Mrs Hohepa watched the little girl sitting on the bench opposite swing her legs. Back and forth, back and forth.
‘Pretty little thing. Swing your legs girly, while you can.’ She smiled to herself and ruffled the hair of her boy. He looked up at her with a scowl. ‘He hates these days,’ she thought, ‘Poor kiddie, all that poking and prodding. But has to be done, the braces have to be refitted, and the shoe needs to be adjusted, he’s growing so quickly,’ she mused with pride.
Greg, the boy, turned his scowl to the little girl. ‘Look at her showing off, kicking her legs with those stupid sandals on her fat feet.’ His legs were leaden, encased in the thick leather and metal bindings which set him apart and weighed him down. ‘No wonder this is called the waiting room, should be weighting room. She’ll soon find out. Once she’s been tested and measured and bound. That’ll be the end of her kicking.’
Maddie, the little girl, was mesmerised by the colours moving before her, the navy of her skirt, the brown of her legs, white, white socks, and such pretty blue sandals. Such lovely colours in this solemn room. She had tried looking at the boy, but he had a mean face. She had stared at his legs and feet. ‘Will I be getting a big black shoe like that?’ She thought. The metal things looked painful. ‘How will I get into those every morning? I’m already so slow. Mummy will be cross if she has to help me with them every day.’ She determined that if she was going to have to wear those things, she would learn to put them on herself. ‘I’ll show her. She’ll come in the kitchen in the morning, and there I’ll be, all trussed up in my special boots and leg irons.’ She smiled to herself. The boy’s scowl deepened. Maddie’s mother looked down at her and shook her head. It would take more than corrective shoes to put that one right.
Maddie’s mother looked across at Mrs Hohepa and they gave each other a tight smile; more of a grimace. ‘That woman with the boy is further along the road than me. Her son has been diagnosed and has the footwear.’ Maddie’s mother hated these places. She felt the weight of guilt. It must have been something that she had done that had made her child, different.
The rest of Maddie’s day passed in a series of strange and rather horrifying rituals. Men in lead aprons laid the little girl onto a table and a strange machine moved back and forth above her. She was pulled and stretched and made do things that she loathed. ‘Stand on one leg.’ ‘Walk in a straight line.’ On and on it went. At one point she heard her mother listing her failings. ‘She can’t catch a ball, tell the time, tie her shoelaces… ‘
Maddie was astonished. She knew that she couldn’t do those things, but she hadn’t thought them of any importance. In fact, she considered, she probably could do them if she put her mind to it, but they were such tedious, pointless activities. Maddie was never quite sure what it was her mother thought good or bad, she seemed to get into trouble whatever she did. On the whole, Maddie had decided, it was best to follow her instincts.
Fortunately, her mother didn’t know the truth about the worst thing. Maddie had stolen a holy picture. It was such a beautiful picture of the Virgin Mary. Her veil was so blue and her expression so dreamy. She wanted to look at it first thing in the morning, so had hidden it under her pillow. When her mother found it, Maddie said that she had been given it by a teacher for being such a good girl. Her mother thought that highly doubtful, particularly as it had been just a few days earlier her teacher had asked her to come in to discuss Maddie’s drawings of teachers, who were all nuns.
‘Oh Mummy, did you like my pictures?’ turned out to be the completely wrong question. ‘But Mummy, can’t you see, I wasn’t drawing boobies, those are the nuns’ hands, they’re praying.’ Once again, Maddie had been astonished by her mother’s reaction.
However, Maddie felt that she had pulled off the lie about the holy picture. Surely God wouldn’t let her get into trouble for wanting to look at Our Lady. She smiled as she looked over the head of the man who wore a white coat, to the blue sky through the window.
‘You see what I mean?’ Her mother’s voice jabbed into Maddie. The man in the white coat had a kind face. It was the kind of face grown-ups make when they want to impress a child, but she quite liked it anyway.
‘There’s nothing wrong with her, apart from flat feet. Oh my, your feet are so flat you should have been a penguin, they are perfect for walking on snow.’
Her mother and the man laughed loudly and she felt ought to too. On the bus home, Maddie imagined herself barefoot on the snow; gliding across it. She wasn’t aware of the waddling walk of the penguin.
When they got home, Maddie’s mother was pale and tired. They had made no progress and the problems that were, remained.
‘Can I go out?’ Her daughter wanted to know.
‘Go, go, it’s still light.’
And it was. The sky was a beautiful ultramarine. The green grass was soft and thick. Maddie wanted to feel it on her bare feet. She flung off her sandals and peeled off her socks. The cool air refreshed her soles. She ran over the grass, it was an exquisite sensation. Until; unbearable agony. Such pain. She screamed and hobbled back to the kitchen. It had been a bee; a bee sucking up the last of that evening’s nectar from clover in the grass; Maddie had trodden on it. She sat with her foot raised while her mother inspected the pulsating body of the bee, which was still attached to Maddie’s foot by its sting. As the life throbbed out of the bee, Maddie’s foot swelled in reaction to the poison. It hurt so.
Maddie’s mother was exhausted. She watched her daughter, who was now sitting in the armchair, her newly enormous foot resting on a stool and the area that had been stung smeared in a home remedy.
‘Where is the bee?’
‘The bee is dead,’
And, although she knew the value of life, Maddie was pleased. She smiled to herself. Her mother slowly shook her head and turned away.