Vivian grew up in a home that was not hers. It was her aunt’s, and although the woman tried to make her feel included, there were always little reminders that she was not home. School projects, or whispers at church, her surname on a form – the occasional message from her dad. She could not shake the feeling that she was living amongst someone else’s brothers and sisters, hugging someone else’s mum and dad. Whenever there were photos she stood awkwardly to the side, out of respect to her aunt’s real family, and out of respect to her own unusual one.
What it had taught her, this non standard way of living, was that abstract nouns were exactly that; abstract. Fluid. Those seemingly colossal terms like Family and Home or Love or Life did not have to be so rigid. They could be anything, and anything could be moulded. Anything could be what you wanted it to be.
From an early age her life was ruled by that notion. It appeared for the first time in primary school, when she had taken some chalk into the playground to draw on the recreational wall. She drew stars, something that she had only just learnt to do, and she drew exactly 17. When the bell rang she put the chalk in her coat pocket and went back inside. The rest of the day passed as normal. At the end her Aunt came to pick her up and she had fish fingers for dinner.
The next day her aunt jolted her awake.
‘What’s this?’ she demanded. Vivian blinked drowsily.
‘What’s what?’ she replied.
Her aunt was holding the broken pieces of chalk from Vivian’s pocket in her palms. She must have forgotten to put them back, and by default brought them home.
‘Chalk.’ Vivian replied, unabashed.
‘Where did you get it from?’ Her aunt pressed. There was something in her tone that made Vivian a little scared, as though she had done something wrong. She clawed at the mattress beneath the covers.
‘School.’ She replied quietly.
‘You stole it from school?’
The words shocked both of them into silence. Vivian had never stolen anything in her life, and she definitely had not started stealing now.
‘So how did it get here?’ Her aunt asked, when Vivian shook her head.
‘I put in my pocket.’ Her voice cracked.
‘That,’ her aunt declared, ‘is stealing.’
‘But I didn’t’
‘You took something that didn’t belong to you. That is stealing.’
Her aunt was not interested in any more words. The evidence was there in red and green, making her palms dusty. Vivian had stolen the chalk; that was all.
That episode had taught Vivian that all that mattered was how something seemed. That was why she worked hard at school, kept a clean home, married a handsome man and took up yoga. Because as long as she seemed like a good person, she could get away with everything else.