The Structure of Shadows
Other than a recurring sense that something crucial in my childhood had been lost or withheld, I knew nothing about the fire until I finally returned to the street where I was born, nearly twenty years after I had been taken from it. There were still a few people I remembered in that small area – a shopkeeper I recognised, one or two older residents, glimpsed in passing, who had stayed to live out their lives there. People who would have known me by a different name.
The first thing I saw when I came to what had once been my parents’ terraced house was that it didn’t quite match those on either side. The brickwork was newer and plainer, with a random effect in the yellow stocks that failed to replicate the style of the other properties. It had been rebuilt. That was when I finally started to ask questions that led me to understand how their lives had ended. Years of imagining and guesswork, often troubled, and then the truth was worse than any of it.
Eventually I was able to calculate that I’d been removed a few months before the fire occurred, before I was seven, before choice of any viable nature entered my life. I had never forgotten my mother screaming as they pulled me away from her. She had always confided in me, strange as that seems now, and I grew up believing that she told me everything. But she hadn’t warned me what would happen that day. She couldn’t have known.
When I eventually traced a photograph of her, standing alone and coquettish without my father in what must have been our back garden, she looked nothing like the person who had settled in my mind. How can you imagine a mother who would never be older than the person you’ve become?
‘Everyone thought she was the special one,’ the middle-aged woman, Marilyn, the aunt I’d heard about but never met, said. She had been friendly and welcoming when I traced her and asked to visit. And yet there was a moment when I caught her looking at me as if I was a specimen under a microscope.
‘And perhaps she might have been,’ she continued, ‘if she’d gone about her life differently. You hear about love at first sight, but it’s not always a good thing. Especially when you’re young and there’s nothing to compare it with.’
‘Was mum wilful, then?’ Somehow it would have pleased me to think of her as a strong character.
‘More impulsive,’ Marilyn said. ’But when you fall for someone like she did I suppose it’s more or less the same thing.’
She looked at me thoughtfully.
‘He was a bastard, to be honest,’ she said. ‘A complete sod with a coating of charm. And though your mum seemed full of life she was vulnerable. And all his type want to do is find someone like her so they can suck the joy out of them.’
My father. An image formed in my mind of my five year old self washing my hands ten times in a row before I could sleep. Then another thought occurred to me.
‘Do I look like him?’
Marilyn paused before answering, but I had the impression she knew what she was going to say. She shook her head.
I thought about this later. There had always been a fear that I couldn’t trust myself, and I’d learned to avoid situations that made me angry. Now I knew whose blood I carried that began to make sense. It was as if my life had been built from shadows, spaces of darkness that lay behind what other people, even perceptive people, might think they saw. Perhaps shadows can be more powerful than your own hopes and intentions. Perhaps they had made me the person I’d become.
‘They never established the cause of the fire,’ Marilyn continued. ‘It could have been anything.’
I sensed she’d told me as much as she wanted to, perhaps more, and so before long I thanked her and got up to leave. Neither of us suggested meeting again. I had no-one else I could ask about what happened. Her version of events seemed final and irredeemable.
I tried to make it fit into what I knew about the rest of my life. Seven years earlier, when I was eighteen, my foster parents had emigrated to Australia. They asked me if I wanted to go with them, but I knew they were relieved when I said no. Although I’d found them fair people, kind even, their home was never more than somewhere I’d been delivered to, and we’d been unable to take to one another as true family. By the time I reached my teens I realised they were always very careful about what they said to me, withholding even. Now I thought I could see why.
Perhaps because there seemed nothing more I could lose by it, I found the courage to seek out my social service records. They explained in dispassionate language that my placement was originally meant to be temporary, but turned permanent for unspecified reasons a few months after I first arrived. It seemed the bland couple I’d never been able to call mum and dad had been landed with an indefinite duty of care, and made the best of carrying it out. Having me around all those years was not the arrangement they’d signed up to.
In the days after my visit to Marilyn, I began to dream of someone with similar features, her face drawn and serious, whispering to my childhood self. It wasn’t quite like the mother I remembered, or even the person in the photo. Perhaps the two sisters had resembled one another in a way I hadn’t been able to recognise. But it made me certain that my mother had told me things that frightened me, that I couldn’t really be expected to understand. I realised how isolated she must have become, with me, a small child, her only confidante.
It came back to me that there was always the word him, spat out while her eyes held mine. Perhaps that’s why I have no visual sense of my father, except what I can only describe as a cloud of threat. That was how I came to know ‘him’.
If I could at least rationalise this, less explicable was the way my mental image of my foster parents slipped away. I had never kept photos, and after a few years found I could summon only mild physical sensations when I thought of them. No prompt could retrieve their presence in my life. Despite the distance that had existed between us this disturbed me. After all, for more than a decade I had possessed their surname. It was as though I’d been abandoned, twice, from a place inside myself, so that memories anyone would think normal would never be mine to draw from.
But I had always made things. It started early, with random objects – a kite built of sticks and a pillow case, a crossbow fashioned from some two-by-two and a coat hanger, a simple box shaped instrument with wire strings. Perhaps these became my certainty. More recently I’d started evening classes in carving and sculpture, chipping and scraping at sawn blocks of oak and beech, as if the shapes that emerged might tell me something.
‘It’s clever, but I find it disturbing.’ The young woman stood by my shoulder, looking at the work piece clamped to my bench. I had noticed her carving a small, attenuated figure in the far corner of the work room, but we had never spoken before.
‘I’m not saying that’s bad,’ she continued. I realised I’d been staring at the twisting figure I was working on, considering her comment but failing to answer it.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s just the way it comes out.’
‘You put forth your hand.’ She smiled, in the way that people do when they want you to share an unobvious joke.
I smiled too. There was a warmth about her, and an openness, and I was aware of holding something back in myself, as if, I thought later, I was trying to protect her.
‘Come and see what I’m doing,’ she said. She turned away, confident that I would follow. When we reached her bench my eye fell on two detailed sketches lying in the well, a front and side elevation notated with dimensions. Although it was incomplete I could see how they would correspond with the figure she was shaping.
‘You know what you’re going to do,’ I said. Somehow the words seemed to mean more than I’d intended.
She smiled again. ‘Working freestyle’s a leap of faith. That’s only for brave people.’
I’m sure I’m not brave,’ I said. ‘I sort of imagine there’s a shape hidden in the wood, and it’s down to me to find it.’
‘And when do you think you’ll know you have?’ She had a light Scottish accent, and although she was still smiling I realised the question was serious.
‘I can’t honestly say.’
Perhaps she saw I was becoming uncomfortable. ‘I’m sure you’ll know when it happens,’ she said.
We both turned our attention to the half-formed figure on her bench. The limbs seemed to taper forward in what looked to me like a seeking gesture. I stroked it.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘as if it’s trying to reach out into the world.’
She nodded. ‘That’s what I thought about your piece, but in a different way.’
We sat together during breaks after that. Maggie was friendly and asked me the ordinary questions you do when you’re getting to know someone, and not for the first time I realised how difficult I found it to describe my life to another person. I suppose it was hard to know what I was describing.
The money came during my second term, without any explanation. It simply appeared in my bank account, and then kept appearing for the next few months.
‘There’s a direct credit, but the account is anonymised,’ the cashier told me, when I decided I had to investigate.
‘Can you do that?’ I asked.
‘Well someone’s done it.’ He looked up from his screen. ‘I wish they’d do it to me. And there’s no specified time limit.’
‘Is it mine to spend? Could it be a mistake?’ I could hear the anxiety in my voice.
‘That’s unlikely,’ he said. ‘A one-off payment, possibly, but not an arrangement like this. If it was a mistake the payee would have realised by now.’
I went away and thought. I had learned to distrust things I couldn’t explain. To give myself space, I set up a second account and watched as it swelled by precise increments, like an entity that might somehow become part of my life.
By the time the letter arrived, I had just started the final term of my course. The script was unsigned, but that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about it.
You will have been wondering who I am, but really there’s no need. Let me just say that I once knew your parents. By the time you read this I will probably be gone for good. I’m aware, as I’ve always have been, that I’ve influenced your life more than anyone. But no, we’ve never met. If you live long enough, and have the honesty, you can’t deny that all actions have consequences. I’m not denying it. You are the last consequence of my actions. The money won’t stop – it’s yours to do what you want with. Live the freest life you can.
I held the sheet of paper and stared at it. The bottom edge was charred, as if it had been lit then extinguished.
For several weeks I did nothing – I wanted to be sure of what I felt and believed. Then I donated every penny I had received to a local charity and instructed my bank to block any further payments.
When the end of year exhibition arrived, students were allowed to choose where our pieces stood. Maggie wanted to place hers and mine side by side.
‘We’ve both made seekers,’ she said.
It was true – I could see that as I stood before them. The long, sinuous fingers of her figure seemed to stretch towards promise or hope. Somehow it was easy to imagine the world fulfilling it.
I stared for a long time at my own piece, as if it was the work of someone else. The fingers, shorter, less clearly defined, reached out too, beseechingly, like those of someone falling who can only grasp air, or like shadows, shaped only by stifled light.
By Mike Fox
- Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story Blurred Edges, published by Lunate Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. His story The Homing Instinct, first published by Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2