SWEET CHESTNUT | In Rebecca Smith’s short story, a mother comes to pick up her daughter from a dance. What follows is a story of closeness and nostalgia.
by Rebecca Smith
It was much quieter in the corridor. The beat of the music bounced on the wooden floor like marbles. Connie placed her hand on the cool wall beside her and breathed in the tingly solitary feel of the hallway. She remembered this feeling. She missed this feeling.
She looked down the ream of corridor, past battered doors to classrooms, and watched the last rays of the sun dance midsummer patterns to the music.
The school disco. Connie smiled. ‘It’s Prom’, Lottie had insisted. They don’t do school discos anymore. Just a little while ago, a text, full of the storm of emotion that the these events bring on, and Connie had dropped everything to pick her daughter up.
It was warm in the school. The wide set of stairs off the corridor led up to the library. The staircase turned twice to meet another corridor on the second floor. She followed the banister upwards and swallowed air charged with dust and youth. There was a change in tempo in the gym hall, a slow dance.
On the top step, shrouded in darkness, Connie saw her daughter hunched on the floor, bare knee sup by her chin.
‘Hello sweetheart,’ she said.
‘Mum? What are you doing here?’
‘Rosie texted me.’ In the dusty light she could see her small red nose, raw from tears. ‘Where is Rosie?’
‘Dancing with Harry probably.’ Lottie shifted her bum, her short dress laid flat on the floor underneath her thighs.
Connie sat down next to her.
They faced the large window above the staircase which framed the playground. There was a sweet chestnut tree, in full bloom, its large hand-like leaves brushing the windows and pebble-dashed walls.It caught what was left of the Northern sun, shading the stairs in the colour of slate.
“Connie waited. One wrong word. The wrong tone, and Lottie will haul the fence up.”
‘So, what happened?’ Connie asked.
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘OK. OK. That’s fine.’
They listened to the beat and boom of the music below. Connie squirmed on the hard wooden stairs.
‘Are you and Rosie still friends?’
Lottie played with her rings, twirling them round her fingers. ‘Harry’s nice to her, you know?’
‘He’s nice. He doesn’t rush her. He totally respects her,’ Lottie said.
‘And . . .?’
‘And Callum. He’s a dick to me.’
‘So you’ve been seeing Callum?’
‘Yes, Mum. I’ve been seeing Callum.’
‘And how have things been going?’
She laughed, a short bitter noise. ‘Amazing. At first. Really amazing.’
Connie smiled. ‘And now?’
‘Well, now. He’s acting weird. We . . .’ she shuffled her bum.
‘You had sex?’
Connie waited. One wrong word. The wrong tone, and Lottie will haul the fence up.
‘He’s been ignoring me. I thought that was it now. We’d be going out,’ she stopped playing with her rings and looked at Connie.
Lottie had added a layer of eyeliner after the first set of tears. It didn’t hide the redness. Connie smiled weakly at her. She looked at their feet, her old sneakers and Lottie’s cheap heels.
‘You know Lottie, I threw a drink over a guy when I was at my school disco.’
She laughed. ‘What? No you didn’t, Mum!’
The door to the gym hall banged open and a group of girl’s fell clip-clopping into the corridor. The whirlwind of laughing and screeching faded away towards the lockers.
‘Mum, I can’t imagine you doing that.’
‘What, throwing a drink over someone?’
‘Yeah. I mean . . . it’s not really like you. Is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
The warm wind swept up the playground and forced the sweet chestnut tree to wave ridiculously, frantically at them.
‘Andrew. Andrew Waters,’ Connie said. ‘I slept with him and, you know what he did? He went right ahead and slept with Cathy Trent in the year above. Bastard.’
Lottie laughed, a free, easy laugh. ‘So what? You just walked right up to him and threw a drink in his face? At the disco?’
‘Pretty much. He deserved it.’
‘Have you ever thrown a drink over Dad?’
‘Ha. No, Lottie. I haven’t.’
‘Yeah,’ she said.
Yes. The swirling conker tree blurred with tears. She could read Lottie’s mind with painful, heart-wrenching clarity. I’m never going to end up like you. She remembered screaming the same line to her mum from the top of the stairs. Her mum, who never argued back. Mum, who cooked the same meal every day of the week to please her husband. Mum, who never sat down, unless she had a needle and thread between her fingers.
Connie nudged closer to her daughter and wrapped her arm around her. The layers of music drifted up to them, a remix of an old song, moulded clumsily into the beat of a new one. She knew the words but the rhythm had changed to fit the latest version.
‘I used to love dancing, Lottie.’
Her daughter looked at her.
‘Come on. I actually know this one.’
Lottie shook her head, but Connie was already pulling her up, moving to the music.
She waved her arms and hips, mouthing the words she knew, as Lottie, in her short baby-blue prom dress, stood and watched laughing.
Lottie rolled her eyes and in the fading midsummer light started to dance too. The tock-tock of her heels echoed in the cavernous staircase as Connie’s sneakers squeaked and twisted on the wooden floor. They giggled and grinned. The Sweet Chestnut tree waved madly in the whipped up air of the school playground.
Rebecca Smith | @beckorio
Rebecca Smith writes short fiction. Originally from the middle of nowhere in Cumbria, she now lives in Central Scotland where she often explores the forests and lochs for a bit of peace and quiet. She has two children, a vegetable patch and a number of overfull bookcases.