December 2, 2015 § 12 Comments
a short story: second and final part
The men sail into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird has drowned, caught by the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They haul it off the deck and leave it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lies there untouched, unburied – no one will return this bad omen to the sea.
That night when the clouds are masking the moon, Efa squats on the cobbles and plucks the long white feathers from its wings.
Anghared watches. ‘Why are you doing that?’
‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure Penn’s soul will be liberated.’
‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’
Efa shakes her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he will be free.’
The albatross shrinks and blackens on the harbour wall, and the child inside Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat can no longer be kept a secret.
The priest lays a a hand on her shoulder. ‘I am sorry,’ he says. ‘Penn’s body has been found in the bay.’
She begins to shiver. ‘In that case, I do not want to live.’
‘Come to confession. Your evil thoughts must be purged.’
‘I will not,’ she wails. ‘I have done nothing wrong.’
The women no longer come to the harbour wall, but Anghared continues to stand, her back hard against the wind.
‘Why do you still wait?’ asks the harbour master’s wife.
‘I am not. I am singing to Penn.’
‘And can he hear?’
‘Of course.He sings back.’
‘Of what does he sing?’
‘I will not say. You would not understand.’
Efa opens her arms. ‘Come to my house and eat. You are wasting away. This child will think it is unwanted.’
‘Perhaps the child is right,’ says Anghared, turning away. ‘I want Penn.’
Efa goes to the priest. ‘She’ll go the way of her husband,’ she says.
‘That is wrong in the eyes of the Lord. It will be a sin if she takes her own life.’
‘But she needs our help. She says she has no life without him. She is broken.’
‘Then I will pray for her soul. But if she will not admit her sin, there is nothing to be done.’
The church is full. Anghared grips the pew until her knuckles turn white, Penn’s coat hanging from her shrunken frame, her belly full and round. As his body is lowered to the ground, Efa holds her tight. ‘Stand back. You will fall.’
‘I shall fall if I want!’ she spits. ‘You lied to me.’
‘How did I lie?’
Anghared points at the coffin.
‘Wait a little longer,’ says Efa.
The two women stand silently by the grave until they are alone. Soon the priest returns. ‘Come to confession now, my child. God wants to hear of your sinful thoughts.’
‘There can be no God!’ she says bitterly. ‘And I am not your child.’
Efa closes her eyes for a moment then opens her bag. She takes out the albatross feathers one by one, and arranges them on the mound of newly turned earth.
‘Take them away!’ orders the priest, crossing himself. ‘I will not have a pagan act on God’s soil.’ Efa gathers the feathers and throws them in the air. They float and twist around Anghared’s head.
When the women of the village hear what Efa has done they jeer and call her a witch. ‘Keep away from Anghared,’ they say. But Efa takes no notice, and sensing that her time is near, knocks on Anghared’s door. ‘I have come to help,’ she says simply.
‘The others say I should not have you in my house. I have no need of you.’
‘I have food and blankets. And healing herbs.’ She lays them on the kitchen table and hands her a bunch of sage leaves. ‘To protect you from evil.’
Anghared is hungry so she eats the proffered meal. Then the pains begin. Sudden and sharp they shoot through her body as a warning. ‘I want to die,’ she groans, curling her body into a tight coil upon the kitchen floor. Efa covers her with blankets, and boils a kettle of water to make medicine from the birthing herbs. But still Anghared shrieks.
‘You are stopping this child from coming,’ says Efa. ‘It will not be born until it knows it will be loved.’
Anghared tosses and turns on the floor. As the moon comes up, her bloody waters burst. ‘My back will break in two,’ she moans.
But still the child will not come. Efa paces the floor. ‘We must find him, and we must go now.’ Anghared has no strength left to argue and allows Efa to help her to her feet. Draping the greatcoat around her shoulders, and taking most of Anghared’s weight, she helps her outside. Every few yards she stands quietly as Anghared breathes through her pain. They come to the lych gate. ‘I will wait here for you,’ she says. ‘Now go.’ The gate creaks its opening, and the arc of the new moon casts empty shadows on the gravestones. Anghared struggles up the path and disappears.
Efa sits inside the lych gate and closes her eyes. As her breathing slows, a chill creeps through her body and fills her heart. She begins to shiver. This is a place of death, not life, she thinks. We should not be here. An owl hoots. It’s warning me. I have done wrong. Exhausted, she lets her eyes close.
She wakes to a shuddering in the early morning air. Opening her eyes, she sees a great white bird lifting itself clumsily into the light. Something has ended, she thinks.
The sun rises behind the steeple. A blackbird lands on the lych gate roof and begins to sing. Efa walks slowly up the path. As she reaches the grave she cries out. The ground is covered with pure white feathers. Anghared lies curled up beneath them, the rise and fall of her chest invisible. Penn’s greatcoat is bundled on the ground beside her.
‘Are you all right?’ she whispers, expecting no answer.
‘We are here,’ breathes Anghared, wrapping her arms around the greatcoat. ‘We are all here. I am whole again.’
‘Why do you not cover yourself?’ Efa hears a whimper inside the greatcoat, and Anghared reaches inside for the boy child.
‘He kept his promise. I will never be alone. I am alive again.’
Image courtesy National Geographic
December 1, 2015 § 9 Comments
A short story: part one
Every day the woman comes, her face turned towards the ocean, her back poker straight to fight the wind. All day she whispers, her lips fluttering sounds no one can understand. The dying storm catches the words and flings them back in her face.
She paces back and forth along the harbour wall, her bare feet sliding raw inside sea boots too big for her. Each night she slips them off and lines them up beside the black iron bed. She knows he would have liked her wearing his boots, he would have understood. She wears his army greatcoat too even though people stare. Anghared doesn’t care. She wraps the thick coat around her body like a shroud, and pulls its collar tight over her nose. She has to have the smell of him, make him flesh and blood again. She drinks in his sweat, his salt, the cigarettes he smokes when his boat works the fishing grounds.
She stops in her tracks as if remembering something long forgotten, and steps gingerly to the edge where the harbour wall meets the waves. She looks down to where the slimy film of weed settles and thrives in the cracks between the cobbles. Dragged by the full moon like a compass point to the north, a shoal of jellyfish cluster tight against the wall, floating like thickened water without apparent plan or will. It is time for the females to drop their eggs and for the males to squirt their sperm into the sea. The shoal begins to dance its ritual that makes new life, and Anghared hugs Penn’s coat tight to her belly. She smiles at the brightening horizon. ‘It’s a sign, Penn. We too have made new life, and when you return, you will see.’ She doesn’t see the eggs sinking to the bottom where the lobsters wait and snap their claws in anticipation.
The next day she comes again. This time the moon is hidden and the jellyfish gone.
‘Go home,’ says Efa, the harbourmaster’s wife. ‘Nothing good will come of this. Penn will come back when it’s time.’
‘When?’ she asks.
‘As I said, when it is time.’
‘But when will that be?’
‘Be patient, Anghared,’ the woman soothes.
‘But I want to see him now.’
‘Trust me. He will come, but you may not recognise him.’
The other wives as is their custom when a fisherman does not return, come to the wall every day for seven days. They stand back from the edge near the slime of seaweed with their mouths set in a sharp, thin line. The younger women hold the hands of their children so tight their knuckles turn white, and the old wives bring fishing rods on their backs with bread and currants for bait, and pretend to fish; but they are simply waiting too. When they stand too close to Anghared or when they lift an arm to put around her shoulders, she lowers her gaze and turns her back. Her face grows stiff, and lines like grey commas stretch around the edges of her mouth.
Sometimes she is there before dawn when the smacks leave for the fishing grounds. They sail silent and colourless out of the glassy harbour, sometimes followed by flecks of phosphorescence that flow like the tails of the manta ray the men sometimes catch in the nets. Penn says the old men call this glittering the stars of the sea. ‘It means the boats will return with their holds full of fish.’
‘Like a sort of magic?’ she asks.
‘No,’ he laughs. ‘There’s no such thing. It’s just plankton. When it comes, so do the hungry fish. All we have to do is catch them.’
The fishermen cast their eyes down to their boots as they pass through the harbour mouth, the greatcoat flapping around Anghared’s body like a clumsy bird struggling to take flight. They make no sound of greeting but each raises an arm as a mark of respect, as a sign they know she must keep vigil.
Efa watches every day from her cottage at the end of the harbour wall. ‘Come away,’ she says on the eighth day, pulling at the young woman’s sleeve. ‘At least when the child is born it will have the soul of its father.’
‘There will be no child,’ retorts Anghared bitterly.
‘You know that’s your sadness speaking,’ Efa replies sternly. ‘You can’t hide it from me. It has been growing in your belly for six weeks now.’
The full moon comes once more, and still she waits. The plankton glitters, and the jellyfish come back and thicken the water by the harbour wall. And still he doesn’t come…
A revised story written and blogged a while back. The concluding part should come tomorrow… 🙂
January 11, 2014 § 27 Comments
A short story: second and final part
The cold winds raced around the garden, and Isabella felt strange.
‘Best place is bed,’ said her mother, tucking her in. ‘You’re burning up.’ But Isabella got hotter. She kicked off the bedclothes and her limbs turned to ice. She made a cocoon of her duvet and her body filled with fire. She tore off her pyjamas and thrust the cover aside. Isabella didn’t care anymore. Everything was muddled. Curling up naked on the bed, she closed her eyes and began to drift. The pain in her body floated away, and she had the oddest sensation she was losing her skin.
Then suddenly she was wide awake. Opening her eyes, she looked down and saw herself lying naked on the bed. ‘You really do look poorly,’ she said sternly. ‘And why aren’t you wearing your pyjamas?’ Isabella’s body didn’t move. ‘Humph. Well I don’t care if you don’t answer me. It’s so nice to be flying again… only Mum said I really shouldn’t, so I suppose I…’
She stretched out her arms and aimed at her body. But like a drifting balloon, she rose higher and higher. She moved her limbs as if swimming in deep water. She paddled harder and faster. Nothing happened. ‘Help!’ she yelled. ‘I don’t want to die.’
Isabella had crashed.
Thump, thump, thump.
High above the clouds, Isabella was hitting something hard and invisible.
‘I warned you before. Come down at once!’ It was her mother. ‘If you go any further you’ll be in heaven – and then you’ll be stuck.’
Isabella looked around and started to wobble. Losing her balance, she began to fall: faster and faster, plummeting out of control. She tumbled past the stars, between the heavy, black clouds, through the cold, sharp rain. And then she saw her street. There was her house, her garden, her swing. Spreading her limbs like a bat, she slowed herself down – pulling up sharp just before she hit the ground. Swooping through the front door, she glided up the banisters, and missing the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs, swerved around the sharp corner into her bedroom. Her body lay on the bed under the duvet. Isabella held her breath, and plunged back inside.
‘You look cold and confused,’ her mother whispered, tucking her in. ‘You’d fallen asleep with no clothes on, and I couldn’t wake you up. You do look much better.’ She put the thermometer under Isabella’s tongue.
‘I’ve had a very peculiar dream.’
‘It was probably the fever,’ she smiled, taking the thermometer out of Isabella’s mouth. ‘Good. All back to normal.’
‘Were you telling me off a minute ago?’ Isabella asked.
‘I was not. I was doing the washing up.’
The hair on her parents’ heads turned silver, and the garden swing was gone. ‘You should come and see us more often,’ her father sighed.
I wish I lived closer,’ she replied. ‘Mum isn’t herself these days.’
Her mother’s mind could only hold the past. The present did not exist.’Someone’s taken Isabella’s swing,’ she complained. ‘Isn’t it time to get her from school?’
‘Sometimes she cooks for three,’ he said. ‘Then worries when you don’t come home to eat. She’s always falling asleep; and when I wake her, it’s as if she’s in a dream and can’t escape. She says she wants to go home.’
Her mother’s mind was dividing itself in two: slipping in and out of the world she knew and shared with others, and another that no one could know but her. ‘I write labels on everything,’ said her father, with a sigh. ‘But she can’t remember what the words mean any more.’
Isabella was waiting for something to happen. She couldn’t settle. She sat bolt upright in bed when the phone rang. ‘You must come now,’ said her father. ‘It’s your mother.’
She drove fast. Kissing the warm, papery cheek, her mother opened her eyes.’She’s happy you’re here,’ he said. ‘She hasn’t responded to anyone. Not even me.’ All that day her mother slipped between this world and the next. As day turned to night her chest stopped moving – then she spluttered, struggling for air. Again and again her breathing stopped for a few moments, then she took a desperate gasp of air.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ Isabella whispered. But her mother lay quiet – her eyes flickering beneath her lids.
Her father rested in the next room, and Isabella sat by the bed. Exhausted, she passed fitfully in and out of sleep. Her father came with a blanket, and Isabella began to dream. She was alone with her mother: standing close by her side facing a closed door. She took her mother’s hand. It trembled slightly beneath her touch. ‘Soon it will be time, Mum. You can leave when you’re ready.’
‘But I want to be here. And I’m afraid. What if I don’t like it on the other side?’
‘Come with me,’ Isabella whispered. ‘We’ll go together.’ She opened the door, and their bodies flooded with a clear white light. ‘Look Mum. It’s beautiful.’
Her mother’s hand became firm. ‘Yes,’ she said. Now I remember. And it is time. And do you remember too, Isabella?’
‘What should I remember?’
‘That you are staying here. I’ll come and tell you when it’s your turn.’
Her mother untangled her hand from Isabella’s grasp, and walked into the light.
January 10, 2014 § 18 Comments
A short story in two parts. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.
Enjoy – and any feedback, as always, will be appreciated!
The first time it happened, Isabella was playing in the garden. She’d fallen off the swing and landed upside down on her head. A feeling of lightness stirred in her solar plexus, spreading through her body until the tips of her toes tingled with a pleasurable kind of emptiness. Isabella looked down and saw herself lying crumpled in the grass. She was floating – or to be precise – something that had been inside her body had got out and was cruising around in the sunlight in a rather disorderly fashion. Isabella had left her body behind.
She hovered for a while trying to keep her balance, then discovering a pair of invisible limbs, moved them back and forth in a kind of frenetic breaststroke she’d been practicing at swimming club. The air was slippery and heavy like water.
‘What are you doing up there?’ her mother yelled. ‘If you go any higher you won’t come back, and you’ll stay dead forever.’
Isabella looked around but couldn’t see her mother anywhere. She pointed herself sleek as a shark, and swooping down into the garden slipped back inside her body. She had found the sensation of lightness utterly delightful.
Isabella came round and opened her eyes. Bright lights flickered at the end of her bed, and machines were clicking like the crickets that hung upside down on her bedroom ceiling. Everything echoed and was making her head swim. She closed her eyes tight shut.
Her mother sat by the bed squeezing a handkerchief.
‘Where am I?’ Isabella asked.
‘In hospital, my love.’
‘You had a little accident.’
Isabella blinked, and squinted at her mother. ‘What did you mean about me staying dead forever?’
‘I said nothing of the sort. All I did was shriek and dial 999. You must have imagined it.’
‘But I didn’t.’
‘Have a little nap, sweetheart,’ her mother sniffled. ‘They think you’ve got concussion.’
Isabella never forgot that day, and on the way home from hospital she decided she’d never, ever go flying again in case she got stuck and ended up dead.
But she wasn’t altogether successful. It started happening again. If she was cross, or frightened – or just wanted to be somewhere else because she was bored – she slid out of her body and cruised around for a while. After about five minutes – although she was never sure how long it really was as time was passing in a rather peculiar way – she slid back in again. Although it was a nice feeling, Isabella found being in two places at once rather confusing.
Nobody seemed to notice anything strange, until her mother made an announcement. ‘Your father and I have thinking,’ she said. ‘You’re always falling asleep these days. It might help if you went to bed earlier.’
Isabella rarely argued with her mother – it wasn’t worth the trouble when she used her slow, loud voice – so she went to bed half an hour earlier every night. It didn’t help. She still fell asleep without warning in front of the telly, and however hard her mother shook her, Isabella wouldn’t wake up until her body had joined itself up with the rest of her.
She didn’t really mind about the early nights, because she could go places without anyone noticing. She kept an atlas under her bed, and was soon travelling the world. She flew around corners and saw things that were supposed to be private, like next door’s baby being born; and she flew so high she could see the whole planet revolving in front of her in bright shades of green and blue. If somewhere took her fancy – like Italy because it was shaped like a boot – or the Horse Latitudes where she could hunt for her favourite animal, she would point her arms into a dive, and zoom in like a telescope to get a better look.
Isabella stayed tired, but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. ‘Must be psychological’, he said. ‘I recommend lots of sleep.’ Then it happened: Isabella stopped leaving her body.
That winter the dog got sick. Titus was old and stiff, and could no longer climb the stairs to sleep in his favourite place on Isabella’s bed. He got thinner too, because he forgot to eat. He lay in his basket all day, and even refused the chocolate she saved for him in secret.
‘His body’s wearing out,’ said her mother. ‘Soon it will be time for him to go to heaven.’
‘Is that where I nearly went?’ Isabella asked.
‘I really don’t know, my love. But it’s alright now because you don’t go there anymore, do you?’
‘No, I don’t, she replied.
Every night for a week, Isabella stroked the old dog’s bony frame. ‘It’s probably very nice in heaven,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sure you’ll like it.’
On the seventh day, his breathing slowed down to a whisper, and the air around him turned dark into a grey cloud. He opened his eyes wide, looked hard at his mistress, and breathed out a loud, slow sigh. A shiny, bright shadow rose slowly from his body and hovered above his head. Isabella put out her hand to catch it, but it floated through her flesh – like her hand wasn’t there – and was gone.
She put her lips to his ear. ‘Are you coming back, Titus? If you don’t do it soon, you might get stuck there forever.’ Titus paddled his front legs like he was having a chasing dream, then lay perfectly still.
November 20, 2013 § 9 Comments
Another excerpt from a novel in progress. I thought it was dead, but it seems I may be wrong. A first draft. Freya is in hospital after her accident. This is her first encounter with Daisy, her imaginary friend.
Freya lay on her back waiting for the dark. ‘Daisy?’ she whispered, like she had a secret to tell. ‘Speak to me.’
‘Nice name. That’s what I shall call myself,’ she said. ‘And can I smell bones?’ Daisy breathed in deep through her nose.
‘That’s because I’m in a place called an infirmary,’ answered Freya. ‘It’s where children come when they break them. Sometimes they come here to die too.’
‘Will you be my friend?’
‘I will. But first go back to sleep.’
So she did. Daisy became her sleeping draught and her cuddle after prayers.
She came when Freya called her, and sometimes when she didn’t. If she kept her eyes tight shut Daisy came and breathed warm breath on Freya’s face, but if she opened them a chink, Daisy disappeared.
Freya woke again after a few minutes. She felt the heaviness of Daisy’s hand on her head. Her toes tingled. ‘Where do you come from?’
‘Do you live on my street?’
‘Do you live in a hotel then?’
Still no answer.
‘I know. You live in the sky, don’t you?’
Freya opened her eyes, but she’d gone.
She liked to come best when it was dark. No one ever saw her but Freya – not even the night nurse who sat under the yellow light reading a book. Daisy was much too smart for that.
That first night they met she kept coming back. ‘You busy?’ she whispered.
‘Do I look like I’m busy?’ asked Freya.
‘You want to play?’
Freya tried to nod but the bandages got in the way. She kept her eyes firmly shut.
‘Let’s do make believe,’ suggested Daisy. ‘What would you like me to look like today?’
‘Don’t mind. What do you think?’
‘I think I’ll have long, yellow hair and talk to you like I’m an angel.’
‘What shall we talk about then?’
‘That’s easy,’ she said. ‘We’ll talk about nice things like getting better soon and not hurting.
But sometimes they had quiet, cloudy days when Freya felt she was floating over her bed. Daisy kept quiet then, and hovered about looking like a fairy. ‘What are you doing?’ asked Freya.
‘Not a lot,’ she said. ‘Except maybe making some magic.’
For many days Freya drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes she didn’t know if she was real any more. ‘I keep having a funny dream.’
‘I jump off a high bridge and someone I can’t see is holding my hand.’
‘Were you scared?’ Daisy asked.
‘Very. And then I wasn’t because I stopped falling and just swung there like I was a pendulum in the grandfather clock.’
‘Don’t be scared,’ she said. ‘It was me. I was holding your hand.’
Freya dozed off. Wings grew out of her shoulders. Big and dangerous like a swan’s. She flapped hard, trying to soar up to heaven, but she wobbled and fell out of the sky. She opened her wings just before she hit the ground. She forgot about heaven and fluttered about in her garden instead. She practised swooping about like a bat hunting for flies. Freya was enjoying herself. She closed her wings like an arrow and shot through the doorway into the house, and glided up the banisters without clipping the grandfather clock. Then she remembered she wasn’t breathing, slithered down the stairs and woke up.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ asked Daisy with a pout.
‘Just stop it right now, and listen.’
‘You remember that pendant your Auntie Bea gave you?’
It was Freya’s favourite thing. ‘You mean the green one that looks like an elephant?’
‘That’s the one. Do you still have it?’
‘Course. It’s got good luck inside and came all the way from Africa.’
‘I want you to throw it away.’
‘Won’t. It takes care of me.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Daisy, turning her lips into an even bigger pout.
‘Auntie Bea said.’
Daisy screwed up her face. ‘I don’t think that’s right. It’s bought you nothing but trouble.’
October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
An excerpt from an unfinished novel…
It wasn’t right. No familiar odours. No smell of frying onions and bacon for breakfast, her mother’s cigarette, the burning toast. No. Then her nose remembered – remembered the stink that always frightened her for some unfathomable reason and made her reach for her mother’s hand. Freya opened her eyes and looked at a white ceiling. A long way away, it was moving; turning slowly round and round a light bulb. She blinked.
‘She’s coming round.’ The light bulb lit up, and Freya snapped her eyes shut. ‘Freya,’ the voice asked. ‘Can you hear me?’ It was a question, and she knew a question needed an answer. She opened her mouth but no words came out. She tried again but the words were stuck in her head. She felt something hot on her face covering her mouth and her nose. She tried to raise her arms to pull it off, but they wouldn’t move.
Why isn’t my mother here? she thought. Where is my father? Freya refused to open her eyes after that. She kept them tight shut so she could remember. A picture came: a man and a woman – they lived next to the cottage where her mother said bad girls were sent. She was not supposed to talk to him. He was tall and stringy, and had lines like a road map all over his face. She had a pink puffed up face and was crying. Freya was in their house. A coal fire was burning in the grate, and she was lying in front of it on their hearthrug. It was red. Everything was red. She was red.
‘This will make you feel better,’ said the voice, and she felt a prick in her arm.
A new picture came. Inside a white van – she was lying down, people were talking quickly – white clouds floated about, getting bigger and bigger – there was that smell again. A siren started. The biggest cloud hovered over her and began to sink – she was below swallowed up. Freya felt her the edges of her mouth turn up into a smile, and she went to sleep.
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?