Another Life Altogether

Paperback | September 7, 2010

byElaine Beale

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A profoundly moving, heartrending story of a girl's struggle to love her mother in spite of her frightening mental illness

After years of living in the shadow of her mother's mental illness, thirteen-year-old Jesse Bennett is given a fresh chance at happiness when her family moves to a village near the coast of Northern England. But just when it seems Jesse might be able to build a new life, her mother's worsening mental state and the secret Jesse fiercely guards about herself threaten to destroy the fragile stability she has found. Caught in the tempest of her mother's moods, her father's desperation, and the cruel social hierarchies ruling her school life, Jesse is forced to choose between doing what's right and preserving the normal life she's always hoped for.


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A profoundly moving, heartrending story of a girl's struggle to love her mother in spite of her frightening mental illnessAfter years of living in the shadow of her mother's mental illness, thirteen-year-old Jesse Bennett is given a fresh chance at happiness when her family moves to a village near the coast of Northern England. But jus...

ELAINE BEALE is the winner of the 2007 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange Contest. Originally from England, Beale studied creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She has lived in California for twenty years.From the Hardcover edition.
Format:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 8.17 × 5.67 × 0.87 inPublished:September 7, 2010Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:038566768X

ISBN - 13:9780385667685

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Chapter OneThe day after my mother was admitted to the mental hospital, I told everyone at school that she had entered a competition on the back of a Corn Flakes box and won a cruise around the world.“How long will she be gone?” asked Julie Fraser, who sat among the girls crowding eagerly around me during morning registration.“Months,” I said. “Months and months.” I looked at her slightly sad, but mostly dreamy, as if I were already imagining my mother floating across a wide blue ocean to a life of adventure that none of us there could have.Julie made her big brown eyes even bigger and ran the tip of her tongue over her glossed lips. “God, she’s lucky,” she said, leaning closer to me.“Yes,” I said, wondering how I might always make her look at me like that.“So which parts of the world is she going to?” Jimmy Crandall craned his skinny neck across his desk.My eyes left Julie’s as I let myself consider this for a moment, frowning as I tried to evoke the expression of someone struggling to recall a busy cruise-ship itinerary—all those ports of call, day trips, deck-side activities, and dinners at the captain’s table. “I’m not sure,” I answered, not wanting to be caught out by my uncertain grasp of geography. I knew, of course, that Britain was an island, and I had a relatively decent notion of the jumble of countries that made up Europe, but beyond that it was all a little blurred. I might have been better informed were it not for the fact that our geography teacher, Mr. Cuthbertson, had spent the entire year familiarizing us in great detail with the climatic influences, waterways, geologic history, and soil structure of our local landscape.We lived on the banks of the River Humber, chilled by the damp air off the North Sea, on a plain scraped by glaciers that had left in their wake a land composed almost entirely of malleable and unstable boulder clay. “East Yorkshire,” Mr. Cuthbertson would announce during almost every lesson, his gaunt, gray features suddenly bright with pride, “has one of the fastest-eroding coastlines in the entire world.” It was as if this were an accomplishment for which we, the local inhabitants, somehow deserved credit, rather than an unhappy geologic accident that meant, even as he spoke, that the land he so loved was crumbling away by inches. Since this seemed to be the only really notable feature (geographic or otherwise) of the region I called home, by the age of thirteen, even though I had never traveled more than forty miles in any direction, I had come to regard it as one of the dullest places on the planet. So when Mr. Cuthbertson told us of villages falling into the North Sea, church spires poking above the water at low tide, and houses bought for a few pounds and change because the waves had begun eating into their back gardens, I often found myself wondering how long it would take for the sea to devour the twenty miles or so that now separated Hull, the city in which I lived, from that voracious tide.“What do you mean, you’re not sure?” Jimmy Crandall was challenging me now, his Adam’s apple bobbing against his pimply throat like a bird trapped under his skin. “If my mam won a bloody cruise, I’d know where she was off to.”“She’s going everywhere. It’s a world cruise,” I said, rolling my eyes at all the girls around me the way I’d seen them do so many times with one another when one of the boys said something stupid or insulting or in an obvious ploy for attention. Then I looked over at Julie Fraser, hoping to see my derision mirrored in her conspiratorial smile. Instead, I saw her glance slipping in Jimmy Crandall’s direction. Inevitably, the attention of the other girls followed.“Oh, going everywhere, is she? What, like Belfast and Biafra? The North and South Pole?” He grinned, then poked his shiny pink tongue between his lips, as if it were reaching out to taste the certainty of his victory.The boys and the girls were all looking at me now, the stuffy classroom air filled with the school morning scents of soap, clean socks, and toothpaste-minty breath. All their eyes, even those still crusty with sleep, were intense, poised between suspicion and happy expectation.“You can’t take a cruise to the South Pole,” I said, swinging my hair back over my shoulder with a toss of my head, hoping to generate an air of confident indifference. Instead, I wafted myself with the blue chemical scent of Head & Shoulders shampoo and remembered sitting in a lukewarm bath the previous night, the same bath that only hours earlier had been filled with cold, blood-tinted water before I pulled the plug and scrubbed it clean with Ajax.“To get to the South Pole,” I continued, brushing away the memory with my words, “you have to travel over miles and miles of ice.” For a moment, I imagined my mother, encased in a furry parka and bearskin boots, coursing across a gleaming white landscape on a dogsled. Like so many of those explorers before her, she would disappear into a stinging blizzard and never come back.Jimmy Crandall shrugged. “Nobody I met ever won one of those stupid Corn Flakes competitions. They’re all a fucking fraud, if you ask me.” He flopped back into his chair and pulled it closer to his desk with a piercing scrape that made me wince.“Well, my mother did,” I said, talking now to all the boys and girls, desperate to keep them around me, their bodies a protective nest that could somehow hold me high, above the ground, above the surging, bloody water that was threatening to wash it all away. “She’s going to write to me, you’ll see.” My voice was too loud, too bright. It cut through the air like hands ripping fabric. Mrs. Thompson, our form-room teacher, looked over at me, arched her black, penciled-in eyebrows, and pressed her lips into a rosy little knot. I acknowledged her look with a nod. When she had turned back to the stack of exercise books she was thumbing through, I propped myself up on my elbows, leaned forward, and reached over to Jimmy Crandall. I prodded hard at his shoulder. “You’re only jealous,” I said as he lurched forward under my hand. I spoke even louder now, as if I could pull Julie Fraser and her friends back to me with my voice. “You just wish your family could be as lucky as mine.”perhaps it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise to arrive home the day before to find my mother being taken away. After all, she had told us it might happen.“One of these days, I’m going to end up in Delapole!” she’d yell, slamming doors, clattering plates. “You watch, they’ll cart me away in a bloody straitjacket, they will! And then you’ll be happy!”Delapole was the mental hospital just outside Hull. It was named after a local family, the de la Poles, who, Mr. Cuthbertson told us when he’d strayed into one of his many monologues about our “rich local history,” had made their fortune as merchants during the Middle Ages. He hadn’t explained, however, why the local loony bin bore their name. My father had joked that all those posh families were so inbred that they had more than their share of nutcases, so it made sense that the place had been named after them. Of course, that was before my mother had fulfilled her own prophetic words and had been transported there courtesy of the National Health.“I’ll end up in Delapole!” she’d scream, her voice like a yodel that shuddered against the windows and set the sherry glasses rattling in the china cabinet. “I’ll end up in Delapole, you mark my words!” she yelled when the car broke down or the milk boiled over or I spilled a glass of orange cordial across the kitchen table. As if each of these events were a calamity on the scale of the Titanic and it was my father or I who had just steered us slap-bang into the iceberg.Even when I was very young, I’d realized that my mother had no sense of perspective. If anything went wrong, no matter how large or small, it constituted some ultimately threatening disaster. She might end up in the local mental institution as a consequence of my burning the house down because I hadn’t turned off the electric heater in my bedroom, but she might just as easily be committed if my father forgot to put the top back on the ketchup or I neglected to put my dirty knickers in the clothes basket. I knew her reactions made no sense, but her world was also my world, so when I was small I’d feel her panic as my own. I’d try to allay her hysteria with calming words or by rectifying the problem—a six-year-old cooing, “It’s all right, Mum, it’s all right,” while sweeping a pile of broken glass from the kitchen floor. As I grew older, however, I learned that there was no comforting or calming my mother at these moments. It was just something she had to go through, like a sneeze that has to be sneezed or an itch that has to be scratched.Despite all this, it had been a shock to find an ambulance parked outside our house, its big wheels pushed over the curb, its light flashing like a huge bright, blinking blue eye. And I had been a little taken aback to find the neighbors gathered in our tiny front garden, nudging one another and whispering, as if they were expecting the arrival of some popular television celebrity who’d decided to drop by our house for a cup of tea and a chat. Indeed, the scene was almost festive. The women smoked ravenously, sucking at their cigarettes with big, audible gasps, while the children made wailing-siren noises as they ran up and down our path. When they noticed my arrival and parted like the Red Sea for Moses to let me reach my front door, the bitter taste of dread filled my mouth and left my stomach churning, but I felt a strange thrill of power. Here I was, a star in the middle of my own domestic disaster.By the time I’d moved through the milling crowd outside our house and reached the front door, however, my exhilaration was gone. Instead, I felt a sickening dread in my stomach, a dread that only grew when our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Brockett, stepped from the dark interior of our hallway onto our threshold, sighing as she folded her arms across her chest. She wore a shapeless cotton dress, opaque brown stockings, and a pair of men’s slippers. Her gray hair was folded around a set of pink curlers. Never known for her cheery disposition, Mrs. Brockett had a particularly grave look on her face.In all the years we had lived in our terrace house on Marton Street, despite many valiant attempts Mrs. Brockett had never managed to get inside. In an unusual display of marital consensus, both my father and my mother hated her vehemently, though for rather different reasons—my mother because she regarded Mrs. Brockett as a relentless gossip who would “broadcast the contents of my undies drawers to the entire street if she got the bloody opportunity,” my father because she hung a picture of the Queen in her front window and my father hated the Queen as passionately as he loved cricket. Mrs. Brockett was equally disdained by the children of the street. She was known among us as Cat Piss Lady because of the seventeen cats she kept inside her house and the stinging, ammonia smell that clung to her everywhere she went. I’d even heard some adults use the nickname to refer to her in whispered conversations in the queue at the butcher’s or green-grocer’s. But, as far as I knew, no one had ever dared to call her that to her face. Far more than the ambulance or the assembly of neighbors in my front garden, the fact that it was Mrs. Brockett who greeted me at my doorway signaled that there was something terribly wrong.“Ooh, I wouldn’t go in there if I were you, lovey,” she said, placing one of her gnarly-knuckled hands on my shoulder. “Not something a girl of your age needs to see.” Her narrowed eyes met mine. A wave of sighs and moans rose behind me. “Quite distressing.” She pursed her lips and shook her head slowly, then turned expectantly toward the surrounding neighbors. “Anyone got a ciggy?” she inquired. There was an immediate flutter of hands and, almost simultaneously, three women reached over and held up cigarettes. “I’ll take the Rothmans,” she announced, snatching the longest cigarette from the hand that held it, popping it between her lips, and leaning forward as another hand reached out with a flame. She inhaled deeply before she blew the smoke into my face.“What’s going on? What’s happening?” I tried to push past her. “Just a little . . . accident. Nothing you need worry yourself about. Now, why don’t you come over to my house, lovey, and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.” From deep inside the house I could hear the rumble of male voices, the clatter of metal against metal, and empty radio static. “Let me in,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes. They spilled down my face and made everything around me a blur of color and noise. I fumbled blindly against the broad body that blocked my way, my hands pressing into the armor beneath the baggy dress: metal clasps, corset stays, the rigid cups of Mrs. Brockett’s bra. I was lost in the smell of cigarette smoke, laundry detergent, and cat piss. I began to strike out with my fists. “All right, all right,” she said, standing aside. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  AS I LEFT MORNING registration and made toward my first lesson, I was relieved to see Jimmy Crandall skulk off in the opposite direction, his battered leather satchel hanging low on his hip and thudding against his side as he walked. But the girls who had crowded around me at the news of my mother’s good fortune left me, too, drifting down the corridor in twos and threes. Wearing strappy platform shoes, they sauntered arm in arm, as if they needed one another to hold themselves up. Julie Fraser, always at the center, was oblivious to me now, her perfect blond hair reflecting the harsh corridor lights. I watched her with a yearning so enormous that it felt like a hole in my chest. As I glanced down at the sensible brown shoes my mother had bought me from the Littlewoods catalog, I imagined crashing into Julie and all her whispering, laughing friends to leave them splayed and breathless on the cold, dirty floor. The rest of that day I was left to spend my time, as usual, with the other social outcasts: Patsy Lancey, who had twelve brothers and sisters and whose overwashed gray socks hung elasticless around her ankles and who everybody said had fleas; Janine Trotter, who had a mentally retarded sister and whose father had moved in with the seventeen-year-old girl who worked behind the counter at the newsagent’s; and Gillian Gilman, who had acne and was fat and whom everyone, even her older brothers, called “the whale.” Every day, we sat together in lessons and at school dinners, sneering at the popular kids and feigning interest in what we each had to say. We all knew we were in one another’s company only because no one else wanted us, that if any of those other cliques had invited us to join them we would have abandoned one another in a second. When Gillian Gilman asked me if it was true that my mother had won a competition and was off on a world cruise, I told her to shut her big, fat mouth and mind her own business. She wasn’t anyone I needed to impress. When the final school bell rang, I knew I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to walk down our street trying to ignore the twitching net curtains in the front windows of all the houses or Mrs. Brockett smoking and tossing her cigarette ends into our garden as she kept vigil by her front door. Nor did I want to enter our cold and empty house. So I made my way instead to the public library, a place I visited often during the after-school hours. The library was one of those old Victorian buildings in which even the whispered hisses of the librarian echoed against the high ceilings. It was always too hot, filled with the musty smell of aging paper and the force of suppressed coughs. The bookshelves were visited largely by pensioners—women with frosted hair and shopping bags, men who blinked behind big-framed National Health glasses and wore clothes that seemed too big. The newspaper and magazine section was inhabited by unemployed men with folded, gray faces who, despite the grimaces of the librarian, drummed their nicotine-yellow fingers against the tables, as if the library were merely a waiting room and they were impatient to get on with the real purpose of their visit in some better place beyond. I loved the library. I loved it for its spacious quiet, the way it was possible to discern each step and shuffle and sigh against that soothing backdrop of calm. No one would yell or scream or cry there, and if they ever dared I knew that the tight-lipped wrath of the librarian would come crashing down on them, as heavy and as crushing as the weight of all those books. I loved it because it was a refuge from school, a place where I had only to navigate my way around the ingenious precision of the Dewey decimal system rather than complex and cruel social hierarchies. But most of all I loved the library because that vigorously imposed silence implied an awe of something far bigger than me, than all of us. It showed the deepest regard not for our need to talk or belch or scream—not for the silly chatter of little children, the gossip of older women, or anyone’s gasping need for a cigarette—but for those stacks and stacks of books and the words and worlds that lay inside them. That afternoon, I claimed a desk in the reference section, having planned to do the homework Mr. Cuthbertson had given us—a series of questions about the tidal patterns of the River Humber. Instead, I pulled out the Reader’s Digest World Atlas. I thumbed through its thick pages and found myself tracing the route for my mother’s cruise ship. After chugging cheerfully away from Hull Docks, I decided, she had sailed into the North Sea, around the fat-bellied coast of East Anglia, past the Thames, and into the English Channel. Soon, she’d be making her way around the coasts of France, Portugal, and northern Spain. She’d stop in Calais, where she’d do a bit of shopping and, like all the English people who went there, load up on cheap French wine, perfume, and crunchy baguettes. Then she’d find herself exploring the coast of Southern Europe and taking in the entire Mediterranean. I recognized the names of places like Barcelona, Marseilles, Nice, Monte Carlo, the islands of Corsica and Crete, the cities of Athens, Venice, and Rome. Undoubtedly, she’d meet millionaires and high-stakes gamblers, racing-car drivers, fashion models, and perhaps even get to see the Pope make a speech from a balcony in Vatican City. Then, exhausted by the excitement, she’d venture back into the Atlantic, where her journey would continue. She’d travel all the way around Africa, India, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Japan. Then on to the Americas: Canada, the United States, and all those South American cities with mysterious, multisyllabic names—Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Tierra del Fuego. And perhaps then she might go on to the South Pole after all, leaving Cape Horn to sail past giant icebergs toward the massive continent of Antarctica. When I arrived home, I found my father in the living room, sunk in his armchair, hidden behind his copy of the Hull Daily Mail. I knew he had been to see my mother earlier, and for a moment I wanted to ask him how she was and if they were taking care of her. But that might mean he’d ask me if I wanted to go and visit her at the hospital, and, more than anything, I did not. “Make us a cup of tea, can you, love?” My father spoke from behind his newspaper. “News is on in a sec, don’t want to miss it.” The BBC News was the highlight of my father’s day. Normally, he arrived home from work just a few minutes before it came on. He’d walk through the house, discarding his overcoat and suit jacket on the coat stand in the hall, battling the tight knot of his tie as he entered the living room. Then he’d turn on the television, drop into his armchair, and unlace his shiny black shoes, filling the room with his ripe, sweaty-feet smell. Sometimes he might sigh, turn to me, and say, “All right, Jesse, love?” But most days he just sat there silently as the BBC globe spun around and around, and that urgent, official-sounding music came on. Then, almost as soon as the newsreader began talking, my father would begin to yell, rolling his eyes and gesticulating, swearing and bouncing on the noisy, worn-out springs of his chair. “Stupid bosses’ lackey!” he’d shout at Richard Baker as he talked about another miners’ strike or the Watergate scandal. Sometimes he’d throw a shoe toward the screen when he was particularly annoyed at the BBC’s account of events, or when one of the Conservative politicians he hated most came on. But usually he reserved the full force of his vitriol for those end-of-news feel-good items about the royal family—Prince Charles playing polo, the Queen Mother visiting a children’s hospital, Princess Margaret opening a new shopping center. “Bloody useless parasite!” he’d shout, wagging his finger at the screen while the Queen Mum, in pastel pink and pearls, smiled benevolently and waved to an adoring crowd. “Should go out and get a real job instead of living shamelessly off the rest of us. Come the revolution, we’ll make her clean toilets. That’ll wipe that bloody condescending look off her face.” That evening, the headline was an IRA bomb in London, and my father was unusually subdued by the pictures of the burning skeleton of a building, the stricken faces of the bleeding survivors, the dazed ambulance men. “What’ll that do to solve anybody’s problems?” he said quietly as he shifted in his chair. While my father sipped his tea and watched the rest of the news, I turned to the back page of the newspaper to find out what was on television that night. “Dad,” I said when the news was over and I knew he could be interrupted. “There’s a documentary on BBC Two about Spain at eight o’clock. Is it all right if we watch it?” “Don’t see why not,” he said. And so that night I embarked upon the research that would enable me to write letters from my mother to me. I sat in front of the television with a notebook scribbling down what I thought were pertinent pieces of information, like the population of Barcelona, the date Gaudi first began construction of his strange gingerbread castle of a cathedral, the number of matadors injured each year in the bull ring, a few relevant words of Spanish—señora, peso, pension, General Franco. I liked the idea of my mother visiting Spain. It was where Julie Fraser had been for her holiday last year. She’d returned to school with her hair sun-bleached and her skin turned a deep, reddish tan. In lessons, I sat as close to her as I could, eavesdropping as she extolled the “sexy Spanish waiters” and the all-night discos. “The women go topless on the beaches there, you know,” she said, giggling and peeling another piece of flaking, sunburned skin from her arm. As I listened, I’d found myself imagining what it might be like to lie on some sunny Spanish beach next to Julie. We’d be best friends so comfortable with each other that we’d take off our tops so we wouldn’t have to worry about tan lines. Later, to cool off, we’d run into the warm blue water, where we’d swim and splash until we tired ourselves out. “What the bloody hell are you staring at?” Julie had said when she caught me watching her tell her friends, yet again, how she’d been served fried octopus one night for dinner and it was the most disgusting thing she’d ever eaten in her life. “Nothing,” I’d replied, pitching my gaze toward the geography textbook on my desk. For the rest of the lesson, while I attempted to reproduce a diagram of the East Yorkshire water table, I pondered the unfairness of a world in which Julie Fraser got to fly to the Costa del Sol for two weeks while the only holiday my family had taken was to a caravan park in Bridlington. There, our days had been punctuated by pulling out and putting away the narrow bed on which I slept that ingeniously converted into the dining table, and searching for ways to occupy our time in that confined, Formica-filled space as the rain poured down in sheets outside. While my father and I had tried to make the best of things by playing Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, and Monopoly, my mother had spent her time cleaning the caravan from top to bottom. She scrubbed around the tiny stainless-steel sink with a toothbrush, scoured the pots and pans with a Brillo pad, and mopped and remopped the kitchen floor with water she’d boiled on the foldaway stove. My father and I found ourselves soaked in the scents of Ajax, Pine-Sol, and bleach, and were finally driven out to the amusement arcade when my mother decided that she needed to take the furniture apart. “I bet it’s been years since anybody’s thought to take a scrubbing brush down there,” she said, tossing the cushions over her shoulder. “At least the people who come here after us won’t have to feel like they’re spending their holidays in a cesspool of somebody else’s filth.” I thought my mother might rather like Spain. It rarely rained, and since she was traveling on a cruise ship there’d be plenty of people to do all the cleaning. She wouldn’t have to spend her time worrying about dirt and germs. Instead, she could happily sit on deck, taking in the Mediterranean sun and admiring the beautiful coastline. She’d disembark on the southern coast, where she’d take a day trip to see the Alhambra, and when she reached Barcelona she could spend her time in the Gaudi park, contemplating the mosaic sculptures, or sitting at a café by the harbor watching ships come in from all over the world. “The Spanish people are remarkably friendly,” I wrote in my mother’s letter to me. “Like most Southern Europeans, they are deeply religious. But they don’t let this get in the way of enjoying themselves. For example, the bullfights—like the one I went to yesterday—are very festive. Despite all the blood, everyone seems to have a very good time.” I stayed up very late finishing that letter, writing and rewriting until it was as thrilling as I thought I could make it, until my mother’s visit to Spain made Julie Fraser’s holiday seem as exciting as a rainy week in Bridlington, until I was sure that no one, not even Jimmy Crandall, would dare to question my family’s good luck.  THE NEXT MORNING, during registration, I pulled out my letter. “ ‘Dear Jesse,’ ” I began after clearing my throat and noisily unfolding my several sheets of crisp white paper. “ ‘As I write to you, I am watching yet another glorious sunset on the crystal-clear Mediterranean Sea. It is hard to describe how breathtaking the view from my luxurious cabin is or how wonderful this trip is proving to be. But, since you cannot be with me here, I hope I can convey just some of my delight by telling you about it in this letter. Yesterday, I had the most incredible time—’ ” “Let me see that!” Jimmy Crandall made a grab for the letter, but I managed to pull it out of his reach and continued reading. “ ‘After having a delicious breakfast on board ship, I disembarked with a party of other passengers to go and see a bullfight in a nearby town. We arrived during siesta—a time in the afternoon when all the Spaniards like to get out of the heat and take a nap. I cannot say I blame them. The weather is quite warm, even now in late spring. I was told by one of the friendly villagers that temperatures can reach more than ninety degrees Fahrenheit during the height of the summer. Of course, we English people aren’t used to anything nearly as hot as that and I am glad we are not visiting in July or August, which are the hottest days of the year. . . .’ ” I lifted my eyes from my pages to see everyone in the class looking at me. Even the group of boys at the back, who had been flicking chewed-up pieces of paper onto the ceiling, had paused to listen. Almost all the girls had drawn closer, and Julie Fraser had put down her Jackie magazine. “ ‘Bullfighting is an enormously exciting sport, far more interesting than football or rugby or cricket,’ ” I continued. “ ‘The bullfighters are extremely brave and handsome men. They have to train a very long time to become good at it. Some of them get very badly injured, and some of them even die in the ring. As I sat waiting for the fight to begin, I was hoping that no one would get hurt while I was there.’ ” I went on to read a long account of my mother’s time at the bullring—how she watched one of the most famous bullfighters in Spain get almost gored to death by a savage, bloodthirsty bull, how she cried as he was taken off on a stretcher and screamed for joy when she later found out that he was fine and came back into the ring for a second performance. I told my classmates how she and some of her fellow passengers had dined at a local restaurant with this same bullfighter that evening, how he’d told them stories late into the night of his many near misses over the years, and how she had returned exhausted to the ship after “ ‘one of the most thrilling days of my entire existence.’ ” When I finished, ending with, “ ‘Fond regards, your loving mother,’ ” I looked up at my audience as if emerging from a dream. “Bloody hell, Jesse,” declared Julie Fraser, saying my name for the first time that I could remember. “Your mam sounds like she’s having a right good time! I bet she’s glad she entered that competition.”  AFTER THAT, I STAYED late at the library almost every day to throw myself into the research for my mother’s letters. And each evening, while my father sat silent, I turned to the documentary programs on BBC Two about travel through the Sahara or the animals in the jungles of Madagascar. At first I approached this viewing as a chore, like my homework (which I now almost entirely ignored) or the washing of our greasy, crusted-up dishes (which I attempted every two or three days). But after a while I found myself sharing in the awed fascination of the television narrators, who invariably told about these exotic places in hushed, enthralled tones. Equally bedazzled by forests filled with butterflies, the hunting habits of lions, the hazardous swoops of flying squirrels, and the camouflage abilities of chameleons, I scribbled down names of places and species, descriptions of the immense, untamed landscapes that made Mr. Cuthbertson’s enthusiasm for the dreary East Yorkshire terrain seem even more misplaced. And later, after the television had been turned off and my father continued his desolate vigils in the living room, I lay on my bed writing long, detailed letters from my mother that I took to school and read out loud in registration each day. This cruise-taking mother was quite a letter writer, sending me several pages almost every day. And though parts of her letters closely resembled entire paragraphs of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, providing statistics on population, gross national product, and average daily temperatures, they also included stories of her adventures. I thrilled at her descriptions of her trip to the Parthenon (“quite the most astonishingly beautiful place I have ever seen”), her climb up the Leaning Tower of Pisa (“It leans at a truly incredible angle; I really was afraid it would fall over!”), her desert trek to the Pyramids (“like a trip back through time, such an awe-inspiring civilization”). And I loved her stories of moonlit rides in Venetian gondolas, drinking thick, syrupy coffee in Morocco, eating freshly made Turkish delight. I also loved this new mother of my own construction, the adventurous and dauntless spirit who wandered strange countries without fear, picked up new languages within days, and wrote gleefully about a world that no one else around me knew. She was a little eccentric, perhaps, but not nearly as odd as the woman I’d seen carried past me on a stretcher, eyes still and unblinking, limbs tucked tight under a dark wool blanket, hair sprawled behind her in a wet and matted knot. Even more than this new mother I’d invented for myself, I loved those wide-eyed looks Julie Fraser and all the other girls gave me. Perhaps, I thought, if I could somehow keep them rapt they’d actually welcome me into their ranks. I could tell that Julie Fraser was warming toward me. Not only had she started calling me by my name on a regular basis, she’d even invited me to sit with her and her friends in the canteen during school dinner one day. And the next day, when I walked into the girls’ toilets and found her and a couple of other girls listening to the top-twenty countdown on a tinny transistor radio as they leaned against the sinks, she’d beckoned me over to listen. I began to think that if all went well we really would become good friends. After a while, she might even invite me to spend time with her after school or on weekends. We’d really get to know each other and she’d realize that, despite my bland looks and unfashionable clothes, I was an interesting person after all.  IT TOOK A LITTLE less than two weeks for word of the real nature of my mother’s journey to get around school. I was actually quite astounded that it took that long. Gossip generally traveled fast along our narrow streets, and, particularly since we lived next door to Mrs. Brockett, any unusual happenings at our house were bound to become public knowledge sooner rather than later. Somehow, the sheer horror of my mother’s problem seemed to have slowed the process. But inevitably the news reached the school. “Your mother’s not on a fucking cruise, she’s in the fucking loony bin,” Jimmy Crandall announced during registration on a rainy Friday morning. He wore an ugly, wide-toothed grin, and every single person in the room turned to look at him. “She tried to fucking top herself, didn’t she?” he continued, still grinning. “She would’ve done it if it weren’t for one of your neighbors finding her. You must be a fucking loony yourself, making up some stupid story about her winning a competition on a Corn Flakes packet. You’re as nutty as your fucking fruitcake mother.” “That’s enough, Jimmy,” Mrs. Thompson said. “Sit down and be quiet.” I could tell from her expression that she felt sorry for me. But I didn’t need anybody’s pity, and I already knew that there was nothing she could do to save me. I turned toward Julie Fraser. She and her friends were leaning across their desks, their heads pushed close together in a huddle. They were laughing, snorting as they held their hands over their mouths. I kept hoping that Julie would look at me, that she would push those girls away, smile at me, and show me that, despite my lies, despite my desperation, she’d finally seen that we were meant to be friends. But Julie didn’t even glimpse in my direction. She just sat at the center of all those giggling girls, laughing until her eyes became watery and her mascara began to run in gray, jagged rivulets down her cheeks.  NOW, INSTEAD OF reading letters during registration surrounded by mesmerized listeners, I found myself surrounded by chanting boys and sneering, sour-faced girls, my days filled with their ridiculing choruses. “Batty as her mother.” “Round the bloody bend.” “Mad as a hatter.”  “Off her rocker.” “Absolutely frigging bonkers.” “Mental, she’s fucking mental.” “Loop the bloody loop, the entire fucking family.” I soon discovered that there were more euphemisms for madness than there were for sex. I also discovered that being the center of attention was not necessarily all it was cracked up to be. Even Gillian Gilman and the other social rejects started keeping their distance. I ate my school dinner alone and did my best to avoid the playground, finding refuge in the caretaker’s cupboard, where I sat on the floor amid buckets and mops and oversized bottles of bleach. At the end of the day, I made an art of lingering in the classroom so that I could avoid seeing anyone else as they walked home. But I didn’t stop writing the letters. Instead, I started writing my own letters back. Once I’d finished writing the letter from my mother for that day, I’d read it out loud to myself and then begin composing my reply. My own long missives never talked about home or school but, rather, about what I would do if I were a world traveler, the people I would talk to, the places I would visit. I told my mother how I, too, would like to journey to the coast of West Africa or visit the Taj Mahal or walk along the Great Wall of China. I told her that when I grew up I’d learn Spanish and travel in Latin America, that I’d climb the Andes to trek to Machu Picchu, and visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico. I might become an archaeologist or some kind of scientist, or perhaps I’d just become a professional traveler, plunging into dense, unexplored jungles or trekking across the Sahara just to see what it was like.  “OOH, IT ’S SUCH A bloody shame, it really is,” Mrs. Brockett said, leaning over the brick wall that separated our two backyards, a bent cigarette dancing between her lips. I had watched her shuffle outside in her trodden-down slippers as soon as she’d seen my father walk out the door. She’d been waiting for this moment for days, lurking in her backyard at all hours, peering eagerly toward our house while she pegged up and took down so much washing that I was sure she must have laundered every item she owned. “I mean, it’s hard for me to understand,” she continued. “Her with everything to look forward to. A reliable husband . . .” She pulled out her cigarette, exhaled from her nostrils, and flashed my father a squished-up, dentureless smile. “And such a lovely girl.” She beamed over at me, her cheeks sinking so far inward that her cheekbones jutted out like blades. I was leaning against the doorjamb, watching my father struggle to push our bag of kitchen rubbish into the already overfilled dustbin. I returned Mrs. Brockett’s smile with a still, expressionless look. “Lovely girl,” she repeated, taking a long drag on her cigarette and pushing the smoke out the corner of her mouth as she turned to my father again. “But I suppose women—well, they just don’t know when they’re well off, do they?” She sighed. Then she nodded, acknowledging my father’s continuing battle with the dustbin. “Looks like she left you in the lurch, eh?” “I can do that, Dad,” I said, walking across the wrinkled concrete of our backyard, taking the rubbish bag from his hands, and stuffing it on top of the other bags. My father looked dazed, as if I’d pulled him from a dream. “Thanks, love,” he muttered. “So, how is she then, your Evelyn?” Mrs. Brockett called as my father retreated toward the house. “Go to visit her a lot out there, do you?” She craned her saggy neck sideways as my father made his way to the back door. I willed him to step inside. But never one to offend the neighbors, even those he hated as much as he hated Mrs. Brockett, he turned slowly to face her. “I get out there as often as I can,” he said. “Yes, I’m sure you do. And I’m sure it helps. Poor woman. But of course at some point she’ll have to pull herself together. I mean, she’s got others to think of aside from herself. Like me—well, I don’t know what my kitties would do if I gave up on them. . . .” She gazed lovingly at one of her cats, which lay across the kitchen windowsill as relaxed and shimmery as a discarded fur collar. “Well, got things to do,” my father announced, using Mrs. Brockett’s distraction to hurry inside. I remained by the dustbin, hoping she would forget my presence. Instead, she turned to look at me. “I don’t know why that father of yours has to be so unfriendly. I mean, if it wasn’t for me your mother would be six feet under by now. You should tell him to think about that, you should.” She gestured toward me with the hand holding the cigarette, making a zigzag pattern of smoke that dissipated into the air. “If I hadn’t thought to check on her when she didn’t answer the door . . . well, I hate to think . . .” She pursed her lips, shuddered. “Call it a woman’s sixth sense, but I just knew something wasn’t right.” She sucked at her cigarette. “You should remember, young lady,” she said as she exhaled, “you’ve got me to thank that your mother is still alive.” I looked at Mrs. Brockett and felt as if something inside me would burst. Perhaps it was my head, or maybe it was my heart or my stomach, which seemed, all of a sudden, to be holding a giant fistful of fury. That fist wanted to break out and hit Mrs. Brockett; it wanted to pound Julie Fraser and Jimmy Crandall and all the kids at school. It wanted to throw all those encyclopedias out the library windows. It wanted to tear up all my letters. It wanted to beat some sense into myself. “Why don’t you just mind your own business, Cat Piss Lady,” I said, relishing Mrs. Brockett’s stunned expression before I turned and walked into the house.From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

"Another Life Altogether captivated me from the very first page. Dazzling in its authenticity and utterly absorbing, it is an uplifting story about adolescence, family, and finding one's place in the world. With the character of Jesse Bennett, Elaine Beale manages to create hope and humor in an otherwise turbulent world. It is a rare, insightful, and gorgeously written novel."-Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants"Elaine Beale is an extraordinary writer, and Another Life Altogether is heartbreaking and hilarious all at once, as only life can be."-Sandra Cisneros"Sparkling. Beale [reveals] a mature talent with a sharp eye for both the intricacies of the surface detail and the complexities of the inner life. [She] reminds us that writing, always potentially dangerous, also confers grace, and that with the power of the word, we all have the potential to become the heroines of our own lives."-Boston Globe