I spent much of mychildhoodin a tree. Our garden was big and if you ran down the path, avoiding the wolves that lived next door you were very safe, isolated from the outside world by soaring bushes, their leaves cool to the touch. A huge mulberry bush grew by the lawn, its branches making a woven screen. With little difficulty, it was possible to enter a clearing inside the bush, and eat the juicy fruit, the juice running down your chin, and staining indelibly your clothes. On the lawn were rings of mushrooms where the fairies held their council, of which I always dreamed of being a member.
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Beads of dew formed on the long grass, lanterns the fairies had left behind. To the left of the lawn was a wall, and an archway entrance. It was a deserted castle of which I was the princess. From the top of the wall, you could see the whole garden. It was easy to get up there, by climbing on the hard stone bench and then up the mossy lion. A few apple trees grew on the other side of the stone room near to the crumbling shed. The third tree from the shed was my tree. Its bark familiar, and its branches smooth from years of touch.
The highest branch was my throne where I spent most of my time, watching the brown ovals of people’s heads and listening to their conversations. I especially enjoyed watching her. The light bounced off her hair impressively, like it did off the kingfishers we saw in Devon. If I leant forwards until the tips of my fingers reached the branch below, I could see her whole face. She was very beautiful. Every one said so. Her eyes were big and brown, just like I wanted mine to be. Her long, straight nose seemed to be made for looking down.
Often I would practise in the mirrors in the hall that look of hers until I could mimic it exactly. In fact, most of my early childhood was spent copying her, trying to be like her. I was almost eight when I realised she was not my mother. I suppose she must have been my stepmother. I had spent the morning out at the goldfish park with her. Marine Gardens it was called. The salty air was uncharacteristically warm and I took my bike. The little cafe was full and people overflowed onto the grass of the putting green. They were mostly tourists with their cheap cameras and bulging waists.
The cross old man who ran the place where you got balls and clubs for the mini-golf was trying to shoo them away. Just behind the mouldering cafe were the goldfish ponds. Despite all the people round the front, it was empty. The grey courtyard was damp and moss protruded through small cracks as it always did. The pond was made of the same slimy stone. Inside each of the four ponds were the darting fish. They only just shone through the murky water. Some one had put an empty coke can in with the fish and I spent some time untwisting it from the weeds.
She held my hand as I jumped across the pond, round, and round without touching the ground. With my added height, I could watch the men playing bowls with the big heavy balls. It looked easy from far away but the previous time I had come, I had tried and had found that it was not easy at all. We danced all the way home that day. I remember it vividly. I could not have been more happy, or more proud of her. No one else at the park had such a beautiful, agile, and fun-giving parent. But this was the last day that I would have fun with her. When we got back, my father was in my room.
He broke all the rules when he told me. I was sitting on my bed tracing the swirls on the ornate wooden bed head. I imagined a chisel whirling round and round, making the courtly curls. My duvet was creased, slightly rumpled and I itched to straighten it. He stood at the door giving no warning of what he was saying. No hints. Just the bare facts. As soon as I realised what he was saying I ran to the garden, bawling in the way very young children do. All my life, I had wanted to be like her, was content in the knowledge that I would grow up to be just like her, but now to find she was nothing but a stepmother.
It must have been around a week later, it was hard to tell; the days after he told me seemed very long, I went into my father’s study in search of string so we could tie up some runner beans. The lights were off and I couldn’t see my father anywhere. Approaching the desk I found him slumped on his desk, a glass of whisky clamped in his hand, sobbing. The thick velvet curtains cast a red light on his face. On the edge of the desk was his calendar; in the strange light, the white card of the calendar glowed scarlet. In this red gloom, I could just pick out the date. 16th March. My father never knew that I had seen him in that state.
I crept away knowing that I had no business there and fearful of the consequences of having been seen Exactly a year later, I had almost forgotten that I had ever had a mother it was so far to the back of my mind. I woke up to the sound of someone bellowing. Hastily, I ran down the stairs to the breakfast room. As I came into doorway, the figure of my father loomed over me. He stood there fully dressed in his best suit. The inky black seemed to suffocate him, and cast an uneasy blue on his unusually pale face. Unlike most mornings, he was clean-shaven and his shirt was tucked in and pressed.
Why are you dressed like that? I said, ” Has someone died? ” My words seemed to choke him, and ignoring my questions, he ordered me to change into my best clothes. I dare not ask why so I quickly did as he told. We drove in silence. I did not even wave at the seagulls as I normally would. My mind was occupied with what was happening. Something was wrong. My stepmother, as I had learnt to call her, was not with us. Even the cold wind did not taste right. About 15 minutes later, though it seemed like much longer as these things always do, we arrived at what seemed at first to be a large park, enclosed by a stone wall.
As soon as I stepped out of the car I realised, that this wasn’t a park at all, but a large graveyard. My father seemed to know exactly where to go, so I trailed behind him, sadly looking at the small shiny white lozenges. We started to move towards what had to be the older graves. They were no longer glaringly white and the flowers on them were withered, the grass long. It wasn’t possible to see the names anymore; a green moss writhed across each headstone. Here and there, there were small bouquets, but the wind quickly blew small petals away. My father stopped on end of the fifteenth row.
He beckoned for me and, brushing aside some off the moss, revealed the name. I looked at him blankly. It meant nothing to me, until I realised that this was my mother. I felt no emotion. I was not sad in the least. This was not someone I knew. I began to wonder what was for lunch. I was hungry after missing my breakfast. Then it hit me all of a sudden. I was at my dead mother’s grave and I felt nothing. A wave of guilt flew over me. I felt inadequate, an emotional cripple, horrified at the person that I was. I started to cry. Not for my mother. For me.