Maud knots her legs together beneath her chair. She leans her head forward over a mound of spinach leaves, selects one with her left hand, removing the stalk with her right. There is solace in her repetitive actions, comfort in the growing piles of leaves and stalks either side of her. Pausing, she examines a leaf, smaller and more wrinkled, as if its growth had been a struggle, overshadowed by its perfect siblings. She imagines some may discard this stunted specimen, cast it aside - for this reason Maud treats it just like the others.
A football strikes the kitchen window, a punch that takes her breath, then the sting of her brother’s laughter. She works faster, tearing at the leaves, snatching at the stalks, some fall to the floor, some remain attached, she doesn’t really care.
Maud stores resentment like bile - her chores are always indoor, her brothers’ are outdoor – mowing the lawn, chopping wood, cleaning the car, usually unfinished. She washes the spinach staring out at the three of them, her father and brothers, running around, laughing. The mower abandoned to the side of the lawn, an unwilling spectator.
Maud is the middle child, Sam and Luke are a year either side, each with specific characters, Sam brash and confident, Luke beautiful and spoilt. Sam’s confidence allows him to get away with anything, Luke’s youth and beauty helps him get round his father. Maud’s quiet, brooding nature draws no favours.
At her grandparent’s house in Derbyshire, Maud doesn’t have indoor chores, she has the run of the countryside that surrounds their home. She skins her knees climbing trees, cuts her feet paddling in streams, her grandmother patches her up and feeds her grandfather’s sweetly sinister bonfire toffee. In the evenings she plays scrabble with them, teaming up with her grandmother, laying down tiles with precision, adding up the scores, bathing in attention.
She rehearses the words she’ll tell her father, the way she’s done for the past year, sorting them into sentences, at times she makes them blunt like stone, other times she’ll make them sound reasoned, polished like glass. Right now, she feels like spitting them out.
In Derbyshire she’d be happy, she’d have a voice, be listened to, her grandparents would love to have her, they’d welcome her, she imagines. She checks the distance on a map, wonders how long it would take on her bike. ‘If I just left now, just walked out’ she tells herself. She’s worked out what she’d take, made a list, revised it, apologised to her toys that’ll be left behind. Her plan is made. Pocket money saved.
At dinner Maud watches her brothers wolf down the potatoes she peeled, table manners gone with her mother, anything goes now. The spinach Maud had sorted, pushed to the side of Luke’s plate, unfinished. Maud eats slowly, chewing her food like she’d been taught, the boys don’t wait for her, they eat and disappear to watch television. “Why don’t you make them wash up?” Maud asks her father. “They wouldn’t do it properly,” is the reply – wholly unsatisfactory to her mind.
Two cyclists are stopped at the end of the road, decked in brightly coloured Lycra. Maud seizes the opportunity for research. She marches over, squinting up at their helmeted faces.
“Hello. Where are you going?” She asks quite bluntly.
“Home,” says the one in a dayglo orange top.
“Where have you been?”
“How many miles”
Maud nods her head like it’s the distance she’d have reckoned.
“Have you ever cycled to Derbyshire?”
“How long would it take you to cycle there?”
“Twelve hours at least.”
Maud thanks them and watches as they pedal away. I’ll need new calculations she thinks. Uninvited obstacles spill into her plan, rain, hills, sleep, punctures. She wonders if she’ll need dayglo gear. By the time she gets home Derbyshire feels a lifetime away.
Maud’s father searches the house. “Luke, have you seen Maud this morning?”
“Her bike’s still in the garage, she’s probably gone round a friend’s house.”
“She hasn’t got any friends! Go have a walk about, see if you can see her.”
Maud sits on a station bench listening to booming announcements, lists of place names, numbers of carriages, platform numbers, reminders not to leave luggage. With her small backpack on her lap, she swings her legs, nervous excitement building as she embarks on plan B. Some trains stop, others roar through trailing diesel fumes that remind her of an ice cream van, a smell that promises a ninety-nine.
A smartly dressed boy, her own age, stands before her. It’s Charlie Spencer from Maud’s class.
“Hi Charlie, what are you doing here?”
“I’m with mum, collecting train numbers.”
“Train numbers, I spot them and write them down. See?”
Charlie holds up a spiralbound notebook filled with numbers and letters. His writing is spidery, his threes and nines look peculiar.
“Come. I’ll show you if you like.”
Maud follows him to the end of the platform. He tells her where to look for the engine number of an approaching train which she spots with ease. Charlie then looks it up and tells her all about the engine. Maud falls into the rhythm of it, sitting on her backpack, calling out numbers. She borrows Charlie’s binoculars to look at engines in the sidings.
“Hey, mum’s buying pizza for lunch, do you want to come?”
Charlie smiles, knotting his fingers together, waiting for an answer.
Maud hesitates, remembering plan B, the train to Gloucester, the connection to Derby that left an hour before. She looks over at Charlie’s mum, reading the paper, sipping coffee – her face warm, gentle, open.
“Yes please Charlie.”
© Jon Hunter