Other Esther

Photo: © Olga Breydo. All Rights Reserved.

We wheel Other Esther in a suitcase through King’s Cross station. My father and I don’t talk. He wears sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. His beard has in it streaks of grey. It’s early morning. Outside, June is warm and bright but in here, June is a damp sack of sand. Some trains are delayed. People shout at station officials and abandon luggage, while a school party with boater hats play hide and seek amongst the crowds. We have formed a sort of taxi scenario, with my father driving, and Other Esther and I behind him on the back seats. We dip between groups, as if on a busy road. My father wheels and whistles. Other Esther is silent. My face is wet with tears.

“We’ll get you out in a minute,” I whisper down.

Our holidays used to involve a car and a child’s seat. We have never been on the train with her, taken her on such a long journey. During such a scorching summer, we were lucky to find this cottage at such short notice. I should take driving lessons. Most thirty-five year olds can drive. My father thinks the three of us need to bond. He thinks Bon Jovi are the best band of all time, so I can’t always trust his judgement. I’ve lived in Hamburg for years with another man he didn’t meet. Sundays we would buy coffee, bread and newspapers and flick through every page between us in silence. Now I’m back with my father and Other Esther having moved my grown-up furniture into my childhood bedroom. I say to my father. “Ask if Other Esther is okay.”

“What’s that?”

“Ask if she’s okay.”

“She’s okay, Esther.” His cheeks shine with sweat.

“I want you to ask if she’s okay.”

“You’re okay. I’m okay. Everything is okay.”

He annoys me with his optimism. He thinks everything will get better for me. I have told him that it’s like scratching air, this attempt to return to myself. “Dad. Please do it.”

He thinks everything will get better for me. I have told him that it’s like scratching air, this attempt to return to myself.

“Fine.” We all stop outside a bookshop. “Other Esther, are you okay?”

Other Esther says, “Yes, I’m fine—I’m okay.” She says, short tempered.

When we were little, my father learned ventriloquism and taught Other Esther to talk. On and on, she’d jabber. She was so funny! At five, we were the same size, although she must have been ten or something then.

“Wait here, my darlings,” my father says. “I need a widdle.” He kisses my forehead, then he kisses his fingers and pats them on the top of the case.

I stay by the shop. At my feet the suitcase is laid flat. At least she can rest, I think. Nothing but horses sleep standing. Our girl can curl up in the space; I’ve surrounded her with soft blankets, and a cool cotton sheet. “It’s like I’ve kidnapped you,” I joke. A florist hooks wicker baskets to the metal frame of her stall. She fills one with scarlet roses and I realise I want to give flowers to Other Esther when we arrive. I rush over and count my change for a bunch of peonies. I walk towards the bookshop again, just as a toddler bundles along, knocking into the suitcase. I stumble. Dragged behind the child a woman holds reins. My father appears in the distance and gestures towards a shop he plans to enter. I wave in response, and wait by a cafe so I can see him approach.

~

I think I spot an old friend. Is it Carmel? God. The profile looks like her. I lock eyes with the ground and I clench my jaw, absorbed in a vision of Carmel striding over, unzipping the suitcase and laughing as Other Esther spills onto the station concourse.

“Ham and cheese toastie, please? Order forty-nine,” someone calls. “Please. Who ordered a ham and cheese toastie?”

No one, it appears, has. Station food smells gritty and burnt. I turn to see a red-aproned woman from the cafe holding a tray above her shoulder. No one has claimed the cutlery, folded napkin, and the toastie with its tidy pile of Pringles and sad, wet salad leaves. She surveys the tables. There’s a smash. Toastie on the tiles. Rattling tray. The woman is angry. She shouts at a security guard, who speaks into his radio. I draw words up into my mouth. “It was an accident,” I call.

Other Esther doesn’t speak. I don’t know how to comfort her. Someone with a broom appears and sweeps away the mess. The station returns to normal.

Carmel is here. “Esther? Is it you?”

It is me.

She kisses me on the cheeks. “I thought it was you. Cute flowers. I said, there’s Esther! Didn’t I, Hal?” She introduces me to him, a grinning fellow.

He shakes my hand and asks if I’m an Aquarian. As I reply, I watch as his face alternates between melting and sharpening. They are on their way to a breakfast quiz, which is much like a pub quiz, but happens before work and with pastries. Carmel buzzes with morning energy. She hasn’t asked what is in my suitcase. I wait with an answer that tells her nothing. It’s not unusual to travel with luggage.

Hal has hair hanging over one eye and wire-rimmed glasses. His face is in constant motion; his mind processing information and filtering details, then slotting them in place. As Carmel talks, his nostrils flare, his ears twitch. I wonder why he’s a ‘Hal’, and whether it’s short for Harold. Or, Henry. Or, Haldrian.

“So, what brings you to London?” Carmel asks.

I say I’ve been visiting my father, and add in a line about the fifteenth bonsai he’s added to his collection and wanted to show me. We all laugh and I feel the strange quick satisfaction of being unkind to someone you love.

“Weren’t you living abroad?” She says our parents still meet from time to time.

“Germany. I had an apartment in Hamburg. It overlooked a lake.”

“What happened?”

“My marriage ended.” It turns out that the words are easy to say.

“That sucks,” says Haldrian.

Carmel responds with all kinds of appropriate comments. Then, she remembers she has on her a packet of old photos. Shall she check if I’m in any of the shots? She rummages in her bag. We lost touch in the summer before we all left home. Her body belatedly burst into womanhood and I was overwhelmed by the glare from her breasts. Her bosoms were her weapons, fixed high on her chest, ready to fight. She turned aggressive. She slapped me more than once. Now she’s all slim and calm, and I can’t make sense of her. But I know she doesn’t have children. Maybe she doesn’t want them either. Maybe that won’t destroy her relationship.

Haldrian holds out his hands while Carmel places her bag on the human shelf he provided. The photos are lodged somewhere at the bottom. When I glance at the departure board I also spot two policewomen with hands tucked under their fluorescent waistcoats. My heart bumps all around my chest. I am a thief, if nothing else.

Carmel brings up the packet. “Ta-da,” she says.

The pictures are shared and we discover with surprise that I am in some of them. There’s one shot with a group of girls, thumbs up or hands on hips. We’re posing like shop mannequins. My head is thrown back in laughter.

“Have it,” says Carmel. “Meeting today feels serendipitous.” She writes her email on the back of the photograph and places it into my hand.

More comments are exchanged. I hear a train announced and say it’s mine. We wave goodbye. I walk into the crowd towards the train platform. The attendant sees my ticket and allows me to pass through the barriers.

~

Other Esther is on the luggage rack, alongside my flowers. I’ve turned off my phone. I can neither sit nor stand for more than a minute at a time. I am on my feet, checking the suitcase zip is open, allowing air between the gaps. She tells me she’s resting, to stop fussing. Other Esther lies flat, her voice is muffled. I daren’t take her out, although I know she’d be much more comfortable on my lap. The rack is narrow, the train rocks. Opposite, a man peers over his book. He has silver hair and a thin moustache. I apologise when I rearrange the suitcase again. The loudspeaker announces the buffet car is open. I have heavy thoughts about whether my father sent Carmel to spy on me.

“We couldn’t have—could we?—waited for him?” Other Esther whispers.

I shrug, because what I will tell her and what is true are not the same.

“Could—could we?” she says.

Without my father, I can’t get her voice quite right. I only have the sound of the words in my head. That will have to be enough. Other Esther’s tone is clipped, naughty. My father has had years of practice, of course.

Lancaster is the quietest place in the world. It’s golden when the sun shines. I stroll from the station with the suitcase. I see a family of four wearing matching neat blue raincoats, two women pushing buggies and a man holding lengths of tree bark. In me is a sudden sense of longing. I have to see our girl immediately. I’m then in the foyer of a Travelodge and booking for the night. I pay for an early check in and ask for Wi-Fi login details as though I need somewhere to finish my important work.

In the room, I draw the curtains and carefully unzip the suitcase. Other Esther clambers out. She says she is fine, but one of her pigtails bends at an angle and there are flecks of white on her dress. My throat dries. We lie on the bed, side by side, staring at the ceiling. We talk about Carmel and Haldrian. Other Esther paddles her arms in front, as if rummaging in her own little bag. We laugh.

Other Esther looks around the room. “It’s all very nice—so nice,” she says.

“Yes, it is, isn’t it?”

“Tranquil. Just what we need—after such a journey.”

“I’m so sorry, Other Esther.” I reach over to place my hand on hers. “I shouldn’t have…”

She lifts her palm from under mine and taps my knuckles. “I won’t have you—concerned—worrying like this.”

I can’t explain why I did what I did. I say, “How about we freshen you up? I could do your hair, maybe?”

“I’d like that—thanks.”

I jump up to find tissues from the bathroom. “We’ll rest here for a bit, and then we’ll make a plan,” I call over as I busy myself finding what I need. Outside, bees buzz, and someone calls to a dog or a child called Cheshire. My father was wrong. This trip isn’t about the three of us.

She says, “Simply—utterly—perfect.”

I haven’t got the tone right. She sounds like a stranger. There is no vase, only two tall bleached-white mugs. I fill both with water and place in the peonies. Squashed, but pretty nonetheless. Their heads are bunched together, like cheeks pressed up to eyes. One withers already and, as I watch, a few petals flop down. “Do you love me?” I ask her.

Other Esther doesn’t reply, although I hear her voice in my head say she does. “Why did you take me?”

I don’t have an answer. I say, “I think we’re both tired, aren’t we?” And I feel older, like the parent, and there’s comfort in that. On the bed, we’re quiet again, thinking our own thoughts. I hum as I brush and plait. Other Esther exhales and closes her eyes.

~

Two evenings later, I decide to make our new living arrangements official. I tell Other Esther our home is now the Travelodge and our meal of choice is the breakfast cereal, juice, muffin and milk combination that comes in a cardboard box from reception at only £4.95. We have eaten many more bowls of cornflakes than women our age should.

I take her to a Weatherspoon pub. The men with stubble and small eyes laugh when I order two gin and tonics, and curry meals. Other Esther and I sit side by side in a booth. I smile at everyone who passes as though this is all a joke. Her head flops to one side, leaning on my shoulder. I say that we can’t return to the hotel before we’ve eaten a proper meal. The waitress drops the plates on the table without a word. “Is it tasty?” I ask Other Esther, as I eat a poppadom.

She doesn’t reply. There’s a window behind her. The light is fading. I can see fields laid out like lengths of wool, trimmed with green fluff. The ruins of a castle or a farm are in the distance. Someone in the pub coughs. I sigh. Other Esther waits for a casual minute and does the same. From my bag, I take some letters. Redirected mail with crumpled envelopes. Theatre brochures, charity requests, bank statements. I open each of them just for something to do.

Though I don’t talk much, I do talk. The alcohol settles my thinking and loosens my tongue. I finish my drink and sip Other Esther’s. I rip the letters into strips and shove them into my empty glass. I’d like another gin, but I don’t fancy taking our girl to the bar and back again. Instead, we chat about Carmel again and the old days. If I’m not actually relaxed, at least I pretend I am. Someone sends over another couple of drinks. He shouts over that we should put on a show. “Tomorrow!” I call back, feeling outrageous. This lifts our mood. Other Esther and I start to chatter and soon we’re laughing loads. Towards the end of the night, she tugs at my sleeve and I agree it’s time to go.

~

It’s easier to leave the hotel with Other Esther now, and we’re getting to be known around the city. I position her on my arm and let her sit there. I move her head sideways and around, but she doesn’t like speaking to strangers. It’s a week since we left Euston. My father must be frantic. I haven’t heard the news or watched television. Perhaps I’m a missing person. At the supermarket entrance, I hear a siren. I worry I have a disease that makes my heart pummel so often and so hard. Other Esther is in the trolley seat. She’s balanced neatly, her two legs dangling.

“We don’t need—do we?—toilet roll,” Other Esther says.

I have a grin painted on my face, as though I know I’m being eccentric. I want to be in and out quickly. I select fruit in packages, food from the deli counter and paper plates. I have more gin, more tonic and lemons too.

“We don’t need—do we?—towels,” says Other Esther.

I scan the chiller cabinet for pimento stuffed olives.

“And we don’t need—do we?—shower gel.”

“We don’t,” I reply. She seems to be enjoying the novelty of living in a hotel room. It’s not easy to look after a ventriloquist’s dummy. They can’t keep quiet, and you can’t make them. They talk continuously, out loud and in your mind. A man around my age with bright blue eyes stops and asks if I’m making a film. The deli woman is interested too. Pretending to be embarrassed, I stroke Other Esther’s forehead. I see a few crumbs in her hair and pick them away. I glance over my shoulder as if for the crew. Lowering my voice I say it’s for a documentary. It’ll be on Channel 4. “Don’t tell anyone,” I whisper.

“Cool, cool,” the man says, adjusting his collar so he’s smart enough for the screen. “What’s the story?”

I tell him it’s about the search for true love.

~

We book the hotel for another ten days. After then, I’ll make decisions about where we should go. York, or Bath, or somewhere with sandy-coloured buildings and tea rooms. Other Esther and I could take contemporary dance classes. I might wear a leopard-print dress and tough lace-up shoes. I’ll clean our clothes with a washboard. Our room is compact, with a double bed and a dressing table which covers the length of a wall. It faces an inner courtyard, so we sleep quite well. What I love about the ensuite is the deep bath. I’ve unpicked the hooks from the shower curtain and bought some fizzing bath balls. Such a novelty. They bubble up nicely. We didn’t have these in the apartment by the lake with the newspapers and the view and the desperation. “It’s that time again!” I call out from the bathroom.

“Goody!” she replies.

We have sweet little habits now. I run a bath and fill it with the balls. Sometimes the room smells of honey, sometimes lavender. I prop Other Esther on the edge of the tub, leaning against the taps, and in I get. We do this every evening. I’ve started bringing my drink. I’d like candles, too, but the smoke detector might react. She usually tells stories from our childhood. When we would create songs to sing to my father. When we’d take turns on the garden swing. Look, I do know she’s a doll. Don’t think I don’t.

Tonight she’s remembering the pencil cases we both had. “With those—what were they?—little horses dashing about on the front?” she asks. “And those ones you had in the bath? You’d loved—adored—them. What were they called?”

I know the name. I kept one on my bookshelf for years. Near his literary theory books, to the left of my history of the novel volumes. The memory seems far away. I let her talk for a while and I don’t interrupt. Her voice is a warm jacket. Along with the hot water, I let myself be covered by it. “Sea ponies!” I laugh finally.

“Oh yes—Esther! Yes!”

My clenched fists relax. June feels good and clear.

~

The bubbles have dissolved. The water is lukewarm. I’m disoriented. I reach for my drink and see only a wedge of lemon at the bottom of the glass. I wipe under my eyes. Have I been asleep? Something is near my leg. Fabric. My heart picks up speed and I look towards the water. There. Other Esther. She floats face down. “Oh God,” I say, stumbling out of the bath. “Oh God.”

I grope for my towel. I leave wet footprints over the floor as I stumble back and forth. I pull Other Esther from the water by her collar. Her eyes! Water leaks from her hands and feet and hair. The ceiling fan screams. I drop her and the sound is like a slap. I throw open the ensuite door and let the steam escape into the main room. Am I shivering? I have my bag on the bed, and I shove in clothes and my purse while dressing and ripping a comb through my hair. I zip it up and I’m out of the room before I can think. I’m on the stairs, bursting from the automatic doors onto the pavement and into the heavy evening. From there, I know I’ve got to find somewhere to go.

Gemma Seltzer is a British writer based in London and interested in different forms of storytelling. She wrote the script for virtual reality film Songbird (The Guardian), as well as fictional blog 5am London about the city in the early hours and online flash fiction series Speak to Strangers, based on conversations with Londoners (later published by Penned in the Margins). Her commissions include radio documentary The Dhammazedi Bell (BBC Radio 3) and short story My Father Like This (ArtSway/The Photographers’ Gallery). Gemma’s fiction has been recognised in the Mslexia Novel Award and the Bridport Prize. She runs the Write & Shine programme of morning creative writing workshops, and is currently developing a short story collection about cities, ventriloquism, and bold women. www.gemmaseltzer.co.uk

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