The zoo had a magical wishing seat.
Life was not going as planned so Charlotte pestered her father. “When can we go to the zoo?”
"We can’t, Charlie. It’s too expensive."
Charlotte was having a difficult year. A granted wish would make it better.
In spring the ache in her chest began. Then there were changes. Down appearing in her armpits. A line of hair on her privates. The ending of her flawless child skin.
In summer their father took Charlotte and her sisters, all five of them, to the zoo as a reward for good school reports. It was Charlotte’s job as the youngest and smallest to sneak under the barrier unseen, thereby saving her father the cost of a ticket. If she was successful, they would all have ice-cream as they watched the gorillas, lonely on their island. If she failed she would be the source of ridicule for the rest of the outing.
The ridicule was soon forgotten in the zoo playground. While her oldest sisters sat on the benches with boys in hoodies and the twins spiraled shrieking down the helter-skelter, Charlotte went to the wishing seat.
The wishing seat was a cut from a stone marked with runes.
“Are you going to make a wish?” her father asked.
Charlotte always wished. Today was grey so she hoped the future would be better.
She sat on the cold stone and wished with all her might. When she stood the place where her bottom had been had changed from inky black to vivid green.
“That means your wish will come true, Charlie,” her father said, ruffling her short hair. “I hope you wished for something important. Not ice-cream.”
Charlotte did not wish for ice-cream. She wished for what she wanted to be.
Autumn was hard on her future plans. Her mother stopped her one afternoon and said, “Your father and I were talking about you last night.” Although her mother smiled, her voice had that edge that said a telling off was coming next. “You aren’t a child any more. You need to get a bra.”
Charlotte felt the ache. The sense of slipping. “Don’t need a bra,” she muttered into her chest.
“Don’t talk back to me, young lady. With six daughters I know what you need.”
Her mother was the last person who knew what she needed. If things went according to plan, she would never need a bra. Bras weren’t a part of being what she wanted to be.
“I can use one of the twins’.” As the youngest Charlotte lived in hand-me-downs. Even her underpants came from the twins.
“Don’t be so silly. We’ll go together. Just the two of us.”
On Saturday Charlotte had to suffer the indignity of removing her shirt to a stranger in a stuffy changing room.
The bra fitter peered down her nose at her through thick glasses, then looked at Charlotte’s mother. “I don’t think she’s ready yet.”
Charlotte’s mother began to cough. It happened when she got angry but wouldn’t speak out.
Charlotte put the shirt back on.
The fitting lady shook her head. “I can’t help you. She’s got nothing to show.”
A bra was purchased unfitted. At home Charlotte shoved it to the very back of her underwear drawer. She wasn’t going to need it.
That winter the house resounded with coughs at night, particularly from her mother. The car froze up and refused to work which made her father grumpy because it was expensive to fix.
Charlotte went to the garage where her father was sorting screws into little plastic drawers. “I want to help you fix the car,” she said. “You always said No before. But I’m old enough now.”
Her father did not look up from the tiny brass hooks in his hand. “You can’t help me, Charlie.”
“Knowing this stuff won’t help you. Changing a tyre, maybe. But engines? No.”
“If I’m going to drive across Africa, like you did, knowing how to fix an engine would be pretty useful, don’t you think?”
Her father looked up. “You can’t drive across Africa, Charlie. The world was different then. And we didn’t bring any girls.”
The world without girls was fun and exciting. Her father did wonderful things. Until mother and a houseful of women. Through the crack in window came the sound of mother coughing and coughing.
“You better go to her,” her father said. ” Make her a cup of tea or something.”
Her mother was leaning against the washing machine, coughing into a handkerchief.
“Cup of tea, Mum?”
Her mother nodded, still coughing. While Charlotte made the tea her mother sat in the low wooden chair usually reserved for kitchen visitors. Charlotte was not a kitchen visitor. Her sisters filled that space with their long conversations on topics that bored and bewildered Charlotte.
Before the tea was made her mother caught her wrist. “Don’t go back to the garage.”
“You’re upsetting your father. Stay in here and do the washing up with me. I’ll help with the drying.”
They stood side by side, working in silence.
At last her mother said, “Are you wearing that bra I bought for you?”
“You should. No boy wants a girl with saggy breasts.”
“Why is it always about what other people want?”
“Because love is all about compromising. Take your poor father, for example. He always wanted a son, you know. There was a boy, between you and the twins, but he didn’t make it to term.” Her mother wound the tea towel round and around her hands. “Your father was so disappointed when you were born. You were our last chance really.”
Charlotte looked at the archipelagos of bubbles forming around her arms. Her chest ached. The traitorous breasts erupting, ruining her. She had wished and wished year after year to be a boy. She had done her best. But sometimes best isn’t good enough.
Charlotte went upstairs and sat on her bed. Her sister in the bunk above ignored her, engrossed in a book. She opened her underwear drawer and took out the immaculately white bra, embellished only with a tiny pink bow. Slipping the arms out of her outsized shirt was easy. Hooking the thing together was hard. And once it was on. Oh. The constricting band around her chest.
But now she was grown she would have to wear it. That ache in her chest wasn’t going. No. Not any time soon.
Prompted by girlvswhale’s ‘My Year of Weird’ writing competition (which I read about too late to enter).