By Faye Bird
My Second Life
The first time I was born, I was born Emma Trees. I was born to Amanda and Richard Trees. I was Emma. I was beautiful. People told me that. I had everything to live for. People told me that too. But I died. It was 18th October 1994. I was twenty-two.
And then I was born a second time, utterly against my will. Who knew you could be brought into the world twice, only six years after you left the first time? Who knew you could be born again and know – and I mean know like you know how to pull in the air and breathe – that you’ve been here and done all this before.
I was born Ana Ross on 28th June 2000. A millennium baby. And I thought I’d got away with missing all that millennium crap. I was born to Rachel Ross, and someone called David Summers, who has never shown up, which is okay because if I had two parents, two people who loved me as much as Rachel Ross loves me, I really don’t think I could handle it. I feel kind of guilty that Rachel loves me so much, and thinks I’m so completely wonderful, when actually I’ve been here and done all this before with my first mum and dad. I do love Rachel. She just doesn’t feel like Mum. Not to me. Amanda Trees is my mum, and she always will be.
The first time you’re born it’s pretty traumatic. A bit like being pulled out of a deliciously warm bath and being plonked wet and naked in the middle of the M25 in rush hour and someone saying, “GET ON WITH IT THEN!”
The second time I was born it was easier, because I knew the score. The rush of blind panic as you slip out, the first gasp of tight cold air, the hairy peering faces. I knew all that would pass, and that soon I’d be on the warm belly of someone I’d love for the rest of my life. Except when I looked up and saw Rachel, and she was looking down at me, smiling her tired puffy smile of love and exhaustion, all I could think was, You’re not my mum, before someone wrapped me in a towel and placed a plump nipple into my mouth.
And that was it. I was off. I was living my second life. And there was nothing I could do about it, but live.
So I did.
I followed the pattern of each and every day, but this time it was different, because this time I had a knowing sense of what was coming next. And I actually enjoyed childhood again a second time. It wasn’t like I was bored or felt like I knew it all already. I mean, it’s not like I knew everything – all the world’s knowledge and all the world’s secrets – from my first life anyway. One life lived is just that: one life lived. It’s not every life.
I was quick to talk, and that was when things changed. Once I talked, once I could express myself, life began to feel somehow more fragmented. For a start, no one seemed to know my name.
“I’m Emma,” I’d say as Rachel called “Ana” across the park when it was time to go home.
“I’m Emma!” I’d say when she called me “Ana Ross” and told me off for sticking my fingers in the peanut butter jar.
“Emma,” I’d say as she sung me my bedtime song. I’d let her sing “Hush, Little Ana” all the way through, and I wouldn’t ever interrupt. I’d wait until the end, and then I’d say it. I’d tell her my name was Emma, not Ana.
“Ana,” she’d say back. “Darling, you’re Ana. Ana. Night night,” and she’d kiss me on the forehead and I’d want my mum, not Rachel, and I’d lie awake because it all felt so wrong. The wrongness of it was all I could feel.
* * *
I have never called Rachel “Mum”. As soon as I learned to speak I called Rachel “Rachel”.
She didn’t like it.
“Please, Ana – call me ‘Mum’!” she’d say.
But I couldn’t.
Because it hurt too much to say the word “Mum” and see Rachel’s face looking back at me, not my real mum’s face; my first mum.
Eventually Rachel sort of accepted me calling her “Rachel”, just as I had accepted her calling me “Ana”, not Emma.
In this we were quits at least.
So here I am. Ana. Only one “n”, which causes a huge amount of confusion throughout my life and generally draws attention in a way I really don’t like that much. I’m fifteen years old, and I’m named after a Spanish Ana who Rachel went to school with, and whose name it seems just stuck in her memory. I don’t know anything about Spanish Ana, but I do know that it kind of frustrates me that everyone is always spelling my name wrong, and I’m always having to correct them and spell it back, then explain about the Spanish Ana. It’s like a curse, or one of my curses anyway.
And being Ana, well, it has good days and bad days, just like being anyone. To be honest, whole years have gone by when knowing that this is my second life hasn’t even remotely bothered me. It is just how it has always been.
Until recently, that is.
Until I saw Frances.
And everything changed.
I’m not bipolar, in case you were wondering. I’m not manically depressed. I don’t hallucinate, and there are no voices in my head. There is no Emma voice telling me to do stuff. I think I would know if I was ill, or someone would have told me, or suggested I see a doctor or a therapist or something. I’ve never been arrested for strange behaviour in the street. I’ve never even had a detention. I think I’m pretty normal for a fifteen-year-old girl: I go to school; I do my homework; I’ve got mates – Zak, Hannah and Jamie, a few others. I’m not one of those people who likes to hang out in a clique or a crowd. I had a best mate in Ellie, but she moved to the States. And of course I’ve got Rachel, and my grandma, Grillie. I fight with Rachel, but that’s normal…right? To fight with your parent? And my vice? If you can call it that. Well, I’ve got a thing about Converse. I have three pairs – blue, purple and green – and I’m aiming to own a pair in every colour.
And that’s it.
That’s me – Ana.
And it’s just that I was Emma, before. So I know more about the world than I should for a person my age. I guess you could say that’s a shame, but what I know is so random, mixed up, that until I saw Frances it really didn’t matter what I knew. It was just the varied stuff of a life that had been lived before. So I know what it feels like to taste Kalamata olives and unripe avocados before I put them into my mouth…and I know what it feels like to down pints of cider and black… The thrill of hailing a cab in New York… The utter joy of a first kiss with someone you’ve been waiting to touch and to hold and be held by. I could probably roll a joint if you passed me the Rizlas. But it doesn’t ruin life knowing these things. It hasn’t ruined it at all.
And how do I know them? I’m not sure that’s something I’ll ever truly understand. Even when life has been full of recognition, there’s still always been room for discovery. And I thought that was a good thing. But when I saw Frances in the hospital, my whole life fell apart. It disintegrated like lit tissue paper in my hands. Because in seeing Frances I remembered what I did in my first life. And what I did was kill a person. And to discover that – to discover the ugly memories of that – to remember some of what you did – but not all that happened – it is hell. And it is what happened to me.
“We’re going to see Grillie later. You have remembered, haven’t you?” Rachel shouted through the bathroom door to me as I stepped out of the shower.
“Yes! What time is her op?”
“They said it’ll be sometime this morning. I can call at midday and we can go from three onwards. I’ll pick you up from school.”
“That’s fine!” I shouted back.
Except I remembered that I’d said I’d meet Jamie after school. We’d arranged to go for a coffee. Jamie was my friend, but I’d liked him for ages. For months. He’d been going out with this girl in my year, Melissa, over the summer, but when we got back to school last week there were rumours going round that they’d broken up. I was there when Zak asked Jamie what had happened – he had just said Melissa was “no fun”. I could have told him that and then he wouldn’t have had to go out with her. But I didn’t say anything. I just laughed, and then quickly suggested we go to the cafe after school the next day. And now I’d have to text him and let him know I couldn’t make it. I wanted to see Grillie after her operation, but…it was gutting. Really gutting.
I sighed, wrapped my towel around me and opened the bathroom door and found myself face-to-face with Rachel more suddenly than I anticipated.
“Didn’t realize you were still standing right there!” I said impatiently as I nipped past her and made my way into my room.
She tutted and started to head downstairs.
“I’ll meet you at the gates, okay?” she shouted back.
I looked at my phone to see if I had any messages.
I texted Jamie.
Grillie – my grandma Millie – was old. Eighty-two years old. When I was younger I would sit on her lap for hours on long weekend afternoons and I would stroke her soft cheek, and sing with her, and wonder whether she’d ever lived before. It was only because she was old. And wise. The oldest and wisest person I knew.
They say that wisdom comes with age, don’t they? I worked out in the shower this morning that between my two lives, my cumulative age was thirty-seven. Weird. Thirty-seven years of living, and really I was none the wiser.
When Rachel picked me up after school she was really anxious. When we got to the hospital she pounded the corridors as we followed the signs towards the ward.
“Are you okay, Rachel?”
“Yes, yes. I just want to see her, that’s all.”
“It was just a routine operation, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but she’s eighty-two. There are always risks when you’re eighty-two.”
“What did they say when you phoned earlier?”
“They said it went well.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“But you’re thinking that’s what they always say. But you never really know until you get here.”
Rachel slowed her pace and looked at me. “Exactly,” she said, and she stroked my hair as we walked and I wanted to pull away from her as she touched me. It just made me want Mum even more when she touched me. Her loss was like an endless ache when I was with Rachel. It was something I’d always lived with. It was with me almost all the time. But today I let Rachel stroke my hair. I didn’t pull away. Because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Not now when she was so worried about Grillie.
When we walked into the ward Grillie was sat up in bed. She smiled when she saw us. I could see it was a struggle to smile. Even though she was propped up she didn’t look all that comfortable. She had a crinkly gown on and a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was pale but calm. I knew she wasn’t going to die. Not today.
“How are you?” Rachel said, leaning forwards to give her a kiss.
I wanted to give her a kiss too, to say hello, but I was nervous. I didn’t want to lean in and press down on her in all the wrong places.
“My throat’s a little dry,” she said.
I jumped to it. “Here, I’ll pour you some water.” There was a plastic jug on the side with a flappy white lid and a small plastic cup.
“Thank you, lovely,” she said.
I sat down gently on the side of the bed, passing her the cup. She took a drink and then she set the cup down and took my hand.
“So how was your day, lovely?” she said.
“Oh – not much to tell. Just school,” I said.
“But you like it, don’t you? It’s a good school. Rachel’s always telling me how well you’re doing.”
I looked at Grillie. She was tired. Her usual feisty chat dulled by the painkillers. She was slow, placid.
“I’m going to go and find a nurse. See if we can get you another pillow,” said Rachel. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“How long do you have to stay in for?” I asked.
“Not sure just yet. See how I go. If all is well I’ll be out by the weekend, I think.”
“I’ll come again tomorrow, yeah? Bring you a magazine or something.”
“Yes. I’d like that,” she said and then her hand slipped its grip from mine and she sank quickly into sleep. I knew it was the drugs but it still surprised me.
Rachel came back.
“She’s asleep,” I whispered.
“Oh – is she?” Rachel said. I could see the disappointment in her face as she pulled the pillow she’d just found for Grillie towards her tummy. She was hugging it to her, for comfort.
“I’m sure she’ll wake up again in a minute,” I said. I wanted to make it better for her.
“I don’t know. She must be tired. And all the drugs…she needs to sleep.”
I stood up to let Rachel sit where I had been sitting on the bed, and I went and pulled around the curtain to give Grillie some privacy. I watched Rachel put the pillow down and take Grillie’s hand, and as she held it in her own she looked into Grillie’s face with such love. I had never felt love like that for Rachel. Because all I have ever wanted is my mum. My real mum. I wanted to cry and call out for her now, to come to me. But I couldn’t. Because no one would have come.
The room suddenly felt hot.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should go?” I said to Rachel, picking up my bag from the floor. “We should let her sleep.”
I had to get out. Find some fresh air. I had to get out, to breathe.
“Yes,” said Rachel, and she picked up the pillow she’d left on the end of the bed and plumped it before putting it back, and then she kissed Grillie on the forehead, so gently, and we left.
We walked through the hospital in complete silence. I didn’t know why I felt so bad. Maybe it was just the hospital. There was a smell of illness in the air. A place where you went to get better should smell of good health – of a rich, dark earth and a fresh spring wind – but this place smelled sterile and poisonous. I kept walking, fast, trying to get Rachel to walk faster with me. I could tell she was worried, thinking hard. Her pace was much slower than when we’d arrived. And as I walked I looked at the walls, the signs, the people here visiting family, friends…I could see a rush up ahead: a couple of doctors with a trolley jogging it along the corridor, people parting ways. An emergency. Just let me out. Let me out… That’s all I could think as I kept walking. The trolley was coming closer now, and I could see there was an old woman lying on it, crying, her arms stretched high on a pillow above her head, her head turned to one side. Crying. Wailing. I stopped. I had to. I was forced to. And as much as I didn’t want to look, I did. And that’s when I saw her – Frances. She opened her eyes as she passed me, and we were locked together in a moment—
“Frances Wells…” I said, out loud, as they wheeled her away.
“What’s that?” said Rachel.
“That was Frances Wells!”
I knew her… I knew her face.
An image flew through my mind: a child, a small child, with her eyes open wide…wet and wild…her body, still…cradled by a mass of twigs and branches in the water…
I thought I might pass out. I took a deep breath in.
“She didn’t look so well, did she?” said Rachel, utterly mishearing me.
“Let’s go, come on,” said Rachel. “Let’s get fish and chips.”
And as we walked out into the cooler air I could feel that something had changed. There had been a shift – in me – and I had this feeling. A feeling that I had done something so wrong… So very wrong that I didn’t dare to name it… And I was afraid.
The first time I was born, I was Emma. I was beautiful. I had everything to live for. But I died. I was twenty-two. Fifteen-year-old Ana struggles to live a normal life, bombarded by memories of her previous existence as Emma. The worst memories are of a little girl who tragically drowned: was Emma responsible? Consumed by guilt, Ana will do anything to uncover the past. Intriguing, compelling, heartbreaking. What if your past life could shatter your future?
“One of the finest debut YA novels I've ever read. The mystery at the heart of the book is utterly gripping. ”
“An astonishingly accomplished debut novel. Highly recommended.”
“My Second Life is an astonishingly accomplished debut novel. The plot is truly compelling, with the tension ratcheted high. Faye Bird is very strong on characterization. Ana is a great protagonist with very believable responses…Highly recommended.”
School Library Journal
“A clever plot, defined characters, and fabulous writing. There isn't much more you could ask for. My Second Life is bound to be rushed off bookshop shelves very soon.”
“A haunting debut that grips you from the outset.”
“I was completely gripped throughout the story.”
Once Upon A Bookcase
“This debut thriller gets off to a cracking start... Bird looks like an enticing prospect if she can build on this.”
The Daily Mail
“An ingenious concept, an intriguing mystery and a gripping story told with pace and passion... An amazing and thrilling debut”
“My Second Life is heartbreaking, heartracing, has an amazing lead character and the story is like nothing I have read before. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.”
Reading Away the Days
“A rich, dense read which skilfully employs dramatic tension to absorb the reader wholly into a constantly shifting world of revelation.”
Books for Keeps
“One of the finest debut YA novels I¹ve ever read. The writing has a limpid perfection, each sentence perfectly weighted, telling us just what we need to know. The mystery at the heart of the book is utterly gripping.”