Below is a short story I’ve been writing for a number of months. It’s taken on many different forms and been changed a number of times. I’m still not sure I’m entirely happy with it, but there’s only so many times you can tinker with something before you actually put it out there.
So here it is, ‘Audrey and the Trash Can’, for you to read in all its flaws. I imagined it as a fairy tale without the fairies, because while it’s set in the modern day and doesn’t have any fantastical elements to it, it’s still designed to do what all fairy tales are designed to do: impart a moral.
Hopefully it does that and will put a smile on your face. Or at least, leave you jonesing for a plate of chips.
A Very Sunny Day
The trash can wore a smile. It was crooked and misshapen, and formed when Mr Laurent from Number 36 forgot to put the handbrake on, causing his ghastly lime green Ford Fiesta to roll down his driveway and crash into Audrey’s front yard, where the trashcan resided. But it was there; a definite smile. And behind that smile, Audrey knew, there was more. A whole personality: John, a living, breathing being with hopes and dreams. Just like Audrey. Just like everybody else.
Audrey knew that people would find John strange, but she didn’t mind. She knew that being kind to John simply made sense. If a trash can could smile, she reasoned with laser-precise accuracy, he could feel joy. And if he could feel joy, it was common sense that he could feel sadness, and fear, and despair. All the terrible things, in fact, that no decent person would ever want anybody else to feel – and which Audrey, whose father had passed away when she was six, knew all too well.
Who would stop John feeling those things? Who would help him when the dark clouds filled the sky and the rain began to fall? No one on Primrose Drive was likely to step forward. So she did it herself, stopping next to John one sunny Thursday morning on her way to school to exchange a greeting.
“Hello John,” she said, anxiously twiddling her bright pink sunglasses (which she wore as often as she could) and pulling at the threads of her already-tatty yellow dinosaur jumper (another fixture of her wardrobe). Of course she needn’t have been so nervous. Audrey was a Very Nice Person with Very Good Ideas and a Very Excellent Fashion Sense. John liked her immediately.
“Hello Audrey,” he replied, grateful for the new friend he’d unexpectedly made.
Sometimes that’s as far as the conversation would go, especially in the early days. A simple greeting, an acknowledgement from human to trashcan of each other’s mutual existence and right to respect. Sometimes, there’d be a fuller enquiry: a ‘how are you’ here, an ‘oh fine. Yourself?’ there. And on other occasions, the exchanges would become full conversations, so long and involved, so joyous in their content, that Audrey’s mum needed to bring out her tea (always a plate of chips, because Audrey, like all Very Smart Girls, knew that chips were a Very Good Idea) while she chatted with her new friend.
These were Audrey’s favourites. Here, when she and John had more time, she would ask about his day, relishing every detail: who had walked by, how many red cars had he seen, had that pesky dog from Number 43 tried to wee on him again!? She also liked to ask about his interest in the arts. John was a very learned trash can, as many trash cans are, and she enjoyed hearing his literary recommendations, which blended the latest airport potboilers with the most respected of classics.
“Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment?” he said, barely suppressing a mischievous grin. “Well, it was quite the life sentence reading that one!”
He’d often repeat that joke, or jokes like it, laughing heartily as he did. Audrey liked it very much and didn’t mind at all that she’d heard it many times before. She laughed every time. For his part, John liked that she liked it, and they both liked that they could make each other smile as much as they did. The weather was warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky on those very sunny days.
A Very Smart Teacher
As their friendship grew, so too did John’s features. Audrey ‘borrowed’ a hot glue gun from the school’s woodwork class, found a nice smooth rock from her mum’s garden, and glued it to John’s face, just above his crooked smile.
“There,” she said with a sense of glorious completion. “Now you have a nose!”
The heat from the glue stung John’s face, but he didn’t mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was delighted to finally have a nose – a critical facility for any living being: animal, human, trashcan or otherwise.
“Who ‘nose’ what I’ll be able to smell with this,” he joked. “Thank you, Audrey. I’ll take it everywhere with me.”
Audrey and John become inseparable as the days and weeks passed.
Every morning brought a ‘Have a nice day,’ John broadening Audrey’s vocabulary by using a new, more complicated word to use in place of ‘nice’. Eventually, they no longer simply wished each other a ‘nice’ day, but a great one, a wonderful one, an exceptional one, a super-duper-with-a-cherry-on-top one. Likewise, every evening brought a conversation about the day just gone. One night, Audrey returned with an armful of props from the drama club (“Mrs Matthews said I could have them!” she protested when John expressed his concern) and used them to give John extra features: eyes and eyebrows, a lush mop of hair and even a little hat and umbrella to keep the rain off. John thought the bright yellow umbrella made him look a little silly, but he appreciated the thought. Especially when that dog appeared.
It was, they both knew, a perfect friendship, one based on mutual love, affection, and empathy. Audrey learned things from John and John learned things from Audrey. Even the rare issues on which they disagreed – such as the various merits of merry-go-rounds (John was not a fan) and the degree to which raw marzipan is or is not edible (“Of course it is,” Audrey protested. “If it’s sweet and tasty it can – and should! – be eaten!”) – they could find common ground and respect.
“Thank you for believing in me,” John told Audrey one cool summer evening.
“Why would I not?” asked Audrey, genuinely surprised and a little saddened that her friend would even think such a thing.
“Many people don’t…” John replied solemnly.
The words lingered in Audrey’s mind all through the night and into the next day. They itched away at her as she brushed her teeth in the morning, got bored during Double Maths class in the afternoon, and left for home having aced a Science test. It was a Wednesday, so her mother had to work late at the lab and Mrs Matthews, Blacknot Primary’s Head Teacher, walked her home.
Mrs Matthews was the youngest Head Teacher in Blacknot’s history, and had almost single-handed saved Blacknot Primary from closure 18 months after her appointment. She prided herself on knowing the name of every pupil at the school, but held a special place in her heart for Audrey, who first came to her attention when the girl accidentally set the science lab alight.
“I wanted to make the world better,” Audrey said when Mrs Matthews asked what she was trying to do.
Of course, Mrs Matthews had to reprimand her slightly, telling her to be more careful from now on, but secretly she wanted to tell Audrey to keep at it. One day, she knew, Audrey would create something that really did make the world better.
Audrey had told Mrs Matthews all about John, and she’d even visited him a few days earlier, getting into a very long conversation about Mrs Matthews’ favourite author, Charles Dickens. She was, Audrey knew, A Very Good Teacher, and if anyone knew how to answer the questions that were plaguing her, it was her. So Audrey asked, and hoped there’d be an answer.
Mrs Matthews seemed a little taken aback at first. It wasn’t that she was surprised that Audrey would ask this question, but rather that she really didn’t know how to answer. How, after all, do you tell a 10-year-old about the nature of kindness; why some people are kind and others… are not. She could see that the pause was upsetting Audrey, like the lack of an immediate answer simply wasn’t good enough for such a critical question. So she started talking, stumbling at first but eventually speaking with the clarity and certainty Audrey had become accustomed to.
“Well, Audrey, sweetheart, there are different kinds of unkindness,” she began uneasily. “Some are unkind through sheer thoughtlessness. No harm is intended, and no harm is taken.”
She told Audrey the story of her neighbour, Mr Amir, a kind young man who always left food and water out for the stray dogs that wandered into his back garden, but who’d stormed home one evening with a face of fire and a headful of hate. He’d been frustrated by a long and difficult day at work, and spent the entire two-hour train journey back thrust up against a door because a fellow passenger didn’t take his bag off his back. That night, he could be heard ranting through the walls, but the next day, he emerged with a spring in his step.
“Hello, Mr Amir,” Mrs Matthews said upon seeing him the next morning. “Are you ok? You seemed very angry yesterday?”
“Oh hello Helen,” Mr Amir replied, smiling. “Yes, I just had a bad day.” And with that, he went about the rest of his day.
“Sometimes, Audrey, people just get annoyed and need to let it out. Other times, however, unkindness comes from unkindness inflicted upon a person…”
“Like Mr Goldstein!” Audrey jumped in to say.
Mrs Matthews didn’t know who Mr Goldstein was, but let Audrey tell the story, which she did with typically vivid panache. Mr Goldstein was a sweet but lonely old man who’d been the butt of jokes about his lisp for many years. The humiliation eventually got too much and he shut himself away as he got older, turning from a gentle old man who fixed Audrey’s bike whenever it broke into an angry tyrant who never left his house. His garden, which he’d once tended so carefully and which gave Primose Drive such great colour during the Spring and Summer turned to ruin, and when anyone would pop by to say hello, he’d greet them with a cold hiss that would shame even the deadliest of snakes.
“I tried to build a time machine to go back to the day he stopped going out,” Audrey told Mrs Matthews, “but it didn’t work.”
“Well,” Mrs Matthew said, “the laws of time and space are tricky to say the least and remain just out of reach, even for the Very Smartest of Girls with the Very Best of Ideas. I bet Mr Goldstein appreciated the effort.”
The two paused for a moment reflecting on Mr Goldstein’s misfortune. Mrs Matthews noticed that Audrey was looking sad again, tugging at her jumper and fiddling with her sunglasses, and tried to turn the conversation to other things. But Audrey was not one to be deterred, and asked about the other kinds of unkindness. It was a subject Mrs Matthews was hesitant to embark upon, but she knew Audrey wouldn’t let it drop. When she wanted to know something, she’d know it.
“Well, some people don’t have excuses like Mr Amir and Mr Goldstein. Their unkindness is not short-lived and nor is it a side-effect of the unkindness of others. They’re simply unkind and their unkindness is designed to be, and successful at being, harmful.”
Audrey saw this kind of person on the news all the time: the person who dislikes another person because of the colour of their skin, or the country they’re from, or the person they love, or the gender they are.
“This kind of unkindness is stupid and pointless,” Mrs Matthews continued, “and it grows in people, like a weed in a garden. And where one weed can grow, another can grow. And another. And another. And another. Until the whole garden is overtaken.
“And if a garden is full of weeds,” she added, trying to add some levity to put the smile back on Audrey’s face, “what room will there be for potatoes and the delicious chips we make from them?”
Audrey did smile, but not for long. She didn’t know many people like this, but the one she did know was horrible enough to make up for all the ones she didn’t.
“Mrs Roache,” she said flatly.
“Mrs Roache,” sighed Mrs Matthews, who’d had plenty of confrontations with this woman since arriving in Blacknot.
“She got rid of Natalia,” Audrey said, pausing and stumbling over her words, like she couldn’t quite articulate them.
“And I think I hate her.”
Mrs Matthews had heard most of the stories Audrey had to tell on her Wednesday afternoon trips back from school. Every invention, every brilliantly mad scheme, every character she’d dreamed up. She’d even spoken at length about her Dad, something she struggled to do with anyone but her Mum.
But she’d never heard of Natalia and she’d certainly never used the word ‘hate’ before, not even to describe the man who’d drunkenly knocked her father down.
“Who’s Natalia, Audrey,” Mrs Matthews asked, unsure of whether to use the past or present tense considering Audrey’s use of the term “got rid of”.
So Audrey told the story. Of Natalia, who’d moved to Primrose Drive when Audrey when seven, and who’d disappeared shortly after.
Audrey liked Natalia immediately. She was a few years older, ridiculously stylish and unbelievably cool. She put colours in her hair – pinks, purples, blues, and greens, a different one every week – and when she saw Audrey wearing her bright pink sunglasses, she took to calling the girl ‘Hepburn’. Audrey didn’t know what that meant, but Natalia made it sound cool, so she had everyone else call it her too. No-one made it sound quite as good as Natalia did though.
Natalia’s Dad owned a small shop just down the road from Primrose Drive, and Audrey often went in there to run errands for her Mum. He also called her Hepburn and would always give her a free bag of crisps – Salt and Vinegar, obviously! – as she left. He was a Very Nice Man and he’d promised Audrey a paper round when she got a little older (“To fund your magnificent inventions,” he said with an accent she couldn’t locate but she liked very much anyway).
The girls always smiled, and the weather was always sunny when Audrey was with her only friend and her only friend was with her.
But Mrs. Roache didn’t like Natalia and her Dad. She said they were taking over and ruining Primrose Drive. It looked the same to Audrey, so she didn’t know what Mrs. Roache was talking about. Somehow though other people agreed with Mrs. Roache, attending many meetings at the Town Hall to discuss ‘what should be done’. Then, one day, Natalia stopped visiting, the shop shut down, and there was no-one to call her ‘Hepburn’ any more.
“I don’t know where she is now,” Audrey said with uncharacteristic meekness. “And I don’t know if she’s got someone to make her smile.”
At that, she and Mrs Matthews finally reached Audrey’s house. Mrs Matthews said hello to John, who asked if she’d finally come round to his way of thinking that Great Expectations was indeed better than Bleak House. Mrs Matthews agreed that she must indeed defer to the great literary mind of our age – which brought a smile to Audrey’s face – and the three said their goodbyes.
Mrs Matthews carried on towards her house and wrapped her coat tight around her as a chill wind swept through Primrose Drive.
A Very Silly Person
People like Mrs Roache never go away. Not really. And they certainly don’t stop being hateful. They just find different ways and different targets. Having targeted Natalia before, Mrs Roach now turned her attentions to the latest new and different thing that she couldn’t understand: John.
She’d heard all about Audrey and John’s friendship and didn’t like it one bit. She marched on Audrey’s house and knocked on the door, determined to talk to Audrey’s mum about her daughter’s strange friendship.
“Do you understand what she’s doing?” Mrs Roache demanded with venom in her voice.
“Having fun,” replied Audrey’s mother, who had argued tirelessly over Mrs Roach’s treatment of Natalia and her father, and had long since had her fill of this vicious woman’s hate. She already had her hand on the front door, ready to close it firmly in Mrs Roache’s face; something she was hoping to do as quickly as possible.
“You call that fun?” Mrs Roache replied, placing her foot in the doorway to make sure she couldn’t be shut out. She’d done this many times before and had many doors slammed in her face as a result. Like all people who like telling others what to do, Mrs Roache wasn’t so keen on being told what to do herself.
“That isn’t fun! It’s…” she paused, partly to find the right word, partly for dramatic effect because she already knew the right word – she used it every time she had this conversation, “it’s abnormal. How will I ever explain such abnormality to my children!?”
Audrey’s mum had to stifle a smile. Mrs Roache always returned to this argument, believing somehow that her concern for her children, and the children of her friends, made her right and gave her permission to hold any old opinion, no matter how disgusting it was, and force it upon anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot.
“As an educator, Mrs Roache,” Audrey’s mum began, her words dripping with irony, “I’d hope you’d know the answer to that question already. But since you’re asking, I suggest you start by sitting down and talking to your children. Have you ever done that?”
She didn’t need, want, or expect an answer, so Audrey’s mum sharply closed the door, not caring if she trapped Mrs. Roach’s foot in it.
“I’m sorry,” she said through the door when she heard the inevitable yelp, her voice barely masking false sincerity. “In future, I’ll try to make sure my door isn’t in the way of your foot.”
And with that Mrs Roache turned and left, but Audrey’s mum knew she’d be back and warned her daughter to look out for her in the next few days. So when Mrs Roach descended like a shadow at sundown on Audrey’s house again, flyer in hand and darkness in her eyes on one grey and cold afternoon, the girl simply laughed and went back to chatting to John.
“You’re a very silly person, aren’t you?” she said as she walked away, understanding that Very Silly People are worth neither time nor effort, especially not when there were Very Good Ideas to be tended to.
It didn’t do any good. Mrs. Roache ignored Audrey’s dismissal and carried on.
“Why do you talk to a trash can?” she said, floating like a ghost to where Audrey and John were sat talking about the various merits of French Fries (too thin. Obviously).
“Because he’s my friend,” Audrey replied, irritated that her conversation was interrupted by a woman (an educator, no less) who, for some reason, needed it explained to her that a trashcan with a smile could feel joy and therefore sadness and therefore needed a friend to help him not experience such terrible emotions.
“I thought you were on the Board of Governors at school. Maybe I should tell them to fire you as you’re obviously not very smart.”
Mrs Roache twitched, as she did every time someone threatened her power. She moved towards Audrey, knelt down so she was in the girl’s eyeline, and smiled a smile that bore more in common with a grimace than an expression of joy. “That,” she said with a voice so flat it could be used to draw a straight line in a school exercise book, “is a trashcan. It can’t be your friend and you can’t be its friend.”
Mrs. Roache put particular emphasis on the words ‘it’ and ‘its’, making sure Audrey and John knew that she didn’t consider John as anything more than a thing, an ‘it’ that warranted neither a name nor the respect that came with it.
The words cut like daggers, and Audrey could feel herself getting angry. Angry for Natalia, angry for John, angry for herself for having to listen to this silly woman and her silly views. She considered shouting, but knew it wouldn’t do anything. She considered trying to teach Mrs. Roach about why John deserved respect. But she didn’t think it would achieve much either. So she tried a different approach, one that would end this tiresome conversation and allow her and John to go back to their Very Good Ideas. She pitied her.
John watched with a wide smile on his face as Audrey stood up, placed her hand on Mrs Roach’s shoulder, and looked her in the eyes.
“You’re a very silly person, aren’t you?” she said, smiling with pity at this most pitiable woman.
She then walked in front of Mrs Roach and resumed her conversation with John as the sun broke through the clouds.
A Very Troubling Boy
Danny Roache was every bit his Mother’s son. He was disruptive in class, aggressive towards classmates, and where his Mum would expect agreement following her statements, no matter how silly, he would expected laughter following his jokes, no matter how unfunny. He roamed the halls of Blacknot Primary flanked by two friends, whose names Audrey neither knew, nor cared to learn, and had gained a special notoriety in the Teacher’s Lounge when he refused to read Romeo and Juliet in Mrs Walsh’s English class. “What would I want with some mushy love story?” he’d demanded.
He and his parents lived at Number 66, and he’d often pass Audrey’s house on Saturday morning as he made his way to football practice. Since forming her friendship with John, Danny had taken to hurling insults at Audrey, calling her a weirdo and Rubbish Girl. She didn’t mind; in fact, she was quite amused by how unimaginative his insults were. But unknown to her, Danny had become a spy for his Mum, watching her as she and John worked on their Very Good Ideas and reporting back to Mrs. Roache with every last detail.
For the past few Saturdays, Audrey had spent the majority of the morning with John. They were building a rocket ship to travel to the moon. Audrey reasoned that the moon-dwelling aliens, which John had dubbed Mooniens, were more friendly than the people who lived here on Earth. She wanted to be sure that John would never have to experience Mrs Roache’s unkindness again. The Mooniens would make for much better company, she reasoned, and so she struck upon the Very Good Idea of building a Rocket Ship that could take her and John to be with them.
As it turned out, Rocket Ships were not as difficult to make as the NASA scientists made it seem. A wing here, a satellite there, and voila! All done. Audrey and John couldn’t work out why so many compared Very Difficult Things to rocket science. This was a piece of cake, or more precisely, a plate of chips, which Audrey and John delightedly devoured after completing their third weekend of work on their Very Good Idea.
As the sun went down and John gobbled up the last chip, the two basked in the glory of their continued work, which now sat bathed in the warm orange glow of a setting sun.
“The moon will be better,” Audrey assured John.
“It can hardly be worse,” John agreed.
Life on Earth could get worse though. Much worse. As Audrey and John discovered on the fourth weekend of their Rocket Ship Project, when Danny appeared on their front lawn with a baseball bat in his hands and a dark intent in his eyes.
Danny may not have been funny or smart, but he was cunning and as he wandered Primrose Drive, spying for his Mum, he was working out when Audrey would be absent and for how long, slowly getting a gauge of the best times to appear.
On a number of occasions, for example, he showed up when Audrey was eating her lunch, only to be surprised that, in her eagerness to complete the Rocket Ship, she returned early, with cheese sandwich (no crusts – an omission which John simply couldn’t fathom) clutched in her hands. Danny, like every scheming bully, would sheepishly depart, backsack pulled tightly over his shoulders, hoodie concealing his face.
On the fourth weekend, however, the stars did not align so neatly.
Audrey had popped to the DIY shop for supplies when Danny spied his opportunity. It was mid-day, and the clouds turned dark. Danny pulled his hood hard over his head and slid a baseball bat out of his bag. Without even a second’s pause, he started destroying the rocket ship.
It was… well, it was a lot of things, but mostly, it was hateful. Utterly, hopelessly hateful. As all destruction is, of course. But this particular act of destruction was especially hateful. By attacking the rocket ship, Danny was doing more than destroying a bit of metal. He was destroying endeavour, creativity, hope, and friendship.
And he knew it. That was the point.
Danny knew all this and still wanted to destroy it. It’s why his rampage was as horrible and reckless as it was. Some violence is careful, quiet, precise. Some violence is even delivered through words, rather than physical kicks and punches: barbed language that shoots from a cracked and cold tongue and falls like smashed glass on its target.
Make no mistake: such violence is just as repugnant as the violence Danny inflicted upon Audrey and John’s Rocket Ship, but Danny’s violence was of a different sort. It was scary. And when Audrey returned home with the early afternoon sun barely peaking through a thick grey sky, she wanted to hide. Hide the ship (or what was left of it), hide herself, and most of all hide John.
It was to John she ran first when she first arrived back. It took her a little time to find him, causing her heart to race faster than she knew it could. Danny’s rampage had sent scraps of metal hurtling toward John, and at one point, the boy had swung so wildly it had hit John and sent him tumbling over.
When she did find him, she almost wished she hadn’t. She rolled John over and returned him to his upright position, but when she saw his face, her fast-beating heart ground to a stop so hard she imagined smoke emerging from it like that cartoon coyote’s feet did when he couldn’t catch the bird. The dents and dings Danny’s bat had inflicted on John had warped his once proudly crooked smile. Now, he no longer beamed with the goofy grin that greeted Audrey on her way to and from school every day; he frowned.
“Are you ok, John?” Audrey asked, voice breaking, already knowing the answer deep down.
There was a long pause as John looked at his friend with his bent frown.
“We’re not going to the moon, are we Audrey?”
“Not today, John,” she replied. “Not today.”
A Very Dark Night
Audrey couldn’t sleep that night. She didn’t understand. Why destroy something that wasn’t doing anybody any harm? Why hurt someone so much by destroying something they’d worked so hard on, something that meant so much to them? She asked her mum while brushing her teeth for the night, but no answer came. Adults, she quickly realised after her father’s death, have no greater ability to understand people, and the depth to which they will sink, than children. How could they? They make building a spaceship look like rocket science. She and John did it in three weeks.
And Danny undid it in three minutes.
As she tossed and turned in bed, Audrey struggled to grasp the feelings rushing through her. She was angry. No, worse than that. She was livid. Furious. Irate. Enraged. All those words John had taught her but didn’t quite capture just how angry she really was. She clenched her fists and gritted her teeth, trying with all her might to halt the fury she felt coursing through her veins like fire. She hated him. Him and his Mum. She knew it now. No ‘thinking’ about it. She hated them both and wanted revenge.
“If he can do that to me and John,” she reasoned with a coldness in her voice that’d startle you awake one cold and dark January morning, “then we can do it back to him.”
The thought made her smile and she got to wondering what of Danny’s she and John could destroy. Deep down, she knew this was just a way of taking her mind of the destruction of the rocket ship, something to occupy her head so she didn’t have to feel sad about it any more. She even felt a little twinge of guilt as the thoughts crossed her mind. But it felt good to do it, and so she carried on. She tried to find the perfect item, something that meant the world to him. She’d seen him polishing his bike on her way back from school one day. That’d do it. That’d hurt him.
She leaped out of bed, her feet hitting the floor with a thud she was sure her Mum heard. She froze on the spot, listening out for signs of her Mum getting out of bed, but nothing came. She moved around her room, slowly and deliberately making her way to the blackboard on which she devised all her Very Good Ideas. She picked up the chalk and sketched out the steps she’d need to take to steal and destroy Danny’s bike.
- Watch his movements.
- Find a time when the bike is unattended
- Take the bike
- Take the bike apart
- Use the bike to build a new Rocket Ship
She flipped the blackboard over, multi-coloured chalk that had been resting in the tray at the foot of the board spilling quietly to the floor. Hastily, she scrawled a map on the blackboard’s reverse side, a map showing Primrose Drive and the sidestreet that emerged from it. Here, she could plot Danny’s movements, work out his weaknesses, and mastermind her attack. She smiled again at the thought. It was a mean and malicious smile. The kind of smile she didn’t know she was capable of smiling. A smirk more than a smile, in fact. The kind of smirk she imagined Danny smirked when he smashed up the rocket ship and hit John.
She paused. What would John think to see her like this? Angry. Frustrated. Planning to do to someone else that which had caused her and John so much pain. This isn’t what he’d want, and it’s certainly not what he’d do. She realised in that moment it wasn’t even what she wanted. Not really. She just wanted to rid herself of the hurt and outrage she felt. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair! But she didn’t know what to do to balance things out again. What could she do to stop feeling so bad and make things right again?
She glanced out of her window, towards the front lawn where the tattered remains of her and John’s rocket ship still lay, and where John himself still stood proudly, if a little more meekly, with his crooked frown. She smiled at how he endured and decided to do the same herself. She headed back to bed and went to sleep with an annoyed grunt and a final, futile gnash of her teeth. Doing right can sometimes be A Very Annoying Thing, she thought. She off drifted to sleep and her clock ticked on to midnight as the day came to a close without a star blinking in the night sky.
A Very Good Idea
The next day, Audrey arose as she often did: with renewed purpose, a clear mind and a pure heart. She looked out of her window at the remains of the Rocket Ship, just as she had the night before, and the morning seemed to shine a new light on the pile of scattered metal scraps. She smiled the kind of smile one smiles when one has A Very Good Idea. She smiled the smile she smiled when she first saw John smiling at her all those months ago. She smiled the smile of creation.
She got dressed, brushed her teeth, pushing the toothbrush across her mouth once, twice, three times, just as the programme on children’s television told her to, and bounded downstairs where her mother was preparing reports for her day ahead at the lab.
“Don’t you want some toast,” her mother called to her as she flew out the door.
“TOAST!?” Audrey bellowed, incredulous at the mere suggestion that toast were a fitting foodstuff for such a momentous occasion. “Mother, I have A Very Good Idea! I have no need for such human food as toast!”
And with that, her mum watched as Audrey dashed off down the road, heading wherever her Very Good Idea was going to take her.
“But it’s got jam on it,” was all she could meekly offer.
No amount of jam could distract Audrey from her path. Not even the very special strawberry jam her mother kept in the high cabinet for special occasions only and which she’d pulled down this morning to cheer her up after the events of the day before.
Audrey was already halfway down the road before her Mum finished talking, and within a matter of minutes, she arrived at her location: the hardware shop. She picked up a few key provisions, dumped a bag of coins she hastily swept up from her bedroom dresser on the counter with a dull metallic thud and dashed out again, without so much as waiting for a receipt. She didn’t need one. These provisions were for a Very Good Idea, and one never returns A Very Good Idea.
John was confused by the commotion. He couldn’t fathom what Audrey’s Very Good Idea was, and was still too upset to try to work it out. So when Audrey returned to the front lawn and started tearing up the pieces of the rocket ship even more, he was not only confused, but a little annoyed.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Working on an idea,” Audrey replied quickly and with a certainty that suggested she believed this answered the enquiry as wholly as it could possibly be answered.
“Oh,” John replied. Sad he may have been, but he knew Audrey well enough to know that when she was gripped by this kind of spirit, it’s best just to let her go at it with full speed.
“Is it as good as sliced bread,” John asked, shouting a little so he could be heard over the fizzing and whizzing that were no doubt screeching through Audrey’s active brain. “I hear that’s very good””
Audrey stopped for a second and peered over her glasses.
“Better,” she smiled. “Much better.”
And so Audrey clanged and clanked, and clattered and battered, and bashed and thrashed her way through the Rocket Ship’s debris until something started to take shape. Or rather, some things.
No longer were the rocket pieces torn up shards of metal, they were rounded spheres. Three of them. All stood up. All with flat bottoms and little lids for hats. All with little umbrellas to keep the rain off. They were trash cans, and they had crooked little smiles, just like John did. Or did have. That was Audrey’s last job in this Very Good Idea that was indeed A Very Good Idea and certainly much better than both sliced bread and jam on toast.
She put her arm around John and looked at him with determination in her eyes.
“They’re friends,” she said. “For you… for us. We’ll be a family and we’ll always look out for one another. Me, you…”
She started motioning toward the other trash cans, pointing each one out in turn.
“Alan,” she pointed to the smallest trash can, whose diminutive stature belied a true and valiant heart. He’d once saved a child from a burning building, and dreamed of being a virtuous Knight of the Round Table one day.
“Penelope,” she pointed to a rough and ready trashcan with scars across her body but a warmth in her eyes. She enjoyed poetry and would often tell anyone who listened about the time she had a composition published in the Culture section of The Guardian.
“And Tabatha,” she pointed to the tallest and biggest of the trash cans, who was nonetheless the shyest and most quiet of the three. She gave a sheepish hello by way of acknowledgement and clutched nervously at her book.
There they were. Audrey and her trashcan friends. She turned to John, preparing to bash his frown back into a smile, but didn’t need to bother. John’s frown had already turned back into the smile Audrey knew and loved. He was happy. She was happy. She smiled. At John. At Alan. At Penelope. At Tabatha.
“What he destroyed, we created,” she said. “What he tore down, we built up.”
The five friends cheered as the sun went down, the honey glow and long shadows bringing this Very Good Idea on this Very Good Day to a Very Good End.
A Very Bad Thing
Over the next few days, the five friends were inseparable, as new friends often are and always should be.
On Saturday, they formed a band and recorded a handful of songs, before planning an album, a World Tour, and a film based on their illustrious career. It broke box office records and won every award at the Oscars. Naturally.
On Sunday, they wrote poetry that they submitted to all of London’s great literary journals and gained them the respect of the very finest minds the capital has to offer.
“I’d pull the stars from the sky and lay them down for you to sleep on,” proclaimed Penny.
“I’d take the clouds from up high and put them down for you to walk on,” added Alan.
“I’d take every sigh you ever sighed and wrap you up in my clouds,” offered John.
“I’d take every cry you ever cried and light you up with my stars,” finished Tabitha.
On Monday, they resurrected the dinosaurs, stomping and tromping through the front lawn and pronouncing with the accuracy you’d expect from five Very Bright Friends the cunning Epidexipteryx, the terrifying Phthinosuchus, and the lumbering Xiongguanlong.
On Tuesday, they performed a play by the great William Shakespeare, being sure to improve upon the less great moments that plagued Hamlet. “To be or not to be,” Tabby proclaimed. “Is not a question at all, for it is always better to be than not to be.”
On Wednesday, they ventured up Mount Everest, Alan making sure they packed a scarf, woolly hat and plenty of hot chocolate to keep the chill off.
“They make it seem like it’s difficult climbing up here,” Penny said triumphantly. “Those adults are constantly making mountains out of molehills. Literally!”
On Thursday, they set off on the adventure of a lifetime, chopping through the jungles of deepest, darkest Peru in search of the prized Silver Medallion. Their efforts were stifled by a particularly angry snake they decided to call Gerald, but the friends took heart from the fact they’d gotten so far, and sat down in the Peruvian sun for a picnic comprising, of course, of sandwiches without a crust and lots and lots of chips.
On Friday, Audrey’s friends planned her a surprise party. There were banners and streamers, and cake and ice cream. Jelly of all different flavours – strawberry, and orange, and lemon and lime – was wheeled out on a ginormous cart and Audrey cheered with delight when she arrived at her lawn after a particularly arduous Science class.
“These are the very best days I’ve ever had,” she said as she toasted the banquet table. “I’m glad I could share them with you all.”
She smiled the biggest smile she’d ever smiled, just as her Mum had told her to when Very Good Things happened.
“Never let good things pass without recognising them as good things,” she’d said after her husband’s funeral. “There’s much to love in the world, Audrey, and when those things happen you should smile as widely as you can and enjoy every last second. Because sometimes bad things happen too, and you need to remember the good things to remind yourself that nothing – not bad, and sadly not good – lasts forever. Focus on the good and ignore the bad.”
Audrey took her Mum’s advice to heart. She relished all the good moments and tried to ignore all the bad ones. Every time she was called a name at school, she thought of something nice someone had said about her. Every time she fell over and scraped her knee while making one of her Very Good Ideas she’d think of the ice cream (Mint Choc Chip, obviously) her mum would make her to cheer up up. And, of course, for every horrible stick of celery she had to force down, she’d think of the delicious plate of chips she’d have the next day.
It was a good system, and it worked. But nothing’s perfect, and on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, a mere four days after the completion of Audrey’s Very Good Idea, her resolve was tested by a Very Bad Child with a Very Bad Thing.
Destruction is easy. It’s why so many people do it. They’re lazy, bored and quite often not very bright. They have neither the temperament nor the talent to create like Audrey did. So they destroy. Brutally. And quickly. A good thing too because even these people know what they’re doing is wrong. But they do it anyway. If they don’t do it quickly, if they took the time to reflect on their actions like Audrey did on the night of the Rocket Ship Disaster, maybe they wouldn’t do such terrible things. The shame and the guilt would be too much to take.
But Danny wasn’t a boy to reflect on how someone else might feel. How it might all creep up to him some day in the future and attack his conscience with the ferocity he’d shown on the day the Rocket Ship died and on this cold, wet Tuesday afternoon. Evil genius, you see, is a contradiction in terms. It’s that most apt of phrases: an oxymoron. Evil is never genius and very seldom smart. It is stupid and ugly and to be avoided at all costs.
Tabby was the first to go. That’s the thing about evil. It picks on the weakest first. But the thing with good is it always defies expectation. Tabby was stronger than her demeanour suggested, and she put up a fierce resistance. It took many strong and hard hits from Danny’s bat before even a small dent had been put into Tabby’s shell. She was proud of herself for how brave she was, and even as the critical blows rained down, forcing her to the ground, she smiled to herself, content in the knowledge that she hadn’t buckled easily.
Alan was next, and he fell fast. His body had been made of a patchwork of different pieces of the rocket ship, so it was less firm, less able to resist Danny’s beating. Like Tabby, Penny fared better, but ultimately Danny got the better of her too. All in all, it took eight minutes for Danny to wreck what Audrey had built. Looking back on the incident, she took some heart from the fact it took Danny longer to destroy her four friends than it took him to destroy an entire, NASA ready Rocket Ship. Trash Cans are pretty strong, she thought to herself, smiling.
For the here and now, however, there was only desolation and despair. Danny fled the scene as soon as his rampage was complete and would, of course, protest his innocence, just as he had when he destroyed the Rocket Ship. Maybe he even believed his lie. Such is the nature of a guilty conscience. It hangs so heavy and dwells so long that the person who lives with it may need to lie to themselves simply to get by. It’s a particularly brutal form of punishment, Mrs Matthews had once told Audrey, and not one you would ever want to suffer from, nor wish upon even your worst enemy.
The rain was still falling when Audrey returned home from school, but cleared with uncommon haste once she laid eyes on the scene.
There they were. Her friends. Beaten. Battered. She felt a rage rise up inside her. It was a peculiar kind of rage, unlike any she had felt before – even that which had gripped her on the night of the Rocket Ship disaster. She gritted her teeth, clenched her fists, and breathed very, very slowly, hoping she could calm the flood.
Composure, she told herself. Calm. She had built Alan, Tabby and Penny from the remains of the Rocket Ship, and she could patch them up again. And again. And again.
“What he destroyed, I will create,” her brain screamed as loud as it possibly could. “What he tears down, I will build up.” No matter how many times he came back, she would hold firm. She would stand by her friends. She would not break.
Audrey’s hope and dedication were admirable. She knew that. But she also knew that she might not be able to rebuild them every time. What happens, she thought, if Danny tears her friends to shreds? What happens if he scattered the pieces? What happens if there’s nothing left of John, Alan, Tabby, and Penny to rebuild?
The wind had been howling while she surveyed the wreckage, but as she drew her dark conclusion, as she formulated her final plan, it came to an eerie, upsetting stop. With a composure she’d later look back on with a chill, she retrieved her late father’s old cricket bat from the shed and quietly made her way to school. Where Danny would, right now, be preparing for football practice. Where he wouldn’t be expecting her. Where she’d end this sorry story once and for all.
The wind picked up and the rain began to fall.
A Very Big Moment
It was 5.15 pm when Audrey arrived at Blacknot Primary’s playing fields. The journey would normally only take 10 minutes, but a further five were added to this particular trip. Every traffic light turned red when she came to it, every driveway had a car pulling out of it, every element the world could throw at her, be it wind or rain or sleet or snow, headed her way. The fates seemed to be willing Audrey back, but she persisted. She was like that. When Audrey set her mind to something, for good or ill, it would be done and done well.
When she finally did arrive at the fields, she did so with no sense of ceremony. Looking back on that day, the boys on Danny’s team recalled seeing only a black dot on the horizon growing nearer, bigger and more ferocious with every step. It scared them to think of it. A game was in progress, but Audrey didn’t notice. Even if she had she wouldn’t have cared.
In total, there were 22 boys and the PE teacher, Mr Fitzpatrick, a giant of a man who even the biggest of the Year 11 boys feared, on the field that day, but in Audrey’s eyes there was only one, and it took just one firm push to bring him to his knees.
The other boys froze in shock and could only stare at Audrey as she dragged the fallen Danny by his arm through the mud. She flung him over on his side, encouraging a few stifled laughs from his team-mates. Many of them didn’t like Danny either, and the sight of him being beaten so easily by this girl who none of them had even seen before and certainly couldn’t name, brought smiles to their faces. This proud and nasty bully was finally being given a taste of his own medicine by a girl. It was, even the most virtuous of people would admit, a satisfying sight.
Audrey had been silent and methodical until this point – almost scientific in the way she went about the beating. Not a single breath, not a single action, was wasted: no effort was expended that did not serve her singular glorious purpose. But the anger rose within her, and finally exploded as she saw her foe trying to crawl away.
A wimp! A wimp who loved to fight but couldn’t even muster a defence when the fight came to him. Audrey thought of John, Alan, Tabitha, and Penny and knew that they didn’t have the option to defend themselves. They couldn’t even crawl away. Danny crawling insulted them, and that was another affront she simply wouldn’t stand for.
She leaped on the boy as his hands clawed at the ground, pinning him down and punching, slapping, and scratching anything she could. The attack seemed to last for an age before Mr. Fitzpatrick finally arrived, running from the corner flag at which he’d been attending a free-kick when Audrey arrived, and broke the fight (if such a one-sided bout could indeed be called a fight) up. He pulled her off, but succeeded only in hurling her into the path of the cricket bat which, in her rage, she’d dropped a few meters away. She swiped it from the muddy floor and lunged at Danny as Mr Fitzpatrick helped the boy off the floor.
Again, Danny was grounded and heat – broiling, hot heat – raced through Audrey’s veins.
Who was there to help her friends?
Why should he be helped up when nobody would help them!?
The anger wouldn’t stop. It shot through her spine and pierced the entrance to her brain. Her head swam with lava, her eyes burned like pavement on a hot summer’s day, her skin prickled like it had been stung by every bramble, in every bush, in every overgrown forest in the world. She was not herself. She felt like she never would be again. And as she rose the bat up high above her head, ready for a decisive swing, she realised with a pinprick of horror that she didn’t really care.
Slowly, in a moment that lasted seconds but seemed to go on for a lifetime, a drop of rain fell from her soaked hair onto her nose. It was ice cold.
Another drop came shortly after. And another. And another.
Each one pierced her skin and she swore she heard the kind of sizzling sound that normally only sounded out when her mum was making pasta and the water bubbled over the pan and onto the hob below. She stood there. In the middle of Blacknot School’s playing fields, cricket bat in hand, ready to swing and…
… breathed for the first time since she first spotted her friends, broken and cracked, on her lawn.
It was then that Danny, pulling himself up as Audrey came to her senses, attacked, pinning her to the ground, just as she had he, winding up his arm, and punching as fast and as hard as he could.
He managed just a handful of weak, ineffective hits to Audrey’s torso before Mr. Fitzpatrick pulled him off. He kicked and screamed against the teacher’s grip, but there was no loosening it. Audrey pulled herself up from the ground, herself now as bruised and muddied as Danny, and stared at the boy. With what, she didn’t know. Empathy? Pity? Sadness? All three rolled into one? What she did know was that the blinding anger, the burning fury that had taken over her before, was gone.
It was 5.30pm on a Tuesday evening. And the rain fell hard, like it would never ever stop.
A Very Good Lesson
“Hello Audrey,” said Mrs Matthews as Audrey walked into her office the next day.
Audrey smiled in return, head bowed silently.
Mrs Matthews’ fondness for Audrey made this meeting even harder, as did the fact that Audrey could see Mrs Matthews’ discomfort and felt guilty for putting her in such a difficult position.
Mrs Matthews had already held meetings with Mr. Fitzpatrick, Audrey’s mother and Mrs Roache. She’d heard the stories, from both sides, and frankly understood Audrey’s anger. Danny Roache was a particularly unpleasant piece of work, and in her younger days, had anyone done to her what Danny did to Audrey, she’d have probably reacted in the same way. Maybe even gone further.
But she couldn’t let Audrey go unpunished, as much as she wanted to. Two months suspension it was. There was nothing else for it, no matter how much she hated doing it. She offered herself the small crumb of comfort of knowing that it could have been much worse.
A fight with a weapon on school grounds merited expulsion. Had Audrey been cast out of Blacknot, she’d have had to go far beyond the boundaries of the city council to find a school half as good, and would have expulsion hanging around her neck for many years to come. Then of course, there’s the trauma of having to make friends again, which for a girl like Audrey would be a special and thoroughly undeserved form of torment.
Mrs Roache, of course, had fought for the expulsion and many on the Board of Governors agreed with her. It was only when Mrs Matthews told the members that she’d resign if Audrey was expelled that the idea was thrown out. A dedicated educator and respected member of the community, Mrs Matthews knew her worth and knew the Board couldn’t afford to lose her. It was a risk to put her career on the line, but a calculated one, and most importantly a valuable one. Schools don’t teach empathy, but Audrey had created her very own lesson, and passed with flying colours.
As she left the board room, she walked by Mrs Roache, who was sat in the seat closest to the door. Her glasses were so low down her nose that she couldn’t peer through them, only over them, just as she liked.
“Mrs Roach,” Mrs Matthews said, nodding with an intentionally and genuinely warm smile that contrasting sharply with Roach’s own venomous scowl. “I do hope your son’s arm heals soon.”
She didn’t linger to hear if Mrs. Roach replied. She didn’t much care.
As for Audrey, she was made to do without pocket money for four months and was given a strict 6pm curfew. Her mum felt compelled to lecture her daughter on right and wrong, but she knew deep down that Audrey was already well aware of what she was saying.
More than anything, she was proud of her daughter. She may not have fully understood her love for the trashcans, but she knew they gave her joy, and that’s all that matters. One night, she secretly cut out the local newspaper’s report on the incident, framed it and hung it in her bedroom . “The Black Mark of Blacknot,” it read in giant black letters.
“That’s my girl,” she said to herself, smiling.
Mrs Matthews did the same. “Quite a title,” her wife said. “Makes her sound like a superhero.”
“Accurate reporting in a newspaper?” said Mrs Matthews. “Now I’ve seen everything!”
Down the street, Mrs Roache was also nailing the excerpt to an empty grey area of an empty grey wall. She fixed a metallic stare on it, smiled that smile that looked like a grimace, and walked away.
Eventually, Audrey’s suspension came to an end and she returned to school. The teachers tried to keep her and Danny apart, but every now and again, they’d cross paths in the hallway or on the playground, Danny sneering at his quarry with the same venom he’d inherited from his mother, Audrey gazing beyond him, dreaming up her next rocket ship.
Of course, she rebuilt her friends. Very Good Ideas cannot be crushed, not by baseball bats and certainly not by the evil of one angry little boy. In fact, the very best way to ensure that Very Good Ideas are never destroyed is to continue making them. And so Audrey, John, Alan, Tabby and Penny carried on, their current project being a car with little robot legs that would eliminate the need for those dirty old engines that spluttered out smoke and smog.
The clatter of hammers and screwdrivers were heard once more from Audrey’s front lawn as the sun shone and Very Good Ideas were afoot again.
A Critical Thought
Mrs Matthews stood at the podium on the stage of Blacknot’s assembly hall. While this position normally gave her a feeling of pride and satisfaction, today she felt only frustration. One of the conditions of Audrey’s ‘lenient’ punishment was that she be forced to shake hands with Danny at an assembly attended by all the pupils at Blacknot, the staff, a senior school inspector, the Board of Governors, including of course, Mrs Roach, and the local press. They, of course, stood with fingers twitching anxiously over their pens, ready to capture every detail.
She’d fought against it, angrily dismissing it as “a circus sideshow designed to humiliate and punish”. The fact that Audrey had to offer her hand to Danny, and not the other way round, only increased her anger.
“Don’t you see the message that sends?” she demanded. They didn’t, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t have cared. Little grey men in little grey suits rarely do.
But life, she knew, was full of tough decisions. Blacknot Primary had some of the smartest students in the country, but it was struggling, teetering forever on the edge of a low rating and the threat of closure that would bring. If the facade of harmony was necessary to ensure the school stayed open and the children wouldn’t have to look further afield for their education, so be it. She hoped Audrey would have made the same choice.
And so there she stood, alone on a stage in a wide room filled by disgruntled children who’d long since moved on from ‘The Audrey Incident’, as it had been dubbed internally. The shambles went off without a hitch, of course. Audrey offered Danny her hand, Mrs Matthews noticing her fingers crossed neatly behind her back; Danny took it with a grin of satisfaction that seemed every bit as rehearsed as she knew it had been.
The Head of Governors then gave a speech about harmony and respect. His eyes darted between the school inspector on one side of the hall and the men from the local newspaper on the other. Through it all, Mrs Matthew smiled politely, never actually listening to a word being said. None of it mattered anyway.
She knew she had to give a speech as well, but she didn’t write anything down. She knew what she wanted to say, and how she wanted to say it. Preparing would be a bigger waste of time than the event itself.
She cleared her throat and began.
“I wish I could tell you that there are always happy endings, and that the storybooks you read are all true…”
The Head of Governors shifted in his seat, smiling uneasily to the inspector and the men from the papers.
“That the sword of truth will fly straight and true and that the dragon will always be slain, forever and ever, the end. Sadly, I can’t. That’s not because those things never happen. Sometimes they do. But other times, things don’t turn out so well. There are good people, but there are also bad people. Sad things happen, bad people win and the good guys are punished.
“That’s the way the world is sometimes, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.
“You see, neither I, nor any adult in this room, can give you any real answers. We can tell you that two and two is four, of course, and that if you blend that substance with this substance, you’ll probably blow the science department up.”
She gave Audrey a knowing smile that the girl returned.
“But we can’t guarantee that things will turn out ok. We can’t always keep the wolves from the door and make sure everything turns out alright. And for that, I am so very sorry. I really, truly am.”
Suddenly, simply through saying something that people didn’t expect, that went against what everyone thought this day would be about, the whole room was fixed on Mrs Matthews. And she knew it. Of course she knew it. That was the point and Mrs Matthews, along with many other things, was a Very Smart Woman.
“So in lieu of an answer, I’ll ask you a question. Maybe the most difficult question you’ll ever be asked, but certainly the only one that really, fundamentally, matters.”
She looked at Danny and she looked at Audrey, both sitting in the front row, one rapt in attention, the other slouched in his chair, looking at anything but Mrs Matthews.
“Who do you want to be?”
The skies outside were grey and the clouds threatened rain, but a slim slither of sunshine broke through.
Mrs Matthew smiled.
“I trust you will make the right choice.”