P – A – T – R – O – N – I – S – E
The letters light up like bulbs as she reads it. There has been this feeling, an uneasy swilling in the pit of her stomach, for weeks now. To have a word, a label to stick on it, goes some way towards controlling the emotion; it packages it up, allowing her to hold it in her hands, examine it from all angles. She slides a finger across the page, tracing the shape of the word.
Patronise (verb): To look down on. To treat as inferior. To speak to like a child.
She is no longer a child. She is a woman now. Her mother told her this—patronisingly—on the day she got her period. She said it was a great honour but it doesn’t feel like one. They had to put a sanitary bin in the girls’ toilets especially for her. They hadn’t needed one before, not at her primary school. Then one day it was there; crouched beside the cistern like a silvered monster waiting to be fed. Word soon got around. The boys all loitered outside, guffawing and shoving, daring each other to burst in and take a peek, until Mrs Jennings came along and told them off.
Words are stepping stones to ideas.
Mrs Jennings said that. She is Emily’s favourite teacher. It was Mrs Jennings that gave Emily the dictionary, on the day she caught the boys. “I know everything’s online these days,” she said, her smile apologetic, “but I thought you might like it.”
Emily learns a new word every day. She picks up the book and lets its pages slump open like a sigh. When she sees a word she doesn’t know she copies it down on a post-it note and sticks it to the wall beside her bed.
Idea (noun): an understanding, thought, or picture in your mind
Emily’s parents once took her to an exhibition. In the middle of the room was an easel covered by a dust sheet. Everyone gathered round it. Then the artist—a friend of her mother’s—pulled the sheet off and everyone clapped at the painting underneath. Emily thinks words are like that; each time she learns a new one it’s like a sheet has been lifted, uncovering a new thought.
She writes ‘patronise’ on a post-it note and takes it to the wall of words. Row upon row of yellow squares curl towards her like sunflowers. She is running out of space. She fits it in between ‘allegory’ and ‘constellation’. The notes flutter as she moves her arm away.
Someday she will know all the words. She will place them here, side by side, until the whole universe is revealed.
Laura Ward-Smith works in communications for a major British broadcaster, with a focus on drama and film. She has a piece forthcoming in Spelk Fiction and is a Faber Academy alumnus. She lives in North London and enjoys all forms of storytelling. Twitter: @La_Wardy