The Green Elephant from Tanganyika : draft of first chapter
September 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
I was born twice. The first life wasn’t a long one. It was a slow time and a fast time, and sometimes the slow and the fast came together. It was a time of shininess and bright things, and a knowing it would always be summer even when it rained.
My best friend was a chicken. Her feathers were the colour of city pavement snow, and she hid her eggs in the bike shed. If I didn’t find them first, they cracked open and tiny, oily chicks squirmed out with sharp curled claws with wings too small to be any use for flying. My most treasured possession, before I broke it, was a jade elephant with magic inside. I hung it around my neck on a string of silver.
But even during that first life when I was rather content, I had a sense I didn’t belong – I knew I should have been somewhere else. There was something missing and I couldn’t find it. My life was like a book with the first chapter ripped out.
It could have been my mother’s doing. Although we shared the same words, we spoke a different language. Do this, don’t do that, I’ve told you before, you never listen. Those were her words. I couldn’t get my life right. She was ice and I was fire. We spent our time colliding and running for cover, never quite knowing whether to attack or retreat. Sometimes her will, her cleverness, overpowered me; and it was then that I guessed the reason: I’d been swopped. I’d suckled the wrong breast in the maternity ward. An accident perhaps – a muddle with an identity band; or maybe I’d been exchanged on purpose. Had I been too big, too small, too noisy, too quiet – or just not quite right?
So I had orphan genes; and that would have explained why our house never felt quite like home. I never told her. I never told anyone. Some years later she said I’d been born upstairs on the big bed with the midwife and the doctor and a lot of blood, but knowing that didn’t make me feel I belonged.
When I did things she didn’t like, she’d remind me about that place where bad girls were sent: it was one of the houses across the road. It was her default threat, a desperate bluff to groom me into the invisible child, a silent apparition that never made unreasonable demands or tramped across the clean kitchen floor with muddy boots. The line of terraced cottages was small and neat with gardens of garish roses and green, shaved lawns, except one. The bad girls house was neglected and dirty. Drab muslin curtains were draped precisely over the windows and I was sure something nasty was kept hidden inside. Paint peeled off the grey front door like curls of dirty wallpaper; and a car, weeping red with rust, sank slowly into the driveway. She never sent me there, but I believed her anyway.
My mother had long, black mermaid hair in those days, and Dad called her a bit of a spitfire. Her hair and her temper were what I knew best, the other things she kept secret. She was a wild woman then, and when Dad was at work she flung her shoes across the kitchen floor and danced. It was the only time I heard her laugh. It was a sound that frightened me. She wore lipstick the colour of Sunday roast beef blood, and danced the flamenco with a flower between her teeth. If it was winter, she used a spoon instead. She had a liking for tablets, and collected them in a Peek Frean’s biscuit tin. She had pills to make her sleep when she couldn’t, pills to make her happy when she wasn’t, and pills for when life simply got too much. She kept the tin on top of the dresser next to the brandy used for ’emergencies’.
She came from a long line of Baptist preachers on her mother’s side, which may have accounted for her aversion to religion; but she did believe in the stars. She cut her horoscope carefully out of the paper each week, propping it up on the mantelpiece to remind her that life had already been decided and there was nothing she could do about it. Every so often she tried to interest me in astrology saying it would make me feel safe, a bit like believing in God, she insisted, but it made more sense. She told me I was a Cancerian, which meant my sign was the Crab. Hers was Scorpio. She said we were the same because we were both ruled by the water, had hard shells around our bodies, and became unreliable when the moon was full; but also we were very different. She had a sting in her tail she used in the form of a temper when no one expected it, and I had pincers to hold on tight with, and to pinch. She said this made me stubborn and spiteful.
The full moon was the time the devil got into her, and the reason my father sat in the snug of The Hunter’s Moon until closing time nursing a warm pint of Guinness. I would stand at the kitchen door ready to run, waiting for her to stop as the dinner plates hit the floor. Plates were her favourite – they smashed loudest on the stone tiles and left razor sharp splinters in my feet as reminders. An angry red halo wobbled in the air around her, and her tantrum filled my head and burned as if I was too close to the fire. Then suddenly she would be fine, and Dad and I knew we were safe until the moon grew full again.
The beginning of my second life came suddenly: it was on the day the accident happened. I closed my eyes and found I could see things. Pictures that moved like dreams. Almost in colour but not quite. Faded and soft at the edges like the sepia photographs of long dead relatives my mother kept in the shoebox under her bed.
They pressed hard against my skull trying to get out, and made the inside of my head feel too small for its bones.
At first I thought they were the daydreams my mother was always complaining I had too many of, but I knew they were real because they wouldn’t go away. I asked them nicely, I told them with words my mother said were bad, I tried keeping my eyes open all the time – but all I got was itchy eyes and a headache. It felt like something was in there that wasn’t me. I found the spot on the top of my head, the one where the bones hadn’t joined up I wasn’t supposed to touch – and pressed my finger into the soft hollow. I could feel the beating heart of something small – like something was breathing and trying to get out.
I was five when the first picture appeared in my head. It made me want to crawl up like a caterpillar and hide. A man was standing at the front door of our house looking upset. My mother stood there holding the new baby in her arms, gasping like a fish and looking pale around the gills. ‘Bloody hell!’ she said.
‘Terribly sorry,’ said the man in a voice much too small for him. Mum had one of her flowery aprons on I liked to hide under, and the blood on the man was mine: bright red five year old smears of my life juice on his hands and all down the front of his black leather bomber jacket. That was the time I got confused, because I knew where I was, and it wasn’t at the front door of our house. I was lying curled up crooked, eyes tight shut, next to a fallen over motor bike and two curvy black skid marks on the white Give Way sign next to our house. I was seeping red slowly onto the tarmac. I was in two places at once.
An unfinished novel, written in the voice of a child who has second sight and can see things other people can’t. Any comments will be readily and gratefully received. How does it make you feel, would you like to read more?