You can’t think about it too much, or it’ll drive you mad. That’s what Eleanor feels about space, or the age of the earth, or the fact that there are parts of the ocean floor that lie more than ten thousand metres below the surface. There are some concepts the human brain just isn’t supposed to be able to reconcile with its own tiny, egocentric existence. No wonder the religious zealots drew a line firmly at six thousand years, and an earth that was the centre of all things.
Charlie loves space. She can name all the moons of Jupiter, and knows the difference between asteroids and meteors, and the gravitational pull of each of the planets. Eleanor’s own knowledge starts and ends with ‘My Very Easy Method…’, and even that is obsolete now, since Pluto’s fall from grace. Sometimes Charlie will try to teach her things, but Eleanor finds it hard to concentrate, to focus enough on what Charlie is saying rather than how she is saying it, and whether she is rocking back and forth on her heels as she does so, and making that clicking sound with her tongue after every fifth or sixth word. Brendan is better at it, at just listening to her and asking the right questions and getting sucked into her excitement; but then, Brendan is not there all day.
The invitation has been stuck to the fridge since yesterday. The paper is mint green, with a pink motif in the corners – at nine they are too old, it seems, for balloons and primary colours – and the handwriting is round and precise, with tiny hearts dotting the Is.
There have not been any birthday parties, up to now. Not since Junior Infants, when she was asked to a handful of them, the whole class in some soft play centre or big back garden. It was too early in their school careers for the other parents to have any sense of who was who, and Charlie’s refusal to join in, her insistence on sitting rigid in Eleanor’s lap with her eyes tightly shut while Pass the Parcel proceeded gaily on the other side of the room – this was unremarkable, in this crowd of tiny children not long out of nappies. But the children grew up, and friendships solidified, and Charlie’s otherness became impossible to overlook. And so there have not been any birthday parties, or playdates, or invitations to the zoo; not for Charlie the whispered intimacies of best friendship. Charlie does not mind; she is happy with her planets, and her books, and the unrestricted access to her tablet, a parenting tool Eleanor and Brendan quickly realised would make life infinitely more tolerable for all three of them. No, Charlie does not mind. It is only Eleanor who minds; but oh, she minds fiercely.
Her first instinct had been to refuse. When she found the envelope in Charlie’s bag, already bent at one corner and bearing some unspecified stain, she had been at first astonished, and then afraid. She feared a trick, a humiliation in the offing; she did not know this other child, not really, but she was immediately suspicious of her motives. And then ashamed at herself, for the girl was not yet nine, and always seemed a nice little thing, running out of the school gates to hug the toddler brother who waited sturdily with their mother to pick her up each day. Eleanor could not imagine darker motives, not really. It was just that it was so unexpected. And Charlie was so precious.
“It’s just a bit… odd, isn’t it?” She’d met Brendan at the door, the invitation growing limp in her hand.
He took it, and raised his eyebrows.
“Do we know her, this kid?”
“Well.” He shrugged, and handed it back to her, and kissed her mouth.
Tonight she lies wakeful beside her husband, her mind too unsettled to be soothed by a book. The blue light from Brendan’s phone puts a cast over his face.
“Should we let her go?”
He does not have to ask what she is talking about; he is thinking of it too, for all his nonchalance.
“Does she want to go?”
“She said she did. She didn’t seem – I don’t know. She wasn’t excited, or anything.”
“But she wants to go. She should go, then.”
“But what if it’s awful? What if they’re mean to her?” Her voice is too shrill, she can hear it, and he puts the phone down with a sigh.
“They wouldn’t invite her just to be mean to her, would they? Not at that age.”
Sometimes she longs for the simplicity of his world.
“But what if it’s too much for her? If she can’t cope?”
“Then we’ll pick her up.” He turns to her, spreads his wide warm hand over the softness of her middle. “We have to let her try things, El. It’s the only way she’ll get used to doing stuff like this.”
And Eleanor can see the wisdom in this.
But tomorrow she will reply to the invitation, and she will take Charlie to pick out the sort of present a nine-year-old girl might like, and together they will wrap it. On Saturday she will select something clean from the limited wardrobe of clothing Charlie can tolerate, and brush her hair, and they will practice saying hello and goodbye, saying thank you and please and can I go to the toilet?
And then she will drive her to this unknown house, and leave her to the door, and wait. And she will try to be glad. For this is all she wants, really; all they have ever wanted. Not to change Charlie, to make her something she is not, but just for her to find her place in the world. Even if the world does not quite deserve her. Even if, in Eleanor’s heart, she really belongs to the stars.
About the Author
Claire Gleeson is from Dublin, where she lives with her young family and works as a GP. Her stories have been published by Lunate Fiction, JMWW and Storgy, been shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Prize, the Anthology Magazine Short Story Competition and the Benedict Kiely Short Story Competition, and longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award. Her Twitter handle is @cmgleeson.
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