When I was twelve my mother gave birth to my sister. She lived for six weeks. Then one night she died. Silently. When no one was looking.
After the funeral we made a pilgrimage to a little village where every year a fairground was held on the village green. I heard the noise of the fairground before I saw it. Blasts of music and screams of laughter carried high on the hot summer air. The cloying smell of candy floss and toffee apples. The taste of hot dogs, succulent with mustard and fried onions. The odour of hundreds of people milling around the coconut shies and rifle ranges enjoying the annual treat in the sun.
Our destination was a green glass dome in the middle of the fairground. We walked passed the Big Wheel full of shrieking teenagers, the Big Dipper and Dodgem cars, the dancing clowns and stilt walkers and bouncing little dwarfs. My mother went inside the dome and I waited outside with my father. He told me that the dome was a memorial to a child who had died in the village last century. After her death the bereaved mother would not allow the child’s favourite doll to go in the coffin with her. She carried it everywhere and sang to it and brushed its hair. The father saw his wife trim the doll’s hair one day and when he asked why she did this, she answered, “Even after death a child’s hair grows.”
The story spread and soon little groups of mourning parents straggled up to the cottage to touch the doll and tell it about their loss. Some brought gifts of food and money, whatever they could afford. Many superstitions arose out of those visits but no one knew what was fact or fiction. After the death of the child’s parents a dome was erected on the village green and the doll was kept inside. Every year since then the fairground folk had pitched their tents around the dome and given a portion of their profit towards its upkeep. Now, not many people visited the dome for the traditional purpose, but a few stories still surfaced occasionally about someone or other swearing that they had seen a reflection of their dead child in the glass.
I crept inside the dome to find my mother. She was kneeling in front of a clear glass case in which stood the doll. It was about twenty centimetres high with long black hair and a white linen nightdress embroidered in green silk birds. My mother was shredding the flesh of a raw chicken with her hands and stuffing the pieces into a bag. Her dress was wet over her breasts as her milk flowed. She was breathing in short shallow gasps as if too much air sucked in too deeply would spin her into a place where there was so much pain her heart would burst. Then I heard her say, “My baby talked to me when she was only half-born. Her vocabulary increased day by day. Then one day when I was changing her nappy I found clusters of black berries.”
Terrified, I ran out of the dome past my father and into the nearest building which happened to be the Hall of Mirrors. I darted from mirror to mirror seeing my reflection flattened, diminished then magnified to giant-sized.
Immediately after this incident I was packed off to stay with my father’s mother in Southampton for a while. Then I was sent to the boarding school in London that my father had gone to, to toughen me up, my father said. At the end of the first term, the headmaster summoned me to his office, told me to keep a stiff upper lip and be a man. Men did not cry, he said, not even when the news was bad. Men did not cry, he repeated, even when they were told their mothers had died. I should keep that in mind, he said, because the sad news was my mother was indeed dead. She had walked into the river near our home plucking berries off a belladonna plant and scattering them over the water.
The headmaster stood there looking out of the window all the time he was telling me this in his grey voice. Then he turned round and said what a jolly bad show it all was and I must be a man. I shot out my arms and pushed against his immense belly. There was a loud popping sound like a balloon bursting as his body emptied of hot air. He crumpled at the knees and sank to the floor bleating. His head sank into his shoulders and his great bloated fingers wrinkled and dangled off the end of his arms like dehydrated sausages. I watched his deflation with a mixture of contempt and pity.
A couple of teachers stuck their heads round the door when they heard his cries for help and ran off to find bicycle pumps. But, despite their frantic attempts to refill him with air there were too many holes for it to escape through and finally, realising the futility of their efforts they stood back and shrugged their shoulders. Another teacher came in with a brush and dustpan and swept up what was left.