A short story by Megan Taylor with double exposures by Estelle Cadwallader and Hazel Hughes.
Despite herself – because of everything – she is finally going home.
She isn’t acting on impulse. She bought her tickets in advance and took her time packing, carefully selecting clothes and toiletries, adding a few well-thumbed, favourite books. She felt calm negotiating the station’s clamour; she found the right platform and carriage, the seat she had reserved. For hours, she managed to ignore the hissing headphones of the boy sitting behind her and the refreshment trolley’s rattle, wheeled wearily down the aisle.
It isn’t until she’s stepped off the train and onto the overgrown path leading to the village that it hits her – she’s come back.
But instead of thinking about her old house and what might be waiting, she remembers the rowdy school bus that, for years, used to drop her home.
The bus had reeked of hairspray, undercut with sweat, the trapped air streaked with flying paper, screaming laughter and cat-calls. There were days when the other kids ignored her, but mostly she spent those journeys dodging thrown notes and having her hair yanked, her spine kicked repeatedly through her seat.
She had always been different – “The mad girl from the mad house”. To them, it was that simple, and there were times, both then and lately, when she thought they might be right.
Still, she’d try to hold herself together while they cackled around her, focusing on daydreams of growing up and being someone else, of living far away. She’d imagine an adult life of solitude – a clean, neat flat with solid locks on the door, where no one ever raised their voices or their hands.
Obviously it wasn’t just her classmates who she was wishing away; in her fantasy-future, her mother would no longer exist. She never thought of death or abandonment; there wasn’t any absence in her daydreams – just washed glasses in a gleaming kitchen and rugs thick enough to muffle even the pad of her bare feet.
The path is quieter than she remembered. Judging from the tufts of grass snagging her sandals, it’s rarely used these days. Beyond her hitching breath, the only sounds are the chirps and trills of hidden birds and the breeze purring through the honeysuckle that’s taken over the fence. There’s no else here, no one watching –
But then the leaves ripple, their rustling thickens, and she knows that she’s about to jump before one of the secret birds breaks free. Sure enough, when a thrush erupts through the blossom in a flurry of feathers, releasing a dizzying burst of sugary scent, her heart leaps up to her throat and gets wedged there, trapped with the lump of her gathering tears.
And as the bird rises, shrinking smaller, soaring away into the blue, she wonders if she should have been more careful what she wished for. She has never felt so alone.
When, at nineteen, she left the village, she had thought she was going for good. There would be no more of her mother’s paranoia or obsessive projects, no more pills that never worked. She was escaping the accusations, all that shouting and crying – although, by leaving, she was chasing quiet, not silence; sometimes the dead silences in-between had been worse.
But, at the beginning, she couldn’t seem to escape the chaos. The money she’d stolen wouldn’t last forever and it was exhausting, moving from one shoddy room to another, taking jobs washing dishes and pulling pints for loud young men, packing boxes and scrubbing floors. When she was offered work at the university library, she thought she might finally be able to stop.
Although the rest of the campus reeled with noise – the students yelling and shrieking or chattering endlessly; even alone, they had their phones – she felt protected, fenced in by books. For a while, she thought everything she needed could be found in the library’s musty alcoves and archways, the soft turning of pages enhancing their still.
For a while.
But even the non-fiction held its own murmuring stories, and there was a different kind of muttering coming from inside her, whispers drifting with the dust between the ordered bookshelves, static leftover from her dreams.
For the first time, she dreamt of her father, or somebody like him. He’d gone so long ago, her memories had blurred.
But, in the dreams, she saw the man clearly, his muffling coat and his slumped shoulders, his heavy, shuffling shoes. She watched him walk down the road leading out of the village. She saw the car waiting. She realised there was somebody with him and felt his distance as never before.
And there was something else – raw cords pulling inside her. But it wasn’t his old guilt that she was feeling; she knew she had to go back.
Whenever they used to walk through the village together, which was daily when she was small, her mother’s steps would slow when they came to the big house. She would pause at the fence. She’d stare.
Despite its discrete boxed burglar alarm and double glazing, they both understood its magic, a fairytale place surrounded by trees loaded with leaves, and lush, quivering bushes, wooden benches and a glimmering pool.
And the house wasn’t just larger than the others in the village; it was cleaner, coolly whitewashed, impeccably maintained. Every spring workmen criss-crossed the bricks with ladders, but it wasn’t just the walls that glowed.
If they happened to pass by at dusk, the windows would sometimes come softly alive with honey-coloured light. It was the only indication, ever, that anyone was home.
Apart from the workmen, they never saw another person in the garden, no one coming in or slipping out. But wasn’t that the way things were meant to be? Secretly, her mother told her, the house belonged to them.
“There are paintings inside,” she said, “and rocking chairs. A cuckoo clock that chirrups on the hour... And it’s always warm in there – fresh loaves in the oven. The scent of baking spirals up the staircase. It seeps into every room.”
By the time she was seven and her mother had stopped going out with her – or anywhere – she’d still pause outside the house. She’d wrap her fingers around the railings and gaze across the water, a pond so expansive it was almost a lake.
She’d picture the other daughter and mother who might live there, the mother singing gently or telling bedtime stories. She’d think of thick blankets and board games, a roaring hearth and tickling and toast.
When eventually she grew cold, her wide eyes stinging, she’d carefully release her grip on the clammy railings and wave goodbye before she left.
Returning home, to that place where she had to live, she never knew what to expect. Her mother might be muttering or roaring, or encircled by paper or fabric, in one of her frenzies, cutting things up. And she’d stare past the silver scissors and the pearly beads of her mother’s tears and gritted teeth. Through the shine, she’d will herself back to the big house, think of the girl she kept leaving behind.
Beyond the station path, where the road begins in earnest, the fields give way to new bungalows, but the village’s small park is still right there – and there are still big girls on the swings.
It wasn’t just the kids on the school bus who used to single her out and from old habit she bows her head as she passes, scarcely watching, even from the corners of her eyes. Still, she thinks she can feel waves coming off them, the air swept with their rising and falling, their long legs lifting. She senses the shimmer of their fanning hair.
She has always been a watcher, caught at the edges. Her mother taught her to be cautious long ago. Although it was fruitless, she’d search for signals, trying to read her mother’s moods from her tightening jaw or tugging knuckles, the particular flutter of her sighs. She thought it would help if she learnt how to predict things, but it was impossible. She never knew what would happen next.
It’s ridiculous to feel afraid now. It isn’t just that she’s years older than the girls swinging back and forth, her whole world is different, and yet she often she feels this way, frozen, or doubled – as if she’s two people at once. There’s the woman she’s trying to be now, in her new tailored jacket, dragging a suitcase, and there is the other one – the child she can never escape.
But she stops suddenly as it hits her – she doesn’t want to feel stuck anymore. She turns and looks deliberately back across the grass to the playground. She raises her chin, her eyes open wide –
But the swings’ chains hang unmoving; their seats are empty. The girls have vanished – if they were ever really there.
When she was nineteen, the night before she left the village, she woke to her dark bedroom and knew something was wrong. There was a difference to the shadows’ swilling and a strange draught gripped her ankles when she swung her bare feet to the floor.
She didn’t call out, but went straight downstairs. The front door was standing ajar.
She pulled on her boots, slipped a coat over her pyjamas, ignoring the temptation to click the door shut, draw the bolt and creep back up to her duvet’s nest. A part of her had already had enough –
But wasn’t this something new? After years of being housebound, her mother had changed the rules.
Although not completely, it seemed – she didn’t have to think about it; she knew exactly where in the village her mother would go.
Sure enough, her mother was outside the big house, standing in the garden, by the pond. The white ghost-shape of her nightdress glimmered beyond the railings, at the end of the sleeping street. The water’s shine was softer and it wasn’t until she’d reached the gate that she realised her mother wasn’t standing at the edge of the pool, but in it. Her nightdress was floating, a small cloud around her knees.
The only movement was the stirring cotton and the quiver of her long, dark hair, rippling with the night’s thin breeze. Her mother didn’t turn when she stumbled into the garden – she’d clearly disappeared into one of her secret places, dragged out from underneath.
Thinking of her mother’s submerged ankles she felt the cold again, swirling around her own. It was unlikely that her mother, disconnected from her statue-body, could feel anything, but she felt sorry for those trapped feet. She pictured their pallid lumps and ragged toenails, water weeds joining the tangled veins that crept bluely over her shins.
Eventually they might be forced to take a step and then another, but even if her mother was determined to go deeper surely the pool was too shallow for drowning.
But could she be sure? Wasn’t her mother, with her secrets, clever? Hadn’t she always found her ways?
Exhaustion reeled over her and she thought of their home without them, the quiet that might finally settle in the emptied rooms. She could simply turn back. There had been so many rescues –
Except even as she thought this, she was moving closer, her tired voice calling out.
But perhaps that was moment she decided. In the morning, she’d be gone.
She walks across the meadow towards the houses, cool grass and cornflowers whipping at her calves. Goose-bumps rise from the flesh between her sandals’ laces. There’s a winter chill cutting through the summer evening, something ominous in the uncertain light. She feels the night coming in too keenly, the weighted spotlight of a glaring moon.
But the birds go on singing all around her, their voices shrill and reckless, weaving threads across the dusk.
And she doesn’t know what will be back there, waiting; maybe there’s nothing anymore? Perhaps, while she’s been away, her mother has finally acted on one of her promises. She remembers her mother’s precious sharpened scissors, all the pills she might have saved.
The houses ahead of her blur; her gaze keeps slipping. She can’t hold the walls and windows straight. There’s no point, anyway, in squinting, in trying to pick out her childhood home.
Although her mother rarely went out anywhere, the panes were always dim, grey squares. There was none of the warmth found in the other houses, no honeysuckle light.
And, for a moment, instead of windows she sees headstones. She thinks of graveyards.
It was madness to come back.
After all this time, she still feels conflicted, and hopelessly doubled – both hidden and coldly exposed.
But though she’s blinking and shivering, her feet keep moving. She doesn’t turn around and head back to the station. Through the dusk, she can feel the house getting closer, its dark windows waiting. Despite – because – of everything, she is finally going home.
Megan Taylor is a Nottingham based novelist with a sharp turn of phrase and the knack for thrilling, suspense-filled fiction. Megan has published three novels including The Dawning and a short story collection. She regularly runs literary workshops for Writing East Midlands. You can find more info on her work on Megan's website: http://megantaylor.info/
Estelle Cadwallader has a Photography degree and a PGCE in Education. She has facilitated workshops with young people and also taught at West Cheshire College in Ellesmere Port. Her work is experimental and draws on techniques such as solarisation, double exposures and time lapse photography. Find Estelle’s blog here: http://estellecadwallader.blogspot.co.uk/
Hazel Hughes is a portrait photographer with an emphasis on capturing candid moments, the off guard times when people are most themselves. Respected as a commercial photographer, Hazel has produced work for advertising giant McCann, Diabetes UK and T1 International. Her personal work focuses on issues she is passionate about such as a greater awareness of diabetes, the migrant crisis and mental health. See Hazel’s website here: http://www.hazelhughesphoto.co.uk/