There’s a night—I think this is the middle of June—when we lock you in the house. We don’t want to do it, but—or so we tell each other—we seem to have no choice. In those days we rarely go out, any kind of social activity has begun to seem pointless, but for some reason I no longer remember we don’t want to miss this dinner. So we lock all the doors and leave you with a hammer, so you can smash a window in case of fire. Your father doesn’t think this is necessary, but I think it’s necessary. I don’t want you to die in a fire. Or, I don’t want to have to sit through a dinner party on the other side of town, while all the time worrying that you might die in a fire.
I know, of course I do, that it makes no sense—to leave you locked in there while still armed with the means of escape. I know it’s entirely possible, given the state of mind you’re in, that you might start a fire just so you can have a reason to smash the window. It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve taken such a risk, damaging property or possessions simply in order to get your way. It is, let’s face it, exactly the kind of reckless trick you are capable of pulling back then.
But I have to admit that you don’t do that. You make no attempt at all to get out. You microwave the dinner we leave for you and you rinse the plate and put it in the dishwasher and then, after watching something on your laptop, you go up to bed.
When we return, the house is silent. Nothing seems to be missing or damaged. No money has been taken. The hammer is exactly where we left it on the table in the hall. You do not appear to have made any attempt to break the glass.
I am sure that one day when things are better your father and I will look back on these days with disbelief. I hope that we will. For now, though, we take each separate incident in our stride, behaving, to each other anyway, as if this life of ours is normal, as if it’s exactly the kind of life that everyone lives.
Time blurs when you are dealing with chaos. Everything blurs. We too, sometimes, are a blur. Each morning we wake to a brand new day and we just get on with it, transforming ourselves into whatever shape or form is necessary in order to deal with whatever chaos or disaster comes next.
So many things which pass for normal in our house: the windows broken, the cups and plates smashed, the doors kicked in. The visits to A&E, the police being called. The times when one of us will, almost without a second thought, rush to hide the block of kitchen knives in the cupboard under the stairs. Or take the house keys from their hook by the door and fling them under a cushion on the sofa.
The fact that I always hide my bag the moment I come home and your father would never dream of leaving his jacket or trousers lying around with money in them. The anger and the anguish and the shouting, the things I no longer dare to do or say. The dreams and plans I’ve ceased to ﬁnd it in me to care about, the pleasures we’ve forgotten to take.
The moments when we have no idea what’s coming next, what violence or drama or deceit, when we can’t imagine what new bad thing might lie around the corner.
The jagged, upset evenings when I admit we ﬁnd it very hard indeed to calm down.
The days when my ﬁrst thought on waking is: I don’t know if I can go on like this.
The nights when we talk and shout and weep and then, as if nothing at all has happened, we sit and eat dinner in front of the news before putting ourselves to bed, where we sleep like babies simply because there’s no energy left in our hearts to keep us awake.
The day that your father goes with you on the train to the place where you’re going to stay for three months (we tell you three but, I can admit it now, both of us are very much hoping it will be longer), I take you to the chemist for the very last time. As usual we queue outside with the others, but this time I allow myself a quick moment of satisfaction—or perhaps it’s relief—at the thought that tomorrow they will still be here and you and I will not.
After that, we cross the road to the bus stop. You have a large nylon rucksack which we bought you especially for the trip, as well as an old black duffel bag belonging to your father. Ever since you were a child you’ve been mysteriously in love with this bag, always begging to borrow it—it used to accompany you everywhere, swimming and on sleepovers and on school trips—so it seems only right that it should go with you now.
As usual, your dirty old bashed-up guitar case is slung over your shoulder. (When we query the guitar, you insist that the woman you spoke to at the centre said it was OK. But this turns out not to be the case, and when you arrive with it she isn’t at all pleased and your father has to bring it all the way back with him on the train.)
Now, standing at the bus stop, your father checks to see when the bus is coming. Two minutes away, he says. One minute. He glances up at the street.
I reach for you. Putting my arms around you, feeling the smallness of your rib cage, the way your bones move and crunch like the bones of a baby bird. Your shoulders are hunched, your almost non-existent breasts caving beneath your ragged T-shirt. There’s the faintest odour of sweat. When I draw away, I catch the familiar, musty scent of your breath. Your eyes are huge.
I ask you if you’re nervous. No, you say, you aren’t nervous, you’re ready. All you want right now, you say, is to get on with it.
Good, I say, That’s good. That’s the exact right attitude to have—and then I tell you that I love you so much—that we both love you. And—though I know I’ve begun to say it a few too many times in the past however many days—I tell you again how proud we both are, that you’ve man-aged to come this far. Whatever happens next, you did this. Remember that, I tell you—
Yeah, well, you say.
You put your ear buds in.
And you get on the bus, the two of you, your father taking the card back off you as soon as you’ve touched in. I watch as you stand there together at the foot of the stairs and then your father gives a little wave and the bus goes around the corner and is gone.
I walk home slowly, taking my time, because suddenly what reason is there to rush? It’s a beautiful day, the sun shining and the light perfect, bright and hot—in fact I have to admit that everything is pretty perfect now, for we have every reason to believe that you’ll stay in that place for at least three months, and with a bit of luck perhaps even longer. Even the worst case scenario means that we get to have the summer off. Long days and evenings of being normal, of eating and sleeping and dealing with ordinary, everyday problems. Even, it begins to dawn on me, the possibility of having some fun.
I could go shopping for clothes. Get my hair cut. Meet a friend for coffee. We could even see what’s on at the cinema.
Odd, then, to find that I don’t feel very free at all. The opposite, actually. I feel hemmed in, on edge, angry and defiant, my whole body tense and defended, as if I’ve been accused of something.
Perhaps I have been accused of something.
Walking through the market, I catch myself clenching my fists, irritated by all these people dawdling so benignly along with their bags and their dogs and their pushchairs, picking up this thing or that thing, going about their business with such maddening ease on this perfect summer’s day.
A woman with a large and complicated pushchair stops right there in the middle of the pavement to take a call. Her phone in one hand, a carton of juice in the other, the child kicking and flinging its limbs angrily around while she chats on and people are forced to part to make their way around her.
I watch as she throws her head back and laughs, handing the juice to her infant so that she can gesticulate with her free hand before slowly moving on.
Back home, closing the front door, silence blooms around me. For the past several weeks, we’ve been forced to act as your jailers—we knew it would be foolish to trust you, you said you didn’t want us to trust you—and so we’ve stuck close by you, both of us, we’ve watched your every step. Every plan, every moment, has been accounted for. Recently, you’ve never once left this house without one of us in tow.
It feels very disconcerting, then, to walk in here alone.
In a minute, I’ll go up to your room and begin cleaning it. I’ll remove all the dirty plates and mouldy drinks and put all of the rubbish—most of which I’ll find on the floor or under your bed—into bin bags. I’ll scrape chewing gum off the floorboards and fish cigarette filters out from behind the radiator. I’ll hoover the brown tobacco flakes off the tops of the books—picture books and pop-up books and annuals and encyclopaedias—most of which (and yes, I admit this does give me pain every time I think of it) have been on the shelf in that room ever since you were a baby.
After that, I’ll change the sheets—adding the quilted counterpane we had dry-cleaned long ago, but have kept in its polythene, waiting for the moment when we can safely return this room to a state of innocence. But first—just because I can—I hang my bag, along with all of my money, bank cards and keys, up on the hooks in the hall.
From Nonfiction by Julie Myerson. Used with permission of the publisher, Tin House. Copyright © 2023 by Julie Myerson.