OK By Maria Dean
‘So, Dana, how are you feeling today?’ I ask, my eyes clocking her tired skin, stained uniform, and the dark circles that appear to have been tattooed under her eyes.
‘OK,’ Dana mumbles, her fingers working the cuff of her frayed uniform.
OK. The default response. I had anticipated as much. Only this morning I found myself batting back the two-letter reply when the headteacher had rolled out of her four-by-four in the car park. She hadn’t noticed me at first, my Nissan Micra dwarfed by her Range Rover Discovery. I had clambered out, fighting with the tangled seatbelt, arms loaded with bags.
‘Morning, Janice, how are you?’ she had said once she had realised that I was there.
‘OK, thanks.’ It rolled off my tongue like a bowling ball down an alley. ‘And you?’
‘Lovely, thank you,’ she had purred, the trim of her expensive coat looking like she had a Persian cat slung around her neck. ‘The weekend goes too fast. Can’t believe we’re back here again,’ she had laughed haughtily before we had trundled down the path that led to the main entrance, fobs at the ready.
I wondered what her weekend had looked like and how far removed from my own it would have been.
Dana is kicking the chair leg, the loose sole of her shoe flapping like she has a beached fish on the end of her foot. She looks so small sitting here in my dreary office.
‘Have you eaten this morning?’ I ask.
She nods. Another lie. When did we get so good at this?
‘Can I get you anything before you start your lessons?’ She looks up at me now, that look that I know so well. What could I possibly get her? A bedroom of her own with carpet and curtains and privacy. Central heating that would stop the ice thickening on the inside of the windows. Honeysuckle shampoo and hot water to wash out the fetid smell of grease and weed that was clinging to her tangled hair.
I don’t want to send her to class; what’s she going to learn that’s going to be any help to her in her world? What use is a fronted adverbial when she’s trying to work out how to use the washing machine? How is knowing all the square numbers going to help her decide between feeding herself or her younger sister?
‘I’ve got some biscuits in the cupboard if you’d like one. I’m going to have one,’ I glance at the clock, ‘Never too early for a biscuit.’ It does the trick and Dana gingerly puts her hand into the tin and pulls out a Bourbon cream.
We eat in silence, both of us regarding the other.
I remember the first time I met Dana, the day after she’d been locked in the house whilst her mum had gone to find her next fix. I remember thinking how young she was to have built such a high wall around herself and how on earth I was going to break through. As a primary school-based social worker, it is my job to knock down such walls no matter how backbreaking they may be.
I watch Dana eating, knowing that it’s going to take more than a biscuit or two to ease out one of her bricks. But I will try; I always try.
‘How was your weekend?’ I push slightly, hoping the creamy chocolate filling might have softened her.
‘OK,’ she shrugs. I’m about to change tactics when her gaze hardens, biscuit poised in her right hand.
‘What about you?’ Dana asks. My mouth hovers, the question having thrown me off-script.
‘What about me?’ I eye her carefully.
‘How was your weekend?’ Dana stares at me with intent, and I can feel the hairs on my arms bristle. Then her eyes move over to my arm. The sleeve of my jumper has ridden up, evidence of how deep I had thrust it into the biscuit tin. The purple bruise is garish against my ivory skin, and it almost glows luminescent in the darkness of my office.
‘It was OK,’ I reply as I push my sleeve back down covering the bruise and my lie.
Dana looks at me, but something has changed in the room; I can feel it and so can she.
Dana reaches for another biscuit and in that instant, I wonder if we might actually be OK.