The Twisted Tree – Rachel Burge

It started the day I fell from the tree at Mormor’s cabin in Norway. The day I became blind in one eye. I’m going to write it all down here, no matter how crazy it makes me sound. If I have a daughter one day, she deserves to know the truth – The truth. Why couldn’t Mum have just told me? The thought is like a knot in my brain, and the more I pick, the tighter it gets. If I had known, I could have done something and no one would have died. If she had told me, the horror of these past few days might never have happened. 2 My stomach shrinks to a hard ball as we pull into Heathrow. The platform is heaving with people. Holding my rucksack in front of me, I grit my teeth and push my way through the crowd. As people brush past me I get flashes of their lives – their memories and emotions – but it happens so fast I can’t make sense of it. My hands are sweaty as I pull my phone from my pocket. I check the time, then wish I hadn’t. Last check-in is in fifteen minutes. I can’t miss this flight.

A train pulls into the platform opposite and dozens of passengers spill out. Worried their clothes will touch me, I veer left and head for the escalator. A man passes me, coming up the other way, and for a horrible moment I think it’s Dad, but it’s just some other grey businessman. Inside the departure hall people rush around me, dragging reluctant suitcases and even more reluctant children. The noise is like a swarm of bees, all wanting to sting me. It’s not just the hubbub of conversation. The air sparks and crackles – it’s like their clothes know I’m here, walking among them. A wet-faced toddler wobbles in my direction, hands outstretched, closely followed by a tiredlooking woman. I swerve but not quickly enough to avoid her brushing my arm. The woman had five miscarriages before she had her daughter.

She’s pregnant again but lies awake at night, terrified she might lose this baby too. My chest aches with emptiness, her loss so sharp it makes me catch my breath. I walk away, then glance back at her red coat. I’ve been through Mum’s wardrobe enough times in the past few months to know it must be at least fifty-per-cent cashmere. Wool holds a person’s emotions but cashmere is different – it makes you feel them. Spotting the familiar sign for Scandinavian Airlines, I head towards the check-in desk, then stumble over a suitcase and nearly go flying. ‘Hey! Watch it!’ a man snaps. ‘Sorry. I didn’t see. Sorry,’ I mumble.

‘It might help if you took off your sunglasses!’ I join the back of the queue, my face burning with embarrassment. Being blind in one eye messes with your depth perception. I can’t work out distances; when I focus on something in the foreground it makes stuff in the distance go blurry. It wasn’t a problem at home because I know where everything is, but now … if I can’t even make it across the airport without falling over, how am I going to make it to Norway? I hold the silver charm around my neck and tell myself to get it together. I’ve done the journey with Mum lots of times, and I had no problem travelling around London by myself before the accident. I just need to focus. There are two families ahead of me; if they’re quick maybe I can still make my flight. I rummage through my bag and pull out my printed e-ticket and ferry pass to Skjebne. You pronounce it Sheb-na – heavy on the Shh, which is kind of fitting, as it turns out. We used to spend every summer there – Dad too before he left us – but since the accident Mum refuses to talk about the island or Mormor, my grandma.

‘Next customer, please.’ I step forward and lay my passport and e-ticket on the desk. ‘Where are you travelling to today, miss?’ ‘Bodø. Well, Skjebne, actually. But I have to change flights at Oslo and then get the ferry from Bodø. And it’s Martha Hopkins. My name, that is.’ My face reddens. I sound like such an idiot. As I put my rucksack on the scales, the woman behind the desk leans over and whispers to her colleague before turning back to me.

I stare at my feet, convinced she can tell I’m a runaway just by looking at me. ‘Can you remove your sunglasses, please?’ My voice is as shaky as my legs. ‘Why? Is there a problem?’ ‘I need to verify you’re the person shown in the passport photo.’ She glances behind me. ‘Travelling alone? No parent or guardian?’ ‘No, but I’m seventeen and your website said –’ ‘The picture in this passport shows a much younger child.’ I bite my thumbnail as she slides my passport across the desk, open at the page with my photo, as if I don’t already know what it looks like. I glance at the image of the pale-faced girl with long blonde hair and quickly look away. I hate seeing pictures of me from before. ‘I’ve always been small for my age,’ I blurt, then instantly feel stupid. She studies the photo and I clutch my necklace.

Most of the jewellery I made after the accident was rubbish, yet this piece came out perfectly. The feel of its cool edges always calms me. I love metal; it tells me nothing. I take a deep breath. ‘Look, I’m actually late. So if you could –’ ‘Take off your glasses, miss.’ Somebody behind me tuts. I snatch off my shades and stare at the woman, or rather my right eye does. My left eye is looking who knows where. Her eyes widen, then flick down to my passport.

‘Thank you. A last call was put out for your flight five minutes ago. You’ll have to be quick. Gate 33 – up the escalator and to your left.’ I shove my glasses back on with a trembling hand and turn away, but not quick enough to avoid seeing her pity smile. I don’t have to touch her clothes to know what she’s thinking. Her thoughts are written all over her face: poor girl, how terrible, she would be pretty too, if it weren’t for that. A patronising look and then she moves on, anxious to lay eyes on someone who doesn’t look like a freak. At the top of the escalator I go through security, where I have to take off my sunglasses and necklace again. Thankfully people are too busy patting their pockets for loose change that isn’t there to notice my face.

Once I’m through the metal detector, I snatch my stuff from the plastic tray, replace my shades and hurry to my boarding gate. An air stewardess wearing a jaunty blue hat looks at my pass and shakes her head. My heart lurches. ‘Please. I really need to get this flight.’ She takes in my trainers. ‘You can run?’ I grin and she ushers me onto the connecting air bridge and we rush to the end. When we get to the plane I put my necklace on, grateful to feel its cool silence against my skin. Everyone is seated, ready for take-off. I walk along the aisle, searching for my place.

Boarding the plane was always the most exciting part of the journey when I was little. Now the thought of being crammed in a box with strangers makes me feel sick. I look at the people around me: a white fur coat bristling with outrage; a chunky knit heavy with sorrow. I can’t tell what secrets they hold just by looking at them, but it’s hard to stop my imagination sometimes. I find my row and my heart sinks. There’s a huge man next to the aisle, and my seat is by the window. Brian – according to the stretched name on his rugby shirt – is wearing earphones, and his eyes are closed. ‘Excuse me, I need to get in.’ No response. A flight attendant is heading this way, folding up tray tables and opening blinds with the determination of a trained assassin.

I raise my voice, but Brian doesn’t hear. The normal thing would be to touch his shoulder, but I don’t want his rugby shirt to speak to me. Maybe I should prod his hand. In the end I pull down his tray table, bashing it against his knees. He jumps awake and grumbles, then stands to let me pass. I smile a thank-you, then stash my coat and try to make myself as small as possible. Luckily my own clothes tell me nothing. I guess it’s like the way you can’t smell your own scent. My phone bleeps: a message from Mum asking if I’ve arrived at Dad’s. I text back straight away, then turn my phone to flight mode.

My parents have barely spoken since the divorce; as long as I reply, there should be no reason for her to call Dad. The plane speeds up and I feel myself pushed back into the seat as the ground rumbles beneath me. Suddenly Brian’s elbow nudges mine. An onslaught of facts washes over me – they come so fast and hard I can barely keep up with them. His mother would lock him in a room as a child. Some nights he dreams he’s still there, crying for his mummy. My breath catches. Anger, fear, rejection. They come at me in waves. I flinch, then rub my head and try to make sense of the jumbled impressions in my brain.

His rugby top must be made of polyester. Man-made fibres don’t breathe; they throw things at you like a sobbing toddler too distraught to come up for air. The world tips away beneath me and my stomach turns. I close my eyes until I feel the plane level off. When I look out of the window there is nothing but pale empty blue. The light bouncing off the wing of the plane is brilliant white – too pure, almost. I close my eyes and instantly I’m back in hospital: waking up to blackness. Just remembering the feel of the bandages on my face makes me shudder. Maybe it was the shock, but after I came round, I couldn’t stop shivering. Mum draped her jacket around my shoulders and then … even now I can’t explain.

Something wrenched apart inside me, as if a gust of wind had banged a door open. I saw myself under the tree, my blonde hair caked with blood, and then I felt a rush of emotion: fear mixed with guilt and love. Feelings that I knew weren’t mine. At first I was convinced I must have imagined it – until it happened again. After the operation they weren’t sure how much of my sight had been saved. When the doctor unfurled the bandages from my eyes, his jacket sleeve brushed my cheek. As soon as the material touched me, I saw an image of a bearded man in a reflection on a hearse window, his face pale and drawn. The man’s father had died and left everything to his new wife. My heart twisted with jealousy. I could almost taste the bitterness he felt.

The doctor removed the last of my bandages and I blinked in disbelief – he was the man I had seen. That night I lay awake, terrified I was losing my mind. I told myself I must have been hallucinating, even though deep down I knew it was real. The hospital psychiatrist came to see me, concerned how I was coping with my disfigured face, but I didn’t tell him anything. If he knew I can tell a person’s secrets just by touching their clothes, I wouldn’t be on a plane right now. I’d be listening to the ramblings of a straitjacket. Brian takes out a book and cracks open the spine. Anyone who does that is not a good person as far as I’m concerned. It’s up there with cruelty to kittens and nose-picking in public. Yet I can’t help feeling sorry for him.

If I touched his top again, maybe I could offer him some words of comfort. Something tells me his mother couldn’t help the way she was. I’m sure lots of mental illnesses went undetected in previous generations; nowadays she would be given medication. Like Mum. Thinking about Mum makes my head pound. I turn my shoulder to Brian and snap the blind shut. His life is none of my business, and besides, what can I say that will make a difference? The past will always haunt him. Pain like that stays with you; it seeps out of your pores and into the fibres of your clothes, and nothing can remove the stain of a soul.

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