Short Stories 2nd Place: The F Word by Justine Weller
I watch from the doorway as Tony gets down on gravelly knees and holds out a box like he’s one of the three wise men.
Mum shrinks away from him, further into the grubby fabric of the sofa. Her face doesn’t move, just hangs there, hidden by hair that sticks to her cheeks from all the tears and snot, like paper and glue.
‘The doctor said exercise is the best medicine,’ Tony says, opening the box and lifting something out. ‘It’s one of those fancy fitness watches!’
I roll my eyes and step further into the room,
Mum frowns as Tony fastens it to her wrist. She manages a slow blink.
‘What d’you say, love?’ He squeezes her clenched fist. ‘We could go for a walk?’
Mum hasn’t said much for days, not since my gran died, because the doctor, the other wise man, has given her a bunch of pills that make her eyes dead and her feet scrape the floor.
The watch vibrates, and a smiley face pops up with a message: ‘Time to move – let’s go!’
Mum doesn’t ‘go’ anyway. Instead, she pulls at the tear drenched cuff that’s been mopping up her grief for days, and my stepdad’s bright idea to get her to move is covered in soggy blackness.
Tony stands up, his shoulders curled in defeat, and I almost feel sorry for him.
I follow him into the kitchen. ‘You know, it’ll keep reminding her to move every hour. How’s that going to help?’
‘I can turn off the reminders,’ he says.
I swear under my breath, biting down hard on words I’m not allowed to say. What does he think she’ll do? Turn into Forrest Gump and ‘just start running’?
‘Stupid thing to get her if you ask me.’
‘I wasn’t asking you.’
The therapist’s told Mum to keep a mood diary and rate how she feels from a scale of one to ten: ten being like Tigger on a good day, and one being like Eeyore on a bad one.
When I glance back at Mum, she’s crying again. The third time already today.
Truth is I don’t want her going anywhere, not like this. She used to walk through a room and men would follow her with their eyes. Now she hugs the walls like a nervous crab.
That night, I’m pulled awake by the sound of her muffled sobs pulsing through our shared bedroom wall.
I stumble out onto the landing and stare at the slither of light under their door. Her crying’s louder now, like she’s struggling for air, Tony’s voice coming through in a low urgent rush.
Eeyore must have climbed into her bed and crawled under the covers.
I go downstairs to make tea, but instead I just keep clicking the kettle, over and over, so the whooshing and bubbling drowns out the sounds, and I watch the wall sweat,
‘I don’t like leaving her,’ Tony says, the next morning. His face is shrunk in on itself, dark craters scored under his eyes. ‘But I have to go into the office.’
‘I have exams,’ I tell him.
‘Well no, not today, but …’ I shrug. ‘Still need to revise.’
Tony’s laugh sounds like a bark. He knows this is a lie. My sister, Nat, is the one who’s gone round the world with a degree in her rucksack. I’ll be lucky to go round the corner. Before Tony came along, I’d never been on a plane. Never been anywhere except the wrong path.
He rubs his hand across five day old stubble. ‘She’s had one of her pills – she’ll probably be asleep,’
‘Well, I can’t stay here.’
Tony sucks on his teeth.
‘Just do it for your mother, Dan, please.’ The slammed door behind him rattles in its frame.
After he’s gone, I stand in the kitchen and stare at the white scars in the floor tiles, the splintered edges in the cabinets, the slice of bare plaster on the wall. the roar of breaking glasses still ringing in my ears.
It’s been three weeks now since it happened.
I’d been in my room when I heard it start: the sound of kitchen cupboards smashing shut, the angry scrape of glasses, then a roar and the first explosion of glass, then another. When I got downstairs, I found Mum kneeling precariously on the kitchen counter, her eyes wild and unfocused, as she grabbed at glasses like she was bailing out a sinking ship, hurling them against the walls, the cabinets, the floor.
In one movement, Tony swooped in behind me and pulled her away, her hands clawing uselessly at the air as they both crumpled to the floor.
I stood there, open-mouthed, their bodies blurred by tears and broken glass.
Tony calls it her ‘episode’ – like a ‘doof,doof’ ending to Eastenders.
‘Your gran’s death’s rattled some long buried demons.’ .
But I hear the word ‘breakdown’ whispered down the phone, and I try to kick the word away.
When the call came that Gran had died, Mum had just made a soft choking sound like she was clearing her throat, and said, ‘Well, that’s that then.’
I’d nothing I could say; Gran had only ever been a grainy photo I’d found tucked into her purse once when I’d slipped out a fiver.
But the rattled demon had snagged at Mum’s heels, and she’s been unravelling ever since.
I text Jack and tell him I’ll meet him later. I stare at the TV with the sound turned down and think about calling Nat, but I know she’ll say I don’t help by piling trouble on top of trouble, even though I haven’t been in trouble for weeks.
Tony comes back at lunchtime, carrying a large plant in his arms, a shopping bag swinging from his wrist.
He thumps the plant on the kitchen table. ‘A present from work.’ He scratches his head. ‘A remembrance rose, would you believe?’
He hands me a sandwich from the garage, and says I should get to the library if that’s where I’m going, but doesn’t push it when I don’t move. We sit at the table and eat.
‘How is the revision going?
I drag the plant towards me and pull off a petal, roll it between my fingers until it looks like a maggot.
‘S’alright,’ I shrug.
‘I know it’s a lot, what’s going on with your Mum.’ Tony shakes his head and sighs. ‘She’ll be better when the weather picks up; all this grey gives her too much time to think.’
We both stare at the rose in silence while we eat, slowly chewing and staring at it like cows.
‘Put it out the back when you go,’ Tony says. ‘Before your mum sees. She doesn’t need any reminding.’
I dump the rose by the shed and grab my bike. I meet Jack at the old graveyard tucked up behind the bus depot. We sit on the wall and smoke. Jack says depression’s like having worms in your head. I tell him I think it’s more like a blackness, like being stuck in a glass box and everyone else is on the outside.
‘How a fish in a tank must feel. I reckon.’ Whatever, her head’s in a place she can’t seem to reach.
Jack takes a long drag and blows out a smoke ring, making a sucking noise with his lips like a fish.
‘Nat said it happened before when my dad left,’ I say, slamming my heels against the wall. ‘But I was too young to remember.’
Mum tells me I’m like my dad though, every time I’m at the end of one of her tethers.
I look at the gravestones like giant decayed teeth, and try to picture the bodies underneath. I heard somewhere that if you listen closely, you can hear the dead talking to each other, but I hear nothing.
I wonder where my gran’s grave is, and if I went there, she’d tell me why Mum’s sadness is dragging the skin from her bones.
At least it was Gran who snapped Mum’s tether clean off.
Every day, when I get home from school, her sadness curls around my feet, like a ghost. I resist the urge to slam the door shut, then open it and slam it again, then again – force her to come running, the thump of her angry footsteps on the stairs.
She used Tony’s power drill once, after she’d got sick of Nat’s door slamming, marched up the stairs and took her door clean off the frame, ‘There! Now there’s no door left to slam!’
Tony throws his arm out and tells me to, ‘Mind your mother,’ as if she’s something I might tread on. I’ve no idea what he expects you to do. Comb her hair and feed her cherries?
I move around the house hoping to catch a glimpse of her in a doorway, a pink pyjama leg on the stairs, a shadow of her on the walls.
There are moments when she comes back into focus; a fuzzy version of herself that limps to life in dull ‘Time to move – let’s go!’ bursts.
Like the times Nat talks to her on FaceTime. Nat’s better than me at everything, even from the other side of the world. I watch Mum flutter her fingers at the ipad, can hear her smile follow me up the stairs as I go to my room.
Mum even lets Tony fold her into a coat after that, ‘That’s my girl, just a short walk to stretch our legs.’
I hate Nat for grabbing the big world out there, filling her lungs with it while the rest of us are choking.
Tonight at dinner, Mum joins us in the kitchen.
‘You okay, love?’ Tony shouts, as if she’s become some deaf idiot.
‘Fine.’ Her lips rub over the word.
She says, ‘I’m fine,’ most days, even when she looks like a screwed up crisp packet. But there are hidden spikes in those rounded edges, They try to trick you, like The Joker’s drawn on smile.
I wonder if her threshold has gotten higher. Her low mood so constant now, her fine keeps moving up the scale.
She sidles up beside me as I prod at pasta on the stove, the scratchy ends of her hair brushing against my cheek when she leans over the pan.
I miss you, I don’t say. Nor do I tell her that I long to hear, ‘I’ve had it up to here, Dan,’ as she slams groceries on the counter. Or, ‘And don’t even think about …’ Could have been anything, but I wasn’t to think about it all the same. Or that I even miss her angry hands on my shoulders as she yells that it’s her job to worry about me. I also don’t say that I’m jealous of her therapist, the third wise man, who’s using up all her words and doesn’t seem to be helping anyway.
Instead, I say nothing, as I watch her put her face in the steam, a pink moist flush creeping up her cheeks. I raise my eyes at Tony who’s hovering close by. Maybe he’s right about the weather thing.
Even when Mum’s scoring a ‘fine’, she sleeps long into the mornings and sometimes in the afternoon, her legs coiled around a tangle of sheets, her balled fists clutching her grief to her chest. The fitness watch lays discarded on the bedside table, the batteries long-run down.
Sometimes I sit by her bed and read. I read from my revision notes and whole chapters from textbooks, the words popping like bubbles before they make it into my head.
I want to put my face close to her and whisper in her ear that I understand; how sometimes things aren’t always fine, and that she doesn’t have to say she’s fine when she isn’t, and that I’ll just sit here and read to her and know that thing’s aren’t fine.
More than anything, I want to curl up next to her and tell her I’m sorry.
Later, when I’m in my own bed, I wish I’d said those things. I think, if I did, she could hold that to her heart along with her grief.
Today, when I get home, I find Mum in the kitchen, wearing her pyjamas tucked into Tony’s walking boots, and her coat.
I watch, unnoticed, from the hallway, as she fiddles with something on her wrist and realise she’s wearing the fitness watch again.
I turn to escape, but then she sees me.
‘Dan?’ she calls, softly.
‘You know, apparently, if you eat fast enough, that fitness watch’ll think you’re running.’ I walk into the kitchen and grab a packet of crisps from the cupboard, shake it at her. ‘You try it.’
She reaches into the bag and takes one, bites into it.
She nods and walks over to the back door, puts her hand on the window, a greasy smudge on the glass.
I race upstairs to my room. Where the hell is Tony?
I go to ring Nat, but it’s the middle of the night in Australia, and I know she’ll tell me to do one. But if she could see Mum – in her pyjamas, and her coat, and Tony’s boots, and the hair with roots as dark as treacle, and her bald blank eyes – then she’ll know things aren’t fine and she’ll come home.
When I move past the window, I spot Mum in the garden. She’s got her back to me, her hands holding something I can’t see. The boots squared firmly on the edge of the lawn. She’s bent over slightly, as if she’s studying something on the ground, but she’s not moving.
Then I see it. The flash of red.
I run for the door.
She’d put a garden fork right through her foot. I find her, literally pinned to the earth by a stainless steel prong, right through the boot to the rotten worms underneath. The rose plant lays dusty and crumpled on it’s side.
When I get to her I’m panting. She’s panting, in sharp ragged breaths.
I try to keep my voice even as I ring for an ambulance, but I can hear the fear pushing through every time I take a breath.
‘Help’s coming,’ I tell her, dropping the phone to the ground. I wrap my arms around her back, covering her hands with my own. ‘‘It’s okay, Mum, it’s okay … just … PLEASE DON’T MOVE!’
Her lips are quivering, as she gives me a slight nod.
We both grip tightly to the handle of the fork, our hands shaking, and watch her blood spill into the earth.
Later, at the hospital, I paint on a new fake smile.
‘Way to get out of doing your exercise, love,’ Tony says, his voice tight with worry. She tips her face up to him to be kissed.
I edge towards the bed. ‘Really stabbed yourself in the foot this time, Mum.’
Her face is pale, almost grey. I have to put my ear close to her mouth to hear her soft, raspy whisper.
‘I wanted to plant the rose,’ she says, her cold hand slipping into mine. ‘I could feel the sun … not just see it … and I looked up at the sky and …’ She flops back onto the pillows in frustration. ‘Those damn pills fog up my head.’ She studies my eyes for an extra beat, ‘I’m sorry I’ve been so messed up.’
I open my mouth to say something, but she waves her arm to shush me.
She pulls me against her, and for the second time that day I feel her flesh beneath my hands. I blink at the bandage wrapped around her foot and remember what Jack said about worms in her head.
I have a memory then, of walking barefoot on a beach at low tide, Mum’s skirt whipping like a tornado around her legs as she watched Nat poke her toe in the coiled lugworm casts that dotted the sand. When Mum laughed and told her it was their poo, Nat shrieked, hopping from one leg to the other back up the beach.
I pray the garden fork has dug out the worms and let the poison out, to sink into the soil along with her blood.
I pull away from her embrace. ‘Nat says the sky looks bigger in Australia apparently.’ I use my sleeve to dry my face.
I feel Tony’s hand on my shoulder; he gives it a gentle squeeze.
The exam hall reminds me of home; like it’s waiting to suck us in or spit us out, I’m not sure which. The only sound is the soft pad of footsteps and nerves.
I find a seat at the back and stare hard at the desk, pulling at a hangnail with my teeth and making it bleed. Jack turns to find me and winks. I give him a tight grin, a bloody thumbs up. When we’re instructed to start, I turn the paper over, the lick of blood on my thumb smudging at its corner.
She’s waiting for me when I get off the bus.
I point to the surgical boot strapped to her foot, the walking stick in her hand. ‘Nice!’
She bends her hip in a pose and lets out a soft laugh. ‘So?’ She gives me a soft nudge. ‘How was it?’
I bite down hard on an ‘F’. I try to think of another word, but this time it feels like the truth.
‘Fine,’ I say. ‘Actually … I think it was fine.’
I can feel her wrist vibrate as I let her take hold of my arm.
‘Time to move.’ She taps the walking stick on the ground. ‘Let’s go.’
We move slowly, both of us together, working the blackness out with a thump and a drag.