The Way Back

 
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On the days when Louise Gust walked back from school she always took the same route. Mainly because it was the fastest way home, but it also took her past the tile factory on Cuthbert Street. She could step up onto the walled flower garden outside of Sinclair’s Tiles and look through the window to see the rows and rows of tense women measuring and slicing sheets of lino.
            Louise Gust would look through the window and try and spot her aunty in among the women there. Jane Gust had her own flat and her own job and she was saving up for a car. When little Louise saw her it was mostly at times like Christmas. Aunty Jane would drink the same drink as Louise’s father, whatever that meant, and never gave Louise an order or even requested anything of her. She would sit down with Louise on the Gusts’ couch and tell her about her life, what her job at the factory was like and so on, which was all Louise wanted from her.
            Louise put her hands against the pebble-dashed wall of Sinclair’s and stood on her tippy toes for a better look. A woman in a scarlet headscarf had Aunty Jane’s shoulders, but it was difficult to tell through the wire mesh glass.
            Louise felt a tug on her skirt. She turned to find a frumpy little girl on the pavement below, scowling up at her. From her elevated position on the walled garden Louise’s navel was level with the girl’s face.
            ‘What?’ she asked the girl.
            The squat thing screwed up her face. ‘What’s in there that’s so good?’
            'Never you mind,’ said Louise, tilting her hips to free her hem from the little girl’s grasp.
            The girl was a good couple of years Louise’s junior: maybe six or seven. She made a move to climb the wall and join Louise, but Louise held her palm against the squat thing’s head.
            The girl struggled. ‘I want to know what’s in there, seeing as you’re so interested.’
            Suddenly protective of her ritual, Louise lowered herself onto the ground. ‘It’s nothing. I just thought I saw someone I knew. What’s your name?’
            ‘Nancy.’
            ‘Alright.’
            Nancy rubbed at the flesh around her nostrils. She was obviously in the habit of it because the skin was red and sore. ‘We go to school together.’
            ‘Aye?’ asked Louise. ‘Is that so?’
            They went off together, Nancy walking with a little girl’s swagger. Louise’s sandals slapped on the pavement. They were a birthday present from Aunty Jane.
            ‘Aye,’ said Nancy. ‘I’m only in the youngest class though.’
            ‘And what’s that like?’
            Nancy continued to worry her nose. ‘Eh. Alright. I know you. I’ve seen you about.’
            ‘Okay.’
            Like a lot of wee bairns, this Nancy was creepy. She stared up at Louise as they walked together. There was the nose thing and she also picked the knickers out of her arse every couple of steps. It was hard to know what to talk to her about so they walked together in silence for a minute or two.
            Louise asked her what teacher she had and Nancy told her. It wasn’t one that Louise knew.
            ‘What’s she like?’
            The nose thing. ‘Eh,’ she said. ‘Alright.’
            What else to say to her, the squat thing?
            They came to the corner of Cuthbert Street where Louise would turn right to head home.
            ‘Well,’ she told Nancy. ‘See you later.’

            ‘This is the way I go, too.’
            ‘You don’t live up here. If you lived up here I’d have seen you before.’
            ‘I do live up here.’
            Louise glared at the girl and turned, her sandals slapping. If the squat thing thought she could worm her way into being Louise’s pal she had another thing coming. There was nothing worse than a wee bairn that thought they were your best mate.
            She looked over her shoulder when she was a few doors away, and sure enough, there was the squat thing, bringing up the rear.
            ‘Piss off,’ Louise told her.
            Nancy looked away, but kept strolling. The squat thing’s arms and legs were podgy. She was barely older than a baby. Surely Louise had never looked like that?
            ‘I mean it,’ said Louise and leaned on her garden wall.
            She waited until the squat thing was in front of her, kicking stones and not meeting Louise’s eye. She reached out and grabbed the fat skin on Nancy’s neck.
            She twisted.
            Nancy didn’t react to the pain. She looked right past Louise’s head until the twisting was over and when it was over she ran away. She didn’t even squeal.
            Louise watched her go. She ran right down Louise’s road and beyond the turning to Cuthbert Street. Louise knew she didn’t live up this way. It was a shame as well because the woman in the red headscarf might really have been Aunty Jane. Louise could have tapped on the glass and Aunty Jane could have turned and her face could have lit up when she saw it was Louise at the window. Then maybe they could have hung around outside Sinclair’s and Aunty Jane could’ve told Louise about her day. She didn't mind that Louise was so young because Louise didn’t act it.
            She thought about her mother who would be waiting for her inside. She thought about her last birthday when Aunty Jane had presented her with the long box that you just knew had shoes or boots or sandals inside. She thought about the feel of Nancy’s baby fat between her nails.
            The box had been tied up with a green ribbon, which Louise had kept as a souvenir. It was upstairs somewhere. She’d held the box in her hands, given it a gentle shake and Aunty Jane had nodded at her. The paper came off when she ran her nail along the seam.
            That day she’d been a whole year older.


Daniel Shand is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.