Mothers

Mothers

by Chris Power

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374213664
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/15/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 250,656
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Chris Power lives and works in London. His column, A Brief Survey of the Short Story, has appeared in The Guardian since 2007. He has written for the BBC, The New York Times, and the New Statesman. His fiction has been published in Granta, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, and The White Review, and been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Mothers is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

SUMMER 1976

I've been thinking about my mother, and the summer I lied about Nisse Hofmann. For six long weeks the weather had been sweltering; you could be outside all day and never feel a breeze. I was turning eleven in September, but the hot days passed so slowly it felt like my birthday would never arrive. The birch tree on the lawn outside our apartment block stood still as a sentry; not a branch moved. Its bark grew dusty, and its leaves hung like rags. During the day, when there was no one else around, it was like the world had stopped.

In spring Mum and I had moved from Stockholm to this new estate outside the city. Everything was spotless and uniform, right down to the birch on the lawn outside each building. Lots of people wanted to live there, but Mum's boyfriend Anders knew someone at the housing company. It was Anders who had said we should leave our old place, because it was small and it was falling apart. He said this was the way to live: with room to move and green space around you. What only occurred to me later was that he didn't like the old apartment because Mum had lived there with my dad. And with me, but Dad had died a long time before, when I was too young to remember anything. 'He was fine and then he got sick and then he died,' is how Mum explained it. 'Just like that,' she said, clapping her hands together as if she was knocking flour from them. After we moved to the new place, away from my father's ghost, Anders tried calling me his little girl, but he didn't try for long.

* * *

Our building was long and rectangular and spectacularly white. It had four floors and four stairwells: A, B, C and D. We lived in 4B, on the second floor. On my bedroom wall I had a big poster map of the world and in my bedside drawer I kept a sheet of stickers, red and blue. The red stickers were for the countries I had been to, and the blue stickers were for countries I wanted to visit. The only countries with red stickers on them were Denmark and Sweden. Sometimes I took the sticker off Sweden because it felt like cheating, but sooner or later I always put it back. Over time the number of blue stickers grew: France, Ireland, Russia, Spain, Brazil, America, Yugoslavia. I picked countries because I liked the way their names sounded, or because I saw them on a television programme, or because I read about them in my mum's travel guide, a thick paperback I would heave into my lap and read for hours. Some, like Japan, I just liked the shape of.

Nisse Hofmann lived on the second floor too, one stairwell along. He was the same age as me, and he didn't have a dad either. Not only did our apartments neighbour each other, our bedrooms were right beside each other, too. I would see him at his window fixing stickers to the glass. From the outside you could only see their white backs, but from the shape of them I could tell they were soldiers and planes and cars. At night sometimes I would get out of bed and press my ear against the wall, trying to hear him.

Nisse's mum was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had white-blonde hair and was so pretty that she looked cruel. I didn't understand how someone like her could exist in a place as boring as our apartment block. She seemed to be struggling with the same thought: I never once saw her look happy, but it didn't affect her beauty. My mum was pretty in her way, but the worry she always seemed to be feeling about one thing or another worked its way into the lines of her face and became the only thing you saw. I don't like looking in mirrors, but when I do it's her face that stares out at me. Except I'm much older now than she ever was.

When I saw Mrs Hofmann with different men I would wonder if they were as bad as Anders, or maybe even worse. In the night, now and then, I wondered if Nisse's ear was ever pressed to the same patch of wall as mine, with just a few centimetres between us. I could see his blond hair glowing in the darkness of his room.

Not that I liked Nisse. He would tear around the apartment blocks like an animal, stamping on flowers and hitting the trees. He would soak a patch of dry earth and make the mud into discs he threw at other boys, then chase after girls with his black, slimy hands stretched out towards them. I kept myself away from those games. I played with other children from the estate sometimes, but not Nisse.

One day I saw a group of seven or eight children huddled over something at the corner of my block. They were standing and kneeling in the soil of a flowerbed, absorbed by something I couldn't see. Curious, I peered over their backs to find out what was so fascinating.

'What is it?' I asked, unable to see between their tightly packed bodies.

Just then Nisse, who had been hidden at the centre of the huddle, stood up, forcing everyone back. 'Only this,' he said as he turned and I saw a small blur rush towards me. Automatically I reached out to catch it: a dead mouse. It was only in my hands for a moment before I threw it to the ground, shuddering at the cold, rigid density of it, its fur spiky and sticky with dirt. The feel of it clung to my hands. Everyone around me was laughing.

'Dirty thing!' I screamed at Nisse.

I ran crying to my apartment, and eventually – when my mum had established I wasn't hurt in any way – I told her what had happened. 'Right,' she said, and left the apartment. I went to the window and watched her come out of our door and walk across to the next stairwell. That night I didn't need to put my ear to the wall: I could clearly hear Mrs Hofmann shouting at Nisse, although I couldn't make the hoarse, gruff voice I heard fit with her beauty. It was as if their apartment contained another woman who only appeared when someone had to be punished. Later, long after the shouting had stopped, I sat up in bed and pressed my ear to the cool wall. I remember smiling when I heard, very faintly, the sound of Nisse crying.

* * *

Mum worked in the office of a nearby factory, and Anders drove his elderly Saab into Stockholm every day to his job, which had something to do with the city's telephone lines. I asked him about it once and he told me it was too complicated for little girls. I was alone a lot during the holidays, but I didn't mind. As long as I had books to read I was never bored. During the day I often read in the spotty shade under the birch tree, moving around its trunk as its shadow moved across the lawn. It was like sitting at the centre of a giant clock-face, the tree's shadow first sweeping along the length of our apartment block, then the neighbouring blocks. A couple of days after throwing the dead mouse at me, Nisse started running past. He pretended to ignore me, but I saw the little darting movements his eyes made, watching me sidelong. I was much better than him at disguising where I was looking. He was making loud noises and diving on the ground – storming machine-gun nests and throwing himself on grenades – but after a while he tired of this game and grew quiet. Absorbed in my book, the next time I looked up I was surprised to find him still there, staring up at our building.

'What will you give me if I get it through the middle window?' he said, holding up a red apple with a bite taken out of it.

He was looking at the landing windows, which stood open all day and all night that summer in an attempt to get some air circulating through the building.

'That's the window outside my apartment,' I said.

'I know. We're neighbours.'

My face got hot when he said that. Somehow I hadn't thought of the idea occurring to Nisse, or to anyone other than me. Maybe he really did put his ear to the wall like I did, I thought. Maybe each of us really had listened for the other at the same time. 'You'll miss,' I said.

'I won't.'

'OK then, prove you can do it.'

'But what will you give me?' Nisse said. He was trying to sound defiant, but there was a whine in his voice. It made me realise I had power over him. The thought excited me.

'Show me you can do it first,' I said offhandedly. 'Then we'll see.'

Nisse looked up at the window. He took a few steps back and bobbed the apple up and down a couple of times. As his right arm went back he held his left out in front of him, pointing straight up towards his target. He threw the apple hard, and it flew in through the open window like it had been jerked up there on a piece of string. It hit with a faint smack. Nisse turned around, grinning. I was grinning too.

'Told you,' he said. 'Now what do I get?'

I put my book on the ground beside me and stood up.

'Come here,' I said.

As Nisse walked towards me I felt gooseflesh wrinkle my skin, even in the heat of the day. He stood in front of me. We were the same height.

'Close your eyes,' I said.

'Why?'

'Close your eyes and you'll get your reward.'

Nisse closed his eyes and I put my hands on his shoulders. He flinched a little at my touch.

'Keep your eyes closed,' I said. He screwed them shut more tightly. I brought my lips to his. I closed my eyes as well, and felt a wave of something go through me. It was like running into a cold sea on a hot day.

We stayed like that for a few seconds, still as the tree above us. Then Nisse pulled back. He looked shocked. He tried to say something but only made a noise. He wiped his hand across his mouth then shoved me, and I fell backwards onto the dry grass. He ran away, disappearing around the corner of the building.

I didn't cry. I don't think I even wanted to. I felt a strange numbness as I looked at the ragged leaves hanging above me. I picked up my book and walked upstairs to the apartment. The apple had hit the wall of the landing outside our front door. It had exploded: a stain like thrown paint was visible on the wall, and white fragments of flesh had stuck there and sprayed across the floor. They were already starting to brown in the heat. I stepped over them and let myself in, went straight to my room and lay down on the bed.

I heard Anders shouting as soon as he saw what Nisse had done. 'Vandals!' he yelled. He burst into my room, eyes alight, and asked what I knew about 'that disgusting mess at our front door'. I told him I'd been asleep all afternoon; that I didn't know anything about it. To my surprise, he believed me.

* * *

Mum and Anders liked to throw parties, especially that summer. They were good hosts, I suppose, because a lot of people came. The whole apartment filled with smoke and chatter, and empty glasses and bottles sprang up like weeds on tables, on the floor, on the bookshelves.

The music was always jazz, and in the morning Anders's records would be stacked in piles on top of the stereo speakers like big rounds of liquorice. Finding the right sleeve for each record gave me a feeling of immense satisfaction, and I loved studying the covers. Sometimes they showed the musician, and sometimes they depicted the album title. I remember one called Cool Struttin' that showed a woman in heels walking along a city street. But the ones I liked best had a more mysterious connection with the music: a small sailing boat on a grey sea, sunlight falling through a broken window, a sand dune in the desert. I loved to spread the albums on the floor around me and get lost in the pictures.

Mum would put me to bed later than usual on party nights, but still I found it hard to go to sleep. The heat made it difficult enough, but really it was hearing the voices and the music, and wanting more than anything to be there, in the middle of it. At one of the first parties that summer I remember creeping to my door and opening it a crack. The bedrooms were down a short hallway leading off the living room, which I could see a strip of from my doorway. Within that narrow space I saw people drinking and smoking and dancing.

It was a magical feeling, like watching a play from the side of the stage. That world seemed so special to me then, and all those people so sophisticated. But then you grow up, and you realise that special world, the one glimpsed through that doorway, isn't what you thought it was. It never really existed the way you imagined it to.

But leaning there that night, cheek pressed dozily to the doorframe, I saw something extraordinary: Mrs Hofmann, standing right there against the wall of our living room as if it were a cinema screen and she was projected onto it. Her hair was cut in a fringe that framed her beautiful face. She wore a denim dress with a bronze zip running from collar to hem, and brown leather boots. The man beside her had a mop of black hair and a scruffy brown suit. Was she really here with him? He looked like anyone. They were holding drinks and cigarettes and neither of them was talking, not to each other and not to anyone else. Then Mrs Hofmann moved out of my limited field of vision. The man remained for a few moments, gazing down into his glass. Then he followed her.

Thrilled at the sight of Mrs Hofmann in my home, and wanting to look at her for as long as possible, I crept out of my room and down the dim hallway towards the low orange light of the living room. The music from the stereo was very loud: a trumpet and the hectic clatter of drums. It reverberated in the hallway together with what sounded like a hundred shouting voices. There were probably only twenty people there, but it felt like a horde, and I knew, as I looked into the living room, that the night had reached some kind of peak. Nearly everybody was shouting or laughing. Some people were dancing wildly, shaking their heads to the trumpet blasts with sheens of sweat on their faces. Three men stood close together in intense discussion around the stereo, each gripping a record. I couldn't see Mum or Anders but I wasn't alarmed, the mood in the room was too happy to be worried about anything. Everyone was celebrating, or almost everyone. There on the couch, beside a man and woman kissing, sat Mrs Hofmann and her companion. Still and silent, they looked like they were waiting for the last bus on a cold night.

I woke up back in bed. Mum was sitting by my feet smoking a cigarette. The apartment was quiet. I shifted position, expecting her to turn, but she didn't react at all. I watched her face in the light from the sodium lamps on the neighbouring buildings, the ones that stayed on all night. She was almost expressionless, eyes staring. I decided she was thinking about Dad, or talking to him even. Letting him know how we were.

Those rare times we would talk about it she would only say it had all happened a long time ago, and that he loved me from up in heaven; then she would change the subject. She had a picture of him that she showed me, but only sparingly. I was so excited when she let me look at it, but I never asked her to; it seemed right that I shouldn't be able to see it whenever I wanted. It needed to be earned, albeit through some mysterious process I didn't understand.

When Mum died I expected to find more pictures of Dad in her things, but it really was the only one. I don't have it any more, but I can still remember every detail: black-and-white with a thin white border, unframed, and with a crease running across the top. Dad was sitting cross-legged on a jetty, bare-chested, wearing shorts and white plimsolls, squinting into the sun with one of those smiles that looks like pain. The smooth, black water behind him looked deep. I don't have any pictures of her, either.

The next day, after the party, it seemed wrong to ask Mum what she had been thinking about when she was sitting on my bed. It felt like something that would lose its power if we spoke about it. And then later, when she was diagnosed with cancer, of course it was forgotten. You think when death is approaching you'll get to ask all the big questions and tie up all the loose ends, but it wasn't like that for us. Mum went so quickly from being fine to being in great pain, and the medicine they gave her made her so sick. She was there, but she was veiled. When we were able to talk we talked about very ordinary things, things you don't remember afterwards. I wish I could remember just one of those conversations now.

* * *

Summer burned on. There were more parties, but if Mrs Hofmann came to them I didn't see her. Mum took me into Stockholm to get things for the new school year: exercise books, a pencil case, gym kit. She liked to do it early, weeks before anyone else. She worried that if she waited until later everything would be gone. I saw Nisse from time to time but we didn't speak, passing each other without comment or acknowledgement. He played war with the other boys, and devised unpleasant fates for insects he plucked from the flowerbeds, and ran around the buildings hitting the walls with sticks, while I sat and read: book after book, day after day.

Then several days passed during which I didn't see anyone. It seemed Nisse and the others had decided, for whatever reason, to play elsewhere. The lawn became my private kingdom. I was sitting there one day, in luxurious isolation, when a man approached me. It was Mr Fisk, the estate superintendent. He was a fat old man who spent most of his time smoking cigarettes and drinking brown bottles of beer in his cubbyhole.

'Little girl,' he said, 'can I ask you a question?'

I looked up at him. His square glasses shone with sunlight, white blocks that hid his eyes. He knelt down in front of me. He smelled like the apartment after a party, a complex and intriguingly adult smell.

'What's your name?' he said.

'Eva.'

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Mothers"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Chris Power.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Mother 1: Summer 1976
2. Above the Wedding
3. The Crossing
4. The Colossus of Rhodes
5. Mother 2: Innsbruck
6. The Haväng Dolmen
7. Run
8. Portals
9. Johnny Kingdom
10. Mother 3: Eva

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