January 19, 2010

Bottles

There are five green bottles sitting on the wall; five green bottles sitting on the wall, and if one green bottle should be deliberately pushed off the wall, then the bottle will lay smashed to pieces on the floor.

Then there will be four green bottles sitting on the wall.

I had a dream once, after the whole thing had poured out, that my house was a museum. It was one of those dreams that are ruthlessly realistic; you know that you are dreaming, but at the same time you can’t separate the layers of reality from the layers of fantasy. My house was a museum, and people were viewing a bottle. It was a perfectly ordinary bottle, except that it was life-sized, and perfectly obvious that the bottle was mother. I think perhaps it was because it had my mother’s eyes; yes, that’s it, the bottle had my mother’s eyes. From then on the bottle drove me to school, cooked my meals, cleaned my clothes. The bottle also had a broken neck, by the way.

There are so many incidents of childhood that I could retell, endless anecdotes that would perfectly illustrate how I know my mum. She’s infinitely kind, although not always patient, theatrical, enthusiastic, unique, but perfectly ordinary. But there has always been something broken in her, there have always been hints in the haunting of her eyes. Perhaps it is clearer through the awkward relationship with her own mother, or the way in which one carefully chosen unkind word can turn her all of a sudden to tears. There was a time, I’ve been told, when I was six weeks old and my sister, older by 5 years, was evidently frustrated by the competition for attention. She desperately wanted to build a den in the living room, but mum wouldn’t let her; she already had a house to clean and a baby to keep happy, I imagine the line of argument would have gone. And with that, my sister grabbed hold of my leg like a chicken drumstick, and sunk her teeth into it. This is now commonly retold as a favourite family incident, especially as when mum slapped Eve (my sister) in order to get the little cannibal off me, she could not seem to forgive herself. She phoned the health visitor in hysterics, and when the nurse could only ask over and over ‘But how is the baby? Has she drawn blood? How is the baby?’ My mum could only obsess over the fact that she’d raised a hand to my sister.

Now that it has all poured out, the story seems more telling now.

I hate to sound harsh, but what I always find hard to reconcile myself with is how someone can be happy in the face of such ruthless monotony. Mum looks after us; cleans the house, cooks the food, placates my Dad; she is our brick wall. But to me it seems so boring, day after day, everything is just repeated over and over. Perhaps it’s that we’re cut from different cloth, but I don’t think that’s the case either. But she is happy, she ever tells me; all she needs is her little family.

Her little family strictly includes my Dad (Andrew), my sisters (Izzy and Eve) and myself. Our family is a little bit idyllic, I hate to say. There’s isn’t much scope for a tortured soul or abused inspiration in my childhood. If you can only write what you know, the only stories which could be spun from my head would be of the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ variety, with a touch of Little Women, only with even less tragedy than their sprinklings. Our five little bottles sit safe and snug on our sandstone wall. But, as it has been revealed, my Mum hasn’t always been a happy little bottle. I hate to say.

Alison Miles is 5’3; she has long brown hair which grows rapunzel-like waist length at times, she dies it red with henna periodically. Coffee and cream coloured skin is marred by blotchy spattering betraying teenage angst. Before 16 she has large ears that stick far out, the tips curling over like the top of a melting candle; they nickname her Dumbo at school. Although, I think ‘nickname’ is not quite the right description. Her father pays, at 16, for the operation to ‘have them fixed’. The only good thing he’s ever done for her, she likes to say. And here I discover that it was as I thought, Alison did once have ambitions beyond those of domestic nature. She wants to be a ballerina.

She trains six days a week on cracked and bleeding points (the tips of her toes are still to this day flat and tough). Although she’s no Margot Fontaine, she dances harder than anyone and her graceful movements seem far more deserved than those of daughters paid for and supported by wealthy parents. But come on now, she lives in Thirsk. Her mother works in a pharmacy, her father is a well-known drunk. Her sister will, in two years, be in the loony bin due to fatal cocktails of escapism and fantasy. She hasn’t got a hope in hell. Have you even heard her accent? Who would take her seriously?

But hey, what do I know? I haven’t even been born yet.

So, she leaves school at 16, meets my father at 17, leaves home at 18 and is pregnant by 20. It seems she launched herself out of childhood as quickly as she could manage. I suppose it’s just luck she is still in love with her escape route in 2009, although Andrew barely mentions the ‘L Word’.

I always wondered what happened to the ballerina. So one day, I followed a trail of blood. As I traced it’s course I began to realise they were bloody footsteps; tiny, bloody footsteps. I tirelessly pursued the thin red path across scorching tarmac terrain and rocky freezing wasteland. I took pleasure in seeing the variation in the prints, I felt as though I was an intrepid explorer tracking an animal. Sometimes they were firm, well-placed and planted. Others were immeasurably tiny, as though the walker had been treading on their big toe alone. There were even times when I could see movement in steps – a fascinating choreography in the chronology of the prints. Quick step here; a leap, a skip – and there a twirl.

Eventually, having walked for many days following the little red path, I reached a cave. It rose all of a sudden out of the ground; I often did not see things until they were directly upon me, as I was always watching the footsteps on the ground. The cave was horrible grey construction which seemed entirely unnatural, sat along a naked cliff looking out onto only mists where sea should have been. Dark and dank it reeked of loneliness and malice. The footprints led into the cave, and I duly shadowed them. Here, the footprints were the heaviest I had seen them, sunken and spread into the spongy rock. The blood radiated outwards from the outline of the foot, almost as when ink spreads from the nib of pen pushed into paper too long.

I entered the cave and it swallowed me up. There seemed to be light in one corner, and the footsteps led me there. As I made my way my head entertained me with images of dragons and ghosts and serial killers. But when I reached the source of the light, all it illuminated was a little old man sat on a bar-stool, clutching a pair of blood soaked ballet shoes. I nearly laughed aloud from relief, having been so afraid of something so feeble.

“Who are you? Why are you holding those slippers? Can you tell me why my Mum never got to be a ballerina?”

Voices reverberated off the walls as the old man slowly raised his head. He had a saggy back, a swollen, miserable face and unreachable eyes. His hands were stained and glistening from the red ballet shoes, but I wasn’t afraid of him.

“These were your Mother’s shoes, my Alison’s. Did you know she danced through glass to get them? Her feet are bleeding now; I don’t think the cuts will ever close. It’s my fault, don’t you know?”

He had a spine-sliding, jerky laugh that wasn’t a laugh at all. It was painful.

When I left the cave, I never looked back.


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