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Mother’s Not Home

by Jennifer Walmsley

Emrys sees faces in faded linoleum. Sneering faces like his Uncle Kendall’s. He hears a voice calling out to him. He hears a fist banging on his back door. But he stays in his seat staring down at those faces, screwing his eyes almost closed to study washed-out, pink and grey features swirling at his feet.

“I know you’re in there!” a crusty voice shouts. Silence. Then footsteps stamp back down the garden path to the lane.

Emrys shifts his ungainly body up from the chair and tiptoes over to the kitchen window. Outside, beyond grimy net and smeared glass he sees his next door neighbour bending over a stooped old woman and, as they talk, the old woman’s gaze drifts past the gossip up to the kitchen window.

Sighing, Emrys flinches at the sound of the telephone ringing out in the hall. Leaving the window, sidestepping the cat he hates, he plods over to the kitchen door and leans against the jamb, waiting for the ringing to cease.

When it falls silent, the cat’s body twines around his legs and, taking the hint, Emrys returns to the kitchen to feed the beast. After the cat finishes its meal and licks its plate clean, it stalks to the back door, tail raised like a rod. Recognising the sign, Emrys lets it out and, as he does so, that crusty voice calls out, “How’s your mother, Emrys?”

Mrs. Jenkins is standing, he knows, on two concrete blocks and peering myopically over the dividing wall covered in pigeon dung. “Fine,” he mutters, about to shut the door, blocking out that bitter face.

But Mrs. Jenkins is not ready to release him, “I called round earlier. Wanted to know if your mother needs anything from the Spar?”

“No, she doesn’t.” He closes the door but, remembering his manners, opens it up a crack, adding, “Thank you for asking,” and promptly shuts it again.

He goes to the window, sees his neighbour still standing on her dias. Then she drops out of sight and he breathes in a wheezy sigh of relief.

Upstairs, his mother lies in a double bed she once shared with a father he never knew. Emrys looks up at the ceiling, seeing a mental image of her large frame rising and falling as she dozes. Then he sniffs as if he can smell baby talcum powder which is always liberally sprinkled over her after a shower. Now he calls up, “I’ll bring you your lunch shortly, Mother,” but her reply, he thinks, is muffled by the constant sound of her radio.

Going into the larder, he pulls a face at its lack of contents. A few tins, packets of biscuits laced in cobwebs, sit on shelves in need of cleaning. Emrys takes out a tin of baked beans and soon the beans are bubbling on the gas stove. Spooning the beans onto a plate, he places his mother’s lunch onto a tray and, about to take it upstairs, is interrupted by the sound of the front door bell chiming.

The tray in his spade-like hands jerks as the bell chimes once again. “Damn!” Emrys cuts off the rest of the curse. Mother hates swearing. Putting the tray down onto the floor, he creeps on slippered feet down the dim hall to the front door. From upstairs, the one o’clock news drifts down declaring interest rates rising. The letter box flaps. Two green eyes peer through the slit.

“Come on Emrys,” Wendy the district nurse cajoles. “Open the door. It’s bloody freezing out here.”

His cheeks grow hot and, about to do as she asks, he pauses. Mother dislikes being disturbed especially at lunch times. “Mother’s not home.” His reply sounds weak.

“Of course she is,” comes the reply. “Please, love. It’s cold and your Uncle Kendall’s flu jab is due at one-thirty.”

“Go to him first,” Emrys says, shivering at the thought of the man who’s brought misery and confusion into his life.

“Don’t tell your mother,” Uncle Kendall used to tell him when Emrys was a child, holding out a packet of fruit gums as an enticement.

Wendy, forcing lightness into her tone, a tone people often use when addressing him, pleads, “Please, Emrys.”

Unable to resist her pleasant wheedling, he opens the door, saying, “Mother will be angry with me.”

And Wendy, stepping inside, tells him, “Don’t worry. I’ll sort it out, love.”

Now she’s running up the stairs, her black bag banging against a slender thigh and he hears her feet patter across the landing into his mother’s bedroom. Slowly Emrys climbs the stairs and, as he reaches the top, Wendy emerges, her face ashen. “Go downstairs, Emrys,” she says. “Put the kettle on.”

He starts to cry. Takes a step towards Wendy. “Mother said Uncle Kendall was coming here to live with us.” And as his sobs turn into wails, the stench of death mingling with the sweet scent of baby talc wafts out of the darkened bedroom.

Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Walmsley

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