Beginning in March 2014 I participated in a flash fiction challenge hosted by Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch Communications. Each week Charli would post a new prompt for writers to respond to using exactly 99 words. Each week I would endeavour to write a response that was in keeping with my blog’s focus on education.
After a while a character tentatively appeared; at first infrequently, and then at more regular intervals. Her name is Marnie. With each challenge Marnie finds herself in a new situation and reveals a little more of herself, to me as much as to her readers. Much like responses to memory prompts, Marnie’s story flits between experiences and ages as we get to know her better.
In response to a suggestion by Desley Jane who blogs at Musings of a Frequent Flying Scientist I have collected Marnie’s stories here, in the order in which they unfolded, perhaps as responses might to a friend or a therapist as trust develops.
I will add to the collection as the story develops. Because Marnie is a ‘work in progress’, and because memories of those who have undergone trauma, as Marnie has, may be inconsistent or missing altogether, please be aware that there may be inconsistencies as I try to work out Marnie’s life story. She is fiction after all!
Thanks for reading. I do appreciate your feedback and welcome any suggestions you have regarding the development of Marnie’s story. In case you are interested to check out the context for each story, I have linked each back to the post in which it first appeared.
These first two stories were written prior to Marnie’s first appearance but may, in time, form part of her story
Her crumpled body pressed tightly into the corner; she willed herself a part of it. He was coming to get her. His tendril-like fingers scratched the window pane, prised up the screen, tore down the blind, demanded entry. With her eyes clamped shut, the images took charge: too terrifying to forget, too horrible to remember. He’d never let her be. His powerful hands pummelled the door, jangled the handle, wrenched it free. Hands blocking her ears failed to exclude the menacing howl. “There’s no escape.” Her screams found voice. “Hush,” they soothed the quivering mass. “It’s just the wind.”
She hurled it with such force that had it been his head, as she had wished it was, it too would have smashed into smithereens, just as the figurine had.
“You ab-so-lute monster!” she screamed.
She fell to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
All her life she had thought it was her; something wrong with her; she that was wanting.
But it wasn’t her. It was him. His wanting. His vile taking.
The repulsive visions made her want to turn inside out and eradicate any trace of connection.
Her ignorance had offered no protection; and now no solace.
Now here are her “memories” thus far, the first prompted by a unicorn:
She sat on the bed and looked around. Funny how some things don’t change.
They had left it untouched for all those years since her escape, waiting for her return. But she never did. Never could. Until now.
“You should,” she was told. “Make peace.” “Let it go.”
It didn’t look so scary now. They were both gone. She was grown.
Sunlight glinted on the unicorn. It had faded but waited still, on the night-table, for their nocturnal escapades away from cruel reality.
She fingered it for a moment, remembering. Then dumped it in the wastebasket.
“Sell!” she said.
‘Miss. Marnie has a toy in her bag.’
‘Uh-uh,’ I responded.
‘You’re not allowed to have toys at school,’ he insisted.
Trust him! Always dobbing.
‘Miss,’ he persisted, tugging my sleeve.
‘What is it?’ I sighed, dragging myself out of the confusion of marks and percentages that now seemed more important to telling a child’s story than their own words and actions.
I looked at the little fellow pleading for my attention. They were all so needy; so demanding; but time . . .
‘It’s a unicorn, Miss.’
‘Unicorn! Let’s see!’ I was back. A child in need!
Timid. Needed help getting things out of bag to put in drawer. Sat towards back of group. Drew knees up under chin. Hunched over. Sucked thumb. Twisted long tangled hair under nose. Rocked.
Responded in roll call! Sat with ‘friend’. Legs crossed. Back straight. Smiled – briefly. Someone looked! Screamed, “Stop looking at me!” Dissolved in tears. Again. Retreated under desk. Again.
Initiated conversation!! Hair combed!! Nose not running!! Brought toy for show and tell. Responded with one- or two-word answers. Small, dirty, pink unicorn. B laughed. Erupted, but went to desk, not under!
She willed the earth to open up and swallow her whole. But it didn’t. She just stood there trembling, attempting to hold back the deluge that threatened to engulf her.
She strained to remember, knocking her head with her fist. Quick. Try. Try. What’s the rule: i? e?
She stammered an answer. Wrong again! Too many rules! Stupid rules! Broken – just like her.
She fled, eyes stinging, mouth twitching; and as she passed, with one hand grasped the confiscated unicorn sitting askew the teacher’s desk.
Away they flew, the assault of mocking laughter fading far below.
She spluttered out the splinters of pencil: no longer tasty, never helpful. The assessor’s steely eyes pounced. She wiped the last vestiges from her mouth; staring blankly, as blank as the paper in front of her.
Outside the sunlight danced like fairies on the leaves, beckoning. Below, in the shade, the unicorn pranced and called her name.
“Why do I have to do this stuff? Who cares anyway!”
She grasped the broken pencil and scored a large “F” on the page.
Then she closed her eyes and was away, riding to freedom and joy on the unicorn’s back.
“Miss. Marnie’s locked herself in the toilet and won’t come out.”
“What now?” I thought, scanning the troubled face pleading for assistance as much as to be absolved of blame.
“Okay,” I reassured Jasmine. “Let’s go see what’s up.”
As we hurried to the toilet block Jasmine reiterated her innocence, she hadn’t done anything, she didn’t know what was wrong (it wasn’t her fault).
“I know,” I smiled. The toilet cubicles had frequently been Marnie’s sanctuary. But not for weeks. Jasmine’s kind-hearted friendship had seen to that.
“She’s got her unicorn again,” Jasmine whispered.
“Oh,” I said.
People crammed in, around and in front of the small sidewalk cafe, reminding her of the fairy-tale pageant that had bypassed her radar. She couldn’t move now. Her coffee fix, too hot to sip, had just been served. So, as always, she retreated within.
Cocooned in thoughts flittering across years and experiences, she barely noticed the cacophony of the crowd or passing parade.
The sudden shout of “Unicorn!” penetrated, startling her.
She was six again, cowering with her unicorn, avoiding mocking stares.
But this time pitying and unbelieving stares watched the spreading stain of scalding coffee.
Marnie jerked backwards avoiding the predictable grope. In so doing she collided with her mother, sending her sprawling onto the tattered sofa.
“Aargh!” her mother screamed. “Look what you’ve done!”
Marnie watched the liquid from the upturned glass merge with the patchwork of stains collected in the carpet. If it was her blood it would not have mattered more.
“I … I’m sorry,” she stammered. But her sorry was for all the years it had been like this.
He smirked, raising his hand to strike, “No presents for you this year!”
“That’s right!” She ducked. “No presence!”
With faces as bright as their Christmas wear, the children bubbled into the room, each carrying gifts for the Kindness tree, “for those less fortunate”.
Parents fussed, removing smudges and replacing wayward hair before blowing kisses and hurrying off for the parade.
And there was Marnie: no parent, no Christmas dress, no gift, no smoothed-down hair; no smile.
One last chance.
“Marnie!” I beckoned, and held out my Christmas cape and crown. “Will you be my special helper?”
Our eyes locked communicating more than any words. Her smile was my reward.
“I’m proud of you,” I whispered.
9. Write what you know about acute angles.
She looked around the room for inspiration but all the helpful charts had been packed away for next year. All that remained were lists of holiday and Christmas words.
Suddenly she spotted the word beside an angel resplendent in white and gold.
She shrugged. Angels in a maths test? It didn’t make sense. But then not much did. Anyway she could answer this one.
She wrote, ‘I wish I had a cute angel for our Christmas tree but mum says no!’
She didn’t get it. She never did.
She examined the new arrival, assessing the possible effects of integration into the existing collective. Would the group be enhanced or would this newcomer disrupt the established harmony?
From every angle the edges were rough and uneven. The years of obvious neglect obscured the potential from any but a trained eye.
Fortunately her eyes were keen. A bit of encouragement here, a little adjustment there, an opportunity to sparkle and display unique and positive attributes.
She smiled. Experience had shown what could be achieved with a little polish and care.
“Welcome to our class, Marnie,” she said.
In the ‘smart’ outfit carefully selected by the charity shop attendant, Marnie was surprised how well the confident exterior masked the whirlpool of fear, anxiety and insecurity.
Without looking up, the receptionist handed Marnie a number and waved her to the waiting area.
“9”. Her heart sank. “That many?”
Avoiding contact and ‘contamination’, she squeezed into the only available space: between a boy slouching awkwardly and a girl picking her fingernails.
The girl started crying. Marnie stiffened, but glanced sideways. The girl cried into her sleeve.
Marnie breathed, proffered her unopened purse packet of ‘just-in-case’ tissues, and smiled, “Here.”
She stood at the door for one final glance. Not much had changed, but it felt, oh, so different. They were gone. Gone!
Almost twenty years had passed since she’d stood in this spot; since she’d fled their cruel ways. Twenty years of dodging shadows, double-locking doors, and fearing the phone’s ring.
But no more. They were gone. Gone! And for more than five years! Five years to track her down! All that remained was the house. She’d sell of course.
With the door closed behind her she almost skipped down the stairs, her heart singing, “I feel good!”
Marnie paused on the bridge and gazed into river.
“My life began here,” she thought.
. . .
More than twenty years before she’d stood there, begging for release from torments she could no longer endure; when a gentle voice beside her said, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” and stood there with her in silence a while before asking, “Care to walk a little?”
. . .
Marnie flicked the agent’s card into the water and watched momentarily as it carried away the last remnants of that other existence.
“I wonder if Miss still lives there,” she smiled. “Must say hello.”
Marnie paused at the gate. The house looked the same: roses by the steps, bell by the door, windows open and curtains tied back; just as she remembered.
She shuddered as the memory of her last visit flashed momentarily: she was running, almost blinded by tears, stumbling with fear, up the steps, to the open door and open heart. She rubbed the turquoise pendant Miss had given her then, for “protection and peace”. She had worn it always.
Now, Marnie walked the path with an unfamiliar lightness. It was over. Really over!
She knocked at the door.
Jasmine and Georgie rushed towards the cluster of children who were laughing hysterically at something unseen. They expected to see an entertainer performing magic tricks. Instead they saw Marnie, face down in a puddle, reaching for her unicorn; sobbing.
“Good one, Brucie!” Two boys high-5ed. Another called, “Way to go!”
The children stood transfixed by the spectacle. Jasmine pushed through. She picked up the muddied unicorn, stretched out a hand to help Marnie up, then put an arm around her waist,
As she led Marnie away Jasmine glared at the group of disbelieving faces.
“Shame on you,” she mouthed.
The children suddenly appeared: one bedraggled and muddied, the other exuding authority.
“Brucie tripped her. On purpose!” declared Jasmine.
“Come on, Marnie. Let’s get you cleaned up,” said Mrs Tomkins. ”Then we’ll see about Brucie. Is your mum home today?”
Marnie looked down and shook her head.
“Will I help you with that jumper?”
“A jumper? It’s too warm . . .” Her thoughts raced.
Marnie turned away. As she pulled up her jumper, her shirt lifted revealing large discolorations on her back.
Over the years Mrs Tomkins had seen too many Marnies; too many Brucies; never enough Jasmines.
She paused her dusting, as often she did, scanning the fading faces. Her gaze lingered, as always, on one. She gave it an extra rub as if to wipe away a tear, erase the pain.
She lifted the postcard wedged into the frame to read the words she knew so well but wished had more to tell: “Thank you, Miss. Remember me.”
“Where are you? How are you doing?” she’d never stopped wondering, hoping.
She fingered the smoothness of the turquoise stone, its partner given long ago . . .
A quiet knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.
She walked between the desks admiring their work. From the same small palette of primary colours, and a little black and white for shades and tones, what they produced was as individual as they: J’s fierce green dinosaur and exploding volcanoes; T’s bright blue sea with sailing boat and smiling yellow sun; B’s football match . . . At least in this they had some small opportunity for self-expression. She paused at M’s. M had mixed all the colours into one muddy brown and was using hands to smear palette, paper, desk and self . . .
She paused. The muddy brown extended beyond the paper virtually cementing it to the desktop. The palette too was brown with little trace of the beautiful primary colours she had prepared. Looking from desk to child she observed two large smears adorning the shirt. A bruise-like smudge on the cheek showed where an intruding hair had been brushed away. “Oh!”
She breathed; she counted to ten; and back again; “Breathe,” she told herself. “Why?”
She moved on, observing the assortment of smiling suns, houses and garden paths, but her mind was on the mud; the child . . .
And now for a longer episode:
Marnie looked at the paints. The bright colours reminded her of a rainbow, and her unicorn. Her gaze dropped. She needed her unicorn now, but it was up in the office, drying out on Mrs Tomkin’s desk.
“It will be here waiting for you at home time,” Mrs Tomkin had said, smiling. “Okay?”
Marnie nodded, reluctantly, knowing there was no other choice. At least there was only the afternoon session left, and that was art with lovely Miss R.
Miss R. always wore beautiful dresses with colourful patterns. She had long wavy red hair, the colour of Marnie’s and her nails were always painted brightly, sometimes decorated with stars, sometimes with hearts, and sometimes with other patterns. She smelled of paint, and chalk and crayon and other scents Marnie found delightful. She noticed everything about Miss R.; because Miss R. noticed her. Miss R. always had a kind word to say:
“I like the way you used this shade of blue for the sky. I can see a storm is brewing.”
“Tell me about this picture. What’s it all about?”
“I can see you worked hard to get that looking just right.”
Marnie liked it best when she said, as she often did, “I like your choice of colour, Marnie. Your pictures are always bright. They make me happy when I look at them.”
But not today.
Miss R. stopped and looked at Marnie’s work. Her paper was covered in paint the colour of brown mud. Marnie felt Miss R.’s eyes on her work, then on her. She didn’t look up. She didn’t want Miss R. to see the tears that were threatening to fall, that would fall whatever was said. Her lip quivered.
Miss R. moved on.
“I am not crying. I am not, not, not . . .” but it took all her strength when her insides felt as muddy as the paint on her paper. She felt like mud. Maybe she should look like mud too. She smeared her paint-covered hands on her shirt, and wiped the strand of hair away from her eyes. She wanted to tell Miss R. She wanted to tell her about Bruce and what he had done. But she dare not. Bruce had threatened her and she knew he meant it.
Bruce had tripped her at lunch time and she’d fallen into the puddle. The mud had covered her from head to toe. She’d tried to hold her unicorn high; tried to keep it out of the mud. But it had fallen as she hit the ground. It was all muddy too. Everyone had laughed. Everyone except Jasmine, that is. Jasmine had taken her to Mrs. Tomkin, who had helped her clean herself up and gave her some clean clothes to wear. Mrs Tomkin had said she’d call her Mum, so that was another problem looming. At least things would be okay in art with Miss R.
But not today.
Bruce had pulled faces at her and made threatening arm movements as they lined up. He made fun of the oversized shirt Mrs Tomkins had found for her. Everyone was sniggering at it; at her.
Marnie looked straight ahead, trying to ignore the stares. “I am not crying!”
Then Miss R. was there and she suddenly felt protected, like everything was going to be alright; for a little while at least.
But not today. Today was a bad day, a very bad day. It had been bad in the beginning, and it was going to be bad at the end too. Nothing she could do.
Miss R. handed out the papers and paints. Everyone had their own brush but a small pot of water was shared by four.
Marnie couldn’t wait to get started. She knew what she was going to paint: a rainbow and a unicorn! Maybe a tree and some green grass, with some flowers. She couldn’t have her own unicorn but she could paint it. Miss R. would like her bright happy colours, and her pleasure would make her feel better, for a little while at least.
But not today.
While Marnie was contemplating which colours to mix for her unicorn’s mane, Brucie reached over and snatched Marnie’s brush. With one flourish he had dragged the brush through the middle of each of her colours leaving a dirty brown trail. Marnie had opened her mouth to speak, but Bruce silenced her with a threatening motion of a finger across his neck, as it to slit it open. He stashed her brush on the shelf out of reach, and turned back to his paper, innocent-like. Marnie’s eyes searched for Miss R.’s hoping she had seen and would come to her rescue. But Miss R. was talking to Jasmine and some others at the front, and didn’t see.
Marnie looked at her palette. “I am not crying,” she thought as she tried to still her quivering lip and stop the tears that would give Brucie so much pleasure.
She looked at him and poked her tongue. He held up a fist.
Marnie rubbed first one hand, and then the other into the coolness of the paint, blending all the colours. It felt soothing somehow, the way her hands slid easily through the paints. She watched each colour disappear into the muddy brown she was creating, wishing she too could slide away and disappear where no one would notice her anymore; where no one would taunt or bully or harm. If they couldn’t see her, if she was invisible, maybe she’d be safe.
She looked at her palms – covered in brown, just like the mud that had covered them earlier. She smeared the paint on her paper, covering it from edge to edge so nothing of it remained. She wiped what was left on her shirt. What did it matter? She couldn’t be in more trouble than she already was. They were already going to kill her. Sometimes she wished they would. Sometimes she wished she’d never been born. Sometimes . . .
Miss R. stood beside her desk. Marnie could hear her breathing; could still smell her marvellous scents above that of the muddy brown paint that was now her camouflage. She longed for Miss R. to paint her life away, to ask her about her work and what it meant. But she willed her not; and it must have worked because she walked away. How could she tell her? Her life was as muddy as the paint and she could see no way out.
She glanced at the child, usually so eager to please, and knew this was no ordinary day.
Downcast and avoiding eye contact, the child trembled. Her instinct was to reach out with comfort to soothe the hurt; but stopped. Any touch could end her career. What to say? Brown earth/brown rocks? would ignore and trivialise the pain. Any talk now would be insensitive with other ears listening. Any word could unravel the relationship built up over time. Nothing would harm more than doing nothing. Her steps moved her body away but her heart and mind stayed; feeling, thinking.
The officers looked friendly enough but still she tried to hide the tremble in her soul and tremor in her voice behind the blankness of her stare.
She’d opened the door just a crack, as far as the chain would allow.
“Marnie Dobson?” they asked. She shook her head. She’d not . . . ; not since . . . ; no longer. She shook again.
They asked her to step outside. With no other option she reluctantly unlocked and emerged into the glare of daylight.
“Marnie Dobson,” one said, “We are here to inform you . . .”
Marnie’s face pressed into the bars of the tall white gate with amazement: white-covered tables laden with food; chairs with white bows; white streamers and balloons; and a band!
But the ladies had her spellbound with elegant dresses and high, high heels; flowers in their hair and bright painted lips.
A man in uniform opened the gate to guests arriving in limousines. Marnie followed.
“Not you, Miss,” said the uniformed man.
Marnie held out her invitation, “Jasmine . . .”
But he’d closed the gate and turned away.
Marnie looked down at her stained dress. What was she thinking?
Marnie observed the roses Miss R. had arranged for class, carefully assessing the colours and studying the lines while sketching them on the canvas, striving to match their perfection. Oblivious to all but Miss R. and the roses, for one hour nothing else mattered.
As other students streamed out Marnie hung back to chat with Miss R.
Miss R. handed her a rose from the vase saying, “You are that rose. You may be surrounded by thorns, but the beauty of the rose is inside you. Remember that always. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Like a deer in the headlights she was immobile. She’d dreaded this moment. Although she’d tried to fade into the background, she knew she couldn’t hide forever. The room suddenly fell silent, all eyes on her. Would she fail?
“Marnie?” prompted the teacher.
Her chair scraped as she stood. She grasped the table with trembling hands attempting to still her wobbly legs. They waited.
Marnie squeaked. Some looked down, or away. Some sniggered. Jasmine smiled encouragingly. Marnie cleared her throat, then blurted the answer.
“That’s right!” congratulated the teacher.
The class erupted. Marnie smiled. Their efforts had paid off.
Marnie propped her head on one hand while the pencil in the other faintly scratched the paper. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that she didn’t get it. But she didn’t get it. She didn’t get last year, or the year before. Why should she get it now? What was the point? Her brain just didn’t work that way. She was dumb. They had always said she was dumb. No point in trying.
Then the teacher was there, encouraging, supporting, accepting. “Let me help you,” she said. “You can do this. Let’s break it down into steps. First …”
Before she left she was drawn back for one last look at her hiding place. There, between the garden and the wall, her tears would fall as she dreamt of better things and planned her escape.
The veggie garden was hardly recognisable, camouflaged with weeds. But wait! A flower? She stooped to look. An onion flower?
“Ha!” she thought, recalling the times she had pulled up and bitten into an onion to explain her tears should anybody ask, though they never did. Even untended a flower could bloom, as she too had blossomed despite the harshness of those days.
It was time. No more would they treat her this way. No more would she accept the cruelty of their world. She was more than this, more than they made her believe. With cash from a secret job stashed in her pockets, a few clothes in a backpack, and hope in her heart, she left. No need to follow a bag through the window. No need to wait for night’s darkness. No. She navigated past their stupor of beer, smoke and flickering screens; paused at the door to declare, “I’m leaving,” then closed off that life as she left.
Her eyes looked outward but her gaze was inward, trying to unravel the confusion of tumultuous emotions: anger for what had been, sadness for what wasn’t, regret she hadn’t escaped sooner, fear of her reaction, coldness at their passing. The bus carried her back; some things familiar, some as different now as she, returning “home” after so many years. Home? She’d called it home, back then, but now realised it hadn’t been home, not really; not safe and warm and loving as any home should be. She’d left vowing to never return. She returned now for finality and closure.
The morning started badly; nothing unusual in that. He’d been woken in the night by shouting, slamming doors, and screeching car tyres. Nothing unusual there either.
There was no milk to moisten his cereal, only a slap to the head for daring to ask. He grabbed his bag and disappeared before she used him as an ashtray, again.
Looking for a fight, he couldn’t believe she was just sitting there clutching her stupid unicorn. He snatched it; danced a jig to her wails, then threw it onto the roof.
“I’m telling,” said a witness.
“Who cares?” was his response.
Marnie was puzzled. The card definitely said 225; but there wasn’t any 225. There was 223, and 227, but no 225. She peered at the crack between the apartments as if willing 225 to materialise. Exhausted and confused, unsure of what to do next, she slumped on the step.
“Can I help you?”
The question interrupted her muddled thoughts. Seeing kindness in the eyes, Marnie explained her predicament.
The woman read the card.
“Street, not Avenue,” she said, pointing to the sign. “Are you Marnie? Lucky I got the wrong bus today. I’m Josephine. Come on. It’s not far.”
The audience hushed as the lights dimmed. Marnie shuffled. Darkness was not to her liking. Josephine patted her hand reassuringly. The girls on her other side twittered with anticipation. They’d been to theatre before. Observing their confidence earlier had Marnie feeling even more conspicuous as she balanced on unfamiliar heels and clutched a borrowed evening bag so tightly it left imprints on her hand. At least now the darkness hid her from view.
Soon the darkness was banished by a brightly lit stage and enormous Christmas tree surrounded by happy children dancing. Marnie was mesmerised. So this was ballet!
Marnie loved art classes with Miss R. She loved art, but she loved Miss R. more. The days when art class was last were best; had been ever since that first time when she’d dallied, nervously, reluctant to leave, and Miss suggested she stay and “help”.
Miss R. understood Marnie and Marnie trusted Miss R. Sometimes they would tidy in silence. Other times they’d chatter lightly about distracting things like television, music or books. But sometimes, when dark clouds loomed, Miss R. would gently ask, “What would you like to tell me?” Today the clouds looked about to burst.
She wasn’t sure why she was here. Miss R., Annette, had suggested she come. So she did. What struck her most, as she read the grave markers, was their ages. She’d never thought of them as young but their life spans were short; both a mere 49 years, going within a year of each other. She worked it out. They were younger than she was now when she’d left home. Who’d have thought? She felt a strange sadness, a familiar hollowness, not for the loss of their lives but for the absence of love, love which had never been.
Marnie sat on the bed, legs drawn up, chin pressed into her knees, hands over her ears. “Stop it! Stop it!” she screamed inside. Why was it always like this? Why couldn’t they just get over it? Or leave? She’d leave; if only she had somewhere to go. She quivered as the familiar scenario played out. Hurts and accusations unleashed: “Fault”. “Tricked”. “Honeymoon”. “Bastard”. Marnie knew: she was their bastard problem. He’d storm out. She’d sob into her wine on the couch. Quiet would reign, but briefly. Marnie knew he’d be into her later, and she? She’d do nothing.