The day after my mother was admitted to the mental hospital, I told everyone at school that she had entered a competition on the back of a Corn Flakes box and won a cruise around the world.
“How long will she be gone?” asked Julie Fraser, who sat among the girls crowding eagerly around me during morning registration.
“Months,” I said. “Months and months.” I looked at her slightly sad, but mostly dreamy, as if I were already imagining my mother floating across a wide blue ocean to a life of adventure that none of us there could have.
Julie made her big brown eyes even bigger and ran the tip of her tongue over her glossed lips. “God, she’s lucky,” she said, leaning closer to me.
“Yes,” I said, wondering how I might always make her look at me like that.
“So which parts of the world is she going to?” Jimmy Crandall craned his skinny neck across his desk.
My eyes left Julie’s as I let myself consider this for a moment, frowning as I tried to evoke the expression of someone struggling to recall a busy cruise-ship itinerary—all those ports of call, day trips, deck-side activities, and dinners at the captain’s table. “I’m not sure,” I answered, not wanting to be caught out by my uncertain grasp of geography. I knew, of course, that Britain was an island, and I had a relatively decent notion of the jumble of countries that made up Europe, but beyond that it was all a little blurred. I might have been better informed were it not for the fact that our geography teacher, Mr. Cuthbertson, had spent the entire year familiarizing us in great detail with the climatic influences, waterways, geologic history, and soil structure of our local landscape.
We lived on the banks of the River Humber, chilled by the damp air off the North Sea, on a plain scraped by glaciers that had left in their wake a land composed almost entirely of malleable and unstable boulder clay. “East Yorkshire,” Mr. Cuthbertson would announce during almost every lesson, his gaunt, gray features suddenly bright with pride, “has one of the fastest-eroding coastlines in the entire world.” It was as if this were an accomplishment for which we, the local inhabitants, somehow deserved credit, rather than an unhappy geologic accident that meant, even as he spoke, that the land he so loved was crumbling away by inches. Since this seemed to be the only really notable feature (geographic or otherwise) of the region I called home, by the age of thirteen, even though I had never traveled more than forty miles in any direction, I had come to regard it as one of the dullest places on the planet. So when Mr. Cuthbertson told us of villages falling into the North Sea, church spires poking above the water at low tide, and houses bought for a few pounds and change because the waves had begun eating into their back gardens, I often found myself wondering how long it would take for the sea to devour the twenty miles or so that now separated Hull, the city in which I lived, from that voracious tide.
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?” Jimmy Crandall was challenging me now, his Adam’s apple bobbing against his pimply throat like a bird trapped under his skin. “If my mam won a bloody cruise, I’d know where she was off to.”
“She’s going everywhere. It’s a world cruise,” I said, rolling my eyes at all the girls around me the way I’d seen them do so many times with one another when one of the boys said something stupid or insulting or in an obvious ploy for attention. Then I looked over at Julie Fraser, hoping to see my derision mirrored in her conspiratorial smile. Instead, I saw her glance slipping in Jimmy Crandall’s direction. Inevitably, the attention of the other girls followed.
“Oh, going everywhere, is she? What, like Belfast and Biafra? The North and South Pole?” He grinned, then poked his shiny pink tongue between his lips, as if it were reaching out to taste the certainty of his victory.
The boys and the girls were all looking at me now, the stuffy classroom air filled with the school morning scents of soap, clean socks, and toothpaste-minty breath. All their eyes, even those still crusty with sleep, were intense, poised between suspicion and happy expectation.
“You can’t take a cruise to the South Pole,” I said, swinging my hair back over my shoulder with a toss of my head, hoping to generate an air of confident indifference. Instead, I wafted myself with the blue chemical scent of Head & Shoulders shampoo and remembered sitting in a lukewarm bath the previous night, the same bath that only hours earlier had been filled with cold, blood-tinted water before I pulled the plug and scrubbed it clean with Ajax.
“To get to the South Pole,” I continued, brushing away the memory with my words, “you have to travel over miles and miles of ice.” For a moment, I imagined my mother, encased in a furry parka and bearskin boots, coursing across a gleaming white landscape on a dogsled. Like so many of those explorers before her, she would disappear into a stinging blizzard and never come back.
Jimmy Crandall shrugged. “Nobody I met ever won one of those stupid Corn Flakes competitions. They’re all a fucking fraud, if you ask me.” He flopped back into his chair and pulled it closer to his desk with a piercing scrape that made me wince.
“Well, my mother did,” I said, talking now to all the boys and girls, desperate to keep them around me, their bodies a protective nest that could somehow hold me high, above the ground, above the surging, bloody water that was threatening to wash it all away. “She’s going to write to me, you’ll see.” My voice was too loud, too bright. It cut through the air like hands ripping fabric. Mrs. Thompson, our form-room teacher, looked over at me, arched her black, penciled-in eyebrows, and pressed her lips into a rosy little knot. I acknowledged her look with a nod. When she had turned back to the stack of exercise books she was thumbing through, I propped myself up on my elbows, leaned forward, and reached over to Jimmy Crandall. I prodded hard at his shoulder. “You’re only jealous,” I said as he lurched forward under my hand. I spoke even louder now, as if I could pull Julie Fraser and her friends back to me with my voice. “You just wish your family could be as lucky as mine.”
perhaps it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise to arrive home the day before to find my mother being taken away. After all, she had told us it might happen.
“One of these days, I’m going to end up in Delapole!” she’d yell, slamming doors, clattering plates. “You watch, they’ll cart me away in a bloody straitjacket, they will! And then you’ll be happy!”
Delapole was the mental hospital just outside Hull. It was named after a local family, the de la Poles, who, Mr. Cuthbertson told us when he’d strayed into one of his many monologues about our “rich local history,” had made their fortune as merchants during the Middle Ages. He hadn’t explained, however, why the local loony bin bore their name. My father had joked that all those posh families were so inbred that they had more than their share of nutcases, so it made sense that the place had been named after them. Of course, that was before my mother had fulfilled her own prophetic words and had been transported there courtesy of the National Health.
“I’ll end up in Delapole!” she’d scream, her voice like a yodel that shuddered against the windows and set the sherry glasses rattling in the china cabinet. “I’ll end up in Delapole, you mark my words!” she yelled when the car broke down or the milk boiled over or I spilled a glass of orange cordial across the kitchen table. As if each of these events were a calamity on the scale of the Titanic and it was my father or I who had just steered us slap-bang into the iceberg.
Even when I was very young, I’d realized that my mother had no sense of perspective. If anything went wrong, no matter how large or small, it constituted some ultimately threatening disaster. She might end up in the local mental institution as a consequence of my burning the house down because I hadn’t turned off the electric heater in my bedroom, but she might just as easily be committed if my father forgot to put the top back on the ketchup or I neglected to put my dirty knickers in the clothes basket. I knew her reactions made no sense, but her world was also my world, so when I was small I’d feel her panic as my own. I’d try to allay her hysteria with calming words or by rectifying the problem—a six-year-old cooing, “It’s all right, Mum, it’s all right,” while sweeping a pile of broken glass from the kitchen floor. As I grew older, however, I learned that there was no comforting or calming my mother at these moments. It was just something she had to go through, like a sneeze that has to be sneezed or an itch that has to be scratched.
Despite all this, it had been a shock to find an ambulance parked outside our house, its big wheels pushed over the curb, its light flashing like a huge bright, blinking blue eye. And I had been a little taken aback to find the neighbors gathered in our tiny front garden, nudging one another and whispering, as if they were expecting the arrival of some popular television celebrity who’d decided to drop by our house for a cup of tea and a chat. Indeed, the scene was almost festive. The women smoked ravenously, sucking at their cigarettes with big, audible gasps, while the children made wailing-siren noises as they ran up and down our path. When they noticed my arrival and parted like the Red Sea for Moses to let me reach my front door, the bitter taste of dread filled my mouth and left my stomach churning, but I felt a strange thrill of power. Here I was, a star in the middle of my own domestic disaster.
By the time I’d moved through the milling crowd outside our house and reached the front door, however, my exhilaration was gone. Instead, I felt a sickening dread in my stomach, a dread that only grew when our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Brockett, stepped from the dark interior of our hallway onto our threshold, sighing as she folded her arms across her chest. She wore a shapeless cotton dress, opaque brown stockings, and a pair of men’s slippers. Her gray hair was folded around a set of pink curlers. Never known for her cheery disposition, Mrs. Brockett had a particularly grave look on her face.
In all the years we had lived in our terrace house on Marton Street, despite many valiant attempts Mrs. Brockett had never managed to get inside. In an unusual display of marital consensus, both my father and my mother hated her vehemently, though for rather different reasons—my mother because she regarded Mrs. Brockett as a relentless gossip who would “broadcast the contents of my undies drawers to the entire street if she got the bloody opportunity,” my father because she hung a picture of the Queen in her front window and my father hated the Queen as passionately as he loved cricket. Mrs. Brockett was equally disdained by the children of the street. She was known among us as Cat Piss Lady because of the seventeen cats she kept inside her house and the stinging, ammonia smell that clung to her everywhere she went. I’d even heard some adults use the nickname to refer to her in whispered conversations in the queue at the butcher’s or green-grocer’s. But, as far as I knew, no one had ever dared to call her that to her face. Far more than the ambulance or the assembly of neighbors in my front garden, the fact that it was Mrs. Brockett who greeted me at my doorway signaled that there was something terribly wrong.
“Ooh, I wouldn’t go in there if I were you, lovey,” she said, placing one of her gnarly-knuckled hands on my shoulder. “Not something a girl of your age needs to see.” Her narrowed eyes met mine. A wave of sighs and moans rose behind me. “Quite distressing.” She pursed her lips and shook her head slowly, then turned expectantly toward the surrounding neighbors. “Anyone got a ciggy?” she inquired. There was an immediate flutter of hands and, almost simultaneously, three women reached over and held up cigarettes. “I’ll take the Rothmans,” she announced, snatching the longest cigarette from the hand that held it, popping it between her lips, and leaning forward as another hand reached out with a flame. She inhaled deeply before she blew the smoke into my face.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Another Life Altogether by Elaine Beale. Copyright © 2010 by Elaine Beale. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.