The Turnip Eaters
There was a large water stain on the wall of Katie’s new bedroom. It fascinated her. The more she looked at it the more it became clear that it was the outline of a head; a face in profile, complete with neck and shoulders. This presence did not disturb her, there was something benevolent about it. In the last hour before she went to sleep and in the first hour of her waking, she would look at it and feel herself becoming more familiar with it. It had a personality, even a sense of humour. She was happy to be sharing her room with this stranger, even though this was supposed to be her first bedroom to herself.
The room was cold and smelt of damp. Her mother had not yet been able to get her a proper bed, but she would lie there snug and content on the old mattress, bundled up in a duvet and sleeping bag, listening to the muffled sounds of her family. It was her own space, where the tension and bickering of the others reached out their tentacles, but could not touch her. She was free to dream.
The move had come quite suddenly. They had been living in temporary accommodation, which was a term she did not really understand as they had been living there longer than they had anywhere else. It had been cramped and there wasn’t much room to play, but she remembered happy hours sitting on the big bed with her brother, Sean. He was funny and they told each other stories as they played with the plastic animals they kept in a box under the bed. Katie liked the horse best, she imagined herself sitting on the back of a real horse, galloping over a field stretching to the horizon.
Then they got the house. It was on a quiet road of lots of other houses that looked the same. It felt good to be like other people. She had to move school. She didn’t care about leaving the other school behind, but it was horrible being a stranger. She had felt the eyes of the other children evaluating her and finding her wanting. She knew the best thing to do would be to stay quiet and try not to get noticed.
The good thing was that they had a house, a whole house, with a room for her mother, a room for her brothers and a room all to herself. Not only this, there was a garden. A garden with grass, a tree and places where flowers would appear and disappear as the weeks went by. There was a rough patch with weeds and dried up bits in in it. Her brothers liked to wade through the long grass, jumping out at each other. Her mother said that one day they would get the grass cut and then they would be able sit out there.
The people next door had a big dog. It looked over the fence and barked, showing its large teeth and long tongue, dripping with saliva. Katie was frightened of it, it reminded her of the wolf in Red Riding Hood, but a man shouted at the dog and told her not worry, it didn’t bite. He asked her how they liked it in the house. She smiled and said it was good. She liked the man. He said his name was Pete.
He told Katie that the long grass she was standing in used to be a lovely garden. Old fashioned with flowers and even a vegetable patch, over there. He pointed to a wilderness of vines and weeds in a corner of the garden. Pete told her that before they had moved in, a woman had lived here with her elderly mother and as the mother grew older so her daughter became old too. Katie thought about her mother and imagined the two of growing older and older until they shrivelled up into nothing. Pete said that the ladies had always lived there, he had moved into his house before the old ladies were old. He said the older one was called Vi and her daughter was Margaret. Katie tried to imagine what it would be like to stay in this house for her whole life with her mother. She liked the idea.
Pete said that Margaret liked to coax plants out of the ground. One year she had a bumper crop of turnips. “Turnips!” said Pete, “Who grows turnips?” But they had been beautiful. The women had given him some and Pete said they tasted sweet and spicy, better than radishes. “You couldn’t buy turnips like that in the shops. Not that anyone would buy turnips.”
The girl wondered what had happened to the women. Pete said that the mother had got very sick and died and younger woman couldn’t afford to live there anymore. She had stopped working to care for her mother and then couldn’t get a job once her mother had died. She had to move to a smaller place somewhere else. Katie thought she must have been sad to leave her garden behind.
At night Katie could hear her mother crying. She would drag the covers with her and sit against the wall on the other side of the room to block out the sound. She liked to lean her head against the damp wall and spoke in her mind to the head on the wall. She was a good listener.
Katie was quiet at school but she loved to watch the others. One day a girl had written a beautiful story and read it out to the class. She had travelled with her family to a wonderful place in Africa, where they had stayed out at night, far away from any town. The sky had been alive with brightness, even though the sun had gone. Strange and beautiful sounds had drifted across the wide stretch of land. She had looked up at the stars and felt them speaking to her from far away and a different time.
Katie closed her eyes. She knew that feeling. She wrote her story. She wrote how she had rested her cheek against the cool wall in her room and heard the voice of Margaret from far away and a different time. How Margaret had shown her the beautiful summer days in their garden. The tree, green with leaves, dazzling, against the blue, blue sky. The vegetable patch, full of good things to eat. Katie saw the small turnip pulled from the dark soil, pinkish white against rich brown. She felt her teeth push into the crisp flesh, sweet, spicy moisture tingled on her tongue. She wrote down everything she had seen and felt in that beautiful dream-world of her bedroom.
Katie looked at her story and smiled, then frowned. She ripped the paper into tiny pieces and left them scattered on the table, like spring blossom fallen from a tree.
The teacher shook her head at the mess when the lesson had ended and the students were gone. What was she to do with these girls?