The Green Elephant from Tanganyika – a bit of a story
September 2, 2017 § 13 Comments
The beginning of a long abandoned novel, written in the voice of a child who might have second sight. But then again…
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 old snow, and she hid her eggs in the bike shed. If I didn’t find them first, they’d crack open and tiny, oily chicks squirmed out with sharp curly claws and wings too small to be any use at all. The thing I liked most, before I broke it, was a jade elephant with magic inside. Every morning I hung it round 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. A life 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 it 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. 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 like home. I never told her. Never told anyone. Some years later she told me I hadn’t been born in the hospital, but 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 her 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. Ragged curtains hung from the broken window frames, and I was sure something nasty was 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 thought she might.
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. The sound frightened me. She wore lipstick the colour of Sunday roast beef blood, and danced the flamenco with a flower between her teeth. In the winter she used the butter knife. She had a liking for pills and collected them in a Peek Frean’s biscuit tin. Some were to make her sleep when she couldn’t or make her happy when she wasn’t, and some she swallowed 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 hatred of 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 making 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 water, had hard shells around our bodies, and got moody when the moon was full. But I knew we were different.
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 shoe box 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 even 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 hard 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…