Violet was crouching behind the embroidered chair in the parlour. She held a book open in her hands. She squeezed herself further into the already tight space, squinted and then began to whisper, following the text with her finger.
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“High above the city, on a tall colum-un.” She struggled to pronounce the word.
“Colum-un, colum-un”. She tried saying it fast.
“Columun, stood the statue of the happy prince. He was gilded all over with…”
She heard the harried rustle of her mother’s skirt in the hall.
“Violet,” she called, “put that book down and come and do something useful”
Violet looked over the top of the chair, grazing her chin on the rough nap of the material. The doorway was empty. She heard the muffled sounds of furniture being moved around in the bedroom. She returned to her corner and started reading again.
“He was gilded all over with thin leaves of bright gold, for eyes he had…”
“Did you hear me young lady? Now come on.”
Her mother’s face loomed over the top of the chair, eclipsing the electric light. Violet sighed. “Ok, I’m coming”
“I’m going to the bedroom, come and help me make the bed”
Violet followed her mother through the house, dragging her feet. The floor underfoot sounded hollow and the ornaments on the shelves rattled when she stamped her foot too loudly. They reached the bedroom.
“Now you take that end, and I’ll take this end and we’ll…”
They shook out the sheet for the big double bed. It made a sound like a crow flapping its wings as it settled in the tree in the park.
“Tuck it in at the corners there, Violet” instructed her mother. “There, that’s better. Now, help me take these sheets to the laundry.”
A bundle of white sheets was thrust into Violet’s small arms. She struggled to see over them. They smelt strongly of sleep. She stumbled through to the washroom with them, peering over the top.
“Now put them in here.” Her mother gestured at the deep stone sink. She filled it from a single tap on the wall, added some flakes of soap and began scrubbing the sheets against a washboard. Violet leant against the doorframe, wanting to escape. Her mother sighed exasperatedly.
“I really don’t know why you spend so much time reading those books Violet, I just don’t.” She rubbed the fabric of the sheet together in an attempt to dislodge a tea-coloured stain.
“Do you think that they are real life? Well, I’ll tell you Violet, they are not real life.”
She held the dripping sheet in her fist, as if pinning an opponent to a wall.
“This is real life”
She sighed a long weary sigh.
“You’d be so much better off learning practical things. That’s what a husband looks for, young lady. Not someone who has their head in the clouds all the time.” Violet remained silent and touched the book in her pocket with her fingertips. Her mother continued.
“Now, take this down to the greengrocers. I need a pound of potatoes to go with the beef that your father has saved us from the shop.” She tipped a handful of coins into Violet’s hand.
“Hurry up then!”
Violet hurried down the street, trusting that her feet knew the way. She held her book open in one hand and was reading, though the words danced with the movement of her body. She looked up and saw that she was about to walk into a post, she corrected her route and then continued to read.
“For eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword hilt.”
She tripped on a paving stone and stumbled forwards. “Oops… He was very much admired indeed. ‘He is as beautiful as a weathercock’ remarked one of the town councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes ‘only not quite so…’
Violet felt her body collide with some thing. Her neck jolted back and she bit her tongue.
“Violet Jones, can’t you watch where you’re going?”
She looked up at the vicar, sticking out her limp tongue and touching it with her finger to check that it was not bleeding.
“Sorry Vicar” she lisped.
“What’s this?” He asked, turning his head so he could see the book in her hands. “The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. Are you sure it’s suitable?”
“Sorry Vicar” said Violet again, looking at the floor.
“Young lady” lectured the vicar “you should only do one thing at once, then you can give it your full concentration. Imagine if God had decided to make the creatures of the land and the creatures of the sea at the same time! There could have been all sorts of complications.”
“Sorry Vicar, I’ve got to get some potatoes.” Violet skipped off down the road.
“Potatoes, humph”. The vicar shook his head and shuffled off in the opposite direction.
“Pass the salt please, Violet” said her mother, sitting straight-backed in her chair.
Violet passed the salt.
“This is lovely beef, isn’t it Joseph?”
“Isn’t it” replied her father. “I saved us the best bit.”
For a moment there was no noise but the sound of chewing. Violet cleared her throat.
“May I be excused, I don’t feel very well.”
“No Violet, this is our Sunday meal. You can be excused when you have finished it”
“No buts Violet”
“Mother I…” Suddenly Violet clamped her hand over her mouth and stood up, making her cutlery rattle on her plate. She ran towards the door, her hand still clamped over her mouth.
“Violet” gasped her mother as she disappeared out of the door.
In the dark privy outside, Violet sat down on the seat of the toilet and opened the book to the right page. She began reading excitedly.
“He is as beautiful as a weathercock, only not quite so useful, added the councillor, fearing lest people should think him unpractical, which he really was not…”
There was a bang on the door.
“Violet darling, are you all right” called her father.
“No” groaned Violet, “I really don’t feel well”
She grinned in the gloom and made a retching sound.
“Ohhhhhhh” she groaned.
“Is she alright?” asked her father.
“I think she’s sick” replied her mother.
“Do you think it was my beef?”
“You should break the door down, Joseph. She might be dying in there.”
Her father put his shoulder to the door and pushed. It didn’t budge. He took a small run up. This time the door flew open, revealing Violet sitting on the toilet seat, reading her book.
The schoolyard was crowded with children whooping and screaming. Violet crouched behind the red brick wall of the school building.
“Finally, some time to myself” she said. Her fingers were raw from having kidnapped the happy prince from her mother’s drawer. She had prised it open just far enough to ease the book out, but the pages had become dog-eared. She began reading.
“The eyes of the happy prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. His face was so…oh, what now”
“Whatcha reading, Violet.” The boy pronounced Violet so that it almost rhymed with violent.
“The Happy Prince” replied Violet nonchalantly
“Read us some then” said the little boy
“Nah, that’s boring” replied his black-haired friend “come on Ralph.” They started to walk away.
“Just 'cos you can’t read yet.” Violet regretted it as soon as she has said it.
“What did you say?” said the black-haired boy.
“I said, just 'cos you can’t read yet” replied Violet, summoning all her strength.
“Can so” spat back the black-haired boy. He turned to his friend Ralph and whispered into his ear, giggling. Then he turned back to Violet.
“Hey Violet, I bet you don’t know what a septum is.” They giggled some more.
“Yes I do, it’s that bit of skin between your nose” said Violet.
“How do you know?” asked the black-haired boy.
“My dad told me. He’s a butcher.”
“What else did he tell you?” asked Ralph.
“Well… he told me about stomachs. Look” she pointed at Ralph’s belly “here are your stomachs”
“Your stomach” countered the black-haired boy.
“No, stomachs. You have four of them”
“Four!” gasped Ralph. “What else d’you know?”
“Ethel” called Violet to a skinny snivelling child. “Come here.”
Ethel walked nervously towards them
“Lift up your shirt” Violet instructed.
“Why?” asked Ethel, panicking now.
“’Cos I want to show you something.” The group had grown much larger. The crowd of assembled children hummed with gossip. She pointed at Ethel’s pre-pubescent chest.
“Here’s where you’re going to grow udders. At the moment, Ethel only has two very little ones, but when she grows up, they will get much bigger and longer and she will get two more.”
Ethel started crying.
“But I don’t want udders!” she wailed.
“Well, no one wants udders, Ethel” said Violet matter-of-factly. “but everybody gets them. Well, all girls anyway.”
The boys breathed a sigh of relief and the crowd began to disperse, including the inconsolable Ethel. Soon there was no one there but Violet, leaning, as before, against the wall and reading. She smiled a peaceful smile.
“His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little swallow was filled with pity…”