Violet and Silver came joint first in The Global Short Story Competion (UK) in September 2011.
I like the beach in winter, the cold air biting my naked toes, the water numbing them, like shoving both feet in a snow cone. People avoid the beach in winter. It’s a totally different place in January. School’s out, kids running into the soft blue ocean. Overweight mothers with angry tan lines, shouting, “Hey, Billy, look after yer sister.” “No, ya can’t have a bloody ice cream, Jocasta.”
In summer I come down here dressed in black with my hood up. My notebook clutched tightly to my chest. My note book has pictures of coloured kites on the cover, kites against a sharp blue sky. I write my thoughts in it, my feelings and my plans. Sometimes when my head and heart are empty I write what I hear. The clawing of the waves at the sand, the bickering of the gulls, what people say. “Oy! Nigel, d’ya want a Chinese burn?”
“No, I don’t pig-face.” And people call me the retard.
But in August it’s just me, my notebook and my frozen toes.
Mum has stopped asking me if I’m going to school. Before her words dribbled out like weary water. Now she is silent. The silence like empty boxes, all appearance and no weight. I should love her but I don’t. I despise her rheumy eyes and her stretchy polyester dresses. She still drinks, her relationship with discount cider goes back further than her relationship with me. I hate the odour that pours from her, her badly shaven armpits wetting the fabric of her dress and her washed out bra. She stinks there too. She’s hopeless. You’d have thought giving birth to a fuck-up like me would’ve stopped her drinking. But everyday she seeks solace in nowhere land earlier and earlier. These days I can hear her brain screaming for me to leave at 8.00am, my pretence of taking the bus to school going over her head. She doesn’t spot the clues, how I’m not wearing the uniform. My saggy bag contains only one book and a pack of cigarettes. I leave and I know she opens the bottle and pours it into her special glass. The one I bought back from a school trip to Newcastle a long time ago. ‘World’s Greatest Mum!’
Mrs Ellis from junior school told me I was special, that I could sense things others couldn’t. “You’re as smart as anyone else, Luke. You’re just wired differently.”
She didn’t re-assign me to the remedial class, she let me stay in my grade. When things got too much I could sit at the back of the class and sort the play figures Mrs Ellis had put in a drawer. Pirates and soldiers, kings and queens in plastic ermine and furs. I found it hard to concentrate sometimes and my head became muddy, the words fuzzy. Mrs Ellis understood and because she did, all the other kids played with me. They didn’t think I was weird. Because of Mrs Ellis, who smelt of roses.
On my tenth birthday mum was too drunk to bake a cake for my class celebration. Mrs Ellis baked one instead. Double chocolate with a smiley face made out of jelly snakes and smarties. It was soon after this that Mrs Ellis’s smell started to change. It was more talcum powder and her breath became metallic. Not like the angry metal of mum’s breath, it was different. Her tummy became round and when Mrs Ellis left she gave me her phone number written on a blue piece of paper. It said, ‘Nina 0407 629333. Call me if you need a friend’.
She came back with the baby but I pulled a sickie so I missed her. I liked her too much to put a fuck-up like me onto her happy life. I still miss her.
All that was years ago. I’m in high school, year 10. I guess I’ll give up at the end of the year. There’s not much more they can teach me. I know how to roll a joint and survive on a dole cheque. I could get a job packing shelves at ExpressShop, night work. They pay pretty well and it would leave time during the day to come down here and write about stuff. Mum used to work at ExpressShop but they binned her when she turned up drunk one day. The manager, Mr Banks, asked me to come and walk her home. “Sorry, Luke. She’s getting too much.” He felt sorry for me, I reckon he’d give me a job.
I don’t feel sorry for myself, things are what they are. Sometimes I’m sorry for her. I remember before I started school and she didn’t drink during the day. She was young, her smooth face and bleached hair were beautiful to me. She smelt of cherry lip gloss and strawberry shampoo. She took me to the play park. She’d sit in the middle of the roundabout and I tried to push her around. She’d laugh. It’s been years since I heard that laugh. And of course she brought me here, to the beach. She taught me how to skim stones when the water was flat. She’d tell me of her dreams to fly to another country where the colours were brighter and the language foreign. She tried to make curry but it turned to black paste in the bottom of the pan, the acrid smell filling our noses. We laughed and she talked. Of any place but here.
Something happened to her face over the years. It thickened and became hard. An alcoholic mask. It isn’t pretty. She’s slipped down so low I don’t think she’ll ever climb back up. I don’t know what goes on in her damaged brain, all I know is that I wasn’t enough for her.
It’s getting late. I watch the change in the air as daylight fades. It’s colder, but it’s thinner too. And the colours; chocolate box pink meets fountain pen blue. The sea becomes milk which is drunk by the greedy shoreline and sand the colour of goblets. She’ll be passed out now. I’ll make myself beans on toast and take a book to bed. My favourite book, a travel book with sparkling photographs of India. I got it from the library, it smells frowsty.
The door is open when I get home and there’s a strong smell of vomit. Mrs Pritchard from next door stands in the doorway – a worried frown wearing a housecoat. “Luke! Where have you been? I rang the school.”
“What’s happened?” Ice runs through my veins.
“It’s your mum, love. Come on, I’ll drive you to the hospital.”
“Mrs Pritchard…” My voice doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to a little man in a racing car, driving too fast.
Mrs Pritchard puts a hand on my arm. “Luke, your mum had a heart attack this afternoon.”
Is she dead, is she dead? I see the fear in Mrs P’s eyes. Is she scared of me, of what I might do? I’ve seen that look before in my teacher’s eyes and the mothers of my few friends. But never in my mum’s eyes. Not even when I got caught nicking cash out of the principal’s desk.
“I phoned 20 minutes ago. She’s critical but stable for the moment. They have to make sure she doesn’t have another one.”
The hospital is ablaze with lights. I can feel them burning my skin, my eyes. Mum is lying down with electrodes over her chest. She is wearing one of those hospital gowns, like the one she had worn when she’d had me. There’s an old Polaroid in a tin in the sideboard. Mum smiling at the camera, holding a baby. The smile reaches her eyes. We are both wearing blue hospital gowns. I never asked who took that photo, there were a lot of things I didn’t think to ask.
Mum isn’t smiling now and neither am I. Mrs P has disappeared but I can hear her voice, a low murmuring, talking to a nurse or a doctor. I take one of mum’s hands in mine. It isn’t soft or well looked after. It doesn’t have painted nails like Mrs Ellis had. But it’s my mum’s hand and I don’t ever want to let it go.
Although the lights are low and it is deathly quiet I start to tell her about the beach. The colours and the people, the subtle changes of time and season. Of how most people just see a golden beach and the blue sea but if you look between those colours you can see violet and silver.
When the words dried up, I look at her face. The lines have been ironed out and with a shock I remember that she is still a young woman. Her name is Mary and she never knew her parents. She had been raised in a children’s home. She tried to tell what went on there but she could never finish as she gave way to sobbing. I don’t want her to die without having known happiness. I will try to be a better son, if there is another chance. I’ll spend more time with her, I’ll help at home. Make sure she’s eating.
A young nurse appears, hair scraped back off a face without make-up. “Don’t stop. It will calm her, hearing your voice.”
When my head and heart are empty I take out my notebook from under my jacket and I read to mum, my thoughts, my feelings and my plans. I think of the beach where I had hidden from her, where I pray I can take her again as she had taken me, a long time ago.