“I wish my father were dead,” said Nanny’s new girl.
It was an oddly cruel thing to say while I was sitting on my father’s grave but I don’t remember that I was upset about it at the time. To be fair, it was quite a long time ago. It’s possible that the affection I gained for her later was backdated in my memory and any bad feelings I had at the time were lost. Or possibly I’m just not very good at identifying my own feelings. That’s part of the whole autism thing I’ve got going on.
I told her I wished it were my mother who was dead, which I did. Still do, to be honest.
I don’t remember being offended by what she said. But I do remember that I just sat there on my father’s grave and waited for her to go away.
Nanny had told me to stay away from her. So had Mother. I wanted to please my grandmother more than I wanted to displease my mother, so I tried to give her space.
“She’s been hurt,” Nanny had told me, “and it’s not your fault. But you’re getting older now and I want her to feel safe.”
So I didn’t seek her out.
But I guess she sought me, because she came back to the cemetery the next day.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Wishing people were dead. What are you doing here?”
“Wishing people were alive,” I replied.
“Also I like to look at the names. Alan’s a nice one,” she said, gesturing to my father’s headstone.
“He was a nice person,” I told her. “I miss him.”
“It’s a nice shade of blue,” she said.
I nodded as though that made sense.
“I don’t like my name,” she said, “it’s too yellow.”
“You could choose a new one,” I said, “I choose new ones for myself all of the time.”
She smiled then, just a little. But for her, that was sort of a big one.
“What names do you like so far?” I asked.
“My favourite name has always been Michelle.”
“Then you should be Michelle.”
She shook her head, “I’m a red-head. Green doesn’t suit me. It makes me look festive.”
I’m not sure that I laughed at the time. But just occasionally I think of that comment and it makes me laugh and sometimes people ask me why I’m laughing and it’s difficult to explain..Don’t know why I mentioned that.
“Can you choose one for me?” she asked.
I looked at her closely for the first time. She was prettier than I’d thought at first. I looked around. There were lots of names to choose from.
“What about Gillian?” I said.
“I hadn’t thought of that one,” said Gillian. “I like it. It matches my hair.”
And then, quite suddenly, Gillian was my friend.
It had felt like a secret. But like so often with childhood secrets it turned out everyone knew after all. Not that at seventeen and eighteen years old we still considered ourselves children. But I’m a lot older now and honestly anything under thirty seems like a child.
“I’m sorry,” I told my grandmother, “I know you told me to stay away from her.”
But Nanny just smiled and ruffled my hair.
“I’m glad you have a friend,” she said. “I’m glad for her too.”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” I told my mother, “you can’t make me stay away from her.”
And Mother swore at me and I swore back and being angry at Mother always felt a little bit good. Still does, to be honest.
“She’s like a dragon,” Gillian said one afternoon. We’d been hiding together in the music room, “her voice looks like flames.”
We referred to her as The Dragon after that. Hiding from her in the house like the games of pretend I’d never really got the hang of as a child.
I tried to share my favourite records with her but she had told me she liked listening to me talk more than listening to the music.
“I feel like it should have colours,” she said, “but I can’t tell what they are.”
The things Gillian said came in three categories: Things that were unintentionally cruel; things that were unexpectedly funny; and things that didn’t seem to make any sense at all.
I liked her a lot.
She didn’t like music which had hurt. But she liked looking at Nanny’s photos and I showed her my Dad’s old darkroom and gave her Dad’s old camera. To borrow. I am pretty sure I said that. That she could borrow it. That’s definitely what I meant. I think.
She’d stuck around for longer than Nanny’s girls usually did. I used to wonder why they kept leaving. I wondered how some of them ended up pregnant. Now, I realise, the difference wasn’t that they got pregnant. The difference was that they stayed that way.
But Gillian didn’t leave, then. That was later.
Not that much later, actually. It just felt like a long time in the way things do when you’re that young.
She didn’t tend to express a lot of emotion but I caught her crying once. When I asked her why she said she couldn’t say. That made sense. There were a lot of things I only ever talked about with my Dad. To my dad. He was dead. Still is, obviously.
She had nodded like that made sense, and the next time we visited him she told my father things that were more awful than I’d thought ever happened to real people. To be fair, I was very young, at the time.
It was such an awful secret that I felt like I should tell her one too. To even things out. Mine felt like an awful one too, at the time. Again, I was very young.
It wasn’t a secret I could keep forever so eventually Mother did find out. It made her very upset, which I liked. It still does, and I still do.
Nanny had just nodded and thanked me for explaining. She is very good at keeping secrets, my Nanny, and part of being good at keeping secrets is being good at being told things without giving anything away.
But back then, when I told Gillian, she was the only person that knew. I mean… I had told Dad but since he was dead at the time I don’t think it really counts. Ha! At the time. Why do I keep saying that as though it’s some sort of transient state? He died. He’s dead. I expect he’ll remain that way indefinitely.
Anyway, I told her.
“That’s why you need a new name,” Gillian said. “You should be Michelle. It’s too pretty a name to go to waste. I might not ever have a daughter to give it to.”
“You’d need a husband to have a baby,” I said. Which seems like an odd thing for me to have said given the reason she came to my grandmother in the first place but… gosh, I was so young.
“I don’t want a man,” Gillian said softly.
“I don’t want to be one.”
“Green is a good colour for you,” she said. “It’s very pretty.”
“I don’t think a pretty name would suit me,” I said.
My body and I are better friends now, but back then we didn’t always agree on things. But when Gillian took off her clothes, my body and I definitely agreed that hers was very nice indeed.
And it was after that, that she left.