“Don’t wait up for me,” she would say. “Go to bed.”
But I did wait up. I waited until the scent of her hairspray that lingered in the bathroom had dissipated into nothing. I read my reading-books and stared at the pictures until they swarmed into sinister shapes under my tired eyes. I listened to the roar of the traffic far below our flat.
I waited until the lights at the petrol station, which I could see from her bedroom window, flickered off, like many birthday candles being blown out.
I waited until the heater tick tick ticked to tell me there was no money left on the meter.
I looked in the fridge and looked out the window and pored over my copies of Where’s Wally? hoping to forget that I had already found him hundreds, if not thousands of times. My eyes would be inevitably drawn to his smiling face, his wide, fixed eyes.
And she would arrive home, body banging into the door, key scraping against the flaking paintwork, makeup around her eyes and curses on her lips, sometimes dried blood under her nails or mud in her hair.
And I would bring her in, and undo her shoes – trying not to be kicked – and wipe the vomit from her face and suffer through her rough words and accusations, fetching her a glass of water, double aspirin and paracetamol and, often, a blanket. It was some years before my small frame was large enough to get her into her bed if she passed out, so she often slept where she collapsed – the sofa, a chair, the bathroom floor.
I wiped the lipstick from her dribbling lips, remembering when she told me that there was nothing sadder than a woman in last night’s makeup. Curling up next to her, I would feel her long, rasping breaths and hot, leaden arms: my version of lullabies and cuddles.
“I always come back though,” she would say the next day, dry toast crumbs filling the corners of her mouth. “Remember that: your mum always comes back.”
But I always worried that one night I would fall asleep and wake up the next morning, new sun warming my eyelids, to find that the cold emptiness of the flat without her in it was worse than the cold emptiness of the flat with her there.