I can see Mary Joplin now, in the bushes crouching with her knees apart, her cotton frock stretched across her thighs. In the hottest summer (and this was it) Mary had a sniffle, and she would rub the tip of her upturned nose, meditatively, with the back of her hand, and inspect the glistening snail-trail that was left. We squatted, both of us, up to our ears in tickly grass: grass which, as midsummer passed, turned from tickly to scratchy and etched white lines, like the art of a primitive tribe, across our bare legs. Sometimes we would rise together, as if pulled up by invisible strings. Parting the rough grass in swaths, we would push a little closer to where we knew we were going, and where we knew we should not go. Then, as if by some predetermined signal, we would flounce down again, so we would be half-invisible if God looked over the fields.
Buried in the grass we talked: myself mono-syllabic, guarded, eight years old, wearing too-small shorts of black-and-white check, that had fitted me last year: Mary with her scrawny arms, her kneecaps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand, her own perhaps, had placed on her rattails a twisted white ribbon; by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly tied parcel. Mary Joplin put questions to me: “Are you rich?”
I was startled. “I don’t think so. We’re about middle. Are you rich?”
She pondered. She smiled at me as if we were comrades now. “We’re about middle too.”
Poverty meant upturned blue eyes and a begging bowl. A charity child. You’d have coloured patches sewn on your clothes. In a fairy-tale picture book you live in the forest under the dripping gables, your roof is thatch. You have a basket with a patchwork cover with which you venture out to your grandma. Your house is made of cake.
When I went to my grandma’s it was empty-handed, and I was sent just to be company for her. I didn’t know what this meant. Sometimes I stared at the wall till she let me go home again. Sometimes she let me pod peas. Sometimes she made me hold her wool while she wound it. She snapped at me to call me to attention if I let my wrists droop. When I said I was weary, she said I didn’t know the meaning of the word. She’d show me weary, she said. She carried on muttering: weary, I’ll show her who’s weary, I’ll weary her with a good slap.