Everyone thought she had freckles until someone from the church dragged her in off the street and gave her a bath.
Lopsided Lola they called her afterwards.
She had run from the house all fish-belly naked, her fat-girl tits uneven and puffy against the hideous bulge of her raised-on-TV stomach.
Clothed only in shame and anger, Lola ran from the house and its dusty street lined with children who owned books, toys and functioning parents. The children chanting “Lopsided Lola, Lopsided Lola” to the same tune they had used to tease her her whole life. It was only the words that ever changed.
Running from the street, Lola realised she couldn’t go home naked. If she went home without clothes, there would be nothing for her stepdad to make her take off, hurry up, before that bitch comes home with the milk.
Instead of going home, Lola hid in the park next to the river, moving from ditch to ditch as families walked dogs, threw Frisbees and laughed in the sun.
When darkness had surrounded her, she returned to that house, to the street whose children were now safe and full on the other side of all those windows leaking out warm, glowing light.
Pulling sticks from her hair, she crept to the church lady’s door. A fat, grubby fist knocked twice before returning to its customary place clenched at her side. Nervously, she used her arms to try to hide her body, thinking that if she wasn’t so fat, it would actually be possible to do so. Knowing that if she wasn’t so fat, people wouldn’t mind so much anyway.
The door opened and happy hallway light spilled out, bathing her. The scent of meat and the kitchen-hum of a woman reached out to her, while a shocked and Proper husband glared down at her from the doorway.
“Where are your clothes, child? You can’t walk around naked! Where are your parents?” he demanded in a fluster, searching the street behind her.
“I knew she’d come back!” came the church lady’s voice, followed by the clash and clang of heavy dishes being hastily dropped onto a table.
“Don’t make her stand out there where all the neighbours can see! Bring her inside, Harold!” chided the church lady, wiping her hands on an apron tied around her waist.
Lola simply stared blankly as Harold moved aside to let her into the house.
Life had been easier when she was just “that fat little Biggs girl. You know, that family that lives at the Morrell farm”.
Lola was never introduced, merely explained, and that explanation was always followed with a clucking of a tongue, the shaking of a head, or the wrinkle of a disgusted nose.
She had developed a hard callous around her feelings in the mere eleven years she’d spent in this world. She had grown accustomed to the names people called her, or the way they only saw her when they wanted someone to feel their anger. Lola knew she wasn’t part of their world, she had her own place, on the outskirts, with the rest of her family, yet separate to them simply by being “too young to know any better”.
Now this church lady has started telling people to treat her nice and Lola can see they don’t want to.
“Why don’t people like that just do us all a favour and move away into one, big, loser town? That way we’ll only have one place to avoid!” they had joked the day her mother had driven the car into the side of the bank.
Nobody stopped to help her mother that day. Nobody rushed over to her, like Lola had seen on movies. Everyone just stood back and shook their heads at her. Some laughed while most tried desperately to look anywhere but at the crumpled car and the woman with the broken mind who had crumpled it.
“Now look at her, shrieking at everyone for laughing. That kid’s got no hope.”
That kid believed them still, which is why, when the church lady and her husband ushered her into their orderly, neat living room, she stood petrified, her entire body radiating tension. This was not her place.
“Is she deaf?” asked the husband.
“No, dear” replied the wife, handing Lola her own underpants, freshly laundered.
“Well, mute then? She doesn’t speak!” he pushed.
“Well, you’re speaking enough for all of us, so it doesn’t really matter, does it?” she admonished sharply, the cold set of her eyes saying more to her husband than any words ever could.
“Cup of tea”, he announced, clearing his throat and leaving the room.
“Lola, I have the rest of your clothes here. They’re washed now” the church lady said, gently holding the clothes towards the grubby little girl standing in her living room.
“Now, you’re welcome to come here whenever you want to, Lola. You don’t have to come here if you don’t want to, but you’re always welcome. I like to do my garden through the day. It would be nice to have someone else to talk to while I do it” said the church lady.
“What’s your name?” Lola asked, still staring blankly ahead.
“I’m Mrs Wells, but my friends call me Harriet. You can call me Harriet too”, she offered.
“If I come, will I have to talk to anyone else?” Lola asked.
“You don’t ever have to do anything you don’t want to, Lola. Not just at my house, but anywhere. Do you understand?” Harriet asked, kneeling on the floor to force Lola to look at her.
“Nothing you don’t want to do. I’m sorry if the bath scared you today. I wanted to make you feel better, not worse” she continued.
“I put dirtfeet on the floor” Lola mumbled.
“What do you mean?” asked Harriet.
“The water was hot so I got back out, and I put dirtfeet on the floor and the towel. I wouldda got in trouble so I ran away” Lola finished, absentmindedly picking at a scab on her right thigh.
“Oh, dear. That’s nothing to worry about, those things can be cleaned right up!” smiled Harriet.
“You should see the mess Harold makes when he has been fixing the motor on the car. He puts dirtfingers everywhere!” she continued.
Lola’s eyes widened in shock. Mrs Harriet was smiling. When her stepdad put dirtfingers everywhere, her mother would shout and he’d call her names and tell her it didn’t matter anyway because the whole house was dirt because she hadn’t done any housework since alcohol was invented. After that, there would only be bread for dinner because her mother had taken her whiskey to bed and her stepdad was watching TV.
“Pop your clothes on and I’ll make you a plate. Do you want to call your family?” Harriet asked.
Lola shook her head. It was dark now. Her stepdad would be away at the bar and her mum doesn’t remember she’s there most of the time anyway.
Harold tried to make small-talk with Lola, uneasy in the silence that had descended on his dinner table. When Lola gave no response, Harriet would fill in the blanks, always finishing with an “isn’t that right, Lola?”
Lola would nod, or shake her head, but didn’t expand or provide alternative explanations. She sat at the table, her dirty arms hovering awkwardly above the tablecloth in an attempt to keep it clean.
When their meal was finished, Harold collected their plates.
“That’s what I like to see in a growing girl! A good appreciation of food!” he smiled down at Lola.
“You don’t by any chance also appreciate ice-cream, do you?” he asked, wiggling his greying eyebrows at her.
Despite herself, Lola giggled and nodded to him.
“Then that will be two bowls of ice-cream coming up! Harriet, who I secretly suspect of being a spy, says she doesn’t like ice-cream. Which is exactly why I think she is a spy!” he whispered conspiratorially to Lola.
“Spies have excellent hearing, Harold” Harriet said from beneath her arched eyebrows.
“I’m done for!” he shouted, dramatically dumping the dishes into the sink and hurrying out the door.
Lola turned to Harriet, caught between fear and laughter.
“What happened to him? Are you really a spy?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Not at all, dear. Harold went to the bathroom. He just thinks it’s funny to stay in character as he does things” Harriet explained.
“Ink arakter?” Lola asked.
“Like in a movie. The person you see on screen isn’t really a pirate or a bank robber. It is a person playing the character of a pirate. Harold was playing the character of a man who suspects his wife is a spy, and he just got caught and needed to run away.” she said.
“To put it more simply, Lola, Harold is a big, silly idiot.” she laughed.
Lola laughed too. She didn’t think Proper grown ups said idiot. Especially not church ones.
“Psst! Lola!” came a whisper from the doorway.
She turned toward the sound as Harold’s balding head peeked around the corner. He motioned for her to go over there.
She looked at Harriet, who just smiled and rolled her eyes.
Grinning, she stepped down from the chair and tiptoed over to the doorway.
“Who is it?” she shout-whispered.
“It’s me, Harold The Brave. Is that crazy spy lady still in there? Is the coast clear? Is it a safe time for ice-cream?” he asked, his head darting from side to side, checking that nobody was hiding in any other rooms.
“Mrs Harriet is still in there” Lola whispered.
“Harold, stop being an idiot and come and get the child some ice-cream”, Harriet sighed from the table.
“Curses! Lola! She heard us! I think she’s more than a spy. I think she’s a witch! Tomorrow, when you come back to visit, we will try to find her flying broomstick! I tried to fly on the one she sweeps the porch with, but that must be a fake! All I did was land on my bottom in the garden!” he told her, grimacing in remembered pain.
“Let’s pretend we don’t know anything about her being a witch. We’ll go in there and get some ice-cream and then tomorrow… tomorrow we’ll show her all the proof we need!” he enthused, taking her hand and leading her into the kitchen.
“Spies on that side of the table. Ice-cream enjoyers on this side”, he said, picking up the ice-cream scoop and waving it menacingly at Harriet.
“… and idiots get to sleep outside with the dog”, Harriet replied, folding her arms across her chest.
Lola was enjoying every minute of their pantomime.
After her bowl of ice-cream, Harold offered to drive her home.
At the look of disappointment on Lola’s face, Harriet reminded her that she was welcome to visit whenever she wanted to, and that she would really love a friend to talk to when she was in her garden.
As Harold and Lola walked to the car, she waved goodbye from the porch.
“Wait! I forgot!” Lola shouted, running back to Harriet.
“Am I allowed to call you Harry?” she asked.
“Uh, wha- sure you can, dear” came the confused reply.
“You said that your friends call you Harriet and I can too if I like, but you are Harriet and he is Harold and so you are both Harry. You can be Mrs Harry and he can be Mr”, Lola explained.
“Lola, I would be delighted if you called me Mrs Harry” Harriet laughed.
“Okay, good!” Lola said, and ran back to the car Harold had started.
“She said I can call you Mr and Mrs Harry”, she explained as she clambered onto the front seat, slamming the door behind her.
“Between you and me, I think you should call her ‘Mrs Hairy’!” Harold said, turning the car onto the road.
Lola laughed most of the way home, until the streetlights began to grow thinner, and home began to grow closer.
When they reached the long driveway of the farm, Harold went to turn in.
“Mr Harry, I want to walk the rest of the way. The car will make mum wake up”, she said.
Harold nodded, knowing that the real reluctance came from her fear that her family would try to destroy the small bubble of happiness she had just discovered. He and Harriet would need to speak to her parents if she was to spend time in their home.
“Don’t forget, Lola. I need you. Nobody else can help me find Mrs Hairy’s flying broomstick!” he reminded her.
Lola laughed again.
“Don’t call her Mrs Hairy, Mr Harry! She’ll put you in trouble and then I’ll have to undo the spell!”
She darted up the driveway and Harold turned the car towards home.
A long time later, his key turned in the front door and he found Harriet in the living room, a pot of tea ready on the coffee table.
“I’ve seen her around, you know? Without ever ‘seeing’ her. All I saw was her family name, her fat, grubby stomach always poking out of shirts and shorts that should have gone to goodwill months before.” He said, sadly, taking his chair next to the fireplace.
“We always say that there’s no helping people like that. They don’t want any help, they just spit it back in your face” he continued, picking up the teapot and filling his cup.
“What I’ve learned tonight is that part of what makes them who they are, is us. Our attitudes, our instinctive reaction to their appearance or the rough way they speak. They don’t want our help because it is never genuinely offered. It is only offered as a means to make us more comfortable with them, not to make them more comfortable in themselves” He paused then, reluctant to put his next thought into words.
“That girl has more reason to hate us, than we’ve ever had to hate her, and yet, she doesn’t. We are the freaks and monsters in this town, Harriet. We who sit on high, judging everyone else who walk below us, and yet it’s only in our own minds that we have placed a distinction between them and us. All Lola wanted was acceptance, to be included in something, wanted somewhere. When I look back at my own life, that’s all I’ve ever wanted, too.”
When he didn’t continue, Harriet spoke.
“Lola isn’t full of hatred yet. But she will be. As the years go by and her treatment remains the same, Lola will learn to hate. Lola will become her mother, or her stepfather. She will become her uncle who beats the prostitute from the roadhouse every payday. Or she’ll become her sister who is the prostitute at the roadhouse because she will grow up believing that she deserves no better.”
“For tonight at least, Lola discovered that she is wanted somewhere, even if it’s with old Mr and Mrs Harry”, she finished, glumly.
“Hairy. You’re now Mrs Hairy”, Harold corrected, his sparkling eyes grinning at her over the rim of his teacup.