Story by Elly Sparrow
You were still alive when I walked through Rotherhithe Tunnel, long before I knew you’d once done the same. You were too tired by then, lying on your hospital bed, ready for the restful sleep you’d been waiting for for longer than any of us had cared to admit to ourselves. The weight of all the worries of the world had finally broken you, and there was nothing left but a sorry rack of old bones and dirty organs beneath rumpled flesh, counting down the minutes to your final breath. We were never going to hear you say “fuck” or “bastard” again, and none of us yet had truly grasped how desperately sad that was by itself.
I didn’t have a plan when I opened the car door, because I never have a plan, because I was cut from the same cloth as you were. Because I am the daughter of your daughter and none of us ever knew how to make plans. We just act in the moment and do what’s necessary and getting out of that car in that moment was necessary. It was what I needed to do to survive. The air was warm and dusty, and it felt like we were zooming through the nozzle of an old hairdryer. I looked down and the ground rushed steadily past beneath my dangling foot. I was unsure for a moment, before undoing my seatbelt and feeling it slide over me as it snapped back into place. I was ready to do this, and it didn’t matter if I broke a bone, or tore a muscle or cut my skin to pieces.
I could hear your voice in my head. ‘You musn’t!’ you would have yelled at me, in that anguished way I was all too familiar with. ‘No!’ you’d cry, ‘you musn’t!’ Whenever I said I was coming to see you in the middle of the night, when Mum would scream at me to pack my things and go because she meant it this time. ‘It’s dangerous, something bad will happen, you’ll get hurt. I couldn’t live if you were hurt. You musn’t do this.’
I talked back to you in my head. You always think I’m gonna get hurt.
‘Of course I do,’ you would have said. ‘Because you’re my girl, because I worry.’
A hand clamped tightly around my wrist. A voice called for me, but it wasn’t yours. “Stop being dramatic!”
My hand writhed itself free from the grip. “Fuck off!” I screamed because I am your daughter’s daughter. Because it would take more than a tumble on the ground, more than cuts and bruises to stop us from being free.
The car screeched to a halt; I slammed the door behind me. They rolled down the window and trailed along beside me while I walked looking purposefully on ahead into the distance, having no clue of what I was going to do next. They called out to me again, but their voice was lost amongst the deafening white noise of the tunnel. I could see their head darting frantically forward and then sideways, watching me and then watching the other cars in front. They were waiting for me to get back in the car, because I always get back in the car. But this time I wasn’t getting back in the car. This time, I was never going to get back in the car again.
“Psychopath!” they yelled, before picking up speed. I watched them drive away, feeling lighter and lighter the further away the car got. The rear lights shrunk to bright red specks before it went round a bend and disappeared. Then it was just me and the tunnel and the many cars passing us by. Some of them beeped at me, but none of them stopped. I was walking along a thin strip of pavement that stretched out before me like the rest of my life. Cautiously, I put one foot in front of the other like an acrobat on a tightrope. Like my life, I wasn’t sure where the tunnel was taking me, and I could see no light at the end of it.
I wonder what you would have thought of me if you could have seen me, at that time when the Rotherhithe tunnel had felt like my only option. I wonder how I would have felt if I’d known that it had been the same for you too once. If I had known, I may never have left it, I may still be there now. I may have walked up and down the Rotherhithe tunnel endlessly, forever, in the noise and the smog, with the beeping cars rushing past me, navigating that tightrope. I would have done it, if it could have brought me closer to you, if it could have made you somehow alive again in the way that you used to be. When it felt like you were here just for me. When I thought we were going to die on the same day so I would never have to be without you.
“You’re just so miserable,” I would tell you, over and over again. “Why does everything always have to be as bad as you think it’s going to be?” I was ten or maybe younger at the time, beneath my glaze of inexperience. Back then, the world was blurry like it always is first thing in the morning, when you’re not quite awake yet.
And then you spoke the words that will stay with me forever. “I was sentimental like you once.”
I scoffed when I first heard it. “You don’t know how to be anything other than sad and worried all the time,” I snapped.
I’m sorry. I understand now.
I understand that everything ached from the moment you were born. I understand that you cried with me for my father when he left because yours had done the same. I understand that you overfed us because you knew how much it hurt to be hungry and the idea of us knowing what that was like, hurt you even more. I understand that you walked through that tunnel because it was the warmest place on offer at the time. I understand that you kept on walking and never really got to sit and be still. I understand that you were always needed, that there were always mouths to feed and bodies to embrace and bad days to make better. Days and days that piled up; one on top of the other until you couldn’t stand up anymore. I understand that life felt lonely.
I understand that misery and worry are the casualties that come from knowing how to love as much as you did- deeply, frantically, because it was there and because it’s who you were. So much so that the world’s pains were your pains and the world’s loves were your loves. I understand that it made you feel vulnerable, and I understand that it kept you strong. I understand that it helped you put one foot in front of the other and got you out of that wretched tunnel. I understand because I come from you, because I am your daughter’s daughter. Because I worry too.
I kept walking and walking until I couldn’t feel my body. It was like a switch had been flicked on inside me and I’d left it to run by itself like an unmanned machine. The adrenaline had gone and a stillness descended in its wake. I didn’t have to worry about the next step or the one after that, my legs just kept going on their own accord. I couldn’t hear the cars or taste the dust. It was all OK, I was going to make it out of the tunnel and when I got out, my life was going to start again. I kept my eyes focused on the distance and walked and walked until finally there was the light, where it had always been, piercing through the smog.
As I approached the end, my phone buzzed in my pocket, pulling me back into myself. I took it out and saw that my mum had tried to call me several times.
Her voice was quiet and oddly calm when I called back. “Hello?”
“I’m returning your call,” I said. “What’s up?”
I was one step away from leaving the tunnel when I paused, waiting for her to speak again. A knowing slowly rose through me as I noticed that my mother had never sounded like that before, with such a quiet desperation in her voice. Like she was lost, fighting her way through a paralysing nothing that she’d never known before.
Finally, she said it. “You need to come to the hospital now. She hasn’t got long.”
I nod. “OK,” I say.
And then I take my final step.
Elly Sparrow is a writer, comedian and silversmith from London, United Kingdom. She studied Creative Writing at the University of East London and specialises in Literary Fiction and Creative Non-fiction. A lot of her work focuses on the impact of generational trauma and she is currently working on a memoir about her experiences of living with Borderline Personality Disorder.
This story by Elly Sparrow was the winner of nonfiction in our recent writing competition with the theme "Passed Down." Follow us on Facebook and join our newsletter to receive invitations to future competitions.