I watch as Mum moves through the shed, speaking low and gently rubbing the tips of their velvety leaves. ‘You’re in the best place,’ she tells them. I’m invisible to her but I wonder if she can still sense me, gliding with her as she walks through the moist wood of the shed. She carries with her a hurricane lamp filled with gas; she knows that even at night the rhubarb never sleeps.
Inside here they grow better than anywhere else on the farm. With no slugs to bother them they can lay warm and safe tucked up in their beds. Mum makes sure that the humidity is just right, the long white candles dotted amongst them gently warming their roots. It was Mum’s idea to join two sheds together, to give them more space. She bends her head and passes through the doorway cut into one of the walls, continuing along her path and I follow her. As she stops and pays particular attention to one of the plants I can tell by the shine in her eyes that something is about to happen. I look at the same spot in between the overarching leaves and then I’m there. Diving down into the soil, down, down I go, until I can see the rhubarb’s roots right in front of me. They wriggle like worms in a mouldy fruitcake and I watch as the dark brown earth separates. Like time-lapse photography I’m seeing them close up and moving at their own pace. I’m no longer frightened by this power that I have. This is one of those times I love being able to explore the earth, without a body. The first time I pushed my face into the soil it was like being doused in cold water. It was such a shock. Gradually I woke up to being dead. But when I found I could go in and through things I told myself not to be afraid, that it might be fun.
I feel the time is coming near so quickly I push up, arriving just in time. In front of me I can see the top of a milky stalk, streaked with pink veins. It comes bursting through, reminding me of a stick of rock. I hold my breath as it edges its way through the centre of the yellow flower and wait, knowing that the sound will come, ‘POP’, there it is and Mum hears it too. She delves down and pulls aside one of the huge leaves and as if in a game of hide-and-seek she finds me. Her hand passes through me and I shiver.
Inside the house Mum’s too busy, any trace of me is squeezed to the back of her mind. But I’m never a stranger to my little sister. Marie sits in her high chair and bangs her spoon with gusto on the tray in front of her. She drops it when she sees me. She smacks her hands together and leans forward to take a closer look. She curls her lips into an ‘O’ framing my name. I come near and stand in front of her and silently plead. ‘Go on, say Coco.’ She can’t say Charlotte. ‘Coco,’ she utters back and repeats it when she sees me smile. ‘Yes!’ I shout and I want to hug her and dance around the room with her in my arms.
It’s then that Ewan comes home with Dad. Ewan goes to find Mum in the kitchen and asks her how his cake’s coming along. She laughs, ‘that’s not till tomorrow.’ We’re twins and tomorrow’s our Birthday. Ewan will be 13. Mum used to keep the cake a secret but if asked, I always chose chocolate. Mum and Dad ask, ‘how was school?’ and I leave and go for a walk. I skim the wheat like I have the perfect rollerblades on and head towards the scarecrow, my other brother. He hovers over the ground too and pretends he has a body, masquerading in Dad’s old clothes. He’s got a terrible smile, the fault of Mum’s crocked stitching. His grimace used to make me laugh. He’s suspended on a pole, ready to frighten away the birds but it’s me who’s really frightened.
I’ve been thinking about Craig Fell and what it would be like to go there. I used to go with Laura. The first time we went there we saw a raven nailed to the gate with its eyes rolled back. I thought it was blind. ‘My Dad says it’s meant to be a warning’ said Laura. She told me about the body that had been found in the bog. Most of the bog is dried up now but we were still not meant to go there. I often used to imagine what ‘Peat Man’ looked like. I saw a picture of him once. His skin all tanned like beaten leather, his hands and legs tied together. They said he was a sacrifice to make the crops grow. How long had he been there? All his friends and family long gone .. nothing to keep him but maybe the people who killed him. Where did murderers go? Do they stay behind, whispering and gloating in the dark? I suddenly notice the face of the scarecrow, calling me back home. I wish I could have some fun and borrow his head for a joke and look in through the window when it’s time for the cake. I could bob my head like a rotten apple and shout, ‘hey, don’t forget me.’
But that’s what they’re doing, going on the same as before, as if I’d never been a part of them. So I’ve started doing things. Sometimes I take things I know they’ll miss and I put them in odd places. ‘How did that get there?’ Dad says out loud when he sees his mug of coffee in the bath. It’s getting easier to move things, especially small objects but people are a lot harder. If I kiss Dad’s cheek he can’t feel it but if I blow on the windchime we bought on holiday he hears me. Yesterday I wrote a message in the dust in my old room. ‘I love you’ it said. But they hardly ever go in there, no one’s seen it yet.
I looked for Dad after and found him with the tractor. ‘You’re a farmer now,’ he said to me after Mum and I planted our first rhubarb in the shed. So why did the tractor catch me then, if farming was in my blood? I know it was my own stupid fault. No one’s used the tractor since, not even to buy it. Everyone around here knows what happened. I hear Mum and Dad talking about it sometimes. I listen to them in the fields, in the house, at bed at night. I wait and wonder where to go.
The next day I’m back in the shed.
I watch her as Mum places the lamp on the shelf as she finishes her rounds. I spot the jar or urn as she calls it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and tonight I feel ready. Hiding those things has helped me. I practise placing my hands around the curved neck of the jar and see it begin to wobble. ‘Think,’ I tell myself. ‘See it go there.’ Mum’s not looking this way but I haven’t got long before she turns out the lamp. I’ll have to move the jar fast to hit it hard enough.
The jar hangs in the air for a moment, suspended by my will and I feel jittery with excitement. Then I make it happen. The jar whizzes through the air and hits the corner of the windowsill that’s jutting out. There’s still time to see Mum’s shocked expression, woken up from her reverie. But it’s too late. There’s nothing she can do as the ashes spill out on to the soil. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. In a while she starts to pick up the broken pieces of pottery and shake out the remainder of the ashes. Tears roll down her face. ‘It’s alright,’ she says. ‘I’m here.’
I let myself seep down and I try to imagine what will happen later.
I see them sitting down to eat, the custard just covering the rhubarb. They don’t know it’s me, not straight away. They think I’m a memory, like the time I won the swimming gala but this time the watery lanes will be their veins. The cake comes in, crowned with a halo of candles and the chocolate coating warm and sticky underneath. Ewan always ready to please shuts his eyes and makes a wish. I sit bubbling beneath the custard. Then I feel it, like a great tide flowing over the bowl. I’m free and getting bigger, till the whole room feels like it’s inside me. Ewan opens his eyes just as the last candle goes out and looks around to see Marie, happily clapping. ‘Do you mind if I have rhubarb?’ he says. He hasn’t forgotten then, that chocolate is my favourite.