I put my arms around her and hold her tight. I say: ‘I believe you.’ When she is calm again I walk to the phone and dial my mother. My voice sounds like a stranger.
‘Please come, something terrible’s happened.’ I am not here.
The day still makes demands. Standing in the hall, minutes before I have to get my son from school, it seems impossible that such a normal act needs performing. I go through the motions of a sane woman: put on my shoes, pick up my keys, but each tiny act feels titanic and exhausting: driving, parking, tripping through the playground, smiling at the good women with happy unsullied lives, it’s cruel how less than human I feel. I am a dead tree but my face will not betray me. My ankles are made of glass. When my boy comes towards me the happiness on his beautiful face is momentarily arresting: you look just like your father. Holding my son’s hand I walk him to the car; laugh at his silly jokes, check his seatbelt is on properly and make sure his drinks container is upright so it doesn’t spill, clinging to the mundane with the tips of my fingers.
Days and nights of madness blur into each other. My mother comes. She takes our son away to stay with my brother and his wife. Released from the secrets that squeezed all the love out of our bond, she is newborn. She moves into my bedroom. I love her so fiercely that, lying next to her at night in bed, her breathing sets the rhythm for my own. Rousing early, unsure if I’ve slept at all, I just watch her, sleeping. I bring her hot milk and blankets in bed and we watch Disney on repeat. We finish each other’s sentences, voice each other’s thoughts, hum melodies straight from the other’s subconscious. I cook for her, whatever she wants. She tries on my clothes and I do her hair but we don’t go out in the daytime. She is released. My need for her to know that I am glad is hysteric. We make a world free from loss, laugh and laugh, but our unshed tears make puddles all over the house until we are sliding on the wooden floors in our slippers. This cannot go on.
I tell her she must go out and she does but she comes home early, breathless, to tell me that she loves me, missed me. When she comes in I am still sat on the stairs where she left me an hour ago. She tells me she wants a baby: babies are soft and warm and they love you. I tell her about the stuff that comes after. I mourn for all the babies that grow up and get hurt. All of them. But mostly for her.
Sometime after he leaves, an old friend gets married. We were supposed to play and sing at her wedding. I tell my friend it’s complicated but he can’t come: I don’t give reasons, can’t pollute her happiness. Taking my daughter instead, I borrow her pink dress because she wants me to, though it’s too small. We drive halfway across the country crying at songs on the radio and arrive late. The wedding is hippy beautiful. My social self is on autopilot, but I grip the back of chairs when no-one is looking: during the Buddhist blessing, my shoulders shake with unshed tears. My friend wants me to sing. Afraid of what might come out of my mouth- a death wail, a keening, mourning lament- we leave before the entertainment starts.
One summer night we get ready and go out to a Chinese eat-all-you-can buffet. Walking down the street I feel a metallic, amphetamine coldness run bone deep, as though I am just on the edge of a come down, heavy, exhausted yet wired, suffused with shame for this life, profoundly sep-a-rate from everything and everyone, marked, raw, desperate. The food is luke warm and I can’t eat much: she finishes mine. I am sorry. I am so so sorry. How long do we go on like this?
The house is a tomb to our dead life: inanimate objects mock me. The corkscrew that we bought on our honeymoon; the bookshelf he cut his thumb assembling. Then, these objects that were around before I knew the truth take on a mystical quality: one night I sleep with a pepper pot held tightly in the fist of my right hand like a votive offering. Life is divided into before and after the fall, running over and over it all in my mind, as if we were a train, and a minor adjustment to the points might have taken us somewhere else: if I hadn’t taken that job, gone back to school, told him that day he tried to hold my hand in the park that I was tired of his moods.
And then there is a hearing and a sentence and we are told what the exact price of our pain is in months and years. This has been decided by a man I will never meet in a room I cannot bring myself to enter. Strangers gather in other rooms I will never see and write things about my family in reports I don’t understand. Her brother comes home. No one tells me what to say to him, how to explain, how to help my babies, how to keep on living. I am not drinking. I go to work. The house is tidy. They tick the box. I am fit mother. They do not like me and they do not help me but one day they do leave us alone. They leave us alone.
Something shifts. She waits months for therapy and when it comes she goes twice, tells me that they don’t understand her, that they make her feel sick. She is angry with me for falling apart. She is angry with me for not falling apart enough. Slowly as the world comes back into view we are pulled apart again by competing grief into a thick sea of soup we cannot wade through, it is complicated and love is hurt is love- into the growing silence I write her letters which she never sees. She comes and goes as she pleases. Wears a thick ring of black around her eyes that screams ‘look at me; don’t look at me.’ Her bedroom smells of sickly green and her friends leave a trail of tobacco on the stairs. They walk around me as I sweep it up with a dustpan. For days and days she says nothing to me but ‘I am going out.’ Each time I hear her come home, my heart veers wildly between hope and fear. She holds herself so tightly in my presence, her arms folded in defiance, but when she is alone in her room and I peer through the crack in the door I see she sags, her shoulders hunching like an old woman. Longing to put my arms around her, lay her head upon my shoulder, the air around us is charged and crackling as if we are wild beasts hunting.
I go back to work and pretend to be a person. Sometimes it’s a relief. For one or two hours I am not me. My students come to me with their problems. I smile and nod my head. Express sympathy. Make suggestions. In a parallel world tectonic plates collide. The end of the world is happening in this place and I am screaming at them to shut up. Go home. Leave me alone.
One day, foraging for washing in her room, I find a tin with a dirty brown square inside and I take it to the back door and throw it high into the air. It arcs like her eyebrows as she watches silently from the kitchen table: and then she goes into the wet garden in her pajamas and searches through the bushes for what seems like hours, ranting and screaming at me. Closing the door so I cannot hear her, watching, my hands are shaking as her mouth makes circles and lines of hate, her middle finger thrusting at my shadow. I want to laugh at this parody of a silent movie but this is not a movie. This is my life.
A musty fug hangs around the house. She eats and eats and doesn’t eat and her weight seems to fluctuate from one week to the next: she is gaunt then puffy. Her filthy bedroom floor is littered with a trail of shiny sweet and chocolate wrappers. She leaves a card on the table one day which tells me that she has an appointment with a youth addiction service but her eyes tell me not to ask questions. Exhausted, I sell things to meet the mortgage payments and work, work, work, still washing and ironing school clothes which she doesn’t wear, cooking her meals she doesn’t eat, leaving her lunch on the table in the morning.
The school calls me in for another meeting. No one in the room can meet my eyes for longer than a few seconds. They ask if I know the kids she is hanging around with, their words full of subtext. Then, into the silence that follows, one of the teachers tells me a story about a student whose mother died this year, about how well she is coping. Why? Do I know the full extent of her absences? There is no right answer: if I do then why have I done nothing?- if I don’t then what kind of mother am I? And then she bursts through the door, late and unapologetic. As she sits and stares at the wall above my head, they tell us that if she continues to take unexplained absences, the next step is prosecution. I watch her right leg twitch and in my head she is a baby at the breast and I am crooning to her from that same hormone addled heart, across the room, right across this office with a wonky sign above the half open door that reads ‘behavioural support.’ I stand up and look the welfare officer in the eye and I tell her that if she thinks she is different from me she is wrong, that if she thinks that she is immune to a life like mine, she is wrong, that there is nothing separating us but a series of random events which could be unfolding right now, in some corner of her world she has painted white and that if she, and the school, really believe that the best way to support my traumatised family is to prosecute us then she must do so but we are leaving now. I reach out my hand to my daughter and she takes it and we do, we leave, half running up the corridor towards the exit like the devil is behind us, and maybe he is.
On the way home she tells me about the teachers in the meeting. About how Mrs Green, the Head of Year, looks like butter wouldn’t melt but everyone knows she broke up Mr Carters marriage; about how the head of behavioural support lost it one day with Tom Gaunt’s mum and she made an official complaint and now poor Tom goes 10 miles into town to another school. We laugh like children at their sensible shoes and smug faces and we go home and bathe in the steam of the kettle, which doesn’t switch itself off automatically since I washed it too vigorously during one of my mad cleaning sprees which happen when I don’t know what else to do, and we drink tea and eat biscuits. Then my heart unravels like a ball of wool and I start to cry, shuddering convulsions that bend me double, come straight from my womb, and I tell her between sobs that I am sorry. That I would sacrifice my only son, spend a thousand years in hell, that I would change the course of history and be damned the consequences if I could keep her safe. She tries to hold me, tell me that it’s not my fault but looking right into her eyes, I tell her that the truth is more complicated, that somewhere, deep inside, she blames me and it is alright. Her anger is owed, because it is my job to protect her and I failed. It is beyond rational: it is no more rational than this cord which still runs from my belly to hers, even though it has been cut. We sit in the early autumnal darkness with our hands joined together in love as fierce as rage.
That half term, I decide we need to get away and spend the last of my precious savings, garnered from the sale of my instruments, on a week in Cornwall. Right until the moment we leave a formless anxiety grips me. What if the cottage is a wreck? What if we have nothing to say to each other? What if her brother has tantrums and they fight and I am alone, far from home with a pair of broken chicks and an unfamiliar nest? But once we are on our way we feel freer than air. We get lost and share a portion of fish and chips in the car: they taste like heaven. By the time we arrive her brother is asleep and we carry him straight from the car to bed, his floppy arms and legs bobbing up and down like a puppet. That night we curl up together in a double bed like puppies and sleep a long and dreamless sleep.
When we wake the sky is moody and promises rain but it doesn’t matter. We creep into the kitchen, the cold stone floor biting at the soles of our feet, and make a pot luck breakfast from the last minute provisions we threw into the car: fruit, chocolate biscuits, crackers and cheese. We wake her brother and we tell him that Piskies came in the night to bring us food: they are small and green and they live in burrows and if he is very, very quiet then he might catch a glimpse of one as he lies in bed waiting for sleep, but only if he keeps his eyes shut tight.
At the beach we buy ponchos for £1.99 to keep the drizzle off. Her brother’s is too big for him and we laugh as he wanders around like Casper the friendly ghost, tripping over the plastic which falls to his ankles. The rain washes away our make-up and frizzes our hair. We build a sea monster out of damp sand and write our names in big letters until the grains are biting at our toes, stuck in our eyelashes, caked between our fingers and in a moment of madness we strip down to our swimmers and run into the sea, which is so cold it burns. On the way home her brother stands on the edge of an 8 foot wall above some jagged rocks and stares into the darkening sky: he asks me ‘If I fall off here will I die?’ I stand behind him and swaddle him with my arms. After a minute she sits on the edge next to him and swings her legs, tells him ‘We’d catch you.’ He nods and we all turn and walk slowly back to the cottage. That night we eat jacket potatoes and play cards because the television doesn’t work. We can’t get the fire to stay alight, but in the black rubble is the smallest circle, glowing, and I focus on it until my eyes hurt, willing it to grow.