It was the cord. Wrapped around her like an infant monkey, clinging for life and sparing no thought for Fiona’s newborn neck. It sucked out the oxygen and replaced it with a stream of bubbles that scrambled for a foothold in her suckling mind.
As the years go by, Fiona learns that she can think in straight lines if she really concentrates, but mostly her thoughts fight their way to the front like sugary toddlers struggling free from their reins.
She comes to the Centre on weekdays. Meg says it’s because her brain didn’t grow up. But Fiona knows she’s a grown up, as she’s ripening a secret – stored away, hidden, especially from Meg.
Her sister Meg picks her up every morning, and drops Fiona at the Centre while she goes to work. Meg is a painter but she doesn’t paint walls. Fiona’s seen her pictures strung in a big house for everyone to stare at. Meg took her there once, in a posh black frock and treated her to sour lemonade in a tippy-over glass. It made her feel giddy so she’ll choose the Coca-Cola if she goes there again.
Fiona doesn’t have a mum so Meg looks after her. Meg chooses her clothes and ties back her dead-straight hair in a flowery bandana that Fiona can’t fit herself. Meg says it’s to stop it hanging limp and making her look special. But Fiona thinks that’s silly, as she wants to look special and thinks Meg should want to as well.
When the bandana falls over Fiona’s eyes, her keyworker Susie gently removes it, and slides in Fiona’s favourite hair clip – the one with the pretty mermaid that makes Fiona sparkle. Susie removes it before Meg returns though, and no one mentions it, in case Meg gets cross.
When Fiona asked Meg for a ‘Disney Princess’ t-shirt, Meg said no, because Fiona’s not a child. She got a jumper from Primark. And these brown sandals – like Jesus from the Bible. They’re too tight now as new blood circles and bites at her toes.
Fiona is a gardener. She grows the flowers that are dried and stuck on Christmas cards – they’re sold to raise money for the Centre to buy more seeds.
She doesn’t talk much . . . as when she says things people sometimes stare. But she hums while she crafts – nursery rhymes mostly, that nearly no one hears. She sculpts the soil, patting life into her plants, and places weaklings carefully under plastic bottles to keep them safe from the weather and strangling arms.
Fiona closes her eyes to concentrate and thinks about her secret as she feels it gently flutter. She knows that Meg will see it when she grows as big as a baboon. But now she’s quietly cultivating – in nature’s plastic bottle. Carefully feeding and watering daily, so her daughter will be blessed with a bubble-free brain.