The inside of the car was warm and wet. Steam had persistently fogged the windows for the five hours it had taken Cara to get here. Now she eyed the grey evening beyond the windscreen with a baleful suspicion that had little to do with the weather. She opened the door and immediately the background rumble of the wind became a terrifying shriek, the very sound itself seemed to try and drag the door from her hand, maybe to tear it off entirely and send it tumbling and careening through the air without so much as touching the ground before it span over the edge of the cliff and into the heaving Atlantic. Cara wondered how it would feel to let that same wind take her body and her tortured soul with it. To fly so gracefully for such a short time; was that not what life was about? She felt tired and stretched thin, like the years had pulled at her substance rather than added to it. She pushed those thoughts away like Rebecca had told her to. She thought of her advice and tried to think only about the moment, to feel the cold wind in her face, to smell the salty depths that it brought up to her. It had been so long since she had seen Rebecca, she wondered if she would need to book more sessions after tonight. The air outside the car felt heavy with the waiting autumn. The summer was fading now with little regard as to whether or not she had made the most of it.
She found it an odd quirk of modern life that the screens people stared at all day could suddenly, and without warning, reach out and slap you from the waking slumber that they themselves had put you in. It was a disjointing thing to see her mother’s name in her inbox, like watching a childhood programme on youtube or seeing an old campervan with a new paint job. She had frozen in her chair. The cheerless rattle and bubble of the office behind her had melted away to an after-thought; even her own phone ringing next to her hadn’t registered fully. She stared blankly, feeling the salmon pitta she had eaten for lunch rolling around in her stomach, pulling and twisting; coalescing around her anxiety like fat in a sewer. The familiar physical knot always came so faithfully, like a bitter guide to see her through hard times. She hadn’t felt that knot for a while but here it was, loathed but oddly comforting.
Cara let the wind slam the door. The roaring fell away. She eyed the unopened pack of cigarettes that had sat on the passenger seat since she had stopped for petrol three hours ago. She reached for them, letting her hand tremble just above for a long second. She was distracted by the state of her fingers; the skin around her nails was cracked and chewed. She blushed as she replaced her hand between her legs. She worried that Greg was letting Tilly take advantage of her being away. She knew what he was like, how that girl could bend him to her will with just a flutter of those dark eyes. He was just another malleable man, a good man, but malleable nonetheless. Tilly knew what she was doing, of course. She was only four but already she was no stranger to using her femininity to her advantage. When she had secured her own way, she would cut her a triumphant, almost mocking look, one that said that she knew it was a game and she knew that she was winning; one that could have fallen from her grandmother’s face. You’ll have to watch that one, she’s a sly’un that one. That voice had never left her. It was always behind a breeze or lurking in a corner, whispering, denigrating, mocking, threatening to escape her head, the musty, rotting breath of a corpse that had been punched in the belly. Twenty years melted away like black snow. She reached for the cigarettes and lit one with a shaking hand.
The smoke made her feel reassuringly dizzy and sick. She wiped at the fogged windscreen and checked her watch. Although it was only early September the car park was empty of the tourists who just a week before would have been here, braving the rain to pull on wetsuits and tip-toe across the shingle to the foaming waves. She remembered being on the beach that was below the cliff. Picking tiny crabs from luke warm rock pools and placing them gently in the bucket of water he carried for her. It was no mystery to her why her mother had asked to meet her here, or indeed, why she had retired here at all. She certainly had no old friends down in this part of the world, at least not that Cara knew of. She laughed aloud at the idea of the old bitch making any new ones. She understood intuitively why her mother was drawn here. Most people’s aversion to their pain would take them away from places where they had suffered, her mother was far more interested in dwelling on her pain, taking it out of the box she kept it in and examining it, turning it over again and again. Tasting it to make sure it was still bitter. Rebecca said that it gave her validity, that she identified herself by her pain, deriving some sense of self from the blasted landscape of her life. Cara wasn’t so sure, as far as she had always been able to see her mother hadn’t needed her own pain, it was the pain of others around her that she revelled in. She had often wondered what that had done to her father. But she always quashed those thoughts as they rose: nothing could ever excuse his actions.
A taxi pulled into the deserted car park, stopping at the far end, near to the cliff top. Cara’s heart stopped. After a few moments the back door opened and a frail, old woman clambered out. Cara let her breath out slowly as the rhythm in her chest returned to normal. She watched the old woman slowly trudge towards a bench, leaning heavily on a walking cane, her legs trembling, visible even from here. As she sat down she placed her bag on the seat next to her and looped one handle over her arm. She stared straight into the car although surely she couldn’t see anything from there. Suddenly the car park was gone and she was watching her mother wait in the same way on a park bench in London. She had walked away that time, depleted, unable to spend one more life-sapping moment with her. Was that the last time she had seen her? Her heart quickened again and her palms sweated beads of ice. This withered old person couldn’t be her mother; her tall, strong, domineering mother who had always seemed so indestructible. And yet the gesture was there. Who else would secure their handbag against muggers in an empty car park on top of a Cornish cliff? She slowly opened the door and stepped out, trembling herself. She trudged across the car park feeling herself shrink with every step, with each detail on that familiar face revealing itself. The wind had dropped a bit now, replaced by a stiff, but warmish breeze.
The old woman watched her with dry eyes. She made no move to rise to her feet in greeting and her face betrayed no emotion. Cara had to supress a fearful sob before she could speak. ‘Hi…Polly.’ She said eventually.
She sniffed. ‘I see you haven’t learnt to call me ‘mum’ in the last twenty years.’
‘What do you want? Why did you call me here?’ Cara said.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’
As ever Cara did as she was told. Although she sat on the bench, she was as far away from her as she could be. Despite the distance, despite the breeze, she could still smell nursing home on her, a strong sharp scent of antiseptic that hid a more powerful smell of decay.
‘Can’t bear to be near me?’
‘Do you blame me?’ Cara replied.
‘I suppose I don’t, never did really.’
The words escaped on the breeze. Cara envied them. ‘Why did you ask me to come?’
‘They say I’m dying and I think they’re right. I feel it; I feel thin and hollow. I thought they were lying at first, you know what these doctors can be like.’
‘Why would they lie to you, Mum…I mean, Polly.’ She corrected herself but it was too late, her guard had slipped. She was sure that she saw the old woman’s eyes twinkle.
‘Well you never know, do you?’
Cara wanted to scream at her and shake her. People don’t automatically lie to you for no reason. How can you feel happy being constantly suspicious? But deep down she knew that was what did make her happy. And she was terrified that she was the same. ‘What are they saying is wrong with you?’
‘You seem ok at the moment?’
‘Well of course I’m ok at the moment. It’s not this moment that’s the problem, is it? I’m losing my marbles. Keep forgetting things and putting things down and not finding them again. I’m done, Cara. I give up.’
‘You can’t give up yet, Mum.’ This time she barely noticed. ‘People live for years with Alzheimer’s disease.’
‘Not me. I’m not waiting until I’m a shrivelled up old bag, shitting and pissing the bed. They don’t care who wipes your arse there, you know. Could be a woman, could be some bloke. They’ve got coloureds there too; black blokes, touching and grabbing at your bits while you’re too stupid to notice.’ She shuddered. ‘Not me, I’m going while I’ve still got possession of my faculties. I want to go tonight. Here.’
Cara’s mind felt scoured. It was an odd sensation, alien and invading, yet comfortingly familiar. ‘Mum, that’s a bit racist. And what do you mean by going tonight?’ She wondered if she really was losing her marbles.
‘Don’t you talk to me about fucking racism, girl. That’s all they bloody say these days. You say the truth and someone calls you a racist, or a sexist, or some other bloody ‘ist.’ And I mean I want to go here. Tonight. And you’re going to help me.’
Cara shook her head. ‘It’s been nearly twenty years since we’ve seen one another and you want me to help you kill yourself? No chance. If what you’re saying is true then I really am very sorry, but I can’t do it.’
Her mother looked at her. Their eyes met, hers were hard and cruel. ‘You owe me.’
‘But…’ Cara struggled to remember everything that Rebecca had convinced her, that it wasn’t her fault, that none of it had ever been her fault. She had only been a child. ‘…it wasn’t my fault. He was the adult, I did nothing wrong.’
‘You knew what you were doing alright, you led him on. Any fool could see that he was weak. You were always all over him, you practically asked for it.’
A weak sob escaped Cara’s lips. She wanted to scream that she had been a child and the blame that had been put on her was unfair. But under the weight of her hostility the years and the protestations peeled away; she was a little girl again. And she was guilty.
‘But I don’t want to go over all that any more, it’s ancient history and I forgive you.’ She continued. A strained smile was on her lips. ‘I want us to part as friends. But I need your help.’ She reached across and took Cara’s cold hand in hers. Her flesh felt thin but her bones still gripped surprisingly tightly. ‘Please, Cara. I can’t die in that place. I need to be here.’
‘Because here was the last place I felt alive.’ Her face had changed, had softened and crumpled. Her white hair caught in the breeze. She chewed a lip that trembled. Tears stood out in the corners of her eyes. ‘I died that day, you know. I never came back to life.’
‘What do I have to do?’ Tears were streaming down Cara’s face now.
‘Just help me walk, that’s all. No-one at the home knows I’m here, that I came here to meet you. No-one will ever know you helped me.’
Cara stood up and wiped her face. ‘Where do you want to go?’
Along the coast the path dropped sharply to a natural cleft in the rock. Once it had clearly been a stream and a waterfall had plummeted onto the rocks below at low tide, directly into the sea when the tide was in. Now it was dry, worn away by feet instead of water. ‘There’s a place here. I want to climb down to the beach.’ The old woman said, pointing her cane at the dry gully.
Cara looked with uncertainty at the steep ground beyond the path. ‘Are you sure, Mum, it seems a bit uneven.’
‘That’s what I bloody need you for.’ She snapped. Cara rushed to her elbow with her head bowed. They climbed carefully down. At times Cara had to take nearly her mother’s full weight as clambered stiffly down. She was shocked by how easy that had become. Eventually they reached a large rock, a monolithic chunk of rounded granite that seemed to have rolled there at the behest of some unimaginable force. Her mother sat down heavily and sighed. Her shoulders heaved as her breathing settled. Down here they were sheltered from the strong evening breeze which whipped off the cooling land, back out to sea. They were sat near the bottom of what had the waterfall. Bracken and ferns clogged the old river bed, this year’s ragwort was dying away to a dirty yellow, the heads drooped ready to fall and settle and wash out to sea when the autumn rains came.
Cara looked at her mother and bit her lip. ‘So what happens now?’ Her voice was so quiet she could barely hear the words herself.
Polly rummaged in her bag. She produced a brown bottle. ‘I suppose I need to take a few of these.’ She tapped several white pills onto her hand. Cara watched them trembling on an unsteady surface. Her mother sipped from a bottle of water as she swallowed them one by one. When they were gone she rubbed her hands together as though she had done nothing more than finished a bag of sweets.
‘What were they, Mum?’
‘Never you mind.’ Polly winked at her. It was an odd gesture that was too cheerful. ‘Well we’ve got time, I didn’t drag you down here just for me to top myself. Let’s talk. Tell me about your life. Married? Got kids?’
Something in Cara shied away from telling her anything, as if to talk about Greg and Tilly to this woman would be to taint them. Worse still, she felt that if she spoke about them she would see her insecurities, her doubts and fears; she would prey on them, vindicated that she had raised a wrong one just as she had always thought. And yet that old bond of familial obedience was too strong to ignore. ‘Married. Got a daughter, four.’
The old woman nodded her as if she was confirming what she had expected. ‘What’s she like? A good girl? Behaves herself?’ She tilted her head back so that she could look down her nose at her.
No, she’s not. She…I don’t know what she is, I don’t understand her. ‘Yes Mum, she’s a good girl.’
‘What aren’t you telling me? Come on girl, speak up, I’m your mother.’
‘I feel like…like she tries to undermine me, with Greg.’ She hated herself for exposing her vulnerable underbelly like a subordinate animal.
She nodded again. ‘That’s what you were like at that age. Too precocious for your own good. Look where it got us all. You know what you need to do, don’t you?’
Cara’s eyes filled with tears that spilt down her face. ‘Don’t Mum.’ She said in a tiny voice.
‘What do you mean ‘don’t’? I’ve experience girl, experience of bringing up you. I know what I’m talking about. You want to keep your eye on her, that’s all I was going to say.’ She drew herself up shaking her head. For a moment the old woman was gone, replaced by her mother. Her sleeves rolled up, her hands flushed as red as the bare body they had just finished slapping. Polly sniffed and looked out to the white-capped waves. The illusion was broken. ‘I tried to do right by you, you know.’
When? When you left me alone with that monster, or when you blamed me for it afterwards. She said nothing. The wind filled the gaps for a few long moments.
‘Anyway, it’s maybe time you heard the whole story. You never did before…suppose that was the other reason I wanted you to come.’
Cara fought tooth and nail with the rising feeling of desperate curiosity in her chest. Of course it would be just another of Mum’s poisonous little revelations, like so many before it. The Christmas she had outed Aunt Liza’s affair, the tales told to other children’s parents and of course the time she had accused Mr Franksworth of making a pass at her at parent’s evening. Her screaming shrilly in front of all the other parents while the shy teacher had blustered and bumbled, standing in the doorway of his classroom. She remembered how all the other children had looked at her. Not even they had believed it. Her mother had a knack for spreading pain and misery wherever she went, always under the guise of ‘just speaking my mind’ or ‘well I couldn’t keep it to myself, could I?’ But there was always that hope that lived on, buried in the quiet parts of her; the hope that there was a reason for the misery her life had been, some deeper explanation other than her father was an animal that couldn’t control its unnatural sexual desires. The sea shushed the wind as a wave retreating through the pebbles. Cara took a deep breath. ‘Go on then.’
Her mother looked at her with something like victory.
‘He didn’t start as a wrong’un, you know. In my experience girl, most misery starts as happiness. It’s only the promise of it returning that keeps you there, slogging your guts out while the light at the end of the tunnel just gets further, like you’re backing away from it. Oh yes, he was a special one. Could charm the birds right out of the trees, he could. Charmed me away to the city anyway. Of course Liza followed too, eventually. But I went first. Near broke my mum’s heart. I suppose that’s where you get it from.’
Cara felt a twinge of shame mixed with hate. She tensed her jaw, feeling it ache again. She counted until it relaxed.
‘The first years was hard, of course, but we had each other and back then that seemed like enough. But he was like all men, he started to wander. He was home less and less, always working, he said. I suspected he had someone else.’
‘And did he?’
‘How would I know? I never asked and he never told. You can never know what these men are up to girl. You remember that.’
Cara thought of Greg and the late nights he would work, the weekends away on work trips. She had her own doubts at times but she could never voice them. After all, what if he thought she didn’t trust him? Would that be enough to make him do something, even if he wasn’t already? The nights she had stewed over it, willing her to put herself out of her misery and just ask him, seeking only reassurance, terrified of the answer. She realised that her mother had begun talking again…
‘…and that was where you came into it.’
‘And I came into it? What do you mean?’
‘I see you still drift away when I’m talking. Just like your father, he never listened either, you know. Nor Liza, always off in her own head that one. And you’re just like them.’
‘I was listening Mum, I just…’
‘As you always did. What I was saying was that he was drifting away, not paying attention…I needed something to drag him back, to make him see me again.’ The old woman smiled. She looked out at the heaving sea to allow her last sentence the space to breathe and grow malignant, to burrow itself deep in Cara’s memory so it could fester there.
Cara wiped a tear from her eye, telling herself it was the breeze, or the salt… ‘So you only got pregnant to get his attention?’
Polly grinned triumphantly. ‘I never said that…’
‘You didn’t need to. So, did it work?’
‘The smile vanished from Polly’s face, receding like the waves, leaving behind cracked, cold stone. ‘Did it…blimey…he was over the moon. He’d rush home from work to look after me, he stopped going to the pub…it was like he saw me again. I sometimes think those nine months were the happiest of my life. I know for some it’s a burden but I remember wishing I could stay pregnant forever. Then you were born, of course.’
‘Try not to sound so over-joyed.’ Cara snapped.
‘Could you blame me? All that pain, twelve hours of it.’ Polly smiled. ‘I screamed so much I could barely talk for days. And then afterwards he stared right through me. I spoke to him but it was like I didn’t exist again. He couldn’t keep his eyes off you.’
Cara lit a cigarette. ‘That’s hardly my fault.’
Polly continued as though her daughter hadn’t spoken. ‘He’d still rush home from work but now it was to play with you. He was always around, always wanting to help. He even did nappies, for a man that was unheard of in those days. It was like you were a doll for him to play with. Completely inappropriate for a man.’
Cara shuddered. Polly pretended not to notice. She looked at her gnarled hands and began to rub each knuckle slowly, in succession. ‘You had such a special grin that you saved just for him. And after I’d spent nine months carrying you, growing you in my belly. You cried whenever I picked you up. You screamed if it was me changing your shitty bum. Not for him, no…never. Daddy’s little good girl you were. You were the cause of so many arguments.’
Cara thought about Tilly sitting on Greg’s lap. The shifty knowing look she would give her after they had an argument that was her fault… it’s never her fault. Cara told herself. She’s just a kid.
But the thought was writ large on her face. ‘You know, don’t you?’ She said softly. ‘Hurts, doesn’t it?’ She looked out to sea for so long that Cara went to prompt her but Polly cut her off by choosing that moment to start talking again. ‘I started on at him. Fighting and carrying on. It was probably my fault he took up with someone else. That was when I decided to do it, to hit him where he would hurt the most.’
The sea chose to fill the silence her mother left: a pregnant pause at the end of her sentence to accentuate the revelation that would come next. Cara knew it well. The sea spoke, four, five times before Cara gave in, just as she always had. ‘What did you do to him, Mum?’
‘I ruined his life.’ The old lady’s lip curled. Her grim satisfaction still evident after all these years. Cara realised she wasn’t hearing a confession: this was bragging. She suddenly felt sick. She fumbled a cigarette from her packet and lit it. This time she let her be the one to start talking again. ‘I told the police that he’d been at you.’
A wave crashed in, racing up the shore, brazenly pushing ahead of the pack. Cara felt the shock of freezing water soaking her shoes. She didn’t move. ‘So are you saying he didn’t?’
‘Of course he didn’t. The man doted on you, adored you; hung on every fucking babble that left your precious little lips.’ Polly spat. ‘The only place he was putting his thing was some slag barmaid from the pub.’
Cara’s body seemed to melt. She barely had the strength to sit upright on the rock. It was an effort to allow her feet to rest on the beach. She took several deep breaths. With each one she let this new information sink further and further into her, deep inside where it could meet with all the poison and sadness and shame she had swallowed over the years. She tried to take a pull of her cigarette but her hand trembled too much to allow her to. She flicked it away, feeling a faint sense of guilt that it would drift out to sea where it would meet more carelessly cast rubbish to coalesce and grow and grow until it formed a stinking black patch of rot where nothing good could grow. Her hands gripped the sides of the rock, so hard that a large chunk of loose granite came away in her hand. She lost balance and nearly fell, the shock seemed to bring her back to herself. ‘But…what they did to him…’ She said in a voice so small she could barely hear it over the roar of the sea.
Polly gave a mirthless laugh. ‘Oh yes, he suffered alright. They didn’t separate them in those days. No molly coddling the nonces. They stuck him in with the general population and they told them what he’d bloody done too.’
‘But he didn’t do it, did he?’
‘Well he might as well have done. He was hurting us, hurting you. Playing away like that. He could have brought all sorts of diseases into the house, couldn’t he? Eh? I was protecting you.’
‘I read the inquest report Mum, they’re all on record. They beat him senseless, they tied him down and poured scalding sugar-water down his throat and left him all night to choke on the blisters. They said it took hours for him to die, Mum. Hours.’
‘Well it served him fucking right for taking me for a fool…us for fools…’ Polly let out a dry sob. ‘I know I did wrong but I did it for us…’
‘For us? You made me feel guilty, like it was my responsibility. Even earlier tonight… You told me that I’d led him on.’
Well, you were always looking at him with those flirty eyes and wrapping him around your finger…you knew what you were doing to me…you knew…’ He voice was becoming strained. She no longer sounded self-assured, she seemed weak and confused. Cara turned and put her arms around her mother. The old lady trembled and shook like a sea-horse holding onto a weed. Cara tried to pat her back but realised she still held the rock. She told her hand to let it go but it refused. ‘I…I want to sleep now…it’s time…’ Polly sobbed.
‘I was four years old, Mum. Four. I was innocent.’ Cara felt something growing inside her, something that made her arms shake and her throat close. She looked over her mother’s shoulder and saw a large swell coming in. The sea bulged and swelled until it finally split its belly and white foam roared across the shallows and up the beach. Then there was silence. The shshing pebbles stilled themselves as the wave held at that perfectly balanced moment when there was no more in but the out hadn’t started yet.
‘You knew.’ Polly hissed into her daughter’s shoulder. Cara raised the rock.
The peach sunrise placed gentle kisses on Cara’s face long before it chose to show itself. By the time it did Cara had smoked three more cigarettes, sitting on the bonnet of her car. The last three. This time she meant it. She knew she should have left straight away but she couldn’t bear to. She took a deep breath. She had to know. She wobbled as she stood up, her legs had fallen asleep. She slowly climbed down to the beach, expecting to find the body exactly where she had left it, slumped next to the lump of granite they had sat on. It wasn’t there. Cara thought of the cigarette butt, bobbing out to sea, destined to rot in the gyres along with the rest of the rubbish. As she clambered back up the cleft in the cliff she had tears in her eyes. By the time she had reached the car they had dried. By the time she was on the motorway, for the first time she was looking forward to seeing her daughter.