What a Mother Sees // fiction

First published in The Ranfurly Review (Issue 17, 1st December 2011) //

Out there beside her are folding chairs with other bodies in them and bellies that move in/out. Some faster, some less desperate: guts of the father, innards of the grandmother, the grandfather. But she doesn’t like to think about those.

Chair abandoned, the kid flings the arms high and runs around wild and bold looking at them breathing and so on, saying rar rar rar and such like. There isn’t much for him, or anyone, at the table. But something keeps them glued there.

The lad occasionally cameos in the vision of his mother whilst on his rounds. She who rearranges new placemats to fit between grooves of the bench and her glass of red, not the only one on the table, sat out in a ground floor garden below a block of flats. And it’s just after lunch where the miniature tower of unfinished plates waits for her impatiently to be sparkling again. (These same plates will also shoot expectant glances at the visiting over-mother, though currently she is in the midst of a skirmish with the grandfather which, for the audience, is a comedy but for the combatants, slow murder). Out there in the garden are more tools and other clichés too, an unused barbecue in the shade, a tree that leans timid with years of thrashing wind, for example. It is all quite normal.

The kid halts his energetic parade halfway round a sandpit so sparsely filled that he can see the floor. He has realised that he has done himself in. Sounded the alarm in his nappy. He is of course still in his first stages. Talk, personal hygiene. The first stages before everything starts to go backwards.

The mother sees it in his eyes, she’s noticed.

She has recently developed the habit of comparing him to other children she knows (relations, godchildren, unknowns she sees day-to-day), the way they run and talk and she thinks, hopes, that this one’s better.

The other mothers sit in waiting rooms, underground trains, stealing looks at her and the quiet automatic child. They glance like those unclean plates of slow-cloud days, proving they too are responsible and worthy mothers, flashing eyes back and forth between reflection and readjusted fringe, grinning at judgemental strangers who feign interest during these long public trials, all gurning this way and that as if to say: “Kids, eh? Tuh.” Celebrating their little triumphs scored against the run of play. She ignores them mostly, this particular mother, offers the smallest of smiles because really she wants to be as far away from them as possible, those that time and age have melted into familiar expressions and identical patterns of mania. This is because she thinks herself different. And with this there is a certain sadness. For she is not.

Concerning the sullied undergarment, she realises the lad has taken this step slower than most. But that thought again: that he’ll do something no one’s ever seen before, something she can’t even begin to conceive or accept. A return on her investment. Perhaps the shit-filled nappy is a silent beacon of his rebellion. Nevertheless, this habit of comparison is to her something she thought she’d never do, and a disservice to them both as it is.

But when she sees the child sleep no comparisons need enter her mind. Perhaps he’ll be an astronaut and the whole episode with the diapers will be a humorous aside to an otherwise untarnished biography.

Back at the table, it’s a wide glass clean in her hand. She takes a pretend sip, tilting the hair back but nothing much rolls in. She doesn’t need the drink but it’s a convenient obstruction to the persistent gurgling of things around her. Her eyes go up to the Sun and just between that moment when the burn peels back the tissue, that’s when she catches a glimpse of him: someone else’s son.

Up above, estimate 3rd floor in a building across the way and just to the right, a young man moves outward from behind a window net, brushing it aside. He’s leant in his t-shirt and unwashed hair that stands aloof. He holds his elbows calmly on the ledge as if to say yes, the day is passed, what of it? Arms out as he looks across thankfully at a wall of bricked-up windows, staring shy and mute like a glassy-eyed fish at the thing. Drops of wine slip past her teeth as she watches, content to be hours behind the current of conversation.

This one lights a cigarette, or something short and white. Makes her feel for a cigarette too. But her son won’t be like that, she’s thinking. Won’t be at home in the daytime, snoring while awake and worn by soiled clothing standing intermittently in windows, dropping litter down into people’s gardens. The gardens of good hard-working honest people with the breath of hardboiled eggs and petroleum. He’ll be one to walk in straight lines, give money to the church, laugh at the right moments, wait for the man to turn green. Clap when others clap. He’ll leave 7 in the morning and be back 6 at night, living all and only in those hours, announcing his return when it’s time and standing there before the door, completely undone. Church on Saturday. Eggs for breakfast. Love on command. And sit hollow-eyed at Easter. Perhaps sing a few lines during the hymns but we won’t ask too much of him now. He’ll at least hold the book at the right page and move his lips like the others.

He won’t be some lazy knockabout unable to splutter a single sentence of expected pleasantry and he certainly won’t mumble or stutter in the way that he seems to be wanting to say a million things at once and unable to manage any of them. He’ll speak clearly, eloquent-like, and command a silent respect, even deference.

She feels the sneer of her thoughts tingle her lips and dwell in her nostrils. And if he were any of those hateful things, she would alternately blame him then herself for the breach of common decency, before finally resting the blame on something else entirely.

She looks at her son running circles around the seated bodies. If it weren’t for the constant chatter she’d hear his lively feet on the patio. She jangles keys at him with a prolonged sound that is something like affection. But he’s too grown for the old key trick. He snatches them with a tiny hand anyway and runs off into the house, giggling madly.

Her son will swear only twice in front of her, that is her prediction. When it’s happened she’ll let on that she’s forgotten but she’ll remember because it’ll only happen twice. Once at Christmas when he’s had too much to drink and he’s having a good time so she only gives him that confounded look often seen. His girlfriend will be there and look at him with the same look as his mother, but for a different reason. The look, however, is designed to be remembered. Both their faces in the quiet. The other time she can’t quite predict but she knows there’ll be another. Maybe something soft like ‘bastard’. Then he’ll run up the stairs embarrassed. They’ll have stairs by then, her husband promises.

When it’s night she gets out of bed remembering the dishes, but goes out on the patio instead, after she’s taken a tinkle and while the others sleep in their beds. She doesn’t flush. Now she feels for a cigarette and disregards the weak vow to her husband of already smoking the last one for the day. Then it’s the rest of the wine so she takes the bottle with the glass in a single hand from the counter. She steps outside and fills it with what’s left. The keys barely glint from the pit of sand. She doesn’t see them yet.

In the window he will be there smoking again and this time his hair will cut a sly outline in the yellow bulb light of what appears to be his kitchen. Has he learnt to cook yet? This is one of the questions important to her at the moment, one of the criteria for comparison. He puffs his own cloud on a day when they stand motionless.

Before the young man drops the smoke and before it drifts into a garden they both watch a car enter the courtyard, make a three-point turn and exit again. The figure ducks under the net and the light goes out. She is left with the big, half-eaten Holy Communion wafer in the sky. And her wine.

Someone will forgive him for what he does. If it isn’t his mother then it’ll be something else.

She goes back to bed and eases herself onto the mattress and the pillow, into the side of her foetal husband.

He will awake and ask her: Where have you been?

She realises she only has answers to these simple questions.

But perhaps they’ll get a dog and call it Huxley.

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