Weed, by S P Robin
Congratulations to S P Robin whose story Weed came in first place in the 2019 Axe to Grind flash-fiction contest!
The conductor demands full fare. Oma says I’m only seven. The tram is packed. I blush because now strangers know my age. The conductor doesn’t believe her.
“Look at her face! She’s a child. She’s half price.”
I’m stared at.
A man in a grey suit says, “Leave the woman alone. What’s that to you, comrade, if she wants a half fare?”
“Who you calling comrade?”
A rough voice from afar shouts, “Pay up!”
A fat woman says, “She’s not seven.”
I get a push in the back.
“I’m calling you a comrade because you act like one.”
“Careful now,” says an elderly man. “Gentlemen....”
“No gentlemen here,” says the suited man, “only COMRADES. A TRAM FULL OF COMRADES.”
“Listen you,” yells the conductor, “I’ve got a family and I’m not losing my job because of HER.”
I’m burning up. People are fighting and Oma is still wanting a half fare in bad Slovak. Her gender mixing is funny at home, but not out here.
The fat woman glowers. “HUNGARIAN! What d’you expect?”
We get off at the Soviet bookshop, three stops before ours.
The tough voice yells, “Good riddance!”
Oma walks ahead. At home, she gets a glass of water and her heart tablets. I put my coat away, wash my hands and sit on the edge of the bath.
I return to the kitchen to hear, “She’s too tall!”
“This is the result of her mother marrying a basketballer. Should’ve chosen a midget. This child would have been average instead of a beanstalk.”
“Nothing can be done.”
“Wrong,” says Oma.
The first step is to get a certified copy of my birth certificate. Opa protests, but Oma will not take me on public transport without it.
“If you don’t get it, she’ll be walking everywhere. But I tell you, I won’t be walking with her.”
Opa talks to his ex-lawyer friends.
In a few days, Oma gets a small paper that mollifies her. She folds it and inserts it into a separate section of her cream handbag.
We climb onto trams confidently.
The ugly incident has, however, left its mark. Birth certificate in the bag is one thing; the root cause of the problem is another. Oma measures me often and the lines keep going up.
“She’s grown since yesterday, I swear! She’s worse than a weed!”
Opa is drinking chicory coffee. “She’ll stop.”
“When? When she’s a giant? What will you do then? Put her in the circus?”
I don’t want to be in a circus. I went there once and cried when I saw how they all jeered and laughed at the clown.
“What do you suggest?”
He thinks this will stop her.
“I want you to go to Professor Svitek. These days they can measure bones and make a forecast. Give a prediction of a person’s height. Like dogs’ paws. You’ll tell instantly if your puppy will be small or a Great Dane.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like this in front of the child.”
“Wish or not, we should know. At seven she’s already a head above me and my shoes no longer fit her. It’s no idle curiosity that drives me; the answer has economic implications for us all.”
Opa has an unexpectedly pleasant catch-up with Professor Svitek.
“He didn’t mind being seen with me! Can you believe it? A persona non grata of the regime! Others would’ve been too busy to meet me.”
What’s more, Professor Svitek has made an appointment for me with a specialist who owes him a favour.
Oma is delighted.
The part of the State Children’s Clinic where we wait is ugly. Pea green walls, worn chairs, dirty windows. Adults in green or white walk past. The ribbons on their backs are not done up properly.
A pale boy is rolled in by a woman in green. His arm is bandaged, and the bandage has blood on it.
I want to go home.
“We’re not budging,” says Oma, “until we know what’s what.”
Doctor Bosak shakes Oma’s hand and orders me to sit on the white bed. With that, he turns his back and motions Oma into a chair. He doesn’t sit, just leans against a table. She looks up at him and I look at his back.
Oma outlines the problem.
“I don’t need to do any tests to tell you she’ll be tall. It’s not a case of gigantism—no flat nose, large forehead, et cetera. But you’re looking at—worst-case scenario—two metres.”
He laughs. “Perfect for the national basketball team!”
Oma tells him Dad played basketball.
“There you have it! It’s the genes. How tall’s the mother?”
“My daughter is 179 centimetres.”
“Got her father’s genes.” Oma is short. “How tall’s your husband?”
We are not here to discuss others. Oma wants to know what they can do about me.
“Feed her up. Watch her spine. Stop her from slouching.”
“It’s easy for him to say ‘feed her up’ on his salary and bribes. Should’ve seen the bottles lining his shelves. Whisky. Champagne. French cognac. Swiss chocolate? Not worth a ‘thank you.’ Out in less than ten minutes.”
Opa studies me. “She’s not going to be two metres.”
“How would you know? A paediatrician suddenly?”
“You said yourself two metres was the worst-case scenario.”
“Exactly. And we are no strangers to that, are we?”
I’m seven and I’m growing like a weed. But Opa reassures me I won’t go into a circus. (Oma says it depends on my behaviour.) She subscribes to the Hungarian magazine Life and Science and tells us people can be made shorter by having bits cut out from their thighs. She thinks by the time I’ve stopped growing this will be commonplace. It will be done in a hospital for adults, so I won’t need to worry about meeting bloody children.
In the meantime, I must stand up straight, throw my shoulders back and face the world with confidence.
English is S P Robin's fifth and last-acquired language. An avid story collector, she now uses English in storytelling. A teen from Czechoslovakia, Robin is an adult Australian who thus hopes to entertain, and perhaps even move, the willing.
Commentary from Michelle Barker, Darling Axe editor and contest judge:
What an honour it was to judge the Darling Axe’s first-ever fiction contest. Thanks to everyone who entered and crafted such wonderful stories. Deciding on the top three was agonizing. But after much deliberation, the winner is . . .
Weed, by S P Robin
This gem of a story features sharp dialogue, deftly drawn characters, and a subtle humour I found very appealing. The voice of the young narrator contrasts so well with that of her grandparents, and the unusual setting is an added bonus.