I wake. Look down at my hands. The sight of them, liver-spotted and slightly wrinkled, has caught me off-guard these last few years. Why does age surprise us?
What startled me even more this time was the sight of hands so pink and small. Soft. Brand new. Vulnerable. Surely these hands remember what the womb felt like.
My hands don’t look like that.
I gasp, those hands starfishing reflexively in a manner most unsuited to a three-year-old. I open my mouth to wonder aloud, “What’s happening to me?” But what comes out is, “Mummyyyyyyyyyyy!”
My bare feet hit the polished floorboards and I run from the room wailing.
Part of me thinks, What an odd way for me to behave, but that part is me, and I’m shrinking away.
My name is Lexi. I’m three.
I cry and cry. Mummy doesn’t understand.
"I was an old lady with spotty hands and grey hair!" Mummy laughs. The sound is light and happy. I don’t like it.
“You just had a bad dream,” she says. “It’s the one dream that comes true for most people.” She smiles sadly and hugs me. I am getting snot on her blouse but I don’t care. She squeezes me tight. “I know it scared you. But I hope you get to be an old lady. I want it more than anything.”
She smells like watermelon.
I don’t like the doctors. They poke me. There are machines and wires. And needles. I hate needles. Mummy says “Be brave, darling.”
The doctor frowns. What’s happening? They talk quietly and leave me out. I kick my legs because my feet don’t reach the floor. Mummy’s eyes go wide and she puts her hand over her mouth. I can hear her say, “Are you sure?” The doctor shows her some bits of paper. He points to something on a screen. He keeps talking. It sounds very boring.
Mummy looks like she is going to cry. When she turns around, her face is wet, but she's smiling. “Oh my God,” she says, “Oh my God.” She picks me up and cuddles me. It feels like she won’t stop, not ever. I wriggle. I want to get down. “You’re better,” she is saying. Lots of times. “You’re better, you’re better, you’re better.” Just like that.
“It’s a miracle. Thank God, thank God, thank you God.”
She says thank you to the doctor as well, but mostly to god.
She buys me the biggest ice-cream ever. All different colours. It has red sauce on it. My favourite. There is a stick of chocolate. I am going to eat that in a minute. The man brunged us two long spoons. Mummy’s spoon is still on the table.
She touches my hand and says, “Lexi.” I look up. “Do you remember I wished you’d be an old lady one day?”
I sort of remember, so I say “yes” and have more ice-cream.
“Darling, I think my wish came true.”
“But I’m not old,” She is being silly.
“Not yet,” says Mummy. “But one day you will be. Not for a long time yet.” She squidges my hand and says, “You have such a long time, now, Lexi.”
Mmm. Yum. I love red sauce.
“The doctor says…. More tests…. They thought….. Mistake…. But….”
I’m not listening properly. She’s talking boring and silly. “I’m better,” I say. “You said. I’m all better.”
“Yes,” says Mummy. “That’s all that matters. You’re all better. Thank God.”
I hate Sundays. Mummy makes me wear my best dress. I can’t play in it. I have to keep it nice. We sit on a shiny wooden bench. It’s hard on my bum. I wriggle. Mummy shushes me. “Sit still” she says. The boring man talks for ages. He has glasses and a bald head and funny teeth.
I sigh and slouch. “Shhh!” says Mummy. “Sit up nicely.”
I pick my nose. She slaps my hand away. I put my finger in my mouth fast. Mummy looks cross. I giggle.
Mummy said God answered her prayer, so now we must give thanks. That means every Sunday I have to wear this dress and be bored.
I stop listening to the boring man. I stare at the funny-shaped hole in the bench in front of us. It looks like a leaf, or a flower. There is a fat lady. Her extra skin is bulging in the hole. I poke at it. Mummy gasps and pulls my hand away. “Sorry!” she whispers to the fat lady.
I stare at the coloured windows for a bit. I like them. The sunshine is coming through. It makes me want to be outside. I kick the bench in front. The fat lady frowns.
I think about something else. D'you know, I have funny dreams all the time. So I think about those. I dream about shopping, or kissing, or watching scary movies. Things grown ups do.
One, two, three, four, five. Like that.
School is like work, but for children, and there’s Legos and painting. You have to sit inside a lot. The chairs are hard. The teacher talks boring. The sun comes in the window. Just like silly old church. Every day.
The teacher shouts if I pick my nose. “Use a tissue!” She’s not like Mummy. If Mummy gets cross, nothing happens. But if Mrs Wells gets cross I can’t go outside at playtime.
Most of the other kids have dads. Tony has two dads. But I just have Mummy. When I ask her about it, she says, “I’ll tell you later”. She never tells me later.
Guess what! Something good happened.
I don’t have a daddy, but I have something better.
Aunty Sandra is Mummy’s sister. She ran away when Mummy was little. They all thought she’d died. But she didn’t die. Something bad happened. I don’t know what. Something. But now she is back.
Mummy keeps saying things like, “He gave me back my little girl, and now he has given me back my big sister.” She spends all her time at church.
Aunty Sandra isn’t like that. She wants to spend all her time with me. She talks to me, not God.
Aunty Sandra is my favourite. Better than red sauce and sprinkles. She understands me better than anybody. She asks Mummy all the time, “Can I get Lexi from school today?” and, “Don’t make the poor kid go to church, Liz. I’ll mind her for you.”
She gives me things. Sometimes only little things. But always perfect. The exact thing I want at that moment. I'll tell you what I mean. Like this: one day I want chocolate sauce instead of red, and Aunty Sandra knows before I even tell her.
She gives me clothes. Ripped trousers and old t-shirts. They are my Wild Tree Clothes. Not like stupid Sunday dresses. They are the sort of clothes I can climb in. I can get muddy. Mummy frowns, but Aunty Sandra sparkles at me. She says, “Everything washes.”
Mummy says, “She’s not a boy,” and Aunty Sandra says, “She’s better than a boy. Let her be comfortable for chrissakes.”
Mummy says, “She’s not yours,” and Aunty Sandra says, “She’s her own”.
Mummy says, “oh here’s a tea set let’s do colouring”. Aunty Sandra says, “let’s go digging for dragon eggs!” And off we go adventuring.
Aunty Sandra gives me a feather.
“It’s from a phoenix.”
I don’t know what a phoenix is, so she tells me. I stare at the feather. I didn’t know I wanted it. But I do - more than anything. Other grown-ups would say, “Yuk, that’s dirty, put it down!” I tip out the jewellry box Mummy gave me. I put the feather in it.
Aunty Sandra looks like Mummy today. Looking over the bowl of ice-cream into my eyes. She touches my hand. She is going to say something boring and important.
“We’re the same, Lexi”.
“No we’re not, You’re a grown up lady. You’re old.” It’s true. She’s even older than Mummy. Lots older. She has grey in her hair.
Aunty Sandra laughs. It sounds loud and thick. Nothing hurts Aunty Sandra. She never talks to God to say help help or thank you lord jesus.
What I like best about Aunty Sandra is this: She looks at me and I know she sees me the way I am. She doesn’t want me to be different.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“Lexi,” I say.
She shakes her head, “Lexi is short for something. What is it?”
I pull a face. “Alexandra.”
“OK, now what’s my name?”
I say, “Sandra,” and it feels weird because I didn’t say “Aunty”, but I know Aunty is not her first name.
“What do you think Sandra is short for?”
I pause, my long spoon half way into my ice-cream.
“See? Told you. We’re the same.”
I grin at her. Maybe Alexandra isn’t such a bad name after all.
She says, “We both have brown eyes.” I shrug. Lots of people have brown eyes. She says, “When I was your age, I had hair just like yours.” I shrug again.
She doesn’t speak for a minute. Then, “Let’s play a game,” She tugs the spoon out of my hand and lays it next to hers on the red napkin.
“I’m going to tell you what I was like at your age. And if you’re the same, I get to have a bit of ice-cream. But if you’re different, you get to have a bit. Got it?”
She says the right favourite colour, the right favourite animal, and the right favourite food. She says the right books and the right movies.
Aha! I know! She will never guess this!
“Aunty Sandra, what did you dream about?”
“Weird boring shit,” (she said a bad word!) “Like… standing in a queue at the bank. Or buying knickers.”
I feel bit funny. My voice comes out strange.
“Did you ever dream about….” I think hard to remember my dream from last night. “Sitting in a pub with red chairs… there’s a sign saying LOW FLYING BEAMS…. And you’re playing a game like this one… but with tiny drinks… There’s a man with a long black ponytail and a tattoo. He’s got a beard. It tickles. What’s tequila?”
Aunty Sandra goes pale.
“Stop,” she says.
“Did I win?” I pick up my spoon.
I’m so excited. I can’t wait to go to Aunty Sandra’s after school. She lives two doors down from us now, so I go all the time. She has a surprise for me today. I’m not supposed to know about it, of course. But I do, because last night, I dreamt that I was in a dark and musty house. There was an old lady there with lots of cats, and one of the cats had four kittens.
The one thing I want more than anything in the world is a kitten. I bet my Aunty was just the same when she was my age. She is always saying that. That’s how she always knows what I like and the way I feel and the things I want. She always tries her best to get them for me.
I’d have picked the splotchy one. I’m going to call it Gypsy.
I dash right past my house to Aunty’s door and let myself in. I can’t contain my excitement. “Aunty Sandra!” I call out.
“I’m in the kitchen! Come on through, I’ve got something to show you!” She sounds excited just like me.
The kitten is perfect. She is black and brown and white, all splotchy.
“I think you should call her Gypsy,” Aunty Sandra says. I’m not even shocked anymore. “Come on,” she stands up and reaches for me. “We’d better get you home or your mum will be having kittens.”
Mum is angry. She says I can’t keep Gypsy because she’s allergic. I don’t think so, she just doesn’t like animals. She says they're dirty.
Mum shouts. Aunty shouts back. I go outside. Aunty Sandra will win. She always does, one way or another. I hold Gypsy tight, because we live near a road and I don’t want her to wander off and get hit by a car. I think about hiding her in my room so Mum never sees her.
After a while Aunty Sandra comes back outside. “Come on, kiddo,” she says, “You’re coming to my house for tea.”
Mum had put her foot down. Gypsy will have to live with Aunty Sandra.
“You feed her and clean her litter box when you visit, OK? She’s yours.”
I text Mum to tell her I’m going to be late. I’m going to Aunt Sandra’s to do my homework and see Gypsy. I can’t stand to be in the same house as mum, with all her god-bothering and her watery eyes and flowery cushions and her mouth like a cat’s arsehole every time I do anything, like, ever.
I can talk to Aunty Sandra about anything. Anything at all. All my life, it’s like she knows what’s in my head anyway, so there’s no harm letting it come out of my mouth. She gives me advice. About all kinds of things. Girl stuff. Boys. School. Mum. But it doesn’t sound like advice. It sounds real.
Mum’s battling cancer. She prays constantly. I guess she figures, heck, it worked once, why not again?
I don’t think it’s working. The prognosis isn’t great. I lean on Aunt Sandra more than ever. I feel guilty because I am just glad it’s not her.
Thank g- Thank fuck for that.
Her hair is all grey now.
Mum died last year. The cancer came back more fiercely than ever.
Sandra’s acting weird. “We’ve always had strange dreams, haven’t we?” and, “I think I’m gonna have to go soon, kiddo.”
Sandra died in her sleep a month ago. I don’t think I will ever get over it.
I just got the shock of my life.
I looked in the mirror and I saw Sandra staring back at me. Not how she was at the end, but the way she is in my earliest memories.
A woman has moved into her old house. She has a daughter who looks about six years old. When the ice cream van stops, she buys a cone with strawberry sauce. Yesterday, while she hung out her laundry, I could hear the little girl begging for a kitten.
I open my jewellry box and look at the feather. I am being stupid. This is crazy.
I gather my courage and knock on their door.
“Excuse me - Elisabeth isn't it?” I hope she doesn't think I’m insane. “Did you... did you have a sister?”
The woman peers at me, and her eyes go wide. I smile at her. “I’m Alexandra,” the words have hardly left my mouth when she pulls me into a hug that smells like watermelon. For a moment, I am three years old again.
“Thank God!” she says over and over, and it is almost like three decades never happened at all.
She makes tea. She tells me how active she is in the church since her daughter Alex's miraculous recovery three years before.
The girl promises to be delightfully feral. She is fearless and quirky. She thrives in the sun and the mud, but Mum - I mean, her mum - keeps dressing her in pretty clothes and trying to teach her to be ladylike. I bite my tongue.
I'm thirty-nine, and frankly horny.
The situation with Beth and Alex is driving me crazy.
I need to get away from it. From them. I need to forget. I need to be normal for one night.
I catch his eye at the bar. He’s handsome, but I am already drunk, so my eye might be off. He is maybe a year or two older than me. No wedding ring. Dark hair. A tattoo. Good shoulders. A beard.
A memory stirs…
I am too drunk to care. He has soft looking lips and he is smiling at me, and gesturing to the shots lined up on the bar. “Want to play a game?”
His breath tastes like whiskey and his beard does tickle.
I’m going to regret this tomorrow.
I’m sixty-six, but I feel older. Tired.
Every time I fall asleep, it’s like I can see them on a tiny video reel far in front of me. Each night, the screen is a little closer and the image is clearer.
The baby is a joy. I can feel her mother’s pain when the doctor gives her solemn diagnosis.
I wrestle with it for a while, but not for very long. I don’t want to leave Alex, of course. But I know she’ll be OK. I’ve taught her almost everything I know. The little one… she’s not going to be OK. Unless I do something.
I try to tell Alex, but how can I find the words? She thinks I’m being weird. I think she will understand one day.
I'm ready. I pull the bedsheets up to my chin, and close my eyes. There they are, larger than life. Larger than my life. It seems the easiest thing in the world to step towards them.
It feels like I am falling. Her bed feels soft. Sleep takes me.
I wake. For several seconds, I don’t know what’s what or which way is up. I look down. Those are not my hands. In the next instant, memory comes rushing in to fill all the confused gaps, but as quickly as it arrives, it pours away. Too much for my three-year-old brain to hold.
My feet beat a panicked rhythm on the floor.