Waiting For a Friend
By Mark Waller
Gracey closed her eyes and let the words her dad read to her turn to pictures in her mind. Her favourite story was the one he made up about her becoming a mermaid when she went to Durban and swam out to sea, fearless of the depths and high waves. She liked that one the best, and it merged into her dreams as she fell asleep and her dad carried on with the story for a few minutes even though he could see that she was in another world.
The mornings were the hardest for her, having to shake off the night world of the dreams she had of swimming fast and free with her mermaid friends. On school days there was the hurry of getting ready, eating porridge too quickly, gulping tea and then going out into the dry cold darkness of a winter day. She felt stuck on land, heavy, pressed down by gravity, in a world totally at opposites to her dream world of flying among the stars or swimming swiftly under the waves. She felt that she would never be happy stranded far from the ocean.
“I want a mermaid tail,” she demanded of her father as he drove her to school. “Can I get one for Christmas?”
“I guess so but I don’t know where we would find one. I’ll have to go looking. But Christmas is a long way off.”
“What about on my birthday?”
“You just had your birthday, two weeks ago.”
“What if I have another birthday tomorrow?”
“But then you’d be eight”, said her dad smiling, “and you’d lose nearly all of the year of being seven. You’d grow old too quickly!”
Gracey thought for a while.
“Why is it nicer in the sea than here?”
“How is it nicer?” Her dad looked at her through the rear view mirror.
“In the sea, when I dream, I have friends – Starlight, Pearl, Kind Shark… But here I don’t have friends.”
“You will make friends soon at school, you know. You have only been there a little while.”
“No. They’re scared of the sea and think mermaids are not real. But they are. And they think pink is for girls and that blue is for boys. But the sea is blue and I like the sea.”
Her father thought for a moment and nodded.
“I know what you mean. It’s stupid.”
That night he told her a story of a young mermaid who found a puppy dog swimming close to the shore, but struggling and frightened. Its mommy and she had fallen off a boat and had been lost. But the puppy was able to swim, though she was being beaten this way and that by the waves. The mermaid caught hold of the puppy and lifted her out of the water and swam swiftly to the shore, where she saw a little girl standing looking at the shells and pebbles at the water’s edge.
“Gracey,” called the mermaid. “Look after this puppy. She is lost and nearly died in the water. You must take care of her.”
Gracey took the small brown shivering puppy from the mermaid’s webbed green hands and held her close to her and smiled.
Her dad paused and looked at Gracey. She was asleep, smiling slightly.
In the car going to school the next day, Gracey was thoughtful.
“Dad. I’ve decided I don’t want a mermaid’s tail. I want a puppy dog. Please can I have one? I will look after it. I promise.”
In the afternoon, after school, as they were driving home Gracey told her dad that three of the girls in her class also had puppy dogs.
“If I had one, we could play together,” she said hopefully.
“There’s a pet shop in Biko Street, by the movie theatre,” said her dad. “We can go at the weekend and see if they have any puppies. They have been closed for a while for redecorating and are reopening on Saturday.”
“The weekend? That’s further away than Christmas,” Gracey said, suddenly feeling betrayed.
Her dad laughed. “It’s three days away. C’mon Gracey.”
“What if they run out of puppies? They might sell them all.”
He remembered how, when he had first told Gracey the story of her meeting mermaids in the sea near Durban, she had packed a bag and disappeared from home in the night. After a few hours of panic and terror, phoning the police, searching the streets she might have walked down, her dad found her waiting at the deserted taxi rank in town.
“I’m waiting for the taxi to Durban,” she announced defiantly.
That night, Gracey did not fall asleep during her bedtime story. She was thinking what to do and hardly heard what her dad was saying. She lay awake with her eyes closed.
In the early hours, her dad woke up at the sound of dogs barking in the neighbourhood. He slept lightly since Gracey’s mother had left to find work in Limpopo. He could feel how Gracey missed her. He lay awake for a while and then went to look in on Gracey. Her bed was empty. Oh not again! He dressed hurriedly. Phoned the police, shouted around the empty house and garden. He backed the car out of the driveway and started trawling the streets round about. Sick, punched stomach feeling and dry mouth. Gracey, Gracey, Gracey. Not again!
He drove in wider circles of streets, peering down junctions, headlights full on. Nothing.
Then he had an idea. He reversed, wheels squealing and headed for the centre. Where is it, where is it, where is it? He tracked the shops, takeaways, all windows dark, nothing. Turned into Biko Street.
The Pet Emporium had newly decorated windows and new glass doors. The entrance was set back from the shop front and dark. He pulled up and jumped out. Through the window he could see a large cage on the floor, padded out inside with blankets and food bowls. Along one side there were five brown puppies, no more than a month old, snug, quivering and shifting in their sleep beside their snoozing mother.
Then he saw her sitting against the door in the alcove, wrapped up in her mermaid blanket, woolly hat pulled over her eyes. She squinted up at him sleepily.
“Gracey what’s going on? I’ve been…. Oh no. Gracey, it’s not safe, running off like this. I’ve been so worried about you.”
“I’m waiting for them to open,” she said weepily.
“But that’s not for another two days.”
“I want a friend, daddy. I don’t want to miss getting a puppy. Please,” she was sobbing. “Please don’t take me home. Stay with me and wait.”
He sat down next to her and put his arm around her.
“It’s ok”, he said. “We’ll wait together. ”