“Daddy Longlegs” by Lisa Blackwell
He thought that if he threw the ball at her head it would make her laugh. It would bounce off his mother’s head and she would laugh. Just like his friends at school laughed when he threw the ball at their heads, and they weren’t ready, and they wouldn’t know to move. The ball would hit them and bounce off their head or their face. And then the kid that got hit would look all surprised and then everyone, all the friends, would all start laughing at the shocked expression on the kid-that-got-hit’s face. And then they would all be throwing the ball at each other’s heads all playtime, and wouldn’t even hear the whistle and the monitors shouting. Not until the monitors really shouted and got really angry, which would just make it even funnier. And then the teacher would talk to the boys all in a line. And sometimes Billy would still be laughing as they went in. Then the teacher would tell him he’d have to sit on the “thinking” chair. And he’d sit for a bit, then fidget and turn around and laugh with his friends if they caught his eye, because the weirdness was so funny. And then he’d get told off again, and then he’d have to be quiet and he’d have to try to think. But all he could think was, Why am I sitting on this chair? What am I meant to be thinking? and, This is very boring. And his bones would ache to be running again and throwing balls.
His mother looked so sad as she sat on the garden chair. Her chin against her knuckles. Her shoulders ever so slightly rising and falling. The late sun highlighting the small upwards hairs sticking out at the back of her head. He thought throwing the ball at her would make her laugh and they would have fun. They had fun sometimes. Hadn’t she bounced the ball off his head sometimes? When he was smaller. Gentle and laughing. Then she would bend to tidy his hair and kiss him.
She was looking away, staring at nothing. Away with the fairies. He threw the ball hard. Harder than he meant to. It caught her full on the side of the face with a slap. He forgot to breathe. Her body jolted and her glasses were knocked diagonally across her face. It all looked so strange and funny, as she looked at him in shock. He released a nervous laugh, but felt something not quite right. The dread wrong of it.
Then, with one hand straightening her glasses, all in one swift movement, she is in front of Billy and slaps him hard round the face.
Now they both look at each other, stunned. His face reddening as his mother’s hand smarts along her fingers. He watches as her face crumples into tears. His own crumples to match hers. He feels his face twist and twitch as he tries not to cry. He isn’t physically hurt. Just angry at all the wrong things he doesn’t understand.
His mother covers her face with her hands and sobs. He watches the tips of her long fingers gently pulsing with the tiniest of movements against her forehead. He can’t bear the quiet sobbing; he prefers the shouting and the noise. He tries to wait for it to be over, but finds he has to run away.
He runs out of the garden and into the rough ground at the back of the estate. Towards the grassy hill and the wood beyond. As he walks through the long grass, he disturbs the daddy longlegs and they lope and bob in the grass in front of him. He kicks the grass, trying to disturb as many as he can. He wants to see how many there are. He imagines an army of daddy longlegs bumping and scrambling along with him.
Across the rough grass, a little ways away, he sees his neighbour. A girl of about seven. Her name is Ellie, although he doesn’t really know her. She is in the year below him. She is younger and a girl; he has never spoken to her before. He watches her tight plaits as she picks wildflowers into a bunch. All quiet concentration. He wants to go up to her, to talk to her and organise a game of something, but doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what game he wants to play either. But he knows he wants to talk and play something.
He watches the daddy longlegs settle on the long grass. Gently resting on their outstretched legs. He knows you can’t pick them up by their legs. Their legs come off and you’re left with little black thread legs between your fingers. Then the daddy longlegs is all lop-sided and bobs up and down along the ground. All wonky and out of kilter before you stamp on it. You have to pick them up by their wings. Then they get all buzzy and panicky and you feel the other wing vibrating against your fingers. Faintly, barely a tickle, as they try to get away. Strange but not really unpleasant or scary.
He picks one up by its tiny wing and encloses it in his small fist. Then he picks up another. This way he collects a number of the creatures. All the while trying, and sometimes failing, not to crush their barely felt bodies.
When he has around five or six of them, he calls out to Ellie. Look what I’ve got. He uses both hands now, clasped together, and tries to peek in through the small gap between his thumbs. He closes the gap as one of the creatures looks like it might escape. Look what I’ve got. He waves his clasped hands about in the air dramatically, as if possessed.
Ellie looks at him, narrowing her eyes, leaning her body back and away from him. She has experienced the games of young boys at school. She has learnt to be wary. He wriggles. It’s escaping. It’s escaping.
What is it? She bends towards his clasped closed hands. There is the tiniest little black thread of a leg poking out between two of his fingers. What is that? She touches his finger with hers. This shocks him. Her light touch feels heavy on his chest. He watches her face, transfixed by it. She looks so fascinated at his hands and the moving black thread, that she seems to have forgotten he is there.
What is it? The urge to break the tension overwhelms him. As she bends even closer to his hands, he moves them slowly downwards. Then he thrusts his open hands towards her. Daddy longlegs are forced into her face and on to her hair.
She screams and bats the unfortunate creatures away, which makes Billy laugh so hard. He carries on laughing and, at first, he thinks she might laugh too, after all the screaming. But then her face hardens and she starts to cry. Not the sad cry of his mum, but an angry, red-faced, not really quite crying. Her small fists are clenched and her eyes are narrowed. I’m going to tell my mum. She hates you too. Her voice is all strangled in her throat, and Billy feels his anger rise. This girl is mean. Then she says, Everyone hates you. Everyone hates your dad.
This makes him even angrier. He’s not even his dad. He wants her to shut up, so he shoves her hard and she is sent sprawling into the long grass, sending daddy longlegs scattering. She screams in fury. Then starts crying proper tears. Billy runs.
He runs hard. Not really to get away but just to feel his body and nothing else. He leans into the hill and pounds the balls of his feet into it. He grits his teeth. As he gets to the brow of the hill he lets go and leans into the downhill run. His legs get loose and his body relaxes and gets faster and faster. He lets all of it go and wonders, if he puts out his arms, whether he might get a little lift and – maybe – even fly a little.
It is then he spots the woman coming out of the wood at the bottom of the hill. He hadn’t noticed her before. He wonders if she lives there. She looks like a witch. She is old. These thoughts, this woman, all in a moment, make him lose concentration. His foot slips out in front of him on some loose dusty gravel and the ground shifts and gives way beneath his pounding feet. He tries not to fall face first and twists his body and ends up falling slightly to the side. First onto his hands, then, as they give way, onto the rest of his body and legs. He hears a small cry from the woman as he tumbles.
For a moment he is shocked and just sits bolt upright and stares. Then he stands and brushes his hands together and notices how his skin is all ripped in ridges across his palms. They are flecked with red blood, black grit and pale dust. The woman begins to make her way towards him. She gets nearer. She looks about a million years old. Craggy old bark face. Eyes disappearing under saggy skin. Like a lizard, he thinks. Like one of his stepdad’s lizards.
Are you hurt, sweetie? Are you ok there? And she looks all blinky behind her glasses. He feels confused and hot and red. She sounds soft and she smiles, but her eyes and face don’t smile. When he bends to slap the dust off of his joggers, he realises he has a big rip in one of the knees. Through the rip he can see a red line. A congealing drip of blood is just tickling the top of his shin. He anticipates his mother’s anger and again sees her crying and feels a darkness all over.
The woman is closer now, within touching distance, smiling down at him. Billy steps back.
Piss off, lizard lady. Piss off. The woman freezes and her face falls by a mile. And Billy only briefly notices and feels – what? – before he’s legging it back up the hill towards the trees. Heaving. His hair sticking to his forehead with sweat.
It is not until he’s almost at the top, that he turns and looks back at the woman. He wonders whether to shout something. She has turned now and has her back to him and is walking slowly in the other direction, away from him. Her head is bowed, her shoulders hunched. He wants to say something to her. Lizard lady, he shouts, but not too loud, trying to make it sound like a joke. But that doesn’t feel right and she doesn’t seem to hear him anyway. He wishes she would turn. He wishes she would ask him again. He would answer right the next time.
As he sits at the top of the hill, tending his wound with spit and dusty fingers, he sees Ellie, below, bobbing up and down in the long grass again. Picking flowers for her mother, he thinks. He selects a long pliable stick and thwacks the grass seed heads as he makes his way down the hill towards the houses.
Ellie sees him coming and stands with her hands on her hips, glaring at him. He picks some cow parsley and grass darts. He offers her some of the white frothy flowers. My mum calls this Queen Anne’s lace, she tells him. If you pick it your mum will die. They stare at each other. Girls always say things. He shrugs, but feels better when he sees she already has some in her bunch.
It is then that he hears his mum calling him in for his dinner. He realises all at once how hungry he is. He is always hungry. His mum says he must have worms. A thought that horrifies him. What if they wiggle out of his mouth when he sleeps?
As he enters the house, his mum is framed in the doorway. He feels a little leery but enters anyway, as there is no real choice. Billy doesn’t know what to say, so he thrusts the cow parsley and grass towards her, and they are crushed as she draws him to her. She smooths his hair down, kisses and whispers into it.
He lets go and all his small balled muscles relax into her soft body. And he’s as happy as if he’s running fast downhill, arms out, flying, just before he outruns his legs and falls flat on his face.