Pen Knee - Short Story

Jane Seaford

Penny looks after Franny and her little brother, Toby. At first Franny thought she was called Pen Knee, Pen like something to write with and Knee like the joint. Penny said ‘I may be your grandmother but you can call me Pen Knee.’ That’s what Franny heard, anyway. When Penny puts on lipstick, Franny can see the cracks in her mouth. The lipstick looks like sticky sweets or blood and the cracks go upwards towards her nose. She likes to sit in the sun smoking cigars and drinking beer from a bottle. The children have to wear special cream and hats when they go outside but Penny says she’s too old for that sort of nonsense. She says she’s already burnt dark and a little more won’t make any difference. The top of her arms and under her chin is brown and snaggly like scrumpled up paper. When Franny touches it, it feels like something covered with sand. Toby says that he likes to touch there a lot. He misses Mum but sometimes he pretends not to. Franny has become used to living without her. That’s what she tells herself if she starts to feel sad.

Mum left the children with Penny when her troubles got too much for her. She said she needed to escape from them – the troubles, not the kids. Franny can remember when Dad lived with them, but Toby can’t. He was only a toddler. After Dad left, Franny used to think of him and his kind hands and how he would smile and the times he let her ride on his shoulders and how he told her that he loved her, loved her and always would. He said that but he still went away. He left because Mum said she didn’t want him anymore.

Anyway, Mum got Dave to mend her car and she put Franny and Toby and the cases and all sorts of other stuff in it. It was so loaded up Franny thought it wouldn’t go. But it did, although at first it made a sort of creaky noise like someone crying. As they drove away Dave ran after them calling Mum’s name, Tessa, over and over. As they turned the corner he stood on the edge of the road holding his baseball cap with both hands. His neck was all stretched and he looked as if he was screaming. Dave had moved in with them soon after Dad left. He slept in Mum’s bed and sometimes hit Toby when Mum wasn’t around. He didn’t hit Franny because she never went near him. She stopped asking him questions soon after he came to live with them because he didn’t answer. Just clicked his tongue and looked away.

‘Goodbye, Dave,’ Mum said as the car drove away. And she laughed. He was too far away to hear it.
‘Are we ever going back?’ Franny asked. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to or not.

‘No,’ Mum said. ‘Never, never.’

‘We’ve left Benny behind,’ Toby called out and started to cry. Benny was his pet chicken. The family used to have lots but they all sort of disappeared when Dad stopped living with them and the last one left, Toby called Benny. Franny told him the chicken was a girl and you didn’t call girls Benny but he just stared at her as if she’d said something stupid.

‘Dave’ll look after Benny,’ Mum said. Toby looked at Franny. Tears ran down his face taking the grey dirt with them, so his cheeks and neck went all streaky. He would like her to say something comforting, Franny could tell, but she just shook her head like Mum did when she wanted the children to stop asking for things.

Franny fell asleep and then she could feel Mum shaking her and hear her saying, ’Come on Franny, we’re stopping for a bit.’

They went into a café and Mum had coffee and she bought a bottle of coke and a slice of pink cake for Toby and Franny to share. She didn’t say anything for a bit, just smoked her cigarette, looking out of the window and jiggling her leg up and down.

‘Right, kids, here’s the deal,’ she said. She lit a new cigarette from the old one which she then stubbed out in the ashtray. She jiggled her leg really fast now. ‘I’m taking you to stay with your grandmother for a little while.’ Franny didn’t know they had a grandmother. She felt a bit scared and a bit excited.

‘Is our grandmother your Mum?’ She asked because she knew about grandparents as they came in stories sometimes but she couldn’t remember having one of their own before.

‘No,’ Mum said and her mouth shut tight. She opened it again but as if she didn’t really want to. 

‘Your Dad’s. You were very small the last time you saw her. Toby had not long been born.’
She made the children use the toilet and she bought a packet of sweets. ‘For the journey,’ she said.
‘Please can we go home now and see Benny?’ Toby asked. Mum replied that she’d already told them they would never be going home again. That’s when she said, ’I’m escaping from my troubles.’ By the time they got in the car Toby had started to cry.

They had to drive up a long dirt track to reach Penny’s house. Franny didn’t know she was called Penny then. She sat on the deck with a cigar in her mouth and watched as Mum parked the car and then let the children out.

‘Go and say hello to your grandmother,’ Mum said, her hands on Franny’s and Toby’s backs, pushing them.

‘Hello Grandmother,’ Franny said when they reached her. Toby didn’t say anything. He was snivelling again and his nose was running.

The grandmother gave a big puff on the cigar, took it out and said, ‘Well. Here you are.’ She put the cigar back in her mouth. She didn’t stand up or offer to help Mum unpack the car.

‘So, Tessa,’ she said when Mum climbed onto the deck with a suitcase in each hand, looking cross. ‘Finally we meet again… Have you decided to forgive me now you need me? Fancy man proved as bad my son? Maybe even worse?’ The grandmother smiled but Mum didn’t. Her face turned red.
‘Ah,’ the grandmother said. She stood up and put the cigar in a big ashtray that sat on the deck next to her chair. Franny thought that the grandmother could be kind but she could tell Toby wasn’t sure. ‘I’ll make you a cup of tea and I’ve scones baked. You can stay for a night or two if you want to, Tessa,’ she said. That’s when she turned to Franny and Toby and told them to call her Pen Knee. Franny wrote her name ‘Pen Knee’ a few weeks later in the letter to Mum she’d been working on, and Penny laughed and showed her the right way to spell it. Mum never replied to the letter and Franny wondered if Penny had even posted it.

The first day when they’d not long arrived at Penny’s house, Mum said she’d better get going, but Penny said it would be best if she stayed. ‘To settle the little ones in,’ she said. She looked at Mum, making her eyes narrow and nodding her head slowly.

‘All right,’ Mum said. She sounded sad and tired and Franny wanted to give her a hug but when she wasn’t feeling right she pushed the children away if they come too close.

Franny and Toby drank a big mug full of milk each and ate lots of scones and afterwards Penny said they could go out and explore but not to go beyond the fence. ‘That swing,’ she said pointing to a tree with a rope dangling from it tied to an old tyre. ‘Your Dad used to play on that for hours at a time. I got one of the men to fix it when your Mum asked if you could come and stay for a bit.’
When they came back Mum and Penny were sitting on the deck with cans of beer, Penny in her chair and Mum cross-legged next to her.

‘You know Jake will visit, Tessa, don’t you?’ Franny heard Penny say. Jake was the children’s Dad’s name and when Franny heard it something inside her fizzled like a firework starting.
‘Can’t stop him, can I? In any case he can see them as long as I’m not around,’ Mum said and the firework inside Franny went bang, bang, bang as if all its colours and light were exploding out.
Later in their new bedroom with Toby making his snuffling sleeping noises, Franny thought about Dad and how maybe they would live with him again soon.

Mum left the next morning. Franny could see she’d started to cry after she’d said goodbye to them. She squeezed Franny so tight she could hardly breathe. Toby’s face looked so pale it was almost white. He sat on the deck and watched her car driving away until it was the size of an insect. Even after it disappeared he kept on staring.

At first, when he got up in the morning he would say today could be the day Mum came back, but as time passed he stopped; just looked out of the bedroom window as if he hoped to see her driving up the road.

The first time Dad visited Toby ran away and hid behind the shed and even after Dad had found him, he wouldn’t talk to him. But after a while he began to get excited when it was time for Dad to visit. On Toby’s birthday Dad brought him a train set and a toy rescue truck that made a loud noise and had a flashing light. Nothing came from Mum. The children haven’t heard from her since they’d moved in with Penny. When Franny asked her when Mum would be coming to fetch her and Toby she said, ‘Don’t hold your breath,’ which Franny knew meant probably never. She’d kind of suspected Mum would be gone for a long time anyway, and she went and swung on the tyre until the sun started to set and Penny called to her to come in for tea. Franny ran water from the outside tap and washed her face because she didn’t want anyone to notice the tears.

So Penny looks after Franny and Toby but Dad comes every other weekend and he brings them treats, and cuddles Franny as if he never wants to let her go. Although Toby likes his visits and even lets him pick him up and hug him, Franny knows he still misses Mum. Sometimes he calls for in the night when he’s sleeping and he often asks about her, but Penny just shakes her head and lights her cigar, saying nothing.

‘If Dad can come back, so can Mum,’ he said to Franny last Sunday as they stood by the gate waving and waving as Dad drove away. Franny didn’t tell him most likely they’d not see Mum again. She knew he could not bear it and she didn’t want to make him sadder than he already was.