A text message arrives from my brother Kelvin. It’s our first contact in two years.
‘The Immaculate One is very ill,’ he writes. ‘You need to come home.’
I message back: ‘What do you mean by very?’
‘I mean very,’ he replies. ‘I can pay for flights. You should call her.’
I want to respond with all the negatives I can muster. No, I don’t want his money. No, I don’t want to fly back. No, I don’t want to call our mother, because for years I’ve had my own crazy way of communicating with her that suits me just fine.
Instead I type: ‘I’ll sort the flights.’
In the book, the main character, Stella, calls the Speaking Clock and pretends her mother is on the other end of the line. I thought this was hilarious and tried it myself in a cold little hostel near the train cemetery in Uyuni, offsetting a thumping altitude headache with a cup of coca leaf tea and an imagined argument. The tea was foul, but calling the Speaking Clock sparked a habit I’ve honed and refined over the years. I found something very familiar about the Speaking Clock’s tone that first time, its unhurried precision. It conjured a vision of my mother, her perfectly lip-sticked lips at exactly the right distance from the microphone. Her voice neither formal, nor over-friendly, but just so. The same voice she used with me at certain hours on certain days of my young life, over and over again:
“If that’s the way you wish to live, Fiona.”
“I simply don’t understand you, Fiona.”
“Is all this because of what happened to your father, Fiona?”
There is a pause, a click, and then the familiar incantation. Time unfolds.
“At the third stroke, it will be…”
“Hello mum,” you say.
“…10.30 and 20 seconds…”
“Kelvin’s told me you’re ill.”
“I’m flying back to see you.”
Emptiness gathers and pools until there is a catch of breath down the line.
“It’s been a while Fiona. Where are you?”
“Australia. For now.”
“But where is home?”
She has never understood your wanderlust. Your fascination with the Next Big Place. Not understanding is the main thing you share. Even so, you hesitate, because no quick response adequately answers the question – ‘where is home?’
“Never mind darling,” she says into your silence. “You can think about that on your way back.”
Some journeys are more complex than others. This one involves an airport bus, a flight to Seoul, the long haul to Frankfurt, a stopover before Bristol (and reacquainting with my dim brother), the long schlep through hospital corridors, those final steps to my mother’s bedside.
I have ended up in Sydney because the latest of my ex-boyfriends suggested we should live together to save our relationship, which had been pulled like elastic between continents until there was no more stretch in it. We lasted four whole months before he moved out.
The apartment is a dank little box, but I’ve stayed in far worse since I left home at 17. It was supposed to be a two-week camping trip to France, but at the end of it I got a bus heading east. I felt like a cork pulled from a champagne bottle, expanded, impossible to squeeze back into my mother’s tight, tight world.
The flight to Seoul will take nine hours, so I find a couple of pills at the bottom of my bag and eat them. They’re not for sleeping, just for making time hazy. Then I put on my familiar travelling clothes – crepe sole shoes for mattress-like comfort, a dress over leggings, a frayed wrap cardigan (shapeless, but comfortable), plus the usual cornucopia of ribbons and beads in my hair. The look is ‘shattered teenage rebel stuck clumsily back together’. I am 42 years of age.
“At the first stroke it will be….”
“Do you recognise my voice these days mum?”
“12.50 and…of course I do, Fiona.”
“So I don’t sound like a stranger then?”
She is quiet. You remember the way she placed her fingertips against her cheek whenever she considered word choice.
“Have you ever recorded yourself speaking,” she says finally. “It’s very revealing. You can never understand your own voice, until you hear it as someone else does.”
You know this is a trap. Yet when she spins out a baited hook you always meet it with an eager mouth.
“What do I sound like?”
“Sweetheart, don’t you know? You’ve always sounded, very much, like me.”
I have a bag of lucky trinkets for when I fly – a hummingbird feather, a plastic Buddha liberated from a tour group pervert in Chang Mai, a tiny ceramic campervan that some dreadlocked girl gave me in Nimbin; coins, coloured stones, many shells, though I can’t remember which beaches I combed to find them.
When the cabin crew are strapped into their seats for take-off, I pull down my tray table and spread this horde like a temple offering. The woman next to me huffs in disapproval and makes aggressive claim on our shared armrest. The pills have kicked in, so I don’t get affronted.
From among this traveller’s juju, I pick up the antique perfume bottle mum gave me on my 10th birthday. The stopper is shaped like a butterfly, enamel on silver, fingerworn. I hold it under my nose, though the scent has long gone. She smelled of perfume and hairspray, of filter-tip cigarettes and the high, sweet tang of nail polish. Of desserts and gin.
She had a keen nose too, for things that smelled wrong or out of place. And I stank. I reeked of awkwardness and rage. Of spunk and skunk and fear. When she smelt such weakness, there was always a smile and a rearranging of legs. That’s what pervades my childhood memories – twitching nostrils and a 10-denier swish of disapproval.
Scents and memory are the classic double punch. It takes a mere whiff of pencils to bring back my dad, even though he died when I was just four years old. A dodgy heart. The only vivid memory I have is when he let me feed pencils into the heavy, crank-handled sharpener on his desk. I can picture precisely the green-greyness of it, the little metal teeth in the recess where the pencils went, the smoothness of the varnished handle. I sat on my dad’s lap as I sharpened, his hand hovering over mine so no small fingers got trapped.
I am my father’s daughter. Big hands and unremitting eyebrows. An uneconomical gait. But I have to squeeze all these genetic bonds, all the love, into the ghost of a late morning, pencil-sharpening session, because my mother thought it best not to talk about him. Better to look ahead, she said. Better to keep things moving forward.
There’s a remote control handset underneath the ‘entertainment’ screen in front of me that doubles as a telephone. I wonder if it’s possible to call the Speaking Clock from up here. I wonder how that even works, if I’m flying backwards against Time Zones, while the clock counts the hours and minutes in the other direction.
“At the third stroke it will be 4.40 and 20 seconds precisely.”
“I’m on my way.”
“Were there no direct flights Fiona?”
“Look, I did my best.”
“Did you pack correctly? It’s very cold here.”
You smile at her very particular word choice. Not ‘pack enough’ or ‘pack warm clothes’, but ‘pack correctly’.
“You never complain about the weather,” you say.
“I can’t get warm Fiona.”
“You’ve never felt the cold in your life.”
“It’s in my bones,” she says.
Not long after your father died, she took you to feed ducks in the park. A bitterly cold day. Her only concession to the weather was a thin, powder-blue coat and a silk scarf. Near the pond, a duck squatted on the frozen bank, one mangled wing cast out at an angle. The duck moved its head from side to side and opened its beak, though no sound come out.You began to cry. You wanted the duck to fold its wing and quack and eat the bread you had brought. You wanted the cold to go away. You wanted to wee. You wanted to be on your daddy’s lap.
“What did you expect Fiona? That I put that duck out of its misery in front of you?”
“The whole ice queen vibe. How it didn’t affect you. The suffering.”
“It didn’t? Is that what you really think? Your father had only just died Fiona – how could it not!”
A forgotten part of the memory dislodges from the place it has been hidden. Later the same day, the two of you sat on a bench while people hurried by, their breath puffs of vapour. Nestled into the heat of her she took your hand and held it, hidden inside the warmth of a coat pocket.
“It’s about time, Fiona.”
“What is? What do you mean?”
“At the first stroke, it will be….”
I have a few hours in the pristine whiteness of Seoul airport, waiting for my connection. At this time of night, it’s eerily empty. I wander the vast hallways to stretch my legs, past closed shops and silent departure lounges. A few passengers and airport staff loom and recede, like ghosts drifting round some airside Purgatory.
There’s a bar still open near my departure lounge. I buy a glass of rice beer and sip it, watching the barman stack glasses. He is old, his hair whispery and grey, the backs of his hands flecked with liver spots. This must be his final job, seeing out the night shift in this backwater of the airport. As I watch him, working slowly, filling time, a sadness drapes over me, so sudden and overwhelming I gulp the beer and hurry to an empty block of seats where I can cry in peace, even though I have no idea why.
When I open up my bag to find a tissue, my phone lights up. Messages from Kelvin. Once sentence per text. He’s clearly inherited our mother’s love of concision:
‘She’s discharged herself and gone home.’
‘You know what gone home means, right?’
‘Why haven’t you called her?’
I reply, thumbing in flight numbers and estimated arrival times. I fill space. Afterwards, I sit clutching the phone, flickering on the edge of sleep. And every I open my eyes, I see ghosts gliding around me.
“Do you ever wonder why you keep moving from place to place Fiona?”
“Staying put isn’t me, I drift,” you reply. “Precision and repetition – that’s your department.”
“We’re not completely unalike, you and I,” she says.
Once, years ago, you found an envelope when you were searching her dressing table drawers for cash. There was a creased, monochrome photograph inside – a woman in the doorway of a terraced house, unsmiling, thick forearms crossed over a grubby housecoat. Just peaking round the door was a little girl with a long pigtail, something smeared round her mouth. On the back, in your mother’s handwriting, were the words: “Me and our Mammy”.
Even as you think about this, you say: “We’re not alike. We’re not!”
“Really?” your mother says. “All the places you’ve been, everything you’ve seen, all the people you’ve left behind. Repeating the same thing over and over. Starting again, but never moving on. What does all that remind you of Fiona?”
We are late into Frankfurt and I miss my connection. Jetlag has kicked in and I spend minutes swaying in front of the departures board, trying to identify the number of my new flight. I am acidic with weariness. I find the exit gate and sit by huge windows that look out onto the runway. My mind is still in the air, lost in the vast snowfield of clouds.
I remember, a few weeks before the fateful French camping trip, an end-of-school celebration when I stayed out beyond the agreed time – “midnight, when we turn into pumpkins, Fiona”.
I was all sharpness and angles in those days. Doing everything I could to fit in by posing as an outsider – hair dyed mourning black, kohl-rimmed eyes, my hands and ears armoured in metal hoops and rings. I fucked pretty boys then ached for how beautiful and doomed I was.
I called her to come fetch me, because I had misplaced my boyfriend and had no money for the bus. She found me lying on the pavement outside the long-closed pub, pedalling my legs and wailing. After watching me from the car for a while, she got out, walked round and managed to get me standing. I heard the rustle of her immaculate dress under her immaculate coat and smelled her cleanness cutting through my drink and cigarette funk. I pushed my head into the crook of her neck, nuzzling for more.
“My beautiful girl. Such a state,” she whispered.
We stood like that for a long while, until my head bowed and I vomited splashily over her suede boots. She said nothing. Gave me a tissue to wipe my mouth, then put me in the car, buckled the seatbelt and arranged my flailing hands on my lap. Only then did she unzip the boots and pull them off, pairing them neatly by the pub door, before driving us home barefoot.
I remember this very clearly. Yet I also doubt if it ever happened. That maybe it is a dream which has became a memory because I wanted it to be. I wonder how many more of these times there are between us.
Beyond the airport I can see hills in the far distance, lit a tender blue by the morning sun. In the sky above, my eyes find a speck, so distant and small it is barely there. I keep losing it, until there is a flash of sunlight on metal. As the dot grows, I find myself willing it to resolve into a familiar shape, impatient for the moment. And when it has become a huge plane gliding towards the runway, I wonder how it could ever have been such a tiny dot in the first place.
It’s time to move. Before I do, I pull my phone from my bag, turn it on, and dial my mother’s real number. It rings a couple of times before she answers. When she speaks, it is unmistakably her, but no longer an echo of the Speaking Clock. This voice shakes and stumbles. This voice is thin. It is ancient and precious.
“I’ll be home soon,” I tell her.
K.M. Elkes is author of the flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019). His short stories have won, or been placed, in writing competitions such as the Manchester Fiction Prize, Royal Society of Literature Prize, Fish Prize and the Bridport Prize. Also longlisted for the 2019 BBC National Short Story Award. As a writer from a rural, working class background, his work often explores marginalised voices and places. He is currently writing a debut novel. Website: www.kmelkes.co.uk
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