Have you ever wanted something so much, it’s not a desire so much as a beacon? Have you ever prayed for it so hard, your fingernails curl into your palms and your eyes squinch shut and your whole body just hums?
My daughter is that simple, shining thing. Taken from me under bright lights in a white room, my stitches still raw. I fought so much they put me in hard restraints. I screamed so loudly they shot me up with sedative.
When I resurfaced, the blood had soaked through my hospital gown. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. It was as if my body was weeping for me. Just like before, only this time it wasn’t me who was making it happen. I felt floaty and exhausted. Closed my eyes.
“Come on, Les, stay awake.” Immi, shaking my tied-down arm from the left side of the bed. “Your solicitor’s going to ring soon.”
I opened my eyes again. Stared at the opposite wall’s watercolor portrait of a budding rose, its outlines like those of the mandala coloring book pages Clare and I used to fill in at the Phoenix.
Shit. Now I was crying, flapping my tethered hands in useless flail.
Behind me, I felt Gloria’s hand stroking my hair. “All right. Shh. Just try to stay calm, sweetheart.”
Yes. Calm. That was what I needed to be, so I could get unbound, so I could reach for the phone when it rang, hold it in my own grip. I’ve grown pretty used to extreme highs and lows in my twenty-two years of life, but that had to be the nadir: aspiring to have my restraints taken off in order to take a call from my solicitor to discuss my child protection case.
They’d just untied me when he came on the line. “It’s a temporary order, not a long-term arrangement. We’ll demand full visitation rights whilst she’s being fostered. Battle this all the way to the European High Court if we have to.”
Six months later, we’re still battling. In silence. I can’t say a word to the media now, no matter how much I might want to go back on breakfast TV, no longer mild-mannered and plaintive but a warrior mum instead. One public statement, and my face could wind up in a mug shot taken at a North London women’s prison. So I keep my mouth shut, and wait in drafty corridors, and scribble notes on my solicitor’s cast-off pads. Some of them are to him (Mention positive parenting evaluation? Ask for evening and weekend visit hours?), but most of them are for me, and for her. No sappy “Dear Daughter” missives, just fervent snippets: I want to bury my face in your fuzzy hair until the end of time. If I win, it’ll be for all of us phoenix-girls.
I hadn’t wanted to write this story down at first. Some of it I didn’t have words for, and other bits just made me convinced I didn’t deserve her. Hardly needed more fuel for that fire, right? So I stopped for a while. But then I thought (a tiny thought, dangerous but powerful): What if we go all the way to the European High Court, and they still shake their heads and say, “No, so sorry, birthday cards and photo exchanges once a year it is, thanks very much for playing, Miss Holloway”? What of the massive silence that will descend then?
Not just massive, but final. Either I get her back at our next hearing, or I lose her forever.
I’d like to think, of course, that her adoptive parents would be sensitive and respectful, but what if they aren’t? If they put on syrupy, rueful voices and sigh, “Oh, darling, your mummy loved you so very much. She just had some . . . well, some issues with her mental health, and couldn’t take care of you properly”? You’d best believe I’m sneaking a letter into the birthday card, just in case. Not talking smack about her new mum or dad, of course. I’ve been a team player all through this (not that it’s got me anywhere), and I’m not about to do anything that will make my girlie think poorly of me. I just want her to know someday, when she’s old enough, if it comes to that, that I was meant to be her mother. That, fully admitted “issues” aside, we were both robbed.
Whenever I talked to the press or went on telly, back when I was pregnant, the journalists and program hosts would always lean forward with an expectant, awed posture and ask, with an attentiveness so studied it would have made me laugh if I hadn’t been scared shitless, “So, Miss Holloway, how did this all begin?”
Behind their solicitous open-ended act, of course, they just wanted the lurid basics. And so, like Clare tending to one of her famous French reduction sauces, I had to boil the complexity of my life down. “Well, it started when I ran away from home at sixteen, because my dad . . .”
• • •
I slept in the park that first night, on a bench near Islington Green. Thank God it was August. Universe cut me a flipping break. Woke me with chirpy birds, to the softest sunlight ever. I sat up, rubbed my aching neck. So sore it popped, but I felt brilliant, because I’d gotten out: of that claustrophobic tiny flat, of that hall closet into which Dad had shoved me in order to have his way with me.
I stared down at my hands. Brought them to my face, ran them over the bridge of my nose. Grinned into my palms. I couldn’t believe I’d actually gone and done it, made the impossible escape, sprinting down the stairs of our building at two a.m. like a skittish greyhound, an overstuffed rucksack jostling against my burdened back. Nothing’s impossible when you’re pushed to your limits, though. Just a single shove, and I was a fucking rockstar.
One in dire need of breakfast. I took my grumbly stomach down the road to a manky café and spent my last five pounds on a greasy plate of sausage and egg. While I chowed down, I pulled the slip of paper I’d been hoarding from my pocket. Smoothed the creases with my thumb till the scrap lay flat on the table. My talisman.
I’d found the phone number a month before, on a bulletin board at the library, just below leaflets advertising Mummy and Me storytime. Those featured cheery primary-hued logos, but the poster that caught my eye was all grayscale solemnity, earnestly inquiring: Worried About a Child?
I wasn’t a child anymore, and worry didn’t even begin to describe it, but I grabbed my book renewal reminder slip for A Pictorial History of Women in Rock and jotted those digits down on the back. Nothing but the numbers. Last thing I needed was him discovering the words “Children’s Services Team” and busting my lip open.
As it was, Mum almost caught me, coming up behind with her armful of crap romance novels, making me jump. “Bit old for storytime, aren’t we, Les?”
I swallowed hard. Tried to imagine myself plopped down in her lap, eagerly watching the pages turn, waiting breathlessly for what came next.
And then: tried not to.
“Just looking for study groups,” I said. “Make sure I’m extra-prepared for autumn.”
That made her beam. Ever since I’d gotten a scholarship to a posh girls’ school for the coming year, she’d been bragging on me left and right: not just to people it’d be understandable to share the good news with, like our neighbors, but also to complete strangers. Talk about mortifying. I mean, not saying I wasn’t proud of myself, or shouldn’t have been, but come on. It’s not like the checkstand girl at Tesco’s gives a fuck.
Right then in the library, though, I was beyond grateful for that cover-up. I tucked the receipt in my pocket, where it never left for the next four weeks. Once, it almost fell out while he was yanking my jeans down. I’d learned to stop screaming years ago, but in that moment I was so petrified that I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn’t shriek.
At night, afterwards, I’d lie in bed, all sleepy and sore, and just gaze at the phone number. Didn’t take long for me to memorize it, so I could have easily done away with the evidence, but there was a real sense of comfort in being able to look at that crumply piece of paper and know there was a whole team who potentially had my back.
I finished my breakfast now, and went outside to a phone box. I’d have used my mobile, but I’d turned it off so as not to hear the barrage of rings I knew would jangle throughout the day. I smoothed my talisman again against the glass window. Deep-breathed, and dialed.
The social worker who answered was called Francesca, and she was ace. “Of course we can help you with emergency accommodation.”
Her first available appointment was later that evening. I didn’t know where to go until then, and the only thing I had left in my wallet was a transport pass, so I rode the tube all day, transferring off the Northern Line as soon as I could in case my parents had gone looking for me.
Sitting on the train, rucksack in my lap, hair rumpled, I suddenly felt like what I had always thought of as “one of those people”: the kind you don’t make eye contact with, lest they go off on a paranoid rant; the kind you step around, even if it means giving up a seat. My first taste of public otherness.
In the afternoon I rode out to Middlesex and got off at the stop nearest my new school. I had no idea whether I’d be able to go now, and part of me didn’t care, but another wanted desperately to catch a glimpse of what might still be possible.
As I peered through wrought-iron gates at the cluster of brick buildings and broad expanse of lawn, I pictured myself in a maroon uniform, gliding jauntily down the main hall’s front steps. The very thought made my eyes sting. Who the fuck was I kidding?
No, I told myself. Don’t think like that. You’re a rockstar.
A tired one. A queasy one. A scared one.
Francesca met me by the automatic doors of the social services office at five o’clock. She was younger than I’d expected, midtwenties maybe, her face soft round the edges, her gaze warm.
“I’m so glad you rang,” she said as we stepped into the lifts. “That took heaps of courage.”
On the way to the conference room, I ducked into the ladies’. I’d wanted to change my clothes that morning, but the café’s toilets had been so dodgy I didn’t dare. I knew I didn’t have enough time for a full ensemble change now, but I also knew my dignity hinged upon my ability to walk into that meeting with clean underpants on.
I locked myself in the disabled stall so I’d have more room, and stepped out of my grass-smudged summer jeans. The knickers I had on were turquoise, my favorite color. I yanked them down. Wadded them up. Thought about shoving them into a pocket of my rucksack, but then I saw the dried stains and smelled the sour scent of him and knew they had to go.
The replacements I stepped into were white briefs, boring but comfy. I put my jeans and sandals back on, tossed the defiled turquoise scrap in the bin, and headed down the corridor.
Round the conference table sat my new best friend Francesca, some other lady from Children’s Services whose name I forgot soon as she told me, and a police constable. The fact that he was a man didn’t bother me since I reckoned he’d be on my side, but Francesca was super-sensitive about it all, reassuring me that we could reschedule the interview with a woman if I’d rather.
I said it was fine, but then my voice started to quaver, and I stammered something like “Th-thank you, though,” and my eyes got wet enough that Francesca jumped up and fetched me a tissue, and my stomach growled so loudly that her colleague nipped downstairs and got me a packet of crisps and a soda and a paper cup of water from the office cooler, and they all watched me rip into the bag and swig like a wild animal, devouring the sweet salty coldness—terrible manners, I knew, but I couldn’t help it, Christ, it was all so good.
Once my blood sugar drop and damp eyes had been taken care of, it was time to get down to business. Here the constable was kind, but not messing about. “We understand this is difficult for you, but it’s a quite serious allegation, and we’ll need extensive details.” I nodded, because of course it was, and of course they would.
The questions were easy enough at first, vague enough to be safe, like when did it start (soon as I was old enough to fill out a bra) and how did it progress (feel-ups first, then more), but when things got into the mechanics department and they wanted an itemized list of who shoved what where, I went straight up to the ceiling like a rogue funfair balloon, leaving them peering, bewildered, into my ethereal-eyed, rigid face.
The ceiling is a weird concept to explain to normal people, who are used to dwelling completely anchored in their bodies. And I never intended to check out of mine. But around the time I learned to stop screaming, I also found out that I could leave my physical self shoved up against the hall closet’s hatboxes and drift into a whole other sheltering, liminal space where I didn’t have to feel the press of him on me or the thrust of him inside me.
The nice people across the table, of course, knew none of this, and I could hardly articulate it in five easy steps at that moment. So they just kept asking, gently, tentatively: “Lesley? Are you all right?”
I reached my hand across the table. “Let me write it down,” I said, in a hoarse voice that didn’t feel like it was sounding from inside me. “Only way I can say it.”
“Of course, of course” came a chorus of murmurs, as Francesca slipped her notepad over to me and placed the pen in my hand.
I wrote so fast and so hard the pen stabbed the paper. My letters, neat and rounded at first, oozed into angry shapes, chaotic as a ransom note, angular as hieroglyphs. I signed my name in a furious swirl, then slid the pad back.
“Do you mind if—if I run to the loo for a minute?” I whispered.
“Not at all, not at all” went the choral murmurs.
Nausea punched me in the gut soon as the door slammed behind me. I sprinted for the nearest sink. Leaned over it just in time for my stomach to clench like a fist and my mouth to spew the bilious lava of crisps and carbonated syrup. Even after I’d finished retching, I spat until every last drop ran clear.
Back in the meeting room, they’d moved on to the logistics.
“What about your mother? Is she aware of what’s going on?”
I thought of our disastrous putting-on-airs afternoon at Harrods for high tea. Tower of cucumber sandwiches and scones set atop a pink-draped table. “Perfect day for a mother-daughter date, innit?” Yeah, Mum, real improvement over the father-daughter dates. My confession tumbling out, inadvertent but urgent. Her face flushing red as if I’d slapped her.
Now, two years later, my mouth puckered in a don’t fucking cry knot. I braced my palms, hard, against the bare table edge.
“Yeah,” I choked out. “Mum knows.”
The three of them exchanged solemn glances.
“Have you any friends or relatives you could stay with?” Francesca asked.
I shook my head. My family was pretty much the thermonuclear sort (no siblings whose safety we needed to worry about, thank God), and my friends and I had grown apart once they heard I was headed off to a snobby school and leaving them behind.
“Well, then, can you think of anything specific you might need?”
Someone to stroke my hair, and tell me the worst was over, and bring me supper on a tray like I was a sick little girl.
“Umm, let me think,” I said, my words edging perilously close to babble. “I have this library book I left back there called A Pictorial History of Women in Rock that needs to be returned. And I’ll need a new mobile number, and a September tube pass, and a school uniform.” I paused. “Assum-assuming I can still go?”
“Absolutely, you can,” Francesca said. “I’ll have a chat with the headmistress and sort it all out.”
“What about tonight?”
Soon as I asked, Francesca went rambly-mumbly apologetic. “Well, you see, we’ve not got any available foster carers at the moment, so we’re going to have to put you up in a hostel.”
I pictured cheery bunk beds and common areas with Internet kiosks. “You mean, like for foreign backpackers?”
“Erm, not exactly. It’s a hostel for adults who are . . .” Long pause. “In transition.”
• • •
Middle-aged men lounged against corridor walls, their stained fingers clutching cigarettes, their eyes skimming the neckline of my sleeveless summer blouse. A few rooms down, a bleached-blond woman in a miniskirt kicked at a closed door, screeching “Let me in, you wanker!”
Francesca linked her arm through mine in sisterly rally, all Come, let’s march bravely through hell, but when one of the lechers opened his gap-toothed mouth to blow a hard puff of nicotine and leer “Hey, pretty,” I burrowed into her in terror.
“Your room’s right here,” Francesca said lightly, pulling away from me to retrieve the key from her trouser pocket.
“It has a lock.” My words were a huffed gasp.
Francesca glanced at me with a bemused look. “Of course it does.”
When she handed me the key, it was all I could do not to kiss the damn thing, to run my tongue along its serrated, rusty edges in worshipful relief before turning it. My room, my room, with a lock, and a—
Dingy linoleum floor, and threadbare blanket, and peeling wallpaper, and exposed bulb.
“Oh, dear.” Francesca surveyed the room and sucked her lips between her teeth. “We’ll have to speak with the maintenance staff.”
My shoulders slumped a little. I ran my hand over the nearby desk-slash-dresser. Yanked my fingers away to find them covered in dust.
At the gritty feel of it, I immediately pictured my old room, with its fluffy turquoise duvet and Bjőrk posters and stacks of plump pillows and strands of twinkly lights trailing round the windows. For a moment, I wanted to sneak back and burrow into all that soft goodness, but then I remembered there was nothing good or soft about a lockless sanctuary.
You have no right to be a diva, I told myself. Francesca pulled this together for you last minute, when she could have been out saving little kids. Show some flipping gratitude.
“It’s totally fine,” I said. “I’ll manage.”
• • •
Francesca promised to return the next day and left me with instructions—kitchen and laundry facilities on the ground floor, spare towels in a cupboard by the bathroom—and some cash for food in an envelope. After she’d gone, I sat on the creaky single bed, my knees drawn up to my chin, my forehead on my knees. In the next room, I could hear the muffled groans and wails of a couple either fighting or having sex, I couldn’t quite tell which.
Frantic for a way to block the noise, I reached down into my rucksack for my beat-up portable CD player. He’d offered to buy me an iPod for my “sweet” (ha) sixteen the previous April, but I’d told him the only thing I wanted was for him to keep his fucking hands off me. That earned me both his palms around my neck the next time we were in the hall closet, but it was worth the choke hold just to spit those words like bitter seeds.
I put in my cheap earbuds now and pressed play. The CD I had going was a mix I’d made called “Best of the Screaming Women,” mainly to annoy the shit out of my mum, but also because I reckoned that if I couldn’t scream, the next best thing was to let some other woman with a strong voice do it on my behalf.
First up was some stuff from that ancient Kate Bush album with her about to kiss Houdini on the cover. The song about letting the weirdness in I could deal with—not like I couldn’t relate to that idea, right?—but when the track came on where she howls and stutters about locking all the doors in her house to keep an evil spirit out, I felt like I was going to vomit all over again, so I punched the forward arrow quick till I got to some Portishead.
There we were. Dark but chillaxed old-school trip-hop, like what I imagined I might hear once I’d moved out the hostel and was finally dining at a hip bistro with candles in wine bottles, waiting for my salad and balsamic-glazed salmon to materialize on a plate delivered by a tattooed waitress. (Nobody loves meeeee, it’s true, not like youuuuu do.) I drew my knees back up to my chin, and rested my forehead back on my knees, and rocked to and fro until I felt nothing except the soothing sway of the motion.
By the time I came down from the ceiling again, my earbuds were as silent as the hall outside. I got up and opened the door to check. Empty. Finally safe enough for a sneak towards the shower.
As I pulled my pajamas and toothbrush from my rucksack, my mobile skittered out across the floor. When I powered it on, I found fifteen voicemails, each one from him. I didn’t even listen. Just turned the phone off again, draped my fresh T-shirt over one arm, slipped my sandals back on, and sprinted for the linen cupboard.
Its towels were scratchy and thin as my new blanket, but thankfully clean—unlike the bathroom’s sinks and toilets, in which cigarette ashes floated. You’re just getting a head start on university, I told myself, fighting to convince myself both that I would eventually go and that every coed residence hall of course stank of burnt curry and urine. On my way to the shower, I chucked my now-permanently-silenced mobile into a bin.
Behind the stall’s scummy vinyl curtain, the water ran blissfully, blessedly hot. I stepped under the surprisingly vigorous spray and warily eyed the plastic soap dispenser (exact same model as in the psych wards I’d stay on later). When I pressed a button, the machine spurted a multipurpose pink goo that smelled of flowers soaked in antiseptic.
I tipped my head back, luxuriating in the steam and the sting. I knew I risked complaints from my fellow hostel-mates, but I didn’t care; I was going to run that hot water all the way down even if it caused a riot.
When I reached for another gel pump with which to tackle the grimy soles of my feet, I felt a sudden twinge in my belly, far too low to be a harbinger of more nausea. I glanced down, glimpsed a smudge of blood on the bruised inside of my thigh. My shoulders dropped—not sinking at the feel of dust, this time, but sloping in relief. As a clot hit the rusted drain with a smeary dissolve, I pressed one slick hand to the wall to steady myself. Shook my head like a dog under the droplets, all curved-back grin and hysterical laughter, my whole body quaking with prayers to every off-kilter deity I could name: Thank God, thank the Screaming Women, thank the bare lightbulb above my new bed, thank the bistro candles flickering in their ersatz vases, I wasn’t, thank them all, wasn’t pregnant.
Etched on Me
Lesley spends the next two years in and out of psychiatric facilities, where she overcomes her traumatic memories and finds the support of a surrogate family. Eventually completing university and earning her degree, she is a social services success story—until she becomes unexpectedly pregnant in her early twenties. Despite the overwhelming odds she has overcome, the same team that saved her as an adolescent will now question whether Lesley is fit to be a mother. And so she embarks upon her biggest battle yet: the fight for her unborn daughter.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How does Crowell use visual imagery to give the reader greater access into Lesley’s psyche? For example, how did you understand the “ceiling” metaphor?
2. Discuss the importance of music to Lesley. How does its role in her life evolve as the novel progresses? You might also consider the role of music in your own life, and how your taste or relationship to it has evolved. Have certain types of music (or certain artists or playlists) been influential to you at specific moments in time?
3. How does the trip to Russia change Lesley’s relationship with the Kremskys?
4. A poster that catches Lesley’s eye in the social services office asserts “You CAN break the cycle of violence.” What do you think this means for her—and what do you think the novel is saying about the possibility for second chances? How is the past shown to reverberate into the present within the narrative? Is this necessarily a bad thing?
5. Lesley acutely experiences both dissociation and embodiment throu see more