Violet Mackerel's Personal Space, page 1
For the remarkable J. K. R..
Violet Mackerel is on a summer holiday at the beach with her sister, Nicola; her brother, Dylan; her mama; and her mama’s boyfriend, Vincent. It is nearly the end of the holiday, and Violet is wishing it was still the beginning.
At the beach house where they have been staying there are bunk beds. Violet has been sleeping on the bottom bunk. She has tucked a sheet under the mattress of the top bunk and dangled it down, so it is a small personal space of her own. You can’t do that with an ordinary bed like the one at Violet’s normal house. It has to be a bunk bed.
It has been quite a good holiday. Violet likes Vincent making pancakes for everyone each morning. She likes going for walks to look in rock pools and having the sound of the sea in her ears all the time. She likes it after dinner when they roll up their pants for an evening paddle and their pants get wet anyway and no one minds. And since no one has to get up at any particular time, no one has to go to bed at any particular time either, so they sit up late on the veranda, chatting and burning citronella candles to keep the mosquitoes away.
On the last morning of the holiday, everyone puts all their things back in their suitcases. Violet takes the sheet down from the bunk bed and folds it up. One minute it looks as if her family actually does live in the beach house, and the next minute it looks as if they have never stayed there at all.
Mama says, “Before we go, let’s all have one final check and make sure we haven’t left anything behind.” So everyone has a look behind the couch and in the little cupboard in the bathroom and under the coffee table. Violet thinks she might pull up the corner of her mattress and have a look under that. There is a row of flat wooden slats with little spaces between them. And in one of the spaces there is a small pink shell.
It isn’t one of Violet’s shells. She has collected lots of shells, but they are packed carefully in a box in her suitcase with the pieces of sea glass she found on the beach. This pink shell has been left there by someone else.
Violet wonders who it could have been. Maybe it was someone else who slept on the bottom bunk and didn’t want to go home. Maybe they left the small pink shell behind on purpose.
This thought gives Violet a good idea for a new theory, the Theory of Leaving Small Things Behind. The theory is this: Maybe wherever you leave something small behind, a tiny part of you gets to stay too.
Violet opens her suitcase, finds her box, and takes out a little piece of green sea glass. She presses it into the space beside the pink shell and covers it all up again, smoothing the mattress. No one sees.
“Finished,” calls Violet, going to join the others. She puts her suitcase next to Mama’s in the trunk of the car.
Before they leave, she has one last look at the room. It looks exactly the same as it did before she stayed there. But it is not. Somehow this idea makes Violet feel a bit less sad about the summer holiday being finished.
It is a long drive from the beach back to her house, so she has lots of time to think about her new theory and about all the places she might like to leave small things. She would like to hide a sequin up the Eiffel Tower and bury a little glass bead somewhere in the African wilderness and slip a silver star under a stone in an Egyptian pyramid.
It will be like a little trail of Violet all throughout the world.
At home that evening, dinner is a funny mix of things that were in the kitchen before the holiday and are still okay to eat, like baked beans and corn chips and dried pawpaw spears, which Violet quite likes. But even though it is more like a picnic than actual dinner, Mama has put proper wineglasses on the table for everyone, and Vincent is filling them up with pink lemonade.
When everyone is sitting down, Vincent puts his arm around Mama and says, “We have some special news.”
Violet nibbles a pawpaw spear and hopes that the news will be about getting a kitten.
“Vincent and I have decided we would like to get married,” says Mama.
A funny feeling comes into the kitchen, and no one says anything.
Violet wants to say something, but it is hard to think of what. Last year her teacher, Miss Wuthering, got married and came back from her holiday being called Mrs. Chan. She showed Violet’s class a picture of herself in a long, white dress with sparkles in her hair.
“Will you change your name and put sparkles in your hair?” asks Violet.
“Well,” says Mama, “I’ll still be a Mackerel, but I might put sparkles in my hair.”
Vincent says, “We were thinking we might have a small wedding in the garden and just invite a few special guests.”
“Can I make paper cranes for the guests?” asks Nicola.
“We’d love that,” says Vincent.
“Can I help you make a wedding dress?” asks Violet.
“Of course you can,” says Mama.
Violet smiles, and Nicola is starting to smile too. Violet thinks Mama will look lovely with sparkles in her hair.
“But there isn’t room in our house for any more people,” says Dylan, who is not smiling. “We already hardly fit.”
It is true that it’s already sometimes a bit of a squish with Mama, Nicola, Dylan, and Violet, especially when they all need to go to the bathroom at exactly the same time.
“Well, that’s the other part of the news,” says Mama. “We’ll have to move to a slightly bigger place if we’re all going to live together. We’re going to need to find a new home very soon, in fact.”
“I’m not moving anywhere,” says Dylan.
Then he goes upstairs and slams his bedroom door shut.
After that, the picnic dinner doesn’t seem quite so nice.
Violet would like to knock on Dylan’s door and see if he wants some pink lemonade or corn chips (she has eaten all the pawpaw spears), but Mama says Dylan’s room is his personal space, and when he’s inside it with the door closed, that means he probably just wants to be by himself for a while. So after dinner Violet goes up to her room and writes a small note with a pencil. It says:
At the end of the note she draws a small violin, because Dylan is a very good violin player, and a small violet, because that is her name. She slides the note under Dylan’s door and waits to see if there is any knocking, but there is none—just a strange shuffling and rummaging of things being moved around.
Later on, after Vincent has gone home, Mama chats with Nicola in her bedroom. Violet is still waiting outside Dylan’s door in case there is any knocking. But there is only more shuffling and rummaging, and soon Mama comes out of Nicola’s room and says it is time for bed. She tucks Violet in.
“Is Nicola okay?” asks Violet.
“I think so,” says Mama.
“Is Dylan okay?” asks Violet.
“Not just at the moment,” says Mama. “It will probably take us all a while to figure everything out.”
Violet is mostly quite good at figuring things out. Even though she doesn’t remember Dad very well, because he left when she was quite small, Violet knows that Dylan and Nicola both miss him, Dylan especially. Having a new person in your family is quite a big change to manage, especially if you are still missing an old one.
“What about you?” Mama asks. “Are you okay?”
Violet wonders whether or not she is okay.
“Well, I am glad there is going to be a wedding with sparkles in your hair and paper cranes for the guests,” says Violet. “And I think it will be nice if Vincent lives with us and makes us pancakes every day.”
“But I like us living here, even if it is a squish,” says Violet. “And I do
“Neither do I,” says Mama.
Then they have quite a long cuddle, because it is very tricky getting to sleep when there are people in your house who are not okay.
While she tries to sleep, Violet thinks about the tiny pink shell and the little piece of green sea glass hidden under the mattress at the beach house. If she closes her eyes, it’s almost as if she is there again, with the sheet dangling down and the soft noise of the sea in her ears. It is a nice thought. Much nicer than the thought of a newer, bigger house, and much nicer than the thought of Dylan not being okay. The Theory of Leaving Small Things Behind is quite a good theory, she thinks.
Very early the next morning the shuffling noise in Dylan’s room goes all the way downstairs and out into the back garden. Sleepily Violet goes over to her window and looks outside. Dylan is putting up a tent that used to belong to Dad. Even though it is a bit leaky and musty, he keeps it in the back of his wardrobe, and he even took it on his school camping trip last year. He said it was the worst tent of everyone in his class and he might as well have slept in a garbage bag. But he still kept it.
First he lays the tent out on the ground and pins the floor down with L-shaped pegs. Then he slides long metal poles into the two seams at the front and back of the tent. And then he stretches out thin ropes from the two points of the tent and pegs them down into the ground too.
Violet thinks it looks a lot better than a garbage bag. It looks even better than the bottom-bunk house she made with the sheet at the beach house. Violet thinks it is an excellent tent.
Dylan unzips the front and starts putting things inside. He puts in his sleeping bag, a pillow, his chess set, his violin, and a flashlight. And then he goes inside and he doesn’t come out.
Violet and Mama and Nicola have breakfast. It feels a bit funny without Dylan there, but Mama shows them the part of the newspaper where you can look for a new house and that gives them something to talk about. The people who write the advertisements do it in a special way to use as few letters as possible, so instead of “three bedrooms,” they write “3 bdrms” and instead of “vegetable garden,” they write “veg grdn.” Violet looks to see if there is one with bnk bds like the beach house, but she doesn’t spot any.
“Are there any you like the look of?” asks Mama.
It is very hard for Violet to imagine living anywhere else, and whenever she tries to think of it, she gets a funny feeling in her throat. She wonders if it’s the same sort of feeling Dylan is having.
While Mama is in the shower and Nicola is getting dressed, Violet makes some toast and puts it on a tray with a note that says:
She draws a violin and a violet again, and then she goes outside and puts the tray just outside the zip-up door of Dylan’s tent.
“There’s some breakfast outside your front door!” she shouts, since you can’t knock on a tent.
There isn’t any answer, just the slight rustling of a sleeping bag.
But when Violet goes up to her room and looks out the window, the tray has disappeared into the tent.
Over the next few days, Mama and Vincent visit houses they read about in the newspaper. They visit a different one almost every morning because they need to find a house so soon. Sometimes Nicola and Violet go too. Dylan mostly stays in his tent. So far all the houses are either a bit too small, a bit too expensive, or a bit too far away.
Mama says things like, “But where would the dining table fit?” and Vincent says things like, “It might get a bit hot in the summer.”
Violet doesn’t mind so much about dining tables or hotness in the summer, but she does think that none of the houses look much like a proper home, where people could have dinner and do knitting and sort through boxes of small things. The new houses smell like paint and soap, not ginger cake or pumpkin soup. There isn’t a web in any of the kitchen windows where a small friendly spider could live if it wanted to. And there isn’t any music or chatting coming from any of the rooms. There is just the funny empty sound of no furniture.
But as well as house hunting, there is lots of work to do to prepare for the small garden wedding, and Violet likes that much more.
Today Vincent is building a special archway out of wire and bendy branches, big enough for him and Mama to walk under. It will be decorated with leaves and flowers for the wedding, and Violet thinks it will look beautiful in their garden, although it might have to go a bit to the side if Dylan is still living in his tent.
Mama is making a list of people to invite and then crossing most of them off again, since it will be quite a small wedding.
Nicola is folding paper cranes and hanging them on silver strings. They will be gifts for the wedding guests to take home. Violet watches her sister’s fingers folding and tweaking and twiddling the little flat white papers until they turn into perfect, pointy birds. It is almost like magic, Violet thinks. She hopes there will be enough for her to have one too.
Violet is drawing pictures of lovely wedding dresses for Mama. Mama will be making the dress with her sewing machine, so she needs lots of good ideas to help with the design. Violet draws long dresses and short dresses, dresses with long trains, matching hats, veils, jewels, flowers, and even one with fairy wings and a wand, which Mama says is actually her favorite, but maybe not for a wedding. In all the pictures, Violet draws sparkles in Mama’s hair.
At lunchtime Violet takes a sandwich, some juice, and a banana into the garden on a tray for Dylan. She wonders if they will have to hire a truck to move Dylan’s tent with him still in it when they finally do find a new house.
Later in the afternoon there is a deep rumbling in the sky.
“I heard on the radio that there was going to be a storm,” says Vincent, who has finished working on the wedding archway and come in for a cup of tea.
“What about Dylan?” asks Violet.
“Maybe he’ll come inside,” says Mama hopefully.
Gray clouds are filling the sky, and it is getting dark even though it’s much too early for the sun to be going down. Violet goes outside.
“Dylan,” she says. Then she waits. There is a little bit of rustling from inside the tent. “There’s going to be a big storm tonight. Maybe you could come inside, just until it’s over.”
“No,” says Dylan.
“What if your tent leaks?” asks Violet.
“I don’t care,” says Dylan.
“What if you have to sleep in a puddle?” asks Violet.
“I don’t care,” says Dylan again.
There is already quite a strong wind blowing, and Mama calls Violet back inside.
Normally, it is nice to be inside the house with your family when there is a big noisy storm outside and there is pumpkin soup for dinner and something on the TV about penguins. But it is hard to enjoy it when your brother is outside in the garden in a leaky tent. Every now and then the sky lights up outside and a big crack of thunder makes everything rattle. All of Violet’s insides rattle too.
In every ad break, Violet and Mama look out the window. Dylan’s tent looks more and more like one of Nicola’s paper cranes that didn’t quite work out and got crumpled and put in the garbage.
At the end of the penguin program there is the clicking sound of the back door opening. Dylan stands in the doorway, shivering like one of the penguins in the documentary.
Violet has never seen anyone so wet, not even at the beach. There is water dripping from Dylan’s nose and his ears. His pajamas, which are completely stuck to him, make little rivers that run into a puddle all round his feet. He is the bluish color of a very cold person.
Mama runs over and hugs him. She doesn’t even notice all the wetness and coldness getting on her. Water drips from the ends of Dylan’s frowning eyebrows, and he does not hug her back. He stomps up the stairs, leaving a trail on the carpet behind him like a snail. Then the shower turns on. And a bit later the door of Dylan’s room clicks
But Vincent gets up.
Vincent rummages in his backpack and gets something out. Before he met Mama, Vincent was a backpacker who traveled all over the world. He says his backpack was like his house, because it had everything he needed in it. He says that when you have to carry everything on your back all the time, you realize you don’t actually need very much to survive, or even to be comfortable and happy. Even though he is not a backpacker anymore, he says he will always keep his backpack, just to remind himself of that. It is one of the things he has been storing at Violet’s house while they search for a new one.
Violet wonders if there is a tent in the backpack that Vincent is going to give Dylan to replace Dad’s old leaky one. But even though tents can fold up to be quite small, the thing Vincent is getting out is much too small to be a tent. It is a dirty, flattish, purple cloth bag. Violet wonders what could be inside it. She knows it must be something important if it is one of the things Vincent carried on his back all over the world.
Vincent takes the bag upstairs, and there is a little bit of knocking and a lot of quiet talking and then the sound of Dylan’s door clicking open. Mama and Violet and Nicola try to pretend they’re not listening, but really they all are. They can’t make out any words, but they can tell that there is no crossness in the talking.
In the morning the storm is finished and there are voices in the garden. Violet wakes up and looks out of her window. Vincent is down there with Dylan, and they are dragging everything out of the tent and putting it out in the sun to dry. Dylan’s sleeping bag is hanging from the branches of a tree. His pillow and his pillowcase are laid out on the grass, and his violin case (which is waterproof, luckily) and bits and pieces of his chess set are strewn along the path.
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