Alice is still asleep. Her lashes lie on her cheek, dark and fine as feathers; her face is round and innocent as a baby’s. I don’t often see her sleeping; it isn’t one of her skills. Usually I’m exhausted well before she is. Behind her locked door she will be spinning, twirling, rocking her long beautiful body until it collapses finally into the night.
This morning I need to wake her. We have plans. I sit on the bed and stroke her hair. Her eyes fly open, opaque, confused. I gather her in my arms, soft and warm as a new-baked loaf, heavy against my chest. Gradually, as she surfaces into wakefulness, I help her to dress. Obediently she raises her arms while I pull on her sweatshirt; she lifts her feet for shoes and socks.
Today, the last day of the holidays, we are going on a picnic. She paces urgently up and down, focusing intently on the sandwiches I am making. Then she slips her arms around my waist and lays her cheek against my shoulder blade. She is eleven years old and almost as tall as I am. Her hand reaches towards the bread and I knock it away. It is perfectly clear what she wants; there’s no need for words, for the voice I have never heard. But this is rare. Usually, when I look into her lovely open face and her eyes stare back at me, I understand nothing. Alice is a mystery; I am living on the edge of a mystery.
I pack a holdall with everything we will need for our outing. The food and drink, spare clothes for her, swimsuits and towels. We are going to the sea, because she enjoys it so much: the sheer thundering expanse of ocean. It isn’t the weather for the beach; the clouds are low and threatening, but she won’t care. She can’t bear to be confined and the sea frees her.
It’s a long drive, however, and always a struggle to pinion Alice with her seat belt. I have to pull it tight so she can’t wriggle out and try to escape. Our world is one of constant restless motion: to stop would bring everything crashing down. Like the Red Queen, the only way to keep up is to keep moving.
The beach we go to is backed by sand dunes: huge rolling waves crested with wiry tufts of strong growing sea grass. The wind whips the sand into a fine stinging spray and the grasses into a rippling stream. The sea itself is invisible. Alice’s body is jerking with excitement and anticipation. She tumbles out of the car and runs with her arms outstretched towards the nearest sculpted golden dune. When she reaches the top she lies on her back like a dog and then begins to roll, to cascade downhill to the soft shifting sand in the valley below. I follow with the bag, stumbling along the footpath, trying to keep her in sight.
She has forgotten me. Sand is pouring through her fingers, making a lake in her lap. For a moment the sun breaks through the cloud. With the stalks of pale grass swaying behind her, she could be the miller’s daughter in the story of Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold.
Ours was a late marriage. For many years I had led a single life, and meeting Jim was a bonus. One of those chance encounters that could easily have been missed. He works all over the place, Jim. I never see him for more than two weeks at a time. I remember the thrill of those first two weeks, as he pursued me: his warm voice on the telephone, his delighted face behind an enormous bunch of flowers
Later I became obsessed with getting pregnant, knowing that time was running out. I can still remember the feelings of pride as my belly swelled, the perverse pleasure I took from the sickness and nausea, from the constant kicking against the walls of my womb. I looked forward to a daughter. I longed to dress her like a doll, to brush her curls until they shone, to read her nursery rhymes and fairy tales, to share jokes and gossip.
When she arrived early, so tiny, so perfect, like Thumbelina, I wanted to eat her, to taste every last drop of her. But in the hospital they took her away and put her in a glass case, like an exhibit that we could only gaze at and handle under supervision. It was a relief to be allowed to bring her home, to be able to stroke and cuddle her all day and night. And even though they’d warned us: she may never learn, she may never speak — she was still our miracle baby, Jim’s and mine. She was the strikingly beautiful child, whom strangers longed to touch. When she smiled they’d gasp at the warmth of it, the affection in her deep throaty gurgle.
We’ve been coming to the beach for years now. And however strong the sun might be upon the water, Alice’s eyes will have the greater sparkle. The very first time — she was a toddler, just walking — she was clearly overwhelmed by the great shifting grey mass of the sea. As though she were being tugged by the tide, her movements steady and relentless, she set off towards it, paddling through the rim of scum on the wet sand, the ripples at the shore line, right into the waves themselves. Still wearing her baby trainers, her Little Mermaid socks, her leggings, her anorak. I was terrified I would lose her, that a wave would crash over her head, salt water filling her mouth, her nose, her ears, her pockets. I screamed and ran in after her – in my own shoes, leggings and anorak. She turned round in bewilderment, suddenly aware of the coldness and wetness, puzzled that this stuff was not solid after all, could not be held in the hand or walked upon like dry land.
These days she’s a good swimmer, but I have to go into the sea with her to make sure she doesn’t strike out too far. I help her undress and put on her swimsuit. She shakes herself free from me and scampers off laughing, her arms flapping like wings, her fair head bobbing like the float on a fishing rod. It’s always cold, the dark blustery Atlantic. For a while we thrash about, sending showers of salt spray into each other’s faces and surfing on the waves towards the beach. Then we run out, gasping and shivering. Alice throws her towel over her head and sits beneath it as if in a darkened tent, excluding me. When we are dry again we will make our way to the little copse of trees to eat our picnic. There are smooth thick roots to lay our food on and the ground is soft and springy with pine needles. And our mouths will not fill with the grittiness of sand.
It’s amazing what a little sand can do. Here we are, surrounded by acres of it, by heaving mountains and sweeping plains: the grains are infinite, beyond number. Yet half a dozen in your drink can make you choke, can spoil the soft texture of a banana, can rub and chafe at a sore spot on your skin until your flesh is raw and oozing.
Just under three years ago Alice and I drove out to the beach one day in winter. The wind was chill and fierce, the dunes were massed like dark and heavy banks of cloud, the sky bled into the sea. But Alice did not feel the bitterness; Alice was in wonderland. She ran like a hound off the leash, hair and eyes streaming, trailing bursts of wild laughter. I wouldn’t let her take off her coat or her shoes, though she fought against me. She wanted to feel the wind and water on her face and feet.
Eventually I felt we had been buffeted long enough. I dragged her, screaming and protesting, through a welter of blown sand and keen-edged grass, back towards the car. On one of the downward slopes between the dunes she stopped suddenly, almost as if she were trapped in quicksand. She ignored my threats and bribes. She remained fixed, inert, immobile, a child without the will to move or explain, her face mutinous against me. She was too heavy to carry so I tugged and pulled her resisting body along the track, feeling increasingly angry and exhausted by my efforts. I could hear my voice rising to a pitch of panic, whipped away by the wind, but there was no-one to listen. Finally, in furious desperation, I pushed her as hard as I could.
Actually, I hit her.
I didn’t expect her to fall the way she did, to tumble heedlessly onto the sharp stones of the car park. When I raised her limp body there was a deep gash across her temple. I had no choice but to take her to hospital, to present to Accident and Emergency my white-faced bloodied child. They took her into a cubicle where I could hear her screaming as the wound was washed. The doctor asked me to step inside. They had taken off her coat and there were bruises on her arms where I had grabbed her. I waited in shock for the inevitable question. How did this happen?
Alice was in acute distress. She was shaking, sobbing, flailing her limbs. They wanted to give her a local anaesthetic, to close the lips of her gaping cut with stitches. She knocked the needle out of the doctor’s hand in her hysteria; struck out blindly at anyone who came near. I tried to soothe her, to put my arm around her shoulders but she wouldn’t be touched. She was overcome with terror, not pain. For Alice pain is simply another sensation she can’t quite comprehend. She doesn’t know hurt, she doesn’t feel regret.
They’d been trying hard, the doctor and nurses, to make her comfortable. As they removed her shoes and socks, a pile of sand cascaded into a heap on the polished lino. I could see how her heels and toes were rubbed raw, a mass of blisters. And I could feel them appraising me, weighing the evidence: the cut on her forehead, my smudged thumb prints on her arms, the scratches on her legs from the grass, the dreadful state of her feet.
They told me they wanted to keep her in for observation. They wanted me to stay, too.
They needed to talk to me.
Alice hands me her orange juice. She cannot unwrap the straw or pierce the foil hole on the top of the carton. I do it for her and she drinks deeply, thirstily. Her cheeks glow from the fresh air and her mouth curves into a wide grin. She has a natural joy and exuberance I’ve not noticed in many other children – although, to tell the truth, I avoid other children. I don’t want to be reminded of what might have been.
After our lunch, after I have wiped chocolate from her fingers and packed away the debris, I let her go back on the beach. She sprawls, creating a deep soft hollow for herself, and sifts the dry grains through her hands. As if she were counting them. As if she could count.
My gaze flickers up and down the long strand, catching family groups enjoying the last day of the school holidays. Soon it will be time to leave. I hope they will be peaceful, our remaining few hours together, for tomorrow she goes.
She had sand in her shoes and she couldn’t tell me.
I tried to explain to the doctors how I had to interpret Alice’s world, how I couldn’t always get it right. They were struggling not to judge me — I could see it in their faces — but they wouldn’t discharge her, wouldn’t let us go. They’d attempted to bandage her head and her feet. Alice spent all night unravelling these bandages. I sat beside her bed in a plastic chair, unable to sleep. I had a parade of staff coming to see me, a barrage of questioning, expressions of concern; discussion of interventions. Other parents looked across at our corner with curiosity. I shut them out. I just wanted to be alone with my daughter; I didn’t realise I had already lost her.
She couldn’t wear shoes for a week. Because it was still winter I had to keep her indoors, pacing like a caged animal. I had visits from the GP, the social worker, the educational psychologist, and drawn-out long-distance phonecalls from Jim. They told us we should face the inevitable and begin the trawl for residential schools. Last year we found one. Alice seems very happy there. She enjoys the attention she gets, the company of others, the comfort of routine. She is a cheerful, affectionate child. She does not feel regret.
This is what’s best for her. For me. But as I fold her clothes, check they all have nametapes sewn tightly inside, fetch down the suitcase, polish her shoes, I have to bite back the tears. When I am certain everything is quiet, I unlock the door to her room and creep inside. I can see her outline on the bed, limbs casually flung at all angles, little gusts of breath escaping from her perfect mouth. There’s the wide white scar just below her hairline, and her lashes curling on her cheek, dark and fine as feathers.