Give me a place to stand, and I will lift the world: Archimedes
I live in the sky, on the top floor of a tall block of flats. They are not so tall as the cranes on the building site next door but near enough. There is a man climbing up the crane nearest me towards the driver’s cabin. Watching him shift up, rung by rung, I wonder if he ever dares look down, and if his cabin sways in the wind. It is windy today: enough to blow the seagulls about.
To my right I can look across the city. Directly below me are men in orange helmets working on the building site, beyond them people walking up Holliday Street, getting in and out of cars. They can't see me. I like that - seeing but not being seen. If they can’t see you they can’t think you're a freak, either. I’ve been into kids’ chatrooms sometimes (but only on the library computers. Mum has barred all the chatrooms on my desktop.) Most of the stuff there is silly. Once, though, I wrote that I felt like a freak and a whole stack of messages came through from people who said they felt like freaks too. A few said freaks were a waste of space. But who cares about them? Actually I quite like being a freak. If I am one.
Looking the other way, up towards the canals and the Gas Street Basin, though I can see the canal, I can't quite see into the Gas Street Basin, see Granny's boat. But I know it's there. This gives me a warm feeling. Granny seems to like me as I am, freak or not. 'In your grandmother's eyes you can do no wrong,' my mother is always saying, with a sigh that implies that in her view I can do no right.
Thinking of granny makes me decide to go and see her. I write an email to Ella to tell her where I'm going - I don't send it; what’s the point. If you are going to ask who Ella is, please don’t. I’ll tell you. Ella is the imaginary friend I had as a child. It’s no use asking me to explain her, though, I can’t explain her even to myself. I just put the letter in the draft folder labelled Ella and pretend to send it.
I wave at the man on the crane– he’s almost at the top now - then I put on my fleece and head out of my room. There are baby noises coming from the sitting-room. I put my head round the door to find the baby sitting in his baby seat wearing a trendy black-and-white striped babygro and my mother making cooing noises. At least the baby's got sense; it's staring at her as if she's mad. But then she is mad. Becoming a grandmother has sent her right off her head. Perhaps becoming an aunt should have had the same effect on me, but it hasn't. It’s my mother's silly noises and sillier faces makes me mad. YUK. Having babies is a mug’s game, I think. I’m not going to, not ever. Get a life.
'I'm off to granny’s,' I tell them. My mother sighs but says nothing. Not to me anyway. 'Who's the best baby in the world?' she asks the baby who continues to stare back unblinking. I wink at it. But it doesn’t take any notice of me, either.
I look beyond them, out of the window. The climbing man has vanished into his cabin. Three of the cranes now are swinging back and forth in that dance of theirs, like it’s a conversation, speaking not speaking, meeting not meeting. They make me sigh with mysterious longing.
'Oh Ella,' I whisper to myself. Then I'm out of the door, into the shining steel lift - 'this is the seventh floor' it says in its husky voice, ‘Going down.’ Out past the reception desk, through the glass doors and up the steps in the mall, along the lines of expensive boutiques where my mother and my sister buy their clothes, out onto the terrace past the cafes and people drinking, eating chattering, clinking their glasses, their knives and forks, their silly voices. Onto the new bridge, at last. I don’t mind the bridge, though; if you jump on it you can make it bounce.
I make it bounce now, looking back at the one untouched building and business that the developers haven’t managed to get rid of. GS Brough, Washers and Gaskets it announces in faded letters. I’m always glad to see GS Brough, relieved that something and someone stays the same. Nothing else does here, these days. Everything changes. (Including me – look at the way my body has changed, is changing, what it does to me every month now without fail. Yukky.)
The bridge I’m standing on for instance, has only been here a year or so. This is a change I don’t mind, though. I like the bridge. I stand for a moment looking across at the not so new flats opposite. In the window at the end a woman sits all day writing. Sometimes I wave at her. Sometimes she sees me and waves back. She doesn’t see me now. I run off down onto the towpath, past the café, past the little pub, the Tap and Spile, dwarfed by all the new buildings round it. Over the steep bridge onto the pontoon where Granny’s narrowboat is moored. Onto the deck. Knock, pull the door open, bend my head and climb down in. I’m back in Granny’s world.
I tell Granny about most things. But I don’t tell her about the chat rooms and I don’t tell her about Ella. (I was less careful about things like that when I was little; I told everyone I had a friend called Ella then, but Granny wasn’t around for me to tell.) I tell Ella all about Granny, though, in the emails I don’t send. ‘Granny is my favourite person by a long way,’ I write. ‘She lives on a boat with the crazy name of Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne is the Muse of Memory according to Granny, she doesn’t think it the least crazy. She says it’s the most important muse of all, more important than poetry, more important than history. ‘Where would either of them be without memory,’ she says. “What would we be without memory? How can you face the future, let alone live in the present without memory?’
Granny is apt to talk like that, though. Sometimes I understand her. Sometimes I don’t.
‘What happens if you don’t want to remember things?’ I ask her once. (There’s plenty I don’t want to remember; like being sent to Coventry at school once; like having a tooth out.) ‘Aren’t there things you don’t want to remember, granny?’
‘Of course,’ Granny says, her eyes far away suddenly. ‘But that’s not the point.’
‘What is the point then?’ I ask.
‘Work it out for yourself, Esther,’ she says. This is one of granny’s most annoying habits: seeming about to tell me something interesting and then saying. ‘Work it out for yourself.’ Not much else annoys me about Granny. If I can do no wrong in her eyes, according to my mother, she can’t do much wrong in mine either. 'A mutual admiration society,' my half sister calls us. Maybe she’s jealous. I don’t think granny ever liked her as much as she seems to like me.
But probably she never had the chance to get to know Granny the way I have. Granny didn’t live on a boat when my sister was little. She lived all over the world, and rarely came home to England, until I was eight or so. She got her narrow boat then and has lived on it ever since, going up and down the canals.
Granny kept the narrow boat out in the country mostly then. But the winter of the Foot and Mouth epidemic, she decided to bring it up to Birmingham to see us – this was not long after we moved there. She’d planned to go on from there up the Worcester canal, but when they closed the towpaths to prevent the infection spreading, she said there was no point, she had stayed all spring in the Gas Street Basin. Even when the restrictions were lifted she’d stayed on. She goes off for a week or two sometimes but she always comes back.
My mother said it was a good thing, because granny was getting on a bit. She couldn’t keep moving the boat all by herself here there and everywhere. There was too much heavy lifting. Suppose she got sick? And it was true I could help her empty the Elsan – her loo – now, things like that. I do help her. But I don’t think that’s the reason she stays. I think she really likes the things everyone thought would drive her mad here in the middle of the city. Like the jazz on Sundays from The James Brindley on the other side of the canal. Like the people, the music, the general bustle to and fro. Admittedly she’s a bit deaf, the noise is less of a nuisance to her than it might be to someone else. But even so. It’s one of the nice things about granny. That she likes all sorts of things that most grown-ups think of as a trial; or even illegal. (Like that faint smell in her cabin sometimes, which I suspect is something it shouldn’t be. But I don’t say. And nor does Granny.)
Today, for instance, when I negotiate my way round the tiller and knock on her double door, she puts her head out of the door and says ‘Are you hungry, Esther? How about a bite at the Tap and Spile?’ ‘Cool,’ I say. But Granny is cool. (Not like my parents: they’re the uncoolest of uncool.) She doesn’t mind the least, for instance, that we have to sit outside because I’m too young to go in the bar, even though it’s not very warm, if sunny. It’s especially nice because it means Border – my dog that she keeps for me - can come too.
Afterwards we go back to the boat and she makes coffee: real coffee in a little espresso pot she puts on top of the calor gas stove. I’m not allowed coffee at home. It’s nice down there in her cabin - the opposite of being in the flat at home. The flat is like a nest in the sky. Granny’s two little cabins crammed with books, pictures, bits and pieces from all over the world, feels like a burrow, underground. Never mind the water rocking slightly underfoot, never mind the seagulls swooping past the window, the geese and ducks sitting on the towpath or swimming round the boat hoping for scraps. Granny likes feeding the geese. When Border barks at them – she always will bark at them Granny tells her to shut up and she does. (Drat her. Border never shuts up like that for me.)
I also notice outside the window some newly-arrived cranes. The whole city is like a building site these days. ‘I do like cranes, though’ I tell Granny now, dipping a piece of chocolate into my coffee. ‘So do I,’ Granny says. ‘I’ve always wanted to go right to the top of one. I don’t suppose I ever will.’
‘Wouldn’t you be scared?’ I ask. ‘Probably,’ Granny says. ‘But so what? I asked if I could once, the man I talked said a lot of people who went up got halfway up and then lost their nerve and were hard to get down. He said I could ring up and try to get permission if I wanted, but every time I rang the man I needed wasn’t available. I think he made sure he wasn’t. People like me would be a nuisance to them.’
I wondered if I would be scared; if Ella would.
I’d better go home now,’ I said. ‘I hope the baby’s gone.’
‘You don’t like him, do you?’ Granny said.
‘Why should I like him? Mum isn’t interested in anyone else now. She isn’t interested in me.’
‘I don’t think that’s entirely true, Esther,’ Granny says quietly.
‘Anyway I don’t like babies. They smell and scream and they’re always in the way.’
‘I’m not that fond of babies either,’ granny says.
‘Why don’t you like babies?’ I ask, surprised. ‘You had one once. You had mum.’
‘Have another biscuit, Esther,’ Granny says, as if I haven’t spoken; her eyes look distant again..
‘Mnemosyne’s a really silly name for a boat,’ I say thoughtfully. Then I grab another biscuit, kiss Granny and go crouching out of the door onto the pontoon and home again; past the James Brindley this time and Bridge Street and the multi-storey car park.
When I get back there’s a note from Mum – no her, no baby. ‘Back in half an hour,’ it says. ‘If you’re hungry there’s a pizza in the fridge.’
But I’m not hungry after coffee with Granny. I switch on my email to see if there are any messages. There is one, but from someone I’ve only pretended to send messages to. Someone who doesn’t exist except in my head. Or so I think – yet there the message is - subject ‘hello’ - from someone called firstname.lastname@example.org. Warily, I click the mouse and get it up. But it’s quite blank. I click reply. The reply form leaps into its little square; from email@example.com it says, as before. But the message space still comes up blank. I write a large question mark; add my name ‘Esther’ and send it. The message goes.
The base is bolted to a large concrete pad that supports the crane.
1. My family is very small. 2, My family is very big. How can two opposite things be true at once? Discuss.
1. My family is very small. There’s just me and my mum and my dad – sometimes. More often there’s just my mum and me. A smaller family than that you cannot have. Often, when anyone asks me, I say I am an only child. Because I am in that way.. Just me and my mum and sometimes my dad living in our flat in the centre of Birmingham.
2. My family is very big. I have three brothers and four sisters. My father is old, though not as old as Granny. He’s more than old enough to retire, mum says, but he doesn’t. He keeps working harder than ever, and isn’t at home much. He has been married three times and has five children apart from me, all of them years older than I am. My mother has been married twice and has two children apart from me, and the one grandchild. I don’t know how many grandchildren my father has, or how many times I’m an aunt on that side. His three older children are married, but they won’t have anything to do with him because their mother doesn’t want them to. I wonder sometimes about these brothers and sisters of mine, but they don’t feel like brothers and sisters – they’re much too old – only ten years younger than my mother. Their children must be as old as me if not older. His other two children I have met but neither of them are married yet or seem interested in starting families. As for my mother’s other children: I do see my sister, the baby’s mother - a bit more often than I want really. Even before the baby she didn’t take much notice of me and now she doesn’t take any. My brother’s alright. I like him a lot, and he seems to like me. But he’s been all over the world – China, Vietnam, Russia, Africa - teaching English as a Foreign Language - and lately he’s been living in San Francisco, learning to be a designer. We rarely see him, and last time he came he told my mother he was gay: no nephews and nieces there, either. What a relief.
That’s it for my big family. Since we’re never together, it really it doesn’t mean much, except a certain amount of complication and upset, every now and then. Most of the time I feel part of a small family, an only child. I don’t get the benefits of being only child, though. Both my parents have spent too much of their lives bringing up children to find anything very special about me. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got the worst of both worlds: big families and small families.
There are some advantages. I get to do pretty much what I want, most of the time, no questions asked. And above all I get granny, mostly to myself. And that’s cool.
So you see two opposite statements can both be true 1, big family, 2, small family. Me, mum, dad, granny, my little family. Quite big enough for me.
A second message comes from Ella, as blank as the first. This time I reply with two question marks. As the little bar fills up with green marks – ‘sending message 1 of 1’ – I wonder where it is being sent to - and through what. I’ve never thought much about cyberspace before; I suppose I thought it was a bit like space. Maybe it is like space- an emptiness full of silent – and, thinking of the internet – not so silent chatter. Can they hear our chatter on other stars, I wonder? Is Ella on another star? She just as well might be. In which case my message might have to go way back in time to reach her: the blankness of her message might be thousands of years old.
The thought of all that space, all that time makes me shiver. I’m not sure I like these messages very much. I don’t think I’d like them any better if they weren’t blank. It’s real friends I need, not spooky ones from out in the ether, whether or not I’ve made them up myself.