The first time I met Olivia she told me that she wanted to be a big sister when she grew up. Sitting in the playroom of her parents’ semi-detached – the architect-redesign almost an exact replica of our own – I envied her the freedom to want what money can’t buy without the fear of being judged eccentric or difficult to please. It was the reason I took the job at all – not because I was sick of Dad’s lectures on how I was wasting the opportunities he had worked so hard to give me – but because I hoped this snotty three-year-old could teach me to care even less.
When her parents hired me to mind her they were surprised by my maturity.
“Nineteen?” Julia looked at me the way I imagined she scrutinised a tricky actuarial problem. “You seem older than your profile picture.”
The photo was three years old. My adult appearance was often commented on, and something I was actively trying to change by wearing my hair in plaits and my face bare. People assume that teenagers always want to look older than they are, but I never did.
“Well, it seems like she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She’ll need it.” Michael soon made a habit of talking to me only through remarks directed at his wife. The only time he would ever address me was when he would tell me, more than a year later, that although I was a ‘decent person,’ still they thought that ‘more formal childcare’ would suit Olivia best.
Julia glanced at the half-open door into the playroom where we had left Olivia after brief introductions. “The question is, are you up for the challenge?” I would have laughed if only her expression didn’t make me think she was being serious – as if she were trying to crack a nut between her teeth. Michael reached for his collar – I thought to remove his tie after a long day at the office – but he only tightened it further.
I imagined they had cold, procedural sex, like the diagrams in Catholic marriage manuals.
The only thing that could be considered a challenge while minding Olivia was that being a big sister was all she ever talked about. She’d fantasise about what her little sister would be like (refusing to consider the possibility of a brother) and called her Sofia, a name she’d found on her world map along with her own (the ‘B’ in Bolivia being silent, of course). Her chatter was persistent though never pestilent. I admired her ability to fashion a whole new life into existence, dictated by nothing but her own desires and the limits of her imagination – answerable to nobody.
My friends used to tease me, asking whether I’d had a hard day in the ball pit, or whether I had any tough nappy deadlines approaching. I laughed when exam season came around.
Michael and Julia never entertained Olivia’s fantasies as much as I did, judging by what I saw of them before and after work. They treated the products of her imagination as distractions from the more important aspects of her development, like what they called her ‘groundedness’. Olivia would greet them excitedly with some new feature of Sofia’s personality she had come up with that day, and they would only brush her aside with a snide remark like:
“You didn’t get up to anything more productive today then, no?”
I had a quiet suspicion that they were secretly very religious. It would also have explained the metal cross that was always just visible beneath Julia’s clothes, and the fact that Olivia had to have a cheese-and-tomato instead of the usual ham-and-cheese sandwich for lunch on Fridays. This theory was less about truth though and more about injecting some excitement into my job description, so that half-stoned students I met at parties would think that I was saving an innocent child from conservative brainwashing, and not that I was a university drop-out who worked as a babysitter because she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life and – worse – who actually enjoyed it.
The first few weeks I was almost scared to breathe in the house. Every room was a museum exhibit. Each hand-crafted textile and designer candle had its place, and an invisible DO NOT TOUCH sign stood on every flat surface. It didn’t help that the rear wall was entirely made of glass. I felt like my every move was being watched. The only positive was I could pretend that Olivia and I would never change either, that we’d be preserved forever along with the other artifacts inside this giant glass case.
But soon the self-restraint grew stifling.
Some days when Olivia had her afternoon nap I’d play loud music on the surround-sound speakers downstairs (she was a deep sleeper). I’d run around the house with my hair loose, tipping the pictures on the wall off-centre, lifting the toilet seats, stripping off and leaving my clothes strewn across couches and door handles and flat-screen TVs.
Other days I’d take off my shoes and socks and climb into Michael and Julia’s bed, just to feel the crisp Egyptian cotton against my feet.
Sometimes I came dangerously close to being discovered.
“Olivia, what did I say? Momma’s bed is out of bounds.”
“She says she wasn’t on it.” At times like these I could never tell whether Michael was referring to Olivia or me.
That I kept getting away with it made the transgression all the sweeter, made me all the braver. I told Olivia we could have more fun if she promised not to tell her parents. We’d climb into the dirty-clothes basket together, making room for Sofia too. We’d hold competitions to see who could spit the furthest along the kitchen table. We’d pretend that Olivia was my baby, giving her a doll’s soother to suck and pushing her around in one of its prams. Once I even let her put her mouth to my bra and pretend that she was feeding.
After about a month Julia began to leave a list of activities for the day stuck to the fridge. The first morning she pointed it out as she breezed through the front door, calling behind her:
“Just some ideas, in case you were stuck.”
I glanced over her suggestions: to read three books, to learn five new words in two languages, to do jigsaws.
The jigsaws were the most rewarding, and the activity I encouraged most. Watching Olivia as she pieced together the different blocks of colour with wide-eyes and gaping mouth, her face as it lit up when she tapped the last piece into place, and her hands as they clapped in clumsy celebration was like watching somebody win an Olympic medal, except that she expressed everything adults learn not to.
Soon she graduated to fifty-piece puzzles. Finishing them was less of a celebration now though and more about having something to tell her mother when she asked what we had done that day. It was the first indication that her infantile charm had not been as perfectly preserved within our glass case as I had hoped. For reassurance I began to look for evidence that would outweigh it.
When she slept I ran my fingers down her back and around her face. I’d barely touch her at first, becoming braver just to see how far I’d have to go before she woke and I’d have to soothe her back to sleep. But she never did.
While she was asleep one afternoon I mixed the pieces from two different jigsaws and split the jumbled mess between their two boxes. But the next time we took one of those puzzles out she could tell from the colours that they didn’t all belong to the same box. She even recognised which two jigsaws they were from, and sorted them back into their respective sets.
When she was busy putting one of them together I removed a piece, wrapped it in a tissue, and threw it in the rubbish. But it didn’t stop her from completing the rest of the puzzle. She wasn’t annoyed or even disappointed to find at the end that it was missing, only shrugged her shoulders. She said she guessed that Sofia must have borrowed it.
It was difficult to feign surprise when inside I wanted to scream – at her because she never gave me the opportunity to comfort her, and then at myself for thinking it would have made any difference if she had.
After a few weeks I started to wonder whether Michael and Julia had installed cameras to watch us while they were at work. Julia grew particularly strict about wanting to see Olivia’s completed jigsaws at the end of the day, along with a list of the books we had read together and words we had learnt. But I found no evidence of any cameras, unless the smart home monitor had been spying on us all along.
Julia’s greater-than-usual severity soon had an explanation though. I noticed that she began to fill her clothes around the waist and in the bust, so much so that she ditched her dress-down Friday jeans for elasticated waists. A part of me dreaded what effect the responsibility of a younger sibling would have on Olivia, but the thought of how happy she would be made me want it even more than she probably did.
I started to crawl under Olivia’s bed while she was napping. I’d move her shoes against the wall and lie flat on my back so that she was lying directly above me. I’d raise the pitch of my voice an octave or two and whisper to her as though I were Sofia. I’d tell her that we’d meet soon. I’d tell her how much I loved her.
Then one Monday afternoon Olivia fell and cut her knee. When I went to the bathroom cabinet for a plaster, I found a half-empty packet of heavy-duty pads on the shelf. Downstairs I asked Olivia what she had gotten up to at the weekend. While her cotton-bud fingers helped me to stick the plaster to her skin, she told me that she had had a surprise sleepover at her Nana’s house.
It felt as if I had stolen another puzzle piece.
Every month for three months a collection of pain-stained tampons, ovulation sticks and negative pregnancy tests appeared amongst the debris of the bathroom bin. Then, for two months, nothing. Once or twice Julia came home an hour or so early because, she said, she’d come directly from an out-of-office meeting. Those afternoons were the closest to content I ever saw her, practically fizzing as she flitted from hall to fridge to playroom, though still she retained her permanently sober expression, as if scared that if she dared to smile the plaster might crack. I almost dared to hope.
Then again a fresh packet of heavy pads found their way into the cupboard above the sink, slowly depleting in number as their used counterparts, neatly rolled into their original wrappers, gradually came to line the bathroom bin. That was when Julia began asking for a schedule of what exact times Olivia peed, pooed and ate, as if the secret of her own cycle could be discovered in the bodily rhythms of the child she already had. A longer period followed this time before the return of the tampons, which continued to arrive according to their original rhythm over the course of the next five months.
Every few weeks a fresh batch of supplements would appear in the kitchen cupboard, tiny capsules which promised to deliver the world with herbs that grew far away, and whose names I could never pronounce. Once I opened the fridge to find a torn plastic bag sitting in a pool of blood on the bottom shelf, filled with soft, glistening masses of maroon. Olivia told me that it was her Momma’s liver, for you-know-what.
But of course Olivia had no idea what.
Finally, after almost a year-long cycle of extremes, I found a half-empty box of ovulation tests in the black bin. They’d given up. I wanted to cry but I’d never seen Olivia cry before, not even in her sleep or when she hurt herself, and I wasn’t going to be the first of us to cry in front of the other.
I’d return the missing piece instead.
It was my friend’s birthday and she was throwing a party at her student accommodation. There were about twenty other people there, mostly the birthday girl’s college friends who I knew by name only. After surveying the room for potential targets I decided on a guy that I had met once or twice before, and who was decent-looking, but not too smart or prudish to be suspicious. I spent the night on the couch beside him, laughing at his inane jokes and gradually moulding my body into his. I let him play the part of the seducer, though I was conscious of the time and the fact that the app on my phone had told me that this was my last fertile day.
“I’m going bathroom.” He only nodded. I leaned in closer. “Aren’t you coming?”
He seemed to get the idea then and we held hands as I led him across the room, stepping over outspread legs as if we were playing a game of ladders. We locked the door and kissed for as long as I could stand the taste of cheap beer in my mouth, and for as long as it took me to unzip his jeans. I let him suck my neck, all the while thinking of how I’d have to cover the hickey with concealer for work the next day – because I didn’t think conservative Catholics would tolerate that kind of thing, and because Olivia would want to know what it was – but I decided that it was all for the cause. So I let him suck and suck as his cock grew hard and then I was pulling down his underwear, and hoisting my dress onto my hips, and dropping my knickers to my ankles. I half-perched myself on the sink as he watched.
“Wait, do you have a condom?”
“I’m on the pill.”
He didn’t say anything after that, only let out something between a breathy laugh and a groan. I guided him inside me and tried to forget how many germs and diseases might be sliding in with him. I was barely wet but I moaned to make him think that I was enjoying myself, and rubbed my clit because I remembered reading that orgasm was meant to help the little tadpoles swim further. I didn’t come, but I could see in his face which was melting like a cartoon drunk’s that he was close.
“Are you coming?”
I didn’t need to wait for a reply. He pulled out and turned to piss without a second look at me. It made me feel disgusting, but a part of me was glad that he only thought of this as a transaction too, although of a very different kind. As his back was turned I dropped to the frigid tile floor and tilted my hips to guide the cum in the right direction, shoving two fingers inside myself and rubbing it as far up as my cervix. When he finally turned from where he was washing his hands he saw me and smiled drowsily:
“You must be desperate.” For a second I thought the game was up but he must have seen the look on my face then because he laughed. “I get it. Girl’s gotta come too. Don’t let me stop you.” He dried his hands on his jeans and left, leaving me on the floor like a contorted animal before I stood and put myself back together again, the cum dripping out of me.
As it all may as well have. As the effort and the humiliation and the dream all came spilling out in tears of red a few weeks later.
One afternoon, shortly before Michael told me they were moving Olivia into a crèche, Olivia found a baby thrush abandoned in the long grass at the end of the garden. We lifted it into an old shoebox lined with newspaper and carried it inside, sprinkling some porridge oats into a saucer for it. Olivia spent the rest of the day by its side, stroking her index finger along its spine like I used to do for her when she was still allowed naps.
“What are you going to call it?” I asked her.
She thought a moment, before replying that its name would be Sofia. I didn’t ask whether she remembered what that name used to mean. I didn’t want to ruin the poetry of the moment for myself. I wanted to forget how quickly she had lost all the doughy freshness of when I first met her.
Julia wouldn’t let Olivia keep the bird in the house overnight, and was disgusted that I had brought it in at all. I took it home with me instead, placing it by the radiator in the kitchen. I woke the next morning to find its limp and lifeless body amongst the shredded newspaper and floury oats scattered on the bottom of the shoebox.
I only told Olivia that she had flown away.
Grace Banks is the winner of the (un)belonging Best Short Fiction Prize.