Wednesday, February 24, 2016
While other kids had quite sensible fears; spiders, snakes, getting lost in a crowd, sitting next to James Bissenden, I was riddled with a fear of throwing up that, by the age of seven saw me talking to bananas. Cut off the end and I either got a black dot, "No", or a Y-shape, "Yes". It was conclusive. A simple fruit salad could ruin my day.
“Do you feel sick?” My dad sensibly asked when I told him what the banana foretold. When I confessed “No”, he said, “Well then,” with a tone of exasperation he usually reserved for the dog. But sitting cross legged in assembly in elementary school I'd always have a latent fear that someone, possibly me, would vomit unexpectedly. It was a fear I just couldn't shake. A fear of the messy uncertainty of life.
Notes from school tell us about nits and conjunctivitis but they never give you a heads up on the stomach bug. Half the class are down with it before you realize this freight train is heading at you, spewing its filthy detritus into your home in the middle of the night. With some foresight you might have been more militant about hand washing, you might have Cloroxed the door handles, OK, maybe not, but at least you’d have been prepared.
When I was not yet two my only word was "Fascia board", a British roofing term I picked up while my dad was up a ladder. We lived on farm in a damp part of rural England with cows for neighbors.
“Say Fascia board!” my mother would plead, presumably for lack of conversation with other adults. We lived half an hour from the nearest town down a narrow winding lane that was more often a river of slurry from the muck spreaders flicking shit in the fields than an actual driveway.
“Fascia board” I’d say and my mother fell upon me with kisses.
Back then my brother, Jos, and I were often mistaken for twins. Although he was a year older, we had the same blue eyes and mousy hair and wore the same boys’ hand-me-downs, corduroy dungarees with patches on the knee. Those were days of monotonous isolated minutiae for my mother, when we were not yet at school and days blurred into years.
One bright day in March that year, we’d just finished the messy business of lunch. Jos and I had refused my mothers home-grown beetroot in her home-made white sauce. We’d pushed around the cold meat on our plates, meat that had come to us from our grandmother, a no-nonsense, buck-up, bandy-legged woman who bred bulls and sent us a whole butchered pig as a Christmas gift. She included a note to my mother, her daughter-in-law, about marinating the head and glazing it for the table. Mum carefully dug the head out from the box of body parts in the chest freezer and told my father to bury it at the end of the garden. Two weeks later the dog dragged it into the kitchen.
More lenient than my father, my mother had given in to us that lunchtime, though we didn’t deserve it, and handed us plates of stewed apple, apples she’d cooked up herself from September’s windfalls softening in the garage. The homesteading life was one she had embraced, stewing tomatoes, making marmalade, freezing carrots and finally understanding what Aunt June had meant when she said over a cup of tea, "Thank God the plums have failed."
It was familiar to see my mothers cracked hands discolored by the juice of blackberries and red currents or smiling as she shelled broad beans, saying how cozy they looked nestled among their fibrous white blankets. It’s possible she imagined a more literary life, surrounded by books and theatre but by marrying my father she’d agreed to a level of rural isolation that was amplified by motherhood. Sometimes a mobile bakery would rattle down the narrow lane, hedges high on either side and a man sold us a loaf of sandwich white, before rolling away with a tide-mark of slurry on his once-white van.
“Outside” she directed us that day when our bowls are empty. “You don’t need boots.”
It had been a wet winter but the sun was out, gutters creaking, a wood pigeon’s coo promising springtime. For the first time, perhaps, my mother felt we could play outside without her constant supervision, so while we went outside, she put away the cold meat and the sliced beetroot. She wrapped the Cheddar and put it in the fridge and took the plates to the sink. We did not have a dishwasher then. With her hands deep in the soapy water she gazed out of the window, inhaling this moment of domesticity, no different from all the others, but somehow sweeter. Just the sound of the fridge humming.
As she cleared the draining board and returned to the sink, she would have caught sight of Jos and I from the window – we had reached the edge of the garden, just before the field, creating a scene of water-colored simplicity as if pulled from the postcard-sized pages of Peter and Jane. But the next time she looked up we were in the field, beyond the fence and poking at something. She tore out of the house, her hands still dripping soap suds as she reached us. The toadstools reached our chests, they grew in tall clumps, dripping black ink from their delicate gills. The flesh on their caps was flaking like old skin and they oozed a damp fungal smell that leaked out when we prodded them.
“You didn’t eat any of that did you?” My mother asked, her words coming at us like gunfire.
“No” said Jos, wide eyed, using a three year old’s first language, denial, “but Emily did.”
I, the picky eater who had turned down beetroot and pork on a clean plate had eaten toadstool growing out of cow shit. Only a frantic mother would miss this. Most likely I burst into tears. No "Fascia board" could save me now.
When my mother first shared this story she insisted I was at least four years old.
"But why didn't I speak up?" I said. "How come you only listened to Jos?" I pressed her on this.
"Perhaps you were younger" she conceded, "Yes, possibly all you had was "Fascia board"". In telling this story, she doesn’t mention the vice-like grip she had on my wrist as she flung me back to the house or how she stretched my arms up to the sink, not noticing they were bending the wrong way at the elbow or how the water scalded my hands, as she locked her eyes on mine for some hint of dilation or delirium. She called the doctor who remarkably, because it was the Seventies, drove over, and like the baker, probably cursed the filthy roads.
Dr. Reddington had a square beard like a thick piece of toast which bounced when he talked. Did I appear to nod when he talked to me or was I just watching the jumping toast? He gave me the medicine anyway and told my mother to send me out into the garden again, this time under supervision, where I promptly threw up my stewed apple.
“Undigested” my mother adds when she tells the story. “Of course you hadn’t eaten any toadstool.” As if it was a trick we played on her. A practical joke. My brother walked away unscathed, I held him no grudge, only loved him more fiercely. But I was left with a single question I asked every day, “Will I be sick?” until my parents could take no more and dispatched me, at eleven, to boarding school. I was not the sport-loving rumbunctious tween that features in books about girls boarding schools, flitting around in a gym skirt, swinging my ponytail. I preferred the library over the Lacrosse pitch and began carrying around a pocket book of Psalms, the text more baffling than the bananas and the fear of someone finding out so paralyzing, I’d sit, of all places, in the toilet stalls to figure out my prognosis.
While I'm certain the toadstool episode gave me my fear of vomiting, I wonder now if it also gave me something else, my fascination with finding the right words, of having them ready, of having my say.
“When,” my husband asks me these days, “did you ever not have your say?”