Da loved her in the morning. He’d call her Yule mathom on account of her red hair and green eyes and he’d toss her so her head nearly hit the crumbling sod of the roof. She’d squeal and laugh and do anything to keep him from leaving to go cut his peat. She’d delay him with presents and smiles, and she’d try to sneak into his backpack with his lunch. She’d pester until Ma swatted her and told her to go watch Baby Amber, then Verdi reminded her that Jade was the baby now, and when she turned around, Happy Pa was gone.
Day was a long wait with Ma frazzled and worried and sick from the next baby coming and full diapers and crying. Verdi was oldest. It was her job to help and keep the little ones happy and out of the way. They were hungry and cried. Verdi had to be careful not to be found out when she went to sneak Mr. Holbrook’s apples. Not that he should mind when he left them to fall and rot, but he’d shout about those horrid Proudfoote youngsters and how bad plants grow from bad seed. And then Ma would spank until she couldn’t sit.
Pa never came home before sundown. The hole got quieter and quieter as it got dim, and never coin for lamp-grease. They sat at the table and looked at the food they couldn’t eat without Pa. The babies would cry and ask for a little corner filler, and Ma said no. She’d said yes before a time or two, and there was still a hole in the wall plaster from where the kettle had been thrown.
It could be any kind of Pa coming home. Sometimes it was Jolly Boasting Pa talking about his winnings and his friends while Ma looked worried and angry. Verdi liked that Pa. He’d hold her and tell her about all the dolls she’d have when he went to market that weekend. Sometimes, Tired Pa came in. You didn’t talk to Tired Pa or he’d snap. Shout.
Those weren’t bad. There were rules, and if you stepped right, read the mood and acted accordingly, those versions of Pa wouldn’t do anything bad. He’d go to bed with Ma behind their curtain and sometimes you could hear them making the next baby. Verdi wished they’d just stop. She was sick, sick, sick of all these babies she had to mind.
Bad, now. That was the Pa who came home smelling sour. Old sweat sometimes, or if he’d been gone a few days, sickly sweet like rotting flowers. That Pa was what folk called ‘ornery.’ He’d find out everything everyone had done wrong, and he’d make ’em pay. If Ma spent too much on groceries or he didn’t like the food, say. Or if he thought it was too messy and what did Ma do at home all day anyhow? And Ma never just shut up. She’d say how she’d not be in a mess if he didn’t keep making babies with her, and how he ought to be providing more. And he’d shout about his pay, and she’d shout about the drinking, and then they’d throw things and yell and Verdi had to get the little ones to go outside and play. Sometimes the moon would be up as their wool-wrapped feet skidded over the icy marsh.
Once Verdi tried to bring back the Happy Pa on an Ornery night. She got between him and Ma and tried to show him the doll she’d made out of reeds, or the cipher she did like Bertie Boffin showed her. Surely Pa loved her. He’d stop being ornery and be fun again. But he’d always take it wrong. Didn’t she trust him to buy her a proper doll? He could have, if Ma didn’t keep wasting coin. Who was Bertie? Why was his daughter playing with boys? Boys were dirty and she’d end up like her Ma, sure’s rain falls.
Pa didn’t hit her as often as Ma, but when he did, she’d be hurt for days. She’d have bruises she had to lie about so people didn’t say more bad things about her folks. Any little thing might earn a whupping. She hadn’t been minding her Ma. She left her toy on the roof. She forgot to shut the chicken coop door. He’d shout and tell her how bad she was, how stupid she’d been, how wicked. She’d take it for herself, and she’d make him think that she’d done everything bad the little ones had done too. It was her job to take care of them. She had to do her job, or she’d get more thrashings.
Once, her arm didn’t work after she fell funny on it, and they had to pay someone to set it. She said she’d fallen out of a tree, and Pa made her work for the doctor to pay it off. Old Gaffer Patterson was kind and gentle and let her use his books and do his sums. She liked sums. You could always tell how they’d work out and they were so clean, so easy, so pure and neat and perfect. She’d beg for more to do when she ran out of ledgers, and he’d make up problems. First, he did it to keep her quiet. Then, he did it to see what she’d do. One Yule, he gave her her first book – a handsome tome called “Beginning Algebra.”
She hugged him and squealed and ran circles around the office until he sent her home. She was so happy she forgot to check and see which Pa came home that night, running up to him to say, “See, Pa? I worked sae well he gave me me own book! Me very own book, Pa!”
His face turned dark and she knew she’d done wrong. He grabbed the book from her numb hands and hit her with it, saying, “Ye stoled it! Ye stoled it, didn’t you? Ye stole it like a li’l thief!”
She saw her error too late, but tried her best to fix it. “No, Pa. It be a present. On account o’ Yule! Ye can ask ‘im.”
“Who do he think he is? He’s tryin’ t’ make me look bad, knowin’ I cannae afford presents fer th’ rest of ’em.”
She hated the sob choking at her throat. She sounded scared, and small, and a little like Ma. “No, Pa. He donna, Pa. ‘E said tha’ I were a great ‘elp an’ I hae a head fer cipherin’ tha’ could go places. I thought ye’d be proud.”
“Proud? O wha’? Cook a decent pancake like a normal girl an’ I’ll call meself proud. Donna talk back with that sass mouth o’ your’n an’ mind yer place so ye can marry a lad to take ye offa me hands! Who wants a cipherin’ lass? Ye think ye be better’n us, don’t ye? Embarrassed o’ your own kin.”
He hit her again, with the spine this time, hard into her eye. His muscles formed from long days digging peat made for a stunning blow so hard she didn’t feel the pain at first – just the shock. She crashed into the table and he hit her again across the shoulder. She cowered as Ma just watched helplessly from her three-legged chair propped up on scrap brick. And then, the book hit the hearth. She gasped, but didn’t dare go for it. Ma had it right. When the shouting starts, you don’t talk. You duck. Her treasure crackled and hissed in the sullen peat fire. She couldn’t let herself cry loudly. He’d hit her for that too.
The next morning, Happy Pa patted her on her curls, but this time, she flinched. His expression fell, and he held out a hand, saying, “Ah, lass. Dinnae sulk now, tha’s me Yule mathom. I tell ye wha. I’ll go an’ get ye a doll. How’s that, eh? A pretty doll wi’ a Dwalingwork face.”
Her heart swelled with relief. Pa loved her, really. He did. He’d get her a doll. But there was her poor book, just the center pages now that she’d hidden under her pallet of rags. But she couldn’t lose that love. “I’d be chuffed, Pa. I love ye, Pa.”
After, she sat inside minding the babies. Pearl had a cough and Amber kept hitting Jade. Ma just stared out the window as she listlessly folded the wash she took in.
“Verdi-mine?” She said, sounding odd. Solemn.
“He didnae know what he were about. Ye know that? It’s just the drink. He didn’t mean it.”
She nodded, trouble tugging at her heart that she couldn’t quite name. “Ma?”
“If drink makes ‘im angry, why’d ye marry ‘im?”
Her mother was quiet for a very long time, so long that Verdi edged away from the possibility of another blow. At last she whispered, “I love ‘im. When ye be older, ye’ll understand. Ye donna pick who ye love.”
Stubbornly, Verdi murmured to herself, “But ye do pick who ye marry.”
The Dwaling doll never came.