© Carlie Lee
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‘-I’m loving angels instead-’ Deep breath, ready... ‘And through it AAAAALLLLLL, she offered me- yikes.’
I really said that. I saw the trailer of the lorry slew abruptly sideways, neatly sliding over the silver Z4 like a conjurer’s hand; I saw the dull gleam of the blue canvas and black webbed straps, up close. The huge spinning wheels and a glimpse of underbelly, hellish with pipes and wires and smoke. ‘Angels’ disappeared into a maw of terrible sound. Metal twisting with metal, air locks flexing useless and desperate. Gravel being gouged and seams being ripped apart.
And I said ‘Yikes’. I mean. Did I think Scooby Doo might suddenly pop up? I was twenty-nine years old, in a multi-vehicle motorway pile up (although I still don’t know where the fourth vehicle was), and I didn’t even swear. My husband, Harry, would say this was because I actually had the soul of a Brown Owl and my Bacardi-swilling and wild dancing were just a show to hide my innate goodness. He’s so sweet, Harry. He has no idea that the goodness is a bit rotten. That the space in my brain where ‘honour and decency’ used to live is now crammed full of other stuff. Boxes of regret, the odd trunk of guilt. And over it all, whispery fine and slightly sticky; pride. Proud of being so awful, can you imagine? It’s no wonder I don’t visit that part of my brain much. Too much shame, too many secrets.
The next part of the crash goes on for a while. It’s where we slide up the M40 for an aeon before finally coming to a stop. I’m wide-eyed at this point, the widest-eyed ever, so wide I feel I’ve torn the corners of my eyelids. When we stop, it feels tentative, as if we might all suddenly start moving again. I can’t move, and all I can see is the padded roof of my Vauxhall, inches from my nose. Fear comes in a huge bubble that feels like a convulsion and I open my mouth to scream. God I screamed. Like a banshee. For weeks, it felt like. Then I realised I couldn’t hear what was going on so stopped screaming and started whimpering.
I tried to flex my legs, but there was nothing, and I tried other bits of my body, my fingers and toes. Nada. Well, I couldn’t just be a head, that would be ridiculous. Shock? Maybe shock had numbed me. The only thing I could feel was my sore eyelids. Tears were sliding over them every now and again, they stung like mad and I couldn’t move to wipe them. I think they were puddling in my ears, my hearing was a bit echoey, like being under water. Although I could hear stuff going on now, and I could smell as well. The dieselly smell had gone, and now I could smell chemicals, like the Dalton lab at school. I hated chemistry. The only reason I knew the Periodic Table backwards was because it had been bang in front of my bench, and I used to play a game with the metals and things as characters. The Silver Ag cast a spell on Au, the Golden princess. Mad isn’t it? There I am, under a lorry full of toilets (I know – hilarious), and all I can think about is an ancient chemistry lesson. Iron Fe squashed her Ti-tanium husband. That was one of my favourites. I imagined Fe as a circus strong-woman, gleefully plonking her bum on her shiny little husband.
The mind does do funny things though, at least mine does. When I was in labour with our twin daughters I could hear the midwife bellowing ‘Crown’ at the doctor (who for some reason was up my end) and all I could think about was Queen Mary. Was her coffin really square?
‘I love you,’ Harry had said, as I panted between contractions.
I loved him too. I really did, I always have. The stuff that happened was far apart from feelings of love; nothing at all to do with it.
‘She’s here’ came a voice, ‘I’ve got her.’ The person was somewhere to the left of me, a man. Fireman, ambulance or police? I didn’t care, any would do. Just get me out.
‘Can you hear me? Hear me, love?’ I tried to answer but my tongue was wouldn’t move, it felt like I’d been to a very clumsy dentist. And the ceiling of the car had gone red and dark – not my blood surely? Spurted upwards? No. Maybe my eyelids. Poor, sore things. Am I still wearing my contacts? How am I going to take them out if I’ve broken my arms or something?
‘Pulse, breathing. Unconscious thank fuck.’
What! Rescuers don’t swear! I didn’t even swear. And why thank fuck? And how did he know about my breathing and stuff, unless he touched me? I didn’t feel...oh God. I didn’t feel it. The panic was back now, the bubble started, I couldn’t breath. Static was fuzzing in my head and then the first clean white slice of pain put me down, cold and efficient. I didn’t even have time to fight.
The boy’s name was Gary. Christ. Not Gareth (which doesn’t feel as bad), but Gary. Although, to be fair, he could have been called anything; it didn’t matter.
We were in a bar I’d never been before, in a town I rarely visited. This had been my thing of late; frantic partying after weeks of dutiful wifey stuff. I was now teaching cookery at a girls’ boarding school, all pineapple-upside-cakes and super exploding scones. Harry was the Deputy Head and it made far more sense for me to work at the school than shlepp twenty miles to Oxford to work for Raymond. In his Brasserie. And yes (sigh), that Raymond. On the whole, it wasn’t all that bad. Harry is so lovely and it somehow made sense...his career was really taking off and we were trying for a baby. Long, unsociable hours don’t leave much time for jiggy-jiggy and that’s how it was in the beginning. Jiggy-jiggy all over the shop. But then (and ask any couple who’ve tried for a baby), the jiggy turned to sex, then to the basic, loveless quest for reproduction. It became so cold that once when Harry’s lips brushed my forehead, he apologised.
To be honest, I didn’t really get the whole baby thing. It would be nice to have some, but I was married at twenty, I was only twenty five then. Harry is ten years older than me (you wouldn’t know to look at him), but he really, really wanted to be a father. He kept going mad on Amazon and ordering baby books, books on conception, then, later, books on fertility. He put a chart up on the fridge to track my temperature and work out when I was ovulating. I’m still not entirely sure how it all works but certain times of the month we went to bed in the afternoon and then I was left afterwards with my feet pointing up the wall.
So you can see, I think, why I’ve the sudden need to go mental every now and again, and why I was in a dark bar one Saturday night in early summer.
We were all dancing, messing about and screeching with laughter. There was about ten of us; sit us in a restaurant we’d have nothing to say to each other. Give us Sambucca and Ibiza tunes and we were best friends. Gary was there with some of the other lads. He met my eyes a couple of times and by the third I didn’t look away. I felt all of the hairs rise on the back of my neck and something long gone hungry squirmed through my body. He looked the opposite of Harry, tall, lean and dark with a beautiful mouth and angry eyes. He made as if to move towards me but I gave a slight shake of my head. Raised my left hand and waved my ring. Then nodded towards the door. I danced out the rest of the tune then waved my mobile phone. My friend Mags rolled her eyes and mouthed, ‘Harry’. I shrugged. Turned and left.
He was waiting. Without a word he drew me to him and we started walking, away from the lights, and the bouncers. I looped my arm around his waist, so much more slender than Harry’s, but unyielding. He smelt of cigarettes and whiskey; alien and exciting.
‘Cold?’ he said, and I smiled as he pulled me closer. We were by a river, beneath a light. I tipped my head up to study his face, but ended up kissing him. Hot and unfamiliar, teeth clashing slightly, snogging like teenagers. We fumbled with zips and buttons and I caught my ring in the frayed elastic running above his jeans.. Moving shamelessly fast, unable to pause, I shuddered with delight from the caress of a boy who’d only ever said one word to me.
Afterwards, he ran strong fingers down either side of my spine, slow and deliberate; like an absolution.
‘I’ll ring,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied.
I know what you must be thinking, and believe me, every thought you’ve had has been scrawled behind my eyes. Whatever I do, whoever I become, those thoughts glow like permanent-ink graffiti on my brain’s whiteboard. Even now, stuck here.
I’ve been here for some time, I think. I remember the accident, obviously, but things get a bit sketchy after that. I thought I remembered bright lights overhead and earnest doctors in masks, but to be honest, they could be images superimposed from ER. I have a lot of visitors, who sometimes I can smell, but not hear, and other times I just know they are there.
They bring the twins quite often. My bright, silky little girls who give me smacking kisses and ask if they can go now, Charlie and Lola’s on in the telly room. They instruct whoever is with them to come fetch them when Mummy wakes up.
Harry talks to me a lot. He started off with his voice being very stiff and formal – his Great Aunt Grace voice. But now he sounds more like Harry. Sometimes – and I know this is mean to say – but sometimes he’s a bit boring. Rugby didn’t particularly thrill me before, and cricket now sends me to the bottom of my dreams, deep in the velvet darkness where there is only me.
So...what was I saying? I seem to keep dropping my thread, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here, or what I was telling you. Or why it seemed important. The twins? What about them? They’re not Harry’s. Although they look like him, fair and freckley. And he loves them, God, does he love them. His princesses. When they were babies we’d stand over their cots and I’d be squinting through the nets of shame and he’d be gazing and gazing, enraptured; enthralled by what he thought he’d created.
Harry’s mother has just arrived. I can smell her perfume, light, spicy, and hear her voice. It’s high without being girlish and sounds as if she might laugh at any moment. Her name’s Rosa and the children call her ‘Ro’.
‘Hello,’ I hear, close to my ear, and I know she’s next to me. ‘We miss you,’ she says, ‘come back to us.’ She starts talking about the weather, then reads the Telegraph aloud to me - even the political bits, which I hate.
After sometime, I hear Harry. I hear him kiss Rosa and then hear the crackle of cellophane.
‘She loved freesias,’ I hear him say – do I? ‘ I wish I’d brought her more.’
‘You will,’ said Rosa, ‘she’ll wake up. I know it.’
Yes, I thought, slowly, probably. Just so tired now. I could feel the warm, heavy tide of darkness lapping silently on the shifting silt of my thoughts. They were talking. Rosa mentioned one of the twins and I hesitated, lingered a minute.
‘-don’t see why she can’t come,’ Rosa was saying. ‘Mumps are hardly life threatening.’
Harry replied but I didn’t catch what he said.
‘Rubbish.’ Rosa’s voice was sharp in my ear. ‘No one, and I mean no one...what...? Harry, you’re being ridiculous.’
‘For Gods’ sake,’ Harry was near me again now. I imagined them facing each other across my bed. Harry sounded as if he were glaring and angry. I’d never heard Rosa and Harry argue before.
Then Rosa stepped over a line; one which no one but she and Harry even knew was drawn. Her high voice cut out her words with precision; she flung them at Harry and pinned him still.
‘Let’s face it,’ she said, ‘you’re the one who lied first.’
Lied? Who lied? Harry? God no, Harry wouldn’t lie. He didn’t have dishonesty running through him like syrup. That was me. Lethal little lies. Let alone the whopper of them all – your daughters. Your children. Daddy. I lied all the time.
Harry was hissing now, ‘Shut up. Shut up, Ma.’
‘Why?’ Rosa’s voice was quieter now, but more dangerous. Challenging. ‘Ness is in a coma. She can’t hear us.’
‘So what are we doing here?’ Harry’s voice sounded tight with pain. Something in me turned over and for the first time I wanted to wake up. To stop Rosa from hurting Harry.
‘We’re doing what we ought,’ said Rosa. ‘What we have to. As we always have.’
‘As you always have-’
God this was horrible. My skin started to prickle and I wished I could block my ears. Lift my arms, turn my head away.
‘I was twelve years old! Twelve, Ma!’
‘-was for the best? Was it?’ I could Harry on his feet; rage rolled from him in punches of air. ‘Who’s best? Mine? Nessy’s? How do you think...how could you know,’ he broke off, and when he spoke again his voice was sawn with pain. ‘How could you know,’ he continued, ‘how it feels to wake up every day and know what I’ve done?’
God what? What could be so bad for Harry to sound like this?
‘No, Ma. I swear, I swear to God. If Ness woke up right now I’d tell her.’
Rosa gasped sharply. Every ounce of my body was straining to open my eyes, to ask, to know. Had he killed someone? In an accident maybe. Or perhaps he’d hurt someone or broken something. Whatever, I’m sure it wasn’t done with malice. You don’t marry and live with a man for ten years and not know the measure of his decency. And Harry was decent.
‘Just you think,’ Rosa’s voice wobbled, and she paused, before starting again. ‘Just you think of those little girls. Your angels. Before you smash Ness, just you think of them.’
So it was to do with me. What? Had he had an affair? I tried to picture Harry in some hotel lobby, a woman on his arm, signing the guest register with the name he had given to me with such tenderness. Never. He just wouldn’t.
It had all gone quiet now; the swish and squitch of the door had been Harry leaving. Rosa was still beside me, swallowing and gasping slightly. I heard my hand move and pictured it in her tiny fingers, forefinger tracing the wedding band her son had placed.
‘I hope you can’t hear me, Ness,’ she said. ‘God knows...he didn’t mean it.’
Jesus. Talk about drama. It was like being in a crappy soap, complete with irritating cliff hangers. I heard the clatter of a handbag clasp and then Rosa had gone. I tried to focus on the dark tide, to encourage it closer, feel it envelope me. But no. Instead, a white strip of light kept pushing at my eyes. It was awful, like having my retinas branded. I pulled all of my strength together, concentrated with every nerve, and shut my eyes.
There seems to be a lot more doctor action. They keep prodding me and pushing bits in my eyes. There’s talk of cognition and residual consciousness; apparently I was becoming a high achiever on the RLAS. I wish they’d leave me be. I wish I could say, ‘No, no. Please. I’m not going to wake up, I’m just going to lie here for a bit, find out what’s going on’. Then I’m going to slip away, down and down, to open my trunk. Look. Look now, at this. It’s a bomb of guilt and I must hold it tight, cradle it in the darkness. If I don’t, it might escape and then disaster. It would hurl itself at the three people I love best.
My daughters were in earlier; Janey has mumps. She told me, whispered right in my ear, that it didn’t really hurt but that Daddy gave her a whole packer of Haribo to cheer her up. My youngest, Etty, then climbed up and told me that she’d seen me open my eyes. ‘But don’t worry, Mummy,’ she said, breath hot in my ear, ‘I won’t tell anyone.’
Then there were more visitors, a whole wave of different perfumes and chattering voices. Mags, I thought, then maybe Rachel and Jules.
‘Mumps?’ Mags was saying, ‘you poor baby,’ then sotto voce to the others, ‘we can’t catch it can we?’
‘We’ve had it,’ said Jules, ‘we all did at school, remember?’
‘And Sebastian Grant-White got it so bad he couldn’t have babies.’
‘Didn’t you snog Seb? At the Leavers’?’
‘No, it was Ness, wasn’t it Ness, do you remember sweets?’
Yes, I wanted to say. I remember. My gums bled because of his brace. But something had snagged in my memory. Not from school, but something else. What? It was something important. A connection I was supposed to make.
The voices moved on and blended. More voices, more visitors, more white light. I was becoming aware of a dull ache all over my body; could feel now as well as hear when someone took my hand. Harry held it every day.
‘I love you, Ness’ and I’d feel the bristle of five o’clock shadow as he kissed my palm.
Rosa came back, folding and smoothing the paper.
‘Daily Mail,’ she said one day. ‘Telegraph’s got a CD, so it’s all sold out.’ She was deep in political commentary when I heard Harry’s voice.
He didn’t say anything else and both Rosa and I knew she wasn’t forgiven. Rosa sighed, and I braced slightly, part of me anticipating the storm ahead, part of me desperate to know the secret.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Don’t. I don’t want to discuss it.’
‘So you’ve decided?’ Rosa’s voice was tentative, although whether it was relief or apology I wasn’t sure.
‘Enough,’ said Harry, and there was silence. I could see the horrid strip of light again, but there was a dark shadow in the middle. Suddenly I heard Harry’s voice very loud in my ear, could smell the peppermint on his breath.
‘Ness? Ness, can you hear me? Ness! Ma, Ma look! Her eyes.’
The shadows were moving and quite suddenly I could focus. Rosa and Harry were bent over me. Rosa was crying and they were calling for a nurse. It was all so loud and bright and Harry looked so happy I couldn’t bear it. I shut my eyes and got myself away, deliberately pushing off from the silt, feeling the cool tide fill my mouth and nose, drinking down unconsciousness.
There’s a long blank now. A stretch of black, rubbery time of nothingness. Then I hear the children, and Harry. The children are chattering like sparrows and Harry is being tagged-teamed, barely answering one question before another is fired. Etty has the mumps now.
‘Will Mummy get them?’ asked Janey, then straight on, ‘will I get them again?’
‘No,’ Harry said, ‘you only get them once.’
‘Will you get them?’ said Etty, and suddenly there was a stillness, although Harry spoke easily.
‘No, sweetheart, I’ve had them too.’
‘When you were little?’
‘When I was twelve.’
You know the thing, when you realise something and you can practically feel your brain joining up dots? My dots were like sharp explosions, and each space in between was like burning fire. I could see it, quite clearly, the picture my dots made. Harry at twelve, with mumps. Sebastian Grant-White rendered infertile whilst still at school. Rosa’s voice, at once wheedling, loving and guilty. That fucking calendar with my ovulation; the hours spent upside down up a wall, the days, weeks and years feeling inadequate because month after month my period arrived, plum on time. The pain on Harry’s face when he opened the bathroom cabinet and saw the Tampax. And oh God – the gentle sighs, the sympathetic rub across my shoulders. It’s okay darling, it’s not your fault. Your body just hasn’t got in gear yet. My body. Something hot and livid began to melt into my eyes. I opened them just as Rosa walked in.
‘Harry!’ she pointed to me and chaos broke out. The children were trying to climb on the bed, Harry was bellowing for a nurse and Rosa was trying to stop the children knocking into my wires.
‘Stay with me, baby,’ Harry had my hand, was gripping and squeezing it and I stared at him, fascinated. He looked so much older than how I thought of him. His hair was too long and sticking up where he’s dashed a hand through it. He was grey with exhaustion and his green eyes were bloodshot and puffy, as if he cried himself to sleep every night.
Somehow the children had gone, and Rosa, and the nurse had done her stuff. I was alone with Harry. I kept staring at him. The rage that had propelled me into opening my eyes had slowed to a simmer now.
‘Can you hear me, Ness?’ Harry asked. ‘Can you speak? Blink if you hear me.’
I nearly didn’t. I wanted to punish him, but he looked so frightened, so broken. I blinked.
‘Oh Christ,’ he said, over and over, holding my hand to his face, bruising my knuckles with his kisses.
‘Ness,’ he said, his voice thick and hoarse, ‘Ness I made a deal. I made a deal with God if you were to wake up.’
I watched him. I looked at the trenches of grief cut either side of his mouth, the grubby shirt collar on a man who normally polished his shoes, and those of his daughters, every day. I looked at his eyes; eyes that had run out of tears and were now red, gritty and dull. And desperate.
‘I have to tell you-’ the sound stopped but I saw he was still trying to talk. He was literally forcing the words out. I spoke.
‘What?’ Harry’s head was close to mine. ‘What did you say? Mumps? You said mumps. God Ness. How...?’
The door flew open behind us and I heard the children, voices tearful and excited, with Rosa trying to shush and stop them bundling on the bed. I moved my eyes to try and see them and when I looked back at Harry I felt something huge and vital move inside me. As much as he loved me, he loved them. I could hardly get my head around it. Imagine knowing from the age of twelve you’d never have children, then keeping that secret for most of your life. Would I have married him, knowing? No. However much the acknowledgement made me squirm, I know that I would never have married a man who couldn’t give me a child.
Harry’s eyes met his mother’s, and Rosa saw instantly.
‘No-’ She moved round the bed, both hands to her throat as if she were being choked. ‘You told her-’
‘She spoke,’ said Harry, helpless. ‘She said ‘Mumps’.’
I could feel the weight of my daughters against my legs. They’d wriggled onto my high bed and had curled against me like kittens. They were quiet and still, as if they were hoping to be forgotten.
Rosa was speaking again now, tears glistening like crystals against the defenceless tissue-soft skin beneath her eyes.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m so sorry Ness. Forgive me? Don’t...don’t blame Harry, it was my doing. All mine.’
They both looked so stricken. And shrunk almost, as if their guilt had diminished them, had eaten away at their insides to leave husks. It was like looking in a mirror.
I shut my eyes.
Harry cried out, but Rosa was fierce, ‘Leave her. Let her be. Ness must do it. She needs to decide herself.’
And the weirdest thing happened. I was on an island made of black sand. A tiny island with smooth black sea all around. Next to me was a chest and I knew what was in it. It would be easy, so easy to walk into the sea and feel the soothing nothingness. I turned to the chest. I opened it. I took the guilt out and I felt the weight of it would break my arms. It had trebled in size and was now almost unmanageable; I almost couldn’t carry it. I staggered with it to the edge of the island and I dropped it in the sea.
Then I opened my eyes.