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Your mother calls you to tell you your father’s dead. It’s not the first time she’s doing this. Last fall, she wrapped his demise in a voice message for you to discover in between classes. When you called her back she let her phone ring out eleven and a half times before she picked up and told you to calm down, that he obviously wasn’t dead, that she’d just wanted to know how quickly you’d respond if something horrible ever did happen. What she really wanted to know, of course, was how quickly you’d respond if something horrible ever happened to her.
You ask her if she’s sure this time and she wants to know what you mean by this time. You know that reminding her of the call will only result in her flat-out denying it. You tell her you won’t be able to come over straight away. It’s a quarter to seven and you have to take the kids to school and wouldn’t it be better to call their GP? She says she can’t call their GP until you come and turn off your father’s alarm clock, now, can she? The bloody thing has been blaring since six. You want to tell her GPs have heard alarm clocks before but instead, for the sake of peace and quiet and getting on with your day, you tell her, in your calmest voice, she should try taking out the batteries – unplug it.
You hear her roll her eyes. Do you think she’s daft? Do you think she wouldn’t have done exactly that if she’d been able to get to the alarm clock? Even though you don’t want to, you hear yourself ask why she can’t get to the alarm clock. Another audible eyeroll. She tells you she thought you were smarter, that your father’s been sleeping in your old bedroom since you left home and that they obviously lock their bedroom doors at night and can’t you just come over already and turn off the fucking –
As usual, she’s ended the call before she’s finished her sentence.
The drive doesn’t take long. Five minutes, tops. The kids are in pyjamas in the back, their hands squashing the sandwiches you put there in a hurry. Jake, seven, is fake-bawling his eyes out. The kid’s perfected his blares with a determination you wish he showed in other areas of life as well. Isla’s fingers are in her ears, crumbs of sandwich landing in her hair. You should tell her she’s starting to look like a bird-feeder but don’t. Demonstrative is her new state of being. Her ten-year old eyes are aimed at the rearview mirror and waiting for yours to look back so she can stare you down like the graduate bitch she’s becoming. You try to convince yourself she’ll be the bestest of teens given the pre-pubescent hell she’s giving you now.
“It won’t take long, you guys,” you say, “Mummy just needs to turn off grandpa’s alarm clock.” They’re old enough for you to have stopped talking about yourself like a character in a fairy tale but there’s something about driving to your parents and the need to become a voice-over to your own life.
“If they can’t turn it off themselves,” Isla says, “they probably shouldn’t have one.” You store that argument to throw back at her at some point.
“It stinks in here!” says Jake.
“Here,” Isla offers, “Put some sandwich up your nose.”
You’d warned your husband you’d ruin a girl if you ever had a daughter. He’d laughed it off – “Is that a promise?”
“It’s the Brussels sprouts, Jake,” you say, “it won’t smell inside the house.” It’s long past Brussels sprouts season but the ones that escaped the harvest have been freezing and thawing and rotting ever since. Every winter, their stretched-out decay serves as a reminder of your failure to set up house beyond a five-mile radius of your parental home.
“Only of old people,” Isla says.
When you pull up the driveway, your mother’s in the doorway, all done up. Hair and face immobilized by hairspray. Ironed beige skirt to show she still dominates the world’s dirt. Ironed panties too, and you’re not even guessing. Chocolate-brown stockings and nude heels that make it look like she’s footless, hovering above hallway tiles the colour of clotted blood.
“At your age, no make-up is not an option,” she says, “I can’t believe you brought the children.”
“You sounded urgent,” you say.
“I’ll drive them to school,” she offers.
“No,” Isla and you say in unison. Kudos to the kid for realizing your mother’s a kamikaze behind the wheel.
“We’ll watch tele,” Isla grabs Jake’s hand, “we’ll turn up the volume.”
As you pass the threshold, you look down and see your daughter has turned the doormat upside down. Goodbye is now greeting all visitors, Hello everyone who manages to get out. You smile. All is not lost.
“So where is it?” you ask, giving your mother a chance to unsay what she told you on the phone.
“Your father’s not an it.”
“The alarm clock, mother.”
“Honestly, is that all you can think about?”
You’ve relayed conversations like these to your friends. They’ve advised you to write them down the way parents do with the nonsense their toddlers sprout, and send them over to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’ll play you in the series and help you become so rich you can pay a live-in therapist. You just have to decide whether you’ll use him yourself or make him stalk your mother.
“I’m sure he just went out for a walk,” you say.
You feel like suggesting he owns a pair of shoes she doesn’t know about.
“I don’t know, mum. Look, let’s just try and get into my old room, in dad’s room, and turn off the alarm.”
You’re still in the downstairs hallway and there’s a noise that’s more distant than the tele but nothing close to an alarm.
“I know you don’t believe me,” your mother says.
“Well,” you say, “no.” It’s a word your mother’s not used to. It’s not even 7.15am and you’re almost proud of yourself.
And it’s true. You don’t believe her. You haven’t believed her in decades. When you were invited to other people’s homes and she didn’t feel like going she always came up with a story. Your dad had twisted an ankle and wasn’t able to get to the bathroom without help. You had lots of homework and it felt irresponsible for her to have fun while you so obviously weren’t. The woman could destroy the world’s lie detectors with a single blink.
Another reason you don’t believe her is that she, obviously, has not seen his body. And you just can’t see your dad dying in this house, not if he has any choice. You see him taking off the way a dying cat does, disappearing one day, aiming for a field, some forest, anywhere he’d be gulped up by nature sooner than discovered by a human being.
No. Not taking off.
Limping off. That’d be more like it, like a cat after chewing off its leg to escape an iron trap.
“Why did he set the alarm in the first place?” you ask.
“The roofers are coming at eight,” your mother says, and when you offer no response, “to fix the flat roof. It’s been leaking into our bedroom walls for weeks. I’ve told you.” She hasn’t. Talking to her, your mouth often feels like you’ve just come back from the dentist’s. Your lips the size of watermelons, your tongue a salt-stained slug.
You’ve not been up here since you left. Not that you were up here much ever. Bedrooms were for sleeping, the bathroom for washing and the lack of central heating never encouraged any lingering beyond those core activities. You belong to a generation that’s never seen their parents in pyjamas, let alone in bed, so it’s a surprise, now, to see the door to your mother’s bedroom open.
Your eyes are drawn to the narrow oak bed and the unmade pit at its centre. You’ve never actively imagined it, but you now realise you’ve always assumed your mother slept on her back with her hands across her stomach, a pose suggesting neither life nor death could surprise her. The pit of flannel sheets, though, reveals someone who sleeps like a ball of yarn, like something that has to knit itself back into shape every morning.
Before you can lift your eyes to the walls, your mother closes the door, and you’re back in the hallway of your childhood. Game designers must have lived in similar homes growing up. Four dark doors off an excuse for a passage: your room to the right, the bathroom across the stairs, your parents to the left, and the storage room right next to it. Psychedelic orange, brown and white wallpaper and a ceiling light with a fly that’s unnerving your mother. The fly’s pretty much all you can hear, apart from a low buzz that sounds more like talking than blaring.
“Can you hear that?” you ask.
“No blare, mum.”
“I never said there was a blare,” she says. “Probably one of those morning shows where people stupid enough to wait until they’re fully awake call in to have their say.”
You move closer to the door. “One of those people kind of sounds like dad.”
She’s laughing now. “Who would he be talking to? He’s hardly ever lift a phone in his life.”
Your mother doesn’t know your father calls you almost as often as she does. You know she doesn’t know and still it catches you by surprise. For years now, your father’s been phoning you to tell you that his is no life really, that your mother gives him a weekly allowance, like he’s some kid, her kid, and that she doesn’t want to go anywhere without him, even to the hairdresser. That he feels like her handbag except her handbag has more money. You’ve often wondered when he makes those calls. When your mother’s taking a bath? And where is he calling from? Some closet? The garden shed? Hiding under his – well, your – bed?
When you tell other people about these calls, they become endlessly funny. They become even funnier when you pair them up with your mother’s calls because, obviously, she too has no life, not the one she had expected. Your dad doesn’t want to go anywhere anymore, just lies there on the couch, turning into some Dalí painting, his flesh melting into the blue cushions, failing any and every Apgar test whenever your mother does or says anything aimed in his direction.
Your wildest dream, you’ve confessed to your husband, is for them to call you at the exact same time. One on the landline, one on the mobile. Your mother from the living room, your father from underneath his bed. At that most wondrous of moments, you’ll pick up both phones and hold out the receivers with stretched arms and put them together defibrillator-style. All clear.
“I’ve tried that,” your mother says when you knock on the door and call out.
“What?” she says, returning your annoyed look, “You think he’ll open the door for you?”
You’re sure he would if he were in there and alive, but you don’t want to give her the satisfaction of being right.
“I’m coming up,” Jake shouts.
“No!” you shout back.
The staircase is a death-trap. You’ve always taken it as proof that your parents never considered children a reality. It’s full marble, only its potential to crack skulls a match for the rest of the house’s décor. There’s a thick rope attached to the wall but the other side is an open invitation for a close encounter with the hallway tiles. Your mother doesn’t believe in carpets.
“Don’t worry,” he says, the smirk in his voice obvious, “Isla’s behind me. I’ll bounce back.”
“Don’t taunt your sister on a staircase!”
“Can we go?” Isla wants to know, before their heads appear over the edge. “The alarm’s clearly off.”
With all four of you up here, the hallway is starting to feel like an elevator. You look at your mother looking at your children. You should probably stop making Jake wear Isla’s hand-me-down pyjamas. You’ve told your husband it’s part of his personal growth. All he needs to do to is protest.
“I put some clothes in the car,” you say, handing Isla the keys, “get dressed.”
“You can’t go yet,” your mother says, “your grandfather’s door is still locked.”
Isla’s “what the fuck” coincides with Jake’s “why’s his door locked?”
“He’s a sleepwalker,” your mother says. Not so much as an eyelid. “That’s the reason we’re in separate bedrooms.”
“Where’s the key?” Jake asks.
“He has it,” your mother says, “I don’t lock him up, he locks himself in.” She looks like she’s ready to pat herself on the shoulder.
“Grandpa!” Jake hollers.
Isla rolls her eyes. “Like they haven’t tried that,” she says, “He’s either gone mute overnight, Jake, or he’s dead. It’s really not that difficult.”
“Can you go mute overnight?” The honesty in his voice. Rain against a mackintosh.
“Even if he went mute he would still be able to open the door, you twat,” Isla says. “We just have to shove a paper underneath the door, push out the key and voila.” Demonstrative.
She opens the door to the storage room, which, for a moment, blinds all four of you. It’s the only upstairs room with two windows. Another thing you knew you did. You’ve watched the room from the outside plenty of times. You’re sure you’ve been in the room plenty of times as well, have seen Christmas decorations and cardboard boxes. But in your head it was always dark and as cold as the other rooms, like being up on a mountain on a bad day. No views of the beyond.
This storage room, though, is bright and warm and so empty its very emptiness bounces off the linoleum like lambs. It’s a room you’ve imagined in other people’s homes.
Before you know it, Jake’s around your mother’s neck, shawl-like.
“Thank you grandma!” he rushes in and throws himself on his back by the windows. A sucker for light. “I want my bed here,” he says.
All the years they’ve been alive, they haven’t slept over at your parents’ once. Your mother has always had a reason. First she was afraid to take Isla up the stairs. Then you went and had another baby. A boy. And did you seriously expect her to carry two children?
“Where’s all the stuff?” you ask. You look at your mother. You can tell she wants to say there never was any stuff in here, that there’s an attic, after all, and a shed and that she thought you were smarter.
“This could have been your brother’s room,” Jake says.
“Or sister’s,” Isla snaps back, looking at her brother, “You do know Jake, that bother is ridiculously close to brother.” Looking at you now. You can see her think it – and mother. “I fully get why you stopped after one.”
“Why did you only have one, grandma?”
You expect her to say what she always says. That it wasn’t easy getting pregnant and that she had to lie down for most of the pregnancy and that she was blessed she had one healthy child and didn’t want to jinx it. You never bought the tale. You had the marble stairs to prove it.
“I couldn’t,” she says instead. “After your mother was born, I got pregnant again very fast. I wasn’t supposed to because I’d had a C-section. I didn’t tell anyone.”
“What’s a C-section?” Jake says.
“It’s hara-kiri but with the aim of getting a baby out,” Isla says, translating into game-lingo, “and without the dying.”
“The cramping started at work,” your mother continues, “and my colleagues took me to the hospital.”
You watch your children watch your mother. They know reality from invention. You whipped all gullibility out of them from the get-go. No, animals can’t talk. Yes, mothers do die but that’s Disney, mainly. Mothers can’t be slayed off as easily in real life.
“I told them it was appendicitis. But I knew my womb had ruptured. I was anaesthetized and they took out the baby and everything else. They took out my womb and they took out my ovaries. All of it. Everything.”
You can tell Jake wants to ask what she means by everything but squeeze his hand.
“Couldn’t they just have sutured,” you start, the same moment Isla says “I’m sorry.”
“Yes,” your mother says. “They could have.”
Her face a Polaroid in need of shaking.
“Where was dad?”
“They tried calling him,” she says, “eight times,” and then, taking your silence for criticism of her neurotic precision, “There was a call-log, you know.”
You’re on your knees at your childhood door. The morning show still in full swing. You managed to push out the key onto Isla’s suggested piece of paper but lost it while pulling it back. You’d forgotten there’s only so much you can see through a keyhole. Apart from modest streaks of mould leaking from the ceiling and rising from the floorboards like bad teeth, all you can spot is the conspicuous rectangle left by a frame your mother put up after a summer holiday.
In the picture, a seven-year-old you appeared to be kissing a thirty-year-old her on the mouth while holding her by the shoulders. You doubt either of you remembers if you were pulling her close or pushing her away, and whether the two aren’t the same, really. You want to ask her if she removed the picture when she moved your father into your bedroom, or whether he did, maybe even recently, and died with his eyes wide open.