It’s an early memory. I’m young. I blow out some candles. My Grandmamma leans close to me and, in a voice heavy with grotty breath, asks me what I want most in the whole world.
I started getting these headaches about a month ago. They didn’t actually hurt that much. They didn’t hurt at all really. It wasn’t pain, it was just this tingling on my scalp, a low buzzing. It’s quite nice sometimes, but then again my father used to enjoy his urine being red, so, you know, lesson learned.
I went to my GP a few days ago, when the humming started to make my teeth vibrate. Now, in my family, when your doctor spends most of your prognosis weeping and whispering “but what of science”, we call that mixed signals. He didn’t even tell me what was wrong, he just wrote me a tear-stained prescription for A Gun and scrambled out of the room.
There was nothing else for it. I’d have to go and see Grandmamma.
She lives alone. Well, she lives in a nursing home, but everyone who lived around her died of, according to the administrator, ‘miscellaneous’. Grandmamma knows things. My parents would never tell me what exactly she knows, other than ‘the ways of the old country’, but you can’t keep a lonely boy away from a curio. I was an only child, had no real friends to speak of, so Grandmamma became my default companion. On weekends, she would take me to her markets, where she would buy burlap sacks filled with blind and hairless things that mewled as they were plucked slippery from their barrel. I asked Grandmamma what they were for.
“Give it time,” she would always respond. “Grandmamma, she give you everything in time.”
I would come home reeking of ancient spices and my parents would look concerned, perhaps confine me to my room, but it would never be long before I was ensconced in one of Grandmamma’s tatty armchairs, drinking dark red tea and listening to her sing the songs of her people. I didn’t understand the words but, from what I could gather, her people were mostly vowels.
I haven’t seen her in years. A disagreement with my mother over the sale of Grandmamma’s cottage had gotten vicious. Shouts were followed by screams, which were followed by threats. Then my parents died in a car crash. I don’t accuse Grandmamma of anything, but then nor do I visit her any more. As I was without siblings, she became the only family I had left, but even so…
Seeing her after all these years, she had withered. Her wiry, waist-length black hair was now overcome with dirty grey streaks, and she was much smaller, almost buried in her chair. But she could still sing. Refusing tea, I pressed her for help with my headaches. Perhaps some paste from one of her toothless little market-vendors, maybe she could burn some of those thick ‘candles’, bound wicks of grungy looking leaves that she hung from the ceiling like herbal stalactites. She took my skull in her withered hands, and peered through my hair, poking at the top of my skull with a sharp fingernail. Then she just smiled, gave me a harsh pinch on the cheek and whispered:
“See. Grandmamma, she give you in time, my boy.”
The humming got stronger on the drive home, coming in irregular bursts, my skull throbbing and vibrating. I was determined this time to see what my doctor and Grandmamma had seen, had refused to share with me. I took some clippers, sat in the shower and began to shave my head.
It was hard. My scalp had become a lot bumpier than I remembered. Suddenly, as the clippers sheared a patch of hair away from the crown of my skull, the humming became a low-pitched moaning. At the sound, I nearly jumped out of my skin, slipping and banging against the shower door. I scrambled out of the shower as the moans got louder and louder. I bent down in front of my bathroom mirror and, through the mangy patchwork of half-shaved hair, I could just make out, on the top of my scalp, a mouth. It was pressed underneath the skin of my head, like a face pressed up against clingfilm. The mouth was open in pain, turfs of hair still growing inside it, but it was no longer muffled. It moaned and moaned. I parted what remained of my hair to find a squashed, malformed nose, eyes, an entire face trying to push its way out of my scalp, wailing plaintively against the flesh that contained it.
I’m waiting now. I’ve wrapped my head in wet towels. I’m waiting for it to drown, or for my hair to grow back and muffle it again, whichever comes first.
It’s one of my first memories. I’ve blown out the candles, and my Grandmamma has asked me what I want most in the whole world. I remember thinking for a bit, looking up at her and replying, simply: