CHAPTER THIRTEENWhen it is time for the crane to come down it disassembles its own mast.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I say. Then I shout it. ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME.’
Granny isn’t sitting down. She is standing by the window gazing out at the cranes. I can’t see her face properly.
I say, quite gently, as if I was the grown-up and she the child. ‘Why don’t you sit down granny? You’re making me feel giddy,’
Immediately I wish I hadn’t. I don’t like to see granny sitting there on the edge of the sofa, looking like - well, not like granny. Biting her nails. And then taking them out of her mouth, looking at them angrily and sitting on her hands for a moment as if to control them. At last she pulls a packet of cigarettes out of her .bag. I knew she smoked sometimes. But she’s never smoked in our flat before -. now she takes out a lighter too and lights a cigarette and pulls on it gratefully. I fetch a saucer from the kitchen for her to use as an ashtray. I know my mother. .
Actually I am glad of an excuse to be out of the room for a moment. I have a lot of things to get used to. Not just what my grandmother is telling me. I’ve seen a lot of different versions of her before angry, nice, funny, distant, grannies: I’ve grown used to her many different selves, some of them nicer to know than others. It is part of her being a real person, rather than ‘I’ve got to be nice patient person because I’m a grandmother’ kind of stuff,’ which was what my other grandmother, used to be like, the one that’s dead now.
(‘Maybe that’s why she’s dead,’ Trace said when we were talking about grandmothers once. ‘She doesn’t sound cool, not like you’re other one. ‘Yeah, Granny is cool,’ I said. ‘My other granny wasn’t for sure, I don’t think that’s why she’s dead.’)
But this isn’t cool granny. This was one is the opposite of cool; not the granny I know at all. More like granny’s identical twin, perhaps. Like a wrinkled baby. (I’d don’t think I’ve ever noticed before how many wrinkles granny has.)
‘And you believed them?’ I say. ‘They told you you’d killed Ella and you believed them? Rahilah was a twin. Her mother told her she was the blessed one, because she lived. And they told you that?’
How could anyone be so stupid I am thinking? How could anyone think an unborn baby could kill another unborn baby in any proper sense of killing? How could anyone even say it?
‘Alright,’ I say. ‘So you were the bigger and stronger twin and when you were in the womb you so squashed Ella she was born weak and died after a few days?’ (This is the rough, very rough version, of what granny just told me.)
‘So who’s fault was that?’ I say, ‘How could a foetus know what it was doing?’
Granny flinched still more at the word ‘foetus.’ As if it was a word I shouldn’t know. But how can I not know it with all that anti-abortion stuff around? (The pro-life people have got a lot to answer for - giving teenage girls nightmares, Trace says.)
‘Of course I know that now,’ Granny says. ‘Of course I know that NOW. But I didn’t know it for a long time and I didn’t want that happening to you. I didn’t want you grieving the way I did.’
‘For Ella?’ I say.
Granny hesitates. ‘For my twin,’ she says. ‘Ella. They gave me her name too. Or rather added it to mine. Ellanora.’’
‘But you’re Nora,’ I say stupidly. ‘Not Ellanora. That’s a stupid name.’
‘Yes. I’ve always left the first bit off. ‘
‘Ellanora, “ I say wonderingly, sadly. ‘Ellanora.’ And again, angrily. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Why should I have told you,’ Granny says, suddenly almost angry herself. “It wasn’t any of your business. Or anyone’s business for that matter. Except mine.’
‘And Ella’s,’ I say.
‘There was no Ella. There is no Ella. She’s dead,’ answers Granny. She stubs out her cigarette and lights another one. I open the window,
But it wasn’t like that for me was it?’ I say, when I sit down again. ‘My twin was only there in the beginning: then disappeared. It happens to lots of people. It doesn’t mean anything.’
‘No.’ granny says ‘No. Maybe not.’ She looks at the open window. ‘I’m cold, Esther.’
I go and shut the window again. Outside the cranes are swinging as usual. I can see one driver in his little cabin. It seems like a dream that I was up there too, high as that. It was a dream: in a way.
‘And you really think Mum would have told me what your mum told you? That it was ..’
I couldn’t say, won’t say, ‘my fault’. It wasn’t. For a sudden moment I am so angry I want to scream out loud. With mum and granny, both.
‘No, not really. Of course not,’ whispers Granny.
‘Why didn’t she tell me I had a twin that disappeared then?’
‘I suggested she didn’t,’ Granny says.
‘And mum always does what you tell her?’
Neither of us answer. (And actually when I’ve calmed down, and thought about it all, there doesn’t seem any reason Mum should have told me. My twin wasn’t such a big deal, really, we hadn’t spent nine months alongside each other in the womb; he or she’d been gone before I was a real person; it was kind of curious, interesting, not much else. OK I was almost a twin, OK, but so are millions of people, Granny said. Nor should Mum have told me about Granny if Granny really hadn’t wanted her to. It was granny’s private secret. Maybe if Mum had known about the Ella stuff she would have told me. But Ella hadn’t put messages on her mobile, Mum never knew who my imaginary friend was; or that lately she’d come back.) None of this means I felt like forgiving either of them. I still don’t.
‘Did mum know that you were called your name and your twin’s both? Ella and Nora?’
‘Why should she?’ Granny says. ‘She wouldn’t even have known I had a twin if her grandmother, my mother, hadn’t told her. And my twin’s name never was Ella, officially. She wasn’t registered, christened her, she didn’t have a name – they said that was my fault too, and that babies who hadn’t been christened went to hell. I don’t know why they added her name – the one they’d meant for her– to mine. But they did.’
Everything comes back to Granny. It is such a terrible story she is telling me that I shouldn’t be angry with her. But I am.
‘You should have told me,’ I say in a little hard voice that I don’t recognise as my own.
‘I know,’ she replies in a voice so small, so desolate, I don’t recognise it as hers, either. And she adds. ‘But then I thought you did know after all. When the messages from Ella came from your phone I thought – I thought….’
‘And you thought I could do anything like that?
‘I must have done, mustn’t I.’ she says. ‘What other reason could there be?’
She has a point. What other reason could there be? Ella came out of my head didn’t she? Didn’t she?
‘Gross,’ I say. ‘Gross, Granny. Creepy.’ And at this we look at each other at last and each of us shudder a bit, and each of us shakes our head.
We’re sitting side by side on the sofa now. I don’t know where mum is. She’s being tactful, I daresay, just like mum. I rather wish she wasn’t. I tell granny about Jay then. ‘He’s going to be alright,’ I say. ‘They hit him on the head. They tried to burn his hair off. I know he’d been teasing them. But he didn’t deserve that. They called him a terrorist.’
Granny sighs at this.
I say. ‘A girl rang me on my mobile to tell me. To gloat. So I had her number, Trace and I went to the headmistress and told her the number and the police found out who it was. And when they talked to her she was so frightened she told them about Frankie. He’s gone now. He’s not going back to school. I think he’s been put into detention of some sort.’
‘Poor kid,’ says Granny. ‘I wonder what hell he came out of?’
‘Poor kid? That bully? What about Jay?’ I remember Rahilah too. I am not, not, not, going to feel sorry for Frankie or any of them. Without Frankie the rest of them seem quite normal. But I don’t want anything to do with them even so. ‘He has a horrible mum,’ I say. ‘But so what? So do lots of people. Jay could have died,’ I say. ‘Would you still feel sorry for him then?’
‘Even more sorry for him, possibly,’ Granny says.
I shrug in disbelief. Granny doesn’t hug me the way she used to, I wouldn’t let her hug me now, but she does let my hand lie quietly on hers; her old hand, wrinkled and spotted. It feels very cold. It’s not only Frankie I’m never going to be able to forgive, I think. It’s Granny too, in a way. Not the Granny I knew anyway. Not the one who didn’t tell me what I needed to know.
‘You’re so sad, Granny,’ I say scornfully. Granny doesn’t answer. But she doesn’t stop touching my hand. . ‘Poor Ella,’ I say then. And suddenly, no matter what, this new Granny and I find ourselves sitting there together crying for someone who never lived properly, never had a life, never had a chance to know or be known by anyone. Someone who lived side by side with Granny for 9 months in their mother’s womb. Did it matter? Does it matter? Probably not. But then why, suddenly, almost holding, touching hands, are we both so full of grief?
I don’t know what Granny is thinking. I only know that she gives me my hand back after a while like she is giving me a present. And that we keep on sitting there her and me, side by side, weeping our eyes out. While outside the window the cranes keep on making their wheeling conversations.
(They haven’t much time left to talk together now, though. If they’ve things still to say they’ve got to say them soon. Soon the buildings will be all finished. Soon all the cranes will have gone.)
CHAPTER FOURTEENI still like cranes, a lot. Even though I could have died twice over that cold night, of cold, hypothermia, or of launching myself into the air at that great height, as Ella begged me to. But I didn’t die, not once and there’s a bit of me quite pleased that I actually saw into the driver’s cab and so forth. I even wish I’d seen it better, less doped with sleep, with bewitchment, as I was at the time.
There is no such word as ‘bewitchment’ of course. ‘Outside yourself?’ the shrink they made me see suggested, when I used ‘bewitchment’ to try and explain how it felt. ‘Inside myself’ I said. So far inside myself I couldn’t get out, I’m thinking. But I don’t say.
She’s quite nice the shrink lady. She’s made me understand a lot of things much better, even though she hasn’t a clue really about Ella. How could she? She’s just a doctor. Listen.
‘If something really stresses you, Esther, you can make yourself do things like sleep-walking, climbing cranes in the middle of the night; like sending yourself messages from someone else.’.
‘You mean my getting messages from Ella means I’m mad? Means you think I’m mad?’ (Me: angrily.)
‘I’m suggesting that such manifesting such phenomena mean you are under stress. They do not mean you are mad.’ (Ms Psychiatrist: patiently. We’ve had these discussions before. She’s learned by now that I know quite a lot of long words.)
‘So what’s mad then?’ (Me. Truculently.)
‘What do you mean by the word ‘mad’?’ Esther?’
‘Manifesting such phenomena under stress.’ (Me: smartly.)
Ms Psychiatrist sighs. Then she laughs. Then I laugh. She knows I hear what she is saying – I do too. Yet I still believe there is – or was- a real Ella out there. And I prefer Granny’s version of events, which explains some things Ms Psychiatrist can’t. ‘You were like a radio receiver, Esther, picking up the signals. From Ella.’
‘So you were you sometimes,’ I say.
But either the signals have gone now, or I am no longer a receiver. If they’re still coming they come to someone else. Even so, it is nice to have these people on my side. The shrink lady is cool, I think. Cooler than Granny these days. She feels too sad to be cool. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t like being sad for her.
Rashid. He saved my life. He did. If I’d been out there much longer, I’d have died of hypothermia. Or I could have been so dazed, uncertain, I could really have thrown myself to the ground. I know that. But he dialled 999, he got all the services there, fire, police, ambulance. Everyone. Including my mother.
A fireman climbed up to get me down. It didn’t take him the full half-hour to climb to the top of the crane, because he was swung part of the way up on a fire-engine ladder. But it couldn’t take him all the way to the top, he had to climb the rest of the way inside the tower, the way the driver does, the way I did, on the ladder. He wrapped me in special blankets like cellophane to keep me warm. He carried me down to the fire-engine ladder over his shoulder, in a fireman’s lift. I must have been unconscious by then, more or less. I don’t remember any of it. I only know what other people have told me. All I remember is waking up on the ground and finding myself lying on a stretcher, being carried out of the building site, my mother on one side, Rashid on the other.
How Rashid managed to get himself there, for a girl, not his relative, I don’t know. As a Muslim he wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with me, except what he could not avoid, at school. But he did get himself there. Perhaps the title LIFESAVER or RESCUER gave him special rights in the matter. He sent me flowers in hospital too, even though he couldn’t come to see me himself. He got news to Rahilah, and she came to see me instead, carrying samosas from her mother and special home-made sweets from Rashid’s mother too.
There was piece about Rashid in the local paper, as well as about me. ‘Quick-thinking boy’, it said. There was even a disapproving report on Crane Talk (Another Unsecured Crane) that did not mention either of us by name. At school Rashid was seen as bit of a hero. I was seen either as a heroine –or mad. (Trace definitely thought I was mad, and said so: many times. Just the same she was the one kept on asking. ‘What was it like up there, Esther? What was it like?’ I tried to tell her. But I couldn’t really. I couldn’t remember much, to be honest. It’s sad.)
Ah Trace. An amazing thing, but an anti-climax too- she and he took it all so coolly, that it didn’t seem like anything much. Yet it was a big thing, or should have been. A grandfather finding his daughter and his granddaughter: a granddaughter finding her grandfather: a daughter finding her father. The similarity between Bob, the seventh dwarf’s paintings and Misa’s painting was no accident, after all. He had painted both of them. He really was Misa’s long-disappeared father: Trace’s never-known grandfather. He really was the man from whom Misa’s mum had run because he had bullied her. He wasn’t dead at all. Those sun and moon mobiles that he told me about those weeks ago, had been made for Misa – Artemisa - and for her brother Apollo. (Who doesn’t call himself Apollo, these days, Trace says, just ‘Jack.’) What a coincidence, says Granny. Drily. As if she knows more but isn’t saying,
It doesn’t make any difference really. I find Trace sometimes, in Poseiden when I visit Bob, that’s all. Also she and Misa got special invitations to the private view of Bob’s exhibition at MAC after Easter, along with me and Granny. Misa didn’t go. Nor will she visit the boat. Bob says he doesn’t mind, and maybe he doesn’t. Anyway Trace says she will, in the end. ‘She kept his picture, didn’t she,’ she says. ‘And her moon mobile. She hung it over my cot when I was little. And why did she bring us to live in Birmingham. Where Bob and my grandmother lived, before my grandmother ran away. She says it was just because there was a job here. But there were other jobs she could have. Why did she take that particular one? ’
In the summer we’re going to take the narrow boats out, both of them, Poseidon and Mnemosyne, right out into the country for a week or so. Me and Granny, Bob and Trace. Granny says she can manage the locks and things if we’re all here to help. Trace says if Bob gets too bad-tempered she can always ride with us instead.
It’s nearly summer now. The geese have their goslings; they sit on the grass outside the writer woman’s flats – the woman still waves to me sometimes from her window when I cross the bridge. I wave back. One day she isn’t writing, she is leaning out of the window, pointing at a fat-looking goose just below her. And suddenly the goose climbs to its feet and out from under its wings fall FOUR goslings, tottering a bit in a way that reminds me of Barty. The writer woman and I wave at each other like crazy and laugh. She even blows me a kiss. I’m too embarrassed to blow her one back. I pretend I haven’t seen it, that I’m looking back instead at lovely G.S. BROUGH Washers and Gaskets, still standing there no matter what, next to the Mailbox. But I like it.
(Barty walks now, by the way. He started walking in mum’s sitting-room, the day I came out of hospital. REALLY. )
The flats are finished, except for things like windows and inside decoration. The cranes have almost all gone now. I look out at the window at other people’s homes – or soon to be homes – instead. Things keep on changing, but then they always will. Just sometimes they change for the better.
Stuart has another boyfriend now, for instance. A nice one, called David. They come to see us often.
And there’s the Stampman. Most days now he is sitting outside Holliday wharf holding out his hands with the stamps on. Border wags her tail when she sees him. Granny brings him sandwiches with ham and things inside. (He doesn’t eat the ham. I saw him give it to the ducks once. He only seems to like bread. Maybe he’s a vegetarian. He gives the ducks Granny’s cheddar too. But not always.)
Now Frankie’s gone, his gang has split up. Without him noone dares to behave the way they did round him. Better still, Rahilah has come back to our school. She wasn’t doing well at the Islamic School. She wants to be a doctor, she says, her father agrees with that, so does her mother. If you want to be a doctor competition is very fierce. Without good science teaching you will get nowhere, and the science teaching at Anthony Morris High School in Smelly Poke really is much better than at the Islamic School for Girls, Rahilah says. She and I often do our homework together now, at my house or hers. My marks are improving quickly. Miss Key isn’t worried about me any more, which makes my mother happy too. Good.
Rahilah is definitely, my best friend, even more than Trace is. ‘She’ll turn you into a Muslim before you know,’ Trace says. ‘No way,’ I say. But don’t think I haven’t thought about it. Would I have a family like Rahilah’s if I did? Would my mum be happier? Perhaps I could marry Rashid if I was a Muslim. He and I dare to be more friends these days. We’ve been for two walks along the canal already. He is my protector, he says. I am his sister. We don’t touch each other. Nothing is said. Not yet. We’re only just fifteen after all. For the moment we are brother and sister. There’s years and years and years of the world ahead of us, we hope. But I still don’t really know what’s inside his head.
I’d never ask him to come on our narrow-boat trips, for one thing. He wouldn’t come. Nor would Rahilah - I’d love to ask her, but I don’t think her Dad wouldn’t let her. But he would let her go on little day trips around Birmingham canals; probably we’ll do some of those. It wouldn’t be any use asking Rashid, though, not even for those trips. Anyway I wouldn’t dare.
Jay’s hair is growing back. He’s his old joky self again, almost. Though I don’t think he’ll ever be quite that Jay again, he’s alright. We are friends. But things have changed, as usual; we’ll never be quite the friends we were before.
(Oh and one more thing. I discovered what crane drivers do about peeing up on the crane. They take up a bottle and bring it down again. Of course that wouldn’t do for women crane drivers, like the one who still writes to the crane-driver’s message board, the other Ella -if that is another Ella- I have to assume she is: I don’t know what she does. I’m not going to write and ask her, for sure.)
I think of my Ella sometimes. A bit of me misses her - I liked my imaginary friend. But maybe I liked her less when she became so very nearly real.
Poor Ella, I think. It’s better to have a life than not to have had one. I hope she is peaceful now, no longer struggling.
Her last email to me said. Goodbye Esther.
I was crying as I wrote Goodbye Ella, my very last email to her. Life can be so very sad. So cruel, I thought as I sent the words winging into space. They came straight back to me, marked from Administrator: undeliverable mail. I didn’t try sending them again.
A day or two ago my mobile rang once, twice. Then it rang off. When I looked to see where it came from it just said. Unknown number.
That’s it then. Message Undeliverable. Unknown number.
The only place I can say the words now is into my head. I say them:
GOODBYE ELLA. GOODBYE
Penelope Farmer Lanzarote 2007