The Licorice Straps
In the hours between two days you stumble through half-remembered lanes into the child that was you. What comes back to you in those moments; reliably? And who, among all the people you knew then, among the people that come to mind; who remembers you? And what else do they remember?
Louisa was six years old when, after getting herself dressed for school, she waited for the sun to rise on a day so foggy it would not be entirely obvious the sun had risen at all until the middle of the afternoon. This was the morning the sun almost didn’t rise, when emerging out of the rain and fog a tiny girl, toes and fingers frozen, arrived at school before any of the other children, seemingly before anyone else at all. Had the fog kept everyone else asleep, she wondered? But someone must have been there already because her classroom, though completely empty, was open. Usually when she got to school before any of her classmates the door was locked, but on this day when all around her was an icy mist that refused to lift, the door to her classroom was unlocked and so she went in. There was no one in the room but her and the Virgin Mary. In the centre of the platform at the front of the classroom, just below the blackboard, the Holy Mother stood facing Louisa, staring at her. The little girl went to the table where she usually sat and put the apple she had brought with her in her gingham chair bag. She sat up straight looking directly in front of her at the icon before relaxing her arms and back, whispering, “Good morning, Mother.” There was no answer.
All was silent but for the sounds she herself was making and she crept out away from her desk and chair to the front to look more closely at the statue of Mary. Her canvas shoes with their rubber soles squeaked on the wooden floor beneath her. How still the Blessed Mother could be. In front of her, where it always was, stood the “poor bowl”, a bowl with coins that the children had brought in to be collected in competition with children from other classes for eventual distribution somewhere to some people known as “the poor”.
The little girl looked down into the bowl and then, when she had checked around her that the room was still empty, she knelt down on one knee before the Mother of Christ and put her pointer finger into the bowl and touched one of the coins. It was cold too, just as she was. In kneeling down she realised why she should feel the cold particularly at that moment. There was a hole in the knee of her tights on the side of her flexed right knee. She took her finger from the cold of the coin to the cold of her knee. Which felt colder? She traced the aperture of the hole with her finger and thought it might be about the same size as the coin she had touched in the pile of coins in the “poor bowl”. She picked up the 10-cent piece and put it over the hole in her tights. It fitted perfectly. She moved the coin to the smooth slightly moist ridged flat of her palm and looked at it. Was it still silver if it was no longer shiny? With the coin in her hand she looked around the room again. Still no one else had arrived. There were no sounds yet coming from outside the classroom, either, and she placed the coin back on the hole in her tights and picked up another of the same size.
She was kneeling in front of the statue of Mary when she heard the sound of leather school shoes shuffling towards her. She put both coins in her pocket hurriedly as a matter of instinct before the wearer of the shoes could find her, but as it transpired there had not been the need to hurry she’d expected. The wearer of the shoes had veered off to another destination. Now all was quiet again and she had the two coins, 20 cents, in the pocket of her skirt.
Since someone else had arrived, perhaps it was already late enough for the milk bar next door to the school to be open for business. The bigger children might be putting in their lunch orders by now. What could the 20 cents buy? She went next door and saw how easy it was with these coins to obtain a packet of licorice straps, a whole packet. Since they could be divided into ever shorter straps it seemed as though they need never run out.
It was still foggy a few feet ahead of her when she got back to the Blessed Virgin in the classroom and still no one else was there. She was sitting at her desk engrossed in the act of tearing at a licorice strap when the wearer of the leather shoes, Darren Crossley, came upon her.
“Where’s Sister?” he asked.
“She’s not here yet.”
“What are you eating?”
“Licorice straps. Want some?”
He did want some and she broke him off a generous portion. He sat near but not next to her.
“Where did you get it?” he asked her, chewing it for as long as he could before swallowing.
“The milk bar,” the little girl answered.
“Did they give it to you?”
“No, I gave them 20 cents.”
“Did you buy it?”
“Did you bring it from home?”
“No, I got it at the shop.”
“But the 20 cents.”
“Did you bring the 20 cents from home?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Mother Mary gave it to me.”
“Mother Mary gave it to you?” The little boy looked at the statue.
“How? How did she give it to you?”
“She wanted me to have it.”
“How do you know? Did she speak to you?”
“She spoke to you?”
“She spoke…words…out loud?”
“Louisa, did you take 20 cents from Mother Mary’s ‘poor bowl’?”
“Yes?” the little girl said, biting off another tiny piece of a licorice strap and handing Darren Crossley some of it.
“Louisa, Mother Mary can’t talk.”
“She told me to take the coins.”
“She put the words in my head…to do it.”
“She told you to take 20 cents from the ‘poor bowl’?”
“Yes, she did.”
Three more children arrived before Sister Marie-Therese arrived and Darren Crossley went back to his seat in front of Louisa. The classroom filled as each child went to his or her allotted seat. The clouds still touched the ground and stretched beyond the tops of the trees outside through the windows of the classroom as Louisa put the licorice away in her chair-bag with her apple. She, like everyone else, was copying letters of the alphabet from the blackboard and had forgotten about the licorice when Sister Marie-Therese suddenly ordered everyone to put their pencils down. Without the children noticing, she had taken the “poor bowl” to her desk and had counted the money only to discover the 20-cent shortfall.
“I said, ‘Pencils down!’ Children, I have just counted our contributions to the ‘poor bowl’. There are 20 cents missing. Twenty cents! Somebody here stole…stole from the Blessed Virgin! We have a thief in here. In our own class there is a thief! Stand up the thief! Stand up the thief!”
But none of the children stood up. They were, to a child, petrified and it was about to get worse as Sister Marie-Therese continued. “If none of you confess, I’m going to have to punish the whole class, each and every one of you as though each one of you was the thief, as though each one of you stole from the Mother of our Lord and Saviour.”
Still none of the children stood up. None of them moved until a little girl two rows in front of Louisa started to cry.
“Was it you, Mathilda?”
“N…n…No,” Mathilda said through her tears.
“It was you, wasn’t it?”
“No!” she called out in terror.
“You want to confess, Mathilda. I understand that,” Sister Marie-Therese said quietly.
Mathilda was unable to speak now. Everyone watched her panic. She seemed to be unable to breathe.
“If you come out the front and admit what you have done, I won’t have to punish the whole class. But if no one confesses then I must assume that you all did it or that you all know who did it.” Mathilda didn’t move.
“Mathilda,” Sister Marie-Therese said quietly, “Come up to the front, please.”
Slowly, the sobbing girl made her way to the front of the class, gasping for breath as she moved. All the other children, each one terrified, were looking at Mathilda, hoping she was going to relieve them of their sin but frightened of what would happen to her. Whatever it was that was going to be done to her they couldn’t imagine. None of them had ever seen the wrath of God before, though they had all heard of it. All of them followed Mathilda with their eyes, all but Darren Crossley who turned to sneak a glance at Louisa. He saw that she had a tear in her eye. She was trying not to shake and she saw that he saw. She wondered whether he was going to tell Sister Marie-Therese what he knew. Somebody had to save Mathilda. Louisa knew this. It wasn’t fair. Mathilda was a nice girl. But how could Mathilda be saved, Louisa wondered, without her being punished, either along with the rest of the class or, worse, as the sole culprit? She had told Darren Crossley that Mother Mary had told her to take the 20 cents. Would Sister Marie-Therese accept this explanation? Mathilda was shuddering in front of the class. Louisa looked at the Blessed Virgin. She wasn’t going to give up the guilty party. Neither was she going to protect the innocent. She would be there all the same when this was over.
“Face your classmates, Mathilda! Tell me what you did and see the faces of your friends as you take their punishment away from them. They will all thank you.” The shivering little girl lost control and a stream of urine spilled down her legs. The other children squealed.
“Silence!” Sister Marie-Therese shouted. Darren Crossley turned again to look at Louisa. This time, Sister Marie-Therese saw him turn around.
“Do you know something about this?”
Darren Crossley sat in his seat dumbstruck as though Sister Marie-Therese had not said anything to him at all. Louisa started talking to Mother Mary in her head, but now no words at all were being put in her mind by the Blessed Virgin. What was Darren Crossley going to say? She had given him some of her licorice straps. What did that mean to him? What would it mean to Sister Marie-Therese? What would it mean to Jesus?
“Darren Crossley! Stand up Darren Crossley!”
Louisa watched Darren Crossley stand up slowly in his seat. He was trembling. On the platform at the front of the class Mathilda was still shaking, her legs, shoes and socks now wet.
“Did you see Mathilda take the money from the ‘poor bowl’?” The little boy stood there unable to speak.
“Darren Crossley, I asked you a question!” Sister Marie-Therese bellowed. Louisa, biting her bottom lip, saw him begin to turn around again. He mustn’t turn around, she thought to herself. Could she promise Mother Mary to share the licorice straps with her? Could she promise Mother Mary to share them with the class?
“Face the front, Darren Crossley! I’m asking you whether you saw Mathilda take the money from the ‘poor bowl’.”
“You did see her take the money?”
“No!” Mathilda began, answering her teacher, informing her classmates and imploring Darren Crossley all with one terror-stricken word, “No, I…I…I…,” she sputtered, terrified, between gasps, hardly able to breathe.
“No, Sister, I didn’t,” answered Darren Crossley.
“But you know who did take the money, don’t you?”
Darren Crossley stood in his spot, shifting his weight from one side to the other and back again. He was six years old, as was Louisa who watched him from a few rows back.
“Darren Crossley, answer me this instant! You know who took the money, don’t you?”
“Who took the money from the Mother of our Lord? Tell me the name of that child right now.”
Darren Crossley mumbled a few sounds, some syllables no one, not even the boy seated next to him, could decipher. Louisa was unable to look ahead of her. Instead, she stared down at her leg, at the hole in her tights. There she saw her skin, pink and cold.
“Right now, I want both the Christian name and the family name; I want them. Say them…now!”
In a quiet voice that quivered and threatened to be swallowed by the creeping fog outside, he started to speak. “Darren…Darren Crossley,” answered Darren Crossley.
In the hours between two days you live this over and over. And it’s never over.
Louisa was not aware of the tear rolling slowly and silently down her cheek as she watched, along with the rest of the class, as Darren Crossley took three cuts from the cane, first on his cold right hand and then on his cold left. Whack! Whack! Whack! They came for each hand just as Sister Marie-Therese had promised they would. The wrath of God came with a slight whirring sound and you learnt to hear the sound of the cane cutting through the air before it came to touch the human being. You learnt to listen out for the sounds you never otherwise could have imagined. You listen for them even when they’re not easy to hear because they will tell you what’s going to happen next. You’re at school. You’re learning. You weigh and you measure. Darren Crossley returned to his seat without looking at Louisa and sat on his hands.
There were leaves on the ground outside the classroom and outside the school that you could not see till mid-afternoon but it was not until mid-afternoon that the children were let out of school. By then the fog had lifted. The sun was out and the caning of Darren Crossley had happened so many hours earlier that it was almost possible to be unsure whether it had happened that day or a day or two ago. By chance or through divine intervention, the little girl could not say which, Darren Crossley and Louisa walked out of school together at the end of the day. They had left the class with the other children who, when they moved beyond the gates of the school, were scooped up by parents and grandparents. Darren Crossley and Louisa were left to walk alone beside each other.
He was not angry with her. On the contrary, he said he would walk her home although he could not have known where that was. When she saw that he was not angry with her it filled her with such an overwhelming sense of relief that she felt something akin to exhilaration. She started to skip around him as they walked. Remembering the licorice straps that had gone untouched since the morning she reached into her bag and broke some off for each of them. Darren Crossley offered to hold her bag for her. She jumped around him not fully understanding why. She talked about their art class. She was positively prancing like a little pony. She skipped faster than he was walking and then skipped back to him as quickly as she could.
They came upon some long grass in front of a house. Louisa bent down to playfully, almost ostentatiously grab a fistful of the grass and tear it out of the earth to wave it around her as she pranced. But it hurt. It stung. She felt a long cut in the centre of her hand. She opened her palm to find a thin strand of blood getting wider and wider. Shocked by the sting that wouldn’t go away, by the brightness of the blood and by its refusal to stop coming, the little girl began to cry. Darren Crossley leaned in and saw the blood in her palm and laughed. The laugh, it made her stop crying, dismayed her nearly as much as Sister Marie-Therese’s discovery of the theft from the “poor bowl”. He was pleased she’d hurt herself. There was not a trace of fog anymore. She would see the day quite clearly. Darren Crossley dropped her schoolbag on the moist leaves covering the ground and ran away from her, back in the direction of the school. They hadn’t really gone very far.
She saw there was someone in the distance back at the school waiting to collect him. He was six years old. An adult was waiting to collect Darren Crossley and take him home. There wasn’t anyone there to meet Louisa. No one noticed the distraught little girl walking home alone. But then children are always laughing or crying about something, aren’t they?
This was a long time ago and now, in the dark, in the hours between two days, as you stumble through a half-remembered time, the shame, the guilt and the disappointment all spill onto the pillow yet again. You weren’t six for much longer after the day with the coins. You grew bigger and moved to another state. But whenever you returned, there were still people who remembered you. For a boy, now a man, you were the girl with the licorice straps.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "The licorice straps". Subscribe here.