reaches into backpack and retrieves her phone.
Selfie-time. What does she have to hide? Nothing. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
She clicks the camera and looks at herself on screen.
Such perky pigtails, she grins at her reflection and takes the picture.
She crops the photo so it includes the top of her new shirt. It’s darling, Rachel had told her.
Best time in Parkdale with new friends, and a new look! You like? #bunches #DayTrip
The likes tick in and Amanda allows herself a soft smile of satisfaction.