Under the shadow of trauma, Liam has been discharged from the army. As night terrors torment him and he struggles to keep his anger intact, he finds himself in his car, his daughter Alannah asleep in the back, while his wife Emma has gone AWOL. With no idea where to go for shelter, his only goal is to hold onto his daughter at all costs. But Alannah is on a journey of her own. As the consequences of Alannah’s choices unfold, nothing will ever be the same again. Soldier Boy is gripping story about secrets, fear, longing, lies and the power of being true to yourself, even when the price is higher than you could have imagined
standing in the bright light and harsh disinfectant scent of the grimy toilet block, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Alannah’s used to the dull discomfort that comes with looking at herself. Each day begins before the mirror of her practice barre in her bedroom; most afternoons end with time in ballet class. Weekends are dominated by this relentless study of her own face and body, stretching and smiling through the pain, disciplining herself not to lick the sweat from her upper lip, taking and applying the corrections, watching for flaws, finding the ways she can improve, and the occasional moment of shock – that girl looks quite good – wait, that’s me… This mirror lacks the brutal clarity of the studio. It’s nothing more than a small polished patch of steel, its dim surface made cloudier by the angle of the glaring pinkish lights and the dried swirl of a cleaning cloth smeared across it. If she approaches it carefully, letting her gaze slide over it without ever quite snagging and pausing, her image becomes a blur, as if she’s watching a confident, comfortable stranger. Someone who looks and doesn’t feel the inevitable stab of no, not good enough, not right, but instead thinks, yes, quite nice. 8 Perhaps if she looks long enough, she’ll call the other girl out to her, let her climb into Alannah’s skin and walk around in it. Neither she nor the girl in the mirror are supposed to be here. She’s meant to be in a car with three other girls and their ballet teacher, Mrs Baxter. On their way to a hotel room and tomorrow to the theatre, where they’ll rehearse and rehearse and finally dance for an audience, alongside what her sort-of-friend Lucy refers to as actual proper ballet dancers. Christmas lights gleaming through dark evenings; the sensation of winter in the air. One night with her parents watching, three nights with Granny Jane. Back at home, the tree trimmed and pretty in the living room, waiting for her to return in triumph. Instead, she’s in a roadside toilet block, her dad waiting in the car, both wondering where they might go, what will happen next, how all of this will end, neither of them daring to speak about any of it. In her hand are her mother’s scissors. She’s not supposed to have them. They’re fabric shears, from the top drawer of the sewing cabinet. Her parents don’t agree on a lot of things, but her dad has always approved of the way her mum keeps her sewing supplies. Each drawer carefully ordered. Fabric folded into cubbyholes and sorted by type, colour and pattern. Scraps in a large but not-unattractive cotton sack, regularly sorted and purged. Cotton-reels with their ends tucked under. The sharp things – needles, scissors, seam rippers, the rotary cutter with its frightening circular blades – in the top drawer, a legacy from when Alannah was too young to be trusted not to touch, and too small not to try and touch anyway. “We’ll be out of here in ten,” her father had told her, taking clothes from drawers and shelves, packing them into his kit bag, swift and focused. “One teddy if you absolutely must. Warm clothes. And bring your duvet. It might get cold.” Knowing she had only moments to choose her reminder, she crept into the sewing room, slid open the drawer and found the cool sleek touch of the scissors. This is how she wants to remember her mother – the way she is when Alannah 9 is most afraid of her, she’s sharp and bright, dangerous if handled wrongly, able to make anything, repair any damage, cut through any challenge. (I’m a witch, her mother croons in her ear, I’ve said it three times so now it’s bound to come true. Remaking Alannah into the daughter she truly wants.) In the mirror, Alannah can see the throb of blood in her neck. Dad’ll be worrying, she thinks. Stop dreaming and get moving. (“Don’t overthink it, Alannah,” her ballet teacher endlessly tells her. “Let yourself feel the music…” No, she doesn’t want to feel, she doesn’t dare let herself feel, that’s the whole point. If she stops for a moment to feel, who knows what’s going to happen?) Stop dreaming and get moving, she repeats to herself, hearing the words in her dad’s voice because this is something he often says. Or when he’s in a better mood, he puts on a Yoda voice and intones, Do. Or do not. There is no try. Better moods were more common when he went to work, most common of all when he was still in the Army and they were living in the gone-and-here rhythm of Dad Going Away and Dad Coming Back. But he’s been out for two years. Hasn’t had a job for four months. Hasn’t been in a better mood for a long time. It’s not his fault. Things will get better. She’s heard the words so many times, they run on a loop in her head. None of it’s his fault. Things will get better. So why is everything getting worse? Her vision’s adjusting now; she can see herself more clearly, commence her search for flaws. There she is, her muscles hugged tight against her bones, her limbs slender, her posture correct, her neck long, her shoulders held in place. Good enough for now. But who knows what the next year will bring? Mrs Baxter, brisk and firm. “You’re growing up now, you’ll start becoming women. That means your bones will harden, and then, if you’re ready, we can think about pointe work.” And in the changing area and in the corners of the studio, the other, darker murmurs from the older girls. “She 10 got too tall,” she heard one whisper to another, a little scornful, a little disgusted, as if getting too tall was a mark of weakness. Another time, another two girls, talking casually about a rival: “Don’t worry about her, her boobs are massive, she’ll never be the right shape.” The thought of what’s coming, the storm of hormones about to ravage her body, turns Alannah cold. What if she gets too tall? What if her boobs turn out massive? What will happen to her then? Her mother has told her over and over again not to worry, she doesn’t have to have the perfect body, doesn’t have to be a dancer, and she’ll be proud and happy whatever her daughter chooses. But how can Alannah believe that, when everything her mother does shows her it isn’t true? What’s the meaning of all the pretty custom-made clothes, the cute little hair decorations, the exquisite dance costumes, the hours her mother spends grooming her, and the endless, endless praise of her hair, her face, her slenderness, her grace, if it’s not I only love you when you’re perfect? Alannah knows what’s really going on. Her mother doesn’t like ugly things. What if Alannah ends up ugly? She didn’t always feel this way. She’s seen photos of herself as a baby and then as a toddler, romping confidently about the house and garden, comfortable in her shape. She can dimly remember being small, not thinking about her body, not caring how it looked. She’s done her best to hold it at bay, working diligently at home and in class, eating as little as she can get away with, trying to discipline her body into thinness and smallness, to make time stand still. But her future’s written into her genes. There’s no escaping what’s coming. “Get on with it,” she says out loud. Her voice echoes off the walls and makes her jump. She’s glad she’s alone, even though the place itself is spooky – a pebble-dashed hut in a rain-soaked layby, drainpipes painted in thick drips of bottle-green, spindly spiders flattening themselves against the walls, and a stink of pee and disinfectant that rolled out like a hug when she tugged on the door. She’d thought it might 11 be locked, was prepared to use the bushes, but it opened, and inside were three cleanish cubicles, two wall-mounted things with buttons to dispense soap and water and warm air, lights bright enough to see clearly by. And no other girls or women. And a mirror. And her mother’s scissors, slithering in the pocket of the black combat trousers her mother made, blade tips pricking and jabbing at the meat of her thigh. The feeling inside her is demanding and terrible. She’s tried to keep it down but it’s too strong. She has to act or else she’ll burst. Lying in bed at night, she’s found herself terrified by the thoughts of what she might do. Thoughts of burning, of smashing, of destroying. Of tearing through the kitchen like a whirlwind, flinging plates and glasses to the floor. Of taking these scissors and slashing every single thing her mother has ever made for her into a snowstorm of snipped fabric. Of unscrewing the car’s petrol cap and lighting a match and flinging it inside. But she knows she doesn’t dare. Her parents would never forgive her, and who will ever love her if they don’t? The only thing she owns, the only thing in this universe she can express herself with, is her body. She can’t stand here staring into the mirror any longer. Her dad’s waiting, everyone’s waiting, this is her cue. If she doesn’t move, they’ll all be trapped forever in these three moments of separateness, waiting for someone to move them forward. Alannah in this grotty little bathroom. Her mum looking blankly out from the window of the bus as it passed her on the street. Her dad, alone and upright in the driver’s seat of the car. She raises the scissors to her neck. The blades part like lips. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, opens them again, and in that moment becomes ready. (“Don’t overthink it, Alannah.” Mrs Baxter again, the words like a refrain. “Let yourself feel the music…”) No, she’s finished with feeling, she needs to do. She whimpers in fright, but the blades are sharp and eager. There’s a faint satisfying shhhh sound as they draw together, slicing
Thank you, Cassandra Parkin and Legend Press
About the author
Cassandra Parkin grew up in Hull, and now lives in East Yorkshire. Her short story collection, New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011), won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories and her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies.
The Summer We All Ran Away (Legend Press, 2013) was Cassandra’s debut novel.