Before I was born my mother tried to get rid of me. She told me this when I was three. When I was nine we discussed it again.
What did you do? I said. I jumped up and down a lot, she said. Have you ever tried to jump up and down a hundred times? No, I said. Don’t bother, she said. The next week I tried it. On and off my bed. Up and down on the carpet in my room. Stop jumping, she yelled from downstairs. OK, I shouted back. I only ever got to sixty-three. After two days I gave up.
I had a very hot bath, she said. Never, ever touch boiling water. Why? I said. It’ll make your skin peel, she said. So I never did. Instead I held my finger to the side of the kettle as it got up steam. Later I couldn’t let it alone, that hard little disc of skin where my nerve endings had burned off.
I drank vodka, she said and leant back in the armchair and laughed. Vodka, she told me, is great. You can buy it in the shops. It’s quite legal. It makes everything seem fantastic.
Fantastic is one of her words.
It didn’t work for you though did it, I said. No, she said, but I never lost the taste. She gave me a sip of hers. Yukk, I said and she laughed. You’ll get used to it, she said. But I haven’t yet.
What about the knitting needle? I said. Did you try that? Yes, she said. And? Don’t ask so many questions, she said.
I don’t dare myself, but I think about it often. Sliding that cool hard spike up inside, poking and jabbing, chasing the unseen. Drawing it out and realising you have pierced yourself a thousand times over. Perhaps she thought she would bleed to death, slowly, drip by tiny drip, before anyone even noticed.
Why didn’t you just have an abortion? I said. I don’t know, she said. Then she sighed. I don’t know.
Another time when it was light into the evening she said, There is something about you that is very special. She had a vodka and tonic in her hand. In what way? I said. Well, she said. You have survived.
Yes. That is how I feel too.
You have defied the odds, she said. What do you mean? You have repelled my many acts of attempted destruction.
My mother spoke like that sometimes. Funny.
Many? Well, a few, right at the beginning, she said. I laughed. And you are still alive, amongst a family full of dead. What family? I said. We don’t have any family other than you and me. Exactly, she said.
But I wasn’t satisfied with that. Who do you mean? Oh, she said. Just some old folks. Tell me more, I said. One day, she said and left the room. I spent that whole summer in suspense, then the clocks went back. Nothing. I had never known disappointment so great.
When it came to winter I said, Tell me about my father. Do you want a hot chocolate? she said. Mother! Why do you call me mother? she said. My father? I replied. She looked at me. If you insist.
This is my father’s story:
My father was fleeting. In the dark his skin shone and his hands were like petals, but in the day you could hardly see him at all. He spoke with a voice that came from somewhere far away.
Like a foreigner! I was excited. Perhaps I was half Spanish, or even African, though that seemed unlikely. My skin was as pale and wan as hers.
No, like a poet, she said. He flew above us all. He had wings of gold that fitted to his heels.
That’s Hermes, I said. So? Mother! She sighed then, yet again. He was just a boy, she said. Just a boy. He’ll be a man now, with a wife and kids and a dog perhaps. Anyway, she said. You know all this. And she turned away.
The thing is I didn’t know. I really did not. She thought I did, like I’d sucked it up from the air we breathed together, from the tiny pieces of information that flaked away from her year by year.
At first I tried to collect them. I horded them in the little part of my brain that was like a shoe box under the bed, filled with photos, or buttons or other kinds of stuff. Sometimes I even tried to add them all together, these little sections of my past, but they hardly ever fitted. I got lost. I forgot which came first, which next, which after that. There was the shape of his eyes. The evening when they met. The softness of his thigh.
Once I drew a picture, but he remained fleeting even then. A dash of lines on the page, just a boy who is now a man somewhere, with a wife and kids and a dog perhaps. I always wanted a dog, but mother never let me. Maybe that’s why. I didn’t even know the colour of his hair.
What colour was his hair? I asked one day, stood in the kitchen with my arms crossed while she cooked sausages. I was twelve. She didn’t even look up. Why that’s easy, she said. Your colour of course.
And suddenly there was another place to look. Somewhere I had never thought to go. To the mirror. To everything that was me, but not her. I studied myself. Before school. After school. Before lights out. I ran my hands over my eyebrows and along the edges of my nose. Which part was his? Which hers? Which neither?
Do I have his eyes? I asked. This time she was making macaroni cheese. Oh no, she laughed. More like your grandfather. But I thought you never met his parents? Not his, she said. Mine of course.
And then there was something else again. My mother, who was so young, younger still. A girl with long hair perhaps and a father of her own who tickled her, who walked with her to the park maybe, or the playground. You never told me you had a father, I said. Everyone has a father, she said. Even you.
I always ask the wrong questions. They only ever come back to me.
© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2013