Authors: Daniela Sacerdoti
She walked like she owned the world. There was no shyness about her. If you had to say one thing about her, you would say:
. There was no doubt in her eyes. That was Bibi, marching towards me, a smile on her face. She took my hands and she kissed me on both cheeks, beaming like she had been waiting for me and for me only.
She hadn't, of course. That was how she greeted everyone. And it was wrong that I noticed her kissing James, a piano player, the same way she kissed me, and looking at him with the same light in her eyes.
But it was me she looked for when the playing got fast and magical and each and every one of us was lost in the happiness that, for our breed, could only be found in music. It was my eyes she searched for, it was my gaze she met, and we looked at each other as we played.
Afterwards, I avoided her. There was something too intimate in that moment we shared.
It was something like a betrayal.
That night I was supposed to stay over in Glasgow, but I didn't. I drove home, and arrived late at night, exhausted. I slipped in the bed beside Bell, her warm body against mine, her sweet scent enveloping me as I held her through the night.
“Your hair is so beautiful,” Clara said to me the next day, her head cocked to one side. I was drawing in my indoor garden, sketching flowers. I was still working on
, but I still didn't feel strong enough or focused enough to tackle the
book. I kept getting emails from my agent, Joanna, until finally I had to be quite clear with her about my health. She knew I wasn't well, but not to what extent. She had no idea I hadn't been able to work for months. To tell her that had been humiliating, but I had no choice. Maybe she had guessed already, anyway.
“But?” I could feel a
“But it's really dry. It's because it's been growing for so long without being cut. You don't thinkÂ . . .”
“I'm not having anyone here!” I exclaimed, suddenly anxious.
“No, don't worry. I was thinking of doing it myself, if that's okay? Your hair is so long, and also it's wavy, so I don't need to be a professional to do a decent job.”
“Fine then,” I said, a bit reluctantly. But I had thought for a while that my hair, once shiny and strong, was growing lacklustre and brittle, falling halfway down my back.
“Don't worry. I used to cut my daughter's hair, and my husband's too. Come, we'll wet your hair. Do you have a pair of sharp scissors?”
“Yes. In the cutlery drawer.”
We sat in the indoor garden, me with my hair wet and Clara with her scissors and brush. She began to comb my hair, and I closed my eyes, inhaling the different scents of the plants and flowers and relaxing under Clara's hands. A memory came from somewhere â a long-forgotten memory of my mum combing my hair one day, long, long ago . . .
“You know, Isabel. You're doing so well. I'm so proud of you. You're working again, and soon you'll be able to start taking those medicines. Angus will be amazed at how much progress you've madeÂ . . .” she was saying, and her words melted into each other as I listened, pouring on me like warm water.
Yes, I wanted to live. Yes, I wanted to get better. It was a desire so deep, so visceral, something I had carried with me for a long time while I tossed and turned within the confines of my illness. She brushed some hair off my shoulders and I gazed at her face. She was talking about the two of us going for a walk in the woods one day â she really
what she was saying. She believed that one day we would walk in the woods together . . . Maybe go to La Piazza for a cappuccino . . . She believed I could be
I felt a little broken piece of me become whole again. Just like that.
I thought that maybe I could believe her. I thought that maybe she was right. One day I would make a good mum, and I would set things right. I would undo what my mum had done to me.
It was something to fight for.
She touched my wet hair gently, cutting and brushing. The memory of my mum brushing my hair, like an echo of long ago, suddenly became stronger, so strong that I almost felt that if I turned around, she'd be there.
“I think my mum didn't really want to leave me,” I said suddenly. I had no idea where those words had come from; they just came into my mind.
Clara was silent. She stopped running her fingers through my hair for a moment, then she began again. When she spoke, there was a tiny catch in her voice. “No, I don't think so either. I think wherever she is, she wishes she'd never left you.”
My hair was falling gently on the floor, and I started to speak, to say everything I hadn't been able to tell any counsellor, Emer, not even Angus.
“I was three when she died,” I began. “My memories of her are . . . vague. Just impressions . . . like a scent of talcum powder and violets, the feeling of soft wool against my cheek, the sound of laughter.” I closed my eyes again, trying to recall an image. They were like tiny silvery fish in a rock pool, impossible to grab â I could only gaze at them swimming around. “When I think of her, I feel like a kind of bubble surrounds me, warm and reassuring. And then I sometimes have specific images come to me, like snapshots . . . Dandelions blowing in the wind on a summer's day, the glimmer of a gold ring on the hand holding mine, the tickle of silky hair against my face as she kissed me. Everything is hazy, impossible to grasp or take hold of, and still too tantalising to allow me to let go. I want to remember so badly; I cried so many times, Clara! Because these snapshots and hazy memories are all I've got. I was so young. I
to recall more, and I could, if only I had something of hers. I would have loved to keep her things with me. Or even just a memento. It's all made so much worse by the fact that I have nothing of hers, not even pictures, nothing. All her photographs, all her things, disappeared.”
Clara's scissors stopped.
“What?” Now her voice was trembling. “Why?”
“My dad destroyed them,” I said, and I felt tears infiltrating my voice. “My mum had no immediate family who would have kept her pictures, and most of her friends from the church didn't want to upset my father, so whatever they had, they never gave us. My aunt â my dad's sister â died a few years ago, and there was nothing of my mother's among her things. I often asked Gillian, growing up, to tell me what she looked like. She always claimed she couldn't remember. It was a lie, of course, but she always seemed angry when I asked her about Mum, so I stopped. There was always a black cloud around her memory, swallowing everything that had been left â what she looked like, the things she used to say, the way she was. Her taste in things, her fears, her favourite food to eat, what she liked to do and what she couldn't stand â I know
of these things.”
“So you know nothing about her. You've never seen a picture of her,” she said. She sounded horrified. I could feel her distress running through me.
“No. I don't. For many years I thought that my father and my sister missed her so much that they couldn't speak about her, they couldn't bear to look at her photograph, so they had swept away every trace of her. So that they wouldn't suffer even more. It was only much later that I found out the real reason for this . . .
of her memory, and why Gillian always seemed angry when I asked her about Mum. She wasn't angry at
â she was angry at
. Because it was not an accident. Her death, I mean. It wasn't an accident.”
“That's what you were told at the beginning?” she whispered. She put the scissors down on one of the wicker chairs.
“Yes. We were on holiday in Perthshire, and that's when she disappeared. They told me she went out on the loch and then she fell off the boat on a misty autumn day. It was only when I was six that my dad told me she had loaded her coat pockets with stones and she had let the paddles sink. She had chosen a cold day, so cold that she couldn't have changed her mind and swum back to shore. She let herself fall over the edge of the boat into the freezing water.” I felt tears forming in the back of my throat, but I continued. I had this unstoppable need to let it all out. “Often, at night, I see her floating, her eyes open to the sky, her hair in a fan around her face. I wake up and start playing little films to myself, meant to comfort me for a little while, but they end up hurting me even more. But I can't stop. I imagine Gillian stopping her from going out; I imagine myself clinging to her legs, and her picking me up and saying, âOf course I'm not going, how could I have ever thought of leaving you, my love?' and changing her mind at the last minute. I imagine my father going after her on the loch, taking her in his arms, emptying her pockets full of stones into the water and bringing her back to us. I imagine her struggling in the water, and a fisherman spotting her and saving her, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders to warm her up and saying, âMy God, what a lucky coincidence I was here today! How lucky I spotted you in spite of the mist! You could have easily died!'”
I didn't mention the last little scenario I'd created for myself, the cruellest, the most hopeless of all: that she had drowned, and she was floating, tangled in the reeds along the shore, but an angel took pity on her and breathed life back into her. And she would untangle the algae from her hair and shiver and run as fast as she could along the shore, and back to us.
I took a deep breath. I couldn't feel Clara's hands in my hair any more. I couldn't hear her breathing. She was perfectly still and silent. “But none of this happened,” I concluded. “Nobody stopped her, nobody saved her. So that's why my father and my sister have whitewashed her from our lives: yes, they missed her, but they also hated her. I can see it now. They hated her for what she did. And they hated me for loving her, for wanting her. For being like her. For years I dreamt of snow and ice, endless plains of white and cold, because I felt so alone.” I couldn't stop talking. Everything I'd kept inside for so long was coming out in one big gush, and I couldn't help it.
“One of my earliest memories is my dad shushing me. He did it all the time: after school, at the weekends, especially on a Sunday, when it was time to go to church and only think about holy matters. When I was growing up, the house was always silent. My dad didn't like noise. Once, someone from the church told me that when my mum was alive the place was always full of people and music. She loved music: I used to try to sneak a listen with my CD player every time my dad wasn't around, also to feel closer to her . . . I often wonder, if my dad hadn't been so religious, would he have been more compassionate towards what my mum did? Maybe he would have made an effort to understand her unhappiness, to love her more, to love her betterÂ . . .”
A strangled sound stopped me. I turned around to see that Clara's face was wet with tears.
“Clara! Oh, Clara, please don't cry!” I felt terrible. I couldn't believe my words had upset her so much.
“I'm so sorryÂ . . .”
I held her in my arms, my wet hair everywhere â she still smelled of Christmas, I thought, just like when she'd come to me in that dream. How weird, I thought, for me to be comforting someone instead of the opposite. How selfish illness can make you, when you think you're the only one who ever has needs.
So our roles were reversed and I held her as she cried and I felt her wet tears on my cheek. And then something weird happened: we looked into each other's eyes, and I noticed they were so similar â nearly the same green.
“I'll tell you what we are going to do,” I said. “I'll make us some hot chocolate and we can have some cake and we'll feel better, okay?” I smiled inwardly at the role reversal. Clara sat down, and I went to prepare the hot chocolate. I left it on the stove bubbling away on a low heat, and I thought I'd go and get a towel for my wet hair.
I was back a minute later. And in a split second I thought,
Yes, I should have got that gas
ring seen to, I should have called someone to repair
it sooner rather than later
, because the flame had burnt wonky, as it tended to do, and had set a kitchen towel on fire, and the flames danced stronger and stronger by the second â now everything would burn, burn. I was mute and frozen in horror.
I should have got out at once. I should have got Clara by the arm and run out with her into the garden without looking back . . . It's what they teach you as a child: if you see fire, don't try to be a hero, just run for your life.
But I didn't.
In that instant of panic I couldn't think clearly, and I threw my towel on the stove, trying to suffocate the fire licking up from the stove, dancing beautiful and deadly, higher and higher, the flames' blue roots turning red and orange. Black smoke began to fill the room. A gust of flames blew sudden and scorching in my face, and I jerked backwards. I tripped on a chair and fell to the ground, banging the back of my head so hard I saw stars. Tears from the smoke were falling down my face, and I struggled to keep my eyes open â I knew I had to get up fast, because the fire was spreading and the smoke was turning thicker and more toxic by the minute. As I lay on the kitchen floor, my head swimming, I saw the flames engulf their surroundings â the tablecloth and the curtains. All of a sudden there was fire everywhere, all the oxygen sucked out of the room by the hungry flames. It was all happening so quickly â all I could think was I had to get up before I was set on fire myself, before my lungs burnt with the scalding smoke. But my limbs wouldn't answer. My head felt wet, and when I felt my hair with my fingers, I saw that they were red with blood, but I didn't know where it was coming from. My head pounded.
Get up! Get up!
Then someone shouted my name, and Clara was crouching beside me, and we couldn't breathe, and I wanted us to crawl out into the corridor and outside to safety, but all of a sudden the smoke was so thick I couldn't see any more. Clara was coughing hard, and her breaths were more and more laboured â she was suffocating. I tried to yell at her to go and leave me, but my throat was too dry and sore to speak. I tried to get up, with Clara helplessly dragging my arm upwards, but my legs would not support my weight â I could only sit up, leaning against Clara. She wrapped her arms around me, her chest shaken by fits of coughing, and I shut my eyes for a moment â but then instinct kicked in and my body decided for itself what to do. I freed myself from Clara's embrace and managed to twist my body so that I was on all fours â I began crawling towards the door, making sure Clara was beside me. We managed only a few inches when she collapsed in a coughing fit. I could not go without her, and I didn't have the strength to drag her with me. So I stopped, and a part of me whispered in my mind:
It's all over.
Funny. Now that life was going to be taken away from me, I wanted to live more intensely than ever. How ironic that I should die like this, not by my own hand but because of something as banal as a malfunctioning gas ring.
is life, how precious.
And now it's all about
I closed my eyes and I prayed it would be quick, for me and for Clara. Her fingers found mine â we held each other's hand, and I felt my consciousness ebb away . . . Then a strong arm took me and dragged me across the floor, and out of my half-closed eyes I saw the sky. I was outside. I was saved.
I thought at once, and I must have called her name because someone answered, “She's here, she's fine.” Relief swept through me as something gripped my stomach and I vomited on the grass, long hard retches that left me sore and trembling. I turned my head slowly, painfully, and there she was â Clara beside me, still coughing so hard it sounded like barking. I gazed at the sky.
It was blue.
Someone held me in his arms. His chest smelled familiar; his grip was strong, nearly painful; a sob wrecked his chest.
It must be Angus,
love, you came to save me
. And so I whispered, “I love you.”
But it was Torcuil's voice that answered. He called my name over and over and over again.
And then the ambulance came.