A FRIEND • by Veronica Barnsley

There’s a hum of wasps in the air as we run past the picnic area with its cracking benches and scrappy bark to the outdoor gym. The equipment is glossy and painted in calming colours, silver and grasshopper green. I go on the leg swinging machine first. Placing my feet lightly on the little platforms, I move my legs back and forth and take flight. A creature with no knees climbing to the clouds. I can see across the stripe of undergrowth round the edge of the park to the road beyond. The bird with the strange voice screams, “Higher, higher.”

I come here most days with Maisy, she’s a badass princess and I’m a knight in armour. We’re ferocious and take on foes together. We have to stay in good shape to take on Cameron and his crew if we need to. We kneel on the arm pulldown machine and grab a handle each. The seat glides up before we crash it down and repeat. Mum says we mustn’t annoy anyone who is using the gym properly. Some people get a prescription to come here because they need to lose a few pounds. If they’re lucky they also get to talk to someone about how hard it all is.

We had finished on the arm machine and were about to fight over the exercise bike when we met Penny on her first day at the gym. “They’ve got me working out,” she said with a sort of laugh, “but these tree trunks don’t move easily.” Her trousers were that fabric that never crinkles but clings so we could see her lumpy thighs when she sat down. We lowered the bars towards her so she could grip them and pull. Nothing happened. She told us she had a lop-sided shoulder from when she was a midwife. I couldn’t think what she meant but didn’t want to ask. We yanked one bar each to get her started and with a grimace she made the machine move. Penny let out a shout, like Dad when he watches me play football. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot, he always sounds ecstatic.

She was having a winning streak, Penny told us. We began to meet her most days after school and encouraged her to try the next bit of equipment. When we got her onto the leg swing machine she almost literally took off. Her grin went all the way from her eyebrows to what she called her lesser chin. The greater chin didn’t join in as it was reluctantly shrinking with every visit. Penny gave up the clingy trousers and began to wear joggers.

Yesterday we did cartwheels on the grass by the skate ramp while waiting for Penny. The scooter boys came and went — they’re weird themselves so don’t bother us. At five we went home and asked Mum if she could find out what had happened to Penny. She said it could be construed as intrusive to chase around after a woman she’s never met and carried on slicing carrots into tiny strips. I noticed her hands are getting more veiny.

I get up earlier than usual and as soon as I come down Mum turns off the red plastic radio that came from grandma’s. She has news for me. Within an hour we are speed walking past the yellow children’s unit where we came when Jack was ill and into the real hospital. I peep behind curtains at the crumpled-looking patients. They need extra stuffing adding to the parts of them that droop. Mum says I’m being rude and should keep my eyes straight ahead. I remind her that she promised to get me some of the plastic gloves for playing doctors with.

On the stroke ward Penny is surrounded by monitors. Maisy turns shy so I do all the talking. Penny’s words fall over each other lazily. “You… are absolute gems,” she announces and asks Mum what she’s done to deserve a daughter like me. Mum brushes off the compliment with some medical questions then sits down and looks at her phone. I ask Penny if she can lift her arms and she raises the right one but the left only moves a little, like an animal twitching in its sleep. Mum says the physio will help with that. Penny prods accusingly at the reluctant arm with its sunspots and nails in startling colours. When we get up to leave before the doctor’s round, she leans forward awkwardly to give me a hug. I imagine tentacles holding her down to the bed.

“It’s like you’ve gained a grandmother,” Mum says as we escape the grasp of the hospital. I don’t want to think about the consultant prowling like a wolf behind Penny’s curtain.

“She’s nothing like a grandmother!” I retort. “She’s a friend.”

Veronica Barnsley lives in Manchester, UK and teaches global literatures at the University of Sheffield. Her fiction and essays (mostly about running) have appeared in various places, including Brittle Star, White Wall Review and Like the Wind magazine.

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