Sunday, January 10

Shoulders and Chins

I WAS IN THE living room when she arrived home on Christmas Eve. The back door, most common entrance to the house, opened and closed; her shoes clicking on the tiled floor. For a moment, I rested my glass of prosecco on a coaster next to me, then, after a pause, decided to take it with me as I went to greet her. No exclamation, but a smile. She is wearing a fur coat—‘You look like a call-girl.’ ‘But a classy one…?’ ‘Yes.’ We kiss each other on the cheek. I do not recall when she stopped smelling of us and our house, when she stopped smelling of our fabric softener, but she no longer smells of us or our house or our fabric softener. Although I do not like to admit it, the first time I noticed that she smelt different she felt less like family. I took her in. She was not gaining weight, although not eating properly. When was the last time I had seen her? ‘It’s not real fur.’ ‘Good.’ She pulls her shoes off and wrinkles her toes. Train journeys can cramp feet something terrible. It was most likely because I was drunk but, without warning, I embraced her tightly, my arms as much around her as I could. Our shoulder and chins are a perfect match. Some shoulders and chins aren’t a perfect match, but ours interlock most comfortably. ‘Hello, mum.’ ‘Hello, sugarplum.’ Her tough year was almost over; seven and a half days left.
God knows I could never initiate the hug. She knows I could never initiate the hug. It’s strange: if I meet a friend for a drink and they hug me hello, I am not half as enthusiastic about it as I am the hug when we say good-bye; not because I am glad to see the back of them, but because by then I’ve had a drink.
‘Why don’t you go put your stuff upstairs and I’ll get you a drink? Prosecco?’
‘That’d be lovely.’
Home for Christmas. I am so happy. I hope I don’t forget to tell her how much I’ve missed her. You forget to tell people important things occasionally.
He and I were the first to stay in my mum’s redecorated guestroom, back when we were five-months-old and still forming our infant tongues. We christened each other on the sheets that had smelled like my home for as long as I could remember. In the early days of relationships you fuck more because you are hungrier. I miss those times a lot. I miss all of the times a lot. The bed is made perfectly; not a crease or slightly emphasised ripple. I put all of my bags down and start to unpack; if you are staying longer than one night, unpack. I put my clothes neatly into a chest of drawers, above which is a large, heavy-framed mirror I had not seen before. I study myself briefly. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’ he said—‘but you always look as though you’ve just finished crying.’ ‘Christ, really?!’ I feigned disappointment at his observation, because I actually quite liked it. ‘I don’t mean it in a bad way! You’re beautiful, you are, but you just look like you’ve just finished crying. I dunno why.’ The bed, all dressed in bridal white, was still perfect. I daren’t touch it. It would be good to get into, warm at least. He sat on the edge and engraved the mattress in the shape of his body. I walked downstairs, with all of my clothes folded and stacked neatly in their drawers.
Prosecco. Flute. The tree is twinkling and, in the uncovered windows, its reflection is twice as warming. She sits there with her knees up, her legs spiralled around her. I can smell her from here and she does not smell like us, but perhaps that is also the tobacco smell—‘You still smoking?’ ‘Yes.’ I have got her back up, wishing I hadn’t asked that stupid question. So I relay a story about a woman from work who I’m trying to talk into standing up to her husband—‘Seriously, the poor woman. He walks all over her!’ ‘He sounds like an arsehole.’ ‘He is. He probably hates me.’ I wish we would see each other more often; that is both of our faults—‘Do you want a top-up?’ She looks at her glass, not paying attention to how much she has drunk—‘O, yes please.’ In the kitchen, dinner is slowly cooking before everyone else arrives later. It is all sorted so that I can drink; expert planning. I do not want to leave her in there for too long; I know how the mind works, how her mind works and my own; so often the resting expression is sadness. But I am glad that she is not paying attention to how much she is drinking with me; hopefully I am not alone in thinking how wonderful this is.
If I had ordered that sandwich with my coffee at the train station I might not be so drunk, but drunk I am and sober I pretend to be. She calls—‘Do you want a sausage roll? I’ve made about a hundred!’ Excellent. ‘Yes, please!’ I love being home, although I try not to call it ‘home’ because it was my home and it is no longer. She enters with a plate of tiny sausage rolls. I have a new home now.
I love being a mother, to her most of all, I think—‘Isn’t this lovely!’ ‘Yes! Very nice.’
Why did she have to ask that question? Not because I fear it so much – I could always lie – but I have now had enough to drink that I will answer it honestly, and I feel like being honest, right now, more than any other time.
We’ve both got full glasses. It’s another hour, at least, before the rest of them arrive—‘So, how was your work do on Friday?’ Not good. She pauses. She eats the last sausage roll on the plate I gave her. How well does she eat on her own? Why am I playing Elvis music? I hated my mother playing Elvis music. She pauses and dusts the crumbs off her fingers, long slender fingers like her father’s.
I breathed in deeply, because that is what one does before they give confessions in a state of drunkenness to their mother in the living room of their childhood home as the room sparkles in Christmas tree lights. ‘I drank far too much.’ ‘O dear, Lucy.’ ‘Yeah… and ended up sobbing in front of a lot of people.’ All of my new colleagues looking at me, slightly confused, staring, not knowing what to do. I had thought I was better. She is concerned. I have said too much—‘Not just a few drunk tears – actually sitting on the ground, knees up to my chest, sobbing.’ I chuckle to save a bit of face, to play it off—‘Pretty mortifying in retrospect.’ ‘O, sugarplum.’ Then, for the first time that evening, I mentioned him, without actually meaning to mention him at all—‘It made me realise that however much I think I am okay, I am completely confused about everything and trying so ridiculously hard to not slip back into anything close to how I felt earlier this year. I know that was bad, and I don’t want to go back to it, you know?’ She hasn’t sipped in a while. I sip to wet my mouth, and she mirrors me.
It’s not much fun having children, or, I mean it is, but sometimes it is very difficult. You want to protect them, but only from life and life is all we have, I suppose. She sips. I wish our sofas were closer together.
‘But it was kinda refreshing – ignoring the crippling embarrassment that I’ve felt ever since – to realise that I am not as completely devoid of caring about things as I thought I had been lately.’ ‘You had got over him?’ ‘Yeah, I thought so. I mean, I wasn’t thinking about him every day and I was doing all right with the thoughts and the nightmares and all that.’ I can still feel the buttery grease of the sausage rolls on my fingers. ‘It’s kind of hilarious, I guess, that some histrionic drunk experience has made me feel more like myself again.’ I licked my index finger and thumb—‘But there you go.’
A beam of headlights revolve around the living room, my brother’s car, putting an inadvertent full-stop after my confession. ‘We must continue this later,’ she says, but I know we won’t; the moment has passed.

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