Part One: Sylvie
Twenty-one days before
It breeds, the craving, as she glares at the hood of the baby’s pram. Sharp in skin and bone. Almost, but of course not, sexual. Little mouth to latch the nipple. Little fingers to curl her hair. Make her real again.
The scar on Sylvie’s wrist burns.
The baby’s arm floats outside the pram as if dismembered. How tiny-soft that arm. How easy to puncture. The arm steers the ribbon of a white balloon which, unexpectedly, bursts. The baby’s cries clatter up Durham high-street and her father, Thomas, glances over and levers the dregs of his drink with dead eyes. Belching lungfuls of sorrow. To Sylvie the cry says – wet, sore, help. Her body answers, Yes.
But she has not gone through all this to help.
Thomas gets up. For another drink, she assumes, leaving the baby to cry. Sylvie’s fingers tighten, crumpling the leaflet she’d planned to deliver. Thomas gone, she advances. Traps the leaflet beneath the empty glass. She should leave now, but cannot resist. There is no one else in the beer garden; the clear June sky has purpled with threatening rain. There’s the scissor of a chill. Quick bend to see that red forehead. So furrowed it looks burned.
The baby, she knows, is called Emma. Her skin glows white in the creases of her red upset. Sylvie clean her pain away with the lullaby of movement. That rocking motion which was once as familiar as breathing.
Peter once said that the body is never more alive than when it is in pain.
Thomas is returning with another pint glass. Cirrhosis could kill him.
Would that be enough?
What would be enough?
Saturday-Durham rushes behind Sylvie like spilling salt. Your mother’s back… some saying for the English.
She dislocates herself. Strides purposefully away.
Sixty days before
Sylvie is naked but for the rustling gloves that came with the hair dye. She sheds even these and bends over the new bath in her new flat. Black water. Rises to inspect her face for signs of her other self.
‘Ou tu est?’
The other Sylvie surfaces from that quiet, buried place. Restrained by the frame of Sylvie’s new dark hair. Sylvie presses a finger to her lips, shakes her head. She imagines, she must be imagining it, that the other version of her, a girl so gauche with hope and mohair memories, nods assent. A little rabbit nod.
Sylvie lifts the idling cigarette, blows smoke into the mirror. Regards its frantic upward scribble for a home. Home. The cumin-scented farmhouse. How it would beam orange as lozenges when the sun shone. Blonde slips of wheat fields, the full sky, the blue blue night.
Even now, she tightens when she thinks of him.
The baby lives three streets away, a fact Sylvie knows from the files. And now also knows practically, having physically followed Thomas up the steep incline by the Starbucks where all the students puddle.
‘Sylvie,’ she says to the mirror, smiling. ‘Sylvie.’ Lighter, more feminine. As if this is how she has spoken for all of her lives. ‘So pleased to meet you.’ She shakes her head, rests the cigarette, continues to rehearse.
At least she doesn’t sound French. Not even to herself. No one could make that connection.
Naked, she sits on a chair positioned before her window. A porthole to the allotments and the man who looks up at her. This tiny flat where she has been for six months, on such carefully amassed savings, biding her time, gathering. The leaflet for The Death Cafe is to her right.
She takes the DSLR from the kitchen counter-top. Wakes it. Flicks through the pictures. Thomas, Thomas. The funeral of his mail-order wife, which barely anyone attended. Sylvie sucks on the cigarette, the touch paper seethes.
Twenty days before
Strike, flare, suck. Gluey, Sylvie draws the grey velvet smoke into her body. Underneath the leadenness, the gluey feeling, is intent. Today, Thomas would be at The Death Cafe, she was sure. Today it would all finally begin.
Was she ready?
Nodding, Sylvie taps her legs. Percussion of her body to remind her she’s real. You are real.
She wiggles into a sitting position. Today, she cannot make any mistakes.
Get out of bed.
She moves the duvet aside, naked. Her body looks like it’s pouting. Her relaxed stomach, the breasts that were now beyond all purpose. The white scars that glimmer like fish bellies. Stops. The dream catches. There, the old Sylvie. Bare-footed and leaking milk and Peter loves her. Soil-feet and green fingers and Peter loves her. Happy. And maman was wrong about her, wasn’t she? You, with your misleading face. Because Peter love-love-loves her. She has come in from picking purple legumes into a basket shaped like a English flowers. She will fry these with garlic and chicken. Slippy hair thoughtless over bare shoulders, pointing to knees’ brown backs. Peter covets the whisper of her hair on skin. Sunlight spills into the farmhouse, warms it from the inside out. Peter’s English syllables – beautiful – has lit the shadows every girl is given. Every girl except their daughter Angel, who would know, always, that she was enough.
Peter lifts their daughter from the basinette, a silent conversation between them. Here is a man who would die for you, baby.