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“Hi mum. It’s me, Catherine.”
Then you’ll hang up. If I call you, you’ll say, hello, I’ll say, hi mum, it’s me, Catherine, then you’ll hang up. When you do, I’ll leave the phone to my ear for a while, not really listening, not really expecting us to be reconnected, but also not quite believing that this is still where we are.
Normally I text Steve after you’ve gone, sometimes Rob – share out the burden a little – but normally Steve because if I ask him if he’s spoken to you recently, he calls me right back and gives me your news. I like that. After all, your neighbours were my neighbours for 22 years and most of them are still there; I don’t think anyone’s sold a house on that street in decades. So normally, I text Steve, Steve calls me right back and he tells me your news. That includes the stuff he suspects but doesn’t know because he’s not actually seen you for a little while: he’s back on nights, got his boys during the day, and Otis and Nathan are now old enough to understand some of the things you might say. So some of the news is guesswork, or stuff I’ve heard before, old news, but I don’t mind. I still like it. Only at the end of the call, right after a little pause when we both sigh our way through an ‘anyway,’ will Steve ask if we’re still not talking. I cannot bear to answer that question. So Steve will leave another little pause, just in case, then he’ll tell me that you love me and I’ll have a little cry in the car. I normally feel a bit better after that.
But nothing’s normal at the moment, is it? I’m not at home for a start. Not that I call you from the house any more. Instead, I try to speak to you from the car, when I’m parked up on the driveway. I’ve got it down to a T now: if I leave the practice on time, I’m home by 5:20. Helen won’t drop Katie back before half-past, so I’ve got a little window when I can deal with you. Or rather, deal with me, dealing with you. Did you know my glovebox is stocked with wet wipes, tissues and emergency liquorice? There’s also a back-up eye liner, but that’s only necessary when Steve changes the script, saying something like, you know Caz, she really does love you, or, she’s always loved you Caz, or, we all love you Caz. Maybe it’s the name thing, I don’t know.
I don’t think back-up eye liner is going to help tonight. I tried to put some on earlier, before I went in to see her, but the lights in a hospital car park don’t encourage you to look in the mirror for long, even if you have been sleeping. I gave up halfway through and cleaned off the goop with a tissue. Normally I’d use a wet wipe but the packet’s empty and I don’t know long that’s been true; I found it on the passenger seat amongst the wrappers from energy bars and junk food. That’s not normal either. God knows when I last had fruit. No doubt you’d tell me that I’m ripe for scurvy. Or perhaps you wouldn’t reach that far back for a line. Perhaps you’d only go back 20 years and say I’d never get a boyfriend until I sorted my skin out and maybe not even then, but I could at least try and that would mean you wouldn’t have to look at it. It makes me itch, you’d say. It makes my skin crawl. Doesn’t it look like her skin’s crawling? With maggots. That’s what your friend Sarah said, with maggots, and she laughed so hard she didn’t see your hand coming, wine glass and all.
I never saw her again. Not at our house or in the pub, but I didn’t see many people socially after that. At 8:30 the next morning, Joanne Risdale was waiting for me by the school gates. We heard your mum’s a psychopath, she said. We heard your mum’s a fucking psycho. I bet it runs in the family.
In fact, was that the last time we spoke, when you called me from the loos in Tesco’s to tell me that you’d seen Joanne? You were out of breath, so excited were you that she was fat. Not slightly fat, you said, enormous. How did you know it was her, I asked, and you said she still had a pretty face underneath it all. You don’t lose that, you said. Not even at that size. I told you that I didn’t really think about Joanne anymore and you took that to be a slight on Bicester. Eventually I had to hang up – and not because your voice had turned, or because you accused me of being uppity, of thinking I was too good for the town I grew up in, but because Mr. Thomas had come in for his crown replacement – and we haven’t spoken since.
That was two years ago now. Long enough for your silence to become normal. Long enough for lots to change. Perhaps I shouldn’t try and break that pattern. Not now, anyway. Maybe that would be the worst possible outcome actually, if I dial, and yes, you’re still on my speed dial, still the first contact, even though I’ve got a new phone, so that represents an active choice on my part and one which I don’t really understand, but yes, perhaps the worst possible outcome would be if I dial and you say something like:
“Hi mum. It’s me, Catherine.”
“How is she? What’s the latest?”
What will I do if you are suddenly that mum who we glimpsed on occasions, when the sun was out and we were in your good books, food was in the cupboard, some booze was in the fridge? What will I do if you ask me how I’m coping? If you tell me that it will all be OK?
Actually, I know exactly what I’ll do. You’ll say, how is she, what’s the latest, and I’ll tell you everything the doctors have said, not hesitating, not holding back, laying everything in front of you and barely being able to breathe whilst awaiting your reply. Then you will talk, perhaps about Katie but more likely about yourself, and I will listen, silent except for some “mms” and some “ohs,” pressing the phone hot against my ear until you say, anyway, and that you should go, and I’ll say, ok mum, and, I love you. Then the line will go dead. In short, if you say, how is she, what’s the latest, I will forgive you. Completely.
I don’t think that’s the message the mum part of my brain needs tonight. I don’t really understand how to be a mum, but I have tried to be kind and brave and consistent. I’ve tried not to make me Katie so desperate for affection that she’ll forgive me anything. And being her mum is so hard at the moment, it’s so confusing and lonely and terrifying, that I don’t want any hint that what I’m doing is optional, any hint that I could run away and still be loved at the end of it all. That is not the message I need right now. So if I do call, please don’t change, mum? Please don’t ask how she is.
Steve said I shouldn’t bother ringing at all at the moment, that I should just concentrate on Katie. Maybe he’s right – look at the state I’ve got in just thinking about calling you. But that’s not how it works, is it? It’s not how it’s ever worked. And it’s not because I think you’ll ever be different, not really. It’s just the deal I’ve made. The same one I’ve always made; if I’m the good one, if I do the right thing, then perhaps good things will happen for me. Will happen for Katie. I couldn’t tell you who I think I’ve struck this deal with, or if they play fair, or even if they’re playing at all, but we cling onto what we have, don’t we?
Perhaps I should call then, to keep up my end of the bargain. It might also give me some normality I suppose, to hear the line go dead after I’ve said, it’s me, Catherine. That familiar rejection instead of all … this. Plus Steve is not on shift tonight, his Facebook said he was looking forward to a takeaway on the sofa, so I can text him after you’ve hung up and he’ll call me right back, give me yours news. Tell me you love me.
I am going to call you, I realise that now. I’m going to call you once I’ve wiped my eyes and blown my nose and counted as high as I need to go until my breath no longer shakes between each number. I’m going to call you and I’m going to say what I normally say and I’m going to say it in my normal voice. If you answer, please hang up when you realise it’s me. Please? For once mum, please be someone I can rely on.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
8, 9, 10, 11.
“Hi mum. It’s me, Catherine.”