Precious won the talent contest on a mini-break. It was a last minute thing; Ma was taking a bunch of kids from the children’s ward to Weston-Super-Mare, only one of the boys was too sick to travel. Precious took his place. Half-price.
She sang Tomorrow from Annie, and she meant every word of it. But the kids from the hospital said she hadn’t won it fair and square; the judges must have thought she was one of the ill children, taken pity on her. And what did that say about Precious, them thinking she was sick, when she wasn’t even special?
‘Ignore them’, Ma had said. ‘You’ve got star quality. In buckets’.
Back in Bristol, Precious decided she wanted to go to stage-school. To be famous, she said, like one of the Kids from Fame. Or even just to be in adverts. Anything off the telly would be OK. Imagine, shopping in Ugg boots, getting snapped by the paps. Cool.
Ma was all for it, and Leroy too, standing over Ma, doing her hair just like Chaka Khan’s. ‘Only, not stage-school, sweetheart. Drama-club’.
The tongs hissed and Ma winced as Leroy fused another clump in place.
‘No pain, no gain,’ he laughed.
‘Easy for you to say,’ said Ma.
Leroy swivelled in his cowboy boots, all white jeans and tiny waist. He turned to Precious by the window. ‘All you need is hope, doll, and you’re half-way there.’
She breathed on the pane, spelling it out with a finger, in capitals - H O P E, letters dark against the night outside, the lights in the lounge too bright so they hurt her eyes, the glass a mirror, her face old in the reflection.
‘Open it, treasure,’ said Ma. 'It stinks of burnt hair in here.'
‘You remember, petal’, said Leroy, ‘you can be whatever you want to be’.
‘S’pose’, said Precious, shivering in a slice of chill air, her word fading fast on the glass.
Drama-club is damp and draughty. Winning a talent contest? Easy. Singing a solo. No problem. But dancing next to girls slight as prancing ponies who can do the splits – that’s something else.
Ma says it’s everyone else dancing out of step. But Precious knows Ma’s only trying to make her feel better. The only splits Precious can manage, stifling an ouch, is a split in her leggings, and show after show, she dances clumsy next to girls bitter they’re only in the chorus. But Ma and Leroy still say she sticks out like a star.
‘Sore thumb more like,’ whisper stage-mothers in stage whispers.
One promise Ma and Leroy won’t make; ‘next year, Lolly-Pop, and it’s the lead in Annie’. Everyone in the drama hut knows they’ll never give that role to someone like Precious. They won’t even let the Italian girl do it, and she’s only got a bit of a tan.
Hope is a hard thing. Cold as a mirror and chipped quick as the Union Jacks Precious paints on her nails.
Breaktime, and Precious in the corner shuffles in trainers big as boats, while girls in dainty plimsolls play pat-a-cake and skip to the rhythm of salt-vinegar-mustard-pepper. ‘No point letting Precious have a turn’, says this year’s Annie. ‘She’ll only get tangled up at salt.’
In her spot with no sun, Precious touches up her nails, a fresh coat of blue to cover up the cracks.
Christmas, and Precious opens a long thin present. A pair of stilts. Ma’s seen it done on the children’s ward; give the loneliest child the best toy, and the others will soon come running. Precious takes the stilts to school and in her usual corner at breaktime, clambers up to make her first steps.
The playground goes quiet. Skipping ropes dangle limp as sleeping snakes. Everyone stops to watch Precious hobbling on the cobbles. Six little stiff steps, then the splintering sound. Snap goes the left stilt. Precious tumbles to the ground.
‘What did you expect?’ snorts Annie. ‘They weren’t made for elephants.’
Skipping and hand-patting starts again. Best friends turn away to re-plait pony tails.
Hope, and you’re already half-way there, Leroy’d said. Half-way where?
Precious picks up the unbroken stilt, ignoring the jibes of hop-skotchers and boys running like aeroplanes. She climbs back up and starts to hop. She doesn’t stop until the bell goes.
Same thing next day, and now everyone else wants a go. If Precious can do it, anyone can. But it’s not as easy as it looks. Girls, boys – they all lose their balance, slip off, scrape their knees. No one can hop like Precious.
One of the dinner-ladies says it’s amazing, what Precious can do on her stilt. Her husband works at the Chronicle and they come and do an article on school crazes. They print a picture of Precious smiling on her stilt. The caption reads ‘Difficult? You Bet!’
Ma is so pleased. She fetches the scissors from the kitchen, still greasy from trimming rinds off bacon. ‘This is definitely going in the scrapbook.’
‘Don’t bother,’ says Precious.
The photo in the article - it looks like the kind they use on the news when someone’s been murdered.
Ma said there were so few chances in life – moments, she called them. You had to grab them when they came along.
Precious nodded. 'S’pose.' But something tugged at her, like a snag in a jumper. What if those fifteen minutes hopping on a stilt in the playground, what if they were her Fifteen Minutes? Her moment?
She didn’t want to be remembered for just that, for stilt-hopping at breaktime.
Difficult? You bet. But there had to be something better. Didn’t there?
At the end of the summer term rich Vikki threw a party. Her mum said she had to invite the whole class. ‘Yes, Precious too.’ Vikki shrugged. ‘Whatever.’
They hung lanterns from the trees and played games in the pool. Precious won the staying-underwater-for-the-longest contest. Children complained. They hadn’t stood a chance, against the hippo.
‘Now, now,’ said Vikki’s mum. And ‘don’t be unkind.’ And ‘well done, Precious. You must have a prize. Let’s see …’ she turned to the pool … ‘why don’t you choose from one of the inflatables?’
Precious looked at her blankly.
Vikki’s mum rolled her eyes. ‘The blow-up toys, dear.’
‘Oh,’ said Precious. ‘Thanks.’
She plucked a plain red ring from the deep end. She didn’t want to seem greedy.
‘… and seeing as it’s a party,’ said Vikki’s mum. ‘I think everyone deserves a prize.’
The kids splashed into the pool. Precious watched them, fighting over see-through lilos and blow-up swans, lovely long necks to cling to. That’s when she knew; you could win something and still come off second best. She struggled to pull her red ring over her head, slip it down to her waist to join the fun in the pool. It wouldn’t go.
Bugsy Malone laughed on his new lilo. ‘Like, you really needed another spare tyre.’
In the evening everyone danced to slow songs, except Precious who stood alone in the kitchen, brushing dust off a Yucca, nibbling at leftovers, dipping her fingers into the topping on the untouched Tiramisu she’d bought from Iceland.
‘How kind!’ Vikki’s mum’d said when Precious had shyly held it out to her. ‘You really shouldn’t have.’
Licking cream from her fingers, Precious wished she’d brought vol-au-vents instead; Vikki lived in a big house in Clifton; Vikki didn’t talk with a Bristol accent; Vikki probably didn’t eat ready-mades.
‘We never had Tiramisu in our day,’ Ma’d said at the checkout. Precious wanted to ask; do you always know when it is your day? And do you know when it isn’t any more?
After the dancing, Vikki put on a show. She was going to be an opera singer so she’d always turned her nose up at drama-club and the lead in Annie. That was just a musical. What she did was art.
Her mum announced her: ‘Tonight, Vikki will be singing the mad scene from Lucia.’
Vikki’s voice came out loud and pure. Precious had never heard anything like it – so many notes all trilling and spilling out of Vikki quick as rain. She sat watching, listening, mouth open, chocolate from her pudding still on her teeth.
Vikki was half-way through when her voice cracked, snatching at a high note. She tried again, but all that came out was a broken croak.
Vikki’s mum stood up from her seat. ‘From the top, please,’ a worried crack in her voice too.
Vikki took in a breath, opened her mouth. But still nothing came – just the sound of air rasping against something torn. She ran from the home-made stage on top of the ha-ha.
Bugsy’s understudy giggled. ‘I can see why it’s called the mad scene.’
Precious found Vikki sitting red-eyed at the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the water.
‘Your singing was beautiful.’
‘What would you know?’ Vikki hissed.
Shyly, Precious put her hand on Vikki’s arm. ‘Honest. Really beautiful.’
Vikki looked up, like she wanted to believe Precious. More than anything.
Ma has saved up for a summer holiday. Camping in Devon. Precious has always wanted to see a bit of England that’s not just concrete. A proper trip this time. No mini-breaks, off-peak, half-price. A whole week of wish-you-were-here green fields and cream teas. Precious gives Ma a hug. ‘I can’t wait.’
Three days to go and Vikki phones. Her voice is no better. The doctors say it might never get better. She’s off on holiday too. Florida. ‘Why don’t you come?’
Now it’s Precious who can’t speak. ‘Me? You’re asking me? To Florida?’
‘Yes. Why not? Sis’s gone and got anorexia. It’s all the rage at her sixth Form. You can take her place.’
‘Me? Go to Florida?’ Precious pushes a thought away; another holiday, courtesy of someone’s else’s illness. ‘I’d love to …'
Ma comes into the lounge with a new tent from Argos.
'… but I can’t. Me and Ma are going to Devon.’
Vikki tuts. ‘Your loss.’
Precious wants to say sorry. She wants to thank Vikki for asking her.
Too late. All she’s got to talk to is a dialling tone.
Devon is damper than drama-club, and colder, the cream teas too expensive. Precious can’t sleep in a wet tent on hard ground. And the campsite loos are full of insects buzzing about. One visit is enough. A bush at the edge of a field is more appealing.
Squatting in the brambles was where the farmer’s son found her. He screwed up his face. ‘Filthy,’ he said. ‘You lot.’
Precious pulled up her knickers. ‘Sorry’.
The farmer’s son yanked her by the arm. ‘Follow me.’
He dragged her towards the haystack. ‘Where are you from?’
‘No, I mean, like originally.’
Precious was confused. ‘Bristol. Honest.’
In the warmth of the straw, the farmer’s son undid his trousers. He told her there was no way this was her first time.
‘In Devon?’ said Precious, even more confused.
When he pushes inside her, she stifles the same ouch she gets from doing the splits. She closes her eyes. Instead of this, she could have been laughing with Vikki in Orlando, taking snaps of Snow White in Disneyland, stroking dolphins in Sea-World.
Afterwards, she lies in the straw, eyes watering, skin itchy, wondering; is this hay-fever?
The farmer’s son lights up a cigarette. ‘What’s your name?’
She tells him.
He laughs, blowing smoke in her face. She watches it unravelling, floating up in the air, into nothing, fading quick as a word breathed on to Ma’s window.
‘More like Semi-Precious now,’ he says.
No one can hope like Precious by Magnus Nelson was read by Claire Louise Amias at the Liars' League Faith & Hope event on 14 December 2010 at Upstairs at The Fellow.