The old woman in the bed next to his turns and sighs in her sleep. Her cover slips away, revealing rib bones fanning outward like the long teeth of a comb. The nurse switches every light off as she goes out, until there’s only a thin, low gleam left. Flickering mottled bulb, at the far end of the corridor. And the old man softly blinks his eye and turns a corner, into the child he was and there’s nothing in his face to note that transformation, only a blinking eyelid, an old man’s gentle amazement at the end. The woman in the next bed turns and stares, as if she senses something then she whisks her curtains shut. So roughly that she tears a seam, one curtain hook snags and droops on the runner, her face suddenly in the gap between, dark iris-less eyes just like his sister’s.
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It turned out later she had taken their father’s lifetime of savings with her, his sister. When she’d left. Every penny of it, to the last dirty down-trod tiny coin. And their mother’s and grandmother’s, his own. She’d searched pockets, purses, floorboards, scrabbled in back cupboard jars. She’d got hold of the lot like a debt collector. There was a small uproar in the village, the family left destitute by her, not a pot to piss in, not even next week’s rent on their cottage, everything, everything. The remaining small children in the house were taken, to The Home, as she must’ve known they would be, there was no roof, no food, they were beggared, busted. She’d folded up the family, she’d shut up shop. Over the years she must have logged in her mind the money’s hiding places. That quiet child. She’d left them nothing, not even the dirt cottage floor, the cracked ceiling she’d wept under.
She left soon after the, the… And then he still can’t say it. Even to himself, not find the words. Unspeakable things. ‘After the last time.’ She was hard, the family said. When she left. And at the time, being just a child, watching the baby’s fingers being untangled from their mother’s hair and torn away, he’d believed their words. She was hard. Only the lines are redrawn differently, as the years pass. New lines. New shadows. Glimpse of light.
He’d seen her getting on the bus. It was a pivotal moment for the boy he was, her leaving that way and whichever way you cast it and recast it now, he knows he’d made up his mind then. He would leave too. That same bus. One way or the other.
Like her he hadn’t left, he’d fled. She’d led the way. She’d marked it with pathfinders, dropping softly in the dark that seemed to hang beneath the children in those days. The bus was the key, they both thought. Even now he sleeps and dreams of bus wheels rolling, sticking, sliding in the country earth, the rubble-strewn roads, dipping and sticking in the ruts and cracks in the road but going on. There’s an ancient promise in the leaving, he believes even now. In the very running moment. A replenishment in itself, a great cosmic finger raised in slow salute. He felt her shimmering with life in that fleeing moment, and he’d stood there in that cold light, I’ll leave too.
It came to him somehow.
He watched her go.
And as he felt the rhythm of those tyres bump over rucked rich country earth, as she clattered slow and clumsy away, the bus crashing and rolling, getting stuck in that rich rucked and unholy mud, slowing then, heaving against earth and wheels spinning for a while then going on. He’d watched the bus go ’til his ears turned cold. He’d stayed until it was a black dot in the distance, silent, shrunk, his fingers were numb and frozen. The bus crawls off along the slow resisting land, even now. In his mind’s eye it’s still rolling.
What did she feel? As the bus gathered pace, as the window panes screamed and rattled, as she took off, map-less and harsh lit into her future? There is what they said to feel then there’s what we felt.
Like two vastly separate continents, those things were. And then, stirred and exhausted, gently butting at the cold stone of the wall behind him, ’til he believes he seeps into it, his mind is softly spreading out.
Everybody knew she was being hurt somehow, he believes now, and the manner of that hurt, knew it deep down in their bones some way, though they told themselves it couldn’t possibly be so, that, but there were small signs of damage, as clear in their way as chips and cracks in a vase. But the other mothers touched their handkerchiefs to noses and then spread their hands as if these were unalterable things. And the notices of harm, Well. These were things that you could ignore, the village believed, it was that way in those days. Perhaps it’s that way still. The strange dark magic of denial, like casting stones instead of seeds, he thinks, because all those ladies go to church and bow their heads, wearing their best hats, their best hats, as if they’re saying, ‘Seeds I tell you, seeds that we are planting here,’ and looking about the pews with satisfaction, heads lowered, so they can only see their knees, their knees and hands, and then next day their men will head out to their fields, like always, none of them stopping in their tracks, the horse sweating at the bit, dig in their heels and ask themselves, ‘What about that child?’
Not one looked about them, to the miles and miles of hard wrought, miss-sown land, no one found the words, in this remembering. Says that unspeakable thing, makes that necessary and painful human reckoning. It would perhaps have felt to them like saying, and with the sweat steaming and streaming down their shirt back, but that this whole field’s ploughed wrong, nothing. It’s all barren, fields and fields and fields, save the child, if you can, start over. Start over? No. No-one pulled those words out of their parched, dry, work-worn throat in those days (because these are seeds, seeds). So no-one in the village spoke up for his sister, so it went on. The relationships between the families in the village being sown too, like the fields. A hundred years or more of ploughing between folks, then there’s the hedgerows, of course. Your piece and mine, the fences. All the fences. There’s your cow. That grazed my cow’s land fifty years since and we’ve barely mended the fence between those long dead animals. The joints and joists and hinges on the gate. The gate is falling off its rusty hinges, there are other fragile things here. Above all there is how the land lies, there’s the long account of what’s been lost and won between us neighbours. The small guilts and the larger ones. And so everyone knows, of course, yet ‘No-one knows a thing’ (and truly believing that they don’t) and so knowing and unknowing and both, both, the same exact time. Because there were no words for that, so the unspeakable gathered darkly in that wordlessness, that long gone unprotected child, her un-named pains all gathered in the silence of the farmers and their wives, until she has no words at all, the child. Until that’s taken also. It cannot happen so it didn’t happen, isn’t happening now, Child. And he imagines it then, that silence, like a cold hard hand reaching down his sister’s mouth, his own too, plucks their words out. A child screaming in the night, screaming at first, when she was small. If you willed it enough, then you didn’t hear it, he remembers darkly. Strange will, a slithery unfolding in the soul, cold soul, fathomless soul, he thinks now. And ‘Forgive that boy. He was a child. He was afraid.’ And yet he cannot, even now. Even now can’t find those words, only choking, spitting, streaming, ‘Something in the papers’, says the nurse. Takes it away. Closed in her fist.
He’d had what they’d called a god fearing childhood, and in his mind’s eye now the vicar’s in agreement, ‘Let us pray,’ he says, all down the long left inside ear, and then the congregation settles into silence. Silence? When it should have been roaring in the vacuum for the child. And the old man jolts awake, the old woman next door snorts and sighs and puts a hand up in her sleep.
He watches it fall softly down, with the one raised finger tracing an invisible seam in the air.
‘Let us pray.’ The vicar said and they’d gone on. As if she’d never been, his sister. Blameless, they believed themselves, quite blameless. And the rucked rich land of his childhood’s smooth and shiny, trackless. In his mind’s eye now, opaque. He sighs, he scratches at the white wall. With his long and boney index finger, trying not to think. Forget it, tells himself. Forget her now, she’s gone.
Only there are things he can’t forget.
She must have waited for her moment then, he thinks. That golden child, The Thief (they’d called her after) but that harsh lit and hard little girl, who of course was not hard at all but only broken, waited for her moment ’til her whole life seemed like an infinite pause, a vast intake of breath, a scream with a hand clapped over it, and when she found it, when she found it was the moment, this, here, now and took it, running. Broken and strange, wild, not looking behind her. Because she daren’t. Because when the moment came it turned out that she knew it’s now or never and when she saw the moment had at last come and she took it, took it, running, the stumbling from each floorboard to each crack under the bench, under the seeping cottage wall, watching the door, the door, the door, like that, and fingers freezing up with fear, skittering about the cottage like a nervous animal, like an animal and when it came, when the door’s flung open like that, she is tearing down the street and the bus timed perfectly, the bus that’s always late or much too early but today it doesn’t miss a beat and doesn’t hover and running toward it and her feet are stumbling, stumbling and she’ll crack her ankle on a rock at the roadside but it doesn’t matter and she doesn’t even feel it. Because at the last it turns out that running for her life, running for everything there might ever be or will be soon … it’s her own feet will run her out of town.
She stood a chance then. In the big city. A girl like that.
Sur-vi-vor. Roll the word out on your tongue.
And the cold wind rushing past the thief’s ears, through the crack in the old bus window? And the cold weight of stolen coins against her hip, the cold heavy weight of them?
Well, this is what it feels like to survive.
And he’d rooted for his sister in that running moment, with everything he’d got, because there’ll be no mercy this time, if they caught her. Even he knew that.
“She’d better not show her face round here again.” The family said, but in her sharp breach of the rules, she’d obeyed a much older, greater one: Run from harm.
He believes now she took the money so she couldn’t come back. Because sometimes you can’t trust your feet, they veer and circle ’til you end at your beginning, the last sigh rolling back to meet the first one coming. But she’d severed it, his sister.
A neat, savage incisor through the last fraying ends of love and saved herself.