Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley did not like her grandmother’s bathtub. Whenever she visited her grandmother, the bathtub was something she took great pains to avoid. She’d try very hard for the duration of that visit not to pee. And if she needed to pee, she’d tap with her feet really quickly to try to drive all the pee away. But sometimes she couldn’t help it, she really had to pee. And when she did, she wouldn’t look at the bathtub, she would walk straight to the toilet, eyes fixed forward. And after she’d peed she’d have to use the sink, and to do that she’d face the wall, press her feet up right against the skirting board, and she would shuffle around, and that way she’d be as far from the bathtub as could be.
There was hair in her grandmother’s bathtub, coming out of the plughole. It looked like they were growing out. They were thick, like spiders’ legs, but spiders don’t have that many legs, so it was like lots of spiders had been mushed together. They were black. And that was wrong, because her grandmother didn’t even have black hair.
Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley really liked her name, Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley. She liked it, because if you spelled out the first letters, S A R H, that was very nearly her first name back again. It was only missing a second A, and she could pretend that it was there. It made her feel secure. And when the kids at school spoke to her, or her mother, or her father (when he was there), when they called her Sarah, she would feel that, yes, she was doubly Sarah, she would think, I’m Sarah through and through.
Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley’s mother was called Sophie Maureen Hadley, and that wasn’t any good, that didn’t spell anything.
Sarah’s grandmother was called Eunice Pinnock. Sarah didn’t know if her grandmother had a middle name. She’d never asked.
Sarah liked her grandmother well enough, but she would sometimes try and hug Sarah, and Sarah didn’t like that. Whenever Mummy told her they were going to visit her grandmother, Sarah would get sad, and she’d ask her Mummy to stop all the hugging from happening, and Mummy said she’d do her best, and she had told Granny, but Granny sometimes forgot. Granny was old, old people forget things. So if Granny hugged Sarah, Sarah would have to be a brave little girl and put up with it, and not cry, and not shout, and Mummy would reward Sarah with a treat.
Her grandmother was always forgetting that Sarah was a special girl, and that her skin was very soft, and that hugging was very bad for soft skin because it would leave marks on it, or even worse, lots of grandmother’s skin might get left on Sarah’s skin, and then maybe it’d get sucked through the pores, and then grandmother would be inside Sarah. Sarah didn’t want that. Sarah wanted to be Sarah through and through.
When her grandmother hugged Sarah, she’d smell of cigarettes and cinnamon. Sarah would sometimes see her grandmother smoking cigarettes, but she never saw her eat cinnamon. Sarah liked the smell of cinnamon, but not when it was on grandmother. And she didn’t like the smell of cigarettes at all.
And another thing about the bathtub was the taps. The taps were too big. Something could be hiding inside the taps. Sarah would sometimes look at the taps. Because she didn’t want to, but she would sometimes look at the bathtub, she couldn’t help it, not for all her precautions, she would just stare at the bathtub, it was like an itch in her mind – she’d stare at those giant taps, those ogre taps, she’d wonder why they had to be so big.
She didn’t like the pipes either, which were rusty, bits of rust would get in the water, it’d make the water dirty. She didn’t like the cracks in the side of the bath, they looked like dirt too, but they wouldn’t wash away. She didn’t like the colour of the bath. It was a green bath. Sarah liked green well enough. But it was the wrong colour for a bath.
For that second A, S A R A H, Sarah would make up lots of names. Sometimes she would be Antonia. Sometimes she would be Adelaide, she’d read that in a book once, she thought that was pretty. Sometimes, when she felt bad, she’d be Anne. Sarah Anne Rachel Anne. She’d rattle it through her head, it sounded like a train on the tracks.
Most days Sarah didn’t put much thought into which name she’d pick. She was a sensible girl, really. She thought choosing her new name might be silly.
She sometimes wondered whether which name she chose affected anything. Whether she had better days as Antonia or Alexandra or Adelaide or Alice or Agnes or Anne. She’d thought about keeping a diary to see, it would be interesting. She hadn’t got around to it yet.
She was trying out a brand new name the day that Mummy gave her the news, she was Amanda, and maybe that had been the problem.
“Pack some toys,” Mummy said. “We’re going to Granny’s for a while.”
Going to her grandmother’s made Sarah sad, mostly because of the hugging, but also because of the cigarettes and the cinnamon. But she liked the journey to Granny’s. She’d learned it by heart. They’d catch the 23 bus to the train station. Then they’d catch the train. Then they’d catch the 32 bus to grandmother’s house. Sarah liked the way that 23 was 32 backwards, and that 32 was 23 backwards, and the train bit could be sandwiched in the middle.
She’d sometimes ask Mummy whether they could go to her grandmother’s house, but not actually bother seeing her grandmother, they could just turn right round when they got there and go home again, they could get off the 32 bus and get another 32 bus going in the opposite direction, then get the train, then get the 23 bus, and that would be good. And Mummy always said no.
Sarah said, How long are we going for?
Mummy said, “I don’t know, as long as it takes,” and that wasn’t an answer at all, but Mummy sounded cross, and Sarah didn’t like it when Mummy was cross. Sarah had only been trying to work out whether they’d be there so long that at some point she might need to go and pee, and Sarah grimly concluded they probably might be. She cried at that.
She cried too when Mummy said they were going to get there by car, because that would miss out the only good bit. Sarah said, I want to go by bus, and train, and bus. Mummy said, “We’re going by car, we’ll be carrying too much luggage,” and Sarah didn’t like the sound of that.
And another thing about the bathtub was that it made a noise, a sort of whispering noise.
And another thing about the bathtub was that it smelled of cigarettes and cinnamon.
The good news was that grandmother didn’t even try to hug her. Grandmother hugged Mummy, and Mummy held on to grandmother so long and so tight, and grandmother just forgot.
Sarah went into the sitting room whilst Mummy and grandmother talked in the kitchen. Sarah sat down on the sofa. She counted the tiles on the ceiling, and there were fifty-three complete ones, and sixteen half ones, and three which were partially obscured by light fittings. The same as always.
After a while, her grandmother came in to see her. She stood in the doorway. “Do you want to take your coat off, dear?”, and Sarah said, No, and grandmother left.
After a while, Mummy came in to see her too. “Take your coat off, Sarah,” she said. Sarah did, and Mummy took it, she left the room to hang the coat up somewhere, Sarah didn’t know where.
Sarah began to fidget because it was Tuesday and Tuesday was bath night, and they never visited grandmother on Tuesday because Sarah was too busy at home doing ordinary things and having her bath. But she didn’t want to fidget too much, she didn’t want Mummy to notice, because then Mummy might ask what was wrong, and Sarah was very bad at lying, and she’d have to tell her, and then Mummy might say she’d have to have her bath at her grandmother’s. And the idea of missing bath night distressed Sarah, but the idea of grandmother’s bathtub with its pipes and taps and spider legs distressed her more, she’d rather have the one distress over the other.
And at seven o’clock sharp Mummy said, “Time for bed, little lady,” and Sarah thought she might have got away with it. She’d lie in bed all night and be covered in dirt and the dirt would be soiling the bed sheets but that would be okay. And her grandmother said, “Do you want to use the bathroom, dear?”, and Mummy said, “I’d forgotten, it’s bath night!”, and Sarah hated her grandmother so much.
Mummy went upstairs to run the bath. Sarah thought she would stay downstairs, if she stayed downstairs as long as possible then maybe Mummy would forget who the bath was for, and at home Mummy never needed Sarah to be in the room whilst the bath was being run. But this time she said, “Come along, Sarah,” and Sarah had to follow her, and as she climbed up the stairs it seemed to her that her body was getting heavier and heavier and that she was walking through glue. Mummy didn’t seem to notice the dangers of the bathtub, she walked straight up to it without even taking a deep breath or anything, and she turned on the taps and the taps whistled and spat out water, spat it out in thick gobbets, then the water began to flow.
Mummy said, “I’m sorry about this, darling, I know this is all very confusing. But you’ll understand one day, and I promise you, it’s for the best.” And Sarah was looking straight at her, and nodding, just so she wouldn’t have to look at the bathtub, and hear what the bathtub was whispering.
Mummy turned off the taps. Steam rose out of the water. “You’re all set,” she said. It’s too hot, said Sarah. “It’s fine,” said Mummy. Sarah said, it’s too hot. Mummy said, “You want to wait until it cools down? Okay. Don’t be too long, I might need the bath myself! Here’s a towel.” And Sarah wanted to say, don’t go, don’t go, don’t leave me, don’t go – but she’d been having baths on her own now for years, and Mummy left.
Once they were on their own, the bathtub whispered even more. Sarah put her fingers in her ears.
She looked at the bath. She supposed the water in the middle wasn’t too bad. The water in the middle wasn’t touching any part of the bath. If she could just get into that bit, she’d be fine. If she could just get into the bath, and not touch the bath, not the sides, not reach the bottom, she’d be okay. If she were the size of a little mouse, she could bob about on the surface, safe.
But she was a sensible girl, really. And that might be silly.
She peered over the side, carefully, not too close, in case the bathtub leaped up, caught her, pulled her in. The plug was in the plughole. That was good. Because all the spider legs were in the plughole, and now they were hidden by the plug. But if she got in the bath, the plug might come free. The bathtub would pop it out, maybe the spider legs would kick it out, and then the water would be sucked down the drain, and she’d be sucked down too, she’d be sucked into a whirlpool going round and round and down and down. And Sarah didn’t mind so much the thought of going down the drain, but she’d have to brush against so many spider legs along the way.
She looked at the ogre taps. She knew what was hiding inside the taps. Fingers. And the fingers would crawl out, once she was in the bath, sitting in the bath an touching it, touching the cracks with her bare skin, the fingers would come out and prod at her. And then they’d pull the plug chain, and out of the plughole would come the plug. And the fingers would be hairy too, probably, with thick black hair, like spiders’ legs.
The water had a smell.
She refused to listen to what the bathtub was whispering, but she had to take her fingers out of her ears to stop her nostrils fast against that smell.
She went to the sink. She ran water into the sink. She had no problem with the sink. The sink wasn’t cracked. There were no hairs in the sink. Hardened lumps of toothpaste, but toothpaste was good for you. The sink was green, but Sarah liked green well enough.
She got undressed. She splashed sink water all over her body, cupping her hands, and trying to get it on to her before it trickled out through her fingers. She kept her back to the bathtub, she wouldn’t look at it any more.
She dried herself, went down to Mummy.
She knew if Mummy said, “Have you had your bath?” Sarah couldn’t lie to her. Sarah was no good at lying.
Mummy and her grandmother were in the kitchen. Her grandmother was smoking. Mummy was clasping on to a cup of tea with all her might. Neither of them were speaking. They didn’t notice Sarah standing there for a little while. Then Mummy looked up.
“Are you washed?” she asked.
Sarah said, Yes.
Sarah slept with her Mummy that night. The spare room was right next door to the bathroom, but Sarah wasn’t frightened, she knew her Mummy would always protect her.
In the morning, Sarah woke alone.
She went downstairs to the kitchen. Grandmother sat at the table, on her own, and she was smoking, and clouds of blue mist hung around the room. She saw Sarah, and smiled. “Hello, dear. Do you want some breakfast?”
No, said Sarah.
Grandmother got up. She opened her arms. “You poor thing. Come here.”
She looked all over for her mother, until the last room to try was the bathroom. Sarah took a deep breath, and went in.
Mummy was there. She was in the bath. She wasn’t washing. She was just sitting there, in the bath. She wasn’t even using the soap. She was in the bath, and the water was right up to her neck, and she was just sitting there, very still, and staring ahead, and Sarah wondered whether she might be dead, whether the bath had killed her, and she was excited, and not frightened yet, but she knew if she were dead she would get very frightened soon.
“Hello,” said Mummy. She wasn’t dead.
Sarah said, What are you doing?
“I’m having a bath.”
Okay, said Sarah.
She turned to leave.
“You don’t have to go,” said Mummy.
Okay, said Sarah. She stayed a bit longer. They didn’t say anything else. So Sarah left anyway.
Sarah Anne Rachel used to be much worse! She couldn’t remember now, but Mummy and Daddy once sat together on the sofa, and they told her this story. About how when she was very small, they had all gone on holiday together. They’d driven all the way to Cornwall, and Sarah had been as good as gold, just looked out of the window the whole way, hadn’t made a fuss. But when they got to the hotel, oh, it was a different matter! Oh, she’d been a nightmare! She didn’t like the bathroom there. She screamed the place down, they didn’t know, maybe she’d thought it was haunted or something. They’d booked this hotel months ago, mind. And they had to ask the manageress for another room, on another floor, with another bathroom. And Sarah hadn’t liked that one either! They had to leave the hotel, they lost their deposit. And they drove around for hours, checking out all the hotels. And it was tourist season, so most of the hotels were fully booked, and the ones that weren’t, she didn’t like the bathrooms there any better! So eventually they had to give up, no holiday to be had. They drove all the way back home that night, Mummy and Daddy taking turns at the steering wheel, and all the way Sarah sleeping soundly in the back, good as gold, not a fuss. You’d never have known, they said. You looked so peaceful, you’d never have known.
Mummy and Daddy were cuddled up together, and they laughed a lot at the story, and Sarah laughed too, but she couldn’t see really what was so funny.
Mummy and Daddy said they were just thankful Sarah had got so much better.
She was better now, it was only the bathtub at her grandmother’s house she didn’t like. But she never told her parents. She couldn’t. She didn’t listen to what the bathtub whispered, but sometimes the words seeped into her head anyway. And the bathtub warned her, don’t you ever tell your Mummy and Daddy, don’t you dare tell anyone. Or I’ll come and get you, and make you mine.
They told Sarah to go and play, but she’d already counted all the tiles on the ceiling of the sitting room. She counted them again, and then went to find Mummy. The kitchen door was closed. They had closed it on her. And there were whispers going on behind it. Sarah knew she didn’t want to hear the whispering, but she stood outside the door, ear jammed right up against the wood, and the words seeped into her head anyway.
She opened the door, and her grandmother and her Mummy stopped talking.
There was even more smoke in the room now, grandmother was holding a cigarette, Mummy was too, and Mummy didn’t ever hold cigarettes. Mummy’s face looked puffy like she’d been crying, though Sarah couldn’t see any wetness on her cheeks now, and the puffiness made Mummy look old, and wrinkled, and a bit ugly, she looked just like grandmother. She had become grandmother.
Mummy started, looked a bit guilty, and Mummy never looked guilty, she looked less like herself than ever. She’d had a bath and she looked worse, she wasn’t wearing any lipstick, her face was dull.
And Sarah understood, it wasn’t grandmother who made the bath smell so, it wasn’t grandmother who was bad, it was the bathtub, this is what it did to people, it made them ugly like Granny. I’ll come and get you, it had said, I’ll make you mine. And she knew she must never get into that tub, not ever. Or she’d lose herself, just as sure as she’d lost her Mummy.
“I’m sorry,” Mummy said, and put her cigarette in the ashtray, and got up, and came towards Sarah, and yes, she was going to give Sarah a hug, she was opening her arms out wide, and Sarah didn’t mind hugs from Mummy, but she minded them now, and Mummy pressed Sarah close to her, and she smelled like cinnamon.
And another thing about the bathtub. It doesn’t make you clean. It makes you a different sort of dirty.
Grandmother suggested they all deserved a day out, they should all go to the shopping mall. And Mummy agreed, but then, she would have, wouldn’t she? Mummy put on her make-up, and it made her look a bit more like herself, but Sarah wasn’t fooled. They went to a department store, and grandmother liked a dress, but it wasn’t in her size, and she ordered it, and she gave her name, Eunice Pinnock, and Sarah still didn’t know what her middle initial could be, but she didn’t much care. And Mummy admired the dress, and grandmother said, well, why don’t you get one for yourself? You need a treat, all you’ve been through. And they didn’t have it in Mummy’s size either, and so Mummy ordered it too, and gave her name as Sophie Pinnock, and that wasn’t right, that wasn’t right, that wasn’t right. It made her new name Sophie Maureen Pinnock, and that was SMP, and that still didn’t stand for anything, but it had been better before. And grandmother said, do you like the dress, Sarah? And Mummy said, you like the dress, don’t you, Sarah? Have a treat. You need a treat, all you’ve been through. And the shop did have the dress in Sarah’s size, and grandmother bought it for her, and it looked very nice.
They had drinks in the cafe. Grandmother and Mummy had coffees, Sarah had a milkshake.
And Sarah wondered if she’d have to change her name now as well. She’d be Sarah Anne Rachel Pinnock. A sarp. What was a sarp? A sarp wasn’t anything.
Mummy told Sarah to thank her granny for her dress and for the shake, and Sarah did. And when they got back to grandmother’s house they hung the new dress in the wardrobe, and Mummy promised they’d put more clothes in there soon, this was only the beginning, and Sarah thanked her too, thank you, Mummy, she said. She wanted to fidget, but she also didn’t want to fidget, she didn’t want Mummy realising anything was wrong. Mummy and grandmother went back into the kitchen to make it smell all smoky and sweet. They closed the door on Sarah. Sarah took all the money from Mummy’s purse, because she didn’t know how much she’d need. And then, very quietly, she went to the front door, opened it carefully, stepped outside, and left.
Sarah went to the bus stop, caught the 32 to the train station. At the station the woman behind the ticket window asked her where she wanted to go, and Sarah gave her her full address. “Which station?” asked the woman, and Sarah told her. Sarah got on the train, and she enjoyed the journey, the tracks seemed to be singing to her, Sarah Anne Rachel Anne, Sarah Anne Rachel Anne – and that was good, because today was an Anne day, today was very much an Anne day. Sarah got off the train, went to the bus stop, caught the 23, got off the bus, went home.
She rang her own doorbell to her own house, and a woman she didn’t recognise opened the front door. She was younger than Mummy. “Yes?” the younger than Mummy woman said. Sarah said that she lived there. The woman blushed. “You must be Sarah,” she said. Sarah told her name was Sarah Anne Rachel Hadley. She didn’t tell her her whole name, she didn’t know her well enough.
The woman seemed frightened of Sarah. Sarah didn’t know why. “Come in,” the woman said. “Please. Your father’s not here. He’s at work. I don’t know when he’ll. He’ll be back soon. I’ll call him, I’ll get him. So. How did you get here? Do you want anything? A coffee, you probably don’t drink coffee, there’s milk, there’s juice.”
Sarah said, I want to have a bath. My bath is overdue.
The woman blinked, and said, “All right.”
Sarah thought back to some of the whispering she’d heard. Not the nasty whispering from the bathtub, the nastier whispering through the kitchen door. “Are you going to end up my new mummy?”
The woman said, “Well. Well, I. No.”
Sarah said, Good.
Sarah went upstairs, and ran herself a bath. The bathtub was pink, the way bathtubs are meant to be, and it didn’t talk to her.
Sarah was still in the bath when Daddy got home. “Where is she?” she heard from downstairs. She didn’t hear what the woman said in reply, her voice was too feeble.
Daddy entered the bathroom without knocking. This would have upset Sarah once, but she hadn’t seen him for a while, she’d forgive him anything.
“Does your mother know you’re here?” he said.
Sarah didn’t know what her Mummy might know.
“Oh God.” He took out his mobile phone, and left the room. He didn’t bother to close the door, and it let cold air in, and that was annoying. Sarah heard her father downstairs, and his voice was raised.
When he came back, his voice was softer, kinder.
“What are you doing here, poppet?” he said. “You can’t just. You know.”
Sarah said, I came home.
“You can’t,” he said again. “Not for a little while. Okay? Mummy and me. We have things to sort out. Okay?”
Sarah said, Don’t you want to see me?
Daddy said, “It’s not a question of what I want, poppet.”
Sarah said, Don’t you want to see me?
Daddy said, “Not right now. Not like this. No. No.”
Sarah said nothing.
Daddy said, “Get out of the bath now, poppet.”
Sarah said, No. No.
The longer she stayed in the bath the more wrinkly her fingers got. She looked old, like her grandmother.
The water got cold, but to reach the taps and run more hot water in she’d have had to get out of the bath, and Sarah didn’t want to get out of the bath.
There was a knock on the door at one point, very gentle, and Sarah thought it would be her father, maybe he’d come to say sorry, maybe he’d come to say he wanted her. But it was the scared woman, the younger than Mummy woman, and she asked whether she could get Sarah a glass of milk or juice. Sarah didn’t want milk or juice. Sarah thought the woman seemed rather nice, and probably would have made a nice mummy, but she was glad she wasn’t going to be hers.
The water was very cold by the time her real Mummy arrived, and it was dark outside too. Mummy didn’t ask, she just said, “Out of the bath, now,” and Sarah was happy to oblige.
In the car, Mummy said, “I’m very cross with you. That was a very mean and selfish thing you did.”
Sarah thought for a while, and said, I’m cross with you too.
Sarah wondered what the noise was, and realised it was her Mummy starting to cry.
It was gone midnight by the time they got to grandmother’s. Sarah was dozing.
“Wake up,” said her mother, roughly, but the way she stroked Sarah’s hair was gentle enough.
Grandmother was awake, waiting for them, and the ashtray was overflowing. “What happened? Did you see her?”
“Yes,” said Mummy.
“What did you say to her?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mummy.
“What was she like?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. For Christ’s sake, Mum. Stop it. All right? Stop it.”
“Go to bed. I’ve had enough of it now. I’ve had it up to here. All right?”
“To bed with you, Sarah. Mummy will be along soon. I’m just going to have a bath.”
“Now?” Granny dared to ask.
“Now. I just need to. I want to, I. I need to wash the dirt out of me. I want to get rid of the dirt.”
Sarah lay in bed, and although she was very tired, she couldn’t fall asleep. She was listening to the water as it splashed into the tub, as it thrummed through the rusted pipes. She was listening to the whispering, and it wasn’t just whispering now, she could hear every word loud and precise and clear.
Sarah knocked on the bathroom door gently. She went in.
Mummy was lying in the bath. She turned her head. She looked surprised to see her.
“Go to bed,” she said.
But Sarah stood her ground.
“Oh, what do you want, Sarah?” Mummy sighed.
Sarah thought. Said, honestly – I don’t know.
Sarah then said, He doesn’t want me.
“He doesn’t want us,” said Mummy.
He doesn’t want me.
And then: “Sorry.”
Sarah said, Is this going to be our new home?
Mummy said, “Just for a while. Not forever. You don’t mind, do you?”
“This was my home. When I was your age. This house. It makes me feel like me.”
Sarah wanted to give her mother a hug, but she didn’t give hugs. And Mummy was in the bath, the bath was all around her. Sarah didn’t know how to hug her without the bath touching her. Sarah didn’t know how to offer a hug, so she didn’t.
“I want you,” said Mummy, quietly. “I promise. I do.” And Sarah gave her a hug anyway, just a little one around the neck, and the side of the tub brushed up against her, and Sarah was revolted, and Mummy was wet, and Mummy left damp patches on Sarah’s nightie.
“Get in,” said Mummy.
“Yes, you can. There’s plenty of room. It’s a big tub.”
So Sarah took her nightie off. Mummy sat up to make more room, and the water sloshed about a bit, and the waves seemed big and menacing, and then the water settled down again. Mummy held out her hand, and smiled. And Sarah took it. And Sarah put first one foot into the warm water, and then the other, and both feet hit the bottom of the tub, and then Sarah lowered herself into the water, and her bum hit the bottom of the tub too.
Mummy put her arms around Sarah’s waist, pulled her back, pulled her into her soapy body, and it was slippery, it made Sarah want to laugh.
“We’ll be all right, you know,” said Mummy.
And the bathtub continued to whisper. And it didn’t say such reassuring things. But it was all right, it was.
And Sarah had such soft skin, and she could feel the water leaking in through her thin pores, swelling her up fat like a balloon. The bathtub had got her now. And she would be her grandmother, she would be her mother, she would be SARP. She would learn how to hug, and to smoke, and she’d smell of sweet cinnamon. And it was all right, all of it. And she put her head back upon her mother’s chest, and she closed her eyes, closed them against the cracks and the spider legs and the fingers coming out at her from the taps, she closed her eyes, and she felt safe.