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16/09/2011

The Terrible Testimony of Cordelia Scar

Hannah Harper

I was born on a frosty night in late November, and my parents, Angus and Teresa Scar, took the liberty of giving their baby daughter two rather unusual middle names as well as a first which was intimidating in both stature and connotation; so that the name finally printed on the birth certificate I held for a while before burning, twenty-nine years later, read: Cordelia – Edgware – Paddington – Scar. Cordelia, because they felt certain that a ‘woman of rare honesty’ already lurked behind my solemn eyes; and also because, as my mother reasoned, they could shorten it to ‘Lia’ without too much trouble, and it would still sound ‘feminine.’

‘One letter short of liar, you know,’ was all my father said about that. He was a silent man, a Christian-turned-atheist after the simultaneous deaths of his sister and brother-in-law two years prior to my birth, though the conversion was not for the reason you might think. Far from railing against God for taking the pair too soon, his despair and disbelief was because they’d left their two-year-old daughter, Annie, to his and Teresa’s care. My parents did not want a child then, although in their own way, they did their best to embrace Annie as their own. But she was a troubled, difficult personality, and remained so for as long as she was with us. She never liked me, either. I cannot stand not being liked.

At the age of sixteen I made my first abortive attempt at writing my memoirs. On the subject of my middle names, I wrote this:

My two middle names are Edgware and Paddington; the first because it’s where I was born at, and the second because it’s where my mother and father were travelling to at the time. I think this is entirely ridiculous. My mother, I suspect, thinks it’s rather cosmopolitan. They also like to boast that I am a ‘tube baby’ – and when people ask about it, presuming they mean ‘test tube’, they love it, and correct them, explaining they mean ‘tube’ as in ‘London Underground’ tube, as further evidence of their cosmopolitan ways. I have never been impressed; neither, as far as I’m aware, has anyone else. I suppose I should be grateful they left the ‘Road’ out.

On the fact of my birth, however, I remain impressed by my wisdom and acuity concerning my family situation. I’d arrived at the conclusion that:

‘To make him stay, my mother had me. It wasn’t like when failing couples have a baby in a pointless effort to seal the cracks. No. When it happened – I happened – I think they were ‘in love’ and had been together for a while – and he hoped for children and she didn’t – and she wanted to make him happy. So after a long time she got pregnant, and in the end I think she ended up loving me more than he did.’

It was a love I could not return. I couldn’t bear it when she picked me up from school – luckily, she did not make a habit of this – and she would smile at the school gates, hoping I’d run to her like all the other little girls ran to their mothers. But I did not want her to be there. I did not want her to see how unpopular I was; yes, that was a part of it. But also, I didn’t want to see how she was whispered about. Little ripples of whispers, reeds in the breeze, that’s Lia’s mum, and then the theatrical hand pressed down hard on a rising smirk – all aimed at my mother, with her fleshy bulk and her big mole on her chin, her lank, spidery hair and her unusual voice, horsey and wheezing and so indiscreet. I could not, even as a small child, feign unawareness of the indiscreet. It offended me then as it does so now.

The four of us – my silent, truculent father, my fat, apologetic mother, my unstable, taciturn cousin, and me – lived in a large and draughty house called Number 1, The Eaves. ‘The Eaves’ was too grand a name for the groaning, ancient monstrosity it was, with its peeling windows prone to sweaty condensation in the winter months and wanton forest of a back garden. There had evidently been an attempt at a patio just outside the back door, where forlorn gnomes huddled together as though planning an already doomed coup.

The various furniture left behind by a parade of former inhabitants contributed to the haphazard, absent-minded quality that prevailed in the Eaves. It used to be a student house, and I found some ancient scribbles in silvery pencil on the side of the high bunk I slept on until I was twelve. ‘On this bed, my penis entered a girl’ was one of the phrases I read. It didn’t make any kind of impression on me then. When I was old enough to know more about the machinations of sex, though, I imagined an etiolated male, banging his buttocks on the ceiling in a frenzy of sheets and desire, while a pale-limbed girl writhed under him in showy ecstasy.

In our dining room, an ornate, thick red rug was flung over the bare floorboards to cover the splinters and stray nails there. My parents didn’t believe in ‘mollycoddling’ us children with anything as pedestrian as a properly-fitted carpet. There was a tall lamp with a brown tasseled shade, and a heavy, gilded mirror propped against the wall next to it. When I was very young, I used to stand in front of its dusty surface and play blinking games with myself. As I got a bit older – six, perhaps, or seven – I’d stare and stare at myself, until I became quite a stranger to my own features. There was a stillness about my face, I decided, and something about my black hair and sullen mouth that was perhaps the reason why the other children at school kept well away from me, and were mean whenever they were forced to interact with me by some wellintentioned teacher or assistant on playground duty. I liked to watch my reflection as twilight sifted into the room. I would end up sitting in darkness, and fancy that my eyes gleamed like crocodiles submerged in oily depths. Once, I kissed myself. I leaned forward and touched my mouth to the mirror mouth. Then I felt guilty, and quickly wiped the glass with my sleeve and left the room.

Cousin Annie used to enrage me by calling me ‘the strange little child’, even though she was hardly more normal, with her arms mottled blue and her scabbed neck she used to pick incessantly with nervous fingers. But I could never make my retorts hurt her. I wanted my words to rain like nails into her skin, I wanted them to draw blood, I hated her so much. But she always behaved like she’d never heard me. One day, she was taunting me about my habit of talking to myself, and I called her a ‘parent-stealer.’ No sooner had the words flown out of my mouth than I felt a thrilling tingling in the air before my lips, a dangerous thrumming, and I almost laughed in excitement to see what she’d do next. But she would never behave how you expected her to, and on that occasion she said nothing and simply left the room. Drifted out of the room, rather, with none of the forced nonchalance you might expect from someone who has just borne a fair jibe from a now-equal enemy and has gone to lick their wounds.

Annie would stay in her room for days, not responding to pleas, cajoling or knocks from my parents and rarely eating the food left on a tray outside her door. I knew my parents thought it was because of traumatic memories of her parents and the car crash that took them; Annie was the sole survivor, pink-faced and screaming in the back seat as her parents were cut out of the front. But really, I wasn’t sure what was wrong with her; only that something was, and it made her difficult to live with.

When I was ten, and Annie fourteen, she drank bleach in front of me. She intended to kill herself, and she achieved it; so that, perhaps, was something. However, for me it was an unpleasant episode.

I remember it clearly. A Saturday afternoon, and I was playing by myself; that meant I was moodily snipping up the bottom of the curtains in the dining room to create a fringed effect that I knew would earn me a smack later on. Snip, snip, snip; the material was heavy and grey, but I’d taken the best kitchen scissors, the ones used to trim flower stems and slice through meat packages, and they were making light work of the tough, veiny weave. I felt satisfied Annie came downstairs. In fact, as I observed without interest, she was weaving slowly, the way a rabid dog does before its jaws go rigid and its mouth starts to foam. She came to a stop in the doorway and looked at me, but her eyes were unfocused. She was holding an oversized mug in her hand.

‘Good morning,’ I said, pleasantly but warily.

‘Except that it’s not,’ Annie said. ‘I’m sick of it, Lia.’

That in itself was unusual; she called me ‘Lia’, not ‘weirdo’, not ‘strange child’, not ‘pixie witch’, which was a new one she’d adopted recently. She was wearing a blue dressing gown and the same pair of pyjamas she’d been wearing for weeks. Then she started to bang her forehead against the doorframe.

I was still unimpressed. I’d seen this routine before. My parents usually ignored her when she did it in front of them and so I followed suit. She rarely hit hard enough to draw blood, although once she did knock herself out. That earned her a lengthy doctor’s appointment with Dr. Palmer, and when Annie and my mother came home that evening my mother was quivering with the necessary silence of it all.

As she banged, I snipped faster on the curtain. Blue liquid slopped out of the mug and over her hand. This did interest me. I don’t know if I registered then that it was bleach, but feeling it on her hand seemed to remind Annie it was there, and then, without looking at me, she gulped the entire contents of the mug down. Then it fell from her hand onto the floorboards but didn’t break. It rolled.

She fell forward into an oblong of sunlight, and a long splinter sank deep into her knee. But she didn’t seem to notice, and she was making a dreadful noise – ungagh, ungagh, ungagh – rather like a retch, but nothing came up. I read up on it later, and I discovered that this would have been caused by the bleach eating through her tongue and burning the soft tissue in her mouth, dissolving her gums and destroying her throat. She looked at me, but there was no appeal in her eyes.

Then the retching worked. Thin trails of blood and bile crept from her slack mouth, where they hung; she tried to spit them free but her energy was waning. In effect, I watched her die, and it never once occurred to me to call for either of my parents. It felt like fate was taking place, and it was not up to me to interfere. But when, later in the hospital, the doctor shook his head and said words like ‘industrial strength’ and ‘cell death’, and my mother shook me by the shoulders, over and over again, and kept asking, ‘why didn’t you call us, why didn’t you call us, why, why, why’ – my reasoning seemed insufficient. It was the truth; but I think they would have thought it an insult. So I kept quiet.

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