I found the headstone in the third row. Moss grew up the side and over the top of the damp stone. The chiselled lettering was beginning to crumble, as if it had had enough of displaying my mother’s name, Cara Parker, to the world and was giving up in tiny chunks.
I pulled at the weeds growing in a crack between the headstone and the grave. A stubborn dandelion broke off, its roots now visible, leaking something white and sticky. I considered scraping off the moss, planting daffodils and tulips on the grave as I had seen on others in the cemetery, but… it wasn’t my grave to tend.
My mother and I arrived in this town in the mid-80s. We came by bus in the early hours. Fog sat on the land like cottonwool and it made our arrival both easily discreet and difficult to navigate. My mother had a blue holdall slung over her shoulder. Along with the clothes on our backs this was everything we had. I trailed her closely. I was a gangly ten year old; various parts of me beginning to sprout towards adolescence in an uneven race towards an uncertain goal.
We ate breakfast from a tiny kiosk cafe at the bus station. I remember the taste of the rubbery bacon and stale bread roll. I’d not eaten since the previous morning and it tasted as good as anything I’d ever put in my mouth.
But it started well before that delicious chewy roll. It started years before, even before the story of when my mother met my father at a warehouse party, but that is as far back as I know.
My mother must have been lost even then to find herself wound around Phil. He was an ageing hippy of a man, yellow fisherman pants, straggly beard, patchouli oil and, I suspect, a penchant for drugs named after only one letter of the alphabet.
My mother was harder to sum up. We had the same hair – long, brown and boring; she curled hers to make it more interesting. She was good with people, but it was like she collected them for a short while and then lost them. I have inherited this talent, so I’m not in an objective position to say what it was that caused this. Perhaps we were short-term people. Perhaps that’s why Hippy Phil’s attentions caused her to divert only for a while. But divert she did, and I was born in a tent somewhere on the outskirts of Glastonbury. At least that’s the story I was told.
Hippy Phil knew my mother as Audrey and me as Clare. I have little memory of this time, just vague images of those yellow pants, but also hula hoops, and flames, like fire juggler’s torches.
My mother left Hippy Phil sometime before I was due to go to school. We travelled north, up to the top of Scotland, a place of heavy wool jumpers, two pairs of socks and cold noses. My mother introduced us as Pam and Katie and we moved into a cottage on a farm. It was more barn than cottage – drafts blew in where the walls had pulled away from each other, as if the stones were yearning to be part of the outside world again. We stuffed them with old newspapers and slept under coats with all our clothes on.
When my mother finished her work for the day, she and the farmer’s wife would sit at the big scuffed wooden table in the main house, drink tea and laugh. Sometimes there would be fresh loaves of bread, sometimes kippers, but always that shrill laughter coming out of the kitchen. The farmer’s wife told Pam she was like a shaft of sunshine after a long cold winter.
I walked the two miles to the local school where I encountered other children properly for the first time. Pink ruddy faces, brownie uniforms, warmth and words. I made friends with a small mouse-like creature called Beth whose hair was as frizzy as mine was limp. Just like me, Beth wore heavy wool jumpers two sizes too big with patched elbows. Big was best – we could shrink our arms up inside and use them as mittens.
For her sixth birthday Beth got a set of marbles. They were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, all shining glass with bright splashes of colour at the centre. We played endless games on the polished wood floor of the schoolhouse, the crack of the marbles hitting each other echoing around the bare stone walls.
Beth lent me half her marbles so I could play at home. I slipped them into my pocket and fingered their cold smoothness. She made a joke about how she must have lost her marbles and we laughed until there were tears, our hands on our small heaving ribs.
I didn’t tell her I had no one to play with at home.
A couple of years rolled by; our arms grew into our jumpers leaving hands to be warmed beneath armpits. I was woken in the early hours one morning by my mother packing our still-meagre belongings into the blue holdall. I watched as she un-stuffed the newspapers from the gaps in the walls and used them, and some other papers, to light a fire in the open grate. The flames caught and licked higher and higher until the paper turned to ash and the chill crept back into the air. My mother pulled me from the bed and we left on foot down the long drive from the farm. I waved goodbye to Beth from the road as we passed the bottom of her street. There were no lights on in her house. I waved anyway.
We stopped the next day in a Yorkshire village. I dragged on my mother’s hand as she walked us up the High Street, my mouth watering as we passed teashops selling iced buns and cheese scones. But the loud rumbling of my stomach didn’t hinder our journey and we continued on, climbing the hill to the local church.
The churchyard gate creaked as my mother opened it. I hovered on the footpath outside. She turned back, flicked her head as if to say, come on.
I looked at the sunken ground of the old graves and shook my head. ‘Maggots,’ I said. Skeletal hands was what I meant. Skeletal hands ripping up through the ground and grabbing my ankles.
She shrugged and turned back to the graveyard. I watched, head craning over the stone fence, as my mother walked slowly up and down the rows of headstones, a red notebook in her hand. Sometimes she’d stop at a grave for a while and jot down notes.
I changed from Katie to Maisie as we came to rest in a small town in Suffolk. At the local church we met an elderly couple gardening. I have no memory as substantial as their faces, only the sense of superfluous hair on both of them. My mother wove her magic and in no time they had offered us the top floor of their house.
The house was so old that the windows and floors tilted on crazy angles as if the whole place was slowly sinking to the ground. It allowed me to play fast, solitary games of marbles.
The roof was crisscrossed with exposed, centuries-old beams. The day we arrived I put a chair on the table and clambered onto it. I stretched up on my tiptoes and with a kitchen knife began carving Beth + Katie into the solid tree-trunk-thick wood, but the knife slipped from my hand after the h of Beth. Then my feet slipped. I grabbed at the beam. The chair rocked a couple of times. Then crashed to the floor. I hung limply from my aching arms, too scared to drop, too weak to pull myself up. My mother came in and found me like that ten minutes later.
The village school in Suffolk housed an odd selection of waifs and strays and I was the oddest of the lot. I had strewn the heavy wool jumpers of Scotland and taken to wearing an old oilskin coat I’d found hanging in a crumbling shed out the back of our house. It smelt of oil, of course, and reassuringly of the farm we’d left behind. I wore it even when the weather was so warm I was swimming inside of it.
I sat next to a boy called Oscar who liked to sharpen his pencil to a fine point, and then stab me in the arm. Or he’d pick bogeys from his nose and wipe them on the seats of chairs. More often than not it was my chair. He was no Beth.
My mother, now Patricia, cleaned houses in the area and was often gone well into the evenings. Sometimes on my way home from playing by the river I would find her in the ancient, moss green yard of the church cemetery. She would be wandering along a row, notebook and pencil in hand. In spring she’d take daffodils and place them reverentially on random graves. One time I braved the threat of skeletal hands and went to look at the headstones after she left. They were all female and all long dead.
At home we circled each other as if we were more flatmates than parent and child. Things got cleaned by one of us when it became more of a hassle for it to remain dirty. Dishes washed once a week, the bed changed eventually, at some point our clothes were dumped together in the big tub downstairs and I would walk around for the rest of the day naked beneath my oilskin coat.
One endless summer holiday I freed a neighbour’s dog from its backyard by sliding a wooden fence pale to the side. The dog wriggled eagerly into the gap, his wiry terrier tail thumping on the boards as he squeezed his hindquarters through. Then he sniffed my hand, jumped a couple of times around me and ran off through the meadows towards the river. I followed, and Dog and I became fast friends.
The hairy old couple left little packets of shortbread wrapped in greaseproof paper on the steps to our flat. My mother often visited them in the evenings. The rattle of teacups drifted upstairs, the solemn sounds of voices in prayer following shortly afterwards. Once I heard the old woman say, ‘Trish, it’s so great to see a young person with such faith, you’re a light in the darkness.’
I’d never been to church before we arrived in that town. Then every week I was dragged off to Sunday School, but God was never mentioned in our part of the house.
Time passed, my legs grew longer, my coat shorter. On a day when the clouds were banked along the horizon I came home to find the floor had been swept. All of my marbles, which had been pooled in the far, low corner of the room, were gone. The dishes were washed and instead of lying to dry on the sideboard, had disappeared mysteriously into cupboards they had not seen in years. On the kitchen table sat the familiar holdall, dust caressing the handles, its blue beginning to fade. My mother came out of the bathroom, her hands encased in giant pink rubber gloves.
‘What have you done with my marbles?’
She nodded at the holdall.
I eyed the bulge in the front pocket with relief. ‘I’m too old for them now.’
She shrugged. ‘I need to make a fire,’ she said. ‘You have time to hang from the beam again if you’d like.’
I shrugged back, as if such things were of no consequence, but I stood beneath the beam and looked at the place where I’d scratched Beth’s name when I first arrived. I’d always meant to climb back up and add the ‘+ Katie’, but I was Maisie now – almost ten – Katie felt like someone else, someone forever seven years old.
I found my mother in the garden five minutes later with a bonfire well ablaze. She prodded at the fire with an iron poker.
‘Ten minutes,’ she said.
I walked quickly down the lane and stopped at the fence where Dog lived. He came wagging his tail and nudging at the loose pale where I usually let him out.
I patted him twice on the head. ‘Goodbye, Dog.’
He licked my hand.
I walked back towards the bonfire, the smoke curling around me and choking the air. We left without seeing the hairy old couple and walked the four miles to the nearest station.
We rode the train around London, so far around that we became Audrey and Clare again. We alighted in the West Country, in a place that sounded prettier than it was: concrete, concrete everywhere.
A man on the platform waving at us turned out to be Hippy Phil. He had traded his yellow fisherman pants for brown corduroys and boat shoes. I looked behind him for hula hoopers or fire jugglers but alas, he was alone. He greeted me with a pat on the head and put his arm around Audrey as if they had only been apart for a matter of days.
Former-hippy Phil lived in a bungalow in a street full of identical bungalows. The beams of the roof were hidden behind skirting boards and the floor was disconcertingly even. The marbles rolled hardly any distance and then stopped as if awaiting further instruction. There were no dogs in the neighbours’ yards.
I was given a pinafore with a pleated skirt, a cardigan and woollen tights. My mother made me take off my oilskin coat and put them on. They were stiff and scratchy and impractical as far as I could see, but Clare was careful not to get them creased or dirty.
Audrey spent all her time talking with Corduroy Phil in hushed whispers, and then late at night, excited, raucous voices abounded from behind the closed lounge-room door followed by gasping moans.
I felt sick.
We’d only been in the house a few nights when my mother woke me early in a manner that I knew meant we were moving on.
I looked at her, bleary-eyed. ‘Another bonfire?’
She gave me a strange look as if only just realising I had been paying attention all these years. ‘Do you like being Clare?’
I shook my head. ‘She’s boring, and she lives in a boring house. Do you like Audrey?’
‘Not very much,’ she said. ‘Pack your stuff, then.’
I looked at the faded blue holdall she’d left in the middle of the room. I hadn’t unpacked anything yet except the marbles. I gathered them up from where they were scattered across the floor, popped them back in the end pocket and grabbed my oilskin coat.
‘You can leave that stinking thing behind,’ she said.
She was right; Clare would not have such a coat. I draped it over the bedstead and wondered if this time Phil would come too. I was aware that he was my father, but the concept of father was so loose to me that I’d put this fact in the same place as other facts like whales ate krill and horses rolled in daisies. There was no sign of brown corduroys as we slunk quietly from the dark house.
In the cemetery I found the grave two rows from Cara Parker’s:
9th September 1982 – 14th April 1985
I have had the name so long now it feels like mine, but occasionally I wonder if I have been living a stolen life. I like to think my mother was right all those years ago as we stood in this same spot, shoes sinking slightly into the soft grass, that it was not stolen but the gift of a life to be lived where there was none before.
Cara Parker and Antonia Chapman had lives they would never have had, for a little while anyway.
We spent two days travelling by overnight bus and sleeping in shelters until we arrived in that cemetery on a foggy freezing morning.
My mother walked up and down the rows a few times in a manner I was now familiar with, stopping at some of the headstones to consult her notebook. I followed carefully, making sure that not even a toe crept off the marked pathways.
We circled back and stopped a second time at a grave halfway down a row. She closed her notebook, slipped it into her pocket and explained to me that I would now be Antonia.
‘I’d rather be someone who was alive,’ I told her, glancing at the name on the headstone beside us.
‘Think of it as a second chance for a life,’ my mother said.
I wasn’t convinced, but I was keen to shake off Clare’s clothes. Antonia would never wear a pleated skirt. Antonia sounded like she had something going on, something slightly foreign and mysterious. She was a girl with secrets.
We moved to the Isle of Dogs in London’s east. My th’s became f’s and my tt’s, dd’s. Cara got a job in a local pub; she laughed loudly, wore low-cut tops and began to smoke menthol cigarettes. She greeted all the locals as if she’d known them for years and soon enough she became a fixture. She seemed happier than I’d seen her before.
We fitted easily into our new lives. Our house was a tiny two-up two-down with sash windows and a steep Victorian staircase. The floors sloped a little in places and a slight breeze made its way through the shrinking window frames.
I rocketed towards adolescence on a slippery train track of time. I wrote Oasis, Pulp and Smashing Pumpkins on my high school books. I rolled my school skirt over at the waist to make it shorter and wore my cherry-red Doc Martens boots the moment I left the school gates. The marbles stayed in their pouch of the holdall, in its home on the top shelf of the hall cupboard.
At night I listened for the sound of my mother’s footsteps on the stairs before drifting off to sleep. In the morning I padded quietly down the same threadbare carpet stairs in my socks. I made a friend called Deb who had dyed-red hair and wore mountains of mascara like a dead insect had landed on her eyes. I made another friend called Megan, who wore black ribbons ironically in her hair and glitter un-ironically on her nails. They were both attracted by Antonia’s sarcastic wit and jealous that she had the house to herself every night.
On weekends, my mother would come home after closing time with drinks and bags of crisps. She’d mix cans of lager with lemonade in tall glasses and we’d sit in front of the fire, smoke and drink into the small hours. We’d talk fondly of Maisie and Katie, Trish and Pam like they were old relatives we’d lost touch with. We never mentioned Clare or Audrey.
Six years after we moved to the Isle of Dogs, my mother was coming home late from the pub when a man called Ed Vance began following her. He didn’t like the way she was walking, he didn’t like that she was alone, he didn’t like that she was a woman. What he mostly didn’t like was that she had rejected his advances at the bar earlier and he decided to show her how serious he was.
Her body was found on the steps of the local library by an early morning jogger.
The knock came loudly on the door. I answered in my pyjamas thinking my mother had lost her key. The police were polite and suitably sombre, but after the first few words a wave of white noise swamped me. Their mouths moved silently. Hula hoopers and fire jugglers flashed in and out of my vision.
When they left I ran through the house, gathering old school books, a letter I had written to Beth and never sent, a picture I’d painted of Dog. I stacked them in the iron fire grate. My mother’s lighter was still sitting on the girth. I flicked it open and lit the corner of the pile. The heat suddenly intense as a whoosh of flame caught.
I stood mesmerised by the flames, my mother’s red notebook in my hand. I’d found it under her pillow. I went to throw it on the fire too but hesitated. Inside were lists of names with birth and death dates, cemetery locations and row references. A few were underlined – written beside those in careful hand were the dates and places we’d lived as them. Folded neatly into the back of the notebook were copies of birth certificates for people I’d never heard of. Had she been selling them? Or were they just insurance – a comfort?
I knew by then it was easy enough to become someone else. One form of ID could easily lead to another. A birth certificate could lead to a driver’s licence, to a rental lease, to anything else that you wanted. Mostly you didn’t even need that, people just took your word for it.
The police, though, didn’t take long to work out my mother wasn’t the real Cara Parker. I told them that these were the names we’d always had. I doubt they believed me, but as much as they tried they couldn’t trace us back further than Suffolk. Nothing was ever mentioned of Corduroy Phil.
The last time the police came around, they told me Ed Vance hadn’t been the man’s real name either. He’d gone by many names, they said. He’d been on the run. He’d vanished.
An avalanche of ironic unfairness swallowed me up.
Unknown woman killed by unknown man, the headline in the local paper read. I burnt that as well. My mother wasn’t unknown. She was funny, charismatic, cunning, and sarcastic.
There was nothing I could do about it; there was no one to tell who she was. My mother, who had brought Cara Parker so successfully back to life and loved her, had her taken away in death.
She was cremated on an overcast wintery day. There was a memorial service at the pub. I stood in my cherry-red Docs and drank a shandy while they buried her ashes in the garden.
They put a plaque on the wall near the bar:
In remembrance of our ‘Cara’ whoever you were, we felt we knew you a lifetime.
Which they had, in a way.
I wandered back to Cara Parker’s grave. It felt like only yesterday since my mother and I stood in this same spot looking for new life in these chiselled rows of stone. Over my shoulder swung a bag – a tattered bleached thing, once blue. I unzipped the end pocket and pulled out a cluster of chipped glass marbles, their vibrant coloured eyes winking at me as I turned them over and over in my hands. I left them in two small piles, along with some daffodils, as a thank you under Cara’s and Antonia’s headstones.
I slung the holdall back over my shoulder, pulled a red notebook from my pocket, and ran my finger down a list of names. I stopped on one – Sandy Hadfield, born June 1982. I scanned the horizon. Beyond the churchyard lay a field of brilliant yellow rapeseed; shimmering in the breeze next to it, a field of lush green wheat. The spire of the old church rose so sharply into the sky between them it seemed to cut the clouds in two.
In a place like this, you could be anyone at all.