Eleanor tucked herself tightly into the corner of the sofa and flicked through the colour supplement, licking a fingertip between each turn – licking, flicking, licking, flicking. Jude filled the rest of the space, long limbs bent to fit, face and chest covered by the sports pages that rose and fell with his erratic breathing. The rest of The Sunday Times supplements littered the floor. Across the room their mother was reading an article on the pitfalls of adopting babies from the Far East. Cutting through the silence the hall clock chimed three.
‘What the f..,’ said Jude, his head rising slightly.
‘Language,’ said his mother, cutting him off abruptly.
Jude crumpled the paper and dropped it to the floor. It was damp from his breath and the sickly sweat of his face. A shiny trace of spittle had oozed from a corner of his mouth and he wiped it with the back of his hand.
‘What’s the time?’ He hardly moved his lips for fear of disturbing the angry monster that threatened to play the whole timpani section in his head.
Mary lowered the newspaper and looked across at her son.
‘You look dreadful, Jude. No wonder you didn’t join us for lunch.’
‘Yeah. You looked better with the paper over your ugly mug,’ said Eleanor, pushing at his toes that were pressing hard against her leg. She loosened her hold of the magazine and watched it slip to the floor. Another bloody Sunday ‘at home’ with mother, she thought.
‘I do wish you wouldn’t drink quite so much,’ said Mary, her vowels clipped. She flicked the paper back into shape and turned her body slightly to catch more of the lowering light.
Unbending and re-bending knees and elbows Jude turned his back on her disappointment.
‘Bet you were too drunk to pull,’ his sister scoffed.
‘You can be so vulgar, Eleanor. I don’t know where you get it from.’ Mary’s eyes did not leave the paper.
Eleanor didn’t know either. She was nothing like her mother. And Mary never spoke of Eleanor’s father.
‘Mind if I go outside for a smoke?’
‘You know I’d rather you didn’t smoke,’ said Mary.
‘I said I’d go in the garden for Christ’s sake.’
‘Eleanor. You have become so common since you left home.’
‘No. Just normal. And if you don’t like it don’t keep asking me to come.’
Mary closed the newspaper, squared the corners, and laid it on the coffee table, corner to corner, edge to edge. She looked at the array of framed photographs that adorned the circular table by her chair: Mary and her children elegantly displayed.
‘Tell me about your work,’ said Mary. She settled back in her chair, smoothing out unseen creases from her fine wool trousers and cashmere sweater. Nestling just above her breastbone was an impressive jade oval clasped onto a heavy silver chain. One hand rhythmically stroked its smoothness while she waited for Eleanor to answer.
‘I lost my job.’ There, she’d said it. The silence that followed could have swallowed her whole.
‘They were cutting back. Making redundancies.’ Why was it so much easier to lie? Why couldn’t she tell her it was because she wouldn’t play the games. Games behind closed doors that only men ever win.
‘A few months ago. September.’
‘Have you looked for other work?’
‘No. I’ve been sitting on my bloody backside doing sweet f. all.’
‘Please, Eleanor.’ Mary’s thumb stroked back and forth across the smooth jade. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’
‘There seemed no point. What could you do?’
‘Perhaps I could have helped.’
‘What. Spoken to someone or other.’
‘I do know people.’
‘Yes. But I don’t want to work for the kind of people you know.’ Please don’t push me on this one, thought Eleanor.
‘What’s wrong with the kind of people I know? They were good enough when you were starting out. Fresh from University.’
‘Before I found out how full of bullshit they are.’
‘Why are you so ungrateful?’ Mary’s hand never left the jade talisman.
‘I’m not ungrateful. It’s just that you don’t know what I want. Christ, you don’t even know who I am.’
‘And how am I supposed to find out what you want?’
‘By talking to me. And listening. Really listening.’
‘Really, Eleanor.’ Mary’s exasperated tone clicked in. ‘My work is listening to people. It’s what I do.’
Eleanor’s thoughts went back four years to the winter of 2001 and her mother’s startling announcement that she was going to be spending less time on her counselling practice to work as a volunteer for a women’s refuge. Mary had phoned to ask if she would join the family for Christmas Day but she’d been too raw to return to the house she’d left five months earlier screaming through her pain that she would never return. Though her step-father had gone an impenetrable silence had settled over the house like a caul.
The room was suddenly too hot, the air too thick. Her breathing quickened and blood pounded in her ears. She began to count under her breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Counting in, counting out. She fumbled in her handbag pushing the tiny white pills out of the blister pack, pumping saliva into her mouth, and gulping them down dry-throated.
‘Your job might be listening to people. But it’s not what you do. Not here. Not with your family.’
‘You’re always trying to push the problems with this family on to me. Did you never think – god forbid – that some of the problems might lie with you?’
Eleanor grabbed her bag and stood up. She didn’t need another row. She needed to get out of this stultifying house. She needed space to think, to be who she’d become. She needed a cigarette.
‘I’m going for a walk. Be about an hour.’ Eleanor had lost count of the number of times she’d paced along the lane behind the house through her teenage years, walkman blaring through her head. Even jogged it a few times when she had the fitness craze upon her. It was the place she’d go to try to remember her father, to try to figure out who she was. And in the summer of 2001 she’d gone there to forget. Forget the fear, forget the shame, forget the look of bewilderment on her brothers’ faces, as they’d stood frozen, framed in her bedroom’s doorway.
‘It’ll be getting dark soon. If you’re so desperate for a cigarette you could sit in the garden.’
‘It’s alright mother, the walk’ll do me good.’
‘If you’re sure. At least it will be dry underfoot.’
Mary was stacking away the last of the lunch dishes and listening to Classical Beatles when Eleanor got back. She kicked off her shoes and rubbed some feeling back into her toes before padding back to reclaim her place on the sofa before closing her eyes. Jude repositioned himself, and grunted softly.
In the hall the telephone rang, piercing the heavy silence that had settled around Eleanor. At last the answerphone cut in: It’s me, Paul. Please pick up. I know you’re there. Please. Silence. Please mum.
Eleanor glanced up at her mother when she heard her at the drinks stand.
‘Leave it,’ said Mary, returning to her chair with a large gin and tonic.
‘I can’t. It’s not right.’ Eleanor ran to answer. ‘Hi Paul. How’s things? … Yes … Yes, Jude’s here … No … Sorry, I can’t … I’ll try … Sorry …’
Eleanor returned to the sitting room. ‘Don’t you even want to know what he wanted?’
‘Money probably. That’s all he ever wants.’ said Mary.
‘Christ you’re hard.’
Mary closed the pages over her index finger.
‘I’m being practical. If I give him money he’ll only spend it on drugs. Is that what you want me to do? Is that how you would have me show my love?’
‘You wouldn’t know love if it leapt up and slapped you across the face.’ Eleanor sucked at the flesh on the inside of her mouth and sank her teeth into it. She could taste the sweetness of blood in her mouth.
‘It may be tough love, but it’s still love.’
‘Don’t use your crap jargon with me. Tough love is no love.’
‘I really don’t want to argue with you. It becomes tedious.’
‘That’s it. Ignore the issue,’ said Eleanor.
‘I believe that it’s you who’s ignoring the issue and not facing up to life’s realities.’
‘Yes. Like me. What’s so bad about that?’
‘It’s not bad. It just isn’t true. Look at Jude. Really look at him. You know he’s not just had a couple of drinks too many on a Saturday night.’
‘I don’t know what you’re trying to say.’ Mary’s thumb worked the jade, back and forth.
‘For God’s sake, mother. I’m not ‘trying to say’ anything. I’m saying it. Out loud. Paul might be the one in rehab. But he’s the only one with the guts to face up to what’s wrong with us. To ask for help. Me and Jude are trying to fight our demons alone.’
‘Have you nothing to say Jude?’ said Mary.
Jude didn’t move.
‘Say something. Help me out here.’ Eleanor felt warm tears well in her eyes, warm blood in her mouth.
‘You’ve said enough for both of us.’
‘That’s the easy route.’
Jude rolled over and propped himself up an elbow. His eyes stared blankly at a target somewhere at his mother’s feet.
‘Look at me Jude. Are you an addict?’
‘I don’t shoot up like Paul if that’s what you mean. You won’t see holes in my arms.’
‘Stop being facetious.’ Mary poured herself another gin. ‘I’ll get you help if that’s what you need. Get you into a clinic.’
‘I can get myself into a clinic ma. Thing is, I don’t want to. I like getting drunk. Popping the odd pill. Getting out of control. Forgetting.’
‘What have you got to forget?’
‘For Christ’s sake, mother. What we’re all trying so desperately to forget.’ Eleanor felt the words tear from her throat. Tasted the blood in her mouth.
They each retreated into themselves, realising that the unthinkable had almost surfaced. Almost been said. Jude levered himself from the sofa and lurched out to the hall.
‘I need a piss.’
The phone cut through the finely balanced silence that had settled back between them.
Hello. My name’s Jane. I’ve been given this number by Sangita at the Open Door Refuge Centre. I hope I’m through to the right …
Mary picked up the phone. ‘Hello Jane. Yes, you’re through to the correct number. My name’s Mary. I’m here to help you. How can I do that?’
Eleanor grabbed her cigarettes and lighter and went into the garden. How many Sundays had she heard that voice? The voice for the refuge women. Women her mother talked to over the phone when they were at their wits’ end. Women with no money, no family, no friends. Women with screaming babies, abusive husbands. Women with lives that throbbed with loss and pain. Women whose lives she could never understand. Women who were strangers to her, strangers devouring all she had to offer, leaving her desiccated and tinder-dry.
Her mother was still on the phone when Eleanor returned to the sitting room, listening, suggesting, offering. She stared out into the hall, all the time watching her mother’s back, inclined towards the receiver, head nodding slightly. She could see the seriousness in the eyes, the soft set of the mouth. She knew just how her mother looked when she was at work. As a child, as a teenager, she had seen that look when clients arrived and left. Let it be for me, she had thought. Especially in the summer of 2001 when it had become Let it be for us. And Eleanor looked at Jude, and heard Paul’s voice in her head and knew it never would be.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my short story.
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Thank you for reading.