“The Ugly Duckling” by Judith Pickle

Mam’s foot worked the sewing machine treadle as if she was in a race. Face scrunched in concentration, she coerced bright strips of material under the hopping needle. She said sewing helped her think, but as long as she’d been at it, she could have found the cure for polio. By the time she’d finished, the floor was covered in scraps of flowery prints and paisley which were so pretty I pinned them onto my clothes and pretended it was Cinderella’s ball gown. That’s when I thought about putting on a play.

Mam’s eyes narrowed when I asked for the scraps. No doubt she was remembering my last scheme of making perfume with water and Rose petals. After a few weeks the house stunk so badly everyone thought there was a corpse in the closet.

She made a snorting sound when I told her I was going to direct a play and become rich so I tromped out of the room in a huff. I would do it without her scraps. But where would I find actors?

Stephen was crouching behind the house trying to light one of Dad’s cigarette stubs.

“Want a role in my play,” I said, trying to make it sound as if it would be the adventure of a lifetime. He told me to get stuffed then turned his back against the wind. “You can have the head off the chocolate rabbit I saved from
Easter,” I said.

He stopped drawing on the end of the soggy stub. “Fine, but only if me friend Clive can be in it as well.”

I agreed, but reluctantly. Clive was pixie small and had such a bad stutter you had to have an hour to spare when you asked him a simple question.

Wally was hanging upside down by his knees in a tree. He dismounted with a backwards flip when I told him my plans. “Can we do the Ugly Duckling?” he said, his wild bush baby eyes skittering back and forth like pin balls.

Further down the street, Alma was sitting on her garden wall. Her friend, Edith was next to her, slouched with attitude. She’d hated me ever since we played hopscotch and I’d mistakenly handed her a piece of white dog poo instead of chalk.

Edith looked up at me beneath her crooked fringe as if I’d interrupted something very important. I noticed the hint of blue swelling underneath her eye and wondered if her Dad was up to his drunken ways again.

“A play?” she said with a harsh laugh. “You couldn’t direct you own hand to your arse.”

“Forget it,” I said, wondering how she got so good at saying hurtful things. “I can only use people who are gifted and talented, anyway.”

Alma took a wad of bubblegum out of her mouth and raised her hand.

“I’m talented.”

“Traitor,” Edith said, and stomped off.

Feeling very pleased, I continue past Wendy’s house. She was on her doorstep rocking back and forth like she had a stomach ache. She saw me and grinned. Her teeth were so bucked and widely spaced she could have eaten apples through a picket fence. Too bad she was simple or I’d ask her. Then, like a mole out of a hole, an idea popped up.

“Want to be in my play?” I said.

She furrowed her brows and looked up at the sky for the answer until a pair of humping dogs in the middle of the road brought her back to the moment. “Alright,” she finally said, then picked her nose as if it was a contest.

The cast gathered in the garden. Edith showed up, but insisted it was just to keep her friend company. I played them Danny Kaye’s version of the story on my toy gramophone, but the batteries were flat and Wally had to help out by singing over the drunken warble. “There once was an ugly duckling, with feather all grubby and brown. The other birds in so many words said quack get out of town…”

Stephen rubbed his chin and fretted that he couldn’t sing or dance. “But I could kick the shit out of the ugly duckling,” he said.

Clive jumped up and down with excitement. “And I c-can spit tu-tu–ten feet.”

“Fine,” I said. “You two can be the duck bullies.”

I looked over to Wendy, who was plucking hairs out of her forearm. “You will have the lead role as the ugly duckling.” I said. She looked so grateful I blushed.

When I asked Alma if she could dance, she rolled her eyes. “Does Pinocchio have a wooden willy?” Edith’s mouth puckered. “I wouldn’t call fannying about on your tiptoes, dancing.”

Alma insisted she could ballet dance. “I even have a tutu, want to borrow it?”

“Fine, count me in as a dancer,” Edith said.

Wally got to his feet and twirled on his tip toes, arms above his head. “I’m going to be the beautiful swan.”

We all roared until our bellies hurt.

“Be serious, Wally.” I said

He tossed his head back, wounded. “You haven’t even let me try out,” he said, and took a graceful leap into the air. He landed without bending a blade of grass.

“Bloody hell,” Stephen said. “He’s Margot fucking Fonteyn.” Wally sat down with a tight little smile.

On the morning of the play, Mam was in a stinking mood and threatened to ground all of us. Wally had done something terrible to his sheets and as a punishment had to wear boxing gloves to bed; Stephen was caught smoking; and now Mam was pulling out my costumes from behind the settee. “What in the creation of crow shit are these?” she said, holding up a tutu of tinsel and crepe paper as if it was a pair of dirty knickers.

“It’s for my play,” I said.

She gathered everything up in a ball and threatened to chuck it out because she didn’t want me to be a laughing stock. My bottom lip quivered like a bowl of blancmange. “Poor simple Wendy will be heartbroken,” I said.

Mam huffed like the big bad wolf and threw my costumes to the floor.

“Just don’t come crying to me when you fall flat on you arse,” she said, and clumped out of the room.

I picked up the dog and swung him around. We’re all set,” I said, kissing his soft brown ears.

When kids in the street heard Wally would be dressed as a ballerina, the word spread like butter on a hot day and the line to get in was all the way around the block. Looking more like an ostrich than a swan, he stood in the wings wearing a headpiece he’d made from pigeon feathers and a tutu crafted from the remnants of the net curtains that had burnt when the chip pan caught fire. He’d even replaced his boot laces with ribbon. Strangely, he’d deflected the cruelest heckles of ‘puff’ and ‘queer’ with so much grace that even the toughest kids on the street gave up trying to shame him. A bizarre and puzzling transformation had taken place, and as I watched him sit with one leg crossed over the other so his baggy underpants wouldn’t show, I wondered if we’d ever see the old Wally again.

Stephen and Clive looked the part with cardboard beaks, feather dusters down the backs of their pants and orange water bottles strapped to their feet. Wendy, too, was perfect. I’d covered her face in black shoe polish which made her buck teeth stand out like tombstones on a moonlit night. Edith, poised and proud in her tutu, even let me wet her wild hair down with water.

The garden was packed with noisy kids eager to get their money’s worth, and against the backdrop of sheets, bloomers and bras, the play began with a dance by Alma and Edith. Whistles from the rowdy Wilson boys made them blush. Clive waddled out on cue, but tripped over his water bottled feet and set the crowd off laughing. He picked himself up and jutted his chin out. “Fu-fu-fuck you,” he said, and spat at them. The crowd scattered, and I quickly shoved the ugly duckling out for some comic relief.

Heckles turned to laughter when Wendy shuffled out, but Stephen, in a flash of thespian exuberance, kicked her too hard in the shin and made her cry. The first trickling of sweat formed in my armpits. But then Wally cavorted onto the scene with his hairy legged twirls
and toe-points and brought the crowd to its feet. To my shock, Mam followed him, marching to the rhythm of the music like a German
soldier. She was holding a large wooden ladle and her face was fish belly white. “You’re a bloody fairy,” she said to Wally.

“No, he’s a swan,” I said.

She hit me on the head with the spoon. “I don’t give a shit if he’s the Christmas goose, he’s taking that costume off.”

The crowd hissed and Mam shook her fist at them. “Watch it, or I’ll kick you all out on your arse,” she said.

The crowd shouted back, “Oh no you won’t.”

“Oh yes I bloody will,” she shouted back.

Wally placed his hands on his hips, his feet at ten and two o’ clock. “I’m going to be the beautiful swan and that’s that,” he said. His last word was a high pitched squeak.

I was flabbergasted. Our swan had shed its fear along with the ugly down.

Mam stood, hands on her hips, with an angry crowd on one side of her and a defiant Wally on the other. “Fine,” she finally said turning
on her heels. “But if I ever catch you trying my clobber on, I’ll kick your arse so hard, you’ll have shoe polish on your tonsils.”

Mam made her exit to a chorus of boos and jeers. Wally pirouetted and plied until his feathers fell off and the cast took a proud happy bow. I gave a sideways glance at my shoebox filled with sixpences and grinned. I was a success. But I couldn’t have done it without Mam’s help.