I lived in the same house for thirty eight years and most of the time inside the house, too fucking scared of anywhere without walls. I’m not sure if I remember every day or just three; the two where something happened and the one when nothing did, standing in for all the rest.
It was a big house and a whole half of it was mine. I’d sleep naked, I’d leave my bed asleep sometimes, wake up in the shower; it was always seven thirty. Most mornings I was wiping the mirror or wrapping myself in a towel when Howard would knock on the door and say, “Melissa?” I’d tell him I was showering, and busy. That day, the second I remember, the last I was there, he said, “What do you want for breakfast?” I said, “I don’t mind, I’ll be down in a minute Howard” and he left. I never knew how long it took him to leave. I wasn’t moving until I felt he’d gone, so I stared at the mirror and I didn’t really see it, just my face and I was thinking that as far as I could see it wasn’t even a mirror at all, only a face in front of me, a red one – so I squinted until I could see the silver. Then I stared at the skin on my arm and thought about Howard’s skin, and how old it was, even though no one has the same skin they start off with. It replaces itself until it’s new, everything does. One day you wake up and you’re a completely different person.
The other only eventful day, the first one, was a year before. I’d washed and dressed and brushed my hair but he hadn’t knocked for me. I went to the kitchen and he wasn’t there. I thought, this is the day he doesn’t wake up. Okay. I made a coffee because I couldn’t deal with it straight away and I guess I thought I could put off seeing him cold and dead. When I’d finished I thought about a cigarette but decided not to, because it was stupid, acting like nothing was wrong. I went to his room thinking that once I’d found him and dealt with it I could smoke inside, he’d never let me do that.
He wasn’t dead but he was bleeding which is worse for some people but I can handle it. His bathroom had a glass cabinet and one of the doors had broken and sliced his arm, I don’t know how I hadn’t heard it smash, I must have been showering, not listening. We mopped up the blood together, which was fine, but there was this huge flap of skin just hanging there and he couldn’t stop looking at it, he’d been looking at it when I’d walked in. He said, “If I pulled at this Melissa, do you think it would all come off? I could shed my skin, like a reptile. I could be twenty one underneath.” I had to decide, right there, whether he’d told me that because his mind was going, or if it was something normal for him to feel and say. I’d never been old, so I couldn’t know if it was normal but I thought it must be hard. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
After that I started spending at least an hour, maybe more every day stood at the mirror – I’m pulling and pinching at my skin, stretching it out and just staring at it so hard like I can’t understand it at all, like it isn’t real and I’m not real and my face is the proof. There are all these bottles and bowls and products on my dressing table and they make me think of people, the normal ones who grow up, grow old, fall to pieces, start to die… Because a can of hairspray or a tube of lipstick doesn’t do that, at worst it just gathers dust and I’d do that too, if I stood still for long enough.
I liked the idea of being different for so long, I wanted to be special, it didn’t scare me as much as it should have and I collected the clues, evidence for it all the time. When I was five I flung myself into a neighbour’s garden pond and nearly drowned. I was wearing a huge, outsize grey cardigan that I loved and it spread out over the water, pulling my little arms up. I was stuck; kicking and wriggling and slapping enormous goldfish around with the bare soles of my feet while my Mum just sat and watched. It was the neighbour who pulled me out, he was old and it took him so long. I remember thinking that the sound of his back and knees popping as he hauled me up was just like fireworks. They talked about it afterwards, all of us sat in the kitchen, me swaddled in a bath towel, sipping hot chocolate; him shell shocked and panicked because he would never have forgiven himself, I could have died. Her. She just said, “It was now or never”. That was the first clue.
My Mum married the neighbour’s nephew when I was nearly twenty but she told him I was fourteen. I thought at first he might be sick in the head. She wanted to get married so badly, have the house, share the bed and maybe a little girl would sweeten the deal. It wasn’t that, it was the second clue. My new Step-Father was called Howard and I lived with him nearly thirty years, even though the common cancer got my Mum not long after she became his wife. The third thing… the very last shred of evidence she gave me was then, a few days before she died. We always hated each other, Mother and daughter and I think she was pleased that dying didn’t change anything. I nearly cried, I felt sick and desperate, I spent the whole time begging her to tell me something about my real Father but she wouldn’t, not even a name and God, I hated her. Before I left the room she said, “You’ll be just like him you’ll see, this won’t happen to you. You won’t ever stop.”
I hid her words in the corner of my brain but never really knew, not until forty, at least. One evening my stepfather was dozing off and he smiled stupidly at me. He said, “Lissy, you don’t look a day over seventeen.” I felt sick and excited, felt my stomach lurching like I’d eaten the information but it had gone off. My hair was skimming my elbows and I thought of a hundred years from that moment, and how long it would grow if I let it. I cut it short right then and there, made myself look awful with a pair of blunt nail scissors for no good reason, the blades scratched at the nape of my neck.
So I can’t say my Mother didn’t prepare me at all but by the time the new millennium was here I was thirty six years old and didn’t look a day over eighteen - forty came and went and I was scared. We stopped leaving the house, Howard and me and we looked after each other as best we could while one of us died and the other did something else entirely.
Before I came here I didn’t know how people were supposed to be. People as in everyone, not just the ones like me with this thing inside of them but the whole majority of the Earth, I didn’t see all that much of a division back then, I didn’t see them and think, you’re flapping about as fast as you can, like bluebottles caught in the corner of windows. I guess I do now. We all have the same blood and shit and same stupid thoughts running through our heads but the truth is that time changes everyone, even them and having so much of it makes you different. I don’t know if anyone here knows what they were ten years ago, twenty years ago, longer. I don’t think they could call themselves the same person but their faces don’t change, our faces. Normal people have that at least. People cut their hair a lot here.