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She was looking through drawers, impatiently turning over paper in search of a safety-pin, when she found the photograph. It was tucked in between sheets of an old essay, right at the bottom of the drawer. She pulled out the sheaf of papers and her fifth-form handwriting squinted up at her; blue, rickety and slashed over with red pen.
She flicked up the top-sheet to read on and saw her eyes. The shock was the shock of grief. She put her hand to her mouth. It was that school portrait; her hair down around her shoulders, her face and neck lifting hopefully out of the green-striped shirt and scratchy green jersey.
Her eyes were the same. Almond-shaped and bright brown, emphasised by the line of her plucked eyebrows. They struck at her, lit with strange triumph. Was she fourteen or fifteen? The photographer’s white light clung to the curves of her cheeks, her young skin. She had the shine of a new coin.
There was a paperclip holding a piece of paper to the back of the photo. She turned the picture over and detached the faded square. A smudged red-brown fingerprint, faded to the bracken colour of old blood, anointed the wide-ruled lines. It was as violent as a bullet-hole in flesh.
She took the picture out, gently, and walked away with it to the kindest mirror in the house. In the cold hall she looked back and forth between the glass and the photograph. She touched her skin, her cheeks, her hair; gingerly, as if her face might crumble under the pressure of her fingers.
It was a cruel, cruel, thing to find. Her eyes in the mirror were cruelly the same as the eyes in the photograph; almond-shaped, fine and bright. Everything else had mattened and crumpled; her red-veined cheeks, the swag of her jowl, the grey flecks in her eyebrows and coarse hair. How she had betrayed the girl in that picture. Why hadn’t she stopped it?
A dog barked from the kitchen. Nick must be home. She went quickly back to the dresser, put the picture back between the essay leaves and closed the drawer again.
“Laura!” Nick shouted. “Are you there?”
“Yes” she called back, feeling doubled and distant. “I’m here.”
“I’ve got a load of mistletoe. Can you come and help?”
That afternoon she went to dig in the garden, turning over clods of clay for the frost to get at. As she worked the robin flew down and sat in the holly-tree, watching her. The day was slatey-cold and grey, the sky pressing in and making the land seem smaller; limited. The robin’s breast was almost painfully red against the drained winter colours. The little bird sat among the sharp holly-pricks without harm, head cocked.
“Hello,” she said. The robin often watched her digging, hoping for worms. Its fatness and its little bloody chest were usually heartening Christmas signals in the frost-ashened garden. Today its black eye seemed critical, a judgement.
Her gardening gloves were stiff and clotted with mud. She pulled one off and put her earth-dusted fingers to her face again, feeling the soft husky skin beneath her eyes. The robin stared, its tiny black eyeball shining in the socket, swivelling between Laura and the ground. Under the newly-turned lumps of soil the garden was full of worms, the agents of decay. Nature’s erasers unwriting life cell by cell, remorseless as water.
As she gazed at the bird, something green and white stirred behind the holly-leaves. Before she could focus on the movement, the robin flicked out its wings and flung itself into the air. Blinking, she stared at the brown-grey flower-beds behind the holly. There was nothing living there.
Firmly, she put her glove back on and began to dig more vigorously.
“Age cannot wither her,” she said under her breath. “You stupid woman, you stupid, vain woman.”
It was nothing to do with Nick doing Sara, his 26-year-old PhD student with her long scarves and Cupid’s-bow smile and her injudicious texting habit. Laura hadn’t even mentioned it to Nick when she found out. They had both made mistakes along the way and the thought of another fight, another night on the sofa, another week on the bottle, just made her feel tired to desperation. Beyond tired: bored. No, it was nothing to do with Sara.
And it was nothing to do with the empty nest – Hannah and Sophie both gone. It was not the sudden dead unresonance of the house and the wary brightness of Nick’s attempts to link up worn or broken chains of companionship. It was deeper than that. It was more fundamental than marriage or children. It was her old friend, the old companion of her youth, Death, come for a catch-up and a chin-wag.
The feeling moved through her like blood upwelling through earth. A spring of blood, pushing up from somewhere deep. How long had it been since anything made her angry, exultant, afraid? Suddenly she felt as if the cold had stripped her of skin and her sinews and veins, her very bones, were exposed to the air.
She became acquainted with death the day the photograph was taken. She remembered it now, diving straight into the memory as though the fathoms of years, heavy and resistant, were nothing but water; as if she could tear straight through the membrane that grows over young feeling.
Her period started while she was waiting in the queue for school photos. Leaning against the wall while pupils filed in turn round the side of the photographer’s screen, she suddenly felt the heat and rush of blood.
It had never happened before but she knew what it was. She had gone through her mother’s drawers in the warm, suspended guilt of Sunday teatime while the cups clinked downstairs, and practiced unfolding the towels and pressing them into her knickers. She had even hidden one at the back of her own drawer at home, where it was now, useless.
Abruptly, she pushed herself away from the wall.
“I need to pee,” she said and walked out of the hall and across the corridor to the dark old toilets where every drip echoed. There was no-one there. She went to the dispenser, realising even as she put her hand on it that all her money was in her bag upstairs.
“Hell,” she said. Then she heard footsteps at the door. Frightened, she moved into the nearest cubicle and locked the door, pulled down her tights and sat. Someone walked past and went into another cubicle, sighing as they sat down. The sigh was an older woman’s.
Trembling, she looked at the small bright slick in her knickers and tore off toilet roll to dab away the wetness. She felt sick. She pulled away more toilet roll, folding and wadding the shiny, crackling stuff into a thickness. Then she positioned it in her knickers and pulled her tights up again.
She waited while the other person flushed the loo, came out, washed their hands, dried them. She felt like a fox tensed beneath brambles with thorns pointing in around her every way and death pouring over the ridge of a hill towards her.
When she heard the door to the toilets swing to again, she came out. She washed and dried her hands and went to the dispenser one last time in case someone had left money in it. There were no coins but as she drew her hand away the door swung open again and Mrs North stepped through it. Laura started like a killer with her hand on the knife.
Mrs North looked at her sharply. She taught French and was French. The girls thought her ugly and were afraid of her sharp tongue and the way she pounced on chatterers and daydreamers. The hair on her head stuck out all ways, rough and dark, and there were black hairs on her upper lip and her legs too. The hairs on her legs looked like spiders running down her calves. She always wore very red lipstick and dark eyeliner with a Carmen flick to it, and she moved quickly and freely. Her rare laugh was raucous as a bar-dancers. Altogether she was a terrible object.
“Are you all right?” she said. She smoked 60 a day and her voice was a soft rasp. Laura found she could not move her tongue to speak.
“Is that thing out of order again?”
She came over and jerked at the dispenser.
Laura swallowed. “No, I – “
Mrs North cast her black eye on her. She smelled strongly of smoke and a heavy perfume.
“You don’t have a pound?”
Laura shook her head.
“Neither do I, I’m afraid. Hold on. I left my bag here.” And she walked fast to the cubicle, her wide rump in its pleated skirt switching to and fro. She came out of the cubicle again, rummaging in a blue leather handbag. Eventually she drew out a tampon and held it to Laura.
“There we are,” she said. “Is that OK for you?”
Laura took it, nodding, clutching it to hide it in her fist and looking away from Mrs North’s red lips that moved under her moustache.
“You are sure you’re OK? You would like me to stay?”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“Well. Be sure you don’t miss your place in the queue. I’ll tell them to wait. Shall I send a friend to you?”
“No thank you.”
“All right then. I will be just outside.”
Laura’s mother never used tampons, so she had never practiced with one. They could give you toxic shock and kill you. Could she put inside her something that might kill her? Briefly she looked at herself in the mirror. She was very pale.
Chained in misery she went back into the toilet, sat down and unwrapped the tampon. It felt rough. Gingerly, she took it up and moved her legs awkwardly apart, trying to fit it inside herself. It would not go and it hurt. She pushed harder and it hurt more. Now there was blood on her fingers and she was crying, silently. She could not make it go.
She took the tampon and put it in the bin, wiped her fingers and threw away the first wodge of toilet paper with its darkly embossed seal. Then she folded up another, even thicker, and padded it into her knickers. She sat for a moment, eyes closed, willing the tears to stop. There was no help to be had. This was a thing to do alone, like dying.
When she came out she scrubbed her hands raw and dried them, splashed her face with cold water and retied her hair. The door opened and Mrs North looked in.
Laura nodded, holding herself upright.
“Come through then, it’s your turn.”
She walked with Mrs North across the corridor, feeling the thick paper move between her legs. She lifted her chin to keep the tears back while Mrs North, the fat spider – woman, the ugly squat horror of a thing, the bitch, walked beside her as if she deserved to be in the world at all; as if she deserved to be bleeding the same as Laura was, from her slack thick body that was fit only to crumble and fold in round itself and fall back into the ground.
Laura would not look at Mrs North. She did not thank her for waiting for her and walking with her. She went past the line of whispering girls from the class above her and round the front of the photographer’s screen. The rest of the room disappeared.
The photographer was adjusting his camera. His moustache was fox-coloured and the thinning hair on his head was tawny brown. He was probably only in his 30s but the creeping baldness made him look older. Laura stared at the obscene patch of pale pink skin rearing through at the crown of his head, while the assistant came up and gave her a white disc to hold under her chin and reflect the light.
“Had a bad day?” asked the photographer, not looking at her.
She could not speak. She stared at him, mute.
“Can you give us a smile? Make your mum happy.”
She could not. Dizziness shimmered around her; she tried not to breathe it in. She was dying. She had put something inside her that could kill her and now it was killing her.
“You’ve got lovely hair,” said the assistant, trying to warm her up. “Very unusual, that real, dark gold.”
People often complimented her on her hair. She put a hand to it and pulled out the elastic so that it fell to her shoulders.
“Beautiful,” said the photographer. “OK. One – two – three – smile now.”
The flash flared.
“Had your eyes shut. Try again. Hold it. One – two – three.”
She pinned her eyes wide and sat upright, dying, waiting for her last photograph, feeling the heat and pulse of the blood coming out of her and the soft weight of her hair on her shoulders. She stared him down, thinking: I am dying. I will never die. I will not die.
The flash went, searing her wide open eyes. In the after-dark of it a woman appeared standing right in front of her. Her shoulders were thick and the line of her cheeks square and loose. She was very close. She stared at Laura’s face, her own a negative blank. There was a smell of rot. She was reaching her hands towards Laura’s face: she wanted it. The hands came up and up and for one second she was there, plain and raw, old and dreadful, thick-fingered; then the flash died and the air ate her from her feet to her finger-tips. Laura blinked, and there in front of her was only the photographer and his camera.
When the finished photograph arrived in the post in its brown-and-gold card frame, she set it up on the mantelpiece and sat staring at it for some time. It was the first picture of herself that had ever held a promise of beauty. Her hair and her bright eyes glowed. The girl in the photograph was a person whose life could be something extraordinary. She could be a fire burning; a light that other people would fly to.
After the photograph she began to think, in a way she never had before, about death. The appearance of age obsessed her. She checked her own face for wrinkles, she touched her jaw-line to see if it was firm, she pushed her cheeks up and back. She watched her mother’s morning beauty routine. The foundation that filled in the cracks, the powder that smoothed them over, the shadow and blusher and liner and lipstick that brought back the colour.
Her father told her off for staring, rudely staring, at old people in the street; at the havoc life had wrought on their faces and the way Death had got hold of them and was slowly pulling them apart, strand by fibrous strand.
She resolved then, with perfect simplicity, that she would never grow old. She would never allow herself to decay in that manner; visibly, grotesquely, displaying such weakness of body and will. It was not that she considered a forced reversion. Even now she had not tried plastic surgery, Botox, chemical peels, microdermabrasion; those credit-card youth banks. She simply decided she would never allow it to happen to her.
She would hold it back with her own strength of will. She would not fail. She wrote herself a vow. When she got her next period, at the dark of the moon, she put a finger inside herself and brought it out tipped with blood. Alone in her room, with one candle burning, she pressed her finger to the paper and left a rusty finger-print. She clipped it to her photograph as a secret symbol and a threat. Holding it tight, she stared at herself in the mirror and said: “I shall never grow old. I shall never grow old. I shall never grow old. I shall die by my own hand rather than grow old.”
She vowed it to herself again every month when she bled, each month taking her closer to death, her own self an hourglass bleeding time. She would live. She would live fiercely and she would live bravely, with violence if she had to, and she would be beautiful and young and nothing and no-one would ever wither her, tame her, dull or blunt her or make her ordinary.
Now, sitting at the kitchen table with a whisky in front of her and the photograph beside her, staring out of the window across the darkening lawn, Laura saw quite how badly she had failed.
She had forgotten to remember not to grow old. She had become something other than what was intended and now there would be no mercy. When had her heart closed? When had it blunted? Who had stolen her fierce, bright beauty?
The day was so pallid that the encroaching darkness did not advance itself by shadow or blue dusk. The greyness simply grew greyer, leaching colour slowly from the holly, the bricks of the shed, the white birch-bark and its few yellow leaves. Nick had gone out so she was quite alone.
The eyes in the photograph beside her gazed up at the ceiling, past her hands around the glass and her fingers that were too thick now for her wedding-ring; past her square loose cheeks, the lines at her mouth, the darkening outline of her hair.
The shock of the thing she had seen in the mirror that morning, the shock of herself; the warning she had taken at fourteen but failed to prevent, was only now translating itself from distress into fear.
Her implacable schoolgirl eyes stared from the photograph, determined in their absolute rebuttal of age. Their fixed and eternal youthfulness condemned her. She had been judged. Now she was waiting for the executioner.
“I am not that person any more,” she said aloud. ”I am not that girl. I haven’t got it in me to harm a creature. I never would. I never would. Ah God, I never would.”
There were no lights in the kitchen. The tumbler between her hands called in the last palenesses of evening to itself. Out in the iron garden, a flash of red dived from the birch across the lawn to the holly tree.
Now something else moved at the far end of the garden, from where the robin had flitted. It slipped out from the birch. A whiteness, a greenness; white face, hands and legs and a green body. Dimly she saw it come on across the grass, stepping lightly through the low mists smothering the lawn.
Laura watched, unbreathing, unmoving, through the thin glass of the window as she walked towards the house; young, pale and slim, her hands ready and cold.