Tracey Emin: 'The police kept asking me, how did you get that line on your face?'

My Life In A Column
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The Independent Online

Albert, Bert and Andy. They were squatters and we were squatters, we had this in common. The hotel which overshadowed our cottage had been our home. Then, one day, suddenly we had to move out. The place was being boarded up as my mum frantically carried her furniture across the yard from the hotel to what we called the staff cottage. We never owned the cottage; we just lived there – free. We had to, there was nowhere else to go.

I watched them as they climbed up on the kitchen roof and through the window. Three of them: one fair and two dark. The hotel had been empty for years. From the front it was boarded up, but from the back the whole thing had a hundred different windows.

I'd watch the windows. It became my obsession. Every glimpse I had of them became a secret triumph. I felt they knew I was watching. The hotel had six yards, gardens, all of them full of sheds, chalets and garages. They were joined together by holes smashed through each garden wall.

I got up early, crept down the stairs and out the back door. It was daylight and the sun began to shine. I was going to see the squatters. They'd seen me and I'd seen them, they knew I'd been watching them. My days had been filled with the thoughts of them, one fair, two dark. I went through the hole in the wall and stood there.

The two dark ones, both with long hair, one with a beard, climbed out of the window and stood on the flat roof. "Hiya," they said and smiled, "You're our little watcher."

I stood there in my pink and white striped nightie not knowing what to say.

"Does your Mum know that you're here?"

"No, no one does," I said, "You're my secret."

They reached down and by the wrist pulled me up. I followed them through the window up on to the roof. The room was square. Three lots of sleeping stuff lay on the floor, washing line, pots and pans and a small gas burner. The door to the room was boarded up from inside.

"What's your name?," the one with the beard asked.

"Tracey," I said. "I'm Tracey."

Smiling, he said, "Well, pleased to meet you, Tracey. I'm Albert, this here is Bert and this is Andy."

They were from a place called Manchester. They'd come down to Margate for the summer to find work. I liked the way they spoke – it was different; they were different. I stood there in my pink and white striped nightie knowing there was some danger in being there, but also knowing not to be afraid.

They were my secret, like I had invented them: the dream of an 11-year-old girl, the three wise men, and Albert looked just like Jesus with his long dark hair, full moustache and beard.

Every morning before school I'd creep out of bed down the stairs, out across the yard and through the hole in the wall, climb up on to the roof, sometimes taking them slices of bread, tea bags, biscuits – anything I could get from the kitchen without being noticed.

We'd play the little radio and sometimes dance: me, a little girl in my pink and white striped nightie, dancing around a radio with three wise kings.

They showed me card tricks and I'd snuggle up in their sleeping stuff while they told me about places I'd never heard of and their lives on the road, the four of us bound in this early-morning secret ritual.

Sometimes when Albert would lift me on to the roof, his arms around my ribs, I would look into his eyes. They were soft and brown with long lashes, gentle like a puppy, like he'd never hurt me.


School had finished. It was summer holidays. Mum worked as a chambermaid. She'd be gone by 6.30 in the morning.

"You see this coin," said Albert, "you can have it – IF you can roll it all the way down your face like this." He held the coin in his hand and while I watched he rolled it from the top of his forehead, down the centre of his nose, across his lips, over his beard and down his neck.

I liked it, the silver rolling across his skin. He passed the coin to Bert and Andy and they did the same.

The four of us sat there cross- legged on the floor taking part in some ancient ceremony.

"Close your eyes" said Albert, "and keep them closed." He passed the coin into the palm of my hand and slowly I rolled it down the centre of my face. I opened my eyes.

They were laughing and giggling. A big smile spread across my face.

"Christ," said Albert. A noise from Hell: a pickaxe swung its way through the door – SMASH – bits of wood flew through the air.

I was screaming. It seemed like hundreds of footsteps and shouts could be heard everywhere.

Albert swept me up in his arms, pushed me through the window and, holding my wrist, dropped me from the roof. "Run, run!," he was shouting. I stumbled my way across the yard through the hole in the wall and into the arms of a policeman. I wriggled and tried to slip through their hands. My nightie was torn and blood ran down my shins.

I wouldn't tell the police anything. They kept going on and on, but I wouldn't say a word. And as Albert, Bert and Andy were taken away in handcuffs I began to cry.

All the police kept asking me was: how did I get the line?

In a smuttering of tears, I asked: "What line?" They passed me a mirror. And there, from the top of my brow to the bottom of my chin, was a perfect silver line.