Rail is breaking a promise. The feeling creates an unpleasant fluttery sensation in her stomach.
She rationalises her guilt, questions the idea of a ‘promise.’ She didn’t say the word, did she? No, she just answered a question.
“You girls okay in here, doing your homework?”
“Yes, Mum,” Rachel had answered, sitting beside Rail on the bed.
Rail had nodded, so in actual fact she hadn’t said anything.
So it wasn’t really like breaking a promise, not like the iPhone X promise. Don’t get into any trouble.
The fluttery feeling subsides, and yet she’s still not entirely happy. She knows a lie isn’t just what you say, it’s what you do.
And they’re definitely not doing their homework.
Rachel and Rail lie next to each other on the bed, not doing their homework, doing anything but their spelling words. The Year Four book lies unopened on Rachel’s desk.
Rail can imagine the words – easy ones like summer, fever, tour, and more difficult ones like reunion, predict, peculiar.
She balances the anxiety of not studying the words and knowing tomorrow’s quiz will be more challenging, and the delight of lying beside her new best friend.
Friendship wins, which as Rail knows very well, is the lesson of a certain TV show about ponies.
“Why did you call your Mum by her name?” asks Rail lazily, holding her friend’s hand.
She feels the movement as Rachel shakes her head. “I didn’t.”
“Before.” The memory is fuzzy but nagging. Rail’s eyes had been closed, she had felt Rachel’s mother dressing her, and heard Rachel groan as if she was in pain and say, I hate doing that awake and Rachel’s mother had said, I can put you to sleep if you like, and Rachel had said in a funny voice, Cecelia, darling, no one’s putting me to sleep.
Rachel squeezes her hand. “I can’t remember, Rail. I must have been playing at something.”
Rail lets the question go, even as the idea continues to nag her (because it’s important, it’s an important fact, what time was it when the Titanic hit the iceberg, and what are the names of Santa’s reindeers?) and lifts her head to look down at the two matching school uniforms.
There, that’s better, some visual certainty. Two grey pinafore dresses, two white polo shirts, and of course, two pairs of frilly ankle socks. She wriggles her toes and tells Rachel to do the same, and there are four sets of wriggling toes, and one pair of giggling eight year old girls.
That’s much better. It even takes away some of Rail’s confusion over her hair, which is much too long and not even the right colour. Or rather, it’s her original colour, reddish-blond, and Rail puts her fingers to her face, checking for freckles as if you can tell just by touching, like the bumps read by blind people.
“Close your eyes,” says Rail.
“Okay,” Rachel replies.
“Are they closed?”
“What do you see?”
“Nothing.” Rachel pauses and then says, “Well, it’s kind of red, actually, Rail.”
Rail smiles. She can see the red as well, almost orange, which reminds her of her hair and then reminds her of how Cecelia, Rachel’s mum, had brushed her hair and tied it into pigtails just like Rachel’s.
They see the same colours with their eyes closed. They have the same exact clothes on.
Rail grins. They really are besties.
Best friends lying on Rachel’s bed with the Princess Sofia duvet.
“I’m too old for it, really,” Rachel had said. “I haven’t liked her in ages. Mum says she’ll get me a new one for Christmas and I can choose.”
‘Mum’. Not ‘Cecelia’. Rail must have imagined it.
“I’m starving,” Rachel says abruptly. “Like if we were on a desert island and there was no food except for coconuts and I really hate coconuts.”
Rail nods enthusiastically. “I hate coconuts too!”
Rachel gets up onto her feet, balancing on the bed, legs apart like she’s surfing, and the image makes Rail think of Moana and the funny big man, what was his name? He has lovely wavy hair and all those tattoos, and once Rail had told her mummy…her mum that she wanted a tattoo and her mother had put her face in her hands as if it was the end of the world.
“Come on,” Rachel says, and she crouches to pull on Rail’s hand, and Rail gets to her feet so that they’re both surfing. No, not surfing, they’re on the desert island, the place with all the yucky coconuts.
They’re starving hungry.
Rachel appeals to imaginary boats. “We’re over here! Save us!” She waves both her hands in the air, cross and un-crossing her arms.
Rail waves to them as well and then points up at the ceiling. “There’s a plane, look!”
For a moment, she’s afraid that Rachel will laugh at her. Do planes fly over desert islands? Is it okay to pretend that?
Rachel looks up and gasps. “You’re right! And look, a helicopter!” She jumps on the bed and yells, “Help! Help! We’re down here!”
Rail giggles and joins in the jumping and yelling. “We’re starving hungry!”
“Bring us pizza and hot dogs!” Rachel cries, making Rail shriek with laughter.
“And cake!” adds Rail, when she recovers her breath.
“But no Bounty bars,” Rachel says, with an expression that looks as though she’s sucking on a lemon.
“Bleh!” Rail says.
“Look,” Rachel says, tugging on Rail’s arm. “The boat sees us, the captain, he’s waving back!”
Rail looks and waves urgently, grinning and begging the boat to come and save them.
“We’re only little girls!” says Rachel. She cups her hand to her ear, frowns and says to Rail, “He wants to know how hold we are.”
Rail shouts towards the bedroom wall, “We’re eight!
“And we’re starving hungry!” adds Rachel.
The bedroom door opens and Cecelia stands in the door-way, holding the baby in her arms.
Both girls look at the woman, frozen, wondering how this looks.
How’s the homework going? Cecelia might say, eyebrow raised, and they’ll be in trouble.
Cecelia jiggles the baby in her arms and says, “Captain Scott is happy to announce that all little girls have been saved and that their dinner is ready.”
Rachel and Rail both giggle, collapsing together on the bed before hugging and then scrambling off the bed, running to hug Cecelia and Scott, thanking the captain for saving them.
For Rachel, this looks natural, but Rail doesn’t mind cuddling the baby either. Babies are cute, aren’t they? Sometimes they’re messy and smell yucky but when she kisses Scott’s chubby cheek, all she smells is the light perfume of baby powder.
“Okay, ladies,” Cecelia says, “Wash your hands and come downstairs.”
The girls do as they’re told, Rachel revealing to Rail that the hand soap is island jellyfish guts and they have to rinse it all off so they’re not left with poison hands.
“Smells like strawberries,” Rail replies, but it sustains the excitement of the bed game, and they run down the stairs, holding hands, a blur of frilly ankle socks, and aren’t they lucky not to be the silly baby who greets them when they enter the kitchen, sitting in his highchair and smacking the plastic tray with his palms.
Babies are so silly, Rail decides. They’re not bad, and she even smiles at Scott when she sits down. No, babies aren’t bad, they’re just silly and can’t talk yet even though they seem to think they can.
Scott certainly does, babbling at Rachel when she kisses his fingers.
“We are desert island survivors,” announces Rachel to her baby brother grandly. “Thank you for saving us and I hope there’s enough dinner for all of us.”
“Because we’re starving hungry!” Rail adds helpfully.
“Hands squeaky clean?” Cecelia asks.
Both girls nod, and Rachel holds up her fingers for inspection. “Smell?”
“No thank you,” Cecelia says.
“We smell like strawberries,” says Rail and then she giggles.
“Yes,” Cecelia says brightly, “just like Scott’s bubble bath.” She looks thoughtful for a moment and then asks Rail, “Would you like to have a bath after dinner, honey?”
Rail frowns and says, “Um…”
“Mum,” says Rachel, “Rail’s not a baby.”
Cecelia holds up her hands and says, “I know, darling, but eight years old isn’t too old to have a bath.”She gives Rachel a look and says, “You still take baths, messy girl.”
Rachel sniffs. “Not baby baths.”
“I think I had a bath last night,” Rail says, trying to avoid a bath with a baby. “But thank you.”
“Fine,” Cecelia says. She smiles at Scott and tousles the fine hair on his head. “We’ll just have one strawberry-baby tonight, then, won’t we honey.”
Rachel laughs. “If we get too starving,” she says, staring at her hands, “Maybe we’ll eat our own strawberry fingers!”
This is enough to make Rail shriek with laughter and Scott babble enthusiastically until the kitchen is filled with noise.
“Oh-kay!” Cecelia says, clapping her hands together. All three children go quiet, even the baby, and Cecelia smiles. “That’s better.” She looks at Rachel. “Have you told Rail about our dinner rules?”
Rachel shakes her head. “I forgot.”
Cecelia puts plates on the table. “Well you can tell her now.”
Rachel points at the plastic placemat in front of Rail, who only now notices that it’s decorated with Disney princesses. “We have to use our princess manners at dinner-time,” she says.
“You got Princess Sofia,” says Rail, pointing at Rachel’s mat. “And look!” she points at Rachel’s plastic cup. “That’s Princess Sofia too! Just like your bed!”
Rachel frowns and says, “Mum, can I have a different mat, this one’s for babies.”
Cecelia puts a slice of buttered toast on Rail’s plate followed by a spoonful of spaghetti hoops. “Guests are served first,” Cecelia says in an official voice, and then she smiles at Rail. “You don’t have to eat it all, sweetie, but you are a starving desert island survivor.”
Rail grins. “I love hoops,” she says, which is true. She does love this meal and she wonders why she hasn’t had it in such a long time. She watches as Cecelia serves Rachel her dinner and then does the same for herself and the baby.
Rachel pouts. “I said I wanted a different mat.”
Cecelia gives Rachel a firm look. “Try again, Princess Rachel.”
Rachel blushes and says softly, “Please may I have a different mat?”
Her mother points at the mat. “That’s better. But you’re a princess and this is Princess Sofia.”
Rachel twists her lips and whispers, “She’s a princess for babies.”
“I can swap,” Rail volunteers, eager to help her bestie.
Cecelia looks at both girls and then sighs. “Fine.” The girls lift their plates and Cecelia switches the mats and then the cups of milk.
Cecelia pats Rail’s hand and says, “That was very grown-up of you to help Rachel like that, thank you Princess Rail.”
The girl blushes and smiles. It’s surprising, now good it feels to be praised like this.
Of course, dinner is delicious. The tomato sauce is simple but seems to touch on every one of Rail’s taste buds.
It feels like a special occasion, and not just because they’re using their princess manners. They have ordinary kitchen towel for napkins but Cecelia has both girls put them on their laps, reminding Rail of being in a fancy restaurant.
She’s careful with her knife and fork, trying not to make a mess. In fact, the messier the baby is, between Cecelia spoon-feeding him and Scott scooping up food by himself, the more determined Rail is to stay clean so Cecelia knows what a big girl she is.
“What a messy baby,” Rachel says affectionately. “Look! It’s even on his nose.” She gets out of her seat and kisses the baby’s nose.
“Sit and eat please, Rachel,” says Cecelia.
“I was only helping,” Rachel replies.
“Mmm-hmm,” Cecelia says, not sounding convinced. “You’ve got your own mess to take care of.”
Rachel looks down at her place mat and shakes her head. “I didn’t spill any, Mum.”
Cecelia smiles and waggles a finger at her daughter’s face. “It’s all around your mouth, honey.”
Rachel is an inch from wiping with her hand before Cecelia intervenes, “With your napkin!”
“Sorry,” Rachel says. She wipes her face with a circular motion. “Gone?” she asks her mother.
Cecelia looks and says, “Better.”
“Am I messy?” asks Rail, suddenly eager to be included.
Rachel’s mother smiles at her. “Hmmm, little bit.” She takes her own napkin and wipes Rail’s face and chin. “Better not wipe too hard, don’t want to wipe those pretty freckles away!”
Rail grins and lets Rachel’s mother finish her work.
Cecelia looks the girls over. “What a couple of messy princesses are you!”
Both girls giggle.
“Not as messy as the baby,” Rail points out.
Cecelia laughs. “Nothing’s as messy as this baby.”
Scott becomes aware of everyone looking at him and smiles back good-naturedly, not self-conscious in the least of the sauce on his fingers and face.
“Messy baby,” Rail coos to him sweetly.
It’s one of those family moments, where everyone’s laughing and nobody’s fighting, which reminds Rail of her own family, of way back when with her own parents, and she feels abruptly, completely homesick.
When are her parents coming to pick her up?
It’s a question she’d ask Rachel’s mother, and the words are forming on her lips when Rachel points at Rail’s polo shirt and says, “You got sauce on your uniform.”
Rail looks down at herself and feels a return of her stomach flutters. Back comes the guilt for a different reason. Not for dodging her homework but for making a mess of her school clothes.
Will her mother be cross? It’s possible, Rail thinks; her mother has been so upset recently with Rail’s outfits. Rail wrinkles her nose as she tries to picture the clothes she’s chosen to wear; they haven’t been like her right-now clothes, she doesn’t normally wear a school uniform.
Because she doesn’t live in Parkdale.
But she should. Because then she could play with Rachel after school every day, and have dinner with them and-
“Goodness, sweetie,” Cecelia says to Rail, “You look so worried!”
Rail sighs. “I was just thinking about my mum and dad.”
“It’s just a little stain,” says Cecelia, wiping at the baby’s face and hands. “I’m sure it’ll come out.”
“I wasn’t supposed to get in any trouble,” Rail whispers.
That was the promise. What was the deal? Rail can’t remember, but she knows one thing; she doesn’t want to be in trouble with Mummy and Daddy…Mum and Dad.
Cecelia asks Rachel to clear the plates from the table and Rail gazes at the Disney princesses on Rachel’s place-mat.
She didn’t promise her parents she wouldn’t get messy, but isn’t this trouble? What kind of trouble were they expecting? Confusion builds in Rail’s mind, and the promise and table manners combines in her head, finishing in a single thought; princesses don’t get messy.
She produces a shuddering sniff. Tears are close.
“Oh heavens,” Cecelia says, “Sweetie, it’s going to be okay.” She sounds as though she’s about to laugh, but when Rail looks up, Cecelia immediately adopts a concerned expression. She passes the baby to Rachel who uses both arms to hold Scott to her chest.
“Take Scott upstairs, please.”
“Shall I change his nappy, Mum? He’s done a stinky.”
Cecelia seems to consider the idea. “Get the wipes and a fresh nappy, then wait for me, there’s a good girl.”
She leads Rail through to the living room and they sit down together on the couch.
“It’s really not a big stain, sweetie.”
Rail screws up her face, trying to keep her emotions together, trying not to cry like a stupid baby.
“I’m just trying…” she takes a breath, “to not get into trouble.”
Cecelia strokes the girls hair. “Well, I think you’re being very good and I’ll tell your mum and dad that when they get here.”
Rail looks at the woman hopefully. “Will you tell them I used princess manners?”
The woman smiles and pulls her in for a hug. “Of course.” She reaches for a white plastic object that looks like a speaker.
“What’s that?” Rail asks curiously.
“It’s a baby monitor,” replies Cecelia. “It means I can hear the baby if I’m down here. Isn’t that clever.”
“Shall we hear how Rachel’s getting on?” Cecelia asks with a smile.
Rail nods and grins.
Cecelia winks at the girl and clicks on the monitor. And then she frowns.
“What’s the matter?” Rail asks.
Cecelia replies, “It’s not working.” She tapes the side of the monitor and puts it to her ear. “No,” she says, “I can’t hear a thing.”
Rail reaches for the white box. “Can I try?”
Cecelia shrugs and lets Rail take it. The girl puts the box to her ear, and as she listens, her eyes widen in surprise.
“What is it, sweetie? What do you hear?”
“That,” Rail says, pointing to the baby toys on the carpet.
“The phone?” Cecelia asks. “Are you sure?”
Rail holds the monitor to her ear and listens again, closing her eyes so she can concentrate. “It’s quiet,” she says, “But I can…” She grins as the familiar sounds get louder. “Uh-huh! I can hear the twinkles!”
“What a clever girl you are!” Cecelia says and she pulls onto her lap. “It must be your magic princess ears!”
Rail giggles and keeps listening, even though she feels a little old to be sitting on a grown-up’s lap. She has to keep listening to the twinkles, the voice in the speaker tells her so, she needs to sit and listen like a good girl, like such a good little girl, because there’s a reward, and not something silly like a boring old phone, but something magical, something only good little girls who use their princess manners get.
She giggles as she listens, so intently, and when she opens her eyes, she doesn’t feel dizzy or ill.
When Cecelia takes Rail upstairs to the nursery, Rail races into the baby’s room and announces, “I listened to the monitor!” more loudly than she meant to. And then she gazes at Rachel and points a finger to declare, even more loudly, “You’re all naked!”
Cecelia pats Rail on the head and says gently, “Rachel’s just getting ready for her bath, sweetie. And inside voice, please.”
Rail blinks in confusion. Are they having a bath? But she shouldn’t be shouting.
Rachel is sitting beside the baby who’s lying on a changing mat.
“I got it all ready, Mummy,” Rachel says sweetly, dancing her ankle socks like puppets for the baby’s entertainment.
“You’re such a good helper,” Cecelia says, getting down on the floor and undressing the baby, un-pinning his nappy and leaving Scott naked like his sister.
“What a stinky!” Cecelia says brightly. “You did a big poopy for Mummy!”
The baby looks up at his mother and babbles his agreement while Rail looks on in mute disgust. The baby’s bottom is smeared with yucky poop and he isn’t even embarrassed, he probably doesn’t even know he did it!
Rail imagines having to clean the baby up and she screws up her face. No, she thought she liked babies but she doesn’t, not really.
“I’ll fix your bum-bum, sweetie,” Cecelia tells Scott, “and then it’s bath-time for you and your sister.” Cecelia looks up at Rail. “Are you having a bath too, Princess Rail?”
“Umm…” Rail says, and she feels guilty about thinking bad things about the baby, and then there’s something funny she can’t put her finger on until she looks again and Rachel and notices; her friend is younger.
Impossible but true, she’s smaller than before.
The words are on Rail’s lips but saying them sounds like trouble, sounds like the loss of a prize, and so she just stands there staring down at the family as confusion bubbles in her mind.
“Can we have store-berrie bubbles, Mummy,” Rachel asks.
“Yes, sweetie,” Cecelia replies gently, “I want you both smelling good enough to eat.” And she nibbles at the baby’s stomach until the room is filled with his high-pitched, gurgling laughter.
Rail looks at them. And it’s not right, it’s mixed up, because her new best friend looks like a little girl, like she’s probably too young for primary school, and she’s acting that way as well, sounding like a small child.
It’s enough to bring the flutters back, to make her feel as though she’s managed to get into trouble, and she pictures her parents disapproving, disappointed faces, before she produces a sudden, large belch.
“Excuse you,” Cecelia says softly, off-handedly, as she cleans the baby’s crotch and bottom.
“Suh-sorry,” says Rail, and she covers her mouth, her naughty, burpy mouth, her fingers, and then she chortles through them.
Her laughter intensifies when she notices how big her school dress has become. “I got all baggy!” she says giddily, forgetting all about inside voices.
Cecelia announces the baby clean as a whistle and then looks up at Rail.
“Have you been playing dress-up?” asks Cecelia.
Rail shakes her head and giggles. “No-oh!”
Cecelia beckons the girl over and then puts her hands on her waist. “You look like a such a big girl in your dress-up clothes, but it’s bath-time now sweetie. Let’s get you undressed, hmm?”
Rail blinks as her mind continues to fog. “But I’m…” She puts a finger near her mouth, as if she’d like to suck on it. She almost jumps as her underwear drops down her legs and watches her socks droop around her ankles. “Mummy and daddy…” she begins, and then trails off, hopelessly lost.
“You’re all confused, aren’t you sweetie,” Cecelia says, and she strokes the girl’s hair.
Rail nods, glad that a grown-up is paying attention.
“I think you’re over-tired. You probably need a good night’s sleep.”
“Mummy!” Rachel pipes up. “Can Rail have a sleepover with me?”
Cecelia frowns. “Rails’ mummy and daddy are coming soon.”
“Please, Mummy,” Rachel pleads. “We’ll be good!”
Cecelia holds out a finger. “I have to check with Rail’s Mummy…oh, you know I really don’t like that name for you. It’s not very princessy. What do your mummy and daddy call you, sweetie?”
Rail blushes, as if she’s been keeping a naughty secret. She replies softly, “Abigail.”
Cecelia nods and smiles. “Oh yes, you look like an Abigail!” She cuddles the little girl. “Mmm, I like that much better. I tell you what. Rail has to go home, but Princess Abigail can have a sleepover with Princess Rachel. Is that fair?”
Both little girls nod.
“Princess manners all night, okay?”
Rachel nods eagerly. “Yes, Mummy.”
“Good,” Cecelia says. “Bath first, then jammies and stories.” She checks her phone. “It’s already nearly bedtime.”
Cecelia pulls Rail’s pinafore dress over her head, and her polo shirt comes with it. Rail feels a flicker of embarrassment at standing naked in front of Rachel’s mother but that feeling fades when she remembers something far more important.
“I don’t have any jammies,” she whispers, afraid that this wrecks the whole sleepover plan.
Cecelia just chucks the girl under the chin and says, “That’s okay, you can borrow a pair of Rachel’s.”
Rachel grins. “We can have a onesie party!”
“Sounds like a plan,” Cecelia says.
She runs the bath, putting in plenty of bubbles and Rail is surprised at how big the bathtub is, to fit in all three of them, Scott, Rachel and herself. It must be the biggest bath in the world.
An even better surprise is that babies may be sticky and icky sometimes but in a bath, they’re a lot of fun.
Scott sits between the girls, piggy in the middle, and once Cecelia has washed all three of them, it’s time to play.
Rachel leads the fun, using her brother as a bubble sculpture, placing mounds of bath bubbles on his head, making Rail squeal with laughter; the baby looks so silly, but he doesn’t mind, he doesn’t know any better, and when the girls laugh, the baby just laughs as well, smacking his hands on the surface of the water, and in the end even Cecelia is laughing so much there are tears in the woman’s eyes.
“Scott’s a bubble monster, Mummy,” Rachel says.
Cecelia responds by placing bubbles on both of the girls’ heads. “Oh, trust me, you’re all bubble monsters.”
Rail touches the bubbles with her fingers and giggles. “But we’re princesses,” she argues.
Cecelia just puts more bubbles on Rail’s head, even putting some on her nose, and then to top it off, Rachel’s mother puts bubbles on her own chin and cheeks. “What do you think, girls, do you like my beard?”
“No-oh!” Rachel protests, and then the bathroom descends into a echoing chamber of squeals and giggles, until the baby is making as much sense as the rest of them.
Cecelia gets the children out of the bath before they turn into prunes, and she dries them with fluffy towels.
Rachel takes Rail into her bedroom to choose a onesie and Cecelia puts Scott into a thick, night-time nappy and blue footed pyjamas. He’s finishing his bottle in his mother’s lap when the girls charge back into the nursery, clutching their own pyjamas.
“Look, Mummy!” Rachel demands, and both girls hold out their onesies. “I’m gonna be teddy and Rail…princess Abigail’s gonna be a unicorn!”
Cecelia smiles, sitting the baby up and rubbing his back until Scott emits a belch that reminds Rail of her own noises from earlier.
“Good boy,” Cecelia tells the baby sweetly. She lies Scott down in his cot and puts a dummy in his mouth. Rail looks down into the cot curiously as Scott cuddles his teddy bear and sucks on his dummy.
“Aw,” Rail says indulgently, feeling like a very big girl compared to a little baby like Scott, “He’s so cute.”
Rachel nods solemnly. “He’s a good baby.”
“Okay princesses,” Cecelia says softly. “Let’s go through to your bedroom and let the baby go to sleep.” She bends to kiss the baby on the mouth and then ushers the girls out of the nursery.
Cecelia helps them into their onesies, and Rachel becomes a giggling, fuzzy brown teddy bear, bouncing excitedly on her feet when Cecelia pulls the brown hood, complete with ears, over her head.
Rail feels a burst of shyness when Cecelia zips up her pink and cream striped unicorn pyjamas. She looks so pink, so fuzzy, isn’t this too babyish?
But again, when Cecelia pulls the hood over Rail’s head and stands her in front of the mirror to admire the results, the little girl squeals with delight. “I’m a yoony-corn,” she whispers, touching the horn on her hood. And she knows for certain that there’s nothing babyish about her unicorn jammies. She giggles. “It’s fuzzy!”
“Just like you, silly girl,” Cecelia replies and then she has two excited little girls to cuddle.
Surely, no fuzzy princesses can sleep tonight. There’s too much excitement, way too much squealing and giggling.
Indeed, after brushing their teeth under close supervision, it’s Rail who asks for a glass of water, then a trip to the toilet, and then complains about the light (too bright! too dark!) until Cecelia has to give the girl a firm look and tell her it’s time for fuzzy princesses to go to dreamland.
Rail’s lip wobbles, and this must be terrible end to a wonderful evening, and Rachel puts her arms around her new best friend.
“I can’t go to sleep,” Rail whispers. “I’m too ‘skited.”
Cecelia strokes her chin and says, “Let’s just lie in bed for a little while. If you can’t sleep after that, we’ll do something else.”
The two girls jump into Rachel’s bed, Rail wondering what ‘something else’ could be, and whether a princess tea party would be on the list.
Cecelia turns out the lights but doesn’t leave the bedroom. Instead, she sits on the bed and has the girls lie on their tummies, while she strokes their fuzzy backs.
“I’m stroking a bear and a horsie,” Cecelia says quietly, “how lovely.”
“Notta hossie,” Rail replies, her diction lazy as she winds down.
“Oh yes, silly, me,” says Cecelia. “A sweet little unicorn.” And Cecelia continues to stroke the girls backs and then their hair, telling them a story that just happens to be about a bear and a unicorn who have the most wonderful adventure.
Rail rolls over to cuddle Rachel, so warm and happy, and soon so very sleepy. Cecelia strokes their hair and tells them their sweet story, and before long, both little girls are fast asleep.
It doesn’t happen when Rail wakes up.
She enjoys thirty, almost forty minutes of life as a four year old before the doubts start creeping in.
The pyjamas help. It’s hard to think too hard about anything when you’re dressed as a unicorn (and for that matter, when your best friend is dressed as a teddy bear).
Scott sits in his highchair for breakfast and the girls sit on booster seats. The baby enjoys chasing cheerios around his tray with uncooperative but enthusiastic fingers, while the girls get princess pancakes with strawberries, reminding Rail of last night’s bath, of the scent that’s still on her skin.
“Your mummy and daddy will be here soon,” Cecelia tells Rail. “Are you going to be a unicorn when they get here, Abigail, or do you want to put on your day clothes?”
“Ooh-nee-con!” Rail replies immediately, her mouth full of pancake.
Cecelia nods. “Thought so.”
After breakfast, after cleaning three faces and three pairs of hands, Cecelia lets all of them play in the living room.
Rachel has a set of plastic horses that she’s happy to share with Rail, and nothing about their game sets off alarms in Rail’s mind. This is perfectly normal, perfectly sweet, and Rail even finds some time to look forward to showing off her unicorn jammies to Mummy and Daddy when they get there, insisting on keeping her hood on even though it makes her feel a little too warm.
Speaking of Abigail’s mummy and daddy, Cecelia goes into the kitchen to make tea for the visitors, they won’t be long now.
It’s the phone that causes the problem. It’s the phone that brings back the flutters.
Rail turns her head at the trilling sound and spies Scott with the red toy phone in his hands. More by accident that design, he’s managed to turn the rotary dial with a chubby finger.
Rail stares at the phone.
That’s where it came from. That’s how it started. She shifts back on her bottom, feeling the horn wobble on her hood. She fumbles the hood off her head. The coolness helps. The coolness hurts.
She looks down at herself as the flutters build inside of her. This isn’t right. It’s the opposite or right, and as Rail struggles and then latches onto the word, a clutter of other words fall into her mind, leaving her alert but also terrified.
Rachel looks up from the plastic horses and stares at her friend. “Abby gonna pway?”
“I shoo…I shuh…shouldn’t be..” Rail shakes her head, clearing away childish cobwebs from her mind. “I shouldn’t be so little,” she says finally, whispering the newsflash to her friend. “And you shouldn’t either.” She crawls over to Rachel and says, “Your mummy…your mum’s making us little, like your brud…brother.”
Rachel just giggles. “I’m notta bay-bee.” She grins, spreading her arms wide, showing the fuzzy brown fur of her onesie. “Imma beh!”
Rail wants to shake her friend, to knock the sense back into her muddled mind. “You have to remember,” she says to Rachel desperately. “We’re big girls, really, we’re not.” She waves at their onesies. “These are for babies!”
She thinks back to the night before. Listening to the twinkles. It happened twice, and twice she got younger.
She points at the toy phone in Scott’s lap and hisses, “It’s the phone, Rachel, it’s making us stupid babies!”
Rachel giggles. “You’re silly,” and she crawls over to her brother and grabs the phone from his lap, making the baby screw up his face, ready to protest the injustice.
Rail looks at the baby’s red face, a baby ready to scream the house down, and back to the kitchen where Cecelia is still mercifully working on tea and coffee.
She won’t be if her baby boy starts yelling.
Rail crawls over to the baby and looks frantically amongst the toys. “Look,” she says, trying to keep the anxiety from her voice, “a bouncy ball!” She drops it into his hands.
Will that be enough?
Scott look at the ball, so bright and colourful that Rail feels momentarily jealous, wanting to keep it for herself before she shakes the infantile thought away.
And then he lets it fall through his fingers. He doesn’t look at his sister, who to Rail’s horror is holding the red receiver to her ear and speaking into it as if it were a simple toy.
“Stop!” Rail whispers to the girl, but Rachel just giggles and continues to chatter into the phone.
“Imma teddy beh,” she tells the non-existent voice on the other end of the line, but at least she’s not getting any younger.
Rail turns her attention back to Scott. The baby gazes at her curiously, the anger fading from his face, and Rail wonders if her expressions can be enough.
She sticks out her tongue abruptly.
Scott’s eyes widen and then so does his mouth as he contemplates this latest development with the little girl dressed as a unicorn.
“What you doin’?” Rachel says, looking distracted, and she crawls back over to join Rail, phone still in her hands.
“Stopping the baby from crying,” says Rail. Encouraged, she sticks out her tongue a second time, and now adds a raspberry to her arsenal.
It’s Rachel who laughs first, a high-pitched giggle, and this seems to cue her baby brother, who then joins the laughter.
“Pway wif me now,” Rachel says abruptly, and if Rail had turned to see her friend a moment sooner, perhaps she could have stopped Rachel forcing the red receiver against her ear.
“Call fuh yoo!” says Rachel excitedly, and doesn’t she sound even younger than before in her excitement. “Ith yoh muh-mee!”
“Noh!” Rail cries, batting against Rachel’s arm, and even as she hears the music from the phone, Rail screws her eyes shut as if this will drown out the noise.
Drown out the twinkles.
Rail has time to remember that yesterday her parents called this trip to Parkdale a new start. That they wanted her to see things with a fresh perspective. Such a hopeful look in her parents eyes when they dropped her off at the school. Such nervous excitement, Rail putting it down to anticipation of house-hunting.
No. It was all about her. It was all about this. They want their daughter back in nappies. Mummy wants her sweet little Abby-wabby, Daddy wants his princess.
Rail can hold that information in her head as the music and voices fill her head, she can open her eyes as commanded and look at baby Scott, drooling and babbling at everything and nothing, she can gaze at his infantile expression and know that this is her future, this is her now.
But the fluttering only lasts a moment. The blushing fades as soon as it arrives. Because Rail is such a clever girl, she understands exactly what the twinkles tell her, and so when she’s told to relax, to listen to the pretty twinkles, she does exactly that.
“Good girl,” Rachel says softly, her diction improving at the same time as Rail’s vocabulary disintegrates.
Rail’s arms hang limply at her sides, she sits on the carpet, her legs splayed, her eyes open but drooping as she listens intently to the music and her mind reorganises and simplifies.
Compared the joint in Rail’s schoolbag that will never get smokied, this is a high of a very different kind that coats the girl’s mind in the sweetest, infantilising goo. Thoughts of yesterday, of Rail’s years gone by, fade away, replaced by her very first thoughts, of Mummy and Daddy, and those are her now thoughts, her only ones.
Isn’t that nice? Isn’t Abigail a good girl?
There’s nothing to worry about, even as she produces a burp that sounds like a baby after its bottle and feels her hands and feet retreat into the increasingly over-sized onesie, as her head feels too big, as the living room seems to grow around her.
She turns to find a giant Rachel smiling at her, and Abigail wants to tell her how nice she feels, what a good girl she is for listening to the twinkles, but her tongue is lazy and silly in her mouth and all that comes out is nonsense and drool.
“Baaah…bah!” Abigail announces excitedly, and it’s gibberish.
It doesn’t matter.
Rachel understands. She’s a big girl, she’s Scott’s big sister, and she takes the phone receiver away from Abigail’s ear and then unzips Abigail’s jammies.
Abigail watches, docile and uncomplaining as Rachel undresses her, leaving her naked on the living room carpet, where even Scott looks more mature in his overalls.
A bouncy ball, so bright and alluring. Abigail can’t think of anything else in the world that she wants more. She starts crawling towards it but her hands and feet get caught up in her fuzzy onesie and she grunts with frustration.
“Want ball-ball?” asks Rachel sweetly.
“Buh!” Abigail demands, stretching out with chunky little fingers as she sits down heavily on her bottom.
Rachel fetches the ball and deposits it in Abigail’s lap. “There you go!”
The baby girl gurgles and immediately puts the ball to her lips, planting wet, exploratory kisses on the rubber.
So many nice feelings, from the ball against her mouth to the fuzzy onesie bundled against her bare bottom, and the discomfort in her Abigail’s tummy only lasts a moment, before she pushes and smiles at the warm, squishy mess spreading underneath her.
That’s how Cecelia finds Abigail on her return from the kitchen, carrying a tray of mugs and biscuits.
“What good timing!” Cecelia says brightly, and then she catches the vacant look on Abigail’s faces, the ball forgotten, her mouth open, and the smell is no surprise.
Cecelia laughs and crouches down in front of the baby. “Did Abby-wabby make a poopy? Did she make a big mess?”
Abigail’s mind can’t make sense of the question, but she smiles at the nice lady’s sing-song tone, reaching for her shiny hair, and she doesn’t feel a shred of embarrassment at sitting in her own mess.
But Cecelia doesn’t leave Abigail in such a dirty condition. She changes both babies right there in the living room, with Rachel on hand to bring wipes and fresh nappies.
When the doorbell rings, both babies are dressed just in nappies, crawling around the carpet and grabbing whatever shiny object they want in the moment, their movements policed by Rachel, who is still a little girl but is sounding far more mature than she did a few minutes ago.
Abigail doesn’t know much, but she recognises her parents. Her face lights up with delight when she sees them, and she reaches up, grunting with expectation, and then she kicks her legs clumsily when Mummy picks her up and cuddles her.
“There’s my sweet girl,” Mummy tells her. She sniffs the baby’s head and whispers, “You smell of strawberries! Yes, you do!” She turns to Daddy. “Look, love, isn’t she perfect?”
Daddy smiles, tears in his eyes, and he strokes Abigail’s head before tickling the soles of her feet, getting a squeal for his trouble. “Pretty princess, no more drinking for you, Abby, no more mixing with the wrong crowd.”
Mummy can’t seem to let go of her baby, but she reaches out with one hand to touch Cecelia’s arm. “Thank you, oh thank you!”
Cecelia smiles. “This is what we do here.” She looks down at Scott with affection before picking up Rachel. “And this wriggling, squirming teddy bear did most of the work.”
Rachel giggles in her mother’s arms. “Rail…Abby just needed a good role model,” she says proudly, and then looks up at Cecelia. “Can you turn me back now? I feel kind of weird this size.”
Cecelia makes a show of considering the request before kissing her daughter’s head and tickling her sides. “I don’t think a day as a sweet little teddy bear will do you any harm,” she says.
Maybe Rachel should be offended by the patronising response, but the tickling is delightfully distracting, and before she knows it, she’s being a good girl and doing what her mummy asks, crawling after baby brother and keeping him out of trouble.
Abigail’s parents dress her in the clothes they brought, and the baby is both cosy and cute in her tartan dress and cream-coloured tights.
Before they leave, Cecelia hands Abigail’s father one of the toys lying on the carpet. “This is her favourite,” Cecelia says brightly, “I think she should have it.”
Sure enough, when Abigail’s Daddy offers her the toy, Abby babbles excitedly and grabs the red plastic and crams as much of it as she can into her drooling mouth.
Daddy smiles and says to Mummy, “Well, we did promise her a new phone.”
Mummy laughs and jiggles her baby daughter playfully. “Definitely the best model for you, Abby-wabby.”
Mummy helps Abigail wave bye-bye to Rachel, Cecelia and Scott and then they’re outside, a few seconds of cold air before she’s in Daddy’s car and buckled into her car-seat.
Daddy tells Abby about the new house as he drives, about her nursery and all the lovely toys and dolls ready to meet her, and Mummy says she can’t wait to dress Abby up like a little princess.
Abby listens to her parents, enjoying all the attention even if the words mostly float over her head, their meaning out of her mind’s reach.
It’s fine, it’s perfect. Abby’s such a clever girl. She knows she has the toy phone, the wonderful, twinkling prize. Her reward for being such a good girl for Mummy and Daddy.