by Jayne Thickett
I saw her twice. I didn’t know her name, or where she came from. By then, people weren’t talking to each other. You had to be careful who you trusted, see? Who you made eye contact with. Mama had stopped sending me to school; she said it wasn’t safe to walk the streets. But the girl with the red umbrella didn’t walk. She jumped and splashed down my street, the umbrella tilted to the side like an afterthought.
Rule #367 stated: No colour permitted. We had to hand over our coloured clothes. They wouldn’t let us dye them because underneath they were still coloured. It made me tired, all that grey. Like I was carrying something cold and heavy on my back.
Electricity had been cut to just a couple of hours in the evening, so on dull days I sat by the window to draw. The light was weaker because of all the blacks and greys, so the first time I saw her, she was a flash of colour I mistook for the roses you sometimes get behind your eyes when you rub them hard. When it didn’t fade, I put down my pencil and moved closer to the glass. I searched the street for the regulators, but there was no sign of them. But that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Her black school bag bounced against her back beneath the plastic poncho she wore over a grey skirt and jumper. The umbrella bobbed like a balloon, blood red and shocking against the monochrome backdrop of our street. Only when she reached the end of the road and turned the corner did I breathe again. I listened for the sounds of the regulators’ sirens but they remained silent.
For hours after I felt as though I had stared at the sun for too long. That night I dreamt I was running down the street, chased and chasing at the same time. My hands were painted red and I couldn’t remember a message or who I was supposed to give it to.
I woke to the sound of rain. I wondered if she would come and I dreaded it and hoped for it. I was greedy for that burst of colour. But that wasn’t my only reason. I wanted to see what would happen. My stomach curdled with the shame of that wanting but I couldn’t help myself. I was jealous. Jealous of her recklessness, her daring. Mostly, I was jealous of her ignorance or naiveté, or whatever it was. I wanted to see her punished: a cuff round her ear, the umbrella snapped in two, a fine for the irresponsible parents who allowed their child to flout the rules we all had to live by.
I picked up my sketchbook and settled by the window. I drew a little girl in wellingtons, knees bent as she landed in a puddle, water bursting in every direction under her feet. I struggled to get the umbrella right, rubbed it out and tried again. Mama paused at my shoulder to inspect my work. “That’s nice, dear,” she murmured before drifting back to her bedroom. But she hadn’t seen the real thing. The sketch couldn’t remind her of the juice of a crisp, red apple dribbling down her chin, or how Father liked his tomatoes grilled until they were almost black. Before they took away the colours and the fruit. And my father.
I tore the drawing into pieces and stuffed them down the side of the chair. I snapped the pencil in half and threw it across the room. Mama said I had a talent, but what was the use if you couldn’t add colour to the world? None of us needed to be reminded of what was left. She didn’t have the right.
Movement outside caught my eye. A regulator. I wanted to take it back then, my greed and my wanting. I didn’t mean it! I wanted to bang on the window, but I was too afraid. I hated her even more then. But I couldn’t look away.
The regulator was walking in the opposite direction. If she saw him, she made no sign of it. It was raining hard and she held the umbrella over her head this time. I glanced from her to him. How could he not hear her as she jumped from one puddle to the next? Perhaps his helmet blocked the sound. I willed him to keep going, not to turn around, but my will has always been weak. He stopped at the corner and turned back. I couldn’t see his face, but his shock was in the way his foot fell to the ground, his next step untaken.
Please, I prayed.
He unslung his rifle from his shoulder and raised it. She stopped and looked up, a frown gathering on her brow. Then she smiled and began to walk toward him. I was cold all over. The regulator raised his hand, an order to halt. She didn’t falter. I scanned the windows of the other houses but they stared blindly at me. The regulator backed up a step, raised his gun to his shoulder and looked down the sight.
She sat down with a thump I swear I felt in my feet. I thought the splatter of red that flew out behind her was a piece of the umbrella, until she fell back and the umbrella spun out of her hand.The regulator sank to his knees and tossed away his gun. When I looked back at her, she was staring up at the sky, raindrops filling her eyes, her blood washing away.
And the red umbrella went on spinning for a few more seconds.
Jayne Thickett is a Room Attendant by day, writer by night...if she can stay awake long enough. Her writings can be found in the shadowy corners of the 'net and in various notebooks around the house. A novel continues to be written.
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