Clearing Out by Camille Osborne

 

 

Clearing Out

by Camille Osborne

 

    

 

Holding Tyler on my hip I squeezed into the phone box.  I poked my finger into the change slot to distract myself from how hard I was breathing. Shifting the phone from my ear I pressed the numbers. She answered between rings with practised precision.

    “Mum?” My voice came out rusty.

    “Hello? Who is this?” she said as if I was a wrong number.

    I let out a sigh. The stench of beer and urine filled my nostrils. “Who else calls you Mum?”

    “They throw you out?”

    “ No. Things just didn’t….” I could hear twisted barbs in the silence.

    “Can I come home?” I asked. I felt her wince. Our breath hung between us.

    “Uh-huh” she said and hung up. I listened to the dialling tone and the banging of my lungs.

    The bus doors hissed open and I grappled with Tyler and my bags and my fistful of change. Scanning the faces for the most passive-looking person, I slid into a seat. For a few moments I feigned sleep, but with my eyes closed I felt vulnerable, looked at.

    A woman with her feet up on the seat opposite her scrutinized me and screwed up her face as if she was going through an identity parade in her mind. I fixed my gaze out the window, but the glass was too dirty to see much.

   “Leonie?” she said and only then did I recognize her as someone I went to school with. I remembered her previous attempts to befriend me. She took longer than most to realise I’m not friendship material.

   “Hi” I squeaked. Words stuck in my throat like a strand of spaghetti. My mouth was so numb I half-expected to drool. Back in my old neighbourhood, my anonymity lifted, I was embarrassed by how awkward I must have appeared. I could see everything I’d done since I’d left melt away, and I was back in that agonised self I thought I’d forgotten, where none of my body parts seemed to fit.

   “You should come out with us again one night,” she said.

    I made a non-committal noise that singed the back of my throat. My brain had lost its language function, I grappled inside it but it was empty. I felt my tongue swelling up inside my mouth, wrong answer buzzers waiting to go off. My stomach churned like I was in a lift dropping too fast between floors. I retreated to the hiding place inside myself, folding my bus ticket into an accordioned masterpiece. There was a fizzing in my ears like phosphorus on water.

   While she talked I tried to nod in the right places. It hurt to look at her – I had to twist my neck round. I placed my hand onto the metal bar in front of me. My fingers left grease-marks. The engine sent vibrations through my cheeks, and my leg was scorched by a blast of air from the heater. My plastic bags swished as I lurched down the aisle.

   Reading the names of each street made my teeth ache. The handles of my bags cut into the tender flesh of my palms.

   I walked past the ‘Beware of the Dog’ sign and through the gate. Tyler squalled at being squeezed as I stepped over a dead pigeon. The ripe stench of the bins that had been put out for next day’s collection teased my gag reflex. 

   On the porch I dithered, uncertain whether to wiggle my key into the lock. The word ‘Welcome’ embossed onto the mat had faded in my absence. I pushed the bell and listened to her scraping back the bolts. She let me in, her spine held straight as a parking meter. She checked me up and down, before pulling me into a hug, more to check how fat I’d become than as an offer of affection.

   I set Tyler on the floor, cushioned by my pile of stuff. My mother sniffed as if I’d just pissed all over her carpet. I kicked off my shoes, the heels of my tights blackened by the leather.

   A fart-like noise resounded when I sank onto a plastic-wrapped chair. The numbers on the video blinked at me. I wiped my hands on my skirt.

   “Got a ladder in your tights,” she said, and I just nodded. Words queued up inside my mouth.

   “How are you?” I forced myself to ask. I was struck by how much we sounded like strangers swapping addresses after a crash.

   She disappeared into the kitchen.

    “Black, two sugars,” I called. 

    “ I know how you take it.” She rattled the drawers.

    On the sideboard, a cheap Monet reproduction covered a painting I’d done for a Mother’s day long ago. I moved a vase of crisping flowers that had acquired a mulch-like stench.

    She handed me my mug, and my teeth clinked on the china.

    “You’re like a boomerang,” she said.

    My fingers smelled of metal, of sweaty coins.

    “He’s a runt isn’t he?” she turned her attention to Tyler.

    I could see the ‘I told you so’ ballooning from her head.

    “He’s got your long second toe,” I told her.

    She switched the telly on and we concentrated on the substitute for conversation. I scooped Tyler up and adjusted my shirt. A tut escaped from my mother’s lips at the exposure of my breast.

    “Shouldn’t he be weaning by now?”  Her voice jabbed the back of my skull.

    “I’m following national guidelines”

    “Since when were you a stickler for the rules?” she slurped her tea, cooling each mouthful with an audible breath “I had you on solids by that age.”

    “And look how I turned out.” My words turned the air soupy.

    Patting Tyler against my shoulder I headed through the kitchen and out into the garden. I broke up a crust of bread, shrouded in mould. Scattered it for the birds, dropped some in the pond for the fish.

    My mother came up behind me, her slippers slapping on the path.

    “It kills them, you know.” We watched the fish mouths grab greedily. “Expands in their stomachs.”

    My body clenched, hardboiled with guilt. The lace of algae covering the pond seemed suddenly a violent green.

    “Don’t,” she said when I moved forward to try and remove the bread. “It’s too late.”

    I stood there with the warm air sleeving my forearms and goosebumps climbing up my legs.

    “You can put him down for a nap.” She turned to go. “I did your brother’s old room up as a nursery when I heard you were pregnant.”

    Thanks played on my lips, but she left no room for me to speak.

    “Must’ve been an easy birth. What with your wide hips.”

She took him from me, and I felt the lack of his weight change the nature of the ache in my arms.

   “He’s smiling at me” she gloated.

   “It’s just wind”

   “Tickly, tickly,” she cooed.

   I squinted at her. The sun hurt my eyes. The fresh cut grass irritated my nasal passages. I followed her inside. Tyler was in the kink of her arm.

    I laid him on his back in the cot. She loitered in the doorway.

   “I read an article” she said “about how modern mothers are disfiguring their babies by always putting them on their backs – gives them a flat head.”

   “You’re supposed to lay them on their backs. Prevents cot death.”

    “Hmm, all this contradictory advice. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

    Tyler produced a tiny snore and I felt his retreat from me. My eyes turned grainy with gazing down at him.

    Without the buffer of a baby we sank into silence in the lounge. My eyelids felt tired and heavy.

   She pressed an unwanted cup of water on me.

    “Breastfeeding mothers should drink extra fluid,” she said as I sipped from the glass.

    She pulled at the lobes of her ears which I knew from experience meant she had something to tell me.

    “I’m going into hospital.”

     I leaned in to hug her. Her body stiffened against mine, holding her hand away to protect her cigarette.

    “Plastic surgery” she clarified. The moths flitting in my stomach shrank to grubs. She pulled at the pouches under her eyes, which sagged like hammocks.

   “Just you wait and see. Your body’s never the same after you become a mother.”

    “So after you’ve had it done, I’ll look older than you?”

    She snorted. We both glanced down at the origami folds of my stomach. I got up to tend to Tyler’s cry. His back arched as I picked him up, his eyes clamped shut with rage.

    “Hasn’t he got a dummy?”

    “They interfere with the development of speech. I want him to be able to express himself freely.”

    “He’s certainly doing that. Here, give him to me.”

     My stomach flopped over.  She stuck out her rolled tongue for him. He looked at her like she’d gone mad.

    “When are we sending out the invitations?” she jigged him up and down.

    “What?”

    “For the christening.”

    “We’re not having one. I don’t want Tyler put through all that mumbo-jumbo.”

    I watched the muscle working in her jaw.

    “You are so judgmental” she said.

   My fingers curled into fists. “Pot. Kettle. Black.”

   “A naming ceremony then?”

   “No.” The back of my throat began to sweat. I took Tyler and deposited him behind the bars of his playpen. A sound like a slap filled the air as her bare feet peeled off the wooden floor.

   The curtain of beads clicked as she stropped into the kitchen. I listened to her banging about in there, heard the hiss of the fridge opening. The squish of my guts gurgled as I digested the gristle of our argument.

   “I’m making pancakes,” she shouted.

    I poked my head round, popped a couple of antibiotic pills through their foil and slugged them back with warm Coke.

    “Shouldn’t be putting toxins into your body. Cabbage leaves on the breasts are just as good for mastitis.”

   My tongue stayed sullen. I helped her lobotomize peaches, wincing as she cut them against her thumb without watching what she was doing.

   Her mangey dog, Spud, poked his nose up for scraps. His toenails clacking on the linoleum like castanets. The oil in the pan spat, the batter bubbling like hot tar.

    “You should’ve hung onto Ray. Men aren’t exactly queuing up for you.”

    Her comment crawled all over me.

    “And what about the baby? You can’t even look after yourself.”

    An ache began to build behind my eyes. She slid the pancakes onto plates, and I stuffed a chunk in to stopper my mouth.

    “Someone your size shouldn’t really be eating these. Maybe if I’d made you do more exercise when you were a child.”

    “You’ve always force-fed me. Couldn’t have me as your rival, could you?”

    Her stretched smile snapped like an old rubber band. The half-chewed pancake stuck to the roof of my mouth.

    She sucked on her lower lip. “This isn’t how I envisioned my retirement years.”

    Slivers of fruit caught between my teeth and slid around on my tongue.

    “I knew you and him wouldn’t last. You got an unrealistic notion of love from all those sappy books you used to read.”

    “You’re just going to twist everything aren’t you?” I dumped my plate into the sink. My ring made a chinking noise against the metal.

    “It can’t be good for Tyler, can it? A boy needs male company. A masculine role model. You’ll be too clingy. Turn him gay.”

    I broke into a serrated laugh.

    “Oh, you just wait, babies are all cute and cuddly, but it’s when they learn to talk back you need to watch out.”

    I felt the after-sting of her words. I undid the top button of my blouse to get some air.

    “Haven’t you got anything better to do than berate me. Why aren’t you out with your cronies playing bridge?”

   “They’re all dead,” she snapped, squashing a spider against the counter with her thumb.

    I reached past her for some antacid.

    “There you go with the pills again.”

    I carried on through to change Tyler’s nappy.

    “Don’t you worry about the environment? Responsible parents use cloth nappies.”

    “You going to wash them?”

    “He’s not mine. If he was I’d have him fully potty trained by now.”

     I kissed Tyler’s cheek and his hand patted me, as if trying to comfort.

     “Too much affection will spoil him. On the News the other day there was a panda that licked its baby to death.”

     “I saw it. The baby didn’t die. It just had to be taken away.”

     “Exactly. You don’t want social services taking yours, do you?”

     I felt a tic under my left eye, twitching every few seconds.

    “Lock up, will you? I’m turning in.”

     I checked all the windows and doors then settled Tyler. In my old room I tucked myself tightly between the sheets so I couldn’t escape.

  

 

“Come on, get up.” My mother thwacked open the blinds. “Me and the bubs have been playing for hours.”

    I rolled over, tangling myself in the blanket.

    “You need to get up and about. We don’t want any of that postnatal depression business. Mind you I reckon half these things are made up by the drug companies.”

    I hauled myself into a sitting position and picked at the crust in the corners of my eyes. The coathangers chinked as she rummaged in my wardrobe.

   “Why do you swaddle yourself in these self-hating clothes?” She thrust them at me. I almost dislocated my elbow trying to get changed without showing anything. She zipped me into a jacket, doing me right up to the neck and catching my chin on the teeth of the zip.

    Her hands, cold as a stethoscope, frosted moisturiser onto my face.

    “You look almost decent when you try.”

    I pulled my sleeves down over my hands. She turned me away from the mirror.

    “Stop gawking at yourself. Let me put some chapstick on you. Your lips are all scuffed. You look like you’ve got a venereal disease.”

    “God’s sake” I said.

    “Better to hear it from me than a stranger.” Her words were stale with overuse.

    She licked her finger and smoothed my eyebrows. I curled my toes up inside my shoes.

    “You can have the car while I’m in the hospital. Don’t leave the lights on - you’ll kill the battery.”

 

 

“What are you doing here?” she said when I turned up on the ward.

    “Visiting hours” I presented her with a bouquet of flowers like she was Miss World.

    She picked at the gauze on her forehead, her face puffed up like dough. The line of stitches, like puckered mouths, perforated her body.

    “Is it painful?” I asked.

    “Where’s Tyler?” she said.

    “At crčche.”

    The smell of antiseptic settled in my teeth.

    “There be scars?”

    “They’ll smooth over, like sea-glass.”

    I nodded.

    “Last time I had this many stitches was when you got stuck coming out my cervix. Tore me up bad.”

    I breathed through my mouth to filter the odour of healing flesh.

    “You getting squeamish?” she observed. “Should try and get used to this place – there’s a lot of illness in our genes.”

    “You’re not ill.”

    “No” she agreed. “Just vain.”

    “Is there anything you need?”

    “Yeah, a bit more lipo.”

    “I meant grapes, magazines – that sort of thing.”

    “You’re not very convincing as the caring sort. You can take my bag - they’re discharging me.”

    “Already?”

    “Let’s go shopping.”

    “Shouldn’t you be resting? Besides I’ve restocked the fridge”

    “I’ve been on my back too long. And I don’t mean that sort of shopping. I mean the fun kind.”

    “I don’t do fun.”

   “Don’t I know it.”

 

 

 I stood behind her on the escalator and watched the steps slot into each other.        

    “Show some interest.” She riffled through the racks.

    I fingered a sleeve here and there.

    She shoved me out the way. “It’s like shopping with a man.” She held up a slinky top.

   “Yeah, that’d look good on you,” I said.

   “I meant for you”

    “Oh. No.”

    She frogmarched me into the changing rooms and stood there looking at me.

    “Do you mind?” I pushed her out.

    “You’re such a prude. I’m your mother. Talk about repressed.”

    I squeezed into it as fast as I could, avoiding the mirror.

    “Let me see.”

    I slumped out there.

    She prodded my shoulders back. “You look like a man in drag.”

    I shut her out and peeled the thing off, my sweat already discolouring the material.

    I trotted after her to the make-up counter. She tested a lipstick and pressed her crimson-stained mouth on a tissue, leaving a kind of Rorschach blot.

    “Your chin’s so shiny I could use it as a mirror”. She tucked my hair behind my ears.

    An assistant loomed. “We’re offering free makeovers.”

    She clamped me down on a stool and twisted a brush to a point in her mouth. The paisley pattern on her blouse squirmed.

    “Isn’t that better?” Mum said to me.

    “Much” said the assistant.

 

 

While she nipped in to collect Tyler I waited out in the car. She was gone a long time. When they surfaced, I was snooping in the glove compartment.

     “Guess who I bumped into? Your friend.”

     “I don’t have any friends.”

     “Old friend then. Laura … yes, no … Lydia. She’ll be out in a minute. Get in the back.”

    She came bounding out to the car and settled herself in as if she did it every day.

    “Great to see you again, Leonie.” She made eye contact in the mirror.

    I didn’t say anything.

    “Excuse her, won’t you? She’s turned into a deaf mute.”

    Lydia’s laugh came a beat too late. Tyler began to scream, his mouth a rounded zero, the petals of his eyelids screwed up.

   “Can we pull over somewhere so I can feed him?”

   “There should be some chocolate in one of those bags. Give him that.”

   “Can’t see it,” I lied. Tyler gave me a look as if he might tell on me.

   We stopped at a park. Tyler rooted for my nipple, his face sticky with tears.

   “I don’t agree with breastfeeding in public.”

   “You were the one who said I should get out of the house.”

   Mum pivoted towards Lydia. “Not thinking of babies yet?”

   “I want too many things. Travel, education, career.”

   “Sex.”

   Tyler shuddered at the sudden noise of their laughter.

    “I felt his gums earlier. They were bumpy. That child is teething. But will you listen?”

    “Was your finger clean?”

    We reinstalled ourselves in the car. She buzzed down all the windows and my hair whipped across my face.

 

 

Lydia held out her hand for Spud to sniff. He cowered and slunk into a corner.

    “He doesn’t like strangers.”

    “You have a lovely house. I don’t think I’ve been before.”

    “Leonie never brings people in. She’s worried people will judge us for not living in a show home.” 

    “She always was a perfectionist,” Lydia said, as if I’d just died and wasn’t sitting right by her. “She always got top marks at school.”

    “Studying instead of talking to people.”

    I sloped off into the kitchen to make coffee. Mum appeared to make sure I used the good mugs.

    “Do we have to do this?”

    “What?”

    “Rip open old wounds.”

    “I thought it’d be nice. Maybe you can pick up some tips on how to behave.”

    I took the tray from her, clamping my teeth to steady my hands. Mum and Lydia resumed chatting, and my ears filled with the sticky sap of their gossip.

    “Are you still in touch with the baby’s dad?”

    “Their goldfish outlasted their marriage.”

    I worked out a lash that was irritating the jelly of my eye. “You always thought the sun shone out his backside. Maybe you didn’t know him as well as you think.”

    “Got over our atrophy of the tongue now have we?”

    “Yeah, well you’re the one who separated me from the rest of the human race.”

    “I honestly don’t know where I went wrong. You used to be such a chatterbox. Too sensitive, I suppose. A bedwetter even in your teens.”

    “This is nice” simpered Lydia. “Just us girls.”

    “And Tyler.”

    “You’re lucky you had a boy. You have a daughter, everyone expects you to be best friends, but girls can be so bitchy.”

    I concentrated on not stomping on the stairs or slamming my door.

    “Premenstrual” I heard Mum saying.

    I rubbed my hand against the grain of my bedspread. The nubs prickled my skin. I dandled Tyler on my lap. He pulled at my necklace, breaking the string. Glass beads rolled across the floor.

 

 

I joined my mother on the back step. My long shadow folded itself up as I lowered myself next to her.

    Spud crouched and squeezed out a twist of shit.

   “Maybe we could get Spud re-homed. It’s not hygienic for the baby, and all the dog hair everywhere makes his eczema worse.”

    A veiny eel popped on her forehead as she huffed her breath on her glasses. The sprinkler thwick-thwicked.

   “The year you were born there was a heat wave. That dog fanned you with his tail.”

   I pulled my knees up to my chest and stretched my dress over them. We watched the moths bat against the patio doors.

   “Spud’s already on antidepressants.” She called him over. The dog fixed me with an accusing stare.

   Words pounded in my larynx. “We could get a hairless breed.”

   The bones in her knees creaked as she stood up.

   Spud gazed at me. I looked away first.

 

**

 

Camille Osborne is a library assistant working for Cambridge University.

 

 

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