Extract 1

Extract 1 – Cat

‘The past clings to you, like a skin.’

That’s what you told me, in that last letter you wrote. You remember: the one that arrived just before the news came. The news that forced me into this final pilgrimage across the ocean, from the deserts of Arizona to this water-logged land where you chose to make your home. Where you came with my father as a newly-married woman, ablaze with your hopes and your dreams.

But I have my own take on skins. It’s a simple one: they’re there to be shed. Like the desert rattlesnake, which sheds its skin two or three times a year. To enable it to grow; to remove parasites. It’s a process of renewal, you see. It rubs its nose along the ground until it pushes the skin up over its head – and then it just crawls right on out of it. And leaves it there: a ghostly, inside-out skin. There are millions of them, all over the desert.

A sea of shed skins.

It’s just like your selkies, don’t you see? – your mythical seal-women. Shrugging off their skin for one night each month, they become another creature entirely. Seal becomes woman; woman becomes seal.

You and your fairy stories.

The truth is that we humans are so much less efficient. We shed our skins piece by piece, flake by flake. Slowly, over time; slowly enough that we never even notice that it’s happening. Did you know that we shed and re-grow the outer cells of our skin every twenty-seven days? I’m talking facts now – did you notice? I’ve always been more comfortable with facts. And I did some research, after that last letter you sent: by the age of seventy an average person will have lost one hundred and five pounds of skin. Seas and seas of shed skin.

‘Golf Delta Charlie, cleared for takeoff.’

The voice in my ear startles me. The sounds and smells of the cockpit leap back into my consciousness; once again I’m aware of your presence beside me. You’re unusually silent. Are you ready to go? I can’t see your face but I can picture it clearly – that same old small smile, one thin dark eyebrow tilted in amusement. Judging me. Testing. Come on, Cat – jump. Let’s see what you’re made of. Look – the other children can do it. Why can’t you? But you needn’t worry, Mother – I’m really not going to lose my nerve.

‘Cleared for takeoff, Golf Delta Charlie.’ My voice cracks and my mouth is dry, but this time it’s not from fear. I know you don’t quite believe it yet, but I’ve mostly dealt with the fear.

A firm push of the throttle and the engine begins to roar. We’re moving forward quite slowly now; we cross the line at the beginning of the runway and we are in a place of transition. But once we reach takeoff speed, throttle fully open – once I pull the yoke towards me and lift up the nose – well, then we’re committed. There is no turning back: we are quite out of choices. We move on and move upwards – or we crash, and the chances are that we die.

And there it goes again: that same old flutter in my stomach as the small Cessna lifts herself gently from the runway. Yes, we’re leaving the ground now – and do you see how it is? How all that’s familiar – all that’s known and understood – falls away there beneath as we hurl ourselves recklessly into this clear blue void. The earth recasts itself beneath us, it pitches and lists as we bank to the south and turn out of the airport traffic pattern. But it’s no longer the earth that concerns us here: it’s the cold crisp blue of the sky. We’ve transformed ourselves now: we’re creatures of air, and we’ll swoop and we’ll wheel and we’ll soar.

‘Golf Delta Charlie, clearing the zone en route.’

‘Golf Delta Charlie, roger. Have a good flight.’

Communication ends with a decisive click. We’re on our own now; we’re heading out west and there’s no-one out there to talk to even if we wanted to.

We were on our own for so long, you and I. You and me against the world, you used to sing. In the days before it became you and me against each other. And so here we are again – here, just the two of us; so very tightly strapped into the confined world of this tiny cockpit. Together again – now, when I finally get to show you that I’ve learned how to fly.

Such a perfect day. Do you see the firth down there below us? The water strangely becalmed after the night’s wind and rain; sea in the distance merging with sky. Everything so very still. And you – you’re so quiet over there; you seem quite relaxed. It’s a morning worth relaxing into: on a blue-sky day like this you can see clear into forever. The mountains shimmer in the morning sun, hovering in the distance like a mirage. Currents of air rush by, tumbling around the propeller, slipping under and over the wings, constantly shifting, ever-changing. For a little while longer there’s nothing to be done; nothing that will stop me from basking in the healing solitude of these high places.

You always loved planes, didn’t you? Sunday afternoons watching the old war movies on TV – The Battle of Britain; The Dambusters. They were your heroes, you always said. Pilots! Think how much courage they must have, Cat. To hover all the way up there, in those tiny, flimsy machines. Can you imagine how much courage it must take to fly like that? Taking their lives into their own hands?

So does it make you happy now, to be flying with me? Did I finally make you happy? I never was too skilled at that. Perhaps a better daughter might have succeeded, but I never could seem to do enough for you. So many ways I found to disappoint you. For heaven’s sake, Cat – smile, can’t you? Oh, Cat – don’t you have any emotions at all? Why won’t you play, like normal children? And sometimes I would think about the children you lost – all those babies that never were born. And find myself wondering if, somewhere among those lost children, there might have been the daughter you wanted.

I know what you’re thinking – that I’m talking crazy. But you were the crazy one; I was the rock. You – ah, but you had no fear. You threw back your head and your red shoes glittered and you laughed and you swung and you danced. You danced, and it seemed that you would never stop. You’re so wooden, Cat. Relax, why can’t you? Just close your eyes and let go.

Let go. Time after time, you said it. You said it that day when you were teaching me to swim: when I slipped off the platform and gashed my face on the side of the diving board. But I wouldn’t cry. Not once. Not once on the journey to the hospital; not once as the doctor put the stitches into my cheek. Let go, you said, your face flushed and hectic, eyes brimming with anger. For God’s sake, Cat – just let go now, and cry.

But I knew what happened when you let go.

The past clings to you, like a skin.
The trick is to learn how to shed it.