This story came from ideas seeded in a newspaper clipping. I still have the clipping.
A mother of two has killed her three-year old daughter and husband in an incident at their home. The woman’s other daughter, 8, is in intensive care at Leeds General Infirmary in West Yorkshire, with severe head injuries following a fall. The woman, who suffers from acute schizophrenia, attended the same Yorkshire hospital for injuries to her hands before being released into police custody.
The mornings were pink and the afternoons green and brown. Evenings were harder. Evenings were bruisy and shifting. They were a colour all right, but no colour with a name. No colour easy to define.
It’s the reaching out.
It’s always the reaching out that does it.
The same, same dream, same detail, same accident. Accidents. And it starts with waking. This is the final act. It starts
The room is full of moonlight. He isn’t there.
The unfocused interior and broken stillness ringing round the room. It’s her old bedroom – the scent of powdery wallpaper thick enough to touch. Fishing up from the safety of sleep is never pleasant. After the freedom of weightless absence, the heaviness of the body is oppressive, dragging on the bones. There are eyelids to recall, the awkwardness and reluctance of the mechanism, optic nerves tugging against their moorings. All of it hurts. This place is undeniable now. It keeps coming back. It always does. This room. It is full of moonlight. The rim of the bed electric blue from the artificial brightness beyond the curtain. Nobody ever closes them. That could mean winter, it might be winter with no expectation of early dawn. These swollen ellipses overhead, rubbing against the ceiling surreptitiously, are balloons. Party leftovers. They’re nosing the pale plaster up there like fish kissing the surface of a tank, needing to feed.
This is a deep-sea tank. You are at the bottom.
The air clings, the time of night turning her arms to underwater grey. But for all that, the room is not chill. Not at all. The blankets are thick, the bed reassuringly solid. There are animals, toys perhaps, face-down in the corners of the carpet, a bundle of cast-off clothing splayed over a chair: dungarees, a round-collared shirt, socks edged with lace. Nearby are a pair of sandals, one like a wind-break on its side. The casts of toes, a shore-line, are outlined in dye on the white tips of their soles. Her toes. A long time ago perhaps, but hers. That scent on the shirred cotton would be hers too if she bothered to get up and check, but there’s no real need. Closing her eyes tight is all it takes to recall the cool of the cloth, the awkwardnesses of these buckles, buttons, straps. Hands not her own have smoothed those surfaces over no breasts at all, hauled her backwards from the oncoming traffic by those straps. They are thin straps and leave marks, a red blood harness on a baby chest. Those pencils on the desk carry imprints of milk-teeth. Elsewhere, over the desk, are bears. Frieze. That’s her mother’s word: frieze, but it’s got nothing to do with cold. It means BEARS, groups of threes, etched on the memory from repeated watching, their picnic scattered on the painted grass, stalking each other across the facing wall in awful repetitions with the letter B. After all this time the bears seem no closer to whatever it is they‘re chasing beyond the bounds of the paper rim. They’ll never catch it now. They show no disappointment. Everything real is off the edge of where they are, but they haven’t a clue. Not like you, not at all. You’re right here, right now and everything is just as it should be. There are no such things as ghosts, no invisible people. Dark places, perhaps, things that moan beneath the bed at night, shapes moving behind mirrors, but no invisible people. There is only the wind and the roof, the joists settling. There are only Mother and Father and Angela, and they’re here too. Look, pinned behind glass over the headboard in deep gilt frames. Only a photograph, black and white, their true colours having no way of being recorded in those days but that’s who they are, so like themselves, you can almost hear them.
Look, she said. I could cut off my fingers and you‘d think it was your due. Her hands are red with beetroot. Yes, he said. His face was one picture, not shifting. I could cut off all my fingers, she said, and pile them on a plate. Her knuckles dripped on the lino, audible. She had lipstick on her teeth.
A rag doll, hair in ribbons, sits under the picture, throwing a shadow of itself against the door. Beneath that shadow, is a picture of you with your name on it, handwritten in green crayon. Your name your name. Your name. Before you can think what it is, a pain in your head becomes sharper, sore as cutting. All this remembering, this trying to retain. No matter what, that is what you have to do right now, to think and remember.
Whose baby hands are these? Whose?
These are your hands spread like paste against the dark billows of the quilt. That’s the sound of blood, coursing.
Who are you? Who’s my favourite girl?
You are inside your own self and this is your room.
Your name. Your name is
The curtains are open, showing grainy clouds, an edge of a full moon shedding light like a faulty shower. It sprinkles the little room finely, leaves nothing untouched. Moonlight. Light from the Moon. From so far away, it‘s cold by the time it reaches. Now, it shows everything in its drowned, grey glow. That’s what woke you, then, this one forgotten courtesy. No one had pulled the curtains and shut out the moon. If she does it herself, however, and quickly enough, she might get back to sleep and wake up somewhere else. The prospect is so enticing, so near, it’s irresistible. Moving, she braces her hands against the edge of mattress and swings her legs to the floor. The boards are varnished and cold; they grain her soles with dust. The window, however, is clean. It’s clean enough not to be there at all, the sill icy as metal. Don’t look. She knows she shouldn’t. Don’t look outside. She touches it anyway, the heat of her hand spreading on the perishing glass. She looks don’t look don’t look outside.
Under this very window, faintly veiled, a tight cluster of equidistant bushes appears. It is rimmed by strips of crew-cut lawn, a border of granite pebbles. The dog-bark sound of snipping gets louder. Maybe it was always there. But this is not what matters. What matters is the woman. That coat, the set of those raised arms. Her back is to you, and you cannot see her face, but you know all the same. There is no one else it can be.
You might try to kill us all one day, she said; how would I protect myself? There were pink flowers behind her on the sill, threatening to shed. I know that look, she said, roaring. I know what’s in your pocket. His arms warm on either side, braced your face and shoulders. The smell of wool from his jumper, the bottle rattling pills in his hand.
In the gardens beneath, mother is pruning roses. Pyres of branches build about her boots, more falling as you watch. But for this bitten hacking, the steady clip of her secateurs, there is silence. And you think. You cannot help yourself. All that green wood, cloying at her ankles. Sap smokes in a fire. Joan of Arc spitting and refusing to burn. It would take a long, long time. Mother knows nothing of what you are thinking, however, she never does. She knows only the next neat incision. She is still, intent, her muscles flexing under those green rubber gloves. At her neck she wears a neat collared blouse, so white, her head shows jet above it. The slash of wrist between the gauntlet cuff and the dark sleeve of her coat is pallid as mushroom; in this light, almost lavender. You watch it for some time, checking for a pulse. Mother merely works on. Keep watching, notice with some pride your mother’s deftness, the proof of years of practice slicing godknows what: the young stems present her with no difficulty at all. Even when no more heads remain, she will cut on. The plant will be tamed, her feet snowed under with shorn blooms. The sound of cutting rings clean enough to sharpen teeth. A baby, naked on the grass beside her has its eyes wide open, but Mother needs nothing else. Out here, working, though she called your name, she does not need you. Maybe there is nothing to fear after all.
Another head falls, rolls on the freshly sliced earth. And it occurs then, in the moment of the its rocking, the petals still adhering to the heart, she might know that you are watching. She might suspect, turn, see. The baby with the wide eyes isn’t moving. Its hands look broken on their stems. Perhaps it’s a doll. But it’s not. This is not the end. Press the pane with your fingertips, acknowledge: there is something else, something yet to be faced. This. This place. Past the butchered bushes, the rich dankness of the soil beds, there is something else to understand. That’s when you see his arm, languishing on the fallen leaves, the unnatural twist of it, splayed.
Turn. Try to breathe and turn. Turn.
Someone is running. You hear it clearly. Grass, rushes, clutches of fern move sharply past. Then trees. Further off, rolling tangles of bracken, barbed-wires of bramble, crawling moss. Thickets of weed rear from and recede into a dark so deep, what little light remains seems sucked towards it. It looks damp, stifling; a place where not even a cry for help would penetrate. No one could live out there, you think, and anything might hide. While the breath pushed at your rib-cage, you pause, knowing it is not the thing to do. You should keep moving, keep running. But the temptation is fierce, the breath burning. Over our shoulder, the place you are leaving, maybe forever, shows the stock-still earth, the bloomless beds. There are the bundles of branches, one fallen frog-green glove. A knife. A knife. And mother, missing. She is no longer beside the roses, but elsewhere, invisible and searching. You know she is searching, and who she is searching for is anyone’s guess. That she will find you have no doubt. This is no longer asleep, the safety behind your own eyelids: you’re here for sure on the pebble border, afraid to draw attention by calling his name. Those are your toes curling over the white stones, that sound is your heart, drumming. The smell of mulch and recent spading is overwhelming and far too close. A light rip like tearing cloth makes you turn. Turn. Turn.
She’s not herself, he said. But she loves you. Look at the flowers. Who d’you think they’re for? She grows you those lovely flowers.
The pain in your chest sears, your eyes run. But not enough to miss what’s coming. Even through the rain it’s clear. Something moving. Here it comes: a tumulus of restless earth struggling upward through the soil, inching closer. Watch it come, pause as though catching its breath, begin again. Six feet away, the movement is close enough to see in detail, a seethe and a slump like something buried but not dead yet, struggling beneath the layer of grass. Keep watching as it stretches a last time, then the grass begins to tear. Gently, a tiny O appears. The O widens to the size of a green cat’s yawn. Listen. You can hear the sound of roots parting, tearing like animal sinew. Twigs and stems of ivy are falling into the hole-mouth now, its edges fattening out to the breadth of a shark-mouth. And here you are in this shifting, unkent garden, bare feet nails turning blue. A singeing carries on a drift of night-stock, catching the back of the throat but there is no sign of mother, none. Not yet. Another tumulus noses from the forest now, is already burrowing across the lawn. You should not wait to see more. Run. Run. Run through trees, thicket, clots of grass; under branches and low-hanging vine, through blackness so complete you may as well be floating. Beneath your naked feet, the leaves of decades gust a thick, aromatic scent, and unseen things, little pulses of life, shift out of range of your vision. But you go on nonetheless, clearing fallen logs and unidentifiable debris, sunken arms of long-dead wood, knowing the running is all that matters. The grass underfoot relaxes too, seems lusher. It stretches under the soles. Tempting to let the shoulders fall, breathe more deeply, agree that in the dark is safety. Too late. Only on its edge does the cloud lift enough, only on the edge do the eyes become accustomed enough and there is the maw, a strew of roots ineptly covering the pit. In the split second before falling, you recall mother’s neat cotton collar, the lilac cast of her skin. And falling, tearing at the edge of the hollow you think you hear someone call your name. A woman’s voice. Whatever you do don’t answer. Your. Name. Your
There’s no thud, no crushing pain. Nothing hurts but your jaw, clenched for the impact that did not come. Open your eyes slowly and there is merely half-light, a mist curled on flat, red-packed earth. There are no spikes, no thorns, no obvious trap; only this depth, the steepness of the sides, a hole overhead. From here it shows perfectly round, a needle pointing where you cannot go. Home. Huge clouds make ghosts in the sky. The road is up there, the voice that called your name. But maybe that is illusion too. Maybe everything was. And this is your true beginning. Home. Stroke the sticky sides of the pit with soft-nailed fingers, hear loose pockets of its substance slither and drop. Slick fibres touch your back, tickle your neck like antennae. These legs will serve, tucked under you like rockers, the firm breadth of these thighs. Your fingers are sinuous, the veins showing in the wrists. If you had a mirror, you might see your own heartbeat, so thin is this blood-warm skin. For now, though, the sides of the pit stretch high and steep, a snake coils at your knees. The floor is beating. The whole pit glows pink as a gullet. Home. Now it begins, slowly and deliberately, a steady flexing of muscle. Press back against the pit-side, its contracting power. Tell yourself splendid lies.
Maybe you will sleep now.
Maybe when you wake it will all have been a mistake.
You will be on the surface again, grown, your feet sensibly shod and ready for the road. Maybe you will walk into a clearing and see a bend appear. You will turn it, and he will appear. He will be some way off still, but his smile will be discernible. And despite this tiredness, this terrible heaviness that might be a heart, you will reach then. You will reach as though your lungs might burst towards the touch of his embrace. The sides shudder, tighten. There is no going back.
He pulled aside the top sheet and smiled. You’d never get up in the morning if I didn’t wake you. Scatter of teddy-bears, plastic figures. Sleeping Beauty, he said. Sleepyhead.
Father, your heart says, testing. Reaching. I could cut off my fingers for you. Do you imagine you can change things this time, this time?
The sides heave. Reach up.
Turn and prepare. He is waiting out there, knowing nothing. Reach. Reach and turn. And the reaching
the room is full of