There’s nothing like it in the whole world. That’s what my mother told me. A bit unlikely but impressive for a child of eight.
She was talking about the walls.
My mother was a painter. Painter’s exaggerate. Not just on canvass. They embellish scenery to create an impression.
She drew the walls a hundred times each summer.
I’m practicing, she would say. Practice makes perfect, my dear.
All over the cottage were pictures she’d drawn or painted. Not many people. Their hands would appear gargantuan. Lots of still life. Apples, pears, oranges, bottles, sticks of one form or another.
The dog brought sticks which she painted.
And dead things sometimes, but they looked gross when she held up the canvasses.
The walls leant themselves to her particular talent.
She would sit on the ridge behind the cottage and draw them again and again. Sometimes it was the wall that came towards you from the summit of the mound, sometimes the one that went round to the stream.
Once this ancient knoll must have served some purpose but nobody knows what. The walls are all that’s left.
Don’t get in the light, my mother would say over her shoulder as she painted.
A little way off the dog would be sidling along the edge of the woods looking for scents and I’d be kicking my ball, the only toy I remember from those endless summers.
Her drawings of the walls were better than her proper paintings. She drew with precision and delicacy. She added colour with slapdash abandon.
And she always made it seem windy, even on a still day. You can go through her drawings one by one. There’s a breeze in every one. The trees are bent back as if afraid or worshipping.
I found a doll once on top of the mound. It wasn’t much good, with its arm chewed off and some rags that had once been clothes. I picked it up.
I walked to where my mother was painting.
She didn’t notice for a long time.
Get out of the light, she said, and then saw the doll.
Give that to me. Her voice was collected but cool. There was anger bunched up in her eyes. She threw it at the woods.
Good girls don’t play with dolls.
It was the same each time we stayed in the cottage. Once a week we’d visit the town to get provisions. In-between we’d keep ourselves to ourselves. I wrote stories about the cottage and the dog. I read the books my mother allowed from the little library.
That’s for you. That’s for you. No, not that. Look at that light.
She’d be pointing up at a window which refracted sunlight onto a book of Bible Stories which good girls don’t read.
I never knew why Bible books were prohibited, or if there was a reason at all. I would pick them up just to provoke a reaction.
Gradually the pictures grew darker. You can see it clearly if you look at them now. If you don’t know the order you can still work it out. The first ones are mainly white. Just the stones coming towards the painter. Those were the days when she would pet the dog and smile and tell me she loved me more than anyone and that I was worth all she’d been through.
Then the images become thicker, blacker. Only later on did she add scenery. First the overhanging trees, then the ground, then the surrounding darkness, because in the end she only painted at night.
Can we go to the seaside? I sometimes asked if I got bored.
Make a flask, she’d tell me. We’re keeping our strength up for tonight.
Even when it was freezing she painted the walls. The dog would stay in but I’d have to take my ball and kick it in the semi-darkness of her tilly lamp.
You had to kick it to keep warm.
My mother was so obsessed that eventually she drew nothing else than the walls. She ate less and spent her days in bed while I sat or ran round the cottage.
She’d worked as a play-assistant in our local junior school, but the last winter she gave in her notice.
But I like school, I said when I heard the news.
You won’t miss it, she informed me. I’ll teach you myself.
She told the headmaster I was ill and the authorities did nothing about it. Friends weren’t allowed to our house so nobody checked if this was true. Rules were different in those days. People didn’t do things by the book like they do now. Life accumulated, like cobwebs round a pictures.
The drawings are still in the cottage. They’re up in the attic. If you want to see them you can go up there. I never bring them down. I’m not sure I want to.
When we got to the cottage it was freezing.
What about Christmas, I asked?
Cancelled, she said. Complain to God if you like.
She drew the walls every night. The dog became ill with diarrhoea but she wouldn’t take him to the vet, so he sulked a lot. I petted him because I had a cold in the head for two weeks.
The last picture I remember vividly. It must have been early January. What had started as white with a few lines became black with a few lines. The lines were the outline of the stones in the wall. She drew in almost complete darkness, no moon, just a pin-torch pointed at the centre of the painting, which I held for hours on end.
After she’d finished I asked if she was happy with the result.
No, she said, happiness is not something we attain in this world.
And then she painted the white lines red, and then, because she still wasn’t happy, blacked those last lines in.
That’s not a picture, I said, it’s all black.
Your father was a foundry man, she told me. They blew him up in the war. Bomb disposal. He was foolhardy to do it.
I don’t know why she teased me. My real father lived in Sheffield. They’d separated a couple of years back and she’d escaped to her grandparents’ cottage.
You’re lying, I told her. I wasn’t born when the war happened.
She looked at me and I looked at her.
VE Day, she said, when everyone else was celebrating.
She put a dot of red in the middle of the picture. It didn’t make it any better.
You shouldn’t lie to me, I shouted. You know I love my father.
Her brush slashed red across the canvass and into my hair. I put my hand against it and it seemed like blood.
After they’d separated, my real dad I mean, she’d sit with her back to the walls, hands flat against the stones, crying.
Then one day, after weeks of ignoring me, she announced, I’m going to take up painting. It’ll help us make a living.
Back then it was frowned on when married people split up. My grandparents would have sent her back if they’d still been alive.
As it was my mother showed no interest in what other people thought. She left me to bear the shame.
So now, as each of us tried to out-stare each other, tried to compress our rage into a smaller and smaller lump, face-out each other in the dark, I felt her shame more keenly than I’d ever done.
God knows the truth, she said and turned to pack up her painting things.
She told me to fetch my ball, which I did because I’m a good girl who doesn’t read Bible stories when I’m told not to.
Why don’t you let me read the Bible if God knows the truth? I asked but she didn’t reply.
She marched us back to the house and I dragged my heals along the path.
Is Pal going to die? I asked spitefully as we crossed the creaky bridge where the dog had splashed as a puppy, trying to catch his reflection in the stream.
He’s old, just old, she said.
But he wasn’t just old. He was sick. He should have gone to the vet and I hated her for that too.
I put my tongue out as we approached the back door.
Wipe your feet before you enter the cottage, she told me.
I watched her stack her painting things on the stone floor. I took off my coat and hung it on a hook. My boots were still muddy so I tucked them under the stairs.
Go into the front room and wait, she said.
I sat on a chair hoping she’d bring me some cocoa but it never arrived.
I stayed where I was even as the time passed. It became deeper and deeper night.
Good girls wait for their mothers to come.
That’s right, of course, but it doesn’t make a bad mother any better.
Eventually I got up and walked down the corridor past the silent kitchen. The bedroom was empty, my mother’s bed uncreased.
I hadn’t heard her go out.
I was eight and very tired.
I felt angry in that bit of me which never forgets.
I dropped onto my bed. I tried to stay awake but failed in the end.
I wasn’t woken in the morning so I got myself up and looked though the kitchen window. The walls were covered in mist so you couldn’t see them properly. A black figure stood in front of the stones, drawing.
Mummy, I called.
I ran past the dog lying stupidly in his basket, his food from the day before still uneaten.
Mummy, mummy, I called as I ran over the bridge.
There was no one at the rocks when I arrived. My boots and trousers were covered in slop.
I finally walked to the edge of the longest wall and touched it. It felt cold and clammy. I’d never touched the actual stones before. I looked up at the mound. The top seemed flatter or maybe the perspective confused me.
The problem is I don’t see things properly, I describe them. Perhaps that’s why I’m a writer, not an artist.
I sat with my back to the protruding surface, squeezing my eyes shut, searching for an image that was somewhere in my head.
Like the thump of the foundry hammer perhaps?
I pressed my hands against the stones where my mother had laid hers.
I almost saw a face but just as quickly it was gone and my mind went limp.
It started to rain but I let the puddles gather round me. I became like a discarded rag.
By the time a couple walked past I was soaked.
Curse those walkers, my mother would say. Can’t they see I’m drawing?
It’s a little girl, said the woman from inside the hood of her coat.
Hello, said the man looking down through round glasses.
She looks terribly wet.
Are you lost?
I didn’t reply.
Are you lost?
No. And then, because it sounded rude, I’ve lost my mother, that’s all.
Shall we find her?
We live here, I said pointing at the cottage.
They looked at each other.
They were wet and miserable and I think they wanted to get on.
You should go in, the man said.
Yes, I replied.
It’s far too wet, the woman continued.
I stood up.
We’ll find your mother together – shall we?
They didn’t, of course, find my mother, I mean.
They rang the police using the telephone I wasn’t allowed to pick up.
I didn’t say anything. I went to stroke the dog but he snapped at me because he wasn’t well.
Twenty years have passed. My mother’s still missing and the stones are still there. I’ve never felt their surface again. Superstition, I suppose. The fear of God maybe.
There’s a motorway to be built and they want to route it through the cottage. An archaeologist’s been round taking measurements. He has wavy, golden hair, as if he might be God himself. I think he’s deciding whether the mound can be removed.
I can’t imagine not coming back each summer to write stories about the walls.
I can’t explain their appeal. It’s as if they want you to touch them but, when you’ve touched them, still want you to touch them again.
Keep your fingers to yourself, my mother would say and smack my wrist if I put my hand anywhere near the lichen.
I can still hear her harsh, unforgiving voice shattering the countryside silence.
How many times must I tell you, Sylvie? Good girls don’t touch.
No, mother, I used to think, but you did.
The other day I was staring at the mound when the archaeologist came up to me.
He asked what I was doing.
Carving raw metal, I told him, like a foundry man.
I didn’t tell him that I’d lost a father and buried a man who wasn’t my dad, that I’d put flowers on a grave which was only a proxy, that I put them there every year, that I didn’t want to root about in the past in case I uncovered the truth.
Something cold and unyielding had crept into me over the years.
If only the archaeologist would go away. I could put my hands out to the walls, get sucked into the mound, enter its womb, a safe, warm closet, my home.
I imagine it to be like a lake where you sink in the physical pleasure of erosion.
I remembered something my mother said when I was eight.
There’s nothing like those walls, nothing in the whole world.
I also remembered what she said afterwards.
They’re a drug, Sylvie. You have to fight them or they’ll take you over.
Well, don’t burn yourself on the hot iron, the archaeologist joked and turned back towards his Landrover.
It made me want to run after him.
To love him, my man, as I should have loved my father.
Perhaps one day I will.
If the stones don’t drag me back.
Gerald Kells is a poet and writer based in Walsall in England. He reads poetry across the English Midlands. He recently featured at the Freeverse Festival in Brownhills. He has had a number of poems published in anthologies. His collection LI – 51 Poems is available from Lulu Publishing or at his readings. In 2018 he helped organise an Arts Poetry Reading at the internationally important Walsall Art Gallery and was recently involved on the PoArtry Project in Stourbridge which led to publication of ‘Nine Etchings’ with Fran Wilde. His story, ‘Something to his Left’ was published in Twisted Little Sister. His young teen novel, The Net Mender’s Son, is available as an e-book from Smashwords. His unpublished novel, The Floating Child, was long-listed in the Cornerstones’ Wowfactor competition. His short plays have been produced in London and the Midlands. His full-length play, ‘The e-mail history of Josef K’, was long-listed for the Manchester Royal Exchange’s Bruntwood Prize. He is a keen fell walker and enjoys live music. He advises a number of environmental and countryside charities in the UK and was awarded Green Leader status by Sustainability West Midlands in 2010.