My Real Children

by Jo Walton

My Real Children

Hardcover, 320 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $25.99 | purchase

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NPR Summary

Remembering two different pasts that reflect contrasting historical events and relationships with different people, an elderly Patricia Cowan wonders about her identity while gazing at a moon that might house benign or malicious technologies. By the Hugo Award-winning author of Among Others.

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Excerpt: My Real Children

My Real Children

1
VC: 2015


"Confused today," they wrote on her notes. "Confused. Less confused. Very confused." That last was written frequently, sometimes abbreviated by the nurses to just "VC," which made her smile, as if she were sufficiently confused to be given a medal for it. Her name was on the notes too—just her first name, Patricia, as if in old age she were demoted to childhood, and denied both the dignity of surname and title and the familiarity of the form of her name she preferred. The notes reminded her of a school report with the little boxes and fixed categories into which it was so difficult to express the real complexity of any situation. "Spelling atrocious." "Needs to pay attention." "Confused today." They seemed remote and Olympian and impossible to appeal. "But Miss!" the kids would say in more recent years. She would never have dared when she was in school, and neither would the obedient girls of her first years of teaching. "But Miss!" was a product of their growing confidence, trickle-down feminism, and she welcomed it even as it made her daily work harder. She wanted to say it now herself to the nurses who added to her notes: "But Miss! I'm only a little confused today!"
The notes hung clipped to the end of her bed. They listed her medication, the stuff for her heart she had been taking for years since the first attack. She was grateful that they remembered it for her now, the abrupt Latin syllables. She liked to check the notes from time to time, even though the staff discouraged it if they caught her at it. The notes had the date, which otherwise was hard to remember, and even the day of the week, which she so easily lost track of here, where all days were alike. She could even forget what time of year it was, going out so seldom, which she would have thought impossible. Not knowing the season really was a sign of severe confusion.
Sometimes, especially at first, she looked at the notes to see how confused she appeared to them, but often lately she forgot, and then forgot what she had forgotten to do among the constant morass of things she needed to keep track of and the endless muddle of notes reminding herself of what she had meant to do. She had found a list once that began "Make list." VC, the attendants would have written if they had seen it; but that was long before the dementia began, when she had been still quite young, although she had not thought so at the time. She had never felt older than those years when the children were small and so demanding of her attention. She had felt it a new lease on youth when they were grown and gone, and the constant drain on her time and caring was relieved. Not that she had ever stopped caring. Even now when she saw their faces, impossibly middle-aged, she felt that same burden of unconditional loving tugging at her, their needs and problems, and her inability to keep them safe and give them what they wanted.
It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused. Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths: nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving. At other times she knew equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all. When any of them visited she knew them, knew how many of them there were, and the other knowledge felt like a dream. She couldn't understand how she could be so muddled. If she saw Philip she knew he was one of her three children, yet if she saw Cathy she knew she was one of her four children. She recognized them and felt that mother's ache. She was not yet as confused as her own mother had been at last when she had not known her, had wept and fled from her and accused her of terrible crimes. She knew that time would come, when her children and grandchildren would be strangers. She had watched her mother's decline and knew what lay ahead. In her constant struggle to keep track of her glasses and her hearing aid and her book it was this that she dreaded, the day when they came and she did not know them, when she would respond to Sammy politely as to a stranger, or worse, in horror as to an enemy.
She was glad for their sake that they didn't have to witness it every day, as she had done. She was glad they had found her this nursing home, even if it seemed to shift around her from day to day, abruptly thrusting out new wings or folding up on itself to make a wall where yesterday there had been a corridor. She knew there was a lift, and yet when the nurses told her that was nonsense she took the stairlift as docilely as she could. She remembered her mother struggling and fighting and insisting, and let it go. When the lift was there again she wanted to tell the nurse in triumph that she had been right, but it was a different nurse. And what was more likely, after all—that it was the dementia ("VC"), or that place kept changing? They were gentle and well-meaning, she wasn't going to ascribe their actions to malice as her mother had so easily ascribed everything. Still, if she was going to forget some things and remember others, why couldn't she forget the anguish of her mother's long degeneration and remember where she had put down her hearing aids?
Two of the nurses were taking her down to the podiatrist one day—she was so frail now that she needed one on each side to help her shuffle down the corridor. They stood waiting for the elusive lift, which appeared to be back in existence today. The wall by the lift was painted an institutional green, like many of the schools where she had taught. It was a color nobody chose for their home, but which any committee thought appropriate for a school or a hospital or a nursing home. Hanging on the wall was a reproduction of a painting, a field of poppies. It wasn't Monet as she had thought on earlier casual glances; it was one of the Second Impressionist school of the Seventies. "Pamela Corey," she said, remembering.
"No," the male nurse said, patronizing as ever. "It's David Hockney. Corey painted the picture of the ruins of Miami we have in the little day room."
"I taught her," she said.
"No, did you?" the female nurse asked. "Fancy having taught somebody famous like that, helped somebody become a real artist."
"I taught her English, not art," Pat said, as the lift came and they all three went in. "I do remember encouraging her to go on to the Royal Academy." Pamela Corey had been thin and passionate in the sixth form, and torn between Oxford and painting. She remembered talking to her about safe and unsafe choices, and what one might regret.
"Somebody famous," the female nurse repeated, breaking her train of thought.
"She wasn't famous then," Pat said. "Nobody is. You never know until too late. They're just people like everyone else. Anyone you know might become famous. Or not. You don't know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will. You might become famous yourself. You might change the world."
"Bit late for that now," the nurse said, laughing that little deprecating laugh that Pat always hated to hear other women use, the laugh that diminished possibilities.
"It's not too late. You'd be amazed how much I've done since I was your age, how much difference I've made. You can do whatever you want to, make yourself whatever you want to be."
The nurse recoiled a little from her vehemence. "Calm down now, Patricia," the male nurse said on her other side. "You're scaring poor Nasreen."
She grimaced. Men always diminished her that way, and what she had been saying had been important. She turned back to the female nurse, but they were out of the lift and in a corridor she'd never seen before, a corridor with heather-twill carpet, and though she had been sure they were going to the podiatrist it was an opthalmologist who was waiting in the sunny little room. Confused, she thought. Confused again, and maybe she really was scaring the nurses. Her mother had scared her. She hated to close herself back in the box of being a good girl, to appease, to smile, to let go of the fierce caring that had been so much a part of who she was. But she didn't want to terrify people either.
Later, back in her bedroom with a prescription for new reading glasses that the nurse had taken away safely, she tried to remember what she had been thinking about Pamela. Follow your heart, she had said, or perhaps follow your art. Of course Pamela hadn't been famous then, and there had been nothing to mark her as destined for fame. She'd been just another girl, one of the hundreds or thousands of girls she had taught. Towards the end there had been boys too, after they went comprehensive, but it was the girls she especially remembered. Men had enough already; women were socialized not to put themselves first. She certainly had been. It was women who needed more of a hand making choices.
She had made choices. Thinking about that she felt the strange doubling, the contradictory memories, as if she had two histories that both led her to this point, this nursing home. She was confused, there was no question about that. She had lived a long life. They asked her how old she was and she said she was nearly ninety, because she couldn't remember whether she was eighty-eight or eighty-nine, and she couldn't remember if it was 2014 or 2015 either. She kept finding out and it kept slipping away. She was born in 1926, the year of the General Strike; she held on to that. That wasn't doubled. Her memories of childhood were solitary and fixed, clear and single as slides thrown on a screen. It must have happened later, whatever it was that caused it. At Oxford? After? There were no slides any more. Her grandchildren showed her photographs on their phones. They lived in a different world from the world where she had grown up.
A different world. She considered that for a moment. She had never cared for science fiction, though she had friends who did. She had read a children's book to the class once, Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl in boarding school who woke up each day in a different time, forty years behind, changing places with another girl. She remembered they did each other's homework, which worked well enough except when it came to memorizing poetry. She had been forced to memorize just such reams of poetry by her mother, which had come in handy later. She was never at a loss for a quotation. She had probably been accepted into Oxford on her ability to quote, though of course it was the war, and the lack of young men had made it easier for women.
She had been to Oxford. Her memories there were not confusingly doubled. Tolkien had taught her Old English. She remembered him declaiming Beowulf at nine o'clock on a Monday morning, coming into the room and putting the book down with a bang and turning to them all: "Hwaet!" He hadn't been famous then, either. It was years before The Lord of the Rings and all the fuss. Later people had been so excited when she told them she had known him. You can never tell who's going to be famous. And at Oxford, as Margaret Drabble had written, everyone had the excitement of thinking they might be going to be someone famous. She had never imagined that she would be. But she had wondered about her friends, and certainly Mark. Poor Mark.
The indisputable fact was: she was confused. She lost track of her thoughts. She had difficulty remembering things. People told her things and she heard them and reacted and then forgot all about them. She had forgotten that Bethany had been signed by a record label. That she was just as delighted the second time Bethany told her didn't matter. Bethany had been crushed that she had forgotten. Worse, she had forgotten, unforgivably, that Jamie had been killed. She knew that Cathy was wounded that she could have forgotten, even though she had said that she wished she could forget herself. Cathy was so easily hurt, and she wouldn't have hurt her for anything, especially after such a loss, but she had, unthinkingly, because her brain wouldn't hold the memory. How much else had she forgotten and then not even remembered that she had forgotten?
Her brain couldn't be trusted. Now she imagined that she was living in two different realities, drifting between them; but it must be her brain that was at fault, like a computer with a virus that made some sectors inaccessible and others impossible to write to. That had been Rhodri's metaphor. Rhodri was one of the few people who would talk to her about her dementia as a problem, a problem with potential fixes and workarounds. She hadn't seen him for too long. Perhaps he was busy. Or perhaps she had been in the other world, the world where he didn't exist.
She picked up a book. She had given up on trying to read new books, though it broke her heart. She couldn't find where she had put them down and she couldn't remember what she had read so far. She could still re-read old books like old friends, though she knew that too would go; before the end her mother had forgotten how to read. For now, while she could, she read a lot of poetry, a lot of classics. Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford came to her hand now, and she opened it at random to read about Miss Matty and her financial difficulties back in the time of King William. "The last gigot in England had been seen in Cranford, and seen without a smile."
After a while she let the book drop. It had grown dark outside, and she got up and tottered over to draw the curtains. She made her way carefully, hanging onto the bed and then the wall. They didn't like her to do it without the quad cane but she was safe enough, there wasn't room to fall. Though she had fallen once on her way to the toilet and forgotten that she had a button to call for help. The curtains were navy blue, although she was quite sure there had been a pale green blind the last time. She leaned on the window sill, looking out at the bare branches of a sycamore moving in the breeze. The moon was half-obscured by a thin veil of cloud. Where was this place? Up on the moor? Or was it somewhere along the canal? There might be birds in the branches in the morning. She must remember to come and look. She had her binoculars somewhere. She remembered insisting on holding on to them and Philip saying gently that she wouldn't have any use for them in the nursing home and Jinny saying in her gruff way that she might as well bring them if she wanted them. They must be here somewhere, unless that was in the other world. It would be very unfair if the binoculars were in one world and the tree were in the other.
If there were two worlds.
If there were two worlds, then what caused her to slide between them? They weren't two times as they were for Charlotte. It was the same year, whichever year it was. It was just that things were different, things that shouldn't have been different. She had four children, or three. There was a lift in the nursing home, or there was only a stairlift. She could remember things that couldn't simultaneously be true. She remembered Kennedy being assassinated and she remembered him declining to run again after the Cuban missile exchange. They couldn't both have happened, yet she remembered them both happening. Had she made a choice that could have gone two ways and thereafter had two lives? Two lives that both began in Twickenham in 1926 and both ended here in this nursing home in 2014 or 2015, whichever it was?
She shuffled back and looked at her notes, clipped to the end of the bed. It was February 5th 2015, and she was VC. That was definite, and good to know. She sat down but did not take up the book. It would be suppertime soon, she could hear the trolley moving down the corridor. They'd feed her and then it would be time for bed. This was the same whatever world she was in.
If she had made a choice—well, she knew she had. She could remember as clearly as she could remember anything. She had been in that little phone box in the corridor in The Pines and Mark had said that if she was going to marry him it would have to be now or never. And she had been startled and confused and had stood there in the smell of chalk and disinfectant and girls, and hesitated, and made the decision that changed everything in her life.


Copyright © 2014 by Jo Walton
copyright © 2003 by Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden


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