You and Mum and Them

This week is Art Week at school. I’ve created all manner of stimuli and art activities for the Year 2 and Year 3 pupils to enjoy. One of the mums recommended the Robots Shed as a source of inspiration. So I included the link and then watched all the videos. And while I was joining in with today’s activities, which were mostly about gathering enough ideas for the rest of the week, I drew this picture and wrote these notes. And all of a sudden, there was Adam, in a shelter, alone except for a robot whose sole purpose was to care for him and protect him. The story speaks about how it feels to be in lockdown, and about what is most important: love and physical contact.

I wrote it in bursts of 240 characters, as if I were composing it in Twitter (which I was, to begin with). And it just carried on from there. The music in this video is from the film ‘I Robot’, which is based on one of the books that my dad gave me to read when I was far too young, but which I loved. The idea of a clockwork robot (more of a wind-up robot, as I am sure that the two hundred turns are necessary to generate the electricity necessary to power Adam’s friend) comes from Natasha Pulley’s writing, which I also love.

My hands are hard from turning the wheel a hundred times and then a hundred more every day. Once upon a time, my shoulders ached and the muscles in my arms burned when I tried to wind and tighten the spring. But I am older now. I’m stronger.

Before the birds begin to sing outside our shelter, my friend is coming to life again. I can hear the tiny parts of their calculating engine clicking and turning inside their head. I see the lights in their eyes first glow, then shine, as they turn to look at me. We stand up.

“Good morning Adam,” they say. We face each other and they raise their iron arms. The machinery in their chest, hidden deep behind their steel breastplate, whirrs and sends enough pressure through the pipes to make my friend’s arms wrap around me in a hug.

Firm and comforting. When I was younger, their arms could only just cradle my head. I am now almost as tall as they are, but I’m nothing like as broad and strong. We stay here for ages. Their arms hold me and mine rest on their backplate, which I think is made of brass. It is cold and shiny.

This is the best part of the day. Eventually, they let me go and their eyes look into mine. “You look hungry,” they say. “Let’s get you fed.” I nod. This is what keeps us together. I can’t go out to feed myself; they can’t survive without my hands to wind them up every morning.

My friend moves to the door of the shelter and pushes at it. The frost has sealed it shut, but they lean against it and the door gives way. Metal screams against metal. The half-light outside seems blue. The ground is glittering, all silver and jewels.

I try to look past my friend for any sign of life but the door closes behind them. I am safe, so long as I stay inside here. I turn back to the dark corner of the shelter and find the water container. I’m thirsty, so I swig greedy mouthfuls, cold, metal-tasting, making my head ache and my throat burn.

I hope they won’t be long. I’m hungry. I search around for anything left from yesterday, but there isn’t even a scrap. I suck at the soft end of a bone. There’s taste but nothing to fill my belly. I slump down onto the bed and pull the blankets over me. On the wall, I see you and mum.

Your faces are fading. I try not to touch you but the picture falls off every now and then and I forget to hold it by the edges when I put you back in your place. It’s all I have of you. They have to be my mum and dad for now, until you come and find me.

I know you will. When the lockdown ends and we can walk outdoors, you’ll open the shelter door and smile at me and reach out to me with your arms and hold me and never let go of me. That’s the story your picture tells me every night, only I have to do the talking for you.

The door screeches open. It’s bright outside. I must have gone back to sleep. How long, I don’t know. They walk in, carrying food for me. It’s mostly meat because we’re in the middle of winter and nothing much is growing. They’ve prepared and cooked it for me outside. It smells so good.

They put the food down on the box we use as a table, then give me a long look. “You okay?” they ask me. “Couldn’t be better,” I reply, trying to be happy for both of us. “I will stop now,” they say. That’s good, because it means they won’t wind down as fast. But it means I’m alone again.

They’re still here, of course, but the lights in their eyes dim and go out, and they stand still and silent, like a piece of furniture in the shelter. I haven’t got time to be sad. I’m too hungry. I tear at the hot meat, crunch through the charred edges and chew each mouthful slowly.

I like to take my time once I have the meat in my mouth, to make the most of the flavour. The nuts, roots and berries that they bring me don’t taste anything like the food that you used to make me. But the meat reminds me of home and you and mum, before the lockdown. Before you lost me.

Suddenly there’s scratching and clawing and snarling at the door. Nails and teeth trying to get in here. It’s a wild dog or a bear and I scream before I can stop myself. They come to life and spring at the door. It bursts open and sunlight floods in. I can see the dog’s hungry eyes, and its mouth.

They are quicker than the dog. Before it can come any closer, they grip hold of its back legs, lift it into the air, swing it round and throw it as far as they can. The dog hits the ground and breaks the sticks it lands on. It yelps in fear and runs off. I don’t think it will be back any time soon.

They come back in and shut the door. “You okay?” they say again. They weren’t made for talking much, so I have to do most of the conversation. “Yes, I’m fine,” I lie. I don’t want to show how scared I am. I finish the meat and suck at just one of the bones. They will boil the rest for soup for later.

They’re still and silent again. I need to go to the toilet, so I stand up and knock on their chest. “Excuse me,” I say, “may I go to the bathroom?” Just like you and mum taught me, only we don’t have a bathroom. There’s just a place outside, and they have to guard me while I use it.

It’s through a hatch at the back of the shelter. They go out of the front door and open the hatch for me. I go to the place, only a step or two from the shelter, and sit down. They look away. We all need our privacy. That’s what you used to say. And it’s no different here in the forest.

And then there’s hammering in the sky. The air is shaking and all the branches of the trees around us are blowing this way and that. Something is above us. The place where I’m sitting goes dark. I realise that it’s because the something has got in the way of the sun. A loudspeaker voice calls out.


I know I shouldn’t be, but I am terrified. I crouch down to hide and then crawl back into the shelter. The hammering gets louder and the voice keeps calling my name. I don’t know what to do. I jump onto the bed, grab you and mum from the wall and hide under the blanket. This isn’t right.

They come back into the shelter and lean over me. I can see them through the holes in the blanket. “Don’t be scared,” they tell me, but I am. I have waited so long for someone to come and find me and now I’m hiding under an old blanket in a shelter. I start to cry. “Don’t be scared,” they say again.

The door of the shelter is pulled open and the room is full of people. They – not the people – my friend is still and silent again, standing up against the wall. One of the people tries to pull the blanket away. I won’t let him. I hold onto it and screech at him to go away. There are too many of them.

The one who pulled the blanket is a man. I can see now, though he is wearing a helmet with a piece of clear plastic across his face. He kneels down and lets go of the blanket, then he lifts the plastic up from his face. It’s you. It’s dad. You came. I can’t stop crying and I hold out my arms for you.

You’re holding me in your arms, not as tightly as they do. But you’re warm and you’re soft and I’m safe now. The other people are talking to each other loudly and one is talking into a radio. Everything is loud and too crowded. I want them to leave us alone. I tell you. You tell the people. The people leave.

We won’t be long, you tell me, we’re going home. The people who have come to rescue me have to make sure there is nothing dangerous left behind when we go. “What about them?” I ask you, looking at my friend against the wall. “It’s done its job,” you tell me. “It stays here now. It’s just junk.”

You’re carrying me outside now, to the helicopter that’s landed in the clearing beside the shelter. I’m screaming and clawing at you. We can’t just leave them. They saved my life. They fed me. They kept me safe until you came to find me. “There’s no room for it,” you tell me. “Then I’ll stay,” I say.

You shake your head and laugh, but you don’t stop walking to the helicopter. A woman takes me and looks in both my eyes. She holds her fingers to my neck, as if she is checking something. And then she pulls back my sleeve and wipes my arm with something cold. I feel a sharp prick and cry out.

You’ve strapped me into a seat and the helicopter is taking off. I can’t stay awake. It must have been that sharp prick. The helicopter tilts over. I look out of the window, down at the shelter, and I see them, looking up at me. I want to see someone else beside them, someone just like them. A friend.

We never come back to the shelter but I dream about them. All the time. I see them with their friend, taking turns to wind each other up, looking after each other, keeping the shelter safe and standing face to face each morning, so they can hold each other tightly, just like they did with me.


The other day, as I was putting away some bits and pieces in our outhouse, I caught a scent and became two years old again. There are a few smells that take me back to a time before language – the real tree at Christmas, my sister’s nappies soaking in a bucket, the damp concrete of the tower block – and this, the smell of turpentine.

You were an artist, a really able one, as your watercolours remind me. When we lived in Düsseldorf in the mid-sixties, you were painting in oil. I have your painting in the kitchen, beside dad’s marquetry. Oil paintings take an age to dry, so the smell in our flat must have been around for a long time. I still have some of those oil paints, in a beautiful wooden case that dad made. And here is how it made me feel, fifty-four years later – though words cannot adequately convey such strong feelings.

Warmth, and light, and being loved, and loving someone so much that it seems now like staring into the sun. And safety, in our world, you and me.

On this day, a year ago, I was alone with you for the last time. The day was warm and the room was light. I had my arm around you and felt the heat of your body, the chill of your sweat. Your skin was so soft, your hair strangely crisp and brittle. You were still breathing, short, shallow gasps for life. I leaned into your ear and whispered to you.

There is no more you now. You are dead and I have no time for talk of an afterlife. So there is no confidence to break when I repeat what I said. I told you what you knew, that I loved you. And I reminded you that you gave me language, and I promised that I would complete the book that I’m writing and dedicate it to you.

I am not an artist, like you, nor a craftsman, like dad, however much I try. I have drawn, painted, moulded, carved and shouted in frustration at my inadequacy, just as you did, on many occasions. But I have words.

You made me and gave me language. It’s one of the reasons why I want to shout and laugh at the patriarchal origin stories in Abrahamic religions. In the beginning, before I could speak, you were.

For some reason, you were determined that I should read – and, before that, talk – at as early an age as possible. As well as my memories, I have a recording of you and dad trying to get me to respond to questions. I didn’t always meet your expectations. Beyond this, I have a powerful and not altogether pleasant recollection of a clattering plastic device, hand-held, grey, that showed me words then snatched them away, leaving me to say them to you. It left me with a precocious ability to read – the Telegraph at six and the reading age of a sixteen year-old at eight. It also left me with an anxiety to please, but I can live with that.

It was said of me at school that I could keep easy company with adults. I was even wheeled out at a reception for this reason, to talk to visitors. I owe this to you, as we talked incessantly, thick as thieves, about everything and in a very adult way, ab initio.

Your words moulded me. You would tell me, time and again, how like you I was, in looks and physical features (our longer second toes, our hips) in temperament and in intelligence. Bright, flighty, prone to fits of temper and with a tendency to laziness. I recognise these and have worked hard to capitalise on the good and mitigate the bad.

I could write on for ages and pages but won’t. I will attempt to depict three images that, though they are necessarily defined by and confined within language, are powerful enough to bring you to life when I read them.

You are in the travel agent, in your forties. You fought for this job when you came back to England and you have made a great success of it. I am so proud of you. I’m eighteen and have finished work at the nearby department store. We sit in the semi-darkness and talk, about the day, about customers, about where we want to go, what we want to do. We are honest and no one else is there.

I’m on the wall outside the boarding house. I am ten. There is no one else. All their parents and grandparents have picked them up. The road is empty, though I expect each approaching car to be you. I ache for you. There is anger somewhere in this. Why am I last? Where are you? And then you pull up, full of apologies on behalf of some road, some traffic problem and I’m with you and we are away.

I am 46. I am in a white room, on a white bed. The space is small but it is mine and I am, for the first time in years, me. At the end of the bed is a knitted cushion. You made it for me, when I told you that I was transgender, taking me in your stride and accepting me for all that I am. It’s June, ten years ago, and I am proud and we are talking – you in France and me in a room of my own. And I feel happy and loved.

Mum, so long as I name you and talk about you and write about you, so long as I live and so long as all those who carry a little part of you know what they’re carrying, you are still here.

Patricia Evelyn Wilson (née Unsworth)
27 January 1941 – 4 June 2019


Ten years ago, I walked into work as my self for the first time. I was scared but I was also bursting with pride. That pride will never go away.


The morning has been fine. I woke at ten past five, got up at around six, showered and did half an hour’s yoga. I phoned home and began to fanny around. I have gone for an on the knee, black, sleeveless linen dress and a purple jacket. I’m wearing minimal makeup because I’m due for a facial first thing. My hair is quiet and well-behaved, as that is also due for a pampering. My voice is still a little croaky and my knees a little shaky.”


I marched to the shopping mall with my satchel waggling on my bottom, determined at the first opportunity to get rid of it. And then to the facial.


£75 is steep for an hour’s having your face rubbed. This so wasn’t just that. I had to lower my dress and bra straps so she could massage my head, neck and shoulders as well. And girl, did they need it. So much tension, but so many lovely rubbings and creams and oils and sprays and wraps and… Violetta was clever and thorough. I walked out of there feeling almost unable to focus, so relaxed was I. And then to the hair.


Sage was quickly at the desk and whisking me to the chair. (Sarah) she whispered, (that’s right, isn’t it? I’ll get that changed on the computer now.) And she began to work on my hair. For today (and any other occasion when I can afford the time to mess around as much as this) I have a head of curls, my curls, teased out. We talked, as usual. Only one thing I’ll not repeat: trying to use my upper register with my head bent backward over a sink. The vocal chords, already croaky with my cold, were stretched to falsetto. But it was so good. I look so different. I had to struggle around in the loo to reapply my makeup, as I wasn’t looking my best, facial or no facial. And then on to the nails.


LaToya is expecting her first (and, if she has anything to do with it, only) child. She has her mother’s name, Claudette, tattooed onto her right wrist, and her grandad’s onto her left wrist. She gave my nails the three-week manicure: three, four coats of clear gel. And we talked about babies and pregnancy. That was gentle, easy time. I’m pleased with the results: apparently I can paint them different colours and take the colour off again, so long as I don’t use an acetone based varnish remover. Yay! And then on to lunch.


I stopped on the way and bought a cheap computer bag, with handles: an easier way to carry things.


Jamie’s Italian wasn’t serving hot food. The gas had been cut off. So my lovely colleague Heather and I had salads. My first food of the day (I had wanted to be sure I could slip into this dress). And then I had the tiramisu (it’s very, very nice and – hell – I’m in the dress now). It was a relaxed lunch, sprinkled with gossip, family chat, growing up talk and stuff about sex (just a bit). She paid. And then we walked to the office.


I walked in, said hello to the receptionist who’d been so nice to me last week and then went to my desk, greeting people as I walked along. There, to the left of the desk, were a dozen roses that Dawn, the HR Manager had left: she is heaven-sent.

And then I walked around a lot, saying hello to people and chatting to them. Just like before, but better. Lot’s of cheery “Hello Sarah, how are you?”s So far, this is just very, very good.


My first pointer. I’ve been walking around the office some more, just enjoying being me, with a smile bigger than ever it was.

And as I was about to leave one floor, as I was walking towards the lift, I saw a head turn. Two men were walking past me and one turned back. I could see him trying to get his colleague’s attention, so I stopped and watched. He tapped his colleague’s arm and his colleague turned towards me: it was Dave. I know Dave, he knows me. Dave turned to his tapping, pointing colleague and I didn’t need to know what he was saying: his look said it all.

“It’s Sarah. Get over it.”