The loss of my mother is like a missing tooth: an absence I can feel at all times, but one I can hide as long as I keep my mouth shut. And so I rarely talk about her.
It’s a sad place to start my incredible little story, but please don’t misunderstand me: I love my life. I’m quite an ordinary thirtysomething woman with two daughters and a husband, Eddie, who’s training to be in the clergy. He seems to think I’ll make the perfect vicar’s wife, but I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge. Compared to my husband I’m what you might call more rational, a little more scientific. But I suppose, after what I’ve been through, I should be able to believe in anything.
Eddie says I have all the necessary qualities, and I admit I think I’m a good person. For instance, you can tell me anything and I won’t judge, and if I can’t help raising an eyebrow, it will stay on the inside, to protect your feelings. And I’ve always been completely truthful with Eddie, it’s a thing between us, not a single lie. Until now.
Now I’m a liar. Now I’m a thief.
And I can no longer say hand-on-heart that I’m even normal. I’ll let you make up your own mind. Lying to my husband makes me feel sick and I’m desperate to stop, but lies are like toes: where there’s one, there’s always more close by. My biggest confession is that I’ve been visiting my mother and lying about that, but I’ve also been scratched and scarred and lied about that too, so many things. If I told him the truth, Eddie would try to understand because he’s a good man. But logically—logically—he’s more likely to think I’m mad.
Maybe I’m being unfair to him, because as much as I love and need my husband, he loves and needs me, and over the past few months I’ve realized something important. I can’t tell Eddie what’s been happening, no matter how much I want to. Not because he won’t believe me, but because he might.
And if Eddie believes me, he’ll try to stop me.
LET ME EXPLAIN things from the beginning, although I wonder where the beginning really is. Time is not as easy to understand as I once thought.
It started with the photo and the box—but, oh, there’s me saying “started,” and that’s the same as beginning. We’ll make a deal: I could get philosophical about “the beginning” and what that really means, but I don’t want to talk about that right now and I appreciate that you’re not up to speed with the situation, so we’ll hold off on that discussion (it will come up again later, I guarantee it). Let’s just say this: the sensible starting place for my story is the photograph.
It’s the kind of photo a billion people have in their possession. You might find it tucked inside a book you haven’t opened for years, or it will fall out of an old album because it’s lost its stick. I bet you have one in a shoebox somewhere, hidden among other bits of life debris: love letters, postcards, and christening pictures of unknown babies. Mine fell out of a cookbook. A cookbook with no pictures, but with spattering on various pages indicating best-loved recipes, chocolaty fingerprints, and a few handwritten notes. My mother owned this book and had a sweet tooth; the page for chocolate brownies is particularly smeared, as is the recipe for sticky toffee pudding.
The photo is of me. On the back it says Faye, Christmas 1977. I turned it over in my fingers, and grinning up at me from thirty years ago was my six-year-old self: rosy cheeks, brown eyes, and messy curls. I’m sitting in a box in the photo, a box that had contained my Christmas gift that year: a Space Hopper. I remember sitting on it, holding on to the handles and bouncing around the garden. But in the photo, I am more interested in the box, and I look so much like a doll, I could be climbing out of my packaging on Christmas morning. I’m wearing a soft-looking pink dressing gown with a little rounded collar, and the Christmas tree behind me is heavy with colored lights and tinsel. I look so happy. Of course. I was a kid, it was Christmas morning, and my mother was taking that photo. It would have been a perfect, carefree day. My mother, whom I hardly remember, would have been soaking up this little girl’s gaze of love. My love. I peered closely, trying to see beyond the photo, trying to see more than it was capable of giving me.
I work at the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) designing products for people with partial or no sight, and a year ago I was researching cameras, all very high-tech. There’s this blind guy I work with, my friend Louis, and he was taking part in the discussions about cameras of the future and what they might be able to do. What he really wanted was to pick up a photo and feel everything in it, not just what you can see, but round the back too. He said he’d like to be able to put his arm round the shoulders of the people in the picture and felt sure one day it would be possible. He’s always been blind and I think he thinks sighted people already get more out of photos than is actually possible.
I understand what he means though, because when I look at the photo of me in the box under the tree, I want to put my hand in and touch the face of my mother. She isn’t in the picture, and yet she’s there. I’m desperate to see her and touch her. I so very much want to climb in and spend a few minutes under that Christmas tree with her.
So you know I lost my mother a long time ago, and I told you I’ve been visiting her and that, if he knew about it, Eddie would try to stop me. But I guess you also know that if I were visiting her in the cemetery, Eddie wouldn’t have a problem with that. Please don’t give up on me when I tell you what I’ve been doing. Put yourself in my shoes and imagine telling your partner, or your boss, or your best mate. I think you’d lie too, because if you kept insisting it was the truth, you’d end up in a mental unit.
I hesitate in case you scoff or smile affectionately, or back away, slowly reaching behind you for the door handle. And I really don’t want you to do that. I want you to keep a straight face, look me in the eye, and say, “Go on,” and when you do that, I’ll tell you the rest of my story.
I’ve been visiting my mother, who died when I was eight, and I’m not talking about the graveyard—I’m talking about flesh-and-blood, tea-and-cookies-on-the-table visiting.
So there you go, I’ve said it now. If you want to leave I’ll understand.
THE PEOPLE I care about most in the world are Esther and Evie. Eddie’s next, but it’s not that simple because there’s Cassie and Clem, my best friends, and they’re like sisters to me; the sisters I never had, but if I could have chosen—or created—them, then they would be it. In a conversation we once had, which probably happened after two in the morning, we girls talked about who we would throw the last life belt to if we were on a sinking ship and the rest of us, including our children, were in the water. My hesitation in answering earned me a lot of abuse, including a cushion thrown with some force. The natural reaction is to throw the life belt to one of the children, but my thinking was: Save the life of the one who’ll save the ones you love. I chose Eddie. “What about us!” Clem had wailed, and then she’d asked who I’d throw the life belt to if just she and Cassie were in the water, and—honestly?—that was the harder question. When you’re a teenager with no real family, and you meet girls like Cassie and Clem at college, well then, suddenly you do have family.
My life used to go like this: my daughters, Eddie, our friends, work, and domestic chores. That was about it, and it all pretty much worked beautifully. But then this thing happened, and it touched everything. My focus changed; life wasn’t simple anymore.
Since I found the photograph I carry it with me everywhere, like a good-luck charm, a Polaroid tucked neatly into my wallet. I worry about losing it, but I’d rather have it with me than not. More than ever in my life, I’ve been thinking about my mother and what I missed out on. And as my children get older, I think about what she missed too; by the time I was their age, she was gone.
It was just the two of us when I was little. No father or family that I knew of. I have some fleeting images of my mother in my mind, but they’re like butterflies: fragile, floating into my vision and out again before I’m able to get a proper look. And when she died, well, I don’t have any clear images of that: a feeling of loss, but also expectation and disbelief. I thought she would come back, really believed I would see her again. She was ill, I knew that, a chesty cough and no energy, although she would always smile for me. I could go to her for hugs and kisses anytime: open door, feet padding on carpet, climb into her bed, open arms, warmth. All a bit vague, but a good feeling. And then one morning, I woke up and she was gone. I went to a house I knew down the road and knocked on the door—an old couple—and told them my mother was sick and I didn’t know what to do. I stayed with them that night, Em and Henry, and stayed with them the next night too. They made phone calls, there were hushed conversations and a policeman, and they told me my mother had died, but I’d be okay. I ended up staying with Em and Henry forever, or rather, until college. They never gave me any details about that time, and I didn’t feel I could ask. We drove to a churchyard on a few Sundays to put flowers on her grave, but apart from that she was basically just gone from my life.
I had questions that could probably never be answered, and filled in the gaps with guesses. I guess cancer killed her, but I don’t actually know, because why wouldn’t there have been doctors, and why wouldn’t she just have been dead in her bed? Maybe, like Louis, that’s why I wanted this photograph to give me more information than it could, and the more I looked at it, the more I focused on the Space Hopper box and tried to think where I’d last seen it.
Not long after I lost my mother and was staying with Em and Henry, I went into my new bedroom, old-fashioned but comfortable, with lots of pink frills, and in the middle of the floor was the box that my Space Hopper had come in. It looked battered, but the sides had been taped up with brown parcel tape to strengthen it, and I opened the lid to reveal my things. Em and Henry must have finally decided that my stay with them was going to be long-term, and had gone to my mother’s house to pick up some of my toys.
I lined up my Smurfs neatly on the carpet—there were about five of them, and they fell over in the plush pile—and then my Slinky. There was a white plastic telephone on wheels, with eyes that rolled when you pulled it along, too young for me by then. There was my Little Professor, a handheld calculator with a clever face, like Einstein. I laid him next to my Major Morgan (a gift from Em and Henry) and they looked up at me like a pair of tiny electronic uncles; their happy faces made me feel sad. I switched on the Little Professor, and a mathematical question popped onto the screen. It was too easy for me, but I deliberately got the answer wrong. After three goes, he silently gave me the correct answer, and while a part of me wanted to smash him against the wall, I laid him carefully back down, next to the Major. A pack of Happy Families playing cards and my books were in the box, mainly Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing-Chair, and hidden between them like a stowaway was my mother’s cookbook, the only one I ever saw her use: small and well-thumbed with a soft, pliable black cover, like an old-fashioned Bible. I opened it to a page covered in smudges, ran my fingers over what I guessed were her fingerprints, and traced some of the tiny writing in the margin, and the tiny tick she’d put next to one of her favorite recipes. I kissed it and tucked it away carefully with my other books.
In the bottom of the box was a pair of roller skates, and I held them to my lips; the metal of the wheels was cold and rough and embedded with tiny stones from the path outside. The skates were adjustable, and Henry would help me loosen them so they would fit. There were other things in the box, and I emptied everything onto the pink carpet. The Space Hopper itself was in the corner of the room; it had a smiling face painted on it, but its sinister grin upset me—it looked like it knew something I didn’t—so I turned it to face the wall. When the box was empty I flattened it and stored it in my wardrobe. And when I moved out years later, I vaguely remember that box; I reinforced the sides with more tape, and it must have come with me for every house move I ever made.
THE NEXT TIME I saw that box after I found the photo was the day I made a cup of tea for Eddie and knocked on his study door; he turned on his swivel chair and took off his headphones, pressing Pause on the video he was watching on the computer. He stretched out his long legs and flexed his fingers, as he always does when he’s been working.
“What are you doing?” I said, putting the tea on his desk and running my hand through his ruffled brown hair. Is it wrong to think Eddie is too handsome to be a vicar?
“Learning about the book of Revelation, and how it relates to certain services.” He pulled me onto his lap and I straddled him, snuggling my head into the crook of his neck.
“You smell good,” I said, and he wrapped his arms around me. He’s so tall and I’m so petite I think he could wrap his arms round me twice. His thumb found the base of my neck and rubbed it. I leaned back to look into his kind brown eyes and he kissed me. Best kisser ever. I thought that the first time, still think it now. And I could feel him stirring.
“Revelation turns you on?” I said, smiling into his mouth.
“It’s pretty weird stuff.” He kissed me again.
“Want to get kinky later?”
“Let me think about that,” he said, and I pinched him playfully behind the arm. As I rested my chin on his shoulder, I noticed a battered box in the corner of the room. Like an old soldier, it had outward signs of wear that suggested it had a story to tell. There was a faded image of a girl on the box, wearing long white socks, black shoes, and a yellow dress, impossibly short—seventies short—bouncing right at you on her Space Hopper. Some of the writing was hard to read, because it was obscured by brown tape, or had been torn away when tape was removed or replaced.
“Where did you get that box?” I said, sitting up slightly straighter in his lap.
“The attic. I was looking for some of my old textbooks, and I brought them down in that. Looks ancient, doesn’t it.”
“It’s the one from my photo,” I said, and I leaned back so I could look him in the eyes.
“My photo, of me and my mother, except, well, my mother’s not in it. The one under the Christmas tree.” I got up and went to retrieve it from my bag, bringing it back like a piece of children’s treasure: the thing that feels like treasure to the owner but not necessarily anyone else.
Eddie took it from me, and with his finger touched the face of me in the picture. “Look at you.” He smiled, first at the photo and then at me. “You’ve fared better than the box,” he said. “You still look perfect, but that box has seen some serious action. We should probably throw it out.”
“What?” I said, getting off him abruptly and going over to it. I removed a couple of books from inside and lifted it up, holding it protectively. “How could you? This is in my photo. Part of the proof I was there.”
“I only meant that given how bashed up it’s getting, if you put something heavy in it, the bottom might drop out.”
“Well, then, don’t use it. But don’t you dare throw it away.”
Eddie held up his hands as if we were playing cops and robbers. “I won’t, I promise. Sorry!” He grinned at me as though I was a nutcase he loved dearly, and I pulled a face to show him how crazy I could get if I really wanted to, and hugged that box a little tighter.
There was a quiet knock at the door, and I turned to see Esther standing there, holding her hands together in a little prayer.
“Hello, sweetheart,” I said, and put the box down as she came and wrapped her arms round my legs, burying her warm face in my stomach. I stroked my hand over her glossy brown hair, tucked it behind her ears, and gently squeezed an earlobe. I always felt like I wanted to pop one of those earlobes in my mouth like a piece of gum. She pulled away from me and bobbed down in front of the box.
“I like this,” she said, using her finger to outline the image of the little girl, who looked about the same age as her. I realized the girl on the box would be in her forties now, at least, and yet here she was, like a time traveler who had bounced from 1970-something into our attic and now into Eddie’s study. Who knew where she’d end up next?
“Can I have this?” Esther said.
“No,” I said, a little quickly, and Esther just said that was okay.
“What do you want it for?” I added, feeling bad, just as I did every time I said no to the girls.
“I was just going to cut it out or something—she’s so lovely, isn’t she?” Esther said, still looking at the girl from the past.
“Yes, she is,” I said, bobbing down next to my sweet daughter who loved to cut out all the beautiful things she found in magazines and on cards. I once found her, aged six, tongue between teeth, with a tiny pair of scissors and a slim black out-of-date diary that she’d bought for ten pence at a yard sale and never written in. Every page of the diary was edged with shiny gold and she was trying to trim it off. When I asked her why, she said the gold was the best bit and she wanted to separate it from the other part of the diary.
“You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth,” I’d said at the time.
“I don’t understand that,” she’d answered, still concentrating on her cutting.
“I mean that sometimes the best bits are attached to the not-so-good bits, and we just have to accept that.”
“I know what it means, I just don’t understand why we can’t just have all good bits. We’re all good bits: you and Daddy, and me and Evie, and our house. There’s no bad bits.”
“What about when I tell you off?” I’d said.
And she’d stopped cutting and looked at me thoughtfully. “Even when you tell me off, that’s a good bit, because I know you love me. If it was another mummy telling me off, then that would be bad.”
“It really would!” I’d agreed.
But once Esther had trimmed off all that gold, the diary looked worse than before, and the little bundle of shiny strips didn’t look any good either. She’d cried, and we’d cuddled, and I’d thought of my own mum and how Esther was right: how I would love for my mother to be here even if it was just to tell me off about something.
“This box is a bit important to Mummy,” I said to Esther, and just then Evie came into the study, thumb in mouth, wrinkled from having been in there for so long, and her messy hair made her look like she’d just risen from a nap, when in fact she always looked like that: dreamy and warm. I sat properly on the floor and Evie climbed into my lap, head to one side, and stretched out her hand to touch the box as well. For a moment it felt like we were all connected to the box: Esther and Evie touching it, me touching it by virtue of holding Evie, and even Eddie, who was sitting there with arms folded, watching us as though we were a bunch of kittens, connected to it through the carpet that it was sitting on, radiating up through his feet.
“Why is it important, Mummy?” Esther asked, and Eddie leaned down to pass her the photograph.
“Who do you think this is?” he said, and Evie shuffled forward in my lap, her thumb loosening but still slightly wedged behind her teeth. The girls peered at it.
“Is it me?” Evie said around her thumb.
Esther looked from the photo to her sister. “It does look a bit like Evie, but that’s not her dressing gown.” And it was true, Evie was about the same age as me in the photo, and apart from a different haircut, we looked very much alike.
“It’s me,” I said, leaning forward and taking the photo gently, thinking they might pull at it or get spit on it. “And can you see what I’m sitting in?”
“The box!” said Esther.
Evie looked at the taped-up, battered box. “That’s old.”
“Oi! Same age as me, roughly,” I said, squeezing her and pretending to be offended.
“But that’s just a silly old box,” said Evie, “and you are our cuddly mummy.” She snuggled into my armpit, and I felt a rush of joy at the warmth that was coming at me from all directions: from Esther and Evie, and from Eddie, watching over us. And as always, when I was in these moments, I felt an emptiness. As though there were a corridor inside me with a door at one end, and when the rest of me thought everything was wonderful and perfect, the door would open and cold air would rush through and I would remember what I’d always missed. My own lovely mother. My eyes filled with tears and I looked up at Eddie, who nodded and smiled like he knew what I was thinking, but he didn’t, not all of it.
“So can I have this box?” said Esther.
“No,” I said softly. “I need this, and I don’t even know why.”
Evie—pouncing on the fact that she knew I hated to say no—picked just the right moment to ask for something.
“Mummy, can we have some popcorn and watch a film?”
“Now, that is a yes,” I said, and the girls cheered.
Eddie put his headphones back on and turned to the computer. Going to the kitchen, I popped the corn, and the girls snuggled up on the sofa to watch Mary Poppins. Again.