I don’t advise losing your parents when you’re young. Sure, you get out of their expectations and chores and all, but you also lose your place in life. You lose the knowing that whatever you did that day, you still got a kiss good night. At least, that’s how Mam did it.
Dot and I had a place to go when Mam died. It was easier on us than some. I heard about the war and all, where my Da got killed helping Britain stay free. Who hadn’t heard? It was only a couple years before. Some who lost a parent lost more of their family there, too. We were lucky. We still had Mam’s parents.
I bet my grandparents didn’t consider themselves lucky. Every last penny they had went to the running of their hotel. They likely didn’t account for clothes and other expenses that came with caring for young people. They certainly didn’t have enough money to come get us. We had to make our way to Gram and Grandpa’s town ourselves.
We took the train after the funeral. The local parish packed us a lunch and put us on board, settling with Gram and Grandpa to meet us at the end of our journey. Everyone deemed me old enough to watch over Dot. For the most part, I did. We sat eating sandwiches wrapped in brown paper and watched fields sweep by. Dot saved her paper, thinking to find a pencil to trace dolls and dresses out. I picked at a scab on my elbow. A few women eyed us and tutted as they walked past in the aisle.
When we got to the station, there was no one to meet us. We were alone for more than a few minutes before a hired car pulled up and its driver shooed us inside for our ride. I looked out through the open window to make sure he didn’t leave our suitcase. Dot just sat, trusting we’d get to our grandparents somehow. The dust billowed behind us as we were driven to our new home.
Gram spotted us first and called for Grandpa to come greet us. She wiped her hands in her apron and held one out for our things. I kept hold of our suitcase and shook Gram’s hand instead. Grandpa squinted at us from the steps, like he expected we’d be taller and prettier. Gram must have bolstered Grandpa with hopes that we’d be a big help around the hotel, helping in the kitchen until we were old enough to serve in the bar. When we finally showed up, Dot with her little voice and me in my jeans, Grandpa nodded “Hello” and left Gram alone to pay for the ride.
I would have done the same.
Living with old people wasn’t a real bonus for Dot and me, either. The hotel they ran was cruddy and worn in spots, like the threadbare sheets Gram used to cover the beds. Dot and I were relegated to a small room to share on the guest floor. At least they had a place for us, I suppose.
The room had a double bed and more space than Dot and I were used to. We each had our own drawer and a place on the dresser for our things. Dot spread her rag rabbit and little tea set out on her side of the dresser. I just put my book of birds on mine.
Grandma tisked and fussed over Dot’s hair, saying she needed a haircut. I wouldn’t let Gram near me with that comb. I grimaced and moved away when she brandished it above my head. I should have been more obliging, considering she was taking over from Mam. She had raised Mam, after all, and taught Mam ways of minding children. Mam said Gram earned her name “Grace” many times over with how caring she was. Mam mostly said it when she was admonishing me to act like my own middle name. Grace. Same as Gram’s. Mam musta regretted not giving it to Dot, instead.
“Don’t you have even one dress?” Gram’s eyes raked the few clothes I was stuffing in my drawer.
“No, ma’am. I grew out of them.” Secretly I was pleased at this development in height. Other developments? Not so much.
“Let’s see what you have.” Gram took our clothes out for inspection and folded them one by one on the bed. Then she looked me over like I was a pig for roasting. She shook her head and seemed to square herself up.
“Well, it’ll have to do for now. You’ll need a dress for Sunday, though.” Gram lifted my arms and poked me in the waist.
Dot giggled until I scowled her to stop. Gram left my chest alone as she circled me, though she eyed it close.
“It’ll have to be my brown one.” Gram tilted her head in thought. “Not the best colour for a girl.”
“My dress is too small, Gram.” Dot leaned in, all hopeful. Her face was lifted like an angel needing adoration. The glint in her eyes was the first sign I’d seen of real Dot since her sulk over Mam. I didn’t comment as I used to. I didn’t want to scare her back into her shell.
Gram gave Dot a pat on the head as she continued refilling the drawers. “You should be fine.”
Dot shoulda scowled but she didn’t. Dot knew how to hold her temper when the situation warranted. I envied her that. Dot grabbed her stuffed rabbit and squeezed it instead.
“Dinner’s in a bit, girls. The bathroom’s down the hall for you to refreshen.” Gram closed the door in a quiet old lady way. You barely heard the shush. If it had been Mam, there would have been singing in the hall and a bang or two. Hard to see how they came from the same family. Other than their cheekbones and eyes, I can’t imagine two ladies more different than Gram and Mam.
I grabbed my book and slumped on the bed. Dot was perched against the bed’s edge, picking at the quilt flowers.
“You think we’re gonna like it here?” Dot screwed up her face as she picked a long thread and held it high. She was always bothering me when I settled down to read.
“Don’t know. Don’t care.”
“She seems pretty nice. I wonder about Grandpa, though.” Dot put a hand on my leg as she spoke.
“Get off.” I shook my leg as if dispelling a gnat. “Why don’t you go have a tea party or something?”
I’ll admit. I was being mean. Here we were, both in a new place and Dot being younger. Mam would have expected me to watch out for Dot, to care for her. Well, I had. Through the funeral and the trip and everything. Even carrying our suitcase up the stairs to our room. Now I needed a break from being Mam.
“Why don’t you go find someone else to bother?” I lifted my book higher to block the sight of her. I was worried enough about myself. It was gonna be hard to fit in here when I didn’t feel like trying.
I flipped the pages looking for a bird to focus on. Staring at the drawings of sparrows and shrikes, I could still see Dot’s pained face. I could picture her all fluffed out and angry, like she was when things didn’t go her way.
“Fine, be like that.” Dot laid her soft animal on the bed. “Who wants to be with you, anyways? I’m going downstairs.”
“Take your stupid toy with you.” I picked up that rag from beside me and threw it on the floor. “Go find yourselves a rabbit hole to get buried in.” Dot’s face quivered as she scooped the rag rabbit up. She hugged it tight. I watched, already feeling sorry for what I’d done. “Dot…”
“Smelly Elly eat some jelly!” Dot slammed the door on my apology. Fine. Be like that, yourself. Now alone, I settled in to read by the light from the window above the bed. I decided then and there she was Gram’s problem. I always regret that decision.