GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19
IT IS VERY EARLY ON, still the beginning. I am still the daughter. She is still the mother. I am in my bedroom with headphones on the ears. Three different cassettes: all albums by the same artist. It is Robbie Williams. These cassettes have been forgotten about. I can listen with headphones. Some smells and screaming come under the door, but I can still listen with headphones.
I can escape out of the door while She sobs over pink laundry. One red sock. I don’t care; still, I can listen on my headphones. Robbie Williams. I see that Little David has a rash. I look into his face; it is open, like a wound. He screams and I turn, swivel the eyes around the room. I can talk to other girls about Robbie Williams; I can think about him when I get home. There is one song I like, one song in particular; it is about a girl with the same name as me, but she is a different girl.
Little David says, ‘Can’t breathe.’
And I don’t hear him, but I accidentally read his lips, see him coughing. I try to concentrate on the music, the angels, Robbie Williams, but Little David has swung his fat legs over the side of the bunk and is kicking his boots against the wood. He wants me to do something. There is a fire in her room, and She is screaming especially loud. I can hear it, even though Robbie Williams is shouting, ‘I’M LOVING ANGELS INSTEAD.’
Without thinking about what it means, I pick up Little David and run down the stairs.
Alma is worried that her flat next-door will be burnt, but the firefighters come quickly and use their twisting hoses on the spluttering flames. They look awkwardly at where my mother’s dress has been burnt. She is leaning against the building, the tattered white material billowing around her naked legs and feet.
Now Alma tries to clean my brother’s face with a bit of tissue.
‘What,’ she says, ‘is that a scar?’
Alma never listens to anyone; she asks these questions, but she doesn’t want to hear the answers. Whatever Alma is doing, she is always in motion, about to move on to her next task. Alma is rubbing at my brother’s scar, her eyes are very worried, but moments later she is dusting down the wall where some dirt has touched the cream paint.
‘Well,’ she says, and she reaches down to snatch at some weeds whose heads have grown up between the bricks.
I put my headphones back on.
She is crying, covered with a silver blanket. Three women stand around her nervously. One of the women reaches out and timidly strokes her hair. Alma has finished with the weeds, and she leans over me to take off my headphones.
‘You should help your mother,’ she says.
I can see that her hands want to fuss me, to adjust my dress, push me towards my mother, but for a moment she is still. We are watching Little David, who is taking out his tiny penis and pissing up against the front of the building. He pisses into the black smoke.
Now the headphones have lost their power. I can listen to Robbie Williams, the outside sounds are not part of it, but now darkness invades the inside of the music.
There is a cup of water in my room; it is old and grey. The water vibrates, and I know that something is happening downstairs, within the shell of the flat. I take off one headphone, just to see, and I can hear her. She is scratching on my door. Little David is crying.
‘I won’t open it,’ I say, but I know that outside there is the black hallway and my mother, crawling on the floor.
The flat is very burnt, but women keep coming and bringing little gifts. These gifts stand out brightly against the charcoal, and this makes the women feel bad, as though the gifts were designed to make the flat look worse, as though that’s their fault. She cries every time they bring something new. They don’t know whether She is crying happy tears or sad ones, because She always looks the same; head back, mouth open. She howls.
Alma has bought me a present of my own. It is a shiny pink apron. On the apron it says ‘Little Lady,’ and Alma holds it in front of the face until I am forced to look at it. She slips the apron over the head and ties it securely with a double knot.
I take Little David to school the next day. Next to me, he skips along and sings a song: ‘Little Donkey, Little Donkey, on the dusty road.’ His voice is very sweet and his hand is tiny. We are on time for school and the teacher gives my brother a gold star to wear on his jumper.
My brother says, ‘I won!’
Everything is okay, but I wake up at midnight because my brother is screaming. I get into bed with him and he clings to me. I cannot sleep and during the night She slips into the room and sees us.
She gets into the bed next to me, ‘Hush, hush, my babies. Mother is here.’
And then She starts crying, but She does it with Little David’s toy bird stuffed in her mouth, so I can just hear the heaving. She falls asleep on top of the arm and shoulder, and I watch the plastic stars that my brother has stuck to the ceiling. The stars are supposed to be glow-in-the-dark, but they aren’t glowing at all. Maybe the curtains are not thick enough to make the room properly dark.
Now, Alma comes around and shows me how to make eggs. She delivers the instructions as though to herself.
‘It doesn’t do for the water to be simmering. Make the water boil,’ Alma says.
I think that Alma might have forgotten that I am in the room, and that this is how she always makes eggs, muttering to herself, staring into the bubbling water, measuring the spot to hit the spoon against the orange shell.
I watch Alma carefully, and I learn how to take the eggs out of the water, where they are smashing their bodies against the edge of the pan.
I make eggs every day that week, and Little David is less irritable. Even She takes one of the eggs and dips a piece of hard bread into its eye.
‘I love eggs,’ She says.
‘Me too,’ my brother agrees.
There is less screaming now, just damp sounds as Little David sucks and chews. She is happy, trying to paint the burnt walls with tubes of watercolour paint. She has wrapped her head in a silk scarf, and She keeps retying it to trap her giant black hair inside. Beneath her big head, She looks smaller and She moves around more, sometimes almost leaping. She chatters about writing letters and replying to important people, but I see that she is just practicing her signature, turning the loops and smiling. There is less screaming now and I can hum Robbie Williams to myself while I make the eggs.
But that evening, I find something strange. It is just a cluster of lines behind the knee. At first, I think that Little David has used a felt tip to draw on me while I was sleeping, but the lines are very fine and faint, and they won’t disappear when I rub them with spit. They are light green, like the threads in the wrist, and when it has been a few days, I realise that this is something from inside, something coming to the surface. I tell the lines to go away, go back inside, but soon they get darker, and then they come undone; they begin to spool around to the front of the calf. Now the threads appear like a ball of wool, a huge cloud underneath the knee. The cloud is a dark purple scribble with floating green threads, swirling up and into the thigh. The threads are not painful, but now I wear tights.
At school, we are making cards for Mother’s Day. I shade mine very carefully, working on covering one tiny corner with flowers. I am hunched over my desk, keeping the eyes close to the paper. I want every inch of the card to be covered; there will be no empty space. I am concentrating very hard when I realise that the teacher is standing by my desk.
‘Lovely,’ she says, but she seems nervous and tries to talk to me about the fire and how much of our stuff was burnt.
I tell her, ‘My brother is still alive, if that’s what you want to know,’ and she laughs, as if I have told a joke.
‘Well,’ she says, sliding her watch up and down her thin wrist, ‘if you ever want to talk about it.’
When the bell rings for break my card is only one-quarter finished, and I cover the rest of the paper quickly, with light green threads and a threatening angry cloud in a purple colour that nearly matches my leg spool.
Alma is there, looking over onto our balcony.
She nods twice and pats the concrete when she sees that I am also putting out the washing.
‘You should be helping your mother,’ she says.
‘I am,’ I reply.
My brother’s small underpants and my mother’s billowy white dresses. The dresses shriek around like ghosts on the washing line and inside I can hear screaming again. When I am finished, I slump down amongst the plant pots. There is a crack in the wall between our balconies, so I watch Alma scolding her cat. I wonder whether the cat knows that it is being scolded because it rolls onto its back and shows its yellow tummy.
I am nearly going back inside but then I notice something strange on Alma’s leg. Alma is wearing a stocking, so I can’t be sure, but I think that I can see it, the spool, the purple storm on Alma’s skin, brewing and blistering, much larger than mine but hidden, under the stocking. Alma turns around to crush a spider that is hanging from one of her pots, and I see that there is a scribble on her other leg too, creeping out from underneath the hem of her skirt.
She is looking through her papers for something when I get back from school, her little hands scattering the sheets.
‘Where is it, where is it,’ She yelps.
She is crying.
‘What are you looking for?’ I say, and I touch her.
She leaps backwards.
‘Who the hell are you?’ She says, and we stare at each other.
She has threaded bits of ribbon through two plaits that are on either side of the head and She wears a plastic necklace that I had been keeping hidden inside of my pillowcase.
‘What?’ I say.
I drop my school bag on the floor and it makes a thudding sound.
‘OH,’ She is brushing the hair from her forehead, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve.
‘It’s so dark in here,’ She whimpers, ‘Why is it so dark?’
She begins to cry again.
My brother is doing very well at school and he comes home with a second gold star. He sits at the table, greedily eating eggs. She is working feverishly over her papers and says She hasn’t got time when I ask her if She wants an egg for herself. I don’t know what She is doing, and I try to look by walking past her several times, back and forth. The fire has burned many of the papers, and She is taping pieces together very carefully, like a surgeon, her tongue sticking out.
Later, a siren starts up somewhere down the road, and I think that the screaming has begun again, or that there is another fire, but when I look, she is still working on the papers, scribbling notes with her sparkly pen and putting numbers into her calculator.
She smiles with her small mouth when she sees me and says, ‘Mother will take care of it.’ She is so pleased that she keeps laughing very quietly, giggling to herself.
I go to my room and wait.
I get home from school, and I can hear the screaming straightaway. I can wear my headphones, but now I can barely hear my music above the screaming. She is there, in the middle of the burnt kitchen. She is wearing a party dress and I can see that she has been trying to make a Special Meal.
There is blood all over her hands.
‘She shouldn’t be doing it,’ Alma says.
She has taken my headphones away, but she is not talking directly to me: she talks to a woman. They are all standing inside our burnt flat.
‘It is too much for her,’ Alma says.
Alma has given my mother a pill to eat and She holds it in her damaged hand for a moment before She swallows it.
‘Everything will be okay, Dear,’ Alma says kindly, she pats her arm like it is an animal. She nods her head limply and lets out a giant sigh, hugging herself while the women crowd around her. I try to follow the shadows around the edge of the flat, to get to where the stairs are, but Alma sees me and she grabs hold of the shoulders. Her eyes are swirling and blue. Alma goes to get my apron. It is hanging on a hook, like a shining pink pig.
‘Don’t be selfish,’ she yelps, forcing the plastic material into the hands, waiting until I put the apron on.
‘You’re the little lady now,’ Alma tells me.
The blood has been washed and the knife put away, but there are still a few pinkish carrot slices left on the chopping board. The papers remain, strewn across the table, and I look at the printed letters, which talk about money and demands, but are disordered and change along the seams, where they have been taped. I see my mother’s purple notes. Her writings look like flowers or small animals rather than words.
On the hob there are three pans, chattering and bouncing as they boil over and spill their contents. I stare at the hands very hard, willing myself away, but without my headphones I can hear the pans banging, like intruders running up and down the stairs. I can hear the screaming of my brother, the heaving. I can see my brother’s scars, his rash; his hair is hopping with nits. She holds her damaged hand to her chest, whimpering and sighing. One of the pans begins to screech and I go to the hob and turn the fire off. Against the blackness of the burnt rooms my family is very vibrant and I cannot look away.
Little David has grown three inches, and he can reach the shower head to wash himself now, although he does not.
‘What would your friends say if they knew your sister helps you in the bath?’ I ask him, but he just stares at me and brings his flat hand down in the water, making a splash that goes all over me. Suddenly, we can hear the breath coming up from the chest, it is rattling when it comes out of the mouth. I wheeze like an old person. My brother looks at me, out of his little scarred face.
‘Stop doing that,’ he demands, but I can’t, and I grab at the throat.
‘Stop it,’ he says again.
It is nearly Christmas, and now my brother comes home with a different kind of star, one that he has made for the top of the tree. I go onto the balcony to find a tall branch. There are only small twigs and they are wet and useless, but there is a sapling cowering in a corner, surrounded by weeds and bits of broken china.
Little David stands in the doorway, holding his star with both hands, while I dig in a circle, almost to the edges of the pot. This is as far as I can imagine the little tree’s veins stretching, and then I dig further down. I imagine the tree being released in a great brown ball of tangled seething. But then, there is a very thick vein, and it seems like it keeps moving around, thrashing from side to side to avoid my spade, or maybe there are many thick roots, seething. I have to be very quick and dig very fast, and while I am doing so, I feel something popping inside of the spine, and a white spool of pain unties inside, and I am lying on the wet ground.
Now, I am screaming.
My brother is still holding his star, but he is crying now and screaming. I am holding onto the exposed veins of the tree, screaming too, while they try to move me. She is there, crying and screaming. And Alma, she is staring over at our balcony, screaming, in her own way. I think that I will ask Alma to give me back my headphones, when we all stop screaming, to give them back and stop all of this. But now, when I look up, I can see all of these arms crossing over each other, pulling me different ways, and it seems like it is too late.
The next few weeks are spent in bed with tablets that make the mind very quiet, whispering to me only occasionally about eggs and stars. I have a stick to help me move around.
The doctor is surprised when she sees the legs and she touches them all over with her little plastic gloves. She gives me an injection and then I hear her talking about my spools to another doctor in the corridor. This doctor has an accent and a voice like a tape slowing when the batteries have run down; ‘un-u-sual in some-one so you-ng,’ he says, ‘vari-coo-se vei-ns and arth-i-ri-tis?’ he asks, as though this is a question, and then I find that I have been asleep because the eyes are opening and the corridor is empty.
It is December in the hospital, and a man wearing a red jacket and trousers and a white beard comes into my room. He says my name questioningly, as though this is a word he has never heard before, and he wants to know how old I am before he starts dancing around at the end of my bed. I am baffled by all of this and I ask the man what he wants from me. After he has given me a tiny sewing kit, wrapped in shiny purple paper, he leaves the room looking angry.
'My brother has stolen the teacher’s sticker book and he has gold stars all over the front of his jumper and some on his face and hands. He has time off school now, and he sits and watches me. Someone has bought me some grapes, and he eats them all and leaves the tiny pips across the edge of my blanket. It is like a trail of snot.
‘Your mother is very upset,’ she tells me, picking grape pips from the blanket. She holds the pips in her hand.
‘What were you doing, trying to dig that tree up?’ Alma asks.
When it is actually Christmas, some women bring a Christmas pudding. I try to see if these women have marks on their legs, but they are wearing trousers or long skirts and tights. My mother says She will set fire to the pudding, and the women all look sideways at each other. I am walking with a stick now, I feel too nervous to support my weight, and I like the sound that the stick makes as I tap around the flat. It is like someone is walking around with me, helping me with my tasks.
Little David has balled up many sheets of paper and has arranged them all to make a kind of tree formation. He has put the star on top and is pouring a tin of green paint over the paper. The screaming starts when my mother sees what he is doing and realises that the papers that he has used are her special papers, the ones that She has been pawing over. While they scream, I find a bottle of my mother’s dental fluid and pour it over the pudding. The pudding makes a huge flame, nearly to the black ceiling. The pudding burns for a long time and when it goes out, the cake that is left is chewy, tasting minty and rich.
Two men come and they keep buzzing through the morning while She tries to sleep. It is hard for me to get into her room since this is where the fire started and the door has crumbled into many jagged pieces, barring my entry. She is smaller now and She can slide in and out of the charred darkness.
She is curled up, nearly covered by the green papers; streaks of green paint are on her legs and arms. I can see that She is wearing her eye mask and that she has her hands over her ears. There are candles all over the floor, white and milky, like bones. She is beautiful and very still, like a painting, not a real mother or woman.
The banging continues, and I can hear Alma outside, she is asking them what they want, but when they try to tell her, she just starts screaming. I hear scuffling and feel my brother’s clammy hand on the arm. He is peering through, into the blackness. Little David starts to scream and, quite suddenly, my mother stands up, straight as a pin, and I can see a thin black line around her neck, reaching up under her hair. I realise that She is wearing headphones.
There are two men there; one is wearing a plastic card attached to his trousers by a long stretchy string, which he pulls out to show us before it pings back to his waistband. My brother stops screaming and laughs, he tries to reach for the plastic card again, but the man steps backwards into the puddle of swamp water that has gathered in the middle of the step. The man looks very annoyed and the second man is peering at our flat, which is stained black, a blemish on the face of the building.
‘We are looking for the home owner,’ this second man says, ‘which one of you is the home owner?’
My mother is picking at a streak of green paint on her knee, and her white gown is billowing around her small body.
The man in the puddle starts talking: ‘We have been trying to reach you Ms. ********,’ he says, ‘You have not been replying to our letters. If you do not meet our demands, we will be forced to seize your property.’
I look at my mother to see if She will respond, but She is still looking at the paint, tracing the line under her nightgown now, fascinated, and when I look back at the man, I see that he is actually looking at me, not my mother, and that now he is very angry.
‘Do you have anything to say for yourself, Ms. ********,’ he asks me, and I have no way of replying, so I just lean on my stick and say, ‘I am very sorry, Sir.’
She has her headphones on when I get home from school. I want to know what She is listening to, but She can’t hear me, and my voice starts to break when I shout. I go to the kitchen and make eggs for Little David and for her, and when I have finished clearing away, they shout, ‘MORE EGGS,’ and I look and see that they have finished them already.
I try to talk to the other girls about Robbie Williams, although, without my headphones, I can hardly remember his voice or what he liked to sing about. A girl is wearing a Robbie Williams t-shirt under her school blouse; I can see his eyes through the thin material.
‘Why do you have a stick like an old person?’ the girl asks me.
One morning, I wake up and feel very tired still, although I have slept for a long time. I can’t hear any screaming, and I look down from my bunk to see if my brother is still asleep. Perhaps we all have a great tiredness.
Little David is not in his bed, but I can hear some noises outside and when I look out of the window, I can see my mother and my brother from far away, almost at the end of the road. I have not seen her taking Little David to school for a long time and so I am surprised. As I watch, I see them step into the road in front of a giant lorry. They jump backwards, back onto the pavement. I think that they are laughing. Before they cross the road, I see that She is wearing my school uniform.
When they get home from school, I shout to my mother, ‘What the hell do you think you are doing!’ but She just looks at me vaguely and points to a gold star on the front of her cardigan.
‘Aren’t you pleased?’ She asks me.
The two of them skulk through the flat, leaving crayons and book bags against the black walls and floor. My mother is singing Robbie Williams and dancing a little bit.
I begin to scream, but She does not hear me and Little David looks at me for a few seconds with a distant interest, before he points his small finger to the centre of my pink apron and says, ‘Eggs,’ and then he begins to scream also.
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