The highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness
– John Locke
One morning at the end of February I look up at the colossal wooden frame mounted above the fireplace and I can see I’ve already used up my Quota Of Joy for the rest of the year.
‘You’re so greedy.’ My mother twists my hair between her fingers. ‘Always wanting more. No sense of self-control.’ She ties the end of the braid with a red ribbon. ‘You get what you deserve; we all do.’
Sulking makes no difference. Under her name, flashing red in the half-gloom, are a couple of spare weeks. She says she’s saving it for August, in case of fine weather.
Since she got the Saturday job in town, my sister has no time for me. She bats my hands away as they pluck at the sleeve of her jacket.
‘You’ll never learn, if I say yes.’ She wraps a long scarf around her neck and I offer her my pocket money until Easter. Until midsummer. Until the leaves turn red again.
‘Money can’t buy you happiness, Daphne. Keep your pennies.’
‘I’m telling Dad.’
‘Just you dare. Go on then. Just you dare.’ She slams the front door and I sit in the hallway and howl.
I am sent to bed early, with no dinner, for throwing that itty-bitty tantrum. Once they’ve eaten, they hold a family council. I sit on the third step from the bottom, chewing the end of my braid. I tuck my toes under the edge of my dressing gown, but I can still feel the draft. They’ve shut the door, but the light and sound illuminates me through the gappy hinges.
‘She’s too young.’ Our Dad has always been a soft touch, bless him. ‘I want her taken off the Quota.’
‘That’s not our decision.’ There’s nothing soft about my mother. She’s as rigid as a straight line, drawn with a razor blade. ‘The government says eleven. Sheila was fine at eleven, weren’t you dear?’ I hear Sheila murmuring smug consent and imagine her fat face bobbing up and down like an apple in a barrel. I picture my mother patting her on the head.
‘Daphne’s different,’ says Dad. ‘She’s not ready for this responsibility.’
‘You spoil her.’ Sheila’s voice is satisfied; oily and smooth.
‘Practise will make her responsible—’
I don’t mean to snort at my mother, but a yawn goes down the wrong way and comes out badly. Chairs scrape on the kitchen floor. I tuck my head down between my knees and wrap my arms over my hair, hoping to become very small and blend in with the shadows.
I recognise his breathing first, then I feel his hand heavy on my arm. ‘Back to bed now, Daphne.’ Ignoring my father, I continue to pretend not to exist. He sighs and scoops me and carries me up the stairs to my room. ‘You’re getting too big for this.’ He tucks the sheets round me tightly and kisses my forehead.
I try to listen from the darkness of my room, but the voices are indistinct, nothing more than tides rising and falling.
There’s a crash. I hear the stairs go then Sheila’s door along the corridor slamming. More percussion from the kitchen downstairs. Everything else is a secret.
After the next day’s breakfast, Sheila does my braid. Mum goes over the accounts. with eyes as puffy as a frog’s and red like poppies. I brush toast crumbs from the table onto my lap, then shake my skirts. I lick jam from the side of my hand.
‘Where’s Dad?’ I ask. Our mother says he’s gone away for a bit, and Sheila pulls my hair and slaps my arm. Mum’s face gets pinker and pinker in an ugly blush. Then she leaves the room.
Sheila slaps my arm again. She points at the Quota; Mum’s spare credits have gone, a whole fortnight’s worth. ‘No more stolen moments at the weekend with that boy from the Chippie,’ she says; Sheila is down to her daily as well. There’s still nothing blinking under my name. I rub the welting, red patch on my arm to take away the sting.
Dad’s name is green; the colour of go, go go. I watch as one number clicks down, slowly draining away. I count the months on my fingers. Ten. I try counting the weeks and give up after halfway through July. I can’t bear it that long until the annual Distribution. He’ll come back. He’ll give me a day or two. He has to.
‘Are you happy now?’ Sheila asks, tying the red ribbon round my hair. One last tug, then she walks away from me. I am left alone, trying to make the numbers add up. Trying to find a crumb of solace.
*first published online in the Winter 2010 issue of Contrary