Filling her mother’s mug to the brim, she added a drop of milk the way she liked it and six sugars.
“I know what you’re thinking,” her mother said to anyone who remarked on the amount of sugar she used. “I’m sweet enough, but my trouble is I have a very sweet tooth.”
Sweet enough, Sarah slapped a slice of bread and butter down onto a chipped plate, her mother didn’t have a sweet bone in her body. The larder was lined with tins of cat food, but there wasn’t anything for her children to eat. Most of their clothes came from charity shops or were donated by some of the neighbors. She knew from searching through her mother’s bag, her father sent enough money to keep them well looked after. His letters were hidden from her, but on the odd occasion she managed to retrieve one before it was burnt, she drank in the words on the page, especially when the asked about her and Brian. If only Daddy stayed, she felt her eyes grow bright with tears; things would’ve been different.
A fog of cigarette smoke made her cough, and she moved cagily in the direction of her mother’s bed.
“What took you so long?” Her mother glared at her through the smoke.
“The cats went to the toilet all over the kitchen,” she explained, as she laid the mug and plate onto the bedside table.
“You leave those cats alone,” a claw encircled her wrist, and she felt the filthy nails dig deep into her skin.
“I didn’t touch them,” she tried to pull away. “I opened the window to let them out.”
“They’re my friends,” her mother gritted her teeth and pulled Sarah closer, so she could smell the combination of early morning breath and the bitter reek of tobacco. “If I ever see you touching them, you’ll be sorry, do you hear?”
“Yes,” Sarah managed to get free, and rubbed at the lines of blood in her skin.
“Now, get to school,” her mother picked up the mug. “I don’t want you under my feet all day.” Then, as an afterthought, asked. “Is your brother up?”
“Yes, he’s eating his breakfast.”
“That’s strange,” her mother narrowed her eyes. “I haven’t heard him moving about.”
“No,” Sarah could feel the familiar knot of fear forming in her stomach. “I had to clean up the kitchen, so I let him eat it in bed.”
“What did I just tell you about leaving the cats alone,” her mother turned and picked up the thick slice of bread and butter.
Sarah knew what was about to happen and was already slipping out the bedroom door, when her mother threw it. She heard the soft thud as it struck the wood and then… nothing. The butter acted as a paste and she bit her lip and tried not to laugh as she imagined it stuck there. Mad bitch, she thought, as the sting from her wrist reminded her it needed attention.
Carrying the kettle into the bathroom, she placed the rubber stopper in the sink, and emptied the water in. The noise in the ancient pipes started up the moment she turned on the cold-water tap. Taking a bottle of antiseptic from its hiding place beneath the bath, Sarah poured a small amount into the sink. In the beginning, she’d been ashamed, when she’d to resort to stealing from her mother’s purse, but she’d no choice. Not a week went by when she didn’t break this commandment, and while Father Brown always gave her absolution and told her not to sin again, she felt he understood.
They were short the most basic thing. The small pair of panties lying across the top of the bath reminded her of this. She owned two pairs and needed to wash one every night before going to bed. The fact there were no radiators on which to hang them, meant she went to school most days in damp underwear. Her one bra had seen better days, and she could only wash this at the weekend. She could’ve gone without it as it didn’t have much to support, the bullies reminded her.
Plunging her sore wrist beneath the water, she held it there until the antiseptic did its work and the stinging subsided. The cloth she used to wash smelled musty, but it was difficult to get anything dry now winter was here. Picking up the clean panties, she brought them to her face and sniffed. They smelled clean, but were damp around the elastic in the waist and legs. She knew this would chafe and cause her discomfort during the day. Leaving the cloth soaking in the milky- white water, she hurried back to the bedroom to rouse her brother.
“There’s water in the sink,” she whispered. “Hurry now or we’ll be late.”
She dressed quickly, aware he’d be quick, and was straightening the beds when he came back.
“Why didn’t you eat this?” She held out an egg.
“I saved it for you,” he pushed her hand away. “Everyone says you’re getting very thin.”
“Johnny’s mother,” he mumbled, as he adjusted the faded collar of his shirt.
“You haven’t been telling her anything about us, have you?” She asked.
“No, Sarah,” he turned around wild-eyed. “I promise. She saw you in town and said she thought you’d got very thin, that’s all.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said you were always like that,” his lower lip trembled.
“It’s o.k.,” she ruffled his hair. “There’s no harm done, and the next time she says anything, just tell her I’m on a diet.”
“I will,” he said, pulling his school bag out from under his bed.
“I’ll put this in with your lunch,” she opened the paper bag and dropped the egg in. “I don’t really like eggs, but thanks for thinking about me.”
It was an unwritten rule, they’d never tell anyone about the way they were forced to live. Sarah was too young to be allowed to care for her brother, and the prospect of being taken into care terrified them both. Once they remained together they could face most things. It was a crappy life, they knew, but it was their crappy life.