Day 57: Off the wall

When I was a teenager, fourteen or fifteen, my cousin came to live with us for a year. She was about nine years older than me. I adored her. She was kind, clever, playful, beautiful, and artistic. She was everything I wanted to be. Above all, she was cool.

I remember a party in my parent’s back garden, some years before; perhaps I was ten and she was nineteen. She breezed in wearing a white cotton dress, her brown wavy hair streaked blond (think Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan), her skin deeply tanned from grape-picking in France over the summer. At the party, I practiced my backbend kickover, and she, a skilled gymnast, coached me. My arms overhead, I would arch into a deep back-bend, falling into it at the very end; then she would place her hand under the small of my back to support me as I flipped my legs up into a handstand and back to standing. The idea was to do the whole thing in one fluid movement, but I couldn’t get it (and never did). I always got stuck in the backbend, trying repeatedly to kick myself up into a handstand but only rarely able to get the momentum to actually propel myself over. [1] She counseled me to practice and I did, endlessly; I wanted her to be proud of me.

When she came to live with us, the details of why she was moving in were hazy to me. There were tearful conversations over cups of tea. She needed time and space to get back on her feet. I knew that there was a bad ex-boyfriend. There might have been, I discussed in whispered tones with my brother, drugs involved. Sometimes my cousin would talk to my Mum about the bad ex-boyfriend … I would try to be very quiet during these conversations so that they would forget I was there and not censor anything. I remember my cousin recalling, almost gleefully, nostalgically, their screaming, plate-throwing fights, with my Mum listening uneasily.

“I’m not scared of him,” my cousin explained, defiantly. “Because he knows if he hit me I’d just hit him right back.”

I was riveted by these conversations. As far as I was aware, it was only very rich Americans on Dynasty or Dallas who had those kinds of fights. Ordinary people, English people, fought, if they fought at all, much more quietly, I supposed. They certainly didn’t throw things.

She was almost always there when I got home from school, and I found her presence deeply comforting. She didn’t seem to go out much or, if she did, only round the corner to the newsagent’s to buy tobacco and rolling papers. She’d be sitting on the sofa watching Countdown when I got in, rolling her cigarettes with elegant fingers.

“I’m making a cup of tea; d’you want one?” she’d ask.

She was always making a cup of tea; she drank endless cups all day long.

But she didn’t just loll around watching telly. Her hands were always busy: drawing; knitting; sewing. When I admired a beautiful sweater she’d knitted for herself, she immediately promised to make me an identical one. She never got around to it; instead, she gave me hers. She made patchwork quilts for both me and my brother out of pieces of fabric that had sentimental value for us. Both of them, I remember, included patches taken from the duvet covers that we’d had as very young children; in mine there were also patches from a favorite flowered dress I’d worn as a little girl. Those quilts were amazing. I don’t know where mine is now and I wish, very much, that I did.

There’d always been older cousins living in the house, but they’d always been boys, except for a brief period, maybe five years earlier, when this same cousin and her flame-haired best friend had stayed on the top floor of our house, just for a summer. I was perhaps ten then, and I still remember, nostalgically, scampering up to their attic room and dancing around to Off the Wall. Now that she was back again, on her own, she was more available to me, and I could make believe that she was my older sister. Often I would go upstairs and lie on her bed in her tiny room and we’d just talk. I could talk to her about things that I couldn’t talk about with my parents, because I was too embarrassed, and that I couldn’t talk about with my friends, because I felt too vulnerable to mockery. She patiently and sensitively unveiled the mysteries of adolescence, including both trigonometry and sex. She talked to me about losing her virginity, about what sex felt like, both when it was bad, and when it was good.

There was a basin in her room (it had been a large bathroom that my parents had converted into a very small bedroom), and I liked to examine the trinkets that she kept on the shelf above. Bangles and bracelets were stacked on the neck of an empty wine bottle. There were tiny boxes. Can I open them, I asked? When she agreed, amused, I investigated … earrings in one … another was empty … What’s this? I asked, peering into another, is it lavender?

She looked and yelped with laughter, “It’s grass …. dope!” she exclaimed. “How funny! I had no idea I had any!” She had the best laugh: husky and mischievous. My daughter’s voice now reminds me a bit of hers.

In two of my most vivid memories of her, we are in the living room, alone, together. In the first memory (really a composite of many memories), she is patiently helping me with my maths homework, talking as she writes out equations in her tiny, meticulous handwriting, while I watch and nod, on the brink of actual comprehension. I struggled in maths and the only times I felt like I understood anything was when she explained it to me. I remember that one of my first thoughts after she left was, “but how am I going to pass GCSE maths now?”

I ended up failing GCSE maths.

The other memory is of a night when, I suppose, everyone else had gone to bed. She’d either recorded this film off the telly or else rented it from the newsagent’s. She’d seen it when it came out a year or so earlier and was excited to see it again. The film was “Rita, Sue, and Bob too,” by Alan Clarke. It came out in 1987 and its tagline was “Thatcher’s Britain with Her Knickers Down.” Just before she was about to press play she hesitated. “There’s a lot of sex,” she said, “is that all right?” I wasn’t sure what to say. “I mean,” she continued, “I think all you see is the bloke’s bum going up and down, but … is that all right?” I nodded casually, as if I were used to watching sexually explicit films. She kept an amused yet watchful eye on me throughout, making sure that I was only titillated and not traumatized.

That film was eye-opening.

Then, suddenly, literally overnight, everything changed. Most of the time she lived with us she didn’t see any friends, not even the flame-haired best friend she’d lived with in our house that one summer; she seemed to think that they had nothing in common any more. But my parents had been encouraging her to get together with her old friends. And one night she did. Her flame-haired friend came to pick her up. My cousin was clearly nervous, but also excited; she dressed up for the big night out. It feels in some ways like she went out that night and never came back.

She literally didn’t come back that night. My parents were going crazy when she still wasn’t home the next day, calling around her friends. Then, finally, there was a phone call. My Mum drove across town to pick her up from a police station in south London. She’d been riding the tube all night, the police explained to my mum. She seemed confused, but had come willingly to the station.

Here the narrative thread is frayed, partly because the story was so confused, partly because I had to weave the strands together myself from snippets of overhead conversations, some of which were now behind closed doors. The evening had started well, in a bar, with friends. But then the tale grew dark and murky. Someone slipped something into her drink, she said, and the next twenty four hours were a complete blur; she didn’t know how she’d gotten on to the tube, or how long she’d been there.

She didn’t go out with her friends any more after that. Some things stayed the same. She drank cup after cup of tea. She watched quiz shows on TV. But she was more withdrawn. She stopped eating with us. She explained to me that she feared that the person who spiked her drink might have found some way to contaminate her food. I didn’t know what to think. One time when she was explaining why she couldn’t eat the dinner my Mum had prepared, I said, falteringly, “But Mum made it … ” She looked at me, and didn’t reply. One day when I asked if she wanted a cup of tea, she said no thanks, she’d rather make it herself.

I began to feel anxious when I was alone around her. Often I was the first to get home, and I would find her downstairs in front of the telly, chain-smoking. She always like to play along with the quiz shows, saying the answers to the questions before the contestants could; her general knowledge was immense, so she was almost always right. But I remember noticing one time, when she was watching Blockbusters, which she loved, that she wasn’t just answering the questions, she seemed to be having a conversation, with whom, I couldn’t say. When I tried to talk to her she ignored me. By the time everyone else was home she would often be up alone in her room.

I remember talking to my Mum a bit about it. My Mum was concerned too; of course she’d also noticed the paranoia, the odd behavior. But I think perhaps because I was home more in the afternoons, or perhaps because I was less used to being around people who were mentally ill (my Mum was a social worker), or perhaps just because I was young, I was more deeply disturbed by my cousin’s behavior.

It all came to a head on one afternoon. I got home and my cousin was, as usual, chain-smoking on the sofa. She was watching television. She didn’t acknowledge my presence and seemed to be deep in conversation with someone whom I couldn’t see. Suddenly, I felt scared being alone with her. My heart pounding, I ran up to my parent’s bedroom and called my Dad’s office, leaving a message asking if he could come home soon. I can’t remember if my brother was already home, or if he came home a bit later, but he immediately headed out into the back garden to play basketball, as he often did. He would have been ten or eleven at the time.

Uneasy sitting downstairs in the living room, I had gone upstairs and was watching my brother play basketball from an upstairs window. I noticed that my cousin kept going out into the back garden. Once out there, while my brother played on, oblivious, she would look around, searchingly, surveying the terraced houses with gardens that backed onto and abutted ours, as if trying to glimpse someone in one of the windows. Then she would go back into the house. A few minutes later she would come out and do the same thing again. I was so busy tracking her movements out the window that, at a certain point, she caught me unawares, and came up to me as I was sitting at the window.

“You need to tell him to come in,” she said, gesturing towards my brother outside. “He’s in danger.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, frowning.

“It’s not safe out there.”

“It is safe,” I retorted, “I’m not telling him to come in.”

She looked at me, surprised that I was arguing.

“There are people … people who are watching me …. And they’re closer now, I can feel it. They might hurt him if he stays outside.”

At this point I started to think, this is crazy, but there was also something so disturbing about the idea of some shadowy figures hurting my little brother as he played basketball, that I felt a shiver go through me.

I went out and stood for a minute watching my brother. It was late afternoon and it was growing dusky. I told my brother to come in, it was getting late.

“It’s not late,” he protested.

“Look, can you please just come in,” I said.

He asked why. I didn’t want to scare him, and I also didn’t even really know whether I was more scared of the alleged shadowy figures observing us, or my cousin inside the house, but I just said that my cousin was worried it wasn’t safe. He looked at me scornfully.

“Uhh, I’m not coming in just because of some weird idea she has.”

I went back inside. I went upstairs and left another message at my Dad’s office. As I walked back down the stairs to the ground floor, I passed my cousin on the stairs. She was whispering something to herself. Our eyes met. I smiled hesitantly. She wasn’t smiling. She looked angry, very angry.

“You’re evil,” she said to me slowly, her eyes narrowing.

“I … I … I’m not evil,” I said, stammering.

“Oh but you are,” she said. “Your eyes, they’re evil eyes. Evil eyes,” she repeated, spitting the words at me, her eyes narrowed.

“They’re not,” I said, on the brink of tears, and she began to laugh.

I remember recounting this story to my friend Tamsin, a couple of days after it happened, and she said that she probably would have laughed, if she had been in my place, because of the ridiculousness of my cousin’s words. And even now, in writing this down, I feel that it sounds like something out of a bad TV movie, like a parody of Bertha in Jane Eyre. The person telling me I had evil eyes wasn’t some sinister gothic looking stranger, this was my cousin, the cousin who used to say, “Oh my God, your feet stink!” when I came home from school and unceremoniously flopped on the sofa next to her, plopping my feet onto her lap; the cousin who used to fight with me over who would get the last leaves of lettuce in the salad bowl, the ones deliciously soaked with vinaigrette.

But all I can say is that it was not funny, at all, in the moment. It was terrifying.

I ran past her down the stairs, through the kitchen and outside into the back garden.

“Come in now,” I said to my brother, and I know that my voice must have been full of panic because he didn’t question me. I grabbed his hand and dragged him upstairs as fast as I could, him protesting as we ran, asking why we had to go in. I didn’t stop until we were in his bedroom, on the topmost floor of the house. I told him to stay there while I ran down and left one more message with my Dad’s office. Then I ran back upstairs, slammed the door shut, and started pulling furniture in front of it to barricade it.

My brother clearly thought I was insane, and perhaps I was. I explained that our cousin thought that I was evil and that I worried that if she really thought that she might try to hurt us. My brother looked like he didn’t really believe what I was saying. “Can I go back down now?” he kept saying. But I refused and we stayed in there. At one point my cousin banged on the door, but when we didn’t reply she went back downstairs. Then, finally (but probably only twenty minutes later), I heard my Mum’s voice, and I un-barricaded the door and, sobbing, explained what had happened. Mostly all I could say, over and over, was, “She said I have evil eyes, Mum, she said I have evil eyes, I thought she was going to hurt me.” My Mum kept saying, “but she would never hurt you, she loves you so much!” And I kept saying in reply, “but you didn’t see how she looked at me, she hates me, she hates me.”

She entered a psychiatric hospital that night. Over the next few years, I saw her a few times. When I saw her she was calm, sedate; too sedate. She didn’t scare me any more but neither could I find the warm, impish person that I loved so dearly. Which isn’t to say that she wasn’t there. I remember that once, during one of those visits, she said something like, “that must have been pretty confusing for you, that day.” Of course I knew which day she meant. “Yeah,” I mumbled. “I’m really sorry you had to go through that,” she said. I nodded.

Time moved on. Three years later, my Dad died suddenly, traumatically, in our house; the anguish of that memory displaced the earlier one. I went away to university. My aunt and uncle—my cousin’s parents—lived in Cambridge, and I saw them regularly.

And then, one day, at the end of my final year at Cambridge, after I’d taken my finals, there I was with my constant companion, Liz, in a Cambridge department store (Eden Lilley, perhaps?). I spotted a familiar but unexpected face. It was my cousin’s boyfriend; not the boyfriend of the cousin who’d lived with us, but of her younger sister. I’d known him for years and greeted him warmly.

“What are you doing here!” I exclaimed, and started chattering away, introducing him to Liz. I was cheerful and, if he wasn’t, I didn’t register it. He explained that he was there, naturally, for his girlfriend, who was obviously devastated by what had happened with her sister. What do you mean, I asked. He looked at me confusedly and repeated my cousin’s name. Now I was confused. What about her, I asked, and this is when his faced crumpled, as he realized I didn’t know, and that he would have to be the one to tell me right then, right there, in the shop.

“Oh, God …. Oh God … I thought you knew … Oh God I’m so sorry ….”

She had taken her own life, by hanging.

It was 1996. She was 30. I was 21. A couple of months later I moved to the U.S. to start graduate school.


[1] We called a backbend a crab; perhaps accordingly the image that comes to mind as I remember this experience is of a crab on its back that can’t flip itself over.


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