… broccoli … chicken … maybe fish? … fresh pineapple—
In a blur of outstretched arms, golden hair and her blue school uniform, she collides against my chest.
“Monkey? What’s wrong?”
She glances behind her. Through the sea of 3:30 pickups, the three of them are playing near the climbing bars. When she turns back, her eyes are wet, but instead of crying, she picks up her heavy school bag, a strap over each shoulder, and trudges toward the school gates, head bent. Resigned, at eight-years old, to being treated like shit.
I catch up to her. “Did they call you names again?”
She bites her lip. “Can I have a Milo when I get home?”
The plane trees have all but lost their leaves as we walk down Harris Street but rather than jumping over the piles of leaves on the footpath, she walks evenly, her arms pinned at her side.
I grip her hand. “Remember what Mari said.” The child psychologist who, for $180 an hour, showed up late and looked out the window when Monkey spoke. “You need to tell me what happened so I can help.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does,” I try to keep the fury out of my voice that, daily, we have this conversation, that my bright, happy free spirit is … breaking. Vitamin C, I add to my mental list. She could use that. “What did they call you?”
“Fat … and ugly.” She looks up at me. “What’s a loner?”
My eyes tear and a sharp sensation cuts into my ribs. “It’s a cruel word. It means when you spend time by yourself.” I swallow. “You didn’t sit in the friendship seat again, did you? Don’t do that.” The bench at school designated for when kids feel lonely. Instead of creating empathy it breeds ostracism.
At home, she lies on the couch watching Netflix as I pace the kitchen, prepping dinner. I take my out my biggest knife, a Chinese cleaver, and place it on the cutting board beside the washed broccoli. I’ll have to talk to their mothers. Again.
Out the window, I scan each branch of the neighbour’s peppercorn tree, searching for movement. Yesterday, there were rats—at least three or four of them. Although I discussed the problem with him, every week he insists on buying bird seed wreaths and hanging them in the tree to attract lorikeets. But it only brings vermin.
I marinate the chicken. Rat traps. More cling wrap …
“Hey, Monkey?” I walk over and kiss her forehead, the down-soft crown at her hairline. “Are you okay if I go upstairs for a while?”
She nods and pulls the blanket up under her chin.
Pouring myself a large white wine, I go into my room and shut the door behind me.
“We need to change schools. We don’t know what kind of damage this is doing.”
Karl looks away from his iPhone and leans over the bed to pat my arm. “You’re overreacting.” He pauses before adding quietly, “Because of what happened to you.”
“That was different.” I take a short intake of breath.
I had bone cancer as a child, diagnosed when I was nine. One year of chemo destroyed the cancer cells. When I went back to school, I wore a long, blonde wig, natural looking, like the way my hair used to be. A new girl named Angela had started school. We played together every lunchtime, had sleepovers. My former best friend, Katie, was jealous, she wanted things to be the way they were before, and she told everyone—every student in my class, even my crush Frank Milardo—that I wore a wig. For the next year, until my hair grew out—darker and curlier—I had to go to school knowing that everyone knew my secret: I was bald.
“We’ve discussed this,” Karl says. “I went to that school. So did Dad. That’s where Monkey has to go.”
“Even if it’s killing her?”
“C’mon.” His mouth dips into a smile like he’s placating a child. “Just talk to the teacher again. Or the mothers.”
“It isn’t working. Nothing’s changing.” Except Monkey. Doesn’t he understand anything?
He turns off the lights. “Sorry. I need to get some sleep; big meeting in the morning.”