The Next Wave Home
Short story by Anna Chen about a woman, her daughter and a ghostly presence.
I was shoving the whites into the machine when a great wave of grief engulfed me. For no reason at all, I started to cry. I looked down and saw that I was holding a pair of Alex’s tiny cotton briefs, stained with the faintest shadow of blood, which resolutely refused to budge despite a thorough soak. Maybe my period had synchronised with my daughter’s and this was simply irrational pre-menstrual tension signalling the onset of my own bleeding. With the machine spluttering into action behind me, I carried the customary mug of Earl Grey through the long white corridor of our north London flat and stopped at the door pinned with a garish hand-painted sign:
GENIUS AT WORK
WRINKLIES KEEP OUT
I ignored the warning and stepped into the room, picking my way through the usual teenage obstacle course of comics, skates and multi-coloured felt-tips which threatened to leak indelibly on to the carpet. Half the contents of her wardrobe lay where they had been tugged off the night before. Tangled heaps of vivid limes, turquoises and clashing hues of red marked out a path across the floor, impossible to miss in the half-light. Alex, at thirteen, was passing through that retina-searing stage of fashion sense prior to the discovery of colour coordination. But I found her clothes irresistibly attractive in the way that they affirmed life; a far cry from my relentless blacks and greys at the same age.
And there she was – my beautiful daughter, fast asleep. Her lean, supple limbs flopped at haphazard angles; her breath popping from her delicate pink mouth in a little “kah”. I placed the steaming mug next to the clutter of beads and bangles, worn religiously ever since her progression from pop idols Bros to Madonna, and bent down.
I always loved this quiet moment when I could drink in her loveliness to my heart’s content. I never ceased to be amazed that I had borne this creature: stardust put together to divine specifications according to Rick’s and my genetic blueprint; a never-ending spark of life passed down through the aeons and expressed in this perfect form. Her expression was one of bliss. What could she be dreaming? Something wonderful, I bet. I took a deep breath of her delicious scent and gently shook her into consciousness.
Her sweet smile of sleep turned downward and her brows furrowed. With a groan she heaved the duvet over her head. I hoisted up the blind, allowing the sunlight to stream in, and yanked the duvet off her.
“Come on, luvvy, school.”
“Oh no. I’m ill,” she whined.
“Alex, don’t be such a wimp, it’s only a period.”
“Yeah, sure. Your only daughter’s losing umpteen pints of blood and that’s not serious, is it?”
“Surliness will get you nowhere. Now get up or it’s the cold sponge.”
“Oh, major threat!”
I willed hard for something, I’m not sure what.
At last, she opened her eyes and screwed them up against the light. She made an almighty effort to haul herself up and reach for the tea, and, with each successive sip, her eyes brightened into the sharpness of a child raring to engage in life. She returned my smile with a broad beam that radiated an inner light and she gave me a warm hug.
“Thanks, Mum,” she said, grateful for the tea.
Satisfied that there would be no slip back into blissful sleep, I returned to the kitchen and prepared breakfast.
The two of us sat facing each other, me nibbling my grapefruit and crispbread in a perennial battle with what I had finally ceased to call puppy-fat only a few years earlier; Alex tucking into the latest craze in breakfast cereals, a porridgy concoction liberally laced with poisonous levels of sugar.
“But the packet says ‘Natural’, Mum.” She poured fresh orange juice into her Dan Dare mug, her sole concession to my demands for a healthy diet. Rule of the house: no cola drinks before 5 o’clock tea.
The awareness that something was missing dawned slowly. Something comfortingly commonplace without which the easy familiarity of this daily scene seemed to slip out of sync with itself. What was it? I pressed my lids together and concentrated. Hard. I opened my eyes and looked at her bare wrists.
“Hey, I thought it seemed quiet. What’s happened to the hardware?”
“No one’s wearing that stuff now. Only little kids like Madonna. Everyone’s playing Janis Joplin.” Her first bra and period, and now Janis. All within two years.
“That must be the third time around. At least,” I continued, playing the experienced oldie to the hilt. “When I was your age, I broke in my voice to ‘Cry Baby’. Of course, that was pre-punk when we took the revolutionary step of deconstructing the melody.” Alex made dramatic barfing noises right on cue. We were a great double-act.
“Punk’s ancient,” she pronounced with all the authority of a veteran music pundit.
1977, the year she was born, was too recent for Punk to have been endowed with nostalgia value and respectability. Give it maybe another five years for its inevitable second cycle of popularity and then you’d see serious interest from Alex and her peers. But for now, she was happy to tease me for having been a seventeen-year-old punk, and I was happy to collaborate in her search for identity and pride.
And then the crying started. I was struck in the pit of my stomach by the same wave of grief and helplessness as earlier. A great amorphous blackness reared up out of the deepest recesses of my psyche and shook me in its jaws. Alex looked scared and rushed to comfort me.
“Mum. What’s the matter?” For a moment I didn’t know. I merely wept and dodged the fear. And then the blackness took on shape. It all came flooding back into view.
“It was a dream. An awful dream – about you. I dreamt I’d lost you.” With that last thought, my blubbing intensified. Alex pulled up her chair and sat cradling me, stroking my hair with firm, capable hands.
“Tell me. Tell me from the beginning,” she cooed softly in my ear.
“Remember I told you how, when I got pregnant, Gran sent me off to some agency to arrange an abortion?”
“Yeah, but at the last minute you realised how much you loved me and you defied everyone so you could have me.” She faked lightheartedness like a consummate actress, but I knew she was feeling my distress as her own. Of course I knew; wasn’t she my own flesh and blood?
“That’s right. Well, in this dream, everything started off the same as that day. I took the bus to Streatham – three changes – because I didn’t know anyone who had a car. I walked up the overgrown gravel driveway of a huge old Victorian house, which had been converted into a private clinic. In the lobby, about a dozen women, ranging from other teenagers to a couple of mature women of about forty, sat or stood dumbly around their overnight bags. They were all accompanied by husbands or boyfriends. Or parents.”
I remembered how I had felt the odd one out, standing there in the middle on my own, almost foolish; the local Jezebel who had neglected to bring her own partner to the Church Hall dance. Although these women had fallen about as low as one could in those days – but not as low as those who would follow a few years later, darting within spitting distance past outraged latter-day Madames Defarges who would have seen such matters resolved with the knitting needle – their eyes told me that, unlike myself, they hadn’t completely slipped through the invisible safety net of kith and kin.
I sipped my tea and glanced over at the snapshots lovingly selected and tacked to the cork noticeboard in a proud display to the world: Alex mid-romp with her friends; Alex with Rick on the waterslide at some theme park or other; Alex, Rick and myself swaddled in matching snowgear, straight off the Austrian piste, a ball of snow in Alex’s hand in the moment before it was shoved down Rick’s neck. Such a happy, secure child surrounded by the smiling faces of those who loved her. I shuddered at the thought of her ever going through an experience like mine. That would happen over my dead body.
I went on. “I was led into a room – white, cold, clinical – not a scuff mark on the skirting-board, not a single streak on the gleaming steel taps. Sterile. I undressed and pulled on the scratchy green paper robe laid out on the bed, the only colour in the room. I was being given priority treatment because of the lateness of the pregnancy. Oh, God, they were going to whip you out double quick. Twenty-one weeks – just within the limit. You’d been kicking for ages, letting me know you were there. Alive and kicking.”
Alex interjected: “But why did you and Gran wait so long?”
“I couldn’t believe this could be happening to me. I wouldn’t believe it. Plus, two hours of yoga a day had given me stomach muscles flatter than beer the morning after. Even the Harley Street doctor was amazed at how flat I was. I ignored all the signs. I thought my new larger breasts were a last-minute gift from God.”
“A nurse came in and gave me the pre-med. It was going to be easy, she said, telling me nothing I didn’t already know. Like having a tooth pulled. I’d wake up and it would be over. Ha!” I gave a sharp snort as I remembered the nurse’s well-meaning but automatic assurances, no doubt laid on for every miserable girl who, betrayed by her own body, tramped up that driveway. Did she really believe what she was saying? Could she possibly have been as much in the dark as this confused seventeen-year-old?”
“I got drowsy. They laid me on a gurney and wheeled me down the long echoing corridors to the theatre. Fluorescent strips of light strobed past on the ceiling as we thunked through door after door. And suddenly, I don’t exactly know when, I was overwhelmed by the most incredible feeling that I had ever experienced. It was as if I was at the centre of a vast, rolling universe, a quiet, endless power I had accessed. Despite everything else that was going on, I felt at peace. And you were at the heart of that peace. I knew I loved someone beyond myself for the first time ever.” Alex’s eyes widened into deep pools I could happily have drowned in. “I realised it was probably the maternal instinct that people go on about. But it was a new one on me.”
“Yeah, I remember this bit.”
“That’s the point when it all changed. I was watching myself in the dream, expecting to do the same as I’d done in life. But this time I didn’t do it. I didn’t call it off. I didn’t shout and struggle when the matron told me to pull myself together. I wanted to, but it was as if I was gagged. Or stupefied. They wheeled me into the theatre and the anaesthetist came at me with the needle. And instead of knocking it out of his hand or doing something, anything, I just …”
A fresh bout of sobbing interrupted the tale. Alex squeezed me tightly.
“I let him stick the needle in my arm, right into the vein. I felt ice-water pouring into me while I counted to twenty-eight. And when I woke up … you were … you were gone.” I couldn’t stand the memory of the dream. Its vividness had spilled over from sleep to wakefulness, bringing with it all those little deaths, the attendent gut-wrenching emotions of loss.
“But, Mummy, it was only a dream. Look, I’m here now.” She tore a sheet from the kitchen-roll and dabbed my eyes. “It’s all right. Shush.”
I was so proud of her; she was exactly the compassionate young woman I’d hoped to raise.
“I know. I’m just crying with relief. Oh, Alex, I don’t know what I’d have done without you. Who would I have been? Just some half-dead thing.”
“Maybe you would have had other kids.”
“Hmm. Maybe. But not in this dream. There’s more. I dreamt a whole different life for myself. I just went to pieces after I’d had you …” I spluttered for the word.
“… aborted,” she spoke the word clearly and without my fear of it. We often finished each other’s sentences but I flinched at the power given to this word merely by its utterance.
“I lost all my emotions. I couldn’t feel a thing. It was weird, the complete opposite of what I’d felt on the gurney. I was now cut off from all that quiet power. The power that had made me feel more real than at any other time. Now, nothing mattered. Objects were just objects and nothing more, including myself.”
Alex looked perplexed. This was too abstract for her.
“Gran and Grandad didn’t want anything more to do with me. None of the family could understand my erratic mood-swings and I couldn’t give in to self-pity. So I learnt to keep my anger, my fear, my loss to myself. Years passed. I couldn’t hold down a job or keep a relationship going. It was horrific – the numbness. Nothing mattered to me. Nothing meant anything.” I slumped on the table, my shoulders heaving under Alex’s warm caress.
“When you went, a whole, vital lump of me went with you. I was lost. For ever.” Then quite without warning, Alex’s cool words sliced through.
“Mum, how would they have done it at twenty-one weeks?”
The question startled me. But then I suppose every thirteen-year-old has a gory curiosity which, once on track, supersedes all other considerations. If you are open with children, you stand a chance of removing some of life’s fears. I wanted Alex fully equipped in order to deal with her own life traumas, if and when they pounced, so I controlled my emotions and gave an honest answer.
“Well, I suppose if it’s not performed as a Caesarean, which they said wasn’t necessary in this case, they would go in through the cervix and get the foetus out that way.”
Alex had stopped hugging me to concentrate on this information. She was finding it compulsive listening.
“But a twenty-one-week-old foetus must be pretty big. How can they get it out?” Her questioning seemed to be for my benefit, as if this thirteen-year-old was playing therapist with me, trying to get me to face up to forgotten fears. It was irritating.
“Well, if they can’t … then they’d have to …” What was that droning? A low hum like an unearthed electrical appliance.
“Mummy?” she insisted.
“If you want to remove a large object through a small opening, you either make the hole bigger, or the object smaller.” I felt uneasy. I wanted her to drop the subject but she continued in what was beginning to feel like an interrogation.
“Snip. Cut up the baby into little pieces and pull them out one by one.”
“How small?” The question was abnormally ghoulish, even for a curious child.
“Not necessary, Alex.”
She changed tack. “What about Daddy? Wasn’t he there to save me?”
“He must have been there. Somewhere.” I broke off. The drone. I couldn’t get the drone out of my head and it was driving me crazy.
“I can’t remember anything about Rick. I don’t know why he wasn’t with me in the clinic. But he came up trumps afterwards, didn’t he?” My voice tailed off as I struggled to remember shadows. Exploring the Marianas Trench with a pen-light would have been easier.
Alex disengaged her arms from me and sat fixing my eyes with a stare eerily penetrating for a child. For a long time we said nothing. The drone grew louder, threatening to engulf me. I felt faint. Then Alex spoke.
“Mum. Dad was a methadone addict you’d known less than a month. You can’t even remember his name.” I pulled up sharply. My own daughter was beginning to scare me.
“Daddy’s in Manchester for a week. Working, Alex, come on, this isn’t my idea of humour.” But she persisted, oblivious to my unease. Or welcoming it.
“You went through it on your own. No one thought it was important at all. You even had to go into work the very next day. Remember?”
“No, darling, I had Gran and Grandad. Without their help I’d never have coped.”
Alex ignored my protestation and came out with another odd piece of fantasy plucked from Lord knows where.
“Gran and Grandad lived with you in a one-bedroom council flat. They couldn’t have helped you even if they’d wanted to. Which they didn’t.”
How stupid and selfish of me to burden her with my problems. She had a vivid imagination and my nightmare had invoked some ugly demons which I had better neutralise fast.
“They took one look at you and they were smitten. You were a gorgeous baby.” But Alex was, by now, too immersed in her fantasy to hear me.
“Mum, Granny didn’t like you.”
“No. We had our problems, like any family, but we pulled together in a crisis.”
“Grandad doesn’t know to this day what happened ’cause you were scared he’d beat hell’s bells out of you.”
“They loved you from day one. They were tremendously supportive.” I searched her face for a sign of what she might be driving at.
“Why are you saying all this, Alex?”
Alex didn’t answer my question. Instead, she relaxed back into her chair. She looked at me with huge brown eyes filled with hurt and betrayal.
“Why didn’t you do it, Mum? Why didn’t you save me? We could have managed.”
“Alex, sweetheart, it was only a dream. I jumped the gurney in the nick of time.”
A long silence. Except for the drone.
“Didn’t I? Alex?” Something shifted in the back of my head; the cold crunch of worlds colliding.
After a long pause she spoke with clinical precision.
“No. No, Mummy. I don’t think you did.” My eyes darted around the kichen, mapping out the room with her landmarks; the cereal box, her Dan Dare birthday mug, the snapshots on the noticeboard, all juddering in and out of focus.
Alex stared at me, stared right into me, and although we were close enough to touch, she seemed to hover at the far end of a long tunnel. I called her name, over and over, but she didn’t say a word, just stared at me. Tears welled in those innocent eyes that, under my care and protection, had known no real traumatic pain in any of her thirteen years since birth.
I thought I could make out the white tiles on the wall behind her. Directly behind her. She picked up her mandarin nylon carrier with the lime zipper and slowly heaved it on to her shoulder.
“I’m off to school now, Mummy. I’ll see you in a little bit.” Her voice was faint and tinny under the drone, like a bad recording from the 1920s. I tried to hold on to her, but her ethereal hands slipped from my grasp.
So it was time. I’d stretched it out longer than usual due to my growing ability to plug those sticky moments when everything can unravel in an instant. I choked down the lump in my throat and waved goodbye as she backed down the corridor.
“I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you, Mum.”
“Take care now, darling. I’ll be thinking of you.”
She was drifting away, far away. She opened the front door into blinding sunlight, as bright as a bursting star. I froze the sight in my mind’s eye, trying to drag out the final moment for eternity; my last glimpse of Alex in silhouette at the end of the corridor. And then she was gone.
I was overwhelmed by the drone, loud and maddening; an unbearable grating as worlds slipped out of sync, one sliding into oblivion while the other, the one where the black amorphous shadow swam, took on a stark and terrifying clarity.
The machine crashes to its climax. The locking mechanism clicks off and I open the door. The formerly blood-soiled cotton briefs – my cotton briefs – fall to the floor. I straighten up, my vision rippled by tears and a head splitting with a pain that can find no outlet. A row of china tea-cups stands next to various health foods. The notice-board contains the odd list, mini-cab cards and a couple of photos of myself. My breath erupts in shallow, fitful bursts of terror and I wander through the flat like one of the undead. Gone is the handpainted sign. A blank expanse of white wall stares back where once there had been a door.
I stretch out my hands and my heart into a great nothing. Objects are objects and not much more. A scan of the cheerless sitting-room (to call it a living-room would be a lie) reveals a single photo of myself, alone, brooding and disquieted – sole proof to me of my own existence. There is a space where the framed photo of a happy family group – Rick, Alex and myself – had stood. There are no coloured felt-tip pens, left lidless on the floor for me to nag about; no teen comics, with the girls’ names as titles, for me to disapprove of for their frivolity, none of my precious record collection peeks out from bent covers. Instead, I pace up and down the tidy room and weep.
When it gets like this, I just have to wait until the next wave picks me up and drops me back into the real world to join Alex who should have been, but isn’t. The universe has been split in two and I have been chosen to occupy this version. But, very occasionally, for a few minutes only, I can live out a lifetime as it was destined, as mother to a fine and wonderful daughter who waits for me even now. In the small hours, I often hear her sobbing on the other side, missing me as much as I miss her. So I fill my hours with unimportant chores and doodlings I try to transform into work and wait to catch the next wave home.
Anna Chen 1988
First published in Another Province 1994