Third Prize Winner Cinnamon Press Short Story Competition 2017
Her Last Words
My mother’s last words were spoken on Wilbraham Road, in the summer of 1985. She was walking at a furious pace (she was furious) when suddenly she stopped.
‘That woman can shove the sandwich maker up her well upholstered arse.’
Her next stride took her off the pavement and under a bus.
Told to tutors, while clutching a paper tissue, the story resulted in a free room for successive summer vacations. Told to friends and boyfriends, it has excused my generally shitty conduct. Whatever the audience, I leave out the ugliness of my mother’s legs kicking and kicking, with the rest of her under the bus. I leave out the bus driver, fat, sweating, collapsed on the road in shock. The woman running into a shop to call an ambulance and the big man who almost knocked me over pushing to the front of the crowd get a mention, if my audience presses for detail.
It’s never been clear to me if my mother did it on purpose. That summer, she seemed like a bar of soap thinned to the point of snapping by the rubbing of dirty hands. She had moved us to Manchester, where we knew no one, to get away. We were always abandoning places, bailing out; we never seemed to have anywhere to run towards. Manchester for us was a big hospital and a cheap bedsit with a single bed and a camp bed. My mother saw a trunk in a second hand shop and bought it instead of the hairdryer I asked for.
‘It’s what everyone has. You send it ahead, with all your books in.’
I didn’t have a trunk-load of books. My plan was to use the library. But my mother’s Oxford was the Oxford of detective fiction, of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Whimsey. She signed on, and cashed the giro to buy me a long skirt to wear at sherry parties and formal hall. I signed on, and told her my giro hadn’t arrived. When she went to the hospital, I got a different bus to the Central Library and spent days under the dome, scribbling long hand notes onto narrow lined feint paper that I transferred to a ring binder in the evening. I was working my way through the English reading list. Meantime my mother was cooking with ingredients unobtainable in Whitby, experimenting with miso and ginger root. I ate what was put in front of me, however odd, happy that the loss of the pressure cooker meant no more beef heart, that leaving the seaside meant no more sprats.
Our television was unwatchable without an aerial, so when the room got too small and hot we went for walks past the big Victorian houses, glimpsing other people’s lives behind the columns of doorbells. My mother imagined she was a good sleuth.
‘Nigerian,’ she would say confidently about some tall black girl, made taller by heels, wafting by us on air scented with vanilla and musk. ‘A student, student nurse, maybe, on her way to a party on her evening off.’
My mother had a brassy but brittle self confidence, and would strike up conversations at bus stops, or in shops, while I shrank into myself, shoulders up around my ears. I thought about the way she commented on that girl. There was a tang to it, like the tang to her cooking, a desire for a bigger world than our purse would buy. There was a party my mother wanted to go to if only someone would give her an invitation, or even simply an address to show up uninvited.
The toasted sandwich maker was a gadget that caught her eye in the window of one of the big department stores one afternoon when we happened to be down town together.
‘Now that’s an idea,’ she said, almost reverently. She insisted on taking me into the shop and talking to the sales assistant. Sandwich toasters were new, and my mother was enchanted.
‘It’s expensive,’ I hissed. But my mother had joined the sales assistant in a world where she had a kitchen, and friends who might want a toasted sandwich. Their heads bowed over the shiny lid of the demonstration toaster, and I cursed the blonde cow with her moisturised skin and her pussy bow blouse, playing along with my mother till she got her cheque book out.
We left the shop with the bulky box. It was a long walk from the bus stop, and my arms ached. I hated the thing already, and I hated it more by bedtime.
‘Maybe we’re not doing it right,’ my mother said.
The toaster was on our little formica table, plugged in at the wall. There were bits of burnt bread, and smears of butter and globs of melted cheese on it. There were already tiny scratches on the non stick, where we’d had to prise out bits of stuck sandwich.
‘Never mind,’ I said crossly. ‘Take it back. You have the box and the receipt. Get them to give you your money back.’
You would think my mother would take disappointment well, after all the practice. But her face was a child’s rictus of panic and sadness. Before she could start wailing, I turned my back.
‘Bed,’ I said. ‘We have the hospital tomorrow. We can take that thing back on the way.’
The hospital is the other bit I leave out. But the story makes no sense without it, and since this is the final telling, my last words on the subject, this time the hospital stays in.
Around ten in the morning we got to the department store with the thing in the box, and we went up the two escalators to the homeware department. It was the same woman behind the counter.
‘Oh good,’ my mother breathed.
She put the box down on the counter, and the sales assistant looked at it as if we had dumped down a pile of turds. My mother instantly lost confidence. Her explanation took on an exaggerated, pleading tone that presaged defeat. I was suddenly aware of how shabby we were, my mother’s rat tail hair, my spots, the stains on our clothes. We were bringing the smell of poverty into the shop. Only the rich can whine for their money back without risking their self respect.
I heard my mother talk about the smoke, the smell, the sticking. The sales woman’s face was a mask of condescension through which her angry eyes peeped. She had all morning to wear us down.
‘Look at it, if you don’t believe me,’ my mother said at last, with a despairing flop of the hand.
The saleswoman pulled the box towards her with reluctance. She took out the sandwich toaster, opened it, and turned on my mother with a look of disgust and triumph.
‘You might have cleaned it. I really can’t get our engineers to look at it like this. Bits stuck to it, all greasy.’ She flicked a red nailed finger in the direction of the toaster and raised her voice for the other assistants to hear. ‘You’ll have to take it back. I can’t accept it in this filthy condition’
Her high heels squeaked as she shifted her weight.
My mother stepped away from the counter and began to walk. I shoved the toaster back in its box and followed. We said nothing. I did not want to look at her. I felt ashamed. The only way to retrieve this was to march into a restaurant and spend money we didn’t have on lunch, to have a waiter treat us nicely. But my mother walked past the restaurants. We had to get to the hospital and we had just missed a bus. She was walking ahead of me, pretty fast. I was struggling after her with the box, struggling with my resentment. Was I meant to carry this thing all the way through the hospital, all the way to Willow Ward?
And then she said what she said, stepped out into the road and I was on my own.
Not on my own. I had the sandwich toaster and I had Liam. The police gave me a lift up to the hospital, the police woman sat in the back of the car with me, and came up to the ward. I sat on a plastic chair while she talked to the staff. I thought about my mother who was arriving in an ambulance and being taken to a part of the hospital they didn’t have signs for in the entrance.
The police woman was standing over me. I didn’t realize until I opened my eyes.
‘Do you want to go and see your brother?’
I shook my head. She looked shocked.
‘I thought you might want to try to explain what had happened.’
‘He’s my half brother,’ I said. ‘And, believe me, he won’t understand. My mother likes to make out he understands things. She gets angry with the doctors, and gets him discharged, but she can never manage at home, and then we move on and try another town, another hospital –‘
She stepped back. I could tell she was distancing herself from me, my anger and my crazy mother, still present on my tongue, and my head. She said in a formal way:
‘Then can we give you a lift home? You’re eighteen, so technically social services have no involvement.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ I said. I took a deep breath in. ‘Maybe I’ll sit with Liam for a bit. I’ll be fine getting home.’
‘Good girl,’ she nodded.
I knew that nod. I had seen it from teachers, from nurses, from grown ups of every sort. It was the nod that put the trouble back in the box, labelled ‘not my problem’. She watched me until I got up and walked down the ward to Liam’s bed.
As soon as he saw me, Liam started waving his arms and making his noises. I put down the box and gave him a hug. He tried to look around me, and when he saw empty space where Mum should be a thin scream started out of his mouth. It was like a thread that widened and widened until it filled up the ward, covering everything with black. I fought my way out of there and stood, gasping for breath, outside the door. Then I got the bus back to the bedsit and sat on the bed. I thought someone might send me a letter, tell me to come back. But nothing happened. After two weeks, it was time for me to go to Oxford, so I packed up my stuff and went. No one came after me. I suppose Mum got buried, by somebody. I think that happens if the body is unclaimed. I don’t worry about that so much. I worry about Liam in the hospital, screaming for our mother. Still screaming now, for all I know.