I had turned it over and over again in my eight year-old head, useless thoughts like wet laundry flopping in the final throes of a drum. What if I hadn’t said this? What if I hadn’t done that? Why, dear God, did I ever join in with the others?
I took myself back to when you first came to our school: Mr. Neville, the headmaster, beckoning you and your younger brother to the front of the hall at the start of assembly:
“This is Carole Smith and her little brother, Peter. They are starting with us today – Carole will be with Swallows; Peter with Jays. I’m sure we shall do everything we can to make them feel welcome.”
He beamed, but some of us noticed that he didn’t rest his hand gently on your back, as he’d done before with other new children.
A hundred and twenty pairs of eyes had crawled over your scuffed shoes, your threadbear cardigan, your unkempt hair. Your legs were impossibly thin, mottled sharp sticks that stuck out from a shapeless short skirt. Your toes turned inwards, and you shivered in the icy, arrant blast of our collective judgement.
I see you so clearly, still. A little old woman before your time: thin, pinched mouth;shrewd eyes;jutting chin. Skinny fingers twitching and fidgeting by your side.
In no time, we learned that, with your mother, you’d moved into the semi-derelict house that sat apart from the rest of the council estate. Our village back then: a mirror to 1970s class-divided Britain. At its entrance, the old farmhouses, the manor and the sturdy Victorian pub with its swinging sign; further down the road, the wide, bland windows of the newish estate to which I belonged – a semi-detatched, pampass-grassed mediocrity of twitching net curtains; and then, tucked away at the other end, narrow, labyrinthine, toddler-strewn streets that defined a rural council estate.
Marauding kids had pelted your windows with stones, even before your family came. The glass remained shattered, dark curtains patched over to keep things out and other things in. You, your mother and your brother Peter had been in for weeks before any of us knew that it was occupied. I remember how your lawn was strewn with broken fence panels, broken glass, a stainless steel sink, soggy cardboard boxes filled with empty sherry bottles. There was a washing line, permanently adorned with the same mould-riddled, shapeless garments- come rain or shine. No toys. Never any toys.
From the outset, we were merciless. With the scent of victim in our nostrils , we – I – closed in. Joanna Merritt was the first to take aim.
“Go and sniff her,” she dared us, her eyes thin and cruel. “She stinks of wee.”
One by one, goading each other, we’d tiptoe behind you like pantomime villains, pinching the back of your cardigan between thumb and forefinger, lifting the fabric to our noses. And then, the obligatory over-reaction: loud squeals of disgust, screwed-up faces, to beat a retreat back to the gang, wiping the ‘germs’ across jumpers and anoraks.
“You touched Carole Smith! You touched Carole Smith. You’ve caught it off her!”
I wonder now: at what exact moment in time, if any, did that faint, acrid reek of ammonia really reach our nostrils? Or was it was just childish fancy?
The taunting went on. We called you all the names under the sun that our spiteful, childish imaginations could muster. We pinched, kicked, spat. Occasionally, you hit back, but we knew that you’d never run to the teacher: neglect had deprived you of any real faith in them or any other adult.
After that first Summer, you didn’t come back. We were all to pre-occupied with our own lives to notice at first. But then, one morning in September, Mr. Neville made an announcement: “Carole Smith,” he said, “is poorly. Very poorly. You… we… are all going to need to be very gentle and kind with her when she returns.” Pause. “Carole has what the doctors call a ‘hole in the heart’.”
A hundred thought bubbles containing perfect Tom-and-Jerry hearts punctuated by black circle bullet holes sprung above our heads. We never really knew what ‘a hole in the heart’ meant and we never asked to know more.
But more was to come.
A week later, we were told that you were going to be away for two or three weeks – perhaps more. While you were in hospital, your brother Peter would stay with your grandparents, far far away at the other end of the country.
A month passed and one Wedesday afternoon, hobby-time was cancelled, and we were all summoned to the hall once more. In a few quiet words, we were told that you had passed away the previous week. As he told us, Mr. Neville took off his glasses, and wiped them with his handkerchief. I watched his face work as he looked down, and wondered how he was feeling. To the side of the hall, the other teachers looked on with grim expressions. No tears. We just all looked ahead, each one of us running over our last interactions with you: the strange, thin little girl we had barely known.
As Mr. Neville folded his hands together and led a quiet prayer, I stared ahead. There was a burning question that none of us could give voice to: whose cruel words or careless fists had been the last to puncture that fragile heart of yours? Who was to blame? For a long time, I remained convinced that it was me. It was the first time I had truly felt shame
The fact that I made a card for your mother is no compensation, I know. To compound this vanity, when I’d crept round to your house to quickly slip it under the front door, I found your place bleak and long since untenanted. I’d folded the card and shoved it back into my coat pocket, ready to lose it in one of the litter bins on the way home.
My life went on, with the various tiny trials and tribulations that childhood rolls out. Yours did not. You took the dark secrets of that house on the corner with you.
I’m sorry, Carole Smith. I lacked the courage to be your friend, and now it’s too late for forgiveness. All I have for you is the promise that, from the day we learned of your death, your quirky spirit lingered on the edges of my conscience as a small voice defending the underdog. It remains there still.