Authors: Fleur Beale
‘They’re trying to change me, but they won’t. I won’t let them. I won’t be Esther. I’m going to keep on being me. Kirby.’
Imagine that your mother tells you she’s going away. She is going to leave you with relatives you’ve never heard of — and they are members of a strict religious cult. Your name is changed, and you are forced to follow the severe set of social standards set by the cult. There is no television, no radio, no newspaper. No mirrors. You must wear long, modest clothes. You don’t know where your mother is, and you are beginning to question your own identity.
I am not
is a gripping psychological thriller. In Esther, Fleur Beale creates an engaging and compelling portrait of a young woman going through her worst nightmare.
I am not Esther
has been in print continuously in New Zealand since it was first published in 1998. It has also enjoyed international success.
To Tim 1946–1998, and to our daughters
Bridget and Penny
I CAME HOME FROM SCHOOL on the last day of term and my mother was crying. I rushed to her, threw my arms round her. ‘What’s wrong? What’s the matter?’ I hugged her hard and hoped the world wasn’t ending. She
She choked, sniffed and sat up straight. ‘Sorry, Kirby. I’m fine. Really. Just ghosts from the past. Put it down to Christmas. Don’t they say Christmas brings out all sorts of stresses?’ She managed an almost normal smile. ‘How about we have tea in town? There’s a new restaurant David told me about. Yummy food, he says.’
‘Is David hassling you?’
Her hands twitched and her body jerked like a marionette. ‘Of course not! No guy hassles me. You know that!’
I didn’t, but the problem probably wasn’t David. He was a nurse at the same hospital as Mum and he was a riot but definitely not the type to want to
get into a relationship. So we went out for tea and Mum was bright and funny like she always is. ‘What ghosts?’ I asked, digging into my ‘disgustingly sinful chocolate pud’.
Mum shook her head. ‘Just things. Ignore them and they’ll go away.’
‘They don’t seem to have,’ I remarked. ‘Aren’t you supposed to get things out in the open? Confront them, and then they go away?’ I’d read that in a magazine yesterday.
Mum shook her head. ‘Nah. Starve them to death, I say. Keep them in the dark.’
‘Drown them with tears.’ The words were out before I thought what I was saying, but Mum just pulled a face.
‘They should be well dead, then.’
‘But you never cry,’ I said.
‘Not since you took over the budget,’ she said and giggled. ‘I’m so hopeless with money! Why am I so hopeless, Kirby?’
I could have said,
because you’re a sucker for a sob story, or because you help Louisa and her kids so much, or because you’re a dizzy flake who shops till she drops
. But what I did say was, ‘I dunno.’
Whatever the ghosts were, my mother had them well shut back in their box and she wasn’t going to talk about them. The same way she’d never talk when I tried to get her to tell me about when she was a kid and her family and everything. She’d shudder and throw her hands in the air. ‘Don’t ask, Kirby! They
were ghastly and I got out of there on my sixteenth birthday.’ Then she’d look at me and grin. ‘One day I might tell you the whole horrible story.’ And we’d both chorus, ‘But I doubt it!’ and collapse in a heap of giggles.
She was fun, my dizzy flake of a mother. I loved her passionately and I didn’t care that I was the one who had to organise the running of our flat, who had to write out the cheques for the bills, make sure she didn’t spend all the money before the next payday, get the washing done, drag her off to buy groceries. ‘They’re so boring, Kirby!’ she’d cry.
‘So’s being hungry,’ I said, every week.
Neither did I miss having relatives. There was only Mum and me but our neighbours in the next flat — Louisa and her three kids — were like family. Gemma, the oldest, was my best friend. It was Louisa who’d taught me how to budget and how to shop for groceries and all the stuff Mum wasn’t interested in.
Sometimes I couldn’t quite believe that Mum was such a good nurse, but she was. Patients often gave her stuff when they left and some came round and visited. ‘She made me laugh,’ one old lady said. ‘I’m sure I got better because I laughed so much.’
‘She was so efficient,’ a man with grey hair and one eye said, ‘but so alive! Better than a painkiller, more fun than a bottle of whisky. She really loves people, that lady.’
The thing that stuck in my mind from that little lot was the word efficient. My mother — efficient?
The tears on the last day of school were the first clue I had that something might be wrong. I put all the other crazy stuff down to Christmas, and there was a heap more than usual of it. Mum took Louisa and the two boys shopping and they all came home loaded with parcels and giggling. She pushed money at me and Gemma and told us to have ourselves a ball. I knew darned well there wasn’t going to be enough money to stretch through until next payday, but what could I say? There was Gemma practically crying because she’d never had so much money all to herself before. So we hit town and she bought jean shorts and a bra top that Louisa was going to throw a fit about and I tried on a million things and bought nothing.
Then when we got home we found that Mum had decided to have a barbecue, so that day ended with twenty of the neighbours in our back garden and Mum had to go on duty at eleven.
The next day she had two hours’ sleep and got up and cleaned the flat from floor to ceiling.
‘Give it a rest!’ I yelled. Gemma and I were watching
Endless Summer II
, for the ninth time, it’s true, but still a girl likes to concentrate.
There were two weeks between when school broke up and Christmas. Mum was worse than dizzy, she was frenetic. She dragged me and Gemma all over Auckland looking for just the right Christmas decorations. She went to parties, she worked, she pinched the plastic money card when I wasn’t
looking and hung round in town giving money to people who looked desperate.
‘She’s driving me nuts!’ I yelled, slamming Louisa’s door.
‘Something’s going on,’ Louisa said. ‘Must be something to do with those creepy guys who’ve been visiting.’
‘What guys? I don’t know anything about creepy guys visiting!’ I stared at Louisa.
‘You don’t?’ Her eyebrows disappeared under her grey fringe and she gave the Christmas cake she was making an extra hard belting. ‘They’ve been coming for months on and off. Always when you’re at school. I asked her about them but she just laughed and said it wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle.’
I sat down on a stool, feeling decidedly shaky. Mum always told me everything. Except about when she was a kid. Why hadn’t she told me about this?
‘Because it’s my business and nobody else’s,’ she said when I asked her. She glared at me and I could almost hear her hair crackling with determination. Her lips were jammed together in a tight line and her eyes fairly blazed.
I didn’t know what to do and Louisa obviously didn’t either. So I did what we always did, Mum and me — shrugged my shoulders and hoped it, or they, would go away. Mum laughed and tweaked my hair. ‘Let’s dye our hair for Christmas! Green and red and silver!’
So we did. Louisa laughed till she cried, but Gemma said, ‘You wanna look like a disaster? You look like a disaster!’
I didn’t care, Mum was happy, I was happy, it was Christmas. Why worry?
The tinsel fell off the tree on Christmas Eve. Mum got a pile of mail. I sorted it out from the sixteen bits of junk mail and gave it to her. ‘Some people aren’t very well organised,’ I said. ‘Of course, you sent all your cards a month ago.’
‘Of course,’ she said. She always sent out what she called New Year cards because she reckoned there wasn’t enough time to do cards before Christmas. She tore the first couple open and tossed them on to me. One was from a patient, the other from her mate David at the hospital. It was of a particularly spaced-out-looking angel and he’d written,
This reminded me of you, dear Ellen. Can’t think why! Love to you and the poisonous brat, party heaps XX David
I was still chuckling when I happened to look up and see that my mother had gone perfectly white. There wasn’t a scrap of colour in her face and a strand of silver hair lay starkly across her cheek. She was holding a single piece of paper in her hand, but she was staring blankly somewhere beyond it. I was terrified. ‘Mum! Mum! Stop it!’ I jumped up and shook her. ‘What’s the matter? Tell me!’ I tried to take the letter, but she snatched it and scrunched it into the pocket of her shorts.
‘I’m okay. I’m fine. Just a bit of a shock. Not to
worry, it’ll be all right. Get me a drink of water, will you Kirby.’ She sat down, shaking a bit, but she seemed to have a wall around her that wouldn’t let me in.
I filled a glass and passed it to her.
‘Thanks.’ She didn’t drink it. Just held it in her hands, then she put it carefully on the table. ‘Well. That’s it then.’ She took a couple of deep breaths and fixed her big eyes on my face.
‘What?’ I asked, feeling like I was walking in a mixture of mud and fog. ‘What d’you mean —
? What’s in that letter? Something’s wrong!’
‘Calm down!’ She patted the chair beside her and her hand shook. She quickly put it in her lap and held it with her other one. ‘Sit.’ She nodded at the chair. Then she told me very quietly and calmly that she’d just been accepted to work on a refugee programme and that we’d be moving to Wellington the day after Boxing Day.
Words can hit you in the gut. These left me winded and breathless and sick. ‘You can’t do this,’ I croaked. ‘You’re not serious!’
She jumped up and whirled round the kitchen. ‘I am! It’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long time so don’t be selfish and make a fuss. You’ll soon adjust. Make new friends. We’re going and that’s that.’ She didn’t give me time to say anything. ‘Gotta go and fix it up with work.’ With that, she disappeared out the door, still wearing her old shorts and the T-shirt streaked with hair dye.
I tottered over to Louisa’s and collapsed in a heap on her couch. Gemma cried with me. Louisa tried to talk to Mum when she got home, but Mum wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t stay still, wouldn’t even look at me. She packed up the flat, put the big stuff in storage but gave away about half our possessions.
‘You can’t do that!’ I yelled, grabbing back my old stuffed elephant.
‘All right!’ she yelled back. ‘You do it then!’
‘Do it yourself! You’re the one that wants to go! You go by yourself,’ I screamed. ‘I’ll stay here with Louisa!’
But Louisa couldn’t afford another kid and Mum would get lost driving to Wellington. She’d probably end up in Gisborne. Serve her right if she did.
It was a horrible Christmas. Mum didn’t even try to make it fun. She kept on packing things up and wiping down surfaces that were already shiningly clean. When she sat down, her hands twitched.
‘What’s the matter? Tell me!’ I kept begging, but she’d just shake her head and fold her lips together and get busy doing something else.
We packed our old heap of a car on the evening of Boxing Day and we drove out of Auckland and our old lives forever early the next morning. I told Louisa and Gemma not to get up to see us off because I’d only cry. Louisa hugged me. ‘You know I’m always here, no matter what.’
I sniffed. I did know it, but here was going to be a long way from where we were going to be.
Mum seemed to relax a bit as she drove. She still wouldn’t talk to me about anything except to say, ‘I’ve always wanted to work with refugees, Kirby. I had to grab the chance when it came.’
‘But how come they let you leave the hospital so quickly? I thought you had to give notice and all that stuff.’
‘I had holidays owing,’ she said.
But we’d taken holidays in September and gone to Hanmer Springs so we could lie around in hot pools and look at mountains at the same time. I glanced at her. She might be acting a bit calmer now, but she was still jumpy. ‘Mum …’ I said tentatively.
‘Leave it, Kirby. Just leave it!’ So we said nothing until we got to Hamilton when I said I was hungry. I ate a couple of hamburgers but she only had a cup of tea. We travelled down the island and the only times she spoke were to ask me for directions. I held the map on my lap and wished I had a map of her mind as well.
In the middle of the afternoon when the tar on the road was melting with the heat, the old heap sighed and stopped.
Mum sat there, grasping the wheel so tightly her knuckles were ivory.
‘Mum,’ I spoke calmly. ‘It’s okay. We’re in a town. We’re lucky.’ I looked around for a name. ‘Foxton. We’re in Foxton.’ I suddenly felt better. This was what I was used to doing. Looking after my mother. Picking up the bits when things went
wrong. Organising her. ‘We are going over to that coffee bar and we are going to have something to eat and drink. Then we’ll find someone to look at the heap.’ Which actually meant that I would find the someone.
I got out and yanked on her door to get it open. She stumbled out. I took her arm and steered her across the road, holding her back from walking under a truck.
I dragged her up a couple of steps, then shoved her towards a table and chairs. Sat her down, bought her coffee and sandwiches. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘we don’t have to go on with this. How about I phone Louisa? She’d come down and get us.’
Mum just shook her head. ‘It’s something I have to do. You don’t understand.’ She was right. I didn’t. I stood and stared down at her bent head. She wasn’t going to talk, so I’d never understand. I shrugged. Might as well get on with it.
The mechanic I found didn’t understand why a fourteen-year-old girl would be trying to get a car fixed, but he did it. ‘It might get you to Wellington,’ he said in the sort of voice people use when they say you might win Lotto.
I retrieved Mum. ‘He says it’ll get us there.’ I should have lied and told her it had died, but the mood she was in she’d have made us hitch-hike — and that I could do without.
The car held together long enough and we stopped for the night at a motel somewhere a bit
north of the city. Mum walked round and round the lounge, twitching at bedcovers, kicking chairs, picking up cushions and beating them up.
I went out and bought some fish and chips. I ate them, she didn’t touch them. She loves fish and chips. She’d live on them if I let her.
‘Mum … please. What’s going on?’
‘Kirby …’ She stopped and put her hands to her face, pressing them against her cheeks as if she was holding her head together.
‘Mum!’ I got up, but she held up a hand.
‘I’m all right. I’m okay. It’s just that I’ve got to tell you and …’
My body went cold. ‘Tell me what?’
She wrapped her arms round herself and rocked forward so that her head dropped and she couldn’t look at me. ‘I’m not going to work with refugees in Wellington. I’m going to Africa.’
The words hung in the hot air. Africa? She was going to Africa?
‘What about …’ I cleared my throat and tried again. ‘What about me?’
‘My brother has offered to have you.’