The first time it happened I think I was about seven. I’d recently been sent away to boarding school and was still in that confused state of not being sure of what I had done wrong to deserve this most terrible of fates.
As was normal every day I had got up with the wake up bell at 7 am. I’d stumbled bleary eyed and mussy haired toward the bathrooms at the end of the dormitory. There the cream colored paint, still peeling today in my memory as it was then those many years ago, caught the fresh cold morning sunshine, leaving irregular shadows on the walls. There were other children stirring, all young and as lost looking as I was myself making their way toward their morning ablutions.
I went into one of the stalls and peed onto the frozen surface of the water lying inside the toilet. It would unfreeze soon, and the heavy galvanized iron mechanism of the flush would clunk unsatisfied, until it did. Probably the spent waste of three children would be enough to generate the heat that would unfreeze the water.
I stepped out of the stall and turned toward the basins, chipped with the passing of hundreds upon hundreds of first years. I ran the water, the cold icy stinging, the hot barely any better, reached into my pocket and brought out the toothbrush and toothpaste. I raised my eyes toward the mirror, and there was my mother staring back at me.
To come face to face with a reflection and notice that it doesn’t respond with the actions one takes is unsettling. To realise it’s not you that is looking back at you from that imperfect glass is still more disruptive. And yet, there she was.
I remember her look most perfectly. Her gaze, as confused as mine must have been, and her surprise at seeing me there seemed to pass across her face. Then, a momentary look of recognition, relief. And care. Yes, I definitely sensed a feeling of care. And then it was gone. Replaced by my seven year old frightened and displaced self.
Even then, of course, I had realised there was no escaping this forced exile and confinement. I’d already accepted that this was my lot, and this was what I would have to learn to endure. Please don’t mistake this for bravery. It was resignation. Along with thirty other seven year olds I was being fed through the sausage machine of boarding school education to create the very best of finely crafted young British Made zealots. So it was that year, like the four hundred and fifty preceding years. There was nothing remarkable about any of it really.
I remembered the moment, not so much because I told anyone about it, which I didn’t, but because it was the kind of formative experience one doesn’t forget. Over time it faded just a little, and some self doubt crept in. Did I really remember that, or was it merely some conjured up side effect of homesickness and the confused wishful thinking of a displaced child?
I’m sure given the opportunity a psychologist would use phrases including ‘abandonment’ and ‘trauma’. It’s such wonderful vocabulary they have nowadays. Of course, at the time we had no such phrases. Counselling was confined to “Pull yourself together, boy, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I grew. I left school, home and family. I returned at times, sometime to good effect and sometimes not. I assumed I had a good family relationship, but it was an assumption with nothing really to compare it with. I did my part as best I could, respecting my parents, loving my brothers.
I always felt a closeness to my mother that I think my brothers lacked. The good news was that I think she saw something in me that she recognized. Something ‘just a little queer’. The bad news was that my father saw it too.
Perhaps she saw that mildly effeminate core. Sure, it was well disguised, first by school uniform, then later by other uniforms — the new romantic look, or the biker leathers, or the bush wear of the Africa journo. But it was just a disguise. Peel away the layers and beneath the core remained.
Among those three sons the differences were openly apparent to us, though never spoken of. It was just the way the world was. Two favored and one tolerated. I quietly thought that if indeed a heart did beat somewhere behind my father’s granite façade, it surely ground the blood to a caustic paste, as far as that middle son was concerned.
Don’t mistake this account to be one seeking sympathy, it’s not. I am merely setting the scene, so you understand that the next time I saw my mother in the mirror you have a clear idea of the dynamics that surrounded it all.
The second time was far more acute. It was in Mozambique, in a village south of Maputo during the war. Again, it was morning and I was hungry and tired. I was dirty too. I’d found my way into an abandoned hospital that had been looted long ago, hunting for the right picture in all the wrong places. Beneath my feet the scrunch of broken glass, and between steps that silence that precedes something sinister. A stillness that even the wildlife knows is filled with tension.
I splashed a little water from my canteen into a basin half hanging from a wall, by a broken but vaguely serviceable mirror. Outside I heard the sounds of one of my fellow travellers starting a fire and trying to get something approximating a breakfast together. Some birds rose from the trees in the distance disturbed by a movement unseen and I watched their reflection in the fractured glass as I rubbed soap into my face.
Sounds of wood on wood, the clink of a pan on stones. I could smell the woodsmoke drifting into the building. A very African smell.
And there she was looking right back at me from the mirror. Watching me. Her look was one of curiosity. Not so much care as concern. I stared right back at her, immediately aware that this was the same as the last time, and yet here she was. The years had melted away as swiftly as the birds had vanished from sight.
I suppose my reaction was a little different this time. I felt a sense of ‘why wouldn’t she be here?’ I’ll admit it was a little disconcerting, but it was as real as anything else I had to think about at the time, and actually quite comforting in its way. This was long before the advent of video chat apps.
When I talked to her a few years later about the incidents she was quite unphased.
“Of course,” she said dismissively. “I’m always with you,” and then she went on to make another cup of tea.
Now, here’s where it’s going to get just a little freaky. I’ll keep it simple so you don’t get bogged down in fluff.
When I pull on a wig and apply a little eye make up I look in that mirror and there she is. Right there. Regularly. Only this time, it’s not a look of curiosity or concern. No, this time it’s a look of acceptance and understanding. Of course, she’s been dead for more than a decade, and my father has long since been carted off to the secure wing of the home for the violently demented, but there she is in the mirror.
For those that think the elderly mellow, I’ve got bad news. They don’t. In my father’s case they threaten to shoot you and any of your freaky fag friends.
As my mother looks out at me I sense an unspoken word or two.
“Of course, I always knew. It’s ok.”