The Sugar Quill
Author: Thorn of Blood  Story: Growing Up Black  Chapter: Chapter Two: A Jigsaw Puzzle
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Growing Up Black

 

 

Growing Up Black

 For you my little one, so that you might one day understand.

 

Chapter Two: A Jigsaw Puzzle

 

Memories are like jigsaws, or stained glass windows. Little pieces of colour carefully slotted together to make one glorious image. The trouble with memories is that you can never complete the picture. Not really. Bits get lost down the back of the sofa. There are too many corners. And you never get given the lid. There are a lot of funny shaped gaps in the puzzle that was the first bit of my life. But the bits that are there seem all the brighter for being in the dark.

*~*~*~*

We were sent to bed at seven, straight after supper at six thirty - but we didn’t often go straight to sleep. We slept in the same room you see. And Bella never wanted to just curl up and dream. Not for her the tame obedience to the call of a soft pillow. No, she wanted excitement at bedtime, risk, danger.

It would start with a whisper. A question, slightly muffled by the darkness and the blanket around my head. “Are you asleep yet?” Sometimes... sometimes I would welcome it with an immediate: “Yes.” Other times I was less eager. My bed was warm and soft and safe. And whatever Bella wanted to do was most definitely not. So I would bury my head further under my blankets. And try to ignore her. At most this would buy me a few more minutes. Bella was not the sort of girl that could take no for an answer. She would carry on asking, her voice getting louder and louder, the risk of her getting heard growing by the second. I always answered before the adults downstairs heard. I couldn’t not. They would be angry about being forced to come upstairs. They would shout and wag fingers and who knew who they would punish. No. It was safer to answer. Sort of

You see, once I had answered, Bella was free to tell us her plan. These plans usually involved getting out of bed and wandering the house. Whether to “rescue” toys from the nursery or to sneak downstairs to the kitchen for an illicit night time snack was up to her. Sometimes we got caught. Actually, we frequently got caught. We were, after all, quite young and thought that saying “Shush” a lot meant that we were being quiet. Looking back I think that we ought to have been discovered a lot more than we were. I guess that sometimes the adults just couldn’t be bothered to stop us. Especially if we were just in the nursery, where we couldn’t do much damage.

Once, not that long after Sirius arrived, there was a report of a shower of shooting stars on the radio. I don’t remember the report but Bella decided that we were going to watch the show. From the roof. It was daring, stupid and oh, so like Bella. But I was shocked. I even tried to talk her out of it. Pointed out that it would be cold and unsafe and that the grownups would hear and we would get into so much trouble. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Told me to stop being a baby and to hand her that blanket. So we trooped off for the attic. I was scared stiff. Scared stiff. I don’t like heights or attics and I just knew that something was going to go wrong. I mean the roof!

As it happened we never got to the roof. Or even to the attic. We were stopped by Uncle Alphard, who wandered out of his study clad in a dressing-gown and nightcap and demanded to know what on earth we were doing now.

(Oh, did I forget to mention that Uncle Alphard lived with us? Well, he did. Or rather, we lived with him. It wasn’t uncommon. Auntie Walburga and Uncle Orion lived with Uncle Orion’s parents and his grandmother, our Auntie Hestor. Although Auntie Walburga had such a… strong presence that we often referred to it as Auntie’s house.)

I think that the best word to describe Uncle Alphard would be unpredictable. You never quite knew whether he was going to give you a ding around the ear or slip you a Sickle. And as it was usually the former we tended to be wary around him. I don’t think that he really liked children. He thought that we weren’t worth making a fuss over. “Caterpillars” he would say suddenly from behind his newspaper, “they’re just caterpillars waiting to turn into butterflies. And what do they do while they’re waiting? Destroy your garden, that’s what!” But he wasn’t exactly active in his dislike. He spent most of his time either behind his newspaper or behind his study door, but he would occasionally startle everyone else by barking out some scathing comment on the topic at hand. I think he enjoyed startling people.

He certainly startled us. I jumped about a foot in the air and Bella dropped Cissy, who started to cry. Bella and I exchanged frantic glances, if there was one thing that Uncle Alphard couldn’t stand it was crying. He said that it made his head ache and his palms itch.

We were lucky though, he must’ve been in a good mood that night. He actually picked Cissy up, rocked her in a slightly awkward fashion, and murmured something about “your sister’s foolish schemes”. Cissy quietened down almost immediately, angel that she was, and snuggled into his stiff embrace. Then he raised an eyebrow at Bella and the whole story came tumbling out. It didn’t take long, she was scared enough to stick to the bare narrative with no wild excuses or accusations attached. After she had trailed away into silence he sort of stared down at us for several very long moments. Neither of us could meet his eyes, the blanket I was holding was beginning to feel very heavy. Eventually he spoke:

“So it is shooting stars you want is it?”

We nodded, eyes still firmly fixed upon the floor.

“Well I suppose you had better come in then.”

He abruptly turned and, still holding Cissy, went back into his study, leaving the door open for us to follow. I turned to Bella, but found that she was just as shocked as I was. We had never, never in our lives been into Uncle Alphard’s study. Not even Bella would have dreamed of suggesting it. And now he was inviting us in? To be honest with you… I would have preferred to have gone back to bed - but I couldn’t possibly have said that to my uncle. Not in a million billion blue moons.

So I followed Bella, who was busy trying to pretend that she wasn’t feeling in the least bit nervous, and I was glad that I did - because, after the terror wore off, I enjoyed watching the stars fall with Uncle Alphard. There was nothing scary about curling up under a blanket in a big leather armchair with my sisters. Nothing scary about Uncle Alphard, who, after warning us to keep quiet, busied himself with a telescope and some funny metal instruments. Nothing scary about the stars, which were beautiful even in death and traced white lines across the backs of my eyelids when they drooped shut and I fell along with them into sleep.

*~*~*~*

Once, Bella whacked our cousin Evan over the head with a wooden horse. I can’t remember why or where, just the look on his face. Desperately wanting to burst into tears but held back by the knowledge that big boys didn’t go running their mothers because they had been hit by a girl. But he couldn’t hit her back because she was a girl. And his head really did hurt. And all his friends were watching, waiting to see what he would do….

So he just sort of stood there, with his mouth hanging open and his eyes scrunched up, until someone laughed. Then we all laughed, even him, until everyone was crying. Just rolling around on the floor with tears in our eyes because Evan had looked so funny.

*~*~*~*

When I was little almost everyone I met was family, in some way or another. Mama’s friends, who dropped by in the afternoon for tea and gossip were cousins of some sort. As were their children, our playmates, girls and boys who we had joked and fought with since the day we were born. Our housekeeper was a relation, though I never quite worked out exactly how. After all, it was very complicated, trying to figure out how a person was related to you. They often ended up being something like your second cousin three times removed and your third cousin by marriage. In the end it was simpler just to forget all about it.

It came up once though.

We were all up in the nursery (by we I mean Evan and Evey Rosier, Stan and Roddy LeStrange, Daffy Bulstrode and us Black sisters.) As you can see there were rather a lot of us, which made it difficult to decide what to play. You see everyone had their own opinion. Evan and Roddy wanted to play Mage Wars so they could run around and shout a lot. (Personally I wouldn’t have minded that because I always become a Casualty of War very early on in the game and so would have got to read my book for the rest of the afternoon.) But Bella objected, just on general principles I think. Stan said that he wouldn’t mind being Merlin for a while, but everyone ignored him. We had stopped playing Merlin years ago. Dragons and Princesses was suggested by Evey and shouted down. (The Princess (Evey) always took so long to die. Daffy kept insisting that she was far too old to be playing with us babies, until Bella told her to either go away or shut up. She shut up.

 

Eventually, Bella said that Cissy wanted to be a mermaid, so we would have to play People under the Sea Being Attacked by the Kraken. No one objected. If Cissy wanted to be a mermaid then Cissy would be a mermaid. Especially since the game had enough possibilities for dramatic deaths and heroic deeds to please everybody.

Evan sparked being the Kraken, but as nobody else wanted to be it he might as well not have bothered. So he went and hid beneath a blanket in the corner until we needed him. Then Daffy got told that she had to be the Mama Mermaid because she was the tallest and that Roddy had to be the Papa Mermaid because he was the oldest. They both objected. Roddy because he wasn’t going to be a mermaid! And Daffy because she didn’t want to be Roddy’s wife.


Bella stared at her. Then said that nobody had said that Daffy had to marry Roddy, just because he was the Papa Mermaid and that she was
But then Stan interrupted and pointed out that Mamas and Papas had to get married otherwise they couldn’t have babies. Roddy, who was older and slightly more clued up about these things, told him to shut up. Bella echoed him. Then Evey asked why Daffy didn’t want to marry Roddy, who was after all an elder son.

“But he is younger than me!” Daffy exploded, “And he’s stupid and mean and he eats with his mouth open and laughs at really stupid jokes and he has sticky hands… and he is my cousin!” she finished triumphantly.

We gaped at her.

“Well I don’t think I want you for a wife!” Roddy said angrily, “Not if you’re going to be horrible like that.”

For some reason Daffy objected to this and a war of insults began, (Bella and Stan joined in as well, although I am not sure who they were fighting for. I pointed out (beneath the cries of “hag face” and “toad brain”) that she wasn’t really going to have to marry Roddy, although I don’t think that anyone heard me and Evan yelled at us to stop flapping around because he was getting bored waiting.

Evey however was on a different track.

“What does him being her cousin have to do with anything?”

I looked up from my book, (after all if we weren’t going to play anything…).

“Pardon?”

“I said,” - “beetle brows” “snot nose” - “WHAT DOES HIM BEING HER COUSIN HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?”

Surprisingly, everyone fell silent. Evey went very red and muttered something about just wanting to know. Daffy put on her You Are Very Stupid But I Am Very Kind So I Will Tell You This Very Obvious Fact face. It made her look a bit like a cross-eyed owl.

“Cousins can’t get married, ‘cause if they did their children would end up with two heads and things. Everyone knows that.”

We were all suitably impressed by the goriness of this tale.

Apart from Bella, who said, in an imitation of Daffy’s know-it-all tone “Well I thought that everyone knew that that was complete and utter Doxy poo.”

“Well I think-”

 

Bella cut her off quickly.

“Well you’re wrong, you have to be because our Aunt Walburga and Uncle Orion are cousins and Baby Sirius doesn’t have two heads or anything like that.”

She just refrained from adding "So There" onto the end, which I thought was quite good of her, considering. But we all knew that she could have said it, which made it just as bad for poor Daffy, who sulked until it was time to go home.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, we gave up on Merpeople and played People Getting Turned InTo Frogs instead. A game in which, to general relief, nobody had to marry anybody.

*~*~*~*

I lost my first tooth when I was quite young. I was very proud of this. (Bella had been seven before she had started losing hers.) It was one of my bottom front ones and it had been wobbly for at least a month. Bella was very scornful about this. She always yanked out her teeth as soon as they were the least bit unsteady. She didn’t seem to mind the blood that gushed down her chin and just insisted that we play Vampires Stalking An Unsuspecting Person because the blood made her look really realistic. I pointed out that vampires tended to have lots of teeth rather than lots of gaps. She ignored me.

Just as I ignored her offers to pull my wobbly tooth out for me. It was quite happy where it was for the present, I said. It would come out when it wanted to come out and not before. Then she called me a coward. So we had a very short fight which I lost. As always. It is quite hard to win a fight when the person who you are fighting is bigger and stronger than you. (But you already know that).

Bella was right though. I was scared to pull the tooth out. I was afraid that it would hurt. After all I didn’t like pain anymore than the next child. (Unless the next child is Roddy. Who likes getting scars and then telling you in gruesome detail exactly how he got them and how much it hurt.) So I just left it alone. Until one day it came out in an apple.

There was no blood. (Much to Bella’s disappointment.) Just a suddenly very small, lonely looking white blob left stranded in a sea of green and (less white) white. I plucked out carefully and gave it to Mama. She paid me a Sickle for it and promised to keep it very, very safe. Baby teeth being dangerous things to leave lying around.

*~*~*~*

I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I suppose someone must have told me about ABC at some point. Probably Bella. Or Mama, who was In Charge of Bedtime and the Book.

The Book fully deserved its capital letter. It was an heirloom - passed down to us through the generations. Mama had been read to from it as a child, as had Grandmama, and her mama before her, and her mama before her, and so on, and so on. Its full title was “Thee Beege Booke of Onedrof Thyngee”, it being written a long time ago when spelling was optional and there were a lot more Es around. It was large, as big as a paving slab, and covered in what had once been dark blue leather, but was now a sort of weathered grey. As well as the title the front cover contained a moon, a dog and a sprig of gorse. Occasionally the dog would chase its tail and the moon would wink up at you and laugh.

But what was inside was far more magical. Mother’s finger traced its path through Tales of Olympus, where Gods and Goddesses meddled with mankind, turned themselves into bulls to impress ladies and created constellations out of heroes. My favourite was the one with Persephone and her six pomegranate seeds - I thought it was wonderful how her mother had searched the world for her - although Bella spoiled it a bit by going on about how “soppy” the story was. Bella preferred Hercules who went out and killed things and Cissy didn’t really understand the stories but enjoyed watching the colourful pictures. The Black Forest stories were scary. Really terrifying. A lot of them involved children being eaten and I had nightmares about the thing with the whistle for ages afterwards. The pictures didn’t help either, all shadows and teeth and trees with eyes. There was a whole section devoted to Merlin and his adventures. (I had the most enormous crush on Arthur when he was young; I think it was something about the way his hair flopped in front of his face). Then there were stories about giants and dragons and a lot of heroes who got squashed or fried. And then more. It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

It did have a rather bad effect upon my spelling though, which was positively medieval.  That was until I discovered the marvels of the dictionary.

It began one day when I decided to read a “serious” book. I think I was about five. I wandered in to the book-room, climbed up on a chair and picked up the first book that came to hand: Marinus’ Atlantian Advances in Aquatic Aptitude. I only understood one word of the title, so, still clutching the book tightly to my chest, I wandered off to find Bella. She was in the nursery playing Old Hag in the Cupboard with Cissy. Bella didn’t want to help me, she wanted me to join in the game. For a moment I wavered. I did like Old Hag in the Cupboard but I also wanted to read a “serious” book. It was a very hard decision to make. (Especially with Bella shouting at me from inside the cupboard.)

Then Papa turned up and told her to stop making such a dreadful racket or she would stay in that cupboard right through lunch and tea. She shut up. Then I showed him my book. He looked at me for a bit and I saw his mouth twitch slightly, as if he was about to laugh. Then he took me by the hand and led me back to the book-room, where he brought down another, larger book for me. I said that I couldn’t possibly read them both but he said that I wouldn’t need to; the dictionary was only for reference. Then he showed me how to work a dictionary using my alphabet. It was very interesting and, as he said, quite easy. Then he left me alone and went off to do Papa stuff.

First I looked up Atlantian. But I soon found out that this dictionary business was harder than it seemed at first glance. You see, I didn’t really understand many of the words in the explanation of the word Atlantian. So I had to go and look those up. Then I had to look up the meanings of the words that were explaining what the meaning of the words that were explaining what Atlantian meant, and so on, and so on. But I didn’t really mind. In fact I was quite enjoying myself. There was something very satisfying about pinning down a word - pining it down so that you really understood what it was telling you. And I liked the smell of the pages and using the magnifying glass. And I liked that Papa had thought that I was grown up enough to be able to work this out, so I really, really didn’t want to disappoint him.

By tea-time I sort of understood what Aquatic meant. So when Papa asked I was able to tell him and bask in his approving nod. Then, wonder of all wonders, he produced a little pocket dictionary, just for me. He had written my name inside the cover it in proper blue ink handwriting, along with the words “For my grown up reader, from her proud Papa”. I stared at the words in something approaching awe. “Her proud Papa.” “Her proud Papa!” The words dance in my head all through tea. Then I went back to my book and found out what Advances meant in double quick time with the help of my dictionary.


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