BELLA AND JAMES
Even my flat doesn’t think I should be here, Luca. It tipped up really badly again last night. Over the ocean, it’s so scary. I was in the kitchen, watching to see if tonight would be his fire, and then in the dark everything came rushing into my head like it does. The flat slid down fast and slammed me against the back wall. I crawled up the floor and out into the corridor with it all dipping and figure-eighting around me. I know it took a long time for everything to stop because this morning the fat stairwell air was thick on my skin and stuffed full in my lungs. There’s never an answer though. I still don’t know why I got left behind. That sounds so ungrateful. I’m sorry, I know how lucky I am. It’s just I need to keep talking. I always told you stories and if I stop now, I think I might disappear. Anyway, the late night, that’s why we’re in the kitchen. Coffee. Do you want one? Look, he’s down there again. This is his fourth trip today. He must be soaked.
Thanks for your last letter. I’m glad the roses are doing well. At least all that rain is good for something. It rained here yesterday too. I’m on the top floor, I think I told you, so the sound of it pelting the roof was loud. Two weeks isn’t long, but I’ve got used to being the only noise. You’d think with the two of us rattling around on either side of the stairwell I’d hear her all the time. But no. It’s strange. I know what you’d say. It’s just her way, James, not everyone has to be like you. But people make noises, Mum. Everyone. They listen to radios, bang doors, clatter down stairs and swear when they get to the front door and realise they’ve forgotten something.
I made another fire last night. By the river. On the terrace. That can’t be right. It’s just a big concrete rectangle. What would you call it? God, it doesn’t matter. If Dad asks, and barring a miracle I’m not sure how he would, but if he does, tell him I brought his instructions with me and I followed them, and the fire burned really nicely. But don’t tell him what I’m burning. When I get them right, I’ll hang them up and send photos. What else am I supposed to do? If there’s no word for that concrete slab, then there can’t be words for what I did. And even if I did find some, how can you know he’ll listen if he’s never said he would?
Here’s a story for us: He came round yesterday and I found out his name. It’s James. He knocked on my door in an urgent kind of way that had to be answered. I walked through syrup to the door and I thought he might be gone by the time I reached it, but he had waited. He has a blonde Captain Haddock beard, and the skin around it was pale because his thumb was wrapped in a rag that was soaked in blood. I didn’t like having him in here, but you can’t leave someone bleeding in the hall. He sat on his good hand the whole time I was fixing him up in the kitchen, which meant I couldn’t give him a chocolate biscuit to hold like I did with you when you were little… but what good would it have done anyway? Chocolate biscuits didn’t stop you bleeding.
She’s from Liverpool. One Scot, one Scouse, same age (I didn’t ask her and she didn’t say but she looks the same age as Kendra), end up the only inhabitants of an old factory at the edge of this city. Maybe it’s a tourist-office plot. They’re trying to keep the foreigners away from the building sites until they’ve rebuilt everything and stuck the two halves back together. The whole time I was in her kitchen, she was still almost in the trance that she’s in when I find her out in the stairwell. The past few nights I’ve sat down next to her, on the same step. She never sees me. Her hair is always tied in a ponytail and she always wears the same green pyjamas. She stares at the patch of floor in front of her feet and I do the same with the one in front of mine. It’s so still. First my mind is blank, then I start thinking of ways to explain everything to Dad. The sentences are sharp, I stay calm and so does he, and it all makes sense in the end. But in the morning I can never remember the words. I’d write them down while I’m out there but I’d be worried the sound would break her trance.
I don’t know how his frames got up here, honestly, I tried to write down what happened, but my mind was a fog and things kept slipping off the page. I couldn’t keep hold of a memory that happened this morning, but ones that happened years, months, weeks ago started spinning through my head razor-sharp on a loop I still can’t break. I remembered how the photos I brought Dad in hospital – of the apple trees I’d climbed and the cakes Mum had taught me to bake – weren’t good enough to keep him alive. How after he’d gone and you’d arrived, I couldn’t throw Mum’s vodka bottles against the wall in a way that would make her stop. How I never told you that the seven years I had with them first were good. Probably it was selfish. I wanted something for myself, so I kept it from you. But if you had known, would you have hated them less? Would you have come to Mum’s funeral instead of tearing off on your bike?
Please don’t send any frames from the shop. No. They would be his frames. Hanging those on my wall wouldn’t show him anything. I was making good progress today, actually. On my second frame I cut all the angles right and the wood was that dark, flaky driftwood style that Dad keeps for the really good frames. But when I started fitting the first corner together, she started hammering. Loud enough that I could hear it across the hall. No warning, no warm-up noise. One minute she’s a ghost, the next she’s a person with opposable thumbs and biceps. I ran downstairs and threw the pieces onto the tarpaulin pile. When I got back up to my flat, I shut myself out on the balcony and smoked, waiting for the anger to come. Before, I’d never have considered I could go that far. Even with Kendra and Alistair I kept it together. But now, well it’s hard to know, you know? In the end all that happened was I smoked through the packet and thought about how much I hated her for interrupting my frame and not letting me finish what I was trying to say.
I wanted to use the frames to flip history over on itself, so in bed this morning I daydreamed up a camera that would take pictures of those seven years and make them come sliding out of my ears. There’d be one of you, Mum and Dad in the kitchen, dancing to your song. One of you crawling into bed with them to open a Christmas stocking. Them wiping ice cream off your chin at the beach, and picking you up from school with a giant umbrella to keep out the rain. I’d stick the photos to the wall inside the frames and when you saw them they’d slide into your head and bring everything back up even again. But even I know a camera like that doesn’t exist. Why did I get all those memories? Why does life stick to my skin like the freckles none of you ever had?
There was a queue for the phone. I knew there would be. Even at 3 a.m. First I went to the back to wait. Then I realised how ridiculous that was and went to the front to try and explain why the guy needed to get out and why I needed to get in before everyone else. It’s been five years since the wall came down and it’s still almost impossible to get a home connection, so the phone queue can be tense. It’s partly why I stick to letters. I managed it though, without punching or being punched, and only had to start miming once more when I realised 999 isn’t international. I didn’t want to go back up to the flat, but I had no idea how long it takes ambulances to get places here. And you can’t leave someone bleeding in a hall. I stood with my back against my door, looking at her door and not at her. When the paramedics had taken her away, I sat down on the step. It was different to normal. No stillness, just that endless loop. Him shouting, my fist balling up, cheekbone against knuckles, and silence. Is he still silent? Maybe you go walking. You don’t need words for that. I’ve got that photo here of the three of us at the top of Arthur’s Seat. I’m seven and we’re grinning like idiots into the wind.
It’s strange talking to you like this, don’t you think? I do, I feel sort of naked. The nurse brought me a pad and pen to calm me down about the paramedics forgetting my tape recorder. I think some of the patients across the hall were complaining, so now we’re all happy and I’ve written something new. It’s like a script because there was too much to write and it all kept knotting into a ball of string that when I tugged one end, the rest of it tangled up tighter. But plays you have to strip the information to the bones, don’t you? It made the time between his visits and yours go quicker. Here it is:
She is looking out of the window when he knocks at the door.
‘Come in,’ she says. He enters the room, stops just inside the door and waves a silent hello. He is wearing jeans and a blue fisherman’s jersey. She nods down at her bandaged arms.
‘The nurse says I should keep them still.’ He walks over and sits down in the olive- green chair next to her bed. He crosses his arms and stares at his feet on the blue linoleum floor. She stares at the bump that hers make under the blanket. Nurses in rubber-soled shoes squeak past in the corridor outside.
‘Thank you,’ she says to her feet.
He nods. ‘Don’t do it again.’
‘Do what?’ She is looking at him now.
‘That.’ He points to her arms. ‘It makes no sense. You have to go for the arteries. Otherwise you’ll never bleed out before I come and find you.’
He starts chewing at the skin around his thumb. ‘That wasn’t how I meant it to come out.’
She goes back to staring out the window. White clouds are moving fast over the blue sky. The leaves on the chestnut trees are beginning to turn. He gets up to leave.
‘Do you have a camera?’ she says when he reaches the door. He turns half around.
‘Can you bring it next time you visit?’
‘I will if you tell me why.’
‘I like that view.’
‘What about your arms?’
‘They’re my problem, not yours. Anyway, the nurses here are nice.’
‘And bring me my tape recorder too. It’s in the living room.’
I’m still making bad frames. You can see from the photos. But I’m also making progress. Of a sort. Yesterday I saw some of them hung up on a wall. Four, all terrible, far worse than the efforts I produced the first time you took me to the workshop. But do you ever get sort of… I don’t know, hypnotised when you see yours out on display like that? I suppose you’ve been doing it so long. I felt like the only visitor at an exhibition so I pulled a chair into the middle of the room to sit and look. This all happened at my neighbour’s, by the way. I don’t know how much Mum has told you. She, my neighbour, wasn’t there and the chair was wobbly. There was only one other in the room and it had a big box of tapes on it. The wobbly chair held me, but I don’t know how long it will keep on doing that with people. Her. That’s why I’m writing to you. In a bit of a roundabout way, I know, but the point is, I took the chair with me. To fix. But I can’t do it on my own. I’ve included a photo and written what’s wrong with it on the back. Could you take a look? You don’t have to write or call, just tell Mum what I need to do and she can put it in her next letter to me.
JEN METCALF was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin. She has a BA in French and German, and an MA in Screen Translation Studies. She works as a part-time translator and editor.