I sit at the window, watching all that is happening on the street below. Here I am in the attic of this big Victorian house but I know everything that is going on outside. Yesterday it rained for a long time and after a while it became stormy. First wind whipped the pavement litter up into the air and then chased it about in circles. When the wind died down the rain came again, hard and thick, making a sheen of water on the road. The two little girls who live opposite opened the door of their house and stood half inside, half out, looking up, their tongues out to catch the falling drops. Their mother came and pulled them in, slamming the door behind her. I imagined her scolding them. A little dog cowered against a wall, trembling, and a man ran down the street holding a newspaper over his head. I went to make coffee and when I came back there was no one in the street. There was a grumble of thunder and I wondered when I would be set free.
Today the sun is out and although it will soon be winter, the light is bright and clear. There are people walking about; I can feel their pleasure in the warmth of the new morning. The two little girls come out of their house with their mother. They are not going far, only to the corner shop. Once she was a friend of mine, that young woman, but now I can no longer talk to her, not being allowed out. The older of the two girls looks up and I wave. I’m not sure if she can see me, as I’m so high up – on the second floor – and the window panes are grimy. I have asked for cleaning cream and cloths so that I can make them sparkle. Even that is denied me. Once I was full of sparkle: full of it. I could set all the people in a crowded room alight just by walking into it.
The young woman and her daughters are coming back. The girls are skipping along in front of her and I’m sure she has bought them sweets, which are bad for their teeth but make them happy; at least for a while. I knock on the window. I want to be skipping down the street, too, with a delicious mouthful I knock again but there is no response. The little family disappear into their house and the street is empty of human life. In spite of the sun, the street is grubby. There are little sodden piles of litter still damp from yesterday’s storm and I can see a broken pram abandoned and lying on its side outside the corner shop. This is a seedy part of London, a small enclave of old houses bordered by busy roads with too much traffic and a railway line that seems to go nowhere. Most of the houses have been divided into flats and there are two, next to each other, that have been turned into a hostel for the homeless. I know all this from the time before, when I was allowed out. I came to live here full of plans and energy; for some years I was part of the life of the street. A mist seems to settle in my brain and for a while I can’t remember how long ago those optimistic days were. I feel my heart giving extra beats as if it wants to run away with me and I put my hand on my chest to steady it.
When I open my eyes and look out again, the little dog that was shivering in the rain yesterday is wandering about now, its nose close to the ground, its stubby tail quivering with the delight of discovering smells. The dog is often out during the day because the man who owns it lives at the end of the street, and when he goes to work he leaves it in his garden and the little thing often escapes. Once I saw it jumping high in the air as it was nearly hit by a van. It scuttled into a front garden and sat there quivering and whining until someone came and talked to it. Now it lifts its leg and pees on one of the scrubby trees that were planted here and there along the street many years ago and whose roots are pushing up and cracking the pavement slabs.
The street is filling up. A man parks, gets out of his van, opens the back, takes out a ladder, a bucket full of brushes and other paraphernalia; he walks along, jaunty. He is whistling, I am sure, and calls a greeting to a woman scurrying past him. I’ve seen him before. He goes into a front garden, rings on the bell and waits with his back to the front door. If I could only get his attention, I wonder would he help me. Three people are standing in a group, one is smoking, one is gesturing, now they’re all laughing. I do not know them. Maybe they are new occupants of the hostel for the homeless.
It was a big old house and Simon and I knew we could do it up, turn it into a family home.
‘Not the best part of London,’ he said. ‘But, hey, we can afford it and the area’s sure to come up.’
I agreed. Of course I did. I agreed with him on everything then. I agreed that we needed lots of space and I loved all his ideas for what we could do with it. I lay naked on the mattress and watched him sitting at the table, drawing plans, waiting for him to notice that I’d taken all my clothes off. When he stood up, turned and saw me, he pursed his lips and breathed out, almost whistling. He couldn’t resist me. For years he was besotted by me. Years. He told me that sometimes he thought that he’d captured a butterfly that would one day fly away. I let him think that, I encouraged him. I was so bright and shiny then and so many men looked at me with longing eyes. I was a prize. Simon needed to know that: that I hadn’t come cheaply. That my love for him was because he loved me and wanted me and could look after me. I was fragile. I knew I was fragile. Simon knew he must be careful not to break me. I was uncertain about what was what, but I learnt to pretend. Maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe I was plain and had no sparkle. Maybe I’ve invented that to explain how events have turned.
When I look back, sometimes it is bright, like a photograph of happy times in the summer, shimmering air and the children smiling at the camera, the sun bleaching the colours, so that they are pale and delicate and beautiful. Other times everything is black and red, pulsating with despair.
Here is a memory: I lie on the bed in my parent’s big room. It is afternoon and the sun comes through the light curtains. I am supposed to be sleeping. My mother is close by, on her side facing away from me, and I can hear the depth and steadiness of her breathing. She is in her underwear; her skirt and blouse hang on the chair in the corner. I am three years old and beginning to wonder who I am. Sometimes I think, ‘I am me, I live with my mummy and daddy and my big brother and little sister. I am me with blonde hair tied back and wearing a blue dress with puffed sleeves.’ Thinking that makes me almost dizzy with knowing who I am and how strange it is to be a person, to know you are a person. Even then, happy as I seemed to be, I knew, though I wouldn’t have expressed it so, that the world was uncertain; that it turned and changed and was unreliable.
When I first met Simon I was happy. Until I fell in love, I hadn’t realised that such happiness was possible. Strangely, knowing as I did how fragile feelings were, I thought it would last forever.
Rose comes most days. I hear her as she climbs the stairs and I settle myself into who I want her to think I am. Usually I smile and she shakes her head.
‘Well,’ she says sighing and I’m not sure if she really is Rose or someone pretending to be her. It seems sometimes pretence is what our lives are all about. I think about people coming out into the world as if it were a stage, nodding and talking, laughing as if what they were doing were significant, before they go back inside, slump in front of their mirrors and remove their make-up.
Rose tuts at me and, after she has put away the food she has bought, she makes me sign cheques and gives me letters that have arrived, telling me to take notice of what they say. She asks why I won’t go out with her. I don’t reply; I look at her sideways, my eyes half closed. It’s a trick question. I don’t know what she expects me to say. I am, after all, a prisoner.
She has, off course, taken Simon away. She denies it. Sometimes when I’m on my own I think and think and try to work out what is real. I’m not sure what I’ve made up and what actually happened. That’s not quite right. There are some things that I know are true. Like what goes on outside my window. That is my reassurance: whenever I look out, the place is the same; there are little differences, depending on the time of the day, or the season. Once I walked along that street and said hello to people I knew, like the mother of the two little girls who was so young when I first met her, just married, no children. Like I had been: happy, given to laughing, running home with food in a carrier bag to cook deliciously for a new husband. She used to love to say those phrases, ‘my husband’, ‘Gerry, my husband’, smiling, proud, just as I had once loved – still did – saying Simon’s name. I see Gerry sometimes coming to the house, waiting on the doorstep, walking away with his daughters. One on either side. He is holding their hands and all of them are staring straight ahead.
Here’s another memory: my mother and father sitting on the veranda, both smoking and looking out onto the garden. It has been raining and they are ignoring each other. I’m in the corner, trying not to be noticed as it’s past my bedtime. I am curled into a small ball and I can feel the hurt that is gripping my parents. My father reaches for the bottle and pours some of the brown liquid into the glass. The ice cubes tinkle and I shiver. My mother does not turn to see what he is doing. She pouts her lips around her cigarette.
I call scenes from my childhood ‘memories’ because they are so solid in my head that I know they happened. I know Simon happened, too, but not quite the details, not quite the why, the how, especially of the ending.
Possibly he left me. Perhaps I asked him to go. But I can’t understand why he would leave me or why I would want us to be apart. So that is why I know they took him away. Some time ago, when we were deep in happiness, something happened and our lives began to melt and crumble. When I think about that time, those… terrible things that came, all I can see is darkness. I can hear crying but not where it’s coming from.
I take a cup of tea and sit, once more, by the window. I think about opening it but the thought scares me. In any case I think they have locked it tight so that I can’t lean out and call for help. On the opposite pavement two men seem to be arguing; the tall one is gesticulating with both hands and the fat one makes a fist, raises and shakes it. The little dog trots past them, nose down, tail up. The tall man slaps the fat man on the side of his head. The fat man rubs the place where he has been hit with one hand and points with the other. He kicks, misses and kicks again. Now the men are scuffling on the pavement. It is a real fight. I want to turn away but I also wish that I could make them stop, which I can’t, as I’m not even sure if I exist anymore. I never understood that saying, ’I think therefore I am’. I squeeze my eyes together to try to change the scene taking place out of the window and when I open them and look out the men are no longer fighting. A woman is standing between them, talking, talking. They listen, their heads bowed. She is a social worker from the hostel for the homeless. Once I invited her in for coffee. I said things that made her laugh. That was before. Now it is after.
Here’s how my life has been. There was a happy family: mother, father, son, two daughters. Pretty mother, pretty blonde daughters, smiling father coming home from work, kissing the mother, lifting up the girls and swinging them around, first the older one and then the younger, cuffing the boy gently on the side of his face, saying ‘we are men together’. When the father left for ever the house crumbled. Unwashed dishes in the sink, dirty clothes gathering in the laundry, unopened letters heaping on the hall table, falling onto the floor, unmade beds, burnt eggs for supper, the smell of sadness and decay, crying in the night. Then the mother left, too.
Rose says, ‘Carrie, so we had a bit of a hard time. Grow up, get over it. Think of what you have, not what you haven’t.’ Rose is the younger girl, my little sister. She has eyes so blue they hurt when they stare. She has plump, determined lips. It is Rose who is organising things now. But I cannot be sure. It might be an imposter who comes to see me, who has trapped me here, locked the windows, made it impossible to go downstairs. But I was telling about my life. I was eighteen when I came to London to study. But I hardly went to college. I danced and laughed and flirted, worked hard at being a girl who has fun, learned how to look happy: my smile became perfect. I can’t be sure what is and what isn’t because who I was and who I appeared to be were not the same. Every day was brittle, little bits breaking and cracking but I survived. I survived those days. When Simon came, he fought for me. Outside a bar he and a man who wanted to be in my life struggled, gripping each other tight as if they were lovers. They rolled on the ground and I moved away. I leant against a low wall, watching. Simon won because he was the one I wanted and when they stood and broke away from each other, I reached for his hand and led him away.
We would have been all right if the dark time hadn’t come and hurt us.
Another memory: my father comes into the bedroom and picks me up from my cot. I frown a little because it’s my mother who fetches me in the morning. But he is smiling, smiling and he jiggles me up and down and then he tickles me so I laugh and squirm. He takes me into my brother’s room and he dresses us and gives us toast and jam for breakfast. My brother wants his mother. He sucks his thumb. In the car, he rubs his piece of blanket against the skin between his mouth and his nose. I stare at him. Our father takes us into the hospital that has a smell I don’t like. If I had known the word then I would have said the smell was artificial; it is like dark cherries that haven’t had time to ripen. There is a baby beside our mother’s bed.
‘Your new sister,’ our father says while our mother smiles.
‘I don’t want another sister,’ my brother cries out. I don’t know what to feel.
My tea has gone cold and outside the day has disappeared: the sun has left and the colours are fading to grey. The little dog is yapping and running backwards and forwards by his owner, who is walking down the street towards his flat. A woman goes into the corner shop and soon after leaves with a laden bag, hurrying home. The social worker comes to the door of the hostel for the homeless, she turns and says a few words to someone inside then she bangs the door shut and scurries away. The mother of the little girls comes around the corner with her daughters. They go inside the house and soon after that, I see her standing by the window of the downstairs room. She reaches across and closes the curtains and I imagine her lighting a fire and sitting in front of it with the children for a while before cooking supper, bathing her daughters, reading to them and putting them to bed. And I start to cry.
Time passes: the street lamps come on and light spills from some of the windows in the houses. A man comes out of his front door and runs to the corner shop. I hold my breath hoping he reaches it before it closes. And when he does I laugh.
We were happy, Simon and I. But for a long, long time no baby came. We waited and waited and the rooms that were bright and welcoming with the colours we had painted them seemed to yearn to hold a family. Simon had made the house beautiful; on the ground floor was a big comfortable kitchen, his study and at the back the room that was to be the playroom, the living room was up the stairs, looking out onto the street, our bedroom and the small spare room were on the first floor too, and a bathroom that Simon had made exactly as I wanted it. Blue and white; everything blue and white. On the shelf under the window, I put a busy lizzie, a touch of crimson. The second floor was for the children. Three bedrooms, one for each.
Now I can’t bear these rooms that we created for a future that never came. So I don’t mind too much that I’m forced to live here in the attic. It was a room we weren’t planning to use. ‘We can let it out for some extra money,’ Simon said. He put a little kitchen in the corner, made the box-room into a bathroom and put a door with a lock at the top of the stairs. There were tenants for a while, the last was a young man who ran and leapt as he came and went, calling out, ‘Hello, Carrie, how’s the new one cooking?’ That was when I became pregnant. The mother across the road was expecting her second little girl, too. Everyone was happy except for Rose. She said, ‘you’re nearly forty, too old for a baby.’ She put a curse on me. On Simon, too.
Another day. Still the sun is shining on my street and I watch as a few doors open and heads peer out and up at the sky. It is bright but windy and I can see the litter blowing in whirls and the tops of the trees nodding as the leaves fall. It is colder, too, than yesterday. The little girls are wearing scarves when they come to play on the street, waiting for their mother. They are holding hands and skipping.
Rose has come in without me hearing her on the stairs. She says, ’How you can watch those girls I don’t know after…’ I will her to shut up. Rose says, ‘You’re in debt, Carrie, you can’t go on as you are. We’ll have to put the house on the market.’ I imagine my house sitting on a market stall with a price label tied to it. I am looking out of the front door, small like a doll. I pretend not to have heard Rose; she is, after all, pretending, too.
I knock on the window as the mother comes out of the house. She says something to her daughters and gathers them to her, one on either side, before they walk quickly away. I knock again but they have turned the corner.
The baby died as soon as she was born. I cried and cried. And cried. I cried and Simon cried. He didn’t go to work. The doctor came, his face a mask when he looked at me. Rose came in. ‘Carrie, Carrie, it’s time to stop pretending,’ she said. Rose thought there was no baby. That I made her up.
Simon said, ‘Of course there was a baby. I felt her move inside you.’
Simon said, ‘We will have another one.’
I said, ‘She was the one I wanted. She was the one.’
Simon said, ’I will bring a baby home for you. You need something to love and hold.’
I said, ‘Bring home the one that went away.’
Simon nodded. He put on his scarf and went out. The leaping tenant from the top floor came into the room and cleared his throat. ‘I’m leaving… I… Here’s my last week’s rent.’ He passed me an envelope. He couldn’t look at me.
Rose asked, ‘What have you done to Simon? He seems to think you had….’
‘We did,’ I said.
Later Simon came into the bedroom. He had a bundle in his arms. ‘I’ve brought her back,’ he whispered and passed her to me. I rocked her gently, looking down at her, before I opened my nightdress and offered my breast. She sucked for a while and then spat out my nipple. She started to fret and cry, her little face moving from side to side, her arms and legs flailing, so I wrapped the shawl tighter around her, held her close and sang to her. Simon was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching me and smiling. ‘Let me have her,’ he said.
They took her away. Rose took her away. Rose said, ’How could you? A neighbour’s child.’ I didn’t know what she meant. There was mist everywhere and Simon howling, howling. The dark days had come and they lasted and lasted. When the mist began to clear Simon was no longer here.
I take no notice of Rose as she puts food in the cupboard. It’s for the best. I pretend she’s Rose and she pretends I’m not a captive. I breathe in steadily and watch the street below.
‘There will be estate agents coming to look at the house,’ Rose says. I ignore her. An old woman that I don’t know comes out of the hostel for the homeless. She must be a new tenant. There is rope around her waist, instead of a belt, to hold her coat closed. She is hobbling down the road, stops by the broken pram and bends to look at it. The shop owner is standing on the pavement. He says something to the old woman who rights the pram and looks at the buckled wheel. She pushes it along; it bumps and judders but she doesn’t seem to mind.
‘I’m going now,’ Rose says. ‘Remember what I said.’
‘Where is Simon?’ I ask. I often ask but she never answers, or if she does says something silly. Because she doesn’t want to tell the truth. ‘Where is he?’ I persist.
‘You know where he is,’ Rose says.
‘Of course I don’t.’ Once she said that Simon was in hospital, that I had driven him mad. That was one of those days she was a pretend Rose and not the real one. Maybe she’s never the real one. I can’t be sure.
Because they took away the baby that Simon had brought me, I lost my daughter twice. Here’s a memory: it has been a long time since father left and now mother has gone. Our grandmother has come to take us to her house. She moves slowly and her face is creased with the heaviness of what is happening to her and to us. I can tell that, but not much more. There are black shadows at the back of the hall and suitcases against the wall. I feel such a sense of loss that everything around me is noiseless and melting. Nothing is real as we leave our home. When I look through the window of the car, I see that the place is fading, as if it could only exist when we were there.
It is cold now. There is no sun and the clouds are big and grey, pressing down on the street.
‘Time to go,’ Rose says. I don’t know what she means. I watch what’s going on outside but no one comes through their doors, no one is walking about. A clumsy removal van is turning the corner, it lumbers along, far too big to be here, and stops outside my house with a growling sound.
Rose is leaving the room and I feel breathless. I know what she is doing. She is forcing me out. I have been a prisoner so long and now she wants me to leave. I wanted to escape; I thought I did. I press my forehead against the window pane. The only people I can see are the two men from the van. One is about to ring my front door bell. I bang my fist on the glass. I imagine rushing into the street and air flows into my lungs with this idea. I think about the social worker from the hostel, the mother of the two girls, the owner of the little wandering dog and all the others I have watched from here. I think of asking them for help. I’m not sure I would know how to do that and, in any case, the only person who can rescue me is Simon. I must be here when he comes. Slowly I move to the top of the stairs. There is the key. Where it has been for so long. My hand trembles as I reach for it. When Rose comes up she will find the door locked. From the inside.
Jane Seaford’s novel Archie’s Daughter was accepted by Really Blue Books (nothing to do with porn) and e-published in 2012. Several of her short stories have been placed, highly commended or short-listed in international competitions. Many have appeared in anthologies or magazines. Others have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. As a freelance journalist she had a column in a magazine called Bonjour and sold pieces to the Guardian, the Independent and other British publications. And she is the joint fiction editor for Takahe, a New Zealand literary magazine.
Image credit: ke dickinson