Have a read of my short story, ‘Mother’ first published in Quadrant Magazine. ‘Mother’ is one of the self-contained chapters in my book, The Usual Story (Ginninderra Press) – a delicately fragmented story of memory, intrigue and passion.
The day is softening into night, my desk in shadow as the sun moves behind the building. Birds hover in the trees as the wind blows across the surface of the sea. It’s hard to know which way to go. Every day I fear that I can’t do it. So I’m watching as it gets dark.
Tonight I’m thinking about the saddest bits. Thinking, for example, that the night was alight with thunder. Lightening cracked the sky. Just a flash and then darkness again.
That I loved him, and sometimes he loved me too.
I’ll begin with the birds. Three birds flying in perfect but constantly changing alignment. So often there are three. And then a lone bird darts across the sky in the opposite direction.
On the radio a voice says: ‘We need to know the history, the history of the before, and then to know how the person chose to continue living, what baggage they chose to bring with them, to incorporate the memory into themselves or to leave it behind.’
A door bangs shut behind me; footsteps sound on the concrete driveway leading from the back door just a second or two after the door bangs. The flame tree throws a shadow on the cane chairs on the balcony. I stop working, put my hands and then my arms around my body and think of the feel of his skin.
How appealing, how irresistible that prospect of intimacy is, with the very person who can never give it.
After a day in which I have evoked Jack again, all the pain and disappointment and wanting him all over again came back. I try to guess where he might be and what he might be doing but cannot imagine it. His absence is still as heavy as the wave about to break above me, a wave that has appeared suddenly, and then it curls over me forcing me down to the bottom of the sea where I am helpless in the power and pull of its rip.
Last night I dreamt about a man with a hook for an arm. I didn’t realise at first that the man had a disability because he’d kept it hidden behind the counter. On the spur of the moment I told the man I was going to see a free film as part of the film festival and asked if he would like to come with me. To my surprise he closed up the shop, put on a freshly laundered shirt and said he’d come. That’s when I saw the hook arm. As the evening progressed I was surprised by how very quick and skilful he was in the use of it. He hooked me a chair and one for himself when we found the small cinema where the film was shown. He seemed interested in me but I wondered how I would cope with his disability.
Sitting at my desk this morning, trying to work, I saw the line of the horizon as the sun beat down, heating up something outside so that its taint floated in on a breeze. It was the dank scent of the earth after rain, entering through the open door. It reminded me of the smell of his hair in the mornings and it came between me and my work. I wondered why all of this has to go on for so long.
It’s dark tonight with only a small crescent-shaped moon over the sea. I’ve decided to take a walk to the house where I lived as a child. I put on a cardigan and step out into the night.
The house itself is no longer there. It has been torn down and a block of units stands in its place. As I walk down the steps towards the beach and mount the hill, waves loom in the fading light; streaks of white against the dark sea. Above me clouds gather against a starless sky. I walk up the steps then stand at the lookout as the sea rolls in.
When I was growing up, this suburb was full of large houses and blocks of art deco units. Some of the houses were very grand and others fallen into disrepair like ours. Mother was ashamed of our house. It was basically a mass of rooms surrounded on three sides by wide verandas and wooden painted rails.
Walking along my old street and its rows of gums and mix of glass and chrome home units and white-painted mansions, I see the stairs that connect this street to Birriga Road. Those stairs that I walked up every day to catch the bus to school until Mother decided it was important that she drive me to school before she went to work. ‘What will the neighbours think with you talking to boys at the bus stop?’
And there’s the house where the boy with diabetes used to live. The boy who used to double me on his bicycle. I can still feel the imprint of his ribs under my hands. ‘It’s not ladylike for a girl to ride a bike,’ Mother said. This boy’s house had seemed a long walk from mine but now it seems just a short distance as I walk up our old driveway.
Sixty apartments share our old address. Forty units across the back yard and twenty on the driveway. The trees I used to climb in the back yard are all gone. No wild foliage, just bricks, concrete and cement, although one scrawny hibiscus droops over garage number twelve. A couple of branchless tree trunks wedge between the units and the fence of the block next door. Nowhere for the trees to branch out. No sunlight. Suffocating. Vines strangling trunks. Trees choking to death. I feel a thudding in my chest.
Drowning again and again. A recurring dream. And then I would wake and lie there waiting for the sound of the birds and the light of the dawn. I’d count slowly: one, two, three on the in breath, one, two, three on the out breath until I would notice the waves lapping up and into my bedroom again.
It was already too late when I was eight. I grew old at eight. It came on very suddenly. I saw the blood spreading over my grey school bloomers. As the year lightened and turned hot, it got worse. ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ whispered Mother. ‘Especially your brother.’ January was too bright so I stayed in bed in the darkened bedroom. I was ashamed of how I’d changed. I wasn’t prepared for it. I leant against the pillow in disgust. I lost the desire to move. But as dusk came one evening in February, there was the gentle sound of the wind through the leaves.
I see my former self. The small child with hair pulled severely back at the sides of her large forehead revealing an open face that seems always to be frowning. I can bring to mind a tall gawky adolescent with pimply skin with her arms crossed over her chest. She wears dark wool skirts in the winter with long shapeless jumpers over the top, perhaps a long pendant, or cotton print dresses in the summer with a cardigan. Her hands would clasp and unclasp in front of her. Ridiculous. Her hair looked ridiculous. The hair must have been cut into a fringe but instead it bounced up into one tight little ridiculous ball in the middle of her forehead.
So I was eight and three quarters. Mother made me wear dresses with pleats and frills. I wore them with loathing. I looked fat and childish in the dresses that were gathered at the waist and had a Peter Pan collar at the neck.
That day my hair was in bunches hanging down to my shoulders, not cut short at the back as usual, but long enough for me to put an elastic band at each side. To my own hair I had added the hair of our housekeeper. I wore her hair attached to my own. I was using makeup already. A crème pancake base that Mother had given me. ‘Cover up those hideous freckles.’ I don’t know where I got the pink lipstick and the clear nail polish. Perhaps I stole them. I was wearing a little 4711 eau de Cologne.
Today the early morning light shines through the thick curtains, the mysterious light when it’s raining but the sun is still shining through the clouds. But there is the exhausting and suffocating heat of Sydney’s humid summer days and nights to cope with. It’s seven forty-five already. I have overslept. There is no sound in the building. No footsteps, no cars reversing. I guess that everyone has gone to work.
On the radio: ‘Just a couple of drops of rain during the night here and there.’
I’m remembering Mother reclining in bed. Her eyes closed and her hands crossed against her chest. Her mouth open. Now and then she’d catch her breath as if gulping the air. At that moment, she appeared to be asleep.
Beside her I pulled the dead bits off the flowers. I put the vase into place on the shelf above the bed and stared at a Picasso print of a woman’s body sectioned into geometric pieces. I smiled at its startling arrangement of shapes. I reached for another vase and began my pruning.
Mother leaned towards me, and in a rush of tenderness, unusual in her, tried to hug me. I recoiled, unable to check the repugnance I felt for the touch of her.
My half-sister entered the room quietly. I got up at once throwing the bruised and browning petals into the wire basket by the door. I went over to the bed, and looked at Mother, who kept her eyes closed.
‘She’s resting,’ I said.
My sister went over and turned off the bedside light until there was only the weak light from the window. She sat down so she could see Mother. She stroked Mother’s forehead; leaned down over the face, using her fingers to exert pressure on the place between Mother’s eyes, pulled the skin across her forehead, pressed gently into the sides of her face.
Mother opened her eyes. ‘You smell of garlic. I can smell it on your breath.’ But then she let herself sink again. ‘You are very good to me,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t deserve all the things that you do for me.’
Inez continued to massage her head and face until Mother fell asleep.
Inez said, ‘I think about Mother nearly every day. When Mother spoke to me in her clipped determined way, I often didn’t understand what she wanted from me. I tried so hard, but of course I never managed to please her. Then she’d show her impatience. She was always impatient. With all of us. She’d had a hard life and I forgive her. I loved her because she was so—I don’t know what to say, exactly—because she was always such an overpowering presence. But she could be so cold. I would come to her wanting some affection, some understanding even, she’d turn away from me and be so cruel or she was just too busy to listen. Yet I felt for her, I understood, and now that I’m older I forgive her totally. If only I could see her again and tell her I wish now that I had tried harder and that if I had, things may have turned out differently.’
‘Your sister has decided to smooth the surfaces and to remember her mother as a saint,’ Dr Ross concluded. ‘Her mother had a hard life and now she’s turned her into a saint.’
I’m imagining walking into the old house. Across a big enclosed verandah and in through the front door. A coat cupboard to the right, along another corridor to the maid’s room and bathroom, painted a light green, then out to the back porch and the lockup garage. To the left of the maid’s room is the large kitchen with a table in the middle and a pantry to the side. Behind the kitchen is the laundry, the room where I’d do the ironing.
Mother is at the table with Father in the dining room, with its mahogany furniture and red and gold flocked wallpaper. It is already dark and the thick lined curtains are closed. The silver candlesticks on top of the white linen tablecloth reflect the light of the chandelier.
Husband and wife are dressed formally. Perhaps they’ve been to synagogue, or else they’ve been to the Chevra Kaddisha to pray for a dead relative, or they may have been to an afternoon tea at a friend’s house.
Father is two years younger; his face jowled, his mouth relaxed, his eyes small and piercing; his smile is kindly but wary. His hands shake slightly. His hands are broad, with thick blunt fingers, and are mottled with pigmentation spots. The short moustache and the grey hair are neatly trimmed.
Husband and wife eat in silence. The silence is full of contempt—a shared contempt.
She wears white gold wedding rings that are simple in design, and two diamond rings. And around her neck is a necklace of marquisette with drop earrings to match. He has given her many presents of jewellery over the years.
He turns to Mother and tells her he’s going to adjourn into the lounge room with the newspapers, is she going to join him?
She shakes her head. He shrugs at this, confirming: Let’s see who will break first. Who will be weakest in this mutual destruction of each other.
‘What are you laughing at?’ he says.
‘Nothing. I’m not laughing.’
‘Will we listen to a record in the lounge or will we go upstairs to bed?’
‘I don’t want to hear any records, thanks.’
She knocks the sugar bowl over as she reaches for the teapot. The fine bone china dish breaks into pieces and the brown granules spread over the white cloth. She glances at him in barely disguised fear, but he keeps on stirring his tea, looks straight ahead. He finishes his tea, wipes his moustache with meticulous care then throws the creased napkin onto the table and stands up.
‘It’s getting late. See you up there.’
To the right of the top of the staircase is their bedroom. I imagine Mother sitting down at the dressing table and taking the pins out of her hair. It falls to her shoulders, the heavy weight of it released. She puts on her nightgown and then stands in the middle of the room.
‘It’s a man’s world,’ she says in an absent-minded, dispassionate voice.
Father enters the bedroom, walks towards her. He is wearing a navy blue satin dressing gown and is holding a book in his hand, his glasses pushed up high on his forehead. She walks past him, pulls back the sheet. The sheet is spotted with blood. He sees the blood. She smiles to herself.
At twilight the sky is a deeper darker shade of blue. The clouds are puffy but stagnant. Faint hush of the sea. Traffic noises in the distance. A brief hammering. The sea turns from blue to soft grey as the waves move south in lines of darker grey. Thudding music from the house in front starts up but then it stops. The rumble of a plane overhead as it nears and then recedes. Moves closer—moves away. Kitchen sounds from the unit next door. Another plane rumbles in the distance.
The heat is leaving the day although the leaves and branches of the trees are not moving. Then a breeze picks up. A dog barks; the cicadas start up. Street lights, headlights. The sea darkens and the thudding party starts up again in the house in front.
It’s enough for me now just to think of Jack’s face with that peculiar, stricken look. Was it only later that as I searched for the memory of his face and looked at it and then his whole body, so often motionless and turned in on itself that I either took his face out of my memory or returned it to when I stood looking at him still asleep in the bed?
If he is living around here, he may be beginning a day’s work just now, since he never was one for an early start, or he may be sleeping with the doona over his head, unable to face another day. He may be listening to the sounds of the people around him preparing for work. Or he could be with that woman with the three children. Or he could just as well be living out west again.
Mother thought that God was cruel and hard. But in her prayers she still turned to Christ. She converted to Judaism when she married Father. I’m imagining her long honey hair rolled in a bun, her fine cheekbones, her mouth held in an ungenerous curve.
Her eyes are red with lack of sleep. She had been lying for several hours wandering whether to get up or not. It’s better to get up, straighten out the body, turn on the bedside light, try and read.
She gets up and stands for a long time by the hospital window. There is moisture on the pebbles of the veranda outside. Everything out there in the garden is blurred and hazy.
‘Thank you dear Lord for giving me daughters. I needn’t worry so much about what will happen … sometimes I think I’ve had enough of this world. How am I to cope?’ She lets herself sink. There is only one solution.
She turns off the bedside light then hears footsteps in the corridor. A nurse comes in and takes her pulse and her temperature, makes notes on the clipboard before replacing it at the end of the bed.
Or this is how I imagined it.
Outside the window a bird clutches a branch. Leaves surround and envelop him as the wind moves through the leaves. He trills a contralto then darts off towards the sky, swift as an arrow. The wind heaves the branches and scatters the leaves as another bird with a flurry of wings and a nod of his head darts off.
I must have been five when I came running in with a painting to show Mother, the picture of the birds in front of the clouds, the red sun to the left with its rays of sunlight. ‘I’ve got a present for you,’ I said. ‘Close your eyes.’ I put the painting in her hands. ‘Open your eyes.’ She looked at it. I pointed at the birds. ‘One bird, two birds, three, four, five, six black birds,’ I said. ‘It’s alright,’ she said in her dismissive voice. ‘You don’t have to count them all.’ I showed her the swirls of blue. ‘And this is me with my feet in the water,’ I said. ‘And this is you standing behind me watching. And this is the purple woolly rug that we had on the picnic. This is you and this is me.’
This may be the last time that I make the effort of remembering Jack. The last time that I let him make me suffer. It’s the forgetting that takes so long.
Memories of Mother have almost faded altogether. I don’t remember if I ever loved her. In my mind I no longer have the feel of her skin, nor in my ears the sound of her voice. I can’t remember the exact colour of her eyes, except sometimes I can see them all misty and watery with some secret. Her weeping I can’t hear any more – neither her weeping nor her laughter. It’s over with her, I don’t recall the details.
That night in June a strong wind had blown through the leaves. So strong it blew small branches off the trees and on to the car. Dirt blew along the road. Thunder, louder this time. A car alarm sounded for three beats and then it was silent again. A plane flew into the grey, its lights flickering as the horizon blurred and the sea turned into deep dark grey. People had flocked to the beach during the 34 degrees but now they hurried home as lightning split the sky. The thunder grew louder but, strangely, the sky was still blue above the ocean still lit by the setting sun even as it began to rain.
I’d taken off my nightie and sunk into the hot salt and oil, stretched out as the phone continued to ring. I lay there and listened. He hung up without leaving a message.
I’d felt the grief rising up from my stomach.
A bird plummets to the earth and Jack is no longer here. I sometimes find it hard to bear. After all this time I am talking about it to be free of it all, although I know I never can be. Over there to the east is the same sky reflected in the same water. But I am not the same, not the same as I was then, and not the same after telling it.
Dawn through the curtains casts long shafts of light across the carpet. There is a gentle breeze through the bamboo as I step outside and notice a white sail in front of the low hanging cloud. I stand there and watch as the yacht progresses along the flat line of the horizon.
Copyright © 2023 Libby Sommer
2 thoughts on “My short story, ‘Mother’”
absolutely beautiful writing
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Thank you so much, Beth. It’s so wonderful when you read and react to my work :)x
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