Her fading was so gradual, it’s difficult to pinpoint when she actually disappeared. I just thought of her one day out of the blue, for no particular reason other than I wanted to locate an old summer coat, and when I went to look for her she wasn’t there. She had gone. That’s funny, I thought, I felt sure I had seen her. But when you live in the present, the past all melds into one mass of vague colour and movement, with no dates attached. Dirt, my brother, who has more of a handle on that sort of thing, said it was six months. But I don’t believe him. Surely six months would feel long. A season would change, and I would feel the difference from warm to cold. Also, Dirt has a rather dramatic bent, strangely lacking in my father and me, more akin to my mother. My mother many years ago, before her fading and her reappearance as a lump on the wall.
At first, I don’t think I really agreed with Dirt’s assessment of the lump. A lump is a lump is a lump. But that’s not true. We should’ve known that lumps can be other things. Dirt always used to play in the mud as a child (and later when he should’ve known better). Mum called him ‘Earth-child.’ I called him ‘Dirt’ and, when Mum wasn’t around, ‘Turd-boy,’ which even he preferred to Darren. He’d make what Mum would describe as his ‘creations,’ which were really holy messes. He calls himself an artist now. Everyone, except Mum, thinks he’s a waste of space. I’d tell Mum, ‘I’m not going to lie, this stuff of his is a whole hunk of shit.’ Christ, you would think I had gouged his heart out with a trowel before eating it, the way she reacted. ‘Being gentle isn’t a failing,’ she’d say, all teary, always with the tears. Fine, I’d think, being gentle is not going to make any difference to the world and you’ll just get a trampling. ‘Dreaming isn’t a waste of time.’ Give me strength. Come to think of it, that’s probably why no one noticed when she went. Too much of the dreaming and not enough time spent being here. Maybe we were more alike than I knew.
It was Dirt though, that first made the connection. I went into the living room and found Dirt sitting on the floor in the middle of the room staring at the chimney breast.
‘I keep looking for Mum,’ I told him.
‘I wondered when you’d finally notice.’
‘What? What?,’ and then I saw the lump on the chimney breast, to the left, mid-way between the mantle and the ceiling.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said. Dirt shrugged. ‘Has Dad seen it?’ This time he laughed.
There was something about the way the light caught the contours of the lump and the way the shadows fell. I didn’t recall seeing it before. I racked my brains trying to convince myself that it had always been there; until I became unsure of time and form and whether anything was real.
‘Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember her story about the lump on the wall?,’ Dirt whispered. I looked at his grinning face, all urgency and smugness, and felt the urge to slap it.
It’s only now I remember Mum’s story about her teacher at school. I see Mum telling it. She grows a couple of inches as she draws herself up. She pinches in her face. She would have made a good actress; she would have made a good anything. Dirt and I, a lot younger then, laugh and try to pull the face of the pinched teacher, with a mouth like a cat’s arse. Mum changes her voice, so it’s shrill.
‘I can’t tell the difference between you and that lump on the wall. Tch, tch. Such inertia. Tch, tch.’ Dirt’s laughing as she tells this story but I’m thinking maybe the teacher had a point and that’s not funny.
‘The lump on the wall probably had more go in it,’ I say in fury. I don’t understand why I’m so angry. Dirt laughs harder. Mum looks hurt.
‘It’s all going on.’ She taps her head. ‘It’s all going on.’ She taps her chest. ‘Why should it touch me?’
And, it turned out, it was all going on, there in her chest. Black cells multiplying. Eating away at the healthy tissue. But we didn’t know that for a long time.
Dirt and I stand examining the lump on the wall. I suddenly want to slap myself for being so suggestible. I want to slap Dirt as well. But he seems to have perked up so much recently, and is working so industriously on his paintings, that I lose heart. Let him have his fantasy or reality, whichever it is for him, if it works. Why not?
I go see dad, holed up in his bedroom – their bedroom.
‘Dad, I keep looking for Mum.’
‘Hasn’t Dirt showed you?’
I must have looked annoyed because he begins to laugh.
‘Bit late now love.’ The laughter fades. ‘It’s ok, don’t be harsh on yourself.’
We both shift uneasily, then dad goes back to the TV opposite his bed. His illuminated face is blank and peaceful. You have to be grateful for these things.
Two weeks later I hear Dirt’s murmuring voice in the living room. I walk in. He’s sitting in front of the lump.
‘Are you talking to that?’
‘That? That? Don’t be a cow to her all your life.’
‘It’s a lump.’
‘Yes we all know that. Me. Mum,’ he indicates the lump, ‘and Dad.’
I take to my bed to try to think about what to do. I roll the blanket around me and moan. Dad and Dirt come and stare blankly at me. The mound of blanket anyway.
‘But she’s there. She’s here,’ Dirt tells me.
Later I’m pained by a memory, more recent this time. I come into the kitchen. Mum’s peeling a carrot. Some peelings fall to the floor. She picks each little piece up slowly, deliberately. One by one. Pick up, put in bin. Pick up, put in bin. For some reason this makes me want to scream. I sometimes get the urge to burn the house down. It comes then goes away again. Not with anyone in it. Just to light a fire. Just to get people moving. To get myself moving.
I pick up the peeled carrot from the counter-top and start eating it.
‘What’s going on?’ As I speak bits of carrot fly out of my mouth on to the floor. They’re not on the floor a second before she’s stooped and binned them. I realise I’m sneering. She picks up another carrot and starts to peel.
‘Nothing’s going on,’ she says. She jabs her forehead with the carrot. ‘Nothing at all.’ I spot a bit of spit-slimed carrot on the floor.
‘You missed a bit’, I tell her.
She waves the peeler at me.
‘You,’ she chokes, ‘You pick it up.’
As I turn to leave, she is already bending to pick up the carrot piece. Two tear spots in perfect circles appear each side of it.
‘Don’t stay here,’ she says to the floor.
I didn’t know then about the lump. I wonder if she knew. I think she knew something. These memories twist my heart.
Now I find myself pacing in circles around the house. I try to eat but feel full before I start. I walk into the living room. I’m mostly looking at the floor but I glance at the lump. My muscles are all balled up tight.
‘Mum,’ I whisper, but there’s no reply.
When I’m not pacing, I’m cocooned up in blankets, suspended between sleep and wakefulness. Never rested and never still. The time goes. Day into night. The Earth keeps turning.
Another memory has Dirt and me as children at the zoo. We are fascinated with the polar bear in his plastic, Arctic-replica enclosure. The bear paces a few steps forwards then backwards, head constantly swaying. Rocking from side to side. Dirt and I spend the rest of the afternoon copying the bear and falling about laughing. Dad laughs with us. Mum, all watery eyed and sniffly, watches the bear, then watches us. Later I learn that polar bears are meant to roam vast distances and go mad when kept in enclosures. This is just one of the many things we never knew years ago. And one of the many ways we hurt with our ignorance.
Later, after the zoo, we all go to the park and sit on a blanket eating luncheon meat sandwiches and Penguin bars. Dad roars and chases Dirt and me. He catches us and rolls us on the grass. He goes to mum, who is kneeling on the blanket, and roars at her. It begins to falter at the end as she stares at him unimpressed, before laughing at how crest-fallen he is. He puts an arm around her shoulders and kisses her on the lips. She kisses him back laughing at herself and laughing at the sky as she throws herself back on the blanket. I roar and run, flat out, straight at dad. I floor him. We both laugh, rolling on the grass. I get up, walk backwards a few paces, swaying my head, then, roaring, I run and flatten him again. Dirt sits on mum’s lap eating a Penguin bar. She kisses his head and nuzzles him close to her. They conspire in a giggle, as he gets chocolate smears all over the both of them.
Back in front of the lump, I try doing the polar bear again to see if it will cheer me up. Pacing and swaying. It’s strangely comforting.
‘What are you doing?,’ Dirt asks, walking into the living room.
‘I’m a polar bear.’
Dirt just nods, like it all makes sense. Sometimes you just know you’re the same blood.
The last time I remember hearing her speak, she was hunched morosely in front of the computer. Pale and small, curled in on herself, her breath laboured. She’d had an email from her college asking alumni to get in touch.
‘Send us a paragraph about what you’ve been up to.’
‘I can’t think of a paragraph to write. I can’t think of a sentence.’
‘You’ve had your children.’
‘It’s not an achievement. Something they’d be interested in.’
‘Not until they want their pensions. I can’t even think of a good lie.’
‘Then make it a bad one. Make it a fantastic one.’
She shakes her head dismally, ‘What have I done?’
‘As much as anyone.’
I put an arm around her bird-bony shoulders. I’m shocked at how little there is of her. But I never thought she would disappear.
That was then. And the time between is a blur. Now, I find myself peeling carrots in the kitchen and suddenly tears are streaming down my face and I don’t know why. I know it’s not the carrots. That evening I pack some things and the next day I leave home. Mum always said leaving is hard, but it isn’t.
‘I’m leaving, Turd-boy,’ I say.
‘I love you,’ I tell him, kissing his cheek.
He laughs, ‘Get out of it.’ I laugh and I’m crying again.
I have to walk to the train because I’m sobbing like a baby and don’t want to get on the bus. I hope I don’t see anyone. But then I really don’t care.
I return, not for good I promise myself, just for a visit, one evening a year to the day after I left. As I’m walking through the familiar front door, Dad’s there, sitting on the stairs, putting on his shoes. Only they’re a pair of trainers.
‘You should’ve said, love. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’ He beams at me. ‘I’ve got a date.’ He waves his phone in front of me. I catch a glimpse of a blurred selfie of a middle-aged woman. All bright colours. I give him a hug as he bounces out of the door. He kisses me and as he moves up the garden path, I can hear the murmur of a song fading. I clutter the hall with my bags. Everything seems the same, only colder and stiller and smaller.
‘Dirt,’ I cry. Silence. I enter the living room and switch on the light. I cry out in shock. For one split second I think it’s my actual mother morphing out of the cracked chimney breast. Forever pinned by her knotty entrails into the very fabric of the house. I then realise it’s her face somehow printed or painted on to the, now enlarged, lump. I turn to find my brother standing behind me. He grins, prideful but sheepish at the same time. He looks fit and healthy.
‘I did it,’ he says.
‘She’s not coming back,’ I tell him.
‘I know, but when it’s really windy out, sometimes she even sighs.’
I smile and close my eyes and listen. She is there, I can hear her. The smile spreads all over.
Lisa Blackwell writes short fiction and plays. Her short fiction has appeared in the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2019 and MIR Online. She has had short plays produced at Rich Mix, London and the Chiswick Playhouse, London. Twitter: @lisablackwelly.
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