by Imogen Ince – an autobiographical piece
My sister and I used to play a game, if you could call it that; we’d count the number of planes that would slice up our little piece of sky and, if we stayed up late enough, spot a satellite in the dark. I’d been jolted into this memory at random, having spent the afternoon lying, cat-like in the sun, and staring up into an empty sky. It turned out that most flights were cancelled and new government measures to stay home meant our rat-run road had also come to a halt. The neighbourhood was quiet for the first time I could remember.
“It’s so nice to have you home,” my mother declared in between tanning sessions, rolling over on the grass to get a good look at me, as if she couldn’t believe I’d return. I knew what she meant, though; “I’m glad at least one of you is safe.”
I perched next to her and picked at the long-dead ground and asked if she’d put on any sun cream, even though I knew she hadn’t.
“You don’t need to worry about me, my skin’s tough as old boots!”
I still ran inside and found the bottle from whatever kitchen cabinet she’d hidden it last, staring her down until she caved. That was our routine, and routines were more important than ever.
July pooled around us, hot and slow and honey-like. It was a long month, each hour melting into the next, the days blurring together – of course, tensions ran high.
“What a family of hypochondriacs!” (This came after my father had locked himself in the living room, certain he was running a fever.) “It’s 34 degrees, of course he feels hot.”
There was nothing to be said that would convince him he wasn’t sick; no amount of reasoning could persuade him. It was common knowledge that my father spooked easily, lovingly nurtured every phantom ache and pain, and so routine became ritual – with each day came a new diagnosis. One such diagnosis had been bequeathed upon me as I left for my first day of secondary school. I had caught mumps, apparently, my face too swollen to be normal. The word he used was ‘jowly’.
“That’s just puppy fat,” my mother countered. “Let her go to school.”
That evening he had me cornered and warned of the dangers of obesity: Greater risk of strokes, greater risk of heart disease, greater risk of diabetes, greater risk of liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer. I grew less and less sympathetic to his ‘spooking’ as time went on.
University meant newfound independence, so it was unsettling to be, yet again, surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of my childhood. The pair of size two tap shoes, a diary from 2008 kept only for the summer, photos and their respective albums – these belonged to someone else. And so, I found myself bitter, resentful, that I was trapped back in a house that wasn’t mine, in a town on the cusp of the Capital, so close yet so far. My parents had moved away from London to raise a family, but I could tell my mum missed the relentlessness of city life, the freedoms and creativity it had afforded her. It seemed we’d both outgrown Essex.
“At least we’re giving the neighbours something to watch,” I said to my mother after a particularly loud argument, topped off with the accusation of attempted patricide, a slam of the front door and my father’s car pulling out of the driveway. How very Shakespearean, I thought. In any case, someone’s finding this entertaining.
It was around dawn when I felt the mattress dip under someone else’s weight. My mother’s rough hand brushed coaxingly against my face before ripping the duvet off me like a plaster, a technique she’d mastered from years of juggling two obstinate kids.
“Up. Up! You’re coming with me.”
Bleary-eyed, I began to recognise the path she was taking me down, which ran past the cemetery and now-abandoned pub and through the nearby woods. The emerging sunlight began to filter through the leaves, scattering shadows onto the craggy ground. I grumbled for the most part, kicking the crumpled beer cans and dirt along the way.
We continued through the trail at a marching speed, my mother’s mind set on some unknown final destination. Trudging farther and farther off the beaten track, we clung to unearthed roots as we made our way down the steep hillside.
Hands dirty, eyes bright, my mother came to an abrupt halt and threw her arms out.
The land in front of us dipped; a large pond lay nestled into the hollow. The water was perfectly clear and still. Tranquillity made a nice change. The islands dotted within the pond’s centre were guarded by a number of geese, settled in amongst the reeds; however, it was the flowers that were most noticeable, rows upon rows, upon rows of bluebells, climbing down the surrounding hills.
“How did you find this?”
“I used to take you and your sister here during the summer holidays. Don’t you remember?”
“The – the flowers? If they’re trampled, they can take years to recover. That’s if their leaves aren’t crushed – they’ll die if that’s the case.”
They were already dying, I noted. It was early July, but July all the same, and the fog of purple was rotting at its edges, furling in on itself the way paper ripples when alight. They bowed further and further under their own weight until those that skirted the dirt path had all but shrivelled up.
“When I die, I’d like to be scattered here.”
Abrupt shock turned to abject horror. I couldn’t help myself. Here? Just a few miles from the town she so despised? The same place she had spent, trapped, for nearly thirty years
“You’re going to make me come back here when you’re gone?”
She laughed and peered at her reflection in the water, toes hanging over the edge.
“That’s the point!
That evening my sister called. Wished us well, demanded we send her photos of the cats. I could see her perfectly in my mind’s eye, exhausted from work and slumped against the red brick of the hospital, coffee in hand.
“It’s in chaos in there,” she said. “And the roads in Belfast are a mess. You’d hate it, mum.”
“If it’s alright with you guys, I was thinking I could come home? Just for the weekend.”
Before anyone had a chance to object, my mother jumped in.
“Of course, lovely. There’ll always be space for you here.”
A heavy sigh of relief.
“Thanks, guys. I’ll check the flights tomorrow, see when I can get back.” She groans. “My break’s over. Talk soon.”
Something strange happened then. The sudden urge that, before she hung up, I had to tell her. Share that memory I know she’d forgotten too – share that game we had spent hours playing as children, before she’d left, before I had, too, when our worlds seemed so much smaller, safer even and everything was so simple. I’d tell her I’ll watch out for her, stare at the sun if I had to. I took a breath, about to speak. The line went dead.