Valerie O'Riordan is currently studying creative writing in the University of Manchester. Her short fiction has
been published online in The Northville Review, PANK, Dogmatika and Pequin, and she's now working on her
first novel. www.not-exactly-true.blogspot.com
How Do You Play?
Hopscotch was the main thing in the schoolyard. Belinda jiggled the chalk in her palm and bit the inside of her cheek.
The other girls wriggled and baked in the heat. Belinda squinted, aimed, threw. She missed. The little white stick
rolled away down the slope of the pavement, rattled into the drain with a splash. Belinda stared at her feet.
Sharon Kelly scowled and spat onto the tarmac. "I said we shouldn't let her play."
The other girls nodded and muttered. They ringed Belinda, a freckled fence of denim shorts and flowered blouses,
scabby knees. Somebody prodded her back – she turned, apologetic.
"I'm sorry, I'll get you a new one," she whispered, but they pushed closer. Sharon Kelly stamped on her foot.
"I'll get you a new one," she said, her voice strangled and high-pitched. She flopped her wrist in the air and minced
towards Belinda. "Lah-di-dah," she said, and shoved Belinda backwards.
Everybody laughed. Belinda backed up against the schoolyard wall. Her throat hurt. She only wanted to join in. They
didn't play it at her old school. She had looked up the rules in the library; she had practiced at home, imagining the
lines scratched onto the kitchen linoleum. She jumped; she spun. She counted to ten.
Sharon Kelly's face was an inch from her own. She heard the other's girl breath, a wheezing roar, sweat beading her
sun-peeled nose. Her lips curled upwards, the bruise on her cheek a sour yellow-brown. Her dad's ring scraped a vivid
arc from eye to nostril.
"It's still your turn, Buh-lin-duh," Sharon said, and pulled Belinda's wrist. She grasped it with both hands and
twisted. The burn shot up Belinda's arm and she whimpered. Sharon let go and pushed her into the first chalked
"One," they all chanted, "Two!"
Three, four – a straddled pause for breath, and then five, six, her leg wobbling, the chalked lines wavering in the
steaming heat. Seven, eight, she bent double, her wrist raw and sore, then nine, and ten, a whip-round mid-air onto
the other foot, and she stumbled.
"Out, out" called a couple of girls, looking quickly around for absent teachers, but Sharon shook her head.
“She's still inside the lines – come on, Belinda!”
They all clapped as Belinda hopped faster and faster, her face hot, nearing the last square in a rapid countdown, her
arms out to the side like wings – six, five, four-three, two – Buh-lin-da! Buh-lin-da! - and then she skidded home
and stopped, teetering on the final square, one foot still raised like a flamingo. She looked at Sharon.
“But you haven't got the chalk,” said Sharon, and pulled Belinda's empty palms towards her.
The other girls whispered amongst themselves, took a few steps back, stood behind Sharon. They avoided Belinda's
“You better go back for it,” said Sharon, and walked in a circle around Belinda, pulling her by the hands to face the
squares. Belinda twisted round on one foot. Her ankle gave way and she toppled downwards, but Sharon had her
arms and pulled her upright.
“Better get a move on,” she said, “we haven't got all day.”
Nobody counted or clapped this time as Belinda hopped. When she stepped on the line or placed two feet in one
square for a moment, nobody spoke, but they crowded tight around the chalk outlines, a closed circle. Belinda's
gasps and pants punctuated the silence. Her feet thumped the hot tarmac and scuffed the chalk.
Up and back – up again. Her world narrowed. One foot, turn, the next. Sharon's face loomed, receded. Belinda flew
back and forth, her shoulders aching, the soles of her feet blistering.
Sharon Kelly turned away and yawned. The sky was blighted by a single cloud – it drifted closer, and Sharon wrinkled
her nose. The bell rang; children streamed past. Belinda lurched onwards – nine, ten, turn.
“Come on,” said Sharon to her friends, and they moved away – walking at first, and then breaking into a run, their
shrieks of giddy laughter blasting the sinking quiet of the yard.
Only Belinda remained outside now. She jumped shakily, landing to the left and to the right of the boxes, illegal
moves, her legs trembling. She could do it, jumping, spinning. Her closed eyelids threw up endless lines and numbers,
white on black, and under her breath she counted – one, two, three; one, two, three – as a teacher, puzzled, jogged
slowly towards her, ringing an old brass bell.