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November 2008, Monday
By the time I've walked back to Clapham Junction it's dark. A bitter wind cuts through the crowd on the platform, but that's not why I'm shaking. I pull out my mobile and dial Hove. 'Dad,' I say.
'Mark.' His surprise crackles in my ear.
'Nice to hear you. It's been a —'
'Dad, I've something to tell you.'
I imagine him at the window of his flat, looking out at a turbulent sea. The phone's clamped to my cheek. 'She's dead,' I say.
I hear his intake of breath, but his words are drowned by the station announcement. '... seventeen twenty-one ... calling at Vauxhall and London Waterloo.'
He wants to know how, of course. I close my eyes, breathing short, difficult breaths. It's a joke in bad taste. My brain can't bypass the words, so I'm blurting them out. 'She fell under a bus.'
'What?' he says.
'Whitehall. This morning. Not looking.'
'Oh — no —'
'St Thomas's rang me. I went there, I saw her, and now,' I'm choking, 'now her house, Dad — it's as if she's due back any minute —'
'I'm so sorry, Mark.'
I stall. Sorry. The word's wrong. I need him to protest. To tell me this isn't happening.
'Are you?' I say.
'Of course. Terribly sorry.'
For me he means, not for her. He ran out on her twenty-five years ago when I was small. The old anger surges. Useless.
'Mark, are you all right? Where are you?'
'On my way home. Look ... Dad ... Train's here. Got to go.'
I snap the phone shut, panicking, staring around me, trying to shut out the image of Mum on the mortuary table. Not true. A mistake. As the train draws in and pulls to a halt, a child is taking me over: a lost little boy who if he weren't shivering in this press of strangers would burst into tears. She will surely come soon and find me.
I've just been to her little two-up-two-down house along by the railway line, but she wasn't there. Only last night the place was crammed with people, partying, celebrating her birthday. I'd taken along a Best of the 80s CD, and I watched her dance with her mates, more like thirty-six than fifty-six, a glass of wine in one hand, half a poppadum in the other, hair flopping in her eyes, singing along to Cyndi Lauper. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Two hours ago when I eased open the front door there was no music, no dancing, just a faint smell of curry. Everything was as she'd left it this morning, the CDs piled by the player in the kitchen, her scuffed trainers on the hall floor, a stack of ironing in the living room that she must have hidden out of sight for the party. Upstairs, a crumpled towel on the landing, the cap off the toothpaste, some bills and scribbled notes beside the laptop in the back-bedroom-turned-study. And then in her bedroom a nightdress, a hairbrush, a paperback face down and the sleepy old cat waking and yawning. Beside the bed were two photographs of me, one as a baby being lifted from a bath, the other taken with Gina and Matilda on Brighton beach this summer. Big smiles.
If I had touched nothing, told no one, all might still be well.
Passengers stream from the carriage, and the crowd surges forward, carrying me with it. I'm in among the winter coats, the averted eyes, the flapping Evening Standards, the ears white-wired to iPods, the mixed smells of damp people wishing themselves at home. I'm big, a head taller than most, but inside right now I'm small and scared.
For a long while I sat at the top of Mum's stairs looking down at the mosaic of coloured floor tiles. Through the wall came sounds of kids home from school: a shriek, a laugh, a woman's raised voice. I got to my feet and went down the stairs slowly. Stood a while in the hall, looking at Mum's raincoat hanging on a hook.
At Waterloo I'm stumbling from the train and with the crowds down into the Tube, following the Jubilee signs, and soon I'm on another packed platform, watching another train roll up and open its doors. So many people streaming off, pushing on. Mum is surely still out here somewhere if only I knew where to look.
I'm kidding myself. She's gone.
In her house the silence was rising like floodwater. I couldn't breathe. I dumped the bag of her things the hospital had given me on the kitchen table and fled along the hall to the street, pulling the door shut behind me. I had to fight to get control of my face and my voice before ringing the bell next door.
The neighbour was shocked, kind, sympathetic. Of course she would have the cat. We went back and fetched him.
My feet drag as I turn into our street in Kilburn. Gina told me to pack up and get out this morning, and part of me was ready to leap at the chance. The dilemma feels blurred now, as though it concerns someone else.
The entranceway, shared with the bookie, is littered with fag ends and betting slips, and there's the usual stink of piss and cider. Matilda hears the turn of my key and comes hurtling downstairs, so fast I'm afraid she'll tumble. 'Daddy! Daddy!'
'Hi, Little.' I sweep her up for a hug, warm and alive. Her tangled red hair smells of chlorine.
'Daddy, I can do the doggy paddle.' She demonstrates in my arms, twisting onto her stomach so I stagger, nearly dropping her.
'Without wings? Without me holding you?'
She flails arms and legs. 'I took my toes off the bottom, and Miss Barrett said I was swimming. I only swallowed a little bit, and I kept my eyes open.'
'Good for you, Matty.'
As I set her down, she squeals with excitement, displaying the gap in her front teeth. She's perpetually astonishing: the whole reason I stay. The red hair, the freckles, the green eyes are mine; the curls and a smatter of genteel Americanisms come from Gina.
The stairway above us hums with toxic vibes. I'm reluctant to climb, but Matilda plants her palms on the seat of my jeans and shoves me upwards. Does she know something's wrong? Gina and I have been waiting until she's out of earshot to hiss and whisper at each other, but she must sense the atmosphere.
'Can I have a bicycle for Christmas?'
I'm not falling for this one. 'Have you asked Mommy?'
My head clears the banister rail, and I'm looking into the galley kitchen, where my wife, still in the monogrammed fleece from the bookshop she works in, stands sideways on, jaw rigid, her hair scraped back in a scrunchy, savagely peeling a potato.
The wall clock shows nearly six, and I remember it's Monday, my half-day, no afternoon class. I should have been here by two-thirty, should have made the tea. My phone's been switched off. She probably thought that I'd left her.
I need to tell her straightaway about Mum. I'm opening my mouth to ask for a moment alone, but —
'Santa will bring me a bicycle,' shouts Matilda. She seizes my hand and runs around me so I rotate on the landing, turning my head like a dancer to keep looking at Gina, trying to catch her eye.
She glares at the potato. 'She's been at me from the minute I picked her up.'
I disentangle myself and step closer, willing her to look up.
Matilda leaps at me, knocking me off balance. 'It's thirty-one sleeps to Christmas!'
She's using me now as a climbing frame. 'Matty, please don't. I need to talk to —'
'Fifty-two sleeps to my birthday!' She dangles by her knees from my arms.
Gina shakes her head helplessly. 'I haven't sat down all day, and then she wouldn't take off her coat until I'd worked out the sleeps.'
'Stop calling her "she".'
'Stop dodging the issue. Have you been with Alison?'
She looks at me at last, her eyes hard and angry, the peeler in her hand like a weapon.
'Who's Alison?' says Matilda.
'No one,' we both say.
Still upside down, Matilda sings tunelessly.
'No, I haven't,' I say.
A snort. 'You expect me to believe that?'
Matilda's the right way up again, smacking my stubble with her palms. 'Naughty Daddy.'
'Quit it, Matilda,' says Gina. 'Give me a goddamn break.' She meets my eyes over Matilda's head. 'She's ADHD, Mark.'
'She's not, nothing like it. Please stop saying that. She's just a bit charged. There's no space, we can't swing a cat, so we fight, she rampages.'
'Miaow!' Matilda is loud in my face. 'Can we have a cat, Daddy?'
'Be quiet, for Pete's sake.' Gina furiously attacks another potato. When Matilda carries on miaowing, she closes her eyes. 'Give. Me. A. Break.'
I beg Matilda to shush, and she does for a moment. Gina shoots me a look of despair. 'Five minutes ago it was a bicycle.'
'Can I have a bicycle, Daddy, please, please? It can live on the stairs.'
'How many times, Matty, no!' Gina yells. 'There's no room. We'll fall over it. There's nowhere to ride it. We don't have the money, okay?'
'We might have the money,' I say.
She flings the potato in the sink and swivels to face me square on. 'How dare you? Can't you see what she's doing?'
Matilda slithers down my body and runs into the living room. 'I'm not HD,' she shouts. 'I could swing the cat in here. I would look after it properly and feed it, I promise.'
'I mean it,' I say quietly. 'We might have the money.'
Gina's mouth is pinched as if she's holding pins in it. Quickly, speak. 'Mum was killed this morning, crossing the road.'
She frowns, not sure if I'm joking.
'I've been at the hospital, the undertaker, Mum's house. That's why I'm late.'
A tug comes at my elbow. 'Granny Jonnson?'
God, what have I done? My child's face is blank with dismay. I fall to my knees, seize her hand.
She's staring at me. 'Is Granny all right?'
I'm this little girl's father. A grown up. I have to find the right words. 'I'm so sorry, Matty,' I say, 'but the sad thing, the really sad thing that should never have happened is Mum was on her way to work, nearly there, crossing the road to her office, and she didn't look properly, didn't check — you know how you always should check? She stepped off the pavement, and ... and a bus was coming ... and the bus ...'
Even for my child it seems I can't soften the truth.
Gina bends over us, her hand on my shoulder. 'The bus hit her, honey, and Granny died. Her body stopped working, and now she's in heaven.'
Matilda's green eyes are open as wide as they'll go.
'She didn't feel any pain,' I tell her. 'She wasn't hurt or frightened.'
That's what the doctor said as he led me to identify the body. Knocked unconscious, he said.
'Will her body work again?'
My throat clogs. I shake my head. Gina squeezes my shoulder and says, 'She's very happy in heaven.'
Matilda withdraws her hand from mine, then brings it up in a fist as if she would hit me.
She begins to wail. 'I won't see her. I wanted to go to her birthday, and now I won't see her.'
'It's okay. It's okay.' Meaningless, but what else is there to say? And I'm trying to hug her, but she refuses to be hugged. Her wails mutate into howls.
Gina has her fleece off and wrapped round Matilda. 'Don't worry, hon,' she says, rocking her. 'Granny didn't mind that you weren't at her birthday.'
Gradually she quietens as Gina carries on talking and soothing. Gina's Connecticut accent is softly convincing. It had me falling for her, way back at the start. It mesmerises the kids at the bookshop when she hops up on her stool and starts reading a story. But the thought nagging at my mind is how yesterday, in this same, relentless, soft accent, Gina backed Matilda's preference for tea with a school friend over a 'duty trip to her grandma'.
I stand up, observing the curve of Gina's arm around Matilda, the corkscrew wisps that have come loose from the scrunchy, the knobs of her spine showing through the Vassar College sweatshirt.
'There's tons to do,' I say, hearing the chill in my voice. 'There'll be an inquest, but they're releasing the body. The hospital put me on to the undertaker, and he's talked me through everything. I have to go to the registrar. Then there's notifying people, sorting out a solicitor, planning the service. I'll take tomorrow off work.'
She straightens to face me, holding Matilda close. 'I'm so sorry, Mark.'
Our eyes lock. She looks scared. Part of me wants to shout, Like hell you are.
'It's not your fault,' I say.
'Why did you go there?' she whispers later.
'Why did you go to Nancy's house?'
It's dark in the bedroom. We lie side by side, naked but not touching. Matilda's asleep in the other room.
'I went to the undertaker first.'
'But then to your mother's.'
'I don't know. It was only ten minutes' walk. The cat, I suppose. The neighbours have taken him.'
'It seems weird to me. I think you're in shock.'
I wish she would stop talking. She's been asking about what happened — the call at work, the taxi to St Thomas's, what the doctor said, what I saw — and I've been mumbling answers. So I'm lying here, looking at the patterns the orange streetlamp is making on the curtains, hearing a distant siren and remembering Mum on the mortuary table, when I feel Gina's hand on my chest.
'All this stuff ...' she says huskily.
I say nothing. She snuggles up under the duvet, the soft weight of her breasts on my arm.
'I mean Alison.' The name pains her. She pauses. 'All of this fighting we've been doing.'
Her hand goes down to my limp cock, which she hasn't touched in two weeks.
'I mean, this is a wake-up call, isn't it? A chance to see what's important.'
She falls silent, stroking me, and I'm wondering what she thinks is important. Our fragile mortality? Mum's money? My cock?
'Matilda,' she whispers. 'You and me.'
I don't want this, not now, it feels wrong, but she's getting me going. She rubs her cheek on my shoulder, and I'm turning to face her, putting my arms round her. We cling for a moment, and then she's clambering on top of me. Straddling me, tickling my face with her dark curls that smell of shampoo, and I'm feeling the kindness of it as she kisses me and guides me in.
I come quickly, and for a while we lie still. I want to be comforted; I want to feel close to her, but it isn't happening. I'm thinking of the verbal abuse she's been dishing out, which okay I've deserved, but this morning when she told me to leave it felt like an option, a kind of relief, and when she lifts her head and looks at me now I don't know what I feel. My head's in a mess; all I can think of is Mum.
I roll out from under, reaching for a tissue. Her hands follow me, stroking my back, and all at once it's too much. I'm out of bed, escaping the room —'Where are you going?' she says — and I'm across the landing into the kitchen, where I slam open a cupboard, grab a glass, screw the cap off the Smart Price whisky and pour myself a slug.
Jesus, Mum, you were dancing, tipsily showing off to your mates on your birthday, and then, bam, knocked out. You were wearing green nailpolish; did the bus mess that up? What was under the mortuary sheet? Were you squelched by a wheel, your guts all over Whitehall?
Her face was okay, I tell myself. The bus didn't smash up her face.
I've swallowed the whisky, and I'm back on the landing with horror jabbing in my brain. And I can't stand to be with Gina, and I can't risk showing this confusion to Matilda, asleep in the living room, and sure as shit Gina will come looking for me, and I'm damned if I'm going to hide in the bathroom. I feel huge. Caged. This pokey flat can't contain me. I duck back into the bedroom, shutting my ears to her voice, grabbing my clothes, stuffing a few things into the rucksack. I get dressed on the landing.
She comes out of the bedroom, her mouth still moving, her eyes flashing anger. I shake my head. I take keys, wallet, coat, and I leave.
In less than an hour I'm back on Mum's doorstep, turning the key and stumbling inside, anxious to find her whisky bottle.
But then, smooth and swift, there's something in the house that calms me. Beneath the curry a more persistent smell of home. Behind the silence a sense of belonging and safety. She just popped out. She'll be back soon.
I find the single malt in a cupboard, her best tumblers in another. I pour two generous measures, add water to both and carry them into the living room. I shift the ironing from the armchair, as she would do, and sit down. I lift a glass, clink it against the other and drink a silent toast to my mum.CHAPTER 2
There's a god-awful buzzing, a sick lurch in my skull. A digital clock face shows 5.59, and I clutch at it until the racket stops.
Memory kicks in. I've spent the night in Mum's bed. I didn't want to — smashed though I was, I couldn't bear the idea of crawling between sheets that smelled of her — but the settee downstairs wasn't long enough, and the sofa bed in the back-bedroom-turned-study refused to unfold — the desk got in the way — so I was left with no choice. On the floor is the heap of sheet and duvet cover I managed to strip from the bed before crashing.
I'm seeing her again in the mortuary. Her hair combed back from her forehead, showing the grey roots. Her eyelashes. Her eyes that don't open. I throw myself belly down, smother my breath in the pillow and imagine her eyes opening, her face waking. Peek-a-boo.
For a while I can't move, can't allow time to go forward.
Matilda. I need my little girl. I roll off the bed onto my knees and fumble for the lamp. The light attacks me, I can barely see, but between blinks there she is, in the gilt frame by the clock radio, in her sundress with cherries, on the beach at Brighton, holding an ice lolly. On one side of her Gina leans in close, wearing a swimsuit, her curls loose and wild. On the other sits a man who last summer was me. His freckles are belligerent pink. His red hair sticks up from his scalp as though it's seeking the sun.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "OZ"
Copyright © 2014 Bobbie Darbyshire.
Excerpted by permission of Cinnamon Press.
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
November 2008, Monday,
December 2008, Wednesday,
New Year's Eve,
January 2009, Saturday,
November 2009, Tuesday,