When I was eight, my mother died and Naomi arrived. My father still lived with us then; we had a house at the edge of town, on one of the steep streets that lead up to the beacon, from which the interior mountains can be seen. It was a few days before Christmas. The summits were snow-capped, and the air was cold and paper-thin. We were shopping for gifts and my father had brought the car – the doll’s house I wanted was very large, too big to carry, so I was sure it would be bought. My mother had been complaining all day of a headache. Every shop we went into made her wince.
These lights are so bright.
She kept dragging her feet and sitting down, rubbing her forehead. We’d been to the old civic library, and, unusually for her, she’d borrowed no books. My father was annoyed.
Why did you come out with a migraine? Do you want to go home?
On the walk back to the car, she stumbled. My father was walking a little ahead, to start the car and turn on the heating; he did not see. She lost her balance and fell to the pavement, kneeling for a moment in the slush, then leaning over and sitting.
Adam, she called. Where is Edith? Is she there?
She sounded very calm. Her words were slow.
Adam, I can’t see her.
I thought she was starting an interesting game – she could be very silly and playful. I’m not over here, Mummy, I said, walking round behind her. And I’m not over here. She held up a hand, carefully touched the air.
I can’t. See.
I squatted down in front of her, stared, moved my head around. Her eyes did not follow. One iris seemed like a black planet.
Dad! I called.
My father walked back to us.
Move out of the way, he said. What is going on, Naomi? Why are you sitting there getting filthy?
She raised her arms and my father took hold and hauled her up. When he let go, she swayed, sagged again.
He walked her across the car park, opened the door of the Volvo and helped her onto the back seat. With every step she lost power, like a toy running out of battery. She lay quietly on the red leather, her eyes wide and empty.
Get in the front, he told me.
This was the first time I’d been allowed in the passenger seat. I clicked the metal seat belt into its lock. It was baggy, set for an adult. My father started the car and drove unhurriedly, stopping at the traffic lights. For some reason I thought we were just going home. I kept turning to look behind. My mother was breathing rapidly, her eyelids beginning to droop. She tried to talk, but the words were babyish sounds. There was a clicking sound in her gullet. I looked again and her face was in a pool of lumpy fluid.
Mum’s been sick. She’s being sick.
OK, thank you, Edith, my father said.
I was not scared. Nobody in the car seemed scared by what was happening.
Now turn round, and sit down.
He drove to the infirmary, pulled up to the main emergency door and put on the handbrake.
Stay here, he said to me.
I want to come in too.
No, he said.
But I want to come with Mummy.
He reached across the gearstick and smacked me on the top of the legs, an awkward, pluffing whack that stung through my skirt and tights. Then he got out of the car, walked into the hospital and came out with a porter and a wheelchair. They slid Naomi from the back seat, lifted her into the chair, and I watched her being pushed inside, her body listing over. My eyes were watering, the tears refracted everything, and for a moment there were two leaning women in two wheelchairs. I blinked and one was gone. The car smelled sour. The passenger window bloomed coldly under my palm. An ambulance pulled up next to the car, and the paramedics unloaded a stretcher.
When my father came back he did not apologise. I said nothing as he moved the car to a parking space. He steered me silently inside the building, his hand pressing between my shoulder blades.
I was given children’s books by the receptionist.
You look like a clever girl, she said. I bet you can read these all by yourself?
I listened to her speaking to the doctors, speaking to my father, speaking into the phone. They were planning to move my mother to another hospital as quickly as possible. While my father was in the toilet I slipped over to the receptionist and asked if I could see my mother.
Oh no, poppet, you can’t. She’s very sick. They have to do an operation.
What’s wrong with her? I asked. Is it her headache?
The receptionist nodded, looking pleased, as if I’d answered a school question right. Yes, poppet. She’s got a blood clot on her brain. Oh, here we are . . .
The sound of the helicopter approaching was unmistakable – the furious blades, air thumping beside the building as it landed. Suddenly, I realised everything was serious. Helicopters were used to rescue climbers who’d fallen from the ridges; they were used to save lives. For a minute I thought we would all be going, and I was lit by excitement and fear; I’d never flown before. But almost immediately the helicopter lifted again, even louder, it seemed, its rotors whining, a blaze of deafening noise. Soon it was a faraway drone.
My father took me home, made toast and asked me to go to bed.
I need you to be a big girl, Edith.
I lay looking at the luminous stars stuck to my bedroom ceiling.
In the morning he told me my mother had been airlifted to Newcastle and a surgery performed. She would have to spend several weeks in hospital.
It was a very complicated operation. They’ve had to do some things that mean she won’t be herself for a while. She might not even know who you are.
He was wearing the same clothes as the day before. His eyes were puffy. His whole face seemed puffy, the features gathering closely together inside it.
Yes she will know who I am, I said.
He shook his head.
She’s unconscious. Christine’s mum is going to look after you today.
We spent Christmas just the two of us, miserably eating mince pies. The tree was undecorated; only its smell was festive and reassuring. There was no doll’s house. My father had hastily bought me a coat; the tag was still in. On Boxing Day he drove over to the hospital again. I was made a fuss of by Christine’s parents, given chocolates and milk. Christine asked if my mum was going to die. I lied and told her I’d ridden in the helicopter. When my father arrived to pick me up, I heard him speaking quietly to Christine’s mother as I collected my shoes and coat.
It’s like Frankenstein, he said. It’s absolutely horrendous.
Every few days he made the journey across the country. I kept asking when I could see her.
Not yet, was all he’d say. She’s not well. She doesn’t remember.
On my first visit to the rehabilitation centre, my mother was sitting at a table, drawing a picture. There was a strip of stubble in her hair containing a vast, raised caterpillar scar. One side of her face seemed pulled back and lifted. I stood in the doorway, too scared to approach.
Go on, my father said. You wanted to come. I’ll get a coffee.
He was not looking at my mother and hadn’t said hello to her.
He walked away down the corridor. My mother didn’t seem to notice me. She had on pale-blue pyjamas with white snowflakes that made her look younger. A nurse entered the room behind me.
You must be Edith. Your mummy’s been missing you. Come in.
She walked me to the table, pulled out a chair for me. I sat. The nurse gently placed a scarf round my mother’s head, covering the curved purple welt, and tied it at the back.
There we go.
But I couldn’t unsee the awful wound. The picture was childish, a tree or a figure. My mother seemed confused about the line she was making, which direction it should continue in. I took the pencil from her. She looked at me. Her expression was blank and curious, like a bird assessing an item on the ground. I finished the line, drew a nest on the branch with spotted eggs inside. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, popping wetly. With concentrated, almost physical effort, she said, ahm, na, mee. I looked at the nurse, who smiled.
What is she saying? I asked.
The nurse put her hands on my mother’s shoulders, stopped the swaying motion that had begun to increase.
She’s introducing herself. She’s saying, I’m Naomi.
The haemorrhage had caused massive damage, and the procedure came with its own penalties. A precise section of bone had been sawn and removed, the pristine vacuum of the organ breached. They’d mended the tissue, clipped the vessel, and the brain’s flow of blood had been redirected. Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, anatomically, but something fundamental was disrupted by the process of repair – the complex library of thought, memory, emotion, personality. They saved her life; they could not save her self.
The post-surgical scan had revealed a second bulge, inoperable, too difficult to reach. There was another soft red sword hanging inside her head. They must have told her after the surgery, as soon as she was capable of understanding. She processed the information as if it were part of the instructions for her recovery – a new way to live, alongside continual possible death.
Who she was, who she no longer was, defined our lives. Years later, while on an international exchange in Japan, I tried to explain what had happened to my instructor, Shun. I was studying the cedar-burning techniques I have used ever since – and living with his family. The travel bursary had come from the Malin Centre; its director had arranged six extraordinary apprenticeships, young artists ‘At Home’ with makers across the world. I was in a village outside Kyoto, surrounded by the enormous, livid forest.
Shun and I had become reserved friends over the months. I ate with the family, offended them gently with my ignorance and inadequate manners, played music to his children over headphones. Shun’s work was exceptional, far beyond carpentry – as well as panels for the traditional buildings he made dense, blackened sculptures that sold around the world. I was his first Western apprentice, trying to get to grips with fire pipes and resins, trying to escape the corset of fine art. Shun’s English was good; he’d studied in California before inheriting his father’s business. I vexed and entertained him most days. He’d been showing me how to wire-brush the scorched charcoal coat, to reveal the beautiful grain beneath, and when I told him about Naomi he paused.
This word, identity, he said, it has just arrived here. It is singular. We cannot translate it.
Her individual character, Shun. You know what I mean.
Her nature, her Naomi-ness!
I was a young art graduate, trying to test myself and develop a practice. I was lost in this strange, quiet, dissimilar place – gaijin, a bizarre person from the outside. Shun lifted a hand towards the forest, where the cedars stood in green-lit ranks.
She is your mother. She cannot lose her nature if she is not separate.
It had seemed, then, such a beautiful denial of concept.
Image © Lorie Shaull
This is an excerpt from Burntcoat by Sarah Hall, published by Faber & Faber.