Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.
Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”
“Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.
The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died. Margo sipped her tea from trembling fingers. She heard the sound of a door opening, closing, and then footsteps. In the darkness, she could see the silhouette of a tall slim man walking down the pavement. It was Billy, her friend’s Grandson.
“Evening Mrs Galloway,” he waved, “Starting to get a bit nippy out eh?”
“Aye Son, it is.”
He continued walking. She watched as he stopped at the far end of her fence and lit a cigarette. The flash of orange light glowed for a moment, then he disappeared into the night. All that remained was the sound of his footsteps and a dancing orange dot. The smell of tobacco drifted through the air, lingered for a few seconds and she felt a flutter in her chest. She inhaled deeply. Margo had never smoked, never even tried it, but she had grown used to the smell of a newly lit cigarette. It reminded her of the first day that she had met Shug.
It was a warm afternoon in the spring of 1964. She was working from home at the time, a seamstress by all accounts, though a self-trained one. She had even built herself quite a reputation in the village where she lived. A craftswoman, the locals called her, “with an eye as sharp as a needle and fingers that can turn a tattie sack into a gown.” When Shug turned up at the foot of her steps, a handsome young man with a pair of trousers draped over his left arm and a cigarette paper balancing between two fingers, she stood in the doorway and watched him. He knew she was watching, but his eyes were focused on his fingers while he tore the wiry brown tobacco, spread it into a line then folded the paper, rolling and licking and rolling again. When he was done, he put the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and looked up.
“Are you Margo McNabb?” he cocked his head to one side.
“Aye.” She blushed and looked at the trousers over his arm.
“Great, my Maw said you could maybe take up the hem of my trousers,” he held them out. “Can you do it for me?”
Margo looked at the trousers and then at her visitor. He was short and stocky and the trousers would have been a good two inches too long. She sniggered.
“Aye okay,” she turned her back, leaving the door ajar, “Come on in.”
He followed her and closed the door.
“Who’s your Maw?” Margo asked taking the trousers and nodding her head to an empty seat.
“Betty, Betty Galloway. She said you two were pals during the war. Do you mind if I…?” he pointed to his cigarette and raised his eyebrows.
“Aye go ahead, but you’ll need to take it into the scullery. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Go on then.”
He got up from the seat and followed her through. Margo filled the kettle and put it on to boil.
“So you’re Betty’s laddie. Stanley is it?” she asked dropping two teabags into the teapot.
“Aye, but call me Shug, hardly anyone calls me Stanley anymore.”
“Alright Shug,” she leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. Shug lit his cigarette. He took a long draw and blew the smoke up to the ceiling.
“Nice place you have, Mrs McNabb.”
“Not Mrs,” she felt her face burning, so she turned to the cooker and fidgeted with the kettle, “Just Margo will do.”
“Just Margo eh? Interesting.”
She turned back around and watched as he blew little hoops of smoke into the room.
“Me and your Maw, we had some good times together, she used to wash and iron the clothes that I fixed, she was always singing, kept us all going so she did.”
“I bet you could hold a tune yourself,” he winked.
“Well I tried.” She twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. “Anyway, those were hard times back then, nae money for luxuries and all that.”
“Make do and mend,” he said, “Aye, she still goes on about it.”
A car engine rattled, snapping Margo out of her memory, and abruptly back to 2010. She jumped, and looked out into the street. It was normally so quiet at this time of the night. The car drove past. Lifting her mug, she took a gulp of tea but it was almost cold. She put the mug back on the table. Television lights flickered in the window opposite and an upstairs light in the house on the left, turned on. A curtain twitched. She watched for a moment then stretched her legs out in front of her. Flopping her head back, she looked up at the darkening sky. She closed her eyes and sighed, letting her thoughts drift off again. ‘Make do and mend’, she thought, ‘just like our wedding.’ In the space of a year, they had gone from talking in the scullery to walking down the aisle. It was a shame it had been such a small ceremony. Not many people approved of the twenty-seven year age gap. Shug had looked so charming in his taken-up trousers and suit jacket, while she had worn a dress she made herself. Oh and how wonderful she had felt in that beautiful dress, satin and lace that expertly skimmed her three-month baby bump.
Pearl was born in the back of an ambulance, eight days late, and after seventeen hours of labour. She was a scrawny little pink bundle – with a temper as fierce as her fiery hair. And those eyes, those little blue eyes that looked up at her Mother and filled her joy. They had fallen in love instantly. Margo remembered bringing her home, swaddled in a crocheted shawl. It took Shug a few days to hold his daughter on his own though.
“She’s not a bomb for goodness sake,” she took the baby from him and told him how to position his arms. He sat back in the rocking chair, and she placed the little bundle back into his arms. He stared down at her, a new twinkle in his eyes.
“She’s a gem.”
“Aye,” Margo smiled, “She really is. Are we giving her a name?”
“Pearl,” Shug replied, “Her name is Pearl.”
“Pearl.” Margo whispered her daughter’s name into the night. “I’ve missed you all these years.”
A cold breeze ruffled her hair and tickled her face. It felt like tiny ghost fingers touching her playfully. With her eyes still closed, she held on to the lingering chill. She touched the pendant that hung on a silver chain around her neck. Shug had bought it for her birthday in 1968, the year that Pearl died. She could still remember him dropping the pendant into her hand and closing her fingers around it. The stone had felt as heavy as the ache in her chest.
“I don’t want it.” She threw the pendant back at Shug. She hadn’t even remembered it was her birthday. After all, she had only buried her daughter three weeks earlier.
“But it’s Mother of Pearl,” he placed it on the bed side table, “Like you, the Mother of Pearl. It’s to remember our little girl.”
“What? You think a stupid necklace is a replacement for my baby? Really?” her body convulsed and tears fell from her swollen eyes.
“You’ll always be her Mum, Margo. You will.”
“Her Mum? But it was my job to look after her, not to dilly dally at some stupid ladies group. She was only three, for Christ’s sake, my only child. I should have been with her.”
“It’s not your fault,” he sobbed, “I should have been watching.”
Margo looked away from him and clenched her teeth.
“I only took my eyes off her for a second to roll my fag. I didn’t see her run. I didn’t see the car.”
“Come on Margo, you have to believe I’d never have let anything happen to our wee girl, not on purpose.”
“Too late. Where is she now Shug, eh? Where is my bairn?”
Shug bent down to touch her face. She swiped his hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” She shouted and pulled the covers up to her neck. “Just don’t”
“I’m so sorry,” he fell no his knees and wept into his hands, “I’m so sorry. Oh God. Oh God!”
Margo could still remember his cries, even now – forty-two years later. She shook her head, dropped the pendant onto her chest, and stared out into the darkness. Poor Shug. He’d never been the same after the accident. It hadn’t been easy for either of them to – just get on. But they did – get on – or at least they did their best. The television had stopped flickering in the window across the road. All the other windows were dark. She was alone.
Margo had always imagined that she would die first. Shug had joked about how he would go off and travel the world with all of their money when she was gone. After all, the success of her sewing business had allowed her to save for many years; so much so that she had comfortably retired at sixty. She remembered asking Shug to consider early retirement from his job in the carpet factory.
“I’ve plenty years in me yet.”
“But we can afford it, and you’ve worked so hard for all these years, don’t you want to spend more time at the dancing? You love the dancing.”
“We can dance anytime. Look,” he took her hand and pulled her into an embrace, then spun her around, catching her and kissing her on the nose.
“But we could do other things. You know. Together.”
“Get on a train and go somewhere new. My goodness, we could travel the world.”
“I already told you,” he slapped her bottom, “I’m going to travel the world when you’re dead and gone. What else am I going to do with all that money you’ve got stashed.”
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you are a bad man.”
But alas, it wasn’t to be. Shug was forced to retire in 2004 due to ill health. He was diagnosed with emphysema and heart problems. It had begun as a cough that had lasted for three months.
“Is it no about time you gave up on the cigarettes?” she’d asked him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t.
“How am I supposed to give up the fags now,” he said, “I’ve been smoking since I was eight.”
Shug had often recalled his early childhood memories to her. He had worked in his uncle’s cigarette factory when he was just a boy. He told her how he would sweep under the machines, collecting the loose tobacco in a paper bag so him and his pals could meet in the hay field after school and smoke the scraps. Margo had laughed about it, and people didn’t know the risks back in the fifties, and most of the boys did it.
Margo worried. Shug had lost his appetite and had grown thin, adding years to his face. His bottom lip was tinged in blue. He spent much of the day asleep or sitting up in his armchair reading the paper. Margo began to sleep in a chair beside his bed. One night, at the beginning of 2005, his heart stopped.
“I saw her Margo. I saw her standing there, waiting for me,” he gripped her hand through the bars of the hospital bed.
“She’s waiting, I saw her, and she was smiling.” Shug tried to sit up, but she put her hand on his shoulder and bent over him. Her back ached and her eyes filled with tears.
“She forgives me, my little girl.” He closed his eyes.
“It’s not time yet.” She said and kissed his finger then held them to her lips. “I’m taking you home.”
“Oh Margo, I’m ready to go now,” he turned his head towards her but never opened his eyes, “Don’t let them bring me back next time. Promise me?”
“I, I don’t know.” She whispered.
“Don’t let them bring me back.”
Margo looked up at the sky. It had turned black. She was glad that Shug had managed another six years after that, and although he began to fade away, his love never faltered. And he learned to laugh again. “You better get spending that money, Mrs Galloway.”
She reached for her mug; it was as cold as stone. Pouring the remaining tea into the wilting fuchsia in the flower box, she sighed deeply. She pushed her arms against the plastic chair and steadied herself. Her legs trembled and she shivered. The night had sunk into her dressing gown. She had waited long enough. Straightening her back, she walked slowly into the house. It was just as she had left it. The armchair, the ashtray filled with cigarette ends, and Shug. She kissed his cheek, closed his eyes, and watched another white eyelash fall to his purple blanket.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
Tears rolled down her face. She picked up the phone.
Winner of the Saltire Society first book of the year award 2017, Goblin, by Ever Dundas is a brilliant and brave first novel. Set in both London during WW2 and in Edinburgh in 2011, the story is told in flashback. For me, the first half of the novel is the best, we meet Goblin as a nine-year-old tomboy with a love for animals and a passion for storytelling – both of which the protagonist collects.
Goblin has a difficult family life; a mother who doesn’t want her, ‘Goblin-runt born blue. Nothing can kill you. […] You’re like a cockroach,’ (p.5) a father who mends radio’s and barely talks and a brother (David) who spends most of his time in his bedroom. Left to her own devices, the protagonist, her dog Devil, and her two friends Mac and Stevie roam the neighbourhood and hang around in an abandoned worksite. As a collector of stories, Goblin enthusiastically attends the local church with Mac, ‘I loved the stories, turning them over in my head, weaving my own.‘ (p.24) before meeting The Crazy Pigeon Lady who tells her tales of Lizards people from the realm below. The childhood innocence in these chapters, mixed with magic realism, break down the walls of adult reasoning and creates a wonderful suspension of disbelief.
But without giving away the story plot, the suspension of disbelief serves another purpose; to divert the reader (as well as the adult protagonist) from the truth. So, while the adult Goblin searches amongst her tangled past, she takes the reader along for the ride. We meet multiple parents, live life on the road, come alive on the streets and in the circus, explore love, death, desire, and hate – and somewhere in the middle we meet an impressive collection of animals – Goblin has it all. And as far as strong female protagonists go, she’s right up there with Anais Hendricks from Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon, to Janie Ryan in Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, characters who are so real you might just walk by them on the street. The only teeny tiny criticism about the novel is that the second half spans over a lengthy period of time and it felt a little rushed. However, there is so much to say about this novel, so many angles to discuss, from Queer Theory to Religion, from Myth to Realism, and as a graduate of English Literature I could have a field day studying this book but for now, as a lover of good books, I’ll give it a big thumbs up and a huge recommendation, it’ll be finding a space on my ‘keep’ book shelve.
Kelman’s novel Dirt Road is story that takes both characters and reader on a journey right from the outset, but the journey is more than it seems. The novel begins in the West coast of Scotland where we learn that Murdo – a sixteen-year-old boy – and his father Tom are mourning the death of their mother/wife and sister/daughter. Searching for solace, they embark on a journey to Alabama, U.S.A to spend time with Uncle John and Aunt Maureen. For Murdo, family is just a happy memory, a moment in time captured in a photograph, ‘The family was four and not just him and Dad’, whilst for Tom, family is the bond that holds them together. Throughout their journey, Tom strives to guide his son and keep him on ‘the right path’, yet Murdo, as we will learn, has a path of his own to find. Stifled by the fathers influence, the boy has a tendency to stray, thus when they reach Allentown Mississippi, Murdo stumbles upon a family of musicians led by Zydeco performer Queen Monzee-ay. Murdo is as drawn to music as his father is to family, the boy himself is an accomplished accordion player, and when he is offered an opportunity to play a set with Queen Monzee-ay in two weeks’ time, we watch as the road between father and son diverges and choice and risk becomes the key plot in the story.
While this may appear a simple story line, Kelman’s exploration into the fragmented relationship between father and son gives the reader an honest analysis of family and grief. The third person narrator, with bursts of free indirect discourse from Murdo, allows the reader both an internal and external insight into the constraints of family. This parallel leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable, yet with a conflicting heart. This is Kelman’s unique writing style at its best.
Dirt Road is more than a novel of grief and family relationships though; it is a novel of risk, of following new paths with uncertainties, about leaving behind the familiarities and safety of the past and following the heart. It is about deep connections; for Murdo this is through music and the feeling of freedom that he associates with music, whilst for the other characters it is about cultural connections and Scottish ancestry. Kelman’s clever use of parallels shows the reader the intensity of human connections whilst suggesting that change and progression is possible. This great novel will linger in your thoughts for weeks after you put it down, and it brings to mind a poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
I wrote this poem in response to finding out an old friend and work colleague had died. While I never actually found out the cause of his death, I do know that in the months, maybe years leading up to his death, he was lonely. I spoke to him on social media on rare occasions, but never allowed myself to get close enough to ask the simple questions- are you okay, or, do you need help. I guess over the years we had drifted apart as friends, and for that reason I felt that it wasn’t up to me to respond to his very obvious cries for help. Now I wish I could turn back time and not scroll by his social media posts. Now I wish I could talk to him and remind him that he is loved and that he has brought happiness to so many people in his life time. Perhaps those words might have saved him. Perhaps those words would have given him peace in his final moments.
R.I.P my friend. A fragment of your life is imprinted on mine.
They dressed you up like Christmas day. A faux Silk blouse with ruffled trim – garnet red. Black Pressed polyester trousers with an elastic waist, The comfy yins. But the shoes, the shoes were wrong.
Unworn kitten heels – black. The yins ye bought Fi Marks and Sparks that rubbed yer bunions.
They dressed you up like Christmas day and put you on display. Painted Your face back to life, with tinted rouge and peach lipstick that puckered Like melted wax, concealing your smile, Your tea stained teeth. They put you on display – Dead Cold.
Jon brought you a school picture of your grandson Jack; slipped it under your pillow Then squeezed a private letter into your clenched right hand. I Gave you a card. A pink one with a rose. I placed it beside your left hand – sealed Happy Mother’s Day Mum
They put you on display, dressed you up like it was Christmas day but without Your love heart locket, your gold embossed wishbone ring. Those damn sentimental things that might hold tiny particles of skin, Fragments of last week – lingering in the grooves.
Since writing this poem, I have begun writing a novel titled ‘Cheese Scones & Valium’, which is biographical fiction of part of my mothers life, and is embedded in memoir. This has a direct link to my poem.
I published Funeral Parlour with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017. The poem was originally written for an assessment at university and was difficult to write. This poem describes my own experience of seeing my own mother for the last time.
This poem is dedicated to one of the most amazing and inspirational people I have had the pleasure of meeting. Madeleine Brown, Stevenson College Edinburgh. Access to Humanities course – English Literature and Communications 2011.
Everything is hushed, even the waves hemming the sand seems to hold their breath. Dawn is breaking and teasing the horizon. The world seems warmer. Tiny orange crabs scurry sideways into jagged rocks and now I am alone. I feel naked. Alive. All that I hold are my most intimate thoughts and a new respect for life.
Visiting the Maldives had been a distant dream of mine, since – well since forever. I had lost my mother seven months earlier. Her sudden departure from my life was not only tragic but deeply confusing. Life as I knew it had changed. I found myself searching for answers instead of comfort and could not see beyond the noise. Seven months had passed and I found myself frustrated. I spent too much time sitting on my doorstep, looking to the sky and searching. I found nothing. Waiting for nothing is the most desperate way to pass the time. You feel the outside expanding rapidly from your doorstep while you slowly shrink inside your own head. After receiving a small windfall, it didn’t take me long to find my escape. “If I can’t find you, I’ll try to find myself.”
I watch the sun climb. Shocking red and orange slices flash upon the placid sea. Blood rushes around my body; my head feels light and my skin tingles. I want to grab this vision and stamp it urgently in my memory; nothing had been or ever could be this beautiful.
Sunrise is followed by nature. The salt water and wet sand creep up and swallow my legs. Schools of fish swim daringly close to me examining by pale white limbs. I enjoy teasing them with my toes. A stingray skims the surface of the shore, round , large and flat like a piece of old leather being carried by the waves. I stand up and follow it until it disappears into deeper water. “Time is irrelevant. Time is unconnected to the world outside. The world outside is now extinct”.
I am walking. My island has opened up to people. Swimwear – bright and cheerful which somehow looks dishonest here. Every soul I see equally treasures the silence. I see the emotion on every face that turns toward me. Passion has touched their soul. Passion has touched my soul.
I find a spot under a palm tree. It is a light relief from the burning sun as the fan like branches shade my skin. A tiny lizard scurries up the rough bark and hides from me. I have stolen its place. I close my eyes and breathe in a smell of warm salty sea and dry foliage. It is the pure and clean smell of the natural world, stripped back to its rawness, undeveloped and unpolluted. Unspoiled. All of my senses are kick-started. I am alive.
Hours pass, or perhaps it is just seconds but the next thing happens alarmingly quick. The brilliant blue horizon turns charcoal grey. In the blink of an eye the neighbouring island vanishes. The atmosphere feels instantly charged. Excitement and fear presses heavily on my skin and I watch in wonder as the sea trembles and spits out her waves as she chokes in the dense air. Colossal globes of water pelt from the heavens onto the world below. All at once I am alone again. Noise booms in my ears from the waves and rain and the intense screeching from the unhappy bird high above my head in my palm tree. I am motionless. I watch the storm gather itself, teasing my island with its wildness and ferocity, and I long for it. My heart pounds in my chest, my ears scream as I suck in the humid air and hold it as my body wretches. My eyes explode with tears cascading from deep inside my broken heart. I clench my fists and my eyes stare ahead, finally seeing myself through my blurred vision. I sob for my mother, I weep for the loneliness I feel without her and for my uncertain future.
Almost as quickly as it begins, the rain stops. The world stops. Only for a moment.Like I am caught between when time began and when time ended. I am nothing but am everything. The sea throws its last wave onto the wet sand then lies still, tranquil. Silent. Before my eyes is a florescent sea. A bright shocking bath of glory against a cruel bleak sky.
My eyes dry. The grey moves along the horizon until all that remains is a flawless sky that never ends. The sun lies down on the clear and rested water and time resumes.For the first time in a long time I understand. My close encounter with a tropical storm has awakened me. Like the storm, my grief is fierce but beautiful and will eventually pass. I am alive. I can be whole.
Sep 1783 It is to my gladness to write this account on the eve of my inevitable return to Wuthering Heights. Many years and too long have passed since my parting and it is, therefore, with haste that I will surmount to obtain what is rightfully my own. Returning to Liverpool was the mere consequence of my own disgrace. I sought retribution from a man who dared to call himself a father. This deplorable man saw fitting, that after the death of my mother he should flog me to slavery within his own trade. My father was an animal, whose sadistic conduct he bestowed upon me, determining my impending misfortunes. Alas, had I been saved from this cruelty by a gentler man, a man with whom was once my own heart, my fortune would have been my worthiness. I write to ease my agitated state upon my eagerness to see my love, my Catherine. It is exhilarating to think that so soon my eyes will set upon her beauty. Insomnia shall keep me roused for the remains of the evening, but I have a candle for each hour and enough recollections to fill the parchment before me. After the death of my mother, my father commanded my immediate departure. A brawny rogue with the darkest skin, darker still than my mother’s had been when she had breath in her body, wrenched me from within her cold dead arms. He was ordered to put me on the first vessel departing from the dock and secure a fair exchange for my labour. My escape was bloody. I braced myself as I was struck repeatedly and was almost lifeless when I grappled myself loose. I ran for all my life worth and hid in a darkened church yard, cowered beneath its long dark demonic shadows In daytime I hid amongst the dead. The air was thick and humid and smelled of rotten flesh and bile that emanated from the cesspits that piled high behind the tall houses. My fear of being captured by one of my father’s slaves, or by that of the night watchmen who guarded the streets, refrained me from daring to find food even by darkness. Many days and nights passed and I remained silent and still beneath my shroud. I scrutinised the stinking streets which were crowded with men. The gentlemen disassociated themselves from the labourers. They stood idly, smoking tobacco and flattering one another with accolades that sickened me to my stomach. My father would have looked quite the protagonist in their midst. It was during this period that my eyes first set upon Mr Earnshaw. His presence struck me immediately. He looked out of his station amongst these highbrows. His attire was as formal as any gentleman, yet outmoded. He possessed a placidness that was out of touch with his gathering. I was unsure if it was not my imagination that caught him looking directly at me, for I hid in the darkest and most wearisome part of the cemetery. I was quite unsure on several occasions if I were awake or in a dream. My body was starved from food and my mind was altered significantly. It was unsurprising how impervious I was when Mr Earshaw lifted me from the gravestone that had become my cradle. He was a bulk of a man who towered over me with a frown on his brow deeper than any scar. He smelled of soap, sweat and tobacco that were neither comforting nor vile. He grunted as he took me in his arms and carried me out of the shadows. He paraded around the church entrance asking those who cared to look, if they knew from whom I belonged. He sought honesty and kindness from those imposters who frequented the church in pursuit of god. Most people hung their head. Mr Earnshaw sensed my fear as I struggled from within his limbs. He whispered reassurance and concealed me within his thick woollen coat. I pressed my fingers deep into the rawest contusion on my arm in order to arouse my consciousness. Mr Earnshaw spoke to me in a muffled well-spoken manor. He questioned the whereabouts of my family and why I was inclined to be hiding in such a sombre location. I tried to reply but my arid throat closed and the words were distorted. He told me that he feared leaving me in my derelict condition and that he must take me to his home. I would be raised as his child for I had no man to call my father, for no father would leave a child to starve on the streets. It was neither trust nor weakness that allowed me to be removed by this stranger. It was merely the comprehension that I was soon to be dead. The pleasure my heart felt at this understanding allowed my first sleep in over seven days. I dreamed blissfully of perishing. I felt the wind rip through my hair and felt not Mr Earshaw carrying me on that torturous journey to Wuthering Heights, but my mother. She was as light as air and she sang to me as we floated together over the moors. When we rested, I was miserably awakened to flesh on my bones and a beating heart. I was given water and dried meat which I greedily devoured. The food was poison and for every morsel I ingested, I felt my mother fade away. My body was so malnourished that the consumption of my meal caused me excruciating pain. I clung to that pain like a trophy, for at once my mother returned to me and we continued our journey. Wuthering Heights was the bleakest and most tragic residence my eyes had ever set upon. Monstrous beasts grew from the stone walls. Thorns grew like ropes tempting the throat of a dejected soul. It was a dark and sinister building, surrounded with the bleakest dankest countryside. There was no shelter and the bitter wind howled and groaned like a maddened spirit. I cowered within Mr Earnshaw’s coat, afraid not of dying within this residence, but of living. Upon entering the house I was at first struck with the searing heat from the colossal fire. Flames flickered threateningly outwards, like arms of the dead trying to reach out to the living. The room was dark and unfavourable. My eyes wandered around this dreadful space. The floor was hard and smooth and as white as dead bones. The furniture looked rigid and large and unwelcoming like church pews. The windows were so small that not a face could fit within to look upon the gloom of the nothingness that crushed this home. I was at once surrounded by pale faced children. There were two girls and a boy. One child appeared ill fitted to the family and I later found her to be ‘Nelly’, the daughter of Mr Earnshaw’s help. She stood quietly behind the other children. The boy, who I leaned to be Hindley, looked cross. His face was twisted and distorted and he looked at me with venomous eyes. He was of my height but his frame was thin and awkward. His face although older, was not of a man but an arrogant child. I felt no threat from him when he clenched his hands tightly into a first by his side. He grunted and growled in my direction. I cared not for him or his pitiable manor. He appeared spoiled and selfish and I instantly abhorred him. It was of no wonder that Mr Earnshaw would look for a more suitable son. I was however drawn to the smaller child with the curious eyes, her name? Catherine Earshaw. Her glorious face fit her glorious name. She has long black silken hair. Her face was alive and wonderful. I had never seen such an elegant little thing. She did not speak to me but prodded me instead. I would have gladly stood and stared at her had it not have been for Mrs Earnshaw. She was a stern woman with the blackest hair framing a ghostly pale complexion. She was thin and wiry and unlike a mother. Her brows turned down as she looked upon me with distaste. She shrieked at her husband. Her revulsion for me was written on her obnoxious face. She started toward me in such a fury that I clung to the leg of Mr Earshaw who scolded her rightly on my behalf. My arrival at Wuthering Heights had caused such a calamity that I thought I might be fortunate enough to be sent back out into the great abyss. It happened that Mr Earnshaw had the final word over my residence in the household. I was given the name Heathcliff, which to this day I respectfully adopt as my own. My prior upbringing was never a topic of question within the family but rather of assumption, that because my skin was not of pasty white that I must be a gypsy. I had no intention of telling them of my father’s wealth and his perverse love for my mother, so I let them assume and remain unaware. Even to this day I have remained silent. Even after all that has gone and all of the bad fortune that has crossed my path. My time will come. The ignorance of my silence had left me ill-informed of the merit that wealth would have upon my life. I had been blissfully unaware of my unworthiness as a suitable mate for my one true love Catherine Earnshaw. Her pride grew as she became a woman yet in her eyes I became a lesser man. Had love alone been enough to fill her heart with mine, I would not be here tonight. Had I pleaded my father when I was a child, when grief filled his heart and hatred for me was his only solace, then perhaps I would have happened upon my Catherine in different circumstances. Perhaps she would have valued me as her suitor if my father had raised me as his rightful heir. When I returned to Liverpool three years past, I had no money in my pocket and my appearance was not desirable. I sought out the man who was once my father but my place of birth was empty. I wandered the streets looking for the fiend who had ruined my life and ended up at the docks were I blended in much sounder than on the streets. I found myself employment loading supplies onto vessels and doing general hard labour. The meagre salary that I earned was enough to rent a tiny room in a basement from a lady lucky enough to be blessed with the name Catherine. She was by trade a lady of pleasure. Her knowledge of the gentlemen in Liverpool led her to ascertain my father’s whereabouts. As payment for her services, I beat upon the scum who mistreated her. My father greeted me as the stranger that I was. I had no intention of frolicking with his humour so I identified myself. His astonishment was inscribed on his haggard face as he recognised the boy within the man. He sensed within me the anger and grief that I had held since a child. As he stood to shake my hand he lifted from his mantle a copper candlestick. His ancient legs betrayed him and he fell to the floor at my feet dropping his weapon by his side. I did not harm a hair on his unsightly head for I saw behind him my mother. I was not alarmed by her presence, but alas their love I understood. For that reason alone I let him live on the provision that he bequeathed me what was rightfully mine. I took it all. Alas it is dusk and I will return to you at once my dear Catherine. I am at last the man to which you deserve. I have wealth of plenty and a love that has deepened and grown. Together Wuthering Heights will be ours. But for now I must conclude my account as I must be on my way.
I sat on the doorstep. My head was filled with a itchy buzz that drowned out the noise from the road fifty yards away. The afternoon was damp and humid and a smell of rotten leaves hung thick. The air licked my skin and my scalp prickled as I sucked life into my lungs, attempting to clear the fog that stifled brain. I had been grinding my teeth ever since I received the phone call at 11am that morning and now my jaw ached. Outside, the doorstep was my reprieve, a place to escape. The mourning. It was the crying; the fear, it was the look of desperation etched on faces; pale, ashen and distorted. Outside I was alone, raw and separated from the solid hugging arms of collective grief and crumpled bodies. Fat blobs of rain began to fall, and I looked up to charcoal clouds scribbled over the sky.
“This,” I thought, “is how the sky ought to look today’.
From behind the rooftops of an adjacent tenement block of flats, a single black helium balloon appeared. I watched it stagger over the sky, bashing into thick air then sucked into jets of cold.For a moment it hesitated.
“Where are you Mum?” I shook my head and watched as the balloon skittered off into the distance. The world above was black and white.
How was I meant to feel today? How are you supposed react when you get a call at 11am on a Sunday morning telling you that your Mum is dead?
I had often tried to imagine how I would feel when this day arrived, especially more so in the last year as I noticed how fragile my mother looked and how tiny she had become. One thing was certain; I had always known my heart would break. What I did not expect was confusion, fear, emptiness and a feeling of no longer being safe. I got up and went back into a house that was no longer home.
Loss. I had experienced it before.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was off school. I wasn’t even sure why my Mum had let me have a free day but it was bound to be great. I got to pick my own clothes because Mum had gone out to see Granny in hospital. Before she left, Mum told me to be good and remember to brush my teeth. When I went downstairs to see who was looking after me, loads of aunties and uncles had come to visit. I felt really excited because that usually meant a party. The room was filled with pipe smoke and old lady smell.
“I got a free day off school,” I said, and tried to squeeze in between Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Agnes.
Everyone was looking at me and pulling weird faces. Auntie Phamie was crying. Auntie Isa had a crumpled up face and was looking at the floor. Uncle John coughed and left the room. I was afraid I had done something wrong.
“Your Granny died this morning,” Auntie Isa said, looking up.
I laughed because I didn’t believe her. My Granny was in hospital. Auntie Phamie started wailing so I turned around and stood in the corner.
“Poor Eleanor, not getting there on time,” Uncle Roberts voice came from near the kitchen.
I knew my Mum was called Eleanor, and I wondered if she had missed the bus this morning.
“And Chic, poor man, going home to an empty house,” one of the Aunties said. I wondered who Chic was and if he’d been burgled like the folk on Jackanory yesterday. I nervously picked wood-chip off the wall, and it fell in between my feet and on to the green carpet. I was hungry because no one had made me anything to eat. This didn’t seem like a party to me at all. I was scared to turn around, partly because I could still hear Auntie Phamie sniffing and grunting, and also because there was now a pile of wood-chip on the floor at my feet. I stood and looked at the mess for ages and thought about my Grannie. Why did they say she was dead? I thought this was a nasty lie to tell.
After what felt like hours, I heard the front door open and turned around. Mum walked in with Auntie Nan and Papa and everyone got up and started cuddling, just like at Christmas, except no one was singing. Papa was crying, and I felt like I should be crying as well but didn’t know why. My Mum took ages to come over and see me and when she did she crouched down so her face was close to mine. I wondered if my Mum would like what I had picked to wear.
“Your Granny died this morning,” she said.
I frowned and turned my back on my Mum, then felt warm pee dribble down my leg and into my sock.