Her gimlet eyes are sooty diamonds. ‘You treat this place like a hotel.’
I laugh. It sounds hollow, even to me. ‘You want payment?’ Of course, I had paid already, in more ways than one. Time to go. Time to find a nicer hotel – an exotic marigold, preferably. Far away from here. Somewhere the rooms have locks on the doors, where you don’t get wriggling red ants dropped on your face while you’re sleeping.
‘You’ll regret this!’ Mother’s voice has become uglier.
‘Listen to me. You need to listen. That’s the problem.’ She is whisky-slurred again.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘What are you talking about? You crossed a line’
‘Don’t throw it back at me. You always throw it back.’ Words catch like barbed wire in my throat.
‘You push too far. You keep pushing.’
‘So, it’s my fault? You’re blaming me? You’ve totally lost it.’
‘Get out, then. Don’t come crying to me when it all falls apart, because I won’t take you back. No-one will want you, not now, not ever.’
‘Well, you made sure of that, didn’t you?’
‘Monster!’ Her skull-splitting scream contorts a face I once considered beautiful. My stomach lurches.
I’m two, maybe three, steps away from reaching the door, clutching the rucksack I’d packed the night before and hidden inside the foul-smelling, blood-stained wardrobe.
‘Pot. Kettle. Black.’ My voice barely a whisper, I walk away, the sharpened blade still warm in my pocket.
“So, you cheated on me.” Mel almost choked on the words, salty tears spilling from her baby-blue eyes, and I quickly regretted confessing my deceit.
“How could you?” Her soft voice was heavy and sad. “Who was she?”
I hesitated. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Someone I knew, then.”
I couldn’t argue. Memories of her younger sister and I rolling naked on the sand dunes, arms and legs entwined, passionate tongues exploring, probing, were still vivid, fresh. Had it really been worth it?
Mel started to walk towards the door. I panicked. “Don’t go,” I heard myself say. I began to cry. Images of what had been, what would no longer be, flooded my brain and I realised I didn’t want it to end like this. “I’m sorry. It didn’t mean anything.”
Mel turned and stared, unmoved, the hurt in her eyes replaced with contempt. “You betrayed my trust.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. Needles of moonlight poked through the bedroom blinds, casting an eerie glow. Mel paused for a moment, as if considering what to do next. Then she said, “Before I leave you, Kat, before I leave us, I want one last kiss.” Cradling my face in her slender fingers, she brushed her lips gently across my forehead, moving down, until her mouth covered mine. My head started swimming while familiar delicious sensations surged through my veins as the tip of her tongue touched my teeth. I felt the magnetic force of Mel’s desire as she pushed me against the wall and in that moment, I was confident she could never leave. Not when we still had this, our two bodies fused, as if time had been frozen. After a few moments, I tried to pull away to get some air, but Mel held me so tightly I was unable to move. She’d sealed her lips to mine, draining me, and I suddenly realised this kiss would not end until finally, triumphantly, she’d drawn all the breath from my body.
“Hey, big brother, your turn to see to Mum,” Faith murmured.
Alec yawned but nestled further into the well-worn armchair in the corner of the draughty living room.
“Her glass of milk is on the kitchen table,” Faith reminded him. “Semi-skimmed, of course. And don’t forget her medication.”
Cursing profusely, Alec finally got up, rubbing his bleary eyes. Faith knew his patience was wearing thin.
“When you think of the word ‘mother’ what adjectives spring to mind?” he muttered. “How about cantankerous, vindictive, demanding, selfish -”
“Stop it, Alec. She’s our mum,” interrupted Faith.
“Exactly,” he replied. “If anything, old age has made her even more intolerable.”
“This is her home. If she wants to recuperate on the top floor, she can. Have some compassion.”
“Like she did, when we were kids?” His voice cut like an ice pick piercing a skull. “Besides, it’s only a broken ankle. Which she brought on herself.”
“How can you be so mean? She tripped on the doorstep.”
“Yes, pursuing her latest care assistant with a meat cleaver, after wrongfully accusing the poor girl of stealing one of her hideous china ornaments. I’m not surprised the agency refused to find a replacement this time. She’s a bloody nightmare, and I swear her temper outbursts are getting worse.”
“In the meantime, we can sort things out. We can, Alec. She’s our mum.”
“So you keep saying. When we were growing up, I kept hoping there was some mistake, that she wasn’t really our mum, that we’d been adopted, and one day we’d be rescued by someone who really loved us. At the very least, a normal human being. No such luck.” He disappeared into the kitchen and returned holding a wipe-clean plastic tray. Hovering in the doorway, he said, “You forgive too easily, Faith.”
Avoiding his gaze, she continued, “Try again to persuade her she’ll be better off down here.”
“Fat chance,” he replied, his voice fading as he disappeared into the gloom of the forbidding oak staircase.
“We could make up a bed for her in the living room,” Faith mumbled to herself, as she snuggled into the sagging sofa, pulling a fleecy blanket over her shoulders. Minutes later, she had drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Alec was panting by the time he reached the second flight of stairs. The house was too big too old, menacing shadows lurking in every dark corner. Alec had always been convinced the place was haunted. In a way it was. After their softly-spoken father’s shocking departure when they were still toddlers, both siblings had frequently been at the receiving end of their mother’s volatile rages and spiteful manipulation. Alec could never understand why, despite everything, Faith had tried desperately to win her monstrous mother’s affection.
As he stopped on the landing, at the very spot where their father had fallen to his death, Alec looked forward to the day he and Faith could sell this dreadful, crumbling shell of a building, and try to escape all the memories locked inside. Perhaps then they could get on with their lives. Having to be here now was putting a strain on his already unstable marriage, not to mention the disruption it was causing his property development business. And he knew things were just as difficult for Faith, who was missing her beloved Danoodle, Ivan, temporarily entrusted to a friend’s care, since their mother loathed animals and had never allowed them to keep pets.
Taking a deep breath, Alec opened the door to the bedroom and quietly entered the stifling, foul, cluttered space. Even his mother’s harsh snoring sounded belligerent. For a moment, seeing her pasty, puffy face he felt a pinprick of conscience. He reached out and tentatively shook her shoulder to wake her.
“I’ve got your milk, Mum.”
She rolled over, ignoring him. “I’m not thirsty. Take it away.”
“Don’t be silly. You must drink something, or you’ll get dehydrated.”
She muttered ungraciously, eyes half closed, and suddenly all the years of resentment and fear that seethed and fermented inside him rose up like bitter, red-hot lava. In an impulse, Alec opened the bottle of pills and tipped the entire contents into his mother’s milk. He would forge a suicide note and no-one need ever know what had really happened. Then he and Faith would be free. Finally.
“Come on Mum, drink up.”
“I don’t want it,” she spat.
“I don’t want to be here looking after an ungrateful cow but do you see me complaining?” Sighing, he placed the tray carefully on the bedside table. If he couldn’t persuade her to drink it, maybe he would have to force her. Glancing at the sweat-stained pillow leaning against the laundry basket, Alec picked it up with a look of grim determination. Perhaps there was another way, quicker and simpler.
Downstairs in the dining room, Faith woke with a jolt. Shivering violently, she glanced at the clock. Nearly midnight. Where was Alec? Shuddering, she remembered her nightmare. It was only a dream, she told herself, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of unease. Something was wrong. Panicking, heart pounding, she ran up the stairs. As she flung open the bedroom door, she saw Alec bent over their mother, trying to smother her with a pillow.
“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed, leaping forward and knocking her startled brother to the floor. “Mum! Mum are you okay?”
Sprawled across the bed, the terrified woman was coughing and spluttering for breath. Between gasps, in a tight, rasping voice she muttered, “Thank you.”
Tears pricked Faith’s eyes. It was the first time she could ever recall her mother uttering those two simple words. Still shaking, Faith said, “Let’s get you sitting up. Your voice sounds croaky. Here, this will help.” Alec watched with a mixture of horror and surprised delight as Faith gave their mother the glass of milk, sip by sip by sip. “Yes, drink up, Mum,” he said, standing beside his sister, unable to stop the grim smile that had hijacked his face. “It will make us all feel much better. Sweet dreams.”
“How could you? My own daughter committing such a vile, disgusting -”
“Sorry, Mum. It won’t happen again.”
She watched me cowering in the corner of the cellar, the stench of urine overpowering. “I’ve tried to bring you up properly,” she continued, unfastening my chains and helping me to my feet. “I couldn’t believe it when the neighbours started complaining, told them they’d got it all wrong. That my daughter hadn’t got a sadistic bone in her body. But after all you put us through last week, well…”
“I won’t do it again,” I insisted, trembling beneath her stony glare.
“Too right you won’t do it again,” she growled, her gnarled fingers still gripping the bloodstained tin-opener. Unaccountably, her tone softened. “Your old Mum believes you. This time.” She held out her hand. Cautiously, I tiptoed out of the shadows.
“Do you forgive me, Mum?”
She smiled. “I forgive you. Come to Mummy.” She threw her arms around me and gripped my rake-thin body with her familiar powerful embrace. Sobbing like a baby, I buried my head into the soft folds of her maternal breasts, breathing in the smell of stale biscuits and nicotine.
“There, there,” she crooned, rocking gently.
My stomach rumbled loudly, a reminder food hadn’t passed my lips for days. Shut away in the darkness, it’s easy to lose all sense of time. To lose all sense.
“Is my precious hungry?” she murmured. “Doesn’t Mummy feed you properly?” I was vaguely aware of her screams as I sank my teeth into the warmth of her flesh and began to eat.
UK based neurodivergent writer Jane Ayres completed a Creative Writing MA at the University of Kent in 2019 aged 57. She is fascinated by hybrid poetry/prose experimental forms and has work in Sledgehammer, Punk Noir Magazine, Versification, Streetcake, The North, Crow & Cross Keys, Door is a Jar, Kissing Dynamite and The Forge. @workingwords50