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
“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
She disappeared into the kitchen.
“Black, two sugars,” I called.
“ I know how you take it.” She rattled
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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.
“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.
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
I rolled over, tangling myself in the
“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
“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.
The smell of antiseptic settled in my
“There be scars?”
“They’ll smooth over, like sea-glass.”
“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
“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
“You’re not very convincing as the
caring sort. You can take my bag - they’re discharging me.”
“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”
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
She clamped me down on a stool and
twisted a brush to a point in her mouth. The paisley pattern on her blouse
“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
“Can we pull over somewhere so I can feed
“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
“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,
Tyler shuddered at the sudden noise of
“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?”
“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
“Their goldfish outlasted their
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
“Yeah, well you’re the one who separated me from the rest of the human
“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
“You’re lucky you had a boy. You have a
daughter, everyone expects you to be best friends, but girls can be so
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
Spud crouched and squeezed out a twist
“Maybe we could get Spud re-homed. It’s
not hygienic for the baby, and all the dog hair everywhere makes his eczema
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
“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
gazed at me. I looked away first.
Osborne is a library assistant working for Cambridge University.