Her mother’s voice sounded through the hallway, mixing with the mustiness around her so well that the sound almost had a smell. To Jess, sitting in the cupboard, the sound of her name was strange, wobbly, misformed, as if she were inside a bottle, or a glass cube, maybe, and Mum was outside it, tapping. I must have been in here too long—
“Jessamy!” Her mother’s voice was stern.
Jessamy Harrison did not reply. She was sitting inside the cupboard on the landing, where the towels and other linen were kept, saying quietly to herself, I am in the cupboard.
She felt that she needed to be saying this so that it would be real. It was similar to her waking up and saying to herself, My name is Jessamy. I am eight years old.
If she reminded herself that she was in the cupboard, she would know exactly where she was, something that was increasingly difficult each day. Jess found it easier not to remember, for example, that the cupboard she had hidden in was inside a detached house on Langtree Avenue.
It was a small house. Her cousin Dulcie’s house was quite a lot bigger, and so was Tunde Coker’s. The house had three bedrooms, but the smallest one had been taken over and cheerily cluttered with books, paper and broken pens by Jess’s mum. There were small patches of front and back garden which Jess’s parents, who cited lack of time to tend them and lack of funds to get a gardener, both readily referred to as “appalling.” Jess preferred cupboards and enclosed spaces to gardens, but she liked the clumpy lengths of brownish grass that sometimes hid earth-worms when it was wet, and she liked the mysterious plants (weeds, according to her father) that bent and straggled around the inside of the fence.
Both the cupboard and the house were in Crankbrook, not too far from Dulcie’s house in Bromley. In Jess’s opinion, this proximity was unfortunate. Dulcie put Jess in mind of a bad elf— all sharp chin and silver-blonde hair, with chill blue-green lakes for eyes. Even when Dulcie didn’t have the specific intention of smashing a hole through Jess’s fragile peace, she did anyway. In general, Jess didn’t like life outside the cupboard.
Outside the cupboard, Jess felt as if she was in a place where everything moved past too fast, all colours, all people talking and wanting her to say things. So she kept her eyes on the ground, which pretty much stayed the same.
Then the grown-up would say, “What’s the matter, Jess? Why are you sad?” And she’d have to explain that she wasn’t sad, just tired, though how she could be so tired in the middle of the day with the sun shining and everything, she didn’t know. It made her feel ashamed.
“I am in the cupboard,” she whispered, moving backwards and stretching her arms out, feeling her elbows pillowed by thick, soft masses of towel. She felt as if she were in bed.
A slit of light grew as the cupboard door opened and her mother looked in at her. Jess could already smell the stain of thick, wrong-flowing biro ink, the way it smelt when the pen went all leaky. She couldn’t see her mum’s fingers yet, but she knew that they would be blue with the ink, and probably the sleeves of the long yellow T-shirt she was wearing as well. Jess felt like laughing because she could see only half of her mum’s face, and it was like one of those Where’s Spot? books. Lift the flap to find the rest. But she didn’t laugh, because her mum looked sort of cross. She pushed the door wider open.
“You were in here all this time?” Sarah Harrison asked, her lips pursed.
Jess sat up, trying to gauge the situation. She was getting good at this.
“Yeah,” she said hesitantly.
“Then why didn’t you answer?”
Her mother waited, and Jessamy’s brow wrinkled as she scanned her face, perplexed. An explanation was somehow still required.
“I was thinking about something,” she said, after another moment.
Her mum leaned on the cupboard door, trying to peer into the cupboard, trying, Jess realised, to see her face.
“Didn’t you play out with the others today?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Jessamy lied. She had just caught sight of the clock. It was nearly six now, and she had hidden herself in the landing cupboard after lunch.
She saw her mum’s shoulders relax and wondered why she got so anxious about things like this. She’d heard her say lots of times, in lowered tones, that maybe it wasn’t right for Jessamy to play by herself so much, that it wasn’t right that she seemed to have nothing to say for herself. In Nigeria, her mother had said, children were always getting themselves into mischief, and surely that was better than sitting inside reading and staring into space all day. But her father, who was English and insisted that things were different here, said it was more or less normal behaviour and that she’d grow out of it. Jess didn’t know who was right; she certainly didn’t feel as if she was about to run off and get herself into mischief, and she wasn’t sure whether she should hope to or not.
Her mother held out a hand, and grasping it, Jess reluctantly left her towel pillows and stepped out on to the landing. They stood there for a second, looking at each other, then her mother crouched and took Jessamy’s face in her hands, examining her. Jess held still, tried to assume an expression that would satisfy whatever her mother was looking for, although she could not know what this was.
Then her mum said quietly, “I didn’t hear the back door all day.”
Jessamy started a little.
Her mum let go of her, shook her head, laughed. Then she said, “How would you like for us to go to Nigeria?”
Jess, still distracted, found herself asking, “Who?”
“Us! You, me and Daddy!”
Jess felt stupid. “Ohhhhh,” she said. “In an aeroplane?”
Her mum, who was convinced that this was the thing to bring Jessamy out of herself, smiled. “Yes! In an aeroplane! Would you like that?”
Jess began to feel excited. To Nigeria! In an aeroplane!
She tried to imagine Nigeria, but couldn’t. Hot. It would be hot.
“Yeah,” she said, and smiled.
But if she had known the trouble it would cause, she would have shouted “No!” at the top of her voice and run back into the cupboard. Because it all STARTED in Nigeria, where it was hot, and, although she didn’t realise this until much later, the way she felt might have been only a phase, and she might have got better if only (oh, if only if only if ONLY, Mummy) she hadn’t gone.
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi – Book Excerpts