That’s how Nanna explains it to Suki whenever her mum cries. “Storms rile up the waves inside her, and tears happen when the spray breaks free.”
Her moaning, Nanna says, is the sound of the wind whipping wild salty air over the sea.
Suki wonders about gulls and shipwrecks and sea monsters. In her exercise book, where she should be copying out vocabulary she doesn’t yet understand, Suki draws creatures with long, grasping arms and burning eyes for seeing in the dark of ocean depths.
Her teacher, the nice Mz Arnold who says it’s fine to love whoever and that love is the important thing, bunches her eyebrows together and asks Suki to stay behind for “a little chat.”
In the “little chat” Mz Arnold asks “Is everything is ok at home?” and Suki nods vigorously, wondering if Mz Arnold’s head is full of flowers like the ones on the lacy shirts she wears, and whether any of the flowers have hidden thorns.
At bathtime, Suki splashes hot water until strawberry-scented foam peaks high enough to hide the islands of her knees. She wonders what lives in her dad’s head, wherever he might be, and then she thinks she remembers a dark forest floor: sharp twigs and spiky beetle legs sticking out from his eyes when he looked at her in that way that made her feel afraid, even though she was only four when he went and didn’t come back.
Before the memory can turn what’s in her head to quicksand or sinking mud, she hears Nanna’s tap on the door, and her call of “Only me!” as she brings in a toasty warm towel. She checks Nanna’s eyes for whatever’s inside, and glimpses soft things, warm things, fragrant things. Behind all that sweetness, there’s a steeliness that steadies Suki’s mind so she can breathe properly again. When she’s dry and dressed in her PJs, Suki takes Nanna’s hand in hers, although she’s such a big girl now, and they go downstairs to Mum. For the moment at least, the sea that lives in Mum’s head is quiet and sunlit and calm.
Judy Darley can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. She’s the author of collections Sky Light Rain (Valley Press) and Remember Me to the Bees (Tangent Books). The Stairs are a Snowcapped Mountain will be published by Reflex Press in 2022. Find Judy at skylightrain.com and twitter.com/JudyDarley.