My father's fishing boat was barely big enough for two. He sailed each day alone. What bliss to drift solitary among the whispering sea. I missed him so much on those long winter days. He rose like a stalactite in the blackest hour, leaving my mother and I in the grey light.
The dreary mornings with my mother were relentless; though she set out pretty yellow cups for our hot milk, she was not cheerful. I think she would have liked a boy. Yowling for scraps my kitten roamed at our feet, sometimes I dropped something but my mother stared so fiercely that I was not often brave enough. I was tamer than my cat. Once I dropped a pink iced bun for her, my favourite. She saw it on the floor and licked the soft pink centre. Tossing her grey head, she sniffed it and laid one sharp claw at its heart. Having discarded the bun she walked off, her tail drooping. My bun was ruined. Now it was no one's.
All day I waited for my goodnight kiss, my bedtime ritual. My dad would come home with the glow of the deep on him. Though he never told me stories about his day, or the extraordinary fish he had caught, still he let me sit quietly at his feet as he plunged his haul deep in the steaming ice. He never called me princess or treasure though I would have liked him to. Still as I sat at his feet watching him offer up these gleaming slivers so delicately wrapped in thin rice paper, I felt like a bride with her trousseau. And my mother stood there her grey head twisted away from the scene exclaiming about the filth, the unnatural stench that my father dragged in with him after spending his day elbow deep in blood. Her words floundered in the empty space and she succumbed to silence. Grey cat eyes flickering between us she did not fan but let smoulder that hot blue flame of love.
It's strange how memory works, because now I don't see the silver glitter of fish, nor the steaming ice, but my father's hands smeared with blood as my mother would have me remember.
In this way my childhood passed as insubstantially as a dream. Do not think my mother lax in her detachment; there was nothing that she could have done marrying a man like that. Though she worked hard every day on the house, the corrosive saltwater still got in. the truth is that my mother's two chapped hands could not protect our little house from the turmoil of the ocean. Her sickness was hidden from me for a long time, as it was hidden from the world. Cloistered together all day in our small white house we did not see much of the outside. My mother talked occasionally of sending me to school, indeed this seemed to be the one thing that had the power to animate her. My father heard us one day, coming home early, his nets fortuitously full that morning, another trip possible that afternoon. I didn't hear him raise his voice to my mother, nor his hand but she was silenced just the same. There was no more talk of school. From this time we talked little to each other, believing that my mother had upset my father in some unknowable way I took umbrage on his behalf. Deeper I must have known that she was not strong, that our dreary existence was not enough and that if she should have done anything, she should have sent me to school. Shut up together all day, we grew accustomed to each other, twisting like smoke around corners to avoid the possibility of touching in the corridors. What my mother did all day I never knew, we came together blankly for meals, the crackle of the radio obscuring any need for conversation. I loved to listen to the shipping forecast, the names grew fantastic in my mind as I imagined my heroic father battling on the waves.
Because we were together so often, I suppose I became used to her bloodless look and long silences. Day by day we did not see the changes in each other until she was to me like a cracked glass figurine waiting to be shattered. All day long she kept to her room, reading she said or arranging flowers. Having no curiosity toward her and growing more comfortable with isolation, I welcomed the time alone and did not enquire further. Now I see that she was battling her enormous sickness and could not have attended to me had she tried.
During these years of deep silence, I felt myself growing indistinct from the house, the pebbles, the beach. My dresses hung loosely and I stemmed from them awkwardly. My mother spent much of her time mending altering and creating these garments like Penelope at her loom. These fog-coloured dresses heightened my indoor pallor and muffled my figure. Yet just as a missing tooth or a lazy eye can enhance an otherwise flawless face, so too my slender limbs and high neck were made the more striking as they emerged from their grey fold. Though I see now in pictures how lovely I was, I felt as insignificant as the furniture.
Until my thirteenth birthday we drifted like this around one another and I having no desire to do anything beyond our small yard, virtually the same. The whole wide sea glittered from my window but could not tempt me in. My only contrast in those blurred, dreamy days was the time I spent with my father. His taciturnity, I believed, was of a different quality to my mother's; her desperate silence stalked me all day until I had even taught my kitten to purr softly so as not to break the stillness. My father's silences seemed rich with untold stories. Alone all day in my room o collecting pebbles for my indoor garden, I was desperately, hungrily lonely and fantasised about my father's love. In theory my days should have been full of lessons and chatter as my mother had promised to teach me herself. There was no-one likely to come and check on us in our isolated wilds, and so I drifted, bookless. There were some books of course; my father's seafaring novels and my mother's murder mysteries, the usual array of fishing, gardening and cooking manuals, just enough to fill a narrow bookcase but nothing to pique the interest of a young girl. Mama why don't we have more books? I used to periodically complain. When we are millionaires you can have all the books you want she caustically replied. She wore her bitterness in intricate layers, sweeping and twining one through the other, one chiffony layer seeming transparent but taken together as thick and restrictive as fog. One sentence could embroil me in her neurotic world for we were not poor as she imagined, but extremely comfortable, and if I had no school then at least she should have bought me books.
My thirteenth birthday approached much the same as any other and I managed a small pang of delight as the postman made it through choppy weather. My birthday itself was on a Monday that year and that was the day we received post from the mainland. We always had a heap of orders from the classier restaurants for my father's fish, and letters for my mother from my elderly aunt who visited us every six months or so when she was released from her duties as Mother Superior of a small and dwindling convent. For me there were sometime letters or cards from pen-pals, and almost always a letter from my cousin Mathilda, my father's orphaned niece. She empathised with my loneliness and often brightened my day by sending extremely well-written and funny accounts of her glittering lifestyle; a whirl of dinners and dances and wealthy admirers. Being only a child at the time I had no idea of the extent of Mathilda's deceit, and that her decadent lifestyle was pure fantasy. Really Mathilda lived quietly just across the bay pouring out dates and locations to one strange little girl. Though it became apparent that I was not her only intended audience. As far as I was concerned Mathilda could be anywhere in the world, I didn't examine her beautifully-coloured stamps too closely but devoured only the words. Sometimes my father would glance over at them with an indulgent smile and say something about how exciting it must be to be young again. My mother never showed the slightest interest in these florid missives, but merely went straight back up to her room with her own lilac scented notes from her cloistered sister.
This Monday was different, I could feel it as I watched the rickety old post boat wind towards the harbour. Sure enough, when the postman rang he had very full hands. My mother shooed me from the door and sent me up to do my teeth. For once she had garnered the strength to take charge of things, and when I went downstairs she was dressed immaculately in white with a starched frill at her neck fastened with a cameo pin. My parents were sitting together at the table and there were pancakes and tea laid out on our pretty china. After breakfast my mother gave me a kiss on the cheek and set out the post before me. Much as I longed to tear at the blue ribbons and silver paper and brown parcels done up in string I knew that the joy of them could not temper the pain of realisation that this level of normalcy had cost my mother so much. The illusion that my parents had tried to create for my birthday was insubstantial and I could see the pain creep into my mother's mouth as she tried not to cry. No-one had told me what was wrong with her, that her illness consumed her like fire and left this ashen spectre behind. Yet in spite of everything I tore at the string and opened my gifts.
From my mother there was a beautiful shell-coloured swimsuit that would shimmer in the sun. From my aunt a set of adventure stories in hardback that came in five separate cartons! Mathilda's gift I saved for last, expecting something lavish, a case of jewels perhaps or a velvet stole. I was a little disappointed to see that there was nothing but a cardboard box with a few greyish parts inside. My father saw my puzzlement and explained that 9it was a magic garden made of salt crystals. Just add water and spend a few hours watching to see it grow into a beautiful garden. Patiently I watched for hours as it burst into a glittering landscape of flowers, plants and snow-capped mountains.
For the rest of the day, though sadness lay beneath, glimmers of delight lit me as I watched the garden take shape. How beautiful I whispered to my mother, she said nothing but flicked a tired smile to her lips and wandered away again. Strange how it got here all the way from Mathilda's in one piece, such a delicate gift she murmured to my father. To my surprise, his face reddened at this and he seemed at something of a loss. Having said this, my mother went off to bathe and dress more comfortably and my father promised my present from him. He told me to go upstairs to kiss my mother as he was taking me out on his boat. Even at my thirteenth year I knew better than to seem excited, to be needy or a bind and at this sudden gift of time together I was merely polite. Immediately I left the room I allowed myself a smile that I just as hastily discarded at my mother's door. Shakily, she responded to my knock and edged open her door a little. Dressed now in a cream robe covered in grey stars she had grown colourless. The white frill having been removed from her neck revealed the sunken look of her lolling head. Goodbye darling, have a wonderful time she implored me, offering her powdered cheek even as she retreated. Guiltily relieved, I ran down the stairs and into the salt-clean air, away from our square white house and into my father's capable brown arms.
As I lowered myself into the boat, I felt no fear, not even a healthy one and blithely abandoned myself to the battered vessel. Sky looks a bit angry Eleanor I don’t know how far we can go out today my father announced darkly. It felt as though my scarf were caught on a nail and pulling at my neck when he said that. No I said look at that cloud. And there was a cloud gilded with the late afternoon sunlight that moved so gently it looked as though it were still. And I knew it was not true that cloud that I had wanted to be so true but as it spilled gold all over my knees I felt infinitely calm.