- Published: 31 August 2021
- ISBN: 9780241986691
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $19.99
It began with the allocating of luck, our bodies pinballs inside a machine. It was the year of overlapping adolescences, when the girls started to faint and grow tall.
When I went to see my doctor at the clinic, the part of the wall where she measured our heights was dotted everywhere, as if with the eggs of flies. Mine was lost in there with the rest of them. Straighter, straighter, she said. Rapped my knuckles with a ruler. Look up! What do you see?
Just the dust gathering on the wallpaper of your ceiling, Doctor, I didn’t say. She made notes on my body. I nibbled at the edges of my own skin. She wrapped sheets of gauze around my raw thumbs. Stop chewing on yourself, she said, and wrote down something which might have been Failure to nurture.
My father bought me a wiry grey dog when I turned eleven, for my heart. Run faster! I shouted at him when he couldn’t keep up with me. This was love.
Cool light, spiders erupting from their silver webs inside my window frame. Out there, somewhere, was destiny. The dog and I were running towards it together. I liked to bury my face into his peppery fur, though I think I was allergic. It is possible that love was making me sick all along.
Drink a lot of milk if you want to speed it up, the knowing girls told us in the bathroom, between classes, as we massaged balm into our chapped lips. It hadn’t happened to them yet but they had been able to find things out. Eat fats and oils, they said. We switched all the taps on and then we left for our lessons.
At dinner I took a spoonful of butter and ate it neatly. My father watched me and didn’t say anything. I took another. Licked the spoon.
Be careful in your wanting was a slogan written on the wall of the clinic. I must have read it five hundred times over the course of that one year alone. My legs swinging back and forth on the orange plastic chair of the waiting room.
Girls left one by one throughout the term. No goodbye parties, no notes. By the time it was my turn, barely anybody remained. It was me and two other girls and the boys my age in the classroom, pushing our pencils across paper as we multiplied and subtracted and memorized underneath the sun’s passage.
I felt no great fidelity to the concept of free will. At fourteen I had been awaiting the future for months. I sat for hours on the yellow tiles of my father’s bathroom with my knees drawn up to my chest, as if I could compel my body onwards with the force of my thoughts. I couldn’t rejoice in anything, except that each event brought me nearer to adulthood, the clear and shining horizon of it. It was as if we had to swim through mud to get there, an estuary barrier to us reaching the ocean. Get through this, I wrote on the back of my school notebook. Private mantra. I felt very advanced to have made such peace with myself. I knew nothing, obviously.
All of this I spoke about to Doctor J, a harried pale woman, owner of the marked wall. Our growing brains were stored on tapes in her filing cabinet, which held a psychic onslaught of numberless teenage girls waiting to be sifted.
What is your mind doing lately? she used to ask me, and I would say the same thing every time, which was It’s not doing anything at all, which was also often the truth. I slept deeply and walked in the forest with my father’s gun after school, looking for the shivering bodies of rabbits, though I never fired it when I was alone. I became sentimental about pine cones and poetry, and swam my prescribed laps at the leisure centre with the other girls my age, walking home along the grey country road bordered with greenery.
As the year drew on, long red marks welted my thighs, mysteriously. Skin stretching, the doctor said. You’ll be tall. At the time I didn’t believe her. On slow days, I prayed for my bleed to come. Prayed to nature to make it happen, to the wet grass and the sky. My mother’s locket waited for me in my father’s sock drawer. It wasn’t locked away, but it was empty. My mother was buried in the grey cemetery outside of town. Her ticket might have been buried with her. I didn’t ask.
My father took me to a restaurant. It was my first time playing at adulthood, and I didn’t do a good job of it. Cracked, hollow bread rolls; I ate three of them very quickly. I saw the sad mushrooms in the carbonara as snails, and then could not eat those. Tender heart, my father called me then. He was a little angry. We had wine and I drank a splash big enough to coat the glass, but no more. It made my tongue feel lively. My father showed me how to swill the wine around and what the tidemarks told you. Like reading tea leaves, he said. I have looked into the wine and seen the future. It lives at the bottom of the bottle.
When all the wine was gone he lifted up the empty bottle and held it to his eye like a telescope. See? He laughed, but I did not ask what the future held.
She would have wanted you to pick a blue ticket, he said to me as we waited for the bill, but he did not elaborate. I did not want to seem stupid and ask, so instead I nodded. It was only trying to fall asleep, later on, that I realized what he had been telling me about my mother.
He was young to be a father. At the weekends, his friends came round to the house and drank beer and watched me. They played cards but not games that I recognized. One two, one two, they chanted as they threw the cards down. Another beer. I lay on my stomach in the dark in the hall, where they could not see me. I wanted to watch and not to be watched. It was fundamental to my desire. You do not understand that at fourteen. But I can understand it now.
In the cinema, later in the year, my fingertips slid around inside a bucket of popcorn. A boy sat next to me. I felt him put his hand out to me as if he were swimming. The hand moved up and down in the air until it reached my body. Hand found my shoulder, my chest. I let it rest there, peacefully. The film ended. The hand lifted. The boy left before I could look.
At school, the girls’ bathroom was almost always empty, by then. Nobody left the taps running.
One day the grey dog became fat and even slower. It turned out she was a girl. She lay down and small blind things came out of her, pink and bleating, like hearts. My father did something with them. Set them into the wilderness, or gave them new homes. I chose to believe this.
It was the dog I thought about years later, when I looked down at my stomach, and there it was. Undeniable. I, too, would be slow. I, too, would lie down upon the ground. Cold ground. Blue morning.
You should have touched them, said the last girl at school apart from me. You would have been their mother. They would recognize your scent, and your scent only. A sad, streak- of- water girl, with unnerving pale eyes. I didn’t like to think I was her sort, but here I was. Here we were. She placed a sandwich, carefully, inside her mouth. In my room at home I sniffed at my armpits, just to see. It seemed unidentifiable. It seemed like anyone else’s stink. Nothing that anything would call home.
One day, finally, there was a red slick in my underwear. In the shower I washed my body with care, unfamiliar blood spooling thinly down my legs. A clot of dark jelly fell out of me. I felt, calmly, that perhaps I would die. Instead I put on the dress that had been hanging on my bedroom door for the past year; pink satin, sprigged with white flowers at the hem and neckline, a petticoat underneath that scratched at my knees. It smelled of the damp, of the accumulated sweetness of the cheap perfume that I sprayed dutifully on my body every day. I went and twirled in front of my father, who fetched the locket and gave it to me. Don’t put it on yet, he said.
We got a taxi because it was a special occasion, although it was a long way; through the hulking shape of the nearest town, back out into the outskirts, past wooden houses like ours. The taxi driver had a plastic ice cream box with foil-wrapped chocolate hearts. Take two! he insisted, then put the box back under his seat.
Pretty girl, he said to my father, who said Watch it, smiling but not smiling, and then the two of them were silent for the rest of the journey. The hearts contained dark cherries. I folded both pieces of foil into one speck and pushed it into the gap between my seat and the door.
The lottery station was a lot like the clinic: two storeys of pale brick, a flat roof. When we pulled up, the emissary outside was smoking a cigarette, but he threw it into the road when he saw us. Congratulations, he said to me. He led us inside to where the others waited.
The floorboards were wooden, varnished aggressively. Countless feet had scuffed that floor. It pooled the reflections of all the lights – spotlights from the ceiling, a lamp on the desk where a man in a dark suit sat on an orange plastic chair, watching us, legs crossed. He could have been a doctor, but he wore no white coat, no white plastic gloves. There were four other girls in their own dresses sitting in a row on a wooden bench, flowers both real and fake pinned to chests. They were not the girls from my school. One wore velvet, two wore tulle, and the other wore satin like me. I took a shine to the girl in satin. Same species.
We lined up, waiting to pull our tickets from the machine, the way you would take your number at the butcher’s counter. The music popular that year played from speakers on the ceiling. Just gravity enough. Just ceremony enough. Not necessarily such an important thing, after all.
My name was called first. They watched me as I walked the length of the room, towards the machine inside its cloaked box. I put my hand in it. I was apprehensive but ready for my life to be decided. I closed my eyes and thought about my father with the wine bottle to his eye. The machine was silent as it discharged a sliver of hard paper into my hand. It was a deep cobalt. Congratulations, the possible doctor in the dark suit said to me.
The other girls followed, each taking their own ticket from the machine in turn. Almost a full house! he exclaimed at the end, reading a piece of paper spat out from the machine. We huddled and compared tickets. They were all blue, except for one, which was white. The girl with the white ticket was escorted into a separate room by the doctor and another emissary. We watched the three of them walk through an unlit doorway. When the doctor came back he clapped his hands twice. You have been spared, he said with a terrible benevolence.
At the desk, the emissary who had been on the door wrote down the results, to communicate to homes, to clinics, to places distant and important that we did not know about. One by one we were called into another room, a different room to the girl who had pulled the white ticket. I lay on a reclining bed with a crisp paper cover, and another doctor, this one a woman and comforting, almost, in the familiar white coat, told me to fold up my knees. She pushed something inside me that hurt, a sharp and spidering pain. What is it? I asked, and she said, Your doctor will explain it all when you get to wherever you’re going. She said when and not if, and I was grateful for that. Behind me I left a large rose of blood on the paper.
The bathroom of the lottery house was filled with yellow light, the veins of my thin neck standing out underneath it. I was a plucked chicken with badly applied eyeshadow, but the locket was around my throat now. There was a long, low mirror above the sink, a wicker chair in the corner and two bathroom stalls painted peach. In the mirror I watched the other girls leaning against the wall. Toes flexing. Eyes raised to the ceiling, moving to the door when the girl with the white ticket came in to join us, then back to the ceiling. There was a dying flower arrangement at the corner of the sink, gaps of oasis showing through pink carnations. The music came through in here too, speakers in the ceiling or underneath the sink.
At first I kept looking at the girl who had drawn the white ticket, the other girl in satin, though hers was pale blue and dirty at the hem where it dragged. Her eyes were red. I had the urge to take her arm and run with her somewhere, out to the woodland where I used to smoke with the other girls in my class between lessons, beyond the broken barbed wire of the school perimeter where the teachers could not see us. But I did not touch her; I made myself stop looking.
Inside the cubicle I spent some time reading the names and dates scratched on the door. With the safety pin that held on my fake peony corsage I engraved Calla, Blue Ticket, a smiley face and the date underneath. The swell of relief, smooth and natural as a muscle. I would never have children. And I was glad. I had been a child myself, not so long ago. I did not want to put any other puny creature through that.
I went with the rest of the girls back to the lottery room, where our parents stood lined up. There was a table with pots of tea and coffee, biscuits and thin sandwiches on china plates, packets of tissues. The doctor who had supervised the whole thing stood in front of the parents, as if we had interrupted them mid- address. Maybe we had. The mothers smiled. The fathers looked grim.
An emissary handed us each a bottle of water, a compass and a sandwich from the table, wrapped in a napkin. We did not get to pick the filling. The bottle given to the white-ticket girl was larger than ours, I noticed, and she received two sandwiches. It was happening immediately, the diverging of our paths, no time to spare.
Go, the doctor said to us. To the place of your choice. Walk into it. Anywhere but here. Congratulations.
I met my father’s gaze. I had a city in mind. He looked back at me and nodded his head. We walked out together into the cool night. The adults stayed in the light, for coffee and refreshments, to debrief with the doctor. We might see our parents again, we might not. Some of the girls halted at once when we got outside. They didn’t know where to go. New and bewildered as the fawns I saw at the edges of the trees, in the dusk. The girl with the white ticket, though, she walked directly into the woods, the lights of our torches bouncing off the satin until she was gone into the dark. We were not so different.
I put the compass in the palm of my hand. North or south, east or west. The flicker of the needle, the splintered light of the moon on its glass casing. I knew I could do this; could prove myself something beyond chewed- up cuticles and the mould smell of the bathroom and boys in the dark, fumbling for something I was willing to give but barely had. My life was out there, ahead of me. I had to run to it, now that the shape was cast.
Some of the girls followed me as I set off down the pale stretch of road. I listened to the pad of their feet behind me, unwilling to let them come closer. One of the girls was crying for her mother, but her mother would not come. Nobody would come.
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low – for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love.
Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.
Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.