Mummy was forty when she started crying and never stopped. I remember, because
on her birthday she said forty sounded like fortitude, and she would be getting
lots of it now. Or needing lots of it now, I can’t recall which. She explained
that fortitude was for real people like spinach was for Popeye. Mummy liked
words – they made her happy, she said.
Though I’ll bet the tear-stained
pages of her notebook thought otherwise.
Today was my birthday. It always
fell exactly three months after Mummy’s. I was born on the longest day. Mummy
said June 21 was the grandest day of the year to be born and must be celebrated
as such. But she never bought me presents like the other mothers of girls in
“Our Lady’s Convent Primary School.”
When I was seven she hired a man to
stand underneath my window on the pavement wearing one of those “end-isnigh”
signs. On it was a poem Mummy had written that said that seven was an
emeraldgreen age to be. I can’t remember what else was in the poem; the man
wearing it rather distracted me with the bored look on his face.
not know what a d v e n t u r e s awaited me today but no doubt Mummy had
something extra special planned. After all, I was moving into a whole new phase
of life. The double digits phase, like nearly everyone else in the world. 10.
Ten. Such a short word but it carried so much weight, like a gnome lifting
“Cuckoo,” The clock sounded at 7:30am – a whole hour after I
I had inherited the cuckoo clock from Daddy before he left,
and despite Mummy’s protests that all alarm clocks should be eliminated along
with racism and Ezra Pound’s poems, she let me keep it. I had spent the last
hour inspecting some red welts on my tummy and waiting for Mummy to come and
tell me what to wear. Maybe she expected me to choose my own outfit this year.
Two years ago, on my eighth birthday, Mummy woke me up when it was still dark
outside and made me don my best Sunday smock – the one with the purple seagulls.
I never went to school on my birthday, Mummy thought it a criminal waste of
time. We rode the tube to Charing Cross Station because Mummy had decided that
she wanted me to be the first person to see the Vermeer in the National Gallery
that day. She told me that from time to time, it was essential to be the first
of the day to see a beautiful painting. After curtsying for the young woman
standing at the virginal, Mummy took me outside to Trafalgar Square. We bought
some birdfeed and Mummy took off her shoes and socks and ran into the pool
underneath the fountain. She stood there, water shooting over her ginger head,
her arms spread out as dozens of pigeons settled on her and pecked at birdfeed
in her hair and open palms. The huge black lions that guarded Trafalgar Square
frowned. If she wasn’t so beautiful you could’ve mistaken her for one of those
market characters from that film that came out a few years ago, My Fair Lady.
Lord Nelson, from the top of his pillar, goaded me to join her. I did, but fell
flat in the pool on my bottom.
Mummy laughed and took me by the hand back
to the National Gallery and into the toilets where she wrung out my drawers and
I wondered if perhaps this time I should bring a swimming
costume, but decided against it. Mummy never did things twice anyway.
padded into her room next door in my knickers and vest. She was not in her bed.
An empty bottle of Black Bull was resting on the mahogany night table.
pillow had been stabbed open with a large kitchen knife that lay on the floor
next to the bed.
There were feathers and tiny shreds of paper strewn all
over the bedspread. I picked up one of the shreds. The words “flying away” were
the only complete words I could make out. I tucked it into the waistband of my
knickers, retrieved the kitchen knife from the floor and went
A fat lady stood by the sink with her back to me, washing
dishes very loudly.
I said, “Aunty Sheila?” Aunty Sheila turned around,
saw me in the doorway in my underwear, and dropped a plate. It bounced twice but
didn’t break. “Mary Mother of God! Child, why in heaven’s name are you
brandishing a knife?” “It’s Mummy’s.”
“Give it here.” She grabbed the
knife and put it on a high shelf over the brown and green countertop. “Eat
something and then get dressed. You’ve not much time, your school bus will be
She poured cornflakes into a bowl.
The red and
green cockerel on the carton looked at me quizzically. I never ate
Within a minute it was on the floor, upside down, next to the
unbroken plate. Aunt Sheila clucked and shooed me up the stairs, chop, chop all
I buttoned up my blouse and slipped the grey pinafore over my
head. I tied the cape over my shoulders so that the crown on the school’s emblem
rested over my heart. My hair was unplaited and tumbled like strawberry blonde
snakes down past my shoulders.
“Bus is here,” Aunt Sheila’s voice rang
shrilly, like a mockingbird’s. I trudged downstairs, satchel swinging by my
I said, “Where’s Mummy?” “She’ll be back.”
“Later when?” “You impertinent child – you ask too many
questions! If it wasn’t for your father’s graciousness, I don’t know where you’d
be. You should be grateful.” All the seats on the bus were full, either with
children or schoolbags. Alan, the bus driver, made Alice Johnson move her bag
again to let me sit down. Six red phone boxes, three Morris Minors (navy, olive
and yellow) and twelve sparrows later I arrived at school. It seemed wrong
entering the gates on a birthday – sort of like going to school on a Sunday. I
ran up the nine stone steps and into the Main Hall. A sign on the door said “Our
Lady’s Convent Primary School Welcomes All Prospective Parents.” The low-hanging
chandelier was lit for a change. Maggie – Mummy’s best friend who moved to the
countryside – had said a few years ago that Mummy was the chandelier of Muswell
Hill. She sparkled and glittered and lit up any room she walked
Iwas six when it was my first communion. I was a year younger than
everyone else because Mummy wanted me to be first in my class to eat the body of
Christ. In those days I had many friends and almost all the girls in my class
came to watch me in holy envy. Mummy bought me the most expensive dress in the
special occasions shop on Dreary Lane. It was made of white satin and embedded
with tiny pearls and came with a veil, headdress and gloves to match. But it
wasn’t me that people were staring at when we walked into the church. All eyes
were on Mummy, in a red jumpsuit that had no back and little front. All eyes,
that is, except for the priest’s who was staring intently at the figure of
Christ on the cross as if he’d never seen it before. The Son of God himself
looked more than a little dismayed that he was about to share his flesh and
blood with me. When the ceremony was over and I’d eaten and drunk my fill, Mummy
cheered and clapped as if George Best had just scored the winning goal at a
football match. The guests all filed out of the church to make their way to our
house where there was to be a big celebration in my honour.
walking out but Mummy grabbed his arm.
“Wait a mo, darling,” she said,
fluffing her hair. “Now that I’m here, I absolutely must confess my sinful
ways.” Without waiting for permission she walked up to the confessional, her red
high-heels clack clacking upon the flagstones. Daddy sighed and led me to a
He gave me a hard look and said, “Your mother.” I didn’t know
what that meant but nodded anyway.
We heard laughter emanating from the
confessional. A few minutes later Mummy came out and said in a loud voice to the
closed door next to it, “Thank you, Father. I feel ever so much better now,” and
to me she said, “Shall we, darling? Your guests are waiting for you.” She said
nothing at all to Daddy who followed her outside as if he were tied to an
When we got home, Mary, my au pair at the time, had
already let all the guests in.
The adults were eating canapés and
vol-auvents and the children were crunching on sweets of every shape and colour.
Daddy went straight upstairs and called Mummy to follow him. She handed me her
champagne flute – “Don’t you think it’s high time for your first champagne?” –
and went upstairs. After a few minutes we could all hear Daddy and Mummy
arguing. We couldn’t hear what Daddy said but Mummy spat out words like
“trapped” and “cage” as if they were pieces of phlegm. By the time she came
downstairs she was smiling again and insisting that people have another cava,
“1954 – a very good year.” Daddy didn’t come downstairs the whole evening. In
fact, after my communion, I hardly saw him at all and after that I stopped
seeing him altogether.
Sister Mary Eunice took the register in English
class. She called my name three times before I heard her and mumbled “Present,
miss.” A hummingbird was hovering outside the window, its wings flapping faster
and faster and faster. I flapped my cape and tried to catch the hummingbird’s
attention but I only caught Sister Mary Eunice’s who shouted and sighed and then
sighed some more. The hummingbird tried to fly in through the window but it was
shut. He panicked and started shooting up and down and all around. I screamed.
Very loudly and didn’t stop.
Alice started laughing and most of the girls
covered their ears. Sister Mary Eunice marched over to me, her wimple askew. Her
mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear what she was saying over the
I sat outside in the waiting room of Sister Benedict’s office.
Dark oak panels lined the walls with pictures of Jesus and old headmistresses
hung on them. A girl I did not recognise sat opposite me.
weeping. Sobbing actually. Like the way Mummy did these days. It occurred to me
that Mummy must be arranging something extraordinary for after school if she
sent Aunty Sheila to look after me.
A minute passed before Sister
Benedict came out of her office. “Stop it, Barbara, there’s nothing to cry
about.” Sister Benedict beckoned the crying girl into her office. The girl
sniveled and followed the headmistress inside with her head down. Maybe she had
tried to stab a teacher with a pencil.
A week earlier I had come home
from school to find Mummy scrubbing a stain off an old costume from the fancy
dress box. She didn’t hear me walk in and continued hacking away at the material
with a green brush.
She whispered, “Out, damned spot.”
She looked up, startled. “Oh darling, you’ll be the death
of me, frightening me like that. How was school? Have you learned anything yet?
Why aren’t you wearing a coat? You’ll catch your death.”
plenty,” I answered. “It’s June, Mummy. I don’t need a coat.”
said and returned to the scrubbing.
A minute later she threw the brush
across the room and started crying again. She poured herself a drink with no ice
and sat down at the kitchen table. I poured myself a glass of milk and sat down
opposite her, waiting for her to speak.
“It’s useless,” she said
eventually. I waited some more.
She said, “Do they think me crazy, your
friends? You should tell them some of the best people are crazy.”
they don’t think.”
She sobbed again, more quietly now, her shoulders
heaving slightly and locks of red hair with spatterings of white glued to her
face with tears.
She said, “Darling, it isn’t your fault – you know that,
don’t you?” I nodded. It had never occurred to me otherwise.
sniveling girl came out of the headmistress offic Her eyes were red and splotchy
like welts. Apparently English class was over because at that moment, Sister
Mary Eunice walked into the headmistress’s office. After about ten minutes she
came out and threw daggers at my eyes. Sister Benedict came out a minute later
and motioned for me to follow her.
“ Yo u ’ v e been screaming again,
young lady.” It wasn’t a question so I didn’t reply.
She looked at me
from over her halfmoon glasses. “Well? What have you got to say for yourself,
Penny?” Why did she call me Penny? She sighed and leaned forward, clasping her
hands. “Did you notice the lady sitting at the back of Sister Mary Eunice’s
class?” I hadn’t.
“Well, she is a mother who is considering “Our Lady’s”
for her daughter next year. Or rather, was considering.
your performance this morning she was most distressed and said she couldn’t have
her daughter attend a school with girls who would rather be banshees than good
There was a framed copy of a painting above Sister
Benedict’s head. I recognized it as Masaccio’s Holy Trinity.
only twenty-seven when he died. Mozart was thirty-five. And Keats was
twenty-five. Imagine that! With all they’d accomplished. Mummy was much older
and despite being the best poet the world had ever seen, had only published one
book of poetry which she paid for herself. I overheard Aunty Sheila once say
that Daddy had left Mummy because she was having a love affair with a Mr. Keats.
I never found out if it was the poet though.
“Are you listening to me,
child?” I nodded.
“Do I need to summon your mother here again?” I shook
“Do you attend Church regularly, Penny?” I shook my head again.
Church was too formlessly formal, Mummy said.
“Well then, how do you
expect our Lord to forgive you for your sins?” I didn’t know. Sister Benedict
told me I must start going to Church at least once a week and begin reflecting
on my behaviour. Should she see no improvement she would be forced to take more
drastic measures, though she hated the thought of having it come to
My next class was Physical Education.
I hated PE because the
teacher made us run around in circles in nothing but our underwear in the cold
I stripped and stood in line next to Imogene Roberts, the girl
with breasts. Sister Catherine came round to inspect that our nails were clean.
Alice Johnson received a scolding for residue bubblegum- pink nail
When she reached me, Sister Catherine didn’t even comment on the
black underneath my nails. Instead she wanted to know about the big purple
bruise on my upper arm – the one in the shape of Africa.
Had I been in a
fight? I said I hadn’t. Where was it from then? I was attacked by an eagle, I
told her (that made Alice and her friends giggle).
Lying is for sinners,
she said. I said I wasn’t lying. Did my Daddy do it? I replied that Daddy had
moved to America nearly four years ago and had a new family. She harrumphed and
continued onto Imogene whose nails were sparklingly clean and almost completely
She selected two girls, Georgiana and Ellen, to be captains.
They in turn selected who they wanted on their teams. I wasn’t picked last
today, both Imogene and Sarah – the girl with a boy’s haircut – were left after
Ellen chose me. The game we had to play seemed pretty pointless. We were
instructed to climb up the monkey bars that lined the walls of the gym and
retrieve a red sash which we would bring down and hand to the next girl, who had
to climb up again and tie it to the top bar so the next girl could go up and get
it. And so on. The team that lost had to run twenty laps around the gym while
the winning team sat in the middle. Four girls stood before me to climb up the
bars. That meant that I would have to retrieve the sash. I hated
Except with Mummy, who always let me win, even when it wasn’t
But I was good at climbing. I climbed up my house twice in
the past when Mummy had forgotten her keys inside.
She was too big to fit
in my room window, so she shouted directions from below, telling me where there
were makeshift footholds on the awning and how to shimmy up the
When it got to my turn, I climbed up the bars fast and I knew that
all the girls were impressed. Maybe if we won they would start to like me again.
At the top I grabbed the sash and turned to look down at the girls. I was so big
and they were so little. I started to climb down but on the sixth rung from the
bottom I missed my step and freefell to the next one. A collective gasp. I
looked down. My feet were shaking but I wasn’t scared. The little slip of paper
in the waistband of my knickers slipped out. I let go of the rung above my head,
reached out and caught it, but my other hand supporting all of my weight slipped
off the rung. The words “flying away” were firmly in my grasp as I sailed
towards the floor, hitting it with a loud thunk. Another gasp as all the girls
crowded around me. Sister Catherine ordered everyone to stand back and came to
check me. I was all right – only my bottom got hit really hard. She shook her
head and said that at least now she knew how I always got so bruised. I looked
past Sister Catherine and noticed a family of mice migrating from one mouse hole
to another on the opposite wall of the gym. The father mouse kept throwing
furtive glances in our direction, making sure that everyone was too preoccupied
with my fall to notice them. On my ninth b i r t h d a y M u m m y brought round
an acting troupe from the local theatre to give us a private showing of Of Mice
and Men. There were no mice in it. Plenty of swearwords though. Whatever was she
up to this year? That was the thing about Mummy, you could never really know,
everything was so unexpected. When she began her crying phase it was also
unexpected. She was laughing hard, telling me a story of how she and Maggie sent
anonymous love poems to their university professors, when, without warning, she
erupted into tears like a watery volcano.
I visited the nurse for my
bottom and missed Art class as a result (I didn’t mind because I had solemnly
promised Mummy that I wouldn’t become an artist – do something normal, darling,
do it for Mummy.
It’s always better to be an art appreciator than an
Ooh – I know! You could work in the Science Museum as an
Explainer) and then wandered the hallways for the rest of the period, dancing my
fingers along the oak panels. I went into this room and that, peering around
first to see if there was anybody inside. I stood at the front of an empty
classroom and pretended to be a teacher (“You, young lady! How will you ever
redeem your soul?”) and stopped when I remembered Mummy’s warnings about acting.
I spun a globe on its axis, round and round, and thought about all the places I
should travel to when I got old enough. I knew I wanted to go to Vatican City,
not because of the Sistine Chapel mind, (though the Creation of Adam was
definitely worth a peek) but more so that I could say I had been to the smallest
country in the world. I wondered how hard it was to govern the smallest country
in the world and if I should like to attempt it. Mummy never said anything to
discourage me from politics, except for hating Mr. Nixon who ran America which
she didn’t care about anyway and as far as she was concerned, Asia could bomb
them right back along with Daddy and his Yank family in their fancy American
house with the double garage.
A tall lady wearing a large sunhat and silk
flared slacks walked into the classroom. She had a longbeaked nose and looked
like a parrot.
She said, “Hello.” I continued to spin the
“How do you do?” She asked.
“Very well, thank-you, and
you?” “Splendid. I’m just here taking a look at your school again for my
Arabelle next year.”
I said, “Oh.”
“Isn’t it break time? Shouldn’t
you be outside running around with the other girls?” “I was sent to the nurse’s
“Dear me. What happened?” “A griffon vulture flew into the gym and
picked me up by his claws but I was too heavy so he dropped
There was a silence.
She said, “Do griffon
vultures often fly into the school?” “Quite often. Though not as often as
“I wonder why my daughter has never mentioned that. She’s also
in this school, you know.”
“Her name is
“Do you know her?” “Yes. She stole my gloves.” I
don’t know why I said that, it happened almost four months ago.
contorted in sorrow. “Dear me. How did that make you feel?” I blinked once.
“Cold,” I answered.
Her eyes were far away, probably in Vatican
On the way home Alice let me sit next to her
near the window without being asked. Her eyes were on fire. I didn’t want to get
burnt so I looked out the window. The sun was still high in the sky but the
birds were silent as we passed through rows and rows of terraced houses that all
looked the same. The bus reached the townhouse Daddy had left us as a
consolation prize and I said goodbye to Alice, who had turned into a smouldering
pile of ashes.
From the moment I walked in the door I knew something was
different. My heart raced as I imagined my house as a circus. The clown would
come out of the living room and lift me high on his shoulders singing Happy
Birthday as a bear balancing on a ball rolled back and forth in between the
clown’s stilts. Mummy would be dressed as a trapeze artist – no, she would be
the lion tamer, sticking her red head in and out of the lion’s mouth. There was
no clown though. Only Aunty Sheila and another lady I didn’t recognise sitting
in the kitchen with cups of tea in their hands.
“Ah, you’re back,” Aunty
Sheila said when she saw me.
Why did adults always insist on announcing
the obvious? “Yes. Where’s Mummy?” Aunty Sheila exchanged glances with the lady,
who was in a green velvet dress and flowery hat. She looked like a luxuriant
“Sweetheart, would you like a cup of tea?” the Garden
“Where is Mummy?” The Garden suddenly looked very sad, sadder even
than the marble Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta. I don’t remember much of the
conversation after that. Something about Mummy being very ill and it not being
my fault. “It,” I gathered from what the Garden was saying, was that Mummy had
sprouted wings and flown off Blackfriars Bridge. I looked at Aunty Sheila’s
face, kinder than I had ever remembered, and knew it all to be a lie.
was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by Mummy.
None of it was real. Soon
she would burst out from the larder dressed as a birthday cake with real candles
nestling in her hair.
However, Mummy stayed in the larder as I was
bundled into the Garden’s car, a taupe Austin Maxi, to be driven to “a wonderful
place in the country where there would be lots of other girls my age.” I would
get my stuff in the morning.
Aunty Sheila would be there one more day
before returning to her own house on the south side of the river. I sat in the
backseat and clutched Daddy’s cuckoo clock, which I had insisted on taking with
me. During the drive, the Garden did not speak to me at all except once to ask
me if I needed the toilet. For a hundred hours the Austin winded its way around
curvy streets and endless roundabouts. Mummy always said that trying to get out
of London was like trying to climb your way out of an Escher
Eventually the scenery changed and the redbricked buildings
were replaced with rolling green dales and overweight cows. I wondered if we
were anywhere near Maggie, Mummy’s best friend. After some time we turned onto a
tiny country lane which led to a big manor with steel gates. The words “Bedham
Children’s Home” arched over the top of the gates. Inside the courtyard was a
wooden signpost with directions to various different places.
room, the dormitories, the tennis courts, the aviary. The Garden parked the car
and led me inside. She left me sitting on a couch in an anteroom filled with
drawings on the walls while she went off. After twenty minutes she returned with
a stocky, matronly woman who resembled an armchair.
“You poor dear,” said
the Armchair, sitting down beside me. She said it would take time for me to get
over the horror of Mummy turning into a bird but that under the circumstances, I
was rather fortunate to have a kind Daddy who agreed to pay for my sojourn at
Bedham, voted the best children’s home in the South East for four years in a
row. The Garden nodded all the while, her flowery hat bobbing up and
The Armchair rose from the couch. “I’ll get you a clean nightie and
show you to your room. You’ll find your roommates delightful, I’m
She left the room.
The Garden spoke. “Well I’ll be off now,
Penny.” Why was everyone calling me that? I was worth far more than a penny,
Mummy said, so everyone must call me Penelope.
“Your kind Aunty will be
along in the morning with your things.”
Her eyes wandered to the small
graze I had above my brow. She sighed. “You won’t be hurt anymore here,
Why? Were there no birds of prey in the aviary at Bedham? “I have
something for you,” she extracted a letter from her handbag. “I think it’s from
your mother. It arrived today. She must have posted it, you know, before she…”
her voiced trailed off.
She handed me the letter.
In the dormitory
my delightful roommates were already asleep. I opened the letter slowly,
relishing the sound of ripping paper.Dearest daughter of the future,
Today is my tenth birthday as it is yours.I decided that it would be an
extraordinary idea of the supremest nature to write you a note that I would give
to you on the occasion of your tenth birthday. Perhaps we could see how alike we
are. Or how unalike as the case may be. I do hope that over time I shall not
misplace this letter. Hmm, now I am stuck for what to write. So far, I rather
like being ten. Do you? I have made myself a promise to try to be deliciously
decadent this year in honour of becoming a decade old (doesn’t that sound
ancient?) In case you didn’t already know, a Decadent person is one who has
barrels of fun and drinks ginger ale all day.Anyway, I must go now
because Mummy is crying and I need to go and see what all the fuss is about.
Maybe Daddy has hit her.He only hits when he’s being especially
disobeyed though. Perhaps I shall continue this letter later after Daddy has
fallen asleep. In the meantime I do hope you are having the most fabulous
birthday of your life.My fondest wishes for your future, Your
ever-loving Mother (it is rather funny to sign off like that at my age, don’t
you agree?) P.S. What’s it like in the future? Are there lots of cars? Have
people learned to fly yet? I’m dying to know!
That was all there was. Maybe
Mummy’s Daddy hadn’t fallen asleep after all. I looked at the grandfather clock
that stood in between two oak wardrobes. It was ten o’clock. And I was still
ten. There were two more hours left for Mummy to fly in and put me on her wings
to celebrate my birthday. Despite the late hour it wasn’t dark outside yet. Red
and yellow stripes ribboned through the sky. The sun was finally setting on the
longest day of the year and the longest day of my life. I leaned my head back on
the pillow which, curiously, was wet. Sleep escaped me like a butterfly so I
read the letter again. And again and again until I had read it thirty times – or
three decades. The shadows in the room grew long. The man in the moon looked at
me with a troubled expression like he was trying to tell me something but didn’t
know how to say it right. But somehow I understood him.
And I was sad.
Sad for me, and sad for Mummy but saddest most for ten-yearold Mummy in the
letter. The man in the moon was telling me that Mummy didn’t learn how to fly
after all. The grandfather clock struck midnight. I tiptoed out of my bed and
down the stairs and outside. When I reached the aviary, I opened all the cages
and watched as hundreds of birds flew off towards the moon. I was sure it was
what Mummy would have wanted me to do. ■ The writer has a master’s from the
Shaindy Rudolph Creative Writing Program in Bar-Ilan University, She can be
contacted at [email protected]