In the Garden of Persephone (Part 9)

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Xan's living conditions are revealed as she continues to survive on her own. With a little help from her friends--who are oblivious to her problems--Xan is quite pleased with herself.

Xan woke early, sat up and opened her cooler and took a long drink of diet Coke through her super size cup. The ice had barely melted. From her cooler, she removed the lid and placed it on her lap, then reached inside and pulled out the biscuits, the few slices of cheese and the butter she had taken the night before. She dressed quickly, managing to keep from banging her head on the low ceiling. After her mother had disappeared, Xan knew she would have to hide and pretend everything was normal or she would be taken to a children’s home. She shuddered at the thought of having to live with younger children who were not related to her, of following the rules of someone else’s design and accounting her every move to an adult she did not trust. So far she had been lucky to have been able to expertly field any questions that may have led those in authority to be suspicious of her living conditions.

Not that there hadn’t been close calls.

Only the year before, an English teacher had befriended Xan and persuaded her to spend some time after school writing stories. At first Xan loved the extra attention and was the ideal pupil, working every single minute, concentrating on improving her grammar and spelling (which hadn’t been too bad in the first place) and producing fictional narratives that she was proud of. But then some very gentle questions started to come up: what was home like? Did she have brothers and sisters? Where did she live? Could Xan update her home address because the secretaries had discovered Xan’s old house—the one her mother had lived in—had burned to the ground.

Xan remembered that it took every ounce of strength to not bolt out of the classroom to check the house for herself. She knew her mother used candles in the absence of electricity and she also knew her mother slept, well, she slept rather heavily.

“Are you okay, Xan?” asked the teacher sweetly. “You seem a little upset.”

Xan had wanted to punch her scheming face in but she knew if she kept quiet and kept her head, she would be okay.

            “I’ll ask mom to update my records,” she said evenly and to make sure there would be no more suspicions, she made herself continue to attend these after school sessions. She understood that if she stopped coming, the teacher would know she had hit a raw nerve and would alert social workers. From that day, Xan listened to and imitated conversations about home and family from other children. She was scrupulous about her teeth and took care of herself because she would not be able to afford dentists or doctors. Toothbrushes and toothpaste were her luxuries and she always made sure she got her exercise by impressing her physical education teachers with her hard work.

Finding the room she lived in was a bit of luck. When she realised her mom was not coming home and with the landlord harassing her for rent, Xan tried to stay out of the rented room as much as possible. There was very little of value and she had gottn into the habit of packing everything into the cooler they used to keep what little food there was cold. Xan carried this cooler with her everywhere, ignoring the taunts from other students about the size of her lunch or about yet another of her eccentricities.

For a few nights, she kept her eye on what looked like an abandoned garage not too far away from her school. The garage was empty but there were steps leading to an upstairs part which was loaded with boxes floor to ceiling, making Xan think that the space was used for storage. Almost hidden amongst the boxes was another door through which Xan could just about squeeze through. This room was very small but it looked like it would be a good place to hide for a few nights so she could get some proper sleep.

Amongst the stored boxes, Xan saw a mattress and she squeezed this through the door of the little room. She searched around and found a garbage bag with blankets and even some sheets and she added these to the room. After making up the bed as good as she could, Xan fell onto the mattress and slept soundly, all the way to morning, for the first time in several months.

            All in all, Xan felt good. She knew she had been fortunate to talk her way into a job at the Chicken Hut and she also knew she had been skilful in keeping suspicions about her to a minimum. She could be any scruffy kid from a poor but well meaning family. After assuring herself that she was safe, she concentrated on getting ready for the day again.

            With a lack of space, it was not difficult to keep the room tidy. Beneath the cooler, she kept a box for the few clothes she had. At first, she thought she had lost some clothes then she remembered she had washed them at work and left them in a different place. Taking them out of the paper bag, she slipped the clean clothes on, completely oblivious to the fact that the smelled heavily of chicken grease. As she tried to pull the wrinkles out of her shirt, she managed to rip more holes in it. Xan rolled her eyes. She needed to go to the charity shop to get some more. If she went to school with ripped clothes, someone might call the social workers.

Persephone scratched at the door and Xan let her in. The cat rubbed her head against Xan’s legs, breathing in the smell of the chicken. If I’m late to school, I’m in trouble, she thought. The school had been tolerant that her parents didn’t show up for Parents’ Evening and they didn’t seem to mind that, every now and again, she looked a little scruffy but if she was late, that really ticked them off. She didn’t have many clothes but tried to be clever at exchanging them as often as possible at the local charity shops so it didn’t seem as if she was wearing the same clothes all the time. This saved on washing them too. She’d buy them clean, exchange them when they were slightly dirty and come out of the shop with a clean and re-vamped wardrobe.

But she was getting a little lax. No wonder Zach was complaining.

She unbuttoned her blouse so that the rips looked less obvious. With a T shirt underneath, the tears looked almost intentional. The jeans were ruined but would do for another few days if she careful not to strain the fabric.

            Sighing, she sat down again and took the tub of butter, a couple of slices of cheese and biscuits and a carefully unfolded a piece of aluminium foil she had taken the night before. She split then buttered a biscuit and flipped it butter side down onto the foil. Then, she unwrapped the cheese slice and placed it carefully onto the biscuit, then buttered the other side of the biscuit and placed this one butter side up on the cheese. Then she repeated the process for a second biscuit. She used the chicken and the remaining biscuits to make more sandwiches. Carefully folding the foil over the sandwiches, she sealed the edges. With her lunch and breakfast prepared, it was time for school.

As it was so early, there was time for Xan to wonder into the Home Economics area to see if the irons were left on in preparation for the first lesson. It was a Wednesday, and Xan had long worked out that the teachers were busy in their briefings. If she were caught in the classroom, she would offer to model one of the sewing projects in progress. It was quiet though and Xan saw she was in luck as an iron had indeed been left on to heat up for the first lesson. Smiling to herself, she tested the iron then placed it onto her aluminium package. It sizzled and steamed for 45 seconds, then Xan removed the iron from the foil. She took another sip of her coke as she waited for the sandwich to cool. When it was cool enough to touch, she picked up the sandwich, grabbed her books and was just about to make her departure when Mrs Graham, the Home Ec teacher, entered the classroom.

At first, she didn’t see Xan for Xan stood very still, her teeth frozen on the sandwich. When she did see Xan, she jumped.

“For goodness sake!” she said. “What are you doing in here?” Mrs Graham was British and she had a way of singing her words that Xan liked. Hearing Mrs Graham speak was enough to make Xan wish she had taken home economics.

“Nothing,” said Xan, trying to slip past her. She had forgotten that Mr Graham’s wife was the Home Ec teacher. A deep blush that felt as if it were coming up from her belly reminded her of Dana the night before.

Mrs Graham eyed Xan up and down as if she thought she was trying to take something.

“What are you doing in here?” Mrs Graham suddenly wrinkled her nose. “Are you eating—“ she sniffed again “—chicken?”

“Hell no, ma’am. I just have a little old cheese sandwich. I was looking for a bit of thread to fix the rip on my blouse.” Xan pointed to the tear.

“Hmmm. . .” said Mrs Graham, investigating the rip. “Thread won’t help with that. It’s worn clear through. Don’t you have another blouse to wear?”

“Well, that’s the problem, you see. There was a flood in our basement and all my clothes got soaked. Wrecked our washer and dryer too. So here I am . . .”

“Kinda stuck?”

“Yes, ma’am, I thought to myself: the Home Ec department are so clever, I’m sure they might be able to help out.”

Xan looked at Mrs Graham carefully. She was such a pretty woman, an older version of Dana. Images of Mr and Mrs Graham together in a comfortable marital way morphed into Dana and Mr Graham ravaging each other in a seedy hotel room played in Xan’s. Her stomach did an uneasy flip flop. “I have a few sewing projects that need to be modelled if you like,” said Mrs Graham kindly.

“Shouldn’t you be in briefing?” Xan asked

“Well,” she shrugged, “I slept in a bit as Mr Graham came in late last night.” She held up a hideous, brightly coloured over sized T shirt that looked like the designer had tried to tie-dye

Xan gulped. “I like it mucho mucho.” Without warning, she pulled off her blouse and motioned for the T shirt. Mrs Graham smiled and shook her head but handed the garment to Xan. When Xan put it on, she tutted and found a belt to cinch around her waist. Mrs Graham pulled the shirt down over the place where the bleach had damaged her jeans.

“You had better be careful,” said Mrs Graham, “You might become a fashion icon.”

Xan smiled and did a little curtsey. “Why thank you,”

“Bring it back after school, all right?”

“No problem,” agreed Xan who did not want clothes to accumulate in her small room.

“Won’t you sit down for a little cup of tea?”

Xan was uncomfortably aware that most people would be appalled by the way she lived. She knew she would attract pity and unwanted offers of help. She didn’t want anyone relieving their guilty consciences by choosing her as their target for charity. Xan truly didn’t mind living as she did and believed there were other causes more deserving than hers. Most of all, she dreaded the day when she’d have to live by someone else’s rules. She secretly enjoyed the challenge of daily survival and was proud of herself for being economical with both the truth and her money.

Still she needed the odd favour. It was often difficult to obtain favours without disclosing her secrets. Sometimes she had to do what she needed to do without asking first. Like taking a shower at work. Like using Zach’s address for a permanent mailing address. And sometimes, it paid dividends to reward someone’s kindness with something that resembled gratitude. Xan sat down with Mrs Graham, politely thanking her for the hot cup of tea, the innocuous conversation and five minutes of transferred motherly love.

In return, Mrs Graham taught Xan how to hold a teacup the proper way.

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