Coming of Age Fiction Inspirational

The child sat on the lap of a woman on a metal chair by the door. Small as the child was, she filled the reception with her boisterous racket while being held tightly by the middle-aged carer. I was taken aback by the scene. I literally took two steps back from the child out of fear and silently chastised myself when her tear-filled eyes fell on me. 

The building, not meant to be permanent and barely held together by paint over rotting plywood, was a respite centre for autistic children run by a charity. I didn’t know that before yesterday. I just knew it to be a one story white building with a handy carpark near the playing fields. I’d never been in it, never seen anyone else go in it, and never come into contact with anyone like the little girl. I had no idea what to do, so I backed away, shifted my eyes into every corner, and waited.

The manageress burst through a door behind me with a small carton of fruit juice. I thought she would offer it to the child as a bribe, but she held the straw up to the carer’s mouth so she could take some sips before she rounded on me. 

“The driver refused to take her. Now she’ll have to wait for her parents to pick her up.” The manageress was a sharp woman. Her face was pointy angles and hard edges, complete with a dead-tone voice and a pin-prick stare from beady grey eyes. “I’ll show you what’s needed while she’s calming down. Sandra will be alright.” She said, as if any of that meant something to me.

Mistress Pointy led me away from the screaming little girl and through a large room divided into four. The first quarter on my right was set out like a living room, with two squared sofas and a flat screen TV in a locked glass cabinet. The second quarter, on my left, held a pool table and two big, comfy chairs with heavy looking blankets draped over them. Ahead on my right were two long tables stained with inks and poster paints, segregated in their quarter by deep plastic drawers held in wooden free-standing shelving, allowing surface area for the children’s artwork to dry. And ahead on my left was a stereo on a wooden sideboard and cushions on the floor.

That last area had a door leading out of the main room, which reminded me of my play school from twelve years ago, and led into a soft play area about the size of my living room at home. They layered every surface in plastic covered sponge and filled the space with giant, soft building blocks to make obstacles for the children to climb over. But we didn’t linger long enough for me to see if the far corner held the ball pit I suspected it did. Instead, the manageress led me to her office at the back of the building. 

“I need you to fill in this form with your details. When you’ve completed your work, I’ll sign it and you can give it to the officer, Okay?” I nodded and took the pen she offered. I didn’t want to sit in her chair so I lent over the desk, stretching my long spine and leaning on my palm to scratch in the mundane information. She looked it over, running those beady eyes speedily from left to right once I handed it to her.

“Harry is it?”

“Yeah.” I answered, looking down at my feet.

“Right then Harry. I was going to have you paint over your disgusting display, but we don’t have any paint. So, you’ll be mowing the grass.” A thin smile slide across her mouth and I realised this was more punishment than I really deserved. I wasn’t the one that spray painted the wall of the building after all. I was just the only one they recognised from the CCTV footage.

“Follow me.” She said, and grabbed a bundle of thick, black rubbish bags and an extension lead wrapped in a coiling contraption, shoved them into my arms, and I did as ordered. Out the double back door and down a concrete slope, I followed her into the garden. 

Tarmac pathways hemmed the main lawn. That slightly bouncy kind you get in kids’ playgrounds that still scuff up your skin but make it less likely you’ll break a bone. The grass held a circular picnic table, off centre, in the first third of the area, cleverly positioned to cover the muddy dip under it. Thick tufts of grass out-grew the rest of the patchy, lumpy surface covered in weeds. 

On the right, between one path and the fence, running the length of the garden, was a stretch of lawn possessing five metal apex frames for swings to hang from, but no swings were present. Old tyres, painted pink, lay nearby, and thick brambles and fat leaves of some plant I didn’t recognise guarded the fence. 

Opposite the back door, beyond the main lawn, was a large wooden bandstand with a ramp entry and a roof of felt. It sat on another lawn, only slightly smaller than the first, and also held benches, upended logs stuck in the ground to hop across, a giant xylophone, a large netted trampoline, and another path around its rear and left flank. In the far left corner was a hillock with an enormous granite boulder on top and a wooden pole sticking out of it. 

Giant trees of oak, elm, and I don’t know what, held the entire garden in their grasp. It was massive. If I could complete the mowing before dark, it would be a miracle. My shoulders sank as my mouth fell open and my knees buckled.

“Come on.” She ordered and again I followed. Round the right corner, through a bolted gate, we crossed an area of artificial turf shaded by a canopy stretching out of a large summer house. Inside were stuffed toys, another TV kept behind locked glass, and more paintings. I reasoned it was for the younger kids. It had a real playschool feel to it, complete with those thick plastic wheeler trucks kids slide around on in their gardens.

At the other end of this was a shipping container. A massive, metal, double bolted door effort you see on docks and in news reports about human trafficking. Inside that was the lawn mower, along with many items I couldn’t fathom a use for. The smell of confined heat and rotting grass inside the container suddenly hit me, and I took some steps back, shoving my nose into the bags held in my arms. 

The pointy manageress scowled at me and dragged the mower out, pushed it towards my feet, and wandered off to another locked gate beyond the container. 

“The bins are through here on the right. Use the orange one, but save some space for us.” She shouted in my general direction. “Plug sockets are just inside the back door, on the right.” The manageress spun me as she went by and I dropped the bundle of rubbish bags. “I’ll check on you soon.” She disappeared out of view.

An hour and a half, four full bin bags, and only a third of the main lawn mowed later, I felt a tug on the mower and it stopped working. It wasn’t really big enough for the garden, yet it was too big for the fiddly bits around the picnic table, and I knew it would be a nightmare when I got to the swing frames, but it had been reliable up till this point. I tried to start it up again, but nothing happened. I checked the grass collector, but it was almost empty as I’d just cleared it.

I turned to check the power cable and saw the little girl from reception had unplugged it from the extension reel. She had crouched down like a frog, her knees bent and spread wide over her turned out feet and her back hunched with her head hanging low over the wheel of cable. Then, with a small shriek of happiness, she picked up the power cord for the mower and started rolling it up around her arm.

“No, no, no.” I said, rushing over the five foot distance between us, but she ignored me entirely and kept rolling the cable over her arm with her back to me, her shoulders jittering with her happiness.

“Please stop.” I begged. “I need to mow the lawn.” I clasped my hand over her shoulder.

“NO!” she screamed, dropped everything, including herself, and landed face down on the grass.

“Oh. I’m sorry.” I said. “But I need the cable plugged in so I can mow the lawn for you and your friends.”

She didn’t move. I couldn’t see if she was breathing. I looked around but no one else was there, no Mistress Pointy, no Sandra the carer. Just me and a seemingly dead little girl.

Then she sneezed. I let out a small sigh, and she continued to play dead.

“Okay.” I said. “You stay there. I can work around you.” I plugged the cable back in, after giving myself more slack on the extension, and went back to mowing.

Long straight lines, just like my grandfather used to make with his old push mower, with the roller on the back and the grass collector on the front. Long straight lines, turning sharply at the ends and overlapping the edge of the last, leaving a light, then dark stripe, like the football pitches on TV, or the well maintained garden of a Manor House on the period dramas my mum watches. Nice, long, straight lines, showing the obvious difference between that which I had mowed, and the clumpy, covered in weeds lawn I hadn’t got to yet.

I emptied the collector into the fifth bag, but when I returned to the mower, the little girl had moved the extension into the centre of the last stripe I’d made and folded herself into a ball next to it. I puzzled over her appearance. Her dirty yellow hair was pulled tight on top of her head, but roughly so semi-circular tufts sprung from her scalp. Her sweater was too tight over her shoulders, but her t-shirt underneath was too big and puffed out of the neckline. She wore a pink, knee-length skirt over yellow leggings with white tennis socks and black plimsoles. 

At her full height, she wouldn’t reach three feet, but she was broad and muscular. I wondered how the carer would hold her in a tantrum when she reached puberty, then pushed the thought from my mind, knowing it was too big a question for me.

When the main lawn was finished, I emptied the collector and moved the mower to the swing section. I was in the sun the whole time there, but it was also the smallest of the remaining sections and I wanted to feel some sense of achievement. I tied up the bags and carried two over to the gate leading to the astroturf section. They were extremely heavy. Really, very heavy, so I left to check the container for a wheelbarrow or something to carry the waste to the bins. I found a hedge-trimmer, an edge cutting tool, a paddling pool, perfectly folded tarpaulins, and a bass drum. But I couldn’t find a wheelbarrow. 

When I got back to the mower I found the girl had moved the extension reel to the centre of the path next to the section I was to mow, and she had sat on top of the mower with her knees tight to her chest, bracing her arms across them with her strong hands around the bars of the mower’s handle. I noticed she had removed her shoes and socks to gain a better grip, I assumed. I didn’t want to start the mower with her sat on top, but I really didn’t want to touch her again either. I wondered if seeking the sharp edged manageress was wise, but the way she smiled when she gave me the task made me not want to give her the satisfaction of knowing I was in trouble.

I held my thumb on the big red button and pulled my fingers over the red lever, knowing it was the wrong choice. Knowing full well it was irresponsible. But once the motor kicked into a steady rev and I pushed the beast forward gently, I heard a small eek come from the girl. A whimper of a giggle, maybe? 

I trundled her and the mower over the grassy tufts, not bothering about the awkward lengths where the metal frames met the lawn. I took extreme care when turning the mower around so she wouldn’t fall, but I needn’t have worried. Her grip on the bars was very strong and her feet gripped the orange plastic shell of the mower expertly. 

We turned again, and I pushed harder, faster than before, and her pitch grew higher. We moved into a section between the swings where the grass was thicker and greener and wetter and a dark patch I thought were weeds erupted in front of us and into the air flew billions of flying ants.

The little girl jumped to her feet and spread her arms out and over her head in an arc and squealed. A squeal in a pitch I’d never experienced before. A noise that shattered through my skull, pierced my temples and crackled like lightning down my spine. I stopped the mower immediately and threw my hands in the air, terrified she was hurt and I would be in more trouble.

But she jumped on the mower, up and down, throwing her arms and hands all about her as though trying to fly with the ants, and making the high-pitched, wondrously painful noise that stretched my eyes open wide. She flew from the machine and bounced onto the main lawn, skipping and dancing and flinging herself all about.

I watched her fly, and I saw all the wonders of the garden.

I saw the ants take to the air in puffs of black smoky vapour.

I saw the dragonflies darting four feet off the ground, their wings glistening as they flittered in the sun.

I saw the magpies with oily green and blue feathers launch from the branches of outrageous oaks and illustrious elms and join the girl on the freshly mown, luscious lawn, pecking at the ground and hopping in a riotous rumba.

I saw the crows circle the child, richly black against the azure sky, as though guarding her from unseen dangers.

I saw seagulls widely sweeping around each other in a twirling maypole dance.

I saw the sun’s rays hit the ground in streams of coloured light through the branches and summer leaves.

I saw the grey squirrels on the sparkling granite monolith, nibbling on their gatherings and watching over the scene.

I saw the clover reach its flowering sprigs from the long, un-mown grass. 

I saw the golden shine of buttercups and dandelions bow and curtsy to the child, and daisies spiral out in their shrine to her. 

I saw the little girl with golden rainbows in her hair.

I did not finish. 

Sandra called out to the girl, calling her Annie, saying her mother was here to collect her. I turned and saw Mistress Pointy watching me from her office window and somehow knew she’d been watching the whole time, watching what I’d do, how I’d deal with Annie, like some sort of test I hadn’t studied for. 

Annie ran to her mother without a passing glance in my direction. Sandra left, finally allowed to go home, and the manageress told me to pack up as she wanted to leave as well.

On the walk home I considered the hovel those children find such joy in, and how I’d let my friend use my spray paints to graffiti the most obvious and dumbest silhouette on its wall. I thought about how many times I’d lent against the building, waiting for friends, or just having a smoke before going home. I thought about the times I’d peed on the fence the bins are behind, which is also where they keep the mini busses they used to ferry the children to fun days out, I supposed. I hunched my shoulders against the darkening sky and scuffed my soles on the pavement.

Two hours later, I was back at the empty building, under its security lights and in full view of the cameras. I used my cans to white wash the picture my friend had made. Then, with my artistic talent I don’t use appropriately, I arced turquoise and lemon, crystal white and fuchsia, storm blue, mars black, and jade into sharp, precise lines, muted curves, and blended wisps.

I created the most radiant dragonfly with spray paint on the wall, because the Latin name for dragonflies is Anisoptera, and because if female dragonflies don’t want attention, they play dead. And because it made me smile.

The End.

August 13, 2021 10:55

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.