Authors: Elaine Beale
THE NEXT MORNING,
during registration, I pulled out my letter. “‘Dear Jesse,’” I began after clearing my throat and noisily unfolding my several sheets of crisp white paper. “‘As I write to you, I am watching yet another glorious sunset on the crystal-clear Mediterranean Sea. It is hard to describe how breathtaking the view from my luxurious cabin is or how wonderful this trip is proving to be. But, since you cannot be with me here, I hope I can convey just some of my delight by telling you about it in this letter. Yesterday, I had the most incredible time—’”
“Let me see that!” Jimmy Crandall made a grab for the letter, but I managed to pull it out of his reach and continued reading.
“‘After having a delicious breakfast on board ship, I disembarked with a party of other passengers to go and see a bullfight in a nearby town. We arrived during siesta—a time in the afternoon when all the Spaniards like to get out of the heat and take a nap. I cannot say I blame them. The weather is quite warm, even now in late spring. I was told by one of the friendly villagers that temperatures can reach more than ninety degrees Fahrenheit during the height of the summer. Of course, we English people aren’t used to anything nearly as hot as that and I am glad we are not visiting in July or August, which are the hottest days of the year….’”
I lifted my eyes from my pages to see everyone in the class looking at me. Even the group of boys at the back, who had been flicking chewed-up pieces of paper onto the ceiling, had paused to listen. Almost all the girls had drawn closer, and Julie Fraser had put down her
“‘Bullfighting is an enormously exciting sport, far more interesting than football or rugby or cricket,’” I continued. “‘The bullfighters are extremely brave and handsome men. They have to train a very long time to become good at it. Some of them get very badly injured, and some of them even die in the ring. As I sat waiting for the fight to begin, I was hoping that no one would get hurt while I was there.’” I went on to read a long account of my mother’s time at the bullring—how she watched one of the most famous bullfighters in Spain get almost gored to death by a savage, bloodthirsty bull, how she cried as he was taken off on a stretcher and screamed for joy when she later found out that he was fine and came back into the ring for a second performance. I told my classmates how she and some of her fellow passengers had dined at a local restaurant with this same bullfighter that evening, how he’d told them stories late into the night of his many near misses over the years, and how she had returned exhausted to the ship after “‘one of the most thrilling days of my entire existence.’” When I finished,
ending with, “‘Fond regards, your loving mother,’” I looked up at my audience as if emerging from a dream.
“Bloody hell, Jesse,” declared Julie Fraser, saying my name for the first time that I could remember. “Your mam sounds like she’s having a right good time! I bet she’s glad she entered that competition.”
AFTER THAT, I STAYED
late at the library almost every day to throw myself into the research for my mother’s letters. And each evening, while my father sat silent, I turned to the documentary programs on BBC Two about travel through the Sahara or the animals in the jungles of Madagascar. At first I approached this viewing as a chore, like my homework (which I now almost entirely ignored) or the washing of our greasy, crusted-up dishes (which I attempted every two or three days). But after a while I found myself sharing in the awed fascination of the television narrators, who invariably told about these exotic places in hushed, enthralled tones. Equally bedazzled by forests filled with butterflies, the hunting habits of lions, the hazardous swoops of flying squirrels, and the camouflage abilities of chameleons, I scribbled down names of places and species, descriptions of the immense, untamed landscapes that made Mr. Cuthbertson’s enthusiasm for the dreary East Yorkshire terrain seem even more misplaced. And later, after the television had been turned off and my father continued his desolate vigils in the living room, I lay on my bed writing long, detailed letters from my mother that I took to school and read out loud in registration each day.
This cruise-taking mother was quite a letter writer, sending me several pages almost every day. And though parts of her letters closely resembled entire paragraphs of the
, providing statistics on population, gross national product, and average daily temperatures, they also included stories of her adventures. I thrilled at her descriptions of her trip to the Parthenon (“quite the most astonishingly beautiful place I have ever seen”), her climb up the Leaning Tower of
Pisa (“It leans at a truly incredible angle; I really was afraid it would fall over!”), her desert trek to the Pyramids (“like a trip back through time, such an awe-inspiring civilization”). And I loved her stories of moonlit rides in Venetian gondolas, drinking thick, syrupy coffee in Morocco, eating freshly made Turkish delight. I also loved this new mother of my own construction, the adventurous and dauntless spirit who wandered strange countries without fear, picked up new languages within days, and wrote gleefully about a world that no one else around me knew. She was a little eccentric, perhaps, but not nearly as odd as the woman I’d seen carried past me on a stretcher, eyes still and unblinking, limbs tucked tight under a dark wool blanket, hair sprawled behind her in a wet and matted knot.
Even more than this new mother I’d invented for myself, I loved those wide-eyed looks Julie Fraser and all the other girls gave me. Perhaps, I thought, if I could somehow keep them rapt they’d actually welcome me into their ranks.
I could tell that Julie Fraser was warming toward me. Not only had she started calling me by my name on a regular basis, she’d even invited me to sit with her and her friends in the canteen during school dinner one day. And the next day, when I walked into the girls’ toilets and found her and a couple of other girls listening to the top-twenty countdown on a tinny transistor radio as they leaned against the sinks, she’d beckoned me over to listen.
I began to think that if all went well we really would become good friends. After a while, she might even invite me to spend time with her after school or on weekends. We’d really get to know each other and she’d realize that, despite my bland looks and unfashionable clothes, I was an interesting person after all.
IT TOOK A LITTLE
less than two weeks for word of the real nature of my mother’s journey to get around school. I was actually quite astounded that it took that long. Gossip generally traveled fast along our narrow
streets, and, particularly since we lived next door to Mrs. Brockett, any unusual happenings at our house were bound to become public knowledge sooner rather than later. Somehow, the sheer horror of my mother’s problem seemed to have slowed the process. But inevitably the news reached the school.
“Your mother’s not on a fucking cruise, she’s in the fucking loony bin,” Jimmy Crandall announced during registration on a rainy Friday morning. He wore an ugly, wide-toothed grin, and every single person in the room turned to look at him. “She tried to fucking top herself, didn’t she?” he continued, still grinning. “She would’ve done it if it weren’t for one of your neighbors finding her. You must be a fucking loony yourself, making up some stupid story about her winning a competition on a Corn Flakes packet. You’re as nutty as your fucking fruitcake mother.”
“That’s enough, Jimmy,” Mrs. Thompson said. “Sit down and be quiet.” I could tell from her expression that she felt sorry for me. But I didn’t need anybody’s pity, and I already knew that there was nothing she could do to save me. I turned toward Julie Fraser. She and her friends were leaning across their desks, their heads pushed close together in a huddle. They were laughing, snorting as they held their hands over their mouths. I kept hoping that Julie would look at me, that she would push those girls away, smile at me, and show me that, despite my lies, despite my desperation, she’d finally seen that we were meant to be friends. But Julie didn’t even glimpse in my direction. She just sat at the center of all those giggling girls, laughing until her eyes became watery and her mascara began to run in gray, jagged rivulets down her cheeks.
NOW, INSTEAD OF
reading letters during registration surrounded by mesmerized listeners, I found myself surrounded by chanting boys and sneering, sour-faced girls, my days filled with their ridiculing choruses. “Batty as her mother.” “Round the bloody bend.” “Mad as a hatter.”
“Off her rocker.” “Absolutely frigging bonkers.” “Mental, she’s fucking mental.” “Loop the bloody loop, the entire fucking family.” I soon discovered that there were more euphemisms for madness than there were for sex. I also discovered that being the center of attention was not necessarily all it was cracked up to be.
Even Gillian Gilman and the other social rejects started keeping their distance. I ate my school dinner alone and did my best to avoid the playground, finding refuge in the caretaker’s cupboard, where I sat on the floor amid buckets and mops and oversized bottles of bleach. At the end of the day, I made an art of lingering in the classroom so that I could avoid seeing anyone else as they walked home.
But I didn’t stop writing the letters. Instead, I started writing my own letters back. Once I’d finished writing the letter from my mother for that day, I’d read it out loud to myself and then begin composing my reply. My own long missives never talked about home or school but, rather, about what I would do if I were a world traveler, the people I would talk to, the places I would visit. I told my mother how I, too, would like to journey to the coast of West Africa or visit the Taj Mahal or walk along the Great Wall of China. I told her that when I grew up I’d learn Spanish and travel in Latin America, that I’d climb the Andes to trek to Machu Picchu, and visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico. I might become an archaeologist or some kind of scientist, or perhaps I’d just become a professional traveler, plunging into dense, unexplored jungles or trekking across the Sahara just to see what it was like.
“OOH, IT’S SUCH A
bloody shame, it really is,” Mrs. Brockett said, leaning over the brick wall that separated our two backyards, a bent cigarette dancing between her lips. I had watched her shuffle outside in her trodden-down slippers as soon as she’d seen my father walk out the door. She’d been waiting for this moment for days, lurking in her backyard at all hours, peering eagerly toward our house while she pegged up
and took down so much washing that I was sure she must have laundered every item she owned.
“I mean, it’s hard for me to understand,” she continued. “Her with everything to look forward to. A reliable husband …” She pulled out her cigarette, exhaled from her nostrils, and flashed my father a squished-up, dentureless smile. “And such a lovely girl.” She beamed over at me, her cheeks sinking so far inward that her cheekbones jutted out like blades.
I was leaning against the doorjamb, watching my father struggle to push our bag of kitchen rubbish into the already overfilled dustbin. I returned Mrs. Brockett’s smile with a still, expressionless look.
“Lovely girl,” she repeated, taking a long drag on her cigarette and pushing the smoke out the corner of her mouth as she turned to my father again. “But I suppose women—well, they just don’t know when they’re well off, do they?” She sighed. Then she nodded, acknowledging my father’s continuing battle with the dustbin. “Looks like she left you in the lurch, eh?”
“I can do that, Dad,” I said, walking across the wrinkled concrete of our backyard, taking the rubbish bag from his hands, and stuffing it on top of the other bags.
My father looked dazed, as if I’d pulled him from a dream. “Thanks, love,” he muttered.
“So, how is she then, your Evelyn?” Mrs. Brockett called as my father retreated toward the house. “Go to visit her a lot out there, do you?” She craned her saggy neck sideways as my father made his way to the back door.
I willed him to step inside. But never one to offend the neighbors, even those he hated as much as he hated Mrs. Brockett, he turned slowly to face her. “I get out there as often as I can,” he said.
“Yes, I’m sure you do. And I’m sure it helps. Poor woman. But of course at some point she’ll have to pull herself together. I mean, she’s got others to think of aside from herself. Like me—well, I don’t know
what my kitties would do if I gave up on them….” She gazed lovingly at one of her cats, which lay across the kitchen windowsill as relaxed and shimmery as a discarded fur collar.
“Well, got things to do,” my father announced, using Mrs. Brockett’s distraction to hurry inside.
I remained by the dustbin, hoping she would forget my presence. Instead, she turned to look at me. “I don’t know why that father of yours has to be so unfriendly. I mean, if it wasn’t for me your mother would be six feet under by now. You should tell him to think about that, you should.” She gestured toward me with the hand holding the cigarette, making a zigzag pattern of smoke that dissipated into the air. “If I hadn’t thought to check on her when she didn’t answer the door … well, I hate to think …” She pursed her lips, shuddered. “Call it a woman’s sixth sense, but I just knew something wasn’t right.” She sucked at her cigarette. “You should remember, young lady,” she said as she exhaled, “you’ve got me to thank that your mother is still alive.”
I looked at Mrs. Brockett and felt as if something inside me would burst. Perhaps it was my head, or maybe it was my heart or my stomach, which seemed, all of a sudden, to be holding a giant fistful of fury. That fist wanted to break out and hit Mrs. Brockett; it wanted to pound Julie Fraser and Jimmy Crandall and all the kids at school. It wanted to throw all those encyclopedias out the library windows. It wanted to tear up all my letters. It wanted to beat some sense into myself.
“Why don’t you just mind your own business, Cat Piss Lady,” I said, relishing Mrs. Brockett’s stunned expression before I turned and walked into the house.