Twenty-one-year-old Beth has done plenty of good, grown-up sorts of thingsincluding having a baby. But she’s also done something bad enough to land her in prison. At the urging of her counselor, she begins to make a list of all the good things that have happened to her. It’s difficult at first, as she was abandoned by her mother and shuffled from one foster home to another. Hers is a life that veered from a brilliantly artistic childhood to rough boyfriends and thankless jobs. As she writes, however, she begins to understand that every life has moments of peace, friendship, and triumph. From sharing silence with someone she loves, to feeling so happy it hurts, she begins to see her lifeand herselfanew. But Beth must also acknowledge the act that sent her to jail, and confront the question: is there a chance for her redemption?
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
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Smelling a baby's head right into your heart
Of all the good things that have ever been in me, the first and the best is you. Every single part of you, from your strokeable earlobes to the hope curled up in your toes. Remember that. Remember it when the dickheads say you're a bad or a so-what thing. Remember it when you're convinced the good things are jammed behind other people's smiles. Remember it the hardest when you feel like nothing at all.
Writing a list of good things may seem pretty retarded — at least, that's what I said when Erika brought it up. I didn't know Erika before they put me in here but now we have to put up with each other for a whole hour every week. She has these geekster glasses that make her eyes look bigger than any person's should; when I said the word "retarded," they grew so big, it was like she knew everything about me and about the universe and about whatever lay outside the universe, and that made me feel small, and so I jumped up, gripped the back of my chair and said, "I'm not a retard."
I waited for Erika to shout. Or press whatever button she had to press to bring the screws running. Instead, she sighed like I was some telly programme she wished would change into a better one. I let go of the chair and sat back down.
"Now," she said, laying her hands flat on the table between us. They were red raw and peeling, like she'd forgotten to wear washing-up gloves. "Why don't you explain why you used that word — retard."
"I don't know, do I? I open my mouth, the words come out. End of story."
"That's one way of looking at it," said Erika. "But there are others. For example, I, like you, know what it is to be a mum. I've got three kids." The way her face moved, even a blind man could've clocked how much she loved them. Would a blind man have clocked how much I loved you? Would anyone?
"One's mad on football," she went on, "the other on Harry Potter, the third on spiders and spaceships. One hates loud noises, the other hates to eat anything round. It just so happens that one of them is autistic. But they're all as real as each other." She paused and wiggled her eyebrows — eyebrows which, FYI, hadn't been threaded or even plucked. "Do you see?"
The grown-up reply would have been sorry. And maybe: Thanks for talking to me like I'm just another mum. Like we're just two human beings. But even though I'm twenty-one and have done 100% certified grown-up things like wash up my own plates in my own flat, rubber gloves and all; even though I've had a job and a boyfriend and a baby, grown-up isn't always the way I am on the inside. I slumped down in my chair and mumbled, "Whatever."
"There are lots of ways to look at every person, and words like 'retard' are dangerous because they make us believe there's just one story."
I opened my mouth but no words fell out, not even an almost-word, like "Oh."
"I bet," she said, patting her grey-streaked boy-cut hair, "you know a thing or two about those kinds of words?"
Suddenly, Erika and her glasses and the custard yellow walls disappeared. I was back in that courtroom, not knowing where to look because whether I looked at the judge and his wig or the clerk and her computer or the lawyers and their ring-binders or even the fake-wood walls, all I saw was the bad things I'd done. The things that stopped the other prisoners looking at me unless it was to give me the evils.
Erika's voice shoved this memory to the part of my mind that's a bit like the patch of carpet under the sofa: it's close, dirty and dark, and although you mean to sort it out, you never do, because the only parts of you that ever see it are your ankles.
Back in the room, Erika was staring straight at me but for the first time in my life, I didn't mind; there was no way of knowing what a person was or wasn't thinking about me, and this was an O.K. or maybe even a good thing.
I opened my mouth and out came these words I'd no idea were there: "One of my foster mums, the fourth or like maybe the fifth, she was obsessed with cats."
"She loved them. If I said I felt ill, she'd tell me to stop making a fuss. But if the cat sneezed, she'd shove it into this dark plastic box and rush it to the vet. Before she put it in the box, it'd be O.K. — a bit dribbly or moody or whatever but basically O.K. As soon as it clocked it was trapped, it went mental. Scratching and howling and yowling and shitting itself. Eventually, it'd go all saggy and depressed. Anyway, that's how they make you feel — those kinds of words."
Erika smiled like I'd done some better-than-good thing. I waited for her to tell me what it was; instead, she handed me this exercise book. "So you'll have a go at the list?"
"Haven't seen a book like this since school. I'll warn you now: I'm gonna get shit grades."
"I won't give you a grade," she laughed. "I won't even look at what you've written, not unless you want me to."
I made my best whatever face, but my hands were all over it, stroking its rough recycled pages, because it was a long time since anyone had given anything to them or me, and the ending of this time felt good. "What's the point then?"
"The point is for you."
"Write down the good things about my life?"
"But what if ... I can't think of any?"
If you've never seen a sad smile, you should've seen hers just then. "You will."
"Oh well. At least it's something to do."
I tucked it into my waistband and stalked out. It jiggled against my pants, and the only way to stop it falling down the left leg was to walk weird, but I didn't care, because every time I bent my leg I was reminded of you.
I was alone again at dinner that night but I didn't care. For the first time since arriving here three weeks ago, the shaking in my hands stopped. I even managed to stuff in a few mouthfuls of the brown stuff that was meant to be chicken curry. The noise of other girls talking and eating and laughing was just as loud, but it didn't poke holes in my heart. When I was locked back in my cell, I didn't mind the silence, or the blank space where the handle should be on the door. I was remembering your eyelashes; how they were thick and black from the moment you were born, a heartbreaker, said the nurses. Or the way you'd murmur in your sleep, as if you were already dreaming the best dreams. If it was a really good one, you'd blow a spit bubble. The way you'd curl and stretch your toes when I changed your nappy. Best of all was the ridiculously delicious smell of your head; pressing my nose to your fluffy hair and breathing in deep was better than any drink or drug or new phone or any other thing people buy to feel good; I'd breathe it right down into my heart. Making you into a shape on the paper would be the next best thing to the thing I'd already done, i.e. making the actual you.
Who knows? Maybe, despite everything, this list will find its way to the you that I imagine growing up with some other mum, somewhere far from here. I hope this list, whatever it turns out to be, will show you that whatever bad or non stories you might hear about me and about the way your life began, they aren't the only ones. You might think I'm retarded for hoping such a thing in the light, or rather the dark, of everything that's happened. But you know what? I think it's good. I think it's a good thing to find hope where any other person would agree there was none.CHAPTER 2
Running until your body is a good place to be
The first time I got locked in my cell, I was bricking it. I ran my hands up and down the door until they were red raw; even then, they wouldn't quite accept there was no handle. I was bricking it when I first walked down the corridors, painted the same colour as the inside of someone's mouth — some skanky person who didn't brush their teeth or eat any vegetables. Obviously I was bricking it when I saw a woman get dragged out of her cell, blood all over her jeans and her tracksuit from where she'd cut up. When I got my first negative for leaving an IT lesson without a toilet pass, I didn't just brick it; I stared at the laminated poster of three women laughing and holding hands — each woman was a different race but they all wore polo-necks and had obviously never been to prison — with a speech bubble coming out of the blonde one's mouth saying, "Let's Be Friends With Everyone!" and I wanted to run. Of course, I couldn't run. Couldn't scream or even stamp my foot; the only thing I could do, in the three or so seconds between me opening the door and the teacher and the other girls seeing my face, was let a tear drop out of my eye. But what made me brick it harder than any of these things was finishing the sentence before this one. What if you weren't just the first good thing about me but the last?
When I sat down in the Progress Room, Erika smiled. "Hello, Beth, how have you got on this week? I've been thinking of you and your list." She smiled with her mouth and her cheeks and her eyes — as if me being in the room was better than me not being in it. I smiled back.
"Not bad," I said. "Actually, I just thought of the second good thing. It's running."
Her eyebrows jumped all over her forehead. "Running?"
My legs started jiggling as soon as they heard the word. I had to remind them — again — that there was nowhere to run, not in here. "It's the only time I feel good. When I went running after I did the bad thing, the one that got me locked in here — even then I felt good."
"Go on." Somehow, as if she'd pulled a plug inside of her, the expression drained out of her face. "Take me back." With her there but not there, the past felt like a good place to go.
There are days when I wake with a spring in my chest; maybe I'll run round the park with you in the pushchair; maybe I'll sing to you all up and down every aisle in Tesco; then I see the toilet bowl and the sink in kicking distance from my bed. The bars on the window. Then I remember. I remember the bad thing. It's as if someone is whacking me round the head with a sockful of gravel; it pushes me back down to the bed. Take a few deep breaths. Then I force myself back up because you have to get up when they tell you to get up, in here.
The days after I did it were the springiest of days; all I knew was I needed to get away. As fast and as far as possible, as soon as possible. What better place to go than a running festival?
Running for Fun was its name. I'd first noticed the poster months back, when you were this lovely warm weight inside of me, and I was waiting for my appointment at the Health Centre. Every human on the poster wore a happy red face: they were Running for Fun and Raising Money for Children with Cancer at the same time! They were also rich enough to afford £100, which apparently was a "fantastic deal" for two days of "inspiring talks from world fitness experts" plus socials, buffets and organized races. Worst of all, it was in Leicester. Getting to Tesco was a trek with a nearly-ready-for-the-world baby in my belly, never mind some weird town far from London. But the poster popped up everywhere — in the library, at the doctor's, at bus stops — and each time I saw it I felt angrier and angrier that I couldn't go.
In the days after I did the bad thing, I wasn't me. I wasn't anyone. I could do anything. I could go to Leicester. I could take out yet another payday loan and spend it on a Toni & Guy haircut. On new Nike leggings that stretched the whole Milky Way around my thighs. Go to a specialist running shop where they shove you on to a treadmill that works out what's weird about your feet.
"Every person," said the girl in the shop, her ponytail swinging though the rest of her was still, "puts their weight on a different part of their foot. You, you put too much weight at the front. I'm surprised you don't trip up! I'd recommend the Asol Gel Elite. They're actually marked down to £120."
Before this, I'd run in my last foster mum's old Reeboks, Primark leggings and my Somerset High School cross country team T-shirt, which was still two sizes too big. I was only in that club for a year before they chucked me out, but I was the best, the coach said so, talent, was the word she used, the others can run, but you need to, I can tell, you've got something special.
The coach looked like an old mum or a young grandma. She never ran; she just shouted and blew her whistle a lot. I made the rest of the team laugh by doing impressions of her waddling walk and the desperate way she flapped her arms when she thought we weren't running fast enough. Most of the time, I made sure to do it when she wasn't looking, but sometimes I slipped. Like that time in the changing room when I stuffed my T-shirt to make it look like I had a belly, the others were cracking up when, just as I was certain this was the start of them liking me, they stopped. Behind me I heard a sad screech, like the ones cats make when you step on their tails. It was the coach. She'd seen me. I couldn't tell if she was going to cry or tell me off. Instead, she shook her head, and said, Honestly Bethany, I thought you were better than that. Then she walked out of the changing room and the other girls turned away from me, and my stomach jangled about like I'd swallowed a fistful of forks. I wanted to run out to the coach and tell her I was sorry and that my favourite way of falling asleep was to replay all the good things she'd said to me, but I'd never said anything like that to anyone, and I didn't know how to start.
The coach was right though: I was good. Even though the other girls had longer legs and better trainers than me, even though I'd never done cross country because I'd been in London and there was no country to run across, only red tarmac tracks to run round and round, I ran faster than they did. I didn't get grossed out by puddles or cowpats. I'd run down the steepest slopes, leaping from stone to stone, sloshing through bogs. Sometimes, I'd be so far ahead, I'd run to the top of the hill and stop. Looking down on the Levels, which are these low, flat fields around Yeovil, often they were so misty, they looked like they were under water, I'd feel like I'd broken into a world that was new and special and 100% mine.
Ah, I'd forgotten how good it was, in the cross country club!
The problem with being an adult is there aren't clubs. If there are, no one invites you. Or you've got to pay a ton of money or do a certain job or go to a certain place at a certain time to join in. I'd run all over London but only when I was by myself, and usually when I was supposed to be doing something else, like getting a good night's sleep or sorting out a payment plan or going to the Job Centre. Then you got too big for me to run and then you were out of me and then I did what I did and so really, the Running for Fun conference was my last chance to be part of a good thing.
The Running for Fun hotel was right opposite Leicester train station. I expected to see Lycra-legged people all over reception, but there was no one. Had I come to the wrong place? My heart shuddered and I was about to bolt, when the woman on reception smiled as if she'd been waiting for me all morning.
"Welcome!" Her name badge said Amanda Here 2 Help. She smiled at the stars on my legs. "I'm guessing you're a Runner for Funner?"
A Runner for Funner! I nodded.
"I thought so. Name please?"
"Katherine Chapworth," I said, because Katherine Chapworth sounded like a person who ate five fruit and veg a day and turned her light out at ten o'clock.
There was a massive bowl of mints on the counter and while Amanda Here 2 Help frowned at her screen, I stuffed a handful into my bag.
"You don't appear to be on the list, but we do have some last-minute cancellations which will mean you'll have to pay the on-the-day fee if you're O.K. with that?"
The loan I'd taken out to pay off the other loans (which I'd taken to pay off the fines for going over my overdraft) would not be O.K. with that. But that was for later. And later was never going to turn into now, not if I kept running. What mattered was that I had notes to slide across the counter right now.
"That's brilliant," she said. "You can pay the rest when you leave. Here's the key and your welcome pack." She handed me a red folder covered with people running wearing silly red wigs. Some parts of some of their faces were cut out by big white letters saying Running for Fun: Welcome to Our World.
"Any issues with your room, or if you need anything else, anything at all, give me a call."
"Thanks, Amanda," I said, and I even meant it; no one had said so many nice things to me for a long time.
As I walked towards the lift, I saw two short, solid legs and a head of grey curls. It was the coach! It was definitely the coach. It was another sign that I was in the right place, that if I just — Except it wasn't the coach.
It was another woman.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All the Good Things"
Copyright © 2017 Clare Sita Fisher.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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