Lauren Wilson is travelling by ferry to the Outer Hebrides, about to begin a new job as a social worker. When somebody sits opposite her at the cafeteria table, she refuses to look up, annoyed at having her privacy disturbed. But a hand is pushing a mug of tea towards her, and a livid scar on the back of the hand releases a flood of memories.
Some people believe in the existence of a parallel universe. Does Lauren have a retrospective choice about the outcome of a terrible recent accident, or is it the bearer of that much older scar who has the power to decide what happens to her now?
SEA BABIES Narrative Poem (Based on the author’s novel) By Tracey Scott-Townsend
It was always about the baby.
Not long afterwards, I wondered how I could grieve so much
For someone that I never knew
But I was telling myself a lie.
Of course I knew her.
I was the only one who did.
I named her Barbara,
After his mother
And I gave him something to remember her by,
Like he asked me to suffer
With my gaping wound inside.
It’s still about the baby.
She was the only one
I ever had, and my scar
Is as raw as it ever was. I wonder
What his looks like now, but I suppose
I’ll never know.
EDINBURGH, (April 1983)
Granny’s Green Steps,
Seagulls cry in the air below the castle,
A blue scarf floats to the ground, and I stumble.
Neil’s behind me,
He spins me round
And we kiss
For the first time.
I can’t breathe, and yet
It feels like a new kind of breathing.
The green slope is bathed
In yellow light,
But I can only
FERRY to STORNOWAY (September 2016)
Muted light reflects off the sea,
The waves seem angry,
As if they want to force their way in.
I’m afraid of the water,
Obsessed with thoughts of drowning.
But it’s only salt that creeps in
Around the window frames,
Crystalizing on the glass, making patterns
Like a map of the recent past.
Why d’ye have tae leave, Miss?
Sheena asked me.
She should have known,
Social workers never stay long.
That’s two girls I’ve lost:
My Barbara, and Sheena –
She could have been mine,
If I’d trusted I could
Give her what she needed.
But I always leave the ones I love behind.
The ferry lurches
My fingers tighten on the book she gave me
And I’m determined not to think of the wild sea
Spitting out the ghosts of stolen lives –
Driven from wrecked homes –
Deflated dinghies washed up on the foam.
Stop the thoughts. They don’t help.
I can help someone else instead,
I’m going to start a new life,
A new job
Working with other kids –
Make a difference, I hope.
This book, Sheena knew I would like it.
Now I’m getting to the good bit –
Decides to sit with me
Despite all the tables in this restaurant free –
I want to be alone, I’ll try not to look,
Just get on with reading my book
But he seems to be passing me a cup of tea,
Taking liberties, if you ask me –
Oh no. That hand, I recognise that hand
– But it can’t be…
Neil’s scar, I gave it to him
Shortly before we split up
Neil’s scar, it’s here on his hand
On the table in front of me,
I’d recognise it anywhere. A hand older now
But so am I.
I can’t pull my gaze away, a cough
Jams my throat
Neil, and his scar, they don’t belong on this boat.
I’m leaving the mainland to get away:
What are you doing here?
Tea rocks in the mug, like the waves outside.
A moment of dizziness – the sea’s alive
With people adrift – it’s not my grief to bear
But I can’t help feeling it anyway.
Sheena was – I could have called her my daughter
But I didn’t feel good-enough to be her mother.
An eon has passed, and yet I know
It’s no time at all. The hand’s still there, the scar
Tightening over the skin.
The fingers disengage, leaving the mug in place.
I follow the retreating hand with my gaze –
I will not look at him. Not yet: Neil.
The scar’s still pink, raw
As if everything that happened was recent –
An embryo of a wound that goes deeper than skin.
It was supposed to, although I made it unthinking.
Sheena made me a not-mother card for Mother’s Day
But I’ve always been a mother, invisibly.
The hand twitches, I sit transfixed,
Wonder what it’s trying to tell me.
Our hands once spoke more eloquently
Than words, and sometimes they hurt. I scratched his cheek,
Does that scar still show?
But I’m not ready to look at his face just now.
Sweet scar, you remind me of…
I’ll say it under my breath – our daughter.
I wasn’t the only one who ever lost my temper,
Anybody who didn’t know him intimately
Would never perceive the fire beneath
His cool exterior.
When we argued, our hands would throw things
And we cringed from the rebounding shards,
So much fragmented matter to sweep away,
So many unsightly stains left behind –
Not least the ones
In my mind.
Your fingers curl against
Your own mug – reddening – how long
Until the heat becomes unbearable?
I miss you, hand, I’ll admit it, and have done
Ever since the two of us split. Almost thirty years,
Can you believe it?
It’s unexpected, Hand-of-Neil
To find you on the table opposite me
As I set off for my new life
On the Outer Hebrides,
Does this mean you will become
Again entwined with my hand?
Now that you’re here, Hand,
You seem like a beacon in my darkness,
Familiar, and once much-loved,
If you touch your counterpart in me
You’d find my skin now moves more readily
Over the muscles and bones,
So don’t be shocked by the change,
It happens to us all, with age.
I’m still the same inside, and remember well
How you used to make me feel. It hasn’t gone away,
That stroking of your finger in my palm
Would still have the same effect on me today.
I nearly glanced up at Neil’s face then
But I’m not ready. Not yet.
I need to remember more about what set us apart.
We had no central heating in our tenement flat
Above the shops on Cowgatehead,
We had to work extra shifts to pay the rent
And the bills, but we loved it there.
We kept the gas fire burning,
Piled blankets on the bed
And masked the scent of damp with joss sticks.
The record player constantly revolved
With progressive rock and folk music.
Neil’s hand on the smooth table,
Clean fingers, shining in the steam of the tea.
Wait, you started biting your nails?
They were always so immaculate.
I have to look away a minute,
Remembering the manicure Sheena gave me
As a leaving gift. Before she was lost to me.
Spray lashes the window,
And the fear of drowning returns. I’ll focus
On your hand again,
A single finger, tapping. I said “you” –
Perhaps I’ll be ready to see Neil, soon.
It feels like all the losses are connected
Here on the foam of the sea:
My baby, Sheena, the Neil and Lauren who once existed
As an entity.
And the ever-present knowledge
Of refugees, drowning daily.
Hand, talk to me.
Or rather, listen.
Remember the first night we spent together,
Neil and I kissing?
Kissing and kissing in the tangle of clothes
On the mattress, on the floor of the squat I lived in.
How did we get from that to this?
It’s like being in a time machine
Here at the table with you, hand –
Neil’s body so close to me –
I allow my gaze to wander up his arm.
I want to remember him piece by piece.
I can’t look into his – your – eyes. Not yet.
I’ll study the skin in the fold of your elbow,
It’s papery – always a sign of your stress.
Why are you here, Neil, with your arm and your hand?
And what will happen between us,
When we reach dry land?
I see that you’re wearing
A blue t-shirt, I imagine it goes
With the shade of your eyes.
Eyes that I saw for the first time
When my friend brought me into A&E
And you had to examine me.
I’d slipped on the walkway to her boat.
You were shocked at the state of my torn skirt
And my birds-nest hair.
You asked if my foot hurt.
I said of course it crapping does.
You winced, but not as much as me
When you grasped my foot and turned it
The wrong way, by mistake.
You later said you’d never met anyone like me,
And it had made you clumsy.
I saw you again at a party,
And then in the canteen at university.
After that we were ‘going out’,
Which led to the kiss on Granny’s Green Steps,
And to the room in the squat
Until we moved into our flat on Cowgatehead
Where we studied, and went out to work –
Then I got pregnant.
My eyes reach the hollow of your throat,
Where your age becomes more apparent.
We’re in a time-lapse video,
And I don’t know where the time went.
But I still can’t look into your eyes.
The rest of our lives don’t show
In this time-lapse video. Not Sheena,
Nor anything – or one – you left behind
To be here. No. we’re back there
In our tenement flat,
When you broke down
And I gave in.
I hadn’t planned to,
But my heart went out to you
When you explained
The pain you were in.
A few weeks later,
When you thought it should be over,
Your arms encircled me from behind.
I didn’t mean to, but my hand,
With the vegetable knife
Acted of its own accord.
My gaze has reached your mouth,
Your lips that I used to know so well,
Surrounded now by deeper lines.
Moisture is falling down your face
And I can feel the same on my skin.
Am I ready yet?
I can’t tell.
Am I ready yet?
It must be time.
It happens in slow motion, Neil –
I meet your eyes, and you meet mine.
Tracey Scott-Townsend: Bio
Tracey is the author of The Last Time We Saw Marion, Of His Bones, The Eliza Doll and Another Rebecca. Her fifth novel, Sea Babies will be released on 1stllection, So Fast was published in January 2018.
Tracey is also a visual artist. All her work is inspired by the emotions of her own experiences and perceptions.
Tracey is the mother of four grown-up children and now spends a lot of time travelling in a small camper van with husband Phil and their rescue dogs, Pixie and Luna, gathering her thoughts and writing them down.
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