The Replacement

This is a short story I wrote three years ago as a submission for the course ‘Writing Prose Fiction’ led by Pamela Ross at the University of Glasgow. I’ve been considering rewriting the beginning and ending to take account of the feedback I received, but I have instead decided to present it as originally submitted. After the story I discuss the feedback and my response to it.

Susan loved mornings. She didn’t get shouted at, she had clean clothes every day and she even got to eat breakfast.

She missed her mummy. She was supposed to. People kept telling her, ‘you must miss your mother’. So she did, but she was never sure why. She knew she wanted to be hugged by her mummy, she always had, even when she lived with her. But she couldn’t remember ever being hugged. Nana hugged her every day. Even Pop-pop hugged her and he smelled of mint. All the time!

Susan was awake. A gentle breeze came through the unicorn curtains and tickled her nose while the sun danced on the floor under the window. She had always woken early because mummy had too much to do to constantly chase after her. She still woke up early, but now she was waiting for Nana to come up the stairs. Her door opened slowly and she held her eyes shut tight.

‘Are you not awake yet?’ Nana said with a friendly lilting voice, as soft and warm as her duvet.

Susan said nothing. Didn’t move.

Nana moved silently towards her bed. ‘Oh we can’t have this, now can we?’ brief panic chilled her blood before she realised there was no threat in the words and … Susan giggled and wriggled as Nana’s bony fingers tickled her through the duvet.

‘I’m awake I’m awake I’m awake!’ Susan squealed between sharp breaths of joy.

Nana stopped, sat on the edge of the bed and allowed Susan to sit up grinning. ‘Pop-pop will walk you to school today. I need to get things ready for later.’

‘What’s happening later?’

‘You’ll see when you come home from school,’ Nana winked and leaned in slightly, ‘but if you don’t get up right now you won’t get to school and then you’ll never find out!’

Susan pulled her knees up to her head, swung her legs past Nana and raced to the bathroom to wash. A few minutes later she was dressed and running down the stairs to get breakfast.

Pop-pop came into the kitchen carrying her pink backpack. ‘I can carry that,’ she took it from him and it smelled of mint. She did like pink, but she also liked yellow and blue. Sometimes she even liked red, but only if it was really bright red. Never ever green, she wasn’t a tree.

Racing Pop-pop out the door, she waited for him to catch up before closing it carefully.

* * *

Susan raced Emily and Suravi through the playground to the gates where all the parents lined up like guards outside a palace. She couldn’t see Nana, maybe she was still getting things ready. She looked for Pop-pop, but couldn’t see his tweed hat bobbing behind all the mothers. She stopped, unable to move, her breathing becoming shallow. SHE was there. Why was she there? She had taken her away from her mummy and given her to Nana and Pop-pop. She didn’t want to be taken away again.

‘Hello Susan. Do you remember me? I’m Alice, your social worker.’

Susan nodded, unable to speak or move.

‘The McPhersons needed to stay home this afternoon, so I thought it would be lovely to come and say hello to you again. We could have a little chat. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

‘Are you taking me away again?’ Susan’s voice wavered like marsh reeds in a gentle breeze.

‘What? No! No, not at all. We’re very happy you’re with the McPhersons now. Shall we walk back to their house? We can chat as we go.’

Susan didn’t take the outstretched hand, instead walking decisively out the gate and turning right to say she wasn’t going anywhere other than home.

‘Now you know you’re not the first little girl the McPhersons have fostered, don’t you?’

Susan nodded, barely, keeping her eyes fixed on the pavement towards home.

‘Well, this afternoon I took them a little boy who really needs their help, just like you did a few weeks ago. He’s only two and he’s been very upset. Do you remember how you felt when you first met them? Well, he’s going to be staying there for a while until we find somewhere else for him. Won’t that be nice for you? It should only be a month or so. Won’t you enjoy having a little brother for a while? I think you’re really going to get on great when you meet him. Perhaps you could do some colouring in with him?’

She kept talking but Susan was staring straight ahead, refusing to allow the tears to come out. She wouldn’t be taken away again, she wouldn’t.

They reached her home. Susan opened her door and ran straight up her stairs, into her room and into her bed. She pulled her duvet over her head and felt her pillow become wet.

* * *

Susan didn’t hear her door opening, but suddenly Nana was sitting on the edge of her bed, stroking her hair. Susan turned away.

‘My, you must have been very tired going straight to bed like that. You didn’t even come in to say hello or have tea.’

Susan didn’t move.

‘There’s plenty of food left. I can heat some up for you, if you’d like?’

Susan began to relax. She was feeling quite hungry now she thought about it. She turned over slowly and reached up for a hug. ‘I don’t want to go away. I want to stay with you and Pop-pop,’ Susan said, her face buried in Nana’s chest.

‘You’re not going anywhere, silly. We’re just going to be looking after David for a few weeks until Alice finds someone else to look after him. Come on, I’ll go heat some food.’

Susan didn’t want to share Nana and Pop-pop with anyone. They were hers. Now she was silly. She’d never been silly before. She’d always been petal or angel. And she’d been with Nana and Pop-pop for a few weeks already. What if Alice gave her to someone else, too?

Drying her cheeks on her sleeves, Susan stomped down the stairs and sat at the kitchen table. She didn’t see David. She looked out the corner of her eye into the lounge, but still couldn’t see him.

‘David has gone to bed,’ Nana said and Susan wondered if she could read her mind, ‘he was upset earlier and needed to rest.’

Susan began to eat.

‘You can meet him in the morning. I’m sure you’ll both get on.’

Susan finished eating and went to sit with Pop-pop and watch TV. She didn’t pay much attention. She knew she was silly and that Pop-pop just wanted to watch TV.

After a while Nana told her it was time for bed, so she made sure she got washed and brushed her teeth carefully. Then she got changed and sank into her bed, with the light on. A moment later she heard Nana’s footsteps on the stairs and saw her door begin to open. Then she heard a noise and the door stopped, only half open. Then another noise. Susan couldn’t work out what it was, but it sounded like muffled crying. The door opened fully and Nana’s head appeared round it. Susan waited for her hug.

‘I need to go see if David is alright. Good night pet, sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning,’ the light was turned off and the shadows lengthened as the door closed again.

She heard Nana’s footsteps move down the hallway and into the next room. Her muffled voice soothing someone else.

Susan was alone. She turned against the wall and felt her pillow become wet.

* * *

Susan was awake. She listened to the rhythm of rain landing gently on her windows. The unicorns were still asleep. She heard Nana come up the stairs, pass her door and go into the room beside her. Susan got out of bed and went to the bathroom to wash.

‘You got up early this morning,’ Nana was coming out her room as she returned from the bathroom. ‘I’ve laid out a new dress for you. I thought you’d like to look nice for meeting David. He’s already downstairs, in the kitchen. Perhaps we could go to a museum later. Would you like that?’

‘But we always go to the park on Saturday.’

‘It’s going to be raining all day love. The museum will be dry and warm for us. Come down once you’re dressed, I’ll have breakfast on the table.’

Susan went into her room and stopped. The dress was green. She stood half in the door, looking at it.

‘What’s up love?’

‘The dress is...’ she couldn’t bring herself to say it. She knew she was silly.

‘It’s alright Susan, the dress will fit you. I made sure I got the right size. Now, I’ve got so much to do before we leave, I’ll go make breakfast.’

Susan felt as though a thousand caterpillars were moving over her skin. Nana had too much to do to constantly chase after her. She put the dress on, trying not to look at it.

As soon as Susan walked into the kitchen she saw David. She didn’t like him. She sat across from him, trying not to look at her dress.

‘That’s breakfast out the way. Shall we go to the museum now?’

David made some sort of noise. He couldn’t even speak properly. Susan nodded. She wanted to go to the park.

Pop-pop walked in, keys jangling, ‘Right, I’ll go get the car out the garage.’ They were going to the museum whatever she’d said. In her green dress.

* * *

Susan stared at the clock. It was a nice clock. Old, so tall she could barely see the top and the rhythm was soothing. Pop-pop was saying something about mahogany and mechanisms, but Susan was only listening to the slightly uneven swing of the pendulum.

David had made odd noises, half-speech, all the time they were in the car. Nana kept replying to him as though he were making sense. He wasn’t. Nana kept telling Susan what David was wanting to look at. He wasn’t. She didn’t care anyway.

‘Susan, look, David wants to see the clock too!’ he didn’t and she didn’t want him to.

‘Are there more clocks?’

‘There’s a whole display of them just round the corner,’ Pop-pop pointed to the far end of the long narrow room which seemed to continue to the left.

Susan walked purposefully away from David to the end of the room. The clocks may be nice, too.

‘Don’t go too far,’ Pop-pop said, putting another mint in his mouth, ‘we’ll be along just behind you.’

Susan rounded the corner, realised there were too many clocks to care about and that the end of the room returned to the entrance hall of the museum. She leaned against the wall for a moment then, dropping her right shoulder slightly, peered round the corner. Nana was giving David a hug. A really big hug. The sort that belonged to her.

Susan felt her cheeks become wet. Nana had too much to do to constantly chase after her. She was silly, she knew, but she was alone, in her green dress. And she hated mint.

She pushed herself away from the wall, away from Nana and Pop-pop, especially away from David, turned towards the end of the room and walked steadily into the entrance hall. Out the main doors, across the courtyard with the rain making her cheeks even wetter and stopped at the traffic lights. The green man screamed at her to cross and she continued along the pavement for a short while until she came to the entrance of a park. Pausing only briefly to look behind her, she walked into the park.

My tutor’s feedback began “This is an accomplished short story.”, though to be fair, she was very supportive so I’ve added on “for a complete beginner” in my head. So that’s the fluffy stuff out the way, on to the criticism.

“The characterisation of Susan at the start is very sweet…” and continues to suggest I cut back a little, making the situation less idyllic while retaining a sense of her happiness and security. I agree. If I was to rewrite the start I would attempt to follow this advice without reservation.

“The ending is a little disappointing as it feels there is more to come, especially as the narrative contains tension that makes the reader expect a more impactful event/ending.” This one I initially has a little more difficulty with but, after some reflection, I don’t disagree with this either. However, you may note I said “I don’t disagree”, rather than “I agree”. Let’s see if I can explain where I see the difference.

In terms of writing a punchy story, which this probably should have been, then I agree fully and if I was to rewrite the ending it would likely involve Susan stepping into the street with an oncoming vehicle rapidly approaching and Pop-pop (did it annoy you to read that term as much as it annoyed me to write it?) grabbing her to safety, with subsequent reassurances that Susan would always be loved etc.

Unfortunately this just isn’t the way I think. The story was about a girl who’s been rejected and replaced numerous times in her short life and has finally found a safe and nurturing home. In this situation it is her reaction to discovering there’s going to be a new infant in “her” home along with her perception that Nana no longer has time for her that triggers her increasing withdrawal from her foster parents. The ending is a metaphor for her final closing off and retreat to self-protection. After all, the likelihood is that a small girl alone in a public park would fairly quickly (I hope) find someone making sure she was okay and taking her somewhere so she could be reunited with her foster parents. That doesn’t matter to me, it’s obvious and predictable. I find it far more interesting to explore how the situation could affect the way she thinks about her foster parents and herself. At the same time, I realise this makes it a less interesting story to read … which has, ever since, left me wondering how to fuse my preferences with the need for an engaging story.