Barbara Frost works responds to drawings by Savage Pencil.
We are not so different, you and I, my love.
Not in the ways that matter.
Those were the words that came with. On a card. Romantic. Personal.
Printed and delivered by courier between 14:43 and 15:43 and left in my designated safe place. By the bins.
The package was flat and rectangular. Standard brown card and tape. And heavy, surprisingly heavy – to the point of near dropping. But I got a grip – I’ve been getting a grip for a while now – and hauled it towards the door. A brief rest on the threshold to re-adjust – that too.
The hallway tiles are smooth and original Edwardian, considered to be a selling point. So I could slide this unexpected gift to a place of unwrapping.
Actually, not unexpected. You messaged me three days ago to say that a “little something” was on its way. I messaged back telling you not to. Not to bother. Not to send. Not to contact. Message number 1 read. Messages subsequent not delivered. So, I thought, maybe you’d got the message at last. And done the decent thing and disappeared out of my life. Once and for all.
Then the courier message came with tracking link that didn’t work and no time to refuse.
I propped it against the chest of drawers and sat on the edge of my bed, the one that used to be our bed. Shedding coats and gloves and bags.
I should have just left it by the bins. It was collection day tomorrow and sometimes they forgot the rules and took boxes not neatly stuffed inside with lid down. Probably not – this was far too heavy to be mistaken for empty and then I might have sued.
I could send it back as unsolicited goods.
But what if it wasn’t from you? Had I ordered something and forgotten? Could someone else have sent me a surprise something and forgotten to warn me. Was it even for me?
Checked the label. Me but no other clues.
So, I fetched a scalpel and carefully sliced the tape, peeled the cardboard, dissected the bubble wrap.
I found the card tucked in just before the final layer.
It was from you, despite the absence of your handwriting.
Almost every other unwrapping I have done in my life has been a pleasure from the almost knicker-wetting excitement of Christmas and birthday to the more prosaic thrills of new earphones or kitchen spatulas.
I sat for a long while with that final layer intact. OK, not such a long while as I remembered that I had arrived on the front path dying for a piss and that needed to be dealt with even more urgently now. Knicker-wetting still threatened.
I made it to the bathroom with seconds to spare. Then two things.
First: the bathroom door opened and a jolt of fear tightened my grip on the scalpel in my hand. I’d changed the fucking locks – you couldn’t have…
But it was the cat, the one who always likes to keep me company on the toilet. Always. Yet seems to surprise me every time, even when I wasn’t already spooked.
Second: The scalpel in my hand. Why did I still have the scalpel in my hand? How the fuck had I managed to wrangle my skirt, my pants, with a scalpel in my hand and not slice myself open?
So I’m sitting there, bladder empty, being watched by a cat, not for the first time. And holding a scalpel. That neither.
But I’ve moved on from that.
I shooed the cat away, balanced the scalpel on the side of the sink and wiped.
The shock of blood. See where my stupid mind was? I did a quick calculation and reached for the tampon box. I was a few days early but it happens.
Back in the bedroom and I’m shouting inside my head. Leave it, chuck it, send it back. Don’t do this to yourself. Take it to the charity shop. Maybe not. Not without knowing what it is. All sorts of possible wrongs there.
It’s a mirror. Quite an old one by the look of it. A few age spots behind the glass and set into a wide copper frame. The frame was what made it seem old. It was battered and pock-marked, lightly covered by a bloom of verdigris. All very Arts and Crafts. Rather like many other mirrors I’d come across in antique shops and fairs but never bought.
Because you had a “thing” about mirrors. You never liked them. Something about your dead grandmother, alluded to but never explained. So, no mirrors in the house. I was allowed a small one for make-up and such but only as long as I kept it tucked away in my drawer and only used it when you weren’t around.
And now you’re sending me a fucking mirror? And telling me we’re not so different.
I have friends who might try to tell me that it’s some kind of peace offering. A parting gift to make up for denying me all those past mirrors. An apology.
But those are the friends who never really knew you or chose not to.
A mirror? What the actual fuck?
I spent the whole weekend fretting about it.
For two days it sat in the hall, face towards the wall. I’d checked the back board for any obscene messages or curses scrawled in blood but there was nothing except the faded remains of a half-removed label. Not even enough to google.
Then, on Sunday night I made my decision. I didn’t care why you sent a mirror. I didn’t give a shit what you meant by your creepy message. This was, indeed just the sort of mirror I would have had in the house if I hadn’t been so busy living with your tastes, your hang-ups, your needs.
I liked this mirror. I wasn’t afraid of mirrors. Though fuck knows I had good reason to be. But this was my house now.
It was my house, my life, my fucking mirror.
I dug out the drill I’d taught myself to use. This mirror was too heavy for a mere nail or picture hook, so I did the job properly with a spirit level, rawl plugs, sturdy screws. There was a strong, twisted wire already fixed to the back of the frame.
It took me a while because I wanted to get it right. But sometime before the neighbours could justifiably complain of me ruining their Sunday evening, I had the mirror firmly and proudly hanging above the mantelpiece in the front room (another original feature that wasn’t going to bother any estate agents for a while).
And it looked good. The thought occurred that it sort of made the room look complete. It made me laugh, that thought.
And then, more sombrely I thought of the real significance of what I’d just done. My defiance, my act of reclamation. And I realised that I needed my own completion.
Yes, I could have bought myself whole roomfuls of mirrors without you here to object. But we both know why I didn’t. Just as we both know why you sent me this one: so that I can’t ignore or forget you. Even if I hadn’t kept it or hung it. You thought that you knew what I’d see in the mirror. Any mirror.
You thought that I’d see ruin. And shame. And pain. You thought that I could never escape that.
So I prepared myself to look into my mirror. There were a few things I needed. A few props if you like. You see, after the ruin and the pain. And the shame – not in what you had done to me, only that I hadn’t seen just how dangerous you were, how slow I’d been. How weak I’d been. But I hadn’t let myself stay weak.
I’d done a lot of research since the burning. There’s a lot online and plenty of books to be bought or borrowed. I made new friends – clever ones. They taught me so many things and I learned so much myself. About myself.
Cleansed, naked, surrounded by things I needed to help me focus. I prepared. I set candles on the mantle, either side of the mirror. Lord that was hard, lighting those candles.
And I faced myself. My ruin. Your cruelty. Your violence. My metamorphosis.
My pain reflected back at me.
Then I willed myself to look deeper into the mirror. To go beyond the glass. You thought of me as being so weak for bending to your will. You despised me for the weakness that I believed was love. You punished me for it.
You needed me to be weak. But I’m no longer interested in giving you what you need. Now I give you what you deserve.
You were right to be afraid of mirrors. I wonder if your grandmother was trying to warn you all those years ago? Powerful things, mirrors. Portals.
I pushed and pushed beyond the glass until, slowly, it reflected another room and palely, another face. Until we stood, face to face. My scarred ruin and your beauty.
What did you see? I watched you lose your certainty. I watched the puzzlement, the doubt. I watched as your hands, under my control, lifted. As your lips, mirroring mine, moved.
I watched, I willed. The flames. Rising. The heat unfelt behind cold glass.
I watched as your body submitted to its own ruin. It’s own, unendurable pain.
I watched your transforming face.
“I like mirrors and I sometimes hold grudges. All else is fiction but not untrue. These writings were ignited by Edwin’s [Pouncey aka Savage Pencil] drawings.” Their collaborations include the Sav/Frost book, Cuckoo Head Cool Dog, The Bookworm (2019).