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Have a Good Day by Claire Whatley

© Claire Whatley

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Have a Good Day

© Claire Whatley


(There are two italicised words in this story: they are marked with ** in the usual way.)

I remember looking through the kitchen window at the sky that morning: grey in every direction, like a blanket of nothing over the world. The waistband of my skirt felt tight, and the nagging discomfort of it settled itself into one small corner of my brain. It whinged at me as I reached for the teapot, the mugs, the milk. I braced my tummy muscles and promised myself a new best skirt.

There was a scattering of elastic bands on the table. I scooped them up and shoved them into the drawer that harboured miscellaneous rubbish.

It was one of my work days. I only worked part-time then, three days a week, and I always felt fractious on my work mornings, especially that day. There was an important meeting at nine o’clock and I hadn’t read the documents for it properly. The vision of myself bluffing through the meeting made a sigh escape without warning. I grabbed the kettle. Turning the tap on too fast, I splashed my navy silk shirt. The spots of water spread in uneven splodges and I envisaged the water marks that would remain, signalling to the meeting my woeful lack of professionalism. There had to be something wrong with that mixer tap – it was always gushing out too fast like that. You had to be fully awake and ready for it or it ambushed you.

“Hi,” muttered Nick as he shuffled, thickly dressing-gowned, into the kitchen behind me, “that tap again?”

“Mmm,” I grumped. “Is Henry up yet?”

“Er, dunno.” His nasal consonants showcased the cold that had kept him - and me - awake for much of the night. He placed two slices of bread in the toaster, then, as an afterthought, “D’you want me to call him?”

“No,” I said, “I’ll go. If he doesn’t get a move on we’re going to be late. Got to go upstairs anyway to change my shirt.”

“All right. Don’t worry, I’ll make the tea.”

I wasn’t worrying. I’d rather make the tea than cajole an eight-year-old out of bed, but there you are.

I made a noisy ascent of the stairs. A pre-wakened Henry was easier to humour than one disturbed by my prodding, nudging advances, however sweetly I tried to do it, and I wasn’t feeling sweet.

At his door, I hid away my anxious work self and found instead my kind mummy, “Henry? Are you awake?”

His hammily-acted startled grunt told me he was. I went in and knelt down beside his bed, causing my waistband to remind me of its existence again, and tried to search him out in the dark warmth of his bunk bed, under the hills and folds of his Star Wars duvet.

“Hah! Got you! Come on – it’s nearly half past seven!” Sounding quite happy now, I realised in that moment, I was. I attempted to plant a kiss on some part of his face or head. It landed on an ear, which seemed good enough. A lovely, baby-soft, sweetly scented ear.

He laughed and shrugged away, but then, “Nooo, too tired to go to school!”

“Henry, please don’t say that. You always say it. It’s boring. You know you’ve got to go, and if you don’t come on, we’ll be late. Come on, now. Please!”

I moved back quickly, banging my head – as I did regularly – on the top bunk. We'd got him the bunk beds a year ago to allow for sleepovers. How long would it take my spatial awareness to catch up? I rubbed the bumped place as it sent a tingling pain reverberating across the surface of my skull.

“Tired!” he wailed. Of course he was and so was I, gritty-eyed and grouchy once again, longing to be, like him, snug under my own duvet instead of pleading and coaxing here in a too-tight skirt and a splashed best blouse.

I stood in the dim light of his room, looked down on by a galaxy of leering aliens and swarthy heroes. “Henry. Up and dressed in five minutes please, or I’ll have to take money off your pocket money chart. I mean it.” The tightened jaws through which the last three words emerged made them sound meaningful, I hoped, and I left him to it.

He made it into the kitchen in four and a half minutes, about the time it took me to find a clean top in the right colour that didn’t need ironing. So thrilled to have avoided the dragonish role of she who takes away hard-earned pocket money, I rewarded him – and myself – by asking, “Henry, I don’t suppose you’d like…*chocolate spread* on your toast this morning?”

His forget-me-not eyes stretched wide, “Yeah!”

I wanted him to love me in spite of my grumpiness and lavishing chocolate was a well-worn rat-run to a child’s approval. Nick raised an eyebrow at my inconsistency, remembering, I could tell, a recent rant of mine over the evils of chocolate breakfast cereals, but, to his credit and my surprise, he said nothing.

I was about to hand Henry his toast, when I noticed a spatter of bolognaise on his pale blue polo shirt. Just as his sleepy features lit up in delight, I whisked the plate away again. “Henry, I didn’t realise you had last night’s dinner all down your top – go up quickly and change it. You know where the clean ones are.”

He whined a two-tone “O-oh!”

Nick swallowed down a mouthful of his own, lemon-marmaladed toast to intervene, “Oh, don’t make him do it now – his toast’ll get cold.”

“Nick, I don’t care! He needs to do it now – we’re late and if he doesn’t do it now, it won’t happen. He can’t go to school like that!”

“It’s all right, Mum, loads of kids go to school with food down their shirts. Mrs Freemantle doesn’t mind.”

“I mind. Go and change now.”

Nick sighed. I glared. Henry stomped off.

“Christ, what’s the matter with you this morning?”

“Nothing’s the matter with me!” I said, plate of chocolatey toast in hand, the aromas of vanilla, cocoa, and toasted wheat bombarding my senses, “Why are you interfering? Parents are supposed to have consensus – why can’t you just keep out of it when I’m telling him something?”

“Because it’s petty and mean, that’s why.”

“I’m not petty and mean!”

“I didn’t say you were, I said…” Nick’s words trailed off as his son re-entered the kitchen. He picked up his toast and resumed eating with eyes glazed, as though considering weighty matters on a plane of existence far above my own.

“Good boy,” I said. “Don’t forget to have your Omega-3.” I still remember saying precisely those words, and I think of just how I said them, so stern and prim, whenever I go to the cupboard in the corner where those three-for-the-price-of-two plastic bottles remain.

I handed him his plate.

“Is your homework in your schoolbag, Henry?” I asked, taking care to neutralise my voice.

“Think so.”

He fiddled with an elastic band as he ate, winding it in and around his fingers. There was some kind of craze at school, apparently.

“Well, when you’ve finished, can you check, please?”

Nick blew his nose with an elephantine hoot and sloped off to shower and dress.

I sighed loudly as I dashed into the hall after him to make sure I had all the relevant paperwork in my case. I glanced at my watch. We had to be at Tanya’s in four minutes. Tanya was the mother of Henry’s friend, George, and we used to lift-share to school. She didn’t work at that time and despite having three children under ten, she was never late.

“Henry! Can you go straight to the bathroom and clean your teeth as soon as you’ve finished, please? And have you got your reading book in your bag, as well?”

I heard a muttered, doubtful reply. “Well, can you make sure, please? Mrs Freemantle will want to hear you read today.” I wasn’t getting an adequate response so I poked my head round the kitchen door. “Henry, can you stop playing with those elastic bands and go and clean your teeth!”

We made it to Tanya’s just as she was stepping out of her shiny front door with George and his little sister. Her husband was indulging in that modern domestic convenience, Working-From-Home that day, so their six-month old baby stayed with him while Tanya drove to school. Henry swooped over to George and, throwing down his schoolbag, started play-fighting. George reciprocated with gusto. After I’d shouted a bit, Tanya and I separated them. Meanwhile, George’s little sister, Lily - the perfect princess - climbed into her car-seat without assistance or fuss and put on her seat-belt. One of my gleaming work shoes was muddied by George in the scramble and I vented my irritation on Henry, bundling him unceremoniously into the car. I said a grudging, “Have a good day”, edged with tiny barbs of sarcasm and suffered an instant stab of guilt for saying it so ungraciously. I leaned in, hugged him awkwardly and kissed the top of his head, surreptitiously inhaling his delicious sweet-sour scent. The unusual thing was, he gave me a hug back. He didn’t normally do that sort of girly thing anymore in front of his friends.

I stood back as Tanya reversed off her driveway and I waved, happy to have navigated the morning rush without tears or tantrums. Henry didn’t see me waving. He was engrossed in some important boy-chat with George, their heads bent close. The usual ambivalence washed through me for a moment, relieved to have him safely on his way so I could get on with the rest of my life, yet regretful of my nagging, wheedling tones and resolving to do better tomorrow.

Tanya’s dark blue medium-sized family estate progressed smoothly down the road. I could never remember the make or model, having no real interest in cars. I knew her registration plate, though. It wasn’t personalised, but by pure coincidence, bore the letters TAN.

I followed the same road that led to school, half an hour after Tanya. Nick often argued that I should take the kids to school on my work days, and take the opportunity to get into the office early. I always stuck with the same alternating days arrangement, though: I valued the extra half an hour at home to compose myself and ensure the encrusted sleep was removed from my eyes; my hair tamed into some style that might not provoke derisive laughter.

I often arrived at work unaware of how I had driven myself or whether I had stopped appropriately at junctions or kept within speed limits. My head fizzed with thoughts of the forthcoming day and the driving occurred on autopilot. So it was only some distance after I had passed the scene of the accident that morning that my mind absorbed the information that the overturned dark blue family vehicle, surrounded by police cars and an ambulance, had a registration plate that bore the letters TAN.

* * *

So, mornings are quiet these days.

No nagging or wheedling from me, and no fiddling, fidgeting boy with a sweet-smelling head and soft, kissable ears. Time travels in one direction as far as we understand it, like elastic, stretching and stretching, and you can’t turn back the clock no matter how much you beg and plead and wring your hands at the Fates. But if I could change just one thing about that morning, I’d pluck out those words so resentfully spoken, that I hear myself speak over and over and that twist a knife into my heart. I’d unsay that miserable “Have a good day” and I’d say it again. With love.

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