Friday, April 16, 2021

Number 69 by Eve Naden

 Relations with my mind have reached an international crisis point.

My mind is no longer an ally; it has broken our treaty. No more early evening summits with my brain during which we agree to let me sleep through the night. Although our treaty has been tenuous, it’s firm so far. Until now, of course.

I don’t sleep much anymore.

In fact, I can’t remember the last time I slept more than four hours. It’s as if I’m nocturnal, lying there while my brain whirrs like a ticking time-bomb. I’ve never been a good sleeper, not even when we lived beneath a buttery sun in Northern France. Perhaps it was the divorce. Mum and Dad firing bullets of spite at each other while I hid behind a cardboard box, fingers in my ears. Or perhaps it was when we crossed the Channel and I found myself in a country which would have no sooner loved me than drowned me in the sea.

The roads were stuffed with finely laid tarmac; yet the potholes were infinite. A place where I dressed in collars which might as well have been nooses around my neck. Shiny shoes, tar-like. A cardigan which had to be kept buttoned, even in the height of summer. Walking to school under a thousand hawkish eyes, Mummies from the PTA whispering behind their hands about the wild child, with mud on her skin, grass in her hair, and manners thin. Being gawked at by the other kids when I lapsed into French. As if I were a hundred-year old foe risen from the depths.

Great Britain, only I did not feel so great once I stepped onto English soil. My new home.

Most people come to the UK for a better life. We came because we had nowhere else to go. Because what should have been a better life had crumbled and shattered.

So, I spend my nights lying awake, staring at the ceiling. My brain is a film reel, replaying the events of the day as a 1940’s Noir. Even though memory doesn’t work that way; it’s not a cinema inside your head. If only. Instead, I sing an ode to my pillowcases, trying to imagine myself as a child, coming here for the first time, hyper from the ferry, Mum with dark circles beneath her brow, trying to smile at my antics. I try to recall stepping into the house, that musty smell hitting my nostrils. The same smell from the Farm. A building with history.

Number 69, Millbeck Close had been standing for twenty years before I lived there. Grandad had built it from scratch and while the electrics often fried and the pipes often blocked, it was a marvel with an oceanic patio and a garden which bled out onto a field full of horses.

Affectionately, we called it the Shipwreck.

The front of the house resembled oddly Tudor Architecture, with large timber frames hugging the cream plasterwork. A wisteria climbed to the attic like rigging. The chimney, beside which usually sat a rather noisy Jackdaw, stood to attention like a mast. The grand bow of the house was filled with old carpets from my Great- Grandmother’s cottage, a woman I’d never managed to meet. The starboard centre was home to the Kitchen, which housed cupboards that always cracked shut like waves snapping against the hull of a Galleon.

I remember the exact moment the taxi dropped us off. Me, throwing myself onto the drive before the car had even stopped. Mum, shaking her head and climbing out after me. Hauling a single duffel bag which contained all our belongings. In France, she’d owned a Farm. She’d own a Bed and Breakfast too, while running a

Construction Business with my Father. She’d live there for over a decade, building herself up, up, up. It was strange – that ten years of graft all came down to a single bag and a troublesome child.

My nickname hadn’t been Caligula for nothing.

The front garden was a lagoon of lavenders, the aroma too pungent to withstand.

There was a wasp’s nest in the far corner, by a chair painted green. All the same,

Number  69 seeped  into  my skin.

The rooms were light and airy, but somehow cosy and claustrophobic. I remember jumping on the single mattress in my room, which would soon be filled with purple Unicorns beneath shelves stuffed with books I should have been too young to read. It was everything I could have wanted, the perfect plaster to the cut leaving the Farm had made upon my cheek.

And, despite it all, Number 69 became an extra limb. Until the glass surrounding my perfect corner of the world shattered and I was left with this inoperable phantom pain.

Perhaps it was losing my A-Levels that tipped me over the edge.

Revising until steam popped out of my ears, late into the night, surrounded by a cadre of textbooks, by mountains of flashcards peppered in inky statistics. That’s all my room became: a constellation of posters, mind-maps filled with cases from my Tort Law Module. One by one, my model horses disappeared, the barn my Father had built for my tenth birthday replaced by a desk where I sat all day after College, head buried in a delusion that it wasn’t who you knew, but what you knew that made you a person of renown.

In seconds, in a single BBC broadcast, it was gone. My efforts wasted. I suddenly berated myself for failing to do things I would never have enjoyed: joining my friends at crowded parties with flaring lights and music blasting my eardrums to smithereens. Drinking sun kissed alcohol outside the local pub beside a group of smokers. Having a boyfriend or a girlfriend, being expected to kiss them and make them smile and give away a piece of myself. No thank you. All the same, I found myself missing things I’d never experienced. I’d wasted two years of my life. I thought that things couldn’t get any worse.

A day later, lockdown started.

© Eve Naden

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