Tracey Emin: 'I have come to Austria to purge my body and rejuvenate my soul'

My Life In A Column

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Strange to see the mountain mist roll away just to return again; shafts of light shine through the snow clouds. Everything is tinted with a mystic haze of electric blue. The lake shimmers like a silver mirror; tiny aluminium ripples let me know it's real. Two wooden jetties display themselves in an anthropomorphic fashion; the non-speaking stars of an Ingmar Bergman set, never trying to outdo the lake, but making the lake all the more human for their presence. Twilight time is almost descending. The silvery grey will become a dark Prussian blue. A chain of twinkly lights, golden and sparkly, will circle the lake, rimming like a mystic fairy chain. The last flocks of birds fly homeward and bedward to their cosy nests perched up high in the darkening glades of evergreens.

Dark is here, bringing a crooked crescent moon followed by some very low stars. They hang together in a huddled heap just above a mountain ridge. They look like something left over from an old pantomime. Strings still attached. I enjoy this feeling of 19th-century melancholia.

I'm in Austria: a strange country. Strange because it means so much to me, and yet I have no real connection. A place where, at the age of 10, there was almost the feeling of happiness: a ski trip to the Tyrol. My mum worked every hour she could to send us. Upward and downwards, clenching our thighs on our snow-turn edges, to be released downwards, to glide happily in our snowplough turns.

Everything was so good until I wet the bed. Then the fear set in. My bladder, always feeling weak and bruised, would run riot when I deeply slept. For four nights I had tiptoed around the other girls in the ski-chalet dorm, not really sleeping, always in pain, cystitis burning its way up inside of me, the tiredness and the chill of the ice-cladden air firmly getting to me.

I lay in bed, piss all around me. Early morning, hungry and anxious, but feigning illness as soon as my teacher arrived, I lay there until the room was vacated of every living soul. I was 10 and I had wet the bed. The point was, I always wet the bed, but now, sleeping in a room with five girls, I wondered why. Also, there was no one I could tell. Trust became a serious question. I felt ashamed, and who could I trust with my shame?

The chambermaids came and went. I lay motionless, like a tiny corpse in my piss-stinking coffin of a bed, wishing someone would just bury me. I realised, lying in that Austrian bed, that I was terribly unhappy. I had the immediate problem of how to deal with the mess, and the bigger problem of how to confront my life. Should I tell my Mum that he touched me? And where he touched me? That he was always playing with himself?

First things first, I took the sheets and the blankets off the bed. I lay the top dry sheet where the wet sheet had been. I then made up the bed to look just like all the others: crisp, neat, turned back. My Mum was a chambermaid and every Saturday morning I would help her lug the heavy baskets of linen from one floor to another floor. She would lay the sheets and I would turn the corners.

At the age of 10, I was a prodigy at making beds. I then took the damp, yellow, piss-stained sheet and hid it in the chest of drawers with an Aran jumper over the top. Then, every day for the rest of the trip, when the chance came, I sunk my teeth into the sheet to make a tear and then ripped it into strips. I would then wrap the strips around my body like a bandage or medieval cummerbund. Once, at the top or the bottom of the slope, anywhere where no one could see me, I would crouch down, undo my ski jacket and unravel the sheet as fast as possible. Frantically digging a hole, I would then bury the dead sheet.

Somewhere outside of Innsbruck, in the Tyrol, I can still see the ghost of this little girl in fear; in some mad, crazy panic. I see her face red, not really understanding the whole process but knowing that everything that was bad, unliveable, had to be hidden. The creative process, I suppose, had already begun. I think about the spring, the Tyrolean giant thaw, as the snow slowly melted away on dark green grass, alpine lawns and snowdrops appeared and baby marmosets bounced around. Hill-walkers with sticks and hiking boots muttering to each other as they prodded the limp balls of cotton rags: "Look, there's another one!"

When I got home, I had to lie to my Mum. I had to say I had had a good time. I think that was the hardest thing: to keep lying, to pretend that everything is OK when it's not. And then there was the guilt. Why should a 10-year-old girl feel that she is to blame? I think it was the weird guilt that did the most damage. I feel deep regret for that little girl, almost as though she wasn't me, like I have jettisoned her to another place. A disconnection that I now feel needs to be reunited with the rightful owner of her soul.

That's me. I want that damaged little me back. I want to take care of her. I have come to Austria to purge my body and rejuvenate my soul. A lake of glassy water, fresh mountain air, a crystal-clear mirror for me to see whatever I want to see. The depths of the past have opened, are becoming clearer. Maybe it's time to write another book...

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