An Old Dream
The justice building in Four, though the paint is chipped and splattered with seagull droppings, is resplendent in white. It’s early morning, bright and crisp and cold. The sort of morning that once you’re out of bed, there’s no going back to sleep. My parents are certainly wide awake, already engaging in their first round of bickering of the day. I’m only 8 and, it shamed me to admit, I cling to my mother’s hip as my father speaks. My mother was never a cuddly woman, but bony and hard, sharp around the edges, she was always stiff. Her body wasn’t made to yield to a daughter’s needy embrace. I could wrap my arms all the way around her waist… but it gave me very little comfort. I just did it because it was what other little girls did when they were scared. The cawing of the gulls and the battering of their wings against the invisible air currents that churn above drowns out whatever my father is saying the first time and my mother, her face already falling, asks him to repeat his words. It’s her hand that brushes awkwardly over one of my braids, yet my eyes are on my father’s face. Father hated to be asked to say something twice.
He sniffs indignantly. A ripple of warning runs through his jaw as it pulls back and locks, like when the sea drags itself away moments before a tsunami hits the shore. “I told you, Marina,” My father says tersely, tucking one hand into his pocket, straightening his broad shoulders, before he continues, “The girl is signed up for the academy. Ursula starts next week.”
My mother’s hand pauses, hovering in the air mid-stroke, caught in a moment that seems to last for one long, tense eternity. I wait for her hand to touch down on my flyaway, tatty hair, woven haphazardly into three knobbly plaits. It doesn’t. She inclines her head towards him slightly and, credit to her, says something I never thought she had the backbone for; “You idiot. Adrian, she’s 10, you idiot!” Mother’s voice becomes shrill with distress (and an emotion I will later recognise as betrayal). It doesn’t fail to escape my notice that she gets my age wrong. But before she has even finished her piece, my father is laughing obnoxiously as if at some particularly witty, private joke.
Mother continues to talk at him, even as the laughter fades and he doesn’t give her the grace of his eye contact. I watch his cold blue-grey eyes, my blue-grey eyes, swirl with inexplicable darkness and glare down at the cracked cobblestones of the square, squinting against the rebounding winter sunlight. Whatever he’s feeling is terrible, but not quite well thought out enough to be evil. Evil involved a certain kind of genius. My father was no genius, but as a child I would never have said so and, to me, he was evil. I don’t think my mother sees him ball his fist so tight it seems as if his knuckles, white against the skin of purple fingers, will burst from his very hand itself. If she’d seen… maybe she’d have stopped talking before he sent her reeling with half of her long nose caved in and a warm splatter of blood down her tablecloth blouse.
I have the sense, if there’s any sense in fear, to stumble out of the way before he can catch me with one of those brutal left hooks. He advances on me, ignoring my mother as she drags herself to her feet, blotting her nose with the sleeve of her ruined blouse. “Coward!” My father’s cry makes me jump and he just laughs, spitting further insults, “Stupid child!” Then he sinks to his knees, grabbing my wrist and reeling into him like a little fishy helplessly caught on a barbed hook. Our identical eyes meet and he murmurs through gritted teeth, “I’m just doing right by you, Ursula. So you can win the Games for me. For us. You’ll do that, won’t you?”
I stare up at him, struck dumb by fear, but nodding my promise anyway. I make another promise that day. It isn’t because I want to help my mother, nothing quite so righteous or heroic as that. My sworn oath to myself is to use the extra years my father has bought for me at the academy to learn how to defend myself from everyone and anything, including him.
That’s the day I become a consummate survivor.