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Bonus Story

Judith Field

What can you say about an invisible childhood friend who has three arms and various helpful household implememts sticking out of its head...? Quite a lot it turns out, as you will see in Judith Field's Tickie Three Arms. Stir in a perfectly horrible day and a fairy in disguise, and you have a perfectly delightful present-day fantasy story.

Everyone needs a Tickie, because an imaginary friend in need is a friend indeed.
                                                                                              -- Judith Field

Judith Field was born in Liverpool and lives in London, UK. She writes because it’s in her DNA.  She's the daughter of writers and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother's (and father's) knee. Her short stories, mainly speculative, have appeared in a variety of publications in the USA, UK, Australia New Zealand and Canada. Her grandson inspired her first published story when he broke her laptop keyboard. Unlike in the story, a magical creature didn't come out of the laptop and fix her life.

She was Assistant Editor at Gathering Storm Magazine, and Science Fiction Editor at Red Sun Magazine.
She speaks five languages and can say "Please publish this story" in all of them. She is also a pharmacist, freelance journalist, editor, medical writer, and indexer. She was awarded an MA in Creative Writing from the Open University in 2018.


Tickie-Three-Arms

By Judith Field

 

 

I turned the key in the car’s ignition. The engine coughed. I twisted the key again. Nothing. “Sorry kids,” I said though gritted teeth. “Rainwater must’ve got into the engine, or something. We’ll have to get the bus.”  I bet the sun would be shining on our old house.

John and Lizzie dragged their school kit out of the boot, and the three of us slogged to the bus stop, squeezed under one umbrella.

We took our places at the end of the queue, far away from the shelter at the stop. Inhaling a mix of sweat and perfume, I peered out from behind the woman in front of me, trying to avoid the rain dripping off her umbrella.  The bus idled at the far end of the street, stuck behind a line of lorries and cars. Cyclists wove round the traffic in and out of the puddles, darting like gnats, splashing our legs.

John let out a scream. “In the car!”

“What have you forgotten now?” Lizzie slapped at her brother. “He’s brainless, Mum.”

“Stop it!” I pulled the children apart. “You lose things too, Lizzie.”

“That’s bad use of English,” she said, her mouth all puckered up like a cat’s bum. “You shouldn’t say I lose things. That would mean I don’t find them, and I do.”

“I know where to look too!” John aimed a kick at Lizzie. It caught me on the ankle. “In the car! We left Tickie-Three-Arms!’ he said. “We’ve got to go and get her.”

“We can’t, sweetheart, we’ll be late,” I said. And even more work would be landing in my in-box, back at home.

John’s lower lip trembled, like his voice. “But nobody else plays with me. I hate this school.”

“He’s such a baby” Lizzie snapped. “Crying over someone who doesn’t really exist. If we go back, I’ll be late. And you’ll have to write me a note saying it’s because we had to go home for my stupid brother’s imaginary friend.”

 Lizzie had settled into the new school right away.  She was tough, she could stand up for herself. Other kids respect that.  But John was different, he was my baby, he’d always been the sensitive, dreamy sort. Other kids despise that. After about two weeks at the new school, he’d first mentioned Tickie-Three-Arms.  

John let out a wail and flung his arms round my waist. People stared at us, tutting and pursing lips. I gawped back at them, my chin jutting out and eyes staring. The bus pulled up. The doors opened and the rest of the queue shoved their way inside. 

The driver sounded the horn. “You getting on, lady?”

I shook my head. Lizzie muttered “Drama queen” at John and climbed on. It’d take her all the way there. No need to change. Plenty of other kids about. She was ten, after all. It’d be OK, wouldn’t it? I pulled John to his feet and we set off for home.

 

I opened a back door of the dead car. “Mind your head, Tickie.” I made an elaborate mime, as if helping someone out.

“No, Mum, she’s in the front.”

This was the trouble with not being able to see Tickie-Three-Arms, although perhaps it was just as well I couldn’t. “She’s as tall as Dad, and an umbrella comes out of her head when it rains,” John had said. “She likes growing carrots in our garden. And flowers. It’s easy, with her extra arm.” I hadn’t dared ask where that grew from.

The car still wouldn’t start, but the rain had stopped by the time John and I set off again. It was break time when we arrived at school, and the playground was packed with a noisy mass of kids. John ran up to a group of kids, smiling, pointing at the chalk marks they’d drawn on the tarmac. Each child turned their back on him. They whispered to each other behind their hands laughed and walked away.

He stood at the edge of the playground, watching them. I wished I could grab him, take him back home, even if it did mean I wouldn’t get much work done.

I turned away and headed for the bus stop, past a woman, wisps of white hair protruding from under a shapeless, grey felt hat. Her face was all wrinkles; she could have been aged in her nineties, but I wasn’t sure. You can’t really tell, after a point.  She wore a long, black coat that trailed in the puddles as she staggered along, a heavy-looking plastic Tesco bag in each hand. As I waited at the crossing for the lights to change, she stopped next to me. Her heel caught in a crack in the pavement and she stumbled. I put my hand up to support her.

She put the bags down and looked up at me from under her hat.  “Ooh, that’s better – I thought my fingers were going to drop off.” She rubbed at her hands. A corner of a Cornflakes packet protruded through a hole in one bag. The handle of the other had stretched almost to snapping point.

“Need any help?” I asked.

 “Thank you, I just need a hand across this road. The bags weigh a ton.  I’m so slow, the light will go red before I’m half way across.”

I poked at the button of the crossing again. The light turned green and I picked the bags up. Tesco’s must have had a buy-one-get-one-free sale on anvils. We crossed over and I put them down again. “Have you got far to go?”

“Never you mind about that, dear. Now listen. I’m a fairy.” Oh great, a nutter. “That was a test. Our queen has tasked me with finding one kind human, and you’ll do. I’m going to grant you three wishes.” She muttered under her breath. “Now, remember, don’t waste them. The same person will make them all come true.” She grabbed the bags and, lifting them as easily as though they were empty, turned down a side road.

The same person? It was straight out of some cheesy motivational thing we’d had to do at work, before I started working from home. How the only person who can help you, is you. The rain started again.

As I trudged on, a bus sped past. There was nobody waiting for it. The bus wouldn’t stop. I started running. It didn’t slow down.

I wish someone would get off.

As I reached the stop, the bus drew up and the door opened. I staggered inside, gasping my thanks to the driver.

“Had to stop anyway,” the driver said. “Girl with the umbrella hat rang the bell. Poor handicapped kid.”

I hadn’t seen anybody getting off. Whoever it was must have changed their mind and stayed on.

I heard a jingling sound, like someone ringing the bell on a cat’s collar. “One down, two to go! Careful!” said a voice in my ear. I whirled round but the seats behind were empty.

 

Lizzie came out of school arm in arm with her latest friend, John trailing behind them. At home, he went into the garden, walking carefully round Tickie-Three-Arms’s veg-and-flower patch that only he could see, and kicked a ball around. Through the open kitchen window by the sink, I heard the commentary: “… as he comes down the centre nobody can catch him, and he shoots!” He aimed at the gap between two trees. “Save it, Tickie!”

The ball cannoned between the trees, only stopping when it crashed into the fence behind.

Lizzie came into the kitchen.

“I wish the other kids would play with John, the rotten little so and so’s,” I said.

Jingle, jingle. “That’s two!” said the sing-song voice from the bus.

“Did you hear that, Lizzie?”

She frowned “Yes, you want someone to play with John.”

“No, not me…never mind. Can’t you go and kick the ball around with him? Just for a minute or two.”

“I can’t. Homework. You play with him.”

“Are you kidding? Too much to do. What’s first?’ I ticked off an imaginary list. “Oh yes - the veg. Lend a hand, will you?”

“Sorry, Mum. No time. I’ve got to learn all these spellings for tomorrow – forty words this time. Ask Dad to help you when he comes home.”

“He’ll want to eat as soon as he gets in. Anyway, he’ll be too busy making up a sentence using each word on your list.” It was his turn. Lucky old Phil. I hoped there’d be words like “barbican” and “bartizan”, just a few of the ones I’d been lumbered with last time.

Lizzie went out and trudged up the stairs to her room. I looked at the mound of unpeeled potatoes. “And us next,” the string beans seemed to say. Phil had also suggested I could cut some of the roses growing in the front garden, they’d be nice in the living room. Just in case I didn’t have enough to do. I felt my stomach churn.

My hands shook.

Calm down. Put all the chores in a logical order. First of all, see if there’s any frozen veg in the freezer. I opened it. Just a tub of vanilla ice cream, a glass bottle of milk (the curdled contents pushing out of the lid in a column-shaped icicle) and a pack of beef burgers, half embedded in ice. I slammed the door shut. Have to go shopping tomorrow. And drag it all home on the bus. And defrost the freezer. That’d have to be done first. And what about work?

I reordered the “to do” list. First peel the potatoes. Squash peelings into the overflowing bin.  Then get the roses on your way back from emptying it. I started the tap running into the sink and glanced across the kitchen. The text flashing on the console of the loaded washing machine said “end”, but it may as well have said “No, me first”.

I grabbed the tap and wrenched it shut. “I wish someone, anyone, would give me a hand around this bloody place.”

I waited. If Lizzie had heard my shout from upstairs, she didn’t react. Nothing happened.

Jingle, “All gone.” Jingle. The sing-song voice again. I’d have to see what Dr Google said about stress making you hear things, next time I got the chance to switch my laptop on again. Tomorrow morning, at this rate.

Out in the garden, John’s football slammed into the fence again. “Don’t do that,” I called out of the window. “I don’t want Mr Gilmerton next door coming around again.” Hadn’t he ever been a seven-year-old kid? More likely he’d popped out of his mother aged fifty, drawn his first breath and begun moaning about his fence.

John picked up the ball. “Alright, I’ve finished anyway. Tickie-Three-Arms had to go somewhere.” John came in and went upstairs. I knew that he would be at his bedroom window, watching the children playing in the street. If I’d had three wishes, only one had come true. Did that entitle me to some kind of magical credit note?  Not that I believed in all that.

We’d have to have the burgers. I opened the freezer again. I took out a pack of frozen chips, one of peas, and a Meat Feast pizza. I put the unpeeled vegetables back into the rack. Now to go outside: some flowers might give the impression of calmness. To anyone who didn’t notice the rest of the house.

Footsteps along the pavement, on the other side of the fence, stopped outside the house. I looked up from the roses. Misery-Gilmerton’s-next-door’s son, in John’s class at school. “Can Jonno play football in our garden?”

Before I could go back inside the house to call John, he dashed out, a smile splitting his face in two.

“Mum, can I?”

“Yes, but mind the fence!”

“You come on your own, Jonno,” said Son-of-Gilmerton. “Not that big girl with the arm. She’s scary.”

###

Phil says he always knew John would grow out of Tickie-Three-Arms, once he found some real friends. Lizzie is glad she doesn’t have to set a place for her at the table any more. The house is always tidy, meals are always on time, and there are newly cut flowers in every room.  

My friends ask how I manage it, with work and everything, and all without help. The answer? That’d be telling. Let’s just say that many hands make light work. Who cares how many are real? I don’t buy frozen veg any more. They’re brought in fresh from the garden every day, even when it’s raining. And she’s a dab hand, or maybe that should be dab-three-hands, at car maintenance.

THE END

 


   

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