Her name was Clementine, but you could hardly blame her for that.
In primary school it was the girls with two syllable names who got the gold stars and boys’ attention, the Rachels and Emmas. Three syllable girls were just…well, a bit greedy.
Clementine didn’t get gold stars. Clementine got pinned to the ground and sat on while her unruly little plaits got pulled. She had the typewriter tapped out on her chest as they sang the dreaded song. Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clementine. She never wanted to be anyone’s darling for as long as she lived.
Clementine got that song every god damned day.
What they got was a small girl’s shoe against the paleness of their shinbones, hard.
You could blame her for that, if you like.
She understood many things at an early age. She understood why she couldn’t disturb her father in his study when she came home from school, and why she had to eat her dinner in the kitchen alone each night.
But mostly, she understood why she had to keep secret what she did in the stillness of her bedroom.
She remembered the first time. She’d traced her finger down the book she was reading, along the jet black ink falling in perfect little ribbons of words down the creamy page. She’d let her fingertip linger, let it caress the curve of an S, the top hat of a T, and then lifted her finger to her mouth, and licked.
She felt the magic fall onto her tongue, felt it slowly spread through the warmth of her mouth, oozing like honey.
And then suddenly, inexplicably, she was tearing out a corner of the page and folding it into her open mouth.
When she swallowed, she didn’t yet know what she’d begun.
She soon learned.
She learned the thin yellow paper of her bus ticket dissolved easily, and the graph paper of her maths book tasted as gray as it looked. On her birthday, she beamed at all the presents but on her bed cross legged at night, it was the cards she lovingly held in her hands, licking the words until the fat moon rose past her window and her tongue held a cat’s roughness.
She learned far too late that this was the time she should have stopped. Obsessions let loose until adulthood had very little chance of being reined back, so the books said. And lord, were they delicious. This obsession had roots that reached deep into the soil of her psyche; they’d long since curled around her toes and were clinging on tight, tendrils winding their way through her vertebrae and tickling the base of her skull.
She couldn’t stop if she tried.
So soon, she stopped trying.
Clementine ate paper. She ate paper ripped from cookbooks that tasted of cayenne pepper and lime juice. She nibbled on Nabokov and chewed on Chaucer. Sometimes, on the tram home from work, she watched commuters unfurl their newspapers and fought hard not to lean over, and take a tiny corner between her sharp little teeth.
As obsessions go, it wasn’t that bad, she thought. She wasn’t harming anyone, she said. Sure, sometimes the indigestion made her palm find her chest, and she had occasional dreams that ink was coursing through her veins in blue black torrents, but it could have been worse, she told herself. She could have been a trainspotter, or an ornithologist.
Or she could have slept with a bottle of gin against her pillow like her mother, watching the world through eyes that grew darker every day.
Clementine kept eating. She was a feaster of fiction, a biter of biographies and a devourer of dictionaries. And sometimes, when she wondered where on earth this would end, she stopped to listen to the words falling down her throat like tiny bells.
If all else was silent, she would close her eyes and tilt her head ever so slightly to the left.
And if she kept very still, she could sometimes make out the word bells chiming against each other as they tumbled down her rib cage, in a song so beautiful only she could hear it.
Clementine and I have been spending a lot of time together recently.
She’s in my head, my dreams and always, my red notebooks.
After all, when you decide to invite a character to step into the spine of your novel, you really get to know each other.