By Katie Foy
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the twentieth contest was Shadows
Laura liked to play with the shadows. When she was good, and she did all her chores, her mum let her go and play with the shadows.
This didn't happen very often.
There were always lots of chores to be done around the house. Laura was one of the youngest of the children, perhaps the youngest. That meant she was lower in the pecking order than the rest of them. She got the chores that were left over, the chores that the other children didn't want to do, or couldn't do because they had work, lessons, or else were sick. When she had been little, more of the children had been sick. Now there were fewer children, and most of them had work to do in the fields. There were always chores to be done around the house.
Washing day was Laura's least favourite day. First she had to gather up all of the smelly clothes; her own first, then those of the other children, and then those of the grown ups. The grown up's clothes always smelled the worst, especially the men's. Some of the grown ups had funny skin that Laura noticed made their clothes especially smelly, and meant that there were always lots of bandages to be washed as well. Then after she had gathered all of the clothes together, Laura had to walk to the tanks where the water was kept. The walk there hurt her feet. The walk back hurt her arms. The grown ups who owned the water tanks were very strict. They only let Laura take a small amount of water, and if she spilled any of it on the way back to the house the other grown-ups would know and be cross with her. This water wasn't for drinking, they made that very clear to her. She must never drink it, but they were still cross if she spilled any.
On washing day Laura never got to play with the shadows – there was just too much to do, the daylight would go before she could play, so she wouldn't be allowed out, and her legs would be too tired to walk to the grove where the shadows lived.
It wasn't really a grove.
But today wasn't washing day. Today was the day when Laura helped her mum look after the older people who didn't work any more. Some of them couldn't see, and Laura liked to play tricks on them, especially on Mrs Williams. Mrs Williams was a bossy old lady who always told Laura what to do, and who always told Laura's mum what to do as well. But Mrs Williams couldn't see. Mrs Williams had stopped seeing before Laura was born. Laura hated Mrs Williams because she was bossy, and because she treated Laura like a child when Laura was nearly ten years old. It was fun to play tricks on Mrs Williams. One time Laura had crept silently into the old woman's room, and then slammed the door, causing all of her books to fall from their shelf onto the floor. Laura had expected Mrs Williams to scream, but the old woman just started to cry instead, and that wasn't as much fun.
Laura didn't understand why Mrs Williams kept books that she didn't read, or why loud noises upset her, instead of just giving her a fright. She suspected that Mrs Williams just liked being mean.
But some of the older people were nice. Mr Lowe was one of the people whose legs didn't work. Laura once asked him why, and Mr Lowe had just said that they'd become 'worn out' from working so hard back before Laura was born. That must have been a long time ago, because Laura was nearly old enough to go to lessons now, and Mr Lowe looked very old indeed.
Sometimes Mr Lowe would have things to show Laura. Things he had found or else which had been brought back by the boys who went to work in the town. Mr Lowe wasn't stupid enough to keep books that he couldn't read any more, but he liked pretty things, or interesting things that looked like bits of old machines. They had stopped working too, just like his legs. Mr Lowe had a radio, but it didn't have any power any more. Other times, when Mr Lowe didn't have anything to show her, he just liked to talk. Laura didn't mind, because Mr Lowe could be enjoyable to talk to. He asked her questions and actually remembered the things that she told him. The other grown ups didn't do that. Sometimes Mr Lowe would just talk, and Laura would listen, and that was fine too. He was interesting. Usually he spoke about the things he had done when his legs had worked, back before the war. None of the other grown ups spoke about the war, and the older children weren't told about it in lessons either. Lessons were for reading and counting. Laura wasn't quite sure what the war was, but from what Mr Lowe said it was basically just a big fight. Mr Lowe had been one of the goodies, and then he had ended up here, in their village. Laura assumed that meant the goodies must have won the fight.
“Have you been a good girl and helped your mother with all the chores today Laura?”
“Yes Mr Lowe”
“That's good – you are very helpful to have around, aren't you?”
“I am. Thank you”
Laura liked Mr Lowe. He didn't assume that she was lying when she told the truth.
“I'm going to go out and play this afternoon” she exclaimed loudly. If Mr Lowe knew it was going to happen, then it definitely would. She was fairly certain that this was how the world worked.
Mr Lowe smiled. “So you should – its a lovely day out. We've had no snow at all this summer.”
“Did you used to play when you were little, back in the olden days?”
Mr Lowe had laughed. “Oh yes – it wasn't that long ago.”
“Did you have toys?” Laura pressed. Some of the other children had toys that they didn't have to share. It made her jealous. It was why she had taken to playing with the shadows instead. She didn't have to share the shadows.
“I did.” Mr Lowe smiled again, and he did that faraway look that some of the grown ups did when they talked about the olden days, only he looked happy. “I used to save up all my pocket money – in old money, of course – and take it to the toy shop after school. I used to spent it on Dinky toys, which always came in little yellow matchboxes. My favourite though was my Action Man – I got him for Christmas one year when I was about your age. He had a proper pressed little army uniform, his own rifle, and a little lever in the back of his head that made his eyes move from side to side. I think he was what made me want to join the Army, because I could never afford a real car.”
Mr Lowe laughed. Laura laughed too. She liked it when Mr Lowe rambled on, even though she didn't know what he was talking about most of the time. She thought it was odd how everyone had been rich before the war, but only Mr Lowe seemed to have happy memories.
“What about you Laura – do you have any toys?”
“No.” Laura frowned. “I have to share with the other boys and girls, and they break them.”
“Its important to share.”
Laura disagreed. She didn't have any toys, but she did have a book. It wasn't like the boring books that Mrs Williams kept, with all yellowed and missing pages and nothing but words. It had pictures and stories and had belonged to Laura's sister. Her sister had died before she was born, so it was Laura's book now.
Laura was very protective of her book. Sometimes the other children tried to take it, to draw their own pictures in, or else to tear the pages. She didn't let them. She always hit them first. It was important to hit first. She had learned that lesson when she was very little.
“For playtime I'm going to read from my book.”
“That's nice – are you going to read to your mother?”
“No. I'm going to read to the shadows.”
Mr Lowe always smiled when Laura was around. He didn't always do it with his mouth, but she could tell that his eyes were warm, and that there was a smile inside them.
He stopped smiling when Laura mentioned the shadows.
“You shouldn't play around there.”
None of the grown ups liked that Laura played with the shadows, but none of them would tell her why. Some of them would try to stop her, but Mr Lowe never did.
She liked the shadows because the grove where they lived was private. It was right on the edge of the ruins, and it was her secret place. It wasn't really a grove – there were no trees, or any other plants for that matter – but from Laura's stories that felt like the right word for a place like this. She knew all of the stories off by heart now, the ones from her book, and she had taken to making up new ones in her head. Stories about magic and witches, and people gathering in groves to cause mischief. She liked to imagine that the shadows were her followers, and that they only gathered around when she came to the grove.
Mr Lowe fell asleep soon after. He slept a lot. Some of the old people couldn't sleep, but Mr Lowe never had that problem. Laura went back to her mum, who released her from the day's chores. Laura skipped back to the dormitory to retrieve her book: “The Book For Girls” it said on the front.
The grove was a long walk from the village, in the direction the wind blew. It was worth the distance though, because none of the other children ever came this way, and few of the grown ups did either. Beyond here the ruins became thick and dangerous. It was always quiet, silent in fact. There were no animals or birds. There were no bushes either, but the way the broken buildings and walls formed an enclosed space, with a sunken clearing in the middle – well it felt like a grove. And even though it was silent and empty, it felt busy. In the very centre of the clearing there was a tall pillar, though it had broken in half with the top having crashed to the ground at some time in the past. The sides of the pillar were covered in lettering and crosses, but it was all too worn for Laura to read.
Laura liked to sit on the fallen pillar, and to place her book down by her side. From here she could see all of the shadows. Some of them were close to her, round and flat. Others stretched up the stone steps that surrounded the pillar, and some stood right at the top, tall against the crumbling walls. Some of the shadows were big, and some smaller than her. Some of the shadows looked like people.
Laura glanced up to the sky – it was already starting to turn a brilliant orange. She knew that sunset wouldn't be more than an hour away, but there would still be time for one more story. Her mum rarely noticed if she was home after dark. Besides the shadows were already here waiting; it would be rude not to have one story.
She pulled herself up onto the top of the fallen pillar, and placed her book down over the worn lettering. When she read to the shadows it had to be done just right – like when the priest gave his sermon on Sundays – and so she always began from the start by reading the first page, just inside the cover. Somehow this always felt like an important part of the ritual.
“Bunty. The Book for Girls. 1983 Annual.”
Then there was a bit written by hand.
“To Deborah. Happy Christmas. Lots of love. Mummy xx.”
Laura looked at the sky again. The sun was getting low, but that was OK, because the shadows etched in stone never moved, even when the sun went away. She began to choose a story.