My mother lay on her back in the water, pink amid mountains of foam, as steamed as a dumpling, dictating her thoughts to me. I was sat on the loo, taking notes with a biro, a secretary, a familiar, aware that elsewhere children my age were at their school desks studying Living Things and Their Habitats, glad I was not among them.
My mother said, ‘Write this down, la.’
Beans Milk Bread.
Ask Grandad Jack to borrow twenty quid for the leccy.
Use catalogue money to pay Sandra.
Take hairdryer back to Boots for cash refund.
That should do us for the rest of the month, if we’re careful.
She exhaled in satisfaction at having solved a problem more complicated than my Key Stage 2 algebra, and one with measurably greater real-world effects. ‘An’ put some waffles on for the kids, will you?’ she added, sinking deeper into the bubbles, ‘I’m going out in a bit an’ I need a quiet half hour to get my head straight.’
For most of my childhood my mother treated me as confidant, as an accomplice in the many necessary and nefarious subterfuges required to navigate around social workers, school teachers, debt collectors, and through the welfare system. It didn’t ever seem unusual that as an eight-year-old I would be central to the discussion about whether to pay the phone bill or the gas bill that month, or that at eleven I would be out of school for weeks at a time, ostensibly to help my mother with the kids. I knew who not to answer the door to, how to fob off the milkman for another week, and exactly what to say to invasive case workers; you see, we shared the familial responsibilities, just as the Ribeiro kids from around the corner did whenever they were ditched by their parents for smack.
In essence she acted as though I were the kid her mother had left her to raise. She was my big sister, always frank, never embarrassed when discussing things your ma might be squeamish about – explaining sex and periods, sharing her mixed feelings towards Tony Blair, her desire for Marti Pellow. When her friends’ dating advice proved subpar, she’d run over the pros and cons of Mark versus Richard with me; she really was willing to talk about almost anything. We would chew over women’s rights, the IRA, Madonna – often while she was shaving her legs or waxing her bikini line – because more than anything she hated to be alone.
She was a teenager when she had me, a child cheated of childhood, daughter of a father who lived between the docks and the pub, and a mother who blamed her children for depriving her of the career she might’ve had. Her brother, my uncle, was violent, delinquent, abusive and left home to join the army, rather than face borstal. Her sister, my aunt, was chronically ill and spent her early life in a children’s hospital six miles away, a distance my mother’s mother walked daily, back and forth, the family being too brassic to afford the bus fare. She grew up with a family she didn’t belong to but for whom she was responsible, some sort of indentured child servant. By the time she was thirteen she ran the family home, including shopping for groceries, cleaning, and cooking for her father when he rolled in drunk at eleven p.m. With this history you could say it was perfectly reasonable that she should ask me to help her out, drop the kids off at nursery and go to the supermarket on the way back, miss a morning of school to wait in for the window cleaner while she went to have her hair done.
She was such a young mother, a very good-looking, vernal woman, so that strangers regularly read us as siblings, which flattered her deeply and made me feel incredibly grown up. I was the embarrassing little sister she was obliged to cart about, who might miss the finer details of the conversation, but who made up for it with charming and naive questions, with precocious takes of the, ‘Well, as they always say on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show . . .’ variety. Besides, all of her friends loved me – I was the youngest recruit to their girl gang and as such they would baby me, tell me how cute I looked, let me know that if I ever needed any advice I could always come to them. And, naturally, when one of the girls was in trouble I’d rush over with my big sister-mother and a bottle of Lambrini to comfort the poor wounded thing. We’d listen to Debbie or Sandra or Janet sob about a two-timing boyfriend, or the fella who’d robbed off with the Christmas jar, take her to A & E to get her face seen to, or help her pack his bags, call the social, share our condolences. My sister-mother would shake her head and sigh, ‘Yeah well, they’re all a bunch of bastards, aren’t thee though?’ We’d seen it all us two.
My mother was an inveterate collector of people, her numberless BFFs matched only by her endless fellas, and we often had a sozzled and sorrowful friend on our settee in need of succour, sometimes until very late at night. I remember her friend Lynn inconsolable in the living room screaming, ‘He’s been seeing ’er again! I’m gonna kill ’im, the bastard,’ mascara smeared from brow to septum. She’d come over with a bottle of Smirnoff and a kitchen knife in her handbag, to ask us to take care of her girls if she went to prison. ‘I’ve ’ad it this time,’ she said, now stoic and focused, ‘He’s not gonna do this to me again.’
We were both shocked to see that she really meant to do it, really meant to kill him, and we spent the night scheming, coming up with new distractions to keep her on the couch, such was the nature of those friendships. In the morning, when Lynn was sober and more reticent, my mother, my big sister, said I could take the day off school if I wanted to. ‘An’ if you take the kids in for me this mornin’,’ she smiled, ‘then we’ll go in to town later, do a bit of shoppin’, an’ we’ll have our lunch out too.’
There was never really any compulsion to go to school. I think my mother sensed I was unhappy there, as she had been, and besides she liked to have company if the girls were busy with their own kids, or at the launderette. We’d go to the Debenhams cafe, or to Uncle Sam’s Pizzeria where we’d share a calzone and a Knickerbocker Glory like two truants, bound up in complicity, sweating only slightly in the knowledge that the cheque we intended to pay with would bounce. I’m sure if she’d have been a smoker she would’ve bought my cigarettes, instead she was happy to flex the privilege of her majority and buy me the X-rated VHS cassette of Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’ from the second-hand record seller who wouldn’t otherwise let me have it. She was the best. She went with me to get my nose pierced, and I went with her to get her first tattoo, a pink unicorn on her shoulder.
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