Into an old biscuit tin, decorated with an artist’s impression of buildings with flat roofs and sills heaving with pelargoniums, she has placed a starched napkin, which functions as a lining. The biscuits were eaten Christmases ago and the lid has always been missing. The balls of cotton wool are placed inside the tin where they remain in neat rows, as compliant as custard creams.When the biscuit tin is full to the top, she folds over the corners of the napkin to form a protective cover. On top of this she places a chipped enamel bowl, a doll-sized rubber suction cup used to remove the artificial eye from its socket and a brown glass bottle full of antiseptic eye drops. The biscuit tin is then returned to the sideboard where it sits next to a pile of knitting patterns until it is needed.I was two years old when someone first noticed the squint. Mother thought it was nothing, but Aunty continued to plead week after week. If mother didn’t do something soon she would take me to the doctor herself.The village doctor looked at my right eye and told my mother she was to go home immediately. He would arrange for an ambulance to collect us there. Then he rang ahead to let the hospital know that we would soon arrive . While we were being transported to the Infirmary, the pit cage made an unscheduled journey down the shaft to bring my father up from the coalface. Mother has a photograph of me taken at that time. She placed it in a wooden frame and it sits on the mantelpiece with other family photographs. The photograph speaks of my future, for I am cross-eyed, squinting and marked for a foreign land.I am sitting, fair-haired and upright on an old tartan pram-rug. I am solid and substantial, a well-nourished post-war baby, my parents’ fifth child conceived in one of his many torrents of fists and self-loathing. I am welcomed anyway. The cot is taken out of storage and pushed in between her side of the bed and the tallboy. Babies always bring their own love, she says.In that first year, I am wallowed in like winter sunshine. Mother writes home about me, and my father laughs out loud. He is unable to understand why, in exchange for his bitter outburst, a healthy and perfect baby girl has been handed to him.The photograph was taken in the corner of the garden; the gnarled old lilac tree is heaving with blossoms, and the smell of them is heady. Mother has put a freshly ironed apron over her dress. The box-brownie has been brought down from the spare bedroom.My parents stand behind me, my father at a distance because he is not entirely sure that he deserves to be in the photograph. His look is still and pensive. Mother is scared and her face is stiff. She is concentrating intently because she is afraid that she might do something wrong, and that it will be her fault if the photograph does not turn out. Mother looks away from the camera and down at her feet where I am sitting. She gives the littlest of smiles.Look at them looking at me. It was me who made them believe that they had some hope after all. Are they feeling relieved that at last they have a baby who is whole and healthy? Did they want this snapshot to capture the moment in time when they believed that at last they may have turned a corner? I did not mean to trick them into believing that I would make them happy.I despise that baby in the photograph, sitting so perfectly upright and confident. She is too far ahead of herself in believing she should smile. This baby will be her mother’s heartache and her father’s curse. Stupid, stupid, smiling baby believing that this world is the best of all worlds.At the Infirmary the specialist speaks slowly and is kind, but Mother has tasted tragedy before and already recognises the familiar tone of foreboding. She doesn’t want to hear what he is telling her. Instead she thinks about the majestic stone lions at the entrance to the infirmary, the brilliant white of the doctor’s coat, and the men who come home from the colliery black-faced with coal dust.His words are short, sharp and considered. He tells my mother I have a swelling in my eye, a growth, a tumour. It is a rare type of cancer and it is growing very rapidly. He tells her that it demands his most urgent and decisive action.She longs to feel the weight of my gorgeous baby body, sitting heavy and moving across her thighs, but they have put me in a hospital cot to be prepared for surgery. I am sleeping and Mother is watching me through the tall bars of the iron cot, afraid to pick me up in case she gets into trouble for waking me. Please let me wake so that she can comfort herself.A young staff nurse brings the consent forms on a clipboard. Mother has exquisite handwriting. It maintains a perfect and consistent angle across the page. The descenders on her g’s and y’s curl back on themselves to form the most elegant ellipses. With this hand she signs the forms using a cheap plastic biro that the nurse has handed her.
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