A part of this story was published on-line for an anthology of Queensland writers. It was also awarded a Highly Commended by the Perilous Adventure competition a few years ago.
Ellen’s footsteps echoed along the corridor overlooking the courtyard which wasn’t bathed in Italian 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 nappies smells and rough tobacco. Ellen’s hair looked different to her old friends on the estate. She had acquired a sheen to it, 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 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 the corridors of doom in flip-flops and fake designer-wear herself.
The key 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 slinked 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 her mum 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. Meet 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.
When Linda went dancing up West she forgot she even had a child. 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?” Even Queenie had one of the girls on the estate to watch her Jason. Linda’s babysitting money was taken up with jazz club entry fees and a taxi home. Drinks were provided by shady men. “I can’t do it all, love.” 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, when her mother had had a relationship which went beyond sex and dancing. A tall man with a strange accent had shot a couple 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, her boyfriend had asked. Linda had moved out of her violent family home and been given a small council flat on account of her pregnancy. 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. Pressing up against him in a doorway in Kings Cross.
“There you are Mum.” Ellen leaned down and slid her Channel covered lips across her mother’s papery cheek. She tried not to recoil. Her mother’s wrinkles were deepening and the layers of skin seemed to separate, taking air between them like shrunken 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 and then Ellen wouldn’t have to visit this sink estate, the stain on her life? 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. She could rent a two-bed flat of for the two of them, a garden flat with somewhere green for her mother to sit, instead of sharing with Nicola from the bank and Matt the male nurse. But she didn’t. Ellen used her surplus salary to dress herself smartly in designer suits and heels. Everyone in London knew if your clothes weren’t the real thing. They’d look down on you, pass you over for promotion. Her dear old mum still thought Marks & Spencer was posh.
“Where’s the cafetière I bought you?” Ellen leaned her head through the door, hair manicured like a well kept garden. Linda looked up, as if she’d only just noticed her daughter. Her eyes betrayed fear and bewilderment then recovered.
“They’ll nick anything round here you know. Thieving wotsits.”
Ellen came through and sat on the edge of the couch. “No one comes round here except me. Do they?” Her mother shrugged. “Well. We’ll just have to have tea then. I bought you that new one from Harrods’s. You said you liked it last time.”
Ellen opened the cupboards. That desolate wind of lack blew through them too. “Mum. Where the hell is all your food?” She’d shopped herself only a few days ago. Jars of preserves and tea drunk by the Queen herself. Those tiny sponge fingers her mother had always loved. Jars of pickled walnuts and sophisticated pots of honey with pictures of bees on them.
Linda smiled at her as she walked through. “Hello, love. When did you get here?” Ellen’s insides lurched and rolled.
It had started a few months ago. Small things, easy for Ellen to ignore. She was busy with a new project at work, late nights and the odd morning waking up smelling of Chianti at Daniel’s flat in town. Her mum hadn’t been answering the phone. Ellen called every evening at 8.00pm, sometimes from meetings in the bar and once, before Daniel, from the bathroom of a man whose name she’d never asked. She rang to check Linda had eaten, quizzed her in case she was lying. Then the problem had been the reverse, the food wasn’t disappearing. Ellen made the arrangements on the office phone where she worked in PR. Words like meals on wheels lurked distastefully in the glass and steel constructed building where image was everything. Both colleagues who shared her space, they didn’t call them offices anymore, raised their heads as Ellen’s other life lifted its corner to show its dirty underwear.
She’d found her mothers phone in the kitchen bin, under an unopened batch of the magazine Ellen had subscribed to on her mother’s behalf. ‘Good Housekeeping’. Ellen plugged the phone back in and cancelled the subscription. Another time she’d found shampoo in the fridge and biscuits in the bathroom where the toilet brush had once lived. The toilet brush never did turn up. “I’m telling you, love. They’ll nick anything. Ugh. Something as unhygienic as that.”
They’d both laughed and Ellen had allowed herself an out breath. Anyone would go a bit mad living on their own, talking to yourself and putting out jars of coffee instead of empty milk bottles on the doorstep. Not that Ellen had ever lived on her own, didn’t think she’d like it.
Before Linda had got pregnant she’d had a dream of becoming an air hostess. Dressing in a uniform of a clean white blouse and navy pencil skirt, a job where her make-up skills would be valued. She’d travel to regal Europe, exotic Asia, maybe even darkest Africa. Faraway from her parents crumbling council house where the garden was littered with old sinks and toilet bowls her dad had picked up cheap but was too bloody lazy to fit.
You needed exams before the airlines would take you, maybe even a language or two. Linda’s dad made her leave school early so she could get a proper job. No daughter of his was going to become a glorified air-bound prostitute. Linda’s ears rang and her cheeks turned deep crimson when he’d bellowed at her.
“Anyway, I don’t want you moving somewhere else. Who’s gonna look after yer mum and me? Eh?”
They were sitting at the card table in the kitchenette where they ate their meals. Linda was drawing circles in the dust. “What about Billy or Ray? They’re working local.”
Her father looked down at his only girl and a bitter laugh escaped from his lips, where a clump of shepherd’s pie still lingered. “You can’t expect a lad to look after his folks. It’s woman’s work.”
Linda looked over at her mother, who rarely said two words. Her eyes were blank and the only time she parted her lips was to insert the unlit end of a cigarette.
Linda’s friend Margie worked for the council. Single mothers could put their names down for a flat in one of those new tenement buildings, the ones that had been built after the council knocked down the old twenties and thirties jerry-built houses. They weren’t anything flash but she craved new things. Everything she had ever owned had belonged to someone else first. The only space she’d had was the box room bedroom at her mum and dad’s place. She’d tried to make it her own by putting glitter on the walls and knitting a pretty throw for the bed, using her favourite colours of orange, pink and mauve. It gave her something to do while she sat around the telly with her mum and dad, watching endless game shows. Her brothers went to the pub and sometimes her dad joined them. Only then would her mother speak, softly as if she thought her husband could hear her, two blocks away. Sometimes she would cry silently, Linda didn’t know what to say. There was no making it better. But sometimes she’d switch over to the BBC, to one of those costume dramas. All bonnets and bosoms but a place to escape to. Rome on an aeroplane or Regency England on the telly. It all amounted to the same thing. Linda got a job at a haberdashery store, a bus ride into town. She went back to it after Ellen was born. Linda’s mother would look after the baby secretly while her dad was at work. Until the cheap gin and Embassy Royals ended her miserable life.
When Linda became agitated Ellen would calm her down by going through the biscuit tin where she kept her photos. The glaring flash and faded colours of the seventies looked sad to Ellen but her mum loved them. Most photos were of Ellen, smiling and dressed in tutus and strings of fake pearls. Her mother had put together a fantastic dressing up box, sourced from her job in the haberdashery. Fun fur in rainbow colours, glitzy plastic tiaras.
Linda picked up a photo from the box, held it in her trembling hand.
“What is it, Mum?”
Ellen leaned over to have a look. An old photo, handled many times, blurry as if the photographer’s hand had shaken. There was a fairground carousel in the background. She recognised her mothers face before time and sickness had sketched their story on her bones. She was smiling down into the camera and next to her stood a tall man with a moustache. He looked young and happy and Ellen felt a spark of recognition. Linda stroked the blurred face of the man on the photograph. “He never minded you being around. He was the only one.” She shook her head, dropping the picture, letting her box of memories fall to the ground.
“I think I’ll have nap now.” Her mother didn’t move, she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Ellen picked up the photos and put them back in the biscuit tin. All except for the one her mother had been holding. She turned it over, scrawled on the back, ‘Jack, Great Yarmouth 78’.
‘Baker Street’ by Jerry Rafferty, the saxophone floating on a light evening breeze which smelt of fish and chips. Her mum and Jack laughing like music. “Come on, Chipmunk. Take a picture of me and your Mum.” He showed her what button to press on her mum’s instamatic camera. She remembered trying to keep it straight. It was long and thin with one of those flash cubes on the top. The camera slipped slightly as Ellen pressed the button, a bright light blinked different colours. The memory was real, and she wondered why she hadn’t recalled it before. She heard the music, a sad song for a happy occasion. She was excited by the smell of fish and chips Jack had promised for their supper. Nothing else. No memory of a fish and chip supper on the front under the coloured lights strung from lampposts or the drab guest house they were inevitably staying in. The dips she must have taken in the sea during the day.
Ellen looked over at her mum who was dead to the world, her jaw slack, mouth opened slightly, gently snoring. Her hair was coarse and grey, no longer raven and neatly plaited, like the young woman in the photo. She wanted to ask her mum about Jack. Why hadn’t she remembered him? The date on the back of the picture, she must have been five. It’s not like they took a lot of holidays. Sometimes one of mum’s men friends would drive them to Margate or Broadstairs for the day. A couple of times Linda had saved her money to get the train down there and back. They’d stay for a couple of hours, ride the dodgems and eat candy floss. Laugh as the wind blew the spun sugar into their hair. Racing to the end of the pier, first one chose the treat. Vinegar chips in newspaper or iced doughnuts. All too soon it would be time to walk to the train station, holding their skirts wet from daring each other to go in too deep, their fingers entwined round their sandal straps. They’d sit waiting for their train, the platforms crowded by then, after teatime. Linda would point out the latest fashion. Things had started to get ugly, her mum said. Women with footballer’s perms and youths wearing tartan jeans with chains.
“You wouldn’t catch Catherine Deneuve dressing like that. Now there’s a lady with style.”
Ellen looked at her watch. Did she have time to wait for her mother to wake up? To ask her about Jack. She’d always thought her memories of her childhood had been clear and strong but they were shifting. It would have to keep until next time. Daniel had booked dinner at Nobu, the waiting list was long. He was an efficient man, practical, worked as a financial adviser. He didn’t like to be kept waiting. There was always another time to ask her mum. As she wound her silk scarf round her neck she looked back. It felt wrong to stare at her, off her guard but she hadn’t noticed her mum’s sense of style starting to drop along with her face. Linda’s neck looked fragile and exposed, gathering in folds. As Ellen cleared away the tea things and rinsed the cups in the tiny kitchen where once she’d eaten Shredded Wheat and spaghetti hoops, she promised herself she would bring her mum something beautiful on her next visit. A new blouse in a bright shade of red, an orange beret to cover her hair. Maybe a silk scarf like her own.
It was a warmer day when Ellen walked along the corridor again. Her feet hardly made a sound. She was wearing her gym shoes, her Saturday shoes. She’d parked her car five miles away and jogged there and back. Daniel played golf on Saturday mornings. He’d never met her mum, after eighteen months, he’d never asked. Ellen had never offered. Daniel knew more or less where her mother lived, he’d given her a rape alarm.
It wasn’t until Ellen reached the front door that she realised the key was in her handbag on the back seat of the car. Usually she would put it in her backpack, along with her mum’s shopping. Today she was empty handed and in a hurry except for the gift in her tracksuit pocket. She was going to the country with Daniel, he’d booked a hotel. Ellen was suspicious of the countryside, she didn’t understand it, didn’t know the names of trees or plants being a sink estate girl. Daniel thought her funny.
Ellen leant down opening the letterbox. “Mum! I’ve forgotten my key!” Footsteps on the carpet tiles, they sounded light and quick.
“Oi right, Ellen.” There stood Chantelle. Her body stretching her polyester track suit in odd places, a cheaper brand than her own. It wasn’t that the girl was fat, Ellen mused, just out of shape. Ellen got a whiff of old cigarette smoke and stale body odour.
The door creaked open and the girl made a space for Ellen to enter. She hesitated and the younger woman laughed. “You never can remember my name”
Ellen walked through to the lounge room her mother had spent a weekend in the mid-nineties painting jade green. “It’s relaxing, Ellen. Do you like it?” she’d said. Ellen hadn’t then and didn’t now. Its brightness had faded and was chipped at the skirting boards. Her mum sat on the couch, her leg stretched out in front of her. There was a tray with two dirty cups, a cigarette butt spent in one of the saucers. Ellen shot the girl a look. Her mother spoke.
“Don’t you worry about that, Ellen. Lauren helps me out, it’s the least I could do to let her relax with a tea and a fag.”
Ellen said nothing, she picked up the tray and took it through to the kitchen. Her hands trembled with anger. What was this girl doing with her mum? Ellen was her mum’s only visitor. Lauren appeared at the door, smiling.
“What are you doing here? I look after mum as best I can.”
“I know you do, Ellen, but she gets lonely and sometimes she needs help. Her legs are bad, she fell in the bathroom again. Don’t worry, they’re only bruised. Not sprained like last time.”
“You know about last time?”
Lauren nodded. “I’ve been coming here for a while. Sorry. She wanted to keep it secret, thought you might get upset.”
“I expect you have the time, not working and everything. I do appreciate what you’re doing but…”
Lauren laughed, not unkindly. “I don’t do it for you. Linda’s a friend. Anyway, I work evenings.”
Ellen’s eyebrows raised and Lauren grinned. “I’m not a prostitute, Ellen. I’m a nurse at Guys. We’re not all in gangs and doing crack cocaine on the estate, you know.”
Ellen’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry. But I don’t understand. Why did mum want to keep your visits a secret? It’s not as if I couldn’t do with the extra help, I can’t do it on my own.”
Lauren looked down at her cheap trainers, quiet for a moment. When she looked up her gentle eyes met Ellen’s. “She’s ashamed of you. The way you talk to people. You’ve forgotten where you come from.”
“I think you should go now.”
“I will but I won’t stop coming here. Linda needs more care, soon she will need more than the two of us, round the clock care. She’s getting worse.”
Lauren closed the door gently behind her. Ellen put the kettle on and went through to see her mum. She sat down in the chair next to her. The flat was silent now and she wondered if her mum had heard her conversation with Lauren. Ellen wondered why a stranger wanted to spend more time with her mother than she did. Blood collected in her cheeks.
“How did she find you? If you were on the bathroom floor again”
Linda’s eyes were defiant. “She has a key.”
Ellen looked down at her bitten down nails, the only piece of her that wasn’t perfect. She would think about Lauren later, at home with a glass of something strong. Another question burned her mind. “Mum, who’s Jack?”
Linda’s face seemed to fold but her eyes were dry. “Mr Almost-Right.”
“Did you stop seeing him, like the others? Wasn’t he good enough for you?”
A weak smile. “He was married, love. I thought I could deal with it, he was so good with you. He made me see that I couldn’t compromise, that I had to find a man who could turn the two of us into a family.”
“But you never did.”
“I never stopped trying.” Linda’s voice echoed in the room, indignant.
Ellen thought back to the long line of men who had sat on the couch her mother was lying on now, hogging the remote, waiting for Linda to make them their tea.
“None of them were good enough for you, Ellen.”
Ellen took Linda’s hand, stroked it lightly. “Mum, we have to talk about you moving somewhere else.”
“Not quite ready yet. Make me that cup of tea and bugger off and see that man of yours.”
Ellen washed both cups in the sink, made a telephone call and went to sit with her mum. Linda looked askance. Ellen said, “If he’s worth it he’ll understand. I can’t think of the last time I spent Saturday night with you.”
“Baked beans and Miss Marple? You sure you’re up for it?”
Ellen smiled and remembered the bulge in her pocket. A silk scarf, hand painted in red, orange and mauve. She tied it loosely round her mother’s neck. The colours were kind and hid the folds of skin. Ellen sat with her for a moment before going through to the kitchen to search for the tin opener.