It’s not my fault. My mother tells me this so often that the words bounce off and I’m not even sure what they mean some of the time. How can it not be my fault? This time I dropped a milk bottle – not a full one thankfully. Still, the mess of glass and milk was rather bad, and I cried, and I panicked.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “Just an accident. No need to cry over it.”
I saw her reach for my shoulder – I know she meant to comfort me but I flinched, and so she took the hand back again. Part of me wanted her to cuddle me up so that I could be her little girl again, safe and protected. But I can’t. Not any more. Not ever again. Not my fault. Not my fault. Maybe it would be better if it was – at least that way I could do something about it.
This morning she sent me to the shops for buns. My brother does not eat buns, although my parents and I like them very much. He’s terribly fussy and usually gets his own way in things. Jeremy always has a cream cake, but they didn’t have any cream cakes left and I didn’t know what to do. In the end I came home without anything at all. Mother wasn’t cross with me. Not so long ago she would have been. She would have shouted at me for daydreaming and forgetting, or for not using my head. Instead, she looked at me very sadly and she nodded, and I felt so ashamed of myself. More than if she had shouted I think. The guilt of it all weighs so heavily on me.
“Did I do the wrong thing?” I asked her.
“No, really. If you weren’t sure what to do it was probably best that you came back. We’ll go together.”
And we did. She bought the buns, and an iced cake for my brother Jeremy. Being with her I didn’t feel so bad. I could hide behind her, and she did all the talking. No one looked at me, which was much better than when I’d been there on my own. I thought they must all be able to see right into me and know what had happened, as though some sign of it showed on my face. Even though mother had sorted things out, I still worried about the cake because it wasn’t the right sort and I knew Jeremy would be cross about it.
When we sat down to tea he eyed his plate up.
“Weren’t there any cream ones?” he said.
“No,” my mother answered. “You’ll have to make do with that.”
“Did Alice get it wrong?”
“No, I went to the bakery myself and there weren’t any.”
“Oh,” he said. “She’s such a scatterbrain these days.”
But that was enough for me, because after all it wasn’t his usual cream cake and he thought I’d made a mistake. His words set me crying again.
“You leave Alice alone,” my mother said. “It wasn’t her fault.”
“I’m sorry,” I wailed. I felt as though it had to be my fault. His irritation over the cake seemed like anger with me, and I couldn’t tell the difference any more. I couldn’t eat my tea after that. Jeremy has been his usual self with me, which meant he bossed me about and said rather hard things. Jeremy is four years older than me, and has a job, and a girlfriend. He calls me kid, and sometimes girly. Jeremy does not know.
I went and sat in the garden for a while, under the tree. It didn’t seem to help much so I went and crouched between father’s bean poles instead. I always used to hide there, before. It felt like a safe place once, but not any more. The evening started to get cold and my cardigan wasn’t very thick, so I went back inside. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I wandered round the house for a while, looking out of windows and chewing on the ends of my hair. This was to be the last of my free time, but I didn’t know how to enjoy it. After this summer, when I turned fourteen, I too would have a proper job. I planned on going to night-school as well in the evenings – shorthand and typing would stand me in good stead. I felt very grown up when I thought about all of that, even if Jeremy did keep calling me ‘kid’.
In the end I went and sat on the piano stool. I lay my palm flat on the cold dark wood of the lid, then I leaned right over and pressed my check against it too. It was just a musical instrument after all. It wouldn’t care what I did.
For a long time before things went wrong, the piano was my friend. If I felt sad, or the day hadn’t gone very well I would sit and play. Pulling out the bright, tinkling notes and turning dots on the page into melodies cleared my mind. How would I ever be able to do that again? I didn’t know. I wanted the comfort of the music and to lose myself in the sound of it. I lifted the lid, staring down at the keys. The familiar pattern of black and white waited for me. I touched the cold notes, pressing them down so gently that they didn’t sound. A queasy feeling churned about in my stomach, palms sweating, mouth drying.
“Alice?” My mother’s voice, questioning, worried.
I turned to face her, having no words to say.
“Are you going to play? Can I listen?”
I shook my head. “Not today. Not yet.”
Was she disappointed with me? Had I let her down somehow? My fault. Always my fault.
I couldn’t sleep. Getting up in the middle of the night, I pulled a jumper over my nightdress and crept down the dark staircase. I didn’t want to light a candle for fear of waking the others up. Father and Jeremy both had work in the morning and wouldn’t thank me for disturbing them. In the front room, I opened the curtains, and let in a little moonlight. The piano gleamed darkly at me. I sat down in front of it and lifted the lid. The keys were so cold that touching them chilled my fingers. I played silently, hands gliding over the instrument in familiar patterns even though I didn’t compress any key far enough to sound it. I could hear the music in my head, but didn’t make a single noise.
He’d stolen the music from me. Taken away all the good things I’d felt. I’d been proud of my playing, before. Now I felt unsure of it. I felt unsure of everything. What could I trust? I mimed playing, that was all I could manage.
I don’t have to go for piano lessons any more. I still want to play, but I don’t know how to. His face is there in my mind. When I touch the keys and make a sound, I can’t stop myself from remembering what he did to me. I couldn’t find the right words to say and make him stop. My fault.