The baby doll and the teddy bear had been placed side by side on the unmade bed. The doll was wearing a tattered dress, once pink, but with grass and mud stains which Ruth’s washing had failed to remove. She had bright red cheeks and oversized red lips coloured in with felt tip pen, and a green squiggle on her forehead. One arm hung loose, half torn from her body. Her hair was an uneven short frizz with blackened ends, as if burnt. One eye was jammed shut.
The teddy was plush and still smelled of the factory where he was made. His eyes and nose were shiny black and his chocolate brown fur hadn’t even been ruffled. From the doorway, Ruth could see that his red ribbon was still tied in a perfect bow.
“The mother’s an alcoholic.” The social worker had visited Ruth to check everything was in order before bringing the child. “She’s serving a four week prison sentence — she left someone in the hospital after a pub brawl.”
“Lovely,” said Ruth. All in a day’s work for a social worker, she supposed. But Ruth didn’t think she’d ever get used to it. The poor children.
“The little girl’s called Courtney, she’s seven years old. She thinks she’s going home as soon as her mother’s released, but…” The social worker shook her head. “Her home life’s been all over the place. It’d be good if you could get her settled.”
So Ruth had tried. When Courtney arrived, Ruth showed her straight up to her room, eager to give the child a part of the house to call her own. Courtney traipsed up the stairs, dragging a large pink sports bag behind her. It thumped against each step.
“Here, let me help you with your bag,” Ruth said. The child ignored her.
Ruth had painted the walls of Courtney’s new room sunny yellow, furnished it with an empty chest of drawers ready to be filled with clothes and a single bed with its cheery green cover turned down at the corner. Her final touch was the plush teddy sat on the pillow sporting his red bow.
“Where’s the TV?” Those were Courtney’s first words.
“In the lounge. You can watch it with me later, if you like.”
“That’s shit. Got my own at home.”
Half an hour later, Courtney had taken charge of the TV remote control. Slumped on the sofa flicking through channels wearing her bright pink Playboy t-shirt, Courtney looked like a teenager already. Ruth found it strange when Courtney started giggling at a cartoon, then remembered the girl was only seven.
While Courtney was at school, Ruth unpacked her clothes, separating out underwear and tops and trousers into different drawers. Toys went into the bottom drawer — some Toy Story figures, a child’s makeup kit, a colouring book. But when she went to get Courtney’s pyjamas that evening, the drawers were empty. Everything had been shoved back into the sports bag. Teddy was lying underneath the bed.
Standing in the doorway now, Ruth could see the set of drawers under the window. Each of the drawer handles were different wooden carved animals — a ladybird, a cat, a dog, a butterfly. Ruth had chosen the furniture carefully, thinking of the succession of children she saw using it, who might lie in bed gazing at those cheery painted animals, cuddling their teddy bear, and feel a little more at home.
There had been a couple of incidents in that first week. Ruth had asked Courtney not to swear, reminding her that it was prohibited in the house rules. Ruth had gone up to Courtney’s room fifteen minutes later to find that Courtney had been busy. Swirls and squiggles of red felt tip covered the lower part of one wall, with a few choice swear words in the corner. Well, at least she’s spelt them right, Ruth thought, as she scrubbed at the walls later that evening.
The next day Ruth had been called into school. “Fighting is something we take very seriously,” the special needs assistant told her. Ruth had entered the headmaster’s office to see Courtney with her sleeve half torn off, sitting on a chair that was too large for her, staring at the ground and kicking the chair legs with the new Clarks shoes Ruth had bought for her.
But yesterday had been a success. Courtney had been intrigued by the idea of baking. Ruth had weighed out the butter and sugar into a bowl, then encouraged Courtney to sieve the flour, ignoring the resulting snowfall on the table and floor. Ruth added the eggs and vanilla essence, then Courtney mixed the ingredients and helped to spoon the mixture into bun cases. Once baked golden, Ruth had iced the buns, while Courtney decorated them with silver balls, sprinkles and Smarties.
Ruth walked to the window and held the school shirt up to the light. Her extra stitches were visible, tiny white stitches on the pale blue fabric around the sleeve, but only close up. It would do. Ruth went to a drawer to put the shirt in — to find it brimming over. Underwear, tops, toys and trousers, all jumbled together. Ruth closed the drawer, having to press stray legs and arms of clothing back in to get it shut, and put the shirt in the next drawer up.
“Well”, she said to the doll, which stared at her with its single open eye. “It’s a step forwards.” Ruth looked closer. The hand of the doll and the paw of the bear were touching. Ruth smiled.
Rachel J Bailey lives in Leeds, UK and currently juggles writing with looking after her baby son, with nappies and bibs in one hand and a pen and A4 pad in the other. She occasionally updates a writing blog at storyfrog.blogspot.com. Previous publishing credits include Every Day Fiction, Paragraph Planet, and With Painted Words.