International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: On Leaving
and Burger Vans
still wake up with a start whenever I hear a door slam in the dead
of night. I listen without breathing for as long as I can, hoping
I wont detect the diesel throb of a taxi drawing up, or hear
a familiar deep voice asking to go to the Central Rail Station,
and make it snappy. Followed by a gruff "One way then, is it
Boss?" from the cabbie, and the roar of the taxi engine
tonight, I pray the sound of a firmly-shutting door way down the street
wont draw me back through twenty years, conjuring a grown woman
sobbing on the foot of the cold stairs below my mother
who Im impelled to get out of my warm bunk bed to try to comfort.
The prayers in vain, of course. I wake to that flat final sound
outside in the street and become a little girl again.
First, Ive got to get past my sister without her noticing. Its
only Jonis third or fourth month of occupying the bottom bunk.
Shes three years old, sleeps with one arm round a flat cloth doll
dressed in pink stripes, and the fingers of the other hand pulling at
her own ear, twisting it even in the depths of dreamland. I look over
the edge of the top bunk to check that she hasnt heard the door
going outside. Something deep inside me tells me that this is grown-up
business. Im eight and a quarter, and its me that Mummy
needs beside her. Joni cant help with what I need to do. Baby
sisters must be protected from the effect of street doors slamming in
the middle of the night.
I carefully climb down in bare feet, the rungs of the ladder like icy
blades against my tender soles. I reach the carpet with relief. Joni
gurgles and ceases playing with her ear.
"Bee Bee?" she says. She hasnt yet learned to say Beatrice
properly, much less Trix, which is what I like best because of Dad saying
"Hows Trix?" his little joke with me.
"Its OK, Joni," I tell her, "Im just going
to the bathroom." She seems to have fallen asleep before Ive
finished the sentence.
I pull on my dressing gown, the one with the yellow butterflies that
I still keep even now in my bottom drawer, though its threadbare
and long since way too small to wear. I take a deep breath for resolve
and step out on to the landing, ghostly in blue nightlight. I draw the
bedroom door to, little realising that the action is a metaphor for
leaving the safety of childhood behind.
I have to turn an angle to reach the top of the stairs. Usually I am
scared by this corner. It throws a diagonal shadow across the landing.
A statuette on the side table always frightens me. I swear it has a
habit of moving when Im not quite looking, but this time I ignore
it. My mind is short-circuiting with the overload of wondering how Im
going to deal with Mummys sobbing on the stairs. And what it all
Thats the worst part what it means.
I will run down to Mummy, and sit beside her holding one of her hands
in both of mine, while she throws the other arm round my shoulders and
tells me men are all the same, all beasts, between sobs. But the crying
itself is OK. I can cope with Mummy crying. When she caught her hand
in the cooker door and got it burnt so bad that we all had to rush to
A & E, she cried like mad till it was bandaged up. When the old
cat became blind and incontinent, so that Dad had to take him away,
she cried for hours, and then kept bursting into tears whenever a commercial
for pet food came on the telly. Dad used to get up and change the channel
every time, just to calm her down. See, her crying isnt the problem.
Its the cause of her crying. Dad leaving like that. Never coming
Some hearts break and mend again eventually. Some hearts maybe dont
have that capability. They can be broken beyond repair. Mother stopped
crying before the night was out, but her heart never mended. She never
loved again. I shared as much of her pain as I could, but there was
so much more that a child couldnt share.
Lying here now, in another millennium, a mother of two myself, Rays
working extra nights and our little boy Harrys lying next to me
on Rays side of the double bed because hes caught the fever
thats going round his play group. Ive fallen asleep worrying
it might turn out to be meningitis. I stir and the Family Medical Digest
that I was reading before I dozed off slides from the bed and thuds
on the floor. Harry opens his puzzled eyes, and chews his lips like
he does when hes disturbed from his sleep, but he doesnt
cry out. I stroke his forehead. Its still too hot, and Im
thinking of getting Ray to take him to the night doctor as soon as he
gets back from his shift, though hell be dog-tired from doing
No use trying to go back to sleep, now that the anonymous door slamming
down in the street has set my mind whirling. Ill get up and go
downstairs as soon as Harry settles. I rest an arm around him, enveloping
his whole body. How good it feels to hold him so close, almost as if
his placenta still joins us. He seems to feel the same way, and thankfully
his sleep comes quickly. Minutes later, I brush his hair with my lips,
and can get up without disturbing him.
I approach Joolss room on the way across the landing. The doors
ajar. I poke my head in. Shes fallen asleep with the light on.
Pop posters on the pink walls. Such a safe, yet insular world, Im
almost intruding. I turn out the light, and leave.
I go downstairs and into the kitchen. The clock on the cooker says 04:15.
Rayll be back inside an hour. I decide to make myself a hot milky
drink and wait up for him, but its then that I spot theres
an envelope lying on the mat by the backdoor. I pick it up.
"To Trix," it says. Inside, theres a single piece of
paper. It seems to be half a sheet of computer printer paper, roughly
torn off. On it is a scrawled message in thin blue pen. Its Rays
handwriting awful, scruffy. I swear Im the only one who
can read it. I always say he should have been a doctor instead of a
fork-lift driver, with writing like that.
"Sorry, love, but Im not working on shift 2-nite," it
In fact, it goes on to tell me that hes not working in the factory
at all any more. Instead hes using all our holiday money to buy
a share in a mobile burger stall with Hesta Jacobsen. She works at the
Lionheart where he drinks, or used to. Seems theyre going
to set up in business together down south, somewhere near London.
He wont be back. Ever. Kiss the kids for him.
Kiss the kids for him? Something twists inside me and snaps.
I cant prevent myself. I shriek.
I dont know how much later it is when Jools comes into the kitchen.
My eyes are too full of tears to check the time. I hide Rays note
from her. I cant tell her about the burger van, or Hesta bloody
Jacobsen with her blonde perm, rubbing her barmaid boobs and glittering
hands all over my man Joolss Dad. I cant even tell
Jools that men are all the same, that they all think from somewhere
inside their trousers, because surely my little Harry wont ever
turn out like that.
But then I sway under a shocking future vision of Harry grown taller
than me, flat-stomached, and tight inside a pair of spotless underpants,
smiling knowingly at some nameless girl hes been two-timing. My
insides screw up. I wince, and Im close to bawling out loud again.
"Come on, Mum," says Jools in a very grown-up way. "Lets
try not to wake up Harry,"
Thats when she takes hold of one of my hands in both of hers.
With blinding déjà vu, I throw my other arm round her
shoulders, pleased to have someone to hold on to. Somehow, despite the
broken breathlessness of my sobbing, I manage to tell her I agree.
The last thing I could face is Harry being involved in something like
© S. Slatter May 2009
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