I desperately wanted a swing when I was little. But it was not to be. I was too polite to nag my parents into building me one, which is why I considered kids who had such a contraption on their lawn to be lucky little buggers whose parents truly loved them. Well, scratch that about excess politeness: if you’re the youngest of a rapacious brood nothing short of outright vandalism can get your parents’ attention, simple as that.
I suppose I was lucky in other respects; I was allowed to venture out on my own for hours on end without anybody raising an eyebrow (though I sometimes think my parents hadn’t quite realised just how far away my daily bicycle trips took me). Of course I considered my unrestricted freedom to be perfectly normal and only years later grasped how confined many other childhoods were in comparison to mine. One of my particularly prolonged explorations took me to a place that must have been the suburbs of a small town, miles from my home. And that’s where I saw my little blonde.
Don’t ask me how I knew the second I spotted her that something important was about to unfold. I just did. The sight of her stopped me in my tracks.
Her back was to me and she was sitting on a swing, what else. Her parents loved her enough to get her a freaking swing. She was slowly rocking back and forth, in stark contrast to me who’d have put the bloody thing through a structural integrity test were it mine. Figures, I thought, I suppose when you have a swing on your own you can’t be bothered to enjoy it like a swing should be enjoyed.
The girl’s hair reached her lower back while mine barely touched my shoulder blades. Each trip to the hairdressers, I had to fight my mum for every inch because she wanted it cut to a bob. You know what she did to me the day before I started preschool? She tricked me into having it all sheared off, so I found myself facing a scary mob of unknown kids while looking like a plucked chicken, the abused poultry impression perfectly delivered by the fact I have like a dozen cowlicks which make my hair shoot out in every imaginable direction. The little blonde’s mum of course understood that a flowing mane was a cooler sight than an unruly shock of yellow hair framing a sulking girl’s face. But of course, I thought.
More importantly, her hair was pure platinum while mine had already turned to gold. Having heard people lamenting about how naturally blonde hair tended to take on a darker shade with age while eyeing me (it flew way over my head that these people were in fact mournful over their own aging rather than mine), I instinctively knew that her blondness was better than my blondness. No surprise here, I thought.
And I saw the blonde was shorter than me, which in my mind meant she must have been younger and therefore not too old to take on competitive riding like I was if my folks were to be believed. (Of course I wasn’t too old but how was I to know that my parents, both ex-riders, would say and do just about anything to keep their daughter away from horses and the dashing young men who rode them?) Well, yes, what else, I was resigned to think.
With a great effort, I lifted my eyes from the girl and examined her house. Of course her home was bigger and better than mine. It was a three-storey affair, a proper Socialist mansion with dark wooden panelling below the roof which was all the rage then, loudly proclaiming its occupants as powerful and important. Our house in contrast was a mere two storey block of naked brick because we couldn’t afford a facade. Not that I cared much for houses but I knew grown-ups obsessed about them. But more importantly, there were other houses left and right to the little blonde’s, and houses meant families, families meant kids, which in turn meant she had loads of pals to play with. Our house stood alone and if it wasn’t for the sole neighbours’ kid, I’d be left to my own devices when it came to cooking up trouble. Sure, I thought, every darn thing about her and around her is better than what I have.
Then, the blonde must have sensed my wistful presence and she started to turn around. I realised I’d get to see her face before I could escape and I already knew how this would play out… I was aware that I was perceived to be an extraordinarily beautiful child because back then, people didn’t know that you shouldn’t complement little girls on their looks because it messed them up. To my great annoyance, they were less than subtle in their hints that with me being so pretty my parents should keep a close watch when I hit my teens. Little did anybody know that I was to grow into an awkward, spotted adolescent who’d be seriously worried about dying a virgin and that I’d be well into my twenties before reclaiming any of my former grace. Be that as it may, I stood there frozen, knowing that no matter how pretty I supposedly was, she’d be prettier.
And of course she was. Seeing her half-profile, I saw how her eyes were much bigger than mine and how her chin was small and girly in comparison to my sharpish jawline. Her nose was the cutest little knob, exactly like the one I wished I had. Her forehead was rounded while mine was high and straight, which I already knew was considered more of a sign of intelligence than of beauty, if anything. I was starting to think, well what else is there that she could possibly one-up me at…
…when I noticed that her large eyes had a distinct slant while her little pout seemed to curve downwards in a peculiar way.
I might have been just a kid but I instantly realised that my little blonde had Downs, which was something adults would whisper about in fear. Luckily I didn’t know she also had more chromosomes than me because I’d have exploded into a jealous fireball.
What I did know was that her condition meant that she would have fewer options in life than me, no matter how many swings and pretty houses her parents built and how long they let her hair grow. I knew such kids were considered fragile and in poor health. Perhaps just as well that I didn’t actually know any people who had a child with Down syndrome and therefore I had no idea that they tended to adore their little angels even more than parents with run-of-the mill offspring adored theirs. I’d only known folks who felt they had a lucky escape by not having a child like that.
When the blonde’s eyes met mine I panicked and fled because I didn’t know how to explain why I had been staring at her.
I never forgot the girl. What I did forget though is where exactly it was that I saw her. It must have been within a 15-mile radius from my former home. And that’s quite a circle. From time to time, I still venture out in a half-arsed attempt to track her down. Maybe I’ll recognise the house. Perhaps somebody will know where they had a daughter about my age with Downs. I would love to set my eyes on her again and hopefully see she is doing fine. What a mighty little girl she was! She changed me forever just by looking at me.