I’m not a prisoner. I can leave the house if I want.
Father says beauty is a “privilege and a curse," which is his way of saying a good thing can bring lots of difficulties.
And I do try to look on the bright side. I have the big room at the top of the house, and all the things I need to lead a pleasant life: books, music, visits from my aunts, uncles and even some of Father's friends. I have to wear a special sheet when they come, but I enjoy talking to them anyway, learning more about the world outside. Father says I am like a princess holding court, the world moving around me.
Some of the books on the shelf are written by Father. Long tales of adventure and intrigue, typed on his computer, always with a princess as the heroine, a princess just like me. He keeps on writing them, spending hours on the pictures that go alongside each page. I don’t read them anymore, but I pretend. He would be sad to know I’ve grown too big for fairy tales.
Before she left for school this morning, my older sister, Lucinda, was supposed to go to the corner shop to buy me a can of beans. "Don't forget the beans for Sally!" Father shouted as he left for work. I can warm the beans on the stove in my room and eat them with buttered toast. Lucinda didn't forget; she chose not to get them. She does these things to get back at me. Lucinda wishes she could be beautiful too.
Sometimes, we get along - like when she comes to my room and tells me about her day, about the boys she likes at school and her maths tests and the teacher who hates her. But it doesn’t take long before the meanness starts again. “We can’t all be beautiful like you,” she says.
If I peek behind the heavy curtains which cover my windows, I can see up and down the street. I'm not supposed to look, but where is the harm? I am so high up, nobody will see me.
The houses are all three storeys, joined at the wall, each one the mirror image of the next. When I was little, the people in the street seemed to have more time. They stopped to talk to each other, they waved to their neighbours across the street. These days, most of them rush off in the morning, dressed in smart, expensive clothes. They don't come back until it's dark.
But there are still a few of the old ones left. They are like friends to me, even though we’ve never met. Right now, Mrs West is shuffling back from the supermarket in Peckham, pushing her little trolley along the pavement. On the corner, Mr Ashton is directing the traffic in his bright yellow top. Father says he's a nuisance and the council should put a stop to it. But Mr Ashton seems so happy waving his arms as the cars pass by. One day I would like to speak with him and find out why he does it.
If I press my face against the glass, I can see the tattered red awning which juts out in front of the corner shop. It would take me less than a minute to go there and buy the beans for myself. I could use the coins from the tin in Lucinda's room. She doesn't know I've found it, hidden under her bed. They think I stay up here all day.
Father says men can lose their minds when faced with the beauty of a young girl. He says it is more important than ever to protect me now that I am 'coming of age.' But what could happen to me if I went to the shop? Maybe I’ll have enough coins for some chocolate too. Father only lets me have chocolate at Christmas and birthdays. He says it’s bad for my skin.
My skin. The touch of fresh air on my face would be so wonderful. Perhaps I could even say “Good day,” to Mr Ashton.
Yes, I think going to the shop could be quite an adventure.
I move across the room and put my eye to the keyhole. Sure enough, Father has left the key in place, just like he always does. My trick is an old one. I got the idea years ago from a children’s book about four daring children and their pet dog.
I take a piece of paper from the pile on the table and push it under the door. Using a hairpin, I get to work on the lock. The key is loose, so it takes no time to fall onto the paper on the other side. I pull it back through, take the key and open the door. It always feels the same when I leave my room, like the universe is moving away from me in every direction. I am giddy, shaky on my feet.
I steady myself, and start down the ladder to the main landing. This bit is always tricky. The steps are narrow, not good for my legs, so I go down headfirst, taking a firm hold of each rung as I go.
The stairs are easier, but I still take my time moving down to Lucinda’s room. Her special tin is under her bed, but she has taped it up at the base. Is this her way of resisting the temptation to dip into her savings? Or does she suspect me of sneaking out, meddling with her things? If I remove the tape, she will know I have been here. But who would be in more trouble? Me, Father’s beautiful and resourceful little one, or Lucinda, the girl who tried to starve her own sister?
I swipe my nail across the tape and it comes away. The coins inside are different colours, but they all have the head of a princess on them. This makes me smile. I pick out the gold ones, which I know are the best. With the remaining coins returned to the tin, I place it carefully back under her bed.
There is a sudden clanging noise from downstairs, at the front door. I spring across the room and cling to the wall behind the door. If Father is home, I am done for. Then I hear the ‘flap, flap’ sound of envelopes as they hit the doormat.
The post. I breathe out. I can still go to the shop.
Lucinda thinks beautiful girls can’t look after themselves. This is my chance to show her.
After a while, I go down into the hallway and stand at the front door. I will need to work up to this. The giddy feeling will be even more powerful this time, I’m sure.
My eye wanders to the envelope that rests on the floor next to me. It looks official, type—written. At the top of the address are two names. “Mr Robert & Mrs Cassandra Matheson." The shock of seeing her name catches in my throat.
Mother still gets mail? After all these years? She died here, in this house, giving birth to me.
Lucinda was born before me, but I am older than her now.
Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe Father didn’t tell all the people he was supposed to tell. I don’t want to think about Mother because it makes me cry.
The door opens inwards, faster than I would like. A firm breeze is blowing. The gust hits me in the face, sending my long, silken hair billowing out behind. The wind calms and I take in the view of the street. Even the nausea is a welcome sensation. I am excited - alive.
Without hesitation, I step out into the front garden, open the gate and begin my way up the road. I move briskly, keeping my head high and my eyes wide. I want to drink it in. Later, I want to recall every wonderful moment, every sensation. This could be the first trip out of many. Once Father knows I can do this on my own, perhaps he will trust me to do it again.
The street is quiet, except for Mr Ashton, across the road, at the corner. He is still watching for cars and buses, oblivious to me. A few more steps and I am at the entrance to the shop. I push the door and a bell rings, like in my books.
There is nobody behind the counter. “Hello,” I say in my brightest sing-song voice.
“Hello.” The voice comes from the back of the shop. I can see Mr Paranthna’s hands reaching up to place bottled drinks in a large open-fronted fridge. The rest of him is obscured by shelves. I know about Mr Paranthna because Lucinda told me about him. His family is from Sri Lanka. He is a kind man who sometimes gives away food to the less fortunate.
“I’d like a can of beans,” I say.
“Right next to you, just inside the door.” He shouts back.
I turn, and see the green can of Heinz Baked Beans right in-front of me. He must think me silly for asking.
There is movement from the back of the shop and then footsteps as he comes around the shelves.
I am expecting Mr Paranthna to settle behind the counter. I plan to let him see all the coins so he can select the right ones for me. He is a kind man. He will want to help.
But he doesn’t get as far as the counter.
When Mr Paranthna appears from behind the shelf, he drops the box of cans he is carrying. They clatter loudly on the floor. He is frozen, staring, his eyes wide with . . . what? Wonder? Awe? Is this what love does to men?
He begins to make a low grunting noise. “Ugh, Ugh, Ugh.” There is a quickened, panicky rhythm to it. He leans into a crouch, then falls to his knees. In moments, he is curled up on the floor. “Ugh, ugh, ugh.”
I hear Father’s voice in my head. So beautiful. They will lose their minds.
“Ugh, ugh, ugh.” He will not stop making those sounds. Why won’t he stop? He is a shopkeeper and I am a customer.
Without warning, Mr Paranthna reaches out and grabs one of the cans. From the floor, he throws it at me, hard. The can hits me on the shoulder. It hurts.
I want to cry; I want to tell Father that I’m sorry. I open my hand over the counter and drop the coins. They fall over the side, the jingle jingle sound mixing with Mr Paranthna‘s “Ugh, ugh, ugh.”
I move to the door and open it. Mr Paranthna stops making the noise. For a moment, I think he is recovering himself, that the moment can somehow be saved. But then he screams. It is ear-piercing, shrill, the worst sound I have ever heard.
I turn back and see him looking up at me.
There is blood in his eyes, around the edges. Tiny droplets running down his cheeks.
“Sorry,” I say, and he screams again.
Outside, I try to move quickly, but I am not used to running and my legs catch in a tangle. I trip and fall heavily on the pavement. All the air is pushed out of my chest. The fall has turned me around, and from the ground, I am looking back again, away from my home, towards the other side of the road.
Mr Ashton is watching me. He heard the commotion from the shop, he saw me fall. I don’t like the way he looks at me. His face is all twisted, angry and confused at the same time. It makes me think he isn’t a nice man after all.
I untangle my legs, slowly lifting and shifting my thin limbs up and over, one after another. It takes concentration. I press one hand against the pavement. In the other I am still holding the can of beans. I am back up on my toes, scurrying back to the house.
A car is coming down the street. The driver turns to watch as I go. She is ugly and old. A moment later there is a heavy smashing sound. Turning back, I see the woman has crashed into a parked car on the opposite side of the street.
I need to be home; now. I should have listened to Father.
In seconds, I am back in the house, bolting the door behind me. Up the stairs, and into my room, Trying to catch my breath. Hoping, above all else, that I have not done something irreversible. Will they come for me now? Place my beauty on show? Study me?
I rush to the window and push my face up against the glass. Smoke plumes from the crashed car. The figure in the driver’s seat is not moving. Further down the street, Mr Ashton stands staring at my house. I think he is trying to see into my window.
A double-decker bus is coming from the other direction turning fast around Mr Ashton’s corner. I want him to wave his hands just like he always does. Buses are his favorite. Sometimes the drivers give him a friendly toot on the horn. But Mr Ashton isn’t moving his arms, he’s walking into the road and the bus cannot stop. It hits him with a sickening force. I know he is dead even before his body hits the ground. He is splayed out on the road, his limbs sticking out all over, like a tangle of sticks and rags. Red, red, red. It spreads across the tarmac like spilled juice.
A privilege and a curse.
Father was right. I should have listened. I want everything back the way it was.
My stomach growls and I pull myself from the window. I scuttle across to my stove and tear open the can with my teeth.
Back the way it was.
It is time for lunch.