Sweetness and Light, chapter two

2005

My madnesses have always been so closely swirled into my thought-patterns that I couldn’t see them. I look back now and realise that I’ve been crippled with anxiety my whole life, but the landscape was so familiar to me I didn’t notice that it was unusual. It was normal to me to take a day off work because I couldn’t cope with the idea of people seeing me. It was standard to work hard to copy other, more socially successful people and exhaust myself by trying to mimic them. It was business as usual to fear being caught out and choke on my own terror with a smile on my face; to try and please people so they’d accept me as normal then go home and hide.

Last summer I was thirty and still living at home with my mother, still searching for a career that I could grab and hold onto. I’d gone off to art school but ambled my way back to a nineteen-eighties estate semi with mathematically spaced pansies, a beige stair carpet with hoover stripes and matching salt and pepper pots. As my fellow students floated effortlessly off into the sunnier waters, I sunk quickly back to the muddy bottom.

And I was still there. I sat in my childhood bedroom all day with a pen and paper in front of me, waiting for the germ of an idea, the edge of a brilliant drawing, the start of a book.

They didn’t come, so I wrote lists. Not bucket lists, not lists of ideas to put into action, not even lists that were eccentric in the smallness of their focus – lists of egg recipes; dog breeds; famous men born on the 14th April. My lists were the flotsam and jetsam of a life unlived. Feed birds. Rearrange bookshelf in alphabetical order. Walk for twenty minutes. Read fifty pages of Middlemarch. They were the lists of a prisoner untroubled by thoughts of redemption or escape.

Pushing the day’s list to one side, I polished the wooden desk in my room with a near-empty bottle of Mr Sheen and the wrong kind of cloth. I circled the soft cloth clockwise, anti-clockwise, clockwise. The alarm clock tapped out the seconds. A car revved. Clockwise, anticlockwise, clockwise.

I pushed my chair back against my desk, pulled the thin, floral duvet cover back over the single bed and drew back the curtains, replacing the sickly yellow glow of the big ceiling light with the dishwasher-murk cast of a cloudy summer’s day. The bevelled edges of the small mirror above the chest of drawers chucked fragments of the room back at me. I rearranged my features, opened my eyes a little wider, stood straighter; I threw back my shoulders and looked for a spark. You’re only as small as your imagination, I told the pale face in the mirror. I glimpsed my own brown eyes, bright for a second with ambition, and I flushed and looked away in shame.

We lived alone, me and Mum, always had. A twosome, a pair. There were pairs of everything. Toothbrushes in the glass. Armchairs facing the tele. Pots of low-fat yoghurt for pudding. Our nest of three tables had always had a spare. I tiptoed through our dimly lit life, but every now and then in the dark tiny wings flitted against the bright heat of success, recognition and glamour.

I padded downstairs in my socks. We didn’t have bannisters, just smooth, boxy walls the colour of gone-off cream. In the kitchen our old Soda Stream still stood next to the kettle. I put two pieces of brown sliced bread into the toaster and filled the kettle. As the toaster buzzed softly I looked out of the window, across the grass of the common areas, as Mum called them, to the identikit, biscuit coloured eighties houses across the way. I wondered if someone dressed just like me was looking back at me out of her small window, waiting for her toast to brown. To our left, shopping trolleys drifted in the canal’s dirty water and white dog poo littered the  tow path. Past that, the estate pub, sandwiched between the newsagent and the launderette, where we’d go for a treat every Saturday dinnertime – jacket potatoes with tuna or cheese and beans, a diet coke for me, a small glass of white for Mum.

The toaster popped. I spread on Flora and marmite and took my toast to the table with a cup of tea. The shame spread through me like warm wee; if I didn’t get a job soon I’d be here forever, fading into the fleur de lys carpet. Eventually Mum would die and I’d sit in my seat alone, watching tele next to her empty chair, living off a state pension and giving the canal ducks names.

 ‘Hello, love.’ The front door slammed. ‘Are you still here, Rosie?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Have you been out?’ The kitchen door opened.

‘No.’

‘Are you going out?’

‘Yes.’

Mum tucked her pale hair behind her ear and put her handbag down on the table.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Just into town.’

She sat down opposite me and tipped the contents of her handbag onto the table, sorting receipts into two piles, pushing lipsticks together into a stack, flicking through a small notebook and squaring it on the table.

‘When are you going?’ she said, lining her mobile phone up with her notebook.

‘Now,’ I said. ‘Now-ish.’

‘Let’s talk when you’re back, then, love. Are you taking your camera with you?’

‘No. I’m just going to Boots.’

 ‘You never know what you’ll see,’ she said, brushing the end of her nose with her knuckle. ‘Something might strike you.’

I paused long enough to dismiss the idea without saying it out loud.

‘I’ll see you later.’

‘Bring us back some teabags, will you?’ she said. ‘And half a dozen oranges.’ Her palms were spread on the table, pressed into the wood as if she was preparing to do a handstand.

‘Okay,’ I said. I waited. ‘Do you have some money?’

She didn’t sigh or roll her eyes, she just took five pound coins from one of her neatly stacked towers and handed them to me. ‘Thanks, love.’

I scanned the sun-warmed pavements. A puddle of green paint? A pigeon staring at its reflection in a window? The glow of the sun blazing a blond man’s hair into thin flames? What would someone who took proper photographs, photograph?

I made my way to Kendall and Browns Department Store, two carrier bags jostling my knee and pressing sweat into my palms. The local paper was tucked under my armpit.

For nine years now I’d been living at home and claiming benefits or doing bits of cash in hand work. I needed a job to pay the rent. I could move out of Mum’s, even if it was just to a cheap flat or bedsit just down the road.

I wove between tables in the department store’s low lit café, carrying my filter coffee on the flimsy plywood tray. The windows were heavily draped, swags of thick burgundy pretending we were still in the sixties. I found a banquette seat in the corner and opened the paper to the jobs section at the back.

Salesroom assistant, Carpet It Right. Office administrator, Perry’s Printing. Staff canteen assistant, Woodman’s department store. I ticked all of them. It didn’t matter what it was, what mattered was taking that step away from home before I settled forever. Mum would be okay. She’d managed without me before, hadn’t she? I thought of our five o’clock cup of tea. With these jobs, I could drop in on her after work.

On the way home the pavement warmed my feet through my thin soles and the plastic bag of oranges shoved red welts into my fingers. The thought of Mum on her own in that house, no-one to watch Eastenders with, strummed at me.

It seems like years ago now, but it’s just a few months.

Sweetness and Light, chapter one

2006

This book is documentation. It is evidence. It is proof.

When I was young we’d go on holiday to the same house in Wales every year, one of those small, stone cottages. It had a red door and white windows with curved, pale-painted stone surrounds. It looked as though it was smiling, eyes crinkled up against the sun.

You walked straight into the living room, where a heavy log burner squeezed, shoulders tight, into the stone fireplace and a couple of tatty, brown velour sofas warmed their arms. Most of the furniture and every kitchen unit was that orangey pine. The kitchen units had gingham gathered curtains instead of doors. A mouse lived by the back door.

The two eaves bedrooms were so pressed into the roof space that the windows were at floor height. You had to crouch down to look through them onto the street outside. My bedroom barely fitted a single bed. I’d lie on it, perfectly still, talking to the people in my head.

If you went to the end of the back garden, you could crawl under the fence and find yourself in a small orchard of overgrown grass and gnarled apple trees. It hummed with bees, wasps and flies, its branches crackling with hidden electricity. I’d spend all day curled up in one of its warm branches, racing through a book and eating sun-poached apples. Sometimes the electric hiss and whisper would find its way into my bones and I’d spring off the branch and race through the trees, arms wide open, eyes closed. I was tiny enough to be a single, fizzing cell. I was huge enough to be a roaring sun.

Mum would have macaroni cheese or potato pie waiting and we’d sit together quietly as the sun got thinner, leaving its warm dust on my arms. The orchard was my secret. A place that said that I was bigger than my skin.

Most places other than that orchard and our home made me feel sordid, unseemly and grotesque. My skin crawled with horror and fear a fair amount of the time.

I didn’t speak until I was ten. I could whisper or gesticulate to Mum if we were alone, but I froze, blank-faced and terrified if there was anyone else around. The first word I said properly out loud was ‘sorry’, in a strong Brummie accent. I didn’t talk to anyone outside the family until I was eleven. At fifteen I discovered that litre bottles of cider helped loosen my tongue, but also brought their own, quite different problems.

A lot has happened since then.

Today at the picture library as I re-filed the entire ‘AX-1000’ section, I flicked through some images – DNA sequencing, the subject was – and began to have the beginning of an idea of a photographic project to do with nature, pattern and mathematics.

It’s autumn outside my attic window this evening. I sit here typing, a cup of tea at next to the keyboard, my soup warming on the gas ring.

Three nights ago on my way home I passed a small white dog tied to the railings outside the train station. I stroked his head and rubbed the back of his ear, and he looked up at me with pebble eyes – wariness a thin sheen in front of hope. Don’t worry, I told him, your owner will be back soon. But in the morning he was still there, and again in the evening. He was straining to get closer to a puddle to have a drink. His eyes looked more distant and he was thin as a whip. I went to the supermarket and bought two bowls, a bottle of water and a tin of dog food. As he drank, I wondered if I could come back every day and do the same, save his life quietly, without fuss. I thought of calling the RSPCA, but I hate speaking on the phone. I gave his ear a rub and turned to go, but his eyes weighed heavily on me. I sighed and took my phone out of my pocket, practising the words in my head and blushing with anxiety.

They said he was likely to have been abandoned and said that he should be taken to the vets to check for a chip. What if no-one wants him, I said? He’d go to a dog rescue centre, the man said. People shouldn’t be allowed to have dogs, he said, not unless they could prove they were responsible. He didn’t look angry or sad; it wouldn’t be the right job for me. I’d not be able to cope with seeing the cruelty. If he’s not claimed, I’ll give him a home, I said. I could already see the spot for his bed in the living room, in the alcove next to the fire. The man smiled. Lucky dog, he said.

He gave me the number of the vet where Herb’s been taken. That will be his name if he’s mine.

Four lessons, part four

‘The fourth lesson is on lava,’ he said. He was sitting on the end of the bed with his palms flat to either side of him, as though I’d caught him in the act of something unknowable, something like very still, very silent thought.

‘Yes,’ I said, satisfied that he’d remembered and so everything was in order.

‘I don’t know anything much about lava, so I looked it up.’ He edged backwards so his feet were up on the bed and I sat down in front of him.

‘I thought you were teaching me everything you knew. Not what you don’t know.’

‘Yes, but I made a special exception at my favourite pupil’s request.’

‘It’s okay. Teach me something you know if you like.’ I put my hand on his hand and leaned back against him. I moved the hair on the back of his hand one way and then the other way. His chest pushed against my back when he breathed.

‘Do you know how much I love you?’ he said.

‘Yes.’

‘How much?’

‘Infinity.’

‘Exactly.’

‘How many is infinity?’

‘It’s if you start counting and never stop.’

‘Never?’

‘Never.’ I slotted one leg on top of his. It nearly reached his ankle.

‘When you die do you go into infinity?’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘They said in assembly.’

‘Well, teachers know a lot, but there are some things no-one knows.’

‘No, they said it so it’s true.’

‘Okay.’

I wondered if the snow had all disappeared inside Dad. As the fat grass had pushed the snow out of the way and the birds had got shouty and the sky had opened startled eyes and grinned and the leaves had thrown their hands into the air, he had got smaller and whiter and more still. His breath now was like the pat pat pat of snowflake on snow.

‘Where does snow go?’

‘It melts back into the ground and feeds the plants.’

‘Oh.’

‘Lava is made of crystals and gases that live in the centre of the earth. They push their way to the top and burst out like a spot.’

‘Like a spot?’

‘Or like a balloon. No, not quite.  Anyway, it flows like water when it’s hot.  Then it cools down to be like rock. It’s pretty amazing because we’re seeing the inside of the earth.’

‘Its blood.’

‘Exactly. So what are you teaching me today?’

‘Hopscotch. Do you know that? It’s a game where you jump on numbers.’

‘Ah. Tell me more.’

I scrambled onto the floor.

‘You jump like this, one leg then both then one then both. See? Then the next one goes.’

‘Sorry, I’ll just lie down a bit. Carry on.’

‘Do you want to do it?’

‘Maybe tomorrow if I have a little rest today.’

The grass was waterlogged, fat with it like a bath sponge. I experimented with pushing down harder with my toes and then my heels to see if it worked like quicksand.

            ‘Mum. Dad never told me all his lessons.’

‘I think he wrote some down too.’

‘But what if he forgot some?’

‘I don’t think he did.’

‘You don’t know though.’

‘No, that’s true. I don’t.’ Her feet were on the paving stones, not keeping to the lines or the middles but hitting any old spot in a chaotic way. There was a hole in her tights near her ankle about the size of a hamster’s paw; it had small claws reaching out of it, up towards her knee.

‘What if something comes up that he could have taught me but he forgot to or just didn’t?’

‘I don’t know. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re half Dad, you know.’

‘I know, you already told me that.’

‘So, think about it.’

‘What?’

‘The Dad in you will learn it with you or maybe the Dad in you already knows.’

‘So why did he do his lessons? If that’s true, why did he teach me?’’

‘I think he had the same worries you do now. That what if something came up he hadn’t told you.’

‘Okay. What comes after nine hundred?’

‘Nine hundred and one.’

‘No, I mean what hundred.’

‘A thousand.’

‘What comes after nine thousand?’

‘Ten thousand.’

‘When does it move to the next thing?’

‘A thousand thousand is a million. A thousand million is a billion.’

I moved from the grass onto the paving slabs and started counting. One, two, three. I counted all the way to school and then started keeping count silently in my head, all through learning and play and the way back home and through TV and dinner and bath time and bedtime. I lay there in the central heating mottled dark, mouthing the numbers and tapping my duvet cover gently with my middle finger to keep time.

What he didn’t know was that I’d kept a teaspoon sized ball of snow in the freezer.

Four thousand three hundred and one, four thousand three hundred and two, four thousand three hundred and three.

Four lessons, part three

‘The third lesson’s about…’ he hesitated. ‘Kindness.’

‘I thought it was about lava.’

‘Oh, yes. We’ll cover lava too, briefly.’

There had been two days of a rubbed out world, but out of the window you could see grass poking its stiff spikes through the soft ice, pulling it apart to make space for itself.

‘Snow can freeze your glove,’ I said, ‘then your fingers get cold, then you cry.’

‘True.’

‘And your glove stays stiff.’

‘Till it gets warm.’

‘What then?’

‘Then it’s dry.’

‘No, wet.’

‘Wet first.’

Before – yesterday, or whenever in the past it was – you could see footprints in the garden: first a single line, then overlapping circles, then a jumble of prints. But overnight they’d grown from feet to dinner plate sized holes, as if a monster had trodden carefully in our footsteps while we slept, making exagerated, slow movements with a grimace on its face. Its head would practically reach the bedroom windowsills.

‘Can monsters see in the upstairs windows?’ I said.

‘No. They tend to lurk around outskirts, around edges, looking in. They don’t get up close to us, because it makes them sad.’

‘Sad why?’

‘Sad for what they don’t have.’

‘They can come in if they want.’

He smiled.

‘Come and look at their footprints.’

‘Oh, they’re there in the garden? I’ll look later, when you’re at school.’

‘I don’t like school. Can I have all my lessons with you?’ Old school had been fine – a jumble of warmth, like splashes of paint on paper. New school was black lines. Other children knew how to play. I didn’t know what to do, how to effortlessly seem carefree and shout out game suggestions like I’d been born knowing how to do it.

‘No, just the first ones of the day. Now, kindness.’

‘I am kind.’

‘Good. Keep it that way. What I wanted to say to you was that kindness is the most important quality in a person. Your mother is kind.’

‘Sometimes she’s cross.’

‘I said she’s kind, not that she’s Jesus.’

‘Who’s Jesus?’

‘A very kind person who might not have existed.’

‘A fairy.’

‘Sort of. Don’t worry too much about being clever, or funny, or cool, or any of those things. It doesn’t really matter. Just be kind. And what I mean by that is, assume the best, don’t lose your temper, be gentle.’

The fourth finger of his right hand was tapping on the wooden bedside table, making the water in his glass judder the way that old lady’s skin had juddered when the bus went over the speed bumps.  The drawer was open the width of a not-meant smile, and he glanced at the smile once then twice.  There was a twist of white paper in there, perhaps concealing sweets, and the edge of a book.

‘What’s cool?’

‘It’s imaginary.’

‘Like Jesus.’

‘Sort of.’ He frowned. ‘Sort of not. I can’t really think what the difference between cool and Jesus is right now, but I know there is one, I think they are probably opposites in a way I can’t explain or think of clearly.’

‘It’s just that he might be there but he’s not really,’ I suggested, ‘so there’s no point in worrying about him.’

‘That has nailed their similarity.’ His smile looked shark-like. You think of smiles moving upwards, pulled by invisible strings, but I felt I could see the strings pulling his lips sideways.

‘Cool?’ I said and shrugged.

‘It’s seeming like you don’t care,’ he said.

‘The opposite of kind.’

‘Precisely. That’s your mother calling you.’

I hadn’t heard her.

‘Goodbye. Keep your mittens dry.’

‘Keep your mittens dry!’ Then, ‘lava!’ I reminded him.

He hit his forehead with the palm of his hand; ‘dah! Tomorrow!’

As I left the room his hand moved towards the drawer, his fingers shaking just slightly.

Four lessons, part two

‘The second lesson is about swimming.’

‘We’re going swimming?’

‘No, we’re going to do it here.’ He smiled, enjoying our moment.

‘Swim! In a room!’ Maybe he’d fill it up to the ceiling with water from a hose pipe and we’d swim under the bed and dart like goldfish around the lightshade. The world would become silent and slow and his cheeks would balloon out, bubbles leaving his lips and making for the ceiling.

‘The bed’s a pool,’ he said.

I knew this sort of game. ‘The floor’s lava.’

‘Not today. The third lesson’s on lava. Here. Gently. Gently!’ There was an urgent wince in his voice.

I crawled down his body so that I fitted perfectly between his feet and his waist. He lifted his knees and I lay there with my middle in the air. I closed my eyes and breathed in, out, waiting to be hurled upwards.

‘You’re a right angle,’ he said.

‘You’re a wrong angle,’ I said.

‘You’re a right monkey.’

‘You’re a wrong monkey.’

He pushed the heels of his feet across the bed cover and I sank towards the bed again. I kept my eyes closed and my arms stretched to each side as he pulled his legs out from under me. My nose was pressed into the covers. They smelled of all the clean clothes in our house, but also something else, something sour and grown up.

‘Kick your legs,’ he said, and took hold of my ankles, one in each hand. ‘Like this. That’s right.’ I thumped my toes onto the soft sheets. ‘Now the arms. Push them forwards. No together. Now pull them back out again. No, like this, like you’re scooping water away. Again.  No, curl your hands. Not straight down. Imagine you’re pushing water off the bed. Better. Now your feet at the same time. Kicking like you were before.  Head up. That’s it! You’re swimming!’

He was standing up, beaming. Against the dark, leafy wallpaper he looked like an explorer in a jungle, beaded with sweat from his long journey to a lost civilisation.

‘I’m in bed!’ I said. ‘I’m not swimming!’

We both laughed. Then the air was split again.

‘Hester! Shoes! Time to go!’

‘Off you go.’ He patted my back. I did a kick or two.

‘The floor’s lava.’

‘No, it’s not. I emptied the pool onto it. Now it’s cold volcanic rock.’

‘I never taught you anything this time..’

‘Next time. Anyway, you teach me stuff all the time.’

‘What?’

‘I don’t know. Kindness. Joy.’

‘I’ll tell you about tigers.’

‘Hester!’

‘Go. Go.’ He ushered me towards the door.

The floor actually was still lava, but it was perfectly safe if you kept to the edges.

‘They all have a different pattern, so they don’t marry their mum,’ I said as I left the room.

Four lessons, part one

‘The first lesson is on trigonometry,’ he said.
‘What’s that?’
‘It’s about shapes. You know triangles? Now, here’s a strange thing, there’s a rule with them. One corner’s always square – like this.’ He held his hands up so that the tip of his right middle finger just touched the base of his left hand where the lines of his palm joined his wrist.
‘That’s not a square.’
‘No, it’s my hands, but look – here – the angle.’
‘It’s not a square, it’s two sides of a square.’
‘Yes! You’re right, of course. Well done.’
His hands looked frail to me, even though he was the strongest man I knew. He could lift me over his head in a single, effortless motion, like someone beckoning a truck to reverse.
‘Hang on, no.’ His brow creased. ‘They don’t always have a right angle.’
‘What’s a right angle?’
‘The square thing,’ he said, quickly tapping his wrist with his middle finger again. ‘It’s called a right angle. They don’t all have that. What was it then? What was the rule?’ Worry moved the slight flesh of his face around like play doh between warm fingers. The light wasn’t yet strong so the room had a sort of faded greyness to it, as if it wasn’t quite real, just an idea someone had once had. I shifted my weight from one side to the other. There were writhing snakes in my legs.
‘Let’s talk about bears,’ I suggested.
‘I knew it once. What is it?’ The line between his eyes had moved down to the corners of his mouth. He still wasn’t looking at me.
‘Koalas aren’t bears, actually,’ I said. ‘You have to just call them koalas, do you know?’
‘Oh, yes!’ He opened his eyes wide and held out both hands as if he was holding a large, invisible beachball. He was looking at me again, now, the lines on his face stretched and at rest. ‘The angles all add up to a hundred and eighty. Wait there, I’ll get a pen.’
Out of the window you could see thick buns of snow settling on the gate and the garden wall. It was smudging the world away – wiping it out with an indifferent thumb. Look, the grass was practically gone. The sky had been rubbed out too. The trees were fading under the delicate weight of a million icy blinks. I watched the snowflakes’ silent murmuration, eternally separated from my warm body in an airtight room. My foot was going to sleep beneath me, but I let it happen for the delayed pleasure of feeling it prickle hotly back to life.
The door opened and he sat back down next to me, bouncing me a fraction of a millimetre into the air with his weight.
‘Here. So.’ He drew quickly on a roughly torn out sheet of paper, the top edge burred and ragged. The paper was covered in spots in a criss-cross pattern, a join-the-dots that led to nothing but one side of a cage. ‘This is a right angled triangle because the corner is a square.’
‘Half a square, you mean. Bears eat fish, do you know?’
‘Do they? The square corner’s ninety, so the other two must add up to ninety so that altogether it’s a hundred and eighty. But of course,’ he looked downcast, ‘you don’t even know what a hundred and eighty is.’ He laid his pale hands on the hieroglyphed paper and held my gaze, looking lost.
‘I know what a hundred is.’
‘What is it?’
‘The biggest number in the world.’
‘That’s infinity. But that’s not even a number, it’s a concept. There is no biggest number.’
‘No. It’s a hundred. A hundred killion.’
‘Anyway, here, the square angle…’ He was looking back at the paper now.
‘Half square. What’s an angle?’
‘Two lines meeting. The square angle’s always ninety.’
‘Square’s ninety,’ I said.
He looked satisfied. ‘Yes. That’s it. The square’s ninety: half square’s ninety. That will do.’ He picked the piece of paper up and stored it carefully in the drawer next to him.
‘Bears eat fish that they catch in a river.’
‘Yes.’ He flicked at the surface of his knee with a thumb nail. ‘They do.’
‘It’s the circle of life. Don’t worry. They become the bear and then the bear becomes the grass and then the grass becomes a rabbit.’
He rubbed a corner of his bristly chin with one thumb. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Who’s giving the lessons here?’
‘You, Dad.’
‘We could give each other lessons.’ He squinted and looked at me closely, which, for him, was something like a smile is for other people. We looked at each other like that for a second, two seconds, three. I noticed that if you didn’t move or speak, time moved a lot more slowly, maybe stopped altogether. The something that was us was suspended there: a ball bearing between two magnets. I felt that we were the same age and always had been, but normally we were stuck pretending to be something we weren’t. I was about to tell him not to be sad about the fish when a voice cracked our reverie and opened time up again.
‘Hester! Time to go! Get your shoes on.’
‘Here,’ he said, ‘Give me a kiss. Have a good day at nursery.’
‘It’s new school. Nursery was old school.’
‘Sorry, school. New school.’
His face was soft and smelled of soap and lemons.
‘Hester!’
‘Go. You’ll get us in trouble.’
‘Remember about bears.’
‘Remember about right angles.’
‘Righty ninety. Righty ninety.’
‘Bears become… rabbits?’
‘No!’
I span out of the room as Mum hurled a Hes up the stairs.