Alice had always known that she was different. The looks that her parents gave her were a little too long, a little suspicious. The children at school avoided her. They would not walk alongside her, afraid that she might catch their eye and turn them to stone. Their parents had told them, she knew. Whispers reached her through the quiet classroom, hushed voices trading dubious secrets in a breathless rush. But Alice had a long curtain of hair to hide her burning face behind, so the children did not know that she heard. They did not know what their spitting gossip did to her.
There was a wall, about six metres long and three high, at the back of the school, just behind the big oak tree. The wall was blank, a rough expanse of raw grey concrete. The ground below was bare, hard dirt and the odd tuft of sharp grass. Alice liked to sit there, under that wall, while she drew. Every lunch time, just after the bell had rang and its shrill rolling clang had sent the children running out into the empty yard, you could see her. If you were to stand just beside block three, to the left of the white weatherboards and right beside the dent in the old metal railings, you could see her. A distant smudge of dark hair, bent over her lap, left arm moving steadily, her small elbow sharp against the air. She would stay like that for the hour, unmoving except for that slender arm. If you were a little closer, say just beyond the oak tree, you could hear the scratching of her pencil against the thick paper. Quick, decisive strokes, sharp in their execution. And if you were close enough, say, to peer over her shoulder, you might be able to see what she drew.
It is a Wednesday, this day that we join Alice in her story. She is walking, as always, with her head down, her eyes following the cracks in the pavement. The road is empty, only the lifeless cars parked there glint in the afternoon sun. The trees above blow in the wind, their leaves shining in the watery light. There are dark clouds in the sky; it looks like it will rain. Alice notices none of this, for she is calculating how much longer she can walk for without meeting anyone. Jeffery lives on this street, she knows. His house is that big blue one, there, with the white shutters. Her brief look up shows her eyes, and we see that they are a striking green, light and almost transparent, like a tunnel straight to the soul. Maybe this is why she hides them so often.
Alice knows that Jeffery has piano lessons today. This gives her a little relief, and the corners of her mouth hint upwards. But on the next street lives Rebecca. Rebecca’s house is yellow, and her bedroom violently purple. She likes to sit on the deck after school, eating the cheese crackers and apple juice that her mother has laid out for her. She smiles a lot, Rebecca does, and her pigtails are always crooked, brown hanks of hair pulled the wrong way, fastened thickly with pink elastic.
When Alice reaches the corner, she lifts her eyes again and scans the street. Rebecca is sitting on the deck of her yellow house, kicking her legs and singing to herself. The sun is almost setting now, and this side of the street is in darkness. Alice looks to the left, down the street. There is a group of teenagers there, hunched and kicking at a ball in the dusk. She glances back at Rebecca once, and then turns left, towards the teenagers.
At home Alice’s parents are waiting for her. Her mother, Annette, is in the second sitting room, grunting on the floor as she finishes her sit-ups. Her waist is slim, her thighs toned. There are faint lines around her eyes, but you can only tell when you are less than a few centimetres away, for they are hidden by make up, the creases smoothed into a flawless mask. Annette’s hair trails across the floor, a chocolate stream against the thick white carpet. There are a few secrets about Annette. You can tell by the spark in her green eyes that she was not always a suburban mother.
Alice’s father, Simon, is upstairs. He is reading, though his eyes move slowly behind his glasses. He reads slowly when he is distracted, preoccupied with something. Usually is it work related, another big order, another difficult client. But something suggests that today is different. He uncrosses his legs often, adjusts his glasses, and peers at the window every few seconds.
He is worried today. Not about Annette, no, she barely crosses his mind, even less these days. I am trying to get closer, trying to see what it is. Flickers of colour, splinters of memories crowd his thoughts. I wade through them, casting aside the fleeting distractions provided by the book he’s reading, trying to find the focal point. It’s Alice. He’s worried about Alice. And from the familiarity of the anxiety, it is clear that he worries about her a lot.
He worries about her friends, her hair, her drawing, her schoolwork. His mind is constantly whirring with possibilities, solutions, quick fixes. One can only assume his manner of thinking stems from the years of problem solving, providing answers within a deadline. He loves her, that much is very clear. But he has trouble understanding her, and this scares him.
Simon is a sensitive man. He thinks deeply, and takes lighthearted comments to heart. In college he was quiet, reserved, but amiable enough to make friends. Annette gravitated to his solidity, his self-reliance. He had been shocked, flattered, and finally aroused, when she approached him at that dimly lit party, in the sitting room, surrounded by sepia photographs of her family. The red lamplight flickered off her brown hair, making it glow auburn red, a devilish halo around her angelic face. She had whispered to him constantly, things he had never known, never dreamed she would think. And when it was over, she was still whispering. About how they would be together always, their love would protect them, they would grow old together in this windblown world. He was swept up by it, her zealous dreams infected him, and three months after she had planted the seed, he proposed. They were married six months later, and the wedding photos show their smiling faces, on a bright, blustery day, embracing and looking hopefully at the camera, all the world before them.
Annette was pregnant then, and she knew that her baby would be a girl, and that she would name her Alice. Alice would live in a wonderland, carefully created by her parents. Cocooned by their love, she would live a blessed life, and excel in everything she did. Annette cooed to her everyday, constantly caressing her growing stomach, and beaming endearingly at all of her new neighbours.
Remembering this, Simon was smiling, the movement unfamiliar to his mouth. His eyes had stopped moving, the pages were no longer turning. He remembered her like that, so happy, unbounded enthusiasm and the convinced knowledge that everything would be all right. He remembered standing silently in the doorframe to watch her, his chest bursting with pride, a quiet smile on his lips, her hair trailing over the back of the bathtub, hands tracing loving circles on her bulging stomach. There was a baby in there. Their baby. It was blessed time before any of it had happened, before any of the sadness that tore them all apart, then threw them back together, as though they were to just slot back into their places, only to find that they did not fit. Their edges were all wrong now, and everything was backwards. As his mind settled on this Simon’s mouth moved downwards again, settling back into the sombre expression that felt, but did not look, more natural to him.
His eyes flickered to the windows again. The sky was almost dark now, and he had not yet heard the front door. He set down his book, and moved across to look out of the glass. The orange streetlights were on now, the leaves of the trees catching in them as they were blown around by the wind. Soon the rain would start, the streets would be wet, and it would be cold. He inhaled sharply at this thought, and left the darkening room.