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Jane is standing in the kitchen with one knuckle pressed into her left eye socket when her daughter gets home. She flinches as the front door slams shut, lights flaring at the edge of her vision.
There is a shuffling of coats and shoes in the hallway before Annie sweeps into the kitchen. She has been away for the night, a university open day, staying with her cousin who is a second-year student. Jane forces the muscles around her mouth to activate after a day of submitting to gravity.
“Hi darling. Welcome back.”
Annie is all cold cheeks and runny nose as she drops her handbag on the floor, and yet regal, slowly unwinding a red scarf from around her neck. Jane gives her a quick hug and goes to fill the kettle. Ever since she woke up, her vision has been out of sync – clear sign of a headache on its way. Her body keeps arriving places too quickly, shambling graceless into edges. Now everything in the room seems too solid. The ceiling lights, the granite, the unmarked glass jars. Fresh coat of elephant’s breath, breathing down.
“Go on then. How was it?”
“I’m starved, the train was delayed and there was nothing to buy on board. Plus we couldn’t even get seats till like two stops before we got off. What are we having for dinner?”
“Fishcakes. They’ll be a while yet though. I’ve got to make the sauce still.” Jane pulls the biscuit tin out of the cupboard and slides it over the counter towards her daughter. “But how was the open day?”
“It was good I guess. Cassie was there and we went to the societies fair, she’s applying there too but she said not to bother with York because the town’s tiny and full of old people and you can’t even do a year abroad.”
Jane is blinking more than is normal to try and dissipate the lights. She tries to remember whether Cassie is the new friend from Model United Nations or the old friend from football club.
“Some of the IR students seemed cool but then everyone on the debating society table was kind of weird, I don’t know. One guy was wearing a balaclava.”
Debating is a skill Annie shares with her father, who is paid to convince people of his opinions. Like him, Annie is sometimes alarmingly persuasive. Jane mostly has feelings, rather than opinions, which are harder to defend and easier to laugh at. Which is unfortunate, as Nick is the kind of man who expects women to be their most intelligent selves one hundred percent of the time. And whenever Jane is not that self, when she just wants to think of nothing, or to say something flippant because it’s easier, on those occasions there is something especially brutal about his laughter. Like the time it emerged she couldn’t remember which year the Battle of Britain was. She has rarely seen anything crueller than the look of exaggerated incredulity he shared with his eldest daughter.
“And what was Tom’s house like?”
“It was – I mean, it was kind of grim. There was only one sofa so we tossed a coin and Char had to sleep on the floor. And ohmygodmum the bathroom was so gross. There was one of those fluffy things people put around the bottom of the toilet that was covered in pubes. If I decide to go, but I don’t think I will, I’ll definitely get the self-catering halls because otherwise you have to share a bathroom with like eight randomers. They gave us a tour.”
Jane knows Annie is right to assume she’ll get in, but still, the comment grates.
“Won’t it be easier to get to know people if you’re all eating together though?”
“No, if you eat in halls you just get stuck having to be friends with the first people you meet. You can’t shake them even if they’re creepy because you have to have every single meal together. Plus the toilets were honestly so nasty, I know I’d be happier with my own.” The frank look on her face suggests it has not occurred to her that her own personal happiness might not be the only factor in this decision. Jane winds her fingers around the handle of the kettle as it finishes boiling.
“Did you guys cook at Tom’s place then, or what did you do for dinner?”
“Yeah no he took us to this place where they were giving out some kind of vegetable curry. It was fine. I mean it was free, so.”
Jane sets a mug down in front of her daughter and gives her a questioning look. Annie extracts two Duchy Originals from the tin.
“How come it was free?”
“Or it was voluntary or whatever, the payment. And then Tom took us to the union and the drinks were like £3.50 for a vodka cranberry but they were really watered down.”
“But the food, was it a student organised thing, or?”
“I don’t know, I don’t think so.”
Jane’s neck is hot. There is a blot, something staining the vision of her left eye.
“It wasn’t – Annie, did he? Did you go to a soup kitchen?”
“It wasn’t soup, I told you, it was curry.”
“You can’t – those places aren’t meant for people like you.”
“Whatever, Tom said he eats there all the time with his housemates. And anyway, the people there didn’t care, they were really nice.”
Jane watches as her daughter tries to rescue the remains of a biscuit from her mug of tea, gives up, and reaches for a fresh one from the tin. She tries to imagine Annie with her red pashmina and her casual glamour eating in a community centre or church hall. Jane has a queasy memory from years ago, before she became expert at picking cigarette butts out of flowerpots, wiping eyeshadow from around the sink, and unsticking used sanitary towels from inside the pedal bin. The memory surfaces in a sick wave, as though she has eaten something on the turn: before they moved to the city, when the girls were still in primary, Jane found them sitting on a flattened cardboard box outside their house, greeting the neighbours as they headed into town. The girls were dressed in “rags”: an assortment of old ripped things they’d found in the dressing-up box, which stood at the end of Annie’s bed and was full of Jane’s cast offs, birthday party paraphernalia, and costumes from old school plays. They had smeared mud on their faces and even had a hat they were holding out to strangers as they passed. Jane remembers clearly how, from ten paces, she watched little Sophie sob dramatically and beg Mr Doncaster for his spare change so she could feed her sick baby doll. Her daughters had always enjoyed theatrics. To their delight, his shaky fingers fished a two-pound coin from an inside pocket. A small fortune. They were too young to properly understand why Jane was so appalled, but now – now.
One of these days I’ll leave and then you’ll all be sorry, she used to say to the girls when they were being particularly unbearable. Yeah yeah, they’d reply, confident the threat was empty, pecking her on the cheek. Loveyou mum!!
Her own mother left once, after her best jug had been thrown against the wall. Jane sat on the stairs all night, one arm twisted through the banister, until she returned, soaked through and smaller somehow, in time to get ready for work. Her own mother, who as a child hung wet teabags up with paperclips so they could be reused.
“And so yeah if you do four years instead of three you can go to Montpellier or Bologna or Salamanca or some other random place I can’t remember, but I’d rather go to Vancouver.”
“Surely the point of doing a year abroad is to learn another language?”
“But only if you’re actually doing languages, and in Vancouver you can go skiing at the weekends. We haven’t been skiing for years.”
As Jane listens, the left side of her head gives a particularly brutal throb. And quite suddenly, she cannot bear the sight of her. In her daughter’s fine-boned face all Jane can see is her unexamined status, her ambition, her absolute conviction that she is right, even though these are all things Jane herself has given her, wanted to give her even, not realising they would leave Jane herself with nothing but this sense of foolishness, or shame, and of her own huge ignorance. And so she somehow feels it is right, or at least understandable, the sudden urge to smack something into her daughter’s puppy white teeth, to yank her thick handfuls of hair, like in those days after she first gave birth when Annie’s cries were so obliterating she felt the only thing left to do was fling her to the ground or crush the tiny rabbit ribcage, heavy head crunching back, but instead she sobbed and sobbed on the floor until she retched at how easy it could have been.
“Mum. Earth to Mum.” Jane realises she is standing, useless, in the middle of the kitchen. “You OK? You went all weird there for a minute.”
“I’m fine, I’m – Sorry, what were you saying?” There is a potato masher in Jane’s right hand, which she places reverently on the black granite.
“I was saying it doesn’t matter because I’d still rather go to Bristol. Anyway, I’m going to go and ring Jamie before dinner.” Annie sweeps up her handbag and heads for the door, then gives her mother a sideways look. “You do look a bit off, you know. You’re not getting a migraine, are you?”
“I think – Yes I think maybe I should lie down, actually.”
Annie sighs loudly. “Right,” she says, dumping her bag again and turning back to the kitchen. She picks up the potato masher, impatient, and gestures upstairs with it. “Go on then. Fishcakes, you said?”
“Yes,” Jane replies, trying to keep her head as still as possible on her neck.
“I’ll tell Dad, when he gets in.”
“Thank you,” she whispers, surprised to feel a gentle squeeze of her right hand from Annie’s cold one.
Jane stays long enough to watch her, with a look of slight distaste, run a finger down the open page of the recipe book, then heads for the stairs, feeling something begin to unravel in her wake. She has one foot on the bottom step when Annie’s voice rings out, indignant.
“It wasn’t a soup kitchen, just so you know. They were Hare Krishnas. They come to campus every Thursday.”