Once Upon a Time
“Meet me at the river” I had said. But that had been eleven years ago. The day we were separated, the day he was taken to Larchfield and I had been sent to Spidley, we had agreed the date as we clung to each other, children joined in grief and loss. Now it has arrived and I stand shivering by the river, not from the cold but from the possibility that he may not come, that he may have forgotten.
I remember her words, they had sustained me through the worst of it, had given me a focus and a reason to believe that there was a life and a future beyond the cold dark walls of my prison. We had agreed a date. The 4th September 2015, three days after my eighteenth birthday, I would be free.
Before mothers death. We had become inseparable, clinging to each other for comfort and for strength while Mother slipped deeper and deeper into the darkness. The end, the bitter bloody and awful end. I still remember it as if it had happened just days before. I still see every detail but strangely I have disassociated from it. It is as if I had seen it all through a screen of glass or from another room, as if it had all happened to someone else and I had been a casual viewer. As if the knife had not been in my hand.
But the knife had been in my hand. When they came, afterwards, after they both lay dead. I was still holding the knife. I stood over them, immobile, frozen among the grim evidence of two violent deaths. And they had come, they had seen and their eyes were full of judgement. Without knowing what had come before, they judged me and I was taken away.
My mother has died quickly, her chest reduced to a bloody mess where the knife had inflicted the awful damage and from which life blood had fountained and gushed in uncontrollable flow. She lay dead on the floor and I had the knife in my hand.
Antony, the man who my mother had fallen in love with, another artist, Christ, she could sure pick a loser. He is looking down at her body and he is keening, his eyes wide and scared as I stand ready to attack. Behind him Marie is curled in a defensive ball, she is screaming, terrified. She has seen it all and it will damage her, I know that. I want to get to her, to comfort her but I still have to deal with Antony, I feel my grip on the knife tighten. I lunge forward, driving at him, keeping my head low, chin tucked in. I have to get him away from Marie.
Marie is my older sister, she was twelve then and I was just seven. She was everything to me, more a mother to me than our real mother had ever been. She looked after me, dressed me. She made my breakfast and my packed lunches, the same every day, Ham and cheese, unaltered and always good. Marie dropped me off at school and then went on to her own, the girls school, one hundred and twenty five pace from my gate to hers. She waited for me at three fifteen every day and we walked home together. Marie started the evening meal before she would do her homework.
Peeling potatoes and carrots or boiling rice, every day she would prepare the food we would eat and every day I would offer help but she would never let me. Mother usually got up about five and some days she would help Marie finish up with cooking. She liked us all to eat together before she went out. Mother worked at the hospital, she slept days and worked nights and it never changed, she never asked for a change of shift because she could not stand to be around the cottage or the farm at night.
The river runs at the end of a pasture field, it is a stream really and in a dry year it can trickle to just about nothing but dry years are rare here in the high mountain country. We used to graze horses there along the banks of the river, in those days when Mother still made a pretence of farming, when she pretended to care about a dream of Once Upon a Time.
The nearest bus stops a mile and a half from the river field and so I jump down and shoulder my pack. I am carrying everything I own and beyond today I have no idea of what my life will hold but I am free. The fourth of September 2015 and it is dry and still and it is summer warm.
I had whispered it in his ear before he was taken and I was sent to my aunts in Spidley. “Meet me at the river” He was so small and so lost. Poor Kevin. The horror still clear in his dark rimmed eyes, so much to have seen and so much to have done and he was not long turned seven years old. And now eleven years later the day has come and I am afraid. I am afraid that he will be there, afraid that he will not be there too. Mostly I am afraid of the memories, afraid of walking a path I scrubbed clean long ago. A path on which nothing or nobody could be allowed to track me. The past was a country I never wanted to visit again. But here it is. I had thought about Kevin on Tuesday, his eighteenth birthday. Guilt, because it took an occasion as big as that to bring him to mind, the day he turned a man and the day he walked free of Larchfield. I had so easily put him aside, encased his memory just as I had encased and compartmentalised all those other memories. I had put the past and him in a safe and distant box that sat way at the back of my mind. I learned not to go opening that box, not to go poking about among its grim contents of tears and anger, blood and horror. But I cannot forget those words. “Meet me at the river” And so I have come.
I hear her words on the wind that wafts along the banks, bending the grasses and stirring the willows that drape their weeping fronds in the dark water. “Once upon a time” she whispers, her smile as she talks about a young bride and her prince charming. Her dream, or their dream I suppose but it had been only a dream. Sickness took him when Kevin was only a few months old and I was only a little past three and a half. She only kept one picture of him and that she kept in a box at the back of her cupboard. We Antonik women like to keep our little boxes of secrets hidden.
I used to imagine that Mother went away after that. Aunt Susan in Spidley said she had run away, but in her mind only. She said Mother had changed, had become permanently sad. She had started to drink and to smoke pot. “A young woman alone up in those mountains” Aunt Susan maintained Mother should have left New Winton and come back down to the lowlands but Mother stayed “Who else will look after the place Marie” More of her words blowing on the breeze.
By “The Place” She had meant sixty five acres of bog and reedy scrub and one good field, the river field but mostly when she said “The Place” she meant the two old grey mares that grazed the river banks. They were all that was left of her Once upon a time. Two white horses galloping along the banks of a river fed from melting mountain snow. Treacherous memories.
Nothing has changed. Here in the mountains time moves slower, there is no rush but neither is there any change, everything stays the same and this comforts me. The walk from the bus takes me up Steeply hill to New Winton. The road is narrow and the margins are grass and meadow sweet and wild fuchsia the colours and scents of home fill me up and set my feet on the track towards the river. I feel the old place sucking me back in. I have dreamed of blue skies and mountain air, reeds and peat and wild open spaces, dreamed, when I thought I might never see them again.
Larchfield was behind me now. The clanging of a metal gate as I had stepped clear, the sweetest music I had ever heard. The sound of freedom. No one came to pick me up, there was no one, I had been alone forever, since that day when the knife had put an end to Mothers life. The knife that had silenced the promises and the stories of Once Upon A Time. The stories of what should have been and the stories she left behind in the arms of George and then Mark and Peter and finally that bastard Antony. She had turned her back on the dream and the promises just the same as she had turned her back on Marie and me, hiding in her work and in drink and marijuana. She had left everything and everyone, had sank into a world and a nightmare of her own making. She drank and she smoked dope and she worked and when she finished all of that she lost her soul in the arms of the succession of men who came and went.
I walk into the village. New Winton, had there ever been an Old Winton or just a Winton? The echo of a questions we had asked ourselves as children, when we laughed and ran wild in this little ordinary mountain village with the big fancy name. New Winton, one street, a central square surrounded by shops and a cafe with seats outside on the sunny cobbles. It looks the same. So little has changed that the red paint on the butcher shop door, which once had been black comes as a shock to the senses. I may just have stepped back across eleven years and returned to a time before the killing and the horror and the torment of loneliness but that black paint signifies change, the end of childhood, the suspension of life for eleven years and now my return to this mountain as an adult.
I walk on avoiding the few people who are on the street, recognition is to be discouraged. I don’t think I could cope with the disapproving looks or worse the aversion, the quick turning away and the covert whispering. There will be plenty of time to make my peace with New Winton should I ever decide to return.
I leave the village behind and climb higher still towards the river field. I wonder will she be there, has she remembered. A half mile above the village is the cottage, about it the farmyard with its few old and now dilapidated buildings. My home for the first seven years of my life, it had been Mothers home for seven years more than that. She had moved here in 1990 with her new husband and they had tried to build here in this paradise just beneath the sky, their dream, their Once Upon A Time. The cottage never felt like home to me, even at that young age it felt cold and desolate. I know it had once been filled with joy and laughter and music. I know this because I was told and because in a secret box were pictures of people laughing and smiling and dancing. People playing guitar and pipes and bohran. My Father had been the photographer it seems as the photos are all of Mother with various friends, beaming, laughing friends. Only one photograph of him exists. They are seated together, she has her head on his shoulder and a tired distant look in her eye, she is smiling and he is holding her hand. He has shoulder length hair and bushy eyebrows, he is big, strong, a farmer. He is handsome in a rugged outdoors type of way. I have become to look more and more like him as I have grown. And now, when I look in the mirror it is his face I see. Strange to be so familiar with a complete stranger. Our roots are far more bog Irish than Polish despite the family name of Antonik. Mother was Irish and my Father was second generation Polish, Irish, my stubbornness comes from that side of me, my refusal to be beaten, and my refusal to surrender.
The mountain always felt more home to me than the bleak sad cottage that was full of bad memories, some mine and some belonging to others. The fields and the open bog, the high moorland and the blue sky and the song of the wind blowing across the high country, all of that formed the walls and the roof of my sanctuary. The bracken and the soft boggy ground and the beating heart of the land was my comfort and my safety. Mother said I was wild at heart just like him, just like the Father I never knew.
The river field is just ahead, I am afraid now that she will not be there, afraid that all those years of waiting and hoping would amount to nothing only more forgotten promises and broken, shattered dreams.
One large oak stand among the willow and the birch that line the banks of the river. It stands slightly apart from the other trees and about it someone, perhaps my Father, has built a fence to protect it from grazing livestock. The birch and the willow take their chances and seem to flourish but an Oak takes life times to grow and so it is special and had been afforded this protection. I stand in its shade now and I see my brother walk towards me. For eleven years he has been frozen in my head, a small seven year old boy with brown curls and flashing blue eyes and a cheeky defiant smile. Now there is barely enough of that left for me to recognise him. I would have passed him in the street and paid no attention except to perhaps note on how handsome this stranger was. His hair is still brown but it is cut tight to his head now, no curls and even from the distance I can see his eyes are still that intense blue. As he draws closer I am surprised by the similarities between Kevin and that one photograph of our Father. I can see the broad chest and shoulders, the strength and the earthiness that clings to him despite his time at Larchfield. I hold back a while longer wanting to study him without him knowing. I remember of course the last day, the day they had taken him away. Susan had offered him a home too but the courts wanted him elsewhere. ”Wanted to assess him, more likely and poke him and prod at him and see what damage had been done” That’s what Aunt Susan had said to my uncle Mike, tears streaming down her face as she signed the papers and threw the pen down angrily. Voluntary committal they called it, “Prison sentence for a boy more like” Aunt Susan had cried and cried and I had cried too. I had five minutes with him, five minutes to say goodbye, five minutes to tell him how much I loved him. God how horrible it had been. “They can keep me until I am eighteen Marie” he was smiling, so typical of him “But then they have to let me out, I will be an adult and I can just walk out the door” I hugged him and I cried, bawled but he comforted me. “It will go quickly” he said but I knew he didn’t believe that, didn’t believe it would go quickly. And all I could think of to say was “Meet me at the river” I had said it on impulse but he had clung to it “On my Birthday” He said but then he changed his mind, “No not on my birthday, I will not be able to get here that quickly” He had worked it out so quickly, then his smile, cheeky and defiant “On the fourth of September 2015” and he had said it like it was only a week away not eleven years.
They came then to take him and we had hugged, had clung to each other, we had lost so much already and now we were losing each other and I didn’t think I could bear it but he smiled and told me to be brave and he had allowed them to take him, had shown poise and bravery beyond his seven short years and I had cried and cried and cried.
His being brave made it worse but then he was always brave. He was my brave, defiant little brother. He who stood every day at the gate of his school and watched, counting the one hundred and twenty five steps I would take to get me safety in to the gate of my school. He who had come running on that terrible awful day.
And of course now the memories of it flood back, the box is open and the monsters are free.
Antony had hit her first, hit her hard and then he had grabbed the knife. She was screaming and he was telling her to shut up. “Shut up, shut up, for fuck sake Lily shut up” but she didn’t shut up, she kept screaming, she was screaming for me to run, to get away but I was terrified, frozen and Antony was shouting again and he plunged the knife into Mothers chest and then I screamed, I screamed so loud I thought my chest and throat would explode but I couldn’t stop. I screamed until the sound died in my chest and ripped at my larynx.
Kevin burst through the door, drawn by the screams, running like he always did, his face full of curiosity and then for a moment he froze taking in the horror and the blood. He had run then, screaming, wild, arms and fists flailing and knocking the surprised Antony sprawling, I think Antony slid and tripped in the blood that covered the wooden floor. I saw the knife fall from his hand as he tried to save himself and I saw Kevin grab for it. And then my little brother was running again, I could see he was trying to get to me and I was calling his name, “Kevin” screaming. I can’t remember if I was screaming for him to save me or screaming for him to save himself or perhaps I was just reacting to the terror and the horrible loss and the danger.
Kevin was small but he was wiry and he was strong and when the cops arrived they had found him with the knife still in his hand and they had thought he, a seven year old had done all of this but then the scene suggested that it was true and the horror of it all had left these unprepared and green country cops susceptible to crazy thoughts.
Of course they knew before they took him. They knew the truth, knew Kevin had only reacted in self-defence and that Antony had killed our Mother but they wanted to take him, to treat him they said, for shock and for trauma and then Kevin had lost himself in Larchfield, had lost his mind for a while, the pain and the horror and the loss had taken him and he had succumbed. Susan would never let me go there, she went twice and both times came back and cried for days.
But he had recovered and here he was. I stepped from behind the oak tree and he looks down smiling, his face split in that brave defiant grin and now I recognise him, I feel the years melt away and I am eleven years old again and he is seven and we are watching two grey horses gallop along the river.
And I think it is then, when I saw her step out from the tree that I start to believe again in Once Upon A Time.