The Wooden Box
By Emily Cathcart (14), Ardgillan Community College, Balbriggan, Dublin
Photograph: Getty Images
I run my fingers softly over the side of the box. I swirl them this way, that way, and tap a slow rhythm with my fingertips. I imagine that I am piping cream, or icing, as my finger traces a spiral. I love icing, especially vanilla with sprinkles. But mummy does not like cream, or icing, not even sprinkles. I can just hear her saying, “Look at the mess you’ve made, Georgia! How can you be such a dirty, bold little girl?”
My hand falls softly to my lap as I picture this. I try to adjust myself more comfortably, but my legs still have cramps. The box is not really a box, more of a small cupboard. I call it box because when I was two or three, cupboard was too hard to say. I remember telling mummy once that I was getting too big for box. She went very stiff, and told me that it was my own fault for growing so big. Then she washed my mouth out with horrible, stingy soap that made my eyes water.
Mummy likes things to be clean, you see. That is why she doesn’t like icing, or sprinkles. That’s why I have to stay in box for a long time. She needs to clean, and she says I would just get in the way. “Spick and span.” She repeats this over, and over, when she cleans. “Spick and span. It needs to be spick and span.” She repeats this like a mantra, as she scrubs the floor, or disinfects the sink, or polishes the fruit. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but it is not a magic spell, because I have already tried muttering it aloud in a spooky voice.
The drone of the vacuum cleaner cuts out from downstairs. I hear the soft pad of mummy coming up the stairs. She must have her ‘Polish n’ Go’ slippers on.
The door of box creaks open, and I see mummy’s legs standing in front of me. She stands stoically as I disentangle myself and step gingerly out on to the carpet.
“All done!” She announces brightly. I wonder whether she is in a good mood today. “What shall we do, together?”
My choices are very limited. Painting, drawing and colouring are forbidden because mummy says I’ll only make a mess. Mummy hates going outside, because of all of the germs.
Her smile is strained and I’m not sure what to do with my hands or where to look.
“Let’s have lunch!” She quickly strides out of the room, leaving me standing alone. I watch as she pauses to inspect the handrail on the stairs, her brow furrowed. She gives it a rub with a cloth from her pocket and then disappears downstairs.
I grab Mr Flops-a-lot and stand staring out the window. I daren’t sit on my bed or play with my precisely-arranged dolls. I rub his soft brown ears against my nose, but he smells sharp and acidic, like disinfectant. Mummy had to clean him after I brought him to school. Breathing shallowly, I nuzzle into him while I stare silently out the window. Children from the estate are playing and running on the green. They’re kicking a ball around, covered in mud and grass stains, but they don’t seem to care. I shudder to think what mummy would do if I got mud and germs on my clothes.
A while later, mummy calls and I plod down the stairs to the kitchen. She stands ready at the last step, vacuum at the ready. As I walk down the hall to the kitchen, she vigorously thrusts the vacuum around to catch all of the dust and dirt I left, a look of weary concentration on her face. I suddenly wonder whether the other children’s mummies and daddies follow them with a vacuum cleaner and lock them in a box so that they don’t make a mess.
We eat the precisely-cut sandwiches in silence when mummy has finished. I wonder about my daddy. Mummy never talks about him, or her mummy and daddy. I’m so caught up in my thoughts that I don’t notice that mummy has stopped eating, or that she is staring at me, until it is too late. When I do notice, I freeze. She has the look on her face. A mixture of disgust and anger bubbling on the surface. I swallow the food in my mouth with a gulp, but it feels as though I have swallowed a stone as well.
Without a word she rises and collects our plates, placing them in the sink. I know that I have done something really bad, because she does not even wipe the table before she comes and stands before me, glowering. I avert my eyes, and that’s when I see them. The crumbs. On my skirt and gathered on the floor too. My heart thumps wildly, like a bird struggling to escape the claws of a cat.
She grabs me by the upper arm in a swift, single movement and yanks me out of my seat. I stand stiffly while she vacuums me, suppressing a cry as the loud sucking noise passes over my ears. But she is not done yet.
“Dirty, dirty girl. Horrid little girl.” Her words sting like ice shards, whipping around me. In the bathroom she clips my nails. The skin underneath bulges red where she cuts them short. Then she grabs the hard bristle nail brush and scrubs. I bite my lip to suppress the pain, staring at her as she works. A satisfied, manic grin has crept onto her face.
I stare at my raw, pink hands as she drags me back upstairs. I hug my knees dejectedly as she slides the bolt on the box shut. Then mummy goes back to her cleaning. I feel like a caged animal, and wonder why mummy lets me out at all.