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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: On Leaving

Taxicabs and Burger Vans
Steve Slatter

I 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 won’t 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 – ruining everything.

So tonight, I pray the sound of a firmly-shutting door way down the street won’t draw me back through twenty years, conjuring a grown woman sobbing on the foot of the cold stairs below – my mother – who I’m impelled to get out of my warm bunk bed to try to comfort.

The prayer’s in vain, of course. I wake to that flat final sound outside in the street and become a little girl again.
First, I’ve got to get past my sister without her noticing. It’s only Joni’s third or fourth month of occupying the bottom bunk. She’s 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 hasn’t heard the door going outside. Something deep inside me tells me that this is grown-up business. I’m eight and a quarter, and it’s me that Mummy needs beside her. Joni can’t 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 hasn’t yet learned to say Beatrice properly, much less Trix, which is what I like best because of Dad saying "How’s Trix?" – his little joke with me.
"It’s OK, Joni," I tell her, "I’m just going to the bathroom." She seems to have fallen asleep before I’ve 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 it’s 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 I’m not quite looking, but this time I ignore it. My mind is short-circuiting with the overload of wondering how I’m going to deal with Mummy’s sobbing on the stairs. And what it all might mean.
That’s 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 isn’t the problem. It’s the cause of her crying. Dad leaving like that. Never coming back.

Some hearts break and mend again eventually. Some hearts maybe don’t 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 couldn’t share.

Lying here now, in another millennium, a mother of two myself, Ray’s working extra nights and our little boy Harry’s lying next to me on Ray’s side of the double bed because he’s caught the fever that’s going round his play group. I’ve 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 he’s disturbed from his sleep, but he doesn’t cry out. I stroke his forehead. It’s still too hot, and I’m thinking of getting Ray to take him to the night doctor as soon as he gets back from his shift, though he’ll be dog-tired from doing the overtime.
No use trying to go back to sleep, now that the anonymous door slamming down in the street has set my mind whirling. I’ll 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 Jools’s room on the way across the landing. The door’s ajar. I poke my head in. She’s fallen asleep with the light on. Pop posters on the pink walls. Such a safe, yet insular world, I’m almost intruding. I turn out the light, and leave.

I go downstairs and into the kitchen. The clock on the cooker says 04:15. Ray’ll be back inside an hour. I decide to make myself a hot milky drink and wait up for him, but it’s then that I spot there’s an envelope lying on the mat by the backdoor. I pick it up.
"To Trix," it says. Inside, there’s 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. It’s Ray’s handwriting – awful, scruffy. I swear I’m 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 I’m not working on shift 2-nite," it begins.
In fact, it goes on to tell me that he’s not working in the factory at all any more. Instead he’s 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 they’re going to set up in business together down south, somewhere near London.
He won’t be back. Ever. Kiss the kids for him.

Kiss the kids for him? Something twists inside me – and snaps. I can’t prevent myself. I shriek.

I don’t 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 Ray’s note from her. I can’t 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 – Jools’s Dad. I can’t even tell Jools that men are all the same, that they all think from somewhere inside their trousers, because surely my little Harry won’t 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 he’s been two-timing. My insides screw up. I wince, and I’m close to bawling out loud again.
"Come on, Mum," says Jools in a very grown-up way. "Let’s try not to wake up Harry,"
That’s 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 this.

© S. Slatter May 2009

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