Authors: Araminta Hall
‘Nothing ever does change, Dot, or hadn’t you noticed?’
‘Nothing will change if you don’t go to university and stay here all your life, that’s for sure.’
‘Look, it’s not possible.’
‘Not possible? What are you talking about?’
They reached the front and Mavis ordered a Big Mac meal with Coke, knowing that Dot would refuse to eat anything. She leant against the plastic counter. ‘Just drop it, OK?’
‘Not really. But guess I don’t have a choice as you don’t tell me anything any more.’
Mavis’s meal was put on to the counter way too quickly for any proper cooking to have occurred and they went to sit at a sad table for two by the wall. The toddler was eating chips and his mother chicken nuggets as she stared out of the window. Mavis wished she’d thought to sit with her back to them. She bit into the foamy bun, her teeth connecting with air and cattle innards, sugar-sweet condiments and limp lettuce. Her desire faded as suddenly as it had arrived, her stomach repulsed by what she was asking of it. She imagined the factory, the meat-recovery process, the chemicals, the lack of air, the underpaid workers and then Dot was swimming in front of her, her vision shaky and disconnected. She stood up.
‘Are you OK?’ Dot was saying from the other side of the room. ‘You’ve gone white.’
Vomit was travelling up her gullet and all Mavis could do was stumble to the loo where she retched into the toilet, its rim dotted with someone else’s piss. Her body contracted, sending heat pulsating through her in waves again and again until she thought she was finished and leant weakly against the wall of the cubicle. Dot was on the other side of the door, knocking and asking if she was OK. Mavis flushed the loo and emerged into the dingy bathroom. She splashed some water onto her face and then drank some but it tasted of the sweetness of sickness.
Dot rubbed her back. ‘Hey, are you OK? Is this what’s wrong?’
Mavis looked at herself in the mirror and was surprised by how pitted and pale her skin was, how deep the black circles under her eyes, how greasy her hair, how chapped her lips. ‘I’ve been feeling shit for a while now.’
‘Maybe you should see a doctor.’
‘Come on, let’s get you home.’
‘But your dress?’
They had only been in Cartertown for just over an hour and Mavis couldn’t shake the feeling they were somehow leaving in disgrace as they waited on the opposite side of the road for their bus home.
‘I could call my mum if you can’t face the bus. Or your dad,’ said Dot.
‘No, I’ll be fine.’ Mavis’s head was too tight, as if her skin had shrunk or her bones had grown. But Dot was being so nice when she had no reason to even like her any more. She wanted to be nice back. ‘How’re the lessons going with Dad?’
‘OK. You don’t have to go out every time I come, you know. In fact, I wish you wouldn’t.’
‘He’s so fucking embarrassing though.’
‘He’s not too bad to me.’
‘Come on, they’re freaks, my parents.’
The bus came and they got back on, climbing the stairs again. For all Mavis knew it could have been the very same bus in reverse. ‘D’you think your mum’s OK?’ Dot asked when they were sitting down.
All Mavis wanted to do was sleep and so she laid her head against the window, which felt wonderfully cool. ‘I don’t think she’s ever been OK. Imagine living like that. So scared and meek and so … so fucking nothing.’
‘Our mums would probably like each other.’
‘We’ve been down that road, Dot. One of them would have to leave the house for more than a trip to pick up industrial amounts of cleaning products for that to happen. I don’t know what Dad sees in her. And as you well know, he’s nothing special.’
‘Our mums are both so weird. D’you think they realise it?’ Dot was drawing hearts into the condensation of the windows, which annoyed Mavis unduly.
‘No, how could they? I don’t think you set out in life trying to be weird. We won’t ever understand them, Dot, we might as well accept it.’
‘So why’re you staying around here then?’
The question hung in the air.
Dot snorted, probably annoyed but wanting to prolong the old familiarity which had surfaced between them like a drowning man: ‘What on earth do you think’s made them both like that?’
But Mavis’s brain felt as mushed as her insides and she couldn’t do anything more than shut her eyes.
There are plenty of things, she wanted to say to Dot, countless scenarios in which you could become a shell of a person, eaten up with regret and longing for a life you couldn’t have. And mostly it was your own fault, the place you found yourself was made by your path, by the way you dealt with shit. Because we all have shit in our lives. Maybe that was the lesson Dot still had to learn, Mavis thought as the bus took them home in the wrong direction. Her friend was like a child, always convinced she had it worst, that nobody else ever had to live through the things she did. Which was absurd when you thought about it; about her big house and her mother and grandmother, who might be weird and not exactly what you’d choose, but who loved her. The rage Mavis had felt so often recently tightened around her stomach again and the nausea rose inside her. Dot had fallen silent herself and Mavis pushed her fingers into her eyes, trying to blot out her view of her friend’s complacent profile set against the frame of the bus window. Dot didn’t understand anything.
Mavis must have slept because the next thing she knew Dot was shaking her awake and they had to stand up quickly so that the blood rushed from her head and she banged her arm on the rail as they went downstairs. It was cold and unforgiving when they got off, the sky a dark slate grey and the trees bending against a bitter wind. It was a day to be inside next to a fire, with someone cooking you tea and toast, except that her mother would never light their fire because of the dust and no one was ever allowed to eat or drink in the lounge. They set off on the same road together.
‘D’you feel any better?’ Dot asked.
Mavis grunted. The anger seemed to have been solidified by her sleep, thickened like a good stock. She knew that she needed to be on her own.
‘D’you wanna come back to mine?’ Dot tried.
They came to the place where they had to part, Dot going up the hill and Mavis down. Mavis half lifted her hand, not even meeting her friend’s eye. But she heard Dot following her, felt her hand on her arm.
‘Mave, have I done something to upset you?’
Mavis kept her eyes on her feet. ‘No.’ But it felt as though she had.
‘So what is this then?’ The wind was whipping Dot’s words away.
‘Please, Dot, nothing, I just wanna go home.’
‘I’m sick of your bloody nothing.’ Her friend’s voice was harsh.
Mavis looked up at this and saw the pink on Dot’s nose, her bright lips, a sanctimonious glint in her eye. It made her speak. ‘You’re not the only one who has it hard, you know, Dot. You are so unbelievably selfish.’
Dot threw her hands up at this and turned to walk away. But then she turned back. ‘I can’t take this any more, Mave. You obviously hate me for some reason you’re not prepared to divulge. And fine. But I’m bored of banging my head against a brick wall.’
Mavis set off down the hill. She wasn’t crying, it was the wind working its way into her eyes. Her limbs felt so heavy, she wondered if she’d make it home. She tried to see herself from above, to get some perspective as to why she was pushing away the one person who could help her. She had no understanding of herself any more, was unsure what she was going to do next, worried she was turning into someone she didn’t recognise. Maybe she was going mad. Her mind certainly felt disconnected from her body, as if she was watching herself on TV, as if reality could jar out of place at any moment. Anxiety rushed around her unbidden and for none of the usual reasons. It prickled inside her veins until the sweat seeped onto her skin and dried, leaving her smelly and greasy.
She sat on the bench on the green. She didn’t want to go home but she couldn’t stay out in this cold. Her toes felt like ice even through her boots and socks and her hands ached. She took out her phone and bashed out a text to Dot.
Sorry, don’t know what’s up with me at mo.
She set off again but her phone beeped in her pocket almost instantly.
It’s OK. I’m here if you wanna talk xxxx.
Sandra Loveridge, née Powell, felt that she had been born to be a mother. Which is an odd thing to think about a baby: that their sole purpose in this world could already be simple procreation. But Sandra not only consistently failed to think of herself as anything other than the person she was now, she also didn’t think there was anything simple in growing a whole other person inside you and then being the best mother you could be so that they became confident, kind people. Besides, she couldn‘t find meaning in anything much else and the first time she held Mavis she fell so deeply in love the rest of the world had fallen away. She wished that her parents had been alive to see her baby, but made do with giving the little girl her mother’s name.
Of course Sandra had known about Gerry’s reputation when they met. Most people thought he was too big for his boots, and he’d had to leave his job at Cartertown Secondary after an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a pupil. But they were so young themselves, it hardly seemed that much of crime to Sandra. Then he got the job at the music college in Darlington, which was an hour in the other direction from Cartertown, where nobody she knew ever went and Sandra could almost pretend didn’t exist. And besides, he’d loved her so completely, everyone had commented on it, how he couldn’t take his eyes off her and how he laughed at all her jokes. And best of all, he was completely happy for her not to work and to go on producing babies year after year. They’d had Mavis when they were young, both only twenty-three, and even as she’d lain in her hospital bed, her face still red and blotchy from pushing their baby out, she’d told him that she wanted one every two years until they had at least six. And he’d laughed and kissed the top of her head and said, Why stop at six, why not make our very own football team.
Sandra hadn’t been wrong about her natural abilities either. She not only loved being a mother, but she was undeniably great at it as well. She had the patience of a saint, as her mother would have said, and she took unbridled pleasure in watching Mavis sail through all the various developmental stages. She kept a little book by her bed in which she wrote down everything Mavis did, always dated and sometimes with a photograph taken with the Polaroid camera Gerry had proudly brought home one night.
When Mavis was eight months old she started taking her to the mother-and-baby group at the church hall, where she met other mothers, some like-minded and others who found parenting hard and relentless. They were fun women and the group extended its remit into coffee mornings at each other’s houses and picnics on the village green. Relatively quickly, as easily its most capable member, Sandra took to running the group herself, welcoming new mothers, devising art activities and leading the end of session sing-a-long. She was aware of how she looked to the other women and liked it, so capable and serene, so that often she would lock up the hall with a feeling of contentment not unlike an old, fat cat stretched out on tiles warmed through by the sun.
She had seen the very pretty young girl with the red-haired daughter around in the village for a while, but she’d never spoken to her or seen her at the mother-and-baby group. Sandra liked to keep things neat and she didn’t like the thought of another mother missing out on being sucked into her orbit. So, when she saw her pushing her daughter on the swings on the green one morning, she stepped off the pavement and made her way over with Mavis.
Sandra lifted Mavis into the neighbouring swing and started pushing, until the two little girls fell into line.
‘Don’t they look sweet,’ she said, ‘both with their red hair.’ Sandra felt the woman next to her tense slightly. ‘How old’s yours?’
‘Oh, so’s Mavis. What’s her name?’
They pushed on in silence. Sandra hadn’t yet met a mother who didn’t want to talk.
‘How’s her sleeping?’ she asked, deploying the standard mother question.
But the woman still sounded guarded.
Sandra looked at the woman’s amazing profile, at the smoothness of her skin. ‘Really? Lucky you, Mavis is a nightmare. Up every couple of hours.’
This got her attention. ‘Really? So’s Dot actually. I thought I was doing something wrong.’
Sandra laughed, on much firmer ground now. ‘Of course you’re not. None of them sleep. Don’t you talk to other mothers?’ The girl blushed. ‘You live in Druith, don’t you? I’ve seen you around.’
‘But I’ve never seen you at the mother-and baby-group.’
Sandra wondered if she was for real. ‘I run a mother-and-baby group at the church hall. We meet every Tuesday at ten. Just a group of mothers, we talk, the kids play. Many biscuits are eaten!’
‘There are other mothers in Druith?’
Sandra laughed. ‘Of course there are. There are mothers everywhere.’
‘Tony, my husband, said he thought there’d be something like that going on. We were only talking about it the other night.’
‘Well, he’s right. You should come along.’
‘Thank you, yes.’
‘My name’s Sandra, I run it so I’m always there, I can introduce you to everyone.’
‘Thanks.’ The girl blushed. ‘Alice.’
The swings started to slow. ‘Do you mind me asking how old you are?’ Sandra asked. ‘It’s just you look so young. I mean, you could be sixteen or something.’
Alice laughed. ‘Not quite. I’m twenty-one.’
‘Oh, right. I think it’s your skin, it’s so smooth and you haven’t got any bags. Not like me, I could carry the weekly shop in mine.’
Dot was squalling to get out and Alice lifted her up, kissing the top of her head, resting her on her hip. Sandra did the same with Mavis, who immediately wriggled free and toddled across the grass. ‘Anyway, nice to meet you, Alice. Hopefully we’ll see you and Dot next Tuesday.’