I used to own the sweetest, smallest compact mirror. It was barely bigger than my
thumbnail, which meant you could digest your face in pieces: an iris, a nostril, one freckle
alone in a sea of skin, the corner of your mouth. I found it in an antique shop, buried in a
cardboard box full of old rings, chipped enamel, lockets with their mouths firmly shut,
battered gold plate spoons, and semi-precious gems clouded with age. My hands came away smelling of metal. It was silver, round, and on the top sat a tiny solid silver rose. The compact mirror was the only thing I owned that I truly cherished. My sister-in-law broke it. She said she was just looking for something, a brush or whatever, even though my hair is too thick for brushing and therefore I do not own one. Seven years bad luck to break a mirror, especially if the mirror was mine. I took the glass pieces and ground them up using the pestle and mortar we had in the kitchen until the glass was quite fine and then I sprinkled it in my sister-in-law’s tuna sandwich that lunchtime. I liked to picture the insides of her all cut up and bleeding with a hundred tiny incisions.
The trees look as if they are growing small pale green shrivelled hands. There’s a bite
on my arm: the soft part just up from my wrist, when I turn my hands so that my palms face the sky. A red bud, pink blossoming outwards. I scratch it until I bleed. I like the sound bites and spots make when you pop their pus-filled heads. Yesterday I helped cook chili con carne, which was always my husband’s favourite meal, although here the chili isn’t real. Neither is the carne. The meat, in fact, comes in metal containers with thick foil lids. You peel them back like opening tins of cat food. It is a weird hybrid of actual animal and meat substitute. It tastes like nothing at all, for which we are all truly thankful. If they were unopened they would outlive me: something I try very hard not to think about during mealtimes. We drink water. Breakfast this morning was two pieces of cardboard toast, smeared with something that was pretending to be jam. After breakfast we go about our daily routine: morning prayers, cooking, cleaning, tending the gardens, afternoon prayers, quiet contemplation, and so on and so on. The pious nature of nuns works well with punishment. Sometimes though I long for one of a more physical nature. A cat o’ nine tails coiled tightly in my fellow Sisters’ hands. A candle held under my palm until I blister; until I am clean. Unfortunately, flagellation is out of vogue. I content myself, therefore, with memories.
I married when I was nineteen, which was too young, and I was terrified of getting pregnant. The thought of it made me physically sick. I was as thin as a wire and my hands often bled from overwashing and from my job, which required me to spend hours with my hands in hot water. I was scared of spiders, dogs, the dark. I had no family. My father died when I was twelve. My mother when I was sixteen.
My mother-in-law, who lived with us, would spend her evenings knitting passive aggressive baby clothes whilst I secretly took birth control pills. I kept the pills hidden in an old jewellery box that locked up with a bronze key. The key I kept on a chain round my neck. My husband must’ve thought me quite a boring person, or else a curiously anxious one, because he never enquired what was in the box or why I guarded the key so jealously.
Before and after I was married I used to wash up at a small cafe. Lots of china plates
painted with flowers. Lots of cake forks, knives smeared with butter and crumbs. Little pots of jam and clotted cream. And teapots, like gentle china elephants, their spouts cleaned with boiling water. I find small tasks like that soothing. It was the only advantage of my job, which otherwise paid poorly and kept me lonely.
On the days when I did not work I was expected to cook for my husband and his family. I got very good at boiling pasta water and not much else. By comparison, my mother-in-law was a fantastic cook – something she never failed to rub in my face. It suited me, however, to deliberately court the idea that I was bad at cooking. I mixed sugar into meals when there should’ve been salt and poured salt into cups of tea that longed to be sweet. I baked cookies and other biscuits, but left out the butter, or made pancakes that became floury scrambled egg, that I then squeezed lemon over and sprinkled on sugar, or salt,
depending on how I felt that day. I used to buy lots of vinegar and serve meals that were so sharp my husband’s family spent the entire evening wincing. Coriander, a herb no-one
enjoyed, was liberally sprinkled over everything. Sometimes, very occasionally, I would chop up a small amount of false parasol to put in dishes (especially mince ones) and make everyone very, very sick. Only the tiniest pinch is needed. It has virtually no taste.
In the evenings my mother-in-law would knit or sew whilst my husband finished the
crossword he had started in the morning paper. Sometimes I drew a little or read from a book. My sister-in-law went out every evening with friends. She never once invited me. Before she left she would, in her words, put her face on. It was fascinating to see how my sister-in-law made herself up. First, she would remove all the excess hair from her face. Her family all had dark, black hair, but quite pale skin. A friendly moustache grew on her upper lip once a week. Her two eyebrows longed to meet. Occasionally a daring hair would wave at us from the bottom of her chin, but those were usually the first to go. She owned a pair of tweezers with gold tips, and she wielded them like weapons of war. Pluck pluck pluck, little hairs with white bulbs at the bottom, small secretions of skin, fell onto her lap. After she was as hairless as one of those Sphynx cats she would begin to moisturise. It was a bit like watching a wizard work. She always did this ritual in the front room, before the television. In the bathroom she covered all the available surfaces with her potions. She washed her face with black soap, the colour of wet sealskin. It smelt like liquorice. The moisturiser she used came in small (which meant expensive) pots – it smelt like sweet peas and honey. To this day the smell of honey makes me feel quite sick. She rubbed a carefully dabbed amount onto her cheeks, her forehead, down her neck, using her hands like paddles, flattening the choppy waves of her face. She worked as a secretary for some stuffy old man, and spent all her paycheque on creams and powders and tints. After moisturising she would start building her base: a peachy, healthy skin colour quite unlike the sallow, waxy skin she possessed. With one white pad she would rub colour onto herself like an artist, round and round and round. Next she applied roses to her cheeks, blooming all over, then eyeshadow in a supposedly natural colour, eyeliner to make her eyes darker, mascara to make them seem bigger, and pink, pink lipstick – one bow, then another. She was so adept at it I’m sure she could’ve painted it all with her eyes shut, in the dark. When she was finished and gleaming like a china doll she would set her face with spray.
My husband had the same routine every night. He would take a bath after the nine
o’clock news. Comb his wet hair so severely the tooth marks from the comb remained on his scalp like a ploughed field of hair, then read for forty-five minutes exactly. He slept on his side to ease his snoring. I always found it hard to sleep. I was, in essence, living the same day over and over and over again. Having the same conversations. Eating the same food. Going to bed at the same time and rising in the morning on the dot. Some days, in order to keep myself from losing my mind, I would take a drawing pin and dig it quite deeply into the sole of my foot. This was not something I did often, just enough that I felt alive. Other times I would bite my fingernails and scatter the crescents on the ground where I was walking. If I scattered three nails in one day it was a certain type of spell: it would be a good day. Three is a good number for spells. I plaited my hair three times in the morning before work and combed it three times in the evening before bed. If I burnt my shoulders or back during the summer I would peel the skin off in long, luxurious strips and lay them under my sister-in-law’s bed. This was a kind of curse. So thin and white, it looked like onion skin: the membrane we examined under microscopes at school.
In those days I only had one friend in the whole world: Marion.
Marion worked in a bookshop owned by her aunt and ran a fortune-telling gig out of
the backroom. We were probably only friends because I paid her to read the tarot for me and brought her my share of leftovers from the cafe. But she gave good advice.
Marion was a few years older than me. She had platinum blonde hair cut into a bob
and often wore makeup that gave a pearlescent sheen to her face. If I had met her before I had met my husband maybe I would never have married. I was already lonely at eighteen. My husband was twenty years my senior and, I admit, initially I liked the way he made me feel. At eighteen I was afraid of being forgotten. Sometime after our wedding this changed: I wanted to, instead, disappear completely.
My husband made love to me three times a week. It was the only time I could forget everything, when all I could feel was his hands on me, his body bearing down on me, his fingers twisting through my hair and pulling it sharply when I begged him too. I loved his smell. I wanted to cover myself in it. He would hold me down on the bed and call me his little cat his little wildcat his his his until I couldn’t feel anything except his body inside me and his hands on my throat so that I couldn’t breathe I couldn’t feel anything I couldn’t feel at all.
If it had been like that all the time I really think we could’ve been happy. If I could’ve stayed like that forever and ever I would have been okay. I miss that about him, even now. His strong hands. He reached for me before he died. He didn’t know, then, what I had done.
Despite all my precautions I became pregnant. I didn’t know what to do. In a fit of anger I threw all my pills away and flushed them down the toilet. Then I sat on the toilet lid
and cried. I knew, the way people said you could tell, that there was something living inside me. I was sick and I didn’t know if it was because of my hormones changing or if it was the thought of something growing in me. I decided I had to go to see Marion, who would know what to do. I washed my hands and went down to the hall. The phone had a very comforting heft and feel when I pressed it against my ear. The dial tone was soothing. I had half a thought that I would just stay sat on the telephone chair listening to the dull noise stretching on and on and on forever, but then it made an impatient sound, like it was sick of me just sitting there doing nothing, so I called the number for work and told them I was ill and couldn’t come in.
Maggie answered. ‘Have you been sick?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I told her truthfully.
‘Don’t come in until 48 hours have passed since you last threw-up,’ she said to me,
then promptly hung up the phone, as if the germs could travel to her through the line. I didn’t care. It meant I wouldn’t have to think of an excuse if I needed more time.
I took the bus to the bookshop. The bus was crowded, and no one moved for me to sit. I thought about how many of them would give up their seat for me if they knew I was carrying a baby and smiled bitterly at them all. A man with a short, silly beard pushed past me and I was briefly outraged at his roughness until a sort of ennui settled over me, and then I didn’t care how many times I was pushed or prodded or stood on, I let it wash over me with a chilling calm.
Marion was dealing with a difficult customer when I arrived. She waved me through to the backroom and I sat down in one of the low, comfortable chairs. Her snake, Charlotte, settled heavily around my shoulders. Charlotte was white with red eyes set deep in her skull like two rubies. Her skin was very comforting to me – cool to touch and similar to the sensation of running a linked chain through your hands. Whilst I was waiting I ripped off pieces of dry skin from my lips and fed them to myself and then to Charlotte, who examined them first with her darting tongue. I daydreamed about getting murdered and my body being dissolved in acid so that when the police went to look for me there was no trace that I had ever existed at all. My whole body would turn to thick slush and I would pour down the drain like sludge. The thought of disappearing so completely made me shudder happily.
Marion finished in the shop and came through. She headed straight for the kettle and put it on to boil. Then she bustled about: picking up things and putting them down, moving piles of books and old teacups, shuffling papers, extracting teaspoons and slim pencils from down the sides of chairs and arranging them in empty mugs like bouquets of flowers. Charlotte tasted the air with her lazy forked tongue. Marion gave me a bitter, herby concoction, which she said I was to take very slowly, to get rid of the baby.
I felt too sick to take the bus home so I walked instead. It was raining. Everyone was dressed in black, like wet crows, hunched over and slick. I could feel the baby’s heartbeat drumming inside my stomach. My whole body was shaking with it. I squeezed my hands so tight my wedding band cut into them and I started to bleed. It didn’t matter.
It took forty minutes to walk home. I unlocked my house and went inside, the hall was dim and grey. It seemed like the rain had washed the colour from everything. I felt bright with anxiety, like a small golden bell jangling, jangling, jangling. No-one else was home. My husband was at work, as was his sister, and my mother-in-law was out visiting friends. I peeled myself out of my coat and shoes and left them to dry on the radiator. Then I walked slowly upstairs to the ensuite bathroom my husband and I shared, locked myself in, sat with my back against the door, and cried.
Against Marion’s instructions I drank the medicine very quickly. I couldn’t control myself, my throat opened wide and the whole bottle slipped down. It made me sick: hideously, horribly sick. But I didn’t bleed and I knew that the baby was still inside. I went into the garden and buried my bronze key. I thought it might work – might just work – as an offering. That night I could feel a web knitting itself tight over my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like scar tissue. I imagined myself dead, dead. Cold in the ground, only a white ivory skull and bones. I imagined my body all ash until I slept. I dreamt the tree roots wrapped themselves around my key like an embrace. They held it tight.
We were fortunate to live close to woodland. I often took walks there. The earth held its breath when I visited. I found it calming. When I was frantic, when I needed some silence, it was the place I went to. A solution would often present itself there. I know the names of many plants, flowers, fungi, weeds. Not because, as some have suggested, I was planning something, but because I drew them. I admire scientific illustrations – their clean, clear lines. Precision. Perfection.
I had given the wood many things over the years: silver coins, the body of a bird I had been unable to save from a cat, rings, fingernails, even a final baby tooth that my mouth had held onto until I was twenty. Then, at last, the wood gave me something back. It gave me my life.
My sister-in-law and mother-in-law kept touching me; casually brushing their hands across my cheek or hair. They placed their fingers on my neck, rested them against my shoulders. Their touch was so light, so terrible. It wove a web around me: I couldn’t breathe.
Every day I chose a special word – bauble, fawn, lake – and as long as no one else said it I was safe. I thought the word over and over in my head as a charm. If my mother-in-law spoke it I would have to pick a different word: a new, clean word.
But then something terrible happened: my mother-in-law knew. She knew. I knew she knew. I could tell by the way she ate her stew that evening. The slow, even bites she took. The way she glanced at me and asked me if I was feeling well. Sweat prickled over the back of my neck. I imagined I could feel the spine of my child growing inside me, a little nut of hair and bone. It felt like a fishhook in my belly.
Every three months one of my Sisters shaves my head. She hates me, I think. She pulls my head back roughly and draws the razor over my scalp so slowly and so close I can feel it kiss each individual hair. Towards the end she always nicks my ear or cheek or neck, by ‘accident’ of course. I think she wants me to know how hated I am here, although some of the Sisters are kind, or merely cool to me; but what she doesn’t understand – poor fool – is that I like it. Pain cannot lie. It is the most honest thing there is.
I remember it was a Wednesday.
I remember the dish I cooked was my husband’s favourite.
I remember forcing myself to eat three bites.
I remember the pain.
After that I forget.
They didn’t know what to with me. At the trial my sister-in-law’s friends all testified how bad a cook I was and how often I made everyone sick with my dishes. They played the recording of the call I made to the emergency services. The voice on the recording did not really sound like me, at least, I didn’t think so. The voice is quite high and frail and she sounds confused and upset. Please, please, please, she says over and over. Help us, God, help me. Help me. Please.
First I was taken to hospital to have the poison pumped out of me. The doctors there think the baby saved me: I told them, when I regained consciousness, that I had very little appetite since becoming pregnant and that I had therefore eaten a smaller portion than usual.
I had expected to lose the baby. The nurses all told me I was lucky. Wellwishers, people who had read the story in the papers, sent me flowers and balloons and tiny teddy bears wearing little dresses and shorts. I told them to incinerate everything. It’s the grief, I heard them whispering to each other. Grief was certainly close to what I was feeling.
The poison left me with a tremor in my left hand. The right side of my body is not what it was. The baby, when it came, had to be cut out of me. The strain of giving birth would have killed me – my heart would have given out. It was a girl. She was adopted, I believe. I never saw her, thank God. I have permanent nerve damage all along my right side, the doctors said that I would never fully recover, and so far I have not. This certainly played well in court: during the trial I was in a wheelchair. I can walk now but I need a cane. It is difficult, when praying, to go to my knees and raise myself up. My face sags slightly on the right.
At my trial I was eight months pregnant. The baby strained against me. Every time I felt it shift and move inside me I felt sick. The pregnancy could have worked for or against me. Fortunately it fell in my favour. The judge and jury were unconvinced of my innocence, and certainly I was guilty of manslaughter if nothing else, but my solicitor was a good one. She argued for a reduction in sentence due to my own sufferings, the life of my child and, this was key, my new found faith and devotion to God.
So, instead of prison, they found for me, perhaps, the worst convent in the country. The windows leak and the ceilings drip. My room has a pail in it to collect the water. There is a stain in the corner of my ceiling that looks, to me, like a witch. The chapel is cold. Each candle flickers in the drafty space. Each stone has been laid here for so long they have grown flat like seashell or rounded at the edges, like loaves of bread just baked. Each high glass window is washed, by hand, in the spring. All tasks and chores are done by hand here. It is also during the springtime that the whole place moans when the wind rushes through it. The food, as I have mentioned before, is poor. It has been a long time since I ate a dish made with cream or real butter. In life, it seems, you exchange one kind of prison for another.
Sometimes, when I am praying or lighting candles, I think that I can see them out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes I think I can hear their voices whispering in my ear. Sometimes I feel my husband’s hands touching me lightly. But whenever I turn to look there is never anyone there.