Grand Prize Winner & Readers Choice Award, 2018 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
Most Memorable: November 2018
Some evenings my mother will spend an hour pulling small quantities of cotton wool from a giant-sized National Health Service consignment she keeps in the sideboard. She rolls it between her tired palms to form one hundred balls, each the size of an apology.
Into an old biscuit tin, decorated with an artist’s impression of buildings with flat roofs and sills heaving with pelargoniums, she has placed a starched napkin, which functions as a lining. The biscuits were eaten Christmases ago and the lid has always been missing. The balls of cotton wool are placed inside the tin where they remain in neat rows, as compliant as custard creams.
When the biscuit tin is full to the top, she folds over the corners of the napkin to form a protective cover. On top of this she places a chipped enamel bowl, a doll-sized rubber suction cup used to remove the artificial eye from its socket and a brown glass bottle full of antiseptic eye drops. The biscuit tin is then returned to the sideboard where it sits next to a pile of knitting patterns until it is needed.
I was two years old when someone first noticed the squint. Mother thought it was nothing, but Aunty continued to plead week after week. If mother didn’t do something soon she would take me to the doctor herself.
The village doctor looked at my right eye and told my mother she was to go home immediately. He would arrange for an ambulance to collect us there. Then he rang ahead to let the hospital know that we would soon arrive . While we were being transported to the Infirmary, the pit cage made an unscheduled journey down the shaft to bring my father up from the coalface.
Mother has a photograph of me taken at that time. She placed it in a wooden frame and it sits on the mantelpiece with other family photographs. The photograph speaks of my future, for I am cross-eyed, squinting and marked for a foreign land.
I am sitting, fair-haired and upright on an old tartan pram-rug. I am solid and substantial, a well-nourished post-war baby, my parents’ fifth child conceived in one of his many torrents of fists and self-loathing. I am welcomed anyway. The cot is taken out of storage and pushed in between her side of the bed and the tallboy. Babies always bring their own love, she says.
In that first year, I am wallowed in like winter sunshine. Mother writes home about me, and my father laughs out loud. He is unable to understand why, in exchange for his bitter outburst, a healthy and perfect baby girl has been handed to him.
The photograph was taken in the corner of the garden; the gnarled old lilac tree is heaving with blossoms, and the smell of them is heady. Mother has put a freshly ironed apron over her dress. The box-brownie has been brought down from the spare bedroom.
My parents stand behind me, my father at a distance because he is not entirely sure that he deserves to be in the photograph. His look is still and pensive. Mother is scared and her face is stiff. She is concentrating intently because she is afraid that she might do something wrong, and that it will be her fault if the photograph does not turn out. Mother looks away from the camera and down at her feet where I am sitting. She gives the littlest of smiles.
Look at them looking at me. It was me who made them believe that they had some hope after all. Are they feeling relieved that at last they have a baby who is whole and healthy? Did they want this snapshot to capture the moment in time when they believed that at last they may have turned a corner? I did not mean to trick them into believing that I would make them happy.
I despise that baby in the photograph, sitting so perfectly upright and confident. She is too far ahead of herself in believing she should smile. This baby will be her mother’s heartache and her father’s curse. Stupid, stupid, smiling baby believing that this world is the best of all worlds.
At the Infirmary the specialist speaks slowly and is kind, but Mother has tasted tragedy before and already recognises the familiar tone of foreboding. She doesn’t want to hear what he is telling her. Instead she thinks about the majestic stone lions at the entrance to the infirmary, the brilliant white of the doctor’s coat, and the men who come home from the colliery black-faced with coal dust.
His words are short, sharp and considered. He tells my mother I have a swelling in my eye, a growth, a tumour. It is a rare type of cancer and it is growing very rapidly. He tells her that it demands his most urgent and decisive action.
She longs to feel the weight of my gorgeous baby body, sitting heavy and moving across her thighs, but they have put me in a hospital cot to be prepared for surgery. I am sleeping and Mother is watching me through the tall bars of the iron cot, afraid to pick me up in case she gets into trouble for waking me. Please let me wake so that she can comfort herself.
A young staff nurse brings the consent forms on a clipboard. Mother has exquisite handwriting. It maintains a perfect and consistent angle across the page. The descenders on her g’s and y’s curl back on themselves to form the most elegant ellipses. With this hand she signs the forms using a cheap plastic biro that the nurse has handed her.
Permission received, my right eye is removed later that day. The procedure is remarkably quick. The lids are clamped open. The lining of the eye and the muscles responsible for movement are trimmed away. Then the surgeon cuts the optic nerve and the entire globe is lifted out and taken away on a metal tray. The eyebrow and the eyelids are left intact but when my parents return the next morning, there is a deep, raw, and gaping hole in my face where the eye used to be.
They are here to collect me and take me home. The nurse pulls the floral curtains, which glide smoothly along the metal rails around my cot. They enclose me and cover the stark reality of my face. Mother puts on my best knitted matinee jacket, while my father stands smoking in the courtyard.
This is my very first wound. In time there will be others but this one is my first step into a place inhabited by those who are set apart. It is my passport to another land; one where I will always be alone.
The wound is on my face and it will always be the first place people look when they speak to me. It can be overlooked, but it will hardly ever be unnoticed.
Sister King, our district nurse, is tall and sturdy with a spotless apron and fob watch. It is her job to minister to the needs of the miners and their families by tending amputees and the dying, dispensing halibut oil capsules to expectant mothers, and waging war on head lice.
The day after we arrive home from the infirmary she appears at our front door. She instructs mother to boil water and pour some into a small bowl, then she takes equipment from her worn leather bag and assumes control.
In order for the cavity to maintain its shape while it is swollen and continuing to heal, the surgeon has inserted a ball of soft white rubber where the eye used to be. The rubber fills and comforts the hole by making it feel full again. It is like a dummy, a substitute teat in a sleeping baby’s mouth. It does not attempt to look or behave like the other eye, and only ever emphasises the absence of the real.
Sister King first demonstrates how to dip the suction cup in the water and attach it to the soft rubber comforter so that it can be eased out of my face. I struggle and rage. I twist my body and try to slide onto the floor because the wound is still hurting me, and I do not want anyone to touch it. I want to go back to the land I came from, but Sister tightens her hold and I have to stay.
Using a glass pipette, she takes the eyedrops from the glass bottle and anoints the wound. Despite my determined struggle she reinserts the rubber comforter, then she releases her grip and lets me go. I fall onto the rug in front of the fireplace. My father has gone walking, alone, in winter and without a topcoat, but he lit the fire in the grate before he left and the coal that he dug from the coalface is keeping me warm.
Sister will attend until the bleeding stops and the swelling subsides, then there will be no need for mother to continue the daily cleaning of the socket. The comforter will be replaced by an artificial eye made of plastic. It will look like a real eye, she assures Mother, and it will move left and right, just like the other one. But the two eyes will never be in sync with each other; when one eye looks up or down, the plastic one will not be able to follow.
On her last visit, Sister places a medallion of Saint Christopher on a silver chain under my pillow, because she understands that I must now start a journey and that it will be an uncertain one. After she has left, mother finds the Saint Christopher and believes it has been left for her.
Now that I am seven, I am able to sit still without crying during the cleaning of my eye socket, and the penance Mother has imposed upon us both continues. She has insisted that she must keep cleaning the eye socket beyond the initial five weeks. It has become a firmly established procedure; a daily ritual that she has needed to perform for five years after Sister King said she could stop.
It is early evening and she is making herself clean before she starts, scrubbing her hands at the kitchen sink. She is using a brush caked with laundry soap. She works at the lather, her motions wild and uncoordinated, her knuckles swollen and sorry. She does this in haste and with awkwardness. She is entirely focussed on her hands and will not be distracted; she needs to ensure that they continue to do the right thing.
When at last her hands are clean enough, she calls for me to take the biscuit tin out of the cupboard. Holding it reverently, and being careful that nothing is displaced, I place it on the settee where we will sit together.
I sit next to Mother and the biscuit tin. She pulls me close so that the whole side of my body is touching her. My thighs are against hers, and I can feel the warmth and softness of her. I rest in the security of my body next to hers. We are joined together again and it becomes impossible to determine where she ends and I begin. The side of my face that has what mother calls my ‘bad eye’ lies against her left breast and together they form one malleable shape, her breast nurturing my wound.
She unfolds the white cloth to reveal the cotton balls she has prepared. She positions my head to the required angle. I look up at the ceiling and start counting the dead flies in the base of the glass light fitting. The rubber suction cup is dipped into the water and the eye is removed and placed in the enamel bowl to bathe.
Mother isn’t always able to make the eye socket entirely clean but she never gives up trying. When the suction pulls the eye out, mucus flows down my cheek and the sight of me distresses her. The skin on one side of her neck stretches and there is a slight but perceptible movement of her head as she distances herself from me.
Usually the wet cotton wool balls are applied gently over the eyelid and the skin around the eye. But on the days when she can’t seem to get it as clean as she would like, she pushes the swab right into the hole and wipes it against the back of the socket. I wince and concentrate on keeping silent. Although I do not make a sound, I am not always able to keep still. My body becomes more and more twisted as Mother repeats the same action, over and over. My legs lose contact with hers. It is only my head that does not move because it is attached to Mother by my eye. She says keep still Pet, and I have almost finished. I try to focus on the flies again, but the cotton wool swabs keep coming, too many times for me but never enough for Mother, and I want to cry out.
I allow Mother to continue the daily cleaning. I let her do it because I believe her when she says it has to be done, and because I would not know how to question what she tells me, or how to stop her from doing it. I allow her to continue because I love the feel of her soft body next to mine, but also because I know instinctively that she needs to do this. I am so sorry that this has happened to my Mother. I want her to find whatever it is she so desperately needs.
I do not want anyone to know that I have an artificial eye but Mother needs to keep telling her story. Before, there was nothing much about her that people were interested in, but now she has something of value that she can offer—a unique story that people want to hear, and a child with a deformity that she can display.
The plastic eyes must be replaced quite regularly because I am still growing and they quickly become too small. Mother keeps the old ones in her handbag with my Saint Christopher and a lucky rabbit’s paw. When we meet someone for the first time she fumbles around in her handbag and asks Mrs. So-and-So if she has ever seen an artificial eye. She lets go of my hand so that she can open her handbag and rummage around inside until she finds an old one that no longer fits me. Isn’t it amazing she says looking at the lidless eye that is staring out from the landscape of her palm.
On other days she takes the story further. Today we are in the supermarket and she is about to start telling it again. I do not want to perform in her pop-up sideshows. I don’t want to be here at all, at least not like this. But I don’t know how to say no to her, and when she strokes my head I immediately yield. She places her hooked little finger on the bridge of my nose and dislodges my eye. She is telling a woman she has met that it is very easy to take the artificial eye out and put it back in again. The woman is listening intently. She looks at my empty eye socket and grimaces. Mother notes her look of revulsion and strokes my face as if it were her own.
I am in torment now because she has taken my eye out and is showing me off and everyone can see. I am unable to bear the thought of people knowing the truth about me. I want to scream at her to stop but I cannot make words come out of my mouth, so I start tugging on her coat as if I am still small and don’t know how to communicate. Mother does not like being distracted when she is telling her story, but her coat is being pulled with some force and she is being pulled with it and it is annoying her. So she pauses and tries to turn towards me, but I am hiding my face in the back of her coat so when she turns I turn with her and she cannot reach me. What is it she asks sharply? I open up my mouth and groan, stop telling and then, don’t let anyone see me like this. But there is no sound coming out, and all I can do is to keep pulling her coat.
At the end of the story the other woman looks at Mother with sympathy and says oh you poor woman, this is so terrible for you. It is indeed a terrible thing that has happened to my mother.
Mother says the artificial eye is such a good match. She says it is not at all possible to tell the difference, and that no one would ever guess that it is not real. But my classmates can see that my eye is not real. Boys who taunt me leave me numb with fear. Whenever the teacher leaves the classroom they call out hey Cyclops. The other students look at me, waiting to see what I will do or say. Some will giggle, some will feel sorry for me, all of them will be glad that it has happened to me and not to them. I am too afraid to even look in the direction of the voices. To look is to acknowledge their comments and then I will have to find a response. So I choose not to look at the voices; I continue to copy, blackboard to exercise book.
There is no way I can dispute the things they say about me, no argument that I can make to defend myself. The taunts come, the wound bleeds, and I do not know how to be in this world.
When we next attend the Infirmary the specialist tells my mother that the eye no longer fits, it is too small and I will need to have a new one fitted. We are escorted to another part of the hospital, along a complex network of narrow corridors until we reach a waiting area. Mother sits outside, while inside I sit on a chair that gets higher or lower depending on which way it is spun. Shallow drawers are full of plastic eyes arranged according to their colour. When one of the drawers is opened there are dozens of green ones, all staring at the ceiling. These eyes are not the windows to anyone’s soul.
The eye I am wearing is removed and put to one side. Several possibilities are selected from the drawer and tried out, one after the other, until the best match is determined. The ocularist goes into a side room where he starts filing it down to fit. When he puts it back in he says perfect and smiles. I follow his finger as it travels to the left and to the right, up and then back down to where his black eyebrows meet. He is satisfied with the result and leads me back into the corridor where Mother has been waiting.
I am such a good girl. I didn’t make a sound. I am a remarkable girl. Didn’t I sit so still? The receptionist is so delighted when she looks at the new eye that she gives me a packet of Fruit Pastels and says ahh. Soft, gentle voices are all very pleased with my performance, and I am praised for my perseverance.
But the new eye is uncomfortable. I think that it is too big, and everyone can tell that it is sticking out. When we are traveling home on the train I don’t want anyone to see it, so I keep my face pressed against the window, and pretend that I am watching the dark afternoon pass by.
Mother still fears I may not survive. When someone asks her what happened to my eye she tells the person that I had a tumour, but she mouths the word silently, exaggerating the movements of her mouth so that the person will be able to read her lips. She thinks that the tumour is sleeping and if it hears its name being spoken it will wake up.
She must shelter me now from any further harm, so she wraps me in soft wadding and tries to keep me in a safe place. I am not allowed outside to play in the snow because I am more prone than others to catch a chill. I am not allowed to thread cotton through the tiny eye of a sewing needle in case I strain my good eye. She says that too much reading is bad for me, and when she finds the secret torch I have been using to read under the bedclothes, she takes it. I must not ride a bike because I will not see traffic coming, or perform handstands against the wall in case I fall and hurt my other eye. She says I am a gossamer wing, as insubstantial as a dandelion clock just waiting to be blown away.
But I will not wear the cardigans she knits in the palest of yarns, or be the delicate hand-painted porcelain kept out of reach on the top shelf. I will not be invisible, even though it hurts me to be seen.
I have already walked long enough in this foreign land to know that my journey will be difficult. Fear is everywhere, and if I am to survive I cannot be frail. It will take time but, with a mother’s tender gesture, I will beckon to it and make it lie down with me, even though it will not always be still
But for now the place where I lean my body into hers remains both my sanctuary and my torment. Though I am wary, I continue to yield to it. And she is forever trying to atone, forever rolling cotton wool into the shape and size of the lost eye, telling her story one more time.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Greg Rusk