Nick Holdstock

Show and Tell

The night before my show and tell I couldn’t sleep at all. I had told the other girls that they had no cause for worry because I was going to bring something exceptional and could they please let go of my arm. The only girl who didn’t threaten me was the saintly Zhu Chen. She stared at me with limpid eyes and a look of absolute trust.
              It was all the fault of Mrs Mead, our fifth grade teacher. She had pitted the girls against the boys as part of a contest that assumed life or death proportions in our ten-year-old minds. Miss Farmer, our beloved fourth grade teacher, would never have done such a thing. She was beautiful and kind with long brown hair whose floating strands were friendly snakes that wanted to know us better. She remembered all thirty-seven of our birthdays and always baked us a cake, even after her house burned down and she was forced to live in a motel. I had hoped that she would marry my father, but this dream did not survive the first parent-teacher evening. Instead she married our geography teacher and went to live in Milwaukee.
              I couldn’t accept that I’d never see her again. During that summer I found myself getting upset over the smallest thing. When my Dad and I watched nature shows I’d cry if a butterfly lost a wing. It was worse than when Mom had left, either because I was older, or because it was more of a surprise. We hadn’t known she was dating Mr. Schultz. She didn’t tell us when they got engaged. It was like she’d been trying to keep it a secret; that we didn’t deserve to know. We were just the stupid little kids she got paid to take care of. I spent many afternoons lying in the long grass, looking up at the clouds, remembering Miss Farmer telling us her good news. Everyone cheered except me and Zhu Chen, whose love for Miss Farmer was even greater than mine. Miss Farmer had done more than remember her birthday; she gave Zhu Chen a cupcake every month. The poor girl was so frail and sick it was obvious she wouldn’t have many more.
              Those long days were so hot and dull that everything seemed a terrible effort. I wore the same clothes for weeks and let my nails grow long. If I hadn’t had to look after Dad I’d have probably been even worse. His routine gave structure to my days, starting with Reveille at 0700 hours. It always took his nervous system a while to shift up from the low gears of sleep. After opening his eyes he’d lay there at least ten minutes, neither speaking nor moving, just blinking very fast. When he was ready, he’d say my name then wriggle and shift till his stump hung off the side of the bed. I’d slide on the prosthesis then start to fasten the many straps and buckles. I always took my time, and did them up tight, because he was my Dad and I loved him. I didn’t mind that he often seemed distant; life had taught him a lesson he didn’t know how to unlearn.
              Although it was just the two of us we ran a pretty tight ship. Breakfast was at 0730, Lunch at 1200. Admittedly, Dinner wasn’t always at 1800 — sometimes he got delayed at the veteran’s centre — but he was always home for Lights Out at 2200. This routine was never a burden; it was more like a game. It was in this spirit that he sometimes addressed me as ‘Private’ and I called him ‘Sergeant’. Admittedly to him this wasn’t a game: ten years after leaving the service he still believed in the chain of command. This meant that when I reversed our ranks he followed my orders without question. I only did this for small things, like when I wanted to stay up to watch the end of a movie, or have a glass of beer, because even at that age I knew it was wrong to take advantage of him. But even as ‘Sgt Driscoll’, Dad wasn’t an authority figure. I was allowed to grow up freely, to make my own mistakes, what the stupid people in child services would eventually call ‘neglected’. But it was never that. Even though my Dad was distant, he still saw how unhappy I was that summer. He bought me a bike and told me to start going on ‘missions’ with other kids. Every morning, after breakfast, he’d give me my ‘rations’ — a peanut butter and sugar sandwich — then kiss me on the forehead and say, ‘Good luck Private.’
              It was on one of these ‘missions’ that we found a raccoon by the side of the road. We stood and watched it claw the air, a red foam round its mouth. I remember saying, “We should do something,” the others saying, “Yeah.”
              We stood and watched it writhe some more. I said, “This is awful.” It was like we were in one of those dreams where you get frozen and cannot escape whatever’s coming at you. My eyes stung. I felt light-headed. Then I was moving forward as if were being pulled on a string. When I reached the raccoon my foot was brought up quickly, then slammed down hard. There was a spurt of blood; I did it again. Everything was quiet. Apart from a girl who puked, the others thought this ‘cool’.
              After that kids started coming to my house every few weeks with tales of wounded animals. If Dad said it was OK — which he always did, unless one of the children looked Middle-Eastern — I would follow on my bike to wherever the animal was waiting. On arrival I knelt by the creature, usually a bird, as it twitched and blinked in its pain. There were happy times when I put down my sweater, lifted the creature onto it, gently placed the distressed bundle in my bike’s front basket. Then I pedaled fast to the animal shelter, trying to avoid the bumps my wheels seemed eager to find.
              Unfortunately these occasions were by far the exception. Most of those bleeding birds with twisted beaks and broken wings were in a kind of agony that was worse than death. I must have killed between ten and twenty that summer, and it never got any easier. It’s awful to stand on a living thing and feel its body yield. But even as children we know that the suffering of other creatures is wrong.
              On the first day of the new school year there was a lot of speculation about our new teacher. If it was a woman, would she be pretty? If it were a man, would he be handsome? Would he or she be good at singing? Would they be able to juggle? I did not join in their speculation. I already knew what Miss Farmer looked like.
              The bell rang. We fell silent. Slowly, the door opened. The woman who entered had grey hair and glasses so large they seemed to shield her face. Her lips drew back, exposing her gums: they were the sickly pink of the lotion my father used on his stump.
              “My name is Mrs. Mead. And I’m so happy to meet you!”
              The rest of the class cheered.
              “Well,” she said and took a step closer. “We should start with your names. You know mine, but I do not know yours.”
              When we told her our names she seemed delighted, by mine especially. “That is a beautiful name!” she said. “Is it short for Annabel?”
              “That’s not my name,” I said with a growl. She didn’t seem to notice.
              “We’re going to play a game,” she said. “I want the girls to come and sit on this side.” Her hand swept through space. “And the boys to go to the other. Leave a column between you.”
              Although this did not sound like a game, everybody stood. We stepped around chairs, desks and each other, the boys surging right, the girls sliding left, till we were on different sides. Only when she asked us to sit did we see the problem. There were sixteen boys and twenty-one girls; the chairs were in four rows of ten. We could not leave a column free. Someone had to sit there.
              Inevitably, it was Zhu Chen who, given her health — and all those cakes — lost this version of musical chairs. She fell into a chair in the empty column. Mrs. Mead pursed her lips.
              “Very good. Almost there. Sue, can you stand up?”
              Zhu Chen did not seem to hear. Perhaps she did not know her name as said by Mrs. Mead. Or because the blood was roaring in her ears after the effort of moving.
              “Sue?” said Mrs. Mead again while slowly raising her hand, palm-up, from just below the hip. “Can you move your desk? Put it in front of Annabel’s.”
              Her voice had an edge of impatience. She did not realize that Zhu Chen was one of the sweetest girls you could hope to meet. In all the failing cells of her body, there was truly no fight. If she was slow to obey it was because for her this was an Olympic event. The 10-metre lift and carry. She tried to lift her desk, but failed. She clenched her jaw and pushed.
              If this had happened on TV it would have touched my classmates deeply. Her courage and determination would have taught them a life lesson. But only I watched her in awe. The rest of the class rolled their eyes; stuck out their tongues; there was even a snigger.
              From then on we sat in these seats, girls on the left, boys on the right. Two girls tried sitting with boys they liked, but Mrs Mead took them outside. They came back crying.
              This was not the only change from how Miss Farmer had run things. During roll call she said the boys’ names with as much solicitous warmth as if they had been her grandsons. The boys were mostly unimpressed, being used to such treatment. Although this was irritating, perhaps it should not have mattered. So what if she favored the boys. It was only homeroom.
              But as children we are constantly surrounded by lessons. That is when we are most receptive, when we are convinced to be good little girls with downcast eyes, aggressive boys who do not cry, most of all, to follow orders just like little soldiers. Of course, no one tells us this. Though most adults underestimate children, few think they are stupid: you do not mould a child by giving it a list of moral imperatives. You give it storybooks, you show it cartoons. You play games at school.
              Under Miss Farmer homeroom had been a time to chat, sing songs, and copy each other’s homework. Mrs Mead made us perform. Each morning one of us had to do a ‘show and tell’. For the first few weeks we brought in old coins, favorite photos, books, occasionally a pet. No doubt the same scene was repeated in classrooms throughout the country. What made ours different was that after two weeks Mrs. Mead introduced a competitive element. From then on it was going to be boys vs. girls. Each day she awarded a single star, sticking it to a piece of pink or navy paper depending on whose show and tell had been better. She promised the side that got fifteen stars ‘a very special prize’.
              After three days all the stars were shining on the blue. On Friday morning I approached several other girls with a plan. I suggested we tear their stars from the paper, then stick them onto our own. I thought it a very good plan despite the lack of support.
              It was Zachary who changed things. He was a thin boy with a quavering voice whose cheeks were perpetually flushed. That Friday he stood at the front and told us about his needlepoint of Winnie the Pooh. He spoke of the different stitches he’d used with a proud and steady voice that not even Miss Farmer, in all her divinity, had ever coaxed from him. At one point during those heady two minutes, when words failed to convey the Whipped Flower stitch, Zachary, without hesitation, stepped to the blackboard, picked up the chalk, carefully drew out the steps.
              Prometheus could not have shocked the Gods more. We would no more consider touching the chalk than Mrs Mead’s breasts. At the time I was as flabbergasted as the others, but over the next few years I often found myself in situations where some action, though neither welcome, nor predicted — a shove or slap, an object thrown — was nonetheless required. As the person fell, or bottle flew, I recalled Zachary’s conviction and felt comforted no matter what followed.
              After he finished we clapped and Mrs. Mead said — in a voice that seemed to squeeze from her throat — “Trudy. Please.”
              Trudy spoke for less than a minute about her woolly hat. Half of this time was spent looking at the floor and giggling; the rest was her saying, “It’s really warm… I love the color… It reminds me of my dog. He’s five.”
              After this revelation she giggled to her seat. We looked to Mrs. Mead who held the star in her hand, waiting for it to join the others.
              Mrs. Mead sighed, and with a look of sorrow, stuck the star on the pink paper. There was a mystified pause. Then all the girls clapped wildly. We loved this strange new world where boys were not infallible. In hindsight, I think that Mrs. Mead was just as confused. When I broke into her desk I found a number of teaching manuals that were at cross-purposes. On the one hand there was Battle of the Sexes and Gender Wars, which argued that gender conflict in the classroom could promote teamwork and a strong sense of group and personal identity. However, there was also Boys Must Be Boys and Kill Them Before They Grow, all of which argued that pre-teen school experiences were a major determinant of post-pubertal sexual orientation, or as one of them puts it, ‘This is a sensitive window that must be closed correctly.’ In hindsight, I think the lesson of this for me was one I had learned from many adults before. First from my mother — who always claimed to be fine, then burst into tears — and after she left from the social workers who brought me bags of candy then asked if my father was feeding me properly. Adults are always in two minds. Only when you’re a kid, or like my father, can you act in a way that’s pure.
              After the girls’ first gold star, something shifted in Mrs Mead. On Monday, when Adam showed his sock puppet (a charming red snake named ‘Barney’), and Mary Beth showed her pressed violets and daisies, it was the girls who won again. The next day Ellen brought in a box that played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ while a ballerina turned on a spike. This, like the doll Tammy brought in next day (and the make-up Susan brought in on Thursday) easily trumped the boys’ efforts (a periscope; a starling’s egg; a whistle for making duck calls). It was not until the following Monday —when the score was 6-4 girls — that Bobby saved face for the boys with a display of catapult marksmanship that shamed Lydia’s enthusiasm for Mr Wiggins, her rabbit.
              From then on the stars were shared. By 11-all the rivalry had become so intense no girl would speak to a boy. During Judy’s presentation of a lace-fringed sampler featuring the phrase, ‘A girl’s place is in the home’, some boys coughed, while others sneered and Roger Adams made a noise that made Zhu Chen cry. Mrs Mead sent him to the principal then gave the girls the star.
              By the time it was 14-all the whole affair was, without question, a runaway horse that had bolted after killing its owner. The boys and girls were only speaking to each other in curses. School bags were taken, lockers were ransacked; Roger Adams trapped a wasp and made it sting Lydia. After Mrs Mead said it would be my turn next day, the girls got their threats in first. I was only just getting some feeling back in my arm when the boys got to me. Roger Adams gave me a Chinese burn that made me black out for a few seconds. ‘The next one will kill you,’ he said.
              That night was long and very lonely. Dad had gone to bed at his usual time — 2200 hrs — but he was such a heavy sleeper that only a mortar could have woken him. I went through the closets. I looked in the garage. I had no idea what to bring. The most sentimental, girly thing I owned was a picture of my mother in a heart-shaped frame on which I had written, six years before, “I wil always love you mumme.” I expect that Mrs. Mead would have liked this, but I didn’t know if I wanted to win. Either way, someone would hurt me.
              By 4 a.m. my nails had dug crescents in my palm. The not-dead birds began to shriek; the black started to pale. I felt like a corpse, thick-tongued and heavy, the way I feel when someone sneaks antipsychotic drugs into my clam chowder. As I lay trembling in the grey light, my classmates’ voices rang in my ears. ‘Show us!’ they shrieked, ‘Tell us!’ they screamed, till I wanted my head to explode.
              When the alarm went off at 7, I got up and washed. I brushed my teeth thoroughly, combed my hair with care, just as the condemned do before their execution. I went to help my father get up. As usual, he lay there, unresponsive, thinking of the wreckage, the hospital, maybe nothing at all. Then he said, “Annie” and smiled and I took his hand. He touched my hair and said, “You’re getting so big”, then I put on his leg. He stood and we went into the kitchen. I got the eggs out of the fridge, pushed the stool up to the stove so I could reach the rings. I cooked three for him, and none for me; the dead do not need to eat.
              But because the world is sick and cruel, there is always hope.
              “Sergeant Driscoll,” I said, “Will you drive me to school?”
              He didn’t need to think about it. He smiled and said, “Yes.”
              After breakfast we got in the car and he said, “Now we’re Oscar Mike.” On the way Dad opened the windows because he loved the air on his face, the speed that things approached; as we passed station wagons and trucks he gave a happy sigh. Then he said, “Hitman Two, Actual. Be advised of our position.”
              There was a pause. He made a left. Then he said, “Affirmative. Proceeding to the destination.”
              When we got to school I expected to see a line of boys and girls all hefting rocks in their hands. But there were only lawns, the fountain, a flag that limply hung.
              Dad said, “I’ll see you tonight.”
              I said, “OK,” but did not move from the car.
              “What is it?”
              “Can you come in with me?”
              “What’s wrong?”
              “Please. Just for a minute.”
              And so we entered the halls of Cedar Spring High, where, despite my terror and nausea, the spots that danced before my eyes, I still felt a stab of pride for the stares my father received. He escorted me to the door of my homeroom, then snapped me a salute. “Have a good day,” he said, then mussed my hair and smiled. He turned to go, and I said, “Wait,” and that was when I must have decided to show Mrs. Mead what I thought of her sick little game.
              “Come in,” I said, and when he hesitated, I added, “Private, that is an order.”
              He reeled and went glassy-eyed, and I really did feel bad for taking advantage of him. As I entered a mocking cheer rose from the boys, then died, when they saw Dad’s uniform, his medals, the scars that crossed his cheeks. They huddled and whispered in evident confusion while I said to Mrs. Mead, “This is my Dad. I’ve brought him to show the class.”
              She paled and brought her hand to the cameo at her throat.
              “I’m not sure about that, Annabel. Maybe—”
              She broke off. I saw her teeth. Then she said, “Why not?”
              And when I picture her head at that moment, it is literally transparent. I see the neurons shaped like stars; the flash as the light bulb winks on. A long, blue banner unfurls on which it says, ‘BOYS WIN!’
              She cleared her throat. “Class, Annie is going to tell us something about her father.”
              Which is what I proceeded to do. I said, “Do you know where Iraq is?” and most of them said yes.
              “What about Kuwait? Do you know where that is?”
              A few boys muttered that they did.
              “It’s next to Iraq. But it’s much smaller. A few years ago Iraq attacked them and my Dad had to go and fight there.”
              “We kicked their butts,” shouted Roger and punched the air.
              “My Dad was in a place called Khafji. He was driving through town when he was attacked. Dad, will you tell them what happened?”
              I waited, then my Dad whispered, “I don’t think I should.”
              “Private,” I said in a tone of warning, and his face stiffened.
              “Second platoon had been told to do a sweep of the town. All recon intel suggested the hajjis had left. We had just entered the market place when they hit us with RPGs. Most of the squad was killed. After my vehicle was hit I lay trapped in the wreckage. I could hear the lieutenant screaming, then some men laughing, then he screamed even louder. There were more explosions then I passed out. When I woke they were cutting me out.”
              He stopped and looked at me, as if to say, Enough? Apart from several girls who were crying, and Zachary, who held his head in his hands, while moaning, there was a silence it was up to Mrs. Mead to break. I expected her to send me out, to the principal, to some cupboard for little girls who refuse to be just that.
              But perhaps she thought that too disruptive. She was still trying to teach us a lesson.
              “Well, thank you very much Annie. Now it’s Roger’s turn.”
              “Wait,” I yelled and yanked at Dad’s trousers, which, because they were fastened with Velcro, easily came off. There were squeals, an intake of breath. Then a thump as Mrs. Mead hit the floor.
              My little fingers undid the buckles; loosened the straps; forcefully tugged at the leg.
              “This is what I want to show you. This is what war did to my father.”
              I put my hand on his stump.
              “Who wants to touch it? Roger?”
              He moved his chair back. Shook his head.
              And it should have been no surprise when Zhu Chen stood up. She did not live in a world of kittens and daisies. She was friends with pain.
              Each step was a marathon. She placed her hand on the stump.
              Roger said, “What does it feel like?”
              Zhu Chen laughed and said, “A boiled egg!” Her face showed so much joy it was like a terrible light that pulled my eyelids down. Then I was no longer in the room but in a kitchen years ago. I was sat at the kitchen table watching my mother take a cake from the oven. She placed it before me and I lowered my face; smelt the chocolate, smelt the ginger; one long, happy breath.
              When I opened my eyes Zhu Chen looked like one of those virtuous women in paintings who smile at their martyrdom. It must have reassured Roger, because he calmly walked to my father. He said, “Hello Sir,” then stretched out his hand, till he was touching the stump as well. Then he said, “You’re right, it does,” and his face also assumed the look of someone without fear of the flames.
              After that everyone wanted to touch it. They surged towards my Dad like lepers eager to be healed. It must have been frightening being surrounded, feeling all those hands, but I maintain that when he fired his pistol, it was as a warning. In the ensuing panic, Zhu Chen was knocked to the floor. She lay there, her arms flapping wildly. A creature in obvious pain.

Comments are closed.