Homework by Rebecca Klassen

Tina found the dogeared letter at the bottom of Lily’s bag under pencil shavings and a reading book about kittens. As they’d all waited for their children in the playground, Tina had overheard some of the other parents discussing the Year 4 homework project Our Beautiful Town. A collage was to be made, depicting the highlights of their hometown and what they liked about it. ‘Talk about polishing a turd,’ one of fathers had said, and everyone had laughed and nodded. At least everyone was in agreeance; this town was a dump.

‘Why didn’t you tell me about the homework, Lily?’ Tina asked as they began the walk home. ‘It’s due tomorrow.’

‘I forgot. Sorry, Mum.’ She skipped ahead, and Tina wondered if she should come down harder about homework deadlines. Sod it. She’s only nine.

The school was at one end of Turner Street, and their house was at the other.

‘We’ll duck into the little Tesco,’ said Tina. ‘They’ve got leaflets on the castle and Tigger’s Theme Park. You can cut them up.’

‘Does it matter that I haven’t been to those places?’

Tina braced against the guilt. The buses didn’t go out to the castle or Tigger’s. ‘It’ll have to do, Lil.’

 The traffic was at a standstill. Vape smoke curled from car windows, fumes pumped from exhausts, and basses thumped. Tina willed Lily to stop staring at the drivers, who smiled at the happy little girl. Their smiles would one day turn to leers when Lily grew and had to wear the short secondary school skirt.

As they got to the off license, a pigeon was trying to mount another on top of a wheelie bin. Lily slowed and pointed.

‘Look, Mum! They’re dancing.’

‘Sure. Keep up.’

The lady with the brightly rouged cheeks who ran the Polish supermarket came out to ping Lily’s curls again. Lily gladly let her in exchange for a fruity sweet. She chose a strawberry one from a crinkly bag emblazoned with a word containing lots of zeds and esses. Tina said thank you to the woman like she did most days, hoping she didn’t sound as fed up as she felt. Rain was on its way. They still had ten minutes left of their walk, the leaflet grab at Tesco, and Lily’s project to do. That was why Tina snapped and marched ahead when Lily stopped to pick up a penny from the pavement.

The man was begging outside the betting shop again. He took a swig from his can, and rivulets ran down his beard. Lily looked at the coins on his sleeping bag in a bundle at his feet.

‘Swap?’ She held out her penny and pointed at the plastic gold button someone had thrown in.

‘You av’ it, darling. Keep ya penny.’

Tina nodded, but she knew not to stop and chat. The one time she had, he’d followed them home. Lily hadn’t understood why he couldn’t come in for fish fingers with them.

General thumping dance music lilted from the Pound Shop. Fluorescent pink braid bands littered the front step. Lily stopped and put three on her finger.

‘Look, Mum. Rings!’

Tina nodded. The clouds were black. ‘Very nice. Take them off; they’ll cut off your circulation.’

They got to the railway bridge.

‘Don’t read the graffiti, Lily.’ Tina said this every day since Lily had read “suck my balls” aloud. But Lily had stopped to look at the wall.

‘Lily, I said don’t read it.’

Her little hand pointed at a yellow dandelion growing in the brickwork, level with her nose.

‘How did it get up there, Mum? A fairy must’ve planted it!’

‘Lily, it’s gonna rain. Move!’

Tina took Lily’s hand and started to run, Lily’s bag bouncing on her back. It was pointless. The rain was as loud as the train passing over the bridge. They stayed put for shelter.

‘And we’ve still got to go to Tesco for the leaflets,’ Tina groaned.

‘Nope, I’ve got enough stuff,’ said Lily.

She opened her pocket so her mum could see the pigeon feather, the puckered strawberry sweet wrapper, the dull penny, the shiny button, the fluorescent bands, and the dandelion.

Lily looked at her mum, who knelt in front of her. ‘It’ll be beautiful when I’m finished.’

Biography: Rebecca Klassen is editor of The Phare. Her work has featured in publications including Mslexia Best Short Fiction, Burningword, Barren, Popshot, Spellbinders, Superlative, and The Wild Word. She has won the London Independent Story Prize for flash, and was shortlisted for the Oxford Flash Prize. Rebecca has performed her work at Cheltenham Literature Festival and Stroud Book Festival. Website: bex350.wixsite.com/rebecca-klassen

Image: unsplash.com