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Authors: Denise Mina

Every Seven Years

BOOK: Every Seven Years
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Every Seven Years

Denise Mina

For Peter Straub

He that with headlong path

This certain order leaves,

An hapless end receives.

—Boethius,

The Consolation of Philosophy

I AM STANDING
on a rostrum in my
old school library. An audience of
thirty or so people is applauding, I
am smiling and mouthing “thank you”
and I know that they all hate me.

The audience looks like people I used
to know seven years ago, but less hopeful
and fatter. Actually, they're not fat, they're
normal sized, but I'm an actor. We have to
stay thin because our bodies are a tool of
our trade. A lot of us have eating disorders
and that creates an atmosphere of anxiety
around food. The applauding audience
isn't fat; I'm just London-actress thin,
which is almost-too-thin.

I look down. The rostrum is composed
of big ply board cubes that fit together. We
are standing on five but the corner one is
missing; maybe they ran out of cubes, or
one is broken. It's like standing on a slide
puzzle, where one tile is missing and the
picture is jumbled. This seems hugely significant
to me while it is happening: we're
in a puzzle and a big bit is missing. The
whole afternoon feels like a hyper-real
dream sequence so far, interspersed with
flashes of terror and disbelief. My mum
died this morning.

There is no chair on the rostrum, no
microphone, no lectern to hide behind. I
stand, exposed, on a broken box and justify
my career as a minor actress to an audience
who doesn't like me.

There are about thirty people in the audience.
Not exactly the Albert Hall, but
they are appreciative of my time because
my mum is ill. She's in the local hospital
and that's why I'm back. It has been mentioned
several times, in the introductions
and during the questioning. So sorry
about your mum.

Maybe pity is fueling the applause.
Maybe time is moving strangely because
I'm in shock. I smile and mouth “thank
you” at them for a third time. I want to cry
but I'm professional and I swallow the
wave of sadness that engulfs me. Never
bitter. My mother's words: never bitter,
Else. That's not for us. My mum said life
is a race against bitterness. She said if you
die before bitterness eats you, then you've
won. She won.

A fat child is climbing up the side of the
rostrum towards me. He can't be more
than four or five. He's so round and wobbly
he has to swing his legs sideways to
walk properly. He comes up to me and—
tada!—he shoves a bunch of supermarket
flowers at my belly without looking at me.
The price is still on them. He must be
someone's kid. He's not the kid you would
choose to give a visiting celebrity flowers,
even a crap celebrity. He turns away and
sort of rolls off the side of the platform
and runs back to his mum.

He pumps his chunky little arms at his
side, leg-swing-run, leg-swing-run, running all the way down the aisle to a big
lady sitting at the back. Her face brims
with pride. He looks lovely to her. She's
just feeding him what she's eating; she
doesn't see him as fat. I'm seeing that. I'm
probably the only person in the room who
is seeing that. Everyone else is seeing a cute
wee boy doing a cute wee thing.

It's me. Bitterness comes in many
forms. Malevolent gossip, lack of gratitude,
even self-damaging diet regimes.
Today bitterness is a tsunami coming
straight at me. It's a mile-high wall of regret
and recrimination. Broken things are
carried in the threatening wave: chair legs
and dead people and boats. And it is coming
for me.

My mum died. This morning. In a hospital
nearby. My mum died.

This is going on, this stupid event in a
dreary public library on the island where I
grew up. At the same time an alternate universe
is unfolding, the one where I am a
daughter and my mum is no longer alive.

I love cats. On YouTube there's an eight-minute montage of cats crashing into
windows and glass doors they thought
were open. It went viral; you've probably
seen it. Lots of different cats flying gleefully
into what they think is empty space,
bouncing off glass. It's funny, not because
the cats are hurt; they're not hurt. It's
funny because of that moment afterward
when the cat sits up. They look at the
glass, variously astonished or angry or
embarrassed. It's funny because it is so
recognizably human, that reaction. The
WTF reaction.

Hitting the glass is where I am with the
fact that my mum has died. I keep forgetting,
thinking other things—I need a
wee—that woman has got a spot on her
neck—I want to sit down—and then
BOOM I hit the glass.

But actors are special. We just keep
going. If we forget our lines, or the scenery
falls, or a colleague has died on stage, we
just keep going. So I just keep going.

I'm standing on the rostrum with
Karen Little. Karen and I grew up together.
She made my life a misery at school and
we haven't seen each other for seven years.
I can see her eyes narrow when she looks
at me. I can see her shoulders rise, her lips
tighten. Maybe she hates me even more
now. I don't have a system of quantification
for hate. I've forgotten what it is to be
the recipient of this, so maybe that's why
it feels heightened. Life has been kind to
me since I left.

My mum died and, frankly, I'm not really
giving too much of a shit. I want to tell
her that: hey, Karen, d'you know what?
The human body renews itself every seven
years. Each individual cell and atom is replaced
on a seven-year cycle. It's been
seven years since we met and I'm different
now. You're different now. All that stuff
from before? We could just let that go.

But that's not how we do things on the
island. Aggression is unspoken here. We're
too dependent on one another to have
outright fights.

Karen Little, just to fill you in on the
background, was in my class. There were
thirteen in our year. Eight girls, five boys.
Karen was good at everything. Head girl
material from the age of twelve, she was
bossy, sporty, and academic. She was like
all of the Spice Girls in one person. Except
Baby Spice. Karen was never soft. Growing
up on a farm will do that to you.

She has gray eyes and blond hair, Viking
coloring. She looks like a Viking, too. Big,
busty, kind of fertile-looking hips. She
stands on both feet at the same time, always
looks as if she is standing on the
prow of a boat.

I'm a sloucher. An academic nothing. A
dark-haired incomer. My mother moved
here to teach but gave it up before I was
born. After the accident, they made it clear
they didn't want her. Even the children
shunned her.

Karen's a full head taller than me. So it
was odd that she had this thing about me.
I never understood why she hated me so
much. Everyone hated Mum because of
the accident, but Karen hated me. It wasn't
reciprocated and it was scary.

No one there liked my mother or me
but Karen took it to extremes. I saw her
looking at me sometimes, as if she'd like
to hit me. She didn't do anything. I should
emphasis that. But I often saw her staring
at me, at parties, across roads, in class. I
was scared of her. I think she had a lot
going on at home and I became a focus for
her ire.

Now, Karen is the librarian in the
school library.

My face hits the glass.

There is no one here I can confide in.
My. Mum. Died. Three words. I haven't
said them to anyone yet. If I don't say it
maybe the universe will realize its mistake.
It will get sorted out. The governor will
call at the last minute and stop her dying
of lung cancer. Maybe, if I don't say it.

Or maybe I'm worried that if I say it I
will start crying, I'll cry and cry and
maybe I will die of it.

No one in the school library knows yet.
They will as soon as they leave. Mum is
headline news around here. Everyone
knows that she isn't well, in the local hospital
with lung cancer. Since I got back
several people have told me that she will
get better because the treatment is better
than it was. People tell me happy stories
about other people who had cancer but
got better and now they run marathons,
climb mountains, have second lives. Mention
of cancer prompts happy stories, as
if people feel jinxed by the word and need
to rebalance the narrative. I've learned
that you can't make them stop with the
positive anecdotes. They need them. No
one here can believe that my mother is
going to die anymore than I can. My
mother is an unfinished song. It's out of
character that she will simply die of an illness.
My mother has never done a simple
thing.

But they know that's why I'm back on
the island, in the small town of my birth,
standing on a rostrum with Karen Little,
listening to interminable clapping.

I mouth “thank you” again and watch
the fat kid's mother pull him onto her
knee. He looks forward, flush from his
run. Behind him the mother shuts her
eyes and kisses his hair with a gesture so
tender I have to look away.

Karen cornered me in the chemist's. Do
come, Else, please. We would be so glad to
hear from you, all your exciting experiences!
Karen covers her loathing with
smiles. They all do. Anywhere else we
would have been excluded, picked on.
Maybe they would have burnt crosses on
our lawn. The hostility would have affected
our day-to-day interactions, but the
island is small, we are so dependent on
each other for survival, that instead, aggression
is a background thrum in a superficially
pleasant existence.

Tourists fall in love with the white
beaches and palm trees. The seeds are
washed up here on the Gulf Stream and
palm trees grow all over the island. The
landscape looks tropical until you step off
the coach or out of the hotel or from your
rented car. It is bitterly cold here. The vegetation
makes it perpetually unexpected. The distillery towns are always dotted
with startled tourists from Spain or Japan,
all looking for a sweater shop. That's what
we're famous for: whisky and sweaters.

Karen is tired of watching me being applauded.
It's dying out anyway, so she
steps in front of me and blocks my sight
lines.

Thank you! Her voice is shrill. Thank
you to our local celeb, Miss Else Kennedy!

She has prompted another round of
applause. Oh, god. My right knee buckles,
as if it knows this will never end and it's
decided to go solo and just get the hell out
of here.

Karen turns to address me. Her face is
too close to mine. She has lipstick on, it is
bleeding into a dry patch of skin at the
side of her mouth, and I can smell it; she's
close. I feel as if she's going to bite my face
and it makes me want to cry.

We have a present for you!

She is smiling with her teeth apart looking
from me to the audience. Something
special is coming, I can see the venom
spark in her eye like the flick of a serpent's
tail.

Karen's voice continues to trill through
my fog of grief and annoyance. Special
gift! It will be presented by —— Marie! (I
wasn't listening to that bit).

—— Marie is also a bit scary looking.
She has an unusually big face, her hair is
greasy. She climbs up onto the platform
holding a yellow hardback with both
hands. She looks as if she's delivering a sacred
pizza.

I know this isn't a surreal dream. It's just
work-a-day grim and I'm bristling with
shock and sorrow. My mum died. I feel
the glass bounce me backwards on the
decking.

—— Marie takes tiny steps to get to
me, the rostrum isn't big enough for three
people and I'm making the best of it, a
professional smile is nailed to my face.

BOOK: Every Seven Years
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