What was the earth like?
My sister asks this every night, leaning back on her pillow. The question is part of our routine, along with brushing our teeth, peeing, pushing our legs into the soft holes of our pajamas.
Sometimes I tell her about the forests and mountains, or what it felt like to sink into a cold sea: slowly, then all at once. Voices on the radio. Cities seen from planes.
But tonight she just wants to hear about biscuits. I list brand names, types, varieties of shape and filling. Bourbons, Jaffa Cakes, Oreos, Kit Kats. Party rings, I tell her, were pink and purple, in the shape of a circle, with a hole in the middle. They were covered in swirls.
Some things are so difficult to explain, they delay bedtime. Restaurants. Shopping malls. Crowds.
She is always interested in the word stranger. And usually I am careful. I talk about walking past a couple on a country walk. The way it was polite to nod, even if you didn’t know them. But one night, I was reckless. In New York, I told her, in London, you could walk past thousands of people every day. You had no idea who they were.
Were you scared?
I laid there with her for hours after she went to sleep, trying to remember it: a hot summer day at a traffic light in London, everyone in T-shirts, their faces shining with sweat or happiness. Lips and eyes, shoulders and palms. Every person infinite, unknown.
I tried again: the hopeful, crammed stuffiness of the air. The way that, if you let yourself, you could get lost in these people. You could disappear. Sometimes, on the bus, I wanted to touch someone so badly that I gripped the seat, just to hold something in my hand.
Could you buy carrots? She has never seen a carrot in real life, but I drew a picture of one for her once. I told her how they tasted: orange, I said. Sweet, fresh. None of these words seemed enough.
We are on supermarkets now. I describe the colorful rows, the clean, chilled air. I tell her about the noise a till made when you bought something.
I whisper in her ear, making her giggle. She is ticklish there. She is yawning. Above us, the inside lights have been dimmed. Soon they will go off. 11:00 PM, we call it: New York time. But if I lift up the blind, the outside is blazing: it is alight.
She curls into me, tucks a hand behind my ear. When she breathes out, I breathe in. If I try, I can almost smell tree sap. If I try, I can almost imagine it is a breeze.
Give me a good one, the editor says, flicking the switch. He does this as though he invented the switch, as though the switch were part of his fingers, an extension of his hand.
We need better today, he says. You need to work harder than before, do you understand? He speaks as though understanding is impossible, as though his voice is reaching for the last trace of talk. As though I am a monkey, and have no language at all.
I nod, dumbly, playing the monkey, not asking for a banana. I do not flinch when he brings the headset; I have seen what happens with flinching. I do nothing as he rests it on my head, as he smoothes back my hair, gently, like he cares about it.
I make it as strong as I can; I am nineteen. Some are not happy at nineteen, but I am. I have bought my first bicycle and I cycle it up spring-scented, blossom-trailed hills. I know joy in spring is passé, but I can’t help it. The world is like a giant smile, an opening wound, leaking bliss (is that better?). I am its agile explorer.
At first I am unable to do the hills: my lungs complain and seem to tear at the edges: my throat is filled with a sourness that tastes like death itself: rank, the bad truth of the body’s insides. But (stay on track), I will say this: I get used to it. Day by day the hills are easier to climb, until I am rising off my seat in the middle of an incline, rising my easy woman self off the seat, my throat a clear road inside me. Life means little to me then; it is easily given away. (Careful.) I mean this: I wear headphones that play scowling rockers, men whose anguished words turn around my pedals. I don’t care if this will make my cycling dangerous, if I will go under the wheels of a truck. This is how light life feels to me then: like a soft shawl settling on my shoulders, like something I can shrug off.
I open my eyes. The editor is turned away from me, taking endless notes by hand. Occasionally, he reaches out and presses a button in response to a light, or scratches his scalp furiously, with one nail. If there is a monkey here, it’s not me.
I have three seconds, I know. Three seconds before the feed catches up. I breathe it in: the present, now, here, this. I close my eyes.
I have my plans for the summer, and they lie out in front of me, a fresh landscape, untouched, like something no one has ever done before. I have made it all happen: this is the first time that I realize I can do this: that I can make things happen. Before this, life breaks on me in waves. It is water I can push my fingers into, but not redirect. Until now.
I have a job at a coffee shop to save up for the plane tickets. The job is fine (another word?). It is easy; I’ve been a barista before, and there is a certain fluent pleasure in swinging around the shining machine. I have so few skills, and this is one of them: tamping down the gritted, earth-dense coffee, slotting the metal into itself. The customers seem more polite to me here, in this festive seaside town where I am a student, now that I am older and less likely to spit in their drinks. They hardly ever look at me with no facial expression and blurt their order, as though I am a voice-activated machine. And I hardly ever slam the drink down when they do this, splashing the counter with drops of coffee. Hardly ever.
A small electrical shock to my hand, the fingers lifting in an involuntary dance. My skin has never got used to this, even if the rest of me has.
I keep my eyes closed; I don’t want to see him as he turns in his chair. I don’t want to see if he is angry, or only disappointed. I nod. Okay, okay, I say, as though this is my only word. Okay.
I buy the flights in a small, cluttered office on the street that leads to the train station. I book with an obscure airline; the return leg is on the first anniversary of September 11th. (Watch it.) That’s okay though, it made the tickets cheaper. That’s good. And I cycle back to my house that day—downhill—feeling the sea air rushing through my long hair, making it fly out behind me. The sea air is … salty, then, and full of birds squawking. In the mornings, birds land on the roof of my house—my room is in the attic—and scratch it with their feet. (Stay positive.) I like waking up to them. It makes everything sound busy and alive.
When I get back to my house my best friend is there—Jupiter—she is really called Jupiter. She is making soup for us. She loves making soup; she’s got better at it through the year. When she first made it I had to pretend to like it, and pour it down the sink, practically gagging (stop).
No—this is a good soup. Spinach, I think. Jupiter’s a vegetarian. She is the best friend I’d ever had—people thought we were a couple. We never touched each other with our hands, not like that, but I’ve never had my mind closer to anyone in my life.
A beeping, a bright light. Subject 247, the editor is saying. Subject 247. He will keep saying it until I open my eyes. I can smell his sour breath too near to me. I can smell sour breath, and deodorant, and something else. I can’t remember that smell. I don’t want to. I open my eyes instead.
Subject 247, he is still saying. He leans back in his chair. The readings are too low. We need to get closer. We need to really have the feeling of what it was like to be there. Can you do that? I am not moving or speaking. Can you? He asks. His hand is hovering over a button, and I nod before he presses it.
Yes, I say. This is the most I can give him. This is the most I can say.
The sun fills the whole hallway; the wood soaks it up. This hallway is like every happy afternoon, the smell of dinner filling it, warmth, someone looking after me. I can hear Jupiter somewhere, lifting things, putting them down. It seems like she is making this noise just for me; a symphony of pans. I think maybe one of the other housemates will be there, the drooping, handsome boys who take too many drugs and interrupt our conversations with their jokes.
But when I get into the kitchen, it’s just her. Just her, in her slouchy trousers, her ribbed black jumper, a roll-up at the corner of her lips.
Soup? She asks, as though I’ve been gone a minute, instead of the whole day.
I want to break here. For a sip of water, for a stretch. I fidget with my headset, make a drinking motion with my hand.
No, he says. Not yet. You’re doing better. Keep going.
We sit and eat the soup: it tastes like the color green, like the smell of grass, like fresh things your body wants and needs. In those days, there were as many vegetables as you could eat. We had to make ourselves eat them. Mothers had to tell their children: eat your vegetables! They’d rather have burgers, and nuggets, and pasta. They’d push the peas to the edge of their plates.
Jupiter was always healthy, apart from the cigarettes. She barely drank. We’d dance all night, fueled only by water. (Stick with the moment).
We eat the soup, and we talk about my plans. I’m going to South America, I say to her, but I may as well be going to another planet. It feels like that. After we’ve eaten we go out into the garden; we both smoke and then we lie on our back and look out at the stars. I point out South America up there, show her how far away it feels. This was the last time we—it was three months before—
There is a larger shock: my whole hand jumps up, the fingers rattle. It looks so much like a spider; I have a strange urge to laugh, but the pain stops me: it is stronger.
I think we’ll stop there, the editor says. He breathes through his teeth. We nearly got it.
I can try again, I say. I can. He is shaking his head, pulling off the headset roughly, any pretense of caring gone. We’ll try again on Wednesday, he says.
Wednesday. I am flooded with pleasure. I remember the day I decided that Wednesday was my favorite day of the week, perfectly placed in the middle. I should have tried that one, my raincoat tipping off my forehead, suspended only by its hood, my patent leather school shoes squeaking across the floor.
Wednesday, he says again, tapping his pen, changing the temperature of the day for me in an instant. There is a collision of knowledge—of what has happened to others, of the way he is looking at me—that tells me it might be my last chance.
She has to work harder than me; children are the best givers, it is known. The best sources, or subjects, or whatever word they’ve decided to use this week.
I take her to the brightly painted children’s room every morning, just like my mother dropped me at preschool. We eat breakfast together in the mess first, her feet kicking under the table.
While we eat, she likes it when I describe meals to her: the most delicious, the most spicy, the most fatty. She likes to hear about restaurants most of all: she can hardly cope with the concept, the elaborate joy of it. The idea of a menu. She spoons her pap—smooth, grey, literally tasteless—into her mouth, and I tell her about the Chinese place my parents took me to for birthdays, or just before Christmas. I try to remember every single item on the laminated sheets—sweet and sour pork, ginger-spring onion prawns, roast Peking duck with pancakes. She used to stop me at every word—What are prawns? What are pancakes?—but now she just lets them slide past.
Sometimes she still asks me what things tasted like, and I try to remember every detail for her: the vaguely metallic tang of the plum sauce, the hot, papery blandness of the rolled pancake, the salted depth of the duck. I tell her she would have loved Masterchef.
Sometimes I think they should use these: our food memories. Sometimes I think they’re the clearest ones we have. Even the machine they use is named after a food memory. But they’ve explained it before: food memories lack complexity, apparently. Alone—without context, without relationships—they do not qualify.
Children have so many memories of love, they said, one day, at the start. These are the most valuable to them: pure love, without too much sadness or grief or anger mixed in. Best of all: children have not yet learned to rationalize their memories, to layer them with pointless abstractions. Adult memories offer more of the world, but much less purity. Older memories have been remembered before: they are memories of memories, apparently. They are not the real thing at all.
A carer comes out of the machine room to take my sister in; she is smiling but the expression stops at mid-cheek: my sister always clings to me at this point. But today she hears some of the other children past the door, and she takes the carer’s hand, waving goodbye to me, looking away.
I know she will come back. I know that I will only have to wait until 3:00—they have modeled it on school pick up time—and then she will be there again, smiling, looking as though no harm as been done. We will go to the mess hall for an early dinner—maybe stop at the playground wing on the way—and I’ll tell her all about Italian food.
We are not going to revisit the previous memory, the editor tells me as soon as I sit down. He looks down at his papers, trying to find the reference point. It is Wednesday: the day has come around easily, quickly, in an illusion of days and nights.
Jupiter, I remind him, and he nods: looking down. He has found the name in his records. He lifts the page up, almost casually: I notice that he has shaved. He runs his finger down the data in a pattern, a snake-like curling. Ah, yes, he says, nods, puts the page down.
He begins re-fitting the harness before he tells me. This way he doesn’t have to look into my eyes.
We’d like you to remember the birth of your sister, he says. Or—he chuckles here, as though something is funny—not the birth itself, of course. Of course. We’d like you to remember meeting her. Just after then. He snaps the clasps shut above my ears: one, two. He leans back, his hands on his legs. He has the voice of a private schoolboy, as we would once have called it. Someone who knows that their place in the world is assured.
Today, he seems to be pretending to be a friendly doctor. He gives me the briefest of smiles, reaches across to the switch. Let’s start, shall we?
Mum has been in the hospital for a week already; her blood pressure has gone too high. She is an older mother, much older than most, especially now. It has been ten years since she had me, easily, flawlessly, according to her story. It was hardly pain, she told me once.
The beeping again, the mildest of shocks through my fingers, like static. He is feeling patient today. But I remember his tone last week. I can hear him stretch in his chair, flick through his papers. I keep my eyes on the ground. I nod my head. I’m ready.
(Get straight into it.) It is such a sunny day; the whole hospital corridor is filled with liquid light, a brightness that seems to enter my heart. I am warm, almost alight, my steps so quick across the floor I think I might slip. The door is open; I know this is a good sign before I even get there, so the last of my steps are just pure anticipation, pure waiting, no fear left, the open door—
My mother is lying back on the bed, and beside her is a glass cot, plastic maybe, transparent, a yellow blanket, a waving hand.
A low hum from the machine; almost a purr, a sound of pleasure, a growling efficiency. I can hear him sitting back in his chair, the rub of his back in the leather. I try to concentrate. I am doing well: he doesn’t even need to say it.
She smells like something I have never smelled before; something deeply underground or from the most inner part of the body, some part that doesn’t even smell bad, just of yeast: something baked, something born. She is deliciously curdled, like cheese: her fingers croak up, old-lady frail, and they shrimp around my large, rough thumb before I know it.
I gasp: it is the cliché that is no longer a cliché, because I am living it. My mother’s smile is broad, exhausted. We three women, needing no one else, ever, whatever happens. This was before she got the sickness, before—
A small nip. A bright blue light. But he is laughing, I think. Just a little. I hear the unmistakable sound of hand slapping cloth.
We got it, he is saying when I open my eyes. He is flicking a series of switches—I’ve never seen this before, though I’ve heard about it: how the machine seems to come alive, rainbow lights flashing, a rhythmical in-and-out, like a heartbeat, or a breath.
Maddy’s happy, the editor says. His eyes are glistening. He reaches out his hand to me, the old gesture. He has never done this before. I think I know what this means: extra servings in mess, maybe even the smallest injection of flavor, if the quarterly delivery has arrived. I have already decided I will give it to my sister: I imagine her face when she shakes the little sachet over her pap.
A noise from the digital clock on the wall: it is 3:00, time to collect her. I get down, he hardly seems to notice. I have never taken my own headset off before. I say goodbye, and reverse away, reaching for the door behind my back.
The other children come out in a parade of voices, of jubilation. Only one or two drag their feet, look tired or worse.
She is often among the last ones: she is one of the smallest, and it takes her a long time to put her coat on, the gloves and hat we need for the unheated transportation tunnels. We are in one of the last bays, nearly an hour’s walk from the children’s room. Maybe now, we will move closer. I won’t tell her until it happens. She always gets too excited by any change; even the suggestion of a change makes it hard for her to sleep.
Her carer comes out without her. I know what this means—I have seen it before, once—but I ignore it. She can’t—won’t—be one of those ones. It is not possible for her to be one of them: I promised myself this. I shake my head quickly, my vision flickering, still feeling the warmth from the memory, seeing the light in the corridor, her skin around mine. Shrimp fingers. Yellow blanket. But before I pass out, it is not my sister I see, or even the editor. It is Madeleine, lit up, her lights like a fancy dress, her mechanism raised and running, just like happiness.