When the doors bang I dream of Ellis the Elephant. Ellis is from Africa and he tramps across the savannah like a big grey cow with a trunk and flapping ears. I don't know why daddy says Ellis is like a grey cow. I don't really like the story at all. But when he reads me from it, he can't be angry with mummy. I ask him to read the story every night. But tonight he was tired, and so was Ellis.
I sleep in the attic. Daddy says the house is very old. That's why the floors judder when a car drives past or someone bangs the door. I see Ellis stamping in the grass and little clouds of dust whirling about his feet. The floor shakes and then I wake up. I wonder why mummy and daddy have to make so much noise. I can tell which room they're in. They go from room to room, banging the doors behind them, and screaming.
My sister is in her cot in the room below mine. I don't know why she's so quiet. This morning mummy said Sophie had grown used to the fighting, and what kind of parents were they to be fighting around her all the time? And then daddy said what kind of a mother was she to want to leave her children behind? And then mummy stormed out of the kitchen, and she was off to work. After breakfast Lily came to fetch us. Lily is the babysitter – but I'm not a baby anymore. Only Sophie is. She is two and I am six, but I can read and write like a ten-year-old. My parents say I'm very clever.
Lily always picks me up from school. I don't know why daddy doesn't. He is on holiday and he has nothing to do. He sits at home and makes a big mess. When we get back from Lily's, there are plates and cans everywhere and the house smells of smoke. Daddy has started smoking again. When mummy gets home she opens all the windows. I prefer the smoke to the cold, but mummy says she can't breathe in the smoke. That's why we have dinner with our coats on. Sophie wears a big scarf and she spills her food all over it. When mummy tells me to get Sophie's bib, I know she means the white scarf with the food stains on it.
I know daddy lied to us about his holiday. I heard him say the company folded. I looked it up in the dictionary, and it means that his holiday is going to be very long. The dictionary is my favourite book. I'm trying to learn all the words but I've only got to "chthonic." I keep it under my bed. When mummy and daddy are fighting, I take the dictionary and I open it to any page and I read the meanings of the words out loud with my fingers in my ears. That's how mummy found out I could read. When I noticed her in the doorway, her cheeks were wet, and I knew the fighting must make her very sad. But she told me she was very happy and gave me a long hug. She said she was crying tears of happiness. That's when I learnt that happiness could make you cry too.
I didn't ask any questions about daddy's holiday because I don't want to stay in the house with him. I like being at Lily's because Lily has many books. She even has dictionaries in other languages. I learnt many French words at Lily's, but when I told daddy he didn't believe me. Then I said to him, "baffe, baffle, bafouer, bafouillage." He looked at me and said I wasn't human, and then mummy said he wasn't human. I don't know why grown-ups lie about who we are.
Lily also has a book about anatomy ("the branch of science concerned with the bodily structure of humans, animals, and other living organisms, especially as revealed by dissection and the separation of parts"). This book has pictures of the body as it looks on the inside. It shows you what a liver and a kidney look like, and how the muscles are connected to the tendons and the tendons to the joints. Many parts of the human body can be taken out and replaced, like spare parts. I went to the section about the human brain, but it doesn't show you what memory looks like. There is no memory organ. Memory is in the brain. I asked Lily if they could give me a new brain (it's called a brain transplant), but Lily said it was not possible without losing who you are.
There is a glass of water on my bed table. Mummy's and daddy's feet make ripples in the glass. Ripples are small waves. When something changes in size, it gets a different name. Children and adults are both humans, but humans of different size. Fights also come in big and small. You have quarrels and you have rows. When mummy and daddy make a quarrel, they don't shout at each other. They are silent and brooding and it's as if the air is heavy with something dangerous. It's hard to breathe. It's as if there's a big stone on my chest and I want to push it off. But I'm afraid that when I do there will be a row, and rows are worse than quarrels. Quarrels happen when mummy and daddy disagree with each other, which is almost all the time. But rows come out of nowhere. They happen suddenly. Mummy and daddy are like a cigarette at a filling station. Daddy is the cigarette and mummy is the petrol, and I am the sign that says "don't smoke."
Mummy and daddy have gone to their bedroom. They like to fight in their bedroom because it's on the other side of the house and they think I can't hear them. Mummy and daddy sometimes forget that the house is old and the walls are thin. Tonight the fight is about daddy's holiday. Mummy wants him to start working again, but daddy says why would he? If she left him, he'd rather die. I don't know what daddy means. If he dies, he won't see mummy or Sophie or me ever again. But I think daddy is very angry, and mummy says when people are angry they say things they don't mean. Sometimes I think it would be better if my parents separated. But when I think of mummy leaving I feel the stone on my chest and I can't breathe. Then I think of the happy times, when mummy and daddy were in love. When we went to France and daddy gave mummy flowers and they were smiling and kissing all the time. Then I can breathe again. Sometimes it goes like this the whole night. I go from breathing to not breathing to breathing, and I end up feeling dizzy.
Our last holiday in France wasn't nice. Normally the holidays are the best because that's when daddy makes up to mummy and they are happy again. But this time it was worse than being at home. We left very early, when it was still dark. Daddy carried Sophie and me from our beds and put us in the back of the car and tucked us in. Our duvets were still warm. Sophie went on sleeping but I couldn't. The city looked different by the yellow light of the street lamps. It was as if I was being carried around in my bed, and the world on the other side of the window was a happy dream. The start of the holiday is always an adventure.
In summertime the roads are busy because everybody goes on holiday at the same time. We were stuck in traffic and daddy said we should have left earlier. It was mummy's fault, he said, because she made us wait, and now we were going to miss our ferry. A car is a very small place when two people are having a row. Sophie cried. I couldn't find her dummy so I gave her my thumb. She was quiet for a while but then she made a rumpus. I was glad of Sophie for hushing mummy and daddy.
We drove for two days. Mummy and daddy quarrelled but it was quiet most of the time. When we got to the campsite they had another row. We have a big tent and it's difficult to pitch. The campsite was full and our neighbours were English too. They pretended not to hear when mummy and daddy made a row, but I saw the faces they made. I wondered when daddy would start kissing mummy again, as he normally did when we were on holiday. Maybe it would be the next day. But the next day we went to the beach and there was another row. This time it was because mummy had forgotten the towels. We had driven more than an hour to get to the beach, but when we got there it was hard to find a spot. There were so many people you couldn't see the sand. And the sand was so hot you couldn't really sit on it without a towel. I was very embarrassed when daddy shouted at mummy and everybody turned their heads and made disapproving faces.
Daddy removed the hot sand and lay on the darker sand below it. Mummy looked after Sophie, who began to whine because it was so hot, even though Sophie was the only one with a towel and a sunshade. I wanted to swim but daddy said I mustn't go by myself. I waited a long time – until daddy fell asleep. Mummy told me to be back before daddy woke up. I slalomed to the water, trying not to step on other people's towels. The water was warm and I wanted to stay in for a long time, but I remembered what mummy had said. I watched the other children. Some had inflatable animals and I remembered my blue crocodile, which was still at the campsite. The children were playing with their parents and I thought how nice it would be if my parents were in love like their parents. Some families sat near the shoreline. When the water came in they laughed and scrambled back. Their towels were wet but they didn't mind. They looked very happy.
When I tried to make my way back I realized I was lost. I searched for my parents but I couldn't find them. I thought I saw Sophie's sunshade but when I got closer it was a different family. Everybody looked the same. There were coloured toys and parasols and cooler boxes everywhere and it hurt my eyes. I started to run. I don't know why. A lady held out her arm and caught me. She talked to me in a foreign language. I knew it was French, but she didn't use the words I knew from the dictionary. Her husband and her children were very nice to me. They gave me a cold drink. I think they told me not to cry. Then she took me by the hand and we walked to the lifeguards in their lookout. Daddy was already there. He was explaining what I looked like, but the lifeguards didn't speak English. I was happy to see daddy and I ran to meet him, but he wasn't pleased. I remembered what I had done and sobbed again. I thought he would be angry. I pointed at the lady and explained how nice she had been, but daddy took me away without thanking her.
Mummy and daddy quarrelled about me, and then the quarrel turned into a row. Sophie was whining very loud now. I hoped the people around us couldn't understand what mummy and daddy were saying. I told daddy I was sorry for leaving without him and that I would never do it again. I said they mustn't fight about me. Mummy said it wasn't about me. The other people were looking at us and I was ashamed of my family. I went and stood between mummy and daddy. I told them they were supposed to be nice to each other because we were on holiday. Then they were both quiet. Not long after that we left.
We were a long time looking for the car. There were so many of them. We walked and walked. You could see how hot it was. The heat made ripples in the air.
When we found our car daddy gave a loud curse. The car had been broken into and the stereo was gone. Daddy banged his fists on the roof. Mummy said the car had been left open because all the doors were open. She was right because why would a thief break open four doors when he only needed one to get inside? Daddy hissed something at mummy and she got very upset. She walked away with Sophie in her arms. Daddy pushed me in the car and drove after mummy. They quarrelled through the open window. Mummy eventually got into the car, but the quarrelling didn't stop.
When we were on the road, daddy said what I heard him say just now: that he didn't want to go on living if mummy left him. He closed his eyes and took his hands off the steering wheel. The car went on the wrong lane and mummy screamed. I think I also screamed. There weren't any other cars but the road was narrow and the wheels hit the verge. Daddy grabbed the steering wheel and the car skidded left and right, but he brought it under control. Mummy screamed and told daddy to let her out. She said daddy was mad. Daddy said she was frightening the children with her screaming, but mummy was so upset she couldn't stop screaming. Daddy tried to stroke her hair her but she hit him and then the car swerved again. Daddy cursed and then everything went quiet.
We all had a sunburn. Mummy and daddy had left the sun lotion at home.
We went home the next day. I was sad and wept for a long time. But mummy and daddy said they would make it up to me. When we got home daddy took me to a theme park. It rained and the lines were long. Daddy was distracted because he couldn't stop thinking about mummy. The Apocalypse was closed for maintenance. I wished we had stayed at home.
"D-Day (June 6, 1944), the day in World War II when Allied forces invaded northern France by means of beach landings."
I've started reading at "D."
Mummy has a box of wax ear plugs in her nightstand. I took some because it's better than using my fingers. Last time a bit of wax got stuck in my ear and mummy had to remove it with her tweezers. She said it was dangerous and she took her ear plugs away from me. But I kept some in a secret pouch that Lily gave me (I hide it behind the skirting board next to the door). When I wear my ear plugs it's as if mummy and daddy are far away, and if I read the dictionary loud enough I can't hear them at all.
"D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), English novelist, poet, and essayist. His work is characterized by its criticism of industrial society and its frank exploration of sexual relationships."
Mummy is crying. Her crying is like a siren: a long and high sound. Sometimes she burst into screams. She screams, "Let me out!" When she knocks on the walls there are ripples in my glass. I wonder why Sophie isn't crying. Normally she makes a rumpus when there's a fight, but since yesterday she doesn't seem to care anymore.
There is a noise on the stairs. The next entry I read very loud. I read it so loud that I can feel my voice going hoarse in my throat.
"D.C. – District of Columbia – a federal district of the United States, coextensive with the city of Washington, on the Potomac River, with boundaries on the states of Virginia and Maryland."
Someone is calling my name. When I turn around I see mummy in the doorway. She is wearing her night gown. Her eyes are red. She has been crying a lot. I take out my ear plugs. She says, "We're going away, grab your stuff." I don't know what she means by "stuff." I take my dictionary and the secret pouch from behind the skirting board. Mummy goes through my wardrobe and puts some clothes in a plastic bag. Then we are off.
Mummy says, "Go to the hallway and put your shoes on."
We go down the first flight of stairs.
Daddy is in his underwear in the bedroom. He has a crazy look in his eyes. "Where are you going?" he says.
"Away," mummy says.
We go down the second flight of stairs.
"Your coat," mummy says.
I go to the hallway to wear my coat and my shoes, but suddenly daddy is in front of us. I don't know how he did it. First he was behind us, and now he's ahead, blocking the door. "You're not leaving," he says. Mummy hurls herself at daddy. She uses her nails like a cat's. Daddy bleeds from his neck. "You're not leaving," he says, and locks the front door. He waves the key at mummy. Daddy makes a long speech but I don't know what he's saying. The stone is on my chest and I can't breathe. I lie on the sofa with my hands stretched over my head (the way Lily showed me) and I try to think of nice things. I think of the Apocalypse. It was a sunny day the first time we rode it. Daddy said we were going to start a new life and forget about the past. He kissed mummy, and mummy was smiling the whole time. I was only just tall enough to be admitted. First we were towed to the very top, where we had a view of the whole park, and then we sailed down and I got the funny feeling in my stomach. I still get it in my dreams. I dream we're in the theme park again and mummy and daddy are in love and I get to ride the Apocalypse.
Daddy has gone to the kitchen. "This is where the story ends!" he shouts.
"You're mad!" mummy shouts back
Mummy tells me to get ready. She is very nervous. Her hands are shaking. She turns her purse upside down and goes through the small things in her purse. Then she goes through the pockets of all the coats in the hallway. "I can't find the key," she mutters. Suddenly I remember.
Daddy has a knife in his hand. "This is it," he says. His wrists are purple. "This is what you want, isn't it," he says. He puts the knife to his wrist and runs it up and down like a saw. It's a table knife and it's very blunt. Mummy screams. I take the key from my secret pouch and thrust it into her hands. In a moment we're outside, running. The dictionary is heavy in my arms. We run to the end of the street. Then we stop and look around. It's dark. The street is empty. It's as if we've escaped from a bad dream.
"It's better to let her sleep," I say. Mummy sinks to her knees. She sobs quietly. "You know Sophie," I say, "she will go on sleeping." I give mummy a long hug. She is very sad. I'm also sad but I'm happy she is no longer fighting with daddy. The street lights are a beautiful yellow. "Look," I say, "it's like going on holiday. We're going on a short break, and tomorrow we'll fetch Sophie and daddy." "Yes," mummy says. This makes her feel better.
She gets up and we go on walking. I don't know where we're going. I don't really care. I have my pouch and my dictionary. It's like an adventure. Maybe we'll go to a warm place, like France, where people are happy.