The Sound Mirror

by Heidi James

They contained us, we, I, in their bellies, blood, and water; constrained us tight as seeds in the cells and in the breath. Before the splitting, the infinite doubling, and now I hold them all, a rabble of ancestors, pressing up from inside against my skin, and too, I contain the next generation, if I wish. If I can bear to, bear it, bear down, bear a child. But for now, I am the sum of all those women, I am the total. I am all. I am we, us, them. Like debris left high on a hill after a tidal wave, a massive rush of energy. I am what is left.

I imagine history trailing me, like clanging tin cans on a wedding car, but I’m wrong. We’re wrong. History is a halter that leads; we are a beast of burden with a ring through the nose. I go where they lead. I am not I, not whole, my memories false; I am we, we are whole, fragments, unified and colliding under the swirling universe. It is a romantic imagining, almost religious. But understandable, too. I suppose. Aware of this construction, which is mine and ours and yours, if you like. You know what women are like. All of them. All those us. We. Stories used to travel, like names, down the father line. Not anymore.


It is said, she was told, that if a pregnant woman gazed at the Himalayas and wished for a beautiful child, it would be so. But now she is far from the mountains, thousands of sea miles from the crumbling bungalow where the spiders hung like ornaments; far from the pure heat of summer and furious damp of monsoon, peacock blue and elephant grey, tea cups and pearl inlays, closer now to the place they called, her father at least called, home. She leans on the railings, and us with her, invisible, watching from inside, alongside, watching the gunmetal sea lift and fall; was it that colour because of the war, from the remnants of bombs and the killing machines dissolving in the salt water? She has seen the newsreels, read the papers. She wonders, we watch.

She was the only one who hadn’t gotten sick. The others, her mother, our sister, the other army wives and children were all green at the gills and had been from the off. The ghastly food hadn’t helped. Thirty-eight days from Calcutta, pressing through the ocean, crossing the burning line of the equator and back again and now finally rounding the Rock of Gibraltar towards England. We take these stories, these countries, this health. We carry them. Time folds flat and expands like gas. It has its reckoning.

‘Did you make that wish, mummy?’ we asked, sat on the verandah, skirt tucked around our knees, our parents drinking tall glasses of gin and tonic. ‘Yes, as a matter of fact I did, when I was pregnant with your sister.’ Our father cleared his throat. ‘And not for me?’ Our mother, grandmother, daughter raised the heavy lids of her dark eyes and gazed at us, ‘No, we weren’t anywhere near the mountains then, but never mind.’ We looked away. Of course, the sister was beautiful and beloved, and that was why she got to stay at home, whilst we will be, were sent to boarding school with the wretched nuns. Far away from trouble, from temptation, not hers, but his, the father — still you take the shame with you, and the secrets. Always will, always did. The secrets. They become ours. Our shame. It travels with the colour of our hair, our short noses and weak ankles.

She has left behind her piano, her pretty birds in their gilt cage, her ayah — soft skin and voice and care, she has left behind her books, the wild roses in the hedgerows, the scent of cumin and turmeric, indigo and pink, the laundry steam stiff with starch, the flat breads and servants’ chatter, anger and cloth, the riots and fury, the thrum of the spinning jenny and the old unbelonging. There, over the rising curve of the earth, she will arrive to a new unbelonging. We are prepared, her mother told her so. 


The kids are all standing, waiting in the siding, their names on brown labels hanging from their necks, along with gas masks. This one of us peeks over at her mum, standing with the other parents, Maryann, the new baby, in her arms. This mother looks worried, chewing her lips and blinking a lot. Some of the kids are scared, crying for their mothers, but we ain’t, ain’t even holding sister Annie’s hand.

It’s bedlam with all the crowding and the crying and the trains huffing clouds of steam, but a man in a uniform with a clipboard is walking around like he knows what he’s doing; and anyway, won’t it be nice to get away from the bombs, and that stinking cold shelter that lets the rain in, and that awful siren that sounds like her brother crying when he’s got a stuffed-up nose. She, us, don’t like watching the English planes fight the Krauts, not even right up in the sky, not even the time they watched one get hit and the men fall down, dangling under their white parachutes like unravelled yo-yos. She wants to get out of there. We will always run from there. Always. Later. Now.

But when we arrive in Wales and are collected from the village hall by Mrs Nash, she, us, changes our mind and starts to cry. She don’t like their strange voices and the looming hills and sheep and cows and the single bed with the neat corners and the quiet that seeps into your bones with its loneliness that not even the wireless can stop. It’s all clean clean clean. We hate Mrs Nash. She wouldn’t take Annie or Bert, and she won’t let us into the house until she shaves all our hair off. ‘Nasty, lousy thing,’ she says. We sob as hair falls at our feet. Our head is cold. It was pretty hair, our only pretty thing.

Mr Edwards is alright, though.  At tea he says, ‘You’re small for eight, aren’t you? We better feed you up,’ and he puts more potatoes on the plate. ‘Don’t spoil her,’ his wife says, ‘she’ll eat us out of house and home.’
Mr Edwards winks, ‘Did someone mistake you for a sheep?’ She shakes our head, frowning off babyish tears. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. ‘Your hair, you look like you’ve been shorn. Not to worry, I’ll get you a nice hat to wear to school.’ Yeah, he’s alright, Mr Edwards, even if he is a Methodist.


And then it’s less clear and we are trying to keep up with all the images, the words, all of it, too fast. Slow down. Slow down. Kipper bones, birthing babies, the soap, the tea, just a corner of chocolate, hands that do... Always known how, a dab hand long before you know how they’re even got, crossing babies’ palms with silver. Nannight, God bless. Pulling the curtains on a storm, opening the doors to let it through, mind you, tins of Spam and digestive biscuits. Washing in front of the fire, bringing in the bowl of soapy water, red shoes no knickers, where there’s muck there’s brass, who does she think she is? All mouth and no trousers, pride comes before a fall. Lady Muck, slut, her and her fancy man. I speak as I find, and if you don’t like it, you know what you can do. Peeling potatoes, watching the kiddies playing, feeding the washing, heavy as a sack of puppies, through the mangle. Pastry and banana bread, ice inside windows and coats on top of blankets, hot water bottles and eventually the electric blanket. Teasmade and Lemon Lift and the donkey on top of the wardrobe, brought back all the way from Spain. Great Nona’s plaster St. Francis and the glow-in-the-dark Madonna from Lourdes, the small bottle of holy water next to her brush and comb and lipstick on the dressing table. Learning to wash your Minnie and knowing now that smell was post-coital as she scrubbed herself and being glad they still loved each other even then, though once she said he wouldn’t leave off me, the doctor had to tell him in the end, bloody men and she laughed and said but it’s nice an’ all, don’t you worry. The babies come and come till we’re wrung out like an old dishcloth. That’s what love does. Ragged clouds like they’re cut with blunt scissors, the nice accountant from work panting, sweating between her legs, nice change from home. Beautiful as a film star, you are. Yes. She knows, wants more. More than husband, children, shrinking, grey England with its slop and brown tea. More English than the English. Here we learn to be poor, ordinary, less than. The piano never arrives. Only love, new love brings startle and gasp. Fucking, a dog nuzzles in and licks his penis; laughing, they put the dog outside. We always have dogs. She writes long letters, keeps carbon copies. They are missiles aimed at the future. We will forget the writing, but the reading will dismember. Then, the love ends.


Years before and to come on a school trip to the Kent seaside, the man told us about these sound mirrors and how some people thought they were beautiful examples of architecture and how even though they still worked, they were never used, because something else came along, better technology or something and then the war ended, so there were no more German planes to listen out for. But they still stand there, these huge concrete disks, shaped like bowls, gathering and reflecting sounds, taking things in. Out in the middle of nowhere, facing the sea, still doing their job even if no one is listening anymore. There’s magic about them, standing there, you can hear what’s happening a long way away. We used to marvel at them, way back before I was born. Echoes still vibrating in the molecules. That’s us, turned in both directions, a listening device.

Our sister says our hands are like our previous hands, gran’s hands, hands that cleaned, polished, caressed, stroked cocks, lifted, lost, played piano. Folding linen, habits learned from nuns. Tucked neat. In gloves, clasped in a lap. I only mention the hands because they’re the parts we see as others do. Right there, in front of us. Almost detached. Not mine, but always ours. Her hands. We do not do what she did, though. One of us was, and now this I does everything different, the same. The we that is I is only imagined.

One mother had wished her daughter were dead. Doesn’t matter which, maybe all of them do at some point. But wishing her daughter dead is another way of saying that she wished a part of herself were dead... an imperfect doppelgänger. She is trying to kill us all. We never liked her. She is going mad again, writing this. Seeing faces out the corner of her eye that when she turns have disappeared. All this nostalgia, these memories are rotten, have diseased her tissues. She can feel them growing and metastasising, so that now she is remembering striped winceyette sheets and pillow cases, paraffin heaters and coats for blankets, net curtains hanging lacy over the window that looked out over the graveyard opposite and black hairs covering the knuckles that were nasty over the cotton gusset of her little girl knickers.

And there’s the question — whose anxiety is this? Whose sadness? Bad dreams? Which belong to this me? She remembers, forgetting is an act of survival. It is essential to forget. We remember this crucial advice — forget, forget; but which forgetting will do the trick? Or better to carry us all on our back, bending further with time, old lady origami, bones hollowed out to contain us all.


Photograph by Bimka / Thinkstock

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