Another Life Altogether: A Novel - By Elaine Beale


THE 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