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‘Dear Child,’ by Romy Hausmann: An Excerpt

[ Return to the column on “Dear Child.” ]

Sister Ruth takes a tissue from the pocket of her apron because she thinks I’m crying. Because of the hole in my tights or because of Mama. I don’t tell her it’s actually because I’m blinded by the harsh light from the fluorescent tube on the ceiling. I just say, “Thank you, that’s very considerate.” You always have to be polite. You always have to say please and thank you. My brother and I always say thank you when Mama gives us a cereal bar, even though we can’t stand cereal bars. We don’t like the taste. But they’re important because of the vitamins. Calcium and potassium and magnesium and Vitamin B for the digestion and blood formation. We eat three of them every day unless we’ve run out. Then we have to hope Papa comes home soon and has been shopping on the way.

I take the tissue, dab my eyes, blow my nose, then give it back to Sister Ruth. You mustn’t keep anything that doesn’t belong to you. That’s stealing. Sister Ruth laughs and puts the tissue back in her apron. Of course I ask her about Mama, but all Sister Ruth says is: “She’s in the best hands.” I know that’s not a proper answer, I’m not stupid.

“When can I see her?” I ask, but don’t get an answer to that either.

Instead Sister Ruth says that she’s going to take me to the staffroom to see whether there’s a pair of slippers I could wear. Jonathan and I have to wear slippers at home too because the floor is very cold, but mostly we forget and our tights get dirty. Then Mama gets cross because it’s not washing day, and Papa gets cross because Mama hasn’t cleaned the floor properly. Cleanliness is important.

The staffroom is big, at least fifty paces from the door to the wall opposite. In the middle are three tables, each of which has four chairs arranged around it. Three fours are twelve. One of the chairs isn’t straight. Someone must have been sitting there and not tidied up when they left. I hope they got into trouble. Because tidiness is important too. The left-hand wall of the room is filled with a metal cupboard with lots of individual lockable compartments, but there are keys sticking out of almost all of them. There’s also a loft bed, which is metal too. Straight ahead are two windows. I can see the night through them. The night is black and there aren’t any stars. To the right is a kitchen unit. There’s even a kettle out on the work surface. Hot water can be very dangerous. Skin burns at one hundred thirteen degrees. At one hundred forty degrees the protein in the skin cells congeals and the cells die off. The water inside a kettle is heated to two hundred twelve degrees. We’ve got a kettle at home too, but we keep it locked away.

“Why don’t you sit down?” Sister Ruth says.

Three fours are twelve. Twelve chairs. I have to think, but I’m distracted by the black night without any stars beyond the windows.

Concentrate, Hannah.

Sister Ruth goes to the cupboard, opens one compartment after another, then closes it again. She says “hmm” a few times, drawing it out, and the metal doors clatter. Looking over her shoulder, she says again, “Come on, child, sit down.”

First I think I ought to go for the chair that’s not straight. But that wouldn’t be right. Everyone needs to tidy up after themselves. Take responsibility. You’re a big girl, Hannah. I nod at nothing in particular and count to myself, eenie, meenie, miney, mo. There’s one chair left over, which would give me a good view of the door and which I’ll put back neatly later when Sister Ruth tells me the time to sit down is over.

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