My mother was not cast in stone but something malleable and occasionally combustible. Some days she was the life and soul of the party, others the spectre at the feast. She was benign one day, and a raging storm the next. She once, in anger, hit my sister with a cucumber (the nearest thing to hand), and then hit her again because it broke. That was my mother in a nutshell.
I’d lie in bed in the morning listening for the signs of her mood for the day: the way she moved about the kitchen, the crash and bang of the utensils and the speed of her step as the breakfast cereal made its way to the table, the tone she used to rouse us, the swearing if inanimate objects refused to bend to her will. It sometimes helped, but often she could turn on a sixpence: a shrug of a shoulder from one of us, a misdirected sigh and wham, we were on a different track. She was unpredictable.
One summer holiday day, my brother K, my sister KM and me were arranged in a police style line-up in the kitchen. The baby, T, was still in his pram – I honestly believe he’d have joined us if he had mastered standing.
“Who did it?” she asked.
We looked from one to the other – there was a dangerous silence. No one wanted to say anything. She walked in front of us, staring closely at each of us in turn as though she would need to identify us at a later stage. We were clearly guilty criminals.
“I know it was one of you,” she said.
We none of us spoke. It was potentially fatal to jump before being pushed. And besides, the exact nature of the accusation had not been revealed. I tried to look innocent. I was innocent.
“That mark in the putty,” she began her walk in front of us again: up and down.
In turn, we each denied it. At first, I didn’t even know what putty was. And it didn’t seem a good time to ask.
“In the greenhouse window pane. The new one. A fingerprint.” My mother looked down the line-up. I looked at KM. She looked steadfastly forwards. K seemed more nonchalant.
“It wasn’t me,” he said.
“Or me!” KM half shouted.
“Well?” My mother said, leaning over towards me. She should have been in the Gestapo.
“I didn’t do it.” I hadn’t either.
“I suppose it was Mr Bloody Nobody, was it?” There was not a hint of humour in her tone.
“I’ve had enough of you all,” she said with controlled contempt. “I’m leaving. And I’m not coming back.” She paused. “Tell them to look for me in St Andrew’s dock.”
Deliberately, she grabbed the baby’s pram and left the house.
I was seven I suppose, KM eight and K, ten.
“One of you two better own up when she gets back,” K said.
“I’m not owning up. I didn’t do it.” KM spat back.
“I’ll make you.”
“You and whose army?”
“Stop it,” I said, before they started. They were always trying to beat seven shades of shit out of each other.
“Mary, you admit it. She’s always easy on you.” KM looked at me, half pleading.
“It wasn’t me.” I said.
We stood there for another ten minutes. I think we expected her to pop up and say, ‘gotcha!’ but she didn’t.
“She’ll be back,” K tried to sound confident. I wanted to know where St Andrew’s Dock was.
“She’ll definitely be back.”
But she wasn’t. It was early morning when she left. Dinner time came and went, and there was still no sign of her. We walked around the house like ghosts. We didn’t play. We didn’t speak. We didn’t watch television. It was a beautiful sunny day but we didn’t leave the house. It felt cold. Every now and then K would say, “She’ll be on her way home now” each time less certain than he’d been before.
At teatime, KM ferreted about the cupboards and found some tins of soup. Standing on a stool, she heated them up then poured them into bowls. She carefully wiped up the drips, even rinsing off the dishcloth as she’d seen our mother do. The three of us ate in silence.
Dad was working late but I was beginning to wonder how we would explain what we hadn’t done to make our mother leave and not come back. I felt hollow, empty. I wanted to say it was me who’d done the putty, even though I couldn’t reach it. I wanted to take the blame for everything, to make it all alright. I started to imagine the words I would say. I suppose the other two were making up their story too, but I didn’t ask. Waves of worry washed over me. My stomach hurt. It would be bedtime soon. I didn’t want to go to bed without my mother home. Where was St Andrew’s dock? Should we ring the police?
And then the door opened, and she came in. My mother pulled the pram, a great big Silver-cross thing up over the step, parked it in its usual place beside the table. Then, she carried on as if nothing had happened.
I suppose the demands of motherhood just got the better of her sometimes. And that St Andrew’s Dock day was one of those days.
Fast forward 10 years and I am standing in a phone box in Sheffield, a week or so into my first term at university feeling wretched and alone. I am the first person in my family to go to university and the burden is too great. I hate it. I hate it and I want to come home. I am out of place, skewed. I want to work in a factory, marry a man, have babies and not be clever. There is no-one like me here, no-one like us apart from the halls of residence porter and the woman who cleans my room. I have made friends with both: she gives me the only cerise pink duvet available and, when I’m feeling down, he teases me about Hull, about how it smells like fish.
I am phoning my parents. The week before I’d told them I want to leave and over egg and bacon in a greasy spoon my father weeps, big, wracking, silent tears dripping down his cheeks. My mother says I can leave if I want to. What am I to do? It’s the first time I have ever seen dad cry. So I get back on the train and resolve never to mention how hard it is again.
The phone rings out. And then again. Five or six times that evening I stand in line. Five or six times the phone rings out. Where are they? They are always in. My parents don’t go anywhere. I feel alone. Empty. Hollow. It’s like the putty incident all over again. I don’t sleep. I rock around my room, walking its tight dimensions like a prison cell.
The next morning my dad answers. He should be at work.
“Where’s me mam?” I ask.
“She’s in the hospital.”
“Do I need to come home?”
“No!” he says.
He’s so firm that I take him at his word.
“How are you?”
I offer some platitudes.
“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” I ask.
Yes he says, she’ll be home next week.
So the following week I ring, and there my mother is bright and breezy but I know she’s holding back, holding in. Week after week, we speak but say nothing.
Finally, I arrive home for Christmas and it is then I find out she has cancer.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I hold in my rage, my anger at not knowing about her pain, and at my exclusion.
“We didn’t want you to worry,” she says, “You’ve got enough on your plate.”
I can only return silence. I want to say, ‘Please don’t do that again. Please tell me everything.’ But I can’t. I walk around like a ghost, too afraid to ask about her prognosis then finally pluck up the courage.
“I’m great,” she says, lying. She has had a lump remove and the treatment is aggressive leaving her hair thin and her face grey.
“They’ve told me I’ll get better.”
And because there is nothing else I can do, I believe her. And we carry on as if nothing has happened.