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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Memories

Unhappy Dilys
Greg Mosse

My mother was a teacher. When not at work, she was often out of doors, away from the house. She liked to do things for others – perhaps walking a neighbour’s dog, or brushing down a neighbour’s pony. She was thrifty and had odd manias, such as cutting the lawn by hand with shears ‘to save the mower’. I still don’t know why we needed to save the mower. To hand on? For better times? For the next life?

When I was six, we lived in a jerry-built farm-labourer’s cottage on a barren country road. The red-brick walls were thin and the panes of glass in the peeling window frames thin and unconvincing. To help out my mother with childcare – myself and two brothers – she took a lodger, Dilys.

Dilys was a small woman with a helmet of black hair and pasty skin. She worked shifts, enabling her to be at home when my mother wasn’t. She might have been a nurse or a part-time clerical assistant in a professional office. My mother interviewed her in the kitchen and showed her a pleasant bedroom on the first floor landing on the sunny side of the house. My elder brother and I were therefore obliged to share a room, overlooking the unkempt back garden and the field. She became a fixture, rather like a dog is a fixture – an unhappy dog.

Only a few days after she moved in, I came home from school to find her on the backdoor step, bowed like a question mark over her pitiful hanky, weeping. She pulled herself together to give me a pallid ‘Hello, Gregory’, then retreated behind the house. I went to my bedroom and watched her from the cold, north-facing window, pacing the fringe of the field alongside the ditch. Later that evening, as I climbed the stairs once more to go to bed, I heard her snuffles on the landing, inadequately obscured by the ill-fitting bedroom door. The next morning, I came down to breakfast and glimpsed her in the lounge – a sterile space with no television – folded into a corner of our brown velour sofa, depressing as carrion.

The front door slammed shut and my mother disappeared for I don’t know what reason – helping the aged, perhaps, or playing the piano for an early keep-fit class. So my brothers and I were left alone, with Dilys sitting at the Formica kitchen table doing ‘duty’, in part-payment of her rent.

The table had been laid the night before. There was a faint scent of disinfectant. With a varnished fingernail, Dilys traced the blue check pattern on the Formica. My nine-year-old brother Dennis, blinking his long-sighted eyes behind his new NHS glasses, the heavy brown frames disappearing into his thick, dark hair, did the same. I was reading from a book called Lives of Soldiers. On my plate lay the peel from a banana and a Satsuma. Both had withered within their skins. I ate them up because I had been unwell. When I finished, I would be allowed Marmite on toast.

My one-year-old brother Timothy gurgled and broke the silence. He was big for his age and wore a silver-foil stovepipe hat. Without it, he would throw a tantrum and refuse to sit at the table. We stuck it to his hair with sellotape.
Dilys roused herself to spoon a grey dollop of Ready Brek, congealed and tepid, into Timothy’s mouth. To encourage him, she made a noise like a train – a very small, slow train. He opened wide and she choo-chooed into his tunnel. There was a moment of tense immobility before he pushed the Ready Brek back out with his tongue and let it fall from the side of his mouth to the linoleum on the floor.
‘Timothy,’ said Dilys.
‘I’ve finished,’ I told her.
She looked at me and I went to the sink for a heavy grey cloth to wipe it up. Timothy gurgled some more, then he lifted his two pink fists to his mouth and dribbled. I rinsed it and sat back down.
‘Good boy, Gregory,’ she wheedled.
Worst of all she touched me – the nape of my neck, my thin shoulder, the back of my hand.
‘What’s he got?’ I asked to distract her. Timothy was still chewing at something and dribbling, both little fists crammed into his oversized mouth.
‘It’s those little men.’
‘Oh no,’ I thought. Then, aloud: ‘Is it my men?’ I looked at Dennis. ‘Is it my ones?’
He glanced at Timothy, gave me a smug smile and wiped away a pretend tear. Sinister.
‘He can’t have them, Dilys. He’ll spoil them.’
‘There’s nothing he can do with them. He’s a little baby, isn’t it.’
‘Yes he will. You said he was teething.’
‘That’s why he wants them, to soothe him, you see?’
‘Yes, but he’s chewing them. He’ll spoil them.’
‘No, he can’t spoil them, Gregory. He’s only a baby. He hasn’t any teeth there.’
‘But you said he’s teething. That’s why he’s chewing them.’
‘That’s right. He’s comforting his poor gums.’
‘So he does have teeth. He will spoil them.’
‘No, cariad, he’s only a baby. He has no teeth now.’
‘But -!’
My sinister brother wouldn’t look up from tracing the blue check pattern on the Formica. In the shadow of his glasses, I could tell he was smiling. My baby brother Timothy gurgled. He was happy, as Dilys said, chewing on the heads of my men. There was nothing for it but for me to make my toast.

The emotion I felt so strongly on that day is called, I later learnt, exasperation. It is a common emotion. I have also since discovered that Dilys is a Welsh name. It means ‘genuine’ and you don’t often come across it these days.
I left that house at the age of nine. It still stands and, as the years have passed, I have seen it many times. Likewise the exasperation.

© Greg Mosse October 2008

Greg is a lecturer in Creative Writing and is an accomplished writer with a strong interest in crime writing.

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