THE MAGICIAN’S GIRL
It was his voice I recognised first. He poured me the whiskey and pushed it across the counter. When he asked if I wanted ice, I felt my stomach drop. Even over the clamour of other customers, I knew Marcus’ voice. I didn’t answer, just stood there with the coins in my hand. I took in his pale blue eyes, and the lines around them that were now so much deeper. His pupils were still large after all these years, telling me his demons hadn’t stopped circling. He stared at me, then slowly lengthened his spine. It was then that I knew he’d recognised me too.
Neither of us wanted to go into it. I couldn’t just walk away though, not after so many years. The conversation was brief, it was warm and I cannot stop hearing it: had we kept in touch with the others on the ward, how much older we looked, whether Dr Ewers had retired by now. When he held out a trembling hand and laughed ‘still got the medication shakes’, I was hesitant to hold the coins out, in case he saw my hand twitch too. I slid the money across the bar instead. I wished I’d ordered myself another whiskey but had to make do with just the one, glowing like liquid fire in my hand. And then another customer came and I stepped back into the darkness of the bar, away from the conversation.
And the truth was, Andrea, I needed to leave before he asked about you. I could just about take the nostalgia and the steps in the shadows it uncovered, but I couldn’t take that. The last time I’d spoken to him was to tell him what you’d done. I was a fragile teenager, trying to choose the words that wouldn’t cause my cracks to splinter into one and shatter me completely. I didn’t want to ask why he hadn’t turned up to your funeral, why he’d left me alone on the grass with your sisters holding up your goodbye note and giving me five minutes exactly to read the parts with my name on them. I hadn’t had time to scan for your name too. I still regret that now, all these years later. So I took my whiskey and walked back to my husband instead. I curled my legs into the velvet couch and pressed my nose against the curve of his arm. He kissed the top of my head and clinked his glass against mine. He is my future, though he knows so much about the secrets of my past.
He knows about the hospitals; the one I met you in, and the others that followed. The threat of E.C.T., and the side effects that made my mouth dry and my memories curl up at the edges like faded photos. All those Sylvia Plath books lined up on my shelves.
That’s how you and I first bonded, remember? In the day room on Ward Eight, you reading ‘The Bell Jar’…’like every mad girl should’, we laughed. My own copy was under my hospital issue pillow. We’d recite her poetry and exchange verses ripe with blood and battle, symbols of our womanhood and wildness. We read of Plath’s struggle between motherhood and the creative urge, and made vows to each other that we would never tread the worn path. We wouldn’t live long enough to be mothers anyway, we agreed, and I think we meant it.
I know you did.
You chose the anniversary of Sylvia’s death to lay your head down. To everyone’s surprise – to my surprise – I decided not to.
Andrea, I know I told you I’d support your choice, but lord, honey, my heart aches when I think about all you’ve missed. We were teenagers when we made that pact. I didn’t know I’d find the right medication, and that the weight it put around my hips would more than make up for the weight of the world it took from the middle of my chest. I didn’t know then about all the lands I’d visit when the sickness receded – I hadn’t known it could. I didn’t know I’d long for the light again, after so many years adjusting to the darkness. And when the longing came, I chose to follow it back into the world.
There have been clifftop mornings watching the sun rise over the Mediterranean, and slow dancing with girlfriends on the banks of the Mississippi. I didn’t know I’d go to book launches with my words within those magic spines, or that I’d watch winter solstice bonfires with my man’s arm around my waist and my beautiful step-son on his shoulders. I didn’t know I would live not just to approach forty years of age, but to embrace it, with dirty martinis and rockabilly and dancing with my shoes kicked to the side and the dirt between my toes. That there are still passions to pursue seems a gift: I have not yet lived in Berlin, or seen my novel published, but there’s still time.
I wish we’d both known, honey. Then maybe it wouldn’t just be my triumph, but ours both.
Your favourite Sylvia Plath lines were the ones where she felt scorched to the root, flailing about in the flames. I want to tell you that fire can purify; it can cleanse, leave you burned to the bone to the point where you can start to rebuild. My sickness burned me clean, and this new life is my response. I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch, Sylvia also wrote. This is my favourite line; my answer, and my triumph both.