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The first cartoon they watched was about three bears. Binge-watching on the laptop, snuggled close on the big bed, vast again – no, tall – a long man taking up all the space with his tall long man-legs, her teenage son, Charlie, losing the grip of early adulthood and the hard planes of his beautiful face softening back into childhood, letting her back in again, briefly.
The bears were orphans, one a grizzly – one a polar bear, one a panda – and they’d met as cubs, estranged and adrift in a new, foreign land, and quickly saw in each other what connected them, not what made them different. And they became a family, living amongst humans in San Francisco. They got up to scrapes – misadventures – but they had good hearts and had a fierce and binding love for each other.
Those three bears saved their lives for a bit.
His end had come when they had been driving. He’d lost it over something small, meaningless – the way she breathed or blinked or swallowed or something like that – the way she lived, that she did live, her existence, that she dared to take up space, breathe air – and after the huff and puff of loud words and spitted-spat anger he’d stopped the van, leant over, undid the seat belt and pushed her from the vehicle.
She landed badly, and he drove away.
And then he quickly came back again, and he waited as the engine idled for her to get back in the passenger seat, drag her hurt body up, and he drove her home as she bruised next to him, huddled in her seat, too sore for the seat belt, and he left her there on the porch, and he’d sped into the dust-pink-purple storm, ramming his foot down hard on the accelerator, his old van gasping, dragging along the arterial island road one final time, circling that island of rocks, fat seals on boulders on the grey stony shore, mooing to the half visible moon as his bony, stubbled jaw jutted out, determined to get away as quick as he possibly could.
That young woman who’d once had light in her eyes, forgotten – what had happened to her, where had she gone? Middle-aged and scared of her husband. He’d always had a temper on him, flashes of rage from time to time. Hot-headed. Always in a rush, always some unfinished business. But it had got worse as he’d got older.
Later that day he’d lost control of the wheel, his thin bones snapping; he crossed the line of the edge of land, of life, smashed the rusty old van into a billion screeches of metallic bone, the white grit of his skeletal dust sanding the rocky shore, his innards afterwards washing into the salt of the sea. The storm had come suddenly, and worsened quickly and soon he was in it, soon he was storm, soon storm was him. Hiding him in a plug of mist and the smack of thunder, the clatter of lightening.
The fat seals stayed put, watching his life end, his spirit come to nothing, after all. The fat seals mooed to the moon some more, eyes wide.
Charlie had answered the door to the police and had stood with them and his mother, gaming headset pushed back off his ears, and he’d put his young adult arms around her, held on to her hard, his fingers gripping the ends of her hair like they had when he was a baby, wordless words of what the fuck.
Don’t worry, mum, we’ll be fine.
They would be fine.
She put the kettle on, the English mother.
The kettle clicked to its finish and when she smelt the straw piss steam of herbal tea she poured it straight down the sink. Now she could have anything. Proper tea. A coffee. Or glass of water.
She had a big glass of wine, an old Christmas present she’d not been allowed to drink but which had been kept in the cupboard under the sink all these years, nestled with the spiders and the drip of washing-up water leaking into the old wood. It tasted like shit, but still she savoured the bitter vinegar of the ancient grape.
Night had come, and she raised a glass to that dark island night and she felt her heart calm and her blood unfurl.
The next morning brought with it a new debit card, the woman’s name only, not his, access to a PIN. Something she hadn’t had for years now. All his money he’d been squirrelling away, all those years. He’d been rich but had enforced such austerity on them.
She set off with a limp to the bus stop, putting the weight on her right leg, her left hip still hurting from the pushed drop onto the cold, hard edge of island road. Everyone there drove, so the bus was empty, the quiet calm claiming her for that half hour, up-hill and down, along the same road that kept circling the island.
In town she kept her eyes down, averted, not looking for people she knew. But the gossips circled, their antenna for fresh gossip fodder atwitch as ever, the blonde plump head of the school’s PTA trying to catch her eye. She avoided eye contact and kept away.
She bought that day in the big supermarket in town: new cotton sheets for her and Charlie, pillows made of feathers, woollen blankets, sugar and soft white bread and full fat milk and butter and hot chocolate and cakes and no wholefoods, no grains or seeds or anything fat free or any food with no joy, no comfort, no food that did its job and nothing more. Wheeling her trolley one-handed.
A taxi home, the first taxi she’d been in for a long, long time. Emissions, pollutions, carbon footprints – the mantra of guilt she’d been listening to for so long, his rusted hunk of van exempt from the worldly concerns of an environmental worrier, the animal lover, the nature lover. The wife beater.
The taxi driver didn’t talk to her, but he was kind, and he helped unload the purchases, carrying them for her to the front door, the woman limping behind. She thanked him, not quite managing eye contact, mumbling polite, meaningless words and then Charlie came out, having come off his computer, and helped carry the shopping indoors as the taxi drove off.
Her left shoulder was still very painful.
After lunch they watched together a cartoon about a boy whose mother had died in childbirth. She had been an alien, come on a recce to Earth when she’d met and then fallen in love with a human. So the now teenage boy too was half alien, half human. His mother had come from her glacial planet far away, populated by these beautiful alien gem-stones, all hard beauty with cores of goodness and strength, all female. The boy – her son – was raised motherless on planet Earth by his socially awkward but gentle human father, living in a sleepy beach town somewhere in California.
One day when three aliens arrived from his mother’s planet, seeking answers to where their comrade had gone, what had happened to her, they came across the boy, her son. He was so very much like her, in personality if nothing else. And they fell a bit in love with him, becoming a trio of crystal alien surrogate mothers, each embodying different strengths and qualities they wanted to pass on to the boy: strength, intelligence, humility.
And between them and the human father they raised the boy, parented him imperfectly but with love and kindness, and they had adventures, on this planet and beyond. And they loved each other, and they were a family, of sorts.
The woman slept those nights star-fished out, catching sleep like love, feeling it fix her.
When she was called into the school to come and collect Charlie after another incident, she sat in the foyer of the school and watched the people come and go, the parents and the teachers and the students, the caretaker, the admin staff. Like actors, a stage. The hub of the place, the heart of the building, life there just being, just doing.
Sat on the side-lines, shadowed by years of trying not to stand out. Practising her invisible stare, but watching all, all of them: skin-bagged bones, living bodies, stubbornly ignoring the surrounding darkness, the finish, the flip side of life and wealth and beauty. The end a skin’s width away from them all, even these polished, blonde, healthy people, living their beautiful lives to the point, and on course.
The head of year called her into the office and wanted to talk without Charlie there.
They knew, she said, Charlie is dealing with a lot. A lot. More than someone his age should be dealing with, shouldering the world. His grief. His mother’s grief, and pain, and the shadows of years of whatever they’d been through. Too much.
Circumstances. The head of year kept talking of circumstances, this woman, this teacher of such little substance, her practical little eyes, the short mousy hair, the vague, reluctant kindness. Circumstances and policies, governors and governance. Other parents, letting it go. He needs to apologise, and then we will draw a line.
Charlie apologised. He said sorry, but his eyes were tired and they both just wanted to go home.
So a line was drawn.
And when they went to leave the school, there they were: the blonde PTA woman with her blond, footballer son, his left eye swollen and bruised, silent in shared judgement, sentry-like at the entrance to the school. This is our territory. Hard-muscled and sinewy, the pair of them. Hearts hard. Teeth bared, guarding their little pit of paradise. Only functioning families welcome here, thank you very much.
Once home they ate take-out pizza in bed, fat globs of melted cheese running down their fingers, ravaged bites out of the slices, in all its rich, fatty, badness. Gorged. Drank down by full fat coke by Charlie, a heavy, heady glass of red by his mum.
They watched a cartoon about an orphaned human adrift in a new planet, his own having expired in a mess of environmental disaster and war. He was the last human being alive and was found eventually by a family of clever dogs, human-like as dogs go, fluent in English, but without the cruelty and clamour of humanity. He became best friends with his dog brother; he fell in love with a princess made of bubble-gum.
The dog and the bubble gum princess loved him back, this orphaned and very lost human boy. And they were a family. Of sorts. And it turns out, at the end of the series, he wasn’t the last human being after all – he eventually found his people.
The night Charlie spent in hospital they let her sleep in a camp bed next to him, on a small paediatric ward shared with younger children – a young boy who’d suffered a terrible asthma attack, a little girl with a complicated wrist fracture, another girl with some mysterious affliction which involved a drip and regular monitoring of vitals and internal organs. And Charlie, taller than his mum and a teenager, a young adult – no child – with his arm ribboned by self-inflicted cuts, having written his pain and grief and rage into the skin of his beautiful young arm. Words of woe and hurt, dressed and bandaged.
He woke in the middle of the night and reached out for her, grabbing a handful of her hair and twisting it around his fingers as he used to do, going back to sleep with his hands in her hair. Never letting go. She stared dried-eyed into the strip-lit night of the hospital, feeling their world turning, the stony rock island dipping slowly into daylight as the other side of the planet started to greet night, the thrum of electricity sending the hospital through the night, a spaceship in the dark.
He stayed off school for a few days after that, sewn up and cleaned. And he seemed back to himself a bit. Losing the hunch of whatever had been haunting him, the shadows in his eyes, beneath his eyes, the grey paint of pallor that sadness had brought.
He’d talked to a young psychiatric nurse, a gamer, a fellow anime fan, with his big bushy ginger beard and lumberjack shirt, and his piercings. A different kind of man to what he was used to. They’d talked with her outside the room, shutting the door as she sat in the hospital corridor. And whatever had been said seemed to bring with it some sort of cleanse – relief and release. After that his appetite returned, he began to eat again, began to sleep better. The grey pain faded.
It was on one of the days at home after hospital when he was kept off school that they decided they’d leave the island, get away from the blond footballers with their PTA mothers, those perfect lives, functioning families with their day planners and social lives, away from the rules and regulations, the hierarchies of parents and children, and the well-meaning but stressed and overextended teachers.
The shack became their bubble, and it’s when they finally started to heal and look forward again.
They watched those days: a series of cartoons about a goldfish boy adopted by a family of cats, a family without much money and a rather chaotic existence, living in too close proximity in a small but cosy home, but a family safe in its order and love, and both the young male cat and the goldfish – who should have been sworn enemies – learnt to live with each other and accept their differences, attending a school which included within its cohort a tyrannosaurus rex, a rabbit, a thin, grumpy simian teacher. All different, all learning to tolerate and harmonise. Family, of sorts.
Eventually she sold the shack with the help of a white-toothed and gurning estate agent. It went for a fair price, with all its environment-saving features and quirks, the dead man’s hardy work, because if nothing else he’d been always been good with his hands, and hardy, and a hard worker. That cabin, that shack in the fruit trees with its solar panels and vegetable patches and sustainable flooring. With the clementines and lemons big and fat on the branches, the berries and the vegetables and the obscene abundance of freshly grown food, that man, green-fingered and tender with plants. Washed out into the Pacific now, his body sanded into the blind depths of earth.
As they sat on the porch, the sun setting on the soon-to-be left behind island life, they watched the flashing lights of airplanes taking off from the nearby airport. Their flights home were all booked, packing boxes ordered mainly for Charlie’s things – his clothes and books and computer hardware. She wanted to leave her past there, leave the crumbs of her married self, right there on that little crop of rocks, the island of stone, on the other side of the world.
The emails were written and sent; all the handmade recycled furniture was for sale on a local forum, selling eventually for a fair bit of money, enough for Charlie to buy himself some new games for his handheld console for the interminable flights back to Heathrow. That safe zone of his contained by games, the kept world of rules and escape. It had got him through, though, whatever the screen naysayers had said. And it would again.
They sold the shack to a Japanese artist, who liked the isolation, liked that the nearest other humans were miles away. She craved the cramped humanity of London, felt the closed dirty air of pollution in her lungs already.
As the airplane left the island and pointed them up, up, away, pointed its thin metal nose towards their home, the other side of the world, that place she had left over his decade ago, leaving bright-eyed, tail bushy, young and hopeful wed to this tall, muscled man from the other side of the world, she left him again, finally, moved away from his bones washing into the ocean, his brain that had become sand, the tattoo on his skin that had now faded into nothing, the plane pointing her back home from where she came.
They became airborne, borne into the air, the airplane stopping its reach higher and higher. The seatbelt light pinged off, the cabin staff walking the aisles, beginning the endless rounds of refreshment and service.
They put the screen on and began to watch a new cartoon, about a single mum and her young son who lived in a futuristic city. Back in the day – before her son was born – the mum had been a superwoman, a superhero, with KAPOW! powers that defeated evil, for the power of the good. Not so much now, her former super powers kept hidden, as well as the paternity of her son. Her existence was humdrum.
They lived a happy enough life, with no father and not much money at all, in a small and ramshackle apartment but an apartment which was nevertheless a home.
But when a killer robot descended upon the town threatening the destruction of the planet, of humanity and life itself, the mum’s former superhero skills kicked back in and she revealed to her son her true self, and the mum saved her young son’s life and then together the mum and son made an awesome team, formidable, tight and strong, and they ended up saving the whole world from an evil maverick scientist and his swarm of evil killer robots.
Once the baddies had been defeated and the sun had come out again, they retreated back to their modest home, and sat down to eat spaghetti together, the harmony of their world restored.
Charlie was asleep, his long legs curled up, his hand in her hair grasping the ends.
From the small window she watched night come, the fade of dark above the clouds, the plane reaching through stars and planets and galaxies, taking them through worlds and lives and dreams, all the way home.