Mum and Mary Barton
We came here on a boat, like so many others.
Mum green-gilled, leaning over the side. I never knew whether she was sick because the boat was rocking or because she’d spent the last fifteen years married to a liar and a criminal.
I was four years old. I knew that Dad wasn’t there anymore – that he’d gone to the UK on a business trip and never came back. I knew a lot of things that a four-year-old shouldn’t know. Mum would have waited for him forever if he hadn’t started using their joint account to pay for his new lover. A hotel room, two dinners out, and a deposit on a flat in Manchester. That’s what he’d managed to buy before Mum cancelled the card.
I never saw him again.
In the UK, everything was suddenly so bright and large. The streets were rivers – everyone moved so fast, pushing each other like abraded stones. I wondered where they were going in such a hurry.
Mum walked with a limp after Dad abandoned us. She’d known her marriage was stillborn for quite some time, like the sister I’d never had, but she’d refused to give up. Not even when Dad began to pour beer in his cereal each morning and kissed her with his fists each night.
I grew up in a pair of second-hand dungarees, which, no matter how many times you washed them, smelt of Aunty’s weed.
“My sister grew cannabis in her bedroom,” said Mum. These were the good days, days when she told me stories.
“Mum found out and flushed it down the toilet. The pipes backed up. The house was flooded for days”. We’d roll around on the mattress we shared, passing anecdotes and jokes like spliffs.
Grandma and Grandad took us in, where we shared a room. Mum made me an owl mobile, and for the first year in the UK, I spent more time with it than her. Because some days, Mum would push me out, lock the door, and not emerge until the weekend had passed. I heard her sobbing in the night. Somehow, I could sense her rubbing her scar from when I’d unstitched myself from her body, and Dad had leaned over me and said, “He’s a bit small, isn’t he?”
“It’s a ‘she’, dear,” Mum had laughed.
Dad still spent a good ten minutes searching for my penis.
On the bad days, the world was jaundiced. I could hear voices – a family trait. They told me that I was a tapeworm, coiling around my Mum, my Grandma, my Grandad, and bleeding them dry. I told those voices that tapeworms led to infections and brain-swelling – they weren’t vampires. The voices weren’t exactly thrilled when I talked back.
When I was old enough, Mum took me to Oxford. We went round the Bodleian and I wrapped myself in ink and parchment. I drank in the walls until I was intoxicated. There were old maps from fantasy novels, a copy of the Magna Carta. Each one seeped into my skin.
I never knew Oxford had a university until I was in high school. Immediately, I knew I had to get in. If I got in, I could uncoil myself from my Mum, who’d grown paler and thinner and, like me, had a tendency to talk to the walls.
In sixth form, I asked my teacher about the application process. He was a silent for a long while. I folded my arms. It wasn’t as if I’d asked him to marry me.
“It’s very hard to get in, especially for someone of your,” he paused. “Your group. They’re very selective and the pressure is immense. I think you’d be much better suited somewhere else.”
There was a term for us, I found. White trash.
But if there was even a sliver of a chance that I could get into Oxford, I didn’t mind the term. No, I would make it my own. I wore my hand-me-downs and drank cheap beer and read only tattered copies of Elizabeth Gaskell. And at night, I lay next to Mum on our mattress, and I listened to the voices. And I told them how wrong they were.
A few weeks later, I got an interview.
I spent the next few months preparing. Downstairs, I slept on the sofa, away from Mum. I hardly saw her. Instead, I became friends with the possible interview questions. I memorised the campus so I wouldn’t get lost. Oxford became tangled in my bronchi. I breathed in old manuscripts, as well as practising my articulation.
In the interview, my teacher, who’d been helping me through the whole process, said they would ask me about my favourite books.
“Just to start off with,” he said. “Just to ensure you feel comfortable”. So, I told him. My favourite book was Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. He bit his lip.
“What about the ones we’ve been studying so far? Ulysses and The Odyssey. You’ve enjoyed those, haven’t you?” So, we agreed I would talk about the Iliad and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I bought myself a copy with my lunch money and spent the next four hours listening to my stomach do backflips. I liked to imagine that instead of hunger, there was a gymnast trapped in my digestive tract, trying to pole vault up my throat.
The interview would last three days. The week before, Mum came to me, bouncing like a lamb.
“Look at this!” I looked. She’d rented a house – an entire house - just for us, for the whole weekend.
So, we drove down on the Thursday, in Grandad’s weather-beaten Geo-Prizm (his brother had given it to him in '98), singing to The Clash until our voices were scraped raw. Mum has no rhythm and always gets the lyrics wrong, but her voice is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.
We arrived in the early evening when dusk had just mounted the horizon. I gaped up at the house. It looked Victorian, as if we’d enter to find Sherlock Holmes sitting in an armchair smoking his pipes. There was only one bed, but that didn’t matter.
“Lady Yvie,” said Mum, opening the door with a flourish.
“Why thank you Watson”.
I didn’t want to leave, but, for the interview, you had to sleep on the grounds of your chosen college. Mum wanted to walk with me to Balliol College, as I’d never been on my own in a city before, but I told her no, that I’d be fine, that we Gallimore women were always fine.
“That’s what they’ll say at our funeral,” Mum muttered, but she hugged me, and I left.
Luckily, before I could get anymore lost, a boy greeted me near the gates of Balliol College. He was tall and sandy-haired, with a fresh look about him you didn’t see very often in a city. He smiled and shook my hand, his skin hot, lingering against mine.
As the boy, whose nametag said George, took me on a tour of the grounds, I asked him about the interview process. He smiled.
“It isn’t like it used to be. Trust me – you’ll do fine. Don’t run off though. We had a student try to flee the grounds last year during the whole process and we had to drag her back!”
He laughed. I did not.
I had to spend the night in one of the dorms, and everyone was comparing who’d previously slept in theirs – J.R.R Tolkien, Michael Palin, Percy Shelley. At first, I kicked the sheets away. They were so soft but were wire mesh against my thighs. Eventually, I rolled out of bed and got dressed. After all, most of the other students were at the party in the Common Room. There was no reason I couldn’t join them.
When I got down there, George was at the door, waving. He was holding two plastic cups. He offered me one.
“Come on. You can’t get drunk on this – it’s like water,” he grinned. I took it. It tasted bitter – like lime washing-up liquid. People always say, ‘How do you know?’ Or ‘Have you ever drank it?’ In this case, yes. When I was six, I mistook it for apple juice.
George introduced me to his friends, who were all handsomely tall and curly-haired. They were talking about their cars, work placements, the annoyance of their parents renting out hotel rooms and spying on them. I listened and nodded and didn’t say anything until George leaned down and whispered, “You want to get out of here?”
He must have had some sort of introvert radar, for he took me by the hand, leading me down a corridor, then up a flight of stairs to a small terrace overlooking the Bodleian. He asked me what was wrong.
“It’s just, this whole weekend. I don’t know what to say, what to do. I feel like I’m wearing a corset”. George chuckled. He told me there was nothing to worry about. Then he told me what to say, what words and phrases I could use to best improve my chances of getting a place here. And with every word, he stepped closer. I looked down. He smiled, gesturing to the bulge in his pants, as if he expected me to comment on its size and give it a rating on Trip Advisor.
“Come on,” he said. His breath smelt of beer. “Aren’t you going to give me something in return?” He leaned forward and shoved his tongue down my throat. It was as if I were watching the whole thing from far, far away. He kissed me and groped me and told me I was lucky, that, normally, he didn’t bother with girls like me, that he bet I liked it rough. I couldn’t tell him that I didn’t like it at all, that even the voices in my head knew I was asexual.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, only that an hour later, I was crying to Mum on the phone. But then I stopped. Because I could hear the familiarity in her voice.
I never knew it had been legal to rape your wife until 1991, or that Dad had known this too.
No wonder Mum talked to the walls.
I had my second interview the next day. Just me and three academics in a small, unventilated room, as well as another man who was supposed to represent me as someone of a low socio-economic background. He looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else.
I sat there, with a rod up my spine, my skin rubbed raw from last night. I watched and listened as these people wrote notes about me, my literary tastes, asked me about my background, whether I was the first person in my family to go to university and shaking their heads in pity when I said that I was.
But when they asked me about my favourite book, I stood up and said,“Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Thank you for your time”.
And I left.
I didn’t ask if I could leave, and I didn’t hear them as they called after me. They weren’t bad people, maybe ignorant people, but they weren’t bad people. And I was certain the university would fit someone else, but it would not, and it would never, fit me.
I collected my things from the room – my battered covers, my second-hand clothes, and my shoes, which were filled with holes. All into one suitcase, I shoved my life.
And I carried it out. Carried it home. Back into Mum’s arms. She smelt of lavender, but more than that, she was flesh.
Like Mary Barton, my Mum spoke the truth.
And she did not wince.