This excerpt from a short story of mine was published recently in the Write Around Queensland e-book of pieces no longer than 1000 words.
Ellen’s footsteps echoed along the corridor overlooking the courtyard which wasn’t bathed in sunlight but the distant lukewarm glow of a London afternoon. The town planners had thought to call it ‘Lincoln Fields’. There were no fields and Lincoln was a good three hours drive away. Trees were planted in tiny soil circles and imprisoned by concrete, much the same as her mother who had been imprisoned here since she was a young vibrant woman. Ellen had escaped – unemployment, drug abuse, spotty teenage mothers with ugly howling babies at their hips, soiled nappy smells and rough cut tobacco. Ellen’s hair looked different to her old friends on the estate. She had acquired a sheen, whereas the estate girl’s hair clumped and matted.
She nodded at Chantelle or Jazmyne, she could never tell one estate girl from another. Ellen’s expensively tailored suit and French perfume were a world away from the girl’s sweat shop acrylics. She didn’t feel proud here, she felt embarrassed. If her mother hadn’t raised her to appreciate beauty she would be trolling up and down those corridors in flip-flops and fake designer-wear herself.
Ellen tried the key in the door; it caught in the lock. She must get that seen to – one day it would refuse to budge and her mother would be trapped forever.
“Haven’t seen your mum for a few days, Elle.”
Chantelle was still there, breathing instant coffee fumes in her face. Her unwashed hair hung in strips like flypaper. Ellen felt guilt tapping on her bones, a light tapping, a tiny hammer like the one that broke the toffee at Christmas. She should come more often. Chantelle slunk away and cold lack blew from her childhood home as Ellen crouched over the letterbox. “Mum? It’s me; I’ll use my key. Don’t get up.” A couple of visits ago Ellen had waited at the door while her mum shuffled up the hallway. A broken ankle, swollen three times its normal size.
“I did it dancing,” her mother had laughed. It was a lie of course; it had been years since Linda had gone dancing. More likely she had fallen on the wet linoleum in the bathroom. Those horrible woolly mats she had down didn’t have a non-slip rubber underside. What with a leaky shower and the lack of damp proofing it wasn’t just the floors that sweated, it was the walls too. There had been a time when her mum loved to dance. She’d go up West to the clubs with Queenie. Like most of her mum’s friends they didn’t stick around for long. It didn’t help that Linda constantly talked about a more beautiful life: packing it all up in one of those fancy suitcases and pushing the key through the letterbox on her way out; moving to somewhere on the continent where she would work hard and enjoy the sun; meeting a rich man with a yacht big enough to do the Tango on. Linda had dark, exotic looks; no one was quite sure where they came from.
She would tell Ellen of her dreams but the girl had worked out early on that her mother hadn’t included her in her plans. “Of course you’d be around, Elle, but men don’t like snotty children hanging about now do they?” When Linda went dancing she forgot she even had a child. Ellen was left to mind herself. Linda’s babysitting money was taken up with cabs into town. Drinks, not covered by Linda’s meagre budget, were readily provided by shady men. At home, when it got dark, seven-year-old Ellen would turn all the lights on, the telly up loud for company and squeeze under her bed, clutching a bear won at the fairground. A tall man with a strange accent had shot a couple of plastic ducks and won it for her. He was the closest she’d come to a father but her memories of even him were sketchy and hard to pin down. Linda had never told her real father that she existed, which seemed harsh in the world she lived now. “How can he not know?” Daniel, Ellen’s boyfriend, had asked her.
Linda had moved out of her violent family home and been given a small council flat on account of her pregnancy. It was the first space all of her own before she gave birth to Ellen who was, by all accounts, a small, sickly infant. Linda had been embarrassed that her child’s screams could be heard through paper-thin walls but she was too proud to apologise. She had painted those walls in bright colours that were looked upon with distrust by the few friends she brought home. There was something too vibrant about her, as if she belonged somewhere else, somewhere foreign. Ellen was fair but had good bone structure and she was tall. Linda held a stray memory of the good looking stranger who wore a smart grey suit as she pressed up against him in a doorway behind the brewery in Kings Cross. Linda thought he possessed more than a passing resemblance to her daughter.
Ellen leaned down to the chair and slid her Chanel covered lips across her mother’s papery cheek. She tried not to recoil. Her mum’s wrinkles were deepening and the layers of skin seemed to separate, taking air between them like small pillows. Linda was dressed in a shapeless, grey dress and a sad blue cardigan into which she seemed to be shrinking, shrinking from life. How long would it take her to disappear so that Ellen would no longer have to visit this filthy estate? Shocked at her unkind thoughts she fussed over her mother, straightened her clothes so she looked more human, less like Mrs Pepperpot before she shrank.
“I’ll make coffee, Mum. I’ve bought that exotic blend you like.” As Ellen moved briskly about the kitchen she told herself it wasn’t her job to save her mum.