It wasn’t until the third time the fence got kicked in that your mother started to worry. That kind of thing was normal where you lived, and easier to fix than a keyed car, especially since Mr. Brown three doors down was a builder and had been doing you favours ever since your mother defended him that time Mr. Robertson down the road accused him of stealing his garden furniture. Everyone knew that was Mrs. Wilkins next door. In the end, Mrs. Wilkins left the furniture to Mr. Robertson in her will, which even he thought was funny, so that was the end of that.
The third time was different because of the way the wood fell. The first couple of times you found it in the front garden, and that was okay, that was fine, because that just meant somebody had kicked it in on the way past. The third time, though, you found it splintered all over the pavement, and that meant that somebody has come into your garden and kicked it out from the inside, and that was too close for comfort.
Your grandmother had said that you should ask the CCTV Man for the footage so that you could catch the person or people who did it, but your mother wouldn’t hear of it. The CCTV Man lived on the corner of Birchwood Close, and you couldn’t let that lot get involved in your business, broken fence or no broken fence. That was the way things worked around there.
You never went to the police with that sort of thing. Not since they took Tom from number 10 in for questioning when one of the Birchwood lot told them he was acting suspicious when all he was doing was smoking in his own garden, but when Mrs. Brown called about the brick through her kitchen window they didn’t show up for a week. Margery from number 7 was pleased about that, because she’d always said the police were No Good and now everyone believed her, and she liked being believed.
“We have got to move,” your mother had started saying then. “We have got to move away from here.”
Your mother told you not to tell anyone you were moving away, and you didn’t understand, but you did as she said. You didn’t tell Tom or Margery or Mrs. Brown or your best friend Lucy. You didn’t even tell your gran. You didn’t get a For Sale sign in the garden like other people did, and you were excited because you were in on a secret. You left in the middle of the night and drove for hours and hours and hours. It was far too hot by the time the sun was up but your mother wouldn’t let you roll the window down. She was sweating, yesterday’s makeup running off her face. She turned on the radio and sang along with songs from before you were born. You knew one or two, and sang along too, and your mother smiled at you and squeezed your hand.
You moved into a flat in Birmingham near Snow Hill, a tiny flat in a city much bigger than you were used to. The flat came with furniture that smelt like strangers. You felt like you were in somebody else’s house, sleeping in somebody else’s bed. You still had your special tiger to keep you company, but it wasn’t the same. You didn’t have a garden any more, but you had a little balcony where your mother grew herbs to use in her cooking until the boys from the flat opposite started squirting them with stale urine with their water pistols.
You joined your new school halfway through year five, two years after everyone had made their friends. The people spoke differently there, and made fun of the way you said “ask” and “dance” and “bath”. You liked the way they said them, but they didn’t like you, so you never said so. When you had a supply teacher for English and she asked Jamie to hand the books out and everyone laughed, nobody explained the joke to you. You laughed too so that you didn’t feel so left out, and then they laughed at you as well. You asked to go to the toilet and cried in a cubicle like they do in films, and when you went home with bloodshot eyes you told your mother that you thought you might be coming down with hay fever. You could tell that she didn’t believe you, but she knew that you didn’t want to talk about it, so she pretended to.
When you were in year six, your mother found a job on the other side of the city, so she sent off an application to a secondary school for you that she could drive you to with only a small detour on her way to work. You got a place there even though you lived just outside the catchment area because it was a religious school and your mother’s new job had something to do with the Church, and you were relieved because hardly anyone from your junior school would be going there and you’d have a second chance to make friends.
You were determined to be liked at your new school, so you decided to try to look like the popular girls on TV. On the last day of the summer holidays, you went into your mother’s room while she was at the supermarket and took the tweezers from her make-up bag and sat in front of her mirror and plucked your eyebrows and were surprised that it hurt and wondered for the first of many times why it was considered so normal for girls and women to injure themselves in order to look good.
You persevered anyway, because now that you’d started you thought you may as well finish, but you didn’t know what you were doing, and you plucked much more from one side than the other, and then plucked too much from the other side when you tried to even them out, and ended up with almost no eyebrows left at all. When your mother got home you tried and failed to hide your face and she tried not to laugh until she realised how upset you were, and then she didn’t have to try. She told you not to worry, and before school the next morning she spent fifteen minutes carefully drawing your eyebrows back on, and laughed when you said that you looked like the middle-aged lady who lived next door. She plucked your eyebrows for you for years after that. It didn’t hurt as much, the way she did it.
Whether it was your pencilled eyebrows or something else you’d never know, but you made friends just fine at your new school. Your form tutor sat you next to a girl called Anna who showed you photos of her pony and liked you because you said he was cute. After a week you started calling her your best friend, because she was your only friend in Birmingham which, since you’d lost contact with Lucy, made her the only person in the world who could fit that description. The two of you made other friends during your first half-term, too, and when, a few months later, you had to go to the doctor for a vaccination and the nurse talked to you to take your mind off the needle and asked you where you were from, you said “Snow Hill” for the first time since you’d moved away from the town where you had grown up.
When you were old enough to go to school by yourself, the train lines confused you and you somehow ended up on your way to Manchester and the ticket inspector accused you of fare evasion and you cried in front of everyone. You got off at Stafford and phoned your mother and she met you there and took you out for ice cream. While you ate yours she called the school and told them you were ill so that you didn’t get in trouble. She said, “I can’t take you anywhere, can I?” and looked younger than she used to, and you told her that you loved her for the first time in years. She cried on the way home.
You were fourteen when you decided that you wanted to be an actress. Your drama class went on a school trip to see Les Misérables, which you realised you’d been pronouncing wrong for years, and everyone, even the boys and the teachers, left either crying or laughing in that too-loud way that people do when they don’t want anybody to know that they’re really upset. Your teacher told you that it had been running since 1985, and you borrowed a book about it from the library and found out which theatres it had played at and when and tried to work out how many people must have seen and cried over it, but maths was never your strong suit. You knew it was a lot, though, and that was enough. You wanted a job that would make people cry and laugh too loudly and borrow books and attempt maths they couldn’t do.
When you told your mother that you were going to be an actress you expected her to tell you not to be silly, that acting was a job for people who don’t have to worry about money, because that’s what the mother had said in a book you’d read years ago when her daughter had told her she wanted to be an actress. Instead, she told you that you’d make a wonderful actress, and you weren’t sure if she was saying that because you were fourteen and nobody expects dreams to last when you’re that age or if she really meant it, but when you put drama, dance and music down for your GCSE options a few months later she called you her little star and seemed to mean it.
When you were fifteen, people from colleges came to your school to talk to you and what they said about employability made you nervous, and you began to understand why the mother in that book had said what she did and wondered why your mother hadn’t said the same. When you started sending off your applications and had to choose your options, you put down French and psychology along with drama and music, because they were Real Subjects that would help you to get a Real Job if acting didn’t work out. Your own pragmatism irritated you, because you were determined for it to work out and it seemed pathetic to start to give up on a dream that you hadn’t even had for a year, but that was life, whatever that means.
In your first year at college, you turned around in the lunch queue and knocked your food all over a girl two inches taller than you. You paid for her food to apologise, and she sat with you because you were wearing a Fight Club t-shirt and Fight Club was her favourite film. You didn’t tell her that it was an old top of your mother’s and that you’d never seen Fight Club. You pretended to know who Marla Singer was and agreed with her opinions. She invited you out for coffee on Friday after your classes had finished and you said yes. She was very pretty.
You watched Fight Club when you got home and decided that you didn’t agree with all of her opinions on it after all. It annoyed you that you’d missed the chance to debate with her, because she was passionate and clever and you wanted to know how she argued. You met her on Friday and argued about the government instead. You pretended to understand what she was talking about and she laughed and told you that she studied politics and you said that she was cheating.
The first time she said “I love you,” it reminded you of your mother. She said it too fiercely, as if you needed each other to survive. You thought of when your mother would say “girls need to stick together,” and you would say “yes,” but think “why?” There were girls you didn’t like, girls you hated. You didn’t want to stick with them. You told her that you loved her too a week later as she licked strawberry milkshake from her upper lip in a café near St Philip’s Cathedral, and she looked too happy and you wondered if you meant it.
She was really very very pretty.
She invited you to her house and you went because you wanted to know how much money she had, and it was impolite to ask even though you knew she would have told you. It really didn’t matter to you, but your mother hated people with money and that made you curious. You rang the doorbell and she opened the door and kissed you before she let you in. She took your hand after you’d taken off your shoes and you went upstairs to her room. Her walls were covered in pictures of Joan Jett.
“That’s Joan Jett. She’s from the seventies and eighties,” she said when she saw you looking at them.
You didn’t tell her you already knew who she was. Instead, you asked if she was still alive.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I saw her in Rocky Horror last year. Would you like to see the photos?”
She didn’t wait for you to answer, she just knelt down and took an A4 envelope out of a drawer at the bottom of her badly-painted bedside table while you wondered why somebody born in the fifties and still alive today was from the seventies and eighties, and if you were from the decades in which people cared the most about you, and what decades you’d be from. You hoped it wouldn’t be the eighties or nineties or noughties, because then you really wouldn’t have done very well.
She sat down on her bed and patted the space next to her. You sat down beside her with your thighs touching. Hers were firmer than you were expecting, and you wondered if she was sporty. You reached out to take the envelope and she pulled it back.
“Only touch the edges,” she said. You must have looked surprised, because she added, “Sorry, I just don’t want them to get smudged.”
“That’s alright. Do you want to hold onto them?” you asked, because you knew that she did. She smiled, and reverently leafed through them.
“She doesn’t look too bad bald,” you said.
“She’s beautiful,” she said, and it either made you jealous or feel that you ought to be.
When you got home you told your mother that you were in love with a rich girl just to see what she’d say. She shook her head but said she’d love you no matter what, and you went to bed slightly disappointed. You almost wished your mother didn’t love you so much more than she hated rich people, because you liked people with strong opinions.
You and your girlfriend broke up two months later after she stayed at your flat and you came back from the bathroom to her tidying the lounge. You messed it up again after she left. You and your mother had always been messy people, and that was fine, perfectly fine.
When you were eighteen you came home to find your mother in tears over a bill she couldn’t pay. She told you not to worry, but of course you did. The next evening you went out and applied for a job at a local pub so that you could do something to help. You spent hours writing up a CV before you went, but the owner barely looked at it. He just looked you up and down in a way that reminded you of how the farmers look at their cows on Countryfile, then offered you the job. He stood too close to you and touched you too often when he taught you how to serve drinks, and you knew exactly why he’d hired you, but a job was a job, as your mother used to say.
Your contract began the following week. You wore the revealing uniform and smiled when men three times your age told you to and didn’t complain when they dropped their money over the bar so that you’d have to bend over to pick it up or slipped fivers into your bra and waistband, because as the weeks went by your mother stopped crying and started sleeping again, and that was all that mattered.
You were afraid of ending up like that, and even more afraid of your mother spending the rest of her life like that, so you decided to grow up and accept once and for all that you were never really going to be an actress and study French at university instead, consoling yourself that at least you could write your dissertation on Les Misérables, about which you were then sure you had memorised enough pointless facts to do very well on the specialist round on Mastermind.
Your mother wouldn’t hear of it. You told her that you were giving up because you loved her. She told you it didn’t work like that. You applied to Birmingham School of Acting, and your mother drove you to your audition and you sang On My Own. Your mother came into your room with jam around her mouth holding a letter with the Birmingham School of Acting insignia on the envelope a few months later. When you told her you’d been accepted, she went out and bought the only bottle of champagne you’d ever seen in your home other than the ones your gran used to bring at Christmas. So that was that.
When you were in your second year, you went to a bar with a group of friends and offered to buy the first round of drinks because you’d just heard that you’d got a small theatre role you’d auditioned for a few weeks ago and you wanted to celebrate. The woman in front of you had hair exactly like another friend of yours, and you presumed it was her and said “Alright, fuck off so I can get my drinks.” When she turned around and you realised she was a stranger, you apologised at least six times, but she laughed and said that it was alright, and when you went back to your friends you didn’t tell them what had happened because you knew they’d laugh, and you didn’t want her to think that they were laughing at her.
About three quarters of an hour and several drinks later, Hanging On The Telephone came on and you tried to convince your friends to come and dance with you, but they said they weren’t drunk enough to make idiots of themselves just yet, so you went by yourself because it was one of your mother’s favourite songs and had been your absolute favourite for as long as you could remember and not to dance to it felt like blasphemy.
You stood with your back to the rest of the people on the dance floor so that you could lip sync at your friends and tripped over your own feet and stumbled backwards into the same woman you’d accidentally insulted earlier, and when you turned around to apologise, she said “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
You said “This is my favourite song!” because you couldn’t think of anything more appropriate, and when she said “Me too!” you instantly fell more in love with her than you had ever been with your rich college girlfriend. You danced and sang along together and she wrinkled her nose and curled her lips as she growled the “oh”s, and you kissed her as soon as the song finished because it seemed the only thing to do, and your friends whistled and weren’t surprised when you grabbed your coat and bag and left with your arm around the other woman’s waist before you’d even been at the bar an hour.
You remembered almost nothing of what happened after that by the time you woke up just after six the next morning with her arm draped across your chest. You wished someone had told you whether or not it was impolite to move your one-night-stand’s limbs so that you could use their loo. You deliberated for five minutes, looking at the woman beside you and wondering how she could sleep so peacefully with the sun shining so brightly onto such pale eyelids, until you decided that it was creepy to watch her sleep and that it would be more impolite to wet yourself in her bed, and then you shifted out from under her arm and stumbled around her corridor until you found her bathroom. When you came back she was still asleep and you were going to be late for a rehearsal if you didn’t leave soon, so you got dressed and wrote your name and phone number on a post-it note on her desk and left her sleeping.
She called you nine days later, after you’d convinced yourself that she just wasn’t as interested in you as you were in her and that that was a shame but you’d get by, and told you that one of her local pubs was having a Blondie night and asked if you’d be her date. “I bet you say that to all the girls,” you said, and she laughed a sort of somehow decorative laugh that you could tell was reserved for the people who she didn’t know well but wanted to. Before she hung up, she told you that her name was Eva and you laughed at yourself for having convinced yourself at the bar that you were in love with someone whose name you didn’t even know.
“What?” she said.
“Nothing,” you said. “It’s a lovely name. Eva.”
You spent the evening digging through the still unpacked boxes under your desk to find the most Debbie Harry clothes you owned and settled on a pair of jeans with a slightly higher waistband than the rest and a jacket that had always been a bit too big for you, and smudged pink lipstick over your cheekbones for blusher. When you arrived at the pub you realised that you were the only person who had dressed up, and you were trying to decide whether to go home and get changed or not when Eva arrived looking like she’d walked straight out of 1978, and then you couldn’t decide whether to be more embarrassed that you’d dressed up or not dressed up impressively enough. You both laughed at yourselves and one another, and when she touched up her lipstick after she kissed you, you wondered if she was always a perfectionist or if her attention to detail was reserved for Blondie-related circumstances, and decided you liked her for it either way.
She sang the French parts of Denis and Sunday Girl perfectly, and you asked her if she was fluent and she said her mother was French and that she grew up in a village just south of Calais. You told her that you’d always wanted to go to France and she said that the two of you should go together, and you thought she was joking until a plane ticket with her name printed on it landed on your doormat a few weeks later while you were getting the fluff out of the washing machine filter. You left it there because picking it up felt like a commitment, and you didn’t know how to tell her that you couldn’t afford to go to France. She called you a few hours later, and said “Well?” instead of “Hello,” and you could hear that she was smiling.
“How much is it?” you said before you could stop yourself.
“Free, for you. It’s a gift,” she said.
“You really didn’t have to,” you said.
“I know,” she said.
When you came home from France feeling slightly less linguistically competent than you had before you left, Eva asked you to move in with her, and you said yes and didn’t care about how fast things were moving or that it would be inconvenient for your housemates to find someone else to fill your room. Eva’s flat overlooked the canal, and when your mother came to visit she said that she didn’t know Birmingham could look so pretty, and you felt that it was her way of telling you that she thought Eva was an excellent choice.
You’d never been the type, as a child, to dream about your future wedding, mostly because you never thought you’d have one, but when the Marriage Act was passed you asked Eva to marry you just because you could. You expected her to say no, because she usually hated traditions purely on principle. She wouldn’t even let you put fairy lights around the windows at Christmas or buy her chocolate at Easter. When she said “Well, since you asked so nicely,” you said “How on earth are we going to afford a wedding?” and she quoted you on Facebook when she changed your relationship status to ‘Engaged’.
You got married a couple of years later, when you had saved up enough money for a service in a three star hotel. Your gran came up from Kent to be there, and didn’t say anything about having hoped for great grandchildren. You asked the DJ to play Hanging On The Telephone as the first song at your reception, and this time Eva didn’t bother to fix her lipstick after she kissed you.
It was just after your twenty-ninth birthday that the headaches started. Eva ignored you when you complained about them at first, because you liked complaining. You complained about the weather and noisy neighbours and people who ate with their mouths open at restaurants and the fact that insects fly against the same window over and over again when another is clearly open and the inconsistent characterisation of Inspector Morse. The headaches seemed to be just another addition to the ever-expanding list of things that you liked to moan about while Eva did her make-up or made you both a cup of tea. It wasn’t until you woke her up in the middle of the night rummaging for Paracetamol in her bedside table that she suggested you visit a doctor. You resisted, but she was insistent.
“It’s probably nothing, but it’s best to be on the safe side,” she had said, but you could feel her uncertainty in the hand she placed on your thigh as you navigated the Thursday morning traffic. She offered to come in with you for your appointment, but you said “no, I’m not a child,” and meant “no, there might be something wrong and if there is I want you to hear it from me.” You told yourself that you were just being neurotic, but that wasn’t like you. The doctor was around your age, which reassured you for a few seconds because it felt almost like meeting a friend for coffee, except that there was no coffee and the room smelt unappetisingly of antibacterial products and friends don’t ask “What can I do for you today?”
You told her about the headaches, and she asked you if they made you feel nauseous, and if you’d been feeling more drowsy recently, and if you’d noticed any deterioration in your eyesight, and you answered yes to everything and didn’t want to think about what that might mean. She told you that she was referring you to a specialist at the hospital, but not to worry, it could be nothing. She didn’t say what kind of specialist. She didn’t have to. When you met Eva in the waiting room, you told her everything was fine.
You were put on a two week waiting list. During that time you said nothing to Eva and found excuses of varying degrees of convincingness for your constant restlessness, and at the same time told yourself that it would all be alright, you had nothing to worry about. Cancer was something that happened to other people, not to you.
You went to your hospital appointment while Eva was at work, and when the radiologic technologist noticed your wedding ring and asked if your husband had come with you, you just said “wife,” and didn’t tell him that she didn’t even know you were there.
When the results of the scan came back and a kind-faced doctor invited you into her office and leaned forwards in her chair to speak to you, you knew what she was going to say before she said it. You asked if you were going to die, and she said not necessarily, that there were options, the best being surgery, but that there were risks attached to it. You said that you didn’t care. You were a daughter, an actress, a wife. You were much too young to die.
You finally told Eva when you got home, the words spilling out of your mouth between sobs that had been building up for hours, and she held you and stroked your hair and said “it’s okay, it’s okay,” even though you both knew that it was a lie.
On October 6th 2014 you underwent neurosurgery intended to save your life.
On October 7th 2014 you woke up without it.
The surgeon told Eva that your temporal lobe had been damaged during the procedure, and that while they couldn’t rule out the possibility of a recovery, your long-term memory may have been irreparably damaged. Eva repeated this to you when you drifted out of unconsciousness and asked for your mother for the fifth time that morning.
You remember none of this.