Authors: Lucy Atkins
First published in Great Britian in 2014 by
Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright Â© 2014 Lucy Atkins
The moral right of Lucy Atkins to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
PB ISBN 978 1 84866 320 6
EBOOK ISBN 978 1 84866 321 3
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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is an award-winning feature journalist and author, as well as a
book critic. She has written for many newspapers, including the
Guardian, The Times
, as well as magazines such as
Psychologies, Red, Woman and Home
. She lives in Oxford.
For my mother, who is thankfully nothing like Elena.
And for John.
She knew she was walking because she was definitely upright, moving down a row of seated passengers, with the baby howling on her shoulder. She could hardly hear the cries, though she was aware on a primitive level that the sound was urgent. But everything was blurred and muted, as if she were deep under water and the world shimmering somewhere on the surface. It didn't matter that people stared, or the baby yowled and writhed. Nothing really mattered.
He gave her instructions and she followed them. He issued his conditions, itineraries and tickets, and she accepted them all. He would be waiting at the other end for her. This was the start of a new year and a new life. He would put them into his car and take them to the house he had bought in some English village, with an apple tree in the garden. âYou belong with me,' he had told her, before he got on his plane. âYou always didÂ â I love you, I've always loved you. AndÂ â where else could you go?' He was right. So she did the only rational thing: she followed his instructions.
She couldn't feel the baby's mouth tugging at her breast, and when she looked down she was startled to find that it had come away and was open-mouthed, red and wailing, the poor little face screwed up and purple with fury. And there was a smear of blood coming from her nipple, trickling over her white skin, and a rub of it on the baby's chin, too. The nipple was raw and glaring, as if articulating everything she couldn't feel. Gently, with the edge of her shirt, she wiped the blood off her baby's stretched-out mouth. Two white teeth glimmered in the redness.
As the plane taxied along the runway and Elena latched the baby on again, she knew she would never go back. But this was not an escape. She could never escape because nothing would change what had happenedÂ â not Graham's kindness, not a new English life, not even this needy, upset baby, who should have been weaned months ago.
As the plane lurched into the sky she felt the physical fact of everything she was leaving behind, and the loss was as solid and loud and squalling as the ten-month-old on her lap.
Then, because she couldn't think about what was down there any more, she closed her eyes, and as the plane nosed through the clouds she took herself back to their very first journey north. She travelled it again in her mind, because maybe once she got there she'd be able to rewrite the ending and somethingÂ â anythingÂ â other than this could happen instead.
The plane banked, and the baby yawled and writhed and fought, but she was in the camper van with the windows wound down and the two of them singing James Taylor
songs, warm Californian air on their skin. There was twelve hundred miles of highway ahead of them, and his hands were wide and strong on the wheel.
They crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in a fog, talking about whales, and then headed onwards, skirting the wild beaches of northern California, into Oregon. A night on Cannon Beach, with their sleeping bags laid on the sand under improbably bright stars; he twisted a strand of sea-grass round her ring finger. The next day, they drove on, further north, into Washington State, and then they saw the sudden towers of downtown Seattle, the glittering arc of Puget Sound, Bainbridge Island and Whidbey hunched to the west. Rain closing in now, they chugged on, with the Olympic Peninsula rising on one side, the Cascades crimped on the other.
Windows up, they found sweaters and blankets; coffee and cigarettes by the roadside waiting for the tow truck; a shared diner meal in the rain; a night in a garage forecourt, thenÂ â starter motor fixedÂ â they drove onwards, crossing the Canadian border in a hailstorm. They arrived at the port just as the sky cleared. Lining up by the water with dive-bombing seagulls, and freighters unloading, they clanked on to the ferry and away across the water, bouncing off islands like a pinball, passing between cedar-dense mountains that rose straight from the sea like fins; skirting the shorelinesÂ â a white flash of a deer's tail, a lumbering brown bearÂ â rows of crowded pine, cedar and hemlock; a slithering sea otter glimpsed; harbour seals basking on grey rocks.
Then there was DeanÂ â Jonas suddenly more boyish
â and Dean's big boat; hours more through a hushed sea mist, talking about the research and the summer ahead of them. The big belching boat shuddering to a halt; the men rolling up their sleeves, disappearing, coming back oil-smeared with puffed-up chests. As they chuntered towards the island, the mist cleared to reveal a towering totem pole on the headlandÂ â the Kwakwaka'wakw tribe, the men explainedÂ â and there, on the very top, Max'inux, the sea wolf. It is fitting that a killer whale should mark the spot where her life beganÂ â and where it ended.
On that flight to England, with her breasts bleeding into her baby's mouth, she felt the totem of sorrow lodge itself inside her heart, stopping the blood flow and messing up the beat. She could not change what had happened, but a part of her would always be thereÂ â out on the water, listening, watching, making notes, moving through storms and sunsets and defying the facts of her life.
It turns out that it's my job to locate the birth certificate.
âDad doesn't know where it is,' says Alice, âand I've looked everywhere else so it has to be in her studio.'
She looks at me across the kitchen table and we understand each other: she can't go up there, and I can.
It is late, near midnight; Finn is sleeping in the travel cot upstairs and I am heavy-limbed and numb. But she is exhausted too and we both know that going up there would be worse for her than for me.
Our mother's studioÂ â a grand name for an old box roomÂ â is at the top and back of the house. I push back my chair and make my way up the two flights of stairs to the tiny landing. I peek into my old bedroom first. I can see him through the netting of the travel cot: his messy halo of hair and the lunar curve of his cheek above his sleeping bag. I tiptoe across and hover for a second, listening. At eighteen months, Finn is still my baby, still small enough that lurking somewhere in
my maternal mechanism is the question of whether he will continue to breathe when I am not with him. I touch his forehead. I touch the back of his hand. He is warm despite the frigid air. I fold my cardigan tighter, hugging it around my body with both arms, and I gaze at him; he is perfect, curled on his side, breathing steadily, warm and safe. After a moment I go back out and cross the landing.
It is intensely cold up here. I hesitate, with one hand on the door. Then I take a breath and push it open.
There is an electric heater against one wall and a radiator, but clearly neither has been switched on for a long time. I pull the cardigan tighter, and go over to the window. The blind is rolled up and my face wavers back at me, eyeless and hollow-cheeked. My hair is witchy and mad-looking; I probably haven't brushed it for days.
I lean over the desk and press my face against the glass until it freezes the tip of my nose. In daylight there is a bird's-nest view over the houses, out beyond the village across the river and the water meadows. And under the stars I can just make out the road, whispering up the hill between the hedgerows like a secret.
I pull back. There's a bottle of jasmine essential oil on the fireplace, an oil burner and two beach stones the size of babies' fists. There are fragments of beach everywhereÂ â driftwood, pebbles, shells; a vase filled with sea glass; a knot of rope. Night creeps through the objects and the scent of my mother seems to bloom in itÂ â jasmine and turpentine; salt winds and garden soil.
The cleaner has spruced things up, but there are still
sketches and paintings in piles all over the place. I have no idea what we are supposed to do with all this art.
Some canvases are stacked on the floor against the bookshelf. The one on the top is the ruined West Pier seen from Brighton beach. The skeleton juts from the waves. There is no walkway to reach or escape it; it is just a rusting core on insect legs. There is decay and stolen gaiety in the structure; a feeling of lost lights and bandstands, ghosts of girls in swing skirts. Even in the murky light I can make out how angry the sea is. It occurs to me that my mother was a really good artist.