My mother and I were in Bristol, visiting someone. A cousin, or something, and her teenage daughter. We were having tea—like this. I would’ve been nine or ten.
Children did a lot of listening in those days. I was never very good at it. I’ve always felt that only interesting people should speak, though it’s the opposite of convention. I suppose I fidgeted too much or said something smart because Mother hissed in my ear: “Why don’t you go upstairs and say hello to Katherine?”
Children still did as they were told in those days. I was never very good at that, either. But this time, I listened. I suppose I was bored. I didn’t know who Katherine was and I didn’t ask.
The first room I went into was the master bedroom. There were clothes all over the floor. When the parlour had been so clean.
The second room was the teenage daughter’s. She had a lot of nice things. Fashionable clothes. There was quite a lot of makeup on the vanity. I put on a bit of coral lipstick and looked in the mirror. I’ve always liked that color.
The third room…
A girl lay asleep in bed. But she wasn’t asleep, no. Her eyes were open. She was staring straight up, at the ceiling.
There was a chair by the bed, so I sat in it. I was curious.
I looked at the girl. She was no bigger than a child of four or five, though she could’ve been my age—or older. Her wrists were like sticks.
As I watched her, she turned her face to me. Her cheek against the pillow. She looked just like a Victorian advertisement. She looked at me. And she said…
“Because I have two hearts … I am strange and sad to everyone.”
I took her hand. It was so small. I closed my fingers around it. Her skin. You could see every vein.
And I could feel them. PA-PUM … pa-pum. PA-PUM … pa-pum. PA-PUM … pa-pum. The two hearts. A stronger, and a weaker. Beating.
She didn’t say another word, the girl. She didn’t have to.
It’s strange, how something can affect you. For years, I thought about that girl. When I was about to enjoy something, perhaps something too nice, something improper, I’d think of her. An image of her, with her head against the pillow. And I’d set down the cake, or tell the young man no.
The girl. The two hearts. My moral companions.
Can I trouble you for another cup?
Rolli’s latest book is The Sea-Wave.
Buy him a coffee.