© Joe 90
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A SHORT STORY
I cannot believe this is the second time I am defying Mother.
I kiss Simon’s hair; it smells of baby shampoo. He hugs my leg, almost overbalancing me. He knows where I am going.
Gabriel emerges from the bathroom, his hand clenched around a small bottle.
“Can’t we leave them till tomorrow?” I speak quietly, but our child sees the eye drops; his grip tightens and I can feel the scream welling in his body.
Gabriel crouches, taking Simon’s face in his hands. Real tears are starting; Simon’s hazel eyes are puffy and an angry red; smeared with a mixture of encrusted seepage and chloromycetin. In spite of the doctor’s warning about cross-infection he hugs him. “Go and get your present for Grandma. And the card, quickly now. Mum needs to get going.”
“Dad will help you build your T-rex.” I add.
The diversion works. Our child drags himself away and heads up the stairs. His high spirits that have infected us all morning have dissolved.
“No, love.” My husband holds up the bottle. “The doctor said we have to put the drops in every six hours…”
“I know what the doctor said.” I can feel my own eyes prickling and hear my voice rising. “It should have cleared up five weeks ago. We’ve got to get him seen again.”
He rubs the back of his neck. “Poor kid, he’s really been looking forward to Christmas; then he gets this.”
I control myself with an effort. I don’t want Simon to hear me shouting. “I’ll stay and help you put them in.”
Gabriel shakes his head. “Nicci, you know it upsets you. It’s bad enough coping with just Simon crying. The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll be back. I’ll keep Si up.”
“Fat chance!” I cry. “Have you forgotten the regime? Tea at six, then an interminable game of Scrabble, a few chocolates and then we watch a film that she criticizes all the way through. I won’t be back until half-ten at the earliest.”
I hate myself, snapping at him like this. It’s as far from his fault as it can be, yet he’s getting the edge of my tongue. That’s Mother for you. She has done her best to divide us since I first defied her by getting engaged to him.
“A photographer?” Mother knew that anyway. She knew everything. She just wanted to rub it in. “Is that …er… a proper career?”
My mind automatically fills in the blanks; the unsaid things, things that would be kept for the ammunition stockpile. ‘You won’t be happy with a man with a mediocre job. You’re used to nice things, expensive clothes, good holidays – and this Gabriel Greene fellow is hardly Lord Lichfield is he?’
Even if Gabriel had been a top earner, she would have found something to denigrate. Who could dare to be worthy of her daughter?
Gabriel puts his arms round me. “Nicci, love. Get through it, and when you get back, I’ll open a bottle of Merlot…”
“You know I can’t have alcohol…” I start, but he places his finger on my lips.
“How long is it now? Seven weeks?”
“Eight weeks, tomorrow.”
“Eight weeks and you haven’t touched a drop. One glass Christmas Day won’t do baby any harm. Let’s open the chocolates - you can eat them, can’t you? We’ll watch your DVD together and I’ll hold the tissues ready for the weepy bits.”
I smile. “Have you got the photograph?” I can feel the tension ebbing away.
“Here it is darling. That’s better. Remember what Sally told you.”
As I pull out onto the deserted motorway, I recall his last remark. Sally and I have been lifelong friends. We work together in Human Resources. Four weeks ago after a punishing session with Mother, a minor reprimand from our line manager had unleashed a torrent of tears.
“Nicci,” Sally let go my hand and peered through the board room blinds. “Don’t let her do this to you. Especially not in your condition.”
“Do what?” I hiccupped.
“From what you tell me, she’s lining you up for target practice. Pow! And you react every time without fail.”
“But why? What have I done to her? I’m her daughter for crying out loud!”
“Adopted daughter, as she so delicately told you.” Reassured the coast was clear Sally sat back down.
“Well that’s worse! Why adopt someone just so you can put them through hell?”
There was no ready answer to that. Sally promised to give it some thought. In the meantime, she advised, be aware of what Mother was doing. She peeled a little heart sticker from a pad and placed it under my left breast.
“She’s aiming for that. Don’t let her hit it.”
"Sorry little one.” The empty motorway gives me chance to glance down at my midriff. “Don’t let it get to you.” I talk to this one just as I did to Simon when he was in there. “I know you can hear me. At eight weeks you can hear everything that’s going on, can’t you? When I told Sally about the way Mother let me know I was adopted, she thought I was making it up.” I glance down again. “You believe me don’t you?”
I was an angst-ridden teenager, gazing dolefully at the puckered reflection in my makeup mirror.
“Your skin is terrible.” Mother picked up some letters lying on my bed, scrutinising the postmarks. “You need to put on more foundation.”
“Didn’t you ever get it like this, Mum? Your skin is so clear.”
The words are scorched into my memory; “You do realise you’re adopted, Nicole, don’t you?”
And then she stalked out. She might just as well have hit me with my own hockey stick.
A faint ache starts in my back. “Now then,” I admonish my belly, “that’s enough of that!” The sun is low in the sky ahead, and for a few minutes I have to concentrate on the road. Then the thought hits me. “Do you think she needs professional help? Perhaps she suffers some obsessive, compulsive need to criticise people.” I imagine a psychiatric counsellor dashing tearfully from the room with Mother’s parting shot from the couch; ‘Why don’t you do something with your hair?’ The vision makes me smile.
“Poor old Dad.” Baby twinges again. He or she can sense my nerves. “A lifetime tip toeing around our house. House. Did you notice that Junior? I can’t bring myself to call it Home. I hope you never feel like that about us.” I pull the sun visor lower. “Do you think she misses Father? Simon does; they used to have great fun in the park.”
The gantry signs are proclaiming, ‘Don’t drink and drive,’ interspersed with, ‘Season’s Greetings.’ The process of unburdening myself to my embryonic counsellor is calming. “Tell me I’m just being OTT, but it’s almost as if she hates the sight of me. Why?”
I am just about to exit the motorway when the reply comes. So obvious that I almost cry out.
Trembling, I pull on to the road that leads to her house; all around the doorways twinkle with multi coloured lights. Cars are filling the huge drives and overflowing into the road. People are home for Christmas. Families are together; laughing, drinking too much and relaxing in front of the telly. I am rehearsing my defence.
“Mother,” I tell her for the umpteenth time. “You could have come to us for Christmas.”
“I can’t drive, you know that. And your house is too small for us all.” By habit I fill in the end of the sentence: ‘I find Simon’s high spirits tiresome, and anyway, you ALWAYS come here for Christmas.’
And here I am, a few hundred yards from nemesis. She knows that Gabriel and Simon aren’t with me, and that I will not be staying. But I’m not sure she believes it yet. Furthermore, I will struggle to eat much, having already consumed Christmas dinner with my family. It was not beautifully cooked, or served up on Wedgwood. “I’ll leave you this dinner service, Nicole,” Mother announced one Christmas. “There’s no way you can afford it otherwise.” But the lingering taste of our dinner of herbs served with love is sweet in my mouth.
The daylight is fading to a watery grey as I park. I am late. I want to march up to the front door and yell in her immaculately made-up face for all the neighbours to hear:
“You hate me because I have a child! Don’t you Mother? All those years you wanted to conceive and couldn’t, and when I started developing into a woman, you took out your frustration on me. When Simon was born, you didn’t even visit me in hospital. You never held your own grandson. You couldn’t even get his name right on the birthday cards.”
I can picture her face, frozen in stone. Then; “You’re just being hysterical, Nicole.”
When I get back tonight Gabriel will fix me with his most concerned look. He will ask; “You have told her, haven’t you love?”
Will I tell her, I wonder? Or wait until the baby is born? In light of my new awareness I don’t want to tell her even then. I want her to find out from a friend or a relative. I scarcely dare admit it to myself but I am becoming vindictive like her. I take several deep breaths and will the trembling to subside.
She knows I have arrived, but nothing gives her away; no tawdry parting of curtains or hovering in the porch. I will ring the bell and she will condescendingly open the door to admit me to the house. I spring out of the car. I don’t care! My perforated heart has some armour plating now.
I retrieve the presents from the boot. Capriciously, I have collected carrier bags from a pound store to advertise our financial insecurity. Her gifts to us will be enclosed in Harrods bags. She will inspect our carefully-chosen presents for her, murmuring polite nothings; ‘Oh Nicole, dear, you should save your money.’ Or, ‘Your father bought me a ring like this in twenty-two carat gold. But this is a kind thought.’ I will grind my teeth in frustration.
Gabriel’s gift to Mother rolls out of the top of the nearest bag. After all she has put him through I am amazed at his generosity of spirit. “Nicci, I found the negative to that family photo I took when Simon was two. I’ve printed another one off. I’ve used top quality paper; hopefully the fix will be better this time.”
This photo, like the original, is in black and white. Mother did her best to despise it, but she seemed quite upset when the sunlight bleached Father’s face entirely, leaving a white smudge. The spiteful part of me wants to thrust it in her face to proclaim Gabriel’s thoughtfulness but I know she would twist his motives and the act of kindness would shrivel like our Christmas Poinsettia. So in the end I resolve to quietly fit the new photograph in the frame and leave her to find it out for herself.
I take just a few moments more to unroll the photograph. I never tire of looking at this one. Gabriel took it on a timer delay; he has his arms around my waist and I have my head back on his shoulder, my mouth half-open. The depth and composition are so natural; the eye travels in to where Simon gazes solemnly at the camera. Then to our right, slightly apart, Mother and Father stand, stiff and uneasy, side by side.
Gabriel related an anecdote at the time he gave it to my parents; something to do with a multi-faith wedding where the family of the groom had cultural objections to being captured in print. They believed it trapped the spirit of the person forever; Gabriel complained it took forever trying to get the group photographs for that wedding. I thought, at the time, that this picture was just such a perfect window on our family’s soul. Gabriel and me – just before the shutter clicked he poked me under the ribs and I lost my composure; hence it is so natural a shot. Mother, however, is disapproving and Father is gazing slightly high of the lens. But, best of all, Simon’s gorgeous eyes, wide in innocent wonder. There can be no doubt that the camera has told the truth this time. The contrasting souls of our families are faithfully preserved in the portrait.
The door closes behind me and I place the bags of presents on the hall carpet. Her cheek, tight as a kettledrum is proffered for me to kiss. “You’ve put on weight.”
The comment flattens itself against my armour and drops harmlessly to the floor. I want to retaliate: ‘I’m pregnant, Mother! The first wasn’t a lucky chance; I’m going to have another baby! Something you, with all your wealth, appearances, judgemental attitude – something you couldn’t do.’ But I am abruptly robbed of speech.
Mother is always framed in my mind’s eye against an immaculate backdrop. Fresh seasonal flowers, expensive furniture bearing a deep glossy shine, not a cushion out of place or a smudge on a kitchen work surface. But now, standing in my childhood house, I see that the sheen has gone from the surroundings and more particularly from Mother herself.
“Come in, Nicole.” Dumbly I follow. Her shoulders have sagged and she has on carpet slippers! There are dead flowers in a vase in the lounge. The tree is in its normal place, but it lacks its usual symmetry and many of the lights are blown. “Dinner will be in about half an hour.” Her voice has its normal chill, but is slightly slurred. As we pass the kitchen I glimpse a half-empty bottle of port.
My defensiveness gives way to faint amusement. How are the mighty fallen! She used to measure out father’s sherry to the nearest millimetre and forbid him a second, even on Christmas Day. Now she is tipsy! I notice grease on the cooker, dirty crockery in the sink and piles of unopened mail on the table.
I detect the pause and spring into the attack. “Simon’s fine. He did well at the speech assessment.”
“They haven’t diagnosed autism?”
‘Don’t let her do this…’ I breathe.
“No, not at all,” I reply steadily, stifling the urge to scream: ‘Simon’s normal. A bit late in his reading but NORMAL. Can you handle that?’
“Have you considered a second opinion?”
I counter this salvo skilfully. “Jenny Trent is the best in the area. I’m prepared to take her word for it.”
A long pause. She is cogitating her next move. Then; “Go on through, sit down. Glass of port?”
“I’m driving. I’ll pass, if you don’t mind. But you have another.”
She calls through from the kitchen. To my delight I can just hear the sound of her glass being refilled. “And Simon’s eyes? Was it conjunctivitis?”
I relax back on the sofa and resort to white lies. “Most likely, yes. He’s on the mend though. Doctor says as long as he doesn’t rub his eyes and re-infect them.”
“He was bad last time you came to see me. Been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Since November. Should be fine in a day or two. He’s a lot happier.”
And so it goes on. Bless you Sally! Last time Mother was under my skin and crawling up my nerves within minutes of my entering the house. After an hour I had taken refuge in the bathroom and cried my heart out. Now I can see the bigger picture; a lonely, thwarted woman, bereft of her husband and going to pieces. Maybe in a few days time I will allow myself a little sympathy. Right now I feel victory. ‘Cover your heart, Nicci. Keep calm and cover your heart.’
Whilst I field her loaded questions from the kitchen I set about replacing the photograph. Apart from Father’s face the rest of the photo is clear and undamaged. I roll it up and stow it in my handbag. The new photo snuggles behind the glass. I surreptitiously dust it and sit back down.
As the afternoon wears on, my triumph evaporates. I came expecting a fight, but Mother has prematurely conceded defeat. I verge on depression as she serves dinner. The turkey is unevenly cooked and the Brussels sprouts have pulped.
“Father used to coordinate dinner,” she murmurs to herself.
As I pick at my meal, I recall every preceding Christmas. The perfect hostess. The embarrassingly expensive gifts. The picture-perfect turkey dinner served at three o’ clock on the dot. The faultless celebration of peace on earth, goodwill to all men; only the goodwill was left outside in the cold. Last year Simon had refused to close his eyes when Father said grace before the meal. When Mother had reprimanded him, he had protested; ‘I’m not thankful! I want to go home!’ Mother had exacted timely revenge for that childish barb – she bought him a reading book for his birthday.
It is confirmation of what I always suspected; it was Father who kept things on the level in this house. The more I think about it, the more I am sure. Father was a steadying influence. He never stood up to her – no one ever did! But he was solid and dependable. Now he is gone, she is bereft of her mainstay.
“Leave that;” she has guessed the reason for my lack of appetite. “I’ll make some coffee. Will you stay for a game of Scrabble?”
This is the first time I have been offered the option.
She answers for me, her voice level, reasonable. “No, I don’t suppose you will. Just a slice of cake, then, and get back to your family.”
“I’ll make the coffee.” This new tactic has thrown me. I want to get out of the room.
“That’s sensible. Make it an instant coffee. Hurry things along, Nicole. You’ve more important people in your life now. Time to move on. No use spending your day here with a dehydrated thing like me.”
I am lost for words. She has drunk too much port. The mask has slipped.
“No use pretending is there, Nicole? You and me? You always wanted more than I could give you. We never saw eye to eye…”
Temper rises in me. “We never saw eye to eye? Whose fault was that? You who never stop criticising me. What I wear, my friends, my schoolwork, my son, my relationship with Gabriel - you did your utmost to scare him off. You even used to read my letters from him, didn’t you? …”
“Oh Gabriel!” She gives a thin laugh. “Yes, what an amorous writer he was. Well, forget the coffee, Nicole. Go back to him. Spend the rest of today with him and your children.”
“Mother,” I fight to sound reasonable. “You must know what it’s like wanting to be in your own home at Christmas.” But the harshness in my voice betrays me.
“Ah, how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child…” She murmurs.
“How dare you sit there moralising at me!” Baby twinges again, sharply now. I try to keep the lid on but my rage is bursting up, boiling over. “What did you ever give me to be thankful for?”
“I’m surprised you ask that. I did my best. We had to make sacrifices for you, your schooling; we made sure you had the best things…”
“Things! Things! That’s all they were, things! Never affection, you never held my hand when we walked to school. You never cuddled me when I was upset. You just resented everything about me.”
A deprecating smile. “Nicole, I can see I failed you. But what could I possibly resent about you?”
“You’re jealous because I can have children.” The moment the words are out I hate myself.
In the long silence that follows, I see from her eyes I have stung her. It was a heart shot.
She has slipped under my armour. All my time I was on my guard from her barbed comments and put downs, but she crept round behind and knifed me with guilt.
“Goodbye Nicole.” She dabs her eyes. “Happy Christmas love.” It is the first time she has called me ‘love.’
“Stuff Christmas!” I scream, yielding to tears.
I drive recklessly. I want to get away from her. But a few miles from home I stop at the motorway services and have a wash. I don’t want Gabriel to spend the rest of Christmas Day detoxing his wife. I survey my smeary face in the washroom mirror. I see defeat.
“Home, darling!” I keep my voice level. Too bright and he’ll guess something’s wrong. Too glum and he’ll interrogate me. As I enter the lounge, I see the pair of them asleep on the settee; Simon, face down on his Dad’s chest. The model dinosaur perched on the coffee table and the wood burner glowing. Wrapping paper is scattered over the floor.
I look at my men possessively. Next Christmas we’ll stay here together. Mother can do what she likes.
Gabriel awakes. Then he gives a start. “Nicci! …what time is it?”
“Shh! Let him sleep.” I gently pick Simon up and place him on the other settee.
Gabriel sits up and surveys the strewn floor. “You’re back early; I was going to clear up. How did it go?”
“Let’s just say we had a lovely time. No, stay there. I’ll cut some cake and get us drinks.” I hand him the photograph. “I brought this back. I want to keep the shot of just the three of us. Could you trim them off? I reckon then it’ll fit in that frame with the wood surround.”
I catch his glance. He knows I am trying to divert him and wisely leaves it there. “Simon was very brave with his drops after you went. He wanted to get on with making the dinosaur.”
“It can’t be conjunctivitis. It would have responded by now.”
He shakes his head, baffled and dejected. “I’ll make another appointment next week. I’ll insist on seeing a specialist. I’m not having him going …”
“He’ll be fine, love,” I tell him. It’s my turn to be brave. My ordeal is over and I feel cheerfulness asserting itself in their company. I flick on the radio in the kitchen and light Christmas music washes over me, soothing my melancholy. By the time I have loaded the tray and poured the tea I am beginning to feel the day hasn’t been entirely wasted after all. As I enter the lounge, Simon is stirring and I see in him the miniature of the man who took me from a sterile environment and gave me love instead of things.
“Is this okay?” Gabriel hands me the photograph. He has used a guillotine to remove Mother and Father. The rest of the picture has been cropped to a standard frame size. “Come on Simon, time to get up.”
Simon blearily opens his eyes, then his face lights up. “Mummy! We’ve built a Trannosaurus.”
Gabriel screws the wrapping paper into balls and lobs it into the fire. “Si made the T-rex all by himself, didn’t you?” He winks.
“It’s not straight along the back…” I begin, but I choke back the comment in time. I let Simon regale me with a blow-by-blow account of its construction.
The fire is blazing now, casting a reddish light over our room.
“Do you want this bit?” Gabriel hands me the offcut from the photo.
“No, I know the best place for it.” For the first time since I returned home my voice wobbles. As I slam the door of the fire, I can see he is saddened.
I hold up the cropped photograph to the light for a better look.
Simon’s eyes, looking at the camera are pin-pricks of angry red light, cast by the wood burner. It takes a moment to understand why. When I do my heart misses a beat.
I turn to him. His beautiful eyes are smeary, puffy and inflamed. They have been for six weeks now and the doctors cannot understand why the conjunctivitis doesn’t respond to antibiotics.
I run my fingers over the photograph. Two microscopic holes through the paper.
I am driving wildly. Gabriel rings my mobile and I put it on speakerphone.
“I can’t get an answer, love. She normally picks up straight away. ”
“Keep trying!” I sound angry. I don’t want to be but I am desperately concerned. “What about the emergency services? Did they ring back?”
“Not yet.” There is a pause. “Nicci, your mother’s gone out. Why shouldn’t she? She’s got a life besides you.”
He cannot keep the scepticism out of his voice. From the moment I found those pin holes in the eyes of the photo he has tried to be the voice of reason. Father’s image has faded – unusual but not unheard of, particularly as the window ledge the photo was on caught the afternoon sunlight. Those holes – deliberate without a doubt, but surely I wasn’t suggesting…
And now my car engine is screaming as I race back to Mother’s house.
“Gabriel. You still there?”
“Yes, love. Speak up.”
“I can see fire engines!”
“Okay love, but she’s going to be just fine. Please Nicci…”
“I can’t hear you.” I can see the engines, their lights casting shards of blue into the gloom. Their sirens reproach me with Mother’s voice: ‘spend the rest of today with him and your children.’
She knew about the baby. She always knew everything.
Gabriel’s voice, tinny on the speakerphone; “I said don’t leave things as they are. Stay with her, as long as it takes. Try to smooth things over.”
I stop the car. Reality slows to a thumping in my head and a nagging pain in my lower belly. I am shaking uncontrollably. A spaghetti of pipes snaking over our quiet street. More flashing lights, puncturing the night. Sounds, acrid smells; voices and people outlined against the flames; standing and watching.
On the passenger seat beside me is the picture. Simon’s damaged eyes and the laughing carefree parents behind him.
In my headlong flight to get back to Mother’s house, I have concealed from Gabriel her most vicious blow.
A third tiny hole. Just below my navel.