I carry the china to the kitchen and find my mother at six sitting under the table. Cross-legged, she picks at a bowl of pickled onions and cheese, sucking her fingers. I should make it clear, my mother isn’t dead, nor is she six years old.
I’ve just left her in the lounge complaining I don’t visit enough, and about this August that keeps sloshing up to the window, wet and grey like a rehearsal for November she can’t get up and walk out of. We’ve been arguing for days, well, not arguing, but disagreeing. I do so in silence, unable to get a word in.
I place the cups on the sideboard and turn, but there’s no sight of my seventy-six-year-old mother in the lounge in her slippers, flicking for a crossword. There’s only this child, and there’s no getting away from her.
It’s a different kitchen altogether. The dresser is scabby with paint, a copper kettle seethes on the stove and a Bakelite radio hisses. There are daffodils everywhere and the table’s rammed with food. Pork pie, Scotch eggs, buns full of meat sticking out their tongues. It’s a party of some sort, I can see. Through an ajar door, people dressed as if they’re going to a swing dance sip sherry. Their voices crouch like churches.
‘Hello,’ I say, ‘what’s your name?’
I ask to be sure, but I know who it is. It’s the kid on that photo who always looks like she’s about to head-butt the camera. The knit of her eyebrows is identical to when my mother does word-searches. Though, her brow is smooth now, and her curls are blonder than the Easter afternoon cracking through the window.
‘How old are you?’ she pops a silverskin into her mouth, dripping vinegar on her dress.
I tell her.
‘That’s old. Will you be dead soon?’
‘Probably,’ I say.
There are lots of things I should say, I’m sure. I should to seize the opportunity to speak to my child mother and use it to make our lives better somehow, but I can’t think of anything.
The clock strikes the hour with a groan. It’s 2pm. The party guests wander towards the kitchen, a couple stream in with glasses and plates. My mother peers out at women slicing fruit cake and balancing it on their bibles as they wander out again.
‘You can come out now,’ I say, ‘there’s no need to be shy.’
‘I’m not shy,’ she ducks her head beneath the tablecloth’s fringe.
‘Why don’t you come out then?’
‘I like it here.’
I kneel, wondering if we can be friends. Perhaps we can, and it’s only her being my mother that makes it impossible. I study her tracing the lacy pattern on her sandals and wonder. I ask about school, but, as usual, she isn’t listening, her eyes are pinned to the door, watching people taking turns holding a baby.
I can’t see its face, but I know it’s a baby. The women clutch the crocheted shawl as if it’s snowflake that will melt in their arms. ‘Beautiful,’ they whisper, ‘but so small… Too small.’
I can’t hear anymore, my mother won’t let me, she’s chatting up a storm. ‘That’s my sister, Grace, and when she’s better I’m going to push her around in her pram, and when she’s too big for the pram we’re going to build a bogey and race down the hill and beat all the boys, especially Patrick Kelly, and once we’ve done that, we’re going to…’
She babbles so fast she’s breathless. Dizzy, drowning on words without coming up for air. Yet she won’t stop, someone wanders past and she launches into another story about everything she and her sister will do. They’ll be unstoppable friends, they’ll go everywhere and do everything together, so there. I lean towards the guests, pulling cigarettes from their pockets. ‘Well, at least she’s been christened. They’re worried she may have problems later, she’s so small…’
‘Let’s play a game,’ my mother shouts, ‘I know! Let’s make sounds like water, bet I can make more sounds like water than you. I’m brilliant, like when Theresa at school needed to wee and I hissed like a waterfall until she almost peed herself.’
I watch her gush, babble and hiss waterfalls into her small mouth to drown out any sound but herself. And something makes sense, suddenly, fleetingly: not everything has to do with me. It’s not just that I’m not interesting enough, why we can’t talk. It’s not all my fault, or hers. It’s just, she lives like a girl who’s crawled under a table and is scrubbing away bits of world she doesn’t like.
I grab the cocktail sausages and sit with her until the people trickle home, taking turns to rock the baby and whisper her name, passing it along like a peach. I stay until the sandwiches curl and my girl mother fades. Only a waft of pickled onions remains, and an old woman plodding in the lounge, complaining about weather, asking why I don’t come more often, and talking over any attempt to reply. I sit on the couch with my life in mouth, silent, laden with understanding and unable to change a single thing.
Angela Readman’s stories have won The Costa Short Story Awards, the National Flash Fiction Day Competition, and The Mslexia Story prize. Her debut collection, Don’t Try This at Home (And Other Stories) was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and won The Rubery Book Award in 2015. She is also a poet, with work published in journals including Rialto, Ambit, Envoi, Agenda and Magma. Her most recent book The Book of Tides was published by Nine Arches (2016).