My mother’s kitchen wall was singed black, with strange clouded shapes gusting up from her microwave.
‘She put paper in it.’ The police officer scowled like it was my fault.
‘Why would she do that?’ He rolled his eyes, and clicked his tongue instead of answering. I hated him and his judgemental face, but the black wall was disturbing and there was nowhere else to look. Everything smelt like burnt dirt.
My mother’s voice floated from the bedroom.
‘I’ll stay with my daughter, she has a lovely place and I’ve never been there before.’
It was not lovely. It was a one-bedroom flat with leaky plumbing that cost my entire salary now that my boyfriend had dropped me. I’d been too embarrassed to call Mum. It had been months since we had had any contact. I presumed my brother was taking care of her, but there was something unused about the house. A fug in the air, too much dust.
Mum was sitting on her bed, speaking to a young officer. Female officers must always get the job of reminding distraught old ladies to pack extra underwear.
‘I don’t have much room in my place,’ I said, and realised too late that it was not a greeting. I should have said hello, and asked how she was. ‘There’s probably no room for Carl.’
Mum looked away, and it was the police officer who answered. ‘Your brother is in Thailand.’
‘Oh, of course, I forgot.’ The police woman didn’t believe me. They must be trained to spot liars. ‘He’s having a great time, apparently,’ I continued inanely as she stared at me, and Mum stared at her feet. ‘Well, we should probably take some groceries with us.’
‘We can go shopping tomorrow,’ Mum said. She should have told me about Carl leaving.
‘I have to work tomorrow.’ The police woman scowled, just like her judgemental colleague. ‘I can’t take more time off,’ I said. ‘It was hard enough getting here today.’
When the police officer had phoned the café, Tom had laughed, presuming I was in trouble. Yesterday, he had caught me sneaking leftover food into my bag. He didn’t care—he wasn’t the boss—but he thought it was foul. Even so, at lunchtime today he had let me sit the first-date straight couple in my section. First dates were the best. They ordered too much food—the women pretending to have a great appetite and the men pretending they could afford it all. It equalled leftovers galore for me.
There was half a sandwich in my bag right now. It had thick ham and drizzles of tomato chutney, with that strange spice I couldn’t place. I had been looking forward to eating it after my shift.
‘How long until she can come back?’ I asked. It was out of concern, it really was, but the police woman tsked like I was a child being rude.
‘The kitchen is unsafe. She shouldn’t stay somewhere without a kitchen.’
‘But it’s her house, she owns it, so if she wanted to come back before it was fully fixed—’ I stopped speaking. The woman was looking at me like I was a monster, and Mum seemed to be crying.
‘Don’t cry, Mum, you can stay with me, it’s fine. But you’ll have more space here, even without a kitchen.’ The police officer looked down at my mother, perched on the end of her bed, and it was that—looking down—that pulled my attention. My mother was tiny. She could have slept sideways on her bed and not reached the edges at all. Her bedsheets were grey and limp.
‘I’ll see what I can find to take with us,’ I said and left her sniffling while trying to squeeze a pair of soft slip-on shoes—the ones that are kind to bunions—into her overnight case. At least she was only bringing an overnight case.
The other police officer was on his phone in the kitchen. He was staring at the wall, but not like it was interesting. He hung up when he saw me. I shuffled past, wishing he would stop watching me, and opened a cupboard.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Taking some food with me.’
‘There’s nothing here.’ He said it like I was an idiot for thinking there would be food in my mother’s house, but I looked anyway. There was a packet of beef stock cubes, but the paper sachet inside had only a fine sprinkling of powder. The next cupboard had some greenish onion skin in it. Had my dolt of a brother cleaned the place out? I’d missed some calls from him a few weeks earlier. I’d been at work and hadn’t called him back. A bagpiper had set up residence in the building across from the café, and I had had a pounding headache all day. I sent him a text, but he never replied. I probably should have called my mother. I had thought about it, every time that bagpiper started playing. That wheezy brassy sound always reminded me of Mum. She used to play a Scottish Christmas album on repeat from Halloween onward. That was probably why I’d been out of sorts: listening to those bagpipes conjured feelings of Christmas, and it was only August.
The final cupboard had nothing in it, not even a crumb, like it had been swept clean. It still had that musty smell of old bread though, and my stomach pulled savagely. I’d only had tea all day. It was free at the café, and usually kept me full until I could eat my leftovers. Working with food while you have nothing to eat yourself is some kind of cruel punishment. I tried not to hate our customers, but still took some satisfaction in knowing I had tea breath all day. Maybe if it put them off their food, they would leave more on their plates for me to scrape into my bag.
‘So, can we go?’ I asked the man. He was looking at me with distaste, like I had fashioned the mouldy onion skin into a necklace.
‘Sure, just don’t let her cook,’ he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it sounded like a joke so I laughed. He scowled. Maybe that was just his face. ‘No, seriously. I don’t want a call to come round your flat in an hour because she’s so hungry she put fucking newspaper in the microwave again.’
I stared at the microwave. It was crumpled and black, I couldn’t tell what had been in it.
‘I didn’t know it was newspaper. I thought you just meant wrapping, or something.’ He shook his head, slowly, delighting in my shock. ‘But—’ I stopped as Mum appeared in the doorway.
‘Are we going now?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, let’s go.’ I took the bag from the police woman. It was light, like it was full of air. Like Mum’s possession had no weight to them.
I showed Mum into my room, and put her bag on the chair. ‘I’ll change the sheets in a bit.’
She nodded. She was sucking her cheeks and looking around, her eyes dim. I didn’t know what she was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Holey carpet. A chipped wardrobe and sagging bed. Half the light bulbs in the flat weren’t working. Everything was dim. I hated it more now she was there.
‘Come on, I’ll make us a cup of tea.’
Emerging from the kitchen with our mugs five minutes later, and she was hunched on the couch. She smiled, as though pleased to see me, but her mouth wobbled, the corners behaving strangely. It had been a traumatic day. I wished I had a biscuit for her at least, instead of endless tea.
I passed her the mug. Her fingers had shrunk so that her knuckles bulged like strange growths on stalks too fragile to carry them. Her head was bent over so she could blow on the tea, and when I sat beside her, she barely reached my shoulder. Her skin looked different too: looser, greyer. Had all this happened in just the few months since I had seen her? Carl always complained about how much work it was to take care of her, but I thought he was exaggerating. He’d been asking me to help for a year, but twelve months ago Owen and I had moved into this place. I’d been distracted. Maybe I should have checked what he meant by ‘taking care’ of her.
I wanted to ask about her money, she should have had more than enough to live on. But Carl was in charge of that, too. A sickness began to spread through my gut; I needed to consume something other than tea.
‘Are you hungry, Mum?’ I asked, and her eyes whipped up to my face, suddenly bright.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind a bit of something, if you have it.’
I mentally scanned the cupboards in the kitchen. Baked beans. I had some tinned soup, but it looked like that’s all she had been eating anyway, until today’s experiment with the newspaper. I wanted to give her something substantial, something with nutrients and fat to boost those tiny fingers and give her skin back some vibrancy.
‘I’ll find something,’ I said. I took my handbag to the kitchen and fished out the leftover sandwich. I wanted to eat it. All that tea was making me nauseous. I sniffed it, and pulled the bread apart. Real butter. A thick slice of fresh ham, a centimetre thick. It had that crisp, almost metallic, meat smell. The salad leaves were slightly crumpled, but the tomato chutney—with real chunks of tomato—made up for it. The colour was so vibrant it screamed health. My mouth started to water. She didn’t know I had it, I could find something else for her. I wrapped it tightly and opened the fridge, prepared to deposit it on one of the empty shelves. But then I stopped.
My mother had a fire in her flat. My mother had a fire in her flat, today. She could have been hurt, or killed. Her lungs might still be filled with smoke, did they even check that? Why hadn’t I asked? And why had Carl just left without telling me? I shut the fridge and put the wrapped sandwich back on the sticky counter. Since the cleaning spray had run out I’d been using hot water, but the juice from last night’s baked beans had solidified and the water had not been hot enough, or I had been careless.
I opened the paper wrapping again. The sandwich, which just seconds before had looked delicious, was suddenly pathetic. I wanted to feed her a roast dinner, with fat potatoes that burst with steam, carrots covered in honey, stuffing perfumed with herbs. I wanted to feed her until the flesh came back to her bones and her mind returned to its sharp self. She had put paper in the microwave. How hungry had she been? Why hadn’t she told me? I could have given her some of the money from the sale of my car. It hadn’t even occurred to me, she had never been short of cash before. But of course, she didn’t know I had sold the car. She didn’t know about Owen leaving me. I’d used the money to raise my rent out of arrears, but I could have moved in with her, and used it to feed us both instead.
I cut the sandwich in half, carefully, so as not to disturb the already-disturbed innards. I leaned one half against the other, like we did at work. I took a packet of corn chips from the cupboard and added a handful to the side of the sandwich. Then, I filled a glass with water and ice cubes. It looked delicious, but it wasn’t enough. She had tried to eat newspaper, and I was giving her half a used sandwich.
‘Jessie.’ Mum was at the door to the kitchen, her hands holding the door jamb as though her legs couldn’t support her weight. Her eyes flicked to the plate, and widened in delight. ‘Oh Jessie, is that for me? That looks wonderful!’ Her mouth was open, so eager was she to eat, and her fingers came away from the wall, as though begging for the plate.
‘I’ll carry it, Mum. You sit down.’ But she didn’t move, and her eyes stayed on the food, as though she couldn’t bare not to be in the same room as it. The cruel part of me imagined eating it myself, as she looked on. She was so small, there would be nothing she could do.
I took the plate in one hand, the glass in the other, and walked towards her. Finally she turned, and shuffled back to the couch, her head cocked like a badly-trained spy so she could watch the progress of the food.
When I gave it to her, her breath shook in her throat with excitement. She ran a finger along the exposed line of ham, and put the finger to her lips. Her eyes closed involuntarily, and she sighed. Then, with sudden ferocity, she grabbed one half of the sandwich and bit through it, grinning at me. Crumbs fell into her cupped hand, she wasn’t wasting a single scrap.
The sound of her chewing increased my nausea, and I snuck a corn chip from her plate. Her eyes flashed, momentarily, like an animal guarding a carcass, and I imagined feeding her, day after day. Like she had done for me. Carl hadn’t lasted twelve months, would I be any better? I snuck another corn chip and finished my tea.
ALISON THERESA GIBSON grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and now lives in Birmingham, UK. In 2018, she placed second in the Winchester Writer’s Festival short story competition. She has been published in Meanjin, Scrittura, Pif, and has work upcoming in Mechanics’ Institute Review and Riggwelter Press. She is writing her third-time-lucky novel while working at University College London. You can find her online @AlisonTheresa87 and alisontheresa.com