From the Novel: The Gift of Looking Closely
Even now, I can feel myself disappearing.
There was a time when I checked every day, studied the pale skin inside my wrists and elbows, imagined the flesh of my arms turned transparent, the blue veins running clear. Years later, I know the disappearing is more subtle than that, but I can’t stop it. Not by myself.
If just one person really knew me, I think it would be enough. One person who knew I have strange thoughts; that I see things I shouldn’t; that my feelings bend me double.
It’s a lot to ask, especially now, when things are so intimate, so complex. But we won’t start here, we’ll go back to the beginning. There will be notes to fill in the gaps.
You be Claire then, and I’ll watch.
This is where you live:
Down a short lane past the big houses on the left.
Past green fields on the right.
At the end of the lane, next to a churchyard without a church.
This is where you’ve always lived, in the square white house with the grey slate roof. It was the vicar’s house - there used to be a sign by the door - but your mother took it down the day they moved in; she said it wasn’t the vicar’s house anymore it was hers.
Two hundred years ago, the villagers took the church apart, piece by piece, used the bricks and windows to build something else. But even without the church, this is still consecrated ground. People are still buried under the gravestones.
As a child, you sat here in the summer, in the long grass with your back resting against James Frank Strong you remember this still, feel the rough stone at your back, your shoulder blades tingling while small lizards clattered along the boundary wall. On hot days you used a watering can to fill the stone birdbath and the orange lichen looked dry even when it was wet.
Sometimes you sat in the shade of the yew tree that had grown next to the church for a hundred years, then next to the church-shaped space left behind, shading the flagstones of the old church floor. You knew all the inscriptions on the gravestones. You still know most of them.
Henry, son of George and Sarah Drake.
February 25th 1848 aged 5 months
Suffer little children to come unto me
Also the above named George Drake.
Died May 14th 1870 aged 54 years
Also Sarah, widow of the above named George Drake.
Died July 12th 1882 aged 70 years
There are seventeen graves like this - the child buried first, the father, then the mother. The babies waited in the ground while their parents lived on.
In winter, you sat on the bench shaped like a cloverleaf, with three seats. You sat on a different seat each time it had to be a different one each time - you left a sign to make sure you remembered, a chip of gravel or twigs placed one across another with your feet tucked up. Sometimes, there were fox tracks in the snow.
There’s a wooden gate, to the side, and a path from the churchyard into your own garden next door. Not a tended garden, a tangle. Bramble, ferns and wildflowers, always green because of the stream running along the back boundary and a tangle because that’s how your mother liked it.
Your parents took out life insurance the day they got married. They couldn’t imagine being able to breathe without each other, she said; let alone earn a living. You picture the way it happened. See:
Your parents - just married - in a bland office, a financial advisor’s office. She sits on your father’s lap, winds herself around him, smiles over his shoulder at the man in the suit behind the desk.
‘We can’t breathe without each other,’ she says.
But when she died, he didn’t stay off work for long; he couldn’t bear to be at home without her and went back to his job within days, back to his library and his books. At home in the evenings, he spent hours sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space. He was too thin, his hair too long. You avoided him at first, stayed out as late as you could, working at the nursery until the sun went down. But once you realised that there would be no discussion, it wasn’t so bad. You could sit for a long time together saying nothing. And then, finally, he would stand up.
‘Time for bed, then.’
And you listened to his footsteps creaking on the stairs, passing over you along the narrow hallway to his bedroom. Their bedroom.
When the local library closed, he asked for a transfer. He gave up on the house altogether, put it in your name and went to live in a flat in town by the sea. He calls now and then, asks how you are. He invites you to visit. It’s been four years since you went.
This is what home means:
A dwelling place or fixed residence. An institution of refuge or rest.
From outside, your home is blank-faced, but it has its rules. You have to step down as you go through the front door into the kitchen. You have to duck your head going from the kitchen into the tiny living room. You have to turn sideways on the narrow staircase that leads down to the cellar. And when you go upstairs to the bedrooms, you have to step on a creaky stair because there are three creaky ones in a row and they are too steep to step over all at once.
Some of the rooms are more yours than others. The kitchen is yours, the round table almost entirely covered with your collected stuff - wood, small branches and twigs. Pebbles, snail shells, seed pods. They are clustered in vases and jam jars, packed into baskets. Every now and again, you look through each collection, taking stock, sorting. If you can no longer see the shapes that first captured your interest, you put them out in the garden or take them to the woods. You leave small bundles to fall apart gently in their own time, to decay unwatched.
So. The kitchen is yours, and the living room too. A small room, low-ceilinged, with one enormous striped sofa in front of the open fireplace, a coffee table, no room for anything else. Your gardening books and magazines are stacked under the table and next to the sofa. Left of the fireplace, there’s a narrow wooden door painted the same cream as the walls; that’s the door to the staircase.
Upstairs, the first bedroom is yours. There’s a large bed in a small room all those shameful bags and packages stuffed under the bed but you try not to think about them with cream walls and cream bedding, and the same wild flower curtains you had when you were fourteen, the names in calligraphy. Foxglove. Cowslip. Loosestrife.
The bathroom is yours. One toothbrush. One towel.
The other bedroom, the one where your mother died, is still hers. And the study, in the extension off the back of the kitchen, still belongs to your parents, the two of them together.
This is where you keep your mother’s letters:
In the study, in the writing bureau. In a dark wooden box the size of a shoebox, the lid inlaid with mother of pearl.
Inside, there are twenty-three letters written on thick cream paper. Your father gave them to you, wrapped in one of her silk scarves, the day after the funeral.
‘Your mother left these for you,’ he said, his eyes red-rimmed and flat. ‘She started writing them as soon as she knew.’ You looked down, began to count the worn stitches in the patterned carpet. When you looked up again, he was still offering the bundle, so you took it from him.
‘She thought it might be a way to stay with you, even after she was gone,’ he said.
You felt something then. Starting at the notch in your collarbone, it crept up into your throat. Nasty. You clamped your mouth shut and looked down again, until you heard your father’s slippers pat a slow retreat.
You went to your room, carefully unwrapped the scarf. One by one, you unpeeled each envelope, read every letter very slowly, every word. There was no explanation. No apology.
You put the letters away and didn’t look at them again for a long time.
This is how it is when you wake up:
In the seconds between sleep and waking, you rise to the surface, dragging the weight of your dreams behind you. They are dreams of underwater creatures, pale and blind. You wish you could bend your sleeping thoughts into kinder shapes, create a place where the poor things could thrive. Instead you watch their slow progress through the murky water, concerned for their softness, fearful of eels with fins like razors hiding in the mud.
In the seconds between sleep and waking, you rise, squirming.
Some mornings, you open your eyes and let the feelings go. Some mornings, you can’t. You lie in bed, watching the light filter through the curtains, while fear floats in the room. You are familiar with the way it works, this fear. It hovers, looking for something to attach to.
The dictionary is reassuring. In the dictionary, fear is just a painful emotion caused by the presence of danger; it can be pinned down by small black letters in short lines. In the dictionary, fear is put in its place, after fealty; given no more space or significance than feather or feast. It is pressed between hard covers.
You press your fear between the hard edges of real things – knotting the belt of your dressing gown; turning the head of the tap; cupping the flow of water in your palm until it warms. You pin it down with small actions – cutting a slice of bread; rinsing a plate; ironing a shirt.
In this way, by the time you step out of the house and pull the door shut behind you, you have made it small enough to take with you.
See. These are not comfortable shoes. But where they rub, where they hurt and most make you notice they aren’t yours – those are the best places to get to know me. And it might get easier.
This is an extract from Al Brookes' first novel which you can buy via www.albrookes.co.uk
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