Originally, she came from northern climes. Places cold. Places hard. Places where the nights were too long and then, as the earth pirouetted upon its tired axis, the days were too long. So she moved south, seeking a climate more temperate and a sense of being attached to a place, a place that did not simply sing from brochures, like the New York skyline or the view from Machu Picchu.
She did not get very far. The southern English coast marked her rubicon and, while this place was so different from home — more distinctive, less hard, less cold — she realized she had prevented herself from moving beyond the limits of northern European peoples. She felt her northernness had left her without any particular sense of place, but still, crossing the English Channel seemed too foreign. It was true that at times, she felt vaguely European, but she looked askance at this label as if it were a fig leaf covering the body politic from embarrassment. Her northerness, she considered, was a blank slate of identity, and only in its emptiness was it distinctive. But whatever the case, she would not cross the water to the body of the continent, no.
Naturally, people said to her, naturally you would end up there, naturally you would end up in Brighton. They tittered when they said this. When she asked them why, they lifted their eyebrows mildly or shrugged mildly and said nothing more. Was she pretentious? Playfully idealistic? Of a confused, or worse, a deliberately obscure sexuality? These questions never surfaced, but they remained, slouching around the mezzanine of her mind. She was aware of them, always.
She did not see them often, for she went home rarely and they, to repay the favour, visited her little. When mother had come last time, she had scalded the size of her daughter’s flat and bawked when rent was mentioned. It was cheaper at home. Yes, it was. This place is so small. Yes, it is. But the town is pretty, in its way. Yes, I think so.
This qualification was the extent of her mother’s praise. The visit was spent discussing grandmother, who was now so old, and father, who we miss so much. They took the tour of the town, the royal palace and the palace pier. The narrow alleys and the vitreous sea. But it left her mother unmoved, like how a person with no appetite would finger a large, glazed cake.
On her last day they picnicked in a local park. It was early summer. They sat next to a giant red clock and watched how the children ran, screamed, fell down and then cried. Her mother commented how everything was so Victorian, or was it something else, she was not sure. As the sun stepped up to its perihelion, both women remembered their fair skin and so decided to take a walk along the tree-lined fringes of the park.
Pale trees danced at the edges of the track and her mother ran her hand roughly over their thin white bark. She asked what the English called this tree.
‘Birch,’ said her daughter, ‘Den heter ‘birch’ på engelska’.
Then, her mother smiled and asked if she remembered the time when…Yes I remember. When her little girl had asked the same question, just after father had died. It was. We took a holiday. Abisco. Yes, we did. Wandered away from the guesthouse and into the park. Nobody there. No, no one. Walked through the forest and asked the name of the trees that were everywhere around us. I remember. The answer was ‘björk’. My name, yes.
Out in the fields, children still ululated and squawked. Her daughter, feigning noticing something ahead, moved briskly along the root-knobbed pathway. She remembered their walk in Abisco, when they had come across one of the fosses that drove down a mountainside. She recalled how the water foamed and gurgled beneath the claggy mosses and then drained into a pool, just off the pathway. She recollected she had crouched down beside that pool and looked hard into it and asked her mother, was the water not clean? Of course it is clean. But then, why was the water so brown, so dark? The trees have stained the water. The birch trees have stained the water? Yes. Something in the skin of the trees has stained the water. But is the water clean? It is difficult to explain. Her mother had walked on then, taking the turning back toward the guesthouse.
Her daughter had not slowed her pace and her mother jangled up to her and said in that mother-scalding way that she had been left behind on the mingling pathway. Her daughter turned to the older woman. Why did you name me after the trees? Her mother paused and looked around, as if the trees themselves might give the answer. There was a pause and then she said it was a common enough name, nothing more. Just a name.
They continued on and restricted themselves to a few sighs and hums at the pleasant sensations of the day. The path eventually opened out and both women blanched at the bright, sun-ridden field. Suddenly, her mother was tired and hot and needed rest before her flight back that evening. And so they made their way to her daughter’s over-priced, little flat.
Later, when her mother had gone, she went back to the park and the tree-ridged walkway. It was evening and now the children were replaced by people with guitars and laughter. She thought about her mother and the question she had asked her. She had meant it to mean more, but how could she speak something only half-named? How could she be so cruel as to be simply upset, simply resentful, only hurt, with no more explanation, no more statements? It was not enough to hang on a word, and she knew her mother deserved better.
She said her own name.
Craig Jordan-Baker is a writer and academic from Brighton and lectures in Creative Writing at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham. He has previously published journalism, criticism and fiction, as well as having a number of his dramatic works produced.