Listen: The city’s screams are starting to die down now. All those roaring engines have done what they needed to do: dropped the daughters at the houses of friends and the busloads of boys five minutes from the bar. Even the trains have mostly settled in their stations for the night; the tracks are cooling off from their heated rush to deliver women to their sisters with flowers wrapped in tissue paper and cakes in paper boxes, or lovers to the arms and the beds that they’ve been too busy to lie in for weeks now. The noise has disappeared behind closed doors of clubs, trapped in the rooms of houses where windows have been shut when the chill set in, and soon it will rain.
Soon the drops will run through the soil and up through the bodies of the drooping flowers in their beds, will join the rivers to swim downstream and lap over the bodies of ducks and their rows of children will settle themselves into the curls of a woman’s freshly blow-dried hair. The city’s nightly routine is like a toddler’s, with its tantrum lasting so long and building so much in volume that you almost feel ready to get up and leave, though of course you never would, and then it wears itself out and on come the tears, gushing and heaving but with a sense of calm, and then wearing out completely to spend the night asleep. Each evening is just as exhausting as the next, and yet I haven’t tired of this city for a single second yet, even now that I can see its routines and its repetition. Sometimes I think that if the streets here caught fire one cold and dry day, if the cobbled stones suddenly set alight and all the shops with their wooden beams and triangles of paper bunting were burnt to cinders, I would watch the wreckage and the confusion on the news and I wouldn’t feel even a little bit surprised. I would simply assume that there was too much love trapped between the pavement cracks for the stones to contain, that I had bounced down them in dancing shoes at ten o’clock for too many nights and walked back up them, barefoot, shoes in hand, but still laughing, for too many three o’clock in the mornings, that my footprints and those of all the friends I walked with, and the tire prints of the prams I pushed my children in, and the plastic spin of their stabilisers when I taught them how to ride their bikes, and the tracks from my step-sister’s wheelchair when she came to buy me lunch had all caused so much friction with the love they left behind that the city set alight and decided to keep burning, as if to say, leave me now, and let another city be so lucky as to be given all this happiness to hold. It is rare to be able to sit as I do tonight and watch another day come to an end, watch the water rush down the street towards the rusting drains, and have nothing to do but listen, and curl my toes against the wool of a new pair of slippers, and use the end of an old earring to scrape pumpkin from beneath my fingernails.
Listen: I am ready to change the colour of bravery from red to orange. I am bored with men leaving their busted lips to bleed and harden and the bravest character in any film being the one with the blood and sweat blending together on his t-shirt, with red veins leaking out from the bruises around his bloodshot eyes. I am ready for my son to stop using scars on his knees as a mark of courage, sauntering in like a hero simply because he was too lazy to tie his laces and then too thoughtless to use anything to tidy himself up other than the sleeve of his jacket, whilst my daughter is already carrying plasters in her pencil case to prepare for hiding the cuts on the back of her feet when her shoes grate her skin away. In a few years’ time she will learn that hydrogen peroxide is the thing to use to scrub blood away from fabric, from white skirts, from mattresses, as effectively as possible, and she will do this in her bedroom in silence whilst my son will be buying new white shirts because he still hasn’t established how to get blood out before an interview, how to get tomato sauce out before a date, how to get the red lipstick from the collar before he returns home to his wife. I am ready for courage to be shown in pumpkin stuck underneath the fingernails of mothers making soup for their children. I am ready for the orange palms and streaked orange legs of teenage girls to be the new badges of honour, to become that symbol of risk-taking that a bloody gum and a missing tooth once was. I am ready for a woman to come home after a day of too much standing up in orange heels and reapplying a lipstick called Orange Crush, and light an orange fire, and set the orange gerberas from the local florist down in water, and prepare an orange pepper and ginger stir-fry for her family, with a bowl of spaghetti hoops for the baby, and for all of this to be infinitely more impressive than tales of petty murder and useless bloodshed.
You’ve seen my face before, although you may not remember me. I was one of those fifteen-minutes-of-fame, face-in-every-magazine, name-in-every-newspaper types a few years ago during my brief marriage to the prince of England. For a little while people seemed to believe that the world was close to drowning and I was the one who had built the ark to save humankind. I finally understood what it meant to be treated like royalty, to have a different person ready to do each everyday task for you, to have a whole nation gripping on to every detail of your life, to have yourself quoted and photographed everywhere you turn, to hear your name mentioned in soap operas, to see your face wrapping up a parcel of fish and chips, and to read every day about how you are a rose grown from a pile of dirt, how you were raised without a mother and forced to wear rags and clean the house and locked in a room all day, unable to leave until you had swept up all the ash from the chimney and caught all the mice that had found their way in. Once she was nothing, they would say, and look at her now, all set to be a princess.
Listen: It isn’t true that I once was nothing. It isn’t true that the little girl eating the cheese from the mouse traps and coughing on the cinders she was sweeping from the fireplace was made from nothing and worth nothing and only became human when she fell in love with a prince. I did not grow and collect my parts along the way, I did not grow the bones in my back only when I ran away from home to dance with strangers, nor my feet when I left my shoes behind and a man arrived in a limousine to return them to me, nor my tongue when I first kissed him, nor my heart when I first said the word love, nor my fingers when he slid a golden ring onto them. These parts all existed far before these events happened, the little girl was never nothing, and I never understood the insistence that she was. My life meant just as much when I would wait by the cracks in the walls for a daddy longlegs to find its way in so I could tell it about my day as it did when I would come home through golden gates on horse drawn carriage to tell the prince of England.
If you want to know how a fairytale marriage ends, it ends in silent tears and having to work up the courage to extend a hand out in the night to touch his back, only to have him flinch and move closer to the edge of the bed. It ends in liquor and unspoken words and soggy shoulders of friends’ jumpers, it ends much the same way as a non-fairytale marriage ends. I went through them both and the only difference was that the first time I couldn’t open the curtains without being photographed, and I couldn’t read the news without seeing those photographs, But at times like this, opening the curtains and reading the news aren’t things your body wants to do anyway. A fairytale marriage ends in reading about swans who are silent when they are sitting on the pond, and it is only when they go to fly that their wings clap together louder than a room full of one thousand children who have only just discovered how to clap. A fairytale marriage ends in leaving in the night in a car with blacked out windows and realising how much noise your wings can make.
My godmother told me: remember that people are not homes, so don’t try and make them into such. Listen, this is a lie. There are people who have been home to me more than any set of bricks and carpets could ever be, and, just as with a house, I have eventually grown weary of all the parts of them that need work, and so I leave, and for a long time I miss them, and try to return, but they are empty now, empty from the time I took everything they had with me and left them trying to hold themselves up with their shaky structures that I hadn’t even tried to repair. And finally I have moved somewhere new, found a new home in a new heart, and only occasionally find myself longing for those old high ceilings and winding staircases. She should have told me, some homes aren’t meant for some people. You can decorate them and change them as much as you want, you can bring in children and build a nursery and try to turn it all into something resembling a family, but some homes will always be too cold until they find the right people to live in them. There is little else to say about my second marriage, apart from that there is very little I would change. The house was not for sale for too long until somebody else had moved in, and I bought a new house, and this is where I ended up, picking pumpkin from underneath my fingernails as the city falls asleep and takes the other residents of this house with it.
Listen: I do not claim to understand this world, nor even to have made my peace with all the times I have seen love replaced with pain and been expected to accept it as commonplace. I do not claim to know how to make this world a softer and kinder one for my children. I am angry and cracked and I know that I am still one of the luckiest people in this world, that most are not only cracked, not only broken, but crushed down so far that their pieces are smaller than grains of sand, and still they are giving out love, still they are making people laugh, still they are helping others put themselves back together without expecting anyone to do the same for them. I do not claim to have their strength.
But listen: I do believe in mostly happily ever after. I have been mostly happy, I am mostly happy now, and I think I will be mostly happy ever after.
As for the prince, you needn’t worry about him. I’m sure you’ve seen his wife’s snow white face selling concealer to women, and I’m sure you’ve read the stories of how she’s given birth to seven boys in a row. I’m told, by friends I once knew, that she makes the best apple pie Buckingham Palace has ever tasted.
Mary-Clare Newsham is a Creative Writing graduate from York St John University, and is currently spending her days writing in Leeds. She has previously had work showcased in Bradford’s Journeys and Migrations exhibition, and published in The Cadaverine magazine.