I don’t know what street we were on when I saw it. Somewhere in East Ham I guess. But we weren’t a family for rehearsing details. We had been visiting my mother’s mother. By then, she was in the late stages of schizophrenia. I think that’s right. I think that’s what they call it: ‘late stages’. It certainly felt like the late stage of something.
She never-quite-totally wore matted wigs. And my sister and I had become good at looking like it wasn’t weird when she asked who these two lovely girls are.
My mother, my mother’s mother and Us. Four women, two big, two small. All inside a brown living room, inside a grey terraced house, inside a city as that seemed as big as the world. Which at this point I was still sure was bigger than they were letting on.
And inside: us, Russian nesting dolls. Dolls with dolls of their own inside. Some friendlier than others.
It always smelt like gas at her house. A blue smell from the gas fire, one of those ones with the plastic, moulded logs that glowed. Those logs that were hot but never warm. There were wooden elks on the mantelpiece, their backs arched in a mid-century stretch. And next to them, a ticking clock in a brass, triangular shape that spoke of space travel but smelled of East London.
The neighbours upstairs were poisoning her through the pipes. That’s what she told us. Or what my sister told me my mum told her. I can’t remember if she corrected her that day. Perhaps she had given up explaining. She must have wanted to get out of there as quickly as we did. Maybe it smelt like gas to her too.
In the frozen kitchen, there were posters of kittens on the walls. Big fluffy 80s kittens with sad, plate-like faces sitting next to shiny glass bowls with goldfish in them, eyes bulging. Maybe in terror, most likely just in goldfishness. They never quite stuck to the wall.
I thought of her picking them out in the shop and it made my gut hurt. The same way it hurt to think of the boys at school picking out new shoes and pencil cases with their mothers.
Later, I held my mum’s hand in the street and asked whether it was hereditary. No, no she said, it isn’t. But she didn’t look at me.
You know, you don’t have to call me Mum, if you don’t want to, you can just use my real name.
It was after her funeral that I saw it, I think. Of course that may be the sub-editing flare of memory.
We were driving home – from Clapton, or Hackney, or East Ham – in the dark. My parents in the front and the two of us in the back. I watched the windows of the terraced houses zip by, glowing. Some of them looked warm and inviting. In others, the net curtains hung like old skin against the frozen window panes. These ones were my favourite. Their insides seemed endless. And I stared at them, scanning them for something that would confirm it.
And then it appeared; so briefly it was memory almost before it was even vision. Silhouetted against one was a naked body, hanging upside down by its feet.
My dad asked if we should turn around. ‘What did it look like?’ He was always overeager with concern, craning round to scan my face for signs of sadness.
It looked like a body, upside down, I said. But it was quick. I wasn’t sure.
We should go back, he said.
No no, said my mum, people do weird things. It’s the city. Just keep driving.
We kept driving.
Years later, in the really late stages – the last stage, in fact – we visited my grandmother in hospital. It was a big, old brick building that seemed endless. Full of endless beginnings and endless endings. But not the good ones.
I asked how the nurses kept their little white hats on their heads. Pins, said my mum. I thought about how strict they must have been so brave to drive pins into their heads each morning. I wondered if they bled. But I supposed that was what adulthood was, wearing a hat held down with pins.
In my memory it was always night time when we visited. But that can’t have been right.
We visited her and she was – she must have been – small and old and frail. Frail is only ever a word used for old people, so I think she must have been that. She gave me a hat she’d been wearing. As we were leaving. As a present.
It was black velvet, and floppy, with a flower on the front. I was pleased, even though I wished that the flower was red or pink or orange. It was a whole thing, just for me.
I should have been more grateful really, but I didn’t know at the time.
But I wasn’t long after I got home and it dawned on me that I’d made a terrible mistake. The freezing night was still trapped in the fabric somewhere. I could smell it. It smelt of the hospital. It smelt of the past and the future all at the same time. They smelt like bleach and dirt and urine. And they were something that might swallow you whole. If you weren’t too careful. If you were as careless as I had been.
So I hid it in the downstairs toilet. Hung it high on a hook and tried to forget.
But it haunted me. It frightened me at night. I knew it was there and I knew it was mine.
I laid awake, sure I’d already been infected. I’d worn it, fully worn it, once. Just put it straight on my head like it was nothing. When I was younger and I didn’t know.
How careless I’d been, I thought, how different things were then. Before I knew. Before I knew I’d caught it.
Hope William is a writer and artist living and working in East London.