On the day we buried my mother, I deduce, I have poisoned myself
with alcohol and drugs, and woken up in the hospital. I console
myself with the knowledge that it’s what she would have
This must be a hospital, mustn’t it? I’m in a single
bed, strapped in tightly by sheets. I can’t move, any more
than my mother can. I’m in my own coffin. Nothing is
particularly sore except for my stomach. I feel sick, but I
haven’t got a discernible injury. One of my legs feels
bruised, and I am suddenly scared that it’s a phantom pain on
an amputated limb, but there is a leggy bump under the sheet. I
think I’m intact. I have a blinding headache, and I feel
fuzzy, much more so than on a normal New Year’s Day.
This place smells of disinfectant, but not in a reassuring way.
Half disinfectant, half sick. I’m attached to a machine. It
must be a hospital. This is alarming. The only thing I want to do
is to burst into tears. I try to remember why. I should be happy. I
force myself to be happy. It’s only the comedown that’s
making me sad. I was happy last night. I was relieved.
I don’t think I even made it to midnight. What a way to greet
the year: passing out and probably forcing some doctor to inspect
the contents of my stomach as the clock struck twelve. I wish I was
at home, nursing this monstrous hangover. Mum was ill; I’m
not. I don’t want to lie here and do nothing. I can get up
and go. That’s all I need to do. I’ll get up in a
minute and find my clothes.
I have a hazy memory of being in an ambulance—a quick flash
of lying down, driving fast, drifting. Someone with me, trying to
make me sick. Shouting at me to wake up. I couldn’t do it. I
went back to sleep. Now I feel, appropriately, like death. I will
get up in a minute—I have to—but I’ll just have a
rest first. I’ve always wanted to go in an ambulance.
I’m half-heartedly cross not to have been awake enough to
appreciate it. I suppose most people aren’t. A broken leg or
something would be the optimum ambulance experience.
Cars swerving out of the way, me storming through the red lights,
lots of people concentrating only on me, and all because I took a
line too many of coke, or had one too many vodkas, or both. I
can’t believe I missed that.
I often feel like I do now, but not so dramatically. I know if I
drank enough water and juice and coffee, and filled up on
carbohydrates, I’d be all right by tonight. I need a full
English breakfast at the café. The very thought makes me
heave. I wonder how to call a nurse; I don’t think I’ve
got much of a voice.
I can’t remember how, exactly, I got into this stupid state.
I know yesterday was the funeral. I certainly didn’t collapse
then. I made a supreme effort to be as dignified as possible, and I
think I carried it off extremely well, though it appears that the
dignity didn’t last until the sun set. That’s unfair,
it probably did, since that would have been at about 3 p.m. but not
It was a hypocritical service at the church in Hampstead, an
establishment I happen to know Mum last attended on Christmas Eve
twelve years ago, and then she only went to get a glug of Communion
alcohol. "Ghastly!" she exclaimed on her return. She banned us both
from attending in future. God lost her soul by serving bad wine. He
must be gutted.
Yesterday, the ban lifted, I sat in the front pew, smelling the old
musty smells, and I rejoiced. I sang the hymns I’d chosen for
her: Lord of all hopefulness, Jerusalem, All things bright and
beautiful. These are the hymns you know if you don’t go to
church. I sang them loudly, discarding my self-consciousness. I was
glad she was dead. Glad for her, glad for me, and glad for the fact
that my boyfriend, who left me three weeks ago, came back to
comfort me. Tom sat next to me, looking suitably sombre. His
presence beside me electrified me. Tom always dominates any space
he’s in. He is a big man, and in the past few years his
waistline has taken on a life of its own. The same thing has
happened to all his friends. Boys don’t have to care when
their lifestyle catches up with them. Girls do. Life isn’t
His dark hair and rosy cheeks had been shampooed and scrubbed
respectively. He looked sensitive and full of regret. But he was
still my Tom, and he still knew Mum. His solemnity, like mine, was
just for show. Together, we looked handsome, and that knowledge
bolstered me further. God knows what I must look now, in a hospital
gown and crinkly knickers.
Yesterday, I was wearing a black scoop-necked dress I bought months
ago in New York with the funeral in mind, a black fur coat that
I’d taken from the back of Mum’s wardrobe, and killer
heels, with deep red lipstick. I enjoyed the bimbo-widow look. Tom,
who never wears a suit, was wearing a black one he’d had made
in Hong Kong, years ago when he was lithe. He couldn’t have
done the jacket up if he’d tried. His hair was shining. He
looked completely unlike his normal, dishevelled self, and I loved
him for doing that for me. My brother Will was on my other side,
and I was proud of him too. He looks like Mum did in her heyday:
tall and blond and striking. The same as me really. The vicar
talked about her for a little bit, which was risible. He
didn’t know her. She didn’t know him, and if she had
she wouldn’t have liked him. He said she had "touched the
lives of those around her," which must be the catch-all,
bottom-of-the-barrel citation. He must have to bury unrepentant
infidels all the time. I bet they outnumber the faithful.
Oh God, here we go. I grab a strange, kidney-shaped plastic
container beside my bed just in time to vomit into it. A
radioactive green liquid comes out. This should make me feel
better, but it doesn’t. I try to remember that my underlying
state is happiness, but for now the nausea has penetrated all other
feelings, and grown there, like cancer. Where is Tom? Where is
Will? Where is my scoop-necked dress?
I can picture the burial, and it is unreal, like a film. It was, of
course, freezing, though I was snug in my dead minks. The sky was
slatey, the grass was that bright green it goes just before it
rains (a toned down version of my sick). Towards the end it began
to drizzle. There were very few people. Dad was there, and Lola had
made sure he brought a child with him, lest he should enjoy being
alone for a moment and leave her. Poor Briony was standing, three
years old and bewildered, at the burial of a woman whose name may
not be mentioned in their house. She behaved admirably. A few of
Mum’s horrible family had turned up. She was always coy about
why exactly she never saw them and they never sent more than a
terse card at Christmas. I know the reason, now. They were all
beautifully dressed, rich, so-called Christians from the
country—the kind of people who not only go hunting, but host
the hunt ball and rub foxy gristle on their children’s
faces—and looked satisfied to see her finally lowered into
the ground. I hated them all.
Will skulked at the back, where they had to turn and stare if they
wanted a quick look at him. He had the air of someone furtively
having a fag, but of course he wasn’t. He was just hiding
from the people he’s always wanted to meet.
I remember Tom behaving appallingly. While all the ashes to ashes
stuff was going on, and I knew it was my moment to be sad, the only
one I was allowed, and I was feeling dull and empty instead, he
started moving his arm down my back, slowly, until he was stroking
my bottom highly inappropriately. I found this horribly funny. Mum
would have too, but only because of all her relatives, and her
ex-husband, standing around looking pompous and hypocritical, like
Prince Philip at Diana’s funeral. I tried hard not to laugh,
but it got worse and worse. Tom was straight-faced. How dare he?
That was my mother, in that box. It seemed so stupid. Mother in the
box. Jack in the box. I felt a huge snort of hysteria coming, and
whipped out my orphan’s handkerchief in time to bury my face
in it and pretend to cry. My hair was blowing everywhere. I
pictured us all in a long shot from far, far away. Maybe an aerial
shot. We were archetypal mourners, yet I don’t think there
was a single person there who was genuinely pained that she was
dead. I couldn’t believe it had finally happened. Will was
sad, but that was only because he hadn’t met her. Nothing
surprises me now about my family. They are too bizarre to make up.
Still, it probably makes me more interesting than someone who had a
boring old crappy normal childhood.
I am becoming agitated. I really want to cry, but I mustn’t
start or I might not stop. My tummy hurts. Being here is
intolerable. I should be at home with Will and Tom, watching telly
and making resolutions. I don’t like being ignored. I find a
button with a picture of a "toilet" lady on it, and press it. I
want someone to take away my green sick, apart from anything else,
and bring me a glass of water. There is no discernible sound, and
nothing happens. I bet everyone’s hungover. Perhaps all the
nurses have called in sick. I wish the curtains weren’t drawn
round my bed. There are noises in the ward, but I don’t seem
to have the energy to get up and have a look, or, indeed, to
whisper for a passer-by. Hospitals are full of farting, shouting
men, and I don’t want to invite one, inadvertently, into my
Will pissed me off when he phoned, last week, the day after I found
her on the floor. When I picked up the phone, he said, "Hello,
who’s that?" I hate people who ring you up, forcing you to
stop whatever you were doing and answer the phone, and then demand
to know your name. They could be anyone. They have to tell you
their name before you tell them yours; that’s the rule. So I
said, "More to the point, who’s that?" He said his name was
William and he needed to speak to Anne. I told him he
couldn’t. Then he said that, although I didn’t know
him, he was my brother. I’m still shocked. I wish I’d
known I had a big brother. I’d have made Mum see him. As it
was, he was writing asking to see her, and she was saying she
couldn’t face the trauma. She was so weak, that woman.
I have a niggling feeling when I think of Will now. I hope I
didn’t say the wrong thing to him yesterday, because the
wrong thing could be completely, disastrously wrong. I don’t
expect I did.
After the service, all the strangers stomped around my home as if
it was a village hall or a pub. They complained that there was no
toilet paper left, and asked where we kept the bottle-opener.
Everyone was there, except for the one person who had barely
stirred from her comfy chair for fifteen years. Now, that was
strange. We’d got loads of nibbles in from Waitrose. It cost
me a fortune but, I reasoned, I don’t need to worry about
money now. I thought we’d have masses of food left over, but
we didn’t. The mean relatives not only ate everything
I’d bought, they also found Mum’s store of chocolate
treats. She certainly doesn’t need them. Tom and Kate and I
had a secret stash of vodka, which they didn’t find. We made
everyone else drink the cheapest wine in the shop. I owed Mum that
I think the vodka is where the day’s drinking began, but I
wasn’t necking them back, just keeping my courage up.
Cunningly, we had them laced with Coke, and all the oldsters
thought we were on soft drinks. One lecherous relative bought into
the whole "innocent kids" act and slipped me a fiver, presumably
unaware that I’m £50,000 richer now. I stumbled a bit in
my amusement, and grabbed the table to stay upright. I wandered
off, found Briony painting my old Tiny Tears with nail varnish in
my bedroom, and gave her the money.
"Buy a nice toy," I suggested. "Something that makes a big loud
"A BIG LOUD NOISE!" she agreed enthusiastically. "I’ll buy it
"Like a trumpet," I told her. I don’t know why I bother,
she’s hardly going to be visiting the shops on her own. She
seemed keen on the trumpet, so maybe she’ll nag until she
At one stage I was sitting on the stairs with Tom, drinking a very
strong "Coke" and watching in amusement as the horse-faced wankers
who’d disowned Mum for having the misfortune to get pregnant
at sixteen nosed around her house. Thank God we’d had the
professionals in to clean up. They’d have loved it if it had
been as encrusted as she liked it. It was her Miss Havisham
"Do you promise to be nice to me now?" I pestered Tom. He always
gets annoyed when I talk like this and I only do it by accident,
when I’m drunk. I forestalled his protest, however, with my
killer punch. "I’m an orphan now, you see."’
Unfortunately, my father was within earshot. "You are not a bloody
orphan!" he hissed furiously, trying not to attract anyone’s
attention, and thus attracting more. Tom laughed loudly. Dad was
"Not technically," I conceded, taking Tom’s hand for moral
support. "I just mean, I half am. More than half really, I’ve
never lived with you."
"You’ve got me and you’ve got your stepmother," he
said. "That’s as many parents as most people get. You are
twenty-seven, you know. You’re not a child."
I glared, and downed the rest of my vodka. My father is a twat, and
he doesn’t even know it. I was dying to tell him many, many
things, but it would just have delighted the onlookers, who ignored
Mum for thirty-two years and then flocked in from the country to
nose around her house.
Sniffling a little, I remind myself sternly of my position on Mum,
from which I am not allowed to deviate. It is as follows: she
messed up my life when she was alive, so now that she’s dead
I’m not allowed to mope around. I’ve got to see that
the sun starts shining right now. It is symbolic that we buried her
on New Year’s Eve. I hope it is less symbolic that I woke up
to greet my new life in a crappy hospital with yellow paint peeling
off the walls. Me, the sad drunks, and the cute children with
leukaemia, tragically hospitalised over the holiday period. If I
tip my head even slightly, I can feel everything inside it washing
around. It is agony. I shall make a resolution. By this time next
year I will have radically changed my life. Tom will have realised
that his future is with me. I want us to go travelling. Somewhere
hot, to start new lives and have fun, and not be stressed.
"That is a splendid coat!" exclaimed an arse-faced woman, nodding
towards my fur, which I had hung up conspicuously, savouring the
glamour. Even though she was just saying it as an excuse to stand
around me waiting to see if I continued arguing with Dad, I do
agree with her. I shall tell everyone except these wankers that
it’s fake. And I’ll never see this lot again. "You
know," she continued, "I rather think I remember Anne in this.
Lucinda gave it to her when she had the, um, embarrassment." She
looked significantly at William.
Will, meanwhile, was shifting from foot to foot while an elderly
man, possibly my grandfather (yes, that is how close my family is)
talked at him.
"She never even told us!" the old git was explaining. "We just
noticed one day. She took that coat off, and there it was, clear as
day. Threw her out, of course. Not impressed with bastards. She
never did make anything of herself."
Will’s expression is murderous. I wonder whether this fat old
twat knows he’s talking to the bastard. I think he probably
does. Will probably wishes he’d just stayed an orphan, like
me. I can’t wait to get to know him properly. We’ll
look after each other, form a new, non-dysfunctional family.
The curtains part and a woman ambles in. She’s not a nurse.
Next to this lady I am fragrance itself. She’s wearing a
hospital nightie which gapes open so I can see her knickers.
She’s quite old and clearly confused, as she first walks all
the way over to my bed and then starts climbing into it.
"My bed!" I rasp crossly. My mouth is dry. These are the first
words I’ve uttered. She ignores me, so I haul myself into a
sitting position (ouch), untucking sheets as I do so, and push her
back. She sits down abruptly on the floor, still looking glazed. I
would call a nurse, but I can’t seem to get the impetus. I
leave her sitting there, and snuggle back down, and try to remember
how I came to this. After the house, memories are fuzzy.
There is a scene of impossible glamour. I am in a gorgeous bar with
Tom and Will and Kate and Guy. It is dark outside, but it’s
early. Everyone is wearing black and grey and deep red, the colour
of my lipstick and of my second favourite coat, which I am now
wearing (I wouldn’t take a fur into Soho). It is very
squashed but we don’t mind. We are actually sitting on the
floor, at my instigation, but we are still the epitome of cool. I
am sipping elegantly at a glass of vodka. Outside it is cold, but
nobody minds that, because we have come together into this warmth
to escape the climate. People smile and talk. I look at my dearly
beloved boyfriend, who is cradling me in his strong arms, and I
look at my brother. I don’t really know him but I love him.
Kate is my best friend. She’s beautiful. I’ve always
envied her Asian blood. One Indian grandmother, it seems, is all it
takes, and you end up with a year-round tan, huge dark eyes, and
glossy hair. Kate’s lifestyle will never catch up with her,
but I can’t resent that. I love her.
Guy is saying that he’s going to be looking for a new
flatmate soon. I rouse myself sufficiently to ask if it can be me.
I realise I can leave the Hampstead house forever, now. We will
sell it. I will live here in Soho with the beautiful people. I look
at Guy, waiting for his answer. He always claims his hair is
"sandy," but we all know ginger when we see it. He’s shorter
than me—shorter even than Kate. He knows how to party, and
he’s horribly untidy. We’ll be good flatmates.
"Can’t see why not!" he replies.
I feel loved and wanted. Outside, there are no homeless people,
only smiling, lovely people. At the bar I decide to buy a whole
bottle of vodka to stop myself having to go back again. I wonder
why I’ve never done that before.
"My mother has died and I’m happy," I announce, beatifically,
to the barman.
I repeat it when I get back to the others. It is my little
"That is a fucking horrible way to be talking," Will bursts out
after I say it for the fourth time. "Even if you felt that you
should never bloody say it." I remember that I must ask Will about
what his life was like in between being adopted and meeting me last
week. I’ve been meaning to ask him but I always forget.
"With respect, mate," says Tom in his mock-Cockney, "you
don’t know how hard the past few years have been for Tans.
Make allowances, yeah?"
Everyone loves me. I am happy indeed.
Then I am walking around in the cold with Will. I don’t know
where Tom and Guy and Kate went. This frightens me a little, but I
keep talking. I hear my voice, but I don’t know what it is
saying. "The thing with working in the media is, you mix with the
sort of creative people you might not meet elsewhere and that means
you live a different kind of life. I think I live quite a bohemian
life, and that has to be a good thing for me as a person . . ." and
so on, and on. I must have had some coke. One of the others must
have given it to me. Will stops me talking.
"Tansy," he says. "Tell me about our mother. Tell me what she was
like. Please. You’re the only connection to her."
Urgh. This is the last conversation I want to have. We have reached
some park gates. It’s Regent’s Park. I think I’ll
"You don’t want to know," I tell him. "Come on." I start
trying to climb the gates. William pulls me back.
"For fuck’s sake. Come back here and tell me. Of course I
want to know."
"She was a terrible woman. She was drunk all the time, and she
never admitted she had a problem. But she’s gone now." I
found a little package in my pocket. "Why don’t we have some
more coke? I will anyway."
"Come and sit down," says Will, "and talk to me." So I do.
All I have after that is a flash of the interior of the ambulance,
and a niggling bad feeling. I’ll have to ask Will, try and
get him to tell me whether I said anything I shouldn’t have
said. Will I be able to ask him in such a way that if I
haven’t told him, it won’t matter? I will when
I’m sober, I expect. I can be a clever girl sometimes.
I have the thick feeling in my head that comes from coke. I have
the throbbing that comes from alcohol. I have the shakes and the
misery that always follow such happiness. I have an old woman
sitting on the floor by my bed. I want to see a doctor, yet I
don’t want to, because I know they’ll tell me off. But
I have the perfect excuse for using the National Health
Service’s resources to clean me up after my self-indulgent
excess. I can pretend, convincingly, that I was so upset about Mum
that I had to seek oblivion. I can present it as a halfway suicide
attempt. They’ll never know that I’m glad she’s
dead and it was just normal high spirits. I think I’m going
to be sick again, and there’s no other receptacle. I untuck
acres of sheets, and get out of bed, on the side where the woman
isn’t. I wobble alarmingly. I quite like the perverse
aesthetics of this regulation gown. I remind myself of One Flew
Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or maybe a Channel 5 drama about
anorexia, not that I’d be a convincing anorexic. Perhaps
I’m one of those girls who gets sent to a mental ward by her
cruel family who don’t understand her and make her have a
lobotomy, and I’m battling bravely to get out, while learning
about life from the other inmates who really are mad. Dad may not
think I’m an orphan, but I do. I’m a sick orphan. These
paper knickers are classic. I feel dizzy. And extremely sick. I
Within moments, I’m back in bed, and the smelly old lady has
gone, and my curtains have been opened to reveal that I’m on
a mixed ward—gross—and that I am by far the youngest,
prettiest person here. What a bunch of shuffling, hacking
"What happened?" I ask the nurse who accomplished all this,
assuming poor-little-orphan persona.
"What do you think happened?" she snaps as she fills in some
charts. "You took an overdose, didn’t you?"
"Did you pump my stomach?"
"Not personally, no."
"It was my mother’s funeral."
"We know. Your brother explained. You were lucky to have someone
responsible to look after you."
"Well, I haven’t got my mother anymore, have I?" I say
sharply, and look at her with eyes that are as big and as hurt as I
can make them. She doesn’t know any different.
A bit later, a doctor fills me in. "You could have died," she says.
"Do you know that? We’re not here to preach, but hard drugs
are extremely dangerous, and I think you should perhaps consider
some treatment for your dependency."
"That’s just silly," I tell her. "I’ve never done this
before. My mother just died. I won’t do it again. I’m
not dependent—it was a one-off. I’m sorry for wasting
your time." I am being as nice, and contrite, as I possibly can. I
think she’s just staying and chatting to me because I’m
so much more wholesome than the other people, with their papery
skin and their sunken eyes. Normally an insult such as "dependency"
would have me bristling, but today I can’t be bothered. She
says I can go home this evening. Because I’m fine, you
I’m happy now. My worries have vanished. As I sit in my
rumpled bed with tears streaming down my cheeks, I know, for the
first time in my life, that I’m going to be uncomplicatedly
happy. I’m going to go somewhere hot with Tom, to get away
from arse-faced people and the National Health, and we’ll
have adventures. My new life will begin very, very soon
Excerpted from BACKPACK © Copyright 2002 by Emily Barr.
Reprinted with permission by Plume. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 310 pages
- Publisher: Plume
- ISBN-10: 0452282934
- ISBN-13: 9780452282933