The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bedside lamp, certain everything we’ve built has gone in the night. We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us. If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we could find our way back. Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.
It is hard, even now, to know where to start. For you memory is not a line but a series of baffling circles, drawing in and then receding. At times I come close to violence. If you were the woman you were sixteen years ago I think I could do it: beat the truth clean out of you. Now it is not possible. You are too old to beat anything out of. The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.
There is a degeneration at work. You forget where you have left your shoes when they are on your feet. You look at me five or six times a day and ask who I am or tell me to get out, get out. You want to know how you got here, in my house. I tell you over and over. You forget your name or where the bathroom is. I start keeping clean underwear in the kitchen drawer with the cutlery. When I open the fridge my laptop is in there; the phone, the television remote. You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I’m doing there. You are not Gretel, you say. My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful. You are not her.
Some mornings you know exactly who we both are. You get out as many kitchen implements as you can fit on the counter and cook great breakfast feasts, four cloves of garlic in everything, as much cheese as possible. You order me around my own kitchen, tell me to do the washing-up or clean the windows, for god’s sake. The decay comes, on these days, slowly. You forget a pan on the stove and burn the pancakes, the sink overflows onto the floor, a word becomes trapped in your mouth and you hack at it, trying and failing to spit it out. I run the bath for you and we go hand in hand up the stairs. These are small moments of peace, almost unbearable.
If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.
Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language all our own. You tell me that you can hear the water effing along; I answer that we are far from any river but that I sometimes hear it too. You tell me you need me to leave, you need some sheesh time. I tell you that you are a harpiedoodle and you grow enraged or laugh so hard you cry.
One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock your door open, put on the light. You are sitting up in the narrow spare bed with the sheets pulled to your chin and your mouth open, weeping.
What is it? What’s wrong?
You look at me. The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment – because it is night and I am only just awake – I feel a rise of sickening panic. I shake it away. Open the wardrobe and show you the empty inside; help you out of bed so we can crouch together and look beneath, stand at the window and peer out into the black.
There’s nothing there. You have to sleep now.
It’s here, you say. The Bonak is here.
Most of the time you sit stonily in the armchair regarding me. You have a bad case of eczema on your hands that was never there before and you scratch it with your teeth bared. I try to make you comfortable, but – and I remember this about you now – you find comfort an annoyance. You refuse the tea I bring you, won’t eat, barely drink. You swat me away when I approach with pillows. Leave it, you’re fussing, give it a rest. So I do. I sit at the small wooden table facing you in the armchair and I listen to you talk. You have an aggressive stamina that carries us through whole nights with barely a pause. Occasionally you’ll say, I’m going to the bathroom and rise out of your chair like a mourner from the side of a grave, your hands brushing invisible dust from the front of the trousers I lent you. I’m going now, you’ll say and approach the stairs with gravitas, turning back to glare at me as if to say that I cannot continue without you, it is not my story and I must wait until you have returned. Halfway up the stairs you tell me that a person has to own their mistakes, live with them. I open one of the notebooks I’ve bought and write down everything I can remember. Your words are almost peaceful on the page, somehow disarmed.
I’ve been thinking about the trace of our memories, whether the trace stays the same or changes as we rewrite them over time. If they are stable as houses and cliffs or decay fast and are replaced, overlaid. Everything we remember is passed down, thought over, is never the way that it was in reality. It makes me fraught, restless. I will never really know what happened.
When you are well enough I take you out to the fields. There were sheep here once but now there is only grass so thin the chalk shows through, lumpy hills rising from the ribs of the ground, a thin stream that burps out of the dirt and sidles down the slope. Every couple of days I declare exercise a cure and we march to the top of the hill, stand sweating and puffing at the top, and then cross down to the stream. Only then do you stop complaining. You crouch by the water and drop your hands into its cold rush until you touch the stony bottom. People, you tell me one day, who grow up around water are different to other people.
What do you mean by that? I say. But you won’t answer or have forgotten you said anything to begin with. Still, the thought stays with me through the quiet night. That we are determined by our landscape, that our lives are decided by the hills and the rivers and the trees.
You hit a bad mood. You sulk until it gets dark and then rattle through the house trying to find something to drink stronger than water. Where is it? you shout. Where is it? I do not tell you that I emptied the cupboards when I first found you on the river and brought you here and that you will have to do without. You flop into the armchair and glower. I make you toast, which you upend off the plate onto the floor. I find a pack of cards in one of the drawers and you look at me as if I’m mad.
I don’t know, I say. What do you want?
You get out of the chair and point at it. I can see your arms shaking with exhaustion or anger. It’s not always going to be my fucking turn, you say. I’ve told you enough. All of that stuff. All of that shit about me. You jab your splayed hand at the chair. It’s your turn.
Fine. What do you want to know? I sit in the armchair. It’s burning with your leftover heat. You skulk near the wall, pulling at the sleeves of the waxed jacket you’ve taken to wearing inside.
Tell me how you found me, you say.
I put my head back, hold my hands so tightly together I can feel the blood booming. It is almost a relief to hear you asking.
This is your story – some lies, some fabrications – and this is the story of the man who was not my father and of Marcus, who was, to begin with, Margot – again, hearsay, guesswork – and this story, finally, is – worst of all – mine. This beginning I lay claim to. This is how, a month ago, I found you.