Susanna Crossman co-wrote the French hospital roman, Le dessous des Cartes (LEH, 2015), and has just completed her debut crime novel, Fairweather Friends. She works with words alone and alongside visual artists, scientists, researchers and musicians. Her short fiction appears in the UK, USA, New Zealand and elsewhere (Litro, Irish Literary Review, Pgymy Giant, BlueFifth Review, Visual Verse…) and has been shortlisted for the Bristol Prize and Glimmertrain. Her readings, collaborative video-art performances and artist’s books are produced and exhibited internationally. She is represented by the Pontas Agency, Barcelona.
“Claire, what time is your train?”
Ian’s voice intrudes, invading the bedroom where I straighten my hair, blistering titanium forcing things flat. All afternoon I’ve been ticking lists, diagonal pen strokes defining results: done, done and done. My suitcase is sealed shut. The universe is inside. Been planning this trip for a lifetime of hours, twenty-two years precisely. Lucy would have been proud.
I shudder, inhale and exhale. Steady.
“You’ll never do it. You wouldn’t dare.”
Lucy grinned, when I first revealed my plan. It was just a stray beast then, a sisterly chimera woven from revenge.
“But I’d love it if you punished him. My big sister.”
Lucy lit another cigarette. Inhaled, trembled. Unfortunate habits had cut her dimpled fat to bone; she wept unpredictably: at the news, an unpaid bill or a stray cat. She gulped her wine, refilled. I frowned. She had such pretty hands, delicate and elongated as her neck. She looked at me with green eyes; dulled pools of empty water.
“We’re not counting”, she said.
I check my handbag. Open. Close. Fifth time. All the details are on my second phone: tickets, booking confirmation, meeting time. His number. Mine. I’ve fabricated an Eve from my labours. Call me Sally Barker; I am a secretary, like smiley emojis, cats and rows of scarlet hearts. I am fresh as a bouncy ball.
“I’ll drive you to the station” Ian yells again.
He always shouts. We’ve been married ten years, did our honeymoon in Bali. Luxury beachside hotel. Flower petals on the bed; a random whorl, an erotic dot-dot. No children yet. I’ve extrapolated: I have “women’s problems”.
I breathe deeply, bellow back,
Ian revels in opening my door, carrying my things. Tenderly, he looks after me, I acquiesce. I’ve said,
“I am going away for a Chartered Accountant meeting”.
Figures. Ledgers. Inventories. Balancing books.
Lucy and I grew up in a squat with my mum. From the age of eight, I kept a timetable structuring my days: Play. Tea. Homework. Practice Recorder while the Buddhist monk rolls joints. I taught myself to tally things up: minus and subtract Communism from Punks. Use notches to count Demonstrations and Mouldy Plates. One thing matching another; Empty Cupboards, Lentils, Iron School Uniforms, divide and rule, multiply and balance.
Ian doesn’t know a thing about my childhood,
“Just a little rock and roll,” I say.
Locked inside my suitcase are handcuffs, tape, a wig, make-up and the kind of dress I never wear: black lace trims, bisected slit. It fits Sally perfectly. For the rest, I out-sourced my training; ten sessions with a make-up artist taught me alteration and desire. Five lessons with a self-defence expert, and I know how to disarm and restrain. Wrapped in sheaves of silk underwear are the Stanley knife and the bleach, all the equipment necessary.
I hold my stomach; measure my breath. In the squat, a Buddhist monk taught me how to meditate, inhale and exhale. Count backwards from ten, back from one thousand; move backwards, forwards from anywhere.
When Lucy was thirteen and I was seventeen, she told me in the squat garden,
“A supply teacher at school held me down, tore off my clothes, told me it was our secret”.
It was April, we had constructed a makeshift bonfire from old clothes, broken furniture. At first, I didn’t understand; she was laughing and crying, spewing out a tangle of sharp-edged words. When she’d finished, I kicked a smouldering chair; I wanted to weep, because some punk in the squat had already stripped off my knickers, made me do things I could never tell. But, I couldn’t bear my little sister being soiled. Black clouds spat from our hand-made blaze, I insisted,
“You must tell Mum what he did, it’s rape”
But Lucy turned, soot marking the summit of her perfect nose, and smiled, old as a mountain,
“We’ll need to go soon Claire.”
Ian walks into the bedroom, wraps his arms around me. I could bury myself here. Ian works building houses; he keeps things safe. He is my rock, my chateau fort, respects the opening and closing of my city walls.
My heart flutters; it’s rare I feel such emotion. I am wondering about the mathematically unpredictable, the unknown afterwards. I breathe. In, out. Focus on the years. Sisterly faith. An eye for an eye. I have to balance the books, calculate debt; it’s my trade.
Ian trudges back down the stairs. I glance around our bedroom: Habitat furnishings, feather-down pillows, everything immaculate, nothing cheap. In the en-suite bathroom are the expensive cosmetics that Ian buys me from airports,
“You deserve it”, he often says; as though he reads the tissue in the folds of my flesh, knows the intimate days when I was never clean.
There was no water at the squat. Lucy and I washed weekly at the local swimming pool.
“What a laugh” mum said, stripping off in the shower, while people in costumes stared at her tattoo, the hair under her arms and on her legs, between.
“It’s natural”, she said. Maybe it was. But Lucy cried at school when they called her “Gypsy” and “Monkey”. Later, she said,
“The kids told me I smelt, because I did, and that I was poor, because I was, and that I wore awful clothes. And all of it was true.”
Almost ten months ago, they rang me at work, told me Lucy was dead. She’d left me a note,
Dear sis. Sorry. Love Lucy.
Five words for one life.
I identified her at the morgue. A naked body, a small nose.
“Suicide” the doctor said, “Overdose. Anti-depressants and vodka.” But, I wasn’t listening. All I wanted was to grab my sister, flesh-to-flesh, to shake a heartbeat into her stilled limbs. Bring her back, one last time: for one more laugh, one more summer, one more glass of wine. Just one….
As I walked away, the day in the squat garden detonated my mind, she had said,
“That teacher undid me Claire, he held me on the floor, unscrewed my arms and legs, and sent the bits of me off into the Universe.” She chucked a broken table into the flames, furrowed her brow. An empty smile spilled across her face, her eyes like dead stars,
”It’s like he stole my body, my voice. No one will hear me”.
After her death, her words jammed inside me, howled from the other side. One thin, black stick line drawn after another, a repeated tallied addition, an empty space beyond the equal sign. A hole that didn’t add up. She had been mutilated, fractured, but not him. Rage rose, a burning in my bones, I knew I would carry out my plan.
All that time ago, I’d calmly informed Lucy,
“You know, one day, I will find the man who raped you. I will disguise myself and seduce him. And when I’ve got him in bed, I will humiliate him. I will make him pay”.
I had recently read about Philomela and Procne, a Greek myth of sisters, rape and revenge, involving cut tongues, beheading and tapestry. I was inspired.
After Lucy’s death, I found him; social networks provide infinite possibilities. Today, he’s married, has two freckled boys. Still pimping as a teacher. We’re meeting for a drink, have exchanged flirtatious emails. He understands I’ve booked a room upstairs in the pub. The place is recommended on Tripadvisor and the asparagus dipped in hollandaise sauce has consistently earned five stars.
“We should go!” Ian is yelling again.
I glance at my watch.
I feel light all of a sudden; a kite cut from string. I am ready to repay.
When I trained to be an accountant, a lecturer told us about the earliest vestiges of writing being two Mesopotamian merchants recording an economic transaction in lines on clay. He said,
“One could surmise that this contract gives birth to the cuneiform alphabet, that writing is initiated from numbers; and that the accountant was the first storyteller.”
In less than six hours, I will have a tale to tell: Lucy’s story. The Stanley knife and the bleach are a recent addition to my plan. They are my tools for writing, for marking his skin. I will compose numerical words to tally up my sister’s lost life and clean with an incandescent fire. Together, we will inscribe his act, make it visible, told: one, two, three, four vertical lines and then five, the perfect diagonal stripe.