Mother’s Ruin won Third Prize in the 2016 TLM Short Story Competition.
‘Galileo was the one who thought the earth went round the sun . . .’
Not so, according to my mother. If the earth revolved at all, it revolved around her. She saw it as a vast stage. Beyond the pit, where she was serenaded by musicians, was the great well of humanity. Because the lights were dimmed, she wasn’t forced to look too closely at it. She was separated from the common people by a sheer drop. ‘Flat’ made sense, ‘round’ didn’t.
She’d been christened Ellen Florence. Clearly neither of her parents had the least idea what Nature had presented them with. Even in the family photographs with ‘Ellen’ written underneath, your impulse is to turn the page assuming ‘Ellen’ must be on the other side. My mother looks diaphanous and I don’t merely mean the dresses. ‘Flo’ was even worse; it sounded like a fly-swat. A teacher at the infant school provided her with an escape.
‘It’s ‘Flora’ in Italian. It means flowers. Isn’t that romantic?’
From that moment, Romance was to form the mainstay of my mother’s whole existence. She had called my brother ‘Axel’; I was ‘Ariel’ – names that were seamlessly absorbed into the fantasy she had created. As she wafted through life, Ariel and Axel would be there on the periphery like bridesmaids at a wedding, showering her with petals, picking up her train to stop it trailing in the mud, not puking scrambled egg all down her back or covering her dress with snot. We didn’t need to lose ourselves in fairy tales as children: our mother was the physical embodiment of one. She was the White Witch in a coach carved out of icicles, her jewels flashing as she raced across the tundra.
She’d decided Axel would be bright whilst I was beautiful. It didn’t take her long to realise that the genes had got it wrong. You’d think under the circumstances Axel and I might have bonded, but in many ways he was a mirror image of her, a human being who could not bear very much reality. When he was seventeen he took a sleeping bag out of the attic, emptied the pockets in the lobby of small change, took a few beers from the cabinet and caught a bus out of the village. I came across him two years later selling copies of The Big Issue.
Mother took it in her stride. She wasn’t paralysed with guilt or riddled with remorse although I caught her looking at me once or twice as if she’d just that minute noticed I was there. Perhaps she was afraid that I’d go too and she’d be left without an audience. My brother had made unexpected changes to the plot that Mother had so carefully devised, but she got round it. She was still the Faerie Queen, but Axel had become the beggar at the gates. He had fulfilled her destiny. She should have been the one out there under the arches, drinking meths and smoking dog-ends. She had not won any prizes as a mother.
I’d been introduced to some of her male leads, although I didn’t always realise at the time the part they were auditioning for. There was Henry Bassett: part-time poet, part-time taxi-driver, who we’d met one afternoon outside the shopping mall. When my mother was young, she fell for older men. As she got older, they got younger. The difference hadn’t yet reached obscene proportions, but I reckon there was a good fifteen years between ‘the poet’ and my mother. From then on, he was always hanging round the shopping mall. He’d stop the taxi in the park and give me the loose change in his pocket to go off and buy sweets.
‘Actually, I’m saving up for something.’
‘How much is it going to cost, this “something”?’
‘Twenty pounds.’ That was a mistake. If I’d said ten, I might have got it. It didn’t last long. One day I overheard my mother say ‘It wouldn’t work out, Henry.’ You could almost hear him sighing with relief.
I didn’t let her get away with it, of course. ‘What’s that plasticine thing with the blobs on?’ she said one day when I had been sitting on the floor under her desk and playing with my dolls.
‘It’s a mother.’ I stopped short of saying it was my mother. I could see she wasn’t keen on the idea. Besides, this one would wear a pinafore and have a baby in her arms that she was joined to at the chest. Oh yes, I had my fantasies as well.
‘You ought to be out in the garden, not cooped up inside. Go on. Take Mrs Thingy with you.’
Mrs Thingy? Up till then I hadn’t had a name for her. I’d thought that ‘Mother’ was enough. But ‘Mrs Thingy’ did imply normality. If she was ‘Mrs’, she was married. To a ‘Mr’ Thingy. And the baby at her breast would be a little Thingy. From a universal symbol, she’d become an ordinary household drudge. My mother had unwittingly brought Mrs Thingy down to earth by giving her a name. Like calling Mrs Thatcher ‘Maggie’. If they called God ‘Arthur’, no one would believe in him.
‘I can’t go now; I’m busy. Mrs Thingy’s waiting to go out. Vroom, vroom.’
‘Who’s that in the car?’
‘It’s Mrs Thingy’s fancy man. He comes to fetch her in a taxi.’ That really got to her. She was afraid my father might come home and take an interest in the game.
The ice cream parlour was another place we kept on running into Mother’s boyfriends. Normally she packed me off to school so fast my feet didn’t touch the ground but if she was between books or at a loose end, we went to the ice-cream parlour. Mother didn’t like sweet things herself. The last thing she needed in her life was more sugar. But she seemed to get a vicarious satisfaction from seeing me piling on the calories. I could eat up to four Knickerbocker Glories in a row. I dare say, like an alcoholic, I had tipped the balance one day and my whole metabolism had mysteriously shifted.
‘Flora! Fancy seeing you here.’
‘Terence. What a nice surprise. This is Ariel.’
‘Hi. That looks good. Mind if I taste?’ He leant across the table and dipped his finger in the chocolate! Dipped his finger in it! I could hardly bear to go on eating it. But I did.
‘Terence is an editor. He helps me with my work.’
Oh yes? I don’t think his name was really Terence at all. On the other hand he didn’t look like a Robert or a Malcolm. He was probably a Tom.
‘Can we go home now?’
‘In a minute, darling. Look they’ve got a fountain over there that changes colours. Wouldn’t you like to have a closer look at it?’
Even I knew that a fountain that changed colour was about as naff as you could get. I looked at their reflections in the shiny surface of the wall behind the counter. They were whispering with their heads together. I had the feeling that it wasn’t Mother’s work they were discussing. There was green slime on the bottom of the fountain.
‘It’s a pity we ran into him’, said Mother when we were outside again.
‘He must be really sad, to spend his free time in an ice-cream parlour.’
‘Why? It’s where you choose to spend yours.’
‘Yes, but I’m twelve. He’s . . . how old?’
‘Bit young for you, isn’t he?’ That was really below the belt. Was my mother having an affair with Terence? On the one hand it would justify my terrible behaviour. On the other hand, she could have spent a pleasant half an hour with Terence in his Ford Mondeo or in our more modest Ford Fiesta with the laminated covering of onion crisps and Wotsits and the baby seat she’d never managed to unscrew. I could have stepped back and allowed her to be happy. But I couldn’t. She was not the mother I had dreamed of, but she was still mine and I resented sharing her with anybody else.
It was perhaps in consequence of trying to arrange her social life around me that she took to drink. Most people saunter gradually across the boundary separating drunk from sober. Mother raced towards it like a centre forward heading for a goal. After one drink, she glittered; after two, she started to get spiteful; she was like a shard of glass. Then after three, the shutters came down and we had no option but to go home. I’m not sure when I first suspected that my mother’s inability to read the numbers on the buses and her tendency to walk with one foot in the gutter when we’d been out shopping, were connected with the gin and tonics she’d had over lunch.
‘Of course I’m not. I tripped.’
‘You were staggering.’
‘Have it your own way.’
I felt obliged to point out that if I had had it my way, she would now be sober.
‘For God’s sake, Ariel. Sometimes you can be so damn boring!’
When I started stealing, I began with loose change from her handbag. Getting money out of her became a substitute for all the other things I wasn’t getting. Then I started taking things from shops. I went into a jeweller’s and came out with a row of pearls. I gave them to my mother.
‘Darling, they’re lovely. And they look so real.’
I didn’t tell her they were real. There wasn’t much point if she couldn’t tell the difference. I was finally acquiring some control over my mother and she didn’t even know that I was doing it. I’d have her in a uniform before the year was out. They caught up with me in the end, of course.
‘We’ve put your name down for the Convent of the Blessed Virgin, Ariel. You’re starting in September.’
‘But the Blessed Virgin’s miles away. And anyway, you don’t believe in God.’
‘You’re not going there for God. You’re going there to get an education.’
Tell that to the nuns. I could have got a better education in a prison library. It wasn’t long before they realised at The Blessed Virgin that I wasn’t a straightforward Catholic.
‘Do you think God wants me, Sister Ursula?’
‘Indeed he does, dear. He wants you more than anything.’
More than anything! I’d found someone to notice me at last. I took down the posters of ‘Take That’ and Jason Cocker and put a crucifix over my bed.
I lasted two terms at the Convent. It had not occurred to Flora that religion might be a side-effect of my being there. She thought I had become a Catholic simply to annoy her. There was probably some truth in this. I dare say my contempt for Romance rested on the same foundations.
The summer after I had left the Convent, I suggested I should take responsibility for answering my mother’s fan mail so that she could get on with her next book. She was fond of saying artists had no choice but to pursue
their calling. There was the pain of doing something and then there was the pain of not doing it.
‘You mean like having a gigantic pimple that you either squeeze or leave alone and that goes septic anyway?’
There were always a few pervs in amongst the correspondents; men pretending to be women writing to ask whether Phoebe, Mother’s heroine, was still a virgin and if she and Hamish might get round to doing something interesting in the next book. I was given strict instructions what to write. The first line thanked them for their interest and the second told them that my mother was already hatching ideas for another novel. Like a maggot in an apple, I thought. Then you gave a general outline of the ethos underlying all the books; the firm belief that Romance wasn’t dead, that in another decade everyone would be as cracked as she was. We would all be letting down our hair over the ramparts so that handsome rotters could crawl up it and seduce us with their boyish charm. How many fifteen year olds went out after reading one of Mother’s books and got themselves knocked up by handsome rotters?
‘I wouldn’t want to be a burden to you.’
These are words I never heard my mother say. As time went by it seemed increasingly that it was I who would be called upon to be my mother’s keeper when she could no longer keep up the pretence of doing for herself. I’d served a long apprenticeship. I was aware of all my mother’s little foibles, all the irritating habits that would have a trained nurse reaching for the morphine. To be fair, she didn’t cling on to the weapon of her youth. When men no longer melted at the sight of her and her ‘Oh, look what I’ve done. Silly me’ performance, she changed tack. The ‘silly me’ of previous incarnations turned into the aging diva fallen on hard times. She played the poor old woman card more brilliantly in many ways than she had played the vamp. I saw her sliding into old age, doing all the things she’d done before, but more so. She’d forget where she was going, go through red lights thinking they were green, be gently apprehended outside Woolworths with her booty – reproductions of Van Gogh’s chair in raffia, or bottles labelled ‘Scent of Roses’ that resembled urine samples. They would know that she was mad, not bad, because she’d stolen things that no one in their right mind would have coveted.
When I was sixteen I decided it was time to take the upper hand. I’d show my mother what real life could do to romance. ‘Susan’, so-called because it was the most ordinary name I could think of, was the reason why I didn’t go to university, why at the moment when I might have abdicated all responsibility for Mother, I was getting round to the idea of being one myself. The boy I chose looked just like Hamish. You’ll have gathered that my mother never wanted children so imagine my reaction when she went all gooey over Susan. I’d played my last card and it was a Joker.
Mother had a card up her sleeve too. The autumn after Susan came along she vanished altogether. Careless to the last, she left a pile of clothes behind her on the beach, the sandals pointing in two different directions, just to keep us guessing. We had spent the summer down the coast from Etretat. My mother liked the idea of abroad, though she preferred to go there in her head. She’d need a Baedeker to keep her on the right road, even there. She was, despite appearances, a fireside cat. She had the stripes and she could run fast when it mattered; there were those who mistook her for a cheetah. But no, in the end my mother was a moggy with pretensions.
Days turned into weeks. Two months after her disappearance we received a batch of half-a-dozen copies of her latest novel. Glancing at the flap I had a sudden sense of déjà-vu. A woman walks into the sea and re-emerges two miles down the coast where she has hidden a replacement set of clothes, a suitcase that contains essentials and a railway ticket to Bangkok. Off she goes to find a new life or to replicate the one she has already. Was this Phoebe’s mid-life crisis or my mother’s? I went through her wardrobe to see whether any clothes were missing, but she had so many it was hard to tell. I looked for messages on the computer. She might well have left one and forgotten to press ‘Save’, of course, or managed in one final orgy to destroy the lot.
At times I had such an acute sense of her presence that I wondered if she hadn’t engineered her disappearance merely so that she could see the way we dealt with it. I had no doubt we would be inundated with advice from readers once the latest novel reached the shelves. Had I picked up the anagram on page 100? Did I recognise the clues with reference to such and such a figure? If I wasn’t careful they would find my mother for me. All my life she had infuriated me with her determined absence and although I felt obliged to go on looking for her, I was not that anxious to discover she had left under her own steam. Nor, if it came down to it, did I want confirmation that the sea had claimed what we had not been able to.
At some point we shall have to come to a decision, I suppose. Is Mother dead or only missing? She could go on being missing all her life if necessary. Even if she’s dead, it doesn’t stop us from continuing to think of her as missing if we want to. It’s important to agree upon a common attitude. How do I put it to my father? How about ‘If Mother isn’t back by Monday, shall we take her off the “Missing” list and put her on the “Dead” one?’ Does this sound insensitive? I can imagine doing it and then her turning up and saying peevishly ‘You might have waited’. Having spent a life-time waiting for my mother to come back from somewhere, it seems churlish to select this moment to pull out the rug from underneath her. Maybe we should wait till Christmas. Maybe Axel ought to have a say in it. I thought it was our mother who had driven him away, but maybe I was wrong. I might have been wrong about my father too. I’ve had time to think about this since my mother disappeared. My father’s grief is silent, muffled, like a foghorn resonating through the mist. Perhaps they weren’t unhappy, after all. Perhaps his patience, which I read as tolerance, was really love and if she tried it, maybe that’s what it was there for.
My mother lingers in the psyche in the way a tooth continues throbbing in the background after it has been removed. When I go through into her study, there’s a scent in there that isn’t quite her, isn’t quite the doughy smell you get from paper when it’s damp or ink when it’s drying, or the heaviness of air that has been starved of oxygen. It is a combination of these things. You can’t take anything away without disturbing what is left.
I’ve started putting her affairs in order. I had always known that one day I would have to deal with all the things my mother hadn’t managed accidentally to delete – the dustbin liners full of first drafts, diaries dating back to 1970, the rows of hippie style tie-dyes and kaftans in the attic. I once heard my father joke that mother was a bag lady at heart. As far as I could see ‘at heart’ did not come into it. She was a bag lady, full stop. She might have had a house but it was like a vast left luggage locker. The only difference between her and others who were genuinely on the streets was that her bag was bigger.
Whilst I’m sifting through her papers, Susan’s sitting at my feet. She’s making squiggles in the margins of a manuscript I’d ear-marked for recycling. This is one decision that I did make. I was not prepared to trawl through forty years of trial runs in my mother’s execrable handwriting, with characters and plot developments that you could drive a horse and cart through.
‘Phoebe’s sad today,’ she says.
‘How do you know that?’
‘I can feel it.’
She can’t read it yet, then. I suppose that’s something. I spent hours as a child defacing Mother’s manuscripts and adding warts and handle-bar moustaches to the pictures of her on the fly leaves. There are photos in the family album that she didn’t think were flattering enough, where she’s deliberately cut herself out of the frame, immaculately snipping round the outline so it’s hard to take in anything except the blanked-out silhouette. The empty space screams out at you: ‘Don’t bother with the others. Look at me!’ And so it is. I go on looking at the empty spaces where she was and guess who’s there? It’s Susan. She spends hours tracing with her tiny fingers round the empty cut-out that was once my mother. Is she nurturing some secret aspiration to complete the picture? Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to let her play around in Mother’s study. Maybe, like the computer, I’ve introduced a virus into the machine of Susan’s mind. Or, and this is what’s starting to unnerve me, maybe Susan is my mother. Maybe all this bleating about karma isn’t rubbish after all. But don’t you have to die before your soul can pass to someone else? Of course since Flora wasn’t all here to begin with, maybe it was easier for her to pass hers over prematurely. It’s unsettling how like Flora Susan is. She has a way of walking that’s a kind of chassis. Then there are the clothes.
‘Susan? What are you doing in the attic?’
‘Trying on some dresses.’
‘I’d really rather that you didn’t try on Granny’s old clothes, Susan.’
‘They’re nice. All scenty.’
‘That’s the incense in the fabric. I don’t think they breathed air in the sixties.’
It’s important not to panic. After all, she’s bound to take after my mother in some ways. You can’t eradicate the genes entirely. Fortunately Susan does have practical abilities. Like everybody of her generation, she came out into the world to find her mobile phone was ringing. She’d have been invaluable to Flora as an ally. She likes all the fairy stories that I hated – tales of children stolen from their parents, orphans at the mercy of a wicked stepmother, abandoned babies nurtured in the wilds by wolves. I was afraid of anything that seemed to be suggesting that to be an unloved child was normal. Susan has no fear of the unknown. She knows she won’t be bribed to make herself invisible or left for hours on the forecourt of a petrol station whilst her mother flirts with the attendant. Susan will have everything I didn’t have.
So why am I uneasy? Is it that I can foresee a time some twenty years ahead, when Susan will give birth to a plain, ordinary child and she will christen her Hermione or Saffron? She’ll be the extension of her mother’s fantasy, a lumbering fairy dragged unwillingly into the world of make-believe. She will be dressed in clothes that do not suit her, given ballet lessons that she doesn’t want, encouraged to read books with happy endings that she can’t believe in any longer. Will that be the moment when my mother makes her comeback? Walking naked from the waves but for the spectacles on coloured rope around her neck, emerging from the sea like a Renaissance Venus, stepping delicately onto dry land, looking round her at the carnage she’s created, saying with that tinkly little laugh of hers: ‘Good heavens, was that my fault?’ glancing round for somebody to rescue her.
The things I never came to terms with in my mother are the things I know that I will have to come to terms with in my daughter. Mother must be laughing up her sleeve if she’s acquired one, or perhaps she’s sitting naked in a bar in Picoville, a gin and tonic at her elbow, waiting for the door to open and another Hamish, Terence, Henry Bassett, to walk in and claim her as their prize . . .
Lynn Bushell is an author and painter. She lives mainly in France on the west coast of the Normandy Peninsula. She spent three years as a features editor on Vanity Fair magazine and has taught in art schools and universities. She is the author of three novels.