Fiction | A child’s six

The mother and her two girls were naked in the members’ change room of the gymnasium. They had just taken a shower and their three blue towels were hanging on the hooks. The mother was brushing her hair. Evie was sitting on the wooden bench getting herself dressed. She pulled on a pair of pyjama pants, which were decorated with a single repeated print of a purple unicorn. Britta was inspecting a pair of the mother’s black lace underpants.

‘They’re a six,’ the mother said. ‘I’m down to a six.’

She paused to remove a clump of hair from the brush. She let it fall to the floor, then continued brushing.

‘Actually, it so happens I’m slightly smaller than a six.’

‘What size am I?’ Britta said.

‘You’re a six,’ the mother said.

‘I’m the same size as you?’

‘Not a six. A child’s six.’

Britta nodded, thinking this through. She hung the underpants on the hook next to the mother’s bra, which was also black and trimmed with lace, then tore the paper band off her wrist with her teeth.

‘Where do I put this?’ she said. ‘There’s no bin.’

‘Just leave it there,’ the mother said. ‘That’s someone’s job to clean it up.’

Britta took a towel off the hook and wrapped up her hair, completing this process with an expert flick of the head. Then she sat down. Beside her Evie was eating from a packet of instant noodles. Her pyjama top was long-sleeved and featured an overweight unicorn which was grey, wearing sunglasses and licking a rainbow lollipop. Britta fussed with her smart watch, shaking her head.

‘I did two thousand three hundred metres,’ she said. ‘Today.’

She looked up.

‘I mean two thousand three hundred calories,’ she said.

‘That’s impossible,’ the mother said, throwing the brush in the bag. ‘It’s impossible you’ve done over two thousand on the rower just now. I did nearly seventeen hundred and that was intense. Did you have netball today?’

‘We had yoga,’ Britta said. ‘But we ran around at lunch.’

She stood up and unravelled the towel. She let it fall to the floor. Her dark hair fell in curls around her sharp collarbones.

‘Hey,’ the mother said. ‘That’s what the hooks are for.’

Britta was returning the towel to the hook when a woman emerged from the shower cubicle. The woman was dripping wet and fully clothed down to her filthy sandshoes. She held a bag in her large, creamy arms.

‘I have no towel,’ the woman said. ‘Can I borrow a towel?’

Britta turned, her eyes wide. The mother sucked in her breath.

‘There are towels at reception,’ she said. ‘Level two.’

‘Please,’ the woman said.

‘Reception is upstairs,’ the mother said, turning away. ‘Level two.’

The woman turned to face the lockers. She opened a door and slipped her bag inside. Britta grabbed the mother’s arm and whispered in her ear. The mother spun around.

‘You need a wristband,’ she said. ‘This is the members’ change room. You can’t just come in and leave your stuff in here.’

The woman hesitated, then went out. Each step she took she made an awful squelching sound.

‘God,’ the mother said.

‘So gross,’ Britta said.

Britta moved across the room to stand in front of the fan. Her lashes were long and dark. Her hazel eyes bulged.

‘Guess what I found out today, Mum?’ she said.

‘What did you find out today, beautiful?’

The mother was applying cream to her face, working it down as far as her neck.

‘There is going to be a drop to C’s at the next netball game. What if it’s me and I don’t want to move down? What if it’s me? Can I just say no?’

‘Sure,’ the mother said. ‘Evie, want some of this?’

Evie didn’t answer. She stared straight ahead. Her hair was still wet and clung to her forehead, releasing cold drops of water so she shivered now and then. She worked at the noodles. She swung her legs. Occasionally, her teeth chattered.

‘I’ll have some,’ Britta said, holding out her hand. ‘Two people have been dropped but Monique is the worst. It’s annoying because she should be the one to go down.’

‘Does she know she’s the worst?’

‘It’s pretty obvious.’

‘Evie, darling,’ the mother said. ‘Do you want moisturiser?’

But Evie’s gaze was fixed. She ate mechanically.

‘Look, I don’t agree at all,’ the mother said, ‘with the general approach of the school. I really have a problem with all these special rules. I don’t mind saying it, but you’ve got to do what’s fair.’

‘What’s that?’ Evie said. ‘In locker thirty-three?’

The foot was an inch high from heel to toe, and a curious shade of blue, but apart from this it was to anyone observing it an ordinary foot.

‘Oh my god,’ the mother said. ‘Stay back. Oh my god.’

‘It’s got toes,’ Evie said. ‘Also toenails.’

‘No,’ the mother said.

But Evie was already there.

Britta’s hands flapped in space. The mother appeared completely fixed to the spot. Evie moved quickly to see what she could do. She took a towel off the hook and laid it down on the bench. She adjusted it. She placed the baby down in the middle of the towel and started humming, as she wrapped him. She brought him to her chest.


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ashleigh Synnott lives in Sydney. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in print and online in publications such as Southerly, Overland, Meanjin, The Long Paddock, Antipodes and Award-Winning Australian Stories. She is the author of Monster, forthcoming (2021), Puncher and Wattmann.

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  1. Beautifully written, poignant and spare. Tension is incredibly effective in this piece—moments like the child whispering in the mother’s ear (which we don’t hear) and her out-loud response are perfect. I found this very haunting.

  2. This story reminds me of like that awareness test ad about the moon-walking bear, except this time it’s two vain people who totally blank on someone in terrible pain about to commit something awful. An awesome story from Ashleigh Synnott.

  3. Ashleigh Sinnott has written a story that asks the reader to examine their own values and behaviour. That’s what good fiction is all about, isn’t it?

  4. Evie’s instinctual response is a telling counterpoint to the mother’s self-obsession. This the work of a gifted writer.

  5. Characterisation in this piece has a thousand pictures behind the words.

    Where do I put this?’ she said. ‘There’s no bin.’

    ‘Just leave it there,’ the mother said. ‘That’s someone’s job to clean it up.’

    Such well crafted work.

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