By Colette Hill
Susan was out of sorts. When the children formed a circle by the windows, she’d found herself next to James, who you had to be kind to on account of his leering and his difficulty with words. Jessica, who was supposed to be Susan’s best friend, had parked herself next to the new girl, Yara, who looked like Susan wished she looked—graceful and tanned and very thin. Susan’s thighs chafed against the prickly rug; she was getting fat and her dress didn’t fit anymore.
Jessica’s mum held the needle over the record: “Quieten down, all of you. Have you got ants in your pants?” Everyone squealed and Susan did her best to join in, though the thought of down there made her blush.
Once everyone had calmed down, Jessica’s mum lowered the needle. They sang along as they tossed the parcel from lap to lap. “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees and we like monkeying around.” Susan didn’t join in, though she usually loved that song. When the parcel reached her, she squeezed the softball shape of it, her thumb under a tear in the layers of newsprint, desperate to know, desperate to win. After that, the other children did the same, passing the parcel dead slow, letting go reluctantly, winding each other up. They sang, “I wanna be free,” and Jessica and Yara swayed to the song, shoulders touching, eyes smiling. Susan mimed the words, sure they were for her, that Davy Jones knew just how she felt, stuck here in this stupid dress, miles from Jessica and next to James, who was flapping his elbows like a chicken and blowing spitty raspberries.
Then the music stopped again, and the parcel was suddenly in Susan’s lap, and James was reaching with his spidery fingers to yank it off her. The children screamed at him to stop and Jessica’s mum caught his hands—kindly though, like you might an injured bird. “Go for it, Susan she said. “Tear away.” Everyone watched as she ripped layer after layer of newsprint, flinging scraps of paper into the centre of the circle, happy for the moment, part of it all. When she reached the sparkly gift wrap, Jessica’s mum went to lower the needle again.
The prize travelled away, passing so slowly from hand to hand it would surely never find its way back. And so it was that Jessica’s mum lifted the needle just as Yara caught the prize. Jessica clapped her hands and jigged up and down and called to Yara to go on, tear away. Yara smiled shyly and picked at the tape with her slender fingers, and Susan kept smiling, too, though it made her cheeks ache.
But then Jessica caught Susan’s eye and grinned and gave her the thumbs up, and Jessica’s mum had her hot hands on Susan’s shoulders and was whispering wetly in her ear, “well done, darling—for helping make Yara welcome.”
Susan felt she’d got away with something, though she wasn’t sure what.