It may be surprising, but there are times when I really count my blessings.

A short story by Sue Thomas

First published 1994

Photo by leo lei on Unsplash

It depends on which direction you look. I can see quite a lot from here, but I still have to turn my head slightly in order to take in the full picture. I don’t want to be seen to be staring (I’m not a naturally nosey person) so I restrict myself to discreet eye-movements.

To readers of body-language I must appear to be pretty relaxed. I’m slumped in my seat so that my head rests upright on the back of the bench, allowing for a forward, rather than a skyward, view; and my spine sinks comfortably onto the wooden slats. I have a magazine on my lap, and I’m holding down the pages with both hands because there’s a slight breeze. I’ve read the Agony Column — nothing new there — and now I’m browsing through the recipes.

If I look up from my magazine and gaze straight ahead I can see a wide expanse of grass dotted with small children running and playing. Beyond them, parents line the periphery of the paddling pool, seated like sentinels on a row of benches which face away from me, towards the water. In its shallow centre there is a miniature light-house. It works. It lights up. And a little plastic keeper leans on the uppermost balcony. At his back, the miniature light spins, but the figure is fixed and cannot see it. Instead, he keeps watch over an ocean of grass. Has he noticed me, I wonder, run aground on this bench?

Behind the pool there are a few trees, mostly deciduous so very green at this time of year, and then the sky. Blue, with a few white puffy clouds. There’s an awful lot of it too, so much that I feel more comfortable looking for the edges.

I turn my head to find the sun, and a man comes into my line of vision. It’s nearly twelve o’clock on a Thursday, and we women of the benches are not happy about a lone man wandering in the park at this time of day. As he crosses the grass he leaves behind him a wake of hastily re-formed groups — mothers calling in their children on a pretext of snacks. All eyes are upon him. We just need to check him out, then things will go back to normal again. Just natural cautiousness, that’s all.

He is walking directly towards me, and even though I’m looking at the sun I don’t wish him to think that he is the object of my stare, so I go back to my magazine — except, of course, I don’t. I pull some sunglasses out of my bag and put them on so I can keep an eye on him in safety. Head lowered towards the page, but eyes raised behind the glasses, I watch him. Now that I’m wearing the glasses he doesn’t know that he has a spectator.

He’s reached the gravel path now and I can see him quite clearly. Let me tell you. I’ll have to be quick though, because the muscles of my eyes are beginning to ache with all this clandestine movement. He has straight brown hair, and it’s quite long. It kinks against his collar at the back, but at the front it has receded badly. He has heavy dark brows and has obviously shaved very inefficiently — his face is streaked with dark patches of missed bristles.

He’s wearing a white t-shirt beneath a dark jacket, and faded jeans with the hems rolled up. His clothes are crumpled. The jacket is of soft cotton, deeply creased as if it has recently been confined to the bottom of a laundry-pile. The t-shirt is clean, but the neck welt is coming away from the main body of the material and a long thread hangs from it. The jeans have no doubt kept company with the jacket in the laundry pile. I can’t see his socks, but his running shoes were pale blue once.

The shoes have come to a halt upon reaching the gravel, and above them he is looking southward then northward along the path. I cannot follow those directions because that would give the game away. I don’t know if he has seen what he expects to see, but he saunters over and sits down on the bench next along from mine. I turn a page. It’s the first chapter of a holiday serial: “Jennifer had always longed to go to the Greek Islands…

It hurts quite a lot — a sort of ribbon pain across the eyebrows — but I manage to take a sidelong glance at the man. He’s looking up and down, and then at his watch. A clue! He must be waiting for someone. We shall have to find out who it is. Jennifer has only just boarded the charter jet, so there’s plenty of time. She is settling into her place and fishing for the ends of her seat-belt.

Wheels crunch along the path, coming from my right. The man is seated on my left. I strain my eyes his way — he’s standing up. My magazine nearly slides off my lap but I grab it just in time. The wheels come nearer.

Of course, as you would expect at this time of day. it’s a child’s buggy. It contains a small girl, two-ish I would guess, and it’s pushed by a very pretty lady. She has short white-blonde hair and a white summer dress. The child’s hair is the same colour, but longer, falling over her shoulders onto a pair of highly colourful dungarees. Both have a milky pale skin, almost translucent. They must, of course, be mother and daughter.

I’m afraid this man intends to bother them, and indeed, as they approach, a shadow of apprehension crosses the woman’s face. I prepare to speak up and defend her. But it seems this won’t be necessary., because as they pass in front of me I hear them both say hello. I still feel rather concerned, however, because even though they’ve spoken in greeting their voices have no expression in them whatsoever.

Then — “Hello Annie!” I guess from his tone that he is addressing the child. I’m still pretending to read so the only view I have is of his blue running shoes, ten pink toenails in white sandals, and four small rubberized wheels. The child’s feet rest on the bar of the pushchair but at the sound of his voice they scramble up and I guess she is climbing out and up into her mother’s arms.

I must see. I raise my head a fraction and meet two blue eyes staring over a delicate shoulder. Chocolate fingers smear the back of the white dress. The adults seem unaware of my presence but the child is looking straight at me. I’m sure she can see straight through my dark glasses. Our eyes meet, so I smile hesitantly. No response.

The pair are talking now. I can’t help but hear, they are so close to me. His words come high and fast, but her tone remains low and slow, as though she’s speaking through a vacuum. Emotion has somehow been sucked out of her voice on its way through the larynx. I imagine that her diaphragm is tight with all those unspoken thoughts booming around in there.

They’re using legal words now — access, injunction, care and control. Neutral ground. Child maintenance.

With the rise of his voice the child’s arms tighten, but the little blue eyes remain fixed on mine. The smile hasn’t worked, so I try to pass comfort across the gap instead. I do it invisibly. I don’t know if has arrived but her gaze still clings to mine while her arms and legs hang onto her mother, monkey-style.

Suddenly, she grips even tighter, and panic flies across to me like a stream of small shining daggers. He is saying “Are you going to come with Daddy for a little walk now?”

Her head is shaking “no”; her whole body is shaking “no”, but her mother is saying “It’s only for a little while. Just so that Daddy can see something of you.”

The child is twisting about but her eyes remain anchored on mine even as she is untangled from her mother and passed across. Her father holds her in his arms, but she drops her hands to her sides. She will not embrace him.

“Are you going to ride in your buggy?”

He murmurs in her ear and the little fists clench negatively, so he just takes the handles of the chair and turns to leave, still carrying her in his arms. The woman calls “See you soon, honey. See you at four o’clock.”

Her voice is brittle and I wonder at her facility for containment. She walks away rapidly across the grass.

All this time, the blue eyes have not left mine for a moment. She clings now to the other neck, the firm dark neck, but as they move away her gaze still holds onto mine. I wave bye-bye. It’s all I can think of to do. But she doesn’t wave back.

As I watch them walk away, I hear another set of wheels on the gravel — this time, more familiar. Laurie is with them. He’s scowling and I expect that as usual I am the source of irritation. I guess right.

“You are so ridiculous,” he complains. “I’ve had to sit for an hour watching you from over there.”

He turns and nods towards another bench further down.

“Anything could have happened — you could have had a fit — you could have been mugged…” he breaks off hopelessly.

I shrug my one-sided shrug. I know it always drives him crazy, and this time is no exception.

“You just don’t care do you? I should never have let you talk me into it. What did you expect to happen? That someone would come and sit next to you to start up a polite conversation? I was watching, so I’ll tell you. People didn’t come anywhere near you. In fact, they went out of their way to avoid you.”

His voice is harsh with concern. He thinks he can break through my obstinacy by hurting my feelings, but I’ve developed a thick skin against insults, and anyway, he’s wrong this time.

“You’re wrong” I retort, peering up at him from my bench. There was, after all, the little girl.

“Oh what’s the use?” he sighs, bending over me. “Let’s get you back into your chair.”

He takes the magazine from my lap and stows it away, then slides one arm underneath my legs and the other behind my back. He’s wearing Old Spice today. As he lifts me up my weight falls onto him — I can’t help it, I just flop. I can feel my breast pressing against his chest. No matter how many years I have endured this, I still cannot help but feel embarrassed. I suppose lots of women fantasise about being carried off by all sorts of anonymous young men, but they should try it sometime. The romance soon wears off.

My head drops heavily onto his shoulder, and as he steadies himself before placing me in the chair I stare past his broad back at the park beyond. Coincidentally, a woman is just passing by, and for a split-second I gaze straight at her from my lop-sided position across the back of Laurie’s neck. But at the moment our eyes meet, her face freezes and she looks away. Next I get a good view of the gravel, then the grass, then the gravel again, as Laurie pivots me into my chair. He has forgotten to straighten my skirt and I am too shy to mention it.

When I am all strapped in and under his control once more, he lightens up.

“Would you like an ice-cream, Wonder Woman?”

I wouldn’t mind. He pushes me over to the van, and parks me to one side while he goes to buy two ninety-nines. My neck has started to ache so I twist it from side-to-side to flex it. That’s when I see the little girl again. She too is parked in her chair while her father waits in the ice-cream line just ahead of Laurie.

When we receive our treats we eat them simultaneously, and we never break eye contact once, even though we both have the same problems of coordination and aim which inevitably result in two very messy faces. Her Dad gets out his hanky and Laurie goes to the van for an enormous roll of all-purpose tissue. We both receive a lick and a promise.

Afterwards, she and her Dad continue their period of legal access, a stroll around the park. This time when she is pushed away she smiles goodbye to me, and I smile back. I’m pleased to see that she looks a little happier now, a little more relaxed.

Laurie says: “I’ve just got to pay a visit to the Gents. Won’t be long. Here, read your magazine till I get back.”

I wonder how Jennifer is getting on in Greece? I return to the top of Page Two.

Jennifer, her pale hair glittering in the Mediterranean sunlight, stepped off the plane and into the arms of her lover.’

The illustration shows a couple embracing. Her arms are tight about his waist and a ring sparkles on her finger, but instead of gazing into his handsome face she’s staring over his shoulder and out of the page, straight at me. She has that look in her eyes, one I seem to recognise from somewhere, a prisoner’s look, and, you know, it may be surprising, but there are times when I really count my blessings.

Because no matter how tightly I’m strapped in, no matter how fettered I might seem, inside I am the light-house keeper of my own spirit. And my mind, and my dreams, fly as free as seagulls.

The story of this story

‘All Strapped In’ has been published in a number of different contexts and I can’t remember which of the following came first. It was broadcast as a BBC Radio 4 ‘Morning Story’ in 1994, repeated in 1995. Also in 1994 it was included in a collection I edited for the Overlook Press, New York, called ‘Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories By Women Celebrating Women’. The anthology was published in the UK later that year by Vintage Press, London. Then, five years later, in 1999 it was selected for inclusion in 47 Modern European Short Stories. It was translated into German, Danish, and Finnish, and published on CD and in paperback by Forlaget Systime, Copenhagen.

The story reflects the sense of being an outsider/onlooker so familiar to many of us, and which can feel especially acute in public places. It also draws upon the pain of children and parents when a relationship breaks up, which I know something about. It appeared in my head suddenly, all in one piece, and with no particular prompt that I can remember.

See also my story ‘Sistema Purificacion’.

Check out my latest book: ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’. More relevant than ever in the Covid Age.

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