Every morning, Janna pushed her sister to school in a wheelbarrow. It was a rusty contraption with a squeaking front wheel, and when Janna hefted it over the paving stones, it went clank-creak-clunk, and bounced her little sister up and down. The child, however, rarely complained, clamping her teeth over her lower lip and riding out the bumps with soldierly stoicism.
Some days, it was sunny, and they rattled along quite cheerfully, stopping to pluck flowers from neighborhood gardens and singing snippets of the rousing hymns they had learned at Sunday school in those long-ago days when their mother still brushed flat their curls, pulled up their socks, and packed them off to the parish hall for a dose of spiritual guidance.
Some days, it rained, and Janna wore her father’s old Sou’wester with a pair of oversized galoshes which slapped against her legs when she walked. Her sister wore a black dustbin liner with holes cut for her arms and head, and kept a mug in her bag for emergency decanting purposes, although the barrow was so fretted with rust that, in all but the worst of storms, the water drained away without assistance.
Frosty days were the most inconvenient, and although Janna’s arms had grown strong from her exertions, she still found it difficult to maneuver the barrow over the black ice which glazed the narrow, unsalted lanes that separated bed from education. On one particularly icy day, a diversion on the main road brought the school bus grumbling by, narrowly missing the barrow and its load. The kids in the backseat, excited enough already, could barely contain their delight at the unusual spectacle, steaming the rear window with hot, gossipy breath as they knelt for a better view.
Janna always parked the wheelbarrow in the bushes behind the netball courts, and although the smokers had a habit of dropping their cigarette ends in the barrow, it never once went missing. Some days, Janna half-hoped to find it gone, but it was always there, waiting exactly where she had left it, like a metaphor for conscience or grief. Except that, unlike grief, it never grew any lighter and no one could relieve the burden by simple measures such as expiating one’s sins. Not that the girls had any sins to expiate; Janna’s most significant slip-up had been a muttered expletive to one of the sniggering backseat faces, and although her little sister stole penny sweets from the post office, she always beamed at the lady behind the counter and answered her questions so politely that her sticky palms went unnoticed.
“And how is your mother?” the woman would inquire, for she remembered Valerie from that long ago era when she had been one of the parish’s most zealous fundraisers, knitting cuddly toys for Christmas fetes and making huge batches of rock buns to sell at the Summer Fayre. That had been before the crying days, the staying-in-bed days, the panda-eyed whisky bottle days. Back then, the girls’ father still gave them a lift in the mornings, and they took their own packed lunches to school in matching plastic cases. Janna’s sister had only just started kindergarten, and she liked to sing the nursery rhymes she had learnt with Ms. Rhodes, her new teacher. As she sang, she would unpack her lunch box on her lap and gloat over its contents, sorting out the sweet from savory before jig-sawing the items back into the Barbie pink container.
Perhaps that is why, when the post office lady asked how their mother was faring, Janna’s sister would always reply, with great conviction: “She is perfectly wonderful, thank you.” Maybe she remembered the delicious packed lunches, the miniature yogurt pots and foil-wrapped sandwiches of her childhood. In those days, pick and mix was forbidden and there would have been a slapped backside for stealing penny sweets. The wheelbarrow was used for shifting weeds and garden refuse, and their father still mowed the lawn on sunny Sundays, throwing up the rich, sweet scent of newly cut grass.
“Everything is perfectly wonderful, thank you.” On those rainy summer mornings when the wheelbarrow slipped on muddy tractor ruts and cow dung sprayed up her school-issued tights, Janna would close her eyes and suck up the wet grass smell until she could almost believe that the school run was an outdoor game that they played, like hide-and-seek or tag. But when she faced reality again, the rain would still be sweeping across the fields, and she knew full well that if she set the barrow down and walked to school alone, her sister would stay there all day, curled up small in the drenched black bin liner, as though remaining stationary would somehow stop time from moving even further away from those hymn-singing, grass-cutting, sandwich-packing days.