Mum and Dad have been taking in traumatised kids for as long as I can remember. When they couldn’t have any more children after me and my sister, they decided not to moan about it. Instead, they put their energies into helping the less fortunate. We got used to little ones who had been beaten, or starved, or treated worse than dogs. But when Billy came along it was hard not to cry because of what the poor little blighter had been through.
I remember asking Dad how anybody could treat a little kid like that. He looked at me soberly.
“Honestly? I don’t know. All I know is that we have to do our best to mend him.”
And so we did.
We all knew the drill well enough to ignore his peculiarities, and not push him or impose ourselves. At first, it seemed like each tiny step was agonisingly slow, and I sometimes caught a look of almost despair on Mum’s face. But then Billy seemed to start understanding that he really was safe. He began sleeping in his bed instead of crouched in the corner. He started to eat proper food instead of baby milk from a bottle. He even smiled every once in a while.
The one thing Billy didn’t do was talk. Come to think of it he hardly made a noise at all. He never cried or laughed, and if he sneezed or burped he looked so frightened that we soon learned to pretend not to hear.
It was Mum’s birthday, and she wanted to go to the aquarium. So we all went. It’s a funny place, full of soft blue light, and while most of the kids ran around from window to window Billy stood watching a tank full of jellyfish, touching the glass with gentle fingers. My sister went and stood behind him, and he actually leaned back against her.
“Look, Billy,” she said gently, “custard fish”.
Billy made a funny rusty little noise, and it came to me that he was laughing. Mum grabbed Dad’s hand and held on real tight. My sister put a gentle hand on Billy’s head.
“Whipped cream fish?”
He turned to look at her, and in a tiny, creaky, rusty little whisper, he explained where she was going wrong.
Then he hid his face in her sweatshirt while she stroked his hair.
And that’s how a Portuguese Man of War gave Billy back his voice.
©️ Jane Jago 2018