BY TRACEY SCOTT-TOWNSEND
You would be surprised to know that I had to think really hard about what to wear before you came to meet me. You see apparel is not something that concerns me in my current circumstances. There is no such thing. But I wanted to look nice for you; I knew you had imagined me all those years, your head crowded with potential images: first of a baby, then of a child and finally a young woman. What would I look like by now? The last time you saw me I was so tiny, not to mention… But I won’t. Not that. I thought of you sitting on the bus, travelling to meet me; grappling with the incongruousness of what you had learned, the grief raging up that you tried to suppress, years-full of grief it would be for you, though that meant nothing to me. Time. It was inconsequential.
I could almost hear the rumbling of the bus engine within your body as I listened but it changed to the pounding of your blood, the insistent beat of your heart. To think that even now your same heart would be propelling your same blood. That heart you had thirty years before.
I tuned in to your thoughts again. It simply wasn’t fair was one of them. You felt there had been wasted years when you could have known me – why had you been deprived of that chance?
Grief burned in you. You must have been lied to. And yet, it wasn’t really like that at all. But before I tell you, I need to give you your moments, as many as I can.
First I must decide what to wear so you will recognize me as the person you’ve imagined just about forever.
I sit on the bus, try to keep my face still, but it keeps crumpling, jerking about as if somebody is repeatedly screwing it up and throwing away so it can boomerang back again to the front of my head. The bus rocks me from side to side. I wish I could keen, like I’ve seen other women do on news bulletins. It’s a good word, keen; it brings to mind sharpness, a glittering blade. Like the one it feels as if I have stuck in my side. If I was keening I’d be making a low sound, a relentless outpouring of the pain I feel inside me, let it out, let it out, let it out. It will kill me if it stays in. I try to do it through complicated breathing techniques so I don’t draw too much attention to myself.
The top deck of the bus is full of people but nobody is looking at me. Even the girl sharing my double seat has her back to my side, her feet splayed out in the aisle so that people have to step over her. She’s chatting to the girl sitting like her mirror-image in the seat opposite, earphones trailing white wires from her head to the tiny machine she plays with in her hands. I can hear her tinny music pumping out from right over here in my seat by the window but it doesn’t annoy me as it usually would.
I claw my fingers into my jean-clad knees, hoping I have left vicious marks, and then I wrap my arms around myself and lean forward, my face turned towards the window, sightlessly watching black cabs and bicycles on the road. On the pavement people jostle past each other or stand patiently at crossings. Life just carries on.
They never told me. The people at the hospital where she was born never told me she had lived. They took her away from me dead and that was the last I saw of her. Too tiny to have lived, they said. For only a few ticks of the clock I held her in my numbed arms, looked down at the doll-sized face which had closed eyelids and a heart-shaped mouth. I still remember it so well. And then I handed her back. How could I have done that? But I couldn’t hold on to her forever, and the longer I did, the harder it would be to let go. So I did it sooner rather than later, handed her back. It was that evening, after they’d moved me to a ward and were trying to get me to go to sleep that I wanted her in my arms again – dead, deformed, it made no difference. I wanted my baby. But they offered me a sleeping pill instead.
Perhaps it wasn’t the right thing after all. Now I’d seen you, having understood how hard you were still hurting; I began to have my doubts. I worried that this would do you more damage than good. I practiced stepping from foot to foot, flexing my finger bones within the skin stretched over them. Practiced being me. I brushed my hair into a looped-up ponytail. Light brown it was, my hair. That was the color you’d imagined it would have turned, wasn’t it? I studied the picture of me in my carefully chosen outfit. It had been fun sorting through all the possibilities. I decided you would like to see me in a primrose colored jumper and red jeans. You would want me to look like a daughter, your daughter, the one you had visualized for so long. So I tried to be like that, just for you.
And then I waited for you, the room around me shifting and resettling with a sighing sound, the room I designed especially for you. I stood very still and waited, not feeling anything.
I have stopped even wondering how any of this could have happened. It doesn’t matter! I’ve let go of the grief, the insult of my unnecessary deprivation. All I want now is to see her and hold her again, for more than those few precious seconds I got when they told me she was dead. I will stop trying to work out how she could have been in existence all these years without me knowing. I just want to see her, my daughter.
I am negotiating crowded pavements and busy roads to reach the place where we’re to meet. My breath puffs out as my footsteps hit the ground, and I wish for a moment I was still that twenty-year-old who didn’t get out of breath so easily. I check my reflection in a shop window, I’ve changed so much. What will she think of me? Of course she only ever knew me from the inside, but I would still like to make her proud.
Before I go in, I pinch my cheeks. I raise my eyebrows a little so my eyes won’t look so hooded by tired flesh.
What you wouldn’t understand is that I hardly remembered. This didn’t mean to me what it meant to you. There was a bond between us at one time, of course, the same as there was between me and the host of every womb I ever inhabited. I danced in you as I danced in those others, all slightly different, I admit. But I was with you such a short time, and died before I left the comfort of your space. I know that you saw me in dreams from time to time for a few years after your tragedy, not only saw me but experienced me. To you it was real, just as this day would be. And when you stopped having those experiences, it was because I had gone somewhere else, moved on, which I think you kind of knew.
This encounter, it had only been possible because I had a gap in time. Maybe it was just bad luck that the life I had after I was your fetus was relatively short too. But I am in the space between that and becoming someone else’s daughter, and because I never really got a chance to be yours, or you to be my mother, I wanted to give you the moments you deserved.
I could see you standing outside the revolving glass door, lifting the skin above your eyes with your fingertips, peering anxiously at your reflection. I felt you steadying your breathing before plucking up the courage to take a step inside. You were so concerned about what I would think of you. But you needn’t have worried, it really didn’t matter what you looked like.
It was time for me to tune into the sensory memories I had of being in your womb because it was important to you that I was only your daughter, never mind about the parents I’d had since you, or the ones before that. I hoped you wouldn’t be disappointed in how I’d put myself together. I tried to create myself exactly the way you’d imagined me.
Tracey Scott-Townsend is no longer working as a teacher, she has put on hold her career as a fine artist, and she has eased up on her duties as a mother. As her four children sprout wings and take control of their own lives, Tracey Scott-Townsend springs joyfully up onto the writer’s cloud that has been waiting for her forever, scattering words like birdseed in her wake.