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23/01/2013

THE GIRLS

Claire Powell

I found them in her bedroom: two black leather legs with a pale chiffon blouse laid out on top of the perfectly spread duvet – an invisible woman sleeping. I backed quietly out of the room as though I didn’t want to disturb, closed the door gently behind me and stood on the landing, unsure of what I’d seen.

Downstairs, I leant with folded arms against the kitchen door-frame, watched as she unloaded the dishwasher. I asked, ‘What’s with the outfit?’

She stopped what she was doing, looked down at her top. ‘What, this?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘The one on your bed.’

‘Oh, that,’ she said, and she carried on unloading, piling plates into the cupboard. ‘D’you like it? Thinking of wearing it Friday for Michelle’s birthday.’

‘They’re leather,’ I told her, as though she’d not yet noticed. ‘Leather trousers.’

‘They’re comfy,’ she shrugged. ‘They’re a nice fit. Stretchy.’

‘Mum,’ I said. ‘They’re for young people.’
‘I am a young person,’ she said. ‘Young at heart.’ And she reached for her pack of menthols, opened the back door. ‘Besides,’ she said, lighting up, ‘what you doing in my bedroom anyway? Don’t be nosy.’

 

On Friday, after work, I drove to her house. I told her it was because I needed to borrow her blender. Really I wanted to check whether she was actually wearing the outfit. During the day – while I made cups of tea, signed parcels from couriers, answered the telephone in my telephone voice – I realised I’d not seen my mum on a night out for some time. Were leather trousers just the start of it?

She answered the door in bare feet, toenails the colour of arm- bands. Her hands were behind her neck trying to do up the button on her top. I helped her with it, stood behind her in the mirror. She was wearing the outfit. It looked different filled in, filled up, 3D. The blouse was light and loose and covered her bum, but the leather trousers – the leather leggings – were tight, shiny, leathery.

She asked, ‘You like?’ and she twirled for me, tip-toes.

‘Who you going out with?’ I said.

‘Just the girls,’ she said.

‘The girls?’ I mocked, but she ignored me.

‘Blender’s there.’

The blender was sat on the stairs, black cord coiled round it, waiting to be collected. I picked it up. ‘Where you going?’

She was walking between the front room and the kitchen looking for something.

‘West End,’ she said. ‘You not out tonight?’

‘Nah,’ I said, hugging the blender to my belly. ‘I’m cooking for Steve.’

This wasn’t true. We were getting kebabs. Steve was picking them up on his way home from work.

‘That’ll be nice,’ my mum said, and she read an old receipt from her handbag, chucked it in the bin.

I followed her into the kitchen. ‘Don’t fancy a drink do you?’

‘Don’t have time,’ she said, and her phone vibrated. ‘That’ll be the cab. Giv’us a kiss.’

 

I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake and pictured my mum at a Wetherspoons, All Bar One, Tiger Tiger. I felt hot, sweaty. I fidgeted next to Steve’s sleeping body – legs under the cover, legs over the cover; hands under the pillow, hands on top of the pillow.

I wanted to drive up there and collect her. Wait for her outside like a parent at a disco leaning against the car door. I wanted to make sure that when my mum left she saw me, her daughter – not a man pretending to be a cab driver, a foreign accent asking, ‘Taxi darling? Taxi darling?’

I pictured her downing shots at the bar. Throwing back miniature glasses of tequila, Sambuca. I pictured her on the dance floor, dancing not as she did at my auntie’s wedding – when she took each of her nieces one by one, twirled them around the hall of the sports club – but in a grimy, grinding way, backing up into the denim crotch of a man reeking of aftershave.

I wanted to collect her, to put her in the back where the seat was soft – not leather interior like some of those cabs. Leather thighs squeaking against leather seat. I wanted to take her home, turn up the radio, listen to Phil Collins, Marvin Gaye, the music only crackling as we drove back through the darkness of the Blackwall tunnel.

 

I phoned her the next morning. She didn’t pick up. I tried four times then switched off my phone, buried it under my pillow. I watched morning telly, volume louder than usual. I sat on the settee one leg crossed over the other, foot in furry slipper shaking in the air. I chewed the skin around my nails, picked tiny flecks of chipped pink varnish off the tip of my tongue. I made Steve a bacon sandwich but couldn’t eat my own.

I ran a bath, lay back, ears under the water so all I could hear was my heavy breathing and the plop-plop-plop of the tap still dripping. I washed my hair, scrubbed it into a mango lather, eyes closed, trying to change my thoughts with my fingertips, to conjure other things: things to do and things to buy.

When I got out I rubbed myself dry and tipped my head upside down to tie a towel turban round it. As I did this a memory came back – as though it’d fallen from the back of my head to the front. I pictured the time when I was seven or eight and had slipped into a splits stepping out of the bath, my bird-like legs in an upside down V over the edge of the tub. I’d screamed. My mum came running in, her hair in a scruffy ponytail, still holding a pair of my dad’s socks she’d been sorting from the wash. She swooped me up in her arms, carried me into her bedroom then lay me down on her bed, placed a cold flannel between my legs, like a large blue sanitary towel.

I thought of calling someone. Police, please. I want to report a missing person. My mum. 5”4, short brown hair, age 48. Wearing black leather trousers at last sighting. I took my phone and turned it on, tried her again. She answered.

‘I’m about to do Zumba,’ she said, sounding already out of breath.

I was relieved at first, stomach muscles relaxed. Then I asked, ‘Who with?’

‘Couple of the girls. Just Linda and her mate Vicky.’

‘I thought you only did aqua-aerobics. Since when’ve you started doing Zumba?’

‘Since a while now,’ she said. ‘It’s just a bit of fun.’

 

I had an idea: a bit of fun. I searched on Google for spa retreats. I typed the words: Mum Daughter Spa Retreat. It came back with 3,680,000 results. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? The past few years I’d only ever been on holiday with Steve. I tried to remember when my mum last went on holiday. Her suntan was from a bed on Sidcup high street.

I wanted to treat her, relax with her, talk to her, confide in her…

‘I’m going to Marbella,’ she said, when I phoned and asked what she was doing June 18th. ‘But I’m free the weekend after.’

‘Marbella?’ I said. ‘I didn’t know you were going Marbella. Why you going there?’

‘It’s a hen do. Lorraine from work’s getting married.’

‘A hen do? Don’t tell me you’re doing the normal stuff.’

She laughed. ‘What normal stuff ? Plastic willies and Chippendales? Hope we are!’

‘Don’t be disgusting.’

‘Oh come on! Can’t a girl have a bit of fun?’

‘You’re not a girl.’91

‘Why you getting upset?’ she said. ‘Not hurting anyone, am I?’

‘Yeah, but this isn’t you. You don’t wear leather trousers.’

‘Course it’s me, don’t be ridiculous.’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Just don’t come crying to me if something happens to you.’

‘Stop it,’ she said. ‘Stop acting like a baby.’

I put the phone down. I threw it across my bedroom so it thumped into the mound of dirty washing in the corner.

Steve poked his head round the door, asked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’

I told him – ‘Nothing.’

Steve went to the pub and I put on my tracksuit – faded blue cotton, thread bare on the bum. I curled up as small as I could under the covers, sucked my thumb.

 

I searched for my mum on Facebook and found her. We had three friends in common – my cousins from Australia who we hardly even knew. Why hadn’t she requested me as a friend?

I clicked on her profile picture. It was an old photo. The colour was different – more faded, almost yellow. She must’ve scanned it in. In my office it was against company policy to use the scanner for personal reasons. My mum was a receptionist too, but she worked in a primary school. I wondered if her office allowed personal scanning, or if she had a friend who had one, or if she’d bought a scanner herself. I didn’t even think she owned a computer.

The photo was taken at the seaside – she was sat down on pebbles, there was a pier in the background. Margate? Brighton? Southend-on-Sea? I wondered if it was taken before or after me. She had long straight hair and a blunt fringe, was smiling at the camera holding a 99 ice-cream.

Steve looked at the screen over my shoulder, pulled on my ponytail, said, ‘Doppelgänger.’

I wasn’t allowed to look at her Wall. It said she only shares some information publicly. It said if you know her add her as a friend. I lingered the cursor over the friend request button, then clicked back to my own profile. My picture was of Steve and me grinning, his arm around me at the pub, fruit machine twinkling behind us.

I wondered if she’d found me; wondered if she’d even looked.

 

I had to return the blender. It’d been a week, I’d ignored her texts. Steve suggested I take a bunch of flowers, said my mum had a hard enough time with my dad, didn’t need shit from me too. I took a box of chocolates – Assorted Pralines from the garage.

‘What you like?’ she said, when she opened the door.

‘Sorry,’ I said. My eyes and armpits stung.

She laughed and brought me to her, but I had a blender in one hand and chocolates in the other, so my arms just fell at my side and she held me, rubbed my back.

‘Come through. Come say hello to my friends.’

I heard voices, saw two women standing in the kitchen holding glasses of wine, the back door open.

‘Just need the loo,’ I said, passing her the chocolates.

I took the stairs two at a time, locked the bathroom door behind me. I waited. I felt something hot rising in my chest. I didn’t want to meet Vicky or Linda or Lorraine. I looked in the mirror above the sink. The mirror was also a cabinet. I opened the latch on it gently, heart thumping, afraid of what I’d find. Condoms? Diaphragm? Sex toys? Maybe they’d had an Ann Summers party, bought lube or handcuffs, neon-pink dildos.

I found a tub of anti-ageing cream, tube of unopened toothpaste and five miniature perfumes, all lined up neatly.

The doorbell chimed. It made me jump. I closed the cabinet quickly, surprised to see my face again. I wondered if I could just leave now, slip out into the street without anyone noticing. I thought about it for a moment. Then I sat down on the lid of the toilet, held the blender on my lap like a small child.

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