I believed the changes my body went through between the ages of 9 and 13 were related to place, not time. My family had moved not just geographically, but through the very nature of existencewe’d gone from an idyllic home to owning two hotels on a holiday island. I’d stepped through time and space to a much worse world. The way it seemed to me, one day I was hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks appeared on Doctor Who and three weeks later I was sitting in the lounge of our hotel, reading the chapter in Mandingo about a slave being boiled alive. My body was just doing what it had to to catch up.
And catching up was something I had to do, because things just kept going missing. I’d had a bookcase in my bedroom, and that became a box of books in a room I slept in. The room I slept in changed constantly, as guests booked accommodation and “my” room became their room, and somehow the books in my box changed. My parents had always been eclectic in their purchases for me: I had books two and nine of the Chalet School series, and the last part of the Earthsea series, and I thought that was how books worked. You had to jump into the world they contained and fill in all the gaps for yourself, so changing bodies to fit into a new world seemed quite logical. After all, even my books had transmuted. I’d take an E. Nesbit out of the box and when I went to put it back, there’d be a copy of Highway Hustlers in its place. Sometimes the box itself would disappear and I’d have to hunt it down to the cellar or the back of the still room or a chalet in the garden under a pile of sun loungers. One day it just went missing altogether … or at least I think it did, because one day I just stopped looking for it.
I’d always been top of the class at my old school and I still was intellectually, but where I’d had a social standing before, now I had nothing. Other kids glanced at me but never spoke. I was a foreigner, I counted for nothing. Ten years later, when my fiancé’s aunt spat on my shoes for daring to marry an Islander, I just laughed. It took me another 20 years to discover that I should have cried.
Between 9 years old and 10, I grew four inches. I got my first wolf-whistle a month before my 10th birthday—height of the season, in August, when the streets were full of coaches and tourists and grown-ups worked 16-hour days because by the end of September the tourists would be gone and we’d have to live on our savings until Easter. It always felt as if time was running out.
By the time I was 13, I was grown up—physically at least. I’d lost almost everything and thought I’d gained instead. I was cynical, chain-smoking, tip-earning, and no longer top of the class. I was barely even in class. I had a boyfriend in the army and when he wasn’t on leave, there were endless tourists willing to buy me drinks and only expecting in return what I was more than willing to give.
One day a boy from my school drove a car off the edge of a cliff. I didn’t know him, I never even saw him—he’d been at school about as often me. The night I heard about it, time telescoped. I was 17, sitting in a second-hand car, listening to sad music and revving my engine, staring off the edge of the island to the last place I was ever going. It didn’t feel so far away. It wasn’t going to be difficult to do.
And then 9-year-old me reached out and screamed into my ear. No words, just the endless, soundless scream of everything I’d lost, and all that I was going to lose before I could get off that island for good. I’ve never stopped hearing it.