Gilly only had two summer frocks. One for school and one for ‘best’. She preferred the latter, the colour of candyfloss with puffed sleeves and a bow, but only wore it when she was sent to Sunday school. The former, blue gingham with two trimmed pockets, had to be worn on Saturday as well, with fingers crossed her mother would remember to wash it before Monday. It was always touch and go.
Gilly planned to meet Suzanne in the park. That was as far as her eight-year-old self was allowed, unsupervised, and her new friend lived on the other side of town. Her mother didn’t like Suzanne, so Gilly said she was meeting Helen. Her fingertips tingled, and she felt a flash of heat across her cheeks. She hoped her mother wouldn’t check. Her mother liked Helen. “Such good manners and her father’s a doctor, you know.” Gilly didn’t recognise it then, but her mother was an incorrigible snob.
For a couple of hours, Gilly ran and played like any other child. Shimmying down the shiny slide and scraping her sandals in the gravel at the bottom. The two girls daring each other to fly higher and higher on the swings.
“Come back to mine,” said Suzanne. “We can play in the garden.”
Gilly ripped her gingham dress as she tried to climb the tree. Foraged for green apples. Scraped her knees. Intrepid explorer. Freedom. Suzanne’s mum produced orange squash and a plate of shop-bought biscuits. Gilly hadn’t eaten biscuits before.
The late August sun dropped, casting long shadows over the garden, and Gilly set off for home. Scraggy pigtails down her back, pockets hanging off her dress, and the tacky taste of fear in her mouth.
“Where the hell have you been, m’lady? Look at the state of you!” her mother shrieked.
Gilly bent her head, but not before her mother’s hand sprung out and lashed at one cheek with her forehand and then a backhand swipe across the other. That would be another day off from school. She never went when she had bruises.