Supernova

Now that she thought about it, the change had not been sudden at all but very gradual, beginning with her senses. The scent of an unpeeled tangerine modulated to a silk scarf unfolding spices, memories of Christmas stockings, melodies in the key of G major. She had never been more aware of her body, of the way each fine hair on her forearm speared the air, reading it. Of the drop and rise of her hormones like the silent beating of a drum, a rhythm that dictated her moods and dreams. By the third week her chest was a map of blue veins. Her mind was a glass of sugar-water. The thought of drinking wine or coffee sent a vine of feathers around her wrists.

Her body was renewed and powerful. She felt a shift in her sense of self each morning, as though she had become a climate of her physicality. How right it was, she’d thought, that the belly becomes planet-shaped. She felt planetary in more ways than one. Before the second line showed up on the test she’d been the sort of person you might not realise was in the room for a good half hour or so. It wasn’t just that she didn’t talk much. She had a presence that was a trace of a person. Her mother used a variety of words and phrases to capture it in language: pig-headed, mulish. Mousey and waspish. Sometimes she dreamt of herself as a kind of bestial hybrid, mouse ears peeking out from beneath her hair and her slender feet replaced with cloven hooves. A stinger, about the length of a man’s arm, continuing her spine.

She did not show until well into her fifth month. She filled out in odd places. Her waist and thighs thickened, and later her ankles would vanish, the swerve and knuckle of bone smoothed by water. The bones in her chest withdrew behind plumpness and the gap between her thighs closed. Her stomach chevronned, forcing her to break the news to her mother, who called her a harlot and declared that her life was over.

The sudden heightening of her senses transposed the world around her to an exotic landscape in which colours, sound, taste and even language blurred their boundaries: the key of D major was sky-blue and the taste of fresh bread. She heard voices in the wind, became alert to the sea’s musics. People noticed her, as though she’d emerged from a fog, and commented on how she looked. She was luminous and luscious. Her hair grew quickly, a dark muscle of it down to her shoulders. She felt other people’s eyes on her as she waddled, bovine and heavy, through the supermarket. Mousey. Mule. She wanted to tell her mother, supernova.

There were three of them with her when she gave birth: a midwife, a doctor, and her mother. She growled and bellowed. The sharp stinging sensation and urge to push they’d spoken of was instead a pride of lions who sank their jaws into her pelvis. Someone stuck a plastic mask to her face and she sucked in air like someone about to be drowned, but it didn’t stop the next contraction biting down on her. The baby was back to back, they said, which was meaningless aside from the sensation of her spine being slowly crushed like a plant stem under foot. Finally, someone arrived in a mask wielding a pair of scissors, and in an instant the child was free of her.

Florence Pearl Caughey looked like nobody but herself. Clodagh spent a long time studying the little being in the translucent plastic basket by the hospital bed. How creaturely she was. Not human, not female. Somewhere between a bald squirrel and a bear-cub with brushstrokes of seal and kitten. When they’d guided her out of Clodagh she was still clasped in the silvery fist of the amniotic sac. The sac torn, Florence was placed on Clodagh’s stomach like a conch shell, her small, peach-like head bowed between her folded knees, her round back slicked with blood and white mucous. The long lilac umbilical cord was a twisted rope holding them together, as though Clodagh was an anchor. The nurses cut the cord and took the baby away, bathed her and towelled her down. Clodagh felt woozily elastic and conceptual, a third-degree tear and subsequent nest of stitches temporarily soothed by morphine.

 

That first, long night as a mother, she could not sleep. Her body seeped and ached. The urge to go to the bathroom nagged at her and she pushed it away. Her abdomen had already begun to deflate and became an apron of doughy skin around her thighs. She smelled of blood and milk and chemicals, and there was a new smell, too, something she could not place. She was amazed at what her body had done, that it had grown and delivered this child. Florence was barely six pounds and tiny, her foot the length of Clodagh’s thumb, and Clodagh marvelled at her architecture – the intricate whorls of the ears, the stubby hazel eyelashes, the perfect button nose. The downy striations on her head, thicker on the crown. Tufts of black hair poking up from the top of her ears. Aoife insisted she had Clodagh’s mouth and chin but Clodagh wasn’t convinced; she seemed to bear no watermarks or signatures of her makers. The baby was entirely herself, integral, conjured into this new place.

Clodagh was allowed to leave the hospital once the pebble-like remnant of Florence’s umbilical chord had dropped off. She noticed how abruptly the attention had shifted from her to Florence. The midwives called her ‘Florence’s mummy’ to her face during the most serious conversations. Her stitches were checked, her womb palpated and her milk squeezed by hand, all of it out of concern for this new being. Clodagh had the strong sense of being an appendage when she had expected feelings of ownership, of being The Mother. It might have bothered her had she not been pricked by an emergent instinct that Florence was owed her servitude and distraction. Still, it didn’t quite add up. Even in the white Moses basket in her mother’s front room Florence seemed so small as to be something dropped there by the cat, a gnarled, peeled offering, her whole body still coiled as though she didn’t yet realise she’d left the womb.

 

Clodagh sat in her mother’s old armchair by the window and fed the baby. As she looked around she noted all the otherwise innocuous objects that posed harm. That sharp corner on her mother’s coffee table was indeed very sharp. Someone could put a stone through the window and the glass would rip Florence’s velvety skin. These were things she had never considered, and the fact that she had never before considered these was daunting. She worried about gas fumes, diseases other people might pass on, whether or not the blankets people had knitted for Florence would smother her, or spontaneously combust. Why had all of this not occurred to her before now? The world was brilliantly dangerous, and the weighing of all its threats made Florence’s survival seem all the more miraculous. Clodagh watched the news and felt overwhelmed by the things she saw, how they suddenly mattered. The riots outside and reports of paramilitary executions acquired different gravity. She would have to become more than she was to protect Florence. She would have to leave Ireland.

Clodagh took the overnight ferry from Belfast to Liverpool, then a train to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the north east. She’d overheard one of the other typists mention that her uncle was setting up a legal firm there in a few months’ time and was looking for a personal assistant, and Clodagh had wangled a verbal promise of a job.

She brought just two suitcases, having managed to locate a flat that the landlord promised would be furnished with a cot. Florence was just seven weeks old and slept most of the way, waking only to clamp on to the breast and wring Clodagh of milk. The midwife had said it would get easier and less painful the more she breastfed, but it was what she said a few moments later that pricked Clodagh to persist: You’ll probably give up.

The flat in Heaton had just four rooms – a living room, a single bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. It was small but clean, offering a view of rooftops and highrise flats, and there was a small children’s park a few streets away. Clodagh felt herself lurch between terror and excitement. She laid Florence in the cot and noticed how long she had become, stretching herself out on the wide mattress. Her features were rearranging themselves in her face, the squashed look from being stuck in the birth canal for so long beginning to even out. Clodagh lay on the edge of the unyielding mattress, her arm reaching through the wooden bars of the cot to hold Florence’s hand.

It seemed as though the journey across the Irish Sea had taken weeks instead of just one night, as though they’d crossed into another time zone. Or maybe the change was more than time. Clodagh had put down what she’d seen in the cabin of the ferry to nerves and exhaustion: as she’d held Florence in the crook of her left arm and stroked her face to sleep, her right hand had seemed to fade to a nothingness. She couldn’t bring herself to think the word invisible, because it snagged on memories of watching a talentless magician at a friend’s party attempt to pull a rabbit from a black hat. And it had been dark. She had flexed her hand, willing it to come back to visibility. She could feel her own outstretched fingers and her wristbone clicked as usual. She could feel Florence’s soft skin beneath her fingertips, but even when she turned into the light of the emergency exit sign it seemed as though her hand had disappeared, all the way to the wrist. Gone. She had been tired. That was all.

She used her savings to pay three months’ rent up front and buy things for Florence. A second-hand buggy with a raincover, some toys and a small wooden box containing colourful blocks intended to develop Florence’s hand-to-eye coordination when she reached six months. Clodagh couldn’t imagine Florence ever being old enough to play with toys and be curious about the world, though she had developed a fascination with bright lights. Before it had seemed that she didn’t see Clodagh or much of the world around her, but now, in England, a switch had flipped: now she lay on the beige rug by the electric fire, mesmerized by the living room light.

Clodagh stumbled into a friendship with the woman who lived in the flat upstairs, a small round woman with a thick Welsh accent and a penchant for large gold earrings called Carys. She had recently moved to Newcastle, too, though from a place in Wales called Aberystwyth, and her husband worked long hours at a factory and she had two kids, both settling into the primary school nearby. After polite exchanges in the hallway, admirations of Florence’s outfits and two requests for sugar, Carys invited Clodagh and the baby to her home for some tea.

‘Sorry the place is such a tip,’ Carys said, leading Florence through a hallway littered with wellington boots and raincoats and toy tractors.

They sat at the kitchen table. Carys boiled a kettle and made them cups of tea. Florence was awake, taking in her new surroundings in a state of reverenced fascination.

‘She’s such a gorgeous girl,’ Carys said, setting her mug down and holding her hands out to take Florence. ‘I’d love a little girl but I think two boys is our lot.’

‘How old are your boys?’

‘Harry’s seven, John’s four. We lost a baby last year at twelve weeks. A day after we’d told everyone, too. That’s life, isn’t it?’

Clodagh didn’t know what the right answer was. She was glad of Florence, who was now distracting Carys with her smiles and coos.

‘How old is she?’

‘Eleven weeks.’

‘How are you finding it?’

‘Finding what?’

‘Motherhood,’ Carys said. ‘I take it she’s your first?’

‘Alright, I suppose. Tiring. I suppose it’s still early days.’

‘The early days are the hardest, I think. Especially with your first. When Harry was born it hit me like a ton of bricks. I seriously didn’t know what the hell had happened. I think I cried every day until he turned a year old. No one tells you that sort of stuff, do they?’

Clodagh smiled.

‘Does it get easier?’ She found herself asking.

‘Hmmm. Yes and no. I kept wishing for the boys to hit each milestone. “I can’t wait until he’s sleeping through the night because then life will be so easy!” or “Once he’s potty trained, then, then it’ll be easier!” But there’s always something else to worry about. John, for instance, has decided he doesn’t want to talk, so we’ve got him in speech therapy. Harry refuses to eat anything except toast.’ She gave a shrill laugh. ‘I don’t know about you but I thought it would be easier than this.’

Clodagh wondered if she should mention it, the thing that kept happening to her. First, it was her right hand that disappeared on the ferry to Liverpool. Then a week ago her left ear vanished for an hour or so. She had seen it in the mirror when she was brushing her teeth. Her entire ear, completely gone, though she could still feel it. Her hearing wasn’t changed. She checked it different surfaces in case there was something wrong with the mirror. She had rubbed it, as though she could bring it back by improving the circulation. When it finally appeared again it was red and swollen from all the rubbing. Then this morning, when she was putting on her socks, her big toe was gone from her right foot, and the foot itself looked faded, as though it was about to disappear as well. She tapped her foot against the leg of the chair, checking it was still there.

‘When you had your sons,’ she began asking Carys slowly. ‘Did you… I mean, did anything…. Did anything change? Physically, I mean?’

Carys raised her eyebrows, and for a moment Clodagh’s heart leapt, as though she was finally going to learn that the random disappearance of body parts was just another one of motherhood’s unuttered commonalities.

‘Oh, definitely!’ Carys said. Florence had started to become unsettled, her head turning towards Clodagh as though to check she was still there. Carys turned her against her shoulder and bounced her lightly.

‘Oh gosh. Where do I even begin? This, for a start,’ she said, grabbing a handful of her stomach. ‘I was so skinny when we got married. It’s depressing. I put on so much weight with Harry, you know. He was a ten-pounder. My stomach muscles separated. And you’ll know how it is when you’ve got a new baby. You’re so knackered all the time you just reach for anything that’ll keep you going. Coffee, cake…. And when do you ever get time to exercise? Though I don’t know what you’re complaining about – you’re so slim!’

Clodagh opened her mouth to explain that her problem was different, but Carys continued on.

‘And not to freak you out but my pelvic muscles are still shot to bits four years later. And I think my brain has changed. I don’t know about you but I had crazy baby brain when I was pregnant. I forgot everything! It was like early dementia. Joe – that’s my husband – got used to looking in the fridge for the car keys. They said it would get better once Harry was born but, nope. I’m still a doozy.’

Florence started to cry, and Clodagh felt her arms reaching out to her without thinking, her body responding of its own accord.

‘Ah, Mummy’s girl, eh?’ Carys said with a wink. She passed Florence back and she quietened, looking up at Carys with a look of suspicion.

‘Well, her father’s not exactly in the picture so I guess it’s a good thing that she’s a Mummy’s girl.’

Carys’ face fell. ‘So you’re doing this all on your own?’ It was a statement of respect rather than a question.

Clodagh nodded but she couldn’t bring herself to return Carys’ smile. She was worried sick about the fading, the disappearing, whatever it was. She wanted someone to tell her it was normal, that it had happened to them. She was worried about it being some kind of genetic condition that would affect the baby. This was the terror that crept up on her in the shower, in the large, empty bed, in the supermarket: that Florence would disappear. That she would lose her.

Carys had excellent ideas when it came to looking after Florence, including laying her on a mat with small toys dangling from an arc above her head at which she would kick and coo, and she had a list of local venues that held baby mornings with books and songs and such like. But it didn’t stop Carys from crying every morning on the way to her job. She had her own tiny office in a tall building overlooking the River Tyne and was left alone all day with piles of paperwork and dictaphone recordings to type up. At the end of the day she placed her typing in a folder and slid it into a filing cabinet for collection. It was a sterile, unsociable role. Still, Bertie Grimes paid her slightly more than the wage she’d earned in Belfast, which was more than a stroke of luck – her rent and household bills were higher in Newcastle. After a moment of panic, a glow of satisfaction at being able to provide for herself and Florence without help from her mother, or a man.

By September, however, the fading was happening daily. Her right hand would come and go, and she started to notice that it was preceded by a sudden tightening of her chest, a quickening of her pulse and a drop in her body temperature. She would watch, breathless, as her whole hand slowly vanished right in front of her eyes. Her senses were at odds with each other. She could feel, smell, and even hear her hand as she swivelled it on the wrist, clicking the fine bones, but she just couldn’t see it. Then, right as the trees along the park were turning gold and red, she woke up one morning to find she was missing a whole arm.

She scooped Florence out of her baby bouncer and raced upstairs to Carys’ flat. After a minute or so the door opened; John, the younger of Carys’ sons, wearing a snorkel mask on his forehead and a pair of shorts.

‘Is your Mummy in?’ she asked.

John looked at her blankly. He could see the lady was excited or possibly angry, and his usual encounter with adults in such a state was when he had done something punishable. He shook his head. His mother was in the kitchen, and he had a handful of seconds before her inner radar picked up on the fact that he was not in the living room where she had left him. He made to close the door.

‘Will you tell her I need to see her, please?’ Clodagh said, but the door clicked shut. In the stillness of the landing she lifted the sleeve of her sweater to check whether she had been dreaming. But no – the arm was still invisible, like some cruel magician’s trick.

She heard a sound in the hallway downstairs. Carys, no doubt, returning from the shops. Florence drooled over Clodagh’s neck and grabbed fistfuls of her hair. Clodagh turned and ran quickly and carefully down the stairs to meet Carys. She saw a figure closing the front door and approach the door to her flat. The figure carried a long cane in her right hand and knocked it hard against the wall.

‘Carys?’ Clodagh called.

The woman looked up. She was not Carys.

‘Mum,’ Clodagh said. She had not spoken to her mother since she left. She moved forward and saw that Aoife was thinner, her face etched with deep lines. Her eyes were wet and unsteady, and she swished the long white cane around as though searching for something. Florence said yah-yah-yah.

‘Is that the baby?’ Aoife said. ‘Is that Florence?’

‘Yes, it’s Florence. Has she grown since you last saw her?’

‘I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you,’ Aoife said. ‘I can’t see much of anything anymore.’

Clodagh didn’t sleep well that night. She wondered if there was a disability called invisibility. If it could be treated or if the doctors would think she’d gone insane. She knew that her mother was here to stay, and she couldn’t exactly kick her out now. She was blind. That also meant that somehow Clodagh would have to take care of both her and the baby. Her arm didn’t return to the realm of visibility until the morning, but even then it seemed like her flesh was made of a smoked glass.

She left Florence with Carys as usual and asked if she’d noticed anything strange about Florence’s limbs.

‘Like what?’ Carys said, bouncing Florence on her hip. ‘Is there something wrong with her joints, do you think?’

‘No, no. It’s just…. They don’t…change… at all, do they? Like… they don’t disappear?’

Carys held her gaze for a moment and then laughed. ‘Oh, don’t worry. I know my boys got their legs stuck a couple of times in the cot. Such wriggly devils. When she starts crawling I’ll be putting the stair gates back up and locking all the cupboards. I’m such a paranoid-head, too.’

Christmas, then the New Year. When Clodagh’s right leg vanished she bought fake tan and a pair of thick tights. When both arms turned to glass, then mist, she bought long-sleeved shirts and gloves. She grew her hair to cover her missing ears and concealed the macabre space between her head and neck with turtlenecks. When she disappeared altogether, she wore heavy make-up, a wig, dark-lensed glasses, and bought a home whitening kit for her teeth.

Florence took her first steps on the morning of her first birthday. Aoife heard the rhythm of her feet against the ground and clapped her hands. Clodagh grabbed her Polaroid camera to capture the moment. She wasn’t wearing gloves and so the camera seemed to float before Florence. She took another six steps towards it and tried to suck the lens.

Later, Clodagh would drop her mother off at a day centre where the careworkers knew her as ‘Mrs Caughey’s daughter’. Then she would take Florence to nursery where the women called her ‘Florence’s mum’. Then, when both were in asleep, she would pull off the wig, the clothes, wash away the film of makeup. She would step out into the night and go down by the river where the skies were speckled with distant galaxies and the water was an onyx skin.

She would study the half-face of moon, the light of dead stars as they grew stronger, becoming different matter.

About Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Carolyn Jess-Cooke is a poet and novelist from Belfast, Northern, now based in the north east of England. Awards include an Eric Gregory and K Blundell from the Society of Authors, prizes in the National Poetry Competition and the Cardiff Academi International Poetry Competition, a Tyrone Guthrie Prize for Poetry, and she has won a Northern Writers Award three times. Her fiction is published in 23 languages. She is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.

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