Authors: Amanda Prowse
To read this book as the author intended – and for a fuller reading experience – turn on ‘original’ or ‘publisher’s font’ in your text display options.
An Invitation from the Publisher
My darling Celeste,
This letter might come too late for us both, but either way, I feel compelled to put pen to paper. I read a quote the other day that said, ‘Imagine when you die and arrive at your final destination, God says, “So how was heaven?”’ It floored me. I lay on the carpet and shook with fear. My ideas about God and indeed heaven are sketchy, but this made sense to me because my life was wonderful. I had it all. People often say that, don’t they? But I really did, and I guess that’s the hardest thing for me to fathom, how I unpicked my existence strand by strand until everything I held dear lay in a pile like a fine knitted garment reduced to knotty wool.
It’s as if there are two of me. The shy me, the nice me. Smiling and enjoying the good fortune of others, wanting to do good, wanting to love and be loved, wanting nothing more than to laugh and laugh some more; the woman who puts her family at the centre of everything. That woman is smart, interested and interesting. She wakes with a spring in her step and a lift to her heart, happy to have a place in the world, a woman who looks forward to the future.
And then there is the other me, the one who has another love, a love that can’t be broken. A destructive, all-consuming love that casts a long, dark shadow over all that is good. This other love is so strong that she will do anything, anything if it means they can slope off together and snatch some illicit moments of pure, pure joy. This woman is mean, angry and easily led. She is reckless, cruel and self-centred. She scares those around her, and she scares herself a bit too. And it doesn’t matter how forcefully I tell myself to keep her at bay, how firm my resolve to leave her buried, she is made of stronger stuff than I can defeat. She is hardened metal against my softened will, she is omnipotent and magnificent and in her presence I can do nothing but cower.
When she is around, I can feel the tension in the air like a storm brewing on the horizon. I can almost see the bruised purple clouds rolling in. I can feel my face change from pretty to ugly. So very ugly. I feel my muscles tense and my eyes bulge. My mouth spews vile, aggressive slurs and I don’t care whose ears are on the receiving end. Even yours my darling girl. I become angry for angry’s sake. It’s as if I
to wreak havoc. And while the nice me, the other me, claws away inside, mortified at her behaviour, there is nothing I can do. I can’t find a way out.
There is no salve for the guilt I feel, no cure for the nagging remorse at how I treated you, no remedy for the deep sadness at what I have lost.
I carry a picture in my mind of a time long ago. A snapshot of the life that used to be mine. I am standing at the sink, filling the kettle to make tea for those I love and you are little, maybe four, and you are sitting on the floor in your pyjamas, singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ out of tune. Your voice is loud, and you are happy! Happy just to be at home with me, safe and warm. I wish I could go back to that day and start over. I wish I could have one last chance to do things differently. But deep down I know that I could be given an infinite number of chances and I would not change a thing. I would still end up here alone with this pen in my hand, shaking, with my heart fit to burst and my nose and throat thick with tears. I would not change a thing because I can’t.
It may sound strange, but I wish I’d been diagnosed with a different sickness, a more visible one. Something that twisted my body, broke my bones or blistered my skin. Something that would make people look away and shield their children. Even that would be preferable. Anything other than to have people think that being like this is my choice.
It is not my choice. It is not my choice!
Who would choose this?
It’s been quite a week. On Wednesday I got back in touch with the therapist, Erica, who I haven’t seen since I was a teenager, and today I start, on her recommendation, writing things down.
‘Why should I write it all down?’ I asked as she handed me this spiral-bound notepad and pen, like I was still a child and had no way of securing either. I chose not to point out that I’ve just graduated from Southampton Uni with a 2:1 in Human Geography. I wasn’t being flippant with my question; I genuinely wanted to know how it would benefit me.
She gave a small sigh, as though the answer were obvious, pulling off her glasses and waving them as she spoke, a neat trick. It not only gave her a prop for distraction, reminding me of the photographer who clicked his fingers over my dad’s head to make me look in that direction while he snapped away, but also because without the sharp focus of my pained expression, my querying smile, she was able to speak freely, regurgitating facts and ideas without my sentiment as a diversion.
‘Because if you are able, with honesty, uncensored, to capture the key events that have shaped you, it will help you make sense of your upbringing, help you reach an understanding. You said you were worried about your childhood in some way
the life you and Alistair might have; this exercise will provide clarity, help you move forward, enable you to have a good look at how your thought processes and behaviour have evolved.’
‘You make me sound like a Pokémon.’
‘A what?’ she asked, with a little crease at the top of her nose and a curl to her top lip, as though I was speaking a different language. I wanted to ask how she could have got to fifty-eight and not know what Pokémon are.
Erica was keen to talk about my mum’s letter. I was keen not to. It’s too distressing; I literally can’t look at it. I’ve placed it in a drawer, mentally parked it and will dig it out when I’m feeling… stronger, I guess.
Okay, so here goes. Purple ink? What was Erica thinking? It’s such a frivolous colour for such a serious undertaking; maybe that’s the point.
My name is Celeste. I am from Bristol and I am twenty-one. I am the daughter of Romilly and David Wells. I’m teetotal, like to swim, love to walk. I own too many pairs of trainers and not enough pairs of heels. I’m allergic to nearly all mascara and crave smoked mackerel. I can only cook one passable thing, chicken and ham pie, and I am engaged to Alistair Hastings, who I met on a field trip in Dorset. The day I met him I was wearing wellington boots and my hair was plastered to my head with rain. I looked at him and I knew, knew that he was the one I wanted to spend my life with. I can’t say his name or think about him without smiling. I’m absolutely crazy about him. He is smart, kind and funny and he would definitely have laughed at my Pokémon reference. He’s a farmer and thankfully a dab hand in the kitchen, as long as what needs dabbing is meat, potatoes and veg.
Erica said to go back to the beginning. For me that starts with toddlerhood. I remember being three very clearly. Well, actually, that’s not strictly true. I remember aspects of being that age. Certain facts and images float to the top, bright and distinct like the scarlet waxy globs inside a lava lamp. I suspect these memories are not that interesting to anyone but me, like the time I hid in the cupboard in the hallway, sitting on a roll of carpet, listening to my mum’s voice as she made out she didn’t know I was there. ‘I wonder where she could be?’ she said, extra loudly, making sure the words filtered through the door that was pulled to, letting in a crack of light and a glimpse of the hall floor. I banged my feet on the floor in excitement, knowing that any second she would fling open the door and discover me and I would leap into her arms and she would hold me close and spin round in a circle with my head buried in her shoulder and the scent of her perfume rising up.
These were the years before, when I only ever pictured my mum with a stomach full of love and the desire to be near her, always. This was the time when I thought she could make everything better, when I trusted her to provide a haven for me, a home that smelt of sugar cookies and encircling arms. Before…