I try not to step on cracks in the pavement. I know it’s only superstition, but I learned it when I was a child – a long time ago. We can’t unlearn superstition. Once in a mind, it defies logic. Now I try not to step on cracks in the pavement.
After the birth of our second son, my husband started to behave strangely.
I think of paving slabs like moments, and between moments, there are spaces. No-one ever talks about the spaces between moments. It’s as if they don’t exist, but they have to for moments to be separate. I think there are caverns between moments.
I asked him, I said, ‘What’s the matter? Is there something the matter?’ But he didn’t answer.
Once, when I was thirteen, I was walking to the village shop, avoiding the cracks in the pavement. I saw the Vicar’s son riding his bike towards me. I fancied the Vicar’s son. He was the same age as me, but tall with a quiff and a boy’s swagger. I glanced up at him as he approached, but tried to keep my eyes on the pavement. As he passed, he spat. It splattered over my face. I wiped it away with my sleeve. Tears came. I didn’t understand why he did it. I never told anyone.
While my husband was at work, I felt so cross about the way he didn’t help in the house, or with the baby, but as soon as he came home, the anger melted – not his fault, I’d tell myself, and my heart would swell.
Every year, in the field next to our cottage, the farmer planted barley. When the earth was ploughed, it looked like my dad’s brown corduroy. Seeds are buried alive and while they’re sleeping. When they start to grow, they make the fields stripy-green. Barley grows a beard when it comes of age. When it matures, it’s the scythe and the sickle.
But I told a friend my husband was changing. She phoned one day, and said he was spending time with a woman. They were in the same amateur dramatics group.
Sometimes, in the bath, I slide my head under the surface and lie very still. I think about drowning, about Virginia Woolf, about unborn babies swimming in wombs like aquariums. I lie very still and hear my heart throbbing in my ears. When I was newly married, we lived in a flat in an old house. If I lay under the bathwater there, I could hear strange tapping and ringing sounds. The plumbing gurgled like the intestines of a monster. The tiles were white and cold.
I asked him if he was having an affair. He hesitated and said, ‘No’. He punched the wall. It left a hole in the plasterboard. I was frightened of our silence and what was in it. So I didn’t ask my husband again. I waited and watched.
There were deneholes in the woods near our cottage. Someone told me they were deep; that they led to underground caves. I used to dream of climbing down, using vines and ferns as my handholds. I wanted to bring back a stalactite. Stalactites hold on tight. Stalagmites grow below. I didn’t know about Orpheus then. Sometimes groups of climbers walked past our cottage. They had spiked boots and great loops of rope on their backs. When the foot-and-mouth came, my brother told me the farmer threw dead cows down the denehole. He said there was a dead car down there too.
My husband started to come home late, and sit, staring at the TV with glazed, dead eyes. He was growing fat. I wondered if his work was making him unhappy. I’d been making a little money mending old teddy bears, and getting more work. I opened a little shop in a craft centre and hoped he would be my business partner.
When I worked in London, I travelled on the Underground. A voice on the tannoy used to say, ‘Mind the gap!’ It made me worry. I wondered if many people had lost a foot, letting it slip into the gap. I stood well back behind the line, my feet pressed tight against each other. As the train approached, I’d feel a cringing between my shoulders, as if something was going to push me.
He wasn’t doing any work, just rehearsing for amateur dramatics. The electricity and telephone bills were overdue. This isn’t a partnership, I thought, lugging home shopping on the pushchair. The car had broken down.
A girl at school had a gap between her front teeth. It was a big gap and her teeth stuck out. We used to tease her. I never thought to feel sorry for her. I was just glad it wasn’t me. She wore her hair in pigtails, and we called her Goofy. Madonna has a gap between her teeth, but it doesn’t seem to worry her. I felt sorry for the girl with the stutter, though. Her words were all trapped in spaces.
I put my wedding dress in a black bin-liner and outside the front door. He walked past it for five days before the dustmen took it away. I did it out of spite, but never told him.
Sometimes when I read, I feel words between the printed ones. I can hear them in my head. They make pictures of other things. I like those spaces. I wish I could lift the words and look under them, like lifting a paving slab to look for shiny black beetles. I can remember the place on a page where certain phrases are, but sometimes I forget the things I’ve said and done. A book is a special secret place. You go there alone.
At a party my husband danced with a blonde woman. His hands were around her waist. Everyone kept glancing at me.
On Brighton Pier the slats had gaps through which you could see the sea. I went there when I was nearly sixteen. A boy kept looking at me and I smiled at him. I walked along to the very end. When I looked in my compact, the wind had turned my lips blue. It was June. As I came back, trying not to look through the gaps, the boy stopped me and asked if I wanted a date. I’d never been on a date before. That night, I wore pink hotpants and platform shoes. After the disco, things went too far in the back of his car. Walking home, it hurt in the place between my legs. He pestered me for weeks, but I refused to see him ever again.
If my husband tried to be affectionate, I pushed him away. In bed, I put our baby in the void between us. It was easier to breast-feed at night that way.
In the garden of our cottage was a cast iron pump. It was old and broken. The well had been turned into a cesspit. I never walked over the lid. I couldn’t imagine a worse death. A lorry used to come and pump it out. One year, some birds made a nest in the pump. They flew in and out of the spout. My father was a goldsmith. The door to his workshop was near the old pump. There was a brick path. One day, after my father had left for good, I weeded the path and cabochon garnets came up with the roots.
The am-dram performance was Guys and Dolls. My husband was playing Sky Masterson, and the blonde woman, Sarah Brown. It amused me to think she saw him like that.
Someone should invent a mirror that turns our image the right way round. Then we would see ourselves as others do. It’s weird that the brain corrects the eyes from seeing everything upside-down. It does it without our ever knowing. What else does our brain edit? Perhaps there are things it doesn’t want us to see – things in the spaces between the things we see. Perhaps it protects us from something.
He came home with a big car on HP. The mortgage was in arrears and the washing machine had broken down.
My brother and I made a camp in the woods. We dug out a pit as deep as our height. We made a roof out of branches and bracken. I wove a mat of green reeds, and we made a stove with old bricks – a chimney through the roof with an old drainpipe. We made alcoves in the walls – stood a candle in one and a pinecone in the other.
Spring came and the arrears were worse. I didn’t want to lose my home. It took such a long time to make the garden pretty. Someone kept skewering the new car’s tyres. Six-inch nails. ‘Why?’ I asked, but my husband shrugged.
No-one explained about the Eleven-plus. We had to do it in two sittings. I was in the second group. A girl came out and said to me, ‘Just put dashes, then they let you out sooner.’ So I did. I put dashes in all the spaces. That summer holiday was a real scorcher. It turned me ripe like the nuts and berries. It seemed like it would never end. I sat on the hill overlooking our cottage and listened to skylarks. I knew all the names of the wild flowers. My best friend and I thought we’d go on to the same school. I never saw her again.
Depression is a slow creeping thing, like damp in walls. It rots your timbers until one day the roof falls in. You sit and the washing-up piles in haphazard towers, your hair tangles and you no longer hear what’s being said.
Once, my brother and I pushed through brambles and found a clearing with a larch tree. The leaves were like hundreds of green tassels. Under the tree was a crumpled magazine. It had pictures in it of naked women. They made my brother laugh. Some of the pages were torn out. I used to like cutting things out of magazines. I’d arrange the cut-outs on the coffee table to make stories. It made the magazine full of spaces like negative silhouettes.
I phoned his friend. I was crying. I said, ‘I think he’s having an affair’. His friend paused. I wanted him to reassure me, but he didn’t. Instead he said he’d try to find him.
When I walked to school, I had to pass a big graveyard. I used to run my hand along the flaked-paint railings – powdered green, but blue under. The sound was like a dull bell. Some had been bent and I squeezed between them to look for the grave of my uncle. He was only a baby. My dad said he was born blue. A blue baby. Some of the graves were overgrown. Some of them had plastic flowers that were faded and dirty.
Later that day, my brother-in-law visited. He said my husband had been crying and needed some clothes. I packed a bag and gave him his acoustic guitar too. Playing it used to soothe him.
When I was young, and turned out the light, I jumped into bed from the farthest distance. It was because of a hand under the bed, waiting to grab my ankle. There was an upright piano in our bedroom. Its keys were like a big set of grinning teeth. I used to practise a lot. I’d started to compose my own tunes. One day I came back from school and it had gone. Nobody ever told me why.
The next morning when I woke, I was full of angry energy. My eyes in the mirror startled me. Two weeks passed and I heard nothing.
There’s a missing curtain hook in my bedroom. In the morning, the light shines through and makes a beam. In the beam I see dust motes flitting. I used to think they were tiny fairies. I wish they were. Sometimes I lie late in bed, with my hands linked behind my head. I blow at the motes. It drives them crazy. I have blue dragonflies around my lampshade.
My husband used to put his arms around and lift me from the ground. He was seven years younger than me. Time passed and I took off my rings. They left a white indent in my skin. I moved to the other side of the bed. I slept in the space.
Perforations make it easy to detach coupons and slips. Road markings remind me of perforations. If you cross them at the wrong time, you might get posted, or find yourself in empty space. I drive as carefully as I can, and I don’t tread on cracks in the pavement. An accident is when someone slips on their moment. Yes, things go wrong in spaces. And between the words that people speak are all the things they’re really saying.