by Lucy Goodwill
It’s early in the morning and I’m cold. Even at the age of four I am not a morning person and the chill is adding insult to what I have decided is a devastating injury.
I am dangling my spoon into my cereal, holding it just by the end and wiggling it. The milk is sloshing up the sides of the bowl and the rice puffs are bobbing up and down, like gulls on an unsettled sea. I don’t like eating breakfast and it drives you up the wall. I often think that if you knew I still don’t eat it now then you’d be furious.
‘I don’t feel well,’ I say, which means, ‘I’m unimpressed at being parted from my bed.’ I see your gaze turn to my bowl before you hit me with your trademark loving-but-menacing stare. A look that never fails. I scoop one more spoonful into my mouth before curling up in my chair.
You pause for a moment to assess whether one more bite is quite enough. Eventually you decide you’re satisfied and lift me up out of my seat onto your lap.
I grumble until you envelop me in your dressing gown and fasten the buttons up to my chin. In an instant, we become the world’s best two-headed monster. For years this is my favourite game.
We’re on holiday in France and I am showing off in the pool. I am taking great pride in demonstrating all of the different strokes I can do and the length of time I can hold my breath.
I clamber up the ladder at the corner, leaving Dad and Amy in the water, and run down the edge to where you’re sitting. I know I’m supposed to walk but the stone slabs are burning in the midday sun and each step hits the soles of my feet like an electric shock.
I sit down next to you at the front of the lounger and you immediately reach for the sun cream. I inherited your pale skin and so have become accustomed to you grabbing me at regular intervals, checking me for red patches.
Dad emerges as you’re finishing my back and sneaks in to sit behind us.
‘You’re getting my towel wet,’ you cry. ‘Sit on your own!’
‘I like this one better,’ Dad says, winking at me. He puts his feet up and starts shoving us playfully towards the edge. I smile and look up at you, trying to read your face. Sometimes you join in with our silliness but other times you get cross.
Before I can figure out your reaction, you’ve lifted me up and we’re lying back over him as though he wasn’t there, like some strange sort of family sandwich.
‘See how you prefer my lounger now!’
There is triumph in your voice and I shriek with laughter. The very best moments are the ones where you play too.
Amy appears seconds later and grabs her camera. I keep the photo on the wall at Dad’s new house.
We’re stood in front of the oven and I’m furious. You’ve told me I can’t go to my friend’s sleepover this weekend. It’s for my own good, you’re telling me, but my teenage brain is struggling to come to terms with this concept. The immediacy of my emotions (the anxiety of losing friendships, the desire to be popular, the rage that you’re stopping me) is more powerful than logic. I will gladly overlook the practicality of protecting my health, which has been challenging, in favour of my social life.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I’m shouting. ‘This is so unfair!’
You pause for a moment, waiting for me to finish and for the air to clear. You’re quiet for too long and I’m impatient.
It’s at this point that you unleash your pièce de resistance, the ultimate weapon in your armoury. You begin to mock me.
You pull a ridiculous face and make whining noises instead of words, which perfectly reflect the intonation of my outburst. It’s as though all of a sudden we’re siblings, not mother and daughter, and we’re five years old. I storm to my bedroom, fuming.
The beauty of this tactic was that it made me think I was in control, that I had chosen to end the fight, when you had purposefully driven me away to get some peace. It was genius. You knew eventually I would calm down and come back to talk things through.
I wish we’d had enough time for you to teach me to be a parent.
“How do you recover when the person who has always saved you isn’t there?”
We’re both off ill on the same day but we don’t spend too much time together in the end. You have a blinding headache and need to lie down in a darkened room. You come and join me for a short while around lunchtime to watch the news. You hate sport but you pretend to be excited that my football team has hired the manager I wanted. We both know you couldn’t care less but you love me and I love football so you try. I never say it but I appreciate the gesture.
In the evening you come down again to spend time with us but I go upstairs to do my History coursework. The deadline is looming and I’ve barely done any of it. I spend several hours scribbling notes on my bedroom floor before admitting defeat. You’re going up as I come down so I say goodnight.
You return briefly a few minutes later.
‘I forgot my glasses,’ you mutter as you cross the room.
They’re the last words I ever hear you say.
We are walking through an arcade in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’ve come up to see a Shakespeare play but we’re making a weekend of it and we’re shopping. The floor has an elaborate pattern in green and white tiles and the general look and feel of the place is old fashioned. Victorian, perhaps. We’re the only ones there.
You linger by a window display, reaching out for my arm to stop me.
‘I’ve got to get some new tights,’ you say, turning away from the window to face me.
I pause, confused.
‘You don’t need them, though. You’re dead.’
It’s the first dream you’ve been in since it happened. I feel sick the whole of the next day.
I am in a small, stuffy room in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Tears are burning my eyes and I can’t control them. Dad is sat next to me.
The two women opposite, the psychiatrist and psychologist, are telling me I have to stop seeing the counsellor Dad has been taking me to. I have go to one of theirs instead. They need us to commit to this if they’re to prescribe the medication they’ve agreed I need.
My heart is racing and I’m struggling to form any words beyond no. They can’t do this. There’s something about the calm energy in Janet’s cold, old-fashioned house and her manner of speaking that makes me feel at ease. For the first time since it happened, since I lost you, I’ve found someone I can talk to and they’re taking me away from her. It’s unbearable.
‘She’s too attached to her,’ they’re saying to Dad, as though I’m not in the room. ‘It’s clear she’s not dealt with what happened to her mother and we need to work that through here.’
It’s in these moments that it hurts the most. The moments where I know that you would have known just what to say and how to make it better. In that room on that day, on the days before and many since, I was drowning in a pain that I had no idea how to surface from. How do you recover when the person who has always saved you isn’t there?
I’m grateful to them now for helping me to cope.
I’m sitting quietly in the car. Dad is driving me home from school after picking up my results. From time to time I reopen the envelope and peer inside, just to make sure I’m not imagining it.
I got into university, the one I wanted the most, and I still don’t entirely believe it. After everything, somehow, I made it. We’re in comfortable silence now after the immediate celebration. Both of us are letting it sink in.
I can’t help but think of you and wonder what your reaction would have been. How it would have felt if you were sharing this moment too. How you were meant to hug me and tell me how thrilled you were and that you’d miss me when I was gone. How you were meant to be there, dropping me off and getting tearful, like everyone else’s mums. I feel your absence every time I reach a milestone.
I well up a little and turn to face out of the window so Dad doesn’t see. I don’t want to talk about it. I certainly don’t want to cry. I just want to quietly share this moment with you. Somehow, though, it’s like he knows.
‘She would have been so proud of you, kiddo,’ he says.
I’m back at Dad’s house for the weekend and I’m searching for a book. I’m pretty certain it’s in one of the boxes under my bed but so far I’ve had no luck.
I move over to the other side and pull out the first box. Unlike the others, which are neatly organised, this one is a random mix and so I sit for a moment, curious to rediscover its contents. Buried amongst the various trinkets and ornaments, I spot a folded sheet of paper.
I open it up and the title reads ‘Things I loved about Mum’. It knocks the breath right out of me. I had forgotten writing it but now, looking at the page, it’s all there. I was sixteen and found myself captivated for days by one simple terrifying thought: what if I forgot you? So I pulled out a notebook and made a list of everything I could remember.
I have forgotten over half of what’s on the list.
The anniversary was only a few weeks ago, the ninth one, and for some reason it was more difficult than in recent years. The list revives an anxious feeling that’s been bubbling ever since. The feeling that you’re fading away. With time the sharpness of your loss has lifted but I am troubled by how my memories feel increasingly like dreams. The more I try to remember you the harder I seem to find it, and the more I feel our shared life growing distant.
I am terrified that with each year more memories will fade until only the faintest fragments of you remain. I am troubled by these thoughts for several years.
I am in a cafe near my house in North East London. It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m getting distracted by people-watching. I brought my laptop to do some writing for a change of scene over a coffee.
I have been captivated for the last few minutes by a mother and daughter at the table opposite. The girl must be about four or five and she’s engrossed in a game. She’s narrating events to her mother who is focused intently on her every word. They are lost together in an imaginary world, the rest of the cafe has ceased to exist, and I feel my heart swell as I watch them. There is something so beautiful about this interaction.
I think of you and smile, recognising us in them. I hope that one day that will be me again, albeit in a different role. I feel lucky to have been so loved, though of course I still wish that you were here. You are in my thoughts increasingly these days. The more I figure myself out the more I am finding you within me. It’s nice to know you’re here, even though you’re not.
I turn back to the open story and begin to type.
Lucy Goodwill | @lucygoodwill
Lucy Goodwill is a writer and freelancer based in North East London. Her work consists primarily of short stories and flash fiction, though she’s currently venturing into writing her first novel.