Blue Sky Screaming
I’ll start with the most important part of the story, which is the day I screamed at the sky. It was so clear and so wide, and my scream was so loud that I hit blue. I’d never felt blue inside me before, I only knew it as the colour of oceans and sky and then in things like the Blue Cross, which I supported ever since the dog was killed on the road, and Amy’s blue Leaving Ball dress. I was alone. There was no one for miles, just huge open spaces, the sea and the sky and the slabs of the Devon cliffs ahead of me. I had a need to assert myself, so I screamed. After that, everything changed. Blue was inside me. I made plans to leave Peter, my husband.
The night I heard about what he had done I fought with him, but it was a limp fight. We did what we always did when we fought. I got angry then I cried; he got angry then he rubbed my back and apologised. We had a template which allowed us to witness each other. I needed him to see me cry and he needed to touch me and promise things and say sorry. When we fought my tears were real and his apologies and promises were sincere. It was a formula but it served us every time until the last one.
A week passed between finding out and screaming. Seven days of crying and rising pain. I stopped crying after I screamed at the sky. Afterwards it was as if I had been reset. I was as fearless as I had been twenty years before. Amy told me I was losing it. She said I seemed detached.
‘What other way should we be?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know mum, but it’s like you don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself any more.’ She was nineteen.
‘Amy, I love you, and I do give a shit about you,’ I said.
‘Well maybe you need to get more help. Go and see someone.’
I stopped offering her lifts and stopped cooking for the three of us. I lost interest in food. I had been overweight for twenty years and I finally felt like the answer was simple: don’t eat when you don’t want to. I don’t care about breakfast. I never did. But for Amy, the fact that I was suddenly disinterested in the kitchen amounted to something unnatural. She could see that I was abandoning her before she got round to abandoning me.
I didn’t tell her why I hit blue. Even at nineteen it would be a lot to take in. I said I was going through an early menopause. I said the effects of the anti-anxiety pills would take a few weeks to to kick in. She was upset and one night she cried. I didn’t cry. I was making plans. She wasn’t excited about her life and that was her problem. I wanted her to see that and get scared. I wanted to hurt her a little.
I was interested in her in a new way, another way. Of course I wanted to know that she was happy and safe and understood, I will never stop wanting that, but I also wanted to know who she was. I wasn’t scared of finding out something that I hadn’t wanted to know before.
‘How’s the sorting going for Paris?’ I asked one night.
‘Fine. Just the usual shit, you know. Do I need to bring sheets and towels, do they supply the books; I’ve emailed them and they haven’t got back to me.’
‘Give them a call.’
‘My French is useless.’
‘So? Give it a go, it’s a language school, they’ll speak English if you get stuck.’
‘I’ll just, mum, I can just work it out when I get there.’
‘You’re so lucky to get to spend the summer in Paris.’
Her head was in the fridge, checking the date on a tub of hummus. It was a distraction in her that bothered me, as if her going was tangential somehow to her life.
‘Who are you going for?’
‘Just, you sound like you don’t give a shit. So if you don’t want to go, why are you going? Who are you going for?’
‘It’s something to do. It was your idea.’ She was looking at me now.
‘If you’re doing it because it is something to do, I can think of cheaper ways to spend your time.’
‘Mum, what is your problem?’
‘My problem is that you don’t seem to know what you want. Do what you want Amy. You’re nearly twenty.’
I wasn’t angry; she was silent. She cocked her head to the side and looked at me through the corner of her eye. It was a look of disbelief. But it didn’t affect me, it was as if I had been floating down a river with her and all of a sudden I was out of the water and on the banks and I could see it all. I think she sensed that I’d left her in the water.
‘Right,’ she said finally and left the room. It’s exactly what Peter would when he wasn’t willing to get embroiled in one of our fights.
From day one, Peter was a brilliant father. Amy had been a surprise and he fell desperately in love with the pea sized life in my body from the moment he knew about it. I didn’t.
For me, the birth felt like a car crash, and in the weeks afterwards changing Amy’s nappy seemed like a Himalayan task. Peter was working very long hours but he did the night feeds so I could sleep. I’ll never forget that. He stood with Amy at night, feeding her my bottled breast milk. He loved it. He spoke to me about the light outside and the secret life of the night. He wanted me to smile. I was tired all the time. I suppose his kindness attracted me to him in the first place.
He was a good husband; tall, handsome, the type of person who has a natural charisma. At work he is known for being able to take well-calculated risks. He was a cool chopped apple under an August sky type of good for our whole lives. But when I screamed that disappeared for a while. I see it again now, although he is everything now, black ice and apple under the sky. I have to look at him from a distance now and it has brought out something new in me which I am amazed to feel, a feeling that fills me with awe.
One night after I hit blue he came into the dining room. I was researching coach trips around America. We had stopped speaking about America soon after Amy was born. We avoided films about New York and I lost contact with my friends who studied graphic design and moved there. The whole subject of me and America was in solitary confinement. Out of sight, out of mind.
He came behind me and rubbed my shoulders. It was a concerned rub. He was terrified; my only interest was in increasing his terror. I stiffened under his touch.
‘Anna, what can I do for you?’ he said.
‘I’m fine, how was your day?’
‘Good… good.’ He kept on digging his thumbs into my shoulder. ‘Are you hungry, sweetheart?’
‘I’m going to head out and get some food, are you sure?’
‘I don’t want anything, thanks.’
‘Whatever you think Anna. So long as you’re happy.’
He gave my shoulders a gentle stroke and left the room. I ticked off the familiar sounds of his shoes on our Victorian tiles, the jangle of keys and the door slam. The sounds ran cold through my body. Whatever you think, Anna. So long as you’re happy. Always. He always said it like that.
A week after he came into the dinning room, he asked me if I wanted to go to London, to a Bring the Wife evening that was coming up. He had never asked whether or not I wanted to go before – he would usually tell me the date and that would be that. I didn’t go. I said I didn’t fancy it. I said I couldn’t pull off the performance. He shook his head but said nothing. I have loved big cities all my life, the whole business of them, the pace of it all.
On our first date I told Peter that I had my sights set on New York. We were eating an an exorbitantly priced pizza near his flat in Notting Hill.
‘I have a five-year plan,’ I said. The half metre pizza was on a little stand in the middle of the table.
He said five-year plans were very Stalin of me and I laughed. We laughed a lot that night.
‘Two years to finish my degree, one year to work in London, then I’m going to New York. I give myself two years to have my own business in the Big Apple.’
AnGraphica Designs, that was going to be the name of it.
He raised his eyebrows.
He was impressed, I could tell that. He said he loved me very soon after that date. And soon I loved him too. Soon we were madly in love. We did the showers, and the nakedness, and the disabled toilet restaurant sex, we dressed up, slouched around, I gained a little weight, we drank, I ran with him sometimes. He would leave presents at the door of my flat. Flowers, and letters. I told him a story about when I first bit into a sharon fruit and couldn’t believe how delicious it was. The next day he left a bag of them by the door. I doted on him, he met my friends, I met his, I told him all my ideas and he listened and gave me others. He started a job in HSBC. He spoke to me about his day, the people in the office, how he solved problems, and then he asked me what he should do with the problems he couldn’t solve. We were in love, the most spectacular blue sky love. That was back then.
We leant into a life. It was a life perhaps best told in the way we came to be in bed at night. Our lamps; the rhythm of our conversation. We were spare with each other. We only asked and gave what was essential, but that gave us space and it gave us intimacy. We made love when we had sex. I know we were both able to serve each other like that, with scarcity and absoluteness. And it was true, I tell myself that now; it was real, even if later it became fiction.
One night he lifted his head as he balanced his book on his thighs and said Alan and the family had moved up to Warwickshire from London and Catherine was looking for a social scene. He fired out the thought without losing his connection with his book. Alan worked with Peter at the bank. I had met Catherine a few times at Bring the Wife events over the years.
The next day, I rang her and asked her if she’d like to come along to book group.
I have relied on books to provide relief all my life. They were teaching me about blue without my knowing, signalling its existence before I could name it. They gave shape to my haunting in the shadows of endless imagined lives. These days, some books scream at me like I screamed at the sky and I can actually hear a sound ripping through the air.
When I arrived at book group the usual gang and Catherine were chatting around the nibbles; parma ham, sundried tomatoes, celery and hummus. I had been on a constant diet for twenty years and I was clutching a bunch of celery. I was always bringing celery to things before I screamed.
‘Anna! Great you’re here, Catherine’s here! We’re giving her the initiation ceremony into the world of wine, hummus, and novels.’ Jen, my sister hugged me.
Jen is four years younger than me and we speak every day; we see each other most days now.
Catherine was sitting between Florence and Laura.
‘Honestly, you would have thought I was heading to Vegas this evening, the way Alan was carrying on.’ Catherine shook her head. ‘He has to collect Michael from football at eight thirty, so he’ll have to go straight from the station. It’s as if I’ve asked him to hit his mother.’
‘You just have to train him to understand book group is sacred,’ I said.
‘Hear, hear,’ Jen raised her glass. I put the celery in the middle of the table.
‘If Dave ever tried to stop me doing anything, I’d hit him, and leave him,’ said Laura. ‘Poor Dave.’
‘Poor nothing.’ Laura took a swig of wine.
‘I don’t know how Dave does it,’ Florence said.
‘He minds his own business, is how he does it.’
‘Well I admire you Laura,’ said Catherine. She picked up a sundried tomato and slipped it into her mouth. ‘Because you can find yourself becoming a yes-man in motherhood and then it’s caput.’
I poured myself a glass of wine.
‘It’s great when they get to eighteen,’ Laura said.
‘It’s our other halves that get it easy,’ Florence said. She is the wife of a managing director in Santander. ‘They think they are doing all the hard work, but I swear if Luke did just one day in my life he would crack up.’
‘Fuck off the lot of you,’ said Jen, smiling. ‘I can tell you that your lives look fairly fucking rosy from here.’
Jen loves being a teacher and she loves her partner, Harry.
Catherine was wearing a black polo neck and a necklace with a big blue shell on a snake-like chain. A thick silver chain. I liked it. She is a very attractive woman. Her movements heighten everything she says so it takes a beat to process the facts, you get a feeling from this woman first.
‘I’ll never forget what Alan told me about one of the guys in London,’ Catherine was shaking her head in disbelief. ‘This was years and years ago, but the the story stuck with me. This guy was due to transfer to New York for the wife’s work, but he changed his mind - just didn’t want to go. He liked his job in London or whatever, and was due for a promotion.’ She scratched the upper part of one arm slowly. ‘His wife was pregnant at the time and he just hid her passport. Didn’t discuss it with her. Just, whoop,’ she flicked her wrist as if she were throwing a passport over her shoulder. ‘He got pissed one night and told Alan.’
Jen said afterwards that she looked straight at me and could tell it hadn’t clicked. I was shaking my head in sympathy.
‘Alan said he felt sorry for him. Unbelievable.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘I know.’ Catherine shook her head again.
‘What?’ That word was my first blue, it was different to my words before. ‘Peter.’ I felt a delicious wave of pain.
That was it. When I heard the words Catherine said, I knew it was me. I knew it was me because the haunting lifted almost straight away. I felt pain. But it was a good pain, like the slice that releases the pressure of an abscess.
‘He stole your passport?’ The light caught the shell around Catherine’s neck. ‘Wait, Anna, I don’t even know if that story is true.’
I stood up and walked to the door. Jen followed. Laura, Florence and Catherine hovered at the door of the kitchen. I lifted my coat from the peg.
‘I’ll ask him,’ I said for everyone.
‘Anna, stay, wait,’ Jen held my arm.
I didn’t wait. I went home.
The night we missed the flights Peter told me he couldn’t bear to leave me pregnant and alone in London and risk not not being there when the baby was born.
‘America is your dream,’ he said as I rested my head on his shoulder. ‘I just can’t go over there and begin without you.’
When I moved in with Peter I transferred drawers of things into bags and boxes and then unloaded them into Peter’s drawers. The passport had been in the drawer by the bin in my old kitchen, along with old sunglasses, old keys, and old phones and when I couldn’t find it at Peter’s I was sure that, in the move, I must have just put it somewhere safer.
As our searches became more and more frantic, Peter looked for later flights to give us time to re-apply for a new passport. But I was anxious by then, that flying any later in my pregnancy might harm the baby. We booked two flights just a week later.
Peter went into the British Embassy every day, travelling across London to try and speed up the process. Each time he came back unsuccessful my heart dropped and I cried and he hugged me, and told me everything would be ok. But it was the height of summer and there were thousands of urgent applications. We missed the second set of flights.
It was there then, the first hum of blue, it was there all along, like a ghost. Something seemed incomprehensible, something about that situation didn’t seem real to me.
Six months after Amy was born, we moved to Birmingham. On the morning the sale was agreed, Peter said that as soon as we were ready to go to New York, we would go. I actually think he meant it. He said the house wouldn’t be an anchor but New York was fading, I was still overwhelmed by the thought of a trip to Tesco.
I imagine some people never glimpse the whole of something because you don’t look unless they have to. But once you see it, there is really nothing to fear. Peter and I minded and tended each other like fires for twenty years. We would have loved differently had I known what he did, but I think we might have loved all the same.
He said he hid my passport because he loved the way we were in London and he was up for a promotion at work; he said he thought it was important that my sisters and my mother were close when Amy was born. He said he hid my passport because he knew no argument would have stopped me from going to New York and he was scared things would fall apart. I can understand that, I just can’t love him closely any more. I can’t love his details. I can’t extend myself enough.
I screamed twenty years after two empty seats flew over the the Atlantic. I could have screamed the day it happened. That scream was in my gut, but it seemed undoable, I was scared of such an unnameable thing. It seemed selfish. It seemed too private and too public. But there is an infinity of blue beyond that fear. I realise now that I needed to find it to know myself again.
EM Martin, from Birmingham, studied English Literature and Italian at the University of Manchester before spending five years working as a news reporter on the London Evening Standard and The Sun. In 2016 she moved to Ireland. She is completing a Masters in Writing in the National University of Ireland Galway. She has published work in Visual Verse and The Galway Review and is The Mayo News Neill O'Neill Creative Writing Award winner 2019.