Nervously I clench my hand to knock, accidentally applying more pressure than needed. The glass rattles in its stretched weathered frames on the patched up porch. I pull my hand back and thrust it into my coat.
A man mountain opens the door; his face lined like a pen drawing, his expression changes when he sees me, gone the look of annoyance, replaced by a more perplexing look. How many times have I played this scene in my mind? Tears build up, I am fearful they may spill over. I want to turn and run, but I’m rooted to the spot.
Hours pass before we are broken from our individual combined silence as his wife approaches. A bird framed woman, small searching eyes behind a veil of plastic oversized lenses. Wiping her hands on a 1950’s housewife apron, a line of flour swept through her greying hair, as she brushed a loose strand back behind her ear.
‘Bernard, I said who is it?’
She reaches the porch at the same time as her question. It immediately answered.
The tears spill over, mine as well as hers. Words tumble into my head as she grabs me, hugging me as her questions batter me. She pushes me inside against the mountain, still unmoved. Tripping on the step, her clutch tightens. I want to answer her, tell her yes it is truly me, but the words are stuck, choking me. She grabs at my coat, trying to take it off; I shrink into it, wrapping myself inside. Leading me to a floral covered wing backed armchair, she pushes me down.
Shaking, I do as ordered, more of necessity than instruction. Perched on the edge, in full knowledge of the state of my clothing and my smells. I am immune to it after all this time, but the reaction of others is enough to remind me.
Her floured hands push me back, saying something about relaxing. Every part of my being is urging me to run, get out, go now. I look around the room for escape, noticing the front door the only one. He remains at the door; I am sizing up the gap, as she says something to him, raising her voice and hands. He stumbles back to reality, knocking the neatly piled stack of logs over. She starts to curse him, silently so do I; he just blocked my only escape. Idiot!
They both enter the room, stand in front of me; I am waiting for him to speak. Instinctively I curl up, into the chair. The presence of him more intimidating than the filth I carry.
Saturdays, I spend every one the same, making Bernard breakfast, washing the dishes, doing laundry, sewing, mending the odd things that need repairing from the previous week, baking a pie for dinner and a desert for the lunch tomorrow. I am trimming the pastry as someone knocks. We are not expecting company, to be honest, nobody calls at the house unannounced. The urgency of the knock startles me, I have long given up hope of it been the police with news, good or bad. I hear the door open, and then nothing, no voices, nothing. Strange. I shout through and ask who it is, wondering if the kids are playing ‘Ginger’ again. They are not troublesome, just bored. Getting no response, I ask again walking to the door. As soon as the words have left my mouth for the second time, I see the answer.
‘Clara? Clara! Where have you been? What are doing here? Why? Come In.’
I think I asked more questions, but the words are falling too fast for me to keep up. I wrap her in a warm embrace; the smell assaults my nose and stings my eyes, although the tears are already washing my eyes. I have a firm grasp of her arm, frogmarching her into the house. Clara stumbles as she catches her mud sodden boots on the threshold. I have a tight grip; she is not going anywhere, not again.
Inside I try to take of her coat, a filthy once black trench coat, but she pushes my hands away. I think about forcing it, but decide there will be time later. Leading her to Bernard’s chair, and pushing her in to it, I am aware words are still tumbling out of my mouth.
My mother has asked me every possible question, probably every one she has stored over the last 5 years, 8 months and 16 days. She feeds me a bowl of stewed steak and kidney, I wolf it down, manners a long since forgotten trait. I am licking the inside of the dish, making sure I get all of its warmth and taste. A hand reaches for the bowl; I instinctively snatch it towards me, but she refills it, adding wedges of fresh cut bread.
‘Slow down, you will make yourself ill…’ she laughs nervously.
Suddenly I am five years old again; my senses are overwhelmed, standing in the wet room, an elaborate affair at its installation some fifteen years ago. A free standing bath takes centre stage. My layers are slowly stripped by my mother, she is clearly disgusted by my smell, although doing her best to ignore it. She is undressing me with the care a museum curator would use unwrapping a priceless artefact. The threadbare clothing embedded with grime and muck. I feel like a pass the parcel present, except every layer reveals another terror. My mother trying to receive each one without surprise, her face defeating her at each turn. My ill-fitting, long since white bra and pants all that remain between the present and the day I was born.
Stripping off my underwear, tucking the key back into the padding pocket, I clamber into the tub. Dissolving into the water, I lay there. Should I have come back? What was I thinking? Will she understand? Is he ever going to speak? These are just the thoughts I am able to disassemble. She took the pile of cloth, saying she will wash them, although they will probably disintegrate. I dip my head back into the water. Loading my hands with luxury shampoo, I pile it on my hair. The grit and years of grime fight the substance. I feel it drape the hair. I push with my fingers, digging in to my scalp, forcing it through the density. I rinse my hair, catching a glimpse of straw colour. I apply more, scrubbing and scraping. Rinsing my hair for the fourth time, my hair colour looks a dirty blond, the bath water black and gravelly. Pulling the plug, I drain the water. Feeling the dirt under me as I move, I stand splashing water to rinse it. Once I remove the main lumps, I refill it. The water is scalding; I can see the redness of my skin, reacting to the heat. Sinking back, I wash my hair again and mask it in the matching conditioner. Snatching some kind of plastic wire wool, I pour half the contents of the shower cream on it. I scrub my skin until red and painful. I still feel the dirt in my pores. Again, I refill the bath with clean water. Rinsing the conditioner, I’m shocked at being able to run my fingers through my hair. I lay back and allow the hot water to swallow my body completely.
‘Are you ok in there Clara? Still alive?’ my mother’s voice asks.
Still here, more like. I grunt, not out of ignorance or disdain, but because I still cannot find my voice. The door opens and she places a pile on the floor, telling me that I should find something there to wear.
I drain the bath, shivering, I step out and wrap myself in the largest bath towel I have ever seen. It wraps around my body nearly three times. Its soft lavender colour cotton, warmed by the towel rail. I smell it. It smells fresh, clean, flowery, but not floral. Home.
Standing to dry myself, the marks are clearly there. The heat and soap making their disguise disappear. I trace the one on the underside of my left forearm. I made that scar in the room across the hallway. A small one-inch mark, hidden from view, which released some of my pain. The sweetness of that first cut, the feeling of my blood, as it pushed its way through the freshly opened line.
That was a lifetime ago. It happened to a different person. Although I still had those pains, I added so many more since. Each one leaving its own mark on my skin, in recent years they no longer left the thin silvery white scar line. Clean razor blades are a difficult commodity to have on the streets.
Looking at the pile of clothes my mother had left, I see the tie-dye colours of my youth, she clearly thinks colour will brighten me. I pick up a new pale pink dressing gown, soft fur interjected with flat embroidered hearts. Yanking off the plastic tied labels, putting it on over the towel. Slipping my feet into matching coloured bootie slippers, I notice the skin. The hard built up patches, blisters, and callouses, long yellowed nails, bearing the miles I had walked.
Sitting against the door, I wonder how long I can sit here without re-entering the world downstairs that awaits me. I am tired, not just sleepy but exhausted. I cannot face an interrogation. I know they will be one. I cannot expect to turn up after all this time and there not be one. That would be foolish. How much do I tell them? Would they believe me? Would I believe me?
I hear voices coming from downstairs. Police! I recognise the jargon, the stunted speech, the forced empathy. Shit! I look towards the bathroom window. The dimpled glass, 28” by 16”, although I know my body with fit through, it is a solid unit. I wonder if I can creep across the hall to my old bedroom, the window in there is a fire safety window, or it was. Is it still? Last time I left this house, and many times before, I had dropped from my window on to the shed below, finally dropping into the neighbours’ garden and out into the fields.
The bell alarm triggered by the front door opening sounds. I hear my mother’s voice.
‘Yes I understand and tomorrow maybe, but certainly not tonight’
She shuts the door with more force than is necessary, I guess she is driving the point home. I hear her coming back up the stairs, although she does not come to the door. I hear her moving things about. I stuff my bra and pants into my pocket and open the door. She puts her head around the door of my childhood room.
‘Your bed is made up. Always is.’
I smile meekly. She beckons me forward. I walk towards her. She sits me on the bed and undoes the towel on my head, allowing my hair to fall. She starts to brush my hair, holding it as she tugs at a knot. A hairdryer appears in one hand as she continues to brush. I sit and let her continue, if anyone else had broached my personal space as blatantly as this, there would have been consequences.
I noticed she has not spoken in all the time she has been drying my hair, she is humming a song I do not recognise. When she is finished, she smiles, admiring her work.
‘There’s my pretty girl.’
I lay down on the bed. She starts to ask me something, but stops halfway, deciding I do need to rest. As I lay there in the dark safety of a home, a family, I want to answer all of her questions and more. I want to tell her why I left, why I stayed away, why it became harder to return with each passing day, why I have returned, why now. But I am not sure how much she would understand, how much I can bear to tell, how much I can logically explain. I am not sure how much I understand and I know the full story. How do I tell a woman I have not seen in years that gave birth to me, that I am a murderer? A child killer?
As I sank into the marshmallow mattress, cocooning myself in the duvet, the events of last Tuesday play repeatedly behind my eyes. Shivering with hunger and cold, I had seen the car with its engine running, the Radley handbag on the passenger seat. The driver obviously nipped back in the house for some forgotten trinket. I saw my chance and I took it. Nothing new, I had stolen hundreds of bags, purses, wallets of the years. As I reached over from the driver’s door, the handbrake caught in one of the holes of my coat. As I struggled to free myself in the panic, I somehow managed to release it. Clutching the bag, I run, as the car started to roll.
‘My baby! My baby!’ the driver shrieked hurtling towards the car.
I heard the impact but daren’t turn, I carried on running.
I had not even noticed the child in the car.