I turned the key in the car’s ignition.
The engine coughed. I twisted the key again. Nothing.
“Sorry kids,” I said though gritted teeth. “Rainwater
must’ve got into the engine, or something. We’ll have to
get the bus.” I
bet the sun would be shining on our old house.
and Lizzie dragged their school kit out of the boot, and
the three of us slogged to the bus stop, squeezed under
took our places at the end of the queue, far away from
the shelter at the stop. Inhaling a mix of sweat and
perfume, I peered out from behind the woman in front of
me, trying to avoid the rain dripping off her umbrella.
idled at the far end of the street, stuck behind a line
of lorries and cars. Cyclists wove round the traffic in
and out of the puddles, darting like gnats, splashing
let out a scream. “In the car!”
have you forgotten now?” Lizzie slapped at her brother.
“He’s brainless, Mum.”
it!” I pulled the children apart. “You lose things too,
bad use of English,” she said, her mouth all puckered up
like a cat’s bum. “You shouldn’t say I lose
things. That would mean I don’t find
them, and I do.”
know where to look too!” John aimed a kick at Lizzie. It
caught me on the ankle. “In the car! We left
Tickie-Three-Arms!’ he said. “We’ve got to go and get
can’t, sweetheart, we’ll be late,” I said. And even more
work would be landing in my in-box, back at home.
lower lip trembled, like his voice. “But nobody else
plays with me. I hate this school.”
such a baby” Lizzie snapped. “Crying over someone who
doesn’t really exist. If we go back, I’ll be late. And you’ll have to
write me a note saying it’s because we had to go home
for my stupid brother’s imaginary friend.”
settled into the new school right away. She
was tough, she could stand up for herself.
Other kids respect that.
But John was different, he was my baby, he’d
always been the sensitive, dreamy sort. Other kids
despise that. After about two weeks at the new school,
he’d first mentioned Tickie-Three-Arms.
let out a wail and flung his arms round my waist. People
stared at us, tutting and pursing lips. I gawped back at
them, my chin jutting out and eyes staring. The bus
pulled up. The doors opened and the rest of the queue
shoved their way inside.
driver sounded the horn. “You getting on, lady?”
shook my head. Lizzie muttered “Drama queen” at John and
climbed on. It’d take her all the way there. No need to
change. Plenty of other kids about. She was ten, after
all. It’d be OK, wouldn’t it? I pulled John to his feet
and we set off for home.
I opened a back door of the dead car.
“Mind your head, Tickie.” I made an elaborate mime, as
if helping someone out.
Mum, she’s in the front.”
was the trouble with not being able to see
Tickie-Three-Arms, although perhaps it was just as well
I couldn’t. “She’s as tall as Dad, and an umbrella comes
out of her head when it rains,” John had said. “She
likes growing carrots in our garden. And flowers. It’s
easy, with her extra arm.” I hadn’t dared ask where that
car still wouldn’t start, but the rain had stopped by
the time John and I set off again. It was break time
when we arrived at school, and the playground was packed
with a noisy mass of kids. John ran up to a group of
kids, smiling, pointing at the chalk marks they’d drawn
on the tarmac. Each child turned their back on him. They
whispered to each other behind their hands laughed and
stood at the edge of the playground, watching them. I
wished I could grab him, take him back home, even if it
did mean I wouldn’t get much work done.
turned away and headed for the bus stop, past a woman,
wisps of white hair protruding from under a shapeless,
grey felt hat. Her face was all wrinkles; she could have
been aged in her nineties, but I wasn’t sure. You can’t
really tell, after a point. She
wore a long, black coat that trailed in the puddles as
she staggered along, a heavy-looking plastic Tesco bag
in each hand. As I waited at the crossing for the lights
to change, she stopped next to me. Her heel caught in a
crack in the pavement and she stumbled. I put my hand up
to support her.
put the bags down and looked up at me from under her
that’s better – I thought my fingers were going to drop
off.” She rubbed at her hands. A corner of a Cornflakes
packet protruded through a hole in one bag. The handle
of the other had stretched almost to snapping point.
any help?” I asked.
“Thank you, I
just need a hand across this road. The bags weigh a ton.
I’m so slow,
the light will go red before I’m half way across.”
poked at the button of the crossing again. The light
turned green and I picked the bags up. Tesco’s must have
had a buy-one-get-one-free sale on anvils. We crossed
over and I put them down again. “Have you got far to
you mind about that, dear. Now listen. I’m a fairy.” Oh great, a nutter.
“That was a test. Our queen has tasked me with finding
one kind human, and you’ll do. I’m going to grant you
three wishes.” She muttered under her breath. “Now,
remember, don’t waste them. The same person will make
them all come true.” She grabbed the bags and, lifting
them as easily as though they were empty, turned down a
same person? It was straight out of some cheesy
motivational thing we’d had to do at work, before I
started working from home. How the only person who can
help you, is you. The rain started again.
I trudged on, a bus sped past. There was nobody waiting
for it. The bus wouldn’t stop. I started running. It
didn’t slow down.
I wish someone would get off.
I reached the stop, the bus drew up and the door opened.
I staggered inside, gasping my thanks to the driver.
to stop anyway,” the driver said. “Girl with the
umbrella hat rang the bell. Poor handicapped kid.”
hadn’t seen anybody getting off. Whoever it was must
have changed their mind and stayed on.
heard a jingling sound, like someone ringing the bell on
a cat’s collar. “One down, two to go! Careful!” said a
voice in my ear. I whirled round but the seats behind
Lizzie came out of school arm in arm with
her latest friend, John trailing behind them. At home,
he went into the garden, walking carefully round
Tickie-Three-Arms’s veg-and-flower patch that only he
could see, and kicked a ball around. Through the open
kitchen window by the sink, I heard the commentary: “…
as he comes down the centre nobody can catch him, and he
shoots!” He aimed at the gap between two trees. “Save
ball cannoned between the trees, only stopping when it
crashed into the fence behind.
came into the kitchen.
wish the other kids would play with John, the rotten
little so and so’s,” I said.
jingle. “That’s two!” said the sing-song voice from the
you hear that, Lizzie?”
frowned “Yes, you want someone to play with John.”
not me…never mind. Can’t you go and kick the ball around
with him? Just for a minute or two.”
can’t. Homework. You play with him.”
you kidding? Too much to do. What’s first?’ I ticked off
an imaginary list. “Oh yes - the veg. Lend a hand, will
Mum. No time. I’ve got to learn all these spellings for
tomorrow – forty words this time. Ask Dad to help you
when he comes home.”
want to eat as soon as he gets in. Anyway, he’ll be too
busy making up a sentence using each word on your list.”
It was his turn. Lucky old Phil. I hoped there’d be
words like “barbican” and “bartizan”, just a few of the
ones I’d been lumbered with last time.
went out and trudged up the stairs to her room. I looked
at the mound of unpeeled potatoes. “And us next,” the
string beans seemed to say. Phil had also suggested I
could cut some of the roses growing in the front garden,
they’d be nice in the living room. Just in case I didn’t
have enough to do. I felt my stomach churn.
My hands shook.
down. Put all the chores in a logical order. First of
all, see if there’s any frozen veg in the freezer. I
opened it. Just a tub of vanilla ice cream, a glass
bottle of milk (the curdled contents pushing out of the
lid in a column-shaped icicle) and a pack of beef
burgers, half embedded in ice. I slammed the door shut.
Have to go shopping tomorrow. And drag it all home on
the bus. And defrost the freezer. That’d have to be done
first. And what about work?
reordered the “to do” list. First peel the potatoes.
Squash peelings into the overflowing bin. Then
get the roses on your way back from emptying it. I
started the tap running into the sink and glanced across
the kitchen. The text flashing on the console of the
loaded washing machine said “end”, but it may as well
have said “No, me
grabbed the tap and wrenched it shut. “I wish someone,
anyone, would give me a hand around this bloody place.”
waited. If Lizzie had heard my shout from upstairs, she
didn’t react. Nothing happened.
“All gone.” Jingle. The sing-song voice again. I’d have
to see what Dr Google said about stress making you hear
things, next time I got the chance to switch my laptop
on again. Tomorrow morning, at this rate.
in the garden, John’s football slammed into the fence
again. “Don’t do that,” I called out of the window. “I
don’t want Mr Gilmerton next door coming around again.”
Hadn’t he ever been a seven-year-old kid? More likely
he’d popped out of his mother aged fifty, drawn his
first breath and begun moaning about his fence.
picked up the ball. “Alright, I’ve finished anyway.
Tickie-Three-Arms had to go somewhere.” John came in and
went upstairs. I knew that he would be at his bedroom
window, watching the children playing in the street. If
I’d had three wishes, only one had come true. Did that
entitle me to some kind of magical credit note? Not
that I believed in all that.
have to have the burgers. I opened the freezer again. I
took out a pack of frozen chips, one of peas, and a Meat
Feast pizza. I put the unpeeled vegetables back into the
rack. Now to go outside: some flowers might give the
impression of calmness. To anyone who didn’t notice the
rest of the house.
along the pavement, on the other side of the fence,
stopped outside the house. I looked up from the roses.
Misery-Gilmerton’s-next-door’s son, in John’s class at
school. “Can Jonno play football in our garden?”
I could go back inside the house to call John, he dashed
out, a smile splitting his face in two.
but mind the fence!”
come on your own, Jonno,” said Son-of-Gilmerton. “Not
that big girl with the arm. She’s scary.”
Phil says he always knew John would grow
out of Tickie-Three-Arms, once he found some real
friends. Lizzie is glad she doesn’t have to set a place
for her at the table any more. The house is always tidy,
meals are always on time, and there are newly cut
flowers in every room.
friends ask how I manage it, with work and everything,
and all without help. The answer? That’d be telling.
Let’s just say that many hands make light work. Who
cares how many are real? I don’t buy frozen veg any
more. They’re brought in fresh from the garden every
day, even when it’s raining. And she’s a dab hand, or
maybe that should be dab-three-hands, at car